Radical feminism has a humanity problem

Radical feminism has shaped my worldview, my politics, my relationships, and my work over the past two decades. When I was in my 20s, its approach to things like pornography and prostitution empowered me to stop questioning my discomfort with things I was told were fun, sexy, and harmless, like pornography and strip clubs, and instead to understand why I found these things and this imagery so uncomfortable and depressing, and why they turned me off, not on. I was able to understand and explain why self-objectification and male attention did not, in and of themselves, empower women in the long term. Radical feminism offered early predictions and critiques of transgenderism long before trans activism took over as the issue du jour. It offered me an invaluable alternative to the third wave non-feminism fed to me during my formative years as well as in academia. But, as powerful as that was, I learned that radical feminism also has its limits and flaws, and have grown evermore frustrated to see this denied by acolytes. I’ve observed people carried away by theory and consequently carried away from real life and humanity. And I think it is important that the women’s movement remain grounded in reality and not trade compassion for ideological rigidity, lest we embrace the very same patterns as those we criticize as hateful hypocrites.

There is a difference between theory and how we actually approach real life and real people, and, in that sense, radical feminism has developed a rather ironic problem.

Of late, I’ve been disappointed to observe that radical feminists can be not only incredibly dehumanizing, but also misogynist.

I say this is “ironic” because my work has, for many years, consisted of criticizing things like objectification and porn culture, and has often centered around the ways these things dehumanize women, presenting them as primarily things to be fucked — things that exist to titillate men but that reduce them to one-dimensional objects. I’ve argued many times over that this enables violence against women, because it seems obvious to me that when you don’t see a person as a full, complex human being with thoughts and emotions and desires and feelings, but rather as a series of body parts and/or holes that exist for your use and pleasure, it’s much easier to be cruel or abusive towards them. I’ve argued that porn culture teaches men to compartmentalize sex, so that it isn’t about an experience you share with another human being you care for and respect, but a thing you do to another person so you get what you want (or, I suppose, I thing that is done to you).

So much mainstream pornography teaches the viewer that women are up for anything (no need to ask), that pain is pleasure, that violence is sexy, and that scenarios that are abusive (including incest and the sexualization of underage girls) are harmless fantasies.

But there are other ways to dehumanize people. Perhaps not all as severe, but in general I’d say we need a lot more humanization, empathy, and understanding in this world, rather than less. And I’ve observed a level of binary, rigid thinking that reduces people to one-dimensional figures, rather than complex human beings worthy of respect and understanding, as well as a troubling level of misogyny, within radical feminist approaches, that I don’t feel comfortable with.

Radical feminism presents itself as a movement for women’s humanity, which men, under male supremacy, have denied. It presents itself as a movement that will allow everyone’s true humanity to shine through — no more violence, oppression, or abuse. So, again, it feels very ironic to me that under the guise of “doing radical feminism” women are treating those who fail to repeat the proper mantras or agree unquestioningly with so-called radical feminist analysis/politics (which is the vast majority of the population) as enemies or as just plain stupid.

I think where we go wrong is in taking “the personal is political” mantra too literally. Theory is not meant to be applied directly to life — to indviduals. It is a way to analyze the world around you, systems, practices, patterns, and so on and so forth. Theory is just ideas, at the end of the day, and while it can help us understand certain phenomena, it should not be treated as a rule book, in terms of how we approach every person, situation, or relationship. Yet many radical feminists have done just that.

This may be something particular to young women, new to radical feminism (and very excited about the discovery), and very online. When we are young, we have not yet learned that the world is a very complicated place, and that the people within it are very complicated as a result. We may not have learned that those complications are understandable, and not necessarily indicative of innate badness. We have not learned how flawed we all are, and that despite our best efforts, we continue to make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. And that people who are different than us may not be making mistakes at all, but pursuing different goals or have different worldviews, which we may simply not understand. As young women, we are often very angry (I was) — we feel powerless and have likely been subjected to sexism we did not know how to respond to, or even harassment and abuse. Radical feminism offers a reason for and a solution to much of this, or claims to… It makes sense that young women would want to spread the word, and it also makes sense that their approach would be less than nuanced. (When I was younger, I absolutely thought “nuance” was a bad word.) Especially in a social media culture that values hyperbole and simplicity over wisdom, generosity, and shades of grey.

But I don’t think it’s just that. I think that because feminism is so much about women’s lives — in many cases, very personal, intimate aspects of their lives (their marriages, families, partners, and sexualities, for example), it doesn’t feel like just politics. It doesn’t feel like just a theory one reads about in a book. It can feel very intimate, personal, emotional, and triggering. I mean, we are often talking about things like abuse and sexual assault, never mind about how our boyfriends treat us and how we have sex. And I think this is why radical feminism can feel so powerful to some women, and why they might see it as the answer to their as well as the world’s problems. I’ve been there — I get it.

But it’s not true. And it’s not the answer.

The world and people’s lives and problems (including women’s problems) are too complex for that. Which is why there are so few radical feminists in the world. The notion that men who don’t subscribe to radical feminist ideas should be ostracized or rejected from our lives — clearly bad and not to be trusted — is never going to fly with most women, who not only have a variety of connections to various men, for various reasons, and aren’t going to kick them all to the curb because they aren’t sufficiently schooled in and impassioned about theory that most women aren’t even impassioned about or schooled in. Being a nice or good guy doesn’t require a specific politic. Nor does being treated as a human being, worthy of respect.

In general, it is weird to approach life and people with a “my way or the highway” attitude. If you expect your friends, family, and intimate partners to agree with all your politics and ideologies, you are sure to be disappointed, as well as, in my opinion, very bored. I feel like this is something I wish I’d known earlier, instead of wasting my time arguing with or trying to convince all of my boyfriends to perform a mind, body, and soul 180 to match my women’s studies degree.

Now, I am not suggesting women don’t have expectations and boundaries — those are a must. But I think there needs to be a balance between those expectations and boundaries, and also having flexibility, understanding, and compassion. I think too many self-defined radical feminists advocate isolation over understanding (or choose isolation over understanding), which not only limits our ability to effect change, but limits our ability to effectively analyze what is going on in the world around us. I’ve found so many radical feminists to be deeply out of touch with what real men and women care about, think, and do in their day to day lives, on account of limiting their engagement to online radical feminist circles that not only treat men like despicable creatures, incapable of change and undeserving of compassion, but who treat women who are insufficiently hardened and inflexible, in terms of their approach to men, life, sex, and politics, as pathetic, stupid, handmaidens, so blinded by dick they can’t think straight.

Which brings me to my second concern: radical feminism veers far too quickly into misogyny for a movement that claims to exist to eradicate misogyny.

What feminist movement treats 95 per cent of women as stupid idiots, too blinded by emotion or sexual desire to think rationally and make choices that are right for them? The vast majority of women on this planet are heterosexual and will partner with men, yet I have been accused countless times (and have seen many other women treated similarly) of having been rendered incapable of rational thought because I am so enamoured with men. If heterosexual women are all compromised and not to be trusted, in terms of their politicking (which I’ve seen said many times online by self-described “radfems”), this means the vast majority of women cannot be trusted to engage with feminism or politics in general. Does this sound at all familiar? Maybe similar to the way women were said to be too irrational and emotional to vote or participate in politics before the suffragettes won women the right to vote?

The level of sexualized vitriol I’ve witnessed, aimed at women, by women who call themselves “radfems” online is astounding. I’m not sure at what point women learned to do feminism by attacking women based on their sexualities, appearances, or personal lives, but it is revolting and will only serve to push women as far away from radical feminism as they can get. Believe it or not, most people prefer happiness, connection, and intimacy over bitter pontification.

Moreover, if we are writing off the majority of men as dangerous misogynists, incapable of change and unworthy of compassion on account of their own misdeeds and patriarchal blinders, what exactly is the aim, here? A separate planet? If we are never to work with or ally with men on any issue, how can we realistically expect to accomplish anything? If we can’t be bothered to “educate” (or rather, engage) those who aren’t already on board, how can we expect anyone to ever understand our perspectives? If there is no point in talking to or listening to men, can we really expect them to talk to or listen to us?

I find the whole approach so inhumane and disconnected from the real world, considering most people I know — men and women alike — are not bad people, but rather just people engaged with their own lives and interests. They may well be wrong or shortsighted, but most are well-intentioned, and it’s worthwhile to remember this rather than writing off anyone who votes differently than us or doesn’t view certain issues in the same way we do as bad or hateful. (It’s worth remembering, also, that we are written off in the exact same way and, presumably, would like not to be.)

Women-centered activism and organizing can be fine and worthwhile when we are dealing with specific, woman-centered issues, but that model should not be applied to all movement-building, politicking, or life. It is completely crazy to cut yourself off from half of the population and assume this will somehow be the thing that helps build a better world and effect change.

Treat feminism as what it was originally meant to be: a movement to gain women rights, and to fight sex-based discrimination. Fight male violence against women and work to ensure women can operate as freely and as autonomously as possible, within a world where of course we must depend on others (no woman is an island, either). Radical feminism is not a lifestyle or a guide to life. It offers useful tools and analysis, but does not provide all tools and analysis. If you truly wish to understand the world and those around you, you must broaden your horizons and dig deeper.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. 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 lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her very beautiful dog.