Providers of sex education in schools are teaching children that prostitution is a “rewarding job” and failed to advise a 14-year-old girl having sex with a 16-year-old boy that it was illegal.
Outside organisations teaching children about sex also promote “kinks” such as being locked in a cage, flogged, caned, beaten and slapped in the face, The Times has found.
One organisation encouraged pupils to demonstrate where they like to touch themselves sexually, in a practise criticised as “sex abuse” by campaigners.
Another provider, an LGBT+ youth charity called the Proud Trust, produces resources asking children aged seven to 11 whether they are “planet boy, planet girl, planet non-binary”.
Last night campaigners said that “inclusiveness is overriding child safeguarding” and that the materials were “bordering on illegal”.
This week Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner, revealed that she would review sex education being taught in schools after Miriam Cates, an MP, was contacted by a parent whose nine-year-old child came home “shaking” and “white as a sheet because they’d been taught in detail about rape”.
Relationship and sex education (RSE) became compulsory in English secondary schools in 2020, with many contracting out the teaching. Since then an industry has sprung up of providers who produce resources and go into schools to teach sex education and gender issues.
Staff do not need education or child development qualifications and there is no professional register or regulation of their curriculum.
One organisation, Bish, is an online guide to sex and relationships for children aged over 14. It is written by Justin Hancock, who teaches sex education in schools and provides teacher training on sex education.
The website features a question from a 14-year-old girl having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male. She states that she is worried about becoming pregnant because they are not using contraception and are using the “withdrawal” method. In his response Hancock, who describes himself as a freelance sex and relationships educator, said that “your risks of pregnancy are very, very low”, a statement described as “dangerously reckless” by campaigners. He also failed to mention that the relationship was illegal and advised using lubricant during anal sex.
In another post on the site, a reader wrote to say that she felt “dirty” after being coerced into having sex for money. Hancock replied: “There are many many people doing sex work who do enjoy what they do — even if they don’t necessarily enjoy the sex. It can be a really difficult job but many people find it rewarding — just like other jobs.
“This is especially true if sex workers mainly have good clients, which I don’t think you do. If you did want to continue, maybe you could get better clients?”
In a post about “kink”, Bish links to a blog that provides a list of sexual activities including using manacles and irons, whips, swinging and beating.
In a post about masturbation, parents are told: “If your kid is having trouble understanding this, or you want to explain how to touch themselves, you could get hold of some Play-Doh or plasticine and make a model of what someone’s genitals might look like. They could practice touching the models gently in a similar way to how they may touch their own.”
The Safe Schools Alliance said: “Telling children to practise masturbating on a plasticine model is child sexual abuse.”
Bish claims that more than 100,000 young people a month learn about sex from its website. The site was funded by Durex but the condom brand withdrew its sponsorship. It is not clear why. The website is now funded by donations from the public and schools pay Hancock for resource packs that he provides. Hancock says on his website that he has taught “a broad variety of RSE topics in state and independent schools”.
A full day of teaching costs £500 a day for local authority schools, £550 for academy schools and £600 for fee-paying schools.
Hancock says that his website “is not designed for classroom RSE teaching”, and that teachers should visit his training site for resources, which can be bought on his online shop.
In 2019 the government announced that schools would be given access to a £6 million RSE training and support package so that teachers in England could provide new classes on issues such as healthy relationships, safe sex and consent. Last month the website Vice reported that only £3.2 million had been taken up by schools.
A survey by the Sex Education Forum of children aged 16 and 17 last year found that 35 per cent rated the quality of their school’s RSE provision as “good” or “very good” — down six percentage points from the previous year. This was attributed to many of the basics not being covered.
The Proud Trust produced a range of resources called Alien Nation that asked primary schoolchildren aged seven to 11 whether they felt closest to “planet boy, planet girl, planet non-binary”.
It also asks: “Which planet were you sent to as a baby” and “What would your ideal planet be like?”. Its website states that the resource was funded by Cheshire West and Chester council. The charity Educate & Celebrate, founded by Elly Barnes, a teacher, promoted a book called Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity?, which tells the story of Kit, a 12-year-old girl who is being medically transitioned to live as a boy.
Resources on their website include lesson plans for children aged seven to 11 that suggest pupils “create a gender neutral character” that they can share with the rest of the class.
Teachers should encourage them to “refrain from saying he or she” and “introduce gender neutral pronouns and language, eg They, Zie and Mx”. The group says that its methods have been adopted by “hundreds of schools”.
Last month Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former director of public prosecutions, said that providers were preventing parents from viewing teaching resources, citing commercial confidentiality.
Tanya Carter, spokeswoman for Safe Schools Alliance and an early years practitioner, said: “We are very much in favour of sex education but it should be for the benefit of children — learning about rights, how to protect themselves, and how to get help if someone is abusing them. It should not be about promoting prostitution and abuse to already vulnerable children.
“We don’t think Bish or Justin Hancock should be anywhere near children because he clearly doesn’t understand child protection. It’s completely indefensible what he’s been promoting to children and some of it is verging on a criminal offence.”
Hancock declined to comment. The other providers did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for Cheshire West and Chester council said: “The Alien Nation book aimed to support teachers and schools to explain gender identity and gender variance. Lesson plans were created by the Proud Trust to accompany the book, which could be used by schools if they wished.
“The council will always take on board comments and will share these with the Proud Trust in relation to the Alien Nation book. The support pack is not available on the council’s website.”
A mother was reported to social services after she objected to the way her children were being taught about sex and gender at school (Charlotte Wace writes).
The woman said that she wanted her six daughters, four of whom are foster children, “to know they have [a] right to safe spaces based on biological sex and equality in sport”. She wrote to the school after being told that two of the girls, aged 12 and 13, were due to have lessons on sex and gender, and asked to see material used in the lessons in advance.
It amounted to “indoctrination”, she claimed in her letter, and she asked the school to add “some scientific balance”.
She was summoned to a meeting with social workers, an educational adviser and the member of school staff who had alerted the authorities. It was decided that a social worker would speak to the mother. The social worker summarised that they, along with other social workers, held “no concerns” relating to the mother’s care of the children and that no further action was required.
The woman has started legal action against the teacher who made the complaint and is suing for defamation.
The school has declined to comment.
Argentina legalised elective abortions in early pregnancy last [month], giving it probably the most liberal abortion laws in Latin America.
The legislation, which passed the Senate by 38 votes to 29 on December 30, had already secured the support of the lower house a few weeks earlier.
It is the first significant predominantly Roman Catholic country in the region, where religion remains influential in society and politics, to take such a step, the culmination of a decades-long women’s rights movement that has drawn support from across the political spectrum.
Up until now abortion in Argentina had been outlawed except in cases of rape or when a mother’s life was at risk. Terminations will now be offered by its national health service in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.
Of the 20 countries in Latin America only Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana permit elective abortions in early pregnancy. Outside these smaller, more progressive nations, abortion is classified as a crime in almost all circumstances, with varying degrees of punishment.
There remains an absolute ban on abortion in El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua, where women frequently face prosecution and long prison terms — in the most extreme cases up to 40 years if found guilty of aggravated homicide. In Ecuador only rape victims who are mentally disabled and are represented by a legal guardian in court can legally have an abortion.
In Brazil, Chile and Colombia abortion is legal only in very limited circumstances, such as rape, risk to the mother’s life or a fatal foetal abnormality. Until 2006 it was outlawed without exception in Colombia.
In Mexico there are growing calls to liberalise the law. Some states, including Mexico City and Oaxaca, have made moves to decriminalise abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and President López Obrador has already indicated that the country could follow Argentina’s lead.
“Matters of this nature should not be decided from above,” he said. “It’s a decision for women.”
Across the region clandestine procedures are common and range from relatively safe methods, performed by a private gynaecologist for those who can afford it, to traditional herbalists and backstreet surgery for the poor.
Abortion is increasingly a public health problem, not a police matter. Two thirds of all public hospital beds taken up by women in Brazil in 2019 were a result of complications from unsafe abortions, according to health ministry data.
Abortion has been available throughout Germany since the 1970s but the number of doctors carrying out the procedure is now in decline. Jessica Bateman meets students and young doctors who want to fill the gap.
The woman at the family planning clinic looked at Teresa Bauer and her friend sternly. “And what are you studying?” she asked the friend, who had just found out she was pregnant, and wanted an abortion.
“Cultural studies,” she replied.
“Ahhh, so you’re living a colourful lifestyle?” came the woman’s retort.
Bauer sat still, hiding her rage.
Stressed-out by the discovery of her accidental pregnancy, Bauer’s friend had asked her to book the appointments needed to arrange an abortion.
It wasn’t just a case of calling her friend’s GP to arrange a time for her to request a termination.
First she needed to arrange a counselling appointment, which is designed to “protect unborn life”, as German law puts it, and discourage a woman from going ahead with the procedure. Some of the clinics providing the service are run by churches – Bauer took care to avoid them, fearing that they would be judgemental.
Then she needed to hunt down a doctor who could prescribe pills for an early medical abortion. It became legal last year for doctors to publicise the fact that they provide abortions but they cannot indicate what kinds of service they provide, so Bauer had to call medical practices one by one.
“Berlin is a liberal city, so I thought it would be easier than it was,” she says.
“Even when we went to get the pill, the doctor’s assistant kept asking, ‘Are you really sure?’ Seeing what my friend had to go through, and how she was treated, made me so angry that I decided to do something about it.”
Bauer was a third-year medical student at the time, so a few days later she emailed Medical Students for Choice Berlin, run by students at her university, telling them she wanted to start volunteering. She now works with them, campaigning for improved training on abortion for medical students, and raising awareness of the obstacles that [women] seeking an abortion may face.
Although Germany is widely perceived as a liberal country, its reproductive laws are surprisingly restrictive. Abortion isn’t actually legal – it’s just unpunished up to 12 weeks from conception, providing the woman has undergone the counselling session, followed by a waiting period of three days.
For this reason abortion hasn’t been taught at medical schools, and there is a shortage of doctors performing the procedure as a result.
In some parts of Germany women have to travel long distances to reach a clinic where abortions are carried out. In 2018 more than 1,000 crossed into the Netherlands, where the process is simpler and the time limit is 22 weeks. Some doctors also commute from Belgium and the Netherlands to carry out abortions in northern German cities such as Bremen and Münster.
Medical Students for Choice Berlin is trying to address the difficulties faced by women seeking an abortion by holding papaya workshops, where the procedure is carried out on the tropical fruit. Its size makes a handy stand-in for a human uterus, and its seeds are vacuumed out to demonstrate how the foetus may be removed. The idea is to get students in touch with the topic, and to encourage them to pursue specialist training after finishing their undergraduate course.
The group was founded in 2015 by Alicia Baier, who says she only found out about the difficulties faced by women seeking an abortion by chance, at a conference during her fourth year of medical studies.
“It’s a taboo subject and no-one talks about it, so most people don’t know about the access problems until they actually need to get an abortion themselves,” she says.
She then discovered that most doctors performing abortions in Germany are in their 60s and 70s and are due to retire soon. “They’re the generation that experienced the past fights for women’s rights,” she says. “They became politicised. But the younger generations never learnt how to do it.”
Baier got in touch with a US group called Medical Students for Choice, which explained that papayas can be used in demonstrations. “They even posted the tools for us to use,” she adds. A lecturer then connected her with some gynaecologists who could host the workshops. “They said to me, ‘We’ve been waiting so long for students like you!'”
“You often get them late afternoon on a Friday. If somebody doesn’t want to go home, that’s when you get these conversations,” says Alison Hamnett, director of operations across the north for Brook. They may start with asking for free condoms, but eventually the real story emerges: sexual exploitation, abusive relationships, precarious lives. Girls who don’t even feel entitled to refuse sex, let alone insist on protecting themselves.
Some are guarded. “Particularly if they are being groomed, they will have the answers to the questions down pat,” says Hamnett. “But the receptionist will say she saw a car outside drop them off – and the same car is coming with lots of young girls …” Posters hanging in the waiting room of the Manchester clinic where we meet explain the difference between exploitative and loving relationships: no, it’s not OK if he offers a roof over your head and expects sex in return.
The Burnley, Blackburn and Oldham clinics tend to see more grooming-gang victims, says Hamnett. In Liverpool, she found them dealing with a young homeless man, released from prison, who had been having sex in broad daylight in a car park while intoxicated. Manchester saw a young Muslim girl who was being radicalised. The checklist used with clients ranges from female genital mutilation to mental health issues. “We had a young woman of about 17, very intelligent, got all her A-levels and went to university,” says Hamnett. “She was bipolar and, when she was on her meds, she was great. When she wasn’t, she’d sell herself for sex.” The clinic helped her until she was too old to use its service, which is restricted to under-19s. They don’t know where she is now.
Brook’s expertise is in this area – where sexuality, deep-seated social problems and mental health issues collide – and is, says Hallgarten, what makes them “very good value for money”, as identifying the root cause of sexual risk-taking offers more chance of changing it.
But specialist clinics for vulnerable young people such as these are increasingly merging with more general services to save money. There is a push, says Hamnett, towards using GPs instead for contraception. That may work for young people with happy sex lives, but there is a reason appointments here last for up to 40 minutes, not the 10 minutes a busy GP might offer. “I feel as if we’re almost waiting a few years down the line for teenage pregnancies to go up,” she says ruefully. It is this sense of a clock being turned back that worries many.
The idea for the book [Against Our Will] grew out of Brownmiller’s activism, specifically, the consciousness-raising group to which she belonged in the early 70s, the New York Radical Feminists. One evening, one of its newer members, Diane Crothers, arrived bearing a copy of the Berkeley feminist magazine It Ain’t Me Babe, which earlier that year had printed a long account by a young female artist of being raped by two Vietnam veterans while hitchhiking home from her first women’s meeting. The issue Crothers had in her hand brought news of a stunning retaliatory action against the assault of a dancer by some men at a bachelor party, carried out by group called the Contra Costa Anti-Rape Squad #14. On the day of the wedding, this group had stuck flyers on the windscreens of guests’ cars, detailing what had gone on. “Sounds ugly?” asked the writer of these flyers. “Well, it is. It goes on all the time, one way or another. These pigs know the law won’t touch them, they can always insist the woman is a liar or a slut or crazy. [But] we women are learning to see through that nonsense. We hope you learn to, too.”
After everyone had read this story, Crothers announced that rape was an important feminist issue and that it should be explored by the group. Brownmiller, a journalist, wasn’t convinced. Like many people then, she thought rape was a “deviant” crime, one that any alert woman could surely avoid if she tried. But others disagreed. They wanted to talk. One woman, Sarah Pines, quietly began to describe how she had also been raped while hitchhiking. The worst part of her ordeal, she said, had been at the police station. “Aww, who’d want to rape you?” teased one police officer. Another insisted – does this sound familiar? – that she was too calm to be credible. The men involved were eventually given suspended sentences.
It was while listening to Pines, and to those who followed her, that Brownmiller began to see rape in another light, and when the talking was over she proposed that the group hold a conference on the subject, with research papers and panel discussions. “But I was a laggard,” she says, with a laugh. “The others told me: no, we will have a speak-out first, and then a conference.” The speak-out was held in a church, 30 women took part, and their experiences ran the gamut from street harassment to rape. One woman described how she had been raped by her therapist; another how she had been assaulted in her apartment after opening her door to a man who said he was delivering a package; yet another how she was molested by a junior doctor on a date arranged by his aunt and her mother.
The conference took place in a high school auditorium four months later – Brownmiller attended it on crutches, having sprained her ankle when she kicked a man who had goosed her in the street while she was handing out flyers for it – and by the time it was over she found she was able to look her own vulnerability “squarely in the eye”, something she had hitherto always refused to acknowledge. She realised that something important had been left out of her education: a way of looking at male-female relations, at sex, at strength and at power. She had, in other words, changed her mind about rape, for which reason she was now determined to write a book about it, one that would deploy examples from history, psychoanalysis, criminology, mythology and popular culture in the service of illustrating her conviction that “rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”. Was she surprised, as she embarked on this project, that no one had attempted such a thing before? “No, not really. We were uncovering so many new truths then. The early 70s was a great time for us. Women were so brilliant in their analysis.”
Against Our Will finally came out in 1975, five long years after the first of the key texts of women’s liberation: Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Though it would later be attacked by, among others, the black activist Angela Davis for its attitudes to race (in his piece, Remnick writes that Brownmiller’s treatment of the Emmett Till case “reads today as morally oblivious”), its reception was mostly positive and it became a bestseller (much later, with pleasing neatness, it would be included in the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century).
Some of the sisters, however, were not happy. “People in the movement were starting to say: ‘We don’t need stars’,” Brownmiller remembers. “When I announced to my consciousness-raising group that I’d finished writing it, someone said: ‘Why don’t you be the first feminist without ego who doesn’t put your name on the book?’” She clicks her teeth. “She was jealous, of course. Another time, when I was giving a talk on a college campus, a woman raised her hand and asked: ‘Why did you put your name on Against Our Will? All your ideas came from our movement, after all.’” How did she respond? “I said: what page did you write, sister?”
Did she think its publication would change things? (It is widely agreed now that not only did the book shift attitudes to rape, it may have influenced some changes in the law, including making the victim’s sexual history inadmissible.) “Oh, yeah,” she says. “I thought it would change minds all over America. But I also feel that I was part of a movement. Even as I was writing it, rape crisis centres had begun opening, legislators had begun looking at the law around a woman’s past.” In the long term, however, things did not change nearly enough. “I remember being startled when it came out that DNA samples were not being processed properly in some states, and it was pretty horrifying when it became apparent that some colleges were not going to take accusations against, say, their football players seriously on account of what their alumni might think.”
What has struck her most forcefully about the wave of allegations in recent weeks? (As I write, no fewer than 122 high-profile men stand publicly accused of assault or harassment in the US.) “Well, I’ve been astonished that these perpetrators seem to have such weird sex lives, that is very important. They’re perverts, and I think that comes from pornography.” She sighs. “Unfortunately, the pornographers were in the end a lot more successful than Women Against Pornography.” In 1978, she attended the first national feminist anti-pornography conference in the US, held in San Francisco, which was also where she first saw the dungaree-clad Andrea Dworkin in action, addressing a Take Back the Night march in an edgy part of the city (“I immediately dubbed her Rolling Thunder,” she recalls in her 1999 memoir In Our Time). Back in New York, she and other members of WAP ran educational tours of Times Square – then still horribly sleazy – at five dollars a throw, transgressive invasions that would regularly see them thrown out of strip shows, and which, in their first year, attracted some 2,500 “tourists”, among them a pair of Benedictine nuns from Erie, Pennsylvania.
There are far more intended parents waiting to be matched with a surrogate than there are women available to carry these pregnancies, yet surrogates are taught to view themselves as disposable laborers. A doctor at a clinic in India adds that “for the surrogates it’s mostly the character of the womb that we are interested in. We make sure the surrogates know that they are not genetically related to the baby, they are just the wombs.” … The doctor superimposes a single body part (the womb) over the personhood of the surrogate as a whole being, effectively eliding her subjectivity.
The surrogates that Pande interviewed referenced their own contributions to the pregnancy, contrasting the level of effort that they were putting into the pregnancies to that of the intended mother, who contributed “only an egg.” The surrogates were thus justified in making kinship claims to the future child … When one surrogate was told that she would have to “reduce” her pregnancy from triplets to twins, she insisted that she would keep the third baby if the intended parents did not want it because it was her blood, if not her genes … While blood does not circulate between the pregnant woman and fetus, the placenta is built from both maternal and fetal blood cells that can migrate between the two, lingering in various organs of the body and potentially impacting a variety of future conditions for the child, such as cancer risk and immune disorders.
This biological connection, however, is often downplayed because it is not genetic. In the Assisted Reproductive Technology industry, genetics are privileged over gestation, and thus the role of the surrogate is cast as that of an incubator who will not affect the appearance, intelligence, or personality of the child. This strict compartmentalization assures intended parents that their choice of surrogate will not impact the quality of their carefully selected genetic material, thus legitimizing cross-racial, cross-class, transnational surrogacy arrangements in ways that benefit the consumers of reproductive technologies. […]
Daisy Deomampo found that the intended parents she interviewed became very attached to the Indian “origin story” of their children, regardless of whether the child was conceived using Indian gametes. Parents returned from Indian with emblems of the country, “flattening out” the specificity of India and its historical and political contexts. [She] argues that parents “conflated the geographic space of India – and the attendant orientalist discourses that construct “Indian-ness” as exotically opposite to Western sensibilities – with the embodiment of the child’s identity through its gestation by an Indian surrogate mother in India” … Simultaneously Other[ing] Indian women’s bodies while incorporating romanticized and potentially colonializing notions of Indian identity or origins for surrogate-born children.
The idea that reproductive tourists can tap in to the natural resource of Indian’s fertility is also raised … [Despite] India’s birth rate or “fertility surplus” [being] deemed a demographic problem, [it is implied] that the purported “excessive” population, bodies, and fertility of India are always an available commodity for the foreign tourist … An estimated 8-10% of Indian women suffer from infertility and most surrogate mothers have been permanently sterilized … [But] rather than addressing the health care needs of Indian citizens, foreign economic pressure and state intervention have aimed at limiting the fertility of the poor at the same time that the image of fertile Indian surrogates is used to draw in reproductive tourists.
Laura Harrison, Brown Bodies, White Babies: The Politics of Cross-Racial Surrogacy
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.
i hope you hit your limit yesterday.
yesterday, male people told you precisely how pathetic, worthless, & contemptible they find the female experience.
to them, any attempt to organise as female people is laughable & shameful. no matter how abstract your slogans (“no uterus no opinion” makes no attempt to exclude anyone from womanhood), no matter how obfuscatory your circumlocutions (”dfab”, “dmab” in reference to unambiguous sex). any solidarity between female people will be ridiculed as the enterprise of “cis women”, i.e. members of the female sex who have not dissociated from it.
i hope you listened to them & i hope you saw their tantrum for what it was: the same entitlement, the same ego, the same contempt for female people, the same ignorance of female experience.
engels said that: The first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamian marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male.
patriarchy, male supremacy, institutional sexism, whatever you want to call it: it is the sex-class system through which male people subjugate female people, first & foremost to assert control over reproduction.
bell hooks said that: “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.
feminism is the movement to dismantle that sex-class system. feminists must speak lucidly about sex, sex-class, socialisation, & reproduction.
& yet that speech & movement is condemned as oppressive, exclusionary, & cruel to male people, because sexist male people will never be happy with feminism. never. it’s not worth it to try to appease them.
the whole “abortion is too exclusionary to bring up at a women’s march” thing makes no sense regardless of how you define woman (i.e. “female people” vs. “anyone who identifies as a woman”).
is rape an appropriate topic for a women’s march? not all women are raped. not all rape victims are women. is bringing up rape at a women’s march oppressive to women who haven’t been raped? if never-been-raped women protested that anti-rape activism “excluded” them & hurt their feelings, would we take them seriously? if never-been-raped women proclaimed that anti-rape activism “reduced women to rape victims”, would you take their side?
so is female reproductive autonomy an appropriate topic for a women’s march? every person that suffers under the exploitation of female reproductive capacity – denied abortion, forced abortion, forced impregnation, etc. – is a member of the female sex. the vast majority of those people consider themselves “women” (or the equivalent word in their language).
so what if members of the male sex feel offended & excluded by discussions of male exploitation of female people? their bruised egos don’t need to be assuaged by women.
if rape can be discussed at a women’s march, why not female reproductive autonomy?
it would actually be great to discuss white feminism with respect to white women uncritically expecting black women to take over their domestic roles when white women “empowered” themselves in the workplace in the 60s and 70s or, like, white women CEOs exploiting women of color globally in sweatshops so they could join the boy’s club of millionaires, but no…. alas……. it’s not to be……… instead we get to say that referencing menstruation is the pinnacle of white feminism
Those on the frontline of this rage know it is there. Millions of us marched last Saturday. This has rattled Trump, who is obsessed with size, with ratings and with reviews. But let us now pursue clarity and strategy, and name what is happening.
Patriarchy is the sea in which these sharks gather. I am glad to see that people are using this word again. It went out of fashion for a bit when feminism was portrayed as a series of tedious personal choices over shoes, shopping and sex toys. But the concept of patriarchy is essential to understanding what is happening right now. It is a system by which men hold power over political leadership, moral authority and every kind of social privilege, over women and children.
Patriarchy is not some men-only affair. Many women play a role in sustaining it. The far right, by the way, is not afraid of using this word. It claims it as the basis for all that is good in western civilisation. The elevation of Trump is absolutely patriarchal fundamentalism. He has swept up a lot of the Christian vote because of it. The adulation of Putin is the worship of another white power based on patriarchal rule: unapologetically anti-women, anti-gay, anti-black and anti-Muslim. It is obsessed with displays of masculinity to the point of fascist camp. The right promises the restoration of a time when men were men and women were sanctified mothers or whores. Such authoritarianism may be delivered by both men and women. As the American author and feminist bell hooks says, patriarchy has no gender. It is not situated only within the individual – which is why screaming “Sexist!” at someone only gets you so far. Were the women who voted for Trump furthering patriarchy? Yes, obviously. They may believe it can protect them.
The dismantling of this power cannot possibly come from those who won’t name it and spend the entire time shoring it up, largely reaping its benefits: that is, much of the liberal establishment. By assuming the culture war had been won, the myths of impartiality and neutrality have allowed far–right voices to go unchallenged. The assumption that we all believe in equality, are anti-racist, love an art gallery and some heated debate turned out to be wrong.
Patriarchal power asserts itself through cultural as well as economic resentment. And that is everywhere. The oft-repeated sentiment that feminism is itself an extreme movement is evidence of how liberalism bows down to authoritarianism.
So much more important now than whether dullards profess their allegiance to women’s rights while refusing to listen to women is understanding who will get down on their knees to service the new man-child patriarchy. And those of us who won’t. The power of telling it like it is is ours.
QotD: “If you don’t agree with the central aims of a political movement, you aren’t part of that political movement”
All this nonsense about whether prolife women can be feminist is such liberal identity bullshit. Feminism is a political movement, not an identity. If you don’t agree with the central aims of a political movement, you aren’t part of that political movement. I don’t go around calling myself a conservative and then getting offended when people point out that I don’t actually support the goals of conservatism. You’re entitled to your opinion, of course, but you’re not entitled to lay claim to a political descriptor that doesn’t accurately describe you and then throw a fit when someone points this out.