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What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism Paperback – 1 Aug 2017
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About the Author
Ella Whelan is the assistant editor at spiked. She frequently features as a political commentator on TV and radio, specialising in the relationship between free speech, feminism and women's liberation.
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Whelan’s book, unfortunately, does these arguments no favour at all. It is dressed up in the language of theoretical debate (the targets of her vitriol are not only other journalists, popular writers and politicians but serious academics such as MacKinnon and Dworkin) whereas it is in reality a flimsy polemic. The author sets up straw figures in the guise of ‘feminists’ (as if everyone who claims that label thinks the same), which she depicts in terms of simplification to the point of parody in order to be able to knock them down. Any argument or call for change with which she disagrees she calls ‘feminism’, while those with which she agrees she calls ‘women’s liberation’, thus enabling her maintain her line that All Feminism Is Bad. Where there are women’s issues that Whelan thinks worth fighting for – access to free, legal abortion, for instance, and state-provided childcare – these issues are defined as liberation, and not as feminist causes. ‘Abortion,’ she asserts (p.51) ‘is one of those areas which feminists don’t seem too keen to touch.’ Say, what? Tell that to Sally Sheldon or Reva Siegel or Dorothy Roberts – or the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
This sleight of hand I might have put up with as merely rhetorical game-playing, had the book not been not riddled with significant errors, and many of its arguments fundamentally flawed.
In the Introduction (p. 14), Whelan refutes the notion that ‘to be anti-feminist is to be anti-equality’. Yet anti-equality is exactly what she appears to be. In Chapter 1 she bemoans the fact that ‘women are now seen as a protected group under the law – which inherently means that they’re not equal to men’ (p. 24). This demonstrates a complete ignorance of the fundamental principles of European and UK anti-discrimination legislation. Under the Equality Act 2010 it is precisely by being accorded the status of ‘protected characteristic’ (whether defined by sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or any other listed factor) that categories of persons are given the right to equality under the law. No protected status, no equality. Nor is this protected status something new: it has been thus, as far as women are concerned, since the Sex Discrimination Act was first enacted in 1975. Is Whelan really saying that women should no longer be protected by equality law?
At several key points in the book, Whelan asserts that free speech is an absolute, unqualified right. ‘If free speech is to be genuinely free,’ she insists, ‘it must be absolute, with no ifs or buts. If it’s not absolute, then it’s not free speech…’ (p. 30). Again, such assertions reveal a fundamental lack of understanding of the legal guarantee of free speech and indeed of human rights law in general. Freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights is a ‘qualified’ right – that is, it is protected only so far as its exercise does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others. To say that free speech is absolute is clearly nonsense. Are we free, as theoreticians always ask, to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre? To stand behind the would-be suicide on the ledge and tell her that she’s worthless and should jump? To groom a child online for sex? What about the law of defamation? Of fraud, of blackmail, of conspiracy and incitement in the criminal law? What about threats of violence? And that’s without contemporary laws which now proscribe incitement to racial and religious hatred. Difficult areas all, with fine lines to be drawn between protection and autonomy, and tricky balances struck – nuances entirely denied by Whelan’s simplistic, black-and-white world view.
A number of key arguments throughout the book are based on, or supported by, factual inaccuracies. In Chapter 1, for instance, Whelan claims that the Nottinghamshire police have made ‘misoygyny a crime’ and that men ‘are now at risk of criminalisation for saying a duff line, or cat-calling someone in the street’ (pp. 23-24). This is incorrect on so many levels. For a start, neither the Nottinghamshire police nor any other constabulary has power to change the criminal law. So-called ‘hate crime’ is not a free-standing offence in its own right; rather, any existing crime (such as assault or GBH, criminal damage or threatening behaviour) will be treated as aggravated and may receive a harsher penalty where it is motivated by hatred of a particular group. The relevant factors include nationality, race and religion (Crime and Disorder Act 1998, ss. 28-32), sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity (Criminal Justice Act 2003, s. 146) – but not yet sex.
In Chapter 3, Whelan makes much of a Californian law, passed in 2014, which, according to her, defines all sexual intercourse as rape unless the other person has specifically verbalised their agreement before the event. ‘This means,’ she states, ‘that, legally, someone who has not acquired affirmative consent – that is got the other person to say, ‘Yes, I’m into this’, out loud, before any action – is a potential rapist’ (p. 65). In fact, the reality is far from this absurd caricature. The law in question (Senate Bill No. 967, chapter 748) requires the governing boards of all state-funded universities and colleges to adopt, in their policies concerning sexual assault, a standard of affirmative consent, defined as being ‘conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity’ which ‘must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time’. This does not, as Whelan might have us believe, mean that the other party to the activity must be repeatedly calling out ‘yes’ throughout the encounter (though wouldn’t it be nice if that were always so!). It is clear that affirmative consent can be indicated either by words or by actions: see for example the similar law adopted by New York State in 2015 which specifies that affirmative consent ‘can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity.’ Does Whelan really have a problem with university authorities treating as rape an act of intercourse during which one party offered no indication whatsoever, by either sounds or movements, that she was a willing participant in what was going on?
The final point at which I take issue with Whelan is in Chapter 4 where she claims to debunk the gender pay gap as being a ‘myth’. And why exactly, does she claim that the well-documented disparity between men’s and women’s pay is a mere chimera? Because, she says, the statistics are based on average pay. When, she says, you compare like for like, discounting for different hours and grades and levels of skill and experience, women earn just as much as their male counterparts. In fact, she says, ‘when you think about it, the idea that employers would pay women lower wages for the same work makes no sense’ (p. 73). Well, indeed – since it has been unlawful for them to do so in this country since 1975! The whole point of the (all too real) gender pay gap is that it measures not unlawful discrimination whereby women are paid less than men for work of equal value, but rather the tenacious social, economic, cultural and institutional factors which hold women back from progressing in their careers – from working the same hours as their male colleagues, or reaching the same grades or levels of skill and experience. Those are the barriers which feminists seek to address when they talk about the workplace gender deficit or the glass ceiling, barriers which might be different from plain, old-fashioned discrimination but are none the less real for that – and certainly no ‘myth’.
It saddens me that Ella Whelan, who in fact has many good points to make, so often destroys her own case by lack of simple fact-checking, and by arguments which are ill-informed and reductive. The book treats as oh-so-simple issues which in reality are complex and muddy – and not susceptible to Whelan’s brand of easy answer.