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Why do Marxist feminists oppose liberal feminists’ claims that porn and prostitution are liberating for women?

We must be clear that the sexualisation of women places men in a position of superiority and impedes class struggle, argues MORGAN HORN

AS Marxist feminists, we seek to dismantle capitalism in order to liberate women. Large swathes of today’s feminist movement have found their political vision in a university environment and so are often blind to the fact that most women are workers and therefore central to the class struggle. 

Fundamentally, their analysis fails to link women’s oppression to the continued existence of capitalism. These middle-class “student activists” seek to reform capitalism so that it is marginally better for women rather than destroy it entirely. 

These people often occupy comfy positions in capitalism — there’s a well-trodden path from student activism to “radical” bourgeois commentator writing liberal commentary. 

But surface-level gender equality under capitalism still oppresses and exploits the working class. Women may be granted formal rights, but they are still burdened by the social expectation to be home-makers and stay on the receiving end of horrific gender violence. 

Recently, this liberal feminist approach has become concerned with reclaiming porn and prostitution in the name of liberating women. 

We must be absolutely clear that the sexualisation of women places men in a position of superiority. It divides the working class and distracts us from class struggle. 

But Marxist feminists are pressed to accept this sexualisation of ourselves and our bodies as empowering. But it is crucial that Marxist feminist voices are heard in this renewed era of liberal feminism, which seeks to silence perceived dissenters and pressure all women into accepting their outlook. 

Liberal feminists are concerned with reclaiming the battlefield that is the female body, but this approach does little to change power relations. We must instead change the site of the battle entirely — locating it not on the female body but on our workplaces, our homes and our trade unions. 

Reducing us to our bodies does not empower us. Even though the new mainstream feminism is female-led, it still focuses on our appearance, bodies and sexuality. Women need instead to be taken seriously as socialists and activists. 

Prostitution should have the same legal status as any other work, the argument goes, because all work under the capitalist system is exploitative. 

Yet sex work is not work like any other. Liberal feminists seek to legitimise their arguments by claiming that sex is a commodity. 

But it is not — sex is a means through which a commodity is consumed and the commodity being consumed is the woman’s body. Prostitution will always exist, they say. It is inevitable, they say.

This provides men with the right to the sexual use of a woman and her body, validating the sexual objectification of women and male entitlement.

With this in mind, how on Earth can all women be expected to buy into the liberal agenda, perpetuated by a large number of feminists, which portrays porn and the sex trade as “empowering”? 

This distorted idea perpetuates the myth that women somehow have “agency” and “choice” over their own bodies in an industry run overwhelmingly by men. 

This often happens by force in the widespread instances of trafficking that prop up the industry. Should we adhere to calls for the decriminalisation of prostitution just because a minority of women feel “empowered’’ in their attempts to “reclaim” this industry? 

This perspective does not resonate with the many horrors faced by women in this trade every day. Calls for decriminalisation are damaging and legitimise the abuse of women. 

Those who seek to decriminalise this industry ignore the way in which the sex trade is structured through capitalist exploitation, poverty and women’s oppression. The only group that will benefit from this is pimps. 

Socialists should be assisting and supporting women to exit the sex trade and punish those who drive the demand for it. While we yearn for a society free of prostitution we must strive for the implementation of the Nordic model in the meantime. 

The Nordic model does exactly as is set out above. It decriminalises those who are prostituted, provides vital services to help people exit the industry and makes buying people for sex a criminal offence. That way, we attack the problem at its root by reducing demand.

Pornography, meanwhile, was specifically designed by and for the male fantasy, ignoring women as human beings altogether. 

Porn is often violent and extreme and the language used in porn titles is dehumanising. A quick scan of Pornhub will show titles such as: “brutalised,” “hammered,” “destroyed,” “punished” etc. 

The pain and discomfort of women is clearly an attraction rather than just an unfortunate by-product of the industry. In porn, women are sexual objects, no more, no less. 

But liberal feminists believe there are ways in which pornography can be used to liberate women. This is linked to the rise in so-called “feminist porn,” which is supposedly more representative of all women in society and porn which is produced by and for women. 

There is no such thing as “feminist porn” — the concept of commodifying sex is fundamentally capitalist and unethical and this is regardless of how diverse the cast is or how well the actors are treated. 

As long as men can see women having sex on camera at the click of a button, we cannot hope to tackle male entitlement to women in wider society. 

The view of any human being as a means of production or a commodity is fundamentally anti-communist and completely ignores the resistance to women’s exploitation which is central to communist thought. 

A woman’s genitals are not a means of production capable of being seized. To think otherwise and to call yourself a feminist is bewildering. We must push back against this corporate reimagining of feminism if we are to unite working-class men and women against capitalism and forge towards human emancipation.

As Marx said, we have a world to win, so why are we spending time trying to conquer the most sordid parts of the world we want to leave behind?

Professor Mary Davis powerfully argues that “the struggle for equal pay for equal work, for subsidised child care, for the socialisation of other aspects of domestic work and for other issues of importance to women, such as reproductive and full legal rights, points ultimately to socialism.” And she is right to say that it is “around issues such as these that women are most likely to be mobilised and united.” 

Women need to organise together for issues which disproportionately and exclusively affect us, but this is no reason to other and sexualise us as this behaviour exists to reduce our impact in the class struggle. 

The time of feminists would be better spent organising collectively to make sure all women have access to high-quality services. When working-class women come together and organise we can make effective changes in society. The successful Repeal the Eighth campaign in Ireland is a prime example.

And we cannot lose sight of the class struggle. As Clara Zetkin said, “The proletarian woman fights hand in hand with the man of her class against capitalist society.” 

We must fight against identity politics and its rejection of class which seeks to divide us. And we must continue to organise together, fighting together as a class and for our class. 

For the Bolsheviks, implementing full gender equality before the law, including the rights to divorce, have abortions and marry outside the church, was an early priority. 

When organising as Marxist feminists, we must do so collectively with the needs of all working-class women in mind, as opposed to liberal feminists who prioritise individual wants and validation over the collective.

Liberal feminism centres the individual and so it is fundamentally anti-communist. We must remain fully committed to dismantling capitalism in order to fully liberate women. Millions of working-class people have not laid down their lives for hipster porn.

 

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