Me? A feminist?

By Amy Walters

It’s a source of great disappointment to me that my fellow female undergrads baulk at the thought of being called a feminist. The word has become a poison that paralyses conversation, creates awkward silences and elicits groans of annoyance from men and women alike. Even women who claim to care about women’s rights and hold court about the lack of female CEOs and the pay gap are reluctant to use the f word.

But why? Two of the major gains for women emerging from the original feminist movement were university education and social rights such as drinking in bars, freedoms granted to any man purely on the basis of his sex. The women who chained themselves to a bar in Queensland in 1965 in protest against it being illegal for them to be served alcohol emerged as icons of the Australian feminist movement. All my female friends are tertiary educated and enjoying going out for a drink. We are all enjoying the fruits of feminism yet don’t want to be associated with it.

Feminism is important because the degradation of and denial of opportunity to women is systematically perpetuated within a patriarchal framework. Just because women can now have babies and work does not mean that framework no longer exists- it has simply changed along with society. I would argue that feminism is as relevant today as ever.

Firstly, women are being objectified more than ever. Sure, sex sells, but there is more to it than the sexualized images used in advertising for commercial gain and the endless parade of semi-naked pop stars whose behavior and images have been instituted as the benchmark for social acceptability.  To quote feminist Gail Dines in a recent Guardian article, “Where is a girl to go if she decides Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Rihanna or Britney Spears aren’t for her?”[1]

Dines refers to the prevalence of highly sexualized images in the media as the “pornification of culture,”[2] which is the widespread consumption of pornography and the industrialization of the porn industry to the extent where it alters the behavior of its consumers and wider society. She cites the correlation between serial rape and use of pornography[3] and the evidence she has gathered in her research about young men shunning intimacy in favour of using more pornography or attempting to cajole their girlfriends into performing porn sex, which is devoid of intimacy and physically punishing on the woman’s body.[4] The unlimited availability of pornography means there is an increase in the number of men who think women want to be treated in an abusive and degrading way.

The pornification of culture can be detected in other ways such as the common practice of Brazilian waxing. According to Dines, Brazilian waxing has emerged as a result of its portrayal in pornography and is creating social pressure for women to rid themselves of pubic hair as though it is unnatural. In her research she has also heard stories of young men who refuse to have sex with their girlfriends after discovering they don’t wax. [5] Dines argues that the mainstream acceptance and normalization of women’s hairlessness reinforces the way the beauty industry and advertising in general profits by making women feel insecure about their bodies.

Another aspect of the pornification of culture is the glamorisation of prostitution and sex workers, further resulting in the one-dimensional portrayal of women as available for sex all the time. This can be seen in the way many women now take pole-dancing classes for “fitness.” A common claim is that this is empowering for a woman and gives her confidence in her sex life. However it is glaringly obvious that by doing this women are conforming to a male dominated image of how they “should” look.  Furthermore, pole-dancing emerged from an industry that commodifies female sexuality, and thus ultimately perpetuates the pornified image of women as one dimensional sex objects with one dimensional sexual habits and desires- that is, to satisfy men independently of any need for intimacy.

Which brings me to my final point about why feminism is so relevant today. Dines states that “In order to keep the consumer base going, the pornographers have to keep upping the ante. They make it more violent, body-punishing or abusive to keep men interested. When you think about it, if you’re exposed to it at 11 or 12, you’re jaded by 20…So you have to keep feeding newer and newer ideas just to keep [the audience] interested.”[6] I am also horrified by the way women are now subjugating themselves by embracing porn culture and aspiring to be like the bleached bunnies they see on TV, on billboards and glorified in glossy magazines.  Peer pressure and sexism in the media are one thing but when culture is so sexualized that there is no alternative to being a bunny we have a massive problem that is hard to reverse.  The pressure to be available sexually has young women thinking that creating a promiscuous image is the only way to get a partner. Sure, everyone is different and some women like having casual sex with many partners but not everyone does and these women should not be vilified as deviations from the norm. As Dines states, the choice should not be between being pro-porn or anti-sex.[7]

“the choice should not be between being pro-porn or anti-sex”

I think the greatest challenge for feminists today is to find an effective way to re-establish our sexualities in a way that is not dominated by the industrial product of pornography. Once we (re)gain respect we will hopefully be seen and portrayed differently in the mainstream and issues such as the pay-gap and gender stereotypes can be effectively tackled. After all, if a woman is not seen as a sex object she won’t be paid commensurate to one.  An understanding of how male and female sexualities are altered by porn culture is crucial if we are to overthrow the conservative agenda that sees feminism as an attack on men’s rights.  If you proclaim yourself to be a feminist you are labeled as frigid or prudish, a lesbian (i.e. anti-male) or a crazy left winger. These labels profoundly show the connection that exists in people’s minds about the relationship between sex and equality, and the misconception that an increase in women’s rights (i.e. not be subject to degrading behavior because you have a vagina instead of a penis) results in a decrease in men’s rights.  Relationships between men and women do not have to be shaped by violence and subjugation, and sex can be about a human connection rather than the reproduction of an industrial commodity.

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