UK grassroots feminism is flourishing at the moment, with the journalist Julie Bindel leading from the front as troublemaker-in-chief. In a long history of activism that began in the 1980s, campaigning against male violence in Leeds while Peter Sutcliffe stalked the streets, Bindel has always been straight to the point, full of heart and un-interested in placating middle-class sensibilities. Her new book is no different. Feminism for Women is an impassioned manifesto for the kind of feminism she favours — indeed, the only kind she’s willing to acknowledge as worthy of the name.
Bindel’s feminism is unashamedly focused on women and girls of the old-fashioned female kind, and what tends to happen to the most vulnerable of them — poor, working-class, black, young, old, lesbian or trafficked — at the hands of males. She is scathing about the way other feminists (she would use inverted commas) have twisted the original Second Wave project out of recognition. In a combination of interviews, personal anecdotes and lively argument, she argues that women are exposed to a series of injustices: first from the males who assault them; then from a judicial system that belittles and ignores them; third, from a porn-addled culture that turns their humiliation into male pleasure; and finally from the careerist feminists and the ‘Blue Fringe Queer Brigade’, who either can’t or won’t intervene to change any of it, so obsessed are they with avoiding linguistic violence by the use of a misplaced pronoun.
The book zips along, larded with jokes and memorable phrases (‘trans-plaining’; ‘the “nagging and shagging” defence’; ‘I wasn’t born fancying the midwife’). Some readers — probably the male kind — might wish for a bit more complexity in the causal story offered, in which patriarchy is the perennial villain. Female readers will be too busy feeling angry. Bindel convincingly demonstrates that the world is not a safe space for women, and that feminism urgently needs to reckon with this fact. Less convincing is her optimism that there’s a future free of male violence awaiting us if only we could persuade men to act differently and women to stop colluding.
But this is a book whose aim is to rouse younger women to action, so perhaps the optimism is strategic. Bindel is angry about the way they have been failed by progressive politics — told to pole dance their way to equality, enjoy being choked during sex and shut up when a transwoman is speaking. They have also been told that older feminists — and Bindel in particular — are heartless martinets, concerned only in furthering self-interested agendas. This book establishes that Bindel is anything but.
While grassroots feminism is reinvigorated, academic feminism limps on, desperately squandering what intellectual gifts it possesses by trying to answer the Jeopardy!-style question: if the unavoidable conclusion of any argument is ‘transwomen are women’, what are the premises? The latest addition to the genre is The Right to Sex by the Oxford philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan.
It starts by criticising feminists for talking down to women, telling them ‘from on high what their lives really mean’; but Srinivasan somewhat spoils the plebeian moment by signing off her preface ‘Oxford 2020’. She also says she is only telling women what many of them already know. Apparently what women are supposed to know is that male and female bodies are culturally, not naturally, produced: ‘Sex… is a cultural thing, posing as a natural one.’ Catechism duly recited, Srinivasan moves on to her main topic, which is, broadly speaking, the social construction of the other kind of sex — the fun kind — though it has to be said she doesn’t make it sound much fun.
She explores a series of progressive talking points. Is there a moral duty to provide sex? What does it mean to ‘believe women’ about sexual assault? How should we feel about pornography? Should sex between lecturers and students be prohibited? Are state solutions to male violence really solutions? At its best, the book successfully conveys the inconsistencies, clashing interests and confusion around the ethics of sexual intimacy. At its worst, it meanders frustratingly from one rhetorical question to the next. Hypotheses are tentatively explored and then immediately undercut. What might seem like spicily definitive essay titles (‘The Conspiracy against Men’, ‘The Right to Sex’) are then rowed back in the body of the essays (‘There is no general conspiracy against men’; ‘There is no right to sex’).
If anything unites the book, it is scepticism about judicial approaches to sexual predicaments; but it’s not easy to say what is proposed instead. Too often the argumentative impasse is circumvented by a quick call to the reader’s anticipated moral sensibilities: white males bad, sexual minorities and queer porn good, etc. Whenever it starts to look as though Srinivasan might be forced by her own logic into proposing something Bindel might approve of, there’s a quick flight to a different country for which the threatened proposal wouldn’t work (which is odd, because the one thing social construction pretty much guarantees is the possibility of local solutions for local people). Overall, the book’s message is a fairly conservative one: with sex, things are complicated, and you’re probably doing it wrong.
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