Friday, August 04, 2006

FCPS: A fixation of Neo Puritans?

Recently the Guardian chaired a debate over the publication of a work entitled ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’ by Ariel Levy. The book’s topic is a phenomenon known as ‘raunch culture’. Its main premise seems to be that women are complicit in their own oppression by dressing in a sexually provocative manner, taking part in lap dancing or joining men in the viewing of strippers. It also bemoans ‘raunch’ as being the only model of sexuality promoted by mass culture.

There is no consensus on what actually constitutes ‘raunch’, so in many ways it is a bit of a straw man (or woman). But going by the rhetoric it may be fair to say that the sexuality displayed by Paris Hilton, or Katie Price (aka glamour model Jordan) are both representations.

‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’, as is implied by its very title, asks very little of men but focusing it’s ire on women for buying into what it deems to be a male defined form of sexuality. So do it’s sympathisers in Britain.

Fighting a straw man is a convenient way to avoid confrontation with the establishment. As with the anti porn campaign of the 1980s by Catherine Mackinnon, Levy’s work has been praised by Christian Conservatives, whose other values would not sit well with the liberal audience Levy hopes to address.

‘Guardian’ columnists have taken up this banner and often berate women who don’t fit into this new code of conduct of sexual purity. It is the moralism of the Daily Telegraph or Mail with a liberal veneer.

For example, Katie Price has been sneered at for ‘making a career out of men’s masturbatory habits’ in Jenny Colgan’s ‘View from a Broad’ Column. Even the women from the comedy show ‘Smack the Pony’ received the ire of Arabella Weir for daring to expose their breasts on television. Bare breasts simply should not be shown, as the sight of naked flesh constitutes ‘porn’ and inherently ‘objectifies’ women. So it seems the comedians were either too stupid to understand this or were knowingly betraying their own sex to the evils of the male gaze.

If it was to come out that Price/Jordan suffered from an addiction then no doubt the Guardian would cry tears of pity for her and outrage at those evil men who had exploited her. But women who take their clothes off for money with no shame incite the wrath of their self proclaimed redeemers. Human empathy can only be directed their way if they accept the victim label – ‘know their place’ by old fashioned standards. It is an item of dogma that women cannot engage in this kind of work unless they are under severe duress. The nuances of human behaviour are not important to those who buy into the black and white view that sex work is always forced. To admit it may just sometimes be a genuine career choice would both outrage their morality and blow their liberal cover. It would prove they really are more concerned with public morality rather than ‘exploitation’ or the vaguer buzzword of ‘objectification’. The underlying idea is that no decent human being would do such a thing voluntarily.

Katherine Viner, the playwright and editor of the Guardian ‘Weekend’ magazine, cheered on the government’s clampdown on prostitution early this year in the broadsheet while simultaneously ranting against prostitution’s alleged infiltration into the mainstream and its supposed loss of stigma. The law was not enough :

'We need a zero-tolerance approach - protests, complaints, refusals - to the use of prostitution in media, fashion and advertising, and to the promoters of the sex industry who pervade our public life.’

What Viner and her ilk are really concerned with is the indignity felt by ‘respectable’ women like herself at such brazen displays. The sentence could be an excerpt from Mary Whitehouse, the 1980s Christian campaigner against ‘immorality’ in the media. Viner’s sexual politics are a renewed hash of the good woman/bad woman myth promoted and sustained by a male elite.

Women are not oppressed by unequal pay, lack of access to childcare, flexible working and the devaluation of caring. It is porn that is the monster – and by implication sex workers themselves. The idea that prostitution has lost its stigma is pure fantasy on Viner’s part. Despite the pornographic symbolism in ‘raunch culture’ prostitution or for that matter prostitutes are not acceptable in polite society. Viner and her colleagues from the Mail will ensure this continues to be so.

There is little, if anything, progressive in this brand of sexual politics. Yet it is what dominates the mainstream. It is a reinvigoration of the censorious anti porn campaigns of the 1980s. Women who dress in a flamboyant manner, dye their hair etc are demonised by association as either being oppressed without their knowledge or actively betraying the female sex. On discussion forums regarding the issue they are often spoken of on the assumption they are absent – which implicitly shows the snobbery of their self proclaimed rescuers.

The promoters of this ideology rarely question their implicit snobbery and elitism. They write from a privileged background, showing no actual understanding towards working class cultures or people whose choices in life may not be as broad as their own. It is not a coincidence that women are patronised, infantilised and berated far more than men in the parallel fixation with binge drinking. Male sexuality is by this standard aggressive while females are passive. The masses, unless kept in line, will get uncontrollably intoxicated and unleash their untamed sexuality and offend the public morality of the middle classes. It is a conservative mentality that can be traced back to the Victorians.

People who focus their angst on sexuality rarely talk about economic issues. A connection between the pervasiveness of popular culture and the use of mass communication by the capitalist system as whole is rarely, if ever, discussed. They hope that sex can be the one area of sanctity uncontaminated by the market, a naïve view at best and a dangerous and reactionary one at worst.

There is an argument to be had that there is more to life than looking like Paris Hilton, and that females do sometimes collude in their own exploitation. Perhaps the selling of stationary with Playboy Bunny logos to children does show a disturbing trend in the marketplace. But this will not be remedied by creating a new code of conduct, one that will prove to be just as constricting. Part of it is the age old battle between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture – the former inevitably being of more worth and value. Women who do choose to flaunt their sexuality in the way the mainstream promotes are written off as being brainwashed – it does not seem to enter anyone’s mind that some may actually enjoy flaunting it.

The ‘liberal’ sexual morality police are far more insidious than their counterparts in the Mail who openly speak in terms of indecency or decadence.


Jim Jay said...

Nice first post.

Part of it is the age old battle between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture – the former inevitably being of more worth and value.

? do you mean it has more value to you - or more cultural capital in society in general ?

Liz said...

Jim - I meant the latter - more cultural capital in society generally.

I'm glad you liked my post, thank you.

Liz said...

Btw, Jim, what is your blog address again?

Jim Jay said...

The Daily (Maybe) is here just finished my first month!

Anonymous said...

Hello Red Witch!

Just in response to your assertion that some feminists would never admit that 'sex work' is a genuine career choice - I would happily concede that it most certainly IS a career choice for many (and I would also describe myself as a feminist) I see it as often just a symptom of our money-obsessed, lazy society - the 'get rich or die trying' approach, where people will happily do anything that requires minimum effort to make lots of easy money, and where anything is justified as long as the price is right - without caring as to the effects this may have on wider society. Recently there was some poll in a women's mag which 'revealed' that something like 48% of women would strip for a lads mag for £10,000 - this does not surprise me in the slightest - to me this is typical of the kind of Thatcherite mentality of me, me ,me! Sod society. Capitalism at it's most extreme. I am not prudish or anti-nudity - I accept what you said about the Smack the Pony programme sounded ridiculous. Nudity and exhibitionism could be fun when not constrained to the narrow parameters of ,for want of a better phrase (gotta get back to work!), 'raunch culture'.

Liz said...

Hi anonymous,

I see prostitution and sex work as victimless 'crimes' so I'm not sure quite what you mean about wider effects on society. Sorry, but not being rich I would happily strip for a men's mag for the price you mention. And being a socialist I would object to you view that I don't care about society because I would do this. If by wider effects you mean the way society views women - we live in a consumer driven culture anyway, where everything is a commodity anyway.

In the sytem none of our hands are clean, whatever we do. If I worked for Shell oil I'd have blood on my hands, ditto Madonalds or any other big corporation. If I worked in marketing I would be excacerbating on some level the effects of consumer culture. There are few jobs where you can keep your hands totally clean. So it's very wrong to single out sex workers, who are already stigmatised, for feminist ire.

So I don't wish to wag my finger at individuals, I'm nobody to preach. I could well say that women who freely choose abortion for no other reason than self have an impact on wider society, and that it is symptomatic of the Thatcherite mentality you speak of. But rather than guilt trip individuals about what they do I prefer to look at it in terms of the context of wider society. Capitalism does constrain our choices, so if sex work pays better than other options I don't blame people.

Easy money - what is so objectionable about this? Working for years in either uncertainity or on a low salary is not desirable for everyone. I'm obviously not so ingrained with the work ethic, and I don't bash people for being lazy, being the first one to recognise this tendency in myself. Life sucks at times ( likewise capitalism sucks) and everyone has the right to be lazy (at least some of the time).

Anonymous said...

You are right to mention working for Shell Oil or McDonalds - certainly there are many jobs one could do where they could be said to be contributing nothing positive to society - I would not attempt to single out sex workers. But I refute your argument that Capitalism constrains our choices (in this country at any rate)- I mean, even if you were penniless I'm guessing you wouldn't take a job as an abortion doctor..? Personally, I am today so skint that I can't afford to buy dinner - both my cards have been declined! But there's still no way I'd pose for a lads mag for any money on earth. Unless they'd let me have hairy armpits or do it in a humourous way which could challenge the usual cliches. This is Sarah from 3rd wave list btw - nice blog! I like your premise of 'not causing harm' above all else - I just think I often see what constitutes 'harm' in a different way to you. So many young girls die from eating disorders (anorexia does not exist in cultures where thinness is not held as an ideal incidentally) and many others die from plastic surgery gone wrong - this is something that makes my blood boil. I'm sorry but it is a fact that women are presented with a narrow ideal of beauty in a far more pervasive way than men are and hence - surprise, surprise! Many many more women are made to feel unhappy about their bodies. For the record though - I despise ads about curing male pattern baldness and that kind of thing every bit as much - they are just not as evident as ads promoting a female beauty ideal. I know you feel that these commercial pressures should just be ignored by women and yes some women, usually older women, are able to shrug these attitudes off (my mother never picks up a magazine, never wears make-up or wishes to be thinner and is totally unaware of any societal pressures as to how she should look) - but it is not always easy, especially for young girls and teenagers. Why should it be that they feel so miserable about their bodies? Why do boys not always feel this way? Is it that girls are just weaker or more stupid? No, in my opinion they are just responding in a perfectly normal way to the pressures that are put on them. One could say to a bullied child - oh, just don't let it get to you, but that does not make the bullying ok. I agree, there are many other important issues for women to be focusing on but that does not make this problem unimportant. A friend of mine has suffered from bulimia for years and seeing her wasted years makes me so angry and upset. Anyway, I have digressed rather a lot!

Liz said...

Hi Sarah,

I thought it was you! I see your point about eating disorders and all, they are a problem that is partly caused by imagery from the media. But rather than blaming the women such as Kate Moss who are paid a hefty sum to promote these stereotypes I think perhaps we should focus on ways to challenge these stereotypes. I see your point about models making people feel bad about themselves and contributing little of value to society, but then the same can be said about a lot of jobs like the ones I illustrated.

Of course capitalism does not constrain our choices entirely in this country, we at least have the Welfare State to fall back on and all. But it's not very much so if we are simply broke we may often take jobs we don't necessarily enjoy but need the money (the same would go for any low paid menial job as well as modelling, sex work, or anything else of the kind).

As for what we would and would not do respectively - I guess it boils down to a different set of values. It is true that I wouldn't work as an abortion doctor for any amount of money, for example, but most people who do that kind of work do believe they are providing a necessary service, so again it's a question of ethical differences.

As to whether or not sex workers contribute anything positive of value I would argue that they do. In an ideal world it would not be like this - but there are some disabled men who do rely on prostitutes and porn for their sex lives. There are not adequate facilites for them to meet like minded people (say men with autism - my brother is such and he never gets to meet women, so he does get taken to see sex workers).

It is harder for men with mental disabilities than physical ones in this respect. And then there are some men who have trouble forming relationships or are unhappy, and feel more positive after experiences with sex workers. It is this that gives sex work some form of job satisfaction sometimes, leaving aside the financial rewards.

In an ideal world sex would not be a commodity and everyone would be able to form relationships. But we don't live in an ideal world.

Anonymous said...

Hi Liz,

But what of women who are mentally or physically disabled - is there a similar 'service' available to them?


Liz said...


I think there are a few male escorts, just not so many of them!

Good point though, it would be nice if there was a similiar thing more widely available for women with disabilities.