Wednesday, May 25, 2011

feminism is general, relationships are specific

I happen to be of the opinion that the reason why so many people don't self-identify as feminists, even while holding largely conventional feminist beliefs, is that feminism has been subject to a relentless, coordinated, and well-financed misinformation campaign. Those who are opposed to the central tenets of feminism (most importantly and prominently the elementary notion that women are of equal value to men) have worked tirelessly for decades to discredit the movement through distortion. So it didn't come as any surprise to me when, this past semester, my class of upperclassmen universally defined feminism as a man-hating, baby-hating, joyless caricature. Establishment power works to preserve its position of privilege and doesn't play fair.

I bring this up because I am consistently annoyed by a particular vein of argument that goes something like this: many people seem to enjoy behavior X, but behavior X is seen as antifeminist or sexist, therefore feminism prohibits people from doing things that they enjoy. To make this less abstract, consider this post of mine wherein I argue that, for example, rough sex or similar could in fact be part of a loving and progressive relationship between equals. I had a commenter informing me that, nope, if you get rough with your girlfriend in a sexual context, if she's a feminist, she'll "cry rape." So people are forced to choose, in this reading, between their commitment to feminism and their enjoyment of aggression (or whatever) in sex. Feminism prohibits making that choice.

Well, there are indeed a lot of (righteous and necessary) arguments in the feminist tradition that repudiate violence against women. But is a feminist woman forced to thus abandon rough sex, if her partner likes it and she is eager to please him or her? Or if she enjoys it herself? She is not. Feminism, as a part of the classical liberal tradition-- an inevitable consequence of liberal ideals, incidentally-- is a self-limiting critique, which is precisely what gives it its strength. Feminism is not a set of rules that Andrea Dworkin drew up which you must follow or be subject to angry screeds. Feminism, if you'll forgive this dude for doing a bit of defining-- it's sub-optimal for me to be doing so, but I think necessary right now-- is a set of arguments and ideas that work to improve the conditions of women and help address the millennia of oppression that they have labored under.

To the degree that feminism suggests behaviors to avoid, it does so in terms of general behavior. Those rules can be set aside if both or all parties are engaged in effective communication, in a sphere of  true gender equity, and with genuine, informed consent. That means that, yes, there are names a woman's partner can call her when having sex that we would not define as enlightened or consistent with feminism in a broader context. Broadly speaking, feminism deals with general behaviors. Committed relationships (of whatever kind) between consenting adults are about the particularities of two people and their contexts. Communication is both important and frequently difficult, but that's relationships for you. Note that the conditions of genuine equity between partners are essential; a maid might tell her employer that she's okay with him referring to her as "sweetie," but if he's the boss, and she's aware of the importance of a sociable relationship, her consent might not be sufficient.

So consider the gloss on feminism from above, that it prevents (or attempts to prevent) people from doing things that they enjoy. Well, it's true-- sometimes, commitment to feminism compels you to not do things you'd enjoy. I'm sure many men enjoy harassing strangers on the subway, grabbing their secretary's ass, or a whole host of other noxious behaviors. But the idea that you can't, in a committed relationship, with mutual consent between adults, enjoy whatever sexual play you both desire while remaining a feminist is just bullshit. And I imagine that people suggesting otherwise know it's bullshit.

I'm not saying it's always easy. Like any ethical commitment, feminism has consequences. I kind of dig the few Odd Future songs I've heard, but I feel forced by my commitment to feminism to conclude that Tyler the Creator is a misogynist asshole. Whether that means I shouldn't support his band is a complex question, but whether I should tell other liberals that I think so is not. More importantly and directly, my commitment to feminism means that I have to operate in professional and academic settings with a conscious commitment to how I treat and refer to women peers and coworkers. That doesn't mean that I can't, over time and with care, develop relationships with these women that aren't as formal. But such informality can only be earned over time and engaged in with communication and consent.

Don't believe the hype, guys, seriously. I get you-- if I can't call my baby my baby, to hell with it. But that's the thing about a relationship, that you have earned a set of behaviors with one particular person that you wouldn't engage in with other people. And if people insist that's antifeminist, you insist to be shown which feminists are saying that, and in which contexts. 90% of the time, those claims are just part of the antifeminist noise machine.


HGL said...

I'd be curious your opinion on Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon's work to make pornography illegal in Minneapolis.

It strikes me as an example of attempting to make (by law) feminism's general principles apply personally. Certainly use of pornography occurs among consenting couples.

Freddie said...

Completely opposed.

Bore said...

Psst — to do proper em dashes (rather than two lowly en dashes), you hit "Alt" then 0151 on your numberpad.

Paul said...

Recently I remembered that the following scenario occurred repeatedly during my childhood formative years: I'd discover that some "good" cause or organization existed, recognize it as being prima facie good, and then watch it be torn down and discredited somehow---usually, more or less, exposed as a plot to destroy America---by tut-tutting authority figures. So it was with feminism, the ACLU, the NAACP, welfare, the antiwar movement, Greenpeace, the environmental movement generally, and leftism generally. I always heard "Yes, their cause sounds good, but these people are actually hiding behind seemingly noble sentiments in order to do Bad Things [usually some kind of vaguely postulated power grab]."

I bought into it for a while too. There's something appealing about tearing down obviously righteous causes: it can make you feel smart or ahead of the curve. I think Ayn Rand, for instance, gets a lot of mileage out of this appeal: people learn to love the sensation of calling vice virtue and shocking the uninitiated. It feels like a mark of distinction.

Of course these are vain and immature motivations, and normally they would be outgrown, but they're sustained by incessant propaganda and they harden into creeds and ideals. It's a pretty amazing trick: non-rich people nationwide sincerely believe that big business is looking out for our freedom while the ACLU wants us all in chains.

Anonymous said...

We get it. You like being rough with your woman (who likes it probably more) and you still want to be called a feminist. Well the good news? The two have nothing to do with each other. The bad news? No-one cares Freddie. This whole post reeks of guilt and your woman will tire of that before you both have a chance to graduate onto anything she really likes.

Scott Engel said...

Freddie - perhaps something you can address later. I call myself a feminist but I'm skittish about a lot of it, and it's not actually because of the above stereotypes but actually the opposite. There is a strand of feminism that to me has always seemed to flirt with Randian thinking...the idea that monogamy is by definition oppression, that prostitution is completely uncoercive in all and every case, that women who leave their spouses/children in order to pursue affairs should be valorized etc. It's likely a small strand to be sure and I've mostly encountered these types in real life vs. in a book but it certainly exists to some extent and I know it has turned several of my (both female and male) friends off of feminism because it for them came to be associated with nihilism. Any thoughts/do you ever encounter other feminists of this stripe?

Freddie said...

deBoer's Law: whenever a blogger posits that some noxious behavior exists online, his or her commenters will inevitably prove the point.

Freddie said...

Incidentally, the idea that I'm the one demonstrating guilt is the most blatant act of projection I've ever encountered. I get it- both sex and feminism are threatening to you, anonymous child. That's pretty typical.

Incidentally, you guess wrong, and know nothing about what I like - in fact, it isn't even your business what gender I'm attracted to.

Scott: I'm sure feminists like that exist, but they are vanishingly rare.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Freddie said...


I have a very high threshold for bad commenter behavior, but even I have limits. Begone.

Anonymous said...

My theory is that feminism is sort of like Marxism. The basic ideas of feminism and Marxism probably would make sense to most people if you remove all of the baggage associated with them. But most women have only a slightly better chance of having an equal relationship with their significant other than they do of having an equal relationship with their employer. I realize "equal" is not very well defined here. Anyway, the same sort of "don't bite the hand that feeds you" sentiment makes openly embracing feminism less unappealing.

jdrs0819 said...

I call myself a feminist loudly and proudly, Freddie, and I too am male. I also agree with the thrust of this post. I found a quote some weeks ago on this very topic:

‎"Ogas, like lots of folks, finds it easier to parse people and ideologies into black and white polarities than to consider the complex grays that don’t fall neatly into categories. A feminist with cleavage in high heels who wants to be ravished in bed is not a contradiction!"
~Linda Young

jdrs0819 said...

Woah. Hahahaha. I just realized that it was from your own blog that I found that quote. Nice.