labrys, études féministes/
RADICAL FEMINIST ACTIVISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Janice G. Raymond
A personal/political retrospective of radical feminist activism, making the links between past, present and future. Looking to the future about gender and transgender, the medical industry, prostitution, lesbian politics and global feminism.
Key words: radical, feminism, activism
When I was asked to speak at the 2014 radical feminism conference in London, the organizers asked me to talk about the future of radical feminism. The only way I could address the future was to evoke the past and the present, highlighting some of the milestones of radical feminist activism in my own life and work, with the hope that the history of radical feminist ideas and activism can generate some wisdom about the future.
I became a radical feminist in the late 1960s. But I was probably a budding radical feminist before that, since I grew up in an extended family of six boys. Luckily, I was the oldest. The period spanning the late 1960s and the 1970s was a vibrant time for feminism, not without its differences, however, between the so-called brands of feminism.
During part of that period, I was in graduate school. For many U.S. students at this time, it was impossible to be engaged in academic work without being involved in the major political issues of the day – civil rights, the anti-war movement as the United States was attempting to crush Vietnam, the environmental movement and of course, feminism. I was fortunate to study with Mary Daly and to be part of a radical feminist group of graduate students from many different universities in the Boston area who became activists.
At the time, I was working on a Ph.D with a concentration in medical ethics. Legal abortion was one of the controversial debates of the day in the United States. Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1973, which legalized abortion until fetal viability, I had begun to speak publicly in various states and public forums about a woman’s right to abortion. Many of these invitations came to me because at the time, I was technically a member of a progressive religious community of Catholic nuns. Of course, a Roman Catholic nun speaking out in favor of women’s right to abortion generated publicity and hastened my formal exit from the community.
In the mid 1970s, I was hired at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, one of the largest public universities in the United States, where for 28 years, I was a professor. At the time, Women’s Studies was a new academic field on U.S. university campuses. Many faculty in the Women’s Studies programs of this era were socialist feminists, and radical feminists were definitely in the minority. This was before the advent of post-modernist theory, when many of the socialist feminists became post-modernists and when this brand of theory came to dominate a large number of Women’s Studies programs.
At the same time, the feminist women’s health movement was evolving, initially to challenge many medical practices that impacted women. The feminist women’s health movement also generated women’s health centers in which women’s health problems were addressed and treated – injuries from women being battered, vaginal infections, menstruation, menopause, contraception, abortion, sterilization abuse of African American women in the United States and internationally, and self-help learning.
Much of my teaching, writing and activism at the time focused on the use of technologies that were destructive to women’s bodies and minds – for example, behavior control and modification technologies such as psychosurgery (formerly called lobotomies) and electroshock therapies. In the United States, these technologies were used much more frequently on women than on men. As I began to write about these so-called therapies, I encountered women who had been subjected to them. One was a lesbian feminist activist whose parents, when she was a young woman, had her involuntarily confined in a mental institution, and subjected to lobotomy because a psychiatrist claimed it would cure her lesbianism. Instead, the surgery inflicted severe memory loss, periodic catatonia and chronic headaches lasting into adulthood.
At a conference in Groningen in the Netherlands in 1984, I met a group of radical feminist activists and academics, and we founded an international women’s rights group called FINRRAGE that would monitor government policies and programs on reproduction, reproductive technologies, genetic engineering and the rapid development of new techniques such as surrogacy and reproductive drugs that were being targeted for use on women worldwide. The women in our founding group came from Australia, Argentina, Bangladesh, Switzerland, the UK and the US. We spoke at many conferences on the new reproductive and genetic technologies, testified before state and national bodies, and edited a journal called Reproductive and Genetic Engineering. Some of us also wrote books on these issues. Mine was entitled, Women as Wombs: Reproductive Technologies and the Battle over Women’s Freedom.
Although most discussions of technological reproduction are focused on western technologies such as in vitro fertilization and freezing embryos, the reproductive use of women is being played out on an international medical stage where women’s bodies are being trafficked for reproduction and/or utilized in reproductive tourism. Surrogate brokers, for example, quite candidly admit that they seek new and more inexpensive markets for women who will breed children for other people since the going rate is cheaper and the so-called labor supply more unquestioning. India has become the center of this reproductive tourism with a proliferation of surrogacy centers that advertise women for hire, and babies for westerners, through the use of poor Indian women as surrogates.
Also during the 1980s, the so-called “sexuality wars” surfaced within the feminist movement in the United States and elsewhere, primarily raised by the issue of pornography. Lesbians were particularly involved in these sexuality debates. In the 1970s, lesbianism had not been separated from feminism because many lesbians identified especially as radical feminists. Lesbian feminism was a politics of commitment to women and women’s rights, not a biological destiny, and not simply a lifestyle. During the 1980s, lesbianism became a sexual identity without a feminist politics. Nothing contributed as much to this divide -- between those who viewed lesbianism as only a sexual identity and those who identified as lesbian feminists -- as the emergence of a sexual libertarian culture that staked its claim to a liberated lesbian sexuality grounded in the male-demand modes of sexual behavior – pornography, prostitution, and lesbian s&m.
The debates about lesbian sexuality dominated Britain’s first lesbian summer school, held in July of 1989. At this gathering I gave a talk, which became a published article called “Putting the Politics Back Into Lesbianism.” Basically, I argued that there was little difference between a conservative worldview that locates women in this world primarily as sexual objects of men’s fantasies and desires, and a lesbian libertarian lifestyle that is increasingly preoccupied with fucking as the be-all and end-all of lesbian existence. It is difficult to see what is progressive or rebellious about a position that locates female desire and that imprisons female sexual dynamism, vitality and vigor in the male-demand practices of sexual objectification, subordination and violence, this time engaged in by women. It was predictable that the lesbian feminist view would be categorized as anti-sex, and as puritanical radical feminism; and that those of us who made certain forms of lesbian sexual behavior problematic would be accused of being dogmatic and having no fun!
Radical feminism historically has called for the de-sexualization of women in the media, the marketplace and the world in general. What the sexual libertarians and liberals achieved was the re-sexualization of women using feminist and lesbian liberation rhetoric to assert that sexuality is a radical impulse. But sexuality is no more radical than much else. There are certain expressions of it that may be radical and there are other expressions of it that are not. It is ironic that the sexual libertarians want to reinvigorate the male-demand forms of sexuality on which they base their claims to sexual liberation.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that lesbians did not resist this view of sexuality. Certainly many lesbians did resist, and are still in the forefront of, for example, the anti-pornography movement. Lesbians are fighting internationally against global systems of prostitution and sexual slavery. But whereas formerly, you could count on a political movement of lesbian feminism, that political effort now seems diminished. Lesbian feminism was a movement based on the power of a “we” -- not on an individual woman’s sexual fantasy or self-expression – a shared politics, which maintained that prostitution, pornography and sexual violence could not be rationalized in the name of free choice, and that sex trafficking is globalized prostitution.
SEX TRAFFICKING AND PROSTITUTION
In the 1990s, I became co-executive director with Dorchen Leidholdt of the international Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW). For many years, I have worked with women in many different parts of the world to combat the prostitution and sex trafficking of women and children. As a feminist abolitionist activist visiting over 50 countries, I have met hundreds of women who have been in systems of prostitution and whose lives have been ravaged by it. I have met women who thought they were migrating out of their countries for work and ended up in the sex industry. I have met runaway girls in my country, who ran away because a male relative had sexually abused them at home, only to find themselves smoothtalked and pimped into the sex industry. I have been in brothels where I have seen young children servicing male buyers. And I have talked with men who are habitual prostitution users who feel entitled to use women’s and girls’ bodies to meet their alleged sexual needs.
As an activist, I have learned that working against the sex industry is like working against nothing else. The industry has friends in high places and has become a major lobbyist on behalf of national and international legislation that would favor its expansion. One wonders where all the anti-globablization activists are when it comes to confronting the globalized sex industry. Instead, the debate over prostitution has focused mainly on women’s choice and consent. From the critics of international capitalism, we hear very little about the role of the sex industry and its economic and sexual exploitation of women. There is a dominant academic perception that prostitution is just sex, not sexual exploitation; just sex, not a sex industry; and that we must preserve whatever calls itself “sex.” We are urged to swear loyalty oaths to any practice that gets represented as sex. The very language of “sex work” and “sex worker” helps to launder the system of prostitution throughout the world.
In pro-prostitution discourse, prostitution is sex work, not sexual exploitation. Pimps are third party business agents who women choose to protect themselves and manage their economic interests, not first-class exploiters. In Victoria Australia, pimps who are legal brothel owners are designated as sex work service licensees. Prostitution users are customers or clients who provide women with incomes, not abusers. Brothels are safe spaces for women to ply their trade, not quarters where women are controlled and kept in check. Women in prostitution are sex workers, not victims of sexual exploitation. And victims of trafficking are migrant sex workers whose passage from one country to another is facilitated migration by helpful people movers. Even the words escort and escort agencies make the system of prostitution sound more chic and safe. This rhetorical strategy lends support to a global sex industry by supporting its goals to normalize prostitution as work and sanction its perpetrators as simply entrepreneurs and cordial capitalists.
The global system of prostitution is based on gender. Most of the studies that have interviewed prostitution users – those men who exploit women for the sex of prostitution – have documented that gendered views of women feature largely in why men buy women for sexual activities. From the British guy who admits “I want my prostitute … to be a pretend girlfriend…to be genuinely attracted to me,” to the outright misogynist who responds proudly, “At just the right moment I leaned forward and shot my load on her face! She was surprised and shocked, this got me more excited than the act” –men’s views and actions as prostitution users are based on ideas about women that conform to their gendered views of who women are, and how women are expected to act.
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. The term transgender, replacing transsexual, has expanded to include not only those who undergo surgery but also those who avoid the surgery, use only opposite-sex hormones, or simply self-identify as member of the opposite sex.
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, transsexualism and transgender raise 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. What good is a gender outlaw who is still abiding by the rules of gender?
The ‘transsexual empire’ is the conglomerate of medical specialties that join together to make transsexual treatment and surgery possible. As with prostitution and sex trafficking, people ignore the medical industry that has colonized gender dissatisfaction. As a wide swath of conduct and personal struggles are labeled as psychological problems or as syndromes requiring medical solutions, all sorts of behaviors are treated with drugs, surgery and other technical means. More and more personal, ethical and social conflicts are defined as medical problems when they are actually human problems in living that conflict with social and political norms.
Carrying the medical model to the extremities of enforcing gender conformity, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is investigating claims that up to 300 girls were surgically turned into boys for parents who wanted sons. Women’s rights campaigners have denounced the practice stating that transsexual surgery makes a “mockery of women in India.”
Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has become the second country after Thailand to perform more transsexual surgeries than any other, where many male homosexuals and some lesbians experience pressure to transition surgically as a means of normalizing their homosexuality. In a country where homosexual acts are criminalized and punishable by execution, persons who undergo sex reassignment surgery can exist without fear. The law serves to encourage, if not compel, homosexuals to undergo surgery to escape harassment and punishment. Authorities have proposed transsexual surgery as a way of “hetero-normalizing” persons with same-sex desires or who engage in same-sex relations. Although Iran has some of the most repressive laws against women and same-sex relations, it has a liberal and lucrative medical sex change industry in which much of the cost of the surgery is covered by the government.
Especially troubling in the west is the institutionalization of hospital-based gender identity clinics that treat children who act out opposite-sex behavior. A primary effect of defining gender identity as a medical problem to be solved by hormonal treatments and surgery is to encourage parents to view their children as in need of transgender treatment. Children then undergo psychiatric evaluation and hormone treatment, often followed by surgery. These clinics are multiplying in countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia.
Any woman who has experienced the agony of not fitting into a society where gender is defined by rigid roles is hardly insensitive to the suffering that transsexuals and those who identify as transgender experience. Like persons who want to change gender, many women have felt dissatisfied with their bodies and found themselves in a psychically disjointed state because they could not accept their role. However, through a process of consciousness-raising, many feminists have learned that there is a whole male power structure that defines who and what we are allowed to be.
Today, there are more women who identify as trans men than when I published my book in 1979. Nevertheless, it is still mostly a one-way traffic of men moving down the transgender highway. And it is certainly a one-way flow of men who identify as trans women moving down the online highway, demanding the recognition of their “womanhood” and attacking mainly radical feminists who refuse this acknowledgment, trying to silence our public speech and even threatening us with violence and death.
The debate about transgender has succeeded in dividing many feminists. However, if we can’t agree on what is a woman, how can we agree on much else? How can we claim to defend women’s rights if we cede our womanhood to men. Do hormones, surgery and or self-identification make a woman? The tragedy is that many women no longer acknowledge that being born female conveys a common history and a life of biological, social and political significance. When abortion rights organizations are being pressured to stop using the word women about those who become pregnant and seek abortions, and to include in their literature that men can become pregnant (i.e., persons who identify as trans men), where have all the feminists gone?
Men who claim they are women, and their advocates, have devoted enormous energy to ensure that a man, whether he has gone through transsexual surgery or whether he simply self-identifies as a woman, is allowed into women’s bodies, events, meetings, music festivals and the like. It appears that the bedrooms of lesbians are now the topic du jour of the transgender press and blogosphere. Certain transgender forums have been organized specifically to discuss and strategize how lesbians could be pressured to date and have sex with those who identify as trans lesbians. As one transgender activist put it, “Trans women’s bodies are female bodies, whether or not we have penises.” Perhaps the epitome of this incongruity is that men who claim to be lesbians are now claiming that they have a lesbian penis or, as one transgender activist worded it, a “lady stick.” Yet lesbians who reject that men can be lesbians are slurred as transphobic.
This is the world of Alice in Wonderland -- where Alice is the radical feminist and Humpty Dumpty is the transgender advocate – as exemplified in the following conversation between the two. First, Humpty Dumpty states with a full dose of male certitude: “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less!” To which Alice responds, “The question is whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.” To which Humpty Dumpty admitted: “The question is who is to be master, that’s all.”
RADICAL FEMINISM AND THE FUTURE
Indeed, the question of who is to be master is the question of political power. And this brings me to the question of the future of radical feminism. I have no special wisdom in predicting the future. However, I do know that a radical feminist future must take the question of power very seriously, and women must be prepared to act in a larger context of worldliness than just the radical feminist community. Throughout history, women in most parts of the globe have lacked influence in and control over the political world in which we live because of women’s victimized and derivative status in patriarchy, or because in some radical feminist contexts women have chosen to dissociate from the political world. In conclusion, I want to focus on a radical feminist vision of worldliness for the future.
Working in the world means a confrontation with power and an ability to challenge patriarchal power, especially powerful institutions and industries that subject women to violence and exploitation. It is to realize that women’s oppression – whether through technologies that manipulate and mutilate the female body, or through systems of trafficking and prostitution that sexually exploit the female body, or through medical treatment that allegedly constructs a female body from one that is male – has become industrialized, and that what we are challenging are powerful industries.
I have always believed that radical feminism is not and cannot be separated from the world in which we exist. Even radical and voluntary dissociation from the world, originally undertaken as a radical separatist stance, can produce a worm’s-eye view of the world that removes us from a share of what should be a common world and a radical feminist influence on that world, a world that increasingly is becoming more and more globalized by the industries that manage and control large populations of women -- for example, the medical industry and the sex industry, which have joined in promoting both sexual and reproductive access to women’s bodies as they internationalize both prostitution and surrogacy to promote sexual and reproductive trafficking.
The radical feminist activism in which I participated during the 1970s and that has continued through most of my activist life involves a lot of talks and testimonies in non-feminist forums, citizens’ groups, and governmental commissions and legislatures in various parts of the world. It involves new ways of translating feminist ideas into public policy and legislative forums, crafting an ability to translate feminist politics into public forums. It entails sometimes working with people that we may never have thought we would work with, such as the police or conservative legislators who are ready to pass legislation, for example, which gives protection and assistance to victims of trafficking. And it has involved working with women whom I would never have typed as radical feminists but who in their work for women are radical in the most fundamental sense of that word.
Groups who strive to make political change have to search for ways to act across differences in ideology and tactics. Sometimes, this effort results in organizations acting in loose association. Sometimes, it results in coalitions of those with whom we would never be able to link with on other issues such as anti-war or reproductive rights. African American activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, reminds us that a coalition is not a home. As U.S. civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin, stated, “The issue is which coalition to join and how to make it responsive to your program…the difference between expediency and morality in politics is the difference between selling out a principle and making smaller concessions to win larger ones.”
The radical feminist activists of the future will find themselves challenging those who should be our natural allies, e.g., so-called human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, who draft policies that aim to decriminalize pimping, brothels and prostitution users. Certainly, radical feminists face a difficult road in that we are often fighting both the right and the left, including the left’s version of women’s sexual and reproductive liberation and the right’s version of women’s sexual and reproductive morality. Even within feminism, radical feminism has taken on issues that other feminists either avoid or choose to be on the opposing side of, such as in the battles over reproductive technologies, pornography, prostitution and transgender.
What is important for the future of radical feminism is that those of us who are radical feminists engage with the world. We have got to take back this world for ourselves and for other women.
For over 35 years, I have been privileged to work in an international context with some very worldly radical feminists. Over the decades I have been a radical feminist, radical feminism has become more global. I think the radical feminism of the future will continue that global community. I could not have engaged in much of the work that I have done without a community of global feminists. The group of women who founded the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Asia Pacific were mainly political prisoners who were detained and some tortured during the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. They were victims of a brutal regime who used their victimization not only to confront a political dictatorship but also later to oppose the globalized sex industry. Rachel Moran in her book Paid For has used her personal experience of sexual exploitation to turn experience into reflection on public policy on prostitution, and worked to create national legislation that targets the men who buy women for the sex of prostitution. The organizers of this conference have worked to do just that – create a conference – and against great odds secure a venue over the protests of transgender advocates who would limit radical feminist speech – and in the process of doing so, I’m sure, they have learned a lot of lessons about radical feminist organizing and what it takes to create a public forum.
Noone says that this is an easy task. But radical feminism has made great gains. When Kathleen Barry gave new life to feminist abolitionism of prostitution in the 1970s, it was almost imposible to challenge the accepted political ideology that legalization of prostitution protects women and is the progressive system of prostitution legislation. The male buyer was invisible, and few wanted to talk about the male demand for the sex of prostitution. It wasn’t until the 1990s that feminist abolitionists were taken seriously by legislators that legalization is not the answer, and that the alternative was to penalize the prostitution users – the men. Feminist abolitionists started with one country, and over a decade of activism, fought to change Sweden’s legal system of prostitution to criminalizing the male buyers and decriminalizing the prostituted women. Today, most of the Nordic countries have legislation criminalizing the purchase of sexual activities. The Republic of South Korea and the Philippines have similar laws as does Northern Ireland and Canada. France and the Republic of Ireland are considering anti-demand legislation.
As radical feminists, we may find ourselves in positions where our political activism carries the hazards of being ostracized from our families or peer groups, or being fired from our jobs, but we seldom have to die for our beliefs and politics.
The most important task of activism is to act. Find your own location of activism, whether it’s anti-militarism or environmental activism, and imbue that location with radical feminist direction. The task of radical feminist activism is to develop strategies that improve women’s lives and thus the human condition. This kind of activism requires critical thinking, participation in the world, and it requires making judgments and acting on them. Find some way to revitalize radical feminist activism in the world.
 The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective first published Our Bodies Our Selves in booklet form. The original book edition was republished by the New England Free Press in 1971 and sold for 40 US cents.
 See the Prologue in Made to Order: the Myth of Reproductive and Genetic Progress. Eds. Patricia Spallone and Deborah Lynn Steinberg (New York: Pergamon Press), 1987. Written by the founders of FINRRAGE, the prologue illustrates the group’s history and goals and how reproductive technologies affect women in different parts of the world.
 Janice G. Raymond. Women as Wombs: Reproductive Technologies and the Battle Over Women’s Freedom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco), 1993.
 See Dorchen Leidholdt and Janice G. Raymond, Eds. The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism (New York: Pergamon Press), 1990.
 Janice G. Raymond. “Putting the Politics Back into Lesbianism.” In Classics in Lesbian Studies. Ed. Esther D. Rothblum (London: Haworth Press), 1997.
 For a fuller discussion of male attitudes towards women in prostitution, see Chapter II, “Prostitution on Demand: the Prostitution Users,” in Janice G. Raymond. Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade (Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press), 2013.
 Janice G. Raymond. The Transsexual Empire: the Making of the She-Male (Boston: Beacon Press), 1979. For an updated discussion of the politics of transgender, see “Fictions and Facts about The Transsexual Empire” at Janiceraymond.com
 Sheila Jeffreys. Gender Hurts: a Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism (London: Routledge), 2014. p. 5.
 “Indians Pay Surgeons to Turn Girls into Boys.” The Telegraph, June 27, 2011.
 Sasha von Olderhauser. “Iran’s Sex-Change Operations Provided Nearly Free-of-Cost.” Huffington Post, June 6, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/04/iran-sex-change-operation_n_1568604.html. Accessed May 2, 2012.
 Jeffreys, Gender Hurts, Chapter 6.
 For example Az Hakeem, in his gender identity disorder clinic in London, writes, “The ratio of biological males to females referred to the service is approximately six to one.” Az Hakeem. “Psychotherapy for Gender Identity Disorders.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 18, pp. 17-24.
 Rachel Moran. Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Books), 2013.
 Kathleen Barry. Female Sexual Slavery (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall), 1979.
A longtime feminist scholar-activist on violence against women and sexual exploitation, Janice Raymond is the former co-director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW). She is the author of many books and articles, most recently the book Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Global Sex Industry (Potomac Press, US; Spinifex Press, Australia). Dr. Raymond is currently Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (USA) where she taught for 28 years. In 2007, Dr. Raymond was awarded the International Woman Award from the Zero Tolerance Trust in Scotland.
labrys, études féministes/