A Call To Arms

“In-fighting” is a tired and negative word for what, in my opinion, is a perfectly natural occurrence within any political movement.

Elements of society that are opposed to radical change defend the status quo, and therefore all conservative circles may stand united in the face of opposition. “We want,” they can say in unison, “to remain the same. Any disagreements that we have are subordinate to this initial demand.”

When you’re fighting against the grain of society, however, you’re in the unique position of discussing not only what you dislike about the status quo – but also what your shared future could contain if progressive change is made. This is clearly both exciting, and potentially, divisive.

The weight that feminist factions put on class, work, education, ‘objectification’ and trans issues always varies across the board, and causes profound divisions. In fact, the only true flag that all feminist organisations can march under is one of “equality”; but what form this equality takes is still unresolved.

The most striking division that has occurred in Cambridge in the past few months has been the issue of ‘the sex worker’.

For many feminist socialists, for instance, all campaigns must first and foremost take into consideration the issue of representation – and must never speak on behalf of oppressed classes when theorising the exact nature of that oppression. Those who hold class issues at the heart of their feminism are likely to point out that sex work is a particularly class-based phenomenon, and any feminist action regarding sex work must keep the safety of the sex worker at the forefront of any campaign. To other feminist organisations, the complex issues that surround representation may be seen to delay the progress that they long for. However, a careful understanding of minority groups cannot be subsumed by a desire for an immediate utopia.

Many radical feminists, on the other hand, may argue first and foremost against the objectification of ‘the female’ in the media, schools, the workplace, and the sex industry. For those most passionately engaged in eradicating ‘objectification’,  sex work, in this instance, is considered so damaging to society’s view of ‘the female’ that the sex worker’s health and safety may be ignored in favour of a rather more long-term vision. Indeed, supporting the safety of the sex worker may be seen to constitute support of the sex industry itself, which would be a particularly difficult position for some theorists to take. In some instances, however, such campaigns to eradicate ‘objectification’ may push sex workers out of feminist dialogues, which can cause rifts over who is it that is truly considered ‘suitable’ for feminist discussion. Indeed, such campaigns may push out the very women that the movement proclaims to work for.

Some go so far as to argue that this is practical feminism vs. cerebral feminism. This isn’t a particularly helpful juxtaposition to aid dialogue, as both elements are necessary for any proper debate. The issue of sex work is only one in a vast number of issues since the 1960s that feminist organisations have come to blows over, and indeed these ‘blows’ are exactly why some feel that feminism never moves forward.

Despite the fact that I am a feminist socialist (and by that I mean that equality is of utmost importance to me, and feminism is one facet of my belief system), I am prepared to see a great deal of value in all camps. ‘In-fighting’ is a natural and important element of progress. I am myself against the objectification of the female in mainstream pornography, for instance; for this reason, I am keen to engage with the work that some organisations put into keeping these issues in the public consciousness. On the other hand, I will always put the sex worker first; for any outcry we may have against damaging representations of women must be quieter than our immediate concern for the safety and health of the oppressed minority. This may constitute a delay, to some.

It would be entirely irresponsible to dismiss left-wing campaigns against Object simply because Object (an anti-objectification campaign group) has kept feminism in the public eye. It would be irresponsible, because we must always question why it is that minority groups of women, such as sex workers, are branded either victims or anti-feminists. If there is a criticism to be made against an organisation of feminists, this is not anti-feminist.

But it would be equally irresponsible for socialist feminist groups to fail to engage with such influential feminist organisations. Of course, when I see large groups of activists engaged with feminist movements that I don’t agree with, I can feel totally disheartened. It is one thing to go against the grain of society by calling yourself a feminist; this can be, after all, an isolating political position to take. But it is quite another thing to stand up as a feminist while simultaneously opposing the populist feminist movements of this decade. I must remember, nevertheless, that lost dialogue will ultimately result in narrow minded theories and actions. It is not a matter of right or wrong; it’s a matter of weighting.

I would call for all factions (for we must never pretend to be a unified group for the sake of appearances) to continue listening to one another. It is a progressive and exciting thing to be able to do – to listen to one another while we have the space and inclination. Let’s listen to everything that can be said, for fear that we become a homogeneous mass with faulty ideas. Dialogue and debate is important and liberating; we mustn’t stifle it in the name of ‘unity’. There isn’t any unity.

And that’s ok, for now.


  1. Ray Filar

    Agreed, though in an incredibly predictable response I think your characterisation of radical feminist positions (I’m sure they diverge) is slightly off.

    I think its unfair to suggest that the contention of organisations like Fawcett/Object/Eaves is that the safety of the prostitute may be passed over in favour of anti-objectification measures. Imo, the disagreement lies in what really is the best way to promote the safety of women working in prostitution, taking into account the safety of all the other women, and what the role of legislation is in all of it. The debate about whether criminalising demand drives prostitution underground is balanced up by the debate on whether having a legal, regulated market enables a flourishing illegal market in which exactly the same problems as we have now exist. And I’m starting to think that there’s not really any clear answer, but I can’t get past a sort of basic belief that the existence of institutionalised prostitution is utterly converse to a gender equal society. OH god I’m just stating my position again. Ah well, there’s no unity.

    But anyway, good article.

  2. ceridwen

    I think you’re quite right: in retrospect my opinion about certain radical feminist positions was biased in this article. Of course radical feminists arn’t attempting to put the sex worker in danger.

    But this is exactly my point. My opinion on this matter is that certain forms of legislation put the sex worker in danger, no matter what the good intentions are. But as you say, you’re worried about legalisation. These are perfectly legitimate opinions that need to be discussed, as they are so wildly different; and I’m glad that we have a forum to talk rationally – without the fear of misguided unity, or fear of dischord. This is good.

    I suppose my conclusion would be: let’s make sure that there’s always an element of dischord in all feminist groups, forums and events. It’s good for the movement, it keeps people involved, and it keeps debate alive.

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