Irresponsible talk on sex, gender and feminism

I gave a talk the other day that mentioned sex trafficking, sex work, surrogate motherhood, child sexuality, sex tourism and international marriage broking. Held at the Institute for Development Studies in Brighton (UK, where the University of Sussex is), it was a lunchtime seminar, which are often small affairs, but 50 people crowded together for this one. My title was Five Steps Backward: How women become second-class citizens of globalisation, so people came who were interested in gender policy, sexualities, globalisation, migration, development and queerness.

As soon as I finished talking, a hand shot up from a woman who said it was irresponsible of me to talk that way. I had made the argument that Gender Equality policy, promoted by State Feminists (professionally employed to set policy affecting women) now tends to recreate women as always already unempowered victims rather than protagonists of their own lives who opt for one or another of the limited alternatives available – in the context of inflexible patriarchy and a globalisation that promotes precarious workers and their migrations – regardless of their sex or gender identity.

It is hardly news that a feminist interested in state policy disagreed with me. Someone I ran into at the National Film Theatre bar in London said You have that effect on people. But the suggestion that I should shut up is comment-worthy. The belief in Free Speech is claimed as a fundamental characteristic of western democracies and sometimes seems like a fetish in anglo countries. At protests in the US, whether they are students on campuses or Occupy Wall Street, First Amendment rights are continually cited, and the UK is similarly insistent about free speech. Yet the objector to my talk the other day seemed to be saying that dissent is dangerous – like Mira Sorvino, who suggested I not be allowed to speak on the BBC world debate on human trafficking held  in Luxor. As though I might undermine the war on trafficking, as wartime posters warned against careless talk lest enemies benefit.

Highlights from the exchange with an apparently senior academic who did not introduce herself begin with her comment to me that

As an academic, you should – which I interrupted to say

I am not an academic.

All right, she said, as a researcher, as a person invited to talk in this space, you should not talk this way because Where do you draw the line? What about clitoridectomy? she demanded.

I stated at the beginning of my talk that I am not constructing another big all-inclusive meta-narrative that will Explain Everything once and for all.

But where do you draw the line? she insisted.

I am not in the line-drawing business. Also I have not researched clitoridectomy myself so I would not presume to pronounce about it.

This cultural relativism, she sputtered.

Cultural relativism is an anthropological tool. It means trying to understand the logic and meaning in situations from the standpoint of people inside them. It is not about defining universal Goods and Bads. Some people want to write laws that will apply to everyone all over the world in all situations. I am not doing that.

You don’t take power relations into account, she said, clearly meaning a view of power reduced to Male-Female in the abstract. I wrote recently about this in The Bad Vibrations of Fundamentalist Feminism, where I referred to World Gender War.

I take power relations into account, all right, but not the simplified one you are referring to.

From a human-rights perspective –

I don’t personally use a human-rights argument, though many others do. In debates on trafficking, everyone claims to be fighting for human rights even when their arguments are diametrically opposed.

You talk about personal choice

I did not use that term. I said that even people with few and poor alternatives can and do prefer one of them to the others.

In the neoliberal discourse, the idea of choice is very problematic —

I didn’t talk about choice, don’t put words in my mouth.

You cannot have true choice without equality.

Hm, so what are women supposed to do until absolute full and true equality is achieved?

Many are not able to articulate for themselves [what they want or need], she said.

I deeply disagree with you about that. I have complete confidence that everyone in this room can judge for themselves whether my ideas are rubbish or not.

I finally cut her off so that others in the audience could ask questions, and funnily enough one young woman returned to this point, asking the objector:

Are you saying that I am not capable of listening and figuring out for myself how I feel about what Laura is saying?

And there, alas, the objector backed down rather than defending her belief that people like herself Know Better than other people what the right way is to live and think about men, women, sex, money, power and many other things. She may not have meant to imply that about that woman, just about a lot of other women too poor and pathetic to make it to a room like that in Sussex. If I had invited her to come and perform this stuff I couldn’t have had a better didactic tool.

PS: She said she would be writing to me but has not, and I still don’t know her name.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Poster from American Merchant Marine at War

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