One of my very first posts on this blog, back in the heady days of 2008, was titled 'Who To Blame and Where To Aim', a question that I think remains very salient for feminists. I feel like recently I've encountered a lot of feminists asserting that any kind of critique of women's behaviour is not feminism, and that what we should be defending is women's right to choose to behave however they want. A reworking of the famous quote (wrongly) attributed to Voltaire, if you like - "I may disagree with every thing you do, but I'll defend to the death your right to do it."
A lot of my feminism falls down on this side of the fence, insofar as I've spent a lot of time writing in defence of kinky women and have also tried to examine and challenge my own assumptions about sex work and its implications for feminism by reading blogs by sex workers and listening to what they have to say on social media etc. I'm very aware that there are radfems out there who would condemn me for 'doing feminism wrong' because I enjoy and practise sexual submission with men, and that those same radfems have also done a hell of a lot of hating on trans women and sex workers, and that's not a brand of feminism I want any part of. I do want a feminism that's broad, and open, accepting of difference, and able to reckon that, while we may be all be conditioned by social forces, we are all doing the best we can to live happy and fulfilling lives within that context.
But. I do come unstuck when feminism seems diluted to simply mean 'supporting women's right to do/say whatever the fuck they want.' Because by that logic, we'd support pro-life women. We'd support Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman. We'd support Equalities Minister Maria Miller, who has voted against adoption rights for gay couples and who has spoken in favour of reducing the UK abortion limit. We'd support hateful troll Samantha Brick, who wrote a misogynistic, body-shaming article that I refuse to even read because I've seen the massive trauma it has caused to countless women who have suffered from eating disorders.
And presumably, we don't support those women. We support a free society where they can say things that we may disagree with, because it's important to know their views exist so we may address them, challenge them, and maybe even try to educate those promoting them. But I know that I, for one, am not going to unquestioningly endorse those women in the name of feminism. Yet, I feel like certain feminists leap upon any criticism of another woman's behaviour as divisive to the sisterhood, and I'm not going to be railroaded into that. Yesterday I was criticised for using the term 'self-defeating women'. I can see why it might have pissed someone off. It would piss me off to be called that, especially by, say, a radfem describing me as thus because I'm kinky. The person in question suggested that all I meant by this phrase was 'women who disagree with you', and to an extent they were right, but that's not all there is to it. I do deem certain behaviour by women as making life harder for themselves and other women - pro-life women would be a very good example of that. How can you tell me that female senators who sign off bills making abortion more difficult to access for other women are doing anything but attacking their own rights, and the rights of every other woman unfortunate enough to live in that state? If that's not self-defeating, I don't know what is.
But OK, that's an extreme example, involving laws which obviously affect people's lives. Other examples are more nebulous. I may feel Page 3 girls make life harder for other women by normalising the trivialisation of women and their bodies, whereas those who defend the glamour models' right to work or who find boobs in newspapers unproblematic would disagree. Radfems may feel I make life harder for other women by 'eroticising violence against women' (I use quotes to show I do not believe this for a second) when I participate in kink, publicly or privately. Obviously I'd feel that radfems are making life much harder for me by imposing huge guilt and shame on a part of my life that brings me pleasure and peace. Abolitionists may feel sex workers make life harder for women by sending out the message that the female body is purchasable, and that the male right to sex is all-important. Sex workers may feel abolitionists make life harder for them by advocating draconian laws, stereotyping and patronising them, and refusing to listen to their voices or acknowledge their ability to choose/enjoy their work. Ultimately, we can all call each other self-defeating, and I don't suppose we'd ever reach much consensus. Nor, as has been noted with regard to constant Twitter battles over the last few months, will this in-fighting do much to advance the fight against the patriarchy.
But I suppose that's the exact crux of the issue. Wherein lies the patriarchy? The person I was debating with yesterday stated that they supported women's right to do whatever they wished, and that their beef was not with female behaviour, but with patriarchy.
So are we to believe that patriarchy never influences women?
Anyone who's read that Samantha Brick article, or one by Liz Jones, or Melane Philips, or Phyliss Schlafly, might beg to differ. So how do we argue against their poisonous views if we're not going to consider the idea that some of us may make choices that are damaging to women? If 'choice' is our answer to everything, then do we have to conclude that Christina Hoff Sommers' claim that rape reporting in colleges must be hugely exaggerated as a result of a feminist conspiracy is as intelligently arrived at as our own belief that rape is underreported and not taken seriously enough? I mean, she's presumably an intelligent woman with agency of her own which I as a fellow feminist should respect as much as I respect my own. So where do I find the safe space to say that Sommers' views are toxic, damaging, and very likely influenced by a culture which encourages women not to challenge sexism, without being accused of just pissing all over someone I happen to disagree with? If all-encompassing courtesy to women I think are behaving harmfully prevents me from saying Sommers is wrong and harmful in the first place, then how can I hope to get to a point where I can debate with her and try to show her alternative viewpoints? I'm not going to accept that her view has equal weight to mine, just in the name of sisterhood. I accept that her right to hold and state that view is equal to mine, but other than that, I think she's fucking wrong, and I'm going to say so.
I can get on board with a feminism that reminds us finger-pointing isn't one way, that we have to look back at ourselves and our own prejudices before we criticise others. But I can't get on board with one that purports to erase and bland out all potential objections to female behaviour in the name of supporting choice. That leaves feminism fragmented to nothing but individualism - something many of us criticised the late, famously anti-feminist, Margaret Thatcher for promoting. That doesn't mean we shouldn't also be criticising male behaviour, damaging patriarchal traditions and structures, and influences that mean women may engage in shitty behaviour as a result of lack of a better alternative. That doesn't mean we shouldn't support the right of women to do things we find distasteful, difficult to understand, or downright bizarre. But if we have no standard against which to measure what moves feminism forward and what holds it back, then feminism means nothing.
And I want my feminism to mean something.