It’s complicated

Sociological Images had a post last month showing two video clips featuring Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”, the first made in 1994, the second in 2011. They have some interesting differences:

This is the kind of thing that Melinda Tankard Reist (MTR) has called the “sexualisation” or “sexploitation” of women, which might then lead to other people accusing her of “enacting the Madonna/whore obsession of her Taliban/Catholic religious beliefs“. Because apparently the best way to counter simplistic, misguided arguments is by making different simplistic, misguided arguments.

A few months ago, MTR came to Perth and I heard her speak. She began her presentation with a video compiling many, many images of women in sexualised poses, in a wide variety of contexts that were not actual pr0n magazines. I don’t think it’s very controversial to say that sexualised imagery is increasingly common in mainstream culture*, and in my opinion it’s definitely worth noting that and discussing what it means. But some of the images she included were simply images of (usually young, thin, white) women. Now, MTR probably has different standards for judging these things, but she seemed to be suggesting that any image of a woman that is designed for people to find attractive is sexualised by definition, which leads to some very difficult questions for her, such as who gets to decide what’s “sexploitation” and what isn’t, as well as what particular methods are appropriate for dealing with the examples where reasonable people disagree.

For me, I think the debate about whether pr0n is OK (Yes it is! No it isn’t!), and the debate about the extent to which MTR’s views are based on religion, are distractions. We can argue all day about whether MTR wants to ban both pr0n and abortion, and certainly I have my own personal view about what she thinks. But at the moment, she isn’t trying to do those things, but what she’s currently campaigning against has been sidelined.

A few years ago, MTR campaigned against the bills to remove the ban on stem cell research (pdf). She did this on the grounds that women would be exploited for their eggs were stem cell research to be permitted, an argument that refuses to allow that women are fully rational beings who are capable of assessing the risks and benefits of donating eggs. But yet it is not as simple as pointing out that women are capable of making such decisions – most feminists would agree with her that it is important to address the social pressures that are placed on women to sacrifice themselves for others. Where she and I part ways is in her insistence that banning an entire form of research to “protect” women is a reasonable response.

Likewise, her public discussions of abortion are centred on “women’s grief“, and while I don’t agree with her about how widespread abortion regret is, I am glad that women whose experiences were not good are being provided with the support they need. (And unlike some anti-abortionists, she isn’t into shaming pregnant teenagers.) Again, my view is that legalising abortion, reducing the stigma attached to it, and being more open about it as a society, are the best ways to ensure that women are supported in all their choices. It is much easier to pressure a woman into having an abortion if she doesn’t think she can speak openly about it. I don’t know what MTR’s personal view on legalisation is, but she stands with those who are fighting to to criminalise it, rather than with those who want to support women to make the choice that works for her.

Today her focus is on the sexualisation of women and girls in the media, and again her approach is to have material removed through legal and/or grassroots pressure: from having films refused classification, supporting HREOC claims against clothing companies, to promoting consumer boycotts. It’s pretty easy to respond with “free speech” arguments, and you can point to the dangers of invoking the law to shut down offensive ideas. Certainly talking with your money is a better approach, and sometimes it can be successful too, but the question of whether something should or should not be removed from public view (and by whom) is still only part of the issue.

As I touched on here, there is more to the debate than what level of sexualisation is OK. Instead of debating whether burqas or bikinis are more damaging to women, we need to demolish the idea that any amount of fabric can be intrinsically empowering or objectifying. Instad of arguing over whether pr0n and sex work is empowering or damaging to women, we need to focus on making sure all women have the ability to choose it or reject it for themselves. Surely we can celebrate a wider diversity of body types in ways other than simply increasing the number of women asked to pose naked in a magazine – we can also provide space for women to choose not to care about their appearance.

The two videos above could point to the increased sexualisation of women in the media. The may show that the media is increasingly more concerned with a commercialised, homogenised version of sexuality, where the range of what is deemed sexy is getting smaller and smaller. Maybe they show the evolution of a talented singer who was forced by a controlling manager-husband to fit a particular image and is now celebrating her freedom to present herself in a more authentic way. These are complex questions that have little to do with who’s religious or whether you like pr0n.

MTR doesn’t “speak for me” either – I’m yet to meet anyone who does, entirely. But she has given prominence to an important issue, and we can either mess around with the sideshow, or we can take the issue and make it our own. Where is the line between what’s appropriate in pr0n and what’s appropriate on a billboard or in a magazine for teenage girls? What are the differences between The Pussycat Dolls and Lady Gaga. How can we widen the range of choices available to “women and girls”?

* and by that I partly mean that I’m not interested in debating that particular claim in the comments.

Originally posted at Larvatus Prodeo.