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How feminism gave up on freedom

Long-read

How feminism gave up on freedom

An obsession with policing speech and behaviour is leading feminists down an authoritarian path.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

Topics Feminism Long-reads USA

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With an air of revelation, 21st-century feminists have discovered bad sex. Why is any woman surprised by unsettling or simply unsatisfactory sexual encounters? In The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry complains that liberal feminists uncritically embraced the freedom enabled by the Pill and led women to believe wrongly in the unmitigated pleasures of casual sex. She aims to school us in an ‘alternative form of sexual culture – one that recognises other human beings as real people, invested with real value and dignity’.

Perry presents this vision of sexual harmony and respect as a counter-revolutionary corrective to 20th-century feminism. In her version of history, liberal feminists were duped by an ideology of freedom that only serves men – the ‘likes of Hugh Hefner and Harvey Weinstein’.

In fact, the Playboy philosophy was deeply resented by second-wave, liberal feminists like me. We grew up in a culture that prioritised Hefner’s vision of feminine beauty, while limiting our intellectual and professional opportunities. We never needed to have the physical and existential dangers of sexual objectification and the double standard explained to us.

Other new feminist sceptics of sexual freedom have more balanced views of history. Nona Willis-Aronowitz, author of Bad Sex, recognises that in the late 1960s, women liberated by the Pill were alert to the challenges of being ‘sexually free in a misogynistic culture’. (Her mother and incisive feminist critic, the late Ellen Willis, was one of those women.) Willis-Aronowitz understands that the ‘soulless’ Sex and the City philosophy that dominated the 1990s when she came of age was not the liberal feminism of her mother’s cohort.

In Rethinking Sex, Washington Post columnist Christine Emba also takes aim at her generation’s hook-up culture. She blames it partly on ‘faulty assumptions’, including the belief that ‘sex is a purely physical act’ and ‘women and men are basically the same’, even though only women get pregnant. She laments an ‘anything goes’ ethic of sexual liberation that makes it difficult for women to say No. She also worries about the fashionable reliance on consent – not because affirmative-consent rules are absurd, intrusive and utterly unworkable, but because consensual sex is not necessarily good sex. Who knew? She favours a sexual ethic that affirms ‘human dignity’ and ‘our existence as sovereign human beings of intrinsic worth’. Who doesn’t?

Is this sexual utopianism compatible with human nature? And isn’t our ‘dignity’ and status as ‘sovereign human beings’ dependent on a commitment to individual freedom? Aren’t Emba and her sisters questioning that commitment when they condemn the pressures placed on women by a liberatory culture? Shouldn’t a woman who says ‘Yes’ when she’s free to say ‘No’ take responsibility for her own acquiescence? If bad sex is the cost of freedom, what is the cost to freedom of legal or cultural regimes devoted to good sex?

A demonstrator participates in the Women's March for Truth on January 20, 2018 in St Louis, Missouri, United States.
A demonstrator participates in the Women's March for Truth on January 20, 2018 in St Louis, Missouri, United States.

Amia Srinivasan grapples thoughtfully with this conundrum in The Right to Sex, offering a nuanced view of feminism’s complexities. But we don’t have to speculate about the feminist threat to civil liberty. Morning-after regrets have fuelled questionable accusations of rape, especially on campus. Then there’s the excesses of the #MeToo movement and the dangerously expanded notions of sexual assault that came with it – which now include virtually any unwanted, or merely unrequested, presumptively sexual touch. For some 20 years, a dominant strain of feminism has focussed on women’s sexual vulnerability and victimisation. It has demanded protection from allegedly predatory men by minimising or eliminating due-process protections for accused rapists, by promoting extra-legal convictions and cancellations by social-media campaigns, and by restricting allegedly sexist or ‘assaultive’ speech.

This is not an unfamiliar trend. The story of feminism is partly a story of women seeking liberation from femininity’s constraints by restricting masculinity’s privileges. Campaigns to protect women from bad or coercive sex have often involved illiberal demands to police liberties said to be exploited by men. Just as the late 19th-century Women’s Christian Temperance Union blamed sexual violence on men’s alcohol consumption (with some reason), the late 20th-century anti-porn movement blamed it on their consumption of pornography. Led by law professor Catharine MacKinnon and writer Andrea Dworkin (a gifted polemicist), anti-porn feminists condemned bad speech as a direct cause or even a form of sometimes fatally bad sex. Foolishly secure in their ability to devise laws that would only target what they deemed misogynist speech, they imagined censoring it as essential to freeing women.

This fearful, illiberal repressiveness implicitly rebuked mid-20th-century liberal feminism, which focussed on securing legal equality and challenging gender stereotypes. Liberal feminism enjoyed dramatic, if limited, success with the passage of landmark anti-discrimination laws and increased opportunities for women. Abortion rights gained constitutional protection, recently withdrawn. Anti-violence campaigns reformed prosecutions of rape and domestic-abuse cases. But sexual violence persisted (as it likely always will), as did sex- and race-based economic disparities. A legal regime of equal rights cannot address extra-legal inequities, which are by definition not the business of law. But in the aftermath of the civil-rights era, progressives, including many feminists, sought to use law to achieve their visions of social justice, partly by advocating restrictions on speech.

What are the limits of law in a democracy? When should we refrain from punishing dangerously anti-social speech or behaviours in the interests of individual liberty? That’s not a simple or short-answer question, obviously. And how we answer it will vary according to our definitions of dangerousness and the facts of particular controversies. But it’s a question not taken seriously by right- or left-wing crusaders against whatever they deem bad speech, bad sex and a range of bad attitudes or orientations. A commitment to liberty requires a capacity for self-doubt – a willingness to entertain arguments about your own beliefs, as well as respect for the right to believe differently. Censors and other aspiring autocrats are not inclined to question their own absolute righteousness; they much prefer declaration to argument.

Anti-porn feminists who rose to prominence in the 1980s confidently declared pornography the equivalent of rape, meaning that outlawing it was not censorship. Right and left, speech-policers often deny that they’re censors. And for anti-porn feminists, banning speech deemed sexually violent was the equivalent of prosecuting sexually violent acts.

Pornography is not speech but an incendiary device, one activist declared, comparing it to a car with an exploding gas tank. MacKinnon and Dworkin accused Ellen Willis and me of using ‘the inaccurate epithet of “censorship” to stigmatise feminist work against pornography’. They famously devised a model civil-rights ordinance that framed porn as active sex discrimination. ‘It is not directed against ideas… it is directed against injurious acts’, they claimed. But shortly after its adoption by the city of Indianapolis in 1984, the ordinance was declared unconstitutional by a federal court.

The anti-porn movement was ultimately defeated, less by the US Constitution than the internet, as post-liberal feminists regretfully observe. But while feminism failed to advance, much less win, a war against pornography, it succeeded wildly in its war against speech. The MacKinnon / Dworkin conflation of speech and action became the raison d’être for repressive and increasingly expansive campus speech codes dating back to the 1990s. These days, condemning presumptively hateful or otherwise unwelcome speech as ‘verbal conduct’ is not just conventional wisdom, but a cliché.

Hostility to free speech has hardly been limited to feminism. It infects progressives generally, as well as right-wing thought-policers seeking to purify public schools and libraries. Anti-libertarianism is contagious. It’s what some right- and left-wing activists share and it has shaped post-liberal feminist notions of criminal justice. #MeToo feminists and campus activists who demand that we ‘believe the women’ in sexual-misconduct cases, presuming every accuser is a ‘survivor’, are hostile to due process for accused men. There is now a backlash on the left to ‘carceral feminism’, condemned partly for its disparate impacts on black men, who are particularly vulnerable to rape accusations. But the backlash derives less from a general commitment to preserving due process than concern about racism, especially in the criminal-justice system.

Transgenderism poses another challenge for post-liberal feminists, who have relied on traditional notions of sexual difference, including stereotypes of masculine and feminine behaviour, in their crusades against porn and sexual violence. Catherine MacKinnon once likened pornography to saying ‘kill’ to a trained guard dog, which is a theory of sexuality as well as speech: pornography is action because men are dogs on short leashes. Affirmative-consent rules on campus and kangaroo courts for (mostly male) students accused of sexual assault reflect stereotypes about predatory men and preyed-upon women.

Trans rights demonstrators attend a rally on Buchanan Street on January 21, 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Trans rights demonstrators attend a rally on Buchanan Street on January 21, 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Denying biological, sexual difference and reducing it to a gender preference, transgenderism makes feminist movements aimed at protecting women from men utterly incoherent. ‘Believe the women’? Who is a #MeToo feminist required to believe if a man who feels like a woman can simply declare himself one? You can’t categorically believe women when ‘woman’ is no longer a category. Feminists who fear being labelled transphobic can only resolve this dilemma by ignoring it.

Liberal feminism is also challenged by the extremes of transgenderism. Feminists who have long struggled for individual autonomy and the right to control their own reproductive lives should support the rights of adults to transition, without sacrificing their freedoms or protections under law. But that shouldn’t require equating trans people with natural-born males or natural-born females.

An ideology of transgenderism that perceives biology as a state of mind risks an anti-feminist restoration of gender stereotypes and roles, which some of us were compelled to escape. Older women can recall the days when intellectual assertiveness, a talent for maths and science, and a desire to pursue traditionally male professions, were denied or discouraged, and derided as unfeminine. But we had the advantage of knowing that harbouring presumptively male proclivities and ambitions didn’t make us any less female. These days such ‘gender non-conforming’ girls are at risk of being labelled, and labelling themselves, as essentially male.

Consider a recent New York Times op-ed positing that Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, is ‘best understood as a trans man’. What is the evidence of this? She wrote of her longing ‘to be a man’, her belief that she was ‘born with a boy’s nature’ and a ‘boy’s spirit’ and that she was a ‘man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body’. Does this make her a trans man? Or was she a 19th-century woman who chafed bitterly at the rigid constraints of femininity? A woman with intellectual and literary gifts long considered the exclusive province of men? Perhaps her longing to be a boy was a longing for a boy’s freedoms and opportunities. I don’t presume to know Alcott’s essential nature. But I do know that an intelligent, ambitious woman expected to fulfil a traditional feminine role and accept her status as a second-class citizen has good reason to fantasise about being born male. I don’t imagine that every female in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia enjoys being a girl.

We became ‘the men we thought we’d marry’, Gloria Steinem once quipped. Yes we did – without questioning our essential femaleness. When I was 12 or 13, I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse, teacher, secretary or housewife (the roles prescribed for women). I decided I’d marry a writer.

My vision of feminism promotes an expansive ideal of womanhood that entails renouncing, not reviving, traditional gender images and roles, and embraces gender non-conforming females. It seeks to confer equal rights on women without imposing disabilities, like presumptions of guilt, on men. My vision of feminism enshrines freedom of speech, essential to all liberation movements, and celebrates the courage to exercise it.

Perhaps this is mere utopianism, like the belief that we can reach consensus on a compassionate sexual ethic that affirms our dignity and ‘intrinsic worth’ and protects us from bad sex. With illiberalism rising on the right and left, a revival of liberal feminism seems, at best, unlikely.

Still, feminism has always been a complicated movement, containing multitudes. It has been enlivened by clashes over empowering or protecting women and shaped by conflicting ideals of sex, gender, equality and freedom. As a civil libertarian, I’ve found feminism unwelcoming in recent years, but never unrecognisable.

Wendy Kaminer is an author, a lawyer and a former national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Her books include A Fearful Freedom: Women’s Flight from Equality.

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Topics Feminism Long-reads USA

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