Tuesday, 18 June 2013

"9am is too early for tits."

The New Statesman’s website chucked out an old 2010 Laurie Penny blog today, and it’s lost none of its relevance; it reminds us that every time a feminist, or a mother or father, or a sexual assault victim, or a woman who’s sick of feeling like society appraises her based on her sexual worth above all else, or merely a person who’s sick of having anonymous tits thrust at them – every time anyone says they don’t want to be confronted with sexually suggestive imagery in public every day, someone accuses them of taking it too seriously.

Here’s a few of the common responses:

- “You wouldn’t be so up in arms if it was men who’re being objectified”.
- “The female form is natural - it’s prudish and anti-feminist to be ashamed of it and want to hide it”
- “The women that work in this industry are empowered, not victims”

“You wouldn’t be so up in arms if it was men who’re being objectified.”
But that’s part of the point. It’s NOT. You get the odd male chest here and there, but people don’t walk into their newsagent with their children for a pint of milk and see a man bent double, airing his butt-cheeks at the world. Male genitalia does not pepper the inside of phoneboxes (and end up on the pavement – see Euston Road on any given morning) or the inside of a so-called “family paper”. Those who protest against constant female objectification are complaining about the landscape they live in, not some theoretical world.

That landscape is the surface of a society that has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years in this country. It’s a society in which women have been regarded first as chattel and the sexual property of men, then more recently as deserving of a political and literary voice as long as they accept the boundaries of such “freedom” and respect men’s ultimate superiority… and now as supposed equals, as long as they’re willing to put up with lower pay, economic disposability during recession and the task of ensuring that, from adolescence to late middle-age, they fit in the uncomfortably small acceptable domain between appearing sexually pliant and morally infallible.

Whether or not ordinary men (who’ve grown up with the idea of treating women as equals) really want them to fit in that paradoxical identity bracket is brushed aside; the mainstream media screams relentlessly that they should, from Page 3 and lads’ mags to the high-falutin’ morals of the Daily Mail vs its online column of shame, via the salivating, scandalous headlines announced on TV ads for tabloid mags and the music videos, shown on rotation, that show nearly-naked women catering to suited and booted men or washing their cars for them.

That’s what women in our society live with. It’s not the worst possible situation in the world right now for women but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. And every time we encounter another image that we didn’t go looking for, an identikit, plastic, willing image that tells men, women and children, “This is ideal womanhood – men, here is what you should desire and expect - women, here is your role model”, we are reminded of it. No fucking surprise we’re angry.

“The human body is natural and beautiful - it’s prudish and anti-feminist to be ashamed of it and want to hide it”
Yeah, it is natural and beautiful and interesting in all its variety. But there’s a difference between showing it as something other than a sexual receptacle, in all its varied and valid forms, and the same relentless image of tits and arse, tits and arse, always perfectly round, airbrushed or painted flawless, the same homogenous honey colour regardless of racial origin, the same sexual poses that say “don’t ask me what I think, just ask me what I can do for you”. If the prevailing thought is that it’s healthy for our culture to be populated with naked women, then little girls could in theory grow up seeing different images of the adult female body, flat breasts, pendulous ones, straight waists and flat ones and wobbly ones, androgynous shapes and bodies that are all hills and valleys, and think “I wonder what I’ll look like when I’m grown up – which of those many forms will my body tend towards?”

But they don’t. They see the same character, often surgically enhanced to the cost of thousands of pounds, which most mainstream glamour models strive to portray, and they worry when their emerging breasts don’t take that shape. Their favourite pop stars endorse that shape. They learn to treat their body hair as something disgusting, rather than something they have an equal choice over keeping, reducing or removing. They learn body dysmorphia, not feminine pride. Their natural sexual appetites are coloured by other people’s perceptions; what girls’ and women’s magazines tell them they should be thinking/feeling/doing (a general message of “only when you’re ready” undermined by constant examination of what everyone else is up to, devaluing the positive sex education they could be helping with), and what the teenage boys in their lives are learning about women, from the freely available imagery around them – from the implied notion that sex means getting to sleep with girls who look like that, who are put here for their pleasure.

There are so many factors in how boys and girls grow up relating to each other that it’d be naive and unhelpful to pin the blame for negative attitudes on one source. But Page 3 and “lads” mags, with their constant reminders that girls are for sex, not conversation or human relationships, sure as shit ain’t helping.

“The women that work in this industry are empowered, not victims”
Some of them are. Some of them have proper workplaces with fair rules and pay, or they freelance with legitimate companies and get paid properly for it, and they make a living doing something that, at worst, they are willing to do, and at best, they enjoy and take pride in. That’s fine. Anyone trying to shut down the sex industry is facing a futile and Sisyphian task – as long as there have been sexual appetites, there have been ways of commoditising them, from the suggestive to the actual; and if one consenting adult wants to give another one their pants’ desires in exchange for cash, I’ve personally no problem with that. I don’t object to porn (though it’d be nice to see the playing field levelled a bit), or safely run brothels, or strip clubs where the employees are treated respectfully, or sex chat lines. But when people sell something which is for adult consumption only, its availability should be restricted to exclusively adult spaces.

And some of them aren’t empowered, but exploited, abused, frightened and hurt. What about the sexual slave trade, which is alive and well? What about women forced to have sex for money they don’t even get to keep, whether it’s girls brought in from other countries (let’s not forget dear, cuddly old Roberto Berlusconi’s comments about cracking down on the Romanian/Italian sex trade – except for the pretty girls) or vulnerable British teenagers preyed on by adults in their own communities? What about those that blur the lines, expecting the girls they know to take part in the rituals of an industry they are NOT a part of? For a slice of this, see the ongoing discussion about domestic violence and sexual exploitation in teen relationships, about girls who end up on YouTube against their consent, because some boy they were going out with decided to film them and humiliate them on the internet? “Media” is not just men in suits who own newspapers now. We all make it, we all contribute, and we are all responsible for what we consume.

Either way, this isn’t just about the girls in the pictures. They’re only half the story. What about everyone that sees the pictures? The point is we don’t have a choice. Unless you decide not to turn on your TV, walk into a newsagent or get on public transport where you might encounter a reader of Britain’s most prevalent newspaper, you can’t avoid the imagery. The problem is not the nakedness, the problem is the constant pushing of the sexual agenda behind it, in the least sexual environments and situations. Is it prudish to want a choice in whether you see a random woman bent over in nothing but a g-string or squeezing her tits together solicitously? What if you’re 11? Is it prudish then? Kids that age should be getting some understanding of how their bodies are starting to change from child to adult; let them process that first, without having to deal at the same time with what kind of sexual identity the commercial media will offer them and what they'll do with it. And the rest of us? Most of us past puberty like thinking about, and having, sex some of the time. Not ALL of the time. Not when we’re busy focusing on non-sexy things, like the whole of the rest of our lives, and, frankly, are not in the fucking mood. We’re not all slaves to a 24 hour libido.

And still, in this culture of ever-present boobs, I hear people make disgusted sounds in public when they see a woman raise part of her shirt to feed her child. Because breasts and their natural function are shocking and repugnant unless wrapped safely in the sanitising, now-familiar cloak of sexual availability.

“Trying to ban page 3 and lads’ magazines is censorship.”
Well, yes and no. I don’t personally think lads’ magazines should be banned. I do think that any form of media that insists on showing naked imagery for the purpose of sexual titillation or arousal, male or female (okay, fine, we’ll pretend for the sake of argument that there’s much in the non-adult mainstream on the male side), should be treated as adult media. If you want to call The Sun a family paper and sell it on the same shelf as the Daily Mail or the Guardian or the Times or the Mirror, it’s got to lose the naked offerings, as should any paper that wants to share that shelf space, and I hope the #nomorepage3 campaign succeeds in its goal. Supermarkets have taken the step of putting lads' mags on the top shelf – but their top shelves are not quite the same as the porn shelf in a newsagent so that’s a little disingenuous (last I checked, you don’t usually get Hustler in Sainsburys). If “lads”(never teenage boys or young men, always “lads”, again with the stereotypical demographic that young men are encouraged to identify with - see UniLAD for more of this) want to buy a magazine whose chief attraction is the pictures of hot girls with not much on, they can pick them up from the same place as they’d pick up Playboy. There’s no shame in it, right? You’re a grown man, you want to look at some grown women who’ve taken their clothes off. So why do the rest of us have to cushion your infantile and outdated embarrassment by nestling the naked chicks safely among the car magazines?

We who oppose this phenomenon want a choice about how, and when, and where, we consume sexual content in the media. It’s time to grow up; allow people to satisfy adult appetites in adult spaces and let children and teenagers grow up without the constant presence of unrealistic body ideals and loaded sexual imagery that tells them what they're meant to be before they've even worked out who they are.

Title quote: Josie Long