Women are not the same as Monster Trucks

I really want to understand Helen Razer’s take on the Lingerie Football League, I really do, because I admire her writing style and her intellectual rigour so much. However, it makes no sense to me and on first reading it left me despairing. Besides the fact that I had to look up the word “syllogistic” in the dictionary (and still don’t fully understand it), I just don’t get why Razer and some other feminists seem to be falling over each other to defend the LFL. I also don’t understand their seemingly wilful dismissal of voices against the LFL as “the morals police”, when in fact we are not arguing on grounds of the moral but on grounds of the political.

I’ve read bits and pieces of Foucault and other writers Razer likes to reference, and understood even less, so I am not able to debate with her on an equal footing, but I will attempt to summarise her argument and explain why I disagree.

Razer is of the view that the LFL is not so much sexist but distasteful. She likens it to pole dancing and bar fighting, and says that it is not sexist when compared with wage disparity or, in her humorous wisdom, Neighbours. (Razer does not explain why feminism should be concerned with the “tat” of Neighbours but not that of the LFL). In effect this is where we diverge, because Razer apparently doesn’t have a problem with pole dancing and bar fighting, while I object to them (in the case of pole dancing, when it occurs in the typical strip club) not on moral grounds but on the basis of opposition to the exploitation of women and to violence in general. I’ve noticed that a lot of the feminists defending the LFL, pornography and prostitution hardly ever mention violence against women as a feminist issue. They tend to focus on safer issues such as wage disparity, the representation of women in the media, or whether a woman takes her husband’s name in marriage.

Razer goes on to say that the LFL is “cheap”, and that those who object to it do so on grounds of taste (and, presumably, morals), wrongly stating that we would rather see women in “nicer outfits playing something more wholesome”. In actual fact the feminists against the LFL don’t give a toss what women wear, as long as they are choosing to wear it themselves. According to her, women can be compared with Monster Trucks, and arguing against the exploitation of women by patriarchal market forces is not a political but a “missionary reflex”; suggesting that the players have no volition is demeaning and oppressive. Even if we accept that the players have volition, this doesn’t mean that the LFL is not oppressive or degrading. We know that some women experiencing domestic violence do have a level of agency, but we don’t use that as reason to suggest that violence against women is okay. Conversely, if a woman has little or no volition in a DV situation, we don’t say that quality feminist services designed to assist her if she chooses to use them are oppressive or “missionary”. Furthermore, when working with a woman experiencing DV, supporting her to gain information, knowledge and understanding of the dynamics, effects and risks of domestic violence (in other words, consciousness-raising), while this may remind her that she is being demeaned by her partner, does not further demean her but assists her to enhance her own safety and options.

Following from this, Razer states that the Minister for Sport’s objection to the LFL is based on snootiness and if she wants to ban it she should ban roller derby. Razer claims that such a ban would not happen because the sport is played “by middle-class women in Brunswick”. Here again I disagree. Such a ban would not be prevented because of the middle-class player’s (apparent) good taste or sense of irony. Rather it would not happen because with roller derby there is nothing to exploit. As far as I know there are no big corporations interested in profiting from having control of the roller derby; it sounds like a grassroots bottom-up women-led, not-for-profit hobby, not a top-down, multi-million dollar, male-controlled business. As far as I know there are not thousands of leering, drunken males queueing and paying to watch roller derby, and if there were I suspect the players and organisers would be none too pleased, which may suggest a little hypocrisy in Razer’s argument. Alternatively, if it happened that big business was interested in investing in roller derby, the women who control it would be in a position to chose whether they would go down that road, and on what terms this happened. I can’t be sure, but if other big corporations are anything to go by, I don’t imagine there are many women in control at the top of the LFL, and the players certainly are not.

Razer claims that volition, therefore, “is a matter of class and distinction”. (She appears to feel that roller derby is tasteful; of that I have no knowledge.) She goes on to say that “we” are okay with Scorsese, erotica and burlesque, but not video games, pornography and strippers. I’m not sure who this “we” is she refers to, but I for one find it very difficult to watch the violence and misogyny of Scorsese films. His and other films with violence tend to act as triggers for me and if I watch them I often find myself with a greatly increased heart rate and sweaty palms, a result of trauma from domestic violence. Erotica and burlesque I know little about but I suspect that the lack of condemnation of them has less to do with their tastefulness and more to do with the fact that they are not associated with the sexual violence, abuse and exploitation that is found in pornography and other parts of the sex industry.

Razer ends by saying that feminism should not be used in “the service of snobbery”, but I fear that is exactly what she herself is doing. As she is okay playing her roller derby, which she wrongly equates with the LFL on the basis of the clothes worn by the players, she dismisses the political work of other feminists as “snootiness”. Feminism, she says, has “far more important work to do”, but she does not say what. In a way I agree with her, because in the scheme of things the LFL is not a priority for women experiencing or who work in the field of domestic violence, an issue which I presume Razer deems worthy of feminism. But I wonder where people think violence against women comes from? I assume they know it comes from male privilege and men’s sense of entitlement over women. Ending violence against women requires revolutionary societal unlearning of such male privilege and entitlement. As I can’t see how the LFL assists with this in any way, and in my opinion it contributes to it, I therefore consider it a feminist issue.

Resisting violence and control is feminist

Two heart-felt blog posts have appeared in the feminist blogosphere this week, addressing the topic of the shame some feminists feel when they fall victim to violence and abuse from intimate partners. The first, by Lila, describes how perplexed she felt when she realised she was in a relationship with an abusive man, as she hadn’t seen any “red flags” and had thought that she would because she is a feminist. The second, by Meghan Murphy, echoes Lila’s piece and goes on to say that there is an expectation that feminists “must be flawless”, and “should be able to avoid… less-than-feminist relationships”.

Both writers conclude that this expectation is wrong and that feminists are human beings who make mistakes like anyone else, and that anyway (and quite rightly), the domestic violence was not their fault. They talk though of both being told by so-called friends and other feminists that they were not real feminists because they “allowed themselves to be abused.” They rightly identify this attitude as victim-blaming, and they rightly do not accept it. But I think the argument can be taken further.

Even though both writers come to the conclusion that the victim-blaming is wrong, they don’t seem to quite get to the point where they can really let it go themselves. Lila states that it was feminism that helped her “get out at warp speed” (of the abusive relationship). This emphasis on leaving the abusive relationship seems to suggest a focus on the dichotomy of staying/leaving; that a woman is a victim if she stays and a survivor if she leaves. Murphy states that even though she is a feminist, she will still make mistakes, make bad choices, and be weak sometimes. This is absolutely fine, except it sounds like she is saying that it was her mistakes, bad choices or weakness that caused her to experience abuse. I’m sure she doesn’t believe this, but to me this is what her argument sounds like.

What these two pieces somewhat lacked theoretically for me, and what I notice in many feminist pieces that don’t come from a specialised domestic violence perspective, is an understanding of current feminist domestic violence theory. Such theory has moved on from the survivor/victim dichotomy to a more complex, nuanced understanding of women as resisting violence and control, albeit constrained by certain factors[1]. Furthermore, as they are resisting they are risk-assessing, decision-making and safety planning around the violence and abuse[2]. So in Lila’s case it was the “gut instinct” that she didn’t ignore but weighed up against other evidence she had to hand, like any reasonable person would do. It was also her instinct to protect her face and to keep away from him when he became abusive. Her risk-assessing, decision-making and safety-planning were informed by his violence (and his minimising of it: “I hit walls so I don’t hit you”) and also other constraints such as societal beliefs about what type of red flags to look for in a violent man. Meghan doesn’t give as much specific detail about the abuse she experienced, but she talks about being “unsure about how to cope”, suggesting a process of risk-assessing and decision-making, and falling into a “long depression”, which is very common in women experiencing DV.

For me it was extremely similar, except it lasted for eight years. By about the fourth year I suspected I was experiencing domestic violence, but I thought he had to hit me for it to be that. All the verbal abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, stalking and property damage seemed wrong to me, but it was so hard to escape the cycle of violence. If I complained to him about his treatment of me, he would minimise it as well. “What do you mean?” he would say, “I don’t hit you.” But I knew that I deserved more from a relationship than just not being hit. Throughout the eight years I now see I was risk-assessing, decision-making and safety planning. I was resisting, but my resistance was constrained by an onslaught of factors. For me, like Lila, I was confused because he was never jealous or possessive, like it is often thought DV perpetrators are supposed to be. Half the time he acted like he didn’t care where I was or what I did. But when I tried to leave he threatened to kill himself and harassed and stalked me until I gave in.

Both writers seem to place importance on the idea of leaving an abusive relationship quickly. For Lila, she places importance on getting out “at warp speed”, and Meghan laments “not being able to quickly move on”. Again I feel that current feminist DV theory can shed some light here. No longer does it focus on the dichotomy of staying or leaving, victim or survivor, but on achieving safety in whatever choice is made. This change in focus is based on a number of things. Firstly, the fact that DV often escalates on separation, making separation the most dangerous time for women and the time during which many women are killed. This means that separation is not always the safest option at any given point, and it may be that a period of further safety planning is required before the woman can safely escape. Secondly, due to the situation in the Family Court of Australia and possibly elsewhere around the world, it is no longer simple and straightforward for a woman with children to leave an abusive partner. Quite often the woman and children are required to have ongoing contact with the abuser. So this needs to be considered when safety planning, and can often be a factor in women’s decisions not to leave.

What I did find interesting though in these two pieces, was hearing the thoughts and feelings of two women who were feminists first, and then experienced abuse. I very much respect their experiences. For me, it was the other way around. As I have written elsewhere in my blog, I had some feminist sympathies before but I did not become a “fully-fledged” feminist until I realised I was experiencing domestic violence. Feminist DV theory (which I was privileged to be inhaling at university) then assisted me (along with other supports) to safely extricate myself from the situation. So I did not experience the sense of shame felt by Lila and Meghan Murphy at being a feminist abused (though I did experience a shitload of other shame), and I still don’t feel the same pressure to be the perfect feminist. To me, guided by feminist DV theory, it is part of being a feminist that we are resisting violence and control, and I can’t rule out that I will experience it again in the future.

[1] Laing, L. (2008). ‘Violence’, Criminal Justice, The Law, Policy and Practice in B. Fawcett & F. Waugh (eds). Addressing violence, abuse and oppression: Debates and challenges, London: Routledge

[2] Davies, J. Lyon, E. & Monti-Catania, D. (1998). Safety planning with battered women: Complex lives/difficult choices, Thousand Oaks: Sage.

On being a feminist mother

I responded to blue milk’s 10 questions for feminist mothers and it has been posted on her amazing blog. I’m looking forward to seeing how my responses change in the future.

blue milk

This is a brilliant guest post from DV Diary, whom you can also follow on twitter @dvdiary.

  1. How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

I became a committed feminist while studying domestic violence as part of a social work degree I did at the University of Sydney as a “mature age” student. During this time I realised I was experiencing domestic violence, and had been for many years. My feminism is heavily influenced by the women’s domestic violence movement, and it led me to become a DV worker, once I had become safe myself. My feminism is informed by feminist theories of domestic violence as a gendered crime; a product of the patriarchy; a deliberate pattern of tactics used mostly by men against women to control them and keep them in…

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