There were two articles on CiF last month that wrote about intersectionality in a way that was thoughtful and intelligent.
The first is from Lola Okolosie, writing about her mother as a black woman, an immigrant, and a victim of domestic violence:
Through the work of feminists looking at race, class, disability, sexuality and nationality, I came to understand my mother as a person who was, as we all are, constructed by social and cultural forces beyond her control. My jumbled-up feelings and ideas found full voice in the work of literary and academic black feminists: women like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and Kimberlé Crenshaw showed the meaningless of separating sexuality, class, race and gender oppression when they simultaneously affect the lives of black women. What a relief it was to discover that in “feminism” you could find a place that collated all the experiences of women like my mother – women who were, and continue to be, routinely ignored by the dominant feminist movement.
Critically, black feminism is championing a more nuanced understanding of how oppression and privilege operate. We, all of us, must understand that at the level of the individual, we can at differing points occupy positions of privilege. I am a black woman from a working-class background. I also have qualifications from elite universities that mean I am able to access a career, friendships and a lifestyle my 18-year-old self would never have imagined. When and where I experience privilege or oppression changes from day to day, hour to hour.
Though women who live in the “real world” – ie outside academia – may not bandy the word intersectionality, it nevertheless speaks to our lives within it. This is not to deny that power can be invested in language and that for some the term is perhaps alienating. It would be great if we had a word already in existence that conveys the complex and complicated nature of oppression. We do not. The language that we currently use serves to compartmentalise inequalities. It won’t do. I am less interested in whether feminists choose to use the word or replace it with (no less academic) phrases such as multiple oppressions. What is of greater concern is how we work to empower women whose lives are impacted by a number of inequalities.
The second is Eleanor Robertson, an Australian writer (as her writing is Australia-focused, I’m not actually sure who she is referring to as the ‘popular feminists’ refusing an intersectional analysis):
Crenshaw coined the term as an explanation of why black and immigrant women’s experiences ended up being ignored by both feminism and the anti-racist movement. Her original paper contains dozens of stories detailing how domestic violence and rape crisis facilities had serious trouble helping these women because their cases were “too complicated”. Those were immigrant women who were too afraid of deportation to use legal redress against their abusive husbands, women who spoke a language other than English and weren’t given access to an interpreter, or staff who had no idea how to handle a victim whose cultural background forbid her to acknowledge an abuser within her family for fear of damaging the family’s honour.
These examples reveal an emergent feature of many more institutions than rape crisis centres in the 1980s. The problem is not that the individual women who ran these centres were racist, but that the entire structure tended to produce outcomes that were much worse for women of colour – and that’s something we can see playing out over and over within feminism and women’s services. Unless feminism goes hard down the road of recognising and including women from many differing backgrounds, the path of least resistance is for it to work mostly on behalf of women who are already relatively privileged.
So there you go, this is what intersectionality is when it’s done properly, acknowledging that women who are oppressed along multiple axis will have a harder time of it that middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual white women.
‘Intersectionality’ has been seriously misused, particularly by liberal feminists: to make feminism be about anything and everything other than women; to claim that ‘everybody oppresses everybody’; to try to ‘prove’ that such a thing as ‘woman privilege’ exists; and to try to claim that there is no commonality at all among women’s experiences. So it is certainly refreshing to see intersectionality being used correctly within the mainstream, liberal press.
So where are the radicals in this fight against pornography? The answer depends on who we call radical. The word radical means “to the root.” Radicals dig to the roots of oppression and start taking action there – except, apparently, when it comes to the oppression of women. How radical is it to stop digging half way for the sake of getting off?
What is called the radical Left today isn’t really that. It’s radical in name only and looks more like an obscure collection of failing subcultures than any kind of oppositional movement. But this is the radical Left we have, and this one, far from fighting it, revels in porn.
Just as we need to wrest our culture from the hands of the pornographers, we need to wrest our political movements from the hands of the sexists. Until we do that, so-called “radical” men will continue to prop up sexual exploitation under the excusing banner of freedom and subversion.
This male-dominated radical Left is expressly anti-feminist. In a popular and obscene anarchist essay, “Feminism as Fascism,” the author – who is male, need I mention – ridicules feminists for drawing any connection whatsoever between porn and violence against women. He concludes that feminism – rather than, say, the multi-billion dollar porn industry – is a “ludicrous, hate-filled, authoritarian, sexist, dogmatic construct which revolutionaries accord an unmerited legitimacy by taking it seriously at all.”
I’ve ceased to be surprised at the virulent use and defense of porn by supposedly radical – and even “anti-sexist” – men. The two have always seemed to me to go hand-in-hand.
My first encounter with radicals was at a punk rock music show in the basement of a stinky party house. I stood awkwardly upstairs, excited but shy. Amidst the raucous crowd, a word caught my ear: “porn.” Then, another word: “scat.” Next, the guys were huddling around a computer. And I was confused . . . until I saw.
More sophisticated than the punks, the anarchist friends I made a few years later used big words to justify their own porn lust. Railing against what they deem censorship, anarchists channel Foucault in imagining themselves a vanguard for free sexual expression, by which they really mean, men’s unbridled entitlement to the use and abuse of women’s bodies. And any who take issue with this must be, as one anarchist put it, “uncomfortable with sex” or – and I’m not making this up – “enemies of freedom.”
The Queer subculture puts the politics of sexual libertarianism into practice. Anything “at odds with the ‘normal’ or legitimate” becomes fair game. One Queer theorist explained in specifics: “Sleaze, perversion, deviance, eccentricity, weirdness, kinkiness, BDSM and smut . . . are central to sex-positive queer anarchist lives,” she wrote. As the lives of the radicals I once counted as comrades began to confirm and give testament to this centrality, I abandoned ship.
Pornography is a significant part of radical subcultures, whether quietly consumed or brazenly paraded. That it made me uncomfortable from the beginning did not, unfortunately, deter me from trying it myself. It seems significant though, that, despite growing up as a boy in a porn culture, my first and last time using porn was while immersed in this particular social scene. Who was there to stop me? With all semblances of feminist principles tossed to the wind, who was there to steer me from the hazards of pornography and towards a path of justice?
The answer is no one. Why? Because the pornographers control the men who control the radical Left. Women may be kept around in the boy’s club – or boy’s cult – but only to be used in one way or another; never as full human beings. How is it a male radical can look honestly in the face of a female comrade and believe her liberation will come through being filmed or photographed nude?
I have a dear neighbor who says, “There’s nothing progressive about treating women like dirt; that’s just what happens already.” My neighbor has little experience in the radical Left, but apparently bounds more common sense than most individuals therein. She, along with many ordinary people I’ve chatted with, have a hard time believing – let alone understanding – that people who think of themselves as radical could actually embrace and defend something as despicable as pornography. If the basic moral conscience of average people allows them to grasp the violence and degradation inherent in porn, we have to ask: what’s wrong with the radical Left?
In a way, this let down is predictable. From ideologues like Sade and Foucault, to the macho rebellion of punk bands like the Sex Pistols, to the anarchist-endorsed Kink.com, justice – for women and for all – has been a periphery goal at best for countercultural revolutionaries. Of vastly greater priority is this notion of transgression, an attempt at “sexual dissidence and subversion which challenges the symbolic order,” the devout belief that anything not considered “normal” is radical by default.