When I was being raped by my father in the ’70s, I searched for a reason not to commit suicide. I found one in second wave feminism. The heroes of the second wave provided a vision of myself as powerful and as capable of changing my life. When everyone around me claimed that rape was just a part of being a woman (like unwanted pregnancy) and that being spat on and bullied by one’s husband could not be avoided (because “that’s just how men are”), I watched these astounding feminists prove them all wrong.
Second wave feminists fought to make marital rape a crime and won. They fought for tougher domestic violence laws and for state funding for shelters where women could go to escape violent partners. They fought for the passing of rape shield laws, which protect rape victims from the cruelest form of slut-shaming: being cross-examined on the witness stand about their sexual histories. They fought to define and enforce sexual harassment laws, which gave women the tools to fight harassment at work and in school. Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program; Title X, a federal grant program dedicated to providing low income women with family planning services; and Roe v Wade all came to pass under their watch.
Second wave feminists showed me that women didn’t have to be passive, that we could stand up, fight back, and demand justice. These heroes paved the way for the Violence Against Women Act in the early ’90s, which gave law enforcement 1.6 billion dollars to investigate and prosecute sexual and domestic violence. The passage of VAWA led to a 70 per cent decrease in non-fatal intimate partner violence, and a 60 per cent decrease in domestic violence homicides.
The activists of feminism’s second wave transformed our culture into a bigger, safer, and freer space for women than I had ever dreamed possible.
As one of millions of survivors who were saved by this movement, I am stunned and heartbroken when young women who have reaped so many benefits from the second wave dismiss key components of their elders’ hard work as “carceral” and/or “sex-negative.”
“Sex-negative” feminism is a slur applied to anti-sex industry feminists by both MRAs and feminists who are proponents of “sex work.” Anti-sex industry feminists are accused of being “sex-negative” because we believe sex should always be mutually pleasurable and non-exploitative. We oppose the sex industry not only because it destroys the lives of vulnerable women (and children), but because it promotes the idea that women and girls are objects of consumption to be purchased by men.
“Carceral feminism” is used to define any feminist who believes the criminal justice system should protect and serve women who are victims of rape and other forms of male violence (although many of us, myself included, are opposed to incarceration for non-violent offenders). Those who present themselves as anti-“carceral feminism” believe, one supposes, that victims of gender violence should avoid the criminal justice system, and that rapists and batterers should not be criminally prosecuted.
These individuals stand in opposition to “carceral feminists” such as U.S. Representative Gwen Moore, who bravely stood before her colleagues in Congress and told her devastating story of living through child molestation, rape, and battering. She revealed these horrors, publicly, in order to support the passage of the “carceral” Violence Against Women Act. The bill was opposed not only by anti-carceral feminists, but by conservative groups such as the Family Research Council, the Eagle Forum, the US Council of Bishops, and Concerned Women For America — all of whom claimed that VAWA was a feminist attack on family values.
Despite apparent political commonalities, those opposed to so-called “carceral feminism,” because of their pro-sex work stance, actually have more in common with libertarians than they do with traditional conservative Republicans. Libertarians, like “sex-positive” feminists, view prostitution as the voluntary sale of goods, with women being the “goods” in question. Since you cannot sell or rent anything you do not own, when a woman rents out her bodily orifices, she is “claiming ownership” of her body. Renting out one’s anus for penetration is what passes for female empowerment in both the libertarian and pro-“sex work” communities. This may be why “anti-carceral”/pro-“sex work” feminists seek not only to protect rapists and batterers from prosecution, but to protect pimps and johns as well.
A few months ago I watched an anti-carceral/pro-sex work feminist on MSNBC defend the inherent harmlessness of prostitution. This woman has a doctorate in Hollywood romcoms (I’m not kidding) but seems to have mistook Pretty Woman for a documentary. She opposed the Nordic model, which decriminalizes prostituted women but criminalizes their exploitation by pimps and johns. Feminists like her oppose the Nordic model even though it has led to a 50 per cent decrease of sex trafficking in Sweden. And in Norway, where the Nordic Model was also adopted, rape and physical violence against prostituted women has been cut by half, and emergency room visits by the prostituted has been cut by 70 per cent. (This is based on research done by ProSentret, a Norwegian pro-legalization group). And as always happens with the Nordic model, sex trafficking in Norway has rapidly declined. By contrast, the decriminalization of pimps and johns, has led to an explosion of sex trafficking in countries like Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands, with no corresponding reduction of violence against prostituted women. Tragically, pro-sex industry/anti-carceral feminists refuse to allow concern for trafficking victims to get in the way of their enthusiasm for “sex work.” Depressing statistics and the shared experiences of trafficking victims are spoiling the fun for those who benefit from the industry.
Just as the fossil fuel industry attacks those who speak out on climate change, the multi-billion dollar sex industry attacks those who speak out against sex trafficking. Author and activist, Rachel Moran, recently made public her horrific experiences as a prostitution survivor, only to be “defamed, slandered, threatened, physically confronted and screamed at” by the pro-legalization lobby. As Moran stated, “I’ve had my home address, bank details and personal email circulated amongst some of the most seemingly unhinged people, who have tweeted me portions of my home address in a clear we-know-where-to-find-you style threat.” The silencing tactics used by pro-sex industry activists are strikingly similar to those used by MRAs (who also support decriminalizing pimps and johns).
As heartsick as I am over the blindness and naivete of those who attack anti-exploitation feminists as “carceral,” I am given great hope by the newest wave of feminist activists rushing up behind them. The young feminist leaders who give me faith in the future are Malala Yousafzai, June Eric Udorie, Yas Necati, Rose Lyddon, Kat Banyard, Meghan Murphy, and the stunningly brave women who take a stand against gender violence throughout Asia and Africa.
But the young feminist who gives me the most hope is my daughter.
She is “sex positive” in that she is anti-sex industry, and is not the least bit afraid to speak up when she sees the Emperor has no clothes.
My daughter knows that prostitution is beneath her dignity as a human being and beneath the dignity of all human beings.
My daughter knows it’s a lie to claim “sex work is the same as any other kind of work”, and she knows the people who make that claim are fully aware that they’re lying.
My daughter knows that her nipples will never be “free” so long as they are distorted by the pornographic gaze.
My daughter knows that men’s violence against women is just as serious as police violence against the community, and that the justice system must prosecute both.
My daughter does not define herself in opposition to second wave feminism, but in support of preserving and fulfilling its goals.
As a survivor of traumatic abuse, I am deeply grateful to the so-called “carceral,” “sex-negative” feminists who showed me how powerful a woman could be, and helped me create a life for myself within which I’d never have to doubt my humanity again. But most of all, I’m grateful that my daughter has never even had to question her own.
Thank you so very, very much.
Penny White is a radical feminist freelance writer living in San Francisco. She has a master’s degree in psychology with an emphasis on childhood sexual trauma, and has worked for over 10 years as a case manager/peer counselor for mentally ill people living in poverty. Penny is currently a volunteer at The Gubbio Project in San Francisco, which serves people of all ages and abilities who have no homes. Follow her @