Last night, I was reading a piece on the blog Thought Catalog in which writer Marie Calloway interviewed two young women about the current state of “radical feminism.” I read it not only because feminism is my beat, but also because the current understanding that I have in my mind about radical feminism is based off what I know about Redstockings, and historical figures like anarchist Emma Goldman and Valerie Solanas and I’m sure is woefully outdated in 2013.
And the interviews with Alexandria Brown, a radical feminist/philosopher, and Jillian Horowitz, a CUNY grad student in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, were educational and interesting. (To be clear, in the piece, Horowitz said she doesn’t identify with radical feminism “in its current permutation” and added that she might be considered by other radical feminists to be a “funfem”/a feminist who only engages on feminine, fluffy issues.) Alas, the part in the interview with Horowitz that critiqued “sex positive feminism” and kink didn’t sit right with me.
To put it simply, Horowitz believes sex-positive feminism is intellectually sloppy and a bit misguided. For example, Horowitz’s critiques about the 2011 SlutWalk NYC march echoed things I’ve heard before about the march/movement: the politics of the event were unclear, the organizing was messy, and a white woman carrying a sign reading “woman is the n–ger of the world” clearly showed some participants lacked a racial framework for their feminist activism. (She’s not wrong: for what it’s worth, I didn’t participate in the SlutWalk march because I also felt the politics of the event were unclear and I was never really sure what I would be marching “for.”) Later in the interview, Horowitz goes on to critique “liberal feminism” and “choice feminism” (aka “I choose my choice!”) and I wholeheartedly agree with her on this comment, too:
“Choice feminism” is a corollary to liberal feminism that similarly lacks an analysis of power and is defined by its relation to neoliberal ideologies, in which the concept of “choice” is sacred and unquestionable and positioned in an apolitical vacuum that is made all the more political by its lack of analysis. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to say something along the lines of, “not every choice you make is a feminist choice just because you ID as a feminist” to someone, but I’d be thrilled if I never had to say it again.
I, too, have had many, many frustrating conversations with women who have defended their choice to do something that’s really not so feminist. These people — both men and women — seem to think that just because they ID as a feminist means everything they do is always ethically feminist. (This also leads to a fundamental midunderstanding about what feminism is — there are a lot of people whose go-to response to feminists criticizing other women is some version of “You hypocrities! Aren’t feminists support to support other women all the time!” Errr, that’s not how it works.)
But then Horowitz more sharply critiqued sex-positive feminism, including kink; this part really rubbed me the wrong way (emphasis mine):
Related to choice feminism is sex-positive feminism, much of which makes me rather uncomfortable. It often seems to me that, for many self-identified feminists, sex is the one domain in which feminist politics should have no import (unless that politic is that sex and/or pleasure is always good and healthy and desirable and that fantasies and desires have no bearing on life outside the bedroom). Sex is not a realm separate from politics — it is always already political and social and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Kinks are not necessarily harmless. Even the notion of consent, considered by so many to be a simple matter, is problematic — in a patriarchal society where women’s agency is circumscribed by male supremacy, how meaningful is consent? These issues are purposefully obscured by sex-positive feminists who believe that sex is an inherent good and that to feel otherwise is somehow aberrant, abnormal, a position that should be remedied.
I don’t disagree that sex does not happen inside a power vacuum. Our experiences outside of the bedroom do inform who we are and what we like inside the bedroom. There is something to be said for people examining what turns them on and why, as it pertains to power, because we all internalize misogyny, racism, and transphobia. Likewise, it’s important for anyone to have a safe place to examine their sexuality, especially as it pertains to our privilege and past hurts/traumas. I know firsthand, as I’ve devoted time in therapy to figuring out my own kink origin story and whether it dates back to shit that happened to me as a kid. (Answer: inconclusive!) I have also stopped seeing a particular therapist because she made it clear that she believed all BDSM that I consensually participate in as grown-ass adult was some type of physical abuse that’s “hurting me.”
Unfortunately, that reaction has been a common one from feminists in my experience and not just from anti-porn Second Wavers. But the truth is that the “why” isn’t always going to be the neat, pat answer you want. It’s more like finding a cricket in a rain forest — you know it’s there, around … somewhere. Simplistic answers like “you’ve internalized misogyny!” are not giving the subject the nuance it deserves.
Truly, I’m sick and tired of the caliber of criticism directed at kink and sex-positive feminism’s acceptance of kink. So much of the criticism is wildly untrue scare-mongering (for example, William Saletan at Slate) or dismissively uses allegations of internalized misogyny. I’ve had other feminists invalidate my sexual desire for consensual BDSM as not as important as “protecting” women from dangerous, abusive guys masquerading as kinky who are actually bad dudes.
Having had a bit of experience with dangerous, abusive guys in kink myself, I know they’re in the BDSM community. But anyone who tells me that, as an individual, realizing my consensual sexual desires are not as “important” as what they decide is good for all women can go fuck themselves. It’s insulting. Nobody gets to invalidate anyone else’s consensual sex life, even if you are good-intentioned and especially not if you’re an outsider. And so to that end, I wish Horowitz had expounded on the comment, “Kinks are not necessarily harmless”, if for no other reason than to show me she has some thoughtfulness on that subject. Which kinks aren’t harmless? Which kinks are? Why aren’t they necessarily harmless? With that comment uttered as an aside, Horowitz comes off as judgmental and plays directly into the stereotype that kink is dangerous for women. While I have an enormous respect for how well-versed Horowitz is on the philosophical aspects of feminism, this truly leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
I’m also concerned about Horowitz’s comment about consent: “In a patriarchal society where women’s agency is circumscribed by male supremacy, how meaningful is consent?” Uh … a lot? OK, to be fair, I understand she is making a larger point about choice feminism as it pertains to consent, i.e. how can we truly know we are consenting to someone when we live inside a white supremacist, heteronormative patriarchy. But questioning the meaningfulness of consent seems truly dangerous to me and I certainly don’t agree that all the work feminists have been doing on rape culture and consent is “problematic” in any way. Her comments about consent and kink being “purposefully obscured” by sex-positive feminists who “believe that sex is an inherent good” strike me as untrue, unfair and just plain wrong.
(To be fair, in context, Horotwitz is talking more generally about consent, as evidenced by her further remarks on sex work:
These beliefs also extend to discussions about pornography and sex work — that both are good to neutral and that less-than-happy experiences are anomalies. I do not ascribe to an abolitionist position on porn or sex work, but I am still working through my thoughts on how such work is performed within a patriarchal society, who is at risk and who does and does not suffer, how to best help women who have experienced sex-related trafficking without indulging in savior complexes, etc., etc. Moreover, while I do subscribe to the post-structuralist notion that gender is citational and performative, it is easy to sideline analyses of power in favor of taking a playful approach to gender and pop culture and what have you. When analyses of power do pop up, they often tend to be simplistic and lacking in nuance. … Anyway, power is everywhere and nowhere, as Foucault would say, and we need to account for it accordingly.
However, I still find those statements unnerving.)
I am truly fascinated by these interviews with the two young feminists and agree with much of what they wrote about racism and transphobia within feminism. Clearly their interviews were so long and dense and (mostly) thoughtful that I can’t respond to everything I thought about them here. But I did want to point out what I found uncomfortable.
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[Rosie the Riveter image via Shutterstock]