Tuesday 25 December 2007

Humbuggery and radical rantings.

Woman is born free, and is everywhere in chain-stores.

This holiday season, the drop in national festive spending has been worse than predicted; even the last-minute pre-christmas dash hasn't been enough to recoup losses on the high street. This is causing panic over dried-out mince pies in boardrooms up and down the country. Women wield a level of consumer power that is truly terrifying to those who recognise it, and in the face of spiralling food and clothing costs, we're starting to dig in our heels just a little.

Let's not forget that in the macro-capitalist playground in which we live, our power as women doesn't reside in our looks, nor in our sexuality: it's in our wallets. Seventy-five percent of global retail revenue is generated by women. That means that, every time an ordinary consumer makes a purchase anywhere in the world, three times in every four it's a woman handing over the cash or the credit card. We have a huge and terrifying amount of purchasing power - enough to bring world economies to their knees simply by changing our spending habits. Which we might be starting to do, ever so slightly, at this most financially loaded time of the year.

My Christmas wish? That every stressed and overworked home-maker, every dutiful daughter, sister and friend, every woman breaking herself and her bank balance in order to make christmas that little bit more special for those around her, will realise the true nature of the power that she wields. An economy that is geared towards making women consume and expend effort in an established manner can only be maintained if those women continue to do so in those same, very precise ways. And at this time of the year, the effort required, the money involved and the social and financial juggling expected of us in fulfilling those social requirements pinches particularly hard. But, sweating over the mince pies or collapsing under a sea of discarded giftwrap, we are not as disempowered as we might think.


In the spirit of a Socialist Christmas, have a truly amazing short story, written by China Mieville for the Socialist review three years ago. Never say I'm not good to you. And that's it from me, I'm now going to go and gorge myself on booze and chocolate in the best British fashion. Merry non-denominational festivities to all, and bollocks to all that.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Rape, Raunch Culture and Girl Power.

'Every 10 to 15 years, feminism needs rebranding', says Katherine Townsend for the BBC.

Today, John Redwood has publicly declared that 'date rape' is different from 'stranger rape' and should be punished differently; effectively, yet another old white Tory telling us that we're asking for it. There is nothing new in this attitude, but such a respected politician saying it so unashamedly in so public a forum is very, very worrying indeed. Thank god Redwood never became Prime Minister.

Righteous indignation aside, the 'asking for it' attitude can be very pervasive. Even as a hardened, well-read feminist I still find it difficult to process my own experiences two years ago of date rape and subsequent venereal infection in anything other than those terms. We're persuaded that rape is something that, if we behave in a sexually forthright manner, we should practically expect - and expect to go unpunished. And this is one of the attitudes that allows endemic rape to be a continuing fact of our society.

Elsewhere in the patriarchy today, the Spice Girls' reunion tour has prompted lots of debate about changes in the nature of feminism over the past ten years - not that the mainstream press ever takes its cue from Red Pepper, of course.

I am a feminist who is both pro-porn and pro-sex. However, I'm completely in accordance with Ariel Levy and her fellow critics of what she terms 'raunch culture': the idea that, to be empowered, girls and young women must be 'sexy' above all else, must be in a constant state of hyper-pneumatic, barbie-doll faux-arousal, flashing our bodies for popular approval. Adverts on the underground promise us that breast enhancement surgery will make us 'more confident', that we do not deserve 'confidence' unless we appear constantly young, sexy, desirable and up for it. But this is not confidence. This is not empowering. This is not rebranding feminism: it's old-fashioned sexism re-packaged as something new. Young girls are being taught that sexuality is performative, not for their own enjoyment but for others to take advantage of - and how that's a great step forward from the sexual prudery of the 19th century, I don't understand.

So, on the one hand, young girls are taught that the only way to gain approval is to be 'sexy', to act, dress and behave in a raunchy manner in accordance with a mass media saturated with unreal images of vapid, nubile, 'sexy' examples of womanhood. On the other hand, we're still being told that if we do dress in such a way, we can expect to be raped and to have only ourselves to blame. That makes our culture one of assumed rape-privilege over women and girls compliant with the zeitgeist - and that's a terrifying thought.

The 'total coverage' effect of raunch culture should not be mistaken for anything other than misogyny. Just because we're assaulted by images of unreal naked women at every turn does not mean that the attitude of the patriarchy to women's bodies is any different: on the contrary, women's bodies are presented just as they are seen - as consumables belonging to the observer or purchaser rather than the woman herself, and as acceptable targets of violence and exploitation.

Girl power is more than a short skirt and an up-for-it attitude. I'm not suggesting that female sexual prudery is the path to personal emancipation - as a former burlesque dancer it would be rather hypocritical of me - but we must re-educate ourselves, our comrades and our children until there is an understanding that women's bodies are not for sale. We must teach our daughters that their sexuality is for their own enjoyment, and not only there to gain them approval from patriarchal consumer culture and from their peers. We must make it clear, once again, that our bodies are not free too be used by anyone without our consent - under any circumstances.

Bigots like Redwood are not going to disappear any time soon, but we can make them understand that we will not tolerate being treated in this way. Our 'confidence' does not depend on our commodity value, because we are not commodities - we are whole people, with complete say over how and for what our bodies are used. Nothing else can be acceptable.

Monday 17 December 2007

Freak Power!

Last night, around two in the morning, my partner, a beautiful fetish model, was coming home from his first catwalk show. Yes, I know, I'm a lucky young sod: but sit down at the back, there's a story here. Shivering at the busstop between Mornington Crescent and Camden town, wearing big, black make-up that made him look like he'd been gently mugged by Adam Ant, he was approached by a group of crop-headed squaddie-looking wankers in business suits, out on the lash. One of them grabbed him by the shoulder, shook him roughly and screamed at him,
Another one clutched at his jacket and yelled full in his confused gothboy face: 'You fucking cunt!'
If this highly imaginative insult-and-battery weren't enough, someone then threw a beer glass, which shattered on the pavement a foot in front of him. Luckily, the bus came, and Team Arsehole disintegrated into the night, leaving my partner severely shaken.

Did I mention that my partner is physically disabled and on crutches?

We turned on the news to discover that we've just pulled out of Basra, and that those wankers were almost certainly either puffed-up city suits, squaddies just back from the Middle Eastern Front, or both. Whoever they were, they have crewcuts, are loud and drunk, and really hate the freaks: the strange, the queer, the disabled, the deviants, the reprobates amongst us. Hate them so much that they were prepared to work a little queer-bashing into their celebrations before staggering into the rest of a night of violence and paranoia.

Make no mistake: they want to see us weak and scared. They are out there, the dull, the rich and the powerful - soldiers, investment bankers, jaded consumer-faux-democrats and right-wing pop-writers, the dangerous majority who His Reprobation Hunter S Thompson calls the Sane. They are out there, and they want us locked up with our genitalia thinly sliced on top of their sashimi, because we live, even slightly, outside the black box:
Sane is a dangerous word. It implies a clear distinction between the sane and the Insane that we all see clearly and accept as a truth of nature. But it is not. No. The only real difference between the Sane and the Insane, in this world, is that the Sane have the power to have the Insane locked up. That is the bottom line. CLANG! Go immediately to prison. You crazy bastard, you should have been locked up a long time ago. You are a dangerous freak - I am rick, and I want you castrated. (Hunter S. Thompson, Kingdom of Fear, 2002).

Of course, it's easier if less precise just to yell 'cuntface!'.

This is why, no matter how much various sub-groups get on my tits, I'll always have time for the freaks: the short, the young, the sick, the disabled and disenfranchised, the queers, the sexual deviants, swingers, fetish nutcases and drugged-up hedonists; for the goths and hippies and the geeks; for the Socialists, the Communists, the bickering Far Left beaurocrats, for the poor, and for women, especially those who've caught a glimpse of the nightmare of capitalist gender fascism in which we're living.
Freaks are a threat to capitalism. Freaks are a large, deeply fragmented power-base of deviant energy that has long been languishing in the political Deep Woods in these crazy, fucked-up post-2001 times. But we haven't disappeared, and we won't disappear, and we won't vote for you; we never did vote for you. Freaks and politics will collide again in this decade, and when it happens, I plan to be on the frontline, with a bag of glitter make-up and plenty of home-made placards. I hope to see some of you leading the way.

Wednesday 12 December 2007

You say 'tomato', I say 'fuck off, fascist scum, before I stomp all over your entitlement-swollen yankee gonads'.

Right chaps, my attack-womb is primed and ready for launch. This makes sick. I wish it were satire, I really do, but I fear it's unlikely. The article damns itself more convincingly than any summary could; essentially, it's an expat American telling the British why our women aren't up to standard - apparently, this is because we don't starve ourselves quite so consistently, our 'grooming' isn't rigorous enough and we are, hence, not 'good enough' for him. This is borne out with dire enthusiasm by a sickening little trot out of misogynist anecdotes, including one date where the writer could hardly contain his disgust at his partner eating shepherd's pie. 'This is why no self-respecting American woman consumes carbohydrates after 2pm.'

I'm sorry. What.


It's not the semi tongue-in-cheek reduction of women's comparative worth across continents entirely on their physical appearance and nothing else that bugs me most. It's not even the casual, flippant reduction of even this to a measurement of body weight and food consumption - at one point he actually talks about measuring the difference between British and American women with 'calipers'. He doesn't need to come out and say 'women are pieces of meat'; it's written in every hate-filled line of this piece of slanderous filth. That just pisses me off. No, what really, really makes me goddamn furious is the casual assumption that women are, at baseline, an inferior species: a breed of humanity who are defective unless thousands are regularly spent on their 'upkeep' and 'grooming', who do not deserve the things like freedom, relaxation or a healthy, normal 2000-calorie-a-day diet that proper people deserve - and that if they indulge their wicked habits, they are not good enough for him, Tad Safran, the writer of this article, who self-describes as 'not the greatest prize out there.'

In case you were wondering, Safran is single.

Moreover, the kind of 'superiority' he's talking about is one which affects only the wealthiest and most socially 'grabby' of Americans - the women of New York or LA, whence all of his examples are drawn. For example: although the average US citizen is heavier than the average Brit (gender notwithstanding), there exists within American culture a paradigm by which wealth is displayed via the physical thinness of women , where cultivated thinness demonstrates exactly what Safran calls 'necessary upkeep' : vast amounts of money, effort, self-punishment and available leisure time are spent on dieting, personal training, 'bikini boot camps', as they are on waxing, tanning, dental work and cosmetic surgery, a lifestyle available only to the wealthy few, mostly white upper middle classes in either nation. I'm preared to bet that $800 on beauty treatments per month isn't the outlay of the average American family.

Although this culture of thinness and beauty is gradually spreading across the pond to Europe, no, you're right, Tad - we don't care quite so much. Yet. It's changing: my kid sisters own far more make-up than I do and spend time straightening their hair and saving their pocket money for eyebrow waxes that I would never even have heard of at fourteen. But our standards haven't quite been warped so far that the average UK citizen really believes that thinness is equivalent to beauty: over here, the photo comparison between plump, pretty Charlotte Church and twiglike, tangerine-toned Paris Hilton seems to show Church as the much more effortless beauty. Hilton looks pretty damn scary as far as I'm concerned; what frightens me is that my sisters might not be able to see the difference.

Unethical journalism.

Yes, this article is deliberately provocative in places, and through the glowing red mist I can, of course, concede some of Safran's phraseology to satire. But why was such an ugly, misogynist piece ever published? Of course, the beauty editors at the Times knew that Safran's article would draw attention -as indeed it has, given the number of online comments, many of which make excellent reading. But that's nto a good enough reason for publishing something which, part-satirical or not, is so amazingly hate-filled towards women.
This is a hackneyed comparison, but consider what the response would be if Safran had published a (half-satirical) article attacking the relative deportment of ethnic minorities rather than gender differences. With equivalent sentiments, it would run something like: 'golly, you British, you just don't know how to train your blacks, do you? Over here they'd never leave the house without all that nasty kinky hair properly straightened out, and they all spend thousands per month on dangerous skin-lightening treatments - it's just upkeep, you know, I mean, we wouldn't want them going au naturel! Of course, ours tend toget a little pushy - your blacks are much more polite and obedient, will think twice before just jumping into bed with a white person. Well, I suppose that's what you get if you let them get ideas. Land of the free!'

I'm sorry. That was a comparison that needed to be made, but writing it has made me feel soiled and disgusted, so I'm going to have a cup of tea, check my emails and come back in 5 minutes .....

[later] It actually makes me feel uncomfortable to even think statements like that through grammatically. Certainly no editor would ever publish racist hate-speech along these lines, but this is exactly the argument of Tad Safran's article. It's incredibly distressing, and the decision to publish sexist propaganda like this - tounge -in-cheek or no - is frighteningly disrespectful to women and, indeed, to all of us who see both men and women as complete human beings.

What makes me spit is that I know that this article was partly published in order to make me, and people like me, angry, and that makes me even angrier. So it's okay to publish wildly disrespectful hate-speech as long as we can wind the feminists up and watch them go, is it? Bollocks to that. There has to be a sense of media responsibility - in Britain, of all places, we have a national press that the world relies on for objective journalism relatively unmarred by sensationalism.

Yes, I'm rising by even blogging about this article. Yes, I probably shouldn't even give it my attention: it's bilge, and whichever (probably female, British) beauty editor at the Times allowed it through subbing probably recognised it for bilge. But ignoring them isn't going to make misogynist filth like this roll over and go back to chewing on the bones of nubile anorexics. There has to be outcry, and it has to be loud. This sort of derision, dissection and mockery of women is unjust and deeply unethical. We will not stand for this. We will not stand for this.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Porn, Prudery and the Law: The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill

Since the first caveperson picked up a flint to hack an enormously bosomed gnome out of granite, pornography has been a fact of life. In July this year, in one of his first acts as prime minister, Gordon Brown tabled the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, 2007. I'm going to be covering the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that's due to come into force in 2008 in more detail. Here, though, is a separate little dip into one of the issues that needs a whole separate debate: the new anti-porn legislation.

Now, this new bill included legislation banning the downloading and possession of violent or ‘extreme’ pornography, in response to a large scale media reaction to the sexually-motivated killing of Jane Longhurst in 2004. Ignoring the widely accepted fact that there is little to no evidence to support a direct link between violent sexual crime and ‘extreme’ pornography, the state has leapt upon the opportunity to further police and to criminalise the sexual mores of its citizens.

Handing control of pornography to the state is never going to end well. Conveniently, since the legislation was introduced to the Bill in 2004, the government’s definition of ‘extreme’ pornography has been expanded to include some kinds of homosexual porn. Giving the state license to say what is and is not criminal pornography gives it license to suddenly decide that the tastes and interests of any non-mainstream group should be penalised – to decide, for example, that whilst it’s no longer a crime to be gay, it is a crime to download certain pictures of men having intercourse with other men.

How old were you when you took your first illicit peek at an older kind’s dirty pictures – 13, 14? Quite possibly younger if you’re male, since ogling forbidden filth remains practically a rite of passage in schoolboy culture. Censoring pornography does not work. Even in the UK, arguably the most restrictive of English-speaking cultures in terms of anti-porn legislation, pornography is everywhere. It’s on the top shelves of newsagents, splashed across the front pages of Nuts, Zoo and Loaded. It’s widely available on most high-streets, in adult shops up and down the land, in the ‘explicit’ sections of every bookshop and print-store, and, most of all, it’s on the internet.

Censorship of pornography is also illogical. Since when did forbidding something fun do anything other than increase its illicit appeal, make it more enticing to the public, and cause an explosion in rates of crime associated with the new contraband? . During Prohibition in America, for example, not only did national alcohol consumption actually increase between 1920 and Repeal in 1933, but the result was a massive upsurge in violent and organised crime in connection with alcohol. Stricter legislation on pornography is likely, moreover, to drive the producers of ‘extreme’ pornography underground, depriving participants of legal safeguards and making working conditions considerably more unsafe for porn models, actors and actresses. Legislation to increase pornographic censorship would be immeasurably socially damaging.

Fundamentally, porn itself – the explicit representation of the human body or sexual activity with the goal of sexual arousal and/or sexual relief –is not harmful. What grates is that so much of the porn that is being produced and disseminated is so very, very dire.
Much of the contemporary porn available is tacky, limited, demeaning, badly executed, badly scripted and – often, but by no means always – exploitative to those that participate in its production and consumption. It is the type of pornography that is saturating our culture that is harmful, not porn itself.
Supply dictates demand, and if what is being supplied is countless images of women being demeaned, humiliated and, most of all, made voiceless sex objects, then this will be taken as the baseline for desirable sexual activity by young men and women who – despite legislation that is already in place – grow up watching this abominable, tragically limited trite. Our cultural sex-narrative has gone wrong. Our response to this should not be to criminalise sexual images, but to radically re-think the way in which we explore sexual desire.
What I’d like to see is pornography with a plot: pornography in which grown men and women are equal players, in which sex is joyful, playful, soulful, awkward even, and never abusive. I’d like to put that most dangerous and illicit of things, tenderness, back into scripts, screenplays and directives. I’d like pornography to be beautiful. I’d like it to be made by producers, models and actresses who are enjoying what they are doing and who are union-protected. I’d like my porn to be artistic, I’d like it to play with fantasy and desire whilst keeping within the boundaries of non-harmful sexual and emotional exploration. Then, I’d like this kind of pornography to be government-subsidised, and to be distributed freely online and in schools as part of a validated PHSE curriculum, so that growing children and teenagers can explore enriching, non-abusive sexual desire in an open, positive manner.

Finally, in this sexual utopia, I would restrict so-called ‘extreme’ pornography – pornography that includes, for example, violent BDSM games, rape and abuse fantasy or necrophilia – to over eighteens, who would hopefully be adult enough to explore valid kinks in a mature way that would ensure that they remain fantasy. A pornographic market overflowing with widely available, quality, joyfully explicit plot- and character-driven, sexually equal pornography would both benefit the sexual and emotional health of the next generation and reduce people’s drive to indulge abusive kinks at vulnerable, impressionable ages.
If we really want to reduce violent and sexual crime against women, only a radical re-think of our attitude to pornography, encompassing a long, hard look at our social and sexual mores, will cut it. A warped, limited and misogynist cultural sex-narrative is the problem, but censorship is definitively not the answer.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Big dicks, high heels and subliminal messaging.

Tonight, feeling sick and ill at ease with myself, I bought a small stack of 'girly' magazines on my way home from the grocery run. Now, I've got a dirty secret: I rather like these sorts of magazines, if by 'like' one means 'find absorbing and fascinating in a deeply terrifying, makes-me-want-to-throw-things sort of way'. They're compelling. They're compelling in the way a traffic accident on a nighttime motorway is compelling: convincing you that, somewhere very close by, half-hidden and staked out by fuss and flashing lights, something deeply terrible is happening.

There's a certain cliche to the mutteringly levels of dissent against 'girly' magazines' use of repetitive images of impossibly airbrushed, stick-thin 'ideal women'. But that's just the superficial evil, the scum and bits of rotting crisp packet on the frothy cesspool of gender-fuckery that is every edition of Glamour, Cosmopolitan, New Woman and Grazia. There are, in fact, a surprising number of words in these things, and many of them are extremely upsetting. Let's jump in at the murkier part of the deep end, with a look at the horror that is the horoscopes.

Magazine horoscopes are ludicrously clever little pieces of tripe: good ones are ambiguous enough to make sure at least half the readers will be able to find something to relate to their situation, whilst remaining pointed enough that this isn't obvious. So, here's what Glamour magazine predicts for me and my fellow Librans for the coming months:

'Now Pluto moves into your home zone, changing the way you live at the deepest level. Catherine Zeta-Jones has Pluto transforming her ideas about home and domesticity...If you're single, you could settle down and get married. ..this will be a positive change and you'll discover a much calmer, happier and more contented you.'

Fantastic! Marriage is going to sort out all my problems the old-fashioned way!Only trouble is, though, I'm actually on the cusp of Virgo. What would my fate be had I been born a few days earlier?

'You may start to think about having children. Say a big hello to this question: do you want children or not? Celebrity Virgo Amy Winehouse has already expressed a wish to give up singing to be a wife and mother, and maybe that would help her to clean up her act.'

And for Cancerians:

'If you've been finding it impossible to land a steady relationship, well here it comes. If you've been dating a string of men, here comes The One. And with lucky planet Jupiter joning Pluto in 2008, expect a proposal very soon! Cancerian Lindsey Lohan will meet a partner (probably someone older) who calms her down and helps her to reinvent herself as someone more sensible - and much happier.'

Anyone starting to notice a pattern here?

Another thing these magazines simply love to do is to make lists. Ten Ways To Be Better In Bed. Top Twenty Signs You're Ready To Commit. Top ten trenchcoats for this season (subtly different buttons from last season's). What's being plugged is a lifestyle where high-fashion, high-maintenance living and hot sex are merely keys in to the ultimate goal of - guess what - finding a man, settling down and having children. Yes, content has subtly changed over the past decade: you'll now find tips on asking for a payrise or promotion alongside articles like 'My Abortion Hell' and 'A-List Diet and Excercise Secrets' - the focus, of course, always upon earning more money to spend upon the high-fashion items spewed gaudily across three-quarters of the content. Don't be fooled: nothing written in these magazines has anything at all to do with empowering women. Rather, it's about creating a hermetically sealed dystopia in which women are not thinking, feeling, creating political beings, but androids: androids who exist, quite simply, to shop.

Shopping for the right outfit, make-up or shoes for that party, that club or that dinner date; shopping for the right partner, the right house, the right wardrobe, even the right body, with diet-clubs and cosmetic surgery chains providing a large proportion of the magazines' considerable advertising revenue. Shopping for the sake Anything that falls outside of this broad dystopian market category is simply not acknowledged. For the purposes of Cosmo, Glamour, Grazia and Heat, it doesn't exist. We don't exist. Or we shouldn't.

Almost more important than what's in these magazines is what's missing. Hetero-abnormality is forbidden. The content is strictly, savagely heterosexual and heteronormative. There is simply no room in these pages for those of us who are happily gay, bisexual or genderqueer, those of us who are happy with our body shape, those of us whose main recreational activity *isn't* shopping or applying This Season's Makeup Pallette. Alternative ethnicity is forbidden: nearly all of the faces one sees in this magazine are white, and those which aren't are abnormally pale. Poverty is forbidden: nowhere is it suggested how 99% of the readership is going to afford to buy all of the new outfits, shoes, make-up and gizmos every single issue requires us to find in order to be a cool, confident woman of the moment. Alternative politics are certainly forbidden: you'll be hard put to find any political references at all, in fact, although I'm sure it won't be long before someone decides to give The Home Secretary a makeover.

Let me make one thing absolutely clear: you cannot read this stuff ironically. I know that you, and me, and probably most people we know who have ever bought one of these vile magazines, all think that we're okay, that we're above this stuff, that we can see through the sham and advertising. Like hell we can. The people writing, producing and planning these magazines are very clever, very well-paid and very good at what they do: selling a fantasy of conformity and a cooked-up, artificial femininity which requires ridiculous amounts of extraneous spending to attain. They sell it overtly, but they also sell it subliminally, and you, too, are susceptible.

There's only one option: you, and me, and every poor fool hanging aroung the 'women's lifestyle' rack have got to stop giving our money to these people. Subscribe to Red Pepper instead, or to New Statesman, or New Scientist. And instead of this poisoned dystopia of credit cards, big dicks and high heels, let's use our imaginations to dream of other possible worlds, of endeavour, justice and radical experimentation. Anything else is selling ourselves and our intellects woefully short.