This year at the Feminism in London Conference I was holding a stall and performing at the after party. My wonderful Mum actually held the store most of the day so that I could enjoy some workshops. In hindsight I wish that I had told her to come along to some of the goings on. I was there promoting She Grrrowls and selling books and other merchandise, such as my Nasty Little Intro. I’m going to divide it up into different posts, or else it will be very long!
From the very first talk of the day, this year’s conference felt very important for me. Last year I wrote a blog post where I detailed my thoughts on the ‘Stop Porn Culture’ talk and I was unsure on my views on porn. I hate to say it has actually been my boyfriend whose views have swayed me into thinking that porn is always exploitation of women. This year it was forcefully said that the Feminist movement needed to agree on this issue and it made me wonder whether my desire to accept that there may be such a thing as Feminist porn is actually too much of a compromise. I still feel like I need to do more research in this area. Even speaking on a similar issue with my boyfriend this week, he didn’t see the connection between the exploitation of women in porn with those on the streets. I guess we both still have some figuring out to do!
What I was talking about was one of the biggest revelations of the weekend for me. There was a distinction made between the language of calling what I would normally call a sex worker, with calling someone a prostitute, and then again with the expression ‘a prostituted woman’. This phrasing highlighted the fact that prostitution is not something that a woman does, but rather, as the verb suggests, something that is done to her. So, even when a woman is not trafficked into the sex trade, it is always going to be a form of exploitation. Some may argue that this is not the case. This is why I would really like to see some statistics on the role of choice in sex work, though I’m aware that it isn’t always going to be quantifiable as it is such a complex matter. At the conference it was argued that to call it ‘sex work’ is to legitimise the work. I feel that to legitimise it and for a sex worker to say ‘I am a sex worker and not a prostituted or trafficked woman’ actually comes from a privileged position. This is where other kinds of intersectional systems of power come into play (something that was discussed last year). How much can ‘choice’ be a factor, I wonder, when a woman has suffered physical and sexual abuse, when a woman suffers from mental health issues, when a woman is addicted to drugs, or when a woman is living in poverty? Are there any women out there who are not white, middle class women who call themselves sex workers? Is selling your body ever something to be empowered by?
Now, to be empowered is something else that was being discussed in this talk. At this point I will say that throughout the presentation I felt like an outsider. It was suggested that the opposition between second and third wave Feminism wasn’t generational, but ideological. However, I cannot help when I was born, that my first experience of any form of Feminism (that wasn’t in history books) was through the Spice Girls and riot grrrl music. I started to feel like I was in an environment where I would be judged for my liking the colour pink, that I shave my legs and get Brazilian waxes, and that I have performed pole dancing routines (not because it was empowering, but because it was fun). I felt that the second wave was being held up as the “right” form of Feminism, and that third wave was too problematic to take anything good away from. I will always be grateful to the Feminists that come before me, but I have always taken issue with some aspects of second wave Feminism, notably the transphobia that has been exhibited by those such as Germaine Greer. On the other hand, more liberal Feminists such as Caitlin Moran have also came out with some problematic things (and, for the record, you need more than a vagina to be a Feminist in my opinion – something asserted during this opening talk).
Negativity aside, I hadn’t thought about radical Feminism and liberal Feminism too deeply. I had always just thought I was a Feminist and not considered the different types within the movement, which may be something I should think more about. I had another revelation whilst listening to the talk. This was with regard to Feminist literature and how the focus has changed through the waves. It was outlined that during the second wave the focus was on the collective liberation of women, whilst now there is more emphasis on the empowerment of individuals. I found this extremely interesting as I am of the view that the Feminist movement is about collective liberation. I think perhaps the focus on individuals has become skewed from introducing a more intersectional Feminism (of which the talk stressed too) and that a collective voice needs to be formed of all individuals’ voices.
What I think is needed is a merging of both waves, perhaps a movement into a forth wave. There was some playful competition between the Dance Squad at UEA and the cheerleaders. Despite being in the former, I found the mockery of the pyramid of cheerleaders problematic. To be a cheerleader is to be underestimated, and as Feminists, we should not do the same. To be a cheerleader, you must train really hard and, like pole dancing, it is essentially a form of gymnastics and it does not need to be sexualised. This is something I have written poetry about and I feel very strongly about. It angers me that the sexualisation of these sports or art forms has created a sense of stigma around it, so that I feel like I cannot be proud about this video. This is precisely what the term ‘slut shaming’ is about. It seemed like this was being misunderstood – third wave Feminists are not saying that women who are called sluts are sluts, they also believe that there is no such thing as a slut. However, what are second wave Feminists doing when they judge the woman who is cheerleading, pole dancing or even performing a burlesque routine? They are slut-shaming. All these activities, I believe, can be done as a Feminist. This does not mean they are Feminist simply due to the performer having a vagina, but that they can play with the art form in a way that does not mean they are being objectified.
I think it is important to critique one another when not supporting the values of Feminism, but sometimes there can be a danger of mocking women in terms of personal taste. As much as I love Kate Smurthwaite and have found a majority of what she says extremely funny and witty, I don’t think we need to make fun of successful women like Victoria Beckham in the name of Feminism. I’m not completely sure where she stands on Feminism now, rejecting it in the past, perhaps due to education on the term, but she has joined the ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign to encourage girls to be leaders. Again, I think hair removal is a matter of personal taste; I don’t think women should be judged either way. I admire women who don’t share their armpits etc. However, I can remove my hair and still be mindful of the complexities of the reasons why I might do this, even though on the surface it feels like a free choice and something I prefer to do in order to feel feminine, or so that I can feel confident and happy with how I look, or simply because it feels nice to have smooth skin.
I think when it comes to sexuality, it can get really complicated. I was disgusted to hear about pornography where a woman was spat on, called a slut, had her head flushed down the toilet whilst penetrating her. I was shocked to hear that these films and photographs were not even that extreme, but easily click-able for pre-teens accessing mainstream pornography (I think this comment referred to boys, but really, it is both boys and girls who are exposed to this, who are curious about sex and who will discover this content). Then again, there was a part of me that questioned how this applies to BDSM relationships. Again, this is not an area I know much about, and anything that may degrade a woman does make me feel uncomfortable. It was simply a question that arose in my mind, wondering where these people may fit into these ideas. Nevertheless, BDSM relationships are not the point here. This is about pornography and this talk did not shy away from making a strong case to oppose pornography. It did more than my unsure rambles can do and so I would like to hear more about the exploitation of women in porn, so I am able to feel confident that by being completely against porn of all kinds, that I am making the right decision.
So, in summary, I have a lot more research and reading to do before I’m clear on where I stand in terms of the sex industry. However, this presentation has had me more convinced that I need to stand against it, if even purely for the reason that we do not know whether women are being exploited – do we really want to take that chance just because 5% of these women claim they feel empowered? This is also so tied up with Capitalism, with complicates the concept of free choice here. I would love any recommendations on where I can go for information and statistics that could persuade others that porn is always bad for women. This talk also made me think more about the distinction between radical and liberal Feminism, and I feel like I am somewhere in between the two and that perhaps we need a fourth wave to emerge in order to be clear that it is individual voices that form a collective voice, that we need to include intersectional perspectives in a way that makes our voice stronger and not weaker. I apologise if I seem to contradict myself, or if this post doesn’t seem well-structured – working out what to think on these issues is difficult when it comes to knowing what is a choice and what is not. One thing remains, that we must stand united as a sisterhood, taking into account all women.