To this extent the stymied liberatory potential of reproductive technology is no different to the stymied liberatory potential of any other form of technology. Products and processes are made by the rich, for the rich, liberating those who are, in relative terms, already free. It’s not just that poorer women and women of colour have reduced access to abortion and contraception, or that some members of these groups have endured forced sterilisation, that is, reproductive technology actively used as a means of oppression. Egg donation, IVF, womb transplants and global surrogacy all now mean that wealthy white women can, should they so wish, outsource the very roots of sex-based oppression to their less privileged sisters.
Of course even this only works to a certain degree. Patriarchy remains invested in maintaining a stranglehold on the means of reproduction.
Consider this – if you accept that being biologically female is compatible with having an inner life, you have to apply this universally. Under such conditions no reproductive injustice – denial of abortion or contraception, forced sterilisation, economic coercion regarding having/not having children, disregard of maternal mortality – is justifiable. Forced pregnancy or sterilisation is always barbaric. Therefore, if you are to justify such barbarism where convenient, you must also promote the relative dehumanisation of everyone born with a womb (or a vagina, with the associated assumption that one might just have a womb).
Even if womb transplants and artificial wombs become everyday possibilities, the bodies of those already born with wombs will remain cheaper (providing we continue to place a low value on such people’s lives). It’s entirely plausible to see a world in which reproductive technologies increase the options of the privileged – gestate if you want, rent a surrogate or an artificial womb if you want – while doing nothing to raise the status of the most marginalised.
IVF, the pill, sterilisation, womb transplants and artificial wombs are not inherently anti-female; the problem is that economic and political power lies mostly with men, and with only a small proportion of highly privileged women. Of course the privileged will ask “what’s in it for me?” Of course their priority will be to use these things to their advantage. The priority for feminists needs to be to hang on to these possibilities while continuing to challenge the idea that those who (potentially) gestate are in all other ways inferior beings.
It’s easy to present feminists who want to talk about reproduction as luddites. They “reduce women to their biology, just like men’s rights activists”. Quite obviously we are more than our wombs. There’s a whole thinking, feeling, acting, unique person who just so happens to have been born with a uterus. But we still need to talk about the relationship between our social status and our potential reproductive role, not least because it’s of fundamental importance to a truly intersectional feminism. The regulation of female reproductive bodies has been used to maintain not just gender, but class and racial hierarchies. It needs to end.
For instance, if instead of paying for sex a landlord would rather receive sexual favours from a tenant living rent-free, would that really be so bad? Well, yes, actually it would, at least according to recent reports of landlords making this very offer. Apparently, this is an appalling example of the current housing market allowing predatory men to exploit the vulnerable.
Only if this is the case, why is paying for sex not viewed with the same horror? It’s the same marketplace, the same bodies, the same needs. All sex for rent does is cut out the symbolic means of exchange in the middle. Yet far from decrying the exchange of sex for money, supposedly progressive organisations such as Amnesty International and the NUS, in addition to mainstream political parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, are pushing to liberalise attitudes towards the purchase of sex. Why are these two things seen so differently?
True, live-in work carries with it particular risks and uncertainties, but do any of us feel the same qualms about housekeepers or nannies getting to live rent-free? And aren’t many of us doing jobs we’d rather not do, only a pay check or two away from eviction? So why should sex for rent be seen as especially problematic?
If it’s to do with the fact that it’s sex and not, say, cleaning or childcare, shouldn’t we be able to pinpoint why this is? And yet few are willing to do so, silenced by the thought-terminating clichés – “sex work is work”, “my body, my choice” – that have come to dominate the left’s approach to sex and gender.
I’d go so far as to suggest the mainstream left has no real right to be shocked about sex for rent. After all, it’s only the logical conclusion of a pseudo-feminist politics which refuses to engage fully with power and labour redistribution, choosing instead to talk in circles about the right of individuals to do whatever they like with their own bodies while bypassing any analysis of why one group seeks to control the sexual and reproductive lives of another. It’s politics for the unthinking and the privileged, yet it appears we can all afford to be unthinking and privileged when it’s only the bodies of women at stake.
“My body, my choice”, a perfectly appropriate slogan when used to mean only a pregnant woman should be able to make decisions about her pregnancy, has been expanded ad absurdum. Yet the point about abortion is that the only alternative to it is the work of pregnancy; there’s no possible third option, whereby the already-pregnant individual gets to go through neither. The same is not true of sex work or poverty. It is possible for there to be alternatives to exploitation or destitution. That for many women there are currently none is not least down to a politics that values unlimited sexual freedom for all – an impossibility – over a fairer redistribution of limited choices for everyone.
If we regard women as full, equal human beings, then we cannot have a world in which there are no limits placed on men’s access to female sexual and/or reproductive labour. “Sex work is work” and “my body, my choice” simply don’t cut it when it comes to deciding where to draw the line. We should all face restrictions on what we can do with our own bodies, just as we should all have duties of care towards the bodies of others. The problem with patriarchy is not that it prevents women from having the same physical freedoms as men due to some inexplicable, knee-jerk “woman-phobia” –it’s that it shifts most of the necessary physical restrictions and duties attached to reproduction and care onto women, leaving men with the belief that liberation means no one ever saying “no” to you.
Such a belief – at heart pro-capitalist and anti-feminist – has seeped into supposedly pro-woman, left-wing thought and activism, yet anyone who points out the absurdity of it is treated to a Victorian asylum-style diagnosis of prudery and whorephobia. To claim, on the one hand, that one is anti-austerity and anti-neoliberal, while insisting, on the other, that no woman is without means as long as she has orifices to penetrate, is not progressive. On the contrary, it’s ultra-conservative. It shifts the baseline of our understanding of need and it does so dishonestly, masking coercion by repackaging it as free choice.
If anything is for sale – any body part, any experience, any relationship – then the poorest will be stripped bare. If you accept the principle that there is nothing wrong with buying sex – or ova or breastmilk or babies – how do you ensure supply can meet demand? Only by making sure there are always enough women with no other options. There is no other way. There are not enough female bodies to meet male sexual and reproductive demands without any form of coercion; that’s why patriarchy, with all its complex systems of reward and punishment, exists in the first place.
If sex work is work, poverty is necessary. The alternative to patriarchy isn’t a world in which everyone gets to be a de-facto patriarch, free to make whatever sexual and reproductive choices they want, safe in the knowledge that there will always be willing bodies to meet their demands. The postmodern fantasy that an underclass of coerced, poverty-stricken females can be replaced by an underclass of willing, always-up-for-it, cisgendered females, while charming in its naivety, remains just that: a fantasy.
‘Making Sense of Modern Pornography’ by Katrina Forrester, is a long, fairly well balanced (with a few exceptions, see below) article published by The New Yorker in September last year, about the current state of the porn industry, and also a review of a book called The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Shira Tarrant, I would recommend reading the whole article.
Pornography has changed unrecognizably from its so-called golden age – the period, in the sixties and seventies, when adult movies had theatrical releases and seemed in step with the wider moment of sexual liberation, and before V.H.S. drove down production quality, in the eighties. Today’s films are often short and nearly always hard-core; that is, they show penetrative sex. Among the most popular search terms in 2015 were “anal,” “amateur,” “teen,” and – one that would surely have made Freud smile – “mom and son.” Viewing figures are on a scale that golden-age moguls never dreamed of: in 2014, Pornhub alone had seventy-eight billion page views, and XVideos is the fifty-sixth most popular Web site in the world. Some porn sites get more traffic than news sites like CNN, and less only than platforms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and PayPal.
The millions of people using these sites probably don’t care much about who produces their content. But those who work in porn in the United States tend to draw a firm line between the “amateur” porn that now proliferates online and the legal adult-film industry that took shape after the California Supreme Court ruled, in California v. Freeman (1989), that filmed sex did not count as prostitution. Since then, the industry has been based in Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley, where its professional norms and regulations have mimicked its more respectable Hollywood neighbors. In “The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford), Shira Tarrant explains how that industry works in the new age of Internet porn, and sets out to provide neutral, “even-handed” information about its production and consumption.
It’s not an easy task. Since the “porn wars” of the seventies and eighties, when feminists campaigned against the expanding pornography industry (and other feminists sided with Hustler to defend it), talking about pornography in terms of mere facts has seemed impossible. The atmosphere of controversy makes it hard to avoid moral positions. Even to suspend judgment may be to take sides.
Linda Lovelace’s performance in “Deep Throat,” in 1972, made porn mainstream; later, her denunciation of the movie, which she characterized as filmed rape, made the idea of the porn star as victim mainstream, too. In the mid-eighties, the revelation that Traci Lords had been underage in her most famous films led to the prosecution of producers, agents, and distributors under child-pornography statutes, and new legislation resulted in stricter age-verification requirements for porn actors. But by the time [Jenna] Jameson arrived on the scene the industry had become an efficient star-making machine. It had distributors and advertisers, production teams and industry magazines, shoots requiring permits, agents who sold the talent and trade associations who represented them. Jameson quickly achieved her ambition, becoming the industry’s biggest star and most reliable brand. By 2005, her company, ClubJenna, had an annual revenue of thirty million dollars.
Things are different now. Much online porn is amateur and unregulated. It’s hard to tell how much, because there’s little data, and even larger studios now ape the amateur aesthetic, but applications for porn-shoot permits in Los Angeles County reportedly fell by ninety-five per cent between 2012 and 2015. Now most films have low production values, and they are often unscripted. Sometimes you can hear the director’s voice; apparently, many viewers can make do without the old fictional tropes of doctors and nurses, schoolgirls, and so on—the porn industry itself having become the locus of fantasy. Where performers like Jameson had multi-film contracts with studios like Wicked or Vivid Entertainment, such deals are now rare, and most performers are independent contractors who get paid per sex act.
Tarrant’s book sheds useful light on the bargain-basement world of contemporary porn. In 2012, one agent claimed that the actresses he represented received eight hundred dollars for lesbian scenes, a thousand for ones with a man, twelve hundred or more for anal sex, and four thousand for double penetration, but there’s reason to think that these figures are inflated. Stoya, a well-known performer who has written about her life in the industry, has cited a rate of just twelve to fourteen hundred dollars for double penetration. Wages have declined across the board. Tarrant estimates that a female performer filming three anal scenes a month would make forty thousand dollars a year.
Riskier acts are incentivized. According to one analysis of an industry talent database, women entering the business now will do more, and more quickly, than they once did: in the nineteen-eighties, they would wait an average of two years before a first anal scene; now it’s six months. Jameson famously never did anal (though one of her most viewed Pornhub clips is “Jenna Jameson accidental anal,” which shows, in slow motion, that on the Internet there’s no such thing as never). From 2000 on, she had only one onscreen male partner—her husband. “I look at these new girls today and I think, What the hell are they doing?” she said in 2004. “These girls don’t know that you have to start slow, baby, and make them pay you more for each thing you do.”
Today, most porn actresses don’t stick around long enough to start slow. The average career is between four and six months. Performers work long hours with no benefits and they have to cover significant out-of-pocket costs. Tests for S.T.D.s can be as much as two hundred dollars a month. Add to this grooming, travel, and the usual freelancer expenses and it costs a lot to be legal in the porn industry.
In a context of declining wages and rising costs, attempts at regulation are unpopular. In 2012, Los Angeles County passed Measure B, a law mandating condom use in porn shoots there. Advocacy organizations for performers have resisted the measure, saying that it ignores the preferences of their workforce and would compel performers to use not only condoms but also safety goggles and dental dams. More important, perhaps, it also ignores consumer preferences: in an age when few pay for porn, producers don’t want to alienate those who do. The regulated industry has developed other ways to avoid condoms—preëxposure treatments, production moratoriums when infections are detected, and, in some gay studios, a working assumption that performers are H.I.V. positive. Other producers, rather than comply, have left California for Nevada or Florida. The industry may have created the norms that dominate online porn, but it’s being squeezed into irrelevance, and preferences have taken on a life of their own.
It would have been good to point out that these ‘advocacy organisations’ are representing the interests of the porn companies over the interests of the porn performers, that porn performers have nothing remotely resembling a real union to protect them at ‘work’, and that in any other industry, bosses arguing that workers ‘don’t want’ Personal Protective Equipment would be seen as exercising unequal power compared to non-unionised gig-economy workers. There is also no other industry were frequent, deliberate contact with another person’s body fluids is seen as just part of the job.
Whether you see porn as just another sector disrupted by the Internet or as a still powerful engine of profit-driven exploitation depends on a thornier set of debates that shape how pornography is understood. To talk about porn purely in terms of costs and incentives is not, as Tarrant suggests, neutral. Even to stress the work involved is a political move.
When America’s pornographic secrets have been publicly aired, they have usually taken the form of First Amendment issues. In 1988, the Supreme Court overturned a ruling against Hustler that had awarded damages to the evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell, the founder of the conservative organization the Moral Majority. (The magazine had published a satirical ad in which Falwell described his “first time” with his mother.) Flynt became an unlikely liberal hero, cementing a coalition between free-speech defenders and pornographers. After California v. Freeman, the Adult Film and Video Association of America renamed itself the Free Speech Legal Defense Fund, and, later, the Free Speech Coalition.
Remember, the ‘Free Speech Coalition’ is the organisation portraying itself as a grass-roots movement by and for porn performers.
But, in the famous phrase of the legal scholar and anti-pornography campaigner Catherine MacKinnon, pornography is not “only words.” The feminist campaigns of the seventies against rape and violence against women condemned pornography not on the ground of obscenity but on the ground of harm. It wasn’t a private matter but a political expression of male power. As MacKinnon wrote, with the anti-pornography feminist Andrea Dworkin, pornography was “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women.” Dworkin described it as a form of sexual slavery.
Thirty years later, porn is more pervasive than ever, but it’s also more diffuse—and so are the debates. There are new organizations like Stop Porn Culture, led by the feminist Gail Dines, which campaign for porn’s abolition, and against the industry’s hypersexualization of women and the “pornification” of culture. Old coalitions have reappeared, deploying new rhetoric: in April, Dines supported a Republican bill in Utah that declared pornography not a moral threat but a “public health hazard.” Critics worry as much about men’s health—porn addiction, erectile dysfunction—as they do about violence against women.
Ah yes, the old you’re in league with religious fundamentalists! argument. Coalition building on single issues is a normal part of mainstream politics; nobody would complain about, say, an environmental protection bill supported by Republicans/Conservatives, nor do pro-sex industry advocates balk at working with the right when it suits their aims, it’s only radical/abolitionist feminists who are expected to meet such an unrealistic level of ideological ‘purity’.
Pornography’s defenders still lean on ideas of sexual freedom and empowerment. “I am a pervert,” Sasha Grey—the only recent star to rise anywhere near Jameson’s heights—declared in a 2009 interview. “I want to tell young women that sex is O.K. It’s O.K. to be a slut. You don’t have to be ashamed.” In a “mission statement” she wrote when she entered the industry, at eighteen, Grey said that she was “determined and ready to be a commodity that fulfills everyone’s fantasies.” She was no Lovelace: “If I am working out any issues through porn, it’s anger at society for not being open about sex.”
It would have been a good idea to mention that, it turned out Sasha Grey was being violently controlled by a much older boyfriend/pimp when she entered the sex industry.
Performers now often defend porn using the language not of freedom but of work, and begin with the idea that [prostitution] is a form of work like many others. Sure, working in the sex industry is exploitative and precarious, but so is work in other industries. The porn workers who do their jobs well enough that you buy their performance are giving their consent, but they likely do so only as other precarious workers do: they need the money and have limited choices. To an older generation of feminists, this defense sounds hollow: it concedes that sex and intimacy can be bought and sold. For a younger generation, the idea that they can’t is a misunderstanding: sex has long been monetized, and today there’s nowhere that the market doesn’t go. To reflect this, many younger feminists want a sexual politics that restores a tradition of labor organizing predating the porn wars (when even Playboy bunnies had a union), and seek to protect performers from profit-seeking managers.
Are they really? When sex industry advocates are happy calling bosses ‘sex workers’ and trafficked women ‘migrant sex workers’, and hardly ever criticize any aspect of porn production, I’m dubious about ‘younger feminists’ commitment to real change in the sex industry, beyond ‘centering alternative voices’ (whatever that actually means), and harassing lesbian pornographers for refusing to work with pre-op trans women. Also, let’s be realistic here, the Playboy bunnies were not being subjected to double-anals in front of a camera – any real workers rights in the modern porn industry would render porn production impossible.
At the fringes of the industry, performers are trying to change it from the inside, in the name of fair pay, better conditions, and more enjoyable sex. The aim of companies like Pink and White Productions and TrenchcoatX is to challenge the tube sites’ monopoly and to overthrow the racist, sexist categories that silently shape preferences. Their hope is that making inclusive, diverse porn—in which the performers’ pleasure is authentic and the orgasms real—will change sex for the better. The defense of this artisanal approach to porn pulls in contradictory directions: it at once argues that porn is work and not pleasure, and also that the pleasure it captures is authentic. Tarrant, despite claiming neutrality, is subtly allied with this view, and compares campaigns for ethical porn to those for organic, fair-trade food. In reality, it’s a harder sell. Few people want ethics with their porn.
When it comes to sexual practices, too, statistics are open to interpretation. Anti-pornography campaigners frequently cite the widely reported increase in the practice of anal sex among heterosexuals as evidence of porn’s influence. (In a 2014 study of anal sex among young British heterosexuals, a majority of young men surveyed – described as “teen-age boys” by the anti-porn camp, and “emerging adults” by the pro – admitted “persuading” their female partners to try it, with reluctant or little consent.) The campaigners insist that teen-agers are reënacting humiliations they’ve learned online. But that assumption leaves out other explanations. The British study suggested that the rise of premarital sex has meant that “conquest” narratives, which once fetishized the taking of virginity, now require a new focus. Equally, it might indicate a severance between reproduction and sex, or a straight acceptance of gay sexuality.
This last argument makes no sense whatsoever, anal sex is not ‘gay sex’, sex between two or more men is gay sex. Anal sex is not compulsory, even for gay men, and before the 1970s, it was not even a widespread practice among gay men. If the increase in heterosexual anal sex was about an acceptance of ‘gay sexuality’, why the coercion and lack of enthusiasm among the teen-aged girls? If it’s really about an acceptance of ‘gay sexuality’, why are we not hearing about an increase in heterosexual teen-age boys being anally penetrated by their girlfriends using strap-ons?
Sometimes, though, porn’s defenders overcompensate. They are too ready to interpret the lack of unequivocal data about porn’s impact as unequivocal proof that there is no impact. In a field as hard to measure as sexual behavior, this seems unwise. Pornography may be more likely to turn us into solipsistic masturbators than violent rapists, but it’s hard to imagine that it has no effect at all. The pro-porn argument, which insists that pornography is changing but denies that it changes us, appears contradictory. It inverts the anti-porn mistake of seeing porn as the key engine of transformation, instead giving it no power whatsoever. But sex is always changing, and, though porn can’t explain it all, its role can’t be ruled out, either.
Eventually you get to a point in mid-adulthood, having digested a few newspapers and muted a few politicians, when you start to wonder: do cities actually want their women to die? Otherwise, why take these backward steps, cutting services so that more and more women’s refuges are forced to close? Backward steps – no, it’s more like being dragged through shrubland into a dimmer, darker place.
Sunderland is about to become the first UK city without a single domestic violence refuge. The bleakness of this is exhausting. The knowledge that even if a woman in Sunderland finds the courage, cash and energy to leave the partner that hits her, soon there will be nowhere for her to go. The chances are she will end up on the streets (St Mungo’s reports a third of the women they work with say domestic violence contributed to their homelessness) or in a B&B, floundering with no support, no advice on how to begin a life alone, and of course that itch, that feeling that she will always be listening for steps behind her, that she is never safe. Or else, of course, like the two women murdered by their partners in England and Wales every week, she’ll return to a man that kills her.
And the irony is that – apart from at this very sharpest end of the issue, where hundreds of women are being turned away from refuges, due in part to almost a fifth closing since 2010 – elsewhere hard work is paying off. Police now know how to talk to victims of abuse, how to deal with the shadowy cases, the crimes that happen in family homes. Schools now teach pupils the acceptable boundaries of relationships, due to charities working tirelessly to research and fight dating abuse, and expose the horrors of being 14 and terrified. Yet still, if a woman runs, cuts in funding mean she’ll have nowhere to go.
It took a long time to get here, to a place where we could talk about domestic violence, and then acknowledge the many forms it can take, and then the difficulties of escaping it. It took a long time before refuges opened across the country, offering beds and safety to women whose black eyes had been politely ignored by their bosses, at home their children silently watching the ads.
A couple of years ago, Jenny Smith wrote The Refuge, a book about finding sanctuary in the world’s first safe house for women. It was May 1973, when women weren’t allowed to apply for a mortgage without a man, and there was no such thing as marital rape. After two years of being kicked around, people turning away when her husband hit her on the street, she happened upon a piece in the Daily Mirror which read: “Victims of domestic violence? Need help?”
She hid the article under the carpet so he wouldn’t find it. He had beaten her, stabbed her, burned and bitten her – once he tried to drown her. When Smith arrived at the refuge – a terraced house on the other side of London – with her two babies, they welcomed her in, telling her she was safe.
Forty-four years later, two out of every three women that approach a refuge for help are being turned away. When we hear about Sunderland losing its last refuge, it’s as if another brick has been removed from that first safe house in London – it’s not safe. At it’s foundation, it’s not safe. It sounds flippant to wonder whether cities care about the lives of their vulnerable women, whether they want them to die, but all evidence points in that direction. The places those women go to stay alive are disappearing. It’s dreadful to revisit Smith’s book – those 1970s campaigners feeling they had achieved so much, only for the 2000s government to dismantle their efforts with shrugs and cuts.
Woman on the Edge of Time was first published 40 years ago and begun three-and-a-half years before that.The early 1970s were a time of great political ferment and optimism among those of us who longed for change, for a more just and egalitarian society with more opportunities for all the people, not just some of them. Since then, inequality has greatly increased.
At the time I wrote this novel, women were making huge gains in control of their bodies and their lives. Not only has that momentum been lost, but many of the rights we worked so hard to secure are being taken from us by Congress and state legislatures every year.
But we must also understand that the attempt to take away a woman’s control over her body is part of a larger attempt to take away any real control from most of the population. Now, corporations and the very wealthy 1% control elections. Now, the media are propaganda machines and the only investigative reporting is on Comedy Central, HBO, or the web.
The powers that be have allowed for certain social rather than economic gains. We’ll soon finally have legalised marijuana and gay marriage in every state – but unions are being crushed and the safety net of the New Deal and the Johnson era is being abolished one law at a time, while women are forced into the back-alley abortions that once killed so many. We have made some social gains and many economic losses. The real earning power of working people diminishes every year.
During the heyday of the second wave of the women’s movement, a number of utopias were created (Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, James Tiptree’s Houston, Houston Do You Read?, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Elisabeth Mann Borgese’s My Own Utopia from The Ascent of Woman, and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground among them) and now they aren’t. Why? Feminist utopias were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable. Utopias came from the desire to imagine a better society when we dared to do so. When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in.
Writing about a strong community that socialises children and integrates old people is a response to women living in a society where a mother is often alone with her children and old women are treated just a step better than the excess pets executed daily in pounds and shelters.
We are ever more isolated from truly intimate contact with one another. Many men prefer pornography to actual sex, where they have to please a woman or must at least pretend to try.
I also wanted Woman on the Edge of Time to show an ecologically sound society. The lives and institutions and rituals of Mattapoisett all stress being a part of nature and responsible for the natural world. In imagining the good society, I borrowed from all the progressive movements of that time. Like most women’s utopias, the novel is profoundly anarchist and aimed at integrating people back into the natural world and eliminating power relationships. The nuclear family is rare in feminist utopias and banished from this novel.
I projected a society in which sex was available, accepted and non-hierarchical – and totally divorced from income, social status, power. No trophy wives, no closeting, no punishment or ostracism for preferring one kind of lover to another. No need to sell sex or buy it. No being stuck like my own mother in a loveless marriage to support yourself. In the dystopia in Woman on the Edge of Time, women are commodified, genetically modified and powerless.
I am also very interested in the socialising and interpersonal mechanisms of a society. How is conflict dealt with? Again, who gets to decide, and upon whose head and back are those decisions visited? How does that society deal with loneliness and alienation? How does it deal with getting born, growing up and learning, having sex, making babies, becoming sick and healing, dying and being disposed of? How do we deal with collective memories – our history – that we are constantly reshaping?
Utopia is born of the hunger for something better, but it relies on hope as the engine for imagining such a future. I wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete – that was the real genesis of Woman on the Edge of Time.
Marge Piercy, from her introduction to the new edition of Women on the Edge of Time (longer version here)
QotD: “The World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them – own their bodies”
[All] feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.
According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:
“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”
It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.
I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.
I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.
There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.
In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.
This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.
Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.
“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?
Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.
The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.
The Guardian is still calling commercially sexually exploited children ‘workers’, and it is particularly frustrating, when the term ‘sex work’ is not used by the children/teenagers, or researchers quoted in the article.
Teenagers in America are resorting to sex work because they cannot afford food, according to a study that suggests widespread hunger in the world’s wealthiest country.
Focus groups in all 10 communities analysed by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based thinktank, described girls “selling their body” or “sex for money” as a strategy to make ends meet. Boys desperate for food were said to go to extremes such as shoplifting and selling drugs.
The findings raise questions over the legacy of Bill Clinton’s landmark welfare-reform legislation 20 years ago as well as the spending priorities of Congress and the impact of slow wage growth. Evidence of teenage girls turning to “transactional dating” with older men is likely to cause particular alarm.
“I’ve been doing research in low-income communities for a long time, and I’ve written extensively about the experiences of women in high poverty communities and the risk of sexual exploitation, but this was new,” said Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and lead author of the report, Impossible Choices.
“Even for me, who has been paying attention to this and has heard women tell their stories for a long time, the extent to which we were hearing about food being related to this vulnerability was new and shocking to me, and the level of desperation that it implies was really shocking to me. It’s a situation I think is just getting worse over time.”
The qualitative study, carried out in partnership with the food banks network Feeding America, created two focus groups – one male, one female – in each of 10 poor communities across the US. The locations included big cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington and rural North Carolina and eastern Oregon. A total of 193 participants aged 13 to 18 took part and were allowed to remain anonymous.
Their testimony paints a picture of teenagers – often overlooked by policymakers focused on children aged zero to five – missing meals, making sacrifices and going hungry, with worrying long-term consequences.
Popkin said: “We heard the same story everywhere, a really disturbing picture about hunger and food insecurity affecting the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable young people. The fact that we heard it everywhere from kids in the same way tells us there’s a problem out there that we should be paying attention to.”
The consistency of the findings across gender, race and geography was a surprise.
“I wasn’t sure we would see it,” Popkin said. “Kids knew about all these strategies: hanging around your friend’s house and see if they’ll feed you, going hungry so that their younger brothers and sisters could eat, saving their school lunch so they could eat it at night so they could sleep at night.
“Everybody knew where you get the cheapest food and how you keep some emergency stuff in your house. It was just very matter-of-fact and very common, in the richest country in the world.”
In every community, and in 13 of the 20 focus groups, there were accounts of sexual exploitation, often related with distaste. A girl in Portland, Oregon told researchers: “It’s really like selling yourself. Like you’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”
Another comment from Portland: “You’re not even dating … they’ll be like … ‘I don’t really love him, but I’m going to do what I have to do.’”
Many prefer to rationalise what they are doing as dating of sorts. A boy in rural North Carolina said: “When you’re selling your body, it’s more in disguise. Like if I had sex with you, you have to buy me dinner tonight … that’s how girls deal with the struggle … That’s better than taking money because if they take money, they will be labeled a prostitute.”
In seven of the 10 communities, teenagers told stories of girls exchanging sexual favours with strangers or stripping for money in abandoned houses, at flea markets and on the street. A girl in San Diego, California, said: “Someone I knew dropped out of high school to make money for the family. She felt the need to step up. She started selling herself.”
Another girl in Chicago told researchers of an 11-year-old girl who dropped out of sixth grade to work in the sex trade, while boys in Los Angeles described how middle school girls put up flyers in public places to advertise their services.
In the communities with the highest poverty rates, both girls and boys steal food and other basics from local stores for themselves or their families. A male teenager in Chicago said: “I ain’t talking about robbing nobody. I’m just talking like going there and get what you need, just hurry up and walk out, which I do … They didn’t even know. If you need to do that, that’s what you got to do, that’s what you got to do.”
Some children begin stealing at the age of seven or eight, according to the focus groups. Boys mainly take items such as phones, shoes, jewelry and bikes. Selling drugs is also common. One in Los Angeles said: “A lot of kids at a young age will sell drugs to get money for their families. People think it’s good but it messes you up.”
Popkin, who has been researching distressed public housing communities for more than 25 years, explained: “With the boys there was a lot of hustling and shoplifting or maybe stealing a car stereo or something small they could sell. Getting pushed into drug dealing, sometimes getting pulled into gangs.
“I find it particularly disturbing that all the kids in almost every focus group were aware about what was happening to the girls – they knew the story about girls dating older guys or being exploited. The stories we heard were mostly about girls dating older men in order to get them to provide money for them for rent, for food, for clothes. They’re just very vulnerable.”
She added: “It’s a sexual exploitation. You hear about homeless teenagers engaging in transactional sex, you hear it about refugees. To hear it from stably housed kids in the United States is shocking and even if it’s only a handful of kids, it should be something that we’re paying attention to, that there are kids that desperate.”
I have lost count of the number of times I have emailed the Guardian about this, and I have yet to receive a single response, but I will keep on trying.
Please feel free to use or adapt the template below.
I am writing to you to complain about the use of the term ‘sex work’ in an article about the commercial sexual exploitation of children and teenagers (“US teens often forced to trade sex work for food, study finds” published online 12/Sep/16)
The children interviewed for the study were between 13 and 18 (and a sexually exploited 11-year-old girl was mentioned), an 11- or 13-year-old child cannot consent to sexual activity with an adult, it is statutory rape at the very least.
While this is very much a poverty issue, it is also a sexual exploitation issue; by using the term ‘sex work’ you reduce child sexual exploitation to a labour issue, and also invisibilize the men who use economic and social inequality to coerce children and teenagers into sexual activity.
In the quotes in the article from the children and teenagers interviewed, none of them used the term ‘sex work’, and the academic who wrote the article used the term ‘sexual exploitation’.
I would like to remind you that the Guardian style guide calls for ‘child pornography’ to be referred to as child abuse images. Therefore a recording of a child doing ‘sex work’ would be an image of abuse, but the creation of that abuse image would just be ‘work’, which is nonsensical.
The guide also says to use the term ‘child sexual abuse’, rather than ‘child sex’, so how is referring to commercial child sexual abuse as ‘sex work’ in keeping with the Guardian’s stated guidelines?
Earlier this year, Stephen Pritchard, the Observer’s readers editor, altered an article on child exploitation (“10,000 refugee children are missing, says Europol”, published 30/Jan/2016) to remove the term ‘sex work’, stating: “This article was amended on 11 February 2016 to remove the term “sex work” relating to children. Children caught up in the sex trade are victims of abuse.” I hope you will follow the precedent he has set.
The Guardian readers editor is on Twitter, if you have a twitter account, please ask them why they think it is ok to call a raped child a ‘worker’
How Orgasm Politics Has Hijacked the Women’s Movement, by Sheila Jeffreys
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, it was widely believed that the sexual revolution, by freeing up sexual energy, would make everyone free. I remember Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press in Paris published Story of O, saying that the solution to repressive political regimes was to post pornography through every letterbox. Better orgasms, proclaimed Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, would create the revolution. In those heady days, many feminists believed that the sexual revolution was intimately linked to women’s liberation, and they wrote about how powerful orgasms would bring women power.
Dell Williams is quoted in Ms. as having set up a sex shop in 1974 with precisely this idea, to sell sex toys to women: “I wanted to turn women into powerful sexual beings…. I had a vision that orgasmic women could transform the world.”
Ever since the ’60s, sexologists, sexual liberals, and sex-industry entrepreneurs have sought to discuss sex as if it were entirely separate from sexual violence and had no connection with the oppression of women. Feminist theorists and anti-violence activists, meanwhile, have learned to look at sex politically. We have seen that male ownership of women’s bodies, sexually and reproductively, provides the very foundation of male supremacy, and that oppression in and through sexuality differentiates the oppression of women from that of other groups.
If we are to have any chance of liberating women from the fear and reality of sexual abuse, feminist discussion of sexuality must integrate all that we can understand about sexual violence into the way we think about sex. But these days feminist conferences have separate workshops, in different parts of the building, on how to increase sexual “pleasure” and on how to survive sexual violence — as if these phenomena could be put into separate boxes. Women calling themselves feminists now argue that prostitution can be good for women, to express their “sexuality” and make empowering life choices. Others promote the practices and products of the sex industry to women to make a profit, in the form of lesbian striptease and the paraphernalia of sadomasochism. There are now whole areas of the women’s, lesbian, and gay communities where any critical analysis of sexual practice is treated as sacrilege, stigmatized as “political correctness.” Freedom is represented as the achievement of bigger and better orgasms by any means possible, including slave auctions, use of prostituted women and men, and forms of permanent physical damage such as branding. Traditional forms of male-supremacist sexuality based on dominance and submission and the exploitation and objectification of a slave class of women are being celebrated for their arousing and “transgressive” possibilities.
Well, the pornography is in the letterboxes, and the machinery for more and more powerful orgasms is readily available through the good offices of the international sex industry. And in the name of women’s liberation, many feminists today are promoting sexual practices that — far from revolutionizing and transforming the world — are deeply implicated in the practices of the brothel and of pornography.
How could this have happened? How could the women’s revolution have become so completely short-circuited? I suggest that there are four reasons.
(I posted this back in 2012, but I think it could do with a re-read)
A man has posted an online ad calling on “stunning” homeless women to get in touch so he can give them shelter — in return for sex.
The advertisement is one of hundreds listed on the notorious buy-and-sell site Craigslist that a charity has said aim to “exploit” vulnerable women.
Dozens of ads in London openly state that homeless women or female students looking for accommodation can pay with their bodies.
One post said a female student could act as a “resource” in return for free digs.
Another individual said: “If there is any homeless single stunning females who are out there seeking to save or seeking to be rehoused by a friendly genuine white British guy then look no further.
“I offer a genuine offer to any young single hot sexy female of any nationality or culture to house share with me free rent free.”
UK homeless charity Shelter said the “sordid” adverts were a “dangerous attempt to establish deeply exploitative relationships off the back of homelessness”.
It says the UK’s worsening housing crisis could lead to more homeless women becoming sex slaves in return for a bed.
“Women are being asked to enter a space which is entirely controlled by someone else, a person who always has the right to be there, who can say who else can enter the property and on whom they are entirely dependent for shelter,” a charity spokesman said.
“This is the vile exploitation proposed by these adverts: that women who feel they have no choice enter an arrangement where they feel they never have the choice to say ‘no’.”
Craigslist is often used for less traditional transactions.
Prostitutes and drug dealers often promote their services on the classifieds site.
More than 3500 people are sleeping rough every night in England according to the latest government figures.
High house prices and longer council home waiting lists have caused that number to roughly double since 2010.
Below are two articles I spotted recently on poverty in New Zealand. I think it is useful to point this out, as sex industry advocates want us to think that prostitution is ‘necessary’ because of women’s poverty, and that prostitution somehow ‘cures’ women’s poverty (if that were true there would be no poverty by now).
If prostitution was such a great way to make money, wouldn’t all poor women do it? The reality is that prostitution is most profitable for the pimps and brothel keepers, and a very small number of young, conventionally attractive, relatively privileged women, for a short time only; other women end up there out of desperation, deeper desperation, it seems, than having to rent a garage to live in.
Schoolgirls in New Zealand are skipping class because they cannot afford sanitary pads and are being forced to use phonebooks, newspapers and rags to make-do during menstruation.
In the last three months local charity KidsCan distributed 4,000 sanitary items to more than 500 low-income schools nationwide after they were given a NZ$25,000 (USD$18,000) government grant to begin to address the issue.
Because KidsCan buy in bulk, they are able to purchase packs of sanitary products for around NZ$1 – instead of the NZ$4-8 that supermarkets usually charge. Sanitary products are taxed in New Zealand.
Vaughan Couillault, principal of Papatoetoe high school in south Auckland, said it was a “serious concern” that many of his 700 female students from lower socio-economic backgrounds could not afford the products to manage their monthly cycle hygienically.
This year KidsCan started supplying the school with sanitary items, but before that his staff would make regular trips to the supermarket to buy sanitary supplies, and charge female students 50 cents to cover costs. According to Couillault, at other low-income schools in New Zealand teachers buy students sanitary products using their own money.
Sarah Kull, a school nurse at Papatoetoe, said since the 50 cent charge was removed the number of students approaching her for sanitary products had increased to around 10-15 pupils each day. Half of them needed one-off items and half were stocking up to cater for their entire period.
“There is a shame factor involved in asking for help with such an intimate part of your life, and I think the girls we see approaching us are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Kull.
“A lot of girls are too embarrassed to ask. We also have about the same number each day come to us for pain relief related to their periods. Paracetamol is cheaper than pads but there is still a cost involved, which for many students from low-income families is unmanageable.”
Labour MP Louisa Wall is spear-heading the campaign to draw attention to school-age girls who can’t afford the average NZ$5-15 (USD$3-10) a month for sanitary items. She has also been told of women in hospital who have been unable to access sanitary items, and that many female university students struggle to pay to cover their periods.
“Local schools started coming to me and saying: ‘We need help with this’. Girls are skipping class and sports because they can’t afford the sanitary items that make their periods a normal part of life,” she said.
“This issue is still taboo and we really need to start addressing it because sanitary items are not a luxury – they are a basic necessity. Not being able to afford them is holding many girls and women back, and I am especially concerned about them missing out on education because of their periods.”
Should we consider schoolgirls in New Zealand to be at a disadvantage compared to the girls in various African countries, were ‘dating’ a ‘sugar daddy’ in return for money for basic essentials like sanitary pads is ‘normal’ (remember, ‘normal’ here doesn’t mean ‘right’ or ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’, it just means commonplace and unremarkable)? Are these schoolgirls being ‘oppressed’ by the age limit of 18 to enter the sex industry? Remember, sex industry advocates are pushing for the decriminalisation of the commercial sexual exploitation of children as well (this is something I want to write about in more detail, I have seen a sex industry advocate use the rationalisation that ‘children are poor too’).
Hundreds of families in Auckland are living in cars, garages and even a shipping container as a housing crisis fuelled by rising property prices forces low-income workers out of private rental accommodation.
Charity groups have warned that, as the southern hemisphere winter approaches, most of the premises have no electricity, sewage or cooking facilities.
“This is not people who haven’t been trying. They have been trying very hard and still they’re failing,” said Campbell Roberts of The Salvation Army, who has worked in South Auckland for 25 years.
“A few years ago people in this situation were largely unemployed or on very low-incomes. But consistently now we are finding people coming to us who are in work, and have their life together in other ways, but housing is alluding them.”
Auckland’s housing market is one of the most expensive in the world, with property prices increasing 77.5% over the last five years (this growth has now slowed), and the average house price fetching over NZ$940,000 (£440,000), according to CoreLogic, New Zealand.
Combined with low interest rates, rising migration, near full occupancy of state housing in South Auckland, and minimal wage rises, the pressure on many low to middle income earners has become too much to bear.
Some families are now forced to choose between having a permanent roof over their heads, or feeding themselves and their children.
Jenny Salesa, a Labour MP in the South Auckland suburb of Otara, says Maori and Pacific peoples are overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of Auckland’s housing crisis, and she has people coming to her office every day begging for help.
“People are living in garages with ten family members and paying close to NZ$400 for the privilege,” said Salesa.
“People are ashamed their lives have come to this, and they try to hide. But you can tell which garages are occupied – there are curtains on the windows, small attempts to make it a home. And on the weekends, in the park, there can be up to fifty cars grouped together, with people sleeping in them.”
Salesa estimates nearly 50% of people asking for her help in finding a home are in paid employment, and many families have two parents working and are still unable to make ends meet.
Nobody knows exactly how many people are living rough in Auckland, but common estimates range in the hundreds.
Darryl Evans, CEO of Mangere Budgeting in South Auckland, says on some roads in South Auckland every second house has additional accommodation erected – be it an occupied garage, a portable cabin with a chemical toilet, or tents pitched on the front and back lawn.
“Up until a few years ago, a family member might let you camp in the garage at no cost, as a temporary set-up,” said Evans.
“But now landlords have cottoned on to how desperate people are, and are renting out garages or Portakabins for hundreds of dollars. Our food bank – every food bank in Auckland – is under the most pressure its ever been.”
Evans has also seen many families get trapped in a cycle of a gradual migration south, chasing cheaper rents, but causing huge unrest for children, who are unable to access regular schooling, health care or social support networks.
“People living in these situations are feeling huge shame,” said Evans.
Last week the New Zealand government announced NZ$41.1m for emergency housing, but with winter mere weeks away, charities believe any assistance will come too late for most.
“We warned the government six or seven years ago that a housing crisis was looming,” said Roberts.
“Successive governments have ignored our warnings, and now look where we are. The worst homelessness I have seen in 25 years. You might be able to survive like this in the summer, but you can’t in winter. You just can’t live like this in a New Zealand winter.”