the vulnerabilities of choice

I’ve been whining about this (on and off the internet) for a while, and I figured that now was a good moment to sit down and discuss what ails me. Patterns I’ve been watching for a few years are starting to turn in unfortunate and — in my opinion– dangerous directions, and I think feminists need to start examining ourselves and how we’re becoming vulnerable to exploitation by racists, bigots, and misogynists.

To explain, I need to begin with what I’ve started calling “internet feminism.” First, my moniker isn’t intended to denigrate feminist actions that take place on the internet; that would be incredibly hypocritical since most of my work is based online. What I’m referring to is a general sense that online feminist discourse is stuck in a nascent stage. I’ve followed a whole host of sites and blogs like Everyday Feminism and The Mary Sue for a while now, and it seems to me that these ostensibly feminist spaces are stuck in a loop; we only seem to discuss a handful of issues and never seem to move beyond 101-level explanations of things like consent and objectification.

This is not to say that 1) better discourse does not take place online– it absolutely does or 2) that these 101-level explanations aren’t helpful or needed. However, what I’ve experienced is that a lot of online feminists seem to congregate at two ends of a spectrum. At one end you have people like me, who have dedicated our lives to feminism. On the other end are the people who stay in the “shallow end” of the feminist pool; they’re happy to share a Robot Hugs comic when it shows up in their feed … and that’s about it.

I’m not exactly unhappy with this. I appreciate how these 101-level comics and posts are being widely disseminated, and that a lot more people are being educated in the basics of feminism and learning to appreciate it. I especially like that feminism — despite the screaming carrot demon we just elected president– is losing some of the stigma misogynists managed to tar it with.


The “shallow end” is resulting in a certain class of feminist that believes that feminism in its entirety can be encapsulated by a comic strip and amusing videos about tea. This is unfortunate because someone could walk away from the bulk of online feminist commentary and believe that choices — when made by a woman or femme person — are inherently feminist.

I understood how we’ve gotten here. Supposedly feminism is all about offering women more choices, and they’re not wrong … in the sense that Captain America wasn’t wrong when he observed that “it seems to be run on some form of electricity.”

If you follow the history of the feminist movement in the United States (as well as other places, but I’m an American, so), women from the suffragettes to the second-wave feminists to intersectional feminists of today have all fought for the agency and autonomy of women. In a word, that fight is practically represented in choices— the more autonomy we have, the more choices we have available to us. This is why the argument that women should have the choice to remain in the workforce or become a stay-at-home-mom is, from a feminist viewpoint, sound. Feminists argue that neither women in or out of the workforce should be economically, socially, or politically penalized for their decision.

Making our choices truly autonomous ones is the struggle of feminism.

Unfortunately, all this talk about “it’s my choice!” has led many of us to believe that any choice can be a feminist one. This is where I think we’re vulnerable, because it is allowing a certain kind of person to claim their actions  are– or to label the actions of others as– “feminist” even when the decisions they’re making are harmful to women, especially women of color.

Last month I read an article titled “Pushing Back Against Non-Consensual Misogyny in BDSM.” In it she described her relationship: Her and her partner are full-time dominant/submissive, and while I have issues with power play (as opposed to sensation play or impact play), I don’t feel that it’s my place to tell anyone how to live their life. If she thinks it’s “so, so hot” for her husband to tell her when to shave, what to eat, what to wear, etc, whatever. As long as she’s not telling other women they have to submit to their husband, it’s none of my business what happens in their home.

What I do have a problem with is her argument that her husband using misogynistic language and regimenting every aspect of her life is “feminist.” It’s her choice, and she’s free to make it, but it is not feminist. It does not advance the autonomy of women, it does not help women achieve equality or liberation, and it does nothing to fight for our rights. If other women were to emulate her, mimic her, what would be the end result? An equal and just society, where all genders are free? Absolutely not. Her life choices, if repeated by others, would lead to the opposite.

Feminism fights for the autonomy of women; feminist choices are those that resist systems of patriarchal oppression. Choosing to expand my definition of beauty in ways that do not align with white supremacist, classist standards is a feminist choice. Choosing to defend my LGBT siblings against bigotry is feminist. Choosing to surround myself with marginalized artists and creators is feminist. Choosing my fashion aesthetic based on personal preference and without shame is feminist.

Many choices are neutral, and have no real feminist implications one way or the other (like, say, which flavor you want at the fro-yo place). Choosing to have your husband demean you because it turns you on, on the other hand, could even be an anti-feminist choice. These sorts of choices matter because they are a part of the system you’re upholding and reinforcing. If you want to uphold a dynamic where, as the woman, you’re demeaned and infantalized … go ahead. But don’t say that decision contributes anything toward tearing down patriarchy.

Which leads me to my last, and most significant, concern. This sort of emphasis on choice feminism is leading to an environment that allows racism and other forms of bigotry to invade. Last year, Megyn Kelly was hailed virtually internet-wide for her “feminism” when, as a debate moderator, she asked Trump a question about his disdain for women. Megyn has explicitly stated on multiple occasions that she is not a feminist– not that she rejects the label, but that she opposes feminism.

When women like Megyn– anti-feminist, racist, bigoted– are hailed as “feminist icons” for daring to say “calling women mean names isn’t cool” then feminism has been co-opted to serve the interests of Empire. In the context of everything I’ve been railing against in this post, this permissiveness is a result of thinking that merely making choices is what can make a woman a feminist, even when those choices uphold patriarchal systems. Choice feminism and white feminism not only go hand-in-hand, they’re indistinguishable. They both exalt people for upholding patriarchal, white supremacist norms.

Feminism isn’t ultimately about choice. It’s about equality and liberation, and we cannot lose sight of that. Too much is at stake, especially now.

Photo by David Uy
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  • Rachel

    Oh you are making me think, thanks for sharing! I never considered the impact of media calling Megyn a feminist for asking one kind-of feminist question. That is problematic and perpetuates lots of other not great ideas she shares on her platform. I hesitate to get behind the idea that feminism isn’t about choice, though. Isn’t choosing to use birth control a feminist choice? Or actually choosing to have children, not being clobbered into it because of religious or societal norms? I guess it’s not un-feminist to choose to have children, but it’s also not necessarily a feminist decision. I would appreciate your perspective!

    • I would say it’s thanks to feminism that we have the choice, not that it’s necessarily feminist to make it.

      It could be a feminist choice to have kids and not have kids. If a Quiverful woman had children: that’s not feminist, it’s the opposite because she believes all women should be shackled to that fate.

      • Maan Di

        There’s a light year of difference between feminism empowering us to make truly autonomous choices & the assumption that choice itself is feminist.
        I’m currently a stay-at-home mom, & while both my partner & I are intersectional feminists, I was unable to make an autonomous choice in this matter. I’m the principal caregiver because I pursued a career in missions so that I could have both a career & children in a way that my religious parents would sanction. Because of that, I am now beginning to pursue a whole new career path, whereas my partner has been working in software development for 15 years, since his teens. Now, which if us is in a better position to bring home the bacon? I made a logical choice, & one I don’t always regret, but it was a bonded choice, not a truly autonomous choice & not one that I consider “feminist.”

        • Exactly. That’s precisely the sort of situation I was thinking of when I wrote that feminists fight for truly autonomous choices. I don’t regret where I ended up exactly, but this is not at all what I would have chosen if I’d been able to do anything besides go to a ridiculous college and major in music.

  • Many choices are neutral, and have no real feminist implications one way or the other (like, say, which flavor you want at the fro-yo place).

    Dairy cows being forcibly impregnated repeatedly on ‘rape racks’ (what the industry calls them) and having their babies stolen and murdered so humans can consume their secretions sure sounds like something feminists should think about, to me.


    • For a variety of reasons, I disagree with veganism. I care about animal cruelty, but not every issue worth caring about is necessarily a feminist issue.

      • Eh, “disagree with veganism” is not the right phrasing. I think if you want to be a vegan, that’s great. I don’t find arguments for veganism personally compelling.

        • Here’s my personally compelling argument for why I went vegan (or ‘plant based’ – I would not pass muster with some of the vegan police either as I’m not throwing out shoes until they’re worn out, etc): poor people are suffering dramatically and perpetually because of the animal agriculture industry. Also, women married to men in the slaughterhouse industry are more likely to suffer domestic violence due to the nature of this ‘work’.

          Even if people don’t care about animals, I do think they should look into veganism to reduce the monstrous impact our unsustainable western lifestyle is having on the world’s poor and exploited peoples. I do really like animals, also. It bums me out that so many interesting species are nearing extinction because of the way we’re clearing wild lands in order to have more burgers. (Please try veggie burgers y’all – there are some seriously delicious ones.)

          Some resources for anyone reading the comments who might be curious:



          • I’m against the current state of industrialized treatment of animals, and do what I can to help change that. I understand that people want to end the consumption of animals and their by-products entirely, although that’s not my personal goal– but I think that’s a better goal than keeping things the way they are, so I don’t quibble with vegetarians/vegans about it. I just can’t– for legitimate health reasons– go that far, personally. But kudos to the people who do, in my opinion.

            ETA: if I were convinced by arguments for veganism, that’s what I’d be doing regardless of my health conditions. Combining the fact that veganism would, for me, hurt my health and that I’m not convinced vegans are right means that I don’t feel compelled to adjust my life around those ideals.

            Again, I do agree that the current state is a problem that needs to change. I just don’t agree with vegans that their way is the only way to change it.

          • And I’d be interested in hearing about other ways to change it. As idealistic as I am, I don’t believe everyone will willingly go vegan any time soon. And I do know of people in circumstances who are unable to go full-vegan, for various reasons.

            I remain hopeful when folks can acknowledge that what’s going on is destructive and needs to change, instead of the classic “BUT BACON!!” response.

          • There are farms that are against industrialized farming methods, especially concerning animals. Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms, for example. Many Amish farmers raise and slaughter their animals much more humanely, as well– if you’re lucky to be in an area with an Amish farmer’s market, that might be worth researching.

            I’m fortunate to be in an area with a few more-ethical farms, and I’ve found a few brands in my area that treat their dairy cows at least somewhat decently, although the milk, butter, and the eggs cost 2-4x as much.

            Encouraging those sorts of business models could help turn more of the industry away from cruel practices, I think.

          • Yeah, sorry, I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe those new lab-grown meats, or something. I guess I am pretty strongly vegan (ideologically). The words ‘humane slaughter’ make me think of ‘war is peace’ and other such Orwellian terminology. I can’t even understand putting these words together. Maybe this is similar to how you feel about ‘choice feminism’? There are some things that are just the opposite of ‘humane’ by definition, and slaughter is one of them.

            Thank-you for letting me comment, here. I can tell we’re not going to agree on this stuff, but I’m still a fan of your writing.

          • I figured a vegan and I would probably not see eye-to-eye 😉 I’m not a “meat lover” in any sense– in fact, most of what I eat is vegetarian and I don’t really enjoy meat … it’s a literal “I have to eat this or I get sick” situation for me.

            I understand ideological opposition to meat/by-product consumption, but personally, I find the line somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent? So, yeah. Not eye-to-eye, but I’m glad you’re here. We all need to be challenged on this, I think.

          • Jackalope

            Here’s my personal position: I decided that I will not be entirely against eating meat, but I am against animals being treated cruelly during their lifetime. (I do believe that slaughter can be done well and in a way that is not torturing the animal, but I get that the animals are not excited about dying and would rather have no slaughter at all.) So in my area I have a handful of farms (most of which I’ve found at my local farmer’s market) with humanely treated livestock. They live happy, fulfilling lives, going out on pastures, or wandering freely through grass eating bugs, or whatever is species-appropriate. It is much more expensive but totally worth it. I also eat much less meat than most people; for example, the totality of meat in the meals I cooked for this week (usually I’ll cook on the weekends for the next several days) is about a cup. For the entire week. I try to go more for things like dairy and eggs (I know about the issue w/ dairy and veal, so this isn’t entirely perfect; the farm I get the milk from isn’t one I know personally so I’m not sure how they handle that). I don’t eat very much meat when I’m out at restaurants or places where I can’t verify the source of the animals (I have a handful of friends who will let me know whether the meat is from a “happy animal” or not), and when I do I don’t eat mammals.

          • While I do want people to feel encouraged to be more conscientious, to be quite honest, you’re being lied to … I also have some issues with the ideal that someone who can afford expensive ‘happy meat’ is somehow ethically superior to a poor person buying bologna from Wal*Mart. It’s not actually true.

            Have you visited these ‘humane’ farms?

            Egg and dairy are actually worse, animal suffering wise. It’s like being tortured for longer before you become cheap meat, as opposed to being taken out sooner to become more ‘quality’ meat. Better to burn out than fade away, indeed.

            Sorry to be a downer, but it’s just the reality of the beast.

          • Jackalope

            “Have you visited these ‘humane’ farms?” Yes, I have. Almost all of the meat and eggs that I buy comes from a handful of local farms that I have visited in person (most of the other meat is fish from grocery stores), from farmers that I know. So I feel safe in saying that they treat their animals humanely. I disagree that a chicken or cow that is living a normal chicken/cow life with freedom to roam and eat traditional chicken/cow foods (to a certain extent; there are still fences and such, livestock can’t wander around in my neck of the woods) is being tortured. We clearly disagree on this, but I do believe that it is an ethically better choice to eat meat from animals that lived a decent life. Everyone needs to feed their families and I’m not going to tell someone they’re wrong for feeding their kids (or themselves) cheap meat if that’s what they can get, but if you have a choice I believe that humanely treated animals are a better choice.

            Part of my view is pragmatism; throughout human history humans have been eating meat (although not all of us). We are omnivores, as can be seen by the structure of our teeth, the set of our eyes, our digestive systems, etc. We have certain nutrients that are easiest for us to digest from animals, not plants. Some people can do alright on a totally plant-based diet, but some cannot (especially those who are allergic to major forms of plant protein such as soy and nuts). And in my experience many people who are willing to reduce their meat intake are not willing to cut it out all the way. (We also are dependent on animal waste for much of the fertilizer we use for raising our plants.) Most of our history has involved us eating small to moderate amounts of meat and having a larger majority of our food from plant sources; I can see us returning to that sort of diet, making it possible to subsist with smaller farms and better animal treatment, getting away from things like the “rape racks” you referred to earlier or mass crowding, etc, but I don’t see it as likely that humanity as a whole (or a majority) will move towards veganism.

          • Well yeah, we disagree. I would say the ethically better choice would be to not kill animals. Because for many people, especially in the west, it is only that. A choice. It’s a taste preference.

            If I kept having babies and someone else kept taking them away from me I would view it as a form of torture.


            Our teeth certainly do not equip us to bite the heads off of cows, pigs, or any of the other animals humans commonly use this argument to justify their ‘natural’ eating of. Maybe a human could bite the head off a chicken, but I think it would hurt the mouth. Or a bat, if you’re Meatloaf.

            I’m not living off of soy and nuts, you realize. Basically, if you’re eating food, you’re eating protein:


            And as for all the nutritional attributes of meat, I prefer my skittles-derived nutrients in pure, full rainbow format. 😉


            So if they’re not using rape racks, how are they getting dairy from their cows? Do they actually use a bull? In there some consensual cow loving going on? That seems highly unlikely.

            I think that, when the truth comes out on the grand scale about the animal agriculture industry (including the environmental and human health costs), a massive shift towards a plant-based diet for most is very likely. You’re right in that there are some who will never give it up entirely, but it’s sort of like smoking in this sense. The problem is, at the moment, our collective education about animal products is like those advertisements we used to have with the doctors recommending their favourite brand of cigarettes …

          • Beroli

            If I kept having babies and someone else kept taking them away from me I would view it as a form of torture.
            In there some consensual cow loving going on?

            Lines like that sound like you’re engaging in really extreme anthropomorphism.

            If you’re not actually under the impression cows have sex out of romantic feelings, you might want to avoid such implications, as likely to make people tune out what you’re saying. If you are–good luck; I think most people are likely further from coming to share your perspective than you realize.

          • Cows cry for days and sometimes weeks when you take away their calves. They’ve also been known to walk for miles trying to find their calves, or to attempt to hide them from the farmers. I don’t need to speak cow to understand when another mammal is heartbroken by something that is being done to them against their will. If stating the obvious is ‘extreme anthropomorphism’, guilty as charged.

            I don’t fathom to know the nitty gritty of cow sex lives, but I can empathize enough to assume that they would prefer sexual contact within their own species over a machine or a farmer’s arm. How cows feel about their mates and sexuality is not really my business. That humans are so involved in manipulating and exploiting their reproduction is actually the issue.

  • Maan Di

    I really didn’t like the premise of that article when I read it, either. Calling a relationship in which I woman has agreed not to make any decisions for herself feminist just didn’t make any sense to me.
    It also sounds fucking exhausting for both parties, but hey, you do you, right?

  • oe_leiderhosen

    Sometimes I think framing the discussion as “is this a ‘feminist’ choice or not?” is a mistake, in part because it implies that there are certain choices which people who consider themselves feminists MUST make to be consistent. Like, I’m femme in my gender presentation, so does that make me less of a feminist because I didn’t choose something more subversive, even though it would feel inauthentic and uncomfortable?

    I wrote about this a couple of years ago for my college paper: http://www.thecampanil.com/free-to-be-who-i-want-you-to-be-the-challenges-of-choice-feminism/

    • KNicoll

      I have never seen the concept of “is this a feminist choice” do anything that is not, if followed to its logical conclusions, pernicious and identity-policing, myself. The end result always looks to me like choosing whether one submits one’s choices for approval by “feminism” or “patriarchy” or whatever other opposition is being put in play.

    • I wouldn’t argue that everything we choose to do has meet some imposed standard of feminism. In the example you chose specifically I’d argue that supposedly subversive presentations have been and could be just a form of femmephobia and not necessarily feminist at all.

      I do all sorts of things that aren’t especially and overtly feminist. I just think it’s important to be thoughtful about our choices in general. I think it is important to try to be consistent, but that it’s perfectly reasonable to just go about your life without necessarily over thinking things.

      To me, changing my framework and perspective is more important I the long run than focusing narrowly on individual choices. If I’ve truly tried to incorporate feminist ideals, it’ll start happening naturally for my choices to reflect that.

  • I find this article interesting. I do wonder, as a cismale wannabe ally, what my role would be, if any. Should I support choices unless it specifically is oppressive to someone else (for example, being racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.).

    Also, I posed a question a little bit ago on Love, Joy, Feminism concerning the views of socialist feminists, who feel that the number of women in corporate positions is supporting an evil capitalistic/materialistic system, and that fighting for women in the military supports the military-industrial complex, along with imperalism and militarism. I was wondering your own thoughts on this. (I generally believe in cooperation over conflict, but I do share stories of women in the military in Armenia and Kurdistan, where they are fighting ISIS, seeing this as a good thing.)

    • I don’t think it’s any human’s place to have an opinion on any other human’s life unless what they’re doing is causing harm in some way. The passage “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” seems like a good rule of thumb, mostly because that’s just Bible-speak for “have empathy.”

      I don’t think being “successful” by capitalistic standards is necessarily “evil.” I do think feminism got a little bit off track in the 80s and was seduced into thinking that the only way to measure success is by patriarchal, capitalistic, white supremacist standards. I don’t think “have equal gender representation in the corporate world” should necessarily be our yardstick, or a singular goal. I think the lack of equal gender representation is one sign among many that there’s sexist biases, but I think we do need to get away from defining feminist achievement the way patriarchy defines achievement.

      I’m not of the opinion that economic models either are or are not feminist. I think communism could be just as misogynistic as capitalism is here and now. I lean in a socialist direction because it seems to be the most efficient, least-inclined-to-corruption-although-not-immune system we have of making sure people don’t die of starvation or not getting insulin injections, but I’ll support capitalistic opportunities to accomplish those goals. I think capitalism or communism could have feminist ideals integrated into them, but it either way it would be a rough road to travel to get there.

      I think given our current state of affairs, women are going to be in the military– and that as long as we have militaries, women should be present in them to help counter-balance patriarchal norms. I don’t think anyone should be subjected to the draft, male, female, or otherwise. And I do think that we need to make sure our military isn’t a place of rampant abuse and assault, and that victims have an actual way to make accusations that doesn’t leave them vulnerable, like our current system does.

      There’s also an interesting aspect that was resolved some last year– women have been in combat situations ever since we got involved in Afghanistan and Iraq, because there’s no clear “This Is the Front Line Where the Fighting Happens.” However, because women couldn’t be classified as combat soldiers, they had no access to the protective gear given to men– vests, helmets, etc. They had to buy them, out of pocket, for when they were doing things like accompanying convoys. The solution was to let women be classified as combat soldiers because they already were, not necessarily because feminists had their panties in a twist because women were barred from some career fields.

      I don’t think that feminism is necessarily pacifist, although I lean in that direction personally. However, I’m a pragmatist, and I don’t see the world existing without militaries for a while, and as long as we have them we should try to make them better.

  • Madeline Costa

    Love this so much. It reminds me of this comic that Feminist Frequency posted. For a long time I thought feminism was about the freedom to choose, but you only get to choose if the option is actually there. For example, I want to have kids but I’m disabled. I don’t know if I will have the energy to work and be a parent at the same time. Even if I have the energy, I don’t know if I will be able to afford quality childcare or if my workplace will be accommodating to both a disability and parenting. Basically, even if I am able to work, do I really have a choice in if I work or not? I guess this is what we are fighting for!

    • Paige

      Exact same line of thought about the kids, I also have a disability.

  • Ysolde

    I find myself vastly agreeing with your post and I had some similar feelings when I read that same exact article a few days ago. I remembered seeing the woman’s argument and accepting that BDSM clubs ought to be free of misogyny and that the actions should be consensual, but I was deeply disturbed by the very idea of suggesting that allowing someone to regiment your life was somehow a feminist action. I feel there’s a huge difference between enjoying a roleplay session from time to time and allowing that roleplay to become your life. Once it has subsumed your life it’s not roleplay anymore it is life and it is someone allowing themselves to be demeaned every day. That’s their chice, but it’s certainly not a choice for freedom or womens liberation.

    In another frame of view I’ve, on many occasions, been in a supposedly feminist circle and been discussing feminist ideals and when someone finds out that I’m a transgendered female suddenly they attack me as if I were a male and that somehow as a transgender female I don’t understand feminism. Which, is honestly the furthest thing from the truth. I am a person who has actually had male privledge at one point in my life and with my transiion that priveledge is basically gone. I understand just how many freebies in simply being male there are and just what women are fighting to get.

    • There are unfortunately a lot of TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) out there, or feminists who follow TERF-style understandings of gender construction– I’m sorry you encountered it.

      What TERF-style gender theory argues is that someone who was perceived by society to be “male” couldn’t have experienced misogyny or sexism directed at them, and wasn’t “socialized female” so feminism isn’t “for” trans women, it’s for women who were perceived to be and treated as women all their life.

      This completely misses the fact that trans women, even when perceived as male, *do* experience misogyny directed at them. I think I might understand this better since I’m commonly perceived to be heterosexual– people will say the worst homophobic shit in front of me assuming that I’m straight and therefore should agree with them. They have no idea that the stuff they’re saying applies to me , and I think the same is possibly roughly equivalent for trans women? All the misogyny our culture spouts– trans women are exposed to it. All the things that are supposed to be “for girls” or “for boys,” all the messaging and gender oppression– trans women received those messages right alongside cis women.

      I think that being trans simply adds another layer of complexity to our understanding and interactions with systemic sexism.

      Thankfully, TERFs are fading out of the discourse somewhat.

      • Ysolde

        Yes to that as well. How many times when I was younger “no that’s for girls” and etcetera…I am glad that some TERFS are fading out, but people like Megyn Kelly are assuredly very much in the Trans Not-accepted place and adding such people in as feminists is just wrong.