In Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall there is a very funny and very surreal scene in which Allen’s character is stood next to a pretentious academic who is boastfully pontificating about the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Acting out the fantasy of millions, Allen breaks ‘the fourth wall’ and wheels on McLuhan himself, who proceeds to tell the intellectual snob “you know nothing of my work… how you ever got to teach a course in anything is amazing.”
Should I ever gain the power to summon forth an expert during a discussion about feminism, my first choice would be the writer and activist Kat Banyard.
A former Campaigns Officer at the Fawcett Society, the leading organisation working for women’s rights in the UK, the 27-year old has just published her first book, The Equality Illusion: The truth about women and men today. Smart, knowledgeable and thoughtful, to spend an hour in her company is to learn a great deal and to have your pre-conceptions turned on their head.
“We are continually told we live in a post-feminist age” Banyard says, as she sips her drink in a quiet east London café. “And yet if you scratch the surface of society none of the realities you come up with square with that view.” She points to the fact over 100,000 women are raped every year in the UK, that women are still paid 23 percent less than men, that 1 in 4 women in the UK will experience domestic violence in their lifetime and how women are vastly underrepresented in positions of power. “All of these things stack up and paint a very clear picture that what we don’t have at the moment is equality.”
Picked as one of ‘The new feminists’ by the Observer in 2007, Banyard is particularly good on what she calls “the tyranny of beauty”.
“It is more insidious than just being bombarded by external images and other people treating women as objects”, she argues. “Girls are taught from a young age to treat themselves as objects – something which is inherently dehumanizing.”
She believes the evidence clearly points to the beauty ideal being “intrinsically linked to the rise in eating disorders” – 90 percent of people who have eating disorders in the UK are female. What does she make of the argument that eating disorders have always existed and the recent rise is simply due to higher rates of detection? “Rates of anorexia have skyrocketed as beauty ideals have proliferated”, she responds. In The Equality Illusion she cites a study undertaken by Anne Becker, an Anthropologist at Harvard Medical School, which found that the introduction of Western television – and therefore Western beauty ideals – in to Fiji in the 1990s led to a significant increase in rates of anorexia and bulimia.
Sharper still is her take on supposedly positive images of women such as the popular Dove Campaign for Real Beauty: “Studies show even when a girl or woman is complimented on her appearance it often has a negative overall effect, because it focuses her attention on her appearance. It is just reinforcing the notion that she is there to be looked at, and her self-esteem depends on that.”
Turning to prostitution, Banyard argues it “is inherently a form of abuse… a form of violence against women. The vast majority of women involved in prostitution have got there through a process of exclusion, disadvantage and often abuse.” One research project conducted across nine countries found that 68 percent of prostitutes had post-traumatic stress disorder – a rate comparable to rape and torture victims. “As the effects of being in prostitution are so utterly disastrous and horrific, the priority when it comes to the law must be safeguarding them.”
For this reason she is fully behind initiatives to introduce the ‘Nordic model’ in to the UK – decriminalising the selling of sex, while criminalising “what is fundamentally driving the demand for prostitution – the punters.” For Banyard what prostitution and the wider sex industry does “is allow a place where men can be men. Where they can treat women as the people to sexually service them, where they are in control.”
“It is just sexism acted out in a sexual way”, she adds.
She gives me short shrift when I ask whether it is possible to separate and target the damaging forms of prostitution, while leaving alone those women – no doubt a small minority – who, on some level, are choosing to sell their body for sex. “The inherent problem is that you will never make it safe”, she replies. “It is not an ordinary form of work. Sex is different. Having someone you don’t know insert their penis repeatedly in to you is very different to me serving you a drink.”
She is also critical of pro-decriminalisation groups such as the International Union of Sex Workers – a “sex industry representative organisation” – noting their members include pimps, brothel owners and punters. “It is the privileged few who get quoted in the newspapers, they are the ones whose voices are being heard. We are not hearing from the silent majority who are experiencing abuse on a daily basis”, she says.
Along with prostitution and lap-dancing clubs, pornography is now firmly entrenched in mainstream culture, with the industry estimated to be worth $97 billion worldwide. Unsurprisingly, Banyard is not celebrating. “I don’t think that pornography can ever be safe, because basically it is filmed prostitution”, she says. “There is no such thing as soft-core porn” today. Rather “it has got increasingly degrading and violent, with nearly 90 percent of scenes in pornography containing aggressive acts.” Banyard argues watching pornography “has very specific consequences for the viewers – an increase in aggressive behaviours and attitudes supporting violence against women.”
Paraphrasing US academic Robert Jensen, she believes “It’s not a coincidence that it is so violent or that the vast majority of people who consume pornography are men. Because of our notions of masculinity and femininity, it means that to have sex as a man you have to ‘do it to her’ – there has to be that power relation in it.”
What it means to be a man today is the central issue for Banyard. “Feminism is about saying the way we construct masculinity is wrong and has been wrong for a very long time”, she says. “Either you say the violence men perpetrate against women is natural or it’s because our notion of what it means to be a man is horribly wrong.” She continues: “In a world where there wasn’t masculinity and femininity, one on top of the other… you wouldn’t have prostitution because sexually conquering a woman wouldn’t make you feel more of a man.”
Changing men’s behaviour is one of the central aims of UK Feminista, a new collective organisation Banyard has set up that she hopes will “reclaim feminism for the new generation and support all individuals taking action against sexism.”
Looking to the general election, she doesn’t think any of the main parties are focussing on feminist issues “because they don’t see the demand.”
“We need to ensure that all of them take these issues seriously because they affect everyone. It’s not just a small group of women, it’s not just women – it is women and men”, she says.
The Equality Illusion: The truth about women and men today is published by Faber & Faber, priced £12.99. For more information about UK Feminista visit www.ukfeminista.org.uk.