Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

I’ve been thinking a lot about Antonio Gramsci lately. Hey, a guy’s got to have a hobby. If it makes you feel better, I’ve also been thinking about Britain’s Got Talent, where to find the last gold bricks on the Lego Harry Potter game and Beyonce’s nipple tassles, but will perhaps return to those another day.

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci analysed the history of the Risorgimento, the resurgence of the 19th Century which resulted in Italian unification under a capitalist model then, just a few decades later, the ascent of the very Fascists who had imprisoned him.  He noted that there was a strata of society he called organic intellectuals who performed a different function to the intelligentsia of academics and theorists. His example was the victorious faction within the Risorgimento called the Moderate Party, who served capitalism through a period of crisis and transition, by acting as its agents and deputies in organising the dominant hegemony – the prevailing cultural values that protect the economic status quo by shaping popular perceptions of what is “normal”, “inevitable” or “common sense” (the status quo) and what isn’t (any meaningful challenge to the status quo.)

These organic intellectuals were what we would now call progressives or liberals, speaking the rhetoric of concern and reform. They would wrongly think of themselves as being just like ordinary people. the representatives of the masses, even the voice of the masses, and this was crucial to their role. Genuinely believing they were doing the right thing, they would stifle and quash less privileged voices, preventing the emergence of alternative intellectual input from the ‘people-nation.’ (Gramsci famously believed that everyone is or can be an intellectual, whether one knows it or not.)

Organic intellectuals were genuinely well-intentioned, considering it an act of worthy charity to speak on behalf of the less eloquent and less privileged. They were not only intellectuals, they were political organisers, but drawn from a very narrow social demographic. They would be company bosses, rich farmers or entrepreneurs – “a real organic vanguard of the upper classes to which economically they belonged.”  Their influence was not directly upon the working classes, but upon their liberal admirers in the bourgeoisie, including teachers, writers and creators of popular culture who distribute the messages to the masses in turn.

Why the sudden interest in mid-period Marxist political theory Ally, I hear you ask? Well, back in the late 1920s, Gramsci could not have imagined a purer example of the organic intellectual class than the modern commentariat. In the early, optimistic days of the internet, I naively imagined that unfettered access to new media platforms would threaten the foundations of the organic intellectual. The new world of blogs and social media would shatter the portcullis keeping the hordes from the castle gates, new ideas, new voices would come flooding through. I underestimated the ingenuity of hegemony.  Rather than levelling the playing field between the elites and the masses, social media has simply provided whole new mechanisms for keeping the rabble in line.

This morning, Zoe Williams became the latest blue-chip liberal feminist to join the circling of wagons around the poor, oppressed national newspaper columnists and magazine editors. As you probably know, a powerful clique of intersectional feminists and trans activists have installed themselves as the playground bullies of Twitter, stealing the dinner money from delicate souls like Suzanne Moore, Helen Lewis and Caitlin Moran, who have nowhere to turn for support but their hundreds of thousands of followers, their national columns or their extensive circle of similarly prominent friends.

Apologies for the sarcasm, but the reality is that this is not a fair fight. Nor is it a debate about intersectionality, gender or privilege, because there has been very little engagement in those actual issues. What is happening is a concerted effort by the gatekeepers of feminist discourse to marginalise, pathologise and even intimidate into silence their own internal critics.

She who controls the past controls the future, as Orwell didn’t write, and for an example of how this works, see how the Moore-Burchill saga is now being written into history as having begun with Moore’s comments about Brazilian transsexuals, thus erasing her vicious and offensive tweets in response to being politely challenged. This entirely changes the story to one in which the columnist is the victim, rather than the instigator of the affair. Similarly, a passive-aggressive flounce from Twitter can generate waves of sympathy, notably from fellow /sister members of the elite Twitterati, who (understandably) sympathise with the experience of copping a timeline full of flak from angry detractors, and are quick to tweet about how sad it is that so-and-so has been bullied off Twitter to their vast followings.

This is not me taking sides. For what it is worth, I often disagree with the same groups of (mostly) young, angry intersectional feminists, and have had to devote days to fielding abuse, argument and insult when I’ve written something they don’t like. (I copped a sackful for my last blog, for starters.) It also looks to me like some of the anger is excessive and disproportionate or misguided at times. For example, I found the grief aimed at Helen Lewis over a recent New Statesman debate on feminism rather mystifying. That said, we’d be in a sorry state if there weren’t younger, more passionate voices hurling brickbats at the establishment in frustration at the world. If a few are ill-aimed, that is a small price to pay to avoid reactionary stasis.

It is more important to recognise when the anger and disagreement is coming from a place of good faith. It is perfectly reasonable to reject criticism, perfectly reasonable to block and ignore those who resort to personal abuse and insults, perfectly reasonable to argue back, and perfectly reasonable to quietly turn off Twitter for a break (indeed it is actively recommended.)  I don’t think it is reasonable to use one’s disproportionate profile and platforms to portray one’s critics as bullies or trolls, thereby absolving oneself of any obligation to engage with them.

Zoe Williams ends her article with something of a volte face, acknowledging the need for intersectional approaches and recognising reasons to challenge transphobia. But not before she has added to the celestial chorus of voices from above that have portrayed intersectional critics as a feral, irrational mob of bullies.

For all the talk of intersectionality, privilege, oppression and assorted other post-structural jargon, I can’t help feeling there are more established ways of understanding the dynamics at play. Organic intellectuals have a collective, mutual interest in maintaining their own stranglehold over culture, discourse and language, which sustains their position near the top of the status pyramid.  The collective outrage from much of the liberal-left over recent twitterstorms is, I think, not really about angry disagreement with the points being made and not really about personal abuse and insult. It mostly strikes me as a media elite showing collective affront at being challenged on their inalienable right to set the terms and limits of debate and discourse. What I find most discomfiting in all of this is the tendency of the commentariat to rush to each others’ defence on social media or in their national newspaper columns. If that is not the behaviour of a privileged elite closing ranks, it sure as hell looks like it.

Gramsci, smart old cookie that he was, anticipated all of this and even provided a solution for those who would presume to represent the downtrodden, the oppressed and the marginalised.

“If the relations between intellectuals and the people-nation, between leaders and led, is the result of an organic participation in which feelings and passion become understanding and thence knowledge… then and only then is the relation one of representation.”

Twitter, Facebook, online commenting and blogs have offered us an unprecedented opportunities for organic participation, in which feelings and passion can become understanding. When one withdraws from engagement, when one marginalises and diminishes one’s critics, and when one loses faith in the honesty of critics on our own side, then one loses the right to represent those critics.

That’s a hell of a price to pay for a placid timeline.


Note: Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are available as a free PDF. So too is Roger Simon’s excellent reader Gramsci’s Political Thought

Note on the title, for anyone not Scottish and of a certain age. I grew up listening to this song, and have been waiting for an opportunity to use this joke for about 20 years)

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As I have written many times before, I believe people who are concerned about women’s human rights and wellbeing and about men’s human rights and wellbeing should be natural allies. That’s pretty much the core of my philosophy on gender issues. I’ve made clear my disdain for men’s activists who lay blame for most of men’s problems at the door of feminism. I also despair of the logic which says any and all feminist activism is, by definition, misandrist.

So all things considered, I should have been applauding Lindy West’s blog on Jezebel last week, where she basically made those precise same points. Truth is, I hated it. Partly that was down to the tone, which I found painfully patronising. In lecturing men on the male experience and the extent and nature of men’s problems, she provided a rare example of what we might call “womansplaining.” (Incidentally, a word to male readers – if you want to know why many women get so annoyed by us guys explaining to them what feminism is and should be, read the article, flip the genders and empathise.)

I’d add that in her “Part 4: A list of Men’s Rights issues that feminism is already working on”, she paints a rosy portrait of feminism which ducks most of the more credible complaints. To take just one example, she says:  “Feminists do not want women to escape prosecution on legitimate domestic violence charge” which, firstly, is not entirely true – there are a few feminists who argue that women accused of domestic abuse are almost invariably acting in self-defence. More significantly, it dodges the point that very many feminists have actively and furiously resisted attempts to highlight male victimisation and argue and lobby strongly against gender-neutral approaches to the problem.          

In amongst all that, one of her arguments in particular raised an issue that I’ve wanted to address for a while, and that is the meme “misandry isn’t a thing” (or in Lindy’s version, “misandry isn’t real.”) This is a common refrain within modern feminism, often used as a throwaway dismissal of a (perceived) male troll or heckler.  Here it is explained and used as a central basis to the argument, which gives us something to get our teeth into.

Dictionaries define misandry as hatred of men. A more detailed working definition might be something like ‘an extreme or irrational hatred, fear, demonization or contempt for men.’ Lindy West readily admits that there are some radical feminists or wounded women who really do hate men, and that our culture produces many derogatory and unfair portrayals of men, but insists that “misandry is not a genuine, systemic, oppressive force on par with misogyny.”

What feminists mean when they say ‘misandry isn’t a thing’ is that because our society systematically privileges men and disempowers women, misogyny serves a different cultural purpose, has different and more damaging impacts and grows from different roots to misandry. To a certain extent I agree with that, but saying misandry is not the mirror image of misogyny does not mean that misandry does not exist at all. I believe that arguing that misandry isn’t real is damaging to men, damaging to women and damaging to the struggle for social justice.

I would distinguish three common varieties of misandry which are most definitely real. The first is a personal prejudice, which may often arise from damaging or hurtful experiences at the hands of men, creating a negative stereotype heuristic. This may not be admirable, but it is often understandable. The second is an ideological misandry arising from certain strains of radical feminism, roughly caricatured as the ‘all men are rapists’ tendency. I think such ideas are wrong and harmful, but I’m also far from convinced that these people are anywhere close to being numerous or powerful enough to cause any real damage, except perhaps to feminism itself.

The third variety of misandry is the one that seriously concerns me, and it is worth looking in detail at what it is and what it does. Cultural misandry is a significant force in policing and constraining the roles of men, and indeed women in society. Our capitalist hegemonic culture (or patriarchy, if you prefer) considers it acceptable to routinely mock and denigrate men’s domestic and child-caring abilities because this acts strongly to discourage deviations from the gender status quo, from which vested interests profit. Our culture systematically devalues male deaths (in news reports specifying numbers of deaths of women and children, for instance) because economic interests require a degree of male disposability in the workplace and military interests may require the mass dispatch of young men to die on battlefields at a moment’s notice. When society mocks and reviles male victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, the subtext is that that it is women’s place to be victimized and oppressed, not men’s.

When feminists say that misandry isn’t a thing, what I hear is that these issues are so minor, so marginal that they are insignificant. It is not just that they are unworthy of attention, they are not even worthy of a word to describe them. If Lindy West really wants more men to be allies to the feminist movement and wants us to believe that feminism really is on our side, then I struggle to see how this type of rhetoric is in any way helpful.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that feminism should suddenly drop its struggles for women’s equality, autonomy, safety and welfare in favour of challenging male-only military conscription or setting up hostels for male abuse victims, I don’t think that is or should be feminism’s job. Nor do I think that all allegations of misandry should be considered reasonable or accurate.  But I would suggest that if we want to end what Lindy calls the “endless, fruitless turd-pong” between men’s activists and feminists online, some rhetorical habits might need to change on both sides.

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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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Fifty years ago this week, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, widely hailed as the foundation stone of second wave feminism. One hundred years ago the British Suffragette movement was at its radical peak, and June of this year will see the centenary of the martyrdom of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby.  Such things are always arbitrary, but this seems a reasonable moment to join Ellie-Mae O’Hagan in celebrating feminism’s angrier flanks.

I’m really not much of a fan of Friedan’s tome and had some issues with Ellie’s article, but the core of her argument is a good one. “To put it bluntly,” she wrote, “a new feminism should not be afraid to piss people off.”

If a political movement for change is not pissing people off somewhere, it isn’t worth a wet fart. That said, just pissing someone off is never enough. To be effective, political activism needs to somehow threaten or disturb the very structures and mechanisms of society, and those are always fiercely guarded. Ellie-Mae O’Hagan, better known as an anti-capitalist and tax justice activist than as a feminist, perhaps gets this more readily than most. It is certainly difficult to even look at the cover of the new Sexy Feminist book with anything but derision or nausea. Whatever one’s feelings towards Caitlin Moran, it is hard to deny that if she really represented a threat to the established patriarchal order, she probably wouldn’t have become rich and famous through the largesse of Rupert Murdoch.

Moran and the Sexy Feminists are the latest incarnations of the feminism of personal transformation, a safely corralled, individualistic philosophy of self-fulfilment. There is nothing wrong with that, it is genuinely a good thing if people can be made to feel better about themselves, or simply entertained and amused, by gaining a stronger appreciation of how their gender has impacted upon their lives. Ironically perhaps, The Feminine Mystique could be described in the same way, albeit with fewer jokes and vajazzling tips. The historical importance of Friedan’s book is that the story didn’t end on the final page, but continued into the political realm with the creation of the National Organization of Women, the Women’s Strike for Equality and the National Women’s Political Caucus, all of which had a profound and lasting change on the world. The Feminine Mystique didn’t just make readers angry enough to want to change their lifestyles, but to change the very foundations of society.

By coincidence, the Good Men Project this week published an impassioned defence of angry feminism by Anne Theriault which raises a similar point. This section in particular captures my feelings perfectly:

“…anger can be a good way, sometimes the only way, to fuel change. Anger at injustice is often the spark that ignites political and social movements, and anger can keep you fighting the good fight even when all your other resources feel used up”

You may recall a certain article by Suzanne Moore which was republished recently and became notorious for the wrong reason, but that too covered the same ground. Although probably due more to a moving spotlight than a shifting agenda, angry feminism is right back in vogue.

There is an important difference, however, between the angry feminism of the 1960s and its descendant. Back then there were few statutory protections for women and discrimination was all but omnipresent, Women had few reproductive options and abortion rights, virtually no legal protection from spousal abuse and sexual violence or harassment and sexual choices were tightly constrained by custom and even criminal law. Those issues and many others presented tangible, specific battles for social justice to be fought and won.

The transition from second to third wave feminism is usually pinned to changing perceptions of gender and sexual identities in the era of academic postmodernism, but I don’t think it is coincidental that the ideological shift happened at almost exactly the same time as a practical, political shift in the goals of feminism. The criminalisation of rape within marriage in England in 1991 marked the removal of the final significant structural flagstone of patriarchy in British law. Since then, it seems to me, feminism has fought on three separate fronts. The first has been to protect some of those hard-won rights from reactionary backlash, as necessary. The second has been to challenge various forms of the sex industry and sexualised media. This has proved particularly difficult for feminism, not least because it pitted the rights of women to live free from the (supposed or alleged) harms of prostitution and pornography against the rights of other women to make a living from their own bodies as they choose, or create and enjoy erotic pleasures of their own choice.

But the final battle for feminism is the biggest and toughest of all. It is the battle to change individual attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.  The articles by O’Hagan, Theriault and Moore provide between them a long list of reasons for women to be angry: the continued prevalence of sexual and domestic violence, rape apologism, widespread sexism and misogyny, gender stereotyping and discrimination, all common in numerous manifestations in our own societies and around the world. It is striking, however, that they proposed not a single legal or structural demand between them.

In her piece on The Feminist Mystique for the New York Times, Stephanie Coontz asked why, after decades of progress, women’s strides towards equality in the US have halted or even reversed. Rather reductively, I think, she attributes it broadly to a failure of workplace culture and rights to keep pace with modern attitudes and lifestyles. Coontz fails to notice that in the UK, where the workplace rights she applauds remain stronger, we are seeing the precise same effects.

Changing a law that allows an employer to appoint a less qualified man over a more qualified woman is easy. Changing an attitude that leads an employer to perceive a man to be more qualified, or indeed an attitude that leads a woman to believe she is less deserving of a promotion or a pay rise than a man, is much, much harder. It doesn’t an Act of Parliament to change this – it takes a social shift over generations.

Progress is happening. This week the British media are consumed with the allegations of sexual harassment against senior Liberal Democrat Lord Rennard. It is notable that this scandal centres on questions of who in the party may have turned a blind eye to sexually predatory behaviour or covered it up. There is no suggestion from anywhere that his behaviour should or could have been considered acceptable or reasonable. Just a generation ago (indeed perhaps at the time it was alleged to have happened) such behaviour was broadly unremarkable in politics or anywhere else.  The national mood has changed.

I understand that feminists are angry about sexism, misogyny, discrimination and violence against women, indeed they should be, and I share their anger. I understand that many men (and women) are angry about society’s tolerance of violence against men and boys, the marginalisation and othering of male victims of domestic and sexual violence, discrimination against fathers in family courts and the social perception that men’s health and wellbeing, even men’s lives, are of incidental importance. I share that anger too.

Anger is not incompatible with compassion and empathy, it is often the product of them. Indeed, unless it is tempered with compassion and empathy, anger can easily be misdirected into fascism and hatred. When I despair of debates on gender (which is often) it is usually because those involved, on either or both sides, have found their anger but lost their compassion. That is a dangerous mix.

The reasons and the need for anger go way beyond issues of gender. Take a look at the world, or even your own little corner of it, take in the panoramic vista of injustice, inequality, abuse, violence and exploitation, and if you’re not angry then you’re not paying attention. We should all be angry with those who abuse, who assault, who exploit. Those who abuse, assault and exploit on an industrial scale should reap anger on an industrial scale.

Anger has changed the world before, for both better and worse and it doubtless will do so again. We should all be proud of our anger. It is our responsibility to ensure we use it well.

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So Rupert Murdoch has hinted on Twitter that he may be rethinking his 40 year mission to deliver a daily couple of nipples to the breakfast tables of the nation.

In a reaction on Comment is Free, Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that nudity is not the principal problem with Page 3. “The presence of a few designer labels in the crucial areas makes little difference if the poisonous attitude remains the same,” she wrote. I broadly agree. My general take on the issue is that The Sun is a paper which peddles the exploitation, vilification and undisguised hatred of, well, just about everyone. The focus on Page 3 seems to me to miss the broader point, but more precisely, my problem with the tradition is not the nudity, but the way that it uses women as decoration, implying that a woman’s most significant role in the news media is to provide eye candy for a predominantly male market. Related to that, my main problem with the campaign against Page 3 is that by focusing on the nakedness, it veers rather close to an anti-nudity, even anti-sexuality narrative. It seems to say that exploitation is just fine, so long as you keep the boobs covered up.

While I generally agreed with Rhiannon’s main point, there was one paragraph in the article that betrays a profoundly mistaken view of what Page 3 is and does, and how it is viewed by men. It’s an extreme example of an argument that is often made by feminists within this debate.

I remember, as a teenager, how awful it was to be sitting next to a man on the bus leering at Page 3. I remember the embarrassment, the discomfort, at the lascivious drool coming from his chops, and the physical revulsion at his presumed erection from looking at a girl pretty much the same as me

…it’s about the sense of entitlement, the presupposition that an entire page of a national newspaper should be given over to the sexual gratification of men

Of course one can never underestimate the diversity of human personality and sexual behaviour, and I need no convincing that women experience the most rank sexual harassment and intimidation on public transport. I will take it on trust that at some point(s) in her life Rhiannon really did find herself sitting next to some freak who was “leering at Page 3” with “lascivious drool coming from his chops” in such a way that she presumed he had an erection from all the “sexual gratification” on display. I do, however, strongly reject the implication that this is how men typically view Page 3.

Straight men generally find pretty young women attractive. They are drawn towards them. Pretty young women with clothes on are attractive, and pretty young women with fewer clothes on are even more attractive. Boobs are nice to look at. I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too far in making that assertion.

Murdoch started putting semi-naked women in his newspapers back in 1970 to attract buyers, in exactly the same way that car show exhibitors drape models over the bonnets of their cars. He figured that if men are attracted to women with their tops on, they would be even more attracted to women with their tops off. And he was probably largely correct about that.

However attraction is not the same thing as sexual arousal. If images in The Sun or any other paper were genuinely sexually arousing they would actually lose readers. Murdoch has always wanted The Sun to be something that families could have lying around the breakfast table. That’s why the classic Page 3 look has always been strangely sexless and innocent, all happy cheerful smiles rather than the sultry, seductive pouts of pornography, even softcore porn.

Here is a fundamental truth about men: we hate getting erections at inappropriate moments. It is embarrassing and (literally) uncomfortable. The greatest horror is to get an erection at work or when surrounded by your mates. Men (and teenage boys in particular) develop all kinds of squirming techniques and tactics to try to disguise them. If we thought reading the Sun was likely to produce spontaneous erections at inopportune moments, we wouldn’t buy it, or we would but would keep it hidden under the mattress with the porn mags.

I suspect one of the reasons why Murdoch is now considering covering up the nipples on Page 3 is because he realises that they’re not actually that important a part of the equation. He started using them 40 years ago because he thought he could get away with it and it might add to sales. He now knows he could take them away and it wouldn’t really make any difference, because the nipples really aren’t what it is all about.  The likelihood is that Murdoch can grant campaigners their victory, get some good PR, and continue to use women in the same exploitative, sexist, decorative way he always has.

There is a tendency among some feminists to assume the worst of male sexuality. I understand where that has come from, but it can lead debates on topics such as sexualisation, porn and objectification to be conducted rather at cross purposes, and to generate a lot more heat than light. I don’t doubt for a moment that when a woman (especially a very young women) sees a man looking at The Sun, and specifically Page 3, she might be made genuinely uncomfortable by it. She may genuinely believe that the man is awash with lust, drooling with sexual gratification and sheltering a raging boner underneath his newspaper. I would suggest that unless the man has just escaped from decades in a monastery or is about 12 years old, this is almost certainly not the case. Much more probably he is thinking something like “she’s cute, nice tits, what a ridiculous speech bubble they’ve given her. Wonder if United will win tonight.

Perhaps there was a time when Page 3 was still sufficiently new, daring and shocking to produce a frisson of genuine sexual excitement, but those days had passed long before even I hit puberty  – a long, long time ago. When I was 13, round about 1980, we boys were on a perpetual hunt for sexual stimulation of any kind. Copies of Mayfair and Penthouse would be dealt and shared like valuable contraband. Even then Page 3 would barely register. It was what you might wank to if you couldn’t get hold of your mum’s Kay’s Catalogue lingerie section.

This wouldn’t matter too much were it not for one nagging concern. I can’t help thinking that the reason many women suppose that Page 3 is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire is because so many other women have told them that Page 3  is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire. Perhaps it is time to turn the page on that particular myth.

I have no wish to undermine or resist feminist campaigns against Page 3, on the contrary I think it we’d have a slightly better society without it. On the other hand, I’d prefer if we could have that debate and that campaign without the need to further demonize male sexuality. Whatever Page 3 might be about, it is really not about sex.

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The London Review of Books blog has taken note of the forthcoming anniversary reissue of The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. In particular, they have noticed the cover – which appears to have been designed by the team responsible for Sophie Kinsella’s Sex & Shopping oeuvre. It really couldn’t be more inappropriate, disrespectful or, sorry but I have to say it, bloody hilarious. here it is alongside its more famous predecessor.


Once I’d stopped chuckling, I set to wondering whether it might be possible to design a book cover for a vintage feminist classic that would be even more crass, tasteless and wrong?

Well it turned out I couldn’t. But I gave it a good go. Can you do any better?

Second Sex

Gender Trouble




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It seems a long time ago now, but last summer there was another angry debate within feminism relating to the topic of trans women within the movement. A conference was booked for Conway Hall in London called Radfem2012, and the event was restricted to “women born women and living as women” and which was to include the notoriously anti-trans radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys. After a furious row, the venue agreed that the conditions breached their own Equality policies and cancelled the booking.

I was reminded of this when reading the most fascinating and profound comment on the Moore/Burchill saga I’ve seen yet, by Rupert Read on the Talking Philosophy blog. Read is the only writer I’ve seen this week (of course I may have missed some) to discuss the theoretical issues between some schools of feminism and trans women. I don’t agree with a lot of it, but that is by the by. What came out of his blog is that there are genuine (though arguable) reasons why some feminists might be reluctant to fully accept trans women, especially when it comes to women-only spaces and events.

I’m not going to get into that theoretical debate – it is not really my fight. But I am interested in one particular difference between the row over Radfem2012 and this week’s events. The former was about a practical, real world issue of access and participation – who was and was not permitted to attend a conference and why? This week has been different. While it brought up all sorts of related issues, such as violence against trans people and social persecution, at heart the debate has been intangible, almost esoteric. It ultimately comes down to one specific question – who chooses and controls the language with which we talk to and about trans people? The argument wasn’t about freedom to occupy women-only spaces. It wasn’t about whether trans women were being allowed to identify as women. It certainly wasn’t about whether they were allowed to identify as feminists. The only real argument was about the assumed right of Moore and Burchill to use words and language that was considered offensive by trans people and their allies.

Moore believed/believes she has the right to choose whichever terms and words she likes to refer to trans people, and to place them in a broader narrative as a stereotype or a punchline. She was told, initially politely and then less so, that her language was considered offensive and oppressive by trans people. Her response to that was to up the ante, to become more offensive and oppressive in her choice of words to make her point.

Burchill picked it up from there and went nuclear.

The impression I get is that Moore and Burchill, by virtue of being cisgendered women and feminists, considered that they have control over the narrative used to talk about trans people. This is where points about privilege become crucial to the debate. Who gets to control the language?

My own belief is that yes, women have the right to discuss, debate and decide who is a woman – is it down to biology, psychology, identity or some combination? Feminists must have the right to discuss and debate the place of trans women within their movement (and of course there is an obvious paradox there, whether the debate includes trans women to begin with.) But I also think trans people have the right to assert what language is acceptable or offensive to describe their experience and existence.

Just as women are perfectly entitled to say they don’t want to be called ladies, girls or bitches, trans people are perfectly entitled to say that they don’t want to be called transsexuals, trannies or dicks in chicks’ clothing. Someone who ignores that and expects to get away with it without challenge or criticism is, I think, abusing their privilege and power.

The upper classes do not get to decide whether the word “pleb” is offensive or not. The rest of us do. White people do not get to decide whether words like “nigger” or “Paki” are offensive or not in any given context.  The first step towards liberty and autonomy for any individual or group is defining and describing our own experience – it is the first and best way of owning our existence.

In just one of the many awful articles printed by establishment journalists this week attempting to defend Moore and Burchill with a false flag of free speech,  Tom Peck concluded by quoting Stephen Fry on the freedom to give offence. ‘I am offended by that’. Well so fucking what?  It is true that “I am offended by that” is not a trump card or a guillotine for a debate. We are all free to cause offence and to accept the consequences, which is that those we wilfully offend might hate us for it and offend us back. What we are not free to do is reply “well, you shouldn’t be offended by that.” That is never our call. The free speech that allows one person to call another tranny, yid or poof is the precise same free speech that allows the offended party to call you a fucking bigot. If you offend thousands of people at once, don’t complain if thousands of people call you a fucking bigot in return.

I wrote the other day about privilege and power. There can be no greater expression of privilege than believing one can act without consequence. It is the privilege of a misogynist in a patriarchy, the privilege of a racist in a racist society, the privilege of the homophobe in a homophobic society and the privilege of the transphobe in a transphobic society. What I have found most revealing, and most depressing about this week’s events, is how many influential journalists are still willing to defend the right to abuse, insult and offend trans people when they would never, ever say similar about overt racism or homophobia, and when it is often the precise same people who complain loudest about misogynistic language when it occurs.

What this tells us I think is that while we have gone a long way in recognizing racism, sexism and homophobia for what they are, and making some notable (though still early) steps towards their elimination, huge swathes of our liberal media establishment remain at best broadly indifferent and at worst actively hostile to the rights of trans people. That is a deeply depressing realisation.

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