Feminism is having a moment. It’s a year since Beyoncé performed her song Flawless in front of the word “FEMINIST” inscribed on a colossal screen; domestic violence survivor and campaigner Rosie Batty is Australian of the Year; and feminist comedian Amy Schumer’s stereotype-busting movie Trainwreck has sparked an international conversation. Whilst we can debate the feminist merits of, or “progress” indicated by, each of these, I think we can agree there is a growing international conversation about women’s issues.
As feminism gains visibility and ground, both politically and culturally, questions inevitably arise around strategy and progress. Great, so feminism is getting airtime; how do we translate this momentum into material gains? Although there exist many ethical and ideological dimensions to this question, often debates revolve around two principal approaches: pragmatism versus revolution.
The pragmatic approach is strategic — the first step towards effecting change is to engage people in the conversation. If you can’t get people through the door, how can you hope to change their minds? If you can’t demonstrate, particularly to men, that they have a stake in improving gender equality, how can you hope to include them in bringing about change? If this involves compromise, taking a gentle approach, or appealing to individuals’ self-interest, so be it.
Alternatively, the revolutionary approach sees compromise as problematic, potentially reifying harmful categories and serving to prop up the status quo. In effect, this approach urges nothing less than a complete restructuring of the institutions, practices, relationships, and beliefs that underpin women’s inequality, arguing that without tackling problems at their origins, progress will be patchy, short-term or even illusionary. Arguably, both camps make valid points.
A key obstacle to ending gender oppression can be identified as men’s perceptions of, and relationships with, women. Misogyny and sexism, which underlie all forms of women’s inequality, ultimately boil down to questions of conscious or unconscious beliefs about women, their worth and status. In recent weeks I have been reminded, by both current affairs/popular culture and through anecdotal evidence, of how central the issue of men’s belief in their right to women’s bodies is to questions of women’s safety and equality.
Recently, a friend of mine experienced the expression of men’s assumed right to women’s bodies in a very personal way. Stretching after a workout at the gym, she became aware of a man visually appraising her body. Feeling uncomfortable, she tried to ignore him and complete her stretches efficiently in order to exit the situation. However, she was unable to do so before he began to verbally abuse her and make obscene gestures, commenting on her body and telling her that she was “too fat” to workout at the gym. A quick glance at online movements such as The Everyday Sexism Project and Hollaback! suggest this sort of harassment is not uncommon.
In the same week, another friend told me of her childhood experience of sexual abuse perpetrated by her father. Another expression of a man who exercised what he saw as his right to use his daughter’s body for his own sexual gratification, regardless of her consent, her vulnerability, and the damage he was inflicting. This is not the first time a friend has told me of childhood sexual abuse by a male family member. Given that research suggests one in five girls under 18 experience sexual violence, perhaps these confessions are unsurprising. The notorious underreporting of sexual violence and family violence in particular further suggests that these rates may underestimate the problem. Hearing about my friend’s experience came in the same month as reports emerged of an Australian man who, along with seven co-accused, allegedly sexually enslaved, abused and made child pornography of his 13-year-old daughter over a two-year period. Another reminder of men who thought they had the right to sexual access to a girl’s body.
This confluence of events reinforced, for me, the feminist argument that this perceived male right to women’s bodies — to use them for sex, to judge and appraise them — lies at the heart of many issues of misogyny and violence that affect women. The underlying thought processes that connect these incidents of harassment and assault seem to revolve around a sense of ownership or entitlement.
Hence my mixed reaction a couple of weeks ago when Cosmopolitan released a video of men watching footage of their girlfriends being harassed. The two-minute clip is set up as a way to open men’s eyes to the routine harassment women experience by showing them its impact on women they love. This is a typical tool of the pragmatic approach outlined above; help men to understand their stake in feminist issues by making it personal.
Yet arguably, the video revolves around similar problematic concepts of masculinity, femininity and men’s ownership of women that are root causes of violence against women. Towards the end of the video, one man turns to his girlfriend saying “you’re somebody’s daughter… somebody’s sister… I’m sure if somebody did that to … their mother or their cousin, they wouldn’t appreciate it”. Here, women are defined by their relationships to men and men are exercised to act by igniting stereotypes of masculine protection.
In 2006, feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon published a collection of essays entitled Are Women Human? in which she asserts that, internationally, women are treated as “things” rather than people. She argues it is this dehumanization of women, their treatment as objects, which underpins various forms of oppression from domestic violence to trafficking to rape in war.
Cosmopolitan’s video, though well-intentioned and potentially effective, prompts me to ask the very same question: Are women human, when the only way to incite men to treat them humanely is to define them as mothers and lovers — as an adjunct to men? Are women human, when one of the strongest tools for asserting their humanity is presenting them as objects that belong to a man — somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister? Are the victims of the sexual harassment and violence detailed above best served by a rhetoric that is arguably underpinned, in part, by the same patriarchal concepts of ownership and entitlement that perpetuate the problem? Should we strive for a revolutionary feminist politics based on women’s worth as human beings, or is it enough to get men through the door by appealing to their sense of masculine protectiveness; do the material gains justify the approach? Moreover, when we know that women are most likely to experience violence from a former or current partner in their own home, does appealing to men’s love and respect for women who are close to them even work?
It is for reasons like these that pragmatic feminist campaigns sometimes sit uncomfortably with me. Campaigns, for example, based on the concept of “real men,” such as the Real Man campaign against domestic violence by Women’s Aid in the UK, or the Real Men Don’t Buy Girls viral celebrity campaign against trafficking (read a useful critique here). The concept of the “real man” is exclusionary, antiquated, and draws on heteropatriarchal concepts of masculinity, including those of men as protectors and chaperones. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s June speech on domestic violence draws together these problematic threads of the pragmatic approach to feminism. Asserting that “real men don’t” commit violence against women, Abbott positioned himself as “a husband, as the brother of three sisters and father of three daughters,” citing this as the reason he views violence against women and children as “abhorrent.”
Ultimately, a woman shouldn’t have to be a man’s wife, sister, or daughter to make him realize that she deserves to be free from violence and that she is worthy of respect as a human being. Men should be encouraged to fight women’s oppression not because that is what “real men” do, or because they may have some personal stake in greater equality between the sexes, but because women are human. Yet revolution is notoriously difficult, and radical social change both rare and often glacial in its progress. Perhaps, for now, we should be content with bringing men into the feminist conversation, however that is achieved. But if we adopt this approach we also need ask, where to next?
Kate Farhall is a PhD candidate in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her current PhD research investigates the changing representation of sex, relationships, and same-sex attraction in women’s magazines. Kate is a contributor to Freedom Fallacy.