Saturday, September 10, 2011

Liberalism vs. Radicalism: The Invisibilisation of Male Supremacist Power in Liberal Politics, Terminology, and Self-Concepts

image is from here

In this post I will identify distinguishing features of liberal vs. radical points of view on various social justice topics.

First up: “Prostitution”, “Sex Work”, and related terms, experiences, and systems

When I hear liberals discuss prostitution, what I hear most loudly and frequently is a call to advocate for acceptance of prostitutes' rights to sell their bodies for sex to men—or to anyone else. The focus is on the individual in society, not on society's impositions against the individual and the collective. The assumption is that systems of harm and exploitation are a given and that while they are in place, we ought to accept as liberating or a form of freedom the ability of some to sell their bodies for sex to consumers of such “sex”. “Sex” itself isn't especially analysed. Whether men ought to have the right to buy human beings for anything at all—including for sex—is not usually challenged as a “right” that's wrong.

Often enough the gender of the procurers and pimps is erased, rendering prostitution something “some people” do with “other people”. Also not questioned is why it is that “some people” are pimps and procurers, and others are prostitutes and sex workers. I see where the two experiences overlap but not much challenge to why they exist and whose interests and whose power these practices exist to support.

As a radical, my views don't focus on what prostitutes ought to have the freedom to do—other than the freedom to be free from men who sexually abuse other human beings, especially girls and women. I instead focus my attention, analysis, and activism (when opportunities arise for activism to occur) on what anyone ought to have the freedom to not experience: sexual and economic exploitation; sexual abuse including incest, molestation, and rape; harmful impositions of male, white, and Western supremacist values and practices; and the grossest (most invasive and damaging) dimensions of capitalism on classes of human beings.

Starting with the latter, poverty, desperation, and homelessness—each impacted quite significantly by heterosexism, misogyny, and Western white supremacy—are requisite condition for most people engaging in prostitution globally. When I think about and have experienced aspects of the world of sexual exploitation organised into a system of atrocity, I consider whether whole groups of people are more negatively impacted than others, and which groups lead the charge for adoption of methods of making prostitution safer rather than abolishing it as a form of abduction and slavery. If I only listen to the more privileged people (whether class privileged, Western, white, or men) in the system of harm, I might conclude that modifying the system would be a humane course of action. But if I consider how such modifications impact on the less privileged classes and groups of people (such as poor Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous girls and women globally, living inside and outside North America and Europe), such reforms look like cruel dismissals of their experience and suffering.

In any radical form of activism, I believe those who are systematically made to suffer most, to be raped most, to die most, ought to be central in any course of activist action. Given all this, liberal views on prostitution don't hold much water for me, although I don't oppose actions designed to make conditions for anyone, inside or outside systems of sexual exploitation, safer rather than less safe.

A radical feminist position on prostitution interrogates most every aspect of what it means to live in a world where prostitution exists. The most glaring omission in the whiter side of the interrogation has to do with prostitution's relationship to white and Western supremacy, in my experience. But white radical feminists, specifically, bring to the challenge questions about what it means to be human, who decides what “sex” is, and which groups or classes of people are in charge of any system of exploitation that, in my experience, liberals usually ignore and see as irrelevant.

The term “sex work” makes the whole of the system of atrocity and slavery non-existent or distinct as a social-political phenomenon, as if “sex work” can exist independently of sexual slavery. (In the world I see and live in, it cannot and does not.)

Next up: transgender and queer terminology

I find it necessary to discuss this issue here because of my own struggles to understand my own “gendered” experience. Conservative and liberal definitions and concepts flood my social world and shape the names I give myself. With thanks to a radical Lesbian activist, I have been questioning and challenging my own use of the term “intergender” to describe my experiences and feelings. I think the most appropriate challenge to me has been to consider how such a term, or the term, “transgender” impacts those who are most egregiously marginalised and abused by gendered systems of violence. Now, the list of who is harmed by gendered systems of violence is long and may well include just about everyone. But as I see it, there are some groups of people who fare particularly poorly given the status quo, at least the status quo of the West and those groups are, 1. Girls and women, and 2. Lesbians and gay males. Obviously the two groups overlap in the experiences of Lesbian girls and women.

What I've seen happen over the last twenty to thirty years is a systematic marginalisation and stigmatisation in liberal circles of radical Lesbian and radical Gay politics, perspectives, and practices; simultaneously there has been a flourishing of liberal queer and trans politics, perspectives, and practices. Similar to liberal understandings of what prostitution is and exists to do, liberal queer understandings of gender generally ignore or avoid dealing with how and to what degree male and white supremacy are fused to our own personal feelings and understandings of ourselves, including the concepts we use to name what we feel and believe about ourselves. Terms are common now in queer circles that do not make male supremacy, for example, at all visible as an ideology woven into concepts and practices that we may embrace as “liberating”. Just as the term and concept of “sex work” avoids naming the white supremacy, misogyny, and capitalist abuses present in any systematised form of sexual-economic exploitation, terms like “intergender” and “transgender” do the same, quite liberally.

Our feelings and experiences are shaped by the concepts and terms available to us socially. In any given era, only some terms and concepts become socially used, while many others, used before and since, get snuffed out. Such is the case generally with terms used to discuss sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender. None of what is discussed in dominant media places male supremacy or patriarchy near or at the center of discussions about who we are and why we believe what we believe.

What being "Gay" means, as well as what "Lesbian" means, have been scrutinised and critiqued through radical lenses for forty-plus years. To all those who say that trans people are being expected to question things no one else in the LGBTIQA community is made to question, I'll remind you that we ALL have been made to question EVERYTHING, down to our assumptions about the biological (vs. cultural-political) nature of our desires, feelings, and identities. See, for example, Adrienne Rich's writing on Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.

I'll tangentially mention here that I've seen how this has happened in the movements to end intimate, private, relational sexual violence against women. What used to be a movement to end men's battery of women has been re-termed a “domestic violence project”, thereby invisibilising the brutal male supremacy at work in any gendered dynamics, but especially in heterosexist and misogynist ones.

What do concepts and understandings such as “intergender” and “transgender” tell us about ourselves, our world, and what gender is and does? To me, it makes gender into an entirely social, personal, individual, and biological condition, and it becomes political only when people are organised to prevent some het men's rights from being afforded to other people. “Intergender” and “transgender” pretend that “gender” is a social continuum to be expanded, or a biological binary to be explored and respected, not a hierarchy to be overthrown. I see gender as a profoundly political system that is deeply anti-woman, anti-Lesbian, and anti-gay. How do the discourses and activist developments of the last twenty years dovetail with efforts by feminists to derail and demolish the terrifying train of male supremacy? What I see are largely liberal constructions of self and sexuality that in no way implicate male, white, or wealth supremacy as forces shaping our feelings and understandings, which is also to say our experiences of who we are.

In naming myself “intergender” I was attempting to make a statement about how my whole life's experience is one that is outside what is progressively thought of as a dualistic gender binary. It doesn't “fit” with how I saw myself relative to boys my age, across my childhood and into adolescence. Perhaps the only point of familiarity or commonality with other boys was in recognising that my sexual attraction wasn't to “an opposite sex”, physiologically speaking, although as Andrea Dworkin detailed in her book Woman Hating, such an understanding of sex and gender is already distortive and discriminating in oppressive ways. How does “intergender” and “transgender” support radical efforts to end male supremacy? Does it matter if it doesn't?

I'd say the answer to that is fused to the matter of what we understand to be going on, or going down, all around us and in us. For example, if you don't see prostitution as a system that welds capitalism to white and male supremacy, you might view abolition movements to end all forms of trafficking, buying, renting, and enslaving human beings as irrelevant to your cause and condition. But me being gay means my life is fused to the struggles of all people who want to end the tyranny of heterosexuality and masculinism—of heteropatriarchy to use the term which combines those dehumanising and terrifying realities.

It doesn't surprise me that terms like transgender and sex work will fare better than terms like male supremacy and sexual slavery in a liberal social economy which generally refuses to name the extent to which male and white supremacy and capitalism pollute and infect our lives, robbing us of the hope for a freedom that isn't built on systems that require some of us to be sacrificed.

This isn't to marginalise or silence those of us who use those terms; it is, rather, to call on all of us who want something called “freedom” and “liberation” to evaluate, in hopefully loving community, what the deep political implications are of using those terms to begin with. If liberalism is fused to their usage, how might a radical perspective and practice of naming ourselves shift our terminology towards words that don't deny the realities of male and white supremacist and capitalist terrorism.

For the time being, I will not be using the term "intergender" to describe myself. I will, instead, say that I willfully, actively, and imperfectly refuse to behave and "be" as men would have me behave and be in order to fit in with the boys-to-men of patriarchy. And that an awareness of this need to refuse, for my own survival and for the betterment of girls and women, was in me from an early age. This understanding keeps male supremacy central to my own motivations, sensibilities, and feelings without denying or marginalising any of them.

I hope this opens respectful discussion of these and related issues.