Three New Takes on Feminism: In the Dorm, in the Economy and Around the World

A Manifesto
By Donna Freitas
231 pp. Oxford University. $19.95.

Freitas offers an in-depth accounting of the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, analyzing both the likely exacerbating factors and various successful or ill-advised response strategies from universities. Based on a decade of research, her book is measured and rigorously reasonable, taking pains not to stray too far in any ideological direction. Freitas, a lecturer on women’s issues and a well-regarded Y.A. author, elucidates the role alcohol and partying play in assaults, but insists that young women must not be held responsible for the violence committed against them. She stresses that the cultural factors that enable sexual assault are pervasive beyond the campus walls, but is optimistic that institutions can implement policies to help their students navigate sex responsibly and safely.

She is most emphatic and prescriptive in her examination of “hook-up culture,” the ritualized patterns of casual sex that are common among young people. Hook-up culture has long been a source of moral panic for adult observers of college life, and those who are weary of such condemnations might find Freitas a bit grating when she says that one cause of sexual assault on campuses may be the absence of emotional intimacy between college sexual partners. It’s a claim that ignores both the statistics showing that a great deal of sexual violence occurs within romantic relationships, and the reality that a lot of thoroughly consensual sex happens between people who are not in love.

The book gets into the weeds with a detailed study of failed university responses to sexual assaults, and readers outside the academy might lose interest toward the end, which specifies the ways large universities can be slow-moving, traditional and behind the times. But Freitas is worth reading for her interviews with college students, whom she treats with an uncommon degree of dignity and respect. They are, she reminds us, the experts in their own lives.

The Disastrous Global Crisis of Gender Inequality
By Augusto López-Claros and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani
312 pp. St. Martin’s. $28.99.

An unconventional collaboration between a former World Bank economist and a novelist, “Equality for Women = Prosperity for All” analyzes how women’s exclusion from work and educational opportunities inhibits economic growth. López-Claros and Nakhjavani set out to prove the equation in their title by examining the fiscal ramifications of social phenomena like “son preference,” domestic violence, workforce gender imbalance, job segregation, cultural taboos, civil rights and education. The book serves largely as a showcase for data collected by the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law initiative, and provides a convincing argument that women’s rights and education can stimulate economic growth at the national level, in some cases dramatically.

The book is guided by an economist’s sensibilities, and Nakhjavani’s lyrical novelist’s ear rarely manages to mitigate the dryness of López-Claros’s writing. As a reading experience, it leaves something to be desired — a lost opportunity, given the inherent drama and moral stakes of their argument. But the book’s most distracting flaw is that morality itself seems tangential to its thesis. Viewing women primarily as human capital with earning potential, rather than as human beings with imaginations, desires, enthusiasms and senses of humor, makes sense for the calculations of an economist. But the posture becomes distracting when, for example, the book shifts abruptly from a discussion of Maria Da Penha, a Brazilian woman whose abusive husband twice attempted to murder her in 1982 (first with a gun, then by electrocution and drowning), to the impact that domestic violence can have on women’s productivity at work. López-Claros and Nakhjavani are persuasive in arguing that such systematic mistreatment of women impedes economic growth and leads to lost revenue, lost opportunities and wasted money. But it’s depressing to think that anyone would need to make such a crass economic case in advocating for women’s rights.

New Writing From Brit Bennett, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and 15 Others on Intersectionality, Identity, and the Way Forward for Feminism
Edited by June Eric-Udorie
258 pp. Penguin Press. Paper, $16.

After a successful campaign to get feminism included on Britain’s A-level standardized tests, the 20-year-old Irish-born Nigerian-British feminist Eric-Udorie makes her publishing debut with “Can We All Be Feminists?,” an anthology of essays she edited in which 17 writers consider feminism’s problems, failures and inadequacies. The book highlights feminist complacency regarding women of color; immigrant women; lesbian, bisexual or transgender women; sex workers and others. The anthology’s writers wield their perspectives as members of these groups to challenge the presumption in the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2014 manifesto, “We Should All Be Feminists.”

Many of the essays observe that mainstream white feminists have been bigoted, callous or insular, and they gesture at opportunities to make the movement better reflect the full range of women’s experiences. Eishar Kaur, a member of Britain’s Punjabi diaspora, explains how her treasured cultural heritage has been reductively dismissed as patriarchal oppression by an incurious, white-dominated feminist movement. Evette Dionne, the black American editor of Bitch Media, provides a devastating history of violence, including sexual violence, inflicted on black women by the police — and traditional feminism’s disturbing willingness to ignore it in the interest of cozying up to law enforcement.

Other essays miss the mark, or contain odd conceptions of what a feminist project might be. The disability rights advocate Frances Ryan dubiously suggests that abortion rights may be ableist, since pregnancies with abnormal fetuses are sometimes terminated. In another essay, on the power of media representation, the commentator Aisha Gani claims a victory for feminism in the success of the Somali-American beauty queen Halima Aden, a semifinalist in the Miss Minnesota U.S.A. pageant. Gani does not explain what is particularly liberating about victory in a competition that ranks women based on their attractiveness to men. Much of “Can We All Be Feminists?” reminds us just how often feminists have failed to listen. Parts of the book also remind us how feminism has not been listened to.

Moira Donegan is a writer living in New York. Her first book, on sexual harassment and assault, is forthcoming.

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