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April 15, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Feminism I Love You (But You’re Bringing Me Down)

If you, like me, have access to reliable internet and tumblr, you will no doubt be familiar with the group ‘Who Needs Feminism?’ Even if you don’t immediately recognise the name, the group disseminates images of people from all walks of life holding slogans with punchy and persuasive captions regarding why, exactly, they need feminism. It’s a cool idea in theory, and I spent much time daydreaming about what my slogan would say before I came up with: “I need (intersectional, sex-positive) feminism because equality rulez and patriarchy droolz”.

Not my most eloquent work, I grant you, but there is a very good reason to add those parenthesised clarifications above. ‘Feminism’ is an umbrella term that covers an unbelievably diverse amount of competing and often conflicting ideologies, some of which have been co-opted superciliously into ‘mainstream’ feminist dogma. And therein lies the problem. I have become disillusioned with feminism as it is conventionally expressed. My faith is waning, constantly put to the test by self-aggrandising sentiments and parochial critique. Feminism, I love you – but you’re bringing me down.

In the interests of full disclosure: I am a heterosexual, cis-gendered, Pakeha, well-educated young fellow. I am cognisant of the privilege that these factors afford me, though I am by no means aware of all the manifestations thereof (that’s the thing about privilege; it’s an insidious fucker). When I talk about privilege, I am not saying that because you’re white you can’t have a shitty time (and if you have I’m sorry!) or whatever. I’m talking about a set of institutionalised values that make life easier to you that it is for others, if you can dig it. But, at the same time, I don’t think any social institution or ideology is beyond critique, and this goes especially for things that have the potential to be of tremendously positive use that are currently stagnating.

The source of my ire isn’t based on some childish, infelicitous interpretation of feminism either. I know that we live enmeshed in an egregious ‘rape culture’, wherein the utterly shitty practice of blaming the victim runs rampant. I am aware of the cultural double standards in place that work against women, regulating their occupations, bodies, sexualities and creative desires; and don’t even get me started on wage disparities and ‘feminine’ jobs.

What bothers me is that feminist discourse often erases the difficulties suffered by people who are affected by societal structure in other, more damaging ways. Put it this way: the only time I have to worry about public toilets is if I’ve eaten a particularly, erm, potent dinner the night before, and in those cases my concern is based on a) reaching the destination on time, and b) praying that the bathroom will be miraculously empty. For the trans* community, such a seemingly simple procedure is no fucking joke; IF the gender symbols provide adequate options (they almost never do) then there is still the issue of whether they’ll face harassment for merely being in the location they feel most comfortable according to their innate identity. For many of us, this is unfathomable.

Incidentally, these musings aren’t just abstract blather. Earlier this year, the well-intentioned Wellington Young Feminists’ Collective organised a ‘love yr body pool party’ without addressing the issue of trans* changing rooms (a year after, incidentally, hosting another function at a place inaccessible to the non-able-bodied). The backlash was immediate and fervent, and despite WYFC’s honesty in acknowledging the fuck-up (and I’m not trying to rag on them here — we all fuck up, and WYFC had both the tact to recognise their error
and the initiative to rectify the situation in a sterling manner. Pretty laudable in my opinion.) The resulting kerfuffle played a part both in a founding member’s resignation, and in exposing the bigotry of many self-described feminists who had expressed discomfort at the idea of sharing a changing room with a trans* person.

But don’t misunderstand me, ladies, gents and trans* folk. I don’t think the fact that many, many, many people have it worse off than white, middle-class privileged women attending a tertiary institution necessarily detracts from the plight of the latter. It’s the fact that transphobia still – in 2013 – exists and lingers in the feminist movement. It’s the endlessly repeated statistic regarding the pay-gap that omits the fact that Black/Māori men earn anywhere between eight and ten percent less than white women do, and that Black/Māori women earn less still; in fact, they (along with other females in the ‘lower class’ income bracket) are responsible for the vastness of the wage disparity (NOT THAT I’M SAYING ANY WAGE DISPARITY IS ACCEPTABLE. 0.0001 per cent would be 0.0001 per cent too much). It’s the oft-ignored fact that coloured women, women in poverty, and trans* people are disproportionately more likely to be raped than white women. It’s the irredeemable suicide and homelessness rate among LGBTQ youth. Any such omissions in feminist discourse are at best disingenuous and at worst manipulative. But, I hear you contend, why can’t we just take inequality one step at a time? Tackle it piecemeal? Because, I would retort, that is tantamount to privilege defending privilege; to focus exclusively on (white, hetero, etc.) women’s issues is to entrench the marginalisation and oppression of the people who need feminism’s message of equality and progress the most.

And then there’s the ‘sex-negative’ message that certain branches of feminism support, which reached a certain tyrannical pinnacle during the ‘second wave’ of feminism that resulted in the ‘Feminists Against Porn’ (FAP – ironic acronym alert) movement regulating the industry, indicting men and women alike who enjoy sexual acts outside the norm (e.g. BDSM, watersports) as well as prostitutes and sex workers – without consulting them first, assuming naturally that they were either exploited or that they’re labouring under a delusion of
‘false consciousness’. It turns out that both sides of the team can end up stigmatising sex. This is not to say that pornography isn’t in some ways problematic (it is, of course), but, I mean, doesn’t regulating women’s bodies and prescribing which sexual acts they should enjoy seem a little bit like transferring the worst parts of the patriarchy into a new outlet? In order to get some perspective I decided to make an appointment with someone more knowledgeable in the subject than myself.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Souness, madam of the prestigious high-end brothel ‘Bon Ton’ whose location (which I won’t divulge here; look it up and prepare to be surprised. You will have walked past it unwittingly countless times) belies the discretion that is crucial to its function. During the awkwardness of our first correspondence (the first time, I hasten to add, that I have contacted a brothel) she set my mind at ease by quipping “don’t worry – I’m used to awkward men”. Well, indeed.

It is worth noting here that Bon Ton is a reputable brothel. A BBC documentary awarded it the title of ‘best brothel in the world’. Its going (or ‘coming’ as it were) rate averages at about $400 an hour (with kinks such as anal and facials costing extra), and as such it cannot exactly be considered representative of the sex-work industry in New Zealand as a whole. Yet the insights offered throughout my interview were illuminating. Jennifer was sharp and, I imagine, pragmatic. Her attitude towards sex is cavalier, blunt and often hilarious: “What do you do when you wake up in the morning? You take a shit… we all shit but Hollywood doesn’t make movies about that”. To her, a superfluous amount of import is given to a glorified bodily function, and the preoccupation with it is ultimately repressive.

There are safeguards in place to protect against unruly clients. Adorned on the office wall is a go-to list of responses if a client becomes difficult about using contraception, ranging from the blunt to the flirtatious to the outright sassy (my favourite: don’t you want to leave something for your wife to do?). The girls are free to leave and report the client if they feel uncomfortable, whereupon he is banned. The intoxicated/stoned/fucked-up need not apply either. “You wouldn’t let someone buy another drink if they were smashed, you wouldn’t let them drive if they were on P… then why would you let them fuck a teenage girl?” These are not, it would seem, exploited or
subjugated women.

That is not to say that approval of sex work comes without provisos and caveats. Jennifer is of the opinion that brothels should be run by females; this position was entrenched when she was told by [unnamed male owner of unnamed brothel] “if I had a pussy I would just fuck all day”. There is an exploitative undercurrent to some sex-work institutions (especially in Third-World countries), and it is crucial to not be swayed by upmarket First-World counterpoints where there are regulations in place that enable empowerment via sex work. But, by the same token, it would be callow to make a sweeping generalisation based on the worst aspects of sex work, and even worse to appropriate the voice of victims in order to pursue a certain agenda.

When asked about what she thought of feminism, she responded “I have a love-hate relationship with feminism” before pausing: “mostly hate”. This stems from an antipathy towards the doctrines of the second wave, whose effects linger malignantly in both her personal and professional life; the denial and rejection of what Souness calls “natural femininity”, and the unpleasant and inaccurate assumptions about ‘sex work’ that proved to be costly to psyches around the world.

And this is what is most important for feminists today to understand, I think; the hangover of second-wave ideology still persists and disgruntles to this day. It is easy to see the porn workers and prostitutes destroyed by the efforts of FAP, those women who were told to be ‘less feminine’, the trans* individuals who were derided and seen as encroachers upon the ‘true female’ essence, those who were told that enjoyment of vaginal sex was based on ‘deluded false consciousness’ and who were discouraged from embracing sexuality as incidental victims in the cause for progress. In fact, the movement often served to increase and entrench marginalisation of the less-privileged and diminish their self-worth. The hostility towards it is not misguided. It has done a tremendous amount of good, but it should be acknowledged that it also has a great deal to answer for.

Jennifer related a great scenario that summed things up aptly: “say you go home with a guy [and have a terrible time] and then ring your mum in the morning. She’s going to be fairly understanding right, sympathetic? Then imagine you tell your Mum ‘oh, I had the most wonderful evening… went home with this guy and left in the morning with $2000 in my pocket. She’d be furious, wouldn’t she?” While I found this illuminating when it came to irrational stigmas attached to sex work, I thought it would be even more interesting if you dropped the $2000 out of the scenario; I suspect that for many, the result would be exactly the same. Sex is still such a shameful thing in so many quarters, and this shame is something no one who engages in consensual enjoyment should have to live with.

You could well rebut this diatribe by saying that feminism does make room for these concerns, and you’d be entirely correct: the ‘intersectional’ and ‘sex-positive’ movements I mentioned waaay back address these issues, with intersectional feminism operating under the premise that there is an ‘interlocking matrix of oppression’ that must be taken into account, and with sex-positivism adhering to its self-explanatory descriptor. But why should I have to make these clarifications, when they should be the standard position? Moreover, the ideological divide between ‘non-intersectional feminism’ and ‘intersectional feminism’ (and ‘sex-positivism’ and its opponent too) is so gaping, so yawningly huge, that to tag them under the same ideological label seems misleading. These are not petty differences; these are irreconcilable schisms.

So, what can we do? There’s a quote that has been doing the rounds on tumblr that I’m particularly fond of: “Men who want to be feminists do not need to be given a space in feminism. They need to take the space they have in society and make it feminist.” Preach. The same applies: as feminists, we need to make feminist spaces intersectional, sex-positive and inclusive. We need to make it the default and the norm, not the outlier, for the good of us all. Kia kaha and arohanui.

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  1. Sophie says:

    Hi, I worked for Jennifer Souness for a while a few years ago. She is very good at what she does, which is making money. She was born to be a boss, and to own her own company and kudos for her. I admire her for her money making techniques. You, however, did not work for her as an escort (or “courtesan” as she likes to say). Let me tell you a few home truths – for staff drinks/parties at the end of the week we had to provide our own wine. She likes her women thin, and we were given tips on how to loose weight. She advises sit ups and a limited diet. She herself enjoys a good tipple and fab (maybe that’s changed but I doubt it). She comes from a wealthy family in Wellington who have bankrolled her way into this industry. Sure, whilst in Italy etc. she did model, but she was never a top model. She still owes me money. I totally would advise anyone who wants to work for her these things – if you do want to make money, be very beautiful, have boobs and be size 8. You don’t have to love sex to be an escort, just a good actress. That’s what us working girls do. I hope Jennifer does well. But she is overcharging men, and the girls get fraction of the money. They have to sign a contract that says that for six months Jennifer will take a certain percentage of your pay and give it back to six months later. If you leave her before that you don’t get that money. That’s the truth.

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