Reading group – Under Duress: Agency, Power and Consent

This is a summary of a reading group by the feminist group FEL* in Ghent, Belgium. We have monthly reading groups, each time around a different topic or author. Sometimes we read short pieces of books aloud together – we did most of Marilyn Frye’s The Politics of Reality this way and parts of Brownmiller’s Feminity – but usually people read articles in advance and then we discuss them. The discussion usually goes wildly off-topic and pretty often the session becomes more like a consciousness-raising (cr) group. Which is not a problem, we love it that way 🙂

This is a personal summary written by one person (Evie) – the other participants have read it and agreed to its publication. Personal (cr) details have been removed. The summary was published on the request of Lisa of the radtransfem blog.

* FEL is an acronym that stands for feminist and left, the word itself means “fierce”.

In the reading group of April 26th, 2012, we read texts of the blog The two chosen texts were the Under Duress: Agency, Power and Consent: “No and Yes texts and, optionally, the text The Ethical Prude: imagining an authentic sex-negative feminism”.

Most people really liked the texts. For some the yes and no texts were an eye-opener, some more experienced feminists already knew those ideas quite well but then really liked the ethical prude text.

The conflict between an agency view and a more structural view is something we experience in every facet of feminism. One of us is doing research about Muslim women and resistance, and there the concept of agency was very important because a lot of criticism from e.g. western men never gives Muslim women any agency – they see them as simply passive victims under patriarchal rule – but in reality there are many feminist organisations in several Muslim countries. And if we discuss about porn culture or prostitution or practically anything, there’s always this same debate, which is often way too simplified to take the complex reality into account and, as described in the texts, often leads to fights / misunderstandings. “I choose it myself” seems powerful but it ignores the effects of the system(s) of oppression we have to live under.

After some discussion there was a lot more understanding of the radical feminist point of view. Personally, I’m not sure if radical feminism is simply complementary with agency feminism or actually encompasses it – taking the individual power to act into account and also the structural forces that exert pressure on us. More of a “next step” in feminism, but maybe i’m just not seeing clearly ‘cause i’m a big fan of radical feminism – except of course the trans hatred strands of it.
See e.g.

In Belgium, recently there has been a lot of news in the media about sexual intimidation – we have our own local DSK / Polanski affairs. The good news is that there are a lot of women now coming forward and telling their stories of abuse, sexual intimidation, rape… But whether that will lead to lasting change remains to be seen. We have a very right-wing government now.

The group had differing points of view on how to solve or help solve the problem of violence. For example: is it good that many women come forward and tell their stories in public, how is that different from e.g. a government or tabloid publishing names and pictures of rapists. Most of us do feel there is a big difference when victims/survivors speak out, but the thought of the government publishing things like this do frighten us. Many of us don’t trust the government and mainstream media, with good reason.

The same with taking the matters into your own hands: what would the effect be of, say, women fighting back and perhaps in group attacking men that have raped them. Would that reduce rape or cause even more violence against women? In India for example there is a “Gulabi Gang”, women armed with wooden sticks who confront men who abuse women. [Update: apparently this group is hugely successful and also focuses on social reforms]

Some of us felt unease at the thought of organizing like this, but on the other hand how else will we solve the problems, because right now the legal system doesn’t work at all. About 1 in 9 women dares to go to the police after an assault, and less than 5 % of the cases ever end in a conviction. Conviction still often means that the perpetrator can walk around free. Rapists in prison do not receive therapy; decent education in schools about these matters is pretty much nonexistent.

We also had a lot of more personal stories, our reading group often turns into a sort of consciousness raising group. There were a lot of – sometimes hilarious sometimes sad – stories about boundaries and problems, talking about consent, how awkward it can get, how great it feels when it works out. This ended with a discussion about how to do consent practically, which is still a difficult area. Personal note: for me, the book Just Sex: Students Rewrite the Rules on Sex, Violence, Activism, and Equality was a very interesting read and the first time i read about explicit verbal consent – there is a college in the US that has this rule inscribed in the school rules (sorry, my English is failing me a bit here).

About the ethical prude: a very courageous text and another thing some of us feel is wrong with the slut walks: slut is one of those patriarchal words, but nobody talks about reclaiming the prude or something like that. Would many people show up on a prudemarch? Slut, though it carries a lot of negative values with it, feels somehow cooler/more acceptable in many circles.

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