Sunday, 25 April 2010

Help! The New Puritans Are Coming!

Sometimes it seems as if the default position of the contemporary feminist is 'offended of Tunbridge Wells'. There is not a day that goes by without an article, blogpost, letter to a newspaper or a twitter feed in which a feminist tells us of her outrage and horror at yet another 'offensive' aspect of our culture. Pornography, lap-dancing clubs, advertising, fashion magazines, comedians, Suri Cruise's stilettos- there is no shortage of offensive objects and phenomena for feminists to get their knickers in a twist about. I find this particular trait of my sisters-in-arms very disturbing.

The reason I am so concerned about this 'New Puritanism' is that I think it is based on an individualistic, neo-liberal philosophy, and is implicitly moralistic and self-righteous. Also, perhaps most worryingly, it can only lead to negative action such as censorship and the criminalisation of particular groups and individuals in our society.

Take lap-dancing for example. Recently two feminist groups-OBJECT and The Fawcett Society-successfully campaigned for (and helped design) legislation making it harder for lap-dancing clubs to obtain licenses in England. This change in the law comes as a direct result of lobbying on behalf of those who feel 'offended' by the presence of these clubs in their cities and towns. It did not result from any consultation with those who will be most affected by the new laws: women who work in those clubs.

Another example of the power of the offended comes from advertising. A recent advert placed in glossy home decor magazines was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority after it received only six complaints. The advert showed a geisha, bound and lying on a tiled floor (the product being advertised). The ASA decided the image condoned sexual violence as the woman, in a 'submissive' pose, looked 'upset'. I wonder how the photographer, a Japanese artist, felt, being accused of making images that 'condone rape'.

If we look at this 'New Puritanism' through a slightly different lens, we can see clearly how it permeates our society in many reactionary and damaging ways. Traditional Catholics find abortion offensive, and do all they can to obstruct women's right to choose. Many Muslims were so offended by Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses, they ordered a fatwa. Members of the Christian Right in America find homosexuality offensive, and they promote and act out homophobic behaviours and policies as a result. The fact is that different people find different things offensive, so to turn on that which offends you is, well, impractical, but also, in my view morally wrong.

So while feminists are flicking through Home and Garden, tutting at the objectified imagery of women in adverts for expensive floor coverings, our civil liberties are being taken from us right under our turned-up noses. In 2008 an ammendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act making it illegal to possess 'extreme pornography' was passed without so much as a murmur from most feminist groups. So suddenly people who look at and own images of 'violent' consensual BDSM acts, are liable to be prosecuted and sentenced to up to three years in jail.

What I find most disappointing about the 'New Puritans' is that their approach lacks intellectual sophistication and critical thought. The relationship between representation and reality is complex, the meanings and implications of pornography, sex work and advertising are many and varied, and sometimes contradictory. If feminism is to have any chance of achieving its aim of say, ending violence against women, it has to embrace this complexity and contradiction. I don't want to offend anyone, but the 'new puritans' don't have the analytical or philosophical backbone to do this. I'm not offended by their attachment to Mary Whitehouse style knee-jerk moralism, but I am pretty pissed off.



  1. Great blog, very thought provoking. I think "Feminism" is such a wide umbrella there's no monolithic voice. We do need to protect women from exploitation, but at the same time it's so important to leave room for the voices of all women and not legislate morality that belongs to only a sector.


  2. Thanks. I agree with what you say. Also I don't want to alienate myself from other feminists or them from me, but there are discussions that need to be had!

  3. With you every step of the way on this one.

    One of the challenges of any group (in this case, feminism) seeking to disrupt the status quo, is to avoid mimicking the group bullying behavior employed by the status quo.

    Specific to sexism, is the bullying around sex & gender. The institutionalized oppressions of women, queers & anyone else "not male" are so ingrained and widely accepted, that it takes a great deal of deliberate thought and effort to distinguish the mechanics of sex oppression and then to interrupt it.

    People get all freaked out by sex. We get upset by sexuality that is different than ours or perhaps by even discussing it.

    Also, we like the feeling of being in agreement. It is very easy to get someone to agree with an argument about why a certain topic of sexuality is bad.

    But, agreement is not fact nor reasoning. It is simply agreement...mob thinking.

    The core liberty of feminism is agency - a woman's right to define herself in her own terms, every bit the equal of a man's right to do the same by virtue of the absence of any fact of nature that would make women worse or men better.

    When a person declares that another person is good or bad, slut or prude, victim or abuser based on how that person views his or her own values; it makes no difference if it's patriarchy or feminism. It is the denial of a person's right to choose their own identity and it is oppression.

  4. @sexgenderbody Absolutely! And beautifully expressed.

  5. Completely with you on this, I never understand why it's apparently feminist to oppose porn/stripping etc, it's fine to dislike it personally but I don't agree with bans. As for the ad though, that's actually a bit disturbing, I don't see any context or statement being made or it's relevance to the product being sold. It's not anything BDSM related, it's for home furnishings so I can understand why some people complained about it.

  6. hello LadyMcScamp! Thanks for your comments. I know what you mean about the ad, but most ads use unrelated images/concepts to sell their products.

    I object to how a handful of complaints lead to an ad being banned. I find many cultural products offensive e.g. racist, sexist, homophobic but I would not demand they got censored just because I didn't like them.