The case for and against pornography

I’ve been blogging about feminist issues for just under a year now but there’s one topic I’ve studiously avoided in that time – pornography. In some ways it’s because I can convince myself that it doesn’t affect my life. I don’t watch it. I don’t purchase it. I’ve never been with a partner that, to my knowledge, consumes it. However, I know it’s an area of contention and debate in feminism and have always thought I should at least put it out there for discussion.

My big problem is that I don’t know where to start. I’m confused about it and the issues surrounding it. I don’t believe that just because I don’t enjoy it, everyone who does is wrong. I believe in people having healthy sexual appetites and if watching other people engaged in sex is something that works for you, go for it. However I’m not blind to the fact that what was previous soft porn is now just the front covers of mainstream ‘lads mags’ like Nuts and more worringly what was previously considered hardcore, niche-interest is now mainstream. And what is mainstream is more easily available than ever before – online and on mobile phones – which means that instead of passing around copies of Playboy in school, young men are seeing quite skewed versions of sexuality and believing it to be what ‘normal’ sex is supposed to be like.

On a gut level my feelings about porn have always been that it tends to subordinate women. Porn is largely created for and by men and so has little regard for how women are portrayed. As an industry it makes billions from the objectification of women – so much so that when the US government was bailing out the car industry, the porn industry argued that they should receive help as well as they were one of ‘our nation’s most important businesses’. On the flipside, I don’t believe in banning things that I’m uncomfortable with. I’d rather people were educated about an issue to the extent that they choose, by and large, not to participate in things which adversely affect others so badly.

With all this in mind, I was really disappointed to miss the WOW Festival session on Mary Whitehouse – Prude or Prophet (there was so much I wanted to see that weekend that some sessions just clashed). Fortunately for me, the session was one of the ones filmed and uploaded to the site afterwards. I was interested to hear that the prime reason for holding that particular debate was that Jude Kelly was as confused as I am. She had grown up in an era of censorship. As the world became more liberal the mood of society became one where people should feel entitled to learn about things on their own, and that nothing should be hidden from them. Mary Whitehouse became a lone voice, and a figure of fun, in the way she argued that women would be debased and disgraced by the way they were beginning to be portrayed and would rue the day that they allowed this to happen. Jude Kelly hated everything she stood for. But now? She was beginning to wonder if Whitehouse had had a point all along. The portrayal of women in mainstream porn, and in fact in much modern media has in fact left us feeling objectified and judged. So now, Kelly said she didn’t know what she felt and wanted to learn more.

The panel was made up of Kelly, Rachel Morris (Cosmopolitan‘s resident sex therapist), Amina Doherty (co-ordinator of the Young Feminist Fund) and Julia Long (feminist activist involved with the London Feminist Network and Object) and was chaired by Helena Kennedy QC. It was a lively and really interesting discussion with plenty of input from the floor.

Amina Doherty really impressed me with her confidence and her assertion that what young women need is space to talk about and develop a healthy, sexual identity. Being aware of the good and bad that’s out there is okay as long as they have space to talk openly and freely about it and be educated about what it all means to them. Encouraging critical engagement was key.

Julia Long probably took what I would interpret to be a more expected, feminist line. She quoted examples of what is considered mainstream in porn these days and the mere descriptions brought tears to my eyes and prompted me to cross my legs. She also made the good point that discussions of porn have, as Jude Kelly pointed out, been often painted as good versus bad morality. The common ground on both sides of the fence be they pro-sex, freedom of expression, liberal views or anti-porn, repressive, moralistic views is that women are oppressed – they are an economic commodity to be bought and sold. Food for thought.

Rachel Morris approached the discussion from the perspective of someone who’s not an academic or expert on this, but who does deal with the effects that porn and the objectification of women has on our culture. The letters she gets from women are laden with expectations of what their sexual experiences should be like, which are directly taken from porn culture. Women think their vaginas are hideous, their labia too big or malformed. Men don’t ‘do’ pubes anymore and so women feel pressure to be hairless. She strongly felt that if she was a young woman, what she would need is for someone like her to be teaching sex education in schools.

Needless to say one of the big points discussed was censorship. We’re all nervous of it and for those of us who are liberal, it feels wrong to censor what consenting adults want to see or engage in. However, Julia Long felt that women were being censored anyway, as their voices are not being heard (she quoted women’s disappearance from mainstream media as a related issue). Amina agreed that women are silenced and that porn is produced from the male gaze. However, she really wants young women to engage in the discussion and embrace positive sexuality. Claire Short’s campaign to end Page 3 was raised, along with her subsequent vilification in the media. All the panellists agreed that this had contributed to women feeling fearful to speak out.

A question from the floor supported Julia’s stance on possible censorship – we already have rules that limit what we can see as well as rules against racial hatred. Why did rules like this not apply to gender hatred? Why could the more hardcore content, which could be construed as torture, not be restricted or banned completely? The simple answer, from Helena Kennedy, is that it’s an industry that makes an awful lot of money and needs to be tackled on that basis.

Another question from the floor raised a real crux of the debate – consent. If women do want to be in these films, or engage in these acts, who are we to stop them? Of course, ‘choice’ is informed by our culture and life experience but some women really do choose these actions. Julia Long felt that consent and freedom of expression dialogue is usually brought out as a ‘get out of jail free’ card to silence criticism. I thought this was an interesting point. Choice is not always about personal rights but personal responsibilities – we need to view our choices in the context of how our actions affect society at large. The power relationships and submission of women in our society is normalised and played out in pornography. Choosing to be in, or even create, these films may have a detrimental effect on many other women – and our society restricts individual freedoms all the time to protect potentially vulnerable people in our society. Incitement to racial hatred is an example of this as we restrict people’s ‘right’ to say what they like, for the sake of protecting ethnic minorities in our culture.

There was so much more in this discussion and more themes to come back to. The possibility of feminist pornography – created for and by women – was not raised, as an hour was just not long enough to cover everything. Did I leave this session clearer about what I thought? I’m not sure I did really. I take on board everything Julia Long said about power relationships and the silencing of women. I’m also personally horrified by the idea of young men viewing some of what’s now mainstream and pressurising young women to engage in these acts during their early sexual experiences, as they convince them that it’s ‘normal’ sex. However, I really respected Amina Doherty’s view of the need for education. We need to give young people the space and the language to openly discuss healthy, sexual appetites and to create a positive idea of what sexuality means to them. I’d like to think that this is what will ultimately change people’s appetites for pornography. I’m still uncomfortable with banning certain pornography as it’s difficult to draw a line between what’s acceptable and what’s not and I worry, as Jude Kelly does, about it opening the door to repression. I would love to find ways to limit young people’s access to it however and I think parents need to be much more involved and in control of their teenagers access to the internet. There’s so much more to say and I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the issue. Let’s keep talking about how this affects us as adults.

Global feminism, western feminism, UK feminism?

A sepia photo is projected onto the screen – it shows women marching in the streets. We might guess it’s 1963 because of the big skirts. The march took place in Iraq for international women’s day. At that time, explained Nadje Al-Ali, the chair of gender studies at SOAS, the women’s league in Iraq had about 40,000 members.

If you think that feminism originated in the US, or Europe, and global feminism consists of ‘saving’ or ‘speaking for’ women in other parts of the world – and this is the story of women’s rights that is all too often told in the media – then photos like this should be a wakeup call.

Nadje was talking on today’s ‘Global Feminism’ panel. This festival is called Women of the World. But the idea that women, from country to country, and continent to continent, share in the same struggle, has been a contentious one. It has in the past been presented in oversimplified terms, that ignored the hard realities – for example, sometimes women are complicit in the oppression of other women.

We shouldn’t talk in terms of ‘global feminism’ to mean only ‘feminism of the south’, Nadje argued. Or, indeed, of a monolithic ‘western feminism’ in opposition, as though all feminists in the ‘west’ are on the same page.

Of course, the term ‘western’ is problematic all on its own. To put it simply, as Iranian theatre director Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh said earlier in the day during another session, “west of where?”

Get a group of feminists in the UK, ask them if feminist porn is possible, and prepare to see the idea of a monolithic ‘western’ feminism dismantled. And that’s before you even get to what you might call the Sarah Palin effect: women using the language of feminists, then vigorously campaigning for policies that constrict women’s lives.

That is not to say this notion emerges from no-where: if feminism in Europe and the US wasn’t so dominated by a few white, middle class perspectives, it would break down the image of a monolithic feminism.

Minna Salami, the blogger MsAfropolitan, told a familiar story: she came to feminism in her earlier 20s through books written by white, middle class feminists. “All the while I was reading their work, I felt that some part of me was neglected,” Minna explained. In time, she came across the work of African American and then African writers. But, “I realised that feminism at large was in trouble.”

Earlier this year, the Go Feminist conference was launched “as a response to feminism’s most sustained critique: that it is not for all women”, as the organisers wrote. The conference was a wonderful riposte, but the fact that it was necessary as an intervention speaks volumes.

Of course there have also been many opportunities to connect with and learn about women’s activism and art during the WOW festival on a global basis – just today, I’ve heard about the battle for women’s reproductive freedom in Nepal, and the struggle of artists in Egypt to figure out when it is right to take time out of the revolution and make art, and Scottish women’s work songs, and so much more. And it was great to hear from festival organiser Jude Kelly that WOW is being put on in Baltimore, and there are plans next year to put on WOW in places including South Africa and Ireland. But it was great to see this idea of an international network of women’s struggle put under the microscope as well as celebrated.

Feminism is not a gift from the ‘west’ to the rest of the world, is the lesson of Nadje’s photo – and to view it as such is patronising and misguided. The notion also makes life harder for feminist activists in some parts of the world, one of the other panellists, Nesrine Malik explained, as it becomes all too easy for their efforts to be dismissed as a hangover from a neo-colonialist mindset which should be resisted.

She gave the example of a reproductive rights campaign in Sudan by the UN. The UN bussed people out to rural areas and gave out condoms to women. “There was a lot of money to do this, but very very little foresight had gone into how to get women who’ve not had any sexual health education to get their husbands to use a condom,” she noted.

It’s not all bad though – there are good models for feminists to support each other internationally. But it might mean setting aside that trip to Sudan to ‘help’ women, and instead fundraising so that a woman can be trained to do the job in that country, as one of the panellists observed today.

Most important, said Kate Nustedt from Women for Women International, is to be led by grassroots women. “The starting point needs to be… from the women who want to see a change and they feel that international support will help the make a difference.”

Rather than blundering around making assumptions about what other feminists need, efforts led by what activists actually say they want from international supporters can be really powerful, Kate said. “To know that there are hundreds, thousands of women that are doing the same thing as them, for them, is massively important.”

France’s Burqa Ban – Is It Right?

Yesterday morning Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, voiced her opinion on France’s burqa ban. Introduced in April 2011 this ban on anyone wearing the niqab or burqa in public has been a controversial move; some view this ban as supporting women’s rights and others vehemently argue that it’s a violation of these same rights.

The differing opinions on this subject became all the more obvious to me yesterday morning whilst Shami spoke. Although she personally does not find the idea of a woman covering the entirety of her body to be favourable, Shami emphasised that by criminalising this dress the French Government is infringing on a woman’s right to choose what she wears and when she wears it. Shami went as far to say that to this action is an example of xenophobia masquerading as feminism.

At this point I tweeted the following from the @southbankcentre account, which has over 40,000 followers:

‘Shami Chakrabarti talks honestly about banning of the burqa in France and states that this is xenophobia masquerading as feminism #WOW2012

In response to this tweet we were sent the following, providing the other side of the argument:

tanktv: @southbankcentre well it is & it is not, it’s more complicated than that. 4 historical reasons French hate exhibition of religious status

JosephyneT: @southbankcentre 100% disagree with that The burqa is an anti-woman, anti-human, utterly nihilistic & violent statement Don’t derail issues!

At first I didn’t know how to respond to these comments oh behalf of the Southbank Centre…then I had what I can only call an epiphany…this kind of discussion is what WOW is all about!

So I’m writing this blog because we want to hear more, more of your thoughts and opinions.

Tell us what you think…is the burqa ban a violation of human rights or a victory for equality?

I’m a Lady!

It’s been a brilliant and sometimes intense weekend of talks and debates on all aspects of being a woman. I’ve been to sessions on global economics, speed mentoring, the criminal justice system, body politics, the Arab Spring and many more. My head has been swimming with all the new perspectives I’ve heard and ideas I’ve been challenged with. And so, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I headed to Tea With The Lady – a discussion on the very notion of being a ‘lady’ (hear David Walliams voice in your head when you say it) and whether it’s a regression or is actually subversive. Interesting debate? I had no idea what I was in for.

Aside from the chair Bidisha I was unfamiliar with the four women on the panel and was therefore completely unprepared for the biting wit and sharp tongues about to be unleashed as well as the ridiculously funny conversation that unfolded. The context of the talk is that with the current prevalence of Domestic Goddesses (Nigella Lawson), home crafts (Kirstie Allsop) and floral prints (Cath Kidston) is being a lady something that is being reclaimed?

In that light, I’m going to attempt to create a (very tongue-in-cheek) 9 step guide to being a lady, formed by the discussion I heard.

Like Karen McLeod who worked as an air steward for British Airways before becoming a writer, my experience of being called a lady was when I worked in a shop and mothers attempting to control their children would tell them ‘give that back to the lady’ or ‘the lady’s watching and she’ll get angry’. As if I cared. I worked in Primark.

So to Lady attribute number one: Be a bit scary and stern. Scare children.

Writer Catherine Hakim claims it is part of our ‘erotic capital’. A lady is well groomed, stylish and with confidence and manners, like Michelle Obama or Carla Bruni. Anna Blundy (author and journalist – who had me in hysterics laughing throughout) argued that these types of ladies were accessories to men – known as being well-groomed arm-candy. Iconic templates as Rachel Johnson (former editor of The Lady magazine) put it.

Number two: Be stylish and well groomed at all times while being arm-candy for a man.

Actually, Johnson argued that as editor she had put women over 40 on the cover who had done something, regardless of their colour or beauty. But also, crucially were not trashy or trampy.

Number three: Don’t be a tramp!

Money and class inevitably entered the discussion. Women like Cath Kidson and Nigella Lawson make millions from their home-styled products and are extremely shrewd. For most women Blundy maintained, doing unpaid work is denigrated as society doesn’t value it.

Number four: Bit confused now. Either make millions by selling ladyness to others, or be arm-candy mentioned above and be rich enough not to work. I think being rich and posh enough not to worry about it is probably key.

Johnson mentioned that when her husband heard she was going to be on this panel, he told her a lady was ‘not pushy and was dignified’ and that she was neither of those things. Blundy went on to talk about her experience of speaking out about her experience of how the Daily Mail wants ladies to be (and I highly encourage you to read her blog post about it) She was styled, put in a suitably coloured frock and, when she didn’t stick to their preferred narrative, the piece was spiked.

Number five: Remain dignified and stick to the script – say what you’re supposed to say.

One of the most hilarious parts of the discussion emerged when McLeod showed us something her (female) partner had bought when they moved in together. A floral Cath Kidston peg holder, shaped like a baby’s dress and with a bow. She noted that many of her lesbian friends were now getting married (to women, I hasten to add as it caused some confusion amongst the panel) and wearing aprons. So is being a lady really just another name for being conservative? The panel felt it was.

Number six: Be conservative and buy aprons and floral peg-holders.

Even Rachel Johnson conceded that if forced to define a lady, it would be a woman in cashmere and pearls and with a pussycat bow. She would like that not to be the case however, but for it to be irrespective of class or income.

Number seven: Wear cashmere and pearls.

In fact, she felt, like Hakim, that being a lady was about behaviour. Blundy felt it’s repressed behaviour – or as McLeod put it, ‘smelling of flowers, not sex’!

Number eight: Smell nice. Shower after sex.

The debate was then opened to the floor and many fantastic questions asked. One was whether baking bread and making your own clothes wasn’t buying into ladyness but was actually about self-sufficiency and not buying from large organisations. Another asked about the programmed Ladette To Lady and what the panel thought of it. McLeod felt sorry for the girls in it, as their own wildness was lost. Blundy also noted that many of them had very problematic relationships with alcohol and sex and this was really just televised, posh rehab, although it seemed to work to an extent. Johnson love it as it taught the girls a sense of self respect and skills valued by society.

Finally, one woman asked if, for women to achieve equality, we really had to ditch the word lady altogether. Every panelist actually felt we did and several didn’t use it anyway. As Bidisha said, it’s currently got a fairly ktisch inflection anyway and the women who market their ladyness are shrewd multi-millionnaires. So with that the women in the room ditched it.

Number nine: Forget it – ditch the list and call yourself something else!

WOW highlights #1: Laura Liswood + Kiran Bedi

Jude Kelly

Jude Kelly, our Artistic Director opening WOW. Photo: Belinda Lawley

Holding on to talent

Chaired by Denise Jagger, partner at Eversheds LLP. Panellists include GE Capital Direct Chairman Noel Harwerth; author and entrepreneur Christina Ioannidis; Associate Editor and columnist at The Sunday Times, Eleanor Mills; Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Google Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe; and Managing Director, Global Head of Diversity, Deutsche Bank AG Eileen Taylor and Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders Laura Liswood. Photo: Belinda Lawley

Holding on to talent was probably my favourite talk of the day. It was about the lack of women on boards at the top in so many industries. Most interesting point for me was that on boards, women look at the long term and impact on stakeholders and men look at short term and impact on shareholders. We need both. Also 85% of advertising is targeted at women but 85% of people at the top in advertising are men. We heard from Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Google Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe and they seem to have it sorted – for 20% of your time you get to work on a project that you’re personally interested in and they have free massage and yoga. Similar to this was Selling us short which I didn’t make it to but the audio is here. It was all about women in the advertising industry … or lack of.

Jude Kelly and Kiran Bedi

Jude Kelly and Kiran Bedi. Photo: Belinda Lawley

One woman’s leadership in transforming a male prison – a no-cost replicable model by Dr Kiran Bedi was wonderful. She has such a presence and is a really serene and gorgeous woman. I can’t imagine the things she had to see and do but when she’s explaining it she knew it was the right thing to do so she just did it! We’ve recorded her talk so you can get in on Soundcloud soon.

Laura Liswood

Laura Liswood

I went to hear Laura Liswood, co-founder and Secretary General of Council of Women World Leaders and Senior Advisor and Goldman Sachs talk about what it would take for there to be a woman President of the USA. I got so much out of it particularly about stereotypes of underrepresented groups in society and how these are engrained in us from fairytales to advertising. She interviewed 15 current and former presidents and prime ministers to identify what a world leader looks and acts like. She’s my new favourite woman!


Writing on the mirrors in lipstick about all the great characteristics of women. Photo: Belinda Lawley

Emeli Sande

Emeli Sande performing at Equals Live was a real treat and a great way to end the first day of WOW. She is such a strong and beautiful woman with a voice to die for! Photo: Linda Nylind

Reporting back from the Arab Spring; What’s next for women’s right?

One of the most exciting debates of the day was ‘Reporting back from the Arab Spring’.  It was chaired by the channel 4 broadcaster Samira Ahmed, and sitting on the panel were Egyptian pro-democracy blogger and activist Salma Said, filmmaker Hanan Abdalla, BBC reporter Shainaa Khahil, Laila El-Wafi,a founder member of Women4Liybi and…we are a little embarrassed to say it, but we didn’t catch one lady’s name. Please don’t judge us, we just know she was an American who runs her own website regarding the issues of  Arab women.

It was shocking to learn the truth about the Arab revolution in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. It was clear that news stories only showed the tip of the iceberg. With regards to the Egyptian uprising; people are disappointed because they feel like they haven’t achieved anything yet. To them, it is just the beginning. It’s phase 3 as Salma Said pointed out. We were also shown clips from Hannan Abdalla’s new documentary,which was screened at the Berlin Film Festival. ‘In The Shadow Of A Man’ which depicts Egyptian women and their struggle for survival and equal rights.

It was also obvious from the debate that tradition is more powerful than the fight for change, for example the democratic election was won by the traditional political party the Muslim Brotherhood. Has Egypt got rid of the tyrant Mubarak or simply allowed a new dictatorship to come into power? A dictatorship that will reduce woman’s rights even more. Apart from a fight for their rights Egyptian are also fighting to get rid of Imperialism and Zionism. As Salma Said said, the fight is stronger than ever so although it may take longer to achieve their goal, they won’t give up.

In Libya, women are a large part of the revolution.Even though woman have taken part in the protest the government is using religion to keep woman out of the government.During the conflict approximately 40,000 people died.

To conclude, we were overwhelmed by the strength and stubbornness of Arab women in their fight for freedom, equality and a better life for them and their children. We gained a higher level of respect for these women as a result of this talk.

Written by Roxy Simons and Maggie Gogler.

Women, Power and Change

The second day of the Women of the World festival has begun with a bang, with a talk on women, power and change. The guest speakers were Shami Chakrabarti, Mary Portas and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC.

Shami Chakrabarti is a serious lawyer, given to dark clothes and even darker eyeliner, who has a fierce intelligence and passionate commitment to civil rights has earned her devoted following. She discussed the situation of women in various European countries as well as in Africa and Asia (particularly Afghanistan). Jude Kelly OBE, Artistic Director of the the Southbank Centre in London, described Shami as a “rockstar of civil liberties”. Mrs Chakrabarti began her talk in a cheery note telling us that “human rights begins in small places close to home”. We were shocked to hear about the bill passed by the French President Sarkozy regarding muslim dress code eg. Women aren’t allowed to wear the burqa  in public places. It was also heartbreaking to hear that women in Africa are regularly, and unnecessarily dying during childbirth because their needs are not prioritised.  

The second speaker, Mary Portas is london’s leading retail marketing consultant and is the founder of one of london’s most respected agencies ‘Yellow Door’. She focused her talk on shopping and you know, us girls, we all love shopping! It is now proven that we are the master and commanders of the high street as 80% of women are the customers. We even buy men’s knickers! It was shocking to hear that loss of the local street can have a detrimental effect on the community, serenity and the society surrounding the area. She has set up a factory in a town, hired 8 unemployed young people, and started producing her line of ‘Kinkee Knickers’, within 5 months they sold over 30,000 pairs! In that sense she was quite an inspiring figure, according to Mary “we aren’t only consumers, we are all part of our local economy and community. So now it’s time for us to get on our bike and support our local off-licence!

Our final speaker, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, is one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers and is an expert on human rights, civil liberties and women’s rights. She discussed the lack of women in positions of power and how we could change that…now take a piece of paper and a pen, you got it? right. We have to write a letter to the Prime minister saying that we would like to be appointed as a parliament candidate, let’s see if it works! We felt that these talks about being in a high position is more an idealist hope for utopia rather than reality. We do not think that her point of view would not succeed in deprived areas where women are struggling to survive . So, to finish, it was a very interesting and inspiring talk about women’s rights and how we can change ourselves and improve our future.

Written by Roxy Simons and Maggie Gogler.