Safer strolls: A new, progressive way to blame the victim?

You want to talk victim-blaming? Ok. Let’s talk victim blaming.

The Toronto Sun published an article on March 11th entitled: “Helping Hookers Stay Safe” which looked at a project called the safer stroll project. According to the article, this project is an “innovative mentorship program…designed to educate sex workers to deal with high-risk and violent situations.”

The reporter interviews one sex worker for the piece, who describes various horrific situations within which she was subjected to violence at the hands of johns. This violence, it is fair to assume, is not limited to one individual but is something many women and, particularly, many prostituted women are at risk for. But rather than addressing this violence in the most obvious way, that is to go to the root, this particular article would lead us to believe that the solution is to teach women proper skills for avoiding violence to the best of their ability.

Feminism today is very much enmeshed in discourse, work and action aimed at putting an end to victim blaming. This work is extremely important – one of the number one rules we learn as feminists is that women are not responsible for their own rapes, their own assaults, and their own abuse. Men are accountable for their own behaviour and there is no particular skill set women can or should develop in order for them to avoid violence. Obviously.

Isn’t that obvious?

Apparently not. Apparently not when in comes to prostitution.

Apparently, within the newly popular harm reduction discourse, the very best we can do to  “keep women safe” is to teach them the proper skills to avoid being attacked, abused, and murdered. And no, this isn’t some deluded fantasy of the right wherein we are made to imagine that, if only women would behave themselves, men wouldn’t be forced to abuse them. No. This is what progressives are encouraged to support! That being harm reduction. Otherwise known as “the best we can come up with.” Otherwise known as “we accept that misogyny is inevitable so let’s teach women how best to cope with that reality.”

Hey! Here’s a newfangled idea! How about we, FOR ONCE, put the onus on the violent men. How about we even go so far as to blame men for the violent acts they commit rather than blaming the victim for “dealing with” violent men in the “wrong way”. How about, instead of learning how to be nicer to johns, so as to avoid being attacked by them, we teach johns that they won’t get away with being violent? What’s that? Criminalize the johns? Oh no. That’s crazy-talk. All women need is more “skills.” Skills will stop male violence, right?

In what universe is this rhetoric even close to feminist?

Why is it so easy for progressives to understand that victim-blaming is wrong, but blindly accept the idea that it is somehow the responsibility of women to control men’s behaviour if they are engaged in sex work?  Are we all expected to rally behind Slutwalk, which claims to fight victim-blaming and then close our eyes when reporters start talking about “safety strategies” for prostituted women? How would the Slutwalk fanatics react if someone wrote an article claiming that that young women should develop “safety strategies” for going to parties or, you know, going to work or going on dates or getting married or waking up in the morning or getting on the bus or engaging in any of those activities or going to any of those places women go wherein, sometimes, women are assaulted or raped or harassed or abused by men? Make sure you develop strategies for avoiding being abused by your partners, women! Be sure to be as polite as possible! Because, of course, polite women don’t get abused or raped. Never. Those arguments would never be accepted among self-identified feminists.

And yet harm reduction is the new progressive mantra. “Developing safety strategies” is now framed as potentially empowering for women.

Well excuse me while I stare awkwardly at this big, huge, gaping hole in feminist discourse.

If we are to understand that victim blaming – the new favorite catchword for third wave feminists – is unacceptable (and, without a doubt, it is unacceptable) and if we can all, supposedly, agree on the relatively simple idea that we don’t blame the victim of violence, that, rather, we blame the perpetrator, then how about this – JOHNS ARE NO EXCEPTION. Women don’t need to develop “safety strategies” – men need to stop being violent, horrible, entitled assholes. We need to stop protecting these men. Because so long as we keep protecting them, making excuses for them, and continuing to make violence against women the responsibility of women, men will continue to be violent.

“Harm reduction” and “safety strategies” for prostituted women effectively removes blame from male perpetrators of violence and does nothing to address the root of the problem. Does that sound progressive to you?

 

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It’s International Women’s Day; are our foremothers rolling over in their graves?

It’s hard not to heave a big ol’ feminist sigh on International Women’s Day. But, in many ways, I think that’s just fine. International Women’s Day isn’t intended to be a celebration, from my perspective. Rather, it is a reminder. A reminder that we still need an International Women’s Day.

Across the world women are fighting for their rights. They are fighting for equality, for workers’ rights, for reproductive rights, they are protesting poverty and raising awareness about violence against women. Strangely, many Westerners like to imagine that we inhabit an egalitarian society. I’m not sure where they’re looking, but from where I’m standing, we still have a lot of work to do.

On Friday, Jarrah Hodge covered the Vancouver and District Labour Councils annual International Women’s Day Dinner. Hodge quoted activist, feminist and founder of rabble.ca, Judy Rebick,writing:

“We achieved a lot, but we still have a way to go,” Rebick added, singling out particularly the struggle to end trafficking of women and to end a “rape culture” that blames victims for their assaults.

While there are, of course, many who do treat International Women’s Day as a holiday and a celebration, which is wonderful, because we certainly should celebrate women and women’s achievements, coupled with that positivity is a sense that, not only do we sometimes forget the continued need for the feminist movement, but that we, as third wave feminists, lack respect for the incredibly hard work women from previous generations did on our behalf.

The third wave, which is the wave I’ve found myself in (I was born in 1979 so I had little choice in the matter), seems decidedly marked by what could almost be viewed as a backlash against first and second wavers. Certainly it isn’t fair to paint the entire third wave as ungrateful, burlesque-loving, Slutwalking, post-modernists, as there has certainly been valuable theory and critiques to come out of this generation of feminism, but when I imagine us looking back at this particular wave, I am sometimes overcome by a sinking feeling that very much resembles embarrassment.

While radical feminists, bra-burners, and hairy, man-hating, lesbians (which, for the record, are super awesome caricatures, in my opinion) seem representative of second wave feminism, what we’ve been stuck with, in the third wave, are half-naked, stiletto’d, women and girls, stripping on-stage and calling it empowerment, or marching through the streets calling themselves sluts under the guise of “sexual freedom.”

Amid a culture that hypersexualizes women and girls, so much so that we seem to have lost  any understanding of the word “objectification,” are blessed with the ability to ignore the ever-increasing violence of the porn industry in favour of conversations of the “grey areas,” and seem overly committed towards engaging in desperate attempts to derail every conversation into one about the supposed existence of “feminist porn,” it can feel as though the third wavers are a somewhat confused bunch.

In the face of very serious threats to both individual women and the rights and freedoms of women as a whole, white, privileged, Western women are….Slutwalking? And framing stripping as empowerment? Really?

As Laurie Penny wrote so articulately in a piece published earlier today:

Women, like everyone else, have been duped. We have been persuaded over the past 50 years to settle for a bland, neoliberal vision of what liberation should mean. Life may have become a little easier in that time for white women who can afford to hire a nanny, but the rest of us have settled for a cheap, knock-off version of gender revolution. Instead of equality at work and in the home, we settled for “choice”, “flexibility” and an exciting array of badly paid part-time work to fit around childcare and chores.

Sadly, she is so very right. Talk about oppression, exploitation, and objectification and, without a doubt, someone will throw the word “choice” at you as though it’s a weapon. Watch out, critics of burlesque! Some women feel individually empowered by taking off their clothes on stage! Criticize the sex industry or men who buy sex? Well, clearly it’s because you hate sex. Which is a bad thing, by the way. Sex-positivity preaches that women must like all things “sexy” in order to be empowered. The blanket of sex-positivity means that, suddenly, exploitative and sexist industries equal sexual freedom for women! How about that.

Don’t we have anything real to fight for? It sure feels like we do…Are we so unimaginative that the only thing we can come up with, in terms of fighting for women’s rights, is to take off our clothes? It just makes me want to cry.

We need to do better than this. We don’t need to fuck our way to freedom (but hey, feel free to fuck all you want on your way there if you’re into that) and if we think the only way to accomplish anything is by wearing lingerie and calling it feminism, I’ve got to say, I’m really ready for another wave, women.

International Women’s Day exists because women are not yet free. Because women are raped and murdered and abused by men around the world. It exists because sex sells, which means that people are making money off the backs of women. Like, at our expense, not to our benefit. If you think men and the media are going to get on board with Slutwalks and the strip-clubs-as-empowering-spaces-for-women messages and with hot, naked, lady protestors, a la Femen, well, you’re right. They will. Because none of those things challenge male power or privilege. This is the stuff privilege is made of. And you may well feel powerful with the eyes and attention of the world glued to your breasts, but I’m afraid I just can’t imagine how it’s going to make women any more safe from violence and I’m afraid I just don’t see stilettos and boobs as the things that, in the end, take down the patriarchy.

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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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This week in faux-feminism (or, seven days of rage)

 

Such a busy week! So much to do, so much to say. Too much to say, in fact. The rage, it is almost paralyzing.

So instead of writing a real blog post I made a list!

 

This week’s faux-feminist round-up:

1)  Article at The Huffington Post explains why, if we don’t join Slutwalk, we are ruining feminism for everyone.

2)  Blog posted at Feministing explains that anti-exploitation, anti-violence, anti-misogyny, anti-oppression, and anti-rape actually equals ‘anti-sex.’

3)  Feministing commenter explains that radical feminism is “not true feminism” and that it “does not belong on college campuses or anywhere” because of “frequent racism.” So like, in comparison to our completely free-of-racism friend Slutwalk? Possibly the least radical ‘feminist’ ‘movement’ ever? Got it, folks? Liberal feminism = good-thing-we’re-all-so-awesome-let’s-keep-patting-each-other-on-the-back-while-explaining-to-women-of-colour-that-the-n-word-isn’t-actually-racist/offensive,  radical feminism = WE’RE NOT QUITE SURE BUT WE KNOW IT’S BAD.

4)  Ms. Magazine blog readers leave Andrea Dworkin off the Top 100 (yes! 100! Sounds like a lot, right? Comprehensive-like!) list of best feminist non-fiction (how it is even possible to compile a list of 100 feminist books and omit Dworkin is a mystery to me).

5)  And finally, I don’t actually know when this happened, but I discovered, just this week, that SWAAY has compiled a virtual hit hate list of radical feminists. Just to, you know, reinforce their anti-feminist perspective. Handy!

 

Oh yes, it’s been a busy week.

 

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