Sunday, 2 August 2015

Stay in your lane, or: who gets to talk about the sex industry

So here I am, dipping my toe into that whirlpool of opinion for the first time in a long time, and breaking my own rule about blogging about the sex industry. Why do I have this rule? Because blogging about the sex industry is fraught, with strong and impassioned feelings on all sides, misrepresentation and bad faith, straw men arguments on all sides, and, at the heart of it all, women’s voices being silenced because - as one woman heartbreakingly put it in Kat Banyard’s book The Equality Illusion - it’s ‘hard to have a voice when there’s a cock down your throat.’

However, I’m breaking my rule. Why? Well because of all those reasons. And because I’m a writer who gives a damn about this issue and I’m sick of all the self-censorship. So, here I am. Writing about my views on an industry that affects all women. And I’m writing about it precisely because it affects all women, and so this is a lane that all women are in.

I want to start this post with a story about something that happened in Bristol, the first time a woman in prostitution was awarded criminal compensation for the abuse committed against her. This woman was picked up by a john, gang raped and then thrown from a four storey window, where she was left for dead on the street. She survived, and a charity working with street-based sex workers supported her with her decision to go to the police and go through the courts.

It was not easy. Despite everything she had been through, the judge and jury still equivocated over whether she should be compensated. After all, he had paid. It was her job.

That's the reality of violent male entitlement today. This is how our society still views violence against women in the sex industry. 

In the wake of the Amnesty policy proposal, there has been a lot of debate in the media about the sex industry and the arguments for and against legalisation, decriminalisation, the Nordic model of decriminalisation, and keeping the status quo which to all intents and purposes criminalises women. For a break down of all these issues, take a look at the response to the Young London Labour Summer Conference Motion 8.

There is and continues to be a deliberate blurring of the lines between legalisation, decriminalisation, and criminalisation. I don’t know a feminist worth her salt who doesn't support decriminalisation. Anyone who cares about the safety and well-being of women can not and does not support the criminalisation of women in the sex industry. It’s common sense and it’s care. The existing system of criminalisation prevents a woman from seeking health support, in case she’s arrested. It prevents a woman from seeking police help in the event of rape or violence, in case she’s arrested. It forces street-based sex workers to work in more and more dangerous conditions, in case she’s arrested. And it leads to raids on brothels where women who might need police help are instead, once again, arrested.

Criminalising women in the sex industry is not working - full stop. The status quo is not working. It is dangerous for women and it serves the men who exploit women. That’s not okay and that is why a change to the existing laws is so desperately needed.

However, just because criminalisation isn't working doesn’t make legalisation an answer either. And that is why we have to look at the important differences between decriminalisation and legalisation. The main difference being, as one woman who works with street based sex workers told me:

Decriminalisation means women can access support. Legalisation turns the state into one big pimp.’

Women’s safety is paramount. It has to be. Decriminalisation supports women’s safety. It says to women in the industry that if you are hurt, or sick, or need support then you can access it without fear of police reprisal. And it says to women that if you want to leave the industry, you can access support to exit. It gives women who all too often have very few choices, some choices back. And, of course, it means that women who have been trafficked and abused come forward, they can be given support rather than criminalised.

Because trafficking can’t be ignored in this equation. They are not separate issues - they are massively intertwined. Sex trafficking depends on the continued existence of the sex industry. And as we all know, report after report has shown over and over again that legalisation does not reduce the level of sex trafficking. If nothing else, it just increases demand, and trafficked women are forced to make up the supply.

This, clearly, is one of the main issues with legalisation. It legitimises the demand, and if there aren’t enough women to make up that demand, then more women need to be found. All too often they’re found by traffickers making promises that lead to women being repeatedly raped by up to ten men a day. If a woman or girl escapes this life of slavery, then she is at the mercy of ever harsher immigration laws that could see her deported and then re-trafficked into the industry to to be raped and exploited all over again. Meanwhile, in a legalised setting it becomes harder to prosecute the traffickers who are able to present themselves as businessmen running brothels, and even lobby government to protect their rights as legal pimps.

Legalisation does something else too. And what it does affects every woman. Because it sends a message that women’s bodies are objects that can be bought and sold, and that women’s consent stops being an absolute right and instead becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold as well. It sends a message to johns that they have a legal right to buy women’s consent. And it sends a message to women that our right to consent to sex is dependent on all sorts of contexts.

As a feminist campaigner and writer, I have spent the last decade calling for a better understanding of consent - starting with better sex and relationships education at school. I have written post after post explaining how women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy, that consent is mandatory, and that women - contrary to popular culture - have a sexuality, experience sexual desire, have the right to sexual pleasure, and have a right to say yes and no to the sex we do and don’t want.

The debate to legalise the sex industry undermine all of these arguments. Because the sex industry relies on a basic untruth - that sex is a leisure activity for men, and a work activity for women. It asks us to see sex as something that men have a right to demand, and that women have a duty to give. It ignores the core belief that women have a right to their own sexuality, and instead treats sex as something that women give up in order to get something else.

I’ve seen this argument shouted down by people claiming that historically this is what marriage was like.

That didn’t make it okay either.

And this is where the command to 'stay in your lane' falls down. Because if we live in a world where women’s right to consent is dependent on other factors, then this is my lane. This is something that impacts on all women - and on all women’s expectation of our right to bodily autonomy. If our culture sends out a message that women’s right to consent is negotiable instead of absolute, that women’s consent can be bought and sold, then that impacts on the way all men view all women. That sends out a powerful message about for whom sex is a leisure activity (men), and for whom sex is work (women). And that in turn sends out a powerful message about who gets to have an autonomous sexuality (men) and whose sexuality is only concerned with the needs and demands of others (women).

The existence of the sex industry impacts on all women. It is a visible sign of our inequality in a patriarchal and capitalist society.

First and foremost we need to listen to the voices of women who have experience of the sex industry - just as in any issue on women’s rights we need to hear the voices of women affected. However, more and more over the last week I have seen the ‘stay in your lane’ argument brandished as a weapon designed to shut up those very women whose voices we need to be hearing - as the survivors of prostitution who signed a recent letter to Amnesty are ignored and silenced by a pro sex industry media agenda. Instead, the letter is portrayed as somehow being chiefly authored by Anne Hathaway, who is then mocked because clearly an actress can’t have an opinion.  The signatories of that letter who have survived male violence in the sex industry, and the organisations that support these women, have been completely ignored.

Which is, quite frankly, disgusting. ‘Stay in your lane’ should not be about ignoring the voices you disagree with. It needs to be about raising up all women’s voices. It needs to be about giving women who have been historically silenced a platform, a voice. It should never - must never - be a tool used to shut women up. And yet that is how it is being used by the pro legalisation lobby - to shut up the women whose life experiences of the sex industry do not support their argument.

Before I finish breaking my self-imposed blogging rule, I want to devote a little bit of time to men. Yes, men - because they always seem to be forgotten about in this debate which always ends up focused on a split within the feminist movement.

Apart from a very small percentage, it’s men that make up the demand for the sex industry. It’s male entitlement that says to women that our consent and right to bodily autonomy is negotiable, purchasable, permeable, whilst there’s is respected as absolute.

I sometimes quip in response to arguments about legalisation vs decriminalisation that: ‘rad fems don’t kill women, violent men do’.

Because it’s true. I disagree with the existing legislation on prostitution. But it’s not the laws that kill women. It is men who choose to go out and rape and murder women. It’s not rad fems criticising the structure of the sex industry who cause violence to individual women within the industry, it’s the rapists and murderers - and those rapists and murderers are men. It’s male entitlement and male violence that causes harm to women. The laws need to be changed to protect women from this violence, but we can’t ever prevent that violence if we refuse to name the problem. And that problem is violent male entitlement to women’s bodies. This entitlement to women’s bodies is allowed by an unequal, patriarchal society that positions women as lesser than men and that sends a message to men that women don’t have an absolute right to our bodily autonomy, that we are less than human.

How will legalisation prevent violent men from buying women to rape and abuse? It won’t. It will, instead, send a message to men that they have a legal right to purchase women’s bodies, and legitimise the idea that once paid for, a woman’s body is there’s to do what they like with.

Legalisation won’t change the attitudes of johns who write on punternet (this is not a direct link to puntenet but to the invisible men tumblr) that the women they pay for are ‘dirty cows’ who don’t show ‘enough enthusiasm’; the men who complain that the ‘girls’ make them ‘feel like crap’ because they’re clearly ‘not into it’ (if a woman doesn’t want to have sex with you…and you fuck her anyway…then there’s a word for that and the presence of money shouldn’t change it). Again, it will just send the message to these men that they have entitlement over women’s bodies. That it’s okay for them to fuck a woman who doesn’t want to have sex with them. Which, in turn, impacts on all women.

Think about the rapeyness of those reviews. Remember the women at the start of this post. I honestly don’t understand how legalisation is going to change those attitudes, rather than re-enforce it.

And that’s why I support decriminalisation, which will mean women are no longer treated as criminals, whilst not endorsing the message that women's bodies and rights are up for sale. In particular, I think the Merseyside Model makes a lot of sense. But legalisation, which tells men that women’s right to consent is negotiable? Which tells men that sex is leisure for them and work for us? That’s not equality. That’s not liberation. And that is not women’s safety - it’s male entitlement.

Find out more about one25 and how you can support this amazing organisation supporting street-based sex workers in a non-judgemental way.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Roll up, roll up and gawp at Jack's victims

Yesterday, the local news reported that another young woman had been fatally stabbed in my home city of Bristol. 

Today, another local news source – this time in East London – reported another story about violence against women and girls. Except this time, it’s a story that celebrates? commemorates? explores as a historical curiosity? one of those things anyway, and it does it for a serial killer. I’m talking about the new Jack the Ripper museum that has opened on Cable Street. 

Of course, in one way nothing links those two stories. It just hit me, rather hard. How at the same time that men are killing women at a rate of at least two a week, a museum has opened inviting people to gawp at, discover and explore the story of one of history’s most notorious killers of women – exit through the gift shop if you please. 

As if fatal male violence against women and girls is confined to history. As if it’s nothing more than a historical curiosity. As if it’s not happening today. 

And it struck me how, across popular culture, across our society, over and over again the killing of women is just reduced to a cult story – not something that happens to us everyday, and happens to us today for the same reasons as it did in the 1890s. It happens because these are gendered hate crimes. It happens because some men hate women. Because some men believe women have no human feelings, have no right to humanity. 

It’s hard to decide what I’m most horrified by, when it comes to this Ripper museum. Is it the souvenir glass, that reduces women to a smudge of red blood whilst the killer is given a body, some movement, a sense of a personality? The logo, that once again reduces women to a smear of blood, whilst the killer is a full human being? Is it Mr Palmer-Edgcumbe explaining how the museum will look at ‘how and why the women got into the situation in the first place’? (because that’s how fatal male violence works, right? Women get themselves into these situations where men kill us. The men, well…let’s not give them any agency in this one instance, how about it?)

Or is it the fact that this museum was originally designed to celebrate women’s lives? That’s right. It was supposed to be a museum dedicated to telling herstory – to coin an old phrase that could have featured in the museum. In a grotesque subversion of its intention, it has now become a gory re-look at the man who kills women. Instead of a celebration of what women do, we now have a museum reminding us of what some men choose to do to women. 

Yes, I think it’s that last one. 

Imagine, for a moment, what that museum could have been. A look at the lives of London’s women throughout the ages. Okay, I only did A-level history and so the gaps in my knowledge are woeful, but bear with me. We could have had information about the women who campaigned with the Chartists, the women who disguised themselves as men to fight in wars, the women who dared to write, to paint, to sculpt, the working class women whose history has been ignored and silenced, the suffragists, the women of Cable Street in 1936, the abolitionist women, the suffragettes, the anti-racism campaigners, the women who have worked and shouted and created and fought and demanded that all women are taken seriously. We could have had feminists across the waves and politicians and activists and writers and creators and workers and trade unionists. We could have had a real celebration of everything that women have done throughout history – everything that women have spoken out for and contributed to and built for their sisters. 

And instead of women whose lives were defined by what they lived and did, we have women who – thanks to the actions of a violent man – have had that life stolen from them, so that they have become defined instead by their deaths. 

We have women robbed of their lives, robbed of their humanity. 

We have women who have become the sideshow to a man’s story. 

At the centre of it all, stands – quite literally – the man who killed them. 

And we are reminded – once again – that as women, we’re more historically interesting when we’re a silenced, dumped body, than when we are raising our voices and campaigning for liberation. 

And we are reminded – once again – that as women, we’re only interesting when we are props in a man’s story. Even better when it’s a violent man’s story

Why celebrate women, after all, when you can celebrate a man? Why give women a space, a history, a voice, when instead you can celebrate the man who kills us? 

Friday, 17 July 2015

Why do we show rapists empathy, and not their victims?

It’s a mark of how much our society struggles to see women as fully human who deserve respect and who have a right to bodily autonomy when we, as a society, continue to express more sympathy for rapists than rape victims.  (#notallmen etc. etc. to ad nauseum)

I’m talking in this instance of a case in Ireland, where a man admitted to raping his partner in her sleep multiple times. The woman was taking medication to help her sleep, medication that pretty much knocked her out. For nearly a year, her partner regularly raped her when she was in this unconscious state. 

One would imagine that a man who admitted raping his partner around ten times – assaults that led to the woman experiencing post-traumatic stress, assaults that led to her suffering anxiety, assaults that led to her suffering nightmares, assaults that led to not one but two suicide attempts – you would imagine that a serial rapist found guilty of these crimes would now be locked up where he could cause no more harm to any more women.

But you would think wrong. This man got a suspended sentence of seven years. He walked out of that courtroom with a guilty conviction and no prison time. He pays no cost for the violent crimes he repeatedly committed. His victim pays the cost in mental health and trauma. 

How can an admitted serial rapist walk free from court? Because the judge had sympathy for him. And why did the judge have sympathy for him? Because we endow men with humanity in a way we still don’t for women. We just don’t. If we did, we would recognise that a man who has violated a woman’s bodily autonomy deserves the full force of the law, not the empathy and compassion he so spectacularly failed to extend to the woman he repeatedly assaulted. We would recognise that it is she, not him, that deserves our sympathy and kindness. If we cared about women, then the judge would not have rewarded a rapist for being an “open and honest” guy who admitted what he did. The judge would not believe that this “admirable” admission of guilt meant he did not have to face justice for the crimes he repeatedly committed. 

Apparently without his admissions it would have been impossible to prosecute. It sends a message doesn’t it? You can rape a woman. You can repeatedly rape her. But so long as you say so, and say sorry, you won’t have to go to prison. So long as you say so, and say sorry, you won’t have to really face any consequences. So long as you say so, and say sorry, people might even start to feel sorry for you

You just need to read the comments made in response to this case to see how little we value women’s humanity and how willingly we can be to defend a rapist. Commenters quoted in Emer O’Toole’s article in the Guardian write:   

Is the judge supposed to treat him like a case where a house is broken into and a woman is raped by a stranger holding a knife to her throat?’

Well, yes. The judge should treat a rapist like a rapist. He should sentence a serial rapist appropriately. Rape is rape and repeatedly raping your partner is against the law. 

This is the low end of the scale. When was the last time you asked your partner for consent? Never. No one asks for consent when they’re living with a lover. So we must all be rapists then.’

Firstly, if you have sex without consent then you are a rapist, yes. If you have sex with a woman who is unconscious and unable to consent, then that is not sex. It is rape. If you cannot tell if the woman you are having sex with is consenting, if you don’t recognise consent, then please refrain from speaking to or approaching any women in the future. 

And secondly, ‘this is the low end of the scale’? Repeatedly raping a woman over the course of the year is the ‘low end of the scale’? A woman suffering anxiety, PTSD and enduring suicide attempts is the ‘low end of the scale’? I’m sorry, but what? What would be the high end of the scale? How many times should a man rape a woman before he deserves jail time? How much must a woman endure before she deserves justice? 

Maybe he needs medical help and treatment instead of fifty lashes…Maybe think more compassionately about this.

Well, he didn’t actually get 50 lashes, did he? He didn’t even get a jail sentence. So if you don’t mind, I’ll reserve my compassion for the survivor, who he raped, who bravely went to the police, who bravely went to court, who bravely spoke out, who bravely waived her right to anonymity, and who now has to see her rapist walk free, his actions defended, compassion for him demanded. I won’t give my compassion to a man who respected women so little, that he refused to acknowledge his partner’s absolute right to bodily autonomy and instead made the deliberate choice to repeatedly rape her.  

Yesterday the Irish Independent reported a radio debate that focused on this case. On the ‘Right Hook’ show, the presenter argued:

So now you are sharing a bed with someone and obviously a sexual congress takes place on a regular basis, because you’re living with somebody. Now is there not an implied consent therefore that you consent to sexual congress?’


Consent is not some kind of open door policy. Consenting to sex once does not mean my vagina is then at someone else’s disposal for as and when they want to have sex. Sleeping in the same bed with someone is not an automatic consent to sex, having a relationship with someone is not an automatic consent to sex, having sex with someone previously – even on the same night – is not an automatic consent to more sex. 

Sex without consent is rape. You always need consent. And an unconscious, sleeping woman cannot consent to sex. 


And once again, with this quote, we see where the empathy lies. The perplexed tone suggests that we should side with the man – after all, what else could that man expect? She shared his bed, surely that meant she was now his to do what he liked with? Surely we should feel compassion towards him? After all, isn’t consent a bit confusing? After all, she was in bed with him? After all, what else do women expect?  

It’s classic victim blaming territory. And it’s an example of how willing we are as a society to attempt to let the man off the hook, whilst placing at least some of the blame on the woman. We are constantly finding excuses for men’s criminal behaviour in a way we simply don’t for women. The compassion, empathy and understanding extended to rapists – admitted, serial rapists – is just another way in which we grant men full humanity, and deny it to women. 

Is there another crime where we demand such compassion for the perpetrators? If he were a serial burglar would we be expected to show him empathy? If he went out and repeatedly beat up other men, would we blame his victims for walking along the street? Isn’t it telling that it is only when a man rapes a woman that we’re supposed to ‘see it from his perspective’? Isn’t it telling that it is only when a man rapes a woman that he is rewarded for honesty? Isn’t it telling that it is only when a man rapes a woman that we are asked to show him, and not her, compassion?  

This story is not uncommon. Take the Steubenville case. Here, the violent treatment of the victim was forgotten as journalists wrung their hands in despair about the impact the assaults would have on the ‘promising athlete’s careers’. Take the Oscar Pistorius case, and the concern about his ‘ruined life’ – as if it weren’t his own actions that sent him to the courtroom. Take the Ched Evans case, where she was blamed for ‘ruining his life’ as if it weren’t his own choice to rape. As if he weren’t wholly responsible for the violence he committed. Take the Bill Cosby case, where over 40 women came forward with the same story and still society shrugged and refused to believe them. Take the Jimmy Savile case, where those brave enough to speak out were dismissed as ‘just the women’. 

Why do we extend our empathy and our belief to rapists? Why do we choose to believe men over women? Why do we hear men’s voices louder than women’s? Why do we think a man who repeatedly raped his partner deserves our compassion, and not his victim? 

The only conclusion I am ever able to come to is that we don’t see women as fully human. We don’t value women’s bodily autonomy and we don’t value women’s voices. Because if we did, we would not ‘debate’ whether her rape was real rape. We would not ‘debate’ whether she had given up her right to consent, or that consent is something that is dependent on context. We would not demand compassion for her rapist. And we would not reward her rapist for the honesty that he never extended to her.  

Sunday, 5 July 2015

When men get to be fully human, and women are just objects to use and abuse

Oh no! I hear you cry. Not you too. You're not weighing in on *that* video are you? 

Well, take your oh noes with you. Yes I am kind of weighing in on that video, and no I’m kind of not. So much has been written about it in the last 48 hours there’s nothing I can really add or want to add to commentary on the video in particular. But I do want to talk about one trope used in the video and what that *specific* trope tells us about sexual violence and women’s humanity. 

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then first, don’t you live on Twitter like I do? I’m talking about the new Rihanna music video that landed with a bang online on Thursday night and has been intensely debated ever since. The video tells the story of Rihanna’s row with her accountant who has ripped her off. She decides to get back at him by kidnapping his (white, rich) girlfriend, stripping her, stringing her upside-down, forcing drink and drugs on her and basically enacting a whole heap of violence on her. Rihanna then kills the accountant.

The video has caused a lot of controversy and a lot of debate. But as I say, what I specifically want to talk about is the suggestion in the video’s narrative that the best way to get at a man, is to symbolically attack him by physically or sexually attacking *his* woman. 

Because to me, that is so key to this video, it’s what is going on in many more narratives in our popular culture, and it is, horrifyingly, the reality of far too many girls living in the world today. 

Rihanna isn’t the first person to use this trope. As Helen Lewis pointed out in the New Statesman, this is the standard Liam Neeson movie plot of the last decade (along with being screen married to much younger women…). It is a staple of our cultural landscape - from the rape of Lucrece and Lavinia to countless movies where men are forced to watch as men rape their wives (also mentioned in Lewis’ article). 

What this portrayal of violence against women is telling us is that an effective way to bring a man down, to hurt another man, is to attack his “property” - AKA “his” woman. And this gives us an interesting insight into how we view men and women. 

In these narratives, men are allowed full humanity. They are allowed to feel rage and anger and despair and sadness. We watch those emotions drive men forward. The kidnappers intent on wreaking revenge on Liam Neeson’s character in every-film-ever taunt him with what they’ll do to his female relative because they know he will emotionally react. Rihanna strings up Ms Accountant because she knows that hurting her will be recognised as an attack on the man she loathes. 

Because men get to be human with human reactions and human emotions. 

And women? Well, we don’t get that. Instead, we get to be the objects that the violence is enacted on. 

That’s what makes me angry about this cultural trope - from Shakespeare to Rihanna. Women are not allowed to be fully human. We are just the objects. We’re the property of men and by violating that property, the men get emotionally hurt. Meanwhile, the physical and sexual violence done to women to emotionally hurt that man matters less. We’re just pawns in the fight between (usually) men. We’re an object; we don’t get to feel. Our physical suffering becomes his emotional suffering. The actual physical and sexual violence done to our bodies becomes secondary to the symbolic violence suffered by the men. 

As I say, this is nothing new. Even when you think of the etymology of the word ‘rape’ you see how women’s bodies are objects to be swapped between men - how the crime is against the man because his property has been violated, not against the woman who has been directly attacked. 

Of course, if this was just something that only happened in action films, Renaissance plays and music videos it would be one thing. But this isn't just a cultural trope. This is happening to women and girls in real life every single day. It is happening around the world, and it is happening in the UK. 

Perhaps this issue is a little close to my heart because I recognise it as something that happened to me - on a far, far less violent scale but still an act of male violence. I wrote about it here and here. I’m not going to rehash it all but suffice to say, I very strongly believe that what happened to me was an act of aggression against a male relative using my body (or, to be more exact, my hair) as the cipher. 

Please note I am not comparing this small act of violence against me with the horrific violence against women I’m about to discuss. But different scales aside, the motivations behind the violence share a commonality - the desire to symbolically attack or send a message to another man via physically or sexually attacking a woman who is somehow attached to him. And that is allowed to happen because we as a society allow men full humanity, and don’t afford the same respect to women. As we continue to treat women as objects, as the property of men, then the symbolic violence is done to the man whose property has been violated. The horrors enacted on the woman are secondary.

This is something that we know about from the use of rape as a weapon of war. Here, women’s bodies are weaponised. Raping women is seen as a way to emasculate and shame the community. 

Last year I did some research on violence against women in Guatemala where this kind of act is frighteningly common. I read page after page of women being beaten, raped, mutilated and killed - left in places where rival gangs would see the violence and “get the message”. These women were completely denied their humanity. They were treated as objects to be used and abused in order to symbolically attack other men. If you can find the Amnesty report from 2006 on the killings (my link is broken for some reason) then it makes grim reading. It’s a litany of horrific violence. It’s a demonstration of what happens when women are seen as objects and not fully human. 

But we don’t have to go so far away as Guatemala to witness women’s bodies being used to attack other men. Gangs in the UK are increasingly raping girls who are seen as ‘belonging’ to rival male gang members. As Carlene Firmin told the Guardian last year: 

young women connected to gangs were viewed as "currency" by rival outfits and attacked accordingly,”

The Guardian reported:

London gangs are drawing up and disseminating lists of teenage girls whom they consider to be legitimate rape targets, as sexual violence is increasingly used to spread fear and antagonise rival groups.”

That word, currency. That’s interesting. That shows just how little we value women. We’re not people. We’re objects to be exchanged. To be passed around. 

And look at that second quote. Where sexual violence is not seen as a horrific violent act done by men to women. Instead it’s seen as a weapon to symbolically attack other men. 

That’s what made me cross about the Rihanna video, what makes me cross about all those action movies, what makes me cross about any cultural event that treats women’s bodies as objects to use and abuse, and treats men as the ‘real victims’ as they get to be fully human people.

Because this is our lives. This is women’s real lives. And so long as we are happy to treat women as non-human, so long as we are happy to accept that women are objects and men are people, then men will continue to treat women’s bodies as weapons - whilst the actual harm done to women is seen as secondary to the ‘symbolic’ harm done to men. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Playboy Feminism TM isn't feminism, it's the same old misogyny

No one wants to be ugly. No one wants to be the unsexy one. No one wants to be rejected. 

And that, I think, is what makes this weird phenomena of ‘Playboy Feminism TM’ so attractive. 

Okay, if like me you read the phrase ‘Playboy Feminism TM’ and went WTAF, I thought Playboy was rather antithetic to feminism seeing as it involves Hefner’s insistence on being flanked by much younger women and the magazine’s 50+ years history of treating women as disposable objects for male consumption, then you have my sympathy. 

But no! It’s 2015 and let go off your anti-porn hang ups ladies, because apparently these days Playboy is totes feminist. In fact it always was, and the proof is that they got a bloke to write an article telling all us boring women feminists how we’ve done feminism wrong, and Playboy-reading men have done feminism right (sorry guys who read Playboy thinking they were sticking it to the feminist movement. Turns out you were feminists all along! Oops!).

Of course, Playboy has always tried to claim itself as feminist. Which is weird because I just can’t believe their reading demographic has ever cared that much about feminism? Hefner once claimed he was a “feminist before feminism was invented” (soz Mary Wollstonecraft. But he is a man you know…). He based this claim on the idea that feminism was (in part) about liberating women’s sexuality (true) and Playboy was a key player in the sexual revolution (which did very little to liberate women). Because, you know, Playboy’s aim was to free sex from the confines of strict Victorian morality. That he and others like him tried to free sex from the confines of Victorian morality only to trap it back into a big box marked CAPITALISM is better left unsaid… 

The problem was, Hef, that despite your protestations that you totally “get” feminism, you kept on insisting on saying really shitty things about women. You know, how the perfect woman was like a bunny rabbit with a clean mind, not like those ‘filthy’ women with their ‘lace and satin underwear” (yes, I know this doesn’t make any sense but he said it – check out Female Chauvinist Pigs for the full quote). 

To be fair to Playboy (the only time I will EVER say that), the magazine did donate money to pro choice and other feminist campaigns. But that doesn’t take away the fact that throughout its history, Playboy has made money by treating women as disposable objects displayed for the male gaze (sometimes without their consent – see Marilyn Monroe. Which kind of tells you all you need to know about how much they respect women’s “choices”…).

So anyway, back to the present and Noah Berlatsky – the man who wrote this latest article on why Playboy is feminist. As Meghan Murphy says in the New Statesman today: 

Indeed, Playboy’s foremost “feminist” writer is Noah Berlatsky, whose work exemplifies their longstanding approach to feminism: men know what’s best for feminism, regardless of what feminists say. His political philosophy appears to be “equal objectification for all”, which fits perfectly with the brand. It’s the idea that the more women we can view as “fuckable”, the more women will be liberated.

Today, Playboy and writers such as Berlatsky emphasise “choice” and “consent” in their writing on female sexuality – the objectified are meant to be eager about their objectification, not forced, not begrudging. 

It’s a type of “feminism” (not feminism) that embraces the male gaze and sells women the lie that being treated as always and only an object is an act of liberation. It's an argument that goes that women who oppose or challenge male defined ideals of beauty, and the idea that all women must spend time, money and energy on trying to match them, are being cruel to the women who “choose” to do this. He thinks that seeing as it’s a woman’s "choice" to conform to beauty standards she didn’t create, any criticism of those standards is a personal attack on each individual woman

But this is such bullshit. There’s no other word for it.

It’s a completely libertarian approach (which is not surprising coming from a magazine that treats sex and sexuality as a performance to sell for profit – hel-lo capitalism!) that tells women that their “choice” to be objectified by men is a free one. It’s not. We live in an unequal, patriarchal and capitalist society. The choices women make to survive in this society are informed by that inequality. 

That’s not a nice thing to think. Of course we want to believe that we make free choices – that our choices are not impacted by the gross inequality women live through. But in a society where women’s value as human beings is so often predicated on their ability to meet the Patriarchal Fuckability Test (PFT), our choices aren’t free (both metaphorically and in monetary terms – conforming to the PFT ain’t cheap). This doesn’t mean each individual woman is bad or wrong for making these ‘choices’. We do what we can to survive in this society. But to say that all the choices we make are free and equal is simply untrue. Otherwise why is it only in the last 10 years that so many UK women have ‘freely chosen’ to spend a fortune waxing off their pubes? Or having bits of their labia needlessly lopped off?

Again, this is not about judging the women making these choices. It’s about looking at the pressures society puts on women to make these choices and changing that society to end patriarchal oppression.  
Unlike Playboy Feminism TM’s claim, women won't be liberated through being objectified – through making the “choice” to be treated as objects. Because that is not a choice women can freely make in this unequal society. We are treated like objects whether we consent to it or not. We may be objectified in a way that meets male approval. And we may be treated as an object that greets male derision. It all depends whether we pass or fail the PFT. Neither of those are choices women freely make. Neither of those things represents freedom. Neither of those things gives women any power. 

And Playboy is part of that problem – it props up a culture that judges women and predicates women’s value on their fuckability. It is not part of the solution. That’s why – for all its bigging up of its feminist creds – Playboy would never publish an article that discussed the impact of mass capitalist sexualisation of women on young girls’ self esteem. That dared to talk about how young girls grow up pressured to act out what their boyfriends saw in porn. That looked at how treating women like dehumanised objects on the page and on the screen might link to the treatment of women like dehumanised objects in “real life”. Because Playboy Feminism TM isn’t concerned with the rights of women to be treated as fully human. They just want to reassure men who worry that looking at the centrefold makes them look sexist. ‘We’re not sexist!’ Playboy cries. ‘And neither are you! Women love being objectified! They chose it! It’s feminist now!’

It’s bullshit, is what it is. 

Playboy Feminism TM wants us to agree to our dehumanisation and treat it as liberation. It tells us that the hatred we may feel towards our bodies is the result of second wave feminists telling us to reject a culture that treats us as objects, not the culture that treats us as objects itself. It tells us that our liberation, our freedom, our happiness, our health, our rights, all depend on men finding us attractive. On men liking us.

And that brings me back to the start of this post. Because we all want to be liked. We all want to be found attractive. We don’t want to be called the names that men use to mock, deride and silence women. 

But, to paraphrase Levy, you can be the woman the Playboy Feminism TM men like. But so long as they see women as lesser – which they do – and so long as they see women as objects and not fully human – which they do – then you will still be lesser to them.

And that’s too high a price for me to pay, I don’t know about you. 

Women’s liberation does not rest on men finding us attractive. Women’s liberation won’t be achieved by us meekly accepting our status as objects of the male gaze. Women’s liberation is about fighting back against the oppressive structures that uphold gender inequality – that mean woman as a class are oppressed by men as a class. Women’s liberation recognises that we are subjects, not objects. Women’s liberation is about giving women real choices and real power. 

Playboy Feminism TM wants us to accept this particular manifestation of women’s inequality as our liberation. It reduces everything down to individual choice, slags off the gains of our feminist sisters, and ignores structural power and inequality. It demands everything of women and nothing of men.

That’s not feminism. It’s just the same old misogyny.

Such feminism! This account of life in the Playboy mansion makes grim reading. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Emergency contraception and the shaming of women

Ella One, a type of ‘morning after pill’ has been licensed for under-16s to use in the UK – a positive move in my book that gives girls access to emergency contraception should they need it. 

Of course, the move has not been without its critics – criticism that, as ever with these issues, refuses to acknowledge the reality of girls’ lives and instead chooses to focus on shaming young women for their sexuality and their reproductive rights. 

I would hate to be a teenage girl today. We live in a society that fetishizes youth to often frightening extremes (the existence of ‘barely legal’ p0rn categories tells us all we need to know) whilst at the same time shaming women who choose to engage in consensual sexual activity (he’s a stud, she’s slut – some things haven’t moved on). At the same time, teenage girls are under huge pressure to perform sexual availability, and coercion and sexual violence in teen relationships has reached a shocking high. We know there is a huge problem with young women being sexualised and the pressures put on them to perform a male-defined version of ‘sexy’ at all times. Yet in our reluctance to provide young people with proper sex education, we deny young women a voice and criticise efforts to give teenagers access to information about their sexuality and sexual health. 

It’s remarkably hypocritical. We despair about sexualisation. The Mail prints mock-outraged articles about sexualisation (illustrated with plenty of lascivious images of teen girls for good measure). And yet when there’s a chance to equip young people with the information and resources they need to negotiate their sexuality and reproductive health, we condemn it. 

No one is arguing that teenage girls should be having sex. But we know that some teenagers are going to have sex whatever adults say. And knowing this as a fact, isn’t it better that we ensure they have access to contraception, including emergency contraception, should they need it? Shouldn’t we do everything we can to ensure that if teenagers do choose to have sex, the sex they have is safe? Isn’t providing teenagers with clear, informative education about their sexual health options and giving them a voice to talk about their sexuality our best hope at raising a generation of young people who are mature, informed, and respectful around sex? 

When I was at school my sex and relationships education was…interesting. But hey, at least I had it – I realise now what a privilege that was. Around the time I was enduring SRE (15 years ago fact fans!) there was a debate going on in the news about underage access to contraception. It was either the pill or the morning after pill – I can’t remember exactly (the only thing I really remember about SRE was our lesson on STDs because it was given with an illustrated book of Mr and Mrs Hedgehog who had caught everything from syphilis to genital warts. NO I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY EITHER.) Anyway, so there we were talking about access to contraception and my SRE teacher said that the pill and the morning after pill:

make it too easy.”

There are so many things wrong with that statement which is why I remember it today, along with my hedgehog friends. 

Firstly, it should be easy to access contraception. And that should be the case today, but all too often it isn’t. Chemists can still refuse to provide the morning after pill on ‘moral’ grounds (because apparently their religion trumps my reproductive rights!). It can be difficult to get to your surgery, pharmacy or walk-in centre (especially as the latter have been cut so desperately) on weekends or if you live in rural areas – as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s article today explains.  And then of course, there’s the interview – a procedure which really should focus on health and whether there’s been any coercion, but all too often asks embarrassing and personal questions that can leave a woman feeling awkward and ashamed. 


And women should be supported to have full access to our reproductive rights, which is why we need to abolish the ‘moral objection’ rule. You’re a chemist. Do your job. 

Another thing wrong with the ‘it makes it too easy’ statement is how it sits a little too close to the idea that women are the gatekeepers of sex. 

What I find particularly galling about this is how it refuses to allow for the fact that women might, you know, want to have sex, and that wanting to – in a mutually consensual and respectful relationship – (and that can be long or short term – it’s the mutual, consensual, respectful bit that counts) is okay. We don’t talk about this. Instead, we persist in talking about sex as something that men do, and that is done to women. 

This rhetoric has damaging repercussions on all women – particularly in regards to male violence and coercion. As mentioned before, sexual violence in teen relationships is frighteningly high. If we continue to talk about sex as something that is done to women, and don’t acknowledge that women have a right to their bodily autonomy and their right to say no to the sex they don’t want, and yes to the sexual contact they do want, then this is only going to get worse. It means girls grow up with 'silent bodies'. Further, if we continue to shame young women, then teenage girls who are experiencing violence or coercion are not given the space to speak out and seek support. Our messed up attitude to young people and sexuality, sex education and sexual health, is seriously letting down our young women. This has got to change. 

When my SRE teacher told us that giving young people access to contraception made having sex “too easy”, she was talking about teen boys trying to persuade teen girls into having sex. She argued that if girls had access to the pill or the MAP, then that was another weapon in the boy’s ‘armoury’, one less defence a girl had. 

What this conversation didn’t do was talk about how no one has any right whatsoever to verbally coerce another person into having sex. What it didn’t do was tell the young men and women in our class that if a man puts pressure on a woman to have sex she doesn’t want to have, then he is unequivocally in the wrong. Instead, we were told that not being on the pill gave girls a ‘good reason’ to refuse sex, and being on the pill made it ‘too easy’ to ‘give in’. What we surely should have been told is that girls shouldn't need to come up with excuses if they don't want to have sex. We should be teaching young men and women that 'NO' is enough. That 'NO' should be respected. That coercion is never okay, is in fact a crime. 

It was all very ‘boys will be boys and girls need to gate keep’ – that it was up to women to put up barriers to sex. Men didn’t have to take the same kind of responsibility. 

What this conversation also didn’t do was talk about how a woman might want to have sex as much as her partner, and therefore has a right to information about her reproductive health and access to contraception (obviously the best advice is to use a condom and I am not advocating choosing the morning after pill over a condom. But women should have access to and information about all our contraceptive options. I’m also, again obviously, not suggesting young people have sex when they are underage. However, once again, everyone should have access to contraception should they need it, along with advice and support about sex and sexuality.).

Finally, anything that makes it easier for a girl or woman who has been raped to access emergency contraception and support is vital. All the hand-wringing about access to the morning after pill, and the moral posturing from (mostly) men who have never needed to access it, almost always ignores the needs of women and girls who have been attacked and who need medical and emotional care as quickly as possible. 

Giving teenage girls access to emergency contraception isn’t going to make them have sex. But denying them access to it isn’t going to stop them having sex either. Teenagers are always going to experiment with their sexuality. We need to make sure that when they choose to, it is both of their choices and that they respect one another’s choices. And we need to make sure that they have access to the information and healthcare they need to be safe. Having to take the morning after pill is never ideal. But it is better if it is available to everyone who may one day need it, and that everyone who needs it can access it free from judgement or shaming. 

Are you a young person? Brook is a great resource for sexual health information. 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

For Everyday Victim Blaming: When is a murder not a murder?

I wrote something for Everyday Victim Blaming about the use of 'domestic incident' to describe fatal male violence.

When is a murder not a murder? 

My writing has been published in Everyday Victim Blaming's eBook, available here.