...on April 7th in Oxford are now online here Several of us UK radfem bloggers are transcribing the talks - a full list of who's doing which one is up at another radical feminist.
What follows is my transcription of the talk given by Professor Alison Assiter and the questions session that followed it. I've identified people where I knew who was speaking and I've indicated where I couldn't make out what was being said. This is a faithful transcript of those sessions which we felt were the most contentious of the day. It's pretty long so make yourself comfortable...
The Centre for the Study of Social Justice
Department of Politics and International Relations
Professor Alison Assiter - University of the West of England and author, Enlightened Women: “Pornography: its significance for feminism”
Hi. Good morning. Thanks very much, Sheila, for that inspirational talk. I’m just going to begin by telling you a little story before I say a few things about Andrea Dworkin and talk about what I’m going to talk about. I think, first of all, it’s completely fortuitous that Sheila and I are actually talking on something very similar but from directly opposing angles and I think it’s absolutely wonderful because I had no idea what Sheila was going to talk about and I’m not really going to talk on what I said I was going to talk about but I’m going to talk about something a little bit different but it’s on exactly the same topic but from a very different perspective. I think that’s absolutely great – so that we have a debate.
First of all, I’d just like to tell you a story and it’s a story about -- it’s not really directly related to Andrea Dworkin but I just want to tell it to you anyway. It’s a story about a feminist academic who decided to change the subject of her talk – which is exactly what I’m doing – and she decided she was going to talk on alcoholism and she brought in a couple of props. Let me just bring…let me just show you a couple of props. One had, like this, a glass with water in and one had a whiskey in. And she also brought in a worm and she put the worm in the glass that had water in and it squirmed around and it was fine and then she put it in the glass that had whiskey in and the poor worm squirmed around a bit and then died. And then she said to the assembled students in the lecture theatre “what point do you think this illustrates?” and one student from right at the back who was really feisty and brave says “well, of course, if you have worms, drink whiskey - that’s the point it illustrates.”
And so I’m telling you this, I think…sorry, I’m just going to get some water – but it’s really whiskey [audience laughter] – I’m telling you this because I think it’s absolutely fascinating because I’ve prepared a few remarks today which are on something - I’m going to talk about Islamic fundamentalism, very briefly - and it’s very directly connected with what Sheila’s just talked about but it’s very, very, very different and it’s purely fortuitous. But I must begin by saying that I think it’s absolutely wonderful that this conference is happening today. I feel extremely honoured to be asked to talk in a conference celebrating the work of Andrea Dworkin. I think she was an enormously important thinker. I think the fact that this conference is happening today, in Oxford – it’s not actually in Somerville College and I was a bit worried because I used to be a student at Somerville College and when I said “the Manor Road site of Somerville College” and the taxi driver said “What? There’s no such site” and so it’s not Somerville College but it’s put on by Somerville College. I feel extremely honoured and particularly as I’ve always profoundly disagreed with Andrea – with the work of Andrea Dworkin – and in a way that makes it more of an honour for me. She’s a much greater thinker than I will ever be. It makes it all the more of an honour for me to be here speaking about her work and being able to disagree with her because I think that is fundamentally important.
And I just would like to say something else about, I mean, we heard a little bit about Sheila’s history. I published three books on pornography in the early… in the late eighties early nineties. One was called Pornography, Feminism and the Individual and the other was called Bad Girls Dirty Pictures, the second. The third one was a book that came out of an organisation that I was a part of that was called Feminists Against Censorship and actually Sheila and I in the seventies and eighties were on directly opposing [S. J. – “We might still be, Alison”. A. A. – “We still will be - we will be, don’t worry”] directly opposing camps and I’d just like to say something which I think some of the younger people – younger than us, that is to say, because we probably might be of similar ages – will perhaps not be aware of.
I remember hearing Andrea Dworkin talk in the eighties in Conway Hall in London and the hall was absolutely packed – full to the brim – and Andrea talked and she was the most amazing – my next slide – the most amazing orator – amazing. She was absolutely incredible. She was mesmerising as a speaker and she mesmerised the audience with really powerful stories, personal testimony, from women who’d been subjected to abuse of various kinds by men. Mesmerising stories and the audience was transfixed and I was in the audience and I actually wanted to make a point, which was a point of discussion, and I’m sure that Andrea Dworkin would’ve been absolutely happy to hear my point and - this was the climate at the time - and I put my hand up to speak and the person in the Chair said “Andrea Dworkin would now like to take questions but please don’t speak if you disagree with her”. She didn’t say that, and I’m sure she would never have accepted that, but that was the climate and that was how I felt at the time. I was castigated as someone who was prepared to sleep with the enemy. This was the climate and, you know, sleeping–with–the–enemy, that’s what I was described as doing. And because I didn’t wear dungarees, you know, that was another characteristic of me for which I was denigrated. I chose not to wear dungarees. I chose not to shave all my hair off and I was denigrated for that. And I think it’s very important that we remember that climate because in the UK and in the West, as Sheila has pointed out, we’re not in a climate like that. We don’t live in a climate like that. And actually, I just wanted to say that, one of the pictures that Sheila showed, as you will be aware, was Victoria Beckham and I think we would have had a different impression if we had seen that picture of Victoria with David Beckham in a sarong and he is, as many of you will know, the prime representative of something that is called metrosexuality and what’s important is that we in the West have the possibility of choosing to be like that if we want to and I’m going to talk about countries in the world where that is not possible in a minute. So…and link it to Andrea Dworkin. These are very small points.
Because I said I was going to talk about pornography I thought I just need to mention a couple of things about pornography. I think the cause and connection that some people asserted existed between pornography and rape is actually not proven. Rape is a horrific, horrific practise – don’t get me wrong – and Andrea Dworkin and her followers played the most vital role – and others - in pointing out how horrific it was and in getting rape cases – Sue Lees, also, who was not a follower of Andrea Dworkin, did some very, very important work in the UK on getting the rape laws changed and they’re still pretty horrific …just hearing about someone who’s been in a court case recently shows how horrific it is.
I also wanted to make another point that, at the time, this is a quote by… from Robin Morgan who is not a critic of Andrea Dworkin. She said any censorship legislation that’s produced that is designed to censor pornography would have been, at the time, more likely to have been used against women and she actually talked about it being used against self-help manuals produced by women. Which actually did…was the case if you remember, any of you who might think back to this time, the raids that were made, at the time, on women’s bookshops where they tried to show… to sell lesbian sex romances.
Ok. But the most important point I want to make - and this is where I think it’s absolutely great that Sheila has spoken on what she has just spoken on - I want to make a point that Andrea Dworkin’s writings were actually anti sex and I think.. it was really fascinating to me that Sheila said, at the end of her talk, that she found herself agreeing with Norman Tebbit because I think that was always the position. I was always aligned, as it happens, with the pornographers which I think was a huge slight but of course we can debate about this.
It was actually in the US when Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon – and she’s going to speak later I think, at least I hope she’s going to speak later – produced their Ordinance in Minneapolis they were aligned with the far right. I think this is still the case and the problem I think we’re left with now, in 2006, is that the image of women that is presented by the… by feminists who remain followers of Andrea Dworkin and others like her in the West play into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists and my work at the moment – I actually work in political theory like Val Bryson who’s here – and the most recent book is a philosophy book on political theory – but I’m also doing some work on the Iranian resistance and it’s fascinating… it’s kind of fortuitous that Iran is in the press at the moment as the new regime on the axis of evil because I started on doing this work long before that and I have a lot of friends in the Iranian resistance in the UK, in Europe and the US, and what I’m going to say comes directly from them. This is Muslim women who are Iranian and who are very, very critical of the regime in Iran. What I’m going to say about that comes directly from them.
But I just want to give you some famous quotes from Andrea Dworkin first to show you the similarities. This is from Andrea Dworkin’s book Pornography – Men Possessing Women – this is just such wonderful, fantastic powerful language, isn’t it? – “A sabre penetrating a vagina is a weapon. So is the camera or the pen that renders it. So is the penis for which it substitutes. Vagina literally means sheath”. Now if you think of …and it depends, of course, where your fantasies or imagination… where you go with this metaphor – if you think of rape, if you think of violence in the home – and this is really, really important – I don’t for a minute want to denigrate what Andrea Dworkin and others have done in bringing an awareness in a public world, in a world of citizenship, of the worst horrors that have ever been perpetrated against women and the worst horrors occur in the home. That’s always been the case and there are 19th century, mid 19th century – Sheila knows about these women – mid 19th century socialist feminists who argued…who are not…who are forgotten now - in France, in Germany, in the UK, in the US, who argued that feminism must change, socialism must change what goes on in the home. They argued that but nobody heard them. Socialists, activists in the 19th century were too busy thinking about wages, thinking about shortening the length of the working day or thinking about getting the vote to worry about what went on in the home. So Andrea Dworkin is not new she’s just presented in a very, very powerful way and she had a huge impact and, you know, a very proper impact. But you might think this…. when I wrote about this in the context of this being, in the women’s movement, very, very influential I thought “the penis? a weapon?” I thought “God, not the ones I’ve seen.” You know…”what kind of weapon is it?” you know “a bit floppy…a bit, you know”. So it depends how you think of this, you know. A weapon? The idea of it being a weapon you think “oh my god”, you know, “a bit painful”, you know, “if it was... if you tried to hit it”, you know.
And I think also I just want to say something – and this will be a bit controversial if anyone here is …very controversial if anyone here is a follower of Andrea Dworkin – but it is important I think to point out…sorry, did somebody say something? [From the audience: “This is a commemorative event”. A.A: “Yes”. Audience: “It is a commemorative event about Andrea Dworkin”. A.A.: “Yes, it is about her” Audience: Inaudible A.A.: “Yes, yes, yes. Sorry”] I just want to say that there’s another side in the UK. There’s a lot of evidence presented about stories about women who have been victims of abuse. There are also stories of children who have been taken away from their homes by very pious, zealous, pious, zealous social workers. Dragged away in the middle of the night – these are the people in Rochdale in the UK in the early nineties who were taken away by social workers - the parents were accused of child abuse and it turned out that the stories were actually not true. So there are those kinds of stories which I think…and there are many stories about men who were suspected of being paedophiles and there’s a famous story of someone who’s a paediatrician who was actually... whose home was pelted and bombarded with eggs and other things because people thought he was a paedophile. Anyway, it’s, you know, understandable – or not. But this is the point I want to make… is that, in the anti porn movement, pornography was simply equated with violence.
In her book Intercourse – and I think that is, again, an absolutely wonderful book – there is a chapter in that book which is called Virginity and the main subject matter of that chapter is... it’s about Joan of Arc and Andrea Dworkin writes about Joan of Arc who was a 15th century military woman who was actually killed as a witch at the age of nineteen. Horrific thing to have happened. But Andrea Dworkin’s chapter is headed ‘Virginity’. She’s… here’s a quote. She says “Intercourse and women’s inequality are like Siamese twins - always in the same place at the same time, pissing in the same pot.” Joan of Arc...one of the elements she admires in Joan of Arc is her virginity. “An essential element of her virility, her autonomy is her virginity”, she says that….she writes that men were able to sleep in the same dormitory with the young Joan of Arc and not dare to touch her which is absolutely great if she wasn’t wanting to be touched by any of them. But to make her virginity an essential element of her power, her authority, her virility is… seems to me to be slightly odd. And she says it symbolises…her virginity symbolises her power, her independence and her resistance from patriarchal values. Why her virginity? Why not the fact that she was a great military hero - which she was – and why not the horror of actually… in having her be killed as a witch when in fact she was a great military hero? Those things are the horrors, not her virginity, surely?
And it seems to me… before I just make these points about Islamic fundamentalism, it seems to me that care, sympathy, love, an acknowledgement of dependence are key moral values. Dependence, an acknowledgement of dependence, are key moral values which should be encouraged in all of us and not denigrated. Dependence. Autonomy is fine. But dependence is also an important human value which should be acknowledged and recognised. And love, you know, Wendy Holloway who was one of the feminists against censorship people, she wrote an article about love and about relationships and she talked about love as being a relationship of mutual dependence where each party can trust the other to such an extent that they can feel the kind of safety that they felt as a small child in the womb. That’s what love between two adults – whether they’re same sex or different sex – is all about. It’s an acknowledgement of reciprocity, recognition of the other. She takes a lot of stuff from (?)Hegel but I think it’s really, really important - that point of view.
And I think, secondly, the anti sex perspective plays directly into the hands of the religious right and specifically of fundamentalist religions. And the fundamentalist religions could be Christian but I want to talk specifically here about Islam. But I just want to give you, before I do that, one little denigratory remark about love which I thought was wonderful that I found when I was reading the feminist literature. Love starts, it says, when you sink into his arms – this is you, the woman – when you sink into his arms and ends with your arms in his sink. So I just thought that was a nice little quote as a little aside, you know, about love as a wrong kind of love.
But anyway, ok, fundamentalism which it plays into the hands of… and I think a lot of the material that we heard from Sheila... but, I mean, this is happening in the UK, in Europe, in the US but it’s certainly not happening in many countries in the middle east and it is most certainly not happening in Iran. And this is a quote here…”I use the term fundamentalism and fundamentalist specifically for the Islamic state in Iran and those who share the same beliefs and values.” That comes directly from an Iranian Muslim woman who is critical of her own state and of the human rights abuses that are conducted by that state. I think I’d just like to tell you first of all that in the early eighties in Iran, after the revolution, carried out by Homeni in 1979, 120,000 people were executed according to the Iranian resistance. Executed. Some of them, you know, for what reason? I’m going to tell you why in a minute for what reason they were executed but 120,000. The figure is maybe contested but these are the figures.
From this perspective, the anti sex perspective, sexual vice, being concerned with your appearance, is the most ignoble sin. Moral decency is measured, primarily, in sexual terms. And it’s interesting to me that Elizabeth Wilson who was one of the Feminists Against Censorship who wrote in the early 80’s about the sort of feminism that Andrea Dworkin espoused Her article in a book called Sexual something edited by Lyn Segal and Mary Mackintosh, her article was called ‘Fundamentalist Feminism’ . So I think it’s not coincidental that we now are seeing the resurgence of a fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist Islamic world and in the 80’s anti sex feminism was called fundamentalist feminism.
Ok. It’s difficult for me, of course, to talk about Iran as a white woman but, as I say, and I risk you know, Sahid’s words, sort of denigrating Islam… the sort of Western thing of denigrating Islam and I don’t want to denigrate Islam at all. I think there are many versions of Islam that don’t share the kind of views that I’m going to talk about briefly in the next five minutes. But this article is written by….this quote here comes from a feminist from Iran who is a Muslim and she uses the terms fundamentalism and fundamentalist specifically for the Islamic state in Iran and those who share the same beliefs and values. Fundamentalism is about absolute control of the female body and mind. Now that is, as I say, a follower of Islam, that quote.
This is a quote – and she says Iran because Iran is the first and only state based on the principle of Bell Ayat Al Fahd (?) which means that the Sharia Islamic code is enshrined in the constitution. This is a quote from one of the Iranian resistance members about…. it’s a quote from a Friday prayer leader in Iran – here we are, he says: “One of society’s moral and psychological and social problems is, quote, those who do not observe the Islamic dress code in the hospitals and elsewhere, are improperly veiled, apply make-up in public and show themselves to strangers. Such women must be viewed as diseased patients who must be cured. They lack human dignity and nature.” And one of the most significant forms of oppression of women in Iran is the enforcement of a dress code.
Article 638 of the Islamic Punishment Act which was ratified in 1996 states, quote: “Anyone who commits a forbidden act in public will be fined, imprisoned from 10 days to 2 months or given up to 74 lashes. If the person commits an act which is not punishable but offends public decency he or she will be imprisoned from 10 days to 2 months or given up to 74 lashes.” Now recently, Agence France, an agency in France, reported a list of Islamic regulations which had been published that had to be observed by women. This is the newspaper in which they were published. And basically these regulations banned trousers or skirts worn with a jacket that’s not fully covered by a long gown. The gowns should be long sleeved and may not be of shiny material or bright colours. Among other things banned were brightly coloured socks with designs on them.
Now recently, in 2006, on International Women’s day, women marched in Tehran. According to Human Rights Watch, which is a human rights organisation in the US, police dumped cans of garbage on the heads of women who were seated. Many of the women who handed out some 2000 copies of the resolution about International Women’s Day were arrested and a woman from Iran who’s based in the US said “Unfortunately, I think their verdicts will be execution”. Now what was the…what were they wanting…what were they marching for? They were marching for the right…for example there are pavements for women and men in Iran. They were marching for the right to wear brightly coloured socks. They were marching for the right, if you’re female, a young female of 16, to walk along the road like this, fully clothed, fully covered, with a 16 year old boy next to you. They were marching for the right to do that and they could be stoned or executed and for the last 27 years Iran has been the only country that has had this kind of fundamentalist regime in power. This is what the resistance movement said.
Now, ok…I’m going to finish now. I’m not saying that Andrea Dworkin would endorse any of this but I want to link it back. However I think that there is an image of woman presented and I think it’s very interesting that Sheila, I think, has presented a similar kind of image. There is an image of woman presented as, in order to be powerful and independent you have to be sexless. You can’t wear clothes that you might like to wear, you can’t wear colourful scarves. I mean I think a lot of the examples that Sheila described I would personally would not want to practice and, in fact, Sheila and I are in agreement in actually being sceptical about the writings of Judith Butler. I think it’s very interesting actually that Judith Butler talks about women enacting their gender and she talks about women being able to choose their gender and, in fact, it’s only about 1% of women – and Sheila and I are agreed about this – who do actually want to change their gender. It’s a tiny proportion of women, on the basis of which she advocates for this thesis or argues for this thesis that women enact or choose their gender.
But I think that there is an image that women’s bodies are denigrated in both forms of thinking and there’s a whole body of feminist literature, feminist writing in the US, the UK and Europe which offers a very different picture. It offers a picture, this overtly feminist writing, about sex. Pat Califier was one of the big, early women who wrote…who wrote about women’s erotic desire. And there’s a whole body of literature doing that. [S.J.: “She is now Patrick” A.A.: “Yeah…um...yeah, absolutely”] And there’s also, I think, a problem for many men if we adopt this view of women. I just found a recent quote…well maybe it’s not very recent actually, but I found a quote that...which relates…I don’t know whether you noticed that there was a survey conducted, I think, just in the last couple of days over what is women’s and men’s, in the UK, favourite novel of all time and by far and away the favourite novel for women came out as Jane Eyre which is about, you know, as you know, you all know what it’s about - that she desperately loves Rochester...Jane Eyre. By far and away the favourite novel for men was Camus The Outsider and I just want to end with a quote because I think this image of women as being sexless plays into the hands of this view about men: “Men are creatures with emotional disabilities that we women can help them overcome.” Now, I mean, I don’t know whether you want to agree or not with that quote but I just want to give you that quote because I think if we present an image of women as having to be virgins in order to be autonomous, powerful women then I think we’re playing into the hands of that view about men.
Ok. Thank you.
Chair: Alright so we’ll start with some questions and you’re of course free to disagree with either of the speakers if you want to. And we’ll start with you.
Questioner: I would like to say that Andrea Dworkin’s work was not anti sex it was anti sex abuse and [inaudible] you seem to be very confused about the issue that she was talking about - which is abuse. Why have you defined her work as anti sex? It is not anti sex.
A.A.: I think we’d have to read…have you read her book Intercourse?
Questioner: I’ve read many of her books.
A.A.: Yeah. Well, I mean I’ve given a couple of quotes. Of course I could give many more quotes but I think it’s very interesting that that book, to me, I mean, one of the chapters is called ‘Dirt’, another chapter is called ‘Virginity’, that it seems to me…that there are quotes I could give you where she says that it may be the case…she’d say it much more strongly and powerfully than this, but if there were a society where women and men were completely equal then heterosexual sex might have disappeared. There is a quote – I’m sorry I can’t remember where it comes from but it’s something like that - that there’s almost a view that comes from the book on pornography that pornography is inherently violent, that, in order to be powerful, you have to be…you know, not have to be but it’s almost as though, if you’re female, you represent yourself as a sex being then that plays into the hands of male oppressors. I think there is that view there.
Questioner: But the women are not presenting themselves as sex beings. They’re being sexually abused by men for profit and masculinity. That’s the point Andrea Dworkin is making. Pornography isn’t about sex it’s about abuse. It’s about the power differential. It’s about male dominance and female subordination as an institution. You’re coming from the patriarchal perspective on pornography. This is a feminist perspective on pornography which states it’s abuse.
A.A.: Well, you see, I mean, you’ve said just then I’m coming from the patriarchal perspective on pornography. I mean, I’ve never been interested in pornography, I’ve never looked at pornography in my life and you’re saying I come from the patriarchal perspective.
From the audience (ww aside - was it you, feministfirst?): How can you defend pornography if you’ve never looked at it because I’ve looked at it and it’s horrific?
A.A.: But I wasn’t defending pornography. I was saying that…I’m not setting out to be a…to align myself with people who make millions of pounds from producing pornographic magazines. I’m not setting out to align myself with them. But all I’m saying is that women, if they want to, they should have the choice of looking at – and men – should have the choice…
[Audience interruption of outrage]
Chair: There is a queue of questions so we’re going to try to get through them in order. I think actually you wanted to respond on that?
S.J.: Yes. You did have the advantage of being able to respond to me and identify me as sexless whereas I have not actually had the opportunity to respond to you.
A.A.: I didn’t say you were sexless
S.J.: Oh, I think you did, in the end. [audience laughter] I don’t know that sexless is really an insult! I mean, if I’m sexless, I think I’m great, you know, maybe it’s the way to go…
But when you’re accused of being anti sex or sexless you have to rush in and say “I’ve had a very active sex life” right? Because it’s the only way. It’s a bit like the accusations of witchcraft – you have to quickly say… anyway, I won’t even bother to say that to you – you can probably find out on the internet. [audience laughter] but…but… some of my old girlfriends are getting active. [audience laughter]
Now, I think that the problem here is about the definition of what sex is. What Andrea Dworkin does is she criticises the construction of sex in patriarchal culture. If she’s got a chapter called ‘Dirt’ it’s because she’s criticising the way women are seen as ‘dirt’ and the way sex is used against them as ‘dirt’, right? Now that’s very clear to me. I do not understand why anybody should think that Andrea somehow identifies with the views of women and sex in the culture. What she’s doing is criticising them and saying that sex is, you know, the main mechanism through which women are subordinated in culture. She’s, I don’t know whether she’s, you know, into sex or not – I have no idea about that part of her life – but what she is against is sado-masochistic sex. It’s a sex of power and domination against powerlessness and subordination. Now we should all be against that because that is fundamental to the subordination of women. Anyone who’s not against that sex is actually wanting the subordination of women to continue. So, yes, I’m against that sex. Do I think that sex can be different? You know, even for some of the individuals here, and in the future, I think sex could be different. But what we’ve got to have is the sex of equality. Now that’s called sexlessness? And it’s seen as, as I often say, about as exciting as a cold rice pudding but, I’m sorry, it’s where we’ve got to go. Thank you. [Applause]
Chair: We’ll take some more questions
Questioner: Thanks very much for both of the talks. I felt really invigorated by Sheila Jeffreys saying things that I’ve felt… the inspiration that came from Andrea Dworkin but I was very disturbed by Alison Assiter. I thought “oh no…she can’t be saying that at a commemorative conference” but, in fact, it really struck me when you both talked that you’re both against the same thing and Andrea Dworkin hated those same things - we all hate the same things together. The question is what are the…you know…how do we sort of frame the enemy …how do we then destroy it? It felt to me as though Alison Assiter isn’t angry enough about the way that women are coerced in the West, you know. I have two teenaged daughters. My fourteen year old spends an hour preening before she goes to school every day. You know, I love her. I don’t want her to feel a fool when she does that. But what do you do? This is coercion. You should be more worried about that. But on the other hand I felt Sheila Jeffreys should maybe be a bit worried – and maybe Andrea Dworkin should’ve been as well – [falters] But that [inaudible] is so violating and so aggressive and, you know, ordinary women who feel their breasts are too big and uncomfortable or feel their labia are uncomfortable or whatever, you know they should also be.. we should be concerned about them and the line that I think Andrea Dworkin [inaudible] I can’t remember where it was…in a paper, an article on Hedda Nusbaum [inaudible] and the phrase she uses, she said - you know Hedda Nusbaum got done for failing to care for her baby when she was battered – and Andrea Dworkin said yes, we’re very worried about the baby, we’re worried enough to send Hedda Nusbaum down but who loved the woman that the baby was going to become, you know, who loved Hedda Nusbaum? Women aren’t loved enough. And so I guess I’d like you both to say a bit about this whole loving of women.
Chair: Ok. There’s a question at the back and then we’ll take …
Questioner (Julie Bindel): Yes, I feel that I have to speak up for the children of Rochdale really. It was the comment that Alison Assiter made that I think was deeply offensive. It was wrong and it was outrageous. To suggest that another failed child protection incident meant that the people who abused those children simply were not convicted of it. In so many statutory rape cases time and time again – and any of us who do work on sexual violence will know – that if you rape or abuse an under five year old you’re pretty much guaranteed to get away with it. And if you rape a woman, per se, you have got a very, very good chance of getting away with it. Ok? So please don’t make statements like ‘the adults of Rochdale, it was discovered that they hadn’t abused these children after all, somebody was lying’. Children aren’t believed and women are often not believed and unless, for example, with rape if you think that 93% of women – 94% of women – who make complaints about rape are lying – we actually have a 6% conviction rate – then we’re in a very bad situation.
And I also don’t think that Sheila and Alison do hate the same thing. I think, Alison, I think you hate radical feminism - and you hate feminists who point out that men are destructive and sexually abusive - to rather a large extent. I really don’t think that Alison hates pornography or violence towards women at all unless I’ve misheard what you say.
A.A.: Do you think it would be possible….I don’t think I insulted anyone…d’you think it would be possible, if you don’t mind me saying this…that, you know, one person has accused me of being confused and you said that I don’t hate violence against women. I find that, I’m afraid…it’s just like the things I was accused of in the 80’s because I wrote a book called Bad Girls Dirty Pictures I was accused of not accepting that there is violence against women. I was accused of sleeping with the enemy and I was accused of not deserving the title of feminist many, many, many times. And I’m afraid the tone of the two contributions where you say…one said you were deeply confused – maybe I am. I accept I’m deeply confused, perhaps we’re all deeply confused, in the end – and the other at the back who says I cannot be against violence against women – of course I’m against violence against women..
Questioner (J. B.): Excuse me, I didn’t say that you couldn’t be against it. I said that you have said nothing which could lead any of us to believe that you hate violence against women as much as you hate radical feminists.
A.A.: I don’t hate radical feminists… really.
Questioner (J. B): And quite frankly you can’t get away with making statements like ‘these adults were found not to have abused these children in Rochdale’ when you can look at what the conviction rate is for those people who rape under five year olds. It’s outrageous what you said. You cannot possibly qualify it and therefore I think you should leave it out of your talk.
Chair: Ok. We have two questions over here and we’ll take this one first.
Questioner (Catharine MacKinnon): Piling on a little bit... I do question… I feel as if I’m in a sort of Orwellian world when I hear you speak… where things mean the opposite or things are certainly not of a similar understanding to me. There is, for example, I’m hearing some of the lines that I’ve heard over and over again during the controversies over pornography in the eighties. One of them, for example, seems to be the facile assertion that pornography is somehow connected causily with rape was argued not to be true – or ‘not proven’, rather - but on the other hand the assertion that pornography, that opposing pornography readily leads to censorship passed easily without being, in any sense, proven. There was no scientific proof for that – not required.
I began to wonder what the word ‘alliance’ meant when I heard that Andrea Dworkin, or whoever played the perfect target, was allied with the far right. Where was the proof or the understanding of just what ‘alliance’ meant? If you happen to be standing on the same spot at the same time which is very common in politics.
With respect to the behaviour of the police and the treatment by police: I thought it may be useful, if you have not done so, that you would read Sheila Jeffreys' book The Spinster and her Enemies for it’s very informative discussion of the Contagious Diseases Act and the all too typical use of that Act as an excuse for police to maltreat women.
And finally I would just say that ‘pissing in the same spot’ - same ‘pot’ excuse me – is obviously a paraphrase of male attitude – based on what men say and what men write and what men think. One might look at Joan Smith’s work for a reminder of that. It seems odd to misunderstand or misread a paraphrase for the attitude of a person who is paraphrasing someone else’s [indecipherable] behaviour.
A.A.: Ok. When I said alliance…. and this was in the, as you are well aware, of course this was in the 1980’s…the radical feminists and the Christian right were taking the same line. Ok, the word alliance was used loosely, if you like, but I think we often use the word alliance when two groups of people who are otherwise opposed... I mean, Sheila Jeffreys and I happen to be allied in our view on Judith Butler. We happen to be allied in our view on post modernism that doesn’t mean we’re directly working to counter post modernism but we happen to share the same view. That’s the sense in which I was using the word alliance.
S.J.: Like me and Tebbit maybe, Alison?
A.A.: Yeah. You know, you don’t like it Sheila but I don’t like being allied with right wing pornographers either. I don’t like it.
Questioner (C.M.): Excuse me but why conflate them? Why go out of your way to conflate them?
A.A.: Can I just say…can I just finish please will you just let me finish the response if you don’t mind because you made a point that the language - and Sheila made the point as well - that what Andrea Dworkin is talking about is not… she’s not, if you like, expressing her own view in calling a chapter ‘Dirt’ she’s talking about the patriarchal view – the way that women are represented. Now, absolutely – I don’t for a minute deny that but all I’m saying, and this is exactly…you’re saying that what I’m saying plays into the hands of the pornographers – ok – you may be right but I think there is something which is equally frightening and worrying which is very current today and that is Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. And I think that the sort of quotes that are used…I’m glad there’s somebody nodding - one person in the audience is nodding and that gives me a little bit of reassurance and it makes me think I’m not completely insane which is, you know... maybe I am insane? – I certainly felt it in the 80’s. But anyway, the sort of language that’s used, the choice of metaphors, the choice of cultural icons, the way those cultural icons are described is the same language as the language used by the Christian right in the US and by Islamic fundamentalists. It’s a language that denigrates women as sex beings and it represents women and it, it…by implication it depicts women who are good, strong, active, feminist women as being, by implication…I’m not saying for a minute that Andrea Dworkin or Sheila or anybody is actually… actually does not have a sex life – I’m not saying that. I’m saying that the image that is presented [audience laughter] maybe you’ll be glad to know that… I’m saying that the image that’s presented almost makes out…. the image…the sort of cultural icons, the way those cultural icons are described, it’s almost as though, in order to be a feminist hero, you have to depict yourself as sexless. That’s all I’m saying and that’s exactly what the Islamic fundamentalists do, it’s exactly what they do. They say ‘women cannot be, in public, sex beings because they’re…women are dangerous’. Women as sex beings are dangerous people. You cannot show that you are…you cannot show a bit of hair because, if you do, you’ll stir up some man to go and rape some woman somewhere. Just showing a little bit of hair. And I’m simply saying that it plays… it’s a similar language and it plays off that…
Audience interruption [inaudible]
Question: I’d like to know, both Sheila and Alison, what we can do about the future. So I’d like you both to comment on where you think – obviously individually because you’re both very different people – what’s feeding the energy that makes things the way they are for women still the way they are for women? Why, when so much has been written, so much understood about equality and the benefits of all sorts of good behaviour, where…what’s the driver for the continuing discrimination, prejudice and violence against women in our society?
S.J.: Yes, I think…I think one of the things that’s happening and what lies behind the practices I was talking about earlier is that we’re in a stage in which the culture is being pornographised. As a result of the fact that in - as a result of the work of Alison, and others - pornography was de-censored, normalised and allowed to become an enormously powerful industry from the 1970’s onwards. [applause] The effect of this industry; this industry is now everybody’s pension schemes - they’re actually wound up in it – we’re all going to live off the earnings of prostitution - General Motors is in pornography now, right? So we’re all living and will live in our older years off the earnings of prostitution – the prostitution of poor women, marginalised women, the most vulnerable women and the terrible violence done to their bodies in pornography and prostitution. We will live off that. Now, that’s the world in which we live. In the last 25 years pornography has spread out as it’s become normalised to be what the entertainment industry is – there’s little difference now between porn models who open gigs and are in the porn videos. They are also the fashion models – pornography creates the styles that women are supposed to wear - that’s why they have to show all their body and wear ‘slut pumps’, the shoes that are pointed, they’re slut pumps. So all of those practices come very much from pornography as does labiaplasty as does brazilian waxing as does breast implants and so on and so on.
Now why is all that happening? Yes, of course, it’s a huge market sector but I think also it’s happening because it’s the compensation to feminism. Right? Yes, women have some more opportunities now. There are many things that women are able to do now, and I would not deny it, than when I was young and I could only think of being a teacher or, possibly a civil servant. Women can do all kinds of things, not in huge numbers and not as we would like but as a result of that I think men are being offered, compen.., and I mean quite understandably really, by male dominated governments all over the world, the huge compensation of the pornography and prostitution industry which allows men to have a subordinate class of marginalised and poor women on whom to act out their rage and create their dominance. So I think that’s a huge part of what’s going on.
A.A.: Shall I respond or do you want to have some more questions? I mean I…
Questioner: I’d love to. I’d love to know what you have to say.
A.A.: Ok. Let me just tell you about one of my students. One of my students recently did a project on women in the UK, women erotic dancers and she interviewed a lot of them and all of them, she said, all of them said they feel powerful when they’re doing their erotic dancing. They feel..[audience laughter] no, no please let me finish. You’re laughing but this is what they said. They feel powerful when they do erotic dancing. This is what they all said. Now I just want to contrast that because I personally think that the fundamental problem, the big problem in the world today, is fundamentalist religion. That’s what I think is the big problem in the world today. And I think it’s very, very serious and the kinds of human rights abuses that are actually carried out in the name of fundamentalist religion, I think, put – I don’t for a minute…please let me say this again and again – I don’t think that violence in the home against women is right. I think it’s horrific. I think that the numbers of women who have been destroyed, they’re also made because they’ve managed to overcome it. You know I’m actually trained to be a counsellor and one of my clients is somebody who overcame horrific abuse and she is going to be the most wonderful woman because she overcame it and, you know, many women have. I don’t want to denigrate that but I think the sort of abuse that can cause you to be stoned and executed… you can be married in Iran at age 9, if you’re a girl, you can be stoned by…and there’s debates about the size of the stone. This is really serious stuff…debates about the size of the stone that is used against women for simply doing things like walking in the streets, wearing colourful clothing or walking on the wrong pavement and if the stone is too small it won’t… it’ll just hurt the woman. If it’s too big it’ll kill her too quickly. This, it seems to me, and this Sharia law is coming into existence in Iraq at the moment. There’s a combination, if you read the Iraqi constitution, there’s a combination of Sharia law and some woolly-minded, liberal democratic constitution. This, to my mind, is the fundamental problem facing women today and I would want to devote all my energies, as far as I can, to working with the Iranian resistance because I think they’re the hope for Iran at the moment and not bombing Iran, which the US or UK could easily do, and for helping women worldwide. That’s my answer.
Chair: Ok. There’s a question at the very back? Which is next in the queue..yeah…
Questioner (ww aside; Finn Mackay, I think): I just wanted to say to Alison... you know, you suggested that you’ve got a bad reception here and you’re asking people, you know, not to throw, sort of, insults at you. But you have come here and we have listened to your talk. But to me it’s just a case of ‘which side are you on’. Right at the beginning you said that you were proud to ally yourself with the pornographers and you said that quite clearly. Right at the beginning you said during the intro you were proud to ally yourself with the pornographers
A.A. interrupts: I didn’t. Please. I didn’t say that. I didn’t.
Questioner: Ok well maybe I misheard but that is what I got from your speech [inaudible] you were talking about where you were positioned in the 80’s and so I think, yeah, why? Why defend that [inaudible] there are many [inaudible] you can have, and as Andrea said, with regard to arguments over rapes, you know, it does come down to which side you’re on.
A.A.: Sorry, I think there are many, many sides. Look, let me just say this. I don’t think that all women form a class. Radical feminists talked about a sex class. I don’t think they do. I think the problems faced by the women I’ve just been talking about which you didn’t mention are far, far more extreme than problems faced by any woman in the West. Any woman.
From the audience: Bullshit! Women are being killed in their houses on a regular…
A.A.: Ok. Ok. Ok. I just wanted to respond…
Chair: We’re just going to start taking questions two at a time because there’s quite a few of them remaining. I think next in the queue there was one from you?
Questioner: My question is for Sheila Jeffreys. I really enjoyed your paper it was very fluent, it was funny and it was very thoughtful and you presented a very persuasive case that we have a [inaudible] gender now. One of the things I liked about your paper is you have a very strong sensitivity to the unequal playing field that women are still operating on and I think it’s that sensitivity to the politics of gender in our society that is perhaps lacking in our other speaker today.
But what I want to ask you is do you think there’s any prospect of a third wave of feminism? You know, the second wave of feminism was made up of both a social movement with women theorising. We still have women theorising but we don’t seem to have a social movement anymore. So is there any prospect of a third wave of feminism?
Second questioner: All I can see feminism at the moment is faced with tackling the problems, both the problem of fundamentalism in Iran and we’ve got the continuing problem in our society of why aren’t things improving as much or as quickly as we thought they would, and so we have the two different responses one from Professor Assiter and one from Professor Jeffreys which says we should look at this and we should do it this way and another look at these problems in UK society instead of Iran and [inaudible] and respond in this way and I think they... I find them to be both valid responses and the problem seems to come from the fact that Professor Jeffreys’ response could possibly be abused by fundamentalists and so that seems to be why you’re arguing against it rather than the fact that the arguments within it are valid and [inaudible].
So, my question is, just wondering, really, I think that what you said was the fundamental problem was where we should put our energy, how… I think we ought to have the audie…I think we should have energy put in to trying to cope with both the issues… the problems in UK society, the fact that we’re still continuing [inaudible] and how are we going to find a way for those two things to be done and the energy which is put into them instead of fighting against each other. To work constructively we need to support each other. I don’t think there’s a really strong disagreement with anyone.
Chair: Feel free to respond to either question.
A.A.: I think you have to make your own choice. It’s you. You choose where you want to go. Nobody’s going to tell you. That’s all I would say.
Chair: And there was…
S.J.: Can I say about the third wave? Yes, I hope that it will come. I know lots of marvellous young women, and they are getting more numerous, who are interested in this, who are actually collecting a history of the early movement, getting interested in those ideas, doing their PhD’s on that stuff, interestingly enough. So something’s going on. There is a revival of interest, you know, the BBC and Channel Four are making programmes about the stuff. I mean, extraordinary. So I think there is hope but it’s very, very difficult for young women. They don’t have any of the things we took for granted – they don’t have women’s bookstores or women’s spaces or women’s centres. All that is gone and they’re on their own and it’s really, really, really, really hard. But, yes, I have hopefulness and I think if that revolution comes again it’s going be about what they have to do sexually, what they have to do to their bodies – it’s going to come from the personal again and from the agony of what they’re now being expected to do, sexually.
Can I just say something about fundamentalism. It is important that, in Iran – and this is a connection I have with Alison here, because we’re making connections today – in Iran transgenderism is totally approved, it’s enforced by the state. Huge numbers of men are having transgender surgery and they’re getting it on the state because homosexuals are executed. So, what I think is very fascinating is that there’s a connection between the very jolly Blair government and their Gender Recognition Act and Iran. They love transgenderism because it does help to get rid of this serious problem of homosexuality and it enforces gender. Right? So we do need to be fighting, I think, transgenderism as a state ‘project’ in terms of gender.
Chair: Do you have a question over here?
Questioner: Yes. I mean I suppose it’s more of a statement to start off…. I mean for the first session. I think it’s brilliant that we’re having a day to commemorate Andrea Dworkin, the work of Andrea Dworkin and the impact that Andrea had on women and men both in the academic world but also [inaudible] as well out there. I think it’s fantastic that we’ve got the speakers that we have but especially to hear Sheila speaking and to use the same clear, powerful language and to equip us with those words to challenge what they do and what they think and what they say where we do have that, you know, is it feminists who support this gender realignment and what’s going on and I think we need the kind of writings to help us formulate our arguments about what it is that…is anti feminist and anti women about, about where we’re going. I think it’s useful to have these arguments which use gender and sex and sexuals and to keep that... because like you’re saying…we don’t have women’s studies we have gender studies so everybody can come along and everybody, you know…
S.J.: And you don’t need to have women in them!
Questioner: No you don’t! And women’s voices that were in the Academy are now getting pushed out again – we can’t have feminists, we can have gender studies. So I think it’s really important that we have that, you know, that we have the language and we have the knowledge. And also…I mean [inaudible] sorry, just to say that we need a structural analysis. It’s not enough to just say one woman made it [inaudible] being a lap dancer. Structurally we know – and we know [inaudible] all forms of violence against women are there – it’s about the abuse of children, it’s about the abuse of women, it’s about pornography, it’s about [inaudible] physical and sexual violence against plenty of women and children and that’s why we need a gender structural analysis – an analysis that Andrea and Sheila and others help us to understand what it’s about.
Chair: Do we have a question right here?
Questioner (Catharine MacKinnon): Yeah, it’s more a statement too. In connection with what Alison Assiter said, I’d like to straighten out one distortion, one factual misrepresentation and one de-contextualisation.
The distortion: ‘the connection between pornography and rape is not proven’. That is a vast distortion of a huge body of social science research that has been going on for a period of years. Reasonably well put together [inaudible] data which was published in Catherine Itzin’s book and shows, it documents without any question, the connection between exposure to pornography and it’s effect on people who use it in terms of, among other things, their pro-rape attitude which informs their behaviour but also [inaudible] and other effects.
As to the actual misrepresentation: Andrea Dworkin was never allied with the far right and, indeed, the Christian right never supported the MacKinnon Dworkin Ordinance – not any time and not anywhere – and in both the connections of these two things, these are two items that were reports that were created by a PR firm which was hired and funded by the pornographers to flood the press with these two lies so that you would all think these two things. The reason that the Christian right didn’t support the MacKinnon/Dworkin Ordinance is because it’s a sex equality law and that is why the fundamentalists – the Islamic fundamentalists – don’t support it either.
And as to the de-contextualisation: the quote by Robin Morgan about censorship legislation being used against women was a statement about obscenity law. It is not, as was implied here, suggested here, in relation to the work that Andrea Dworkin did against pornography including the legislation that she [inaudible]
A.A.: [sigh] I don’t know whether it’s worth it really. I mean I would like to say, I suppose, on the comment that the …as far as the vast body of experiments, literature on the purported causal connection between pornography and rape, that literature is heavily contested and there are many people on both sides who say it is not clear what the evidence actually shows. It’s contested. Basically it’s contested. It is contested research. I suppose that’s all I would say.
And on the point about the factual inaccuracy, I’m sure you’re in a better position than I am, obviously, to know what the actual position was there but I’m only quoting what has been reported many, many, many times in articles, in press reports and so on about the Christian right actually supporting the Ordinance. This is what has been reported many, many, many times. Now, I know, I know that what is reported is often a distortion of the truth. I know that and I’m not going to claim that I have more access to the truth than somebody who was there and part of it - how could I claim that? But all I would say is that this has been reported many, many times and I’m simply reporting what I’ve read from many, many sources.
Chair: Ok well I think we’re going to have to end it there in terms of questions because we’ve run out of time.
From the audience- aradfem: I just want to say, actually, that if you’ve been told that it’s not right will you continue to say it?
Chair: We’re going to just…you don’t have to respond to that because we’re done with it but if you want to continue the conversation over lunch, that’s great. And could we all thank our speakers…[Applause]