Last week, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner released a report on the impact of pornography on young people. Tweets about this report from the perspective on an organisation working with women, young people and children elicited responses including the following:
“so improve porn. Don’t ban young people from seeing it. Porn is a healthy aid to masturbation. It’s just badly done.”
“Telling women they’re debased by sex. Feminism.”
“I’m sick of people shaming porn. I’ve been watching porn since I was 11. It’s a healthy part of my life.”
Since then, the voices of so-called pro-porn, pro-sex-work and tory-feminists have started to sound increasingly similar to me. The young woman defending porn as a healthy aid to masturbation, the sex-worker celebrating her mastery of her craft or the former-tory politician describing that hard work that she had to undertake to reach the lofty heights of power, to my ears they’re all ‘me, my needs, my achievements, my just rewards’.
Starting with Louise Mensch, her own words really do it best:
“Aged 14 I had big glasses, was nerdy, feminist, ambitious, idolising Thatcher, and determined to be famous, to be an author, and to be rich. I was at private school my parents couldn’t really afford because I bust my ass and won a 100% academic scholarship. I always believed in myself and I had and have no intention of checking my privilege for anyone. I earned it. I hope the next generation of young women feel the same.”
That’s lovely, Louise. But no matter how hard you busted your arse, it might not be so easy for someone who doesn’t have a family descended from Roman Catholic gentry, who doesn’t get that scholarship and ‘earn’ a place at Oxford.
It’s clear that some groups have power and advantage where others do not. No one should deny that inequality, injustice, disadvantage and privilege exist. No one should deny that some experience multiple oppressions that others do not. This powerful blog by Reni Eddo-Lodge is a kick in the guts illustration to anyone who ever doubted it that that Sojourner Truth, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde and Angela Carter are as relevant to feminism today as Karl Marx’s thoughts about economic exploitation, alienation and the opium of the people. But from recognising the effects of class, race, age, sexuality, of life choices, life chances, of biologically determined or socially constructed differences, feminist identity politics has developed. Identity politics has become a sort of cultural nationalism, emphasising differences between those who share or do not share certain characteristics of identities whilst blurring what they may share.
Somewhere along the way ‘the personal is political’ became – not about the way that patriarchal society shapes the detail of women’s lives, not about the commonalities of experiences and certainly not about the social and political forces defining and constraining what it is to be a woman – but about identity, the individual, empowerment, the freedom to choose, the freedom to excel, to achieve.
The conflation of empowerment and the personal – as an individual, not social being – as the political undermines collective action to dismantle the structures upholding inequality. Emphasising self-determination and personal achievement is conservative, it protects the status quo if it stops us from recognising or caring about the barriers that others face. Autonomy, choice, agency, empowerment are at best tools, political means not ends. If we confuse them with our goals then we might as well watch the chance to create a fairer and more just society for all slip through our fingers.
Can we create autonomy for ourselves as consumers? Does the young woman enjoying her healthy aid to masturbation see this outside of the global porn industry? Is her masturbation not influenced by the big business of the market, competition and profit? Feminists have historically and continue to fight for women’s sexual liberation, but on our terms; not a plasticised, eroticisation of power inequality defined by men and their profits. Can her freedom to enjoy porn be separated from the exploitation of women and girls? How easy is it to separate her ‘ethical feminist porn’ from that which produces images of violence against women and girls created by actual violence against women and girls? What about the women and girls who suffer sexual abuse, violence and coercion from men and boys whose expectations have been shaped more by the pornography they have seen than their own experiences?
Do we want the freedom to gain economic advantage from commodifying women, packaging our sexuality, whether through lap dancing, pornography or selling sex, to appeal to the male gaze? If we can see the relationship between cheap clothing, the Rana Plaza Bangladesh Factory collapse and international economic exploitation, why can’t we see the connection between buying and selling women, exploitation of women and girls through prostitution and trafficking and inequality between women and men? If we want better and fair working conditions for people in Bangladesh factories (the largest sector of women’s employment and creating over 75 per cent of the country’s export income), do we not equally recognise that a gendered employment market with economic inequality and the low paid, dead end jobs being disproportionately held by women in the West creates the conditions that make selling sex a viable (lack of) choice?
Or do we only care when it suits us?
Empowerment is all well and good, but how will it change the world? Feminism for me is not about focusing on the individual. It’s about transcending the politics of the individual. I want a better world for all of us.