This past week I attended Women’s World 2011, an international conference on women’s issues held in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. In the weeks leading up to the event, I was really excited about the fact that I was going to join together with a large group of fellow feminists to talk about an assortment of important and often neglected issues. As the conference drew to a close, however, my thoughts did not settle on the benefits of sisterly bonding, but on how Women’s World needs to engage in some serious discussions on inclusion and oppression.
My concerns about the conference started when, during one of the sessions, I became rather emotional as I spoke about my experiences as a feminist in law school. One of the older women in the crowd reassured me that I was not simply feeling the effects of an emotionally trying semester, but that my school had failed me. It was one of the few times that my feelings of frustration were validated by people outside of my circle of friends. These women believed in the truth and sincerity of my emotions, rather than telling me that I was being “hysterical” or “over-sensitive”. All I wanted to do after that session was to go up to the first woman who told me that my feelings were legitimate and give her a hug. When I saw that she was one of the speakers at my next session, I was elated! That was until she opened her mouth.
As participants were sitting around waiting for the next panel to start, the woman I admired so much began to discuss some of the ideas that she had heard at the conference about pornography and feminism. The other middle-aged women in the room joined in and suddenly I was in the middle of an extremely sex-negative discussion. My momentary heroine began to talk about the recent R. v. J.A. case in Canada. For my non-lawyer and non-Canadian readers, this was a case in which the complainant engaged in erotic asphyxiation with her partner and was anally penetrated once unconscious. The question before the courts was whether a person can pre-give consent to sexual activities that are carried out after the person becomes unconscious. The women in the room talked about how they were so proud of the courts for taking a stand on this issue, but it was not the issue of consent after unconsciousness that they centered on, but the mere idea that a woman could consent to BDSM activities at all. This was decidedly NOT what the case was about. The women questioned how anyone could ever call an activity such as asphyxiation erotic as it was a violent act, and surely violence is something we can never consent to, right? The message was that women who engage in such “disdainful” activities must be blinded by patriarchal influence and do not know what they truly want. They must be saved from themselves.
For the rest of the session, I sat silent and angry. How dare these women presume that they fully understood the choices of every other woman in the world! How dare they suggest that their views on sex were the only legitimate ones! And if violence and control by the patriarchy was what they were truly worried about, then why were they all dressed in nice, feminine clothing with make-up and jewellery? What makes these items safe from patriarchal infection? As someone who identifies with parts of the kink community, I felt like I was getting a paternalistic pat on the head while being told that I must listen to my older feminist sisters who know what I truly want and need. I was a misguided youth who didn’t understand how the world was controlling me and needed to be forcibly and legally guided back to acceptable behaviour.
This young feminist is calling bullshit.
After that session, I decided to look over my programme once again to see if these sex-negative feminists were in the majority at Women’s World. I had noticed that there were several anti-sex work or pornography panels when I was originally choosing my sessions, but I thought that they represented minority views. After all, when the Bedford case (one that challenged the constitutionality of several of the prohibitions regarding sex work in the Criminal Code) succeeded at the trial level in the fall, all of the feminists that I knew were ecstatic. As I looked through the panel offerings again, however, I wasn’t so sure that I was surrounded by the same type of feminists as I was at my law school. I saw a few pro-sex work panels, but they were in the minority, and whenever I heard sex-related issues come up in the halls, it was in a decidedly negative manner. Prostitution was always violent. Pornography was always violent. A large swath of sexual expression was always violent. Further, violent sex of all types must be eliminated, and women could not truly choose to engage in anything these feminists labelled as a violent act.
I realised that I was most definitely an oddity at this conference during the final plenary session where there were several shout-outs to the idea of “ending the violence of prostitution” forever from both sponsors and major speakers. One such remark drew thunderous applause and many of the attendees rose to their feet in a standing ovation. During these moments, I refused to clap or stand. I had never expected to feel so isolated at a feminist conference supposedly dedicated to inclusion.
As the conference wrapped up, participants were overcome with positive emotions. So many people around me were joyous after a week of connecting and communicating with other women from across the globe. I, however, did not feel the sisterly love. I felt excluded, belittled and ignored. At a conference that described itself as one about inclusions, exclusions and seclusions, the fact that some feminists were made to feel as it our opinions did not matter and that we were deluded, naïve little children, represents a significant failure on the part of the organisation to actually live up to their promises of diversity and inclusiveness.
While feminism will always suffer from internal tensions, part of the movement requires that feminists recognise the huge range of identities and choices that fellow women can and will make in their lives. Feminism requires that we all acknowledge the fact that we have different needs and desires and different ways of fulfilling these needs and desires. While not every choice every woman makes is the best choice (as no human being can be perfect all the time), how can feminism as a whole actually know whether or not this is the case for an individual woman? Furthermore, how can we declare that a choice is wrong for every woman no matter what?
While I truly believe that events such as Women’s World are important and do offer women many chances to engage on issues that require immediate attention, this particular conference has a long way to go before it can truly call itself a transgressive, non-oppressive feminist event. The conflicts over issues relating to sex were not the only points of tension. As a young feminist, I felt that there were serious generational divides, I heard Aboriginal women and women of colour point speak out against their erasure, and I know that accessibility for disabled feminists was a major issue as well. Unfortunately, these conflicts are perfect examples of why so many people in the world feel as if feminism has failed them. When feminists attempt to create one perfect ideal for behaviour and inclusion, the movement fails every woman who dares to live differently and every woman who is forced to live differently. I can only hope that at Women’s World 2014, the organisers put some serious thought into what feminism is supposed to mean, and how to allow it to flourish without harming the very people it is meant to represent.