The friends and enemies of feminism


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.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

More by Michael Brull ›

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  1. Fear of female sexuality, together with fear of what might happen when we die, are two of the strongest impulses society experiences.
    Together and apart, they have stimulated debates such as this one, and much of Western visual and literary art (I include philosophy with art). The push to control, repress and change these two impulses is as old as human interaction: we have debated this since the silhouette of a woman at a cave entrance forced a shiver (of whatever kind) from another human (of whatever gender).
    The responses of politicians and pundits I find are rather dull, uninformed and display ignorance not only of art, literature and history, but also of the human impulse. They merely regurgitate badly-interpreted impressions of others, and are knee-jerks to other knee-jerks.
    I have ceased to be amazed, as well, at general ignorance about sex. Bob Ellis’s remark about forced oral sex is surely one that comes from someone who knows little or nothing about the differences between male and female physicality, psychology and sexuality. Perhaps it is perceived to be sweet to sound so inexperienced, but in that case, it would be wiser to keep silent.
    Sexuality has always been frightening to those who wonder at how it really works. Few – because of our norms and tenets – are experienced enough to understand it, and if they do, lack of eloquence and articulation hinders a good explanation. It is forthcoming from certain sources, but apparently not in the popular media.
    One has to laugh at things some people say in order to attract attention for political, religious, social, philanthropic or pecuniary reasons.

  2. I was under the impression that feminism was about choice. I chose to get married at 22, chose to have a child at 26 and choose to stay at home with him. Does that make me an enemy to feminism? Don’t really care to tell the truth.

  3. The reason why I don’t take on Melinda Tankard Reist, Miranda Devine, Gail Dines et al in public is because I don’t consider it a worthwhile use of my time. They expend a lot of energy policing other peoples’ feminism and frankly, I work on the general rule that if you’re a feminist attacking other feminists, you’re doing it wrong.

    I try and concentrate my energy on constructive discussion, consciousness-raising, and (to be honest) feeling more positive and hopeful about the feminist fight. I know this sounds hopelessly trite and it doesn’t mean I don’t blow my stack about hare-brained assertions in the mainstream media. It just means that I listen, decide it’s not worth my time, and move on. Maybe I’m done fighting every little battle.

    Organising Slutwalk was such an incredible privilege because all day every day I mostly engaged in pretty useful, respectful, dialogue with a diverse cross section of people, within a broader public discussion I had helped set the parameters of. I found that a better social counterpoint to the anti-sex brigade than just pointing and yelling (which is mostly what they do). Reist, Dines et al are not interested in genuine debate so why give them what they want?

    I just square my shoulders and keep going.

    But I think the attempt to pull it apart and examine it as you’ve done, Michael, is valuable. It’s good to see an inventory, and I found most of those articles you discussed very problematic (if not offensive, in the case of the Olding). On the other hand, Emily Maguire is my kind of feminist and she and I have talked at some length about the need to engage young women, men and well, everyone, in the feminist movement. I find her work, and her approach, very inspiring and I’m more likely to dwell on that than the people who disappoint me with their simplistic and reactionary views.

    1. I really wish you, or others more inclined to do so, did take them on. Not because I necessarily believe that they need to be ‘put in their place’. For all of Reist’s conservatism and anti-choice stances on abortion, she has done some commendable work on publicising the less savoury aspects of the commercialisation of sex and womens’ bodies, including the pressure placed upon young models in popular tv shows to wear outfits designed to fall off at inopportune (read: cameras rolling) moments, against the models’ wishes, and then presenting the event as consensually sexy.

      But as the article points out, there are wildly conflicting instructions coming from Reist and similar writers, compared to the feminists I am more familiar with, and I recall from my days in student activism that a similar divide would occur throughout activist politics (where the ‘winning’ side would often be determined by the dominant personalities of the time, and hence would change from year to year).

      None of this is a criticism of the feminist movement, nor does it differentiate it from any activist movement – people disagree BECAUSE this stuff is important and people rightly care about what the right thing to do is.

      But from my (selfish) perspective, and that of many like me, it leads me to despair when trying to determine exactly what it is I should be doing, as a male, to help. Not in the activist end of things – that’s clear enough – but in my personal life and behaviour. There are many guys like me who are self-critical enough to realise that whilst I’m far from the worst offender, there must be things that I can improve upon in my own life. I also subscribe to the school of thinking that men should listen to women in determining what we should do, rather than imposing our own views.

      Which makes it rather confusing when I constantly read articles demanding completely contradictory views about how we should behave. And every time, there is always a cheer squad in the comments utterly condemning any view other than that which the author advocates (together, of course, with the plethora of insanely offensive trolls who seem to flock to such debates for the sole purpose of blaming feminism for their own life failings).

      I know that many males just point out the contradictions as a means of gloating about the ‘confusion’ in their ‘hated feminism’. As I said, I don’t believe that feminist debate is any more confused than other activist issues, and the diversity of debate is testimony to the issue’s passion and importance. But there really are some of us who read these things, not as participants or critics, but as guys who genuinely want to learn and improve our behaviour, perhaps correcting injustices of our own causing that we have overlooked.

      I’m not sure that there’s any easy response to this. But please, keep in mind that even from a male viewpoint (and I know that feminism most certainly should NOT be about what males want, even supportive males), there are many who appreciate your efforts to clarify the issues, and help us in working out how we ought to show our support.

  4. To be honest, I’m a bit unsure about what to take from this piece.

    As far as I know, MTR has always been upfront about her Christianity, which heavily influences and informs her views on sexuality and issues such as abortion. Because she’s so vehemently anti-porn, her views on that align with those of some radical feminists. But she comes at the anti-porn position from a highly conservative place which also includes a very conservative position on sex and sexuality more generally.

    I think most feminists on the left recognise that MTR is on the right and therefore find her incredibly difficult to engage with on feminist issues because her position comes with such a strong conservative agenda. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the wellbeing of young women and girls at heart – I believe she truly cares about these things – but she has a completely different idea of what that wellbeing looks like. I’m not sure she does escape criticism, but if your broader political goals are progressive, then obviously your agenda is going to clash with that of conservatives. And if you are a sexual libertarian, of course you are going to find conservative constructions of sexuality and gender problematic and counterproductive.

    I disagree with Karen a little, in that I think there is a place to argue that many of MTR’s positions on sex and sexuality etc. are antifeminist, but when I use the word “antifeminist” I mean it in the sense that it is counterproductive to the goal of creating a better position for women, not that it doesn’t come from a place of feminist intention. But I would make the same argument about many conservative positions more generally, because I think most conservative political positions make gender equality harder to achieve. Whether or not it would be tactically advisable or productive to couch the argument in those terms is another matter.

  5. I’m informed that MTR was scheduled to be a speaker at the Melbourne Feminist conference this year, but was dumped after various feminists protested her involvement.

  6. I think the question at the heart of these conflicts is whether feminism means women choosing whatever they want to choose or whether it has an ethic beyond this.

  7. Isn’t feminism very simply about giving women equal opportunity so they too have the same rights as men? If this most basic of definitions underpinned or was integrated into all public policy then women could make the choice to have or not have children and not lose income, employment, status and all the other rewards that men can expect when they become fathers. Women could expect to achieve promotion on merit, receive equal pay and single mothers would be supported with adequate welfare payments rather than forced into work and homelessness.

    And if we lived in a culture where equal opportunity was embraced women could choose to say no and have that respected, dress any way they please and not be harassed or denigrated, share the care of children and housework with male partners rather than assume most of the responsibility and not end up as the victims of intimate partner violence in numbers that should prompt more than white ribbons.

    There’s still a lot to fight for.

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