In 2004, Angela McRobbie wrote a piece for Feminist Media Studies in which she discussed young women, feminism and sexual empowerment. In it she argued that “the new female subject is, despite her freedom, called upon to be silent, to withhold critique, to count as a modern sophisticated girl, or indeed this critique is a condition of her freedom”:
There is quietude and complicity in the manners of generationally specific notions of cool, and more precisely an uncritical relation to dominant commercially produced sexual representations which actively invoke hostility to assumed feminist positions from the past in order to endorse a new regime of sexual meanings based on female consent, equality, participation and pleasure, free of politics.
At the time, I disliked the piece intensely, first because I saw nothing wrong with “a new regime of sexual meanings […] free of politics” (it still sounds pretty cool), and second because I hadn’t really read the piece, just read about it. As a young-ish woman leaving university, having done my best to embrace Nineties and Noughties retrosexism, I objected to what I just knew was the patronising idea that I had no agency and could not enjoy sex in the same way men could. The notion that, fun sex or no, there might still be a power imbalance requiring critique was alien to me. All I saw was some prudish old biddy telling me off.
A decade later, the piece means something different to me, and not just because I am now some prudish old biddy telling other women off (or rather, once you’re past a certain age, that’s the role you’re automatically shoved into). It’s only now I can look back on my time at university and admit to myself that I didn’t really feel safe. It’s not that I feel ashamed of anything I did or didn’t do; I just wish I had been able to feel bigger and stronger and bolder. I wish I’d noticed the way men encroached on my space and, instead of seeing any challenges to male sexual entitlement as heartless inter-feminist slut-shaming, I’d thought a little harder about whether broader structures did in fact need fixing. The reason I couldn’t do this is because, ironically, I was too scared. I was “called upon to be silent” and “to withhold critique”; I didn’t know all the things I couldn’t say because I never even tried to say them.
It’s a kind of self-monitoring, an internalised backlash that prevents you from having to engage with how bad things are. All the same, however bad things were for female students then, it seems they are worse now. Time was when male students at least pretended they knew they were being sexist and that it was all some joke; today, as the NUS’s “That’s what she said” study and other reports of on-campus sexism indicate, the atmosphere is altogether harsher and more openly misogynistic. While membership of student feminist organisations is growing and more and more women are speaking out, it feels like a losing battle. Male entitlement shows no sign of abating and to make matters worse, it has become more and more difficult to pinpoint why this is happening, as an increasing number of feminist concepts are declared off-limits.
The work of feminism ought to be cumulative, self-correcting, self-critical, repetitive, doing whatever is necessary to make women’s lives safe and valued. Instead, it seems to me we are stuck in an endless cycle of reinvention, hurling more and more ideas onto the scrapheap in the hope that they, and not actual oppression, turn out to be the problem we were dealing with all along. In the Nineties and Noughties any critique of objectification led to charges of slut-shaming; now, any critique of male sexual entitlement and gender itself leads to charges of whore- and transphobia. Watching all the “bad”, discarded feminisms pile up can create an illusion of progress – finally we’ll hit on the right one! – but it is a distraction. It disregards intersectional critiques of structural oppression in favour of blanket notions of inclusion which leave women without politics and back where they started (to quote de Beauvoir, as “only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity”).
In such a climate feminist academics need to tread carefully. After all, who wants to be the subject of a change.org petition demanding that one’s work is not published or named and shamed on twitter? As the academic Delilah Campbell writes, “the idea that certain aspects of women’s experience or oppression are not shared by trans women […] gets labelled hate speech”. Even if there is no immediate consequence to this, it’s an accusation to avoid if you’re jumping from one temporary contract to the next, relying not just on your intellect but on whether your face will “fit” in any new faculty. Moreover, accusations against “bad” feminists have become increasingly outlandish. In the past you might have been called a slut-shamer or judgmental. More recently you’d have been accused of denying someone’s agency. And now? Now, in addition to all this, you could be blamed for male violence, even if that is something you’ve spent your whole life challenging. The distinction between critiquing a system and reinforcing it has been utterly – and deliberately, I think – blurred, and it’s not just students but women of all ages and classes who are losing out.
At a time when they desperately need it, women are being denied the language to articulate their experiences. An NUS LGBT campaign that’s prepared to single out one feminist as “vile” is sending a message to all students regarding the consequences of speaking out of turn: it’s just not worth the risk. While it is easy to pretend that there is a clear line between male sexual entitlement and a culture in thrall to sexualisation, objectification and gender categorisation, this simply isn’t true. No amount of agency, choice or self-definition will form a protective shield around the female body. It doesn’t work like that.
If feminism cannot engage in a critical analysis of gender and sexual objectification then feminists can only ever be on the defensive, plugging leaks here and there while wondering why the flood won’t recede. Involvement in feminist debate should not require an oath of allegiance to the commoditisation of female bodies, in exchange for which one might get the odd consent lesson for all those men who, funnily enough, still feel entitled to female flesh. In today’s universities female students are being held to ransom not just by braying rugby lads, but by male students who believe gender-nonconformity is compatible with continuing to police women’s physical space and intellectual boundaries thanks to the acronyms SWERF and TERF. It’s hyper-conservative behaviour beneath a thin veneer of rebellion – perhaps a slick of lip gloss, but nothing so daring as thinking women have the right to question the very structures that hold them down.
Female students have a right to feel physically safe and intellectually unconfined, yet instead they find themselves intellectually restricted and physically exposed. A greater priority is accorded to dressing up conservative ideology in postmodern clothing than to enabling women to think for themselves. What better way to limit a young woman’s potential, just at the point where it should be expanding? What better way of weakening powers which, if permitted to flourish, just might change the world?