Feminism in Australia has many enemies. Some of them are more or less open opponents. For example, there is Miranda Devine. She complains about the ‘elitism, condescension and moral rootlessness’ demonstrated by the inexplicable opposition of many feminists to Sarah Palin. She has also complained about its devotion to ‘such trivial pursuits as trying to convince the world that fat is good’. Elsewhere, Devine advocated the allegedly ‘new feminism, which involves women reclaiming marriage, motherhood, femininity and domesticity as valid feminist choices’. This new ‘feminism’ may seem to the naive a rather familiar doctrine as to how women should behave. That it is described as feminism is an issue to which I will return.
A more egregious case is Bob Ellis. In April this year, he wrote a column about a woman who was filmed having sex without her consent. His basic attitude to it was: who cares, why is anyone making a fuss? ‘She would almost certainly have got over it, in three years or ten.’ Three years of misery plainly did not disturb him. However, the men earned his sympathy: ‘Is the young man to be sacked from the army now, and ruined, or wounded, or bruised, perhaps, for life? Driven, perhaps, to suicide, as young army men so often are?’ Mr Ellis could not see any ‘grave wrong’ in what happened. Incidentally, Andrew Bolt also said that the ‘excuse for this massive attack on the ADF … is actually trivial’. I responded in a column expressing my outrage.
Mr Ellis was unpersuaded. Indeed, he apparently decided his arguments were so unimpeachable that he took them a step further. He went on to write recently about various men accused of sexual crimes and infidelity. He argues that many of these men are distinguished, yet their lives and careers have been ruined through punishment or adverse publicity for their behaviour. Or perhaps his argument is that because sexual assault is so pervasive, it’s actually not a bad thing, and women should learn to live with it. Has ‘wowser-feminism gone too far?’ Presumably, Mr Ellis thinks men he regards as great should be allowed to rape women. Whether they should also be allowed to rape children is not settled in his column. He thinks they ‘should probably go to jail for it.’ But perhaps not.
Given the moral level of what he writes, I’m not sure if we should be pleased that his mind is open on the matter.
He bases his position on the view that sexual assault can ‘damage a child or youth as much as, or even more than, school bullying, experts now assess’. As women presumably don’t mind sexual assault, and perhaps even enjoy it, no such qualms apparently arise for Mr Ellis. In the comments section he also explained that there is ‘no such thing as “forced” oral sex.’
These are not the only opponents of feminism in Australia. In Orwell’s Ukrainian preface to Animal Farm, he wrote that ‘in my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country … And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.’ It is my view that an analogous claim can be made to the harm being done by some of feminism’s allegedly most prominent advocates.
Recently, there was an article by Rachel Olding in the Sydney Morning Herald about promiscuous young women (17–18 years old).
Ms Olding says they describe their attitude to sex as ‘non-judgmental’: ‘It’s just sex; to us it doesn’t mean anything.’ Ms Olding was appalled: ‘The question is, where are the parents in all this craziness?’
There was a time when this might have been viewed differently by feminists. Even 100 years ago, female sexuality was largely taboo. Barbara Ehrenreich, Gloria Jacobs and Elizabeth Hess argued in Re-Making Love that in the ’60s and ’70s women drove the sexual revolution. Their sexuality was no longer about waiting for marriage, and then laying back and thinking of England. Women began to seek sexual pleasure, and sexual partners outside of the established rigid conventions.
This is not to say that promiscuity means sexual liberation. It is to suggest that increasing the options available to women did represent a form of progress, which has allowed men and women greater choice in their sexuality. Except for those who think the only valid sexuality is in the confines of monogamous marriage, it seems to me plain that the sexual revolution has been a blessing, even if it has not provided a neat, simple answer as to how people should live meaningful and enjoyable lives.
An obvious reason for this is the simple fact of women’s sexuality. An online survey of 10 000 Australians between 25 and 45 ‘found that almost 33 per cent of women want sex every day, compared with 40 per cent of men.’ The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that among Americans from 25–29, 94 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women have masturbated. American surveys have also found that in three months of 2007, ‘approximately one in three visitors to adult entertainment Web sites was female; during the same period, nearly 13 million American women were checking out porn online at least once each month.’ Furthermore:
In a 2006 study at McGill University, researchers monitored genital temperature changes to measure sexual arousal and found that, when shown porn clips, men and women alike began displaying arousal within 30 seconds; men reached maximum arousal in about 11 minutes, women in about 12 (a statistically negligible difference, according to the study).
Men and women’s sexuality seems rather similar, after accounting for differences in cultural influences (and the obvious fact that most porn is made by men, for men). Specifically, men are expected to want regular sex, whereas the same trait in women is treated with stigmatisation: being considered ‘sluts’.
This was part of why there was such a strong reaction to Stephen Fry’s suggestion that women don’t like sex as much as men. There is considerable evidence that women like it, and want it quite a lot. In this sense, whilst it may not be inherently desirable that teenagers or anyone else be promiscuous, it may be considered encouraging that some young women may feel it a valid lifestyle choice. Laurie Penny responded to Fry’s comments by ridiculing ‘Fusty bourgeois refusal to accept that most people are simply gagging for it most of the time’.
A powerful article coming from this perspective, in my view, is by Emily Maguire in 2004. When she was 14, she was ‘certain’ that she wanted sex:
I did not want to have sex because the media told me I should or because my friends were doing it or because my boyfriend was pushing me. I wanted to have sex because my 14-year-old body was flooded with hormones whose entire reason for existence was to make me want to have sex. I was a young woman with brand-new body parts that throbbed and swelled and moistened and ached and stopped me from sleeping at night.
Maguire expressed bitter disappointment and anger at those who failed to express any understanding at how she felt. Teenage boys her age were expected to be horny. Girls were not expected to want sex and were not offered any guidance. As long as knowing adults smirk knowingly about how adolescent boys masturbate, but blush and change the subject at the notion of young women thinking about and wanting sex, they will continue to contribute to the confusion and misery of adolescent girls
To Ms Olding, however, women’s sexuality seems frightening. And she can quote ‘feminists’ who agree with her. She introduces Sandra Yates as a ‘Sydney feminist and executive’. Yates explains that the young women having sex will ‘be poor white trash in another decade … Because while they’re out partying, their more studious, stronger-minded counterparts are sailing past them.’ Perhaps the point of feminism is not to enjoy life, but simply to become as rich as possible, and partying obviously hinders such important pursuits.
Ms Olding also quotes Melinda Tankard Reist. Reist complains about ‘the ‘sexualisation’ of women at younger and younger ages. ‘I mourn for the women of today,’ she says.
For those curious to understand why Reist is so troubled by the situation of women today, it is worthwhile considering her views at greater length. When appearing on The Morning Show, she was introduced as an ‘advocate against the sexualisation of women’. Reist replied with ‘Good morning’ – presumably she regards the description as fair.
Reist is opposed to sexist portrayals of women. She also seems to be opposed to sexual portrayals of women and sexual considerations of women. Take her response to what she called the ‘global worship of Pippa Middleton’s bum’. She considered this generally quite awful, and to prove the sexism in it, quoted various men being degrading and awful (‘All just part of putting women in their place’). One man said: ‘Hell yeah, Saw that arse in the church through that dress and thought … very nice.’
Is saying a woman’s ass is nice such a terrible thing to do? Even Reist saw fit to comment on the ‘shapely rear’ under consideration. Was that appropriate? I am not saying that men shouldn’t treat women with respect. I simply wonder what room Reist does leave for male sexuality. Does she think there is something inherently bad about lust?
On Slutwalk, she quoted approvingly anti-porn writer Gail Dines: ‘Men want women to be sluts and now they’re buying in.’ It is not clear at first why this is a valid objection, or even if it is true. Many men – and women – regard ‘sluts’ with contempt. But suppose (all?) men did want women to be sluts (as in, sexually promiscuous). Would that be a bad thing? Would the key to women’s liberation then be defying what men want and being non-promiscuous? This may make sense if men and women are enemies, and feminism means women triumphing over men.
There was also the case of Todd Woodbridge privately texting a friend, saying that Kim Clijsters may be pregnant because, among other things, her ‘boobs looked bigger’. Clijsters was informed of the text and proceeded, with good humour, to publicly embarrass him about it.
Reist was less amused: ‘Why is he checking out her breasts in the first place?’
Should he not have done so? When is it permissible and non-sexist for men to check out female breasts? If the man is married to the woman is it allowed? If she is breastfeeding their son? Are there any physical aspects of women men can admire – their eyes? Is it simply sexual attraction from men which is immoral? What about women attracted to women? Is that also bad? Should all attraction be purely based on personality?
A hint to Reist’s preferred sexuality is indicated by her recommended reading list. It includes such titles as A Return to Modesty, Girls Gone Mild and The Thrill of the Chaste. Jessica Valenti critiqued the latter two in The Purity Myth as written by ‘virginity-movement frontliners’, whose ‘regressive messages’ can ‘all be summed up in one sentence: If you’re a young, unmarried woman who’s having sex, you’re putting yourself in danger – better go back to baking cookies and pretending you don’t know what a clitoris is.’
So far as I know, there is vanishingly little criticism of Reist. Even by those who consider themselves feminists. Leslie Cannold wrote a trenchant review of Reist’s book advocating against abortion. Jennifer Wilson wrote an attack on Reist’s advocacy of what she aptly described as Christian sexual conservatism. Yet by and large, Reist has gotten a free pass. She remains one of the most prominent and regular public commentators in Australia identifying as a feminist.
As revolting as Bob Ellis’s views on women and gender issues are, I think more harm is done to feminism when it is associated with the values described above. I won’t speak on behalf of women. I will simply say that it is hard to imagine many men being drawn to a ‘feminism’ that seems to treat expressions of male sexuality as bad, and regards men as the enemy. Some people may regard that as a bad thing.