Meghan Murphy recently suggested a controversial, (to her readers), approach to addressing the problem of pornography. Her response to her critics seriously misrepresents radical feminism.
Last July, writer and founder of Feminist Current, Meghan Murphy, launched what would become a series of more than a dozen posts, articles and podcasts about pornography over a period of at least six weeks. In her initial Facebook post, she called for a “dialogue” that would not “shame” or “vilify” men, but instead inquire into their reasons for consuming porn. While she recognizes that “porn is a massive problem,” she observes that “many men think it’s harmless… and don’t seem to understand or care that it hurts the women in their lives.” She concluded with these questions:
What are women missing about men’s porn use?
What are men missing about women’s upset?
Many of Murphy’s longtime readers and supporters could scarcely believe what they were reading. They expressed disbelief that men could not know how harmful and degrading pornography is for women, were uninterested in any “dialogue” with men about it, and urged women to refuse relationships and sex with men who use it. One woman answered Murphy’s question:
Men are sexually aroused by ‘women’s upset.’ They’re not missing a damn thing.
A male commented:
[A]ny man who needs women to walk him through it isn’t [in] a place where he’s really going to give it up anyway.”
Responding to comments more receptive to her point of view, Murphy suggested that, “there is a possibility that women often just can’t relate to the things” that turn men on and how male and female sexuality differ. She doesn’t agree that men who respect women will not use porn.
Murphy further opined that “the problem with the radical feminist approach approach… is that there is no desire to understand and address, and instead a blanket vilification of all men,” which she called “naive.”
Apparently stung by the negative response to her Facebook post among many women around the internet, Murphy followed up three days later with a Patreon post entitled “Radical Feminism’s Porn Problem,” and an Instagram post wherein she vehemently defended her position. She is in pursuit of the truth, she said, and
the truth is that men use porn… Do we want men to consider what they are consuming… Or do we want to isolate ourselves and push away everyone who is not like us…?
Most controversially, she went on to make a comparison between porn consumption and other unethical purchases:
I also do unethical things: I buy Nike and Apple products. I eat meat that wasn’t raised or killed humanely. I buy clothes and food that probably weren’t produced ethically. I buy stuff from Amazon. I don’t know where the line begins and ends in terms of which unethical practices are ok and which are not, but I'm pretty sure it isn’t always black and white…
Two days later, Murphy published an article on Feminist Current entitled “Radical Feminism Has a Humanity Problem” and took to Spinster, a woman founded and dominated social media site, to complain about radical feminists.
Murphy’s assumption, in both the article and her Spinster post, seems to be that her critics are all, or mostly, radical feminists, whether or not they identify as such, perhaps because radical feminists recognize the exploitation of women’s sexual and reproductive capacity by men as the root of female oppression. Consequently, issues of primary concern are pornography, prostitution, trafficking, rape, and violence. But this is speculation; Murphy doesn’t tell us.
On her Spinster post, Murphy linked to a single twitter thread where only one tweeter called herself a radical feminist in her bio. The original tweet expressed outrage at the Instagram statement about unethical purchases. Most of the thread consists of tweets expressing shock and dismay, although a few have been deleted.
In her Spinster post, Murphy angrily denounced radical feminists as misogynist (presumably because on the twitter thread and elsewhere on the net, a few posters speculated that her new stance on porn might be due to a new boyfriend who consumes it.)
She insisted that her position is not “pro porn;” that her “point was ONLY that it is fucking retarded… to treat every single man who uses porn as an abusive misogynist and to cut them out of your life.”
In her rambling and unfocused “humanity problem” article, Murphy, without providing any specific examples, describes radical feminists as “dehumanizing and misogynist,” prone to “reduc[ing] people to one-dimensional figures, rather than complex human beings worthy of respect,” ideologues who expect everyone in their social circles to “agree with all [their] politics,” “carried away by theory,” and out of touch with “real” people. “Theory,” she lectures, “is not meant to be applied directly to life — to indviduals” [sic].
Perhaps Murphy assumes that anyone who advocates rejecting relationships with porn users is a “radical feminist” because that school of feminist thought embraces separatism. But one doesn’t have to be a radical feminist to understand that refusing to date, or have sex with, men who use porn, is the first and best safety mechanism for protecting women and girls in an increasingly pornified and violent culture. One only has to have a strong sense of self-preservation and self-respect. Further, Murphy misunderstands what constitutes “separatism” and misrepresents radical feminist theory.
Murphy’s notion of “separatism,” judging by her writing, where she speaks of “isolating” oneself from those who don’t agree with radical feminist ideology, and her observation that “the vast majority of women on this planet are heterosexual and will partner with men,” presumably refers to lesbian separatism. Certainly, lesbian feminist communities are one form of separatism derived from radical feminism.
But the concept and purpose of separatism is richer and more complex than Murphy portrays in her writing. Separatism can take many forms; from refusing to listen to music with sexist lyrics or to watch sexist television or media, leaving an abusive relationship, rejecting relationships and sex with men who use porn, forming battered women’s shelters, and women-only organizations and events, to exclusive lesbian communities. Marilyn Frye describes the practice of separatism as a systematic and conscious “strategy of liberation.” She defines feminist separatism as:
separation of various sorts or modes from men and from institutions, relationships, roles and activities which are male-defined, male-dominated and operating for the benefit of males and the maintenance of male privilege-this separation being initiated or maintained, at will, by women (emphasis added).
Women’s separatism, on their terms, is key to understanding the liberatory potential of the strategy. As Fry observes, those in powerful positions have access to the less powerful. A boss may enter a subordinate’s office at any time; the subordinate has to ask for access to the boss’s office. Separatism, for the subordinate class, is an assertion of power because it denies access to members of the dominant group. Therefore, Frye observes, separatism “is a blatant insubordination, and generates in women fear of punishment and reprisal (fear which is often well-justified).”
For Sonia Johnson, separatism, in the first instance, must be separatism of the mind; separatism from the “seasoning,” or social conditioning, that teaches us always to think and act in relation to the powerful; to consider how they might perceive our behavior and what they might do in response. Our “seasoning,” Johnson writes:
functions to make us believe passionately that we need a savior, that men must save us, that we have to go through them to be saved. That somehow we've got to get them to change their minds about us. We've got to make them agree that their behavior is terrible and get them to stop it (p57).
This is precisely what Murphy is asking us to do in her call for “dialogue;” for women to expend time and energy “understanding” men’s porn use, and then to convince them of its harms to us. It is what Johnson calls “bondage.” Liberation, Johnson writes, requires taking our “eyes off the guys:”
When women make our internal states, our well-being, contingent upon men's behavior, behavior we can neither control nor change, we give up all chance for independence and freedom (p58).
Radical Feminist Theory
Separatism gives women much-needed respite from male culture, positions us to allow new perspectives on social relations to emerge, provides the space to envision a different kind of society, and thereby nurtures the development of feminist consciousness. In this space, collectively, women can make sense of their oppression and develop strategies for liberation.
During the second wave of feminism, in the 1960s and 70s, in women’s living rooms, where they gathered for consciousness-raising sessions, talking about their lives, tracing the patterns among their personal experiences and realizing the systemic, rather than individual, nature of their oppression; in battered women’s shelters where those recovering from male violence developed programs and tools to help other women, the seeds of radical feminist theory were sown.
More than any other feminist theories, such as socialist feminism which developed from Marxist and socialist theory, or liberal feminism, derived from Enlightenment ideals about individual freedom, radical feminism is grounded in women’s lived experiences. That was the intention of the New York Radical Feminists who pioneered consciousness-raising (CR).
The goal of CR was to make more accurate generalizations about women’s oppression by keeping close to the root, (hence “radical”), through collective analysis of women’s direct experiences. It worked, according to Carol Hanisch, author of the famous essay, The Personal is Political, “because it destroyed the isolation [of women from one another] that men used to maintain their authority and supremacy.” This generation of feminists arguably achieved some of the most dramatic and rapid gains for women since the rise of patriarchy.
Murphy, like all individuals, has the right to pursue new interests, to take her work in different directions, and, paraphrasing Sonia Johnson, to “keep her eyes on the guys,” if she chooses. (Feminists and other readers also have the right to critique her project.) But she does a disservice to her long-time readers and supporters, and the integrity of the feminist platform she worked so hard to create, when she grossly misrepresents radical feminism, and stereotypes the women who organize their activism around its principles, based on fractious interactions with anonymous internet posters.
Murphy says she wishes to “understand people, not paint in broad strokes,” and calls for “nuance” in discussions about men who use porn and frequent strip clubs. We hope she will apply these approaches to any future discussions of radical feminism as well.
The PDF of Sonia Johnson’s 1990 essay, “Taking Our Eyes Off the Guys,” was originally published in The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism. Dorchen Liedholdt and Janice Raymond, eds. https://janiceraymond.com/the-sexual-liberals/