Whether we agree with it or not attitudes to sex are changing across the globe. This is particularly true in the UK where we are seeing more sex in the media and the internet has brought all sorts of pornography to the bedrooms of millions of people.
I am part of the online generation whose adolescence was influenced by these societal changes. At the same time, I grew up with a mother who was vocal about gender equality issues and planted seeds of feminism in me from a young age. And experiences like visiting a home in India for girls abandoned by their families because of their gender and studying gender through social anthropology fuelled my desire to become involved in women’s rights.
Since then I’ve worked for the now disbanded Women’s National Commission (http://www.thewnc.org.uk/), the Gender and Development Network (http://www.gadnetwork.org.uk/), the Women’s Budget Group (http://www.wbg.org.uk/) and the Fawcett Society (http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/) and in all of these positions I have been engaged in sex, society and gender relations and this remains one of the key issues for women’s rights activists in the UK.
There are lots of young women in the UK who are concerned about our changing society and the impact that it has on women. This has been shown by the Slut Walks movement which spread though the UK like wildfire showing that young women were not happy to accept blame for harassment or violence they experience.
Other feminists have started powerful movements run by young British women including Object (http://object.org.uk/), who campaign around ‘raunch culture’ including lapdancing and ‘lad’s mags’ lifestyle magazines for men with plenty of soft porn and a big dollop of misogyny. Another movement linked to Object is ‘Turn Your Back on Page Three’ (http://turnyourbackonpage3.wordpress.com/) which seeks to remove soft porn from UK national newspapers such as the Sun. In addition the American-born Hollaback (http://hollaback-uk.blogspot.com/) movement has a strong UK branch with feminist coordinators encouraging women to no longer staying quiet on threatening behaviour like cat-calling and street harassment.
These young women are challenging the status quo they inherited arguing that a lack of regulation of the sex industry, including porn, is bad for women. Object has been successfully mobilising people to question their local authorities’ decisions to allow lap dancing venues in the local area and provides tool kits to enable individual activists to do this. In 2009 their lobbying culminated in the government changing the law to ensure lap dancing venues were licensed as sex venues not as ‘cafes/bars’.
More recently pressure groups including Stop Porn Culture and Turn Your Back on Page Three have succeeded in persuading the government to require magazines containing soft porn to have blackout covers. This legalisation is in its early stages but is an example of the change that young women are making here.
For all the sterling work being done by young feminist activists in the UK, there remains significant gaps in the debate. The increasingly sexualised nature of British society has opportunities as well as problems for women and there is very little discussion by feminists of what women stand to gain.
It’s not surprising an activist movement like feminism focuses on areas in need of improvement rather than celebrating gains already made but in UK feminist activist discourse, there is often no recognition of the opportunities a more openly sexual society affords women.
Feminist porn directors like Brit Anna Span (http://annaspansdiary.com/) seek to provide this voice though are rarely heard on feminist platforms. These pro-porn feminists argue that women enjoy porn and often seek to make erotic material that better suits the needs of women. They too recognise that mainstream pornography suffers from a uniform absence of female pleasure of porn from a female perspective and seek to redress the balance by creating their own material.
Young women are not always the passive victims of raunch culture but rather they may actively engage with it, be turned on by it, support it and buy into the lifestyle of glamour and freedom of sexual expression it claims to offer.
If the young feminist activists mobilising around these issues don’t recognise these dissenting voices they are in danger of ignoring the very group they aim to represent.
After graduating from Cambridge University Polly worked in the women’s sector for organisations including UK Gender and Development Network, Women’s National Commission, Women’s Budget Group and Fawcett Society. She has a masters in Gender Studies from UCL and has volunteered for Women’s Resource Centre, Action Aid, Refugee Council, Russ Foundation, Zimbabwe Women’s Network, UNICEF Syria and BeeLine Sexual Health and Pregnancy Helpline.