Socialism and the Struggle for The Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men: 1995 Australian socialist resolution

From my former party, now defunct.

 

Socialism and the Struggle for The Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men

The Activist – Volume 5, Number 6, 1995

 
By Kath Gelber – 1995

[The general line of this report was adopted by the 16th National Conference of the Democratic Socialist Party on January 8, 1995.]

At our 15th National Conference, held last January, it was decided to draft a new party resolution on gay and lesbian rights. In the report on the revised edition of the party program, we assessed that there were a number of confusions and a lack of clarity among comrades on some of the contemporary issues being debated in the gay and lesbian movements.

We decided to draft a new resolution for a number of reasons.

Firstly, we noted that the language used in the resolution on gay and lesbian rights adopted by our 7th National Conference in January 1979 was outdated. In that resolution, we used the term “gay” to mean both gays and lesbians. As was explained in the introduction to the resolution when it was reprinted in pamphlet form in 1992, that was the terminology that was used in the gay and lesbian rights movement at the time. Since then, the term “gay” has come to be used to refer to male homosexuals.

Furthermore, in the new resolution we have referred to the gay and lesbian movements, reflecting the fact that the movement for gay rights and the movement for lesbian rights have developed differently. The lesbian movement emerged from within the women’s liberation movement as lesbians demanded visibility and their consciousness was raised around their oppression as women and as lesbians. This was different from gay men, who have often been in the forefront of struggles to eliminate anti-gay laws.

Strategy and tactics

In drafting a new resolution on the struggle for gay and lesbian rights, we also wanted to correct a political problem in the 1979 resolution which we had in fact noted at an NC meeting in March 1979, but which has not yet been corrected in a public document on gay and lesbian rights. This problem was evident even in the title of the earlier resolution: “A Revolutionary Strategy for Gay Liberation.” This suggested that we have some specific strategy for winning gay and lesbian rights, which is separate from our strategy for ending any other form of oppression. Our strategy for winning lesbian and gay rights is the same as our strategy for winning women’s liberation or for ending racial discrimination or environmental destruction. It’s the Leninist strategy of building a mass revolutionary workers’ party to mobilise the collective power of the working class and its potential allies to overthrow the capitalist government and replace it with a working people’s government. This is our strategy – our overall plan – for winning gay and lesbian rights.

In the 1979 document there is a confusion between our strategy for ending the oppression of lesbians and gay men and the tactics we advocate for building a movement that fights for the democratic rights of gay men and lesbians. Both of these become subsumed under the phrase “our mass action strategy.”

Mass actions – street marches, rallies, strikes, etc. – are tactics we use in building movements, the aim of which is to mobilise our class in anti-capitalist political action. Our strategy for ending the oppression of lesbians and gay men is to build a revolutionary party to mobilise the working class in mass actions to fight for political power. Building a movement fighting for the democratic rights of lesbians and gay men that relies on mass actions rather than lobbying capitalist politicians, is a tactic to facilitate the implementation of this strategy, to draw working people into independent political action.

Because we have applied the same general tactical line in each of the new social movements that arose out of the youth radicalisation of the 1960s – movements that arose outside the framework of the organised workers’ movement – we slipped into regarding it as our strategy. In the Perspectives Report adopted by the May 1979 meeting of the National Committee, Jim Percy pointed out that:

We developed a tactical line for our political work in the anti-war movement. That’s the first important movement that we become involved in. That’s where we developed, where our ideas developed, where our tactics developed. You must remember how the anti-war movement in this country began, with small committees largely outside the labour movement.

There were marches largely made up of students. As this movement grew to very large proportions it pulled in significant union support. But this union support was not a constant factor. It came out for the big mobilisations at certain critical points but again and again the movement was rebuilt by us posing the question, we need to build mass action, or demonstrations to be more precise.

Again, the women’s liberation movement developed largely outside the labour movement at first. Understanding the reality of the Australian labour movement, that’s no accident. The independent committees, the consciousness-raising groups, developed not in the trade unions, but outside them. We proposed the sort of actions we [had] proposed for the anti-war movement. We used the example of the anti-war movement to say that the women’s liberation movement can win its demands, can move ahead if we do the sorts of things we did in the anti-war movement such as organising the street marches. From a tactical line for the anti-war movement this became our “mass action strategy.” You can see it in resolution after resolution, document after document. At our last conference, our gay liberation resolution, for instance, referred to this “mass action strategy,” as we called it.

Jim Percy then read a passage from the old resolution:

The strength of the homosexual movement lies neither in influential “friends” nor in terrifying cops with flour-bombs, but in the power of masses of people determined to struggle for their rights. The gay movement can win only by relying on its strength: the hundreds of thousands of homosexuals who want an end to their oppression and the hundreds of thousands of “straights” who can be persuaded to support gay rights.

“The Socialist Workers Party therefore favors a strategy of mass action, of mobilising as many people as possible in demonstrations focussed on specific and uncompromising demands.

“Such mass actions are the best way to demonstrate and to increase the strength of the gay liberation movement.”

Jim Percy went on to point out that we generalised this tactical line for each of the social movements so that we slipped into a sort of poly-movementism, i.e., the way to overthrow capitalism began to be seen as adding one movement to another, with each employing mass actions. What eventually get’s left out, is the fact that none of these movements and struggles can really win their demands without the support of the organised workers’ movement.

But our tactical line for the anti-war movement, which began among students, was aimed at winning the support and involvement of the labour movement. And in fact, it was because the movement against the war in Vietnam began to draw support from the unions that it eventually won its central demand – withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. It was the capitalist rulers’ feared that union support and involvement in the anti-war movement would lead to a broader radicalisation of the working class as a whole, that led them to decide the political cost of keeping Australian troops in Vietnam was too high.

Our tactical line for the women’s liberation movement, which also began among students, had the same strategic goal. i.e., to win the support of and actively involve the organised workers’ movement in the struggle for women’s liberation. Recognising that the leadership of the organised labour movement was hostile to the struggle for women’s liberation, we sought to create the best conditions for drawing more and more workers into the struggle by building mass street marches around particular feminist demands. But over time, we started to slip into identifying this tactical line with our strategy. Protest marches began to be seen as a strategy for winning women’s liberation. United-front type coalitions to organise protest marches began to be seen as a strategy for winning not only women’s liberation, but for overcoming every form of oppression.

This kind of approach leads to other misconceptions; the implication that it is only women who should fight for women’s liberation, or it is only gay men and lesbians who should fight for gay and lesbian rights, which is also not our approach. We support building alliances, strengthening the anti-capitalist movement by taking on board all of the struggles of the oppressed as part of the fundamental transformation of society. This is based on an understanding of what social forces are capable of taking on the ruling class and winning; that the central social force in the struggle to end all forms of oppression is the working class. Through their daily experience of exploitation and oppression workers can learn that the only way to win a struggle is through cooperative unity in action, overcoming divisions based on race, sex and in the labour process between white and blue collar, skilled and unskilled and so on. That is, in order to defend their class interests workers are impelled to overcome the divisions forged or fostered by the ruling class to weaken the fighting strength of our class.

Only by winning the support of the working class as a whole can different oppressed social groups drive back discrimination and oppression, while at the same time moving towards a more fundamental transformation to rid society of the foundations on which such oppression is built.

Social weight and political centrality

This understanding therefore also clearly rejects any notion of a hierarchy of oppression; misleading debates about who is most oppressed. Such debates erect barriers to the building of the alliances necessary to strengthen the anti-capitalist movement. They are fundamentally divisive.

While we reject the notion of a hierarchy of oppression, what we do do, and we do this all the time in determining the priorities for our political work, is make a political assessment of the social weight of oppressed groups and the political importance of struggles against particular forms of oppression. How do we assess the social weight of different oppressed groups and the political importance of their struggles? We do it by looking at their relation to the tasks and line of march of the working class in its struggle for socialism.

For example, our party assesses the social weight and political importance of the struggle against women’s oppression as central to the working class in the struggle for socialism. This is not only because women are a majority in the world, although this is a major consideration. Women constitute a super-exploited section of the work force, and the largest section of the reserve army of labour – both of which are used by the capitalists to hold down the wages and working conditions of the working class as a whole. The working class can’t take state power without combating the discrimination the ruling class imposes upon half its membership, because this discrimination aims at keeping the working class divided, pitting one half of the working class against the other.

Moreover, the struggle against the oppression of women directly challenges the family, the basic socio-economic institution of class society. The struggle against women’s oppression poses a need to replace this fundamental institution, to socialise the tasks performed by women within the family. This poses a direct challenge to class society.

The oppression of gays and lesbians is a by-product of the oppression of women. This was the analysis we made the document adopted in 1979 and it remains our analysis today.

The oppression of lesbians and gay men has many manifestations. They have ranged from ignoring their existence to physical extermination in Nazi concentration camps in World War II. Lesbians and gay men have been subjected to servitude in forced labour camps, denial of their civil rights, assassination by death squads, censorship, imprisonment, castration, clitoridectomy, forced internment in psychiatric institutions, the barring of parents from raising their children, state hangings, dismissals from jobs and the military, shock therapy, family rejection, forced registration with the state, government-sanctioned torture, prison rape, threats of eternal damnation from religious leaders, evictions from churches, and random street violence.

But while there have been many different manifestations of the oppression of lesbians and gay men, homosexuality has not been a basis of systematic super-exploitation within the workforce. Lesbians and gay men do not play a special role in the system of capitalist exploitation of wage labour. While employers in a variety of jobs and professions discriminate against open lesbians and gay men, homosexuals as a group are not subject to the last-hired, first-fired, high-unemployment, low-pay pattern of a super-exploited section of the workforce. The oppression of homosexuality is not a comparable source of direct profits as the oppression of women. Lesbians and gay men are persecuted not for direct economic gain, but as part of the defence of the ideology which justifies the oppression of women through the family system. The social weight and political importance of the struggle against the oppression of lesbians and gay men is therefore less central to the line of march and tasks of the working class in its struggle for socialism than the struggle against women’s oppression.

The nature of lesbian and gay oppression

Lesbian and gay oppression is a result of repressive bourgeois sexual morality, which is an aspect of the ideology used to shore up the family.

Bourgeois sexual morality stigmatises any form of sexual activity that is outside the framework of heterosexual activity within the family for reproductive purposes. It is a fundamentally hypocritical morality. For example, women who are sexually active outside a monogamous relationship are castigated and scorned. Yet men who do the same are not. Women sex workers are criticised for working in their industry and regarded as morally wrong, yet none of this scorn is directed at their male clients.

In preparing this report the National Executive came to the conclusion that some formulations in the draft need to be changed to avoid unnecessary confusion. One is the use of the phrase “homosexuality challenges the ideology of the family.” This would more usefully be phrased “homosexuality contradicts the repressive sexual morality of the family,” that is, bourgeois sexual morality.

Bourgeois sexual morality says that homosexuality – which is clearly not for the purposes of reproduction – is wrong, that it’s an aberration, that it’s unnatural, it’s “against God’s will” and so on. So homosexuality does pose a challenge to this sexual morality.

But the ideology that is used to bolster the family system involves more than sexual morality. For example, it includes the idea that women should bear children and stay at home to care for them, that women should take responsibility for care of the young and the elderly and the sick. This includes the necessity of women staying home and not working, that women do not need economic independence. It asserts that women do not have the right to control their own fertility.

So to change the way we formulate this clarifies our position; homosexuality represents a contradiction to one aspect of the ideology used to buttress and support the family. It contradicts a central aspect of repressive bourgeois sexual morality, which stigmatises all sexual activity outside the framework of sexual relations between married heterosexual couples within the family directed toward the conception of children.

The struggle against lesbian and gay oppression, because it is a struggle against repressive bourgeois sexual morality, has a potentially anti-capitalist dynamic.

Homosexuality and homosexuals

This brings me to another point in the draft resolution that needs to be highlighted. There is a change in our theoretical analysis of the origins and nature of the oppression of gay men and lesbians.

In the document adopted in 1979 we put forward the view that the oppression of homosexuals is a permanent feature of class society. We did not make clear the distinction between homosexual acts, which have existed throughout history and throughout class society, and the identity of “the homosexual” – later gay man or lesbian – which only appears under capitalism.

The origin of homosexual oppression is as a by-product of the oppression of women in capitalist society. It is therefore crucial that we have an understanding of the origins and nature of women’s oppression. That is why we describe this in some detail in the resolution.

But in terms of when, historically, the oppression of homosexuals emerged, we make the point in this document that this is connected with the rise of capitalism. We say that “while homosexual activity has existed in a great diversity of social forms in many human societies, a category of people called homosexuals' has existed in almost none of them. The word homosexual was only coined in the 1860s in German, emerging in English in 1892. The creation of a specific person known asthe homosexual’ is a product of modern societies… Only in the last hundred years… long after capitalism was firmly established in the Netherlands, Britain, France and North America – have gay/lesbian identities emerged in their distinctively modern form.”

This was because capitalism provided – for the first time – the material conditions that made it possible for people engaged in same-sex activity to set up their personal relations on this basis.

Changing family structures and gender roles in the developing capitalist nations combined with industrialisation and urbanisation, created large numbers of people who were able to lead a more independent life outside the constraints of a feudal family structure. These urban communities, made up of new social classes (the capitalists, the urban middle classes and the working class) exercised a greater degree of economic independence and therefore greater possibilities for personal relationships emerged.

While capitalism created the material conditions to make it possible for people engaged in same-sex relationships to live outside of traditional family structures, this also meant that traditional family structures could be undermined. This was one of the contradictions for capitalism.

It was in this context that capitalism needed a repressive sexual morality to tell people that this was wrong, unnatural or evil. Combined with this ideological onslaught there emerged the first anti-homosexual laws. These laws still exist in many places today, and even in areas where the gay and lesbian movement has been able to repeal such laws, repressive sexual morality continues to play its role in promoting homosexuality as wrong or unnatural.

This analysis of the origin of homosexual oppression represents a major change in our theoretical approach. For this reason, a large amount of descriptive material dealing with this point has been included in the resolution. This theoretical analysis is based on factual information which is not readily available. Providing this information in the resolution clarifies for comrades why we have taken this theoretical position.

Other material not widely available or common knowledge has been included in the resolution for purposes of clarification of the political points. For example, the increased lesbian content and the information about the development of the lesbian and gay rights movements in Australia.

This is a programmatic document: it provides comrades with the political framework and analysis for understanding the nature and character of the oppression of lesbians and gay men, and how to fight it. The resolution provides comrades with a framework to understand the debates that exist in the lesbian and gay movements, and our position on them.

In this sense it’s not a conjunctural document, i.e., we haven’t included events that are specific to the current period and don’t help our analysis or understanding, although some of these issues will come up in the report and discussion today.

I want to move on now to discussing some of the sections in the resolution, dealing with some of the debates and confusions in the movements that have emerged since 1979. These form a major part of the new resolution. Clarity on these questions is needed by our comrades, if we are to effectively intervene in the movements. Some of the confusions that reign have, understandably, filtered into the party and have meant there is a degree of confusion within our own ranks.

Identity politics

One of the biggest confusions stems from identity politics, which is very widespread in the lesbian and gay communities; the notion that “identifying” as lesbian or gay, that coming out and being out is a radical political act.

In historical terms the assertion of a homosexual identity has only recently been seen as a political act. Earlier in the development of the movements, “coming out” was an act of defiance, a refusal to accept the social constraints of the day. It broke the rules. Today, while this may in certain specific instances still be true, that is limited. To “come out” today is much less an act of defiance than it once was. And not only is it less an act of defiance, but the logic of identity politics is that that’s all you have to do to be radical. You don’t need to do any more. Being “out” is enough.

The logic of this position is that just being a lesbian or a gay man is radical; that it’s a radical act, a politically progressive act.

We don’t agree with this. We don’t think it’s any more radical to be gay or lesbian that it is to be a woman, or to be black, or to be a wage worker. Being oppressed is not a radical political act. Joining in common action with others to fight oppression is.

Certainly, the recognition of oppression is an essential step is the development of political movements against that oppression. But by itself, recognition of oppression is not a radical political act. This is one of the limitations of identity politics. It does not have a logic of advocating getting involved in a political movement to struggle for the rights of lesbians and gay men. On the contrary, its logic is that you can change society through individual acts, through coming out or even just engaging in same-sex relationships. Ultimately, identity politics is an expression of petty-bourgeois liberalism. This has obvious limitations in the light of what I discussed earlier in the report about our strategy for combating the oppression of lesbians and gay men, our strategy for fundamental social change.

Identity politics therefore seeks to build a movement on the basis of personal choice and individual lifestyle. It draws on the understandable situation under capitalism where, on a social level, gays prefer to live, socialise and work with other gays and the same goes for lesbians. As a political party we don’t take a position on any person’s individual choices about who they prefer to socialise with.

Identity politics attempts, though, to create a movement based on these social ties rather than on political ties, on common political views. It advocates that, for example, a movement for gay liberation should be composed only of gay men, rather than being composed of all those who politically support gay liberation. Or that a a movement against the oppression of lesbians should be composed exclusively of lesbians, rather than of all those who support the struggle against the oppression of lesbians.

An example of the limitations of identity politics is the recent furore in Sydney over Oxford Street, the so-called “gay mile.” In fact, this debate has shown how identity politics lead to reactionary, anti-democratic ideas. Oxford Street contains a large number of gay owned and/or what are now called “gay-friendly” businesses. That means capitalists who have realised they can make money out of a ghettoised community. Some of these capitalists are themselves gay and they publicise this fact because they believe it will give them an edge in a competitive market. And in many senses they’re right. Other capitalists dress themselves up as gay-friendly, they stick pink triangle “Safe Place” stickers in the window of their businesses, they offer 10% discounts to members of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, they put a float in the Mardi Gras parade, or they provide some minimal sponsorship to a community event. There are other ways of proving their gay friendliness, but basically they promote a business to the gay and lesbian communities in the hope that it will become trendy. They usually charge exorbitant prices for their goods and services too. It’s a niche market.

Recently a debate was started when the South Sydney Council, which controls one side of Oxford Street, proposed a refurbishment and zoning plan to upgrade the area and attract “gay” businesses. Included in the proposal was its reverse side; venues “that would be likely to attract people likely to be perpetrators of violence” would not be permitted to set up in the area. That is, businesses that people like the lobby groups feel will attract young heterosexual men, will be disallowed. The Council which controls the other side of the street opposes the plan. Commentators from the gay and lesbian community have had a mixed response. It has been claimed in the gay and lesbian media that doing this represents positive discrimination, or affirmative action for gays and lesbians. One of the phrases quoted was, “there’s nothing wrong with discrimination per se.”

The rationale is to control violence against lesbians and gay men on the street – and this is a real and escalating problem. But of course any push to control the entry of new businesses into the area caters nicely to the profit margins of the capitalists already situated in Oxford Street.

In this debate, some of the lobby groups have supported the proposal to exclude supposedly inappropriate businesses from the area. In their comments and the coverage in the gay press, gay capitalists have been portrayed virtually as automatic representatives of the majority of gays and lesbians as a group, who like the rest of the population are working class.

The social causes of anti-gay and anti-lesbian violence are not discussed or examined. The question of who benefits from anti-gay and anti-lesbian violence is sidestepped, and therefore the question of who can be won as political allies to a movement demanding an end to such violence is not taken up, or understood. This means that heterosexuals are seen as the enemy – on the basis of their identity as heterosexuals.

These views are being expressed by some people in the community who see themselves as the spokespeople for all gays and lesbians. This of course is not the case. Most gays and lesbians are not part of the “gay and lesbian community.”

This approach – of excluding some young heterosexuals from Oxford Street – attempts to solve the very real problem of violence against gays and lesbians by ghettoising the community even further and segregating gays and lesbians from heterosexuals. There is no room for any alliance with heterosexuals who support gay and lesbian rights.

In fact, this issue hasn’t only been the result of identity politics. It has also been framed by its logical extension – separatism.

Gay and lesbian separatism

In the gay and lesbian “communities” separatism is expressed in a variety of forms ranging from lesbian separatist feminists to rich gay men who don’t want women coming to their bars.

Separatism has been a phenomenon in the feminist movement since the second wave. Feminist separatism is based on an analysis of the origins and nature of women’s oppression which identifies men – individually and collectively – as the enemy. Women are subordinated because of men’s manipulation of women’s sexuality and their reproductive role, especially through the use of violence and rape. The primary oppression of women is then generalised to the creation and maintenance by men of all other divisions and inequalities in human society.

Separatists therefore advocate separating from men as a strategy for women’s liberation. You’re therefore not a “real” feminist if you have dealings with men or are not celibate or lesbian.

This current still has its advocates in the lesbian feminist movement, and a recent controversy that has emerged in Sydney illustrates this very well.

A couple of years ago a project called the Lesbian Space Project (now called Lesbian Space Inc.) was launched. The idea was to raise money to buy a centre for lesbians. The fundraising began in earnest long before the specific politics of the project were publicly discussed. The project was advocated in the name of “coalitionism.” The general gay community was asked to donate money to the project, and by doing so they were supporting lesbians and therefore helping to build a coalition. The definition of this kind of coalition work was respecting each others’ rights. This included respecting each others’ right to political independence. Gay men were asked to show their support for coalitionism, and prove they were not sexist, by donating to a project that they were never to be allowed to participate in.

By this logic, the whole notion of political independence of a movement fighting against gay and lesbian oppression became equated with being socially separate; political independence for the lesbian movement has become synonymous with having a space that no-one else is allowed to have anything to do with, but they are expected to support it – especially financially.

When we talk about a movement retaining its political independence, e.g., the women’s liberation movement, we mean it is a movement organised and led by those who are subjected to a particular form of oppression that that movement is fighting against and that it does not subordinate this struggle to the needs and concerns of capitalist politicians. Separatists, on the other hand, confuse political independence with social separateness – and demand their right to do so in the name of “coalitionism.”

This has been the experience in regard to lesbian separatists and the Lesbian Space Project. Recently, the project has been the focus of a heated debate fueled by a group calling itself the Autonomous Lesbian Movement. This group stacked out meetings of the LSP with proxy votes from interstate and voted to ban male to female transsexuals who identify as lesbians from the LSP. This approach was justified as follows:

We are feminist lesbians who identify and define lesbian as female-born. We take an autonomous and proactive position both in defining ourselves, and in our intention to set our agenda according to our own perspective, beliefs and requirements, and not according to those of any other political or social agenda… In recent times there has been a push by lesbian identified male to female tranies to enter into lesbian community and redefine our politics… The fact that lesbian space is in jeopardy, clearly demonstrates the dominant social power of even a small minority of male born people to define themselves as “woman” and “lesbian.”

The LSP organisers claim these tranies deny their claim to the existence of real differences between men and women and force lesbians to accept that female-born bodies “are equivalent to male bodies with some surgically constructed female parts.” The LSP organisers announced after a “community consultation” meeting to only accept as members “lesbian identified women who are born female.”

Queer politics

The separatist group Autonomous Lesbian Movement claims they have formed in response to queer politics, to “reclaim feminism.” Historically, the development of the queer movement was the reverse of this. It followed on from separatism as a reaction to it. Queer politics was based on the idea that anyone interested in or involved in unconventional sexual activity, identity or even dress and appearance, could be part of a so-called queer movement which challenged “straight” heterosexual behavior. It claimed to be inclusive and open, reacting against the separatism and/or identity politics that had been such a big part of the politics of the gay and lesbian “communities.”

Queer political theorists were criticising gay and lesbian identity politics for being not radical enough, for not challenging gender stereotypes. They claimed gay and lesbian identity politics relied on a so-called polar view of sexuality, i.e., that a person is either heterosexual or homosexual. They claimed that under the banner of queer it was possible to unite broad layers of people suffering sexual repression, and that this was in fact a more radical position than traditional identity politics.

In the end, queer politics became the ultimate in identity politics – under a new name. It advocated the adoption of a new, radical identity – the identity of queer which was claimed to be a more progressive identity than that of gay or lesbian, as well as being inclusive of bisexuals, transsexuals, cross-dressers, S/Mers and others engaging in unconventional sexual activity.

Queer politics remained inside the framework of identity politics with all its limitations. Queer politics claimed to solve questions of oppression by virtue of a new label. It advocated unity not on the basis of political agreement around demands directed against discriminatory social practices or a struggle for democratic rights. Membership of queer groups is defined by who you are, what your sexual practices are. In this sense it has the same problems as identity politics – a unity based not on political agreement, but on social ties, with all the limitations that implies.

Queer politics was particularly appealing for bisexuals who had been involved in the gay and lesbian movements for years, often in the forefront of many struggles. Yet due to the combination of identity politics and separatism in the movements, bisexuals were often excluded; branded as “sleeping with the enemy,” or unable to make up their minds because they participate in both heterosexual and same sex relationships. Queer politics provided a framework within which bisexuals could “come out” and not be excluded by gay and lesbian political activists.

Bisexuals suffer particular forms of social prejudice in the gay and lesbian communities as well as in society as a whole, e.g., bisexuals have been blamed for transmitting HIV to heterosexuals or into the lesbian community, by placing people at higher risk. However, there is no institutionalised inequality or discrimination which is specific only to bisexuals.

Many people who engage in so-called unconventional expressions of sexuality encounter prejudicial attitudes. These are a product of repressive bourgeois sexual morality, as outlined earlier in this report. We are against such morality; we are against the interference of the state and society in sexual relations and we are opposed to social prescriptions of any particular forms of sexuality, except in instances where someone is injured or coerced. However, not all those who encounter prejudicial attitudes to their sexual practices are necessarily subject to oppression, i.e., to a systematic material relation of inequality.

Queer politics, however, fails to differentiate between oppression, i.e., social relations of inequality and discrimination, and individual prejudices because of its lack of political focus and its reliance on a social milieu. This can lead to confusion over the kinds of prejudice and oppression bisexuals face. Bisexuals are not subject to any specific form of bisexual oppression. Bisexuals are oppressed only insofar as they express same-sex desire, or engage in same-sex relationships. Social prejudice against bisexuals is a by-product of bourgeois sexual morality’s stigmatisation of homosexuality.

Queer politics has some other drawbacks. Taken to its own logic, queer politics has the potential to be inclusive of coercive and non-consensual sexual behavior, such as paedophilia.

Queer politics also lends itself to notions of a hierarchy of sexuality – those who are most developed sexually are those who identify as sexually fluid, not either heterosexual or homosexual.

However, the key problem with the queer politics perspective, and the one that we want to edit the draft resolution to highlight, is its attempt to substitute a movement based on social ties of “unconventionality” in sexual identity for a movement based on political agreement to fight against concrete manifestations of oppression based on people’s sexual practice, i.e., the oppression of lesbians and gay men.

Lobbyism

Another area I want to look at is in relation to the limitations that exist for us to do work in the gay and lesbian movements is the domination of the lobbyist perspective.

As with other social movements, the perspective of lobbying, or working within the framework of the capitalist parliamentary system, has won a lot of ground. Overwhelmingly the gay and lesbian rights groups that exist work within this framework.

The ALP’s dominance in the lobbying arena is very strong. Many of the community organisations reflect this – Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby for example. As a result, we have limited allies in the movement. The opportunities to build an independent movement that will involve everyone who supports the democratic rights of lesbians and gay men are very limited. Radical sections of the movement are in decline.

One example of the degree of ALP manoeuvring is the recent announcement by Susan Harben of her ALP candidacy for the inner city Sydney seat of Bligh. Harben is a very high profile lesbian, and ex-president of Mardi Gras. The seat is currently held by an independent, Clover Moore – self-styled champion of the gay community. She introduced the anti-vilification legislation and has been marching at Mardi Gras for many years. Harben represents the best chance the ALP has to win back the pinkest seat in Australia. Harben is the first public lesbian candidate.

Discussion so far in the letters columns of the gay press has centred on issues of personal loyalty, for example, how “Clover has done a lot for the community so we should keep on supporting her,” versus how “Susan is a lesbian who works hard in the community and deserves our support.” The magazine Lesbians on the Loose has openly endorsed Harben’s candidacy, on the basis not of her politics, but because she is a lesbian. They say “endorsing Susan is about congratulating her about the courage of her lesbian convictions,” and “We want out lesbian MPs in major political parties that govern in Australia.” She is drawing heavily on identity politics for her support. The question of her membership of the ALP and the ALP’s record on fighting against the oppression of lesbians is avoided.

Our tasks

In conclusion, the most effective way for us to get involved in the gay and lesbian movements at the moment is to use Green Left Weekly, to increase our propaganda work. We need more articles taking up these debates. This resolution is aimed at politically arming comrades for these debates. The biggest obstacle at present to winning gays and lesbians to our perspectives for building an independent movement fighting for lesbian and gay rights is the ideological confusion that exists within the movements. We need to be clear ourselves.

We want to publish the resolution in book form, with a more popular title. We want to have launches in the branches for the book, hold forums on it and workshops. We want to promote it as a key tool for our interventions into the gay and lesbian movements, use it to promote a higher level of debate on issues within the movements today. This book will provide a very useful tool for us overall in our work of integration, education and intervention.

The published pamphlet which contained a version of this resolution:

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Connecting the attacks on abortion access and the attacks on our bodies

Speech given at Reclaim the Night Perth 2013

The connection between domestic violence and the attacks on women’s crisis services and on abortion access is something the organising committee wanted to draw out, and it’s linked to why we are having a women-only march tonight.

 

It’s become more forbidden for women to do anything by ourselves. (Have you noticed that even in feminism, any rare, female-only activities are seen as unfair to men?) And this has been accompanied by physical attacks on us, attacks on our legal rights to bodily autonomy, attacks on our crisis services, and fewer accessible abortion services. If we do anything by ourselves or press for rights for ourselves, this is increasingly treated as an imposition on others’ rights, even though a central part of our oppression is the denial of autonomy over our own bodies and lives. So the organising committee feels that standing up for women’s rights to be and act by ourselves is an important part of this event.

 

In New South Wales, politicians are trying to push through a law giving rights to foetuses of at least 20 weeks’ gestation. ‘Foetal personhood’ stands in opposition to women’s rights, because either a woman’s bodily integrity is all that matters, and women have rights over ourselves which aren’t contradicted by others’ so-called rights, or we don’t. The bill is ostensibly in response to a tragic case in which a woman in a road accident lost her pregnancy, although some legal experts say that the current laws already deal sufficiently with such cases. Certainly there are other ways in which women’s reproductive freedoms aren’t supported, but it’s possible to support women’s rights to not have our pregnancy interfered with by enhancing the rights of women – it’s the only way.

 

In fact what we need to do is continue the pro-choice battle so that no-one is considered to have the right to interfere with our pregnancy against our will, whether it be an abuser we know or the state which denies us either terminations or support with our pregnancies. That’s the framing we need – that no-one should interfere with our pregnancy against our will. Not that foetuses should have rights.

 

Right now we mostly lack the full legal or technical right to choose – a lot of Australians think that abortion has been fully decriminalised here and that it’s readily accessible. In fact, you’d be lucky to find anywhere in Australia where there aren’t impediments of some kind to accessing abortion – in some cases it’s the cost, but in many, there are simply no abortion services that women can access in their area.

 

Now we’re seeing this further attack, which arbitrarily declares that a foetus past 20 weeks’ gestation becomes a person. It’s unscientific and purely ideological – will certainly make life much harder for women, especially since New South Wales law still has abortion on the criminal code – but we’re being asked to swallow this as being for women’s benefit.

 

This move to open up the ‘foetal rights’ issue gives the green light to other reactionary elements to try policing women’s reproductive decisions. It reinforces misogyny and male control over women’s bodies generally, including the domestic violence and sexual abuse we’re protesting against, where most perpetrators are males (at least 93% of rapists are male), and most victims are women and girls.

 

What are some of the direct connections between domestic violence and the removal of women’s reproductive autonomy?

 

A California study done a few years ago on 16-29-year-old women, found that when women “experienced both reproductive coercion and male partner violence, the risk of unintended pregnancy doubled”. Other findings included:

  • “Approximately one in five young women said they experienced pregnancy coercion”
  • “More than a third of the women who reported partner violence — 35 percent — also reported either pregnancy coercion or birth control sabotage.”

 

In 31 states in the US, rapists can have custody rights over children that are a product of their rape. This means an additional way in which raping a woman gives that man power over her for life. Imagine the impact on a woman, of being forced to maintain ties, and engage in periodic negotiations, with your rapist, for the next few decades at least while your child matures.

 

US women have faced continual attacks on their rights and safety in most states, including the intimidation of having Tea Party representatives drumming up aggression against women by declaring that impregnated rape victims who abort should be jailed for as long as their rapists.

 

In Ecuador, the criminal sanctions on abortion make it so unsafe that abortion has become the leading cause of death or injury to women there. It is illegal for anyone without a mental disability to access it, even girls. As a demonstration of the link here between this prohibition and the enforced subjugation of women within the male-female sexual relations, President Rafael Correa has said he will veto any moves to allow even raped women to get abortions, and threatened to resign if his allies in the National Assembly decriminalised abortion.

 

Determining women’s reproductive and parenting decisions is a key way in which many women experience both our society, and our male partners, benefitting themselves at women’s expense.

 

There’s a reason why we’ve seen the recent increases in attacks on both funding for women’s crisis services – and these have been global attacks, not restricted to Australia – and on abortion access.

 

Wherever we are in the world, the stronger the systemic reliance on sex roles in which the woman is the chief domestic worker and child-rearer, the more we will be denied autonomy over our bodies, whether that be rape and other abuse by males close to us, or birth control sabotage, or the refusal of the state to provide affordable, legal and accessible abortion.

 

These issues are closely linked and we need to address both male entitlement to and control over our bodies, and the economic system of capitalism which relies on these gendered power structures. And the more crises capitalism experiences, the more it relies on the hierarchy of the sexes.

 

Capitalism has increasingly relied on the subjugation of women within the hetero family unit to ensure free provision of welfare, and free child-rearing – free reproduction of the next generation of workers. So it’s always in its interests to encourage male power over women, and to give only tokenistic support to addressing male-pattern violence against us.

 

When religious interests try boosting the idea of ‘foetal rights’, this ties in with the conservative view of motherhood as divine/natural. It casts women’s domestic drudgery as also being divine and natural, rather than a product of our oppression. It also creates an ahistorical view of abortion as a product of late capitalism and secularism, whereas late capitalism has in fact seen greater restrictions on abortion than used to exist in many countries, including those which were predominantly Christian.[1]

 

When looking at how we fight this, we need to remember these structural reasons for the continued attacks on our bodily autonomy, because it’s not just about fighting conservative views; it also needs to be about ending a system that props itself up by oppressing women. And political parties that represent the capitalist class can’t be looked to as a solution – the Australian Labor Party, for instance, has been in government so many times in its existence, but continually refuses to make abortion fully decriminalised and accessible. It’s important that we don’t let it off the hook by describing it as ‘gutless’ – the fact is that it’s just not designed to represent women, but instead the capitalist class. It’s not our saviour; we need to look to ourselves as an organised group. The oppressed, organising by ourselves on mass, are the only agents that have ever forced real change, and we’re the only ones that can create a new system.


Reclaim the Night! Reclaim our lives!

[1] ‘Scarlet Letters: Getting the History of Abortion and Contraception Right’, by Ranana Dine, is a fascinating account of abortion accessibility and attitudes in the USA in early and middle-capitalism. It indicates various factors as leading to the restrictions on abortion, citing:

changing social, class, and family dynamics in the early 19th century. Americans in the Victorian era thought abortion was a problem brought on by upper-class white women, who were choosing to start their families later and limit their size. Increased female independence was also perceived as a threat to male power and patriarchy, especially as Victorian women increasingly volunteered outside the home for religious and charitable causes.

During the mid-19th century, American physicians also began to battle “irregular” doctors, such as homeopaths and midwives, in an attempt to assert the authority and legitimacy of male-dominated scientific medicine. To tackle these irregular doctors, the “scientific” physicians attacked legal abortion because it was midwives and other “unscientific” medical practitioners who safely performed the procedure. White men were also concerned by shifting ethnic and racial dynamics in the United States, worrying that the low birthrate of the white upper class would lead to racial inferiors and un-American immigrants overrunning the country.

Together, a coalition of male doctors backed by the American Medical Association, the Catholic Church, and sensationalist newspapers began to campaign for the criminalization of abortion. By the turn of the century, this coalition had largely succeeded in limiting women’s medical choices.

Leftist men are not born to lead radical struggles [A response to John Pilger and the sex hierarchy trivialisers]

A piece I recently wrote touching on some problematic responses to female oppression and feminism on the political Left, the recent discussions about an alleged ‘crisis of masculinity’ and the importance of a solid materialist analysis of female oppression.

Previously published at The Left Side of Feminism, The North Star, Information Clearing House and ZNet.

Ginny Brown

What do women hit by the latest austerity and misogynist attacks need? Not another reminder by men that feminists are white with middle-class politics, as John Pilger’s recent piece seemed to imply. Nor do women need being set up as aloof, proletariat-dividing essentialists who think men are inherently violent.

We don’t need a chip-on-the-shoulderish, misplaced complaint that ‘there is a war on ordinary people and feminists are needed at the front’, as Pilger’s response went to the recent media commentary – ranging from misogynist violence, to greater male suicidality and criminality, to derision of TV dads – about a ‘crisis of masculinity‘. Any generals worth their salt see the entire terrain of war and don’t dismiss half of it as either privileged or nonexistent. Nor do they reduce specific attacks – waged on half ‘their own side’ and participated in by others ‘on their side’ – to the general conditions experienced by all soldiers.

Women worldwide lack sexual and reproductive autonomy and perform most unpaid care tasks, despite neoliberal rhetoric about ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’.

The current social and political attacks we face are not simply the attacks borne by male workers, but attacks that exacerbate this female-specific pattern of oppression – centered on the family unit – so vital to capitalism.

This is not helped by a leftist man stepping in to write off global rape culture as ‘a rash of dreadful murder and kidnap cases’, even with the dismissive addendum that ‘simultaneous war and “austerity” policies have exacerbated all kinds of abuse, including domestic violence’ and the racial impoverishment of women. It is not good enough to mention that women have it bad, while failing to say why these attacks target and impact women the most, as if women were simply unlucky.

As Indian marxist feminist Kavita Krishnan recently wrote:

Sexual violence cannot be attributed simply to some men behaving in ‘anti-social’ or ‘inhuman’ ways: it has everything to do with the way society is structured: i.e., the way in which our society organizes production and accordingly structures social relationships.

While Pilger protests at class analysis being suppressed in ‘media-run “conversations” on gender’, the reality is that his economic reductionism feeds into men’s blinkers about their privilege. Privilege that tends to make them more supportive of female oppression, and more inclined to ignore its inter-relations with class.

Capitalism inherited and expanded the system of male dominance that’s achieved at female expense, in which females are considered at least partly men’s property. If you think this is inaccurate, consider the endurance of rape jokes and of sexual harassment – and who has the power in these scenarios. Consider the infrequency of rapists ever being punished, even by their social circles. (Typically, the man accused of rape is considered the victim who has had his life ruined, and the real victim receives social punishment in addition to trauma.) More than four out of five victims of sexual assault are women and girls, and 93% of their attackers are male, mostly known to the victims. 98% of sexual trafficking victims are female. The social pressure on women to birth and rear is added to by direct reproductive coercion by male partners and the state. The World Health Organization reported in 2002 that up to 70% of ‘female murder victims were killed by their husbands or boyfriends‘, whereas studies show killings by female current or former spouses to be less than 10% of all male murders. In Australia, a 2008 report explained, ‘intimate partner violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15 to 44 …. Four out of five [intimate partner homicides] involve a man killing his female partner’.

This massive tally doesn’t need to implicate all men in order for it to play an important role in giving males power and privilege over us, especially via hetero relations, making them more satisfied with the status quo.

While Pilger sneeringly disparages any mention of the very different efforts that men and women put into opposing female oppression as being about who sounds most outraged on Twitter, one wishes he would pay attention to what most feminists are saying and doing before offering us advice.

As Krishnan further explained, the recent attacks on women are reducible to neither gender-neutral austerity measures nor happenstance:

we are witnessing a global cutback in [] social spending. Any State that pursues such policies, needs to persuade women to accept the burden of housework as ‘women’s work’, and to dissuade women from rejecting traditional roles. It is notable that some of the worst rape culture remarks by US Republican Senators (who could compete with India’s patriarchal lawmakers in misogyny) have been made recently to promote arguments against the right to abortion.

The enormous resistance to,and organized reaction against conceding the right to abortion or same-sex marriage in the US is an instance of how much the capitalist class still invests in the family institution and the control of women’s sexuality and reproduction within it ….

primitive accumulation by multi-national corporations that grab land, minerals and other resources in India, is not only, as Prabhat Patnaik correctly notes, a source of corruption, it also unleashes state repression and sexual violence against women who are the forefronts of movements against corporate land grab.

The global upswing in gender violence (including sexual violence and domestic violence) and misogynistic rape culture, ought then to be traced at least in part to the imperatives of global capitalism and imperialism and their local agents, to justify an increased burden of social reproduction for women, the availability of women from the former colonies as pliant labour, and rape as a weapon against people’s movements resisting primitive accumulation.

The fear of violence contributes to disciplining women into suitable labourers, both for global production as well as reproduction. That is why the abusive husband and the rapist cannot be understood as isolated perpetrators who are ‘anti-social’ aberrations that pose a threat to the system. It is no coincidence that perpetrators of gender violence find powerful advocates (not just in India but across the world) in the misogynistic and rape culture statements by the custodians of the political, religious, and law-and-order institutions.

It is also no mark of support for women that Pilger’s article wrongly blames three individual women for attributing sexual violence to all men. The contexts of the quotations chosen by Pilger make his claims seem inexcusable. Suzanne Moore specified that she doesn’t think all men are rapists, and Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley’s May 12 Guardian Letters formulation of ‘male sexual violence’ was immediately followed by their comment ‘gendered behaviour is culturally shaped. It could be addressed by many social measures, if only policy-makers willed it’.

So although Pilger presumably doesn’t think ‘trade union bureaucracy’(another phrase from his article) means all unionists are bureaucrats, he nonetheless thinks ‘male sexual violence’ is intended to describe all males, even where feminists explicitly say otherwise.

Importantly, Pilger is not displaying eccentricity here, but is echoing a growing habit amongst left sexists for deploying different criteria for political assessments of feminism than other radical struggles. Feminist women constantly find ourselves held to a different standard – by men who appear not to understand female oppression – than other activists. This includes ‘mishearing’ our analyses, as Jennie Ruby describes in her Off Our Backs article ‘Male Pattern Violence’:

There seems to be a kind of statistical dyslexia that people get when feminists start talking about male violence. The statement ‘Most violent crimes are committed by men’ is often misheard as ‘most men are violent,’ or even with a kind of gender dyslexia, as ‘women are never violent.’

It is also too common for anti-feminists (in or out of the closet) to characterize all feminism – but not other anti-oppression struggles – by its sections which are most beholden to the interests of the capitalist class. And to invisibilize feminist critics of capitalist-serving female politicians, as Pilger does. (Many of us have not just criticized but also organized against such ‘leaders’, who do indeed falsely portray capitalist interests as beneficial to women.) His apparent pitting of workers’ rights against feminism is in ignorance of the best radical class struggle traditions of opposing such false divisions. And his selective highlighting of a small segment of feminism echoes the longstanding invisibilization of the majority of feminists – who are working class and women of color.

While Pilger’s hurt at feminists daring to discuss male-pattern sexual violence somehow reminds him – because it helps denigrate all feminists, I assume – ‘of the elevation of Australian prime minister Julia Gillard to feminist hero following a speech she gave last October attacking Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, for his misogyny’, his criticism of the politics of prominent female Labour MPs is not off-base. They, like their party’s men, are acting for the capitalist class, and women’s liberation requires that we combat illusions in them.

However, persuading women to discard misplaced hopes in pro-capitalist politicians is not a task best undertaken by a rape myth promoter, a role for which Pilger has received increasing feminist criticism. The sexism of left men in fact has a history of exacerbating a tragic antagonism between gender and class analyses, and I have not seen Pilger’s latest article alter this.

how can left men solidarize with women?

You want to help women? Signal-boost grassroots struggle and anti-capitalist leadership by us. Serious attempts to boost struggles of the most oppressed women don’t ignore some of the most inspiring recent struggles led by women – the Indian movement against rape culture and the Canadian Indigenous-led Idle No More. Actively support feminist campaigns. Don’t act as though we’re waiting for a man to direct us. Ignoring genuine leadership in order to pose as the general is unfitting for a leftist man.

Don’t employ sexist myths about us. The main myth used to undermine feminism is that women who consciously struggle for the rights of girls and women as a sex (sometimes known as ‘feminists’) are motivated either by the view that male-pattern violence is biologically determined, or by a simple antipathy to men which preceded our own experiences and analysis.

This seems to be a habit of Pilger’s. In addition to his repetition of rape myths, he has not only just begun portraying feminists as simply opposed to men. Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley have now been unfortunate enough to be twice misrepresented by Pilger. In December 2011, Pilger claimed that a Guardian article by them on the costs of masculinity (a little too pro-capitalist for me, but deserving of being discussed accurately) argued that ‘testosterone was the problem’. Compare this charge with what they wrote:

As the British Medical Journal recently pointed out, this life-damaging gender difference must be challenged by addressing the culture of masculinity that sustains them. How men and women behave is socially shaped. Popular understandings of masculine characteristics play up biology. Testosterone, the male hormone, the “metaphor of manhood”, is portrayed as driving men inexorably towards aggressive behaviour. Yet studies show that testosterone is related to status-seeking but not directly to aggression. Many other factors are influential. Testosterone levels are increased or diminished in both males and females by diet, activity and circumstance. The opportunity to interact with guns, for instance, appears to increase testosterone, while men’s testosterone levels fall when they are involved with the care of children.

The case we are making is that certain widespread masculine traits and behaviours are dangerous and costly both to individuals and society. They are amenable to purposeful change. The culture of masculinity can be, and should be, addressed as a policy issue.

This does not read as a genuine misinterpretation. In addition to its sexism, it is terrible journalism.

whataboutery

Another tactic used by some left sexists is colloquially known amongst feminists as ‘whataboutery’. Deriding activism and even discussion about issues particularly affecting females, whatabouterists chest-beat about the matters that feminists should instead concern ourselves with. (Pilger, for instance, trivializes the long silence about the sexual abuse of children – often girls – by UK men in powerful positions, including in popular entertainment, by implying that any feminist commentary on this and recent rape and murder cases is indicative of a failure to care about class or imperialism.)

This ‘whataboutery’ usually displays an embarrassing ignorance about which issues are already feminist concerns, and fails as an argument against feminist involvement in the issues targeted by the ‘whataboutery’. The impossibility of achieving female liberation under capitalism does not alter the urgency of addressing sex-specific female needs, like reproductive justice. Organizing around female oppression frequently makes for more effective anti-capitalist struggle, and lack of said organizing maintains the shackles and hierarchical divisions that support capitalism. As the Cuban experience shows, feminist organizing remains necessary post-capitalism. Feminist history includes both support for capitalist misleaders and support for workers’ revolution. Targeting only those oppressive dynamics which affect both men and women is not only undermining to the working class, it is trivializing the oppression experienced by over half of this class.

These common problems on the left partly explain Pilger’s dismissal of male-pattern sexual violence and his portrayal of austerity policies as the problem. (‘Austerity’ is a policy of big capital to adjust to the post-60s decline in the average rate of profit, and to make the working class pay for the latest capitalist-created crises.) Even where Pilger has to acknowledge that war and austerity policies have made ‘domestic violence’ worse, he fails to explain why this problem is worst for women. If he listened to the women who began the women’s crisis services now being increasingly defunded, and to women experiencing the sharper end of the imperialist sword, he would know that it is not about gender-neutral ‘domestic violence’ which is exacerbated by very current conditions, but male-pattern violent reinforcement of the sex hierarchy. A pattern in which working women may be especially impacted, as Krishnan comments:

For the men, insecure education and jobs do lead to cracks in the secure foundations of masculinity. One response to this crisis of masculinity is of course in the display of masculine protectionism, aggression, the ‘Save Family’ type of patriarchal backlash, and outright sexual violence.

But also a pattern which, she reminds us, exists across economic classes.

Given the longstanding problems on the left of (mostly) male workers failing to see female oppression as important, suggesting that feminists are not ‘ordinary people’ is regrettable. As is any suggestion that feminists need to be told that many common capitalist conditions affect women more – whether that be minimum-wage work (with nearly two-thirds of US workers on this being women) or scantily paid parental and sick leave.

Crude assumptions that colluding in oppression requires consciousness of this also helps explain a difficulty in recognizing sexism even on the left, where analysis can stop too soon after blaming the capitalists. Australian political writer Tad Tietze recently wrote that:

there is no clear indication that huge numbers of voters think that sexism in society is acceptable. Essential Research, for example, found earlier this month that 52 percent of voters polled thought that sexism was a large or moderate problem, up from 45 percent last September (before Gillard’s misogyny speech); only 11 percent said it was ‘not a problem at all’.

That a slight majority of voters are troubled by the sexism they are aware of does not mean that there is not yet more sexism of which they are unaware, and do not oppose. Additional poll questions to distinguish concern for women from the growing concern about sexism against men by women (the increasingly believed-in ‘misandry‘) might also have been illuminating.

‘media feminism’

As a socialist I also dislike the mainstream media’s suppression of worker-based political analysis. But Pilger’s swift shift from blaming ‘media feminists’ to pro-capitalist MPs, in a way that makes them seem of equal politics and power, does not help.

We should not wholly write off ‘media feminism’, as Pilger does, as divisive conservatism. Those feminists who have managed to get a column or so in popular news media, often in the tokenistic women’s section, are writing for publications where news is male-centric in content and political alignment, as this 2013 ‘Status of Women in the U.S. Media’ report shows. Its standard practice is to divide men and women in a far realer sense.

It is dismaying that it’s in the context of growing feminist campaigns against the sexist objectification of women in media (for instance, against Page 3 ads), and against other aspects of rape culture, that Pilger has decided to cast ‘media feminism’ as the perp. And that he asserts men have been left out of these debates about gender, when the recent discussions have been quite notable for male commentary on how men are doing, including by Male Privilege Agitators (MPAs – sometimes known as ‘men’s rights’ advocates).

fightback terrain of capitalist individualism

We cannot fully understand the context of this discussion – about masculinity, feminism and the absent class fightback which Pilger bemoans – without looking at how the ideology of the capitalist class continues to impact on any radical opposition. Individualized responses prevail. Liberation marketed as a commodity, as accessed via identity, and as lifestylism, impedes even the more organized responses from the left.

Pilger jumped into a debate where both male-privilege and feminist spokespeople were using ‘masculinity’ in ways that minimized the centrality of the sex hierarchy to social organization. ‘Gender’, formerly describing the ideology that reinforces this hierarchy and its impact on women, has become essentialized and privatized into sex-based characteristics that are now said to be either inherent to individuals, or a matter of apolitical performance, identification or ‘gender expression’.

The social enforcement of the sex roles is trivialized. Gender’s reality of assigned dominance and subordination (‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’) is now viewed in a curiously gender-neutral and apolitical way. A far cry from the ‘second wave’ approaches which dealt with women’s oppression being assigned at birth, on the basis of our perceived sex, and continuing regardless of our subjective identification or ‘gender performance’ (compliance with stereotypes about one of the sexes).

US materialist radical feminist Kathy Miriam tells me that:

The limitations of “masculinity” are seen in too much discussion relevant to female oppression, including commentary by both mainstream and some radical feminists. The problem of “masculinity” has displaced a systemic, structural analysis of male power. And has displaced what I follow Dworkin in describing as the problem of men possessing women, which any battered or prostituted woman would understand.

There are sex/class antagonisms where men derive a range of benefits from their usages of women – via women’s extended domestic labor under neoliberalism, and sexually and reproductively. These benefits shift between race and class status groups, but are always relative to women’s subordination.

“Masculinity” is a term that papers over the problem by treating it as an issue of subjectivity. It implicitly or explicitly psychologizes and re-presents the main issue as how to re-educate boys, and casts violence as a health issue rather than one of power.

The less structuralist ‘third wave’ approaches to gender, which treat ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ as commodities that should either receive medical treatment and/or be made more widely accessible, have smoothed the path for the increased acceptance, not just amongst conservatives, of ‘men’s rights’ (Male Privilege Agitator) arguments.

An apolitical focus on ‘masculinity’, even if from an intentionally feminist angle, still gives rise to recent MPA claims such as this by Glen Poole:

The best way to tackle the problems that men face is to follow the example of the women’s sector and build a men’s sector filled with independent organisations that are positive advocates for men and boys. Tackling men’s issues in this way requires the women’s sector to share the gender equality pie.

‘Gender equality’ pie, huh? Let’s share the apartheid around to all ethnicities, too.

Where these ‘men’s rights’ rhetoric agitators go wrong is not merely in ignoring the reality that many of their accusations against feminism should be attributed instead to class oppression. (It is ironic that Pilger’s response to this debate is apparently to attribute this distortion to feminism.) These Male Privilege Agitators (MPAs) also err in assuming that because maintaining male privilege involves a level of risk (although not nearly as much as it does to girls and women), men are just differently oppressed than women. (If not, indeed, oppressed because of women, as the MPA discourse increasingly holds.) Higher rates of male criminality and suicidality, and disinclination to consult the doctor, as this media discussion has lately agitated about, do not alter the fact that men retain more power than women in politics, media, government, home ownership, business, the workforce, workers’ organizations, medicine, academic tenure, the sexual and reproductive spheres and, especially, in who performs domestic labor.

Anyone wanting to unite the oppressed in struggle against the rich needs to prioritize understanding these issues. Misrepresenting feminism reinforces male power over women and acts very much in the interests of capitalist elites.

Leftist men who denigrate feminism need to ask themselves whose side they are on.

 

With thanks to Kim Doss-Cortes, Kathy Miriam and Claire Sambell.