Like many feminists, my interest in women’s rights began when I started noticing I was treated like I was less than the men around me. I didn’t analyze much deeper than that – I just needed confirmation that something wasn’t right, I wasn’t imagining it, and that that something wasn’t my fault. Now that my analysis has gone deeper, and is rooted firmly in an anti-oppression framework, it’s clear to me that when I first started learning and believing in feminism I was, in fact, a liberal feminist.
Liberal feminism is an individualistic view of women’s rights that holds equality with men as its end goal. Liberal feminism focuses on advancing women’s positions in existing institutions and believes that what women want out of life is what men want and have already secured for themselves.
Way back then, I understood feminism in relation to my life, my experiences and my choices. I didn’t spend much time considering how my internalized misogyny shaped those choices, even the choices I now see were problematic since they reinforced mechanisms of women’s oppression.
For me then, and for liberal feminists today, the individual is queen. Any choice a woman makes is by definition a feminist choice because choosing is a feminist act. Even choices like pandering to the male gaze or self-objectifying must be applauded. As a result, I often engaged in decidedly unfeminist behaviour while uncritically wrapping myself in a comfortingly progressive label.
Once I began critically examining my beliefs and learning more about the history of feminism, I realized the many ways in which so-called liberal feminism falls short. What soon became clear was that liberal feminism isn’t feminism at all. Uncritically worshipping individual choices ignores the structures and institutions that support patriarchy. Focusing narrowly on advancing in the public sphere ignores the oppression women face in our homes. More worryingly, refusing to examine the context and impacts of choices allows men and women to continue reinforcing misogyny and male supremacy while patting themselves on the back and failing to work towards liberation for all women in any meaningful way.
Contributing to misogyny while declaring yourself a feminist requires a stunning lack of self-awareness and critical thinking, and an intricate set of unquestioned beliefs whose main purpose is to preserve a self-concept that’s allegedly based on beliefs in women’s rights, when in reality, that self-concept is based on an illusion.
Nowhere is this creative ego preservation more evident than in the commonly used catchphrases liberal feminists recite en masse, mostly in response to critical examination by radical feminists who understand that examining our internalized misogyny, analyzing our choices and beliefs and dismantling patriarchal institutions is essential work for feminists who are truly dedicated to the liberation of all women. Not just women who are like us or women we like – all women.
This post is the first in a series I’m calling “Shit Liberal Feminists Say” where I examine these mantras and how they’re used to silence radical feminists and distract from the fact that liberal feminism is an empty ideology that shores up male supremacy.
First up: sex worker exclusionary radical feminist (SWERF).
Why it’s Wrong
Despite repeated evidence that women in prostitution are largely poor women of colour, many of whom were sexually abused as girls, entered prostitution while underage, and identify lack of housing as their main barrier to leaving prostitution, liberal feminists cling to the romanticized notions of “sex work” depicted in movies like Pretty Woman and, in doing so, literally whitewash reality. For liberal feminists, sex work is inevitable, voluntary, empowering and fun, and women who choose it should be unquestioningly celebrated. In an empty nod to actual facts, they sometimes mention the coercive nature of street prostitution, but quickly draw a meaningless line in the sand between “trafficking” and “sex work” despite studies showing that countries that decriminalize prostitution see trafficking increase.
In contrast, abolitionists see prostitution as male violence, as the sexualized practice of dominance and control over women who are coerced, with money, into sexual activity in which they wouldn’t otherwise participate.
Contrary to liberal feminists, who demonstrably exclude most women in prostitution so they can uphold a uniformly empowery notion of “sex work”, abolitionists don’t exclude any women from our analysis. We acknowledge that some women choose to enter into prostitution. Understanding that patriarchy both limits and shapes women’s choices, abolitionists believe the context of more privileged women’s choices – and the impacts those choices have on marginalized women – must be scrutinized as part of the hard work needed to make sure our movement leaves no woman behind.
We also believe that, as a movement that aims to free all women, we need to focus most of our attention on the most marginalized among us. Deciding to focus most of our attention on a majority of marginalized women as opposed to completely ignoring them in favour of a small minority of more privileged women isn’t exclusionary – it’s feminism.
What it’s Used For
SWERF is a schoolyard taunt aimed at shaming critically-thinking feminists into silence. It is an attempt to smear abolitionists as outdated pearl-clutchers, to delegitimize us as irrelevant and not worth listening to. In the face of a growing body of knowledge that erodes the very foundation of choice arguments about prostitution, “SWERF” is a petulant child with hands over ears screaming “lalalala” when life doesn’t go according to plan.
What it Reveals
Supporting an argument that excludes the majority of women in prostitution, while calling the very women who consider the whole picture exclusionary, shows how intellectually vapid and hypocritical so-called liberal feminism is. Just like calling support of prostitution, which exposes the most marginalized among us to increased levels of violence and abuse, a feminist position, this isn’t about women’s liberation, it’s about feeling good and progressive and not having to actually change anything.
Supporting prostitution and screaming “SWERF” at abolitionists isn’t feminism, it’s capitulating to male supremacy and writing marginalized women off as collateral damage. It’s living in a dream world of consequence-free individual choices. It’s refusing to go beyond scratching the surface, and instead hiding behind buzzwords and tepid half-measures while trying to silence women who are willing to dive deep no matter the cost. Screaming SWERF at abolitionists is misogyny in feminists’ clothing, and it’s just some senseless shit that liberal feminists say.