A forewarning before I begin- I, a privileged, heterosexual white male, am about to deliver a commentary on sexism. As such, I don’t expect to get everything ‘right’ and I can’t offer first hand accounts to the cause. Some may say I have no right to write on the subject, but frankly I find the field intensely interesting and it’s one of relatively few areas in which I have a strong opinion- so this is happening.
The feminist movement has, over the past few decades, achieved most (or at least many) of the goals it set its sights on when the movement first began. Most employers now advertise themselves as ‘equal opportunities’, there are next to no discriminatory pay scales nowadays and most of us wouldn’t find it odd to deal with a female doctor, lawyer, or politician. On the face of it, therefore, our society seems to be ideologically equal- ‘yes there are still some issues of execution’, so the argument goes, ‘but ask anybody in the civilised world if men and women are equal and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who’ll answer in the negative’. And that statement is, broadly speaking, true*; as such, it is the opinion of large sects of the population (both men and women) that feminism has won. It’s done, we finally live in a (mostly) equal society, and the feminists of today are just hardcore lesbians & man-haters.
(*or at least, that’s the impression I get in the circles I move in)
This is reflected in the delightfully dismissive name given to the feminist movement since the 1990s; ‘post-feminism’, a name implying that the movement is over. Unfortunately, the picture is nothing like as optimistic- the fact that feminism still exists as a movement and is a constantly throbbing discourse should alone demonstrate that women still face discrimination, as do statistics relating to the average salary of female employees and the number of women in high-ranking positions in society (particularly politics and the military). For some examples a little closer to home, I recommend the Everyday Sexism blog, provided you don’t mind having your faith in men the world over heavily shaken. To use a racial comparison, the Civil Rights movement was ‘won’ 40 years ago, yet racial discrimination still occurs on a large scale- even though most of us think of racism as A Bad Thing.
The problem is that feminists of today face a far more complex challenge than their predecessors, and feminism as a movement is a great deal more fractured. ‘Third wave’ feminism, for example, originated during the 1990s and placed a heavy focus on sexual liberation- however, it also attracted radicals and is the main source of the ‘man-hating lesbians’ stereotype. The more recent fourth-wave feminism has focused on the sexualised attitude men have towards women and the highly controversial concept of ‘rape culture’. Some feminists contend that there are no practical differences between men and women other than societal constructs and making babies- others acknowledge fundamental differences between the two and are engaged in constant infighting with the former group. Still others don’t conform to any faction within feminism at large but merely focus on one particular issue they care about- recent high-profile campaigns against female genital mutilation are one example.
Such is the challenge to a modern feminist- there is no clearly-defined goal, no obvious laws that need striking down (at least, not in the western world), no single bad guy to defeat. Instead, feminists find themselves attempting to navigate & restructure a minefield of tangled social constructs and attitudes. Not only have most of these attitudes been ingrained in society for decades or even centuries, no-one seems able to agree if they are wrong- the black and white certainties of early feminism have been replaced with shades of grey.
Sexualisation provides a good example- the idea that women are, from a young age, formed into and treated like sex objects by men a lot of the time. On paper, this seems like a quite clear cut Bad Thing- a girl walking down the street minding her own business is unlikely to appreciate a ‘get your tits out for the lads’ comment from a passing car, and it’s straight up insulting that that a woman is thought of as nothing but a set of T&A in that situation. However, consider a counter-example; that same girl on a night out being hit on by a guy, dancing close & giving his best pickup lines a go. The guy in that scenario is quite clearly viewing the girl as someone to have sex with, but this wouldn’t be considered dodgy- both are out attempting to have a good time, and if both end up enjoying in bed afterwards then well played to them both. So this we consider OK. Now consider what happens if our girl decides she isn’t particularly interested; she moves on, perhaps heads to get a drink, but our man is still interested and follows her. She starts to find this creepy, and attempts to ignore him, but he is insatiable, continually flirting with her and making her uncomfortable. OK, we might say, so now the guy is in the wrong; she’d not been interested, he should have left her alone. But think of it another way- in the sweaty confines of a dancefloor, he was just another guy and she just another girl, but by following her he had shown genuine interest. Is it wrong for a girl to not settle for the first guy to start hitting on her on a night out, but instead see who has the dedication to follow up his initial advances and try and hold his own in conversation? What if, rather than his continued presence making our girl feel uncomfortable, the conversation continues, and it ends up that both get lucky- in that case, by making continued advances beyond the initial rejection, our guy has been pro-feminist, attempting to go for women other than those so drunk or dismissive of sex that they’ll fall into the arms of the first guy to show any interest. Thus, the shades of grey begin to emerge; at what point do flirtatious advances stop being compliments and start being creepy?
That isn’t even the only confusing feminist topic to be had in the ‘nightclub pull’ situation; some feminists would accuse me of taking a patriarchal point of view by having the guy take the dominant role in the above described situation, arguing (quite correctly) that the idea of a girl being the one from whom sex is sought, of ‘giving out’ sex to those who sufficiently impress her, is a demeaning and objectifying social construct. Others might say that by rejecting the idea (in my penultimate sentence) of girls who are ‘dismissive of sex’, I am guilty of ‘slut-shaming’; the word ‘slut’ is currently the subject of a titanic battle in the feminist community, as it is seen to imply that women should be virginal and pure according to old-fashioned doctrine, and that women are forbidden from simply enjoying sex in the same way men do. In my defence, I turn to a bit of advice I was given once and have held onto ever since; “never have sex with someone who is less interested in it than you”; my issue with the word ‘slut’ is that it is always applied relative to one person’s code of prudishness and implies that someone else’s attitudes towards sex are ‘wrong’. Having said that, it’s true that that penultimate sentence of the last paragraph comes across as judgemental- and I’m writing this specifically to try and be sex-positive and pro-feminist in my attitudes. You see how difficult all this gets; and this isn’t even the most hotly-fought battleground.
In short, modern feminism finds itself attempting to collectively rewrite the world’s psyche with regards to how we all think about women, and attempts to do so without a cohesive idea in mind of what exactly it is after. Scarcely a more ambitious task has been attempted in human history, and most likely it won’t be ‘solved’ for decades to come- indeed, if it ever is. But, then again, there has never been a world as fast-changing and open-minded as our current one. One day, we might be able to use the phrase ‘post-feminism’ a little more honestly.