On the Feministing ableism debate

Feministing has recently come under fire for ableism, classism, transphobia and sizeism, and they are discussing the problem with several bloggers. Open Letter to Feministing is a good place to follow links and get the backstory in more detail, but basically: authors and commenters at Feministing have made a lot of remarks over the years that act as slaps in the face to people with disabilities, people in lower socioeconomic classes, transgender people and women who aren’t an exact certain size deemed acceptable. It’s hopeful that the authors are talking to people like Anna about it, but Feministing has a lot more fans than detractors. It’s hard to see your flaws when you’re surrounded by admirers, so I decided both to co-sign the Open Letter and write a post to add to the public support for Anna’s position.

To me, the problem seems to be two-fold: the authors themselves need more education so they can represent a view of feminism that doesn’t apply strictly to middle class white women concerned about bettering their own lot, and the authors are going to have to decide whether they want the billions of comments and the ad-based income that happens when you allow people to make exclusionary remarks without moderation, or whether they want to include all women in their allegedly feminist mission.

It’s okay to only be concerned about bettering your own lot, as long as you harm no one else in the process. But it’s not feminist if it’s just for some women. And you harm the cause of equality whenever you act in its name, but exclude many people.

I certainly have been guilty of that before, myself. In a bigoted society, it’s impossible not to be a bigot. It’s only possible to work continuously on overcoming the bigotry, and as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not sure you can ever sit back, thinking, “I’m done.”

The Open Letter leaves a couple of things out does not cover all the problems at Feministing, and wasn’t meant to. I quit reading Feministing some time ago because of the above-mentioned but also because I don’t think these people have one solitary clue that:

  1. Some of us were abused as children, or came from dysfunctional homes where we were not targeted for abuse but suffered nonetheless, and we probably didn’t share the experiences you think everyone had.
  2. Asexuals and celibates exist, and they are not just the twisted products of Puritan prudishness.

Take for example, this recent article, “Why Stay a Virgin?” (title suggests a bias right there, doncha think?):

Regardless of the methodology of the survey, I am not opposed to people remaining virgins until they are married, or until they are out of college. I DO have a problem with is some of the reasons stated in the article for why people decide not to have sex:

“I’m not embarrassed by my decision to be a virgin,” Eskridge said. “When you have sex with someone, you’re giving a big part of yourself to them.”

Giving away a big part of yourself to your partner?  I don’t think that ones worth or value  is dependant on if you have or have not had sex, and you having sex doesn’t mean that you give anything up.

[Grammatical and spelling errors intact from original article.]

The author assumes Eskridge is basing her view on some prudish ideas about female sexuality, but that’s only one possibility. Astute observations about life on planet earth are another possibility. Some people watch friends dive into sex they aren’t ready for and end up horribly depressed. Some watch friends get into emotionally abusive sexual relationships that suck the life out of them. Either of these observations could lead a person to conclude (rightly, wrongly or somewhere in between) that sex is “giving up a big part of yourself to a partner.” Additionally, some people have been molested (or narrowly escaped being molested) as children and learn to guard their sexuality jealously – not as Daddy’s property to be sold to Hubby, but as their own property which someone has previously stolen (or attempted to steal). You can debate the nuances of these statements all day long, but you need to respect the view as potentially legitimate in the context from which the viewer is operating.

And yet another possibility is that this person is simply asexual (but probably hasn’t quite worked that out yet because no one ever talks about it), and for her, having sex could be perceived as giving something up because it’s not her orientation.

Feministing seems to assume everyone is “normal”, defining “normal” as something out of Leave it to Beaver. Applying this attitude to the above example, the quoted young woman must have the same urges for sex that the author experiences and be repressing them out of some misguided lack of feminist empowerment. If you open your mind to include the possibility that she’s struggling with something “abnormal” about herself, which doesn’t conform to the world’s narrow stupid view and therefore doesn’t come with an easy script for her to memorize, suddenly the possibilities open up.


  1. Mel says

    I agree–there’s a lot of judgment there of women for not being sexual in a certain way. I have issues with the “you’re oppressed and your lover is selfish if you don’t have lots of non-mechanically-assisted orgasms during partner sex” tendency for reasons which trend into TMI territory but come down to my belief that orgasm-centric sex is not the only kind of good sex.

  2. Anemone says

    I don’t pay much attention to mainstream feminist sites/blogs. I think I checked out Feministing a long time ago and simply didn’t see anything that resonated with me. Many of those sites do come across as privileged. The Change.org women’s rights blog strikes me that way as well. Also, they seem rather unfocussed to me. I like sites that focus on a single issue, like this one, better.

    I hope Feministing sorts its problems out, since it would probably be a good idea for it to be more inclusive. I think it’s easier to be inclusive when your core members are more diverse.

    In the meantime, I’m rehearsing vocabulary alternatives to “crazy”. I gather not everyone thinks the word has positive connotations.

  3. says

    Mel, that’s a great example. It’s just as oppressive to insist that women demand one particular thing from partners as to insist they demand nothing.

    Anemone, I’m hopeful too, because Feministing is popular, and I’d like to see it represent feminism as well as it can. LOL about “crazy.” I like to use terms like “weird” and “freak” as complimentary (I was a “weird freak” as a child according to average people, and I take pride in it) but that’s, uh, not how everyone takes those terms. :)

  4. says

    Great point about the lack of perspective when it comes to different experiences at Feministing.

    With all due respect, though, and I do appreciate that you helped boost the signal, you said I “leave a few things out,” and I would quibble with that. My goal was to address a specific facet of the problems at Feministing, specifically ableism, not to discuss all of the problems at that site. (I would have needed quite a few more words to do that.)

    I agree that their coverage of sexuality is problematic; as is their coverage of trans issues and class issues. I can’t fight every fight at once, though, which is why I kept the focus of my letter on ableism.

  5. says

    You definitely raise some *very important* points, though, and those are points which should be brought up with Feministing for sure. Again. And there’s also a level of intersectionality with those issues and ableism which can’t be ignored; I haven’t been happy with their coverage of sexuality and “normal” for a long time because, like you, I don’t fit into their neat little boxes.

  6. Firebird says

    With respect to the example quoted above, I would suggest the problem is that the author is assuming the interviewee is coming from a religious conservative viewpoint and responding with reflex disgust to that, primarily because that phrase “giving up a part of myself” is one that is used with religious abstinence programs. It leads me to wonder how much of the problem has to do with critical thinking.

    In any case, this site [Hathor] led me quite sanely out of my own hyper-religious conservative sexist background and would not have done so if not in large part for a very carefully tended approach including critical thinking and wide acceptance and not giving in to the kind of reflex vitriol that can be so easy when one is disgusted with the behaviour of one’s philosphical opponents. For that I am very grateful, primarily to Jenn, because I would perhaps not have gotten here if Hathor were as Feministing is being described.

    Just because someone has experienced oppression doesn’t make them instantly capable of empathy. Just because someone is passionate about change doesn’t make them capable of critical thinking. Just because someone is angry doesn’t make them humble. :-)


  7. says

    I would suggest the problem is that the author is assuming the interviewee is coming from a religious conservative viewpoint and responding with reflex disgust to that, primarily because that phrase “giving up a part of myself” is one that is used with religious abstinence programs.

    Probably so – that was my first thought for the source, too. But even if that is where she got it, some kids get that teaching and rebel against it. I can’t assume she’s embracing it only because she was brainwashed – it’s also quite possible she has reasons of her own.

    Also, while I would disagree that sex means giving part of yourself up to a partner, it does mean making yourself vulnerable to a partner. Even a casual encounter risks, at the very least, ridicule or an insensitive remark. The flipside of what that article suggests is: why rush it? The article suggests there’s nothing to be gained by waiting, but OTOH is there anything to be lost by it?

  8. Patrick J McGraw says

    That virginity article was really bad in its universals. As Jennifer noted, there’s the assumption that one has a choice in the matter – the blind privilege of those who have never been sexually assaulted.

    Dismissing other people’s feelings about “giving up a part of themselves” is also pretty heinous. Get this through your heads, people: What is true for your experience is not necessarily true for anyone else’s experience. For some people, sex is just a physical act. For others, it is an intensely emotional act. That doesn’t make them wrong.

  9. Chris says

    Thank *you* for saying that nobody (male or female) should feel obligated to enjoy sex/be in a relationship/whatever.


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