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.

10 thoughts on “FEM 08, III: Objectification

  1. I’m a former sex worker now writing a book about my experiences. You can visit my site and have a look.

    I have mixed feelings about prostitution: In theory, it’s just a money exchange for a service. However, in a patriarchal world that objectifies women and then punishes them for being “whores” at the same time, it is not a “victimless” crime. I hope you check out my site and leave your feminist comments. Thank you!

    [NOTE from JJ: Readers should know that ED’s link takes one to a site with very explicit “mature content.” You may be ill-advised to open it at work or in any other public place.]

  2. I thought Lucy’s speech was really important and interesting.

    However, both myself and my companion were concerned by the heavy promotion of anti-porn and anti-prostitution feminism at the conference. I wouldn’t have had any problem with this if the conference had been advertised as an anti-porn/anti-prostitution feminist conference, but it was advertised as just a general feminist conference. What was presented was a specific kind of feminism for the most part. We were also concerned that feminist groups which might bring different views seemed to be excluded (i.e. Feminist Fightback). I think a call for feminist unity accompanied with exclusion of the opposition is a very bad thing indeed. It definitely felt that a particular perspective was dictating the agenda. As I said, I don’t really have a problem with that as long as it’s stated upfront so people know what they’re signing up for.

  3. It is so tempting not to ask people to speak if you really disagree with them. I’m making a note to myself: remember that the audience might have a different take!

    It also sounds as though the conference could have used some economic diversity. That can be hard to remember, but I’m wondering whether this is a repeatable event and so whether something should be said to next year’s planners.

  4. It is so tempting not to ask people to speak if you really disagree with them. I’m making a note to myself: remember that the audience might have a different take!

    I had a dig around in my Fem 08 bag and found a leaflet given to me by some Feminist Fightback people who were standing outside afterwards on which it is stated:

    “Feminist Fightback and ENS Women activists have found it difficult to engage with FEM 08 – we’re not allowed to come to steering meetings, last year we were refused a stall and stopped from handing out leaflets, despite having a speaker in a debate about different feminisms. There were few sessions at FEM 05 or 07 where debate was encouraged from the floor.”


    I think the conference should have had a much bigger focus on how to make feminism less exclusionary in general, as that seems to be one of the biggest problems confronting us right now.

  5. Excellent points, all of you. (Readers should know, though, that Emilie’s site is Not Safe For Work.) I really agree with Winter on the tension between “feminists unite” and the monolithic vision presented at FEM 08. (It’s tricky to be unified while acknowledging differences, but far better than simply ignoring them.) I got that Feminist Fightback thing, too, and have been wondering about it.

  6. Why is it feminist to suggest that women ought to be bought and sold like so much cattle?

    Plus the underlying assumption that men are somehow “entitled” to women’s bodies and women’s sexuality, and that if they can’t get it for free they should be able to pay for it.

    I can see having different ways to approach feminism but really, saying that women are for sale is rather like saying women shouldn’t have bodily autonomy in pregnancy (i.e., that abortion should be illegal) and I don’t see how either stance is feminist.

  7. Dana– I think feminists who support legalisation of sex work do so because they think that is the best way to protect sex workers– by making it easier for them to unionise, safer for them to contact police, etc. Such feminists may think that sex work *could* be perfectly fine politically, but I don’t think any think that it currently is, at least in most cases. But they may also think it’s inherently bad but made worse by being illegal. One may also question the idea that buying a sex act is buying a woman (which might be taken to presuppose an equating of women with the sex acts they perform).

  8. Men have endless cravings for sex, we think about having sex with women , which is why we think women look like sex objects, not because we want to its just something thats there to ensure the Human race survives.
    But i do not see that paying for sex has anything to do with rights. Prostitutes know that men want sex and exploit us by extorting money for something which i believe no one should ever have to pay for. I don,t see that paying for sex is a right, i see it as exploitation of mens needs. Also because i think women look like adverts for sex does not mean i dont think of them as human beings with needs. I wish women thought i was a sex object, it would be better than being ignored or thought of as being dispensable.

  9. David: most of us pay continually to have our needs met: grocery stores, clothing stores, teachers, doctors, police, parking and on and on. With each of these, it is possible to feel exploited at times, but in general paying to have one’s needs met is not being exploited or having money extorted. Your judgment on prostitutes needs a special explanation – in the sense that payment alone doesn’t make your judgment right.

  10. I also think most people need friends but i havnt got any because i have aspergers syndrome. I have my teddy bears but going through life with no human friends and no relationships is a cruel mentle torture. I attend social service groups but one day a young woman joined our group, her belly was on permanent display and she wore a belt with huge metal letters spelling the word sex. She was always talking about her sex life, and i used to think of the unfairness of it, that women can get as much sex as they want without paying for it while i can only get a very little at a huge cost. However i left my group because i hated the sight of her, to me she looked excactly like an advert for sex, but imagine if you were in a famine and someone well fed had a habit of carrying food with them and would never let you have even the smallest bite. You would begin to hate them. However i do not consider myself to be an accepted member of the human race, but i am amazed that i got a reply to my last message.

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