Janice Raymond is a long-time radical feminist activist and author of many books on radical feminism. In 1979 Raymond famously tackled the tangled issues of gender/transgender in The Transsexual Empire, a book which has remained an important foundation stone in radical feminist thinking. Raymond has also tirelessly campaigned for the abolition of sex trafficking and prostitution and is a former co-director of the Coalition Against Trafficking In Women. Her most recent book is Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Global Sex Industry (Potomac Press, US; Spinifex Press, Australia).
We are incredibly excited to welcome Janice Raymond as a keynote speaker at our RadFems Resist conference this September in London. In the run up to the conference, we asked Janice a few questions about her past and recent work and her topic of choice for her talk: the "Comfort Women" drafted into sexual slavery during the Second World War.
1. Is it still important to talk about dismantling gender and if so what does this look like from a radical feminist perspective?
The importance of dismantling gender is still with us, albeit in some unusual places, reputably said to exist beyond gender. To take one example, there is gender and there is transgender. When I first published The Transsexual Empire in 1979, the word gender was understood to be separate from the word sex. Sex was what defined a person biologically, and gender was understood to mean the sex- appropriate behavior that was socially constructed. In her new and brilliant book, Gender Hurts, Sheila Jeffreys looks at the history of the word gender and emphasizes the fact that radical feminists used the term to talk about gender roles, the “gender order,” or the gender hierarchy, but in each of these usages, it was clear that it meant a social and political construction of male and female behavior. Now, as Jeffreys points out, gender has replaced the word sex, “as if gender itself is biological.” The conflation of sex and gender is achieved in the construction of the category transgender.
People sometimes ask me, “What’s the big deal about transgender,” and why is it such a significant issue, especially in the schema of pressing issues that feminists concern ourselves with. As I saw it then and see it now, transgender raises questions of what gender is and how to challenge it. Advocates of transgender argue that it is a radical challenge to gender – transgressing gender expectations and rigid boundaries of socially appropriate sex-role behavior -- if a person undergoes surgery or hormone treatment to configure one’s body to the opposite sex, or simply claims membership in the opposite sex by self-identification. If we have to change our bodies in order to challenge gender norms, we are not transcending gender, i.e, we are not free from gender. We are exchanging one gendered identity for the other.
I think the task of radical feminism is to dismantle gender wherever it rears its hydra-headed appearance.
2. Radfem Collective exercise a number of different strategies, some which could be termed 'reformist' such as our No Platforming campaign, organised with Julie Bindel and Miranda Yardley. We also focus on creating female only spaces/conferences. Do you see a continued role for both within the context of women's liberation?
I don’t agree that any campaign to combat no platforming is “reformist,” particularly where radical feminist speech is concerned. Andrea Dworkin has written, “Women, deprived of a forum for words, are deprived of the power necessary to ensure both survival and well-being.” Any platform to give a voice to radical feminist speech is revolutionary. We need more radical feminist speech, but to make this happen, women benefit from places, meetings, events where women can articulate goals and strategies, or simply meet together.
3. Linked to the above, how do women achieve truly 'transformative' change?
Women need the separation from male-dominated spaces, a separation that is critical to women’s well-being and that carries with it the drive for a more woman-defined existence. But separation should never be segregation, whether imposed from without or chosen from within. Separation from hetero-reality, for me, means that the kind of respite that gives women the strength and power to make a mark on the world, not to make an exit from that world. For radical feminists, separation and worldliness go together and are both necessary to create transformative change.
When I wrote A Passion for Friends, I tried to express this tension between separation and worldliness by talking about women’s friendships in both a personal and political sense. Friendship should provide women with a common world that becomes a reference point for location in a larger world beyond the friendship. The separation and sharing of a personal life should be, at the same time, grounding for a political life, one that alters the distribution of power in society.
4. Would you agree that radical feminism has yet to integrate a truly global perspective in terms of women's oppression?
Any movement for social change should not only integrate a global perspective but also work with global partners. Radical feminists, for example, have joined with radical feminist sisters in the South to combat trafficking in women, organize an international anti-pornography movement, resist reproductive and genetic technologies, campaign against female genital mutilation, and challenge global militarism. As an example of a recent global campaign that is promoting radical feminist values, look at the current movement to make Amnesty International accountable for its promotion of prostitution by advocating for a policy that decriminalizes the sex industry, a campaign that has the active participation of many radical feminists.
5. Is it possible to build a radical feminist social movement given our herstory of factions? How can we ensure that we do not make the same mistakes of the past? Or do you think that conflict is inevitable, and it is this conflict that drives Radical Feminism forward?
Factions are not limited to radical feminism. We have to push through these disagreements, not make them invisible or pretend they don’t happen. The best way to go forward is to articulate the arguments honestly and make judgments about how to further our goals. This is not imposing one’s values on others, but rather taking responsibility for our political beliefs and practices. In the past, in the name of some amorphously defined feminist community, value judgments and political opinions, along with the will to enact them in opposition to other women, were seen as divisive. However, what kind of feminist politics can be built on the unwillingness to make judgments. Social and political life stem from values, choices and practices that are defined with clarity and exercised with commitment. Easier said than done, but there’s no other way than to do it.
6. This year is the 70th anniversary of the ending of the second world war. Radical feminists have been prominent in highlighting how men's sexual violence has cut across class, racial, ethnic boundaries through colonialism, imperialism and nationalistic wars. At the RadFems Resist conference in September of this year, you will be talking about the sexual slavery of the 'comfort women' of the occupied territories of the Japanese Army. Can you touch upon what you want to highlight in this talk? Why did you choose to focus on this topic, at this time?
I chose the topic of the so-called comfort women, the women drafted into military sexual slavery by Japan during World War II, for several reasons. Many countries are holding events on this 70th anniversary of the war to honor the service and sacrifice of those who fought in it. Thus far, no plans are officially underway to commemorate the women whose lives were taken from them when they were drafted into military sexual slavery during WWII. The history of the “comfort women” constitutes one of the most egregious war crimes of the 20th century, but has never been officially recognized as such.
The second reason I chose this subject is because the magnitude of Japan’s prostitution system is unparalleled in several ways: the number of women who were subjugated is estimated to be between 100,000-200,000; the methods for procuring women were highly organized and government-sponsored; the “comfort women” system began prior to the war and lasted well over 15 years; and the countries in which it operated spanned the breadth of Japan’s wartime empire in the Asia-Pacific region. My talk is not only about Japan’s war crimes against women. It is also about the US military’s reenactment of the comfort women system during the post-war years when the United States occupied Japan.
I also chose to talk about the “comfort women” because most of these women are now deceased, but the remnant who have survived and their allies, are still pressuring Japan, to take responsibility for this crime, apologize and make reparations. That campaign is ongoing.
Militarism is a radical feminist issue, not only because rape, sexual slavery and trafficking in women are fueled by war but for other reasons as well. It is mainly radical feminists who have historically insisted that violence against women is a feminist issue. Like those women drafted into military sexual slavery who continue to insist on justice and restitution, radical feminists once had to insist that rape, woman battering, prostitution and pornography should be essential to the feminist agenda. We are still insisting.
Finally, the history of the “comfort women” system is timely because it reverberates with lessons about state-sponsored prostitution today, especially as governments consider whether to legalize or decriminalize pimping, brothels and buying.