Sarah Vine’s desire to be wolf-whistled really does show how women have learned to cope with street harassment

Sarah Vine wishes she’d taken the time to appreciate street harassment when she was younger because now she’s old and ignored, she misses men leaning out of vans and shouting “big titted bitch” at her.

First published by The Independent

Another day, another poorly-articulated column designed to appeal to the kind of people who love carping on about how sensitive the younger generation are, but get upset when they realise that you’re referring to them when you talk about suffering the “racist uncle” at Christmas dinner.

In this particularly delightful epistle, Sarah Vine tells us in her column how foolish she was as a young person, choosing the evils of socialism, feminism and cider over what I’m only assuming are now her current preferences for widening inequality, reinforcing the glass ceiling, and quaffing down champagne mixed with the tears of refugee children.

Sarah Vine wishes she’d taken the time to appreciate street harassment when she was younger because now she’s old and ignored, she misses men leaning out of vans and shouting “big titted bitch” at her.

Honestly, who can blame her? I think all women will agree that one of the greatest joys in life is waiting for a complimentary catcall, like “nice arse” or “sit on my d**k”. And if you fail to respond appropriately, the shouting switches seamlessly to “f**king whore” or “stuck-up slag”, because it was never really about giving you a compliment in the first place. I can see why she pines for those halcyon days.

As the founder of Everyday Sexism Laura Bates writes so accurately, “street harassment is no more about compliments than rape is about sex”. Street harassment is about power. It’s about how men who engage in jeering, cat calling and groping are taking ownership of the public space. They’re saying: this is ours and if you enter it, you and your body are fair game.

Everyone should be able to go about their daily business free from the fear and shame that often comes with being harassed. It’s hard to feel sufficiently “complimented” when you’ve gone back home to change after a charming stranger calls you a slut for wearing shorts in summer. Or you’re walking home at night with your keys between your fingers or pretending to make a phone call so the group of men walking behind you will leave you alone.

Women of all ages and from all walks of life have contributed to the Everyday Sexism project in their hundreds of thousands, to recount disturbingly quotidian instances of street harassment. Sadly, LGBT women and women of colour face more systematic abuse than their straight-presenting white counterparts due to the ugly mingling of sexism, racism and homophobia.

Nevertheless, Sarah Vine’s point that she doesn’t receive the same attention now as she did when she was younger is perhaps one worth addressing. Women are too often written off as they get older, seen as asexual and matronly. A very basic example of this is the sexism in Hollywood towards older female actors, receiving fewer choices of roles and fewer lines of dialogue in those roles. At 37, Maggie Gyllenhaal was already deemed “too old” to play the love interest of a man 18 years her senior. It’s also true that in film and TV, the stories of older women are not often seen as worth telling.

Vine is right to be dismayed that she has to practically “light a flare” in order to get served in a bar (although that might be because the bar staff are not long out of the education system that her husband Michael Gove systematically gutted). However, the invisibility of older women is precisely due to the sexism Vine feels she was silly enough to believe in as a university student. It’s only when we judge women solely on their physical attractiveness and their fertility that young women become more valuable and more worthy of notice.

The answer is not for young women to somehow appreciate being harassed during the bloom of their youth, it’s to challenge sexism and dismantle the culture in which your choice is between being groped and shouted at, and being ignored.

Street harassment is part of a culture of sexism where men believe they are entitled to the bodies of women, starting with intrusive personal comments and jeering, and ending with abuse, rape and, tragically, deadly violence enacted by intimate partners at the other end of the scale.

In Britain, 87 per cent of women have been forced to take a different route when travelling to avoid harassment, and 67 per cent have felt they needed to change their clothes as a result. Street harassment creates a hostile, unwelcome environment for women, where we feel scrutinised and uncomfortable just for stepping outside. It’s not a compliment, and it needs to stop.

Just when you thought it had gone, Philip Hammond’s Budget brings back the Tampon Tax

Ladies, they say, we’re sorry about men who abuse you, and we’re a bit short on cash at the moment to help you out in these situations, so how about you pay for domestic violence shelters with your vaginas. You buy tampons, we tax them, and then we’ll use the money for vital services.

First published by The Independent, 8th March 2017

Prime Minister Theresa May interrupted Chancellor Philip Hammond during his Spring Budget speech to remind him that it was International Women’s Day.

Hammond attempted to attribute two announcements to himself, which had been previously made by May. Ironic that a man should appropriate a woman’s work on such a day. On reflection his Budget wasn’t much better either.

Alongside £20m to support the campaign to End Violence Against Women and Girls and £5m to help people back into work after taking a career break, the Chancellor allocated £12m raised from the so-called Tampon Tax to support women’s charities.

In 2015, George Osborne announced that all revenue from VAT on sanitary products would be earmarked for women’s charities, including domestic abuse refuges. In 2016, Cameron announced that “Britain will be able to have a zero rate for sanitary products, meaning the end of the tampon tax.” Following Brexit complications, this amendment will is due by April 2018. Until then, it looks like we are stuck with Tampon Tax 2.0 and this time, the Government seems unashamed to call it so.

Ladies, they say, we’re sorry about men who abuse you, and we’re a bit short on cash at the moment to help you out in these situations, so how about you pay for domestic violence shelters with your vaginas. You buy tampons, we tax them, and then we’ll use the money for vital services.

Domestic violence affects one in four women in their lifetime and leads to two women being murdered every week. Domestic violence has more repeat victims than any other crime. On average, there will be 35 assaults before a victim calls the police. Each year, 400 people who have been taken into hospital for domestic violence injuries in previous six months go on to commit suicide.

Since the roll-out of austerity measures in 2010, more than 30 specialist domestic violence services have been forced to close their doors due to lack of funding. In 2016, the grants given to local authorities by the central government were slashed by 56 per cent.

The charity Women’s Aid found that in just one week in 2014, 369 women were turned away from 87 domestic abuse services due to a lack of capacity. It took those women immense courage to approach services in the first place, and to be turned away and denied help due to Tory policy is a cruelty beyond words.

Specialist services for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women and girls are particularly at risk. They provide a lifeline for those who would be unlikely to feel comfortable approaching a more general domestic violence organisation. Often run by BAME women, they have specific expertise in areas like female genital mutilation, forced marriage and honour-based violence. These services have struggled to survive since their inception, and local authority cuts make their future very uncertain, potentially leaving thousands of vulnerable women and girls with nowhere to turn.

The token £12m for women’s charities is even more pathetic than George Osborne’s pledge of £15m in November 2016. It may seem like a great deal of money, but it’s important to remember that this pledge is a mere pittance compared to the amount of funding lost since the beginning of austerity in 2010.

Austerity was not inevitable. It was a political decision, made for political reasons. The architects of austerity knew who would end up paying the price for their programme.

On International Women’s Day, imagine the terror and suffering of women in domestic violence situations across the UK. Remember that the money extorted through the Tampon Tax is being used as an insulting and inadequate sticking plaster for the gaping wounds left in vital women’s services. We are literally paying, because of our gender, to mop up the blood and psychological damage inflicted by violent partners and family members.

The ‘phone call abortion’ row is distracting us from the real injustices faced by women seeking a termination

In 2017, a woman should be able to choose an abortion without needing anyone else’s approval and without having to cite a specific reason listed by the 1967 Abortion Act.

First published by The Independent, 6th March 2017

On Sunday evening, the Daily Mail published an investigation into Britain’s largest independent provider of abortions, Marie Stopes, revealing that terminations are being approved after short telephone conversations, some as brief as 22 seconds. Marie Stopes’ managing director Paul McPartian maintains that all the provider’s services comply with British abortion law and that the 22 second conversation between a call centre worker and a Mail journalist pretending to require a termination was part of “a 16-minute booking call, which was very thorough”.

But now a row has now broken out with some commentators online and on social media – many of them, it must be pointed out, men – taking particular umbrage at the idea that some women do not meet face-to-face with the two doctors legally required to sign off on their termination through Marie Stopes clinics or at any abortion provider in Britain. This despite the fact that it is not a legal requirement for either doctor to meet the patient face to face; the Department of Health describes an in-person meeting as ‘desirable’, not essential.

If a woman seeks an abortion on the NHS, rather than with Marie Stopes or a private clinic, she will most likely have met both the two doctors signing off on the termination. However, this does not always occur. And, in any case, the second doctor is still likely to be completely unknown to the patient and know nothing about their personal circumstances or reasons behind choosing to terminate a pregnancy.

This “phone call abortion” row is a manufactured controversy. It’s designed to discredit Marie Stopes, and stimulate outrage among conservatives. And in doing so, it obscures real injustices in the abortion system – namely that in modern Britain, a woman still needs the permission of two doctors (including one she has most certainly never met before) in order to terminate a pregnancy.

In 2017, a woman should be able to choose an abortion without needing anyone else’s approval and without having to cite a specific reason listed by the 1967 Abortion Act. The involvement of medical professionals should be restricted to the medical aspects of the procedure, including providing accurate information about what happens during an abortion and the possible physical and mental health risks associated with it.

When making choices about their own bodies and futures, women should be properly supported and informed by the medical profession – but not have to waste time with providing justification for their decision or convincing anyone of that they “deserve” to end an unwanted pregnancy.

There are a myriad of reasons why women wish to terminate pregnancies, and to pick and choose which are valid (or more often, which are considered sympathetic) is to engage in damaging respectability politics.

Women are not incubators; we should not become dehumanised vessels as soon as a pregnancy occurs, our own decisions and desires erased in favour of some perceived greater good of carrying a foetus to term.

In the wake of Trump’s hugely damaging Global Gag Rule – a policy which blocks Federal funding from being channelled to any organisation, anywhere in the world, offering abortion support or advocacy – it’s more important than ever that Britain’s abortion regulation modernises to keep up with the realities of women’s lives and to ensure it is completely free from moralistic or faith-based restrictions.

Britain is one of the least religious countries in the world, with two thirds of the population identifying as non-religious, and faith perspectives on abortions should not affect accessibility for the wider population. The double sign off still required for abortions is archaic and insulting, reminding women that we are not allowed to choose what to do with our own bodies without first jumping through outdated hoops.

The “phone call abortion” row is merely a distraction from this reality, encouraging tiresome pearl-clutching and drawing attention away from the real concerns of women who seek an abortion in 2017.

Fear and humiliation at the job centre

The lack of self-confidence among young women looking for a job in Britain, revealed in the ‘Work It Out’ report, is a phenomenon engineered by social and cultural factors.

First published by Open Democracy, 23rd November 2016

The lack of self-confidence among young women looking for a job in Britain, revealed in the ‘Work It Out’ report, is a phenomenon engineered by social and cultural factors.

 

Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake provides a heart-wrenching exposé of the cruelty that bubbles beneath the surface of the Department of Work and Pensions’ dealings with some of Britain’s most vulnerable people. New research published on 15th November shows that Jobcentre Plus is currently failing Britain’s young women on a massive scale.

Young Women’s Trust, an organisation dedicated to supporting women between 16 and 30, has put together a report condemning job centres across the country for being utterly ineffectual in help young women to re-enter the workplace. The report found that only 19 per cent of young women who visited a job centre in the last year said that it helped them find a job, and 44 per cent said that Jobcentre Plus hadn’t given them useful information about work and training opportunities, compared to 34 per cent of young men surveyed.

Young Women’s Trust’s ‘Work It Out’ report sheds light on a situation where job centres are actually driving young women away and alienating them from claiming the temporary financial support that they need.

The clue really should be in the name. A ‘job centre’ should be a place where people are aided in their search to find a job, and prepared for employment with opportunities to hone and develop their skills. This is clearly not the case, when the majority of young women are having overwhelmingly negative experiences of Jobcentre Plus.

Hattie is a 24-year-old writer and illustrator. She’s been in and out of employment since graduating in 2013 and after doing two full-time unpaid internships, signed on at the job centre. She says:

“I was encouraged to apply for a job every day, even if it didn’t fit with what I wanted from a role. Seemingly they cared more about getting me off their books as soon as possible than what I needed from a job. Eventually they decided that I should apply for a couple of Christmas temp jobs to earn money, and I took a job at GAME. It didn’t guarantee me any hours and I usually had one four-hour shift a week, earning me less than £30. My mental health suffered immensely and I ended up quitting. As far as I’m aware, if you quit a role given to you by the Job Centre then you can’t go back on to claim JSA. The following month I had to survive on money given to me over the holidays, and I looked and felt horrendous due to poor diet and had little to no drive to even leave the house because I didn’t have any money.”

Dr Carole Easton, Chief Executive of Young Women’s Trust, says: “Young women are more likely to be out of education, employment and training than young men.  They want to work and be financially independent but they aren’t getting the necessary support. It is clear from this report that job centres need to change.”

Abby* is 23 and had to leave her paid job at a charity because they failed to make reasonable adjustments to help mitigate the effects of her health problems. She told me that the job centre ‘terrifies’ her. She says:

“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve burst into tears in the job centre. I went in with the attitude that it might be hard, but that they were there to help. This is not true, and it is only by preparing for a horrible experience each time I have to go I have been able to protect myself as best I can. I have had experience of three different job centres.

They were totally useless when it came to accommodating my disabilities, both in terms of helping me find appropriate work, and how to assist me when I was physically there. My disabilities mean I need to take lifts rather than stairs, and I have constantly been questioned and told I am ‘raising suspicions’ when needing to use the lift (where you have to be accompanied by a member of staff). When I’ve arrived early (because if you’re late you will be sanctioned) I am told I am not allowed to be there because I’m too early. And so they make you wait outside the building, regardless of the weather and regardless of your disability.”

Abby’s experience is not unique. With 59 per cent of young women surveyed describing their time at the job centre as ‘humiliating, and 68 per cent calling it a ‘stressful’ experience, it’s evident that Jobcentre Plus is not fulfilling its role. No one should go to a government branch, in need of help, and be humiliated or treated with base disrespect.

It’s clear from the testimonials of hundreds of benefit claimants and from anonymous information given by DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) employees that due to the measures introduced under Iain Duncan Smith, Jobcentre Plus staff are actively encouraged to impose financial penalties on those claiming support.

The PCS union produced documents in 2015 that show Jobcentre Plus managers threatening staff who failed to instigate enough sanctions with performance reviews, or denying them performance-based pay raises. Regardless of whether financial sanctions are appropriate, staff are pushed to approve them. There’s also evidence that staff are encouraged to use ‘the hassle factor’ to make claiming benefits so difficult and frustrating that people are forced off the DWP’s books. These tactics are corrupt, disingenuous and bullying, and have no place in a civilised, humane Britain.

In terms of the gender imbalance found in the Young Women’s Trust’s ‘Work It Out’ report, female respondents expressed higher levels of self-doubt. 54 per cent of young women said they lacked self-confidence, while only 34 per cent of young men reported the same. Young men were markedly more confident when applying for a new job than young women, and more young women said that they would be put off applying for a job if they didn’t meet all the criteria than the young men surveyed.

The so-called ‘confidence gap’ is likely to be a product of living in a stubbornly unequal society, where women are still viewed as ‘other’ and their work is demonstrated to be less financially valuable, due to the existence of the pay gap.

In the UK, the pay gap currently stands at 13.9% for full-time workers, meaning that women will in theory be working from 10th November until the end of 2016, for no pay at all. The pay gap continues to exist, because despite the 1970 Equal Pay Act, there are still men and women receiving different pay for doing the same role, and around 54,000 women each year are forced to leave their jobs after receiving poor treatment on returning from having a baby.

Caring and domestic responsibilities within the home still fall overwhelmingly to women, meaning that women are more likely to choose part-time work or jobs with flexible hours. Part-time jobs are typically lower paid with fewer opportunities for upward career progression. The labour market remains stubbornly divided, where ‘feminized’ sectors like the caring professions and the leisure industry, staffed by workers who are 80% female, typically involve poor pay and little professional esteem.

American journalist and author Jessica Valenti writes that the ‘confidence gap’ is merely an understanding of how little women are valued by society. She says that to lack confidence is “not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured”. Between the very real threat of sexual violence, the images of physical ‘perfection’ we’re deluged with on a daily basis via advertising, the pressures of the billion-pound weight-loss industry and the expectations placed on women from an increasingly young age via pornography, it’s hardly surprising that young women don’t report the same levels of confidence as their male peers. Remember, that if you’re too confident or capable, you’ll be branded ‘bossy’ or a ‘bitch’.

Another point worth addressing is that 85 per cent of young women said that they’d applied for jobs and not heard anything back. Often dubbed the ‘fight for feedback’, it has become increasingly difficult to receive any meaningful response from roles if your application is unsuccessful. Even if you attend a first or second-stage interview, businesses may not feel the need to provide any feedback on why they decided to go with another candidate.

This serves to make the process of finding a job intensely demoralizing. You can apply for literally hundreds of roles, and only receive a cursory email response from a handful of them. It’s unsurprising that searching for employment is viewed as a depressing or hopeless task, like chipping away at an unyielding rock-face. When applying for jobs, you can’t learn from rejections if you don’t know where you went wrong.

Businesses who fail to respond to unsuccessful applicants (even when they’ve attended interviews) might argue that they just receive too many applications to reply to unsuitable candidates, but surely this is an indication that there are too few jobs to go around, and that forcing JSA claimants to apply for roles 30+ hours per week is putting a strain on employers.

The UK government has a responsibility to support those who are out of work, both through financial aid and by providing opportunities for training and professional growth. In a wealthy, Western society, this responsibility should be fulfilled no matter which party has the majority in Westminster. However, job centres are failing those who turn to them for help precisely for ideological reasons. The Tory disregard for the vulnerable, dispossessed and unlucky is not beneficial to our society. It’s merely a form of kicking those who are already down, rather than extending a hand to lift them up.

The lack of self-confidence among young women highlighted by the ‘Work It Out’ report is a phenomenon engineered by social and cultural factors. When young women are faced with the arbitrary, inhuman nature of a bureaucracy (in this case, Jobcentre Plus) that’s specifically engineered to work against claimants, the effects of poor self-belief are incredibly damaging. Inadequate provision at job centres and unpleasant behaviour from DWP staff can not only prevent young women from finding appropriate employment, but can also cruelly bar them from reaching their full potential.

*Names have been changed.

Can porn be feminist? A conversation wth Erika Lust

Feminist porn is sex on film showing women and men as sexual equals – that sex is something you do together, not just something that a man does to a woman

First published by Open Democracy, 27th April 2016

Feminist porn is sex on film showing women and men as sexual equals – that sex is something you do together, not just something that a man does to a woman

Erika Lust believes that porn can change. The Swedish erotic filmmaker with a degree in political sciences has won numerous awards for her work, including the Feminist Porn Award Movie of the Year in 2012, Cinekink Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature, and the Feminist Porn Award for Hottest Straight Vignette two years in a row. Lust is a self-identified feminist and perhaps one of the most important alternative voices in pornography, due to her treatment of the medium as a legitimate art form that deserves time, care, and budget, and in which her actors are treated with consideration and respect.

Porn has long been a thorny topic within feminism, from the second-wave anti-pornography movement and subsequent ‘sex wars’ to the increasingly popular style of ‘Cool Girl’ feminism that posits all porn as empowering and positive. However, approaching the subject with nuance is key.

It’s simply untrue to state that all porn or porn as a concept is harmful to those who consume it or to those who work within the industry, and it’s equally disingenuous to argue that there are no issues with some of the most commonly viewed porn available online. Porn is an industry, but it’s also a product and it responds to the needs and desires and behavior of consumers. If we are to alter the product that mainstream sites are offering, then an alternative must be presented.

Can porn be feminist? Pornography is explicit material designed to sexually arouse the viewer and by definition, there is nothing inherently anti-feminist about porn, because there is nothing anti-feminist about wanting to be aroused or wanting to look at arousing images. Give me porn that shows women and men and non-gender-conforming folks enjoying themselves. I’ll download that. Hell, I’ll even pay for it. Porn can be feminist, but much of the content accessed by millions of viewers on the ‘porn giant’ websites like PornHub and RedTube is problematic.

The impression of variety and choice is belied by the fact that the majority of porn caters to the presumed desires of a male viewer. Mainstream porn makes weird, retrograde and highly racist categorizations of performers based on skin colour, and titles videos with the kind of misogynistic language you’d expect on a 4chan thread or scrawled on a school desk by a fourteen-year-old boy who thinks he’s ‘well hard’. Depictions of violent or degrading acts (slapping, choking, spitting, punching, biting, verbal abuse) towards women are now commonplace in mainstream pornography, and although these acts can be mutually pleasurable in a healthy BDSM context, they are not presented in a setting of trust and consent, leaving them open to interpretation by young people who assume that ‘this is what you to do girls when you have sex’.

The extensive research presented in the 2015 Girl Guiding ‘Girls’ Attitudes Survey’ is stark and damning, with 87% of the young women aged 17 to 21 surveyed believing that porn creates unrealistic expectations of female bodies, 71% saying that porn gives out confusing messages about sexual consent and makes aggressive or violent behavior towards women seem normal, and 65% agreeing that porn increases hateful language used to or about women.

Within porn, there are issues of consent (as in the case of James Deen, who has been accused of sexual assault on and off set by fellow performers, including the writer and porn star Stoya) of sexual health, of the kind of bodies that are represented, and of royalties (or lack thereof) and the ownership and dissemination of erotic material. There are also problems for performers who have left the industry and find themselves shunned, as former adult star Bree Olsen pens in her essay for the Daily Dot. She writes “people look at me as if I am the same as a sex offender. They look at me as though I am less than [them] in every way… I could never go back and be a nurse or a teacher, or work for any company really that can fire me under morality clauses for making customers feel “uncomfortable” because of who I am”. Shaming women for participating in porn, painting them as ignorant dupes, surmising that as long as they were paid everything is A-OK, or arguing that those who work in porn can’t be assaulted or raped – these positions are reductive, unhelpful, and often downright misogynistic.

Erika Lust on set. Photo: Rocio Lunaire for XConfessions.com

Erika Lust agrees that porn has problems, but she’s committed to changing the industry, one porno at a time. I decided to sit down with her and talk about the kind of films she makes, her politics, and her crowdfunded XConfessions series.

HW: Erika, tell me a little bit about the kind of movies you make. What can a viewer expect to see and experience if they watch an Erika Lust film?

EL: Through my films I want to show that sex as the beautiful, healthy, exciting, intimate, wonderful and positive experience that it can be. I think we get so used to seeing sex presented only as violent, traumatic or overly commercialized that I think healthy depictions of sex are very much needed today! That’s what I aim for, to show the exciting adventure of passion and intimacy.

I want to show that women are not just sex objects, but that they are sexual complex human beings with their own thoughts, ideas, interests and passions, and that they have the right to pleasure. Also I don’t want to show men as sex robots without feelings, but sex as something you do together. That people can meet, communicate and develop through sex.  I like to make the films as cinematic as possible. There’s no reason sex on film has to be presented as cheap or dirty. I think it’s worthy of artistic framing as any other grand human experiences.

HW: Would you describe your films as ‘erotic art’ or pornography? Do you make a distinction between these two terms?

I see them as erotic art yes. I think the word porn carries so many bad connotations with it, so it’s hard to “reclaim” it. And the vast majority of what gets called porn is so different from what I do, it’s not so strange that I don’t feel like my films are not part of that world.  Yes, I depict explicit sex on film. But does that really put me in the same genre as someone who records a sex scene on a porn set, with no consideration for cinematography or artistic direction?

We could get really academic about the word and look at the modern definition which is basically just visual material intended to arouse the viewer. And sure, that is definitely part of the intention of my films. But if you go even further back to the origin of the word, it’s from the Greek ‘pornographos’, meaning “writing about prostitutes” and I think a lot of the old ideas about the Madonna/whore views on women are still true today, and still true for anyone working in porn. So it’s a complicated word, one that I don’t have an easy relationship with, like many other words really. Like many other words, it has far worse implications and social consequences for women than for men. Part of me thinks semantic reclamation is the answer, another part of me wants to move on, create something new.

HW: Why did you decide to crowdsource for the XConfessions series? What has the response been like from those who’ve pledged and from viewers?

EL: I started it because I wanted to make films based on the actual fantasies and memories of people from all over the world. It had felt so great for me to get to bring my own ideas to the screen and I wanted to see if I could make that happen for other people too. And also, I was just very curious to see what people would come up with. Luckily people really connected with the idea and started confessing these amazing stories. Definitely some things I could never think of, and lots of funny and sexy memories from real life mixed with all things ranging from poetry to IKEA-fetishes. The XConfessions entries make up a huge library of human sexual imagination.

People submit stories on the site, and I handpick two each month and turn them into short films. It’s given me the opportunity to turn fantasies into reality, which is a fantasy come true for me as a director. Because after all, that’s what I want from my films – to show a true and fair representation of human sexuality. It can still be full of fantasy and imagination, but it’s based on something way more real and exciting than what you’d see in mainstream porn. It’s coming from the inner working of the people’s brains and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help from the public, who keep bringing in all these amazing stories.

HW: How important is it to you to make porn that’s ethical? How would you define ethical porn?

EL: It’s very important. It’s quite simple. It’s about treating everyone involved like human beings, being attentive to their needs, requests and emotions, compensating them fairly and providing a good working environment with good working conditions. I also think it’s important to be ethical in the signals you’re sending out with your stories – that you make consent come through, not showing irresponsible scenes or anything to do with coercion etc.

HW: I want to believe that we can have feminist porn that doesn’t just cater to men and their desires. Is your porn feminist? What makes it so? Is it intersectional?

EL: This might be a good time to talk about what feminist porn is! So, feminist porn is explicit films made by people who have a problem with how the mainstream porn industry makes films. I’m one of those people. One common complaint about mainstream pornography is that it shows women as mere objects without any feelings or any power to say yes or no – it mostly shows women as catering to the whims of men, with no attention given to her desire and needs at all. A lot of porn is misogynistic – and proud of it.

There is so much porn where women are insulted and humiliated and it’s just presented as “normal”, and it’s expected to be this that appeals to the male audience, which is just crazy! Because most porn is made by men for men, the films embody the male gaze, and it results in women being presented only as objects of desire, never as subjects of pleasure. Men are strangely missing from much of straight porn, only appearing as disembodied penises – also is a form of strange objectification. God forbid that the male viewer might have any homoerotic feelings!

But it’s fully possible for films to be both sexually explicit and still show women as human beings who deserve respect, even when they’re naked, and that they have an equal right to sexual satisfaction, pleasure and desire. We can definitely create films that show women as sexual collaborators with men – rather than sexual conquests of men.

So the idea of feminist porn is simple: sex on film made in a non-sexist way. It shows women and men as sexual equals, that sex is something you do together, not just something that a man does to a woman. It has nothing to do with what kind of sex is shown – it’s all about how the films are made, and that consent really comes through in the story. For example, Tristan Taormino’s Rough Sex series is a great example that you can shoot and show any kind of sex in a non-degrading way.

HW: Do you think that porn has a problem with perpetuating racist stereotypes and categorizations?

EL: Oh yes, definitely. Viewing someone as a fetish because of their race is… well, duh, racist – exoticism is racism too. Sometimes defenders of mainstream porn say it’s actually “really diverse” because it caters to “every desire and fetish you could have”. But that’s not diversity. That’s just different body parts, separated from the person and served up to the viewer to consume, all presented in the same old repetitive way. And some people try to tell me that’s diversity. It’s not. It has nothing to do with real sex.

HW: Can porn be used as an educational tool?

EL: Yes! In an ideal world, everybody gets to have proper sex education in school that allows people to ask questions and get information that allows them to make informed decisions about their bodies and health. Great sex education also includes critical discussions about pornography. But this is something that is not available, or even a priority in many countries.

No one can deny that porn is a huge cultural genre and that many people, especially young people, watch it to learn about sex. So it’s important that we can talk about it like adults, but also that there are all sorts of voices in porn – not just one type of film that teaches guys to disrespect women and treat them as objects, and teaches girls to be passive objects without any needs of their own. We have to have films that also show sex as a healthy, positive thing that people do together, not as something you do to someone.

HW: Do you agree that it’s problematic to see acts usually associated with BDSM presented as ‘the norm’ within mainstream porn, particularly because they lack a context of trust?

EL: Yes I absolutely agree. That’s not saying that people are not allowed to engage in certain sexual acts like you say BDSM, but the way many of these films show violence and humiliation is in a way that shows no consent coming through at all! It shows sex as something aggressive that men do to women, and as something that women do for men. It’s not just misogynistic porn that’s guilty of that, it’s also things like Fifty Shades of Grey, that again, shows the woman as a passive, naive virgin who just gets right into BDSM with an emotionally abusive man, before she’s even masturbated. Come on! It’s ok to have kinks, it’s ok to like BDSM, but for god’s sake, let’s not forget about the importance of consent and communication.

When I directed my first BDSM-scene in An Appointment With My Master, I made sure communication was essential to the whole story, showing the performers Mickey Mod and Amarna Miller, both experienced BDSM-practitioners, talking about boundaries and what they were going to do. And the tenderness and trust that comes through in that scene is just stunning. It made it so sexy. It was important for me to show that side of consent, enthusiasm and communication.

HW: How should we go about changing mainstream porn?

EL: My stance is that there has to be MORE voices in pornography, more people that get to share their ideas about sex. That could eventually change the mainstream by making it more equal. But I don’t expect to come in to the mainstream producer’s sets and change what they do. I create the change I want to see myself – I can’t expect people who are, for example, proudly misogynistic film makers to suddenly go “hey, maybe these films are not so great for humanity.”

What I want to see is more women behind the camera, and more people in general who think differently than the average white, male heterosexual pornographer. Many women are tired of being presented with tired old sex-clichés everywhere they turn. They want to make their own narratives. And many women are tired of being told that all porn is bad and that watching porn makes you a bad woman or a bad feminist or whatever. Wanting to see sex on film doesn’t make you brainwashed, dirty or bad. But it’s great to see there’s such a healthy and powerful movement working on the opposite side of mainstream industry, making the kind of films they want to see themselves.

HW: What does being a sex positive feminist mean to you?

EL: I’m a sex positive feminist and film maker and I firmly believe that sex is a healthy and natural part of life. I think that those who want to should be free to create erotic material that reflects that. I wanted to start making adult cinema to add my voice, to show women as sexual equals who also have the right to pleasure, who are complex human beings with their own ideas about sex.

I think that adult films can be used as a tool for liberation and education. I want my films to make people feel liberated and happy, not oppressed and sad. Feminist porn has the power to influence. If you show the performers talking to each other, you show them both being excited about the sex, if you show sex with a context, you show embraces, kisses, consent, passion, enthusiasm, pleasure and orgasms – then I think that is a great thing to share with the world. There are too many depictions of sex out there that are traumatic, aggressive and violent – it’s almost made people believe that sex is always traumatic and violent. And if people hold the idea that sex on camera is always inherently sexist… well, I don’t think women will get anywhere if we’re not allowed to create our own stories about sex. I think there should be female voices within all cultural genres, including pornography. Just because some porn is very sexist doesn’t mean that all porn is harmful, harmful and exploitative.

After my conversation with Erika, I’m even more convinced that porn can be feminist, that it can include women as equal consumers, and it can treat performers fairly and ethically. Why shouldn’t we remake porn into something that’s wonderful?

 

The sex tape behind #OhNoBriana continues a long and sinister tradition that started long before One Direction

The hashtag #OhNoBriana has been trending in the last couple of days, in case you hadn’t noticed.

First published by The Independent, Friday 19th February 2016

The hashtag #OhNoBriana has been trending in the last couple of days, in case you hadn’t noticed. If you’re not au fait with the happenings in teeny-popland, the hashtag refers to a private video that has been leaked, depicting a girl who appears to resemble Briana Jungwirth – the girlfriend of One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson and mother of their son Freddie – having sex with two men.

The sex tape reportedly does not feature Jungwirth, and this is the second time false claims that she has been involved in a sex tape have appeared online. Some Directioners have been quick to slut-shame Jungwirth and express their disgust online. Many others have reacted with dismay that their fandom has so little respect for the partners of the One Direction men.

I’m very much uninterested in 1D, their music, and what they get up to in their spare time. However, it’s depressing to see people use Briana Jungwirth’s reportedly false sex tape as a tool with which to shame both her and Louis Tomlinson. It plays into a long tradition of discrediting male figures by implying that ‘their women’ are sexually promiscuous.

When Kanye West played Glastonbury in 2015, plenty of festival fans thought his inclusion on the line-up wasn’t in keeping with the aesthetic of the festival, even starting a petition to have him struck off as a headliner. One festival-goer attended his set with a flag emblazoned with a still from Kim Kardashian’s sex tape with Ray J. This was without doubt an attempt to shame West by using his wife’s very public sexual history against him. They didn’t want him at the festival, so their natural response was to slut-shame his wife.

Neither Tomlinson nor West are responsible for or in control of the sexuality of the women they’re involved with. Kim Kardashian and Briana Jungwirth’s sex lives are their business. Kim allegedly chose to release her sex tape to increase publicity for her now incredibly famous family. Using her sexuality in that way is her prerogative.

Jungwirth is not part of this week’s leaked sex tape, and that’s problematic not least because the actual woman featured has had her privacy grossly invaded. As Jennifer Lawrence rightly stated when her nude photographs were disseminated online, releasing someone’s private media is a sex crime.

The sexuality of women has historically been policed, silenced, stifled, and treated as public property, and this is a sad continuation of that trope. The outrage surrounding the not-Brianna-Jungwirth sex tape is positively puritanical, and would be better directed at whoever decided to violate the currently unnamed woman’s privacy in an attempt to discredit Louis Tomlinson.

Until we stop considering women’s sexuality and sexual choices OUR COLLECTIVE BUSINESS, women will continue to be shamed for their sexual agency. Brianna Jungwirth deserves to be able to live her life free from false claims. Importantly, even if she did make a sex tape, that’s absolutely her business. It wouldn’t denigrate her as a human being, it wouldn’t make her worth any less, and it wouldn’t belong to Directioners or the general public.

If she did not consent to the sharing of tape, the woman who appears in the leaked video has been wronged in a very ugly and public manner.

If the sex tape featuring the Jungwirth lookalike was shared without her permission, this is the real outrage, not whether or not the mother of Tomlinson’s baby is a ‘whore’. It’s time we realised that these playground politics have an incredibly sinister undertone.

From tampon tax to pink razors – why are women always punished at the till?

According to new research, women are being charged up to twice as much for nearly identical products compared to their male counterparts by leading high street brands.

First published by The International Business Times, 20th January 2016

According to new research, women are being charged up to twice as much for nearly identical products compared to their male counterparts by leading high street brands.

Women are already getting a raw financial deal in the UK, as continued austerity disproportionately affects women, so the revelation that major retailers seem involved in a broad scam to take more money out of the pockets of the female population is incredibly disheartening.

The Times investigation found that the pricing of hundreds of products aimed at women and girls are on average 37% more expensive than the male equivalents, presumably because it costs much more to make retail items pink than it does to make them blue.

Some of the UK’s most popular brands were named in the investigation, including Tesco, Argos, Boots, Levi’s, and Amazon. A children’s scooter in Argos was found to be £5 more expensive in pink than in blue, and women’s Levi’s 501 jeans cost on average 46% more than the men’s versions, despite having the same measurements for the waist and leg.

Tesco responded to the report by saying that “a number of products for females have additional design and performance features”, but if they are referring to the pack of razors in pink that they charge double the price for, it’s unclear how this is the case. Perhaps the pink razors are coated in some kind of cushioning fairy dust that protects the delicate skin of fragile females, because men have tough, hoary hides that need no soothing or respite from the burn of razor blades.

But no, the report specifies that these are identical razors, different only from the man-product due to their colour. Tesco said “we work hard to offer clear, fair and transparent pricing”, a statement that has been proved so laughable that it’s odd that they even bothered including it.

Boots made a similar statement when approached for comment, stressing that their products are “priced individually based on factors including formulation, ingredients and market comparison”. If the formulation and ingredients in women’s products are magically more expensive than what’s being offered to men, this is weird and sexist in itself.

Men and women both have skin, both consume skincare and other cosmetic products, and both choose to remove hair from their bodies. There’s no discernible reason why identical products should be ‘differently formulated’ or differently priced for one sex.

In the case of the more expensive pink scooters from Argos, it’s worth questioning why any children’s toy should be exclusively marketed to either girls or boys. There’s only one reason why a toy should be for a particular sex, and that’s because you operate it with your genitals. If this is the case, the toy is definitely not for children. If it’s not the case, the toy is for either boys or girls.

The Let Toys Be Toys campaign has been vocal in challenging sexist marketing of playthings, from the ridiculously-gendered Lego Friends series and lack of female mini figs in action roles, to pressuring top retailers into dropping ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signage from their aisles.

A scooter is a scooter, it’s not a male scooter or a female scooter. Instilling reductive notions of gender into children through the way their toys are marketed is regressive, strengthens unnecessary barriers between genders, and stigmatizes kids who don’t want to be confined to pink or blue boxes.

Tampon tax
Since tampons are such a luxury, it’s surprising that more women don’t dispense with them altogether to save moneyiStock

Sam Smethers from the Fawcett Society dubbed the extra cost a “sexist surcharge”, and she’s absolutely right. The only reason I can think of to explain why retailers are selling products targeted at women at significantly higher prices is because they have no respect for female consumers.

They think we’re stupid. Why else would we shell out more for the same product, just because it comes in a pastel colour? Women are being roundly ripped off in Britain.

We’re already paying tax on sanitary products, when other ‘essentials’ like crocodile meat, Jaffa Cakes, pitta bread, and bingo are VAT-free. Since tampons are such a luxury, it’s surprising that more women don’t dispense with them altogether to save money, and simply bleed freely in offices, on public transport, and when visiting friends with new white sofas.

At the 2015 spending review, George Osborne announced that the £15m raised by the tampon tax would be going to women’s services, the same women’s services that the Chancellor decided to slash in the name of austerity. It’s unclear what his long-term strategy for funding them is, as he has pledged to eventually abolish the tampon tax altogether, but for now, it seems to be acceptable for women who have been raped or the victims of domestic violence to pay for their own counselling and care because they bleed every month.

The retailers responsible for sexist cost differences could be called to Parliament to justify their pricing, but the honourable response should be for Tesco, Boots, Amazon, Argos, and Levi’s to independently alter their disparate prices. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because women are already being financially exploited in Tory Britain, without the companies we buy from making mugs out of us too.