Friday, December 15, 2006

Hyenas in Petticoats

Today's image comes courtesy of the fabulous Jacky Fleming and is called 'Never Give Up.'

Tomorrow, I'm jaunting up to London to see an exhibition on prostitution at the Women's Library. The exhibition is called: Prostitution - What's Going On? (it's an awful title, but I can understand that it was probably very hard to name) and it examines the issues surrounding prostitution and trafficking, in the past and the present. I have always wanted to visit the Women's Library, so I'm really looking forward to it, and in addition, I'm going there with my best feminist friend, Shon.

One of the sections of the exhibition that I am most looking forward to is some work completed by a group of young women exploited through prostitution, which Kit Kat's project was involved in. I know that for many prostitution is an unpopular subject, but it is also one of the most commonly misunderstood issues in our society, or indeed, the history of our society.

I know also that this exhibition may not be to everyone's tastes, but worry ye not, that's why you have me - to visit the parts of culture others flinch from. I'm the cultural correspondent on the edge, on the streets, on the edge of the streets sometimes when I'm feeling particularly, er, edgy. I'll be lecturing all about it when I get back...

To me, the interesting thing about prostitution from a sociological point of view is what any discussion of the topic reveals about our beliefs on sex (biological) and gender, and sexuality. My beliefs on the subject are underpinned by my long-standing thinking as a feminist, and this exhibition comes at a particularly poignant time, given the horrific murders taking place in Ipswich and the huge attention that is given to the fact that the women being murdered are prostitutes.

Go back to the reports on the Yorkshire Ripper, (hell, while you're there, go back further to Jack the Ripper if you want to) and the rhetoric remains the same as that surrounding the Ipswich killer. What rhetoric, Sarah? Well...
  • When prostitutes are being killed, it's different somehow from 'normal' women (are we really saying 'good' women?)
  • There are repeated warnings for ALL women to 'be careful,' this often accompanies clearer calls to action for women, including don't go out alone, don't engage in dangerous behaviour (which means deviant behaviour, and includes having too much sex, being sexually aggressive or 'asking for it', wearing short skirts, drinking - oh, and especially, it means being a prostitute).
  • There are also repeated reports of how the prosititute 'community' (as if they have an official professional association that feeds them press releases and codes of practice) are repeatedly behaving 'dangerously', many of which reports say just about everything they can without actually saying 'she was asking for it.'
  • There is a subtext that the killer is a monster, not a man. This was the biggest mistake made with Peter Sutcliffe and countless serial rapists: an underlying belief that the suspect will be somehow 'obviously' deviant.

It's as if we have a problem understanding that this is the behaviour of one guy - he's probably married (sorry ring-wearers, but statistically, your favourite institution is often home to some of the major forms of deviance that western civilisation has on offer. That's why we say 'keeping it in the family' and 'behind closed doors'), average, and dull; an unsurprising little freakazoid, one pathetic little man.

He'll be the kind of guy you stand next to in the queue at the supermarket, he opens the door for you at the library, you see him every day at work - and here's the clincher, you'll never have suspected a thing. This isn't as controversial as it sounds, think about it - if serial killers and rapists were easily recognisable monsters, I think we'd find them more easily.

There's another contradiction in the rhetoric, too, because if it's the fact that the killer targets prostitutes that distinguishes these murders, why are the police telling all women not to go out alone?

Now the nights are dark, I think about the 'Ipswich Ripper' every day, when I walk home alone from work. That's how powerful we make these men. One man, whose most notable achievement is to kill women in secret in one sodding English town, who chooses to kill women and then to hide, gets to control a nation of women. And I'm going to go one step further - the way we report these killings encourages that control and feeds that power.

The reality is that the killer is the problem - this freakish little screwed up nothing of a man is the problem, not whether the women of Ipswich go out at night. I'm guessing his mother didn't kiss goodnight often enough or something; whatever - he lost the right to my compassion when he started killing easy targets. And you might be thinking, Uh, yeah sure Sarah, state the obvious, of course the killer is the problem - but then why are we talking about what the 'prostitute community' are doing? Why are we telling women to stay home, to stay sober in order to stay safe?

I say screw that (actually, I'd say something a lot worse, but Lady Drusilla at the Ministry of Culture gets scary mad about swearing and I only just gave her the blog address).

Women should not only be going out at night - all night, every night - they should be going out en masse, patrolling the streets in packs, hanging out on corners as the Prostitute Personal Protection Patrol and praying that they, and not the police, are the ones who will catch this guy and personally punish him. A bit of penile as opposed to penal justice, I think.

In 2003, I wrote a polemic essay for a book themed around the feminist seventies for The Centre for Women's Studies at York University. My essay was about the nature of women's and, more specifically, feminist anger. It was called 'No Longer Reasonable' and in it, I wrote the following, and it still remains true for me today.

"A I write today, a serial rapist nicknamed the 'Trophy' rapist, who has claimed ten victims so far, fills the news. Police are warning women and girls across the southeast of England 'that they should be accompanied and remain alert' (BBC news online), as they have no doubts the rapes will continue. The atmosphere of watchful panic is reminiscent of the fear that spread among women during the attacks perpetrated by the Yorkshire 'Ripper' during the late seventies. Once again, one man sentences the women of the UK to self-enforced curfews and helpless dependency. Once again, one man, portrayed as a monster, reminds women of what we already know: the perpetual awareness of being a potential victim that serves to undermine our autonomy.

I would like to see women stepping out of their houses, together, into the very areas they have been warned attacks may take place. I would like to see large groups of women searching for this man, I would like him to feel hunted and haunted and afraid. Most of all, I would like to see acts of furious and open defiance by women to illustrate that we will not be passively terrified into submission until the burly police force comes to our rescue. In order for this to happen, women would need to link such acts of violence against women with a feminist understanding of women's oppression worldwide. As Solanas fumed in her SCUM Manifesto (1968), women 'could acquire complete control of this country within a few weeks by simply withdrawing from the labour force, thereby paralysing an entire nation...The police force, National Guard, Army, Navy and Marines combined couldn't squelch a rebellion of over half the population, particularly when it's made up of people they are utterly helpless without.'"

This is why they call us Militant Feminists. Let me close today's entry with a Manifesto written in 1975 for International Women's Day by
Joyce Stevens.

Because a Woman's Work is Never Done Manifesto

Because a woman's work is never done.
and is underpaid, or unpaid, or boring, or repetitious,
and we're the first to get fired,
and what we look like is more important than what we do.
And if we get raped its our fault
and if we get beaten we must have provoked it
and if we raise our voices we're nagging bitches
and if we enjoy sex we're nymphos
and if we don't we're frigid
and if we love women it's because we can't get a real man
and if we ask our doctor too many questions we're neurotic or pushy
and if we expect childcare we're selfish
and if we stand up for our rights we're aggressive and un-feminine
and if we don't we're typical weak females
and if we want to get married we're out to trap a man
and if we don't we're unnatural
and because we still can't get an adequate, safe contraceptive, but men can walk on the moon
and if we can't cope or don't want a pregnancy we're made to feel guilty about abortion
and for lots and lots of other reasons
we are part of the women's liberation movement...

Today's Beautiful Things

1. The joyous struggle

2. Solidarity in adversity

3. Never Give Up

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