For decades, every major battle in the area of sexuality has been won by progressives. The pill and the condom have long allowed women to enjoy their sexuality, and increasing numbers of women are unashamed of fulfilling their sexual desires. Alternative sexualities have become increasingly accepted, with gay marriage now accepted in many countries, and the Internet has allowed people to find those of similar sexual tastes and needs far more easily than ever before.
By the year 2000, it seemed that sexual conservatives were in irreversible retreat – at least on this side of the Atlantic. But society’s conservative/progressive pendulum has been swinging rightward for a while now, and it’s therefore not so surprising that sexual freedom is under attack, yet again. The usual suspects are there, of course: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and other religious groups who are always keen to trumpet the evils of free sexuality, in whatever form it may rear its head. The religious believers can’t be swayed by fact or logic: if their book says something is bad, then so it must be.
But attacks on sexual freedom here in the UK often come from more unexpected sources. Religious moralists are in a small minority, but secular moralists have become increasingly loud. In particular, some small, active hate groups using the Feminist label have appeared on the scene.
If you’re expecting an attack on Feminism here, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, the feminist movement came under heavy attack from within in the 1980s. The original feminist movement (of the 1960s and early-70s) was a libertarian one that focused on the individual rights of women: most of all, it fought for the right of women to do with their own bodies as they saw fit. In modern-day feminist parlance, the early feminists were “sex-positive”. In the 1980s, an anti-sex faction appeared, led by Catharine MacKinnon, a lawyer. These new “feminists” directly opposed the sexual libertarianism of earlier feminists. They effectively became the secular wing of religious pro-morality campaigners, and the two, apparently quite different, groups have fought for the same causes ever since.
Sex-positive feminism is still going strong, as demonstrated by the Slutwalk movement of last summer, which aimed to make Slut a word of pride instead of shame. Notably, the “feminist” anti-sexuality groups failed to support Slutwalk. But the mass media, and many conservative-leaning feminists, have embraced the puritanical feminist movement and rewritten history. Rather than a conservative offshoot of sex-positive feminism, the puritans are now presented as the only valid form of feminism: an anti-sexuality coup has twisted and subverted a once libertarian movement.
Chief among these neo-puritan groups in the UK is one called Object. It paints itself as a feminist organisation, and has received plenty of mainstream media coverage, but it campaigns exclusively against sexuality and sexual imagery. Bizarrely for a group that adopts the label “feminist”, much of its vitriol is used against women who dare show naked flesh in public. In Object‘s campaigning – against nudity in the media, strip clubs and prostitution – it supports and shares platforms with right-wing and religious fundamentalist groups. Yet newspapers like the Guardian and TV outlets like Channel 4 take Object seriously, and give them a platform that they wouldn’t give to religious hate groups.
Object‘s propaganda is laughable – I suggest you look at their site for yourself to see that. In particular, the page entitled “The Facts” is a masterpiece in obfuscation. [Update: since I wrote this post, Object removed all the "facts" from their "The Facts" page]. For sure, the page lists some facts. But it provides no information about how these facts are in any way linked to Object‘s claims that sexual freedom creates dangers for women. For example:
Over half (54%) of all women around the world say they first became aware of the need to be physically attractive between 6 and 17 years of age
Yes… and? I’d have expected the number to be higher, if anything. Given that evolution drives us to make the best possible choice of sexual partner, both women and men (not to mention many species other than humans) have a built-in need to make ourselves physically attractive. What point is being made here?
Eating disorders are as common amongst women as autism
OK… and is that a lot? And if so, what does it say about the causes of eating disorders? Or of autism, for that matter?
66% of teenage girls would consider plastic surgery and 20% would do it right now
Again, what are the causes of this? Is this proven to be a bad thing? Object don’t say. Can it be linked to scantily clad women (and men) in lads mags and music videos, as Object seem to imply? Or perhaps newsreaders should wear brown paper bags over their heads as well? Maybe we should ban any video or photo featuring a potentially attractive woman, just in case? Maybe Wahhabi Muslims have the right idea. If everyone is veiled, nobody can aspire to look like anyone else.
Polls suggest that 63% of young women aspire to be glamour models or lap dancers
And plenty of young men want to be footballers. What does this mean? Object doesn’t provide any interpretation. These “facts” alone are supposed to show that society is “too sexualised”, women are “objectified”, and somehow these meaningless words conjure up a world in which women are less safe. So let’s hide naked flesh! That will solve everything! [Note added: @DrPetra informs me that this number seems to have been made up. See her blog for details.]
And the nonsense continues. Yet some journalists and politicians take these people seriously.
As I began planning interviews for my recently launched podcast, I decided to talk to women who have come under attack, both from neo-puritanical groups like Object (and others, such as UK Feminista), and old-style religious puritans. I’ve met and interviewed strippers, prostitutes, female pornographers, female sex writers and female academics who research sexuality, and discovered some shocking things: that Object have never approached and talked to the women who they claim to be “saving from exploitation”; that Object have ignored the weight of research and evidence that exists showing that abuse is powered by secrecy and censorship, not by sexual freedom. I’ve even met a woman (who I can’t name here) who has received threats from Object activists against her and her family unless she stops working in sex-related areas.
In east London, Object are working alongside religious fundamentalists to have strip clubs closed down. They link the existence of strip clubs with increases in rape, although evidence doesn’t back that claim. They lie about links to “trafficking”, ignoring that licensed venues are forced by EU regulation to check workers’ passports. They picket the venues and harass the workers, and their campaign will ensure gay clubs close as well as straight ones (a fact they’re remarkably quiet about).
Quite simply, Object is a hate group. Its methods are those of lies and intimidation. It deliberately avoids facts that may undermine its fundamentalist belief that free sexuality is bad for women. Yet it receives donations and media time from sources that other hate groups (far-right racists, for example) could not.
If Object and UK Feminista won’t talk to women involved in the sex industries, I can. In my upcoming podcast episode, I interview strippers who have become political activists and trade unionists in order to defend their chosen way of making a living, and their right (once fought for and won by feminists) to do as they choose with their own bodies. Object, without ever meeting these women (they refuse to), or setting foot in a strip club (their minds are made up), have labelled the women simultaneously victims, and a root cause of rape and domestic violence, without a shred of evidence to back any of these claims.