On multiple feminisms and the insistent guarding of the boundaries between different types of feminism


English: One of the symbols of German Women's ...

I’ve been thinking a bit about -isms.

There are constant discussions about whether we should reject the term feminism, and this post isn’t about that, because I think a ‘rebranding’ (thanks for that nonsense, Cosmo) would only be a capitulation to patriarchal oppression. The term feminism makes people uncomfortable because it sounds ‘militant’ or has been historically and purposefully denigrated by male-dominated media? Well, then, the uncomfortable will have to live with that, as we feminists live, daily, with a society built on oppressive gender stereotypes and arbitrary segregation along the lines of sex. We will honour the history of our movement by not insulting it with these kinds of discussion.

However, what has been bothering me recently, on an individual level, is the different splintering feminisms. We hear a lot of talk about intersectionality – that is, recognising that individuals are oppressed along multiple axes at the same (gender, race, class, sexuality, disability etc) – and yet, each sect of feminism setting itself against past waves of feminism or current, alternate forms of feminism, is that not achieving the exact opposite of the spirit of intersectionality? Intersectionality is supposed to bring different types of women together to share an appreciation of their different oppressions. It is not supposed to create a hierarchy of those oppressions, but to take account of how each group may need different legal approaches (Crenshaw, who coined intersectionality, is a law professor) – and subsequently, people have applied this to political approaches. But surely all these different sects of feminism divide us further and achieve the opposite of intersectionality? Not only are we at loggerheads with mainstream patriarchal, capitalist, racist society, but with each other. Despite the shared experience of oppression.

Now, I’m not naive – we’re not going to fix this anytime soon. But, to veer off into my personal experience for a moment, all my recent feminist experiences are hugely coloured by a divide, not a solidarity. The media talks a lot about misogynisitic attacks on women daring to air their views online. Most of my attacks come not from men, or non-feminist women, but feminist women. And why? Because I’m not ‘doing feminism right’ according to their particular sect’s definition of it. I’ve been told (and I’m sure plenty of people reading will have had this experience) that I’m not a feminist because I hold xyz view. It doesn’t even matter so much what that view is, because I could hold the opposite view and someone may tell me it’s ‘not feminist.’ I have just done a degree in Gender Studies, I spent most of my free time campaigning or attending events about gender / feminism, I self-define as a feminist, and, you know, I really care. But apparently none of that matters if I disagree strongly with another feminist on how best to alter a certain law to help a certain group of marginalised women. I have been to events recently where feminists have purposefully disrupted events other feminists have worked tirelessly to arrange for the purpose of feminist discussion and, to be honest, all the shouting and attempts to talk over other women just came off as a perfect emulation of how patriarchal spaces treat women who try to speak. Blimey.

This isn’t actually about me, I’m just giving examples to paint a picture for those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of feminist politics. To back away from individuals and their behaviour for a moment, and to think about these different collective feminisms, what I see is individuals being forced to choose one feminism or another, when they might not fully fit into one, because, let’s face it – one approach to a political problem is probably never going to hold all the answers. And again, we’re splintering, instead of pooling resources, energy, and methodologies. What people don’t understand is that this is the very paradox of intersectionality: the more we split people into different groups – those racially oppressed, those oppressed by sex, those oppressed by disablism and then those oppressed by more than one, we have split ourselves into groups that have different, often incompatible needs. It’s not simple. It’s not just, ‘feminism is too white, invite some black feminists along to our next event, done!’ This is why it has its origins in legal theory, and not political theory: it was a contextual, specific response to the US legal system, not necessarily applicable – or certainly not without immense struggle and forethought – to every situation worldwide in feminist politics. But suddenly, people think they can tick a few boxes and achieve it. And they seem to think claiming one feminist label as a riposte to another, ‘evil’ type is achieving something positive too. By my god, talk about simplified!

I’ll give you an example. Radical feminism, for instance, has a brilliant approach to being really hands-on in tackling violence against women, in stepping back from looking solely at individuals and their choices and whether those are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and looking at the bigger picture. Where do those ‘choices’ come from in the first place? How do they come to be seen as ‘choices’? For instance, women do not ‘choose’ freely, with no outside influences, to shave. It is socially conditioned. And ultimately, it is, in most instances, likely to be about the male gaze. However, because radical feminism names gender – here, femininity – as an oppressive means / norm by which that impulse to shave is imposed upon women rather than men, it struggles to agree with trans* / queer politics, which sees gender as an identity to be claimed, not an oppressive force. And yet, you can find radical feminists, of course, who are not opposed to trans* rights (even to women-only space). And they are definitely on board with all the other problems queer feminism claims to fight:

  • Racism, imperialism, genocide, and violence
  • Strict rules about gender and sexuality that hurt everyone whether male, female, both, or neither
  • Blaming and shaming of […] anyone who does not fit a narrow and arbitrary body standard
  • Rape culture
  • A tendency to claim that democracy and liberal politics fixes all ills, rather than addressing society’s problems

(Definition from queer feminism.com)

So, in fact, we see there is no ‘radical feminism’either, but radical feminisms, which is why people use the term ‘TERF’ (trans-exclusive radical feminism) when they argue against women-only spaces that define ‘woman’ as ‘biological woman’. Essentially, all of it comes down to a disagreement over what gender is. And yes, that is about subjectivity and theory. There isn’t a straightforward answer to what gender is, people have been fighting over that question for decades. So let’s not simplify and pretend our version, and therefore, our feminism, is ‘correct’.

I have no solutions, I’m just one person struggling with being pulled into one part of feminism by certain interests and finding I disagree with other parts of that feminism. Yet having been ‘claimed’ by one section, just the very act of associating with them, leaves me rejected by other parts. I’d quite like to dip between types and expand my views, actually, but that is being withheld from me to a certain degree (I can go to certain events but will have to keep quiet on some of my views so as not to be attacked / potentially thrown out). And I think that says a lot about our politics. Not only is it diluted by not trying to work together, even if we then still feel the need to define ourselves differently, but the politics is defining us, not the other way round.

I went to an event recently and a woman read a poem about rejecting all -isms: socialism, feminism etc. I listened with interest because she was saying that we must go our own way and not feel coerced into joining into pre-defined political spaces. And yet, that is exactly what happens – we try to create our own politics, but the -isms suck us in and define what is and isn’t possible before we know it. Next thing you know it, I am a ‘sex-critical’ feminist and therefore cannot be a ‘queer’ feminist. Really? But I hate body-shaming too, I hate racism, I hate imperialism, ‘free speech’ to defend hate speech, rape culture and violence and pre-determined gender roles and so on. These are not exclusive to queer politics – in fact, it has a renowned history of racism and whiteness. And yet, it is absolutely the case that the divide between these types of feminism feels insurmountable. But, despite its imperfections and arguments, I cannot let go of this movement and stop trying to improve it. It has given me – and us all – too much.

So, yes, I am a proud feminist; feminism should never rebrand. But I want to be free to bridge types of feminism. I will not claim any single label without caveat.

On prostitution: a new publication and the potential for a new law


In 1998 Ruth Jacobs interviewed a woman who worked as a call girl, referred to for anonymity as ‘Q’. She has published the transcript of her interview, in full – stops and hesitations inclusive – as ‘In Her Own Words… Interview with a London Call Girl’.

In Her Own Words is an extremely frank account of the complex psychology involved in selling sex. For Q, it is neither wholly positive or negative – she is conflicted, saying both ‘I buzz off it’, ‘I love it’, ‘it’s fun’ and ‘I hate it’, ‘it’s very hard’, ‘you’re risking your life’, and ‘you feel like you’ve been raped’. Women like Rebecca Mott, who exited prostitution, have also said that their former work amounted to little more than being raped for money. Having heard Rebecca Mott speak, she estimates that (in her experience) it takes approximately five years after exiting prostitution for women to fully process how they feel about their time selling sex. (Those in the sex industry are predominantly women, although there are exceptions.) If we consider this perspective, Q’s inability to consistently pin down how she feels about selling her body makes sense within this prevailing trend that Rebecca Mott refers to – for Q had not exited at the time of the interview.

For me, it is key to view Q’s interview within the context of this confusion and not take everything she says at face value. Indeed, if we were to do this, we would struggle to come to any conclusion as her words are so contradictory! Part of her difficulty condemning her profession could be attributed to her lack of ability to see any other kind of life. She cannot envisage an untroubled relationship with men:

‘I have a completely different outlook on men.I don’t trust men. […] You see some really sick things and it like… it stays in your mind.’
‘I don’t know how I’m going to stop and have a normal relationship. I don’t think I could ever, ever.’

She also sees herself as ‘abnormal’ and feels alienated by those outside of the industry:

‘I find it very hard to mix with normal people […] It’s hard for me to hold a conversation down or… I find them completely different. It’s like they’re in a completely different world than me.’

Taken with the above marginalization from ‘normal’ conversations and interaction, a mistrust of men, it is unsurprising that Q considers her options severely restricted:

‘[…] it’s just like all that I know and I can’t stop it. Even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t stop it. […] I find it easier with a client than I do with a normal man’

I do not wish to speak for Q, for any women working in prostitution, or indeed any other human being, which is why it is perhaps helpful to contextualise Q’s comments with some studies that have been conducted. In a study of five countries by Melissa Farley, 72% of women involved in prostitution were currently or formerly homeless. I say this because some would argue that Q asserting she does not want to leave prostitution may not be uncommon – and that we should respect this standpoint and not attempt to ‘save’ those who sell sex or assume their feelings. However, we must must must look at the context in which these assertions are made. Q feels alienated from normal society, unable to connect with other people on a basic level, unable to trust men or conduct a relationship with them beyond prostitution and is statistically at higher risk of homelessness than other members of society.  Add to this the guilt of abuse that her family receive because of her prostitution and being deemed (as she says) ‘scum of the earth’ by men and women alike, and there is a distinct lack of support in place for Q to make any other choice. And prostitution is a choice which she initially (in her own words) experienced as rape and she eventually normalises into her only choice, one she cannot and will not give up (‘it’s just like all I know’).

Although Q does not express a wish to exit, Farley’s study did in fact find that only 8% of women involved did not want to exit prostitution immediately. As Genderberg states ‘there is no sensible feminist reason to ignore the 92% of prostitutes who do not consider it work but slavery in favor of the 8% minority’. This is my firm belief. True, this figure could be inaccurate, for it comes from only one study, but preventing abuse is more important than a small group’s freedom of expression – which allows the other, larger group’s abuse to continue.

Rebecca Mott, an exited woman, believes that women normalising the experience of selling their body everyday constitutes torture. She puts this very eloquently on her blog:

‘I write to the place where it was no longer rape, no longer battery, no longer bad language – it was just our routine.
That is when rape, battery and mental abuse is made torture – when it done so often by so many men and ignored by the majority of outsiders that it becomes just the role that the prostituted must perform.
Torture is excused by saying this prostituted class are needed to prevent real sexual violence being done to real women and girls.
Torture is made invisible by saying and believing that the prostituted class enjoy and choose their lifestyle.
Torture is not allowed to happened to the prostituted class – for we must not question the male right to buy and sell the prostituted class for the great male orgasm.
Without access to torture the prostituted class, the whole structure of human society would fall apart – or all men would go insane.
I hope most of my readers do not believe such rubbish…’

Mott raises many excuses used to allow prostitution to continue, none of which hold validity when examined closely (‘choice’, men’s ‘uncontrollable’ libido, prevention of sexual violence against the non-prostituted), but what is interesting to me is that she terms all the excuses as contributing to her torture. She shows us how the position of abuse that exited women express is consistently downplayed in favour of a ‘liberal’ standpoint that women should be allowed to express themselves by selling sex. Really? Having read Mott’s blog, I believe the important focus is not about freedom of expression, but that we should avoid abuse and VAWG (violence against women and girls). Women in prostitution are highly likely to experience violence given the power dynamic in sex as a transaction. Women should not have to take work where violence is a likely by-product. As another exited woman states:

‘To those who would say legalisation would make prostitution safer: I think the same thing any former prostitute I’ve ever spoken to thinks, which is that you may as well legalise rape and battery to try to make them safer. You cannot legislate away the dehumanising, degrading trauma of prostitution, and if you try to, you are accepting a separate class of women should exist who have no access to the human rights everyone else takes for granted.’

And so I say, any woman who wants to exit should be able to do so. Currently this is not the case in the UK. Any woman who is wavering, like Q, should at least be given the option.

Q is a young woman in her early twenties, who has been working every day for seven years to service the sexual needs of men. To her, it feels like she’s slept ‘with billions and billions’ of men, although working for seven years her clients are likely to have numbered between 5,000 and 50,000, working on the basis that she saw between two and twenty clients a day (facts she recalls). She was forced into prostitution at fifteen by a pimp. This is the time she says was ‘hardened’ to it. In case that’s not clear, she started selling sex as a child – this makes the men who bought her paedophiles. This is child abuse. See the below from the survivor quoted above:

‘The one thing that linked those men together, besides their urges to pay to abuse my young body, was that they all knew just how young I was. They all knew because I told them, and I told them because it had the near-universal effect of causing them to become very aroused […] I learned that on my very first day while sitting in the car of an elderly man who repeated over and over the thing that was causing him such sexual joy: ‘Oh, you’re very young — aren’t you? Aren’t you?’’

Entering prostitution at a very young age is a common picture when examining the backgrounds of women who sell sex. Farley found that the average age women enter prostitution is 12 years old. Three published studies of prostitution each independently found it was 14  (Weisberg; Silbert & Pines; Gray). These figures are never easy to pin down – but the key is, when attempts have been made, the findings are shocking. And yet we persist with talk about ‘choice’.

I say this not to suggest that child abuse is worse than abuse of adults, or to draw any level of hierarchy in abuse, but to expose prostitution for what it is. Exploitative and abusive, to women and girls. I say this to dispel the myth of choice. When we consider a child’s ability to make a ‘choice’ about entering the sex industry, it demonstrates the sex industry’s willingness to manipulate vulnerable women and children; those with a lack of real choices available to them. A choice made in a context of unequal choices seems to me a difficult thing to term a ‘choice’. As is a ‘choice’ made by a minor that leads to her normalise abuse. Make no mistake, those who sell sex operate within an industry that profits from making money from selling commercial sex acts, whether a striptease or ‘full sex’. This is not an industry with human rights or self-expression at its heart. To suggest women enter this industry armed with any ability to combat the greater forces at work of an industry with strong links to the two biggest criminal networks in the world – drugs and trafficking – seems to me, incredibly naive. ‘Choice’ in this context becomes an increasingly redundant term.

As Q says, ‘it’s bad to think like what people think of prostitutes because we’re exactly the same as everyone else’. The key thing is, women working in prostitution are just people like any other; they’re not different or immune to harm somehow. We tend to ignore groups with a lack of political power – even if they face extraordinary abuse. Throw sex into the mix and everyone seems to get a little confused about coming down hard on abuse, and starts talking about choice. Choice – some women can exercise this to a certain degree when entering the sex industry (‘is this the best of the limited choices available to me?’) – others, who have been trafficked, cannot. See my post on sex slavery / trafficking here. Getting sidelined into this argument doesn’t ultimately help prevent violence against women. And this is my key aim.

In my own research about prostitution, I have been dismayed, but ultimately unsurprised, by the discovery that some men who buy sex have been found to consider women who work in prostitution ‘unrapeable’, that they believe they are buying the right to do whatever they want to their ‘purchase’.

‘Look, men pay for women because he can have whatever and whoever he wants. Lots of men go to prostitutes so they can do things to them that real women would not put up with.’

This quote is from Julie Bindel’s study ‘Men who buy sex’ – an NGO study which focuses on the people driving demand for sex as a commodity, not the women selling it. 27% of the men in this study believe they could engage in any act they please once they’d paid for sex. A quarter thought the idea that a women involved in prostitution could be raped was ‘ridiculous’. 42% believe that women ‘did not always have certain rights during prostitution’ – so if they say no, they have no right to. Kinnell (2008) also argues, such men believe that ‘buying sex entitles them to do anything they want’ or that paying ‘gave them the right to inflict any kind of assault they chose’. Prostitution seems to me an open door, allowing men to commit violence against women and get away with it – because, what, prostitutes are ‘different to normal women’, ‘sluts’ or ‘whores’?

This attitude positions women involved in prostitution as exactly what Q perceives herself to be in the eyes of ‘normal’ society – different. Unrapeable. Unable to assert her rights, to say no, to refuse to submit to any act being perpetrated on her body. And in seeing these women as different, normal men are perpetrating abuse they would not perpetrate on a woman they respected, saw as a human with their own desires and needs, or would have a relationship with. So Q ends up in the position of a woman who is used, disrespected, abused and raped by men who think this is acceptable because she is a certain kind of woman, an ‘other’ in relation to women they choose to associate with normally. And because of what? The transaction of money passing hands – this changes the process entirely. If a woman were subjected to the abuses Rebecca Mott details on her blog and she had not received money for it, would we not consider it differently? Would we not be calling it abuse, rather than work?

‘I hate to know and say that being raped just by a penis in the vagina was a relief, if that was all a punter wanted. It was almost nothing.
No, the prostituted are drown[ed], are strung from the ceiling, are penetrated in every hole in their body including ones too small, are burnt, are thrown out of moving cars, are sexually tortured for many days and nights.
That is just a tip of the hell we have known.’

I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to detail the abuses that Rebecca Mott went through, but if you’re feeling brave enough, please do read this post – in order to understand what we were excusing by talking about ‘choice’ so flagrantly. In my mind, receiving money for sex does not mean a tacit agreement that abuse should follow – especially given the Home Office figures that 45% of women involved in prostitution were sexually and /or physically abused as children, 70% spent time in care AND most entered prostitution as children – these are not women with the luxury of choosing another life. Some figures state that child abuse endured by women in prostitution (before entering) is as high as 75%. To condemn them as ‘scum’ and ‘slags’ (Q’s words) is to detract from the much greater issues at play behind their choices and to excuse the abuse they suffer on the basis of our privileged position to judge them as such.

Prostitution is not illegal in the UK. What is? Running a brothel, loitering or soliciting sex on the street, kerb-crawling. Who do you think gets pulled up on these and given a criminal record? That’s right – the women involved in prostitution. Not the men with free choice not to buy sex, but women, 95% of whom have a drug habit, women trying to look after children, women who are homeless, women who were trafficked into this country or within this country, women who see no way out, who had so few choices to begin with, women who know nothing else, who cannot report any injustice against them for fear of being jailed themselves, women who are psychologically and / or physically controlled by pimps. I do not believe our system is fair and just. Why are we punishing those without the power to improve their lives? This is why I recommend a group called NorMAs – Nordic Model Advocates – who will be lobbying the government to punish the men who buy sex, those with real choices, those driving demand to keep an industry rife with abuse of women alive. The fines these men receive would then be used to help women involved in prostitution get off drugs, receive housing, counselling, other professional options – give them a better life. This is not legalisation, but it is also not criminalising women in prostitution. The system has been successfully employed in Norway, Iceland and Sweden – hence ‘the Nordic Model’. Ireland, France, Denmark, Northern Ireland and Scotland are looking to follow suit. We now need the UK government to stand up and take notice.

‘[…] when I first started doing it, I cried my eyes out every day and just scrubbed myself in bleach and… I felt like I’d been raped. It was just… It really screwed my mind up. And there’s this feeling when you get…when you’re with a client and it’s like sometimes you feel like… you grab your fists and it’s like, ” Get off me! Get off me!” And it’s like you can’t push them off you, right? Because you know you’re getting paid for it. So basically it’s allowing yourself to be raped, right? […] and you cry while it’s happening […] and you go home and you cry yourself to sleep after all that shit, and it happens to you a lot of times until eventually that feeling goes away […] And you become hardened in your like… your heart and your soul to it, and this is when you get the hatred for men.’

What’s especially touching in In Her Own Words is reading the long, unedited segments of Jacobs’ transcript, as above. This is where Q’s voice comes through so strongly – and my soundbites here do the full publication little justice, so I would urge you to download your own copy. Sadly, Q is no longer with us, but this heartfelt transcript of her conflicted feelings towards her life is powerful indictment of society’s stigmatisation of women involved in prostitution as people to shame and punish, rather people who need more consideration than that damning allows.

I believe the majority of women working in prostitution would like different choices to begin with, the ability to exit if they do sell sex, and our compassion and empathy as vulnerable human beings a situation of abusive control and daily rape. Many thanks to Ruth Jacobs for sharing her research with us. You can download a copy of In Her Own Words… Interview with a London Call Girl here and the money will go to a charity called Beyond The Streets working to end sexual exploitation in many areas, including prostitution.

Ruth Jacobs’ website is here and you can follow NorMAs (Nordic Model Advocates) on Facebook here.

Useful links:

A selection of survivor blogs – there are many more:




Objectification: it’s no small thing


I am frustrated. I’ve had yet another conversation with men full of rape apologism and no remorse. It all started, as it always does, with objectification.

Candidate number one is a repeat offender on this front – you could set a timer from the point he walks into a room and when the talk about women’s body parts. I’d estimate it’s about two minutes (max.) before something is said, and then he goes for it, full steam ahead. Today it was because of the Olympics, which is ironic, because I had just managed to sort of, maybe, get over the commercial capitalist machinery of it all and had been enjoying seeing women given an equal platform to men in something. (Ok, it’s been riddled with sexism – with women flying economy and men first class, and commentators getting carried away talking about women’s hair or over-masculine appearances – but I was trying to see some positives.) I will admit that this is the first time I have experienced a competition where the general public seem to be equally encouraging towards the women as they are to men, so that’s pleasing. And then the talk started about how you can Google Jessica Ennis’ bum, how she’s ‘really fit’ (British slang for attractive) except her shoulders are ‘just a bit too broad’ and her husband just isn’t ‘fit enough’ for her. People are ridiculous. This escalated to evaluating every athlete in the line-up on the basis of her appearance (‘oh yeh, she’d get it’). When I pulled him up on it, he said he probably spent 96% of his time talking about his perceptions of women’s sexual attractiveness. What a sad life. (Knowing him, this probably isn’t far off, either.) Funnily enough, I’m not interested in the minutiae of who he finds attractive (the list is endless, it seems) and why (this never involves evaluating their faces). Now, I could just write him off as an arsehole. But that isn’t helpful for anyone.

Because his opinions don’t exist in a vacuum, he isn’t a one-off and his attitudes have wider repercussions – especially when we live in a culture that fosters rape and does not punish it when it occurs. (You all know the pitiful conviction rates and stories about juries being biased by the fact the woman was wearing a skirt, and therefore ‘invited it’ – or whichever particular rape myth they rolled out on that particular day. For the Truth About Rape, see here.) I tried to explain how viewing women as objects, and therefore dehumanised, is one of the major reasons why perpetrators of sexual violence are able to commit their crimes. Because if you saw that woman as a well-rounded human, equal to you, considered them as someone you had respect for, you wouldn’t be abusing her or touching her without consent. I tried to explain about the normalising of sexualised attitudes to women in society (at least partially) accounting for the prevalence in rape. Objectification is by no means a small thing, happening in the private sphere without wider implications. Your attitude is heard and absorbed by the next person, and if it’s horrifically damaging, you might want to think about that. He wasn’t bothered, as long as he was unaffected (this is a similar argument that men who buy sex tend to make), and claimed not ‘to understand me correctly’. Basically, me telling him he held similar atttidues to a rapist slid off him like melted butter. So I’m afraid I have to come to the conclusion, sir, that you are not overly intelligent. It’s a no-brainer that women presented as sex objects, existing for the male gaze and not for themselves – with a life beyond men, relationships and sex – and the acceptance of this sexualisation as normal, is not going to result in a healthy societal attitude towards women. Because we are bombarded with thousands and thousands of adverts using this tactic daily – the estimated number we see in a day is astounding. We are also very susceptible to implicit cultural rules and norms, as Cordelia Fine explores in her book Delusions of Gender – even people who report progressive opinions, when their implicit attitudes are tested, are very affected by basic black and white stereotypes such as women = weak, men = powerful, women = empathisers, men = strategisers. We carry gender stereotypes around with us in our subconscious, even if we don’t consciously subscribe to these beliefs. What a silly world.

Anyway, candidate number two chipped in with his tuppence about how girls must like it when men comment on their appearance and how they can’t hear us anyway – they’re on tv. Hate to break it to you, but being constantly evaluated on the basis of your appearance is a poor existence. It’s pressure many constantly fight against, for fear of being found lacking when held up to society’s unforgiving standards of what is ‘beautiful’. Being scrutinised on the basis of appearance is a fundamental cause of many women’s insecurities with their body, resulting in multifarious psychological problems including eating disorders, self-harm, body shame and depression – it has all sorts of adverse effects. Women are trained to see beauty as success, but with beauty being so elusive and ever-changing according to fashion, we can never win this war. So we are constantly assessing ourselves as not good enough. This can also lead to us undernourishing our other areas for potential: by spending all that time, effort and money on the upkeep of our exterior, rather than our interior. In addition, I, and women in general, do not exist for the purpose of your visual titillation. So to answer that astute rebuttal to my points about rape culture, no – I don’t want your opinion on my appearance, I’m not flattered, and well, give me some credit, for Christ’s sake! It is conceivable that I don’t care what you think. To be fair, this is the man who told me that he went into a department store for the sole purpose of perving on the women behind the make-up counters, adding that he knew that’s why they’re at the store front, and felt it was the store’s fault for using that tactic to draw him in. (Funny, I’d just go with you needing to change your attitude to women, rather than it being their fault; although aggressive marketing using women is two a penny.) To add insult to the injury of him telling me this perverse story as if it were appealing conversation, he added that he had gone on the escalators for the sole purpose of getting an aerial view of said women on the make-up counters. He also mentioned their awareness of him looking. And he’d ended up buying two shirts because the escalators had landed him in menswear – this also the store’s fault. Now, the storeplanners are good, they may use the women to draw you in, potentially, but they’re not THAT good – they didn’t know about your debased aerial view technique. So again, I’d come back to you having the problem.

Can you imagine me, alone, in a room with these guys? This is how I find myself, no friendly boyfriend anywhere in sight to defend my side. I ended up, frankly, very angry and frustrated. Because I feel like I read so much sensible literature, I meet all these sensible feminists who know how badly sexual violence is dealt with in the legal system and by the police in this country (broadly), how we’re failing survivors of rape, sexual abuse, prostitution and so on. They know the stats, they know the facts, they know the reality – and often,  sadly, have the lived experience to boot. And then in an instant, a couple of flagrant misogynists can come along and make me feel impotent in the face of such huge societal attitudes and the mechanisms of capitalism clicking away and profiting off the mantra ‘sex sells’.

This is why it’s so important for us to all work together to say we’re not having it. I called these guys out, and I hope, despite their resistance, that something I said got through. We need to continue to do this in our personal lives, and we need to continue all the wonderful campaigning. Don’t let the objectifying bastards get you down! Objectification is a giant, massive, gargantuan issue feeding into so many others, it’s no small fry.

Gender norms are nonsense. Oh, and then there’s that hypersexualisation of women thing too.


I’ve said this before but I often get to thinking about society and what we perceive as ‘normal’ in the here and now. I always find it all a little bewildering. Take this, from Armpits4August re: female body hair, for instance.

This recent trend (insofar as it’s become normalised for the vast majority of women living in the west during the c20th) has become so quickly entrenched that it’s easy to find someone who will argue that it’s more ‘natural’ for women not to have body hair. Armpits4August isn’t trying to argue for the superiority of whatever being ‘natural’ actually means but, de facto, it cannot be more ‘natural’ to remove naturally occurring body hair. Yet, for many, it appears so.

We do this all the time in society – do something really illogical, tout it as ‘normal’ and then condemn those that don’t fit in with it. Now, I’ve never been much of a conformist, but I would find it hard to dangle a dyed, hairy armpit out and about in my everyday life without feeling self-conscious. (This is what Armpits4August plan to do for charity, if you haven’t heard. Check it out here.) But at least I can see the banality of what I am doing in order to be ‘normal’ – and in this case, hairless.

My point is that ‘normal’ is just nonsense. Be whoever you are and all that good stuff. As long as it doesn’t harm others. And this is where it all gets a bit crappy. Because ‘normal’ is often really horribly harmful to certain sections of society. I bet gay people get sick of all the heteronormative nonsense all around them. And transgender people? The sheer amount of abuse they get from all angles – largely unaccepted by either sexes – is unacceptable and based purely on these randomly ascribed gender norms. And yet, in terms of women’s rights in the UK (note: in the UK), we’re at this point where people think we’ve achieved it all, they think feminism is null and void. We’ve fought the battles, now we can reap the benefits. As I generally explore, this is not so at all – there’s a lot more to be done. But it makes me wonder how we will look back at this time, right here, right now, in decades to come. Where will we position ourselves in this great stretch of history in regards to feminism? Will this have been a time of great change, or one of those stagnant periods where feminism was ‘uncool’ and ‘abnormal’?

Because what I see being accepted as ‘normal’ and / or ‘harmless’ in the supposedly ‘progressive’ here and now is, frankly, horrific.

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I really hope we can look back at this as a time where we made great strides against porn culture, rape culture, hypersexualisation, objectification – however you want to term it. That stuff, up there. Because it’s not doing anyone any good, whatever sex, whatever gender.

PS I really recommend reading Ms. Magazine’s 4 part series on sexual objectification  – what it is and how to respond to it.

The rise of American-style anti-abortion tactics in the UK – why we all should be concerned


This post was originally written for and published by Progressive Women, a feminist organisation that strives towards achieving equality between women and men in society and politics. It was co-founded by Caroline Watson in March 2009 and can be found at http://www.progressivewomen.org.uk/

Pro-choice sign

Abortion on Demand and Without Apology by World Can’t Wait on Flickr

 At the pro-public meeting in Parliament on May 16th, Diane Abbott MP outlined a 6-point plan that UK anti-abortion groups have imported directly from their more successful and experienced US partners. These organisations are purposefully making flagrant claims about abortion as scaremongering, to raise anxiety around the issue of abortion in public life, which they hope will cause enough of a hoo-ha to affect decisions taken in Parliament. And sadly, it’s working.

There are 3 national groups that consciously lie about abortion in our schools – The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), Lovewise and Life. Their claims: sex education leads to a rise in STIs and abortion causes breast cancer, infertility and mental health problems. They cite a rise in suicide through an (imaginary) condition called ‘Post-Abortion Syndrome’. Groups have even used a disproved example of a girl who died after having an abortion for maximum emotional impact. Others, such as 40 Days for Life, target abortion providers and not only disrupt their daily proceedings, but also raise questions around their trustworthiness and legitimacy. There have already been curbside vigils outside clinics in 50 cities in the UK. They verbally harass employees and women accessing the service with bogus claims. Wielding graphic photos, they even film them. There have also been 1000s of hacking attempts to steal private information about women seeking advice on abortion. But why, apart from the obvious, is this so concerning?

Well, there are anti-abortionists within the government using this opportune moment to exert influence. We have seen spot-checks on abortion providers on the basis of anti-abortionists’ (unsubstantiated) suspicions of foul play, leaving 500 scheduled checks of care homes postponed. We have seen a misinformed Telegraph smear campaign against abortion providers and a special consultation group on abortion, spearheaded by Nadine Dorries MP, pushing for the pro-lifers’ views to legitimised in Parliament. It goes on.

No evidence of wrongdoing has been found on the part of abortion providers, and yet the anti-abortion groups are being vindicated. They have created distress and confusion. Now, Dorries’ consultation group wants women seeking advice on abortion to be pointed to independent advisers. If this were to happen, we would see many counsellors under the guise of impartiality pushing a pro-life agenda on women seeking advice. And you can bet there’d be some ‘helpful’ pictures of aborted foetuses knocking about.

Abortion providers are already providing the advice and support a woman needs – with accurate facts and proportionate representation of health risks. Because being pro-choice and saying ‘whatever you decide is right’ is not ideological. Claiming that all abortion is murder, whether the woman is a victim of incest or simply isn’t ready – now that is ideological. Pro-lifers have a vested interest in making a woman choose to keep a child. Abortion providers have no interest either way, as long as the woman is informed; they do not gain anything from performing more or fewer abortions. And let me be quick to state that whatever the women’s reasons are, they’re legitimate. And however many abortions are needed a year in Britain is the right amount, and the amount we must provide, a point made by Natalie Bennett at the pro-choice meeting. The right to choose is held up in the laws of the land, which we must protect.

So what can we do to prevent further impactful threats to a woman’s right to choose? Firstly, as Kat Banyard and Zoe Williams point out, we must talk about abortion more openly, to lift the cloak of shame being used as a weapon against protecting it. We must not view all abortion as a tragedy. Each individual experiences abortion differently. Some suffer post-traumatic stress disorder related to the way they became pregnant (such as having been raped). Others return to normal life unfazed and without regret. And of course, there is a spectrum in between. But we should celebrate that women have autonomy over their bodies and make room for more discourse where women can admit to abortion without fear of judgment – and crucially, without using the language of guilt. The right to abortion was a hard-won gain. For the working class, who couldn’t afford any quality of life for unplanned children, it’s a blessing. To choose if and when to have children is key in allowing women to live the life they want. We need to show our MPs this is an issue we care about and we’re taking note of the questions they raise and answer in Parliament. But most of all, we should set our own agenda of activism to counter these groups.

Life gets £4 million a year in fundraising, whereas Abortion Rights gets £40,000. We need to fundraise in order to mobilise, and we need to mobilise on the offensive, not on the back foot or on the defensive, worrying that abortion is too tender an issue to raise. Although the Lib Dems are largely opposing Dorries’ reforms, all three of the main parties all have no official line on abortion. Really?

Let’s stand up and say ‘yes, it’s okay to have an abortion’. Let’s say that abortion is not a choice to make on someone else’s behalf. Should someone wish to access a legal medical service, they can do so and should be able to do so without illegal harassment and blatant lies. Why isn’t our government making a fuss about this illegal activity? Why are they letting Dorries’ misinformation affect their decisions? We have to make them aware we care. We have to take action against these pernicious groups that want to drag us into the days of backstreet abortions, reduce the time a woman has to make an informed decision, take away her access to accurate information and ultimately, take away her choice and autonomy over her body. Let’s make a fuss!

It’s all in a look: vagenda, body hair and the rage against the beauty machine

Unshaven armpits

Julia Roberts dared to bare all in 1999

I recently read the article in Vagenda mag about female body hair, specifically about not removing it. I feel for the author. In the face of hegemonic gender norms, it’s hard to be the voice of dissent, crying foul play. We don’t like body hair in mainstream western society and I wouldn’t have the guts to fly in the face of that heavy, if ridiculous, disapproval. I am weak.

It’s because I don’t agree with gender norms that sometimes I lack the conviction to say what I really want to, for fear of opposition. That opposition is so entrenched and so ignorantly accepted, without deference to gender ideology. So sometimes, when I catch a dirty look from another woman – and all women get those, no matter what – sometimes, it affects my ‘fuck gender stereotypes’ conviction. ‘The Look’ can bring you down from the giddy heights of happiness, or it can throw you over the edge just when you’re keeping it together. On a really good day, I can shake it off completely, but The Look is powerful, because it speaks to so much more than a nose-wrinkling distaste for your outfit choice.

For the author of the Vagenda article, it is probably down to her hair in places that are unacceptable for woman to show hair in public. (Which is pretty much anywhere but our heads.) I put the looks down to my dishevelled appearance in comparison to the onlooker’s attempt at airbrushed perfection, or my ‘quirky’ attire. At those moments, I crave a stamp on my forehead that says ‘Fuck you, I’m a feminist! I don’t subscribe to your value system!’ My value lies in more than the clothes I wear or the way I look. It’s hard to be defiant all the time though.

Defiance is hardest when those you’re defying are the majority and misunderstand your defiance. Beauty is so omnipresent and omnipotent in our society. But most people don’t analyse their beliefs for long enough to realise they may be indoctrinated by a dominant cultural mindset, reminiscent of the here and now, the particular zeitgeist of the moment. They don’t think about their treatment of beauty as political, cultural or historical.  To be curvaceous used to be considered beautiful. Now we favour the emaciated look. Most models have a BMI of 15-16, which counts as ‘starving’ by the World Health Organisation’s standards. To be hairy in places where you’re naturally hairy used to be ‘normal’. Now it’s not. And to go against this norm apparently warrants a torrid reaction nowadays. Just ask Vagenda.

For the moment, a mindset dominates. Female body hair is gross. Women must be beautiful to be worthwhile. That mindset sees women from the male gaze. It has made women see themselves from the male gaze. If our bodies were functional and not aesthetic, why would we remove hair? It’s costly, annoying and time-consuming. It’s also there for a reason and bites back hard when you try and remove it. Persistent bastard, it is. But my conviction that there is more to life than beauty is automatically trumped by prevailing messages running through all parts of society.

Advertising. Pornography. Fashion. Diets. Lapdancing. Music videos. Shop windows. Cosmetic counters. Magazines. Page 3. Girl talk.

Why do they win? Because I am an individual. I am fragile. The above are (almost) all connected to huge corporations. Mostly the same few corporations at that.

And all of this analysis I can get, yes, just from a casual caustic look. A throwaway bit of malice from a passerby. I am empathetic. I want to understand other perspectives. But it seems Aryan to me, the superiority complex of The Look. It’s screams ‘my idea of beauty is right because I say so, because I think so, because I feel so.’ I think, therefore it must be. This is alien to me, the unquestioning, unconscious decision-making process based on personal convictions. Because I am constantly questioning feminism as a whole, my feminism and feminism’s various forms. Because not all of it is right. Not all of it I agree with. This can make me feel like I lack conviction, but really it’s because I want my conviction to be genuine. I can’t assert something without thought it through properly, without research and bouncing off other people, without question.

The Look, however, is self-justifying. And The Look makes me wonder how we will look back at this time, right here, right now, in decades to come. You know when you look back at a photo of yourself from years ago and you look so different to how you perceived you looked at the time? The whole world around you looks a bit old-fashioned and like something you’d rather forget happened. It’s like the feeling we get when we look back at the treatment of women in the 1950s, where women were encouraged to find fulfilment only in domesticity and marriage. ‘How quaint’, we think. Or when we watch Mad Men and think how hilariously funny it is that men routinely went unchallenged when they treated women as inferior. How men felt they could talk to women as lesser beings and use them as objects for their sexual gratification, without any sense of wrongdoing.**

**I don’t think this is funny ha ha or funny strange, but I hear a whole lot of people do because we’re supposedly so far from the Mad Men model of gender now. If only.

It’s hard being a feminist in the current  climate, where women compete in a beauty war and feel pitted against each other in some sort of imaginary femininity stakes, even when ‘beautiful’ and loved. I put beautiful in inverted commas because beauty is subjective and cannot be stated as a fact. (Naomi Wolf captures this more astutely than I ever will in the excellent book The Beauty Myth.) Women are so often comparing their outward selves to other women, but only in relation to the discourse of mainstream society. Not in relation to their own version of ‘beauty’ or success’. But that’s the problem with continually checking yourself against the male gaze.

If I go against what is now the accepted norm of femininity and go to a party with hairy pits on show à la Julia Roberts and no attempt to cover up my various human imperfections, no attempt to airbrush myself into an idealised version of a woman, then I am made to feel I am less worthy, less ‘beautiful’, less valuable. Because I’m more me and less Barbie. And that’s hard to accept and hard to go brazenly go against. Especially when the company around you largely fails to understand just what it is you’re going against and brands you as ‘ugly’ or ‘lazy’ instead. How often do we hear things like she ‘could have made more of an effort’ or she’s ‘letting herself go? Too often.

Because opting out of beauty isn’t a choice. Just ask these guys:

It’s a slippery slope, this beauty war. But I am gradually finding strength in my ‘weakness’.

Representing women experts on TV and radio: why the controversy?

question time accused of sexism

Question Time consistently under represents women (Photo credit: Mjtmail Tiggy)

Broadcast Now, the bigwig magazine in the TV industry, has started a campaign to encourage broadcasters to invite and feature more women experts on TV and radio. This comes after City University’s research found that programming, particularly news interviews, current affairs programmes and documentaries, regularly under-represents women.

The BBC is one of the big players that has refused to commit to the campaign’s requests. Well, no huge surprise there as we all know that the BBC thinks a panda is relevant candidate for their women of the year awards! So what’s more horrifying to me is that the Creative Diversity Network, the industry body that works to improve diversity, also refused, saying it would endorse only the ‘spirit of it’. Who knows why.

So what are the statistics? Men typically outnumber women by 4:1 on a huge range of news and current affairs programmes across channels. BBC Radio 4’s Today programme is more like 6:1. The Guardian’s research also showed that over a one-month period last year, 84% of the Today programme’s reporters, presenters and guests were male. This reflects a trend where not only are women not deemed interesting enough to be interviewed, they’re not getting the jobs in broadcasting either. City University’s Lis Howell said:

Even the programmes which have most women interviewees, Daybreak, Five Live and BBC Breakfast still only have a ratio of four to one and that many of their female participants are victims or case studies, not authority figures.

In my mind, this is an issue that doesn’t need to be controversial. I think a lot of the problem with opposition to campaigns such as this is the opposition to quotas. The fact is, this campaign is not a quota. It is careful to point this out. It only asks for an attempt to improve representation to more like 30% women – it’s a target. When we make up half of society, 30% doesn’t seem like that much to ask!  Women are absent from our screens in their roles as experts and decision makers. We’re robbed of a platform to show our more serious capacities. Sure, we’re there in spades on the reality tv, the soaps and the sitcoms – whether represented as stereotypes or as fully-developed characters – but actually, not to be taken seriously. When something is absent, sometimes that’s easy to miss. So this is a campaign of awareness raising. Notice this problem, first and foremost, then we can debate how to deal with it. (I for one, do agree with quotas, but that’s a whole different matter.)

You can see where the problems come from in clips such as this, from the BBC’s Question Time:

Katie Hopkins seems to think there’s a lack of women with merit out there, and that they want ‘special treatment’ rather than equality. She is speaking in response to Andy Gray and Richard Keys’ sacking by Sky News after (proven) sexist comments, but her comments apply more broadly. She admits’ it’s a tough world out there’, but sticks to a lovely stereotype of women as a submissive and needing to ‘toughen up’ to get by in it. At one point she even says ‘this sort of debate’ (i.e the equality debate) shouldn’t be out there. The debate isn’t even valid, in her eyes.

So basically, as usual, it’s women’s fault they’re not getting invited as guests on shows. It’s women’s fault that they’re not taken seriously in public life or politics. And if they’re not paid enough across the board in all industries, well, they’re just not pulling their weight and putting in a performance equal to men’s. Having worked for a time in the male-dominated atmosphere of the military, this does rather smack of ‘the organisation changes the woman before the woman can change the organisation’, which is something Germaine Greer once said. (NB I am by no means a Germaine Greer fan in all of her opinions.) How can we possibly still be going around spouting this nonsense? Women are under-represented in a vast amount of industries. So we’re not going to question those industries? We’re going to assume women aren’t good enough, or tough enough? I just don’t buy that they can’t find enough women experts to appear because they’re too busy having babies or whatever it is we’re allegedly doing instead.

Katie Hopkins isn’t alone in her views. I hear similar arguments all the time. My boyfriend believes that when it comes to Question Time, which describes itself as a ‘political discussion show’ featuring ‘political and media figures’, if we were to have 30% women as guests, or god forbid, 50%, we would OVER-represent women. Because women are only 22% of our Parliament. Well, I for one don’t agree that if something’s wrong in one institution, we should perpetuate that by reflecting it in another (influential) institution. Plus, it doesn’t just have to be politicians appearing on the show. Katie Price has appeared on it, for Christ’s sake! The host’s show David Dimbleby has addressed the issue of the BBC’s alleged sexism, saying they only reflect public life, they don’t create it. There are, indeed, a lack of women in British public life. But in my opinion, the BBC can do more than reflect life, it can also shape it. It already does shape people’s perceptions of women by reflecting them in the majority of cases as the victims of a crime, or in the case of Sian Massey and Andy Gray/Richard Keys, the victim of a controversy. So it can bloody well step up and shape society in a positive way by pledging to represent women in a variety of roles, not just as the victim. It is blatantly obvious that the portrayal of women as victims does more damage than just reflecting an under-representation. It’s affecting what we all think about all women, especially those who want to be taken seriously. Add to that the representation of women in other media such as newspapers, and we’ve got a problem of massive proportions on our hands. We have to focus on one specific area if we’re to have any success in campaigning, as a clear message and target audience is vital. So well done to this campaign for doing exactly that. But it would be a mistake to think that’s all this is about. This is one tiny slice of the cake.

We deserve to hear a variety of voices on screen and on radio from both genders, not because women deserve special treatment, but because women are experts in their relative fields too, and they’re not even being invited in the first place to prove that. Perhaps if we start representing women in the media in their roles other than victim, we might be able to start shifting the ‘old boys’ club’ mentality in our Parliament too.

Sign here to support the campaign to have more women experts on TV and radio. It’s a small step to something much, much bigger and more important – gender equality.