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, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Getty.
Show Hide image

Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.