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.

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Not All Men v Yes All Women

Warning: the content of this blog might be triggering or upsetting for some people.

One Saturday morning in 2007 I was contentedly sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, when I came across an article which spoiled my day. It was so shocking that it made me feel sick and it made me want to cry. The story was about a fourteen year old girl who had been gang-raped and sexually assaulted by several different boys in various locations around a council estate in Hackney. During the assault she was dragged between locations while more boys were invited by phone to come and join the party, and some passers-by ignored her plight. I was so upset by the story that I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I read it, down to the details of how the light from the window fell across the table where I was sitting. Some people have memories of where they were when they heard of President Kennedy’s death, or the destruction of the twin towers, but mine are of a teenage gang-rape.

This may well be because I am a woman, and can identify with a girl’s feelings, and maybe this is more difficult for men to do. I have been reminded of it in the last couple of weeks because two stories in the news have frustrated me with their lack of understanding of the effect of male violence on women. The first story was the mass shooting by Elliot Rodgers in Santa Barbara. In this case, despite the gunman’s own words in his manifesto, the mainstream media failed to attribute any misogyny to the crime, and when some feminists began to point this out they were quickly shot down by male apologists crying ‘not all men’, as though they were being personally attacked by the simple telling of a truth. It was seen as a bit aggressive to say that Rodgers didn’t like women: the official line was that he committed his crime because he didn’t like *people*. The second story was of a video produced by men’s rights group Mankind Initiative which went viral, attracting millions of You Tube views. The video sought to show that men suffer from intimate partner violence just as women do, and it ends with the statistic that 40% of domestic violence victims are male. Again, in the debates following, it was deemed to be almost rude to suggest that the statistic was flawed, as though in doing so you showed you didn’t care about male victims.

What the hashtag ‘notallmen’ and the 40% statistic are trying to do is to show us that women are violent too, and that men are victims too, and while that may be true in some cases, violence is undeniably gendered. It seems that we cannot accept that fact. It is a little  previous to start a ‘me too’ bandwagon before the initial fact has even been acknowledged. Surely you have to *know* the rules before you can begin to challenge them? I have read so many posts this week purporting to have some previously unrecognised statistics to hand, which all prove that women can be just as violent as men, and don’t need special treatment such as refuges and the like, which just make men feel discriminated against. I am not persuaded by these statistics, and to back up my opinion in an entirely non-scientific way I have made a list of some of the news items which have been in the media in the years since that horrific gang rape I started with. This is what I remember, in an order which is only vaguely chronological:

  • Steve Wright murders five women in Ipswich, in the events reported as the Ipswich Prostitute murders.
  • John Warboys, known as the Black Cab Rapist, is convicted of 12 rapes, with possibly hundreds more undetected.
  • Joseph Fritzl is sentenced to life imprisonment for keeping his daughter Elizabeth in a dungeon for 24 years, raping her and fathering seven children by her.
  • A man in Essex is dubbed the Essex Fritzl after being convicted of enslaving his daughter, raping her and fathering two children with her.
  • Historic cases of sex abuse come to light in children’s homes in Jersey, North Wales and other locations.
  • Child sex abuse scandals are investigated in the Catholic Church
  • Tia Sharp, aged 12, is sexually abused and murdered by her stepfather Stuart Hazell.
  • The Jimmy Savile enquiry finds possibly hundreds of cases of sexual abuse against children and young girls, in care homes, hospitals and at the BBC.
  • Operation Yewtree, in the wake of the Savile scandal, names many more celebrity sex offenders including Dave Lee Travis, Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris.
  • Reports from the African Republic of Congo describe how rape is being used systematically as a weapon of war.
  • In North Wales five year old April Jones is murdered by Mark Bridger.
  • American journalist Lara Logan is gang-raped during the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square, alongside reports of sexual assault against women joining men in the Arab Spring protests.
  • Suicide of soldier Anne-Marie Ellement after an alleged rape and bullying, at the same time as sexual assault in the army is being highlighted as a problem.
  • Dominique Strauss-Kahn has to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund because of rape allegations, then further allegations of aggressive sexual conduct towards female co-workers and of pimping.
  • In Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford, grooming gangs are found to have been sexually exploiting teenage girls from care homes. Similar enquiries are going on in other cities and towns in the UK.
  • Joanna Yeates, a landscape architect, is murdered in Bristol by Vincent Tabak.
  • In Italy Silvio Berlusconi is charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute.
  • Raoul Moat shoots his former girlfriend and kills her new boyfriend before going on the run and finally being killed in a stand-off with police.
  • In Pakistan 15 year old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is shot in the head by the Taliban for the crime of believing girls should have an education.
  •  Catherine Gowing, a vet who lived in North Wales, is murdered by Clive Sharp.
  • In Steubenville, Ohio, two footballers are found guilty of raping a girl who they dragged round, filming her abuse.
  • Frances Andrade, a victim of historic sex abuse by her music teacher, Michael Brewer, commits suicide as a result of the cross-examination she suffered at his trial.
  • An 11 year old girl is raped in a park in broad daylight on her way home from school.
  • A number of women begin proceedings against the police over sexual relationships they had been ‘tricked’ into by undercover officers infiltrating groups of political activists.
  • Teacher Jeremy Forrest is found guilty of abduction after running off to France with a 15 year old pupil.
  • Anni Dewani is murdered on her honeymoon in South Africa, her husband Shrien is suspected of organising a contract killing.
  • Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins is jailed for child rape.
  • In Cleveland three young women escape from the house of Ariel Castro where they had been kept in captivity and repeatedly raped for years.
  • In California Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at the age of 11, is found 18 years later, with two children fathered by her kidnapper, Phillip Garrido.
  • Sheffield united footballer Ched Evans is jailed for raping a 19 year old woman in a hotel room.
  • Oscar Pistorius goes on trial accused of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
  • In India a student is gang-raped on a Delhi bus and dies from her injuries.
  • Serial killer Levi Bellfield is found guilty of the murder of Milly Dowler.
  • Savita Halappanavar dies after being refused an abortion at a hospital in Ireland.
  • More than 200 schoolgirls are abducted from a school in Nigeria by Islamist group Boko Haram, who then threaten to sell them.
  • Nigella Lawson is photographed in a public place being assaulted by her husband, Charles Saatchi.
  • Two teenage girls in Pakistan are gang-raped and hung from a tree.
  • Elliot Rodgers goes on a shooting spree in Santa Barbara.

Alongside these ‘famous’ cases (and my memory is not perfect so the list is not comprehensive) there have been countless other rapes and murders, alongside news reports on FGM, femicide in India and China, sex trafficking, forced marriage, online child abuse, increasingly violent pornography and so-called ‘honour’ killings. Sometimes the evening news has seemed to be entirely full of hatred and violence towards women and girls. The sheer scale of it and the variations world-wide of this kind of abuse is sometimes difficult to comprehend.

There have been crimes in this period which don’t target women and girls of course. Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway after writing a manifesto of neo-Nazi beliefs, which were acknowledged to be the reason for his crime. Soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death on a London street because of extreme, radicalised, religious beliefs, endlessly examined by the mainstream media. And in Tottenham Mark Duggan was killed by the police in an incident which not only caused riots but also, quite rightly, a degree of hand-wringing about race relations. Then there were the true ‘isolated incidents’ – the murder in the Alps and the shooting spree by Derrick Bird in Cumbria for example. But nowhere do we find the targeting of men *because they are men* except for the one example of Joanne Dennehy who killed three men in 2013. Aside from racist or homophobic attacks, men are hurt and killed by other men of course, but often this happens in incidents where men fight eachother, eg in gangs, or pub brawls, not just because they happen to be walking home alone down a dark street.

The effect on ordinary women of all this world violence is that it helps us to know our place: it disempowers us. It is assumed by some men that western women must feel lucky that we are not living under some oppressive foreign regime, and indeed should be grateful for the freedoms we have. It can actually have the opposite effect: we know from these world examples that our position is tenuous, hard-fought and liable to change. It engenders insecurity: we don’t take our rights for granted, we know that what can be given can be taken away. I imagine that gay people are not ’empowered’ much when they see that their sexual preferences might get them executed in a different country or culture. It’s a reminder of your position in the pecking order, and in the case of women, those reminders happen on a daily basis. In the crimes listed above, which have been a backdrop to my life over the past few years, the common factor is the violent control of women, their sexuality and their reproductive capacity. It’s about sex, but more than that it’s about power. In the case of domestic violence I am sure that the fact that there is ‘worse out there’ is a huge factor in keeping women in abusive relationships. In a world where the overwhelming majority of rapists and murderers are men, better to stick with the one you’re with rather than risk something worse. Men can and do use the appalling abuse by other men to boost their own sense of superiority – an especially popular pasttime when those other men are of a different cultural background to themselves, such as the Asian grooming gangs (but not the white British ones, which get overlooked). This is an aspect of gendered violence which is simply not there in men’s experience: however much a man may believe that all women are bitches, there are simply not the examples out there to back him up. For women there are all too many.

When men’s rights groups try to suggest a parity between the genders when it comes to violence they are completely and comprehensively missing the point. Violence against women and girls affects all of us because it is so normal, it is endemic and it happens everywhere, in all parts of the world, in all races, religions and social classes. Poor people do it, rich people do it, famous people do it, people in positions of power and influence do it, the people next door do it. When I say people I mean *men* of course, but I really don’t want to upset all those great men out there who don’t do it. However, when you look at the cost to society of male violence (98% of sexual offences are by men), and the cost to the tax-payer of all that policing (90% of homicides are by men), all those prisons (95% of inmates are male) and all those A&E departments, it is absolutely astonishing that certain groups of men would begrudge women a little bit of money to ourselves for some rape crisis centres or some domestic violence refuges, WITHOUT HAVING TO THINK ABOUT THE MEN.

If things were really so equal between men and women regarding violence against eachother, then I’m surprised there is not more outcry about the unfairness of having a predominantly male prison population. Are female offenders just getting away with it in vast numbers? Why aren’t there more female mugshots on Crimewatch? It’s either really really unfair or it’s just reflecting reality… In order to be truly equal women need some special treatment to level the playing field: we need protection and recovery from male violence, however much it costs, and it should not be just down to women’s groups to pick up the pieces. Men need to get in on the act too, particularly those in power, through proper policies, education and funding, and above all through a real recognition of the problem, without which there can be no proper solution.

Yes, all women are affected by male violence, and no, not all men are doing enough about it.