The Blog

Let's Start Again and Call It Reality Feminism

Whether we like it or not, certain clothing attracts attention. Women may indeed be signalling that they are interested in sex, but only with the men they choose. The problem is that clothing is not a directional signal - it sends out its messages to all men, who form their views of women accordingly.

The last piece I wrote for the Huffington Post had a mixed reception. I posted a link to it on The Everyday Sexism Project's (TESP) Facebook group, and the subsequent comments included, as I remember; 'disgusting' and 'victim-blaming'. However, when I linked the same article to my own Facebook page and blog, I got some very different reactions:

'Stands, Applauds!'

'What she said!'

'I quite agree'

'I think you took the right tone there'

'I can't argue with any of this - good article!'

It's not a statistically valid sample, but my online friends are an interesting mix. They are mostly over 40, and they are single, married, in partnerships; childless, mothers, grandmothers; atheists, Christians, Pagans and Jews; straight, gay, poly and asexual; British and American. Their comments were overwhelmingly positive, so, I'm sorry, TESP ladies, it's not just me, there is an alternative feminist view that you may not even have heard before, except from me and Joanna Lumley. My article talked about the way some young women tend to dress and behave, and whether that contributes in any way to the unpleasant experiences they report to the TESP website.

One friend considered why the TESP feminists objected to my article:

'Do you think it's part of the whole abdication of responsibility thing? If you can't get a job it's the economy, if you fail your GCSEs it's the exam board, if you rack up credit it's the bank's fault - nothing to do with your behaviour and choices?'

And one Lesbian friend commented:

'I don't wear clothes that make me vulnerable. In fact, I wear men's clothes, which are designed, btw, to make men NOT VULNERABLE. I have no idea what the purpose would be of me wearing "skimpy shit" as that one woman put it. Who would I be trying to impress? It certainly wouldn't make me feel empowered.'

While emphasising that it is important not to be a 'victim-blamer' (we all know that rapists are to blame, and they cannot be absolved of any responsibility) my friends tended to agree with me that what the American feminist Ariel Levy calls 'Raunch Culture' is a harmful concept. Writer Liz Funk considered its effects:

'This raunch culture has the greatest effect on young women. The most visible consequence is the narrowing of standards of beauty for young women. Rates of eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and body image issues are on the rise among young women, given that the glitzy sexual images projected by the mainstream media depict very uniform images of women as thin, large-breasted, and 'perfect'.

The presence of this raunch is also making it very difficult for women to forge equality-based relationships with men. Some young women report that they are experiencing difficulty finding a boyfriend who respects them.'

Recently Ellie Mae O'Hagen, in the Guardian, also criticised the type of feminism that is currently prevalent for being compliant with stereotypes, rather than angry:

'For every campaign against objectification, we have the Sex and the City brand of feminism, as personified by a burgeoning movement in America calling itself 'sexy feminists', which reassures us that one can believe in gender equality and still pay hefty sums of money to have pubic hair ripped out at the root.'

Putting aside the data on what women are actually wearing when they are attacked, which I am assured is not a factor, let's consider clothing as an indicator of identity and intention. Clothes send out a powerful social signal. To deny that is to assert that men and women alike are indifferent to the way people dress. If that were true there would be no interview suits, no bridal gowns, no fashion industry. 'Third wave' feminists may claim that women dress to please themselves, but how come that so often seems to involve highly sexualised clothing? As Australian feminist Linda Jaivin says:

'If such women want to claim that embracing their Inner Bunny makes them feel empowered, they certainly won't get any argument from the sort of men who are relieved that they no longer have to hide their copy of Jugs when a date comes round.'

A much-quoted study by Miranda Horvath, Peter Hegarty, and colleagues, reveals the shocking things that rapists have said to their psychologists to try to justify their crimes. Very often they wrongly interpret what women wear as encouraging their sexual advances:

'There's a certain way you can tell that a girl wants to have sex . . . The way they dress, they

flaunt themselves.'

'Some girls walk around in short-shorts . . . showing their body off . . . It just starts a man

thinking that if he gets something like that, what can he do with it? . . .'

'Girls ask for it by wearing these mini-skirts and hotpants . . . they're just displaying their

body . . . Whether they realise it or not they're saying, 'Hey, I've got a beautiful body, and it's

yours if you want it.'

'I think if a law is passed, there should be a dress code . . . When girls dress in those short skirts

and things like that, they're just asking for it.'

Whether we like it or not, certain clothing attracts attention. Women may indeed be signalling that they are interested in sex, but only with the men they choose. The problem is that clothing is not a directional signal - it sends out its messages to all men, who form their views of women accordingly. Yes, the major work that feminism needs to do is to overturn these grossly misplaced assumptions, but until that work is completed, the 'rape culture' we live in encourages men to misinterpret what women are trying to assert with their appearance.

Raunch Culture has played into the hands of our oppressors. It has contributed to the pornification of society, to the premature sexualisation of young girls (both Primark and Debenhams stock padded bras in size 30AA - that's the size of a flat-chested ten year old) and has ensured that while women are often taken, they are not taken seriously. And the sex lives that women achieve by embracing Raunch Culture, in club car-parks and toilets - who gets the pleasure from that? Lucy-Anne Holmes, in her blog How to Start a Sexual Revolution' puts it like this:

'If someone had said, 'here you go, human race, here's this thing, it's called sex, it's an amazing, loving union between two people, where you celebrate and pleasure each other, it ends in waves of bliss. Take it, human race, and just for a laugh, see just how far you can debase it', I don't think we could have done a better job than we have.'

The empowerment delivered by Raunch Culture is the power to look stupid on the internet, the power to be used by unscrupulous men, and the power to be regarded as a brainless aggregation of body parts. Meanwhile women are struggling to make it into the board room, being thwarted by sexual predators in political parties, and being denigrated and trivialised by mainstream media and online sites like UniLad. The situation for women has got worse, not better, over the last thirty years.

Young women who don't remember any other type of feminism find it distasteful to hear that they are colluding in their own objectification. They complain bitterly on the TESP website about clubs in University towns holding 'Pimps and Hoes' nights, but forget that women happily go along to them, dressed as 'hoes'. They complain about being objectified by page three of The Sun, but defend their right to wear tiny tops and shorts, and they really do not see the disconnect. A group of these women complained about my trying to engage them in debate on the TESP Facebook page (an Open Group) and had me blocked from it. A friend of mine said: 'You do get the impression that there's a lot of "la la la, we can't hear you" going on in such places.' So I can't accurately quote their comments, and I can't follow the link to the blog post one of them wrote in response, presumably to correct my corrupt thoughts.

I respect Laura Bates for setting up the Everyday Sexism Project, which gives women experiencing sexism a voice, but when someone tries to start an honest debate about important feminist concerns, she silences them. Oh, the irony.

If women don't act with dignity and self-respect they can't expect anyone to treat them with dignity and return that respect. Part of this means reclaiming our sexuality as a positive expression of pleasure and trust in another human being, and not mistaking quantity for quality.

Let's stop pretending that we live in a world where we can do what we like without consequences for either our safety or our status in society. Let's engage with the world as it is, with its misogyny and 'rape culture', and ask what we can do to further the cause of women. Let's admit that as an experiment in empowerment, Raunch Culture has failed us. Let's start again, and call it Reality Feminism.