A progressive dialogue: Building a progressive feminist movement in neo-liberal times

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For me, feminism and the left have always been inextricably linked. The connections between gender oppression and global capitalism, the ties between feminism and anti-colonialism, the fight for social systems that put people first, starting from a place that views our existence as a group effort rather than a wall one climbs alone -- those connections made feminism an obviously progressive movement in my mind.

How could we make long-lasting change for women without a deep commitment towards addressing race and class oppression? How could we uproot the deep foundations of patriarchy that support all of our most powerful institutions without a profound commitment towards supporting the most marginalized?

While my love affair with the left has been plagued with anger and frustration, I remain not only convinced that progressive movements must include the dismantling of patriarchy as a key element of their analysis and action, but that a neo-liberal feminism, that is, a feminism that is disconnected from the left, is a feminism that is hardly worth fighting for.

In a time when some of our hardest fought for rights and freedoms are under threat, when unions are under attack, when American privatization is leaning heavily on our doorstep, when safe housing is treated as a privilege, not a right, when we are told that concepts like universal daycare and decent social assistance programs are inconceivable, mainstream feminism seems to be hacking away at its own knees. It's as though we are so afraid of losing everything that we've decided to fight for nothing.

Desperation, coupled with the growing influence of neo-liberal discourse, has led us to look for empowerment where there is none, twisting deeply sexist imagery and industries into a frighteningly ironic version of female liberation. In the age of Slutwalks, the neo-burlesque "movement," the mainstreaming of pornography, and of a "sex-positive" feminism that acts as an assault on decades of feminist discourse, how must we work to revitalize a feminist movement that doesn't kowtow to American neo-liberalism? That is, an ideology that wants very much for us all to believe that freedom lies in positive thinking and that we can rise above institutionalized oppression by pretending it isn't there.

Denise Thompson describes the problem of individualism as such:

"If relations of domination and subordination are interpreted as nothing but properties of individuals, they cannot be seen as relations of ruling at all. They become simply a matter of preferences and choices engaged in by discrete individuals who have no responsibilities beyond their own immediate pleasures and satisfactions." (Radical Feminism Today, 2001)

This critique of individualism demands that feminism be a progressive movement and makes arguments for individual autonomy in sex work, for example, problematic.

And yet we, we who should consider ourselves progressive, have bought into it. This is an ideology that erases systems of domination and subordination and tells us that our empowerment depends only on how we've framed our supposed oppression. It tells us that wealth is at our fingertips if only we would just work at it a little harder (and that freedom is based on our ability to make money in whatever way possible), focus our energy within, and forget about the plight of our neighbours. It tells us to work with what we've got because, hey, we've been struggling long enough and still we suffer so why not just make the best of it?

Feminism has not escaped this mindset; far from it. It would appear, rather, that much of mainstream feminism has embraced this ideology with open arms.

Now, a popular feminist position to take is one that frames the sex industry as a potentially empowering space for women so long as she "chooses" to participate.

But what is radical or progressive about women selling their bodies to men? What is progressive about the male gaze? What is revolutionary about legalizing, and, in doing so, normalizing the concept of women as sexual commodities? These concepts seem far from progressive to me, propelling us backwards into an age where sexism is not only accepted, but encouraged as a potential route towards liberation.

Visible examples of the way in which parts of the feminist movement have adopted individualism as part of their discourse and action include efforts to decriminalize prostitution and the phenomenon of Slutwalks.

Decriminalizaton of prostitution

The decriminalization or legalization of prostitution has been taken on by many Canadian progressives and self-identified feminists as a goal worth fighting for. Positioned as a way to make women safer and allow them to make "choices" about their own bodily autonomy, this argument is decidedly rooted in neo-liberal discourse.

Rather than looking at prostitution as representative of how we, as a society view and treat women, advocates argue that decriminalization will provide women with "the freedom to choose," and that we should prevent state interference in said "choice."

The connection that these arguments fail to make is that women, historically, make these "choices" when they are in poverty. They make these "choices" in order to survive. When there are no social structures in place that support women's survival and safety, when women have no real choice, they "choose" prostitution. And who benefits? Men.

A growing gap between the rich and poor ensures that women will continue to be forced to "choose" prostitution as a means of survival.

Keeping women safe from violence and abuse means that we provide women with real options, with safe and affordable housing, and with social safety nets. It does not mean that we frame exploitation as a viable career path. If the left truly desires an equitable society, we must be working to end prostitution. We must work towards freedom within the context of humanity rather than, simply, a lack of restrictions.

While certainly there are women who are privileged enough to consider their choice to do sex work to be an empowered one, the nature of the industry is one that exploits the most marginalized. The answer is not to pretend that this work is empowering, but rather to ensure that women have alternatives and that men are not able to prey on women in need. I am not an object that exists to provide pleasure for a man with more power and status than me, and neither are any of my sisters.


Embraced by many young women around the world, and viewed by some as "the most successful feminist action of the past 20 years," this movement, surprisingly, originated in Canada. I say surprisingly because we tend to associate the kind of individualist rhetoric that has been so much a part of the Slutwalk movement from the get-go, with American neo-liberalism. The "I wear what I want" mantra chanted alongside women marching the streets in their underwear with the word "slut" written across their chests, hardly seems to address any systematic inequity or the roots of rape culture. The epitome of "MYCHOICE" feminism, Slutwalks were immediately embraced by those who argue that the sex industry is an empowering space for women as well as by those who may not have previously aligned themselves with feminism, perhaps out of fear that the movement would take away their stilettos.

While many view Slutwalks as feminist, this movement is disappointing from a progressive perspective. Missing an opportunity to present a radical challenge to the roots of oppression, they remain deeply focused on clothing and the "freedom" to identify as "sluts," making this "movement" one that places individual freedom above social change.

In a culture that has successfully mainstreamed pornography, sexualized rape and dominance, presented women's bodies consistently as things, cut up into pieces for consumption, it is troubling that these issues have been visibly left off the table in a march against rape culture. Not only that but the marches continue to play to a male gaze, featuring women on stripper poles and plenty of camera ops for the men watching from the sidelines.

If our genuine goal, as the left, is equality for all, feminism can only be a progressive movement at its core. Neo-liberal ideology that values individual "freedom" and "choice" over emancipation will not liberate the poor and the marginalized. Selling sex has never provided women with independence, safety, and long-lasting empowerment, but rather has further reinforced male power and privilege.

If we don't care about one another, if we don't look towards building a world where women's options for survival do not involve selling their bodies to men with power, then this cannot be called a progressive movement. It can't even be called a movement at all. This is not an idea that needs only to be absorbed by the feminist movement, but it is something that must be understood by the left, as a whole. An "every man for himself" ethic has never been our vision of freedom and yet, when it comes to women, we've been manipulated into believing this means liberation.

Put down your drinks, progressives, this is a movement, not a bachelor party.

Meghan Murphy is the host and producer of The F Word radio show and the editor of www.feminisms.org. She is a Master's candidate in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, & Women's Studies at Simon Fraser University and is completing a graduate degree at the UBC School of Journalism.

Read our other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada.

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