Debating porn: where overactive hormones meet freedom of expression 2

29 Sep

My speech to the rowdy youngsters:

I’d like to begin by reciting you the lyrics of a song many of you will be familiar with:

“She’s nothing like the girl you’ve ever seen before, Nothing you can compare to your neighbourhood whore, I’m tryna find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful”

Well, at least he’s trying his best. Though I’m not sure how I’d feel if I were the neighbourhood whore. As the song reaches the chorus the male singer finally lands on a term he feels is respectful enough to the female he is trying to woo. “Damn you’s a sexy bitch, a sexy bitch,” he sings.

The fact that the protagonist in this love song has searched the English language trying to find a respectful term and ultimately, out of all the possible alternatives he has to choose from, decides to call her a ‘sexy bitch’ is central to my perspective in debating porn, pleasure and pain.

The attitude exhibited in David Guetta and Akon’s song, inspiringly titled ‘Sexy Bitch’ shows the level to which pornography has permeated our society, moving from the margins into the limelight. This song that is played on daytime radio, performed at music award ceremonies and generally accepted as a catchy pop tune illustrates a concerning development where language previously contained within pornographic discourse has entered mainstream. Where the fantasy of attracting a woman by degrading and insulting her has consumed popular culture. For the record, no woman I know would be endeared to any stranger who called her a bitch, affectionately or otherwise.

As the line between pornography and real life begins to blur, so too do our expectations for what is and isn’t appropriate sexual behaviour, what’s real and what’s fantasy. Pornography so rarely exhibits reality, in particular the reality of a variety of women’s sexual expectations and desires. Rather than creating a film where the synopsis reads like a realistic sexual encounter, the narrative is more likely to cast women in stereotyped, narrow and predictable roles. If the woman is not a teenager, she is a secretary, a nurse, a schoolgirl, pregnant or a housewife. She is very rarely a doctor, CEO or successful businesswoman. The role of the female character in pornography is almost entirely a subordinate one and rarely exhibits her own desire, most often being an object for her male partner to do with what he wants. Furthermore, women must either embody the virgin role, innocent and subdued, or the dirty whore in need of re-education. There is no middle ground.

The expectation on women to either be, as one Australian feminist coined, ‘Damned whores or God’s Police’ is one that has been going on in feminist circles for decades. In porn, more often than in life, this expectation is magnified. Herein lies a particularly negative side of porn. The narrow view of women propagated by pornography has had hugely damaging consequences on women whose feelings of physical inadequacy are leading them to sign up for genital surgery to make themselves look more like the women they see in pornography. Furthermore, men are disadvantaged by a life in which their self-esteem has grown intrinsically entwined with sexual performance, where not only does sex become almost the only means through which many men can feel intimate and close, but also the way in which they find validation. But sex itself, of course, cannot possibly satisfy such demands.

It is this unfortunate situation that porn has openly exploited. For in pornography, unlike in real life, there is no criticism, real or imagined, of male performance. Women are always, in the words of the average porn site, “hot and ready”, eager to please. In real life, by contrast, sex is not so straightforward. However, with the convergence of porn and pop culture, this dichotomy is becoming more and more difficult to discern

One male writer on pornography states, “The illusion is created that women are really in their rightful place and that there is, after all, no real and serious challenge to male authority.” Seen in this light, the blatantly ridiculous typical porn scenario of the pretty hitch-hiker, nurse or secretary who is happy to let herself be gang-banged by a group of overweight, hairy-shouldered couch potatoes makes perfect psychological sense to the porn consumer.

Hardcore porn is an industry predominantly driven by men, funded by men, managed by men, directed by men and targeted at men. Hardcore porn tends to have one worldview, stating this is the way sex is and should be. And while previously porn was difficult to access, embarrassing to admit to watching and clandestinely circulated by magazines after school, today’s porn consumers access to pornography has never been easier, and its users never younger.

With the advent of the Internet………….. porn has become so easy to access that one can accidentally stumble upon seriously hardcore porn without meaning to. In an internet search for ‘porn, virgin, whore’ that I did when researching for this debate, I was directed on the first page to a website called rapescan.com which openly advertises its rape fantasy films including the titles “virgin girl brutally gang raped”. “Hot blonde teenager drugged and raped”, “sexy whore assaulted by two bastards”. This page is not just available to me as a 22 year old actively seeking information on the painful side of porn, but also to far more vulnerable characters in our society. In particular children are becoming more and more exposed to pornographic imagery, with the average age of first exposure to porn being 11 years old. Kids have also been subtly engaged in curiosity about pornography whether through music video clips or television programs with explicit sexual content. Perhaps the most disturbing thing I found in my research is that the fourth most popular search term for 7 year olds, after facebook, YouTube and Google, is porn.

This is where fantasy meets reality. Where pornography is no longer just about satisfying adult sexual desire, but where children are seeking education from something that is so damagingly misleading.

We currently live in a culture of Puritanism and double standards, where people believe abstinence-only programs will extinguish teenage pregnancies and rising rates of STD’s, where parents are too embarrassed or afraid to discuss sex with their kids, and where high schools and colleges are vilified if they decide to introduce comprehensive sex education programs. Hardcore porn has become by default the sex education of today.

Ultimately this is my greatest concern and perhaps the most compelling argument against pornography. As a feminist woman who has seen first hand the pervasive influence of porn on contemporary society, I can say that indeed pornography has the capacity to cause far more pain than pleasure. However, in saying this I am not trying to deny the importance of sexuality and sex and also recognise that all attempts to stifle human sexuality have thus far failed. Furthermore, I could not say that all depictions of sex are negative; erotica as distinct from pornography can in many ways stimulates sexual imagination, and more often promotes both sex and love where pornography enforces domination and control. Sex ought to be interactive, not a one man show.

I do not believe that my musings on the more detrimental aspects of porn will convince those of you who regularly watch porn to switch off your computers and throw away your magazines. However, as the new generation of politically active members of society, I would encourage you to move away from blending fantasy and reality.

The reality, I can undoubtedly tell you, is that you will have great difficulty finding the female porn character in real life. Trying to turn a real woman into a porn star, or trying to turn yourself into one, will most definitely cause you more pain than pleasure.

Finally I will leave you with a message from a prominent feminist that I hope will influence your behaviour next time you have the desire to reenact a fantasy you viewed online. Remember, ‘make love, not porn’
Thank you

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Debating porn: overactive hormones meet freedom of expression

29 Sep

One must only enter through the gates of a University during Fresher’s week to realise that sexism in Ireland is alive and well. Where young women advertise a local business with slogans like “ask to see our bits” emblazoned across their chest and posters for ‘pimps and hoes’ parties line the walls, the University atmosphere successfully reproduces an adolescent boy’s teenage fantasy in real time. The UCD Historical and Literary Society debate on pornography was no exception to such an overt display of laddish culture, where overactive hormones met freedom of expression, as 2 teams debated the motion that “This house believes porn causes more pain than pleasure”.

The night began with a show of hands as to how many people watched pornography. Amid the hoots and macho roars of the mostly male audience, almost every person raised their hand. It was at this time that I realised I was on the losing side. In support of the motion that porn causes more pain than pleasure, I was accompanied by Prof. Linda Connolly from UCC and two male students from the Society. The other side comprised of one guest speaker, a male journalist from Ireland’s one and only porn magazine, and three male students. A female porn star was originally recruited to argue for the opposition but called in sick at the last minute. The disappointment at her absence was keenly felt by many audience members who had obtained tickets to the event particularly to see her.

As the debate began, Linda and I were immediately labelled ‘the feminists’ by the opposition. The only 2 women out of 8 speakers and both self-identified feminists, we were pigeonholed into an unflattering stereotype that we tried, unsuccessfully, to counter. The anti-sex, humourless feminist is a character I am familiar with, but not one I wish to portray. With a distinct lack of female representation, and both women on the ‘anti-porn’ side, the debate lacked a balanced perspective with the overarching theme emerging that pornography exists to allow boys to be boys. On the pleasure side of porn, the students argued that porn serves as an education, a release and a right of passage. On the pain side, the negative effects on women, cultural implications and dark underbelly of the porn industry were exposed. Points of information covered a number of topics including the question ‘what’s wrong with sexualising children?’. Needless to say, my team did not win.

Though I did not expect the debate to be academic or serious, and even though I risk identifying myself as the ‘humorless feminist’ yet again, I found the whole night overwhelmingly depressing. Cocooned in a feminist bubble for the last year, the naked display of machismo was unsettling to say the least. I found myself rolling my eyes and clicking my tongue when the boys in the audience applauded at innuendo. I resented being set apart from the girls who accused ‘the feminists’ of trying to say that women didn’t, or shouldn’t, like sex or watch pornography. Finally I hated the fact that, though we were debating whether porn causes more pain than pleasure, the argument degenerated into a censorship debate on which I found myself unwittingly arguing on the ultra-conservative side accused by the opposition of wanting to ban all pornography (though we never suggested that as a solution).

At the age of 22, I felt upset at how distant I was from kids who are only a couple of years younger than myself. The event took me back to a time when I was like some of the people in the audience, desperately trying to fit in with a crowd so at odds with my own world-view. It reminded me of the rape jokes told by acquaintances, the 1-10 ratings the boys gave the girls on my course and nights where my friends and I would participate in heavy drinking games, just to show the boys we could. I was sad to see that things haven’t changed and, though I have moved on, the university culture may have even regressed.

It’s sometimes easy as a feminist moving in liberal circles to forget what we’re fighting for. However, I can personally recommend that an hour at a fresher’s week debate will successfully serve as a swift and lasting reminder; not for the faint of heart!

‘What I gotta say is rebel…’

3 Jul

After listening to the album ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ ad nauseam for the past 6 years or so, it only just occurred to me to see if Lauryn Hill had recorded anything else since. I was delighted to find that she has in fact recorded one other album, an MTV unplugged live recording released in 2002. Though not as polished as her first album, this one holds a raw energy that illustrates Hill’s talent, a talent that is able to transcend the three chords on the guitar she is playing and relay some important messages. Though preachy and zealously religious at times, Hill is undeniably a deep thinker and someone who has wise words to impart.

So, you may be wondering why Im reviewing a Lauryn Hill album on a feminist blog. Well, it was this album that provided the inspiration for this post. Throughout the concert Hill constantly reiterates the importance of staying true to ones own identity and furthermore notes the importance of having a social conscience. At one point she says:

“Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need and Ive just retired from the fantasy part ”

This is one of the most profound things she says in the entire concert. In order to excuse oneself from having to act on social injustice, it is often easier to live in fantasy. Many men and women would prefer to congratulate themselves on achieving gender equality, relying on fantastical interpretations of the world we live in. However, I feel its profoundly important to remain true to reality, particularly in regard to women’s liberation. So to illustrate my devotion to the reality of gender inequality in Ireland, here are a few facts, real facts, because nothing gets done when people live in fantasy.

In the words of Lauryn Hill, “let me break it down for you my friend”:

  • One in five women in Ireland report being sexually assaulted as adults.
  • 18% of Irish women who have been involved in intimate relationships with men, have been abused by a current or former partner.
  • 1 in 7 women in Ireland compared to 1 in 17 men experience severe domestic violence. Women are over twice as likely as men to have experienced severe physical abuse, seven times more likely to have experienced sexual abuse, and are more likely to experience serious injuries than men.
  • Women still do not have full reproductive rights. Abortion is still not allowed to be legally performed in Ireland.
  • Men dominate Irish politics, taking up 86% of the seats in the Dail.
  • Irish women earn on average 17.4% less than men for every hour worked.
  • Women in Ireland have a harder time making it to managerial positions. Only 30% of managerial positions are taken by women, lower than the EU average.
  • Women are at higher risk of living in poverty, particularly those over the age of 65. 21% of women over the age of 65 are at risk of poverty, compared to 16% of men.
  • Ireland has never nominated a woman to represent the country in the European Commission.
  • Women only make up a third of the posts on state boards in Ireland, 17pc of council seats and 12pc of positions on regional authorities.

And this is only in Ireland! For stats and information about global women’s inequality check out the site for the new UN women’s organisation: http://www.unwomen.org/facts-figures/

So to end on a Lauryn Hill quote: “Where we gonna go now? What we gonna say now?”. Time to face reality.

Lessons from a night on the town…

2 Jul

Last night, when I went to the pub, I had a couple of revelations and I felt that I ought to share at them with you as they relate (like everything in life) to feminism. As a very occasional drinker (Im talking like 1 glass of wine every six months) I am often the only sober person on a night out. I don’t really have a problem with other people drinking, in fact its sometimes nice when other people are a bit drunk, as they can become more sociable. It’s just that I, myself, have a number of reasons to steer clear.

Hanging out with a bunch of drunken musicians, I had a moment to reflect on the situation I found myself in and came up with what I think is a brilliant analogy.  I realised that being a feminist in contemporary society is similar to being a sober person in a room full of drinkers. Being sober you are conscious of everything going on around you, from the guy who thinks he’s subtly coming on to you to the woman who is being coerced into going home with a stranger. Though often times you can have just as much fun when you’re not drunk, sometimes it does get you down that everyone around you has stopped articulating words or making full sentences. It becomes particularly uncomfortable when people do anti-social things or you see others, particularly women, finding themselves in vulnerable situations and there’s nothing you can do.

In identifying yourself as a feminist you automatically become the sober person in the bar at midnight. You are still very capable of operating normally in society, having fun and participating, sometimes more fully, in every aspect of daily life. However you are always alert. You notice when things are not right, when someone makes a sexist slur or there’s a story in the newspaper about a subject particularly relevant to women’s rights. As a feminist you can still enjoy yourself but you have a heightened awareness, its difficult to have the same reckless abandonment that you may have if you didn’t think deeply about social injustice.

The feminist is the sober person in the pub who is often frustratingly aware of all that is going on around her. So, though I don’t mind alcohol in some situations, it is in this analogical instance where I take issue with the drinkers. I really don’t think its fair that feminists to have to constantly play the moral police, or for women to have to be on constant alert purely because of their gender. And, unlike being the sober person in the pub, the feminist can never just leave and go home. Being a feminist in a patriarchal society is a 24/7 experience and that’s what makes it so disheartening and exhausting at times.

The second thing I noticed on my night out is how alcohol serves as a perfect amplification of sexist tendencies. Not only does it bring out a sometimes nasty, sometimes affable character in the person who has consumed it, it also does away with inhibition. Some think everyone should be free to speak whatever is on their mind, however I would prefer people abide by some form of societally encouraged behaviour. This includes political correctness, restraint and diplomacy. This does not include sexist jokes, lingering unwanted body contact or drunken lectures. Unfortunately for me, last night was a whole lot of the latter and not so much of the former. Now, one can’t blame alcohol for assholes. However, just like religion, alcohol provides a cover for people to do ass-holic things with a fair amount of impunity.

On my night out I was followed around by a man double my age who insisted on lecturing me about how to live my life. It wasn’t enough for him to keep putting his hand on my waist or say inappropriate things trying to make me blush, no no no, he then had to tell me how to live. Now you can’t have it all Im afraid, you either want to pretend you’re my age to try and lure me home with you OR you can try and be the parental figure. But the two will never, and should never, mix. This lethal combination of condescension and objectification is a common mix for relations between men and women but is forcefully displayed, in all its glory, on a night out.

So, on my night out I was ever so privileged to view our society through a magnifying glass. The soberest person in the pub AND the woman who ‘needed minding’ were two roles I played last night and I didnt enjoy either of them very much. It’s one thing to be fighting for women’s rights with other like minded people but its a totally different thing experiencing the issues in real life. Last night made me further determined to try and eliminate gender inequality. If nothing else, Ill be grateful when the day comes that alcohol isn’t served with a side of patronising objectification.

The Bearded Lady not just a sideshow.

20 Jun

A new group has emerged in France and I like their style.

Using aesthetic props reminiscent of the Guerilla Girls and a strong but silent message, La Barbe (or in English, The Beard) is getting the people of France to take notice. Launched in March 2008, La Barbe was born out of the 2007 election campaign in France when Marie-Ségolène Royal, the socialist party’s first female presidential candidate, lost to Nicolas Sarkozy.

Fed up with the lack of female representation in politics and on corporate boards, La Barbe shouted “THE BEARD! Manifesto of the Beard” (according to an amusingly poor translation of an article I found online).

In their manifesto La Barbe states “Its time to put feminism back into the saddle and set off to conquer the territories of power in all its forms.” Going on to further state their intention to infiltrate all “bearded chambers” and “vestibules”, La Barbe vows to highlight the gender inequality in France’s political and business community.

La Barbe has since been seen at meetings of the French National Assembly, Senate, boards of major corporations and festivals. Arriving in plain clothes, this group of women settles into the audience inconspicuously. However, as the proceedings begin it’s members position their fake beards and rise to join the all male panels.

On a recent occassion, the women crashed the board meeting of Veolia Environment SA shareholders in Paris. According to the Business Week article on the event, the women challenged the Chairman of the Board, Henri Proglio, over the existence of only one female member on a board of 17. A female activist from La Barbe sarcastically asked, “Is it really wise to allow women to define the strategy of a company, a task requiring intelligence, an ability to react and cool-headedness?”.

Women make up 9.5% of 103 French boards while in the National Assembly 19% of deputies are female, despite gender quotas being introduced 10 years ago. It is clear La Barbe has a big job ahead of them with parties preferring to pay million euro fines rather than find capable women to fill the gender quota’s.

A clever and thought-provoking approach, La Barbe’s protests make visible the lack of gender representation at important meetings across France and have successfully highlighted the poor record France has of gender equality in positions of power. They have successfully recruited media with their youtube videos and photos and have struck fear into all misogynist board members’ hearts. Whether their approach will have a long lasting impact is yet to be seen, but I certainly hope it raises questions in some people’s minds.

So the question is, could we do something like that here in Ireland? With only 13% female representation in the Dail and 10.1% female representation on boards, we certainly have reason to!

While I love the idea of donning a beard to senate committee hearings and shouting from the visitors box, Im not sure I have the guts. I felt bad enough when the security guard told me off the other day for drinking water while watching a Senate debate, I can only imagine how I’d feel being dragged out the gates of Leinster House shouting “Manifesto of the beard!”.

Still, I think it’s always worth thinking about more radical ways to get the message out there. Not enough people think about the impact lack of female representation has on perpetuating the gender inequality in Irish society. Though beards may not be the way to get their attention, Id be eager for other suggestions!


Time to be ungrateful!

14 Jun

Gloria Steinem recently stated, when asked whether young girls take for granted the successes of Second Wave feminism, “Our job is not to make women grateful…Gratitude never radicalized anybody”, and I am inclined to agree.

In any article you may read about contemporary women’s issues, there will inevitably be a sentence stating that though there are still issues, just think of how far we’ve come, how lucky this generation is. Many of the older generation feel it’s their duty to educate young women on the difficulties faced by the suffragettes, or the hardship of those who fought for women’s rights in the ‘70s. But what of the gender equality movement today?

This desire to constantly look nostalgically on the historical achievements of the women’s movement has caused us to turn our backs on the issues facing us now, distracting us from the barriers we still have to overcome.

Though some important battles have been fought and won, the war still rages in the fight for women’s equality. Sexism may be different now to what it once was, but it certainly didn’t evaporate in the heat of the mythological bra burning in the 1970’s as some would like us to believe.

By constantly reminiscing about the feminism of yore, we are unintentionally implying that the struggle for women’s equality should be relegated to history books and museums where young women can give cursory thanks for the right to vote or use contraception. The younger generation is sheltered from discussions on the current gender wage gap or the scarcity of women in positions of influence. Instead, we are led to believe that any gender-based issues existing today are a result of individual choice and, in some cases, the fault of the very movement highlighting them.

However, young people cannot escape some of the issues faced by their generation of women. The high incidence of sexual assault and rape, along with an increasing number of young women and girls suffering from eating disorders, is hard to ignore. But, instead of getting angry about these issues, we are becoming complacent. When women’s liberation is relegated to history textbooks, these problems are excused as unfortunate realities and people are discouraged from trying to enact change.

I myself am a 21-year-old woman who grew up in the era of Girl Power and Wonder Woman. Uncomfortable with labeling myself as a feminist, I like many others, used to believe that my generation of women were free agents, no longer restrained by the challenges overcome by my mother’s generation. It was not until I experienced blatant gender-based discrimination that I realised it was not all as it seemed.

Most of the young feminists I know have also experienced this light bulb moment, related to an unpleasant or unfortunate incident they were unable to dismiss. I find it distressing that so many of the women who are joining the ranks of this new generation of feminists are ones who had to go through something so profound that they were unable to turn a blind eye. It is disappointing that in order for women to believe sexism still exists, they have to be wounded by it first.

I believe that it is time to bury nostalgia about the past and instead focus our efforts on improving the future. As Gloria Steinem said, the achievements of Second Wave feminism would never have happened if women spent all their time thanking the First Wave for the vote. It’s time to make feminism relevant to young women before they realise they need it, so that if they do experience gender-based discrimination they can recognise it for what it is, unfair.

Feminism does not need to be a dirty word and nor is it part of an ancient dialect. It is as relevant and important today as it ever was. So let’s keep our eyes on the road ahead and let the past enjoy its position in the annals of history. If nothing else, let’s try and make the next generation of women have something to be grateful to us for!

Irish feminism doesn’t need a eulogy!

11 Jun

In fact it’s experiencing something of a resurgence. Across Dublin and Ireland, new feminist groups are emerging ready to face the age old issue of the ‘second sex’.

Some inspiring new movements are being led by young women from all different backgrounds. From university students to musicians , socialists to politicians, women are coming together to once again protest gender inequality.

Here’s a list of some of the innovative new projects being led by feminists in Ireland:

Irish Feminist Network (IFN)

The IFN holds regular meetings throughout the year.  They aim to create a network of Irish feminists to provide a space to discuss contemporary feminist issues in Ireland. Although only in it’s infancy, their activies so far, including a Take Back the Night march for International Women’s Day 2010 and a vibrant feminist book club, herald great things to come. The IFN promises to be a feminist force to reckoned with.

Hanna’s House

Hanna’s House is a ‘home’ for the Irish feminist community. Organising seminars, workshops and a summer school, they provide a platform for Irish feminists to develop ideas and solutions to issues facing women in contemporary Irish society.

National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI)

The NWCI is an umbrella group for 180 women’s organisations across Ireland. The variety of groups represented by the Council range from the African women’s network (Akidwa) to Travellers organisations and women’s community groups. The Council supports members in their work and lobby for their interests while also releasing reports and conducting research on issues affecting women in Ireland.

Feminist Open Forum

The Feminist Open Forum provides a space for feminists in Dublin to debate, discuss and disperse information about feminist issues. They hold monthly meetings on a range of topics. No fee or formal membership is required and anyone interested is welcome to attend and contribute.

Akidwa

Akidwa is a network of African and migrant women living in Ireland. They seek to encourage African and migrant women’s capacity for participation and representation in their communities.  Akidwa provides consultation, focus groups and information as well as undertaking research on African and migrant women’s issues in Ireland. They are currently running a program focused on female genital mutilation, domestic and sexual violence.

Lash Back

Lash Back is a feminist collective aimed at highlighting feminist issues in Dublin. They hold meetings once a month and publish a feminist zine. They aim to create a non-hierarchical, unified space for feminist discussion.

Revolutionary Anarcha-Feminist Group (RAG)

RAG is a collective of anarcha-feminist’s based in Dublin. They produce a magazine and blog, while also holding regular meetings, events and protests. United in the desire to create an alternative to the ‘capitalist, patriarchal society wherein we are all dominated and exploited’, RAG is a radical alternative to mainstream feminism.

Various Community Groups

Community groups across Ireland campaign on a number of issues facing women. KLEAR in Kilbarrack have a community based adult education centre which provides a broad range of programs, including child development classes, assertiveness training and confidence building. Longford Women’s Link lobbies on gender equality issues on a local and national level while also providing domestic violence services, counselling, support for migrant women and childcare.