Shit Liberal Feminists Say: Choice

Last weekend, feminists gathered at Vancouver’s Public Library to commemorate a tragedy that’s become known as the Montreal Massacre, where Marc Lepine, a poster boy for aggrieved entitlement, opened fire on female engineering students at Montreal’s Polytechnique, killing 14 women because they were women.

Vancouver Rape Relief organized Saturday’s memorial, a jam-packed day of films, speeches, and roundtable discussions by preeminent feminists and organizers. Throughout the event, woman after woman pointed to liberal feminism’s failure to confront the interlocking systems that oppress women, criticizing them for the creative tricks they use to make oppression more comfortable.

In this series’ first post, I briefly touched on the third wave’s holy grail “choice” while deconstructing SWERF, a term used to silence feminist analysis of prostitution, pornography and other sexual exploitation industries. I’m still fired up by the sharp and courageous feminism I witnessed on Saturday, so this time I’ll look more closely at the idea of choice, and how liberal feminists use it to feel good and feministy without actually doing feminism

How It’s Used

Liberal feminists stop debate by crying “choice” when radical feminists unpack the context and impacts around choices – especially choices that reinforce male supremacy. This usually happens in conversations about prostitution, pornography, or other industries and activities that objectify women or encourage women to objectify themselves, like, say, stripping.

A radical feminist looks at stripping as catering to male supremacy since the woman involved is presenting herself as a sexualized object for the male gaze. Those gazing, objectifying men don’t care about that woman as a person. They’re not thinking about her as a complete human being – their focus is simply examining and appraising her body for their sexual gratification.

In keeping with the feminist belief that feminism is the fight to liberate all women, a radical feminist would recognize that an individual woman’s choice to strip reinforces the broadly held view that women’s bodies – all women’s bodies – exist for men and for male approval.

Going further still, a radical feminist would also look at the choice’s context. In the case of stripping, that would include considering how, in patriarchy, females are socialized from birth to objectify ourselves. She’d look at the constant drip-drip-drip of subtle and overt messages we absorb throughout our lives that teach us to strive to be pretty and sexually desirable to men.

She’d also look at the ways patriarchy restricts the range of economic opportunities available to women, how trafficking plays a role in supplying men with female bodies to ogle, and how encouraging men to dehumanize women is connected to male violence against women. After all that analysis, she’d conclude that stripping is problematic and anti-feminist.

Not surprisingly, a liberal feminist’s take on stripping looks very different, in that it begins and ends with one point: because that individual woman chose to strip, stripping is by default a feminist choice that should be honoured and not “shamed” (third wave speak for “analyzed”). There may be a little discussion about how stripping is connected to catcalls or street harassment (I haven’t seen this discussion happen but I’m going to be generous and say it’s possible), but that’s largely it: choice. Full stop.

Why It’s Wrong

Considering that liberal feminism’s goal differs from radical feminism’s, in that third wavers want women to have the same benefits as men, while radical feminists fight to liberate all women from patriarchal structures of oppression, it makes sense that liberal feminists focus on choice. Viewed through a libfem lens, women choosing something, anything, is a victory; regardless of the impact, or what other choice they might have made if a broader range of choices was available.

There are cold, hard truths that need to be accepted before women can join a meaningful movement for liberation. It sucks to realize that much of our behaviour is influenced by socialization that, by design, encourages us to put the interests of others before our own. It’s painful to consider how male supremacy limits the range of choices we get to choose from in the first place. These crucial, light bulb moments begin a long and difficult process of questioning and changing our behaviour, and demanding that men do the same.

This is the work of feminism, the mostly thankless, often dangerous work that must be done – work that women can’t begin until they stop denying the conditions of our oppression. We can’t break out of a cage we’re trying desperately not to see.

What It Does

This idea of unquestioningly celebrated choices helps women feel good about themselves while they continue to behave in ways that reinforce patriarchy. It allows them to earn the benefits society gives women who don’t challenge male supremacy while comforting themselves that their behaviour – no matter how problematic – is feminist.

There are real and dangerous consequences when women do misogyny while thinking they’re doing feminism. Convinced they’re on the side of women without critically examining their behaviour and beginning the real work of feminism, they lash out in anger at radical feminists who ask them to consider that they might actually not be. Similarly, men who are drawn to this feel-good fauxmenism, that doesn’t ask them to do anything differently, claim feminism without taking a hard look at their privilege and behaviour and asking feminists how they can help. Instead of directing their anger at male supremacy and entitlement, third wavers pile on radical feminists who dare ask the difficult questions that need to be answered to bring about actual change.

Meanwhile, women and girls report increasing rates of mental illness, sexual coercion, and, depending on our class, race or where we live, rising or tragically consistent rates of sexual assault.

What It Reveals

Looking closely at choice feminism shows that it isn’t feminism at all. It doesn’t challenge the material conditions of women’s oppression or take courageous action towards liberation. It is capitulation in a feel-good package, complete with empty mantras and buzzwords so women can play at feminism while avoiding the sanctions that accompany challenges to entrenched systems of power.

Women who choose liberal feminism aren’t choosing to lift all women out of oppression – they’re making a cowardly choice to help themselves.

It’s Time for Mayor Gregor Robertson to Address Prostitution in Vancouver

On Wednesday, November 18th, in East Vancouver, about a dozen people from the Kensington-Cedar Cottage neighbourhood attended a panel discussion called Creating John-Free Communities. Panel members from Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP), Resist Exploitation Embrace Dignity (REED), Formerly Exploited Voices Now Educating (EVE) and human rights lawyer Gwendoline Allison discussed the exploitation in prostitution and encouraged local residents to write to Suzanne Anton, BC’s Minister of Justice, asking her to enforce anti-prostitution and trafficking laws across the province and provide funding and programs to help transition women out of prostitution.

Prostitution is a well-publicized issue in Vancouver, so I was surprised to hear, for the first time, that a declaration mayor Gregor Robertson signed this summer pledging action to address climate change also committed to “ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of modern slavery, which are crimes against humanity, including forced labour and prostitution.”

Robertson has made battling climate change a key part of his platform, even going so far as to commit to making Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020. Unfortunately, his position on prostitution has been less consistent and, given the city’s recent position on Bill C-36, downright dangerous.

Not that long ago, Robertson expressed concerns about prostitution, speaking out against legalization during his first election campaign. In his first term, he signed a declaration naming prostitution as violence against women and committed to stopping, in his words, its “sexual enslavement of women and youth.” A few years later, in 2011, Robertson suggested using social media to expose “johns and those who are exploiting people in our community, women primarily.” So it’s clear that, not long ago, Robertson understood prostitution to be dangerous and exploitative, a view that’s hard to debate given the history of violence against prostituted women in Vancouver that continues today.

Prostitution exists throughout Vancouver — in licensed brothels, massage parlours, strip clubs and, most visibly, on city streets. Our Downtown Eastside, a diverse and complex neighbourhood whose success stories and strong sense of community are too-often overlooked, is infamous not only for its open air drug use, but also for its highly visible street prostitution scene, where poor, mostly Indigenous women are pimped, exploited, abused, and murdered.

Although Vancouver’s abolitionist community is diverse and determined, the city’s dominant narrative around prostitution has been shaped by well-funded organizations (and sex industry profiteers) who lobby for full decriminalization based on the misguided (and profitable) notion of harm reduction. These groups who claim so-called sex workers are harmed by stigma, but not by the pimps, johns and traffickers who abuse and exploit them, advocate to reform and regulate the industry, to treat it like any other type of work. Claiming to speak for “sex workers,” their pro-legalization stance ignores prostitution’s roots in colonialism, its racism, sexism, and the ways prostitution reinforces male entitlement and the objectification of women. Those who rely on harm reduction models in order to fund themselves also have a financial stake in ensuring the marginalized remain so.

Treating “sex work” like other types of work ignores the brutal realities of prostitution in Canada, where, of those in prostitution, 76 per cent have been raped (and of those raped, 67 per cent have been raped more than five times). Reducing stigma doesn’t change that 95 per cent of prostitutes, when asked, “What do you need?” answered “to leave prostitution,” followed by 82 per cent who needed drug and or alcohol treatment, and 66 per cent who said they needed a home.

Given that reality, watching our mayor contradict his early position in order to align himself with those who advocate for the decriminalization of pimps and johns has been disturbing. These days, the mayor, the City, and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) now stand firmlybehind “minimizing harm” but not working to dismantle prostitution, and firmly against Bill C-36, Canada’s new federal legislation that criminalizes pimps and johns in keeping with the Nordic Model. It’s no coincidence that the City’s approach is the least costly and least labourious way to address the interconnected issues of poverty, addiction, marginalization, and prostitution.

The Nordic Model targets the demand for commercial sex that feeds human trafficking. This framework, which has been shown to reduce both the demand for prostitution, and violence in prostitution has three prongs: it criminalizes buyers, decriminalizes prostituted women, and invests in programs and services that aid women to exit prostitution, and offer them real support once they’re out.

Bill C-36 is Canada’s imperfect interpretation of the Nordic Model. To be fair, the Bill falls short by criminalizing communicating for the purpose of selling sex near a playground, school, or daycare, plus, the federal government needs to commit more funds towards exiting services and social safety nets. Still, by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services, it’s an important first step towards protecting Canada’s most vulnerable women.

You would think a mayor who has already recognized prostitution as violence against women and who suggested publicly naming johns to deter them from buying sex would support and work to strengthen legislation that recognizes the inherent exploitation in prostitution — especially after signing a declaration that commits to ending that exploitation and counts prostitution as modern slavery and a crime against humanity. Instead, Robertson is now, essentially, supporting men’s right to buy and sell women, shutting out local abolitionists, and blatantly ignoring Canada’s laws.

If Robertson is serious about ending prostitution, and not just playing politics, there is a clear path forward. A path that includes working with the new federal government to strengthen the aspects of C-36 that criminalize pimps, johns, and traffickers.

In the meantime, since, under Robertson, Vancouver has demonstrated willingness to opt out of enforcing C-36 altogether, it could instead opt out of enforcing the communications prohibition alone, and begin using C-36 as a tool to hold traffickers, pimps and johns accountable for their exploitation. The city could offer prostituted women real alternatives: increase exit services, drug treatment programs, and double down on the mayor’s failed pledgeto end homelessness.

On the other hand, if Robertson signed the declaration to attract more publicity for his climate change agenda, with no real intention of acting to end prostitution, I hope he thinks carefully about who he has sacrificed and who he is betraying in doing so. Either way, Gregor Robertson has questions to answer and contradictions to explain — and I look forward to joining Vancouver’s abolitionist community as we push him to respond.