I remember 7 years ago, when I was at the tender, angry and politicised age of 21, my uncle labelling me the 'political pinball'. "Some of what you come out with is typical of a left-wing, dope smoking hippy," he said, "And some of your other statements wouldn't sound out of place 'in der bunker'". I didn't mind that too much. While I would call myself primarily left-wing, I do think the ability to consider other viewpoints shows I don't just blindly accept whatever the 'side' I'm supposed to be on espouses. And I'd wager that most of us consider ourselves similarly diverse.
I feel similar in regards to my feminism. There are issues on which I seem to be aligned with 'hardline' feminists often termed 'radfems'. Then there are issues on which my views are much closer to those of 'sex positive' feminists. Fortunately, I do think there are many grounds on which we feminists are broadly united. Access to safe, legal abortion and contraception without apology seems to be an aim we can all agree on. Freedom from violence, vast improvements in the way sexual violence is dealt with, and the end to a culture which apologises and covers up for rape and sexual abuse seems to be another. Then there's closing the gender pay gap, improving the visibility of women in public life, and getting women into fields in which they're vastly underrepresented. We may all have different ideas about how to do it, but I think we can say that feminists generally agree those aims are Worth Pursuing.
Then we get onto sex, and all hell breaks loose. Porn, stripping, prostitution, BDSM...these are the issues that seem to divide feminists most violently, and between which there seems so little middle ground. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't have trouble getting my head around them too. I definitely would be a hypocrite to condemn all pornography, and it's not something I'm interested in doing. I do believe that a critical approach to the fact porn seems to be getting nastier, more inhumane and more widespread is needed. I'm definitely not happy to stand aside and do nothing about a world where 11 year-olds are learning what 'ass-to-mouth' is. But I don't think knee-jerk responses are the answer, and I do think that where feminists advocate censorship, they risk aligning themselves with the anti-woman right wing (as Catharine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin ended up doing in the 80s). Also, when we start censoring sexual matter, the first to suffer are often the most marginalised groups whose sexuality is deemed 'suspect' (i.e. LGBT people) - after all, why is Diva magazine often on the top shelf in WHSmith when its cover usually depicts a fully clothed woman?
So how can I reconcile the fact that I've viewed pornography that might make the average Sun reader's eyes pop out, and yet still support the No More Page 3 campaign? One answer is that while I don't support censorship, I do support the idea of a time and a place for porn, and I don't think it's unreasonable to state that a newspaper isn't it. I don't think defending the constant use of women's bodies as window dressing to the whole of existence is defending the right of women to be sexual - it's just defending the right of the media to make money, which it will do one way or the other. As I wrote back in 2008, "how would men feel if every time they went to fill up the car, they were confronted with images of muscular, sleek, chiselled men with full heads of hair, stunning skin, powerful bodies as if carved from oak, and of course, ridiculously huge, erect penises peeking out from under the tiny loincloth which is of course, all they are wearing? Pretty shit, I think we can unanimously agree. Yet women are expected to titter, roll their eyes and pretend they don't feel offended, attacked and obnoxiously shown up by the colonising of the female body to sell items that are going to roll off the shelves regardless of whether you use a 17 year old girl or a 70 year old piece of cheese to advertise them."
I'm also tired of being told that the NMP3 campaign is misguided or a waste of feminism's energy. As I wrote just a few weeks ago, "as for the ‘Oh, lads’ mags/women’s magazines/The Daily Mail/Angler’s Weekly are just as bad, why aren’t you campaigning against THEM too?’ argument, this is a classic attempt to try to heap collective responsibility for changing all of society's sexist failings onto feminists’ heads, whilst abrogating everyone else of any responsibility to improve their behaviour. But getting rid of Page 3 would send out a huge message. It would be a game-changer, an altering of the media landscape, the destruction of a sexist institution in place since the 70s. No, it would not immediately destroy all other media sexism. But it might just make other producers of sexist media content stop and wonder how much longer they can get away with objectifying women when a large swathe of the British public has now proudly declared ‘I’m not buying that shit any more’."
Nicola Carty wrote an interesting piece opposing the No More Page 3 campaign and although I still mostly disagree with her reasons for being against it, I can see her point of view when she says "Working for the only the rights of women who choose not to be especially revealing about their bodies doesn’t sound like feminism to me... It sounds like women, once again, are being told that they need to behave in a certain way if they want to be treated with respect." It's a provoking thought to this particular feminist, who has read on radfem blogs that my sexual preferences make me a 'dupe of the patriarchy', that by liking BDSM I'm "reinforcing the legitimacy of power imbalances outside the bedroom” and hence damaging the feminist cause. My instinct would be to defend my actions because they are freely chosen, personal and pleasurable - but then Page 3 models would presumably say the same. I might think my choices are 'superior' because I'm not paid for my sexual actions, but feminist sex workers would strongly disagree. I don't agree that there's one 'right way' to have sex whereby monogamous, hetero 'loving' sex is seen as superior to all other kinds, and I don't think it's helpful for feminism to advance that ideology, or confuse it with the NMP3 campaign. Regardless, I have definite ideological problems with how stripping, lap dancing and prostitution are accepted as 'inevitable' responses to 'uncontrollable' male sexuality. The assumption of male entitlement to the female body is what, as a feminist, I find most galling about these industries. Unfortunately that kinda leaves me stuck between a sex positive rock and a hardline feminist hard place.
I do consider myself able to move beyond the simplistic notion that all sex workers are exploited and miserable, because that's as patronising as assuming that I only participate in BDSM because evil men 'force' me to. However, when it comes to the crunch I remain deeply 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. Perhaps jealousy or insecurity is at the root of this - are women worried that if all men can buy sex, they will never have to bother being nice to a woman again, and our society will just descend into the misogynistic state that feminists are trying to hold back the tide against? And is this a valid concern, or simply an excuse for, as one sex worker put it, 'whorephobia'?
I want to admit to my own lack of knowledge and experience in the areas and do something about it. I have never met any sex workers, and I think that'd be a start - because what experience do most of us on this issue have beyond having read the writing of Dr Brooke Magnanti or terrible stories of trafficking and exploitation? So, this is something I'm planning to research more deeply by talking to feminists on all sides of the debate, and will hopefully be back with a piece looking at whether it's possibly to move beyond the divisive, two-sided feminist debate on prostitution.
In the meantime I'll continue skating down the middle, somewhere between the radfems and the sex pozzies, and accept that every feminist is going to be as unique as a snowflake, but live in hope that one day we might come together to form a patriarchy-smashing snowball.