I’ve been involved in a couple of heated debates about emerging radical feminist group FEMENS recently. In case you’ve missed all the excitement, FEMENS is a group that started in the Ukraine as far as I understand, and has now spread to several countries in Europe, as well as smatterings of support across the world. Their goals come often across as pretty nebulous and broad – this might be a result of my inability to read any languages other than English, but even giving credit for that their aims are pretty pie-in-the-sky stuff. Smash patriarchy, reform the world, feminist revolution, yada yada, ending, one presumes, in the hallowed feminist utopia. Their main tactic for getting this message across seems to be taking their tops off and writing slogans across their chest, preferably while giving the finger – this is the part I actually have no issue with, and what I’ve spent the most time defending. FEMENS has justified their use of nudity to make their point with the argument that not all nudity is inherently sexual, and by going topless in a confronting, non-sexual way they are attempting to undermine the patriarchal assumption that breasts exist purely for their gratification. I think this is an interesting point to be making, particularly since most of the protesters are protesting against an Islamic social structure, where policing of women's bodies is much more apparent on a practical, everyday level than say, Australia.
FEMENS recently hit the social media headlines when a Tunisian member named Amina was disappeared, after posting a topless picture to the net, and this is how they came to my attention. You can read more about it here, but the general gist is that she was admitted to a psych ward against her will for her political beliefs, and hasn’t been reliably heard from since, which is all kinds of fucked up. Naturally there has been a great deal of rage going around about this and various groups are currently attempting to apply pressure to the Tunisian authorities to let her go. Because this is the issue that brought FEMENS to my attention, I’ve been arguing in favour of their actions, and their right to protest however they see fit. I’m personally not convinced widespread toplessness is going to create a tidal wave of social change, but I will absolutely defend their right to do it without being arrested, disappeared, or executed.
As is so infuriatingly often the case, a previous action by FEMENS was brought to my attention this morning, that has sent me running from their side as fast as I can. I don’t know what it is about sex workers that attracts such an enormous amount of vitriol, but I swear there are sections of feminism that seem to actually enjoy going after sex workers more than they enjoy going after misogyny and patriarchy. Unfortunately, it seems FEMENS are one of those sections. According to their blog and video footage, FEMENS proudly declare they “interrupted a show staging live porn dolls while screaming "GO RAPE YOURSELF!" I’ve embedded the video here if you want to see for yourself.
FEMEN / "Go Rape Yourself" from radicalcinema on Vimeo.
After watching these self-proclaimed "sextremists" shoving a performer to the floor repeatedly while wearing highly triggering slogans all over themselves, I went looking for some sort of explanation of such vile behaviour. The reason they give is that they view the sex industry as “pukable industry which is feeding fantasies as rape and woman object, always submitted to men desires.” This is hardly an uncommon perception, and one I furiously disagree with, but to be fair, they can feel however they want about the sex industry. What I disagree with more than their views is the way in which they felt the need to express this opinion. They accuse the sex industry of making women objects, but what they interrupted was not a staging of “dolls”, but a strip tease. If they are referring to erotic performers as “live porn dolls”, are they not participating in the objectification of women just as much as the industry they are opposing? They denying that these women could possibly have any sort of agency by referring to them as “sex slaves”, they are going one step further and denying that women in the sex industry are even women anymore – they’re just “dolls”. Not only does this make me take an immediate sidestep away from their cause on the grounds of hypocrisy, this kind of pure hatred, disgust, and dehumanisation turns my stomach. No matter how much you disagree with another woman’s choice, this vicious attack on your opponents humanity is never an acceptable tactic.
If you’ve read any of my previous blogs on the subject, you’ll know I totally disagree with the idea that the sex industry inherently somehow holds back the cause of feminism. But even if I DID agree that women in the sex industry are the victims of a patriarchal institution, how does that give anyone the right to attack them? If you disagree with something, how is attacking the victims of that institution okay? I feel that traditional marriage is a reflection of an oppressive, patriarchal regime, and that the expectation that women ALWAYS want to get married affects my ability to explore my feelings on the subject in an objective way. I think the bridal industry is a dreadful intersection of ingrained patriarchy and aggressive capitalism. I feel like women who think their only worthwhile goal, their only real accomplishment is getting married to a “good” husband are undermining my ability to be taken seriously as a woman who values her independence– but I wouldn’t go picket a bridal fair. Attacking the people I perceive to be victims of a system I disagree with would be ridiculous, and counterproductive. If I called women who are excited to be married “brainwashed robots”, I would be told to fuck off. But FEMENS is quite happy to call women in the sex industry “porn dolls” and “sex slaves”. Can you imagine if I tried to tell people that women don’t ever REALLY want to be married, it’s just that society has forced them into a mindset where they THINK they do, and that if they just opened themselves up to the realisation that they are being oppressed they would see it too? I would be quite rightfully mocked. But this argument is put to sex workers ALL THE TIME.Somehow it’s apparently okay when we assume that sex workers have no personal agency, and that they deserve to be literally shoved aside in the fight for equality.
Well it’s bloody not okay, and I am now firmly off FEMEN’s side. This whole post should probably be longer, and better referenced, and better argued, but this just makes me so angry it's exhausted my ability to be reasonable. I refuse to argue for the agency of a group who refuse to accept the agency of people they happen to disagree with, and I cannot support their movement anymore. As skeptical as I can be I still believe there has to be a better way forward than kicking other people out of the way.