No one wants to feel like a modern-day Mary Whitehouse.
Show Hide image

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.

Show Hide image

Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser