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When feminists disagree: censorship versus solidarity

CensorshipFeminism clearly entails a multi-perspective, multi-faceted way of thinking about equality and rights, so what happens when feminists violently disagree with each other? Erin Stewart investigates protests, disinvitations and the exclusion of feminists in debates and wonders what implications this will have on solidarity and feminism as activism.

11 June 2011

Bettina Arndt is an evolutionary psychologist and sex therapist based in Australia. She says that the sexual desires of men and women are generally disparate and that the presence of testosterone in male bodies leads them to be “grovelling for sex”’ and for them to be “irresistibly drawn to photos of naked women”.

At this point she suggests that men and women need to learn to compromise in their negotiations of sex. She suggests that women, who tend to have “fragile libidos” might be better off to “just do it”, to have sex to help their male partners function happily in life, and create a relationship where sex isn’t simply “dolled out like Meaty Bites to a dog”.

Unsurprisingly, Arndt’s views and resorts to gender stereotyping are considered problematic to some feminists, to the point that her recent public lecture at the Australian National University (ANU) was met with protest by the ANU Women’s Collective, who said that Arndt’s views were “damaging to young people and her attitudes should not be invited or heralded at the ANU”. Through the use of Facebook and a peaceful protest just prior to the event, the collective spread their view of Arndt’s inappropriateness.

Interestingly, Arndt is identified as being a ‘feminist’ author and is quoted in the Canberra Times as characterising herself as a ‘card-carrying feminist’. While her current work is far removed from issues with rape and consent (both of which are obviously important considerations when talking about sex), during her early career, she has attended to such matters.

Yet, the issue of censoring people from speaking at public events or wanting to exclude them from conversations because they have controversial views is hardly unique to this situation, nor among women who self-identify as feminists.

At the Feminist Futures Conference held in Melbourne on 28 and 29 May this year, there was much controversy and discomfort surrounding who should or should not speak, and what views should or should not be represented.

The main controversies emerged surrounding feminists considered to be anti-trans* as well as disparate opinions on the sex industry in relation to women, empowerment and violence.

Radical feminist, author and academic Sheila Jeffreys was initially on a plenary panel, along with Kathleen Maltzhan of Project Respect (an organisation that takes the radical feminist view that sex work is violence to all women) and planned to run a workshop called ‘Why Prostitution is Violence to Women’.

After feminist sex worker rights advocates along with trans and sex/gender diverse activists complained about the imbalance of speakers on the panels, representatives from Australian national sex workers’ association Scarlet Alliance and sex/gender diverse collective Still Fierce Melbourne were also given places on two of the panels.

Jeffreys then withdrew from the conference, arguing that she felt it was “untenable” to participate, and around 60 radical feminists, many of whom were aligned with Jeffreys’ views, held an alternative – or as they put it – “real” feminist conference at a nearby venue.

Jeffreys experienced a great deal of condemnation for she feels that supporting ‘transgenderism’ entails a support in the gender-system, which she does not agree with. She also suggests that surgery to change the bodies of transgendered people is often pre-emptive, a strategy to hide homosexuality and culminates into the forced sterilisation of young people.

Of course, such a view is contested, particularly by some who do identify as trans*and do not feel as though they have been manipulated, violated or mutilated through surgery. They condemn Jeffreys for victimising and discriminating against trans* people.

During the final panel of the conference, sex worker rights advocates stood up and turned their backs when Maltzhan from Project Respect spoke, holding up signs that said, ‘Kathleen Maltzhan supports laws that harm sex workers’.

Heated discussions took place online before the conference and during this final panel, in which ‘silencing’ was claimed by the different parties.

One effect of debates surrounding censorship and the conference was Melinda Tankhard Reist’s disinvitation from the conference. ?Tankhard Reist is a founder of Collective Shout and actively campaigns against the objectification of women, the sexualisation of girls and violence against women more generally. She also identifies as a ‘Register for self-service experiencepro-life feminist’ regarding abortion (clearly a very controversial view to have as a feminist).

She emphasises the harms of the pornography industry as well as the work of advertisers who use and proliferate images of scantily clad women for commercial gain. After being disinvited from the Feminist Futures Conference, Tankhard Reist told The Scavenger: “I will continue to work with those who truly value diversity, inclusiveness and solidarity in advancing the cause of women and girls.”

Discussions around who is a ‘real’ feminist have been raging for decades. Controversial writer and academic Camille Paglia has come under fire from those who accuse her of holding ‘anti-feminist’ views, and at an event held last year in the US, Naomi Wolf Talks With Feminism’s New Young Leaders, Jessica Valenti decided to pull out of the event as a protest towards the views of another panellist, Allison Kasic who is affiliated with the organisation, The Independent Women’s Forum which holds that (amongst other things) showings of The Vagina Monologues should be halted as it glorifies promiscuity and that HPV immunisations would lead to promiscuity in young girls.

Valenti felt that Kasic’s views were regressive and ‘right-wing’ and that she had ‘appropriated’ the label of ‘feminism’. “If those who work actively against women’s interests can claim feminism as their own, the movement will become meaningless,” she wrote.

At a certain point this is obviously true. For instance, someone who holds that women should have to do domestic chores all day and not have a choice to do anything else and that all women are stupid obviously could not use the word ‘feminism’ to represent their views and allowing them to talk at feminist events would be both wrong and absurd.

However, debates between feminists tend to be much more subtle than this and drawing the line can be quite complicated.

So, when is it okay to censor the views of people who identify as feminists, who do seem to genuinely want to further the cause of equality and who try to do so publicly and as honestly they can muster (even if other feminists find them problematic)?

The thing with feminism is that there is no one feminism. There are so many views on how to best achieve equality and even what equality what might entail. This is not to say that each view is right, but it would seem that the purpose of feminist conferences and talks, of public lectures and of having a diversity of different views represented is to have these debates, to understand different perspectives, to draw out the things that are wrong and the things that are important about each other’s views.

It’s about trying to get at an inclusive conversation about the experiences of people in relation to both oppression and empowerment.

Thus, it is important to hear from the empowered sex worker who loves her job as much as it also is important to hear from women who feel they were forced into sexual activities they were not completely at ease with. Both sides of the coin are equally important because both sides of the coin represent what life is like for women. And it’s important to note here that no one experience or narrative is less important than any other.

Looking at the bigger picture of activism and gaining opportunities and rights for women, equality does not depend on a small group of people deciding for themselves what equality entails.

As nice an intellectual exercise that may be, the goal should be one of bringing about the conditions under which equality could exist or be furthered in the real world. In this case, feminists and other activists need to engage with dissidents. This is because people generally (not just small groups of them) are required in order to enact change as well. Without discussions and inclusiveness, the discourse is caught in abstraction.

While it might be frustrating for someone to engage with people she completely disagrees with on a fundamental level, it becomes a necessity to enact change. And on the way it is possible that to learn something from those in opposition to them or reach some level of common ground.

Strangely though, sometimes it seems that some people forget that feminists people like Tankhard Reist, Jeffreys, Ardnt, and Kasic, who are figures of contention, do have good intentions.

In my opinion, it is not their purpose to oppress anyone or to incite evil into the world. They are honestly and genuinely trying to make the lives of others better and therefore deserve to be engaged with for those reasons alone.

That and because feminism should not involve trying to silence women, to disparage them or to dismiss them.

Erin Stewart is associate editor at the Scavenger.

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