On the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, let's remember what feminism is actually about

December 6 is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. It is also the anniversary of the day when 14 women were shot and killed at École Polytechnique by a gunman who shouted: “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!”

Clearly December 6 is a day of feminist action. It is a day to challenge male violence against women. It therefore feels appropriate to talk about what feminism actually is and means — what is it we are fighting, precisely, as feminists?

I define feminism as a movement to end patriarchy and male violence against women.

This definition makes sense and feels obvious to me because without patriarchy there would be no need for feminism and because male violence against women is a product of — and the core impact of — patriarchy. The threat and reality of male violence functions as a control mechanism and as long as women are an oppressed class, they will be subjected to violence at the hands of men. The actuality of being disempowered economically and socially makes individuals vulnerable to violence.

Some people say that feminism is about women being “equal” to men but I disagree with that definition. The goal of feminism is not and should not be to become more “like men.” Male power is a problem. Masculinity is a problem. Hierarchy is a problem. This definition positions men and “masculinity” as somehow “better” than women and “femininity” when, in reality, masculinity and femininity are prescribed gender roles that maintain the very systems of power we are fighting against. Also, masculinity and femininity are not real things. As in, they are not innate qualities but rather a series of characteristics applied to men and women and taught to us from the time we are children. I do not want to be more “like a man,” I want to be respected as a woman. I do not want the power that men have, I want there to not be a dominant sex or class or race. Saying we want women to be “equal” to men doesn’t address the root of the inequality and doesn’t address the fact that women are, in fact, biologically different than men and that, therefore, our rights may not look exactly like men’s (re: reproductive rights, for example).

Some say that a feminist is simply a person who believes women should have equal rights to men or that it is about “equality of the sexes.” While I agree that women and men should have equal status, opportunities, and rights, I think that if we don’t name patriarchy as the root of the problem and male violence against women as the key result of patriarchy, we have lost sight of what it is we are fighting.

There are a number of things that feminists disagree on: the best way forward with regard to prostitution law, whether or not pornography can be feminist, how much pubic hair is acceptable to keep or remove, what types of locations we should or should not twerk, how much fun we should be having while eating salads alone, and whether or not women like whiskey, but what is not up for debate is whether or not sexism is ok, whether or not male violence is ok, and whether or not patriarchy exists and is bad for women.

Now that we have that all settled, I would like to direct you towards a recent article published by Joyce Arthur, whose bio specifies that she is “a founding member of FIRST, a national feminist sex worker advocacy organization based in Vancouver that lobbies for the decriminalization of prostitution in Canada… and [a] pro-choice activist.”

The article implies that December 6 is an inappropriate day upon which to launch Canada’s new prostitution legislation, which will criminalize pimps and johns. I already responded to that assertion yesterday, arguing that,

The fact that the new law, which will criminalize those sweet old johns out there prowling the Downtown Eastside, perhaps and likely looking for a young, vulnerable, Aboriginal girl to satisfy his ‘needs,’ will come into effect on December 6, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, is perfect.

December 6th is the day we remember and take action on violence against women. That is the name of the day. What better action could we take on that day than to say to perpetrators of violence: no more. It is not your right, these women and girls are not for you. They deserve better and are more than a series of holes for you to penetrate on a whim. Women who are poor and racialized deserve better options than prostitution.

I also already responded to the assertion (repeated by Arthur) that “the law will lead to violence against sex workers.” Not only is there no evidence that this is true, but there is actual evidence that shows legalization and full decriminalization “leads to violence against sex workers.” The fact that legalization leads to an increase in trafficking is one way we see an increase in violence, another is in the fact that, since the Nordic model came into effect in Sweden, no prostituted women have been murdered, whereas murders of women who work in the windows of the legal red-light district in Amsterdam are annual occurrences.

Arthur makes the oft-repeated claim that “stigma” causes violence against prostituted women and that the Nordic model perpetuates said “stigma.” But in places that have legalized, that “stigma” still exists. Women still don’t want to be prostituted and only a tiny number of prostitutes actually register to pay taxes (meaning that the bulk of the industry still exists underground, which counters the claim that the Nordic model “pushes prostitution underground”) — why? Because they don’t want the public record to show they worked as a prostitute. Because they hope to exit the industry and do something else.

Men don’t kill prostitutes because of “stigma,” men kill prostitutes because we live in a patriarchy within which men learn that violence against women is acceptable and sexy (see: BDSM), because johns are misogynists who don’t respect women (if they did respect women as actual human beings, they wouldn’t treat them as objects and commodities), and because most women in prostitution are marginalized on economic, social, racial, and gendered lines, which gives the johns power over them and makes those women less valuable and less visible in a capitalist patriarchy.

I’ve made many of these arguments a number of times over in the past and have already addressed many of the unfounded claims Arthur repeats in her piece in various other articles as well, so I’d like to move on now to the “what feminists actually think and believe,” “what a feminist is,” and “what feminism is” portion of of my critique, point by point.

On being in bed with political parties

Arthur writes:

To their shame, radical feminists who oppose sex work have joined forces with right-wing groups and the federal Conservative government to pass this law. The latter are both motivated by animosity towards women’s rights and autonomy and non-traditional sexual expression, which strongly implies that radical “feminists” have some problems with those things too. I believe they do, at least when it comes to rights for sex workers.

I have not “joined forces” with any political parties, certainly not the federal Conservative government. This is not a partisan issue. I supported Bill C-36 because it was a good bill, despite the fact that I don’t support the Conservative party. I don’t support the NDP’s position on prostitution because I think it’s bad and misguided but, at the end of the day, I still might vote for them when election time comes around. Who knows. But certainly I’m not going to oppose what I think is good legislation simply because I am not voting for the party who drafted the bill, just like I would not support a shitty bill drafted by a party I did vote for. I don’t support everything any party does, whether or not I vote for them. My vote for mayor during the municipal election this year proves that. I’d love to vote for a party I support unequivocally, but I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon.

On abolitionists

Abolitionists oppose the sex industry (Arthur says we oppose “sex work” but we don’t use the term “sex work” because it is too vague to really mean anything and because it is more accurate to say that we oppose the sex industry). This is not because we have “problems” with “women’s rights, autonomy, and non-traditional sexual expression.” That is literally an insane thing to say if you have even the most basic understanding of what feminism is and what prostitution and patriarchy are. All feminists support women’s human rights. This does not mean that we support male power and the resulting industry within which women and girls are made to sexually service men who have more power than they do. We support women’s autonomy in that we advocate for a society that creates choices for women and girls that extend beyond being fucked by strangers because they can’t feed or house themselves otherwise.

On traditions

Sex work advocates and ignorant male chauvinists are always on about prostitution being “the oldest profession on earth” (which it is not, for the record), which would tell us that, far from being “non-traditional,” prostitution is, in fact, part of a long, long tradition that is inextricable from the long, long “tradition” of patriarchy. This is to say that, not only is it ludicrous and laughable that anyone with half a brain would refer to prostitution as “non-traditional,” but that it has absolutely nothing to do with female “sexual expression,” as the only reason prostitution exists is because men have more social and economic power in this world. Not because women are voluntarily entering into the industry in droves. If that were the case, there would be no need to drag women across state lines and international borders, kidnap, trick, coerce, or force them into prostitution. Because they’d simply be “choosing” it as part of their “non-traditional sexual expression.”

On choice

There are, of course, some women who do enter into the industry by choice, who aren’t forced or coerced. But there are also thousands of women around the world who undergo breast augmentation surgery (by choice!), who shake their tits at rap shows (by choice!), and post belfies on Instagram (by choice!) — does that mean self-objectification is totes feminist? Or that breast implants are good for women? Or that getting naked for dude-applause has nothing to do with patriarchy? Whether or not an individual chooses something has nothing to do with whether or not the thing they chose is feminist (or, generally, “good” or “bad” or “ethical” or “healthy” or any number of other adjectives). It is simply a choice that they made within the context of a number of influences — in this case, the influences are primarily capitalism and patriarchy and, if you refer back to our earlier discussion regarding “what feminism is,” you will see that it is a movement that fights patriarchy and that, therefore, if your feminism is not firmly rooted in the fight against patriarchy, you are not, in fact, doing “feminism.”

On victims

Despite the fact that Arthur appears to believe otherwise, whether or not someone claims the identity of “victim” doesn’t have much to do with whether or not the sex industry victimizes women. What abolitionists focus on is male behaviour, not female behaviour. This is to say that the perpetrator is the person who does the victimizing, so whether or not an individual chooses to identify as a victim doesn’t actually change the actions of the perpetrator. If, for example, a woman stays with her abusive husband and does not relate to the term, “victim,” that’s her choice. But it doesn’t mean her husband’s actions are acceptable, that feminists need accept his actions and look away, or that what he is doing doesn’t constitute victimization. With regards to prostitution in particular, an individual woman might feel totally empowered in or by her choice to prostitute but, 1) She is in the minority (most women and girls in prostitution are poor, are minorities, “choose” prostitution due to lack of choice, and aren’t giving media interviews) and 2) That doesn’t change the dynamics and significance of the industry, as a whole. There are upwards of 20 million trafficking victims in the world, the majority of whom are women and girls, the majority of whom are trafficked for the purposes of prostitution. There are not millions of adult women, worldwide, “choosing” prostitution of their own free will simply because they enjoy it.

On anti-feminist feminism and other things pertaining to “feminists” and “feminism”

The remainder of Arthur’s piece mostly adopts sexist insults and tropes, usually reserved for MRAs, gamers, and frat bros, such as accusing feminists of being “fanatics” and comparing us to fundamentalist Christian patriarchs who repress “sexuality.” She then proceeds to imply feminists who oppose the sex industry are “prudish” and seek to “repress male sexuality and encourage male monogamy,” which, again, sounds like something a sexist man would say… Not someone who claims to align themselves with the feminist movement. In any case, if prostitution is part of men’s innate sexuality, is rape? Is anything we do to confront men’s entitlement to sex and female bodies “repressing male sexuality?” Are men somehow biologically inclined to have sex with women and girls who don’t desire them? Because I find that concept troubling, to say the least.

Feminists are used to being called all sorts of things by anti-feminists: nazis, man-haters, sex-haters, ugly, hairy, angry, crazy, prudish… And Arthur calls us some of these things. But she also accuses us of hating women: “Is it possible [radical feminists] also have a punitive streak that secretly despises female sex workers?”

Allow me to answer: no Joyce. For the billionth time, no. Feminism is not about hating women. It is about holding men accountable and challenging male power. Also, many radical feminists, and feminist feminists, and abolitionist feminists have been prostituted. And they don’t hate themselves nor do they hate their friends and sisters and daughters and mothers who are currently or once were also prostituted. My feelings on that particular insinuation align with my middle finger, which I’ll keep to myself for once.

In her final misogynist hurrah, Arthur pulls out one of the classics: You’re all just jealous, bitcheeeees. In her words, “radical feminists… see sex workers as competitors who ruin things for other women by being too sexually available.” This is a little confusing because I was given the impression that radical feminists hated men and sex, so it’s weird that now they are being positioned as actually being jealous because they wish those johns were fucking them instead!

I don’t know you guys. You’d think that if feminists were so desperate for sex and if prostitution was such a fun way to make money, there would be a substantial pool of male prostitutes for to choose from, solving the problem of the underlaid radical feminist (they’re all hetero too, donchaknow) who can’t gain the attention of a man due to his biological need to pay for sex. Surely all the cashola our Conservative party buddies are lining our pockets with would afford us the privilege of paying for sex?

All joking aside, the arguments Arthur is making are not feminist arguments. They are damaging, sexist, anti-woman stereotypes rooted in mythology and male fantasy. They are arguments that maintain the subordinate status of women and naturalize our objectification, our sexualization, and our inequality. They are arguments that normalize male power and violence. They are arguments made by those who hate feminism. And, as we will are all reminded on December 6, every year, the hatred of feminists is a very dangerous thing, indeed.


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.