The Vagenda List of the Quietly Awesome

From ITV's Agenda to the comedian Tiffany Stevenson, a run-down of the people and causes Rhiannon and Holly feel deserve broader recognition in 2013.

Welcome to our List of the Quietly Awesome: a collection of British feminists who we think deserve a Vagenda accolade at the beginning of 2013. Thanks for all the good work, ladies and gentlemen! Any further suggestions of awesomeness are, of course, thoroughly welcome.

Kat Banyard

The founder and director of UK Feminista and author of The Equality Illusion is one of the UK’s leading young feminists, so not exactly under-the-radar. However, her lack of Twitter profile and commitment to grassroots activism makes her something of an anomaly - someone who, it’s fair to say, goes beyond mouthing off. UK Feminista is currently campaigning on a range of issues – from 1 March vote on plastic surgery advertisements to addressing violence in teenage relationships. Get involved here.

WOW Festival

The Women of the World Festival at the Southbank has a plethora of lovely feministy stuff lined up next month (6-10 March), including talks, debates, comedy, music and film, all of which aim to celebrate women in an innovative and inclusive way. They’ve got Naomi Wolf, Alice Walker, Julie Walters, and Jenni Murray, as well as a feminist corner for the under-10s (seriously), Hadley Freeman discussing fashion, and Criptease, a neo-burlesque performance celebrating disabled women’s bodies (tagline: "it’s diversity gone wild!") It sounds like the Sun’s worst nightmare, which is why you should totally go.

 

Tiffany Stevenson

Actress and comedian Tiffany Stevenson is genuinely engaging and brashly hilarious, discussing everything from Grazia’s bizarre fashion obsession with the under-5s to whether seeing a dress in M&S and thinking "hmmm…maybe" means you’re officially getting old. When we saw her a couple of months ago at a Stand Up To Sexism Gig we were amazed not to have heard of her before, despite the fact that she seems to have worked with everyone from Ricky Gervais to Stewart Lee. See her website for upcoming gigs and festivals.

Education for Choice

Education for Choice is a charity supporting young people’s informed choice on abortion, through workshops for London schoolchildren, professional training, and providing resources and materials for teenagers, parents and teachers. It has recently been absorbed by Brook, the young people’s sexual health charity. In providing accurate, non-biased information to those who need it most, they’re performing an incredibly valuable service in a society where sex education still doesn’t seem to be considered a great priority. For more information or to ask them visit your school, go here.

Stella Creasy MP

The Labour/Co-Operative MP for Walthamstow is making a name for herself as one of the politicians at the forefront of feminist campaigning. Her commitment to the One Billion Rising movement has seen her calling on the government to support an end to violence against women and to rethink sex education in schools. Having been mistaken for an underling in the lift at the houses of parliament, and declared "quite bummable for a Labour MP" by a Tory activist, it’s fair to say that she has experienced sexism firsthand and is campaigning tirelessly to put a stop to it. Find out more at her website.

This Petition

One of the things we feel most strongly about is women’s limited access to emergency contraception, which, believe it or not, remains a problem in the UK. It’s our firm belief that the General Pharmaceutical Council needs to prohibit pharmacists from refusing services on religious or moral grounds, as this can result in judgmental and often traumatic attitudes towards women who did nothing more than seek out the morning-after pill. This petition, calling for an end to this policy, was set up by Liz Morrow after she was refused the morning-after pill herself. Sign and share if you agree that your right to contraception shouldn’t hinge on one person’s religious views.

Girl Guides

In the last year, the Girl Guides have made a concerted effort to shake off their old reputation as inoffensive local youth clubs with novelty badges. In January they announced (and the Telegraph reported, in tones of abject hysteria) that they were considering the removal of God and the Queen from the oath; weeks earlier, waves had been made when their new head, who hails from the upper echelons of the Family Planning Association, described the Girl Guides as the "ultimate feminist organisation". Their 2012 Girls’ Attitudes Survey conducted national research into the attitudes of young girls on such diverse issues as culture, education, health, environment, and relationships - and they intend to send out another this year that addresses issues such as sexual pressure and slut-shaming. 

Women’s Institute

Similarly to the Guides, the WI has modernised massively in the twenty-first century. Their local groups are hugely diverse in age and offerings - community meetings for new mothers making homemade chutney operate comfortably alongside regular protest groups, and others like the Dalston Darlings, who have hosted debates on the meaning of modern feminism, cocktail classes, and taxidermy demonstrations (for which they were apparently ejected from a pub.) As the largest women’s voluntary organisation in the UK, they get their oars stuck in on a variety of very worthy issues, including midwifery and maternity, mental health issues, and ethical food. Despite one rogue member referring to us as "aggressive-looking harridans with nothing to say about jam-making" on Facebook, we retain a lot of love for the institute’s work.

Team AWOT

Team AWOT - which, for those not permanently sutured to their social networks, stands for Awesome Women of Twitter - is a community of women who found each other through the art of the tweet and put together a network based upon the two central tenets of gin and cake. From these humble beginnings, AWOT has become a huge success, with regular networking events, a community blog discussing women’s issues (everything from "what’s a Marxist Darwinian anarchist feminist?" to what should you expect at a smear test?"), and a jobs board. Their website is highly recommended for the woman who likes her bitesize communication at 140 characters or less.

ITV Agenda

In a move that aimed to counteract gender-based panel show controversy - where the "token woman" appears, is subject to unfair and usually negative scrutiny throughout, and functions as a cautionary tale for any other female in the public eye who thought she might try out telly - ITV’s year-old creation, The Agenda, always hosts two male and two female panellists. An interesting social experiment which boasts an eclectic list of guests: Germaine Greer, David Cameron, Tanni Grey-Thompson, and Ross Kemp have all made appearances.

J K Rowling

Our final word goes to J K Rowling, who became the first person to lose her billionaire status as a result of philanthropy this year. Having written the Harry Potter series as an unemployed single mother on benefits - and having spoken at Harvard, post-success, about having felt like "the biggest failure possible" as she started work on the books - hers is a characteristically British story that champions the underdog. And it comes complete with inspirational ending.

Who have we missed? Nominate your own Quietly Awesome People below, or tweet us @vagendamagazine

POW! (Ssh.) Photo: Etsy Ketsy/Flickr

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times