When I became a feminist activist, in 1979 aged 17, I was told about a vibrant feminist protest following the release, in 1976, of the album ‘Black and Blue’ by the Rolling Stones. To promote it, an image of a glamorous young woman sitting astride a giant LP cover, bound with rope was used. The image was captioned, “I’m black and blue from the Rolling Stones and I love it!”
If that album were released today, progressive young men would be in woke heaven, supported by blue-fringed women in universities, claiming that the black and blue woman had been ‘empowered’ by her ‘choice’ to exercise her ‘agency’ and ‘partake’ in some ‘liberating BDSM1’.
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And if feminists like me protested, we would be no-platformed for ‘kink-shaming’. It is extraordinary that today, strangulation is seen by some as ‘sexy’ and often referred to as breath-play.
Women are in worrying territory. Sex today is increasingly dangerous for them. In 2018, five women –Christina Abbotts, Lesley Potter, Laura Huteson, Anna Reed and Charlotte Teeling – died after what their killers claimed was “rough sex gone wrong”. That this alarming practice is deemed erotic, and is increasingly common, is the result of the normalisation of male violence. This, in turn, is due to the proliferation of hard-core, violent pornography accessed via the swipe of an iPhone – something that kids as young as eight years old are able to access.
Sex has long been used as a way to control and punish women. Often this is through the imposition of humiliating sexual practices; but it also in telling us when we can or can’t have abortions; or promoting the notion that paying for sexual access to women’s bodies is a universal male right.
Legal, social and coercive restrictions being exerted on women and their reproductive rights are becoming the norm – while they also grow increasingly draconian. The recent law on abortion passed in Alabama, US, for example, exemplifies this trend. Several other states are doing the same, such as in Georgia, where they recently passed the fetal heartbeat bill. But it is no good simply pointing the finger at places far away and shaking our heads. There are similar laws closer to home – in Northern Ireland for example.
As women’s rights go backwards, casual misogyny picks up pace. High numbers of women regularly experience harassment by men, according to a recent poll. Almost half have experienced unwanted sexual advances, 46% had been groped, and a quarter had been flashed at.
Online abuse is also massive. In this same survey, a fifth of respondents had experienced it. One reason that an offence that targets hatred of women has never been added to the statute book must surely be because the police, courts and prisons would snap under the strain of dealing with the sheer volume of it.
So how, then, should women react faced with such an increase in misogyistic violence, abuse, and increased restrictions?
We feminists have long campaigned using tactics including direct action and public protest. In Poland, when the government proposed a total ban on abortion, a women’s strike was organised, calling on women to take the day off from their work.
More recently, the actor Alyssa Milano proposed a “#SexStrike” as a response to the recent attacks on reproductive rights in multiple states across the country. It’s been taken up with excitement by women across the globe.
I’ve no doubt Alyssa Milano was well-intentioned when she called for the strike: “Until women have legal control over our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy.” We mustn’t forget those millions of women and girls around the world who don’t have that control. Whose bodies and reproduction are controlled by other people. Let’s not forget, either, that it’s the men who are responsible for 100% of unwanted pregnancies.
But sex strikes are an incredibly bad idea as a protest. They are playing in to the male narrative that sex is something women only ever do under duress. I am currently researching a book on what feminism is and is not, and have been talking to lots of young feminists about their relationships and encounters with men, and they tell me that heterosexual sex is seen by too many men as a form of labour women do for men.
“My previous boyfriend,” one woman told me, “despite him presenting himself as a feminist ally, would expect sex when he wanted it even when I made it very clear I was not in the remotest bit interested.” So much for the new “feminism for men” – or “I will stand up for your rights for as long as that suits me”.
This idea is reinforced by the sex strike: women are put in a position of treating sex as something they do for men, rather than for themselves. It only emphasises the idea that their worth is sexual. And it turns sex into something transactional. They belittle their sexuality by using it as a bargaining tool.
In any case, it is only possible to strike if you are in a position to withdraw labour. And as I will never tire of saying, sex is not ‘work’, no matter what these new feminists and male feminists contend. And given the prevailing climate of misogynistic behaviours, to withdraw sex puts women in a dangerous position where they could be forced and coerced into sex. It’s called rape.
There is no greater example to illustrate men’s power over women than sexual violence, alongside the constant battle to restrict women’s reproductive rights. We are living through a global pandemic of sexual violence at the moment and, women are punished by man-made laws for attempting to take control of our own bodies. I fear it’s going to take more than a hashtag for men to realise our bodies are our own business – and not open for business.