Poldark, Prostitution and Protein World

In recent weeks several public conversations and debates have taken place on subjects that primarily affect women and girls: objectification, body-shaming, the sex trade…the usual suspects. A new way of minimising the harm of these practices for women seems to have emerged, in the form of claiming they are all gender-neutral, or at least ignoring the aspect of gender, and therefore erasing the equality issue. It’s been done before of course, notably in regard to domestic violence (brilliantly dismissed as an argument by Karen Ingala Smith here), but as a way of silencing feminist debate it seems to be growing in popularity: #NotallMen is being joined by #Don’tForgetTheMen! Men who want us to recognise that they are not *all* bad also want us to believe that they share *equally* in the oppression.

First there was the Student Sex Work Project by Swansea University. This study, based on a self-selecting online questionnaire, found that there was parity between male and female students doing ‘sex work’ and that this should have implications for the services provided to offer support to these students. There was a lot wrong with this survey, primarily to do with the methods used and the stated aims – unsurprisingly it concluded that ‘stigma’ was one of the most significant downsides of the work (as opposed to, say, threat of violence), and, more surprisingly, that ‘sexual enjoyment’ was one of the motivations to go into the trade. This is much less surprising when you note that significantly more male than female students had responded to the survey with a positive response to the question of whether or not they were involved in ‘sex work’ and that the definition of ‘sex work’ included porn acting. A lack of scepticism over this blatantly unrealistic result further discredited the project findings and, bar a couple of newspaper reports, it sank without trace.

Except that Ally Fogg picked up on it, and wrote an article highlighting the statistic of ‘male student sex workers’ and helpfully linking to another report that showed that 42% of ‘sex workers’ are male. This report relied on data from an internet site advertising adult services, and the 42% referred to the number of ads featuring men. Looking more closely though, the actual response to these ads was negligible compared to the responses to the female advertisers, and therefore the men could be seen to be ‘fishing’ rather than actually engaging in the sex industry. As with the students in the first study, it is tempting to point out that there is a certain branch of male thought which holds that to be a porn actor or ‘sex worker’ would be the perfect job – the envy of all your mates!- and possibly there are many men trying to get into the trade by advertising themselves. It doesn’t mean there is corresponding demand for their services. Ally Fogg was happy though to report on these statistics uncritically. He also does not engage with the question of who is buying the sex from the men who are involved in the sex trade, and in fact the title of his piece: ‘Britain’s Student Gigolos’ gives the impression that the customers are women when clearly they are predominantly men. (To be fair, when I pointed this out to him he agreed it was misleading but said that the title was not his. He couldn’t do anything about it. Bit lame though).

At the recent debate at Conway Hall in London: ‘Buying and Selling Sex’, almost every aspect of the argument for and against the sex trade was explored before the subject of gender came up, almost as though it was rude or inappropriate to mention it. When it was suggested by Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes that the current austerity measures have made it more necessary for women to enter the sex trade out of desperation, to feed their children, I wondered why this was not also true for men. All over the world in every different society and every social class there are women forced into prostitution. Correspondingly, all over the world in every different society and every social class there are men who can afford to buy sex. It’s not hard to detect a pattern. The small percentage of male prostitutes mostly serve other males, so although they may well experience a power imbalance due to age or race, there is not the power imbalance due to gender that women face, and therefore it is not always helpful to women to include male prostitutes in the analysis of their particular problems. If you persist in saying ‘but men too’ in trying to make the subject gender neutral, I would turn the question round and ask instead why women, as a rule, do not buy sex? That is something which would be hard to talk about without mentioning gender. The answers may seem obvious to some but that’s not usually a reason to refrain from asking the question.

And then there’s objectification. The Poldark phenomenon hit the headlines a couple of weeks ago, and was discussed on Woman’s Hour with guest Martin Daubney, presumably because the article he wrote on male objectification¬†for the Telegraph makes him an expert. Women have apparently been ‘perving’ over Aidan Turner’s naked torso in the BBC series Poldark, and according to Daubney this is exactly the same as the objectification that women have always experienced, but, because objectification is everywhere now, we should all just learn to deal with it. Men can deal with it you see, but women can’t. Men are ‘bigger than that’, despite the fact that they are objectified EVEN MORE than women now.

As if to prove him right, up pops the Protein World ad and up jump the women to complain about it! If only we could learn to deal with objectification like men have done eh…? But no: there are protests and petitions and vandalism all over the place instead. And, helpfully, another piece by Ally Fogg (in which, even more helpfully, he links us to that previous piece by, you’ve guessed it, Martin Daubney!) These two are spoiling us at the moment!

This piece pays a brief bit of lip-service to the fact that there might be reasons for men and women to respond differently to objectification (in a nutshell: it’s been going on for a long time so women are sick of it!), but largely once again men apparently do it better. For Daubney it’s all about the ability to ‘grow up’ and take it on the chin, whereas for Fogg the emphasis is on the very real political and social changes men have suffered, which gives them more of an excuse than women if they respond negatively to objectification: either way they’re exonerated compared to women, who inexplicably tend to do things like ‘peevishly whinge to Everyday Sexism’.

What is missing from these smug accounts of male superiority is any sense of the context in which these objectifying images appear and impact on women’s lives. So here’s a handy guide:

  • Historical context. Under patriarchy women throughout history have had to bend towards what men want of them in order to survive. Many laws and social rules have existed to keep women dependant, so that pleasing a man was the only option available. What men have always needed from women is sex and babies, so women have always been defined by, and valued for, their biology. The march towards equality consists for a large part in challenging this narrow definition of women in order that we can be seen and respected as full human beings, equal to men. Objectified images of women reinforce the old order and remind women of their ‘place’. They remind men of women’s ‘place’ as well. Objectified images of men carry no such meaning.
  • Social context. Sexually objectified images of women exist in a culture where sex crimes are overwhelmingly enacted against women and almost exclusively perpetrated by men. Many men enjoy the idea of being objectified by women: it might mean they’ll get more sex! Many women are unsettled by being sexually objectified by men: it might mean we’ll get raped. Studies confirm what most women know instinctively: that viewing sexualised images has an impact on a man’s ability to see real women as full human beings, with, for example, the right to say no. So this background wallpaper of images in our lives can encourage attitudes and behaviours which come under the general heading of ‘thinking with your dick’ – the impact of which is not usually positive for women.
  • Media context. Media representation of men is varied, like men themselves. The oiled six-pack image is one choice amongst many for men to aspire to or identify with. If that’s not you then you could look to the nerd, the skinny rock star, the many types of sportsmen, politicians, TV stars, actors or business leaders who are successful role models whilst coming in a variety of different sizes, shapes, colours and ages. For women there is no such embarrassment of choice. We live with a media saturated with images of young, slim, white, large-breasted hotties, and the small percentage of media attention paid to other kinds of women (Older women! Black women! Successful women!) are often accompanied by criticism due to the lack of the preferred attributes mentioned. In advertising 95% of objectified images are of women. By contrast 95% of sports coverage in the media is of men’s sport: it’s not just a question of the images we see all around us, but of the images we don’t see. This is not true for male representation in the media.
  • Physical context. Women’s physical shape is much more diverse than men’s. Most of the arguments I have read assume that because the Protein World ad model is thin, the protesters must be fat, otherwise what’s their problem? But actually it’s the shape of the currently fashionable media woman of choice that is more important. It used to be that women had ‘vital statistics’ (ah, the good old days of objectification!). It was considered that a figure measuring 36-26-36 was the ideal: that meant you had a bust, some hips and a waist, and although not perfect in terms of being seen as a full human being, it did at least allow you to have a whole body. That changed over the years (and I blame the Sun’s Page 3 and the lads mags for this), until women were classified by individual body parts alone, particularly their breasts. Now we get ‘Debbie from Manchester, 32EE’- not just measurement but cup size too. And that’s important because the emphasis on the fullness of the breast has led to a corresponding reduction in the size of the back (I suppose because breasts look bigger on a smaller frame). The Protein World model, like most of the Page 3 models, has a tiny ribcage supporting relatively large breasts, and although this might be natural in the model’s case, it certainly isn’t in the main population. Analysis of the range of Page 3 model body statistics done for the NoMorePage3 campaign showed that the currently desirable shape is unachievable for 95% of the female population. It is clearly impossible to achieve for those of us who have a pear shape, an apple shape, a straight up and down shape or a wide ribcage, whatever weight we are. It is not an image which exists to inspire women to get fit and lose weight, it is designed to make as many women as possible feel bad about themselves so that they will buy your product. I would go further and say that it’s a type of image that might inspire girls to go on crash diets and then have breast enhancement surgery, neither of which are healthy choices. Sometimes I stop what I am doing in my day and wonder how many teenage girls at that particular moment in time have suddenly come to the gut-wrenching and devastating realisation that as they continue to lose weight their breasts get smaller too! (I feel for you girls…) It’s cruel to demand both skinniness AND large breasts for the ideal body shape, it’s a huge stroke of luck to have both and nothing to do with ‘working for it’. You can see why anorexia or obesity might be a solution for some young women, to escape the endless conflicting demands made on their bodies. Needless to say, this is a conflict that does not exist for men. It would be like having a continual barrage of images exhorting you to lose weight, but knowing that if you did your penis would shrink.
  • And finally, yes: it’s been going on forever and we’re sick of it.

But do you know what I’m also sick of? I’m sick of being misrepresented as a woman and as a feminist by men just trying to score cheap points for their own gender off the back of women’s protest. Writers who should be intelligent enough to analyse and understand the bigger picture, and even have some human empathy, or at least imagination, to inform their judgement, are instead characterising women as moaning whinging jealous losers who just need to grow up a bit.¬†Martin Daubney, as a former editor of Loaded, used to get paid to misrepresent women in pictures: now he’s getting paid to misrepresent women in words. But it is this final paragraph from Ally Fogg that hit me the hardest:

Boys do not need to be shielded from aspirational or sexualised images, they need to be secure that they have a meaningful role in society beyond zero-hours contracts, the call-centre and brief respite in the gym. They need to feel like they have more to offer the world than a perfect set of abs. Achieving all that will take more than removing a poster from the Underground.

Because, you know, God forbid that anyone should show that amount of empathy for a woman. Try substituting girls for boys and breasts for abs in that paragraph, and you have the perfect illustration of how it is for girls. Only a hundred times more so.