Practically Feminist

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PRACTICAL FEMINISM ARTWORKby Jen Giacalone

If there’s one thing that we can say for sure about the multi-headed beast that some call Third Wave feminism (or is it Fourth Wave now?), it’s that feminism often seems like it can be whatever the hell you want it to be.  This makes it difficult for us as feminists to speak with one voice about things that are really important.  And in the end, it may be hampering practical approaches to improving things.  Feminism isn’t an idea, it’s a collection of a lot of ideas, and we’re free to argue them with one another. That’s healthy.  But feminism needs to sort out what it’s trying to do.  Right now, it feels more like a chaotic, en-masse reaction to attacks on our rights, as opposed to a positive, proactive movement.

When I first started putting my toes in the waters of feminism, I was really only interested in working on legislative activism.  I wanted to roll up my sleeves and call state senators, and put out useful infographics encouraging people to email their representatives about this bill or that bill.  I essentially limited my entire focus to brass-tacks, equality-under-the-law issues.  And it made sense to do that.  There was, and still is, so much work to be done on that front, and so many legislators trying to take away rights our mothers fought for, that it felt unproductive to get drawn into “soft” cultural issues and wrangling with feminist theory.  On my best days, I am a practical gal.

The truth is, though, that it’s useful to explore cultural issues and feminist theory because it forces us to reflect on the underlying biases of the choices that we, as well as our politicians, make on a daily basis.  Feminist theory is often the soft underbelly of public policy, and its thinking often colors the more “mainstream,” legislatively-oriented discourse.  The problem is, the continuum of idealistic feminism often yields ideas that don’t translate well to the harsh light of day-to-day living.  The policy activists and the Judith Butler disciples have to figure out how to talk to each other, because right now, it feels like a food fight: nobody’s really getting hurt, but boy is it a mess.

I recently found myself in a real, live argument with a bunch of other feminists about whether or not sex work is a particularly healthy or positive career choice.  Spoiler: my position was, “Broadly speaking, no.”  I was a little surprised at how unpopular a position this was.  I got roundly scolded for prostitute-shaming, silencing, and even being a flat-out misogynist. It was a little mind-boggling that there was more of this than there was actual concern for the very real structural dangers and problems inherent in that industry.  It may have been the moment I finally chose a label and slapped it on my sweater: call me a “practical feminist.”

“Dear lord!” I thought. “Give me back my old-fashioned public policy wonkery!”  I can tell you why we need an Equal Rights Amendment, and tell you whose office to call about it.  It’s straightforward.  But ask me whether or not a girl should take what seem like a few smallish precautions to avoid a sexual assault…?  That’s a hornet’s nest.   Many feminists argue that such advice contributes to victim-blaming.  I would never have thought that risk-reduction precluded teaching consent.  But here we are.

You find these divides throughout feminism on a whole host of issues:  Is sex work an empowering life choice?  Should we specifically do things to avoid rape?  Should someone tell Miley Cyrus to put some clothes on?  Someone besides Sinead O’Connor? For crying out loud, we can’t even agree on how we feel about the relatively unimportant matter of sledgehammer fellatio:  is it empowering or degrading?  Of course it’s Miley’s right to do it.  Don’t be mad though, at the feminists who can’t work up much enthusiasm about it.

Women are sexually harassed on the street, ogled at work, passed over for opportunities of all kinds, because for so many men, we can’t possibly be more than instruments for their enjoyment.  So, when you, as a woman, lead with your sexuality, it can be hard for a lot of people to see that there’s a person, with talents, opinions, preferences and passions, attached to it.  And it’s hard for some feminists to say, “You go, girl!” to the woman who’s choosing to do it, because it can feel like she’s perpetuating the objectification that, in spite of our best efforts to leave it in the past, is still a problem.  Short version:  it feels a little counterproductive to put your tits in someone’s face and then get annoyed when they aren’t looking you in the eye. But it’s a debate feminism is still having with itself, and nobody really has a good answer. And in the meantime, women and girls are still getting the short end in a lot of ways, large and small.

So practically speaking, what do I think would help it?  I like policy prescriptions, so I’m likely to reach for mundane things like accurate and early sex education, a gender studies requirement at the high school level, and with any luck, a loosening of religion’s stranglehold on our morality and public policy-making. Despite the fact that the jury is 100% in on the failure of abstinence-only sex education, we’re still dealing with deeply religious policy makers who seriously believe that simply not giving kids information about sex will keep them from having it.  (The irony is, most abstinence education does far more to devalue and objectify young girls than Ke$ha shaking her booty in a thong.)

Pushing for high school health classes to require a unit on consent as part of sex education would do far more to prevent rape than berating women who sometimes circulate those “how to avoid rape” lists.  Pushing to decriminalize prostitution is a far more empowering step than demanding that fellow feminists affirm sex work as a positive career choice.  Regulated prostitution appears, at least from a number of studies, less dangerous and damaging to the women (and men) in it than the system we have now, and it’s a move that a lot of feminists could get behind; why are we expending so much energy policing each others’ feelings about it as a life choice, when there are massive, practical, structural problems with it (risk of arrest, STIs, dangerous weirdo clients) that we could be working on?  We don’t have to give 100% approval to everything in one another’s hearts, we just have to figure out how to band together on productive actions.

If we’re not all at least somewhat aligned on what it is we’re supposed to be fighting for (or against), in what sense is feminism a movement?  The very nature of the term “movement” is a pretty clear.  It’s supposed to move.  Presumably forward.  Going backwards, and even standing still, aren’t options.  If we can’t coordinate, we need to at least get out of each other’s way.  It would be nice though, if we could agree on some concrete things we can DO, together, or else this is just one giant online coffee klatch, and everyone’s got a bone to pick.  It’s human to respond to stimuli, but if the response isn’t coupled with a plan, then that’s all it is.  A response.  Not a movement.

There’s work to be done, ladies, and a lot of it.  Who’s with me?

Author: womenriseupnow

An awareness and mobilization site designed to fight back against recent attacks against womens' rights.

11 thoughts on “Practically Feminist

  1. I, too, am in the same boat you are when it comes to prostitution and pornography and have the same results from men and women. I still stand by my opinion (based on humanity studies) that it is degrading work, no matter how “safe” and “appropriate” they make it. Sex shouldn’t be a commodity (too likely to lead to bad consequences like sex trafficking)–it’s like selling happiness or emotions of any sort; it’s just creepy and shouldn’t be done. Until someone proves this wrong through actual studies, I stand by reason. I appreciate your approach and think people need to understand feminism as practical–at it’s most basic form, it is rights for women. If you believe in rights for women then you are a feminist, simple as that (it shouldn’t have any negative connotation). And we definitely need to be proactive instead of on the defensive all the time. Peace~

  2. I think extensive conversations among feminists from all backgrounds is useful in finding compromise policies we can all push for.

    Legalizing Prostitution, but requiring regulations that make sure that the sex workers are protected and compensated as well as possible for their dangerous work is a reasonable compromise. I don’t think Prostitution is empowering for most sex workers, but I do think that Prostitution will always exist and since it will it should be heavily monitored and the workers kept as safe as possible.

    Right now, women in many States of the USA have lost the right to have access to an abortion provider. In my State of Michigan, I need to find myself some Rape Insurance if I want to have an abortion. Too bad such Rape Insurance doesn’t exist. What is happening in Texas in the removal of access to all but maybe 3 clinics in that huge state is an abomination. More USA states have decreasing access to abortions and health clinics than have increasing access. That is something a policy wonk can help organize a more effective plan of attack against.

    Mandatory Gender Studies in High School would be helpful, if there were classes for existing High School teachers to take on the subject. First you need to change the mind of teachers that victim blame before you can change the environment for the students. I still remember my High School teacher who told me it was my fault that the boy sitting next to me was groping me in class even though I repeatedly asked him to stop loudly and clearly. She wouldn’t move me away from the groper so I had to deal with being groped regularly for weeks. If I had punched him like I wanted to, I would have gotten in trouble with the teacher since he was on the Football team. I really should have beaten the little snot up, but I thought the teacher would take care of the problem and was shocked when she did nothing other than try to make me feel like I was just an object to be groped. School Councillors should also have to be certified in Gender Studies. That was another place where the “boys will be boys” and “girls shouldn’t go after hard careers like Engineering” was a rampant problem.

  3. On the prostitution issue, what a lot of us European feminist are campaigning for is the Nordic model – which means decriminalising the supply – i.e. the women – and criminalising the demand – i.e. the buyers, the johns, the men. You may know a lot about this already, but I didn’t get the impression from this article that you were differentiating between full decriminalisation/legalisation of prostitution – as has happened in, say, the Netherlands and Germany – and limited decriminalisation as in Sweden. The difference in the outcomes is quite striking.

    Other than that – really interesting article.

    • Thanks! Yes, I have been seeing some comments about the Nordic model and I think it’s interesting. I’m still doing my due diligence in terms of looking at case studies to try to figure out what might be the best legislative/regulatory approach on this issue. For example in Nevada, they have legalized it, but the outcomes for the workers have continued to be hard to measure and what has been measurable doesn’t read very well. However, some European models seem to have better results. Solutions that work in one culture may not work in another.

      But I suppose that’s why we need feminist theory, eh? 🙂

  4. I concur with everything you brought up in this post! I’m as liberal feminist as they come, but I get tired of being shot down every time I mention self-defense tactics as “encouraging victim-blaming.” What is wrong with helping a woman avoid getting raped or mugged? I am also all about sex-positivity, but I can’t pretend that I respect prostitution/ being a stripper as a career choice any more than any other type of unskilled labor (although one can joke about the ‘skilled’ part!) It doesn’t mean I think prostitutes are whores who don’t deserve basic rights, and I am fully behind decriminalizing prostitution.

    I went to public school and our sex ed was still filled with ominous messages about how if you don’t wait until after marriage to have sex, you would lose your soul. (Well, not exactly, but that is how they made it sound.) They would show us video testimonials of girls crying about how miserable their first time was, and then a bunch of pictures of STI infected genitals.

    In my opinion, sex positivity is about girls feeling comfortable about their sexuality and having the confidence, as well as awareness, to carry out sexual relationships. It is also about both girls and boys understanding that sex/sexual desire doesn’t inherently undermine their personhood or relationships (a residual belief I still find in American cultural values.) It doesn’t necessarily translate to openly showcasing your sexiness. But if you do, who cares?

    I do think we have made a lot of institutional progress. Hopefully we tie the loose ends soon!

  5. Excellent article. I also feel very uneasy about some aspects of sex positive feminism. For example I do not think sex work is immoral or inherently wrong, however it doesn’t strike me as a very good idea; and while it should be every woman’s choice, I’m not sure how much choice really goes into it.

    • I also think it is annoying how much it is glamorized in mainstream media. It is not so glamorous given its pay – and that’s excluding the fact that the sex industry is a common industry into which many persons are trafficked. It is essentially unskilled labor – just like being a cashier or a fast food worker – meaning sex workers are very replaceable/disposable. Idealizing a female’s role in the sex industry is very offensive, in my opinion.

      • It’s offensive and distorting, because female sex workers are not generally examples of women sexually empowering themselves, quite the opposite, they are women whose sexuality has been sublimated in order to service the sexual fantasies of paying customers, usually to line the pockets of someone else. I’ve read about lap dancing clubs in Britain, where most of the girls pay to work there, then have to earn it back from customers. This means that all the girls are in fierce competition with each other, which means they end up offering actual sexual services to customers or risk ending the night out of pocket. Basically it’s free market at its most brutal.

        To me empowerment is represented by women who achieve power in their own right, then behave sexually as they see fit, be it publicly or privately.

      • I totally agree with the empowerment point. MM (mainstream media) also keeps trying to force this idea that being overtly sexual, and selling sexual services in the form of stripping and whatnot, is inherently “empowering”. I also notice that whenever I tell people I dance as a hobby, they automatically assume it is of the sexual variety. Even the female dance realm has been hijacked by this sex industry fetish!

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