Extremist Feminism in Swedish government: Something Dark

At an event at the British Academy in London the other day I used the term Extremist Feminism to describe the sort that convicted a man for buying sex in Sweden although evidence was lacking to show he had bought it, on the ground that he should have known that someone must have paid. The court assumed the female playmates in a hotel room to be prostitutes because of their appearance and their foreign-accented English. Dismal stereotyping of women going on there – not so different from the comment about disreputable women made with impunity by a hotel magnate in Luxor. Extremist also describes feminists who evaluated the sex-buying law without doing any actual investigation but declared it a success on purely ideological principles. And who then proceeded to propose increased penalties for clients convicted. Extremism means assuming men have bad intentions towards women and seeing their sexualities, and in fact their bodies themselves, as inherently exploitative. Others have used extremist to refer to man-haters like Valerie Solanas, author of SCUM Manifesto, and people throw around ruder terms like feminazi. But I prefer not to sound like someone trying to discredit all sorts of feminism.

I usually use the term fundamentalist feminism, referring to a stream of feminism that wants to go back ‘to the roots’, by which they mean early 1960s universalist feminism, the idea that Woman can be known through a biologically female body and Women are all ultimately alike. Authoritarian Feminism is another possible term, this time putting emphasis on the tendency of fundamentalists to decree that their view is the only correct one and must be followed by everyone. Theory calling itself radical feminism in the 1960s has moved in a direction Orwell might have called Big Sister Feminism, where no disagreement is brooked. This particular feminism happens to hold power in Swedish government bureaucracy. It is State Feminism (coming from government employees empowered to set policy on women and gender), but there is no reason why State Feminism should have to be extremist; this is just how history has played out in Sweden. This view of women and men exists in every country I have lived in, and that is quite a few. And my, how many extremist feminists wish it would play out the same way in their countries! Here is the review of the BA event from Something Dark, in which government attempts to censor and silence were discussed in detail.

‘Sex and Regulation’: seminar focuses on the excesses of the state, media and lobbyists

3 Febrary 2011, Something Dark

A UK academic organisation, the Onscenity* research network, hosted a seminar at the British Academy, London, on 1 February to draw attention to increasing state regulation of sex in relation to media, labour and the internet.

Julian Petley, professor of screen media and journalism at London’s Brunel University, chaired the seminar, and introduced it with his own presentation, “Censoring the image”. Petley is a veteran advocate of free speech, and he once again demonstrated his detailed grasp of a broad range of censorship and free speech issues in the United Kingdom.

Petley began his delivery with the sobering declaration that there were many UK laws limiting freedom of speech; he then tabled an overview of these laws, their history and their socio–legal impact today. He drew particular attention to the evolution and problems of the Obscene Publications Act (OPA), various child protection laws, and the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act (CJIA) 2008.

He pointed to how the typology of child sexual abuse imagery adopted by the UK legal system regarding the mildest category, “level 1” – which refers to “images depicting erotic posing with no sexual activity” – had led to “controversy”, for example, by allowing for “police bullying” of galleries exhibiting the work of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe [see the feature articles concerning Mapplethorpe from page 28 in SomethingDark webmagazine issue 1, beginning with “Twenty years later: Mapplethorpe, art and politics”; see also our Latest News entry of 9 July 2010, “Further viewing – the art of Robert Mapplethorpe”].

Regarding the CJIA 2008, specifically the sections criminalising simple possession of “extreme pornographic material”, Petley repeated the oft-quoted charge of critical specialists by stating the law was so vague and subjective that it is impossible for anyone to know whether a great body of material will be regarded as illegal or not. He summarised the approach of regulators as one that tends to “collapse” the offensive into the harmful, “as if being offended is the same as being harmed”.

The first speaker, Martin Barker, professor of film and television studies at Aberystwyth University, in his presentation “The problems of speaking about porn”, outlined the difficulties faced by individuals, including academic researchers, in dealing with themes of sex and pornography due to the stigma often attached to critics of heavy-handed regulation by the advocates of such regulation.

Barker referred to “the politics of disgust” and summarised the results of a survey he had conducted on print media coverage of issues concerning pornography. He said tabloid press coverage of “pornography” had increased since 2000 but had fluctuated within this trend, and consisted of two attitudes: (a) a “prurient fascination”; and, (b) an exaggerated morality that proclaimed certain categories of sexually oriented material as kinky and unacceptable.

Revealingly, Barker spent more time on broadsheet coverage, particularly on a steady increase in their use of the term “porn” as a metaphor with a range of negative connotations. He maintained the evidence suggested that the individual and subjective, emotional response of disgust automatically authorises commentators to adopt a simplified, morally superior position when dealing with complex issues such as pornography, and that “the politics of disgust” was driving public discourse and regulation.

Yaman Akdeniz, formerly at the University of Leeds but now an associate professor of law at Istanbul Bilgi University, outlined his work in legal campaigns to reduce the growing censorship of the internet by the Turkish state. He emphasised his concern at the potential for a “domino effect” that would see developing countries seize upon internet- and website-blocking policies, either already implemented or proposed, in developed Western countries such as the United Kingdom, the European Union and Australia as justification for furthering their own, already relatively severe, censorship of the internet.

Turning his attention to the case being made for restricting internet access in the Western world, Akdeniz stressed the increasing prominence of arguments claiming that child protection demanded more robust, state-enforced internet regulation and censorship that targets all forms of sexual content, not just child abuse material. He cited an article in the Guardian newspaper from December to illustrate the pro-censorship argument being furthered in the United Kingdom, in this case as advocated by the UK parliamentary under-secretary of state for culture, communications and creative industries, Ed Vaizey.

Laura Agustín, a consultant anthropologist and author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (2007), focussed on attempts to regulate sexuality and society based on exaggerated claims regarding the extent of human trafficking in the international sex industry. She had recently counselled lawyers for Julian Assange of Wikileaks notoriety, who sought her advice on Swedish rape law in preparing their client’s defence against extradition to Sweden. Agustín, who has lived and worked in Sweden, criticised “state feminism” in the Scandinavian country, describing it as “extremism” that “has gone too far”. She went on to discuss Sweden’s “sex purchase law”, which criminalises those who pay for sexual services – a law that, using unsound and concocted, ideologically driven research, was last July evaluated by the Swedish government as having significantly reduced prostitution and prevented trafficking. It is a law that has been marketed with some success to other countries, including the United Kingdom.

Agustín narrated her experience as a panelist at the BBC World Debate Can Human Trafficking Be Stopped?, held in Luxor, Egypt, on 12 December 2010, which she likened to a “religious revivalism” meeting for “the rescue industry”. This industry, she maintained, bases much of its fervour on enthusiastically publicised – but bogus – statistics on the numbers of trafficked women. She emphasised the fact that sound and genuine research on the subject does not exist, but this does not deter the rescue industry from what is, in effect, a misguided and unrealistic attempt to eradicate prostitution globally, with damaging social consequences at ground level in individual countries [see Laura Agustín’s blog entry, “BBC World Debate on Trafficking Online: Sex, lies and videotaping”].

Clarissa Smith, senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Sunderland, rounded off the seminar with a summary of the issues and the work that lies ahead in contributing towards the realisation of a more mature society.

Onscenity is a research network dedicated to developing new approaches to the relationships between sex, commerce, media and technology. It draws on the work of leading scholars from around the world and is working to map a transformed landscape of sexual practices and to coordinate a new wave of research in relevant fields. The body was founded in 2009 with funding from the UK Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). “Sex and Regulation” was Onscenity’s second seminar.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

25 thoughts on “Extremist Feminism in Swedish government: Something Dark

  1. Dick

    The only valid numbers concerning sex-trafficking is the different national police-statistic over trafficking cases. According to the Trafficking in persons report (2010) – which in other circumstances claims huge numbers of sex trafficking victims – the average number in 100 000 inhabitants in Europe is 0.24. It’s a bit problematic to compare that number with other crimes, which mostly are declared in how many reports there are. But even if we multiply the actual 0.24 ten times (in Sweden about a tenth part of all reports of sex-trafficking end up in the court), the figure is very small compared to other crimes. For the sake of Sweden we for example have 927 cases of battering in 100 000 inhabitants, 64 cases of rape, 5947 cases of burglary/robbery and 1062 cases of fraud. If one compare those figures with the possible figure of 2.4, so, in reality, one sees that sex trafficking at an international level is a rare crime. But the real and only existing trafficking industry – that is the “rescuing industry” – gets enormous sums of money. Here in Sweden, for example, the government 2008 did put aside 21 million Euro “to fight prostitution and sex trafficking” but 2009 the police couldn’t find one case that went all the way to the court! And even if I personally have reported those figures to EU commissioner Cecilia Malmström she continues to claim hundreds of thousands of sex trafficking victims in Europe every year. Although absolutely no scientific or empirical evidences for such unrealistic figures exist at all.

    And what’s more, even though it is well known that other types of trafficking are much more common than sex trafficking, lesser than a tenth part of all reported trafficking cases in Europe are of another type than sex trafficking, which shows that it’s not politically interesting to protect other victims than those few that are trafficked for sexual purposes. And the only reason for that is that the radical feminists, politicians and other moral groups can take advantage from it. And how many have seen any paper writing about other forms of trafficking than sex trafficking in comparable numbers? Here in Sweden it hardly exist any news about it at all – but a lot of reports about claimed “sex trafficking”. So even the medias take advantage of it and are not interested in reporting this in a balanced and neutral way.

  2. Maggie McNeill

    Dick, I’d be grateful if you’d send me links or PDF copies of those reports; I’d love to use them against the “sex trafficking” extremists we have in America!

  3. asehpe

    Laura — and Dick — what I find curious about this particular figure manipulation (or rather simple lack of attention to any figures there might be) is that it happens in a country that has always prided itself of taking the most advanced social/scientific approaches to the solution of social problems — a country in which things deemed unspeakable or laughable in other countries could be safely tried and shown to work.

    Yet we see the same kind of behavior there as we see in other countries with respect to whatever a dominant social group doesn’t like. How can this be?

    Either you’d have to assume that Swedish society is actually quite coherent — the overwhelming majority either agrees with, or doesn’t care about, the actual extent of the problem of sex trafficking. If the former is true, then there must be — despite all the PR to the contrary — some very conservative rather than progressive traits in Swedish society, since they apparently accept, from the radfem sprectrum of ideas, precisely those which agree with age-old sexual/gender stereotypes (‘woman the lamb’, ‘man the wolf’, women as helpless beings in need of help, men as aggressive beings in need of containment). If the latter is true, then there is a certain level of social apathy — ‘we don’t care’ — in Sweden that again doesn’t agree with all that has been said about this country.

    I don’t know what to think. Once I was part of an education and research project among Amazonian Indians that was paid by the Regnskogfondet, the Norwegian Rainforest Foundation. The money for the project had been freely donated by Norwegian highschool students, who collected the money with the hope of helping the situation of indigenous peoples in an area of the world very far away from their home and which had nothing to do with the kind of reality they lived in.

    Of course Norway isn’t Sweden; but their histories and social systems are sufficiently close for me to ask: how come they are so willing to hear about the suffering of others and help them, but then won’t heed what sex workers in their own country say about their situation?

    Maybe the reason is that activism in the absence of reflection, self-criticism, humility, always ends up doning arrogant features; even if it starts out as the very opposite of arrogance. Once you think you “know everything”, you tend towards arrogance. And maybe Scandinavian countries have had so many clear successes on the social front, they now think they can’t possibly be wrong.

    I say “Scandinavian countries”, not simply Scandinavian radfems, because of the place that radfems have found in the Swedish (and apparently Scandinavian) system. They couldn’t possibly have gotten there without the assistance of others. They can’t possibly succeed in “silencing other voices” and having so many in Sweden agree with their viewpoints without the help, active or passive, of others. And that is what I would like to understand: how this happened, and how people with such obviously relevant arguments like Ms Agustín here simply don’t seem to have an impact.

  4. asehpe

    Ms, Agustín, I have a question for you. You said (or so this report claims) that “sound and genuine research on the subject [sex trafficking] does not exist”. In your opinion, why is it so? It shouldn’t be more difficult to get funding for a really good and methodologically sound study on sex trafficking — not any more difficult than it is to get funds for studies on other cultural topics. In fact, given the relevance that trafficking activists want to give to the topic, more funding for this kind of studies should be available than for other topics, deemed less important or less urgent. So, how come there really is no sound and genuine research on the subject? It can’t be for lack of interested researchers; I’m sure there are good specialists (like yourself) who would be able to conduct such studies in an impartial manner. Why aren’t they doing that? Is it because the “rescue industry” is absorbing these resources and excluding others from getting them? Or is there some other reason?

  5. Laura Agustín

    I do think i have written about this last issue quite a bit. There are indeed many scholars in migration studies who research undocumented migration – how it happens, who is involved, what people think as they are doing it. there are now several researchers working with smugglers themselves. but no one – that is pretty much an absolute – CAN have correct figures, since the people involved are operating in the informal economy. undocumented migrants don’t register at the border or with any official bodies and workers without papers also aren’t registered anywhere. therefore, everyone is estimating and guessing, and they do that from their various subject positions. the police are usually the ones asked to estimate, and of course their point of view is biased towards believing crime to be rising all the time.

    i have indeed done research with undocumented migrants, and have met people who were genuinely exploited and abused and rescued into shelters. it is sound research but it is not about statistics.

    there has been pretty endless acknowledgement of this problem for ten years, from all sides.

  6. asehpe

    Well, then at least the fact that numbers are mentioned by the rescue industry as being acknowledged truth should be challenged by these researchers, right? The absence of a consensus on the number of trafficked people shouldn’t be hidden or left aside when numbers are used as arguments on how important the problem is. At least the serious researchers should (as you do yourself) be out there protesting against this use of numbers that they themselves don’t agree on — shouldn’t they?

  7. laura agustin Post author

    i don’t know where you are or which press you look at but assure you that there is never-ending protest from researchers about the exaggerated numbers. there have been radio programmes and guardian exposes in the uk, and i know of debunking articles in numerous other countries. the effect is pretty much nil, however, which has led many to understand that this anti-slavery movement is impervious to such arguments. something else is going on, and it isn’t about rationality.

  8. asehpe

    I’m in a different field (linguistics), so I don’t know much about what is going on in these areas, other than what I hear and read in the media and in blogs like yours.

    What you say does make it sound mysterious. Maybe the anti-sex part of our culture is sufficiently entrenched to make people simply not believe in such protests?

    This does remind me of the creationism-evolution ‘debate’, in which, despite the clear consensus of pretty much every single serious researcher on the topic that evolution is a fact, plus endless articles, videos, radio and TV programs, etc. debunking creationist ‘arguments’, still an important — and apparently growing — fraction of the general population simply does not accept them. People like Prof. Dawkins are apparently not enough, despite the weight of their well-researcher arguments, to convince people like Bill O’Reilly and his viewers. Even in Europe and Australia creationism seems to be on the rise. Could the imperviousness to protest and criticism from researchers about exaggerated trafficking numbers be an example of a similar phenomenon?

  9. Laura Agustín

    probably there is an ahistorical human tendency towards comforting simplification of complex issues. our present zeitgeist shows a clear move towards fundamentalisms of all kinds, including in feminism. the anti-slavery movement, which is what the anti-trafficking movement has become, is only one example of all this – coupled with an antipathy to academicians and scientists, to arguments about facts and figures.

  10. Kris

    I’m researching the Dutch sex industry for 6 years now. I think I have found a clue about the numbers.

    I compared characteristics (nationality, age) of prostitutes in the Netherlands in general by looking at a forum where clients post reviews about their visits to prostitutes. Then you can compare this information to characteristics of forced prostitutes mainly retrieved from Comensha (the Dutch foundation against trafficking in women). It seems that forced prostitution happens among certain groups of prostitutes in the Netherlands. For instance: young Dutch window prostitutes, or young Eastern European prostitutes mainly from Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. It also involves prostitutes from Nigeria.

  11. Andrés Lekanger

    That courtcase you mentioned, kind of reminds me of a casein New York in the 1930`s.
    In the 1920 Nwe York was quite liberal when it came to at least tolerating homosexuals. Then in came The Great Depression, and tough anti-sodomy laws.
    – Resulting, among other cases, a couple of male friends being accused of bing homosexual, on the basis that they were heard speaking about opera.

    Showing thees anti-sodomy laws (like the Nordic criminalization of the act of buying sex, and like you show in your text) wasn`t about homosexuality, but about how “real men” should behave in general.

  12. Laura Agustín

    I have the feeling that ‘progress’ isn’t the way to think about this stuff – it is so easy to find stories from the past that are just like today, both ones that seem to move towards liberation and tolerance and ones that do the opposite.

  13. Asehpe

    Maybe it’s more about how widespread certain memes are, and how likely it is that the proportion of its adherents — and those of its opposing memes — will change.

    After all, evolution basically became the accepted foundation of biology in the 1920’s after the work of Ernst Mayr. Ninety years later, we still have groups putting a lot of money and effort on fighting it.

    There is no reason to expect that views on trafficking and prostitution as inherently evil will take any less time to change (assuming they will change significantly).

  14. laura agustin Post author

    we know that fear of sex and/or belief that sex is dangerous is timeless and universal – no culture is without taboos. we also know that human beings have campaigned against certain forms of it throughout history. a chord is struck with the sex slavery idea that transcends reason.

  15. asehpe

    a chord is struck with the sex slavery idea that transcends reason.

    This would be an interesting topic for research, in case it hasn’t already been researched: what are the causes and sources of the fear that specific forms of sex have caused in pretty much every human civilization (possibly with sex slavery as a test case)? And, historically speaking, what forces have been able to achieve change, in the specific cases where taboos have changed throughout history?

    There were civilizations and moments in history in which sex slavery was actually accepted — this was, I believe, a common function for female slaves in classical antiquity. The chord being struck here may actually include some other element; something I feel is associated with sexual violence and rape (things in general much less popular throughout history than mere sex slavery).

  16. laura agustin Post author

    we have one fear that has changed dramatically in living memory – the one about homosexuality. the gay rights movement is an example of how a specific stigma can begin to change and proceed more or less forward over decades. ‘sexual rights’ is the framework being used in the case that a group has identified itself and wants citizenship. however this model can’t just be copied, willy-nilly – all stigmas are not the same, it seems, and there would seem to be historical moments when cultures are prepared to lose some fears and not others.

  17. Sabrina D. N.

    If I can say one thing (forgive my English mistakes 🙂 ) you wrote about extremist feminism or authoritarian feminism or radical feminism, I have the right words for it. lesbian feminism.

    I was once convinced to join a very extremist form of feminism (but obviously it wasn’t promoted like that in the beginning) and after some days the “feminists” started to, I don’t know if it is the right word but, yes they were touching me. At the beginning I taught it was like joking or having fun, but no, they were hitting on me and expecting me to return the same kind of attention. Well when I told them that I wasn’t interested and that I liked boys, they shouted at me and I even received a slap in my face. I was called names, a “man pleasing whore” and a traitor of women.

    Radical feminists (or the way you prefer to call them) simply hate men. They deny it, but they do. They trivialize men, but they reject the idea of man hating or misandry or male bashing, but yes, it is man hating, it is misandry. i guess if you want to rob a bank you aren’t going to say it, you deny it. A lot of people (bothe males and females) still believe feminists are angry women or frustrade females who don’t have sex. No feminists are lesbians who really hate all things manly. They do have an agenda, and I know that agenda becose in the beginning I was part of it untill I decided to abandon that fascism. They are simply trying to “sabotrage” men in any form, any way, any possible direction. Today I have changed the way I see both men and women, both can be equally evil and fanatics, liars and dishonest. Today I just want to marry my boyfriend and have babies. If there is a way to good, positive revenge towards them, I choose love, motherhood, family and my man with me. lesbian feminist misandry showed me one thing: I really really love men.

  18. Iamcuriousblue

    Sabrina – While being pretty far from a lesbian, I feel compelled to defend actual lesbians against association with this so-called “lesbian feminism”. The stereotype that lesbians inherently are hateful, and out to hurt men and force other women into lesbian is not only wholly inaccurate, its a pretty hateful stereotype as well.

    The thing is, the so-called “lesbian feminism” advocated by women like Sheila Jeffreys has very little connection to most lesbians. It is an ideology of mainly heterosexual women who have had problems with men and who have created this ideology of the “political lesbian” as a response. “Political lesbianism” is merely a reaction by a small group against heterosexuality and has nothing to do with what actual lesbians think or how they live. In fact, most lesbians, including feminist ones, who I’ve read on the subject of “political lesbianism” have had little good to say about it.

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  22. thibaut b

    In response to Sabrina D. N.

    «you wrote about extremist feminism or authoritarian feminism or radical feminism, I have the right words for it. lesbian feminism»

    As a disclaimer, i can only respond from personal anecdotes. I’ve become interested in this domain because (thanks?) to an acquaintance who is a radical feminist, and whose discourse sounded extremely quixotic to me; she does have abolitionist goals in regard to sex-trade, and is a strong proponent of the Swedish model and of even more coercitive options.

    In definitive opposition to your proposition, she deems LGBT people as her (their) obvious opponents; and strongly denounces the «LGBT-lobby» as being on the side of sex-traffickers and other social evils. Indeed it seems that gay, lesbian and trans people are more often active in the defense of the rights of sex-trade workers, than in opposition to them.

    I know about a dozen gay and lesbian people (a few of whom are close friends) and they are indeed not at all in phase with such radical feminism, being either less politically minded or simple more interested in what we could call «sex-positive» stances than in coercitive and radical ones.

    1. Laura Agustín

      It’s always a mistake to generalise about huge groups of human beings, lesbians being one. Thank goodness for unpredictable variation everywhere, otherwise life would be very dull. So I can think of women who have sex with women who hate prostitution and others who are sex workers and others who promote sex workers’ rights but hate trafficking… etc etc

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