Sex Is Primarily a Political Issue

Sex Is Primarily a Political Issue

The entire March 8, 2010, discussion with philosopher Elsa Dorlin

Fréderique: If I wish you “happy holiday” this March 8, how do you answer me?

Elsa Dorlin: No thank you! March 8 is first of all and above all a day of struggle, not a holiday. So it should be the occasion for going back over the battles the women’s and feminist movements have conducted.

Ombeline: I am a student and for me, the battle is education, since it doesn’t matter what the laws are; if mindsets are reproduced, the laws will never be applied. How can we prompt (and compel) elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools to intelligently tackle equality of the sexes (and also sexualities, since male chauvinism so often goes hand in hand with homophobia)?

Elsa Dorlin: You are so right. The question of an education that is neither sexist nor homophobic, nor lesbophobic, nor transphobic is absolutely essential and should be considered a priority since the reproduction of these norms of gender and sexuality is probably the condition for the possibility of reproducing the most flagrant inequalities.

When one delves into the question of “gendered” education and socialization, that is, all the devices involved in the “manufacture” of little girls and little boys as two groups sharing distinct values and privileges, one realizes that everything still has to be done. Take, as an example, catalogues for Christmas toys; look at the latest studies covering children and teenagers’ orientation according to their sex. Let us also notice the shabbiness of the sexual education transmitted in middle school. We will note that, there, one is at the heart of “hetero-normativity” (which reflects a very conservative definition of masculine and feminine based on an apprehension of heterosexuality as an obvious and natural sexuality).

Malou: Is it desirable to make men and women’s lifestyles and roles uniform?

Elsa Dorlin: The question of equality in gender norms does not, all the same, entail homogenization. On the contrary, the question is to allow individuals to deploy themselves individually from a foundation of the same rights, the same privileges, the same conditions.

People often reduce “equality of the sexes” to the erasure or homogenization of the sexes. I believe, on the contrary, that “equality of the sexes” would allow consideration of individuals on the basis of their intrinsic qualities and not on the basis of their gender identity.

Thomas: In many women rap clips, you see a kind of inverted machismo. Do you think that’s a form of feminism?

Elsa Dorlin: If one understands that there is no feminism, but feminisms, then the staging of an inverted gender relationship in which women would be represented as powerful and predatory may absolutely constitute a certain way of imagining women’s emancipation. Quite obviously, as far as feminism is concerned, but also other movements, it is commonly believed that the inversion of roles settles nothing.

I think, on the contrary, that this staging may allow the production of positive images and, for example, convince women of their power to act. Yet the real question is to know how we make use of that power and whether our political objective is to acquire power to use it against someone else. But in the case of these clips, it seems to me they may have an electroshock effect by showing concretely what it does to be constantly reduced to a sexual object. And if that scares some people, great!

Kévin: Why do only women always have to represent the feminist movement; couldn’t it have some men; wouldn’t that make it richer and stronger?

Elsa Dorlin: Historically, there have always been men who actively participated in and supported feminist movements. Historically in France, Condorcet fought for women’s access to education and for their legal and civic rights. In the United States, former slave and abolitionist Fred Douglas contributed much to women’s emancipation. Let us also mention the gay militants FHAR (Front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire [Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action]), created in 1971, a year after the Mouvement de libération des femme [Womens Liberation Movement] (MLF) which strongly supported the feminist cause.

Very obviously, the fight for a non-sexist society involves men. The heart of the question is to know why so few men have latched onto this fight politically. Often, when people talk about feminism, people believe it’s a women’s question only. It’s always and simultaneously a question of society that concerns all individuals as a whole. That being the case, it seems to me that, as with any minority, one must always remember the importance of the non-integration of a resistance movement. With respect to the women’s movement, for example, non-integration has allowed collective consciousness-raising and construction of a political identity. These non-integrated movements or spaces may go together very well with moments of integration and solidarity with feminist men.

Finally, it’s very interesting to see that in France, men’s participation in feminist movements does not seem as significant as in other countries. At EHESS, Alban Jacquemart is, at present, in the process of writing a thesis on this issue.

Camille Potier: Do you think that manism may advance the struggles of feminism?

Elsa Dorlin: It’s probably up to men to answer that question; as a general rule, people speak to me more often about masculinism. If I understand it correctly, that’s somewhat different. Masculinism for the most part constitutes a reactionary current that considers the feminist movements responsible for a crisis in masculinity and men’s loss of a certain number of privileges. With respect to manism, I do not know the political foundations for this movement, but I believe that one must be suspicious of an interpretation that would consist of reducing feminism to a natural or biological group: women. Feminism, on the contrary, refers to a minority, to a social group discriminated against by reason of its sex (in the same way certain racialized minorities have been oppressed by virtue of their supposed race or color). Therefore, sex is primarily political.

Malou: Is there a generational conflict among feminists between the “sixty-eighters” who contributed to the sexual revolution and young thirty-year-olds, often from minority backgrounds and confronted with new problems, such as the male chauvinism of the suburban slums?

Elsa Dorlin: Even though it’s simplistic, I nonetheless think that one may acknowledge a generational conflict within feminism.

Starting in the 1990’s and at the beginning of the 2000’s, as much on the level of militancy as of research, a new generation, principally composed of women, but also of men, appeared, who, all the while claiming to be representative of MLF, have significantly renewed the militant agenda and the problems of feminist studies in gender and sexualities. I believe that has aroused conflicts, but also a renewal of feminist interest and engagement, as well as new solidarities.

Still, with respect to the example you are developing, I acknowledge the commitment of “Ni putes ni soumises” [Neither prostitutes nor submissives]. Obviously, “Ni putes ni soumises” belongs to this renewal of feminist problems and work sites, but has a very specific way of attacking the issue of the articulation of sexism and racism. In this respect, “Ni putes ni soumises” represents only one of the young feminist currents of recent years. Other groups, such as the Panthères roses [Pink Panthers], the Tumultueuses [Tempestuous Women] or the Féministes pour l’égalité [Feminists for Equality], have engaged with this question with a completely different perspective, mobilizing against sexism without encouraging the idea that young men from the suburbs exercise it more violently than politicians or students from Henri IV or Assas!

Lago: What do you think of Ilham Moussaid’s candidacy in the regional elections under the NPA label, which calls itself “feminist and veiled?”

Elsa Dorlin: I was particularly shocked by the whole argument targeting Ilham. I believe that it reveals the inability to link feminism and secularism without reducing secularism to its republican, traditional and exclusive expression. The idea that a woman who wears the head scarf cannot, by definition, be a feminist is an inanity, but it’s also extremely dangerous because that implies, not a universalist, but a culturally-based definition of feminism.

I also find it interesting that even within the ranks of the left, some could consider that a feminist candidate wearing the headscarf represented a communitarian candidate and that Ilham could not claim to represent all citizens. It’s a discourse that is totally blind to the socio-historical determinations of the traditional political class, and, more broadly to color, sex, sexuality, and the class of human rights.

Only yesterday, people questioned women politicians about reconciling family life and public commitments, while with male politicians they settled for questioning them about their program; today, we reduce a candidate to her religion, her faith, but no one thinks about questioning such and such a candidate about his contacts with the representatives of such and such a religion or even about his denominational membership and practices.

Clémence Bodoc: Doesn’t the law on parity do as much harm as good? Doesn’t it reinforce the prejudice of incompetence associated with women, allowing people to assume that they would never rise to the positions in question (in the political domain or on the executive boards of companies) on objective criteria of competence and experience? Do we have another lever available to effect reform?

Elsa Dorlin: I think, in fact, that we lack tools to fight against women’s exclusion from politics. The parity law has allowed us to make visible the de facto inequities that weigh on women, notably with respect to full enjoyment of their civic rights. I believe, however, that it erred in defending the idea that measures favoring the access of such and such a minority to elective positions could concern women only and not other minorities. In that respect, the parity law allows the belief that membership in a sex constitutes a relevant criteria, while membership in a sex is precisely what an affirmative action measure was supposed to erase.

Paola: Why are the gains from feminist battles in great regression? To what extent is that women’s responsibility?

Elsa Dorlin: The issue of the right to and access to abortion is, indeed, threatened. For the remainder, I wouldn’t say regression, so much as immobility, notably with respect to persistent inequalities at work, to the question of how domestic responsibilities are divided, to the question of ordinary sexism. I believe that those primarily responsible are the people in charge of public policy with respect to equality who allow people to believe that the inequality of the sexes is a problem that always concerns other people and who transform the equality of the sexes into a national value. We can see very well that, on the contrary, with respect to women’s conditions of life, it is urgent that existing laws be applied and especially that a real system to fight against sexism be implemented.

Vincent: Can feminism and naturalism get along together? Could environmentalism run counter to feminism? Yet, these two movements walked together politically for a long time.

Elsa Dorlin: One may deem that feminism and naturalism have long been enemies, since most feminist movements, like feminist thought, have always protested against naturalist discourses, that is, discourses that differentiate men and women in the name of nature and/or which naturalize the social differences between men and women. One may consider that feminism is rather allergic to discourses that maintain a non-critical relationship with “nature.”

However, for a part of the environmental movement and of environmental thinking, it seems to me that the question is more one of proposing harmonization of respect for the rights of individuals with their environment and that frequently amounts to a critique of capitalism.

In her latest book, “Le conflit, la mère et la femme” [The Conflict, the Mother and the Woman], Elisabeth Badinter is right to criticize the attacks on women’s freedom made in the name of respect for nature, but she’s totally wrong to imagine that environmentalism, eco-feminism or feminism participate in that new naturalism. In her book, moreover, she is much more critical of fundamentalist Christian groups, such as La Leche League, herald of breastfeeding, than of environmentalism. Still, she talks about eco-feminism by defining that movement as the part of the feminist movement seduced by a return to nature, in total ignorance of the fact that eco-feminism is a movement that was born in the countries of the South, notably India, that it is carried along by associations of women which have, for example, problematized the water question or the question of access to water, social rights and the rights of women.

Isabelle: On what matters should feminism concentrate today as priorities?

Elsa Dorlin: I think one of the crucial questions of the feminist struggles of today is that of linking anti-sexist and anti-racist struggles. It seems to me, in fact, that, on the debate concerning violence to women, for example, which is certainly a central question, we are witnessing a number of vagaries within the very heart of feminist discourses and mobilizations. Those which allow terms to be imposed on the debate that aim to stigmatize certain social groups or certain populations as particularly violent towards women and their rights.

Marie: Raised as a feminist by my mother, today I am an executive and a mother. How do I answer all the people who tell me that feminism is a battle that is over for a cause that is already won?

Elsa Dorlin: Ask them who picks up the dirty socks at their house … Their mother? Their wife? Their mistress? Or, most probably, their cleaning lady? I believe that if we situate ourselves at the most ordinary level of daily life, there remains much to do before we achieve real equality. The question of work, as I said just now, the question of violence, the question of sexuality, the question of stereotypes and norms testify to the burning topicality of feminism. But perhaps we must acknowledge that a certain feminist discourse is obsolete today. It does not succeed in finding the words, in mobilizing women and creating solidarity between them. Without starting from scratch, feminism is always to be reinvented.

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher