Sunday, 13 November 2011

Fem 11 series: Feminist Question Time, politics, porn and men

I would like to say early on that I wish I had taken notes in this session as by now I was very tired and I can't remember lots of amazing things that were said. But I cheered a lot!

After the workshops, we all returned to the main hall for Feminist Question Time. The panel was made up of more feminist heroes, Shami Chakrabati, Zoe Williams and Bea Campbell, as well as founder of Anti Porn Men Project Matt McCormack-Evans and Carlene Firmin, a writer and the youngest black woman to be awarded an MBE (and now a new feminist hero of mine). The event was chaired by Cllr Rania Khan, who had spoken in the opening session.

The event was split into three sections to give direction to the questions. The first part was on the attitudes towards gender equality in the government; the second on the sexism industry and the final on 'what is feminism'. The first question to be asked was by BFN member and friend Jo! Who asked the panel whether the government's failure to improve or even consider gender inequality was a result of there not being many women in parliament.

The question went to Shami Chakrabati, who repeated the question and then paused, before saying 'YES!'. We all whooped and cheered and stamped our feet in response and I felt so elated to be surrounded by feminist women who all care so much about ending the mess that is gender inequality. Wahey! She expanded on her point to explain that without women in key decision-making roles we couldn't see improvements to gender inequality. The question moved in to discussing the disapproval of all-women shortlists in the judiciary. Zoe Williams quipped that the problem with this government wasn't just the lack of women in parliament, but the fact that most the people in government were tories. She went on to explain how no-one cared about impartiality in the judicial system when it sends in all male shortlists, something that we can all agree on I think. As I always point out to people who connect all women shortlists with a lack of 'merit'; George Osbourne did not become the second most powerful politician in the country on the merit of his vast intelligence and politicial know-how. As Matt went on to point out, all-women shortlists are a must if we want to see an improvement in women's representation. Bea Campbell talked more about how the government is entrenching inequality in amazing, articulate ways. I really wish I could remember what Carlene Firmin said because I remember cheering really, really loudly.

From political representation we moved to a discussion about the 'sexism industry' and its impact on gender inequality. As ever, this proved a divisive topic even in a UK Feminista ran conference with it's very firm policy on the sex industry. The first question was directed to Shami Chakrabati as her role on the Leveson Enquiry into media ethics. The woman asked whether the Leveson Enquiry would investigate the ways in which the tabloid media objectifies and harms women. Shami responded that it would be impossible to look at media ethics without looking at sexism and misogyny, and that she wouldn't be on the enquiry if she didn't think it could and would affect real change. I hope it does, but of course I have my doubts. Zoe Williams believes that the tabloids will eventually all shut down, promising to pose naked in the Guardian if page 3 is ever banned. This was an important question, as 'newspaper porn' is now so established, so insitutionalised in our culture, it's hard to know how to tackle it, or even consider it as actual porn. But it is, and it needs to be stopped.

The next question resulted in perhaps the moment that made me most angry at the conference. A woman in the audience asked why feminists were against 'strippers, lap dancers and prostitutes' and why she couldn't be a feminist because she enjoys 'lap dancing and watching porn with her boyfriend'. This made me angry because it seemed to me to be wilful ignorance about the feminist argument on the sex industry. That it isn't about being against women in the industry, it is about questioning why we have a sex industry at all and fighting its corruption, its normalisation of violence against women and girls and the exploitation of women and girls within the industry; as well as campaigning against the harmful effects the industry has on women and men everywhere. It really troubles me that people can't see or refuse to see the difference between challenging an industry that causes huge harm to women; and not liking or 'being against' women who work in the industry. The two things are very different and to me, the latter is not and never has been and never should be the feminist argument. The final question in that segment was on whether prostitution should be illegal.

Matt talked at length and articulately about the harm the sex industry does to women and how it results in a narrowing of women - women's sexuality and women's amibtions. Then Bea Campbell was just amazing. She talked about exploitation in the sex industry and asked some difficult questions about how we have to question our own choices. She says that she doesn't think prostitution should be illegal (I agree, although I believe in criminalising the exploiters - the johns) and then put forward what (according to Twitter) was the most challenging proposition of the day. She asked us to consider the abuse of children in pornography, the filmed and photographed child abuse, and then to consider the parallels between that abuse and the abuse of women in the sex industry. Unlike the impression given by some tweeters, she did not compare women to children or say that women didn't have agency. She just asked us to consider how people (women and children) are exploited and harmed by the 3rd biggest industry in the world and to ask ourselves some serious questions about how we value women.

Twice in the day the point about the sex industry being the 3rd biggest industry in the world was brought up. It is a really interesting point, especially if like me you believe that patriarchy and capitalism are intrinsically linked and both need to be tackled. As I have said before, I have often found the socialist and liberal support of the sex industry, which makes more money than the film, music, publishing and TV industry put together at the expense of exploiting women, very confusing. I also think it is important to say over and over again that when you watch a video of a woman being raped on youporn or whatever, you have no way of knowing if that is consensual. No way at all. You don't know where that woman has come from, what 'choices' she has, whether she was trafficked, whether she is in pain (probably). You don't know. Same if you go to a brothel, or buy a woman on the street, or go to a strip club. You don't know if that woman is being exploited and if, for example, you choose to pay for 'sex' with a woman without knowing she is being exploited then you are breaking the law. So turn it off. Put your wallet away. Stop. Exploiting. Women. For. The. Benefit. Of. A. Rich. Man's. Bank. Account. No-one died from not having an orgasm. Lots of women die in the sex industry.

I think this was what Bea Campbell was aiming at, to ask us to consider where and how exploitation happens, and to make us stop and think about whether our choices are encouraging exploitation. This of course applies to all capitalist ventures outside the sex industry as well, and I think boycotting the sex industry is the same as boycotting any other industry that makes its money from harming women - be that drugs, retail etc etc.

The final questions were about feminism and what it means, and led to a discussion about how we need to speak to men and engage men with feminism. I've been meaning to blog about this issue for ages so will use this space to do so instead. I believe it is important for men to be involved in feminism. This is because I think it is important for everyone to be involved in feminism. I don't think we should be pouring special, additional energy into getting men involved and I certainly don't think we should de-politicise certain issues or sugarcoat some of the more challenging aspects of feminism in order to make it palatable to men or to make men want to like us. Men should be allies, men should be feminists because everyone should want to make the world a better place through the fight for gender equality and liberation from patriarchy. But they need to listen to women, respect women and we should be able to talk freely about the more challenging things, we should be able to critique male privilege, we should be able to talk about women's issues and have women only space without being criticised for 'excluding men'.

But, to be honest with you, involving men in feminism isn't my priority. Because I think we also need to do more to reach out to other women, before we even start on reaching out to men. And I am a bit concerned about how often feminist discussion becomes a discussion about men, when there are lots of women and communities of women who see feminism as irrelevant and not part of their lives. Which was why I think my loudest cheer went out to Carlene Firmin, who talked about how we need to be make feminism relevant to young women, living on South London estates, trapped in a cycle of violence and gang rape culture, without even the language to describe what is happening to them. She talked about how we discuss the media pressure on women to be thin, but how the young women she works with care less about thinness and more about getting big bums through implants. This is exactly what I believe we need to do more of as feminists. My priority has to be reaching out to women, young women, who are experiencing sexism and misogyny every day as their norm. Rather than making sure that men like feminism, I want to make sure that feminism is relevant to young women across class, across communities, so that together we can fight against the sexism that places such serious restrictions on women's lives and denies them justice, a voice, to condemn the violence that is committed against them.

Carlene's speech led to huge cheers from an inspired audience and as the closing answer in the Question Time it left me with lots to think about. I'm not sure how I am going to be relevant to young women and I'm not sure how I am going to do more to help and support refugee women, but hopefully I will find a way to take what was discussed yesterday and do something about it.

And that is my last post on Fem 11. Thanks to the organiser and speakers for a fantastic, inspiring and thought-provoking day!


McDuff said...

That it isn't about being against women in the industry… It really troubles me that people can't see or refuse to see the difference between challenging an industry that causes huge harm to women; and not liking or 'being against' women who work in the industry. The two things are very different and to me, the latter is not and never has been and never should be the feminist argument.

There's a disconnect, isn't there? Even at a feminist conference you'd think wouldn't attract the kind of feminist who doesn't want to get shouted at for liking porn, you still get women who feel that they are getting shouted at for liking porn. There is obviously a continuum even amongst fairly right-on feminists.

Women who watch porn don't feel as if their orgasms are contributing to the fatal undermining of their own rights.The whole thing is reminiscent of governmental drug rhetoric, where terrifying horror stories are pushed, and people who then take drugs and realise "hey, not only am I not dead, this seems like it is quite enjoyable" discount further negative warnings because, clearly, someone's talking bullshit. When governments fire people because their opinions don't fit their anti-narcotic agenda, that further compounds the perception that theories matter more than facts. When crackdowns lead to an increase of the things we are told are negative consequences of drug use, people justifiably ask if those negative consequences might in fact be a result of the laws rather than the drugs.

The maintenance of the disconnect in drug rhetoric is problematic in two ways: one, that in the pushback against exaggeration people can end up going too far the other way and denying that anything is harmful to anyone, which is obviously bad news for making informed choices about getting off your tits, and, two, genuinely quite horrible authoritarian bastards get to use the voices of genuinely concerned humanitarians to whitewash the process by which they fuck people over for profit.

(1/2 - I wish blogger would make its character-counting mechanism match the one in my text editor)

McDuff said...


Nick Kristoff recently live-tweeted a brothel raid to "rescue" trafficked women in Cambodia. This is the Cambodia where Human Rights Watch has highlighted the downsides of the government's "anti-trafficking" laws and where Sex Workers marched for their rights in the capital city to the vast ignorance of a global press which was more interested in Ashton Kutcher. Just one example, but fairly representative of the way a simple narrative is favoured over a complex reality, and how even the best intentioned rhetoric can support rather than counteract the structures and processes which exacerbate the negative things they position themselves as against. The Swedish Model, a dead horse to which I shall not reapply the crop here, is another.

This all contributes to the positions of people like the woman who asked that question, who don't see the artificially hard choice between being "anti porn" or in some way "anti feminist" as being particularly valid or meaningful in terms of their own life experiences. That experience leads them to believe there must be some middle ground, since they live on it and everything, and those who deny that, bolstering the perception of the strength position with a "strict" policy removing voices rather than engaging with them are playing some kind of game with the words. That it's "not the feminist argument" doesn't matter when the objection is that the argument doesn't match the reality.

After a while, it's not reasonable to blame people who disagree with you for continuing to misunderstand you.

Dom said...

"I believe it is important for men to be involved in feminism. This is because I think it is important for everyone to be involved in feminism."

I see where you're coming from, but it seems to me that when the discussion turns to men, it isn't so much about the fact that feminists aren't actively trying to involve men, but more that the practice of contemporary feminism seems to be unnecessarily alienating to men, and the result of this is that a lot of women see this alienation and foster some negative feeling towards feminism. In other words, alienating anybody alienates everybody.

It is the mainstream perceptions of feminism that hold people back from joining the movement, and these perceptions will persist unless, for one thing, Feminism really does care about getting men involved, as much as they care about getting women involved. Afterall, this must be at least half the battle?

sian and crooked rib said...

Dom, have you been to many feminist discussions about involving men? because what you're describing is not my experience at all. Both Fem 11 and UK Feminista Summr School had packed workshops about engaging with men.