Posts By Meghan Murphy

Who is the real enemy in the prostitution debate? A response to one argument against abolition

Earlier this month, rabble.ca published a response from a sex worker named Sarah M. to, not only the abolitionist argument as a whole, but to me in particular. Having written several blog posts, cross-posted to rabble.ca (as F Word blog posts are) on the topic of prostitution which address and challenge arguments for decriminalization and/or legalization, building on or using abolitionist and radical feminist arguments as foundation, the site, with good reason, felt it fair to solicit a response from a sex worker, as many of their regular readers suggested they do.

I do question the recent efforts by some to focus this debate on individuals and on personal attacks. In essence, I am not convinced that this conversation should be specific to me / my work… While I do feel it is more productive to build an argument based on ideas, key issues, law, and of course, the broad spectrum of ways in which the sex industry impacts women, rather than to divert the argument into one focused on individuals, I also feel it necessary to respond to this piece in particular as the author has addressed my writing and arguments specifically.

I should, at this point, make it it very clear that all of my arguments and writing are inspired by the work of other women – radical feminists, exited women, Aboriginal women, and those who work on the front line day after day. The ideas I relay here are not solely my own, but rather they build on the breath of knowledge and theory and activism done, for decades, by my sisters in the struggle. With regard to my response to the piece published by rabble, which I was initially unsure would be useful or necessary, I believe there are enough points made which are either debatable, fallacious, or deserve to be expanded upon, to warrant a response. As such, I am unable to avoid addressing the author specifically, though I will do my best to avoid individualizing the debate to the extent to which the argument becomes lost in personal attacks, assumptions, or critiques.

I do not believe that, for the purposes of discussing this particular issue, it is useful or ethical to attack a progressive news site for publishing writing that some readers do not agree with. I support dissenting views and thoughtful critique, but not efforts to remove certain people or certain ideas from the debate. This is both a complex and difficult issue which has grown to dominate much of feminist discourse and, of course, has a very direct and dangerous impact on the actual, individual lives of women everywhere. Again, I believe this conversation can be had without personalizing the debate and without making assumptions about the interests and backgrounds of those involved in the debate. I am not particularly interested in engaging in arguments about who is more or less oppressed and which women do or do not have the right to speak.

Prostitution is a feminist issue. Prostitution is a women’s issue. Period.

I have never argued that, as the author claims, “anyone who disagrees with [me] must just need to experience more abuse ” nor have I depicted ” survivors as damaged goods, draw[n] caricatures of [their] modes of resistance, or refuse[d] [them] the dignity of defining [their] own experiences of sexual assault.” To argue such things is an abhorrent misrepresentation and is absolutely unproductive, as well as verging on slanderous.

While this particular response was, many ways, much more thoughtful and intelligible than many other attacks or criticisms that have been made on me, my writing, my arguments, and on abolitionists as a whole, the author nonetheless appears to, in places, misrepresent my position and the position of many abolitionists and radical feminists. Very often, within this debate, there are concerted attempts to remove feminists from the left and to paint abolitionists as somehow engaged in oppressive or right-wing tactics in order to further our cause as well as to accuse feminists of actually being the perpetrators of violence themselves. This could not be further from the truth.

Assuming that there have been points made in my writing which require clarification around my and many other feminists’ positions on prostitution, I am happy to clarify and to address some points made by this particular author.

While yes, this is a divide that has existed for decades (though not “always,” as the author claims – rather I would argue that this debate stemmed from the “sex wars” of the 1980s), it has been reinvigorated by Bedford v. Canada, a case which could lead to the decriminalization of not only prostituted* women (which abolitionists advocate for), but also of pimps and johns (to which abolitionists are opposed).

What is new, from my perspective, is a growing desire and solidarity among feminists and among progressive men to end a practice that reinforces, perpetuates, and normalizes female subordination.

Who is the “Sex Work Lobby”?

The first point made by the author addresses my use of the term “sex work lobby,” which the author argues “doesn’t exist” as “sex workers don’t have the government’s ear,” nor, according to her, do they have any collective power. The “sex work lobby,” it should be stated, is not limited to sex workers. The “sex work lobby” includes many people who hold considerable power in our society; such as pimps, johns, and pornographers. These groups also include many women who are not engaged in sex work. Many of those who aim to legitimize and legalize sex work are clients of sex workers as well as those who profit financially from the industry (i.e. pimps). The “sex work lobby” does not refer to specifically to marginalized women, though it does, obviously, include some women who engage in sex work,* and therefore does include the voices of some women who have been marginalized in our society in one way or another (in that some of those who are involved in these lobby groups are members of marginalized groups, such as women, racialized women, and poor women).

Though there are some women and sex workers who are involved in the sex work lobby, it isn’t accurate to describe this work as the work of a marginalized or silenced population. The sex work lobby does not include the voices of exited women nor does it tend to include the voices of survival sex workers and it’s leaders are women and men who have relatively loud and prominent voices in the media. A reference to the “sex work lobby” does not equal a reference to prostituted women as, again, many of these lobbyists are not prostituted women. This isn’t to say that these people do not have a right to engage in debate around this issue, but that to frame these advocacy groups as somehow more deserving of voice than other women’s or feminist groups is erroneous.

As for having “the government’s ear,” in Vancouver at least, many of these lobbyists do indeed have the ears of our local politicians which has and does have an impact on discourse and decisions made at the municipal level.

All that said, a lobby group refers to a group who advocates for or works to influence legislation or government decisions. Seeing as decriminalization/legalization advocates are working to change the law and that the groups who are engaging in this type of advocacy generally describe themselves as either sex work/worker advocacy groups and/or decriminalization advocacy groups, I think that the descriptor of “sex work lobby” is applicable.

The Sex Worker as “Transgressive”

An argument commonly made by women who discovered feminism within the third wave or through post-modernism is that sex work is somehow “transgressive” – that somehow, sex work defies norms and challenges dominant ideology or cultural expectations of women. To frame sex work as “transgressive” presents the act of commodifying one’s sexuality as a radical act. But what is radical about the selling of sex? Isn’t “sex sells” one of the most commonly used defenses for sexist imagery and depictions of women of our time? Isn’t the objectification of the female body the easiest way for men, for advertisers, for corporations, and of course, for mainstream media to profit? Isn’t the simplest way to gain male approval to sexualize our bodies and to appear as though our very being exists for their pleasure and consumption? Haven’t men long used female bodies to profit or to sell products? Capitalist patriarchy is not radical.

Sex work may well be necessary for many, many women. Many women must resort to prostitution in order to survive. There should be no judgement in this circumstance. We live in a world that doesn’t always leave us with many options. Survival is a priority.

Sex work may even be a choice of sorts for some women. If you have a certain level of privilege, there is a great deal of money to be made in the industry. There may even be aspects of this work that some women enjoy on a certain level. But money does not equal freedom and an individual’s ability to profit from a misogynist industry does not equal collective empowerment. In truth, prostitution is a “choice” largely determined by class / poverty.

As such, sex work is not transgressive. It is something that exists because we live within a system that thrives on inequity. Put women in a world where many cannot survive comfortably, where men, at large, hold more social, political, and economic power, where they are taught from day one that the most important thing about them is their sexuality and their ability to attract male attention, and where male pleasure is prioritized over female pleasure and well-being and see what happens.

The Location of the Debate

I agree that the location of this debate should not necessarily be between feminists, meaning that I don’t see how pitting feminists against one another could possibly be productive for the movement.

What has always been clear to abolitionists and to radical feminists is that this is a fight between feminists and the patriarchy.

Prostitution is not something that exists because of women’s power. It exists as the result of a lack of power and a lack of choice. I am as disappointed as the next woman that this debate has caused many of those who identify as feminists to call abolitionists their “enemies” (as well as a host of other, much less pleasant names). I am disappointed that this debate continues not be to centered around the perpetrators of violence – that is, the men. I am disappointed that we continue to blame feminists rather than an exploitative, violent, misogynist system that allows women suffer and die without a second thought.

Yet those who advocate for the decriminalization and legalization of prostitution often claim that it is not men who are their enemies, but rather it is feminists.

I am in complete agreement that we need to re-focus. Abolitionists have done just that; turning the lens onto those who are doing the exploiting and onto those who are profiting from women’s lack of power and lack of real choice. In the end, we are primarily concerned with stopping those who are doing the violence, that is, the men, as well as changing the system within which this kind of exploitation is allowed and encouraged.

Neoliberalism as the Enemy of Feminism

The author points out that which we are all (sadly) aware: “[if] the enemy is neoliberalism, then feminists are losing spectacularly.”

As Rahila Gupta wrote, back in January: “neoliberal values created a space for a bright, brassy and ultimately fake feminism,” going on to say that “if the culture of neoliberalism had something to offer women, it was the idea of agency, of choice freely exercised, free even of patriarchal restraints.”

What neoliberal ideology (that is, the work to privatize everything under the guise of providing more choice and freedom for individuals) has done for feminism is to provide a basis for a kind of individual empowerment which rests on a supposed “freedom” to choose. What the individual woman chooses is, of course, not relevant. That she is making a choice to get breast implants, to get onto a stripper pole, or to, yes, sell sex, is enough to frame this choice as potentially empowering. Gupta elaborates on this idea by referencing a concept discussed by Clare Chambers, called: “the fetishism of choice,” arguing that “if women choose things that disadvantage them and entrench differences, it legitimates inequality because the inequality arises from the choices they make.” Making a choice does not, in and of itself, empower anyone. Particularly when it is made within the constructs of an oppressive framework.

Within the context of neoliberalism, “choice” can work against us. We have convinced ourselves that by choosing to emulate that which has been sketched out for us by oppressive systems of power such as capitalism and patriarchy, we are actually empowered. Inequality, within this context, is overcome by choosing to frame said inequality as empowerment.

While it could be argued, as the originally referenced article does, that “the abstractions of neoliberalism” are less important than it’s practices, I would argue that the two go hand in hand. Attempts at privatization, the destruction of social safety nets, the work to dismantle unions and to defund essential women’s organizations happens because of people. People who believe that the world must function in a certain way and cannot or will not imagine another way. The poor will not rise above the rich by simply making do within the system designed to destroy them and women will not become empowered by pretending their oppression is liberating. “The abstractions” lead to policy, to legislation, and to decisions that affect the real lives of individuals and society as a whole.

What many abolitionists and the left have in common is the desire to change the system so that people have real choices and can live with dignity. This entails affordable housing, health care, education, social safety nets and, of course, a state that does not perpetuate and condone violence against women. To argue that feminists do not believe in and fight for these things is, to put it quite simply, dishonest.

I won’t be erased from the left by those who wish to vilify and make enemies of the feminist movement. The feminist movement nothing if not a progressive movement for collective empowerment.

Ending Prostitution is a Progressive Goal

While many of those who advocate for a model of decriminalization which decriminalizes not only the prostituted, but also the pimps and the johns, appear to enjoy arguing that abolitionists simply want to magically end prostitution in an instant, leaving those who engage in sex work without a means of survival, the argument is much more complex than this.

The argument is for more options and for something better. The desire is for women to be able to survive without having to resort to sex work. The desire is for real choice. That is, as Sarah suggests, “housing, income, physical safety, access to education,” as well as for exiting programs. Prostitution will not instantly disappear with the implementation of the Nordic Model. It will hold men accountable for their actions and will enable us to work towards a more equitable society in the long term.

From the perspective of feminists, pimps and johns do not desire freedom for women. They don’t want women to have alternatives to prostitution because then their orgasms would be a lot harder to come by. It would be pretty inconvenient for men who buy sex from women if those women could actually choose not to give a man a blow job so that she could buy groceries. I have a really hard time believing those men are pro-equality and I have a really hard time believing those men have women’s and society’s best interests in mind. Actually I’m pretty sure it’s their own immediate pleasure they have in mind.

Those men are never going to freely give up their power and donate liberty to women. It isn’t in their best interest. We’re just going to have to take it from them. Which is what the abolitionist argument really boils down to.

No, men don’t have the right to access women’s bodies simply because they have the means; no, they don’t have the right to abuse or rape or murder women. No. Those men must be held accountable. Presenting prostitution as something that men have the right to expect and benefit from will not make men responsible for their sexist behaviour. Instead it legitimizes it.

The Real Enemy

I don’t care how many times radical feminists are accused of being the enemy, are accused of being “in bed with the right” or are accused of imposing on individual freedom. We are women who have witnessed and experienced violence and abuse first-hand and continue to. We are women who believe in a better world and who don’t wish to settle. We are progressive women. We won’t be pushed out of the left so that men can buy sex more easily.

Feminists do not consider themselves to be enemies to anyone but the patriarchy. They want women to be safe and not to be criminalized for having to engage in less-than-ideal work in order to survive. That is to say we also advocate for the decriminalization of prostituted women. But that does not mean we must compromise our goals. That does not mean we shift our focus.

Sarah argues that “if ‘real’ feminists recognized sex worker advocates as feminists, even if we still disagreed about decriminalization, we would be a stronger movement.” And I would add that, to paint feminists as the enemies of women is to provide men with a huge gift. Because they agree. Men who buy sex hate feminists too.

So I’m not going to side with them and I’m not going to do them any favours. We aren’t going to forget who our real enemies are. Women are not our enemies and sex workers are not our enemies. There is no doubt in that. What remains uncertain is why so many continue to avert their eyes when we point to that truth and why the focus is continually shifted back to paint feminists as oppressors. All feminists want to end violence against women. We will not achieve this without forcing the state and forcing men to be accountable to women.

 *Within this article I use the terms “prostituted women” and “sex work/er” interchangeably. The term “prostitution” or “prostituted woman” is used out of respect for the exited women, Aboriginal women, and my feminist allies who use this language in order to draw attention to the exploitation, violence, and unequal power relations that are intrinsic to prostitution. I use the term “sex work” or “sex worker” at times with respect to this debate and in order to advance rather than halt the conversation. Some women, including the author of the article I respond to in this piece, who advocate for decriminalization or legalization prefer the term “sex worker” as it removes the implication that all prostituted women are victims.

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Connecting the dots: Pornography, the VPD, and violence against women

We could feign shock at recent reports that members of the Vancouver Police Department were busted for sharing and watching pornography while at work, but are we really all that surprised? Certainly many feminists are not.

The connections between pornography and violence against women are understood by many feminists, though perhaps not so much so by the general public. In a recent statement from Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, Summer-Rain Bentham is quoted as saying:

“This attitude within VPD and the actions by these officers reinforces that women’s bodies are nothing more than objects for male sexual gratification…”

Pornography is something that encourages dehumanization. It is much easier to commit violence against or abuse something or someone who we don’t view as a full being. Who, instead, we see as simply a body or as body parts. This is, of course, what feminists describe when they speak of women being objectifed. We fetishize certain body parts and separate them from the individual – the body or the body parts become objects of desire and, in pornography in particular, women become things whose sole value and purpose is male pleasure.

While it is not true that pornography is the only cause for violence against women, or even necessarily a cause at all (i.e. some men watch porn and do not commit violence and some men may well rape and abuse without watching any porn at all), the relationship between the objectification of women and the degradation of women that happens in pornography and our culture’s devaluing of women is undeniable.

Robert Jensen, who has done extensive research and writing on pornography, wrote:

Contemporary pornography will make use of any relationship of domination and subordination — a power differential between people that can be sexualized and exploited. The primary domination/subordination dynamic eroticized in pornography is, of course, gender.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the VPD’s treatment of women. Shown to have consistently ignored reports that women were disappearing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, it has become brutally clear that both the VPD and the RCMP don’t care about women. Particularly women who are poor, racialized, and prostituted. The Vancouver police had been receiving reports of “foul play” since 1998, and yet the department, nor the RCMP took action until it was way too late.

A couple months back we learned about the rampant and unchecked sexual harassment of women in the RCMP by male officers, and though women groups and feminist activists have long known and spoken out against sexism on the parts of the police, on the parts of those who are meant to protect us, it now seems impossible to ignore.

The CTV report on the discovery of porn-use on the parts of the VPD asks the question: “What were they thinking?”

But isn’t it obvious?

Porn culture, a culture of misogyny, of hierarchy, of a deep lack of respect for women is accepted in our society. It isn’t as though it’s only the VPD who think women exist as masturbatory tools or that certain women’s lives are disposable. The culture of male power and dominance is, of course, particularly rife within criminal justice systems, but it also speaks to a wider acceptance of this kind of behaviour.

When we discover that police officers are watching porn on the job, I wonder what the response is from the public, truthfully? “Well, that was stupid?” “They should have been more careful to avoid getting caught?” “Surprise, surprise?”

One of the saddest things to come of of this “discovery” is that we probably aren’t all that surprised. Spaces that are defined by male power and by hierarchy are generally not spaces that include and value respect for women and equality. Pornography doesn’t teach men to care about and value women and, coincidentally, the VPD and the RCMP have, over and over again, shown the public that they don’t care about or value women.

We expect men to watch watch porn. We expect them to hang out at strip clubs. We know they buy sex from women. We think it is a “normal” and “natural” aspect of masculinity and even of male bonding (exhibit A: the bachelor party). And then we act surprised when the men responsible, supposedly, for protecting us prioritize their pleasure over the safety of women?

Time to start making some connections.

 

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Link love: Occupying Valentine’s Day across the interwebz

Last month, Samhita Mukhopadhyay wrote, in a blog post:

…in an effort to push the bounds of that exclusivity that so many of us feel on Valentine’s day, I wanted to think about the ways we can rethink love and romance to resemble who we are, as singles, couples and community. Celebrating love is a beautiful thing but shouldn’t depend on if we are in a relationship or not, our sexual orientation, our class background, our citizenship status or our marital status.

In response to dominant cultural norms and expectations around love and romance, Samhita created a tumblr called Occupy Valentine’s Day.

Check out all the awesome and inspirational pieces that have worked to challenge the romantic industrial complex and couple-talism or have, more generally, looked at love and romance through a critical and feministy lens:

 

1) Sady Doyle wrote an amazing, must-read piece a couple of weeks ago over at Rookie about Bad Romance: how to recognize when you’re in one and how to get out.

YWCA Moncton is celebrating Galentine's Day this year!

2) Samhita Mukhopadhyay writes about marriage, class, and the romantic-industrial complex at The Nation.

3) Sady Doyle writes: “Love, according to one line of thinking, is our first and most important education in social justice,” in her piece about Occupy V Day over at In These Times.

4) Kelsey Wallace at Bitch Magazine writes about Galentine’s Day, a day invented by Parks and Recreation character, Leslie Knope – Galentine’s Day is all about female friendship and  “ladies celebrating ladies.”

5) Yay! You can find out more about Galentine’s Day and how to send cards to your most-loved ladies on YWCA Moncton’s website.

6) Clarisse Thorn provides an alternative perspective on Occupy Valentine’s Day at Role/Reboot because, hey, she likes getting red roses!

7) Tracy Clark-Flory looks at various anti-Valentine’s Day movements and events at Salon, asking: “Why has the holiday generated such cynicism and, sometimes, downright hatred?”

 

Of course we, at The F Word have been loving Occupying V-Day ourselves. Here is my take on love and romance in a patriarchal world and check our Occupy Valentine’s Day podcast, featuring an interview with Samhita Mukhopadhyay, at rabble.ca.

 

I highly recommend spending V-Day singing songs with Etta James, but however you choose to do it, happy Occupying!

 

 

 

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Occupy Valentine’s Day

Most of my love stories end with me feeling like I put a whole lot of energy into trying to build something out of nothing. Lust turns to love so easily and before you know it you’re invested in a relationship that seems more important than you. You end up trying to save a relationship for the sake of the relationship rather than trying to save yourself.

Before you all start accusing me of being bitter or hard or cold or damaged or whatever else women with personalities and life experience are, I’m not anti-romance and I’m not anti-love. I get sucked into all that lovey crap like the best of us. That said, I like to keep a healthy level of cynicism (hey, let’s just go right ahead and call that realism) on hand.

In a world that places an inordinate amount of value on heterosexual, we-only-need-one-another-forever-and-ever, marriage-type relationships, I think it’s important to challenge the notion that love means one thing and one thing only. Or that intimate relationships should look a particular way.

From personal experience, I know that one person isn’t meant to fulfill our every need and our every desire. No one can be your everyone.  And yet we are told the opposite. The contemporary story of love, marriage, and family says that we are supposed to meet a soulmate and that person should to make us happy forever. That seems like a lot of pressure to me. It also seems like a great way to feel a constant sense of disappointment for the rest of your life.

There have been times in my life when I’ve wanted those big, material displays of affection. Diamond rings, expensive dinners, proposals at sporting events (I used to date jocks, ok?) – these things are thrown in our faces so often as examples of romance and as representative of what real love looks like. It’s easy to fall for it. I never even wanted to get married and these fantasies would still weasel their way in.

In retrospect, it feels like the times I’ve wanted those symbols of affection it was because the actual real love was missing. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy food and gifts, because I do. Yes I do. But I’ve never expected my friends to buy me jewelry in order to prove they care about me. I really just want them to hang out with me and listen to me complain about stuff. Maybe if my romantic partners spent more time listening to me complain and less time paying for dinner those relationships would have stuck too.

I don’t want one person to meet my every need. I think it’s co-dependent and creepy. I certainly don’t want someone to think that if they pay for enough dinners or buy me enough stuff it should somehow make up for a lack of effort or compassion or caring. Somehow in romance-land, women are still expected to do the bulk of the emotion labour in heterosexual relationships while men are expected to “show their love” by doing things or by paying for things. Men are often excused from making a real effort to communicate and listen and think about their partner’s feelings or experience because their role as MAN means they don’t need to do emotional work so long as they are able to spend two months’ salary on an engagement ring. I remember an ex-boyfriend telling his buddy, upon hearing of this friend’s engagement to his girlfriend: “Well she deserves it – you really put her through hell.”

I certainly don’t think all men think this way but there is an overarching understanding, in our culture, that marriage and commitment is a favour men do for women. Men are excused from emotional labour or thoughtfulness or sensitivity so long as they make up for it in material or “romantic” ways. I have definitely, in the past, been rewarded with gifts for putting up with abuse. Vanessa Bryant (previously known as Vanessa Williams) was gifted with a $4 million “apology ring” from Kobe Bryant after he was accused of rape. There’s something about heteronormative representations of romance doesn’t really seem very loving.

In opposition to mainstream messages, love relationships or marriage are not actually the most important things in life. Let’s face it, these relationships are often miserable or they fall apart. Sometimes you find yourself in an intimate relationship with someone who fucks with your head to the point where you start to doubt every thought that crosses your mind and sometimes you find yourself in love with someone whose primary relationship is with drugs and alcohol and your heart breaks over and over again because you’ve committed to a person who loves crack more than anything else in the world. There are good relationships to be had and there is lots of love out there in the world but putting your relationship or your marriage ahead of your love for yourself, your well-being, and your happiness isn’t romantic. It’s stupid.

Valentine’s Day plays into all of this. It buys into the notion that material things equal love and it perpetuates the idea that heterosexual couplings, in particular, are the most significant relationships. Coupledom, according to V-day, means you mean something. It means you have worth. It says that the unmarrieds are just waiting for the right one to come along and that they are incomplete until that happens. And, in the end, Valentine’s Day doesn’t even really seem to celebrate real love. I mean,  if you’re going all out one day out of the year in order to make up for not paying attention the rest of the year, is that really all that romantic?

Occupying Valentine’s Day seems like a good way to celebrate the meaningful relationships in your life, regardless of who they are with, and to look for things that have real value and bring you happiness in ways that don’t simultaneously force you to compromise yourself. Marriage and diamonds are symbolic, sure, but in the end, you are going to be your best partner and you’re going to have to live with yourself until the day that you die. You may as well go ahead and try to nurture that relationship.

According to dominant narratives, I am supposed to start feeling desperate sometime soon. I’m over 30 and single. Somebody kill me or make a romantic comedy out of me. But I think, in my case, this romcom would have to tweak the ending so that, instead of putting on a wedding dress and making promises I’m not sure I should even try to keep, I can put on my bitch-face (to ward off the creeps, of course) and walk off into the sunset with my doggie. We’ll share some pizza later and will, without a doubt, live happily ever after.

 

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The naked protester (or, how to get the media to pay attention to women)

Nudity as a form of protest wasn’t invented by PETA. Events such as the World Naked Bike Ride uses nudity as a way to protest “oil dependency and to celebrate the power and individuality of [their] bodies,” 600 environmental activists went naked in 2007 to protest global warming and even as far back as the early 1900s, the Doukhobors, a Russian pacifist religious sect, held nude protest parades. So I wouldn’t go so far as to say that nudity was useless as a tactic in social movements.

Lately the Ukrainian protest group, Femen, has been getting a lot of attention. Why? Well, they’re beautiful, thin, young women who are mostly topless. They’re described alternately as a “women’s rights group” or a “feminist group,” as they campaign against issues such as trafficking, international marriage agencies, and sex tourism. According to their website, their goal is “to shake women in Ukraine, making them socially active, [and] to organize… a women’s revolution.” Of course feminists have been working towards revolution for decades and yet, somehow, have never been quite as popular as Femen appear to be now.

When three protesters showed up at an Occupy demonstration in Davos, yelling “poor because of you” outside the World Economic Forum, the media fell in love.

 

These three women were covered by pretty much every media outlet out there – mainstream and alternative alike. Particularly, many of the Occupy sites seemed enamoured. From right to left, dudes love Femen. Funny, because most of them seem pretty disinterested in feminist protests and movements otherwise.

Over at Occupy the Environment’s Facebook page they stated the obvious, commenting above the story: “That’s how you make it into the mainstream media.”

Yep. As witnessed by Slutwalk and by PETA, playing to the male gaze and going nude or almost nude is a great way to get media coverage. Particularly, as witnessed by coverage of Femen, if you’re a thin, young, conventionally attractive woman.

In fact, both PETA and Slutwalk stand by that very argument, defending problematic strategies and sexist branding on the basis that they would never have received so much media attention had they not gone with controversial marketing ploys. Whatever gets the attention of media is represented as a “good” thing and as something that somehow cancels out hypocritical messages.

Clearly nude protests are not the problem. The problem is that, within our pornified culture, women seem to only be able to find power in their sexualized bodies. Have we seen viral media coverage of nude male protestors over the past few years? Not that I can recall. PETA’s ads are certainly focused on the female body and, generally, that body is sexualized, thin, and often surgically enhanced.

When someone over at Occupy Ottawa’s Facebook page* posted an image of the women, naked from the waist up, the point was made by a couple commenters that it seemed unfair that women had to bare their breasts in order to get anyone to pay any attention to their message. This point was met with anger, confusion, and disdain. In fact, the response from the page’s admin as well as most other commenters on the page was a definitive: “stop with all the feminism, why dontcha.” This was followed by predictable commentary insinuating that those who weren’t fully supportive of Femen’s tactics and the page’s commentary were “dividing the movement” and being “counter-productive” by bringing feminism into the conversation. Interesting, because Femen is a group that is often associated with feminism. It would appear as though we only like feminists so long as they are nude.

It’s frustrating, but understandable, that the mainstream media jumps at the opportunity to splash images of young women’s breasts across screens, but it’s even more frustrating that progressive groups don’t see the problem with these tactics. And of course, we have to ask whether the media or the public are really getting the “message” they are meant to get. Are we seeing these images and thinking about systematic poverty or the exploitative nature of prostitution? Or is the message just: titties!!

Judging from the popularity and response to Femen, I’m getting the feeling that the “message” is all but lost.

*Edit – 02/01/12 – The Occupy Ottawa Facebook page referenced here is not Occupy Ottawa’s official Facebook page, but rather is described as a group which “share[s] the same goal and beliefs…Occupy Ottawa is a solidarity and support effort with the Occupy Wall St movement.”

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