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."

1 comment:

  1. A very powerful article. Prostitution is a terrible blight, and I can never support arguments to legalise it, because of the incredible damage it does to the individuals involved. No little girl dreams of becoming a prostitute.

    Porn is a such a tricky issue with me. You are quite correct in observing that much pornography exists that humiliates women. But that is not the whole story. You might balk at my description of 'wholesome' porn, but I believe it exists: just another form of healthy erotica. I don't think anything I look at portrays women as passive, ridiculous or unwilling. The whole situation is tricky. I place a thick dividing line between porn stars and prostitutes. Porn stars are willing participants, and prostitutes are far from that. Porn stars are unlikely to get STDs, due to the rigorous medical screening employed throughout the adult film industry. Of course, porn can be produced dangerously. People cam ignore the guidelines. And that is perhaps why there needs to be a more rigorous examination of the porn industry as a whole, and variance in standards and practices needs to be looked at. If you think its inherently exploitative, than that's fair enough, but I think we must agree at the very least that some people have been exploited more immediately dangerously, and they are the ones we need to find and protect first.