Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Feminism in London '09

On Saturday I attended 'Feminism in London 09'. The day was a mixed experience, but two sessions I attended stood out as excellent and made a deep impact on me: the anti-porn slideshow 'It's easy out here for a pimp', and the panel discussion 'What's wrong with prostitution?'

The most inspiring and encouraging element of both these sessions was the clear indication they gave that when I object to pornography or to prostitution, I am not being a prude or a killjoy, and I am far from alone among feminists. The anti-porn slideshow included an examination of the type of advice teenage girls are given when they write, confused and upset, to agony aunts about their boyfriends' use of porn. They are almost invariably told that watching porn is a harmless, natural, normal pastime for males, and that if they want to keep their man, or any man, they had better shut up, stop nagging and get used to it. To me it has seemed for a while that those who object to porn are characterised as dysfunctional, and it can therefore be very difficult even to begin a debate. Furthermore, where both porn and prostitution are concerned, I've sometimes found that my distaste is so deep and emotional that it can be hard to put forward my position without resorting to angry, frustrated spluttering that gets me nowhere. Just as I did when recently I read Clare Short's (1991) book Dear Clare...this is what women feel about Page 3, I felt a huge sense of relief to find that others are passionate about this issue too, and at having the space to begin thinking about it more clearly. To say it was empowering almost sounds like a cliché these days, but there's no other word for it.

The porn slideshow focused on trends in porn (especially online) towards fantasies which give added pleasure for no other reason but that they humiliate women and portray them as passive, ridiculous, even unwilling sex objects. Secondly, there is a trend towards using younger and younger girls, and towards 'teen', 'barely legal', and 'schoolgirl' porn. Thirdly, the 'hypersexualisation' of the media now goes well beyond what is classed as hardcore porn. A comparison of record labels and Disney characters from fifteen years ago with those around today made this frighteningly clear and left me wondering how I will deal with the changing society in which I will be bringing up my own children. Thus the focus of the slideshow was not on 'pornography' as a whole, (though if we use Clare Short's definition of pornography, as opposed to nakedness and eroticism, as saying 'take me, use me, dispose of me' it was (Short, 1991, p.19)). It therefore maybe didn't address all my personal feelings about porn, but it gave me some starting points for thinking about my own reactions and will help me formulate them in ways that others might be able to understand.

The panel discussion on prostitution was hard-hitting and deeply moving. The two testimonies given by formerly prostituted women, Anna Travers and Rebecca Mott, were the first I have ever heard, spoke volumes, and thoroughly deserved the passionate standing ovation they received for their courage. The panel spoke from the position that there is no debate over whether prostitution is wrong, focusing on discussing why and on putting forward their view that the practice should by no means be legalised as a legitimate industry like any other (as such, the discussion was more holistic than that on porn). Having always had a vague feeling that prostituted women should not be criminalised and 'punters' should, I came away convinced (at least for the time being - I realise I don't know a lot about this topic). The descriptions of the experiences of two real women, and the statistics given about the number of women who are prostituted after childhoods of abuse, neglect or poverty and about the proportion of prostituted women who would rather not be, counter for me the vague anecdotal evidence I have heard from some (men) who state that the prostitutes they've 'encountered' were perfectly happy with their 'careers' and 'choices'. The 'happy hooker' is a privileged minority, and, as Rebecca Mott put it, to know whether a woman has really 'chosen' prostitution we must look at her entire life story and circumstances.

The topics of pornography and prostitution are related to the topic of 'sexualisation', the second major area I'm currently considering in my own first steps into feminism (the first being the role of 'nature' in our status as women), and I found these talks enormously valuable in giving me an entry point. It was also interesting to hear for the first time discussions about 'privilege' and how it determines the extent to which people can make genuine choices and the extent to which they can have their voices heard. Bodily integrity, one of the human rights I studied during my dissertation work on female genital mutilation, can seem an abstract concept at first but it lies at the heart of much of what modern feminism needs to address. I'll finish with Rebecca Mott's words on the issue:

"As an exited prostituted woman, I have often felt incredibly let down by feminists choosing to ignore the mental, the sexual and the physical torturing that is prostitution. Instead, too many feminists will believe the illusion spoken by sex workers of making the work environment safer. There no speech of having basic human rights. All talk of abolition as a long-term plan is blocked out.

This is an abandonment of prostituted women and girls.

If feminism is serious about tackling male violence, it must listen and hear the voices of exited prostituted women. Do not speak over their voices. Do not say that they are misguided about their own realities. No, learn to listen with a open mind.

After all, these are women who have been raped on an industrial scale. They have known of sexual torture, they know the lies that men tell to make their violence invisible. They know what it is to live with violence so long that they had to lose all feelings.

Prostituted women and girls are on the coal-face of male violence.

That is what is wrong with prostitution."

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Musings from a straight woman at Pride

My mother and sister came to visit me in London this weekend, so I took them round the big sights. When we got to Trafalgar Square, we stumbled upon lots of very happy people congregated for the Pride celebration. The atmosphere was infectious and I wanted to jump in the fountains and celebrate, but settled for spending rather too much money on rainbow banners and pink Union flags, and waving them around a bit while listening to some rousing speeches and sexy opera. Just a few thoughts, in case anyone's out there...

I know that there is still a long way to go in Britain regarding LGBT rights, but I did feel a surge of happiness that I'm able to live in a country where such a celebration can take place in the middle of a national monument. Of course, that shouldn't even occur to me, but there are countries where the gathering would be dispersed violently by police and the participants at risk of execution. I liked that the atmosphere spilt over into the streets and parks outside the square - I've never before seen men kissing each other outside a specifically 'gay' setting.

At the same time, talking to my mum reminds me that (maybe because I've studied gender and had certain personal experiences?) my thought patterns work in different ways to those of many even in Britain. She's a pretty open-minded and tolerant person, but I still think she finds it hard to take things like bumping into someone with breasts and a codpiece, or me wrapping myself in a rainbow flag, into her stride. I'm not saying I know it all but at least I'm trying to break the moulds of socialisation, whereas some people haven't even heard of the concept. Sometimes I just don't know where to start with trying to explain my views to my mum, because both she and I have lost sight of the roots of our 'gut' feelings.

It's amazing to be among people who at least seem to be refusing to judge others by their appearances or their preferences or their identification. Even to me as a straight woman, it felt incredibly liberating - so much so that it made me take a step back and wonder at how little I notice the pressures I must be accustomed to normally. At gay bars in the past, I've felt much more at ease than in other clubs, given that in some places I've had unpleasant experiences with men who got pushy when I refused or ceased to dance with them. In LGBT spaces people don't seem to make the same assumptions or demands and I feel a lot less 'on my guard'. (If this is me as a straight woman, how much more so for LGBT people themselves?!)

Does this make me 'appropriative'? Firstly, does a straight person 'using' an LGBT space to escape the feeling of pressure divert from the point of gay bars as a safe space for gay people? Secondly, does my very holistic view of the importance of the LGBT rights movement detract from the fact that it is just that - a rights movement? I value LGBT rights per se - being able to love and have sex with whichever consenting adults you choose affects real individuals on a very deep and personal level. However, I also see the issue as having much broader and deeper implications for many aspects of our lives and society - the idea that we are more than reproductive machines, the desire not to force people into moulds, the attempt not to judge on appearances or condemn what are entirely personal choices, a dislike for living rigidly by ancient scriptures. As a straight person, I don't really separate these two dimensions. I'm also female and 'feminist', but not the type of 'feminist' who thinks that men can't be 'feminists' or that their interests are entirely separate from those of women. I imagine there's the same sort of variety among LGBT people as there is among feminists, but I'd be interested to hear any views on how LGBT people feel about 'allies' and how far we can be part of any movement, especially if both dimensions are important to us. Is my getting excited about a Pride event to the extent that I'd like to wave flags and dance in the fountains too much?

Walking through St James' Park afterwards with my rainbow flag did feel a little strange. I think this was because I imagined most people seeing me would assume I was homosexual. I suppose it might be some faint insight into how LGBT people sometimes feel, with the majority 'assuming' that everybody else they see on the street is heterosexual. My mum fretted that I was sending out the wrong signals to 'the right sort of men' (aka straight potential boyfriends). But to me it felt both pleasant and unsettling to forget about my desire for a boyfriend, just for half an hour, and it was revealing that this desire had been a factor in my behaviour before I donned a rainbow flag.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Should I be a hairy feminist?

I’ve been conducting a personal experiment lately and have stopped shaving my legs, because I realised I was doing something without ever having thought about why. My mother visited, and in the same tone she’d use to describe an unwise clothing purchase, declared them 'horrible'. I’ve seen other people call female leg hair ‘disgusting’ and shudder. Given that I'm even embarrassed to show off my hair in the gym changing rooms, I think I have a while to go until I'm happily wearing skirts and letting it flutter in the breeze. Plenty of self-declared feminists have told me that this is not a 'feminist issue', but I am still uneasy about the social pressure involved, especially as for the majority of people gender expectations are clearly involved somewhere.

I fully accept that for many women, hair removal is primarily a matter of personal preference, not of pleasing a partner or being socially acceptable. Insofar as it is a matter of social pride, for them not going swimming when unwaxed is the same as wearing matching underwear in case one is hit by a bus. For some people this is to do with aesthetics and feeling ‘tidy’; some see it a hygiene issue. I don't feel strongly either way.

I do not think there is convincing evidence that a dislike of female body hair is due to primordial concerns with determining health and fertility. It can arguably even indicate health and fertility, and promote hygiene. There are people who like it, and they can’t all be relegated to the ‘fetish’ category. Female hairlessness is not inherently or naturally more ‘beautiful’.

I wonder whether hair removal is due to a desire for symmetry or ‘neatness’. I saw a cartoon recently of a monkey who had shaved her armpits and legs, and left the rest furry – the result was ridiculous – but it is fair to say that in human women when the darkest hair is removed the result is a more ‘uniform’ appearance. However, perhaps because I also have dark arm hair (which I have no intention of removing) I do feel a little like that monkey when I shave my legs, perhaps partly because I am developing notions about simplicity and about not having six different products/machines in my bathroom with which to deal with hair on six different parts of my body.

Finally, I’ve heard of a theory that our wearing of clothes and lack of hair is due to our desire to distinguish ourselves from animals. Given what I know about the rise of ‘civility’ and etiquette, it seems likely that hair removal, for men too but to a lesser extent, has become seen as a sign of civilization, of being removed from baser nature. However, this too is not attractive to all – ask the nearest hippy.

My view is therefore that while there is no strong logical reason to prefer either, it is possible for both hairiness and hairlessness in women to be ‘personal’ preferences, as well as driven by prevalent imagery and social pressure. Nevertheless, we are all creatures of culture, and it is important to examine the basis for that culture.

Part of body adornment and modification is the act of emphasising parts of ourselves which we feel to be beautiful, be it curves, a flat chest, bright eyes, or smooth skin. Emphasis on particular elements varies between places and eras. At some points in time, asserting the differences between the sexes has been seen as desirable, at other times not - ideas about men wearing lace or eyeliner, flat-chested women, and the ‘gender’ of skirts have varied dramatically. I am still open to the idea that there are some biological differences between genders, but they are probably not binary, qualitative or polarised. Choices over which physical elements to emphasise as 'gender-defining' are cultural. When these ideals are in place, people may well choose a particular appearance because it displays their distinct sexual and gender ‘identity’. Sexual and gender identity may well be important, and, unless we all start wearing burqas, they are often going to be expressed (as are other aspects of identity) through semiotics of appearance.

If we assert a particular gender identity by reinforcing and accentuating the differences between the sexes, I think we need to be alert to the risk of essentialism. If we accept norms which state that wearing flowers, lace and long skirts are part of a feminine identity, what stops us from accepting other norms that say pacifism, care for the environment or domestic work are more feminine? Perhaps there is some distinction to be made between humans as physical, sexual beings, and as intellectual, moral and social beings, and as long as we remain aware of this, we can avoid essentialism in our behaviour. To impose gendered beauty standards on others does, however, imply essentialism.

I think it's a problem that anyone should do something which they dislike, but which has no basis in health or hygiene, purely because of social fear. I think it's a problem that anyone should do something they feel neutral about doing when it's not an entirely free choice. Thus I do think it is courageous for women who genuinely wish to stay hairy to do so (or for men who wish to remove their body hair to do so, though I think the social pressure there is less). However, I don’t think it is necessary in order for them to be considered true advocates of gender equality.

Nor is it necessary for women to stop removing their hair if for personal or cultural reasons they do want to, just to remove a ‘binary’ which is not a factor in the rest of their lives. They may be influenced by cultural norms of beauty, but we are all creatures of culture. Perhaps what we do need to do is be aware of the influence of culture. When it becomes extended to norms of beauty that are much more difficult and even damaging to follow, we will then be more cautious.

I do feel strongly that for anyone to call a woman ‘manly’ or unfeminine because she chooses to stay hairy, or to call the practice of not shaving ‘unfeminine’, is to tread on very dangerous ground, whether because it reinforces an often-polarised norm as being essential to a gender identity, or because it implies that gender and sexual identity is and should be key to all of us as people. In more general terms, to describe body hair, which grows naturally, as repulsive is just as bad as telling someone that not using makeup, or wearing trousers to a ball, is revolting. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing the latter, so why allow the former?

Saturday, 16 May 2009

A Great Wall of Feminism? Introductory Post

I think this cartoon has some misleading implications.

The first thing I found in it to dislike was the top image, which implies that lesbian marriage rights are less important than heterosexual marriage rights. I hope that the intention was more to show the (debatable) difference between demanding 'pieces of paper' and the right to see one's partner frequently, but it would've been much less misleading to have contrasted lesbian marriage rights in Britain with the right not to be executed for being homosexual in Iran.

My other concern is about the reference to a Great Wall of Feminism itself. Development and gender theory have recently been about diversity and breaking down generalisations about human experience or women's experience. These are valuable contributions, and I'm not advocating a return to essentialism or ethnocentrism. However, I do wonder whether rigid distinctions are being set up when in fact there are more widespread mentalities at work, and when solidarity is not hopeless. I'm also alert to the fact that whilst 'Western' feminism is a product of culture, so are the alternative mentalities promoted in 'post-development' - and culture has generally had its winners and its losers.

The images on the left are all of women standing on soap boxes or giving righteous (and self-interested) speeches. I think the cartoon was a response to the UN conference on women in Beijing in 1995, and thus does make the important point that not all issues do get covered by supposedly representative conferences. However, the implication is that the problems being talked about by First World women are not real issues at all, whereas Third World women are actively suffering and working. Is this supposed to make First World feminists feel guilty? Why is there no picture of homophobic bullying in an American playground? Or a London woman raped because of stereotypes about what she wanted? Conversely, why is there no picture of a Third World woman activist?

I wonder if there is a hint of Molyneux's distinction between 'practical' and 'strategic' women's interests here. A practical interest is one which needs to be fulfilled for someone to have the best standard of living possible within her role, as ascribed by social structure norms. A strategic interest is an interest in changing those norms, structures and roles themselves. This is a useful distinction when investigating the aims of different movements, but I suspect that in terms of eventual outcomes the distinction is false. By implying that a focus on long-term goals (smashing the glass ceiling) detracts from the need to focus on immediate welfare (putting a roof over women and children's heads), this cartoon misses the point.

I plan through this blog to muse and research my way through the connections and differences between structures, mentalities and realities for rich and poor women. I'm under no illusions whatsoever that my decision whether or not to shave my legs is going to have a momentous impact on the lives of those suffering because of the gender status quo. However, I do find that reflecting on the meanings behind even small decisions can be very revealing. Furthermore, as a privileged British woman I am lucky enough to have choices over how to adjust my lifestyle to my ideals, and to choose to interest myself in gender at many different levels. I'd like to be coherent. I will be posting about leg hair, but I will also be posting about more violent parallels, and about 'separate' issues.

Finally, where in the cartoon is the husband who is visited only twice a year, and what does he think of all this? I wonder whether we have set up other Great Walls which limit our understanding, not only between different women but also between women and men. I believe fervently in equal rights for men and women, I don't agree with double standards, and I do think that in most parts of the world women have had a rougher deal: I therefore call myself feminist. However, women enforce gender norms on each other and on men; men enforce gender norms on other men as well as on women. My upcoming dissertation project will be on female genital cutting. Some feminists have been in uproar against men who 'diverted' discussions about this onto the topic of male circumcision. I agree that there is a difference of scale, but in many regions they are seen as highly comparable practices. How are we to understand this issue if we shout down that belief? I hope I can draw into this blog ideas about men and masculinity as well as women.