Radical vs. Liberal Feminism: Part Two

You might want to read part one of this blog post before preceding.  The purpose of this blog post will be to outline the differences between radical and liberal feminist views on two very controversial subjects, the first being prostitution and pornography, the second being gender identity.  First, it should be noted that I am not trying to resolve these issues, only frame them. Second,  it should be noted that not all liberal and radical feminists have the exact same views on these issues and attempts to conflate a single person’s views to a stereotype should be avoided no matter what side a person falls on.

Prostitution and Pornography

In terms of prostitution it is important to understand where the disagreement lies.  Here the issue rests on objectification, coercion and consent.  To many radical feminists the institution of patriarchy is re-enforced through prostitution by reducing women to commodities to be purchased.  In addition, to many socialists, capitalism is an inherently oppressive system, and women who are technically “consenting” to sex work, are no more consenting than women and men who consent to working conditions at low wage employment.

The arguments go roughly like this:

Radical feminists argue that the majority of women, even if they appear to consent to sex work, are not actually doing so, and that a sex industry exists where women are trafficked at worst, and at best, men profit from the sexual objectification of women.  Sex-positive feminists argue that restrictions of sex work are themselves sexist and that they interfere with the autonomy of women to make their own choices.  They usually stress how legalizing prostitution would allow regulation and unionization.

Sex-positive feminists argue that laws restricting sex work keep women from making a living and being able to support themselves and sometimes their families.    Radical feminists argue that while some women might have positive experiences with sex work, this is not the norm, and the successes that some women might have comes at the expense of the majority of women in sex work.  (Just like capitalism in general.)  Most radical feminists support the Nordic Model or something similar, while there are arguments against this model.

Some sex-positive feminists argue that sex work is no different than any other service provided to people.  Radical feminists and socialists often contest this.  For instance, if capitalism where destroyed and replaced it is highly unlikely that prostitution would continue in society, or at the very least be a rare occurrence.   Furthermore, with prostitution  it isn’t just the service provided but the specifics of the sex worker that are being paid for.  As an example, a man might enter a brothel and request a black woman or an Asian woman, or make specific requests about the “type” of woman he wants.  This is inherently objectifying in a way that other “services” clearly are not.

Ultimately, the discussion ends up with an argument involving “johns”, or men who purchase sex.  While most feminists are in agreement that selling sex should not be considered a crime, there is a very strong argument about whether buying sex should be.  I find this argument in particular to be somewhat revealing, because the arguments that some sex-positive feminists make do not alter much from the arguments that an anti-feminists male would make.  For instance, I have heard sex-positive feminists claim this is punishing and demonizing male sexuality.

It my seem at this point that I have been overly harsh to sex-positive feminists, but I would like to take the opportunity now to highlight some of the things I think sex positive feminists are essentially right about.    It is true that controlling women’s sexuality has been a major part of women’s oppression and that feminism legislating activity between consenting adults is ultimately a form of tyranny, but it is important to note that both feminism and socialism have been involved in a questioning and redefining of concepts of freedom as defined by patriarchal capitalist society.   This is something we should keep in mind when moving onto pornography.

The most potent and most effective argument against anti-pornography views has been free speech.    After all, a person can logically and consistently find something abhorrent and still defend the idea that it should be legal.  This has been the main problem in the advocacy that Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin faced was there were many people who may think their arguments have some teeth to them but be uncomfortable with the legal implications of their views, while also having to deal with “individualist” feminists like Camille Paglia and Wendy McAvoy.  

Ultimately, there are a number of difficult issues associated with pornography.  What counts as pornography?   Is all pornography bad?  If not, then what is bad and what is not?  What should be legally done about it?  What are the effects of a culture where we all have access to online porn constantly?  It is because of this last question I think in particular that this question has gained some steam again. With the amount of porn we now have available to us, any negative effects should start to become more obvious.

The person who best tackles these questions is Gail Dines.  Dines advocates for a different tact than Dworkin or Mackinnon when it comes to pornography and she has even convinced some of her opponents.

Gender and Identity  

For most of human history, and even for the early history of feminism, it was assumed that men and women were very much essentially different psychologically.  This view is called “gender essentialism.”   A blog post of mine that deals with this subject can be found here.

A major part of second wave feminism was the rejection of this narrative.  Philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, in her book The Second Sex, claimed that the idea of what it means to be a woman had been shaped by a myth she called “The Eternal Feminine.”  This myth is defined in opposition to man, and through it woman is “othered.”  Beauvoir backs up her assertion with numerous historical and literary examples.  This became the basis for second wave feminism’s ideas about gender as an oppressive system.

The existence of transgender individuals complicates matters here, but to be clear, not all radical feminists have been “trans-exclusionary”, meaning that they claim transgender identity is a meaningless category.  Andrea Dworkin and Catharine McKinnon both accepted “transexuals.”  In addition to this, there are both trans and non-binary individuals who accept the  idea that gender is a construct determined by society.

The major issue here is that some feel that trans-advocacy often includes the language of gender essentialism.  Many people when talking about transgender individuals seem to view the state of being transgender as  a person’s “body sex” not matching their “brain sex.”  A lot of this problem arises when sex and gender are not delineated.  It can be stated that sex is biological, while gender is sociological, but there are a number of issues involved with sex as well.

Intersex individuals exist, who do not fit into the traditional male/female binary of biological sex.    Some, such as biologist Anne-Fausto Sterling argue that we should expand our concept of what biological sex means.   Issues with biological sex are as followed.

1. Two gametes that are involved with reproduction, but some individuals produce both gametes, called “true hermaphrodites.”

2. There are male sex organs and female sex organs but intersex individuals typically have both, at least partially.

3.  XX chromosomes denotes female, while XY denotes male but other chromosome combinations exist.

There are some people who try and get around that last one and make sex a binary by saying that the SRY gene determines sex.  The problem with this is that while the SRY gene determines whether a person has male genitalia there are XX and XXY individuals who have SRY but a fully working uterus and are able to be “mothers” of children.  To say that these people are male, actually redefines what biological sex means more radically than expanding our categories to include intersex people does.

Much of the problem of communication between different schools of thought on gender come from the complications involved with how sex relates to gender.  Some radical feminists define the term woman to mean that a person has a uterus, or at the very least was born with a uterus.  The problem here is that this is conflating female (a sex term) with woman (a gender term.)  Things could be resolved by defining these two terms as separate, but some trans women, even if they have not transitioned, insist that they are female.  Similarly, non transitioned trans women will call themselves lesbians, something that many cisgender lesbians feel implies that a person has a vagina.

It should be noted that much of these controversies ignore trans men altogether, with a focus on the idea that trans women  are invading cis women’s spaces and claiming female identity while still retaining male privilege.    The more aggressive trans-exclusionary views originate with feminist theologian Mary Daly.   Daly’s protegee was Janice Raymond who wrote a book called the Transexual Empire.  More recently, Sheila Jeffreys expanded on the views of Daly and Raymond in her book Gender Hurts.

Much of the arguments made by them feminists involve challenging gender essentialism as a justification of transgender identity.  However, both the work of Raymond and Jeffreys relies on a mix of conspiracy theory, scare tactics and misrepresentation to make their case.  Both make some legitimate points about gender essentialism and the fetishizing of female bodies, but most of their prescriptive arguments rely on seeing transgender identity as a mental illness and that transgender identity as being a creation of pharmaceutical companies.

Judith Butler, finds a way to both reject gender essentialism and accept transgender identity.  Butler, like Jeffreys, sees transgender identity as a social construct but comes to radically different conclusions.    Butler sees gender as a “performance” a person makes in relation to societal social norms.  She defends transgender identity on the basis of autonomy, and defends trans rights on the basis of how gender non-conforming people, including lesbians such as herself, are often subject to violence by society.   Butler sees all forms of identity to be the result of social construction and while this may be meaningful to individuals, can be re-conceptualized.

Butler sees disphoria as a definition of transgender identity to be problematic, because it allows transgender identity to be pathologized by the medical establishment and forces transgender people to adopt the essentialist language of the establishment.   Transgender individuals often talk about dysphoria in very different ways, take this video for example.

I have seen dysphoria talked about in two very different ways.  The first, is to treat it almost like a form of mental illness or close to an eating disorder.  The second way is how Contrapoints does, basically describing issues that most people face.  For instance, plenty of cisgender people obsess over going bald.  In addition to this, Contrapoints stresses a need to remove body hair, something that women do because of cultural pressures and has a bad history.

In her book, Undoing Gender, Judith Butler rejects gender essentialist narratives and analyzes the infamous “John/Joan case” which many use to argue for it.  The bottom line for Butler is that individual autonomy should be respected and no person’s relationship to sex and gender should be forced upon them without consent.   However, when looking at issues like dysphoria and biological components there is still a lot to be learned and discussed.  Twin studies involving transgender individuals, only show a 33% correlation with identical twins in terms of transgender identity, compared to a 51% correlation in terms of sexual orientation.   More views on how transgender studies and feminism intersect can be read in books like Transfeminst Perspectives.  

3 Replies to “Radical vs. Liberal Feminism: Part Two”

  1. Hey man, I’m 3/4 of the way through Against Method, but along the way, I had some questions in regards to epistemology. Specifically, are you familiar with Margaret Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy? Because looking back to it, I’m seeing why Cavendish often made remarks about scientists looking through telescopes and microscopes, and that is due to certain dogmas that may arise as the senses can be fooled; especially the case in which Cavendish records the discovery of microscopic insects as evidence of the atom, and she casting doubt as it goes against what Epicurus described that the atom should not be seen so easily by the naked eye, and therefore it is dogma. So for my second question, do you think Feyerabend (hope I spelled it right!) has some similarities and parallels to Cavendish?

    1. I’m not familiar enough with Cavendish to say. Feyerabend is famously hard to pin down because he wrote in such an unsystematic style. There is a lot of argument over what Feyerabend even said. My own interpretation of him is limited to Against Method and The Tyranny of Science, but the latter book helped me understand what the former was saying a lot more.

      1. Well Chris, while I’m not an expert on Cavendish, but I can say that Feyerabend’s critique in the former reminds me a hell of a lot of Cavendish’s criticism of both the Empiricist and Rationalist schools of her day. Especially with Cavendish pointing out that both reason and experience have their limits as Feyerabend points to. I would definitely give Observations upon Experimental Philosophy not only from a historical perspective in comparison to Feyerabend, but also to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. If memory serves me, I do believe Cavendish made some of the same arguments critiquing the above mentioned schools as Kant did 100 years before.,%20Margaret%20-%20Observations%20upon%20Experimental%20Philosophy%20Cambridge%20Texts%20in%20the%20History%20of%20Philosophy%202001.pdf

        Also there is an abridged version of Cavendish’s work in her short story The Blazing World where Cavendish engages in a Socratic Dialogue on the matter: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/newcastle/blazing/blazing.html

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