NUM joint letter with ECP, SWOU, ICRSE, Scot-Pep and nearly 30 academics

The following is a letter to the editor of the Guardian in response to an article published on 21 February entitled ‘Criminalise the sex buyers, not the prostitutes‘ by Catherine Bennett.

Dear editor,

We were appalled by Catherine Bennett’s recent article “Criminalise the sex buyers, not the prostitutes” (21/02/2016) which was so laden with moral objection and clouded by ideological fervour that it completely disregards the overwhelming evidence that criminalising any aspect of consensual sex work between adults impacts on the safety and human rights of sex workers.  The article is littered with inaccuracies and attempts to wilfully misrepresent reality.

The description of the ‘managed-area’ in Leeds as a “pimps’ paradise” exemplifies how the author uses incendiary language to distort the truth. Since the policy changes in Leeds the number of people selling sex has not significantly increased but sex workers are now far more likely to report to the police when they’re targeted by offenders. This has led to the imprisonment of a number of sex offenders. Due to the changes in Leeds, the proportion of sex workers reporting incidents to National Ugly Mugs (NUM) willing to report to West Yorkshire Police increased from 15% in 2013 to one of the highest in the UK at over 52% in 2015.

We were astonished that Nottinghamshire and Suffolk, two of the areas in the UK where sex workers are least likely to report to the police when they’re targeted by offenders, were used as examples of good practice.  Only 4% of sex workers in Nottinghamshire and not a single one of the handful of sex workers in Suffolk, reporting crimes to NUM, were willing to speak to the police.

NUM recently carried out a survey of 220 sex workers and more than 50 organisations providing frontline support to sex workers. More than 80% said that criminalising the purchase of sex would negatively impact on sex worker safety. 96% of sex workers also said that that people should not be criminalised for buying sex.

What the author refers to as a “forceful lobby” opposed to the sex-buyer law includes the overwhelming majority of sex workers, frontline support services, academics and organisations like UN AIDS, Human Rights Watch, Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, The Lancet and Amnesty International.  As the Head of Sweden’s anti trafficking unit, one of the architects of the Swedish Model, said: “of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that’s also some of the effect we want to achieve with the law”.  If only its advocates here in the UK were as honest about their indifference to the safety of sex workers.
Yours sincerely,

Alex Feis-Bryce, National Ugly Mugs

Laura Watson, English Collective of Prostitutes

International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE)

Sex Worker Open University

Scot-PEP

Umbrella Lane Sex Work Support Services, Scotland

Dr Mary Laing, Northumbria University

Rosie Campbell OBE, University of Leeds

Luca Stevenson, Coordinator ICRSE

Professor Jane Scoular, University of Strathclyde

Professor Phil Hubbard, University of Kent

Professor Maggie O’Neill, University of Durham

Professor Teela Sanders, University of Leeds

Raven R. Bowen, University of Durham

Laura Graham, University of Durham

Michelle Stoops, Safe Place Merseyside

Prof Nick Mai, Kingston University

Dr Kate Brown, University of York

Scarlett Redman, University of Leeds

Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Birkbeck, University of London

Assoc. Prof. Paul J. Maginn, University of Western Australia

Emily Cooper, Northumbria University

Debbie Jones, Swansea University

Dr Sarah Kingston, Lancaster University

Dr Nicola Smith, University of Birmingham

Pippa Grenfell, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Gaynor Trueman, Specialist ISVA, Arch North East

Dr Anna Carline, University of Leicester

Dr Mark McCormack, Durham University

Dr Natalie Hammond, Manchester Metropolitan University

Dr Tracey Sagar, Swansea University

Professor Clarissa Smith, University of Sunderland

Dr Graham Ellison, Queen’s University, Belfast

Stewart Cunningham, University of Strathclyde

Rachel Stuart, University of Kent

Dr Billie Lister, Leeds Beckett University

My Fitness Pal? Calorie counting in an age of self-surveillance.

Milly Morris

At the table next to me in the coffee shop, two women sit across from one another. The one woman aggressively taps the calorie content of her latte in her smart phone whilst the other sips her drink and glances around the café. The second woman looks up from her phone – attempting to conceal the panic in her eyes – and says “this coffee will take me 400 calories over!” She sighs and pushes the coffee across the table, admitting defeat. Her friend places the discarded coffee on an empty table nearby before replying: “yeah, OK, I guess then you wouldn’t be able to eat dinner.” Both share a knowing smile before resuming their previous conversation about what they did at the weekend.
In the digital age, it is easier for individuals to track calories and formulate their own weight-loss goals with the use of fitness apps such as My Fitness Pal, Lifesum and NutraCheck (Goodfellow, 2014). Users simply log their eating and exercise habits in order to meet a desired daily calorie goal. At the end of the day, the application will inform the user whether they were “under” or “over” their goal and how much they would weigh if they continued similar patterns of behaviour. Likewise, individuals are able to view other member’s daily results; their calories consumed and calories burned. There is even the option to share one’s results on other social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter. For the overweight, such technologies arguably provide users with a level of control over their diets and an insight into the calorific content of the food that they are consuming. As the UK is in the midst of a so-called “obesity crisis”, such technologies can only be considered positive, surely?
Yet, alongside high rates of obesity, there is a steep rise in women suffering from life-threatening eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa. In 2015, research commissioned by the NHS noted the “stark rise” in eating disorders within the UK; whilst only 658 under-19 year olds required treatment for an eating disorder in 2003-2004, this number had risen to 1,791 by 2013-2014 (Mitchie, 2015). Likewise, it is widely recognised that 90% of sufferers of Anorexia Nervosa are female (Silverstein et al, 1986). For scholars such as Orbach and McLaren, anorexia can be considered a “metaphor of our age.” In the same manner that the Victorian era was crippled by widespread cases of “hysteria” amongst its female population – arguably inflicted by socioeconomic norms that restricted the lives and opportunities of women – future generations may consider anorexia as an illness reminiscent of a culture that profits from its women remaining fearful of food and their bodies (Orbach, 2005; McLaren, 2002)
Throughout history and across different cultures, women have monitored and mutilated their bodies in order to reach narrow and unattainable representations of female “beauty” (Wolf, 1999; Penny, 2011). For example, foot-binding and corset-wearing were common practices that women undertook in order to remould their bodies to fit the feminine ideal of the time. Whilst the Western ideal has differed throughout time, it has always involved the pursuit of slimness; the 1920’s favoured “slender legs, hips, and small breasts” whilst the 1940’s and 1950’s idealized Marilyn Monroe’s “hourglass shape” (Garcia, 2012, p.118). Likewise, the rise of the bikini and supermodel “Twiggy” in the 1960’s led women to accept that they “should not have any flesh to control or support”. Whilst fatness has come to be associated with failure; slimness is directly related to happiness, control, attractiveness and success (Orbach, 1992).
Consequently, whilst the smartphone fitness application may be considered a less extreme example of the corset and foot-binding, both are based on the premise that women should restrict and restrain their bodies in order to meet cultural expectations of appearance. Whilst not a physical constraint, such applications profit from the normalised associations between food and it’s “consequences.”
Fitness tracking applications exemplify the self-surveillance that has occurred from the relationship between idealized notions of female beauty and the obsessive documentation of self that has transpired alongside the rise of digital technologies. Wolf agrees that suppressing one’s appetite is viewed as a positive trait in a woman as it exemplifies her ability to “embody archetypal femininity through self-denial and subservience” (Wolf, 1999; Germov & Williams, 1996). Thus, these applications provide women with ritualistic tendencies designed to make them think about every morcel of food they eat with the constant knowledge that fellow member’s will be meeting their calorie goals and surveying their own.
Overall, on the surface, such applications appear a harmless tool for “health conscious” individuals. However, when viewed as part of a culture that demands that women be a certain body size in order to be considered worthy of happiness, they play into the expected female fear of food. The women next to me in the coffee shop held a mutual understanding of this “love/hate” relationship of food and why they should not exceed their daily calorie “goal”; drink that latte and you could get fat, get fat and you will be a failure.
Works Cited

García, A.M., 2012. Contested Images: Women of Color in Popular Culture. Rowman & Littlefield.

Germov, J. and Williams, L., 1996. The epidemic of dieting women: the need for a sociological approach to food and nutrition. Appetite, 27(2), pp.97-108.

Goodfellow, M. (2014, February 20th). London’s best calorie-counting apps. Retrieved from http://www.standard.co.uk: http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/health/london-s-best-calorie-counting-apps-9141309.html
McCarthy, M. (1990). The thin ideal, depression and eating disorders in women. Behaviour research and therapy, 28(3), 205-214.
McLaren, M. (2002). Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity. New York: State University of New York.
Mitchie, C. (2015, June 25th). Stark rise in eating disorders blamed on overexposure to celebrities’ bodies. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jun/25/eating-disorders-rise-children-blamed-celebrity-bodies-advertising
Orbach, S. (2005). Hunger Strike: The Anorectic’s Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age. New York: Karnac Books.
Penny, L. (2010). Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism. Winchester : Zero Books.
Silverstein, B., Perdue, L., Peterson, B. and Kelly, E., 1986. The role of the mass media in promoting a thin standard of bodily attractiveness for women. Sex roles, 14(9-10), pp.519-532.

Wolf, N., 2013. The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. Random House.

Hands off/on our porn?

Lucy Neville

It’s a warmer summer’s evening last July, and I’m at a rooftop BBQ in central London (I know, I know, it’s alright for some). I don’t know many people there, but I’m happy to enjoy the ambiance (and the wine…) One of the few people I do know spots me, and makes a beeline for me, taking me by the arm and pulling me over to his group of friends, men all a bit younger than me. He introduces me straightaway as his friend “who studies women who watch gay pornos” (not normally the introduction I go with!). The response is immediately gleeful and intrigued. It turns out this group of guys are all gay, and they’re also all fascinated by what I do. We talk about it for at least twenty minutes, the discussion culminating in a discussion of slashfiction and an impassioned and slightly drunken debate about who’s more toppy, Kirk or Spock. But how typical is this experience (fancy roof terrace setting aside)?

For the past four years, I have indeed been researching women who produce and consume m/m erotica. Some meet the existence of this phenomenon with surprise, but there is growing acceptance that it is perhaps not quite as uncommon as first thought. At the Edinburgh Literary Festival in August 2014, the author G. R. R. Martin stated that he had received numerous letters from fans asking for more explicit gay male sex scenes in his Game of Thrones novels (and the associated television series), and that ‘most of the[se] letters come from women’. The idea that women might be interested in watching men have sex with each other is certainly not new within popular discourses – there was much discussion of this issue after the success of Brokeback Mountain with female audiences, and there has been an increasing inclusion of gay male love scenes in TV shows with a large female viewership (e.g. The Carrie Diaries, The Following, Teen Wolf). Acknowledging that more women than men had bought his first erotic novel (which deals with m/m sex), gay fiction author James Lear observed ‘[women] fancy men, they’re turned on by men and so they’re even more turned on by men with men – it’s like ‘man squared’. Offering support for the widespread nature of this phenomenon, recent analysis of billions of hits to the PornHub site (one of the largest online porn sites in the world) showed that, for the past two years running, gay male porn has been the second most popular choice for women porn viewers out of 25+ possible genre choices (PornHub, 2014).

I’ve been carrying out research recently to find out why m/m porn and erotica might be so popular with female consumers. Some of the reasons are perhaps unsurprising (the reason James Lear gives – “boys are hot!” as one of my participants put it – was the most common response), others perhaps less so (some participants gave harrowing accounts of abuse they had suffered as children or young adults, experiences that had left them feeling so alienated from the female body and female sexuality that they couldn’t ‘get off’ on any sexual fantasy scenario featuring women). Many respondents, in the survey, interviews, and focus groups that I ran, mentioned how they felt m/m porn was more ‘authentic’, insomuch as there was visual proof of both arousal (in the form of erections) and what they saw as a satisfying sexual encounter (in the form of ejaculation). There was awareness that things are not always as they seem; one participant noted “a good [gay male] friend of mine…started to burst my bubble about gay porn. Because he’s saying, “You know that these guys are all given Viagra? And the bottoms…” [winces]. And he starts… And I thought: shut up, shut up, shut up!… I don’t want to know… I need some fantasies.” However, overall many participants felt male performers were more likely to enjoy the erotic labour they were performing, and, moreover, that unlike women performers they had the economic and social capital to be able to quit porn if they wanted.

The women I spoke with were often aware that their erotic preferences, through the exclusion of women, might be seen as misogynistic, or self-hating (they’d read their Mackinnon!), and they were also aware that their interest in m/m sex and sexuality could be seen as appropriating, as a fetishisation of gay male sexuality, with one reflecting “I’ve seen gay men… saying…. there is a part of us that feels that you’re using our sexuality to get off on and we’re uncomfortable with that, and, you know, you do sort of have to be: are we being intrusive…?” Several participants mentioned how their interest was no different from straight men liking ‘lesbian’ porn – yet they were also aware that this phenomenon isn’t entirely unproblematic either. Only 35% of the women I spoke to who produced m/m erotic content themselves had discussed what they did with gay male friends or acquaintances. Of those that had done so, most talked about receiving a positive response – from amusement, through to requests to have a look, through to tips on how to write m/m love scenes in a way that was more realistic to the lived gay male experience. Very few had experienced any hostility or negativity. And 77% of respondents felt that being involved in m/m erotica in some way had increased their awareness of issues around gender and sexuality, and, in many cases, made them much more passionately committed to LGBTQ rights.

What was missing from all this, though, was the opinions of men who have sex with men. I read many theoretical academic pieces that discuss female appropriation of gay male space, and whether or not this is OK. Mark McLelland (1999:197) writes, “on the whole, gay men do not view the invasion of gay space by heterosexual tourists, male or female, particularly favourably, nor do they seem to feel the empathy for straight women that some straight women feel for them”, adding that nobody likes to “feel like a spectacle all the time”. This was also a theme I also came across in popular writing, such as Miz Cracker’s piece in Slate last year. She is concentrating on the bad behaviour of hen parties in gay bars, and stresses #notallwomen, but nevertheless asks the question “whether [straight people] should be [in queer spaces] at all?” The comments section underneath this article was pretty illuminating, but as with all comments sections, it seemed to bring out the polarities. Such polarities also emerge within the world of gay porn itself. On the one hand there’s gay male stars like the founder and director of The Cocky Boys, Jake Jaxson, who refers to their female fans as “porn mums”, adding “they post comments, come to our events, and connect with us on Twitter. It’s great”. On the other hand, there’s porn stars like Spencer Reed, who has lashed out at his female fans on Twitter, ridiculing their interest in m/m porn and calling them “cunts” (the tweets have since been deleted, but you can read a response to them here). However, while certainly interesting, none of this is a systematic attempt to survey the opinions of MSM on how they feel about women engaging with, and often producing, m/m erotic and pornographic content. Cante & Restivo (2004:143) argue that “all-male pornography at some point also becomes the field for the (utopian) reinvention of the world eternally promised by identity politics” – an idea I picked up and ran with in my article on women who watch m/m porn. But a true Utopia needs to create an ideal society for all involved – and I wonder if that is always the case? Anecdata (like my rooftop chat) aside, how do gay men feel about women using porn designed for them? This is something I hope to find out with the survey I am currently running.

Please feel free to share the survey as widely as you like – I am keen to get as large a sample as possible: http://goo.gl/forms/Z8TUc6RhZN

References

Cante, R. & Restivo, A. (2004). The cultural-aesthetic specificities of all-male moving-image pornography. In L. Williams (ed.), Porn Studies (pp.142-166). London: Duke University Press.

McLelland, M. (1999). Gay men as women’s ideal partners in Japanese popular culture: Are gay men really a girl’s best friends? Japan Women’s Journal (English Supplement), 17, 77-110.