Interview: Meghan Murphy on the sex industry, individualism, online feminism, and the third wave

This interview was done for and posted (in French) on Isabelle Alonso’s website. Isabelle is a French TV personality and ex-president of the “Chiennes de garde”, a well-known feminist group in France. The interview was conducted and translated by Sporenda.

1)  The blog, Feminist Current, that you launched last year, is attracting quite a bit of attention. It won “Best Feminism Blog” in Canada and has quite a few followers. Do you explain this success only by the quality of your writing or by a increased  interest in feminism?

M: Well, I can’t say for sure. I get the feeling, based on the climate in feminism these days and from connecting with other feminists online, from around the world, that there is a lot of frustration towards and disappointment in the way feminism is represented by more mainstream or maybe third wave sources. The analysis is often quite superficial and it’s become acceptable to advance this sort of derisive attitude towards both radical feminism and the second wave. The smearing of the second wave and of radical feminism, more often than not, is unfounded and comes from those unfamiliar with the theory and the history of the movement. There’s a real lack of critical thinking and an unwillingness to make larger connections around things like the mainstreaming of porn and the sex industry to women’s status in the world and violence against women.

There’s also a kind of bullying (I realize that’s an overused term these days, so perhaps it might not feel like the ideal descriptor to some, but it sure does feel like bullying to me…) that goes on and has become acceptable online, in particular. You have to really toe the party line or risk getting blackballed. It discourages honest conversations and critical thinking. There are these trigger words (often various words attached to “phobia” or “shaming”– “whorephobia,” or “kink-shaming,” for example) that are thrown around and, once uttered, the conversation is done and people are accused of being some kind of “phobic” regardless of what’s actually being argued. Critique is repositioned as “judgement.” People seem to conflate critiques of larger systems of power with critiques of individuals and individual choices. You know, to be critical of the sex industry isn’t to be critical of prostitutes — it’s to be critical of male culture and inequality and oppression. It’s a real problem as well as an excellent way to squash critical thinking and scare people into accepting certain movement mantras and language without thinking or questioning it. It’s a bit cult-like.

So I think when I started writing about feminism online (rather naively, I must admit) back in 2010 and was critical of things that you’re not allowed to be critical of in mainstream feminism — things like burlesque, porn, stripping, prostitution, etc. — maybe people felt a little relieved? That isn’t to say that I’m the only one writing about this stuff, but I know that feeling of relief that comes when you’ve been uncomfortable or unsure about something but you aren’t sure why, and everyone else seems to be ok with it so maybe you should be ok with it too, and then you read something where someone really articulates exactly what was bothering you and it’s like, THANK GOD. You know, there are so few feminists blogging about the Nordic model, for example (in a positive way, anyway). When I learned about it, first from Trisha Baptie, and then from other feminist organizations and Aboriginal women’s groups, and I was like, yeah this is so obvious — this makes sense. But people have been taught the politically correct stance is legalization. Abolition isn’t fashionable.

There’s an incredible backlash when you are critical of the sex industry. It’s not the popular position to take these days — we’ve been so indoctrinated with this idea that if you’re critical of the sex industry, you’re critical of sex (when in reality it’s the opposite) so it’s not an easy thing to advocate for in public. You will really get shit on. So that probably discourages a lot of feminists from supporting that model and abolition in general, publicly. The more of us come out and say this stuff publicly, though, the more other women will feel free and encouraged to explore these ideas without fear of attack and being shut down. They’ll feel like, oh, ok, maybe I don’t have to like porn in order to pretend to be sexually liberated – maybe my discomfort with prostitution is justified – maybe I’m not crazy. So I think that’s why Feminist Current is growing in popularity. I think maybe it’s just a relief to see this kind of discourse happening publicly and see that other women and men want to get on side.

2) From what one reads, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) are big in Canada. Some of them visit your site to attack your posts and try to advance their position – that men are the real victims and are being victimized by modern women and feminists.

Why is it, in your opinion, that there are so many MRAs in Canada? What do you get about these men based on what they post on your site?

M: Oh gosh, I have no idea why Men’s Rights Movement and MRAs are so big in Canada! I think it’s partly that they’ve found a place in AVFM and CAFE, for example. So the existence of those groups, who are putting forth these ridiculously warped and anti-feminist ideas and manipulated statistics, likely reinforce the idea that it’s acceptable for men to go public about their hatred towards and fear of feminists and the feminist movement.

The MRAs who comment on my site (or try to comment on my site) are mostly just kind of confused. They don’t understand what feminism is or what the feminist movement is about. They say the same things over and over again — they think feminism is about advocating for a matriarchy or that it’s all about women having power over men. They really don’t get the idea of patriarchy and the fact that it’s systemic — that it isn’t about individuals. Their arguments are always about how “Men are victims too!” or that men are the real victims in this world, not women. And it’s like, yeah, of course. Of course lots of individual men experience violence and suffer throughout their lives. And, yes, some men are oppressed on a systemic level too, via race and class. But the idea behind feminism is not that everything is rad for all individual men – it’s that women experience oppression on a systemic basis as a result of being born into and socialized based on their assigned social class of “woman.” Because in our society there are two social categories when it comes to gender – men and women – and based on the fact that we’ve decided, as a culture, that women are “feminine” and men are “masculine” and that masculinity equals power, dominance, strength, etc. whereas femininity equals submission, weakness, passivity, etc. So sure, an individual woman might have a specific kind of circumstantial power over an individual man — for example, if she is white and part of the upper class – but that doesn’t change the fact that, in our world, women as a class are subordinate to men as a group and, as a result, are prostituted, abused, murdered, raped, objectified, harassed etc. specifically because they are women and in a way that’s gendered.

MRAs pretend feminists think that being a man is consistently this amazing, perfect thing, but the fact is that patriarchy isn’t necessarily “good” for men either. Masculinity is shitty. It means you’re taught to be violent and aggressive and that you can’t have feelings, that you can’t ever be vulnerable or weak. I feel so sad for men who never learn it’s ok to have and talk about their emotions and be vulnerable. It’s awful.

This is also why things like homophobia happen — you know, because gay men aren’t properly performing masculinity. Part of the thing about masculinity is that you fuck women. If you don’t do that, you’re messing with the whole system. Women are the fuckable ones — Men are the fuckers, women are the fuckees, as it were. So when men are having sex with other men or women are having sex with other women, it challenges that system and that’s one of the reasons some people hate or fear gay people.

Fitting in to these two categories is hard. It’s not natural. We shouldn’t have to be either feminine or masculine. To fit in takes work. It’s bad for everyone. I mean, it’s worse for women in many ways, but really, it’s not easy for anyone.

3) You have underlined that, for women and feminists bloggers, posting their views on the internet can be kind of a double-edged sword, as it’s also the place where extreme misogyny is being expressed, not just through huge amounts of pornography but also through vicious attacks, harassment and threats.

Have you experienced this “free for all” on women? What does it say about men’s feelings toward women and feminists?

M: Well, yes, I experience a lot of vitriol online. Especially because of the things I write about the sex industry, as I mentioned earlier. And it doesn’t just come from men. In fact, I think women sometimes feel freer to attack me in really vicious and hateful ways – even sexist ways (you know, calling me “bitch,” “cunt,” etc.) because they’re women and so it’s ok, somehow? I mean, I get attacked by men too, all the time, but some of the worst has come from other women.

I think maybe this happens because they don’t want to name the perpetrator… It’s often women who aren’t ready or willing to acknowledge that men are the ones out there who are perpetrating violence against not only women, but also against trans folks and, actually, against other men too.

Instead they target me. I’m an easy target. You know, I’m out there, as public person, I’m not protected by an institution, I don’t work for anyone, really, I work for myself. And they know that when they start a pile on, others will be eager to join in. It’s funny, in a way. I mean I’m not exactly raking in tons of cash blogging about feminism. It’s not as though I’m the one committing violence against women, but maybe it’s easier to focus on me than it is to focus on those with real power in this world. Maybe the reality is too hard for people to face. It’s a harder problem to address – widespread violence against women and misogyny. So they tweet nasty things at me instead. I don’t know. You’d think they could come up with something more productive to do.

People want very much to believe that things are ok. That’s why there’s such a concerted effort to pretend as though sexism can be empowering. It’s easier. You don’t have to change anything or confront any of the difficult truths about what’s behind the sex industry and how deeply misogynist it is. You don’t have to acknowledge that, you know, there are probably a lot of men in your life who’ve bought sex and who watch porn and probably your boyfriend goes to strip clubs and tells you that you’re supposed to be ok with it because “all guys do it” and “you’re just jealous” or whatever other b.s. we’re fed with regard to accepting sexist behavior from the men in our lives – so we feel like we have no other choice.

We love our boyfriends and they watch porn. What do you do? Especially when your boyfriend and the world at large keeps telling you that all men do this and it’s normal and that you should be ok with it. Fuck that. First of all, all men don’t watch porn. Maybe most do, but not all of them. Secondly, in no way do you have to be ok with it. We’re told we have no other option. No alternatives. So instead we try to cope. Things like “sex-positive feminism” are coping mechanisms — so, you can pretend you’re empowered as an individual, that women in prostitution just love fucking strangers all day, that you’re objectifying yourself, rather than being objectified. If we can trick ourselves into believing the sex industry empowers us then maybe it will become true! We’re desperately trying to make “good” that which is not “good”. We’re grasping for power anywhere we can.

I think that’s much of what this burlesque-is-empowering-for-women thing is about, for example. You know, it can feel good to get that kind of positive attention. I get that. I’ve been there. Everyone likes to feel desired. But the folks who are doing burlesque and calling it “feminist” or “empowering” aren’t honest about that. They aren’t honest about what’s motivating them to strip onstage for an audience. They want to pretend that it’s some kind of nouveau-feminism when of course, it’s just the same old thing. We’re used to seeing women as pretty objects to be looked at. Getting strangers to watch women strip isn’t anything new… Women get positive reinforcement for shaking their tits on stage and men are stoked that this is (supposedly) feminism! It’s empowering, they’ve been told. So it’s cool, right? I mean, no wonder people are into it. It’s no mystery.

Maybe we’ve become so hopeless about the feminist movement, because there’s still so far to go, that many women have just given up and are, like, ok, let’s just make the best of this. So we end up with “feminist porn”, burlesque, prostitution as “empowerment”. It’s about giving up on something more, something better — real power that isn’t temporary and that isn’t based on our ability to get men to pay in order to objectify us or to get positive reinforcement because we’re shaking our tits around on stage. It’s really sad, actually.

4) One of your most commented on  posts underlined that, based on a recent study done in Sweden, the Nordic model  not only reduced prostitution (by 85%) but seems to have reduced violence against prostitutes as well (48% less rapes, 38% less physical assaults according to the prostituted women who were polled). 

This goes against the prediction made by the pro-prostitution advocate –: that the penalization of johns would increase violence against prostituted women.

Not only did the media fail to relay the results of this study but a “sex worker union,” — Prosentre — even used it to assert that the Nordic model did not work, since prostitutes were verbally insulted more often now (because the johns didn’t dare physically assault them). What do you think of this silencing and twisting of facts by the media and pro-prostitution groups?

M: There is a vested interest in maintaining and promoting the sex industry as “ok” or as simply another form of work. Mostly this happens (obviously) because the sex industry is highly profitable. We live in a capitalist system, which means that anything that is profitable is defended vehemently, at the expense of human lives and of the planet, as we see via the push for pipelines in Canada. I mean, we all know full well that pipelines will inevitably be an environmental disaster, yet these projects move forward despite known consequences. Capitalism is a very powerful system. If it weren’t for capitalism, the sex industry wouldn’t exist. At least not in the same form as it does today and to the extent that it does.

“Sex worker unions” have been shown, thanks to journalists like Julie Bindel, to be little more than lobby groups for the industry. They aren’t about protecting the human rights of women, they’re about promoting the sex industry as being like any other “safe” industry – “a job like any other,” they say. But in the end it’s about profit (at the expense of women) and, of course, male pleasure.

Places like New Zealand are often used as examples by sex work advocates of how legalizing prostitution “works” – but all that’s changed in countries where they’ve legalized or completely decriminalized prostitution is that there’s more prostitution (and more trafficking). Women in the industry are still raped, abused, and murdered. Prostitutes still go missing. What it does is to create a two-tiered system, where a few very privileged women “get” to work indoors in legal brothels (which we are told is safer, despite the fact that women are abused and raped and murdered indoors as well), and everyone else – women of colour, women with mental health and addiction issues, illegal immigrants, trafficked women, etc., still work in an illegal market, most of which continues to be run by organized crime. The danger is still there and it’s still there because of male demand. The only real way to stop violence against prostituted women and to stop the exploitation is to criminalize the men who are doing the harm. Demand is what keeps the industry going, so curbing demand is the most obvious way to stop the exploitation.

The industry finds a few spokespeople – women who will say: “Oh this is great!  Everything is fine!” and then those women are touted as representative of all prostituted women. It’s quite disgusting, actually. Because those people know full well that most of the women in the industry aren’t happy and want out. They know full well that the silent women, the women who don’t get to speak their truth and to be public about their lives and experiences, are trapped in the industry – in massage parlours, trapped by poverty, addiction, abusive boyfriends/pimps, etc. To want to keep your job, I get, but I don’t get throwing all these women under the bus in the process.

5) Advocates of prostitution and porn call these Nordic reforms “anti-sex” and “moralistic” but it’s interesting to note that these laws are passed in countries (Sweden, Norway, Iceland) that are known to have the most open, relaxed  and non repressive attitude about sex. Your comments on that?

M: Yeah that’s a funny one. I mean, if we’re talking about free sexuality and a real liberated vision of sex and sexuality, you’d think you’d be advocating for consensual sex. But prostitution isn’t about female desire or “enthusiastic consent”, which is supposedly what we’re touting in feminism these days. I mean, sure, sometimes a woman “consents” to letting a man have sex with her or agrees to perform other sex acts, in exchange for money, but she isn’t “consenting” because, you know, she’s really into this guy and really wants to sleep with him. If she did, she wouldn’t have to be paid to do it. That whole argument – the one that says that feminists who are critical of the sex industry are anti-sex, shows a real anti-intellectualism and lack of critical thinking.

I mean, as you say, the countries that have criminalized johns, banned strip clubs, and are considering banning pornography are the countries that are the most progressive and the most sexually liberated. The US isn’t a sexually liberated country. It’s completely saturated and obsessed with pornography while simultaneously having this huge faction of right-wing, religious groups who think sex should only happen in traditional, heterosexual, marriages for the purposes of procreation (which is, of course, about controlling women’s bodies and maintaining a patriarchal family structure). I find the whole idea that women who advocate for porn and prostitution are “pro-sex,” whereas feminists who advocate against objectification and exploitation and are positioned as “anti-sex,” kind of hilarious and, in many ways, embarrassing. I just picture the next generation of feminists looking back at the third wave with shame. I mean, all these ridiculous women parading around in stilettos and pasties, on stage, pretending they are advancing women’s rights. What a joke. That whole burlesque/sex work is empowering/feminist porn aspect of the third wave is making a mockery of the movement.

6) The proposal to ban hardcore pornography online in Iceland was discussed on Feminist Current. Do you think it’s justified to attack the principle of free speech and promote censorship to advance the feminist agenda? Do you believe pornography qualifies as free speech?

M: The whole “censorship” argument in defense of pornography is illogical. I mean, as a society, we aren’t against censorship. We “censor” child pornography, for example, and are perfectly ok with that form of “censorship.” I don’t understand why suddenly, just because a woman turns 18, it’s ok to objectify or degrade her. The concept of “consent” and the way that the feminist movement has reinforced consent as a crucial part of sex (whereas, in the past, of course, it was acceptable to rape one’s wife – meaning that “consent” didn’t always matter so much to men when it came to sex) isn’t to be scoffed at, but at the same time, it’s really oversimplified the conversation around sex and sexuality in an unhelpful way.

I called it “the tyranny of consent” in a recent post that discussed the way that “consent” is often used to limit the parameters of conversations around sex and force us to accept anything anyone agrees to, regardless of the circumstances under which they agreed. It removes context from the conversation. I mean, it’s not as though, simply because a woman signs a contract or verbally agrees to perform certain sex acts, that’s unequivocally “ok” or necessarily ethical. And, again, what’s the difference between a 17 year old woman and an 18 year old woman? A 17 year old can’t give consent ethically and an 18 year old can? What about a woman who’s been raped and abused and exploited her whole life, since she was a child – suddenly when she turns 18 her, now her life of abuse is erased and she’s simply a consenting adult and therefore her prostitution is A-ok? It makes no sense. People use consent in order to comfort themselves and in order to turn these issues – pornography, prostitution, coercion, inequality, power dynamics, objectification, etc. — into something that’s black and white – as though it’s as simple as consent vs. non-consent. But it isn’t that simple.

Regarding the “free speech” and pornography issue — please. Pornography doesn’t expand the conversation, it limits it. When do we ever talk about corporations and multi-billion dollar industries as being champions of or representative of “free speech” except when it comes to pornography? What a joke. Pornography is about sexualizing the oppression of women. Is oppression “free speech?” Of course not. If we were talking about actually liberalizing nudity and sex and if we were seeing real, feminist depictions of bodies and female sexuality on screen, of course we could talk about freedom of expression. But we aren’t. We’re talking about porn. And porn is regressive when it comes to expanding our understanding of, and the conversation around, women’s bodies and sexuality. It teaches society that women are things that exist for male pleasure – to be looked at and to be fucked. Let’s see some fucking feminist erotica. Let’s see depictions of female sexuality and women’s bodies, on screen, that aren’t objectified and sexualized for the male gaze and then we can have a conversation about “free speech.” But please. Pornography is just about men’s right to hate and profit off of women. Free speech my ass. Men are fully capable of masturbating without objectifying or exploiting women. And if they claim not to be, well, that’s a terrible insult to them.

7) The topic of “grey rape” was discussed on Feminist Current. You told a personal anecdote where a guy who took you back home and with whom you’d had no intention of having sex, finally got you in bed by insisting relentlessly and just wearing you down.

And this guy and his friends were indignant that you deemed his behavior “rapey”–  to them, this was normal behavior for a man, certainly not unethical; you were the unethical one by calling it “rapey”.

What do you make of his reaction, and of yours, and more generally, why is it so hard for women to just say a straight no to such men and  stick to it?

M: Well actually most of his friends, our mutual friends, that is, agreed that his behaviour was at least sleazy and gross, if not “rapey.” He was indignant because he was concerned about his reputation and because he refused to see his behaviour as problematic or be accountable for it. A relative of his, who I dated years later, accused me of somehow vilifying the “rapey” dude (which I really hadn’t – I’d merely shared my experience with a few friends) probably, in part, because he’d never heard my side of the story and, I imagine, because he also didn’t want to acknowledge that someone he was related to, someone he was close with, could be anything but a “good” guy. Even more likely is that he’d engaged in similar behavior himself at one point or another and didn’t want to examine that more closely.

Many men want to see themselves as the “good guy” – they want rapists to be monsters. They don’t want to look at how they might be complicit in rape culture. They want it to be easy – again, black and white – but it isn’t that simple. That’s why we tell ourselves that it’s fine and natural for men to buy sex and watch porn and go to strip clubs. We draw lines that make no sense. On one hand, we say: “Rape culture is bad. Women are human and deserve respect.” And then on the other we say: “Except for the women that aren’t fully human. Except for the women who exist to be looked at and to be fucked because god knows if men aren’t provided with orgasms on demand, they might die. OR, as some reason, they might rape the “good women” – the women who aren’t “to be fucked” — who are privileged enough not to have been prostituted.” We still seem to want to compartmentalize everything.

In porn there’s no talk of consent. Women are just “up for it” all the time – and somehow we’re still pretending that doesn’t perpetuate rape culture and that “normal guys” aren’t complicit??

I mean, it’s the same thing that happens when women talk about domestic abuse – people say: “Oh but he’s so nice. I know him! He’s so good with my kids. He helped me out when I had car trouble,” or whatever. They want abusive men to be these horrid, creepy, evil, monsters lurking in bushes or in parking lots – but abusive men are just “regular guys”, if that makes sense…

I’ve been in abusive relationships. When I came out about one situation in particular, I couldn’t believe how many people – friends of the man – just refused to believe that he would do what I said he did. They made up any and every reason to convince themselves and others that I was lying. They just couldn’t get their heads around (or didn’t want to) the fact one of their buddies, someone who gave them rides home from parties, someone who watched their kids, could be abusive.

People need to realize that it isn’t fun to go public about rape or abuse. It’s awful. And mostly people blame you and don’t believe you. There’s no reason to lie. I mean, sure, I guess it’s happened the odd time, but please — telling the world that the man you said you loved, and who you lived with and slept with and cooked for and that you called your partner was abusive? It’s embarrassing. It makes you feel hypocritical and pathetic and weak. It shouldn’t, but it does. It’s not something that’s easy to do.

As for why it’s so hard to say no, well, women are taught to be polite and not to hurt others’ feelings. And, like, often we’re attracted to the guys who date rape us – I mean, we went out with them, right? Maybe we even made out with them – but that still doesn’t mean we want to have sex. Sometimes, after a certain point, you’ve said no so many times and it’s like, “Ok fine, whatever.” And clearly I’m not advocating for that but the point is – how many times should we have to say no?? What guy wants sex because he’s had to convince and coerce and pressure a girl into it? I mean, I ask that question with the implication that no man should want that — that ideally we want to have sex with people who are enthusiastic about having sex with us – but the truth is that this isn’t what men learn. They learn to pursue. And women learn to be pursued. We learn to be passive and men learn to be aggressive. So it’s almost no wonder these kinds of situations come up so regularly. Ideas about masculinity and femininity have really messed us up.

8) What do you think of so called “pro-sex feminists”?

M: The term “pro-sex” is misleading. It implies that there is some faction of feminists that are “anti-sex”, which really describes nothing and is wrongly applied to women who are critical of the sex industry.  The reason I’m critical of the sex industry isn’t because I’m “anti-sex”, it’s because I’m anti-objectification and anti-patriarchy. Whether or not I “like” or “don’t like” sex is irrelevant.

That said, I do “like” sex. With men (Ack! Am I blowing the pro-sexer’s minds?)! And I know that porn isn’t “good” for sex. It teaches us that sexuality is about domination and subordination and it teaches women that their performance is more important than their pleasure. You know, I don’t want to think about whether or not I look “sexy” while I’m having sex. I want to focus on pleasure and on my partner and on enjoying the actual moment. I can’t have an orgasm if I’m self-conscious or if I’m worrying about what my stomach looks like. Women learn that we are to-be-looked-at and that being “sexy” has nothing to do with our own sexual pleasure. I mean, women get breast implants in order to “look sexy” and, in doing so, often lose sensation in their nipples. So we intentionally numb an erogenous zone in order to look sexy for the male gaze. We’ve made female sexuality into a performance (for men).

So I think “pro-sex” creates an imaginary dichotomy and forces women to believe that, in order to be “pro-sex” or “sex-positive” they must also support the sex industry, which is actually a pretty smart trick the sex industry is playing on us. What’s sad is that some feminists are buying into it. I mean, as we discussed earlier, countries that are far more sexually liberated then the confused and repressed U.S., like Iceland and Sweden, are the same countries that are banning strip clubs, placing restrictions on access to pornography, and criminalizing the purchase of sex. Americans’ concept of “liberated” is completely ridiculous. They think the free market will magically erase exploitation when we know full well that the opposite happens. Prostitution and pornography are not the end all be all of a free society – unless you understand freedom to exist at the expense of half of the population.

9) What are your thoughts on Femen?

Femen. Oh Femen. Well, what to say… They are a little misguided… They seem to mainly be focused on getting media attention and on shock value, which I’m afraid I don’t have a ton of respect for. They have also made some pretty ignorant and offensive statements about feminism: “We’re the new face of feminism…Classical feminism is dead,” for example. So it’s difficult for me to take them seriously or feel any allegiance with them.

They’ve alienated so many women and feminists with their statements and actions — their “Topless Jihad”day being a particularly insulting example of this – as though Muslim women will somehow be “liberated” by baring their breasts… It perpetuates this idea that, somehow, women in the West are completely free and liberated because, I don’t know, we’re “allowed” to dress provocatively, whereas non-Western women are all completely oppressed due to their lack of booty shorts and breasts on display. It’s not accurate and it oversimplifies the issues. It also teaches us, in the West, to not look critically at the sexism and misogyny of our own culture, instead pointing to other cultures, saying “Oh those poor oppressed women, we should teach them the wisdom of our ways”. The West has long been completely self-absorbed and obsessed with the illusion of “individual choice” epitome of freedom. Femen plays into that and simultaneously presents a vision of female liberation that looks like a sexy, naked, thin, white, blonde woman. They are making feminism palatable for the male gaze. And of course, for that reason, the mainstream media loves them – which says a lot about the integrity of their message, in my opinion.

10) What do you think of this opinion seen on AlterNet (US radical progressive site): “Feminism is something individual to each feminist”? Do you consider (as some feminists do, Gail Dines for instance) that neoliberalism is presently the biggest threat to feminism?

M: Well, I’m not sure I’ve seen that perspective on AlterNet, per se (though perhaps it has been, just saying I can’t speak specifically to whether or not that perspective is promoted by the site — they seem to publish a wide variety of viewpoints), but I’ve definitely seen that “feminism is just whatever individual women decide it is” thing in all sorts of places. Certainly I agree with Dines’ analysis with regard to neoliberalism. I mean, neoliberalism is destructive to any movement because, at its root, it’s about individualism and movements are about collective liberation (or they should be in any case – that’s why they’re called “movements” and not “this is just what I feel like doing as an individual right this second so screw you guys”).

The idea that feminism is about individual choice has come about, in part, because of an American kind of neoliberal discourse that places individual “choice” and freedom outside a context of systemic inequality and oppression. It’s like the myth of the American dream – that if you just work hard enough, you can make it, and if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault for being lazy or weak or whatever. It removes any responsibility from the state and places it on the shoulders of the individual which is, of course, the basis for the entire American system.

Privatization says “it’s all on you – it’s not our responsibility to take care of you when you get sick or lose your job or can’t feed your kids – that’s your own failing as an individual.” So that kind of thinking has infiltrated the feminist movement and it has many people believing, as a result, that feminism is just about individual women feeling good or feeling “empowered.” This has led to the idea that, for example, burlesque is feminist because “it makes me feel good in this moment.” Of course, feeling good is great but it has nothing to do with liberating women from male violence and oppression. Whether or not you “like” to dance around on stage in pasties or whether or not you “feel good” in stilettos has nothing to do with feminism. I mean, sure, do it if you feel like it, but don’t call it feminism. It’s selfish and ignorant and shows a lack of critical thinking and awareness of the world around you and the global and historical context of women’s collective oppression.

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of Feminist Current, is a freelance writer and journalist. She completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog. Follow her @meghanemurphy

  • http://www.freesoil.org Aletha

    “People want very much to believe that things are ok.”

    This struck me as a profound observation with far reaching implications. Those with power in this society depend on most people believing most things are OK, or that things are the way they should be, or the way they have to be. I think most have some vague sense of unease that some things are not OK, but we are all taught to believe that the basic social structure is fundamentally sound and that its problems can be reformed. For instance, in USA Democrats say the problems could be fixed if enough Republicans are sent packing so that they could no longer obstruct the Democratic agenda. The apologists for the sex trade proclaim its problems could be fixed if its stigma were removed so it could be regarded like any other form of work. From my perspective, nothing is OK, nothing is the way it should be or has to be, but things are exactly as they have to be to maintain the power of the powers that be, so the entire power structure would crumble once enough people stopped believing things are OK.

    • marv

      Your and Meghan’s assertion of the naivety of trusting the System to correct its flaws is well received. Shallow optimism is a common creed. So is the tenet that a multiplicity of contradictory voices is a positive thing for social development. Both are doctrines of faith in the religion of liberal tolerance. Not all views have equal value. Glorifying diversity serves to reframe the substantial inequalities in all cultures (including Western Civilization) as merely differences to be celebrated. The “different but equal” standpoint is a mirage. You cannot erase social relations of oppression by merely stating that they don’t exist by some linguistic fiat unless you’re brainwashed. Fidelity to cults then, appears to be a mainstream phenomenon, not the prerogative of fringe groups.

  • http://questionsforwomen.org Paula Orbea

    What a magnificent interview.
    Every part resonated profoundly with me.
    You hit every nail on the head.
    I’ve written about many of the issues you touched on but you did it so succinctly.
    Great stuff!

  • lizor

    Thank you so so much for this wonderful interview. I came here hoping (in vain, I thought) for some dialogue over here after nearly blowing a lobe reading this article:

    http://rabble.ca/books/reviews/2013/07/public-hysteria-and-hypocrisy-to-pickton-murders-story-closing-vancouvers-pent#.Uf4G8Zkkr9M.facebook

    which proposes that the Pickton murders would never have happened if “glamourous” sex clubs like Vancouver’s Penthouse Club had not been [unfairly] undermined by law enforcement.

    I am too apoplectic to comment there right now, but am trying to gather my thoughts and energy to do so.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I read that article too… The conclusion that a strip club/brothel organized crime would have somehow prevented the Pickton murders is just too much…

      “the link to the Penthouse raid cannot be denied” — Really? You really think the Penthouse raid had ANYTHING to do with the Pickton murders? Like those women were inside the Penthouse to begin with. Please.

      • lizor

        Yes. If only there were still clubs where rich famous men could use teenage girls while drinking the best champaign, the sex industry would be positively utopian.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Just like the good old days. When feminism reigned.

  • sporenda

    “Every part resonated profoundly with me.
    You hit every nail on the head.”

    That’s Meghan’s trademark: she is always right on the money and tells it like it is.
    The only problem I had doing this interview is that I agree with her practically on everything, so it’s hard to ask challenging, probing questions to someone you agree with totally.
    One thing resonates specially with me: Meghan says in this interview and elsewhere on the site that feminism is losing ground.
    I had this same feeling for a while but I doubted my own feelings: I thought: maybe I am too pessimistic, maybe it’s just an impression, women are losing ground in some areas and progressing in other areas, so it’s not clear if we are in the red or not.

    Reading Meghan and listening to other feminists, locally and internationally, I hear the same opinion everywhere: we are losing ground.
    There are too many women saying this, it’s not just a subjective impression: not only there is an outpour of culturally approved misogyny but we are now at risk of losing major gains made by Second Wave feminists.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thank you, Sporenda! And thanks for your thoughtful questions and work.

    • Missfit

      As Meghan asked before: how come women do not come in droves to feminism? Considering all the misogyny that is thrown at us through language/discourse and porn/rape culture, you would think that women would eventually wake up and revolt and not remain passive or complicit of the tools used to put us down. But then I am reminded that feminists such as Dworkin, Daly, Jeffreys have been exposing the workings of patriarchy and women’s oppresion for 20-30 years already and so few things have changed, it even got worse on some aspects. There is still a failure for many to connect the dots between women’s sexual objectification, the level of violence thrown at them and their constant status as second-class citizens. Men’s approval still hold a stronger appeal than women’s collective liberation for too many women apparently. It is still important though that those who dream of a different world have feminist spaces to share their feelings and thoughts and know that there is indeed another world possible, that they are not alone. In the meantime, we can only spread the words and support feminist organizations and actions as much as possible, vote and buy accordingly. Only when a majority of women will do the same will we be able to change things on a broader scale. I hope this day will come eventually….

      • MLM

        “There is still a failure for many to connect the dots between women’s sexual objectification, the level of violence thrown at them and their constant status as second-class citizens. Men’s approval still hold a stronger appeal than women’s collective liberation for too many women apparently.”

        I think it just feels too threatening for some women to allow themselves to see or admit how deep and on how many different levels the cultural misogyny really runs. It makes them too uncomfortable to examine it and see the full scope of it, especially if they have or wish to have romantic relationships with men. As Meghan said

        “Maybe the reality is too hard for people to face…People want very much to believe that things are ok”.

        We also have to fight the internalisation of that misogyny which requires having a level awareness which can be hard to achieve in the face of dominant cultural messages.

        I think many young women might be more drawn towards radical feminist analysis if they could be persuaded to read and evaluate the ideas on their own merit, without preformed judgements or preconceptions informed by the popular caricatures and stereotypes that have so maligned radical feminists (especially Dworkins, Daly and Jeffries). How to do that…

        Brilliant interview. Well done, Meghan and Sporenda.

  • Henke

    Wow, This was really amazing! Thank you so much Meghan for putting this up here.
    I liked the whole thing but a special note on your beautiful response regarding the femen activists. Spot on in my opinion.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Oh thanks! Glad you enjoyed the interview.

  • sporenda

    “As Meghan asked before: how come women do not come in droves to feminism? ”

    For a number of women I talk to, there is this painful, nagging realization: feminism has been around for a century (of course it started to bring major changes only 40 years ago); and what did it achieve?

    Yes women have made inroads, but we lost some ground too, and you wonder if there is that much net gain : nowadays, lots of women raise kids alone in case of divorce, the burden of human reproduction is now almost totally on females (the discourse on “new fathers” is window dressing, where I live nearly 50% of child support is unpaid).
    Women have the right to work for less money than men and still do the bulk of the (unpaid) housework, prostitution and trafic have become huge globalized industries, same for pornography, sexual violence seems to be getting worse, misogyny is more virulent than ever etc.
    And as Meghan underlines, mainstream feminist groups have lost their edge and made peace with male supremacy.

    So it’s no wonder that many women think fighting against patriarchal oppression is useless, that the master class always wins in the end.
    And that there is a price to pay if you dare fight those high and mighty guys–quite a few feminists died young.
    So is it all worth it? Raising our hopes high for so little? With lots more to fight for and the masters of the universe getting stronger by the minute due to liberalism and the economic crisis ?

    Think of the high hopes stired up a century ago by communism and socialism, and how it all went horribly wrong.
    All this fighting by unions and political parties, ending by the complete defeat and disappearance of Western blue collars, kicked out by neo-capitalists and replaced by emergent countries cheap labor.

    As as result of these creative new strategies, the 1% have now more power than ever, we are back to the level of control and abuse of 19th century capitalism.
    Could something similar might be happening with patriarchy and feminism?

  • Brigette

    So correct me if I’m wrong, but not under any circumstances can things like stripping and a woman engaging in aggressive pornography (like sasha grey does), or escorting, ever be considered feminist ? I agree on many points but also feel that a lot of negativity surrounding objectification is mostly based on the assumption that it is impossible to own your own experience within objectification. I also agree that these things are harmful to women, girls and society at large, but I don’t think it’s the actual acts that occur, but the context they are viewed in. Why must it always be assumed that women don’t actually have the desire to be objectified or coercively dominated sexually? Is it possible that some women desire that, and if so why do we have to assume it’s because they are mentally unhealthy and systematically disempowered and just not aware of it? Is it inherently wrong to associate sex with power struggles in a positive way when humanity always has in a negative way? I will say once again that I understand these things harm society at large but I blame the fact that these fantasies are often depicted as desirable when in fact real sex is about mutual pleasure, not that one sided fantasy, and this just isn’t made clear with a quick content warning check like, “the images you are about to see most likely do not accurately depict realistic sexual interactions.” Some people would gain pleasure of a non physical kind from being dominated and not satisfied, and in many ways I do think that is messed up and as a woman I feel insulted that so much of the world is interested in orgasming over a woman’s lack of pleasure. However I feel the biggest problem is that no one loudly draws the lines for young people and explains to them that how pornography is, does not depict real sex or how women like it. So mainly I feel that accurately representing mutually pleasurable sex alongside other kinds of porn and pointing out the objectives of different pornigraphies from the perspectives of both male and female actors within them will allow people to confront in themselves what they find is desirable. It would also help people to understand what is mutually pleasurable verses what is only psychologically pleasing, so young people don’t have to wonder why sex sucks if they are modelling it after their favorite porn and their girlfriend isn’t moaning like the actress does. The young woman won’t wonder what is wrong with her, she can simply identify with porn that is mutually pleasurable. I don’t see why people have to get rid of a fantasy sex society. I think we need fairer representation, more openly revealed intentions within it, and I think we should allow people the exploration of their desires even if they seem unhealthy. I think if we do this we can reach a stage where it might actually be possible to dissect and understand what is healthy … Is this something that society can define? Ultimately I think more communications about the motivations within the sex industry would help. Rather than the banning of such industries, we should focus on pleasure for women, drawing lines between fantasy and reality, and question our tendency to automatically attach negative attitudes towards the objectification of women. Does it ALWAYS have to be viewed as petty, powerless, foolish, and slave like? Is there any way a woman can represent her body openly and nakedly and publicly, that speaks of her power, beauty, ownership, prowess, bravery and as having self respect? Bc I can’t help but feel that if there is no way for women to do this, our bodies and ourselves in this sense have just been made powerless and determined by people who view them.

    • Meghan Murphy

      “So correct me if I’m wrong, but not under any circumstances can things like stripping and a woman engaging in aggressive pornography (like sasha grey does), or escorting, ever be considered feminist?”

      I don’t believe that’s the point I made, no. But to answer your question in a way that makes more sense, under current circumstances (i.e. patriarchy), stripping, prostitution, and pornography are about male pleasure not female pleasure. And no, the sex industry has absolutely nothing to do with the movement to end patriarchy and violence against women.

      • Brigette

        id be interested to hear on what you have to say about this point i made towards the end, “Does (objectification of women) ALWAYS have to be viewed as petty, powerless, foolish, and slave like? Is there any way a woman can represent her body openly and nakedly and publicly, that speaks of her power, beauty, ownership, prowess, bravery and as having self respect? Bc I can’t help but feel that if there is no way for women to do this, our bodies and ourselves in this sense have just been made powerless and determined by people who view them.”

        but i agree. which is why i think that more focus on female pleasure and dividing fantasy from reality… and as well hearing about why actors and actresses do what they do… will allow to clear misconceptions and help to define attitudes on the basis of empowered people who have a voice in what they are doing… rather then just being abused behind the scenes or not having to be honest about why they are doing it. a lot of people in porn likely do not really admire their own reasons for why they are there, strictly money, or to abuse women… they could put it into however context they like, but at least having to own the experience would improve perceptions of it… people who are not in pornography would feel more empowered to either define their sexual experiences as within porn, or outside of it…

        a new kind of porn focused on REAL pleasure is direly needed..

        • Meghan Murphy

          “id be interested to hear on what you have to say about this point i made towards the end, “Does (objectification of women) ALWAYS have to be viewed as petty, powerless, foolish, and slave like?”

          Has anyone made that point? Ever? Why would I respond to imaginary points that no one has argued?

    • lizor

      It’s interesting that you use Sasha Grey as a possible object-lesson (pun not intended) for “feminist” participation/formation in porn. You must be familiar with Grey’s assertions that her porn performances were fueled by her intense individual sex drive and her creative passion. (“I’m an artist” she said – I think it was the Tyra Banks interview). Doing porn is more a zealously-driven vocation than a job, in her publicly stated descriptions. Then at 21 after landing a non-porn movie role (which could never have accommodated her drive for sexual self-expression as she defined it), she quits porn.

      Speaking as an artist, if someone is driven to create and express self in a certain way – and I have known many such passionately possessed people in my career, it is very unusual that said driven person would drop the trajectory at age 21. That is when passionate creative voice is still in formation. So I call BS on that example.

      Later you state: “I don’t see why people have to get rid of a fantasy sex society.”

      No one anywhere on this blog, Brigitte, has made a case for getting rid of “fantasy sex society” I’m not sure exactly what that particular society is in the real world, but I’ll read it as the straw argument that critiques of porn somehow infringe on people’s fantasy life.

      Can you see how absurd a leap that is?

      What I would like to know from you is why would you or anyone else insist that your sexual fantasies, particularly violent degrading ones be performed by real people for a camera? Why would you lobby for that in the face of ANY EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER* of exploitation, damage or even POTENTIAL damage done, particularly to young people?

      Why can you and others not just have your fantasies AS FANTASIES? The assertion that porn is “just fantasy”, if sincere, is a heart-breaking testament to the deterioration of the creative imagination. It’s essentially saying “I can’t imagine it unless someone has produced it as a consumable product” and if this is truly the case, then we have a new psycho-cultural pathology on our hands that really deserves some serious attention.

      On a couple of other points:

      “So mainly I feel that accurately representing mutually pleasurable sex alongside other kinds of porn and pointing out the objectives of different pornigraphies from the perspectives of both male and female actors within them will allow people to confront in themselves what they find is desirable.”

      This was a project that commenced in the 1980s and was quickly appropriated by the malestream industry. It did not take hold. At all.

      “Ultimately I think more communications about the motivations within the sex industry would help”

      This has also been thoroughly unpacked already. Start by searching Gail Dines and go from there.

      I can see you are giving this some critical thought and I think you may be surprised and happy, I hope, to find that there is plenty of current literature and feminist/activist history to feed your thinking on these questions.

      * FTR – I use capitals because this interface does not allow me to underline or use italics. I’m not yelling, I am emphasizing

      • Brigette

        I dont think we can critique her for making a career change. We can wonder why, but many people, whether professional or novices, abandon artistic or creative pursuits after a short time for a variety of reasons, porn is nothing different in that sense.

        I dont see what is wrong with other people depicting either their own or other peoples fantasies, IF they are truly consenting and doing what they agreed to do. I do agree that this can be misleading for young people, but I attribute it to an unhealthy attitude towards sex that we have as a society. Perspectives on all kinds of lovemaking are not made available to young people. Predominantly all they have to relate to are real life experiences (many unhealthy but thats another issue), fake romantic scripts within popular media (which fosters all sorts of unhealthy attitudes about male/female relationships as well) and porn. Most of the porn young people see focuses on male pleasure, which i see as a huge and major problem. I do believe if that changed, things would get better.

        Im 25, and while I dont assert that more women or as many women my age watch porn, I’m willing to be that a far higher audience of women watch porn then they did in the 1980s, simply because more women of all classes have access to the internet and more leisure time on computers then was common in the past. Women are significantly less likely to pay money for any kind of sexual stimulation that isnt in the form of a vibrator, maybe, but even that is being challenged with the creation of prostitutes that serve women increasingly these days. (I dont have any specific examples to point out but a quick google search will confirm this is slowly emerging as it is something i have questioned in the past).

        essentially, my argument is that women actually desire seeing their fantasies depicted, and some would like to act them out for the pleasure of others, and some would enjoy to act out other peoples fantasies. can you really not imagine that?

        with a more open attituede that is welcoming of both sexes in the realm of fantasy and acting it out, i do think pornography would not become such a misleading and harmful thing, as young men and women will see that sex is about preferences, and their real desires and curiosities, as opposed to predetermined abusive roles. guaranteed, aggressive sex has its own category of fantasy for BOTH men and women, rape is actually one of the number one fantasies that women have.

        and so to be clear i do think that critiquing pornography without critiquing the WAY it is viewed and presented, is an unfair attack on fantasies and peoples chance to express them. I do believe that if there is a desire, then how can it be inherently wrong to relate to these desires and for humanity to express them if they want to be recieved, so long as everyone has a voice in what they want to see and participate in?

        • Brigette

          I would like to add that in pornography roles can be reversed, obviously. Some men like to be dominated by women, some women like to do it. I honestly abhor anything that seems even slightly fake, and thats where the trouble lies. How can a young woman who doesnt know what is real, determine that something that is fake, isnt real? This is why I emphasize a genuine DESIRE to preform what one is preforming. The entire meaning of the porn industry needs to shit from only catering to the desires of viewers, to include the active or passive, point is, REAL desires of it’s actors and actresses.

          In addition to this, i feel as a society we need to explore alternative sexuality that is spiritual. we need to connect to divine masculine and feminine energies that are centered in energy and tantra. with more understanding and appreciation of this kind of loving, patient, inclusive sexuality, i think the harsher more animalistic aspects of porn will be perceived as less threatening and as having less control over our lives, if it is tampered with fair, realistic representation, and if amateur and spiritual sexuality is made available to people.

          in short, i feel like people need to EXPAND on what is sexually expressed within society, to create a more balanced experience for both genders and different kinds of interactions. currently the gonzo industry is taking over because that is what is SELLING. a person can find far more realistic and less offensive kinds of pornography online if one looks for it. they have sites specifically for womens viewing pleasure. The current gonzo takeover is reflective of our capitalist society, which has in its interests to make money and in order to do so, has interests in dividing people by means of gender, race, and classs, often reflected in both hollywood and pornography. so i feel the issue is MUCH bigger than the sex industry, the sex industry is representing the wrong things at current, because it EXISTS for the WRONG REASONS, to make money – not to bring either gender pleasure, power, or enlightment. THAT is what needs to change, and if we can do that, i think we might find that pornography and sexual entertainment can be a wonderful medium of human expression.

        • Meghan Murphy
          • Brigette

            I agree that what this woman went through is a problem, and not something that should be a part of the porn industry. Unfortunately it is the norm. This is why proper regulation, and RESPECTING the consent of actors and actresses is imperative to creating sex positive pornography. That obviously is not what happened here. And by the way, I did not say that porn is merely a fantasy, just that it is an expression of it. Clearly it is real.

          • Brigette

            And by the way, you really didnt answer to any of the points i made, you just blatantly redirected the conversation to an over simplified point i didnt even make.

  • Brigette

    “Things like “sex-positive feminism” are coping mechanisms — so, you can pretend you’re empowered as an individual, that women in prostitution just love fucking strangers all day, that you’re objectifying yourself, rather than being objectified. If we can trick ourselves into believing the sex industry empowers us then maybe it will become true! We’re desperately trying to make “good” that which is not “good”. We’re grasping for power anywhere we can.

    I think that’s much of what this burlesque-is-empowering-for-women thing is about, for example. You know, it can feel good to get that kind of positive attention. I get that. I’ve been there. Everyone likes to feel desired. But the folks who are doing burlesque and calling it “feminist” or “empowering” aren’t honest about that. They aren’t honest about what’s motivating them to strip onstage for an audience. They want to pretend that it’s some kind of nouveau-feminism when of course, it’s just the same old thing. Getting strangers to watch women strip isn’t anything new… Women get positive reinforcement for shaking their tits on stage and men are stoked that this is (supposedly) feminism! It’s empowering, they’ve been told. So it’s cool, right? I mean, no wonder people are into it. It’s no mystery.

    Maybe we’ve become so hopeless about the feminist movement, because there’s still so far to go, that many women have just given up and are, like, ok, let’s just make the best of this. So we end up with “feminist porn”, burlesque, prostitution as “empowerment”. It’s about giving up on something more, something better — real power that isn’t temporary and that isn’t based on our ability to get men to pay in order to objectify us or to get positive reinforcement because we’re shaking our tits around on stage. It’s really sad, actually.”

    no need to get snarky, but it does appear that within those words that is the meaning you are implying quite literally

  • Brigette

    reply? IF you’re point with those words is not implying that participating in objectification of women if you are a women… is not possible to do so currently without giving up your power, rather then reclaiming it… what are you saying?

    I understand that you mean that the current patriarchy makes this difficult to do. But it also sounds like you are implying that it is impossible. So if that’s what you mean, then essentially you’re saying that there is no way for women to be objectified and empowered in owning their own experience at present… which to me, if I’m understanding you correctly, would take a significant amount of power away that women have won for themselves when it comes to being able to define their own experiences. It’s truly a beyond sad state of things if women are assumed by so many others yourself included to not have the freedom and respect… RESPECT. To define their own experiences, despite the fact there is a looming patriarchy controlling the way things are presented in many cases. I do believe there can be feminist porn, and that a woman can strip because of the love she has for her own body and its expressions, and for her pride and freedom. Are you implying in your opinion that they cannot?

    • Meghan Murphy

      “then essentially you’re saying that there is no way for women to be objectified and empowered in owning their own experience at present…” Objectifying women does nothing to empower women as a social class, no. She can feel personally good about herself, sure, but that is an entirely separate thing.