Growing Out of Feminism?

The majority of my work with Sonke’s Policy Development and Advocacy Unit has been split between a campaign for the Decriminalization of Sex Work and advocacy for victims in active gender-based violence (GBV) cases around South Africa. While these topics certainly merit their own lengthy discussions, I continue to fixate on one image I came across early in my research on sex workers’ rights, titled the “Sex-for-Reward Continuum.”

Marlise Richter. “Sex Work as a test case for African Feminism.” BUWA! A Journal on African Women’s Experiences.

Marlise Richter. “Sex Work as a test case for African Feminism.” BUWA! A Journal on African Women’s Experiences.

Published in a journal article Sex Work as a Test Case for African Feminism by one of my bosses, Dr. Marlise Richter, the image begs the question: where on this spectrum do we begin to prosecute an action as sex work? Certainly, we can agree that each instance on this spectrum is just that – an individual is engaging in sexual activity with a purpose to gain something beyond his or her own sexual pleasure. In South Africa (as well as the US) individuals partaking in the behavior on the left side of the spectrum are stigmatized, harassed and subjected to poor health care, police brutality and violence every day. Meanwhile, the narrative on the right side shouldn’t be foreign to anyone. This happens everyday as well, in South Africa and across America, including, if not accentuated, at universities.

Scenario “E” occurs each and every weekend at Duke, whether it is between a couple in a committed relationship coming home from an evening of indulgence at the WaDuke, an inebriated student making his or her way back to a dorm room after a night of being treated to drinks at the Shooters bar or a formal guest feeling a sense of obligation. I’ve known this fact about Duke’s infamous hookup culture for a while, but I think there was something especially striking about seeing it compared to sex work, something I confess I shared my own bit of stigma toward before learning and understanding it. No, these two scenarios are not the same thing, but their underlying motivations justly place them both on this list. While more than half of our campus is busy critiquing a peer for working in the porn industry to earn her tuition, why are we so okay with a hookup culture so pervasive that it can’t be purely for personal pleasure?

I don’t mean to begin yet another derision of Duke’s campus culture, and I don’t think it’s necessary. This problem did not begin at Duke, but I think is instead a result of a complete cultural phenomenon in the United States. Let me back up. I have been working with a team here to compile ongoing case information and updates on eight GBV cases, currently at different stages of the justice system. These cases include incidents of police brutality towards women and gay men, the forced marriage and pregnancy of an 11 year old girl (tried as Statutory Rape, Unlawful Marriage and Abduction), the rapes and murders of young girls (age 3 and 9) by neighbors or family friends, the rape and murder of an openly gay man and the murders of several women by current or past intimate partners (one of which occurred after police refused to grant the victim a restraining order with the notion of “not interfering in domestic affairs”). The European Institute for Gender Equality defines GBV as “violence that is directed against a person on the basis of gender” adding that “it constitutes a breach of the fundamental right to life, liberty, security, dignity, equality between women and men, non-discrimination and physical and mental integrity.” Gender-based violence is anything – domestic violence, sexual harassment or assault, rape, traditional practices (forced marriage, female genital mutilation), human trafficking, and many more – that stems from a gender inequality. (As women have been historically marginalized as the inferior gender, many conflate the term violence against women and GBV.)

At Sonke, so much work is done with the goal of combatting “gender-based violence,” an unbelievably prevalent issue in South Africa. Although incredibly different in many respects, American society experiences several of the crimes listed above that fit under gender-based violence, yet I so rarely hear this term associated with them. Moreover, while I often voice my disgust towards sexual and physical violence around me, I seldom acknowledge the role of gender in those incidents. Is there something about American culture that convinces us to take the gender out of it?

Our group has discussed many times the notion that 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, American culture broadly believes we are “past the race issue,” while we know this to not be true at all. Could this too be the case for gender equality? Women have had the right to vote for almost a century, have access to high levels of employment (albeit not equal pay, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) and are not limited to the “housewife” status if they don’t want to be. Is it possible that because of these notable advances (which are not to be discounted), have we become comfortable with the idea that gender equality is not something we need to be monitoring as a society?

Around the country, and amongst many of my own good friends both in Vermont and at Duke, being a “feminist” carries a very negative connotation. We call severe crimes by their legal terms: assault, rape, murder, etc., but we don’t attribute them to gender when it is a driving factor. Should we? Is it further marginalizing women to call it “GBV” and highlight our higher likelihood as a gender to be a victim to these crimes? Or are we as a society ignoring an ever-present inequality in a way that is detrimental to us?

There are currently 55 universities under investigation by the Department of Education for “possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.” While its not safe to assume this is a strictly gender-based issue, I am certain that the obligation felt in the Sex-For-Reward scenario plays a role in how some, if not many of these instances occur. Sometimes, this obligation isn’t even from a partner, just from a societal construct that teaches us that sex is an acceptable and sometimes expected form of reimbursement. While labeling South African crimes as GBV does not lower their occurrence, it does serve as a reminder of the continued injustice of women in this country. America may pride itself in its democracy, but there are many issues – race, economic inequality and gender just being a few – that we are not done dealing with. Perhaps if we called crimes what they really are – hate crimes, gender-based violence, etc. – we could be more honest about our flaws as a country, which in my mind, is the only first step towards tackling the problem.


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