I’ve been blogging about feminist issues for just under a year now but there’s one topic I’ve studiously avoided in that time - pornography. In some ways it’s because I can convince myself that it doesn’t affect my life. I don’t watch it. I don’t purchase it. I’ve never been with a partner that, to my knowledge, consumes it. However, I know it’s an area of contention and debate in feminism and have always thought I should at least put it out there for discussion.
My big problem is that I don’t know where to start. I’m confused about it and the issues surrounding it. I don’t believe that just because I don’t enjoy it, everyone who does is wrong. I believe in people having healthy sexual appetites and if watching other people engaged in sex is something that works for you, go for it. However I’m not blind to the fact that what was previous soft porn is now just the front covers of mainstream ‘lads mags’ like Nuts and more worringly what was previously considered hardcore, niche-interest is now mainstream. And what is mainstream is more easily available than ever before - online and on mobile phones - which means that instead of passing around copies of Playboy in school, young men are seeing quite skewed versions of sexuality and believing it to be what ‘normal’ sex is supposed to be like.
On a gut level my feelings about porn have always been that it tends to subordinate women. Porn is largely created for and by men and so has little regard for how women are portrayed. As an industry it makes billions from the objectification of women - so much so that when the US government was bailing out the car industry, the porn industry argued that they should receive help as well as they were one of ‘our nation’s most important businesses’. On the flipside, I don’t believe in banning things that I’m uncomfortable with. I’d rather people were educated about an issue to the extent that they choose, by and large, not to participate in things which adversely affect others so badly.
With all this in mind, I was really disappointed to miss the WOW Festival session on Mary Whitehouse - Prude or Prophet (there was so much I wanted to see that weekend that some sessions just clashed). Fortunately for me, the session was one of the ones filmed and uploaded to the site afterwards. I was interested to hear that the prime reason for holding that particular debate was that Jude Kelly was as confused as I am. She had grown up in an era of censorship. As the world became more liberal the mood of society became one where people should feel entitled to learn about things on their own, and that nothing should be hidden from them. Mary Whitehouse became a lone voice, and a figure of fun, in the way she argued that women would be debased and disgraced by the way they were beginning to be portrayed and would rue the day that they allowed this to happen. Jude Kelly hated everything she stood for. But now? She was beginning to wonder if Whitehouse had had a point all along. The portrayal of women in mainstream porn, and in fact in much modern media has in fact left us feeling objectified and judged. So now, Kelly said she didn’t know what she felt and wanted to learn more.
The panel was made up of Kelly, Rachel Morris (Cosmopolitan’s resident sex therapist), Amina Doherty (co-ordinator of the Young Feminist Fund) and Julia Long (feminist activist involved with the London Feminist Network and Object) and was chaired by Helena Kennedy QC. It was a lively and really interesting discussion with plenty of input from the floor.
Amina Doherty really impressed me with her confidence and her assertion that what young women need is space to talk about and develop a healthy, sexual identity. Being aware of the good and bad that’s out there is okay as long as they have space to talk openly and freely about it and be educated about what it all means to them. Encouraging critical engagement was key.
Julia Long probably took what I would interpret to be a more expected, feminist line. She quoted examples of what is considered mainstream in porn these days and the mere descriptions brought tears to my eyes and prompted me to cross my legs. She also made the good point that discussions of porn have, as Jude Kelly pointed out, been often painted as good versus bad morality. The common ground on both sides of the fence be they pro-sex, freedom of expression, liberal views or anti-porn, repressive, moralistic views is that women are oppressed - they are an economic commodity to be bought and sold. Food for thought.
Rachel Morris approached the discussion from the perspective of someone who’s not an academic or expert on this, but who does deal with the effects that porn and the objectification of women has on our culture. The letters she gets from women are laden with expectations of what their sexual experiences should be like, which are directly taken from porn culture. Women think their vaginas are hideous, their labia too big or malformed. Men don’t ‘do’ pubes anymore and so women feel pressure to be hairless. She strongly felt that if she was a young woman, what she would need is for someone like her to be teaching sex education in schools.
Needless to say one of the big points discussed was censorship. We’re all nervous of it and for those of us who are liberal, it feels wrong to censor what consenting adults want to see or engage in. However, Julia Long felt that women were being censored anyway, as their voices are not being heard (she quoted women’s disappearance from mainstream media as a related issue). Amina agreed that women are silenced and that porn is produced from the male gaze. However, she really wants young women to engage in the discussion and embrace positive sexuality. Claire Short’s campaign to end Page 3 was raised, along with her subsequent vilification in the media. All the panellists agreed that this had contributed to women feeling fearful to speak out.
A question from the floor supported Julia’s stance on possible censorship - we already have rules that limit what we can see as well as rules against racial hatred. Why did rules like this not apply to gender hatred? Why could the more hardcore content, which could be construed as torture, not be restricted or banned completely? The simple answer, from Helena Kennedy, is that it’s an industry that makes an awful lot of money and needs to be tackled on that basis.
Another question from the floor raised a real crux of the debate - consent. If women do want to be in these films, or engage in these acts, who are we to stop them? Of course, ‘choice’ is informed by our culture and life experience but some women really do choose these actions. Julia Long felt that consent and freedom of expression dialogue is usually brought out as a ‘get out of jail free’ card to silence criticism. I thought his was an interesting point. Choice is not always about personal rights but personal responsibilities - we need to view our choices in the context of how our actions affect society at large. The power relationships and submission of women in our society is normalised and played out in pornography. Choosing to be in, or even create, these films may have a detrimental effect on many other women - and our society restricts individual freedoms all the time to protect potentially vulnerable people in our society. Incitement to racial hatred is an example of this as we restrict people’s ‘right’ to say what they like, for the sake of protecting ethnic minorities in our culture.
There was so much more in this discussion and more themes to come back to. The possibility of feminist pornography - created for and by women - was not raised, as an hour was just not long enough to cover everything. Did I leave this session clearer about what I thought? I’m not sure I did really. I take on board everything Julia Long said about power relationships and the silencing of women. I’m also personally horrified by the idea of young men viewing some of what’s now mainstream and pressurising young women to engage in these acts during their early sexual experiences, as they convince them that it’s ‘normal’ sex. However, I really respected Amina Doherty’s view of the need for education. We need to give young people the space and the language to openly discuss healthy, sexual appetites and to create a positive idea of what sexuality means to them. I’d like to think that this is what will ultimately change people’s appetites for pornography. I’m still uncomfortable with banning certain pornography as it’s difficult to draw a line between what’s acceptable and what’s not and I worry, as Jude Kelly does, about it opening the door to repression. I would love to find ways to limit young people’s access to it however and I think parents need to be much more involved and in control of their teenagers access to the internet. There’s so much more to say and I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the issue. Let’s keep talking about how this affects us as adults.
This Sunday is Mother’s Day, which brings me neatly to a year since I started my blogging journey. This time last year I had just finished reading Half The Sky and couldn’t let Mother’s Day go without acknowledging the suffering of women in childbirth in parts of the world. I emailed all my female friends and family a plea to give to organisations like Amref or the White Ribbon Alliance and my friend and fellow blogger put it up on her site as a guest post. My first blogpost! Shortly afterwards I started my own.
A year on and I’ve had so many discussions with my friends about how to raise boys and girls in a culture of respect. So much of it is down to parenting. One friend, who recently had her second little boy - and therefore has little in terms of spare time on her hands - said she was going to change the world two little boys at a time. Raising her boys to be respectful of people and especially women, is important to her.
The influence of our parents is hugely important to who we become. At the recent WOW Festival I attended the Rallying The Troops session where women who had launched campaigns of one kind or another discussed what drove them. June Sarpong credited a lot of her drive to her mother (forget Tiger Moms - try Ghanaian mothers for pushing you to succeed!). Similarly Shami Chakrabarti mentioned that her parents’ expectations of her were part of what drove her to do well.
I think that’s also true of me. My parents placed enormous value on a good education. I didn’t appreciate at the time what a privilege it was to receive it but looking back I see how much of my confidence and success comes from it. However my parents always taught me to be me and respect who I was. They supported any career choice I mentioned as long as I was willing to work hard at it and would help me in any way they could. As a teenager as I embraced feminism and I remember never being sure if my parents understood what it meant to me or why I was so passionate about it, but I remember how proud they were to see my letter about Riot Grrrls and young feminists published in The Irish Times.
They also taught me, above all else, to respect people. To show respect in how I spoke to others and how I dealt with people around me. If I did this, I would be shown respect in return. This is a message that we desperately need to teach young people. The winning entry in the ‘what would you do to change the world’ WOW Den (presented by Manju Nair) had a simple message that we should teach young boys and girls how to deal with each other in school. Done well this would be of enormous benefit going forwards. It’s a real shame that the recent ad campaign addressing teen rape was screened on television but not promoted in schools for instance. Teaching young boys how to accept ‘no’ and what consent means is crucial. Treating young girls to respect themselves and each other (no slut-shaming for instance) is also invaluable.
We are all open to a range of influences in our lives but as girls our first role model in how to be a woman is our mother, supported by aunts, grandmothers, our mothers’ friends and teachers. Gandhi famously said that we need to ‘be the change we want to see in the world’ so this Mother’s Day let’s all remind ourselves to be the role model we would want to see. Be the example you would like your daughters, nieces or other little girls in your life to grow up seeing. Let’s stop talking about our weight and dieting. Let’s stop using words like ‘slut’ altogether. Let’s talk about the successful women we’ve seen (and there are many). Let’s celebrate our own successes and those of our friends. Let’s also thank our mothers and the other role models in our lives who made us who we are. Happy Mother’s Day.
I came home with my head spinning after the final day of WOW 2012 so thought I’d share some of my reflections from the weekend.
There is no shortage of wonderful role models for women and girls – I developed massive girl crushes on Jude Kelly, Baroness Helena Kennedy, Shami Chakrabarti and Bidisha but also heard Ruby Wax and Rosie Boycott talk about the awful lows in their lives, Rosie Boycott (again) and others discuss global economics, all of the panel at the Arab Spring session, Sali Hughes and India Gary-Martin on body politics, Dr Kiran Bedi on the criminal justice system and many, many more. There are inspirational women all around us.
Strike a woman, strike a rock – The recent protests and strikes were largely lead and run by women. When we get together we can be magnificent (with thanks to TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O’Grady)
Women need to get into power to change things – quotas came up in several discussions I attended and I’ve written another post about it. India Gary-Martin was also asked at the Body Politics session how things will change with regards to ‘acceptable hairstyles’ if people like her are still afraid to come to work with dreadlocks. Her answer was that her recruitment practices were changing the culture of the organisation and in time, what’s acceptable will also change. Great answer.
Find your people - The best way to recover from the hardest times in your life is by finding support from those who truly understand what you’re going through. I think the same is true of feminism. Finding support from other women and feminists is crucial. The WOW festival certainly helped addressed that and I met some amazing women.
There is so much more to be done for women in the world – from Shami Chakrabarti’s breakdown of what is still going on worldwide at the Women, Power and Change session, to the emotional discussion at the Arab Spring session and the panel about the Criminal Justice System it’s clear that we still have a lot to do to bring about equality for women worldwide.
Education of girls is key - The winning idea at the WOW Den was about creating an empowered girls’ network, educating girls and boys about how to relate to each other in a respectful way, and addressing the curriculum of all subjects in school to ensure the role of women is properly taught. It’s an exciting project. In addition, one of the WOWsers stood up and presented her idea about the need for black women to be better represented in careers such as the police force so that they could be role models for young black girls like herself. It was really tough for her to stand up in front of this room of women and speak but with the support of the panel and fellow students she did it. She’ll learn a lot about herself from having done so.
We’re not ladies – After a long and hilarious discussion on the meaning of the word lady, we ditched it. It’s gone. Forget it.
Feel the fear and do it anyway - I did one of the speed mentoring sessions and met some fantastic mentors. A key message from all of them? Go for it. Whatever it is, whatever I want to do, embrace my skills let them bring me confidence and go for it.
I learned an awful lot more than this but these were some of the key themes which emerged for me. I look forward to talking about them more on blogs, forums and twitter. Let’s keep the #WOW2012 hashtag going and keep chatting about what we know and what we can do.
It’s been a brilliant and sometimes intense weekend of talks and debates at the WOW festival on all aspects of being a woman. I’ve been to sessions on global economics, speed mentoring, the criminal justice system, body politics, the Arab Spring and many more. My head has been swimming with all the new perspectives I’ve heard and ideas I’ve been challenged with. And so, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I headed to Tea With The Lady - a discussion on the very notion of being a ‘lady’ (hear David Walliams voice in your head when you say it) and whether it’s a regression or is actually subversive. Interesting debate? I had no idea what I was in for.
Aside from the chair Bidisha I was unfamiliar with the four women on the panel and was therefore completely unprepared for the biting wit and sharp tongues about to be unleashed as well as the ridiculously funny conversation that unfolded. The context of the talk is that with the current prevalence of Domestic Goddesses (Nigella Lawson), home crafts (Kirstie Allsop) and floral prints (Cath Kidston) is being a lady something that is being reclaimed?
In that light, I’m going to attempt to create a (very tongue-in-cheek) 9 step guide to being a lady, formed by the discussion I heard.
Like Karen McLeod who worked as an air steward for British Airways before becoming a writer, my experience of being called a lady was when I worked in a shop and mothers attempting to control their children would tell them ‘give that back to the lady’ or ‘the lady’s watching and she’ll get angry’. As if I cared. I worked in Primark.
So to Lady attribute number one: Be a bit scary and stern. Scare children.
Writer Catherine Hakim claims it is part of our ‘erotic capital’. A lady is well groomed, stylish and with confidence and manners, like Michelle Obama or Carla Bruni. Anna Blundy (author and journalist - who had me in hysterics laughing throughout) argued that these types of ladies were accessories to men - known as being well-groomed arm-candy. Iconic templates as Rachel Johnson (former editor of The Lady magazine) put it.
Number two: Be stylish and well groomed at all times while being arm-candy for a man.
Actually, Johnson argued that as editor she had put women over 40 on the cover who had done something, regardless of their colour or beauty. But also, crucially were not trashy or trampy.
Number three: Don’t be a tramp!
Money and class inevitably entered the discussion. Women like Cath Kidson and Nigella Lawson make millions from their home-styled products and are extremely shrewd. For most women Blundy maintained, doing unpaid work is denigrated as society doesn’t value it.
Number four: Bit confused now. Either make millions by selling ladyness to others, or be arm-candy mentioned above and be rich enough not to work. I think being rich and posh enough not to worry about it is probably key.
Johnson mentioned that when her husband heard she was going to be on this panel, he told her a lady was ‘not pushy and was dignified’ and that she was neither of those things. Blundy went on to talk about her experience of speaking out about her experience of how the Daily Mail wants ladies to be (and I highly encourage you to read her blog post about it) She was styled, put in a suitably coloured frock and, when she didn’t stick to their preferred narrative, the piece was spiked.
Number five: Remain dignified and stick to the script - say what you’re supposed to say.
One of the most hilarious parts of the discussion emerged when McLeod showed us something her (female) partner had bought when they moved in together. A floral Cath Kidston peg holder, shaped like a baby’s dress and with a bow. She noted that many of her lesbian friends were now getting married (to women, I hasten to add as it caused some confusion amongst the panel) and wearing aprons. So is being a lady really just another name for being conservative? The panel felt it was.
Number six: Be conservative and buy aprons and floral peg-holders.
Even Rachel Johnson conceded that if forced to define a lady, it would be a woman in cashmere and pearls and with a pussycat bow. She would like that not to be the case however, but for it to be irrespective of class or income.
Number seven: Wear cashmere and pearls.
In fact, she felt, like Hakim, that being a lady was about behaviour. Blundy felt it’s repressed behaviour - or as McLeod put it, ‘smelling of flowers, not sex’!
Number eight: Smell nice. Shower after sex.
The debate was then opened to the floor and many fantastic questions asked. One was whether baking bread and making your own clothes wasn’t buying into ladyness but was actually about self-sufficiency and not buying from large organisations. Another asked about the programmed Ladette To Lady and what the panel thought of it. McLeod felt sorry for the girls in it, as their own wildness was lost. Blundy also noted that many of them had very problematic relationships with alcohol and sex and this was really just televised, posh rehab, although it seemed to work to an extent. Johnson love it as it taught the girls a sense of self respect and skills valued by society.
Finally, one woman asked if, for women to achieve equality, we really had to ditch the word lady altogether. Every panelist actually felt we did and several didn’t use it anyway. As Bidisha said, it’s currently got a fairly ktisch inflection anyway and the women who market their ladyness are shrewd multi-millionnaires. So with that the women in the room ditched it.
Number nine: Forget it - ditch the list and call yourself something else!
Two of the talks I’ve been to this weekend at the WOW Festival (so far) have mentioned something that I’ve struggled to accept in recent years. Quotas. I’ve never been convinced about them either way. Do they help women? Are they tokenism? Does it help the cause of female advancement? I’ve always felt that there are a lot of good arguments on both sides but it’s been interesting to hear a number of speakers come out and say that they think they are necessary.
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC spoke this morning at the Women, Power and Change session. She’s an incredibly smart woman, and a fantastic speaker and she came out quite clearly and said that quotas were the way forward. When she entered the Bar, before the 1976 Sex Discrimination Act, only 8% were women. So how far have we come? The current Supreme Court of 12 judges has one woman on it. Not very far at all. Women are still under-represented on boards, in parliament, in Cabinet and in all powerful institutions. Baroness Kennedy argues that this will not change without quotas. Women get stuck where they are, partially because they buy into the dominant ideas in our culture which tell them that quotas are unfair. But men in power talk up younger men coming up through the ranks, who remind them of themselves. Invisible forces like this won’t be broken through unless they are compelled to break them down. Intriguingly, Baroness Kennedy went on to argue that for senior directors and managers bonuses should have a measurable performance indicator related to promoting diversity.
People absorb the story that quota are bad for women as no-one wants to promote a mediocre woman above a man who is better. But why do we assume that all that’s out there are mediocre women? Or that the men that are promoted currently are not mediocre? Plenty of them are and there is no shortage of brilliant, qualified women in most fields who could live up to any role.
Baroness Kennedy went on to talk about merit. We currently have systems where people are promoted on ‘merit’ but who decides what the criteria are? Men who currently hold the power decide on the list of criteria when recruiting. If women were appointed to senior roles, that list could change and might open the playing field for future applicants without the need for quotas. Merit is not a neutral term as it’s currently assumed to be. It has context and the current context is one in which men are in power and make decisions.
This was an incredibly powerful argument and really opened my eyes to the extent to which I had bought the line that quotas were bad for women in the long run. I wasn’t taking the context of merit into account.
Her thoughts echoed some that were made yesterday in the Selling Us Short? session on advertising - who decides how products are advertised and how are women represented in ad agencies? The consensus of the panellists was that there were very few women at a senior creative level, although they were well represented elsewhere in the industry. Towards the end of the discussion chair Rita Clifton asked what would change this. Andrew Cracknell (a former agency Creative Director and author of The Real Mad Men) reluctantly argued that quotas are probably ‘the right thing to do’. He worried that the first women who were promoted or brought in to fulfill a quota would suffer a backlash but that it was proven to work in countries like Norway. Looking back now, I think his comments about the backlash may have come from thinking that men would think the women didn’t merit being there, but I would not agree with him having heard Baroness Kennedy’s comments.
Gail Parminter (founder of her own agency Madwomen) thought that quotas were difficult in a creative role as you need talent, drive and passion to succeed. But again, why did she assume that women out there didn’t have that? She did argue for a need for role models though and that the few women in these positions currently need to reach out to the next generation. Maybe this is where quotas would help - in creating more role models to reach out.
Kate Stanners also mentioned that she hated the idea of quotas as she felt that women wouldn’t be there on merit. I think Baroness Kennedy disproves this point.
Harriet Harman (Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Shadow Deputy Prime Minister) commented that we all hate quotas and find them problematic as it feels like meritocracy is being constrained by them. However, she did feel that sometimes there is no change without them and they are a means to an end. They have worked with MPs to an extent and that focusing initially on targets may be a way to start.
The Selling Us Short? panel had mixed feelings on quotas all round, and probably echoed my own mixed emotions but I’ve really had my thoughts clarified by Baroness Kennedy’s discussion of why they work and why they are necessary. I now see more clearly that the advertising panelists thought about merit in a way that was lacking in context. It’s been fascinating to see two quite different sessions at the festival have the same issue come up but in different ways. The real benefit of a festival like this is to tease out these issues and think about them in new ways benefitting from the experience of women who have fought their way to the top of their careers. We absolutely need to have these tough conversations if anything is going to change.
This post was cross-posted on the Women of the World blog