On Sunday, I attended the Feminism in London 2009 conference.
The conference was inspiring, depressing, uplifting and infuriating in equal measures. That’s probably a good thing.
I’ll briefly discuss some of the sessions I attended and also what I think the organisers could do better next year.
Kate Smurthwaite expertly chaired proceedings and kept the event running to time. Not an easy task with several hundred people to shepherd. I found the talks by Beatrix Campbell and Susie Orbach very inspiring but was very conscious of the fact that many of the aspects of feminism they addressed did not directly affect me. There was no doubting the passion and ire that the speakers felt and they held the audience spell-bound.
A few interesting titbits I picked up…
- Labiaplasty is being “aggressively” marketed to young women. That’s the surgical mutilation of the sex organs for cosmetic reasons.
- Plastic surgery in general is specifically targeting young women and girls.
- The rise of photoshopping models is creating a idealised body image which is literally impossible.
- In 2006 the US spent $56 billion on education – it spent $100 billion on diet industry.
- If dieting worked – you’d only have to do it once and the industry would go bankrupt.
- For more discussion on body-image issues – visit AnyBody.
At the back of the hall were a pictures of amusing subvertising – that is sexist adverts which had been defaced.
Somewhat Strident has a set of stickers that you can use to “accessorise” any sexist material you find. Zazzle sell a “This is offensive to women” sticker which can be stuck on to any poster you find offensive.
“It’s easy out here for a pimp” anti-porn slideshow
This was simple a slide show with a commentary – no time for Q&A. It was also quite US focused. The material was from Stop Porn Culture.
The first half was about the pornification of society – especially that targeted at children. There were audible gasps of horror at the “Hooters Girl (In Training)” t-shirt.
Then there was the superb juxtaposition of these album covers. One from Tiffany the other from Shakira. Both aiming at similar demographics but separated by 20 years.
The essential point was that children are being groomed to believe that they are merely sexual objects. That the only way to happiness is hyper-masculinity – guns, girls, bling – for boys, or hyper femininity – guys, stripping, submissiveness – for girls.
The porn aspect – as in the deliberate watching of sex acts – only covered a small portion of the talk. It covered contemporary attitudes to pornography among young people, such as
“From what you’ve said, it sounds like your relationship is fulfilling otherwise, so it might be best to keep his porn-watching in perspective and to try deal with the feelings that come up as a result of your recent discovery.” Gurl.com answer to “My Boyfriend’s Into Porn“
And the way that pornography producers don’t just try to feature younger and younger models – they also seek to attract a younger audience.
Given my former involvement with the porn industry, you will be unsurprised that I didn’t agree with all the sentiments presented. However, it’s very clear from watching modern music videos that women are usually presented as little more than sex-objects and men as all-powerful beings who can control women.
It may even be said that groups like the Pussycat Dolls are little more that strippers marketed at children.
I don’t think that we need to protect children from their own sexuality – nor should we seek to regulate consenting adults’ sexual urges. But I do find it very worrying how highly sexualised images are being used in the most mundane and inappropriate places.
What’s Wrong With Prostitution?
I’ve never visited a prostitute. I’ve never known anyone who has gone – or admitted going – to a prostitute. My knowledge is, essentially, from Belle de Jour and Band of Gold. Presented by Rebecca Mott, Anna Travers and Denise Marshall of the Poppy Project. What I heard was distressing, uncomfortable and yet, somehow, filled with hope and optimism.
I’ve linked to their sites so you can read their words rather than my interpretation of them – but I’ll summarise some of the points which came out of the Q&A.
- “Prostitution isn’t the oldest profession – agriculture is.” Prostitution hasn’t been going on for ever – it is not inevitable.
- “Do a privileged minority of women prostitute oppress the vast majority who don’t want to be involved?” There are a few, well educated women for whom prostitution is a choice. But their voices tend to drown out the vast minority for whom it is abuse. The case for prostitution is often skewed towards the minority at the incalculable expense of the majority.
- Prostitution is rape. It is rape on an industrial scale. Too many left leaning / liberal groups ignore the mental, physical & sexual abuse of prostitutes. Instead they concentrate on the “liberty” to sell oneself.
- The GMB have a union section specifically for sex workers. However, they allow pimps, brothel-keepers and other “abusers” to be member.
- “Prostitutes don’t need a union because prostitution isn’t a job – it’s abuse”
- Prostitutes shouldn’t be criminalised – paying for sex workers should be.
- When Sweden criminalised paying for sex, their was a massive drop off in prostitute numbers.
- New Zealand’s legalised brothels have lead to a massive increase in trafficked women.
It’s fair to say that this session did change my opinion. I’d previously been fairly blasé about sex workers. I’d assumed that it was a person’s right to sell their body if they wished. But the reality of the massive scale of abuse has lifted the scales from my eyes somewhat.
As Rebecca Mott said (and I paraphrase) “You can’t say that women choose prostitution. If you’d asked me, I would have told you I entered prostitution as a free choice and that I really enjoyed it. It was only after I was free that I realised what terrible abuse I had been through.”
I’m not a mother and I have no intention of being one. That didn’t stop the final two sessions of the day being inspiring.
- Abi Moore from Pink Stinks was hugely entertaining and moving on the needs to prevent “pinkification” of women’s culture. You can hear her on Woman’s Hour.
- “Early Learning Centre – teaching girls their place since 1974.” Specifically in relation to their stifling lack of choice in girls’ fancy dress.
- The average age of a single mother giving birth is 31. Not, as the tabloids would have you believe, 14.
- Less than 2% of new single mothers are teenagers.
- “Women’s rights do not come cheap – neither do women”
- “Liberation does not look like Gok Wan!”
A full list of all speeches is available. The event was also videoed and, I hope, will be available later.
So, on to the inevitable critique of the day…
This was one of the most well organised conferences that I’ve attended. Sessions ran to time, everyone was given a handout showing where and when each workshop would be, the PA was loud enough so everyone could hear. However, there were some traps that they – and many other organisers – fell into.
It’s the nature of events that there will be queues – but there are actions you can take to mitigate your patrons’ annoyance.
- Tell people which queue is which. It’s incredibly frustrating to get to the front of one queue only to be told you were in the wrong one and have to go to the back of another.
- A simple sign or a few volunteers is enough to ensure people know where they are supposed to be.
- Get everything done in one queue if possible. Rather than queue for a meal ticket and then queue for lunch, consider integrating the two queues or selling tickets directly to those standing around.
There was a noticeable lack of dissenting opinion. I’m not talking about getting Richard Littlejohn in to abuse people, but having someone from Red Thread or the English Collective of Prostitutes in the prostitution section may have been interesting.
However, it wasn’t billed as a debate – so it’s a fairly minor quibble.
I’ve never been to a conference where the AV equipment has worked flawlessly. FiL was better than most in that not too long was spent fiddling with microphones.
- Make sure you have enough mics. If you don’t, make sure your cables are long enough to reach all participants.
- Do a dry run so you know your slides work.
- Don’t position anything between a projector and its screen unless you want to make shadow puppets.
I was surprised that this was a paid-for event. After attending several free conferences / BarCamps, it’s temping to think that every event should be free. Given that the hall was full to busting, it’s obvious that a sub £5 ticket isn’t a barrier for entry.
The event was sponsored by The Maypole Fund – although there was no overt sponsorship. No schwag, banners, leaflets etc. I wonder if getting a few more organisations to sponsor the even could have lowered the cost further or paid for lunch.
There were several stalls – such as those from The Fawcett Society and Pink Stinks – who were selling membership, books, giving out fliers. I’m not suggesting that they should be charged for exhibiting – but I wonder if, say, a Fair Trade chocolate stall would have been able to help fund the event.
Feminism isn’t dead. It’s not even resting. It is a living force with thousands of millions of women and men pushing forward for equality. We’re in a better position than we were, but are a long way from where we want to be.
This is not what a post-feminist society looks like. Not yet.