No one wants to feel like a modern-day Mary Whitehouse.
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Opposing sexism, not sex: how does a feminist mother explain a lap-dancing club?

There is no special fantasy zone in which female subjectivity can be suspended. Women are people 100 per cent of the time.

“F-A-N-T-A-S-Y…. Fantasy. What’s a fantasy, Mummy?”

My five-year-old’s reading skills are coming on in leaps and bounds. He’s now even able to read the sign for a lap-dancing club opposite the place where I used to work.

“Fantasy is a lovely image, something you might like to happen, or something you just want to dream of.”

I do not tell my son that in this particular context, “something you might like to happen” is to all intents and purposes “for women to have no clothes on and at least pretend to know their place”. He doesn’t need to know this yet. Ideally, I hope he never will.

Fantasy opened in Cheltenham town centre in February 2014. It is the only lap dancing club in the town and its licence is up for renewal this month. I’ve always felt uncomfortable about it being there – especially knowing that male colleagues could always gaze out of the window and be reassured that you don’t have to treat women like equals all the time – but it’s only since my sons have started to become aware of it that I feel really, truly concerned.

Of course, I know what this makes me: a modern-day Mary Whitehouse who doesn’t want her precious little boys to be corrupted by the sexy laydees. A bitter old harpy who doesn’t want anyone to be having a good time. I don’t want to be that person. At the same time, I’m aware of how all of these stereotypes playing on my mind are quite clearly sexist ones. Why am I being sexist to myself? Isn’t there a legitimate concern to be had about venues such as Fantasy? I think there is. And isn’t it telling that even to think this leads to a barrage of sexist self-accusations, threatening to short-circuit any objections before they’ve even been voiced? This surely tells us far more about the positioning of women than it does about sex.

Because lap dancing is not about sex. We all know it’s not about sex. It’s about power and it’s about sexism. Men wear clothes, women don’t. Men experience arousal, women simulate it. Men have fantasies, women occupy them. Men are subjects, women objects. Men are people, women aren’t. There is nothing open-minded, liberating or pro-woman about the sexism industry. Repeating the same narrative over and over – the ideal woman, thin, silent, stripped bare, is one who exists solely to please men – it simply reinforces what sexists have always believed: that women don’t have any subjectivity of their own. That is the turn-on. That is the fantasy. It’s not a fantasy I want my children to have.

That the women working in clubs such as Fantasy are living, breathing subjects after all is not some great “gotcha!” undermining such objections. We’re all enmeshed in and compromised by the things we critique. It doesn’t render the criticism any less valid, nor reduce the need for change. The lazy misrepresentation of feminists as pearl-clutching rich ladies who haven’t considered the social and economic implications of their sexism-phobia simply doesn’t wash. Feminism is focused on the ways in which resources are withheld from women through socialisation, exploitation and the threat of violence. That sexism is something men can buy from us is a symptom of this. Feminist activists do challenge the ways in which women in particular are being harmed in the current economic climate, by both paid and unpaid work. Yes, the work of such feminists is less glamorous and cutting edge than so-called sex positive protest, but it is intersectional in both word and deed.

If my sons grow up to be sexist arses who hate women, I don’t think it will be all my fault. I know how fashionable mum-blaming is but I tend to think the entire woman-hating world has something to do with how little boys come to see their position in relation to their female counterparts. It is utterly inconsistent to seek to challenge rape culture, “banter” and street harassment while insisting that underlying messages about what female bodies are for remain the same. What Fantasy offers is recreational misogyny. It tells men that sexism is not an absolute wrong, presenting it as something to indulge in as an occasional treat, providing you’ve got the money to pay. It presumes a clear line can be drawn between “real” human interactions – in which one is obliged to treat women as people – and that special zone where men rule and women obey. But not every man can draw that line, and even if he can, not every man can afford it. Why should misogyny be a luxury item? In an equal society, surely it should be available for all? (Why else would we have someone Russell Brand planning “our” revolutions?)

So what if the precise influence of porn and objectification is, as yet, impossible to measure in any precise way? (So too is the precise influence of “bad mothering,” but we have very few qualms about calling that out.) We know that a business inviting men to pop in and purchase sexism – nestled in between a sandwich shop, a hairdressers’ and a couple of pubs – is placing misogyny on a level with a chicken tikka wrap and a cut and blow-dry. We don’t need a new unit of measurement (the misogymetre?) to demonstrate this. Objections to Fantasy’s licence renewal (due on 12 January) must be based on whether “the renewal of the licence is inappropriate with regard to the character of the locality and the uses to which other premises in the vicinity are put (e.g. places of worship, activities for young people and families)”. I am not sure why it is implied that certain people are old enough, or unattached enough, or not religious enough for sexism not to matter. It always does.

There is no special fantasy zone in which female subjectivity can be suspended. Women are people 100 per cent of the time. If this goes against what many men would like to believe, so be it. Sorry to piss on your party. You need newer, better fantasies.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder