Jess: You’ve been active in the feminist movement since the ‘70s. A lot has happened since then including the so-called “sex wars” of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the ongoing rise of identity politics, and the mainstream adoption of post-modern definitions of gender, to name a few things. What are you seeing in the current movement that is truly unique and new? What aspects are being recycled?
Julie: One thing that has continued from the past is the firm commitment from a number of feminists worldwide — I think a growing number of feminists worldwide – to prioritizing male violence against women and girls. They are recognizing that this is a gendered, patriarchal war against women, that this is not something that is genderless or about people doing bad things to people. It is male violence in order to uphold male supremacy. So that is the really good news.
And then there’s the backlash. The backlash has been so persuasive and so ongoing that it has meant, of course, that young women are still growing up under patriarchy — with a few more rights and a few freedoms because of feminism. Young women have been under pressure by men — by sexist men, by misogynistic men, by traditional men — to tow the line, to accept what they’ve got (which is a bit more pay, a bit more maternity leave, a bit more of a right to report rape, domestic violence, and child abuse, a bit more of an international voice against FGM, forced marriage, early marriage etc.) and to not blame or criticize men as a class.
The temptation is to say, “The world is not perfect. Women are not perfect. Women are often violent to men. Women are often to blame for their own abuse so, therefore, leave it. Don’t push it. You need men as allies. You need men to speak for you. These old-style, second-wave dinosaur feminists who don’t shave under their arms (some of them are lesbians!) are not who you want to associate with. You need male protection so stick with us and we will be the new-ish man, under the new-ish patriarchal order who look a bit different and feel okay for you because you’ve known no different… but that’s as far as it will go.”
There are those from way back — and, you know, I started when I was young so I’m younger than most of my feminist contemporaries — those who were active in the ‘60s who are saying, “No. We remember what the aims and objectives and demands of the women’s liberation movement were and we’re not accepting that things are okay now.”
And so what’s happened is that a third wave and a fourth wave of feminism has emerged that is not really feminism because it’s not challenging men as a sex-class or recognizing women as a sex-class. [Third and fourth wave feminism] is more about neoliberal, individual rights. It’s more about appeasing men and making sure that we don’t ask too much.
In those third and fourth waves many of the women are feminists, good and brave and strong feminists. They are acting within a very restricted, curtailed context and are being policed by men, policed by male rules. Some have been taken up by the foot soldiers (some of the very misogynistic transgender people, some of the rabid men’s rights activists) but in the main, it’s just young men who are seeing their female contemporaries as being a little bit too cheeky. After all, these men are hip and they’re cool, and they’re trendy and they believe in equality… They just still want to watch their porn, and they still want women to show up when they speak first.
Jess: Do you mind if I ask how old you were when you got involved with the women’s movement and what triggered that?
Julie: Sure. I was seventeen, and I had fallen in love with my friend at school (my girlfriend at school). I didn’t apply the term lesbian to myself then. It was too shameful and shocking and not really available as something positive. I suppose I was outed rather than choosing to say I was a lesbian.
I was a working class girl and there was no way there was any kind of lesbian pride. There was barely any gay pride at the time apart from a few “hippie” men and a few educated white women. Once I was outed I thought, I’ve got two choices here. One is to marry the boy next door and end up with three or four kids in a crap factory job and never really look at what else is outside that for me. And the other is to say yeah I’m a lesbian, yeah I’m different and I’ve got to get out of this time and find a group of women who are fine with lesbianism.
At that time, in 1978, feminism and lesbianism were indivisible in the political world (not in the working class world or what we called the “bar-dyke” world where there were women who hadn’t found politics who were living pretty grim lives hiding and feeling loads of self-loathing) but in feminism with those second-wavers who are now accused of being anti-sex and moralist. These women said, “Lesbianism is great. Women can define their own sexuality. Actually, women don’t get much sexual pleasure from regular heterosexual sex. You get loads more if you choose to do it your way.”
I mean, it was really liberatory but I wasn’t really focused on that. I was focused on meeting women who were feminists and wanted to live outside of the cultural norms that I felt would be my prison for life until I was outed. I wanted to meet women who would say, “Oh, you’re lesbian! Oh, you brave thing. How different! How radical.”
… And I did. I met them, and it was perfect. I was 17 and I moved to a town in the north of England called Leeds where the first revolutionary feminist group had been formed. Their understanding was, very straightforwardly, men are the enemy. They didn’t believe every man is bad or that every relationship within heterosexuality is doomed to failure, but they believed that men are a sex class with oppressor power, like white people in South Africa. They said, “We’ve got to overturn this stuff, or we’ll never be liberated.”
Jess: That’s a really interesting story. I’d love to hear more about it but perhaps I’ll save that for another time.
So, I’ve noticed that you’re the newest target of the “take away her job” lobby. I’m sure you’ve noticed that. I’m wondering who exactly is driving this specific change.org petition.
Julie: Misogynistic men’s rights activists. Actually, I’m very lucky. I don’t really have a job for them to take away.
Jess: [laughs] That’s good.
Julie: I’m not really employable. I don’t want a job. I’m a writer. I’m a journalist. I’m a feminist activist. I do research on the sex trade and its harms for a number of organizations around the world. I could not care less.
I do care about my sisters who have jobs and are being bullied out of them. I care about the motives involved, and I care about the women who have been bullied by the really misogynistic individuals in the trans lobby and the really misogynistic individuals in the queer lobby (the people involved in no-platforming are the minorities within both the trans and the queer lobby).
I care about the fact that I can make what is actually a very old-movement joke about sending men to a kind of enclosed holiday camp where they could kind of play around on their quad bikes and then have it willfully misinterpreted to say that I, somehow, want them in a nazi concentration camp. It’s a disgrace and it’s sickening and it’s so clear what they’re doing. They’re laughable. They’re riseable, but at least they’re showing themselves in terms of what they are and who they are.
… But I’m 53. I’ve got a really long track record in the movement. I am lucky enough to have a home, lots of love in my life, a supportive family, and great friends and colleagues. I really care about the younger women with less fortunate circumstances than I who are having this treatment because it can drive you to a nervous breakdown. I mean, I have been getting this shit all my life from men, and then when I wrote about Vancouver Rape Relief in 2004, things got really, seriously full-on with pickets and boycotts and threats to grants that I might get for research about violence against women.
So, I know what it feels like, but I feel for the women that are having to deal with this shit in their twenties and thirties who don’t have the backing that I’ve got. The men’s rights activists and other people that support them are purposefully trying to, at best, shut these women up and, at worst, drive them to take their lives or go seriously mad. This is horrific. They want us to die.
Jess: I believe it.
So, I’m interested in strategies for younger women, for dealing with the backlash. What would you suggest? I’m nervous for myself because I’ve been very public in supporting the Nordic Model [of prostitution law] and I’ve been upfront about my feminist views. I’m 28 and interested in media involvement. What are your recommendations for surviving that backlash and the culture involved no-platforming, taking away women’s jobs, and taking away women’s livelihoods?
Julie: Okay, they won’t do it. They will not win. I promise you. They cannot take away our jobs or our platforms unless we want to work directly within the men’s rights movement or the queer movement, which, I think — morally, ethically, and politically — we should avoid doing. So they can’t do it because we are part of a global movement that is right, and it’s ethical, and it’s a good movement.
It’s for the good of all people. Men are hurt by patriarchy — although they also massively benefit from it — which we don’t. So, you are part of a righteous movement, a good movement, and you have to locate yourself within that movement. You cannot operate as a sole trader; you cannot operate as a little clique outside of it. You have to identify yourself as part of a political cause.
It’s exactly like anyone on the Left. If you’re not part of the trades union movement, but you’re for worker’s rights, forget it. You have to be within it, and you have to say, “This is my movement. These are my sisters. These are my male allies (who really are allies),” and then you have to operate within that movement properly, and courteously.
In other words, we have to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with having older mentors, or mentors that have been in the movement for longer. We have to recognize that those of us who have a little bit more experience and can do a bit more support, nurturing, and mentoring, should do it. Younger women should be open to that. We have to take care of each other.
Recognize that our movement is as strong and as global and as powerful as the civil rights movement, as the trades union worker’s rights movement, and any other movement that we’re in. Then we will start to see misogynistic attackers as mavericks, as losers, and as floating around in the wilderness.
Remember this. When we have a job that is unpaid but that we value, that crosses over between feminism and the queer, trendy movement, remember that actually, even if you’re straddling that fine line, they still won’t take our jobs. They still won’t get us sacked because we’re on the side of the law and of righteousness (in a non-religious, non-puritanical way).
We can actually say, “No, this is pure discrimination and hatred. This is oppressive behaviour. We actually have done nothing wrong.”
Using the term “whorephobic” against those of us who say there are women harmed in the sex trade or saying that we’re being racist when we argue that the sex trade is abusive will not be fruitful. There are enough black women who are survivors of the sex industry who will have our backs. This is why we need to be in a movement.
Jess: Thank you.
You’re writing a new book. Can you tell readers a bit about it?
Julie: It will come out in 2016. It’s very much an investigative journalistic style travelogue, in a way. It’s looking at what we know about the sex trade and who we know it from. Most people do have a view on the sex trade and on prostitution and most of those people don’t have a clue about it at all.
So, who are we learning this from? What are we teaching people about the sex trade? What are the myths? Where are the bits of misinformation coming from on either side, whether it be the sex worker’s rights side or the feminist abolitionist side. How is the truth obscured by some of the damaging alliances we might choose, such as that with the Christian right. How does it differ from country to country — does it differ? What are the survivors saying? What are the feminist campaigners against male violence saying and what are the sex worker’s rights activists saying?
Who are the sex workers rights activists? Are they former sex workers or current sex workers, as they would say? Are they more profiteers of the sex industry? Are they libertarian men who think men have the right to access sex with women as long as they pay? What can be done about the harms in the industry? Is the feminist abolitionist and human rights-based voice now starting to challenge what used to be the louder, clearer narrative of the sex workers rights lobby?
I went to a number of countries researching this, and I’ve spoken to people from all sides — though, obviously more abolitionists than sex workers rights activists. Though, I spent a solid three hours with a male who described himself as a current sex worker and a sex worker’s rights activists, a french young man based in Paris. I have interviewed a few sex workers rights activists but, in the main, they say no because I’m very clear and transparent about what I’m doing. So that’s what the book is.
Jess: Fantastic. I found your advice earlier very inspiring. If you had one message for young feminists, what would it be?
Recognize that you are on the right track. Belonging to the queer movement is never going to deal with discrimination from men and the depression that you face as a result of patriarchy.
Stick to feminism and stick to a feminism that names men — or male supremacy or patriarchy, whatever you want to call it — rather than blaming “the state” or “class” as if they are beings floating around all on their own. Stick to something grounded in material reality.
Race and class are hugely important and we have to realize that not all women are the same, but the only thing that unites women everywhere is the threat and reality of men’s sexual violence — other than that we’re all very different. That is for sure. However, what does link us — men’s sexual violence — is huge and it is the thing above everything else that curtails our involvement in civil society and that leaves us behind when we’re thinking about how we can live fulfilled lives.
I would also say to young feminists, care more about the women at the bottom than you would ever give a hoot about in terms of the glass ceiling. Don’t worry about that. Worry about the women at the bottom. Our politics have to be from the bottom-up or we will be an elitist, bourgeois women’s movement.
And that’s never what feminism was supposed to be.