Well, that title is a lie: we don’t have a posting schedule. Shocking! Yes, yes, we confess to everything. We just post things as we write them, and our blog is more like a collection of essays than an online magazine or whatever the cool kids call their cool blogs. We want to put up posts that we think are useful and well reasoned (stop laughing!) and so if we don’t have anything, we don’t post anything.
At the moment things are especially quiet around here. That’s because I’m in the process of relocating from Australia to the US for my PhD (or “grad school” as I now call it in a desperate bid to fit in with the Americans). The other members of SJL have busy lives as well! Also Connie broke her toe recently. Okay I’m just making excuses now.
We have posts in the pipeline, but right now other things are taking precedence. And although we can’t promise regular updates, we can promise that we are not going away anytime soon.
In economics, we have a saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. We like to say this because it expresses two important observations. The first is the lesson about “opportunity cost”, which is that the true cost of something is what you give up to get it. If you get a “free” lunch, you may not be paying money but you’re giving up the chance to have lunch somewhere else with someone else. The second lesson is that, as yet, humans cannot make something from nothing. So somebody somewhere is paying for this lunch. Someone made the lunch and their time was valuable, someone provided the inputs and those inputs were valuable. Lunch does not materialise out of nowhere.
This does not mean we cannot create something greater than the sum of the inputs. We know that certain things we make and do provide benefits far greater than the cost of the inputs (a vaccination is a great example). Actually, we routinely do this! Humans are amazing. But the inputs cost something, all the same.
I want to try to convince you that the “no free lunch” concept is something we need to apply to social justice. First let’s agree that as a movement, we have goals, which in general are just lunch on a grander scale. (Actually some of us have days where “lunch” becomes a serious goal, but let’s leave that aside.) Some of these goals are major, system-wide changes. We would like the rate of sexual assault of women to be as low as that of men. We would like the murder rate for transpeople to be as low as the murder rate for cispeople. We would like the incarceration rate for men of colour to be the same as for white men in the USA. We would like our media to celebrate diversity of appearances rather than enforcing a beauty heirarchy. We would like mental health to be taken as seriously in our community as physical health. And so on, ad infinitum.
I wish I could bring you good news on these goals but I can’t. I can only reiterate something most of us already know, but sometimes forget: If these things are going to happen in our societies we are going to have to give up something to get them. And these things are a lot harder to achieve than lunch is.
It is surprisingly easy to forget this truth, because we like to think that the world is going in the right direction of its own volition. You hear people say “the tide is turning” and “things will get better”. You hear them ascribe intent to the universe where there is no intent. We have to stop using the passive voice. If the tide is turning it is because somebody turned it. If things get better it is because somebody made it happen. The world is not on some kind of totally inevitable slide towards awesomeness that we just need to sit back and watch happen. The things we want to happen will not materialise out of nowhere.
Many of these problems need to be addressed at a regulatory level because they persist due to “coordination failures”. That is, we are stuck at a bad place because a single individual cannot make a big difference, and we can’t commit to work together on our own. That’s why we have government at all, to step in and help us get to the better outcome. (I’m not saying the government really does this, it clearly doesn’t do this a lot of the time, but it does some of the time and that’s it’s real job.)
We have good evidence that government could, if it wanted to and was sensible about implementation, actually change things. If you would like to know more about this, there’s a great speech by Professor Esther Duflo here on gender equality and development. Her research shows that introducing quotas for women in local government in India eradicates unconscious bias against women as leaders. Another great example: simply telling young girls that on the math test they are about to take, girls perform as well as boys on average, makes girls perform as well as boys on average.
I do not have such neat examples for how to fix problems that face trans people and fat people and PoC and disabled people. But that is probably due to my ignorance and not due to their nonexistence.
Now these policies are costly to implement in many cases, and they cost a lot more than lunch. As Esther points out, policies favouring women in development are more costly than gender-blind programs that give the same impact but for both genders. Often, the mere fact that these policies will disrupt the status quo or require re-training and follow-up mean they have costs. Also, we are going to have to fight hard to get them implemented because people are ignorant of their own biases, and because people with power don’t like to give it away. That fight is going to cost us too. These policies will be a net benefit overall in the vast majority of cases, but too often we confuse a “net benefit” proposition with a “no cost” proposition. When we confuse them, we get lulled into complacency and think we won’t have to fight for what we want. We can’t afford that.
But not all our goals are big, system wide, total overhaul goals. We also have what I’ll call “marginal goals”. While the system-wide problems persist, we can still work within the status quo to change things on the margin. So for example, we would like to live in a world where people recognise the persistent struggles of oppressed peoples instead of dismissing them. We would like to live in a world where the default response to a person complaining of systematic erasure is not “I don’t believe you, prove it!” but “That’s awful, would you like to talk about it?”. We would like to live in a world where there is justice for Trayvon Martin and where Mark Aguhar will be remembered. We would like to live in a world where, if a white person is told they are being racist, they say “I hadn’t considered that, I’m sorry, I’ll try to educate myself” not “Why did you call me a mean word? You’re so meaaaan! How are you any better than a racist if you are so mean?!?!”
In as far as we ourselves have some forms of privilege, these are things we can achieve by changing our own behaviour. White people, we’ve all been that white person, and the only way for us to get rid of that kind of white person is to check ourselves and check our people when they start mouthing off. Men, same goes for you. And cis people. And thin people. And able-bodied, mentally healthy people. And so on. If you want to consider yourself an “ally”, it is going to cost you. As well it should. Nothing is free, and as an ally you are less downtrodden than the people you are aiming to help, so you can afford to expend your energy and effort here better than they(we) can.
Because yes, it takes effort. Yes, it gets tiring. Yes, if you commit to listen every time someone tells of their oppression you will be committing a lot of time that you might wish you could spend talking about your favourite TV show. Yes, if you promise to check yourself and examine your privilege you are in for a long struggle. If you commit to this path you are in for a lot of painful realisations. Personally I shudder to remember that I once defended “The Blind Side” to a non-white friend. I’m sure she shudders to recall the time and energy she spent convincing me it was problematic, when she certainly had no obligation to do so. But she did it and I was willing to listen and together, we made me less racist than I had been before.
Changing your own behaviour takes time and effort and determination and unrelenting self-awareness. It takes up your energy. That is how you know you are doing anything at all. If your activism is always easy, and if it’s always fun for you, if you never have to give up anything, you might not really be doing that much. Nothing is free, not even lunch, and social progress at the margins is no exception to this rule.
Of course, you are not called upon to compromise your mental or physical health in this struggle. I do not recommend that you use up all your emotional and psychological resources on this fight, you have to take care of yourself – and self-care is a form of activism and resistance in a world that is trying to erase you. I also want to make it clear that it’s not the job of marginalised people to expend their effort educating others on their own marginalisation. Marginalised people are already expending effort just to survive under oppression.
But most of us have some form of privilege, and it is particularly in that area that we need to do some extra work. So while I don’t consider it my duty to explain feminism to men, as a white person I do need to educate and school other white people on anti-racism whenever I can. Here’s the secret: marginalised people don’t give a shit who identifies as an “ally” – it’s all about who actually speaks up and defends people against oppression. Talk is cheap. And you know what they say about the relative importance of actions and words. I’m not suggesting that you should put yourself in constant pain, but if you’re never or rarely expending effort or experiencing discomfort, then that is a warning sign.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, not in social justice and not anywhere. I know most of you know this. But we all have privilege, and sometimes that means we forget it. Sometimes, we all need a reminder that the moment you find yourself thinking “But we’re discussing sci-fi right now, why does Angie keep bringing up racism?” is the moment where you need to choose the more painful option for you. Because that uncomfortable moment where you have to give up your fun conversation and have a sad, serious discussion, is the moment where you can actually change something. Even if it’s just at the margin.
It’s that time again: a new season of The Biggest Loser is on the air in Australia. That means that even for those of us who would never willingly watch an episode of this heinous circus of self-loathing, the adverts are everywhere. I saw one at the train station yesterday. It is awful.
I don’t want to talk about the ways in which the show is dangerous for its participants, some of whom end up urinating blood. I don’t need to tell you it peddles damaging misinformation about health and weight, in a manner so disingenuous that even other anti-fat fitness professionals condemn it. I don’t even need to tell you how suspicious it is that the show doesn’t rigorously follow up with the participants afterwards, yet their trainers feel completely comfortable declaring “mission accomplished” – which they do so prematurely it would make George W. Bush do a double-take. You know all that. I want to talk about the social impact of a show like The Biggest Loser.
The Biggest Loser contributes to the primacy of diet culture. Diet culture is a system of thought in which food is an issue of public morality, where eating whatever you want is a grave sin and abstaining from “bad” food – which could be fatty food, sweet food, or carby food, depending on the month – is seen as virtuous. In this culture, bodies are rated as healthy or unhealthy based on their degree of “fatness”, and health becomes a saintly attribute while ill health becomes a serious personal failing. This is a culture in which thinner is better until the person is literally hospitalised (then of course we’re going to wring our hands about anorexia, but like, not too much in case the fat people get confused and think starvation is bad for them too!). This is a culture in which guilt is the primary emotion associated with food. A culture that has declared war on fat bodies.
The Biggest Loser is mired so deep in this ideology that it might as well be the official propaganda arm of the anti-fat movement. Indeed, since the show blatantly disregards the long-term health of its participants, it would seem that its true purpose is to spread an aggressive, rigid, guilt-centic mode of relating to ourselves and our bodies.
Diet culture is awful for everyone. It can take the average, mentally healthy adult human and totally fuck up how that human decides how to feed themself. I have seen otherwise-mentally-healthy adults exhibit genuine fear when confronted with potatoes or full-fat milk. And that’s just people who start off mentally healthy and who are considered mentally healthy. Diet culture is even more toxic for people who struggle with mental illnesses, in particular eating disorders, depression, anxiety and OCD, and/or are generally predisposed to disordered behaviour around food.
I’m not sure how to describe what it’s like to live in diet culture as a person in recovery for an eating disorder. Every day, we all see images and messages telling us that we should be thin, should not eat anything except magic food X and super food Y, and that frankly the only way for you to love yourself is to go hungry until you are thin. The Biggest Loser, in fact, endorses this last message explicitly. But in many cases a person with an eating disorder has a voice in their head that tells them that in much harsher terms, constantly, relentlessly, without pity and without mercy. That voice does not need any encouragement. But in our culture, encouragement is exactly what it finds in abundance.
A room in which The Biggest Loser is playing on the television is a room that is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A train station or a bus stop with advertisements for Diet Shakes, Diet Cereals, The Biggest Loser, Jenny Craig, and other weight loss paraphernalia on it is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A highway with a billboard for a weight loss show is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A menu with large, obtrusive calorie counts is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A magazine with a column by Michelle Bridges that laments the existence of fat people who don’t diet is not safe for many people with eating disorders.
If you feel safe in the presence of these images, that is your privilege. Virtually no public spaces, and a large proportion of private spaces, in the western world are even remotely safe for people with eating disorders.
The other thing that diet culture does is make eating disorders completely effortless to hide. I had an eating disorder for years and the first person who realised there was something wrong was me – because the excuses for not eating very much, or not eating certain things, are everywhere. “I just feel better when I am thinner”, “I’m losing weight for me”, “I want to feel good about myself”, “I’m happier at this weight”…these are things sick people say to hide their sickness. Other people swallow it because their default reaction to weight loss is “good” and it takes work for them to be convinced otherwise. Now, I’m sure these things have been said by mentally healthy people too and I’m not suggesting everyone who ever diets has an ED. But I’m also sure the average listener doesn’t know the difference. The hold of diet culture can be so strong that sometimes even the speaker doesn’t know the difference.
This all adds up to one simple message: our culture couldn’t give a fuck about your mental health. Clearly when people “just worry about your health” – even if they do genuinely mean health and not just thinness – they only mean the health of your body without any consideration for the brain. On a biological level this is completely ludicrous because you simply can’t separate the brain and the rest of the body. They’re one whole and can’t be considered in isolation. Here’s a rudimentary example: a chronically anxious brain will pump the body full of cortisol and adrenalin, which both contribute to all sorts of adverse physical outcomes including a weakened immune system and reduced mortality. Oh noes, did your mental health just affect your physical health – you know, the one we pretend we care about? Say it ain’t so! But in all seriousness, the truth is, they can’t really be separated. It’s all health. Mental health is health.
A culture that is willing to throw people with serious mental health problems under the bus in an endless quest for everyone on earth to be thin is not a culture that cares about health. It is a culture that is using a narrow, twisted definition of health – which coincidentally reinforces social norms around attractiveness – to beat up on everyone, including some of its most vulnerable members. That is the culture being explicitly promoted by the Biggest Loser and other shows like it. It’s making us sick. It’s making our media dangerous to consume. For a society supposedly obsessed with health, we’ve got a damn funny way of showing it.
In the wake of the most recent ‘sexist atheists on reddit’ scandal, which you can read more about here, I think it’s time that we had a talk. Not about the event itself, because we can all agree that a girl posting her face online is not “inviting” sexual harassment and frankly Rebecca Watson (see previous link) and Kate Harding said it better already. I’m more concerned with the rejoinder of the moderates, those who try to calm the angry feminists with some variation on the theme “It’s the internet/it’s reddit/it’s humans! This is the way things are. What did you expect?”
Well, since it is so often asked, I want to answer that question.
We expect more. We expect that men relate to women as people, and afford them the same respect and dignity they afford to other men. Not sometimes, not just when they are offline, not just when they can be held accountable, not just when they’re not attracted to the woman in question, but always. We expect to be able to present ourselves in public as women without being told that in so doing we should be prepared to receive constant, invasive sexual overtures and lewd suggestions.
We expect that people understand that it is never okay to joke about raping someone.
We expect those of you who have done any of this not to be so utterly callous as to ask women to “indulge” you. We expect that you stop pretending you are too foolish to know what is right and in any case too spineless to do it. We know you are vertebrates and we expect you to act like it.
We expect you not to pretend that we hold the power and that you are our victims when it has been otherwise for millennia. We expect that we do not have to explain this to you. And when we do have to explain, and complain, and make you aware, we expect that you will take us seriously. These are things we expect from everyone. I hope that clears things up a little.
We also expect more from the moderates, from those of you who would never harass women but who ask women to accept and expect harrassment from men as a matter of course. We expect you to be smarter than this, and take a bit of a longer view. You say this is the way things are on the internet or in human society, thereby implying that things can never change. But it should be obvious that this is just the way things are now. Just like Europe in the Middle Ages, where feudalism was the way things were, and just like in the USA in the 19th century where women not not being allowed to vote was the way things were. So I guess you’d be “that guy” back in 1880 being all “Women not voting is just the way things are!” Meanwhile, other people (not you) were then, and are now, demanding change and/or going out and changing things.
Humans changed those things about their societies then, and today we can change things too. Looking around, I really don’t think we’re reaching peak enlightenment right now. If we think we’re the pinnacle of human society and culture, it is only because of our geographical and temporal narcissism. There is simply no reason to assume you’re living at the very peak of excellence, the greatest level of tolerance and enlightenment that human society can ever attain. Think outside your timezone, man.
But more immediately than that, we expect you to think about the effect your words will have now. Have you ever thought about what the flip side of “what did you expect” and “this is inherent in reddit/the internet/the world” is? Think about those men whose first response to any woman or girl, in any context, is to inform her of how much sexual pleasure her appearance provides them: what do they hear when you trot out this line? What about those men who talk about raping a 15 year old girl “as a joke”? When they hear you say women should expect it, what do they hear? Acceptance. They see that their behaviour is tacitly approved – by you.
Your call for acceptance gives any man who does these things the clear message that what he is doing is acceptable, indeed, expected behaviour on his part. So why should he stop? Not only does he have his buddies up-voting his vile comments, he has all the “moderates” telling the angry feminists to ignore him and calm down! That is the effect you have when you ask women to accept that harassment is “the way life is”.
When it comes to treating women as human beings equal in rights and dignity, there is no middle ground. There is no “let’s stop here, near enough is good enough” (and for the record this is not actually near enough). There is no compromise. I believe the probability of making good progress is substantial, but it wouldn’t matter if this probability were virtually zero. As long as the probability of change is not zero, that is enough, because success is hugely valuable and failure is enormously damaging. The situation is not acceptable, and we have to do whatever we can to change it.
One more thing for those who want women to calm down about harassment: would you ever accept this treatment as “the way life is” for you? Would you ever accept a situation where, once you let people on the internet know you are a 15 year old boy, hoards of older men descend upon your thread to make lewd comments about having sex with you? No. If someone told you to expect people to joke extensively about their desire to rape a teenage boy under any circumstances – let alone because that boy had posted a picture of himself online to show everyone his new book – you would be horrified. You would be sickened. You would ask yourself how this came to be and wonder how it could be stopped. That is the right reaction.
So stop trying to tell us that this treatment is what we should expect as women. It’s not good enough. Heck, it’s not even good. It’s an improvement relative to the time when women were chattel, but that’s about as much as can be said for this behaviour – both the harassment and the calls for acceptance of harassment. When that’s all that can be said for you, it’s time for you to change. Please, come and join us here in the future. We’ve been expecting you.
On behalf of everyone at SJL, I want to wish all our readers a very happy arbitrary-orbital-segmentation-point! Thank you all for stopping by, no matter how often you do so – and especially if you have contributed to the discussion in any way.
SJL is a labour of love for us, and we really only post once a week. We’re so grateful for the level of interest and stimulating commentary you guys have already provided. Obviously, we’d do it to an empty room if we had to: this blog was born because we spend a lot of our time talking these issues through together, so we’re used to that! But we’re really happy when we manage to write something that resonates with you, or makes you reconsider something, or articulates something you already felt. That’s what we do for each other, and that’s what we hope we’re doing with this blog.
In particular, to our handful of regular commenters, re-posters, re-bloggers, twitter heralds and assorted linkers-at-large: you are magnificent. I can’t count how many times one of you has made my day, and I know the rest of SJL feel the same. Thank you all, wherever you are.
I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but we need to lay off Kim Kardashian. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Well, actually, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but let me make a guess: you think Kim Kardashian is a bad role model for girls because she does what the patriarchy tells girls to do. Her activities reinforce dominant tropes about how to be a woman, and she actively supports dieting and sizeism by hawking her QuickTrim pseudo-science of weight loss pills.
Well, I agree with you, and I think those criticisms are valid. I’m not saying you have to like Kim Kardashian. But though that may be our objection to Kim’s activities, that is not the main message of the current backlash against her. That backlash is sexist, and as people who care about social justice, we must debunk it whenever we can – whether we like Kim or not.
The major criticisms we hear about Kim are thus: she’s vapid and shallow, a “slut”, “famous for doing nothing”, and makes a mockery of marriage – either because her marriage was too short, or because her marriage was a sham concocted to make money. Let’s go through these one by one.
Vapid? Kim’s life does seem to revolve around fashion, makeup, conventional beauty, and finding love in a heteronormative manner. Are these activities vapid? No. There’s no sense in which fashion and makeup are any less important than, say, videogames or surfboards. Would you call someone who dedicated her life to making surfboards, using surfboards, and being a surfboard enthusiast vapid? Shallow? You wouldn’t, and that’s because we associate surfboards with social codes around masculinity and fashion and makeup with social codes around femininity. Our patriarchal culture considers masculine-coded interests as somehow less shallow and vapid than feminine-coded interests. They aren’t. And as for heteronormative love? There’s nothing especially wrong with that on a personal level (though the macro tropes surrounding it are harmful). In fact, the people making this criticism usually want that too, they just think it’s vapid when women are explicit about it.
It’s also important to note that punishing women for complying with cultural demands for performative femininity is a key component of women’s oppression. Our culture insists that women conform to a certain conventional beauty standards, and concern themselves with “girl things” like fashion and hair and makeup, in order to be acceptable as women. Yet when women like Kim do this, they are derided – called stupid, shallow, and vapid. As feminists, we must never stand by while women are called derogatory names for engaging in socially coded feminine activities. Even if we don’t like those women.
Well, is Kim Kardashian a “slut”? Answer: It’s none of your business! And this particular complaint against Kim is obviously the worst form of slutshaming and misogyny. I have no idea what Kim’s sex life is like but I don’t need to know anything about it to defend her from this charge. Frankly, anyone who thinks the word “slut” in its dominant cultural use is a coherent, sensible concept – let alone a legitimate insult with which to slur a woman – is flat out wrong. I don’t see anyone calling the men Kim sleeps with sluts, I don’t see anyone haranguing the man Kim made the sex tape with and asking him how he expects us to respect him. As feminists, our reply to those who slutshame Kim must be unequivocal: you will respect Kim no matter how “slutty” she is according to your feverish imaginings.
Okay, now what about “famous for doing nothing”? Kim is famous for making a sex tape and then doing lots of modelling and reality television. I admit, this does not seem like a huge contribution to humanity when you compare it to the life’s work of Rosalind Franklin or Morgan Tsvangirai or Elizabeth Blackburn or Alvin Roth or Aung San Suu Kyi or Norman Borlaug or Christina Romer. But is that the right comparison? No. Because I bet you had to google at least one of those people, all of whom have contributed “more” to humanity than virtually any Hollywood celebrity ever will. (I admit I’m invoking a hierarchy, and I acknowledge the issues inherent in that, but I think it’s reasonable to argue that these people contribute to human society more than TV stars do.)
Fame is arbitrary. The vast majority of fame in our culture is bestowed on one group: entertainers. I do not wish to belittle the entertainment industry; it provides people with a lot of enjoyment, relaxation, excitement and fun, as well as the occasional transformative experience. But there’s no real philosophical reason why these people should be famous while doctors and teachers are not. Some people claim that it’s totally legitimate to make actors and singers famous, it’s just reality TV stars that are “doing nothing”. But really, they are entertaining people just as much as actors who memorise scripts. Is Kim Kardashian’s fame that much less deserved than the fame of Jessica Alba or Reese Witherspoon or Vin Diesel or Robert Pattinson? Maybe she is “doing less”, but last time I looked, your product is what matters in the entertainment industry – not how hard you had to work. Face it, very few famous people “deserve” their fame in any concrete sense.
It’s also worth remembering that Kim Kardashian didn’t get famous on her own: fame requires the attention of the masses. Now, clearly, Kim is pretty dedicated to getting our attention. And we give it to her – if we cut her off, there wouldn’t be anything she could do about it. We are the lynchpin of who gets famous. So if anyone is responsible for the sorry state of affairs in which the Kardashians are more well known than the Curies, it is us, not Kim Kardashian. Most celebrities are famous for their skills at entertainment: if you think Kim is famous for nothing, then you must admit that most celebrities are famous for next-to-nothing. Criticise the whole culture of fame, not one girl who is working the system.
Now we come to Kim’s apparent crimes against marriage. I have seen a lot of gay-rights activists decrying Kim’s quick-as-a-flash marriage and divorce as if it is personally injurious to them. I think the core of the complaint is that she is “misusing” an institution that is denied to us queers. First of all, let’s be honest about the situation: Kim’s marriage has no effect on us. She has not altered our chances at making gay marriage a reality. Sure, it can be galling to see how straight people are allowed to marry and divorce someone they barely know with ease while we are denied the right to marry a committed partner of 20 years. But it wouldn’t help our cause if marriage got more restrictive, so that only straight people in supercommited relationships could get married and they were never allowed to divorce. In fact that’s a giant step back. The fact that queers don’t have equal rights is not Kim Kardashian’s fault and she doesn’t deserve our hatred.
From a feminist perspective, there’s something interesting about accusing anyone of making a “mockery” of marriage. Really? What’s left to mock? I’m not implying that love and commitment are not important – they are important, but they are not the exclusive domain of married people, and they are directly counter to the historical legacy of marriage. Marriage started off as a morally bankrupt, sexist institution used by men – and families run by men – to signal possession of women. In most parts of the world it was in essence a financial contract, intended to enhance the wealth, power and prestige of families, and it had nothing to do with love. It’s pretty hilarious to say Kim is making a mockery of marriage by using it for financial gain when that was the explicit purpose of marriage for most of human history. The only difference? It was usually for the financial gain of men, since women were chattel. Now we get the faint whiff of a rumour that a woman used the institution of marriage for her own financial gain – and her husband did not even become her chattel! – and suddenly it’s off with her head? We can’t let this go unquestioned. Not on our watch.
If we want to criticise Kim Kardashian, we have plenty of legitimate concerns (and Quicktrim should be our leading issue in my opinion). But the vast majority of the complaints made against Kim are straight up sexist bullshit, and the rest use her as a scapegoat for institutional inequality. Kim Kardashian is hardly a feminist hero. But women don’t have to be feminist heroes before they deserve to be defended from sexism, slutshaming and hatred. All women should be defended against sexist attacks, not just the women we like. That’s kind of how feminism is supposed to work. Leave Kim Kardashian alone.
Human sexuality can be as confusing as it is wonderful – especially in the context of a culture that is reasonably screwed up with respect to sex. But for women, there is an additional layer of difficulty: it can be very hard to reconcile ourselves as sexual subjects with our “social role” as sexual objects. In a culture that rarely portrays female sexuality as having interior agency completely separate from the desires of heteromales, one can be made to feel like a stranger in one’s own sexuality.
As a result, it can become extremely difficult to express our sexuality without anxiety about what it says about us as women and as feminists. It can be especially challenging if our natural sexual desires and self expression take forms that we might associate with macroproblematic tropes. Another difficulty arises when expressing one’s sexual self through clothing or other appearance markers that are socially coded as “sexy”. Dressing in a sexy way to please yourself can become complicated because you know that you may attract unwanted attention. Misogynistic people (or, er, some anti-sex feminists) may respond as though you have invited objectification and dismissal of anything else you have to contribute, when obviously you haven’t.
It can also be difficult to deal with the reality that as a person presenting sexily out in the world, other people may get sexual gratification from seeing you, and you can’t control who does it. This can be as subtle as someone giving you a sleazy look or as obvious as someone catcalling you in the middle of the street. It can often be demoralising to realise that while you are carrying out your own self-determined sexual expression, others may objectify you, and you can’t stop them.
This group of people can include misogynists and people who support your oppression in some other way, and it can feel a lot like you’ve “given” them something by appearing in public in a socially-coded sexy manner – something you didn’t want to give. These problems may well be magnified for women who engage in consensual sex work, who are almost certainly bringing sexual satisfaction to some sexist people out there who see women as objects. But more broadly, it’s a problem that arises simply from existing while female. You definitely do not have to be conventionally attractive to have this problem. It can affect all women.
We have to find ways to immunise ourselves against these situations. We can’t let the problematic macro tropes around women’s sexuality stop us from our own sexual self expression. First, we have to develop a deep understanding that what other people do is almost always about them, and not about us. If sexist people find you attractive and/or objectify you, it doesn’t say anything about you. In fact, if you have any of their attention – positive or negative – you can use it to showcase that you are a self-possessed, fully formed human being. In this way, and only if you feel comfortable and safe, you can actually turn a situation you dislike into an opportunity to advance the cause of feminism and advocate for yourself.
Other people objectifying you is an act that is especially not about you. There are people out there who will always see you as a person first, no matter how short your skirt is and how much cleavage you are showing. We like to call them “decent human beings”. And there are people who will always see all women as sex objects even when they are wearing a hessian sack while simultaneously doing algebraic topology and open heart surgery. (I don’t mean to imply these things are not feminine and sexy, they certainly can be and I personally find algebraic topology very feminine and sexy, I mean to say they are not socially coded as sexy activities.)
You can’t control who you meet in the street but you can control who you let into your life, as friends or as lovers. Do as much as you possibly can to surround yourself with this first kind of person, and eliminate the second kind of person from your life. It’s not always possible due to work or family situations, so everyone has to make a call about where their boundaries are based on their situation and their psychological and financial needs. But it helps a lot if you can be firm on your boundaries, whatever they are.
The issue can be much more complex for people who do sex work, be it prostitution or pornography or anything else you can dream of. I don’t have experience in this area but I do want to point out that, as long as you are personally comfortable with it, there’s nothing wrong with taking a sexist douchebag’s money! Most people have to transact in markets with people they might not like to have as friends. Is it really likely that everyone involved in the production of your sandwich at lunchtime is a “good person” by your standards? No. But you buy the sandwich anyway because it benefits you and your focus has to be you, not them.
That’s not an issue facing sex workers only – this is an issue that faces us all! Don’t stop living because you might have to interact with people you profoundly disagree with, even people who might be complete assholes. Interact with them on your terms as much as humanly possible, and don’t blame yourself when you can’t make it work.
I think it is possible to slowly weed out judgmental thoughts about how our sexuality should be or who will get gratification from seeing us, if we do the mental grunt work of interrupting and rejecting these thoughts when they arise. Women are used to having heteropatriarchal social norms dictate how they ought to live every aspect of their lives, and these norms are strong around romantic and sexual connections. The ideal is to be able to ignore them as much as possible. I want to be clear that this is certainly not something you have to do to be considered a good feminist, and it should always be recognised that this is very difficult. But I think the personal rewards are immense.
It is your right to experience your sexuality exactly the way you want to (within the boundaries of ethical conduct, of course). Don’t worry about what other people will do or think in response. That’s on them. That reflects their issues. And don’t you judge yourself either. Just make sure you are living on your terms, organising your life the way you want it to the best of your ability, and doing what you feel to be the right thing for your emotional, psychosexual and mental health.