Liberal versus gender feminism: McElroy’s *Sexual Correctness*

In my Ethics course this week, we’re discussing the arguments for and against banning pornography. One of our readings is from Wendy McElroy’s Sexual Correctness: The Gender-Feminist Attack on Women. McElroy takes up the gender-feminist arguments against porn and contrasts them with liberal individualist forms of feminism. The following updated* chart of contrasts is a work in progress, drawing in part upon McElroy.


* The original chart is here. Note changes to the last line prompted by a clarification suggestion from Sarah Skwire.

Related: “Feminism: liberal versus postmodern.”

8 thoughts on “Liberal versus gender feminism: McElroy’s *Sexual Correctness*

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  • April 30, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    A neat and excellent dichotomy, in my view. Counterbalanced and accurate. However, is homosexuality hinted at as an acceptable “norm”?

  • May 1, 2014 at 9:34 am

    How can they call themselves “feminists” while advocating androgyny? They’re the exact opposite of what one would expect based on the label “feminist.” The left has done the same thing with the word “liberal.”

  • May 1, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Actually I disagree. I think the right hand side of this chart is mostly a strawman. The number of feminists who actually agree with it are small in number IMO, though certainly outspoken and gleaning more than their share of media attention. I think this chart is next to useless because it sets up a false dichotomy that only serves to pat ourselves on the back. It does not further new dialogue with nonlibertarian feminists. Even the liberal feminists who are on the left hand side might find this chart offensively oversimplified. As a libertarian feminist, I sure do. Feminist views are far more varied and nuanced than this, even within libertarianism.
    I’m willing to bet that for every feminist who supposedly believes the right hand side you can come up with, I can find 3 or 4 or 5 mainstream outspoken feminist activists or philosophers who don’t. So what really is the point?

  • May 1, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Hi Sharon: I think there are two (or three) issues that should be distinguished.

    One is conceptual — what are the sub-issues at debate, and what is the range of positions taken? The chart is a non-exhaustive list of 15 sub-issues that also states the positions defining the spectrum of opinion on each sub-issue. The “liberal” and “gender” labels group the 15 into packages that individual feminists will more or less buy into. That’s all the chart tries to accomplish.

    On this conceptual exercise, as far as the chart goes, it is an additional and open question whether each row of opposition represents a dichotomy or a spectrum along which there can be a range of positions. So I don’t want to pre-judge that follow-up discussion.

    (I don’t understand the straw-man point, so could you clarify? You say that there are in fact feminists who accept the right-side package, so that means the chart does identify a real position held by real people. Or is it, as you suggest, that there isn’t a large enough number of people who believe that package? That would make your concern not be about straw-man concept formation, but more about giving too much journalistic prominence to a minority position. So: is your concern about concept-formation or journalistic-prominence-worthiness, or both?)

    Your comment also raises a concern about rhetoric: Does the chart foster communication, especially across the libertarian/ non-libertarian divide? I think the first issue is always to clarify what the issues and positions are. Nobody interested in advancing the debate should have a problem with that, so I’d certainly be open to suggestions from any perspective of how to improve the chart’s formulations. I don’t see any of the chart’s descriptions as self-congratulatory or inflammatory, but I’m happy to consider alternatives.

  • May 1, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    My sense is that a number of libertarian feminists, not just me, have trouble with the categories regarding sexual activity. Already, two people misunderstand just on your blog. One person seems to imagine that the chart is implying homosexuality as the norm [though I fail to see why]. That last category on the right hand side seems weird to me. I am unaware that this is what gender feminists advocate. If I am wrong, please provide a citation.
    The use of the word “androgyny” is also problematic. What do you mean by that? Having a balance of traits that have traditionally be identified with male and female? That’s how psychologists use it. In that sense, it is not an especially problematic notion unless it is somehow enforced. If that is what you mean, then say so. I’m not convinced that this is what the gender feminists advocate. Furthermore, on the left hand side, you provide only the alternative that a woman can be “human and feminine.” What if a woman wants to be “human” and the traits she advocates sound masculine to some? This seems incomplete and is strictly speaking, not the opposite of androgyny in any sense I, as a psychologist, understand it. On the original androgyny scales, a woman could score “feminine,” “masculine” and “androgynous.” In psychology, the latter term was generally considered the most balanced. [However, FYI, the term has fallen out of favor within psych]. You really need a different term or clarification of what you mean.
    I’m also not clear on what you mean by “women should be protected from sexuality.” I am unaware that gender feminists are non-sexual. Did I miss something?
    The part about discrimination in favor of women, while less troublesome, seems to me to be problematic. The original purpose of affirmative action was not to be discriminatory in favor of women but to fight the discrimination of the old boy network in favor of men. Yes, it is true that the use of AA has gone beyond that original purpose, but nonetheless, I am disturbed by the lack of clarity on this. Forced affirmative action is the real problem. If, for example, a physic dept. school committee was considering two people with similar credentials and chose the women because they felt they needed more women professors to encourage more qualified women to participate in science, what would be wrong with that?
    I will fuss only slightly about the categories of male/female partly biological, partly socially constructed v. only socially constructed. I have read more academic research on this issue than just about anyone you are likely to know personally. For complex reasons beyond the scope of this reply, I think it is a tiny bit biological but mostly social. I am very leery of those who want to make the biological a *large* amount. I can debate this with anyone you name because I know my stuff. It is one of my specialties as a social psychologist. I personally think the biological is way overemphasized. Not sure what to recommend vis-a-vis the chart but want to make you aware that once again, this is not a simple dichotomy

  • May 2, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    “I have read more academic research on this issue than just about anyone you are likely to know personally. For complex reasons beyond the scope of this reply, I think it is a tiny bit biological but mostly social.”

    I would say this marks you as someone who knows very little.

    “I personally think the biological is way overemphasized.”

    I think the opposite. I think culture is way overstated. Even further, most of culture is an expression of biological imperatives. Men possess anywhere from 7-12 times the level of testosterone than women. You don’t think that in and of itself would cause a significant difference in behavior and psychological propensities? And that’s just testosterone.

    But I call into question the whole notion of a “libertarian feminist”. Can a feminist ever be on the side of liberty? Feminism is at root the hatred of men and masculinity. It’s perhaps the flagship sub-ideology of the Left. I see nothing good about it and nothing pro-liberty.

  • May 8, 2014 at 7:45 am

    I think my observation about homosexuality quite clear. A good bit of “feminism” flows from fountains on Lesbos. About sexual differences Ayn Rand says :

    “The difference between men and women is sexual. In the sexual roles, it is proper for a man, who is the stronger sexually, to be worshipped, and it is not proper for a woman to be worshipped, and the woman who would even conceive of such a thing is not a woman. [FHF 77]

    Excerpt From: Mayhew, Robert. “Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A.” iBooks.

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