BBC Four’s recent three-part documentary Women was enough to make any seasoned feminist weep with despair. After sitting through the obligatory first installment on celebrity second-wavers, and cringing through the second week on post-feminist consumerist mothers, I looked forward to the finale. "Activists" promised to celebrate the resurgence of feminist activism in the contemporary UK. How disappointing, then, that this new feminism turned out to be nothing more than a small group of London-based women who have attracted media attention over the past couple of years with their single-issue campaigns on violence against women.
There is not a feminist on the planet who isn’t outraged at sexual and domestic violence, as well as the overwhelming evidence of the complicity of governments, police forces and justice systems in perpetuating this violence and protecting its perpetrators. Violence against women is rightly a major focus of any feminist movement. But this serious problem cannot be understood, or challenged, in isolation from other forms of violence and oppression, such as racism, restrictive labor and migration laws, and poverty. Yet the groups featured in "Activists" – Object and the London Feminist Network – treat violence against women largely in isolation. They have lots to say about the media objectification of women but, bizarrely, little to say about consumerism or capitalism.
The favorite topics of these organizations seem to be lap-dance clubs, pornography, lads’ magazines and the sex industry in general. This is part of a growing trend in middle-class feminism. Feminist writers and bloggers can’t seem to get enough of prostitution and pornography these days. But these are not the most important issues for the majority of women. Why should a sex worker be a symbol of sexism any more than a competent professional woman denied promotion in favor of a younger male colleague? Or a teenage girl who doesn’t get the education she deserves because her family are too poor to play the postcode lottery or pay tuition fees? Or a migrant woman whose children are locked in a detention centre?
The serious issues of violence against women, and sexist oppression generally, are grossly simplified when they are constantly associated with the sex industry. Feminist campaigns to eliminate sex work by claiming that it is the same as violence against women are not only bad for the sex workers they aim to protect. They’re also bad for feminism.
The contemporary feminist focus on male violence against women is bad for feminism because it positions women primarily as victims, while giving power to male police and politicians to "protect" us from "bad men". It returns us to the tired old model of two opposing genders: man=masculine=aggressive v woman=feminine=passive. It offers no analysis of, and therefore no effective political opposition to, the ways violence against women relates to other forms of violence that women (and men) experience. But most of all, it’s bad for feminism because it defines women’s experiences of sex and sexuality exclusively in terms of fear and danger, and reserves for men the privileged terrains of desire and pleasure.
Anyone who’s been around for the past 25 years will hear echoes in these debates of the feminist "sex wars" of the 1980s. What’s most depressing about this sense of history repeating itself is that groups such as Object and LFN ignore the wealth of feminist theory on representation, desire and sexuality, as well as the scholarship on the intersections between sexism, racism and class produced over the past few decades. But the blame for this lack of theoretical reflection cannot be placed on activists alone. It must be shared by feminist academics, many of who have abandoned the wider public sphere of political debate and activism in recent years. That too is bad for feminism.
A return to feminist academic dialogue with activism might help us to understand why so many young women today are attracted to forms of feminism that emphasize male violence against women above other forms of sexism. Other people have noted that young feminist groups in the UK today are "predominantly white, middle-class and university-educated". Why are these privileged women so drawn to a movement that positions them first and foremost as victims of patriarchy?
Luckily there are lots of other feminists out there, from different generations and backgrounds, making links between violence against women and other oppressions. One group recently posted a Manifesto for 21st-Century Feminism that emphasizes women’s exploitation in all areas of the labor market, not just the sex industry, and recognizes the sexualization of society as part of contemporary consumer capitalism. That’s the kind of feminist resurgence we need.