Sexual consumerism is a conspiracy against young women

Capital will never stop exploiting new terrain, even if that means colonising our children's innocence.

Sitting on my commuter train on Thursday, I glanced at my fellow travelers Metro and an article headlined “‘Pornstar chic’ sees nine-year-old girls ask for designer vaginas on the NHS”.

Now I see a conspiracy of consumerisation where others might see Free Masons.  But just because I’m paranoid it doesn’t mean they are not out to commodify you, me and everything.  I Googled the headline on my smart phone to get the facts, which proves two things.  First, Google like Hoover has become a verb and therefore my commodification of everything theory holds true. Second, I’m very careless about what I type into my browser.  Luckily the search was specific enough that nothing too embarrassing emerged. But it was a stupid risk, one I repeated that evening during the Liverpool UEFA cup game when I foolishly decided I needed to know more about their opponents  - the Young Boys of Bern. It's all just research you understand.

Anyway back to young girls’ vaginas. One designer vagina would be horrendous. How can one possibly happen? What could be going through her mind, her parents’ minds or the surgeons that validated such an act?   But a report in the British Medical Journal reveals that 343 labiaplasties were performed on girls aged 14 or younger over the last six years. That’s three hundred and forty three on girls aged fourteen or younger!!

According to the Metro – the morning free sheet paid for by advertisers to sell you things you didn’t know you needed, using money you probably don’t have, which I remind you of just in case you were still in any doubt about my consumerisation conspiracy theory:

The Department of Health says it only carries out the procedure for clinical reasons, such as on those with vaginal injuries.But researchers from University College Hospital, London, suggest the number of operations is far higher than those needed for medical reasons only.

‘Labial anomalies requiring surgical interventions are extremely rare,’ the report said. Cosmetic labiaplasty, which reduces the size of labia, has boomed – and cosmetic surgeons have reported a rise in requests for ‘designer vaginas’ that look like those of Playboy models.

Apparently there is no age limit on when children can have plastic surgery. That’s like saying there is no age limit on when you can become a Nazi. A civilized society shouldn’t have age limits for everything because it is (a) a society and (b) civilized.

So how did we get here? I’m afraid, and obviously this is just my paranoia again, it is the searing and irrefutable logic of the free market that has no morality or scruples, that doesn’t recognise notions of right or wrong just pounds, shillings and pence. Competition means that if you don’t offer services and products that are simply grotesque then someone else will.  Share price, profits and bonuses depend on a dog-eat-dog spirit in which its just the ‘economy stupid’. So a mum or a dad can design and sell a product, like sexualized underwear for girls as young as nine, they would never let their daughter have, because it’s their job and it pays for things they not just want but need and must have. And if they didn’t win the race to the ethical bottom then someone else will.   It’s then up to individuals to decide what they want to buy and what they don’t – we are all free to choose. After all we live in a free society.

But what sort of freedom is it for the young women of 14 or younger who are having  insecurities provoked about the shape of their vaginas? Why do they even know about porn star chic? What pressure or ridicule is heaped on them by the young men in their schools and on their streets? What abuse is handed out if they are not nipped and tucked? A context is being created in which this is the new norm. It tells us about the pornification of our culture – in which internet access to hard core porn is now available to all. And before you tell me parents should monitor it – the proliferation of smart phones, tablets and PCs makes this virtually impossible. And are they meant to avert their eyes from billboards or never watch TV?

Sex sells and commercialisation goes hand in hand with sexualisation.  A wider popular culture is now rampant in which individual beauty and the search for perfection is as endless as it is soulless. And not just for adults but for children. Look at the adverts for the likes of Armani Junior. Small children are dressed up in adult clothes, in adult poses at prices most adults can’t afford. Make up is worn at an ever younger age along with cropped tops and thongs. And as sex sells, it doesn’t matter who is sold to or the misery it causes as young women become objects for male gratification as the figures on sexual abuse and rape are now showing. Love, respect, care and dignity cannot be priced and are therefore valueless. Compassion and consumerism cannot go together.

Over 100 years ago Rosa Luxemburg the Marxist revolutionary wrote brilliantly about the ever-expanding nature of capital in her theory of empire. Capitalism would expand to new territories where natural resources were abundant and regulations were non-existent so that places and people could be exploited to the full, and profit maximized.  She called them virgin lands. Luxemburg could only see the geographical expansion of capital.  What we are experiencing today is the emotional and cultural expansion of capital into every aspect of lives and our society. And yes into ‘virgin’ lands in a way that is stomach-churning. The new abundance is us, the people, or our children if necessary.  And there are still no regulations to stop it happening.

Today in Britain some children go hungry while others have plastic surgery performed on their genitals. It's a sick world.

Freedom to shop. Source: Getty Images

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.