FEM 08, III: Objectification

In the afternoon we had a panel session with a representive from Object, and a young woman, Lucy Brown, speaking about her experience of working in a lapdance club. I was surprised to learn that the club she worked in (and apparently many others) works on a ‘pay back’ basis – whereby you start out having to purchase a dress, and pay to perform – so for a while, you’re working to pay back your employres for these per-requisites. Lucy also noted that the ‘no contact’ with customer rule that the clubs operate is frequently violated simply because the competition amongst the strippers (they need the money to pay back for the table and the dress, remember) is so high that they’ll go that bit further to make sure they get the work.

There is a lot that is deeply troubling about all this, and Lucy made a powerful case for concern. The representative from Object then told us about their campaign to get lap-dancing clubs licensed as sex establishments rather than on the same sort of license as coffee shops. (It is clearly absurd to categorise them in with coffee shops!) The ultimate goal of this is to make it easier for citizens to object to lap-dancing clubs in their cities.

However (and again, I feel bad for being critical about what was in general a really really good day!) a couple of points of concern:

i. There was the presumption (not just in this session, but throughout the day) that *all* feminists are against objectification (and likewise with pornography and prostitution). Whilst many feminists *do* object to the coercive and abusive settings in which stripping, prostitution, and porn-making generally occur, some feminists nonetheless maintain that there is nothing intrinsically problematic with these practices. For example, Martha Nussbaum, in her paper ‘objectification’ (from her book Sex and Social Justice) explores the possibility that objectification – being treated as a sex object, a mere body – when chosen, and in certain contexts, can be quite benign and even welcome. And indeed, there are many pro-pornography feminists out there (see the recent post on the feminist porn awards). Also, there was only one brief dismissive comment made about sex worker unionisation efforts. (Roughly: unions protect you against harassment, but these women’s job IS harassment so there’s no point. A claim rather undermined by the observation that the regulations under which these clubs are supposed to operate– which would e.g. disallow contact– are not being enforced. Enforcing regulations is just the sort of thing unions can do.) There’s been a lot of serious work done by sex worker activists, who strongly disagree with the strategies being pursued by organisations like Object, and it would have been good to hear from them.

ii. I’ve already suggested that insufficient attention was at times paid to fundamental problems of women’s economic vulnerability. Again, this session continued without addressing the wider context in which lapdancing seems like a viable option to many women (I don’t know, but i’m supposing its better paid than cleaning). (An aside: I gather that the session on prostitution did look in more detail at the connection between women’s poverty and options, and the context in which women choose (sometimes ‘choose’) prostitution).

iii. I was also concerned that the focus on objectification and pornography at the plenary sessions, rather than education and economic vulnerability, has somewhat exclusionary tendencies. The conference attendees were a fairly homogenous bunch (white females, many students), and I wondered whether a particular perspective was dictating the agenda. Of course, I’m not suggesting that, if objectification is a problem for women, then it is not a problem for all women. Rather I’m (tentatively) suggesting that:

a) How objectification is experienced as a problem won’t be the same for all women

b) For some women, objectification may not be their top priority priority concern – rather financial survival, access to education, avoidance of violence (and not just sexual violence) dictate the agenda. (There was, of course, an excellent panel on rape conviction rates, but much of the discussion there was also about objectification.)

Of course, objectification is an important issue. But it would have been good to see a schedule that reflected some of the other fundamental issues that set the agenda for many women. Being in the plenary session is an indication of importance, and the timetable carried the very clear implication that objectification should be our primary concern.