Can you be a feminist and…? | Choice feminism

Choice feminism states that any choice is feminist purely by virtue of having been made by a woman: that she is in a position to, and has, made a choice is thereby feminist.

This is something I’ve heard a lot of in the last few years within feminist spaces. It is, as far as I can tell, a core part of sex positive feminism and links closely with “corporate feminism”.

Choice feminism turns a collective movement into individual struggles. Every choice is made within a context, a society and a culture which impacts on that decision.

“a woman who quits her job after bearing a child, for example, may be “making her own choice,” but a society where there is no guarantee of parental leave, where workplaces remain hostile to pregnant women and new mothers, and where our conception of the ideal worker is still inherited from a 1950’s male breadwinner model all make that choice considerably easier for her to make.” (Feministing).

Choice feminism focuses on individual choices and thus erases the idea of women as a group of oppressed people. It ignores the patriarchal influences which affect the constraints around that choice. It reduces our power. One woman making a choice does not have the same power as a group of women making a stand.

Choice feminism empowers those who are already in a more privileged position. It is much easier to make choices when you are white, middle class upwards, non disabled, heterosexual and traditionally attractive. You are likely to have a lot more doors open to you and thus more choices.

Choice feminism allows for choices which hinder the feminist movement and hurt other women.  In my view, this isn’t feminism.

Choice feminism reduces the conversation to individual choices to wear heels or lipstick rather than the structural oppression of women the world over.  A lifestyle rather than a political movement.

Choice feminism suggests that if you aren’t an MP or CEO it is because you didn’t choose it, you didn’t work at it, you didn’t try hard enough. It removes the barriers of sexism in the workplace, of childcare issues, of educational inequality that stand in our way.

Choice feminism removes the impact of our actions on other women. If you choose to become a sex worker, you are perpetuating the industry and by holding onto your choice, you can deny other people’s lack of choice. I watched a film about sex work recently and three white, well educated women were discussing how it had been their choice and how they hadn’t received any abuse or coercion. And the implication from their language was that they hadn’t been hurt by the sex industry so abuse didn’t happen.

Choice feminism is about choices made within a patriarchal structure. And how can that compliance with the oppressor possibly further the rights of women? Choice feminism does not challenge the system. It cooperates with it and can be used to further oppress.

Choice feminism opens up the space to ask “Can you be a feminist and…?”, turning the focus inwards, dividing feminists and distracting us from unequal pay and sexual harassment.

Choice feminism closes down important conversations about patriarchy, about sexism, about women’s rights and women’s opportunities.  It stops discussion about glass ceilings and sexual harrasment.  The cry of “anti-choice” is used to shut down people wanting to talk about pornography and the sex industry.

Finn MacKay, more eloquently than I, says in the Guardian:

Choice feminism can be found particularly in media representations of what feminism is and what women’s empowerment might look like. There is an attempt, unfortunately fairly successful, to reduce feminism to simply being the right for women to make choices. Not choices about whether to stand for parliament, or instigate pay transparency in the office or lead an unemployed worker’s union, or form a women-only consciousness-raising group in their town; far from it.

Instead, there are choices about what amount of makeup to wear, whether to go “natural” or try mascara that makes your eyelashes look like false eyelashes, or what diet drink to buy, or whether or not to make the first move with a man.

We all make choices within a context.  I will choose to watch an unfeminist box set within the context of very limited feminist options.  We have to exist in our society and that involves making the least worst choice or compromising on ones ethics and values sometimes.

Choice feminism is much easier to approach that feminism about breaking down structures and patriarchy.  It is alluring and makes life easier to live in an unequal society.  I can very much see the appeal.

However, I do not believe that choice feminism is the way to go.  It individualises the debates, it turns women on each other, it detracts from the major structural inequalities that we face.

And we are not going to get anywhere if we do not unite…

‘… women’s advances in terms of rights and social and political standing have never been the result of isolated actions of individual women making personal choices. And although feminism has frequently been about giving women the right to make any choice they want, it also recognises that choices are not made in a vacuum any more than movements grow in one.

I’m a writer, not an activist, but this book is, nevertheless, a call to arms. I wrote it because I’ve noticed that some lovely, hip, intelligent progressives, people who can recognise racial, religious and class-based oppression without difficulty, are uncomfortable with the idea that women in first-world countries face discrimination. I wrote it because I’m sick of hearing people say that women aren’t oppressed because their husband does lots of housework or because their company pays women the same as men or because they’ve never personally been raped/groped/called a slut/been denied a human right.’ – Emily Maguire, Princesses and Pornstars

For further reading about choice feminism, try:

Does gender matter when it comes to mental health diagnoses?

The housekeeping…

Firstly a bit of housekeeping. I’m referring to gender here, not sex; gender includes the societal influences and roles we play rather than just pure biology.  i think this is vital in this discussion because whilst some mental illness is biological, down to genes etc, the environment around a person and their socialisation plays a huge part in causing mental ill health.

I’m focusing mostly on male and female here but am aware that not everyone fits into those gender boxes however, as these are what society predominately uses, it is a helpful way to think about it. Even if you are not male or female, the chances are you are perceived as one or the other which means you’re likely to be affected by the biases and stereotypes
related to that gender. I recognise that not fitting into the male/female boxes is likely to bring it’s own difficulties especially when it comes to engrained social biases and stereotypes. I think how gender affects mental health diagnoses when you’re not cisgendered (your gender matches the sex you were at birth) is probably a blog post on its own and is probably better written by someone with more experience. Similarly, your sexual orientation and how that plays with mental health diagnosis is also not something I’m going to cover right now but sounds interesting to look into (and I feel, as a bi woman, a bit more qualified to speak about that).

Within this discussion we need to remember the historical context in which gender and mental health sits. it would be a travesty to ignore or forget about the way women have been oppressed through the use of mental health diagnoses. a prominent example is the Victorian ‘mad woman in the attic’, a much critiqued view of mental illness.  There are many writers who unpick the use of diagnoses to oppress women who weren’t submissive and obedient. Its an interesting area to read about and there’s lots of blog posts, articles, books etc about it. Here however, I’m looking more at the point of diagnosis in the contemporary world, mostly focussed on the developed world or the global north.

Er, get to the point…

So, men and women can experience a vast array of mental health issues for which they may receive a diagnosis and treatment related to that diagnosis. Having had the issue of equality and mental health diagnosis come up a couple of times in conversation with friends, I wanted to look into it a bit more.

Is there a difference?

Overall, the rates of diagnosed mental illness in men and women is much the same (and is under diagnosed across the board), but disparity does arise when it comes to the rates of diagnosis.

Diagnoses of common mental disorders including depression and anxiety are made up of mostly women eg depression is twice as likely to be diagnosed for a woman than a man.  However when it comes to alcohol addiction in developed countries, 1 in 5 men and 1 in 12 women will receive this diagnosis at some point. Take another example; men are more than three times more likely to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder than women.

Interestingly, according to the WHO, there is little gender difference for diagnosis rates of severe and rarer mental disorders such as schizophrenia.  I wonder if this is because they are rarer so have a less engrained stereotype?

So do men and women just have different mental health susceptibilities?

To answer this question, I think we need to start by mentioning that mental illness can be caused by a vast number of things including genetics, life experience, poverty etc.

The WHO states that gender specific risk factors include the nature of the stereotypical gender role, stressors and negative life events. We then have to consider that women are disproportionately affected by gender based violence, low status, economic disadvantage, responsibilities for the care of others etc.

Looking specifically at PTSD for example, because they are more likely to experience sexual violence, women are obviously more likely to have PTSD as a result of that violence. 1 in 3 women who have been raped develop PTSD instead of 1 in 20 when looking at non victims. And at least one in five women suffer rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.

When it comes to the impact of other types of abuse, we know that women who experienced childhood sexual abuse or partner violence as an adult, rates of depression are 3 to 4 times higher than the rest of the population. I’m obviously not saying that men do not suffer abuse, of course they do, but the figures are much higher for women. Lifetime prevalence rate of violence against women ranges from 16% to 50%.

In terms of life events impacting on women and their mental health, an estimated 80% of 50 million people affected by violent conflicts, civil wars, disasters, and displacement are women and children.

Similarly, low status, low income and the burden of taking care of others can place a lot of stress on a woman and in turn result in associated mental illness; women make up around 70% of the world’s poor and are paid significantly less than men. This lack of resources results in higher stress and being less able to seek help, or seek the same quality of help, as men who are earning more, which in turn makes things worse. People with higher income or good health insurance are more likely to seek support and therefore . This lack of resources means that women can get trapped in difficult situations such as domestic abuse as they have limited means to get out and this will obviously have some impact on mental health.

OK, so men and women have different types of mental illness, fine.

No. Sorry, it’s not that simple.  Men and women may in general experience different types of mental illness.  But we don’t know that.  This is because of gender bias occurs in the treatment of mental illness. Even when presenting with the same score on a standardised test, women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than men. Remember above, we noted that women are more likely to have this type of diagnosis than men…

There is also a difference in presenting for help. Women are more likely to approach their primary carer, such as a GP whereas men are more likely to turn to a specialist and are the main users of inpatient care, again, potentially affecting diagnosis. If you turn up to a substance misuse centre you’re likely to end to with a related diagnosis. Turn up to your gp who hasn’t got much experience about these things and doesn’t ask you the right question, maybe you’ll get a different diagnosis.

Returning to alcohol, men are more likely to admit to having a problem with it than women, again providing a possible reason for the large gap in diagnosis rates between genders. It could also be related to men feeling unable, because of gender stereotypes, to get help for depression, anxiety etc and are self medicating with alcohol which in turn gets picked up as a diagnosis of alcoholism.

Gender stereotypes themselves can get in the way of a diagnosis as they reinforce emotional problems in women and alcohol problems in men. This can be a barrier to a correct diagnosis.

So, why does it matter?

Well, cynically, i think that more money would go into treating, preventing and researching the more common mental illness if they were more commonly diagnosed in men. yes, i’m a feminist so i’m going to say that but look at the differing attitudes between erectile dysfunction and pain women experience during sex. one has lots of money thrown at it, the other is barely acceptable to say.

A second reason why it matters is that it could help understand what causes, triggers or perpetuates mental health issues. if particular conditions are more common in women, can we unpick it further, is it biological or societal? can we do anything to prevent this, such as ensuring women have the opportunity to be economical independent or free from abuse? As with most of these things, prevention is vastly superior to cure.

Thirdly, if diagnoses are bias based on gender than there could well be lots of unsupported men and women who are struggling with their mental health because their support and treatment is wrong due to an incorrect diagnosis. Access to services might be formally or informally restricted because of gender – if alcoholism is seen as male illness it could put a woman off seeking treatment and support. There are numerous accounts of men who’ve tried to seek support for eating disorders and the walls they’ve come across and the stigma they’ve faced. Again, correct diagnosis may mean more men are diagnosed with an eating disorder which in turn would hopefully mean that more men feel able to seek support for it and in doing so, perhaps health practitioners would no longer think about gender at the point of diagnosis.

One commonly quoted stat is that men are more likely to die by suicide than women. What it misses out is that women are more likely to attempt suicide than men.  At the moment this means, in the UK, there is a lot of awareness raising going into supporting men who are suicidal. Which is great. However it seems to be at the expense of support for women. Perhaps diagnosis which wasn’t influenced by gender would help us to see the person in distress and help their actual needs rather than their perceived needs.


I’m fully aware I’ve not referenced things… However if you want to do some more reading and find out more for yourself, here’s a few links I found useful:

WHO
Guardian
Judith Trust

And for reading about whether men and women have different brains, check out Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender.  Well worth a read.

Everyday Feminism

We can all take action, however small.  Small actions add up.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

― Margaret Mead

A tiny change today brings a dramatically different tomorrow.

– Richard Bach, One

There are many many excuses for not doing things, but there’s one huge overriding reason why we should.  The world is unfair and unequal and without action it will not change.  It is not in the interest of half the world’s population for things to change.  And when you include the women employed in industries which oppress women, the number who have financial interest in maintaining gender inequality increases.

Think of the people involved in fashion, beauty, magazines who spend so much time telling us and showing us that we are lesser citizens.  That we have to work harder, show up painted and adorned before we can take part in society.  It is a tool of oppressors.  And the more they think we are at risk of fighting back, the louder their message will be. If we start to question, they will amp up the volume.  Send out more and more messages which crush self worth.  Instead of rising together as a movement, we are beaten into our own, individual battles with ourselves.

Think of the power we have that we use to oppress ourselves and others, what if we used that differently?  If instead of repeating my own messages of self hate, what if I turned that out and used that voice to bring down the patriarchy?

Everyday Feminism: A small, everyday act which contributes to the aims of feminism and/or supports women.

I ran a workshop about this at a conference yesterday and some of the ideas we discussed were:

  • Replace gossip magazines in waiting rooms with magazines about something be it science, wildlife, cooking, writing, photography, anything with substance
  • Sticker over sexist graffiti, adverts etc
  • Use twitter and facebook to complain to companies but also to congratulate companies who are carrying out good practice
  • Boycott products with sexist advertising or packaging
  • Turn magazines with offensive covers round in shops
  • Mix up magazines, books and clothes in shops where they are labelled as “mens” and “womens”
  • Compliment someone on something other than their appearance or compliment them about about something different to the norm – great haircut in a fab shade of grey etc
  • Reframe problematic language
  • Tell people you are a feminist
  • Leave leaflets in books, public places, blu-taked on toilet doors
  • Be mindful of our own negative thoughts and behaviours
  • Don’t belittle yourself – “I’m just a…” “Can I just add something small to this debate…” etc
  • Do not apologise for yourself

If you have any other ideas, let me know.