3 Feb 2016

On Civil Partnerships and "Straight Rights"

I have conflicting feelings about the recent (and unsuccessful) campaign led by a heterosexual British couple for equal access to civil partnerships. On the one hand, it reeks of straight privilege; implying that you're discriminated against because you can't utilise the same law as gay people totally obscures the fact that they would never have needed that same law if they hadn't been discriminated against in the first place. (It does also raise the separate question of what purpose civil partnerships actually serve, now that gay marriage is legal in the UK, and the former was often seen as a placatory gesture that fell short of equality anyway). On the other hand, speaking as someone who rejects many traditional heteronormative structures (monogamy, the desire for children, and I'm definitely not sure about marriage) I can certainly see where they couple were coming from.

Last week, Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfield lost their case, which they had taken to the UK High Court, and which stated they were being discriminated against because they could not have a civil partnership rather than getting married. Both options are now open to same-gender couples; only marriage is open to opposite-gender couples. The couple "said they wanted to commit to each other in a civil partnership as it "focuses on equality" and did not carry the patriarchal history and associations of marriage." The government's response was that as the couple's objection to marriage was "ideological", their rights were not infringed by not having access to civil partnership; the government also said that  "civil marriage was an institution that protected the core values of family life and was entirely egalitarian." Hmmm. Now this is where I feel the couple may have a point. And yes, it may technically be an "ideological" objection as opposed to an example of actual illegality, but nonetheless I do have some sympathy.

Yes, legally marriage between a man and a woman is "egalitarian" - long gone are the days when all a woman's property and money became her husband's upon marriage, and when it was much easier for a man to divorce his wife than vice versa, and when a husband automatically got custody of any children in the case of divorce. (The days when rape in marriage were legal are less "long gone," seeing as this was only made a crime in the UK in 1992 - but I digress.)
But socially? Not so much,
The majority of women in the UK still take their husband's name upon marriage. That's entirely their choice, but it remains gesture that his its roots in anything but egalitarianism - indeed, it's born from the law and customs that said a woman became her husband's property upon marriage. If I introduce my partner as my husband, people will assume we have the same last name, furthermore that said surname will be his and not mine, and that they should also call me Mrs (all are prospects I abhor. If marriage is truly egalitarian, why do men remain Mr both before and after marriage? Why is only the woman who is expected to change her prefix? Hence why I'll be Ms for life, regardless of my marital status).
Whereas if I introduce him as my partner, none of those assumptions will be made. 
If I introduce him as my husband, people will assume that he bought me an engagement ring, continuing the tradition that a man must "woo" his wife-to-be with an expensive material gesture, while she's obliged to do...er, nothing, except say yes. Not egalitarian.
If I introduce him as my husband, people will assume that we wed with me wearing a dress coloured to imply that my hymen is still intact (and that that fact is somehow the business of everyone in attendance), and that my father "gave me away" in the most patriarchal gesture possible, implying I am property to be handed from father to husband. Not egalitarian.
If I introduce him as my partner, people will not have these archaic presumptions in mind. They won't think of white dresses, rings, hen/stag parties (bachelor/bachelorette parties), which are to my mind bizarre, divisive rituals affirming irreverance towards the gender of your partners. They won't view our becoming partners as necessarily meaning we also plan to follow another socially dictated step and have children (I don't want children now or ever, and it bothers me that the majority of people are incapable of encountering two adults in a relationship without assuming this is the trajectory they must desire for that relationship).

So yes, I do believe there's a difference between marriage as it currently stands, and a civil partnership. I would possibly be more predisposed to considering some kind of commitment were it divested of all the sexist nonsense that I still view the wedding industry as being swathed in. I still might never do it, considering I'm polyamorous and lean towards the "solo poly" side of that, and am not interested in any traditional types of "nesting" (especially the kind of nesting that involves progeny). But it would be nice to have the option.

That said, I can see how Keidan and Steinfield's campaign could come across as somewhat obnoxious. Although they've been sensible enough not to frame it in terms of "straight rights" or anything so cringeworthy, there is a sense that's exactly what they're asking for. Those pesky gays have been given so many rights they've actually outstripped us straights, WTF! When homosexuality is still illegal in 75 world countries, you'll want to tread a bit carefully in making that claim. In terms of lack of social acceptance and increased risk of bullying, assault, murder and suicide, there is simply no way in hell that you can claim gays are having a better time of it than straights (they're having a much, much worse time on all those fronts and more, in case that wasn't clear) - even in our supposedly enlightened, first world country.

Also, it's worth considering: why were civil partnerships ever offered as an option to gay couples, when they were never a thing open to anyone else before? The answer is pretty clear: because the UK government was too afraid to go "all the way" and legalise gay marriage, so they wussed out and went with an in-between option. They hoped it would appease the gay community while keeping conservative and religious anti-gay factions happy too. Most of us were pretty stunned that it was the Labour government who fell short of full marriage equality for same-sex couples, and the Conservative government who righted this wrong in 2014, but regardless of who did it, the point remains: civil partnerships have possibly been rendered obsolete by the advance in same sex marriage rights. It was telling that, in reference to this case, a government spokesperson said it was"not necessary to undertake the costly and complex exercise of extending civil partnerships in the interim where they may be abolished or phased out in a few years." So perhaps this case will become irrelevant anyway, and if it does, us straights will just have to suck it up and dry our tears on statutes of the marriage rights that we had all along.

But it doesn't stop me thinking it would be nice to have an alternative to patriarchal, heteronormative constructions of marriage. I guess we can either eschew marriage altogether, or try to build new constructions of marriage ourselves (feminist, gay-friendly, truly egalitarian). It's great how many people are doing the latter - I'm sticking with the former for now.

14 Dec 2015

Ageing is not the enemy - beauty bullshit is

Quite why anyone remotely intelligent or considering themselves feminist would ask a plastic surgeon for advice on preventing ageing and expect to get anything other than biased, anti-woman advice is beyond me. However, that's pretty much precisely what Rachel Krantz did in her article for Bustle, "Can You Prevent Aging in Your 20s? I Asked a Plastic Surgeon & Here's What He Told Me." I still clicked on the article, partly out of morbid curiosity, partly because I fully admit to not being immune to beauty culture and like most women I know, fear ageing not because of what it might do to our faces and bodies, but because of what it might do to the way people will treat us. Bustle has made something of a trademark out its "I did X so you don't have to," articles (e.g. going without deodorant for 7 days, actually drinking the recommended amount of water per day, shaving your face for some reason that I so strongly don't wish to know that I've never actually clicked on that article) but I'm not sure there was a hell of a lot of a reveal with this one.

The plastic surgeon - someone who makes their living from people's insecurities about their looks, remember - recommends regular Botox. This is your first sign that someone is not to be trusted. Botox is a poison - the clue is in the full name, Botulinum toxin - yet for some reason we don't regard it as bizarre, harmful and grotesque as when Queen Elizabeth used to whiten her face using lead-based make-up. It can cause symptoms similar to the fatal condition botulism. It works by paralysing your muscles. Under what other circumstances would we ever encourage someone to voluntarily paralyse healthy muscles, except in a society so warped by the fear of natural ageing that we view it as a disease that must be cured?
"It is very typical for everyone when they’re young to believe they are immortal," Dr. Wells told me."But the smart people realize they need to be proactive ... For example, if you never clean your house, it will continue to get dirtier and messier and more unkempt — and that is the aging process. So this is housekeeping for your body."
Um, no it's not. Sorry. Nope. Putting poison into a healthy body is not "housekeeping." It's harm, plain and simple. It does absolutely nothing to increase anyone's physical health or longevity, or decrease their risk of serious diseases. For someone who calls themselves 'Dr', this individual seems to be seriously confused about the distinction between keeping yourself healthy - which is an admirable goal at any age - and keeping yourself looking a certain, socially-dictated way. Comparing the physical ageing process to an unkempt house isn't just lazy and offensive, it's untrue. Ageing is not "untidy," "dirty" or "messy." It's natural. It means - SHOCKER - that you'll look different at 50 than you did at 20. And different at 80 than you did at 50. So fucking what? Only in a society where we're taught to loathe all markers of nature on our bodies, especially as women - hair, wrinkles, rolls, cellulite - could the simply flipping obvious trajectory of the human body over time be compared to letting your home go to shit. If that's really the case, then I compare the use of Botox to applying a substance to the walls of your house which does nothing to improve their structure or resilience and actually destroys their natural function.
Maybe I was just being stubborn by refusing to "protect" my skin, the same way I'd delayed setting up an IRA until this year, or still hadn't figured out what to do about my newly-aching knees after a run.
 Although I empathise with Krantz's fears of ageing - I don't think any woman, save for one who lives in an isolated cabin far from all civilisation with no mirrors in it, would say she has no fears about getting older - I dislike the fact she even entertains the idea that it's somehow obnoxious to refuse to buy into misogynistic anti-ageing culture. Saving for your old age? Smart move, unless you want to work until you're dead. Looking after those achey joints? Ditto, because this body has got to last you a lifetime. But INJECTING POISON INTO YOUR FACE? No, refusing to do this is not STUBBORN, it's FUCKING COMMON SENSE!! If you want to "protect" your skin then sure, wear sunscreen all year round, or a healthy layer of Vaseline, or both. Wear an ice hockey helmet with a visor on it, if you really want to be completely "protected" from all the possible ravages of daily life. But fuck OFF with this rewriting of language, this abandoning of sense, this demonisation of perfectly normal  human processes to the point that you're unreasonable if you don't invite a surgeon to sink a scalpel into completely healthy flesh. You cannot turn back the clock. You cannot stop age from having effects on your body and face, because that's the physical law of this world. Undergoing pointless and damaging procedures that will simply pretend your skin hasn't gone through what it's gone through is not the same thing as getting in a DeLorean and being 18 again.

And why should we want to do the latter, anyway? Why is youth - a time of disempowerment and ignorance - so fetishised? Why, conversely, is ageing considered so criminal? My grandmother recently died at the age of 94, and her life's rich experiences were etched into her 94 year-old-looking face. And that's exactly how it should be. How damn creepy would it have looked if half of those years were missing from her face?

The depressing thing about the piece is how, for someone who claims she's a feminist regularly
throughout the piece, Krantz seems to have no scepticism towards the idea that by getting Botox or cosmetic treatments, she'll automatically "stay relevant in my field and desirable to my partner for even longer." She gives barely any time over to considering whether it's really true that age will have any effect on those areas of her life, or whether it's more likely that women are just constantly intimidated in to having procedures they don't need with the threat of it? Is it really our partners and employers who imbue us with the belief that as soon as we show a grey hair or wrinkle, they'll leave us, or is it magazines, TV shows, beauty advertisements and oh yes, wait for it, PLASTIC SURGEONS, perchance?! Perhaps I'm an idealist, but I like to think that in Krantz's particular field, the same one that I inhabit, what you write still matters more than what you look like. Don't get me wrong, I'm aware that there's been an insidious push for writers to have a public face, and yes I do kind of hate the fact that more and more articles, online and in print, have to be accompanied with a headshot of the author, but that in itself is hardly reason to rush out and get our the skin on our jawlines stapled behind our ears. I just can't understand why - apart from in order to spin out enough material for a whole piece - Krantz would entertain the idea that a (male, incidentally) plastic surgeon is an unbiased source on whether she should be "preventing ageing."

Well, I can tell you how to avoid getting that little crinkle between your eyebrows. Don't ask people who make their living off hating women's bodies and faces for advice.

15 Nov 2015

#NoDickPics - why is revenge porn so gendered?

I posted this tweet recently because, well, it just can't be said enough. Since revenge porn was made a crime in the UK in April this year, the Guardian reports that there are 8 female complainants for every male complainant. Which could make you think that women are going apeshit sending out nekkid pictures of themselves, while men are much more circumspect about the matter. But we know that's not the case: as any woman who has received an unwanted dick pic will tell you, there’s a big demographic who love sending out pictures of their genitals whether the recipients have asked for it or not, and that's straight men. For whatever reason, these men don't seem to end up shamed, humiliated, blackmailed or threatened with exposure (literally) in the way that women who dare to share explicit pictures of themselves with their lovers do. 

As plenty of women in possession of a computer or mobile phone will tell you, you don’t have to be dating, have expressed an interest in, or even made contact with a man for the explicit selfies to start flooding in. As a lesbian woman recently mentioned to me, you don’t even have to be straight; presumably chaps think the allure of their penis is so irresistible that it will “turn” gay women. As I can testify myself, even when you ARE having a sexual relationship with a man, and have explicitly TOLD him that you don't like receiving dick pics, you will get the inevitable, "I know you said you don't really like them, but..." message that warns of an incoming genital image. Two different lovers have done that to me, presuming that while all other penis images must leave me cold, theirs will be the magic one that will suddenly have me rubbing myself against my phone screen with arousal. Apparently there is no arena in which a woman's "no" will not be interpreted as "please transgress my boundaries and I'll surely find it seductive." 

I asked a friend recently "WHY do men DO THAT?" and she theorised that perhaps the men who send these shots really don't have any idea of how common it is to receive unwanted dick pics, and therefore assume they're doing something special, different and interesting. Maybe there's something in that. Maybe it really is pure personal arrogance, the thought that "everyone else's junk must surely look awful, but the image of MINE will be the one that will set this woman's loins afire!" Maybe it's an inversion of (some) men's own wishes, the idea that because they would love it if women sent pictures of our bits to them, the same must be true in reverse. Sorry chaps, but it's just not. I don't know how erotic disembodied genitals ever are, to be honest. Much as I loathe those hoary old stereotypes about "women just aren't as visually aroused as men," (and can tell you they are BS anyway) I'm also not going to lie; if I find someone attractive, I'd rather see a whole picture of all of them (faces are still nice, after all! When did people stop wanting to see those?) than a snapshot of just their junk, and better than that, would rather encounter them in person, and be able to engage all my senses in being near the whole of their person. Also, perhaps one of the reasons women don't find dick pics erotic is because we're genuinely only interested in erect penises as far as we can actually do something with them. I don't find a picture of a vibrator sexy. But I might find playing with it extremely fun. The same kind of goes for men's junk: unless it's here, in person, about to offer me some actual physical pleasure, I'm just not going to get hot and bothered by the sight of it. 

Given the proliferation of dick pics, it does speak volumes to me that the majority of people having their explicit pictures used against them are women. Yes, in an ideal world no one would be a vindictive jackass and try to shame their ex-partners for having dared to share intimate images or videos with them. But since "revenge porn" is a thing, why the hell are the victims almost always women, when there are so many men out there who could also see their jobs, relationships and reputations shattered with a quick upload from a vengeful woman (and not necessarily someone he'd even been intimate with - as we've covered earlier, there doesn't need to be any pre-existing relationship in order for for dick pics to get sent)? To me, it's at least partly a sign that we're stuck in archaic ways of thinking that dictate women should be shamed for having been sexual while it's a source of pride for men; as I say in an earlier post, revenge porn wouldn't be a thing without sexism. Because then having explicit pictures of you made public would not be considered the worst thing that could happen to a woman; it would not be considered humiliating, shameful and traumatising. And perhaps the fact that it isn't considered an equally awful fate for a man is why women are less likely to use revenge porn as a tool to get back at male exes; or perhaps it just doesn't occur to women to try and sexually shame their exes (although that seems unlikely, especially if a breakup has been acrimonious). One woman has recently been blackmailing men via threats to release nude videos of them recorded on Skype, so there is apparently enough money in men's fear of sexual exposure to get the con artists involved. I just think, if next time we encounter a story of a woman being victimised through revenge porn. every woman who's ever received an unwanted or inappropriate dick pic made it public, there'd be a sudden and rapid emptying of workplaces, family homes and pubs, as all the men who think it's OK to impose their sexuality on women ran to hide...

12 Oct 2015

Trainwrecks, woman-children and expectations of feminist gratitude

If there's anything more likely to prompt a display of wilful ingratitude, it's being told that you should be grateful for something. The meal that the seven year-old was happily eating a minute ago gets shoved to one side as soon as their parents point out that they that should be thankful for it because kids in the developing world are starving. Someone says "well, at least you have your health," when you're bitching about some other aspect of your life, and you want to say "FUCK MY HEALTH, I'M TRYING TO HAVE A GOOD OLD COMPLAIN HERE!" And of course, there's the enraging response to any woman who dares to suggest that feminism in the first world still has a way to go: "At least you're not in Saudi Arabia/Sudan/DRC/Iran, women there have it much worse."

Sometimes I feel like these expectations of gratitude (which often are really saying "Be grateful, even though the bar is set so low for what you should be grateful for that it's frankly insulting" or "Be grateful, because I'm just not interested in hearing anything else") come from inside the feminist community. Every so often a woman or TV programme or other media artefact will come along that will have everyone buzzing about what a game-changer it is. Case in point: Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that managed to feature a strong, non-sexualised female lead, pass the Bechdel test with flying colours, and feature enough guns, explosions and fast vehicles to please action movie buffs too. Yet, great as it was to see such a film emerge, it was depressing that its success was even worthy of comment. It's 2015, for fuck's sake - why should a female lead in an action movie still be noteworthy? Why should we have to be pleased that Charlize Theron's character didn't prance around in a catsuit, and that women with actual wrinkles and grey hair got some decent airtime during the movie? These things should be the very damn least we can expect from a movie, not something we should feel grateful for, and the fact we're still expected to speaks volumes to me about how feminism still has to go.

I was reminded of this reading a friend's status on Facebook this morning. Heather Carper, who amongst various talents is a social justice activist (and someone who provided some invaluable input to my book) wrote:
I officially don't get the point of Amy Schumer. I understand that being "fat by Hollywood standards" is a thing, and being blunt about being sexually voracious is potentially an anti-slut-shaming/ fat-shaming thing. But ultimately it mostly feels like things that should have been scandalous/gross/ funny when we were in Junior High. . .
This echoes my own thoughts on the matter. Now, granted, just because we're all women/feminists doesn't mean every woman's work is going to be our taste. Perhaps Schumer's comedy is just not the type my friend and I enjoy. That doesn't make it bad, or anti-feminist, and she has every right to be putting it out there and enjoying her success. But the fact that Schumer is being held up by the media, and by many feminists (she was Ms. magazine's cover star this summer) as a trailblazer for women is the part that really doesn't sit right with me. 

I went to see Trainwreck, the Judd Apatow film starring Schumer, a few months ago, and let's just say it's a good thing it was a free screening because I thought it was such a poor film that I would have been angry had I spent any money on it. It wasn't funny. It wasn't feminist. It centred around a fairly dislikeable, one-dimensional, self-absorbed white woman who happened to be slightly chunkier than the average Hollywood actress. The latter aspect was about as feminist or trailblazing as the film got, because otherwise it seemed like an attempt to shoehorn every possible cliche about sad spinsters into 120 minutes. It showed Amy being desperate for love, having various unfunny sexual mishaps, and eventually changing herself (and dressing up in a "sexy" cheerleader's outfit - WTAF?) to try and please a man. Oh, and it was kind of homophobic too, Paging Emma Goldman, I think we lost our feminism somewhere...

Now the defence of this is that, if we've truly achieved equality, films should show women as equally flawed and capable of making mistakes as men. But that's not really what was going on here. Rather than suggesting that women can be imperfect and still be OK, the film actually just reinforced a load of conservative cliche about women and relationships: as Nicholas Barber pointed out in The Independent, 
Amy’s hedonistic streak must be erased so she can end up with her Prince Charming, Bill Hader’s clean-cut doctor. Transformed and reformed, she ultimately gives away all her alcohol and drug paraphernalia and confesses her envious admiration for the married-with-children sister she once mocked. . .Yuck. For a film that spends so much time subverting romcom conventions, it’s amazing how lovingly it ends up embracing them.
Women still aren't allowed to be imperfect without them ending up "fixed" in some way - via a makeover or a man. While it'd be a great start to see more body shapes like Schumer's on screen, the behaviour of her character doesn't seem particularly rebellious, any more than say, Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham's character in Girls, whose main flaw is her mind-boggling self-absorption.

This, as Heather pointed out on her status today, is a privilege only afforded to some women, namely white, middle-class women. Being inefficient and immature is not a risk many women can take. Writing about the new trope of "woman-child" as embodied by characters such as Hannah, Amy and Annie from Bridesmaids in the current issue of Bitch magazine, Sarah Sahim says  
In Western society, people of color must often work several times as hard for the same amount of success and recognition as a white person, often at the price of cultural assimilation. (And then watch while white mediocrity is hailed as an edgy new stereotype). . .If a woman of color was presented as a woman-child [in a TV show], all-too-familiar racist rhetoric would start to play out. A young woman of color who slacks off at work and smokes pot would be dismissed as lazy and ungrateful.
Heather wrote something similar on her status today, pointing out that the risks are simply different; Amy Schumer may still run the risk of being slut-shamed for talking graphically about sex, but she won't be "presumed a wanton babymaker that must be controlled because of your skin colour." I also agree that the individualistic philosophy that interprets one woman having the platform to publicly caricature her sex life as somehow sex-positive progress for all women needs taking down. How exactly is an awkward sex scene between Schumer's character and her dim boyfriend (who is apparently closeted gay - someone explain to me why that's meant to be funny rather than just horrible?) a step forward for womankind?

This brings me to a point I think can never be made enough - because there is still such a dearth of films where women are the default characters, not just helpmeets for the male characters, not just a romantic mirror for the male lead to see himself in, not completely absent and not just a token Smurfette (Yo, Sicario!), there is still such a big fuss made when films like Trainwreck and comedians like Schumer come along. We fall over ourselves to call them feminist and progressive when, judged against any objective standards, they're actually pretty poor. No one looks at Mad Men's lead character Don Draper in all his conflicted, repressed, cowardly, philandering glory and says "He's such a complex and flawed man - what a great MALE character," because they don't need to - male characters are considered the default. No one holds Jon Hamm up as a fantastic role model and ground breaker for men for playing such a character. Men aren't expected to be grateful that such an actor or role exists. Because it's just presumed that they will exist. Of course male actors will get to play complicated and richly painted roles. And of course their characters won't be held up as something all men should be grateful for. Wow, Seth Rogen and Zach Galifanakis have done SO MUCH for the right of men to be chubby and bearded and still appear in movies, haven't they? Yet no one tells men to be grateful for that. Because  actually, they kinda had that right all along.

So, good luck to Amy, Lena, Sarah Silverman and all the other female writer and comedians out there putting their energies into depicting women who don't have their shit together. But don't confuse the fact that they're able to get their work out there (which does spell progress) with their work being progressive (which it generally really isn't). And don't tell me to be grateful for their success. I'll be grateful when the bar isn't set so low any more that I stop being expected to fawn over any successful woman just because she's a woman, rather than having the luxury to stop consider whether her work is any good and whether it uplifts other women, or just her own self-image and bank balance.

3 Sep 2015

Motherhood, Work and Marissa Mayer

"I don't think that I consider myself a feminist. . . I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable. . . but I don't have, I think, the militant drive and the chip on the shoulder that comes with that."

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

It's easy to portray feminism as humourless, whiny and unreasonable, and subscribe to the philosophy of ruthless individualism that says "I'm alright, ergo any other woman complaining is just being pathetic." There's probably no greater example of this when a wealthy, educated white woman implies that feminism is for women with a "chip on their shoulder." Or perhaps there is - when this woman announces she only intends to take as much "limited time off" after giving birth to twins as she did with her last pregnancy (a fortnight) and "work throughout" her pregnancy.

The fact said woman is expected to make a statement at all about her plans demonstrates exactly why we still need feminism - did anyone ask Mark Zuckerburg how he'll combine family and work after the recent announcement that his wife is pregnant, or how much time he intends to take off for paternity leave? Have they fuck. The fact one woman is being held up and scrutinised as the ultimate example of how to combine motherhood and work also demonstrates why we need feminism - because we still treat people who manage to be CEOs and mothers as special and interesting cases, rather than the norm. In the rush to condemn Mayer for behaving like a robot, for shitting on other women, for making the need for maternity leave seem unreasonable and indulgent, I haven't seen anyone ask whether perhaps her husband intends to take a more involved role in parenting their twins, freeing her up to return to work. The focus remains on women's actions, and on finding them wanting. Until that changes, feminism remains necessary - even if those who enjoy the gains of feminism while publicly distancing themselves from the movement would like to pretend otherwise.

Nowhere is it more apparent that the work of feminism remains in its infancy than the battleground of motherhood and work. As someone who intends to remain childfree for life, I often feel like I've gotten off easy; I'll never have to endure any of these shocking experiences, from being insidiously squeezed out of my job, to simply being sacked or made redundant on completely specious grounds, all for the crime of trying to combine mothering with work. True, I'll still be looked at as a womb on legs by many employers, and suffer the resulting discrimination - as one respondent says, "It’s obvious employers don’t want to hire women who are in their 30s out of fear they’ll disappear on maternity leave," and several other report that employers aren't shy of asking women about their plans for marriage and motherhood, even though this strikes me as illegal under equality legislation. However, by not having children, I do feel like I'm refusing to give my reproductive labour to a society, and in particular a work culture, that will only punish me for doing so - and that feels like a powerful statement. One I should not need to make if, as some would seductively like to persuade us, feminism's work is truly done and complaining about pregnancy related discrimination is just self-indulgent "negativity," as Marissa Mayer seems to imply.

Ultimately, Marissa Mayer can, should and will do what the hell she wants, and quite rightly. I do question how much of a "choice" it is to take two weeks' maternity leave in a culture that prizes long hours, presenteeism, and inflexible working as signs of commitment, but I also applaud Mayer for having at least extended decent parental leave options to Yahoo employees, when the USA is notoriously behind the rest of the world in terms of lacking any statutory parental pay. Surely the rules affecting employees down on the ground are of far more import (and will hopefully set a precendent for other tech companies) than the choices of one extraordinarily privileged woman? How Meyer intends to manage such short maternity leave is up to her, but one can bet it's not without a hell of a lot of support, and much of it being the kind that money can buy. Most women can't afford a nanny, and don't live in a household where one (or even both) partners can afford to take time off to care for a newborn, and it's their struggles we should be focusing on instead. Marissa Mayer is a red herring; let's stop criticising her life choices and start critiquing the culture that still punishes women for daring to try and combine motherhood and work, banish the phrase "trying to have it all" to the dustbin of history where it should long have been slung (has ANYONE ever accused a man who's a father and an employee of trying to "have it all"?!),  and  promote working policies that allow everyone, regardless of gender, to comfortably adjust to the hurricane that is the arrival of a newborn.

21 Aug 2015

Sex work, writing work, care work, unpaid work

Online media has recently been full of news stories and opinion pieces on Amnesty International's decision to take a stance on the decriminalisation of sex work. The debate itself is so polarised and seems to result in such deep entrenchment on both sides that I've no interest in getting into it here and now - and anyway, I doubt there's anything I could say that hasn't already been covered elsewhere in the media. However, what I want to think about is exactly that: the way the Western media (read: UK and US outlets) deal with this issue. Watching Amnesty debate being vehemently fought over by pro- and anti-decriminalisation advocates on social media, feminist blogs and in major news outlets, it occurs to this feminist that the way the issues surrounding sex work are reported remain deeply retrogressive.

Every piece I read on the subject, whether pro- or anti-decrim, was accompanied by a picture of an anonymous woman, clad in a short skirt, high heels or other revealing/"sexy" clothing, standing on a dark street corner, leaning into a car, or on display in a window (Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Daily Mail, CNN). Articles were by human rights lawyers, prominent feminists or Amnesty staff, but the voices of sex workers were conspicuous by their absence, unless a pseudonymous victim of abuse was being interviewed, usually giving graphic details of violence and sexual coercion. MSBNC interviewed a district attorney, a professor, and a writer on Melissa Harris-Perry's show, but no one with any direct experience of the industry.

This is where media outlets on both sides of the debate fail hard. The voices of the women (and men) whose lives and work are being batted about like so many feminist footballs are either completely omitted, or if they are included, it's as footnote to the voices of "real" experts (read privileged academics, head of NGOs, Hollywood actors), or in order to bolster the already established opinions of the writer/campaigner.

In the case of anti-decrim op-eds, these usually dismiss the validity of the term sex work because the writer deems all sex work exploitation, and yet they often ask that women in this industry re-exploit themselves by detailing their horrendous experiences. I've read more graphic, bordering-on-pornographic, tales of both real and imagined sexual and physical abuse in anti-sex work articles than I have anywhere else ("imagined" meaning when the writer details the hypothetical horrendous acts that they believe women will be forced to submit to if sex work is decriminalised, and yes I've read this kind of thing). While I appreciate that the authors are trying to appeal to what they see as the much-needed compassion of the reader, their tactics come across as not dissimilar from that of anti-abortion advocates - cheap, nasty shock tactics that take real stories of women's lives and then use them to bolster the profile of individuals already privileged enough to have a platform. Feminists often decry PETA for their abysmal uses of the female body in its ad campaigns, rightly pointing out that, whatever your cause, throwing women under the bus is never an acceptable way to get attention for it. Yet by demanding a constant supply of horror stories from women who were victims of trafficking, violence or coercion in the sex industry, anti-decrim feminists are doing much of the same. As Melissa Gira Grant writes in her book Playing The Whore, supporters of the abolition of sex work claim that sex work objectifies its operatives, yet  “it’s objectification too, when these “supporters” represent sex workers as degraded, as victims and as titillating object lessons.”

Pro-decrim articles have not necessarily been any more enlightened in their tactics. The media outlets featuring them remained happy to use usually decapitated images of scantily clad women's bodies as shorthand for sex work. I've never seen one of these pictures accompanied by a caption "posed by models," so I assume these women are real sex workers and wonder if any of them were actually asked for permission to be photographed? As Gira Grant also writes in her book, “The portrait of street-level prostitution. . . as it’s on display in media accounts – a woman, most often a woman of color, standing in a short skirt and leaning into a car or pacing toward one – is a powerful yet lazily constructed composite." The Guardian published a sole article in favour of decriminalisation, written by a (pseudonymous) sex worker and still accompanied by the requisite photograph of two women in short skirts on a dark street. This was the only article by an actual sex worker which I read on this subject, despite dozens of op-eds on it appearing in major media outlets over the last few weeks. 

The fact the sex worker in question doesn't use her real name shows how stigmatised her job remains - thanks in no small part to this bizarre media prurience surrounding sex work which means we view the industry as full of shadowy, headless figures in thigh-high boots, but containing no actual real people - and I suppose it's not surprising that there are few others like her willing to come forward and actually pen a piece for a major newspaper, given the risks of being outed, the amount of abuse she's likely to face, and the fact that if she is pro-decrim, she will be expected to defend her job to a degree that people in few other industries are obliged to. Nonetheless, I'm glad she wrote it, and for an outlet that pays, too. Nothing gets my goat more than people being asked to provide written content for free by newspapers who pay their staff writers yet come up with BS excuses like "we don't have a budget for online content" or "we only pay professional writers;" and sadly, I see it more and more. The Guardian social care blog asks carers (yes, us badly paid, disrespected, overworked and underappreciated souls who evacuate bowels and wash bodies and are treated like disposable monkeys for it) to write about their experiences, but as far as I know, doesn't pay for the privilege. I'm a writer and a care worker. Want to know why I do the latter job? Because the former doesn't pay enough. Needless to say, I don't write for anyone for free these days, and I'm sure as shit not going to indulge in the supreme irony of giving my time and skill to write about how badly paid care work is, for an outlet that won't pay me for that writing.

In a similar spirit, as Melissa Gira Grant documents, journalists are happy to ask sex workers not just to provide their stories for free, but also in her case - as a journalist who has done sex work in the past - they pretty much expect them to help write their pieces. In this great blog post, which reflects many of my own gripes about being expected to work for free, Gira Grant refers to various instances where journalists have expected her to function as a seam of sex work anecdotes that they can mine at any time - such as when a journalist asked her to critique his article after she declined to be interviewed by him, or when a feminist emailed Gira Grant less than twelve hours before the programme she was making aired, seeking to “pick her brain,” or when "a TV producer wanted me to introduce her to sex workers from Craigslist so she could tell their stories, [telling] me “It’s not work I’m asking you to do, it’s an introduction, and a way to shed light on an important and under-reported issue.” And, quite rightly, Melissa Gira Grant tells them all where to get off.

Gira Grant states: "I am on my own kind of strike from doing anyone else’s work on sex work. I will not answer your requests. I will not give you interviews. I will not be a token on your program. I will not direct you to resources. I will not introduce you to subjects. I will not do work you are paid to do."

It seems the media is only interested in sex workers as long as it can use them for a bit of easy, quick titillating clickbait, detail their horror stories or relentlessly perky happy hooker tales (like this piece by a worker in one of Nevada's legal brothels, incidentally written for Independent Voices, another outlet that doesn't pay its writers), or as Gira Grant finds, basically ask them to do journalists' jobs for them.

Wherever we stand on the issue of sex work, coverage of it needs to be held to higher journalistic standards if it is going to be reported on in any meaningful and feminist way. This means journalists doing their jobs, and if necessary, letting those who actually know firsthand what they're talking about take centre stage, and be acknowledged and remunerated for telling their stories. This means editors thinking of something other than the laziest possible accompanying photos when they encounter an article on sex work (as someone who keeps their blog relatively image free, I doubt this will ever be realistically considered, but I do wonder exactly why any accompanying image is necessary at all in many cases - it seems like a pretty feminist act to refuse to reduce the sex work debate to pictures of women's body parts). This means any news outlets that pays its writers can damn well pay everyone who writes for them, journalist or not, if it wants them to create content for what is, after all, a profit-making enterprise, and ditto interviewees or sources who are helping create that content. Til then, all we're going to get is more cliches, no meaningful discourse, just soundbites, dogma and the voices of real people muffled and stepped over by those with an axe to grind or an article to pitch.

***I recommend any freelancer who is sick of being asked to work for free joins this group***