Is being an abolitionist a ‘red flag’?

Last week Newsweek published an article covering an extensive study on men who buy sex done by Melissa Farley, director of Prostitution Research and Education. The study revealed that which is known by many feminists, critics of the sex industry, abolitionists and even, I would go so far as to speculate, that which is known by most men (though whether or not they perceive this as problem is a whole other issue). That is, as one man put it, buying sex means: ‘you’re supporting a system of degradation.’

Because the many various forms of buying sex are so normalized in our culture, Farley noted that the researchers had trouble finding men to interview who actually didn’t buy sex. Activities like going to strip clubs and using pornography are simply seen as things that men do, not as activities that exist within a system that has married capitalism and patriarchy in a way that makes women and women’s bodies and sexualities products that are marketed, bought and sold.

Critiques of this study and the Newsweek article were indignant. How DARE we insult the male porn users of the world! Don’t you think their feelings will be hurt? Don’t you think they will be angered to be grouped in with other men who share their view of women as sexualized objects? What about their penises?! How will THEY feel? I can’t imagine that it is very comfortable to be confronted by the reality that your pleasure may not be as ethical as you would like to believe. I can imagine that, after having spent years telling yourself that degradation is hot and it is your right to access said degradation whenever the urge strikes you, it would indeed feel like an affront to your image of yourself as a ‘normal’ and decent man whose penis deserves respectdammit! if someone were to tell you that you too, like those poor, sad, lonely johns, were purchasing women’s bodies and, in that sense, you were buying sex from women.

In a piece written by Tracy Clark-Flory for Salon, she makes note of this, sure to point out the ways in which men are likely to be offended by such an insinuation, pointing us to a tweet from sex columnist Rachel Kramer Bussel, who wrote: “Dear @Newsweek — I wonder what would happen if everyone who’s watched porn, given/gotten a lap dance or erotic massage stopped reading you.” And you know, I think she was right to point this out. I mean, we don’t need to look very far to see why the sex industry is so massive and so normalized. What Clark-Flory made very clear was that, indeed, men hold power in this world and there is little we can do to challenge these industries because their power is vast. What if every man who had ever watched porn stopped reading Newsweek? Well, they’d lose a lot of readers, that’s for sure.

While Clark-Flory’s point was not, I don’t imagine, to point to the ways in which male power really does make the world go ’round and has an incredible impact on what we view as ‘perfectly natural’ in our society, she did. We are all, just has she and Bussel point out, under threat. I mean, if we suddenly told men that they couldn’t buy sex anymore and that women’s bodies were no longer for sale, not in any form, they would probably be pretty choked. They would probably wield their power as best they could. No one gives up privilege easily.

Are we really surprised to hear that “[T]he attitudes and habits of sex buyers reveal them as men who dehumanize and commodify women, view them with anger and contempt, lack empathy for their suffering, and relish their own ability to inflict pain and degradation.”? Are we surprised that men who treat women as objects don’t feel empathy for them or view them as human beings? Of course not. That is, after all, how this whole system works.

What is surprising, though, is that so many of these critiques of Farley’s study are aghast that this research would be “conducted by self-declared prostitution “abolitionist”. What! A feminist? Doing critical research on men who commodify women? Well, now I’ve seen everything. Clark-Flory writes about Farley’s abolitionist stance as though she has revealed some dark and hidden secret; pointing out that Newsweek doesn’t mention Farley’s ‘view that prostitution is inherently harmful and should be eradicated’ ‘until more than halfway through the article’.

She, and others, call this a ‘red flag’. A sex worker blog, Tits and Sass, also represents the discovery of this information (which is, in no way a secret, though these writers seem to think they are outing Farley in some way, as though being an abolitionist is something to be ashamed of) as though it has been discovered via some kind of incredible investigative reporting: ‘She’s a self professed “abolitionist”. Dun dun DUNNNN. Is there any particular reason why a feminist, who is critical of prostitution and pornography, who is working to end this form of normalized misogyny, would not do this particular kind of research? Why this research would or should be viewed as invalid because it was someone with a well developed feminist analysis of the sex industry who did the research? Who, exactly, should be doing this research? Who would be viewed as a credible source, a credible researcher? Maaaybe….This guy? For some reason I’m not hearing any great objections to a white man doing research on johns whose sole goal is to ‘prove’ that they are just regular guys, that they are not violent or abusive, just, you know, men who think they have the right to purchase sex from women? I mean, these are all just married, educated men! Which is, of course, exactly the point. It isn’t just freaks and losers who buy sex. It is men with privilege, men with families, men with wives, men with jobs and educations and social lives. Or not. The point is that the vast majority of men think that buying sex is ‘normal’ and that it should be their right.

Clark-Flory unintentionally points to a common assumption that contradicts Atchison’s study, quoting journalist Susanna Breslin who says that in her research she: “…found that most men seek out sex workers for one simple fact: they are lonely. They are looking for companionship, they crave intimacy, they are looking for some kind of a connection, and because they cannot find it any other way, they buy it.”

It would seem as though any research that normalizes the buying of sex is credible. Even if it is contradictory. Are these guys just friendly, normal, married men? Or are they lonely social outcasts? Who cares. The moral of the story is that buying sex is ‘normal’. It is ok. And any research that seeks to prove this point is credible. Feminist research on the other hand, done by a woman who has been involved in feminist activism challenging pornography, who *gasp* ‘enter[ed] stores that sell Penthouse and destroy[ed] copies of the magazine in protest.’ (again, how DARE she! Not the sacred pornography!), who is, according to some, ‘biased’ because she is a feminist, is without credibility. What does this mean for the future of feminist research? If feminism is a bias, who gets to do the studies? Let’s just leave it to those completely unbiased white men, right? Let’s just leave it all up to the, as Charlotte Shane writes, in her post on Tits and Sass, the ‘real academics’ [one can only assume Shane did some serious detective work to figure out who the 'real' vs the 'fake' academics are (hint: they are 'like scientists')]. Essentially, what I’m picking up here is that anyone who doesn’t give men the respect they demand deserve have worked very hard to have earned  (hey, they can’t help it if women are saddled with oppressive vaginas) and challenges dominant ideology and who doesn’t base their research on a patriarchal mode of thinking that tells us men have an uncontrollable, biological urge to objectify women, is without credibility. Anyone who dares to point out the obvious, that is “that sex buyers were more likely to view sex as divorced from personal relationships than nonbuyers, and they enjoyed the absence of emotional involvement with prostitutes, whom they saw as commodities,” that “Prostitution treats women as objects and not … humans,” is ‘biased’ and not to be trusted.

Whether it is pornography or a lap dance or the purchasing of an ‘erotic massage’, the underlying idea is the same. Women are for sale. And anyone who claims otherwise must be silenced. Whether it be under threat that those who publish or cover this kind of research will lose readers or by claiming that having credentials as a feminist activist deems a researcher untrustworthy and ‘not a real academic’, we can’t have this kind of talk.

What’s that feminism? Shhh…The men will hear you…

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Radical feminism: Just making it up as we go along.

Today I plan to go where many have gone before.

Answering the question: ‘What is radical feminism?’ is as easy as reading an enormous amount of radical feminist theory or as challenging as googling ‘radical feminism’. Regardless of the magnitude of work other radical feminists have done defining and writing and talking and acting and building radical feminism, as well as the convenience of Wikipedia, there continues to be a rather consistent confusion around the fact that a) radical feminism is a real thing and b) it actually means something. Radical feminism is a thing. It’s true. We didn’t just make it up. Or did we?

Radical feminism is not extremism, as many believe, nor is it simply employing radical methods of everyday resistance‘, though I certainly support that kind of action. Radical feminism is, of course, focused on addressing the roots of oppression and for women, that root often is patriarchy. While there are most certainly other forms of oppression that work to prevent women from gaining freedom and equality, such as race and class, patriarchy is very much there. Always. At the root.

So the difference between radical feminists and, say, liberal feminists is that we don’t believe that we can just work with what we’ve got. This means that, for example, to argue that some women profit financially off of making pornography does not mean that all women are empowered. Nor does it, actually, mean that even they, as individuals are empowered. It means they will be able to pay the rent that month. Which is wonderful. But not the same thing as freedom from patriarchal oppression.

Now, misunderstandings of radical feminism are expansive. Mostly they consist of angry, hateful folks calling radical feminists nazi man/sex haters. These misunderstandings are, yes, dangerous and frustrating but I want to look at today is somewhat of an opposite problem. Just as  Sarah Palin is not a feminist, regardless of how many times she claims to be, “because if anti-feminists get to be feminists too, then the word has no real meaning and we’ll have to come up with a new one.” One does not get to simply change the definition of radical feminist to one that suits their behaviour or beliefs simply because they like the sound of it. I am going to use one particular example in this post, in order to discuss and, hopefully, stave off further cloudiness around radical feminism that might well perpetuate misunderstandings and misrepresentations of this particular nature.

Now I do think that this (re)definition, by Lori Adorable, is actually due to confusion rather than a malicious attempt to confuse the pants off anyone who doesn’t already have a solid understanding of feminism and its various strands, so I’m going to explain what exactly is wrong with her confused definition of radical feminism while simultaneously giving her the benefit of the doubt. Lori identifies as a radical feminist based on the following definition:

“I’m a radical feminist because I’m a woman who came to recognize the structural inequality amongst people and the specific injustices in the world through the feminist analysis of my personal experiences with abuse.  Also, I believe that the only way to eradicate these problems on both a small and large scale is by employing radical methods of everyday resistance.  I use ‘radical’ here in both the original sense of ‘addressing the root’ and the newer, no doubt related sense of being ‘extreme.’ In other words, I’m a radical feminist in the purest sense, not in the sense of belonging to the radical feminist movement, which has been thoroughly co-opted by the most privileged women, women who also happen to be anti-kink and anti-sex work and, all too often, transphobic and racist.  I have this desire to take the term ‘radical’ back from them, because, well, it’s my term too.”

Source: (

'Male Privilege: A Portrait'

So. A couple of problems here. First of all, you simply can’t have a definition of radical feminism that doesn’t include the word patriarchy. Recognizing ‘the structural inequality amongst people and the specific injustices in the world’ is super, but it isn’t radical feminism. These ‘people’ you speak of are women and men. And the specific injustice you speak of is patriarchal oppression. Patriarchy provides men with what is commonly referred to as ‘male privilege’, which exists at the expense of women and has a direct impact on the experiences of women. There are many people in the world who believe that there is no such thing as gendered oppression and that women are not oppressed any differently than men are. But those people aren’t radical feminists. What Lori believes is that her own personal way of resisting oppression empowers her in a way that identifies her as feminist. Which is fine. But that is both not political, nor is it radical feminism. Rather it firmly plants her within a tradition of liberal feminism in that she sees her own personal choices and actions as empowering for her as an individual. And I don’t necessarily doubt that she does indeed feel personally empowered by her choices, but the lack of connection to a larger context, to a larger politics of feminism, to an analysis of the systems of power which have impacted her experience and her ‘choice’ to become a sex worker, as well as her superficial understanding of what will, in fact, create radical change, is what clearly aligns her feminism with the liberal feminist tradition.

‘Addressing the root’ is, indeed, key to radical feminist politics, so she got that part right. But it is certainly not ‘new’ to view radical feminism as extreme. Radical feminists have been painted as extremists from the get go. It would appear as though criticizing the very systems of power that make those in power so very happy is unpopular. People who do that sort of thing are often viewed as ‘extremists’.

The ‘purest sense‘ of the term ‘radical feminism’ is….radical feminism. It’s not plugging together the words radical and feminism and assigning a new meaning to an already defined ideology. Anyone else out there want to redefine Marxism while we’re at it? Maybe instead it could mean capitalism. Or anarchism. Radical feminism recognizes patriarchy as a primary source of women’s oppression and sees women’s experiences as women in a patriarchal culture as a primary factor in their lived experiences and in their experiences of subordination. In order to alter this experience, we must end patriarchal oppression. So while everyday acts of resistance are, indeed, valid, in terms of, potentially, challenging dominant norms and dominant ideology, they don’t necessarily constitute radical feminism. Particularly not when those acts buy into, support, perpetuate and profit (or facilitate and encourage others to [further] profit) off of those norms/systems/ideologies. While Lori may well desire and deserve to make her own personal choices about her life, this is not, in and of itself, what constitutes radical feminist politics. Me me me me me / my life my life my life my life is not radical feminism.

The reason we have definitions and ideology that are universally understood to imply a certain set of beliefs and/or politics is so that we are able to actually have coherent conversations. Calling yourself a radical feminist implies certain beliefs and politics. And let’s be clear – politics are absolutely key here, this isn’t just about me making choices that make me feel good. It is about addressing very serious inequity, abuse, exploitation, and oppression that impact women, in particular, within a patriarchal culture.

Redefining radical feminism based on absolute ignorance and disregard for the history, activism, arguments, ideology, and theory that found and define radical feminism, alongside nonsensical attacks on radical feminists which aim to shut down conversation (such as accusing them of being ‘whorephobic’ or ‘sexworkphobic’; meaningless terms which demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of radical feminist arguments and, in fact, of the word ‘phobic’) and invalidate feminist arguments, places one about as far away from radical feminism as you can get without actually going the ‘y’all are just a bunch of misandrists’ route.

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