Feminism should focus on reality, not narcissistic fantasy

These days “intersectionality” seems to be the word on everyone’s lips.

It is parroted by experts and politicians in interviews, chanted by rallying activists, carried to headlines by journalists and scrawled in bold letters across campus walls by progressive students.

But what does this seemingly all-encompassing term really mean?

“Intersectionality” was coined in 1989 by American civil rights activist and feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. In a recent interview with Time magazine, she described it simply as “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other”.

But in the three decades since its inception, there has been a major distortion in the meaning of the term.

“My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit,” cultural commentator Flavia Dzodan stated in a blog post in 2011. After the publication of the essay criticising the use of a racial slur by a participant in New York’s “Slutwalk”, the statement became a famed internet catchphrase – a rallying cry of sorts for so-called “modern feminists” critical of previous generations of feminism for being too concentrated on women’s rights and male violence against women.

Dzodan, who advocates for blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade and labels those who want to abolish it “whorephobic“, soon came to be seen as a leading representative of “intersectional feminism” and helped the term coined by Crenshaw slowly lose all its meaning.

In my view, Dzodan and supposed “intersectional feminists” like her, gravely misinterpret what Crenshaw meant by intersectionality. No one who truly understands intersectionality and wants to ease the overlapping effects of multiple forms of discrimination experienced by marginalised individuals, and especially marginalised women, could be supportive of the sex trade. Poor, Black, brown and Indigenous women are significantly overrepresented in global prostitution markets. I have interviewed dozens of women of colour who have escaped the sex trade, all of whom told me sex buyers treat them with particular contempt.

At its best, feminism has always adhered to the principle now known as intersectionality. Indeed, addressing the cumulative damage inflicted on marginalised individuals by different forms of oppression (tied to race, disability and class as well as sex) has always been fundamental to the practice of most considerate feminists.

But now, people are increasingly using the concept of “intersectionality” to describe the grievances they say they experience because of their self-identification as “polyamorous”, “non-binary”, “gender fluid” or some other novel identity or orientation. Meanwhile, the label “sex worker” is being sold to us as just another identity that is supposed to be embraced and protected under the umbrella of intersectional feminism.

All this is an insult to the term coined by Crenshaw.

Identity politics have created a new brand of feminism, and a new understanding of “intersectionality”, that is nothing but an exercise in narcissism that centres the (privileged) individual and ignores true, institutional oppression.

Because of this new, warped understanding of “intersectionality”, in the United Kingdom, we are now facing a reality where dozens of working-class lesbians, many of whom are of colour, are being accused, mostly by highly privileged, white students, of oppressing white natal males who identify as “non-binary”, “asexual” or trans. We are being accused of being “bigots” or “not real feminists” because we refuse to put the interests and feelings of male-born people of whatever identity above the needs of women and girls.

When those students so attached to the “sex work is work” line use the concept of intersectionality to attack feminists who campaign to end male violence, they inadvertently lend support to pimps and other exploiters of women.

When I recently spoke at a conference in Canada alongside a number of Indigenous survivors of male violence, for example, we were confronted by protesters holding placards and shouting through loudhailers: “Sex work is work” and “Blow jobs are real jobs”. “Intersectional feminism lives here!” proclaimed the crowd, waving their placards in the direction of speakers and delegates alike, as we entered the venue.

This cannot continue.

Feminism is – or at least it once was – the only political movement on this planet that prioritises women and girls and fights primarily (if not exclusively) to end patriarchal oppression. It is our duty as feminists to ensure our movement remains true to itself. We must urgently refocus our feminism to place women at its very centre.

It goes without saying, intersectionality – true intersectionality as it was first defined by Crenshaw some three decades ago – must remain at the core of our movement. In this fight for rights and safety, women at the bottom of the ladder, women who are feeling the weight of multiple overlapping oppressions on their shoulders, matter more than those hitting their heads on the corporate glass ceiling, complaining they earn “only one million” while their male counterparts earn much more. Not that those women are not victims of sexism – it’s simply that their plight is clearly less urgent than that of women struggling to feed their children, facing racism and other forms of discrimination on top of the oppression they suffer for being female.

What we call identity politics today, of which a distorted understanding of “intersectionality” has become a defining component, was born of the political left in the 1980s, in response to the majority of social justice movements of the time being dominated by white, middle-class men. This has always been a problem for the left: whilst the right is unapologetic about what it sees as the “natural order” of things (in which class and race privilege is simply a matter of fact rather than something to angst about) the left often claims to represent a wide intersection of communities in societies, even as its privileged proponents often make little effort to step away from the spotlight so that the marginalised can be seen and heard.

It is far from perfect, but in its long history, the feminist movement has never been one that is steered by the privileged. Feminism is a grassroots movement that began with women who had suffered the most horrendous oppression – such as domestic abuse, sexual assault and child abuse – demanding a platform to make their voices heard.

Today, there are people (of both sexes) trying to lay claim to the “feminist” label and use the women’s liberation movement as a vessel for their narcissism. They claim those who identify as “asexual” or “aromantic” are suffering some form of “oppression” akin to sexism or racism. This is ludicrous and should be recognised as such.

Behind all this needless noise, women and girls are still suffering from patriarchy and male violence. Let’s return to the true and authentic meaning of intersectionality, and focus on reality – as opposed to narcissistic fantasy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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