Dec 23, 2012

Some thoughts on sex positivity* & purchasing consent

I've not really written on this topic before, because my views were not very strongly formed for one thing, but also because it's one of those incandescent intra-feminist controversies that I think should be given time to run out of fuel naturally. However the subject has been everywhere in the last couple of weeks (even Woman's Hour!), and that means that I've been thinking about it a lot and possibly coming up with new insights. Sorry of my ideas are actually old & hackneyed; blame it on parallel intellectual evolution.

Given the framing of the debate around the professional choices some women make to engage in sex acts for money, it seems sensible to me to look at it from an economics point of view. In that context it seems to me that pro-sex work thinking is mostly quite neo-liberal or libertarian in its conceptions, emphasising the choices & freedoms of individual persons as having the key moral weight in the debate. It is therefore incompatible with feminism in its guise of a progressive, left movement, with at least some roots in radical, class based analysis.

First of all, I'd like to establish that saying that sex acts should not be exchanged for money is not by definition a puritanical or anti sex idea. There is a well established core of things that we see as exchangeable for money and things that we see as being in the realm of interpersonal relationships. The economist Dan Arieli gives the example of holiday dinner (topical!). If you were to turn around and offer your mother in law £20 at the end of the meal, instead of a big hug and maybe some help with the washing up, she and everyone else at the table would be scandalised. it is understood by all of us as a basic underpinning of a private life that certain things are exchangeable for money and others are not. This is called the difference between market norms and social norms, and in most cases it is quite uncontroversial.

A lot of the new sex work thinking seems to me to blur the distinction specifically when it comes to the ability to consent to sexual contact. What it seeks to do is square the monetary circle: claim that doing something for money is equivalent or even identical to doing it out of a social/emotional impulse. So me bringing you a cup of tea because I'm your friend is no different to me serving you a cup of tea because I'm a waitress, to use one Twitter example. Essentially it seeks to monetise consent.

I find this an alarming and reactionary development. Far from being in any true sense sex positive, it seems to me to be yanking consent out of the realm of social norms into the world of market norms. Market norms operate very differently and we need to be very very careful how we approach them. Yes, sex was always purchasable for money: but consent was not.

The feminist analysis of prostitution has always been that people who perform sex acts fr money are in some way coerced: by poverty, by force, by enslavement and so on. It did not, therefore, involve meaningful consent. The moralising view on the other hand was that prostitutes are somehow inherently immoral - it was seen as a moral failure, as sin and a mark against the person's character rather than a result of economic choices (often rational ones unconstrained by anything other than financial considerations, it should be added). In other words, the patriarchal conception of prostitution was that people who engage in it do so out of pleasure, and therefore their consent is meaningful (i.e. we don't need to worry that they are being essentially raped).

But sex work campaigners often tell it the other way around: sex workers on their view are liberated people making authentic choices, whereas as feminists who object to the sex trade are moralising patriarchalists attempting to coerce women out of their natural inclinations.

By implying that sex work can and does involve true consent however, the sex positive thinkers are potentially undermining the enthusiastic consent model and feeding into the transactional view of sex: the traditional one where sex is something men "get from" women in exchange for the things women are truly interested in - marriage, children, or in this case cash. I struggle to see this as truly progressive, and I don't think it's helpful at all to insist that this is somehow the true feminism and if you don't agree your feminist analysis is useless.

To sum up, the problem here is not that sex workers exist; the problem is  that there is a move to blur the distinction between market norms and social norms by moving consent (not just the performance of the sex act, but the subjective state of consent) into the column of things that can be bought, and therefore sold. I think that's a dangerous direction to go in.

*ETA: I've changed the title of the article to properly reflect the fact that it is not sex work per se that I am querying here, but the attitude that posits that it is in principle unproblematic, which is part of a wider set of "sex positive" approaches.

Dec 12, 2012

Just those reported women, being alleged all over the place

Some people are kind of gross, you know? It's not nice to say it, but they just are. You look at them and you imagine that they probably have bad breath, or that their BO has that particular sour note that takes it from unpleasant to bile inducing. You want to look away from them and not look back. Jimmy Saville was one of those people for me. I've never seen him on TV when he was at the height of his fame, so when I finally did see clips of him, openly molesting young women on Top of the Pops (I think it was some Channel 4 nostalgia clip show), I was horrified - who is this ugly, greasy person, and why is everybody laughing like it's all just hunky dory?

Julian Assange is somebody else that I've always felt ooky about. I remember when I first ever saw him, it was a TED interview and he took his jacket off, and I swear to Dog my first instinct was to think his pits probably smell under that unwashed-looking white shirt.

So it's not my favourite ever activity to examine Julian Assange and his actions in any level of depth. I sure as hell am not tempted to read nay more lickspittle interviews with him in the Grauniad, anyway.

Still, sometimes, as in the case of cholera research and entomology, it is what disgusts us the most that contains the vital clues we need about the world and how it works. Observe:

Isn't that linguistic genius? Reported. I mean, it's true, it was widely reported that Malala Yousafzai had been shot. In the head. Aged 14. Does it really even matter that she go that treatment because she's campaigning for women's rights? Anyone shooting a 14 year old child IN THE HEAD is news. It's gonna get 'reported'.

So you know, technically, it's not like Julian Assange (who is reported to be in sole possession of the @wikileaks Twitter account these days) is lying or anything. She was reportedly shot. He is an alleged rapist. It's all fair enough, pretty much.

But it's not really fair enough, is it. See how this kind of language works asymmetrically? How it minimises the crime committed against Malala, while providing potential cover for the faeces slinging animals terrified by the idea she and girls like her may see a horizon beyond the rancid cage being prepared for them? So pants-wettingly terrified of a little girl they need to annihilate her in order to shore up their brittle manhoods?

In Assange's case, the legalistic hedge has given him just enough of a sliver of deniability to go hole up in the Ecuador embassy. And his addlepated supporters, enough of an excuse to squeal the internet down with protests that he has not been convicted of any crime and therefore it's defamation in libel sauce to say he should go on trial for rape (which is a crime, of which he might be convicted). 

In Malala's case, it means that she might have just imagined the hole in her head. I mean, it might not have really happened, yeah? It was only reported, after all. You don't believe everything you read in the papers, do you? What are you, sheeple? Stooge.

Meanwhile on the unimaginably hideous crimes that would keep you awake at night if you thought about them too much, we have this:

Women are reporting sexual abuse by Jimmy Saville literally in their hundreds. Women who were never listened to before, because their evidence - the reporting of a crime by the victim of that crime - was not seen as enough of a reason to maybe shuffle over and have a butchers. It was just the women, you know? I mean, we don't just believe people who say their car was stolen, do we? Oh, we do? Well, but these were only reported rapes, gropings, assaults, fingerings and grabbings. By, you know. Just the women.

Both Julian Assange and Jimmy Saville are disgusting human beings. Literally, as in they put me off my dinner. Clearly Assange can only aspire to the level of monstrosity Saville achieved, though there but for the grace of two brave Swedish women go we, and who knows how many others there have been. Wilful sex criminals rarely confine themselves to just the occasional tipple. It tends to be a full time habit. And how do they get away with it? Because nobody believes "reports" from "just the women". Shutting down justice for women is as easy as using the smarmy language of "alleged" and "reported". Was then, is now.

Anyway, listen. If you want cool, level headed analysis about this stuff, go read Sian. I'm too busy swallowing down the acid in my throat at the thought that someone could be so squelchingly slimy as to try to win an online popularity contest over a little girl with a hole in the head, just because he realy really wants to. All I'm saying is: reported. Useful word, eh?

Sep 25, 2012

Sarah Catt, the expectation that all women want to be mothers, and the complicated reasons why they don't

I had a conversation recently with a representative from an organisation that helps women obtain access to contraception and abortion. We were talking because I volunteered to be a contact for the media, in case they were looking for women to tell their stories of abortion and unwanted pregnancy. Having women prepared to go onthe record about their abortion will hopefully help break the conspiracy of silence around the subject and dispel the mistaken idea that abortion is something secret, shameful and wrong.

We went through some stock questions, and it was a pleasant chat, but one question gave me pause. It was, and I'm paraphrasing from memory, along the lines of: "why did you feel that you wanted to have an abortion at that time? Was it for financial reasons, because you were young or in college etc.?". I was kind of dumbfounded to be honest. I had my abortion getting on for 20 years ago in a different country; at the time, I had never seen a poster of a dismembered foetus or heard the term "pro life lobby". Having an abortion when you were faced with an unplanned pregnancy was just what you did.

It would have been the opposite choice - not terminating the pregnancy - that would have caused questions. Are you old enough to be a mother? Can you support the child financially? How will you finish college with a baby? What about the man, what if he doesn't want to have a child right now - will your child grow up not knowing its father? And anyway, is it right to bring a person into the world based on nothing but a preventable and unwelcome accident?

It seems to me now that, somehow, over the years we've lost this common sense attitude to having children. These days, women are presumed to always be, by default, in the state of actively wanting to be mothers. So when they are faced with the possibility of motherhood unexpectedly, we want to know what reason they can give for not acting on this presumed readiness. And we limit what we want to think of as legitimate reasons: I was poor, I was young, I was at university, I had no support. "I didn't wake up that morning wanting to be a mother" is not on the list.

Nobody ever asks a man why he didn't make a particular important life decision at a given time. Men are presumed to have true agency, in the sense that when their personal lives bifurcate, either choice they make is deemed legitimate. I've never heard anyone ask a man "so why didn't you propose to her at that time" or "how come you didn't chose to take care of your children when they were small". Got married? Fine. Didn't? Also fine. Changed nappies? Wonderful. Refused to? Oh well, you were the working parent. Either way, men are generally trusted by popular discourse to have had good reasons for their life choices, whereas women's choices are either constantly questioned (as in the "mommy wars" debate) or actively circumscribed (as in th case of reproductive freedom).

It is part of the condition of an oppressed class that what the dominant group takes for granted the oppressed group has to beg for & make arguments for. So in and of itself this insight that women are seen as always being in the "on" position when it comes to becoming mothers is not surprising as such. But it is extremely disturbing, because it a) treats women as no better than cattle in terms of how much moral agency they can exercise over the decision to reproduce and b) utterly elides the dangers, complexities and implications of pregnancy and motherhood.

Which bring me to Sarah Catt. Last Monday Catt was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for "attempting to procure an abortion". She admitted to taking drugs she bought online in the 39th week of pregnancy and giving birth to a stillborn baby shortly afterwards. The body has not yet been recovered. Catt already has three children: two with her current partner and one who she'd given up for adoption when young. She has also had one abortion that we know of. This latest pregnancy she kept a secret from her partner throughout (how is another matter). She had also sought to abort this pregnancy but approached the service after the 24 week cut-off point and was refused the procedure.

If anything emerges from this quick reproductive biography is that this is a woman who is ambivalent about pregnancy and birth. Clearly, to undertake such a desperate measure - essentially giving birth to a dead foetus alone and in secret - she must have been in some psychological distress. It was also submitted to the court that in the case of the child she ended up giving for adoption, she had originally wanted an abortion but was "persuaded" to go through to term. Another complicating factor was that the pregnancy she was convicted of terminating unlawfully was the product of an affair that she was keeping hidden from her partner. Such a level of secrecy in a relationship is a red flag for abuse, but this was not in any way mentioned in the judge's sentencing note.

There's been a lot written over the last few days about Sarah Catt and abortion provision, or the pro-choice position in general; but I think the most insightful commenters were those who saw that in fact there is no relationship between the two. Catt sought an abortion and was turned away as per the law. End of. 

What came next though gets right to the heart of this implicit, silent-but-deadly social presumption that motherhood is the default state for all women. Here was a woman who really, really didn’t want to be pregnant - but there was no recourse for her, no service that she knew to approach that would help her to deal with the inevitability of labour. It's just not something we think about; if a woman is so unnatural as to want to abort a pregnancy, well then she can do so (provided she repeats the right cant and gives a legitimate excuse) up until 24 weeks in. After that, unless there's something physically wrong? Tough cookies.

It's worth remembering that Catt was not convicted under any clause of the 1967 Abortion Act, but under a 1861 (!) statute that is still on the law books and which specifically criminalises women attempting to procure an abortion themselves, without the help & approval of a doctor. That law has no time limit, so even though the judge explicitly handed down a harsher sentence because of how close to term Catt was when she committed the offence, in fact it's not really got anything to do with it - she'd have been breaking the law by inducing her own abortion after 3 weeks as much as after 39.

The '67 Act did not decriminalise women seeking abortion; it decriminalised doctors performing them (under certain limiting conditions and of course not including Northern Ireland). There is in fact no law in Britain that explicitly grants a woman autonomy over her own reproductive capacity. It can be startling to be faced with the tenuous nature of the so called "legalisation" of abortion, and to realise just how fragile and limited our freedom as women is to control our own bodies.

Now, British law is a bit notorious for being a spaghetti bowl of precedents, fudges, obsolete legislation and obscure clauses. For example, did you know that there is another law - from 1929 this time - that Catt could have been charged under? But in the case of abortion, we need a brave legislative initiative to consolidate and modernise the existing legislation, strike off irrelevant and ambiguous laws, and provide British women with a clear and firm basis for legally protecting and upholding our rights over our own bodies and reproductive organs. The unfortunate case of Sarah Catt case is a stark and tragic reminder of that fact - not a cheap pretext to demonise abortion.

There is a demonstration outside Parliament on September 29th to demand reform to the abortion law, organised by Abortion Rights, the national pro-choice campaign for the UK


Aug 20, 2012

It's only Monday, and already it's a banner week for rape denial

Well well. An elected politician in the US provided a helpful distinction between "legitimate" rape, by which presumably he meant "rape in which it is legitimate for the victim to feel aggrieved", and, erm, the other kind. Because it's important to make sure we have the right language to use when women lie about being raped, because even though they have been raped, they haven't been legitimately (or forcibly, or honestly, or rape-raped) and are therefore lying sluts out to victimise innocent men[1].

Not to be outdone by the American misogyny circus, British elected politician (and first rate clown[2]) George Galloway, as well everyone's favourite nerdy Python Terry Jones, helpfully lined up to explain to the misguided masses that having unprotected sex is a crime in Sweden, which is why WikiLeaks is innocent. Or something.

It's like there are all these people (oh, ok, men) out there who are expending a serious amount of effort on making up scenarios in which holding a woman down and putting your penis in her vagina while she is asking you not to is not rape. Nuh-uh. Summing else, not rape, nope. No rape here. I mean, really, you'd almost think they felt it was really important to make that point, no? Almost as if, I dunno, maybe for thousands of years men could force sex on women with impunity, and the idea that maybe sometimes that's actually not OK anymore is really unpleasant to these guys?

Let's get this straighty-up straight, honeycups: when Julian Assange makes a 10 minute speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy without once mentioning the immediate cause of his being holed up there in the first place, he's not just being forgetful: he is executing a deliberate rhetorical manoeuvre designed to allow him to get away with raping two women[3].

And when other men perform seemingly ridiculous mental acrobatics in order to imply that some if not all rape charges are not actually, really, honestly, legitimately rape-rape, what does Occam's Razor dictate that we assume?

That's right. That thy are exercising rhetorical manoevers in order to be able to claim that men who raped women should get away with it.

They are protecting their right to get away with it.

People get all hot under the collar when you spell it out to them like that; or they good naturedly try to come up with less gobsmackingly awful reasons, as in the case of saying that it's really all about abortion (I'm not sure that treating women like cattle for the sake of sexual power in order to justify treating them like cattle for the sake of farming unwanted babies is much of an improvement, but it provides some comfort in the form of an intellectual remove from immediate ugliness).

I don't mean that Ron Paul and Ken Clarke (much less Whoopi Goldberg) have raped women. I just think they are really, really attached to the theoretical possibility of being able to. Partly this is because  people are taught so little about the joys of consensual sex that it's easy to fear, deep down, that there's just the tiny possibility that you might have raped someone at some point, and that thought makes people defensive. Partly it's because rape culture is the dominant paradigm and everyone gets antsy when the dominant paradigm is under threat. Partly because they're woman hating shit sacks of inhuman loathing and callous cruelty.

At the end of the day, who knows. But let's not fool ourselves about what it is that people say when they say "X is not really rape". They are also saying "Y is not really a rapist". As well as "Z is a lying bitch". These three things are logically necessary corollaries of each other, and they have played out with textbook accuracy in the media discourse about both the Assange & the Strauss-Kahn cases. So please, can we all just stop pretending that the whole rigmarole is about anything other than men defending their age old right to stick their schlongs into women at will?


[1] I mean rapists. No, I mean men... Oh I don't know anymore - whichever one I use on Twitter, I get accused (by, erm, men) of being a terrible mean meanie.

[2] Oh dear, did I say that out loud?

[3] Not "allegedly raping" - because his lawyer has admitted all the charges on his behalf in a British court, so we know the facts. And said British court has ruled decisively that these actions constitute rape under British law. Legal culpability in a Swedish court with Swedish standards of evidence is all that remains in question, making Assange's need to elide the fact that he's a rapist from his refusal to travel to Sweden all the more urgent.

Jul 28, 2012

Brazil Week One - Settling In

To those not in the know, I'm spending the summer in Salvador, Bahia state, Brazil, volunteering in community projects through an organisation called Cross Cultural Solutions. I've been here since July 7th and have been writing weekly bulletins for my sponsors who donated money to help me make this possible. I reckon they won't mind so much if I post the bulletins here with an appropriate delay, for my other friends to read... This was my very fist effort:


Mostly this week has been about settling in; to the house, my 2 volunteer placements, the city... Building those early relationships, making all important first impressions and receiving them myself.

The volunteers all live in one big house, mostly in shared rooms with bunk beds. I'm very lucky in that, because the house isn't full, I've got a room all to myself, with my own bathroom to boot. I was really dreading not having my own space, and it's great that my fears were unfounded. I've attached a photo with my improvised laundry line. :)

I have two different placements that I volunteer at: Monday, Wednesday and Friday I teach English to a small group of students ranging in age from 6 to 72, in the tiny back room of church in one of the poorest slums in the city. On Tuesday and Thursday I help out at a Mother Teresa mission in a different (but pretty much just as poor) part of town. 

The areas where I spend my mornings look pretty much like a set from the movie City of God - ramshackle self-built houses, a chaos of wires and pipes, stray dogs, piles of garbage. It couldn't be more different than the neighbourhood where we live, which is relatively affluent and practically indistinguishable from a middle class residential area in any Mediterranean city. But life in the so called "slum" isn't as alien or different as that might imply. 

Yes, there are homeless people and drunks and whatever, and I'm sure it's dangerous, but somehow it's still just a bunch of people going to work, running businesses, enjoying a cup of coffee. I think there's a tendency to exoticise "The Poor", but to me they mostly seem like normal people with crap housing. Then again, what do I know? I've been here a week.


Apr 20, 2012

The internet is forever, or: how to prove you're nothing but a snide sexist

A couple of years ago, Hilary Lawson, the director of the Institute of Art and Ideas, wrote this piece in the Guardian about the accusations of gender imbalance levelled at his pet philosophy and music festival, How The Light Gets In (a sort of hipster alternative to the increasingly uncool Hay-on-Wye literature festival).

I didn't like the piece when I read it; I thought the tone was snide and the arguments immaterial. But I read after having met Lawson at the 2011 festival, and he seemed like a decent and intelligent man; so I gave the whole thing the benefit of the doubt. For context, the benefit of the doubt was about the fact that it was shortness of time and difficulty of getting female participants that prevented the festival from breaking the industry representation ceiling of about 30%, and not the usual stuff like, you know, laziness and institutional sexism.

So when an email landed in my mailbox today gleefully announcing the publication of the 2012 festival program, I went to look at it with mixed fear and hope: will they have done better? They've had 2 years to formulate a strategy to respond to the criticisms of cultural femicide they treated so lightly. They've presumably built up some relationships with women who've spoken at the previous couple of festivals. So you'd expect an incremental uptick in gender parity, wouldn't you?

Well, not really. Out of 98 discrete speakers, 21 are women. That's 29% - wading in the shallow waters of the rest of the lacklustre British culture & media industry. In 4 days of talks and panels, only 1 is a solo talk by a woman, and only 3 have a gender balance in which women are not a minority.

How The Light Gets In could not find women to speak on the following sample of topics; architecture, religion, the future of science, privacy in the age of the internet (I bet it would have been way hard to find a feminist blogger with opinions on that one!), politics or economics.

HTLGI have had plenty of time to do something about the absence of women from their program. They haven't, not really. Oh, I'm sure some mealy mouthed statement about having "encouraged women to participate" will be forthcoming at some point, if more people than just myself kick up a fuss about this. But frankly, the proof of the pudding is in the program. And the program is a sausagefest. Or a spotted dick, for those with a sweeter tooth.

Apr 7, 2012

The real problem with choice Part II: Right-wing politics edition

This week it emerged that that Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has instructed the Care Quality Commission to expedite inspections of abortion clinics, which came at the expense of already scheduled inspections of other facilities such as care homes, hospitals and so on. The CQC are sufficiently pissed about this to complain mightily to the press about the intrusion into their regulatory independence; the DOH shoot back with stern statements about how they think this extra level of oversight of abortion providers is necessary and appropriate. Meanwhile abortion providers are spitting mad that the details of their supposed "crimes" were given to the Telegraph before they (or the police for that matter) were informed.

The DoH's excuse is the Telegraph "sting" from a few weeks ago that revealed that in some clinics, some doctors have pre-signed the forms they would need to sign in other to ratify a decision by a woman's primary doctor to allow her an abortion[1].  So pre-signed pieces of paper are lying around in some abortion providers' offices, and this according to the DoH is enough of a "public interest" issue to leave potentially disastrous abuses such as at Castlebeck-run facilities in Bristol uninspected for another few months.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I don't run in the kinds of circles in which people get super upset about regulatory infractions regarding abortion - so it's possible that the Torygraph investigation actually caused a massive stink and there's been huge public pressure on Lansley to do this. But I doubt it, because the same circles I tend to run in are absolutely fucking obsessed with the Daily Mail, which would have been the very first newspaper to scream hysterically about this if there's been anything to scream about. But actually even the Mail has maintained an eery silence about this whole "terrible abortion abuses illegal baby killings whaa whaa whaa" business.

So what's going on? Why is Lansley prioritising making the lives of abortion providers difficult? Why is the DoH implementing Nadine Dorries's hideous "reforms" to abortion counselling serivices (allowing mendacious God pushers access to vulnerable women in need of counselling) even though the amendment to make those changes law was defeated in Parliament? I mean, the Tory party ain't no bunch of Bible Belt conservatives - they never ran on any God platform, what's the sudden hostility to women's reproductive rights?

Well, mea culpa - I thought everybody knew. I really imagined that it's so obvious why right wing economic politics and restricting reproductive freedom got together like pearls and twin sets, that it never occurred to me to write about it, even though I touched on it tangentially in the "real problem with choice" post form a few weeks ago.

So, ok, here goes, and it's brain-meltingly simple: forced pregnancy leads to poverty and an increase in economic inequality. Just like that. I'm not even talking about the correlational data from all around the world, about how much slower economic growth is in countries that disallow abortion (most of Africa, a lot of Eastern Europe, large swathes of South America with Brazil being a notable but in my opinion short-lived exception, and of course all of the non-oil rich Middle East) and how much greater the social problems that stem from inequality and extreme poverty are there.

No, there is plenty of data to support the staggeringly obvious hypothesis that unwanted children have worse outcomes: educationally, economically, in terms of crime statistics and so on. Unwanted pregnancy and labour is also highly correlated with adverse mental health effects for the mother, which, given that many women seeking an abortion are already mothers, will have a knock on effect on the rest of that family and any other dependent children. Plus of course the need to care for an unexpected child places economic and emotional burdens on a family that can easily be seen to restrict the social mobility and development of other family members (not least by making it harder for the woman to work, get an education and so on).

Now this is the nice tidy developed world pictureby the way  - in places like Afghanistan, they marry them off aged 11 and by 15 they're dead in childborth, so hey presto - a whole generation of orphans is created. I just bet that's going to be super duper awesome for the future economic development of the country. Or in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where local taboos around condoms coupled with zero abortion provision leads to the highest maternal (and AIDS-related) mortality rate in the world;  yep, an economic miracle is just around the corner. Not.

So ask yourself, if you're a newly minted right-wing government (or Congress for that matter) with a bone-deep hostility to redistribution, social justice, equality and labour rights, what are you going to do right after attacking education, lowering taxes for the rich and getting rid of universal healthcare? Ayup, you're gonna make sure the social devastation you've created is cemented in place by making it generational. And you make it generational by restricting women's infuriating propensity to drag themselves and their families out of poverty through careful family planning.

But what, I hear you ask, about the right-wing virtues of boot-strapping yourself out of poverty? Getting on your bike and going to work and so forth? Mealy mouthed platitiudes designed to place the moral blame for systemic poverty on the victims of the inhumane policies that caused it. And chief among such inhumane policies has got to be taking population control power out of the hands of the population by cutting off reproductive freedom at the knees.

Whether Nadine Dorries or Fiona Bruce and their ilk come up with any more hateful laws during this parliament is immaterial; this government is going to plow ahead with restricitng abortion provision (and, I'm willing to bet, other things, like making sure the pill is no longer free in this country) for the remainder of this parliament, because that's where their legacy lies. They're a one term government and they know it: but by press-ganging women into forced labour, they can make sure that their one term will overshadow the next 3 decades of British life like a crouching incubus.

[1] The two signature law is a strange piece of historical flotsam that requires a second doctor - any doctor, not one that knows the woman or has treated her in the past - to co-sign the form signed by her primary doctor permitting her to have an abortion. It pre-dates the 1967 Abortion Act and has nothing to do with the legality of abortion per se; it's a relic from the times when doctors could get into legal trouble for performing an abortion (which was never strictly speaking illegal, just very tightly controlled), so they protected themselves by soliciting a second opinion. It's an antiquated piece of nonsense that needs getting rid of - sign the petition here.


Mar 7, 2012

What IS it with all the feminist pink already?

I'm just about the world's worst graphic designer, so even though I've been sitting on this idea for ever, I haven't posted about it so far. But! I can remain silent no longer!

The New Statesman has a "sex issue" out this week - which naturally means the front page cover is dedicated to men. Haha, very original. Anyway, here's what really got my goat about that: despite the cover illustration actually being kind of funny, the NS spoils it all by splashing a very particular, very ugly shade of pink over the whole page.

And I want to know - this a genuine question! - what the hell is up with this pinkification of feminist or feminist-friendly media, dammit? When Dell tried to woo female customers with pink laptops, we rightly told them to kindly eff off, so why are so many feminist books being splashed in garish bubblegum hues? Does anyone have an explanation for this?

My sister's theory is that pink is supposed to bring the titles closer to the mainstream and draw in the uninitiated. Any other thoughts?

The evidence:

Even the classics are suddenly getting the pink treatment:

I can't find an image online, but my copy of BACKLASH has been re-released in the same shade of pink as the Greer book, dammit. Irony, the publishing industry haz it. What's going on?

Mar 6, 2012

The real problem with choice

A few weeks ago, at the hazy pink dawn of the current soap opera cum circus show that is the US contraception "debate", Amanda Marcotte put her finger on what it is that freaks out anti choicers - it's women, well, making choices. 

Another thing to bear in mind here - the thing that really scares conservatives of all stripes - is that women making decisions for themselves are really making decision for everybody else, too.

Birth rate fluctuations (and the dramatic decline in same over the last few decades) are down to women’s decisions, giving them power over demographic trends that men can’t equal. Politics is increasingly dependent on women, who vote more. Women make the majority of financial & consumption decision for households. Women are the main care takers and educators of children.

If you’re a rich old man, and you live in a world that increasingly allows women to make their own decisions, then you’re watching your power base disappear in front of your eyes. If you’re a woman who (real or perceived) success and well-being depend on rich old men, you’re even more threatened by the slow motion collapse of the status quo.

It’s scary stuff; feminism is legitimately scary stuff. Imagine if you suddenly doubled the population of the entire planet, and the new, additional half didn't necessarily agree with you about what's important? It's terrifying - more so than mass immigration, more than cultural shifts. Because this new potential "enemy" is in your home, in your bed, in the children's bedroom - it's already here.

The people who have most to fear from women making decisions are also the people with the most power, not just in our liberal western society but globally. And on the whole, despite what you might think from the woeful state of affairs in the world, they're not dumb. They can see what's coming, and they are prepared to take all kinds of extreme measures to avert the challenge to their supremacy. It is not - repeat, not - a coincidence that societies whose elites are hostile to modernity concentrate on the marginalisation and subjugation of women; women's status, relative independence and ability to make (some of) their own choices is the starkest and most visible symptom of the slow, jerky, but ultimately inexorable march of progress.

In Afghanistan, they marry them at 13, making sure they're dead of childbirth complications before they're out of their teens and ready to throw their weight around. In Saudi Arabia, they lock them away and forbid them to drive around or be visible representatives of the country. In Israel, they shove them to the back of the bus and say that men should die rather than listen to their voices.

Which makes it even more awesome and encouraging that we've won the Komen foundation fight that kicked this off; and that the anti-contraception debate in the US seems to be slipping out of the control of the demagogues who thought to ride its underlying misogyny to electoral success.

But let's not forget: our own government is made up of rich men who are cutting out the sexual control middleman by going straight for women's lives and safety: cancelling Legal Aid to women in potentially abusive situations, cutting funding to Refuge and other services to vulnerable women and families, and making plans to privatise a police force that is only just making tentative steps towards holding the lives and safety of British women dear.

This is not a fight that is over. We've scored some tactical victories, but we need to keep up the pressure, and keep it up on the Left as well as the resurgent Right: the Manarchists, the Failminists, the so called "Tory Feminists", the Guardian for keeping the Women's pages safely behind the obscuring curtain of the Life & Style section, and for publishing fat shaming, anti-woman pieces like this one about Nigella Lawson's diet.

It's easy to get scared and think we're alone, isolated, a minority, without support - though as Sarah Ditum wrote today, social networking is helping explode this illusions, carefully constructed to control us - but frankly, even if we are, so what? They're scared shitless of us. The misogynists, MRAs, anti-choicers and Family Values types know that they are powerless before the awesome, world-defining tide of women making choices. They have the power, for now. But we have strength.

Jan 14, 2012

Decisions, decisions: sex in a time of patriarchy

This post is a reply to my friend Natalie Dzerins's post on the F-Word which was in turn responding to an article by Hugo Schwyzer, in which she criticizes what she sees as an unseemly propensity of feminists to police women's sexuality by shaming certain sex acts. I was originally planning to comment on the website, but once I hit the 500 word count I thought it would be better to move it here. I encourage you to read both of the articles I'm responding to, they're both thought provoking and interesting.


I've been made very thoughtful by this post, and I wanted to give a good detailed response, which paradoxically means I'm going to start by changing the subject:

A while ago some friends & I were talking about the concepts of choice in the capitalist system. Essentially, the argument is that choice is one of the mechanism by which capitalism perpetuates itself, because by offering endless choices between different models of the same thing (cars, or corporate jobs, or coffee shops - any mode of engagement with capital) it distracts from the fact that there are no OPTIONS. Through the reification of choice, capitalism is able to disguise the hegemonic nature of its own constraints and trick even its critics into thinking that choosing to consume items that are "green" or "ethical" (to give just one example) somehow makes the act of consumption to be contra- or outside the system, when in fact it's still just an act of consumption and reinforces capital.

Patriarchy is intimately linked to capitalism in the modern era, and the smorgasbord of "acts" that human sexuality has been reduced to is very much patriarchy's way of partaking of the benefits of offering illusory choice while constraining meaningful options. The question I would want to ask instead is, why do we have a spectrum of sexuality at one end of which people of any gender find fulfilment and joy (important to note that I don't for a moment doubt that their fulfilment is authentic, or begrudge it) in degradation? Why, because patriarchy is a hegemony of domination founded on degrees and shades of degradation to maintain the status quo, of course! 

There is a view one can take (and many serious, thoughtful second wave thinkers took it) that all heterosexual sex under a patriarchy partakes in spite of itself in the spectrum of shades of degradation. The radical conclusion from that view - don't have heterosexual sex ever - leaves one in something of an unfulfilled quandary though, and is a continuing flaw at the heart of feminist thinking about sex. 

In the past 30 years, women trying to live feminist lives have largely rejected the burden of guilt that came with that approach (good) but at the cost of not meaningfully resolving the deep problems that patriarchal hierarchies pose for truly liberated sex (bad). We seem to have plumped for the buffet approach, and spend much energy on policing "good" choices vs "bad" choices, or, as here, defending the arguable-but-not-compelling view that any choice is a good choice because the act of choosing is liberating. Given that we saw that the act of choosing is actually an act of participation in the patriarchy, this is a problematic solution to the "heterosexual sex in a patriarchy" dilemma.

We have also, and you won't hear me say things like this very often, neglected men. Patriarchal discourse on male sexuality is particularly narrow, limiting and destructive - in some ways more so in our current cultural moment than that of female sexuality. It drives men to seek league table-like "victories" in quantitative fields such as number of partners, number of sex acts and - increasingly, as patriarchy has to up its game to compete with the assent of liberated female sexuality - the number of progressively more extreme acts that a man can impose in his partner in some kind of escalating arms race of degradation.

It is no coincidence that the hard core sex acts we ten to have these arguments around - ejaculation on the face (I dislike the sneakily euphemistic term "facial"), intense anal penetration, deep throating - are not "pleasurable" in a common sense understanding of the word. They all overcome some basic physical aversion: the gag reflex, the blinking reflex of protecting the face from projectile, or pain. Despite the authentic and real pleasure that overcoming these instincts may give to some - even many - people, the normalisation of boundary breach should be a problematic phenomenon for feminists.

Which is where Schwyzer comes in. While I find his analysis on this issue flawed, and his conclusion unconvincing, I was interested by the fact that he was grappling for a directionally different approach to interrogating heterosexual encounters: by reintegrating the psychological needs of men. Attempting to analyse sex from men's emotional point of view is a good an important way of reaching towards options of hetero (though I'd wager it has implications for LGBT) sexuality rather than simply choices from a menu of penetrative games. I think perhaps the main flaw in Schwyzer's argument is that he doesn't fully grasp the depth of what he's on the cusp of, and so misguidedly positions this re-examination in the framework of sex-act-choice. In other words, he should have started thinking about degradation in sex and made conclusions about ejaculation on the face, not the other way around.

I have no further conclusions to offer: all I can say is that it would be better for us to continue trying and stumbling in our search for a discourse of liberated sexuality for all genders, however disastrous the mistakes we make along the way, than stopping ourselves short at the gates of "choice".

It would be even better for us to not fall into the trap of equating a critical examination of sexual mores, and expression of strongly held conclusions about the feminist value of different options, to making law in Parliament, but that's a whole other essay.