20/03/2017 12:34 GMT | Updated 21/03/2018 05:12 GMT

Feminism That Doesn't Challenge Male Entitlement Isn't Feminism


Once upon a time, feminism was a social movement. It was a movement by and for women. It had actual objectives - like liberating women from male oppression. It meant something.

Nowadays, with the popularity of third wave liberal feminism, feminism* can be whatever you want it to be. Anybody can be a feminist, including men, and any act can be a 'feminist' statement- even if it upholds institutions and structures that oppress and harm women as a whole - it's all good as long as a woman 'chooses' it.

While feminists in decades past fought against the objectification of women, believing it contributed to our second-class status, this same sexualising treatment has been repackaged as female empowerment or women owning their sexuality (which incidentally tends to be indistinguishable from the porn-inspired fantasies of heterosexual men... go figure). Empowerment, it appears, means women being reduced to object status on their own terms.

Women are similarly encouraged to 'free their nipples' in the name of 'sex-positive' feminism*, because get-your-tits-out-for-the-boys is perceived as a revolutionary act subverting the status quo while keeping attention firmly on our bodies and how they look rather than on what we're saying or doing- and do men care why we're getting our tops off, as long as they're off?

While many liberal feminists acknowledge that mainstream porn falls short, failing to represent healthy sexuality or female pleasure, they argue the answer is better quality porn - so-called feminist porn. However, the bar for what constitutes feminist porn is set very low, with content frequently reflecting the same gendered power dynamics and even the same violence against women. Pornography featuring women being subjected to degrading or violent sex acts, such as choking, can be categorised as feminist porn if it is produced by a woman or includes diverse body types. Way to smash the patriarchy...

Even the commodification of women and girls in the global sex trade can be regarded as feminist now. Sex industry profiteers and lobbyists go to great lengths to reframe the purchase of female flesh by men not as exploitation and abuse, but as an exercise in women's choice and autonomy, despite survivors telling a very different story. Many enter the industry as children, destitute and without viable alternatives, and go on to experience routine violence and according to research, levels of trauma comparable with that of war veterans.

How can proponents of a movement to end the oppression of women support an industry that requires an underclass of vulnerable women, including indigenous women and women of colour, available for men to access for sex? In today's feminism, "paid rape", as survivors put it, becomes 'sex work', women are expected to embrace their objectification, find empowerment in being commoditised and cheerfully submit to their subordination. Ask yourself, who benefits from this?

Rather than challenging male entitlement to women's bodies, encouraging men to consider their participation in a patriarchal system or to reflect on the privileges and benefits they enjoy as males at the top of the gender hierarchy, this watered down version of feminism challenges nothing. It requires nothing of men. In fact, it has made men so comfortable that some feel justified in schooling women on feminism when they fail to conform to a form of feminism* that privileges men's orgasms over women's basic human rights.

Women who speak about the exploitative nature of the sex industry are frequently met with opposition from men, particularly sex buyers who have a vested interest in keeping women and girls available for their sexual use. These men are suddenly so concerned about feminism, about defending a woman's right to choose prostitution (they're so heroic). How dare we try to take away women's 'choices' to sexually service them? If you can't see just how ludicrous this sentiment is, imagine the same discussion but with a slave owner fighting for the rights of slaves to choose slavery.

It's time to get radical. Time to revisit Catharine MacKinnon's notion of 'feminism unmodified'. The women's liberation movement is the one place that is ours, the one place where we can centre the interests of women, and we must be bold and unflinching as we challenge male entitlement to women's bodies. If men like our feminism and if it gives them erections, we're doing it wrong. As Andrea Dworkin said, "I'm a radical feminist, not the fun kind."

*not feminism