Ernesto Aguilar interviews Meghan Murphy about online feminism, the women’s movement today, and the backlash

Ernesto Aguilar is an editor at People of Color Organize! and a programming director, radio host and producer at Pacifica Radio. He interviewed me as part of Pacifica’s programming for Women’s History Month and in anticipation of International Women’s Day on March 8th.

We spoke about some key issues and debates in online feminism, the general state of the women’s movement today, and the war on feminism.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan 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.

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  • MLM

    “I think it would be great if feminists would standup for each other and stand up for having real, critical conversations. We can do that in a respectful way”.

    Absolutely! I live in such hope for this.

    And I’m so grateful that you have the courage and determination not to let the horrible silencing tactics work on you in your pursuit of having a critical conversations about various feminist issues.

    May you NEVER stop writing, NEVER stop speaking up, and NEVER be silenced. May the bullies NEVER win and only strengthen your muscles to oppose them whenever they “pile on” you. Because what you have to say is far more important than them and their narcissistic bullshit. Don’t doubt it for one nanosecond.

    A really great interview!

  • Absolutely love what you do, Meghan.

  • kmiriam

    Awesome Meghan! you rocked this interview. You’re so lucid. thanks to both Ernesto and Meghan.

  • CC

    Transphobia is as real as homophobia. It doesn’t mean that people aren’t ridiculous to dismiss people like Andrea Dworkin’s work but comparing transphobia to kinkphobia is ridiculous.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Hi CC,
      I think perhaps, you misunderstood my comment with relation to the ‘phobia’ language. Or perhaps I wasn’t clear. I didn’t intend to say that trans people don’t experience real hate and/or discrimination, violence, etc. They do. My point was that this language was being used with the specific intention of shutting down conversation and in a disingenuous way. People are labelled ‘phobic’ in various ways simply for having critical conversations that others don’t agree with. Rather than engaging with the arguments, they lazily (and maliciously) label people as ‘phobic’. It’s very a very unhealthy part of online feminist discourse and it actually serves the purpose of weakening the meaning of the terms because they are used in such a nonsensical way.

      • CC

        Ah ok, yes I agree with you. Especially being sex negative and anti porn, I definitely understand how people (usually cis and usually men) paint you as “radscum” and then you can say goodbye to your credibility. The reason that I was jumping to that conclusion is that it’s very hard to find radical feminists who aren’t really transphobic. So often I will read someone’s excellent piece on porn culture or the inability to do something as simple as blame MEN for sexism/misogyny/patriarchy, and then they go around talking about tr*nnies and calling trans women men and trans men women, stuff like that.

  • stephen m

    Excellent interview! You covered a tremendous amount of material in a clear and succinct manor.

    You are very courageous to cover this subject after the particularly nasty backlash that has been inflicted on other high profile feminist writers who have broached the topic of internet silencing.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thank you Stephen! I’m glad you liked the interview.

  • sporenda

    Thanks for this great interview, I can relate to what you say about being constantly harrassed, attacked and misrepresented on the net when you are a feminist.
    Don’t let it affect you, stay feisty and keep writing, your contribution to feminism is greatly appreciated..

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks, sporenda!

  • Natasha

    Excellent interview. The privilege portion caught my attention. Did you mean that calling people out on their privilege is used as a weapon and convo-blocker? If so, which conversation is being blocked? The conversation that privileged people are trying to have, or the conversation that non-privileged people try to have?

    I think that privilege IS a weapon — it’s a silent & invisible weapon that privileged people have, and as soon as non-privileged people name it, challenge it, or ask for it to be shared or given up, privileged people tend to feel threatened, persecuted, and dig their heels in, clinging even harder to their privilege, or their denial of it. These are the dynamics that sustain the oppressive structures you’ve talked about, i.e. sexism, racism, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, etc. Changing ‘systems’ starts with changing how we relate to those around us. As I’ve heard Indigenous people say, it’s all about Our Relations.

    It all sounds good on paper when privileged people talk about privilege, but actually giving it up and power-sharing, instead of being oppressively power-over, would be pretty revolutionary, don’t you think?

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. What I mean is that using ‘privilege’ as an excuse to tell women to be quiet or that their opinions are moot is often used as a conversation-ender. Of course people have varying forms of privilege in this world, and it’s important to acknowledge that and then address it at a structural level, but I find that, in online feminism, sometimes people hurl ‘privilege’ around in a way that strikes me as bullying and silencing… People make a lot of assumptions about others’ backgrounds and categorize people in ways that don’t make much sense, from my perspective…Interested to hear your thoughts.

      • Natasha

        We don’t always need to know people’s backgrounds to know if they have privilege — their worldview comes across in their words, and from there, it’s easy to see where privilege is and isn’t. I don’t know if privilege is even the right word to use because its kind of become a watered down buzz word…

        “in online feminism, sometimes people hurl ‘privilege’ around in a way that strikes me as bullying and silencing” —> This is exactly what I was thinking of when I said:

        as soon as non-privileged people name [others’ privilege], challenge it, or ask for it to be shared or given up, privileged people tend to feel threatened, persecuted [‘bullied’, silenced], and dig their heels in, clinging even harder to their privilege, or their denial of it.

        Sometimes those of us with privilege DO need to be quiet, and our opinions ARE moot, if/when these opinions uphold oppressive dynamics. Of course we all have something to offer, but those of us with privilege also have ways we oppress, and it is the oppression I am talking about.

  • Could be straight from an MRA playbook, telling people when they are abusive is not bullying, calling out bigotry is not bullying, standing up for the rights of the oppressed is not bullying. Just like misogynists you are insisting that you have more of a right to speak than those you hurt.

    White cis women who speak over the voices of others are many, Lordes would be spinning in her grave at this claim to be a victim from an oppressor.

    The other commenters need to ask themselves why they find the idea of privilege so offensive, i know plenty of intersectional feminists who thank others when they spot that they are unconsciously speaking from a position of privilege. I do this myself. If you are unwilling to listen and learn from the lived experience of other women, you are not merely not a feminist, but you are an instrument of patriarchy.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Oh good. I’m a misogynist. Nicely played, Jemima101.

      The point (did you listen to the interview?) is that having critical conversations does not equate to abuse or bigotry. I’m afraid I don’t understand your point about when women speak over ‘the voices of the many’. Are women not, indeed, the ones who should be speaking about feminism? Who should be speaking instead of women?

      • Natasha

        “having critical conversations does not equate to abuse or bigotry.”

        It does when these “critical conversations” are oppressive, abusive, dismissive of, or harmful to others. It’s privilege that blinds one from understanding this, and when called out, enrages the privileged because they don’t want to give up their power-overing.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Some ground rules for trolls:

          1) Listen to the interview before commenting on it
          2) Please specify what it is you are talking about – what ‘critical conversations’ are oppressive and abusive?

          If you continue to be vague and are just here to stir up shit with no clear reason as to why you are doing so, you won’t be allowed to participate in the conversation. OK?

          Thanks

          • Natasha

            I hope you weren’t directing the trolling accusation at me because I listened to your entire interview, which I thought was great, and I’d said that the privilege part was what caught my attention, and I’ve been speaking to that.

            I’m being as specific as you and others are. Did you have a specific convo in mind when you said “having critical conversations does not equate to abuse or bigotry?” If so, then I am not aware of it.

            Do you think I’m stirring shit up? If so, how so? The only thing I can see as stirring (in general) is how privileged people feel about giving up some of their power. Isn’t this the crux of the issue around oppression? You talk about oppressive systems and structures, which are all about oppressors hoarding power and inflicting their ways/values/worldviews on The Oppressed, would you agree?

            Privilege is of great interest to me, and based on you mentioning it in your interview, I thought you were interested in talking about it too.

            Respectfully and Non-Trollingly,
            Natasha

          • Meghan Murphy

            Hi Natasha,
            Apologies for mistakenly grouping you in with jemima101. What I’m referencing, in part, is the eagerness with which some label feminists who are critical of the sex industry as, for example, ‘whorephobic’.

            jemima101’s behaviour is actually a great example of what I’m talking about, you can see the kinds of lies she works very hard to spread around online simply because she disagrees. Rather than respond to the arguments, she acts as though she’s been marginalized, tells people I’m transphobic, etc: https://twitter.com/itsjustahobby/status/309024567597338624

            There are many other examples of this kind of behaviour, but I suppose that the problem with this: “It does when these “critical conversations” are oppressive, abusive, dismissive of, or harmful to others.” — is that people like jemima101 frame critical conversations AS oppressive or harmful, in and of themselves.

            I don’t deny that privilege exists. Not at all. White privilege is a real thing. So is class privilege and male privilege. But when we start using ‘privilege’ in ways that simply end conversation, it becomes a problem. For example, when people argue that all feminists in academia are ‘privileged’ and therefore can’t speak to certain issues or that their analysis is dismissible. Having an education can be a result of class privilege, for sure. But isn’t always. Many of us just go into severe, crippling debt, which doesn’t sound like much of a ‘privilege’ to me.

            These are just a couple examples, there are many others more closely tied with identity politics. Interested to hear your thoughts.

          • Natasha

            Hello again, and apology accepted.

            I think the charge of ‘whorephobia’ is a great example of privilege in that happy/empowered hookers dismiss/minimize the voices of those harmed by prostitution when this should be everyone’s main concern around the sex industry (equally so around those doing the harming). To not privilege the needs of the most vulnerable, marginalized & harmed is unjust, isn’t it?

            I don’t know jemima101’s politics, but when you say “people like jemima101 frame critical conversations AS oppressive or harmful, in and of themselves”, I think it depends on the convo. I don’t know what your position is on this issue, but what comes to mind is how some feminists refuse to accept trans* identities and call this being “trans-critical” when the very act of denying someone’s identity/existence – on their terms – is oppressive and harmful, don’t you think? This isn’t to say that some trans* people’s behaviors aren’t problematic, but they’re no more or less problematic than a lot of other ‘bad apples’ from other populations. Also, the idea of “critical conversation” means different things to different people. And, there are ways of being ‘critical’ while being anti-oppressive, and ways not to.

            Re. academic privilege. I’ve got some of that, though don’t really know what it means. I think context is important here. A medical doctor may have valuable analysis based on her education, but sadly and scarily, that’s not always the case (I know lay people with more medical knowledge than some doctors I’ve come across). If we’re talking about the social sciences, then what is ‘academic analysis’ other than fancy, inaccessible language to talk about something? I think lived experiences have much more value and meaningfulness than analyzing & writing about them from a textbook or in a classrooom.

            I hear you acknowledge that privilege exists and also how calling out someone’s privilege can be a conversation stopper, so I’m wondering how you tell the difference between whether it’s a case of a convo stopper, or simply a privileged person experiencing resistance to having to give up some of their power? Or are they one and the same thing?

            Interested in your thoughts too.

            Sincerely,
            Natasha

          • Meghan Murphy

            Well, as much as privilege does exist, I’m not sure it’s entirely productive argue that some feminist voices are less valid and, therefore, shouldn’t speak, due to privilege. I’m thinking about the way academic feminism is attacked, for example. I think we can acknowledge and address privilege that exists on account of systemic inequity (class and race, for example) without telling others they can’t speak. I’m thinking about, for example, what I see as more perverted versions of identity politics – the idea that those who don’t identify as sex workers can’t speak about the sex industry.

          • Natasha

            What I see as a perverted version of activism is that of not respecting, prioritizing, or giving leadership roles to sex trade survivor activists given that they are the true experts and authorities on the subject of sex industry harm.

            It’s not about allies being mute on the subject, it’s simply about privilege, power, and giving some of it up. Among other things, this includes non-expert allies doing more listening and less speaking, as well as shaping our actions with the concerns that survivor-experts bring forward.

            The sex slavery trade most harms the women IN IT, so why on earth would these voices not be prioritized & leading us allies given survivors’ critical insider knowledge, which no one else has? They are the nucleus of the sex trade harm-prevention/abolition movement, and allies must honor this and behave as such, the end.

            Anything less than this is a perversion of activism (and goes for any issue and its respective experts), no matter how hard non-experts try to spin-doctor (academically or otherwise) their power-overing & privilege-clinging.

          • Meghan Murphy

            Certainly survivor voices should be prioritized. But I don’t agree with the line from some pro-legalization advocates that says ‘because we identify as sex workers, we speak for all prostituted women/women’. There are many voices, first of all, that aren’t able to speak up about their experiences in prostitution, for one thing, and secondly, those who speak publicly, in favour of legalization/full decriminalization, don’t speak for everyone.

            I am a part of the feminist movement. I believe feminists should lead the feminist movement. There are many, many voices in this movement. I learned, for example, about the Nordic model from exited women, local activists, women who work on the front lines, as well as from lawyers and journalists. There is a breadth of information out there. I don’t think there is, necessarily, a hierarchy of voices and, to be honest, I’m not actually sure what it is you’re responding to? i.e. Who is it, exactly, you are accusing of not “respecting, prioritizing, or giving leadership roles to sex trade survivor activists”? Are there organizations you have in mind? Or am I misunderstanding you?

            I speak about feminism and I ally with other women who have similar ideologies and goals (i.e. ending the oppression of women). RE: privilege — whose ‘privilege’ is it you are bothered by? Academia? What is it you would like feminists in academia to stop speaking about?

          • Natasha raises interesting points that need consideration but I disagree with some of the less specific terminology used. The blog post I’m going to link to here is more accurate and constructive. It speaks of how the experience of women who are in or who have exited from prostitution have important voices unique perspectives and must work alongside advocates – and maybe that means feminist academic advocates. Saying this means something quite different than that survivors voices should have priority. Survivors should be leaders alongside advocates – their voices are not and cannot be determinative for a number of reasons. One is that we are all at different points in our journeys out of patriarchal pratices (and we always will be until it’s gone) and we really do need our feminists sisters to challenge us when our analyses of our experiences reflect patterns we would prefer to jettison. Human nature and the constraints of our lives results in a situation where none of us or even a group of us with the same experience will always be “right”. The second reason is that it is not now nor has it ever been the case that women who are having or who have had a particular experience under patriarchy are the only women with a vested interest in how that experience is dealt with in terms of law or social policy. That is unworkable.
            No doubt there are lessons to be learned on both sides of what I consider to be this confining construct of survivorship about exactly how to respect survivor voices without obliterating other voices. I saw this because it’s clear to me that survivors will be working in advocacy without necessarily identifying themselves as survivors of some particular experience. As I’ve said before, we are all survivors of patriarchy and our experiences as well as the analyses that flow from them are equally valid until tested. None of us who want to be advocates can draw back from that testing.

            Here’s that article for future reference:

            http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/blog/2013/03/survivor-informed_polices_and.html

          • Meghan Murphy

            Great points, ElizabethP! Thank you for this link, as well.

        • MLM

          “oppressive, abusive, dismissive”.

          But that’s exactly how I would deem Jemima 101’s comment, and she doesn’t seem devoid of privilege herself.

          She has commented on a least one previous article that I know of trying to use exactly the tactics Meghan describes – not even bothering to engage with the article and the points raised in it on any level, and hurling around the word “whorephobia” purely to try and shut down the conversation.

          If it’s genuinely critical conversations people want to have, then that kind of behaviour needs to be discouraged, because it’s completely non-conducive to having them. I appreciate that engaging in critical conversations can sometimes be difficult and uncomfortable for people (on both sides), but nothing should be beyond examination and critique. And the most harmful societies are actually ones where questioning and debate are not allowed to occur.

          Certain ways of engaging in a critical conversation only jeopardise its continuation, which is why people who try and use derailing tactics should be discouraged from doing so, and likewise people who resort to magic shaming/silencing words just to shut someone up, when they don’t like what they’re hearing, instead of relying on the strength of their argument to oppose what has been said.

          Also, if Jemima 101 means Audre Lorde I’m pretty sure she, of all people, would have been in favour of trying having critical conversations in a respectful way.

          • Meghan Murphy

            You’ll also notice she did the same thing on the Feministe thread: http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2013/02/05/the-war-on-sex-workers/#comment-598936

            jemima101 spends an inordinate amount of time running around the Internet trying to bully people into not linking to or engaging with my work on account of various ‘phobias’ (or accusing me of being ‘an instrument of the patriarchy‘).


            http://itsjustahobby.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/when-i-mean-well-is-no-defense/

            https://twitter.com/itsjustahobby/status/298965634052669442

            Her goal is to distract from the actual points being argued by accusing ‘phobia’ or bigotry and then uses these words to bully everyone around her into doing the same.

          • MLM

            Wow. Clearly she seems to get away with that behaviour just about anywhere else so when it doesn’t succeed here she decides she’s been “silenced”, or “bullied” when called out for it.

            On a side note it’s sort of amusing that someone who defends one of the most inherently (and certainly historically) patriarchal institutions there is can accuse a radical feminist of being “an instrument of the patriarchy” without a trace of irony. Bizarro World…I think, we’re officially living in it.

          • Meghan Murphy

            Indeed, indeed. Egged on by anti-feminist dudes, at that. Sad.

          • marv

            Jemima101 is also inadvertently strong-arming aboriginal women which exhibits both unconscious sexism and racism on her part. Samantha Grey, a member of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network says that those who are pro sex work are obstacles to the liberation of indigenous women from prostitution. She refers to these adversaries as “always the ones more vocal because they have the freedom”. http://thetyee.ca/News/2013/03/04/Aboriginal-Sex-Workers-BC/ Also review https://feministcurrent.com/5590/a-history-of-oppression-canada-colonialism-and-prostitution/ for more evidence of this crime.

            If we don’t see and hear reality through the eyes and ears of aboriginal women our sight will always be within a cloud of unknowing and we will be deaf to their cries. First Nations women have to be at the centre of our awareness of what intimidation means in a context of racialized sexism. We have an irrevocable ethical obligation to do so. Otherwise we are instruments of patriarchal colonization.

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