Breaking down the Backlash No.3: Mummy, when I grow up I wanna be a sex object.

In all of the reaction to headlamp-gate, this is the issue that got under my skin the most. The photo of the smiling glamour model on the pages of the Belfast Telegraph and the men remarking that women seem happy enough to draw attention to their boobies of an evening on Shaftsbury Square, with one Nolan caller even going so far as to say women use their breasts as “weapons”. You don’t have to look very far to find evidence that the sisterhood might be more than a little divided on the question of how to respond to the rise of the Nuts and Zoo feminine ideal. Perhaps like me you’ve been stuck behind one of those hideous limos on Botanic Avenue on a Saturday night and rolled your eyes at the seemingly endless stream of tanned legs, barely covered knickers, artificially suspended boobs and near-blinding sequins while your male companion politely pretends to search for a new channel on the car radio. On such occasions I’m always torn between wanting to applaud their confidence in themselves as liberated, fun-seeking women, or sigh at the way they conform to the porn ideal so unquestioningly with the hierarchy clearly topped by those who most please the gaze of the blokes. Or just try to use my jedi mind tricks to make one of them break a heel.

I must have read this comment in the Tele about 20 times and still can’t figure out how I feel about it:

this message must not have reached all women some of which dress like tarts, its no wonder men get mixed messages when all women act the same and put same message across then we can begin to understand what they want, the fact is some women think its all right others dont ….over to them to sort it out between themselves

So men have sussed that we’re not quite in agreement about this and have cunningly decided to use that as a ‘get out of jail free’ card to treat all of us as if we’ve just whipped our tops down for a cheeky flash and yelled ‘oi mate, get a load of these ya sexy bastard!’ I’ve come across a range of feminist arguments on just how much blame we should lay at the feet of those of our sisters who show a preference for the Katie Price path to empowerment. Every feminist blog from thegspot to the fword, bitch magazine to feministing will have an article on “slut-shaming” as a method of controlling women’s bodies and justifying discrimination. With the thresholds of free speech being fully exploited by Twitterers and trolls and anyone who wants to take their anger at their own boring lives out on others, there’s online slut shaming a-plenty and some of it is apparently in the name of feminism. However, at the heart of feminism is a belief in freedom to choose… your path in life, your goals, what happens to your body. Any attempt from one set of women to dictate to another set how they should dress/act/shag would be difficult to shoehorn into this central thesis of feminist ideology.

Does that, however, completely disallow any critique of the choices of others that may be indirectly affecting the conditions under which all of us live? Take, for example, the idea of the Female Chauvinist Pig, a phrase coined in Ariel Levy’s book of the same name published in 2006 which for many women helped consolidate a growing sense of unease with the illusion of sexual equality we are supposed to have achieved in this ‘post-feminist’ age where women are all at it as much as men. Levy calls this ‘raunch culture’ and her critique of it takes in a number of levels. First of all, she doesn’t let those women off the hook who embrace a charicaturish sexuality, colluding with the male-dominated culture with an ‘if you can’t beat ’em join ’em’ attitude and doing as much for female empowerment as the tits and ass men they are seeking to impress or be like. In addition she takes on the wider cultural influences dictating the terms of this raunch revolution – capitalism, consumerism, the enduring inequalities in the material conditions of women’s lives, the lingering stench of misogyny. While it is patronising to assume every woman who swings round a pole for a living is exploited and powerless it is utterly naive to believe the choices she has made have been free from such pressures.

In general, it’s worth remembering everybody wants to be fancied, to feel like you look good, to be confident in your attractiveness. Maybe not all the time and most likely not to everybody who crosses your path. The problem with our dominant system is that it assumes every woman should be trying to please men all the time. Maybe the short skirt is an attempt to get noticed, maybe it’s a tool to maintain position in the social hierarchy, maybe it’s just enjoying the theatrics of  a night out with friends, maybe it’s the product of a lifetime of messages about how to be a woman. It’s certainly not an open invitation for whistles, comments, disrespect, unwanted sexual advances… I like this advice on the Hollaback UK website, a space for women to submit examples of having had their personal space verbally or physically violated:

Some do not find comments such as “Hello, beautiful” or “Hey, gorgeous” offensive. Many do. Others may find them intimidating, intrusive, or just an annoying pain in the ass. Keep in mind that many women experience unsolicited comments, as well as violent verbal assault, from men in public spaces on a regular basis. Rather than deliberating the “gray areas” of street harassment, treat everyone you encounter with respect.

So there you have it. How about just treating everyone with respect. How about reserving judgement. How about not assuming she wants your one dimensional approval. I’ll leave you with this insightful poem from Shelby Knox.

On Street Harassment

This isn’t for you, sir.
I didn’t sweep this glitter on my eyes
And place this silver around my hips for your sorry ass.

My curves don’t wiggle for your delight
And my curls for damn sure aren’t shining in the sun for you, either
I am not Persephone – my person belongs to me in every season.

I am what you see because this is how I survive
My exterior is a manifestation of me as goddess
I wear it because I’m learning I alone can protect me.

Go on with your life.
I’m trying to go on with mine too.
Let’s exist in the common humanity of that mission and that alone. Alrighty?

Right. Well, your whistling doesn’t scare me.
I’ll take it as a steady drum reminding me to keep marching in time.
You’ll join us one day, for your sake. Until then, fuck you, sir.

Shelby Knox


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