Radical: from the root

It is hugely important to hold abusive men to account, but we feminist campaigners have learned that the state allows men to perpetrate individual crimes, and have therefore tended to focus on making root and branch change. Lately we appear to have gone backwards. It is as though we have lost the strength and confidence to effectively challenge institutions.

Read more from Julie Bindel here.

Men Know Everything

I had an encounter yesterday that so perfectly encapsulates the different ways men dominate women, that it was almost funny. Almost.

Sitting on a crowded bus headed through Chinatown into downtown Vancouver, I offered my seat to an elderly woman who was standing with her hands full of bags. After the woman, who happened to be Asian, thanked me and declined, I had just returned to my seat when an older white man loudly addressed me in his capacity as the Ultimate Authority on Everything [UAE].

UAE: There’s no point, they all get off in Chinatown anyway.

Me [unimpressed]: They all do, huh.

UAE [even louder]: I’m not being racist or anything, all the Asian people do get off the bus in Chinatown.

Me: I don’t want to talk with you.

UAE [angrily]: Go fuck yourself.

Mulling it over, I was astonished at how such a short interaction could display so many different glimpses of the power relations between men and women, and between white people and people of colour.

Upon seeing a woman of colour do something he didn’t agree with, something that didn’t impact him in any way, this white man simply had to tell me why my behaviour was wrong. His opinion, as the Ultimate Authority on Everything, was so important that I simply had to hear it, whether I wanted to or not.

It’s the same principle behind catcalling: men see public space as belonging to them, and women passing through their public space as mere props offering our bodies and behaviour up for their appraisal and comment. And damn it, their comments are so important that we’d better listen – or else.

This Ultimate Authority on Everything’s comment was clearly a racist one, one where he revealed that he thinks Asian people are a monolith, identical automatons as opposed to a diverse group of people with as many varied thoughts, activities and chosen fucking bus stops as white people.

But of course, he couldn’t see his racism. What he could see was me, a woman of colour who didn’t adequately appreciate the gift of his brilliant logic. He saw me, a mere womb-haver who couldn’t possibly have learned more about racism during my life as a person of colour than he had in his 0 seconds.

Men know everything – all of them – all the time – no matter how stupid or inexperienced or arrogant or ignorant they are. – Andrea Dworkin

As a woman who told him I didn’t want to speak with him, I violated his penis-given right to inflict himself however he wants on whomever he wants. And, as men presented with women’s boundaries often do, he reacted aggressively out of his threatened sense of entitlement. I didn’t defer to him and therefore I must be punished.

Experiences like these are all too familiar to women. Men speak over us, they confidently claim they’re right even when we know them to be wrong, and they punish us when we don’t play along. It gets to a point where we learn to stay quiet, to not correct faulty assumptions, to not speak our truths or even offer our points of view because we’re so tired of having to be constantly vigilant and on guard, armed with facts and perfectly, immediately articulate. The impact, like so many other types of male domination, is that we’re silenced while men’s words and ideas become narratives that shape our world. After this man became aggressive, I responded how women everywhere do to protect ourselves from male violence – I quietly moved away and watched him warily until he got off.

By the way, the people who got off at his stop weren’t all white… and the woman who refused my seat didn’t get off in Chinatown. I’m betting he didn’t notice, but what the hell do I know?

Read More Women. Read More Feminists.

Of all the books you’ve read, how many do you suppose were written by white men? Think back through grade school, high school, university – the books you read for entertainment and for education. Chances are the answer is “most of them”.

In keeping with my efforts to counteract my male-supremacist conditioning, for the last few months I’ve read exclusively female-authored books, both fiction and non-fiction. In terms of feminist writing, there is no better resource than RadFem Archive, a treasure trove of essays and novels from brilliant feminist thinkers including Dworkin, Jeffreys and MacKinnon.

Happy reading, sisters!

Sleepless in Patriarchy

One night last week, when I should have been sleeping, I was awake ruminating about my partner’s stepfather – more precisely, his blatant racism and misogyny.

Evaluating personal relationships has been a central, and difficult, part of my journey to better align my life with my feminist values. Figuring out how to respond to the misogyny that creeps into almost every social interaction is painful and exhausting, especially as, through trial and error, I try to balance asserting myself and challenging misogyny with maintaining valued personal relationships.

Once I began noticing that men often interrupted and infantilized me, that they invalidated and dismissed my opinions, that my male friends often made shockingly sexist comments and that my female friends often spoke progressive speak one minute, and then objectified themselves or badmouthed other women’s appearances the next there was, simply, no going back. I couldn’t un-see or un-hear these things, and relationships that used to bring me comfort immediately brought feelings of isolation and disappointment.

Many women, I think, resist feminism because it is an agony to be fully conscious of the brutal misogyny which permeates culture, society, and all personal relationships. – Andrea Dworkin

In many cases, figuring out how to address the misogyny in my relationships was easy. I ended more than a handful of relationships with men and women who consistently demonstrated misogynistic behaviour, especially those who weren’t willing to acknowledge and examine their attitudes.

In other cases, particularly my relationship with my male partner, I decided to invest time and energy asserting myself, educating and explaining. Although the process hasn’t always been smooth, it has been worth it, and we’ve grown closer while we support each other’s growth and, together, recognize and deconstruct the problematic aspects of our socialization.

Other relationships have been more difficult to navigate, particularly my relationship with my partner’s stepfather John. A 70 year old white man who speaks proudly about using pornography and calls women “chicks” and “dames”, he has, one more than one occasion, used racist and sexist slurs in front of me, a woman of colour. In almost any other circumstance, I would cut him out of my life without much thought. Since my partner and I both love my partner’s mother (John’s wife) that isn’t an option, so I’ve had to find other ways to cope, and so far at least, I haven’t had much success.

During one visit, John brashly proclaimed that all women turn into “old bags” once they reach 40. I felt compelled to say something, especially after noticing his wife and stepdaughters’ pained, downcast expressions, but I couldn’t figure out what to say. Instead, upset and confused, I walked away.

Later, while I unpacked his comment’s many problematic aspects and thought back to the obvious pain inflicted on the women he was talking with, I felt ashamed for retreating instead of putting my feminism into action. I would have loved to ask him what about adult women he found so repulsive, and why he didn’t feel creepy perving over women half his age. But I didn’t. I froze, fled, and later berated myself for not standing up.

Since that incident, I spend time before each visit anticipating the racist or sexist things John might say, planning how to respond, and resenting the entire exercise.

It wasn’t long before I got another opportunity. Soon after, John used a racial slur and then loudly dismissed my objections. His angry, domineering reaction set off a storm of emotions, doubts and incredulous thoughts that was too overwhelming for me to set aside and figure out how to proceed. Instead, I left the room with my partner and cried my eyes out. I knew John had dinosaur opinions, but to be so soundly put in my place after objecting to his racist behaviour left me feeling alone, angry and immediately mistrustful.

Later, my partner told John not to make racist or misogynist comments around me, and to listen if I have something to say in response. John settled down for a long time after that discussion, and even though my partner’s support was comforting, I felt conflicted since, yet again, I didn’t seize an opportunity to stand up for myself.

Recently, John told me that, while at a grocery store, he saw a border guard he recognized from his frequent crossings into and out of Canada. Apparently this woman, who appeared to be in her 20’s, and whom John had only previously met in her professional capacity, didn’t appreciate John referring to her there in the grocery store as a “little girl”. After a familiar moment of anxiety and swirling doubt I told him that I understand why she was offended, that as women we’re tired of being treated like children.

Listen, I understand this was no groundbreaking display of feminist activism. But it was a significant step forward for me in this relationship, a step towards me being brave enough to express my opinion and point out John’s problematic behaviour. This is a man who has bought into society’s version of masculinity his whole life. Someone who thinks he’s always right, and people – especially women – especially women of colour – who suggest otherwise must be proven wrong at all costs.

Thinking back on my tiny first step I feel proud and confident that, next time, I’ll be able to take one step further. And then another one. And then, hopefully, I’ll be confident enough to live my feminism as universally and consistently as possible – and maybe even sleep better at night.

Absention As a Political Act

Earlier this month I signed a letter to federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair asking him to clarify his party’s position on Bill C-36, Canada’s foray into the Nordic Model, which has been proven to both reduce demand for prostitution and keep prostituted women more safe.

This week, Mulcair responded with typical pro-decrim rhetoric, smearing Bill C-36 (which was passed after extensive consultation with current and exited prostituted women and front-line groups like Vancouver Rape Relief) as a political game.

I’m getting really tired of supporting so-called progressives while they ignore women’s oppression. For me, Mulcair’s response was the last straw. Here’s my letter to Vancouver East NDP candidate Jenny Kwan, letting her know why I won’t be supporting her candidacy next week.

Hello Ms. Kwan,

As a longtime NDP supporter and resident of Vancouver East, I am crushed to hear Thomas Mulcair’s response to a letter signed by more than 100 men and women asking him to clarify the NDP’s position on Bill C-36.

Bill C-36 is the only thing the Conservatives did right. It correctly positions prostitution as exploitation of women and, accordingly, criminalizes the purchase of sex while at the same time decriminalizing prostituted women and increasing the exit services available to them.

As a longstanding member of this community, you are surely aware that the vast majority of prostituted women are poor women of colour whose choices are limited by classism, racism and patriarchy. This reality is in stark contrast to the currently popular red herring argument that “sex workers” freely choose to enter prostitution, and that decriminalizing pimps and johns puts prostituted women at risk. It is violent men who put prostituted women at risk, and decriminalizing prostitution protects those men, and sustains the conditions under which they can cause harm.

Bill C-36 is the first step towards the Nordic Model, a model implemented in Sweden, which has seen 0 murders of prostituted women since its adoption 15 years ago. In contrast, in Germany, where prostitution has been decriminalized, more than 60 prostituted women have been murdered since 2002. I urge you to investigate these facts before replying with the commonly stated, but completely disproven claim that decriminalizing prostitution helps women. This claim is simply not supported by fact.

In Canada, Bill C-36 was passed after consultation with current and exited prostituted women and front-line groups like Vancouver Rape Relief. Support for Bill C-36 is in line with your commitment to aboriginal women, and the only logical position for someone who claims to care about exploited women.

If the NDP refuses to support prostituted women by supporting Bill C-36, I will be forced to abstain from voting. I cannot support a party that relies on debunked, regressive ideas that endanger women’s lives.

I have been an engaged and active voter my entire adult life. I used to shun people who didn’t vote, judging them as apathetic or lazy as we obedient, politically engaged people are taught to do. Now that I recognize that neither the Left nor the Right serves women’s interests, I’m beginning to see abstention as a valid political choice. Messy? Perhaps. Dangerous? Potentially. But, surely, no more dangerous than supporting a party that won’t support a law that helps keep vulnerable women safe.

A Reminder for the Left: No One is Free Until All Women Are Free

On Friday, September 25th, 1200 people gathered at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in Vancouver to hear three preeminent speakers discuss socialism, oppression, and rebellion. The event, a roaring success – packed to the gills with local Lefties, desperate for change – was organized by Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter (VRR) and Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP), with proceeds from ticket sales going to support their work helping women escape male violence and fighting for women’s liberation. It was programmed with the intention of incorporating a discussion of women’s oppression into socialist activism and so Pullitzer-prize winning journalist and author Chris Hedges’ speech was bookended by powerful talks by Alice Lee of AWCEP and longstanding feminist activist Lee Lakeman, who worked with VRR for over thee decades before retiring in 2013.

All three speakers demonstrated the way in which women’s oppression should be a logical focus of socialist rebellion, a critical and timely message given the Left’s embrace of policies and behaviours that actively harm women.

AWCEP is a feminist group that recognizes prostitution as violence against women, and works to abolish it using an anti-oppression framework. Lee’s speech centred women of colour, explaining that human trafficking is a product of capitalism, colonialism, and a sense of male entitlement that normalizes sexual access to female bodies, pointing out that all of this is central to patriarchy.

Chris Hedges began his speech by expressing solidarity with AWCEP and VRR’s abolitionist position and reminding us that, in the spring, a few liberals tried to have him banned from speaking at Simon Fraser University on account of his critiques of the sex industry and alliances with groups like AWCEP and VRR. Moving on to discuss corporate malfeasance, climate degradation and the need for a united socialist response to neoliberalism and capitalism, issues covered in his new book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Hedges mentioned the dangers of masculinity and repeatedly wove women’s oppression into an ultimately grim sermon aimed at motivating decisive anti-capitalist action.

In her talk, Lee Lakeman recounted incident after incident of male violence against women covered in the media, offering these incidences as examples of a sustained attack on women’s liberty. She reminded us that we have heard these stories before, that they aren’t isolated, they’re not going away, and that they will not go away if the Left doesn’t fully incorporate feminism into their activism and begin fighting on behalf of abused and marginalized women.

Lee, Hedges and Lakeman all demonstrated how a movement that aims to free citizens from the oppression that is capitalism must free all citizens, including women beaten or raped by men, and women exploited by men on porn sets and street corners.

It’s an important message at a critical time when neoliberalism’s focus on unquestioned individual choices threatens feminist progress. A moment when Amnesty International, an organization that claims to promote and protect human rights, has decided to advocate for the legalization of prostitution, legitimizing male sexual entitlement to women’s bodies, and relegating a class of mostly brown-skinned, mostly poor women to sexual servitude. A moment when the Left embraces pornography as empowering, without bothering to question the violence and degradation on screen, consider the working conditions, or the demand pornography creates for sex trafficking.

The Left’s dismissal of women’s oppression isn’t a new phenomenon. Much has been written about sexism in the civil rights movement and how the hippies’ pursuit of “free love” was a pursuit lead by men for expanded sexual access to women’s bodies. Like many feminists of her time, Andrea Dworkin’s activism began in the civil rights movement, where she learned that so-called progressives fighting for human rights don’t bother themselves much when it comes to women’s rights – certainly not at the expense of their erections:

Capitalism is not wicked or cruel when the commodity is the whore; profit is not wicked or cruel when the alienated worker is a female piece of meat… The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die. The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.

The Left’s refusal to “get it”, this gaping blind spot, is dangerous for women, and although Alice Lee, Chris Hedges and Lee Lakeman shined light into that dark corner, I was disappointed to see a number of audience members stream out immediately after Hedges’ finished speaking, continuing to trickle to the doors while Lakeman reminded us, in her powerful speech, that women continue to be raped and murdered while the Left stands by. While most of the audience stayed, moved and inspired by Lakeman’s courage and willingness to tell the truth at any cost, I was not surprised to notice that most of those walking away were men.

So Lefties, it’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop patting yourself on the back for protesting sweatshops and human trafficking then going home and getting off watching women degraded in pornography and not thinking about the connections. It’s time to stop embracing “sex work” as empowering choice while ignoring that the majority of prostituted women are poor women of colour whose choices are limited by classism, racism and patriarchy, and who want out. It’s time for leftist men to stop thinking sexism and oppression are what other men do to women and start looking at yourselves.

Because feminists see you, women see you. We see your hypocrisy and your refusal to examine your own behaviour and challenge your entitlement. We make decisions about whom to trust, ally with, and fight alongside, and we see you abandoning women. We see you not seeing us at all.

[Originally published on Feminist Current.]

Lee Lakeman on Socialism and Feminism

We want you to consider that Socialism cannot succeed without Feminism.  Not only because women are the majority.  Not only because we cannot overturn any other form of oppression without freeing women but because women especially over the last fifty years through Feminism have developed some ideas, practices, structures and methods that make sustaining victory so much more likely.

Read Lee’s entire speech here.

Let Yourself Go

I’m about to admit something that, in patriarchy, is tantamount to a cardinal sin: I’m letting myself go.

Letting myself go. I choose that phrase intentionally – a phrase designed to strike fear in women and motivate resolute anti-aging regimes, ruthless food restrictions and, if we’re too far gone, a few nips and tucks. A short yet powerful phrase, “letting herself go” evokes shame, excuses and apologies about how embarrassed we are that, as women, we can’t defy the impacts of time. A phrase that reveals so much about where we’re supposed to focus our time, attention and resources.

I’ve spent the last year re-engaging with feminism. Not air-quote “feminism” that reframes mechanisms of oppression as empowering choices to avoid analyzing who these choices benefit and who they oppress. Actual feminism, the kind that recognizes women as a political class and sees the obsession we’re supposed to have with beauty as another tool used to control us – a learned compulsion that needs to be questioned, challenged and rejected as we continue our fight for liberation. So, despite a lifetime of conditioning, I’m rejecting my fear-based impulses to shave, wax, conceal, powder, buff, polish, moisturize, tone, shrink, augment, exfoliate, pluck, primp and gloss.

Yet if a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got? If she never takes off her high-heeled shoes, how will she ever know how far she could walk or how fast she could run? – Germaine Greer

In patriarchy, there is no nobler aspiration for a woman than to be beautiful, a particular type of beautiful, a type defined by men to benefit men, Beauty is taut and hairless, thin but not too thin. Beauty is buxom. Beauty is white. And, while men can be considered more attractive as they age, for women beauty is almost exclusively young.

Writing for Feminist Current, Alicen Grey astutely analyzed patriarchy’s obsession with youth as the foundation of female beauty, wrapping the many problematic aspects in a disturbing yet completely accurate phrase: “pedophile culture”. It’s no accident that in patriarchy, where men are socialized to dominate and women are conditioned to accept domination, aspirational female beauty is best represented by girls – females at their least powerful.

The power beauty holds over women is undeniable. On average, women spend 55 minutes a day attending to our hair and makeup. 90% of people who suffer from anorexia or bulimia are female. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of cosmetic procedures in the US increased 429% from 1997 to 2014 [PDF]. In 2014, women accounted for 90% of those procedures, 9.6 million in all.

Women don’t do this because we’re shallow. We do this because, from the moment we’re born, we’re bombarded with messages from family, friends, the media, music videos, Hollywood, random men on the street and from one another that being considered beautiful is what we’re supposed to do – that this is what being a woman means. A closer look at the phrase “letting herself go” reveals how central appearance is to womanhood. In that phrase her attempt to conform to beauty standards is “herself”. It’s all of her.

In patriarchy, women are judged negatively not only for not being beautiful, but also for showing any signs of the enormous effort required to conform to an impossibly narrow beauty standard. We must not only be young and fresh looking all the time, we must be naturally and effortlessly young and fresh – and those of who aren’t are derided as superficial or high-maintenance.

The game is rigged against us. The game is designed to control us and I, along with many other women, many more courageous than me, refuse to play.

I’m nowhere near the first feminist to challenge or reject patriarchy’s oppressive beauty standards. Many women before me have refused to play along and, as a result, have become invisible, less worthy, less than.  I draw on their courage as I continue to focus on all the other pieces of myself that have nothing to do with my appearance – as I continue letting myself go. Won’t you come with me?