Feminism is not officially defined, and it has developed over time. Nevertheless, present-day feminism is coherent enough to consider it as an ideology and a movement, and to reject it.
First some disclaimers. This is not about academic feminism, which can be abstruse and inaccessible, but about the feminism of feminist activists. It relies on online sources – but they are a better source for activist trends, than academic publications. It is about Anglophone feminism, but that too reflects the reality of feminist activism. Since the 1980’s, North American and British feminists are the most influential. Most major feminist theorists are American.
Feminism (as ideology and movement) can be rejected on the ground of its absolutism.
1. All feminists believe that anti-feminism is not valid, and that there are no valid arguments against feminism as such. They see feminism as integrally valid, so that even concession of some flaws would not weaken its claims. Feminism is for them simply right, and therefore not wrong.
2. All feminists believe that anti-feminism, in the sense of opposition to feminism, is not legitimate, certainly not a legitimate political activity.
3. All feminists believe that a person can not oppose feminism in good faith: they believe that antifeminism is malevolent and oppressive. Some believe that antifeminism is comparable to racism, and advocate some form of prohibition.
These three are sufficient to reject feminism as an ideology. They would only be acceptable if feminism itself was absolutely right, its analysis absolutely correct, all feminist claims absolutely true, and the motives of all feminists good and just.
Current goals of feminism
Standard descriptions of feminism emphasise the varied theoretical orientations. They typically include a list, such as those at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or at the Wikipedia article on Feminist movements and ideologies with gynocratic feminism, standpoint feminism, spiritual feminism, and so on. That is misleading: most play no role in present-day activist feminism. Current feminism has three orientations: liberal equality feminism, a radical feminism inspired by American second-wave feminism, and a vague third-wave feminism, which also derives its views on sexual consent from American second-wave feminism.
There is little continuity with historical feminism, which was once concerned with issues such as female suffrage and civic rights. In some parts of the world these are still relevant, but not in western countries. Equality is no longer a central theme for feminist activists, since it has been generally adopted as state policy. Western countries have constitutional guarantees of gender equality, legal prohibition of discrimination against women, and often government agencies to promote equality. Although there are still inequalities, the policy framework has been established, and liberal equality feminists campaign for its implementation. Some radical feminists reject equality as a goal, since it can only confer equality with their oppressor, but not liberate them.
So what is current feminism about? It is typically prohibitionist, with three main themes for activism. Two of them are classic political campaigns designed to influence state policy, the third is more vague.
4. Feminism campaigns for the prohibition of prostitution. This goal has been traditionally supported by churches and religious groups, but also by some secular left-wing movements. The left in Europe is divided on the issue. A few feminists also oppose prohibition, fearing it will do more harm than good, but they are a marginalised minority among feminist activists. Because feminism is overwhelmingly prohibitionist on this issue, opposition to prohibition is a legitimate ground to oppose feminism itself.
5. Feminism campaigns for the prohibition of pornography. Again this goal is shared with religious groups, but generally not with the left, which traditionally supports freedom of expression. By pornography, feminists mean material which is intended for the sexual arousal of men, and that includes all porn.
Consent to sex
In both anti-porn and anti-prostitution campaigns, the prohibitionist character of modern feminism is evident. Feminism seeks to influence state policy, and to use the law as an instrument to change society. The last goal is more diffuse. Third-wave feminism is typically concerned with themes such as consent, date rape, and everyday sexual harassment.
I’m 16 and in my last year of school. Constantly the guys (and girls) in my friendship circle make sexist remarks. Most of the time they don’t realise they’re being offensive, most of the time it’s just ‘banter’. For example, the other day my male friend said to me if I wear shorts to this Halloween party he will ‘rape me, oh but it won’t be rape because I will like it’. I responded telling him you shouldn’t say things like that and I got called uptight … What is wrong with the world so that this is deemed OK? I am scared of going to university when I am older. Not because of exam stress but because of the horror stories I have heard from friends and family. The horror stories of girls that have been subjected to assault for ‘banter’. I am scared. I am actually scared of being a female. (Everyday Sexism Project, quoted in Female students face a wave of misogyny in British universities).
Third-wave feminists don’t spend their time in all-women environments, like some second-wave theorists, but their rejection of male behaviour is equally comprehensive. It is a mistake to consider third-wave feminism as ‘feminism light’.
6. Feminism seeks to regulate sexual behaviour, primarily male sexual behaviour in the widest sense. That ranges from violent rape and serial murders, to offhand remarks about women’s clothing or appearance. It is a paradox of feminism, that feminists devote most of their attention to men.
6.1 Feminism rejects certain sexual activities. The logical consequence would be that feminists seek to legally prohibit them, but there are no overt campaigns comparable with those against porn and prostitution. Second-wave feminism concerned itself with the specifics of male-female sex, in a way that would have been unthinkable for the first wave of feminism, in the early 20th century. An influential example is the list used by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon in their proposals for anti-pornography laws. Although pornography laws are aimed at depictions of acts, the Dworkin – MacKinnon proposals define pornography by the acts themselves – and not by offence to public morality, as in traditional obscenity laws. The listed acts are stated to constitute a subordination of women: humiliation, bondage, cutting, bruising, submissive postures, nudity, penetration by animals, and use of dildos. Gail Dines, who continues Andrea Dworkin’s anti-porn campaign, objects specifically to facial ejaculation (bukkake), and also rejects multiple penetration, double anal, double vaginal, and gagging. American second-wave feminism was also noted for its opposition to BDSM, and most feminists still oppose it. Feminism is unique among social movements, for its detailed attention to sexual practices.
6.2 Feminism opposes the sexual objectification of women. Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton list ten features of objectification (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Feminist Perspectives on Objectification):
- instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
- denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
- inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
- fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
- violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
- ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
- denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
- reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
- reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
- silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.
Sometimes these may be explicit acts by men, but ‘objectification’ for feminists also includes depictions of women, both in porn and in mainstream culture, and women’s self-presentation toward men.
The Stanford entry notes that feminists consider objectification to be “morally problematic”. That is an understatement: its rejection is central to feminist ethics, and the perspective is often described as Kantian. Immanuel Kant said that we should not treat other human beings solely as a means to achieve our ends. That is often misquoted, by leaving out the qualification ‘solely’. The current feminist position is that objectification is self-evidently wrong.
Objectification is however inherent in sexual attraction, which is itself pre-moral. Objectification is also certainly part of male (and female) sexuality. In fact, sex without any of the ten features of objectification seems impossible. Sex and sexuality are biological in origin, and we should not expect biology to meet ethical standards. The feminist ideal of object-free relationships might be feasible in the real world for true asexuals, but otherwise it can only imply prohibitionist politics.
6.3 Feminism opposes non-consensual sex. That is true for all feminists, and most feminists also describe non-consensual sex as ‘rape’. Nevertheless, non-consensual sex is unavoidable. All sex between partners is non-consensual, because one partner can not know the mental state of another, nor have prior knowledge of their actions. The feminist ideal of perfect consent is unattainable, not just for men, but for any non-telepathic species.
Although not for the same reasons, feminism does recognise the intrinsically non-consensual nature of male-female sex. Second-wave feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin is sometimes misquoted as saying that “all sexual intercourse is rape”. She did not say that literally, but she did say that women can not consent freely to sex, under their present condition of oppression. That remains a standard feminist position, which is often justified from personal experience:
If you are a woman who has ever had any heterosexual encounters, you have probably consented to many things that you did not particularly want to do. Women rationalise to themselves why they do this; I used to say things like I didn’t need to orgasm to enjoy sex or that vicarious enjoyment through servicing boyfriends was enough in itself. The fact was, I just plain wasn’t going to orgasm from the sex I was having, and the only enjoyment it was even possible for me to get was vicarious. Often I was very uncomfortable, sometimes even in pain. Nevertheless, I consented to a variety of things in service of the male orgasm that I neither enjoyed nor felt an independent inclination to do. I believed that those boyfriends probably would have left me if I were to refuse. I was young and lacked the good sense not to care if they did. Thus, my ‘consent’ was simply a rationalisation of what was in fact inevitable for me, given that set of conditions. I’d wager that none of these boyfriends had any idea about this, of course. The whole point of faking an orgasm is feigned enjoyment. In other words, I feigned enthusiastic consent. In similar scenarios everywhere, women ‘consent’ to things they don’t want all the goddamn time. (Consent Is Sexy And Sexy Is Mandatory)
6.4 In less explicit terms, feminism promotes an ideal of mutual sexual attraction, and opposes male sexual attraction outside that framework. The model is implicit in feminist responses to sexual harassment, which is itself one-sided and repetitive.
It was mid-afternoon and I was walking home from the tube. It was during the hot spell, so I had bare legs under my dress and was wearing sandals. I was walking down a busy pavement that runs alongside a main road. I hadn’t gone far before some called to me from behind, I glanced round and could see a youngish man a few metres behind me on the pavement, on a bike. He called out that yes, he was talking to me and then started making comments about my legs. I carried on walking and didn’t look behind again. He followed me, on his bike and kept making remarks. After a while I noticed he had crossed the road and I made my turning to walk home. … I feel ashamed and hypocritical to have been so passive. My beliefs are that no man should feel they have the right to make me feel threatened, objectified or worthless at any point. (Feminist Times)
One way to look at this issue is to consider a hypothetical device, which would address feminist concerns. All men would be implanted with a device which disabled all sexual attraction, unless a woman specifically activated that possibility, for herself alone. If activated, a man would be able, but not compelled, to feel attracted to that woman. That is a dual switch system: both parties would need to consent to attraction, and no woman would receive unwanted attention from any man. A dual switch system is not impossible in biology, and may be present to some extent in human sexuality. However, it clearly does not override sexual attraction in general, or disable all unwanted sexual attraction, and the resulting harassment.
The point is that no such device exists, it is not feasible with existing technology, and there is no legal or social structure which can approximate it. The feminist demand, that sexual attraction should always be mutual, is incapable of implementation. It is at best pointless, and at worst irrational. That also applies to the demand by some feminists, that sexual attraction should be preceded by mutual admiration and respect.
Sex and sexuality are biological. That does not exclude morality, or moral behaviour, or moral judgment on behaviour, but ethics cannot prescribe biology. Sexual attraction is also a mental state, and probably autonomous, meaning it can not be switched off at will. In that sense, it is outside the sphere of ethics. It is certainly not amenable to government regulation.
6.5 Feminism opposes male sexual hatred of women. Bukkake is a good example: as feminists correctly point out, it is degrading to the woman, and inherently unequal. It is easy to understand why feminists dislike it. Nevertheless men want to do it – 80% of them, according to Gail Dines. (She thinks porn made them want it, but that is unlikely). Many other sexual practices clearly involve objectification and inequality, which feminism rejects, and verbal and physical aggression.
*Every single * man who watches and loves pornography and even more the many who pressure or force women to do the sexist, dehumanizing,and or violent acts done to women in it, should be gang raped and f*cked really hard in *their* sh*tholes, and throats by men with huge penises,called hateful dehumanizing names (although there is no = to the typical sexist woman-hating names women are called in pornography such as cum eating sluts,whores and b*tches) but they can call them something subhuman like pigs and monsters with penises) and then ejaculate all over their faces,chest and in their mouths,and see how *they* like it!
It’s said that getting our periods is a curse,the fact that we need men for sexual reproduction is the real curse! Why couldn’t women just be like those minority of plants and insects that can reproduce non-sexually and we could just give birth to girls?! That would be a true feminist utopia! (Comment by 50shadesofharm at smashthep).
From the specific complaints about male sexual behaviour, one thing is clear: feminism wants men to be different. That is pointless as a political goal: neither feminists themselves, nor the state, can make men different, at least not at present. It probably will be possible in the future, to fundamentally alter the genetics and neurobiology of men. That does not necessarily mean, that men should be rebuilt to a feminist model, any more than women should all be rebuilt as compliant bimbos. Thinking about such long-term alternatives, however, can help to understand the present problems better, and to draw conclusions about short-term responses.
In general the feminist positions on sex are personal preferences. They are not a moral justification for state policy, or an organising principle for all human societies. The feminist preferences should be considered and respected by the state, but the state can not improve men to their specifications. Some form of state-enforced separatism is therefore inevitable.
Theoretical basis of current feminism
The theoretical basis of feminist claims is weak. Present-day feminism takes its theoretical orientation from American second-wave feminism, and is built around the patriarchy-gender model. This model implies intentional co-operation by men to oppress women (patriarchy), and a resulting separate form of life for males and females (gender). The weaknes of this model is itself a reason, to reject feminism as an ideology.
7. The patriarchy-gender model leads feminism to reject ‘biological essentialism’, which for feminists includes any biological explanation for human behaviour and social structures. Feminists are not alone in this: the left is generally hostile to biological explanations. Although biology is used to justify social conservatism, it is not inherently conservative or ‘right-wing’. It can both explain problematic human behavior, such as xenophobia, and enable innovative state responses to it.
Flaws of the model
Despite its status as current standard theory for feminism, the patriarchy-gender model is flawed.
8 There is no evidence for ‘the patriarchy’. Although academic feminists would insist that it is not a conspiracy theory, most feminists activists use ‘patriarchy’ to imply some sort of organized activity. Their version of patriarchy has similarities to a conspiracy theory: it implies that all or most men are engaged in some joint endeavor, to oppress women, and have been for about 10 000 years. There is no historical evidence for this, other than the circular reasoning that the oppression of women demonstrates its existence.
Comparison with other social structures shows how unlikely it is. A global patriarchy of this type would require unity of purpose and ideology over time. That would have been impossible to maintain, in the absence of global communication. Religions did maintain unity of belief prior to modern communication, but only where travel was possible. Journeys to Rome and Mecca helped to maintain the unity of Catholicism and Islam. However, even large-scale religions are subject to ideological drift, and schism. They are also highly visible: the patriarchy is not.
An ideology with such influence should be visible in politics. There are christian and Islamic parties advocating their religious values, there pro-capitalist parties. There are no corresponding patriarchal parties, and no major theorists of patriarchy. Where patriarchy is openly espoused, that is always in the context of a specific religion.
8.1 For similar reasons, there is little evidence for patriarchy as a structure. Even if there is no actual organisation, ‘patriarchy’ still implies that men have power over women, and all feminists do claim that. That implies joint intent and joint action by men. There can be no power unless at some time a conscious decision was taken to impose it, and its continued exercise requires action to maintain it.
No extra-terrestrials arrived to put men in power over women, so the men must have done it themselves. When? There are no historical or organisational traces, for such a hypothetical global event. For comparison: there is no Chief Capitalist, but nevertheless historians can trace the origins of capitalism, and the emergence of banks, stock exchanges and business firms. There is certainly historical evidence for the oppression of women, but that does not prove the existence of an intentional global patriarchal power structure, or indicate when it emerged.
An example of the model is the idea that men collectively organize rape. Second-wave theorist Andrea Dworkin once proposed a 24-hour truce, during which rape would stop:
And I want one day of respite, one day off, one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old, and I am asking you to give it to me. And how could I ask you for less–it is so little. And how could you offer me less: it is so little. Even in wars, there are days of truce. Go and organize a truce. Stop your side for one day. I want a twenty-four-hour truce during which there is no rape.
The demand is irrational because there is no ‘your side’. It is not addressed to any entity capable of responding, let alone organising such a truce. There is no ‘Mens Army’ to cease raping, and there is no ‘Generalissimo of Men’ to order its cessation. Possibly, the early theorists of patriarchy used the term metaphorically, but by now feminism has adopted it in a quasi-conspiratorial sense. Feminists have come to believe that there is an entity hostile to women, which they can oppose as an entity.
8.2 If there is no patriarchy, then gender can not be its instrument. Gender, for feminists, is not simply that men and women have different lifestyles, jobs, clothes, and tastes. Gender is intentional and malevolent: it was designed by men, to oppress women. In the absence of malevolence, feminists believe, there would be no gender.
Again this would require sustained and co-ordinated intent, at a global scale, over thousands of years, for which there is no evidence. Even if there was an official patriarchy determined to subordinate and enslave women, the elaborate structures of gender, with different roles, functions, tasks, styles, and language for men and women, are simply not a credible strategy of oppression. Feminism claims that men have held power over women, without any substantial revolt or opposition, for thousands of years. If men already hold such absolute power, then why construct the complexity of gender? It has no logic. For similar reasons, gender is not a credible result of power either. Historical examples of intentional structural oppression, such as slavery in the southern United States or the Roman Empire, display no elaborate cultural system comparable to gender.
A useful analogy is an extra-terrestrial invasion of Earth. Suppose that the aliens have such advanced weapons that no resistance is possible. Suppose that they destroy major cities, killing hundreds of millions of people, to demonstrate their power, and strike fear into all. They now exercise absolute power over humans, and they set out to enslave them totally. Would they compel the humans to wear high heels, play with Barbie dolls, and have breast implants? It would serve no logical purpose for them. These are things that feminists see as archetypal gendered oppression, yet they do not seem to have any function for the exercise of power.
Gender is not in reality the direct instrument of oppression of women – and consequently its absence would not eliminate oppression and inequality. A credible hypothesis is, that long-term cross-cultural gender role complexity has its origins in innate differences between men and women. That does not mean that all manifestations of gender are inevitable, or that no innovation is possible. Recognition of biological origins is in itself neither conservative, nor oppressive. Attributing gender to a malevolent entity or conspiracy, is unlikely to generate a useful social response to its limitations.
Consequences of the model
The patriarchy-gender model has substantial consequences for the political claims of feminism. This model has shaped present-day feminism, and has effectively displaced all competing feminist theory.
9. Because feminism understands gender as the primary injustice against women, it has a strong preference for a non-gendered life, and a non-gendered society. Since all feminists see gender as socially constructed, imposed, and non-natural, they also see the non-gendered as a liberation, and a return to a previous more natural state. There are differences in emphasis.
9.1 Most feminists have an implicit or explicit preference for ‘gender-neutral’ culture, clothes, fashion, art, music, and style. They oppose gender, see it as unjust, and it is logical that they should support that which is not gendered. At the same time, because gender is so pervasive in society and culture, it is hard to find anything cultural or social which is non-gendered. So, ‘un-gender’ has to be constructed, and one way to do that is to create gender-neutral alternatives. In a few cases, there have been overt campaigns to promote those alternatives, but a serious attempt to ‘de-gender’ society would require their comprehensive imposition. The state would regulate culture, clothes, fashion, art, music, and style, suppressing the gendered and prescribing the gender-neutral. Such a policy is inevitably prohibitionist.
Some feminists see the disappearance of gender as innovatory, and it is correct that it would encourage innovation. Except for functional work / sports clothing, for instance, all existing clothing designs would be banned, so the designers would need to start afresh. On the other hand, innovation from existing styles, or any gendered innovation, would be prohibited. Designers would be limited in their options, and would also tend to draw on existing functional designs. This pattern would be repeated for all cultural expressions: most films, books, music, games, and styles would be banned, and so would anything derived from them. In their place would come a limited range of gender-neutral options, inspired by a few existing gender-neutral examples.
There is no moral basis for this restriction, and it does not seem innovative in the long run. It would probably result in stabilisation around a standard gender-neutral culture, with a limited range of cultural expressions.
9.2 Since feminists see gender as imposed, and intentionally unnatural, feminism has an implicit preference for the natural over the non-natural. The non-natural is assumed to be a male preference, imposed on women, which women would not freely choose in the absence of oppression. Although there are few overt campaigns, this aspect of feminism is most clearly articulated in relation to the outward appearance of women. Feminists believe that women have been conditioned or socialized, to distort their bodies and their appearance, for the benefit of men.
In our culture, not one part of a woman’s body is left untouched, unaltered. No feature or extremity is spared the art, or pain, of improvement. Hair is dyed, lacquered, straightened, permanented; eyebrows are plucked, penciled, dyed; eyes are lined, mascaraed, shadowed; lashes are curled, or false-from head to toe, every feature of a woman’s face, every section of her body, is subject to modification, alteration. This alteration is an ongoing, repetitive process. It is vital to the economy, the major substance of male-female role differentiation, the most immediate physical and psychological reality of being a woman. (Woman Hating by Andrea Dworkin, 1974).
This belief is expressed in repeated explicit condemnations of women’s appearance, especially in modern western culture. Feminists condemn shaving, waxing, make-up, epilation, the Barbie look, breast implants, and labial reductions. They condemn many styles in clothes and appearance which they consider to be gendered, including traditional feminine styles, and hyper-femininity. Many feminists insist, without any ethical foundation, that women should be satisfied with their existing bodies, with their unmodified appearance. Again, the inevitable political demands are prohibitionist: a feminist government would ban all these things, probably starting with breast implants.
The centrality of gender in present-day feminism results in a preoccupation with gendered aspects of culture. In turn, that has led to a distorted emphasis on popular culture. Even if there is a patriarchy, Miley Cyrus cannot possibly be so important to it, as to warrant the attention she gets from feminists.
The response to feminism
The conclusion on feminism is that it is a values-oriented social movement. Although it claims to be contra-systemic (‘smash the patriarchy’), its de facto goal is that individuals should live by certain values. It seeks a value shift which is only minimally state-enforceable. The inevitable result is a reliance on prohibitionist political demands, which are inherently liable to fail.
There are some comparisons with the western temperance movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries (which had links with early feminist movements). The temperance advocates wanted men to stop drinking, but they would not, so the temperance movement asked the state to prohibit alcohol instead. Where the movement succeeded in that aim, the prohibition itself failed.
As a values-oriented social movement, the feminist movement is essentially a movement for feminists, for those who share their values. It is not a movement for women, unless they are feminists. The feminist movement is also inherently separatist, even when it is not explicitly so. Separatism is the inevitable logic of any movement, which commits itself to values rejected by the surrounding population.
The state must accept feminism for what it is, and feminist values for what they are. The logical response to feminism is a state-enforced expansion of segregation by gender. That policy must aim to provide a whole range of women-only facilities, but not compel their use. The state must facilitate the creation of women-only schools, universities, and hospitals. It must institute women-only police forces and courts. It must compel the entire retail sector to provide women-only shops and supermarkets. It must ensure gender-segregated public transport. The goal is to make a complete parallel society available to women, so that they do not have to interact with men. The choice to use that parallel society will be left to each individual woman: logically, all feminists will use it.
The ultimate response to feminism in Europe must be the creation of a separate women’s state, which can only be done at European level. ‘State’ means a real sovereign state, not a holiday resort or a gated community. To be effectively independent in present-day Europe, it would need several million inhabitants. Its ultimate size would be determined by the number of women who choose to migrate there.
A separate women’s state is the only possible form of ‘women’s liberation’ as defined by radical feminism. Surprisingly, that does not require that the women’s state adopt any form of feminism as state ideology: the absence of men is enough.
So now we come to what Andrea Dworkin wants and it is this: she wants women to have their own country. But that’s mad, I said to her. Why bother discussing it? It isn’t going to happen. To which she has a reply – didn’t they say that about Israel? And didn’t the world think that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, was a crank? The Jews got a country because they had been persecuted, said that enough was enough, decided what they wanted and went out and fought for it. Women should do the same. And if you don’t want to live in Womenland, so what? Not all Jews live in Israel, but it is there, a place of potential refuge if persecution comes to call. (Take no prisoners, interview with Linda Grant, The Guardian, May 2000).
Andrea Dworkin was Jewish, and brought up in a Zionist household. Her separatist inspiration was technically nationalist, because Zionism is a nationalism. However, women are not a nation, and a women’s state would be a radical break with existing models of state formation. That’s why it probably needs to be done from above, in this case by the European Union. It also means, that at least one nation state will lose at least part of its ‘sacred national homeland’, and that will not be easy.
Nevertheless, separation is the moral and rational response, to those who seek a different society, based on different and incompatible values. There is no compromise with feminism, and feminists do not seek compromise. They seek freedom, and they can have it. All it takes is a decision to grant it.