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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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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