Tag: feminism

Open Borders: The Only Feminist Immigration Position

Open Borders: The Only Feminist Immigration Position

An intersectional feminism is one that stands for women of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, and economic backgrounds, not just the middle class white American woman. Feminism involves critiquing existing power structures and empowering ourselves and others to rise above the restraints placed on us by those power structures. If we are serious about gender equality, we must apply our feminist outlook to every position we hold. Nationalism is a power structure as toxic as racism and sexism: it is based in the idea that certain groups of people are different from and better than others because of something as arbitrary as where they were born.

I spend a lot of time critiquing gender norms in the United States. One reason is that I know more about gender in the U.S. than I do about gender in other countries, mostly due to personal experience. For me (and most, if not all, Americans), fighting the gender norms in my own country is easier than running from them. By being outspoken, I can push for change and try to make my world a better place. But for many of my sisters abroad, gender resistance is not a viable option. The fight bears so many risks—violence, death, ostracism, etc.—that speaking out just is not worth it.

Another option, besides vocal resistance and doing nothing, exists: immigration. Rather than be subject to human degradation, women may try to escape. But where can they go? Most first world countries have high barriers to entry, insurmountable for those with little access to important resources, such as money, connections, and education. By breaking down those barriers and opening borders, immigration can become a viable option.

We must open our borders to refugees. Syria was ranked 139th in the world for gender equality in 2014, higher than only Pakistan, Chad, and Yemen. ISIS rapes, kidnaps, and murders women, subjecting many women to sexual slavery. Some Syrian women have taken on the fight for their gender: 10,000 volunteer troops make up the Women’s Protection Units, fighting against ISIS’s reign in the region. The life of a warrior is not for everyone. The UNHCR estimates that 50.7% of the 4,812,204 registered Syrian refugees are women. Rape and sexual assault run rampant in refugee camps, even in those run by charities. As of October 2015, there were more than 27,000 female refugee sexual assault victims in Syria alone. Most women in these camps will not admit to having been raped due to the associated cultural stigma, but will say they have seen other women being raped. By keeping our borders closed, we subject Syrian women to horrific violations of their bodily autonomy.

We must open our borders to Latin American immigrants. Women in Latin America earn 68 percent of what men earn. These women face wage discrimination in all sectors of the workforce, but most women are relegated to low-paying, menial jobs. Mexico was ranked 80th in the world for gender equality in 2014. El Salvador, the second most common source of undocumented immigrants to the United States, was ranked 84th. Women in Latin America were the least likely in the world in 2012 and 2013 to say that women were treated with respect and dignity in their culture. Coming to the United States presents opportunities that women do not have in their native countries. Women who try to get to the United States face a broken immigration system where they have no chance of being legally approved to immigrate. They are left with no choice but to break the law. Barriers to immigration leave women particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking. Women and children who try to cross the border illegally are often kidnapped, raped, or killed because they have to rely on gangs and cartels to assist in their crossing. By not opening our borders, we leave Latin American women subjected to far more unequal conditions than those in the United States, and put their freedom, dignity, and lives at risk.

We must open our borders to all of the developing world. In the developing world, 6 million women go missing every year due to infanticide, unequal treatment during childhood, sex-selective abortion, and the risks of childbirth. Gender gaps in education, healthcare, and autonomy affect women disproportionately in developing countries compared to their first world counterparts. The proportion of women to men in higher education increases as GDP increases. Tolerance for gender-based violence increases in poorer countries. In poorer countries, women have less influence over household spending than men and their first world counterparts. Women in developing countries report having less control over their lived than women in the developed world. Female genital mutilation, leading to lifelong pain, premature death, and other complications, is concentrated in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. By refusing to open our borders, we leave women in these countries are left vulnerable to violence and domination.

Cultural change takes time. American feminists know this because at times our work feels futile. We put in countless hours and it feels like all we take are baby steps. How can we expect women around the world to wait for their culture to change while their lives are under imminent and constant threat? Open borders would be a concrete, meaningful step toward giving women around the world a better option. When you cannot fight, you must be able to flee.



Yes and No: Women’s Sexual Liberation is a Package Deal

Women are caught in a constant war between the pressure to have sex and the pressure not to. “Slut.” “Prude.” “I bought you dinner—why did you lead me on if you didn’t want to have sex?” Even within feminist circles, we face pressure from those who claim to care about our choices. “Sexual purity is a creation of the patriarchy.” “Sex is one of the ways men exert power over women.” “Liberated women have sex like men.” Feminism becomes divided into sex-positive and sex-negative. Sex is not positive or negative. It can be either, sure, but there is nothing inherently positive or negative about having sex. We should be framing our feminism as choice-positive or agency-positive.

A woman who has sex with a different person every weekend is no more or less liberated than a woman who waits to have sex until she has found someone she loves. Liberation is not measured in the number of sexual partners a woman has or doesn’t have. Liberation comes from agency.

In a conversation about rape culture and feminism, my conservative mom acknowledged that rape culture as I described it existed today. But when she was young, things were different, she said. Only certain “types” of women slept with men they had just met. Only those women were “fair game” for men’s unwanted sexual advances. The modern omnipresence of rape culture, then, could be tied to women’s sexual liberation. As more women have become sexually liberated, men have not abandoned the assumption that a certain type of girl is always down to fuck. The difference is that, now, we are all that type of girl.

As feminist author bell hooks wrote, “Men who were ready for female sexual liberation if it meant free pussy, no strings attached, were rarely ready for feminist female sexual agency. This agency gave us the right to say yes to sex, but it also empowered us to say no.”

Men who claim to support women’s sexual liberation if it means more blowjobs for them do not care about women’s agency. What has changed for them is not our role in the decision-making process, but their own ease of access. By equating sexual liberation with indiscriminate promiscuity, they can now pressure women to have sex with them in the name of feminism— because women who say no are puritans, held back by the patriarchy. Ding ding ding: rape culture.

Consent is positive. Choice is positive. Agency is positive. Sex itself is neutral. It can be positive or negative depending on the circumstances and the choice of the people involved. Both camps of feminists — sex-positive and sex-negative — offer valuable analysis of the way patriarchy controls women’s bodies and sexuality. But by valuing sex as positive or negative, feminists extend the limitations on agency created by patriarchy. The right to say yes and the ability to say no are a package deal. Any feminist would agree. So why does our language imply otherwise?


Emma Goldman: Woman Suffrage and Feminist Idols (Revisited)

Emma Goldman: Woman Suffrage and Feminist Idols (Revisited)

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to “celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.” I decided to celebrate by honoring one of my favorite women, Emma Goldman. As I have before with Voltairine de Cleyre, I will revisit one of her classic essays from a modern perspective.

As an anarchist, Emma Goldman had no patience for the women’s suffrage movement of her era. In her 1910 essay, “Woman Suffrage,” she called suffrage a fetish and an idol. In her own words, “In her blind devotion woman does not see what people of intellect perceived fifty years ago: that suffrage is an evil, that it has only helped to enslave people, that it has but closed their eyes that they may not see how craftily they were made to submit.” Goldman thought that activists should be focused on radical revolutionary goals, not asking for greater privileges within an inherently unjust system. She viewed suffrage as a distraction, not an end goal.

More than one hundred years later, and 94 years after the ratification of the 19th amendment, was Goldman right?

In short, yes. Legislative changes are lagging indicators of cultural change. Asking an oppressor to grant the oppressed more privileges has never been the most effective strategy to achieve social change. The eventual success of woman suffrage, the great golden idol of the early women’s movement, effectively quashed the women’s movement for fifty years.

By focusing an entire movement on one specific legislative change, we lose sight of our end goal. The right to vote is not an end goal, but a means to further the end goal of equal socio-economic and cultural status for women as for men. By forgetting their end goal and focusing on voting, the early women’s movement set women back immeasurably.

Another, more recent example of a movement losing sight of the end goal is the gay rights movement’s focus on gay marriage. By avidly pursuing legislative changes to marriage laws and forgetting the end goal of equal socio-economic and cultural status, much of the movement subsided when equal marriage was achieved. An activist wrote that the gay rights battle was over for libertarians, as though strides could or should not be made outside of the government. At the altar of marriage equality, we forget to look beyond and take into account the full LGBT+ spectrum, as well as our overarching goals.

Emma wrote of woman suffrage in other countries and its effect on the long-term goal:

The women of Australia and New Zealand can vote, and help make the laws.  Are the labor conditions better there than they are in England, where the suffragettes are making such a heroic struggle? Does there exist a greater motherhood, happier and freer children than in England?  Is woman there no longer considered a mere sex commodity?  Has she emancipated herself from the Puritanical double standard of morality for men and women?

Emma’s observations that her society had a deeply problematic view of women, which voting could not change, did not catch on again until much later, with the rise of second wave feminism. Second wave feminism came and went in a flurry of revolutionary, powerful rhetoric and seemingly lofty, but inspiring goals. Decidedly white-centric and trans and sex-worker exclusionary, second wave feminism was far from perfect, but it was about more than a vote, more than a piece of legislation, it was about rocking the foundations on which society thought of gender.

In the third wave, we can bring forward the end goals and broad focus of second wave feminism, but uplift all women. We should remember that feminism is not all about electing a war criminal woman as president, or passing the Equal Pay Act. Our feminism is about challenging what it means to be a woman or a man and knocking down the idol “gender” that society holds so near and dear. We have the potential to change the world, so let’s take a clue from Emma and leave the idols behind.

Hillary Clinton’s War On Women

“Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat. Women often have to flee from the only homes they have ever known. Women are often the refugees from conflict and sometimes, and more frequently in today’s warfare, victims. Women are often left with the responsibility, alone, of raising the children.” ~ Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton leads race for the Democratic Party nomination in 2016. Liberal feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Madeleine Albright, and Lena Dunham continue to tout Clinton as the candidate for women. Planned Parenthood has officially endorsed the former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, calling her a champion for women’s rights. Clinton may have the best shot at being the first woman POTUS, but she is no feminist hero.

In Clinton’s own words, women have always been the primary victims of war, but Clinton is the most pro-war candidate in the 2016 presidential race, Democrat or Republican. Furthermore, she has the record to back it up.

In November, Clinton gave a speech describing her vision for the United States’ role in the Middle East:

“No other country can rally the world to defeat ISIS and win the generational struggle against radical jihadism. Only the United States can mobilize common action on a global scale, and that’s exactly what we need. The entire world must be part of this fight, but we must lead it.”

Hawkish rhetoric is nothing new for Clinton. Take, for example, her 2002 statementson the American invasion of Iraq:

“…If left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capability to wage biological and chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.”

As a Senator, Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War, and in 2008, defended her vote, saying, “I believe in coercive diplomacy.” She also voted against the Levin Amendment in 2002, an amendment that would have given the UN veto power over United States military action. In 2004, she voted in favor of allocating $86 billion of the U.S. budget to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. She voted against withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2007.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s record is horrific. Clinton aggressively pursuedregime changes in Libya and Syria, leading to the creation of ISIS, war in Mali, and the strengthening of terrorist group Boko Haram. Regime change has historically beenterrible for national security, leading to blowback and the creation of newer, bigger, more oppressive threats to both citizens of the United States and citizens of the Middle East.

In a recent Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton bragged that she sought the support and counsel of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger himself has described Clinton’s run at the State Department “the most effective…[he’s] ever seen.”

Hillary Clinton was right about one thing: women are disproportionately affected by war. In 2003, the UN released a statement saying that women suffer disproportionately during and after war. War magnifies gender inequality and breaks down the social networks that women need to survive. ISIS has filled the vacuum Hillary created in Syria, executing, raping, and trafficking the region’s women along the way.

Gender inequality during and after conflict is not limited to sexual and gender-based violence; it touches every aspect of women’s lives. Clinton’s Syrian disaster led to the Syrian refugee crisis, and while men bear the bulk of mortality during war, women make up the majority of refugees. War also puts widows at a higher risk of poverty, especially in countries where social norms dictate that men make up the workforce and women stay at home. The notion that the United States as an external force can somehow change these cultural norms is part of the same democracy-spreading farceGeorge W. Bush touted during his hawkish presidency.

Violence and imperialism do not liberate women. External force and rampant destruction do not liberate women. Hillary Clinton’s incessant war mongering and disregard for the basic human rights of non-Americans do not liberate women. Women liberate themselves when they take control over their lives and their futures against all odds. Kurdish women defending their families from ISIS and US airstrikes are feminist heroes. Hillary Clinton is a violent oppressor. Know the difference.

This was originally published on February 25, 2016 at Antiwar.com.

Bill Cosby, Rape Culture, and Individual Responsibility

On July 26th, 35 of Bill Cosby’s rape victims came forward to discuss their rapes and the culture that ignored their cries for help. A serial rapist going uncharged for years due to celebrity is indicative of a deeper cultural problem — one that treats rape as an innocent mistake rather than a violent crime.

Countless studies point to an underlying culture in our society of male sexual aggression and the victimization of women. Not all men rape, but all men have the capacity to rape, and all women suffer from constant fear of being raped. Fear is central in rape culture — fear of sexual violence, fear of not being taken seriously, fear of men, and fear of the institutions that are supposed to protect us. The FBI estimates that of the mere 40% of rapes that are reported, only 20% are ever prosecuted. Rape is a traumatic experience, in ways different from any other crime, and speaking up about it after the fact to disinterested, cold ears is terrifying.

Rape culture can be defined as, “A complex of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women … and a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women [and girls] and presents it as the norm.”

Most rape victims already know their rapists, whether they are a boyfriend, classmate, or celebrity. The constant fear that is characteristic of rape culture affects all women. Women can do little to protect themselves against the people they already trust. Even if they could, the onus should fall on the rapist, not the victim. The women Bill Cosby raped had little chance to defend themselves, and their cries for recourse fell on unmoved ears.

Bill Cosby himself did not view his actions as rape. According to his deposition, he saw little difference between drugging a woman for sex and buying her dinner with the same goal in mind. Cosby’s attitudes about rape reflect a societal misunderstanding of how consent works. While Cosby was fully responsible for the rapes he committed, his outlook reflects how much work we have left in fighting for women’s bodily autonomy.

Many critics of rape culture say that talking about rape culture shifts blame from the perpetrators to the society around them, therefore relieving rapists of their own responsibility. RAINN, the U.S.’s largest organization combatting sexual violence, criticized rape culture, saying that, “Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions of a small percentage of the community to commit a violent crime.”

This criticism represents a misunderstanding of what rape culture means and why we talk about it. Individuals, while wholly responsible for their own actions, do not act within a vacuum. Culture in many ways dictates the attitudes and actions of the members of that culture. Just as a culture of nationalism fosters violence toward immigrants, rape culture fosters sexual violence. A rapist like Bill Cosby was able to continue to commit crime after crime because society ignored and justified his actions. In order to effectively combat rape, we must embrace a more radical approach that addresses its societal underpinnings. By getting to the cultural root of sexual violence, we can put an end to the very environment that allows rape to thrive.

We don’t have to choose between combatting rape culture and holding individual rapists accountable. Under rape culture, individual rapists are not held accountable for their actions. Our society treats rapists as innocent boys who made a harmless mistake — that is rape culture. Our society sides with celebrities over rape victims despite insurmountable evidence to the contrary — that is rape culture. Cultures are spontaneous orders that arise out of individual action. In countering rape culture we must fight both harmful action andpermissive attitudes towards those actions.

RAINN’s alternative recommendations for fighting sexual violence largely include risk-reduction messaging. RAINN shifts the responsibility for preventing rape to the potential victims — not the individuals committing rape. In knocking down discussion of rape culture, critics do the exact opposite of what they intend. They remove the rapist’s responsibility and retreat into the victim-blaming that sits at rape culture’s core.

For a free society to flourish, we must not only respect individual rights, but also uphold individual responsibility. We owe it to ourselves to create a world in which rapists are held accountable for their actions and a culture in which human rights violations like rape are viewed as the atrocities they are. If you deny rape culture exists or say that it doesn’t matter, you are part of the problem. We can either recognize and fight rape culture or foster it — no third option is available.

This article was originally published on August 9, 2015 at C4SS.org.

Will the Real Feminists Please Stand Up?

Amnesty International has drafted a proposal calling for sex work to be legalized worldwide. The proposal “reflects a growing body of research from UN agencies, human rights organisations, and social science which indicates that criminalisation, in its varying forms, exposes sex workers to increased risk of human rights abuses.” According to Amnesty, the policy is inspired by the principles of harm reduction, physical integrity, and autonomy. Amnesty has never had an official policy regarding sex work in the past, and many involved in the sex industry view this as a huge step in the right direction.

In response to the proposal, several celebrities and human rights advocates, including self-proclaimed feminist Lena Dunham, have drafted a letter condemning Amnesty’s decision and calling for the proposal to be discarded. The letter cherry-picks statistics, saying that legalization leads to increased sex trafficking, and that “without a vibrant sex industry, there would be no sex trafficking.” The letter is misguided and comes from a place of privilege and downright ignorance about the realities of sex work.

Amnesty International understands what Lena Dunham apparently doesn’t: women own their own bodies. Outlawing sex work is just another way in which the State exerts its control over women’s bodies (as most sex workers are women). For someone like Lena Dunham, an outspoken advocate of reproductive rights, to call for the criminalization of sex work and for more restrictions on women’s bodily integrity is the epitome of white feminist hypocrisy. Speaking for other women rather than listening to them is a habit that seems to haunt white feminism.

Since the letter’s publication, many sex workers have spoken out in defense of Amnesty International’s proposal and their own human dignity. Dr. Brooke Magnanti took to Twitter, saying, “If anyone thinks they know better about the current state of sex work conditions than sex workers, they are fucking deluded.” In reference to Anne Hathaway, who also signed the letter, porn star Stoya tweeted, “Oh, you played a prostitute in a movie? I played a nurse in a porno. Does that qualify me to talk about working conditions in hospitals?” Thousands of sex worker supporters have signed a competing petition asking Amnesty to stand firm in their proposal.

The legalization of sex work is of the utmost importance in fighting against violence toward women. Laws against sex work marginalize sex workers and leave them exposed to sexual abuse, police violence, and trafficking. When rapists attack sex workers on the job, those sex workers have little to no recourse against their attackers. For sex workers, any encounter with police means losing their livelihood and their freedom. Because of the underground nature of sex work, prostitution lends itself to trafficking and sex slavery. If sex workers were able to work without fear of being arrested, they would have much more sayin the conditions of their employment, and it would be much easier to leave the business if they so desired.

If Lena Dunham and the other signers of the letter against Amnesty International’s proposal care about women’s right to bodily autonomy, they should retract their signatures. Claiming to be a feminist while simultaneously calling for restrictions on the way women can use their own bodies to earn a living is duplicitous and wrong. Lena Dunham, if you think feminism is about shouting over other women and telling them you know what’s best for them while using the violent apparatus of the State to enforce your moral norms, you’d best take a seat.

This article was originally published on August 2, 2015 at C4SS.org.

Black Widow’s Infertility: More Than A Sexist Trope

In the first Avengers movie, Black Widow stands alone in a field of men. Despite being the token female character, she breaks the bounds of classic Hollywood femininity and demonstrates depth and a sense of humor. Then came Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. In a highly controversial move, Black Widow reveals that she is infertile, and then calls herself a monster. Really? Infertility makes a woman a monster? Thanks, Joss. Feminists were immediately, and fairly, outraged. How could feminist Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, let his token woman fall into the infertility trope so common in Hollywood? Didn’t Black Widow deserve better than to face the classic cissexist female tragedy – the inability to have children?

Feminist Margaret Sanger said, “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” Contrary to the interpretation of most (outraged) feminists, what makes Black Widow tragic is not that she does not aspire to motherhood, but that she has no choice either way. Black Widow’s forced infertility stands for a problem that plagues our society: the external loci of control over women’s bodies. Rather than be angry that her infertility even comes up, let’s have a conversation about women and the choices they are able to make. Our feminist project is far from over. The U.S.-centric view that women now fully own themselves is simply not accurate, even in the West. Thanks to legal obstruction, social norms, and male entitlement, women still do not have complete control over their bodies.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which women lack control over their own bodies is reproductive rights. Thirteen states in the U.S. are considered hostile to abortion and make it extremely difficult for women to get abortions, despite the Supreme Court ruling them legal 42 years ago. More states enacted anti-abortion regulations in 2011-2013 than the entire previous decade. Many states require parental consent for adolescent women to have abortions, further enforcing the idea that young women don’t own their own bodies. A woman from Indiana was recently charged with feticide for attempting her own abortion, inducing a miscarriage with illegal abortion pills. Women under these abortion restrictions are in the same boat as Black Widow — they cannot decide whether or not to have children. Someone else is making the choice for them.

Laws affecting abortion are extremely regressive. The typical woman who gets an abortion is poor, unmarried and young. Women in these circumstances have few choices; they simply cannot afford to raise a child. The cost of raising a child to the age of 18 varies on average from $157,000 to nearly $400,000 in the United States. These numbers do not account for the cost of pregnancy or of giving birth, not to mention any lost income due to having to drop out of school. Abortion, therefore, may seem like the only option to many pregnant women. Clearly the cheaper option, an abortion pill can still cost up to $800 and an in-clinic procedure can cost as much as $1500 in the first trimester. Abortion is expensive because of state regulations targeting abortion, mandated clinical procedures and intellectual property laws. The cheapest option for women is to not get pregnant in the first place.

Female birth control is expensive, often outside the range of insurance coverage, and requires a doctor’s prescription. For women who have poor insurance and cannot afford a doctor’s visit cannot get a prescription for birth control in the first place. These women are also more likely to have unprotected sex. The notion that women have the responsibility to abstain from sex to avoid unwanted pregnancy relies on outdated Victorian-era notions about female sexuality. Women need to have control over their own sex lives through easy access to birth control and, when that fails, abortion. Behind both Black Widow’s tragedy and ours, the assumption stands that women naturally should aspire to marriage and motherhood. Black Widow is violated to impede this supposedly natural inclination; most women today are violated to uphold it.

Male entitlement to women’s bodies affects every aspect of the experience of being a women. In the United States, 18.3% of women have survived a rape or an attempted rape. Despite the commonplace nature of rape, the men who commit rape very rarely are convicted. Unlike with any other crime, the first instinct of most people is to ask what the rape victim did to cause the rape to happen. Questions like, “What was she wearing?” and, “How often does she have sex?” invalidate the victim’s experience, violate her privacy, and place the blame away from the person at fault—the rapist. A culture of victim-blaming and slut-shaming reinforces the notion that women do not control their bodies, men do. Men just cannot help themselves.

So far, this conversation has been largely centered on cis women’s bodies, or women’s bodies with female reproductive capacities. Transgender women also lack the control over their own bodies that seemingly only cis men can enjoy. Anti-transgender violence is a national crisis, as the murder of transgender people often goes ignored. Over 200 transgender people were murdered in 2014 alone. One in two transgender individuals are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Apart from the shocking amount of violence toward transgender women, transgender women also lack self-ownership medically. Pills that aid with transition are expensive and require a prescription. Women must meet with a counselor who decides whether or not they are good “candidates” for the treatment. Many of the same laws that restrict women’s access to birth control also apply to hormone replacement therapy. Again, these laws are extremely regressive, as they most affect women with poor insurance who cannot afford the necessary doctor’s appointment. Cultural norms also dominate transgender women’s bodies by defining them. When women’s experiences are defined in terms of their reproductive organs, many women are completely left out of the conversation.

In many places outside of the United States, women fare even worse. Women in China face a problem much more similar to that of Black Widow, by not being allowed to have more than one child. Women in China are pressured or even forced into undergoing permanent birth control procedures after giving birth for the first time, or into having an abortion if their fetus is assigned female. In Iran, women are restricted in the way they can dress, and have virtually no access to family planning and reproductive services. In Egypt, 91 percent of married women have undergone female genital mutilation procedures. Unsafe abortions due to government control are the fifth leading cause of maternal death in Mexico. 99 percent of maternal death takes place in developing countries. In Russia, Black Widow’s homeland, it is illegal for transgender women to drive. The world has a long way to go in the fight for gender equality and women self-ownership.

As part of her training to become an assassin, the Black Widow is forced to become infertile because of gendered assumptions about motherhood. The underlying assumption in Black Widow’s graduation is that she will, unless made infertile, eventually want to settle down and have a family. This sexist assumption about Black Widow’s future dictates the choices she has about her reproductive health. Like all women under the patriarchy, Black Widow does not have control over her body, and it is tragic, trope or no trope. Black Widow is a feminist hero because she demonstrates strength and character depth in the face of Hollywood’s stereotypes about femininity and what makes a “strong woman.” She also has a tragic backstory that all women should relate to — not because we should all be baby-making machines, but because we all understand what it means to have control of our bodies taken from us by men with sexist ideas. Women around the world must take up arms and fight for the right to their own bodies. In the fight against the patriarchal domination of women’s bodies, we are all Black Widows.

This article was originally published on May 29, 2015 at C4SS.org.

Individualism, Anti-Essentialism, and Intersectionality

Social justice is, in large part, based in the concept of identity politics, or politics based on oppression, privilege, and group identity. Identity politics is important because of social and historical context. Understanding group interactions and their effect on the individuals in these groups is essential to fighting oppression. While many libertarians and individualist anarchists reject identity politics due to concerns about the collectivist nature of group identity, Wade Craig argues that identity politics, or politics based on oppression, privilege, and group identity, is an individualist project:

Identity politics seeks to take the individuals and free them from that group of which society has labeled them members. It seeks to free homosexual people from the stereotypical concept of what it means to be gay, male people from masculinity, colored people from race, etc.

In order to maintain the individualistic nature of our fight for equality, we must take into account two very important pieces of the social justice puzzle: intersectionality and anti-essentialism.

Intersectionality is an approach in social justice that recognizes the existence of overlapping categories of oppression. An individual may be oppressed in certain ways and privileged in others. To understand how to overcome oppression generally, we must understand how these overlapping categories of oppressed and privileged interact. For example, a straight black man and a white lesbian are both privileged and oppressed in completely different ways. While the first subject has straight and male privilege, he is oppressed on the basis of race. The second subject has white privilege, but is oppressed on the basis of being a woman and not straight. Recognizing this intersection of oppressions and privileges moves us away from a collectivist, one-size-fits-all approach to an individualist person-based approach to combating oppression.

Anti-essentialism is the idea that no “essential” experience exists among people of a certain oppressed of privileged group. There is no essential Black experience or essential woman experience because Black people and women are so varied and may be affected differently by different oppressions (as discussed above). Trina Grillo criticizes essentialism, saying it “assumes that the strands of identity are separable.” In other words, it ignores the variety in each person’s identity — it is anti-individual. Using Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality is vital to our project in combating oppression because of the importance of recognizing each person as more than a member of an oppressed group, as an individual, a unique end in themselves.

Oppression and privilege affect every aspect of day-to-day life. Whether one indirectly benefits from the oppression of others, directly causes it, or is the victim, the pursuit of one’s goals is largely affected by one’s position in society. The recognition of privilege is simply the recognition that oppression affects each of us differently. As Nathan Goodman says in The Knowledge Problem of Privilege, “Every individual has unique knowledge shaped by their experiences and preferences, knowledge that may not be accessible to others…” Defining the collective experience of a group in specific terms is difficult, especially for those who have no first-hand experience of such oppression. In order to combat oppression, we must recognize the places in which we have privilege and cannot relate to the experiences of someone who is oppressed. In fighting oppression we must not lose sight of the individual, despite the importance of shared experience. Intersectionality and anti-essentialism help us to recognize the limits of our knowledge about experiences other than our own, so we can be careful not to speak for others and drown out their voices.

Collectivism leads us to define people into categories, placing each person into a strictly defined group. Essentializing the experience of each group, we set up expectations for members of each arbitrarily defined category and ignore personal experience. In her speech on intersectionality and anti-essentialism, Trina Grillo refers to both as the “Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House.” By looking to intersectionality and anti-essentialism, we are able to defeat collectivist notions of what oppression should look like, and get to the root of the problem. This sort of radical social justice goes beyond black and white categorization to individualistic recognition of the experience of each individual person, giving us the tools of liberation.

Individualism opposes the external control of individual choice, holding reason as the source of morality. Societal constraints on individual reason and morality are the subject of social justice. As rebels in the oppressive system, we must fight for a radical individualism in which people are not held back by societal expectations of behavior based on arbitrary factors like race or gender, but recognized as free moral agents, capable of making decisions for themselves. Oppression and privilege compel people to make certain choices or respond to certain situations based on their position in society. Dominant social structures, even those that are nonviolent, can impede individuality by creating illusions of choice and imposing oppressive, collectivist norms.

Ayn Rand, a strong proponent of individualism, stressed the importance of recognizing each person as an end in themselves:

Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

She argued that in order for people to be able to pursue their ends, they must recognize and respect the value of the individual and the importance of individual rights. Our project as combatants against oppression is to open up opportunities for each individual to pursue their own ends without interfering with others. Our goal is not to recreate special privileges or redefine the boundaries of oppressor and oppressed, but to erase them all together. Only in a world beyond oppression and privilege will people truly be regarded as individuals.

To break the boundaries of oppression, we must empower ourselves, recognizing that the fight against oppression is a fight for all by all, and that no one’s experience of oppression is the same. Group identity is shaped by history and society, and is extremely important when diagnosing social trends and identifying problems of oppression. Identity politics cannot be ignored. By looking to individualism, anti-essentialism, and intersectionality, we can form a project that clears the way for each person to achieve their ends, man qua man. As Trina Grillo says, “We have a better chance of forming a vision of a post-patriarchal, post-racial society both by trusting in our own experiences and by seeking out voices that are drowned out by essentialism in all its forms.” We cannot fight oppression by ignoring the existence of social constructs such as gender and race, because these social constructs heavily influence human interaction. We can, however, tear down these social constructs by acknowledging them and defying their bounds. By recognizing that oppression exists and that each person is an end in themselves, we stand a fighting chance.

This article was originally published on May 23, 2015 at C4SS.org.

Sex Slavery Revisited

In 1890, anarchist feminist Voltairine de Cleyre published Sex Slavery, a short speech in defense of Moses Harman, a women’s rights supporter who was prosecuted under Comstock law for publishing allegedly obscene material. De Cleyre argued that in her society, women were viewed as the property of their husbands, and had little power over their own bodies and destinies. Today, women still have to fight for the right to self-ownership, in a society dominated by alpha males with little respect for women’s bodies or minds. Although Sex Slavery was written 125 years ago, its message remains relevant in our culture of male entitlement, victim-blaming, and omnipresent gender roles.

When de Cleyre used the phrase “sex slavery,” she was referring to laws that existed at the time permitting men to rape their wives as well as cultural expectations regarding the way women should dress, behave, and generally carry themselves. She wrote that married women were essentially kept as sex slaves for their husbands, expected to put on a costume of personal purity and righteousness, while at the same time submitting sexually whenever their husbands so desired. Marital rape became illegal shockingly recently. Most rape laws included a marital exemption until the mid-1970s. The last states to remove the marital exemption from their rape laws, Oklahoma and North Carolina, did so in 1993. There continue to be differences in the way unmarried and married rape are treated in thirteen states, with spousal rape requiring some element of escalation beyond non-consent, such as violence or personal injury. In the case of South Carolina, marital rape must be reported within 30 days of the incident for it to go to court.

De Cleyre noted two reasons that marital rape was so widely accepted: “the mind domination of the church and the body domination of the State.” Male entitlement in the United States is largely rooted in residual puritanical culture, reminiscent of America’s religious past. 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 says, “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does… Do not deprive one another…so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” This passage excuses marital rape from being a moral wrong and stresses that married people have the duty to submit to each other sexually, lest the other partner loses self-control and commits adultery.

The idea of men not being able to control themselves is ever prevalent today and shifts blame from the rapist to the raped. Men are viewed as lust-driven animals, incapable of keeping their hands to themselves. In classrooms, young girls are forced to cover their bodies as though they were dirty because they are “distracting the boys” — boys who just cannot control themselves in the presence of female skin. At the time de Cleyre wrote Sex Slavery, the Comstock law was frequently used to suppress feminist speech as “obscene.” Other feminists who fell victim to Comstock law included Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger. Although obscenity laws are much more relaxed today, the concept of the human body being obscene remains. When a woman is raped, questions like “Why did she drink so much?” and “What was she wearing?” abound; Questions that should be irrelevant when the real question is, “Did all parties consent?” Rapists are excused because “men can’t help it” and women are blamed for showing too much skin in a culture that still relies on puritanical norms that have long been outdated, as the mind domination of the church maintains its grip on society.

The body domination of the State also reinforces rape culture and male dominance. In Sex Slavery, de Cleyre specifically criticized those who asked, “why didn’t she leave?” in cases of domestic rape and abuse. The state systematically reinforces privilege by controlling who can work where (mandatory union membership, licensing, employee documentation, zoning, etc.), and makes it difficult for people to get themselves out of difficult situations. Additionally, the State asserts ownership over its citizens’ bodies by attempting to control what substances someone puts in their body — whether it be marijuana or birth control without a prescription. The State controls women by limiting their access to contraception and abortion, through regulations that masquerade as “pro-health.” Through gun control laws, the State limits the ways women can defend themselves from men who can most certainly help themselves, but choose to do otherwise. If women do not have total ownership over their own bodies, who does? The State? Men? By removing power from women and placing it in the hands of patriarchal institutions, the State reinforces male power over women.

Much has changed since Voltairine de Cleyre wrote Sex Slavery in 1890. However, the change has not been enough. Women are still not treated as self-owners in our legal system. Men are still viewed as animals that cannot help but have sex with unwilling victims. Women who bear skin are still viewed as sexual and obscene “temptations”. The mind domination of the Church and body domination of the State that de Cleyre warned about continue to plague society and reinforce the patriarchy. In 2015, 125 years later, it’s about damn time we break free from our chains.

This post was originally published at c4ss.org.