Tag Archives: sex

Sexism makes female sexual dysfunction a hidden problem

The first time I had sex, it hurt. A lot. I have vaginismus, which refers to painful intercourse. I’m sure this is a pretty common occurrence for many people, so I just shrugged it off. After all, sex education taught me that pain is something to expect the first few times you have sex, and that if my partner couldn’t get an erection it was ok – it was just nerves. I never once heard that the pain may continue, and I suspect this is the case for a lot of women. When it continued for more than a year, I finally conceded that something must be wrong.

Female Sexual Dysfunction, often abbreviated to FSD, is a catch-all term for a range of different conditions, from painful sex to lack of arousal. Around 43% of women and 31% of men have reported some degree of difficulty in their sex lives. Despite the higher number of women reporting difficulties, Erectile Dysfunction (ED) is more widely recognised in mainstream media and the amount of research into it also far outweighs the research into FSD. Much of the research into both ED and FSD is very Viagra-centric – but scientists are not even sure whether this works for women.

Unsurprisingly, due to the lack of research, doctors are pretty clueless when it comes to FSD. When I first told my doctor that I was unable to have penetrative sex, it was automatically assumed I had a lack of sexual desire due to depression and anxiety. But I have a high sex drive. I was also shouted at and told to relax when the doctor was having a hard time examining me. I didn’t get the diagnosis I expected – in fact, the doctor didn’t even give the condition a name. I was made to feel as if FSD isn’t a common problem.

I was eventually referred to a gynaecologist after waiting 6 months for an appointment. I felt excited that I’d finally have an answer to my problem, completely putting my faith in what I thought was an FSD specialist. Hope started to fade when I didn’t even see myself represented on the posters in the waiting room. It was clear that if I was here, it was for help with post-menopausal dryness or pregnancy problems.

There are a range of treatments available for all types of FSD. These include lubrication, psychosexual therapy, Botox injections, numbing gels and vaginal dilators. Dilators range in size from a tampon to average penis size and are designed to help you relax and get used to the sensation of having sex. I’d heard about these through different forums, and they seemed to work for some women, in conjunction with therapy.

During my appointment, the gynaecologist suggested I try vaginal dilators. I was pretty excited, as I’d heard good things about them. But my excitement was short-lived when the gynaecologist’s assistant didn’t seem to understand what vaginal dilators were, and then told me that the hospital didn’t have any. I asked if I could get them on prescription. They’re a medical aid, so why wouldn’t I be able to? I was advised, however, that I’d probably be better off spending £50 to buy them on eBay. I couldn’t resist making a joke that I’d better make sure I didn’t get a second-hand product. She also advised that maybe, just maybe (but probably not) I’d be able to get them at a local pharmacy. This is completely unacceptable treatment for such a common problem.

I’ve also been given a numbing gel that is supposed to help with the pain, but that option is problematic in itself. What is the point of having sex if you can’t feel it? Am I expected to lie back passively? Yes, I want to remove the pain, but I also want to feel something.

The examination was a painful experience that didn’t answer any questions. I’ve been put on a waiting list for an indeterminate amount of time for various scans and psychosexual therapy. It’s a long process, and only time will tell whether any of these things will work for me – it’s pretty much just ‘suck it and see’. There’s no little blue pill.

The great thing is, dilators and psychosexual therapy work for a lot of people. The problems lie in the diagnostic process, the availability of dilators and other treatment options, the amount of research into FSD, and the general lack of visibility. If you’re suffering and not being heard, keep going back to your doctor and demand that you be taken seriously. Always get a second opinion. FSD needs to be talked about a lot more. It’s not acceptable that women are suffering, ignoring pain and feeling inadequate when there are adverts for Viagra on TV.

Emily Griffith is a freelance writer specialising in at-home activism and mental health. She tweets at @AtHomeActivist and blogs at The Agoraphobic Feminist.

Photo: Huffington Post

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Why don’t you use the female condom?

Despite having been available for years, and its near endless list of benefits, the female condom has not had the level of popularity or success that global health and women’s rights advocates have hoped for. For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with the female condom, it’s an enjoyable little device that women can initiate on their own and that protects both partners while maintaining a warmer and more natural sensation than the male condom.

The female condom is a sheath of clear flexible material (latex, nitrile, or polyurethane) that can be inserted up to several hours before the sexual act, avoiding its interruption. Its outer ring provides an additional level of protection against sexually transmitted infections, and men have repeatedly stated how great the sensation of the inner ring feels during sex. If taught correctly, women can better negotiate condom use with stubborn husbands and partners, taking greater control over their sexuality and reproduction. It can also play a significant role in keeping sex workers safe and healthy as they can use the female condom as an alternative to inserting a sponge during their periods in order to maintain their work schedule – behaviour seen throughout Latin America.

So why hasn’t the female condom become more popular? Many argue that one of the female condom’s barriers to success is its price. Unfortunately, there isn’t yet enough competition on the market to drive the price down. Currently there are two World Health Organisation pre approved models on the market: Cupid Limited’s Cupid Condom (with a small sponge inside) and the Female Health Company’s FC2 (with a small flexible inner ring). Each are several times more expensive than male condoms. Yet several studies have shown that creating access to the female condom leads to higher levels of safe sex, lower HIV/AIDS transmission, and prevents many unwanted pregnancies, saving governments hundreds of thousands of dollars on top of their initial investment. Others state that the female condom has design drawbacks such as the visible outer ring that makes some women self-conscious. The stereotype that the female condom is noisy (an issue that has been eliminated thanks to design changes) may also be keeping people from giving it a shot.

I would maintain that these characteristics don’t have the impact that some argue, but that instead the female condom’s biggest hurdle is society’s refusal to allow women a greater role in their sexuality and reproduction. Just as the sexual needs and pleasure of women come second, so do the tools and contraceptive methods that put them in control. However, there are ways around this.

In Chile, like in many other countries, the female condom is not yet available. Thus the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW Chile) has decided to lead a strategic campaign to create dual access to the female condom through the National Health System and market vendors, as well as generating acceptance and demand for the product.

ICW Chile will reach out to young men and women, hoping to prevent HIV in the next generation of adults and encouraging young women to take control from the beginning of their sex lives. They will reach out to sex workers through condom negotiation workshops and teach the health benefits of using the condom during their period. They will speak to married couples in regions where HIV rates are high, and teach men that the female condom feels fantastic and that it gives them one less responsibility to worry about. ICW Chile will also work with transgender men and women, HIV positive women, and young mothers to attempt to mainstream the topic and receive thousands of signatures, eventually presenting a master petition to the government and encouraging the purchase of female condoms for the National HIV/AIDS and STD Prevention Program.

The hope is that this strategic introduction of the female condom will outweigh latent machismo in Chile and will give women an opportunity to protect themselves, especially from transmission of HIV/AIDS in their marriage. By 2015, ICW Chile hopes to have convinced the Chilean Government of the importance of the female condom. Soon Chile will be one less country where women are simply dependent on the generosity of men to put on a male condom.

Carolynn Poulsen is the Program Manager at ICW Chile

Photo: Wikimedia

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The essential feminist’s guide to Pick Up Artists

True story: I’m sat on a high bar stool in the entrance to an empty pub function room. So you don’t think I’m weird, an hour later I would be MCing a comedy show in the venue and in the meantime I had offered to keep an eye on things while the doorman went to smoke. This is what is known in the comedy industry as “living the dream”.

A guy approaches, in his late twenties, obviously petrified, in a long dark coat and a haircut probably approved and executed by his mum.

“You’ve got a really cool look about you.”

I’m still not conveying fully just how awkward this was. There’s another detail I’m missing: he read this sentence off a piece of paper.

This was my first encounter with ‘The Game’ – a rather culty world of dorky young guys, like our young hero, being encouraged to part with hard-earned cash for the promise of a magic elixir that would have the effect Lynx usually does in adverts.

So I thought I’d write a nice witty piece on the subject of these PUAs (self-styled “pick up artists”) and maybe some tips on shaking one off from a seasoned PDA (self-explanatory). Ten minutes of Internet research later and I can say I don’t think I’ve ever been angrier in my adult life. Scratch the surface a bit further and it emerges the “movement”* is even more sinister. It’s based on a series of semi-formalised rules and principles, many of which wouldn’t look out of place in the the latest Wiley and Sons title Rape for Dummies.

Of course men have been hanging round bars and clubs pretending to be firemen and trying to get women to sleep with them since the Stone Age. And how fickle we women are – back then we were impressed if you could start a fire, rather than put one out. If the underlying message of ‘The Game’ was “go on, talk to her, women are human!” I’d be actively in favour of it. But it’s not; ‘The Game’ is no laughing matter for men or women.

Most feminists are regularly accused of not caring about men’s issues. Probably the Cat’s Protection League get a lot of mail demanding to know what the hell they’re doing to help dogs. Regardless, the truth is I am against cults that prey on lonely and vulnerable men. Like UKIP, Abrahamic religions and ‘The Game’.

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These men are assured that for a mere £500 they can be taught SIMPLE techniques that will GUARANTEE them HUNDREDS OF GIRLS. And there’s nothing like CAPITAL LETTERS to let you know you’re being RIPPED OFF.

Standard advice includes: get a woman as drunk as possible, undermine her confidence with minor insults and order her about (to show how “alpha” you are). Men are advised to “stop asking for permission” before kissing** a woman they fancy. And one guy who calls himself Roosh (author of Bang, “The Pickup Bible that helps you get more lays” – seriously mate, just be honest and call yourself “Douche”) has even published an article entitled ‘It’s Time To Start Delivering Death Blows To Feminists’, which could have been in The Taliban for Dummies. He advises immediately walking away from any women who describes herself as a feminist.

To ward off these dickheads, I recommend all women have pictures of bel hooks and Emmeline Pankhurst tattooed on their forearms. If a guy uses a crap line and follows it up with a weird minor insult, hold both arms up, fists clenched and firmly say “Game Over”.

More importantly: men; men who might be thinking about getting involved with The Game… If you use the same shit chat-up line on a hundred women in one night, one will probably say yes. The least interesting and least intelligent one out of all one hundred women. Do you want to date that woman?

The only advice you’ll ever need on finding a relationship is this: Go on, talk to her, women are human! But walk away if she’s not a feminist cos everyone knows we have the best sex.

*I also use the word movement in polite company to describe a massive stinking shit. Like Neil Strauss, or anyone who calls themselves Mystery or Gambler and isn’t a Batman villain.

**Yes I know, without permission the term is less “kissing” and more “sexually assaulting”.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and political activist. Follow her @Cruella1

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W*NK: We need to talk about women & pleasure

May is International Masturbation Month, and time to remind ourselves how important it is to keep talking about self pleasure, and pleasure in general. For a long time masturbation has been a taboo subject, and female masturbation even more so.

My first wanking experiences were filled with shame and confusion. Although the clitoris had been labelled in our school sex ed classes and textbooks, no one had told me what it was for and it took me months to realise that my pleasure was mostly coming from there and reliably locate the thing. I am 31: I didn’t grow up in Victorian times – we were close on the millennium when I started wanking but still I had been kept thoroughly in the dark about my own body.

International Masturbation Month was set up by Good Vibrations after the U.S Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders was fired for saying that masturbation should be discussed as part of young people’s sex education. This enlightened idea was proposed by her in 1995 and, looking around today, it doesn’t seem that the sex education we give young people has improved since.

The subtext of the prevalent physiological/safe-sex-only approach to sex ed seems to be that by mentioning to young people that their genitals can give them pleasure it will prompt them to go out and have tons of promiscuous un-safe sex. In my opinion this is sensationalist and short sighted. Giving young people the information they need to understand how to start exploring their sexuality solo will equip them with the self knowledge and confidence to move on to healthy and safe sexual relationships as adults.

Sex education that puts sexuality in context, that tackles respect and self respect, consent, safe sex, pleasure, emotional wellbeing, and healthy relationships can only reduce under age sex, pregnancy and STIs. Knowledge empowers and is a hell of a lot better than letting young people work things out through making mistakes that could effect the rest of their lives.

More widely, we need to talk about pleasure. We need to continue to transform our culture by  empowering women, and all people, to explore their bodies and get to know the way they work by giving them a road map: sex education that talks about masturbation through encompassing the idea that genitals give us pleasure as well as babies; words and images that represent the real and various ways people masturbate; open discussion that does not shame wankers but recognises that knowing your own sexual responses makes you a great sex partner.

My small contribution towards this ideal are a series of twelve drawings taken from real women’s masturbation techniques, mostly using household objects. The work shows real masturbation in a way that was not pornographic, not orchestrated for the viewer but frank and natural and, because of that, erotic. The project started as something private; an excercise in visualising these delightful intimate scenes without making them lurid. But it grew into a book because I wanted to share my joy in these stories and their honesty. To be invited by Sh! to exhibit with them as part of International Masturbation Month was a real honour and I have been overwhelmed by the positive response to the work. Hopefully it will help to get people talking, sharing their own stories and celebrating themselves as wankers.

WANK - Interior Door by Sophie Crow 2012 WANK - Right index finger by Sophie Crow 2012 WANK - Teddy by Sophie Crow 2012 WANK - TV Remote by Sophie Crow 2012

Click here to find out more about International Masturbation MonthTo find out more about Sophie Crow, visit www.theoysterknife.co.uk or follow @oysterknife

Sophie’s W*NK exhibition continues until 31st May at Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium, 57 Hoxton Square, N1 6PB London, open every day 12pm-8pm. It is Sh! policy that men must be accompanied by a woman, except on Tuesday evenings.

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#GenderWeek: What is gender? Survey results

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

Throughout #GenderWeek, we’ve been asking our Members and readers to fill in our survey, responding to the question: What is gender?

We’ve had 148 responses, 36% of them from Feminist Times Members, and the remainder from readers and supporters who are not Members. The infographics below takes into account all 148 responses, while the examples of text responses selected from the responses of Feminist Times Members.

What is gender?

A selection of responses:

What is gender?

Gender is self defined. It is how you feel, what you associate with. Yes, there is a biological gender but that does not dictate the emotional gender of a person.

The state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences, rather than biological ones). I would use “sex” for the latter.

It refers to the structural relations between men and women, reflecting the dominance of men in society and the subordination of women.

For me it’s a biological definition. Sex you are physically born with.

Gender is the external representation of biological sex, the visible presentation of our sex as interpreted by society, a reductionist binary.

Whatever you identify with or what you aspire to identify with. However the spectrum can include many options and is not linked to sexuality.

Gender is the socially constructed roles, expectations and spaces to act allocated to biological men and women. Gender roles and entitlements are fluid across cultures and contexts, though are globally inequitable, with women allocated less status, fewer resources and very much restricted space and autonomy; in most cultures and contexts women are to a greater or lesser extent not understood or constructed as fully human, and often considered the property of men.

Gender, as it relates to the individual, is deeply personal and will affect each person differently. Gender does not exist in isolation, but is articulated in relation to other forms of repressions.

I believe gender is socially constructed; exists on a spectrum of performativity; not innate, but learned as part of sexual stereotyping during enculturation.  One learns to perform binary oppositional ‘male’ and ‘female’. Sex determines XX, XY, and variations thereof.

Most people identify with the gender i.e. genitalia they were born to. But it must be incredibly painful for those individuals who do not fit into a specified gender, either because they are born with indeterminate genitalia or because they feel they are trapped in the wrong body. I believe those individuals should have the right to choose the identity they feel comfortable with.

A hierarchical oppressive social construct designed to keep women at the bottom of the hierarchy.

It is the biological differences between human beings, defined by reproductive function. It is the cultural differences between human beings that have come about by the unequal distribution of power and education.

Ideally it’s a personal identity but the lived reality is that others place their opinions of your gender over what you say and treat you according to how they believe people of your gender should be treated. I think there is some overlap between liberal and radical ideas behind gender in that both believe you can suffer because of your gender, but modern feminism recognises that there is more than just gender at play in the systems of oppression that we all live under.

A social construct – I agree with Simone de Beauvoir when she said that women aren’t born, they are created.

How do you define your own gender?

A selection of responses:

How do you define your own gender?

Female, woman, cis, trans, queer, gender-queer, agender, anti-gender, gender-free, gender-fluid, gender-variant, non-binary, cisgender, cis-woman, transman, transwoman, lesbian-feminist, transfeminine, masculine, femme, man, queer-femme, unspecified, non-gendered, conformist, rebellious, spectrum.

What defines your gender?


Your sex strongly influences your perception of your gender because people with female genitals are defined in certain ways.

Not necessarily, it depends a lot on background and upbringing so for me yes, but I don’t think that it has to for anyone!

Genitals define your sex, which is often incorrectly used intechangiby with gender.

I’m born intersex and I try to reject gender classifications, while acknowledging that a third classification doesn’t solve the gender hierarchy or anything very much, in and of itself.

No, but they are used by cultural norms to construct a gender identity.

They contribute to my being assigned into the sex class.

Would prefer them to be different – they don’t define me.

I don’t know, probably because I identify with the same gender that my genital identify me as and I was brought up in that gender. I can’t tell whether they are defining it or not.

They do if you view it as a binary, but if we were to see gender as traits, social conditioning and assumptions not as something essential, then no, they don’t at all.


My genes (probably) coincide with my chromosomal gender.

They determine biological sex.

Mix of genes and socialisation.

I don’t know. They likely have an influence.

No, but my genetic makeup as a female determines what gender society considers appropriate for me.

Scientifically yes but I’m not 100% sure.


Not define but will nurture a direction.

None of us are outside our socialised experience. I would say that I am not a ‘woman’ in the sense that my culture and socialisation has taught me I should be – however, at the same time, my understanding of myself as a woman has been and continues to be in reference to that as i unlearn some expectations, reshape my understanding and do not live outside social discourses of womanhood. I am constantly engaged in struggle between my definitions and those of the people around me.

To some extent, but you can resist.

‘Socialisation’ is how one comes about having an understanding of one’s gender – indeed the only understandings any of us have of any human concept come to use through social relations, as otherwise how would we know what we mean by something is the same as what others mean by it? Furthermore as one aspect to gender is its force of compulsory normativity, for many people their understanding of their gender will one envisaged as to be in accordance with this normative force, which could be what some consider the term ‘socialisation’ to mean. However one’s gender identity itself is constituted as an *engagement* with the set of power relations (e.g. norms etc.) that make up gender, which in each person is always in tension, never perfect accordance, with the elusive ideal of ‘woman’ (or ‘man’) posited by social relations.

No, but it created my concepts of gender.

Yes, but socialization is a complex process that can produce a variety of understandings of gender norms, gender identity, and one’s “place” relative to gender, so saying that trans women experience some kind of homogenous “male socialization” is simplistic and locates systems of oppression in the individual, not in the class (woman) which includes everyone who experiences societal messages about women in the first person, regardless of whether they’re “Supposed” to do so.

No, but it does contribute to one’s experiences and personal history, which are important.

Which of these statements do you agree with?


Top 5 responses:

  1. Gender is a social construct (19%)
  2. A rigid gender binary oppresses both men and women who don’t conform (19%)
  3. Sex is biological (17%)
  4. Gender is a personal identity (14%)
  5. My vision of the future is a spectrum of gender (14%)

Do you identify as…?


How sure are you that you have XX chromosomes as a woman and XY chromosomes as a man?

(1) being Not at all sure and (5) being So sure I’d bet my life on it.


Word clouds created via Wordle

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#GenderWeek: Biological sex is not binary

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

Biological sex is often assumed to be binary, but it is not. Among animals there are a range of species that change sex on a regular basis, for example shrimps that hatch as males and turn female at a certain body size, and some fish that change sex depending on social circumstances. Sex is not always decided when an egg and a sperm fuse – as in crocodiles and most turtles, whose eggs are unsexed at first and it is the temperature during incubation that leads to the development of a certain sex. There is even a lizard species in which both sex chromosomes and temperature simultaneously influence which sex develops.

Neither is there a strict dichotomy between human male and female bodies. Having XX chromosomes does not always mean having a female body and having XY chromosomes does not always mean having a male body; sometimes an individual with XY chromosomes is insensitive to the influence of testosterone, resulting in a female body. There are also other combinations of sex chromosomes, such as X0, XXX, XXY, XXYY, XXXY, XXXXY and XYY, and exposure of external hormones as a fetus may also influence sexual characteristics.

There is a range of variation in anatomical and reproductive characteristics – chromosomes, ovaries/testes, genitals, bodily appearance – that do not fit typical definitions of male or female. That is the definition of intersex (in medical terms, Disorders of Sexual Development). Some intersex organisations reject the term DSD because it is not necessarily a disorder, but simply part of the variability of human bodies. This variability means that sex is much more complicated than the commonly assumed binary; there simply is no true boundary between female and male bodies, we are all part of a continuum or a mosaic of sexual characteristics.

How would it influence your identify if you realized tomorrow that your biological sex – your sex chromosomes, your ovaries/testes, your hormone levels, or your body – are not what you were brought up to think they were? Would that change your whole perception of your identity, your behaviour, appearance and relations – or would it not matter at all?

What is the connection between biological sex and gender identity? This is a contested area of research for psychologists, sexologists and medical scientists, and intersex individuals have often been the means by which to test and prove various theories. Psychologist John Money, who became very influential for the treatment of intersex children from the 1950s and onward, considered gender identity to be only dependent on the social circumstances and that there was no innate basis for it. Successful treatment would lead the child to psychologically developing into an unambiguous gender, and as part of this it was essential that both the parents and the child believed that the child had a true sex that only needed medical intervention to get it right.

The assumption of the all over-shadowing social influence, however, has not been without critics. This is especially true following Money’s showcase example of John/Joan, a boy who accidently lost his penis and was brought up as a girl, who turned out to reject his assigned sex, transition to male and later take his own life. In 1965, Milton Diamond suggested a competing hypothesis, namely that the influence of hormones provides a predisposition for gender identity and behavior that sets limits to the social influences. Later, evidence accumulated of intersex individuals rejecting their medical sex assignment and, as more and more intersex individuals give their stories and interpretations, the still controversial debate has become more nuanced. Yet intersex children are still regularly treated to conform to current binary gender norms, despite there being no medical reason to do so in most cases.

The idea that prenatal hormone levels determine gender and sexual identity in turn has become the dominant theoretical framework within the neurosciences, but brain scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young has criticised this research tradition on the basis of questionable assumptions, methodological inconsistencies and overly grand conclusions given the conflicting results. She suggests that brain scientists are too focused on nailing down sex differences and would be better off studying the dynamic processes of the interaction between environment and internal factors.

Hence there are both cultural and biological deterministic essentialist positions when it comes to sex and gender. The biological sciences have a high status among the general public and what is considered biological or ”natural” has a material affect on people’s lives. Several gender researchers have problematised the distinctions between gender/sex and nature/culture, notably Judith Butler, saying that conceptions about biological sex are already culturally influenced. In the structure which Butler calls the heterosexual matrix, norms about sex/gender are inextricably intertwined with norms of sexuality: the only positions available are male or female.

The process of sexing bodies, which makes them conform to a sex binary, is already regulated by culture because it does not allow for ambiguity. This sexual binary, unquestioned and assumed to be natural, becomes the basis for constructing gender as a natural binary, and the naturalisation of a gender binary leads to oppression of those who do not conform to it. Questioning both binaries of biological sex and gender gives room for more variable concepts of both sex and gender.

I think that these variations in biological sex and the lived experiences of intersex individuals unsettle many taken-for-granted assumptions about gender. Irrespective of different feminists’ views on transgender identities (personally, I respect each person’s gender identity), gender is clearly not a direct effect of biological sex, and there is not a perfect overlap between biological sex and gender identity. These findings problematise both biologically essentialist notions about sex and the culturally essentialist notion of gender identity as a purely social construction. So, what are the consequences for liberal vs radical feminists’ debates about gender?

Malin Ah-King is an evolutionary biologist and gender researcher at Humboldt University Berlin, Germany.

Suggested readings: Anne Fausto-Sterling Sexing the body 2000, multiple works by Alice Domurat Dreger.

Intersex organizations: www.oiiinternational.com/intersex-organizations/

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Disabled Dating: I am not a freak, I am not a fetish

I was five when I had my first boyfriend. Being only five, I liked him for the following reasons: he had floppy hair, big brown eyes, and wore a denim jacket to class – it was 1978. He was a bit different from the other boys, and being a bit different myself, this seemed like the perfect match.

We would hold hands at break time and I invited him to my birthday party. Naively I thought this is the way it would always be. I would ask a boy out, he would say yes, and we would be happy until I found the next love of my life.

I remember the first time I heard, in hushed tones, “such a pretty girl, such a shame about the ‘handicap’.” I wondered why on earth a limp and a bit of a clenched hand was considered ‘a shame’; I had lived in a family home where I was considered perfect, just the way I was. As I got older I started to notice there were no girls or women who resembled me on TV, in the magazines, or in school, and I began to realise just how different I was. There still aren’t; disabled women remain hugely unrepresented in the media.

The teenage years hit, and with them came the loss of non-judgemental behaviour from my peers. I was told no one dates “spazzy girls”. I was a freak, unattractive, undesirable, and no one would ever want me.

We can all agree that objectification is wrong, however, to have sexuality entirely stripped away from your identity can damage your development just as much as society’s constant bombardment of over sexualised images. What infuriated me then, and still does, is that the choice to express myself sexually – in a relationship or out of one – was laughed at… or worse, fetishised.

A few years ago, on the advice of a friend who had once been a high class escort, I joined a disabled dating website. Actually, their first suggestion was to buy myself a male escort, but as I could not afford the £1,000 for a night of passion (yes, £1,000 – I spat my drink out at the cost; give me £50 and send me to the nearest sex shop please!) I opted for the dating agency. I was in between boyfriends, and not that fussed, but realised that I had never ventured into the world of disabled dating before, despite having cerebral palsy myself.

I dutifully put myself online and waited for the messages to arrive. 48 hours later the first message popped up, from a good looking man describing himself as “able bodied” but saying he had “no problem” having a disabled girlfriend. “How very gracious of you!” I snorted, but I gave him a chance.

Over the course of the next two days things got very interesting. He assumed I was in a wheelchair (I’m not). He assumed I did not work (I worked 2 jobs, and still do). He assumed I had very little sexual experience (HA!) and he was also under the assumption that I could not care for myself. All of these things added up to making him very horny indeed; I am not a naive woman, but I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or be suitably shocked at the erect penis that popped up on my screen. When I calmly responded that none of those things applied to me, the response was droopingly swift. At that point I laughed… and laughed hard.

So, I find myself in two categories: desexualised or fetishised. Neither represents me. All adults have a right to a healthy sexuality and a choice in how they express it, disabled or not. A disability should not make me feel like less of a woman, or ashamed and embarrassed about my sexual desires. They do not define me, but they are an integral part of me, just as my disability is.

We need to stop seeing disabled women as odd or unrealistic when they express their desires, or in TV shows where they are still treated as side show freaks. They are human and those feelings are real. If we are working towards a more inclusive society, disabled women need to be seen as  whole individuals. I fear though, we still have a long way to go.

Lisa Jenkins is Arts Editor for God Is In The TV Zine and contributor to The Quietus. She also happens to have cerebral palsy. Follow her @lisaannejenkins

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#SexIndustryWeek: We can’t have good sex in an unequal society

How might we envision a future without the sex industry? It is a future that more and more feminists are actively pursuing. To the many more who – though they might fancy the idea of sex industry free society – say that it is so firmly embedded in human history and culture as to render such a vision little more than a pipe dream, I can only say what feminism itself says: that what is constructed in history can be de-constructed in history. And we are not the first generation to say so; there have been many documented attempts to construct and to actually live in sexual utopias.

That the communities who ‘lived the dream’ drew their authority from the Bible might not, on the face of it, appear to be very promising – particularly given the fact that the first and most sustained efforts arose within that contingent of Bible-bashers we are most inclined to despise and distrust: the Puritans.

I should explain that the Puritans from whom I (along with the late great Tony Benn) draw inspiration are the early Puritans – the Levellers and Diggers who stood out against Cromwell’s attempts to restore the very worst aspects of the old patriarchal order after the Civil War in 1649. Their roots lay in the dissenting sects sometimes termed ‘holiness movements’ of the previous century, whose adherents either found themselves (by being poor and illiterate) or had consciously placed themselves as outsiders in the established religious and social structures of their times. Believing that, as promised in Scripture, God’s spirit of prophecy would in future times be poured out on all flesh, rich and poor, “menservants and maidservants”, they and their successors saw themselves as heralds of the new heaven and new earth which was, they believed, coming to birth in their own time.

It would be pushing it to claim direct continuity between the utopian radicalism of the early Puritan’s pre-industrial world and the political movements which have arisen within the modern, secularised West. That said, they offer some useful pointers to those struggling to envision a new order of sexual equality today – all of which spring from the fact that, as countless documents reveal, they put a high value on sex as one of the Creator’s greatest gifts.

My guess is that had they known about it at all, the early Puritans would have opposed the sex industry not because it was immoral but because it was joyless. And for joy to abound there has to be mutual affection between the parties involved… Or as we would say today, they would have to really fancy each other!

The crucial thing about the early Puritans’ sexual idealism was that it was inseparable from their Biblically-derived social egalitarianism. If the nation’s land and resources were “every man and maid’s portion”, as the Diggers proclaimed, then there could be no reason for either “birth nor portion” to “hinder” a match. Thus they resisted the dynastic and/or commercial considerations upon which bourgeois parents were wont to arrange their children’s marriages.

The ideals and ideas embodied in the early Puritan movement have resurfaced again and again over the last 400 years, albeit in different forms and in different language (the words ’socialist’ and ‘feminist’ were not ‘invented’ until the 19th century), but are they alive and well in feminism today?

The Owenite Movement, whose name derives from the Utopian Socialist Robert Owen (1771-1858), had strong roots in the holiness movements of the 17th Century, and the language of their socialist pamphlets drew heavily upon the populist rhetoric of 17th Century dissidence. The movement attracted thousands of followers in the 1820s who, for the next 25 years, attempted to put theory into practice by forming “communities of mutual association” based on collective family life and the sharing of property .

By the middle of the 19th Century, social utopian ends could be more effectively pursued through parliamentary reform. Of all the great feminist reformers of the period it was Josephine Butler, famous for her campaigns on behalf of street prostitutes and her exposure of the growing international trade in underage girls, who was the among the first feminists to see prostitution as a cause and consequence of women’s inequality. Sex for cash was not, in Butler’s terms, an offence against morality but a desecration of women’s bodies and hence an offence against love itself.

Which brings me back to the present and the question of how we might usefully draw upon Butler’s and others’ work to build our own sex-industry free utopia. I think we can safely start from the assumption that the high-hearted men and women I’ve referred to were far less interested in denouncing ‘vice’ or cleaning up the streets than in making a world in which supply and demand would wither away. A tall order, but one which more and more people are pursuing now that the “old Immoral world” of capitalism, as the Owenites termed it, does not appear to serving any of us very well. Least of all the overwhelming majority of those who service today’s sex industry.

So what would a sex trade free world look like?

It’s now clearer than ever that we can’t have good sex in an unequal society; only when we have an equal society can we hope the world will be a sexier place.

Susan Dowell is a freelance journalist, grandmother of 11 and peace activist, who worked in Africa for five years during the 1960s. She is a theologian and co-author, with Linda Hurcombe, of Dispossessed Daughters of Eve (1981).

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Stigma

Playing The WhoreEach weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we’ll be exclusively serialising extracts from ‘Playing The Whore’, by journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant.

To coincide with these extracts, we’re offering Feminist Times readers FIVE chances to win a copy of the book, signed by Melissa.

To enter today’s competition, simply enter your name and email address here. One winner will be selected at random at the end of the day. 

Playing The Whore: The Stigma

Sex workers, along with many people who do not do sex work, are exposed to whore stigma for breaking with, or being perceived to have broken with, what Jill Nagle calls “compulsory virtue.” It’s a riff on Adrienne Rich’s “compulsory heterosexuality,” with which lesbians are made invisible. Whore stigma, Nagles writes, is “a mandate not only to be virtuous, but also to appear virtuous.” As with compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory virtue isn’t just about producing a set of behaviors (fucking men, being a good girl about it), but producing a system of social control (punishing queers, jailing whores).

“One does not actually have to be a whore to suffer a whore’s punishment or stigma,” writes Nagle. Naming whore stigma offers us a way through it: to value difference, to develop solidarity between women in and out of the sex trade. Along with the phrase sex work, whore stigma is situated in an explicit sex worker feminism, one that acknowledges that while only some women may be sex workers, all of us negotiate whore stigma.

Whore solidarity actions predate that vocabulary, like the occupation of a London church in 1982 organized by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). “We’d bought fifty black masks,” writes Selma James, then the spokesperson for ECP. “In that way, prostitute and nonprostitute women would not be distinguishable from each other, and press photos of either would not be dangerous.” Entering the church alongside them were identified members of the organizations Women Against Rape and Black Women for Wages for Housework. “We were uncertain of our safety,” James writes, “and were glad to have two ‘respectable’ women’s groups with us.” Even those who are not whores can rise up with whores, can put their own respectability to work through their willingness to no longer be so closely identified with it.

This has been one of the foundational contributions of sex worker feminists to feminist discourse and activism: challenging whore stigma in the name of all those who live under it. There’s an echo of this in the popularization of whore stigma in a milder form as outrage at “slut shaming.” What is lost, however, in moving from whore stigma to slut shaming is the centrality of the people most harmed by this form of discrimination.

There is also an alarming air, in some feminists’ responses to slut shaming, of assumed distance, that the fault in slut shaming is a sorting error: No, she is certainly not a “slut”! This preserves the slut as contemptible rather than focusing on those who attack women who violate compulsory virtue— for being too loud, too much, too opinionated, too black, too queer. Slut may seem to broaden the tent of those affected, but it makes the whore invisible. Whore stigma makes central the racial and class hierarchy reinforced in the dividing of women into the pure and the impure, the clean and the unclean, the white and virgin and all the others. If woman is other, whore is the other’s other.

I’m thinking here of the first time I saw a SlutWalk protest, in Las Vegas in the summer of 2006, during the century’s first national gathering of sex workers activists. SlutWalk hadn’t been invented yet. It would be another four years before Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti explained to a group of university women, with the kind of contempt not unfamiliar to sex workers, that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” SlutWalk, in its way, was also a reaction to police harassment, though one raised by women who presumed, unlike the prostitutes of San Francisco and London, that the police would listen to them in the first place.

It should not be surprising that the first vocal critics of SlutWalk were women of color and women in the sex trade. Reading the SlutWalk rallying cry, writes Brittney Cooper of Crunk Feminist Collective:

I was struck by the righteous indignation these women had over being called slut. Although plenty of Black women have been called “slut,” I believe Black women’s histories are different, in that Black female sexuality has always been understood from without to be deviant, hyper, and excessive.

For some white women, slut transgresses a boundary they’ve never imagined crossing. Women of color, working-class women, queer women: They were never presumed to have that boundary to begin with.

In Vegas, on the sex workers’ own walk, protesters dressed in the kinds of costumes we now associate with SlutWalk—fishnets, leather and PVC corset tops, shiny hot pants, tall boots, and platform heels—with wild hair and hand-painted signs and slogans on their chests and stomachs (another homage to an older feminist practice: to riot grrrl, or at least to the photographs that had circulated of riot grrrl, few of the protesters having been around to be riot grrrls themselves).

Marching from casino to casino, sex workers took over the carefully sculpted Vegas sidewalks, passing out fliers to tourists and to the few sex workers who were also out that night, although, since they were working, attired far more conservatively.

Dressed and brazenly conducting themselves as they never could if they were actually working the tables and lounges for clients, the protesters were more shocking to the men employed by the casinos and hotels to surveil, who came and went, and at Caesars, despite the intervention of a lawyer from the ACLU who had tagged along with the march, were hustled out. It’s not that they were whores, as clearly whores are permitted in Vegas casinos. It’s how the space they took up put whoring in the public’s face; that’s why they were removed.

At the Wynn, on my way up to a party following the sex work conference a few nights before, with activist and artist Sadie Lune and an outreach worker from St. James Infirmary, a sex worker health clinic, an elevator attendant stopped us, asking if we were there for “a party.” ‘‘We are,’’ we said, ‘‘but…’’ and he began to explain, kindly, that if we had called ahead he could have made arrangements for us to be taken up in the VIP elevator. ‘‘No, no, we’re not here for,’’ one of us started to explain, ‘‘that kind of party…’’ which then would have to be followed up with, ‘‘… not that there’s anything wrong with that’’—and not that he was wrong about us—‘‘but…’’ so instead we just left it there, and went up the elevator meant for everyone but the whores.

“What it was like and what it does to you.”

When the public is groomed to expect a poor, suffering whore, it’s appreciable why some sex workers who do come out take pains to provide a counternarrative: to never look like a prostitute. They are asked only to talk about how empowering it all was or about how much of a survivor they are. They have to convince their audiences how much they always had their shit together, how they do now—how they are not like those other girls, whoever they are. Sometimes, like when calling out “slut shaming” only to then shame sluts, this undermines solidarity. This is just rearranging the pecking order of sex and gender outcasts rather than refusing to order ourselves in the first place. There’s a risk of reinventing the virgin/whore hierarchy within sex work, even when—to everyone else—all of us could still be whores.

Melissa Gira Grant is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014)

Melissa will be speaking about her book in London, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh and London. Details can be found here: http://www.versobooks.com/events

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#SexIndustryWeek: Nobody’s entitled to sex, including disabled people

Debates about the sex industry are never far from any feminist’s consciousness, and one argument that always catches my attention is that prostitution should be legalised because, without sex workers, those poor, pitiful disabled people would never get any sex.

People who have never showed any interest in campaigning against disability benefit cuts or fighting for accessible premises are suddenly preoccupied by our ‘right’ to sex? It’s disingenuous, and it hides a not-so-subtle disablism behind the rhetoric.

The assumption that nobody would ever have sex with a disabled person through personal choice is not only inaccurate, it’s also offensive. An infantilised view of disabled people also contributes to the idea that sex with one of us is wrong or weird, adding to the stigma and prejudice that limit our lives.

In the current media environment, we are portrayed as lazy scroungers. In movies, we are the plucky, inspirational characters who exist to motivate others into action by guilt-tripping them into thinking about how terrible our lives are. And in the medical realm we, ourselves, are the problem, with our wonky bodies and minds requiring expensive treatments that the health service can resent providing.

So it’s no surprise that non-disabled people don’t know what to think of us. If they do fancy a disabled person, questions about whether they would break during sex (hint: communicate), whether sex would hurt (hint: communicate), and so on, can create barriers that a lot of people see as too difficult to tackle. In fact, a staggering 70% of British people would ‘not consider’ having sex with a disabled person, according to an Observer poll.

Societal prejudice runs so deeply that even some people who are disabled themselves are wary of dating other disabled people: in two examples, both published on Disability Horizons, one disabled man – worried about getting a date himself – wrote offensively about women with mental health problems, while another – justifying his use of a woman in prostitution – referred to disabled women as the ‘second best’ option.

It is important, then, to see that the supposed inevitability of disabled people never getting a shag is entrenched in societal prejudice. And, rather than fight this and challenge the misconceptions and the offensiveness, there are still those whose solution is to advocate for the right of disabled men (almost always) to have sex with a prostitute. So if you’re fighting for a disabled person’s ‘right’ to sex via prostitution, consider the thought that you are reinforcing discriminatory ideas, not liberating us.

It may be unpopular, but it is true to say that nobody needs sex. It is not like food or water, where you will die if you go without. Sex can be fun, stress-relieving and exciting, and not having sex when your libido is high can be frustrating and depressing. However, the failure to orgasm on a regular basis has yet to cause somebody’s heart to stop beating or their genitals to fall off.

The sense of entitlement can be astounding, and the problem with arguing for a disabled man’s ‘right’ to use a sex worker is that it is pitting his desires against a woman’s bodily autonomy. For those sex workers who love their jobs, this is not an issue. However for the 95% of street sex workers who reported problematic drug use*, the 78% who report being raped 16 times a year by their pimps, and 33 times by johns, and the 4,000 people trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation at any one time, the story is not quite so positive.

At what point does a disabled person feeling horny overtake the rights of the woman who began being prostituted as a child, which is the case with approximately 75% of all women in prostitution? As psychologist Simon Parritt explains, although “everybody has a right to a sexual identity. I don’t think everybody has the right to sex with another person. That involves somebody else’s rights.”

When I see those same campaigners attending demonstrations against the way disabled people are being treated under this ‘austerity’ government, or objecting to the closure of the Independent Living Fund, then maybe I will start to believe that they do care about disability rights. Until then, I just see people using disability as a convenient argument in support of maintaining men’s access to women’s bodies.

There are complex issues at play where disabled people and sexuality are concerned. Technology, advice, or even special training may be needed for a successful sex life, but the problems we face are a result of disablist discrimination, not some kind of innate inability to meet a sexual partner. And just as disabled people need equal rights so do women, including the right to not be exploited or abused.

Philippa Willitts is a disabled feminist freelance writer in Sheffield. She has written for the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman and Channel 4 News websites and is part of The F-Word blogging collective. Follow her @PhilippaWrites.

*This article was amended on 22 April to clarify the statistic on drug use.

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Feminist Times presents: SEX INDUSTRY WEEK, 24th – 30th March

Dear Feminist Times readers,

Following our coverage of the pro and anti Nordic Model campaigns, we present Sex Industry Week at Feminist Times, where we will be taking a look at one of the most polarizing issues in contemporary feminism. Follow the debate on Twitter at #SexIndustryWeek


Feminist Times’ exclusive serialisation of Playing the Whore
Feminist Times is the only place you will be able to read a serialisation of extracts from Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. Author Melissa Gira Grant was an online sex worker before becoming a writer and journalist. Whether you think you’ll agree with her or not, here’s your chance to read extracts from the book for free online all this week. To coincide, we will give away a signed copy of Playing the Whore every weekday. Keep an eye on Twitter and each extract for details.

“To produce a prostitute where before there had been only a woman is the purpose of such policing. It is a socially acceptable way to discipline women” The first extract from our exclusive serialisation of ‘Playing The Whore’.

by Charlotte Raven

“Was I too easy on Grant? You can judge for yourself.” Editor-in-Chief Charlotte Raven kicks off #SexIndustryWeek with her review of ‘Playing The Whore’.

“We should, in fact, refuse to debate” The second extract from our exclusive serialisation of ‘Playing The Whore’.

by Glosswitch
“Feminism has to do more than simply polish patriarchy’s turds,” says Glosswitch on porn, feminism and moral panic.

#SexIndustryWeek: Five Gloria Steinem quotes
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, we look at her perspective on the sex industry.

#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Industry
“These demands on sex workers’ labor, while it is simultaneously devalued, is why we still insist that sex work is work.”

#SexIndustryWeek: The Future of Porn
by Jordan Erica Webber
“…bring more women into the tech industry, and hope that the next time technology leaps forward we get social change to match.”

#SexIndustryWeek: Nobody’s entitled to sex, including disabled people
by Philippa Willitts
Disabled feminist Philippa Willitts addresses the argument that, without sex workers, poor disabled people would never get any sex.

#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Stigma
“Asked only to talk about how empowering it all was or about how much of a survivor they are.” The fourth extract from our exclusive serialisation of ‘Playing The Whore’.

#SexIndustryWeek: Manifesto – English Collective of Prostitutes
The English Collective of Prostitutes explain their demands.

#SexIndustryWeek: My enemy’s enemy is my friend
by Roz Kaveney
Editorial Board member Roz Kaveney writes on the alliance between sex workers and the trans community.

#SexIndustryWeek: Playing The Whore – The Saviors
“The experience of sex work is more than just the experience of violence; to reduce all sex work to such an experience is to deny that anything but violence is even possible.”
The fifth and final extract from our exclusive serialisation of ‘Playing The Whore’.

#SexIndustryWeek: We can’t have good sex in an unequal society
by Susan Dowell
From the Puritans to Josephine Butler, Theologian and Author of Dispossessed Daughters of Eve, Susan Dowell explores a history of sex industry free utopias and what they can offer us

#SexIndustryWeek: Manifesto – Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry
As part of #SexIndustryWeek, the Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry present their manifesto.

PLUS we want to make sure YOU are included in this debate. If you have a grassroots campaign, point of view or experience you think should be included, let us know and we will try our best to publish as many as we can next week. Send a brief description to editorial@feministtimes.com

Follow the debate on Twitter at #SexIndustryWeek



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Open letter to journalists: middle class strippers – it’s neo-liberalism, stupid

Every six months for the last three years, the press have got hold of research undertaken by Teela Sanders and I on the apparent proliferation of the stripping industry in the UK.

Despite the multiple angles of the research and the findings that we published, there is a fixation with the idea of middle class women taking their clothes off for money. This is despite the fact that we reported high levels of financial exploitation, mixed feelings about the working conditions in clubs and, in many cases, declining conditions in the industry, and the relationship of labour in this industry to the privatisation of education, declining real wages and a hostile labour market. Clearly the material conditions of women’s working lives do not make for good copy.

See for example:

Devalued, deskilled and diversified: Explained the proliferation of the UK strip industry.

The Regulatory Dance: Lap Dancing in the UK.

In response to these repetitive requests for statements and interviews by journalists who inaccurately plagiarise each other’s stories, leading to dramatic inaccuracies, hyperbole and moral panic, I write this Open Letter:

Dear Journalist,

Thank you for your questions. With regards to why middle class women work in the industry, of course it is money that shapes their decision; how could it not be in a world of wage labour? The point is that it is not solely money.

Middle class women strip for much the same reasons that working class women strip. Most middle class women who sell their labour in the strip industry do so because the UK is an increasingly precarious place in which to live and to sell your labour. Most do not select dancing as a career over others (though some do), but they may strip in order to purchase the credentials they need from a neo-liberalised education system, in order to compete in an increasingly hostile labour market. They sell their labour here, in the short term, to finance long term desires for security in a world in which basic securities are being stripped away, driven by principles that your newspapers often play a large and insidious role in promoting.

Middle class women are selling their labour in the strip industry due to the absence of decent, well-paid part time work in other parts of the labour market. Middle class women are selling their labour in this industry because the UK, and particularly London, is an hourglass economy in which there are high paid, high status jobs at the top and the opposite at the bottom, with little in between. These women are seeking to escape the bottom half of the hourglass and make it into the top, a place increasingly reserved for the existing elite.

The flexibility of stripping enables women to generate an income while undertaking a degree, participating in an internship or topping up their other low wage job. Some middle class women strip because these are what jobs are left for you when when the welfare state retreats – middle class or otherwise. These middle class women strip because when real wages fall to their level of a decade previously, nurses and social workers (those overpaid and greedy public sector workers) have to top up their wages in order to survive.

Some middle class women strip because this is the job they have always wanted to do and they enjoy the sexual attention they receive. Many want to resist the oppressive temporality and austere cultural norms attached to the 9-5 job, preferring instead to engage in work that can be experienced, to some degree, as leisure. Many young people like to work in the night-time economy, which transgresses many of the rules of day time work.

Some women embrace the sense of community they feel, in contrast to the reactionary politics of the office. Some resist the work ethic that increasingly encourages people to be their job, to work until they collapse at the expense of their health, their families and their social well-being, instead preferring to relegate work to a separate sphere of their life which does not define them or consume all of their time and energy.

It is for all of these reasons that middle class women strip. But I wonder whether we are asking the right question. The most incisive question, I feel, is not why middle class women are stripping, but why we are so concerned with middle class women stripping? If stripping is to be condemned – which is the subtext of your question – then why can we accept the idea of working class women stripping, but are horrified when the spectre looms for middle class women?

I hope this helps. Do let me know if you have any other questions.



Dr Kate Hardy.  Feminist, Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations at The University of Leeds.
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Comeback: Why the Nordic Model harms women

Independent escort Laura Lee and the English Collective of Prostitutes respond to RadFemUK’s piece on the European Parliament’s vote in favour of adopting the Nordic Model, which criminalises the purchase of sex.

Laura Lee:

The decision by the European Parliament to vote in favour of Mary Honeyball’s paper is a very dark day for human rights and the rights of those of us often shunted to one side: sex workers. Throughout the whole “consultation process”, Ms Honeyball did not listen to the voices of sex workers – surely crucial to a law which will affect our lives so dramatically.

At first glance, it’s hard to see how Ms Honeyball could have reached the conclusions she did, flying in the face of such noted advocates of decriminalisation as the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and the World Health Organisation to name but two.

From the very beginning, Ms Honeyball refused to recognise that she was conflating prostitution and trafficking, two very separate entities. She claimed that “80% of sex workers are trafficked”, which is hugely erroneous and not helpful to any debate which must be based on hard evidence.

The 80% figure comes from The Big Brothel report, which has been widely debunked by many academics – not least because the method of data collection was, at best, haphazard. Telephoning various brothels to enquire as to the ethnicity of the ladies available is not proof of trafficking, and a distinction must be made between migrant sex workers and those who have been trafficked without their consent.

In a 2009 study, Dr Nic Mai surveyed 100 migrant sex workers and found that only 6% felt they had been “tricked or coerced” into the industry – a far cry from 80%. He went on to say: “The research evidence strongly suggests that current attempts to curb trafficking and exploitation by criminalising clients and closing down commercial sex establishments will not be effective because, as a result, the sex industry will be pushed further underground and people working in it will be further marginalised and vulnerable to exploitation.

“This would discourage both migrants and UK citizens working in the sex industry, as well as clients, from co-operating with the police and sex work support projects in the fight against actual cases of trafficking and exploitation.”

Amnesty International too have recognised that sex workers’ rights are human rights, saying that they “support the decriminalisation of prostitution on the basis that prohibition creates a criminal market that stigmatises and alienates sex workers.”

But aside from the evidence as cited above (and there’s lots more), Ms Honeyball made the massive error of only listening to those who would agree with her, not real sex workers on the front line.

As a sex worker with twenty years experience, I was told I am not representative of the industry. I responded by saying that I have worked in what can reasonably be described as a chicken coop right up to a five star suite, so to refer to me as being in some sort of ivory tower is wrong.

It’s also not helpful when an expert on real sex work (as opposed to the academia behind it) offers an insight and is immediately dismissed. “We know better than you,” is no basis for any law and what will result is the compromise of the safety of many sex workers. Our safety will be in danger until sex work is decriminalised and we can work together; that’s fact.

Rather, Ms Honeyball chose to listen to those who benefit from funding and book sales by their opposition to my choice to work in the sex industry – and it is a choice. The “survivors” used by abolitionists to strengthen their case can wheel out tale after tale of horror and destitution, if it pays them to do so.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that some women don’t have desperate backgrounds or circumstances which lead them into a job they despise, not at all. But they are the women who will suffer the most if the Swedish model is implemented. “We must legislate for the majority,” declared Ms Honeyball. That’s the crux of this debate: I AM the majority.

With the recent deaths of Maria Duque-Tunjano and Mariana Popa, both killed whilst working alone and without any support, it falls to me to ask Ms Honeyball: How many more need to die?

Laura Lee is an independent escort based in Glasgow with twenty years experience in the sex industry. She is a passionate sex workers’ rights advocate and campaigner and an award winning blogger. Mother of one, cat lover and terrible cook. Follow her: @GlasgaeLauraLee

The English Collective of Prostitutes:


Criminalising clients will not stop prostitution, nor will it stop the criminalisation of women.  But it will make it more dangerous and stigmatising for sex workers.

Faced with no benefits, or only the lowest-waged jobs, many women sell sexual services. Are we less degraded when we have to skip meals, beg or stay with a violent partner to keep a roof over our heads?  Those who rage against prostitution have no regard for mothers struggling to feed their families.

Proposals to increase criminalisation are led by an unholy alliance of feminist politicians and homophobic fundamentalist Christians. In the UK, the All-Party Parliamentary Group at the forefront of these proposals chose as its secretariat the homophobic charity CARE.

Claims that prostitution has reduced in Sweden are untrue.* Are women driven underground safer or better paid? Welfare has been cut so that “a quarter of single mothers in Sweden now live in poverty, compared to 10% seven years ago.”

Existing laws already criminalise those who coerce anyone into the sex industry.  Why extend it to consenting sex?  False claims about trafficking are used to justify these proposals. But trafficking law is primarily used to arrest and deport immigrant women; it has done little or nothing to protect victims of trafficking.

Considering that the police more often hound rather than protect sex workers, and their appalling record on investigating rape in general, why call for more police powers? Where was the feminist outrage when 250 police, under the guise of freeing trafficking victims, broke down doors in Soho, central London last December, and dragged handcuffed women in their underwear on to the streets?

New Zealand decriminalised in 2003 with verifiable improvements in sex workers safety Canada’s Supreme Court threw out the prostitution laws for violating women’s right to safety. Why are these examples being ignored?

The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) is a network of women who work or have worked in different areas of the sex industry campaigning for decriminalisation and safety. The ECP provides daily support to sex workers on a range of issues including fighting legal cases which challenge discrimination and establish prostitute women’s right to protection against violence.

Contact them: ecp@prostitutescollective.net, www.prostitutescollective.net, 020 7482 2496.

*According to The National Board of Health and Welfare 2008: “It is… difficult to discern any clear trend of development: has the extent of prostitution increased or decreased? We cannot give any unambiguous answer to that question.”

Photo of ECP: msmornington

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“Prostitution harms women”: RadFem UK & the Nordic Model

On Tuesday the European Parliament voted through the “Nordic Model” of prostitution by a sizeable majority, which criminalises the purchaser in sex work, not the prostitute. RadFem UK has been involved in the successful campaign to support Mary Honeyball’s report and Feminist Times asked them to explain why they are pro-Nordic Model, what they think is wrong with Amnesty’s policy on sex work and why their ultimate goal is to abolish prostitution.

We know this can be a very polarising subject within feminism and believe our readers should have access to all sides of the debate, so we have also asked representatives of organisations opposing the Nordic Model to comment and will be publishing their responses later today.

Prostitution harms women, and the majority of women who are prostituted have already been harmed through poverty, homelessness, the care system and sexual abuse. Once in prostitution women face violence, emotional and psychological harm, causing them to use drugs and alcohol to numb their pain and ‘disassociate’ from what is happening to them.

As Rachel Moran, a survivor says: “Prostitution is quite simply a misogynistic institution that relies on a constant supply of women and girls who have been previously abused in every imaginable way, including physically, sexually, emotionally and psychologically, and also socially disenfranchised, usually racially and educationally.

“I was a homeless fifteen-year-old child when I was first prostituted on the streets of Dublin. The ‘choices’ open to homeless young girls are as constrained as it is possible for choices to be, and I saw the same reality reflected back to me in the lives of every girl and woman prostitution ever brought me into contact with.

“Prostitution is simply a hell hole in which women and girls are relentlessly abused for the financial and sexual benefit of older, more relatively powerful males – and those who view it in any other way are detached, often willfully, from the reality of what prostitution is.”

We need laws and services that support women – and it is mainly women who are in prostitution – to increase their safety and help those who wish to leave do so.

In Sweden, Norway and Iceland, the law decriminalises the selling of sex and criminalises the buyers; France looks set to shortly do the same. Vitally, alongside the legislative framework, support services to help women exit prostitution are funded. In Sweden, the introduction of this approach led to 50% reduction in street prostitution; other types of prostitution did not increase, so this represents a significant number of women leaving prostitution overall.

There has been a 40% reduction in male sex buyers and Sweden is seen as unattractive by sex traffickers. Women say they now find it easier to come forward to the police, without the fear of prosecution themselves, and report crimes against themselves and other women.

Often people get into debates about whether individual women ‘choose’ to be in prostitution or not. Abolitionist feminists believe the industry as a whole is harmful to women as a class, and that too many women get harmed through prostitution as a cultural practice, based on unequal power relations.

It can also be argued that it is unfair to put the responsibility for the continuation of prostitution on women’s choices when it is the choices of men and their demand to be sexually serviced that is responsible for the size and impact of the industry.

Laws to reduce demand also reduce the number of women who are prostituted. For example, in Sweden laws have been successful in the reduction of the industry as a whole, including trafficking. Attitudes of men have also changed since the introduction of the legislation, whereas in Victoria, Australia, where decriminalisation, and more recently legalisation was introduced, the number of illegal brothels has tripled. That’s in addition to the new development of legal brothels, which demonstrates that decriminalisation and legalisation do not reduce the ‘undergound’ industry; it only makes it bigger.

Decriminalisation and legalisation has been a disaster in a number of countries. The Netherlands have realised that legalising their brothels simply increased the market, rather than providing women with better protection.

In Germany, the sex trafficking of women and children rose dramatically after legalisation, while the price prostituted women could charge fell. German feminist and journalist Alice Schwarzer said: “The liberalisation of prostitution has been a disaster for the people involved” and labelled Germany a “paradise for pimps”.

The harm of prostitution and the successes of the Nordic Model make the recent policies discussions of Amnesty International, a human rights organisation, astounding. A representative of Nordic Model Advocates explained: “While the decriminalisation of those who sell sex cannot come soon enough, we find it shocking that the leaked Amnesty document suggests that Amnesty feels the right of men to buy sex is more important than the right of women and girls not to have to sell sex in order to survive.”

Amnesty International, in a leaked report, revealed that they are looking to adopt a policy to lobby for decriminalisation of the purchase of “sex”. Of course none of us want prostituted women to be criminalised, but this proposal would mean that they would be lobbying for pimps and punters to be decriminalised. This total lack of any laws relating to pimps and punters would leave women in prostitution in an even more vulnerable position that they are now.

In the leaked policy report, Amnesty talk about how it is a human right to have sex, and the need for sex. This argument is used to justify their proposed policy around prostitution. The human species needs some of its members to have sex and thus children, but it is not a human right to have sex – and certainly not at the expense of others.

Douglas Fox, the owner of a number of escort agencies in England claims that the leaked report and proposal are as a result of his work with Amnesty. Amnesty denies this, but you could be forgiven for thinking the report certainly reads as if it was written by a pimp.

Many organisations of women who used to be in prostitution have been lobbying Amnesty to ensure they don’t adopt this policy. For more information go to the Facebook page or visit Abolition Prostitution Now.

RadFem UK has been set up by a group of committed, grass roots radical feminists who want to work towards building the Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK and developing relationships with other radical feminists throughout the world, to advance an international movement.

Photo: SecretLondon123

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Happy Valentine’s from Beth Stephens & Annie Sprinkle

Happy Valentine’s day everyone!

There’s no better day to celebrate the Earth.

Here are 25 Ways to Make Love with the Earth and our Ecosex Manifesto to inspire your amorous devotion. As we are all part of, not separate from nature, all sex is ecosex! So make love to the Earth today, and every day!

Beth Stephens & Annie Sprinkle

(Click on images to enlarge)



Elizabeth Stephens & Annie Sprinkle are two ecosexual artists-in-love who have been collaborating with each other, and with various international communities, for 11 years. They created a new field of research, “Sexecology,” exploring the places where sexology and ecology intersect in our culture– in art, theory, practice and activism. Their ecosex performance art weddings have involved thousands of collaborators and participants in eight countries. They also do Sexecological Walking Tours, visual art installations, and are finishing a film about mountain top removal coal mining destruction in Appalachia, called Goodbye Gauley Mountain—An Ecosexual Love Story. Stephens is a professor of art at UCSC and a Ph.D. candidate in performance studies at UC Davis. Sprinkle is a popular visiting artist who holds a Ph.D. in human sexuality. They love to collaborate! Find out more here.

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Taboo corner

Taboo Corner: He was gorgeous – but married

Taboo Corner is a small space on Feminist Times for women to be open about uncomfortable thoughts they have and the personal reasons behind them, helping uncover disconcerting female truths that are normally repressed and opening them up for honest debate. Feminist Times is different to other magazines in that it won’t airbrush your frown lines or your emotions… Submit your own anonymous Taboo Corner piece: editorial@feministtimes.com

This time a year ago I met the most amazing man. The moment I saw him, my gut told me that I had to know him. It was the thunderbolt cliché of so many pop songs and romantic films, and I was instantly hooked. Gorgeous, interesting, widely read, generous, gorgeous, extensively travelled, funny, a raconteur, did I mention gorgeous?  (He’d once been a body double for a well-known film star. I’m not kidding).

Astoundingly, it seemed to me, the feeling of attraction was also clearly mutual. “Oh my,” I thought, “This is the great love that people speak of and I’ve spent thirty plus years wondering what they are on about. This is it.”  Of course, as Shakespeare helpfully pointed out, the course of true love never did run smooth. In this case, it wasn’t magical potions or warring families that stood in the way but the simple fact that the gorgeous man was married.

Until this point in my life, I had always been firm in my thinking on this issue. With age had come a growing awareness that human relationships are far more complex (and complicated) than the simple labels that we try to stick on them, but even so I somewhat naively continued to believe that a band of gold functioned as a sufficiently strong deterrent: Warning – stay away.  But if Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was the most controversial song of 2013, I had my own controversial and increasingly blurred lines to wrestle with over the year.

Light-hearted and friendly emails morphed into heartfelt and intimate exchanges. Occasional lingering behind at the mutual territory where we’d met in the first place shifted to meeting up alone for hours on end at slightly out of the way pubs. “It feels like we’re having an affair without the affair,” I commented to a friend on the rare occasion that I dared to refer to my entanglement. Respectable physical boundaries still intact (well, largely…), we exchanged books and philosophical musings with passionate ardour instead.

After almost twelve months of such thwarted desire, running became my safety valve – a release for physical tension and my raging hormones. Getting out there in my trainers also gave me some precious headspace, a time alone when I could no longer ignore the feminist consciousness whispering in my inner ear. I wish I could write that it was thoughts of solidarity with the gorgeous man’s wife that stopped me. Only it wasn’t.

The sisterhood saved me from further pursuing what ultimately would have been a damaging and destructive affair for another reason: I value myself more than I value a man. Whilst running, I couldn’t escape the stark truth that the situation I had entered into was compromising my integrity.

As a feminist and a fiercely proud independent woman, I have worked hard to create a life of my own and am even slowly coming to love myself. All of this, all of the emotional lessons, all of the realizations, all of the striving – in short all I had built up – was in danger of being overturned because I was putting this man before everything else. I was pinning my future happiness to a decision he had to make. I was even rethinking major choices, such as whether to have children, in light of his preferences rather than my own wants.

I was putting my life on hold for him.  And I couldn’t live with myself for doing so anymore.  This moment of feminist insight marked the end of the affair.

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I was sexually harassed more when pregnant and with my kids

Street harassment: a concept that was once reserved for dirty old men in trench coats and construction workers, has finally been recognised as a significant part of the spectrum of male violence against women and girls through the activism of groups like Hollaback and Everyday Sexism.

The recognition of how unsafe public spaces can be for all women, regardless of things like body type and age, is becoming more commonplace, as is the understanding of how street harassment disproportionately affects women of colour due to the intersections of racism and misogyny. However, there is one area of street harassment that remains unspoken: the harassment of women who are pregnant or with small children.

The fact that it remains, for the most part, unspoken, makes it difficult to assess how common street harassment is for pregnant women and mothers. We tend to think of women with children as safe from street harassment, yet it is the very vulnerability of being pregnant or with a child that makes it easier for men to harass without consequence. A woman with a child is less likely to confront a street harasser because of the fear of the possible harm to their child.

My first pregnancy was aged 18, when I looked no more than 15. I was the skinny kid with bad glasses and frizzy hair but I experienced a tremendous amount of street harassment before getting pregnant. Growing up in a transient mining community with a high rate of alcoholism in Northern Canada isn’t a safe space for women at the best of times. It was worse for Indigenous women.

The harassment got worse after I gave birth. I assumed, wrongly, that this increase was due to my age: that it was only because I looked young that I was being harassed. Then I experienced a similar increase in street harassment after the birth of my second child when I was 29, when I most definitely did not look 15. I have had comments about my breasts, my ass, and a number of dubious propositions all in front of my child.

Was I surprised that men were sexually harassing me in front of my child? Absolutely. I had naively thought men would not target a pregnant women or mother, not if she was outside the age range of the “teen Mum” who was in their mind, by default, a slut and therefore deserving of all harassment and abuse.

I wasn’t alone. It turns out that street harassment whilst pregnant or with a young child isn’t that uncommon. I’ve heard countless complaints from other women at toddler and baby groups. Parenting website Mumsnet has had thread after thread where women discuss their experiences of street harassment whilst pregnant or with small children. GirlwiththeMouseyHair wrote of her experiences of street harassment, which included a sexual assault, whilst 6 months pregnant and with her toddler.

Another Mumsnetter, D, shared this story with me. I am reproducing it with permission:

When F was little, we were on a quite empty bus and a guy came and sat adjacent and started rubbing himself in a quite blatant fashion whilst staring right at us. My thought at the time was that he might think I was less likely to kick off as I had a toddler with me. Or it could have been something worse that got his jollies. I was frozen to the spot. Then luckily he got off. I really didn’t know what to do.

Whatever the reason for this sexual assault D felt more vulnerable because she was with her child. This is a reality of street harassment, up to and including sexual assault, and it needs more research.

Without the research available I can’t statistically prove for you here that street harassment and sexual harassment increases when women are pregnant or with young children. So much of the evidence is anecdotal and remains in the domain of the message board, but I certainly remember more experiences whilst pregnant or with a toddler.

It’s possible this reflects feelings of greater vulnerability rather than a greater experience of harassment, or that I remember these incidents more vividly because my children experienced the harassment too – having someone confirm your experience can make it feel more real. It is heart-breaking when that validation comes from your 3 year old asking why the man was rude to you, or when your 2 year old asks the definition of a sex term that no small child should be familiar with.

The reality of street harassment is that no woman is safe in public spaces. That street harassment is a constant feature of women’s lives and that, unfortunately, this includes when women are pregnant or with their children.

Louise Pennington is a radical feminist writer and activist who founded A Room of Our Own: A Feminist/Womanist network. She can be found on twitter as @LeStewpot and @Roomofourown

Photo: Kristian Bjornard

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Bums, heels and media darlings: What feminists want?

Now there’s a headline. I bet that got you clicking through before you got to the end of the sentence. Here’s one that will have you hitting the back button just as fast:

Obama: “Climate change is a fact

He said that just a few days ago. Yawn. Snore. Bummer. Why do people have that response? It’s only the leader of the free world rubber-stamping the biggest known threat to mankind’s survival. Hello? How can that be dull? How can devastating floods consuming lives and homes, or rampant hellfire devouring forests, hurricanes flattening towns, or expanding deserts be anything other than disaster-movie thrilling?

Why does the biggest story in mankind’s history have all the appeal of a genital wart when by rights it should be box office gold?

I thought it would be different with you lot. I thought feminists were an intelligent bunch with broad horizons, engaged with social issues beyond their own spheres of existence and sensitive to the needs of the common good. But take a look at the evidence: Feminist Times site stats suggest that you’re at least three times as keen on stories involving celebrities or magazine retouching than stories about the environment – though at least they didn’t offer $10,000 for unretouched photos of Lena Dunham.

I kind of get it – we all love a bit of a gossip – but still it infuriates me because this lack of engagement with environment is rife across all media. The Guardian recently slashed the size of its environment desk and the New York Times no longer even has one. Not because the editors don’t think the issues are important but because the stories don’t attract the eyeballs and therefore the advertisers, the revenue and so on… an infinite spiral that can only end in a Murdochian world of up-skirt shots, botched boob jobs, Miley’s tongue and Hugh Grant’s burgeoning child army.

You’re just like all the others, then. I suppose it was stupid of me to think you would be any different, after all you can’t project a shared trait – flattering or otherwise – on such a disparate group of people.

But I’m being unfair. Plenty of you do engage with the story of the anthropocene, and the rest of you are far from being alone. Academics have even coined a term, the Environmentalist’s Paradox, to explain the endemic apathy – it’s hard for people to accept what’s happening to the planet when life in general is getting better all the time. Your brain’s no good at perceiving gradual changes and climate change is happening so slowly that our brains have had time to normalise it. Alarm bells which should be deafening each and every one of us remain silent.

Robert Gifford, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria, reckons we need to defeat our “dragons of inaction” – psychological barriers that prevent us from taking action to mitigate climate change.

These dragons take many forms – we don’t think about climate change enough; we hold ideological views that preclude pro-environment behaviour; we don’t see our peers reacting so we aren’t compelled to act ourselves; we have sunk irretrievable costs into our existing way of life and are too afraid to disentangle ourselves because the risks are perceived to be too high – and so on. We must find our own dragons and slay them, I guess. Bloody easy to say.

I’d add one more dragon to Gifford’s list: there is no time. The rabid quest for increased productivity has left the average person with precious little time to devote to themselves, to discover anything new, to think about anything beyond the immediate demands of day-to-day life. Hardly anyone I know reads books any more because their lives are full. To imagine they’re going to come home from work, put the kids to bed, eat, sleep, repeat and then spend any spare time fretting about deforestation is unreasonable.

And yet… Later in life, time is given back. And later in life you have a clearer sense of perspective. Could this be part of the reason some of our greatest older feminists are focusing their formidable talents on environmental projects?

Germaine Greer can be found knee deep in her own restored patch of rainforest; Rosie Boycott’s busying herself trying to make London a sustainable fish city; Isabella Rossellini is into insects and farming; and Annie Sprinkle calls herself an Ecosexual Sexecologist – someone who is madly, passionately and fiercely in love with the Earth and who lives in collaboration with it. She makes it sound the best fun. Campaigners should take note.

Even Vivienne Westwood, notable non feminist (but who seems to me to be a paragon of everything great about being your own woman and doing things your own way) is pledging her own money to tackle climate change.

These women know. They have time. They have perspective. Once they nurtured the idea of womanhood, of taking control of your sexual self, and now they nurture nature. Are the two so different? Not for Sprinkle who says that all sex is ecosex.

We should follow in their muddy footsteps. Take up your hoes hos! Don’t let the rakes rake all the profit and life out of the land… and other weak garden equipment puns. Get interested, get involved. Engagement is the first step away from the cliff. Alternatively we can continue our lemming-like shuffle towards the precipice because we’re too busy or too scared to look around us. Come on! It’s life and death on a grand scale! It’s action and drama and injustice! It’s The Day After Tomorrow, today!

And it’s a smidgeon more important than bums, heels and media darlings, lovely as they are.

Rachel Salvidge is a freelance journalist specialising in the environment, with a background in book publishing. Find out more @RachSalv.

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Porn searches lead to feminist websites

We were distressed to discover that half of the top ten keywords that lead people to Feminist Times were rape porn related.

Most of our traffic comes from readers sharing on Twitter, Facebook and in emails, so this is a tiny percentage of the actual visits our site gets, but the search terms we’ve found further down our list are terrifying.

Keywords lists certainly paint a concerning picture for those worried about porn, violence and even paedophilia – we wonder what other feminist sites have discovered in their SEO analytics?


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Poetry, rather than the media, understands Real Sex

Every few years a concerted effort is made to liberate sex from porn. The stated aim of ‘the campaign for real sex’, launched by the Guardian in 2006, was to combat the ‘Mcdonaldisation of sexuality’ and debate alternatives. Libby Brooks wrote:

“For all that they are over informed about how other people do it, this has not brought young men and women closer to developing a common erotic language. There must be a way to diminish the junk succour of public sex while freeing private appetite.”

Eight years later, if you believe media reports, ‘real sex’ still isn’t happening, but the effects of porn on our sexual consciousness have been widely documented. It’s easier to point out what’s wrong, as playwright Penelope Skinner did brilliantly in The Village Bike, than settle on an alluring alternative. The ‘Mcdonaldisation of sex’ is a sexier concept than ‘freeing private appetite’; which sounds like a post-prandial lunge by a well upholstered restaurant critic, rather than an intimation of liberated sexuality. However well intentioned, media attempts to whiteboard sex are always wide of the mark.

I left Skinner’s play profoundly grateful that my flirtation with porn was a youthful dalliance rather than a life long obsession. I’ve avoided it assiduously for twenty years, even feminist porn, which seems like an oxymoron.

Several years after the Guardian campaign, very little had changed. Then Channel 4 nicked the idea and pornographised it. With staggering literal mindedness their ‘campaign for real sex’ featured real couples having sex in a box, in front of a TV audience of voyeurs. Like the Jacuzzi sex in Celebrity Big Brother, the sex box was staged for the public titillation, inauthentic by definition.

I agree with Frank Furedi (for once). His piece about the sex box in the Huffington Post said it’s worse than “banal porn because it masquerades as a public service.”

There is no need for any public conversation about sex, he says. The media’s alibi for their fetishisation of sex is always that they are “removing the stigma” around it. What stigma? “Sex talk is so constant that you have to search an old people’s home to find a hint of embarrassment about the subject.”

I think the media campaign for real sex is a contradiction in terms as long as it’s conducted in public. A second sexual revolution is needed to return sex to the private realm, where, according to Furedi, “it gains its meaning in the context of an intimate relationship, group of friends or family members.”

I was recently asked to review The Poetry of Sex  for another paper. The big black X on the cover of this anthology made me worry that it would be yet another pornographic spectacle; a series of X rated revelations with a literary, rather than an educational alibi – though the title does offer a different approach to this well trodden terrain.

Media reports about the death of ‘real sex’ have been greatly exaggerated. I wondered why journalists and broadcasters were adamant that ‘real sex’ isn’t happening. Then it dawned on me that the ‘campaign for real sex’ was an expression of erotic ennui; as dangerous liaisons between glamorous media figures, like those described by Julie Burchill in Ambition, have gone the way of expense accounts and Sea Breezes.

Outside the purview of the media however, poets are fucking like rabbits in every conceivable configuration; they are having threesomes and relationships based on sodomy. There is no ‘common erotic language’ but energy and variety, the opposite of porn. Poetry is the right form for sex because it evokes rather than demands.

It is not clear whether the poets are fucking other poets. If so I will go to more poetry readings. I was reassured to hear someone was doing it, but also rather sad to be a middle aged female journalist with a neurological calamity ahead of me, as I feel my own erotic capital declining. If my husband ever left me, who would want me? The poem that affected me most was called Whatever Happened to Sex By Amok Huey, which begins with a quotation from a freshman essay:

“When sex was more popular in the 60s”

I can attest that sex was also popular in the false boom of the 90s and maybe less so in a recession. For Amok, at some point, “Sex is a bungalow the Hollywood Hills/That only comes out at special occasions.”

“Sex tries hard not to whine for the good old days.’ but ‘can’t help but ache to be popular again.”

I liked this collection more than the books about love I poured over when I was looking for a reading for my wedding. I ended up with something from Heidegger’s Being and Time instead. I’ll leave this as an open question rather than another contribution to the wholly inappropriate public debate about sex.

Photo: Jean Koulev

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Cameron and Rape Porn

This article is a personal response outlining concerns over the so-called “Rape Porn” law from a feminist BDSM perspective. We asked South London Rape Crisis for a response which you can read here.

Under David Cameron’s new ‘rape porn’ law, which comes into force in 2014, anyone who possesses pornography depicting rape can face up to three years in jail. The law will broaden the definition of possession to include viewing the material online, and will cover content including simulated rape, such as rape play – a popular practice among consenting adults in the BDSM community.

Those engaging in rape play face a punishment potentially as severe as those committing sexual violence. It is already illegal to commit rape, to document it, and to post it online. Any attempt to stop people watching it is not only unenforceable but will make no difference to criminals committing crime. Once again we are witnessing the attempts of men to exercise control over our agency, choice and desire. Women are not objectified or abused purely because of pornography; sexual violence existed long before the invention of the nipple clamp.

The move is a media-friendly token gesture. It is arguable that banning pornography does not equate to fewer rapists. Rather, the law will most likely end up punishing those watching simulated rape play – despite the fact that, in these videos, consent is consistently much clearer than in ‘vanilla’ pornography.

As Zoe Stavri pointed out in The Independent: “Within BDSM porn, there is often a short interview between the performers discussing what they would like to do, and what they would not like to do, and how they can signal that they want the scene to stop if need be.” In this way, does simulated rape contribute to a culture of sexual violence more than vanilla mainstream pornography?

A “dominant sadist and educator” and rape play teacher, Frozen M, wrote on Kinky.com: “Rape play is about power, but it is a negotiated exchange of power to enable the people involved to act out their fantasies in a consensual and empowering manner.” In rape play, the appeal is that we submit out of desire rather than fear. We allow ourselves to be used for sexual gratification, partly because we too gain sexual gratification from it, but also because we, for various reasons, no longer wish to be in control.

Under Cameron’s law, these consenting adults and those wishing to view them are considered just as criminal as those performing criminal acts of rape. It contributes to a culture where consent is disregarded through the guise of protecting us from rape.

Cameron says he is attempting to protect women from sexual violence, but ultimately the majority of porn is violent for women. Rather than pushing the problem into a darkened corner and hoping it will go away, we need to address the root: banning so-called sexual taboos would pale into insignificance compared to a wholesale crackdown on human trafficking, or a more trustworthy and reliable police response when it comes to rape, or education for young people about the lines of consent.

We must also account for the difference between rapists and those watching rape porn. Sexual violence is a form of social control and it is ultimately political, not biological. Rape is about power, and rarely about sex. Those engaging with simulated rape porn do so for sexual gratification – is it up to us to pass judgement on their choice of stimulation?

Many of the things that we find abhorrent in life are the things we find sexiest in the bedroom. If a woman engages in BDSM, does that stop her being a feminist? And if a man watches rape porn, does that mean he is a rapist, or likely to become one? The casual dismissal of a difference between rape and consenting adults engaging in a rape fantasy undermines our capacity for choice and our autonomy over our bodies. Whether we understand the reasons for engaging in rape play or not, it is not for David Cameron, or any other man, to decide for us.

Daisy Bata is a feminist film critic, journalist, writer and film maker. You can find her most recent reviews at www.girlwiththefilmblog.blogspot.com

Image courtesy of DFID

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Death of the Slut

I’ve had this thought for a while. Uncertain if it was too premature, too optimistic, too naive, I barely dared to utter it to myself or my female friends, let alone turn it into a public article with a name that nerdily references Roland Barthes. And then, as if Roland himself wanted to remind people of his eternal cultural kudos by being in an article title, the cultural atmosphere finally felt right.

The duty is now bestowed upon me to write to women and say: “Bravo! Congratulations! Great job!” The time has come for us to write an Ode to Casual Sex.

I negotiate the field of “casual sex” – not to mention my support of it – very carefully indeed. After all, I have over three years experience working in sexual health clinics. I know the uncomfortable national Chlamydia statistics better than most, and the rise of Gonnorhea is one of my best rehearsed dinner party topics. And sadly, inevitably, when you spend accumulative days of your life seeing what happens when casual sex goes wrong, the last thing you want to do is go and tell everyone to get it on, immediately.

Thus, I now approach my ode with the foreword: I am writing an Ode to Casual Sex With A Condom, Consent, and general Contentedness, not an Ode to Shagging Someone Too Drunk To Know In A Nightclub Toilet With Contraceptive Disdain. It is impossible to discuss this without first assuring you: by casual sex, I mean two happy and consenting people with top notch safe sex practice, doing it because they want to.

And, in this sense, we have seen a shift. In the UK right now we are seeing a widening of the conversation – a cultural and social space is opening for women, young and old, who want to talk about how they enjoy having casual sex, and society isn’t unanimously telling them to shush.

The conversation is changing. Media is less shocked by it, culture is less shy of it, women are more proud of it. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, and of course we are still far from achieving the same kind of society-wide post-coital pats on the back that are bestowed upon men, but the significance of this is monumental.

Casual sex is a mark of liberation women should be immensely proud of. It is something we have tirelessly worked for, battling against one of the most persistent labels in the modern English language.

The question now on everyone’s lips is this: are we finally seeing the death of the Slut?

It should come as no surprise to you to know my standpoint on the very thing for which I am planning a funeral: the Slut. I hate the word Slut. I don’t want to reclaim it, I don’t want to rebrand it, I don’t want anything to do with it.

Throughout history, different oppressed peoples have tried to claim back words that have been used against them. The key is personal preference. If you feel that you can be empowered by a word that once oppressed you, and if you feel you can rebrand it to be something you can be proud of, then I say GO YOU. It is a skill and a feat that takes immense inner strength and conviction. I salute you.

My personal preference, however, is to not. My personal preference doesn’t want to rebrand Slut. My personal preference wants to strap the word Slut to a skyscraper-sized dynamite stick and light it, while simultaneously canon-blasting it into a universe so far from ours that when its inhabitant aliens look at Earth through a telescope all they see is Dinosaurs in a tizzle and Jesus giving out fish.

I want it to be properly punished – punished for everything it has done to women. For the women it has shamed, for the rape claims it has degraded, for the freedom of dress it has denied. For the number of post-coital tears I have mopped on the cheeks of my beautiful, wonderful, powerhouse female friends, because it just won’t go away.

To the word Slut, it doesn’t matter how intelligent, successful, happy, caring, wonderful a human being you are. You could be the President of the United States (shout out to Hils 2k16) and, if you are single and enjoy the odd night-time encounter, the word Slut will plague you through afternoons in Congress and deafen your foreign policy meetings. Not a woman I know – feminist or otherwise – has escaped the shadow of the Slut.

Slut, for me, cannot be reclaimed, certainly not yet. We are too close to it, too preoccupied still with what it means and what it stands for to honestly claim we have rebranded it. Too many women awake the morning after they made a happy, adult choice to engage in sex that made them feel good, to then immediately speed-dial their female friends to check if society will brand them a Slut.

The conversation may be changing but, unfortunately, we cannot yet dance on Slut’s grave. It is still deeply ingrained into our social conscience – groups will still thrust the label upon women, women will still thrust the label upon themselves.

But, as the conversation opens up more and more to listen to women happy in their sexual conquests, I say it is time we took a stance. Women everywhere: this is the Death of the Slut. Starting with no longer giving Slut airtime. The woman wearing the super low-cut top? Well-endowed. The woman who has more interest in getting to know his trouser zips than his personality? A 21st century woman. And the woman who went on the rebound after a nasty breakup? A human.

By the time Hils struts into the White House in her rainbow trouser suits I want the answer to “do you think that girl’s a slut?” to be one thing and one thing only. I want the answer to be: “a what?”

Rebecca Myers is a freelance journalist, full-time feminist, and tea addict. Find out more @rebeccacmyers

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London Feminist Film Festival: Representations of Lesbianism

Alisha Rouse attended last week’s London Feminist Film Festival at the Hackney Picturehouse for us. In the second of three short blog posts, she reports back on the session on Representations of Lesbianism.

Blue is the Warmest Colour, the latest beautiful but painfully long film to rock out of Cannes, was described by its original feminist writer Julie Maroh as: “a straight person’s fantasy of gay love.”

The women involved are young, beautiful and rife with passion, drama, intensity and lust. They’re vulnerable, impressionable, and will presumably one day change their minds. It’s just the kind of lesbianism we’re all comfortable with; particularly the kind of lesbianism that male directors are comfortable with.

Take Black Swan as another case in point. A ridiculous revenge fantasy with incredibly loose lesbian subtext, where lesbianism – as Linda Fingleton, director and star of Waiting for You, told me at the London Feminist Film Festival – is shown as something dramatic and sinful. It’s always an affair, or suicide, or a death.

In fact, Linda told me she didn’t remember one on-screen gay relationship that didn’t end in one or both dying, or realising the error of their ways and running back to their heterosexual partner.

Her documentary, shot entirely with her video camera and starring just her and her partner Rena, is the antithesis of every ‘lesbians are subversive and kinky as hell and will inevitably turn back to cock’ film you’ve ever seen.

Filmed while they went through IVF – originally to show their future child – it is touching not just for its frank, emotional depiction of a couple who desperately want a child, but also that it shows a regular lesbian couple. A normal, real-life, living and fucking breathing until long after the credits roll, lesbian couple. They sit in bed, in pyjamas, with a cup of tea and chat.

This is the kind of lesbianism that makes people uncomfortable. Real, frank, and just the same as every hetero relationship going. That’s why there are no blockbusters about it; this level of acceptance of sexuality makes society very uneasy – it scares them, and it’s not sexy. And lesbians must, flaws and drama aside, always be sexy.

Lesbian representation in cinema seems to have one particular group crusading against the sexualised and hetero-friendly world of lesbianism in modern cinema – the London Lesbian Film Festival. It’s the only one in the world and it’s in Canada. Not this London, but the much smaller London in Ontario. Bending the Lens, a documentary celebrating the lesbian film festival’s 20th birthday, was also shown in Hackney for the London Feminist Film Festival.

A large group of volunteers, all of whom had no idea there were any other lesbians in London (no, again, not this one) get together every year and put on an awesome festival, where films are ‘by and for lesbians’. It’s the only of its kind in the world and aims to show lesbians that it, “doesn’t have to be dirty or smutty; you can talk about this stuff.”

As one keen Canadian put it, “I like women, I like popcorn, I like movies.” Depressingly enough, outside of this valley of sisterhood, it’s rare she’ll see a film that shows lesbian relationships in the way she knows: serious, stable, and where no one dies at the end.

Alisha Rouse is a Newspaper Journalism MA student at City University, desperately missing the north and praying for a job. Find out more @alisharouse.

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Hollywood still likes its women naked and silent

Well we always knew it, right? A whole one third of female characters, and the actors that play them, are shown partially naked on screen and only a third of speaking characters at the movies will be female. Women it seems are, like children, to be seen and not heard, and yet we make up 50% of the cinema ticket buying public.

New York Film Academy’s audit revelations are stark but not surprising. For an alternative, go see the London Feminist Film Festival, on now.

How many of the five most influential women in film have you heard of?

New York Film Academy takes a look at gender inequality in film

Courtesy of: New York Film Academy

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Garry Mulholland

#ManWeek: How to be a man – Mid-Life Crisis

The most loved television show of the last few years was not, in the final analysis, about crystal meth, cancer or severed human heads on turtles. Breaking Bad resonated because it was about a middle-aged man who had failed as a provider, and therefore, in his eyes, as a man. Walter White took somewhat extreme measures in his attempts to regain control of his recession-hit world. But take away the drug money and elaborate violence and you’re left with a familiar story in the 21st century western world: an impotent 50-something trying to relocate his penis in an unimpressed world.

My mid-life crisis hit ten years earlier than Walt’s. If I’d been outstanding at chemistry maybe I would have considered becoming a drug kingpin, but a key part of my meltdown was an overpowering feeling that I wasn’t outstanding at anything. This meant that the popular, almost jocular view of mid-life crisis – you know, middle-aged bloke confronts mortality, buys sports car, pulls young hottie with Daddy issues, starts running half-marathons – didn’t have a great deal to do with my nightmarish 40th year. I contemplated mounting debts and failing career, and crashed. I drank too much, ran up more debts, became depressed, contemplated suicide, had a complete nervous breakdown, and bottomed out, not in some dramatically resonant crack house or dark alley, but at A&E in a hospital in Chichester, with my sister-in-law holding my hand while I gibbered and sobbed to the duty psychiatrist. He offered me happy pills or sectioning. I opted for something dreamy in pink. And so began a ten-year climb back to the point where I can actually write about this without shaking and clinging on to a small cardboard security blanket with Mirtazapine written on it. I’m winning like Charlie Sheen.

So… what is my magic formula for a successful journey from 40 – worst year of my life – to 50, one of the best? Again, you may be underwhelmed. I took the medication for six years. I went into therapy for two years. And I clung on to my happy marriage for dear life. That last one was the pathway to what I actually needed to do, rather than distract myself with chasing teen-twenty totty or taking up skateboarding. I needed to get real.

As my 40th birthday slump hardened into something darker, I increasingly convinced myself that I was the worst man living. Working-class men are supposed to be salt-of-the-earth providers, and I was a very bright working-class man so, by the age of 40, I should have been wealthy, famous, universally respected and able to lavish my wife, son and mother with holiday homes in Cancun while bankrolling their own successful businesses. Instead, I was a failed and anonymous writer with mounting debts, living in fear of bailiffs and – and I want to stress that this was the depression-induced paranoia talking – the rest of the media world pointing and laughing at the ghetto brat who had dared to share space with the Oxbridge set. One of the horrors of depression is its narcissism. The media world was far too busy to notice me, never mind collude in collective Garry-taunting.

So, in the spirit of getting real, I took the therapy seriously and realized that the black hole sucking me in used money as its most potent magnet, but was actually made of the same kind of childhood issues that everyone else had. I’d repressed them for so long that I’d developed them into shadowy beasts with loud voices, loud enough to drown out all the real voices around me, like my wife’s, when she would tell me how much she loved and admired me. She must be lying, the beasts roared, and I believed them and took my self-loathing from there.

The therapy didn’t cure me, exactly, but it introduced my self-image to my real self, made us some tea and sandwiches, encouraged us to hang out to see if we got along. Ten years down the line, and we get along pretty well. I still don’t trust the notion of loving oneself – sounds like megalomaniac kinda business to me – but I began to realise, a few years ago, that I quite like real Garry, with his fear of failure, uselessness with money, tendency towards solipsism, but also decent amounts of intelligence and talent, loyalty to his loved ones, ability to open up and be open. Garry’s alright. And now he’s past medication and suicidal impulses, and managed it without abandoning his marriage or his family, he’s a little more alright.

So, eventually, I got my penis back. I’d missed him, funny little fella. Whether Walter White would see my crime and cash-free recovery as possession of a truly thick and meaty Heisenberg, I doubt. But I related much more to his apprentice Jesse Pinkman anyway. Young and pretty (some self-images die harder than others) and buffeted hither and thither by powerful forces he’ll never control. His future is uncertain. But at least he’s alive.

Garry Mulholland is a journalist, author and broadcaster. He has written four books on music and film published by Orion Books, including This Is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk And Disco. Find out more @GarryMulholland

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#ManWeek: Feminist Toolkit – Psychoanalysis

Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.‘ ― Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis is a theory of the mind first brought to the world by Freud, a neurologist whose early theories emphasised the repression of sexual desire, incest fantasy, and penis envy.

Since its conception in Vienna in the late 19th Century the discipline has changed with the advent of the neo-Freudians and feminist psychology. From the psychoanalytical hiatus in the 20th Century to the rebirth of biological psychiatry in the 1970s, psychoanalytical theory remains integral to the understanding of mental processes, and provides us with a model with which to try to understand a little of that most complex of organs: the mind.

Psychoanalytical theory started with Freud, but it developed into theories that encompass the personality and development, object relations (both internal and external), the understanding of the self, and much more. But its influence is not limited to the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Its application can help us understand the world around us; the arts, literature, philosophy, sociology and politics.

As humans most of us unknowingly practise the art of psychotherapy, with the engagement in empathic listening to our friends and family. This ability to reflect and understand allows conflicts to emerge into the conscious mind, which forms the basic premise of relief from the psychic pain and distress associated with them. Psychoanalytical theory offers us language with which to recognise these underlying conflicts.

The basics:
• Freud conceptualised the human psyche into the Id, Ego and Superego.
• The theory gives recognition to the fact that many mental processes happen without conscious understanding.
• According to Freud the Id is: ‘…the dark, inaccessible part of our personality…. We approach the Id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations…. It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle‘. Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933)
• The Id is the set of innate instinctual desires that we strive to satisfy. It is present at birth and is the unconscious will to satisfy our needs, including sexual and aggressive drives.
• The Id acts in accordance with the pleasure principle, which seeks to provide immediate gratification to any impulse, and to avoid pain and unpleasure.
• The Ego serves as the self, the conscious aspect of our personality which also acts in the unconscious. It acts to satisfy the Id, but in a way that is morally and socially acceptable, acting according to the reality principle.
• ‘The Ego represents what we call reason and sanity, in contrast to the Id which contains the passions.’ Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (1923)
• The Superego is a set of internalised moral standards and ideals that we have developed. This includes standards from our parents, or childhood caregivers, and from society in general. It serves as our view of right and wrong, and attempts at an unconscious and conscious level to suppress the unacceptable drives of the Id, and make the Id act in an idealised way.
• The mind in this model can be seen as an iceberg, where only a small conscious part of the Ego and Superego is visible. Below the surface lies the larger area of conflicts and desires, where the Id resides with the remaining Ego and Superego.


Conflict between these aspects of our mind causes psychic tension or anxiety, and the mind deploys defense mechanisms to decrease the level of tension. Defense mechanisms can be adaptive and helpful and allow us to manage a problem for a certain amount of time until we are able to deal with our internal conflict. However defense mechanisms can themselves cause problems in our functioning and serve as overused methods of dealing with anxiety and distress that distort our reality.

Some examples of defense mechanisms employed by people to manage psychic pain and distress include:
Denial: The outright refusal to face reality. Frequently seen in people with drug and alcohol problems who deny their use is problematic despite the growing dysfunction and chaos in their relationships and life.
Repression: This acts to keep information out of our conscious awareness, such as the movement to the unconscious of traumatic memories of abuse or neglect.
Regression: A mechanism to regress back to a more childlike and dependent way of being to cope with distress. This can be seen in people facing hospital admission accepting painful tests and restrictions that they may have refused without the stress of their illness.
Displacement: If we feel afraid or otherwise unable to express our feelings of displeasure to the cause of our distress, we often will displace them elsewhere. This may include external displacement. The common example in everyday life is evident when we take out our frustrations at our boss by returning home to take this anger our on our family or friends. Self-harming behaviours can be seen as aggression inflicted on ourselves to deal and cope with anger at others.
Projection: Externalising unacceptable feelings and attributing them to others. For example feelings of guilt may be projected onto another with associated false accusation. This can be seen in a partner who is having an affair being suspicious that their lover is also cheating on them.
Reaction formation: Doing the opposite to that which we are driven to do and obscure unacceptable impulses. For example a drive to excessive cleanliness may obscure an internal unconscious desire for mess.
Rationalisation: An unconscious impulse is justified by a rational explanation. Consider Aesop’s fable of the fox that could not reach the grapes, and rationalised that they were sour anyway. The fox successfully defended against the psychic pain of his unfulfilled Id.
Sublimation: Can be seen as the conversion of an unacceptable impulse into something that serves a higher purpose such as a person with aggressive impulses sublimating them into a sport such as boxing.

Anna is a Psychiatrist, feminist, mother of one preschooler and fan of the arts. Follow her here @annacfryer

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For once let’s really talk about slut-shaming

Encountering the term “slut-shaming” was a lightbulb moment. At last, a word I could use to express my unease when fellow feminists fretted over the “sexualisation” of young girls or pointed the finger at so-called female chauvinist pigs. While conscious of the dynamics to which they referred, I’d long resented the implication that individual women could not own their choices. If we live in a culture that objectifies women – and I believe that we do – then defining girls and women as “sexualised” (as opposed to sexual) merely adds to it.

I still feel this to be the case and yet, of late, I’ve started to have some misgivings over the way in which “slut-shaming” and related terms such as “sex positive” are used. I know I’m not the only one. I’ve witnessed feminist friends being called slut-shamers and prudes for challenging the “wrong” cultural targets. I’ve routinely seen debates on Page Three and lad mags descend into sniping over which feminists hate female sexuality the most. I’ve even heard asexual feminists worry that they are being dismissed as “sex negative” by default.

All of this strikes me as unnecessary. It seems we are confusing a critique of the misogynist images that surround us with the very hatred that lies behind them. There’s a fine line to tread between attacking the damaging uniformity of what is presented to the world as “female sexuality” and attacking the woman who may, through choice, represent it. We still need to attempt to get it right. We cannot keep women’s sexual expression under patriarchal guardianship out of fear that to do otherwise might mean losing the few outlets that misogynist culture permits.

Re-reading Joan Smith’s Misogynies, first published in 1989, I was shocked to see how far a virulent hatred of women as sexual beings didn’t just fuel the murders committed by the Yorkshire Ripper, but also helped Peter Sutcliffe evade capture. Obsessed by the idea that Sutcliffe set out to kill because he hated “prostitutes”, one detective, Jim Hobson, went so far as to reassure him that “many people do”, adding: “But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls. […] You have made your point. Give yourself up before another innocent women dies.”

I look at this and I can’t help thinking that this is not so far from the divisive language and beliefs that surround us today. The Wikipedia entry on Sutcliffe still describes him as someone “obsessed with killing streetwalkers”, not women (as though the former constitute a lesser sub-category). Women are still seen as pure or tainted and we need to ask whether protecting misogynist principles of sexual representation – Page Three, lad mags, hyper-unreal porn – is helping or hindering. We need to ask whether the maintenance of public breeding grounds for misogyny increases or tempers prejudice against female sex workers. Above all, we need to ask why, if the mere visibility of female flesh should make female sexual choices more acceptable, this hasn’t ever happened?

I still value the term “slut-shaming” but I can’t help feeling that its worst form manifests itself when knives are sunk into female flesh for no other reason than that it is female flesh. Critiquing the culture in which such hate arises must never become taboo.


VJD Smith (Glosswitch) is a lifelong feminist and mother of two who edits language books when she’s not tied up with parenting, blogging and ranting.  Find out more @Glosswitch or glosswatch.com

Image courtesy of: laverrue

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Comeback: How To Be A Man – Porn

A reader’s response to Garry Mulholland’s first How To Be A Man column, on his conflicted relationship with pornography.

Dear Garry,

When I was 14, I was developing an interest in boys and sex. Unlucky for me, my best friend was the prettiest girl in school and every boy I ever had a crush only had eyes for her. If only there was someone like you, someone to like me because I didn’t quite meet the patriarchal standards of beauty, Oh! How happy I might have been! But alas, that is not what we all want. Consider perhaps that a woman might like to be appreciated for something other than her appearance; you have just developed a different standard of sexual beauty, it appears that you are still responding to it in the same way that the boys at school responded to my best friend.

I had my first serious boyfriend at university. I was so shocked that there was someone who liked me and not the girl I was with that I didn’t really consider much else. As it turned out, he was a porn addict too. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to find him masturbating at his computer at the end of the bed. I didn’t have much experience with porn, but this did not feel ok. I felt so betrayed that he would do this, and I quickly became convinced that I was not good enough for him. We soon discussed the issue and I raised my concerns; he felt very sorry and promised he would stop. Of course, that did not happen. He would take his laptop into the bathroom for long periods, and added a collection of porn to his phone. Not only was I not good enough for him sexually, my feelings of inadequacy and sadness were not worth a moment of his time. I’m ashamed to admit that I continued in the relationship for far longer than I should have, but I am not ashamed to say that porn was the root of our problems.

Having experienced this man’s obsession with porn, and hearing male friends discuss their own relationships with porn, I have developed enough curiosity to have a look at some. The first porn I ever watched was very misleading, and I had some very wrong ideas about what squirting was for a long time. I have a number of female friends who say they use it, but I personally get no enjoyment from it; it makes me feel very uncomfortable. I wonder how the women you have been with feel about your relationship with porn?

Following my relationship with the porn addict, I had a number of casual affairs which gave me further insight into the effects of porn. Almost every man that I was with EXPECTED a blowjob, like that was his right as a man. They were all horrified when I refused. Many would also try their luck at requesting anal – again, it is just not for me. These acts are commonplace on all porn sites, and so the boys and men who grow up with access to them have grown to expect it, and as such, girls who would rather not are vilified (we all know that a woman is a slut if she does and a prude if she doesn’t, but this is going much further now). Why must my sexual choices be dictated to me by porn and the men who watch it?

My 7-year-old nephew recently saw porn at school for the first time on a friend’s phone. He came home that day and told his mother, and questioned her about what it was that was coming out of the man’s willy. I really don’t believe that this was the right way for him to learn about these things. He’ll be laughed at in the playground if he doesn’t know, but none of them will really understand, and so begins another generation of men who will no doubt grow up to make women feel as inadequate as I did.

So, Garry, let’s not pretend that porn is feminist. Let’s instead consider how we can stop the next generations from feeling the ways that you and I felt. Let’s communicate, and open up a discussion about this. Let’s not make children feel stupid for asking, and let’s not make them feel that sex is naughty and not to be talked about. We can’t stop the porn industry from doing what it does best, but we can help people to understand it for what it is, and make sense of their own feelings and experiences.

Victoria Coleman

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Sex party politics

I love a good sex party. In my queer feminist utopia, awesome community centres throw wild sex parties every Friday night. There is no social pressure attached to either going or not going to feminist utopia parties, which sometimes take place on large, multi-level boats strewn with fairy lights (just a personal fantasy).

Entrance policies vary. Some events are exclusively for dykes and queers; others are aimed at straight/bi women and are open to pro-feminist men. What they all hold in common are copious supplies of free communal lube, barriers, gloves, toys and chocolate biscuits. You can’t avoid the free chocolate biscuits, unfortunately.

But back in the real world, dyke public sex is harder to come by. As a lonely adolescent, my internet searching for  “lesbian cruising” was a total failure, bringing up information about ocean cruises. I hope these wet getaways are also an outlet for public sex, but suspect the hook-up opportunities they offer are more the private, cabin-based sort. Unless lesbian “cruises” are a massive pun-joke for women in the know?

Despite having fantasized about it for years, I was 20 before I plucked up the courage to actually go to a sex party. My ensuing night at heterosexual fetish club Torture Garden involved a trip to A&E (not made by me), cocaine (not consumed by me), a jilted boyfriend (not mine) smashing a mirror, copious vomit strewn around my now ex-friend’s house, but also – most seminally – my first spanking. Not to mention twenty fascinated minutes spent watching a hot, rubber-clad woman wrapping another woman in cling film.

But for any given major city, lesbian spaces for public fucking are limited. Parties tend to exist one at a time, and they never last long. There’s plenty of discussion about why this is. Women don’t buy enough drinks. Eligible lesbians become monogamous life-couples and just stay at home eating tofu and watching re-runs of The L Word. As an economically disadvantaged group, women are too busy holding down multiple jobs and finding ways to support their kids to spend their evenings rubbing up against strangers.

And perhaps we don’t spend our weekends cruising Hampstead Heath because public space is not for women. Anybody who has kissed their girlfriend outside their bedroom will know that lesbians who openly demonstrate affection will be co-opted for male pleasure. Most women are taught as children that sex is dangerous for us. Public sex – with the attendant and always-underlying fear of sexual violence – feels like even more of a risk.

The only way to find out if public sex turns you on is to brave it yourself. For sure, sex parties can amplify the general awkwardness of lesbian spaces to unbearable proportions. But the second or third time you go, you might start to recognise people you’ve seen before. And at some point, you might get to experience something you’ve previously only fantasized about.

The dos and don’ts of a sex party:


  • Make sure that you have enthusiastic, active consent from anybody you engage in sex-related things with. If someone isn’t vigorously shouting “YES! YES! MORE!” (or similar) at you, then at least make sure they’re thinking it. Always ask.
  • Check that you’re engaging in activities that you consent to. It’s totally ok to go to a sex party and not fuck anyone. You can go, wander around, say “hi” awkwardly to people, eat the omnipresent free chocolate biscuits (why are they always there?) then leave, if you want.


  • Fuck people then leave without cleaning up the mess. You guys. It’s gross and unsafe. Stop doing it.

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Garry Mulholland

How To Be A Man: Porn

Imagine a world where all women were judged equal. Black and white, fat and thin, hairy and shaved, even old and young, all seen as equally worthy of being seen, and seen as desirable, even beautiful. There is, of course, no need to imagine. This world already exists. Its called internet porn.

Actually, the internet bit there is misleading. Porn has always been a broad church, fetish-wise. The internet just means more of it, easier to access, devoid of the public shame of entering sex shops and exiting with brown paper bags, and, like internet music, entirely free, if you know where to look. If the world had been like this when I was fourteen, I would never have left my bedroom. Therein lies the scary, but we’ll get back to that.

I choose the age of fourteen because that’s when my addiction to pornography began. A friend gave me a magazine called Peaches. It featured many colour and black and white pictures of naked women posing. These women were specific, though. The ‘Peaches’ was a euphemism for big tits, and, in this case, the big tits belonged largely to fat middle-aged women with excessive amounts of body hair. These women looked so unlike the women I was supposed to desire in 1977 – Raquel Welch, Felicity Kendal, Olivia Newton-John – that they may as well have been another species from another planet. But what struck me as hard as how much I liked these bodies was the way these women looked at me. Their faces said, “You poor helpless boy. How could you not want me? I am fucking irresistible!” Which seemed curious – and exciting – when the most bullied sub-group in my school were the fat girls, when every other gag on peak-time TV began with a variation on ‘I wouldn’t say my wife/mother-in-law was fat/ugly, but…’, when the phrase ‘hairy-arsed feminists’ had just begun to creep into popular culture. Was I allowed to fancy hairy-arsed mothers-in-law more than the pretty slim girls at school? Too late. I did. And so began a secret addiction, wrapped in one very specific kind of brown-paper shame; the discovery that I must be some kind of pervert. My male friends mocked me if I even talked to Maria, the chubby girl I most liked at school. How would they humiliate me if they knew what I wanked over?

In the same year, I heard the Sex Pistols and was forever changed by punk rock. While porn was my furtive guilty pleasure – and how that phrase has been perverted over the last six or seven years; do people really feel honest-to-God guilt over quite liking Bonnie Tyler records? I wish my conscience was that clear! – I was evangelical about punk rock, and the entirely new type of pop woman it had brought forth. I didn’t really make any connection, at the time, between my hairy BBW (Big Beautiful Women, in modern porn parlance) wank objects and Siouxsie, or Patti Smith, or Poly Styrene, or Fay Fife of The Rezillos. But years later I realized that, on some subconscious level, chubby porn models and fierce punk androgynes had merged and given me a taste for women who not only looked different to the submissive baby doll beloved of mainstream ‘phowoar!’ culture, but drew attention to themselves, and reveled in it. The pressure on women to conform physically seems overwhelming, from the outside. Any woman who can ignore that pressure and imagine themselves sexually irresistible is some kind of heroine.

But I’m honestly not pretending that hardcore porn is a world entirely composed of female non-conformists leading young boys to an enlightened rejection of misogynist body fascism. It is very often a world of blank-eyed women being choked by massive penises, or being used, as Julie Burchill once memorably put it, ‘as sexual spittoons’. I’ve read my Julie Bindel too and I don’t live in denial of the fact that the majority of women in porn are there through physical or economic coercion, or because they are playing out the trauma of an earlier sexual abuse. When I use the words ‘guilty pleasure’, I mean them. I call myself a feminist, yet I regularly collude in one of the planet’s most organized, durable and violent wars on women. I don’t have an excuse, or a handy intellectual theory to justify it. It’s just wrong. But sexual impulses are powerful and hard to change. My only real defence is a 17-year marriage to a lifelong feminist. Because I like to convince myself that my relationship with porn is compartmentalized neatly and entirely separately from my real-life relationships with women. And my wife L remains the only viable exhibit for the defence.

If you told me, at fourteen, that I would, at 50, be married to a woman not physically unlike the women in Peaches, who maintained the principles of ‘women’s lib’ that my mother raised me with, I think I would have been pretty chuffed. But that does bring me back to the image of a confused adolescent boy, in 2013, with immediate access to an infinite number of moving images of loveless fucking. Because the second porn magazine my friend gave me did damage to my sexuality that has never been fully repaired.

The magazine was called Color Climax, and featured images of Swedish people having sex. While I remember the faces of the women in Peaches in incredible detail, I remember nothing about the men or women in Color Climax. Except the cocks. The cocks were huge; so much bigger than mine that, again, it seemed they must belong to a different species. They were also rock hard, and appeared to need no stimulation at all to get that way. And, when entered into hairy Swedish girl vagina, they caused a reaction – an ecstasy – on the faces of said hairy Swedish girls that I’d only seen in old paintings of puny humans visited by Gods and angels. From that moment, I was convinced that my puny penis could not possibly be what women really wanted at all, and, 36 years later, I still partly believe that every woman who has had sex with me only did so because she thought I was a nice guy, and a porn stud wasn’t immediately available that night. I know that’s stupid and irrational. But sexuality is stupid and irrational. I just hope my son, who is 27 now, had become a little more emotionally fully-formed before he saw something he couldn’t un-see.

When our esteemed editor asked me to write the How To Be A Man column, and we agreed that the first one should be about pornography, I thought I’d probably at least try and write something funny. I’ve just re-read the above and there isn’t a laugh to be had. I’m only just realizing what a profound effect images of fucking have had on the kind of man I am. But one thing I’m sure of: while the men who own the porn industry are invariably scum, and the effect it has on male perceptions of women feed and breed misogyny, fetish pornography’s vision of what makes a woman sexually attractive is, was, and always will be broader, wider and less insidiously paedophile than those of the fashion industry, or Hollywood, or mainstream glamour. Peaches magazine and its internet equivalents celebrate everything Heat, Fashion Police and the entire diet and cosmetic industries despise. I wouldn’t say porn is feminist, but…


Garry Mulholland is a journalist, author and broadcaster. He has written four books on music and film published by Orion Books, including This Is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk And Disco. Find out more @GarryMulholland

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Campaign 4 Consent logo

Campaign 4 Consent

The Campaign for Consent started off as a conversation between three teenagers. We felt, as young people and schoolchildren, that perhaps there ought to be something in our curriculum about sexual assault, something that one in three girls experience in UK schools, but only 15% speak out about.

I can’t speak on behalf of fellow campaigners, Lili and Georgia, but I’ve been a victim of sexual assault myself. What was apparently just “harmless fun” had a detrimental effect on the way I would view my body for the next few years, my mental health and my trust in others. I was 12 years old. My assault happened in a classroom environment. For all those reasons and many more, I don’t believe consent should be made a required part of the UK’s Sex Education curriculum, I believe it has to be.

Walking down the corridors in my secondary school last year, I would hear at least three rape jokes a day. People would refer to rape as a substitute for other words, laughing as they did so. “lol it’s like he’s raping her!” “you just got raped!” “haha what a rapist!” … at least three times a day. Girls were catcalled in the canteen, compared to Page 3 models in the common rooms, made to witness boys huddling round computer screens, watching pornography in the library (until the teacher told them off, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less damaging). Sometimes boys would watch porn at the back of the classroom on their phones and nobody said or did anything.

I believe the porn culture of today is causing sexual assault to become even more common. We’ve seen the detrimental effects pornography can have on young people’s relationships with their own bodies and with other people. School is becoming a more and more scary place – for younger girls especially – when it comes to sexual mistreatment and disrespect.

We, like so many other young people, have been victims and observers. But it’s not just limited to us. At the moment, one in five women will experience sexual harassment in her lifetime. Education is a vital tool in bringing this statistic down.

By putting consent into the curriculum we will give young people the knowledge and the power to stop something that has affected so many for far too long. We will give a voice to the 85% of serious sexual assault victims who never go to the police. If we make ourselves heard now, we’ll give hope to a future generation, and start paving the road to change.


Yas Necati is a 17-year-old activist, campaigning for better sex education with 15-year-olds Georgia Luckhurst and Lili Evans. You can read more about their campaign at http://campaign4consent, or find out more @YasNecati.

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Radical Agony Aunts: “too much of a turnoff”?

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

I’m single and haven’t had the courage to attempt a relationship since I had breast cancer some years ago. A couple of years after the cancer I had plastic surgery and I think they did a rubbish job; I think it’s unsightly and I have no sensation in either breast. They did another operation to try to fix it with only slight improvement. I was worn out by surgery and refused to let them try again. So now I have what I think is a body that no person could ever feel aroused by. And a relationship has to have a sexual element, doesn’t it? Well, I want sex! I keep thinking through scenarios where I meet someone who’s attracted to my personality but when we try to go to bed they just can’t get aroused by my body and say “no, it’s just too much of a turnoff”.

I hope this isn’t taken as in any way insulting other women whose bodies have been damaged by breast cancer. Lots of women are already with a partner when cancer strikes and their partner simply continues to love them. But there are probably also lots of women like me who weren’t in a relationship at the time and who now don’t have to confidence to attempt it.

I doubt that more surgery would help and in any case the NHS (can’t afford private) might not be willing to do it now so many years have passed. I’m 46 and hetero. It was many years ago that I had the cancer. It’s been a long time.

Duh that reads back as very depressing. On the other hand I’ve always been a FEMINIST and that’s something to feel good about. Yes!

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Feminist,

You’re right, it IS something to feel good about – and you’re here and you’re well and you want something new. Congratulations!

I started down the wrong road when I first read your email. I spoke to a breast cancer survivor friend about her experience, I searched the Breast Cancer Care website for answers, I thought about conversations you might have with your doctor. Wrong approach.

Because as you say, confidence is what you’re missing. If you had your version of “perfect” boobs, I’m guessing you’d still feel nervous about a new relationship. I can’t deny body image has a huge impact on our confidence. We’re constantly under pressure to conform to some notional ideal and force-fed images of “perfection”. We all feel that pressure all the time, but it’s all a lie. There’s the actual lie of airbrushing and other digital manipulation. There’s also the lack of truth and the artificiality of us plucking every hair, whitening every tooth, whittling our bodies down so we can be the pocket-size dolls these images say we should be. But you and I are feminists, so let’s not breathe life into that lie by believing it. We know there is no perfect woman. There’s only you and me, and our friends, sisters and mothers with the various pesky body parts that we love or hate, but which are never going to add up to the perfect ten. There’s only our beautiful individuality.

But exposing that individuality needs confidence. I once dated a few people through a phone-based singles service. The initial phone chats were great – we were witty and flirty and could be anyone we wanted. But then the “So… shall we meet up?” question would arise, and suddenly everything seemed scarily serious. But how do we get what we want if we can’t open ourelves up to it?

All I wanted to be when I grew up was a fiction writer. I dabbled but never took it seriously enough or worked hard enough to make it happen. I read a lot of “how to write” books, I joined a number of writing groups, I went to conferences. I made time for all of that but never put the hours into writing. And now in my day job away from agony aunting, I do write for a living – fundraising and communication for a charity whose aims I respect. So I kinda like my job, and it’s kinda got a creativity to it, and a regular salary is nice – but I know I haven’t achieved my ambitions. And that’s because I haven’t taken risks. Sound familiar?

I don’t want to play down your issues with your breasts, especially the lack of sensation. Medical knowledge and response to breast cancer is increasing all the time. If you can bear the thought of putting yourself through it, maybe there are more up-to-date approaches that can help, even in the NHS.

But whether or not you decide on more medical intervention, exposing your body is a big deal. Exposing yourself to the possibility of something new feels even huger. You might be disappointed. You may meet some fools. It’s going to be hard to start with, but you have to risk it.

You survived cancer, lady. Don’t be afraid that dating will be too big a challenge. We can spend a lifetime waiting to feel brave. Or we can just be brave.

Political agony aunt

Political agony aunt

The Political’s response:

Dear Feminist,

In search of the conceptual key to your problem, I returned to Deleuze and Guattari‘s notion of the body without organs (in A Thousand Plateaus). Basically, the concept of the “Body without Organs” is a critique of the notion of the “body as such”, the natural body. The “body as such” is for Deleuze and Guattari the “organised” body, the body that has been defined by utility, by its separation into distinct, zoned, functioning and comprehended elements (a breast is for sucking, etc.). That process of definition/organisation is always repressive.

For Deleuze and Guattari, almost every imaginative activity of men and women – including sexual activity – is evidence of the fact that we cannot be reduced to the fact of our merely organic existence. Insofar as we see the breast as a “normal” part of the female body, as having a beautiful (that is to say, natural) form, and as necessary for the attraction of a sexual partner, we are existing in a highly normative and repressive system of the body, the ultimate logic of which is theological.

For Deleuze and Guattari, the only body worth talking about is not the organized body (the medicalised, zoned body reduced to its functions, the “body as such”), but the Body without Organs: a body that is always in the process of being produced. For in fact, there is nothing natural or given about the “natural” or “organic” body:

“The BwO is not opposed to the organs; rather, the BwO and its ‘true organs’, which must be composed and positioned, are opposed to the organism, the organic organization of the organs”.

Even the organism is produced: “The organism is not at all the body, the BwO; rather it is a stratum on the BwO, in other words, a phenomenon of accumulation, coagulation, and sedimentation that, in order to extract useful labor from the BwO, imposes upon it forms, functions, bonds, dominant and hierarchized organizations, organized transcendences.”

Desire, for Deleuze and Guattari, is a force that cannot be contained by these processes of organization (“sedimentation and coagulation,”), which are for Deleuze and Guattari counter-productive forces: ways in which the dominant society (for want of a better term) attempts to discipline and regulate the productive forces, which are desiring forces. Desire, for D&G, has nothing to do with fulfilling a primary “lack”; nor does it have anything to do with pleasure (Freud’s “pleasure principle”); nor is desire about fantasy.

In fact, all these “explanations” are for Deleuze and Guattari ways in which the BwO is regulated and normalized. For D&G, desire has everything to do with production, i.e. with the project of creating the BwO. Desire is creative: it’s a wholly positive force; so masochism, for example, is not a “symptom” of a childhood trauma (as it was for Freud), but an example of the project to produce the BwO that is entirely of a kind with the projects of painters or writers: none of these activities should be subjected to interpretation, but should instead be considered as experiments, “programs,” undertaken in the cause of the BwO.

The other D and G would advise you to be more perverse, to denormativize the breast, indeed, to see the very normalisation of the breast as the perversion of a repressive society founded on the fascism of the normative body.

For what it’s worth, D&G would fancy you more than before. Hope this helps.

Further reading: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnosota Press 1987, pp. 149-66.

Email your questions and dilemmas to agony@feministtimes.com

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