This article was originally written for the Socialist Resistance website. The author now has requested that Socialist Resistance remove the article. The original is being republished here at Judith Green’s request.
Jane Kelly’s Sex, Moral Panics and Capitalism (hereafter S,MP&C) covers a lot of ground: young people, sexuality and new technology and how they all relate to the society within which we live. Judith Green was moved to write this reply by what she felt was a lack of focus on women’s oppression in an article in which it should have been central. Like S,MP&C she hopes to cover a lot of ground: the problems of sex-blind analysis when it comes to sexuality; the conflation of sexual violence and sex; the meaning of ‘moral panic’; economic explanations; virgin/whore dichotomies; the changing position of women, feminism and the politics of representation; what it means to be ‘sex positive’; how we can simultaneously oppose internet censorship and stand in solidarity with women responding angrily to increasingly intense and pervasive sexism in the cultural-ideological sphere. All quotes not otherwise credited are from S,MP&C.
Writing out Women’s Oppression
S,MP&C glosses over women’s oppression, failing to acknowledge adequately the differences in the situations of young men and young women. We are told that “young people, both female and male, are especially targets of ideology”, obscuring that this ideology targets female and male in very different ways and largely to the disadvantage of the former. S,MP&C mentions two reports of “sexual practices amongst young people” (‘It’s wrong but you get used to it’ and the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. However, both are more accurately described as underlining how sex is experienced differently by men and women, boys and girls. Describing rape (the statistic S,MP&C draws from the second report) as a “sexual practice” implies an agency on the part of the woman that is not there. It is almost exclusively male recipients (not disembodied “individuals”) who use ‘sexts’ for sexualised bullying or ‘revenge porn.’ Are we really discussing commentaries on “teenage sexual behaviour”? Or are we discussing, in reality, what young men and boys are doing to young women and girls?
Sexual violence =/= Sex
The central question of S,MP&C is “How are the authorities able to use this fear of sex to attack our democratic right to know what governments are up to?” Yet in every case “this fear of sex” presented by S,MP&C refers to sexual violence and abuse: rape in gangs (including coerced sex: a particular means of raping); reporting of rape to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles; sexualised bullying or ‘revenge porn’ utilising ‘sexts’; and the the rape and sexual exploitation of girls in care (as in the Rochdale case). By conflating sexual violence and sex, S,MP&C reduces objections to sexual violence to mere prudery.
Defining ‘moral panic’
‘Moral panic’ has been a useful term in left and progressive politics. Stuart Hall’s early use of Cohen’s theory in Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978) armed anti-racists and civil liberties campaigners with political tools with which to defend black communities against aggressive, racist policing. Since then, ‘moral panic’ has been used by campaigners in many different contexts, from Don Milligan’s description of the ‘Aids Crisis’ to Stuart Bell’s of the ‘Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis’. The libertarian-contrarian afterlife of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), in the form of spiked and the Institute of Ideas, generously apply the term to any number of issues ranging from breastfeeding promotion to concern about Genetic Modification. The popular rage at bankers might similarly be characterised as a ‘moral panic’ response to the current crisis of capitalism. Leftists do not always agreed with each other or with campaigners outside the left about whether a particular phenomenon qualifies as a ‘moral panic’. It is obvious that use of the term alone is not sufficient to demonstrate that there is one.
How we understand ‘moral panic’ hinges on an important distinction between strong and weak uses of that term. Does it include any issue upon which government makes moral pronouncements and policy that disguise unstated or ulterior motives? As very many government campaigns are disingenuous in just this way, we might term this an ‘expansive but weak’ definition. Or should we reserve the term for moralised state responses to illusory media constructions of unreal phenomena? We might call this a narrow but strong definition.
This distinction is important as it changes the political tasks that follow. Critics of ‘moral panics’ in the weak sense may work to expose the inappropriate leveraging of moral questions for unrelated purposes, without implying anything about the pretext of the ‘panic’. In contrast, exposing a ‘moral panic’ in the strong sense, leads critics to interrogate the data deployed by moral entrepreneurs, in order to expose their lies as myths. Notwithstanding sensationalist reporting, the extent and impact of sexual violence and abuse is commonly minimised and denied. Failing to define what one means by moral panic muddles political analysis and allows sexual violence to be rendered a state and media construction akin to the New Year’s Day flood of Romanian immigrants or David Miranda’s terrorism.
Economism and ‘folk devils’
If the state is the moral entrepreneur who are the ‘folk devils’? S,MP&C suggests it is alienated young men “seen as dangerous to the status quo, a force to be controlled”. In an economistic reflex that characterises much of the left S,MP&C asserts (but does not demonstrate) this ‘folk devil’ status arises out of unemployment, underemployment, zero hours contracts and the high cost of living, including housing. In fact, the state generally prefers not to name men (young or old) as the perpetrators of sexual violence against women, preferring (like S,MP&C) to obfuscate with references to ‘gender-based violence’ and the effects of online porn on ‘young people’. The actual ‘folk devil’ in this ‘moral panic’ – dangerous to the status quo, and a force to be controlled – is not young men (who are mostly represented as ‘victims’) but the technology and medium of the internet itself.
Understanding virgin/whore dichotomies?
When S,MP&C talks about squaring the circle of restrictive sexual norms and the relatively unrestricted representation of sex in society, it alludes to a contradiction commonly described as the virgin/whore dichotomy. The division of women into ‘respectable’ and ‘unrespectable’ categories on the basis of their relationship to men has been part of class society from the very beginning. The former providing men with heirs and the latter providing men with sexual service, but with no ability to have any offspring that result recognised as ‘legitimate.’ There is no real contradiction in the moral hypocrisy that separates women in this way, only an apparent one.
Despite vast differences between, for example, the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia and the bourgeois family of the Victorian era, it is clear that throughout history and in different types of class society and family arrangements, men have asserted an asymmetric right to women’s sexual fidelity. It is the exercise of this right that the category of ‘unrespectable’ women has served. The sexual revolution, ending social consequences of ‘illegitimacy’ (though not of single motherhood), and continued objections to the ‘sexual double-standard’ have served to undermine but not eradicate this sense of male entitlement, which lives on in the fact that there is no male equivalent for the epithet ‘slut’. With the bourgeois revolution and enlightenment project some women eventually emerged, at least conceptually, as legally recognised individuals bearing rights, no longer as property to be disposed of according to the will of men.
What is interesting is how the supposed contradiction of virgin/whore (in fact complementary social roles) is resolved in late capitalism. Women are not encouraged to pursue liberation from these roles but are exhorted to voluntarily embrace both simultaneously: famously summed up by Jerry Hall ‘To keep a man, you must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom’ and ably represented by the image chosen to illustrate S,MP&C.
Women, feminism and the politics of representation today
S,MP&C suggests a conflict between sexual representation and decline of the traditional family on one hand, and the primacy of sex within marriage on the other. Yet, outside of traditional religious communities, sex outside of marriage is now entirely normal. Indeed, Juliet Mitchell remarked in 1966 “the main breach in the traditional value-pattern has, so far, been the increase in premarital sexual experience. This is now virtually legitimized in contemporary society” . S,MP&C points to the resurgence of sexist imagery in recent decades, paralleling the decline of the women’s liberation movement. The proliferation of sexist imagery is explained as rooted in the needs of capitalism but no explanation is given as to why commercial nakedness is sexist. Indeed, the implication in S,MP&C is that the bodies of men may be similarly exploited – in which case, where is the sexism?
Yet, is not nakedness and semi-nakedness that are sexist, but that women’s bodies are routinely represented as sexual objects, in ways that are seen as patently ridiculous for men. ‘Gender-flipping’ cultural commentary devotes itself to demonstrating how sexualised sexist images rely on the naturalised subordination of women for its effects. This works as an advertising strategy because, for all the changes in women’s employment, legal and economic status, sufficient numbers of men and women find this sexism at some level an attractive ideology. It is one actively promoted from birth after all!
Without analysis of the changing status of women and the fate of feminism the resurgence of sexist media is inexplicable. S,MP& C points out how feminists in the 1970s asserted that images of women in the cultural-ideological sphere both flowed from and also reinforced women’s subordinate social position. What is not mentioned is that since then large parts of the feminist movement, in addition to opposing censorship as a strategy to tackle sexist imagery, have also repudiated those earlier critiques of images and embraced playful postmodern approaches to these texts, seeing subversion everywhere. This fracturing of analysis of images has paralleled a more fundamental shift in which ‘feminism’ has become something personal to each woman, defining for herself what would constitute her own personal freedom. ‘Choice feminism’ – more interested in individual empowerment than collective liberation – has had a significant afterlife in the wake of the women’s liberation movement, now incorporated into neoliberal ‘post-feminist’ projects documented by Nancy Fraser and Angela McRobbie. The latter brilliantly casts the Wonderbra billboards of the 1990s as the turning point in media representations, the moment when feminism was knowingly ‘taken into account’ and simultaneously rejected as redundant.
The women’s liberation movement of the late 60s and 1970s, disillusioned by the unfulfilled promise of the countercultural sexual revolution, articulated discontent with sexist media, sexual objectification, and the relationship of these to a wider culture of male sexual entitlement and aggression. As Pat Mainardi wryly commented: “Liberated women – very different from Women’s Liberation! The first signals all kinds of goodies, to warm the hearts (not to mention other parts) of the most radical men. The other signals –HOUSEWORK.” Perhaps we have come full circle as women once again engage in organised criticism of the endless stream of retro-sexist, neo-sexist, ironic-sexist and just plain sexist representations that we are meant to laugh, nod or masturbate along with, to demonstrate that we are neither humourless nor prudes, but ‘liberated women’.
Although S,MP&C posits some connection between (ungendered) “teenage behaviour” and the cultural ubiquity of sexualised sexism, it is insistent that porn makes no contribution to ideas on women, sex or anything else. Yet, one does not have to argue that ‘porn causes rape’ to understand that it likely influences ideas about sex, in particular about what is pleasurable in sex for men and for women. A professor of semiotics may have a sophisticated understanding that the ‘money shot’ exteriorises male climax to aid its visual representation. An adolescent boy may simply conclude that facials are super-sexy since all women appear to enjoy them. Are we really expected to believe that the mainstreaming and normalisation of porn has no influence on current vogues for extreme pubic hair removal and increased numbers of labiaplasty procedures? Even the most committed sex-positivists have noticed the issue, setting up ‘good porn’ sites like ‘make love not porn’
What is the material basis for ‘sex that is good for you”?
Having conflated sex and sexual violence, and dismissed concerns about sexual violence as morally-panicked ‘fear of sex’, we are told that socialists, should make it clear that, like eating your greens or an occasional glass of red wine, “having sex is good for you!” In real life, beyond the prelapsarian fantasy in which historically anachronistic ‘teenagers’ model benign sexuality, it is obvious that what we call ‘sex’ can sometimes be experienced as ecstatic, transcendent, joyful, comforting, enlightening, but also as mundane, unsatisfying, alienating, or worse, brutal, horrific, traumatising. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a “fuck you” can appreciate that sex is sometimes intended to be hostile.
Socialists cannot proclaim “sex is good for you!” without wilfully erasing the experience of many people, disproportionately women, for whom sex is a much more troubled arena. Rather, socialists should assert that sex is never ‘sinful’ (though some sexual acts, such as raping someone, are clearly unethical or immoral) and that it ought to be a good experience for all participants. We need to advocate for the material conditions that make these good experiences easier to come by. These would include freedom from sexual violence and the fear of sexual violence; freedom from unwanted pregnancy and motherhood; prevention and effective treatment of sexually transmitted disease; decentering of coitus to ejaculation as the primary sexual act; reclaiming our bodies from anxiety-producing self-objectification promoted by commerce; challenging pervasive cultural scripts of female passivity and male dominance. The sex positive movement of the 1980s resigned itself to the idea that ‘danger’ was the necessary price women pay for ‘pleasure’ . Young feminists protesting rape culture are, in part, saying that they won’t put up with that pessimistic compromise. In engaging with these debates, socialists must try to do better than sex radicals who originally framed them.
Internet filtering and censorship
S,MP&C correctly states that socialists should oppose recently introduced restrictions on internet access, but almost entirely for the wrong reasons. While it would be absurd to imagine that a single image straightforwardly “in and of itself” produces distorted ideas about women and sex, it is equally absurd to imagine that pornography is some special sphere outside of ideology and therefore rendered without influence at all. “Abuses of young children for sexual gratification” are not in most cases prosecuted, despite the existence of legislation against it, so the idea the recording of child sexual abuse and rape will be prevented purely by use of existing legislation rings hollow. The oppression of women is indeed reproduced by many things, but surely far less today by direct legal and economic restrictions than was the case in the past. In the context of this greater formal freedom, pervasive cultural sexism, not just in the representation of sex, but also and particularly in childhood socialisation should be understood not so much as ‘lagging behind’ women’s advances in economic and legal spheres, but as a countervailing backlash to them.
Although it is fatuous to endorse Tim Berners-Lee description of the internet as ‘democratic’ (it is hardly popularly owned or controlled), state control of internet access does overly restrict access to information and ideas and should be opposed on that basis. Internet censorship in the form of ISP filtering has had entirely predictable effects. Moreover, there was never any recommendation for internet censorship via ISP filtering or otherwise in the report that the government has used to leverage this change. Meanwhile, the clear recommendation made in the report for a for a different style of relationship and sex education has not been taken forward by the government, and a recent proposal to expand the focus of sex education beyond biology to include information about same-sex relationships, sexual violence, domestic violence and sexual consent has been defeated in the House of Lords. One tool we have to hand is to compare the government’s propaganda and actions with the recommendations of the researchers they have so ill-used. But this requires that we engage with researchers into internet pornography in good faith and not dismiss them in principle.
We should not allow opposition to state censorship to reduce our solidarity with women opposing sexual violence and sexual objectification. Having read S,MP&C I was none the wiser as to what solidarity if any,might offer these women. Nor was I clear on what position would be taken towards the ‘yes matters’ campaign to expand relationship and sex education.
What kind of solidarity to women resisting sexism?
It is wrong for socialists to cast concern about sexual violence and objectification as rooted in a ‘fear of sex’ or as a merely a ‘moral panic’. This is, to coin a phrase, ‘prude shaming’. Socialists should state that sex ought to be good for everyone, while recognising that in sexist societies this is unfortunately not always the case. Socialists should actively identify and campaign against the wide variety of material conditions that prevent sex always being good for us. We can make a start by marching alongside women calling for an end to male violence against women and girls this International Women’s Day