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What is liberation ? Feminism past, present and future

1er janvier 2007

par Gail K. Golden, psychotherapist and poet

Important conversations are currently taking place about a confusing phenomenon regarding a specific group of contemporary women. These conversations relate to some young women today who embrace pornography, prostitution and the sexual objectification of women. Rejecting the feminist struggles of an earlier generation, these young women seek to advance this so called ’post feminist’ agenda. This paper seeks to enter the conversation in an effort to understand and respond to this supposed manifestation of a new kind of women’s liberation. We begin by addressing the question of whether we are actually in a post feminist age.

How Far Have We Come ?

Throughout the 1960s and early 70s, many important events occurred
that impacted the lives of American women. The birth control pill was
approved by the FDA in 1960. Congress passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination on the basis of race,
sex and religion. Then in 1973 there was Roe v. Wade. It was a time of
wonder and endless possibility. A different kind of society seemed
possible. Many previously oppressed groups became very hopeful about the
future. Large numbers of women certainly looked forward to a new day.
Fast forward to 2006 and many real gains have been enjoyed by women.
But the extraordinary excitement and hopefulness of those earlier years have
somewhat dissipated in the face of backlash, loss of ground and barriers
to the progress that we anticipated.

On June 25, 2006, a coalition of women’s and human rights organizations
submitted a wide-ranging report on the status of women’s rights in the
United States to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The report
documents the failure of the U.S. to promote equality for women as
required by a treaty ratified by the U.S. in 1992.

This failure ranges from the criminal justice system, immigration laws,
inadequate anti-violence laws, and inadequate minimum wage laws.
Documented as well are the disadvantages that millions of working women
experience because of poorly enforced anti-discrimination employment laws, the lack of unemployment insurance and health care coverage, In late May, NOW Foundation concluded the U.S. workplace is one of the least supportive employment environments for women of any developed nation. The NOW Foundation also emphasized that political leaders are currently
reducing funds and dismantling programs adopted over the past 40 years
that have promoted equality for women (N.O.W.).

Moreover, men’s violence against women remains a very pervasive social
reality. Around the world, at least one in every three women has been
beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime. Nearly
25% of American women report being raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, or date at some time in
their life. In 2001, intimate partner violence made up 20% of
violent crime against women. According to Amnesty International, every day four women die in the U.S. as a result of domestic violence. And more than 700 women are raped or sexually assaulted every day (Family Violence Prevention Fund).

The objectification of women remains a fact of life, growing ever more
cynical and sophisticated along with technology. Cyber porn, violent,
misogynist video games and music videos now supplement the already
existing belittling images of women in movies, magazines and on TV.
Thus, while individual women have an increasing range of choices, women as a group are clearly not yet where we need or want to be. We still have an
enormous amount of work to do before American women, as a group, live in a just, equitable, and safe society.

Raunch Culture

Against this current and troubling background, we have the perplexing
phenomenon of a supposedly post-feminist culture which is being embraced
by seemingly significant numbers of young women. These women appear to
reject the struggles of a previous generation to confront the damaging
impact of pornography, the sex industry and the sexual objectification of
women’s bodies. Early feminists indicated that these influences contributed
heavily to a culture which dehumanized women, put them in danger, and
failed to take their humanity and capabilities seriously. But today, it
seems, many young women assume that the so called feminist agenda has been realized and that the final frontier rests in a specific kind of sexual
liberty which supports them in exploring exactly those areas previously
deemed antithetical to women’s equality.

In her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs : Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy (Free Press, NY 2005) explores this phenomenon. She writes suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation. How had the culture shifted so drastically in such a short period of time ? Levy interviews men and women involved with the media’s representations of this cultural shift. She interviews strippers, porn stars, porn star wannabees, the crew from Girls Gone Wild, Olympic female athletes who pose nude for Playboy, the female producer of G-string Divas and many others.

This new raunch culture didn’t mark the death of feminism, they told me :
it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We
earned the right to look at Playboy ; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes. Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer
needed to worry about objectification or misogyny. Instead, it was time
for us to join the frat party of pop culture, where men had been enjoying
themselves all along. If Male Chauvinist Pigs were men who regarded women as pieces of meat, we would outdo them and be Female Chauvinist Pigs : women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves.

In her conversations with female viewers and readers, Levy attempts to
understand what is gained. She hears a lot about empowerment, fun, and
being cool. She also hears a lot about wanting to be one of the guys. Why throw
Your boyfriend’s Playboy in a freedom trash can when you could be partying at the Mansion ? Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving or getting- a lap dance yourself ? Why try to beat them when you can join them ?

So What Are We Looking At ?

In a country where nearly 25% of American women report being raped and/or physically assaulted, what is the nature of the power that some are
claiming as they choose to become strippers and sex workers ? In a country
where more than 700 women are raped or sexually assaulted every day, what
is the power claimed by women who dress like porn stars, and co-eds who
have group sex for videographers ? And how do these women account for the
enormous violence which permeates so much of this pornography.

Certainly some women express a sense of liberation when making newfound
sexual choices after centuries of repression. After being constrained by
restrictive and moralizing dress codes, we can now choose to wear
anything, little or nothing. We can make decisions about the uses of our
own sexuality. We can initiate sexual activities. We can enlarge our
breasts, tuck our tummies, bleach our hair, reshape our faces, creating
the sexual body we desire, or that we think someone else may desire. This
is seen as progress in that sex has previously been seen as a sphere in
which men are trained to see themselves as naturally dominant and women
naturally passive. (Robert W. Jenson, A Cruel Edge). So the power to assert some
kind of sexual dominance over the experience is an important one.

A Psychological Perspective

In psychological terms, however, this post feminist tendency to objectify
one’s own body has aspects of the phenomenon known as identification with
the aggressor. This is a defence that people use when we feel overwhelmed
by an inescapable threat. "Hoping to survive, we sense and ’become’
precisely what the aggressor expects of us-in our behavior, perceptions,
emotions and thoughts." (J. Frankel) Thus, the ’power’ claimed by some new or post feminists seems to be the power to choose sides in the struggle. But this is not the power to define what the actual struggle is. It is an adaptive power, seeking to achieve some measure of control in a still male dominated culture.

I submit that the actual struggle that remains before us is still the
struggle to end our white male dominated society and move towards a
society based on equity and justice. This would be a society in which men
and women of all races enjoy full political and economic power. This would
be a society in which women of all races enjoy sexual freedom,
reproductive freedom, and freedom from the constant fear of physical and
sexual assault.

The Masters Tools

Audre Lorde said : The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Masters
house. Asserting sexual freedom by becoming a porn star, a sex worker or a
Playboy pinup is precisely the attempt to use the masters tools to
dismantle a male dominant society. These efforts, I believe, maintain the
status quo : a society in which women are still not fully valued, a society
in which women from all over the globe are kidnapped, trafficked and
brought to the US in sexual slavery in order to satisfy male desire, a
society in which large numbers of women are still not safe in their own

This is also a society in which the laws are still made by white males and
where most corporations are still run by white males. This does not negate
the growing numbers of women who are lawyers, doctors, business owners,
politicians, professors, clergy people and company executives. The US
Congress however, tells the larger story. Women are nowhere close to
having 50% representation. There is only one woman currently on the
Supreme Court. We do not yet have power in proportion to our numbers.
Prosperous men are still waging war on poor women and children. Men are
still deciding if, when and how women can get access to reproductive
health care, how long women can get hospital care after a mastectomy, who
can qualify for day care subsidies, what is sexual harassment, what is
rape, how long is maternity leave, what should be the minimum wage.


Women who are choosing Raunch Culture are making a limited set of choices in a limited arena. And of course it always feels good and empowering to have any kind of choice. But some choices are heavily circumscribed by a situation’s limitations. Women who choose to become part of the Raunch Culture seem to be clear that our culture is defined by male lust which degrades women and treats them with contempt. This cultural conditioning supports men treating women as objects, part objects, receptacles and fetishist vehicles of pleasure. The choice then is to oppose this male conditioning and its results, or to join with men by identifying with
their desires, and becoming the enthusiastic cheerleaders for those
desires. The choice is not about women choosing love, respect, tenderness,
dignity, and a full sense of being valued for all of who they are. This if
you can’t beat them join them posture suggests itself as a defeatist
response. The freedom rooted in an individual’s ability to choose is
important, but we must also ask : What is meaningful freedom within a
culture that is marked by pervasive racism and sexism ? What is freedom in
a culture defined by an unchecked capitalist economy which turns the most
private and personal experiences into commodities that can turn a profit.
(« Pornography is a left issue », Gail Dines and Robert Jensen). Moroever, these kinds of choices do not signify real access to power.
Power relates to the ability to impose ones will on others, and the
control of vital resources.

The Problem of Privilege

Nonetheless, as previously observed, some young women today report that
they are gratified and fulfilled by their decision to make so called
careers in the sex industry. They report that they make good money, feel
very much in control of their lives and the men they are servicing, and
enjoy the sense of power that their careers afford them. So we do
understand that a discreet group of women find these choices libratory.
We do not need to interfere with their lives.

But it is very important to observe that the opportunity to freely choose
a career as a stripper, a prostitute, a dominatrix or a porn star is an
opportunity that evolves out of some degree of privilege. Women who are
trafficked or misled, are poor, hungry, homeless, wholly disenfranchised,
illiterate, or unable to earn a living wage are not similarly privileged.
And they constitute the overwhelmingly great majority of women who are
unwillingly and unhappily involved in sex work. * These are women who are
suffering and exploited on a daily basis. It is for this majority of women
that we must advocate, and develop policies. These are the women who must
have our political attention. We can not use the experiences of a discreet
group of privileged women to make organizational or governmental policies.
This would obscure the greater reality of women around the globe. We must
take principled positions that confront the sexual exploitation of women
and girls wherever this occurs.

Betraying oppressed women

Perhaps though, the most disturbing thing about the raunch culture is that
it trivializes the suffering and exploitation of women around the world.
By furthering an attitude of hey this stuff is fun they are betraying the
women who are forced to provide lap dances, who are prostituted against
their will, who are forced into pornographic films, who are propelled into
so called sex work by starvation, illness, or the ravages of war. By
promoting a posture of what’s the big deal, this is cool they are casting
doubt on the cries of exploited women. After all, if certain sexually
liberated women are enjoying themselves so much, what is the need to
prevent the sexual abuse of women.

The furthering of raunch culture by a small few is done on the backs of
millions of oppressed women. That is why we can never allow this
privileged group to co-opt any conversation about women’s liberation. They
have every right to make their own decisions and choices, but their
rhetoric demeans the realities that govern most women’s lives.

The Remaining Feminist Struggle

We can respect the rights of our sisters who choose to enter the sexual
arena as one of the guys. To do otherwise can be gruelling, isolating and
discouraging in some very specific ways. At the same time, we should not
confuse this so called choice with the historic feminist struggle. That
feminist struggle is about ending the exploitation of women politically,
economically, culturally and socially. It is about creating a world in
which women do not have to choose to identify with misogyny in order to
find acceptance. It is about creating context in which women can identify
with their own sexuality, with their real bodies, with their real needs.

That is the final frontier.

We need to maintain the struggle to come onto a truly level playing field,
not one defined by men’s entitlement to abuse power and control. We need to keep fighting for a society in which violence done to women’s bodies is not eroticized and commercialized. Until we have achieved these goals, we can not claim to have achieved the feminist agenda. And the freedom to package ourselves as the objects of male desire feels like a very hollow victory.

* Millions of women around the world are victimized by traffickers, pimps,
and johns each year. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to the
trafficking industry. Some are abducted ; some are deceived by offers of
legitimate work in another country ; some are sold by their own
poverty-stricken parents or are themselves driven by poverty into the lure
of traffickers who prey on their desperation. Regardless of how they are
propelled into the multi-billion dollar industry of sexual exploitation
whether through force, deception, coercion or simply through desperate
poverty these women and girls suffer unimaginable human rights violations
as commodities of the trade in human beings by third-party profiteers
(Equality Now).

Gail Golden, August 2006
© All rights reserved to Gail K. Golden - Site.

Many thanks to Phyllis B. Frank, Sheila Hamanaka and Lynn Sheinkin for the valuable input and feedback they provided while I was writing this paper.

French version.

On Sisyphe, January 8th, 2007.

Gail K. Golden, psychotherapist and poet

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