Wednesday 31 March 2010

A small wobble

As those with the dubious good fortune of knowing me in the meatspace will be aware: I'm writing a book. Specifically, I've signed a contract to write a short book for Zero [the fine people who produced Militant Modernism and One Dimensional Woman] which I need to hand in by June. It's going to be called Generation Square, and it's about all the people who were mean to me at school hipsters the deliberate cultural and social impoverishment of Generation Y. About the way in which our futures have been bartered, what the first stages of that bartering have done to us as a generation, and the way in which that process differs from the way every cohort of powerful adults sells out its children.

If I disappear off the radar for a few weeks in April, this will be why. Currently I'm totally paralysed and spending a great deal of time sitting in front of the ricomputer going fucksticks and arsebiscuits I'm in no way knowledgeable or mature enough to write a book. I'm a little bit panicky, too, because this book is Not Specifically About Gender. I'm not an academic, I'm still pretty young, and I routinely overuse the tricolon as a rhetorical device. But, in the slim chance that it does get published and doesn't suck, I'd very much like to count on the support of people who read this blog -for editing help, thrashing out ideas and maybe, eventually, buying a copy so that I can afford to keep my boyfriend in gin and ribbons.

There, I've now put it on the blog, so it's real and I have to write it. In other news, the Lib Dems are finally being sensible about the Digital Economy Farce. Between this, the Real Women campaign and the fact that our local Labour candidate is a tubthumping Eurosceptic, they'll probably have my vote.

Saturday 27 March 2010

The Sex Work Shibboleth

For feminists, arguments about sex work have become an ugly, obstructive shibboleth. The debate about whether feminism can ever tolerate the sale of sex has raged for over five decades, and in recent years the question has opened old wounds in the fabric of feminist unity, leading to such embarrassing flashpoints as the verbal abuse and police intimidation of sex workers and their allies at the Reclaim the Night march in 2009.

Many feminists, like Finn MacKay of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution, feel that the purchase of sex from women is always and only misogyny: “Equality for women is a farce in a society where it is considered normal for men to buy our bodies.

“We can't be free while so many of us are literally for sale. As long as I believe prostitution is a form of violence against women, then how can I work alongside anyone who promotes it as a job like any other?”

A Moral Quarrel

Furious debate about sex work and pornography dominated the discussion at the recent Women’s Question Time event in London, organised by the charity Eaves, where feminists were invited to put questions to prospective Women's ministers in the run-up to the General Election.

Pandora Blake, a feminist sex worker, attended the event. “I hadn't realised quite how aggressively hostile most of my sisters are to my ideals,” she said. “It’s worrying that so many of the best female politicians seem unable to see nuance when it comes to the sex industry".

At this event, like so many others, issues such as abortion rights and the pay gap were elbowed out in favour of monolithic tub-thumping about sex work that played out a worrying tendency on the part of contemporary feminists to moralise rather than strategise.

On the other side of the debate, many pro-sex work feminists believe that the protection of sex workers should be the only consideration.

“Criminalisation of kerb-crawling, to take one example, is harmful to sex workers because ultimately they are the ones who suffer,” said Nine, a former support worker for Edinburgh prostitutes. “Sex workers who still need to make their money are faced with doing business with clients they would ordinarily have rejected. It concerns me greatly that the mainstream feminist movement refuses to look at the harmful effect of laws like these, which they support simply in the name of sending a message to men.”

Giving space to abusers

Unfortunately, tolerant attitudes such as Nine’s are too often manipulated by patriarchal apologists concerned with maintaining a status quo that constrains and commodifies female sexuality. Easy examples of such apologism can be found on the popular networking site for johns, Punternet, which rates and reviews prostitutes as ‘pieces of meat’. Worryingly, the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) recently recruited on the site, encouraging punters to write to their MPs to safeguard their favourite hobby.

If the exclusionary tactics of abolitionist feminists are unsound, the unscrupulous attitudes of organisations like the IUSW are hardly more laudable. The attitude that abusive punters are an inevitability, and the related reasoning that one cannot fight the misogynist meat market, hardly offers an answer to people like Rebecca Mott, a former prostitute and abolitionist activist:

“The torment of being prostituted has never left me. On the first night, when I was fourteen, I was gang-raped for many hours. That was the test to see if I was suitable material for prostitution. You learn that your body is there to be damaged. That you have no right to say no. That your purpose is to service men in any and every way they can think of. It is so much easier to speak only of women who appear in charge of their own working environment, rather than the reality.”

Too often, the pro-prostitution lobby is guilty of silencing the voices of women like Mott – just as the abolitionist lobby refuses to acknowledge sex workers whose experiences differ. The sex work debate is a sea of unheard voices, private tragedy and misinformation in which moral squabbling obscures the real-life concerns of many vulnerable women.

A legal no man’s land

The net result of all this wrangling is that the legal status of sex work remains an unworkable, precarious Jenga tower of muddled laws and moral equivocation. Recent changes to the law in Britain have altered that situation very little. Welcome efforts to focus police attention on those who buy the sexual services of abused women, such as Clause 14, which makes it a criminal offence to buy sex from ‘a woman controlled for gain’, has been balanced by more regressive and punitive sanctions against soliciting.

In Britain, as in many other developed countries, women who work as prostitutes are stranded in a socio-economic no man’s land, their work just about legal enough to offer a seedy but acceptable outlet for restrained bourgeois sexual mores and an economic option for women in desperate financial circumstances, and just about illegal enough that the market for commercial sex remains illicit and underground, depriving sex workers of public dignity and of the full protection of the justice system, and satisfying the prudish public drive to punish those who sell sex.

Amongst all of this moralising, misogynist apologism and equivocation, it is stupendously difficult to have a productive conversation about sex work. “There are very few spaces in which feminists with different perspectives on this issue get together and talk about it and find points to agree on,” said Nine. “There frequently isn't even room for debate at all, just point-scoring and shouting over people.”

The stagnation of the sex work debate around a brutal moral binary can be seen as the greatest extant danger to the future of feminism, particularly if one believes, as I do, that if we all stopped shouting at each other for a while we could hold the revolution tomorrow.

Belle De Jour: a misleading cipher

The keenest example of this unimaginative binary thinking is the Belle de Jour problem. Dr Brooke Magnanti of Bristol was recently forced to out herself as the former PhD student and prostitute behind the blog which turned into the book which turned into the lucrative, trashily unchallenging ITV adaptation, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, in which Billie Piper wears a variety of rump-revealing latex dresses and does a lot of heavy breathing.

The show, now in its third series, has become the dominant vehicle for the Belle De Jour meme, stripping out everything that was realistic and challenging about Dr Magnanti's blog and leaving a deodorised husk of middle-class male fantasy in which a massively undercast Piper perkily advises the audience to “'work out what the client wants, and give it to him as quickly as possible”.'

Feminists have justly denounced the show as duplicitous, portraying sex work as entirely safe, glamorous and lucrative for all those prepared to devote themselves entirely to the sexual service of rich men. However, commentators from Kira Cochrane to India Knight have failed to notice that Secret Diary of a Call Girl is ITV's convenient fiction, and not Dr Magnanti's reality.

Dr Magnanti herself was working in the elite eschelons of the sex trade, with no pimp or drug habit to worry about, but even so, critics have failed to notice that the show bears about as much resemblance to the blog as Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves might bear to the life of a medieval peasant.

Poor Dr Magnanti. All she wanted was to develop her writing and discuss her experiences. Instead, she has been distorted, idolised, victimised and vilified by anyone and everyone with a barrel to beat about prostitution. From glamorous courtesan to tragic victim, it’s not just Belle's body that can be bent into any position you fancy.

The one thing that almost no-one has asked is why a PhD student might find herself selling sexual intercourse to fund her studies in the first place. Commentators are slow to connect Belle with a bankrupt higher education system in which indebted students routinely live well below the poverty line to afford the degrees their future employers increasingly demand. Just last week, a report by Kingston University suggested that since the abolition of the student grant, the number of students funding their degrees by working as prostitutes and strippers has increased fivefold. Basic socio-economic analysis of this kind is what is missing from both sides of the contemporary conversation about prostitution.

There is a trench of faff and fighting at the core of the sex work debate where a rigorous analysis of work and capital should be. Sex work is an economic question, not a moral one: in a world where shame and sexual violence are still hard currency, the normalisation of the sex industry is a symptom not of social degeneration, but of the economic exploitation of women on an unprecedented scale, in a feminised labour market where all working women are expected to commodify their sexuality to some extent.

Nothing obscures this crucial approach so much as the dogmatic insistence, on both sides of the debate, on the primacy of a faux-feminist notion of ‘choice’.

With sex work, as with many other feminist flashpoints, the notion of ‘a woman’s free choice’ is fetishised and taken out of context in order to obscure useful analysis. The word ‘choice’ has been manipulated by the neoliberal consensus in order to erase the influence of brutal capitalist paradigms on the deeds and decisions of poor people, and of poor women in particular.

Liberated sex workers insist that their work is ‘a free choice’, whilst abolitionists and many exited sex workers claim that prostitutes suffer such abuses that the very notion of ‘choice’ is anathema. The term has already been devalued by wider society to the extent that any sexual choice made by a woman is assumed to be an empowering act of autonomous agency – especially when the net result of that choice is financial exchange.

Abolitionist feminists unwittingly play into this misleading rhetoric of ‘choice’ with their insistence that women in the sex industry have none, that, as Finn Mackay puts it, ‘prostitution is non-consensual sex’ - as if choice and consent are ever enough to justify industrial abuse. As if choice were something made in a vacuum, unconstrained by socio-economic conditions.

The underlying assumption of this analytical cul-de-sac - that any woman’s sexual choice, however restricted, is positive and empowering - could only have currency in a world where female sexual agency is still seen as abnormal.

Decriminalisation: a way forward?

The supreme irony of this sociological stalemate is that, on many counts, the ultimate goals of pro-protection and abolitionist feminists are one and the same. Both camps, for example, believe that women and men who sell sex should not face legal sanctions, and both factions understand that the persecution of prostitutes by law enforcement officers is a form of state violence against women that needs to be eradicated as a matter of urgency.

But achievable aims like these are sidelined by partisan squabbling. So intense was the debate around Clause 14 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that practically no opposition was brooked against other, more directly damaging clauses of the Bill, such as those that gave police greater powers to raid brothels and confiscate any earnings found on the premises. “Women are being turfed out onto the street in their scanties,” observed feminist academic Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon. “Does anyone have an answer to this?”

Even in this bitter debate, however, occasions for hope do occur. A recent collaboration on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog between Thierry Schaffauser of the IUSW and Cath Elliott concluded that feminists should work together on decriminalisation:

“While we've all been busy arguing over other things, those most in need of our help continue to suffer violence. We believe the criminalisation of sex workers/prostitutes helps to legitimise those who attack them. Criminalisation of soliciting is a sexist law.”

Ultimately, all feminists believe that vulnerable women need to be protected from abuse, violence and stigma, and all true liberals oppose cultures that brutally shame and commodify female sexuality. If our goals are to be realised, the sex work shibboleth must be broken. Feminists need to put aside ideological differences and work towards a radical restructuring of neoliberal attitudes to sex, to work and to sex work.

It is not enough to seek to criminalise prostitution at the expense of vulnerable women, and neither is it enough to cede responsibility to misogynist market forces and offer protection within an imperfect, abusive sex industry as the only realistic alternative.

If we want a world where women’s bodies are more than just commodities, feminists need to get radical, we need to get smart, and we need to be prepared to lay down our weapons and take the fight to the real enemies. If we stop fighting each other and turn our energies on the pimps, the abusers and the superstructure of misogynist free-market capitalism, there are exhilarating victories to be won.

This article was published at The Samosa on the 25th of March, 2010.

Thursday 25 March 2010

'What I have most wanted to do… is to make political writing into an art.'

In thumpingly exciting news, this blog has been nominated for The Orwell Prize 2010. Gosh.

I don't know quite what else to say. It's a massive, massive honour to be on the Longlist. I've been muddlesomely practicing making political writing into an art with this blog, but it's quite to shock to discover that I may have been objectively getting it right, at my age. I don't expect to be shortlisted, this is more than enough of an accolade.

Also nominated are Hopi Sen (who deserves to win), Iain Dale, Dave's Part, Jack of Kent, Mary Beard, Political Betting, some Proper Journalists (Tim Marshall, Gideon Rachman, David Smith) some Anonymous Real People (PC Bloggs, 'Ray' and Winston Smith) and the awesome Madam Miaow, upon whom I harbour a lingering crush.

Well, that's cheered me right up. It's been a long time since I've had a prize for anything. I'd forgotten how nice it is, having a little prize, which does make me feel like a bad grumpy socialist. But if anything, there's too much imposed scarcity around this sort of acknowledgment, making people compete when they should be celebrating each other.

If I ran the country, everyone would be entitled to at least one prize a year. They could fill in what they deserved it for most. You could have a prize for getting over a bad break-up without getting trashed and making a scene, or a prize for living in a grotty part of London, or a prize for looking after your mum when she was ill. But then I want to run away to a world of Smart Happy Socialism, where the state's main role is to reward people for getting through their lives. Anyone want to join me?

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Ada Lovelace and the Digital Economy Bill.

I wrote an article for New Statesman online, all about the Digital Economy Bill and creativity. I'm pleased with it. Customers who enjoyed Penny Red on cultural capital also selected Simon Indelicate at Indieoma.

There's lots more to say, but I'm heading off to the demo now and have to answer emails and pack a protest bag (chocolate bar, phone, fags, declaration of my rights in the event of police resistance, wet wipes). If you're not able to come along too, please write to your MP, via the excellent 38 degrees, and ask them not to rush the recalcitrant Digital Economy Bill through parliament.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, the day when bloggers celebrate the technological and scientific achievements of women. So today, I am going to the protest in honour of all the amazing female bloggers I have met over the past three years, and in celebration of the 21st-century feminist revival that has been driven by the internet. As a woman and a feminist, I am appalled that laws are being tabled that threaten many of these women with disconnection from the source of energy and inspiration that has given me, along with so many millions of others, a renewed political awareness and a visceral sense of sisterhood and solidarity. I have no doubt that if Ada Lovelace were living today, she would be appalled, too.

Because of the internet, I know that I am not alone. Because I have the privilege to use the internet and exploit the technology that defines my generation, I know that I am not the only one who's angry, that there are thousands of women out there who want to rip up the rulebook of violent patriarchal capitalism and start all over again. This Bill threatens the new feminism, just as it threatens the resurgence of the left across the world. And I will resist attempts to control the netroots until my last breath. See you on the demo. x

Saturday 20 March 2010

A state-sponsored book-burning parade.

For months, my head has been jammed with anger and ideas about the Digital Economy Bill that's in the last stages of being rushed through parliament. I keep meaning to discuss it on this blog, and I haven't. Not because I don't care - actually, this piece of legislation offends me personally and politically more than anything Labour have done since they took us into Iraq - but because I care so profoundly that I don't think anything I can say can really do it justice. Pathetically, I'm also a bit intimidated by the volume of clever stuff that's been already been said about corporate copyright protection, and I'm scared that if I try to express how I feel I'll reveal myself as a Stupid Shouty Girl who Doesn't Understand. But I've got to at least acknowledge that this matters to me. It matters because the Digital Economy Bill is one of the most significant assaults on human rights that Labour has managed to execute in its twelve-year trigger-happy showdown with British civil liberties.

Today's open letter from a group of MPs, bloggers, musicians and members of the Featured Artists association [including Anthony Barnett of Open Democracy, Billy Bragg and The Indelicates] is a reserved shot of the sheer indignance that many internet users are feeling this week:

Many of us believe that the Digital Economy Bill threatens to severely infringe fundamental human rights, by allowing the disconnection of internet accounts for alleged copyright infringement, and also by new 'website blocking' laws that could result in new ways to suppress free speech and legitimate activity...Last week, Harriet Harman MP failed to give the commons any reassurances that this important, complex and controversial Bill will be properly scrutinised by our elected MPs. Democracy and accountability will be sidestepped if this bill is rushed through and amended without debate during the so-called 'wash-up' process.

The best blog analysis on the Bill that I've read recently has been helen's post at Police State UK, 'The Chilling Effect', explaining the recent amendments and why the actual sanctions proposed against people sharing files for free online are only part of the problem. Suppression of free speech isn't just about direct censorship - it's about creating a climate of cultural orthodoxy in which certain ways of behaving and sharing information are suspect, and then putting power in the hands of intermediary regulating authorities [ISPs, for example] to enforce that suspicion.

The Digital Economy Bill is altogether a larger and more dangerous assault on liberty than its individual clauses would suggest. What really frightens me about the government's corporate copyright protection movement is the casual, sneering manipulation of neoliberal dialectic: talking about 'safeguarding businesses', when clamping down on personal internet freedoms will endanger small entrepreneurial partnerships and cottage creative industries. Talking about 'protecting creative industries', when it's clear, as Bragg told Panorama last night, that "the music industry is thriving. It's the record industry that's in trouble."

This is a vile, vituperative piece of legislation, driven by corporate lobbyists and blithely ignoring public interest. It's a Faustian pact between a dying government and antique, anti-innovatory music and publishing industries who are as terrified now as manufacturers of illuminated manuscripts were in 1455 when they got their hands on the Gutenberg Bible and saw the page turning on a world of easily-exchanged ideas that they could not monetise or control. And just like today, the backlash was vicious, because of easy deal-brokering between communications merchants keen to control how people spent their money and state authorities keen to control people's access to ideas and information.

It's not just the fact that the Digital Economy Bill will criminalise young people, that this law has been written by people who mistrust and misunderstand the internet in order to punish those whose economic and cultural world has been formed by it. It's not just about the collision between information that wants to be free and information that others want to be expensive. It's about a cold and calculated assault on the forming paradigms of my generation, a final statement by a crippled and expiring Labour government that big business being free to make money at the expense of everyone else is the only thing that matters - more than the lives and livelihoods of individuals, more than artistic expression, more than the long-term socio-economic future of this or any other nation.

Because much as the Digital Economy Bill is Mandelson's terrible lovechild, collusion by frontbench Tories and Lib Dem Peers gives the lie to the idea that this is simply a Wicked Labour Scheme. It's not even a trend that's unique to Britain. Across the West, governments are moving to restrict the access of their citizens to unpaid content on the web, creating blacklists and gifting themselves with the power to cut people off from the syncretic world of high-speed information exchange at the slightest provocation. Future generations will look at campaigns like these in the same way that we think about fascist book-burning parades.

On Wednesday, there's going to be a demo in Westminster. Hope to see some of you London-centric folks there.

Thursday 18 March 2010

How a protest should be.

The anti-objectification protest outside the Miss University London beauty pageant finals on Tuesday was the sort of event you really only see in arthouse films set to a soaring indie soundtrack. A samba band joined us, and the whole thing turned into a glorious street party, with people from the area coming in to dance and stamp and join in. With chants that sounded like we'd practiced with the musicians for hours. The police were called in to disperse us, and the frigid-looking princes and princesses waiting for entry to the club were terribly peeved, which was fantastic, because winding up boring hipsters is amongst the more wholesome of my private passions.

The full report is here, on Counterfire
, with videos of us all dancing and screaming and acting like the sort of idiots who don't understand that the market loves misogyny and there's nothing you can do about it. The idiot you can hear shouting in the first video is me, and the words I'm yelling are: That's not what empowerment looks like - This is what empowerment looks like!

When the Miss World pageant came to London in 1970, second-wave feminists were there, trying to resist the deliberate commercial alienation of women from our own bodies. Forty years later, feminists are still here, we're still organising, and we're still angry that brilliant young women with everything ahead of them are routinely duped by corporate whorebags into letting themselves be weighed like pieces of meat and judged in their swimsuits in the name of perky fun and money for the middle-man. The placards are new, but the injustice is the same. The difference is that this year, we had men standing alongside us, refusing to have their sexuality poached and sold back to them, resisting this antique symbol of the objectification industries' assault on their sisters' self-esteem.

My favourite part was when a couple of the attending hipsters stood behind us and loudly enumerated which of us they would and wouldn't consider putting their dicks into, and called us all 'ugly'. Funnily enough, I always get called ugly when I misbehave. Some things never change.

Friday 12 March 2010

This is very interesting.

I can absolutely understand why many people around my age don't want to vote in the upcoming elections, as long as they can understand why they deserve a smack and a dose of Susan B Anthony: suffrage is the pivotal right. If you opt out of the one effort that makes you a relevant civic entity, you have forfeited your right to complain about anything the government does, and you have betrayed all the other young people who do want the right to be heard. Generations of suffragettes, civil rights protesters and trades unionists did not fight and die so that you could sit on the sofa thinking about how the government never listens to you.

But if you're stil parrotting the line that voting doesn't make a difference and politicians are all the same - implying that you've never actually looked too hard at John Redwood- there is now an alternative. You can give your vote to someone who does care, someone in another country affected by Britain's policies on trade sanctions, climate change and military interventionism, someone who doesn't have a voice in these elections, but who just might deserve one. No, really.

The Give Your Vote campaign is one of the maddest, most mind-boggling, most potentially revolutionary ideas to come out of the internet age in Britain so far. The concept is simple: if you don't see the point of using your vote yourself, as is the case for many Disaffected Yoofs, then you can sign up to recieve notification of how one real person in Ghana, Bangladesh or Afghanistan would vote in your place, if they could. And then you get off your arse and you cast that vote. Due to launch on Monday, this drive to combat voter apathy and build international solidarity has already gained several hundred Facebook followers, many of whom appear to be more than caps-happy flamewar faff-merchants, and several of whom have already pledged to donate their unused votes to people in developing countries whose livelihoods, homes and families have been imperilled by the decisions of British governments.

The scheme seems to be surprisingly thought through, with manifestos and focus groups in each of the target countries and an open-source system based on the efforts of volunteers to co-ordinate the proxy votes on election day. I spoke to the Give Your Vote campaigns organiser, May Abdalla, who is evangelical about creating a climate of global democratic involvement in an age where politics is disconnected from the reality of young people's lives:

"The internet means we can conceptualise communities that aren't just geographical, and start imagining democracy that isn't just limited to within borders," she said. "Young people understand that our 'neighborhood' is now global, but the campaign is aimed at everyone who feels passionately that people should be allowed to be part of the decisions that affect them. And we're not the first to have this idea. During the US election, people started questioning the breadth of US influence; when we see so many so-called international organisations dominated by a few countries, whilst at the same time 'democracy' is held up as something so valuable that our country will fight for another nation to get it, we have to question how there can be real responsibilty in their actions if those they affect can't hold them to account."

"Give Your Vote is the mobilising of a transnational civil society through new media," Abdalla explained. "People in Ghana and Bangladesh have respnded so well to the idea that they can represent themselves, rather than acting through an NGO that has its own objectives or requirements. The internet has a capacity to be used as a democratising force - because we can allow that diversity of opinions without the need for gatekeepers and be active in that process."

All very sweet and utopian. But aren't they worried about being slung in jail for electoral fraud? "It's entirely legal, because we are not forcing anyone to vote in a particular way - jut encouraging them to allow others to use their vote as a platform," explained Abdalla. "Anyway, David Cameron tells us who to vote for all the time."

Most media outlets I've spoken to have dismissed Give Your Vote as a deranged student movement, and that, more than anything, is what excites me about the scheme. As a rule, any idea that makes nice people from both sides of the bourgeois political spectrum immediately and furiously dismiss you as a mental person generally has currency, because it almost always threatens unexamined orthodoxies. Orthodoxies like geography as the sole organising force for solidarity and fellow feeling. Orthodoxies like the inalienable right of the West to operate for its own profit or pride in the third world without being held to account by citizens of developing countries. Orthodoxies like East and West - them and us - rich and poor.

I will not be taking part directly, because I'm already planning to use my own vote to assist one of the liberal PPCs in Leyton and Wanstead. But if you're not planning to vote yourself, I absolutely encourage you to sign up to the Give Your Vote scheme. If you can't be arsed to tick one box once every five years to hold your government to account, you now no longer have the option of whinging that it won't make any difference, because if even a few hundred votes can be cast by proxy in this election by people in countries affected by British policymaking, that will send an important message about international solidarity. I say this as a British patriot - yes, I'm on the left, and I'm a patriot and I'm proud, a patriot who believes in no borders. I love the British, and I also love my planet, and I believe that global thinking and global policymaking are the only paradigms that will count in a world that is increasingly connected, facing more and more problems that cross international borders, and approaching the singularity threshold. I believe in an international struggle for the liberation of workers, of women, of the disposessed. And lots of other young people believe in it, too.

The Give Your Vote scheme is exciting because it's a whole new way of thinking about politics and online democracy, and that's frightening for the old people who are currently sitting on all the power and all the money in this country. It's frightening enough that this time round, Give Your Vote's impact will remain small, and they will doubtless be dismissed by everyone as a bunch of idealistic, utopian, lunatic do-gooders, which is precisely what they are. But so were the first suffragettes; so were the early civil rights activists; so were the Diggers, the Levellers, and all the weirdos and fringe gangs in this country and elsewhere who dared to dream of a freer, fairer world.

Most of the people reading this blog only have rights today because someone, tens or hundreds of years ago, had the crazy idea that we deserved them, and was prepared to be dismissed as crazy and hounded as a dangerous freak because of that powerful, paradigm-bended idea. Someone always has to do it first. And maybe, just maybe, this is another one of those first times.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Speech on Body Image for International Women's Day.

I'm still up, so it's still International Women's day. Here's the speech I made at today's launch of the Real Women campaign in Portcullis house, alongside Susie Orbach, which was more than a little intimidating. The campaign aims to bring together people who are working on body image, beauty fashion and feminism into a broader political movement, and has specific policy objectives like kitemarking of heavily airbrushed images in advertising. I wrote this speech in about half an hour, but it came from the heart more than many things that I've had more time to think about.

Hope you enjoy - and Happy International Women's Day

* * *

I understand that I've been invited here to speak to you today because of my experiences with anorexia nervosa when I was younger, and because of my ongoing struggle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. And I welcome that sentiment - too much contemporary policymaking, even good feminist policymaking, talks about young women and to young women without listening to young women.

So, I could talk to you about the deep pain of stuggling to feed oneself. I could talk to you about the years and years I spent fighting the condition, the battle to overcome the cues that even very intelligent young women pick up from parents, peers and the overculture about how young women ought to look and behave. I could tell you about the deep gouges I had to physically slice into my personal paradigm to persuade myself, against every message I was recieving, that it was okay to take up space, that it was okay to have physical and personal flaws, that the actual weight of my humanity as a woman was not repulsive or aberrant, that I did not have to starve myself and punish myself in order to be acceptable. I could tell you how I almost died, how I jeopardised my future and my education, how I broke my family's heart and set an incredibly bad example for my two younger sisters. And I could tell you how a culture that assaults us at every turn with images of impossibly thin, impossibly perfect, impossibly white, impossibly beautiful women made that process of recovery harder and more painful at every turn.

But I don't want to talk about that to the exclusion of all else. You all know, because you've read melodramatic personal stories in the papers, about how anorexia, bulima and other eating disorders work, about the hurt they cause to young women, their families and friends. Much of the rhetoric around eating disorders and hyper-sexualisation seems to patronise or even fetishise young women as impossibly vain, helpless victims who can't even look at one picture of a stick-thin model without rushing to the nearest bog to vomit up their breakfast. It's not that simple, and sensationalisting the victims of this sick culture of airbrushed femininity risks watering down the real message. Focusing on our victimhood risks turning the focus away from where our political energies should be directed - at the narrow coffin of corporate womanhood and the way it inveigles itself into every aspect of our society, at the unassailable market logic of brutal, homogenised, white, heterosexual femininity pushed by as a political obstacle rather than as a fact of life.

Imagine if it were young men whose plasticised, airbrushed, blandly sexual images you saw everywhere around you, imagine if it were young men who were starving themselves, sicknening themselves, neglecting their futures and their studies, paying doctors to butcher their bodies, bleaching their skin to make themselves resemble the relentless consensus of white, hetoronormative corporate gender fascism. Imagine if it were young men who understood that in order to get and keep a job they had to starve and bleach and punish themselves into a sick image of perfection, to literally shrink every aspect of their personhood, imagine if it were men who the market were complicit in erasing. We would be filling the streets in protest. There would be speeches in the House of Commons every day until change came. We would have to acknowledge that this is an issue of political urgency, and not a secret, private shame.

This campaign to get advertisers to label airbrushing is of vital importance. As a socialist I instinctively distrust the politics of symbolism, but this campaign does more than just send a message - it creates a precedent that attacks on women's personhood are political, that body image and beauty fascism are political, and attempts to erase real women and our real lives are something that Westminster should be addressing. When the deputy leader of the party in government is ridiculed for her quite normal appearance in the press, when she is insulted by being nominated for the 'rear of the year' campaign, sending a message that even powerful women can be contextualised and dismissed within a framework of patriarchal sexual and physical judgement, it's time for women in politics to take a stand. It's time for women and men with seniority and influence to take a stand on behalf of the selfhood of the next generation of leaders, politicians, entrepreneurs, homemakers, mothers, athletes and artists. It's time to take a stand, and it starts right here, with a campaign to tell advertisers and others with financial clout that there are things that matter more than money.

Fighting the sick, damaging influence of the corporate imagining of womanhood on the lives of real women might seem like an impossible task. When I've talked about this campaign over the past few weeks, I've been met by a resigned cynicism - you'll never get advertisers to stop selling products off the back of this endless parade of diseased, plastic woman-meat, it would be nice if you could, but you can't fight the market. The autonomous logic of misogynist capitalism can only be resisted at a personal, private level, and if individual girls can't resist it, that means we're not strong enough. I say: bollocks to that. For three reasons.

The first is that we are living in a society which is beginning to analyse the unstoppable logic of free-market identity politics for the first time. Particularly for young people, the recession has allowed us to dare to imagine that the market can't solve all our problems, that it can and should be questioned, that something isn't great just because people are prepared to pay for it.

The second is that there is a new energy for feminist activity. Women are beginning to remember that our failure to have it all and be it all is not a private shame but a political statement- we are beginning to wake up and feel the weight of our chains, some old, some new, and imagine lines of resistance.

And the third reason is quite simple. This is International Women's Day. One hundred years ago, when the first International Women's Day took place, the socialists who convened the conference could not imagine a world where women would be allowed to vote and to participate at all levels of the economy, a world where women would not be the property of their husbands, where we would be able, in most civilised places in the world, to access abortion, contraception and sexual healthcare. Women have won incredible victories in the past century against impossible odds, and today of all days we should remember that those victories are possible. Today of all days we should honour the memories and achievements of our radical foremothers by remembering that it's okay to dream big, that it's okay to demand change that smaller, more frightened people wouldn't even dare to envision, because it's been done before and we can do it again.

That energy of feminist politics, inspired by the example of courageous women from previous decades, is what gave me the courage to recover from anorexia. Choosing to say fuck everything I'd been told about how good little girls should be, choosing to start to live again at the point of collapse, is the hardest thing I will ever have to do in my life, far harder than the small task of changing the world. The energy of feminist politics reminds us that women are powerful, that we are vital, that our political concerns have relevance at the highest levels of government, and that if we stay brave, and stay clever, and remember how far we have come, there's nothing we can't do.

Thank you.


You're not really allowed to say 'Socialist' in the House of Commons, but other than that the speech went down fairly well. I'll be talking more about this campaign as it progresses. Exciting times are ahead :)

Friday 5 March 2010

Let it be known

Point one: I am going to be speaking at the Oxford Radical Forum this Sunday, along with Nina Power, Owen Hatherley, Richard Seymour and other Much Cleverer People. Programme here.

Point two: last night I went to a Chumbawamba gig. It was great, apart from the part where I got slapped in the face by a racist in a massive yellow flak jacket. Lots of screaming from wankered whitepeople to 'play whitewash!!' Band not impressed.

Point three: I am watching Geert Wilders on the news. He looks and talks like a badly-ageing, drunk Draco Malfoy.

Objectification: what if the world were different for a day?

Picture this. You open the newspaper one grey morning, and there in a bright pixel smear on the third page is a full-length photograph of a young man. The young man is almost naked; a flesh-coloured thong clings tightly to his hairless cock and balls; he looks over his shoulder at you, his jaw a perfect masculine square, his dark eyes smouldering. Everywhere, this young man is hard, smooth, impenetrable and yet submissive, wanting you to consume him. You turn the page.

There are more young men on each of the pages that follow, naked or scantily clothed, poreless, flawless, with broad shoulders and rock-hard arses and muscles that bunch and gleam under oiled skin. You are used to the sight of these young men; these days, they hardly even arouse you. Their glassy eyes follow you on public transport, on the internet, on television, in the fashion spreads of magazines.

Picture this. Every one of the men and boys whose images you see repeated thousands of times a day is impossibly perfect, hewn from some arcane piece of rock on the platonic plane. Not one of them is over thirty-three. In the shadow of their hard, robotic masculinity, the possibility of paunches and puppy fat and male-pattern balding is unthinkable . They rarely speak, and when they do speak, they ventriloquise; they implore you to look at them, to understand their silent semiotics of commercial masculinity; they threaten and seduce you in a boring parade of billboards, adverts, music videos.

These men don’t seem to be doing very much. Usually, they are moronically thrusting and jerking around cereal boxes, insurance packages, bottles of shampoo and soap. They seem to beg to be penetrated, but it is they who have invaded your body and brain, as if the images were trying to force themselves out through your skin. Some of them are known to you by name or sobriquet, as singers or actors, or as the sons or lovers of powerful women. They grimace beautifully as they drape their impossible bodies over stages and sets, showing off watches and shoes and beautiful clothing that hangs from their perfect torsos in artful folds and flutters in artificial winds. Their images cluster in everywhere , unseeing, bored, as if they can’t quite decide whether to fuck you or punch you.

You know that it’s not real, of course. You understand vaguely that the real men and boys who pose for these images are almost all on punishing diet and exercise programmes; cocaine and steroid abuse and compulsive weightlifting are endemic in the modelling and media industries.You know that in order to make your body resemble the bodies you see around you you would have to push it to its limits, to the exclusion of all else. And yet the idea occurs to you, almost daily, oozing out of every advertising surface. You see more images of perfect men, on a daily basis, than you meet ordinary men in real life. Your sense of reality, of what gender and beauty and power mean on a day-to-day basis, becomes warped. They are the real men, not you: if you don't look like them, you're not trying hard enough. Other men in your peer group clearly are trying, perhaps not hard enough, but hard enough that they don't seem invisible in this glossy, thrusting semiotic stream of plastic masculinity. So you try harder, too. You start to eat less, go to the gym more, maybe play around with taking some steroids - everyone's doing it, what harm can there be? And maybe you succeed, maybe you don't. At least you're trying. At least you're buying things. Isn't that the point?

You begin to forget what real men look like. Older men, overweight men, plain men, scrawny men seem to shrink and fade as you look past them, unsure how to react to the freakish weight of their humanity. Images of men over thirty-five are such a rarity that when you glimpse real elderly men, they seem obscene, the lines and trappings of years a monstrous deformity. The few much-photographed men who have been permitted to age are known to have undergone extensive, brutal surgical procedures and to spend thousands of dollars a year ‘maintaining’ their appearance. Whatever their age, they all have full heads of hair -male-pattern balding becomes an obscenity, and the hair loss and implant industry is worth billions each year, as is the dangerous and murky skin-lightening industry, because these men aren't just all lean, perfect and young, they're also all white.

The small proportion of images of men from non-white backgrounds features young men who have typically Caucasian features, from height and straightness of hair to pale skin and blue eyes. Airbrushing helps here, too, bleaching faces, hardening the lines of lips and noses and erasing epicanthal folds. The pop-star Kanye West appears on a box of Rogaine looking suspiciously pale, but the firm denies altering his appearance, and the singer is contractually bound to shut his million-dollar mouth and keep on smiling.

Across the country, young boys are caught in this stream of images, and being young, they make the mistake of trying to swim. Young black and asian boys bleach their skin with illegal creams and dyes and turn up at hospital with third-degree burns; young boys of all backgrounds, some as young as five and six, are embarking on diet and exercise regimes to try to look more like their favourite male models, actors and porn stars. Boys of seventeen and eighteen are having surgery on their penises, their pectoral muscles and their faces to make them resemble the ideal. Fully half of teenage boys are on a diet, and some begin to take the process too far, cutting out snacks, then meals, then sustenance altogether. They pump iron for hours everyday, their infant muscles screaming with pain. By the time they arrive at university, one in ten of the best and brightest young boys are already racked by anorexia, bulimia, compulsive exercise and steroid abuse. They drop like flies, and you can do nothing to save them.

But there's more. Something strange is happening to many of the boys who have managed to continue to feed and nourish themselves, the boys you thought were safe. They spend hours in front of mirrors fretting about their appearance, applying make-up, spending money they don't have on clothes that might make them resemble the images they see everywhere around them, the images that everyone knows are false. They stop doing their work, abandon their studies, dumb down their intelligence, desperate to be accepted as that vital thing - handsome. They want you to notice them, they want to be allowed to exist in a culture which only allows them full purchase if they look great, gorgeous, glowing, up for it. They learn to erase their sexual identities. They learn to flirt, to give the impression of putting out, at every opportunity. They learn to be silent. They learn to stick their arses out when an important woman is in the room. They learn to smile.

These young men know that their chances of getting a decent job will be massively improved if they invest time, money and hours of pain and anxiety in their appearance and give an impression of sexual availability. These men want full, whole lives, they want what everyone wants - to be able to walk in the world as human subjects - but they understand that the culture of beauty fascism isn't going to change soon, and that means that they also have to be accepted as physical objects, and for that they need to prove their worth in the relentless economy of white, lean masculine beauty. The plea, on a fundamental level, is a plea to exist. These young men are crying out for truth and understanding, but in an economy built on lies, how can they be expected to fight the tide on their own?

What is the response of the government, of the media to this trend? They say nothing. These silly young boys don't know any better than to copy what they see. And anyway, women have to worry about what they look like too! Granted that it's the men, not the women, who are judged on the basis of their appearance in public life - but then, there are so few men in politics and in business that we're bound to look at them a bit funny, aren't we? It's all in good fun, isn't it?

And so government remains silent, as legions of young men drop out of the system, fail to fulfil their potential or grow up into miserable, half starved adults. It doesn't matter, not really. The men's groups kicking up their silly little boys' protests don't understand the logic of the market. Images of lusty young men sell products - that's all there is to it. Red blooded women like to look at hot young men - and that's evolution, that is, and evolution means never ever changing, and that's all there is to it. And after all, women find it easy to develop individual personalities, unconstrained by silly, masculine, frivolous worries about their bodies. What is it about young men that they can't do the same? Are they defective? They must be. Come on, let's talk about women's problems some more.

[Image via the excellent OddityCollector]