I’m sorry I keep harping on the topic of “agency,” as I’m sure few people have any interest in such a theoretical topic, but I think there’s still something left to say about it. I’ve talked enough about how the term is used, but I want to talk about the consequences of using this term.
What is the word “agency” really supporting, when it’s used against women? If “agency” is used to blame the victims of pornography, prostitution, and other forms of exploitation of women, as I’ve written before, then “agency” rhetoric is inherently patriarchal. What it supports is men’s entitlement of women’s bodies. The only connection between “agency” and actual freedom is that the women who have “agency” are free to say “yes” to being exploited by men, but they are not free to say “no.” We know this because the liberals who talk about “agency” attack women who fight against the exploitation of women and who argue for the freedom to say “no.” There are few things entitled men hate to hear more from a woman than “no.”
Human rights are only important for people who go against the status quo, because people who say and do the same things as everyone else don’t need protecting. In a similar way, if there is such a thing as “agency,” it must be in the freedom to say “no.” If there is such a thing as “agency” for women, then it must be in the desire to resist being exploited and objectified by men, in the desire to not be beaten down by a system made for men’s pleasure and entitlement. There is no “agency” in being exploited, in being told what to do with your body, in parroting the same arguments used by men to defend their entitlement.
People try to argue for this point by saying that, because “sex work” is illegal and considered marginal, women who engage in it are rebelling against social conventions. But these people confuse illegality with acceptability. Prostitution is illegal, but the concept that men are entitled to women’s bodies is the norm, is the conventional opinion, despite the illegality of some of the more extreme forms of entitlement. This is because we have two main views: the conservative view, that only one man is entitled to a woman’s body (her husband), and the liberal view, that all men are entitled to a woman’s body. Under the former view, prostitution is unacceptable because the women who prostitute themselves are opening themselves to other men instead of keeping to proper marriage and proper sex, which makes them guilty. To them, that’s too much entitlement. The conservatives, too, believe that men are entitled to women’s bodies, just in a different way (they certainly believe men are entitled to make laws about women’s bodies).
Prostitution, pornography, burlesque, raunch culture, BDSM and other kinks, none of that is revolutionary or goes against conventions because the concept that men are entitled to women’s bodies is not revolutionary and does not go against conventions. The only revolutionary act, the only act that goes against conventions, the only act that is truly rebellious, is to say: fuck anyone who believes that men are entitled to women’s bodies, either through marriage or through “sex work” and fuckability standards. Why don’t they call THAT “agency”? But no, they attack the women who say these things as being against other women’s “agency.”
How can one person’s freedom go against the freedom of another? How can one person’s resistance prevent another person’s resistance? When you formulate it like that, it doesn’t make much sense. If one person’s rights entail the destruction of another person’s rights, then one of these “rights” is not a real right. Likewise, if one person’s freedom goes against another person’s freedom, then there’s a problem of definition: one of these is not real freedom. In my view, the “freedom” to conform to social norms is not a real freedom.
I am not saying here that people should be blamed for conforming. I have nothing at all against people who wish to engage in these things. But we have a problem when that conformity (being in favor of “sex work,” advocating for the objectification of women) is reframed as freedom (being pro-“agency”), and when opponents of conformity (radicals) are portrayed as ultra-conformists (conservatives).
Radical feminists have never denied the agency of women under conditions of oppression. But radical feminists have located women’s agency, women’s making of choices, in resistance to those oppressive institutions, not in women’s assimilation to them. Nowhere in the more “nuanced” feminist liberal literature on choice is women’s resistance to pornography and surrogacy stressed as a sign of women’s agency. What about the agency of women who have testified about their abuse in pornography, risking exposure and ridicule, and often getting it? What about the ex-surrogates who choose to fight for themselves and their children in court, against the far greater economic, legal, and psychological advantages of the sperm donor? If we want to stress women’s agency, let’s look in the right places.