QotD: ‘If you find it problematic, you’re the problem’
It’s weird, given how many magazines I used to plough through, that I’ve never forgotten this one piece. Even my recollection of Smith’s particular pose for the photograph was correct. I guess that no matter how hard I tried to persuade myself otherwise, there was still something about it that creeped me out. Embedded in it is what I might now think of as groomer logic. It takes things that you might find exploitative or harmful and presents them as normal or even positive; it takes advantage of the fact that you haven’t yet got the vocabulary or conceptual framework to articulate your discomfort; it alienates you from those who might validate this discomfort (the faux ‘outraged’); it confuses you by insisting rules that might apply elsewhere — don’t rape teenagers — don’t apply in this particular case. Above all it makes you feel like a massive idiot for still having that feeling, deep in your stomach, that things aren’t okay.
There’s something of this I see in the backlash to the backlash to the film Cuties (Mignonnes). Having criticised the marketing and one of the scenes on twitter, I felt I had to watch it “to be fair” (which is annoying, since had I not been offended, I might have overlooked it completely). And, to be even more fair, I thought the vast majority of the film was brilliant. The actresses are superb and it somehow manages to depict the viciousness of female friendships without resorting to crass “girls are just bitches” tropes. I’d have liked to see even more of the friendships. More friendships and fewer close-ups of gyrating bodies.
To be clear, the “bad” clips from the film circulating on social media show most — but not all — of the unpleasant scenes. There’s a point (I was about to say how many minutes from the end, but then thought, no, don’t make looking it up that easy) where you suddenly think “hang on, why are they filming it this way? It was fine up to now!” Yes, there is a point to be made: little girls simulate pornified performances from popular culture without fully understanding what they are doing. But it is surely possible to film this in a way that does not replicate the production values and principles of pornography. The close-ups are excessive and it is frankly jarring in a film that spends so much time conveying the perspective of the main character, Amy, to suddenly find yourself watching from the viewpoint of a dodgy porn consumer. And yes, that may be the intent — see how this girl, who you know is so human, is now just an object! See how you, the viewer, are made complicit in her objectification! But intentional or not, this is harmful.
I am conscious of how much of a twat you sound when you start declaring certain artistic productions “harmful”. Ooh, hark at Mary Whitehouse over there! Get you and your moral panic! This has been the tone of much of the response to the original criticism of Cuties. The Telegraph’s review declares it a “provocative powder-keg for an age terrified of child sexuality”, insisting that “Netflix’s controversial French import is disturbing and risqué because that’s exactly what it aims to be”. Meaning, if you find it problematic, you’re the problem (because obviously, sexually objectifying children is exactly the same as recognising that children will wish to explore their own sexuality. As opposed to, I don’t know, being the exact opposite).
Then again, the issue might not be that you’re a prude; it might just be that you’re stupid. Alyssa Rosenberg declares that “if conservatives [because all critics must be ‘conservatives’] who have jumped on the debate over #Cuties, want to be taken seriously as cultural arbiters, they have to be able to talk about the *text* of a movie like this in an honest, responsible way”. Ooh! The TEXT! As though having a problem with close-ups of pre-teens humping the floor isn’t enough. As though saying so out loud reveals you to be shallow, lacking in learning, too dumb to grasp the broader message. As though, like some moron who never even noticed that FHM and Loaded sexism was, like, totally ironic sexism, you’re just too thick to differentiate between the thing in itself and a critique of said thing (what with both things looking exactly the same).
I’m not saying the question of “how do you produce a criticism of X without replicating X” is an easy one to answer. I’m put in mind of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Marti Noxon’s To The Bone, both of which fall down by assuming the answer is “it’s criticism because I say so”. Yes, in its extreme misogyny and violence American Psycho “holds a hyper-real, satirical mirror up to our faces” but really, this is something the reader will have already worked out about a quarter of the way in. Only the book goes on and on, and it kind of has to, because nihilistic repetition is part of the point, innit, and oh look, you’re at one of the ‘women being raped and tortured’ bits again and yes, maybe as a cultural event (ahem) the book would otherwise fail. Part of the genius of American Psycho is that it is so unremitting, yet the misogynistic fantasies aren’t any less misogynistic because of this. The narrative rhythm depends on Patrick Bateman tearing women to pieces and fucking their corpses, then listing men’s toiletries and pondering the work of Whitney Houston or Huey Lewis and the News. It’s clever, yes, but it’s also hate-filled. It’s higher art but if you can get in a tizz about Blurred Lines, you might also want to question the impact of books like this.
Meanwhile the film To The Bone tells the story of an anorexia sufferer, played by Lily Collins, who lost a significant amount of weight for the role. I reviewed the film when it was released and felt that, had I still been suffering from anorexia, I’d have found it dangerous. What struck me was that Collins — herself a former sufferer — wasn’t performing starvation. She was literally starving, just as the girls in Cuties are literally thrusting for the cameras. To me, this is unjustifiable. There are times when the gap between being and critiquing is unclear, but this is not the case with American Psycho, To The Bone or Cuties. There is no gap at all.
Anyhow, that’s enough on the complex tension between artistic intent and the uncontrollable demands of a fluid audience . What really pisses me off about those defending the pornified scenes in Cuties is the intellectual snobbery, the way in which it’s suggested that those who raise concerns about child safeguarding are just incapable of grappling with the complex socio-cultural themes of the oeuvre. I totally agree that Cuties explores some fascinating themes. I’m just guessing that those who fast-forward to particular scenes in order to do particular “things” aren’t particularly arsed about those. I don’t think anyone sits down to “focus on” those scenes then thinks “hang on, there’s a broader message here about the immigrant experience and the way in which patriarchy is transmitted intergenerationally by women themselves and how social media blah blah blah”. The girls who are featured in these scenes have no control over how others respond to them and these scenes are out there, forever.
One of the aspects of Amy’s characterisation that I loved was that she’s the one who pushes things too far without realising what she’s doing, and while remaining the least dominant member of the group. It felt entirely relatable, yet I’ve never seen this dynamic portrayed so well before. This could so easily have been the story. It’s almost as though there’s a point at which Amy’s inner life, so beautifully portrayed, ceases to be considered interesting enough to hold its own. These actresses deserved better, so much so it is very tempting to stay quiet about the film’s bad parts (in much the same way that it is difficult for feminists to criticise any aspect of the sex trade without being told they are undermining sex workers. Industries which sexually objectify create their own human shields).
In recent years Mandy Smith — who divorced Bill Wyman at 20 — has become a born-again Christian and recommended raising the age of consent to 18. Speaking of her past, she has said “You are still a child, even at 16. You can never get that part of your life, your childhood, back. I never could” (so much for “acts much older than her 16 years”). One could argue that she is replacing one patriarchal regime with another (in much the way defenders of Cuties have tried to use the film’s exploration of different forms of patriarchal control to defend its explicit scenes). In any case, it seems clear to me that the ‘outraged’ were onto something all along.
Newspapers today might not salivate over “wild children” as they did in the eighties; they wouldn’t get away with it. Still, I don’t find it hard to imagine a similar phenomenon being repackaged by Teen Vogue as “teen girls exploring their sexuality”. It is very easy to shame people out of expressing misgivings (you’re prudish, you’re immature, you’re stupid, you’re in league with the Christian Right). But things that are done to bodies can’t be undone. Young girl goes for it. There is so much spirit in girls. We shouldn’t be crushing it while claiming to celebrate it.
QotD: “Porn is warping the minds of a generation”
A pint of semi-skimmed, 20 Bensons, a scratchcard and, er, a porn pass . . . The odds on this becoming a regular corner-shop scenario crashed this week as Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, announced that age verification checks for accessing online pornography would be delayed yet again, this time because the government forgot to inform the European Commission. No wonder it’s been called Sexit.
Age verification began as a thoughtful response by the coalition government to alarming NSPCC research that 65 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds and almost a third of 12-year-olds access porn. That porn sites should be age-verified, as gambling domains already are, has a 67 per cent approval rating. The problem is that it’s technologically impossible to enforce.
From July 15, clicking on a porn site was supposed to generate a page where a user must provide proof via a credit card, passport or driving licence that they are over 18. Unfortunately Britain stands nobly alone in this endeavour against a global porn industry. And any fool can easily install a VPN (virtual private network): a bit of software which conceals your geographical location. British kids use them already to dodge rights issues, particularly to access US Netflix with its superior range of films.
A VPN would allow a porn user to swerve the UK age-blocker. And which punter wouldn’t do that rather than give personal details to the state-approved verification firm AgeID (which, unbelievably, has the same owner as Pornhub)? No amount of blah about safe encrypted data will reassure anyone that their name and mugshot won’t one day pop up alongside their taste for “watersports” and MILFs.
The alternative would be to go into a shop and, after showing an age ID, buy a £4.99 porn pass. While oldsters might find this no more embarrassing than the time they bumped into their mate’s mum while buying a copy of Razzle, young people have grown up under the total anonymity of the web. Besides, they would simply access porn on platforms such as WhatsApp, Reddit or Snapchat. And a VPN can make the internet an even more dangerous landscape, opening up blocked extremist, paedophile and drug sites on the dark web.
Yet whether age-verification is feasible should not distract from the bigger, more pressing question: does allowing the porn industry to pipe its product unrestricted into every home have toxic consequences? Ireland is reeling from the murder of Ana Kriegel, 14, found naked with extensive injuries and a ligature around her neck, killed by two 13-year-old boys. One of the boys was found to have phones containing thousands of pornographic images, many involving children and animals. The Irish prime minister has said he will be viewing Britain’s age-verification plans closely.
This, of course, is the most extreme scenario. Experts speculated in 1993 whether James Bulger’s killers were inspired by “video nasties” or were just disturbed children who’d have killed in any era. But there is no question that having immediate access to images once obtained only by writing to obscure PO box addresses has changed society. Police now investigate 1,000 cases of offenders viewing child abuse images each month: our jails could not accommodate them all so most are dismissed with a caution on a first offence. Many such men say that viewing “barely legal” porn involving teenagers on legal sites drew them to younger children.
There has also been a spate of deaths of women at the hands of partners who claimed they were engaged in consensual “sex games”. These include Anna Reed, 22, from Harrogate who was suffocated in a Swiss hotel room; Charlotte Teeling, 33, from Birmingham, who was strangled, as was Hannah Dorans, 21, from Edinburgh. Natalie Connolly, 26, was penetrated with a bottle of carpet cleaner and left for dead at the bottom of the stairs. All the men concerned argued that “rough sex” or “Fifty Shades of Grey games” had gone wrong, that these women had, in effect, consented to their own deaths.
These are scenes choreographed by violent pornography, which is not some rare category but just a click away. Researchers studying aggressive porn that involves slaps, hair-pulling and choking found that in 95 per cent of cases the actresses responded with expressions of pleasure, suggesting to the viewer that violence is desired.
Is it any coincidence that the first generation of children exposed to hardcore pornography before their first kiss have epidemic levels of mental illness? The extreme aesthetics of porn fuel body-hatred in young women, while psychologists are concerned that a growing cohort of young men are so desensitised by porn that they suffer erectile dysfunction and emotional disconnection from real women. Moreover, when sex is learnt through porn — a misogynist industry focused solely on male desire — girls prioritise their performance above their own pleasure.
This is now normalised in the mainstream: Teen Vogue ran a feature on anal sex, which most women find uncomfortable, even painful, but is demanded by some men because it’s a major porn trope. Teen Vogue’s anatomical diagram did not even include the clitoris.
Yet young women are not allowed to balk at porn. In the US high school comedy Booksmart, two girls watch porn on their phone in horror. One tries to tell herself she must enjoy it because “I’m a sex-positive feminist”. Not to love porn marks a girl out as uncool, conservative and “unwoke”. Age-verifying technology is, alas, a distraction from the real conversation we need with young people about porn. That it is not feminist nor is it positive sex.
QotD: “When information is passed using words the listener typically weighs and assesses the believability of the message … But unlike words, pictures don’t work that way”
When information is passed using words the listener typically weighs and assesses the believability of the message. When we hear words we tend to hear them as ideas or opinions, often the listener is counter-arguing against those ideas inside their heads. You can be deciding right now that what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense and you can be challenging my verbal statements internally. But unlike words, pictures don’t work that way.
None of you are counter-arguing against the fact that I’m sitting here or that this is a table. Pictures are mentally processed as events, as facts, and are stored unbuffered and unchallenged. If you see it, then it happened and is true. Pictures are truly worth a thousand words.
The Internet is an ideal medium for the spread of sexual permission giving beliefs. The sexual Internet sites by their very nature say that sex is a commodity for sale. Anything that you can buy, you can steal.
Sexual images of women and children are entertainment, sexual access becomes an entitlement, the individuals who are in these pictures do not appear to feel degraded, abused, physically and visually invaded. They appear to be enjoying the interaction. It’s an event.
Perpetrators now ‘know’ that children like to have sex with adults, they know it’s true because they have seen it. Perpetrators show these images to children to break down the inhibitions of children. Children now ‘know’ that children like to have sex with adults. They know it’s true because they have seen it.
For both the predator and the child these images produce permission-giving beliefs.
Dr. Mary Anne Layden
(found on tumblr)
QotD: “It’s ironic how many sci-fi films use forced media exposure as a means of mind control, yet the general public will not accept that their minds are forever altered by witnessing violence against women – for pleasure and leisure – on a regular basis”
QotD: “Viewing child abuse images as bad as direct abuse, says solicitor general”
Paedophiles who download or share child abuse images should receive the same punishment as those who abuse children themselves, according to the solicitor general.
Robert Buckland QC said downloading and sharing such images was just as “insidious” as direct sexual abuse, as he announced plans to extend the unduly lenient sentencing scheme to indecent images offences. Under the scheme, victims and members of the public can challenge tariffs handed down to offenders.
“We have got to make sure that it’s fully understood that use of the internet to download and share images of child abuse is as insidious a crime as direct sexual assault,” Buckland, the MP for South Swindon, told the Daily Telegraph.
“I do hear that the weight of cases is a challenge but that shouldn’t detract from the seriousness of this type of offending and the fact that too many children and young people are being exploited, in many cases for the gratification of people living hundreds of miles away.”
One in four convictions for child abuse images result in custodial sentences, with the rest given community sentences, fines or suspended sentences, according to official figures.
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said: “As set out in the manifesto commitment, we are working with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to look at extending the scheme further. No decisions on future extensions have been made.”
In response to Buckland’s remarks, an MoJ spokesperson said: “Online child sexual exploitation is sickening, and offenders who take or distribute indecent images already face 10 years in prison – with record numbers given custodial sentences in 2017.
“Last year, we also made it illegal to communicate sexually with a child, and we will shortly set out further measures to protect child victims in our victim’s strategy. However, sentencing is a matter for independent judges who make decisions based on the full facts of each case.”
The government has introduced various pieces of legislation relating to child sexual abuse and exploitation during its time in office. A new offence of revenge pornography has been created, it is now an offence to possess a “paedophile manual”, and a specific offence of communicating sexually with a child has also been introduced.
QotD: “The Peter Madsen Guilty Verdict Leaves Lingering Questions and Pain”
Last week, when the Danish amateur engineer Peter Madsen was found guilty of the premeditated killing, sexual assault, and dismemberment of the Swedish journalist Kim Wall, his life sentence marked the close of the most macabre crime investigation in recent Scandinavian history.
The state prosecutor, Jakob Buch-Jepsen, in his closing remarks, argued that some of the “most damning” evidence against Madsen came from the death porn found by police on his hard drives. But, although Madsen’s deep involvement in hardcore sex films and snuff movies—as a consumer and, allegedly, as an actor and a would-be producer and director—played a key role in his conviction, the Madsen verdict has yet to open a wider conversation: the most disturbing reaches of a global industry in which Denmark once played the role of pioneer.
From the perspective of the Internet age, with PornHub downloads and the dark Net catering to all extremes of taste, the early days of legalized porn seem more like a hundred years ago than fifty. Porn wasn’t invented in Denmark, but, in the late sixties, the tiny Nordic nation was the first to legitimize it. When, in October, 1969, the world’s first porn fair, Sex 69, opened its doors in Copenhagen, the atmosphere was one of excitement and celebration. Special buses made the trip from Germany, charter flights arrived from Tunisia and Egypt, and American tourists eschewed the art galleries of southern Europe in favor of the new, sensational pleasures of the north. Held in K. B. Hallen, a vast, modernist sports hall designed by Hans Hansen in the Bauhaus tradition, the four-day event featured stripteases, live sex shows, and stalls selling porn magazines and sex toys. The Danish artist and provocateur Jens Jørgen Thorsen, in his opening speech, claimed Sex 69 as a victory for freedom of expression. Despite the fact that ninety per cent of the event’s fifty thousand visitors were male, there were no significant protests from Danish feminists: at the time, many perceived the legalization of porn as the triumphant, liberating end to generations of sexual repression and taboo.
Meanwhile, those concerned that freely available porn would lead to more sex crimes were soon assuaged: the Danish criminologist Berl Kutchinsky, in his 1970 report for the U.S. President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, “Pornography and Sex Crimes in Denmark,” demonstrated how the legalization of porn had actually led to a decrease in child molestation, voyeurism, and minor sexual offenses, though rape figures stayed the same. In 1971, Sweden followed Denmark’s lead in legalizing porn, and soon the porn industry in these countries was booming, leading to a conception—still held among baby boomers—of Denmark and Sweden as “sexy countries,” though neither has been a large-scale porn producer in decades.
It’s always disappointing when mainstream journalists don’t do their research properly, Kutchinski has rejected his conclusion that porn was harmless, as reported in Transforming a Rape Culture:
But the industry had its dark side, even in the early days. Child porn was not criminalized in Denmark until as late as 1980, and the industry’s second wave included films depicting violence against women, such as Jørgen Hallum’s “Englene” (“Angels”), from 1973: in one scene, bikers storm a confirmation service, crucify the priest, and rape young girls in front of the altar. The burgeoning women’s movement became uneasy; what feminists had initially perceived as empowering was beginning to look very much like the opposite. In a 1978 anthology, “Back in the Sixties,” the leading Danish feminist Bente Hansen reflected on the “pioneer” era of porn: “We had second thoughts about this so-called liberation. What exactly had been liberated and who reaped all the benefits?”
For many of the health professionals who were observing Madsen’s trial, the submarines carried clear Freudian symbolism. “For Madsen, the submarine is like a womb, a place of regression, where he can withdraw and protect himself against the world of failures and betrayals,” Bo Møhl, a professor of clinical psychology at Aalborg University, said. “He’s in another element, in which he is omnipotent. He can breathe underwater. All his needs are satisfied.”
Madsen liked to take women out in his submarines—and his fame gave him plenty to choose from. His pattern, the court learned, was to have a regular girlfriend (and later, at the time of Wall’s murder, a wife) and seek out “crazy ladies” on the side. Former lovers and friends told of how he would sometimes appear at fetish parties in a naval uniform and cap, scouting for women with whom to experiment sexually. He began to stage his fantasies, seeking out porn stars and, according to one witness, acting in two porn films, one shot in Denmark and the other in Germany. He loaned two submarines to the producers of “Thunderpussy,” a porn film from 2007 about a woman running amok with a libido-unleashing drug. Most significant, he had also—as far back as 2010, but possibly long before—been downloading videos of women being tortured and killed.
The prosecution argued that Madsen may have been actively planning to shoot his own snuff video when he invited Wall to visit his submarine on August 10th: on July 26th, he’d carried out Internet searches for “executions” and “dismemberment,” and, on August 4th, he exchanged texts with a friend and former lover who had asked him to “scare” her, writing that he would take out his utility knife and check out her jugular, and that he wanted to tie her up and “impale her on a roasting spit.” The night before he murdered Wall, he ran Internet searches for “beheading,” “girl,” and “agony.”
Some of the videos and animations of the torture and beheadings of women that the police found on Madsen’s hard drives were shown during the trial, including footage of what were purportedly Mexican-cartel members slitting a woman’s throat. It is not illegal to download death porn in Denmark, or to have it on your computer, so Madsen was not breaking any law. Wall’s parents, the public, and the press were not subjected to the screen images of what the police believe is a real snuff movie, but the judges watched them with the audio on. The sounds of a tortured woman’s cries turned the austere, neoclassical courtroom into a death chamber for several minutes, reducing some to tears. When the presiding judge called for a recess, and then asked the prosecutor to spare the court any further evidence from Madsen’s hard drives, the relief in the courtroom was palpable.
In Denmark, a life sentence averages sixteen to seventeen years, but Madsen can theoretically be released on parole after twelve years. His defense lawyer, Betina Hald Engmark, says Madsen is appealing his sentence to the Eastern High Court, but, because a mental assessment by the Danish Medico-Legal Council has deemed Madsen a narcissistic psychopath who poses a “severe threat to others,” he will remain in prison until the judgment. Madsen, who spent much of his adult life building womblike capsules, will now inhabit another closed environment: a cell.
If, as the prosecution suggested during the trial, Madsen’s intention was to make a snuff movie starring Kim Wall, then she is, for now, the most high-profile victim of a sick genre. As long as there are humans such as Madsen with deadly fantasies, innocent people will be tortured, mutilated, and murdered, and there will be a tiny, repulsive corner of the porn world dedicated to serving their needs.
QotD: ‘the sexist male genius paradox’
I don’t like the films of Quentin Tarantino. I think Woody Allen’s work is rubbish, and Brett Easton Ellis’s books suck. Am I allowed to admit to this now?
For so long, I’ve been held back by the sexist male genius paradox, which decrees that any failure to appreciate the genius of a sexist male artist must be down to one’s own failure to rise above the sexism. It’s a problem many women have, though we’re only finding out about it today.
I know that to some this will sound terribly unsophisticated, but there is a relationship between misogyny in art and misogyny in real life. It’s a complex one, as female writers have been outlining in recent discussions around thrillers and true crime, and it’s obviously not the case that artistic description equates to real-life prescription. Nonetheless, when male artists produce works which consistently prioritise the inner lives and/or fantasies of men, something has gone wrong. There’s a limit to how much women should have to transpose art in order to see a world in which they, too, are human. How good is a book or film when it demands so much on-the-spot correction from the reader or viewer?
Like so many women of my generation, I’ve spent years pretending to laugh at “ironic” sexism, refusing to “stigmatise” extreme pornography and bestowing serious, straight-faced analysis on the useless art of self-styled genius men. Why have I done this? Because I want to be thought of as someone who has a sense of humour, someone who’s open-minded, someone who’s intelligent. I want to be seen as someone who “gets it”, even when I don’t.
Deciding a work of art is irreparably flawed just because the entire worldview underpinning it, the characterisation, the narrative drive, the humour, the whole lot relies on the assumption that women are not fully human – well, that’s a bit naïve, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I be able to get over that?
Well, no. No, I can’t and I won’t. I’ve struggled with this “hang on, is it just me?” feeling ever since I watched my first James Bond film at eight years old and concluded that rape, in some circumstances, must be OK. From now on I will be the little boy in the crowd pointing out that the misogyny-in-art Emperor is stark bollock naked.
Just as the “best” postmodern theory tends to be appallingly written in order to fool us that the difficulty is in the ideas, the nihilism and misogyny of the “best” male directors is so glaringly obvious we end up assuming we’ve missed the hidden message (so we use “hyper-reality” as a posh way of describing unimaginative exaggeration). The real creativity isn’t in Manhattan or Inglourious Basterds; it’s in the imaginative contortions critics have gone through to make these films seem more than the sum of their parts.
There’s nothing unsophisticated in recognising that an industry mired in sexism will produce art that is tainted by sexist beliefs. There’s nothing childish or bourgeois about calling time on representations of the human condition which fail to accommodate half the human race. For too long genius has been defined as male, far removed from such petty concerns as granting consideration to the female gaze. This isn’t just unfair; it’s dull.
“You just didn’t get the irony/humour/bathos/[add your own technique]” is the male critic’s version of that lesson girls are taught from the first time they’re groped in the playground: abuse is flattery. We just haven’t learned to read it correctly. From now on I suggest we don’t even try.
QotD: Miss Peru 2018 turned violence against women into morbid entertainment, not a ‘feminist protest’
Although the so-called protest was reported as being a contestant-driven initiative, the pageant’s organizers and hosts made clear that the “theme” this year was violence against women, repeatedly explaining that the entire pageant was dedicated to “respecting women and violence prevention.”
This is no coincidence. In recent years, feminism in Latin America and the Caribbean has explicitly centered the issue of violence against women. Last October, over 100,000 people took to the streets in Argentina (where a woman is murdered every 36 hours) to protest the gruesome femicide of Lucia Perez Montero. Similar protests were replicated throughout the continent on what was called “Black Wednesday.”
It was a sly move by the organizers of Miss Peru to feature a parade of women listing decontextualized facts about violence against women, and present the event itself as part of the movement against the epidemic. This move ensured the pageant would go viral and seem modern, despite the whole spectacle being inextricably rooted in women’s subordination and subservience.
As Spanish writer Barbijaputa argues at El Diario, stating facts about violence against women in a beauty pageant doesn’t change anyone’s attitude about that violence or about women’s rights. She writes:
The vast majority of society still thinks that the motive [for violence] is biology: that men can’t control their ‘sexual instincts’ and women can’t defend themselves because they are weaker. Stating facts about violence against us makes it seem as if this is inevitable: ‘It’s just the way it is,’ ‘men are crazy,’ ‘I wish it didn’t happen but we can’t fight nature.’
In other words, without understanding why men commit violence against women and without addressing the system that excuses and normalizes male dominance, we cannot successfully combat male violence.
A truly subversive act might have been for contestants to make statements that challenge the objectification of women. Barbijaputa suggests some alternate scripts for pageant contestants:
“I am Miss Tarapoto, and girls and women don’t die; each one of them had a man who killed them. Men are educated to think of themselves as superior to us, while we are being measured by our hips.”
Or perhaps, “I am Miss Cuzco and coming out here in a bathing suit so that men can judge whether or not I am beautiful is sexism and sexism kills.”
Instead, what Miss Peru came up with was little more than a marketing strategy that, in the end, still serves patriarchy. The event’s organizers and Latina, the TV channel that aired and sponsored the pageant, don’t have to pretend to care about women’s rights or liberation any other day of the year.
Peruvian writer Lara Salvatierra points out that Latina has “a misogynist editorial line” and routinely airs content that demeans and objectifies women, “including a TV show which ridicules Indigenous women and girls.”
The fact that it went viral speaks to the guidelines of a patriarchal system: a woman may demand justice, as long as she doesn’t try to escape the mold and the gender roles that the system has approved for her. Patriarchy will always search for ways to naturalize its existence. There is nothing empowering in modeling in a bikini to entertain the same misogynists who then violate us, commercialize us, and kill us.
In a beauty pageant, women are presented to be ogled and enjoyed for an hour or two, as pretty objects. Once objectified, they are put through a process in which, one by one, they are eliminated from the competition. In other words, beauty pageants present women as intrinsically disposable. This is the same thought process that legitimizes the discarding of women under patriarchy, through male violence.
What is an audience meant to feel or think as they read, “Man strangles woman with a cord,” while a young woman parades across the stage in a bikini, desperately seeking male approval and adhering to patriarchal standards of beauty and complacency?
How this capitalist marketing ploy could be interpreted as empowering or liberating is beyond me. But, as Salvatierra points out, this type of “feminist protest” is the kind of activism that a patriarchal system favours the most: one in which women voice opposition to their oppression, but do it within the bounds of the role the system constructed for them.
QotD: “Action against sexual harassment in schools is more about protecting the male orgasm than girls”
How much pain and suffering is the male orgasm worth? Is there ever a time when a man’s right to access hardcore pornography is outweighed by the rights of young women to feel safe?
I am wondering this in light of today’s Women and Equalities Committee Report into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. The way in which young men see their female peers is tainted, poisoned by broader cultural narratives about what female bodies are for. Boys are not born with a need to hurt and humiliate for pleasure, but they are acquiring it, and fast.
The findings of the report are dismaying, if not altogether surprising. It states: “A number of large scale surveys find girls and young women consistently reporting high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in school.”
Data published in September 2015 found that over 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over the course of three years, including 600 rapes. Almost a third of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching in school, while 41 per cent of girls aged 14 to 17 in intimate relationships reported experiencing sexual violence from their partner. Sexual harassment starts in primary school, with lifting up skirts and pulling down pants, driving some girls to wearing shorts under their school skirts.
One obvious conclusion to draw might be that boys do not like girls very much. They see them as objects to sneer at, flesh to grab at, holes to penetrate. They don’t see them as people, at least not in the way that they see themselves.
The report claims that, “boys and young men . . . are adversely impacted themselves by a culture of internet pornography that has become so prevalent amongst young people”. The images they are seeing distort their beliefs not just about what women want, but what women are.
Of course, it’s not as though sexism and rape culture are products of the internet. They have been with us for millennia. We tell ourselves that we are making progress. Eventually – not in my lifetime, though, nor even in my children’s – such things should not exist. Yet it seems that as soon as one channel for hate disappears, another emerges. The report posits “a correlation between children’s regular viewing of pornography and harmful behaviours”:
“The type of pornography many children are exposed to is often more extreme than adults realise . . . The government should immediately update its guidance on SRE [sex and relationship education] to include teaching about pornography. The new guidance should offer advice to schools about how to approach this topic in an age-appropriate way. It should also include suggestions of how schools can work in partnership with parents to address the impact of pornography on children’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent.”
While I don’t disagree with any of these recommendations in particular, there’s something about the whole enterprise that makes my heart sink. It’s as though pornography is a natural disaster, something terrible that cannot be avoided, or some strange, dark offshoot of youth culture – a modern version of painting your walls black while listening to Joy Division – around which the grown-ups must tiptoe and fret.
You’d never think it was something created, paid for and used by men of all ages and classes, as part of the way they systematically dehumanise, objectify and exploit female bodies. You’d never think it was a multibillion pound leisure industry in its own right. You’d never think that violent, abusive pornography only exists because huge numbers of men want it to.
I understand the arguments. It’s here now and there’s nothing we can do about it (other than make more of it, harder, faster, crueller, the lines between consent and coercion increasingly blurred). The only thing we can do now is hope that SRE (sex and relationship education) lessons at school – followed up by consent lessons for those in higher education – will counteract the worst effects.
It’s as though misogyny itself is not something to be eradicated, but something young men must learn to enjoy in moderation. Grown men can handle it, we tell ourselves (after all, it’s not as though they’re sexually harassing and raping anyone, is it?). It’s the young ones you’ve got to worry about. They just don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. Unlike the punter who can magically tell whether the person he is penetrating has been coerced, or the viewer with a sixth sense that informs him whether the rape he is watching is real or fake. We’re genuinely meant to think it’s only children who are at risk of not seeing the humanity in others.
I am tired of this. I do not want my sons to grow up in a world where watching violent pornography and paying to penetrate the body of someone poorer than you are seen as a perfectly acceptable recreational activities as long as one is over 18. Where watching scenes of choking, beating and rape – without knowing how much is acted, how much is real – is justified on the basis that nothing that gives you an orgasm ought to be stigmatised.
I do not want my sons to attend the “sensible, grounded sex education” lessons being proposed by Women and Equalities Committee chair Maria Miller if all they learn is how not to be too “laddish”, how to keep their misogyny at an acceptable level for polite society, how to pretend women and girls are human without truly seeing them as such. Because then this is not about equality at all. This is about etiquette. The gentrification of misogyny: down with lad culture (so vulgar!), up with hardcore porn on the quiet. No rapes until home time, this is a serious establishment.
It’s not good enough. Girls are suffering, horrendously. Their self-esteem – their very sense of self, their belief that their bodies are their own – are being destroyed. What if the cost of ending their suffering would be to say “Enough. The male orgasm is not sacrosanct”? There is nothing liberal or enlightened about promoting an age-old system of exploitation via the cum shot. Men – adult men – could end this if they wanted to. Surely a first step would be to stop pretending otherwise.