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Self-harm in sheep’s clothing

The feminist fix: At least Schlafly did not pretend to be one of us

Artillery Row

“Self-harm in sheep’s clothing” is the eighth article in Julie Bindel’s online column for The Critic, “The feminist fix”, which explores feminism’s answer to today’s challenges. The seventh article, on misogynists and their handmaidens, can be read here.

“The woman hangs on, not with the delicacy of a clinging vine, but with the tenacity incredible in its intensity, to the very persons, institutions and values that demean her, degrade her, glorify her powerlessness, insist upon constraining and paralysing the most honest expressions of her will and being” (Andrea Dworkin, Right Wing Women, 1978)

Rather than imagining the likes of Phyllis Schlafly when you think about anti-feminist women, think about those women that claim to be feminist when in reality they are against everything that we stand for. At least Schlafly did not insult us further by pretending to be one of us. Today, so many anti-feminist women claim to be feminist in order to speak with pretend authority against the movement.

The reason feminism is so difficult is because most women will side with male abusers — not because they are stupid, but because patriarchy is organised around denying us class consciousness, history and solidarity.

Take Billie Eilish’s recent denouncement of pornography, which she labelled “violent and abusive”. Eilish disclosed during an interview with Howard Stern, a keen ‘fan of porn, how she first began consuming it when aged just eleven and how it gave her nightmares and distorted her sexual responses. During her early teens, said Eilish, watching porn helped her feel as if she were “one of the guys”.

Some accuse Eilish of being anti-woman because they find empowerment’ through pornography

Adding that she is now angry at herself for thinking it was OK to watch so much porn, Eilish explained that when she began dating men, she found it hard to say “no” to certain harmful sexual practices because these acts had become normalised as a result of widespread porn consumption amongst young boys and men. Her comments brought all the anti-feminists to the yard, with some accusing Eilish of being anti-woman, on the grounds that some women find “empowerment” through pornography. “Does that include the women involved in it, who enjoy it and don’t feel the need to blame their own issues with the medium on the entire industry? Because your statement is coming across very anti woman and choice,” reads one comment. Talk about Orwellian doublespeak.

We must never assume that members of a particular oppressed group want to be liberated. Many women collude in our own oppression because we have learned that it can be safer in the short term. We are the only oppressed group on the planet who are expected to love, protect and rigorously defend our oppressors.

For heterosexual women, looking across the breakfast table at the man they love, their personal nightmare might be suspecting that he enjoys pornography in which women are hurt. It is not uncommon for mothers to worry about their sons being accused of rape. We are told men will protect us if we behave ourselves, but it’s a lie and at some level we know it.

For those that have chosen to marry men and stay at home to look after the children, they may believe that feminists look down on them. This is usually a defence mechanism because I’ve never heard a genuine feminist speak about women in that way.

Women defend such practices to avoid being labelled prudish

Some women say they don’t need feminism because it reinforces patriarchy and helps men feel as though they are all powerful (to have a whole movement against you might be intoxicating).

The less imaginative anti-feminists will say that they don’t like the movement because it demonises men, labelling them all rapists, and therefore rendering women eternal victims.

Some will simply deny that violence against women exists, or claim that exposing men’s abuse promotes such violence by normalising domestic abuse and sexual assault.

For others, it’s about wanting to look cool and appeal to men. It is instinctive for feminists to oppose prostitution, pornography and pole-dancing for example, but some women feel that they need to defend such practices to avoid being labelled prudish or anti-sex. These women will denounce feminism rather than taking a pop at global sexual exploitation.

Hard leftists might critique feminism from a position of cultural relativism. Because we have an annoying habit of campaigning not just against rape and domestic violence, but also  practices justified as “cultural” such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced or child marriages we are often accused of being racist, “Islamophobic” or even labelled with the handy insult “white feminist”.

Accusations of white feminism belittle in the name of being progressive

The term “white feminist” is a relatively new weapon in the armoury used to discredit grass-roots feminists. Critics use “white feminist” as a slur rather than a descriptor (otherwise, why not simply say “racist feminist”?) to shut down a debate. If someone wants to debate a policy, such as criminalising the men who pay for sex, or whether trans women should have access to female-only spaces, the debate should be about the merits of the policy. Accusations of white feminism derail and shut down discussion, belittling feminists in the name of being progressive.

The feminist fix for anti-feminist women is to ask, repeatedly and unequivocally, why they are working against their own interests. There is only ever one answer, and that is to avoid offending or upsetting men. What other reason is there for resisting and denouncing a movement that demands women’s liberation? We must be robust in our challenging of anti-feminist women, remembering that we all started there. Acknowledge that speaking out against men’s abuse and domination is terrifying: we risk the ire of our sons, fathers and other men in our lives. Women that hate feminism are practicing a form of self-harm, disguised as short-term protection. The job of feminists is to welcome those women into the fold.

Julie Bindel’s latest book, Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation (Constable, Robinson), was published on 2 September 2021.

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