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Time to embrace the F-word

­Do we still need a feminist movement? Haven’t women come a long way, and wouldn’t it be dangerous or somehow unnatural to go any further? Kat Banyard, founder of activist movement UK Feminista, has been labelled the UK’s most influential young feminist, and her acclaimed book The Equality Illusion, which challenges head on the idea that British society is now gender equal, makes worrying, yet totally inspiring reading.

There’s been a lot of media coverage recently of the sort of issues that feminists like Banyard make their business. Few will have missed the UniLad scandal, where the shutting down of the website, if only temporarily, caused controversy and gave an important indication of an answer to the question of whether there is any place at all in our society for casual, jokey sexism. The Leveson Inquiry heard from feminist campaigners about the damage done by women’s objectification in the media. Debate goes on about the lack of women in parliaments worldwide, yet it’s people like Banyard who are providing the impetus for actual change, and pressing others to believe it can and should be made.

But aren’t we doing pretty well, considering? Banyard disagrees. ‘If you actually start to pick away the surface of what we see as normal, you see that there are vast inequalities still coursing through the veins of society. They manifest themselves in every aspect of our lives, in the home, in the workplace: fundamentals such as being able to take part in public life on an equal footing are still very distant dreams.’ Victories of the past, Banyard argues passionately, are still being translated into reality: ‘We’re still paid significantly less, we’re still outnumbered 4:1 in Parliament, there are still horrendous rates of violence against women, 100,000 women are raped every year just in the UK. So clearly we’ve got an awfully long way to go, but also we must remain vigilant to new threats, new forms of sexism.’

Banyard’s prime example of a rising obstacle to gender equality is the multibillion dollar global sex industry. ‘This is a very modern industry, whereby pornography and prostitution are taking place on a scale unprecedented in human history. For the first time a generation of young boys are basically being brought up on hard-core porn.’ But hasn’t prostitution always been around? ‘It’s very convenient to dismiss it as the world’s oldest profession, but exploitation is unfortunately a very old aspect of society, and that doesn’t make it inevitable or right. Also, commercial sexual exploitation is taking place on a mass industrial scale, and that is new.’
She cites developments in communication technology which make it easier to access and disseminate pornography as reasons for this. ‘Pornography actually holds up a mirror to something quite dark going on in our society, because the pornographic world is horrendously misogynistic and violent and brutal. And pornography is now a major form of misogynistic propaganda, because it tells lies about women to a lot of young boys who are forming their ideas about sex and girls. Not only are vast numbers of vulnerable women being funnelled through this industry, but the pornographers are also trying to steal and co-opt men’s sexuality for their own profit.’ Banyard describes pornography and prostitution vehemently as ‘the ultimate coming together of patriarchy and capitalism’.

In response to the suggestion that watching pornography can be liberating for women expressing their sexuality too, Banyard is hard-lined. ‘What we’ve got to be clear about is that the vast majority of pornography is filmed prostitution. What we know about the very fundamental concept of prostitution is that it is inherently dangerous for the women who are taking part in it. 68% of women in prostitution have post traumatic stress disorder as a result of having repeated, unwanted sex. In order to endure this women are having to find strategies to separate mind from body, and you see women on a mass scale self-medicating to get through it.’ Banyard is at pains to stress that she is not prudish or anti-sex, as feminists are accused so often of being: ‘What the industry has been very adept at doing is co-opting the language of sexual liberation and making consumers think they’re really socking it to the anti-sex conservatives. On the contrary.’

So is there anything we can do about it? I ask what she thinks of the Nordic model, which makes it illegal to pay for sex acts but decriminalises the act of selling sex. For Banyard this is ‘an amazing example of feminist lawmaking. Prostitution is seen as inevitable, but feminists in Sweden and various other countries have shown that the sex industry is not infallible. It makes you recognise it for what it is: violence against women, and they’ve seen significant drops in demand for prostitution and reduction in trafficking. It’s exactly what we should be doing here.’
We turn to the hot topic of media portrayals of women, and Banyard is firm that ‘the sex industry has played an absolutely paramount role in media sexism generally. As it ballooned in the 1990s and 2000s, it completely shifted the mainstream and the porn aesthetic suddenly started to appear on billboards, in magazines, in people’s beauty regimes. Now the objectification of women is utterly rampant as a visual backdrop to everyday life, and we know from extensive evidence that this has real, harmful effects. It makes girls see themselves as objects, which leads to lessening self esteem, body image issues and other problems, and it encourages boys and men to see women as sexual objects and treat them that way.’

She describes UniLad as ‘an example of casual sexism that’s still flourishing. These massive rates of rape and violence against women don’t come from nowhere. It doesn’t stem from individual pathologies alone or a random crazed faceless man jumping out from bushes. Something is creating a conducive context for this violence. Rapists are made not born, and it’s exactly this sort of rape tolerant attitude that helps create this environment.’
I ask about the Sun’s recent anti-rape campaign, which has attracted a feminist backlash by being focused on the paper’s ‘women’s pages’, alongside make-up tips and celebrity gossip. ‘We need to face up to the reality of what’s going on here.  Victim blaming is endemic and it’s got to stop. It’s not women who need to change their behaviour. In order to stop rape we need to fundamentally change what it is to be a man in this society, and we can’t do that by putting an ad on women’s pages.’ The need to admit the reality of violence against women is a powerful mantra running throughout Banyard’s discussion, and it certainly makes for uncomfortable hearing in a world in which casual sexism is indeed rife.

During our discussion of rape I wonder if Banyard is beginning to fall into the trap of man-bashing, but she assures me this is a feminist stereotype to be avoided at all costs. ‘Feminism helps men, it sees the best in men. The real misandrists are the biological determinists who say that aggression and violence are natural in men. They’re not. And for me it’s crucial for progress that men get actively engaged in feminism. We’re talking about reshaping what it means to be a man and that can’t be done if men aren’t part of the conversation. More men than ever are signing up to the ethical imperative, saying equality is right and fair, but they don’t think it’s got much to do with them. We need to do away with the bystander problem among men.’

We turn to the problem of why, if women aren’t inherently inferior to men, are they still so underrepresented in public life? ‘It’s the nature of how Parliament is organised. The Houses of Parliament is a workplace, and yet women still do the bulk of caring in the UK, and that’s very difficult to combine with a life in Parliament because of the extremely long working hours and various demands. But the practicalities of that can be changed.

‘Women shouldn’t have to choose between a career and having children. At the moment they’re paying a significant penalty for being the ones who do the bulk of the caring and for having children – 30,000 women are sacked each year for being pregnant. Now this is a choice we have to make as a society: do we want to create a workplace that enables people to combine those caring roles, where we value women’s unpaid caring role and the role of bringing up the next generation of citizens, or not?

‘In countries that have raised paternity leave or shared parental leave, you do see dads playing a much greater role in the upbringing of children. We need much greater workplace flexibility. Many businesses do offer flexible working but it’s seen as the mummy track, what you do if you’re a woman and not really serious. It’s still the stigmatised option, which is why you don’t see many men taking it or asking for it on any significant scale. And the culture and expectation perpetuated by firms that if you do take flexible working hours you’re not as committed to your job needs to change.’

It’s a seemingly bleak picture. But Banyard remains optimistic and her final message is inspiring. ‘We are the lucky benefactors of the struggles of feminists throughout the centuries. But the job isn’t finished yet and it’s up to us to take action. Change doesn’t happen by itself. It requires people to stand up and be counted, and it’s now our opportunity to do that.’

Visit www.ukfeminista.org.uk to find out more.

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