Away from the sulphurous world of Twitter, the feminist campaigner and journalist Julie Bindel is best known as the co-founder of Justice for Women, an organisation that since 1990 has advocated for those convicted of murder after having experienced violence by men; JfW campaigned successfully for the release of Emma Humphreys, who killed her violent pimp, Trevor Armitage, in 1985, and more recently for Sally Challen, who was convicted of the murder of her abusive husband, Richard, in 2010. Thanks to this work, and to her reporting elsewhere, Bindel also has expertise in the areas of porn, prostitution and sex trafficking; she was one of those who helped to break the story of the grooming gangs operating in the north of England, an investigation that would eventually lead to the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham in 2013.
All of which surely makes her a Good Thing: a person of integrity, bravery and determination. But alas, as she writes in her new book, Feminism for Women, there are people for whom none of this is relevant. To them, Bindel is a Bad Thing, and they would like her to disappear – if not from the world, then at least from public life. In recent years, she has been de-platformed by numerous universities and other institutions following protests by assorted trans activists and their allies, among them those who argue that “sex work is work”. Even when such events do go ahead, there’s often trouble. At one, a man tried to punch her in the face. At another, a debate about pornography, her opponent, a man who has made money in that industry, was given a warm welcome by the students who’d tried so hard to get her taken off the bill. What, you might well wonder, has she done to invoke such anger, disapproval and bizarre contrarianism? Why does her past now count for so little? Is it really such a crime to believe, as she does, that sex is a material reality, and gender a social construct?
Feminism for Women addresses clearly, and without rancour, the issues involved in the concept of gender identity, and what the toxicity around this debate means for people like her (answer: not much fun at all). As a gay woman, she is concerned about what she regards as the wilful erasure of lesbians by Stonewall and others; when she meticulously unpicks the arguments of activists who regard it as an unacceptable prejudice on the part of lesbians to refuse to sleep with women with penises, her disdain is magnificent to behold. But this is not what her book is about.
Bindel, who believes, not without reason, that misogyny is on the rise and that women are in growing danger of losing hard-won rights, has written a Ronseal book, one that functions as a kind of primer for all matters pertaining to the current state of feminism. I found it bracing to read, and inspiriting, too, for all that she’s not what I’d describe as an elegant writer (the activist in her is perhaps too strong for that). But what struck me most of all is how unnerving it is to find oneself living through a moment when to state the bleeding obvious – to point out quietly that the moon is not, after all, made of green cheese – can be seen as a transgressive act. It would be pretty hard, I think, to disagree with much of what Bindel says, and yet many people, having first shoved their fingers in their ears, will do just that. No, I don’t find this anxious-making; I find it absolutely terrifying.
Bindel’s starting point is that since the 1990s, liberation feminism has been displaced almost entirely by equality feminism: a form of activism, careful and corporatised, that seeks to play nicely with the establishment, is interested mostly in sameness, and which measures its success by listening to the sound of the glass ceiling (periodically) smashing. What use, she asks, is so-called empowerment in a Britain where only one in 65 of reported rapes ends in a conviction? Where “choice” is more likely to involve submitting to being choked during sex than anything to do with abortion? Where men are increasingly using laws intended to protect equality to bolster their own advantage? (In 2006, for example, a student nurse, Andrew Moyhing, won a landmark case against the NHS hospitals that refused to let him perform intimate procedures on women patients unless he was accompanied by a female chaperone.) No society, she asserts, would permit what is still happening to women if, at some level, it didn’t have contempt for them.
I don’t always agree with her. When she approvingly quotes Beatrix Campbell, who believes that the pill put an end to foreplay for women because it meant there was no longer any excuse not to allow penetrative sex, I wondered what the pair of them were on about. But it is OK for women to disagree. What we have in common is more important by far than those things that separate us. I am straight, and happily so, but like Bindel, I think many women still fear feminism, for all that it’s suddenly so fashionable. We are too often complicit in our oppression, for the simple reason that calling out misogyny continues to involve risks both big and small (I know this because I am often wary of doing so myself). Or perhaps because, on some level, we just find the situation too hard to bear. As Andrea Dworkin put it: “Many women… resist feminism because it is an agony to be fully conscious of the brutal misogyny which permeates culture, society, and all personal relationships.”
In her book, Bindel speaks – in a voice that is resolute, undaunted after all these years – to this particular pain, a bruise that hides in plain sight, and if her text doesn’t come with easy solutions to our problems, it is nevertheless guaranteed to remind us what we have still to fight for. I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t benefit from reading it, though top of my list at this point would be those men whose newfound “feminism” is born of their having daughters. Are they prepared for what lies ahead for their darlings? Do they really want to know, or would they rather just faff about with their social media pronouns while busily performing yet another version of the same old pernicious masculinity?