Are feminists an out of touch, dying breed?

This was a great week to be a feminist. OK so a home office report on the sexualisation of children due to the constant bombardment of sexualised image in the mainstream media isn’t exactly going to change the whole game. But it does feel a little bit like progress. And it provided opportunities for incredible TV moments like this one where the BBC wheeled out ol’ faithful Peirs Hernu, ex-editor of Front magazine and lads’ mags champion, and pitted him against superstar feminist activist Anna Van Heesvijk, campaign manager with OBJECT. Brace yourself for some first class chauvinism from Mr Hernue as he constantly refers to Anna as “she”, and attempts to patronise and dismss her. In terms of the uncontrollable urge to throw my lap top across the room, my personal breaking point was “Have you? Oh jolly good.”

I think you’ll agree all he needed to be beaten was some cool rational argument, an intellectual analysis of the issue, a reminder of the international obligations our government has under CEDAW to regulate media for greater gender equality, and the opportunity to open his mouth and instantly show what a misogynist, ignorant twerp he is.

Last week also saw the first meeting of a group of people in Belfast who feel compelled to take on the culture Hernu has had a hand in shaping. Inspired by the grassroots activism of OBJECT we got together in a room off University Road and shared our own frustrations with a culture that we feel at odds with. There was talk of the hurt caused to ourselves and those we care about due to how this sex object culture has impacted on our personal relationships over the years. All of us agreed we were delighted to have men in our lives who are as disgusted by these issues as we are and stated clearly that we have no desire to alienate or demonise men in general. The mothers in the room spoke with passionate anger about the onslaught of sexist images and messages, and their desire to carve out a space for their children to grow up able to understand and embrace relationships and sexuality at the right time and free from harmful gender stereotypes. We discussed what we would want from grassroots activism, how to make it effective, creative and inclusive.

Sound appealing? There was an informal consensus at the end of the evening that people would like to meet fortnightly so with that in mind there should be an opportunity to join the conversation sometime in the next week. Join the facebook group to keep up to date with day/time/venue.

I want to finish by reflecting on a topic that came up at our meeting: the accusation that in protesting the pornification of the media you are anti-sex and a bit of a party pooper. In many ways, first and second wave feminism were about pushing for recognition and liberation ahead of what society in general was ready for. Feminists were progressives with crazy ideas about the home and workplace and sexuality that made many blush. There’s something about this third wave focus on sex object culture that gives the opposite impression; that feminism is behind the pace of progress, appearing to be adding its voice to the “Down with that sort of thing!” brigade. But for me, that’s an illusion and there are so many signs that we’re still applying the more progressive critique. To begin with the patriarchy (gosh, no one says that anymore!) has always been about controlling women’s sexuality and that’s exactly what I see on the pages of Nuts and Zoo. It might be hard to make the case to a glamour model that the patriarchy is controlling her body if she feels assured in the choices she has made and the level of power she has over those. That’s understandable but broaden the lens a little and the lines of control become less clear. The lads’s mags industry is priming another generation of men to demand that women are preened, pumped and poised to please them and selling it to women as liberation. Rather than pursuing sexual adventures that are about your own pleasure and the joy of engaging with someone who loves you, respects you and turns you on, young women are still being convinced that they will be happy if they know how to make a man happy. Mr Hernu et al, you know nothing about liberation, or women, or sex for that matter. When it comes to progress, these guys are the dying breed.


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