One Down…

Just came back from my first exam, politics. Is socialism still plausible as a political ideal?. Might have ranted a bit.

Posted: 7 June, 5:01 pm

Uncategorized | Comments (1)

Friday Random Ten

1. Trouble - Hazen Street
2. Somedays - Regina Spektor
3. Divebomb - Red Tape
4. Stand By Me - Pennywise
5. Just - Radiohead
6. Stick To The Plan - L7
7. Unionise - Redskins
8. Red Flag - Billy Talent
9. Like The Angel - Rise Against
10. Softer, Softest - Hole

Posted: 2 June, 7:31 pm

lists, music | Comments (1)

Bono

Apologies for stating the obvious but what a tosser.

Not only will consumerism not change the world (though I’m sure it makes you feel better), how can he actually go on record saying Nike and Gap have “high standards and work practices”?

*headdesk*

Posted: 22 May, 11:44 am

media | Comments (4)

How Afraid Is Too Afraid?

This morning I got an email that had been passed on from the police to our Women’s Officer, to college JCRs. It explained that police are investigating a sexual assault on a young woman in Cambridge. The attack happened after she left a nightclub in the early hours of the morning.

The email went on to say that women should be aware not afraid, and take simple measures to protect themselves. Number one on the list of “simple measures” to take at night was; Never go out alone.

Simple? How are we supposed to not be afraid when we’re told the only way to avoid attack is to basically give up our freedom? How drastic do measures get before we realise we can’t avoid sexual assault, rape, violence? While I understand why this advice is given, does anyone stop to consider how much this “simple measure” restricts women’s lives? In winter, in particular, it means not even popping round the corner for a pint of milk after half four.

I go out on my own at night in Cambridge. I walk home from the pub alone, I go for walks at 2am. I’m not normally afraid. Is the situation really so bad that women need constantly chaperoning in the dark?

I don’t have any answers on this one.

Posted: 20 May, 6:23 pm

feminism | Comments (7)

Friday Random Ten

1. Clown and Bard - Geoff Berner
2. Wild Horses - The Sundays
3. Over My Head - Furslide
4. Eve, Apple Of My Eye - Bell X1
5. Easy - Faith No More
6. Touch Me I’m Sick - Mudhoney
7. Life In A Tenement Square - Flogging Molly
8. Take The Night Off - Sick Of It All
9. Rebel Without A Pause - Public Enemy
10. I Miss You - Blink 182

Posted: 19 May, 7:17 pm

lists | Comments (1)

Sex Work

As Part II to this post and after reading Gendergeek on prostitution, I’m going to discuss the pro-decriminalisation, pro-unionisation arguments about sex work here.

I believe sex work is no more inherently bad for women than any other bodily labour - why is scrubbing a toilets 50 hours a week for poverty pay somehow less degrading and exploitative to the women who do it than having sex with someone for money? Why is it legal to pay someone to rub your back but not your genitals? The idea that sex work is inherently harmful seems to stem from the belief that sex is something women own, that it can be bought from us - we have lost something, a part of ourselves, when sex takes place after money changes hands. Regardless how much money is involved, who gets to control it and the conditions we work under, we have inevitably been exploited by the simple act of allowing a man to buy this thing, whatever it is, from us.

I reject that sex is something women own. That’s the same logic by which women get blamed when we are raped (we didn’t control sex well enough, didn’t protect what we have from men), the same logic that the religious right use to justify condemning casual sex. We don’t own sex, and when we sell it, it’s a service, not a body, that is being bought. There is no reason for this service to be made illegal, simply because it involves genital contact not, for example, my hands on your back. Prostitution is not inherently violence against women.

Sex work as it exists today is an exploitative industry. Many women sex workers are addicted to drugs, are forced to work in unsafe conditions, put themselves at risk of STIs and physical violence every day, are exploited by pimps. Children sell sex on the streets, women and children are abducted and trafficked to Western countries where they are held as sexual slaves. Women who choose to be trafficked for sex work often find the conditions awaiting them are appalling.

None of these factors are necessary conditions of legal sex work. Child labour, dangerous conditions, low pay; we combat these, in every other industry, by organising workers to fight for their collective rights. To the feminists who would ban prostitution; where is your plan for eradicating the problems outlined above? How does criminalising the men buying sex (driving women to work in even more dangerous circumstances, further underground) help the women on the streets?

One of the many arguments for abortion rights is that the best way to ensure abortion is safe and rare is to legalise it and make it widely available; slapping a state ban on what women can do with their bodies doesn’t make abortion go away, it just hurts women who’ll have backstreet abortions regardless. I believe the same argument applies to sex work; women and men will always sell sexual services to each other. The only way to protect women is to make sex work as safe as possible - sex workers’ unions, the decriminalisation of sex work, an end to the stigma of sex work as immoral or wrong.

Decriminalisation is what the IUSW call for, over legalisation; the rationale goes that legalisation often means that, whilst it is not a crime to sell sex, the state can impose restrictions, special taxes, licenses and so on. Sex workers become vulnerable to state control. More information here.

When feminists shout down the voices of sex workers who enjoy their work, or who contradict the stereotype of abused, fallen women in anyway, we’re guilty of doing exactly what we accuse the patriarchy of doing; silencing women’s voices. We have to listen to all the women involved in prostitution and sex work, those who want to leave and those who don’t, those with positive and negative experiences - anything less and we’re simply ignoring the voices that don’t fit our theories.

I don’t particularly want to be a sex worker. But I can see why, when faced with limited choices, women can choose to work a few hours a week selling sex over working long days for the minimum wage. Not always the last resort that some would make out, sex work can be a rational choice; the focus for socialists and feminists should be on improving the rights of sex workers and increasing the pool of choices for everyone. Prostitution can be shitty exploitative work, but no shitty exploitative work, whether it involves sex or not, is good enough for anyone. Instead of crusading against prostitution, criminalising the men who buy sex or those who sell it, we should be encouraging sex workers, all workers, to stand up for themselves, organise collectively, take control of their workplaces and fight back.

“Socialists who are not feminists are narrow-minded. But feminists who are not socialists have no strategy.” Louise Kneeland

Posted: 19 May, 4:08 pm

feminism, socialism | Comments (24)

A response to Finn Mackay

Yesterday I was searching Technorati for reports of NUS Women’s Conference 2006 and came across this post, a transcript by Laurelin of a speech given by Finn Mackay at the Andrea Dworkin Commemorative Conference. It came up because Finn refers to the Education Not for Sale fringe meeting at NUS Women’s Conference, where a representative from the International Union of Sex Workers spoke about her experience of the sex industry. Here’s what Finn had to say about us;

But all too often for many women, and young women, those are the only arguments they hear on prostitution. Only recently for example, I attended a fringe meeting at the NUS Women’s Conference, where a group called Education Not For Sale hosted a speaker from the International Union of Sex Workers to talk about ‘Workers, not victims: the struggle for sexual freedom’. And there a group of student women were informed that prostitution is an area where women can feel good about themselves and about their own bodies, where they can explore their sexuality. We were told that trafficking is mainly a myth, and that we should speak instead of ‘migration for sex work’, and besides (and I quote), the amount it costs to be brought over from Thailand you can pay back in less than six months, if you work hard [audience reacts]. Honestly. There was much talk of women’s agency and workers’ rights, and most women at this meeting were silenced by what they had heard, but they did not raise their voices in disagreement, disbelief or disgust. They did not question the position from which this woman spoke, but I don’t think this is because there weren’t women in the room who were questioning and disbelieving, I think it was because the debate had been framed in the guise of liberalism and women’s rights and what we have to do, is remove the lies that cloak this issue, and take back this debate to the real facts of prostitution, in order that we can create a space in which women are allowed, and validated, to disagree with and question the dominant discourse on this issue.

Finn’s pretending that the only arguments presented at the meeting were in favour of sex work. In fact, the speaker (I’m not using her name because I’m not sure how comfortable she’d be with that) was shouted down by more than one member of the audience speaking explicitly against her view that sex workers should be unionised and that prostitution isn’t always inherently violence against women. Quite how Finn can say most women were silenced by what they had heard when we over-ran by a good twenty minutes and many women stayed behind to chat to the speaker, I don’t know.

I’m also left wondering, by Finn’s speech, what she thinks are the “lies” that came out of the meeting. Sure, she’s got a radically different view on what sex work is, believing, as stated earlier in the speech, that the simple act of selling sex is always, inherently, violence against women. The speaker from IUSW presented a personal view of how much she enjoys her job, something which clashes with Finn’s perceptions of the sex industry. So where is the lying? Unless Finn believes the speaker was presenting a false rose-tinted view on purpose, to recruit young women, what would be the point of lying?

Feminists who are against the unionisation of sex workers (as Finn is, she later lauds the Venezuelan government for not recognising sex workers’ unions) on the grounds it “promotes” prostitution have to pretend there are lies and strange motives behind those who speak out about positive experiences of sex work. If they don’t, their entire rationale falls apart; that sex work is bad not because women work in terrible conditions, are driven to it by desperation, are often addicted to drugs, often put themselves at huge personal risk - sex work is bad because the act of selling sex is violence against women, always hurts women and is always exploitative.

To pretend that this attitude isn’t the “dominant discourse” is dishonest; the reason we invited a speaker from IUSW is because the only experiences of prostitution we ever hear are negative. We hear from feminists like Finn telling us that sex workers who say they enjoy their work are lying, or perhaps brainwashed by patriarchy. We hear of the very real exploitation and abuse of vulnerable women (something the speaker did not ignore, contrary to Finn’s report). We hear how charity workers hand out blankets and condoms to women working street corners. We never hear how women can help themselves, can organise together for better working conditions, can choose to sell sex for reasons other than fuelling a drug addiction or keeping themselves off the streets.

But beside all this, Finn misses the point of the fringe meeting. We’re not in the business of “promoting” prostitution, as if ever talking about it without the pseudo-Victorian fallen-woman narrative constitutes promotion. Of course, in the world of some feminists, it does - the women at the meeting aren’t rational beings, capable of thinking critically about the things they are told, in the same way men who look at pictures that objectify women aren’t. Talking about anyone’s positive experience of sex work will inevitably lead to more women choosing sex work, leading to violence against women. Allowing sexist sexual imagery to be produced and displayed will inevitably lead to violence against women. These attitudes stem from a grossly over-simplified view of human nature, of the agency of human beings, of our ability to make decisions and think critically.

I heard the speaker talk about how much she loves her work. That doesn’t mean I’m so simple I now think all sex workers have good experiences or choose to sell sexual services for reasons completely unrelated to economic need. I don’t now want to be a sex worker. I, and the other women present, are more intelligent than Finn gives us credit for - no one is silenced by hearing someone else’s viewpoint.

At some point, maybe after exams, I’ll respond to the other attitudes inherent in Finn’s speech that I disagree with - that sex work means selling your body, not a service and that when money exchanges hands before a woman has sex with a man, he is taking something away from her, from her humanity - and link that post back here.

Posted: 19 May, 2:41 pm

feminism | Comments (8)

Hair

Long time readers of this blog will know I’ve got a strange relationship with my hair. I change it a lot, colour it, cut it, grow it back. I’ve had my hair short three times; firstly as a buzzcut in Year Seven that I instantly hated and shed many teenage tears over growing back, secondly as a pixie cut for a few months at 16 followed by a home buzzcut that I grew back only after enjoying for a while, changing my mind about it because my boyfriend hated it (yeah, I know, I was 16). Finally, just before I came to Uni my mother paid for me to get my shoulder length copper-coloured hair cut into a high-maintenance bright-red bob, shorn short up the back and flicked out at the side. It was supposed to be part leaving present, part consolation that my boyfriend at the time had already left for Uni and would, my mum was sure, find a nice fresher girl who didn’t talk about politics all the time, and, crucially, had nice hair. Guess who I get it from?

It was a great haircut but it ate up my time and money to recreate every morning; I’m too lazy and busy to spend a couple of hours washing, straightening and loading it with products. So I bought myself some clippers and shaved it off to grade 3 (3/8in), leaving a Tank-Girl style long bit at the front and dying the lot black. Then I got bored with that, cut the front bit off to 1in. Then I got bored with that, grew it all back to 1in and wore it spiked up or in a pixie-style fringe. Then I got bored with that and shaved it into a faux-hawk, 4/8in sides and long on top. Then, on Saturday, trimming the sides, I dropped the clippers on my head, shaving a chunk out of the top. The result? I finally, 4 years after first threatening to, shaved all my hair off.

OK, I didn’t quite go to the scalp - I have a 1/8in layer of fuzzy stubble left. I love it. It my new favourite haircut ever. But unlike most haircuts, where the majority of people don’t pass comment or even notice, having a shaved head seems to make people think I want them to touch it/talk about it/voice their assumptions about me.

On Saturday night the guy I was seeing wasn’t really bothered, and my friends at college didn’t seem overly shocked, so I wasn’t prepared for others’ reactions - in town someone spat at me, shouting “Dyke!”, something that’s only happened to me once before and never in Cambridge. A couple of people (mostly women) openly stared at me, students I barely know from lectures asked if they could touch my head, on the train back from London the other night someone asked me, in all seriousness, if I lost my hair due to chemotherapy. In the newsagents this morning an old man I know to say hello to asked why “a pretty girl” like me would want to “do such a thing” to myself.

In fact, just about everyone has assigned some meaning to what I’ve done, something that seems typical of the way people react when confronted with something abnormal in physical appearance. From the women who asked about chemo to my mates who put it down to me wanting to shock, very few people have restrained themselves from passing comment or staring.

In all the odd things I’ve done with my hair, I’ve never had so much attention paid to it as now, when I don’t really have any. From a feminist viewpoint, I guess it’s to do with rejecting the stereotypically feminine ideal of long hair; shaved heads are for men. I must be a lesbian (read: want to be a man) or ill, no sane woman would want to get rid of her hair. But it just serves to highlight how constructed femininity is - after the boyish faux-hawk, my shaven head is unmistakably feminine. It accentuates the shape of my face, my woman’s jaw and browline. If anything it’s less “masculine” than the haircuts I’ve had for the last few months.

Is it unfeminine because I don’t have to do anything to it - no straightening, curling, spraying, arranging, fiddling with? I can’t produce any style, I wake up and it’s like this, it doesn’t move, I can’t change it except to wait for it to grow. And that’s another weird thing about getting rid of all your hair; you lose control over the way you look. Most women have two or three things they can do to their hair depending on our mood; even when my hair was at its shortest before, I could wear the fringe up or down, with or without gel, spiked out or brushed flat. Now I can’t fiddle with it at all, and the conscious lack of a style is taking some getting used to. At the same time, lack of control means less time spent arsing about in front of mirrors and wondering what the wind has done to my mop on the way to lectures, something I consciously decided was a good idea the first time I buzzcut my hair at uni.

There’s definitely some feminist message in there somewhere, about how our physical appearance holds much of the identity the world projects onto us, and the identity we give ourselves. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on here, I’m kinda out of practice - any thoughts anyone?

(There are a few before and after images here)

Posted: 18 May, 10:51 pm

feminism | Comments (5)

Back (again)

I’ve just got back from my grand tour (including Lille, Paris, Cambridge, London, Torquay and Bath) and I’ve got tonnes to say about France and NUT conference, but for now have a look at some of my photos.

Posted: 18 April, 12:06 am

images | Comments (2)

Against objectification, against censorship

A socialist feminist perspective on the Page 3 issue

Background – At NUS Women’s Conference 2006, I took parts on an amendment concerning a campaign to put “lads’ mags” on the top-shelf in order to remove references to supporting Object, a feminist anti-objectification campaign. The amendment mandated the Women’s Campaign to work with a group who are in favour of a state ban of Page 3 – Object are pro-censorship. In a rather heated debate, the parts fell; the amendment passed with the references to Object intact. This post aims to explain why I think that conference made the wrong decision.

As for where I’m coming from in this debate, I don’t define as an anti-porn feminist, in the sense that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with images, still or moving, of people engaged in sexual acts. I object to images, still or moving, that reinforce patriarchal ideology, sexist images, those weighted with reactionary messages about gender and sexuality – advertising, mainstream film, TV, women’s and men’s lifestyle magazines and books all have charges to answer here, not just pornography. Our culture is saturated with sexist imagery; I reject that pornography is a special case by virtue of its sexual content.

Object also claim not to be anti-sex, or anti-porn. From their website;

We, unlike the Government, do not challenge the objectification of women, on the grounds of ‘morality’, ‘taste and decency’. We challenge it on the basis of harm - the immeasurable and widespread harm associated with the current representation of women.[source]

Despite this recognition that Government censorship is hardly feminist, the website also supports Clare Short’s 1986 bid to ban Page Three (presumably, as the campaign is now defunct, in the hope of a revival). In Short’s own words ;

newspapers would not be allowed to carry pictures of naked or semi-naked women in sexually provocative poses [source]

It has long been a cornerstone of feminism that the personal is the political. In this case, the sexual is the political too; it is not, presumably, the sexual nature of pornographic images that Object object to, but the political messages that are attached. They say as much in the above quote; that the ideology behind the images is harmful to women. Thus calling for a state ban of Page 3, of any pornographic material, is calling for the censorship of not just sexual but political expression. As a feminist and a socialist I stand strongly against allowing the government to decide what is and isn’t acceptable political speech. It is not a slippery slope argument to state that obscenity and censorship legislation endangers our political freedoms – in much the same way as the banning of Page 3 is justified on the basis that it might lead to violence against women, the suppression of communist speech in the US was justified on the basis that it might lead to violent revolution or totalitarian government. Such legislation poses a real threat to our movement.

Feminists who ignore the overlap between the sexual and the political are forgetting their history and their aims; from the fight for abortion rights, to the right to sex education and contraception, the foundations of the struggle for a woman’s autonomy from the state, her father and her husband are centred on sexual issues. History is littered with examples of obscenity prosecutions targeting those who express controversial political ideas; I’m sure I don’t need to spell out to feminist readers where exactly our movement falls in relation to controversy and challenging the status quo. It is not in the interest of those with political views outside of the ‘mainstream’ - feminists, queer activists, socialists – to hand the power of political censorship to the state.

In the specific case of Short’s bill, the campaign clearly is anti-sex; perhaps Object didn’t look too closely at the wording, but Short is against newspapers carrying any “sexually provocative” images of “naked or semi-naked” women. Should feminists really be rallying around such a moralistic crusade? Do we really believe that all sexual images of women are harmful? Such a ban would prohibit newspaper coverage of art and culture as well as the desired proscription of Page Three, not to mention handing the power of interpretation to those in power; the definition of “sexually provocative” is hardly static when, not long ago, the sight of a woman’s ankle was considered almost obscene.

The usual response to this criticism is that Page Three is specially harmful because of its widespread acceptance and high circulation, that in banning it we would have more to gain, as a movement and as women, than we would to lose. If a few images of art or film stills get axed from papers as a result, so be it – we don’t want to extend the campaign beyond this ban, so it’s not really censorship, just a specific targeted answer to a specific problem.

If this is true, it begs the question: what’s the point? What does removing sexualised images of women from newspapers really achieve? Advertising billboards will still be free to portray women as sexual objects and racks for expensive clothes. Men’s magazines will still have women’s bodies plastered naked across every page. Women’s magazines will still promote the stick-thin beauty ideal. We will have gambled a lot in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of the press for just about nothing – Page Three will be banned, but the sexist ideology behind it will have remained unchallenged and unchanged.

It’s a hell of a slippery slope to be standing at the top of – with all these other instances of sexist representations of women around, why stop at Page Three? If we accept that such imagery is harmful to women, and thus that it should be banned, it would be inconsistency on the part of the feminist movement to ignore all the other media which reinforce women’s oppression. Pornographic films? Ban them. Mainstream films with the same messages of female sexual subordination? Censor away. Books with sexist imagery? Perhaps we could burn them…

It sounds ridiculous, but the logical conclusion of the pro-censorship reasoning is that ideas which are potentially harmful to women should not be expressed. And why stop at women? The same reasoning dictates that racist or homophobic material might in the same way cause harm. In fact, all ideas are potentially dangerous – when the state’s got the power to judge, what’s to stop feminist advocacy of abortion rights being made illegal on the basis that it could potentially lead to harm of a foetus? What’s to stop the spreading of educational material about contraception being made illegal on the basis it could “harm” teenagers who might be incited to have underage sex? Anyone with half an eye on American politics knows that’s hardly an unimaginable scenario.

I’m sure that the other side of this debate, pro-censorship feminists and moral crusaders alike, will object to my labelling of Page Three as political expression – it’s an argument I’ve heard a lot. And it’s true that Page Three is vile, it’s representative of everything wrong with how our society views and treats women, and I’m in no way cheerleading for it by talking about it as politics. But if it’s not the sexual nature of the images we object to, it must be the way those images are created and presented in the context of our patriarchal culture, and that is unavoidably a political concern.

Sisters, I am in complete agreement with you – our bodies are stripped, beaten and humiliated across billboards, in newspapers and in the pages of magazines for both sexes. We are told not to be too fat, or now, too thin. We are objectified. But we cannot challenge this by handing the state the power to decide which sexual expression is valid and which isn’t. We cannot gamble away the freedoms that our movement rests on, the free expression of political ideas that concern sex. At best, the ban on Page Three is a sticking plaster, removing just one area of sexist imagery by moral crusade, not challenging the entire patriarchal ideology underpinning all sexist imagery by means of political opposition. At worst, the ban represents a slide into the censorship of any potentially harmful expression that would crush the feminist movement.

Note on comments - I’m not around much this week, and comment moderation is on for all new IPs (which is everyone since I reset my blog), so if it takes a while for your comment to appear, I apologise in advance

Posted: 9 April, 11:13 pm

feminism, socialism | Comments (23)

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