Books

BIG SISTER IS WATCHING YOU

SUE FERGUSON July 26 2004
Books

BIG SISTER IS WATCHING YOU

SUE FERGUSON July 26 2004

BIG SISTER IS WATCHING YOU

Canadian criminologist Neil Boyd tackles his latest controversy: feminism’s ‘sexual McCarthyism’

Books

SUE FERGUSON

NEIL BOYD KNOWS how to stir a pot. In the past 16 years, he’s denounced mandatory minimum sentences for murderers, promoted decriminalizing marijuana, and argued that biology, not culture, is primarily responsible for male aggression. You might think this last position, which he staked out in The Beast Within (2000), puts the Simon Fraser University criminologist in league with another group of biological reductionists, radical feminists. Think again. With his most recent book, Big Sister (Greystone Books), Boyd, a self-described equality feminist, takes on what he calls “extreme feminism.” Its doctrine that women are victims of an aggressive male sexuality, he argues, has infiltrated North American laws regulating pornography, sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence. In the process, it’s spawned a “sexual McCarthyism” that undermines feminism as a whole.

This is tricky territory. As Boyd acknowledges, he risks creating a backlash against all struggles for women’s equality. Yet there’s

another reason he needs to tread carefully around his subject: it’s been done before. His main targets, American anti-pornography crusaders Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, are two of the most prominent—and lambasted—feminists on the continent. And his criticisms of the two are familiar: they head an Orwellian sorority that encourages women not only to make questionable claims about their intimate experiences, but to see themselves as victims.

Fortunately, the author does more than simply revisit old debates. He examines the way extreme feminist values have insinuated themselves into certain legal principles.

In detailing an array of disconcerting recent cases, he makes the point that if the public debate over the effects of extreme feminism has cooled, the risk it poses to civil rights in the U.S. and Canada has not.

Boyd also raises his eyebrows at some of the claims made to support Big Sister politics: that only two per cent of women lie about rape (the reality, he insists, is perhaps as high as 20 per cent); that up to 50 per cent of women will be assaulted by someone they know (he says less than nine per cent of women are battered); that mandatory arrest for wife assault always reduces the likelihood the batterer will strike again (not according to three case studies on the issue).

These are powerful arguments that do seem to invite a backlash. But Boyd is careful to emphasize that women are still in need of certain legal protections (the overwhelming majority, he stresses, don’t lie about rape, and men are 10 times more likely than women to kill). Feminism, he writes, “continues to be the most important social movement of the last century.” Still, he leaves the back door ajar for antifeminists. Because he doesn’t adequately address the fact that the old laws weren’t working for women, an unforgiving reader might conclude we should go back to the way things were. Similarly, in his final chapter, Boyd calls for greater sexual tolerance but fails to suggest how his vision differs from what was on offer in the 1970s— a fairly sexually tolerant decade, but hardly a feminist utopia. (More helpfully, he advocates a shift from blame-seeking to problemsolving within the justice system.)

Boyd also unwisely takes on what he sees as the breeding ground of extreme feminism: women’s studies departments. He acknowledges that many produce “excellent scholarship,” but argues they’ve outlived their usefulness. Women, he writes, “have taken their rightful place in academia,” where they now make up about half of law and medical faculties. Fair enough—channelling feminists into separate departments tends to ghettoize their research. But the picture Boyd paints is incomplete. While the gender scales are roughly balanced among students, women occupied just 38 per cent of Canadian tenure-track faculty positions last year and a mere 18 per cent of Canada Research Chairs. Feminists may have some reason to hold on to their ghetto for a little while longer. n

Big Sister: How Extreme Feminism has Betrayed the Fight for Sexual Equality, Greystone Books; $22.95