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The following contains edited excerpts from and expands upon a panel I participated in called: "Creating Alternative Platforms for Feminist Analysis," organized by Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter as part of their annual Montreal Massacre Memorial event, held this year at the Vancouver Public Library on December 5.
As women, we all understand what it means to feel erased. We are paid attention to in extreme, often threatening or violent ways, as sexualized objects, but simultaneously ignored and brushed off when we have something real to say.
Men often react with shock or indignation when our opinions are not in congruence with theirs, treating any response to their opinions that isn't awe, a smile, or a giggle as an affront. We are further ignored as we age -- women over 50 are made irrelevant, since they are no longer fuckable and therefore no longer visible, according to a male-centered society.
Even worse, when we come forward with truths about our lives, as women -- when we talk about the realities of the violence, sexual assaults, harassment, or domestic abuse we've faced -- we are bullied into silence or simply ignored. We are mocked and punished for daring to disturb the peaceful quiet ignorance and apathy provide. The old saying that little girls should be seen and not heard applies no less frequently to grown women today, despite our claims that we've come such a long way (baby).
Any kind of work, behaviour, or activity that is categorized as "feminine" is, likewise, disregarded, including, as Rose Hackman wrote about last month for The Guardian, the emotional labour that women do. In our relationships with men we are often expected to be mindful of everyone's feelings and forgive men's inability to communicate respectfully or responsibly; therefore left to do all the emotional work for everyone. We've learned men are simply "less emotionally mature than women" and that we must be patient with them. Like children... But like children who rule the world.
We continue to pretend as though there are simply some things women are naturally better at -- nurturing, caretaking, being kind, remembering plans, cleaning, looking beautiful... And because these are "woman-things," associated with the feminine, they too are erased into the innate. We are effortlessly thin, beautiful, silent, fuckable, baby-making wives -- offered no social, political, or economic status for these duties but expected to do them happily and humbly nonetheless.
The things we do in our lives, the experiences we have, our opinions, beliefs, and words are treated as frivolous -- erased, marginalized, without value. In turn, our lives, in and of themselves, become unimportant and so our ongoing struggle for humanity -- not fuckability, not visibility in front of the male gaze, not glorification of "the feminine" -- called the feminist movement, too is devalued, erased, discredited, silenced.
We are allowed to speak for ourselves so long as we don't politicize that speech, so long as we don't attempt to connect our experiences as women to the experiences of other women, so long as we are sure to offend no one with our personal experiences. If it's just personal, after all, our troubles belong only to us -- to heal from, to resolve, to overcome. There is no possibility for solidarity among women so long as we are only having personal experiences that, let's be honest, are probably just all in our heads.
We have never been trustworthy narrators of our own stories, never mind anyone else's.
As women and as feminists we know that women's work is diminished and that women's issues and lives, more generally, are treated as inconsequential or erased entirely. But what do we do about it?
The ever-challenging, ever-less-profitable, ever-competitive field of writing and journalism, they say, is becoming "feminized." What this means is that there are more and more young women entering (or attempting to enter) the field, but less and less money to be made.
Journalism has, for far too long, been dominated by privileged voices, notably, white men. It matters who tells our stories and it has mattered. Public discourse is shaped by those who are responsible for relaying news, ideas, and debates. Without the voices and perspectives of marginalized groups we've been left with a seriously one-sided view of the world and politics. We know this from, well, all of history. Our history was relayed by mostly white men who conveniently wrote women and marginalized people right out, painting themselves -- the colonizers, the rapists, those responsible for the grotesque capitalism and white supremacy we continue to live with today -- as heroes rather than villains.
Surely, an influx of women into the field of journalism would be a good thing. And indeed a great deal of lip service is offered with regard to women helping women get our work and our voices out there -- to even the playing field. But which women are we talking about? Which voices?
When I started blogging, back in 2010, I was, admittedly, naive about the deep divides that exist between liberal and radical feminists. I still struggle with how to name those divides properly. I refer to those who refuse to make obvious connections between various forms of violence against women and who work to decontexualize our collective subordination as "liberal feminists," "sex-positive feminists," or "third-wave feminists," never wholly sure of the most accurate label.
I realize this is because what I actually believe is that, if you can't (or won't) connect the dots between prostitution, pornography, rape culture, sexual harassment, objectification, femicide, colonization, domestic abuse and, more generally, female subordination, you are not a part of this movement -- the feminist one. In other words, it's not that you're doing it wrong, it's that you're not doing it at all.
Feminism is a real thing. It means something. It is a particular analysis. It is not whatever any individual says it is or wants it to be. It is not "inclusive." It is not everything nor should it be -- if feminism is everything then it is nothing. It is not about framing misogyny as empowerment because it makes us feel better. It is a movement. It is political. It is what we call the woman-led fight to end patriarchy and male violence against women.
So when we talk about getting women's voices into journalism, it's worth asking whether or not those voices are feminist ones or not. "Women's voices," in and of themselves, are worthwhile because women are people (fact!) and deserve to be heard and to contribute to public discourse. But while American liberals are busily creating networks and conferences and Facebook groups to support "women writers," all the while pretending this is some "feminist" effort, what they are not admitting to is that, they are, in many ways, effectively replicating the old boys club of yesteryear, just this time, with women.
When I first started writing about feminism back in 2010, I had no idea my words would be so controversial. I thought I was simply stating the obvious: sexualized violence sexualizes violence, simulated misogyny is still misogyny, objectification turns women into things -- things that exist to be looked at, fucked, abused -- not humans. And so I was shocked at how vehemently I was attacked for saying these things. What was once feminism -- the feminism of our second-wave sisters -- had become unspeakable.
I hadn't learned the rules before throwing myself in the deep end. I started to get published at a few places but noticed that none of the bigger liberal American platforms (even the leftist ones) were publishing critiques of the sex industry or even of objectification and the male gaze. Strange. They must not be aware these critiques exist, I thought. Perhaps they hadn't heard of the Nordic model -- perhaps it hadn't occurred to them that rape porn could be connected to rape culture. I knew it was uncool to call sexy selfies narcissistic and to argue that, while burlesque might make you feel pretty, pasties subverted nothing at all, but didn't realize I actually was not allowed to say such things.
So I pitched and pitched and pitched and was ignored more often than not. In some cases the rejections were vaguely clear enough to convey that _____.com would not publish articles that criticized the legalization of prostitution or critiqued "Belle Knox feminism" or questioned the popular "sex work is work" mantra.
The sites that were dominating the conversation around feminism and the women who worked for these sites were not, in fact, "helping other women" -- they were helping their friends, friends who held the same political ideology, who thought prostitution was fun and cool, who didn't dare question the party line, who could afford to hang about in New York City on their parent's dime, shmoozing with those who held the reigns to the tightly-knit New York media cabal. They were heavily invested in attacks on the second wave and in promoting a marketable version of "feminism" that supported capitalism, boobs, and boners.
At first I thought it was all in my head, but it wasn't. I'd been blackballed. My words had broken the unspoken rule all young female journalists and writers were to follow: keep it light, keep it sexy, don't dare to move beyond the Twitter mantras that passed for "feminism" these days. If you want to write about "whorephobia" and "slut-shaming," great. Even better if you can write about how radical Slutwalk is and point to all the "agency" of your white, rich "sex worker" friends. But to say anything else was to bite the hands that feed you. Liberal feminists and sex industry advocates had become one in the same and the media reflected that.
Oddly (not oddly at all), the vilification and blackballing I was subjected to was similar (but on a much larger scale) to my experience of speaking out about my own abuse. I thought I was telling the truth, not knowing that the truth is unspeakable -- that women's truth is unspeakable.
While the numerous conferences, listservs, Facebook groups, and networks created for female journalists and writers have been, I'm sure, enormously helpful for some, they also suffer from something that has long kept women out of traditionally male fields: cronyism. The women who've managed to "make it" deny this, but if we're real about who is being supported, lifted up, whose labour is made visible and whose is intentionally erased (even in conversations about that visibility) -- it's not "women," it's women who have played the game.
Back in August, there was an incredible brouhaha over a piece by journalist, Melody Kramer, called, "A list of every hidden journalism-related social media group I could find." Her supposed crime was to have included on her list a secret (but not secret at all -- the group was written about by Emily Greenberg in Vogue last year and by Jonathan Chait in January), invite-only Facebook group called "Binders Full of Women Writers." Now, this is no trivial group -- it contains over 31,000 members. It's professed purpose "is to allow writers to network and exchange tips, and to expand the number of female writers published across the industry."
Kramer's aim was, she said, to open the doors to those who aren't in the know -- who aren't part of that in-crowd I mentioned earlier. "I'm a big fan of getting new voices into journalism and keeping them there," she writes.
"One of the ways to help level the existing playing field is to make sure everyone knows about the groups that already exist. Many of these groups are not well-advertised and are hard to find, particularly if you're a freelancer or new to the field."
Addressing that longstanding boys club and consequent bias in reporting and story-telling is no easy task but surely kicking down the invisible walls and doors that have kept us all out for so long is a start.
Yet Kramer was ripped to shreds by the group's members simply for acknowledging its existence. She was kicked out of a group whose "ground rules," as Greenberg outlined, stress "a 'laid-back' and 'no pressure' environment" with an "About" section that reads, "All women, genderqueer, and nonbinary identifying writers are welcome, as is self-promotion, pal-promotion, open conversation, and other methods and means intended to 'take down the patriarchy.'"
Take down the patriarchy, eh? So long as you keep those load-bearing walls up, don't knock down the foundations, maybe just move the furniture around a bit, paint the walls a nice sunny yellow, and rent out one of the rooms to make a quick buck...
Journalists have fought for transparency, accountability, and access for generations. Yet the liberal media and the women who are part of that in-crowd are working against access and accountability rather than for it.
In The Guardian, Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out that only the rich can afford to write about poverty. The reality she discusses, wherein journalists "can't muster up expenses to even start on the articles, photo-essays and videos they want to do, much less find an outlet to cover the costs of doing them," is one I can very much relate to. Though I do make part of my income, today, from my writing, most days I can't afford even to pitch, never mind do the work required for the pittance I will be offered in exchange for an article, if accepted. I quite literally could not afford to do what I knew I needed to in order to advance my own career. I couldn't move to New York and work for free at the right internships -- hell, I couldn't even afford to finish journalism school, set up so that it is impossible to attend part-time, ensuring that it will mainly be populated by folks in their early 20s who have a free place to live and are subsidized by their families.
There are millions more who are far less privileged than I and so it amuses me (in a rather ragey way) to see young, middle class, American women blathering on about "privilege" and "marginalized voices" on Twitter within the safety and comfort of their family money, Ivy League educations, fancy internships, and gifted property. It's no mere coincidence that these women and men are the same ones who write articles for Playboy and Jezebel about how empowering "sex work" is and call anyone who disagrees a variety of names that all amount to anti-feminist cliches about "prudes" and "man-haters." (We hear you -- you love dick. That's not a politic. That's something insecure 19-year-olds say because they want to be cool.)
So we have an in-crowd that consists mostly of privileged, American, liberal women, based in New York, who have turned cronyism into "feminism," rejected women who question the patriarchal and capitalist status quo, and have turned words like "diversity," "inclusivity," and "privilege" into media careers.
But let's go back to Binders for a moment -- that professional networking tool for female and "gender non-conforming" journalists and writers.
Moderator and admin of the Binders Full of Women Writers Facebook group, Lux Alptraum, is an Ivy League alum who was the CEO, owner, and editor of porn blog, Fleshbot (until she sold the site to SK Intertainment in 2014). She is an outspoken pro-porn and pro-prostitution advocate who spends an awful lot of time presenting the sex industry as something "cool girls" are into and making derisive comments (or verbally attacking) about feminists who challenge it.
Alptraum has spun this group into BinderCon, a two-day "career-building event" that takes place annually in New York City and LA, sponsored by the online women’s magazine Bustle. It's fair to say that she plays a notable role in terms of deciding who is allowed to network -- and therefore who has access to jobs/work/viable careers in writing and journalism -- and who is not.
So it's no mere coincidence that women who speak out against prostitution and porn, like myself, are intentionally excluded from these groups and networks. It is, in fact, fully intentional.
And this is not only about jobs -- who is paid to say what. It's about who is heard, which voices are allowed to speak, whose stories are told, what kind of analysis is accessible, and what the parameters of discourse are. And the parameters of discourse are being set by sex industry lobbyists.
"You aren't crazy," is still a radical thing to say. Women are still socialized not to trust themselves or their sisters. It's no accident that the actual feminist movement (not the Playboy Feminism, as I coined it recently in New Statesman, increasingly shoved down our throats) is under attack, erased and misrepresented by the liberal and even leftist media. It's no accident that our work -- women's work, the work of the movement -- is carefully removed from discourse by women already on the inside or women who are desperately trying to get in. It's no coincidence that women who speak out against male violence are no-platformed, attacked, vilified, slandered, and have their employment threatened.
The new erasure is the same as the old, but this time they're calling it "feminism." A kind of "feminism" that is not only detached from the global feminist movement, but that actively works against it. That supports "diversity" but not a diversity of ideas. A kind of feminism that attacks radical women, only to turn around and sell books that regurgitate the arguments we were making all along (but minus the credit). A genius Con if there ever was one.
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