What is feminist activism: Jessica Valenti, Julie Bindel and the loss of criticial analysis

Jessica Valenti’s latest article in the Guardian made me roll my eyes. It’s yet another in a long line of dreary “who gets to be a feminist” that doesn’t actually discuss what it means to be a feminist, so much as taking out 10 minutes to trash the reputation of other women who call themselves feminists. Interestingly, it’s precisely what Valenti suggests Bindel does in Bindel’s latest Guardian article.

There is a very necessary discussion of the definition of feminism to be had – both in law and praxis. Valenti’s definition rests on gender equality. My definition is the liberation of women, as a class, from male violence and that our liberation requires the abolition of gender. It recognises that capitalism is intertwined with patriarchy and that both are predicated on inequality in law and culture. Women can never be “equal” to men when capitalism requires many to live in poverty in order to allow a small group access to wealth. Gender equality means nothing when we have laws that grant women equal pay in existence for more than forty years and women are still consistently paid less than men and this is without acknowledging the fact that women of colour are paid less than white women. I believe pornography, prostitution, and all other forms of the sex industry constitute violence against women and girls.

Jessica Valenti and I have very different definitions of feminism. I think her feminism actively harms women and I’m sure she would feel the same about my definition. The difference is I don’t doubt Valenti’s commitment to feminism and to supporting women. I fundamentally disagree with her political stance but not her activism.

This is why I am quite disgusted with her article in the Guardian likening Julie Bindel to Sarah Palin. It demonstrates a complete failure to fact check Julie Bindel’s 30 years of feminist activism and erase it based on one article that Bindel wrote over ten years ago. Feminism needs critical analysis. We need to read the research, the personal testimonies, and then make judgements based on fact. Basing the entire career of one woman on one article from 10 years ago isn’t critical engagement. It ignores Bindel’s work with Justice for Women and supporting the Emma Humphreys Prize for Ending Violence against Women. It ignores Bindel’s work on the harm of pornography and prostitution – you don’t have to agree with her position but erasing her work is patriarchy in action.

Julie Bindel is a gender abolitionist – this doesn’t mean she “oppose(s) the very existence of trans individuals” as Valenti claims. It means she is a gender abolitionist who campaigns to eradicate the hierarchical oppression of gender. Bindel is extremely critical of the behaviour of a small group of transactivists, not all of who are transgender, but Bindel is very clear this is a small group who engage in abusive harassment. She is very consistent in stating that the behaviour of this small group is not representative of transgender people as a whole. This is the exact same argument that liberal feminists use when discussing “not all men”.

Critical analysis is essential to a healthy feminist movement. I have seen far too many feminists claim that Julie Bindel is ‘transphobic’ because they read that fact on the Internet. They know nothing else but that Bindel is transphobic and the NUS no-platformed her for being “vile” (the fact that the NUS engages with all sorts of violent dictators and men whose financial wealth is predicated on human rights abuses of their employees goes unremarked).

Being a feminist isn’t just about a label or recognising “gender equality”. It’s a political theory that requires critical thought. This doesn’t mean that all feminists agree with one another on issues but it does mean that we are required to come to our own political stance ourselves – and not because some dude on the internet thinks a woman is a vile because she wrote an article 10 years ago and has since retracted it. Accepting what we are told without thought is patriarchy in action – not feminism.

 

Some reservations about the coverage of Bill Cosby

I’ve seen speculation about the possibility of Bill Cosby abusing one/ some of the children who appeared on the Cosby Show. I’m very concerned about this speculation because it is extremely harmful to survivors and non- survivors. No one has the right to speculate publicly about whether or not a woman has experienced rape. No one has the right to identify rape victims publicly without consent.

It is clear Bill Cosby is a serial rapist who has been allowed to continue perpetrating rape due to his position in society. Women have spoken publicly about their experiences. We cannot allow other women be forced into speaking publicly about rape, regardless of whether or not they experienced it.

Women have the right to privacy. We don’t need to name other women. We already know he’s a serial rapist.

#IMD2014 : Manhood Rites of Passage

It goes without saying that I believe International Men’s Day is the ultimate example of whiny-arsed men having tantrums about the entirety of the female population of the planet lining up to suck their cock. This year’s tagline is:

The ability to sacrifice your needs on behalf of others is fundamental to manhood, as is honour. Manhood rites of passage the world over recognise the importance of sacrifice in the development of Manhood.

Men make sacrifices everyday in their place of work, in their role as husbands and fathers, for their families, for their friends, for their communities and for their nation. International Men’s Day is an opportunity for people everywhere of goodwill to appreciate and celebrate the men in their lives and the contribution they make to society for the greater good of all.

You know who also makes sacrifices every single fucking day: women. It’s women who do the vast majority of caring in our  world: for their children, extending family members and their communities. It is women that do the “volunteer” work needed  to maintain libraries, hospitals, and youth facilities. How many men do you see running parent councils at schools? Running fundraising for playgroups and nurseries? Which parent shows up at school to help with reading? This isn’t because women “don’t work”. Women do all of this on top of working full time (whether in paid employment or not). If women went on strike tomorrow and refused to do any care work, volunteer work or paid employment, the economy would collapse. And, this  is without acknowledging women’s reproductive labour through pregnancy. If men went on strike tomorrow, women would step in and pick up the pieces.

How the fuck is being a grown up a “passage to manhood”. Seriously, this is even bigger claptrap than the appalling shite they ran last year on role models.

How many men do you know who can do the following:

  • name the school crossing guards
  • take the day off work when their kids are sick
  • name the teacher/ dentist/ GP
  • know how to operate the washing machine
  • even know where the washing machine is located in the house
  • spend their evenings sewing costumes for World Book Day
  • stand in a queue for 5 hours to get their kids a ticket to see Mr Tumble
  • do 50 % of the childcare and housework

Because I don’t know any. I know a lot of women whose partners think cooking dinner constitutes helping out at Christmas and have no problem whatsoever in taking 3 days off work when they have a sniffle but don’t lift a finger when their wives have the flu.

I also don’t see a whole lot of men working to end violence against women and girls. When we live in a world where:

  • men choose to kill 2 female current or former partners a week
  • one in three women experience domestic violence
  • more than 30 specialist refuges for women have been closed due to funding cuts
  • more people are upset about Ched Evans being denied the right to play football than they are about him committing rape
  • where the BBC can write articles confusing child sexual exploitation and grooming with affairs
  • where the majority of children living in poverty due so because their “fathers” refuse to pay child maintenance

I don’t see men “sacrificing” their salaries to ensure that their children are properly clothed and fed. I don’t see men “sacrificing” their hobbies to care for their children or vulnerable relatives. I don’t see men running fundraising projects for their kids school or their mother’s residential centre. I don’t see men fighting for laws that would protect vulnerable people from sexual and economic exploitation. I see a whole lot of men benefiting from these laws though.

The real difference between International Men’s Day and International Women’s Day is that men are whinging about behaving like adults and women are campaigning to stop rape, domestic violence and fatal male violence against women and girls. This is just another example of Margaret Atwood’s famous quote: “men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them”. These aren’t equally valid campaigns. International Men’s Day is a joke and men who think they “sacrifice” requires cookies and a special day are the kind of men who need to be kicked off the planet.

We need to stop using the word paedophile

Ugandan girls giving up education in hope of being provided for – by paedophiles

This is the headline to a recent article in the Independent, which clearly demonstrates the serious failures of understanding in the differences between child rape and paedophilia. The article is actually about the sexual exploitation, grooming, and rape of teenage girls in Uganda. These girls are removed from school and then abandoned when they become pregnant or develop sexually transmitted diseases or simply no longer exploitable.

Using the word paedophilia does nothing to assist in clarifying the abuse which is happening; rather it serves only to insist on a narrative of othering perpetrators. Using the term child rape or sexual exploitation and rape of teenage girls would make the situation equally clear and would not conflate the psychological disorder of paedophilia (which is a sexual attraction to prepubescent girls and those with the disorder may not act on it) and the men, without psychological disorders, who choose to abuse, sexually exploit and rape children and teenagers.

Let us be clear, it is normal men who commit this abuse because they feel entitled to sexual access to teenage girls and who have no problem whatsoever in abandoning these girls. This is child sexual exploitation and grooming. They are denied an education and many are then isolated from their communities. It doesn’t need to be conflated with paedophilia to be considered serious. It is a serious crime in and of itself.

Liz Kelly’s Weasel Words which is published in Trouble & Strife is a must read on this topic:

Immediately the word paedophile appears we have moved away from recognition of abusers as ‘ordinary men’—fathers, brothers, uncles, colleagues—and are returned to the more comfortable view of them as ‘other’, a small minority who are fundamentally different from most men. The fact that they have lives, kinship links and jobs disappears from view in the desire to focus on their difference. Attention shifts immediately from the centrality of power and control to notions of sexual deviance, obsession and ‘addiction’. Paedophilia returns us to the medical and individualised explana­tions which we have spent so much time and energy attempting to deconstruct and challenge. Rather than sexual abuse demanding that we look critically at the social construction of masculinity, male sexuality and the family, the safer terrain of ‘abnormality’ beckons.

Donate £5 to MSF, rather than buying the offensive Band Aid single

I was going to blog about how utterly offensive Band Aid is – it’s Bob Geldof at his most patronising and dangerous. Instead, you should all read  break it down in the Guardian: Band Aid 30: clumsy, patronising and wrong in so many ways.

Ebola must be eradicated – but so must the conditions of poverty which allow diseases to kill. Conditions we allow to continue through unfettered capitalism and the pursuit of commodities at the expense of the vast majority of people living on the planet. Buying a charity single doesn’t address the root causes of poverty and disease. We need to donate directly to the organisations working on the ground to eradicate ebola (and not the bloated international bureaucracies like the World Health Organisation.)

You can make a donation to Medecins Sans Frontiere here. 

Forbes Magazine has written about the problems with donating to large charities like MSF and not to local organisations which includes links to ones you can support. If anyone has the details of a local or grassroots organisation fighting ebola on the ground, pleas let me know so I can include a link.

*Petition* SOS Save Refuges

PETITION

This petition from Women’s Aid will be presented to Parliament on Thursday, November 20th. We need to get this petition to 100 000 by then.

SOS - rooves

 

Help us save refuges, save lives
Our world leading national network of refuges is facing an urgent crisis. Across England, more and more specialist refuges are experiencing massive funding cuts and being closed down. This crisis will cost lives.

SOS women and children turned away

 

We risk losing this life-saving network of services if we do not act now.

We are calling on the government to Save Our Services by committing to preserving the national network of specialist refuges by exploring a new model of national refuge funding and commissioning.

PETITION

Demonstration in Support of Stacey Hyde: 13/11 and 14/11 at 9:30

The following is a press release from Justice for Women:
A vulnerable young woman with severe mental health problems, who killed a man twice her age who was physically assaulting her and her friend, is appealing her conviction and the life sentence attached to it this week.

A large demonstration of friends, family, and supporters calling for justice for Stacey Hyde and for all vulnerable young women, will assemble outside the Royal Courts of Justice at 9.30am on  Thursday 13th and Friday 14th November. Justice for Women will be supporting this case to highlight the disparity in the treatment of women and men by the criminal justice system.

Justice for Women have campaigned for 25 years to highlight the adverse treatment of women by the criminal justice system. We hope this appeal will highlight the issues that abused and vulnerable women continue to face, and that these issues will be properly recognised by the court during the appeal.

Stacey is represented by Harriet Wistrich (solicitor, Birnberg Peirce) and Henry Blaxland QC and Clare Wade, Garden Court Chambers.

Fuck you Jezebel

So, Jezebel weighs in on the discussions around Lena Dunham’s troubling passages in her autobiography by insinuating Women of Colour are just being a tad hysterical about the whole thing and the follows it up with this charming paragraph:

It is fundamentally difficult for people—parents, researchers, peers—to identify the fuzzy and necessarily, inherently self-defined line between normative childhood behavior and potential sexual abuse. Women, and people who have worked with victims of sexual abuse or been victims themselves, are (quite understandably) more likely to describe a behavior as abusive that other people would describe as normal, unremarkable, fine.

Us survivors of child sexual abuse are just too damn emotional to be able to do things like read books and come to conclusions. It’s understandable that people working with vulnerable children are more likely to describe a behaviour as abusive: not that they are more likely to recognise the signs of child abuse than someone who isn’t.

The sneering tone of the article makes it clear that any challenge to the construction of Dunham The Quirky Wondergirl is women over-reacting. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Lena Dunham and the importance of appropriate language.

I am not a fan of Lena Dunham. Her type of humour has never appealed to me and this is without acknowledging the very valid criticisms of her work from Women of Colour. Dunham’s casual racism has been well documented and isn’t something we can pretend doesn’t exist just because, as feminists, we think women’s representation on mainstream television is important. We can believe it is important without ignoring issues of racism (or classism, homophobia, sexism). After all, it’s hardly an accurate representation of women if you create a television program based in New York with mainly white women. Disney isn’t capable of producing television which isn’t full of white middle class kids. Feminists should be held to a higher standard.

When I first read the passages from Dunham’s book listed online, I honestly didn’t even know where to start deconstructing them. At best, they demonstrate some truly problematic behaviour – even if the only problematic behaviour turns out to be what she was written. It is possible that Dunham, who describes herself as an unreliable narrator, has written events that perhaps never happened. Even if it turns out to be all exaggeration, their inclusion and the language used is a problem.

Here’s the thing: children exploring their bodies isn’t new and it isn’t always a sign of an abuser. Baby boys frequently play with their penis when they discover it feels nice. Little girls play with their vulvas for the same reason. Some children are also obsessed with sticking objects in their noses and ears that I’m not overly shocked that a one year old might stick marbles in their vagina as Dunham claims her sister did. I’m also not surprised that a one year old might think it funny to be found out. Children wanting to look at each other’s bodies isn’t exactly abnormal either. There is a power difference between a 7 year old child and a 1 year old baby. This power differential in siblings cannot be underestimated (and I say this as as oldest child).  Abusive or manipulative behaviour isn’t uncommon in children either. It doesn’t mean the child is an abuser – or will grow up to be abusive.

What I do find shocking is Dunham’s language when she discusses her treatment of her sister: trying to kiss her and masturbating in the bed beside her. The behaviour Dunham describes isn’t necessarily abuse but the language used in the text is deeply problematic. It is also not unusual for children who have experienced sexual abuse to engage in these types of behaviours. This may be only poorly written descriptions of childhood exploration but it would inappropriate for a teacher or social worker not to raise it as an issue of concern if they had known. I don’t mean every example of this type of incident must go to a full children’s panel but it does necessitate some investigation.

The language used is hyperbolic. It isn’t the language I expect from an adult feminist who understands the power of language. Dunham is a comedian: words are her financial security. To write about these incidents in the manner she did, Dunham has left herself open, at best, to valid criticism from survivors of child sexual exploitation. At worst, Dunham has admitted to grossly inappropriate and abusive behaviour to her younger sibling. I also have to wonder if Dunham asked permission of her sister to write about these incidents. If she didn’t, then Dunham has used her position of power to once again cause her sister potential harm and embarrassment.

This line in particular is deeply worrying:

“anything a sexual predator might do”

Whilst it’s not commonly used in the UK, the term sexual predator has a specific legal meaning in the US and Dunham will have known that. Dunham, regardless of whether or not she calls herself a reliable narrator, will be well aware of the context in which she wrote this text. Even if Dunham felt it necessary to discuss her behaviour as a child towards her sister, this language is unnecessarily inflammatory and, frankly, utterly ridiculous.

What I also find incredibly problematic is the response from some that Dunham can’t have been sexually abusive to her younger sister because she’s a feminist. It is entirely possible for a woman who self-defines as a feminist to be abusive. It is possible for them to be sexually abusive to other women. Labelling oneself a feminist does not preclude taking responsibility for the consequences of our words.

It may be that Dunham made much of this up in order to sell more copies of the book – it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a celebrity  has exaggerated their behaviour in order to get more attention.  Whatever scenario this turns out be, Dunham needs to step up and take some responsibility for her actions and the consequences of her words.