Public Space, Pornography and what I did on my holidays

Friday afternoon at the Lib Dem’s Spring Conference and it's the Women's Policy Consultation session.

We went through a whole pile of topics, neatly titled in the consultation paper under such terms as 'Can we have it all?, Money, Sex, Love & Relationships and MEN!

One thing we got on to talking about in our group, towards the end of the session is the increasing sexualisation and objectification of young women, particularly in our public spaces.

It seems to me that the norms of pornography are seeping into our public spaces, and I don't just mean billboards in the centre of town, but the media and mainstream internet and the products we buy.

The liberal in me, reckons that pornography does not have to be degrading to women; I am largely a sex positive feminist. The liberal me, that lives in the real world, has to admit however that most of it is degrading to women

The pornographic norm is that women are ready to have sex at all times, they are happy to share their men with other women, that even when the pornography involves gang rape, the women in these scenes, though they may be unwilling to start with soon discover they really, really wanted it after all.

Above all, they must always make an effort to look attractive to men.

A 2005 review found that half of all children have logged on to a pornography website, whilst over 57% of children aged 9-19 had seen pornography online.

But they don’t have to go online; everywhere I look there are pictures and adverts involving women in sexual poses, scantily clad and often inferring some sort of lesbian relationship - but not the type that doesn't involve men, of course.

Even the Daily Mail is running articles looking at gratuitous use of sex to promote products!!

The defects that all of us have, including the models used, are airbrushed out creating a standard of perfection for young women to aspire to that actually does not exist.

Lap dancing clubs, able to operate on the same footing as cafes, have doubled across the UK in recent years. This involves naked and topless women dancing at close 'proximity' to men (often there after work or at lunch time). There is ostensibly a three feet rule but in practice this rule is not enforced.

Honest to god, I'm not a prude - I really, really don't mind what it is that people to get up to, as long as they're both consenting - but I do think that public space should not be given over to the lowest common denominator.

They even advertise lap dancing classes for women and my health club - just along from the crèche – when did the work of a sex worker become so aspirational?

I think public spaces should be available and safe places for children and young people; it's bad enough being a 37 year old woman in these times and being made to feel no good unless you're a size 10 (with at least D cup breast, of course) - who would be a 14 or 15 year old girl, trying to work out a sense of self?

Liberalism isn't just about freedom for people to be and do what they want - that's libertarianism - but is also about freedom from harm and I want to be and I want children and young people to be free from the pornographic norm that suggests that in order to be normal you have to be gagging for sex at all times (whether male or female) and that if you’re female or even just a little girl you primary aim is to look sexy and attractive to men!

As a friend of mine, over in Sydney, said recently when this subject came up at dinner - why should we let corporations and businesses (for it is they that run the lap dancing clubs, the porn sites and push the products with the highly sexual adverts) dictate to us what are public spaces feel like? Why should it always be the freedom of companies to make money through sex that wins out?

I am glad to see that today Jacqui Smith has ordered a fact-finding review into the increasing sexualisation of young women.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be like this.

I’m not long back from New Zealand plus a long weekend in Sydney. Lucky me!

But lucky New Zealanders as well. Because one of the most striking differences I noticed between the UK and NZ was that there seemed no pressure on women to be sexual objects at all times – although there did seem to be a lot of excessive baking going on.

Perhaps, they’ve yet to catch up with us, but I don’t think that’s it. New Zealand is way ahead of us in many things and especially in terms of diversity, particularly in its parliament. It’s already had two female Prime Ministers and 33.6% of it’s current MPs are female.

In fact when I spoke about how worried I was about the sexualisation of young women in the UK, they were kind of mystified - it was clearly not as much a problem there.

It is hard to say which came first.

Does New Zealand have more female MPs and therefore any over sexualisation of women and girls in public spaces has been nipped in the bud; or do more women feel able to go forward into parliament and are taken more seriously when they get there because they don’t feel any pressure to come over like a sex object?

One New Zealander that I know well, is not sure how New Zealand women became free from the need to be a sex object at all times, but thinks that it may be because women get organised in NZ. Perhaps female MPs and groups would lobby companies that wanted to produce overtly sexist and sexualised adverts and products and therefore preserve their public space for everybody, not just those who want to use sex to make money from it.

In any case, the sexualisation of young women and the pornographication of our public spaces is not inevitable; we can stop it and we can say no to handing over our public spaces to those who would be happy with the lowest common denominator.

If you would like to contribute to the Liberal Democrat's Women's Policy Consultation, you can do so here.


Jennie said...
10 Mar 2009, 18:00:00

I think this is a lot more complicated than you are painting it. Firstly, nudity =/= pornography. I don't think the sloggi advert you have above is pornographic. I think it's a BAD ADVERT, because it says to me "these knickers are uncomfortable, don't bother buying them", but I don't think it's titillating. It shows how the knickers fit.

Also, I am uncomfortable with your assertion that we shouldn't normalise people who feel randy lots. I feel randy lots. I shouldn't be allowed to feel normal?

Finally, yes, lots of porn is degrading to women, but lots of it isn't, and that's the sector of the market that's growing. Rather than restricting porn, I think allowing adults to make freer choices about adult entertainment is a good thing.

Having said all that? I am bang alongside you on lapdancing clubs, and on public spaces. The Sloggi advert above is fine for the pages of a magazine aimed at adults, but probably not for the billboard; mainly because those knickers aren't suitable for anyone with sense.

I think you are right that under 18s are bombarded with too many bad messages, and these ought to be restricted. I just don't necessarily think, as someone who has an incredibly high sex drive, and who accesses porn on occasion, but still considers herself a feminist, that adults should have their choices restricted because we want kids to have healthy sexual development.

And yeah, I'm very uncomfortable with lapdancing. But, again, I wouldn't necessarily want to restrict adult use of them, so much as change the ethos of them. And yeah, not have big billboards advertising them in public spaces.

I don't know what all the answers are, and I'm not saying I do. But I am wary that while trying to make sure public spaces are safe for all, we will also be restricting some people's harmless and enjoyable sexual expression.

Do you read sexual intelligence, BTW - It tends to chime a lot with my views, although it's very US centric.

Jimmy said...
10 Mar 2009, 20:24:00

The difference between the UK and NZ is that women have the right to decide for themselves when to have sex and usually have the right to decide when to work in a lap dancing club. Sheep are given less choices.

"57% of children aged 9-19 have seen online pornography". How many of those 'children' are over 16 and should be regarded as old enough to make their own decisions about such things? What a meaningless statistic.

I hope you have withdrawn your membership from your health club in protest at them running lap dancing. Anything less is like men who say they only go to strip clubs for the wine.

Hywel said...
10 Mar 2009, 23:46:00

Whilst this is a well reasoned article but I would take issue with your use of this survey:
"A 2005 review found that half of all children have logged on to a pornography website, whilst over 57% of children aged 9-19 had seen pornography online."

My criticisms are to do with the nature of survey's like this which often seem more focussed at producing a shock headline figure.

Firstly, you don't have children aged 19 so if the sample was equal it shouldn't be any shock that rougly 1/11 of that sample had seen pornography online as they are adults and can look at what they like.

Secondly if your talking about issues like sexuality than 9-19 years old is a huge, almost meaningless, age range. I've not seen the results in detail but I'll wager all the money in my pockets that it wasn't 57% of 9 year olds who had seen pornography online. What I suspect is the case is that when you get to the top of that age range virtually everyone has and that's what gives such a large figure.

Thirdly is the issue of what is pornography which can run from The Sport upwards.

And finally, how true would this have been years ago. I'd take a rough guess that at my (co-ed boarding school) all the boys had seen pornography at around 14-15 as there was a relatively thriving market in such things.

And was your gym offering lap dancing classes or pole dancing classes? The latter is quite a skilful and demanding type of exercise and only really takes on its sexual aspect because of the context the audience gives. After all if you put them in a lapdance club context and with different outfits some of the moves on Olympic gymnastic apparatus would take on a different meaning.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
11 Mar 2009, 09:47:00

Hi Jennie,

It is undoubtedly a complex issue.

But I don't htin I argue that nudity equals pornography. In fact the pornographic norms that I go on to describe actually don't focus on nudity but focus on a culture and message of female sexual availability and commodification.

I didn't say we shouldn't normalise people who feel randy a lot but rather a cultural norm which treats women as sexually available and whose primary function is to be attractive and available to men.

I'm not suggesting that we restrict porn - it has it's place, especially the relatively minor section of porn that is not degrading to women - but rather we should seek to restrict the norms of pornography seeping out into our public spaces and skewing what young people understand about their bodies, sex and relationships.

I do take your point about a a growing sector of the market that is not degrading to women but I still believe that the pornographic norm (what it actually is rather than what it should or could be) is degrading to women.

Yes free up adults sexual choices, in their private spaces but don't make our public spaces all about sex and how available women are.

I think on these points we are largely agreeing.

However, whilst I didn't claim the sloggi advert was pornographic I do think it is overtly sexual, the French captions translates as 'on offer' (with your free sale points - whatever that refers to).

The 'neat little joke' is that it's not clear whether it's the knickers or the bottom that's on offer!

Clearly it is not important that the provocatively, and it seems to me, expectant bottom didn't require to actually be attached to a woman but just to a body part and was obviously meant to be sexy.

Sexy good; overtly sexual and making women's bodies out to be commodities, in public spaces: bad.

Of course, it's selling to women, but the problem with the pornographic norm is that it encourages women as well as men to think that above all they must be attractive and available to men and hey, it's only their body parts, the ones that men really like, that really matter.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
11 Mar 2009, 09:51:00

Thank you Jimmy, for bringing such insight and maturity to the debate! I bet New Zealanders have never heard that one before! How original!

Jo Christie-Smith said...
11 Mar 2009, 09:58:00

Well, statistics, schmatistics, Hywel; I'm damned if I do use them and damned if I don't.

But frankly, don't get too caught up with it, as my substantive point is that kids don't need to go online to see women being objectified and the pornagraphic norm taking hold. They can do that in mainstream media as well.

As for the increased availability of porn - yes I think many, many teenagers were able to access the odd magazine borrowed from someone's elder sibling - I remember the pornographic playing cards that used to go around school.

But I think, statistics or not, the availability and quantity of porn, largely because of the internet, has vastly increased since the 70's & 80's when you (?) and I were teenagers.

And that is the problem - it's spilling over into everyday life and whilst there is a place for it in private spaces (and anyhow, how would you ban it, even when it was banned it still had its place?) it doesn't have to be al over our public spaces.

Some kids will see porn and be able to differentiate it from real life, but many won't and I think that it a dangerous and unpleasant place to be.

Julie said...
15 Mar 2009, 01:03:00

Not sure what Jimmy is on about.

Thanks for the linky love Jo; I have scheduled a post ahead to discuss your observations of NZ for Tuesday, so will be interesting to see what NZ readers think!

Anonymous said...
17 Mar 2009, 02:31:00

I think you are reading too much into it with regards to New Zealand.

New Zealand men and women are considerably more casual than many in Britain/Europe. We don't care as much about fashion. We don't care as much about pomp and ceremony. We don't even care as much about money. It is simply a laid back culture. (Yeah I'm grossly generalising, but I have no time for caveats)

What you saw in NZ women is just an extension of the wider casual culture here.

Anonymous said...
17 Mar 2009, 08:49:00

As an NZer I'd agree with anonymous above for the most part - NZ culture broadly expouses a casual and pragmatic approach to life.

Compared to many countries too, there is less public advertising in NZ as the population density is relatively low, and there is still a high degree of public dislike of it (unfortunately this is changing for the worst IMHO).

Regarding the lap dancing clubs... they seem to exploit a legal 'grey area/middle ground' in the UK?...In contrast NZ has legalised prostitution (as does Australia). I wonder about the interaction between the socio-cultural and legal postions of lap-dancing in the UK?

Jo Christie-Smith said...
17 Mar 2009, 16:50:00

Anon number 1

What you saw in NZ women is just an extension of the wider casual culture here.

Okay, that's a fine explanation - at least we're not arguing as to whether each society feels different.

But what I don't understand is that if we in the UK have a more formal society, why that leads to a sexualisation of young women?

Anon 2

I wonder about the interaction between the socio-cultural and legal positions of lap-dancing in the UK?

Well the legal loop hole/grey area has allowed businesses to squeeze through and certainly the major beneficiaries of the proliferation of lap dancing clubs is down the pursuit of profit!

So, what you get is business creating social norms - which is nothing new - but do we want it to be that way?

I mean, some might say they're only fulfilling demand but I wasn't aware of local groups lobbying for the introduction of lap dancing clubs, like they might lobby for a post office or corner shop/dairy.

(Sorry, I know I'm being a bit flippant but I couldn't resist)

Anonymous said...
17 Mar 2009, 19:26:00

Hello Jo

(I'm anon two by the way :-))

Yes, to some degree NZ is a diversion from the probably more-important question of this "avaliability of women" theme is happening in the UK (or at all), since given globalisation saying 'local culture' cannot explain it all. Is it simply because as you say "business is defining social norms" and the UK has more and larger companies with more experience and better lawyers? Certainly since about the 1920s in the US at least expanding a business has been about creating "demand" where none previously existed (reading histories of advertising and 'consumer' culture is a fascinating exercise).

I would say too that there is some connection between profilerating advertising in public space,the maxim "sex sells" and what you are noticing around you. Advertisers need to keep pushing the envelope.

Anon number 1 said...
18 Mar 2009, 07:38:00

I see sexualisation of young women as simply branding (as in marketing). If you want to launch a new product onto the market you might want an 'edgy', 'sexy' brand image. It is similar motivations, I think, that drives women (and increasingly, men) to 'brand' themselves as such. It's about competition, and enticement.

Why does New Zealand have less of it? Firstly I wasn't simply suggesting that NZ is less formal, but rather less image concious. I notice that tourists here find it surprising to see so many people wearing jandals (flip-flops in the UK?) or even going barefoot on our main/high streets.

There may well be historical reasons for why this is so, and I would suggest that it may have to do with the fact that till extremely recently there wasn't much of a class structure here.

Where there was a class structure, the common woman might aspire to emulate the ladies, and the common man, the gentlemen. Down here, the best you could be was a hard worker regardless of your gender. Nobody had time for gentlemen and ladies.

New Zealand hasn't shed gender roles any faster than the rest of the world, it's just that gender roles here have been different to Europe (but similar to other settler cultures). All women had to be practical and had to get their hands dirty. This would I suspect have had an effect on both men and women that influenced both to be a bit different (not necessarily better) with their attitudes to women than men and women in Britain.

And so a culture is built up which values practicality over image.

Today there is less of a need to be practical. Now we have high fashion stores and a an elite class and a working class just like Europe. But, but we also have a sense of identity now - one which includes being practical and self-effacing. And many young people choose to embrace that identity even though the reason is no longer there to the same extent.

The down side, if you like, to this culture is the tall-poppy syndrome. We are quite protective of our egalitarianism, some would say to the detriment of success.

*All of the above is simply conjecture - I'm no expert. Two cents and all that...

Ranald said...
18 Mar 2009, 15:32:00

I'm a New Zealander currently studying in England, and one of the (many) cultural differences you notice is the prevalence of soft porn over here. Topless women in many newspapers, and 'lad mags' (many of which have New Zealand editions with much tamer content). Both countries have harder stuff sealed up on the top shelves etc (I have no idea if there's any qualitative difference at that end; not something I've really studied!) but the soft porn availability is very noticeable.

I'm not sure what the causes or effects of this are, however. I don't think it has much to do with legal censorship, but I could be wrong.

Anonymous said...
24 Mar 2009, 10:48:00


All the talk of New Zealand's alleged superiority in their social approach to sex reminded me of this:

I think that we are, as a society, more concerned with sex than we like to admit; that much of the discomfort with the sexualisation of our public lives is the result of this incongruity between the extent to which we say we're concerned with sex and the extent to which society (perhaps predominantly the male half of society?) actually is concerned with sex. Sex is a biological imperitive afterall. It's hard to be rational and civilised with that sort of thing...

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