The dual ethics of feminism

Consider the following controversial issues:

  • Prostitution
  • Page 3
  • Strip clubs
  • Beyoncé videos
  • Rihanna videos
  • Other music videos
  • Kim Kardashian’s naked selfies

These topics all relate to women showing their sexual nature in the public sphere, and seem to engender (see what I did there) more heated debates than do other women’s issues. Consider some of the following for and against arguments that relate to these:

  • Page 3 exploits women! How dare men lust over those pictures. What if it was their daughter
  • Rihanna is an empowered woman who is not ashamed of her sexuality
  • Why do people need to send each other naked selfies? Private parts are private!
  • Does Beyoncé really need to show her thighs and boobs to sell records? This degrades the whole enterprise
  • No one complains about men publishing nudes!
  • Beyonce’s videos show that she owns her own body; she shows us what she wants to show
  • Prostitution is sexist because more women than men are prostitutes
  • Why should women be forced to sell their bodies for cash, whether on page 3 or in a brothel? Can’t we think of better opportunities
  • It’s sexist not to allow women to sell lap dances; that’s a restriction of their freedom
  • I think it’s great that some women are choosing to make a living using their dance talents
  • It’s Kim’s choice to release those selfies, what’s the issue?
  • If you try and shut down strip clubs you’re just censoring women’s bodies. The right wing is always ashamed or afraid of women’s bodies
  • Music videos objectify women and portray them as no better than purely sexual beings, which is degrading

The responses fall into two categories:

  1. Women should be able to exhibit their sexual side in public. Disallowing this is firstly censorship and secondly misogyny – it’s repressive and refuses them the sexual freedoms men have.
  2. These things should not be encouraged. They allow women to be objectified, which is dehumanizing and degrading. (And for the public good, some of them should be banned through regulation.)

Both types of response can be claimed to be feminist. One advocates for women’s freedom, voice, and right to be publicly sexual. The other advocates for women’s dignity, and for their respect by others. One says allowing women the freedom to express their sexuality in public does respect their dignity as free agents capable of choices that are independent of others’ pressure. The other says it is good to be free and sexual, sure, but in the right context.

I do not think it is possible to reconcile the two positions, because I think they spring from deeper ethical wells that diverge at source:

  1. There is no principle that supersedes freedom and choice. Hence women should be able to do what they want, including the above activities.
  2. The simple moral code of love and respect applies to all behaviours. If an action diminishes good behaviour towards ourselves or others, then it is wrong. The above activities do that.

(Possibly, it’s about relative vs objective morality.)

It’s saddening that these issues, and other issues that affect women in disproportion to men, receive such different responses from parties supposedly seeking to further the same interests – those bland aims of social, political and economic equality that I mentioned in a previous post. There are more complexities to the arguments, but this post is not about the arguments. It’s about why feminism is not the broad church that it claims to be. Anyone can get behind those aims, but if its proponents can’t agree on the means by which to achieve them, then it cannot claim to be a cohesive movement, and a person cannot be co-opted into it or claimed to be part of it if they do not have a stated opinion on the matter.

This is why I don’t really care to wear the feminist badge. When I’m thinking about Page 3 and boardroom quotas, I’d prefer to talk about common sense and human decency than to tie myself to a moving standard.

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