A couple of years ago, when Bristol launched their new anti sexual violence campaign, I was a guest on a radio show discussing the ‘This is not an excuse to rape me’ message. The show invited members of the public to phone in (love it when they don’t tell you that…!). One chap called in to let me know that campaigns like this don’t work. He explained that men simply can’t help themselves – that if they saw a girl with her short skirt showing her bottom (seriously, his words), then it would prove too tempting for men.
I responded that I, clearly, had a higher opinion of men than he did. I explained that I didn’t believe that men couldn’t control themselves when confronted with a woman they fancied. I explained that rape isn’t about sexual attraction but about power. And I explained that I believed male violence isn’t inevitable – that rape is not a natural response of men when around women.
In short, I told him that, as a feminist, I don’t believe all men are rapists. And that, through his claims that men simply can’t control themselves, he kind of did.
I was reminded of this exchange last week, when I read about Catherine Hakim’s (yes, she of Honey Money Erotic Capital fame) latest piece of research about the male sex deficit and how it justified calls to legalise prostitution. I’m not going to rehash the arguments about decriminalisation/legalisation/Nordic Model of prostitution here. But I do want to talk about the relationship Hakim’s conclusions share with the phone-in man, and what it says about our views of men, sex, and sexual violence.
In this article, the journalist summarises Hakim’s research like so:
‘She says the available evidence suggests that prostitution and pornography have no damaging social impact and may even help reduce sex crime. Dr Hakim says: “Spain, where prostitution is legal, also has exceptionally low rates of rape.”’
I’d be interested to know where she got that rate from – whether she’s focused on reports, convictions or estimate. But that’s for another day. What I want to focus on here is how she’s fundamentally saying that we need the sex industry in order to meet men’s sexual ‘needs’, and that this will in turn keep down the rates of sexual violence.
Of course, I’m sure Hakim would deny how this translates. But to me, this reads in one way and one way only. If we are saying we need to ensure men can have access to sex on tap in order to reduce sexual violence, then we’re saying that all men are potential rapists. She’s saying that we therefore need to create a group of women that are available for men to ‘work out’ their sexual ‘frustration’ in order to stop them raping other women.
It’s a truly disturbing and horrifying thought.
Hakim argues that there is a sexual deficit between men and women – in other words that men have higher sex drives than women and that this: “cannot be dismissed as an outdated patriarchal myth as argued by some feminists”.
Well, actually I would argue that it could. We might have Sex and the City, we might even have 50 Shades of Grey, but there is still a lot of shame attached to female sexuality. Negative tropes around women freely expressing their sexuality still abound – from ‘he’s a stud, she’s a slut’, to the stigma that still surrounds women masturbating. We are still wedded to the stereotype that men need sex more than women. Why? Because it’s a stereotype that serves patriarchal control over women’s reproductive labour. It’s a stereotype that treats sex as labour for women and leisure for men – a stereotype which serves a capitalist sex industry.
Yes, we live in a raunch culture that purports to be yo so totes cool with women having a free and easy sexuality. But when you peel back the raunch, what you really see is a culture that is okay with women who conform to patriarchal beauty standards performing a male-defined spectacle of sexuality. Women actually embodying their own sexuality, talking about sexual desire and sexual pleasure – all that is still seen as pretty problematic. Because despite its focus on T&A, raunch culture is fundamentally conservative about how it allows women to express themselves sexually. I could go on and on about this, but really, Ariel Levy writes it better than I ever could.
Hakim says the:
“sexual deficit” between men and women “helps to explain many puzzles, including why men are the principal customers for commercial sexual entertainments of all kinds”.
This is not a puzzle, Catherine! This is capitalist patriarchy! There’s no ‘puzzle’ here – it’s not a random weird coincidence that men are the main consumers of sexual entertainment, when that sexual entertainment is a capitalist invention aimed to make money out of stereotypes of male sexuality!
To paraphrase someone or other, it’s capitalist patriarchy, stupid.
Again, this ‘conclusion’ about men and sexual entertainment is highly influenced by the cultural messages we receive about sexuality. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, or read, that men are ‘highly visual’ and therefore need p0rn and strip clubs, whereas women are more ‘emotional’ or turned on by status or power.
In response, I give you: this photo.
You’re welcome ladies!
Just because something is repeated over and over again doesn’t make it true. Again, these stereotypes serve our current notions about sex and sexuality – notions repeated by a capitalist patriarchal industry determined to turn sex into a marketable product sold to men.
However, even if it were true that men are more visual, and men need sex more than women, it still doesn’t mean that creating an industry that treats sex as work for women and leisure for men; that sends a message that women are disposable sex objects to be consumed by men – is okay.
On the big capitalist patriarchal project that is the sex industry, Hakim:
‘dismisses claims that prostitution, pornography and lap-dancing are harmful to women’
Again, this is so, so debatable.
When I co-ran the Bristol Feminist Network, I met young women who talked about the impact of p0rn on their lives. Speak to any group of teenage girls, go on the Everyday Sexism website and hear their voices as they talk about the influence everyday, pedestrian and violent p0rn has on boys who then pressure them into performing sex acts they don’t want to. Then read this research on the levels of sexual violence in teen relationships.
The normalisation of the commercial sex industry has an impact on women across the board and can contribute to levels of sexual violence. For example, when feminist groups targeted strip club licensing in Bristol, the police informed us there was an 80% increase in reports of sexual harassment and assault in the streets surrounding the five central strip clubs.
Plus the psychological impact of knowing that, as women, we live in a society that views us as disposable sex objects – as tits and arse laid bare across a magazine cover, a website screen, a stage – is incredibly harmful. And that impact isn’t just on women. Research from the American Psychological Association found that exposure to sexist imagery makes men more tolerant of misogyny.
And then, of course, there’s the woman within the sex industry – women who are trafficked, raped, physically attacked and verbally abused by the punters that so callously ‘review’ their purchases.
Which leads me to my final point. Because in arguing that we ‘need’ the sex industry in order to reduce the levels of sexual violence, it’s as if we put a full stop on caring about the violence perpetuated against women within that industry.
Hakim’s research suggests:
“that ending curbs on Britain’s £4.3bn sex industry could reduce levels of rape and sex attacks.”
What about the levels of rape and sex attacks against women in the sex industry? Does legalising it reduce those? Research on legalisation in Holland and Germany would suggest a BIG FAT NO. In fact, as demand increases with legalisation, trafficking has soared to help create the supply. And, by its very definition, trafficking is violence – women in the sex industry who have been trafficked are being raped every day.
This all goes back to my earlier point. The reported statement purports to believe that if we are to reduce sexual violence, we have to give men an outlet that will allow them to expend their sexual frustration. We argue that if men aren’t given access to sex, then they will just go out and rape.
Or, that all men are potential rapists if their so-called needs aren’t met.
And that’s not okay, is it? That’s not okay to say.
(can I just point out to that no one 'needs' sex? Sex is great but no one dies from not having it. A bloke's dick won't drop off if he can't pay to stick it in someone).
Anyway, back to the main point. In this analysis, Hakim et al ignore that rape isn’t about sexual desire, but about power. It tells lies about men’s needs for sex, and makes the false suggestion that men have a right to have their 'needs' met.
But perhaps most horrifyingly of all, it argues that we need to create a group of women that are there to service men’s sexual 'needs', in order to protect another group of women from men’s sexual violence.
It’s such a staggeringly Victorian idea I’m astonished that no one is embarrassed at promoting or praising it.
Whatever one’s views on the sex industry, it is simply not okay to justify its existence by saying it will prevent men from raping. We can never justify its existence by saying that its purpose is to protect one group of women from male violence, by creating another group of women who are there for men to ‘act out’ their 'frustrations'.
Because if we justify it on those terms, then how do we ever challenge male violence? How do we protect women in the industry from violence?
And how can we ever achieve a world where ALL women are truly free from male violence, if we start from the position that men will rape if their sexual 'needs' are not met?
As a feminist, I totally and wholly believe that not all men are rapists. I believe male violence is a product of violent patriarchy, and that it can be challenged. I do not believe rape is inevitable, and I believe in a world where we can all live free from male violence.
That is why I cannot support any argument that says we need to create a group of women that men can use sexually, in order to prevent them from raping another group of women. I cannot support any argument that says some women can be raped so others aren’t.
Because I believe better of men. I believe in a better world than that grotesque, Victorian compromise.