‘Big Tent’ feminism? Sounds great. Feels a lot like the status quo.

What is it that one means when arguing for ‘Big Tent’ feminism? Inclusivity, for sure, ‘non-judgment’, perhaps, and diversity, well….maybe. While the argument for ‘Big Tent’ feminism, frequently written about by Hugo Schwyzer, who also writes for The Good Men Project, is posited as being simply about allowing space for various perspectives and positions in feminism, the discourse, at times, seems to do the opposite.

Including prostituted women or women who work in the sex industry in feminism is excellent. These voices are just as much a part of feminism as anyone’s. That isn’t up for discussion. The issue that many feminists have had with Schwyzer’s ‘Big Tent’ feminism, placed as a counter-argument to those who question the positioning of the sex industry as an ally to feminist activism, is not that we wish to exclude women from the movement. Rather it is the positioning of the sex industry as a space for female empowerment. The sex industry is not, and has never been a feminist space. It is, in large part, a space that is owned by, and operated for men. It is a space that treats women as commodities.

As one commenter, with the screen name ‘SheilaG’,  pointed out on Schwyzer’s recent post, “Big Tent Feminism, Sex Workers, and SlutWalk LA”:

“It’s not big tent feminism at all, it’s the backing of women as commodities in global capitalism, and white exploitation of women of  color… the usual clueless strategies that don’t end rape…,don’t stop men from raping and degrading, [and doesn’t] change anything really.”

And I would tend to agree. This version of ‘Big Tent’ feminism, rather then making space for various women, feminisms, and, most importantly, actually making progressive change, works to limit the conversation and further erases and marginalizes the already marginalized.

Painting sex work as an autonomous choice and arguing that those who challenge this perspective are being exclusive is frequently used as a tactic by those who use terms like ‘sex-positive’ or ‘non-judgmental’ in their responses to those feminists who are critical of pornography and prostitution. ‘Sex-positivity’, a term that has become increasingly popular within some 3rd wave or postfeminist discourse, is problematic in a number of ways, not least of which being the innate implication that, seeing as there is such a thing as being ‘sex-positive’ there must be such a thing as ‘sex-negative’ which, of course, is bullshit. This terminology not only creates an unnecessary and non-existent divide among women and feminists, but it seems to have come from ye old backlash recycling program; reproducing convenient stereotypes about the man-hating, sex-hating feminist, whose arguments, of course, are easily dismissed as looney as she is so clouded by her anger and lack of getting laid.

These conversations, led by a supposed sex positive or non-judgmental point of departure often, in their efforts to frame everything as a-ok, don’t include the context of patriarchy and misogyny; they often don’t include the fact that most women who are prostituted or trafficked do not have the ‘choice’. They don’t include the way in which porn plays a huge role in sexualizing women of colour and perpetuating the idea that female bodies are consumable and exist for male pleasure. They don’t include the fact that one group’s activism might well be very harmful or oppressive to another group.

How big is your ‘tent’ when it means more women are trafficked? When it means that more men think that purchasing a woman is actually empowering her, because, you know, he’s paying her for the use of her body? Or when it means that some women are silenced by those very loud and popular voices who argue for the status quo? And yes, these voices are the loudest, and the most popular because they tell us what we want to hear. They reinforce the fantasy. They allow us to continue to be complicit in the exploitation and degradation of women. They allow us to ignore the fact that money is coercive. The playing field is not leveled because women are paid to be objectified, though it does tell us that which we already know: women need to survive in this world too.

Every woman has a right to say no. I happen to believe that pornography and prostitution make it harder for her to do so.

So this ‘Big Tent? I don’t think it’s so big. I think it’s pretty roomy in there so long as you are not radical, so long as you don’t name the root of the problem, and so long as you don’t mention the way in which this ‘Big Tent’ can be, at times, complicit in further marginalizing women. Responding, ‘Big Tent’ feminism, to those who do challenge the porn industry or prostitution ends the conversation, rather than encouraging it. And while it alludes to a kind of ‘anything goes over here’ feminism, the fact is that, within feminism, anything doesn’t go. Sexism doesn’t go, neither does misogyny, neither does rape or abuse. And I don’t feel welcome or interested in a ‘Big Tent’ that says my body, or any other woman’s body for that matter, is for sale.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.