This was the first workshop I attended on the day. It was an obvious choice, seeing as the gender studies conference scene is preparing to be dazzled on November 24th with my impressive paper on 'representation of women as violence' at the forthcoming VAWG conference here in Bristol. This workshop, organised by the End Violence against Women (EVAW) Coalition (http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/) promised to explore how violence against women and girls (VAWG) is linked to media representation, and ask questions about how we can use the media to tackle vawg. It was therefore a bit surprising then that at the end of the session a woman complained that we had spent the whole workshop talking about the media!
The workshop was led by Holly Dustin, Sarah Green - both from EVAW, and Marie - an academic on gender based violence (I'm so sorry I can't remember her surname or if that was even her name!). The room was absolutely packed, I was sat on the floor and women were stood and sat in the hallway. I was really pleased to see how busy it is, as to me fighting violence against women and girls (and I have a very broad definition of that term) is a key and vital issue in the fight for liberation and equality.
The paper that I am delivering next week focuses on the ways in which the representation of women in the media is a form of violence against women and girls. This was perhaps a jump from one of the themes presented by Marie, who made the point that we can see how media representation of women and sexualisation culture is a cause of VAWG. However she nodded along with my comment that I see it as a form of violence in itself, particularly as we see young girls expected to perform sexuality but not emobdy or own their sexuality, which leaves them at a real risk of experiencing sexual violence in their relationships.
The workshop started with us all shouting into the room what made us angry. The conviction rate, Eammon Holmes still being on TV, victim blaming, labiaplasty, Nadine Dorries - there were lots and lots of points raised about how we were angry about the violence being committed against women and girls. It was really refreshing to hear so many women's voices talking about their anger and also their own experiences of violence and blame in a supportive and feminist space.
Marie then talked a little bit about her research and the recent shift in the conversation about sexualisation of girls and its impact on VAWG. Under the Labour government, she explained, a review on sexualisation conducted by Dr. Papadopoulous was published; followed in 2011 by the Bailey Review, commissioned by the Coalition govt. She explained that the Papadopoulous review looked at sexualisation as a gendered issue, and how it related to young girls' well being, self esteem and issues around violence. The Bailey Review however stripped out any context around gender and became a very moralistic report about hiding sex and sexuality from children. This is really important as it shows that in the case of the Bailey Review, feminist arguments around sexualisation were co-opted and twisted to become a 'pearl-clutching prudery' issue and not an issue about gender equality and the impact of sexualisation on VAWG and in teen relationships etc. I remember a friend telling me that the the Bailey Review suggested banning black bras for teen girls. Who is sexualising children here? Who is saying that black bras are sexual and not just practical to wear under black clothes? As feminists fighting against a culture that seeks to demean and degrade women as sex objects we need to be careful that our feminist arguments are not co-opted and mutated by a right wing argument that thinks it's fine to harm women, so long as no-one over 18 sees you doing it.
Marie went on to talk about how it is difficult to get these issues discussed in the 'academy'. This is something I have heard before - the reluctance in academia to investigate and research the links between sexualisation and sexual violence and gender inequality. Marie - if you read this post please get in touch as I would love to find out more about your research!
This part of the discussion encouraged the women in the room to talk about their own experiences of sexualisation and its impact on young women. We talked about how things have got worse in this area even in the last ten years, particularly with the rise of the internet and easy access to violent pornography. Debate was raised however about whether we are judging young women who buy into this industry and who want to present themselves in a highly (mainstream) sexualised way. Again, this is a key question to feminists campaigning on this issue and relates to the hegemonic ideas of choice (ooh long word!). We talk a lot about choice, but what does choice mean when young women (and men) are only offered a very narrow and male defined view of what it means to be sexy and sexual, often in a way that completely disregards women's desire or pleasure or sexuality. An interviewee in Natasha Walter's book 'Living Dolls' explained how as a teen girl in our culture she feels she has no choice but to embody this one narrow version of sexual presentation. She has no choice. And this 'choice' to perform a narrow version of sexiness or sexuality, that is divorced from women's bodies or sexual pleasure, often leaves young girls with 'silent bodies' and at risk of coercive sex and sexual violence.
These questions also relate to the sex industry. What is a free choice in a culture that values women's ability to fit a narrow view of male defined sexuality over their ability to be leaders, thinkers, scientists, writers, politicians, etc etc. One woman in the discussion rightly brought up class, and although I disagreed with her that the 'only' problem with the sex industry is capitalism, it is vital we look at class. To refer to Natasha Walter's book again, there were some very revealing comments from successful middle class men who financially support the sex industry about their attitudes to the women with working class backgrounds who bring in their profits (but see so little of that money themselves).
One particularly challenging part of the discussion was when a woman in the group brought up the huge issues women face on a global scale, particularly in Saudi Arabia and South Africa. She called the issues that western women face as small, and I have to admit this troubled me. Because the issues facing women across the world are all big and all vital and all need to be tackled. Sexual violence, for example, is an issue women face in every corner of the globe. She asked why we weren't raising money for rape crisis centres in South Africa. Of course we need to do this, but we also need to raise money for rape crisis centres in the UK. It isn't a competition of who is worse off in my view, it is about working together in sisterhood to tackle gender inequality wherever we find it across the world. I absolutely believe as feminists we need to have a global outlook, but we must not fall into the trap of ignoring the sexism we find at our own front door, just as we must not fall into the trap of ignoring the sexism in other countries.
The workshop then moved to look at how we can tackle VAWG through engaging with the media, and EVAW showed their We are Man film, a viral aimed at men to tackle rape culture. The video caused some division in the group. A few women questioned whether the Jackass style stunts in the video perpetuated stereotypical ideas of manhood and masculinity, stereotypes that as feminists we should challenge. On the one hand, I agree. Tackling gender norms and stereotypes are a big part of the feminist battle, after all, men are trapped by restrictive gender norms too. However, we don't live in a post patriarchal world and sometimes we have to step back and think about who we are trying to talk to. This video aimed to reach out to young men who want to watch something funny and silly on YouTube and who will hopefully be shocked by the twist and led to consider the issues it raises. During that first engagement, they aren't necessarily interested about deconstructing notions of masculinity. Sometimes we have to work within that patriarchal framework to reach an audience. We don't want to be in danger of losing the message, but we also don't want to lose the opportunity to engage men with that message at all, by talking at a level that is meaningless to them. Feminism is sometimes seen as irrelevant to young men and women, or to anyone outside an academic background or framework. So whilst we must talk about deconstructing gender stereotypes, we also need to make sure we are talking to young people in a way that they can respond to and engage with. We need to be relevant without being patronising and I think the video achieves this well.
The three men in the room loved the video, by the way.
You can watch the video here: http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/