Radical feminism—and this is a technical term, to be contrasted with liberal feminism, socialist feminism, etc—is often dismissed for some positions that seem facially outrageous, even to other feminists. Heterosexual sex is inherently a manifestation of violent dominance of men over women. “Pornography reveals that male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting. Rape is the paradigm of sexuality.” ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ in rape cases just protects male rapists by privileging their point of view over that of victims. Freedom of speech and the right to privacy likewise act to shield men in their oppression and exploitation of women. Women cannot truly consent to sex work (they can only be “prostituted”). Women who dispute the claims of radical feminism suffer from “false consciousness”. You get the idea.
I’m a liberal feminist, and so ultimately I conclude radical feminists overextend themselves, bite off more than it’s a good idea to chew. But in reading Catharine MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, I was surprised at the overlap of MacKinnon’s radical feminism with some of the liberal feminism I’ve read. The overlap isn’t unity, for sure, but many of MacKinnon’s criticisms of liberalism have been pretty successfully ingested by and incorporated into the best exponents of liberal feminism, and many of the seemingly outrageous bits are less so when viewed within the radical feminist paradigm. I want to give radical feminism à la MacKinnon the best representation I can before I impugn it. I’ll speak with my own voice again in the final section.
In defense of radical feminism
“Force is sex, not just sexualized; force is the desire dynamic, not just a response to the desired object when desire’s expression is frustrated.” Rape is not an exception but the paradigm of contemporary sexuality. This is because we do not live in a world of gender equality. All relationships occur against a background of male supremacy, regardless of the intentions or understandings of the individuals involved in any particular relationship. It doesn’t matter how woke a particular man is, he enters relationships in the context of a rape culture whether or not he intends it. Even if he is not inclined to violence, the fact remains that were he to engage in violence there would be little in the way of repercussion (see the Stanford swimmer rapist). Rape is thus more regulated than it is prohibited. Rape is rarely possible to prove, and in he-said-she-said scenarios, the defense of claiming mistaken belief in consent stacks the deck in favor of the rapist. To the raped victim of course it doesn’t matter what confused ideas might be in the head of the rapist; the damage is the same. But if a rapist can convince the authorities that he believed the victim had consented, then he goes free. The judgment hinges on the rapist’s point of view, privileging their version of events over the victim’s. Add to this the fact that women are typically economically disadvantaged upon exiting a relationship, especially when children are involved. The strained exit option engender exploitative conditions. There is thus an implicit threat of violence and exploitation facing all women, even if that threat is often diffuse.
From the testimony of the pornography, what men want is: women bound, women battered, women tortured, women humiliated, women degraded and defiled, women killed. Or, to be fair to the soft core, women sexually accessible, have-able, there for them, wanting to be taken and used, with perhaps just a little light bondage.
Pornography presents women as beings to be used for the sexual purposes of men and reveling in this status. Pornography follows a script of male domination over submissive or dominated women. This serves as propaganda perpetuating the sexual objectification of women. Pornography suffuses society, with a majority of men admitting to regular use. And the messaging campaign of porn is abetted by the pervasive use of sexual images of women in advertising and entertainment. And it’s important to see the role of pornography and other supporting forms of women’s sexual objectification not as isolated phenomena, but as the propaganda arm of the male supremacy regime. It operates in the context of a male-dominated world, a world where men hold most of the positions of power in government, business, religious and civic organizations, etc. Men reap disproportionate advantage from joining family units, where women are used for unremunerated domestic work and child rearing, whether or not they also work outside the home. Male approval is still a major means to acquire social goods, and both explicit discrimination and unconscious bias disadvantage women in public life.
Radical feminism is “radical” (or feminism “unmodified” in MacKinnon’s words) because the assumptions of liberalism are incompatible with the kinds of overhauls necessary to defeat male supremacist society. As mentioned, the presumption of innocence beyond reasonable doubt in rape cases privileges the accused rapist’s version of events over the alleged victim. This doesn’t mean that the presumption of innocence should be jettisoned in all law, but the particular epistemic features of rape (he said she said) and the role rape plays in preserving male dominance lead to the radical feminist conclusion that an alternative, weaker burden of proof may be more appropriate for these cases, such as the “preponderance of evidence.”
The liberal enshrinement of privacy and free speech likewise protects male sexist practices (such as the consumption of pornography) at the expense of women’s rights to live free from the effects of pornographic propaganda (e.g., how pornography disseminates male sexuality and imposes it on women). Pornography can be seen as subject to regulation in the same way hate speech against minority groups is prohibited. Catharine MacKinnon’s and Andrea Dworkin’s actual proposed legal reform would have enabled individuals to sue pornographers for damages based on harm caused in its production and/or consumption, and to sue for a ban only after such harm is demonstrated. Indeed, the construal of pornography as an issue of privacy and free speech obscures the actual issue of harm caused to women.
The liberal ideas of neutrality and negative rights create an illusion of justice while giving further succor to male supremacy. Neutrality, or the idea that the state should remain neutral on judgments of values, assumes that individuals, absent government interference, are free and equal. But male domination of women is achieved prior to state action, in the beliefs and values of men and women inculcated in them since childhood and sustained ever since. “The underlying assumption of judicial neutrality is that a status quo exists which is preferable to judicial intervention—a common law status quo, a legislative status quo, an economic status quo, or a gender status quo.” Likewise the emphasis on negative rights (freedoms from various interferences) assumes that social positions and economic holdings that already exist are just and warrant defense against incursion. But the excessive focus on negative liberty protects the status quo even if it is unjust.
The gender pay gap is a good example of this in action. Libertarians love to point out that once various factors are controlled for, the pay difference between exactly similarly skilled women and men performing the exact same jobs for the exact same amount of time is about the same. But the insidiousness of the gender pay gap lies in the social determinants of why and how men and women choose different career paths, work/life balances, etc. Keeping redistributive solutions out of bounds just maintains the feminization of poverty, which in turn supports other aspects of male supremacy.
Why radical feminism fails
A liberal feminist can recognize the magnitude of male supremacy and acknowledge the weaknesses of liberal theory, but conclude that the tenets of liberalism discussed above are too valuable to discard and that their sacrifice will be unlikely to advance the cause of justice anyway. Liberalism can incorporate many of the feminist critiques leveled against it (see Nussbaum, Okin, and Benhabib, to name just a few). A thoughtful liberal can realize that preferences often adapt to adverse conditions without believing that a woman who consumes porn or chooses homemaking is a victim of false consciousness. A liberal can recognize rape culture but believe it is best fought in hearts and minds, not by compromising due process. MacKinnon rightly touts the power of consciousness raising but feminist consciousness can and is raised within liberal individualism.
The remarkable progress of women’s liberation over the past century within the confines of liberalism suggests that crippling liberalism is just not necessary, and would be dangerous for its own reasons. Sexual violence is declining. Women are occupying ever more positions of power politically and economically. Women are making incursions into traditionally male fields. Women have greater control over their reproductive choices (although this is ever perilous in Republican America). There is much more work to be done, but liberalism seems capable of the job. It is at least premature to go about dismantling liberalism.
The more interesting reason why radical feminism fails is because it is hermeneutically closed. By this I mean that radical feminism offers an interpretive framework for the relations and choices women encounter, and while this framework is often perceptive and powerful, it isn’t flexible enough to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of women in their uniquely individual lives. Women can exercise real agency according to reasons that defy the singular radical feminist model.
An example of this is marriage. The radical feminist critiques marriage as an institution that in its various guises treats women as sexual property. No self-respecting feminist should bind themselves to a man in this way, and to do so just perpetuates the wretched institution. But of course individuals get married for all kinds of well-informed and reflective reasons. The institution has been transformed—for a certain set at least—into one that reflects values of mutual respect, support, commitment, and love.
More controversially, the same is possible for erotica, sex work, and even housework. The crucial caveat is that women’s life choices be made from informed positions in the presence of genuinely realizable—not just merely nominal—alternatives. Radical feminists can argue that even in such privileged positions, pornography and prostitution propagandize sexuality based on male dominance and female submission, degradation, instrumentalization, and availability. This is certainly a risk and so we should remain open to feminist critique in these matters.
A radical feminist might also reply that it doesn’t much matter how women construe their sexual choices as these choices are formed within and inextricable from male supremacy. We have no way of knowing what a truly free and equal female sexuality would look like. Even lesbianism occurs in the broader milieu of male sexuality. The focus should thus be on how men effectuate rape culture by, e.g., exploiting the economic situation of sex workers. But the epistemic constraints of male supremacy cut both ways, so we should be cautious in making assumptions about individual choices when they are constrained only by economic scarcity and not by the threat of force. The root problem is eliminating poverty as a determining factor in women’s lives. It should also be realized that men, too, consume (or offer, for that matter) sexual services for idiosyncratic reasons which may plausibly help or hinder male dominance.
We should consider carefully what an egalitarian sexuality would look like in real life. Just as marriage has been largely reconstrued as an egalitarian institution but still hears echoes of past inequality (the rings, the name changes, the still-outdated tax and legal elements), a genuinely egalitarian sexuality will likely still bear the cultural imprints of centuries of male domination. Human sexuality liberated from oppression will not look like a genderless or androgynous alien sexuality from science fiction. Sexual humans will exercise critical distance from their male-supremacist-inflected sex the way they view violence differently in literature and video games versus real life. They will see humor in their bizarre predilections. They will play on sexual tropes and subvert archaic gender roles. They will joyfully explore and inhabit sexual niches. Or perhaps they will abstain from sex altogether as they choose. But they will emphasize euvoluntary consent and respect above all.
All this is possible for the liberal feminist to embrace because they are open to individuals believing and acting according to their own reasons and interpretations even while maintaining a critical stance toward those interpretations. There is thus an epistemic asymmetry between the liberal feminist, who can accept the partial validity of radical feminist analysis, and the radical feminist, who is blinkered to individual diversity. The root of this asymmetry lies in the radical feminist’s methodological commitment to collectivism. To the radical feminist, women are not seen as individuals whose lives are shaped in light of their common experiences as women, but as a collective class that is oppressed as such by the male class. To the liberal feminist, women are situated but still autonomous.