Archive for March, 2013

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, does it really matter if it answers to the name of Jemima?

In the New Statesman this week, Laurie Penny furrows her brow into a familiar pattern.

In recent months, as I’ve travelled around the world giving talks about anti-capitalism and women’s rights, I’ve had the same conversation countless times: men telling me, “I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist.” Or young women, explaining that despite believing in the right to equal pay for equal work, despite opposing sexual violence, despite believing in a woman’s right to every freedom men have enjoyed for centuries, they are not feminists. They are something else, something that’s very much like a feminist but doesn’t involve having to say the actual word.

It’s a point that recurs with metronomic regularity. Last year a Netmums survey found that only 14% of women respondents identified as feminists, sparking some gleeful celebrations on the reactionary right and no little soul-searching within the feminist movement. Every time a female pop star, celebrity or businesswoman tells an interviewer “I’m not a feminist but…” the debate begins again – does feminism have an image problem? Should it be rebranded? Should women who enjoy voting rights, reproductive freedoms and protection from discrimination and harassment be obliged to honour the feminist flag under which those freedoms were won? I really don’t understand why it matters.

The most crucial information in Laurie’s article, it seems to me, is that the young women she talked to believe in equal pay, opposing sexual violence and equal access to every freedom enjoyed by men.  In describing themselves as “equalists”, we can presume that her male interlocutors shared those beliefs. That’s good, isn’t it?  There are many women (and indeed men) who work tirelessly for social justice and human rights while eschewing the F-word, or at the very least consider such issues within their personal package of democratic and political engagement.

Feminism is an easy cloak to discard, and equally easy to adopt. Sarah Palin is a prominent member of Feminists For Life, an anti-abortion lobby group. Several Tory MPs declare themselves feminist while championing social and economic policies that are devastating domestic and sexual violence services. For over a decade the US, UK and allied governments have been using the language of feminism to justify wars of aggression, military strikes and drone attacks, with countless thousands of women among their innocent victims. On the High Street, a feminist marketing gloss has been sprayed over every variety of self-empowering hedonism and non-biodegradable consumer tat imaginable.  When evaluating the health of feminism, is it really a simple matter of the more the merrier?

Perhaps the most profound section of Laurie’s essay explains why she rejects labels like “equalist.”

 I have no interest in equality with men within a system of class and power that slowly squeezes the spirit out of most people unfortunate enough not to be born into wealth. I have no interest in settling for a few more places for women on the boards of big banks. I believe the world would be better served if we had no women in those boardrooms – and no men, either; not if they intend to continue to foist the debts run up by their recklessness on to the backs of poor women across the world.

Laurie is here positioning feminism firmly behind the barricades of radical politics. She is a feminist, not an equalist, precisely because she is socialist and anti-capitalist. Where does that leave those who advocate equal gender rights while supporting neoliberal free-market capitalism? Are they not really feminists, even if they opt to wear the badge? That would appear to be the implication. Personally I don’t identify as feminist, but don’t disagree with a word of the paragraph above. Where does that leave me?

As something of an aside, I am also suspicious myself of terms like “equalist” and “egalitarian” as alternatives to feminism. These terms have no agreed ideological basis, but to the best of my understanding they usually stem from a Panglossian faith in meritocracy, equal opportunities and a childishly liberal conception of free choice. There is no appreciation of the massive impacts of hegemony, social circumstances and cultural conditioning upon access to those opportunities and upon influencing those choices. Equalism is a call for everyone to play by the same rules, without acknowledging that there is no level playing field to begin with.

It seems to me that feminism cannot have it both ways. Either it is a radical movement for change that demands a fundamental overhaul of our political, social and economic structures or else it represents a vague, platitudinous commitment to equal opportunities for women. By the latter definition, we would expect a high proportion of the population to adopt the label. If it is the former, we must accept that the majority of people – by definition – are not political radicals, so will be unlikely to describe themselves thus.  If only one in seven women describes herself as a feminist, is that troubling, or exactly as things should be if feminism is doing its job in challenging the foundations of society?

This is certainly not a call for women or men to reject the flag of feminism, or for that matter to adopt it. I will continue to applaud and support those who fight for social justice and civil rights across the board, while doing my best to condemn and resist those who foster discrimination, inequality, hatred, exploitation or violence of all sorts. What descriptive labels they do or do not wear seem to me entirely irrelevant.

That said, there are obviously feminists to whom it does matter. I’ll sign off by asking any feminist readers – in a spirit of genuine inquiry because I would love to know – does it matter to you that most women do not adopt the label of feminism, and if so, why?



UPDATE (18/03/13, 11pm) Katherine Sacks-Jones has  just sent me a link to a recent article of hers on Labourlist which addresses just this question.  It gives maybe the strongest answer:

We need to be able to name these injustices and inequalities and the movement that unites us against them.

It rather echoes a good comment made below by jellypopblogger.

I can understand the point they both make. I can understand why movements against women’s oppression need a name, and I can understand why feminists want as many women as possible to be involved in that campaign.

But I think it is a slightly different point to the one that I was getting at. I wasn’t challenging the need for activism or the need for a movement called feminism, or for the need to get more people involved in it. I was more thinking about the great majority of the population who are not politically active, beyond voting occasionally and chatting to their friends online or off. I think it is important that those people believe in equal rights, believe in equality, believe in challenging violent cultures etc. I still think that it is rather less important that they describe themselves as feminists in doing so. So for example, I wouldn’t see any cause to celebrate if right wing Republican or Tory politicians and their millions of supporters start to call themselves feminists if their underlying beliefs don’t alter.

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There’s a Gordian knot of a conundrum that I’ve been trying to unpick for a long time. I think I may have finally untangled it and reached what I hope you will agree is an unarguable conclusion: The single most effective preventative measure to protect society from sexual and domestic abuse is a picture of a kitten.

You may be sceptical, but let me explain. Over the past couple of decades, access to the internet and other digital communication technologies has increased exponentially to become the most important and influential portal to information, entertainment and media since the invention of television. More than two thirds of Europeans use the internet once a week or more, and we’re still behind the Americans. This, I hope, is uncontroversial.

This revolution has blessed the world with communication and knowledge, but principally it has brought a limitless stash of pornography directly into the living rooms and bedrooms of the developed world.  Much of the human race is now just a couple of clicks away from any manner of nudity, erotica, hardcore fuck films, sadomasochism, bondage, cock and ball torture and enough depravity to make de Sade say sacre bleu!  Whatever individual tastes and fantasies one might have, there is a porn site somewhere that’s just for you. All the evidence is that large proportions of the population, including or especially younger people, have, to some extent, availed themselves occasionally or regularly of the opportunities on offer. I’d furnish you with statistics, but that would require me to Google the word “pornography” and I‘d never get this blog finished. Again, all of this is uncontroversial and so I hope you can take it on trust.

Since the 1960s and 70s there have been enormous efforts made by social scientists and researchers to establish whether exposure to pornography is harmful. Actually cancel that, it is not true. Since the 1960s and 70s there have been enormous efforts made by social scientists and researchers to prove that pornography is or is not harmful, in accordance with their prior assumptions. Pretty much every study that has ever set out to demonstrate harm has demonstrated harm, while virtually every study that has set out to demonstrate that there is no harm has demonstrated that there is no harm. Funny that.

There are genuine grounds for concern about the effects of pornography on the individual and their relationships, in terms of habitual and addictive behaviour, skewed perspectives on human sexuality, blisters on the palms of the hands and so on. But socially and politically, by far the most important question is whether exposure to pornography increases the likelihood that someone will commit violent and sexual crime, most obviously against women and girls. The role of porn, and more broadly a heavily sexualised culture, is cited constantly as a major factor in discussions of sexual and partner violence. In a speech to a meeting this Monday, Jon Cruddas MP placed the issue at the heart of the campaign to prevent violence against women and girls. The NSPCC did the same in relation to sexual abuse of children. A couple of years ago the last government ran a major consultation on domestic violence, and the only causative factor on which they invited comment was pornography and sexualisation.

What such claims ignore is that we are currently in the midst of a humungous real world experiment. If it is true that exposure to pornography is a significant cause of sexual violence and domestic abuse, we would surely expect to see the rates of such crimes rise in keeping with the prevalence of porn. What has happened? Here is a handy graph from the US National Victimization Survey – not reported crimes, but the world’s largest and most authoritative survey on actual trends in attacks over time. I’ve marked the point at which Tim Berners-Lee announced the development of the Hypertext Protocol for the World Wide Web – generally agreed to be the point where this internet stuff began in earnest.


Perhaps there is something unique to the USA there, so let’s look at some different data, the British Crime Survey’s estimates of domestic abuse – again, a large and authoritative victim survey. This time I’ve mapped it against some stats for internet use. I realise they are global, not just UK, but they were the only ones I could find and it would stretch credibility to imagine the British trend has been notably different.DVdecline_graph

It is, as I said at the beginning, a conundrum. For decades we have been told authoritatively that exposure to pornography and the sexualisation of society causes people (or more commonly, men) to become rapists and abusers. And yet at a time when access to and consumption of pornography has increased exponentially, rates of sexual and interpersonal violence, including that against children have been plummeting according to pretty much every available measure.

For a long time, the mainstream feminist and political consensus has assured us that pornography leads to violence and abuse, and they can’t have been lying to us. Something else must be going on. Something has been happening, simultaneous to the pornographic revolution, which has had a powerful enough effect to not only cancel out the harms of porn, but push the overall rates of violence in precisely the opposite direction. So what is it? I propose to you that the answer is kittens. Yes, kittens.

It has been often observed that no matter what random words you type into Google image search, within the first few dozen results there will be a pornographic snap. What must be noted is that the precise same thing is true of pictures of kittens. Try it. What’s more, at least Google has a safe search option which significantly reduces your chances of encountering accidental porn, but there is no kitten filter. Once upon a time kittens were personal things, they lived in a cardboard box under our beds and if we took photos of them we would only rarely show them to special friends. If you wanted to buy a photo of a kitten you had to go to a specialist shop with a name like Athena. Now people are flashing them all over the internet without shame, even setting up webcams so complete strangers all over the world can coo over their kitties. They are ubiquitous, inescapable, and they have undoubtedly saved us from the horrors of Pornogeddon.

Is this credible? It must be. The only other explanation for the available data would be that actually the true causes of violent and sexual crime have little or nothing to do with exposure to erotic (or for that matter violent) media materials, and is much more to do with early socialisation, exposure to and experience of real world violence, emotional neglect, abuse and maltreatment within the family home. That theory would also be in keeping with the available data. Unfortunately it makes for less snappy and sexy soundbites. It’s just so much easier to blame the porn.

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