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“Sex-positive” feminism is doing the patriarchy’s work for it

All that stuff we used to call oppression? We’re totes cool with it now.

Feminism can be terrifying for any woman who has grown up under patriarchy. You’re used to a very fixed set of rules: be passive, submit to others, respect male authority, fear male violence, don’t ever transgress. It’s grim, but at least you know where you are. Then along comes feminism and these certainties vanish, or at least that used to be the case. Things are different now.

Time was when the very word “feminist” was transgressive. These day people rarely object to it. There’s a bitter irony to the fact that “but I’m a feminist” has become one of those phrases by which male dominance can be positively reinforced. “But I’m a feminist and I don’t mind objectification / unpaid work / sexual harassment / being called a cunt!” The implication is that we’ve come full circle. Feminism has worked through all of its issues and realised that the grown-ups were right all along. All that stuff we used to call oppression? We’re totes cool with it now.

And so we get to “sex-positive feminism” – that feminism which, by its very existence, suggests that all others types are for miserable, dried-up prudes who just needed a good fuck (ideally PIV). I am sure that, initially, the intentions were good; it is not sex, but the context of sexual interaction under patriarchy, that needs to be challenged, and feminist rhetoric has not always made this distinction.

Nonetheless, whatever the motivating factors, we’ve reached a point where sex-positive feminism is doing the patriarchy’s work for it. All those good girls who grew up fearful of breaking the rules? They’ve discovered a way to do exactly what’s required of them without acknowledging the impact on others. All the old stereotypes are alive and well, and they’re being propped up by ideological virgins claiming to be whores.

It ought to be possible to criticise the gender politics of sex work without being diagnosed with “whorephobia”. It ought to be possible to question the objectification behind Page 3 without being seen as a slut-shamer. It ought to be possible to object to cat-calls without it being implied that you are classist, naive and sexually repressed. It ought to be possible to hold differing views on the legal status of sex work without being considered worse than abusive clients and rapists. Alas, it is not possible to do any of these things due to a phenomenon that is neither sex-positive nor feminist, but which considers itself such. In truth it is sexist bullshit, presenting sexual behaviour purely in terms of female supply and male demand.

The underlying thought behind sex-positive feminism is conservative and unimaginative, fearing a sexless void should patriarchy ever vacate the space it currently fills. And yet the truth is, those who question objectification aren’t afraid of fucking. They are not the swooning, pearl-clutching prudes dreamed up by misogynists and sex positive feminists alike. They’re just taking sex positivity one step further, by recognising that no one’s choices are made in a vacuum but that everyone needs to be respected as an autonomous sexual being. That includes you, but it includes me too, and it also includes billions of others. This is where things get complicated. It’s not all about you. It’s not all about me, either. We need a world which accommodates our differences but to create this requires a fundamental change in the whole context of sexual choices. 

Let us be clear: feminism is out to screw patriarchy. It’s not there to be wheedling and apologetic. It’s not there to teach women to cope with life as subordinates. It’s not there to promote a chirpy, can-do response to a cat-call, a hand on the arse, a tongue down the throat, an unwanted grope or a rape. And if you’re thinking “all this sounds a bit judgmental,” I do understand. I know words like “patriarchy” and “male dominance” make people feel uncomfortable (I’d call it “feminismphobia” if it wasn’t time we stopped pathologising dissent). I know some women have a deep-rooted fear of how feminism could change their sexual landscape. To support something which is ultimately for everyone – but not specifically for you – is difficult, but feminism is not about misusing words (empowerment, choice, freedom) to cover up the things we don’t want to see. We’re here to knock down the entire edifice, not repaint the walls.

I don’t judge myself for my own sexual history and current behaviour. I don’t judge other women for theirs. I do judge the context in which our sexual selves are placed and I find this context wanting. I don’t expect you to agree, but I expect you to allow such judgments to be voiced, since without such a process there can be no change. In Taming the Shrew? Choice feminism and the fear of politics, Michaele L Ferguson describes how our fear of a politicised feminism means we cut short structural analysis, dismissing any form of judgment as a personal attack:

[Choice feminism] misleadingly suggests that since choices are individual, they have no social consequences; women are therefore relieved of responsibility for considering the broader implications of their decisions. […] Consequently, choice feminism is radically depoliticizing: it discourages us from forming judgments about the value of different choices, it discourages us from giving a public account for the choices we make, it shuts down critical discussion about which choices should be valued and which choices are mere illusions, it uncritically embraces consumerism, and most problematically for the future of feminism, it deters women from being active in politics […]

If we cannot question choice, we cannot question patriarchy or any of the other hierarchies with which it intersects. Without context we are lost. We need the space to explore what other possibilities may be open to us.

Such exploration does not make us bigots, whorephobes or prudes. Nor does it make us people never get things wrong. It makes us people who continue to question what is, in both theoretical and practical terms. It makes us people who are willing to get down and dirty. It means that regardless of our sexual experiences, background and choices, we are not the pure ones.

But I don’t want to be pure, or always right. I don’t want to have all choices considered in isolation, hermetically sealed and starved of air. I don’t want my right to screw to be contingent on others being screwed. There has to be a better way than this.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear