Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

Déjà vu. Goldsmiths 2015, University of Michigan 1992

In Feminism, Freedom of Expression, From the Vaults, History, Students on February 7, 2015 at 6:24 PM

 This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on February 3rd 2015, 9:00 am

I was struck by a sense of déjà vu when reading Sarah’s post about the cancelling of Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her post should be read before what I copy below, an extract from a 1992 edition of the New York Times. When will we progress?

New York Times, November 13, 1992, p.B16

Furor on Exhibit at Law School Splits Feminists

Are pornography and prostitution more dangerous than censorship?


The closing of an art exhibit on prostitution two weeks ago has plunged the University of Michigan law school in Ann Arbor into an angry debate about free speech, feminism, pornography and censorship.

Legally, the issue is whether students at the school violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech by removing from the exhibit a two-hour videotape featuring works about prostitution by five artists, including two former prostitutes.

But politically, the fracas is the latest and most virulent outbreak of tensions between two camps of feminists: those who seek to suppress pornography and prostitution, arguing that they incite sexual violence and violate women’s civil rights, and those who say the anti-pornography, anti-prostitution movement is a form of censorship that limits women’s sexuality and free-speech rights.

…the furor occurred at the University of Michigan, whose law faculty includes Catharine A. MacKinnon, a leader in the fight against pornography…. Carol Jacobsen, the Detroit artist who put together the art exhibit at the request of [Michigan Journal of Gender & Law] staff, has been an outspoken critic of Ms. MacKinnon’s anti-pornography efforts…. Her exhibit… included her own video interviews with Detroit prostitutes, who are referred to as “sex workers” by conference organisers.

When the conference began, she also installed a two-hour videotape featuring five works, including one by Veronica Vera, a former prostitute. Ms. Vera’s work included footage from sex films and a brief clip of her testifying against an anti-pornography measure before a United States Senate committee.

The next morning, that videotape was removed by a group of law students from the journal staff…..“We really didn’t think of it as a censorship issue, but as a safety issue, because two of our speakers said that based on their experience at other events, the tape would be a threat to their safety,” said Bryan Wells, one of the students. “….Seven of us from the journal made the decision to remove the tape, and while I regret that it made people unhappy, I don’t regret the decision.”

Ms. MacKinnon, who stressed that she was not involved in the decision to pull the video, said she supported the students’ action….she said… “If these materials are pornography – and I haven’t seen them so I can’t say – it is not a question of their offensiveness, but of safety and equality for women. Showing pornography sets women up for harassment and rape.” ….

Ms. MacKinnon sees the furor as an attempt to smear her and another speaker at the conference, Andrea Dworkin, a New York writer who has been her ally in years of efforts against pornography.

“My real view, so far as this pertains to me, is that this is a witchhunt by First Amendment fundamentalists who are persecuting and blacklisting dissidents like Andrea Dworkin and myself as arts censors,” said Ms. MacKinnon. “I don’t see it as a fight within feminism but a fight between those who wish to end male supremacy and those who wish to do better under it.”

Civil libertarians say the events illustrate the extremism of Ms. MacKinnon’s views, and how easily they can be used to censor women’s free expression.

“It’s hard to articulate how damaging the femino-censors can be, but this is a perfect example of how the MacKinnon crusade hurts women,” said Marjorie Heins, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Arts Censorship Project. Censorship of sexually explicit material is not in women’s interest. It’s also unconstitutional. Michigan is a state school, and when any government institution removes an art exhibit or book because it expresses ideas some people find offensive, there’s a First Amendment problem.” ….

Several of the students who organized the conference said it has been impossible to get both viewpoints.

“We had a problem as soon as we invited speakers, because some of the key anti-prostitution people accepted on the condition that they wouldn’t speak if there were people from the other side there,” said Lisa Lodin, one of the students who organised the conference. “…Part of the reason we wanted Carol Jacobsen’s exhibit so much was to show the other side, without confrontation.”

Ms. Lodin and several other students said they were so discouraged by the turn of events that they had begun to reexamine their attitude toward feminism.

“This is not women uniting to solve problems,” Ms. Lodin said. “This is just women fighting against each other.”


19th Century Marxist Mantra in 21st Century Feminist Garb

In Book Review, Feminism, Marxism on August 15, 2014 at 4:06 PM

Book Review

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, (Bloomsbury, 2014) 288pp.

Laurie Penny is a self-declared “political creature” who wants “mutiny.” She has a message for the “fucked-up girls” with eating disorders and the “lost boys” who do not “feel able to talk about their own suffering.” Unspeakable Things is a political manifesto filled with autobiographical detail. Penny is someone who was thrown out of ballet classes at an early age “for teaching the other girls how to masturbate,” spent nine months in a mental institution recovering from anorexia, has had friends in prison, once lived with porn stars, has been raped, and  enjoyed kissing a girl who was sleeping with the same boy that she was. She is someone with the effrontery to write “hairy cocks and cunts” and not only get away with it, but to get it published.  She knows what it is like to have her “arse grabbed in a bar,” to be on the receiving end of an online hate campaign, to be afraid of leaving her house as a result of fear from online stalkers and  to be blackmailed with pictures of her semi naked kissing another girl.

Penny becomes a heroine for the angst ridden, left-wing, teen and early twenties girl who stays at home “with a painted-on smile.” Penny tells them that it is okay to shave their armpits, wear lipstick, have a poster of a half-naked Justin Bieber on their bedroom wall, have sex with as many boys as they like, tell the world about it, and still be a feminist.  She is proud to “fly the flag for sex, for fucking and for love online.” The Pennyettes with their hands down their pants might be pleased to hear Penny tell them “sex online is real sex and love online is real love.”

The Pennyettes might well raise their eyebrows when she tells them that she does not have the kind of high-flying job that allows her “to think in terms of ‘having it all.’” Here is Laurie Penny, private school, Oxford, and soon to be Harvard educated, 27 years old, beautiful, an author of a number of published books and a blog that was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. She is a journalist for national newspapers, a contributing editor at New Statesman, has regular appearances on television and radio, and criss-crosses the Atlantic for work. She has a hundred thousand, many adoring, followers on Twitter, who tells her readers that she does not have it all. One wonders what a twenty year old, working-class woman stacking shelves in Tesco with cans of own brand baked beans would make of that. The truth is such a person is not really Penny’s natural constituency. Penny is the role model for the 18 year old female, unsure of where she is going in the world, or how she fits in, who, despite a firm belief that a thigh gap and a bikini bridge are necessities to succeed in life, has just obtained three grade As at ‘A’ level and entry to an elite university. Unspeakable Things was written by Penny for her own younger sisters.

And what about the male species? Men as a group “hate and hurt women.” But one must not accuse Penny of “reverse sexism” for saying so. That would be a cheap attempt to “shut down debate.” Patriarchy, she tells us, is violent. It has “oppressed and constrained men and boys as well as women.” “Desire,” she claims, “is socially constructed.”  Will the 19 year old male undergraduate with an erection because he is seated next to a hot girl in his sociology lecture believe that? At any rate, who cares if it is true? It sounds like a profound thing for a corduroy jacket wearing, satchel carrying, Foucault reading, Pennyette to say while seated cross legged and sipping a cappuccino in the student union.

After such an analysis of women and men, one might wonder who or what is at fault. It’s the “system” goddammit! All the problems in the “fucked-up world” boil down to one thing: neoliberalism. Penny retreats to the same old Marxist mantra: capitalism and the patriarchy that follows from it. Here is a Penny sentence: “The colonisation of love by capitalist patriarchy is a deeply painful thing.” Being a true Pennyette depends on whether you can 1) take that sentence seriously, and, 2) agree with it. I fail on both counts. Then there are Penny’s unsubstantiated claims. For example: “‘he said’ is almost always more credible than ‘she said’, unless she is white and he is not.” Perhaps Penny writing it makes it true.

According to Penny, there can be no faith in President Obama in the USA or in mainstream left leaning political parties in the UK. There is only one solution: revolution! And that revolution must be a shocking feminist revolution. If, for Penny, “plotting revolution” provides greater happiness than being in love, then so it should for the Pennyettes. Marx, Engels, and Penny. God help us all. It was a lot easier in the 1990s when Gerri Halliwell raised her right fist and said “Girl power.” Now we have Laurie Penny who wants to take a red pen, “annotate the world,” and “scrawl ‘slut power’ in letters too big to ignore.” She lives in a world where the personal is political and the political is personal. But despite all this she admits that she just wants “to be the kind of girl who gets taken in somebody’s arms.” One day she might get married. If so, she might desire a wedding cake inscribed with the words “Smash Monogamy!” It would not be original. Michael Lerner did it in 1971.

Lies, Damn Lies, and False Rape Allegation Statistics

In Feminism, Trotskyism on July 18, 2013 at 3:43 PM

This is  a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 14th 2013, 11:12 am

Last month Rosie Warren wrote an article published by the International Socialist Network (ISN) entitled “On Believing Women Who Allege Rape.” Her concluding sentence sums up her position: “The statement that we believe someone alleging rape is not only an important act of solidarity, but is also, given what we know about the nature of rape allegations, the only logically coherent position to take.”

As part of her argument Warren discusses the possibility that the woman is lying:

She is lying – This is understandably an incredibly difficult thing to estimate, not least because so many rapes go unreported (a 2007 government report suggests that between 75% and 95% of rapes are not reported to the police,1 and most reports suggest the latter is more accurate) but those who have attempted to examine it place the figure at somewhere around 5% of reported rapes are false allegations2 – which means 5% of roughly 10% reported; less than 1% of women lie about being raped. I believe we can reasonably disregard (a), then, unless there is a very strong reason to suggest the woman is lying – these are exceptional circumstances, and should not be foregrounded.

This is a very flawed argument. Warren has accurately represented her first source for her claim that “a 2007 government report suggests that between 75% and 95% of rapes are not reported to the police.” She adds to this an unsourced claim that “and most reports suggest the latter  is more accurate.” I presume she means by this that 95% of rapes not being reported to the police is the more accurate figure.

Warren makes a further claim that “somewhere around 5% of reported rapes are false allegations.” Her source for this is an article in the Guardian. I am not sure why Warren linked to this article for her claim because the article does not justify the claim. The article does quote the Director of Public Prosecutions as saying “False allegations of rape are rare,” but there is no reference that “around 5% of reported rapes are false allegations.”  We can however look back to Warren’s first source, (paragraph 3.25, page 45) where it is stated that based on samples in 2000 and 2005, and dependent on counting methodology, somewhere between 8.1% and 10% of allegations are false.

It is now where Warren’s interpretation of the data is worryingly erroneous.  This is her statement: “5% of roughly 10% reported; less than 1% of women lie about being raped.” The 5% figure is clearly her view that 5% of reported allegations are false (a figure I have already discussed that she has not properly backed up). The “roughly 10%” figure I assume is her estimate of what percentage of rapes are reported. Her cited source states “between 75 and 95 per cent of rape crimes are never reported to the police” and she has settled on 90% not being reported and hence 10% being reported. Even if we accept both of these statistics (5% of reported rape allegations being false and roughly 10% of rapes being reported) we cannot, as Warren has done, conclude that “less than 1% of women lie about being raped.” While 5% of 10% is 0.5% and that is less than 1%, this is not what the data shows.

In order for Warren’s claim to be fair, and assuming we accept her statistical data, she would have to demonstrate that away from the women who report rape, all of the women who allege rape have been raped. She has not done this. Just because a large proportion of rapes go unreported, it does not mean that all women who allege rape are women who either reported rape or fell into the category of women who were raped but did not report it. The women could fall into a completely separate category: those that did not report rape, and falsely allege a rape. We have no idea of what this  percentage is, or certainly not from the statistics presented by Warren. Intuitively, far from the zero percent (or close to it) which is what it would have to be for Warren’s statistics to follow through, one might actually think that this category of false allegations is higher than the false allegations of rapes that are reported. This is because the consequences of falsely reporting a rape to the police are far more severe than the consequences of falsely alleging but not reporting rape, particularly so if no perpetrator is named. However, my intuition is not necessary to demonstrate that Warren has jumped to a conclusion where she had no justification to do so.

Warren goes on to argue that a woman cannot be mistaken about consent but a man can. This contradicts an example in a recent report by Alison Levitt QC and the Crown Prosecution Service Equality and Diversity Unit to the Director of Public Prosecutions (paragraph 42, page 31):

In another case, it was plain that the suspect did not understand the legal definition of consent. Thus although she said in answer to a question put to her that she did not “consent” to sexual intercourse, it became clear that she did not understand what the word meant.

Warren gets around this legal conundrum to change the definition of consent to suit her purpose.

Moving on, Warren states:

Given what I’ve already outlined, there is a 99% chance she is telling the truth, and she cannot consent by accident. If she says there was no consent, we can be 99% sure that there was no consent. Either the man was mistaken about the consent, or else he was well aware, and was not concerned. Either way, sexual intercourse without consent is rape. Rape has occurred.

In other words, Warren is declaring, based on erroneous reasoning, that if a woman claims that she has been raped, there is a 99% chance that she has actually been raped.

Warren also states:

Some of those I have the utmost respect for, reveal they will still not categorically, even privately, make a stance beyond “This needs to be investigated with absolute seriousness” and “We can’t say anything about guilt, or innocence, because we know nothing about the details”. I reject this wholeheartedly; such tentativeness is a failure of political rigour. We should, of course, start by believing the alleger.

This is a very dramatic statement. Warren is “wholeheartedly” rejecting the idea of a serious investigation and finding out the details of a rape allegation prior to guilt being determined. She is suggesting that someone who alleges rape should “of course” be believed. This view correctly leads her onto the following: “this throws up issues for dealing with rape accusations in law.” Of course it does! There is a long standing legal principle in this country that someone is innocent until proven guilty. If Warren has her way, at least when it comes to allegations of rape, someone would be guilty until proven innocent. This is not something that I feel anyone who truly believes in justice should accept.

From the Vaults – Spare Rib, August 1982

In Anti-Zionism, Feminism, From the Vaults on May 15, 2013 at 8:30 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on May 11th 2013, 5:55 pm

Spare Rib was a prominent feminist magazine that ran from 1972 through to 1993. After a twenty year absence it is to be relaunched this month. This presents an ideal opportunity to reproduce highlights of an article written by Roisín Boyd and based on conversations with Nidal, a Lebanese woman, Randa, a Palestinian woman, and Aliza Khan, an Israeli woman.  The article was published in Spare Rib, issue 121, August 1982, pp.22-23.

Women Speak Out Against Zionism


‘If a woman calls herself feminist she should consciously call herself anti-Zionist’


Nidal: There is an enormous difference between being Jewish and being Zionist, The main idea behind Zionism is that all the Jews should gather together and form a nation, because they are in danger from the ‘non-Jews’, what they call Gentiles. Which is so similar to the Nazi ideology that the Jews should not be with the Gentiles…..

Aliza: Zionism….was created by European Jews who used anti-semitism for their own interests. Its aim was never to fight anti-semitism, moreover it saw anti-semitism as its best ally…..After the second World War, Zionist leaders used to say that Jewish people should thank Hitler because without him, the state of Israel would never have been created. If we are concerned about anti-semitism we must fight Zionism. To be anti-Zionist is to be anti-imperialist, and to be against the fact that Zionism (and the founding of the state of Israel) caused Palestinians to be refugees…..

Nidal: If you dare call yourself a Palestinian in Israel you would get five years in jail….

Aliza: …. The kibbutzim are male dominated and many produce military equipment. Woman work mainly in the kitchens and do the ‘normal’ jobs that woman always do. If a woman calls herself a feminist she should consciously call herself anti-Zionist….

Aliza: What Israel is doing now in the Lebanon is nothing new but an extreme part of its nature. Killing people, barbarically, children, women, with poisoned gas and cluster bombs. It’s hard to imagine how human beings can do this. My mother, who emigrated to Israel from Germany, rang me two weeks ago and said that she is broken hearted because what Israel is doing now is what the Nazis did to her….Women must come together against [Zionism] because our sisters are being murdered….. I am calling you sisters, to come together against the holocaust of the Palestinian and Lebanese people. There is no way we can sit quietly and do nothing about it.

In the months that followed, Spare Rib went on to publish an article “Woman Against Zionism” that suggested Jews were answerable for what Israel was doing in Lebanon. The magazine received more than forty letters from women opposed to the expressed views. The editorial collective refused to publish them.

The SWP’s Hatred of Feminism (A 2 Part Article)

In Feminism, Trotskyism on April 4, 2013 at 7:34 AM

These posts have been cross posted from Harry’s Place – here and here.

The SWP’s Hatred of Feminism (Part I.)

Michael Ezra, March 17th 2013, 5:51 pm

The crisis in the Socialist Workers Party has brought an issue for Trotskyists to the forefront: that of feminism. Richard Seymour has commented “students, are yelled at in [SWP] meetings, denounced for ‘creeping feminism.’” Feminism has become a dirty word, a pejorative with which to denounce the non-ideologically sound. That is the position of the SWP, what about leftists who do not identify as a Trotskyist? Here is Laurie Penny, La Pasionaria of the radical left : “Socialism without feminism, after all, is no socialism worth having.” It does not take a genius to work out that the position of Penny and the position of the SWP are incompatible.

A problem for the SWP is that many of the people, especially students, whom it wishes to attract into its party read and admire what Laurie Penny has to say. This is recognised by the SWP. For as one SWP Central Committee Central Committee member told Richard Seymour as the crisis in the party unfolded: “The nightmare scenario is an attack piece by Laurie Penny.”

Ignoring all the other issues in the SWP regarding their handling of a rape allegation against a senior party member, some commentators are making observations on this ideological difference. A line on feminism is becoming a litmus test. Blogger Harpy Marx puts it, “let’s be clear this isn’t an internal matter for the SWP this has impacted on the whole of the Left.” Andrew Coates, for example, has cheered on Laurie Penny: “Three cheers for comrade Penny.” But others would and have come down on the side of the SWP, the one that views feminism as a dirty word.

In response to Soviet Goon Boy who posed the following question: “The most pressing issue facing the SWP is simply this – is it a safe place?” and answered it that “on the face of things” it wasn’t, Paul Demarty of the Communist Party of Great Britain had an apoplexy: “the notion that the SWP is ‘unsafe’ for women is almost entirely balderdash.” (I do like the use of “almost entirely”; perhaps Demarty concedes the SWP is a little unsafe for women.)  Those who want safe places for women are “idiotic feminists.” At any rate “safe places” are “profoundly useless politically.” Feminists suffer from “a myopic obsession with ‘violence against women.’” He is proud to admit that feminism and Marxism are “utterly incompatible.” He therefore comes down to the inevitable conclusion: “Feminism is a threat.. because it is wrong, and Marxists should be rigorously critical of it.” And as for the SWP: “Far from being insufficiently feminist, the SWP has been too soft on feminism.” One wonders if Paul Demarty is just waiting for the revolution so he can kill all feminists.

Marxists do not tend to develop very much. What they say now is what they said a hundred years ago. To understand the SWP and CPGB  hatred of feminism one has to have an idea of what Frederick Engels said in 1884 when he wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. For Engels, the oppression of women began with the emergence of a class based society. The SWP’s solution is therefore simple: get rid of a class based society and you get rid of women’s oppression. And as the SWP are Leninists, they are of the opinion that this can only occur through a violent revolution. (They are very reductionist, their solution to everything is a violent revolution.)

Feminists differ from this approach: they see the oppression of women as a gender based question and not a class based one. If a Trotskyist party focuses on matters that do not lead directly to revolution, they are deviating from the class struggle. Because feminism which is not class based can appeal to “bourgeois” women as well as working class women,  it becomes, in Trotskyist language, a bourgeois deviation from the class struggle. It is for this reason that Paul Demarty and the SWP hate feminism.

(Part 2, which is the final part, will appear tomorrow.)


The SWP’s Hatred of Feminism (Part 2.)

Michael Ezra, March 18th 2013, 8:48 am

I concluded in Part 1 that the SWP view feminism as a bourgeois deviation from the class struggle. It might be argued that Marxist feminism exists and the question can be asked as to whether such an ideology is supported by the  SWP. In response to that question, one can say that the term “Marxist feminism” is a con: it is really just Marxist. The view of Marxist feminists to the question of women’s oppression is that same as that as Marxists. They view women’s oppression as Engels did as a function of class as opposed to gender.  Someone does not need to say that they are a Marxist feminist, they could just say that they were a Marxist and their position should be known.

What can be said about Marxist feminists is that the focus is on the area of Marxism that deals with women. As well as the view that women’s oppression is a function of a class based society, Marxist feminists, as Marxists, are of the view that women are domestic slaves within the nuclear family. The argument being that women stay at home and do the house work and raise children for no pay. This is all in the interests of capitalism because capitalist bosses exploit men’s labour. This exploitation is made easier because the man does not need money to pay his wife to cook his dinner. The capitalist bosses therefore receive the women’s labour for free.  The “bourgeois” women can be dismissed in this analysis because the servants do the cooking, cleaning and looking after the children at home while the bourgeois wives are lounging around at the tennis club. The solution to this is, as Trotskyists see it, in simple terms: “Smash the family!”

In order for this to occur, using the repetitive reductionist politics common to Trotskyists, there must be a revolution.  And in order for there to be a revolution, there must be a vanguard party to lead it. As the SWP sees itself as a vanguard party, it has to grow to lead the revolution. In order to grow it needs to recruit. In order to recruit it believes it needs to sell newspapers. Hence standing outside Sainsbury’s  for two hours on a Saturday afternoon selling Socialist Worker is a necessary precondition in the fight against women’s oppression. This is what members of the Socialist Workers Party are told to believe.

The SWP look for other opportunities to recruit members. These are called, not surprisingly, opportunistic strategies. They look for areas or campaigns that might be fashionable, or they can try and make fashionable, set up front groups or become involved in groups that they can ideally dominate, and recruit in that method. An example was the anti-Nazi League to fight racism. Behind the ANL was the same SWP reductionist politics: racism is in the interests of the capitalists. If white workers are fighting black workers, it distracts them from fighting the real enemy: the capitalist bosses. Hence they can sloganise: “Black and White, Unite and Fight!”  If it had rhymed, you could be willing to bet that when it comes to women’s oppression an SWP slogan would have been “Men and Women, Unite and Fight!” They are completely predictable.

A relevant example of an opportunistic strategy was the setting up of Women’s Voice. This was during the 1970s when there was a rise of interest in women’s liberation in the wider society. The party set up a magazine called Women’s Voice and then groups with the same name. The idea was that working women interested in feminism could be drawn away from the Spare Rib crowd and other feminist groups into the arms of the SWP, the party that knew that the way to end women’s oppression was not via bourgeois feminism, something which would not work, but by a socialist revolution. The wider women’s movement could be denounced asLindsey German did in the pages of the SWP’s journal International Socialism in 1981:

[T]he pages of Spare Rib are not where you will find out about the latest strikes involving women, but rather where you can reflect on whether celibacy is your personal answer to the problem of sleeping with men….  An occupation by 200 women at Lee Jeans has been largely ignored by the women’s movement.

A problem developed with this turn to the women’s movement: Women’s Voice became not just a vehicle for taking the SWP’s Trotskyist ideas into the women’s liberation movement, but women in it saw it as a vehicle for bringing feminist ideas into the SWP. The Party could not tolerate this and moved to shut down the magazine and the groups. I have it via a reliable authority that when it came to the vote, a number of women who voted for the closure of Women’s Voice were sleeping with members of the party’s Central Committee. Women’s Voice was shut down and with its closure was the end of the SWP’s foray into the women’s movement.