Why feminism needs trans people and sex workers

There are several stories circulating about what happened at this year’s London Reclaim the Night march. The Sex Worker Open University have criticised the organisers for including a speaker from Object, a campaign group they claim oppresses those in the sex industry by picketing their workplaces and attempting to put them out of jobs. The SWOU have also alleged the distribution of transphobic leaflets by some march attendees. This has been corroborated from the other side of the political divide, with a group of radical feminists confirming that they carried a banner stating “Reclaim the Night is for WOMEN” and distributed leaflets “to raise awareness of violence perpetrated by male transgenders” [sic]. This group has also reprimanded RTN organisers for reiterating that trans women were welcome on the march.

What both accounts acknowledge is that many women at Reclaim the Night London spoke out and marched in solidarity with trans and sex-working sisters. They were right to do so. Feminist events must not make the most marginalised women among us feel unsafe. But over and above ideas about inclusion, we also need to recognise that trans people and sex workers* have much to offer feminist thought and activism.

What can trans people tell us about gender? Well, they do a pretty good jobdivesting it from what our culture calls biological sex.** Trans feminists – indeed, all trans people – share with cis feminists the desire to live lives that challenge gender essentialism, and the spectrum of trans and gender-fluid identities shows us a variety of ways of being which split apart our cultural binaries of male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine. Trans people are under no obligation to share their personal journeys with the world at large, but when they do they crystallise the ways in which gender oppresses all of us.

Sex workers are part of an industry which, although diverse, is profoundly gendered and based on the commodification of sex and desire. From this position they have unique insights into how gendered power relations and sexual scripts work. Some sex workers may tell us how these can be reworked and resisted, perhaps more easily when an explicit transaction is taking place. Others may have harrowing stories about being the target of the worst misogynist impulses of our culture, compounded by social stigma. Or we may very likely hear from sex workers who have experienced both.

Contemporary feminists can be quite neoliberal in their emphasis on identity and choice, partly in answer to the co-option of 1970s radical feminism by reactionary forces. We need to hold on to the best of radical feminist thought – in particular, its analysis of gender as a structural and discursive hierarchy between “man” and “woman” (which, of course, doesn’t stop it also being a spectrum in terms of individual identities). But the gendered structures that radical feminism identified in the 1970s may have already become more complex and slippery in our postmodern world.

Surely, those most likely to understand these present-day structures are those oppressed by them the most. Feminists have long argued that due to their marginalised position, women have an unique perspective on how the world works. But feminists who are more privileged need to listen to others within our ranks when they tell us our own mindset is partial.

How can we appreciate the social construction of the gender binary without listening to people who live in the spaces in-between? And conversely, how can we fathom how deeply felt the binary can be without the help of those who know they have been assigned to the wrong side? How can we understand gendered objectification in isolation from those who handle it, in various ways, as part of their jobs? How can we debate how the sex industry should be regulated while ignoring people who work in it? And crucially, how can we understand and organise against gendered violence in isolation from those who are most at risk?

I have yet to come across a feminist who doesn’t have good intentions. Although our theories and methods differ, feminists of all stripes share a desire to make women’s lives better. But in order to do that, we need to listen to what all women have to say. Experience is not an end in itself – but we cannot theorise or organise in a vacuum or only in relation to our own personal stories, because in the eyes of the world some narratives – and some lives – matter more. This means that those of us who enjoy privilege have a lot to learn and a duty to refuse to see our own experience as universal.

Of course, it’s almost impossible to control or predict events sufficiently to guarantee completely safe spaces, and perhaps it would be dangerous to try. But it’s certainly possible – indeed essential – to create a welcoming atmosphere and a culture of zero tolerance around discrimination and abuse. A good place to start is to ensure that we centre and accept leadership from the women who can teach feminism the most. Trans women and sex workers should be marching at the front of the feminist bloc.

Alison Phipps is Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. You can follow her on Twitter at @alisonphipps

* of course, there are many trans people working in the sex industry so the separation of these two categories is in some ways arbitrary.

** intersex people, of course, call this term into question – which could be the subject of a whole article in itself.

Originally published in the New Statesman, 24th November 2014

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Laddism is not just a working class phenomenon

The world media cognoscenti have been on a crusade recently against a particular brand of misogyny. And their campaign has achieved some results. Controversial comedian Daniel O’Reilly just announced that he is retiring his “Dapper Laughs” character after footage emerged of him on stage describing a woman in the audience as “gagging for a rape”. This incident sparked an online petition signed by 60,000 people calling on ITV2 to decommission his show – which the channel subsequently did – and his UK tour was also cancelled.

Campaigners are hoping a similar fate will befall Julien Blanc, the US “pick up artist” whose seminars teach men to coerce women into sex. Blanc’s Australian tour was cut short after his visa was revoked in the wake of protests – an online petition is now urging the Home Office to deny him entry to the UK.

Censorship?

The furore in both these cases has prompted cries of censorship and accusations that the “chattering classes” are using their political clout against working-class culture. The first gripe is based on a basic misunderstanding of free speech. O’Reilly and Blanc have the right to hold forth in any space which will have them, but their opponents are also entitled to voice opinions, and TV companies and other organisations are allowed to decide not to give them a pulpit. This hardly makes them Mary Whitehouse.

But there’s no doubt that attempts to deny people like this a platform allow them to describe themselves as victims of “political correctness gone mad”. This bolsters their support and makes them appear much more credible than they actually are. Of course, it would be infinitely preferable if nobody watched Dapper Laughs or attended Blanc’s seminars in the first place – and we need to ask why they do.

Both defenders of and detractors from contemporary laddism have claimed that it is inherently proletarian. This is a facile and classist interpretation of sexist behaviour – and it not only feeds reactionary caricatures of the privileged woman who swoons at a joke, it also lets middle-class men off scot free.

The class war

This is not a “culture clash” between the cultivated and the puerile classes – the class war is at work in representations of working-class men as crass, crude and more misogynistic than the rest. The fight against sexism has been caught up in other social and political antagonisms, like the viral catcalling video in the US that edited out the white guys.

Blanc’s “boot camps” cost almost $3,000 – a price certainly not attainable for those in lower-paying jobs. “Lad culture” at universities is often the preserve of those at the top of the heap – rugby lads, members of elite drinking societies and debate teams.

This type of laddism can probably trace its lineage to Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club, recently immortalised in film in The Riot Club. The Bullingdon’s membership has boasted David Cameron, Boris Johnson and other famous toffs. At their informal gatherings women have been made to whinny on all fours while men brandish hunting horns and whips.

Hitting back

The Bullingdon and Dapper Laughs lads are all part of a broad cultural misogyny which currently has enormous power. It is connected to recent economic and social trends – recession, competition for jobs and resources and a backlash against increased gender equality. People have wondered why the “new sexism” is particularly attractive to the young – it’s partly because social media provides it with a nourishing pit of primordial ooze, but it’s also because young people of all genders are coming of age in the jaws of a competitive, individualistic neoliberalism.

There’s a reason why, alongside the rape joke, the most ubiquitous slogan of contemporary laddism is “make me a sandwich”. It’s a constant tussle out there, and one that women are believed to be winning. This means that some men feel the need to put them back in their place.

Gross sexism isn’t the only way to do that – women also face an ideology of “intensive motherhood” which makes us feel guilty if we can’t be “all in, all the time”, a “New Victorianism” which reclaims domesticity as the route to self-fulfilment, a bombardment of “brain science” arguing that men and women are indeed essentially different, and renewed threats to reproductive rights.

So the problem is much bigger than Dapper Laughs and Julien Blanc. Removing their platform to speak will not tackle it – we need to ask why people are listening and laughing in the first place. We all need to work together to create the kind of society in which the abuse of women is not hilarious. There are more positive models of masculinity out there, which should be supported and nurtured more widely. Otherwise we will soon be petitioning against another Dapper Laughs – because people still think he’s funny.

This article was published in The Conversation with a changed title.