“Agency” obscures the real issues of freedom and power.

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.

7 thoughts on ““Agency” obscures the real issues of freedom and power.

  1. John Doe October 16, 2016 at 04:37

    I don’t know whether or not I would be more accepting of being told honestly that I am a slave instead of being lied to that I am free. You took the words right from me when you said that the freedom to impede other freedoms is not freedom at all. If there is one thing that this country excels at, it’s exploitation, and it will keep on exploiting by any means necessary. I have grown to actually despise my own freedom, if that makes any sense.

  2. sagor October 16, 2016 at 08:16

    There is a simple principle called “Ought implies can”. If somebody is holding a gun at my head and asking for my wallet, I still have my agency, I can chose to die/lose my limb from the bullet or I can hand him over my wallet. But in no way I can be held responsible for giving him the wallet. I am not giving him a gift but rather becoming a victim of robbery since a threat on my life/body is present. That is the same when I am starving/dying of thirst/disease and somebody is asking everything I have in exchange for food/water/treatment. There is a threat on my life/body in this case too. I cannot be responsible for giving him everything. This is not a free trade. But capitalists oppose the first case because the threat is initiated by a person but supports the later because the threat is natural. Sweat-shop labor, prostitution in many cases are simply not free trade. Free market fails to make people free.

  3. John Doe October 16, 2016 at 21:58

    I’ve been meaning to ask a question to you.

    What are your thoughts on diversity?

    • Francois Tremblay October 17, 2016 at 00:16

      Diversity of what?

      • John Doe October 17, 2016 at 02:48

        Well, diversity of race, gender, sexuality, culture, et cetera. I’ve already spoken about GamerGate and it’s hatred of that kind of diversity.

        • Francois Tremblay October 17, 2016 at 02:55

          I think it is preferable for a group to have diversity so a wider range of people can see themselves as being part of it. Apart from that, I have no opinion about it. Diversity in a society can be good or bad, depending on what kind of diversity it is.

          • John Doe October 17, 2016 at 05:16

            GamerGaters actively fight to keep people like me from being represented. I’ve said time and time again about who I am.

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