11 Apr 2014

I'm thrilled to be off to Chicago to speak at the American Culture/Popular Culture Association's National Conference. On Wednesday April 16, I'll be giving a talk on my 'Thinking Kink' blog series and reflecting on what I learnt from writing about the intersection of feminism, BDSM and pop culture.

If you're around, do come see me speaking in the "Critical Scrutiny of BDSM" session, taking place in "Houston" between 1.15 and 2.45pm.

I'll be uploading my presentation slides and text shortly after the conference finishes on Saturday 19th April, so do check back in if you'd like to read them.

9 Apr 2014

Katha Pollitt, Melissa Gira Grant, and Sex Work

I read with interest Katha Pollitt's piece for The Nation, "Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to be The New Normal?", which was inspired by Melissa Gira Grant's controversial new book in defence of sex work, Playing The Whore (which I have already explored in length in this post). It's somewhat disappointing to see so many great feminists falling for pernicious myths about sex work, and I wonder what it is that's stopping them seeing past the often-trotted-out misconceptions about sex work, what it is, and what it means for gender relations.
 
Pollitt sets her thoughts up in the deeply unhelpful, divisive manner that anti-sex-work feminists seem unable to discard. Her first move is to sarcastically over-simplify the point that Gira Grant's book is making. "Now, selling sex is sex work—just another service job, with good points and bad—and if you suggest that the women who perform it are anything less than free agents, perhaps even “empowered” if they make enough money, you’re just a prude". Nowhere in her book does Grant say anything that could be considered a call for everyone to embrace sex work in the name of liberation, but anti-SW fems clearly feel so offended by the suggestion that they sanction a way of having sex that they personally deem unacceptable, that they feel the need to come out swinging with sarky comments like these.
 
Pollitt pulls out all of the anti-SW arguments, accusing Gira Grant of not saying enough about "the women at the heart of this debate: those who are enslaved and coerced—illegal immigrants, young girls, runaways and throwaways, many of them survivors of sexual trauma, as well as transwomen and others cast out of mainstream society." This assumes that anti-SW feminists have the right to set the terms of the debate, even when those terms are irrelevant and inaccurate. No one fights more loudly than sex workers themselves for  the right women and men to do sex work free from coercion, harm and stigma; the idea that you cannot believe sex work is a job if you also condemn the idea that anyone ever be forced into it is a massive red herring. Why should Gira Grant be obliged to be a spokesperson for trafficked women, when what she is talking about is consensual, freely chosen sex work? And if you're going to come straight back at me with "Well, it's impossible to untangle the two, sex work and trafficking go hand in hand", are you then also going to say that we should smash the restaurant industry to smithereens and make domestic service illegal, because both of those industries have a helluva lot of shady underparts where people (mostly poor, vulnerable women) are trafficked, exploited and harmed? If not, then you have to accept that defending a type of work does not entail that you spend all your time apologising for and advocating for those who have been abused in ways that are (sometimes only tangentially) related to that industry. Because it goes without saying that any 'job' where someone has their passport taken off them, is lied to, is locked in a basement and beaten, underfed, not paid or exploited is not a job at all, it's a terrible crime. So why do we insist that Grant not allowed to talk about sex work without having to constantly stop and remind us about those for whom sex is not a job, but a horrendous coercive nightmare? We wouldn't just be trying to derail her argument and demand that she justify herself in a way that anti-SW fems are never asked to, now, would we?
 
That brings to my next point, the inevitable idea that as long as some women are trafficked, no real consent to sex work exists. This, as Grant points out in her book, is a very dangerous argument to make, as it inadvertently supports the already-too-common idea that sex workers cannot be raped. If, against the background of a sexist society built upon male privilege, sex workers' choice to do their job is meaningless, then presumably so is their consent. If they are so brainwashed by the patriarchy that we don't believe their consent to do their job is 'real', then presumably the flipside, their withdrawal of consent to parts of that job, can't be real either. Feminists can't have it both ways. We can't say that we believe in women, that we trust women (one of the major pro-choice slogans), that women are worthy of a place in this world to make decisions, make changes and do important work that affects and shapes society, and then suggest that certain subsets of women are just too stupid to know when they're being conditioned by the patriarchy. It doesn't just hack at the very foundations of feminism, but it's also obnoxiously elitist. As Gayle Rubin once said of anti-BDSM  feminist writing "the erotic preferences seem to be presumed as universal". Pollitt and anti-sex-work feminists impose a similar assumption by treating sex as a sacred cow, a different, unique case. She rejects the idea that "all service work [can be] collapsed into one", and clearly thinks that there is a difference between being up to your arms in food grease for £4.50 an hour and performing oral sex for say, £80 an hour (I have done the former, in a pub kitchen when I was 20, while hearing about my colleague's sister doing the latter. I know who I felt was "the mug" in that particular situation). But that is simply her opinion. She sees sex as something different from baking bread, lugging hods of bricks about, cleaning toilets, changing incontinence pads on drooling people with Parkinson's (the latter being another job your writer has done). And I believe that's because at root, she holds a fundamental idea about how sex should be, which she is trying to impose on the rest of us.
 
Pollitt argues that what she objects to is the asymmetry of it all, the fact it's mostly men who buy sex and women who sell it. This, she claims, feeds into a culture of entitlement. And yes, this is something that used to trouble me too. Why, I wondered, if men can just buy sex, would they ever bother being nice to a woman when there's clearly no need for that effort? (When I voiced this to a sex worker on Twitter, she said something along the lines of "God, URGH, I hate the idea of someone 'being nice to me' just because they think it'll get them sex!"). Pollitt suggests that sex work sends out the message that "men are entitled to sex without attracting a partner, even to the limited extent of a pickup in a bar, much less pleasing or satisfying her". This is where I think a lot of anti-SW fems draw artificial lines. As I said in my piece about Gira Grant's book, "all sex, paid for or not, exists on a continuum". Is there really as much of a difference between paying for sex and the aforementioned "pickup in a bar" as Pollitt thinks there is? Can we guarantee that the man who goes out for a one-night stand has any interest in pleasing or satisfying the women he finds (if indeed he does find one), or is it safer to assume he probably just wants a quick fuck? And what of his female partner, do we assume that she is also interested in mutual pleasure and intimacy, or might she just be someone who wants to get laid? In a world of fuck buddies, friends with benefits, play partners, one night stands and a million other ways to have casual sex, it's clear that humanity strongly rejects the idea that there is one right or best way to do sex. And we have not got a shot in hell of assuring that all or any of these ways of making genitals meet involves respect, equality or even pleasure (although obviously one would hope that at least some of them do), because we cannot police the bedroom, and hopefully, as feminists, we have no wish to either. Yet according to anti-SW feminists, as soon as sex is paid for, and that transaction goes from male to female, that particular act of sex somehow becomes instantly wrong and a way of propping up the patriarchy.As I also said in my post, if we apply this thinking consistently, then "Does that mean that every man who buys dinner for a woman and then has sex with her afterwards gets his kicks not from the sex, but from the impact on his credit card that two nice steaks will have? Does that mean that men whose wives do not work in order to care for children are secretly high-fiving themselves at 'owning' the 'commodity' of their wife's body every time they have sex with her?"
 
In my limited dealings with sex workers (mostly online, via Twitter, email and blogs), the issue of women buying sex has often been raised. Several sex workers have said to me that they believe the gender asymmetry of sex purchase has a lot less to do with the stereotype of male demand (and the accompanying icky idea of female unwillingness, this myth that women 'don't really like sex' and just do it to please men) and much more to do with the fact women are much more advantageously placed when it comes to finding casual sex partners. My male friends have unanimously told me how easy it is to be a single woman in a nightclub, as opposed to a single man. One is constantly policed, viewed as sleazy, desperate or creepy. The other is "just having fun". (And yes I know the ubiquitous creepy man in a nightclub who inevitably finds a way to wreck women's nights by sleazing on them deserves to be policed, but that is not the point I'm making here.) In my local area, single women can get into a swinger's club for £15 - for single men it's £35, if they're allowed in at all (some nights are listed as just "couples and single women"). We assume that we live in this society where everything defaults to men, where women and our lives and our bodies are constantly controlled so that we will fit a stereotype that pleases men. And yet, my intelligent, attractive, polite 29 year-old male friends will tell you that they do not experience a society that is out to please them at all. Instead they experience rejection, insecurity and fear of being perceived precisely as that "sleazy man". They find approaching girls difficult, awkward and riddled with potential for (sometimes extremely rude) rejection. They feel that the power is anywhere but in their hands.
 
As a slim-ish, young-ish, white woman with feminine presentation I have to acknowledge that on balance, it's pretty easy for me to go out and find casual sex, if that's what I want., and definitely easier for me than it is for my male counterparts. Even if I couldn't access sex so easily, I doubt I'd want to simply pay someone to pleasure me, but that's just me - it's not evidence that as Pollitt and anti-SW feminists assume, that women all desire this meaningful, 'connected', loving type of sex (and I don't, anyway - the very idea sends me to sleep). Plus, if Pollitt's assumption that we live in a society of male sexual entitlement, or that the existence of sex work props that up, is true, then why aren't all my male friends who struggle with girls just giving up and going to sex workers? Why are they still meeting women the 'normal way', forming relationships, going through the struggle of making connections, if all men are just supposed to want callous, uncaring, casual sex? And why do we assume that all sex work involves only the latter kind of sex, or that all non-paid for sex entails meaningful, tender encounters where both partners fully acknowledge each other's humanity? We do not have any grounds for making these assumptions other than our own prejudices. Which is why we should be listening to the likes of Gira Grant, a former sex worker herself, who actually has experience of the issue we are so blithely theorising about.
 
Pollitt is trying to throw sex workers a bone by saying "It’s one thing to say sex workers shouldn’t be stigmatized, let alone put in jail." However, she betrays the notion that she truly supports sex workers in any way by immediately going on to say "But when feminists argue that sex work should be normalized, they accept male privilege they would attack in any other area." So where exactly does that leave sex workers? Can't stigmatize them, but can't normalize them either. Erm... It doesn't seem particularly sisterly to sigh "Well, we'll accept that your work has to exist if we really must, and if it'll keep you out of jail, but I don't want to hear anyone saying anything good about it, nor do I want any slowing of our fight to ultimately end the profession you're in." It seems patronising and dictatorial.
 
None of us are going to live long enough to see the feminist utopia come to fruition, so ultimately none of us know what it's going to look like. Maybe it'll be a Marxist paradise where no one pays for anything - not sex or clothes or bread or writing (yo!). Maybe instead it'll be a gender-equal sexual free-for-all, where women and men, old and young, gay, straight, trans, able and disabled people sometimes have sex in exchange for something else, and sometimes have it for no reason other than pleasure, and no one gives a frig (several SWs suggested to me that they believed more women would pay for sex if there was less stigma and more ways to guarantee personal safety). But you don't get to dictate what this "most feminist" world would look like based on nothing other than your own personal prejudices. If you don't like the idea of sex work, fine. (Sometimes I really don't, either.) You don't like what (you think) the existence of the sex industry says about gender, or the effect you believe it has on relations between the genders. But til you can show me irrefutable proof that a woman accepting cash for sex is worse or different than a woman accepting an engagement ring worth thousands of pounds in return for nothing other than her sexual loyalty, or that one or both of those women are so disempowered by the sexist society we live in that their actions cannot be said to be feely chosen, you don't get to dictate that we can't say anything positive about sex workers lest we "normalize" them.

31 Mar 2014

The Complications of Compliments

"If it's not too anti-feminist to say this...."
"Can I be horrendously sexist for a minute?"
"I'm about to say something misogynistic..."
 
These are not phrases that immediately precede words of terrible sexism, as one might think. It's entirely understandable that that's exactly what you're expecting to hear, as we all know that as soon as someone utters the words "I'm not racist, but....", they're guaranteed to finish the sentence with a proclamation of racial prejudice. Ditto "I'm not a homophobe, but...", "I've got nothing against them, but..." and all other passive-aggressive forms of expressing bigotry.
 
However, these three phrases were uttered by men in my life, intelligent men who know that any expression of sexism to my ears will be met with a rebuke so forceful it will burn their faces off, so one might expect them to tread a bit more carefully than the average caveman who complains about gays or people with brown skin or thinks sexist jokes are a way to impress a woman. And you'd be right. What followed the three phrases above were not jokes about washing up or domestic violence, not proclamations that the gender pay gap is just women's fault for wanting to have babies, not suggestions that wearing a short skirt is 'asking for it' nor any of the garden-variety expressions of misogyny that one unfortunately still encounters far too often in this supposedly progressive society. Instead, two were compliments about my appearance, and the other was an admission from a male friend that he had had sexual thoughts about a woman he saw that day.
 
So why such caution in expressing these non-earth-shattering thoughts? Has the stereotype of feminism as hostile to all matters sexual and appearance-based really permeated so far that even the smart, feminist-friendly men in my life are afraid to say "You look nice today?" or "I found the woman in front of me in the queue attractive?".
 
If it has, I'm not going to blame feminism for this misunderstanding. To my mind, it's pretty easy to understand. Feminism never made it a crime to comment on a woman's appearance. What feminism has always objected to, is the treatment of women as if their appearance is the first, or only, thing that matters about them, the disproportionate focus placed on the appearance of women, while men's appearances are secondary to their (already assumed) capabilities as people, the insane pressure on women to appear a certain way, and the framing of female sexuality as nothing more than a performance to visually appeal to others and please men.
 
Unfortunately, paranoia about endorsing any of the last four phenomena appears to be halting men from even entering the arena of complimenting women, to the point where they find it safer to just say nothing, rather than risk a torrent of infuriated abuse. Again, I repeat, that's not feminism's fault - if anything, it's the fault of an insidiously-planted and still much-supported warping of feminism's image to that of the (and oh, god I really hate using this phrase) man-hating, humourless harridan.
 
Even though a quick glance around the average feminist meeting will show you plenty of young, slim, white, long-haired, feminine women whose appearance could frankly not be more media-friendly and who tend to outnumber those who prefer short hair or lumberjack shirts, the feared yet mythical misandrist warrior is still the face of feminism in so many people's minds. Even in those of the men who know and love myself (young-ish, size 10, long-haired, make-up and dress-wearing) and many other feminist women in all our multi-faceted, strident glory. How is it that such a tired and offensive stereotype still manages to wash away these men's knowledge of real women, and replace it with the notion that if they tell me I look nice today, they're going to get their face smashed in?
 
It fucks me off that debates still rage about whether we should be trying to make feminism less 'scary', more accessible and more 'appealing'. I say, absolutely not. I say, I'm all for educating and explaining, but I'm dead against pandering, and I am not dressing up my belief system as anything other than its own messy, furious glory in order to placate those who demand such a disguise in the first place. If you aren't sympathetic to feminism's aims to begin with - and that's not the same as admitting you don't know a lot about it, or don't understand certain parts of it, because those admissions are not a problem in themselves - then it's not my job to make it 'prettier' for you. If you can read and you've got internet access (which your reading my blog implies you do!), then you have all you need to educate yourself. If you're already thinking "Wot, I might not be able to refer to women who reject me as 'prick-teasing sluts'?" with outrage, then me trying to glossy-up feminism for you ain't gonna achieve a damn thing - your problems with women run deeper than any argument I can offer in favour of not treating them like shit.
 
But to the 'good guys' who are confused, who feel that the demand for respect sometimes jars with the way they look at, or think about, women, and feel guilty about that fact, I'll say this. It's OK to find people attractive. It's OK to notice a stranger's body parts. It's OK to fantasize, and even though I know there are feminists out there who deeply disagree with this, I believe it's OK to have fantasies that seem dirty, violent, disrespectful, or involve language or imagery that you would not dream of describing out loud. Why? Because they're just fucking fantasies. They're not hurting anyone. If you're feeling like you want to make those fantasies a reality in a way that disregards the agency or bodily autonomy of another person, then that's a problem, yes. But I refer you to my comments above - if that's your problem, it's not an issue for feminism. It's an issue for the therapist's couch, and that's where you should be heading for guidance. As I said in my previous post about porn addiction, I don't care what sexual fantasies a man has, or what his thoughts are about a woman's appearance, as long as he continues to behave in a way that respects women as full people, not just bodies, and not just there for his entertainment. I'm not interested in policing what's in anyone's head - because god knows I'd be thrown in the clink sharpish if people could see some of what goes on in mine.
 
Also, while there are some lucky people who genuinely don't care about how they look, most of us - male and female - do. Although I agree that the disproportionate emphasis on female appearance is evidence of a sexist society, and that our increasingly visual culture is threatening to spiral out of control, I don't think caring about looks per se is evidence that we're warped as a species. Far from it, I think it's quite natural. Animals groom themselves and so do we. In some Native American societies, it was the men who plucked their eyebrows and painted their faces to appeal to the women. We all want to be noticed, we want to be found attractive, and in most cases, that's because we would rather like to have some sex. If I was planning to celibate for the rest of my life, then I might take a lot less care over my appearance (and who knows, I might still strike lucky, because much as a sexist society tells me I'm nothing without my hair done, my make-up flawless, my legs shaved etck, I can recognise that I'm not actually hideous without those things), but the reality is that I'm a pretty highly-sexed individual, and I want the people I find attractive to want to have sex with me. Shocker! So if someone I know and trust compliments me on my appearance - whether or not they're the object of my attraction -  I might be quite pleased, because it's a little bit of confirmation that my career as a sexually active human being is likely to continue.
 
What I'm not going to be pleased about are the following: wolf whistles, car horns being honked, strangers shouting comments about my appearance in the street, comments that reduce me to nothing other than body parts, being touched without my consent, and a million other sleazy, disrespectful approaches that every woman you know will have experienced at some point in her life. What's the difference between this and my male friend telling me I look nice? It's pretty simple. In one scenario, I know I am being seen as a full, varied and complex human being, with feelings, thoughts, values and a personality as well as a face, hair, a bum, boobs and a vagina, and I know this because the person addressing me has known, loved and respected me for 15 years. In all the other scenarios, I instead experience the horrible sensation of having my humanity disregarded and being defined by nothing more than my body. That's the difference. Every woman knows it, because we've all experienced the shitty, undermining and often threatening way in which the latter is carried out, and if he cares about women at all, every man will make sure he knows that difference too.
 
Now, some man (or woman) might be looking at me from across the street and thinking about my bum or boobs or vagina in a way that makes them feel guilty. They may be having 'animalistic' thoughts, filthy fantasies, imagining my body in all kinds of naughty positions. But unless that person uses their thoughts as an excuse to approach me in a way that reduces me to nothing other than a receptive body, I do not care what they're thinking. I have no wish to condemn that person as anti-feminist. A person having dirty thoughts about me and still respecting me as a human being are not mutually exclusive. If you think the two are, then that is your problem to resolve, not feminism's.
 
It's really not that complicated.

12 Mar 2014

How polyamory got me thinking about female solidarity

Whenever the media is lacking in convenient reasons to take a pop at feminism, you can be sure it will manufacture one sharpish. Whether it's Lily Allen's most recent bit of stirring about how apparently feminism is worthless because it has just descended into one big bitch fight or the gleefully seized-upon controversy over Paris Lees' assertion that she doesn't mind cat-calls, the image of modern (and especially online) feminism seems to be one of a world turned in on itself, where we spend not enough time fighting the real enemies (sexual and physical violence against women, attacks on our reproductive rights, media sexism, economic discrimination and so on) and too much time telling each other we're "doing feminism wrong."
 
Only this morning I saw a comment on an article about Femen, demanding that we stop using the word 'feminists' to describe the problematic Ukrainian group, because they a) have Islamophobic views and b) use their bare breasts to get their point across. Well, shit. Betty Friedan and NOW used to condemn lesbians as "the lavender menace" and exclude them from the women's rights movement, yet interestingly we don't deny these wealthy, middle-class American women the right to call themselves feminists just because they held shitty views in the past. But any attempt at feminism from a former Eastern Bloc country must apparently be slapped down if it's not as media-literate as, or politically aligned with, privileged US and UK feminists. I'm not interested in adding fuel to that fire. You want to call yourself a feminist, you go right ahead - none of us have the monopoly on that phrase. None of us are perfect, or free from prejudice, however much we like to think we're the enlightened ones. For the record, I can't stand Femen's tactics - but I appreciate that they are grown women doing what they think is right. Just as much as I am.
 
This links in to what I was thinking about earlier today, which was how it's difficult to be in any large group of women without the automatic assumption that it will be riddled with in-fighting. This is a view particularly perpetuated by sexists, who like to believe that women are simply too competitive with and disloyal to each other to ever truly unite. They love that old joke "If women ran the world, there would be no wars...just a load of jealous countries not talking to each other." Cos ha ha HAA, women may not be quite so prone to warmongering, murder, mutilation, rape and OK-ing drone attacks, but they're still just so BITCHY there's no chance they could ever actually create a true sisterhood, and that's clearly worse, right?! If Country A thinks that Country B looks better in that dress than she does, well, better man the cruise missiles, cos there's going to be an international catfight (ah yes, "catfight", that lovely term that trivialises and reduces female anger to a humorous and hopefully erotic sideshow for men to enjoy).
 
I spend a lot of time amongst a large number of women (and a slightly smaller, but ever-growing, number of men) in my roller derby team. Unsurprisingly, I do witness disagreements, personality clashes and unpleasantness between women in this community. I see it like you'd see it in any workplace, academic institution, or group of friends. I see it from some women, and not from others. I also see it occur between the men but funnily enough, when men criticise each other behind each other's backs (and hoboy, do they ever), they're never called 'bitchy' for it, nor is this used as the basis to accuse the entire male sex of being incapable of ever showing loyalty to each other.
 
This made me think about how women are both set up to compete with each other, then promptly criticised and demonised for doing so by both feminists and sexists alike. Which in turn led me back (and yes I know I'm hopping across a lot of concepts today, but stick with me, I'm having a lot of thoughts) to my previous post on how polyamory seems to promote a more feminist view of relationships. When you're open to the idea of your lover finding other people (and if you're a largely heterosexual woman like myself, that means other women) attractive, you have to abandon the monogamous line of thinking that attention for other women must indicate a lack thereof for you, or that male approval of other women means the loss of such approval for you. And yes yes obviously in an ideal world no one would be seeking anyone's approval, but let's put that aside for now and acknowledge that in the real world we all do seek validation of our attractiveness, regardless of our gender or sexual orientation. Because it's nice to feel wanted and sexy, and it's especially nice to feel like someone wants to have sex with you, particularly when you would really like to have sex with them.
 
But it's not easy. These things don't come instinctively. For whatever reason, when my lover says "X Girl is hot", I don't immediately feel overwhelmed with happiness that X Girl's beauty is being appreciated by someone, or pleased for my lover that he is able to honestly express his sexuality in front of me. Instead, what I feel is insecure. I assume that a comparison is being made, and I'm coming out of it unfavourably. I feel worried, that my lover is going to find someone else whose physique is preferrable or superior to mine, and not like my body any more, or not like it as much as he did previously. I'm doing all the things that monogamy has taught me - seeing love, sexuality and affection as a zero-sum game, whereby one person's gain must mean another one's loss, demanding a version of my lover that doesn't exist, demanding behaviour that I myself cannot promise in return, and basically viewing the world of love and sex as one of scarcity. But I'm also doing all the things sexism has taught me - viewing another woman as a competitor, rather than a player on the same team, assigning an importance to both hers and my physical appearance that ranks it above everything else about us, and viewing male approval of that appearance as the most important/only opinion that counts. I'm also forgetting that one of the main reasons I'm polyamorous is because I'm a pretty intense appreciator of the opposite sex myself, and I reserve the right to express that without feeling guilty or like a monster for it (as I did for many years in mono relationships).
 
So along with all the learning and growing that polyamory requires you to do in shaking off your monogamous conditioning, I think it also demands some feminist growth. It takes a lot of strength to always show solidarity to other women. Especially when, as I've found on my polyamorous journey, some of them are apt to judge, hate on or spread rumours about you for daring to be a woman who will not settle down with one man. I've had moments when I'm very tempted to wreak the kind of havoc on others' personal lives that they have tried to do to me, and even though I know that walking away from such temptation and being 'the bigger person' is the right thing to do, it still feels bittersweet when it would be so easy to hurt those hypocrites the way they are trying to hurt me. Being ethical does not always feel like its own reward, but I have to believe in the long game, and believe that trying to take down other women simply because they cannot get their heads around the way I live, ain't feminism. Neither is hating on, or being jealous or suspicious of another woman who has done nothing wrong to me except attract the attention/appreciation of my male lover. A sexist society teaches me to see that woman as a competitor, as a superior, up-herself bitch who I need to 'bring down'. Demanding a better society means that I need to drag myself up, and see that woman as just another flawed person trying to get on in this horrendous cultural pressure-cooker. The most feminist thing I can do is be kind towards that woman, and also kind to myself, by remembering that a compliment aimed at someone other than myself is not an insult to me by proxy.
 
Because that's sexism's greatest secret. When we start liking ourselves, and start liking other women, then we really do pose a threat, one so great that all sexists can think to do to mask their fear of female unity is to make jokes about catfights.

27 Feb 2014

Every so often, another article will appear in the feminist-sphere about porn addiction. They tend to follow the pattern of a man describing his increasing dependence on porn, how he was troubled to realise that watching porn was affecting his sex life/relationship with/view of women, and how he overcame it. Such is the storyline of the latest post on Everyday Feminism, "One Man's Journey: How I Stopped Watching Porn For A Year, And Why I'm Not Going Back". Much as I appreciate the honesty and, in a culture where men are harangued for appearing anything other than macho and hypersexual, guts it takes to write an article like this, I'm wary of such articles being held up as evidence of Something Great and Feminist. Dan Mahle writes that porn "manipulated my mind, warping my sexuality, numbing my feelings, and impacting my relationships with women." That's a big charge to lay at the feet of what he earlier describes as "pixels on a screen", but such is our belief in the all-powerful, all-pervasive nature of fucking depicted in pictures or videos that we don't really tend to question it.
 
Which is why it's interesting to contrast Mahle's account with the recent article on AlterNet, "Is Porn Addictive? There's No Proof". Discussing his recent study on the research around porn addiction, clinical psychologist David Ley notes that "in a recent review of basically all research on pornography, they found that less than 1 percent of the 40,000 articles that they looked at were deemed scientifically or empirically useful". He goes on to say that studies on porn addiction are let down by "poor experimental designs, limited methodological rigor, and lack of model specification." He also states that our media embraces the concept of porn addiction 'uncritically', which may go some way to explaining why "the overwhelming majority of articles published on porn addiction include no empirical research — it’s less than 27 percent. Less than one in four actually have data. In less than one in 10 is that data analyzed or organized in a scientifically valid way."
 
And unfortunately, I think it's fair to say that feminist media, however well-meaning, can be all too quick to jump on the bandwagon of a) assuming porn addiction is a conclusively proven and serious condition and b) assuming that this is because porn is generally bad and encourages men to view women in a negative light. David Ley noticed this in his research "literature [surrounding porn addiction] is weighted with moral and cultural values. There are tons and tons of theoretical statements that are made but never evaluated". I certainly sense a massive thread of moral prescription in Dan Mahle's article, where he states that porn leads to "the trivialization of rape, and widespread acceptance of rape culture – fueled by fake depictions of women in porn videos often pretending to desire violent and abusive sexual acts." (my underline).
 
Anti-porn feminists will see that statement as positive evidence that a man has seen the light and realised how the porn industry and the men (and even women) who feed it are inherently misogynist. But this feminist right here sees it as presumptuous and patronising. Firstly, it assumes that women never want or consent to sexual acts that appear 'violent' or 'abusive'. Mahle proceeds on the assumption that no woman ever has enjoyed BDSM and the various (seemingly extreme) acts involved therein, and I'm afraid that's not really much of an improvement on the assumption that no woman ever enjoys or wants sex, full stop. The sexual revolution may have allowed us to occasionally admit that women experience desire, but apparently it's still got to be framed in a monogamous, heterosexual, loving and 'gentle' way. Mahle even says it himself, by claiming that there is some good porn out there, but it's the stuff that portrays "couples engaging in intimate and respectful sexual encounters". Intimate I can get on board with, but respectful? Hmmm. How exactly is one supposed to have, or portray, 'respectful' sex? Must I demand that my partner gets down on one knee, calls me 'm'lady' and kisses my hand before throwing me down on the bed? What if I want sex that seems to any outsider, to be downright disrespectful? What if I get off to porn that depicts that kind of sex? Where do I fit into Mahle's idea that the only 'right' porn is the lovely, egalitarian stuff?
 
The idea that porn is, or represents, shitty attitudes to women rests on the idea that there is a right way to have sex, and that having sex/sexual fantasies any other way feeds into misogyny (and there I was thinking it was patriarchy that was supposed to be the one heaping unreasonable, ill-defined demands on to women's shoulders!) Lesbian feminist Sarah Smith wrote that trying to have sex in a "feminist" way simply left her with "a laundry list of mustnots that would hold our libidos hostage. . .must not 'objectify' my partner by getting off on her body, must not be on top of my partner, must not role-play or talk dirty. What's left?" By holding women, including those who act in or enjoy porn, to these standards, anti-porn feminists are asking that we jam our sexuality into a box nearly as narrow as the one demanded by a repressive society that wanted to pretend female desire simply didn't exist. Yes, you can like sex, we're told, but only the respectful kind.
 
I feel like, in trying to be supportive of feminism, which is definitely an admirable aim for any man and one I certainly want to endorse, men like Dan Mahle have internalised this school of feminist thought, one which is pretty offensive and repressive itself. As I said in my first ever book review for Bitch magazine back in 2009, the assertions of two male authors "that women prefer "nice lighting and often, beautiful surroundings" [in pornor that we like "storylines" to our porn feed into assumptions about female sexuality that are as bothersome as mainstream porn's assumption that women are forever eager to be covered in ejaculate." Or as porn producer Tristan Taormino says herself, "there is a stereotype that women want kinder, gentler, more romantic porn; some women do, but not all women".
 
However, Mahle doesn't seem to try and reconcile the concept of female agency with porn. He basically dismisses it as mostly negative and anti-feminist and states that the only way to 'deal' with it is, well, not to. He gave up watching porn, continues to live without it, and feels like his life is better because of it. It has allowed him to "dismantle some of the subconscious sexism I had". Hmmm. I'm going to use Sarah Woolley's words here to express why I think Mahle needs to take more responsibility for his views, rather than blaming it on the Big Bad Pornographers:  "If a person sees a woman arse-deep in jelly and regards her as subhuman because of it, then that shit is on them. Dignity and degradation is not in the eye of the beholder, providing that everyone involved is consenting to be there."
 
David Leys' research on porn addiction interestingly supports the notion that anyone who finds themselves actually viewing women as lesser needs to look within, rather than outwards towards the computer screen. "It is a very common statement in all of the porn addiction research that high rates of porn use correlate with high rates of depression, problems at work, et cetera. Overwhelmingly, the research, when there even is research, is cross-sectional in its structure, meaning that they’re looking at people in a snapshot of time, and we can’t generate causality from that. The common assumption in porn addiction research has been that porn is contributing to and causing those negative emotional states and life events. In fact, there have been two or three longitudinal studies that looked at this question, and what they found consistently is that porn is a symptom, not a cause." (emphasis mine)
 
So when Dan Mahle says, "My year without porn has helped me reconnect to my body and begin to transform my emotional numbness into healthy emotional expression," that may well be the case for him, but to assume that it was porn  that numbed him or prevented him from "healthy emotional expression" in the first place is a massive and unjustified leap to make. To be facetious for a moment, when I experience terrible bouts of depression, I often watch silly comedies such as Malcolm in the Middle. Last I checked, there hasn't been a glut of articles oozing with concern about addiction to slapstick '90s comedies...
 
So why's porn different? Because some feminists say it is, basically. Because some feminists can't believe that any woman would want to fuck like that, or that any woman could get off from watching that. And so the men who might enjoy that feel guilty, shitty and anti-feminist. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that even if a man does feel that he has been "socially conditioned to find aggressive, misogynistic, and even non-consensual sex arousing" by porn, we still should not be panicking. Because he can find whatever he damn well wants arousing. As long as he still treats the women in his life with respect and continues to seek consent (even if it is for sexual scenes that appear to show violence, abuse or involve the words 'bitch' or 'slut', because newsflash folks, there are women out there who enjoy those scenes consensually, however much the Feminist Sex Police want to tell you we don't exist), I have no problem with that man, no desire to see him beat himself up and no desire to try and get inside his head and change his fantasies or what he masturbates to. As long as he never harms another human being, I do not care. It's his fucking business.
 
As Sarah Woolley points out, "a true woman hater will dehumanise you no matter how you behave or what you wear. That is the nature of prejudice." Or as BDSM and feminist blogger Clarisse Thorn points out, in her excellent post on why the obsession with "What does women liking sexual submission meeeeean?!" is a red herring, the concern of "the good guys" about supposedly degrading images is evidence that these guys need to develop their feminism a little more. Unless you already believe that what women do/get off to sexually is prime material which can or should be used to take away their rights, what do you care if a woman wants to be the person holding the dog chain or the person on the other end of it? As Thorn muses, "these decent guys. . . they have learned to associate discussions of female sexual submission with anti-feminism, and with attempts to disempower women in other spheres."
 
So if I was Dan Mahle, or any of the 'good guys' worrying about what their alleged porn 'addiction' says about them or their attitude to women, I'd take the porn out of the equation and ask myself what my attitude to women is in the first place. Because you can only feel guilty watching certain types of fucking if you believe that those certain types of fucking degrades women.
 
And that, my friend, ain't feminism.

17 Feb 2014

Melissa Gira Grant's Playing The Whore - An Alternative Perspective

I read with interest feminist journalist Sarah Ditum's review of Melissa Gira Grant's new book, Playing The Whore: The Work of Sex Work. As a regular book reviewer, and a feminist who regularly writes about the politics of sexuality, I chased down a review copy of this book myself and spent much of my Christmas holidays immersed in it. As a sidenote, it may be worth mentioning that I've tried to interest several major UK publications in a review of the book, and have only had non-committal or disinterested responses, or no response at all. This may well be a coincidence, but I don't think it's a massive leap to suggest that the subject matter of sex work still has the power to unsettle.

And nowhere does it unsettle more than in the feminist community, where the lines over the ethics of sex work are drawn so bitterly that admitting ambivalence feels like confessing to a serious character flaw. But I am ambivalent, as my earlier writings will tell you. I'm uncomfortable with a movement that demands I either unequivocally support the purchase of sexual services or condemn it as a socially-inscribed misogyny. I'm uncomfortable with the choice between supporting Bindel-esque views of sex workers as unsalvageable traitors to the women's movement, and having to quash any qualms I might have about sex work for fear of being shouted down as 'whorephobic'. It's important to mention here that I am also not a sex worker, and if you feel that renders my voice in this debate redundant, that's fair enough and you're welcome to stop reading. However, all that said, I do still want to answer back to some of the things Sarah Ditum says in her critique of Gira Grant's book.

From the outset there appears to be an anti-sex-work agenda that means instant hostility to Gira Grant's theory that sex work is work, and needs to be treated thus. Ditum seems immediately irritated that Gira Grant is not interested in discussing demand and hence placing the focus on men - the faceless, definition-less mass of 'the men who buy sex' (always men, and always cisgender and heterosexual), who anti-sex-work feminists spend a lot of time talking about but only within the strict parameters of condemning, loathing or at best pitying those men. Gira Grant does mention men, but as a counterpoint to the women (and men) who accept money for sexually servicing them - "The demand for victims, as anti-sex-work activists describe it, is driven by men's insatiable desire - not by sex workers' own demands for housing, health care, education, a better life, a richer life."  Grant is making the point that we focus on 'male demand' at the expense of seeing sex workers as full people with agency, and I agree with her.

Ditum's statement that "while it’s true that money provides motivation for sex workers, sex work can only be work if someone is willing to pay for it" seems so mind-boggling obvious that I wonder why she thinks it's even worth mentioning. Substitute any other job in that statement and it just seem facetious. "While it's true that money provides motivation for bakers, baking can only be work if someone's willing to pay for bread and cakes." "While it's true that money provides motivation for nurses, nursing can only be work if someone's willing to pay for care." What exactly is so outrageous about the idea of providing a service for money in a capitalist society - unless you think that sex is somehow different, somehow a sacred cow, and unless you assume that sex is something that is never 'paid for' in other forms anyway?

Unless we already have a skewed view of sex as something that is harmful to women, something that women never enjoy or freely choose and something that is a form of domination, why the hell does it actually matter if someone sells it, any more than if someone sells their art, their writing (hello!), or  their skills as a pilot, photographer or care worker? I say this as someone who has previously written that I'm "uncomfortable with the notion that a man can buy entry to a woman's vagina, anus or mouth, and find it difficult to defend sex work beyond believing that it should at least be made safer for women." I do question a society that encourages perpetual female sexual availability and the accompanying pressures heaped on women and their bodies. However, I hope I'm clear-eyed enough to see that my own personal discomfort may a) be borne of puritanical beliefs about women, sex and the female body that perhaps I need to dismantle, which is no one's job but my own and b) that my own personal discomfort with the idea of sex being purchasable is not, on its own, justification enough for hating on sex workers or legislating in ways that make their lives more difficult.

The assumptions that Ditum makes about the men who buy sex seem grounded in very little but her own prejudices: where, exactly, is her proof that "the punter is driven by a belief that he has the right to access women as a commodity because he sees women as his inferior, and he finds erotic gratification in a relationship where the social roles are clearly defined by a cash transaction"? Does that mean that every man who buys dinner for a woman and then has sex with her afterwards gets his kicks not from the sex, but from the impact on his credit card that two nice steaks will have? Does that mean that men whose wives do not work in order to care for children are secretly high-fiving themselves at 'owning' the 'commodity' of their wife's body every time they have sex with her? I don't consider myself someone who has a high opinion of the human race at large, but when I read the words of anti-sex-work and anti-porn feminists, I feel like a perpetually grinning Pollyanna by comparison, so low is these women's default opinion of men and all that motivates them. As someone who used to be vehemently anti-sex-work and disgusted by the idea of any man who paid for sex, I have had to do a fair bit of evolving when I found out that men I knew well - both friends and lovers of mine- had paid for sex in the past, and that women I was good friends with - wives and mothers amongst them - had been paid for sex (and even liked doing sex work!). You become a lot less absolutist and lot less quick to judge when you see both sex workers and their clients as real people, rather than a faceless mass of exploited women and evil, exploiting men. That, to me, is the important message of Gira Grant's book, but one that's not going to be acknowledged by those who are determined to paint the male 'demand' for sex as the root of all evils.
 
To say that Gira Grant "sees nowhere for women to fit other than in the sexual market" is disingenuous - Ditum seems to be accusing her of this simply because she dares to suggest that all sex, paid for and not, exists on a continuum (also, it seems a bit rich to criticise the author for mostly giving time over to examining the position of women and sex in society, in a book on sex work). I personally think Gira Grant is spot-on to say that much like in the Victorian era, women are unfortunately still guilty of 'othering' sexually transgressive women, in order to elevate their own view of themselves. As long as we can say we are not like those women who sell sex, we can feel smug, legitimate, enlightened. We're not exploited, we're not victims of the patriarchy. Which brings to mind Margaret Hunt's words when responding to anti-S/M feminists - "The argument that there is no free choice in the world is never all-inclusive. It always admits of the existence of a small group which is morally superior to the corrupt mass." Sex workers, S/M lesbians, and heterosexual women who consume pornography or participate in BDSM are apparently this 'corrupt mass', lacking the ability to step outside their patriarchal conditioning and 'see the light'. The feminists who judge them, however, are apparently entirely free of social conditioning - ergo Gail Dines' criticism of porn must be objective, not in any way based on her own personal prejudices, her distaste for certain sexual acts or her total failure to imagine that any woman might enjoy them, or any man might participate in them for reasons other than misogyny.
 
Gira Grant's book certainly isn't perfect, and as Ditum points out, is guilty of inconsistency in places. It does feel like a fairly slim volume in the light of the gargantuan nature of the industry it is talking about, but my sense when I finished reading it was that Gira Grant is deliberately steering us away from our usual obsessions - she doesn't describe all the filthy goings-on in the sex industry just so we can disapprove of them, she doesn't lay out her own experiences for the reader's titillation, nor does she focus on or harangue the men who go to sex workers - precisely in order to highlight exactly what is wrong with those preoccupations. Nowhere have I seen more obsession with (and more graphic, triggering descriptions of) supposedly degrading sexual acts than in anti-sex-work and anti-porn writing. Nowhere have I seen more assumptions that women are brainwashed idiots and victims, to such a degree that I feel many misogynists would find much with which to agree, than in the same writing. And yes, I have also read the reviews on PunterNet (which are nowhere near as horrifying as the carefully selected phrases on the incredibly biased and propagandist tumblr Invisible Men would have you believe), and even though I know I'm going to be met with a furious blaze of hatred from anti-sex-work feminists for saying this, I mostly found that 'punters'' comments were pretty reasonable. They did not enjoy sex with women who seemed frightened, rushed or bored. They gave high reviews to the women who appeared to enjoy what they did and took their time. Now, if we see sex work as the inevitable result of male entitlement to the female body then of course we're going to see this as terrible evidence that women are paid to fake pleasure for men's benefit. But as Gira Grant reminds us "The presence of money does not remove one's ability to consent," - unless we are going to also condemn every bartender who smiles as they serve a drink to someone they think is a jackass, or a doctor who listens patiently to someone they consider a whining hypochondriac, as mindless dupes of capitalism too.
 
If, like Ditum, you  consider "prostitution a wrong because it places all women within an economic structure that prices them sexually", I doubt you will be much persuaded by Gira Grant's book. As a big old lefty hippy at heart, I would love to live in a world where nothing, including sex, was judged by monetary value, but as my post on writing for free will tell you, I acknowledge the reality that we all exist under capitalism and as such have to use our skills to pay the bills. While we live under this structure, I believe in enabling all of us to make the best of this often-shitty world regardless of class, race, gender and sexual identity, and I don't believe that the demonising of one very specific way of having sex helps anyone. Simplistic narratives which conflate consensual sex work with abuse, exploitation and trafficking, and deems any man who has ever exchanged something of economic value for sex as no better than traffickers, coercive pimps and rapists, and which frame sexuality as a simple binary of the dominant and the dominated (with men always in the first position and women always in the second), also don't help anyone, least of all the women (and it's usually viewed as women, as I've said before, correctly or incorrectly) who anti-sex-work feminists are trying to 'protect'.
 
I'll end this with probably my favourite quote from the book. "Sex workers should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm. There must be room for them to identify, publicly and collectively, what they wish to change about how they are treated, without being told that the only solution is for them to exit the industry. As labor journalist Sarah Jaffe said of the struggles at her former job as a waitress, "No one ever wanted to save me from the restaurant industry."