Glossing over: women’s magazines are “as intent as the average sexist in the street at making women feel bad”
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Germaine Greer: the failures of the new feminism

“Feminism in Britain has had two strands: as a media phenomenon and as an academic discipline. The vast realm of reality that lies between remains unaffected by either.”

The Vagenda
Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Square Peg, 296pp, £12.99

Everyday Sexism
Laura Bates
Simon & Schuster, 384pp, £14.99

The most curmudgeonly old feminist has got to be glad that in February 2012 two young women set up a blog raging about the insidious nastiness of the women’s press and got seven million hits in its first year of operation. The hope springs up that there might be sufficient angry women out there and they might be sufficiently angry to bring about actual change. But then we’ve thought that before and before any difference could be made to anything, we were told that it was over and that feminism was a dirty word again. Feminism in Britain has had two strands: as a media phenomenon and as an academic discipline. The vast realm of reality that lies between remains unaffected by either.

Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who set up the Vagenda blog, have now uttered a book of the same name. The title was meant to be an ironic version of the portmanteau words adopted by the lower end of the women’s press – a compound of “vagina” and “agenda” – but, like much of the wordplay on the blog and in the book, it doesn’t really work, being neither amusing nor informative. “Vagina” is a vile name for any female orifice, because it means “scabbard”. No feminist could in conscience adopt it despite the never-ending afterlife of the ghastly Vagina Monologues. A similar insensitivity besets The Vagenda, the book. The jacket design is as offensive as anything ever seen in print. It is based on the logo for the blog but with a hideous refinement; the image of a nude female from waist to nearly knee, now photographic, has a chunk ripped out of it, extending from hipbone to hipbone to below the mons pubis, forming a gaping black triangle, in which appear the words “The Vagenda” in Barbie pink. The page design is almost as brutal as the cover.

The writing style of the book takes its cue from the hyperbole of the magazines that are under attack and struggles to outdo it. Baxter and Cosslett (who also write the V Spot blog on the New Statesman website) tell us that, in their personal experience, “Losing your hymen is about as pleasurable as having someone rap your knuckles with a frozen veggie sausage.” Do they seriously wish us to believe that their hymen somehow got lost and that they were aware of its getting lost at the time? That is no more likely than that someone, anyone, would have rapped them on the knuckles with a sausage of any kind, much less vegetarian, much less frozen. To refer to a first episode of penetrative sex as hymen loss reveals a level of ignorance that is positively medieval.

For both writers then to cast themselves in this fictitious double devirgination episode is part of a pattern in which they allege their own behaviour as evidence for the rightness of their arguments. They know! They’ve been there, they chorus. “Let’s face it,” they shriek, “the absence of a bra only feels like freedom if you’ve got the kind of boobs that can stand on their own two teats.” What is the meaning of “stand” here? What is it we’re being asked to face, exactly?

Baxter and Cosslett have no doubt that, “A lot of lactating women do want to get jiggy with it, whether or not they accidentally squirt their sex buddy in the eye while changing positions” – a vision that seems to be derived from the behaviour of playful farmhands in the milking parlour. (The human breast, like the bovine udder, will not squirt unless compressed.) “Of course we all know that [a particular] kind of mock-satin static-inducing pants . . . would have your vag steeped in crusty discharge faster than you can say pH imbalance,” they yelp. Can these two young experts really believe that “crusty discharge” is caused by pH imbalance, as if the vaginal introitus were packed with potting mix?

As the reader flounders through a morass of soiled underwear, amputated body parts, obscure beauty treatments and minor surgery, the figure of the target male, like Moby Dick, appears only to disappear again. He is blamed for all of it, when he is probably as unaware of most of it as Moby Dick would be. Men did not make women wear thongs or Louboutins or false eyelashes or breast implants. Men don’t make women spend money on Glamour magazine or even Cosmo. Men exist in The Vagenda solely as mute sexual partners, sometimes mentioned as “the boyfriend” or “a boyfriend”.

Baxter and Cosslett took a leaf out of the golden notebook of Arianna Huffington when they accepted submissions to their blog and published them without payment or full credit (the Vagenda’s policy is to include the author’s initials but not their full name). When the Huffington Post was sold to AOL for $315m, a small group of investors, including the Stassinopoulos family, shared the money; the army of unpaid bloggers who helped to create the asset received nothing. Some writers for the Vagenda blog have challenged Baxter and Cosslett on their insistence on contributor anonymity. The six-figure advance paid for the book will presumably not be shared with those who helped to build the brand. Well, as the late great black feminist Florynce Kennedy used to say way back in the 1960s, if you’ll fuck for a dime, you can’t complain when somebody else gets a mink coat.

The Vagenda will hit the bookstalls at the same time as Everyday Sexism. This book, too, began life as a blog, set up in April 2012 by the “diminutive, blonde, beatifically lovely” (in the words of the Telegraph) Laura Bates, born in 1987. Bates invited women to upload their experiences of sexist behaviour and by December 2013 there were 50,000 contributions. The thesis of Everyday Sexism, according to the cover copy, is that: “From being harassed and wolf-whistled at on the street, to discrimination in the workplace and serious sexual assault . . . sexism had become normalised.” This is not what the blog revealed; it revealed not that sexual assault was an accepted part of daily life but that behaviour defined as criminal was rife. All the examples given were of men invading women’s personal space, touching them, intimidating them, assaulting them and raping them.

Though gay men are far more likely to be viciously harassed, bullied and assaulted in the workplace than women, they were not invited to contribute to the Everyday Sexism project. Gay-bashing is regarded in many communities as a rite of passage and the perpetrators are unlikely to be viewed as criminals even when the facts of the case are known. That is true normalising.

Sexism should mean discrimination against any individual on the grounds of sex. Women haven’t abused men solely because of their sex since the legendary Amazons bit the dust; nowhere in the real world are women in a position of sufficient power to enable them to persecute men just for being men. Only women suffer discrimination on the grounds of their sex (as distinct from their sexual orientation) and not only from members of the opposite sex.

Sexism is here a misleading name for misogyny, which is distrust, hatred and contempt of women. And it’s not just men who feel these feelings and act on them. Women persecute other women, humiliate them and discriminate against them. They may not grab their tits or threaten to rape them; women have more effective ways of doing other women in. “Horizontal hostility”, another gem from the Flo Kennedy thesaurus, is a by-product of oppression. Oppressed people don’t dare denounce the actual oppressor; instead they betray the people alongside them. They see their shared suffering as the consequence of a defect within themselves. What should be anger becomes guilt and self-blame.

This process can be discerned clearly and repeatedly in the caseload of the Everyday Sexism project. Though much of what is reported is criminal behaviour and not normalised at all, as the victims persist in imagining that whatever happened was their fault, there can be no access to redress. They should be furious but are terrified and ashamed instead. As long as a rape victim is considered to need anonymity, she is expected to shoulder shame and self-hatred as a consequence of someone else’s behaviour. Enough. Enough. Simply coughing up outrage into a blog will get us nowhere.

This curmudgeonly old feminist has argued for years that victims of sexual assault should refuse to feel shame and should not avail themselves of offered anonymity. She has also argued that, because under the present code the burden of proof is too onerous and guilt too difficult to establish, sexual assault should be reclassified under the general law of assault. If you turn up at a police station with a black eye, you are not going to be asked what you were wearing or whether you consented to the assault, but then your assailant won’t be sent away for ten years either.

What Bates’s book should demonstrate is that offences against women are not outrageous or extraordinary; they are par for the course. They are committed with total impunity and at the same time made to appear exceptional. A man who cops a feel on a crowded Underground train does nothing special but he tells himself that he is a helluva fella who has pulled off some kind of a coup. Mere fiddling about becomes exploit. What is truly weird about the degree of impunity assailants enjoy is that everyone is carrying a mobile phone; there are surveillance cameras everywhere and still the offenders get away with it. How hard can it be to track them down?

A woman who is insulted should be prepared to talk loud and draw a crowd, to kick ass and take names (Flo again); she should also be supported by the women around her. Unpacking your heart with bitter words to an anonymous blog is no substitute for action. Years ago I suggested that women who had been abused on a date denounce the perpetrator online. (Remember that most – almost all – rape victims know their assailant.) The immediate response was that the accusations might not be true and innocent men might suffer. (The remedy to a false allegation would be a face-to-face confrontation.) What I was pretty sure of was that most of the individuals who would be named would be repeat offenders; the point would be to protect women from the hazard represented by such men, which is also the most compelling reason for reporting sexual assault to the police.

Everyday Sexism, with its iterated narrative of bewildered pain and grief, is a hard read. Vile behaviour to women has become a fashion among young men and there are some who blame “equality” as the cause. But sexual equality has not been achieved and sexual liberation has not even been glimpsed. As Baxter and Cosslett remark in The Vagenda, “The feminist revolution never came. We are in no way a post-feminist society.” We are still caught in the nightmare of bitterness and misunderstanding that leaves two women a week in Britain dead at the hands of their partners or ex-partners.

The emergence of three young women who are not afraid to give voice to rage could be a sign of a mass movement on the way. In the first half of 2013, sales of Cosmopolitan fell by 15 per cent, of Glamour by 14.8 per cent, of Vanity Fair by 12.2 per cent, of Grazia 11.6 per cent, of Elle 10.2 per cent and of Marie Claire 9.4 per cent. So far the downward trend appears to be continuing. Part of the explanation of the fall in hard-copy sales has been a rise in digital sales but those figures, setting out as they do from a low base, are no match for the lost hard-copy sales.

Women’s glossy magazines are as intent as the average sexist in the street on making women feel bad. We can do without both. What we need is a women’s press that interprets the “malestream” information for its female readers – that explains how Cameron’s gift to working spouses leaves unsupported mothers at a crushing disadvantage, how Amanda Hutton came to let her four-year-old child die, why so many women are given custodial sentences for minor offences, why there is never sufficient funding for care homes or for carers whether for children, the infirm or the aged, or why a woman is six times more likely to die in childbirth in Britain than she is in Estonia or why it took so long to stop Shipman. Bitching and whingeing have their place but without the truth we never shall be free. We need a genuine women’s press. Now that it can exist online, we could afford to run it without having to pimp for the glamour industry.

Germaine Greer’s most recent book is “White Beech: the Rainforest Years” (Bloomsbury, £25)

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge