I recently came across a blogpost (dating from 2010) written by a woman who had recently got engaged but was not going to wear an engagement ring. The post had been linked to on a Facebook group, where quite a lively discussion had developed about the tradition of wearing them. I found it pretty interesting, so linked to it in the Sharing Thoughts & Taking Action forum where a similar debate broke out, which I’ll admit surprised me.
The original blogpost was fairly reasonable. Rather than having strong feminist objections to wearing an engagment ring, the writer seemed to feel a) that it was too much money to spend on a ring, and as a couple they could do more interesting things with it, b) she didn’t like to wear expensive jewellery in general and c) she had ethical objections to diamonds - all of which are fair enough. However more feminist arguments against rings were made on the forum.
In the interests of disclosure, I’ll first state I wear an engagement ring. When it was given to me, I didn’t debate whether to wear it or wrestle any feminist demons. My excitement about it, and love of the ring, may have been coloured by the fact that my (now) husband had spent six months designing it to be something to give me as a token of how much he loved me. I love it, and it’s a daily reminder of how happy I am to be with him.
Not long afterwards a work colleague, who was fairly new to the company and barely knew me personally, asked me if I felt uncomfortable wearing it and did I not see it as a symbol of my fiance’s ‘ownership’ of me. I dismissed the comments at the time and told her that because my fiance could never view me that way, it wasn’t an issue in my relationship. But it niggled. Inside, I was pretty pissed off that someone viewed my decision that way and I felt like she was calling into question my feminist credentials -who did she think she was? She didn’t even know me well enough to know that I would identify as a feminist. I thought it was rude.
However, as a teenager I’m sure I viewed things differently. I used to say that I wouldn’t get married at all. The phrase ‘legalised slavery’ may have been uttered (embarrassing) and I would probably have been horrified by the idea of wearing an engagement ring. But that was at a stage when I’d never had any relationships, let alone serious ones, and didn’t understand that your relationship with your partner is what you both make it. The roles you adopt, whether traditional or not, are up to you. If you feel like someone’s property, or feel like a domestic slave, then that’s because the role you have in that specific relationship has left you feeling that way - not because you wear a ring.
Engagement rings were traditionally given as a symbol of a promise of commitment. It marked the woman out as being off the market and the money spent by the groom-to-be meant that they were not given lightly. It’s in this light, that some of the objections to engagement rings are made now. Only the women wear them and the men are expected to spend a lot of money on them. The woman wears it as a symbol of being ‘taken’ (which could be perceived as belonging to someone else) and the man shows his provider credentials by flashing cash. It’s old school, no doubt. But is it really anti-feminist to wear one? Is it, as one of the forum members claimed, an attempt to ‘cherry pick’ the things we liked about traditional female roles and while fighting against the rest?
Many women I know bought their fiances a gift in return, like a really nice watch for example. The symbol may not be as obvious to everyone else, but it redressed the balance in their relationship in a way that made them happy. I suppose for me, this is what’s key. How you view an engagement ring is coloured by the context of your relationship. Because I feel like an equal partner in mine, I didn’t strongly feel that wearing a ring threatened that. Also, it was only for 10 months that I wore a ring and he didn’t - by last July we were married and both wearing wedding rings. In any case, I think my evolving sense of myself and my views on feminism have left me just not feeling that strongly about this issue. What I do in my relationship is up to me, and how I choose to express my position in that relationship is my own business. I am a feminist. And a wife. With two rings.
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.
It’s been a conflicting week of news in relation to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. On Sunday King Abdullah announced that women would have the right to vote and stand for election in 2015. It’s a major reform and shouldn’t be dismissed, as women have fought hard for suffrage around the world. It’s an important right, both symbolically and practically as women can support candidates who are in favour of further reform, or can even stand themselves.
In practical terms though women’s lives in Saudi Arabia remain shockingly restrictive. Women must be accompanied by a designated male guardian whenever they leave the house. It is legal to beat disobedient women in a family and marital rape is not recognised. Women are also massively under-represented in employment and can only work in ‘suitable’ roles, such as teaching.
However, it is the driving ban which has been a focus of media attention in recent weeks. While there is no written law which bans women from driving, women are stopped by police and, if they refuse to sign a declaration promising they will stop driving, can be taken to court. in fact tonight BBC News are reporting that one such woman, known as Shema, has been sentenced to 10 lashes. Defying the ban and going to court is an attempt by many women to publicly challenge the law, but this case has resulted in a shockingly regressive sentence handed out to this woman for nothing more than independently going about her business.
Gaining the right to vote is significant, but King Abdullah is misguided in thinking that this will take attention away from all the day-to-day restrictions on women’s lives. It’s hard to believe that someone is truly in favour of reform when so little is changing on a practical level, leaving his moves appearing like nothing more than empty rhetoric. If King Abdullah is really serious about women participating more fully in public life, then they need to be able to go about their lives independent of the men who currently have total control over them.
***Updated 29th September 2011***
The woman who was sentenced to 10 lashes has now been named as Shaima Jastaina, and has since had her punishment overturned by the king. While this is brilliant news and I’m heartened that it came directly from the king, there are still no moves to end the driving ban itself and it’s worrying that the unusually strong sentence came so soon after the announcement of women’s voting rights. King Abdullah will need further action to ensure that there is no backlash to his announcement and that more conservative men in his society don’t try to clamp down further on women’s small freedoms.
This afternoon I read the fantastic Vicky Simister’s latest column on the Fresh Outlook and discovered the upcoming Slut Walk London! event on 4th June. It follows the inaugural Slut Walk event in Toronto, which was founded in response to a Toronto police officer’s comment to a group of law students that if they don’t want to get raped “women should avoid dressing like sluts.”
I’ve come to expect a level of victim-blaming when it comes to rape cases but to hear comments like this from a police officer is still pretty shocking. It saddens me to think that it bears repeating that no-one is to blame for rape, except the rapist. Women do not invite rape by what they wear. They do not invite rape by drinking or getting drunk. They do not invite rape by flirting. Victim-blaming is another aspect of slut-shaming (which I recently wrote about), whereby if something happens to her, well, the slut must have brought it on herself.
And so we come to Slut Walk London! I’ll admit that part of me is a little uncomfortable with the attempts to reclaim the word slut. It’s so frequently used and still holds power (which continues in the current generation of teenagers) so inviting people to view us collectively as sluts leaves me feeling nervous. However, this is probably why the word should be reclaimed. Women getting together, reclaiming the streets and dressing and acting however they want to sends a powerful message, and unfortunately it’s a message that needs to be repeated. Women get raped no matter what they wear and it’s no-one’s fault but the rapist.