So I woke up this morning after an appalling night’s sleep in a Brighton hotel to find someone on Twitter calling me a ‘rad fem hypocrite’.
Good lord, I thought. It’s six years ago!
Sadly my inability to cope with a bad night’s sleep tells me that I am, in fact, six years older. But I wanted to take this opportunity to respond to the accusation that I am a hypocrite, because if you can’t use your own blog to challenge bad faith slurs made on Twitter, then what can you use it for?
The reason I was called a rad fem hypocrite this morning is because next month I will join Sarah Ditum, Julie Bindel and Maryam Namazie on a panel about free speech and no platforming. I’ve been invited to speak in my capacity as the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival which is dedicated to giving women writers and thinkers a platform to discuss their work and women’s history. However, according to this tweeter, it is hypocritical for me to be on this panel because six years ago I was involved in a campaign challenging the invite of Dita von Teese to strip in Bristol City Museum.
As a result of this campaign, the local press called me a hypocrite on their front page, which they later had to print an apology for.
It’s true I was involved in this campaign and it’s true that I am now speaking at a panel on no-platforming. But I don’t think this makes me a hypocrite and I now want to explain why.
Firstly: a bit of background. In 2010, an art exhibition opened in Bristol City Museum and Gallery celebrating contemporary American art. They decided to only show one woman artist in the whole exhibition. However, they also decided that for the opening party they would invite Dita von Teese to perform a striptease in the museum. It seemed decidedly odd to us feminist campaigners in the city that while women clearly weren’t seen as worthy of being the subjects of the exhibition, the organisers were happy to have women as objectified entertainment to kick off the exhibition.
There was a further issue. The Bristol City Museum and Gallery is publicly-owned property. Hosting a strip tease risked being in violation of the council’s gender equality duty and could be considered a form of sexual discrimination against female staff.
For these two reasons, feminist groups I was involved in at the time decided to challenge the invite of Dita von Teese, in order to trigger a debate about the normalisation of the commercial sexual objectification of women in our culture, the marginalisation of women artists compared to the willingness to treat women as objects of entertainment, and the duty of the city council to promote gender equality in public spaces.
We did not try to ban or no platform Dita von Teese. We put forward the case that it might not be legally possible for her to perform in the museum, while also arguing that she could perform elsewhere. And we put forward the arguments about the treatment of women as sexual objects in order to get people thinking that perhaps it just isn’t cool not to invite women artists to exhibit - something which would have meant treating women as subjects - while inviting a woman to strip for a presumed male audience - treating women as objects.
From this angle, I would say the campaign was a success. Dita von Teese performed at the museum, but we had carved out a space where women and men who wanted to challenge the normalisation of sexual objectification could do so. There were debates, there were blogposts, there were articles, there were talks. Suddenly we were having conversations at conferences, public meetings and in discussion groups about women’s subjectivity, about the difference between the naked and the nude, about women’s art and representation. These were knotty conversations - how did we challenge a culture that treats women as sex objects without it coming across that we were criticising the women? How did we define the difference between the naked and the nude? Was this about banning or was this about opening up women’s opportunities - about demanding women’s treatments as full subjects? Was this an example of sexual harassment and what were the legal positions on the gender equality duty?
if anything, I would say the whole campaign was a pro free speech issue. Why? Well, these debates about sexual objectification and the commodification of women’s bodies are more mainstream now, especially in the wake of a lot of lads mags campaigning and No More Page 3. But even six years ago, we were still living with the hangover of a 90s lad culture that told women that they should put up and shut up about being treated as objects. And yet, here we were, with women and men who previously felt unable to speak out against this culture, now getting involved and having their say on why they struggled to see how getting your tits out for the lads was ‘empowering’. How conforming to male-defined standards of beauty was ‘celebrating diversity’. And how inviting a woman to perform a male-defined version of female sexuality was ‘edgy’ and ‘forward-thinking’.
Our campaign opened up debate. It didn't shut debate down.
Unfortunately the local press got hold of the story and decided to call me a hypocrite on their front page. The debates we were having got turned into a seedy little story about ‘sour faced feminists’ (thanks political editor of the Evening Post!) who were anti-sex trying to ruin Bristol’s art scene. Oh the hollow laughter. Because nothing is more ‘pro sex’ than treating women’s bodies as commodities designed to please the male gaze. Nothing is edgier and more controversial than treating women as objects for entertainment, while men get to make the art on the walls. That’s totally modern and absolutely brand new. That’s free love right there, guys. Well done.
As ever, the Evening Post articles led to me getting a shit-ton of online abuse. And that, perhaps, is when this does become a freedom of speech issue. But it was my freedom of speech that was under attack.
While we’re talking, I’d better bring up Hooters, as I’m sure that will rear its ugly head again. The Hooters campaign covered similar territory. And yes, I did campaign to stop that place getting opened in the first place. I still believe that Hooters and establishments like it demean women and mock women. I believe that in a culture where women are dehumanised and this dehumanisation leads to harassment and assault, it is not okay to have restaurants which treat women as objects. I believe the normalisation of the sexual objectification of women contributes to our dehumanisation and that this dehumanisation maintains our oppression and entrenches gender inequality.
Further, I will always campaign against any establishment which has clauses in a woman’s contract banning her from reporting sexual harassment in the workplace, which is the case for Hooters in the USA.
But just as with Dita von Teese, the Hooters campaign opened up debate. It was exciting! We held public meetings, discussion groups, seminars; we printed articles, ran petitions - we even got the issue of treating women as commodities debated in the Bristol City Council. Once again, a discussion that had not been on the agenda was getting airtime and women and men were raising up their voices and questioning the narrative of inequality and the commodification of women’s bodies. We weren’t suppressing free speech, we were creating a platform where these debates could take place - and they did.
Then, BAM! Rape threats. Men saying they hoped I get kicked in the vagina. Comments mocking me. Comments mocking my family. Threats of physical violence. The police are called. I cry a lot.
Whose freedom of speech was under threat? Mine, by any measure.
So that’s what happened anyway. These campaigns were never about banning or no platforming women. They were about creating spaces to debate and discuss the impact the sexual objectification of women, and the treatment of women as commodities, has on gender equality. They were about carving out spaces where previously unheard or ignored conversations could take place - conversations about the naked and the nude, about women’s subjectivity, and the marginalisation of women’s creativity and work.
That’s what made those campaigns different to the no-platforming we see today. These campaigns raised up women’s voices and allowed women’s voices to be heard. Instead, now we’re seeing the shutting down of debate, not the building of platforms from which to have these debates.
There’s something else going on here too - about power and who holds it. We live in an unequal society where women as a class are oppressed by men as a class (how very rad fem of me!). So to me, challenging the perceived right of men to treat women as sexualised objects for their entertainment/consumption is not, actually, a freedom of speech issue. Men don’t have that right. Women on the other hand do have the right to be treated as and respected as subjects - as full human beings rather than as objects.
So remember: when women are treated as silent objects of the male gaze, it is our freedom of speech under threat, not his.