On being a feminist

Feminism, writes Tom Regan, is seeing the world in a different way, understanding that the traditional male point of view is not the only point of view. Photo by Nicole Pierce via Flickr, Creative Commons

Feminism, writes Tom Regan, is seeing the world in a different way, understanding that the traditional male point of view is not the only point of view. Photo by Nicole Pierce via Flickr, Creative Commons

November, 2014

What’s in a word?

A movement? A state of being? A political statement? A controversy? All the above?

Feminism would seem to be one of those words that fits all of the above categories, for a variety of reasons. Try to define who or what a feminist is and you invite instant debate. Is Camille Paglia a feminist? Not like Gloria Steinem is, that’s for sure. Is someone like Laura Bush a feminist? She might not necessarily describe herself as one but many of her words and actions would certainly move her into that category. 

Can a man call himself a feminist? Or is it a word that is gender specific?

Well, I’m always willing to take the tiger by the tail. I consider myself a feminist and have for many years. For me (and this is just for me – other people will have their own reasons that work for them) it is a mindset that pushes you to look beyond your gender, to look at problems in new ways that stretch your comfort zone. If I can borrow an image from pop culture, it means allowing yourself to be shot with Douglas Adams’ Point-of-View gun from A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy so you see the world through the eyes of the other.

I’ve been thinking about the word feminist for a couple of weeks now ever since some bright young media grunt at Time magazine thought it might be fun to include it on the list of words that “we” don’t want to use anymore. It was a move that smacked of a social media world where meaningful ideas that are older than five minutes, or not worthy of a quiz on Buzzfeed, are just seen as not worth tweeting about. So they need to just go away and not bother the digitalistas anymore.

But to me the idea of feminism, and being a feminist, is very much alive. And the need to adopt that mindset is needed more than ever. Let me give you an example. 

I recently read an article about the problem of prostitution in Sweden by Maria De Santis of the Women’s Justice Center in Santa Rosa, California. In Sweden it is illegal to buy sex, but not to sell it. The Swedish law on prostitution, which was enacted in 1999, states: “In Sweden prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem … gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them.” 

Which all seems very reasonable and well-founded logic. The hope was that by criminalizing the purchasing of sex, but not the selling of it, it would reduce prostitution and help more women leave the profession. But as De Santis points out, the first few years were anything but successful: police make very few arrests, prostitution remained strong and critics of the Swedish policy were basically wagging their fingers and saying “See it’s impossible to get rid of it.” 

Meanwhile other countries around the world were trying similar approaches, and they weren’t getting much better results. The University of London conducted a study for the government of Scotland, that looked at Sweden, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Australia, which had all taken various approaches to dealing with prostitution that reduced or eliminated criminalization. According to the study, all had been miserable failures.

However as De Santis notes, Sweden did not listen to its critics but decided to drill down and find out what the real problem was. And the main issue they uncovered was the attitude of the police, who were looking at the issue of prostitution from the traditional male point of view. What was needed was a new mindset. 

“In order to see prostitutes as victims of male coercion and violence it requires that a government first switch from seeing prostitution from the male point of view to the female point of view,” DeSantis wrote. “And most, if not virtually all, countries of the world still see prostitution and every other issue from a predominantly male point of view.”  

And so Sweden created programs to help police see prostitution from a woman’s point of view – I can’t think of anything more “feminist” than that. (Then again Sweden has long been a leader in recognizing and acting upon the rights of women – you can see this in the make up the Swedish Parliament which is 50 per cent women without the use of quotas.) 

And so what was the result of this change of mindset, of moving away from the male point of view to seeing the world in a new way? 

“In just five years Sweden has dramatically reduced the number of its women in prostitution. In the capital city of Stockholm the number of women in street prostitution has been reduced by two thirds, and the number of johns has been reduced by 80 per cent. There are other major Swedish cities where street prostitution has all but disappeared. Gone too, for the most part, are the renowned Swedish brothels and massage parlors which proliferated during the last three decades of the twentieth century when prostitution in Sweden was legal. 

“In addition, the number of foreign women now being trafficked into Sweden for sex is nil. The Swedish government estimates that in the last few years only 200 to 400 women and girls have been annually sex trafficked into Sweden, a figure that’s negligible compared to the 15,000 to 17,000 females yearly sex trafficked into neighboring Finland.” 

For me this is what it means to be a feminist. Making a difference in the world by seeing it in a different way. By understanding that the traditional male point of view is not the only point of view and that if we’re going to make the world a better place we need to move beyond the hyper-politicized meeting of words and embrace the ideas behind them. Ideas that challenge us to change the world. 

 Copyright Tom Regan 2014

Contact Tom Regan::  motnager@gmail.com

Tom HeadshotTom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board in Canada, and for the Christian Science MonitorNational Public Radio, and Boston Globe in the United States.

The former executive director of the Online News Association, he was  a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.









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