What does ‘agency’ mean? What does ‘making someone a victim’ mean?

I’ve just finished listening to The Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4; the subject this week was proposed changes to the law regarding drug use and prostitution (you can read what I think about the usefulness of such a comparison here), the programme is available on BBC iPlayer here. I find the format of this programme very limited and unsatisfying, Dr Finn Mackay did her best within the time and questioning allowed, but I find the whole ‘debate’ format stale, nobody ever really changes their mind about anything, no one involved is actually interesting in working anything out or coming up with new ideas.

As an aside, I know men are supposed to find women’s voices ‘nagging’ or whatever, and to just tune women’s voices out, but Michael Buerk, the programme’s presenter, has the most annoying, hectoring voice on radio, it’s unbearable! How can anyone listen to him, let alone hear what he’s saying!?

What I want to focus on for this blog post is the claim from one of the female panellists that the abolitionist approach to prostitution (it was never actually labelled as such during the programme) ‘took away women’s agency’ and ‘turned women into victims’ (this may not be the exact wording, but I can’t be bothered to listen through it again right now).

‘Agency’ is becoming an overused term that effectively means nothing. We have agency all the time, a person with a gun to their head told ‘eat shit or die’ has a choice and therefore has agency; they don’t have any good choices, and a person in that situation is not free in any meaningful way. Oppressed people have agency, they always have, what goes wrong with the concept of ‘agency’ is that it is used to deny oppression; ‘sex workers’ have ‘agency’ therefore there is nothing wrong with ‘sex work’! ‘Agency’ has become a shield to hide behind, and a way of shutting down critical thought: ‘you’re taking away sex workers agency!’ by noticing that something bad happened – so ‘agency’ is this all powerful force, until a radical feminist observes the situation and her reality-bending mental powers ‘turn women into victims’.

The claim that opposing oppressive practices (in the case of the programme, the sex industry which turns women into objects) ‘turns women into victims’ is a strange one, and this, along with the ‘agency’ rhetoric, only tends to be used in relation to women/feminism, and this is in no way an accident; imagine if a panellist on the Moral Maze (or whatever) where to challenge a development worker by saying: ‘by calling a lack of food oppressive, you’re turning hungry people into victims.’

Ridiculous isn’t it? The observation of oppressive circumstances does not create the oppression; if every radical feminist in the world were to turn mute overnight, women would still be oppressed. There is this tendency among liberal and pro-sex industry ‘feminists’ to blame radical feminists for ‘turning women into victims’, rather than blame the oppressive circumstances themselves (because that would involve, y’know, actually challenging the status quo and those in power). The result is a brand of ‘sex positive’ ‘feminism’ that is highly victim-blaming, and treats victimisation as a pathology, a personal failing of the individual woman, and nothing to do with the system itself.

11 responses

  1. “Agency” and “making someone a victim” isn’t supposed to mean anything. I like to call phrases like this “liberish”. They exist to make people feel good or bad about certain words. They are a confusing and manipulative use of language.

    They also play into the post-modernist sentiment that the world is whatever you think it is and thinking is everything. It’s not only used for women’s issues, it’s also used for issues concerning economics and health (e.g. “Marxism denies people’s freedom”) but in those areas such thinking is at least challenging. When it comes to women’s issues this sort of thinking is more universal and people who not that that thinking is wrong for other issues, use it for women’s issues. I’ve had people tell me that individualism is a bad thing and then apply a totally individualistic approach to women’s issues. So yes, there is a double standard, but I do think that individualism and post-modernism are problems on their own

  2. I like the term ‘liberish’!

  3. Thanks, tell all your friends/allies about it. It could become a meme!

  4. Kajsa Ekis Ekman has a section on this in her book Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self.

    She notes that under the neoliberal world order, the meaning of ‘victim’ has changed from being someone who has been abused or exploited by someone else, to a character trait that implies personal weakness. The intention is to make being a victim something to be ashamed of, and to imply that a person cannot be both a subject and a victim at the same time. This means that no one wants to admit to being a victim, and saying that someone has been victimised by someone else is akin to insulting them. It’s a very crafty rhetorical trick – for if there are no more victims, there can be no perpetrators.

    She writes that some sex-positive feminists have taken this logic to its natural conclusion, declaring that even prostituted children should not be considered victims, but rather active subjects. This is a completely false dichotomy – of course people (including children) in desperate circumstances are often resilient and intelligent. This shouldn’t excuse the abuse and exploitation they suffer at the hands of perpetrators, nor mitigate the urgent need to change the structures of oppression that facilitate their abuse.

  5. This kind of thinking has permeated society so thoroughly, even organisations that help abused women are often reluctant to refer to their clients as victims. We see this with the preference for the term ‘rape survivor’ over ‘rape victim’. I read a report a few months ago on women trafficked for prostitution in Australia. The report referred to them as victims/survivors throughout – an odd construction that seemed to concede that simply calling the women victims would diminish them somehow. We seem to have reached peak victim-hatred if even women who have been enslaved and subjected to repeated rapes and beatings cannot be unambiguously referred to as victims.

  6. More good points, thank you.

  7. […] From Donkey Skin, in the comments thread here. […]

  8. ellahawthorne100

    Fantastic post! “The observation of oppressive circumstances does not create the oppression” indeed. I don’t know how anyone can get this obvious fact wrong!

  9. Indeed, but ‘you’re taking away (someone’s) agency’ is pretty much the only argument anti-feminists and sex industry advocates have.

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