15th November 2019, New Zealand Parliament
Before I begin, I do want to flag that I will be discussing some pretty upsetting realities around sexual violence in particular. I will be using language I didn’t expect to ever be using in Parliament, but it is necessary and we at Speak Up For Women have become accustomed to being the ones unafraid to have the conversations that need to be had.
I will start by reading a thread posted on Twitter recently by a young feminist called Erin:
“Boys started bringing porn magazines to school when I was in the 4th grade. My friends & I started watching it at sleepovers when I was 11 because we’d heard so much about it. Seeing adult women being chocked and spit on & violently fucked is traumatizing for young women who already lack positive role models.
Young minds can’t process porn, what’s real & what’s not, what’s expected & what’s nonconsensual. All we see is bodies, being handled like meat, and supposedly they like it? Do I like it? Do I have to do this? Is this sex?
It doesn’t help that our teen years are when we begin to be told things like “Don’t go out alone at night” “Don’t dress like that or you’re asking for it” “Be careful dancing like that” “You should cover up.” We go from children to targets all because we develop breasts & curves.
We all have the friend who starts cutting, the friend who starts giving blow jobs to boys who don’t text her afterwards, the friend who hikes her skirts up after she leaves the house, the friend who never eats. We watch our female peers crumble under girlhood. We become numb.
On TV we watch crime shows about raped & murdered women, or caricatures of femininity in designer clothes on Riverdale. We’re bombarded with music videos of naked skinny women. We soak in this media in our most formative years: Women are pretty. Women are sexy. Women are victims.
Teenage boys aren’t told to carry pepper spray or rape whistles. They take karate for fun, not for fear of getting attacked. They watch movies about brotherhood on sports teams, not cheerleaders hating each other. They don’t read magazines full of men with cosmetic surgeries.
The profound pain & loss that occurs when transitioning from a young girl, constantly told life is full of promise & she can be anything she wants, to a teenager who is a sexual object, a target of her peers, & a victim is life changing. So many of us don’t recover.
We all come out of teenage girlhood scathed in one way or another. Being a teenage girl is not sexy. It’s not cute. And it’s not something that men will ever, ever understand.”
“Why do we even need feminism anymore?” It is a question often levelled at me. “Why do we need feminism?”
I began with Erin’s tweets because they neatly encapsulate the hostile world young women are expected to navigate all while remaining functional with a smile on their faces; being told this is the best women have ever had it. How can anyone live in this world and not see what women are enduring — particularly young women.
However, when we view feminism through the eyes of those not so engaged with the intricacies of feminist politics, we can understand where their skepticism comes from. They aren’t seeing my feminism or Speak Up For Women’s feminism. They’re seeing “choice” feminism; a feminism which is whatever any given woman at any given time says is feminism.
Today I will be answering the question — I hope — of why we need feminism now as much as ever. Not today’s “choice” feminism, but the feminism of our foremothers; the collective class struggle for women’s liberation.
I am not a “sex positive” feminist. It is hard to admit that, not because I am embarrassed about my stance, but because the language that has been used to legitimize the “sex positive” movement makes it deliberately difficult for us to assert ourselves against it. No one wants to be “sex negative” — this evokes images of Victorian repression, prudishness, and the boring kind of woman who will “never find a man”.
Sex positivity began as an anti-shaming movement. It asserted that women should not be shamed for being sexual beings. So far, so good. However, as tends to happen, post-modernists, liberal elites, and the usual naval-gazers took it a step further…and then another…and another… until we are now being told that critiquing violence in sex or furries or grown men in diapers is “kink-shaming” and inherently anti-feminist. After all, how can we be feminists if we are “policing women’s sexuality”? According to choice feminism, if a woman wants to be choked and beaten during sex, then choking and beating during sex is feminist. What this neglects to acknowledge is that it is overwhelmingly men dressing up as animals or in diapers. It is men who commit vile acts of violence against women and call it “rough sex”; it is their sexuality we are really being told not to “shame”.
Campaign group ‘We Can’t Consent To This’ has examined 58 instances where the defence of “sex gone wrong” has been used for murder in the UK alone. This defence has seen some success with 16 cases resulting in the downgraded conviction of manslaughter, 3 cases where charges were not pursued, and 2 cases where the accused was found not guilty. In 100% of these cases the accused was a man.
We are, of course, acutely aware of this defence in New Zealand currently as it plays out in a case heavily covered by the media. To respect the processes of the court I will not go into it this further at this time.
“Choice” feminists will defend violence against women so long as it is in the name of male pleasure. They provide a shield for all number of depraved “kinks” by endorsing the acts as feminist. Where our feminist foremothers fought for our sexual liberation and against male violence, those inhabiting their once incredible organisations have enabled a culture where anything but total sexual disinhibition — including acts that aren’t pleasurable for women and are in fact incredibly painful — is anti ‘sex-positivity’ and anti-feminist.
Teen Vogue is on hand to help though! The popular magazine targeted at teenagers is there to recommend which numbing lubricant our daughters should use to make it easier to endure the sex we are all supposed to be so positive about. The kind of sex that they and their male peers have learned to see as normal, having been exposed to endless amounts of increasingly violent pornography. Whereas once access to porn was a stack of monthly magazines and maybe a VHS tape, now even the most violent, depraved acts can be found online with a simple Google search.
Our young people are being taught by pornographers about sex, intimacy, and relationships and begin to explore their sexuality not by fumbling around with each other but by enacting what they have seen. There is no counter-education to offset this. Our education system seems to be becoming more and more enamored with the “sex positive” approaches curriculum writers see being endorsed by “feminists”. They should not be supporting the notion that it is “normal” for women to be enthusiastic about being pummeled in every orifice. Boys should not be taught to expect this and girls should not be taught to think of sex as what they must endure to please men. Girls, women, you are not abnormal for wanting sex to be pleasurable and pain-free.
Kids are absorbing messages from morally bankrupt media that are ending in real life harm. Just ask medical professionals about the increase in anal injuries to young women. Pornography has normalized the image of rough anal sex as if it is a staple part of everyone’s sex life. Of course, Teen Vogue has an article that is *quote* “anal 101, for teens, beginners, and all inquisitive folk” *end quote*. It tells young women not to tense up because it’ll ruin the fun…or at least it tells “non-prostate havers” that. The magazine is determined to groom teen girls into believing they are deficient if they aren’t desperate to reenact what they have seen in porn.
Young women are being exposed to violent sexual imagery and experiencing extreme sexual degradation before they have left high school. And “feminists” are celebrating this as “sex positivity”. It is NOT positive. It is coercion, violence, and disempowerment. We are here to speak up for girls and against violence in sex.
The concept of empowerment is used liberally by these so-called feminists. Choice is empowering — apparently. But is choice empowering if women are choosing between a rock and a hard place? How can a woman in a desperate financial situation turn her nose up at “sex work” when it is celebrated as a career choice — an empowering way to earn money? The National Council of Women are too busy chanting “sex work is real work” to address the issues that contribute to women being in the situation where they have to consider it in the first place.
Strip clubs and pimps are now putting flyers up at universities appealing to stressed, strapped for cash young women with mounting student loans. Whereas once the university feminist societies would have swooped in to put a stop to this grooming, now they’re cheerleading from the sides — “sex work is real work”.
The feminist position to take in regards to prostitution is to condemn the exploiters and support the prostituted women. Decriminalisation has further disempowered already vulnerable women and made the government and advocacy groups complacent. But don’t take my word for it… I’m going share with you the account of a member of Speak Up For Women who knows exactly what decriminalisation has done to prostituted women:
“The cops knew what was going on was illegal but they turned a blind eye as long as no other laws were being broken eg. Drug dealing or gang association.
I felt that the ‘illegality’ of it always kept men a little on edge; the slight shame, the walk in the shadows, the offer of using the exit at the back to leave. While it was illegal they were being told by society that it was their shame too even if they passed on that shame.
After decrim nothing changed. But it did. I felt less safe. Looking back it was a shift in structure. More responsibility was on us. We were responsible for money related transactions now, which messed with the illusion. It also meant a power struggle in the room.
They expected more. These men saw us as objects. It was so much like a ‘transaction’. Now we were commodities that they legally bought. We both knew it.
We worked harder to keep the men happy. We were less protected. The madams were less ‘one of us’. After decrim there were fees for everything and no mercy. The sense of solidarity was gone between the girls because we worked ‘to appointment’.
Legal was hell. Keeping the shame of illegality hanging over them was my biggest weapon. That myth was taken away along with the tiny bit of protection it offered.”
They are disempowered. They are products and johns are the empowered ones with no consequences for purchasing a woman’s body. Websites have sprung up where johns swap notes and write reviews on women. Trip Advisor for prostitutes. They are quick to complain to the front desk if the woman they have “hired” is not compliant enough or enthusiastic enough. A bad review from a john can severely impact a prostituted woman’s income potential. They are disempowered.
We are called SWERFs for saying this kind of thing — a close relative of the word TERF, it stands for Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist. It is inaccurate — another linguistic trick to make it difficult for people to oppose a pro-prostitution position. We are not “Sex Worker Exclusionary”, we are anti-prostitution, anti-exploitation of women, anti-pimps. We favour a Nordic model of managing prostitution where the johns and pimps are criminalised, but the prostituted are not. Where are New Zealand’s established women’s groups in this? The ones that receive funding and have access to resources? How can they think that telling suffering women that their exploitation is “real work” is any kind of comfort? The image of the “happy hooker” is an anomaly, an outlier. These “feminists” are just cogs in the wheel of the sexual exploitation of women.
Justice Susan Glazebrook wrote about the unwillingness of the New Zealand Government and relevant organisations to admit any problem with prostitution and trafficking following decriminalization. She said:
“While the New Zealand Government has stated that there is no evidence of trafficking in New Zealand, it is nevertheless apparent that New Zealand children are engaged in prostitution and one estimate is that up to 200 under 18-year-olds are working in the sex industry.
The United States Department of State report seems to operate on the assumption that the legalisation of the sex industry has masked the trafficking that occurs in the industry. For example, it was stated in the report that an assumption that all women engaging in prostitution do so willingly appears to underpin official policy and programmes in New Zealand and has inhibited public discussion and examination of indications that trafficking exists within both the decriminalised and illegal sex industries.”
It is time for public discussion. The decriminalisation of prostitution in New Zealand is long overdue its intended review. Pimps and madams have controlled the narrative for far too long, so we are here to speak up for women who have been prostituted and trafficked.
Recently, we have made progress towards removing abortion law from the crimes act and into healthcare legislation. This should be something we can all come together on — even the “choice” feminists. Unfortunately, however, we find ourselves in another stoush. Instead of protecting the long overdue legislation change from attacks from ‘pro-lifers,’ far too many of the select committee submissions were preoccupied with appealing for the word ‘woman’ to be stripped from the legislation. There is far too much work still to be done for women’s rights for the organisations and groups claiming to represent us to start dismantling our progress by erasing us from laws pertaining to our own bodies.
In the words of our own Jan Rivers:
“Legislation should encode material reality where it exists rather than a contested belief system.”
For now we wait to see what comes out of select committee. We can only hope that our elected representatives remember that in all of history every abortion was performed on a woman. We are here to speak up for women being able to name ourselves.
Even greater challenges lie ahead for those of us seeking to protect and advance women’s rights. In recent years, new technology and new markets have emerged and with them new ways for women’s bodies to be exploited. Painted as always altruistic and an arrangement of mutual benefit, surrogacy is now an industry worth billions of dollars worldwide. Exploitation quickly arose in countries with large populations of impoverished and vulnerable women, and legislation has also had to be rapidly developed. Countries like India and Thailand have legislated against commercial surrogacy, banning the practice and stemming the flow of wealthy westerners seeking a “host” for their child. The market demand is now being funnelled into places like the Ukraine where women are not being protected by legislation.
There are plenty of arguments for surrogacy and some of them are intrinsically well-intentioned, but that doesn’t negate the exploitation of women happening on mass and individual levels. As hard as it is to say, having children with your own genetics is not a human right. If it were, there would be working class couples or individuals also engaged in “renting wombs”, but this is a highly class-dependent issue.
This is a topic that warrants a much longer discussion than what is possible tonight and it is one I suspect we will find ourselves discussing a great deal more in the near future. One party already has work underway to amend and create legislation around surrogacy in New Zealand and even in preliminary stages the conversation appears to be focused on the rights of the buyer, not the woman. They can expect that we’ll be there every step of the way to speak up for women.
When under siege, sometimes the best thing to do is simply hold the ground already won. Speak Up For Women has held a lot of ground for women since our inception, but as we grow and more incredible women from all walks of life join us, we can see a future where we aren’t always on defence. Women’s rights don’t just need to be protected. They need to be advanced.
As I hope I have shown you tonight, there is still a devastating amount of work to be done in feminism. That’s why we are here. That’s why you’re all here. We are here to speak up for women.
Originally published at https://speakupforwomen.nz.