This podcast contains two interviews I did in 2012, with “Shelley” and “Edie”, two strippers-turned-activists. In hindsight, these interviews are important, because they mark the point when a small feminist morality movement began to grow. In Edie’s words, the strippers were “the canaries in the coalmine”. The attacks on strip clubs may have seemed irrelevant to most people, but they were followed by far bigger attacks on free expression in the subsequent years. You can also find this podcast on YouTube.
If you want to attract mass support for a dodgy cause, the trick is to sound eminently reasonable. Extremists tend to alienate most people, including those that are inclined to agree with them. If you have extreme objectives, the important thing is to deny them vociferously, however implausible the denial. Remember that most of your supporters don’t pay close attention to the detail: it’s the presentation that counts.
The far-right know this. The British National Party abruptly switched from an anti-Asian message to an anti-Muslim one within days of 9/11. Their target (working class Pakistani communities) hadn’t changed, but the presentation had. Similarly the English Defence League, eager to avert accusations of fascism, tried to show how pro-Jewish they were by carrying Israeli flags on their protests. “You see,” they were saying, “how can we be Nazis when we love Israel so much?” (although their supporters didn’t always get the message).
The anti-sex movement has had similar presentational problems. The powerful campaigner Mary Whitehouse had become widely mocked by the younger generation by the end of the 20th century. The new generation could no longer be convinced that enjoying and flaunting their sexuality was a bad thing. It seemed that the fear of sex had become a thing of a more prudish past.
The Whitehouse style of moral outrage gave way to a new presentation, re-wrapped in feminist terms. The new anti-sex movement talked in terms of objectification rather than decency or permissiveness, and tried to demonstrate that sexual expression was harmful to women, and thus censorship could be justified in the name of feminism. But beyond the realm of student unions and Guardian comment pages, anti-sex feminists suffered from the same problems that had afflicted Whitehouse: they were seen as prudish, humourless and ideological.
The biggest problem with building a popular anti-sex movement is that most people like sex. Trying to ban all visible displays of sexuality is unlikely to attract mass support, especially when the reasoning (“OMG Objectification, Sexualisation and RAPE CULTURE!!!”) is so easy to pick apart, given the chance for debate.
The problem is one of presentation. Just as the far right was forced to adopt a “we’re not racist, but…” approach, so the anti-sex movement had to learn to to be more subtle than repeating “porn is rape”. A soft target for censorship had to be found – one that attracted little sympathy. Enter No More Page 3.
The success of the No More Page 3 campaign has been based on two decisions: first, to pick the widely-hated Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper as the target for censorship; and second, to deny that their blatantly anti-sex, pro-censorship campaign was either anti-sex or pro-censorship. The first move was smart; the second took sheer brass nerve, reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s Information Minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf (aka Comical Ali), who famously claimed Iraq was winning the war, against a backdrop of invading American troops.
As well as nerve, denying the obvious with a straight face takes a good deal of PR expertise and media training, and NMP3 clearly has no shortage of such resources. In politics, most people follow the voice they like, not the one with reasoned argument, and the nice ladies of NMP3 have fashioned themselves an image as the Women’s Institute of the anti-sex movement (though of course, they’re NOT anti-sex). They have successfully formed a broad church ranging from middle-English Christians and girl guides to various strands of feminism and the puritan left.
Last week, my long-held ambition to meet NMP3 came to fruition, when I was invited to debate the issue against a NMP3 representative at Loughborough University. The NMP3 “argument” is almost identical to the anti-porn one that I’ve found so easy to overturn in numerous debates; the big difference is that NMP3 caveat everything they say with “But we’re not anti-sex, we only care about Page 3”.
Thus: Naked models “objectify women” BUT ONLY WHEN THEY’RE ON PAGE 3! WE LOVE PORN!; Bare female breasts contribute to a culture of misogyny and sexism BUT ONLY WHEN THEY’RE ON PAGE 3! WE LOVE BOOBS! And so on…
It’s all so silly, one should laugh; except that 250,000 people have signed a petition on the back of this nonsense, and various public figures, including MPs, have supported the campaign.
The debate itself felt like some combination of Alice Through the Looking Glass and Orwell’s 1984. Bianca, the NMP3 representative, seemed to be treating the occasion as though she were a government minister, sent to appear on Newsnight to defend a policy she didn’t really agree with. So, for example, when I questioned whether she really didn’t have a problem with sexual imagery in general (for example, lads’ mags), she simply refused to answer, saying that her own views were irrelevant, and she had come to represent the official position of NMP3. When I pushed the issue, she embarked on a long, skilled and off-topic ramble of the type that Jeremy Paxman is so often forced to deal with.
Again, asked why NMP3 appears to have strong links with anti-sex organisations and individuals, the response was one of faux outrage: To label NMP3 anti-sex was totally unjustified! (Although I hadn’t actually done that). Yet she refused to provide any clarity as to why NMP3 mingles with anti-sex campaigners when it is a pro-sex organisation. Questioned as to why NMP3 attended the extremist Stop Porn Culture conference in London, she simply denied that they were anti-porn, but didn’t clarify why they had attended. Surely if an “anti-racist” had attended a BNP conference, they would at least have a case to answer.
I was genuinely impressed, and somewhat thrown, by the skilled use of doublespeak. When I pointed out the the lack of any research evidence linking Page 3 with harm against women, Bianca announced that NMP3 have never claimed Page 3 was harmful! And as I tried to stop myself falling off my chair, she then embarked on a speech listing instances of harm caused by Page 3: body image problems, a culture of sexism, and so on. So no evidence of harm, but lots of harm. Who needs evidence when you just know, deep in your heart, that it’s wrong? Again, doublespeak was much in evidence when dealing with the issue of censorship: NMP3 is definitely NOT in favour of banning anything, explained Bianca, before proudly stating that 33 student unions, with the support of NMP3, had voted not to allow sales of the Sun on campus. But – I questioned – isn’t that a ban? No, she replied, because NMP3 don’t call for legislation. The Sun isn’t banned from those 33 campuses. It’s simply not sold because the student unions voted to – er …. No, not ban it! Simply prevent it from being sold. There’s a word for that kind of thing… it’s on the tip of my tongue.
Similar wordplay is in evidence whenever NMP3 talk about their goals. They don’t want to censor anything! They simply want the Sun to remove Page 3 so people can’t see it any more. I was ultimately reduced to suggesting the attendees should look up the words “ban” and “censor” in a dictionary, as well as read 1984, to get an understanding for how skilled NMP3’s abuse of the English language was. Dictionary.com provides this definition of censor: “
The debate ended with a stereotypical, and comical, student-leftie discussion about “capitalism”: It’s outrageous, claimed a speaker, that Rupert Murdoch is profiting from women! Ignoring the fact that “profit from women” happens anywhere that women choose to work, from banking to sport to journalism to… well, everything. The only solution to this horrible exploitation would be to ban all women from working! And although that may sound snarky, it reveals a truth about much that is said in the name of feminism these days: many self-declared feminists are working to reverse, not defend, the gains of the Women’s Lib movement.
No More Page 3 is establishing a dangerous pro-censorship precedent: that there are cases (or one case, anyway) where imagery of women must be suppressed for the wider good of all decent women and girls. It’s an old, moralistic viewpoint with a new twist. That precedent being established, where would the anti-sex, anti-woman witch-hunt end?
For those with a love of science, the story of the week was, of course, the landing of a robot – launched 10 and a half years ago – on a faraway comet. As someone who is still amazed that I can instantly publish an article from a computer in London, that can then be read globally, I lack the words to express my jaw-dropped amazement at this latest accomplishment of mankind.
The mastermind of the mission was Dr Matt Taylor. Like many ultra-intelligent people, Taylor clearly possesses an offbeat personality and quirky outlook on life. Conformity is for the dull of mind. It was hardly unexpected then, that Taylor chose not to wear a grey suit and tie, but instead appeared at a press conference in a bright shirt made for him by an artist friend – a woman. The shirt featured cartoon images of scantily-clad women brandishing guns.
If Taylor had been paying more attention to politics over the past decade, he’d have witnessed the final stages in the collapse of the progressive left, and its replacement with a new set of intolerant, dogmatic, anti-sex, pro-censorship attitudes. But he clearly had more important things to worry about, so he’d missed the rise of a clique of online bullies using feminist language to achieve a very non-feminist goal: the suppression of the idea that women can be sexual beings if they so choose.
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During the attacks on Taylor – referred to online as ShirtGate – the online mob made use of a now-standard logical fallacy to attack the shirt: the idea that an image of any woman is an attack on the rights of all women, and thus, any woman who is offended by an image of another woman has the right to attack the image and call for it to be censored. It was also implied – equally ludicrously – that the shortage of female scientists might somehow be linked to such “sexist” shirts – suggesting that women are incredibly weak individuals (and ignoring the fact that anyway, sex isn’t sexist). The tendency for women to attack women-who-dare-to-be-sexual (brilliantly written about this week by a female journalist) is well known – only the language changes to keep up with the times.
To the rest of us who haven’t had to worry about landing a tiny probe on a small, fast comet, the wave of media bullying that Taylor experienced came as no surprise. Anti-sex feminists have been busy in recent years: closing down strip venues, working with religious fundamentalists to strip all rights from sex workers, advising governments to censor the Internet (because, you know, OBJECTIFICATION), and attacking proudly-sexual womanhood in every medium, from pornography to music videos. The left is guilty of attacks on sexuality that the religious right would once have been proud of.
Online witch-hunts by the new, conservative feminism have become popular in the past year or two: where once, “witch” or “communist” were slurs that meant the end of a career or a life, now “misogynist” and “rape apologist” are labels to avoid at all costs. I myself was labelled a “rape apologist” on Twitter for defending the free speech rights of a comedian this week; but I knew I was opening myself to such slurs when I started this campaign. To fight for free expression is to offend those who hate it.
And so we were treated to a sight that brought to my mind the struggle sessions of the Chinese cultural revolution: an intelligent, gentle man reduced to tears as he made a forced apology on TV (this time wearing a plain hoodie. Fascism hates bright colours).
Once a standard bearer for free expression and reason, the left is now increasingly the home of a rising anti-intellectualism, as well as the most puritanical anti-sex attitudes. The sight of a crying scientist confessing to crimes against the sacred purity of womanhood is symbolic of wider attacks on science from the new left, rather than the right. This week also saw a scientist (this time, a women, Professor Kate Glover) sacked for simply stating a scientific fact: namely, that there is no evidence that genetically-modified organisms are harmful. Calls for her sacking were orchestrated by left MEPs, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. George Orwell, as ever, understood the nature of fascism better than anyone: “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. As if to illustrate the blur as to what “left” and “right” mean any more, a right-wing commentator mockingly compared the intolerant, puritanical attitudes of today’s left with the religious right’s most ludicrous character: When did the left turn into Rick Santorum?
The only silver lining in this is that Dr Taylor, unlike previous victims of the combined feminist-fundamentalist mob, has attracted great sympathy and support from many women and men. Perhaps this time, the “objectification” bullies have overreached themselves. One of the reactions has been a crowd-funding campaign to buy Matt Taylor a gift: click here to donate, and help demonstrate that most people are not nearly as stupid or hateful as ShirtGate might have implied.
Those of us who consider ourselves liberals in the true sense – pro-liberty, free expression and science – must realise that the political spectrum as we knew it has become meaningless. A new, pro-liberty, pro-reason left needs to be built if we are to stop the slide into intolerance, censorship and authoritarianism being pursued with equal vigour by both left and right.
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.