“Mother privilege”

I am delighted to be able to post this examination by three radical feminists, Delilah Smith, Penelope Riley and Jai Kalidasi.  As the authors point out, most women in the world are mothers, and so feminists’ clarity on the conditions of motherhood could not be more vital. This analysis has been much needed, and hopefully will encourage further discussion on this prescribed state for women.

“Mother Privilege” is a theory formulated and defended with great energy by a few self-identified Radical Feminists.  In short, they claim that mothers are rewarded with social and economic benefits for obeying patriarchy’s motherhood mandate.  Mothers, in their view, are granted an unfair advantage in the competition for scarce resources—resources denied to non-mothers specifically because they are not mothers.

Because the notion of mother-privilege has engendered a virulent form of horizontal hostility within radical feminism, we address it here to lay this argument to rest.  The work of liberating women and Earth from patriarchy is daunting enough without furious infighting that divides us when we so deeply need unity.  Since a number of blog entries are posted around the internet promoting mother privilege theory, we have created this response as a blog-post as well.  We hope it will save women the time and potential trauma of repeatedly explaining how mothers, contrary to being privileged, instead contend with forms of oppression specific to motherhood on top of their general oppression as females under patriarchy.

Here, we’ll provide a realistic view of the oppression faced by mothers.  We’ll share working definitions of privilege and oppression, as well as discussing motherhood as a choice for women.  We’ll unpack some of the assumptions made by proponents of mythological Mother Privilege, providing links to information about global mothering in a context of class analysis.  We’ll show that the real issues of motherhood under patriarchy are about oppression, not about what some perceive–based on their personal observations– as individual benefits awarded only to mothers, at the expense of non-mothers.  Finally, we’ll address how motherhood can be as much a feminist undertaking as anything women do, for themselves, their children and our societies.

What is privilege?

Privilege is a sociological concept that describes the way certain groups, or classes, of people benefit from the structural and material oppression of other groups or classes identified within a culture.  To say privilege and oppression are ‘structural’ refers to the fact that they are built into a culture’s laws and economics as well as its social customs and norms.  ‘Material oppression’ means that oppressed groups face structural obstacles to gaining the same access as the privileged to such things as education, wealth, health care, housing and sufficiently well-paid work as well as social status, personal independence and freedom from violence.  Further, to grant privilege to some groups always entails the oppression of others.  This is due, in essence, to giving the privileged more than a fair share of available social, legal and economic resources while actively denying quite a bit less than a fair share of those same resources to the oppressed.  Men have male privilege because they benefit as a class from the oppression of women. White people have white privilege because they benefit as a class from the oppression of people of colour; these are just two primary examples among several other common privileged/oppressed class pairs under patriarchy.

But it’s important to remember that the foundation of patriarchy is that men as a class oppress women as a class, and this cuts across race, social class, sexual orientation, ability/disability, and all other kinds of groups.  While some individual womyn may achieve as much as any man, all women must contend with some elements of oppression by a male-dominated culture.  The wealthiest female CEO still has no access to truly safe, freely available birth control, for instance; she must still face health risks of birth control within a culture that expects women to bear those risks while allowing men to avoid birth control risks.  She is still subject both to laws constraining her choices as a woman (abortion access, e.g.) and policies of the same sort (company policies prohibiting work-linked health insurance from paying for birth control).  That is all about women’s oppression and the male privilege that can be received *only through women’s oppression.  Becoming a mother does not change a women’s oppressed status under patriarchy; no amount of compliance with patriarchy’s institutions and expectations changes that.

So, to understand the privilege and oppression referred to in this discussion, we need to see first that concept of “mother privilege” is based on the notion that mothers—members of the single most oppressed class worldwide—benefit from the oppression of childless women.  It’s based on a belief that patriarchal structures of law, economics and social custom—structures designed to oppress all women—actually provide benefits granted specifically to mothers themselves (somehow separately from their children), and only do so by denying the same benefits to non-mothers.  Let’s examine this claim.

Is motherhood a choice? Implicit in the claim that motherhood confers privilege upon mothers is the idea that pregnancy, childbirth, and the rearing of children are endeavours freely embarked upon by women who seek to enjoy the supposed social and material benefits of motherhood. But is motherhood truly a choice?  We need to examine this from two different yet intertwined perspectives: female biology and radical feminism.

Biologically speaking, women generally experience a powerful drive to bear children.  While as humans we are capable of a degree of foresight and choice that most animals don’t apparently possess, we are still creatures with bodies having particular biological needs, drives, desires.  And while we can’t compare the drive to have children with basic survival drives like breathing and eating—for which we would do anything, in order to go on living—still, we can’t underestimate the potency of women’s biological drive to have children.  Women seem to know in our bones—even against much evidence of our own lives and all around us—that having a child makes possible forms of emotional bonding, pleasure and creative satisfaction as well as social belonging that are unique to mothering.  All humans are biologically created to seek greatest pleasure and least pain; as a social species our pleasures and pain are only naturally (biologically, biochemically) linked greatly to social feedback as much as to personal experience.

Thus, if mothering was simply a rational choice without a fierce element of biological imperative that expresses in us physically, psychologically and socially, then it scarcely seems possible that human population would be now so vast.   There would be fewer failures of birth control—whether those be ‘operator errors’ (“I forgot to take my pill/renew my patch”) or of method failures (getting pregnant while on The Pill or patch as directed, or even years following a successful tubal ligation).  But even while it is possible for individual women to successfully choose against having children, in fact women generally do experience a powerful drive toward mothering that is at least as biologically as culturally engendered.  To claim for any reason that mothering is strictly a rational choice for women is to deny a central aspect of our reality as female animals—not just socially constructed beings existing in the intellectual, rational realm.

Secondly, it is those of our own sex that we are fighting for.  It is our very biology as females, our reproductive capacity, on which men’s oppression of women rests— this defines our struggle as no other single issue does.   And from the class analysis we call radical feminism, we know that the sociological and political concept of “choice” is a slippery beast, often used to rationalize the exploitation of women in porn and prostitution.  It’s used as well to claim that personal choices in matters of sex and performance of femininity trump structural analysis of the ways in which women are coerced to conform to gendered expectations. Our socialization as girls and women under patriarchy makes problematic any claim of personal agency, failing to place women’s choices into the context of our structural oppression. In many communities, child marriage is still common, with young girls denied any opportunity for education or independence and forced into marriages with much older men. In war zones, rape is often deployed as a tool of domination, where men seek to demoralize other men, and rupture people’s sense of themselves as members of a distinct culture, through the violent abuse and impregnation of women by outsiders. Women who live in countries where they have less access to education and economic independence are more likely to have a greater number of children, and to have them at younger ages.  Yet even among more affluent and well-educated women around the world, women face tremendous social pressure to have at least one child regardless of a heartfelt desire to do so; it’s what women do to ‘fulfill their female destiny’, to provide heirs to their husbands and grandchildren to their parents.

In a survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US, one in four callers reported that they had experienced reproductive coercion, defined as threats or acts of violence by a male partner, including rape, pressure to become pregnant, and interference with birth control. This form of male violence in intimate relationships is rarely discussed, but can often lead to unplanned pregnancy for victims of male violence in the home. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40% of abused women reported that their pregnancy was unintended compared to 8% of non-abused women.

Further complicating this matter of choice, mothers are economically disadvantaged, with single mothers being the most disadvantaged, receiving 60 percent of the male wage. Men are not disadvantaged economically for being fathers.

lone parent households below nat poverty line

We can see that solo mothers are significantly disadvantaged compared to solo fathers as well as non-mothers.  Mothers face interruption to employment caused by pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, as well as often caring for infants and toddlers. This, coupled with the already existing gender pay gap and other forms of work discrimination faced by mothers, means that both men and non-mothers are far likelier than mothers to earn enough to live, and likelier to receive promotions, pay raises and other work-related benefits than are mothers.

It is clear that for many women around the world, motherhood is not a choice. Even for those women who are not forced or coerced into pregnancy, the effects of female socialization problematize any claim that women who choose to become pregnant do so freely and with full agency. Cultural pressure, heteronormativity, and other factors may lead to the desirability or even inevitability of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood for many women. And women who desire children are generally unaware of and unprepared for the extreme disadvantages they will face as mothers, from economic instability and employment discrimination to state scrutiny and abusive legal and family court systems.  In the context of patriarchy, it hardly matters whether or not most womyn *would choose to have children, as part of their natural creative and emotional birthright.  The freest possible of choices to bear a child are still burdened with patriarchal mandates, taboos and institutional biases.  The fact is that even apart from our biological urge to bear children, no woman is truly free to make fully rational and independent choices about children, under patriarchy.
Most women in the world are mothers

The fact is that most women are mothers. Not all women choose to become mothers, and even if they did choose to become mothers, they did not choose the oppression that comes with unpaid labour/drudgery in the home, greater risk of male violence, and little or no legal rights to the child that the woman gestated/birthed/breastfed and nurtured, and tried to protect from harm. Mothers did not choose to be paid less and to miss out on employment opportunities. Mothers did not choose to contend with legally mandated constraints upon their birthing choices, nor to experience birth trauma via obstetrical violence.

Taking all this into account, we see that while certain mothers may enjoy a veneer of respectability and/or cultural approval under patriarchal rule, such crumbs are tenuous and easily lost, or may not exist at all for some women (for example, depending upon geographical and cultural location, through gynaecological fistula resulting from childbirth, the birth of children who are disabled and/or female, rape, divorce, adultery, loss of familial socioeconomic status, etc.). Mothers who have children under circumstances that fall outside of culturally-defined acceptability—unwed mothers, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, etc.—may never enjoy these crumbs at all.

Some Western feminists seem myopic when it comes to understanding compulsory or coerced motherhood under patriarchy. The UN World Fertility Report 2012 lists stats on fertility rates (number of children per mother). Page six of the report states: “A number of high-fertility countries in the earlier period maintained very high levels of fertility (5.1 children per woman or more) through the 2000s and almost all were in Africa, including Burundi, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau.”

These countries are also some of the most economically disadvantaged in the world. Clearly being a mother does not have any inherent privilege.  The reality is quite the opposite in fact, as we will expand upon in the next section.

In terms of the relative number of childfree women in the world, the statistics range from low levels such as 1.8% in Angola to relatively higher levels of women who remain childfree in their mid- to late-forties (14.4% in Australia, 16% in Ireland, and around 20% in the US). Most of the world’s women, however, live in countries where more than 90% of women are mothers by this age. [1]

In spite of the harsh realities of motherhood worldwide, mother-privilege theorists describe 90% or more of the world’s women as privileged by their motherhood, while denying women’s collective stories of oppression across all realms of their lives. They are also falling into the patriarchal trap of mother-blaming. In fact it is men who are to blame for women’s lack of resources (whether they are mothers or not), it is male rule that constrains our rights and freedoms.  It is patriarchy which constructs femininity as an inferior but highly enforced role, and makes motherhood a compulsory part of femininity.  But because father rule is so entrenched and supported by our judicial system and associated organisations, women are essentially powerless to oppose this; some instead blame the easy victim, the mother.  If we were living in a matriarchy, we wouldn’t be arguing over whether mothers are privileged over childfree women.  All women would be valued, and supported in their choices regarding motherhood.  But currently we live in patriarchy, where women do not enjoy privilege based upon our reproductive status—where no woman is privileged by her sex, mother or not.

The fact that men, and the women who support male rule, entice women into a subordinate role with lies, and by shaming those who don’t comply, belies the idea that there is any real status conferred upon the women essentially held captive to motherhood. This is a pattern across society, as evidenced by the institution of marriage, with the sexual slavery industry being on the other end of the spectrum.  But even sexual slavery is glamourised through porn culture, cast as a necessary class of women who help maintain the Madonna/Whore dichotomy and prevent the possibility of women as fully realised, independent human beings.

Men must control female reproduction in order for patriarchy to continue. In order to be able to have any power, women must be given control over our reproductive rights, and that includes our rights as mothers.

The Big Picture

Below is a table showing statistics on fertility and violence against women in nine countries. The countries were selected for completeness of data available on a national level. It is important to note that violence against women is often underreported, and though all statistics were compiled by the UN, they came from different sources, including the WHO, the CDC, the DHS, and national statistics and surveys, making direct comparisons difficult. We are looking for general trends.

country Percentage of childless women age 45-49* Percentage of women with three or more children, age 45-49* Lifetime physical or sexual violence (IPV**) Lifetime physical or sexual violence (any perpetrator)
Australia 14.4 35.8 27.0 57.0
Bangladesh 3.4 84.9 53.3 59.2
India 3.3 76.0 37.2 35.4
Samoa 5.2 82.2 46.1 75.8
Switzerland 15.6 21.9 10.0 39.0
Uganda 3.2 91.7 59.1 70.4
USA 18.8 29.4 24.8 55
Zimbabwe 2.2 84.8 38.2 46.7

*Stats for USA are for ages 40-44, as stats for ages 45-49 were unavailable

**IPV = intimate partner violence

Sources: all stats compiled by UN

The graph below compares lifetime incidence of IPV among women with the percentage of childfree women in these nine countries. Note the trend line: the fewer childless women in a given country, the greater the likelihood that a woman will be the victim of intimate partner violence.

IPV and fertility graph

One of the most important ways that control is maintained over women under patriarchy is through the control of women’s reproductive capacity. Child marriage and forced marriage, rape, abusive reproductive coercion, and prevention of access to contraception and abortion are all methods men use to control women’s reproduction, and so, our lives. Maternal mortality is one of the largest killers of women worldwide: each year, half a million women die as a result of a pregnancy, and another 50 million women will suffer long-term disability or illness as a direct result of pregnancy or childbirth (Seager 2009). As Shulamith Firestone pointed out in The Dialectic of Sex, the basic facts of human reproduction leave women dependent upon males for survival, and the reproductive differences between the sexes are the basis of male exploitation of women as a class. As such, the claim that women who acquiesce to male demands for children, whether through “choice” or through coercion or force, gain privilege from this acquiescence can be compared to a claim that wage laborers gain privilege through capitulation to the oppressive control of capitalists. In other words, it’s patently absurd. Women with children face discrimination in employment, economic hardship, a greater risk of male violence, a greater risk of scrutiny and criminalization by the state, abusive legal and family court systems, loss of personhood and essential human rights during pregnancy, and many other barriers and hardships that are specific to mothers under the patriarchy.

This makes it clear that the lip service paid to motherhood in patriarchal culture is akin to the glorification of rugged individualism under neoliberalism; it is a simply a trick designed to elicit complacence from oppressed groups and obscure the source of oppression. Rather than lifting impoverished people up, the myth of meritocracy ensures the continuation of their exploitation, and similarly, the glorification of the idea of motherhood does not benefit mothers but rather lulls them into complacence and acceptance of their oppression. The rhetorical value given to motherhood is belied by the lack of material value awarded for the unpaid work of motherhood, without which the entire system would collapse. The occasional Hallmark card or adulatory fluff piece awarded to mothers is nothing more than a sleight of hand, intended to distract our attention from the oppressive reality under which mothers live and labour.

Motherhood as Capitulation?

Finally, some mother-privilege theorists claim that choosing motherhood is capitulation to patriarchy, a surrender of feminist values.  A ‘real feminist’, the theory goes, will forgo motherhood—in resistance to patriarchy, and to have more energy available for other women and for the work of dismantling patriarchy.

First, this notion overlooks the fact that patriarchy underlies the entirety of our lives—our work, telecommunications, hospitals, industries, education… it all springs from patriarchy and is built to support its continuance.  Resisting patriarchy by forgoing motherhood is not more or less significant than withdrawing from other aspects of patriarchal life, in resistance; none of the possibilities, however, have much political significance. There is certainly some value in acts of personal resistance; refusal to perform mandated femininity (potentially including childfree status) is the walking of our talk that reaches others, potentially inspiring consciousness-raising in people around us.  Still—it is only by people acting in concert that political energy is generated and can lead to the political power necessary to make structural changes.

Second, it presumes we can resist patriarchy by denying one of the fundamental elements of our female existence— and should do so in martyrdom to the feminist cause—which are propositions rather more anti-woman than anti-patriarchy.  Doubtless, motherhood was appropriated by patriarchy and re-constructed as form of slavery, but our female capacity to create life exists outside of patriarchy.  We feminists needn’t deny ourselves the creative female work and love of mothering.  We can resist patriarchy through our mothering, the same as feminists involved in all other ordinary aspects of patriarchy resist through their work, play, communication/relationships, etc.  Feminist mothers bring the same consciousness to being mothers, and raising children, as any feminist brings to her chosen endeavors and relationships within the overall context of patriarchy.  Indeed, feminist mothers are in a unique position to help change culture by passing on feminist consciousness to our children.  We definitely don’t claim that mothers are powerful enough to counteract the entirety of patriarchy—the ‘village’ has enormous influence on children—but still, our feminist consciousness does help shape our children’s awareness and future lives.  To suggest otherwise is to come dangerously close to affirming the patriarchal notion that motherhood renders women too emotional to think straight or maintain her integrity and values without guidance from outside authorities.  Is this what the mother-theorists would have us believe—and that they are the authorities women should obey?

We think not.  We have shown here the mistaken assumptions made by mother-privilege theorists, with the evidence of the special oppression faced by women once they become mothers.  The small acts of approval shown to new mothers—baby showers!—are not the same thing as privilege because they don’t come at the expense of non-mothers and they don’t appreciably improve mothers’ lives on the whole.  The social programs available to mothers are provided (in decreasing amount all the time now) on behalf of children, not for the mothers themselves—who, if they lost their children by natural or legal causes, would be no more eligible than non-mothers for those programs though they be mothers still.  We have demonstrated that it’s not motherhood itself that earns even the small signifiers of approval from patriarchy, those go only to those mothers who meet the requirements of age, race, socio-economic and marital status—and only so long as those mothers go on meeting those requirements, which is rarely within mothers’ control.  As radical feminism has known for quite some time now—which the mother-privilege theorists seem to have forgotten—motherhood is not a privileged position under patriarchy; it is the very foundation of women’s oppression.


[1]  United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013). World Fertility Report 2012 (United Nations publication).


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.


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.

Violence by men: Addressing the problem, or blaming mean feminists?

US feminist activist Cathy Brennan recently wrote a piece –  Name the Problem – in response to Trayvon Martin’s murder, questioning why a common denominator in most violence – a male perpetrator – is escaping scrutiny.  She commented, “We are averse to acknowledging male violence because we do not want to make the males in our lives uncomfortable”.

An activist acquaintance of mine, Matthew Smith, took considerable exception to the article (his response in thumbnail screenshots to the right – click to see full-size).

His response is very unexceptional – his views are quite usual, on the subjects of women, weapons, male victimhood and feminists. These common attitudes need to be addressed, since they do perpetuate the problem of male violence, without most of those holding them realising this.

My response to his views is part of furthering the discussion which Brennan so clearly saw is needed.

A noticeable feature of Smith’s article is a strong reluctance to engage with the statistically far greater violence engaged in by men (despite the impact of it on men themselves, which he does appear to care about). He continually scurries away from this basic dynamic in order to distract attention by focussing on the anecdotal and the variations of how this manifests itself in individual men – all in a way which seems positively phobic of analysis about these variations:

I do not believe there is a single answer as to why some men are violent or why more violence is committed by men than by women, but everyone is a product of their upbringing and some were conditioned to be violent and some were not, and some are more capable of controlling their aggression and anger than others. Of course, men are responsible for the violence they indvidually [sic] commit when they are adults, but not for anyone else’s violence unless they let it happen or encouraged it.

We will not understand how many factors are involved in men’s greater violence, and the relative weight of each, until we acknowledge that it exists – and that is what Brennan’s article was urging us to do.

Yes, males are the perpetrators of most violence. The fact that they are also the majority of victims of certain types of violence (while women are the majority of victims of many other types of male violence) does not change that.

Moreover, the fact that racism was indubitably the cause of Trayvon’s murder and of many other recent extra-judicial executions does not give us free rein to ignore the fact that women are managing not to murder nearly as many people, despite many of us also being quite racist.

There are a whole host of offensive and distasteful aspects to this article. First is that she picked an incident of male-on-male violence which was motivated principally by racial and class prejudice to launch a diatribe about “male violence” [….] Violent racism is something which disproportionately claims black male victims, and it is much less likely that Zimmerman would have killed a woman walking through his neighbourhood, even if she had been young and wearing clothing that suggested she was of low class. Brennan classifies Zimmerman as a “male adult” and Trayvon Martin as an apparently genderless “child”, even though he was 17 and probably well past puberty. He was killed because his blackness, physical adultness, maleness and low-classness combined so as to lead Zimmerman to regard him as a threat, despite no evidence that he was armed (as he wasn’t), before he had even made a move.

It is important to recognise that his ‘maleness’ was perceived as a threat in this instance precisely because of Zimmerman’s racism. Part of racist ideology (which obviously isn’t limited to Caucasians) is perceiving men of African descent as inherently criminal/violent. These same people often perceive women of African descent as rape targets. The point is, Trayvon was largely victimised by racism, rather than by being a man.

Furthermore, I am disturbed at the attempts to insist that Cathy Brennan was wrong in seeing the 17-year old Trayvon as a child and in contrasting him with the adult Zimmerman (who is 28). 17-year old boys usually have not reached full physical maturity (Trayvon did not appear to have), and in any case, a basic decent response is surely to be cut up that a boy who is not even considered to have reached legal adulthood has been deprived his life. (I know that Matthew is indeed concerned by this, but I think recognising and verbally acknowledging Trayvon as having been deprived of adulthood is important.)

Looking at this bit:

Furthermore, “the weapons males choose” are not always a reflection of their maleness but of the necessity [sic], because if you are running a police force and you are dealing with criminals who are armed with guns, you will not be able to defeat them if you arm your officers with water pistols, and the same is true of anyone who has a firearm to protect their property. In many parts of the USA, women own guns in their own right, and are seen in videos and news reports which promote gun ownership and the rights to carry guns in various public places. She claims that the “stand your ground” state law that Zimmerman relied on was “promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (with an overwhelmingly male board of directors) that ensures that prosecutions in cases where the perpetrator asserts self-defense will decrease”. The law was also voted into existence by legislators (probably mostly male, but not exclusively) who were voted for by men and women, who no doubt rewarded them with more vote.

It seems to be a justification of men’s violence on the bases that (1) the state orders it in some cases, and (2) the US voters have not mainly elected politicians supporting non-murderous policing policies and gun laws.

I think these justifications are unserious because they ignore not only the fact that the capitalist state is fully behind gun culture (and has linked it firmly to macho culture), but also the realities of how the US political system works. The choices presented to voters hardly represent a ‘choice’, especially as the capitalist media that presents the case of the main parties presents them as the only options. Indeed, most social ideology is developed by the capitalists’ dominance of mass media, the education system, the judicial system, etc. And, as we know, those most disenfranchised in the US are the least likely to vote at all. And the capitalist class requires an ideology of misogyny and machismo-adulation in order to secure broad acquiescence to its policies.

As one example, when pushed to consider ‘the weapons males choose’, Smith immediately identified with the US police force. Not with an oppressed social sector fighting back, much less with a nationally oppressed people fighting for independence. He immediately associated himself with an authority force. This is part of how this macho culture works; it socialises males to see themselves as dominant and aligned with those in power, to *like* that idea, and to work to perpetuate that status.

In any case, it is disingenuous to imply that the greater usage by men of more dangerous weapons is due solely to their occupation. Women are far more likely than men to die from domestic violence, and men’s suicide attempts are more likely to be lethal. These are just a few examples of the consequences of this.

Finally on that section, it is not at all ok to write off this phenomenon of greater male violence (or any other manifestation of sexism) by looking at whether a few women are also involved in endorsing it. It is well known that women usually find themselves able to get to the top (or to stay there) only by going along with standard power arrangements (in the broader societal sense).

Later in the piece, after a long and patronising paragraph on how many women also endorse the culture of male violence (a rather inappropriate response to Brennan’s observation of how women are reluctant to name male violence and more likely to express guilt for actions which they have not directly undertaken), Smith adds:

Women need to make their disapproval known when men close to them display violence against anyone, not just females, otherwise they do share in the blame for their male friends’ and relatives’ violence. As for expecting women to confront their “Nigels” about violence they personally do not commit, I fail to see what this would achieve, and she does not give them any suggestions as to what they might ask (for example, “is any of your friends a thug?”).

Just as well we have Smith around to suggest this for us, eh? Let’s avoid the point that women around violent men are often in immediate danger because of the power imbalance, and unable both to stay near them and to speak out.

Also, should we, like Smith, carefully avoid the question of where power lies and who is most empowered to speak out, and eschew the important discussions of basic dynamics, in favour of anecdotes which don’t need to be representative?

Perhaps that’s not at all helpful, and we are better off taking note of Brennan’s important points (including the societal acceptance of male violence that she herself pointed out we’re all socialised to accept), and her point that we all need to “fight structures that perpetuate racism”.

In contrast to Smith’s distressed cry that “I am not responsible for my abusers’ actions or those of any other violent person”, well – how about, rather than acting as though you’ve been accused of being intimately linked with such behaviour – engaging with the point of the article, which is the need for society to acknowledge male violence in order to address it, in addition to fighting racist structures?

The history of fighting oppression demonstrates that broad movements against injustice do have the power to achieve change. Engaging with such movements also makes it easier to move beyond concerns about oneself and engage in uncomfortable realisations about how socialisation works.


It is a great shame that this response falls into the typical feminist-bashing responses of:

1. Implying that in identifying males’ greater violence, and the fact that male violence towards women is a tool of women’s oppression/ male privilege, feminists are therefore asserting that no females are violent and males can never be the victims (‘there is a huge element of victim-blaming and erasure of the experience of male victims and survivors of violence’). A strawman argument of absurdity. [One wonders why Smith thinks Brennan mentioned that ‘Males are almost four times more likely than females to be murder victims’ and cared about Trayvon’s murder. Oh, of course. It was merely an excuse to have a go at men.]

If Smith wants to feel better about being a man, he should help himself by avoiding the real victimhood mentality that leads men to conclude that they are all being called murderous by articles which merely point out that a certain percentage of men are murderous, and a certain percentage are violent. Having a go at women trying to address a serious issue, and ignoring what they have actually written, does not promote social justice. Brennan has not engaged in “victim-blaming”.

Another nasty example of male-pattern victimhood mentality was this:

A female victim of male violence (or a female activist who has heard plenty of tales of male violence against women) can identify the abuser as an other, a privilege which male victims do not have.

The violence which women experience from men is disproportionally sexual. This means that female victims do not have a “privilege” in naming the other, but rather face the usual reaction of being treated themselves as the accused (which is why such a tiny percentage of rape accusations result in a conviction). Attempting to portray this as a “privilege” is nothing short of misogynist.

And the nasty dig about “a female activist who has heard plenty of tales of male violence against women” (who is presumably making accusations based on little evidence) seems a fairly blatant attempt to ignore the absolutely authoritative stats on male-sector violence towards women.

These include the WHO’s 2002 ‘World report on violence and health’, which explains that:

Studies from Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States of America show that 40–70% of female murder victims were killed by their husbands or boyfriends, frequently in the context of an ongoing abusive relationship []. This contrasts starkly with the situation of male murder victims. In the United States, for example, only 4% of men murdered between 1976 and 1996 were killed by their wives, ex-wives or girlfriends []. In Australia between 1989 and 1996, the figure was 8.6%[]. (p.93)


Studies in Canada and the United States have shown that women are far more likely to be injured during assaults by intimate partners than are men, and that women suffer more severe forms of violence (5, 34–36). In Canada, female victims of partner violence are three times more likely to suffer injury, five times more likely to receive medical attention and five times more likely to fear for their lives than are male victims (36). Where violence by women occurs it is more likely to be in the form of self-defence (p.94)

This is partly also why this later paragraph is so disturbing:

The victim blaming on display is a sickening irony given that feminists are often very quick to allege this, sometimes in response to perfectly sensible advice regarding personal safety, such as the campaign by the transport authority in London not to use unlicensed minicabs (taxis, although this term is reserved in London for the “black cabs” which charge a premium fare). The posters often emphasise the risk of rape The adverts did not say it was stupid to get raped (or get your neck broken in a car accident); they were aimed at those who are not victims who presumably do not want to become victims. Yet, here we see a feminist characterising males as a more violent class than females, demanding that women should hold their men accountable for it, ignoring the fact that they are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators.

Right, so advising males (including via public education campaigns) not to rape has no valid point, and women taking issue with the fact that we’re the ones usually receiving advice about altering our behaviour likewise have no valid point?

And in what way are males as a sector not more violent than females?

2. Giving feminists so little respect that you not only criticise them for something they haven’t said, but also disdain to follow links in their article which rebut or debunk some of the criticism you’re making.

For instance, Cathy Brennan’s article linked to a wonderful piece by Jennie Ruby (which coins the useful phrase “male-pattern violence”). It begins:

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.” Thus radical feminists find themselves in conversations like this:

Most of the violence around the world is committed by men.”

You can’t say that! My friend Jim isn’t violent!”

Nevertheless, the Bureau of Justice statistics show that over 85% of violent crimes in the U.S are committed by men.”

Are you saying women are never violent? Because I read about this one woman who…”

I guess her crime would be one of the 15%…”

Some of us don’t think men are that bad, you know.”

The conversation usually stops there, stuck in rounds of denial and accusation, while the defensive person accuses the radical feminist of man-hating, male-bashing, and unfairness, and of wanting to alienate half of the population. The conversation never goes on to examine what it is about men that causes the violence, what we could do to help men stop their violence, or anything else constructive. [‘Male-Pattern Violence’, off our backs]

Kinda relevant, huh? Frankly I’d love to repost the whole thing. Instead, I will encourage people to follow the link and read it.

3. Endorsing the idea that criticism of the male sex is “bigotry”. Criticising patterns of sexist behaviour amongst men is very far from the expression of attitudes which endorse and perpetuate (even if implicitly) the withholding of rights and conditions to a social sector which is materially oppressed. Males are not oppressed as a sex (although they may experience oppression as members of the working class or as a demonised ethnicity). When males express prejudiced views about females (such as that  feminists have poor motivations), they are aggravating the situation by endorsing the current situation of oppression, and from a position of relative privilege, which means their expressed opinion might well to do real damage. There is no comparison between this and the situation of women simply wanting to be treated fairly.

And acting as though feminists are ‘mean’ in raising these concerns (or the sneering that Brennan introduced her thoughtful piece with Trayvon’s murder “to the credit of her own sex”) doesn’t even help men in the long run. Because violent males do sometimes – although not nearly sufficiently – get punished for their crimes, in unpleasant ways.

4. Presenting the issue as a problem of a feminism which encourages women not to be autonomous, and generally encourages women to be arsewipes:

Brennan’s article displays a common fault of modern feminism: an emphasis on women’s victimhood and a complete denial of women’s responsibility for their own choices and for the effect their behaviour has on other people.

Simps. Fail to give any evidence, and ignore the vast amount of evidence of feminists encouraging women not to believe they have to accept the life path laid out to them, that encourages them to be leaders. And gets behind women’s refuges so that women can get away from their abusers. And campaigns for better laws and protections against abusers. And campaigns for equality and against sexual harassment in the workforce, to give women more equality.

What this stereotypical view of feminism is, of course, is a conservative view which denies that material oppression of women exists; that seeks to scapegoat women for their own situation, while portraying them as using feminism as an excuse to stay bullied, underpaid or raped. (Yup, it’s convincing, isn’t it.)

“Most of my friends are women as are most of the relatives I see regularly.” They are very lucky.

I could never classify myself as a feminist because I associate it too much with selfishness, responsibility denial and bigoted nonsense like this.

Yes, fighting for women to have the vote, against being sexually assaulted and killed primarily by men known well to the victims, to have equality in the workforce, for even male victims of violence to be considered, for racism to be taken seriously (and that’s not even going into Cathy Brennan’s activism for queer rights). All extremely selfish. Fortunate, however, that Smith is not claiming to be a feminist.


Wouldn’t it be better if we could discuss these issues reasonably and reach a situation where these problems no longer exist? We need to be mature enough to recognise that criticism is often as it appears – a constructive attempt to deal with a problem by initiating frank discussion on it.

Sadly, Smith’s belief that “I am not responsible for my abusers’ actions or those of any other violent person” will be illusory, so long as he perpetuates these misogynist views about women, particularly those who acknowledge and oppose women’s oppression (feminists). Male violence is neither a consequence of men merely happening to be disproportionately employed by armed state sectors, nor mainly biological. The very differing expressions of ‘masculinity’ by men around the world, depending on the way they are expected to behave, is testament to that.

Violence by men is strongly correlated with acceptance of machismo, and when it comes to victimising females, it’s even more strongly correlated with the view that women are a threat to men, have to be kept down, lack men’s leadership qualities, are unfair to men, deserve few rights, have not had to fight for all the rights they have so far, etc. (These ideas are contradictory, but so is the magic of sexist logic.)

Male violence towards women does not exist parallel to other sexist views towards us. Men who consciously detest violence of any sort may still perpetuate the misogynist culture which results in other men assaulting women. There is no such thing as benign sexism, but unconscious sexism is huge.

Furthermore, we cannot adequately challenge male violence without looking directly at the history of male privilege. Throughout various sorts of class society, and in modern-day capitalism, men have been privileged in comparison to women, and have wielded their power as a sex to keep women ‘in our place’. (Late capitalism encourages this for various reasons, most significantly to maintain, via the hetero family unit, women’s performance of unpaid domestic labour.) This is a historical reality. Feminism (that nasty thing) has driven back this power differential to an important degree (with varying effect around the world), but it is still the case that even where much formal (legal) male privilege has been eradicated, the reality is still that of men having significantly more power within the hetero family unit, the workforce, the political sphere and in non-institutional spheres. (Some immediate demonstrations of that are the restrictions that are still common on abortion access, the fact that few rapists are ever convicted, the terror wielded by some men against the women who are their ‘partners’ or have dared to leave them, the fact that most employers and managers are male.)

And this male privilege is the other reason why male-sector multiple murder directed specifically at women is frequently unacknowledged.


Further great reading matter:

Strongly recommended:

http://www.nomas.org/node/165 – ‘Why Are Anti-sexist Men Confronting Violence Against Women?’ by National Organization for Men Against Sexism

Statistics: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/homicide/gender.cfm

Features an excellent overview of the research. And this tidbit:

‘The authors of the American CTS studies stress that no matter what the rate of violence or who initiates the violence, women are 7 to 10 times more likely to be injured in acts of intimate violence than are men [Orman, 1998]. Husbands have higher rates of the most dangerous and injurious forms of violence, their violent acts are repeated more often, they are less likely to fear for their own safety, and women are financially and socially locked into marriage to a much greater extent than men.’

http://globalgrind.com/news/Trayvon-Martin-9-Days-Before-Death-Photo?gpage=0 – ‘Final Memories: Trayvon Martin 9 Days Before His Death (PHOTO)’

http://www.nomas.org/node/107 – The Myth of the “Battered Husband Syndrome”

Copyright © Virginia Brown April 2012. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as my authorship is noted, and this article URL is included: https://liberationislife.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/violence-by-men-addressing-the-problem-or-blaming-mean-feminists/

Prostitution: pop culture vs historical reality

‘Prostitution from the female viewpoint’?

By Virginia Brown

TV entertainment that focuses on the lives of prostitutes has not, until recently, been an evening viewing option, in Australia or many other countries. When first shown in the UK, the half-hour per episode drama Secret Diary of a Call Girl was an audience-booster for commercial channel ITV2 and it has since been picked up by TV networks in at least 14 countries, including Australia’s Nine Network, which has screened it recently in a late-evening timeslot.

Based on the Belle de Jour blog by a former “high-class call girl”, the professed aim of Secret Diary is the portrayal of a “cosmopolitan” prostitute who chose her work “freely” and likes it. Producer Chrissy Skins says the show, with its writers all being women, is “prostitution from the female viewpoint”.

Lead actor Billie Piper and series creator Lucy Prebble have countered allegations that the show glamorises prostitution, suggesting that such criticisms stem from prudishness. “There is so much sexual liberation, but the minute a woman lies on her back and takes cash for it, that changes everything”, Piper complained in a British Guardian interview. Prebble claims that the existence of a “sliver [of women who don’t feel oppressed] at the top of an industry that’s full of violence, drugs and exploitation” is justification enough for the show. Prebble told UK writer and filmmaker Andy Conway that she is answering those women’s requests not to “portray us as victims”, adding: “And then you go away and try to do them some justice, and another group of women (and men) who work for The Guardian decide you’re betraying your sisterhood. Well, you know, fuck off, really.”

Prebble, Skins and Piper are quick to acknowledge in interviews that the reality of life for most prostitutes is different from that of Secret Diary’s protagonist Belle/Hannah, and seem adamant that they wouldn’t want young women viewers to be persuaded by the show to take up prostitution. Given these protestations, you might expect that the show would allude in some way to unhappy women in prostitution, and other unsavoury aspects of the industry.

It does not. It begins with Piper’s character’s voice-over that she loves London and is “very high class, which means I charge by the hour and I charge a lot”. The show’s first season is full of scenes in expensive London hotels and clients who Hannah looks forward to seeing. The show reflects producer Skins’ view that she doesn’t have “a particular moral stance on prostitution, unless of course it’s against someone’s will. It’s always going to be there …”

Secret Diary gives no inkling that female murder victims are disproportionately prostituted women, nor that women in brothel, escort and street-based work all experience a higher rate of violence than the overall female population. Hannah’s main problem seems to be the difficulties created by keeping her occupation secret from her friends and family — a real concern for many prostitutes. In Sex workers and sexual assault in Australia, published last year by the federal government’s Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Dr Antonia Quadara points out the negative consequences to prostitutes of the social stigma of their work — with “family relationships, custody of their children, relations with police, ‘straight’ job applications, and credit card or loan applications” all being affected.

Public contempt for those engaged in prostitution (as well as laws criminalising their activities) is known to make them less likely to speak out when sexually assaulted, leaving perpetrators of such assaults free to continue offending. Violence towards prostitutes is not simplistically the consequence of misogynistic clients, however, but stems from more broadly-held attitudes by men towards prostitutes and all women.

Quadara notes that where the views of clients have been studied (which is very limited), they have not been found to “support violence against sex workers … or accept rape myths more than the general male population”. A Sydney study of brothel workers found that they were more likely to be attacked outside of work than the other studied groups, women students and health workers. (Research shows that this does not mean that women’s workplaces are safe, whether in prostitution or not, particularly not when working in an isolated way with clients.)

Other studies have confirmed similar findings. As with other victims of sexual assault, the brothel workers were most likely to be attacked by non-clients they knew. Other perpetrators of sexual assault against brothel workers included police, taxi drivers and “strangers who may specifically target sex workers”. This reality is a far cry from the deliberately aimed-at Sex And The City vibe attempted by Secret Diary’s creators.

Satisfaction, the Showtime Pay TV drama about workers in a Melbourne brothel, is another profitable show depicting prostitutes who mostly enjoy their work. Not surprisingly, the actors in the show do not view prostitution as inherently oppressive. “I see it as a valid profession that provides a service to people who need it”, Bojana Novakovic, portrayer of youngest brothel worker Tippi, told the January 31 Australian.

The Secret Diary and Satisfaction writers’ understanding of social oppression is marked by individual subjectivity: if someone doesn’t feel personally oppressed, then they aren’t. By contrast, a scientific, i.e., Marxist, understanding of social oppression is that it is an objective social relation of inequality in which social group — one social class, gender, race, nation, etc — enjoys material conditions of life that are systematically denied to the members of a different class, gender race, nation, etc. The root source of all forms of social oppression is the division of society into different social classes — large groups of people occupying different places in a historically evolved system of social production in which one such group is able, because of its ownership of the decisive means of production of life’s necessities, to exploit (live off) the labour of the direct producers.

Prostitution is not about liberated female sexual activity, but about women seeking to “make a living” by renting their bodies to men with money for these men’s sexual pleasure. The gender gap in the average pay packets of men and women, and the sexist imposition of many social/domestic welfare tasks onto women (both being problems for women but profit-enhancing for capitalists), increase the likelihood that women will enter prostitution for higher pay and more flexible hours than they would otherwise have access to.

The recent increase in those claiming that seeing prostitution as “just another form of work” that is neither specifically oppressive of women, nor a consequence of the systematic social inequality between women and men ignores the fundamental dynamics of prostitution. Prostitution is only possible in a society in which there is a general disparity between the wealth and incomes of men and women, and in which women’s bodies are treated as commodities (articles for sale). Prostitution as an industry is based on women’s bodies being available for hire by men. The existence of male prostitutes and a few female clients does not change this basis of the industry.

The idea that “prostitution has always existed” (as Skins maintains) hides the fact that it owes its origin and survival to the division of human societies into different social classes, rather than being a timeless constant. Of the 150,000 years in which modern humans have existed, class-divided societies have only existed for at most 6000 years. Archaeological evidence indicates that prostitution arose only after pre-class, gender-egalitarian society organised around women-controlled hoe agriculture and male-controlled herding was superseded by male-controlled animal-drawn plough agriculture. Where this occurred, societies fragmented into separate family units, with individual women becoming economically dependent upon individual male property-owning (land, animals, tools) “bread-winners” — their father and then their husband. This also entailed women’s sexuality being subordinate to the need of individual male property holders to establish “legitimate” male heirs to their private property.

Marx’s life-long political partner Fredrick Engels, in his groundbreaking 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, demonstrated that prostitution arose as a result of the inequality of property between men and women in class-divided societies, such as slave-based ancient Greece and Rome: “With the rise of the inequality of property … waged labour appears sporadically side by side with slave labour, and at the same time, as its necessary correlate, the professional prostitution of free women side by side with the forced surrender of female slaves.”

Prostitution, Engels explained arose as the “shadow” of monogamous marriage: “Monogamy arose from the concentration of larger wealth in the hands of a single individual — a man — and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and no other. For this purpose the monogamy of the woman was required, not that of the man, so this monogamy of the woman did not in any way interfere with open or concealed polygamy of the man … In the modern world, monogamy and prostitution are indeed opposites, but inseparable opposites, poles of the same order of society.”

Based on a version first published in Direct Action Issue 10: April 2009

Copyright © Virginia Brown November 2011. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as this article  URL: https://liberationislife.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/prostitution-pop-culture-vs-historical-reality/ is included.