On Friday, September 25th, 1200 people gathered at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in Vancouver, to hear three preeminent thinkers discuss socialism, oppression, and rebellion. The event, a roaring success — packed to the gills with local Lefties, desperate for change — was organized by Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter (VRR) and Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP), with proceeds from ticket sales going to support their work helping women escape male violence and fighting for women’s liberation. It was programmed with the intention of incorporating a discussion of women’s oppression into socialist activism and so Pullitzer-prize winning journalist and author Chris Hedges’ speech was bookended by powerful talks by Alice Lee of AWCEP and longstanding feminist activist, Lee Lakeman, who worked with VRR for over three decades, before retiring in 2013.
All three speakers demonstrated the way in which women’s oppression should be a logical focus of socialist rebellion, a critical and timely message given the Left’s embrace of policies and behaviours that actively harm women.
AWCEP is a feminist group that recognizes prostitution as violence against women, and works to abolish it using an anti-oppression framework. Lee’s speech centred women of colour, explaining that human trafficking is a product of capitalism, colonialism, and a sense of male entitlement that normalizes sexual access to female bodies, pointing out that all of this is central to patriarchy.
Chris Hedges began his speech by expressing solidarity with AWCEP and VRR’s abolitionist position and reminding us that, in the spring, a few liberals tried to have him banned from speaking at Simon Fraser University on account of his critiques of the sex industry and alliances with groups like AWCEP and VRR. Moving on to discuss corporate malfeasance, climate degradation, and the need for a united socialist response to neoliberalism and capitalism, issues covered in his new book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Hedges mentioned the dangers of masculinity and repeatedly wove women’s oppression into an ultimately grim sermon aimed at motivating decisive anti-capitalist action.
In her talk, Lakeman recounted incident after incident of male violence against women covered in the media, offering these incidences as examples of a sustained attack on women’s liberty. She reminded us that we have heard these stories before, that they aren’t isolated, they’re not going away, and that they will not go away if the Left doesn’t fully incorporate feminism into their activism and begin fighting on behalf of abused and marginalized women.
Lee, Hedges, and Lakeman all demonstrated how a movement that aims to free citizens from the oppression that is capitalism must free all citizens, including women beaten or raped by men, women exploited by men on porn sets and street corners.
It’s an important message at a critical time when neoliberalism’s focus on unquestioned individual choices threatens feminist progress. A moment when Amnesty International, an organization that claims to promote and protect human rights has decided to advocate for the legalization of prostitution, legitimizing male sexual entitlement to women’s bodies, and relegating a class of mostly brown-skinned, mostly poor women to sexual servitude. A moment when the Left embraces pornography as empowering, without bothering to question the violence and degradation on screen, consider the working conditions, or the demand pornography creates for sex trafficking.
The Left’s dismissal of women’s oppression isn’t a new phenomenon. Much has been written about sexism in the civil rights movement and how the hippies’ pursuit of “free love” was a pursuit lead by men for expanded sexual access to women’s bodies. Like many feminists of her time, Andrea Dworkin’s activism began in the civil rights movement where she learned that so-called progressives fighting for human rights don’t bother themselves much when it comes to women’s rights — certainly not at the expense of their erections:
“Capitalism is not wicked or cruel when the commodity is the whore; profit is not wicked or cruel when the alienated worker is a female piece of meat… The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die. The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.”
The Left’s continued refusal to “get it”, this gaping blind spot, is dangerous for women, and although Alice Lee, Chris Hedges, and Lee Lakeman shined light into that dark corner, I was disappointed to see a number of audience members stream out immediately after Hedges’ finished speaking, continuing to trickle to the doors while Lakeman reminded us, in her powerful speech, that women continue to be raped and murdered while the Left stands by. While most of the audience stayed, moved and inspired by Lakeman’s courage and willingness to tell the truth at any cost, I was not surprised to notice that most of those walking away were men.
So Lefties, it’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop patting yourselves on the back for protesting sweatshops and human trafficking, then going home and getting off watching women degraded in pornography and not thinking about the connections.
It’s time to stop embracing “sex work” as empowering choice while ignoring that the majority of prostituted women are poor women of colour whose choices are limited by classism, racism, and patriarchy, and who want out. It’s time for leftist men to stop thinking sexism and oppression are what other men do to women and start looking at yourselves.
Because feminists see you, women see you. We see your hypocrisy and your refusal to examine your own behavior and challenge your entitlement. We make decisions about whom to trust, ally with, and fight alongside, and we see you abandoning women. We see you not seeing us at all.
Jindi Mehat is an East Vancouver-based second wave feminist who is reconnecting with feminism after several tours of duty in male-dominated corporate land. Follow her @jindi.