Being anti-state does not equal being pro-freedom: Misogyny and the imagined “Circle of Protection” in progressive communities

This post is not intended to be a blind celebration of the police. Let’s not pretend as though the police are not largely representative of  white male power and authority. But that does not mean I am anti-criminalization or anti-state. As feminists and as women, we need the state on our side.

When I read two posts published recently, addressing “safe space” and misogyny in activist communities, specifically in the Occupy Vancouver community, I had high hopes. But that sentiment was quickly replaced by a sinking feeling. Building a safer space, according to these two pieces, “Safety Within Social Movements Is Everyone’s Responsibility” & “On Safer Spaces,” meant depending on the activist community to protect you. Specifically, women and other marginalized folks were meant to rely on a “Circle of Protection” to defend them from harassers and abusers.

It sounds nice in theory. As a young person, first delving into radical theory and, specifically, anarchism, I too dreamed of a utopian community that would defend their own. No need for the cops! Abusive and violent men would be shunned and ostracized by egalitarian communities – “kicked off the island,” one might say.

On one hand I was glad that activists were addressing the fact that oppressive structures and behaviours like racism and misogyny are often replicated in progressive spaces:

“The fluid community of Occupy Vancouver has been plagued by abuse, neutrality towards that abuse and even support of that abuse. Calls to “just let it go” or “move on” are demeaning to the safety of the women, people of color and other marginalized groups in our movement and will no longer be tolerated. “

But the solution troubled me. The suggestion that women in progressive movements should depend on a “Circle of Protection” that exists within those communities  is one that, from my perspective, misses the fact that women are often violated and assaulted by the very people who are meant to protect them. It is not uncommon for assault to go unreported in anarchist and activist communities specifically because women are discouraged from calling the cops, essentially leaving these men free from accountability.

When women are abused by those who claim to be their protectors and then are told not to involve the police because the police are the real oppressors, where do they go?

There have been numerous accounts of women being raped in situations and settings that are meant to be freeing or liberating. Festivals like Woodstock ’99 saw horrific accounts of women being gang raped while bystanders continued with their fun and dancing. Rainbow Gatherings, the hippie-peace-free-love ethos is pushed on women in order to pressure them into letting go of their boundaries (aka: letting douchey dreadlocked white dudes give them massages). There are many accounts of attempted (and, I’m sure, successful) rapes at these Gatherings. The entire “free love” movement of the 60s has been called out repeatedly by feminists who say that all it did was to apply “a new set of imperatives on women’s behavior, a compulsion to say yes that was as inhibiting as the injunction to say no.”

And even if we we don’t consider these events or movements to be necessarily activist movements, the point remains that self-described progressive communities have never protected women from abusive men. Often, a libertarian or anarchist ethos has been used to pressure women into accepting misogynistic treatment silently and peacefully.

Above all that, I just have a really big problem with discouraging women from involving the police when they’ve been victimized. Under reporting is a huge problem – many statistics say that between 75%-95% of rapes go unreported. We are all well aware that most women who experience domestic violence don’t report either. Basically, men who abuse think they will get away with it because they do, for the most part, get away with it.

Let me tell you a story about a self-proclaimed “progressive,” anti-cop community. During my mid-twenties urban-girl-has-quarter-life-crisis-that-leads-her-to-believe-she-must-live-in-a-tent phase, I moved to a small, rural, island community. These places are attractive to city folks who have fantasies that, somehow, these kinds of places have escaped hierarchy and are more liberated, community-minded, progressive, and peacey than cities are. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. In part, because these communities often hang on to these fantasies themselves.

In my experience, the “oh how wonderful that all the adults and the kids and the teenagers all go to the same parties – we’re breaking boundaries!” thing is less “good, clean, community fun” than it is “old drunk guy offering to drive young drunk girl home while everyone turns a blind eye or is too high to care”.

When I arrived on this island, I was told almost immediately, by several people, that there were no cops on the island for a reason. Not only did “we” not want them, but “we” didn’t need them. The “we” who were telling me this were, in large part, white men. These men also explained to me that there was no need for police on the island because “the community” would take care of its own. That “we” (again, the “we” = white men) would take care of abusive men by physically throwing them off the island and/or by insuring these misogynists knew they were not welcome. And yet, strangely, there were still stories of assault and abuse on the island. Many of these men still lived and partied in this community while many others turned a blind eye. No one wanted to upset the fantasy, which also meant that a lot of oppressive behaviour and abuse went unaddressed.

The truth was that many in the community believed themselves to be above the law and/or wanted to avoid the law because they were doing illegal things. They weren’t about protecting women, they were about protecting themselves.

We heard rumours about teenage girls being violated at parties and hit on by 50 year old men. And yet no one was being kicked off the island. And still, according the white men, “we” still didn’t need cops sniffing around on the island.

Eventually, when I left an abusive relationship, I called the cops. And, strange thing – people stopped speaking to me. They stopped making eye contact with me. I was being ostracized. Not the abusive man. Nope. He was still at all those parties, driving home drunk with teenage girls in his truck. I was uninvited. I was longer welcome on the island.

The men who had explained to me that “we” didn’t need cops because “we” lived in a progressive community wherein “we” took care of one another turned out to be either the abusers or the ones who protected the abusers. It was a greater crime to go to the police than it was to abuse women.

And therein lies my concern with “Circles of Protection”. I simply don’t trust a “Circle” of anarchists or radicals to protect me. If I am assaulted I want to not only be able to call the cops and expect them to address the issue, but I want to be encouraged and supported in doing that. Not shamed for “going to the man”. I want the state on my side. I need the state on my side.

In one of the posts I reference above “On Safer Spaces,” the author writes that this “Circle of Protection” is based on four goals:

1.Empowerment – To trust in our possibilities, in our concepts and our own definitions. We must build this power because we come from dis-empowered positions.

2.Autonomy – The refusal to rely on existing structures to act from our own positions of empowerment outside of institutions entrenched in oppressive power structures. Building our own methods and structures so that we are creating the world we want now.

3.Self-Defense – Our inherent right to defend ourselves from aggressors/abusers.

4.Safety/Safer Spaces – A space where emotional, physical and spiritual well-being are respected. When these are challenged, we are able to maintain our autonomy and right to self-defense so that we may act to make our spaces safer.

Let me just start by saying this. I do not want to have to defend myself from my abuser. I simply don’t want to be abused. I want existing structures and institutions to understand power and the dynamics and gendered nature of abuse and assault and to address that via legislation. I do not want, in any way, to have to rely on some self-declared “Circle of Protection” that may or may not include abusers, to defend me.

Having the “right to self-defense” and having “autonomy” in a space that discourages state intervention or criminalization of abusers does not feel safe to me. To me, making progressive change and creating an equitable society must move beyond individualism, which is what this statement seems to represent. Maintaining my autonomy means that my government, the government that is meant to represent me, creates laws that protect me.

I appreciate the goal of creating a equitable society but I also believe that the only people in society who have the freedom to reject the state and to denounce the criminalization of abusers are people who already have a huge level of privilege and who already feel safe in progressive communities. If you walk around this world feeling free, then it’s easy to say that you don’t need the protection of the state and that you don’t need the law. If you already have power and privilege it’s easy to argue that you can protect yourself, that you don’t need the police to protect you.

Michael Laxer wrote, in a similar vein:

“Rules and law protect regular and innocent people. They are safeguards against arbitrary actions by corporations, governments or self-appointed vanguards and we should not get rid of them. Our forebears on the left died to create the context in which we now work and joining the right in trying to rip it down will help no one.”

In other words, structure and law is not the enemy. Those who oppose the state and who are opposed to criminalization in it’s entirety* are fooling themselves if they think this is a progressive move. Wonder why the far right is anti-state? Because without it, the privileged and the powerful would have even more freedom to reign without restriction.

Ostracizing abusive men from progressive communities doesn’t work because progressive communities are full of abusive men (just like everywhere else in this world). Feminists have fought for decades to get legislation that protects their rights – and we are supposed to give this up in favour of relying on activist men to protect us?? I don’t think so. You don’t get to protect your weed crop at my expense, my hippie friend. Your illegal activity does not take precedence over my right not to be abused.

When I am assaulted I will call the cops, not the anarchists.

 

*edited on May 5, 2012 for clarity

 

 

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The naked protester (or, how to get the media to pay attention to women)

Nudity as a form of protest wasn’t invented by PETA. Events such as the World Naked Bike Ride uses nudity as a way to protest “oil dependency and to celebrate the power and individuality of [their] bodies,” 600 environmental activists went naked in 2007 to protest global warming and even as far back as the early 1900s, the Doukhobors, a Russian pacifist religious sect, held nude protest parades. So I wouldn’t go so far as to say that nudity was useless as a tactic in social movements.

Lately the Ukrainian protest group, Femen, has been getting a lot of attention. Why? Well, they’re beautiful, thin, young women who are mostly topless. They’re described alternately as a “women’s rights group” or a “feminist group,” as they campaign against issues such as trafficking, international marriage agencies, and sex tourism. According to their website, their goal is “to shake women in Ukraine, making them socially active, [and] to organize… a women’s revolution.” Of course feminists have been working towards revolution for decades and yet, somehow, have never been quite as popular as Femen appear to be now.

When three protesters showed up at an Occupy demonstration in Davos, yelling “poor because of you” outside the World Economic Forum, the media fell in love.

 

These three women were covered by pretty much every media outlet out there – mainstream and alternative alike. Particularly, many of the Occupy sites seemed enamoured. From right to left, dudes love Femen. Funny, because most of them seem pretty disinterested in feminist protests and movements otherwise.

Over at Occupy the Environment’s Facebook page they stated the obvious, commenting above the story: “That’s how you make it into the mainstream media.”

Yep. As witnessed by Slutwalk and by PETA, playing to the male gaze and going nude or almost nude is a great way to get media coverage. Particularly, as witnessed by coverage of Femen, if you’re a thin, young, conventionally attractive woman.

In fact, both PETA and Slutwalk stand by that very argument, defending problematic strategies and sexist branding on the basis that they would never have received so much media attention had they not gone with controversial marketing ploys. Whatever gets the attention of media is represented as a “good” thing and as something that somehow cancels out hypocritical messages.

Clearly nude protests are not the problem. The problem is that, within our pornified culture, women seem to only be able to find power in their sexualized bodies. Have we seen viral media coverage of nude male protestors over the past few years? Not that I can recall. PETA’s ads are certainly focused on the female body and, generally, that body is sexualized, thin, and often surgically enhanced.

When someone over at Occupy Ottawa’s Facebook page* posted an image of the women, naked from the waist up, the point was made by a couple commenters that it seemed unfair that women had to bare their breasts in order to get anyone to pay any attention to their message. This point was met with anger, confusion, and disdain. In fact, the response from the page’s admin as well as most other commenters on the page was a definitive: “stop with all the feminism, why dontcha.” This was followed by predictable commentary insinuating that those who weren’t fully supportive of Femen’s tactics and the page’s commentary were “dividing the movement” and being “counter-productive” by bringing feminism into the conversation. Interesting, because Femen is a group that is often associated with feminism. It would appear as though we only like feminists so long as they are nude.

It’s frustrating, but understandable, that the mainstream media jumps at the opportunity to splash images of young women’s breasts across screens, but it’s even more frustrating that progressive groups don’t see the problem with these tactics. And of course, we have to ask whether the media or the public are really getting the “message” they are meant to get. Are we seeing these images and thinking about systematic poverty or the exploitative nature of prostitution? Or is the message just: titties!!

Judging from the popularity and response to Femen, I’m getting the feeling that the “message” is all but lost.

*Edit – 02/01/12 – The Occupy Ottawa Facebook page referenced here is not Occupy Ottawa’s official Facebook page, but rather is described as a group which “share[s] the same goal and beliefs…Occupy Ottawa is a solidarity and support effort with the Occupy Wall St movement.”

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Grasping at Straws: Comparing Slutwalk and Occupy Wall Street

Recently, there have been a slew of articles written about women and Occupy Wall Street. Particularly, the need for a feminist presence in the movement and the recognition that women are often the ones who suffer the most under an inequitable economic system.

In an unfortunate, but hardly surprising, male-centric lapse of judgement, some dudes decided that the best way to get folks out to protest was to turn women into sacrificial lambs, with a site and video called “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street.” I mean, why bother paying any attention to women if they aren’t turning you on? In fact, why bother doing anything at all if you can’t reinforce your male power by objectifying women?

Though this kind of attitude towards women in progressive movements is nothing new, this particular brand of douchebaggery doesn’t seem to at all be representative of the Occupy  movement as a whole. This is, in fact, a movement that is very much relevant to women and very much needs a feminist perspective within it. As pointed out by , in a piece posted at the Ms. Magazine Blog:

Because we are already starting from a disadvantaged position, women are often among the hardest hit in economically troubled times, and this is especially true for women of color. Women are also disproportionately impacted when states slash public services, as so many have done in recent months. Because they are far more likely than men to be single parents struggling to provide for a family on a single income, many women are devastated by cuts to family assistance programs. And as we have seen repeatedly with the threatened federal cuts to Planned Parenthood funding, as well as several individual states’ recent cuts to family planning programs, women’s health services are considered by many politicians to be expendable.

This is a movement that is very much about us, the 51%. Not only is corporate capitalism a system that is tied to and thrives via a deep connection to patriarchy and a hierarchical  system of power that is racist and sexist at its core, but it thrives on the backs of women, literally.

A flier created by New York feminists, Rebecca Sloan, Cathy Barbarits, and Kathy Miriam that is being handed out at Occupy Wall Street, points out that the unpaid (and underpaid) labour done by women are the legs of the capitalist system:

Global capitalism is made possible by women’s unpaid work in the household…In Canada unpaid work is estimated to be worth up to 41% of the GDP.  The shifting the burden of domestic labor from elite women to the domestic laborers (maids) culled from subordinate groups of women (immigrants; women of color; poor women) is another part of this same process of exploitation.

Women of colour, in particular, are most often the ones who are left behind and stepped on in a system that functions on economic inequality.  They are the ones who end up doing the work that white women of privilege don’t want to do and they are the ones who are least likely to be able to climb past the glass ceiling and into positions of power.

It is also imperative that we recognize the way in which these exploitative systems lead to and encourage sex work and trafficking, another industry that impacts marginalized women and women of colour particularly. As pointed out in the same flier:

Trafficking occurs in a context of global economic inequalities and a failure to respect the human rights of a majority of the world’s population. Enormous amounts of people find themselves unable to provide for their families and are forced into situations of extreme desperation.

Women who are poor and women who are vulnerable are often the ones who have no choice but to resort to sex work, who are prostituted, and who are trafficked.

Indeed, the Occupy movement, is about us, the 51%.

So, how does this all relate to Slutwalk, as the title of this article implies? Well, it doesn’t, really, although in what is perhaps an act of desperation on the parts of Slutwalk organizers and participants who are watching their briefly novel movement drift into the background in the face of a movement that is truly radical and potentially revolutionary, a couple of people have tried very hard to link the two movements.

An article by Bryce Covert, at Alternet, imagines that Slutwalk and Occupy Wall Street are linked via ‘raw emotion’, and because both movements are ‘calling out the culture at large.’

In another piece written by Hanqing Chen, entitled: NYC SlutWalk Gets OWS Fever, the author writes that SlutWalk’s activists “said the Wall Street protests have paved the way forward in building attention for their own movement,” imagining that they will “partner with Occupy Wall Street to spread their own message.” So first Slutwalk tries to co-opt feminism, and now they want to co-opt the Occupy movement? Well, good luck.

The differences between the two movements are numerous. But perhaps most important is that which was recently pointed out by Eve Ensler:

The genius of Occupy Wall Street is that so far it is not brandable and that’s what makes its potential so daunting, so far reaching, so inclusive, and so dangerous. It cannot be defined and so it cannot be sold, as a sound bite or a political party or even a thing. It can’t be summed up and dismissed.

The key to Slutwalk’s popularity was that it was brandable right from the get go. It was salable. Slutwalk was loved by the media and by many because it provided exactly what mainstream culture wants and needs in order to sell a product: women’s bodies. It replicated images and messages that are easily consumed by the dominant culture, that is: women are consumable and they are to be looked at. It told us that which we already know: don’t bother looking at or listening to women unless they are up on a stage, dancing around in their underwear for an audience.

Whereas the Occupy movement is a direct response to a neoliberal capitalist system, Slutwalk was a ‘movement’ (if you want to call it that) that sprang from and embraced neoliberal capitalism. It sold women and it sold sex work as empowerment. Slutwalk bought right into to everything that we are being sold, turned it around and told the world that this was the route to liberation. Most of all, it sold a message of individualism – the key to the success of the capitalist system. Capitalism is all about the message of indivualism vs collectivism, man is an island under a capitalist system, and we are all to believe that if we work hard enough, as individuals, we can be successful. Health care, social safety nets, affordable housing? Those things are all a pain in the ass if you’re already wealthy and privileged. Those things don’t affect you if you aren’t poor or marginalized, so why bother? Other people aren’t your responsibility if you are a capitalist and if something makes you feel good then gosh darn it, you should do it!

Sound familiar? Slutwalk argued, right off the bat, that this was a movement all about individuals and that, if what they were doing, as individuals, was impacting other women negatively, well, too freakin bad. If you think sex work is great, then it’s great, regardless of how it impacts and hurts and exploits other women; women with less privilege than yourself. If you want to call yourself a slut and encourage men to call you a slut (because now that’s empowering!), then do it! Even if it throws other women under the bus in the process.

Slutwalk followed the rules. They bought into a patriarchal, neoliberal, capitalist message and tried to sell it back to us as revolutionary. But it wasn’t.

The Occupy movement never followed the rules. They did not partner with the cops and they didn’t ask for permits.The Occupy movement, rather, is challenging and confronting  ‘the rules’ and is taking on the ideologies of capitalism and individualism. They are not asking for permission.

Occupy Wall Street did not build a movement that would be salable to the mainstream media. They did not build a movement with the specific intention to attract the attention of the media. They did not need a shocking and controversial name to sell themselves and they certainly did not need pole-dancing women to build momentum.

This does not mean that the Occupy movement is free of, or should escape criticism.

Peter Gelderloos notes, in an article for counterpunch.org that this movement must be careful to build on what has been learned from past progressive movements:

All of these [past radical] movements constitute lessons learned that can be passed down to aid future struggles. So often, the mistakes that defeat a revolutionary movement are repeated.

Gelderloos goes on to say:

In general, people in the United States face severe disadvantages in fighting power. The popular struggles of past generations were brutally crushed and critical lessons were not passed on. People have to start from scratch in a society constructed to meet the needs of money. In part because of this, people in the US have a unique opportunity to influence struggles worldwide, should they overcome the obstacles and turn these protests into something powerful.

And we, as feminists, must ensure that this movement includes an analysis of the way in which women are particularly disenfranchised under a capitalist system and ensure that women are not relegated to a position that requires they are ‘seen and not heard’ as the ‘Hot Chicks of Wall Street’ video does.

Yes, there are flaws in the Occupy movement, but it hasn’t begun from a position that is complicit in the very systems it claims to confront. It has not sent a message of individualism and it hasn’t told those who dare to critique it that if they don’t like it they can sit down and shut up.

Any comparisons between Slutwalk and the Occupy movement are desperate, if anything, as the focus moves away (finally) from half-naked women with the word ‘slut’ plastered across their faces and bodies, to a movement that demands the system change, and doesn’t simply aim to re-frame oppression and encourage women to make the most of  what we’ve got. What we need is something new, something drastically different – and that is going to take more than media coverage and personal catharsis.

 

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