"sexuality is political under a system of male supremacy"
Julie Bindel - outspoken journalist, tireless radical feminist activist, and political lesbian - has been at the forefront of our no platforming campaign, which aims to tackle the no platforming of radical feminists by organisations who seek to silence our voices. No Platforming will also be the topic of Julie's talk at the RadFems Resist Conference organised by RadFem Collective, which is taking place in September in Central London. Julie's new book, "Straight Expectations", examines the gay and lesbian movement in the UK and the ways in which being gay has increasingly come to be seen as a no longer a political and personal choice, but something that is biologically predetermined from birth. In the interview below, she talks about the depoliticisation of sexuality, the importance of dismantling gender, and her current work surrounding prostitution and its perceptions around the world.
What role does political lesbianism play in women’s liberation?
Political lesbians are really crucial, because we were the ones that first said that women should be able to determine their own sexuality. We were the ones that said that all women can be lesbians and that heterosexuality is compulsory under a system of male supremacy. We were the ones that said that until women had a free choice, that we had to speak about heterosexuality as imposed upon us, rather freely chosen. This is completely unlike the mantra from the so called “pro-sex” third wave feminists, who claim that we are anti sex and prudish. Political lesbians were the ones that said to women: “you can be lesbians, you can be non monogamous, you can have loads of sex, with loads of women, you can enjoy sex and it doesn’t have to be something that is imposed upon you, by the type of men that think foreplay is unpacking the shopping.”
So I think political lesbianism has a crucial role, because it tells women that sexuality is political under a system of male supremacy. It tells us that sexual acts are all political and that none of them are without meaning. And it also clearly defines the fact that equality and meaningful sexual pleasure can be achieved far easier with women than it can be with men under this system.
Have radical feminists stopped analysing desire and sexuality in a way that is transformative?
We used to talk about sexual politics, rather than sexual practice. But what the libertarians did when they borrowed US gay male culture was they focused obsessively on sexual practice, and they eroticised inequality, subordination, pain and dominance. We used to talk about: “why are women heterosexual?” And “what is lesbianism?” – because we didn’t like the definition it was given by the non-feminists that it was just about sex, that it was just something you were, that it was something you couldn’t help being, that it was something you were programmed to be and that it was less desirable than being straight.
So radical feminism saw heterosexuality under patriarchy as massively problematic, because it benefited men and it disadvantaged women. It meant that the family structure was one that had the man at the Head of the household – even if he wasn’t a dinosaur, even if he thought of himself as quite progressive. It meant that he did things to her, sexually. It meant that she would joke with her friends as early writers like Marilyn French outlined, that she would often put up and shut up, and let him get on with stuff. It meant that she wasn’t really wanting or enjoying, so that he would buy her a new washing machine if they were middle class, or if they were working class, so that he would give her his wages at the end of the week. Radical feminists unpicked all of that meaning about sexuality and sexual politics, and at the same time encouraged and enabled women to actually talk about sex in a very intimate way that wasn’t voyeuristic or in any way exploitative of others. So in consciousness raising group’s women would ask each other if they had orgasms, and if not why did they think that was the case. Women would ask other women if they had ever actually explored their own bodies, or if their bodies were just seen to be belonging to their Husbands.
It really was incredibly powerful being able to be with other women and not feel ashamed or inhibited about sex or about intimate parts of our bodies. And that was radical feminism.
How do we dismantle gender?
We have to get rid of it. There is no point looking at reforming it. It would be like saying we could reform the Tory party. We just need to abolish and obliterate it.
We need to stop talking about it like it’s a thing. We need to start laughing at those that pretend that it has somehow replaced biological sex, and stop being afraid of pointing out that the two are completely different and that one actually doesn’t exist outside of male dominance and women’s subordination. Because all gender is, is an imposition of subordination on women, and the opposite of that of course is the dominance of men, who get privilege by being born male, and we get the opposite. So I think we have to just start laughing at it, and not by wearing a tutu and workmen’s boots. But by actually by saying, this thing is actually not real.
It is a bit like the Flat Earth theory. We will hopefully in years to come be laughing at the notion that we actually believed it was a tangible thing.
How important do you think the law is in women’s liberation?
Increasingly, even some radical feminists are dismissing the criminal justice system in dealing with men’s violence towards women. I am about as anti-bad police as the next lefty. But I am pro-police, because I know that we are being raped, murdered, abused, sold into slavery and having our genitals sliced open. I absolutely refuse to be critical of a police service, I am critical of bad policing. And I am absolutely sick to the back teeth of being told that because we don’t get many rape convictions or child abuse convictions, that we should look at other ways to deal with men’s violence towards women. I am so angry about this kind of mediation, or reconciliation, with men who commit these acts.
The truth is reconciliation has no place in dealing with men’s violence towards women and girls, because the truth with reconciliation is that in reconciling you are saying that you are part of the problem.
I think the law has a crucial role to play, because we feminists can change the law, we are not powerless citizens. We have drafted laws, we have changed laws, we have abolished laws, we have introduced laws.
And the other side has always used them, however anarchist and cool they make themselves out to be. So we need to improve what we see as effective, we need people on the outside and inside, and we need to use our experts very well.
Andrea Dworkin believed that pornography was the powerhouse of male supremacy. Is this analysis still pertinent in your view?
Well…yes, and no. We don’t talk about prostitution enough. I know that sounds like a weird thing to say in our world, because we talk about nothing but prostitution. But I think that we talk about the problems with pornography as if it is removed from the sex trade, and as if the women are not prostituted within it. So I would replace the word “pornography” with the words “the sex trade”.
Andrea was of her time. And of course there wasn’t the strong, abolitionist, survivor led feminist movement that there is now, that refuses to accept that pornography is anything but prostitution without a camera. So I would change those words, and I think that Andrea would too. Also because the porn industry now is probably what Andrea imagined in her wildest nightmares it would become.
Will heterosexuality survive women’s liberation?
It won’t, not unless men get their act together, have their power taken from them and behave themselves. I mean, I would actually put them all in some kind of camp where they can all drive around in quad bikes, or bicycles, or white vans. I would give them a choice of vehicles to drive around with, give them no porn, they wouldn’t be able to fight – we would have wardens, of course! Women who want to see their sons or male loved ones would be able to go and visit, or take them out like a library book, and then bring them back.
I hope heterosexuality doesn’t survive, actually. I would like to see a truce on heterosexuality. I would like an amnesty on heterosexuality until we have sorted ourselves out. Because under patriarchy it’s shit.
And I am sick of hearing from individual women that their men are all right. Those men have been shored up by the advantages of patriarchy and they are complacent, they are not stopping other men from being shit.
I would love to see a women’s liberation that results in women turning away from men and saying: “when you come back as human beings, then we might look again.”
You are currently doing some new research in Africa around prostitution. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I am going to different countries around the world and looking at the way the people there understand prostitution, and who they understood it from. So I have been to Africa, Asia, all over Europe, North America and I am going to India soon. I want to have a look at different legal regimes. My book isn’t so much about the horrors of the sex trade, although the survivor stories (and there are many survivors that I have interviewed) make it plain that it is horrific. The book is more about how we have got to the stage where lefty anti capitalists, or decent liberal people, support such a vile capitalist industry that churns out women and girls, and boys and men, like pieces of hamburger meat. Bearing in mind that most of the people I am interviewing, if they are not pimps or traffickers and the like, are decent, ordinary human beings. I want to know why they are saying things like: “we should legalise prostitution, it is better for the women.” I want to know why they are saying that men need to pay for sex. I want to know what they really know about what the sex trade is like. And then I want to unpick the way the sex worker’s rights movement has defined that narrative, and dominated and colonised that narrative.
The good news in the book is seeing how the feminist, survivor-led abolitionist movement is blowing the whole thing wide open. And Amnesty is depressing, that decision is depressing. But it is also very very heartening, because it exposed how strong we have become as feminist abolitionists, and what a force to contend with we are. And we will get them, we will win. That decision by Amnesty did galvanise a lot of activity and I think we can honestly say for the first time ever, that we have a strong, thriving and growing feminist humans rights based abolitionist movement that is united globally.
At the RadFems Resist Conference you will be speaking on the no platforming of radical feminists. In the past you have described no platforming as a form McCarthyism that seeks to silence the voices of radical feminists on a whole host of issues. What do you think are the civil liberty implications of no platforming for women?
I used to believe in no platforming for certain individuals. That was when I was young, and idealistic, and angry. I remember going along to wave placards and join a picket against Jean Marie Le Penn who turned up in Leeds and was going to speak somewhere. I had no qualms about doing that. I am now not so sure, and it is not because of the treatment I have had, not at all. And there are some people who obviously break the law with their speech, whether it is David Irving denying the Holocaust or those that incite violence and murder.
But I now think we need to listen to people, and we need to listen to feminists that we disagree with also, so that we can actually start to understand where they are coming from and why, so that we can then break down the nonsense that they are spouting.
Because lets face it, we know we are right – we are learning all the time, and we change our minds on all kinds of strategic issue, but radical feminism is common sense. On the one hand you have got utter idiots like Laurie Penny who are simply coming out with the stuff that she does because she knows that the groups she is supporting, that are pro-trans, pro-sex work, and pro- other anti-women nonsense, are run by very high profile, powerful libertarian men. We know that she is doing it for a career move. But the vast majority of women that spout that kind of nonsense are doing so because they are scared of the feminism that means they have to name men as the problem, because they know the punishment they will get if they do. So the civil liberties implications of no platforming for radical feminists are huge, because we won’t get our civil liberties until we actually achieve our goals as radical feminists. If we can’t get the mainstream feminists on board we don’t have enough numbers, so we do have to work with those women. We do have to somehow get through their gatekeepers who are hostile Men’s Rights Activists and vicious pornographers like Ana Spam. We have to find a way to speak to them so that they can understand and appreciate our ideas, and know that they will be supported.