Until we support girls and women in setting boundaries for their own safety and comfort, we cannot accurately describe ourselves as opponents of rape culture.
The core of female oppression is the appropriation of our reproduction, care provision and sexuality by more powerful social sectors, for the purpose of maintaining their power. (In this era, we’re talking men and the capitalist class.) Our speech is discouraged and ignored. We are impeded from shaping society, but society insists on shaping us.
This means that a prerequisite for feminism is supporting women in working out which boundaries we want to set and maintain in support of our political, social and individual needs, as well as safety. Not jeering at girls and women who defend these boundaries. “How are you going to keep the attendance female-born – are you planning on doing panty checks at the door?” has to be one of the most shameful responses to anyone organising a female-only activity*, whether it be commercial, social or political. And yet I was part of a socialist group in which some members did that. It’s one of my more embarrassing memories of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party’s intervention at a Fem X (student feminist) conference in the late nineties, and I don’t think I said anything in response.
As yet we often have no means of ensuring that participants in events specifically for the oppressed always meet the set criteria. But where the event is for women, it’s crucial that we support that intention, rather than jeering at it. Whether we advocate for female autonomy, or ridicule it, has a real impact on the social value placed on women’s boundaries. It will affect how many try deliberately flouting those boundaries because they get a thrill out of it or see it as important to their ego. It will affect whether women who are violated get social support afterwards.
And frankly, “we shouldn’t support women in having any autonomy because we can’t fully achieve it” has to be either one of the stupidest, or most dishonest, stances out there. That sounds to me a lot like you don’t see the value in it because if you did, you’d realise that some respect for boundaries is a hell of a lot better than having hundreds trampling over them.
Of course, we’re taught to respond to the difficulty in achieving social support for female boundaries by rounding in on women, not on those who want to violate them. It’s easier to criticise those with less social power, isn’t it. Tell us we have the wrong position.
As will be clear to some reading this, this is especially topical. Right now, the organisers of an Australian commercial event, Seven Sisters Festival, are copping criticism** on news sites which detail the ‘transphobia’ of an event which told some prospective participants that the event is for women and post-op transwomen only.
This venting, often by those on the political Left, even takes the form of accusing the organisers of wanting to check people’s genitals. It should be clear to anyone with a semblance of feminist politics that making accusations that women want to look at or touch someone’s genitals is – outside of specific contexts, such as making out – sexual harassment. It is especially bad to make this accusation when their hypothetical ‘victim’ of enforced panty-checks would be the transgressor of female boundaries in that scenario.
Women on the Seven Sisters Festival Facebook event page experienced a fair amount of such sexual harassment. It would be great if the political Left developed the politics required to recognise and combat this sort of misogyny (reading that link is important), even though this particular commercial enterprise is unlikely to interest most socialists at least. My experience is that much of this Left does not recognise sexual harassment, nor understand its gendered nature. That is, that it flows from and reinforces the power males as a sex have over females, especially on the sexual/reproductive axis. It is not a gender-neutral activity, although males also deserve not to be targetted by it.
Female-only spaces are not inherently free from disability inaccessibility, racism or awful politics. Defending women’s boundaries does not mean agreement with all individual female-only spaces or processes. But if you don’t think that even the politically worst women-only group deserves to be defended from male sexual aggression, you’re no feminist. And isn’t it about time women were free from the constant “transwomen, transwomen” derailment of the many important issues affecting us.
An earlier version of this article was posted at A Room Of Our Own
* It is far from being the only or even main reason for desiring female-only spaces/projects, but the limited research done so far on people after ‘sex reassignment’ indicates that transwomen retain a male pattern in criminality, including with violent offences: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0016885
**There is also criticism of the Festival as being inappropriate towards indigenous cultures, and some of this does appear to be valid. And in general, the commercial nature of the event means various kinds of deficiencies, so that it is not especially worthwhile for women to invest much in it – and racialised women especially should not be expected to. The point of this piece is to oppose the enabling of sexual harassment.