‘Big Tent’ feminism? Sounds great. Feels a lot like the status quo.

What is it that one means when arguing for ‘Big Tent’ feminism? Inclusivity, for sure, ‘non-judgment’, perhaps, and diversity, well….maybe. While the argument for ‘Big Tent’ feminism, frequently written about by Hugo Schwyzer, who also writes for The Good Men Project, is posited as being simply about allowing space for various perspectives and positions in feminism, the discourse, at times, seems to do the opposite.

Including prostituted women or women who work in the sex industry in feminism is excellent. These voices are just as much a part of feminism as anyone’s. That isn’t up for discussion. The issue that many feminists have had with Schwyzer’s ‘Big Tent’ feminism, placed as a counter-argument to those who question the positioning of the sex industry as an ally to feminist activism, is not that we wish to exclude women from the movement. Rather it is the positioning of the sex industry as a space for female empowerment. The sex industry is not, and has never been a feminist space. It is, in large part, a space that is owned by, and operated for men. It is a space that treats women as commodities.

As one commenter, with the screen name ‘SheilaG’,  pointed out on Schwyzer’s recent post, “Big Tent Feminism, Sex Workers, and SlutWalk LA”:

“It’s not big tent feminism at all, it’s the backing of women as commodities in global capitalism, and white exploitation of women of  color… the usual clueless strategies that don’t end rape…,don’t stop men from raping and degrading, [and doesn't] change anything really.”

And I would tend to agree. This version of ‘Big Tent’ feminism, rather then making space for various women, feminisms, and, most importantly, actually making progressive change, works to limit the conversation and further erases and marginalizes the already marginalized.

Painting sex work as an autonomous choice and arguing that those who challenge this perspective are being exclusive is frequently used as a tactic by those who use terms like ‘sex-positive’ or ‘non-judgmental’ in their responses to those feminists who are critical of pornography and prostitution. ‘Sex-positivity’, a term that has become increasingly popular within some 3rd wave or postfeminist discourse, is problematic in a number of ways, not least of which being the innate implication that, seeing as there is such a thing as being ‘sex-positive’ there must be such a thing as ‘sex-negative’ which, of course, is bullshit. This terminology not only creates an unnecessary and non-existent divide among women and feminists, but it seems to have come from ye old backlash recycling program; reproducing convenient stereotypes about the man-hating, sex-hating feminist, whose arguments, of course, are easily dismissed as looney as she is so clouded by her anger and lack of getting laid.

These conversations, led by a supposed sex positive or non-judgmental point of departure often, in their efforts to frame everything as a-ok, don’t include the context of patriarchy and misogyny; they often don’t include the fact that most women who are prostituted or trafficked do not have the ‘choice’. They don’t include the way in which porn plays a huge role in sexualizing women of colour and perpetuating the idea that female bodies are consumable and exist for male pleasure. They don’t include the fact that one group’s activism might well be very harmful or oppressive to another group.

How big is your ‘tent’ when it means more women are trafficked? When it means that more men think that purchasing a woman is actually empowering her, because, you know, he’s paying her for the use of her body? Or when it means that some women are silenced by those very loud and popular voices who argue for the status quo? And yes, these voices are the loudest, and the most popular because they tell us what we want to hear. They reinforce the fantasy. They allow us to continue to be complicit in the exploitation and degradation of women. They allow us to ignore the fact that money is coercive. The playing field is not leveled because women are paid to be objectified, though it does tell us that which we already know: women need to survive in this world too.

Every woman has a right to say no. I happen to believe that pornography and prostitution make it harder for her to do so.

So this ‘Big Tent? I don’t think it’s so big. I think it’s pretty roomy in there so long as you are not radical, so long as you don’t name the root of the problem, and so long as you don’t mention the way in which this ‘Big Tent’ can be, at times, complicit in further marginalizing women. Responding, ‘Big Tent’ feminism, to those who do challenge the porn industry or prostitution ends the conversation, rather than encouraging it. And while it alludes to a kind of ‘anything goes over here’ feminism, the fact is that, within feminism, anything doesn’t go. Sexism doesn’t go, neither does misogyny, neither does rape or abuse. And I don’t feel welcome or interested in a ‘Big Tent’ that says my body, or any other woman’s body for that matter, is for sale.

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18 Comments on “‘Big Tent’ feminism? Sounds great. Feels a lot like the status quo.”

  • Oh man, I just looked at Hugo Schwyzer’s post and it totally reminded me of that Samuel dude’s whining.

    “I’ve taken the expected flak for my role as an organizer. At this point, I’m used to it; as the kids say, the “haters be hatin’.” Though the ad hominem attacks are as familiar as they are both tiresome and ineffective, they did raise one particular issue worth touching on: the role of sex workers and their allies in SlutWalk.”

    It’s uncanny how dudes think alike. And each one is convinced they have a unique perspective that we have never heard before.

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    • “each one is convinced they have a unique perspective that we have never heard before”

      I know! How do they manage that? This cloud of belief that they and only they know the truth, and that nobody else had thought of that before. What makes them believe that they are that special?

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  • I think you’re right about a lot of stuff here. It’s true that very little has been done from sex-positive circles to shift things from the “it’s all good” position to one of more discernment. As a result, it continues to focus on the “freedom to” side of things without giving much thought to the question of helping people find the “freedom from” exploitation, assault, and force. Rather than keeping the pendulum swinging, my hope is to find ways to hold onto both pieces, but it isn’t easy.

    At the same time, I do think it’s worth pointing out that sex-negativity does actually exist. There’s a couple of thousand years worth of cultural history that continues to say that the only sex that is redeemed from sin is potentially procreative sex within heterosexual monogamous marriage. There are still laws within the US and other countries calling common sexual practices that cause no harm “abominable and detestable crimes against nature.” And there continues to be plenty of tension (and often, outright hostility) within social justice movements such as feminism with respect to queers and sexual diversity. So on that basis, I think it’s reasonable to say that there is such a thing as “sex-negative”. I have plenty of personal experience that tells me that the fact that someone identifies as a feminist doesn’t mean they’ve let go of those influences. Granted, almost nobody identifies as “sex-negative”, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t saying and doing sex-negative things.

    IMO, what sex-positivity has to offer is the notion that the value of a sexual act isn’t measured by what the act is. Instead, it’s assessed by looking at the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the participants and the people affected by their actions. Within that, sex-positive ethics would absolutely take a strong stand against trafficking, sexual assault, and all other forms of coercion and violence. And it can also make room for discussion about what “freedom to” means in a culture that commodifies desire. But then, one could have some similar discussions about food choices, too.

    Unfortunately, it’s much easier to get attention with the “anything goes” approach, just as SlutWalk gets lots of attention as a result of the word “slut.” And that makes it even harder to explore the important nuances of the issues.

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    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks for your comments, Charlie. I hear you about the ‘sex-negativity’ coming from the religious right for sure. That said, that doesn’t seem to be what the ‘sex-positive’ quotient of feminists are referring to…There seems to be a whole lot of lumping in of radical and anti-porn feminists with the right and a kind of confusion around anti-porn or abolitionist perspectives which paints those arguments as being ‘sex-negative’. And therein lies my problem with the term. So yes! Exactly this: “Within that, sex-positive ethics would absolutely take a strong stand against trafficking, sexual assault, and all other forms of coercion and violence.”. I mean, my abolitionist perspective and my critique of pornography, I believe is ‘sex-positive’! BUT I do not identify as such because most of those who do identify as ‘sex-positive’ seem to use it, as I say above, as a conversation-ender and as a way to defend the kind of ‘anything goes’ mentality. I just feel like it’s a line that does not need to be painted through feminism(s) as it’s meaning seems to be delusive in these contexts.

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    • Charlie, I think you’re being disingenuous. What radical feminists (or anti-porn feminists ) have you spoken to that think potentially procreative PIV sex within heterosexual monogamous marriage is the only type of sex that is “okay”? Do you not agree that “sex-positive” is primarily used to distinguish oneself from feminists who are anti-pornography/prostitution and/or who think about sexual desire critically? This sex-negativity that you describe isn’t occurring in the porn/prostitution/sex debates among feminists though.

      If what you describe is what sex-negativity genuinely is, then Gail Dines is not sex-negative. Andrea Dworkin is not sex-negative. There is no radical feminist in the history of humankind who is sex-negative. It does however mean that far too many sex-positive feminists have been spreading lies about other women in order to discredit their opinions in the eyes of the patriarchy.

      So, I guess I’m trying to say, what is your point exactly?

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  • I think we’re talking about different things here and that we’re probably in closer agreement than it seems at first. Sorry for any lack of clarity on my part.

    In my experience, much of the difficulty around this stems from the shaming language that often gets used by feminists (among other people), rather than the underlying message. Given that shame has been used to control sexuality by sex-negative people for so long, and that shame is very triggering, it’s pretty easy for the message to be lost. I wrote this piece about that.

    I think that another source of the difficulty comes from the tendency of some feminists or radical feminists to make statements about the meanings of sexual practices without making room for other people to have very different experiences. This is also something that is used to enforce sex-negativity and is also often triggering. While I can make some guesses about someone else’s well-being, ultimately, I can only make room for them to explore it. I have heard more than a few radical feminists refuse to hear or believe someone who experiences things differently than they say that they do or should. And in my experience, any sexual act or practice can be done in ways that support well-being, just as it can be done in ways that hinder it. Judging the act rather than listening to the experiences of the people who do it is a problem, IMO.

    In both of these dynamics, feminists and sex-negative people often use the same tools: shame and sweeping statements. That makes it really hard to distinguish between the two, which I think explains why the responses are often so similar. I think it’s totally possible to develop discernment around these issues and to talk about them without using these mechanisms and I’d like to see more people do that.

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    • I don’t think we’re in close agreement. I mean, I’m willing to believe you have good intentions, but I don’t think you’re achieving or advocating anything that combats the problems talked about here.

      1. How are feminists supposed to develop “discernment” around these issues without using shaming language? What constitutes shaming language? How does one point out that certain practices are overwhelmingly used to degrade/abuse women without shaming those few who enjoy them for other reasons? Is it even possible to critically examine these issues without, as you say, shaming?

      “In both of these dynamics, feminists and sex-negative people often use the same tools: shame and sweeping statements. That makes it really hard to distinguish between the two..”

      No, it isn’t hard to tell the difference between the two. It really isn’t. You know we come from completely antithetical viewpoints. Gail Dines does not sound like the Pope.

      2.. “Judging the act rather than listening to the experiences of the people who do it is a problem, IMO.” I don’t know specifically what you are talking about, but I don’t know any radfems who don’t “listen” to peoples’ experiences. On the contrary, I’ve found that they often come to their conclusions based on peoples’ descriptions of their experiences. But, if listening requires agreeing with their theories, no critical analysis can be made.

      3. “Given that shame has been used to control sexuality by sex-negative people for so long, and that shame is very triggering, it’s pretty easy for the message to be lost.”

      No. Trigger is a word created by and for rape victims. For you, to use it as an exclamation of your discomfort with people not approving of your sexual practices, is a slap in the face to victims. This is a disgusting appropriation of oppressed people’s language. Sex-negatives and feminists not approving of you is not sexual abuse. How dare you conflate the two and call yourself a feminist.

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      • @No Sugarcoating

        My use of the word “trigger” is a bit different from yours and I don’t limit it to sexual assault survivors. In my view, it can also be used to talk about any trauma. For example, if someone lives through a house fire and afterwards, finds that the smell of smoke evokes feelings of intense fear, I would call that a trigger. Post-traumatic stress disorder isn’t limited to sexual assault survivors.

        From that perspective, I do think it’s fair to say that shaming people can be triggering. A lot of people experience toxic and traumatic shaming, especially around sexuality, and having someone say or do something shaming to them can most certainly trigger that. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, and I know that I’m not the only one who has. If you find that use of the term “triggering” problematic, no offense is meant. It’s a very similar mechanism, regardless of what trauma is the underlying cause. I’m not conflating sexual assault and disapproval. I’m saying that using language that triggers shame makes it hard (and often, impossible) for the message to be heard.

        I do think that it is absolutely possible, and in fact imperative, to talk about the effects of people’s actions without shaming them. For that matter, it’s possible to call people out and to set boundaries without shaming people. It’s a harder thing to practice, and it’s certainly possible.

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  • anarchofeminist

    Thanks for the great post, Meghan! My hatred for Hugo’s politics is well-documented but I just wanted to remind everyone what the Good Men Project is really about. They abuse the online community’s goodwill with spamming campaigns. They’re a marketing parasite. There are 46 reports of their spamming campaign on reddit alone (I don’t know where else they spam but seeing what they do to reddit I assume marketing spam that tenacious has to go on elsewhere as well): http://www.reddit.com/r/reportthespammers/search?q=goodmenproject&restrict_sr=on&sort=relevance

    Thanks again Meghan for fighting the good fight!

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  • There is a level of self-marginalization within the radfem circles. Lots of righteous anger and complaining about not being heard while not pursuing avenues available TO be heard.
    I think SlutWalk is a perfect example. For those who have a very different take, show up with your own focus, signs and take on it and put that message out there. As you pointed out, Meghan, one group changed the name to WeWalk (Atlanta, I think), so the opportunity is there.
    SlutWalk LA with its “big tent” character would be welcoming as long as there wasn’t an ideological fight, but two “factions” of feminism marching side-by-side, each with their own take.
    It sometimes seems that the radical movement prefers to sideline themselves to maintain the “purity” of their ideology rather than make some gains by joining with those with whom they share partial beliefs.
    We both have radio shows and platforms, Meghan, and believe in giving voice to others. In putting together my show on this, I invited the SlutWalk LA organizers and multiple critics. Guess who responded? We were ignored by most and outright refused by another.
    I don’t write this to blame. As a social activist who well understands the limited opportunites to speak our minds, I am frustrated by a lack of interest in an offered platform.
    I ended up doing my best to express the voices of the critics in their absence so as to, at a minimum, have my audience hear a different take from the organizers.

    (I don’t know if my posting of our FB website will work. You can find us as Chasing the Why on Facebook.)

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    • Meghan Murphy

      I’m not sure why someone who was ideologically opposed to, or had been erased and marginalized by a certain organization or event would want to just join in and ‘bring their own signs’…? This argument that radical groups marginalize themselves by staying true to their beliefs is a common one, but I’m not sure it is productive to argue that those who are ‘too’ radical or who oppose the mainstream or the status quo are ‘sidelining themselves’. Should we go along with that which we are opposed to in order to be visible? I just don’t really get the argument here.

      Who is it that ignored or refused you? And why? Slutwalk LA has (had) a vested interest in promoting their own event so of course they welcome media coverage. I would have been happy to have spoken as a critic had I known ahead of time. I certainly have shown interest in any platform offered. When there have been none I have made my own. I am sorry to hear that the critics you approached did not want to be involved, but I do not think that necessarily should lead us to a conclusion that says we are marginalizing ourselves. The privileged voices are always those who support the status quo. I’m not going to walk under the banner of something I disagree with ideologically just because I’m afraid of not being seen or heard. Guess why Slutwalk has been so visible?? Because they catered to dominant ideology – they played around with sexist and oppressive language and images and sold their event based on an inclusivity that was dishonest. That was inclusive to white men. This just doesn’t present enough of a challenge, as far as I’m concerned, and ignores the roots of sexism and rape culture.

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      • Unless you genuinely believe that the intent behind SlutWalk is NOT to reduce sexual violence and simply to pander for what, the sake of pandering?, then it is disingenuous to say it ignores the roots of sexism and rape culture. They are playing to the roots of sexism and rape culture specifically to make the point. Yes, they play to the dominant culture. Yes, it included men.
        You don’t agree with how they are going about it, but their goal is the same.

        I disagree that that radical feminists are “ideologically opposed” to the event. I think they are structurally opposed, but “both” factions want the same thing.
        You are right that arguing “sidelining” is not productive. A better way to see it would be for radical feminism to recognize its very important, though frustrating place in history and the overall movement.
        Feminism as an ideology is viewed as left of center by most people and radical feminism is seen as, well, too radical for mainstream acceptance, by definition. But rad ideology serves the very important purpose of defining the extreme SO THAT a more mainstream practical ideology can gain acceptance. This has been the history, not only of feminism, but of every major social change. That which once was radical is now the norm, and radical shifts to something else.
        So, perhaps there can be some satisfaction in radfem circles by fully owning the role that their ideas have. Women today, largely unknowing and sometimes contemptuous, benefit from the radical feminism that is now “well, of course! feminism.” As you’ve stated, Meghan, many won’t even call it feminism. It’s just what IS now.
        Perhaps this isn’t a debate on one faction being more right or wrong, but knowing that one faction must exist for the “SlutWalks” of the world to do the job of pushing the left a bit more center. And the “mainstream” movement opens and holds the door for more radical viewpoints to keep winding their way into socio-political discourse.

        As a Social Worker, I try to seek out commonalities in similar groups with widely divergent STATED gaps in beliefs. I tend to ignore those who tell me there is no commonality.

        Both factions want to reduce sexual violence. They have different ways of getting there. One will always be more effective in that it will appeal to the mainstream audience, even as it pisses off those who can see the forest.

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      • And, of course, a few refuseniks don’t equal marginalizing oneself. I’m not going to name those who didn’t respond, but there were a few. I’m sure if we had time to approach more people, there would have been a response.
        Had I known you a couple weeks ago, Meghan, I would certainly have invited you.
        Maybe another time…if the producer lets me.

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  • mhab

    This conversation led me to look up the “Good Men Project”. Some bits of their website/magazine looked interesting. But I’m very put-off by their name. It has a ring of “here we are looking for approval”. In fact, I don’t think there’s any position that men can take in relation to feminism which will gain approval from many feminists, or even gain approval from other men who like to posture with political “positions” about gender. I like to read about other people’s ideologies, and feminist debates can be interesting. But for anyone to look as though you need approval from people who are identifying as being oppressed is a no-win game.

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  • This is a great post, thanks for it.

    It seems that part of the problem is this new ‘liberal’ discourse where inclusivity is assumed to always be a good thing. One example of this is how many liberals believe it is bigoted to criticize femininity, since femininity is apparently an ‘identity’. The prime political goal of such individuals is to make sure everyone gets to keep their identities and perform them without impediment, since all the world’s a stage after all, or a set of stages floating in a structure-less vacuum. I find this unsatisfying from a basic philosophical pov, as well as from a radical feminist pov.

    And it is in this sort of climate that ‘big tent’ could even *sound* like a good thing. Big tent = inclusive = good. But it is not. Feminism is not inclusive of plenty of things, such as misogyny, for a start! I am unashamedly exclusivist about a million things in my life, and so should every sane person.

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  • Megan, I have nothing else to add, you have said it all.

    Let me join the chorus of thank you for fighting the good fight and sticking to your provervial guns. Goodness knows that the payoff for being on the good side hardly ever matches the payoff for being in the mainstream and agreeing with everyone else.

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    • Well said and apropos of my post above.

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  • martin dufresne

    There is an utter dispair in calling “sex-negative” the people who are challenging pornography and prostitution from a feminist perspective. As if sex and the sex industry were the same thing. I pity the people spreading that ugly smear… but hey, if they don’t know better, who can blame them?

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