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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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.