Around a year ago, I was privy to a conversation about a Western man who, to put it bluntly, had paid a foreign woman to marry him. He had started a relationship via a website that specialised in facilitating these types of arrangements. Within no time the woman in question had immigrated and they were married. She was Russian in origin and half his age, and, as one of the group suggested, had used the marriage as a means of escaping the harsh economic and social realities of her homeland.
Believe it or not, this was not the most disturbing thing about this conversation. What I witnessed next was a militant justification of her “choices”, as well as a series of proclamations that women everywhere could learn a thing or two about feminist empowerment from the young woman.
This group of otherwise intelligent people, ironically with strong interests in social justice, were unwilling to even dialogue with the idea that perhaps her choice to marry was coerced and that, to some degree, her agency might have been reduced. She had through choice alone, they argued, transformed her circumstance into something that was liberating and empowering. To me this analysis seemed superficial and dismissive; not once had anyone made mention of the morality of the act or the meaning of freedom itself.
When it comes to women’s issues, liberal feminism has taught us well: the only real good is choice itself. Feminism has moved from an analysis and critique of discrimination against women, to a ruthless defence of individualism and choice, particularly in relation to anything related to sex and the body. Women’s liberation has been reduced to a series of personal statements about whether women like or dislike aspects of themselves and their lives. Conversations about pornography, prostitution, reproductive technologies, surrogacy, abortion, and even genital mutilation have all been framed in this way; if a woman chooses to engage in these activities this is her prerogative. Choice feminism is all personal rights and no responsibility — it asks nothing of you and delivers nothing in return.
What results is an inability to criticise the deficiencies of existing social systems or “call out” institutions that hold women back. It is based on the myth that equality for women has already been achieved. It follows that if women are never victims then neither is there a perpetrator and inevitably those responsible for holding women back are never held accountable. It also becomes impossible to cite evidence and research around the lives of women engaging in activities such as prostitution. The choice itself is defended; whether a choice is inherently good or bad for women is treated as irrelevant.
Nothing embodies such an approach more than the recent ‘faces of prostitution in Australia’ twitter campaign aimed at undermining credible evidence and experience of the industry through the use of personal biography. Tilly Lawless took to twitter to tell the world that she was a “college student. Aspiring lawyer. Activist. Daughter, sister, sex worker. I don’t need rescuing.” There followed hundreds of similar statements using the #facesofprostitution hashtag. Sex worker Holly said her main issue was the photo used — a harrowing photo of a sex trafficked Eastern European woman. “That’s not our face,” she told BBC Trending, “not our lived experience.”
These voices tell us that we are not allowed to use empirically valid research to generalise (ironic, considering this is its purpose) but we are supposed to arrive at an accurate image of the lived reality of prostitutes via a compilation of photos, opinions, and experiences of women privileged enough to make their voice heard.
Celebrating choice, rather than devising a strong feminist agenda for change, has altered the meaning of equality and how one goes about achieving it. Take, for example, the “free the nipple” campaign around censorship and breastfeeding in public. While the campaign’s original goal was focused on breastfeeding, it didn’t take long to spiral out of control into the realm of exhibitionism; the campaign now seems to be more about taking a topless selfie. This type of feminism is less about questioning practices and conventions that hold women back, and more about upholding a woman’s “right” to objectify herself.
Meagan Tyler argues in The Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism that such an argument “strips women’s lives of context and makes it sound as though our ‘choices’ are made within a political and cultural vacuum.” More choice or even a greater ability to choose does not necessarily mean greater freedom. Thus there is a need to challenge the prevailing liberal feminist status quo.
As Tyler rightly points out “women still face unbearably high levels of sexual violence and millions of women around the world do not even have the limited protection that marital rape law affords. Activists are still fighting all around the world for the rights of girls and women not be mutilated and exploited. Pornography and the trafficking of women and girls are booming global businesses trading primarily in sexual exploitation.” In this way “choice” ideology glosses over, belittles, and ignores the horrific number of women worldwide who still experience oppression and inequality.
Take Vogue India’s “My Choice”, a video featuring Bollywood celebrity Deepika Padukone as Indian poster girl for Western liberal feminism that quickly gained notoriety upon its release in 2014. The video is ironic for two reasons. Firstly, India is widely recognised as one of the worst countries in which to be a woman; a quick Google search using the terms “India” and “women” lists hundreds of articles about men abusing, raping and disfiguring women (and many of them getting away with it). In short, many Indian women are deprived of the most basic rights — they simply don’t have the privilege of viewing freedom through Vogue’s rose tinted glasses. Secondly, as a number of other feminist authors have noted elsewhere, it’s hard to buy a message about female empowerment touted by an industry that normally won’t bat an eyelid when it comes to the sexualisation and objectification of women.
While the contributors of The Freedom Fallacy have done a great job of critiquing liberal feminism and its choice ethic, as I skimmed the pages I couldn’t help but think that another fruitful (and complementary) path of analysis would be a philosophical one. While it is important and necessary to delve deep into “the importance of power, context and culture”, this can only be truly meaningful when we ask, in the same vein as Socrates did, What is the good life? What is it to be truly free? What is the purpose of law? I would add, What is it to be woman?
It is impossible for liberal feminism to ask these questions as it is ultimately a child of relativism. This legacy has created many of the problems and contradictions outlined in The Freedom Fallacy. To make real headway in the attainment of equality, what is needed is a deep philosphical inquiry into what the full personal growth and perfection of women — in its various forms — might look like.
Nature must at least be considered alongside any structural analysis. As Michele Schumacher so eloquently puts it: When nature is lost, all that remains is freedom. The human being is freedom; a freedom who’s only goals is to will itself. Freedom invents its own values and gives meaning to a life that has no a priori meaning.
For feminists in the realist tradition, such an approach is not out of the question, although it does require intellectual openness. The perspective of nature and meaning would add depth to much of the brilliant social research aimed at transforming and removing factors which inhibit tangible equality for women.
Pauline Cooper-Ioelu is an academic in the area of educational innovation at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She has an interest in radical histories including trade unionism and feminism.