Alan Bissett: My feminist self

I AM a man. I am also a feminist. Sometimes I’m not a very good one, partly because it’s difficult even for women to be ‘good feminists’ all the time and partly because, well, I’m a man.

Alan Bissett. Picture: Contributed
Alan Bissett. Picture: Contributed
Alan Bissett. Picture: Contributed

Try being a feminist on a stag night. Even if you can walk away from one with a smug glow of satisfaction about unbroken principles, none of your best friends will be talking to you. Here’s a dodgy statement for a feminist: sometimes you just have to hand over that entry fee into a lap-dancing bar. So, as you can see, for every ladder up towards better gender relations, there’s a snake to take you back down to the square one of misogyny. This I have discovered to my cost.

When I was a teenage boy in the early 1990s the shockwave from the feminist explosion of the 1970s was still passing through. There were certain things we were aware that we were not supposed to say to girls, or even in front of them. The biggest male rock stars of the day, such as Kurt Cobain and Suede’s Brett Anderson, sometimes wore women’s clothes, called themselves feminists or wrote sympathetic songs about lonely housewives. Then came the backlash against ‘political correctness’, neatly coinciding with the yobbish roar of Oasis and the success of the ‘lad bible’, Loaded magazine. ‘New Laddism’ meant it was fine to recommence leering and calling women ‘birds’. It was all conducted with a cheeky wink, of course, but since then – inevitably – the layer of irony has dissolved away. Sexism has become the norm again.

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Have a glance at Laura Barton’s Everyday Sexism Project, in which women list their experiences of harassment and condescension. It has over 62,000 Twitter followers. The word ‘rape’ is frequently used for a cheap laugh by comedians. Fifty Shades of Grey, in which the male ‘romantic’ lead is allowed to do whatever he likes to his partner short of setting her on fire, has been the biggest-selling novel of the decade. A ‘male-rights’ political party, Justice For Men, has even been established and intends to stand in the next Westminster election. Among their policies is the removal of all state benefits from single mothers. The renewed prevalence of pink and princesses in the world of young girls, given this, is surely no coincidence.

I’ve observed all this wearily, but what really drove me further into the arms of feminism was the inexorable rise of internet pornography, specifically my own use of it. After a while I could simply no longer reconcile my conscious thoughts about the equality and humanity of women with what I was seeing onscreen, in which the prevailing theme seemed to be their degradation. Germaine Greer once wrote in The Female Euneuch that ‘women have no idea how much men truly hate them’. Pornography was beginning to look to me like visual evidence of this. And so – partly through self-disgust, partly through curiosity – I turned to feminism to help me make sense of the sudden ubiquity of what the novelist Jeannette Winterson has called ‘a toxic and highly addictive substance’. I knew what the ‘patriarchy’ was, of course: that invisible network of cultural and economic power relations which ensures the advantage of men over women. What I’d never really stopped to think about was my place in it, nor, indeed, as a viewer of porn, my contribution to it.

So I went in at the deep-end: Andrea Dworkin.

Arguably, no woman who has ever lived has been angrier than Andrea Dworkin. When misogynists conjure a stereotypical feminist dragon – a huge lesbian with unkempt hair, wearing dungarees and ranting like an Old Testament preacher about how ‘all men are potential rapists’ – they are describing Andrea Dworkin. Herself a rape victim, beaten wife and former prostitute, it’s perhaps no surprise that Dworkin would become the world’s most vociferous and famous anti-porn campaigner. Hers is a world which is, for fellow feminist Naomi Wolf, ‘dense with sexual pessimism [in which] the vagina becomes, intrinsically, the site for male sexual violence.’ For Dworkin, pornography and prostitution represent nothing less than the eroticised destruction of women by men, both feeding into and being fed by misogyny.

Reading Dworkin, as a man, one is very much aware that one is not welcome. To the naked eye, the male is cast as permanent aggressor, the woman as victim. But, I reasoned, if I could find a positive response to Dworkin within myself then the motherlode of my reconditioning would be done. I persevered and saw what so many people who read Dworkin miss: that she laments too the loss of male goodness to the patriarchy. Men, Dworkin believes, are so trapped by a culture of violence, horror and sexual power that it corrodes their soul and forces them – for the sake of status in the eyes of other men – to make women into their slaves. Love only becomes possible when men and women drop their gender conditioning and become, essentially, each other. It is an optimistic conclusion which, when combined with the searing critiques of ‘raunch culture’ from neo-Dworknites Gail Dines, Ariel Levy and Kat Banyard, dragged me over the line.

Oh sod it, I thought, let’s go the whole way! I myself would play Andrea Dworkin onstage at the Edinburgh Fringe, rehabilitating her legacy, in a show entitled Ban This Filth! The Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile expressed an interest in the piece. Dates were booked. I started posting enthusiastic tweets such as, ‘Pornography is violence against women!’

And that’s when it all went wrong.

Little had I realised just how deep, bitter and ideological the division is between feminists over the issues of porn and prostitution, the ‘Sex Wars’ which destabilised the movement in the 1980s and now appears to be an uncrossable chasm. Many feminists despise Andrea Dworkin for what they perceive to be her authoritarianism and blinkered attitude to sexual expression. As a newly-vocal supporter (and a man, to boot) I made myself a target for sex workers and their advocates. They were not happy. Neither was my partner, herself a ‘sex positive’ feminist, who is writing a novel correcting the established narrative about sex workers as victims. There were, shall we say, fraught conversations over the dinner table.

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After one particular Twitter onslaught from an alliance of sex workers, which lasted several hours, I had to concede that I was out of my depth. Their argument ran thus: I’d made various inferences about their lives without asking them; I was denying them the agency to do what they liked with their own bodies; I was falsely equating representations of violence against women with actual violence; I was assuming the mantle of the ‘white knight’ who wanted to save women from themselves; and, worst of all, I was ‘mansplaining’. This is a feminist term for the occasions when men talk to women from a presumed position of superior knowledge Something had obviously gone wrong if my ‘feminism’ was alienating feminists.

I took a few days away from Twitter to reassess, before I came back with an apology. There is a powerful argument that by criminalising the purchase of sex we endanger sex workers, since the activity goes underground and becomes much harder to regulate. The Dworkinite position would be, of course, that to do otherwise sends a message that the state condones buying women for the gratification of men, the legal enshrining of misogyny itself. But ‘sex positive’ feminists would reason that this puts ideology before the safety of actual women. As someone who has advocated the legalisation of drugs based on the issue of ‘harm reduction’ I find it difficult to dispute this, no matter how concerned I am about the psychological ‘green light’ it might give to an already misogynistic culture.

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I think it’s safe to say that I don’t have all the answers. Nor, as a man, would it be my place to provide them. It’s not for me to tell committed feminists that theirs is the ‘wrong’ version. The lack of lived experience of being a woman – and the surplus of privilege I get from being a man – means I don’t have the authority or right to make that call. Even ‘worrying about my place in all this’ is suspect, the sign of a male, egocentric angst which presumes itself to be somehow front and centre in women’s fight for equality. As Andrea Dworkin wrote, ‘Men who want to support women in our struggle for freedom and justice should understand that it is not terrifically important to us that they learn to cry; it is important to us that they stop the crimes of violence against us.’

Come August, I guess I’ll know what kind of feminist I really am. I’m sure the audience won’t be slow to tell me.