I don’t believe the outrage over Donald Trump

It’s that time again, when the liberal left pretends to be totally outraged by some heinous act of sexism which they’d ordinarily condone. Perhaps I should feel relieved. Perhaps I should think “well, at least one sexist out of the many millions is getting his comeuppance.” But instead I feel tremendously depressed. I don’t believe the outrage over Donald Trump. Yet again it’s feminism being used for anything but the purpose of liberating women.

So the GOP has chosen Trump’s “lewd” admissions of grabbing women “by the pussy,” caught on tape, as the excuse to distance themselves from him. Fair enough. They’ve known about the creepiness, the misogyny, the rape accusations, for long enough, but better late than never. They could of course have drawn the line over some other form of discrimination – one which, as many liberal commentators have helpfully suggested, affects actual people, such as men – but you can’t have everything. Hey, at least a trivial issue such as sexual assault is being used for the greater good.

I don’t believe anyone is actually outraged, though. Not women, nor men, either, and not merely because this is “what they’re all really like.” It’s just another of these increasingly false dawns, a cleansing ritual of sorts, whereby everyone gets to performatively express horror at one man’s sexism and by doing so absolve themselves of guilt. Take our sins upon you, oh tiny-handed one, that we may once again be pure (and not have to liberate women in any meaningful, practical way, which might cost us time, money and our precious ‘rights’).

There are few people who genuinely believe a man’s wealth should not grant him access to the bodies of vulnerable women whenever he wants it. Fewer still who would dare to say that the ‘male’ in ‘male sexual entitlement’ has any actual hierarchical or political meaning. Those who do believe and say these things are roundly vilified, by men of both left and right, and by mainstream feminism. Feminism these days is nothing if not pussy-grab inclusive. Anything less would be sex negative, exclusionary and wrong.

I am bored to death of the consciousness-raising rituals whereby we women all share our experiences of sexual assault. “Isn’t it awful, what men do to women!” we all say, “isn’t it common! Why, it’s happened to all of us!” But who are these men assaulting these women? What is ‘man’? What is ‘woman’? Oh, best not to police those boundaries. If the person who’s assaulting you says they’re a woman, you must accept that narrative, regardless of your own experience within the social hierarchy that is gender. Hence the whole performance becomes meaningless. We have robbed ourselves of the tools of analysis. Why would one group of people want access to the bodies of another group? Are there any differences between those bodies? You’re simply not allowed to ask.

According to Lindy West, “if you have derided and stigmatized identity politics in an effort to keep the marginalized from organizing” you are no better than Donald Trump. Because “doing feminism” is all much of a muchness to Lindy. You read from the script, which changes from hour to hour. Feminism must allow women boundaries and self-definition; feminism must allow women neither boundaries nor self-definition. Feminism says women are not objects for sale; feminism says women are objects for sale. Whatever. As long as you have a specific baddie somewhere – Donald Trump, meanie men on the internet, “exclusionary” feminists – you can reassure men as a class that their rights to female subjectivity and flesh will remain intact.

“You can do anything,” says Trump in the recording. Power, fame, money, male privilege, all of these things allow you to exploit the bodies of women. Why get squeamish about this now? Isn’t that what the left wants with their current approach to pornography and sex work? Surely it’s only the pearl-clutching prudes who have issues with such an exchange and wish to stigmatise those involved in it. How do you know they’re not consenting? Aren’t you just concern trolling now?

The truth is, men can still pretty much do what they like, unless other men see a broader class benefit to placing limits on this. To write what I have just written – about sex work, gender, identity – would, I am sure, be far more damaging to any presidential candidate than literally admitting on tape to sexual assault. Good job Hillary’s not a TERF.

The Amnesty challenge

Here is a challenge. You are Amnesty International. You want to take a position on sex work. It must not, however, have an impact anyone else’s human rights, in particular the “human right” of men to purchase sex. Therefore whatever your research throws up, your conclusion has been set in advance. How can you get from A to B, at least without openly treading on the corpses of too many trafficked women and girls?

Fear not! For now you can read Amnesty’s own draft policy doc and work out how it’s done … Continue reading

On politics and pants

In his brilliant blog post on purity leftism, Matt Bruenig describes a group of activists whose “interest is not in reducing oppression as much as it is in reducing their own participation in it”

Above all else, they want to be able to say that they are not oppressing, not that oppression has ended.[…] A purity leftist that carries out some action or campaign does not care whether it achieves anything. Just participating in the action, although a meaningless gesture, is a gesture nonetheless.

We all know the type: someone who boasts loudly of their revolutionary credentials but who avoids all practical commitments for the simple reason that the moment you start doing something, you are tainted. It might be that your organisation has to ask the wrong people for money; perhaps you’ll need to use products that aren’t ethically sourced; maybe your resources are limited and you’ll need to choose whom you can and can’t help. For whatever reason, the moment an idea becomes a deed, it’s never as pure as it once was and for some people, the damage this would do to their self-perception is just too much.

You can admire purity leftists as people who stick to their principles and never compromise or you can see purity leftism for what it is: privilege in action. People not getting their hands dirty because they simply don’t have to. It has much in common with choice feminism, described by Michaele L. Ferguson as a feminism that is “motivated by a fear of politics”:

It arises in response to three common criticisms of feminism: that feminism is too radical, too exclusionary, and too judgmental. In response, choice feminism offers a worldview that does not challenge the status quo, that promises to include all women regardless of their choices, and that abstains from judgment altogether.

Way-hey! A feminism that enables you to see yourself as the most principled, inclusive person while never, ever having to lay your own neck on the line. You never have to make a decision about who can be admitted to a shelter, or whether or not certain forms of work have a negative impact on women as a class. You just get to sit in judgment on those who do and that in itself can be your “activism”.

Becky, who founded the ethical clothing company Who Made Your Pants?, is neither a purity leftist nor a choice feminist. In a country with horrendously weak employment laws, in which employers are well within their rights to do the bare minimum for their employees – and in which most do — she founded a business that does more than that. She employs women who desperately need jobs to make clothing from recycled materials. The conditions in her factory are excellent. That said, it is not a perfect business. It is based in the UK, not on a fluffy cloud in Perfectland where nobody ever has to make compromises. It is a business which, on the spectrum of “never good enough”, strives to do as much as possible rather than as little as one can get away with. For this Becky deserves admiration.

And yet, for the likes of Brooke Magnanti, writing in the Telegraph, this is not good enough. To Magnanti, Becky’s project deserves not applause but derision. For how can it ever be free from the taint of capitalism? Isn’t everything, when you think about it – as first-year politics students often do, after several pints down the student bar – just all part of the same fucked up process? As Magnanti notes,

I can claim to be wearing an ethical jumper that I knitted myself, but where was the wool from? Shorn from what animals, in what conditions? What’s the dye? I can’t buy local wool; everything produced in the part of Scotland where I live goes off to stuff mattresses in Italy. And don’t even get started on the environmental wreckage of cotton crops. Ethical consumerism can’t be assessed on a single metric, and those who do so are laughable. It also does not mean the same thing to everyone in every circumstance.

She’s right, isn’t she? It’s complicated, oh so complicated. So complicated, in fact, that we might as well all sit on our privileged arses and do fuck all. Or better still, get paid to write about how complicated it is. At least then we’re not lowering ourselves by making pants that lack the requisite level of ideological purity.

Still, in a world that is so, so complicated it’s a good job there are still some occupations that aren’t complicated at all. Take sex work, Magnanti’s previous profession. In this case, one transaction between two (hopefully) consenting adults has no impact whatsoever on anything else in the entire world. It has no impact whatsoever on the extent to which all women’s bodies are objectified, commoditised and dehumanised. For some magic reason, upon which Magnanti never expounds, sex work is totally self-contained. Here, ethical consumerism can indeed be assessed on a single metric, despite the enormous power imbalances between men and women, and between clients and sex workers. It’s only when we’re dealing with pants and jumpers that being immersed in the capitalist-patriarchal mire happens to be of any relevance, or so we’re meant to think.

Do you know what? I am struggling to buy this bullshit, based as it is on a merging together of choice feminism, purity leftism and pure, naked spite. I would rather, a million times over, support someone who exploits people’s anxiety over capitalism than someone who exploits men’s anxiety over female sexual autonomy. I would rather, a million times over, support someone like Becky, who changes the material conditions of other women’s lives, than support someone who feeds off the fear of judgement that allows individualism to masquerade as feminism.

So, go ahead, Brooke. Choose your non-ethical pants, choose your column in the right-wing press, choose to believe you’ve fucked your way out of being privileged, white, and middle class. Choose all of these things but don’t ever, ever choose to try to make a difference. You’ll never meet the requirements of your own prudish politics so you might as well not try.

“But obviously I love it”: Feminism’s problem with sex and lived experience

This post is brought to you by sex. Lots and lots of sex, which I may or may not have had in the past and/or be having right now. The precise nature of said sex shall remain undefined. Suffice it to say that it’s as rude – or not rude – as you want it to be. The point is, I’ve fucked my way to credibility – or have I?

It has come to my attention that in most discussions of porn, sex work and objectification, there’s immense pressure placed on feminists to demonstrate they have the lived experience required to take part. It’s not enough that to have grown up in a patriarchal culture, nor to have felt the daily impact of being reduced to passive flesh. You’re obliged to show your bits. After all, if you don’t do that, how can anyone tell whether you’re not just some sex-fearing neurotic? Disliking sex is not the same as, say, not liking sugar in your tea; it’s become a form of bigotry and thus, as a bigot, you’re not allowed an abstract opinion on how objectification affects womankind. Indeed, even if you’re fond of most things sex-wise, it’s probably best to express unbridled enthusiasm for anything at all that you find problematic, otherwise you may not be permitted to find it problematic in the first place. Does that make sense? Continue reading

Debating porn: Is it “just like stacking shelves”?

Young women with low-paid jobs in retail are dead useful, aren’t they? I don’t mean just for stacking shelves and beeping stuff through the checkout. I mean as a debating device for the middle-classes, people who’d never dream of finding themselves on their hands and knees in Asda, making sure the Moshi Monsters tinned spaghetti hadn’t got mixed up with the Third & Bird wholewheat pasta shapes.

When I was growing up, for instance, the threatened penalty for not working hard at school was “ending up on the sweetie counter at Woollies”. Whereas to me this would have meant strawberry laces on tap, to my parents this meant only misery and failure. It’s only in a post-Woolworths world that we see how much worse it can get; if the pick ‘n’ mix counter were open today, it’d be run by staff receiving only JSA for their troubles. Continue reading