Men have the right to be revolting in public. Women don't. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
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Why farting is a feminist issue

To exhibit any kind of bodily function in public – whether it’s pissing against a wall, spitting in the street, picking and flicking earwax while one waits in a queue – is still seen as a male thing to do.

In news that has shocked precisely no one, it turns out that men who don’t like women also don’t like women breastfeeding in public. Well done, Jeremy Clarkson and Nigel Farage. It’s always good to know that some things never change.

In response to news that a woman was asked to cover herself while breastfeeding in Claridge’s, Farage has suggested that women “perhaps sit in the corner” while they feed their babies. Clarkson, meanwhile, has explained that breastfeeding “is natural, just like urinating. But when we want to do that, we go to a little room and do it in private”. So there are your choices, ladies: corner or toilet. You can’t risk offending the terminally offensive while feeding your own child.

To be fair, I genuinely believe that Farage and Clarkson are disgusted. All this ostentatious personhood on the part of women is hard to take. It’s not just that we live in a culture in which female breasts are sexualised, and hence no longer seen as functional. It’s that women aren’t meant to have flesh-and-blood bodies at all. Of course the likes of Clarkson will be appalled at any sign that women are not surface-only propositions. When we lactate in public we might as well be pissing; it’s an indication that beneath our skin there’s just as much blood, guts and passion as one would find beneath the skin of any man. When our bodies leak it’s a sign that we’re human, not dolls. Of course it causes offence.  

To exhibit any kind of bodily function in public – whether it’s pissing against a wall, spitting in the street, picking and flicking earwax while one waits in a queue – is still seen as a male thing to do. We might consider such things disgusting, but men can assume the right to be disgusting in a way that women can’t. It’s understood that male bodies are a part of what men are. Female bodies don’t have the same status. Even though, on a basic level, we know that they work in much the same way male bodies do – we shit, we piss, we perspire, we snore – we don’t really want to know this. A female body remains a thing to use, to own and to look at. It’s not something which does things suggestive of some real, human messiness inside.

These days the phrase “real woman” is associated with Dove adverts, not with women who fart and burp and might occasionally want to cough up some phlegm while out on a jog. I’m not saying these are pleasant things to do – nor am I proposing we organise a feminist fart-in (unless it’s held at Claridge’s) – but I do think we need to ask ourselves whether the perceived “maleness” of bodily functions is harmful to women. If we pretend that other women don’t snore, sweat or have smelly feet, how much more ashamed will we feel of our own bodies, simply for existing in their natural state? (Even in writing this, I’m fighting the urge to add “obviously I don’t do any of these things”, just in case it is just me.)

Changes in sexual mores have allowed us to pretend that women are no longer under enormous pressure to be “ladylike”. However, being ladylike and being chaste are not the same thing. If anything, the more flesh we are permitted to have on show, the greater the pressure upon us to make said flesh hairless, unscented and perspiration-free. Last week the Mirror ran a report on “the most lifelike sex dolls ever” (“even the close-up shots show their pouting beauty, which would make any red-blooded male’s pulse race”). I suspect that, in terms of actual bodily functions, my childhood Tiny Tears doll was more “lifelike”, but that doesn’t matter. The ultra “real” sex doll is what we’re up against – a fantasy female body that’s allowed to take up far more imaginative space than a flesh-and-blood woman ever can.

In contrast to the female body, the male body is simply allowed to be: to fill the room, legs spread wide, adding its own sounds and scents to the air. To assume the right to be a little bit revolting – to spit on the street, to jokingly raise your arse cheek to fart – is, I would argue, a form of privilege. It expresses an ownership not just of the body, but of the space around it. We don’t see it as such because we presume men and boys are “naturally” into this sort of thing. On several occasions my sons have been bought books on wee, poo and snot because it’s assumed “boys like that”. Presumably girls don’t, or at least they know they’re not meant to, given how fragrant and pristine a little girl is supposed to be (she might want to pick her nose as well, but it’s not funny when she does is). It’s not that I think we should be encouraging all children to delight in eating bogeys, but the current imbalance does suggest that, somehow, girls aren’t meant to experience themselves fully in their bodies in the way boys do.

Breastfeeding is neither disgusting nor unhygienic; it does, however, create at least one scenario in which it is clear that a woman is her body, inhabiting it as a functioning organism rather than presenting it to the world as a façade. I imagine that’s why, to the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, it really is as repulsive as public urination. It’s as close as a woman – and not just any woman, a mother, of all people – gets to dropping the act and being more than just an object beneath the male gaze (and what a shame that to do this, she first needs the excuse of nourishing another human being).

Female bodies don’t just exist to be looked at; they leak, smell, make involuntary noises, and what’s more, if they do all that then it’s also likely that they think and feel.  But a woman having thoughts and feelings won’t do. Best put her in the corner so no one can see.

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

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.