This article was originally posted at Manyfesto and has been republished with permission from the author, Taryn Fivek.
What is postfeminism? Allegedly it is the space where we can move past feminism, where feminism no longer holds appeal to women and where it can even be harmful to women. As Melissa Gira Grant writes:
The patriarchy’s figured out a way to outsource hatred of prostitution. They’re just going to have women do it for them.
Grant, who has two last names and is a former sex worker (to be specific: a prostitute, not a pimp) claims that patriarchy, an amorphous “they” not rooted in material reality, has outsourced the oppression of women to women themselves. This is an argument made by many who claim that women are the ones who cut other women in other parts of the world, who participate in forcing early marriage or abuse other women in the family. Then Grant gets more specific:
I wouldn’t advocate for a feminism that’s buttoned-up and divorced of the messiness of our real lives. Your feelings are your feelings, but you’re not going to litigate your feelings about my body. The feminist ethics that I signed up for were respect for my bodily autonomy, that my experience is my experience, and that I’m an expert in my own life.
What is postfeminism? It is a desire for control over one’s destiny. It is the hope that someday, no one will call you any names or discriminate against you based on your sex. Yet, when this individual oppression ends – the oppression against prostitutes, against trans women, against my right to choose, against me, will this have achieved female liberation?
The postfeminism of today is deeply rooted in neoliberal atomization. A single female’s experiences are just as valid as any other female’s experience. A wealthy white woman who “makes the choice” to become a prostitute – her choice is equally valid as the poor woman of colour who “makes the choice” to become a prostitute. Postfeminism promises the liberation of individual women, but not females. These individuals are fighting against “patriarchy”, a concept that is not individualized or even rooted in material manifestations. Rather, it is as amorphous as its own concept: a male slapping a woman, a man cat-calling a woman, or a man who makes a sexist remark at work is patriarchy rearing its ugly head from the aether. Yet a culture of objectification, where women are plastered up like slabs of meat for sale in phone booths, where women dance for money, where women continue to make $.70 on the dollar; this is not considered a war against women. After all – a woman may now make the individual “choice” to engage in these acts, in these careers, may make the individual “choice” not to bear children to get ahead in business. Acts of violence against my body are crimes against women – but larger systems of oppression suddenly become more complex, more bogged down in uncertainty as we must learn to understand that these systems are made up of individuals who have the capacity to make “choices”.
It astounds me that leftists who might otherwise deride the idea of free choice under a capitalist system make all sorts of room for women like Grant to write privileged accounts of the system of oppression called the “sex trade”. Broader women’s movements such as the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network might feel as though an abolitionist stance on prostitution is right and good, but, as Grant would say, they are “privileged” in that their voices are louder than hers – the voice that enjoys prostitution believes that sex work is feminist work. Indeed, the other voices aren’t heard as loudly as the abolitionists “because they’re working”. This amorphous group of women who are pleased as punch to be working as sexual objects for sale are quiet, a silent majority cowed into silence by angry groups of feminist women who claim that 90% of women want out of prostitution.
If the voice of a “queer woman who dates women in her non-sex-work life and has sex with men for work” is not heard as much as the loud majority of feminists who want an end to prostitution, this is because women who “choose” sex work, who come at it from a political perspective of “empowerment” are in the extreme minority. But the individual reigns supreme over the masses in postfeminism just as it does in neoliberalism. When a woman demands her “right to choose”, she is demanding her right. She is situating feminism in a sphere where she does not feel fettered by her sex, where she personally has the ability to pursue whatever she wants. If she is a stripper and a man touches her inappropriately, this is a battle in the war against male domination - but the very institution that shapes his thinking is not in and of itself oppressive. Male domination is boiled down to the individual, becomes a question of one human exerting his will over another’s in an unfair way. It is no longer about systems of oppression, cultures of abuse, or industries of suffering. We are boiled down once again to our individual experiences.
A single person cannot change the world because change is the prerogative of the people. There is no such thing as a mass movement of individuals – they might all be walking in the same direction, but they are checking their smartphones and turning off onto a side street the moment they are required to check their egos at the door.
Melissa Gira Grant’s views are not just dangerous because they blame women themselves for their own oppression – either as angry sex-negative feminists or individuals who just make “bad choices”. They are dangerous because they shift the blame away from male violence and domination and continue to trump the experiences of a privileged few over the many. Why won’t these leftist blogs and magazines run a counter article to this kind of perspective?* Anything else would be hypocritical. Perhaps it is simply not what leftist men want to hear: that their individual enjoyment is not the purpose of female liberation.
Taryn Fivek is a writer in New York City.
*Editor’s note: This article is written from an American perspective and it should be noted that there are some leftist and progressive publications in Canada who publish diverse, feminist perspectives on the issue of prostitution, such as rabble.ca