Men! Don’t Expect Equality on a Thursday

There’s an article by ex-GQ sex columnist, Kate Taylor, in today’s Guardian, slating Ariel Levy for criticising women who embrace raunch culture. (I’ve not read Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs yet and, though I agree with a lot of what she says in issue 30 of Bitch, I do have my own doubts about her stance. For one thing, I suspect the book’s message may backfire, causing some people to feel guilty about any sexual preferences that could be influenced by dominant cultural representations of female sexuality. I can also see Rebecca Lynn’s point, in this season’s $pread magazine, that Female Chauvinist Pig seems a rather ugly name to slap on the “average” woman and that we should actually be targeting the corporate media’s stranglehold on popular culture.)

According to Kate, women are getting into raunch because men are just too egalitarian these days:

…women are rediscovering the joy of being loved for their bodies, not just their minds. Today sexes mix a lot more than they used to, so boys grow up having girls as friends. They tend to listen to what women have to say, and when they marry they don’t consider sharing the housework to be castrating. Instead of desperately longing for the right to be seen as human beings, today’s girls are playing with the old-fashioned notion of being seen as sex objects.

So let me get this straight: sexist attitudes are such a distant memory that women are bound to get frustrated and take their clothes off in some effort to make men love them for their bodies and not just their minds? Kate Taylor seems to be saying that an absence of sexism or one-sidedness somehow forces women to take matters into their own hands. There’s definitely more than a slight essentialist inkling to her tone. Or to put it another way: what about men who want to be loved for their bodies and not their minds? How can we encourage them to put themselves out there a little more, generally show themselves off and express their need to be physically desired? If that’s a silly question, I rest my case. If it isn’t, well, maybe we’re getting somewhere. However, it’s also worth pointing out that, if we move beyond traditional roles by making them readily interchangeable (and therefore able to be rejected altogether in favour of something more egalitarian, depending on individual preferences) then surely being objectified doesn’t have to be the shitty thing Levy claims it to be in the Bitch article?

The fact that people “play with old fashioned notions” is not the issue for me. It’s the way Taylor seems almost disappointed by those men who have “grown up with girls as friends” and therefore listen to what women have to say and don’t consider sharing housework to be “castrating.” (And that’s the main thing isn’t it? After all, men obviously have to avoid being mistaken for women and however decent they are, Kate Taylor seems to assume they all rely on phallic supremacist ideology in order to feel manly.)

It is also interesting that she talks about men’s sexual responses being exploited to give money to women, saying it “has always been like this, and it always will be”, but later recognises that “the world is different” from 20 years ago when the “old style feminists” “waved their banners.” When I considered this contradiction, I was reminded of Kevin Gibson’s smug article (on the Ask-men website) about how feminism has benefited men in ways that feminists would supposedly be really pissed off about. The crux of his message was that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” (i.e we will never change the way men view women).

When reading Kate Taylor’s article again, it became apparent to me that her own intentions are perhaps a little more subversive than Gibson’s. According to Taylor, old-style feminists never understood that “men’s achilles heel is that they go to pieces when a woman drops her top”. She adds that “their way is not the only way to achieve equality with men” and is perhaps suggesting that if we can’t beat the system, we should go with the flow and, more to the point, exploit it. This is an understandable strategy but the problem is that it leaves so much unchallenged. For a start, how can we women achieve full equality if our means of getting power are restricted to relying on our bodies to get ahead? What if we aren’t sexy enough to meet the kind of approval that will most readily bring us money and success? (These are very elementary questions but they’re ones we still need to ask if exploiting the system is being proposed and, as Bookdrunk says, “taking your clothes off means little if you find you can’t acquire the same while keeping your clothes on.”).

Also, what effect does it have on men if they are being told that “going to pieces” when a woman drops her top is a given? How can they take charge of their own sexuality?

There certainly seems to be a precarious balance to be struck. Firstly, I think it’s important that we respect one another’s freedom to use our own bodies however we please and freely enjoy our sexual fantasies (whatever they are and wherever they came from). Equally important, however, is that we smash the Conservative ideology underpinning the tedious gender-panto that frames one sexual set-up as inevitable and then prioritises it above all others.

Overall, however, Taylor’s article just oversimplifies and misrepresents feminism (where on earth did she get the idea that third wave feminists think eyeliner is misogynistic?), pointing blame at feminists, whilst also accusing us of now making enemies of “scantily clad women who use their sexuality to get ahead,” and framing understandable differences in opinion within the movement on how to achieve equal rights as evidence of how bad women are at working together.

Somehow, just going with the flow doesn’t seem good enough.