It is 2014. A twelve-year-old boy rapes his 7-year-old sister after watching hardcore pornography. Should this be a feminist issue? Judging by the lack of any mainstream feminist response, no. Perhaps once it would have been, but not today.
We’ve grown too worldly wise for moral panic. No longer are feminists shouty, sexless beings, piecing together a politics based on exception, exaggeration and fear. Terrible things happen to women and girls but when it comes to blame (such an awful word!) we are circumspect. Men rape women, boys rape girls, but it’s nothing to do with how we represent sex. It’s nothing to do with the stories we tell our children. Hatred of women just is.
The 1980s backlash taught me well. I grew up thinking all radical feminists were anti-sex and anti-men. Absorbing the “generational model” of feminism, in which each wave improves upon the last, I chose not to be like my predecessors. I wanted to be “normal” – not vanilla, no-sex-before-marriage normal, but normal in the way a woman should be, before social conditioning teaches her she must not enjoy a good fuck. Open mind, open heart, open legs. I’m not sure why I assumed normality – the “real” version – would be so sex-centric but this felt important. Any criticism of the sex industry or objectification struck me as bigoted and almost pathologically wrong. If you reject the virgin/whore paradigm, what else is there to fear? Why not simply embrace all that is left?
It’s only recently I’ve admitted the answer to myself. Because what’s left is pretty awful, that’s why. Much as we’d like to see sexism as an historical hangover, it remains active and powerful. Liberation does not come through insisting that rape and other forms of violence against women have no cultural context. Feminism has to do more than simply polish patriarchy’s turds.
Sex is just sex. It should not be taboo. And yet at some point, feminists need to ask themselves, “why are things still so fucked up? Why are women considered less human than men?” It’s not random. It’s to do with power and it’s to do with bodies. It’s to do with fundamental beliefs about what women are for and pornography and sex work feed into this.
In a recent Times column, David Aaranovitch was scathing of those who find sex work problematic, claiming that these people – let’s be honest, these women – believe “sex is either something that binds people together, a couply superglue, or else a terrible force for entropy, sending the moral universe into a spin”. This is utter bullshit. Sex is just fucking, David, no more and no less. If we are to form parallels with religious fundamentalists, the religion in play here is not some anti-sex puritanism, but the unquestioning worship of gender norms which repeatedly screw women over. This is the problem; it always has been.
Aaranovitch asks whether “we believe that some women (and men) can choose to buy or sell sexual services without somehow being lesser people,” suggesting that there’s an invisible army of sex negative feminists on hand who’d say “no”. As Michaele L Ferguson notes, this thinking – at root patriarchal and conservative – tries to frogmarch feminists towards the “honey trap” which sees sex work purely in terms of individual choice and argues that not to endorse the choices of sex workers – whatever their implications – means siding with the men who abuse them. It is of course nonsense but it prevents us from asking uncomfortable questions about the relationship between arousal, cultural conditioning and oppression. It means men such as David Baddiel – offering Aaranovitch a twitter backslap for his “brilliant column on body usage rights” – are seen as more progressive than feminists who view sex workers and porn stars, not as mere bodies to use, but as human beings, whose decisions can be criticised in the same way as everyone else’s.
In Women-Hating Right and Left, Andrea Dworkin calls out the way in which pornography is granted a special “get out of misogyny free” card because it makes people come:
“Those who think that woman hating is all right—they’re not feminists. They’re not. Those who think that it’s all right sometimes, here and there, where they like it, where they enjoy it, where they get off on it—especially sexually— they’re not feminists either. And the people who think that woman hating is very bad some places, but it’s all right in pornography because pornography causes orgasm, are not feminists.”
Dworkin was right, and it’s annoying that she’s right, given the things that might turn us on. I’m only human, too. I don’t want to be Andrea Dworkin; I’d much rather be Belle de frigging Jour. But I want to participate in feminism with my eyes open and I’m not so prudish about what happens to women that I’ll insist we turn off the lights.
Sex is not frightening. It is just flesh touching flesh, going into flesh, moving and feeling. An orgasm is an orgasm, a penis a penis, an orifice an orifice, a tongue a tongue. Nothing to be scared of. It is what it is.
What we fear is violence and abuse. That’s why we don’t call out misogyny. That’s why we don’t question the context of sexual exchange. That’s why the real taboo – the thing that we skirt around – is a feminism that seeks neither appeasement nor accommodation, but change.
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