Sunday 28 February 2010

Young women aren't just sexual victims.

Something terrible is happening to young women. Despite the dazzling gains made for bourgeois white women by reformist feminism, we're....well, we're turning into sluts. Look around you: the streets are littered with half-naked young hussies vomiting their A-levels into spillovers with their skirts hoiked round their waists. At the merest flash of a web-camera, young ladies from nice homes will flash their tits for Nuts magazine. Feminism means we can do anything we want, but all we brazen little tarts seem to want are boob-jobs, brazilians and drooling attention. We don't know any better, you see.

Conservatives and a small number of high-profile feminists are unanimous in their assertion that contemporary culture has made desperate sexual victims of all women under thirty. In the UK, the reception of this week's Home Office report into the 'sexualisation of children' has been gleefully priggish, with Conservative leader David Cameron telling the BBC that 'We've all read stories about padded bras and Lolita beds...children are growing up too fast and missing out on childhood.' Oh David, with your nice hair and your nice wife and your house in Knightsbridge, only you can save Broken Britain from the march of the underage slags.

Press rehashings of the Home Office Report and of Natasha Walter's new book, 'Living Dolls', are stuffed with horror stories of young girls' wanton, soulless sexual promiscuity. Pre-teens who should be drinking ginger pop and going on picnics are wearing thongs and listening to Lily Allen. Just one glance at MTV and 54% of working-class teenage girls, according to fabricated Tory statistics, are pregnant. Even toddlers are now born with the Playboy Bunny image tattooed onto their eyeballs. Their fault, the salacious little strumpets, for daring to look at the future.

Walter is a thoughtful and empathic feminist, and her concern for young women is genuine. Her book (to which, in the interests of full disclosure, I contributed) is far more forgiving to young women who blandly objectify themselves or work in the sex trade than several stern, moralising editorials and reviews might lead one to believe. Dr Papadopoulous, likewise, reminds readers of the Home Office report that it is normal for children to experiment with their sexuality. And yet the automatic conflation of all sexual images and ideas with misogyny by media outlets reporting these pieces of research is evidence of a dangerous trend in contemporary thought: the idea that women and girls need to be protected from any and all sexual images and tropes for the good of our moral health. The notion that young women have no sexual agency of their own: we can only ever be 'sexualised'.

Young women and girls are blamed for their concessions to misogynist, 'pornified' sexual culture even as we are told that we're so thick we can't help but be complicit. Apparently, there is no middle ground between being an independent, dynamic young thing who makes joyful millions selling her body and the subsequent book-deal, and a cringing, broken victim of porn culture crying tears of shame into her cleavage. Elements of this binary thinking reinforce a stereotype which is just as damaging to young women as the 'happy hooker' fantasy beloved by bourgeois filmmakers. As the furore over 'raunch culture' escalates, all this baby-boomer moral hand-wringing is beginning to sound less like radicalism and more like priggishness. It's sounding less like genuine concern, and more like good old-fashioned slut-shaming.

I'm not arguing that raunch culture does not hurt young women. It hurts us deeply. It encourages us to lessen, cheapen and diminish ourselves, to think of ourselves as vehicles for the sexual appreciation of men who still hold economic sway over our lives. It makes us understand that what we look like is as important or more important than what we do, whether we're lap-dancers, librarians or lazy-ass freelance journalists like me. It warps our understanding of power, intimacy and desire and urges us to starve and torture our bodies and neglect our intelligence. It sells us a fake, plasticised image of empowerment that, for most of us, is deeply disempowering - as many wealthy and powerful middle-aged men and women have recently observed.

I am not asking for us to pretend that raunch culture is unproblematic, or that it's uncomplicatedly fun to be a Southend lap dancer. I am asking for honesty. I am asking for an analysis that is more rigorous, more grounded in an understanding of the gendered basis of capital, an analysis that is less focused on recalcitrant sexual morality. I am asking for an analysis that addresses itself to young men, who also consume and are affected by the brutally identikit heterosexual consensus. Most importantly, I want a consensus that actually gives a voice to young women, not just those who work as strippers or glamour models, but all young women and girls growing up in a culture steeped in this grinding, monotonous, deodorised sexual dialectic.

Recommendations that sexual images in advertising and music videos should be censored or age-restricted and the associated notion that all sexual messages are inherently damaging to women assume that our current plasticised, heteronormative, restricted social vision of female sexuality is in some way normal. It's far from normal. Our sexual culture isn't the logical conclusion of social libertinism: it's specific, it's deeply weird and it isn't, actually, all that permissive. Commentators, including feminist thinkers, are making the dangerously recalcitrant assumption that any sexually explicit culture is automatically misogynist, and that rather than working to challenge the sexual consensus, we should simply prevent women and children from coming into contact with it.

Censorship should never be an alternative to challenging the roots of patriarchy. Instead of slapping a blanket ban on pictures of tits, we need to look harder at the economic basis for sexual exploitation and at the reasons why many women make the choice to comply with raunch culture. Today's young women are neither soulless slags nor tragic victims: we are real people with real desires and real agency, trying to negotiate our personal and sexual identities in a culture whose socio-economic misogyny runs far deeper than conservative commentators would have us believe.


  1. My advice would be to turn off MTV.

    Your conclusion seems quite weak and doesn't really add anything to the debate. You have regurgitated some recent hysterical waffle to no end. You've obviously thought about it and to write about it fits your agenda but it seems like you used this as an excuse to remind us of our cultures deep running "socio-economic misogyny". I think you would serve your agenda better by qualifying this statement rather than presenting it as fact. Perhaps you can qualify it in the context of "raunch culture".

    One other thing, your use of the term "slut" at the beginning seems quite offensive. It comes across as this being your opinion of modern women but then later you seem quite abhorred by "slut-shaming". I think the sarcasm of the first paragraph is a little too subtle and doesn't really become apparent until the last line.

  2. Laurie, I'll just post what I've said over at LibCon:

    Commentators, including feminist thinkers, are making the dangerously recalcitrant assumption that any sexually explicit culture is automatically misogynist, and that rather than working to challenge the sexual consensus, we should simply prevent women and children from coming into contact with it.

    Well, that’s exactly what happened back in the 1980s in both the US and the UK, thanks to a toxic combination of Dworkin and Mackinnon’s anti-porn feminism, and the Reagan/Thatcher New Right. The former repeatedly conflated the sexism of porn with its sexual explicitness, and now it looks like the same mistake is about to made all over again by a new generation (along with the feminists who made that mistake last time and have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing in the meantime). Moreover, it may also be the case that sexual choices are not simply some sub-category of feminist struggle (a woman’s right to her own sexual choices is the issue, not what she chooses to do by way of sex). Throwing restrictive legislation at the problem – a typical Home Office strategy, let alone a New Labour one – makes it impossible for those women who either want to be honest, or to challenge the status quo (e.g. by producing ‘feminist porn’).


  3. Hmmm. I'm not sure that objecting to exploitative or damaging images and practices of sexuality amounts to a claim that there is no other sexuality for women. The vast majority of female sexualisation, whether active or passive, is in the cultural mould of the sex industry, and I think it's ok to object to that without necessarily implying that there is no other form of female sexuality.

    Yes, debate should address where this stuff is coming from, and yes, it should address male behaviour, which, as in rape and domestic violence seems too often to be excused from the discussion. If Linda P wants to do some good, she should be looking at where these aspects of male behaviour come from.

    I'm not sure I completely buy the argument that outlawing hate-speech counts as censorship, or at least that it is anywhere near as objectionable as censorship per se. One has to balance freedom of expression on the one hand, against freedom from harm on the other. Where images of female sexuality are harmful to women, should we not be protected from it? Or does the right to publicly objectify, slag off and misrepresent women's sexuality by distorting what is perceived as the norm over-ride that?

    Though I'd agree with you on the vicious and outdated moral posturing, there is a valid point in there. If you sell yourself cheap (or in sex, if you sell yourself at all), you drive down the value of everyone else. And that is not an ethically defensible stance, any more than attempting to exploit another for sexual (or financial) gain.

  4. Where to find a why to this dilemma is as Capitalist Spectacle. You become what from where the market leads you.
    But worse than this and coldly blatant is how far this culture goes in Japan. From Kawaii to Maids to Otaku to porn industry to rape which isn't reported because it would upset the Patriarchal system of family.
    What is to be done is to end Capitalism, promote class struggle... You know, same old lines.
    If I can add, A Feminist is a Person who is concerned about Human Rights!

  5. Yes - hello kitty - the harbinger of paternal-capitalist destruction.
    Anyway, I accept that the figure of 10,000 sexual assaults a year in Japan (compared to 50,000 in Eng/Wales) is likely to be the result of massive under-reporting, but I don`t think you can rightly represent Japan as some kind of debauched, rapists paradise, either.
    In respects to other violent crime japan has between 1/3 (murder Eng: 1.3/100,000 Jap: 0.9/100,000) to 99% (robbery Eng: 500/100,000 Jap: 5/100,000) less crime than the UK, so it's surely not too much of a stretch to imagine that some amount of the lower sexual assault figures are the result of sexual assault being less likely in Japan than in Britain.

    So, really James - what are you talking about?

    Also, capitalism allows you to make a living away from your family/neighbours, in a rather anonymous system under which sexual exploitation is less likely than others.
    Or maybe it's all the culture thing.

  6. "I'm not sure that objecting to exploitative or damaging images and practices of sexuality amounts to a claim that there is no other sexuality for women."

    That's it, right there. Until we recognize that the current model of sexuality is not the only one possible, any attack on it's harmful aspects will appear as an attack on sex itself, which in turn will appear as an attack on women's sexuality.

  7. "to challenge the status quo (e.g. by producing ‘feminist porn’"

    The fucking revolution will not be televised. It will happen in the invisible places where every rape that could be never becomes.

  8. Why?

    Seriously, why?

    Are you opposed to sarcasm too? (Are you sure you're British?)

    What is it about that post which means it cannot be processed and are you sure that you are applying these rules fairly?

    From my perspective, you genuinely seem to have allowed a very dubious, bordering on racist, factually inaccurate comment, simply because it contains some vague nod to paternalism/ evil capitalism.
    And won't allow the reply... why exactly?

    Please compare and contrast these two sentences;

    The capitalist class exploit workers for their labour and add nothing of value to society. We should remove them from that position.

    The disabled are a drain on society and add nothing of value to society. We should stop supporting them.


    Japanese society represents the worst excesses of paterno-capitalism - under the aegis of the Japanese father-figure women are exploited at every turn.

    British society, represents the failure of liberal immigration and social policies. Sex obsessed, pedo-hunting, crime rising, trust nowhere to be found, educational standards in the dustbin.

    If you'd stop the second one, but not the first, you really need to change your comments policy to -

    "Please do not make any comments which fall outside of conventional left-wing/liberal orthodoxy as I may find them offensive. Also, try to phrase things in such a way as too appear progressive even if you're spouting the most reactionary bilge possible. Thankyou."

  9. @beyondfeminism I think I disagree. The problem in combatting current damaging models of female sexuality is not that "we" don't recognise any other model, but that the people we are trying to talk to fail to recognise it. Even when one puts it quite explicitly to them.

    I think it's a shame that this exact dynamic appears in Penny's article - I think she would call herself a feminist, yet she falls into this exact same trap, while in the same breath acknowledging alternative models. Maybe you were right to say "we", in the interests of including our host. Or maybe this was just a pot-boiler for her.

  10. "Sex obsessed, pedo-hunting, crime rising, trust nowhere to be found, educational standards in the dustbin."

    Crime's been falling for 15 years in Britain, and in most other countries.

    As for education: things are not so bad either.

    On maths tests at age 9 and 13, English children score ahead of those of most countries, including the US, Australia, every European country except Hungary...

    England is the country in which the scores are most improved since 1995 (at age 9), and our scores have greatly improved at age 13 as well.

    Exactly the same is found for science and general intelligence tests. In all tests, English kids score extremely well and have improved greatly over the past 12 years.

  11. I like your idea that much of the moral panic over sexualisation of women comes from the deep set notion that women basically are non-sexual. I have been trying desperately to fight this assumption in the gay community for years.

    I do also like your idea, which I have been trying to get through to the matriarchy, that if men are not addressed and included in these debates, they cannot develop beyond ideas and concepts of masculinity that are equally regressive. Behind every stereotype of a blonde bimbo there is an equally regressive stereotype of a dumb strongbow. The current series of scandals over soccer players to me displays much of this - the idea of men as fundamentally dumb and unable to control their sexuality, and women as passive or calculating bitches.

    In this context, redpesto is correct, as the fear of sexuality of 2nd wave feminism effectively ends up colluding with right-wing moral panic in order to oppress women further. The current outspilling of this is the weird combination of blatant social discrimination that still exists against transexual women matched up with the special level of vitriolic hate for transsexual women within lesbian feminism, which regards transwomen as men appropriating femaleness. I feel this happens not merely because of gut level hatred, but because there is still a strong matriarchy of 2nd wave radical feminists in that movement who, unconsciously accepting the concept of women as fundamentally non-sexual, saw it as a "choice" to adopt women as partners.

    In my homosexualist viewpoint, I am deeply uncomfortable with the gay community being infested with women who are not there because they are driven by sexual desire, but by political choice. Ironically, the increasing sexualisation within that community since the late 1990s has to some extent driven back the tight-arsed school-marmish element who do not wish to see open sexualisation, even by women for women.
    Perhaps a part of the problem is that almost any even marginally seuxal image of "femininity" is regarded as being a male concept of what a women should be like. Therefore any kind of expression of raw feminity is regarded as even sop to patriarchy or a dangerous threat to moral order.

  12. First, I want to say that I'm a fan of your writing, your feminism and your bravery, Laurie. Second, though, I think this article is disappointingly muddled. Implying, as you repeatedly do, that feminist writers are guilty of slut-shaming and thinking of all young women as 'thick', is quite a serious allegation. Surely it requires some substantiation; but there's not even a single quote.

    I'm not asking for evidence as a way of derailing your argument; I just think you're attacking an imaginary enemy. I don't see the Walterses and Papadopouloses of this world assuming that young women are thick, I see them - rightly - saying that having publications as genuinely misogynist and exploitative as Nuts and Zoo in your face every time you go in the newsagent is not a great esteem-booster for pre-teen girls.

    As Dandelion says, you're absolutely right that we need to look at male behaviour. But why not propose your own critique?

    The voices pointing out how damaging our pornified (why the inverted commas?) society is are currently drowned out in the mainstream by the huge roar of response along the lines of 'it's just TITS! I like looking at tits, what's wrong with that?' By suggesting that, in fact, feminism's entire response is to propose banning pictures of tits, you seem to me to be accepting and promoting their wilful misunderstanding of legitimate objections.

  13. A related, and perhaps a lot more fundamental, topic was discussed at where the conclusion was that greater social equality is the answer to sexual tension. Clearly, less inequality leads to less gender instinct exploitation.

  14. 'Censorship should never be an alternative to challenging the roots of patriarchy.'

    Quite. It is not, in my eyes, better to censor images that glorify this sex-culture, but to hold it up in the light of day and speak: 'Why do you think this objectification is normal in the first place?'

  15. Mark: I'm getting sick of deleting comments full of your whining about my deleting your comments. It's very boring. I don't care if you disagree with my decision, it's my blog, I'll delete what I like. Any responses to this will also be deleted. Thanks.

  16. I was looking forward to you engaging Finisterre's comment in earnest before you wrote an article like the Samosa one.

    "Implying, as you repeatedly do, that feminist writers are guilty of slut-shaming and thinking of all young women as 'thick', is quite a serious allegation. Surely it requires some substantiation; but there's not even a single quote."

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