Losing Ground: The Balancing Act of the Radical and the Practical

My mom and I talk often about feminism and feminist issues, as these are questions close to both of our hearts. However the two of us come from very different eras of feminism: my mother came of age in the time of free love and (supposed) bra burning. She fought to let women keep their own names when they marry, for contraception rights, against painful and oppressive clothing, against sexual harassment in the workplace, against unequal pay and unequal hiring practices. She did some damn amazing things and her generation set the groundwork for the conversations my generation is having now.

But my mom and I disagree on a lot of things. An example: one of the conversations in feminism right now is about presenting as femme and how that presentation is often devalued. Many people have come to accept that wearing make up and dressing femme are personal choices and there’s nothing wrong at all with presenting as feminine (thinking there is may actually be the problem). A lot of people are embracing fashions from Mad Men, vintage clothes, high stilettos and reimagining them in ways that they find empowering.

My mother is appalled by this. She fought so that women didn’t have to balance on spikey little heels that destroyed their backs and made it impossible for them to move or do much of anything physical. She thinks we’re losing ground. She thinks women have forgotten what it used to be like.

So who’s right? It seems to me there are valid arguments on both sides: choosing to wear clothes that hurt you and render you physically helpless seems like a pretty bad idea and fairly oppressive. At the same time, telling anyone else what they need to wear and implying that things coded as feminine are bad is really not ok. Are we losing ground or are we coming to a more complex understanding of what clothes signify and how “femme” coded things are often viewed distastefully?

Well both. Here’s the thing: feminism is always a balance of the practical and the idealistic. When we tell young women that they shouldn’t have to protect themselves against rape, that they should be able to wear the clothes they want to wear, we are imagining an ideal world and we are trying to force that ideal world to exist with our actions. When our mothers tell us “please be safe, please think about how you can protect yourself” they are desperately trying to be practical and keep us safe because they know that the world that exists now is not ideal.

We need both. I would never shame someone for their clothing choice but I also sure as hell would never leave my drink unattended at a party. Even if we try to . We live in a world that is not ideal and yet we are hoping against hope that we can make it closer to the ideal. This is a difficult place to be, because when we fall on the wrong side of the balance either we get hurt or someone else gets hurt.

When I look at the differences between earlier waves of feminism and today’s feminism, that question is often what I see: should we aim for the practical or the radically idealistic? Those of us who are working on feminist issues today are in the incredibly privileged position that we even get to look at the ideal. For my mom, that was not always an option: asking men to respect you whatever your clothing choices took second fiddle to actively protecting yourself from rape, assault, and abuse, and if that meant wearing a different set of clothes then so be it.

There are all kinds of issues that this crops up in: we only get to debate the ideals of consent because our forebears put in place protections against rape that have given us the space to breathe. We need both the practical and the idealistic, but we always need to be keenly aware of who might be hurt and who might be helped by any of our rhetoric.

It also seems that if we reimagine the differences between the various waves of feminism in terms of where they draw the boundary of radical and practical, we may come to a better understanding of why people did what they did and how we can build off of their successes. Perhaps this can also lead current feminists to be less defensive about their choice feminism and recognize some of the practical aspects to their choices: while it’s great to imagine a world in which femme-coded clothing is on par with masculine clothing, in the here and now that clothing was designed to be limiting to your body and your abilities, and that is a reality that needs to be taken into account.

I’m not sure where the balance is on a lot of these questions. I do take steps to protect myself from rape, even as I try to explain to the men in my life how they can keep from putting women in uncomfortable and bad situations. I have no idea how possible it is to act consistently while being both radical and practical. I’m sure that there will always be swings back and forth between them.

One thing the feminists of today do need to keep in mind is that the space we have now to imagine the ideal was not always there and is not a guarantee. We do need to remember what things have been like and why, and remind ourselves that whatever steps we take in moving forward, we must be careful to protect ourselves from the potential of moving backwards. Perhaps instead of reclaiming heels and tight skirts we could work to create a new sexy, a new femme, because we remember the oppressive nature of those items in the past.

What does seem clear to me is that many of the debates that are happening in the feminist world right now are about how safe we feel and about whether we want to take clear, practical steps in the world as it is to protect ourselves or whether we want to begin to act as if the world is the ideal one we aim for. If we were all perfect, brave, impossible feminists, we would make this world our ideal. We would not flinch when we act radically outside of the norm and put ourselves in potential danger. But I can never fault someone for trying to keep themselves safe and healthy in the world that they live in here and now.

You Don’t Speak For Me

This morning I was listening to NPR as I’m wont to do, and an interview with Erica Jong, the author of Fear Of Flying came on. I’d never heard of her before, but they touted her as a feminist figure: she wrote for the first time about female pleasure and about the idea that women might actually enjoy sex. But oh my did the interview fall short of what I was hoping. It encapsulated so many of the ideas that previous waves of feminism are still stuck on, and often that the media is still stuck on. It reflected a wide variety of the problems I see in the way that older people tend to show in the way they approach young people and young people’s sexualities. And I am sick of hearing these same complaints over and over.

So first and foremost, my frustrations came to the fore when Erica Jong came out and simply said “Women want sex. Women enjoy sex.” There is a lot to unpack with this statement, and to my mind it reflects sloppy thinking and sloppy speech. Now first of all there’s a lot of gender binary crap in here that I’m not even going to go into because it’s mainstream media and I don’t expect any better. But what I do have a serious problem with is how Erica Jong apparently speaks for the experiences of all women. T

his statement would have been perfectly fine if she had said “some women” or even “most woman” or “many women”. Because yes, it’s true that women are perfectly capable of wanting and enjoying sex, but perpetuating the idea that all people want sex or they’re in some form not right? That’s uncool. Extremely uncool. I’m sick of sex being held up as always super awesome and great and peachy. Yes, sometimes it is. Yes for some people it is. But it creates a horrifically unhealthy attitude of “everyone should want this all the time!” when we don’t recognize that sometimes sex sucks and some people don’t like it much and some people are ambivalent. When someone writes about sex for a national audience, I expect them to have the nuance to understand that not everyone likes sex. Erica Jong does not speak for my experience, and I wish she wouldn’t presume to.

So now that Jong has decided that she knows what every woman likes she moves on to hook up culture. Her first comment is that she doesn’t actually think that sex with strangers is very enjoyable (bully for her!) and so hookup culture must be empty and depressing and women aren’t getting pleasure (also because Girls said so). This is one of my hugest pet peeves in the world: everyone who has not been a part of hookup culture really just needs to SHUT THE FUCK UP about hookup culture. I don’t know if hookup culture is good for people or not because I’ve never been a part of it. But until someone tells me that it makes them feel miserable, I’m not going to presume that it does simply because I wouldn’t enjoy it. Apparently Jong has not managed to understand the fact that different people like different things. In addition, I hardly find it acceptable to judge whether or not women in hookup culture are getting appropriate amounts of pleasure because let’s be honest here, women in committed relationships don’t always get what they want either. In fact VERY often they don’t.

So after that judgmental gem, Jung continues on to talk about men’s reactions to her book, and she quotes one man as saying “If I see that book on a woman’s nightstand I know I’m getting lucky.” Um…creepy rapey what??? Just because a woman likes sex or perhaps just likes reading a sex doesn’t mean she wants to have sex with YOU, and the presumption that she does is part of what makes sex for women really sucky a great deal of the time. How does Jung get off judging hookup culture as uninterested in women’s pleasure and then spout of something like this and giggle like it was a great service she had enacted for the public?

I’m surprised that someone who touts herself as feminist, someone who says she’s all about the pleasure of women, who doesn’t like to see sex that’s all about the man’s pleasure, would be so naive as to think she can speak for the experiences of every woman (oh I forgot, because you’re Experienced that means you know what the rest of us really want and feel), and that she thinks how well you know a person dictates whether they respect you or are interested in a woman’s pleasure. Let’s be honest: there are men who are asshats in hookup culture and men who are asshats out of it, women who are satisfied with their sex life in hookup culture and women who are satisfied out of it. The particular mode of sex doesn’t really have a lot to do with the larger cultural milieu that says women’s pleasure is only useful so far as it makes a man feel manly because that crosses all kinds of sex.

And then to top it all off, she decides to bring up 50 Shades of Grey. First of all the host of the show called the book an S+M book, which is blatantly false, it’s simply an abusive relationship book. Second, Jung proceeds to say that S+M is inherently bad because if a woman allows herself to be tied up she is the victim and is not taking responsibility for her sexual choices. I don’t know that I can express how many things are wrong with this, and once again, it’s someone speaking for a whole gamut of experiences without any real knowledge about those experiences. First of all, BDSM encompasses a great deal more than simply being tied up. That’s an extremely limited critique and doesn’t really hit at most of BDSM. Second of all, it’s not always a woman who is a sub (duh). And finally (and most importantly), BDSM should always be engaged in with the consent of both parties, with clear communication about what both parties want, and with a safe word so that both parties are responsible for when the scene begins and ends, and know what’s appropriate and desired in the scene. For the most part, people in BDSM sexual relationships actually talk more about what happens in their sex life and thus seem to take on more responsibility for their sexual choices than anyone else.

Now Jung’s description of a good fuck included lots of clothes falling off and “souls meeting through tongues” but I didn’t hear any mention of consent or talking to each other or checking in or anything else that might be good practice in a sexual environment, so apparently she thinks that people just tie each other up without talking about it, but this illustrates once again why it’s a very good idea not to comment on things that you don’t know about.

I’m so so sick of hearing people spout of these piles of crap. You can be respected by your longtime partner or by the person you just met, or you can be disrespected by any of those people, just like you can in any other context besides sex in the world. This may sound like I’m just really angry at one person, but I have heard all of these sentences from other people, from other feminists, all over the media, from family members, from friends. These things are not helpful. They are not teaching young people how to respect themselves better, they are not giving some deep insight into the feelings of young women. They are continuing a culture that demands women all feel and act a certain way, that eliminates choice, and that shames people who deviate by telling them that they’re hurting themselves. Please stop. Young women are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. We really don’t need anyone else butting in.