Applying feminist perspectives

 

There are many common misconceptions that people have about feminism. Part of it is that when you identify as a feminist, they will accuse you of blaming everything on sexism and the patriarchy and “making everything about women”. However, feminist perspectives can help solve a lot of issues and contribute to critical analysis of them. Such issues involve prostitution, human trafficking and media representation.
There are many different perspectives of looking at street prostitution. The article “Women in Street Prostitution: The Result of Poverty and the Brunt of Inequity” (Monroe, 2005) introduces some of them. According to the author we can distinguish: Africana Womanists, who see the street prostitution as a consequence of racism, classism and sexism; socialist feminists, who also consider the impact of race and sex, but focus significantly on the role of social class; and radical feminists, who mostly blame prostitution on sexism deeply embedded in patriarchal societies. The article argues that Africana womanism is the most inclusive out of all feminists perspectives, however it puts most emphasis on the role of racism “over the other ‘-isms’” such as “classism or sexism although they all work together to maintain oppression” (Monroe, 2005). That perspective is also present in the author’s analysis of poverty, which is closely related to street prostitution. It is shown that poverty in the US affects ethnic minorities more then Whites, women more than man, and moreover Black and Hispanic women more than ethnic minority males (Rothenberg, 1995).

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Prostitutes in the streets of Spain

With the example of poverty, earnings and low wages, we can see how women become the victims of both racism and sexism, and how as a consequence African American women are disproportionally affected by poverty, and therefore are the group most likely to get into prostitution because of economic necessity (Monroe, 2005). Other than the factors pushing women into poverty and therefore, into prostitution we have to consider the consequences and laws against prostitution. We can distinguish laws punishing 3 groups: the prostitutes, those who manage prostitution (e.g. the pimp) and those who buy sex (e.g. the customer, also called “John”) (Monroe, 2005). The author notes that out of all these categories the laws punishing the prostitutes are enforced the most, and within that group street prostitutes, disproportionately represented by African American Women, are punished most frequently. Other than legal consequences, street prostitutes also experience violence, stigmatization within society and even death, which often remain unreported. Moreover it is stated in the article that the attempts to fight prostitution are usually focused on the supply side (the prostitutes) rather than the demand side (the “Johns”).

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“John” buying sex 

The article recalls two legal cases in which the women charged for prostitution challenged the laws by calling them unconstitutional, as they did not treat both sexes equally. Even though decades have passed since those laws were changed, it seems that the law is still discriminatory against women and the sex worker. A vivid example of that is the existence of “John” schools, weekend programs available for first time sex-buyers that they can attend instead of being criminally charged. There are no such programs for sex-workers, who are always processed fully through the criminal system. Nevertheless, Monroe in her article mentions many ways we can try and change the situation, such as: making the minimum wage a living wage, narrowing the pay gap between men and women, endorsing social aid and anti-poverty programs, making the laws towards pimps and panderers more serious, fighting racial and sex discrimination on job selection and penalizing organizations who discriminate.

 
It seems like the society of North America does not comprehend what the reality of street prostitution is.

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Still from “Pretty Woman”, Julia Roberts in the beginning of the plot, still as a prostitute

With movies like “Pretty Woman” (Marshall & Lawton, 1990), a story about a prostitute becomes a fairytale-like romantic comedy, rather than a heart-breaking drama which would be a more adequate description.
The main character Vivian falls in love with a rich businessman who takes her off the streets and they live happily ever after. Although a happy ending would be something that I would very much like to see in a movie about prostitution, it seems like social programs helping the prostitutes to acquire marketable skills would be more beneficial for the whole group (rather than an unlikely and a very unique outcome for just one individual).

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Still from further part of “Pretty Woman”, where Vivian starts becoming a princess rather than a sex worker

A Polish novel “Lalka” (Prus, 1890) shows an example of such help towards sex workers, that could be issued by the government as a social program; the main character helps a young prostitute by paying back her debts, putting her into sewing school and afterwards, getting her a job and accommodation. These acts not only take the girl off the streets, but also give her the means to start a different lifestyle.

 
An example of a realistic portrayal of prostitution is the Spanish movie “Princesas” (Aranoa, 2005), to which we can apply the Africana Womanist perspective. 600full-princesas-posterThe plot evolves around two women working as prostitutes: a native Spanish Caye, and an immigrant from Dominican Republic Zulema. From the moment they meet it is clear that even though they work in the same profession, Zulema as a Black woman is much more effected by the associated risks and dangers. For papers such as work permit she is forced to have sex with a violent and dangerous man who beats her when she says no, and as an illegal immigrant she cannot press charger and thus is not protected by the law in any way. She can barely afford a small room that she rents out for half of a day and shares with a family he mistreats her because of her profession. Her actions are a result of economic necessity as she support her family living in Dominican Republic financially. When she is found badly beaten by the same man in a hotel room, the stuff twos her out and threatens to call police on her, instead of helping her by getting medical help that she clearly needs.

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Still from “Princesas”, showing street prostitutes trying to catch customers’ attention

Meanwhile Caye can afford a nice apartment, has a network of clients that allows her to stay off the streets and gets to see her family everyday. Both women experience sexual assault and violence due to men not respecting their boundaries and objectifying them just because of what their job is. Both face being ostracized, ridiculed and offended. Not to mention the psychological impact the job has on Caye and Zulema, turning the intimate act of sex into something difficult to enjoy, as it begins being associated with something unpleasant and brings the feelings of regret and resentment. Another example that we can understand better using the Africana Womanist perspective is when the Spanish prostitutes call the police on the Black sex workers, because “they steal their jobs”.

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Caye and Zulema, heroines of “Princesas”

We can see how not only prostitutes are ostracized in a society, but also how Black women are ostracized within that group. The movie shows many, often not spoken about, aspects of street prostitution and gives examples on how it affects the lives of the workers, such as venereal diseases, violence and stigmatization. It is an honest portrayal of the brutal reality of street prostitution, and how Black Women are somehow affected by it disproportionally more.

 
In the article “Modern day slavery: poverty and child trafficking in Nigeria” (Adesina, 2013) the author explores how poverty and trafficking correlates. Human trafficking is defined by Adesina as a process of recruiting people in their country or community and transporting them into a destination of exploitation in the forms such as forced labour, prostitution or domestic servitude; a modern day slavery.

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Child-trafficking victim portrayal 

It is stated that human trafficking can take internal (within a country) and external (out of a country) forms, like in closely examined by Adesina Nigeria, in which all of the forms occur. The children who are victims of trafficking not only suffer from poor conditions, exploitation and abuse; the experience also affects their future, as they get used to performing criminal activities, suffer psychologically and don’t get education or training that would help them get employment later in life. Adesina (2013) sees the link between how big the child trafficking business is in Nigeria and how high (about 70% of the population) the poverty in the country is. Poverty, in the article, is defined as a lack of resources needed to accommodate basic human needs. The rise of the laws in Nigeria protecting the victims and prohibiting human trafficking has resulted in an increase of rescued victims. The study introduced in the article sheds some light on child trafficking an provided new insight. What seems surprising is that the traffickers are usually extended relatives of the victim or someone well-known in their community and the majority of them are women, as they are believed to be more trust-worthy.
Both articles identify poverty as the root of the problems described, child-trafficking and prostitution. Most women go into prostitution out of economic necessity, and most children that are victims of trafficking come from poor families. It is lack of economic opportunities that pushes people into this “work”. Other factors contributing are lack of education and other job prospects or coming from a large family (all common consequences of poverty) and additionally sex, as women are highly more likely to be victims of trafficking or to become a sex worker. Just as prostitutes, victims of child-trafficking suffer psychological damage that impacts them in the future, as a result of not only the exploitation, but also sexual assaults or negative treatment from society or “clients”. Both Monroe and Adesina recognize that the first step in fighting the issues is collecting more data, adjusting the government laws and policies and stricter prosecution of offenders (in the case of prostitution sex worker should be perceived more as the victim and the laws should be more strict towards the client).
Some may argue that child-trafficking and prostitution involve only a margin of society, people from the poorest, less advanced countries, rural areas or the ones living in extreme poverty; and therefore they can try to make an argument that the sexism represented in these phenomenas is not an accurate description of a modern Western society. Well, how will the privileged clearly remaining oblivious to the fact that child-trafficking and prostitution are problems of ALL of us explain the gender dynamics in the Western media?
In the article “Mediated football: representations and audience receptions of race/ethnicity, gender and nation” Spaaij and van Serkenburg (2015) attempt to analyze the representation, audience reception and media content of mediated football. The authors call media sport omnipresent, especially men’s soccer, as the games are capable of attracting more viewers at the same time than any other media genre (2015). They believe that they are more than just sport events, as they have become influential media spectacles, which gives football celebrities a platform to become role models. Many of them use it for good cause, such as social campaigns fighting racism, like the nike campaign. However it is noted that football can also disadvantage minority groups and contribute to increasing discrimination, as many hooligans attending the games use it as a platform to chant racial slurs and showcase offensive banners. In his article “The racism aimed at Mario Balotelli and Kevin-Prince Boateng shames Italy” Bandini notes that there is not much players such as Zoro or Balotelli can do, as abandoning the game would be equal to loosing; and therefore it is the responsibility of those with more power, like FIFA to fight the racism.

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Zora taking the ball and walking off the field after hearing racist chants

Even the media is at fault of bias and stereotypical portrayal of races, such as attributing superhuman power to the Blacks or irrationality to Muslims. Women are not only victims of stereotyping, but also trivializing and under-representation. Their success is usually attributed to their male couches or father figures, and they often are portrayed as sexualized objects. Not only do they have to be excellent players, they are also expected to be attractive and feminine at all times. Women sports receive much less coverage in the media and by the audience are considered something of the lesser value. We can see how applying feminist perspective to football exposes racism and sexism in the media representation.
In the article “‘Race’, Gender and Neoliberalism: changing visual representations in development” Kalpana Wilson (2011) argues that even when the problem of under-representation is solved, another issue is misrepresentation. The author states that women should be not portrayed as victims that need to be rescued from their current situation (like oppression they experience from their husbands or societies) (Wilson, 2011). Women living in developing countries or poverty are objects of “instrumentalisation” as their portrayal contributes to “feminisation of responsibility”, as they sacrifice themselves for the good of their children, and thus the children become mainly their responsibility.

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A Third World country Woman portrayed as a hard worker, contributing to her community 

Western women are portrayed as liberated, in control and an ideal that all societies should aim to match. Wilson notes how in the past media chose to focus on “negative” images portraying the Third World countries as helpless victims needing help from the developed West. With the shift of focus to “positive” images showing women as active and productive agents, an “investment” for Western donors, men are portrayed as oppressors not contributing to their families or communities. We are also given an example in which such positively represented African Woman is a subject of sexualization with the purpose of selling something to Western consumers. Consequently we need to consciously aim to not only portray Women of developing country as more than just victims; we should not use them as advertisement or a mean of making Western societies feel better about themselves, as the West is shown as the ideal the Third World countries should thrive to be like.
As you can see, not only does the feminist perspective provide additional insights to issues our society faces; it is crucial to determining the underlying cause and looking for a solution. The Africana Womanist perspective explains how our society’s dynamic makes Black Women most affected by poverty, and therefore the group most likely to enter the prostitution business. Looking at child trafficking also requires as to use intersectional feminism perspective to truly understand the phenomenon. Moreover, feminism is useful even in analyzing things that some might find easier to relate, such as media representation, as we can see on the examples of how football or women from Third World countries are portrayed in Western Media.

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Sexual violence in war

There is an aspect of war-time that is often not talked about in our history classes. We learn about the dates, the generals and war heroes, but we are taught very little about sexual violence in conflicts. Unfortunately, that absence of information does not mean that the problem does not exist. There are many articles that try to shed more light on that often ignored aspect of wars.

In “War-Time Sexual Violence: Misconceptions, Implications and Ways Forward” (Cohen, Green & Wood, 2013) the authors try to tackle many misconceptions that people hold about sexual violence in conflict. They note that the phenomenon cannot be generalized, as many factors vary. The authors state:
“In other words, variation is enormous in the location, timing, and perpetration of wartime rape.“
Amongst many other misconceptions one of the most common belief is that the occurrence of war-time rape is affected by geography, and the phenomenon is widely associated with Africa. However, as studies mentioned in the article have shown, such belief is inappropriate, as war-time rape is just as likely to occur in other areas, such as Europe or USA. Authors prove other misconceptions wrong as well, for instance who is more likely to commit or to be a victim of sexual crimes during a conflict: rebel groups or state militaries, men or women, combatants or civilians, etc. Some surprising statistics are provided, such as:

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“The rape of Serbia”, based on a painting by the Dutch painter Jan Sluters (1930), showing that the phenomenon is present throughout centuries

“A population-based survey conducted in 2010 in the eastern DRC found that 41 percent of female sexual violence victims reported that they were victimized by female perpetrators, as did 10 percent of male victims. “ Not only does the article criticize and tackle those misconceptions, it also proves how they affect our knowledge about the subject by making studies biased. An example is how victims are always assumed to be women, and therefore studies rarely “ask BOTH about the sex of the perpetrator and the sex of the victim”.

The article also notes that there are many questions that still remain unanswered. It is the consequence of bias, generalization, misunderstandings, underreporting, overrepresentation, underrepresentation etc. However, the authors state that even thought we may not fully understand it, all the variety present in war-time sexual violence is a proof of it not being inevita
ble. The article points the readers at a certain direction, stating that the more we know about sexual violence in conflict, the more we can do to prevent it.
In the policy brief “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflicts” (Chun & Skjelbaek, 2010) the authors similarly note how our knowledge about sexual violence in war is limited, mainly due to poor documentation. It notices difficulties associated with definitions of rape and other sexual offences. It is stated:
“However, the crime of sexual violence in conflict has only recently been defined in international law, as gender-based sexual violence in conflict had long been regarded as a by-product of conflict rather than as a criminal act. “
Sexual violence not being defined as a criminal act is one of the factors contributing to the scale of the problem. The article gives example of how in some parts of the world sexual violence is used as a war strategy, instead of being prevented. Although it does focus more on women as victims, it also notes that focus on sexual violence against men should increase. Moreover, the reading also notes what other limitations we have when it comes to knowledge about sexual violence in conflict, such as the the social stigma that discourages victims from reporting the crime.

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The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict (2014)

The conclusion that we can draw from both of the readings is that our knowledge about sexual violence in conflict is fairly limited. The reasons noted are the challenge of defining what sexual violence is, common misconceptions and assumptions deeply embedded in our culture, lack of documentation and reluctancy to report the crimes. However authors of both articles agree that the way to fight sexual violence in war-time is to know more about it, because only with more knowledge are we able to really prevent it.

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When did you know you liked guys?

cropped-1flatThroughout life if we are conscious or observant enough we will notice the countless ways that heteronormativity  affects our lives. A very common and seemingly harmless way is the one I addressed in this post’s title – questions with which we follow the information about someone’s sexual orientation. If you are a heterosexual woman, it is very unlikely that someone will ask you: “So when did you know you liked guys?”. The reason for this is that heterosexuality is perceived as the norm in our society. When people find out that I am bisexual, they often ask a similar question: “So when did you know you liked girls?”. Whenever I hear that, I answer: “I never thought I was heterosexual”. Many people, just like me, don’t have an amusing story about how they suspected that they were not “normal” because they were attracted to the same sex in middle school. If we use the sociological perspective, we can see how heteronormativity affects not only individuals, but society as a whole. One of the harmful ways that it does that is how sexuality education is being taught in our school.

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A gif from “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999)

 One of the works that tries to tackle this problem is “Discourses of Exclusion: Sexuality Education’s Silencing of Sexual Others” by Elia & Eliason (2010). They provide a historical and cultural context while answering the question of how did we get here. The authors state:

“It is abundantly clear that sexuality education has not changed much since its beginnings in the early twentieth century. The focus has always been on promoting heterosexual, procreative sexuality within the confines of marriage. “

The article provides explanation for how did abstinence become such a big part of sexuality education in the US. Even the idea seems ridiculous looking at the statistics of teenage sexual activities, paradoxically instead of teaching kids how to prevent unwanted pregnancy, the system shames them for having sexual urges and stigmatizes contraception. Moreover, an abstinence teaching system is extremely exclusive towards same-sex couples. Authors note how knowledge about STI’s is not generalized enough and therefore reinforced the prejudice towards the LGBTQ community. The article however ends on a positive note, providing guidelines for how sexuality education can be “anti-oppressive and inclusive” and notes that the situation is getting better.

A fragment of the “Mean Girls” (2004)

 The article “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youths’ Perspectives of Inclusive School-Based Sexuality Education” by Gowen & Winges-Yanez (2014) provides some more insight on the topic of sexuality education. The study was conducted among thirty youth, most of which identified themselves as a part of the LGBTQ community. The authors introduce us to concepts without which it is difficult to understand the phenomenon. It is explained how heteronormativity, here taking the form of heterocentricity affects the youth. It is stated:

“In describing their sexuality education experiences, many focus group participants recalled instances in which heterosexuality was the perceived norm. For example, sexuality education focused on vaginal intercourse and pregnancy prevention. “

Once again, we are shown how the members of LGBTQ may feel ignored or silenced by Sex Ed. Even if introducing contraception or teaching how to prevent getting a STI, the curriculum focuses on or is limited to heterosexual vaginal intercourse. Things like dental dam are not mentioned. Moreover, sexual orientations other than heterosexuality are being apathologized by being associated with HIV/AIDS and other STIs.

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A gif from “Sex Education: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (2015)  (HBO)

Both articles mentioned before bring our attention to the issue of sexuality education and how it is influenced by heteronormativity. What should provide knowledge, reinforced misconceptions and prejudice. We need to consciously review data collected from studies and try to change how we teach about sexuality, because it is one of the elements that shape our society. That’s why the curriculum needs to be revised and adjusted, so it does not cause harm or increase inequalities.

 

Sources:

  • http://sexedproject.org
  • Michaels, L., Fey, T., Waters, M. S., Lohan, L., McAdams, R., Meadows, T., Poehler, A., … Paramount Pictures Corporation. (2004). Mean girls. Hollywood, Calif: Paramount.
  • http://memes.doublie.com/john-oliver-nails-new-sex-ed-psa-last-week-tonight/
  • http://blog.gayborhoodapp.com/by-the-way-im-gay/
  • L. Kris Gowen & Nichole Winges-Yanez (2014) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youths’ Perspectives of Inclusive School-Based Sexuality Education, The Journal of Sex Research, 51:7, 788-800, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2013.806648
  • John P. Elia & Mickey Eliason (2010) Discourses of Exclusion: Sexuality Education’s Silencing of Sexual Others, Journal of LGBT Youth, 7:1, 29-48, DOI: 10.1080/19361650903507791

     

Identifying as feminist

Throughout our lives we experience a constant search of our identity. A part of that search is how we describe ourselves to others. It can be adjectives or nouns concerning our appearances and personalities that we believe will reveal something about who we are. Identifying yourself as a feminist is however more difficult than stating that you’re “blonde”, “tall” or “outgoing”. Not only will you have to explain what that word means to you to people who misinterpret it, but your own understanding of it might get challenged by new information and other people’s opinions.

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She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (Dore & Kennedy, 2014

The term “feminist” for some people associates with words like “controversial” or “women-favouring”. Unfortunately, some feminist works still reinforce these stereotypes. An excellent example is the movie She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (Dore & Kennedy, 2014). By focusing on the most visually striking protests and problems concerning the majorities, the movie reinforces the stereotype of feminists being “controversial” or “aggressive”. Moreover, it conforms to the concept of “White Feminism” by focusing on white feminists and their communities. With small exceptions the movie ignores the voices of other ethnicities, genders and backgrounds.

Some of the most influential feminist authors are beginning to understand how feminism can conform to what it originally aimed to change. Nancy Fraser in her article “How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden – and how to reclaim it” (2013) has stated the following:

nancy-d7f1732809daf21eab0fbe3b264305be“As I see it, feminism’s ambivalence has been resolved in recent years in favour of the second, liberal-individualist scenario – but not because we were passive victims of neoliberal seductions. On the contrary, we ourselves contributed three important ideas to this
development.”

As we can see, the author believes that by trying to liberate themselves from oppression of social norms, feminists unknowingly contributed to the development of neo-liberalism, which praises individuality and free market. That has resulted in the downplay of social solidarity and what Nancy Fraser calls “carework”. It seems however that the author is still missing some of the drawbacks of the second-wave feminism.
Claims made by Fraser in her article have even received a response from Brenna Bhandar and Denise Ferreira da Silva in their article “White Feminist Fatigue Syndrome” (2013), in which the authors asked:
“Are the White feminists who persist in throwing in the word “race” or “racism” in their otherwise left-liberal approaches to feminism willfully blind/deaf? Are they unable to cede the floor to Black feminism because it would mean the loss of a certain racial privilege?”
This brings us again to the concept of “white feminism”, and the idea of non-white feminists contributions being ignored. That is why Bhandar and Silva bring our attention to why we should try to decolonize feminism, which means fighting both the favouring of “First World” feminism and paying attention solely to what it’s trying to fight. Feminists need to remember to think broader, to expand their thinking to other parts of the world and pay attention to and respect the contributions of activists from the “Third World”.
As we can see by the above examples, the term feminism is a very complex one, and consequently we need to stay open-minded to changes that other views or perspectives might bring to our understanding of that word. Moreover, we need to relentlessly aim to achieve equality and consciousness so that all feminists can learn how to accomplish their goals together, instead of battling or silencing each other.

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