Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1859

The body for sale

This article is over 18 years, 6 months old
The mainstream press has branded feminism 'outmoded', 'unpopular' and 'ball breaking'. Equality has been achieved, they say, ignoring the sexist adverts carried in their own news pages. Judith Orr explodes this myth and explains why fighting for
Issue 1859

‘DISCOVER weapons of mass distraction,’ declares the latest Easyjet billboard ad campaign, above a photo of a woman’s breasts in a bikini top. Every high street is full of such images, selling records, cars, plumbing parts and mobile phones. The models fulfil society’s stereotype of the ideal female shape – they are all skinny and busty.

In fact, the models are skinnier than ever. In the 1950s models weighed 8 percent less than the average woman. Now they weigh 23 percent less. The Easyjet ad is typical. It doesn’t even bother to show the woman’s face or head – it’s her body that’s selling the airline tickets. Sex sells, the advertisers believe. But what they are really using is sexism.

Lap dancing clubs have opened all across the country, and men’s magazines like Loaded and FHM remain the acceptable face of pornography. It sometimes feels like the clocks have gone back to a time before women protested at being seen as just sex objects. Yet the unsettling thing about this latest wave of sexism is that many young women think it is cool.

Young teenagers wear T-shirts with ‘Slut’ or ‘Porn Star’ on them. Popular music videos show the male stars with half-naked women writhing around them – many no longer use dancers and instead employ real strippers and prostitutes for their explicit videos.

Celebrities enthusiastically embrace this sexist culture. The model Sophie Dahl has worn a T-shirt declaring ‘Pornography Rocks’. Dahl and actress friend Sadie Frost are regulars at one of London’s West End lap dancing clubs, as are other trend setters Kate Moss and Jade Jagger.

Sara Cox, the Radio 1 DJ, talks on air about wanting to be some pop star’s ‘beatch’. Her predecessor in the job, Zoe Ball, boasted about the pole she had installed in her home so that she could pole dance for her husband and friends. Twenty years ago strip clubs would have been seen as seedy and sad. Today lap dancing clubs are big business (there are now over 300 clubs in the UK) and are filled with yuppies and businessmen.

The most successful chain, Spearmint Rhino, has netted its founder, John Gray, a fortune of £38 million. The Tottenham Court Road branch was turning over more than £300,000 a week before Christmas last year. These clubs are now so mainstream that city bankers take clients along to show corporate hospitality. One firm gave away vouchers for a club as part of their Christmas bonus. The society rag for the rich, Tatler magazine, held a Christmas bash at Stringfellows, a lap dancing club in London.

One writer on advertising, Judith Williamson, has called this phenomenon ‘retro sexism’, or ‘sexism with an alibi’. What she means is that today people say, ‘Of course I know about sexism, that’s old hat. Now women are empowered, many even write these ads and lap dancers earn thousands of pounds a week – what’s so oppressive about that?’

The new sexism is deemed ‘ironic’ and witty, not degrading and insulting, because women are seen as having won equality. In fact there have been a lot of stories in the press about how ‘now it’s men who are oppressed’. Yet the reality today is that women still earn on average 20 percent less than men. Only 18 percent of MPs are women. Women are still expected to take responsibility for childcare in the family.

Of course women’s lives are very different to those of their grandmothers. The last 50 years have seen the most dramatic and swift change in history. We have made huge gains, but even those gains are distorted and used by the system. Capitalism seeks to capture and absorb everything and turn it into a commodity to sell back to us. The mood of resistance to the system is resold to us in trainers with peace symbols on – a sort of anti-capitalist chic.

Women’s sexual confidence is used to sell bras, and TV ads feature products that make housework simple for the husbands of ‘liberated’ women who work outside the home.

Every aspect of our lives is used to get us to buy stuff, to make profit. Every human emotion is distorted by the system – even the most private aspects of our lives such as our feelings of love and friendship and our sexual desire. So women feel that in order to be attractive they have to look like the airbrushed pictures of seven-stone models.

At the same time, they should have a good job and show their love for their family by rustling up a gourmet meal every night and cleaning their whites. The insecurities of men are also used in this way. Men are encouraged to think they should be ‘studs’, ‘pulling’ women every night.

If a man lacks the confidence to even chat to women he is made to think that if he buys Lynx aftershave women will be queuing up to dance with him in the pub. But the crude and widespread use of women’s bodies as a commodity reflects the reality of their position in society as second-class citizens.

Would it help to ban these strip clubs and have sexist images and pornography censored, as some women demand? No. Socialists are against censorship. First of all, who decides what’s OK? Would we want the New Labour government or a Tory judge deciding what books we read or what images we see?

In the past such controls have been used against what our rulers find unacceptable (for example explicit gay literature) and so just reflect their own prejudices.

Ian Paisley, the bigoted Unionist politician from Northern Ireland, has even condemned line dancing because it apparently provokes lust! Throughout history the ruling class has tried to impose its ‘morals’ on the rest of society.

This was never out of any desire to see women treated with respect as equals – rather it was one way of keeping us down. For they never lived by their own rules.

Victorian archaeologists excavating the famous Roman site at Pompeii in southern Italy confiscated the many sexually explicit wall paintings and statues (which had been popular at the time when the volcano lava enveloped the town). They locked them in a secret collection closed to women, children and the illiterate. A very expensive illustrated catalogue of the exhibits was available, however, for those who could afford it.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel about an affair between a lady and her gamekeeper with explicit sex scenes, was banned from being published in a cheap edition for years. The morals of ordinary working people were thought to be at risk. Those with money were never stopped from buying the expensive edition.

Far from wanting controls on explicit material, socialists want more openness about sex, not less. We fight for clear and honest sex education in schools. The sniggering and prudish way sex is treated in society leads to ignorance and confusion. This is one reason why Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe.

Societies where censorship of sexual explicitness is prevalent are usually repressive in every way and reflect a lack of freedom for all ordinary people, including women.

The images in magazines are not the cause of women’s oppression or the reason why women are treated as second-class citizens. They are merely a symptom, an effect of that oppression. Women were oppressed long before billboards were invented.

This oppression continues to this day – though in a different way to former generations. Now the majority of women also work outside the home, but they are still expected to juggle domestic responsibilities without society’s support. High points of struggles, revolutions and protests over the years have seen challenges to such definitions of women’s role in society.

At times of social upheaval, possibilities for a different way of living are opened up for women and men. Most recently the 1960s and 1970s saw movements across the world that shook the system and with these came the modern women’s movement.

It was a new era – women had access to reliable contraception for the first time ever. The economy was expanding and so many women were drawn into higher education and into the growing job market. With these changes came different expectations about their lives – about equal pay, childcare, abortion rights and about how they were portrayed in society.

The fact that sexism is still rampant today reflects the fact that capitalism and class society are still with us. The changes we have won, though hugely welcome, have left the system which created women’s oppression in the first place still intact.

Leon Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution in 1917, which sought to make women’s liberation a reality. He said, ‘It takes a deep-going plough to uproot the heaviest clods of earth.’

What he meant was that women’s oppression needed social change on the scale of a revolution to shift it. That means (for us today) that in the struggle to fight for a world which is not for sale we will create a world where our bodies are not for sale also.

The assertions made in the press about feminism last week sprang from a study published by the Equal Opportunities Commission – The Future Foundation Study, Talking Equality survey. Just 35 people took part but the EOC argues that the participants were ‘indicative’ of a general trend rather than ‘representative’.

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