All posts by Sephy Hallow

Sephy Hallow is a novelist and blogger. Her blog is Sex and Sexability (http://sexandsexability.blogspot.co.uk/), and she is currently seeking representation for her first novel, Hundred Flowers.

I Am Mutilated

Yesterday morning, whilst reading the news, I was shocked to learn that I have officially been mutilated. My junk, one of the rare parts of my body I like the look of, has undergone a “harmful procedure” that has left me officially a sufferer of Female Genital Mutilation – and what’s more, I paid someone to do it.

Around two years ago, I sought out the service of a friendly gent in a sterile environment to do the deed. For the small sum of £40, he, with my consent, unwittingly committed an act of Female Genital Mutilation upon my formerly unscathed lady-bits. My quick, and not entirely painless, outing left me with a shiny clitoral hood piercing, which has since brought me great aesthetic and sensory pleasure – but today it has been classified by the Department of Health as a mutilation. Not that my ears, tongue, lower lip or navel has been mutilated; only genital piercings constitute an act of grievous bodily modifications, and only on women.

As with all arguments around sensitive issues, there is always the complication of nuance to consider. So let me be clear here: I was 24 years old when I had my clitoral hood pierced. I was a consenting adult, neither coerced nor under the influence of any substance. I consented; nervously, but wholeheartedly. And whilst I’m not about to go into the finer points of my sex life (there are many trolls out there I’d rather not feed), I can say that decision has brought greater pleasure into my life since. I am against forced procedures or piercings on men or women of any age. However, I am also against branding women as “mutilated” for choosing to modify their genitals.

I want greater protection for women and girls who suffer genital mutilation; but protection does not start with smothering the rights of adult women over the control of their bodies.

This is the second time in the last few months our government has taken away the expression of female sexual pleasure in the name of protection. First we were told face-sitting wasn’t allowed in British porn; now we’re denied the right to pierce our bodies, and questions about consensual labiaplasty are being raised. Rape convictions rates in the UK are amongst the lowest in Europe; there are 170,000 women in this country living with real FGM. And now someone wants to ignore the issues and fudge the statistics by throwing consensual body modification into the mix.

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As one of the molly-coddled masses in question, I have to ask: how is reducing the range of my available sexual expression and genital pleasure – both aesthetic and sensory – going to protect me from being aggressively sexualised, raped or genitally tortured?

We don’t ban BDSM because of domestic violence. We don’t ban acid face peels because of Katie Piper; one is a consensual cosmetic procedure and the other is a sickening act of grievous bodily harm. So why is the fate of my genitals determined by the harm done to another woman? In revoking the rights to consensual activity, we aren’t protecting consent. We’re denying it. Intrinsic danger provokes the need to make an act illegal – not the potential for abuse.

I know what mutilation is. As a former self-harmer, I have waged war against my own body with a number of sharp objects, and I have the scars to prove it. I haven’t committed bodily abuse against myself in 7 years; so to be told my decision to have my clitoral hood pierced was an act of self-mutilation – to be denied authority over my own body as an act of protection – has seriously pissed me off.

I want the World Health Organisation to prevent forced genital piercings. I want to provide protection to those suffering from FGM. But I also want our governing bodies to understand the difference between force and consent. And what they seem to have overlooked is this: the irony of classifying a consensual act as illegal is that it removes the right to consent from women. It forces them to abstain from modifications, thereby making a decision for them. It revokes their right to consent – and to bodily authority.

Most of you will agree that a dangerous acid attack and a cosmetic chemical peel are in no way comparable. Many of you will note that there is an enormous distinction between my own self-abuse issues and the torturous removal of female foreskin, and I will absolutely concede. Andperhaps it is ridiculous to compare legislative force to forced genital torture; but then, if these things are ridiculous, so is the comparison between a consensual piercing and an unwanted surgery. Ridiculous – and harmful to FGM’s cause.

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Protesting Porn Lovers and Parliament’s Perversion

Tomorrow at noon, protesters will gather outside Parliament to protest against the draconian anti-porn censorship law that came into effect on 1st December. Sephy Hallow believes such protests are vital.

You’ve probably heard by now about the face-sitting protest scheduled to take place outside of Parliament on Friday 12th December, where 500 people are due to simulate face-sitting in order to protest the draconic new porn UK porn laws. Personally, I’ve got to say that I love it: Charlotte Rose’s campaign has everything a good protest needs, including ruffling some disgruntled feathers to make its point. Some people, however, aren’t so keen; my favourite retort was a tweet that called the protesters “selfish porn sick cockwombles” for their participation. And whilst I love the flourish of her counter-protest language here, I have to say, it worries me that having the right to determine our own adult entertainment laws is somehow considered “selfish.”

Is it really selfish to demand the right to freedom of consensual adult expression? Is it selfish to say our sexual expression is a fundamental part of our humanity? Is it selfish to point out there are deeper underlying issues?

People that complain about protest in this way – that assert a protest is too brash, too trashy, or too inconvenient – always strike me as people who fundamentally don’t understand the purpose of protest. A protest is not something you can undertake in private. It is a loud, proud public action designed to disturb and disrupt, to force attention towards issues that would otherwise go ignored. It has a long and varied history of causing inconvenience and making the masses uncomfortable, acting as a thorn in the side of public discourse until someone pays bloody attention. It isn’t, as some suggest, a form of tantrum; it is meaningful and planned, and as such both more sustainable and more worthy of our respect, or at the very least, our ears. In short, yes, we are trying to piss you off – but for a very good reason.

Because this isn’t about good spank-bank material. This is about legislation that creates a veil between on and off-camera activities, shrouding the illegal from public scrutiny, and forbidding certain consensual sex acts to be recorded, allowing for a climate in which public, consensual acts are shamed, and private, illegal acts are overlooked. This is about recognising what this illusion of a distinction between porn and sex does. This is about pushing back against a mentality that simultaneously slut-shames for face-sitting and female ejaculation, whilst having one of the lowest rape conviction rates in Europe. The protest might be considered crass. But the idea that our government thinks banning face-sitting in porn is a more effective method of protecting women from sexual harm than addressing the dismal statistics on rape reporting and conviction is absurd, and standing up for that idea – even by face-sitting – is something we should only commend.

Because the anti-protesters are right: it is disgusting. It is shameful. It is vile. All of these adjectives are correct. It is disgusting that we have to protest. It is shameful that parliament passed ineffectual censorship laws, and played it as some kind of female liberation stance. And it is vile that this is the length we feel we have to go to in order to be heard – that we have to crowd around the offices of our representatives, and mimic the very act they have banned from being seen, just to make them listen.

For me, this isn’t just about censorship of consensual sexual expression, even though that is enough reason for me to get angry. For me, this is about a government so patronising, they believe they can placate women with a gesture – to say, “we are protecting you, through legislation which shames you.” Banning the publication of consensual sexual expression – and let’s be clear, much of this legislation has to do with banning female acts, regulating female bodies – sends a message. This is taboo, this is wrong, it cannot be seen – it is shameful.

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That is what our government is dressing up as protection. And it’s not protection, it’s nothing like protection. It doesn’t stop men and women getting raped; it doesn’t improve communication, or provide protection for sex workers, or better our sex education. All it does is shame.

So let us take away the shame from the act of face-sitting. Let us make that point, and make it so damn clearly, they can’t misinterpret what we’re trying to say.

We’re not ashamed. We demand respect, and the protection of law. And we will sit on faces outside of Parliament until we get it.

Can Sex-Positive Feminism Exist?

When I tell people I am a feminist, I get a wrinkle of the nose. Their face screws up, like they have smelled something bad; it is the expression I pull when the milk has soured.

“But you’re so sensible,” they protest. As though feminism requires the loss of brain cells for participation.

For a while, I even shunned the term myself. “It’s too gendered,” I’d say, feeling that my views were about gender equality, and therefore should not be posed as something one-sided. I’d phrase my views awkwardly – I’d call myself a “gender egalitarian”, for instance. I justified that it didn’t have the same ring to it, the same catchy title, but at least it was more precise in representing my views. Then, when I graduated, I sat through an eye-opening speech by feminist writer and critic Linda Grant. Grant had written books on politics and sex, and novels to boot. She was the woman I always wanted to be. And she was a feminist.

“I tried to get a store card in 1984,” she told the audience. “I was declined, because I didn’t have my father or husband present to sign off on the transaction. That’s when I became interested in feminism,” she said. Sitting there, in my mortar board and robes, I felt suddenly far too naïve to be in the ceremony.

I was born only 4 years after Grant’s anecdote took place. I had always considered feminism to be an archaic thing, a movement that brought us the vote and then went off the deep end with fits of misandry, censorship and sex-hating, and that wasn’t me. When I thought of feminism, I thought of Andrea Dworkin. I didn’t think of Linda Grant. I had simplified a complex political movement into a handful of successes and a whole heap of crazy. I had resisted identifying with anything feminist, because I was sex-positive, anti-censorship, totally behind the idea of sex as a fun recreation, someone who enjoyed pornography and vocally supported sex workers. I was someone who saw society’s next goal involving better protection for sex work of all varieties, who wanted consent to be respected by law regardless of whether money or cameras were involved. All this time, I thought that meant I wasn’t a feminist. And all this time, I realised in that audience, I was wrong.

Feminism is a complicated set of ideas, with an equally complicated set of people behind it. Like any complicated ideology, feminism is riddled with nuance and debate, and it isn’t stagnant: there are revelations and evolutions in ideas all the time. I don’t agree with all feminists; I want gender equality, both between the binary sexes and for those who don’t identify in those terms, but I don’t always agree on what that means. For some, it means that removing the idea that women are sex objects means removing women from sex, especially in public expression, and on that note I heartily disagree. For me, and – I assure you, readers who are still scowling, still wondering how such a nice girl ended up here, many people just like me – feminism is about claiming our right to consent. For me, feminism protects my ability to have sex, to enjoy it, and not be shamed; but equally, it protects me from being forced to explain my lack of consent in other situations. Feminism is about my right to say yes or no without being threatened, either by the society that would deem me a slut, or the rejected party who is angered by my audacity to decline.

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I am a sex-positive feminist, and I can tell you, we are not on the verge of non-existence – we are not lost dinosaurs, wandering around in a wasteland, looking for creatures of our kind. We are real women, trying to express our views without being shouted down for being “feminist.” If you really want to help gender equality and the progression of society’s view on sex, judge feminists on the quality of their individual content, not the merit of the banner of feminism. Maybe then we can start to get somewhere.

Pull The Pin

Guest blogger Sephy Hallow, Deputy Leader of the Pirate Party UK, says sex is one of the fundamental underpinnings of our political system.

When trying to argue the point that sex is a fundamental part of our political system and an inherent feature of democracy, I tend to get the same reaction: you’re kidding, right? Sex, and more especially the sex trade, is seen as pure hedonism, an indulgence of an animal instinct that is as far removed from the civilising nature of politics as anything can be, and not particularly deserving of serious consideration or public debate.

Sex is for late-night channels, top-shelf magazines, and strip clubs – not the House of Commons.

In fact, the way that sex is annexed – shoved into these specific, hard-to-reach places that require deliberate, conscious intention to find – says a lot about the way we view sex: that it needs to be kept at the end of the channel list, or the top of a shelf, within society’s peripheral vision, but never centre stage in the greater public sphere. It’s also indicative in the way the ISP filtering debate has been set up; the great porn block might be up for debate, but most anti-censorship campaigns point to other, more serious losses. Factors such as restriction to information on sexual health or abuse helplines are frequently referred to in order to bring political clout and legitimacy to a debate which could otherwise be framed as Perverts versus Parents.

Sexual expression and freedom of access to stimulation is not seen as a right, but a hedonistic indulgence, and is therefore given as much credence as a demand for chocolate as a matter of public welfare.

But here’s the truth: sex is actually the linchpin of our democracy, not only linking together core political concepts – such as civil rights and social responsibility – but also acting as a pressure point which has been used time and again to shame people into silence.

It is also, thanks to our own embarrassment, a smoking gun pointed straight at our democracy.

Sex Bomb

As part of its mass surveillance, the NSA has been “gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites”, in order to use the information to shame “radicals” into silence. Of course, this isn’t the first time shame has been used as a censorship tactic, but with mass surveillance now looming over us all, the threat has spread from outspoken political activists to ordinary members of society with fringe political views. So what can we, the public, do about the use of slut shaming as an anti-democratic tool? The most simple, logical and productive answer has to be: remove the threat by removing the shame of sex.

I am aware that, in a certain sense, I’m asking humanity to turn its back on thousands of years of ingrained social pressure and sexual stigma, and embrace its carnal side – and that’s simply not going to happen, certainly not overnight. But I’m not asking society to change; I’m asking individuals to assess their embarrassment, and, if they can find no logical reason to feel shame for their preferences, to embrace the idea that they are not the bad guys. When a government threatens to remove your privacy and dignity, it is the threat that is perverse, not the porn you watch, and certainly not the content of your character. Exposing the sexual habits of a person without their consent is nothing short of a violation; so why is it that we shame the victims that are abused by the powerful?

If as individuals we can accept our sexual nature, we can disarm character assassinations that threaten our democracy and freedom of speech. By pulling the pin out of the hand grenade, you call your attacker’s bluff; either you’ll both blow up in a fiery explosion of sexual shame, or you’ll find the threat to have been a hollow one all along.

I’m not advocating for you to go and tell the world all about your personal kinks, and I’m not saying privacy isn’t important – quite the opposite. What I am saying is now that mass surveillance has made social embarrassment over sex a threat for all of us, we need to start considering what it really means to have a sexuality. By admitting that sex is part of our daily political reality, and encouraging a defence of your right to sexual privacy, we can confront the threat of censorship, simply through honesty, acceptance, and pride in the reality that humans are both rational and sexual creatures.

The Bad Taste Police Censor the Internet

When the government rolled out the Great Firewall of Cameron – the nickname given to the porn filters now provided as default by most residential broadband providers in the UK – they asked us to think of the children. Think of the shattered lives we can save by blocking child pornography, they said. And who would argue against that intention? Not the ISPs, certainly.

But like all major changes which forego public scrutiny, the filters are now stepping beyond their original remit, seeping into parts of the internet that shouldn’t be of governmental concern. According to comments made recently by James Brokenshire, the minister for immigration and security (a somewhat inflammatory departmental conflation), the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) have been spending much of their time flagging “unsavoury” content on sites such as YouTube, in an effort to avert the “radicalisation of individuals.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I will point out that CTIRU has been performing this public service – the flagging of what Brokenshire refers to as “unsavoury” material – since at least 2010, and has in fact flagged 29,000 videos since February of that year. However, with the new filters for explicit material already set as default for most UK households thanks to pressure on private companies, and Brokenshire calling for further government interference in restricting online content, it seems only sensible to have concerns over the future of these restrictive practices.

By one branch of government, we’ve been told it’s for child safety; by another, we’re told it’s a counter-terrorism effort. The fact is, if the government is so keen on the idea of persistent online censorship it’s willing to wrap the package twice, we should be worried.

Let’s be clear about something else here: we’re not talking about illegal content, or even arguing about what legal restraints should or should not be placed on online content. Brokenshire’s proposal for extended restrictions, in his own words, would be applied to content “that may not be illegal but certainly is unsavoury and may not be the sort of material that people would want to see or receive.”

And I’m sure the British population is just thrilled that the minister has deemed himself fit to make that decision on their behalf.

As Danny O’Brien from the Electronic Frontier Foundation says aptly, “politicians have proved to be terrible arbiters of taste. If you don’t think much of their suits and haircuts, you’re not going to think much of what they think acceptable or unsavoury for public consumption.”

This is another unfortunate mask censorship often wears: that of the bumbling do-gooder trying to sanitise the world and make it seem like a much nicer place. Unfortunately, whilst this tactic might work fantastically for your eight-year-old – keeping the magic of childhood alive – when applied to a population of adults, all it does it attempt to curb rogue behaviour, or (arguably the most disturbing word Brokenshire has used), “radicalism.”

Being politically radical is not the same as being violent; Hitler might have been a radical, but so was Ghandi. Radicalism in politics can mean many things. It can mean chaining yourself to railings to get votes for women, or taking a machete to a soldier in the street. It can be the biggest push for change, whether towards a progressive vision of the future or a draconian era of surveillance and the curtailing of civil liberties. What it isn’t, however, is intrinsically threatening, which is why there is no just cause to censor politically radical content on the internet – especially when the mainstream is supporting censorship.

Sephy Hallow Objects to Objectification

As a woman that likes porn, I’m often drawn into the debate on the objectification of women. What’s degrading, demeaning or a thorn in the side of the feminist cause is often the subject of discussion, and I frequently find people asking me to defend (or at least consolidate) my views on feminism and pornography. How can I be both pro-equality and pro-porn? Isn’t that like an animal rights activist explaining their views whilst chomping down on a bloody steak?

Obviously, I’m going to argue that it’s not analogous. In fact, I’m going to take the shockingly controversial view that a woman’s body is not a battlefield on which to project sexual politics, and that the war waged over the female body treats women as ragdolls in a moral tug-of-war; that, in fact, if you want to stop women being objectified, you have to first consider that dragging all female bodies into sexual politics is the ultimate act of objectification.

But there’s that word again – objectification – and once again, it strikes me that the root of this debate, this word that is dragged up again and again, typically goes unanalysed. So let me start by putting that right.

Objectification, from the root “object”, is the process by which we figuratively consider a living thing in the terms of an object – that is to say, we cognitively turn it into an object, treating it in the same terms as a table or chair. With me so far? Good. Because I’m about to challenge your assumptions about the concept of objectification.

When I say we treat something like a table or chair, I don’t mean we use it to serve a purpose – as a means to an end. Cold and inhuman though that might seem, we use people to serve purposes all the time, in every single job on the planet, so that’s nothing new.

What I mean is that if you want to move the chair across the room, or stand on it to switch off the fire alarm or reach a high shelf, you don’t consult it first. You don’t consider its preference in the matter, or if it even has one – you simply assume that it doesn’t, with the understanding that objects don’t have cognition. It’s a fairly safe assumption (though I will regret saying this if there is ever a great uprising of inanimate objects), and there are no moral objections to treating objects in this manner. The problem comes when you apply the same logic to a sentient, self-aware being – as our culture frequently does with women.

There are problems with the way human culture treats women, and I am not going to deny that – we have a long way to go. However, what I am going to point out is the glaring irony of fighting against female objectification, whilst disregarding the opinions individual women have about the way they use their own bodies; that is the very definition of objectification.

I am not naïve about the sex industry, and of course I object to content produced under duress. I also know full well that women are regularly treated in society as objects; there have been many short-lived attempts (usually in clubs) to treat me as a sex toy – but I’m not that either. The truth is, I’m just a woman that’s sick of having her gender put before her rights, by both feminists and chauvinists alike.

My body is many things. It is the source of my voice, and the way I understand pleasure and pain. It is the face I am recognised by and the gestures and idiosyncrasies I am known for. Above all, though, it is mine. And I’m fucking tired of being told by everyone around me that the way I act, the way I dress, and the way I conduct myself sexually have something to do with their political agenda.

So to anyone anti-porn – especially if you’re pro-equality – I’m telling you now: leave us alone. Stop telling women how to regulate their sexuality. Stop telling us how we’re allowed to portray our sexuality. Stop telling us what we’re allowed to do on camera, or what we’re allowed to enjoy in privacy.

We sure as hell don’t consent to your demands over our bodies.

Ready, Normal People?

The legendary Avenue Q song asks all the “normal people” to join in for the final chorus of the hilarious song, The Internet is For Porn, and it’s never disappointed: thousands of audience members have, over the years, rejoiced in singing along about their masturbatory habits, relieved that, at least in some small way, they can publicly acknowledge their consumption of one of the world’s most popular entertainment formats – porn.

Surprise, then, when the music fades and an actual debate about internet censorship and sexuality arises, and the general public suddenly falls silent on this very serious issue. It’s like someone cut the music halfway through, and they’re caught warbling along – embarrassed to be singled out, they suddenly shut up and pretend the issue has nothing to do with them. But if we’re honest, most of us are consumers of pornography – and yeah, ladies, I’m including us too. Because I have a confession to make to the world:

Hello, Internet. My name is Sephy Hallow, and I like porn*.

What’s more: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting it. Whilst on one hand, I’m not going to openly discuss my particular kinks, that doesn’t mean we can’t have an open, honest discussion about pornography consumption, access to explicit materials, and the importance of a free internet. Because if we don’t, our embarrassment about our sexual preferences is going to have real-world consequences on access to information, sexual health advice and much, much more – plenty of which is entirely non-sexual, safe-for-work, important information, which has been blocked in an attempt to sanitize the web – all in the name of saving the children.

Grown Ups: Grow Up

The internet should absolutely be a space where our children can feel safe to access information and connect socially, amongst other things. However, having default blocks is not the way to go.

Here’s why.

Firstly: it’s not really necessary. The internet has come on a long way since the 90s. If you’re still getting pop-ups advertising horny Russian teens or online Viagra, you need an ad block, not a filter from your ISP. Porn isn’t something you can just innocently stumble onto these days (unless you count Miley Cyrus videos), and it’s even harder to make a fatal Google error with a little parental guidance. Internet filtering is designed to protect children from unwanted exposure to explicit content, and of course we should protect that right – I’m just saying we don’t need to block access to do so.

The internet is a new facet to our sexuality, so it’s up to us as grown ups to provide information, guidance and advice to children and young people about what they can expect to find online. The best way to prevent exposure is to educate your children, so they can avoid such material themselves.

Secondly, we need to open up the debate, and be honest with ourselves. When I say it’s up to the grown ups to offer guidance to young people about sex and the web, I don’t just mean parents and teachers: I mean it’s up to all of us to shape the debate, decide how best we can balance the need to protect children and deny censorship, and provide that safe platform for children without limiting regular access to content for adult consumers. After all, if we can’t talk to other adults in an honest manner about our sexuality and its online expression, what chance have we got in educating young people about sex and the internet?

Allowing widespread internet filtering might seem like the easy option, but if it comes with a caveat of sacrificing our freedom to information – an important civil liberty – how are we making the world better for these children?

Finally, and maybe most importantly, since it encompasses people on all sides of the debate: it simply doesn’t work. Not only does it not work, but it actually fails in two ways: one, that filtering can easily be circumvented; and two, that it blocks other content, much of which is not sexually explicit, and some of which is even political in nature, adding a much more serious problem of censorship to the issue.

Case in point: The Court of The Hague just announced that Dutch ISPs will no longer be mandated to block access to torrent website The Pirate Bay, because the blocks are “disproportionate and ineffective.” If blocks don’t work to curb illegal behaviour, you can bet it won’t stop people accessing something as legal and popular as porn.

Ready normal people? Sing it with me:

The internet is for porn … the internet is for porn …

*Please, please don’t send me dick pics. Much though I love a nice bit of wang – or pussy, for that matter, as an openly bisexual woman – I’m quite happy to source my pleasure media in my own time, thanks.