Challenging sex object culture: definitely needed, definitely lively and definitely a key issue for 2009!

A recent feature in The Times labelled protests against the Miss University London beauty pagaents "old fashioned". But, argues Sandrine Levêque, if anything campaigns against the objectification of women and girls are more relevant today than ever

Sandrine Levêque, 4 January 2009

objectprotestor.jpgI should probably say from the get-go that as of last month I own a duffle coat. The coat was a gift from my mum, although I should have perhaps checked The Times' Style section first to see if it ticked the box of 'accepted feminist outfit'. Apparently it doesn't. In 'The new feminists: lipsticks and pageants', a Times Style reporter argued that, in contrast to so-called "old feminism" - epitomised by "angry young women in duffle coats" protesting outside Miss University London beauty pageants, today's re-branded version of the f word is rejecting objectification campaigns (and their apparent duffle coat associations) in favour of chic glamour.

I don't need to spend much time on the piece's contradictions - see Jess' post here for an interesting discussion of them. The most obvious example is that, for an article critiquing "old feminists" for allegedly judging women on the basis of their appearance, comments about the outfits of political activists are more than a little hypocritical – and say a lot about attitudes underlying the piece.

Rather, I think it's important to set the record straight. At best the article gives a lop-sided vision of what feminism today means to women and men campaigning for an end to sexism and full women's rights. I'm not suggesting that the 'wrong kind' of feminism was showcased. It is of fundamental importance that women have choices – choices that have been historically so repressed. So of course there is no 'right' feminism. But equally it is right that all views are given a fair hearing, which is what was missing from this article.


And the fact is that for many women and men, beauty pageants and objectification are issues worth campaigning on. Indeed, 2008 was marked by a helluva lot of activism linked to these issues. Describing the resurgence of this activism, The Times suggests readers could be forgiven for believing they had "woken up in 1978". The obvious implication being that such protests are outdated relics from the past.
Well last time I checked, many of the issues that feminists campaigned on in 1978 are still alive and kicking today.

In 1978, women were under-represented in fairly paid employment, politics, law and education, and faced extraordinarily high levels of violence.

Fast-forward 30 years or so. In 2009, 75% of workers paid a minimum wage are female, 80% of MPs are male, 91% of high court judges are male, 92% of university vice-chancellors are male, 96% of FTSE 100 company directors are male and one in three women will face gender-based violence in her lifetime. In the words of a cheesy blockbuster: Houston, it looks like we still have a (sexism) problem.

Sex object culture is often mistaken for a generic 'sexualisation of culture'. We hear that sex is everywhere; that Britons can't get enough of it. Yet it is not sex that is everywhere, but porn

Of course, thanks to the hard work of women's rights campaigners, we have made strides in many areas. But in other areas women's rights are actually receding. Rape conviction rates have plummeted from one in three during the 1970s to one in 20 today. Yet Rape Crisis centres, starved of vital funding (and facing political backtracking from key political figures such as the mayor of London), are staring closure in the face. In November, the Office of National Statistic published figures showing that the gender paygap for both full and part-time workers actually increased in 2008.

Over the same period of time we have seen an explosion in the pornification of culture. As pornography has crept into mainstream culture we have become increasingly desensitised to the sexualisation of women as commodities in our advertising, media and everyday lives: what Object refers to as "sex object culture". It is now a staple of mainstream media. In 2005, Object sent a copy of The Sport, a tabloid newspaper available for 30p in newsagents countrywide, to every MP. Many complained and asked why we had sent them pornography. This perfectly illustrated our point: such papers market themselves as 'newspapers', but they have more in common with porn and its inherent sexism.

Which brings me to a piece of the puzzle often missing in discussions around this: sexism. Sex object culture is often mistaken for a generic 'sexualisation of culture'. We hear that sex is everywhere; that Britons can't get enough of it. Yet it is not sex that is everywhere, but porn. Porn-inspired use of women and girls' bodies as commodities, whether to sell newspapers, beer or holidays to Greece, is increasingly ubiquitous in a way that has little or no parallel for men or boys and feeds a sexist culture in which it is normal or 'ironic' to treat women as sex objects, not people.

I'm a naturally optimistic person. But even my optimism has limits. The idea that this has no link to the ongoing struggle for women's rights is not a seriously sustainable argument. 

Which is why we have seen a revivial of activism in recent years. Sending The Sport to all MPs and calling for regulation to tackle sexism sparked real debate, both public and parliamentary. Last year saw thousands of activists mobilise to support Object's latest campaign, alongside the Fawcett Society, to end the licensing of lap-dancing clubs as cafes.

What about campaigning on poverty? What about racism? Why are you judging women? These are frequently asked questions

Elsewhere the beauty pageant protests have seen women's officers from various universities joining forces. Riot Showgrrrls Club, a cutting edge feminist show at Edinburgh Fringe, which spared no punches in its tackling of sex object culture, received rave reviews all round. Last summer's No More Porn on London Transport campaign called for the use of porn on public transport to be seen as a form of anti-social behaviour. Objectification and sexism has also featured heavily in the wave of feminist activism taking place through inspiring events such as Million Women Rise, Fem 08, Feminism in London, and Reclaim the Night. And when Anti-Porn London leafleted outside London screenings of the film House Bunny – in effect a Hollywood advert for the Playboy mansion – there were more activists than customers for the film!

Such sentiments are not just rising up from grassroots activism. The End Violence Against Women Coalition – the largest coalition of women's organisations in the UK – has repeatedly called for action to tackle the increased sexualisation of women in the media. EVAW's latest report stated that "the sexualisation of popular culture and the ubiquity of sexualised imagery of women were described by stakeholder organisations at all the consultation events as conducive contexts for violence against women".

There are loud voices that don't agree, however. What about campaigning on poverty? What about racism? Why are you judging women? These are frequently asked questions.

Yet it is clear that sexism and poverty are interrelated. If poverty has a female face it is because workplace structures reflect dominant attitudes, and sexism plays a part in this. Similarly, the sexualisation of women and girls overlaps significantly with racism. The imagery we are surrounded by promotes an exclusionary ideal of white, young and 'hot' women. Yet take a walk outside and this picture is at odds with the diversity and plurality of women who live and work around you.

And taking a stand against sexism is not about pitting one gender against another. Unlike the picture painted by The Times, protestors outside the university beauty pageants were both female and male, and their protests were not directed towards the women taking part, but directed rather towards the sexism underpinning the event itself. Systemic sexism structures our society, so simplistic 'women against women' or 'women against men' arguments miss the point entirely.

Which is why, in 2009, Object and others will continue to campaign. We will continue lobbying to ensure that licensing reforms for lap-dancing clubs pass through Parliament, and will be exploring campaigning avenues on sexist magazine culture and the links between sexism and racism. Later this year Object is also collaborating with theatre companies New Strides and Springboard Arts, on a workshop programme for schools and colleges directly addressing objectification. Sign up to our newsletter to stay in the loop and make 2009 the year we stand united against sex object culture and sexism.

About the author

Sandrine Levêque

Sandrine Levêque is campaigns manager at Object and decided to keep her duffle coat xmas present. Read more about Object at www.object.org.uk

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