A New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) spokesperson has instigated an online pact against yours truly. That might flatter me, if it weren’t so effective. It’s titled “Against Human Rights” – appropriately, since it exists specifically to help negate an individual woman’s rights to further education, a voice, and a livelihood. The pact (below) misrepresents my concerns about women‘s safety and the medicalisation of gender, and asks signatories to collaborate in withholding study, speaking and work opportunities from none other than myself.
This pact was instigated just after I was banned from the Wellington Zinefest, a community hand-made book market; and just before I lost my job. The reason Wellington Zinefest gave me for their ban was that my work is critical of both prostitution, and gender identity politics, and this makes me “unsafe”. Supporters of this ban then trained their attention on the impressionable new manager at my work, making her nervous with allegations of “hate speech”. Her response to that peer pressure has given me enough material for a five-page personal grievance for workplace bullying. I chose to resign.
So forgive me, but I have some bones to pick with the local liberal feminist scene.
I think feminism is in dire straits, and that is exemplified by my own situation, as well as other events we celebrate as successes. I would like to point the finger at whoever is ultimately, specifically responsible for manipulating women into the position we are in, on our turf; but that would take the kind of organised investigation I am not resourced for. All I can do is observe what we are doing in the name of “feminism”; consider who that is serving, what difference it is making, and compare that to the aims of feminism. Feminism is of course the movement to end rape and the systemic, sex-based oppression of women by men in power.
It looks to me like, in Wellington, “feminism” is in a state where it is insisted that women must be content with the routine and systemic pornification and commodification of our bodies. If we don’t like it, if we raise any issues with it – with the sex trade, or sex-based oppression – we’re treated with hostility. We are labelled prudes, not “sex positive” enough, blacklisted, and forced to recognise where our place is.
The NZPC pact against me, if successful, is the kind of thing that could help put a woman on the street. This collaborative agreement to withhold opportunities from me is taking effect – I have lost my job – and whether or not I have other support, job prospects, or family behind me, is not of interest to NZPC or their followers. If I’m tracked closely enough (even my friends get text messages asking them, “how can you be friends with Renée?”) will I find another job in this city? This real-life pile-on has chances of real, destructive success. Indeed, that’s the appeal of witch hunts – they’re so easy to make effective. One woman rarely stands much chance against a mob.
If this pact did succeed in putting me on the street, I’d find what many women find: that the most readily available option to me, to sustain a livelihood, would be prostitution. This is not a far-fetched scenario, it happens all the time. That’s what keeps the industry alive – women are pushed out of options, and are left with that one.
Where would I go for support if it happened to me? To NZPC?
Even the likes of Mike Hosking and Tony Veitch (a sports commentator who broke his partner’s back) don’t get this kind of treatment from liberals – pacts to cut off their options. I’m not comparing myself to these misogynists – but their example demonstrates who liberals truly get excited about hounding and destabilising. A Mike Hosking petition says, “We no longer wish to see or hear any more from Hosking on our TV screens” – nice and specific. I can’t even find a Veitch petition, and Veitch is still on air. Mine wants me indefinitely silenced – even though I have no platform – through an indefinite commitment to bad-mouthing.
In fact, Darkmatter performer Alok Vaid-Menon – a rape apologist and open misogynist, performed a slam poetry series earlier this year in Wellington. When I raised the issue of his public misogyny and rape and paedophilia justifications, I was told on no uncertain terms that I was not to speak about them, because Vaid-Menon is transgender. So he may have his global tour in spite of overt misogyny; I may not have my job, because of my feminist politics. Carwyn Walsh, the magazine editor who published this Massive cover also stayed in his job, while my public objection to it as offensive, was cited by the Wellington Zinefest committee as one of the reasons I was banned.
Again, the message is clear: I’m to know where my place is, as a woman.
Compare this to a lot of the other liberal feminist successes of late. They seem to almost be predicated on women flaunting some conformity to that very premise: we know where our place is. We, collectively, don’t mind being sexualised or pornified by men. We either aren’t aware of it, think it’s harmless, or we find it empowering and fun.
Hera Lindsay Bird, an incredible poet, rocketed to celebrity status this year with a stunning first book, creating her platform with an abundance of talent – and the poem Keats is dead so fuck me from behind. In 2015, the City Gallery placed this image, Gigi (below) on their floor and on a Courtenay Place billboard. Regardless of her talent as a fine art photographer, the reproduction of pornography is one of Fiona Pardington’s major claims to fame. Local producer, beat-maker and musical powerhouse Estère just released an album in which the title track, Ambition, features “Magdelaine Lavirgin, bordello resident,” who “wants to be the United States President”.
There’s a “Free the Nipple” event coming up this month (“How far will you go for equality?”), asking women to get topless on Oriental Bay for gender equality, and that follows October’s Naked Girls Reading night. Both these events are international franchises. One guy told me he likes the idea of “Free the Nipple”, because he thinks it makes “porn redundant” – places it at his doorstep. There’s no shortage of leery commentary to be found about Free the Nipple from men online. That alone should make us question whether such events really bring about social change, and challenge to male power – or whether they co-opt feminist language to keep women in our place.
Women seem to be engaging in these events as activism because we somehow believe that normalising exposure of “the nipple” will help liberate “it” because men will become so accustomed to seeing female breasts in everyday settings, that they will no longer find them arousing, and then women will finally have the same privilege as men do to go topless. One of the problems with this notion is that it rests on the same habituation principle as pornography does, and the trajectory does not lead to liberation. What happens instead is that men are habituated and desensitised to the point of boredom, and then the game is lifted. In pornography, that means more explicit degradation and violence. Men did not used to like watching a woman being anally raped until she suffers rectal prolapse: they do now. It’s called “rosebudding”, and it’s the new trend.
The point is, that as long as power is still in men’s hands, and men are still buying women, using pornography, broadcasting misogyny, and capitalising from it all, while controlling every position and institution of influence there is – the habituation principle doesn’t work in women’s favour. If we are not taking power away, but we are taking more clothes off in more places, we are succumbing to the demands of men. If we are forcing or coercing other women to accept this status quo, we’re doing the patriarchy’s work for it, gratis.
The Art of Stripping is an exhibition that recently showed at Thistle Hall, offering nipple plaster castings. The exhibition showed art by women who strip in Wellington strip clubs, claiming to demonstrate how “women involved in sex work are all unique and complex people”, though the show was still geared toward ultimately leveraging women’s creativity to legitimise the sex trade. Free trial pole dance classes and burlesque shows are never lacking in Wellington, which normalise that trade too; then of course there’s the usual barrage of objectifying advertising and media, that all these “feminist” activities still insist on distinguishing themselves from. They’re meant to be more sophisticated, avant-garde, political and literary than low-brow mainstream objectification.
Estère’s Ambition music video, featuring Magdelaine Lavirgin (“bordello resident”) presents a telling commentary. Estère’s music has a rebellious, politicised, independent spirit. I Spy, for instance is a song about child poverty, inequality and the 1% caricatured through Baba Yaga imagery. To understand Estère’s punch is to know too that she can shake the world up from home in her pyjamas if she wants to: she makes music with a portable Music Production Centre called Lola, recording the slamming, for instance, of a cutlery drawer; the banging of a drumstick against a lampshade. Her search for rousing sound in her surrounds reminds me of the music company Stomp – except she is one woman.
Ambition presents Lavirgin as strident, not downtrodden. According to a meme Estère has made, “Emancipation of the afro” is one of Lavirgin’s campaigning platforms – she whips a blonde wig off at the video’s opening to liberate her afro by the end of the song, in a profound gesture of black liberation. Estère’s presence, spunk, creative integrity and production talent is jaw-dropping.
Estère’s Lavirgin is not a prostituted woman. She’s the “empowered sex worker” of liberal feminist mythology. She struts in a red cocktail dress pursued by figures in suits with cameras for heads that shine their lights on her. Presumably these camera-headed suits are pornographers, or perhaps they stand more abstractly for the male gaze; Lavirgin in any case, barely pays them notice. She’s just too sassy.
These pursuers eventually tear off their headgear and suits to reveal themselves as a group of women who then hoist up Lavirgin like a prize, decorate her with jewellery and fan her with star-spangled American flags in her presidential chair. To me, this video is a portrait and snapshot of the state of feminism in Wellington; the song a rather cutting anthem. It’s a depiction of the liberal feminists of Wellington and their downright worship of sex trade lobby spokespeople. The video contains vital motifs and messages about black liberation. Yet parallel to that, it tells a story of women, consciously or not, doing the patriarchy’s work for it: the promotion of pornography, and legitimising of prostitution.
It is possible to examine what really happens when a woman sex trade lobbyist – someone with vested interests in promoting the idea of “sex work” as “empowered” – gains access to the highest halls of power. It is not good news for women. Kat Banyard’s book Pimp State discusses how Alejandra Gil, a convicted sex trafficker, managed to lobby the U.N. and Amnesty International into developing policy of benefit to pimps and traffickers such as herself. She’d had a fifteen-year prison sentence for trafficking women and girls; it’s not hard to see why she’d want the sex trade legitimated. It doesn’t help the girls and women who are trafficked and prostituted; neither does our mainstreaming of this kind of lobbying.
Radio New Zealand seems in on this too. The Wireless published an article this year, about how “stigma” causes violence in prostitution (not pimps or johns), and RNZ did a terrible podcast on prostitution that was more like a lobby-produced advertorial.
It is worth considering too, that when Eleanor Catton (another magnificent creative and heroine of mine) won the Booker Prize, she did so for writing an 832-page novel in which the central protagonist is a prostituted woman, but rape is barely mentioned and prostitution hardly problematised.
I know that I will get in trouble with sisters for writing this; I’ll be accused of attacking women. I still think we need to be talking about the trends that might be keeping us “in our place”, keeping us immobile and unthreatening, while we enter a Trump-era of escalating violence, exploitation, attacks on reproductive rights, mass manipulation and hostility toward women.
With regard to that manipulation – consider that businessmen-pornographers have been grooming the market to make porn socially acceptable in the interests of capital gain since the 1950s. The first years of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, Bob Guccione’s Penthouse and Larry Flynt’s Hustler on the shelves saw these pornographers work hard to normalise porn. By the 90s, bunny merchandise was being consumed by women everywhere – the bunny branding everything from stationery to pyjama pants.
“It was a very different world,” says feminist writer Gail Dines, “after Hefner eroded the cultural, economic, and legal barriers to mass production and distribution of porn.” It is now even considered up for debate now whether pole dancing is the best after school activity for 8-year-olds.
How did this shift to the mainstream happen? The answer is simple: by design. What we see today is the result of years of careful strategising and marketing by the porn industry to sanitise its products… reconstructing porn as fun, edgy, chic, sexy, and hot. The more sanitised the industry became, the more it seeped into the pop culture and into our collective consciousness.
Free the Nipple, Naked Girls Reading – these are global franchises, they are not grassroots community events. Where this pressure and facilitation and support comes from to run them, we need to understand. We need to understand that this is part of the normalisation of pornography, prostitution and porn culture, which are absolutely and inextricably intertwined with male capital gain, male entitlement, rape culture, sexual violence and the notion of women as property. That notion is shared by conservatives and liberals alike. Both these political groups are male dominated. Both have ways of capturing and co-opting of feminist language and ideals to keep women “in our place”.
Radical feminist midwife MaryLou Singleton sums it up beautifully. “There is liberal patriarchy and there is conservative patriarchy,” she says.
but I agree with Sunsara Taylor, the founder of Stop Patriarchy, that between the pope and the pimp there is really no fundamental difference. But right now, our options are being set up so that you can either align with the ‘Pope Lobby’ or the ‘Pimp Lobby’.
This manipulation and recruiting of women into sex-trade promotion through liberal politics has been successful to the point that porn and sex are now for all intents and purposes, synonymous. As Dines states, if you are anti-porn, you get slapped with the label “anti-sex”. This shows to what extent women have had the wool pulled over our eyes. Our sexuality is their industry.
I have a fantasy of my own: of women rejecting that colonisation of our bodies and sexuality. Of women no longer pulling punches. What if Estère’s powerful contribution to black liberation struggle was combined with a rejection of prostitution as a tool of women’s subordination? What if Lola really held the power to boot the Chow brothers – known abusers who capitalise from exploitation of women in Wellington – out of town? I think she does hold that power.
What if Hera Lindsay Bird used her stir-up, startle-power to expose anti-feminism in the literary world? What if Fiona Pardington photographed johns and pimps and brought their abuse to light in chiaroscuro, instead of re-photographing already exploited women? If Eleanor Catton, after being called an “ungrateful hua” on air, called for a cull of commercial radio misogynists? If Hadassah Grace used her writing talent, slam voice and powers of intimidation to get White Ribbon ambassadors to check their phallocentric campaigning, re-open Christchurch’s Rape Crisis centre, provide some actual analysis, and perhaps support free self defence for women?
What if Free the Nipple was a women’s gathering, like the consciousness-raising, political gatherings of the 1970s? Like, if we all got bullied, banned and censored for talking sexual politics alone (fuck that)… what if we organised?