One might be forgiven for thinking the recent rumblings of feminist agitation within the pages of The Guardian signified a progression of some sort. In Moral panic? No. We are resisting the pornification of women, Gail Dines and Julia Long take up arms against the old foe of the 'pornification of culture'. They repeat scripts written by feminists of decades past, “(P)ornification...perpetuate(s) myths of women's unconditional sexual availability and object status, and thus undermine women's rights to sexual autonomy, physical safety and economic and social equality.” This asserted in spite of the fact that women in the West enjoy unparalleled levels of sexual autonomy, control over their fertility, physical safety and economic and social equality. A similar campaign has been hosted on the pages of The Guardian before. That too ended with a live Guardian debate. That one, like this one, was basically a book promotion dressed up as feminist activism. Lets take a step back in time...
On April fools day 2006, media feminist and Guardian regular Madeline Bunting railed against the sexualisation of our public spaces, decorated ubiquitously with female bodies, which to her represented, “another insistent, insidious message of how culture shapes expectations of our sexuality, another reminder of one's own powerlessness to assert other images of sexuality with anything like comparable prominence.” Buntings invective was roused by, amongst other things, a console game advertisement on the sides of UK double decker buses which had instructed those who just happened to glance at it to ‘Paste your girlfriend's white bits here.’ Bunting posited a brief thought experiment, “Imagine: could I have an equivalent number of double deckers trumpeting the message that sex is the magical experience of mutual giving?”, but quickly had a reality check, “Boring ... duh ... The problem about our pervasive cultural sexism is that the debate is tilted all one way.” The piece signalled her allegiance to radical Marxist feminism in the title, Sex Slaves to the Market, and predictably pointed a highly critical finger at that putative symbol of western patriarchy; capitalism. “Pornography is colonising all other forms of media… a multimillion-pound industry will carry on churning out the websites, DVDs and magazines that are distorting our sexual mores.”
A week later, Libby Brooks, another Guardian regular and fellow traveller, published a new call to arms for feminism, A New Sexual Manifesto, again, in The Guardian, “This is not about being anti-sex,” she began, pre-empting the oft-used insult of feminists being anti-sex and frigid, “It is not about being prudish, or easily embarrassed, or unliberated. But it is about anger.”
Both articles were motivated by two recent feminist publications, the primary being Ariel Levi’s investigation into the rise of what she termed ‘raunch culture’ in the US. In the best spirit of the sisterhood, it was called Female Chauvinist Pigs. Both Bunting and Brooks had been roused into action by an attempted broadside at Levi’s exposé from Kate Taylor, Today's Ultimate Feminists are Chicks in Crop Tops, which appeared in the Guardian on 23 March 2006, and seemed to re-run many of the anti-feminist clichés that Brooks’ attempted to foreclose in her first few sentences.
Taylor opened with, “Men, you can relax. You are no longer the enemy. Instead, judging by recent events in America, modern feminists have a much shapelier target in their sights - other women. Specifically, scantily clad women who use their sexuality to get ahead.” Taylor then subverted this sass by succinctly encapsuling the dilemma facing modern feminism; the same unresolved dilemma that emerged in the UK in the early to mid 1990s, articulated within the media friendly ‘ladette’ paradigm:
“Levy thinks raunch culture is a feminist movement gone terribly wrong. We are, in her eyes, doing all these things merely to show the men that we are "one of the guys" and "liberated and rebellious". Naturally, she finds this confusing. "Why is labouring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering? The answer is, labouring to look like Pamela Anderson is not empowering. We're not trying to be empowered. The twentysomething women I know don't care about old-style feminism. Partly this is because they already see themselves as equal to men: they can work, they can vote, they can bonk on the first date. For younger women, raunch is not about feminism, it's just about fashion.”
Here we had some dissent from the ranks, some space for real debate to emerge, not simply the usual rhetoric regurgitated for a new generation. Here was a voice from that generation, disrespecting the matriarch with a message from the front. But Bunting was not about to privilege this particular female voice, “They may recruit a naive cheerleader - such as Kate Taylor on these pages last week - but she's only a token; this phenomenon is driven by the market. While the cash rolls in, millions of lives are muddled, sometimes even ruined, by the multiple misconceptions being peddled.”
That was Kate told. She was a 'token'. The 'pornification of culture' was a problem only Marxist feminists could solve. The message was clear: Don't you dare disrespect the non-hierarchical sisterhood! The title of Levi's book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, invoked a similar, uneasy paradox. The elephant in the sisterhoods room; female intrasexual competition. Yes, once again, the great nemeses of feminism, other women, play footsie with patriarchy while Amazionia burns.
Pigs, was ostensibly a 'new' broadside against the 'pornicopia' of the West, but which suspiciously looked to me like a Stateside reworking of Imelda Whelehan's Overloaded which charted the rise of 'Loaded' magazine and lipstick feminism in 1990s UK. In it, Levi railed against women living in the false consciousness of sexual liberation. The message was: You're not liberated. You're still being exploited and to make things worse, you are wilfully abetting the patriarchy! To a feminist, there could be no greater crime.
So, not being able to parade these women for shame with heads shaven in the marketplace, Levi levelled at them the accusation of being not just chauvinists, but pigs too. Talk about tough love. Not since Faludi's ugly-sisterly rant against Betty Friedan in Backlash for having the gall to be a (spit) liberal feminist, had feminist competition been so disseminated.
All this would not have appeared so ironic if there was any sort of agreement within feminism about female sexuality. But the truth is, now as it was then, that orthodox (aka 'radical') feminists object to 'false' representations of female sexuality in the media, even though they, within the multitude of feminisms, can't actually agree on what female sexuality is. All they can do is agree on what it is not. A tenacious attachment to such stagnant and conservative feminist values is very well documented within the published articles of media feminists over the years in the Guardian, and more than illustrates just how little the discourse has adapted to changing times.
Taylor's lonely dissenting voice found support however in the unlikely form of Lynne Segal in A Misguided Manifesto. Segal attended the live event even though she, “was reluctant to join the fray, feeling I had been here many times before.” She charted her journey to such weariness, ending with a defence of the young women castigated by Levi and co, bringing with her a healthy dose of historical perspective, “Superficially, it is easy to see the appeal of this attack on raunch culture: young girls are not "liberated" by wearing thongs, waxing their bodies...or buying sex toys. But then again, I'm rather glad they feel free to do this without getting stoned alive, without being arrested as whores and hookers.” Refreshingly free of feminst cultural relativism also.
Fast forward five years and we have a re-run; same script, same stage, different characters. Moral panic? No. We are resisting the pornification of women. No you're not, your co-opting feminism to sell your book. Having read the script already many times before, I'm not buying it. Feminism was in crisis in 2006 and it still is today. The last thing it needs is the cynicism and, yes, conservatism of Gail Dines. Re-reading Brooks and Bunting, Dines and Long, it's easy to forget true pioneers like Olympe de Gouges who in 1791 wrote one of the first feminist tracts, Declaration of the Rights of Women and Women Citizens; who spoke out for her sex and against the Terror and was guillotined for it; or modern day feminist pioneers like Egyptian Aliaa Magda El-Mahdy. Dines, Brooks and Bunting & co cannot support El-Mahdy as her chosen weapon, her young, naked female body, is precisely that which they do not understand – the unbound power of female sexuality.
It's easy to forget that feminism desperately needs a new manifesto, one that reiterates its duty of care and allegiance to all women (not just card carrying feminists) above and beyond defunct 20th century ideologies. It's easy to forget that feminism is an essential movement in a world where we know men will attempt to constrain female choice, if cultural mores allow them to. It's easy to forget that we in the West are the exceptions to the global rule of female oppression, that we should stop navel gazing and use our power and influence to help less fortunate women, and by proxy their children and menfolk, enjoy the rights and privledges Dines, Bunting and Levi seem to take so much for granted.
Back at the Guardian debate in 2006, Segal came away with a subversive message:
“Let me share a little secret with you, something that hampers any attempt to rectify sexual behaviour: sex is all about wanting to be objectified, wanting to be the object of another's desire, another's gaze (even if, like a traditional straight man, we pretend that this is not the case). However, it is about wanting to gain this attention in ways that are reasonably safe from risk, harm or hurt - except, perhaps, for when these are the very things that turn us on.”
Predictably, after much sound and fury, the event ended up signifying nothing. I could not attend, but I did email Bunting asking her if the debate would be published. In a brief reply she reported that she thought there would be a podcast on Comment is Free. After waiting some months for it to appear I emailed again to be told 'I don't think there is any podcast'. I have a feeling this next event will similarly be lost to history, and survive only as a strategy to be re-run with the next publishing deal. More fool us if we fall for such cynical, superficial nonsense masquerading as feminism.