4 May 2017

My next book - it's happening!

I'm very pleased and excited to confirm that McFarland have agreed to publish my second book, working title To Deprave and Corrupt: Britain's Battle with Obscenity. I'm about halfway through writing it and the deadline is mid-November 2017. 
So, what the dickens is this new book all about?

Well, 2017 marks the 160th anniversary of The Obscene Publications Act, which amazingly, still controls freedom of expression in the UK. The Act defined obscenity as anything “with the tendency to deprave and corrupt,” yet no one has ever been able to agree on what this actually means...

In the 1600s, you could be thrown in the stocks for criticising the king or the Church, but the law was less bothered about smutty literature. Occasional prosecutions for publishing risque books occurred, but generally the term "pervert" was synonymous with "atheist" until relatively recently. It wasn't until 1857 that an actual law on obscenity came into play, but this didn't stop erotica flourishing during the Victorian era - sample book titles included Lady Bumtickler's Revels and The Story of a Dildo!

The trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960 is a well-known example of literature winning out against obscenity law, but there is no book that tells the story of what led up to this landmark case, or what came after it - hence me deciding to create it. The modern version of the Obscene Publications Act came into force in 1959, yet it still governs what we can and can't see on TV, film, online, in magazines, books or on the radio. You might well ask; how can such an old law still be relevant?!

Through interviews with porn performers, online safety specialists, magazine editors and free speech advocates, I'll look at how we've arrived at our current situation--which is much more censor-happy than most people realise--and what needs to change. 
Provisional chapter titles include:

  • Saving Face (-sitting): The Current Situation
  • Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children? Justifying Censorship by “protecting innocence"
  • Shoving it Down our Throats: Homophobia and Obscenity
  • How Did We End up Here? Obscenity in British History
  • Women Don’t Want That Sort of Thing: Gendering Obscenity
  • That Special Relationship: Britain and America’s Parallel Journey Through Obscenity
  • Trial by (Social) Media: The New Obscenity
Blog posts that give you a taste of the kind of material I'll be covering can be found here and and here.
I think this is a story which really needs telling in an accessible manner, not least because of its implications for free speech and the regulation of sexuality.

If you like the sound of all this, please check out my Patreon page where you can support this writing project and be rewarded with exclusive access to my work!

19 Apr 2017

The hidden warning of The Handmaid's Tale

There's been a lot of talk about The Handmaid's Tale--not just in the run-up to the release of the Hulu series, but pretty much ever since the US election last November. Sales of the book increased 200 percent after it sank in exactly what the presidency could spell for women, and not before time. Since I read the book myself as a 17 year-old in the early 2000s, I've only watched it become less and less like a far-away, freakish impossibility and more like an actual prediction of things that could come to pass. Anyone who hasn't read it and been discomfited at its prescience clearly hasn't been taking notice of the world around them, with its forced vaginal ultrasounds, rape clauses and "women as livestock" bills--or rather, they haven't considered news regarding women's bodily autonomy to be actual, y'know, news.

I haven't actually watched any of the trailers for the Hulu series because I want to see this adaptation so badly (the actors responsible for Peggy Olson and Poussey Washington taking on the leads? YUSSS please!!) but it's not available in the UK so I'm refusing to torment myself for now. However, I have re-read the book recently (thanks to writing work being so abysmally paid that I moonlight as an A level English Literature tutor), and as will happen when you revisit a work you thought you knew so well already, something struck me anew. [SPOILERS UPCOMING]

What women are being warned about in the book is not just misogyny, not just men who hate women and know that rolling back their reproductive rights is the fastest way to keep them servile, not just the power structures and institutions that will give such men a pass to do so. It's something much more insidious; it's the lure of anti-feminism itself, to women.

To put it another way, the danger isn't just that men may hate and oppress women--it's also that women may side with those men. As protagonist Offred says when the rollback of women's rights begins:
What was it about this that made us feel we deserved it?
Now, I know Offred is supposed to be an imperfect heroine, a regular woman who finds herself a reluctant freedom fighter. She's not the fearless lesbian who can fix her own car or find a weapon with only a toilet cistern at her disposal, she's not the rowdy 2nd-waver who marched for women's rights. And that's why we're supposed to like her, relate to her as an everywoman, a flawed protagonist. She's not too extreme. Indeed, she admits that pre-Gilead, she always saw feminism as somewhat unreasonable
I didn't much like it, this grudge-holding against the past.
That is, until it was too late.
That is what makes Offred such an object lesson. And that is what makes me want to shake her whenever I read The Handmaid's Tale. Because I find it such a terribly cautionary tale about a woman who never cared about feminism until the state came for her rights. 

In the pre-Gilead days, Offred admits that she found her feminist mother embarrassing and overly militant. While we can all understand how a mother's expectation for a daughter to be"the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas" could indeed send their child running in the opposite direction, Offred's mother is absolutely right to castigate her daughter for taking her freedom for granted. Watching Offred's husband Luke helping with the dinner, she tells Offred:
Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don't you know how many women's lives, how many women's bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?
But Offred's pre-Gilead world is a determinedly apolitical one. She watches her mother go on marches for women's rights with absolutely no desire to join in. Later she admits that there was an "animosity I used to sense in men, even in Luke. . .saying bitch in his head," but never joins the dots to consider how that animosity would play out if left unchecked. She reflects how living in the shadow of men's violence against women was normalised, and how she never baulked against being expected to live with it, but instead reverted to #NotAllMen to try and explain it:
 You'd remember stories you'd read, in the newspapers, about women who had been found. . . in ditches or forests or refrigerators in abandoned rented rooms, with their clothes on or off, sexual abused or not; at any rate killed. . . But all of that was pertinent only in the night, and had nothing to do with the man you loved.
She lets her best friend, radical lesbian Moira, tease her about being in league with the patriarchy, but, most heartbreakingly, never takes her warnings seriously - until the day "they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. . . that was when they suspended the Constitution."
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone, here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They've been building up to this. It's you and me up against the wall, baby.  
Even as the world order she knows is crumbling around her, it still hasn't occurred to Offred that women's rights will be first on the chopping block--she needs a radical feminist to tell her this. And of course, Moira and Offred's mother is right. Women's passports and bank accounts are declared void. Their identities and freedoms are quickly erased. And only then, when the political becomes personal--when Offred realises her husband is not being disadvantaged by the changes at all--does she acknowledge, too late, what feminism won for her, offered her, and warned her against.
Something had shifted, some balance. . .He doesn't mind this, I thought. He doesn't mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other's any more. Instead, I am his.
Yet even as her time in the repressive Gilead state shows her how complacent she was to consider women's rights already won and ergo not requiring any further fight, Offred steers clear of ever getting too political. When the Commander asks her about the steamrollering of women's rights "What did we overlook?" and Offred responds "Love. . .falling in love," as a reader I always want to smack her. I find myself inwardly screaming LOVE? LOVE?! What about financial independence, work, freedom of movement, bodily freedom, being seen as more than a set of ovaries and a womb, or how about just NOT ROLLING BACK WOMEN'S RIGHTS TO THE STONE AGE?! Offred's response seems like such a wussy, wishy-washy answer that does nothing to address the utter misogyny in the Commander's assertion that "this way [women]'re protected, they can fulfil their biological destinies in peace." He's sitting there spouting exactly the kind of dangerous, faux-reverent, determinist propaganda about women being nothing more than reproductive vessels, and Offred doesn't challenge that. Instead she mentions the one thing that's supposed to distract women - romance. Flowers and hearts and having a man. It's a feminist facepalm moment - but I suppose that's why it's convincing.

Because we've all known those women, and we've all been those women, at some time or another. We've all fallen short of what we know are feminist ideals, resorted to individualism, trodden on other women. We can relate to Offred's human shortcomings--she meets her husband Luke by having an affair with him during his first marriage, she feels little solidarity with many of the female characters in the book (Janine, Serena Joy), rejecting the idea that women necessarily have any kind of obligation to one another just by virtue of being women. But I believe Atwood constructed Offred's character in this way to show just how ultimately disempowered these failures will leave us, if we take them to extremes. If we persist in screwing other women over for male attention, if we think it makes us look cool and tough to say we don't need feminism or to dismiss feminist women as angry, ugly or unreasonable, if we fail to take notice of the world around us and understand that justice witheld from women anywhere is injustice to women everywhere. . .

. . .then we will have no one to turn to, and no one to blame but ourselves, when we and our rights end up against the wall.

10 Mar 2017

American Pie - a secretly sex positive film?

In my constant search for pop culture artefacts that aren't horrifically sexist, perhaps I've become desperate or lowered my standards, but re-watching American Pie as it happened to pop up on my TV the other night, it struck me that what is often seen as nothing more than a gross-out teen movie is actually surprisingly sex positive.

Caveat: obviously it's a film about nice-looking, able-bodied, white, heterosexual kids in one of the richest countries of the world. We're not going to be able to get away from that, I'm afraid. But for what it is, I was struck by how, nearly 18 years since I first went to see it at the cinema, this film contains a lot of secretly feminist attitudes to sex.

1) It acknowledges that girls masturbate and have sex drives of their own

Firstly, through the conversations between Vicky (Tara Reid) and Jessica (Natasha Lyonne), which also propel the movie past the boundary for passing The Bechdel Test. Granted, they start off talking about whether Vicky's boyfriend Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) has ever given her an orgasm (and pretty realistically for a 17/18 year-old couple without sexual experience the answer is no), but the conversation then moves on to the more likely scenario of Vicky giving herself an orgasm. Jessica clearly has played solo before, Vicky is slightly scandalised at the thought of loving herself. And the exchange premiered the wonderful euphemism for female masturbation "to double click one's mouse." Women not talking about men but instead about how they can please themselves? Feminist and sex positive tick!

Secondly, through Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth)'s explorations when she's on her own in Jim (Jason Biggs)'s bedroom, a scene which also acknowledges that women also look at, and get off on, porn as she helps herself to some of his magazines to aid the experience. And finally, through the revelation Michelle makes when Jim is sitting next to her at the prom after party, bored senseless by her band camp stories, and she tells him that she used her flute as a dildo, causing him to spit his drink everywhere in shock. She shrugs "You think I don't know how to get myself off? That's half of what band camp is," speaking to a million horny teen girls tired of not seeing their own desires, but rather only those of boys, represented on screen.

2) It tells teen boys that they're douchebags if they try to pressure girls into bed

So, the boys' sex pact may seem a bit problematic: Kevin's rousing speech ("No longer shall our penises remain flaccid and unused!") contains some elements of entitlement, as if the boys are owed sex and girls should give it to them. However, the whole premise of the film is that it isn't going to be that simple; the boys are going to have treat girls like human beings if they stand a chance of getting themselves sexual partners.

This is emphasised on several occasions. Firstly, through Jessica's conversation with Kevin, where she tests him by advising him that telling Vicky he loves her is the best way to get her into bed. "That's how I was duped," she adds, and Kevin immediately responds that he doesn't want to "dupe" Vicky, but rather to please her. Jessica recommends giving her what she's never had before...

...which leads to Kevin calling up his older brother Tom for advice. Rather than us seeing blokey blusterings, the two have a surprisingly sensitive conversation where Tom says he's not interested in helping if Kevin is just trying to get his girl into bed. Again, Kevin emphasises that this isn't the case, and. as if Kevin has proven himself worthy of the knowledge, Tom then gives him access to the 'bible' of sex tips hidden in the school library, compiled by generations of boys. The most important section? The "Home of the Tongue Tornado", which although slightly terrifyingly named, leads me to the fact...

3) It acknowledges that for many women, oral sex is the best way to an orgasm

It's already been established that Vicky hasn't experienced an orgasm, either at her partner's hands or her own, but this all changes once Kevin goes down on her. Cue the pretty shonky joke where Vicky's dad comes to her bedroom door to call her down to dinner, and thinks her cries of "I'm coming, I'm coming!!" are her response, when of course it's because Kevin's down south working hard with his tongue. But considering how many books or movies make out that penetrative sex alone will always and easily lead to an orgasm for women--Yo, Sex and the City! Yo, Fifty S***** of ****!--American Pie is pretty damn good at emphasising the reality; that for the vast majority of women, just having a penis inside them ain't going to cut it. When Vicky and Kevin later do have sex, it definitely doesn't seem like an orgasmic experience for her--which again, is a pretty realistic depiction of first time sex, especially between two inexperienced teenagers.

4) It emphasises safer sex

Think how many sex scenes you've seen on TV or in films interrupted by characters stopping and searching for a condom (not including the likes of Grease or  Knocked Up, where lack of protection is central to the plot). Then think how many more you've seen where contraception is never mentioned, hinted at or used at all, but the characters just glide from kissing to foreplay to penetration with nary an awkward scrabble around in the nightstand or the guy stopping to put a condom on. I'm guessing the latter group is much bigger. The amount of films that never show even a quick "are you on the pill?" or "have you been tested?" conversation is depressing, and makes it irritating that the porn industry gets blamed for irresponsible sexual behaviour when Hollywood carries just as much of that blame, if not more, for making out that contraception and STI protection somehow magically happens without anyone ever talking about it or hopping out of bed to "wrap it up before you slap it up" (copyright Tim Westwood, some terrible lost time in the 90s). American Pie, by contrast, shows the four boys making their sex pact official by swearing on a box of condoms, which they all then take some of, and we later see Jim having a good old look at one of his rubber friends, Kevin pocketing a condom before the prom, and also Michelle having brought her own condoms to the after party.

5) It shows first time sex in a variety of ways, good and bad

Hollywood is rarely good with nuance, and subtlety definitely isn't what you expect from a gross-out teen sex comedy. Yet by showing the four different teen boys having four very different experiences, American Pie dodges the trap of depicting first time sex as either all doves cooing and choirs singing or all awkwardness and inconvenient bodily fluids. As mentioned above, Kevin and Vicky's experience is a bit quiet, a bit painful, but nothing terrible; it's pretty much how you'd expect it to go for two first-timers. Oz and Heather have the more stereotypically sensual experience with lots of slow, lingering touches and loving looks, all against the background of a beautiful lake, but (we later find out) don't 'go all the way'. Which is kind of nice in itself, seeing how goal-focused and phallocentric our definition of sex can be; it's important to see all the other things you can do with a partner depicted as appealing, without it necessarily having to end in PIV. It also sees Oz telling Heather about the sex pact and admitting he doesn't care about it; being with her is more important than reaching a 'goal' of sex to impress his friends (could we ask for any more 'right-on' behaviour from a horny teen boy?!). Finch, as we all remember with a smirk, discovers a mutual attraction with Mrs Stiffler and, having found an older woman the right match for his maturity (which is usually read by his peers as eccentricity) ends up having great fun on a pool table. And of course Jim is met with the highly sexual, confident Michelle, which again emphasises that teen girls have sex drives all of their own and a sexuality that isn't constructed as a passive response to male desire.


So yeah, there's still the pie scene, and the jizz-in-the-beer scene, and the coining of the term "MILF", and the usual homophobic ribbing one expects from teen boys (although this is confined to Stiffler, who we're generally supposed to see as an idiot anyway). But in amongst all that are a lot of sexual politics more progressive than in many films I see today, 18 years later. While some things need to stay in the late 90s - dial-up internet, belly chains, Aaron Carter's pop career, all-white, all-straight teen movies - there's clearly a lot of other stuff that we in the jaded 21st Century could still stand to learn from the class of '99.

3 Mar 2017

When you start talking about the bad stuff men do, the man present always wants to be acknowledged as an exception. One of the good guys. I guess that's fair and I usually don't mind doing it, but sometimes I wish they didn't need to stop the conversation so often to be reassured. 

When I first read those words in 2003, there was no #NotAllMen hashtag. Hell, there was no such thing as a hashtag, because this was pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-social media, pre- the common understanding of terms such as "mansplaining," pretty much pre-online feminism. But I knew it was something I had already experienced and that it was something that resonated with me. I was in my first year of university, already fiercely feminist, but without a world of memes and blogs and Feminism 101s to back me up, just a load of dusty tomes in the library that few people outside of the Sociology department had bothered to look at in years, probably decades. 

But I knew that whenever I mentioned feminist issues such as rape or domestic violence, men (or boys, as they still seemed - we were all only 19 after all) immediately jumped in to say "But I don't do that" or "Good men don't do that" and seemed to want a pat on the head for it.
I knew that it irritated me for reasons I couldn't quite articulate when men said "We all just should be equal, so you don't need to be a feminist - just be an equalist or a humanist," - and say this to me they certainly did.
I knew that feminism was seen as unreasonable, argumentative and unnecessarily divisive, and was far more likely to be the butt of a joke or an excuse for the guys around me to deliberately try to wind me up (read more about this in my post on my experiences at uni) than for any kind of real discussion about sexism or violence against women.

And nearly fourteen years later, I'm still seeing all this stuff happen. Which perhaps shouldn't be surprising, but I can't help think that in 2017, there are a lot fewer excuses for people in the most privileged groups in society to not have even the most basic literacy about that privilege. The internet's reach has absolutely mushroomed since I first sat in my halls of residence with my 1998-model PC that took 10 minutes to boot up and had a fan that made sounds like a refuse lorry. Hell, we didn't even have Wikipedia to babysit us every time we wanted to look something up! (I know, the deprivation). There were no Tumblr accounts, no helpful online guides to feminism, no stats at our fingertips, no click-of-a-button definitions of what privilege, mansplaining, whitesplaining, derailing etc were and why perhaps it was a good idea to desist from them. If we wanted an adequate explanation of why racism against whites or sexism against men was not technically possible, we probably had to trudge onto campus in the British rain and find that explanation in a book, something today's students would probably consider a human rights violation, rather than being able to access a concise answer with a swipe on our smartphones (our phones were considerably dumber, if less destructable - I think I had a Nokia 3310 for most of uni).

So, you might say today's men (and some women) have no excuse.
And yet they persist.
Only last week I witnessed a man (rightly) crash and burn in a Facebook thread after he felt the need to clarify a woman's assertion that women get more messages on dating sites because men bombard any female they see in the hope it might get them some action, with "Some men."
Ooof. I could see the shitstorm coming, but when alerted to why disrupting a discussion about women's experiences with #NotAllMen is unhelpful and unnecessary, matey boy did not acknowledge or apologise. Instead, he asserted "But I'm an ally!"
Double oof. The quickest of online searches would have told him that allying is not something you are, it's something you do (oh, and btw, interrupting women online? IS NOT HOW YOU DO IT), and also you don't get to give yourself that title. The oppressed group you claim to be allied to gets to make that decision, and right now, as an ally to women? YOU HAVE FAILED, SON.
But no, our man just blithely dug himself in deeper by refusing to take on board any of the criticisms coming from various female commenters, and instead depicted himself as a victim, set upon by all these evil angry wimmin. 

How could he have saved himself so much time and aggro? Well, a little reading clearly would have helped. A major attitude change would have helped, but seeing how invested this chap was in his picture of himself as A Good Guy, Really, To Whom These Evil  Bitches Just Won't Give Any Credit, we probably don't have time to wait for that. But one simple action would have helped.

He could have shut the fuck up and listened.

Because that is how you truly show you support for "equality."

First, you recognise that equality is a far off dream for the majority of people on this planet.

Then, you look at why.

Gender, race, class, economic background, sexual orientation, gender orientation, religion might be just a few of the factors you come up with.

Then you look at all the ways in which YOU do not suffer as a result of those things. If you are a straight white cis man with the internet access and literacy to read these words, I'm guessing you suffer either very little or NOT AT ALL.

Then you look at those who DO suffer as a result of those things and who are airing their grievances.


You do not say "Not all men/white people/white women/rich people/straight people/cis people...."

You do NOT say "But I'm an equalist!" Far off dream, remember? You think everyone else in the world doesn't already dream of equality too? But they don't have the PRIVILEGE to mush everyone else's complaints into one beige ball and make out that it's as simple as "Can't we all just get along?" There are specific oppressions to deal with first. Oppressions based on all those factors I mentioned above. And those suffering from those specific oppressions have a right to get angry and to be activists based on those specific oppressions. Because that is the only chance they stand of levelling the playing field.

Or, let me put it another way. If you, as a straight cis rich white man have three apples, and a white woman has two, and a black man has one, and a black woman has zero, and a black trans woman has minus-one and so on, how does giving everyone one apple help the situation? That's the equality you're asking for. You're asking us to be blind to existing inequalities. That doesn't help. We can talk about being equalists when we're in a world much closer to the even distribution of apples. But we are about a zillion miles from there right now. And every time you try to erase existing inequalities by making out that feminism, or Black Lives Matter, or gay or trans rights or Muslim rights activism are somehow unreasonable and irrelevant, you are keeping us there.

So instead, recognise your privilege. That doesn't mean anyone is saying nothing bad ever happened to you. What it does mean is looking at your general position in society and recognising all the safety and benefits it buys you (one of those being that strangers don't pop up on the internet to 'debate' your right to be treated as a full human being, so maybe pack that shit in for a start). It means looking at all the safety and benefits denied to others who don't walk down the street looking like you do. And START LISTENING.

Because that's what I do when I see talk of white privilege, white feminism, straight privilege, cis privilege, class privilege - because I know I benefit from all those things. I'm white, middle class, cis and straight presenting, femme, of an average BMI, educated, English speaking. I know those things all buy me certain rights and benefits. So when anyone who doesn't share those privileges talks, I listen. Even if they are slagging off white women or cis people in pejorative terms. I DON'T interrupt with #NotAllWhites or ask for credit for the ways in which I have not oppressed a particular group (cos you don't deserve a medal for just doing the basics of being a decent human being, I'm afraid). I listen to the anger and I ask myself where it comes from. I ask if it's legitimate. I conclude it most definitely is. I ask myself if I'm doing everything I can to ally, and conclude I could always do more. I stay quiet. I keep listening, and - here's the most important point - I DON'T jump in to make the conversation about me and my hurt feelings. Cos my feelings aren't hurt, actually, because I recognise that what's being talked about is so much bigger than me. It's about systems, structures, traditions, presumptions - not me as an individual person. As an individual I still need to take responsibility, but I am not going to achieve that by wading into a discussion with an oppressed group and acting like they've insulted my mother and owe me an apology, just because they've dared to let off steam about how a group I happen to be part of (whites, cis, straights, Westerners, whatever) lives free of oppression in a way that other groups (people of color, gay, trans, Muslim, immigrants, and so on) definitely do not.

TL;dr - Shut up and listen. Nope, don't say that. Or that. Keep shutting up. Yes, still. And now. Yep, still now. Bite that lip. Nope, don't say it. Don't. DON'T. Still listening? Good. Keep going. For how long? For as long as it takes until you no longer feel the need to interrupt because you realise your voice is NOT THE IMPORTANT ONE HERE.

To end on a positive note, change is clearly possible. A close male relative of mine told me he had to go to a conference for work and was explaining why he doesn't enjoy these events. He's someone who in the past has seemed exasperated by feminism, especially my allegiance to it, and has said he doesn't understand "why everything has to be a big debate." Yet, with no prompting from me, he said the conferences sucked because "it's all just white middle-aged men." I was so impressed and proud of him for noticing and for realising that a world of people who look just like you and have had the same experiences of you isn't a good thing, that I could quite easily have given him a cookie or a pat on the head.

But I didn't. Because he didn't deserve it for doing exactly what he's supposed to do.

17 Jan 2017

What "sex sells" really means

Sex sells. This is what you get told whenever you object to having naked female butts shoved in your face from our media, day in day out. Leaving aside the fact that studies have shown sex might not actually sell products but actually decrease our ability to remember them, therefore making it an inefficient advertising tactic indeed, I think we need to examine what we actually mean when we say the "sex" part of "sex sells." Because what the "sex" involved never seems to include is:

- naked men or parts of their naked bodies
- couples whose naked bodies are shown equally
- bodies that aren't slim, white, femme, young, cis
-  genuine sexual pleasure
- gay sex (unless it's faux-lesbianism from slim, white, femme, young women)

Instead, we're supposed to be absolutely fine with the idea that "sex" means:

- naked women.


Well, as a randy member of a large and powerful demographic often targeted by advertisers, please allow me to say:


Last night I was thinking "Qwoar, The Weeknd looks a bit of alright in his new video Starboy, what with his leather jacket and leather gloves being brandished all suggestively," so I decided to check out his other videos. I made the mistake of watching the video to Earned It, his song from the soundtrack to Fifty Shades of Grey. I expected to see some excerpts from the movie, perhaps Dakota Johnson getting spanked, perhaps Jamie Dornan with his kit off, but what did I get?

Women. Young, slim, white, femme, cis women. With their boobs and bums out, writhing in the most curiously unsexy manner, while Mr Weeknd sings fully clothed.

Talk about a lady boner killer.

Now, even if you take the solely capitalist view of media, this adherence to the latter vision of "sex sells" makes absolutely no fucking sense. The Fifty Shades of Grey franchise is one almost entirely supported by women. Straight women. The books were read by women, the movie was attended by women (I can attest to that, as I watched it in a sold-out cinema packed with them, and the handful of men in attendance were all shyly accompanying their female partners), and the soundtrack will more than likely have been bought by consumers who are, in the vast majority, women.

So why the fuck is a song from said soundtrack accompanied by a video where we get to see SWEET DIDDLY JACK SQUAT of male nudity or sexuality, and instead just get to see other women's tits and arses?

It Makes. No. Sense.

Unless you conclude that, depressingly, there is still a vested interest in reminding us that our bodies will always be the ones up for consumption, whereas men get to choose when they take their clothes off, and who for.

I wrote in my last post about how the lack of male nudity when compared to the amount of female nudity in our media, including the perpetuating of the belief that you can't show an erection on UK TV, seems to be linked to male anxiety about being judged and scrutinised in the same way that female bodies are. The more I see of inexplicable, utterly irrelevant female nudity being used to accompany media products - EVEN WHEN THOSE PRODUCTS ARE CLEARLY AIMED AT STRAIGHT WOMEN - the more I think that must be true. I mean, what more do we have to do to get some equality in terms of whose bodies are sexualised and served up for consumption? 50SoG was written and directed by a woman. Women's power as a demographic was what got it to the point of being made into a movie in the first place. And, however much some people loathe it, the movie itself didn't do too bad a job of showing the "sex" that supposedly "sells" as something that happens between TWO EFFING PEOPLE, BOTH OF WHOM WE HAPPEN TO SEE NAKED.

That's where the whole defence of women's right to "express their sexuality" always falls down a bit for me. There's plenty of back-n-forth debate about whether so-and-so pop star can truly be called "feminist" because she wears outfits slashed to her vulva and writhes about a lot onstage. I'm not interested in playing that game, that one of constantly focusing on other women's behaviour and finding it wanting, but I am interested in critiquing the defence that any such woman is just "expressing her sexuality." OK, maybe she is. I've never quite seen how wearing outfits that your butt cheeks hang out of expresses your sexuality - and that's coming from someone who sometimes wears outfits that my butt cheeks hang out of. I might wear such things for fun, usually for roller derby purposes, but it doesn't give me a sexual thrill unless the hotpants I have on happen to be magical vibrating ones. The point is, my sexuality is much more likely to be expressed while wearing tracksuit bottoms and having a fun night in with my knock-off Hitachi magic wand. That's something you're never gonna see in a music video, maybe because it's not sexy to anyone but me, or maybe because no one's brave enough to suggest that a vision of female sexuality that doesn't happen to feature the subject nearly naked and oiled-up can still be valid. This is where the convenient dovetailing of such-and-such woman "expressing her sexuality" with "slim, young, femme, scantily clad," becomes a bit more suspect. No one ever has to defend Janelle Monae's fantastic suits as "expressing her sexuality," or Adele's big sweeping gowns on the same grounds. Yet it's entirely possible that both women feel fully themselves, feel thrilled, confident, sexy, sexual, when dressed thus. But no one's interested in that, because those women are not dressing in a way that's presumed to get straight men hot. That's not saying that if you express your sexuality in a way that also happens to get straight men hot, you're colluding with the patriarchy, but it is saying perhaps we should look more closely at the expressions of sexuality that get airtime, that get music videos, movies and adverts constructed around them, and say why those ones? Because sadly, the answer all too often comes down the lazy "sex sells," construction.

And also, while we're about it, if the right to express one's sexuality is so important, why do we seem to have zero interest in defending men's right to show off their bodies and serve them up for sexualised consumption all in the name of "expressing their sexuality"? If we're truly interested in equality, then why is the right to pout, writhe and be scantily clad one that we only ever fight for women to have?

But hey, perhaps I'm just bitter cos I didn't get to see The Weeknd with his kit off, wearing nothing but leather gloves.*

* Video producers, if you're listening....

12 Jan 2017

The Mull of Kintyre Myth: Yes, it IS legal to show an erection on UK TV

Yesterday, I was reading a post about penises. It wasn't the kind of garden-variety smut I might be apt to come across in my life as a feminist who also writes about BDSM, sexuality and censorship, but actually an excellent piece by sex educators Bish. In an article that examines why we're all so hung up on big penises (so to speak), the writer acknowledges that the lack of normal willies visible in our media may have something to do with it - after all, the huge, constantly-hard, always-coming penises you see in porn only represent a tiny segment of the male population. But I had to actually take to Twitter to correct the writer on the next point - "You might also see some penises in TV or film (they aren’t allowed to be hard though – you can only show hard dicks in porn)" - because in the UK at least, that's not actually true.

The problem is, everyone thinks it is true. So the myth keeps perpetuating itself.

In preparation for what is hopefully going to be my next book (shhh!), I've been going down some fascinating rabbit holes regarding obscenity law and censorship in this country. And what I've found is that while many ridiculous situations in our media landscape are, sadly, enshrined in law (see this piece by me for more detail on the legal sex acts that are illegal to show in UK porn), others have no legal basis. Instead, they're nothing more than the result of endless Chinese whispers, which few of us have ever bothered to question. The "Mull of Kintyre" myth - the idea that you can't show an erection on UK TV or in UK magazines - is a perfect example of this.

There is literally nothing in UK law that says you can't show a hard cock on paper or on screen. The Obscene Publications Act (1959, updated 1964) only says that a piece of media is obscene if it will "tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely to. . . read, see or hear the matter." The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on what is likely to meet this criteria includes torture, dismemberment, bestiality, and (more controversially) fisting and watersports/scat play, but also specifically state that consensual sex, including oral and anal sex and masturbation, plus "mild bondage", would not be considered obscene. So far, no forbidden boners. Nor does the British Board of Film Classification (whose guidelines inform those of OfCom, the UK TV regulator) forbid the showing of erections; nudity and simulated sex are permitted in the 18 category (and in the 15 category if "in a non-sexual or educational context"), although real sex is saved for the R18 category. But there's nothing saying "nudity ONLY IF THE GUY IS FLACCID," so where else could this myth have come from?

OfCom, the body in charge of TV, radio and internet content regulation in the UK, only has this to say regarding post-watershed (9pm) sexual content:
1.19 Broadcasters must ensure that material broadcast after the watershed which contains images and/or language of a strong or explicit sexual nature. . . is justified by the context.
Same goes for nudity, which can also be justified before the watershed if for an educational purpose.

When I interviewed Suraya Sidhu Singh, who ran the erotic women's magazine Filament from 2009 - 2013, as part of my research on obscenity law, she told me of the repeated issues she had getting her magazine into shops thanks to distributors and vendors hiding behind the "Law of No Boners" myth. Although at its height Filament was stocked in 900 shops across the USA, sSingh could not get it stocked in UK shops. She told me "The erection thing was an issue. No one knows where [the myth] came from, but people believe it and retailers repeat it." A major UK retailers told Singh that they could not stock her magazine because their guidelines, "based on the Obscene Publications Act and Protection of Children Act," did not allow them to show male nudity. Well actually, neither of those Acts would prevent the sale of a magazine depicting nudity or sex between consenting adults, as long as it's correctly displayed and only sold to adults (duh). They could have at least just come out and admitted they didn't like the idea of women whacking off to naked pictures of men, rather than hiding behind legislation that never existed.

Zak Jane Keir, a former editor of For Women, a hugely popular erotic magazine that launched in the 90s aimed at straight women, described similar struggles to me, and like Singh, spoke of encountering an almost entirely male landscape of hostile retailers and vendors. Keir wrote:
It’s the problem that erotic products aimed at women have always faced in a world where men still have most of the power – the Man in a Suit somewhere up the production chain (a distributor, a head buyer for a chain of newsagents) ‘My wife wouldn’t buy that, so no normal woman would buy that.'
Indeed, it doesn't seem too outrageous to suggest that in a media landscape in which key decisions are still far too often made by men, the myth of the forbidden boner is going to keep getting conveniently perpetuated, because god forbid men's bodies are ever subject to the same sexualisation and scrutiny that women are expected to be happy to accept. Keir added that the problem certainly wasn't women not wanting see erections:
There was a point, fairly early on, where [For Women magazine] ran a ‘General Erection’ campaign, asking if readers wanted to see stiff dicks. Of course, the vast majority did, but the printers/distributors/company lawyers all went ‘WAAAGH NO YOU CAN’T DO THAT.”
If even lawyers believed that it was impossible to show a boner (and didn't bother taking the time to actually fact-check this claim), what hope did a magazine already struggling under the weight of extreme hostility to female-aimed erotica have of righting this wrong? It may feel like this is all irrelevant now porn is all over the internet, but as the Bish article points out, this isn't allowing us to see bodies that are representative of actual men in any way, and if we can agree that body positivity is needed for both genders, whence the representation for average-sized willies that - SHOCKER - get hard?

As Oscar Ricketts points out in his bluntly titled article, "We need more penises on our screens" the idea that we have so much female nudity yet so little full-front male nudity on our screens because the former is somehow "justified by the context," is just bollocks. 
Female actors are often objectified, the reasons for their nudity sometimes having little to do with character, and everything to do with satisfying the male gaze. . .it is not “justified by the context” – and everything to do with feeding the male viewer a little Nuts magazine-style thrill.
 As someone who had the misfortune to flick over to Film4 last night and catch a few minutes of The Wolf of Wall Street, I can only concur. I think I could have understood precisely what a decadent lifestyle Jordan Whatsisname was supposed to have lived without seeing Margot Robbie's vulva, thanks guys. But if this is the standard we're agreeing to on UK TV, then it should at least apply across the board. Since his character in TWoWS apparently had sooo much sex, and we had to see sooo many naked women in the movie in order to convey this, where were the gratuitous shots of DiCaprio's erect penis? Were they absent because, as porn producer Ms Naughty writes in The Feminist Porn Book, the erection remains "a last bastion of secrecy, a final preserve of male power"? I feel like that's got to have at least something to do with it, otherwise why would such an easily debunked myth keep persisting, even in an age where we can fact-check the existence of a rule with one mere swipe on our smartphones?

So pass it on, folks. Post-watershed erections are legal. Boners in magazines are legal. Go forth and demand them! ;)