Feminism is the new misogyny: On 'Belle Knox feminism' and the new backlash

This just in from the backlash: everything is feminism’s fault and we are the real woman-haters.

You knew that, didn’t you? That it was not men, but women — and not just women, but feminists — who were responsible for things like violence against women and sexual repression. It’s a pretty good trick, actually, because guess who gets off scot-free? Men. Also, oppressive systems of power. With women busy attacking other women for their own oppression, who has time to fight the real enemy?

As illogical as it sounds on paper, this phenomenon actually makes a lot of sense.

The most obvious explanation for feminist-hating among women (or even among feminists) is that we live in a culture that teaches us to hate women — that it’s acceptable to hate women, that it’s sexy to hate women, and that it’s funny to hate women. We see this normalized hatred of women manifested in a number of ways:

1) Cosmetic surgery

Here we have a “trend” that involves women hating their bodies so much that they quite literally cut the offending body parts off of their bodies and replace them with other, more “attractive,” more “perfect” parts. While breast augmentation surgery used to be the more required form of plastic surgery in porn, it is now vaginoplasty. We know that women who get cosmetic surgery don’t actually gain confidence or feel any better about their bodies, but rather continue hating their bodies despite the surgery that was meant to empower them and make them feel good about themselves. Women who get breast augmentation surgery are also three times as likely to commit suicide than the general population. You can’t “fix” body-hatred with cosmetic surgery.

Vaginoplasty is a fairly recent trend that seems intricately connected to the mainstreaming of porn and woman-hating (of course, porn and woman-hating are inseparable). Women have always learned that their bodies are dirty, flawed, ugly, gross, and wrong. And women are now cutting off our “ugly/flawed/gross/wrong” labia in order to make them match what we are seeing in porn. Misogynistic programming complete.

This seems an extreme form of internalized misogyny to me and that women are being told it’s simply a “personal choice,” that it’s no one’s business (because: my choice!), that women do this “for themselves” and that anything we do in order to make ourselves “feel better” is empowering is, most certainly, an attempt to co-opt feminist ideas and language and use them against us. What’s maddening is that actual feminists use this rhetoric all the time to defend misogynist systems and behaviours and use it against other feminists in order to shut down critique (but more on that later).

2) Rape jokes

HA! Get it? Raping women is a hilarious joke. If you don’t get it, it’s probably because you’re a woman. Maybe one who’s been raped! You know, like many women and girls on this planet have. Now, not all rape jokes are created equal and plenty of comedians have managed to make rape jokes that don’t actually promote rape but rather are critical of rape culture and point out how horrific and ubiquitous sexual assault is. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the way in which not just comedians, but your regular, average dudebro thinks that violence against women is a punchline. I’m talking about the bazillion pages on Facebook that make abuse, sexual violence, and the murder of women into entertainment and laughs. Women’s actual lives are being mocked on a daily basis and many people don’t bat an eye.

3) Porn

As the brilliant Catharine MacKinnon wrote: “Pornography sexualizes women’s inequality. It makes the inequality of women sexy. It sexualizes, most broadly speaking, dominance and submission. Every kind of woman is used, each one’s particular inequalities exploited as deemed sexually exciting.”

A study in the UK showed that 50 per cent of 11-14 year olds have watched porn online. A generation of boys is growing up on pornography. We, as a culture, believe porn is simply a “normal” thing men indulge in and that it’s just about sex. It’s as if we think men aren’t capable of masturbating without it. Even progressive men use porn. It’s just not seen as something that’s really “bad” for women (and even if it were, it’s unlikely many porn-users would care). It’s considered to be harmless.

We tell ourselves that pornography is “just a fantasy” and that it has nothing to do with “reality” except that porn is a reality — in our lives, in the lives of the women in porn, in the minds of the men we interact with on a day-to-day basis. Pornography shapes our sexual fantasies and if men’s fantasies (or even women’s fantasies) are shaped by images of women being degraded, abused, and/or objectified, I fail to see how anyone could argue that has nothing to do with “real life.” Are our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and desires not “real life?” Is the fact that men want women to play out porny scenarios in the bedroom and that women learn they must perform as though they are porn stars in order to keep their male partners interested not “real life?”

The mere fact that pornography is used to punish and harass women should tell us that this is not an empowering thing. The use of pornography in the workplace is acknowledged as constituting sexual harassment (not that it stops many men from using and displaying porn at work in order to be clear about whose space this is). Pornography is used to punish the ex-girlfriends of embittered ex-boyfriends and is used to harass and bully teenage girls, sometimes to death.

Liberals absolutely refuse to talk about pornography as something that is used to harass, punish, and subordinate women — even many feminists engage in this form of denial, pretending as though “consent” erases all of that, a mere signature making everything a-ok.

When our primary understanding of sexuality, sexual imagery, and sexual freedom is in hating and humiliating women, there’s no arguing that we live in a misogynistic culture.

What’s disconcerting about this reality is not only how accepted it is, but that it is defended by some feminists and that those defenses are used as a way to attack and silence feminists who don’t toe the popular “anything a woman chooses or does is empowering”/”criticism = shaming”/”‘agency’ is magic” party line.

It’s the Belle Knox brand of feminism. It says that if an individual woman consents to — or even enjoys — performing in pornography, it must be ok. It says that if an individual woman likes pornography, it must be ok. And not just ok, but potentially empowering. I have no idea why we would assume that only men’s sexualities can be shaped by porn or why, simply because a woman’s fantasies have been shaped by porn that means those fantasies and that pornography is necessarily feminist. I don’t give a shit how many people like porn. I don’t give a shit if you say you like performing in porn (most women don’t, for the record, but there are exceptions to every rule that you’re sure to find if you look). That changes absolutely nothing about what porn is and how it impacts our lives and society as a whole.

Whether or not people like things or even whether or not they consent to them is not a good rule by which to judge whether or not that thing is ethical, “good,” or promotes equality.

Now, back to “feminists are the number one top enemies of women.”

I am told on the regular that I am responsible for the death of prostituted women. By advocating for the Nordic model, a model that decriminalizes prostituted women, criminalizes those who perpetrate violence against and exploit prostituted women, and offer services and support to those women who wish to leave the industry. I don’t see these women — supposed “feminists” — attacking pimps and johns on Twitter or in online forums, telling them they should rot in hell and die and that they have “blood on their hands.” I and many other anti sex industry feminists are accused of “harassing” sex workers or sex work advocates as well which, I suppose if you think blocking trolls online, responding to those attacking you, or writing about the sex industry in a critical way constitutes “harassment” then, guilty! The mythology and lies that travel the internet, painting women I know and work with as violent bigots — women who work alongside abused women every day, women who have fought in the women’s movement their whole lives, women who are kind, gentle, loving, strong, powerful, generous souls who are in this movement purely because they care about women and women’s lives — are appalling.

I think it’s a form of woman-hating. I think it’s internalized misogyny — to attack and slander and attempt to silence feminists, to paint them as bigots for taking a stand against male power and violence. You may well disagree with our ideology or our goals or our arguments, but simply disagreeing with someone does not mean they are perpetrating violence against you. Using “safe space” as an excuse to silence and no-platform feminists doesn’t fly either.

The way in which it has become acceptable in some feminist circles to blackball and tar women who fight pornography and prostitution or to ignore and discredit them by calling them “sex-negative pearl-clutchers” — to claim feminists are the ones doing the oppressing because they criticize selfies or burlesque or, really, anything else one might feel attached to — that’s all part of the backlash. Which isn’t the same as saying women are to blame, but it is saying we’ve been had.

Capitalist patriarchy has sold us all these ideas — that cosmetic surgery will make you feel good, that stripping and gyrating for an audience is empowering, that sexing up your own exploitation is the path to liberation, that stilettos are feminist if women choose to wear them, and that face-fucking is feminist so long as we’ve signed a waiver. It’s also told us that feminists are the enemy — that they are prudish and repressive and no-fun. It’s told us that women are all jealous, catty, bitches and that any criticism of another woman must be envy. We learn to hate one another, you know…

Many of the online responses to Katha Pollitt’s piece in The Nation this week, criticizing feminists and the left for trying to normalize sex work, reeked of sexism and ageism. The never ending trope used against abolitionists is that we’re simply scared “our men” will visit prostitutes or, alternatively, that we’re scared of sex workers themselves, as they represent, supposedly, a liberated sexuality we simply can’t handle. Hey, we know how many men around us use porn and buy sex — and we blame them, not the women they buy.

Other women and even some feminists have joined in on anti-feminist efforts to turn us into slurs and stereotypes in order to slander us silent, pretending as though, to critique a billion-dollar industry equates to “hating” those exploited and abused within that industry.

Rather than understanding objectification as something that happens to women in a culture that has learned women are pretty things to look at, to impose our fantasies onto, to decorate space, and to provide pleasure, we accuse feminists who speak critically about the objectification of women of doing the objectifying. It is comparable to saying that those who point out racism are, in fact, perpetuating racism. Like, if we pretend objectification doesn’t happen, if we pretend it is not objectification at all but something else entirely, it will be so.

We are, as a culture, in deep denial. In many ways — we have to be in order to function as we do. There is no way that a person could acknowledge the truth about what happens to women in pornography and prostitution and still continue on, pretending it’s perfectly fine as opposed to an overt and gruesome manifestation of woman-hating. You would have to turn a blind eye to so much. You would have to tell yourself lies. Yet men continue to watch and certain factions of feminism try to claim it as their own. “If it’s my choice it’s ok,” is what they tell themselves. And not just “ok” but untouchable. This version of feminism sounds like a joke straight out of The Onion, but it’s not.

“We as performers have rights to express ourselves and as long as everything is consensual and legal, then more power to everyone involved,” Belle Knox writes. “Whatever choice a woman is making and she is the one deciding to do — reclaiming the agency behind the decision to do, even if it is a degrading sexual act — is absolutely feminism. To me, feminism is about women not being shamed but rather being empowered.” (This woman, I should point out, is 18 — shoved into the spotlight and forced to find something to say.)

That sure is convenient for capitalism, isn’t it. One can assume that any purchase we make constitutes a “choice” which, if chosen by a woman, would make that purchase “feminist.” It sure is convenient for patriarchy, too… It means that if we “choose” to participate in our own abuse, it’s not only empowering, but it’s feminist. And any feminist who opposes these ideas, we’re now told, is an oppressive, hateful, bigot. To challenge this idea is, we’re told, to “take away women’s agency.” It’s a trap! Can’t you see it’s a trap?

“The truth is,” Knox says, “my favorite adult genre is rough blowjob porn. I find it incredibly arousing. My fantasies in the bedroom are ONLY about what arouses me, which is completely unrelated to gender roles, feminism or my value and worth as a woman or human being.”

So first of all, you’re free to “like” “rough blowjob porn.” No one is stopping you from doing that. But if you are, on one hand, telling us that your private, personal, bedroom fantasies are only about you, and on the other you are naming that fantasy as something that was learned from porn — something that exists as a masturbatory tool for men that is overwhelmingly racist and sexist, fetishizes underage girls, sexualizes the degradation and humiliation of women, and exists in order for porn-sellers to profit, not in order to promote the sexual liberation of women — there are a few screws lose in that version of “feminism.”

Knox continues: “The way I see it, there is an unfortunate and significant schism in our movement between the sex negative feminists — women who believe that sex, especially pornography, is degrading and imbued with power struggles — and sex positive, pro-kink, pro-fetish feminists — women like me who believe that sexual liberation is paramount to achieving progress and equality.”

There is a schism, that’s for sure. There’s one faction of feminists who believe feminists are preventing them from achieving true liberation (which, oddly, looks a lot like plain old sexism), who perpetuate sexist, ageist tropes about what pearl-clutching prudes women who aren’t into gangbangs are, who trash second-wave feminists and invent slurs in an attempt to shut us down, and there’s another who want an end to male violence and seek liberation on feminist terms. Not patriarchal ones.

There are more than just two factions, of course. Not every feminist who disagrees with radical feminists or with abolitionists paints them as tyrants. It’s just that the kind of feminism that is popular and that gets the most air-time — both in liberal feminist spaces, progressive publications, as well as in the mainstream — is the kind that paints feminism as women’s worst enemy. Internalized misogyny tells us to side with the boys, because we’ll fare better. And it’s true in some ways. It’s certainly easier in the short-term.

But it’s a trap. I’m telling you, it’s a trap.

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.