Roxane Gay’s Toxic Feminism

Written by:
2 April 2019
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On Sunday night in Melbourne an event was held that was supposed to be a discussion/debate between Christina Hoff Sommers and Roxane Gay, two well-known feminist commentators. As it turned out, the so-called debate was an absolute shambles and an appalling display of toxic feminism. Sommers was treated in a manner that was rude, dismissive and highly unprofessional by Roxane Gay. The audience resembled something close to an angry mob, unwilling to listen to anything they disagreed with and full of entitlement that their version of feminism was the only acceptable form.

What we saw on display was what Sommers describes as the two schools of feminism. Equity feminism as represented and described by Sommers; “…wants for women what it wants for everyone – equality, dignity, liberty. It’s a movement that was developed out of the European enlightenment and 19th century humanitarian movements and I think it has one great virtue which is that it works; it has freed women.”

The other type of feminism Sommers describes as ‘Gender Feminism’ which is an ideology that believes all women are “captive to a sex-gender system, and that democratic reform is not enough and they don’t have any particular confidence that democratic freedoms will protect women, and so they’re much more radical. They think that women are a subordinate class.”

This was highlighted when Roxane Gay said, in reference to the issue of sexual violence; “The idea that we need to engage in due process when due process has never served victims of sexual assault… it’s like oh this is how much we respect men that we will give them due process” This statement was met with a great deal of hooting and hollering of agreement from a majority of the audience. The rule of law should be applied differently to men and women according to those who follow the mantra of ‘Gender Feminism’.

When women fought for their rights and equal treatment in the early feminist movements of the 19th century and beyond, it was on the presumption that women are just as capable as men. Which of course they are. That is why women fought for equal treatment, not special treatment. To obtain the legal status of men means you take on the legal and personal responsibilities as well, meaning that your testimony must be corroborated before guilt can be determined. Roxane Gay also expressed her support for the common hashtag and phrase #believeallwomen. Explaining that it did not mean exactly what it says, but rather it means that everyone should give women the benefit of the doubt in all cases of sexual assault. Saying that “…we need to trust that women are not going to make claims of sexual assault up.”

In an ideal world I would sympathise with this position, but unfortunately in some cases women have made claims up. To argue that women will always be honest in cases of sexual assault assumes that women are all more or less the same and not as complex and varied as our male counterparts; that they are not capable of Machiavellian manipulation. Furthermore, by spreading this blanket view that women are always morally virtuous in such cases, you are effectively putting women back upon the pedestal of female purity and fragility that the first two waves of feminism successfully took us down from.

When Christina Hoff Sommers spoke about effective means of lowering instances of sexual assault on campus, she was met with boos and hisses from the audience. Sommers referenced a multitude of studies and programs including a Canadian study headed by Dr Charlene Y. Senn; Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women. That showed female emotional empowerment along with the teaching of self-defence lowered young woman’s chances of sexual assault by almost 50%. For this Sommers was accused of the mortal sin of ‘victim blaming’, there was no place for well researched solutions in the world of Roxane Gay and her acolytes.

Gay thought the one and only solution for sexual violence was “to teach boys not to rape” from a young age, as if there are a multitude of parents in 21st century Australia actively encouraging sexual violence. The idea of women empowering themselves and taking steps as individuals to make themselves safer was treated as repugnant. Ignoring the fact that it is nearly impossible to control the parenting actions of the entire population, while it is relatively simple to empower and educate yourself as an individual. To say as much is not victim blaming it is, in a practical way, victim preventing.

This is not to say that the education of young men has no place in this discussion, but to dismiss more immediate, practical solutions because of your own ideological position is unwise and morally negligent. To quote Sommers “In none of this am I denying that domestic violence is a serious problem or that sexual assault is a serious problem, they are so serious that we should tell the truth about it and do sober research, not hyperbole and spin”.

On Monday in the aftermath of the event, a petition was released by a group of attendees who were apparently unprepared to hear views they disagreed with when witnessing a debate. They are demanding their money back because Sommers words hurt their feelings and made them feel ‘unsafe’. This is the antithesis of female empowerment, these women are not fighting for the right to be heard and be involved in public debate, but instead they are fighting for the right to be sheltered and protected from views they disagree with. Female views no less.

As Sommers said when interviewed, “As a feminist, who became a feminist in the sexual revolution of the 70’s, back then it was about fun and liberation and joy and now it seems so negative and fearful. I don’t like seeing women becoming bullies… I hate male bullies but I don’t think female bullies are any better.”

The saddest part of all of this is that this not the path to change and female empowerment, as Sommers describes “What scholars have found is when women made the greatest progress and that was beginning in the 18th century… that was because of a miracle of conservative women and radical women having the same idea and working together, they didn’t necessarily like each other… but they took society to a new level.”

Feminism will never have the positive and lasting impact it once had if it continues to be exclusive, reactionary and hostile to those with varying interpretations of female empowerment. When feminism only has a radical wing, the social and community backing needed to create real change will never mobilize.

Renee Gorman is the National Manager of Generation Liberty at the Institute of Public Affairs

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