Conservative Feminism and the Right to Offend

This week, the fight to censor British media and art – even more than is done already – took a bizarre new turn, as pro-censorship “feminist” groups Object and UK Feminista launched an attack against Lads’ Mags. This attack can trace its roots to American morality campaigners in the 1980s, and it’s worth exploring a little history.

From the 1960s all the way through to the 90s, the British media scene was haunted by a pro-censorship figure; a devout Christian who believed her faith entailed the right to stop any British person from seeing anything that she personally found offensive. Mary Whitehouse was widely mocked throughout her campaigning life, which coincided with the greatest upswing of liberal attitudes in modern British history. She railed against the “permissive society”, in which her Christian morals came under assault from every side: the second-wave feminists were declaring the rights of women to enjoy sex without censure; abortion and homosexuality were legalised; TV and the theatre risked showing nudity, and society failed to collapse. There was plenty of work for a morality campaigner to do, but Whitehouse undertook it with a ferocious energy that gained her admirers, even among her enemies.

Although she was a figure of fun for most people, Whitehouse left her mark on British society: we became, and remain, the most censored country in Europe, other than Catholic Ireland and Poland. Her lobbying organisation, Mediawatch-UK, outlived her, and actively campaigns against “permissiveness” to this day.

But in the 1980s, the pro-censorship cause gained surprising new supporters. The feminist movement, once as far removed from Whitehouse as could be possible, split, and a new conservative wing of feminism emerged. The new, pro-censorship feminism was as moralistic as the 1960s feminists had been libertarian, as determined to cover up all female flesh as the previous generation had been to flaunt it – whether as a political statement, or just because…

Now, post-Whitehouse, media morality campaigns are spearheaded, not by conservative Christians, but by conservative feminists (though it must be suspected that many Christian morality campaigners have sought camouflage in the puritanical feminist movement).

This week’s salvo from the morality crusaders works as follows: they declare that any public display of sexuality – nudity, semi-nudity, or anything they deem to be sexual – “demeans” women. All female flesh must be covered up, in order to “protect” women.

The tactic they employ is to declare that any shop that sells potentially “offensive” material – lads’ mags in this case – constitutes sexual harassment, and thus an attack on civil rights, against any female employee in the shop. Women are, according to this doctrine, weaker and more delicate than men, and thus must be protected. This message is, of course, an anti-feminist one. But amidst the hysteria, many middle-class “feminists” seem not to have noticed, and are embracing this deeply patriarchal concept.

The tactic means that any woman who feels “harassed” or “offended” by having to even share a building with “sexualised” material can sue her employer. This isn’t an original idea; it was invented by a US lawyer, Catharine Mackinnon, who was one of America’s leading conservative feminist morality campaigners in the 1980s. This “civil rights” approach to attacking sexual expression turns censorship from something the state does, into something anybody can do. Any woman who feels she is offended, or “demeaned”, by a smiling photo of a semi-naked woman can claim that her rights have been violated, and sue for damages.

The Mackinnon attempt failed; to allow such challenges would fundamentally undermine free speech, and this is clearly protected under the first amendment of the US Constitution. What Object and UK Feminista are not making clear is what should be obvious to anyone: if a person can sue for finding something “demeaning”, then anything can, and will, be censored. Offence is taken, not given, and almost everything offends somebody. Religious groups will find lads’ mags offensive. And Page 3 of the Sun. And gay publications. Some atheists will find religious material offensive, and surely a Christian bookshop worker could sue for having to sell The God Delusion? Fundamentalist Christians could find Muslim or Jewish publications offensive, and vice-versa. White and black supremacists may object to imagery showing mixed-race couples.

Art galleries will be sued for showing any kind of sexual or other controversial object – for example, erotic Roman sculptures currently on display at the British Museum. All expression will come under attack. The possibilities are endless.

Am I just guessing? No; the Mackinnon law, which failed to gain traction in the US, was adopted in Canada in 1992. The result: “controversial” material – and in particular feminist and gay publications – was seized. Gay bookshops were raided. The Canadian state revelled in its new powers of censorship. All the censors had to do, if they wanted to ban something, was to find one person who found that thing offensive.

Are Object and UK Feminista just well-meaning but naive? Unlikely. These groups know better than anyone the history of what they are trying to do, and the chilling effects this tactic would have on free expression. What is really disheartening is the rush of “feminist” supporters to back these morality groups in the mistaken belief that feminism is about begging “The Patriarchy” to protect weak, sensitive, helpless women from anything they might find demeaning (which has, it seems, come to mean “icky”). What is tragic is the widespread belief that the very sexual freedoms won by the 1960s feminists are themselves a threat to women’s rights.

I have a fundamental problem with people who are prepared to be easily offended. About anything. In fact, I find them offensive. Object and UK Feminista will find themselves as easily censored as anybody else if their “civil rights” approach to censorship succeeds; I suspect they don’t care. They are the modern-day successors to Mary Whitehouse, and if they succeed in banning all “offensive” material, they will have finished the job she began in 1963, when she set out to attack – more than anything else – the sexual liberation of women.

[PS – As I’m so often informed that I, being a mere man, have no right to comment on feminist issues, here are a couple of other good articles on the Lads Mag campaign, written by women.]

Georgia Lewis: Losing lads’ mags and the slippery slope of censorship

Gemma Ahearne: Dangerous Dolls: ‘Object’ and Lose The Lads’ Mags

27 thoughts on “Conservative Feminism and the Right to Offend”

  1. Could you reference these developments in feminism from the academic literature? No, of course not, this is a complete pile of contrived bollocks. To attribute anti-porn feminism to some kind of conservative turn in feminism is a travesty of fact and you are completely full of shit. It frightens me to think ppl could read this crap and actually believe it.

    1. Sure – the events I’m referring to are known as the Feminist Sex Wars

      These mark the departure of a minority of feminists away from sexual liberation. They were spearheaded (as I mentioned) by Catharine Mackinnon, the daughter of a very right-wing Republican Senator.

      In hindsight, Mackinnon pulled a spectacular coup, and managed to split feminism in two. Mackinnon was very active in establishing the idea of feminism as an anti-sex, rather than pro-sex force. While this conservatism may or may not represent the feminist majority today, it certainly has gained the media spotlight via groups like Object. If you’re in the market for evidence, try asking Object for evidence to back any of their claims linking sexual expression to harm against women. They’re remarkable reticent to provide any.

  2. Object and UK Feminista offend me deeply by in painting me as a fragile child who cannot cope with erotica, who doesn’t know her own mind and I feel infantilised by these puritans.

    I am a grown woman, can I sue them?

    1. It’s an interesting subject for a blog post. These groups infantilise women, saying that women and children need protection in law, but not men. Surely that’s against equality?

      1. In Object’s little world women are these fragile helpless poor creatures who cannt bare to see other women naked or being sexual in any way without collapsing in a fit of despair, offensive and feelings of being degraded.
        In their world women need to be protected like children and kept away from anything sexual and covered up at all times.

  3. Edie, go for it. Maybe if enough women stood up and said, “Wait a minute, that’s NOT how I feel about this, YOU don’t represent ME” then these self-obsessed harridans would have to either put up or shut up. Although I suspect they’d likely just ignore you.

    1. I’ve said just that time and time again to feminists and yes, they ignore you. They call you names, try to shout you down, patronize you, then block you.

  4. My personal take on this is that both organisations have not got the money for a test case and are just desperate for column inches in the press. In particular the ardent support they get from the Graun… except that even a poll in that most feminist haven of papers showed 63% of readers thought the whole thing a waste of time, Certainly the last time Object Ltd published their books they had £7k in the bank which if Matrix Chambers are taking on a case may cover at most a couple of days work. I suspect though we may see Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre getting involved so they win ratio won’t get any better I guess.

    The problem will come when someone like Abbott or Reeves decide to jump on the bandwagon and start putting political weight behind it hoping to gain some political brownie points. And it will be the left as much as it pains me to say that is most likely o climb onto this bandwagon.

  5. The language being used to justify a ban on lads mags in supermarkets and other retailers is incredibly conservative and moralistic. Quotes from staff working in supermarkets on the Losetheladsmags website talks about them not liking lads mags and not wanting to see “that sort of thing”. We are told customers don’t want to see pictures of naked women when doing their weekly shop.
    It’s morality dressed up as feminism and liberalism and the puritanical views towards sexuality of Object and their cohorts is covered up with fake concern for women’s rights.

  6. Yakoub Islam, anyone who uses “bollocks”, “shit” and “crap” in their attempt to argue against something has lost the argument already. Good arguments don’t need emotive language. Using emotive language shows you don’t have an argument.

  7. I’ll admit, despite my ancestors coming from there, and quite recently at that, I know very little about Britain.

    In the United States the feminists you speak of exist though. Curiously, they only seem to have great political clout on issues that the 700 Club and other evangelical groups tend to agree with them about.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that they operate in the same way as any marketing “AstroTurf” group operates. If they weren’t inventing flimsy cover stories for “That Old Time Religion,” which isn’t as popular as it used to be and has a number of good arguments against it that are well known, they would be entirely irrelevant.

    I’ll admit, though, I thought Britain was different regarding “That Old-Time Religion” which was a relative novelty over there and was, I thought, chased out with the Restoration.

    Therefore I find all this a bit baffling.

    1. Certain Christian Organisations over here receive funding from a name you might recognise, the Alliance Defence Fund which gets its money from companies like Blackwater Private Defence and Texas Christian Dr James R Leinger. The fact that the linkage is underplayed over here suggests that we would react negatively to Creationists and military contractors funding our Christian Right. It does seem strange that left wing feminists would side with right wing Christians as the two should be diametrically opposed.

      It general our religion hasn’t got in the way of common sense but that seems to be changing where the two groups are agreeing, The green party (4th string political party) now has committed Christians taking part in the party infrastructure.

      So we haven’t had as much in the way of religious nuts getting involved over here but that seems to be changing with God TV intending to set up shop in an infamous area of Plymouth. Guess we can look forward to interesting times.

  8. An article on sexist material without a mention of the rape and sexual aggression that women face every day. An article on sexist material without mention of the school girls who are enduring horrific amounts of sexual assault. Feminists are fighting for these reasons, not some puritanical anti-sex ideology. Feminists are the ones saying that men are more than just their sex drive – let’s have a society that reflects this. Then perhaps, just perhaps, we can finally start seeing those rape and sexual assault stats start coming down – it is about time we did.

    1. Are you suggesting that lads mags are to blame for rape? This, indeed, is what Object seem to claim. However, there is no evidence that rape is caused by imagery, any more than it’s caused by the way women dress. Falsely blaming rape on imagery in order to push a morality cause is not only erroneous, it’s despicable.

      Oh, and rape stats ARE falling, everywhere throughout the Western world. They have been, consistently, for about 30 years. The reasons for this are no doubt complex. But it’s therefore simply false to link the rise of “sexualisation” with sexual violence.

      As I said above, Object is nothing more than a morality group. At least Whitehouse was honest about her objectives.

  9. Catharine A. MacKinnon, ‘who was one of America’s leading conservative feminist morality campaigners in the 1980s. Utter nonsense and could only have been written by either a male libertarian or a female handmaiden of male libertarianism.

    Catharine A. MacKinnon has always proudly stated she is a Radical Feminist but this author clearly has no knowledge whatsoever concerning Radical Feminist theory and activism. But no matter keep uttering these spurious lies.

    Object and UK Feminista have obviously frightened libertarian men and other men collectively because mens’ pseudo right to subject any woman or girl to pandemic male hatred and male contempt must never be challenged.

    Well done Object and UK Feminista because you have frightened those male libertarians.

    ‘Civil Rights’ – oh yes ‘Civil Rights’ means white men are the ones who decide what is and is not ‘racist’ because non-white women and men are incapable of deciding when and if they have been subjected to vile white men’s hatred. Oh but wait – racism exists because non-white groups happen to contain males and if a male is present or within an oppressed group then said oppressed group’s issues are real.

    However, only females comprise the group globally which men continue to declare are not human and hence cannot be dehumanised or degraded because women and girls aren’t human! Ergo: no males present means issue is not important or relevant to men because only males are definitive human beings.

    Likewise women and girls are supposedly incapable of defining what is and is not pandemic mens’ hatred and/or contempt for women and girls. White men are of course the only ones capable and it is no coincidence that white men continue to hold socio-economic power and domination over all women.

    Keep spouting your lies because you are obviously very, very frightened that mens’ pseudo right to subject any woman or girl to vile misogynistic dehumanisation and degradation must never be challenged or subject to legislation.

    The issue is misogyny – yes misogyny which means male hatred/male contempt for females. Not ‘sexism’ because that does not describe what men collectively and individually are enacting against women and girls.

    1. See the issue here is you believe that you are speaking for all women? Or some women? Or a minority of women who agree with your view? The fact that so many women hide the feminist boards on mumsnet and feel intimidated if they ever post on those boards suggest that the theory you believe is a minority view. I love and respect women and some of my best friends are female. I respect feminists up to the point they think radical is a solution.

      Lets be honest about the attitude of Rad Fem organisations they actually verbally attack other women who disagree with their view. I remember reading about Anna Span the former feminist porn director who wanted to stand for election as an MP. Object called her all sorts of names and even wrote to the liberal party attacking the choice of a women standing for election as she was the wrong type of woman. Anyway back to the issue….

      You assume that men seeing women in a state of undress cause them to become wild beasts? We know one of the rape myths is a man can’t control himself if he sees a woman in provocative clothing. That is obviously not true and in the same way the suggestion that lad mags would cause sexual crime is obviously a falsehood as men can and do exercise control.

      Now Object are an organisation that has used reports that are not reliable (very polite version of what I think of Lilith) and even though they know how bad it is they still have it on their website. So they believe that a case can be won against lad mags being sold? Then let them fund it, I would be highly amused to see Charlie Dacke debate this as her track record isn’t so good. Saying that isn’t Anna about due back?

      This is all smoke and mirrors as UK Feminista and Object have been out of the press recently and Object certainly have been struggling for funding. I haven’t heard if they got any money out of Rosa but they could certainly do with a boost in income. So in the real world talk up a storm but I doubt the case is winnable in court. It is up to those talking big to put their money where their mouths are.

    2. Oh dear. Who said anything about not challenging male hatred? And since when has nudity and any sexual imagery of women (or men) been hatred?
      You haven’t really addressed the issues at hand you’ve just gone on a mad rant against white men.
      Your sarcasm about libertarianism and civil rights suggests you don’t believe in those things, at least for things you dislike. What would you favour then? Repression?

    3. “Likewise women and girls are supposedly incapable of defining what is and is not pandemic mens’ hatred and/or contempt for women and girls.”

      You said it. It’s a tiny minority of women who tell the majority of women that they betray womankind by taking their clothes off, or enjoying their sexuality in any overt way. And you use feminist language to do so. But haven’t you noticed that your “women and children must be protected from the gaze of brutal men” stance is exactly the same one used by the Victorian patriarchy in order to suppress and demonise female sexuality? It’s almost as if “radical feminism” is about hating women.

      As I mentioned, your hero Mackinnon was the daughter of a very right-wing Republican Senator. A man who was key in the “lavender scare” campaign to attack homosexuality in the United States. She turned against displays of female sexuality, just as daddy attacked homosexuality. It seems that Cathy and daddy were close. What kind of definition of “radical” encompasses such people? Your “radicalism” is the same as the most conservative sexual attitudes from the worst times of female oppression. Very strange.

  10. There’s a history of ‘social purity’ campaigners hijacking feminism dating right back to the ‘first wave’ in the c19th/early c20th. The same thing happened with the ‘sex wars’ in the 1980s, and now it looks like the same thing is happening all over again. Maybe this time the message will get through that regardless of other equality issues, it’s perfectly possible to be a feminist and a sexual conservative.

  11. Porn is just one of the battlefields in the feminist wars. The fighting over sex work/prostitution is even more vicious. In fact Rhoda Grant’s misguided attempt to criminalise clients is well worth blogging about in the wake of the results of her consultation being published last week. Finally there is a radical feminist conference in London this weekend, RadFem 2013, that is, frankly, beyond satire. The comments of the organisers about trans women (i.e. women who were born as men as opposed to what the jargon calls cis women) are unbelievably vile. What price sisterhood?

    1. The “sisterhood” has no time for solidarity with women who do things they disapprove of. They believe they are either mindless victim who’ve been brainwashed by “patriarchy” or evil women who are the cause of rape.

  12. I just love the way some “feminists” think that it’s only men who don’t believe in banning sexual imagery and repressing sexual oppression.

    Look around the web and find the scores of female activists who are campaigning for rights for sex workers, strippers and glamour models and who are fighting against their employment being taken away by middle class conservative women posing as “feminists” who don’t approve of their line of work.

    The insulting language of some “feminists” who say that women who disagree with them and are against their crusade to outlaw sexual expression are “brainwashed” by men or are “propagandists” for the sex industry is there for all to see and quite frankly is misogynist.

    Fortunatly there are good people like Edie Lamor speeking out against this!

    1. For feminist sense on these issues (from Ireland as it happens) I can recommend the blog and, in particular, the trenchant contributions to the sex work debate by Wendy Lyon.

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