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Poking a can of worms

Preface: I am going to run this through How Not To Be That Guy after I'm done, but if any of you readers find that my privelege is showing or that I'm guilty of a similar faux pas, please point it out.

I like to think of myself as a moderately enlightened modern man. I know about the invisible backpack, why there's no "straight pride parade", and why safe women-only space is different than a men-only gentlemen's club. I don't think I deserve praise, sex or special treatment for any of that.

To be honest, though, when it comes to Radical Feminism, I've always sort of written it off. "Well," I told myself, "I can see where that sort of thought was needed back in the 70s and earlier, but things have moved on since then, surely." The bits of Dworkin and MacKinnon's writing that I came across always struck me as out of touch with the world as I saw it, and at times felt actively hostile to me. (And here I realise that I was drifting into being That Guy, trying to make it All About Me.) For the most part, I'd settled into just ignoring the movement and its authors. It just didn't seem reasonable in a contemporary context. Browsing the wikipedia page on Radical Feminism didn't help much either.

Increasingly, though, I have been running into people who I feel are generally quite reasonable people, who don't seem to think that Dworkin et al. are unreasonable. This has lead me to conclude that I'm probably at least partly wrong. At a minimum, I haven't actually read an entire piece of Radical Feminist writing, so my opinion is largely an uneducated one.

In discussion with a friend, zie posited that Radical Feminism is similar to having a discussion with someone who is so angry that they can't quite think straight. A further suggestion was raised that it's valuable to have a vocal, extreme group so that more moderate feminist voices might seem like a reasonable compromise - a similar argument could be made about the role of PETA in a vegetarian context.

From what I understand of Radical Feminism, it focuses on the role of the patriarchy as the main oppressive force in society. The patriarchal model of dominance as the primary form of social interaction underlies pretty much everything we do. In particular, all sex is forced into a patriarchal context. Therefore, regardless of the intent of the participants, having sex happens in a oppressive context. Pornography is inherently harmful and can be directly associated with violent misogynist behaviour and attitudes, and prostitution is even worse. I've read a snippet by Dworkin which seemed to suggest that the best men can do for women is to just leave them alone. Don't talk to them, don't subject them to the Male Gaze, and don't force oppressive sex on them. I realise that a half-remembered snippet without any context is hardly clear, but that's the impression I got.

As someone who enjoys sex with women, I'm fairly uncomfortable with the world thus painted. My discomfort, however, isn't really a good reason to say it's wrong. Indeed, part of the unease I feel about Radical Feminism stems from the worry that it might be right. If so, I need to seriously inspect my love life. (You didn't think, dear reader, that I'd be able to make it through the whole post without trying to make it All About Me, did you?) At any rate, I feel that I should make an effort to at least understand Radical Feminism - even if I don't agree with it, I would like to be able to disagree from an educated position. At the very least, it should give me some practice in trying to read feminist writing without Making It All About Me.

Can anyone out there a) point me to something online that roughly covers the basics of Radical Feminism better than the wikipedia page, and b) suggest a book or two as a gentle introduction to Radical Feminist thought? From the snippets I've read, I'm not sure I'm quite ready to tackle Dworkin or MacKinnon directly. My next "serious" book is called "Feminisms", and is basically a first year women's studies book. Perhaps when I'm through that I'll have answered some of these questions on my own, or at least have more intelligent questions to ask.

I've tried to phrase this in such a way as to avoid implying that I'm entitled to having it explained to me. I'm also trying to avoid the Dancing Bear/praise thing (the point is not that the bear dances well, it's that the bear dances at all...). I've also been going over this piling on qualifiers for over a week now, so I'm just going to post the darned thing.


( 57 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 20th, 2008 02:48 pm (UTC)
Wasn't Dworkin the name of the dwarf in The Books of Amber?
May. 20th, 2008 02:50 pm (UTC)
Yup. While writing this, I kept getting distracted by the name.
(no subject) - olletho - May. 20th, 2008 02:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - night__watch - May. 28th, 2008 02:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2008 02:56 pm (UTC)
I think there's a feminism 101 blog out there that may cover some of what you're looking for. If not, I bet it will point you to resources that will help.
May. 20th, 2008 03:05 pm (UTC)
Googling provides: http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/

(no subject) - immlass - May. 20th, 2008 03:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - secretsoflife - May. 20th, 2008 05:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2008 03:07 pm (UTC)
most of what i know about feminism i learned through film studies (that should be a pin, somewhere), so i cant really recommend readings. i would, however, like to request that you post about what you read & learn, and we can discuss it. that would be really interesting.

are you aware that tags dont have to have dashes/underscores, but can be a few words?
May. 20th, 2008 03:14 pm (UTC)
I'll post about what I find.

And yeah, I know I can put spaces in tags, but I'm a unix programmer - I abhor spaces in single tokens. :)
(no subject) - outcastspice - May. 20th, 2008 03:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2008 03:26 pm (UTC)
You are a better feminist than I.

I get very angry at the suggestion that all sex is oppressive to women - it takes away my choice in the matter. I get the theory radical feminists are working from on that, but in practice, calling my lovers rapists and taking away my ability to consent just pisses me off. Really really bad. Like, I'm turned off to any other argument made by that person from that point on.
May. 20th, 2008 03:32 pm (UTC)
Me too. Too often I have seen feminism used as an excuse just to hate men and that doesn't solve anything.
(no subject) - immlass - May. 20th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - curgoth - May. 20th, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - 50_ft_queenie - May. 20th, 2008 04:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - secretsoflife - May. 20th, 2008 05:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ex_sonjaaa - May. 20th, 2008 06:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - neeuqdrazil - May. 20th, 2008 06:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - delerium69 - May. 20th, 2008 06:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - neeuqdrazil - May. 20th, 2008 06:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - delerium69 - May. 20th, 2008 07:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - secretsoflife - May. 20th, 2008 11:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - secretsoflife - May. 20th, 2008 11:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2008 03:45 pm (UTC)
Oooo neat! L and I were just talking about this and I know even less than you, actually, as I've primarily engaged with women of color feminisms which, I think, seem to be quite different from the Euro-Americo-Canadian feminisms, particularly since we (Women of Color) have a hard time seeing patriarchy as The Ultimate Oppression when racism and classism and yadda yadda are so much a part of our communities and our experiences. I'd love to see what resources people offer, though. Like, I'm definitely going to check out that feminism 101 page. :)
May. 20th, 2008 07:41 pm (UTC)
You may be interested in some of the links back from this post, one of which goes into an analysis of Joss Whedon's work on the basis of gender, class and race.
May. 20th, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC)
There's a slight problem of conflicting definitions here, I think. The definition of radical feminism which I understand is defined in opposition to liberal feminism, or perhaps more appropriately, issues-based feminism. The latter considers specific issues, like equal pay, to be the fundamental tenants of feminism, where the former considers the dismantling of the patriarchal system as the fundamental issue -- radical in scope and theoretical conception, but not necessarily in distance from current social norms, as opposed to the standard conception of the modifier.

In many ways, as the understanding of the patriarchal system of oppression has become better and more commonly understood, the "radical" tag has become less and less relevant, and I think this is where the misconception with more extremist viewpoints has come from. Then again, personally, while not against sex as such, I don't think just because something is based in sexual attraction, it gets any kind of excuse from critical examination. Also, I do think that (at least some, if not most) porn is degrading to women, and that (almost all) sex work is harmful to society and those who participate, from all sides, and I have no problems with things like the Norwegian laws mandating women's participation on corporate boards.

One of the areas where a lot of the (radical and not) feminist literature, especially older stuff, breaks down is in its lack of consideration of intersectionality -- the only way the patriarchy can be the totalizing situation of opression in your world is if you're a rich, white, educated woman. Oh wait, who wrote most of the literature? Yeah. Still, there are good things there.

While it does to some extent suffer from that focus, _The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy_, by Allan G. Johnson, provides an excellent introduction to the field -- it might be a bit basic for you, but I'm not sure.
May. 20th, 2008 11:14 pm (UTC)
Hey, thanks for that. The label "feminism" has become such a dirty word in so many circles I find it an extremely challenging issue to learn about. I'm pretty much at a basic understanding level, so I'll probably check that out.
(no subject) - dymaxion - May. 21st, 2008 01:01 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)
This dialogue has been floating around LJ a lot lately, which makes me happy. I was worried it croaked back in the 90s!

Some random, floaty thoughts:

I believe that it's nearly impossible not personalize an issue on some level, so it's best to acknowledge how you feel but not dwell on it too much. Just a good middle ground to avoid the Making It All About You trap.

The patriarchy as the primary source of oppression, dominance and social interaction is a good starting point, but it definitely needs the addition of white and middle/upper-class into the concept, which was one of my major issues with older radical feminism. I believe the younger generation of radical feminists are better at addressing this problem. (They also seem to have melded much of their movement with the Echo Feminists.)

I'm often torn between my inner feelings of "Don't you tell me not to have sex with men and not to have penetrative sex or else I'm not a real feminist!" and "Um, yeah, there is this uncomfortable line where such sexual relations can too easily tilt into something exploitive/abusive and that scares me." (Or am I the only woman/girl who ever thinks this way?)

Sex work is still a complex issue that my brain has yet to untangle, even after writing a paper on the pros/cons of legalizing prostitution a few years ago. I still remain neutral/sided with sex workers rights. You'd think that by the time I started to creep up on 40 I would have figured it out. The best I can come up with is, some of it is degrading and exploitive, but not all of it, so I can't dismiss it out of hand yet, especially when there are still women who have to/want to participate in it as an industry.

Speaking of the 90s and 'straight pride parades', my university had this (small) group of students who decided to have a Straight Pride rally one day in the early 90s. They apparently had issues with anybody who wasn't heterosexual, conservative, white (well that part might be debatable) and Christian. They even came up with their own symbol - a blue square (no I never found out why). It just succeeded in making them look like pathetic morons who should have been spending more time studying. However, some of my more creative friends and fellow students co-opted the blue square, combined it with a pink triangle and designed queer ally buttons. I think I still have one lying around somewhere.

And I'll need to check out the feminism 101 site.

p.s I think men *can* call themselves feminists if the circumstances are right. Only you can really know it on the inside.
May. 20th, 2008 08:59 pm (UTC)
I'm often torn between my inner feelings of "Don't you tell me not to have sex with men and not to have penetrative sex or else I'm not a real feminist!" and "Um, yeah, there is this uncomfortable line where such sexual relations can too easily tilt into something exploitive/abusive and that scares me." (Or am I the only woman/girl who ever thinks this way?)

I would argue that any form of relationship and any form of sex can cross the line into exploitative/abusive, regardless of the gender of the people involved. I don't think sex with men and/or penetrative sex has a monopoly on exploitative potential.

(no subject) - delerium69 - May. 20th, 2008 09:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - 50_ft_queenie - May. 21st, 2008 01:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - delerium69 - May. 21st, 2008 06:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tormenta - May. 20th, 2008 10:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dairymilk - May. 20th, 2008 11:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2008 07:54 pm (UTC)

I found this reading list on a site detailing different feminist schools of thought that Imma try and track down :

"Classic texts of radical feminism include, to name just a few, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Ti-Grace Atkinson’s Amazon Odyssey, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Cellestine Ware’s Woman Power, Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, and the anthologies Sisterhood Is Powerful (edited by Robin Morgan), Radical Feminism (edited by Anne Koedt and Ellen Levine), and especially the manifestos, diatribes, and position papers collected in the zine-like Notes from the First Year and Notes from the Second Year, which are available on microfilm."

If you wanna go in on a mass-purchase with me, we can do an order in from Amazon (which Irony(tm), I appreciate). We can also check out the Toronto Women's Bookstore.
May. 21st, 2008 01:46 am (UTC)
Lemme check with Lizard and see how many of those we already own...
May. 20th, 2008 10:36 pm (UTC)
You know, you might just have the makings of a readers' group here, particularly if you do go in with northbard on a purchase of a variety of books. I could get into that. Because I also feel I don't know enough about certain forms of feminism to hold the opinions I currently do about them.
May. 20th, 2008 10:53 pm (UTC)
I'd do this.

With port.
(no subject) - secretsoflife - May. 20th, 2008 11:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dairymilk - May. 20th, 2008 11:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - curgoth - May. 21st, 2008 01:45 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 20th, 2008 11:19 pm (UTC)
Hey, thanks Curgoth - got some good stuff out of this thread!
May. 21st, 2008 07:49 pm (UTC)
Fascinating discussions
I have Sisterhood is Powerful; may also have Radical Feminism & Brownmiller's book, but I'll need to check. You're welcome to borrow them - I could drop what I have at northbard's place when I finally get around to delivering the morning glory seeds.

Interesting day to look through my friends' friends pages.
( 57 comments — Leave a comment )

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