Feminism and women's empowerment have gained mainstream exposure in recent years. But one current in feminism has proven to be most influential, challenging systems of power through analysis and action.
This program is intended as a primer on radical feminism. Journalist and activist Samantha Berg speaks on the topic. Originally an anti-poverty and reproductive rights advocate, a move to Portland, Oregon in 2001 spurred Samantha Berg to work specifically against prostitution. Her articles on the commercial sex industry have been published in progressive media for over a decade, and in recent years she has organized several radical feminist political events in the United States and Canada. You can find Samantha Berg and her work at her website, genderberg.com, as well as at her newest blog, johnstompers.com.
The interview touches on an array of subjects, including what radical feminism is; how it differs from other forms of feminism; its perspective on capital, gender, race and class; issues such as prostitution and pornography; and how people can learn more and get involved.
Q: Definitions abound, but as an organizer and writer, you are undoubtedly most qualified to help a listener understand. What is radical feminism?
A: Well, it's many things, but, to keep this simple, radical feminism is women-centered feminism. And I do need the plural of women-centered feminism. Radical feminism is feminism where the oppression of women as a class is examined and challenged. This focus on systems is why radical feminists are also anti-war, anti-corporate control, anti-racist and for the protection of the environments that we share -- because these social ills have been identified as stemming from inequality, and those systems that sustain them require dismantling and replacing with less planet wrecking models. Applied to feminism specifically, radicals raise awareness about male pattern violence and they offer new solutions to that age-old epidemic.
Q: What inspired your involvement in radical feminism?
A: Well, I grew up in New York and, while living in Brooklyn, I started getting involved with grassroots citizens lobbying, especially alleviating the worst aspects of poverty. At that time, I began reading about feminism and [was] doing reproductive rights work. Like so many young women, I felt the injustices done to females, but I didn't organize my thoughts on it until reading radical feminism, specifically the works of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. In 2001, I moved from New York to Portland, Oregon, which is a city famous for its unconventional politics and robust prostitution industry, to put it mildly. I continued my poverty relief campaigning and my pro-choice activism, but eventually I had to align what I was learning about the sex industry in Portland with my burgeoning awareness about women's oppression globally. For political and personal integrity's sake, I had to reject prostitution from a feminist viewpoint, from an anti-corporate control over media viewpoint, and from a sexual health educator's viewpoint. And when I could no longer ignore the intrinsic cultural poison of men renting poverty stricken women's reproductive organs by the hour, that's when I stepped with both feet into radical feminism.
Q: How is radical feminism differentiated from other strains of feminism?
A: Essentially I believe it's the split that can often be found between any liberals and radicals on a number of social issues. I myself used to be a liberal, working within established systems for reform. I wrote letters to editors and politicians. I phone banked, collected signatures, all that do gooding stuff citizens are encouraged to do. And I still do many of those actions, but I know now that they alone cannot produce the meaningful change that we need. For example, Planned Parenthood is a vital community asset that I have volunteered for and support fully. Yet I also believe women's reproductive healthcare is a human right, and that right should be met by governments, and not private institutions. That to me signifies that split between liberals and radicals. The most poignant way I've heard the liberal/radical split defined is with a rushing river filled with drowning babies. You need somebody on the banks, pulling those babies out of the water, but you also need somebody who goes upstream and finds out who is throwing them in. I'm a radical feminist because I go upstream, while my liberal sisters tend to the immediate needs of patriarchy's victims.
Q: When people think about feminism, the conversation tends to focus on daily social relations where people rightfully point out individual sexism for example, but you're speaking about a cultural, political and human conceptions of social relationships. Is that accurate?
A: It is social relationships, but not on the one-to-one, not on the individual. Of course, it affects us individually, but it truly is about the systems of power, looking at the patterns that emerge and understanding that we are just cogs in that larger machine. I feel that all of us are just electrified water bags that our culture is poured into. We're just these bodies that our culture fills. And to not acknowledge the supremacy of our cultural environment, when trying to decide for ourselves internally what is right and what is wrong, is to miss abig chunk of the key behind what we think is right or wrong.
Q: How does radical feminism incorporate race and class into its analysis?
A: Most radical feminists that I'm familiar with are marginalized women in many ways. Myself personally I know many prostitution survivors, women who have survived sexual inequalities. Also, poverty, nationality and other institutionalized injustices, these all catalyze with femaleness to punish women and girls especially. I think women who have had the blows of multiple oppressions fall on them, if they survive, are better able to see how the wires on their cage conspire to trap them.
The Pacific Northwest is a very white region of the United States. And yet, because of racism's intersection with prostitution, I often work beside Native American women and Hispanic women -- despite their small numbers here. I also think this is why environmental organizations like Deep Green Resistance have a core base of radical feminists. I wise woman once said to me that working class women are overrepresented in grassroots environmentalism because they're the ones who have to rock the sick children to sleep. That stuck with me. It is the people who have been oppressed that see the oppression first. It sounds so simple, but it's pretty profound when you look at who makes up radical feminism.
Q: I want to ask about a subject that is controversial in some quarters: gender. How does radical feminism define gender?
A: Gender is an artificial hierarchy, structured between the binary division between men and women. There are categorizations of gender based on biological sex, but gender as we know it is a social phenomena rather than a biological one. Masculinity and femininity are defined differently in different times and places. The arbitrariness of gender can be seen, for instance, the way that pink used to be a boy's color and blue used to be for females. And then that reversed. So the very arbitrariness of gender points to its complete [reliance] on socialization. But sex is biological. Even though sex is biological, the vast majority of human interactions are socially dominant, and that's where gender lies.
Q: How do expressions and definitions of gender influence individuals and oppression?
A: It's hard for me to think of ways they don't. There was a recent news story about how storms named with female names are not taken as seriously by people as storms with male names, and people die over this. The difference is dramatic when it should be irrelevant. And if you've ever misgendered someone's pet dog or cat and they leap to correct you as if you've somehow slighted that animal's identity, then you know something of how irrationally pervasive gender is in our day to day lives. It seems to inform our every interaction and, in most cases, it shouldn't.
Q: I'm hoping we might look at more examples of oppression. How do you respond to the contention by some that prostitution is necessary in society, that the women should be considered sex workers and the state regulating prostitution protects everyone?
A: I would ask for whom is prostitution necessary. It's certainly not for the pimps, even though they control prostitution predominantly in every community that I've ever seen prostitution researched. It's not necessary for the johns, the men who pay for sex. It's a leisure activity. Playboy says it's entertainment for men. I think this is one form of men's entertainment that is just too destructive to accept. So I know johns don't need it, and the pimps don't need it. As far as the women needing it, I think it's a little perverse to say this thing, this social phenomena which causes women to be more raped and murdered than any other thing a woman can do is somehow good for them, it just defies all logic.
I would never call a woman a sex worker. I know some ask me to and, out of personal respect for them I will, but I don't call women sex workers any more than I would call women baby makers. For me, women are not to be reduced to the functions men would use them for. Women have their very existences defined by providing sexual and reproductive services to men and that, to me, is reflected in the term sex worker and reflected in the term baby maker.
Q: How do you respond to those who say prostitution and the larger sex industry is merely employment for people who have few opportunities, and those who pay prostitutes are receiving services?
A: Actually no one is raped or murdered more than prostituted women, so I defy the idea that it's good for them in any way. Not even homeless women or drug addicted women suffer the high mortality rate that prostituted women have. It is truly the prostitution that harms women more. The men who use the prostitutes are doing the harm more. Theoretically, affirming men's entitlement to abuse women's bodies any way they desire any time they want is pretty much the mission statement of rape culture. Theoretically, people who have jobs gain value as they gain experience and career knowledge, whereas people who are exploited lose value as they gain experiences and having their resources robbed from them. So it doesn't seem much like work to me I'd say. Not when a 30-year-old woman with 13 years of experience in prostitution does not have her job skills valued higher than a 13-year-old with no experience. And the fact is that what men are willing to pay for that 13-year-old versus the 30-year-old places prostitution out of work and into exploitation. Men are the capitalists behind the sex industry -- men like Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, Joe Francis of Girls Gone Wild, thousands of other pimps whose names will never reach public consciousness. In World War II, the Nazi concentration camps put the German phrase "Ar Bich Man Frei" over their entrances, and it means, "work will set you free." That's the same lie exploiters have been telling their victims forever. It's the lie of the American Dream, and it''s the lie that excuses capitalism's grotesque excesses.
Q: How do pornography, strip clubs and the like fit into this matrix of oppression we're discussing?
A: I myself see prostitution embodied in pornography, in stripping. They call them the sex industry for a reason, and it's a little strange to me how, if you work as a stripper or a pornography actress or a prostitute, you get called a sex worker, but in every other system I'm told these are completely different things. 'Prostitution is completely not pornography, it's completely not like stripping.' And yet they're all called sex workers and only johns relate to prostitution on the demand side. Only the johns. So there's something there with language we're not talking about, because I see johns as the consumers of all the sex industry's products. I think too often people get to used to see all the variations of the sex industry as distinctly different, because they're looking at it from the john's point of view. We've all been trained to look at prostitution and pornography and stripping through the john's point of view. And from the john's point of view, they are very different -- the experience, the sensation, what you pay for, how much you pay [are] all very different. But when you have a moment of clarity, when you can switch to the woman's point of view and see what she's going through, that when I get laypersons who have no idea about these things telling me, 'isn't pornography prostitution filmed?' And I say, 'yes it is.' Because for that speck of a moment, you are seeing it from her perspective instead of the john's perspective. It doesn't last long unfortunately. They go back. 'No, no, prostitution and pornography, totally different.' But every now and then, the woman's perspective on it breaks through, and that's where we need to keep going.
Q: And even the phrasing itself -- the sex industry. It's obviously not a sex industry.
A: Sex implies mutuality, and in prostitution there is no mutuality. There's no enthusiastic consent. Money is power in paper form. And that power changes what could be mutual sex into male masturbation with a usually female body.
Q: There are a number of public figures who stated they were involved in prostitution and thought it was liberating. But what are the realities of the industry?
A: Again, we see the split here between liberals, who rely on individualization to form their theories, and radicals, who inspect group patterns and prioritize the experience of the average group member, not the exceptional ones. The reality of prostitution is the body count. The reality is in Vancouver, Canada, two to seven percent of the population is First Nations indigenous, but 50 percent of the prostitutes are First Nations. It's the reality that the average age of entry for a girl into prostitution ranges from 12 to 14, depending on the country. Child brides and child prostitutes number in the millions. In the year 2014, that is our current reality.
Q: There's a perception in mainstream culture that women are making a choice and have power in these situations because they're making decisions to do what they're doing.
A: I'm happy to hear that case if someone wants to make it to me, but anybody who's tried so far hasn't presented the facts to convince me about that yet. They're welcome to try. I'm certainly open minded to change my mind.
If tomorrow, every prostitute-using man in the world stopped hurting the prostitutes they were with, stopped bilking them on money. If they did that, I would change my politics. The ball is in men's court now, and they can show me that they can have their prostitutes without hating them to death, I would change my mind. I don't think I'm going to do that. I don't think men can have their prostitutes without hating them to death.
Q: How can and should people be more active on the issues we have discussed?
A: As somebody who has been involved with radical feminism for many years and organizes radical feminists from around the world to come together and meet each other and work on issues, I have to say what they tell me. And what they tell me is how much their world changed when they read the radical feminist writings of Andrea Dworkin or Catherine MacKinnon or Sheila Jeffreys, some of the great radical feminists from the '70s and '80s, some of them with us still and some not. But their books have resonated and found themselves in the hands of the women who needed them. I have had prostitution survivors tell me that Andrea Dworkin saved their lives, made them feel no ashamed of what the johns did to them. If you want to go online and start looking at things, if reading a book by Andrea Dworkin isn't your thing, you can look up information about her online. Find quotes. Find which trail you want to follow down, because she's an amazing woman who spoke about many things. For me, the prostitution aspect is, of course, principle. But for other people, if you're interested in radical feminism, reading those primary texts is probably the best way to start. Then jump online. There are groups happening all over the place. We're everywhere.
Q: And there are radical feminists doing lots of political work, certainly on the issue of prostitution, on the issue of pornography. Could you give a sense of the diversity of activism?
A: Although I focus on prostitution and pornography specifically, my bailiwick is reducing the john demand for prostitution and pornography. My website is johnstompers.com, because I feel that if there are no rapists, there is no rape. That's how we solve this problem. Not everybody should be working on reducing demand. Some people have to work on other things. There are people who work on getting victims the services they need. The services that prostitution survivors need are so diverse; they don't need a little bit of counseling -- they need medical care, housing, employment, child care. They need so much help. Some of these women have been raped thousands of times, more times than they could ever count, starting from when they were children. That's a whole area that I don't work on, but I'm so grateful to the radical feminists that I know that do that counseling, that material resource getting for survivors.
Pornography is an entire issue that, if you're into media, that's your thing, you can take pornography on. There are so many ways, and so much sexism, there's a radical feminism for each form of sexism that happens.
Q: How can and should people be active on the issues we discussed?
A: Well, they can contact me, and I'll put them in contact into a place where there activist energies can be used. I'm happy to hook people up with colleagues who are seeking the same goals. Whether it's prostitution or pornographic media, or the daily sexual harassment that women and girls have to put up with in their own neighborhoods, whatever you want to do to help, there is a place for people to put their skills to use. It may take a little bit of finding to where your home is, but there is a place to work on these issues for everybody. And we need more people. We have not chanced upon the magical formula that's going to stop these things, so the more trial and error, the more different ways we try, maybe one day we'll reach that formula.
Q: And although it should be obvious, men should be acting in solidarity with this work.
A: They should. It's a little sad to me, having attended many, many conferences for both radical feminism and generally in feminism and women's issues. They are women's areas -- men don't go to these conferences. I turn around and look at the audience and there's a handful of men, usually some police officers or politician of sorts. But the sea of women comes out to me. Whether or not it's women-only or men-only or whatever conflagration you want, it is women who come to these conferences. It's women who pay attention to things, because they are the ones hurt most by it. And I do see men who care and who are stepping up, not just for the women in their lives, but for women generally. But we need more of them. I want to look out at the crowd of these conferences that I speak at and that I organize and I want to see a whole lot more than just five to 10 percent men in those audiences. That would be a great goal.
Q: And it would be important to be involved as a matter of human rights and liberation.
A: It's a little tricky because as well-meaning as somebody may be, I will be the first to recognize that I don't have the training or skills or equipment to take on pimps directly. Pimps frighten me. Police are for pimps, not social workers. So you need a little work at each level, but you need to recognize the limitations within each level. A social worker is not the police. A social worker cannot just go knock on that door and get that girl out of that brothel. Be realistic. I know we all want to charge out there and save the world, but you need to be realistic about your skills and what you can do. That's how you'll help women more.
Q: This speaks to the importance of working together toward some of these solutions, I would imagine.
A: It's a community problem and it's going to take a community solution. It took all sorts to get us into this mess, and it's going to take all sorts to get us out.
Q: Any closing thoughts you wish to share?
A: I never take my eye off men's demand, and that's just my thing and what I'm going to put out there. If there are no rapists, there are no rapes. I want to end the men who give pimps a reason to exist. Men who use women sexually in prostitution are the most socially accepted rapists, and I think we need to change that. Most people don't think of johns as rapists. Yet rape is coercion by definition. Whether that's physical coercion, chemical coercion, mental coercion or, in the case of prostitution, economic coercion, recognizing that coercion that makes it not as mutual sex but rape is primary for me. I'd like to always keep the johns, the demand, the cause of this mess, firmly in my sights.
Q: Finally I want to ask you about this matter of choice, and economic coercion.
A: Money is power. It is power in paper form. This is why we have laws against bribery and other laws that mitigate money, because it is a form of power. And it is not the physical crime of holding a woman down or chemically giving her a lot of alcohol or a rape drug. It's not even the mental coercion of 'ooh baby please, I need it, just the tip.' It's seeing through the capitalist lies that anything you can pay for has a right to be bought. That's so much harder, especially in the United States. Capitalism, ground zero. The U.S. of I. It's particularly challenging. Thank goodness Northern Europe is showing us how to do things with their Nordic model, criminalizing the johns and leaving the prostituted women alone. I'd like to see that happen more in the United States. I hope that before I pass from this planet that I do see more of that.
Q: You referenced the Nordic model. Before we go, could you explain what the Nordic model is?
A: What they did in Sweden in 1999 and it's since been exported to Norway and Finland and several other countries is to criminalize purchasing sex, but decriminalize selling sex. What this does is send the message that it is not okay to take advantage of somebody who is so poor that they have no other option but to let you personally invade their bodily integrity in order to eat, feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads. But it is not a crime to be so poor and desperate that you will do anything you have to do to to stay alive. You just can't take advantage of people. This Nordic model puts the power of the police into the women's hands.
Many people don't think about this. Because it does not criminalize the women, those women don't have to stop prostituting. Let's just say, theoretically, that a prostitute in Sweden has several johns who pay her and they're nice to her and they don't hurt her and they pay her well. She can keep that arrangement going until it stops working for her. But the minute one of those johns raises a hand, she can call the police. The minute one tries to stiff her on money, she can call the police. It's not my ideal that women would stay in prostitution. I see how harmful it is, and how women think they'll have a level of control that they do not have, but this is not a perfect world and it's not a perfect solution. But it's the best solution that we have so far. Criminalizing the men, decriminalizing the women. The research since 1999 has confirmed that. I haven't seen anything to change my mind that the Nordic model is truly the way to go if you want to reduce prostitution, reduce rape, reduce trafficking.