Posts Tagged ‘objectification’
I spent most of the weekend making porn. On Sunday, I waved a friend off as she went to another city to make porn. On Monday, I read this article. I sighed, and wondered why we’re still having the same conversation.
To summarise: Lying feminists pretend that porn is feminist. It isn’t. Porn is not about freedom, but economics, and therefore stems from abuse, involves coercion and incites criminality. There is too little feminist porn, and in any case it hardly seems to be porn at all. If feminist porn succeeds, it will be absorbed into the mainstream and made toothless. We should ban pornography outright, or at least ask questions about where it comes from. The pornography-meat metaphor isn’t getting tough and stringy.
If you’ve read Gold’s article, with all its prolonged blow jobs and anal penetration, my weekend of semi-clothed photographs, like the one below, and spanking story writing will seem tame. It was hardly ethnically-specific disembodied penis performs opaque metaphor.* Tame things don’t count in the debate about contemporary pornography, because the conversation is always about hardcore film, which allows for specific feminist narrative. Female performers are cast as victims, making them unreliable witnesses until they’ve stopped performing and started talking about how much the experience damaged them, or played on their childhood trauma. The narrowing to one type of pornography, and one narrative of it, effectively silences women.
Inside me, there’s a second wave feminist jumping up and down and waving a literature textbook. How were women kept out of the canon for so long? It wasn’t because they didn’t write, but because their writing didn’t count. The form was wrong, they wrote diaries when men wrote sonnets and plays. The content was wrong, they wrote about domestic affairs when men wrote about monarchs and wars. The perspective was wrong, they painted individual psychological portraits when men wrote with lofty omnipotence about huge casts of characters. Later, feminists dug out women’s writing, and re-drew the boundaries of literature to fit it in. We made the collective discovery that were women writers beyond Sappho, Julian of Norwich and Jane Austen. It had been hidden, not because it wasn’t there, but because nobody talked about it. Women’s work just wasn’t considered, for the most part, to be the proper stuff.
What’s this got to do with pornography? Well, some women are setting up hardcore porn sites, which may or may not look like the ones that are already there. Some women are posing for photos in their vintage lingerie, and whether they sell them or not, they’re still making porn, just as Anne Lister was writing in her diary when lesbian women weren’t represented in literary fiction. Lots of women are writing erotic stories, and say what you like about the quality of many of them, but after the Fifty Shades phenomenon, we can no longer claim that they don’t sell. Sometimes women express their sexuality, sometimes they do what they think the reader wants, or go along with the photographer’s idea. Sometimes they’re in it for themselves and sometimes they’re in it for the money. If I ere in it for the money, I’d have to admit that I’m doing it wrong.
I don’t share all of Gold’s fears about the effects of pornography, although I too am made uncomfortable by porn filmed with low production values, little respect for women, a large dose of racism and a set of linguistic and visual signs that would make Derrida weep. Feminist projects can fail to be feminist, and the label can be used by unscrupulous women with a crazy urge to make enough money to pay the rent. However, the reason that the few women doing feminist porn projects are the focus of all this adulation and criticism is that we’re still focussing on the porn that men produce and consume. While we look at them, and at feminist attempts to do what they do, we obscure work by women in other forms.
I’m not about to go into hardcore film. Spanking films, maybe. Nicely lit photographs of me wearing stockings and looking ecstatic about the fact that I have toes, definitely. Stories and novels, just you try to stop me! The latter things count, so I’m refusing to feel I’m not qualified to comment on the experience of making pornography.
Does making pornography feel feminist? Not really. It isn’t like an assertiveness training course or a take back the night march. In gender equality terms, it’s kind of neutral. I like it that way; not everything in life has to be a battleground. There’s a chance that the worry that I look podgy in this photo stems from a sexist cultural imperative for the female body to conform to unattainable beauty standards.** In that case, the most feminist thing to do is embrace the failure of my stomach to be flat, and post it anyway. I have a feeling I know what Tanya Gold would say to that.
*Who comes up with tags like ‘creampie’ and ‘black cock bangs x’ anyway?
**I also wish we’d remembered to take the cane off the wall before we took this picture, but I can’t think of an interesting feminist disappointment about that.
This week it was suggested that Manchester Under 35′s Munch allow over 35 year olds in, if they have youthful enough partners. I’ve never been particularly interested in debates about age-limited munches, except to note that I’d never invite the people decrying them to a party, because they’d probably be sending out for more beer when I’m rinsing glasses and yawning pointedly. However, responses to the suggestion have been fascinating. There’s a terrifying number of people who think it’s acceptable that younger people should never go to events without their partners. A significant proportion of members don’t think the age limit is about having something in common with other attendees, but about keeping, “predatory older doms” (PODs?) out. I began to ask some questions. Why are so many older people angry about not being able to come? Why can’t young women go to events unaccompanied by their partners? Why is there such a perceived threat of PODs? The answer is obvious: young women are valuable. Everyone wants us. Don’t you just want to tie us up and beat us? Well you can’t, we’re taking our hot, youthful flesh to that pub over there, and shutting you out. Feel free to peer at the goodies through the window.
I’m exaggerating a little. In any case, the rhetoric of the fetish scene is one of inclusivity and acceptance, where many tastes are represented. We’re brought together by our difference from the mainstream; you might not share my love of canings, but you share my sense of exclusion. Because there are so few of us, we have to share a space, so we respect one another. Where there are enough people, we divide into groups by preference to make places where we can go to get what we want, and we exclude those who don’t share our tastes. And that’s personal preference, right? You can’t criticise people for that, surely? Well, it’s not quite that simple.
At 19 I tended not to sleep with fat women, trans or genderqueer people (fat men were less of a problem for me – go figure). At 27, it’s naive to think of that as “just personal taste” and have started to challenge received wisdom about what qualities are sexually desirable. As a result, I’ve had some fantastic sex (and indeed relationships) with beautiful people I would otherwise not have considered as potential lovers.
It’s easy, after the initial “Oh God, what made me like this!?” stage for kinksters to think that because they don’t share obviously mainstream tastes, they exist in a social vacuum as far as their desires are concerned. I think it’s worth considering the factors that shape them. That’s why I remain vaguely insulted by FemSub, for example, even though I can understand why people would want a space where they know they can meet someone of their preference. There’s something distasteful in providing a space for what seems to be the most common and acceptable dynamic, the one that’s closest to the mainstream, and excluding everyone else. And don’t get me started on the advice that there may be play, “should the ladies choose.” Consent isn’t an issue for men, apparently!
But I digress. It’s naive to expect the kink scene to be free of the prejudices the rest of society has: sexism, herteronormativity, racism, the belief that high heels are a good thing. Perhaps I should count myself lucky since I fit my box well; a bisexual submissive woman is a better thing to be, given the prejudices of our little subculture, than, say, a submissive man with a urine fetish. There are women who do better out of conventional beauty standards than I do (I’m never going to be able to do anything about these hips) but I’m on the right side of acceptable, and hairy legs aside, it helps that I’m femme. That’s probably why it took me so long to feel uncomfortable with the scene’s values. I was doing fine out of them.
A while ago the lover and I were talking about the spanko community I know through blogs and Twitter, but for the most part don’t know in real life. He observed that, compared to us, they’re ‘so straight’. “Some of the women are bi” I said. The men aren’t though, or if they are they keep it quiet. The prevalent dynamic is M/f, with (and I say this from the outside, with extremely limited knowledge) a preference for youth among the fs. Presumably they’re brought together by a shared taste, but that doesn’t stop me feeling sad when I look through what’s being shared as hot (Abel’s collection of photos, say) or criticised as not (such as this tall spankee) that I’m not getting any younger, skinnier or shorter.*
I’ve loved the idea of being fresh meat for the predatory older man since before it would have been legal, but just as an idea. Well, I’ve loved it once or twice as a reality, too, but queasily, and before I discovered kink. Now that I’m here, in this world where fantasy becomes play so easily, I’d like to enjoy being preyed on, in my youth and innocence, by older men who covet it, without the real-life repercussions of feeling I lose value with every passing day, or that my partners like my lack of wrinkles or my naivety more than my experience or knowledge or any of the things that make me me. I’d like a world where spanking models don’t have to lie about their ages, and where we don’t think we have to keep predatory doms out of the Under 35′s Munch.
Is it possible, given that I spent half of last year battling a crush on a beautiful woman in her forties (no luck, she has a younger boyfriend), that I have a bit of a thing for a woman who was old enough to be releasing records in the 1980s (and I know I’m not the only one), and that the kink scene is built on such weird tastes as fancying a woman over thirty, that I could find a kinky space where youth isn’t—ahem—fetishized? Or am I being naive?
*Ok, I find it hard to want to be shorter, it must make it difficult to breathe in lifts. And reach high things. I sometimes feel too tall for my kink, though.
I just threatened a man with violence, then bought Christmas cards. Well, Season’s Greetings cards, actually, because they’re for the Amnesty Card Campaign and I don’t want to offend non-Christians. I don’t want to offend anyone, me.
Except this man in a tracksuit on Portland Street in Manchester. I want to do a lot more than offend him. I want to punch him in the face and kick him until he cries. I don’t even know his name and I hate him. I’m a more violent person than I knew.
I got up this morning, looked out of the window and wondered if I could bring myself to leave the house. It is one of those days that looks inviting but numbs your fingers and scorches your throat when you go out. I decided to run a couple of errands on the bike and call it exercise. Knowing I would have to put everything in the wash when I got home I put on a pair of lycra trousers which have been chewed at one cuff by my bicycle and a jumper with at least two holes in it. I thought about tidying my hair, but it was only going to be crushed under my helmet. I looked decidedly scratty, but who cares? I was returning library books, and retrieving lost property, not going on the pull.
I got to the cafe where I abandoned possessions yesterday, locked my bike up and the pushed on the doors. It was closed. I harrumphed quietly in frustration and went back to my bike, listening to Linkin Park (yes, Linkin Park, I never pretended to have a sophisticated taste in music) being loud and angry through my earphones. I bent over my bike to coax the lock open. After a few seconds I felt something press—no, poke—against my buttocks. I straightened up, right into the body of a man standing immediately behind me. I jumped, I even made a little, involuntary noise of surprise. Stepping away from the man, I said, at a volume I couldn’t judge because my earphones were in, “what are you doing?” I couldn’t hear his reply over Linkin Park. I jerked them out of my ears and said, “What?”
“Oh, yeah, I was just going to ask you the time.” The man grinned.
I held up my bare wrist, “Sorry, I don’t wear a watch.” I had a few seconds to reflect on the fact that I had just apologised to the stranger who, I realised with gross clarity, had just been jabbing me with his erect penis, before he grabbed my arm and said,
“The thing is, yeah, my mate’s over there,” he gestured vaguely up the empty street, “and I was going to get behind you and do this, right?” He spread his arms and legs wide and thrust his hips forward in an obscene motion, then he laughed.
“Next time,” I said, “I’ll kick you in the balls.”
“Yeah,” he said, “do that!”
I wheeled my bike around and started to walk away. He grabbed my arm again. I wrenched free. “Don’t touch me,” I said, and again, louder and shriller as I reached the curb, “don’t touch me!”
I cycled aggressively, dangerously, and then shot people dirty looks as I browsed for Christmas cards. I turned the volume up loud and listened to Nickelback on the way home. It didn’t help. I feel dirty, angry, and ever so slightly ashamed. I’ve been a professional peace worker. People have spent real money on my mediation training. I’m a fair way to being a pacifist. All that, and after one touch I’m threatening violence. He wanted a reaction and he got it, which makes me angrier still.
Once a fortnight I resist throwing things at Martin Amis. Usually books, but it depends what else is to hand. I haven’t had the guts to knit during sessions with him, but if I did, I’d launch my needles like javelins. Amis isn’t evil—he hasn’t killed people or spoken at the theatre—he just has a habit of making smug pronouncements that force me to sit on my hands for fear of doing something violent.
Today he announced the end of class and gender discrimination. The only oppressive system left, apparently, focuses on age, so we should concern ourselves with the old. Martin Amis is white, male, and not getting any younger. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why his concern lies where it does.
We made some points about education, I pointed out that class affects identity, and pulled some faces. What I didn’t do was rant and gesticulate, talk about the disproportionate number of women living in poverty, weep over the woman jailed because her abuser pressured her into retracting her rape claim, or demand to know why he hadn’t set a single novel by a female author. It wouldn’t have felt appropriate. He’s eminent, after all. Most of the eminent people are old, white men.
I’ve never taken the toffee-hammer approach to feminism. Generally, I think we’re like to get further if we don’t give everyone a reason to write us off as hysterical madwomen. So I wait my turn and voice my disagreements, if invited, politely. Even if I haven’t bothered to shave my legs, I’ve put on a skirt, hold-ups and some new Chanel foundation that I really couldn’t afford. I’m a nice, middle-class girl, after all.
Sometimes I imagine a life in which I wasn’t polite. I replay the moment when Martin Amis said that women should stop sleeping with gloomy novelists, because it only encourages them, and visualise myself saying what every woman in the room must have been thinking: that he didn’t have a chance with us, and sex with women isn’t some sort of rewards system for writers, in fact, some of them are women. I’d go back and tell all the guys who talk about their aggressive driving that they are dicks, and strip off in front of men who harass me on the street. Every time a man made a sexist comment while pretending to seek understanding of women or feminism I would slap his face and walk away.
I know that this isn’t how you build understanding or change minds. I realise that people are more likely to forget what you told them than how you made them feel. I have ideals and mediation training and Martin Amis’s autobiography. None of that changes this: I want to throw things at Martin Amis. If I’m arrested for assault, will the feminists bail me out?
“There’s always one creep,” a man said to me last week, before twirling me around and semi-ironically staring at my breasts, “at least one.” I have to say that I like this man. He’s one of my regular dance partners, a proper Yorkshire man, quiet to the point of gruffness, who teases me over the inordinate quantity of hair with which I occasionally hit men in the face (entirely by accident) as I twirl. I’ve brought him cake and he’s offered to have a whip-round so I can pay for a proper haircut. We get on, but he doesn’t understand about the creeps.
I’ve just about had it with the creeps. I used to have better tolerance levels. I used to be able to think it was a laugh, that it was an odd sort of compliment to receive someone’s attention. If I’m entirely honest, I’ve sometimes been a little disappointed not to have been the object of more creepiness. There are so many books about young, beautiful things catching the eyes of teachers and uncles, throwing them into paroxysms and crises which I would have been flattered to cause.
I didn’t have the sun-kissed body, slender legs and shiny hair of the charming teenager of those novels. I didn’t even have a white tennis skirt. Instead I had a cloud of frizzy hair and the pale complexion that comes of spending too much time in the library with a dusty volume of Tennyson. So when I did meet my first creepy man, he wasn’t of the vintage car and picnic hamper variety, he was a hairy homunculus with an overworked wife and a study full of poetry books. We read each other’s poems, he talked about Ruskin, I flirted outrageously and one day at his daughter’s sleepover he put my hand on his penis. Suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.
I didn’t tell anyone and I did my best to avoid him. It took me years to work out that it wasn’t my fault.
That’s the problem with creepy men. You’re never sure whether you’re imagining the creepiness. Afterwards, instead of feeling angry, you feel guilty, and keep it to yourself. You think that to be getting that sort of attention you must be doing something wrong.
Now I wonder, if I had told someone, what would have happened. Would he have been dragged off to prison for molesting underage girls, or would someone have had a quiet word with me about being more careful in future?
I was rather blasé about the creeps after that. Nothing that bad was going to happen, I thought. To my credit, I was right. I managed to wriggle out of the grasp of every creep. Even when my boss pressed several glasses of rice wine on me and sent me home in a taxi alone with a colleague who’d been trying to get into my pants all evening. It somehow culminated in him declaring I was like a daughter to him and putting me on the phone to his very confused wife. All part of a colourful experience, I thought as I plotted a route off-campus which wouldn’t take me past his office.
I don’t know why I attract the creeps. I don’t know why, the last time I was in London, I was asked out by three men between the tube station and my friend’s house, or why, the time before, someone followed me to her door. I don’t know why it’s me who men choose to feel up when we’re dancing, or why they think that I will be receptive to their advances as they offer a phone number or a walk home. Are you thinking that these things happen to all women, not just to me? I know that they happen to me significantly more than they do to my friends, I don’t know how often they happen to you. More importantly to me, I honestly don’t know why they happen. I’ve been through so many reasons. Am I too friendly, too smiley, too open, too likely to flirt, too sluttily dressed? I’ve tried changing my behaviour in all sorts of ways, but it keeps on coming. I begin to think that blaming myself is like feeling guilty for having conversations about poetry when I was fourteen. It’s wasn’t my action, it was his.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to find a polite way to tell a man twice my age that I’m really not interested. I’ve been hiding behind pillars to avoid a man at dancing who stares at me. I don’t know if he still does it, as I’m scared of encouraging him by looking his way. Last night a man put my hand on his penis again, this time over his trousers. When you’re in the middle of a crowded room, snatching your hand away from someone’s crotch, you do begin to ask what’s going on.
I still don’t think anything terrible is going to happen. Dance halls are not good venues for assault, sexual or otherwise. Overfriendly middle aged men are more lonely than violent. All the same, I can’t tell you how much I wish they would stop.
I’ve tried telling people about the staring man. I’m told that he’s reacting to my nice dress, that he thinks I’m attractive. It’s been implied that I’m paranoid. It’s difficult, apparently, watching women dance. There’s always one creep, it’s no big deal. Some men find it difficult to interact with women, we should make ourselves clear. The men don’t take it seriously; I wonder if they have considered who they are aligning themselves with?
At midnight last night I scanned the room to see if anyone was available for the last dance. An overweight man lumbered towards me, and I thought “if he waddles, rather than walks, how is he going to dance?” Nevertheless, I politely accepted his invitation, on the basis that good manners cost me only the length of a single track. I submitted to being pressed into his sweaty side and having my hips and waist pawed for a couple of minutes, then escaped his clutches. A couple of minutes later he appeared beside me and leered, “are you here alone?” At the same moment I realised I’d lost my keys. I was stranded twenty miles from my locked house, in the middle of the night, with a creepy man who wouldn’t leave me be. I tried to shake him by walking to the car park and back, but he waited. I repeatedly told him I’d be fine, but he lurked, and as the crowd cleared I realised I would soon be alone with him. I thought I’d managed to lose him, but he pulled up in a car and told me to get in. I was rescued by a woman half my height and weight, who told him, in no uncertain terms, where to go.*
She made me very, very happy.
I’ve had enough of creepy men. You should have, too. On a bad day I feel as if I’m living my life under siege. I think if a single one of the men I’ve mentioned it to understood that, they wouldn’t make excuses for the starers, the pinchers, the feelers and the lurkers. They wouldn’t want to think of themselves as in the same category. They don’t have to do anything inappropriately manly, there’s no need for a confrontation, but, men, I could do with a hand. If you see me struggling to get away from another creep, because there’s always going to be another one, you could make your presence known. Perhaps you could even whisk me off for a nice, chaste dance. I can’t tell you how much I would appreciate it.
*It isn’t relevant to creepy men, but you might like to know that my rescuer and her friend, both good friends of my father, calmed me down, drove me home, offered to climb up ladders and through windows, but didn’t have to because I had neglected to lock the back door. United with my spare set of car keys, I was driven back to my car and not left alone until they’d checked I was happy, safe and sufficiently fuelled. Some people are just amazing.
I have been conscious, ever since I wrote Can Feminists Jive?, that I may have been a little unfair to ‘Jive Magazine’. Was I looking so hard for sexism that I would have found it in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, let alone some poor monthly publication for a handful of jive enthusiasts? So I decided to approach the new edition with an open mind. Not open enough to pay for a copy, but enough to flick through my father’s and see if it was actually as infuriatingly sexist as I remember.
It made a good start with this cover photo. Yes, there’s a young, blonde woman in a sexy pose, but then there’s also a hot man with attractive stubble and a sleeveless shirt to reveal his muscular arms in the sexy pose with her. Even-handed objectification, that’s what I like to see.
Unfortunately, inside the magazine objectification seems to be centred on women again. I recognise that women tend to be more scantily clad than men while dancing, but you’ve got to go out of your way to find anyone in fishnets and bunny ears or a PVC French maid’s outfit. They managed it, along with photos of women reading the magazine while wearing bikinis (there’s an odd aura of ‘readers’ wives’ around that one). I’m all for dancing, and for porn, but if you’re going to sell dancing porn, can’t I have pics of half-naked men, too?
Among articles on famous dancers, choreography, competitions, shoes and two pages of dance-related horoscopes, there one piece promised to tell me how to avoid sitting out dances. With diagrams. I had high hopes.
I hate sitting out. I hate it when I’ve sat out one track, and, re-screwed my water bottle hopefully at its end, to look up and see that no one has even made it back from the dance floor, but merely grabbed the nearest person and begun again. On a bad day, it makes me feel like an inadequate dancer, ugly, unattractive and lacking in charm. On a good day, I recognise its origins in the gendered partner system and surplus of women.
The ‘Dance Doctor’ promises to solve my problem, claiming, “this by the way isn’t sex bias, but as most clubs seems to be 60/40 female to male, it’s more important the girls give themselves every advantage to nab that bloke!” Actually, ‘Dance Doctor’, it’s not. I’m not trying to nab anyone, I merely want to dance. If the male: female ratio means that I have to sit out a couple of dances, I’m not going to scheme and connive to do other women (there aren’t usually any girls there) out of their share.
He not only assumes a level of competitiveness I’ve never witnessed (for a job, yes, but a two minute dance? No), but has very complex behavioural codes for women. Are you sitting in the wrong place, shyly awaiting a man’s attention? It’s your own fault if you never get picked. Or do you stand between the bar and the dance floor, and actually ask men if they would like to dance? Then you’re a “vulture,” and the men are your “pray[sic].” Does this remind you of something? Yes, you’re right, it’s the virgin/whore dichotomy! If you aren’t getting men, you ought to be trying harder, and if you are, you must be aggressive, devouring men and sadistically keeping them from water and rest. How dare you? Fortunately, there is a demure way to get a dance. The Doctor says “offer the hand, or those puppy dog eyes, maybe even mouth those words; ‘Would you like to dance[?]’” Do everything you can to avoid actually asking. Plead with your eyes, sneak up on the question and maybe, voicelessly, half-ask. Otherwise you’re a vulture.
I think the article has done me good. No more am I going to sit, silently, on the sidelines, passively waiting for a man to seek me out. Do I want to be the sort of woman who makes puppy dog eyes at a man? Do I think men are objects to be competed over or ‘nabbed’ like the largest cookie? Certainly not. So from now on, I’m asking them straight out.
Another article, by “Bev the Dance Diva” displays just as much sexism (there’s no gender discrimination about who can write sexist articles for this magazine!). She seems to have made the simple mistake of confusing dancing and sex. There are obviously points where they blur into each other. However, if you saw some of the men I dance with, I’m sure you’d agree that sex is the last thing on my mind, and I’m quite comfortable with the fact that many men would consider me with the same indifference. I choose my sexual partners with much more care than my dance partners. Doesn’t she?
Criticising a man’s dancing “is equal to passing judgement on his sexual performance,” apparently. I agree that it’s rather impolite. All the same, I now know who to blame for all those men who think they give great oral sex because their ex-girlfriends never complained. In a rare moment of self-reflection, she writes “Sounds like I am some sort of dance floor prostitute, out there to service the male dancer or worse a 1950’s housewife pandering to her chauvinist husband’s ego.” Yes, dear, it does. Instead of considering why she feels the need to seduce every man she comes across, though, she explains her method: “My mother told me that men want women to be the epitome of vestal virgins one minute and harlots the next. I might dance as if I am just that.” She goes on to explain that she achieves this by intermittently wiggling her hips. Good to know.
By the end of the article, she’s got to the nub of her obsession. “For men, is a good dance with a pretty girl always a precursor to thinking about having sex with her? A large cross section of my male dancer friends tell me that if the girl is good looking then yes.” Breaking: men like sex with women they fancy. There’s more, but this is sapping my will to type.
Why do I care? I love to dance. I already have to overcome the challenges of the gendered roles, sexist teachers and men with wandering hands. There are a significant number of men who seem to think that I make my body public property by stepping onto the dance floor. They make comments about my looks, touch me without asking, use me as a demonstration model and sometimes put their sweaty bodies far too close to mine. They are a minority, and I’d like them to stay that way. What I don’t need is Bev the ‘Dance Diva’ telling them that I’m looking for a quasi-sexual experience, with romance and danger, or that I’m trying to seduce them with every move of my hips. Nor do I need the ‘Dance Doctor’ telling them that I’ve scrambled over the bruised bodies of several more feminine women with puppy dog eyes in my desperation to drag them to the floor. To do this, we’ll have to recognise dancing for what it is: a leisure activity, out of which can come many things, including sex, love, sparkly shoes and once, in my case, the chance to have my neck immortalised in a statue of Aphrodite. If you’re looking for that, though, you’d best begin by offering yourself as an artist’s model, and by the same token, dancing hardly guarantees sex. Even if people do turn up to jive events trying to pull, the ones who fork out £2.40 for ‘Jive Magazine’ are, I would wager, the ones who are serious about dancing. Almost embarrassingly so, when you see the adverts for dancing holidays and strangely named ‘Weekenders’.
‘Jive Magazine’ caters to dance enthusiasts. One day, will we be able to talk about jive without resorting to crude stereotypes of the women who do it? By the magazine’s own claims, more women are interested than men. Who does it pay to insult them?
I began a post on sex work recently. I thought it was rather good. Then a man was charged with murdering three women who sold sex on the streets of Bradford. Suddenly, everyone was talking about prostitutes. The Prime Minister was saying that we should reconsider legalising prostitution in response to the murders. On Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ the members of the panel spoke about the right of consenting adults to do as they will. All of the fallacies I find in my reading about sex work became relevant to an horrific situation. Yes, they were selling sex. More relevantly, they were walking through dangerous parts of Bradford, alone, to undertake work which carries high risks of violence, and they were doing it for £20-£30 a time. I have no doubt that prostitution can be a free choice. These particular sex workers, though, can only have acted from desperation.
From what I can tell, there are two camps of people throwing stones at each other, one claiming that sex work is empowering and fun, calling the other side prudes, and another claiming that sex workers are exploited, and calling the other side naive. It all feels like a fabricated argument to me.
Let’s clear one thing up. No one ever has a ‘free’ choice. We don’t live in a cultural vacuum. When I get dressed today my choice is constrained by cultural expectations of my gender, by what I can afford, by the weather and what is in the laundry basket. Most of us can agree that the cultural expectations which forced women into corsets restricted our freedom. The norms which mean we can’t walk around naked have gained general acceptance, however. Somewhere in the middle, mixed in with high heels and push up bras, is the line between freedom and coercion. Let me know if you can pin down exactly where it is.
In sex work we can see examples of more, and less free choices. Pandora Blake sounds like she has a great time making her spanking porn. Every now and again I come across blogs by escorts living in central London, screening their clients carefully and charging £200 an hour. I read books like ‘Whores and Other Feminists’ full of essays by workers in collectively run San Franscio strip clubs. They, like accountants, lecturers, salesmen and shop assistants may or may not be happy, but their career choices are hardly likely to keep me awake at night. The women who are walking dangerous streets because they need money to feed drug addictions aren’t in the same category. The women sold into sexual slavery aren’t in the same category. They aren’t free.
I support the law which makes it illegal to have sex with a pimped or trafficked woman. I don’t understand how men can participate in the torture of women, through repeated rape, and reward its organisers. However, I know that men do, and that while clients are often aware that they are paying for sex with a coerced woman, very few will even go so far as to report it to the police. Is the law going to be difficult to enforce? Yes. That’s no reason not to legislate, though. Murders still happen, and we’re all agreed on that law. In fact, if no one was going to try to break it, there wouldn’t be much point in criminalising it, would there?
There are sex workers who need help, the addicts, the prisoners, the children. The rest of them, I’m sure, have good days and bad, they make their choices and take their cash. So I should just leave them to it, right? And yet, I am a little uncomfortable about it. When I hear the stories of women selling their bodies—bodies like mine—for £20, I’m insulted by the low price. I have this fantastic body, people tell me they desire it all the time, and you’re selling one just like it for £20?! On the other hand, the stories of women making £200 an hour distress me because people told me that getting straight As, a degree from a good university and an MA from another one would mean that I could get a great job. Well, I’m currently waiting to see if I will be taken on as a temp, but I could make more money than I ever have by selling what every woman has. I object to the fact that so much value is placed in my body, what I am, rather than what I do and who I have become.
Yes, I’m fickle.
I can understand the power and the freedom in choosing to take money for what so many inadequate boyfriends thought they should get for free. Just because I’m a woman, I’m expected to invest a huge amount of time, effort and cash in my appearance. Through sex work I can turn it to profit. I can refuse to conform to society’s model for a good woman, a model which I’ve found constrictive, insulting and puritanical. I can play the system, and a woman will come out on top for once. I read ‘King Kong Theory’ and cheered.
On the other hand, given how much effort I put into altering society’s perception of women, it is annoying to see someone else undoing all my good work, and profiting from it. I try to convince men that I’m more than a sexual object. I spent last Thursday night patiently explaining to an ignorant man that women like sex, too. I’m constantly trying to convince people, through my selfless example, that a woman can be non-monogamous and bisexual without being some sort of hyper-sexualised slut born of their fantasies. Then sex workers come along and play into all the stereotypes because they can profit personally. You think the way you do it can change minds? Look at the perception of prostitutes in this paper.
Sex workers aren’t the only ones doing it. Hell, we all do it, one way or another. Even my butch ex-girlfriend used to flirt with women to get me discounts in dress shops. I put on my red dress and make up when I go dancing, because I think that looking nice will induce more men to dance with me, making for a better night out. Am I pulling together with the sisterhood for the common good? The frumpy middle aged women probably don’t think so, but I don’t care.
Recognising that few feminists can honestly say we’ve never played into objectification for goods, services or self-esteem, perhaps we could stop hounding the sex workers for being the most visible practitioners of it. And perhaps those who are shouting so loudly about the lack of respect feminists show to sex workers could recognise that they are not puritans, but women trying to do what they think is right for themselves and others, including those in actual need of intervention to prevent exploitation. Best of all, we could stop throwing things at each other. Not because we ultimately agree—I’m quite sure we don’t—but because the squabbling doesn’t appear to be helping anyone. Perhaps we could all just shut up about it, and blog about important things instead.
I don’t like pole dancing. I don’t like exotic dancing, and I certainly don’t like lap dancing. I recognise that there’s some gradation from artful spinning around a pole to grinding a man to orgasm with your naked buttocks, but I’m sorry, I don’t like it.
I’ve had to confront my dislike of it in the last two weeks. One of my characters got a job in a gentlemen’s club. I can’t actually go to one myself, because they require women to be accompanied by a man, and I don’t have any local male acquaintances I would be willing to ask. I could take pole dancing lessons, though. I haven’t so far, because I have been able to find an excuse every Wednesday.
Next month there’s a burlesque workshop on in Leeds. I’m so excited! It’s much further away, longer and more expensive than the pole dancing, but who cares? I could learn burlesque! I can see myself in heels and stockings, learning how to sensually slip elbow-length gloves from my fingers. I have a burning desire to be a burlesque dancer.
Surely if I find pole dancing repulsive, I should feel the same about burlesque. The purpose of both is to make entertainment for men out of the female body. They are, at core, commodifying and objectifying. I’ve always assumed that my objection to strip-clubs was a feminist one. Now, I’m not so sure.
Given that I love burlesque, could my objection to pole dancing be based in class? Pole dancing is trashy. Its fabric is nylon and its heels are Perspex. It is available in every town to everyone (male), the staple of sleazy middle-management men and stag parties. Burlesque, made of silk and satin, is an entirely different beast. Or do I resent the pressure that pole dancing puts on me, as it becomes more popular and its looks become more mainstream? No one wonders why I’m not dressed like a burlesque dancer (to the best of my knowledge) but high heels and thongs seem to be expected. Is my love of burlesque simply the effect of nostalgia on something equally terrible?
I’ve been going around in circles like this for weeks. Tonight, I identified my feeling about pole dancing. It’s the same feeling I get when I tell my father what I’m making for dinner, and he says “I’d rather have beans on toast.”
It’s sadness, rejection, disappointment, betrayal. I’m quite a good cook. I bake my own bread. My scones are light and my pastry crisp. My meringues are little white crumb-bombs, as they should be. Last week, I even made my own butter. So why does he reject my offering in favour of a tin of beans coated in sugar and salt, topping shop-bought bread?
I can recognise a diversity of tastes I don’t share. You may eat pheasant, or fancy blondes. Fine. The thing is, though, that women are great. They vary. They can be sexy, and funny, and acquire skills like martial arts or meringue making. The whole culture around pole dancing, lap dancing and stripping seems to conspire to make women less than they are. I’ve come across numerous dancers saying they dumb down to please the guys. It’s not just that they are reduced to a body, but that they dress up in cheap fabrics and trashy shoes to embody a fantasy, and that there’s nothing clever or subtle about that fantasy or it’s practice (although I bet it’s hard work). It’s the sexual equivalent of beans on toast.
So that’s why I don’t like pole dancing. I spent all this time learning to make meringues, and I’m disappointed there’s no one here to eat them. All the same, recognising that this is a journey, I’m going to give it a go. I’ll go to the pole dancing class, as well as the burlesque class, and I’ll let you know how it goes.
Oh, and if you know anyone in Yorkshire who’d like to take me to a strip club or a burlesque show this weekend, do let me know.
Are partner dances inherently sexist? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a couple of times a week since I started modern jive four months ago. The whole system seems to be predicated on male dominance. The men lead, choosing the moves and signalling to the ladies, who constantly read their partner, responding to his unspoken signals. The entire endeavour of a woman at modern jive is to do what their man tells them and look pretty while doing it. This doesn’t sound like an activity for a feminist.
The problem is that I enjoy it. I like the music, the exercise, the chance to meet people and, yes, there’s a part of me that likes the male attention, the chance to wear pretty dresses and twirl about the dance floor led by a firm, masculine hand. So I wonder, am I indulging my inner princess at the expense of the rest of myself?
It must be said that sex isn’t the last word on roles in modern jive. At every class I attend there are always one or two women taking the leader role. They are a tiny, tiny minority, though. Almost all women choose to follow. Only once have I seen a man take that role, for a couple of minutes to help out a friend who was having difficulty with a move. It seems that, as in most things, women may take on a man’s role, but men will not stoop to take on a woman’s.
In some sense, it seems that I can hardly complain about a role which I have freely chosen. I contest, however, that it is not an entirely free choice. Stepping outside others’ expectations is never easy, and even if people don’t make negative comments a certain amount of confusion would ensue. Learning to dance at all is enough of a challenge for me.
The division of roles creates a strong sense of gender, but the negative aspects are amplified by gender imbalance. There are usually more women than men at an event. More than once I have felt like a minor character in a Jane Austen novel as I took a seat and hoped that by the beginning of the next dance a man would pick me. Men are a scarce resource for which women compete. So, during those long minutes between dances, I sink into comparing myself with other women. Why did she get a dance and not me? Would I be chosen if wore a dress as tight as hers? If I danced closer? If I was skinnier, or wore sparklier shoes? If only I wasn’t so tall, the short men wouldn’t avoid me, and if I wasn’t so big, the men who like the dips and leans would be able to throw me about. Now and again the rivalry spills over into bitterness. When a woman said, last week, “there are too many women here, aren’t there?”, I had to bite my tongue not to retort “yes, that’s because you and your marauding band of middle aged divorcees walked in after the lesson!” I suffer dancer jealousy when I notice that a woman has repeatedly been picked by one of my favoured partners and a sense of smugness when I am the one chosen. It can’t do much for sisterhood!
Still, I’m not sure that I can blame the dance form for our communal psychosis. When so much of culture is telling women that they need to be skinnier, prettier, and more exuding of charm to ingratiate themselves with men, and that this is a worthy aim in life, it is hardly surprising that these thoughts perpetuate through dancing as well as dates, manicures and waits with the magazines at the dentist.
People don’t help, though. Teachers say “girls” when they mean “ladies”, so infantilise a room full of women, some of whom are well past retirement age. People make sexist jokes about men’s temporary power. Instructors assume that men need to be told not to stare at women’s breasts during moves which give them the opportunity and male partners often invade my personal space and furtively grope at available flesh.
Representations of modern jive hardly paint a picture which would dissuade the gropers. ‘Jive Magazine’ features a dancing couple (the image above) on the cover of its current issue. The sexualisation of the man’s outfit is restricted to a few undone buttons. The woman, on the other hand, is presented to the camera, clad in a sequinned bra and fishnet gloves, revealing a lot of cleavage, her stomach and two very toned legs. Don’t get me wrong, if I had a stomach as flat as that, I’d want to show it off, too. I do think it says something, though, that this image was chosen; it doesn’t exactly send out the message that woman’s role is not primarily a sexual one. It’s worse inside. Karen Sweeney offers advice on “How to be popular on the dancefloor”:
“Guys: I know we girlies sometimes tempt you with the occasional low neckline, but don’t forget where our faces are.”
I am in no way a girlie. I’m getting on for six foot tall in my dancing shoes and even with the addition of ribbons and bows there’s nothing sweet about me. Partners may also want to consider the possibility that I’m not wearing the low cut dress to tempt them personally. Statistically, it is unlikely that I’m dressing for you.
Sweeny goes on:
“Dancing is the vertical expression of horizontal desire. They say that a lady can tell by the way a guy dances how good he is in bed. Think about it…no pressure then!”
Dancing is sometimes an expression of desire, but then, washing up, performed provocatively enough, is too. Most of the people I dance with are decidedly unattractive to me. I’m sure that they would be as horrified as I am at the idea that our dances were indications of anything sexual, not least because often they are performed under the gazes of their wives and my father. That isn’t to say that dancing never leads me to think of sex. I haven’t slept with anyone since January; glancing through car windows in traffic jams makes me think of sex.
Where does all this leave us? Is modern jive, like the current craze for pole dancing, a way of making a sexual spectacle out of women’s bodies for the enjoyment of men? Not in my experience. The sexual element is present, as it is in all human interactions, but no more so. Some people use dance for sexual access; I’ve met men with wandering hands and women looking for a second husband (there may be women with wandering hands, too, they’ve just never felt me up, and men seeking wives who just haven’t proposed to me). It is also true, however, that a sizable number of people come looking for a lover and discover that they don’t want one after all, now that dancing fills the lonely evenings.
There are problems. Most of them are not inherent to the form of dance, but products of social ineptitude and opportunism. The gendered elements of jive are not set in stone. It isn’t a feminist dance, but it could be, if we chose to make it so. At a Salsa workshop with a great imbalance of men and women, the instructor did away with the language of ‘ladies’ and ‘men’ and gave us instead the options of ‘follower’ or ‘leader’. That will probably never be widespread, but choosing your own role, rather than allowing your gender to choose it for you, could be more common. It would be good to see same sex dancing partners more regularly, too. I’ll offer myself to help the cause.
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy wearing swirly skirts twirling under the hands of authoritative men. Please don’t think too badly of me.
This week another story about the sexualisation of children hit; Primark has been selling padded bikinis for seven year olds. These outrages come around every now and again. Previously, Tesco gave us the pole dancing kit for children to “release the sex kitten inside,” and even now, shops help little girls store their phallic signifiers in Playboy pencil cases. This week, a Guardian researcher dug up a “Future WAG” T shirt for three year olds and some high heeled shoes in small sizes.
My main thought after finishing the article about the bikinis was not “save our kids from paedo Primark!” but, “how do you make a bikini for £4?” Is there some poor child making these in a Bangladeshi sweatshop? It seems unlikely that anyone is being paid a fair wage. None of that is pertinent, however.
I’m often shocked by what kids wear. I’m shocked by what a lot of adults wear, too. Perhaps I’m just easily shocked. Children in heels and make-up, children in bikinis and push up bras, trouble me. They worry me in the same way that little boys playing with toy guns do. We are teaching children their role and giving them little chance to escape it. But I really don’t think that we can blame Primark.
I don’t like big multinationals. I knit my own jumpers and I think tofu is delicious. When I think of Primark I think of slave labour, environmentally destructive cotton growing and transportation, a wasteful culture in which clothes are considered disposable, and ugly, scratchy, garments, cheaply made out of synthetic fabric. I’m a snob. I am, however, a snob whose father works for a multinational. While the activists rail, I hear from the other side, too. It’s surprising how often the other side is rather reasonable. “How can you still be selling baby milk in X, after all the harm you did there?” I ask. “It was designed to save children whose mothers don’t produce milk. You think we should let them die?” he answers. More recently “Why are all your ready meals full of fat, salt and sugar?” “ Because when we stopped putting them in, people stopped buying them.” Oh. Good point.
Culture is powerful and children are infinitely suggestible. However, Primark wouldn’t be stocking padded bikinis for children if no one wanted to buy them, or, at least, they wouldn’t be stocking them for very long. The grownups are spending the money. The grownups are in moral paroxysms about the products. The fuss is getting so great, though, that I can’t help thinking that there is more to it than worries over the failure of feminism to release women from objectification. I’ve seen the handful of people who turn out for Object’s rallies. Women’s objectification doesn’t seem to upset more than a few feminists, who nonetheless shave their legs because it isn’t socially acceptable not to. So why the fuss when it comes to children?
I think that the language of the article in the Sun gives a valuable clue. With accusations that Primark’s bikini encourages paedophilia as “little girls wearing them would be sexualised and made attractive to predatory perverts,” and the coining of the term “paedophile pound” it invokes the threatening figure of the sexual predator. There are two objects of incontrovertible hate in our society: Nazis and paedophiles. They are the big bad wolves of our culture. The fact that most children suffer at the hands of family members doesn’t influence our image of the paedophile, lurking behind the bushes to drag away little girls for rape and murder. The paedophile has to be absolutely, uncontrovertibly other. He cannot be like us, he is not one of us. His life can’t even be allowed to resemble us. Why? Because we don’t want to admit the truth, and if we saw our similarities we would have to. This is the truth: we fancy children.
There, I’ve said it. I hope you’re shocked. Even if you are revolted and angry, stay with me for a moment to examine the evidence.
I started with the Sun, hoping to be able to make a point about the fact that they like to publish pictures of young women, as if it were impossible to be attractive over the age of thirty. But what I found was an article about how a twenty-seven year old celebrity is a “cougar”, because she finds a teenage boy attractive:
“She said: “I love Justin. I think he’s gorgeous.
“It’s kind of that you feel wrong for fancying him. I’m 27. His songs are amazing. I’d be a cougar for him. But it is wrong,”
Comedienne Shappi Khorsandi, – also on Monday’s BBC1 show – joked that men must have felt the same about fancying Billie when she was a teen pop star at just 15.”
Do you think that men felt uncomfortable about fancying Billie Piper? I don’t. Do you think that we’d feel the need to come up with a special name for a man who fancies younger women? No, I think that “heterosexual man” pretty much covers that base.
Our society is obsessed with youth. We sell it in bottles and surgical treatments, and we ogle it everywhere. Female TV presenters are sacked when they get to a certain age, because their function is primarily sexual and their sexual value has a sell-by date. Why do you think that the American high-school film has become a hugely popular genre? Could it possibly be because we get to ogle teenage girls for an hour and a half? Many of the beauty regimes we grown women follow to make ourselves attractive to men also make us resemble children. Why do porn stars shave off all, or almost all, of their pubic hair, in addition to the rest of their body hair? Are the rest of us expected to do that, too?
Dan and Dan sum up the situation excellently with “Bring back capital punishment for paedophiles; Photo feature on schoolgirl skirt styles.” I think that pornography holds the key to the issue of our obsession with paedophilia. Pornography is fantasy, a repository for desires we don’t admit to. It also influences desire, especially now that it is universally accessible—in fact unavoidable—online.
A couple of years ago I picked up five porn magazines at random in a motorway service station. None of them have pictures of mature women, although one youngster is labelled a “Mother I’d Like to Fuck.” There are numerous pictures of young blondes with pigtails and white cotton underwear, advertising sex lines with captions like “I’m 18, I really am, why would I lie?” and “I’m not so innocent.” One photo series set in a classroom lets us share in a Japanese schoolgirl’s “self-exploration.” Props include a teddy bear, a lollipop, plastic animals and, weirdly, a Halloween pumpkin. Youth is clearly at a premium in pornography (winter squashes less so).
I think I’m fairly open minded. I might laugh at your sexual fantasies (you on Fetlife with the yellow cagoule, I’m talking about you), but you’re welcome to them. Nevertheless, I saw red when I came across the feature “Fancy a Lolita?” in Sexscape. It begins by singing the praises of underage girls, and then provides a handy guide to fucking them, because “inexperienced dolls with lovely slim bodies are agonizingly attractive to middle aged and older guys. What are you waiting for?”
Apparently fast food restaurants and cinemas are the best places to find ‘Lolitas’, and older men are sure to get a good response because they are more exciting than homework. They should be sure not to give out their address, though, for fear of retributions from angry fathers. The risks are worth it, though, because her beauty, her innocence and her inexperience combine to make her the best sex object around. She’s more easily turned on than adult women, and apparently even tastes better. Like Brita-filtered water, I’m sure.
So this is what I know: there’s a group of people who are very angry about little girls wearing clothes which they perceive as the markers of sexual availability, and there’s a group of people who think that girls are sexy precisely because they don’t act or dress like adult women, and haven’t been sexually available to other men. It sounds to me like they are both on the same side.
I’ve never been tempted to sleep with a child. I have been attracted to people who were under eighteen, mostly when I was under eighteen, too. I’m twenty-five, and now and again I notice a beautiful teenager. I wouldn’t want to get involved with one, independence is an important quality in a lover, and teenagers don’t (or shouldn’t) possess it. But every time I buy into the culture which sells us young flesh, in the form of a face cream, a bikini wax or an album by a teenage pop star with a raunchy music video, I help it along a little bit.
I think that we all need to do a little bit of soul searching. Let the children be.