Whatever we do, it’s wrong – so let’s do it right

When I told a friend that I was going to write an article about the fact that “whatever we do, it’s wrong”, we realized after a few minutes of slightly chaotic dialogue that we didn’t mean the same thing. I meant that whatever a woman does with her sexuality, she is judged and criticized for it. And my friend thought that I meant that whatever, as feminists, we do, it’s never completely right and satisfactory, because it’s never truly intersectional.

I first thought it was a misunderstanding, and we moved on. Then I thought that it was a meaningful misunderstanding, and that I had to take it into account as such: as a sign from the god that doesn’t exist (or from my friend) that my politics are not intersectional enough. And now I think that even though I didn’t think so when it happened, my friend and I were talking about the same thing. Or rather, I should have considered that we were talking about the same thing even though I didn’t. Because we were both talking about how to fight domination – any domination, including the one we exercise on other people, on other women whom we call sisters and who could legitimately call us enemies. I should have considered that we were talking about the same thing because MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT. I cannot separate the two; writing about one means writing about the other, otherwise, yes, it is bullshit.

In this article, I first address various inventive patriarchal criticisms of my sexual and affective behaviour, and then try to make a link between the fact that all these criticisms are very hurtful whoever utters them, and the necessity for my feminism to be truly radical and intersectional.


The term “intersectional” was first used by Kimberle Crenshaw to describe the specific form of oppression experienced by Women of Colour. As a white woman, I have been thinking about my legitimacy in using this term to describe my politics. I think I can do so, because I don’t use it to describe my experience but to define what the political response to the oppression of women must be. I am not the only one to do so, and I hope it reflects the will of the feminist movement to acknowledge its own deflects and to be truly reflexive. If you have anything to say about my use of the term, please feel free to comment and link on the subject.

I define intersectional feminism as a feminism fighting all types of dominations at the same time, and regarding the discriminations based on gender, race, class, ability, age, and so on as needing to be addressed both separately and simultaneously. Each of these discriminations has something specific, but they also have a lot in common, and they combine to make specific forms of oppression which need to be addressed in a specific way. In short, intersectional both means fighting each oppression and fighting all oppressions at the same time.


Different politics produce different criticisms – or do they ?

So, back to what started this conversation with my friend, I’ve recently experienced vividly the fact that whatever we, as women, do with our sexuality, we are being criticized for it. And when I say “criticized” I mean it as a wide concept, encompassing all types of hostile behaviour, from giving advice full of *good intentions* – yes, we’re thinking of the same road – , to name-calling and abuse.

Depending on the kind of sexual and affective organisation I choose, namely monogamy or non-monogamy, and depending on the politics of the person uttering it, the criticism is neither phrased nor justified the same way, but the basic message remains the same: what you’re doing is Wrong.


The reactionary criticism of non-monogamy

Some criticisms are quite familiar, and not very surprising. Being called a slut by a right-wing pro-marriage person, or simply by a sexist man, for being non-monogamous is quite expectable. And I don’t care too much because I feel legitimate enough not to be too affected by these judgements and attacks. I don’t feel forced to discuss with these people at all, because I advocate for a feminist non-monogamy, and I suspect that if they don’t consider that non-monogamy can be emancipatory when associated with a strong feminist commitment, it’s not only because of the non-monogamy bit. And I am not up for discussing with anti-feminist people; I am up for shouting at them. This kind of criticism is not the worst one: it’s quite easy to identify, it’s quite easy to feel legitimate not to answer to it, or to shout back at it.


The leftist criticism of monogamy

Some criticisms are more insidious because they don’t present as such: I am thinking of the article by LostClown on leftist men who criticize monogamous women and praise polyamory in the name of pro-feminism, for the serving of their own interests. These men, who we often call our allies and who seem to be supporting women’s emancipation and self-determination, are actually sexists who deserve to be treated as their conservative fellows. They use non-monogamy to reproduce what they do, with more limitations, in monogamy: accumulation of women, private ownership of women, sexual utilization and so on. Their criticism of monogamy may target what’s actually problematic with it, but the *solution* they advocate for doesn’t solve anything; it makes it worse.

One of the things that help identifying what presents as anti-sexist criticism of monogamy and actually is leftist sexism in disguise is that it targets monogamous women rather then monogamous men. If I have witnessed leftist monogamous men reproaching monogamous women to be “boring” and “conservative”, I think I have also interiorized some of this putrid sexism. I have sometimes, especially when I discovered non-monogamy, thought monogamous sisters to be alienated because they were in heterosexual monogamous relationships. Instead of thinking in priority about the advantages which their male partners have in the situation, I thought of my sisters as being alienated. As if non-monogamy was necessarily feminist and emancipatory, which it is not. As if, especially when they are feminists, it were only of their responsibility to choose to be in a non-monogamous relationship, regardless of their financial, familial, political, sexual or affective situation. As if being in a satisfactory heterosexual couple were either easy or terribly oppressive. As if “monogamy” or “non-monogamy” mattered more than the “feminist” you attach to it.

It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t criticize the patriarchal monogamous model, but it means I shouldn’t blame my sisters for what they are doing with it. It means I should work on giving my sisters, all my sisters, the possibility to choose between cake and pudding, if I want them to consider having pudding, and to make sure that they are not having cake because the option is cake or death. Or cake or street, or cake or back to the border, or cake or shame.


The (unexpected) leftist criticism of non-monogamy

In addition to the reactionary criticism of non-monogamy and the leftist criticism of monogamy, I have experienced a third type of criticism, which is even more insidious and *elaborate* than the previous ones. It is the leftist criticism of non-monogamy. Yes. Patriarchy’s imagination has no limits. It’s based on a legitimate criticism of the misogynist use that some men make of non-monogamy, but it postulates that women are in the same power position as men to reproduce this domination pattern. It’s accusing feminists of reproducing the domination patterns they are experiencing and fighting. In addition to being an offence to any substantial analysis of social relations of powers, it is completely absurd since feminism’s principle is not “an eye for an eye” and “abuse for abuse”, because, as Dworkin says “That is not the equality we are struggling for.” I am not saying that women cannot be oppressive. What I mean is that when I, as a feminist, deliberately take the risk of trying to have several satisfactory heterosexual relationships, I cannot tolerate that a man doubts my faithfulness or my integrity. To make a long story short, this criticism is more elaborate, but it’s still sexism. And it’s still disgusting.


No matter who you say you are, a Fail is still a Fail

What all these criticisms have in common is that they are extremely humiliating, unpleasant and exhausting. And actually, I don’t really care if they are uttered by a right-wing or a left-wing man. I feel bad in both cases, I even feel worse when the guy is a *comrade* and that I have (naively?) thought, at some point, that we were on the same side. I feel worse because I have this urge to justify myself, to explain, to demonstrate, sometimes because I don’t recognize the abuse as such, and sometimes because my mind is so occupied that I still want them to understand and believe me.

So, if a leftist man attacks me for my sexual behaviour, it’s hurtful for me no matter what our politics might have in common. And similarly, if I reproach a woman for her sexual behafviour, it’s hurtful for her no matter how feminist I say I am. This is why I would find totally understandable and legitimate that the women who feel that I am explaining to them what is good for them and what isn’t shout at me. It’s true for monogamy and non-monogamy, but it’s also true for many other issues. It’s true every time my privileges make me feel entitled to say something about an issue I have no right to say something about. It is true every time I am being dominant with other women. My despise for sexist leftist men is legitimate, but so is the despise of my sisters for me when I am being sexist with them, or when I reproduce any other form of domination with them. No matter who I say I am.


Radical means intersectional

I think I felt challenged and touched by what my friend thought I meant when I said “whatever we do, it’s wrong” because my feminism is sometimes bullshit. It is bullshit every time I am not being intersectional, either by reproducing any form of domination or by taking part into the reproduction of any form of domination. I do so by being, to many respects, privileged, and because it is not a fatality about which there’s nothing I can do. To challenge my own domination and my own privileges, there are things I can do; there are things I already do that I can do more systematically. I can educate myself, read what non-white feminists, what trans* feminists, what non-academic feminists write (and the fact that so much material is available on line simply gives me no excuse not to do so). I can reflect on my behaviour, on my language, on my thoughts. I can be as picky with other forms of discrimination as I am with sexism, even when it means being the party pooper. I can offer to struggles that do not directly concern me absolute material, logistic or emotional support. To use LostClown’s words, I can jeopardize my status and put my body on the line.

This is not to say that men should feel better because they don’t have the monopoly of oppression. This is to say that I, as a feminist, should take my responsibility for the oppressions I say I am fighting. And not wait until my sisters are kind enough to take time and energy to point out what’s racist, cissexist or ableist in my behaviour. They have other things to do. They could answer me the same thing I sometimes answer to apparently pro-feminist men who tell me that sexism is bad and what can they do about it. Think about our last discussion, you’ll find the beginning of a bibliography. Try to engage in a reflexive process instead of putting me in the difficult position of telling you in what way(s) you are being oppressive. Be responsible. Do something. Being privileged means having possibilities of action that are not immediately available to oppressed people. Use them. Do. Something.

So if I want to have the right to define myself as a radical feminist, I have to be radical. And radical means, among other things, intersectional. My radical feminism will be intersectional or it will be radical bullshit. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want it to be.


2 Comments on “Whatever we do, it’s wrong – so let’s do it right”

  1. Lis says:

    It is bullshit every time I am not being intersectional, either by reproducing any form of domination or by taking part into the reproduction of any form of domination. I do so by being, to many respects, privileged, and because it is not a fatality about which there’s nothing I can do. To challenge my own domination and my own privileges, there are things I can do; there are things I already do that I can do more systematically…

    I especially love this bit and what follows. Thank you. From my trans*-informed perspective: this is so much better than the flailing around “I want to be better but I don’t know how!” which happens so often. And it’s a manual for others (incl. me!) who want to challenge the oppressions which are embedded in our feminism.

  2. […] Whatever we do, it’s wrong – so let’s do it right (feministactioncambridge.wordpress.com) […]

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