Genevieve, 33, was sexually abused by men when she was between the ages of 2 and 16 in New South Wales. Bred by her father specifically to be abused, she has suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dissociation, flashbacks, and an eating disorder. Many times she wanted to end her life. Last year she almost succeeded.
Charlotte, 27, has also suffered for years as a result of childhood abuse for more than ten years, beginning when she was 2, at the hands of her father, uncle, family friend and strangers in Queensland. She has endured PTSD, dissociative disorder, eating disorders, anxiety and depression. More than once she has made attempts on her life.
Ally Marie, 44, was sexually abused throughout her childhood by men in her adoptive parent’s church. She has spent years in and out of mental hospitals in New Zealand and Western Australia; she abused drugs and alcohol to numb her pain and also struggled with suicidal thoughts.
What these three women have in common – in addition to histories of sexual abuse – is a deep grief and profound horror that another victim of abuse, a 20-year-old Belgian woman, was killed by lethal injection after medical professionals determined this was a suitable treatment to end her suffering. (Her death took place last year, but the Dutch Euthanasia Commission has only recently released its report.)
The young woman had been sexually abused between the ages of 5 and 15. She suffered PTSD, severe anorexia, chronic depression, hallucinations, suicidal mood swings, self-harming tendencies and obsessive compulsive behaviours. Her psychiatrist declared that there was no prospect of recovery. Doctors believed the woman to be “fully competent with no major depression or mood disorders affecting her thinking” that she wanted death – which makes no sense, given her many diagnoses.
“I’m horrified,” says the mother-of-one Genevieve from Queensland, who I met recently.
“It’s abominable. She was only 20! No 20-year-old with sound mind says ‘I choose euthanasia over living’. Yes, it’s a failure of the medical profession. It’s also a failure of humanity. The decision to kill her says to the rest of us: there is no hope, your life doesn’t matter! You are beyond repair, we have nothing to offer you. It tells us we are leeches who should be eradicated.”
A nursing graduate hoping to work in acute mental health care for young adults, Genevieve has first-hand experience of how difficult it is for survivors to get the specialist trauma care they need. She pays $200 a fortnight to access the specialist medical help she needs through the private health system, which she can’t get through public services. She says survivors are made to feel like burdens:
“Instead of finding alternatives and offering real hope, this decision says ‘let’s just eradicate this person, it will cost less’. Doctors don’t have to deal with what caused this person to become like this in the first place. If society says ‘This is OK’, it becomes acceptable. There is no longer a deterrent to ending your life. Our suffering makes us feel isolated and lonely. It’s taboo to talk about what happened to you. We are made to feel we are too hard. But we need to hear there is hope, keep going, things will get better. We need people who will come alongside and say ‘We can do life together’. We need a community, a network, so we don’t feel like an island.”
Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie feel strongly that the 20-year-old lacked these necessary supports. And like many others on the long journey of recover from abuse, they know that if euthanasia – the medicalised killing of another person – had been legally available, they themselves may not have been with us today to stand as survivors. If their community and the medical profession had offered death as a compassionate resolution to their suffering, they may well have stepped from suicidal ideation into death.
I know Charlotte as a contributor to Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade – so many child abuse survivors end up in the prostitution industry. She was distressed when reading about the end of life of another abuse victim. While the intensity of suffering echoed her own wounds, she says she has been encouraged to live, not die, helped through regular therapy, the support of loving friends, her teaching studies and her dog. As she writes about overcoming a desire to end it all:
“the knowledge that I came so close to dying fills me with sorrow. I am very lucky and grateful to still be here today. There are so many beautiful and wonderful things in life that I would have missed out on, and it is those moments which make recovery that little bit easier … No one should ever be made to feel as though suicide is an option.”
Ally Marie also recalls a childhood destroyed by sexual, physical and emotional abuse. She has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals much of her life. “Had someone given me a needle back then to end it all I would have gratefully accepted,” says Ally Marie, who now has nine children as well as running her own business helping women reach their goals.
“Thank God they didn’t. Thank God I am alive to share my story. Because now I am grateful as I look at my beautiful family I created, as I look around at the lives I can change with my story … What happened to this girl is murderous. Who are you to anticipate what her future holds? I was this young girl but I found my way and pulled through.”
The Belgian woman is not an isolated case. Among psychiatric patients receiving euthanasia in the Netherlands, most are women. A study published this year showed that PTSD and anxiety were prominent in such cases between 2011 and 2014. Four women were cognitively impaired, some had eating disorders, others prolonged grief. More than half were lonely and isolated. In one case, the report says, “The patient indicated that she had had a life without love and therefore had no right to exist.”
Sydney academic Katrina George has analysed criminological data from around the world to show that euthanasia of women is overwhelmingly at the hands of men. Patterns of assisted death in women reflect that of violence against women. The data simply doesn’t support the tidy theory of autonomy, choice and control put forward by euthanasia advocates.
Two of the most heartbreaking cases reveal how the cause of euthanasia becomes more important than the lives of women. A young Indian woman, Aruna Shanbaug, was brutally sexually assaulted 40 years ago and died last year. She became the inspiration for euthanasia laws, rather than for a campaign to fight violence against women, “a cause much more bitter than passive euthanasia.”
Nathan Verhelst was born as Nancy, a Belgian girl unwanted by her mother (“If only you had been a boy”) and sexually abused by her brothers from the age of twelve. Later in life, as a transsexual, Nathan underwent hormone therapy, a mastectomy, and failed surgery to construct a penis. He was euthanised at his own request in 2013. “I did not want to be a monster … I had happy times, but the balance is on the wrong side,” he said in an interview hours before his death. “I was the girl that nobody wanted.” His close friend Marisol later said, “If his family didn’t hurt him so much, he wouldn’t have wanted [euthanasia]. I don’t like the idea that you give your life because other people broke your life.”
If death is sought/offered to escape the pain of sexual abuse, incest, rejection, loneliness, what kind of choice is that?
Reforms to allow euthanasia in Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria are likely to be debated this year, and Senator Leyonhjelm and the Greens want to give the Territories the power to legalise euthanasia. While suicide itself has long been legal throughout Australia – attempted suicide attracts no penalty or consequence – they want medical killing legalised.
Troubled teenagers will not be eligible (though Philip Nitschke continues to promote his suicide bag for them) but patients with “intolerable” psychological conditions might be. Already, Australian teens and young adults are increasingly taking their own lives with the drug recommended by Nitschke’s euthanasia groups.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, the laws were originally very strict and limiting. But over time they have relaxed to include those people without a terminally ill condition: teens; children; babies; abused, lonely, isolated women.
It is no stretch to imagine that a young woman with PTSD, a survivor of sexual abuse, might qualify for euthanasia in Australia in the future especially in an environment of over-stretched and under-funded mental health systems.
Aside from system failures, we need to look more closely at our own attitudes. There is a subtle discrimination in favour of able-bodied people – ableism – so well described by Shakira Hussein. The able-bodied cannot imagine living with a permanent physical or psychological disability.
The response from the online blogs and forums of people recovering from abuse and PTSD challenge these attitudes. Most have condemning the killing of this young woman. Like Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie, they have shared how glad they are not to have been tempted with a death-inducing injection:
“I’m still alive and I can think and feel and love and do all the things I thought I’d never be able to.” (Jenn Selby)
“As someone who suffered severe depression throughout almost two decades (on and off), but who is now free from it through learned insights and changes to core beliefs, and has the tools to prevent myself ever getting to that place of no hope again, I find it very alarming that people are condoning assisted suicide for sufferers of mental illness. I believe it is an illness that is curable, therefore helping someone end their life before they may have found the tools, insight, help they need to help themselves out of the hole, is tragic. While it may have taken me 17 years to get to where I am today, and while I used to believe I would continue to suffer through, and have to manage my depression, for the rest of my life, I am now in a very different place. There were a number of times that I got so low, for so long, that I wanted to end things, but taking the next step to actually do that yourself is a big step. If society’s perception was that it’s normal to end the suffering, and they could assist me in doing so, easily and painlessly, then I probably would have taken that option and wouldn’t be here today. Which would mean I would have missed out on another 50 – 60 years (hopefully) of life, free from that level of debilitating depression. That would be a tragedy.” (Alison – posted privately on Facebook; quoted with permission)
“In my wildest dreams I never imagined that I could recover from a significant PTSD diagnosis. It took years and a chance meeting with a psychiatrist who was able to offer me the therapy I needed but had been unable to access before that time. In my 20s, any option was a good option to break free of the exhausting battle. I remember feeling deflated that I woke up in ICU, a failure even in trying to end my life. In my 40s, I thank God for not having been offered help to end my life and always encouragement that others depended on me to live and live well. Now, I have beautiful children, an incredibly patient and loving husband and LIFE. Once, I never thought I could say that. I have life and am more than my damaged mind. I am terribly sad that this young woman, whose living hell I am not trying to minimise, did not have the opportunity to know that there was more.” (Gabrielle – on the Women’s Bioethics Alliance Facebook page)
“At my worst, I remember feeling an almost ‘logical’ desire to commit suicide … Now I see that thinking as one of the tricks that PTSD plays on you, that you start to think suffering is the only path and death doesn’t seem so bad … For three decades this option would have been a gift to me, not a punishment. I’m immensely grateful that this was not an option because I’m starting to enjoy living.” (“RuthieJujube”)
“PTSD is not a ‘mental illness’ we are born with. You take a perfectly healthy person/child and expose them to unspeakable horror and they develop PTSD. We were each born healthy and we owe it to ourselves to find the way back to our core self – before we were hurt. Call me whatever but I still have hope for each and every one of us. We deserve it. Suicide lets them win … What heals PTSD sufferers is connection, safety, and community.
“The world needs PTSD survivors. Yes, I contend that it needs us. Think about a world where people could be traumatized and then get help to end their lives as a solution to the deep wounds and costs of that trauma. That’s not good for society as a whole … Many movements to end traumatic things on this planet were started, if not led, by people who had survived trauma and were forever changed by it … But by making it legal for doctors to help we would be sanctioning it as a society and saying ‘this is ok’ and we can’t afford the deep cost of sending that message. It’s not just about adults who have been traumatized, but kids too. They need to grow up in a world where we will fight to protect them, not send the unintentional message that their life is not worth living if they are shaken to the core by trauma. We need to send the message that their life matters, period.” (“Justmehere“)
The suffering of women and children is perpetrated in a culture which too often overlooks the violence against them. The State, rather than dealing with the offences, properly punishing abuses, providing every care for survivors, instead may offer them an individual way out of a problem it has helped tacitly to facilitate. It becomes a personal rather than a collective problem. How is it that so many men can continue to abuse so many little girls in a global avalanche of sexual abuse? How is this not everyone’s problem?
Is death the best we can offer? Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie and the many others like them need to hear: Stay here with us. We will help you, not with a needle, but with everything you need to become well.
Last week I was one of 12 panelists on the ABC2 program ‘Australians on Porn’. I’d had my hesitations about participating, the producers assured me of fair treatment and a serious discussion how porn was shaping sexual attitudes and behaviours. What transpired was a wank fest and sex industry promotion. We saw and heard from a number of porn performers, representing the vested interests of the industry – but there were no women speaking of how they were harmed in the industry and had got out.
The main takeout for me: do not dare stand in the way of a man’s entitlement to ejaculate to whatever he wants. My attempts to raise critical issues of sexism, rape, violence, and misogyny perpetuated in the most popular porn genres were shouted down. I was mocked for mentioning the ethics of using porn when the woman on the screen may have been trafficked. No one cared. Probably my lowest moment in an hour of low moments was when the ‘sexologist’ Jacqueline Hellyer tried to prevent me from reading this letter from the director of a sexual assault clinic. “It’s not relevant!”, she declared. I was also told to stop talking about facts.
I am the Director a Sexual Violence counselling service and totally agree with your article. In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, believing women are “up for it” 24/7, ascribing to the myth that ” no means yes and yes means anal “, oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture , drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent. I founded the centre 25 years ago and what is now considered to be the norm in 2015 is frightening. I wonder where we will be in another 10 years!
This photo of host Tom Tilley on a porn set with two porn actresses (the one on the left a panelist on the show), may suggest why it was expecting too much to be given fair treatment. Looks like he had a good time anyway.
Laura McNally wrote this assessment of the program published today on ABC Religion and Ethics.
Inconvenient Facts: Why Would the ABC Airbrush Porn’s Complicity in Sexual Violence?
While it may not be as readily accessible as porn, the research on porn is nonetheless abundant.
Yet, according to Australians on Porn host Tom Tilley, “How many people end up in extreme situations? … there isn’t a lot of research out there to prove that.” Read more
Laura Pintur, also a panellist on the show, wrote this piece published also on ABC Religion and Ethics a short time earlier.
The ABC Squandered its Chance to Host the Discussion on Porn We Need to Have
When I was first asked to join the panel for ABC2′s Australians on Porn program, which aired last Monday night, I was pleased to see a mainstream and respected show like Triple J Hack initiate a debate on the impacts of pornography on Australians – especially its youth demographic.
However, as it turned out, the show was heavily weighted towards the pro-porn camp, with porn consumers, a porn “star” and porn producers dominating the program. Other porn actors appeared in sex scenes in videos along with more porn consumers.
While there were a couple of guys who felt porn hadn’t always been good for them, overall porn was treated as a laugh and the seriousness of the issue trivialised.
Its major focus centred around the use of porn by “mature adults,” and failed to highlight and discuss the issues with the younger generations.
ABC2′s publicity stated that the purpose of the show was to “lift the lid on the commodification of sex.” It certainly confirmed that sex has become an accepted commodity – nothing new there! But did it lift the lid? Did it accurately look at the “costs, the consequences and impact on attitude to sex” as was promised? Read more
The only positive has been the many comments critical of the program on TripleJHack’s Facebook pages and the messages of support I have received personally. And this posted by a 19-year-old (who happens to be my daughter):
“The realisation that on issues related to poverty and sexual exploitation, there is no solidarity from Australian feminists…
“…I had wrongly assumed that those leading the charge against sexism would examine how ethnocentrism and economic disparity have created and maintained conditions, policies and norms under which exploitation of women is inevitable.”
“Yet an expanding sex trade only results in more women trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence. Rather than opening up new opportunities, women in the sex trade are far less likely to live to see 40 years of age due to the violence, illness and disease to which the johns expose them…”
“Vulnerable women’s voices are blocked out of feminist media in order to preference a few wealthy women in the Australian industry”
“I’ve come to realise that if anyone couldn’t care less about the countless Asian girls being exploited at home and abroad, it is Australian feminists.”
Amber Rose’s Slutwalk is the natural pinnacle of Slutwalk
“The kids of Slutwalk readily embraced anti-feminist stereotypes of second wavers and chose to distance themselves from the movement, selling out for media coverage and male support. And where did it get us? Well, you see young, privileged women today advocating for prostitution and pornography as liberated choices for women using the same language the Slutwalkers did: “My body my choice!” “I do what I want, fuck yeah!” You see efforts to encourage men to vote against Stephen Harper by offering blow jobs or exchanging nude photos for votes. “Sluts Against Harper” [NSFW — feel free to report this Instagram account for pornography] is direct evidence of Slutwalk’s impact on young people’s understanding of politics today. All women can offer, in terms of advocating for change, are their objectified bodies. While leftist men have long encouraged women’s subordinate status, only considering men’s liberation and equality something worth fighting for, it’s new for self-described “feminists” to glom on to this blatant sexism.
The neoliberal, self-centered, enormously deluded notion that if women simply “choose” objectification or commodification, it becomes empowering, now underpins mainstream feminism. We seem to have fully embraced the idea that “reclaiming” misogyny and making it our own is the best we can do. While it’s clear to those of us in the movement that this is anything but feminism, those engaged don’t see it that way, nor does the media. “
Now and then you see a documentary that stops you in your tracks. ‘Escape from ISIS. The story of the secret underground network rescuing women held captive’ which screened last week on ABC 4Corners, is one such piece of filmmaking. I’ve watched it three times now. Please watch this film – see the suffering of the women, the way they are traded by ISIS fighters – even little girls treated as the spoils of war. But see also the bravery of those who devote their every waking moment to rescuing them. Hold your breath as a large group of women and children, having walked for two days out of ISIS territory, are embraced by those who arranged their rescuer. And see their guide, deliver them safely, then walk back into ISIS controlled lands to do the same again. Click below to watch the full Four Corners episode:
Please watch it and think about the plight of the persecuted, unwanted, stateless Rohingya peoples, trafficked, sold, taken hostage for ransom (there already destitute families give what little they have and when the money runs out their loved ones are murdered), raped – often to death. This undercover investigation shows how Thai authorities are complicit in their trafficking from Burma and their suffering in Thai jungle camps. I’m trying to find out if our Government is doing anything to pressure the Thai Government to investigate their killings. And of course we should be offering sanctuary here, there is no question they are fleeing persecution.
Maybe next time there could be an exhibition for survivors like me?
Last month a new exhibition – X-Rated; the sex industry in the ACT – opened at the Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG).
The exhibition is funded by the ACT Government and the Interchange General Practice.
It is of particular interest to me as I spent some years exploited as a prostitute in Canberra in the 1990’s. I wanted to see how an industry that I have firsthand knowledge and experience of would be depicted within an art gallery.
I wondered if it would it be an honest and realistic insight into what actually happens.
I left the exhibition after 20 minutes, feeling sick and numb.
I went home and cried.
I cried because of the ignorance of those putting this exhibition together.
I cried because the exhibition was one sided – it clearly had an agenda to glamorise the sex industry.
I cried because there was no story of a survivor of the sex industry.
And I cried because some of the images caused disturbing memories to come flooding back – memories that I have spent 20 years healing from. In 20 minutes I went back to that horrible time in my life.
Anyone who has experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will understand my experience that day.
The exhibition includes photos of several brothels from across Canberra. I had done time in just about all the brothels on show.
Working in a brothel is not like any other job. It’s unbelievably stressful . You don’t generally have any other options for earning money, so poverty is a main driver. It’s hard on your body, hard on your mind and hard on your overall wellbeing.
You tend to not be able to stay more than a few months in one place.
I was 17 when I first started work in a Canberra brothel. The owner knew I was underage and was fine with it. He knew the younger I looked, the more desirable I would be to punters and the more money I would make for him. There was no duty of care toward me.
Seeing pictures of these brothels brought back to me the many violations that were done to me. The pressure to do anal sex, the extra money offered to go condom free, the drugs offered in lieu of money, group sex with a football team who treated me like a piece of meat, the call-outs to hotels where I had no idea who I would encounter and the guys who wanted to dominate me –happy to rough me up to get what they want.
There was also a very large photo of a peep show booth – which is the small black room where men sit alone. They insert coins to make a flap open for them to view a live strip show. The man is unseen by the woman – he leers at her while masturbating into a tissue and calling out vulgar instructions.
It is a pretty degrading experience. I know because I experienced it.
The exhibition shows a range of photos showing stills from porn movies. Many show women receiving oral sex from an attentive man, with the woman depicted with her back arched and her head thrown back in pleasure.
This is nothing more than glamorising the sex industry, where the man paying for the service has the power.
A woman is normally the one with a dick shoved in her mouth, while a john holds her head still, ‘encouraging’ her to deep throat.
The reality is that in prostitution your vagina is rubbed raw from all the johns you have serviced; often so painful after a particularly aggressive john that you have to use numbing gel to keep working. And all the while expected to like a porn star as though the overweight public servant on top of you is the greatest fuck you’ve ever had.
I was not surprised that the Interchange General Practice would fund this exhibition as it was always the place to get a script for drugs if you weren’t coping or to get an STD check signed off on the spot. But for the ACT Government to be funding the exhibition – with the people’s taxes – is appalling.
Is our government in the business of keeping vulnerable women supressed and making a buck from their hardship, happy to make money on the registration and taxation of these businesses? Do our elected representatives really have no problem supporting something that so degrading to women?
It seems that it has bought into the ridiculous lie that the selling of time share on you vagina is a really good thing for everyone.
The exhibition blatantly glamorises the sex industry.
There was nothing from survivors, nothing showing the sordid, abusive and damaging elements of this industry, it was just presented as an interesting look at the history of the industry.
In writing this piece, painful though it is, I want to give voice to all the survivors who were ignored and disappeared by this exhibition. Maybe next time there could be an exhibition for survivors like me.
*Name suppressed by request
Sex industry’s cultural celebration of female sexual exploitation in the ACT
Dr Caroline Norma
The Canberra Museum and Gallery obviously called in a range of favours to stage its latest exhibition. The ACT’s most successful pornography distributor, Robbie Swan, gave it access to his private collection of sex industry memorabilia; a local Canberra medical centre formerly undertaking STD checks on women in prostitution supplied corporate sponsorship, and the commonwealth Censorship Board conferred the exhibition with a ratings classification.
The resulting ‘X-rated: The Sex Industry in the ACT’ production pays homage to the business of prostitution and pornography in the Territory: the venues, products and operating environment of the sex industry are showcased in glass-boxed exhibits featuring brothel photos, pornographic video covers, industry magazines and government whitepapers.
The pimps and pornographers whose financial interests drive the sex industry, and the sexual interests of the customers who supply their income stream, are mostly the authors of the perspective that shapes the exhibition.
The industry’s hard-fought battles in throwing off government ‘repression’ and ‘censorship’ are narrated in great detail, as are its trials and tribulations in achieving brothel legalisation in the Territory. There are humorous anecdotes about a sex industry association running a brothel ‘open day’ fundraiser in 1992 for World AIDS Day, and a pornographer applying for a government export development grant.
Declines in the industry’s $34-million-dollar turnover in the 1990s are lamented; the internet, and the fact that police don’t raid illegal pornography sellers, are blamed. Stories about profit-making and industry deregulation are the threads that run through the sex industry’s exhibited history of its operations in the ACT.
Amidst the industry’s alternating self-congratulation and self-pity, exhibition goers are led to forget how pimps and pornographers actually make their money, and what cost Canberra residents continue to pay for their commercial activities. The exhibition mentions these costs only briefly: the rape and sexual enslavement of Thai woman ‘SK’ in a Braddon apartment in 2007, the death of 17-year-old Janine Cameron in a Fyshwick brothel in 2008, and the arson attacks on legal brothels in 2010 and 2012 are cited in a far-off corner of the room.
The fact that ACT Police failed to undertake checks of any sex industry venue in the Territory for a period of five years in the early 2000s, and reports that a Canberra pimp estimated 20 women were being brought into the ACT for prostitution each week in 2014, do not warrant a mention.
Public funding of the Canberra Museum and Gallery appears to have given no pause to the curator in compiling an exhibition that showcases the private business achievements of an industry that wreaks havoc on the lives of the citizens it exploits and the communities it infiltrates. Indeed, from the exhibition’s design, it’s not entirely clear Rowan Henderson brought with her any awareness of the human rights violations that fundamentally underpin the business of prostitution and pornography. Her glass boxes offer evidence of the sex industry’s abuses openly and unselfconsciously, and entirely uncritically. Exhibits are blithely presented as merely part of the industry’s spectacle, as if they couldn’t possibly pose any ethical challenge to visiting patrons.
One exhibit, for example, describes the sexual use of an Aboriginal woman, ‘Regina’, in the production of a pornographic film ‘The passion of the Canberra brickworks’ in the early 1990s. Another presents the first-hand testimony of a woman named Nikki Stern that poverty and pressure from her boyfriend caused her entry into prostitution and subsequent use in pornography. A few other exhibits narrate the fact pornographers from countries like the US and Germany flew into Canberra immediately after the industry was legalised and brought women with them for filming.
Patrons are confronted with no ethical challenges arising from the exhibition’s inclusion of women who have been used in Canberra’s sex industry. There is no mention of how their lives ended up after years of being pimped and made into pornography; in fact, the exhibition features close-range photographs inside brothels showing women’s faces clearly in colour.
For museum curators and others in the creative arts, making a public spectacle out of the sex industry and its activities might be a titillating and curiosity-satisfying endeavour performed in service of the leisure and entertainment needs of middle-class people who have never been homeless, exploited or destitute. They will never be held to account by the sex industry victims they put on show.
Victims don’t have a platform allocated at the Canberra Museum and Gallery from which to speak back to the sex industry’s six-month long, government-funded public assertion of its historical legitimacy in the ACT. Their suffering, humiliation, physical and psychological pain, and lost sense of self are nowhere explained in Henderson’s exhibition, and their murders, suicides and overdoses are almost wholly undescribed.
Museum curators, along with their patronising publics, are never confronted with the human toll the sex industry inflicts on society’s most vulnerable people. Exhibitions like that currently spruiked by the Canberra Museum and Gallery supplant this reality with a predictable stream of comforting propaganda about the sex industry’s flamboyant history, colourful characters and whimsical endeavours.
The sex industry exhibition runs till September this year, and so for a full six months the Canberra Museum and Gallery will be giving cultural endorsement to female sexual exploitation in the Territory. This endorsement will forever stand in the Museum’s own history as an act of betrayal of the ACT’s most vulnerable women and girls. I hope this history is one day narrated in an exhibition where the sex industry’s victims are finally able to respond to elite cultural celebration of their degradation; then we will see many curators, creative producers and artists ducking for cover.
Dr Caroline Norma is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.
On Wednesday at Readings bookstore in Carlton, Melbourne, I’ll be emceeing the launch and Q&A for Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism (Connor Court publishing) a collected of 20 authors edited by writer and law tutor Miranda Kiraly and writer and RMIT research fellow Meagan Tyler. Last week I published an extract from the book’s introduction. Today, as promised, is another extract, titled ‘I do what I want, fuck yeah!’: moving beyond ‘a woman’s choice’ by Canadian feminist and blogger Meghan Murphy whose work I’ve been privileged to publish here at MTR quite a few times.
‘A woman’s choice’ is, without a doubt, a central tenet of feminist discourse. Creating options and choices – real choices – for women, not simply the illusion of choice within the very narrow confines of capitalist patriarchy, is a fundamental and appropriate goal for the feminist movement. But what we’ve seen evolve from that notion over the past 20 years is something of a different beast.
The ‘I do what I want, fuck yeah!’ ethos of ’90s riot grrrl feminism, which some attribute as the beginnings of the third wave, is appealing, especially to younger women. It can feel very empowering to imagine you are throwing off society’s chains, embracing and rejecting, all at once, restrictive, misogynist labels such as ‘slut’ and ‘whore’, as Bikini Kill lead singer, Kathleen Hanna famously did, taking off her top at her shows, to reveal the word ‘slut’ written across her stomach. Before Hanna, Madonna became a feminist icon of sorts during the ’80s in a similar way, embracing ‘sexy’ clothing and imagery. She was seen as representative of a woman taking control of her sexuality and using her femininity to gain power. But while this kind of reclaiming of traditionally sexist or male-defined imagery and language might feel temporarily liberating, the question of whether, for example, we can ‘reclaim’ the word ‘slut’ or make sexualisation or objectification our own, simply by choosing to, is less straightforward.
In 2011, a Canadian police officer suggested to students at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto that ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised’. These comments instigated the first ‘SlutWalk’ march, which took place in Toronto on 3 April 2011. The marches spread around the world to places such as Las Vegas, Melbourne, Bhopal, and Sao Paulo. ‘SlutWalk’ was heralded as the third wave incarnation of Take Back the Night. A blogger for Ms. Magazine wrote about the march that took place in Los Angeles in 2012: ‘It’s that third wave-y feel – that individualistic empowerment – that has made “SlutWalk” popular among young women,’ adding that the marches were ‘less emotionally intense than anti-rape rallies such as Take Back the Night, “SlutWalk” is more for spectacle.’ This is a pretty accurate assessment, but ‘popularity’ and a lighter message do not necessarily translate into ‘better’, when it comes to radical movements.
Rather than focusing on attacking male violence against women and rape culture, the marches seemed performative, and prioritised media attention. From the outset there was a focus on personal, individual notions of empowerment and the ‘right’ to wear sexy clothing – that ‘I do what I want, fuck yeah!’ mantra dominated. Performing to the male gaze was positioned as a positive thing, so long as women were choosing objectification.
It didn’t take long before the marches began promoting the sex industry as an empowering personal choice for women, many of them actively advocating for the legalisation of prostitution. In New York City, the march featured lingerie-wearing pole dancers, and ‘SlutWalk’ Las Vegas created a slogan that described ‘sex work’ as something women enjoyed: ‘Slut isn’t a look, it’s an attitude. And whether you enjoy sex for pleasure or work, it’s never an invitation to violence.’ What was erased by ‘SlutWalk’s focus on ‘choice’ and personal empowerment was the context within which women make ‘choices’, particularly with regard to their ‘choice’ to work in the sex industry or to ‘self-objectify’, whether in a strip club, on Instagram, or on the street.
In 2011, ‘SlutWalk’ organisers in Washington DC planned a fundraiser at a strip club. From a feminist perspective, the idea of holding a fundraiser for a supposedly feminist event in a place that exists to further entrench the image of women as sexy objects that exist for male pleasure seemed odd, to say the least. When challenged, the organisers responded: ‘This is a non-judgmental movement that embraces all choices a woman wishes to make.’ But what does that mean, exactly? Are we so ‘supportive’ of ‘women’s choices’ that we are incapable of understanding and being critical of the context of sexism and classism that might lead women to ‘choose’ to work in a strip club? And that, rather than criticising ‘women’s choices’ when we challenge the sex industry, we are actually challenging male power and men’s choices to objectify and exploit women for their own pleasure/ gain and an economy that fails to offer women opportunities to make a decent living that does not involve stripping, prostitution, or pornography.
In the face of severe lack of choice, ‘SlutWalk’ opted, not to push back, but to simply reframe the conversation. ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ was the message; as though if we can convince women (and society at large) that the sex industry can empower them, or if a few individual women claim they enjoy their work as strippers or escorts, then everything will be fine.
In the face of ongoing and virulent misogyny, sexual harassment, rape culture, porn culture, and violence against women, liberal feminism and the third wave seem to have taken the easy route, focusing on ‘choice’ and personal identity rather than confronting the root of the problem…
Of late, it has become standard to talk about ‘choice’ in terms of individual choice rather than collective choice (and collective freedom), as though ‘my choice’ could not possibly affect anyone in the world except me. And, as though ‘her choice’ can somehow negate any justifiable criticism or questioning of said choice or the context within which said choice was made. Used in this context, it is a way a shutting down the conversation. And where would feminism be (and where will it go) without conversation and critique? We can be critical of choices without actually shaming women. We need to think critically about our choices if we are to understand and challenge the larger systems of power that impact our choices.
In the face of ongoing and virulent misogyny, sexual harassment, rape culture, porn culture, and violence against women, liberal feminism and the third wave seem to have taken the easy route, focusing on ‘choice’ and personal identity rather than confronting the root of the problem…
Many critics do see this ‘anything goes’/‘I do what I want’ mantra as being one the more significant weaknesses of the third wave, and of ‘postfeminist’ discourse; and while this attitude is not universally applicable to the entire wave, it certainly seems to have built considerable momentum. Does anything and everything count as ‘feminist’ just because we choose it?
While making choices for ourselves can most certainly be empowering, and while I would never advocate against a woman’s right to choose to wear stilettos, take her husband’s name in marriage, or even to sell sex, that she can or does make this choice does not equate to ‘feminism’. To make a choice for oneself – no matter how good or strong or fulfilled it might make us feel – does not necessarily advance the rights or status of women globally and it does not push back against the system of patriarchy. While feeling good is great, it does not constitute political change. In other words, feminism is a movement, not a self-help book.
… individual choices, divorced from that context, do not equate to feminist acts. Beyond that, the fetishisation of individual choice actually erases that context and the fact that patriarchy is a system of power. If we pretend that a woman’s choice to, say, get breast augmentation surgery is a feminist choice because it is a woman who is making that choice, we ignore the context behind that choice – objectification, body-hatred, capitalism, porn culture – all things that contribute to the oppression of women as a whole.
Conveniently for capitalism and patriarchy, if any choice a woman makes is viewed as liberating or ‘feminist’, she can even ‘choose’ to support both systems and no one has the right to challenge her. In ‘choice feminism’, if a woman ‘chooses’ to produce pornography which, in turn, contributes to the oppression and objectification, not only of the women acting in pornography, but of women as a class and contributes to the billion-dollar pornography industry, her choice remains untouchable because she is a woman making a choice that empowers her. Maybe she even identifies as a feminist! Even better. Now pornography is feminist – just like that.
Famous burlesque performer, Dita Von Teese, is quoted as saying, in defence of critics who call her act disempowering for women: ‘How can it be disempowering when I’m up there for seven minutes and I’ve just made $20 000? I feel pretty powerful.’ This statement embodies the problem with today’s ‘choice feminism’, making ‘power’ about the individual at the expense of others. Beyond that, if money is the primary basis upon which we decide what empowers women and what does not, we are in danger of colluding with a system that is responsible for the exploitation and oppression of millions of people worldwide. If women are compensated in exchange for their objectified bodies or in exchange for sex acts, that doesn’t actually challenge the sexist ideas behind that objectification and exploitation. We’re left in the same position we started, despite the fact that Von Teese can buy a few more pairs of Louboutins.
‘Choice’, and the feminist context within which it was born, has been co-opted by dominant systems and the ideology of liberal feminism, and they have made it their own. We are now being told what choice and freedom looks like by those who have no particular interest in feminism or in ending gendered oppression. Those systems are the ones who tell us that being radical, or revolutionary or feminist even, is bad. That we will be picked on and attacked if we ask for too much or the wrong kind of freedom and empowerment. They offer us their version of choice, and tell us that empowerment is easily available to us – it’s just got to be pleasant. And sexy. And, hey guess what! We don’t even need the feminist movement anymore! We can ‘choose’ to objectify ourselves now because we are free. Slap an ‘empowering’ label on it and voilà! It’s freedom and everyone else needs to shut up because ‘it’s a choice’.
Well, no. It isn’t as simple as that. Feminism is about resisting patriarchy, not about being able to just join in. We don’t ‘win’ because we can act in oppressive ways just as men do. When we argue either that sexism will happen with or without us, so we may as well participate and make the best of it, or that if women can profit financially, this will somehow erase sexism. Presenting a radical challenge to patriarchy is not just going along with it, it is not being told by Girls Gone Wild producers what freedom looks like or that because one woman is getting rich from strip shows we are all, consequently, emancipated.
Choice without politics or theory behind it doesn’t hold power. ‘Choice’ at the expense of others – particularly the marginalised – is not radical nor does it promote equality. ‘Choosing’ to objectify ourselves, for example, is not what our second wave sisters meant when they fought for the ‘right to choose’. And empowerment, through choice, was never intended to be about individual women, but rather about empowerment on a large scale, and freedom from oppression for all marginalised people…
‘Many women are reasserting that feminism is a necessary social movement for the equality and liberation of all women, not just platitudes about choices for some’
Editor, writer and law tutor Miranda Kiraly and writer and RMIT research fellow Meagan Tyler, have a new and timely book out. It’s called Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism (Connor Court publishing) which brings together 20 authors discussing the limits to the ‘pop feminist’ approach to freedom for women and its failure to change the status quo. The contributors, state the book’s back cover blurb, “confront the dangers of reducing feminism to a debate about personal choice, and offer the possibility of change through collective action”.
I was delighted to be asked by Miranda and Meagan (who wrote the excellent chapter ‘Pornography as Sexual Authority: How Sex Therapy Promotes the Pornification of Sexuality’ for Big Porn Inc– edited by me and Dr. Abigail Bray and published by Spinifex Press ) to emcee the May 20 launch and Q and A event at Readings Carlton (Vic). In the lead up, here’s an extract from the book’s introduction. I’ll also publish an extract from Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy’s chapter ‘I do what I want, fuck yeah!: moving beyond “a woman’s choice”’, in the next few days.
Miranda Kiraly and Meagan Tyler
Something is happening. For all the talk of a ‘postfeminist’ era over the last decade, there are now ever-increasing signs of a feminist resurgence. The visibility of feminist activism has led everyone from female singers and celebrities, to male political leaders, to start talking about the f-word, and even to start claiming the label ‘feminist’ for themselves. Something is definitely happening but what, exactly, is it?
With the rising tide of interest in all things feminist, there has been a rush to promote a popular brand of ‘feminism-lite’ or ‘fun feminism’ that does not offend or overtly threaten existing power structures. The mainstreaming of the feminist brand has left ‘feminism’ as little more than a sticker that anyone and everyone can now apply, largely because it has lost all sense of intellectual rigour or political challenge. This version of populist feminism embodies notions of empowerment, choice, and the individual above all else. It has been shaped, primarily, by liberal feminism, and the contributors in this volume also refer to it as third wave feminism, popular feminism, or choice feminism.
Individualism lies at the heart of liberal feminism, championing the benefits of ‘choice’ and the possibility that freedom is within reach, or occasionally, that it already exists should women choose to claim it. It also pushes – sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly – the fallacy that substantive equality has already been achieved and that the pursuit of opportunity lies solely in women’s hands. Liberal feminism has helped recast women’s liberation as an individual and private struggle, rather than one which acknowledges the systemic shortcomings of existing systems of power and privilege that continue to hold women back, as a class. Women’s liberation has been reduced to a series of personal statements about whether women like or dislike particular aspects of themselves or their lives.
This problem is not new. In 1990, contributors to The Sexual Liberalsand the Attack on Feminism bemoaned essentially the same thing: that ‘feminism’ had moved from a critique of – and collective resistance to – patriarchal oppression, towards an individualised, liberal model of ‘choice’. Indeed, Catharine MacKinnon, in a piece titled ‘Liberalism and the Death of Feminism’, for that collection, posited that liberalism is the very antithesis of a movement for women’s liberation. As she put it:
Where feminism was collective, liberalism is individualist … Where feminism is socially based and critical, liberalism is naturalistic, attributing the product of women’s oppression to women’s natural sexuality, making it ‘ours’. Where feminism criticises the ways in which women have been socially determined in an attempt to change that determination, liberalism is voluntaristic, meaning it acts like we have choices that we do not have. Where feminism is based on material reality, liberalism is based on some ideal realm in the head. And where feminism is relentlessly political, about power and powerlessness, the best that can be mustered by this nouveau movement is a watered down form of moralism: this is good, this is bad, no analysis of power of powerlessness at all.
These comparisons seem just as relevant and compelling as when they were first published, some 25 years ago. Many of our contributors pick up these issues again and consider them in the current context; a context in which the kinds of liberal feminism that MacKinnon was critical of have taken centre stage and seem to have become, in the coverage of much of the mainstream media, the be all and end all of feminist thought.
As Natalie Jovanovski notes in her chapter, it should not be surprising that liberal feminism has risen to prominence. It is generally seen to be less threatening to the status quo and reassures mainstream audiences that feminists are not a scary ‘other’. But far from occupying some middle ground of inoffensiveness, the emphasis on ‘choice’ in much liberal feminist writing is actually rather extreme. It strips women’s lives of context and makes it sound as though our ‘choices’ are made in a political and cultural vacuum. Each of our contributors, therefore, seeks to talk about the importance of power, context and culture, rather than individual choice and agency alone. Understanding and acknowledging the environment of women’s inequality goes to the heart of what is meant by the ‘freedom fallacy’ of this collection’s title. That is, there can be no freedom, no liberation, when the available choices are only constructed on the basis of gross inequity. More ‘choice’, or even a greater ability to choose, does not necessarily mean greater freedom.
Amid this dominance of liberal feminist orthodoxy, resistance is forming among a wide range of women. There is even talk of an emerging ‘fourth wave’ of feminism breaking in the United Kingdom and the United States; a movement that seeks to engage collective action and to address structural inequality, subjugation, and exploitation of women and girls, often at a grassroots level. Media outlets are struggling to conceptualise this emerging wave of feminism, and continue to attempt to simplistically slot it into a left–right, or generational, divide. Like many feminist movements before it, this new wave does not comfortably fit the mould of traditional politics, because it recognises that women’s interests have been neglected across the political spectrum. As a result, there is a wide variety of criticism that we have been able to draw on for this collection. What unites our contributors in this book is not a single perspective – there is a range of different feminist positions included – but rather, a unified belief that liberation cannot be found at a purely individual level, nor can it be forged from adapting to, or simply accepting, existing conditions of oppression.
Hopefully, if you have picked up this book, you already recognise the systemic conditions of women’s inequality… women still face unbearably high levels of sexual violence and millions of women around the world do not even have the limited protection that marital rape law affords. Activists are still fighting all around the world for the rights of girls and women not to be mutilated and exploited. Pornography and the trafficking of women and girls are booming global businesses trading primarily in sexual exploitation. Our contributors write about these injustices as existing on a continuum … each shap[ing] women’s social, cultural, political and material subordination.
…[A]ctivities which were once held up as the archetypes of women’s subordinate status are now held up as liberating personal ‘choices’. Sexual harassment becomes reframed as harmless banter that women can enjoy too. … Labiaplasty becomes a useful cosmetic enhancement. Pornography becomes sexual liberation. Sexual objectification becomes a barometer of self-worth.
…This collection aims to challenge the limits of key liberal feminist concepts and to critique the idea that it is possible to find freedom simply by exercising ‘choice’ in a world in which women, as a class, are still not considered to be of fully equal human worth to men.
While Time magazine may be questioning whether or not feminism is still needed in 2015, prominent figures from previous waves of the women’s liberation movement are certain it is desperately needed now, perhaps even more than in previous decades. As Germaine Greer recently declared: ‘Liberation hasn’t happened …Things have got a lot worse for women since I wrote The Female Eunuch.’ It is in recognition of the deep-seated problems that we still face, that several of our contributors emphasise the need for collective action to again be at the heart of feminist activism. This is crucially important and has been sidelined in popular discussions about whether or not certain women are ‘bad feminists’, or make acceptably feminist ‘choices’. This simply operates to blame individual women for their circumstances instead of casting light on the issues of structural and material inequality that affect women as a class.
…We wanted to include new voices to sit alongside contributions from those with longstanding experience and more established platforms. The inclusion of a number of women, relatively new to the movement, represents, in part, the fact that there is indeed something happening, and that there is a need for us to challenge the prevailing liberal feminist standard. It also illustrates the point made by Finn Mackay, in her chapter on the supposed generational division between second wave and third wave feminists, that chronology and age have little to contribute to enhancing our understandings of feminist theory and action. Instead, it is a question of ideology that distinguishes the different branches of feminist thought and action.
…This book is best understood as a radical challenge to the dominance of liberal feminist discourse in the public sphere. For some of our contributors this is imperative because, as they understand it, the liberal feminist model does not represent small steps in the right direction, but rather actively inhibits real change. For others, liberal feminism can still be seen to have made some contribution to the women’s liberation movement. As Andrea Dworkin once quipped: ‘I do think liberal feminists bear responsibility for a lot of what’s gone wrong,’ but she also added, ‘I have a really strong belief that any movement needs both radicals and liberals. You always need women who can walk into the room in the right way, talk in the right tone of voice, who have access to power. But you also need a bottom line.’ We hope that this book demonstrates the limits of the liberal feminist approach and the importance of reinforcing that bottom line.
Miranda Kiraly is an editor, writer and law tutor from Melbourne, Australia. She has authored publications on law and politics, including ‘Bittersweet Charity’ in Really Dangerous Ideas (Connor Court, 2013) and ‘Where Does the Private Domain Start and the Public End’ in Turning Left and Right: Values in Modern Politics (Connor Court, 2013). Miranda previously worked in federal politics as a speechwriter and researcher. From 2009–2013, she was a leading discussant for the Liberal Book Club.
Meagan Tyler is a vice-chancellor’s research fellow at RMIT University, Australia. Her research focuses on the social construction of gender and sexuality. Her work has been published in Rural Studies, Women’s Studies International Forum and Women and Therapy as well as several edited collections, including Everyday Pornography (Routledge, 2010) and Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality (Ashgate, 2012). Meagan is also the author of Selling Sex Short: The Pornographic and Sexological Construction of Women’s Sexuality in the West (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011).
Launched this week in Ireland, ‘Prostitution – We Don’t Buy It’ is an Irish movement organised by The Reach Project, encouraging men not to buy prostituted women. The new movement was launched by Tom Meagher, bereaved husband of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher who was murdered in September 2012 by serial predator and rapist Adrian Bayley, who was then out on parole. With Meagher at the event was sex industry survivor Rachel Moran, author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution (Spinifex Press 2013).
Discussing the men who purchase sex and the lies they tell themselves, Meagher said:
Two years ago I read this document from an interview with a man who had repeatedly and very violently raped a number of prostitutes in Australia. His answer to the question, ‘Why did you do this?’ was ‘I paid for her, I can do what I want with her.’
Ten years later that man was out on parole and raped and murdered my wife.
Hear Tom Meagher and Rachel Moran at the launch (via Irish Video News):
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Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
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