Tag Archives: sexual politics

Hard Out Here

I have breasts. Therefore it’s my sworn duty to have an opinion on Lily Allen’s new video, or something. I’ve talked about body image hypersexualised content in pop videos and a porn culture before so it’s not surprising that I found Hard Out Here, well, interesting. Musically, it’s awful but I watched it a few times so this post wouldn’t be based on a quick view where the only impressions left once the shit music ended were the endless repetition of the word “bitch” and masses of jiggling female flesh.

When it comes to the racial aspects of Allen’s video I’m well aware that I’m a privileged white 30-something woman. I don’t even like hip hop. I don’t feel qualified to get into the race issues but it’s impossible to ignore them completely so I’m going to say that I thought Hip Hop Doesn’t Need Another White Savior was an interesting read which chimed with some of my thoughts as a non-hip hop fan and took them much further as far as race issues go.

I was surprised by the initial hype among some people who’re acting like Hard Out Here should be celebrated as a feminist anthem. Quite apart from the legitimate arguments about race issues, it’s a very limited song. It’s not a complex sociological commentary on women’s role in society today. It’s only a pop song and it felt like a mix of personal bugbears being brought out more than a serious attempt to address problems. Putting the word “injustice” in a song doesn’t automatically imbue it with depth. It felt to me like Allen’s pissed off about a few things and that the difference between her and most women is she can get a few million hits on Youtube, ably assisted by her record company, when she wants to have a rant. You could say it’s better than nobody within her genre talking about feminism at all but the reason I took it to pieces in my head is because of the people trying to make it go too far. It’s not just fans of the song. Some women complaining about race are suggesting it represents white feminism too. It doesn’t even do that as far as I’m concerned.

I get her decision to use the word “bitch” but personally I’ve got absolutely no desire to see it appropriated. It’s one of a very small number of words where I feel some kind of sisterly requirement not to use it (unusual because I’m quite sweary and I prefer not to create even more barriers between men and women by buying into the sisterhood). But it’s a word only ever used for women and often comes with the word “silly” before it. I don’t feel a desire to respond “yeah! I’m a bitch. That’s our word now” just because every time any woman makes a vaguely feminist statement we’re all meant to jump on the bandwagon.

You’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen

Allen starts off by defending her right to work. Maybe my lack of interest in what male pop and hip hop artists have been saying is showing here. Maybe they have been making music suggesting women should get back to the kitchen but it doesn’t chime with me at all. If it had been released in the 1950s it would’ve been revolutionary but seems like a really lazy rhyme. It isn’t a choice between work or the kitchen these days. Modern women have to do both and that is hard. I was talking to a few the other day about the utter exhaustion they feel trying to juggle work and home. It feels like a sloppy play on the saint/whore thing too. I’ve never got the idea that women should be passionless about food, which just adds to my irritability over this line. Any man who wants a saint in the kitchen presumably doesn’t care very much about good food.

I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars or talking ’bout my chains

Uh. Ok Lily. Don’t. I sure as hell don’t feel any need to defend the fact that I don’t. My assumption is that she’s drawing a line in the sand between her and materialistic women as well as men so, far from representing all women, she’s having a go at the ones she disapproves of. The article linked to above expands on the race elements of this.

Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain

I have a brain. It functions pretty damned well. I can shake my ass if I want to. I do shake my ass when I want to (although the line reminds me of the Afghan Whigs’ Somethin’ Hot which is a bit slower than shaking). Nobody’s making me feel I have to. There aren’t roving bands of men demanding I do it out here, in the real world. What’s happened instead, with monotonous regularity, is that if I shake it there’s always at least one who thinks he owns it. It’s my choice whether to give it or not and there’s little doubt some men don’t get that. Back in the days when I regularly went clubbing, I had fake boyfriends who were willing to step in as needed if I didn’t have an actual one with me because it was the quickest way to stop total strangers from grabbing me. When we were in a pretty big group, there were always at least a couple of men in the group making sure us women were ok. That’s the real world outside the rarefied air of the pop music industry.

The music industry demands women should strip down and shake their asses and a lot more besides but by wording the line in the way she has, Allen is dismissing all women do it as stupid. How is that a feminist statement? Some women may feel coerced into it. Some choose to do it. Some do it for stupid reasons. Some are stupid. but that doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship between stupidity and ass shaking. Again, it feels like Allen’s drawing a line in the sand between her and any woman who does shake her ass. I did something slightly shameful the other week. I half watched a “documentary” on Miley Cyrus. There wasn’t anything else on and I was curious, partly because I’ve never knowingly heard a single one of her songs. It was really a combination promo for her new album and the MTV Europe awards, which were being broadcast after it. After the US Awards I wondered if she was being manipulated. Not according to her. She said she wanted to cause waves bigger than Britney Spears and Madonna did when they performed at the awards. It was all about novelty and pushing the envelope to her. She wanted to shock. She thought her performance was funny. She even said:
“I live in America and we’re the land of the free. If you can’t express yourself you’re not very free”
Yeah. Calling her stupid, I have no problem with. Calling everyone else stupid is a different matter though.

If I told you about my sex life, you’d call me a slut
When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss

It’s interesting that she says “boys” because it makes a clear distinction between men of my generation and boys. I often hope that all the slut shaming stories are blowing the scale of the problem out of proportion but I have the nasty thought that maybe my generation was both the first and the last to come close to sexual equality. Slut shaming takes away a woman’s right to be a sexual person while at the same time pop and hip hop culture is sending young women the message that they should obediently do anything and everything they’re asked to because they’re asked to, rather than because they want to. It’s also notable that Allen’s married. She’s saying people would call her a slut if they knew the specifics of what happens within her marriage? I really hope she’s wrong because if things have reached the point where having a satisfying monogamous relationship makes a woman a slut we really are completely, well, fucked.

Still, there’s also something hypocritical in the line when you consider she’s just called women who shake their asses publicly stupid. She shouldn’t be judged but other women should be? I wonder if she’s ever been in a situation where she’s chosen to shake her ass for one specific “you”.

There’s a glass ceiling to break, aha, there’s money to make

I see the glass ceiling as quite a specific thing. It’s what stops women getting to the top. Women can reach the top in the music industry. They bring something different to the table which has nothing to do with objectifying their bodies. They have female vocals. I pondered the lines and decided the “money to make” is being made by industry execs who tell women they’ve got it made but then require women to do things men would never be asked to as a condition of their label’s full backing but the problems she’s talking about are quite specific to the music industry. For most women, the glass ceiling has more to do with questions over their commitment to work. It starts long before women have children. A partner once said to me he was worried about how heavily the firm had come to rely on young women who might all get pregnant at the same time. A friend was told she wouldn’t want to be a partner because she had a husband at home to take care of. It can also involve stereotyping around “male” and “female” traits and which ones are considered to be more valuable to business. These more mundane problems are a long way from the music industry.

Artists have always been beholden to their audience to a greater or lesser degree. The reality for the past 75 years has been that there’s a choice to be made between commercial success and personal integrity. Some are able to have both but not many. If any artist is willing to just do what they love, they can make a living if they’ve got the talent. That’s about more than just the gender of the artist. Yes, we should question why the most popular artists are expected to play the particular games Allen’s talking about but not everyone does. I love both female and male artists who don’t play the game although admittedly that’s partly because I just don’t like the kind of music that makes the most money, regardless of the lyrics or videos.

Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits

As my generation was the first to whom buying your breasts became acceptable, I don’t see this as a feminist war cry. I see what she’s getting at. It just doesn’t work for me because of those undertones.

You’re not a size six, and you’re not good looking
Well you better be rich, or be real good at cooking
You should probably lose some weight
‘Cause we can’t see your bones
You should probably fix your face or you’ll end up on your own

Within the pop music industry and film/tv there’s an enormous amount of pressure to look a certain way and women don’t help by buying magazines that take the piss out of imperfections. I agree that there’s enormous pressure on celebrities and that it trickles down. My read is this was a major factor in the song ever getting written.

Allen’s justification for using dancers in bikinis while she’s in something less revealing is that she’s uncomfortable with her body after having had children. I’ve said before we shouldn’t be too critical of each other’s insecurities. It would be pretty hypocritical of me to say “hey, you. Stop being insecure.” I could kick myself for my own insecurities and how they affect my actions sometimes (seriously, I annoy myself by seeking reassurance he actually is interested) but I’m not about to kick someone else for having some. That said, I find it really hard to see how it benefits feminism for a woman to complain about the kind of societal pressure that adds to insecurities, concede to it herself in her choice of outfit and then have a bunch of perfectly proportioned backing dancers in bikinis behind her. Quite apart from their race, can’t she see how unhelpful that is? Calling it satire isn’t an answer. Keeping her clothes on meant that the satire was lost as the rest of the dancers did a barely hammed up version of what we’re used to seeing.

Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?
Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?

Well, we all know what this is about and that she’s got Robin Thicke and his pals in the cross hairs. Yes, rape culture sadly seems to be rising but the problem with the simplistic way in which Allen delivers her opinion on it is that it creates more divisions. Who’s her anger actually directed at? Men in general? That would be unfair and anathema to my vision of what feminism ought to be. It ought to be about genuine equality and I’d really like to put the days of crying “all men are bastards” behind us. Based on the exact words, another alternative interpretation to the one that she only has a very specific group of men in mind is available. It could also be read as a criticism of women. Young women mostly. The kind of women who might listen to her music. It reads like she’s calling those women out, telling them to examine their choices and she’s doing it using sarcasm. It’s not wrong to want those women to realise they deserve better but it’s wrong to do it in that way.

We’ve never had it so good, aha, we’re out of the woods
And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you misunderstood
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trust the injustice ’cause it’s not going away

The implication of the sarcasm is that other people are saying we’ve never had it so good but not many people really are, are they? There have been improvements in the workplace but very few people are saying we’ve achieved equality. And as for sexual politics, we have an endless stream of unpleasantness coming over from the States, rape apologists from the religious right to rappers, like a particularly virulent disease that’s impossible to ignore.

An anthem isn’t one which concludes we’re fucked and we’d better get used to it. An anthem gives hope. Her final lines bitterly suggest there is none. All in all, I don’t have a clue why anyone would call her a standard bearer for feminism off the back of this song. It hits a couple of hot buttons but it’s personal, clichéd, snipy and divisive. It’s only a pop song though. If she really wanted to be taken seriously I’m sure she could’ve done better. It wouldn’t be hard to improve if she just ditched the pop format and gave herself more space. Not my cup of coffee musically but, in the form she’s delivered it, not my brand of feminism either, thanks very much.

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Tough on the causes of sexual thoughts

I think everyone can agree that the presence of paedophilic images and videos on the internet is a bad thing. The children in them are being abused. It’s not controversial to say we should be trying to stop that. However, I disagree with David Cameron over whether making it impossible (if his proposals actually do, which seems highly doubtful) for paedophiles to see such images prevents them from committing future offences against children in the real world. That’s not how paedophilia works. You can’t take away the underlying urge by removing what is, for the paedophile, a relatively risk free method of satisfying it. The recidivism rate for paedophiles demonstrates this (not to mention that they didn’t just suddenly pop into existence on the day the internet was born). So, I don’t believe his plan prevents future harm to children. I’m not saying we don’t need to deal with the presence of sexual and violent content involving children. I just think the emphasis should be on catching the people who make the films and take the photos and that’s a worldwide endeavour. We should protect the children who’re already victims and prevent more children being assaulted and filmed. We should learn lessons from the failed war on drugs and focus on the big players. My dissertation back in 1997-98 was on populist, ineffective law making and a third of it was devoted to our plans for a paedophile register and the lessons from America’s Megan’s Law. Intended to stamp out sexual assault of children by strangers, the fact that only 4% of abuse involved a stranger was ignored. This reminds me of that. It’s a sop. A soundbite. It won’t really achieve much.

Slightly to my surprise, there isn’t universal agreement over the issue of violent pornography (I’ve mentioned sadomasocism below – distinguishing between the two things is important). There are even women arguing that a ban on rape porn is unfair on women who fantasise about rape and might want to watch it. I accept that what we call rape fantasies aren’t that uncommon but I don’t accept the argument that filtering out rape porn hurts women who fantasise about rape. Its not like I’ve ever watched it but I assume it’s called rape porn for a reason. Does witnessing brutality against another woman actually fit into their fantasies? I don’t know. I doubt it. I also don’t know what proportion of the content online is simulated and how much isn’t but for these purposes, does it really matter? At the risk of bringing these objectors down on my head, the word fantasy implies it’s something you can do in your own head. If you’re a woman who prefers visual aids, fine, but I don’t believe the right to watch rape, simulated or real, is a right due to you as a feminist. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong in women fantasising about it themselves – have at it, even if I strongly suspect your fantasises aren’t really about rape in the legal sense – but I do believe it’s wrong to victimise other women in the process.

Before I say anything more, let me say this. There is no such thing as “good” or “better” rape. I’m not saying that at all but I do believe rapists don’t all do it for the same reasons. If you want to reduce the occurrence of rape, it’s important to recognise the distinction. There are rapists who rape through the need for power and violence. As with paedophiles, I’m not convinced removing one stimulus makes them less likely to offend. We’ve never successfully made any real progress on reoffending among that kind of rapist. Then there’s another kind of rape. The kind which seems to be becoming more common and even socially acceptable again. This is rape predicated on the assumption that the man’s sexual needs trump the woman’s choice but you won’t hear them admit that because this is the kind of rape which many men (and even some women) won’t admit is rape at all. Maybe the vast availability of porn is making it easier for men to justify rape by objectifying women but that’s not to say the availability of rape porn encourages these rapists because many justify their actions by denying that it’s non consensual, along the lines of she wanted it, she was asking for it, she got into it. I haven’t seen rape porn but I’m assuming it wouldn’t leave you in any doubt that what you’re seeing is meant to look non-consensual, whether it’s real or simulated. I just don’t see men who tell themselves rape was consensual when it wasn’t, or even those who think sex with or without consent is their societal due, being influenced into that belief by obviously violent porn. That being the case I believe:
a. The first type of rapist will rape with or without violent porn to watch, and
b. The second type of rapist will rape with or without the presence of violent porn in the world.

Although some of the women in rape films might not strictly be victims, we know that sex trafficking is a huge problem and that many are likely to be victims. Apart from anything else,  there’s a booming industry in non-violent porn for women who choose to be in porn. Again, given how little difference I think filters are likely to make to the commission of new offences, I’d rather we prioritise shutting down the people who make these films.

I don’t object to the censorship of images and films which involve the abuse of children and women. The proposals do go beyond existing law by extending the ban to content which appears to depict rape but I don’t have a major issue with that. My first problem, as I’ve said, is that I don’t believe his plan prevents future harm to children and women. To me, Cameron’s strident call to ISPs and search engines is an admission of failure. We, the Government, together with other governments around the world are failing to catch and stop the people making films of paedophilia and rape so we’re outsourcing responsibility (only you won’t get paid) so that we can shift blame to you. Well, they are the party of privatisation. We should probably just be grateful they aren’t putting G4S in charge or they’d be inadvertently filtering mumsnet while simultaneously opening backdoors that leave us all knee deep in hitherto unimagined volumes of pornographic spam before you know it.

My next problem is that I have concerns about where this is all leading and the moralising surrounding adult viewing of porn. How will the filters differentiate between the illegal acts and lawful consensual activities?  What about sadomasocism? Lawyers reading this might remember Laskey Jaggard and Brown. A group of sadomasocist gay men ended up in the European Court of Human Rights arguing that they shouldn’t have been prosecuted over consensual, if extreme (and believe me it was extreme – I read the entire judgement for an assignment at University) sexual activities. They argued (and there’s no doubt they were right) that they were prosecuted not because their activities were non – consensual but because they were gay men and they were into things which others couldn’t cope with. If they’d been able to upload footage of their entirely consensual activities back then, how would the filters be applied? They used fish hooks where no fish hook has ever gone before but they were all willing participants. Human sexuality is complicated and we run the risk of going backwards and pulling non-mainstream activities into the net with illegal ones.

I said recently that I feel the seepage of porn into popular culture is a bad thing. It warps attitudes to sex. It messes with body image and promotes the kind of objectification which may be contributing to the fact that rape seems to have become more acceptable to some people again. Far from saying anyone should have less sex (including teenagers), I think it should be better, that respect and self-respect matter. It’s never a good idea to just say “right. We’ll limit access. That’ll do the trick”. Barring teenagers from watching porn seems like a bit of a shabby, lazy compromise. We still aren’t getting it right when it comes to sex education. Personally, I think honesty is the key to pretty much all issues involving teenagers. Sex, drugs, alcohol. They can be good. They can be great. They can also be awful, make you feel bad about yourself and even kill you. And then there’s the fact that this doesn’t address the existing problem. There’s a whole generation of people whose attitudes to sex have already been moulded by porn and is that seepage into popular culture just going to disappear? Will people magically change, as if 15 years of steadily increasing levels of porn never happened? Will it stop young people filming footage and taking pictures of their own and sharing them that they’re bound to regret sometime? Will it give them body confidence?

Despite my own reservations about the extent to which porn is messing with people’s minds, I’m still concerned about the moral judgements being imposed on adults. Cameron was on the wrong side of the moral argument on equal marriage as far as many of his own party were concerned and we’ve just seen more moralising rants about teenage mothers. The party of small government was always keen to moralise and I am concerned that there’s an element of this in the filtering of lawful content. Cameron’s been banging this drum for a while now, slowly moving further towards the point where he says it’s not just children who have to be protected against the possibility of seeing porn but adults too. As the Register put it:
“Cameron said the new “opt-in” scheme will give all internet users the “unavoidable” choice of whether to use filters on their connection. Quite what will happen to the lists of adults who disable the filters is not clear.”
I’m all for a society capable of happy healthy relationships in all respects, including sexual, but I draw the line at interfering with what consenting adults do in the privacy of the bedroom, or any other room for that matter. I’m reminded of the old “pornography causes sexual thoughts” thing. No it doesn’t. It’s just a cheap imitation of the real thing, like staring at a McDonald’s when you could be eating a steak when you’re hungry. My view is that the problem isn’t the existence of porn; it’s the normalisation of it. It’s trying to turn steak into a burger (of course the reason this analogy works so well is that our attitudes to food have become that screwed up). For some people, it’s using a recipe for a cheap takeaway burger and hoping that you end up with steak. What matters is knowing the difference and preaching from the moral high ground isn’t the way to get the fact that there’s a difference across. Part of me hopes most adult households disable the filters as a matter of principle, just to tell the Government they don’t get to make choices for them. There’s something unpleasant about leaving electronic post it notes asking adults “are you sure you want to watch this? Well, ok. If you must but know this: YOUR COUNTRY THINKS YOU’RE A PERV”.

Bypassing the Brain

If you told me in the 1990s that it was a halcyon age for sexual equality and liberation, I’d have laughed at you. I wouldn’t have believed society would move backwards after so many years. Now though, I’m genuinely shocked by what passes for normal for the current generation of teenagers. I hate to blame the internet but I do agree with all those who argue that the flood of porn and social media have a lot to do with distorting today’s teenagers’ views of sex and relationships. This post isn’t really about asking broad questions about what went wrong and what needs to change though. It’s about music.

I feel incredibly old saying this but the music industry and music channels like MTV are feeding the monster. The vast majority of the top female “artists” (I can’t bring myself to write that without being sarcastic) are expected to jiggle around, not just with next to nothing on but in leather and latex. Some of these women might think they’re liberated but when I see Nicki Minaj snarling at the camera while jiggling her preposterously large breasts, I think of a stripper who knows what she has to do to get paid and resents the hell out of it. Even women in their 30s who initially tasted success back in the days when work experience on a porn set wasn’t an essential on a pop star’s cv are at it. When I saw Kelly Rowland’s video for Down For Whatever I pitied her. I imagine that when they filmed that video she was constantly stopping, asking “does this look sexy?  This? What if I?” And, of course, the men’s videos look like what you’d get if Pan’s People were spliced with porn.

As for the lyrics, I’m Down for Whatever is also a good example of what’s wrong with them. It would be better named “please don’t leave me. I’ll do anything to satisfy your porn based fantasies”. The actual lyrics, which suggest they should “get creative” but only specify “when it comes to you I would make love on the floor”, are a big “huh?” When did that become creative? Someone also needs to tell Kelly there are more appropriate descriptions for what she’s suggesting than “make love” and none of them actually involve any love whatsoever between what would probably be best described as “the participants” (not saying everyone always has to be in love but let’s be honest about it and not tell kids that what Rowland’s singing about is love). Finally, of course,  the endless repetition of “I’m down for whatever” suggests “whatever” means a lot more and that the only way to keep her man is to unquestioningly do whatever he asks. That’s not sexy. It’s pathetic and that’s the kind of tripe today’s teenagers are fed.

Genuinely sexy music can and should bypass your brain. It should send a shiver down your spine from any or all of the instrumentals, vocals and lyrics. Yes, different people have different reactions and find different things sexy but I honestly believe the kind of synth pop crap being churned out is distorting a generation’s understanding of what sexy actually is. Lyrically and musically it’s hard to imagine how anyone can think these songs are sexy, while the endless parade of skin, leather and latex creates an oddly sanitised effect. It’s music for the dead inside and all that latex is about as sexy as a smear test. There’s no passion or heat in these songs or their videos, as if an entire generation is having its passion surgically removed. In my day (ahem), it would have been unthinkable to put these kinds of things on tv because they would have been seen as obscene. They are obscene but not in the way a previous generation would’ve have used the term. They’re obscene because they pevert natural, instinctive passion and tell young women to be submissive barbie dolls and tell young men to take what they want, when they want from however many barbie dolls they want.

All this is by way of introduction to a playlist of 10 songs, which have nothing in common with chart music other than the fact that they can be bought on Amazon. They’re not love songs. They’re music by adults for adults. It may not be your thing (although a fair few of my Twitter pals have impeccable taste!) but nobody could call the artists a bunch of dolls manipulated at the whim of the pop industry on the evidence of these tracks. It’s music that engages the senses. Incidentally, some of the sexiest songs ever written include some pretty dark lyrics if you pay attention. Personally, I think teenagers are supposed to feel. They’re supposed to love passionately and hurt passionately and there’s nothing wrong with music that reflects that angst. It’s music with heat and soul and it’s a hell of a lot better than music which reflects the porn industry.