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Unfocused Feminism

The battle lines go beyond the bedroom and the boardroom

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg is sad to think that young women are not as interested in sex as they used to be. Last year, she bemoaned “Why Sex-Positive Feminism is Falling Out of Fashion” when Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s book The Right to Sex was released. Then this June, she informed Times readers “The Future Isn’t Female Anymore,” using the “buzzy” literary magazine The Drift’s collection of essays on “What to Do About Feminism” as a jumping-off point. The editors noted, Goldberg wrote, “an ambient feeling that feminism has been sapped of cultural vitality, even as an anti-feminist backlash is gathering momentum, and that young people especially were turning against the movement.” In August, following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, she reflected on Nona Willis Aronowitz’s memoir, Bad Sex, which talks about the coercive and somewhat hollow aspects of the constant search for great sex. Goldberg provided a teacherly correction about what the author’s own mother (the sex-positive writer Ellen Willis) believed. “She believed in the value of erotic pleasure, but she was always clear-eyed about the coercive side of the sexual revolution,” she writes tritely.

In all this, Goldberg has shown little doubt that her read on the feminist present, that of an upper-middle-class white woman, is the accurate lens through which to consider the question of where feminist vitality lies. The narrow dimensions of her perspective have been underscored in recent days as Iranian women, Iranian girls, have emerged from their homes and onto the streets for the fourth week in a row in what news outlets are calling a “national uprising.” They are protesting and burning their scarves in a paean to reclaiming their bodily autonomy from the state, and in doing so, they have faced military-grade weapons, bullets, and tear gas. Human rights groups say that nearly two hundred people have been killed, including twenty-eight children and adolescents. Two sixteen-year-old girls, Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh, were found bludgeoned to death after joining the protests and have become the latest examples of bravery in the face of repression. Here is feminist vitality at its purest and best, initiated by women who would rather die than continue to be told what to do with their bodies, their lives, and their conscience.

I bring up Iranian women in particular because I hope that their struggle vis-à-vis a discussion of current American feminist quandaries reveals the poverty of both the language and goals of the sexual revolution, which put erotic license above bodily autonomy more generally. Even within a singularly American context, movements like #SayHerName, which are led by Black women and struggle against the bloody excesses of police brutality, would likely find centering erotic license, particularly as it is experienced by white, upper-middle-class women, frivolous and limiting.

Goldberg must be aware of this exclusionary dimension of the sexual revolution, but she seems put off by certain discussions—such as what sex should and should not be—that break with the liberationist assumptions of feminism’s second wave. Second-wave feminists still insist these are debates about individual rights and mores. Instead of seeing the recategorization of sex as an issue for moral philosophy (as Srinivasan argues in her book), Goldberg views it with suspicion. “I started noticing the turn away from sex positivity a few years ago,” she writes in her review of Srinivasan’s book, positioning herself as the whip-cracking grand marm of the sex-positive struggle. If younger feminists are making arguments against porn . . . well, it must be a part of those “generational battles over speech” that happen as a matter of course.

Do upper-middle-class white women have an accurate lens through which to consider the question of where feminist vitality lies? 

Goldberg struck the same chord in an interview with Ezra Klein, who is also a part of the Times industrial complex. In one memorable portion, she sarcastically noted that “if I wanted to, say, join a feminist group, I wouldn’t really know where to start.” It is all in good fun, repartee and all, but it did make me wonder whether second-wave feminists experienced the electoral loss of Hillary Clinton as a kind of “end of feminism” moment. Goldberg, not the most ardent Clinton supporter, wrote a confessional of sorts in a 2016 column for Slate, entitled “Hard Choices: I used to hate Hillary. Now I’m voting for her.” Begrudging respect indeed, but, as she wrote, “sometimes it feels like to defend Clinton is to defend middle age itself, with all its attenuated expectations and reminders of the uselessness of hindsight.”

But all the begrudging respect from all the middle-aged, second-wave feminists in the country was not enough to get Hillary Clinton installed as the first female president. With that goal done for, such feminists had a moment of regrouping when they got together in D.C. for the Women’s March, an imagined challenge to Trump in the month of his inauguration. Carrying on the theme of the sexual revolution by donning pussy hats, they marched through the streets, made cheeky signs, and thought themselves remarkably united and even revolutionary all over again. Then they went home, and Trump began to rule the country.

Even before the Women’s March was exposed as deliberately white-centric, discriminatory toward Muslims and racial minorities, second-wave feminists appeared to have lost their faith—and soon after, it was back to the “attenuated expectations.” Perhaps they began to believe that all the things they fought for were either already lost or soon to be. The recalibration of the position of sex positivity within the feminist movement, they believed, was not just that—a revision—but a wholesale “out of fashioning.” A revitalization of the debate over porn, or the argument that conversations about sex belong within the ambit of moral philosophy and culture rather than laws and “rights,” was seen as a pointless generational phenomenon where the future had to undo the gains of the past.

Naturally, the Dobbs decision was the ultimate proof to second-wave feminists that younger feminists have failed to hold the gains that were won in the 1960s and 1970s. With such cynicism afoot, no amount of persuasive material concerning the possibility of an international feminist movement united by the fight for bodily autonomy is likely to register with them. It is almost as if they were used to feminism sold in a white upper-middle-class bottle, and any changes in flavor and packaging they simply discard as not feminism at all.

Even if my Hillary’s Last Stand theory is an overreach, the general quizzical mien of feminists in the second-wave tradition is understandable when considered through the lens of how they imagined rights to be won and then exercised. The movement that failed to win an Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and 1980s had by the 1990s come to focus on the individual woman as the central figure of all struggles. Soon it was a matter of “leaning in” to advance in corporate leadership and to break glass ceilings. In many cases, this woman was specifically a white, upper-middle-class woman who wished to milk capitalism for her own benefit after graduation from Brown or Princeton. Naturally, this has led to a floundering of the political relevance and organizational scaffolding of the feminist movement. The consequence is the concomitant advancement of precepts that undermine female bodily autonomy as a whole and that impose draconian limits on what a woman is “allowed” to do. Contemporary feminists are searching for ways to resurrect feminist politics and collective organization, but second-wave-influenced writers like Goldberg will have to look further than lit magazines and conversations with others similarly situated to see the emerging movement, and they may not find themselves immediately welcomed there. Even while feminism’s gifts are apportioned unfairly to those already blessed, which is the white western upper-middle-class woman, the true grassroots battles and revolutionary struggles come almost always from below—from women who need feminism to survive.