Hot on the heels of the Slutwalk phenomenon comes this really interesting protest yesterday by UK Feminista against the “designer vagina” trend. According to their press release, they were marching
against a ‘pornified’ culture driving increasing numbers of women to seek vaginal cosmetic surgery, and to protest against the cosmetic surgeons profiting from it.
UK Feminista were accompanied by feminist performance artists the Muffia, pictured below on a previous outing, and by the Solent Feminist Network who stated that they would be marching between cosmetic surgery clinics
wearing our ‘hairy muffs’ proudly and celebrating female genitalia with its natural variety
Now first of all, I have to say that I love the basic idea of this protest. It’s bold and clever and addresses a very real issue affecting women’s bodily image. While I absolutely believe in a woman’s right to do what she wants with every part of her body, I also think that those who don’t want to do anything to the appearance of their genitalia are being increasingly made to feel awkward or ashamed for that choice. I know that some women feel that removing all their pubic hair has benefits beyond the cosmetic, and that’s fine for them, but as a trend I think it has been mostly negative for women because it just gives us another part of our bodies to be insecure about. And we didn’t need that, thanks.
I think it would be great to get to the point where a decision on whether or not to remove your body hair (any of it) was no different from a decision on whether or not to get your ears pierced, which, in western culture anyway, truly is a simple matter of personal taste and not in any way something that women are pressured about. So I’m totally in favour, in principle, of anything that promotes the legitimacy of leaving your body hair intact. (The link to surgery, if it isn’t obvious, is that labiaplasty was nearly unheard of before the hair-removal craze. Nobody, well at least almost nobody, cared what their labia looked like back in the days when you couldn’t really see them anyway.)
But where UK Feminista lose me is where they turn this demonstration from what it should be, a celebration of women’s natural bodies, into a protest against porn. Porn is to blame for the rise in designer vaginas, they insist, stating that
Researchers at Kings College London carrying out a study into demand for labiaplasty have suggested this increase stems from the increasing ‘pornification’ of culture.
A citation is helpfully provided, and so I looked it up and while it is true that this is “suggested” by the Kings College researchers, what the researchers actually say is that
We haven’t completed the research, but there is suspicion that this is related to much greater access to porn, so it is easier for women to compare themselves to actresses who may have had it done.
Now that’s a pretty ambiguous statement, I think. Does “there is suspicion” mean “the evidence so far suggests”? Or does it mean “Our research hypothesis is”, and they haven’t actually yet found the evidence to prove it?
The “access to porn” part is problematic, too. Just because somebody has access to porn doesn’t mean they actually do access it. I’m sure UK Feminista would make the same point in regard to studies showing lower rape rates in places where there is more access to internet porn. And it might be “easier for women to compare themselves” to women in porn, but that doesn’t mean that they are comparing themselves to women in porn. Maybe they are, and this study actually is about finding a direct link between porn-watching, vagina-comparing and labiaplasty – but that’s not made clear in the article that UK Feminista cite as a source for their claims.
I have always felt that porn is too easy a target for a lot of the societal ills that it’s blamed for. And I’m particularly dubious about the idea that it can be blamed for women’s insecurity about our bodies. In part, this is based on my own experiences. I was a teenage girl and young woman in the pre-internet days and while it was possible to access porn if you went looking for it, most of us didn’t, plenty of us hardly if ever saw it, it was nowhere near as readily accessible as it is now and yet we were still beset by bodily insecurities. So clearly something else was at work there.
The “pornification of culture” idea is, I guess, based on the notion that porn infiltrates mainstream media, which then does the damage that porn itself couldn’t do directly. But even here I think this is far from clear, because the images projected in porn aren’t necessarily the ones promoted in the mainstream media. Look at the issue of super-skinny fashion models. This is totally a mainstream media (in particular, magazines aimed at women) thing – you almost never see stick-figured women in mainstream porn, because that’s not the body shape that is thought to appeal to the major consumers of porn, i.e., men. So why do so many women buy into the preference for a rail-thin body over curves? They’re not getting this from porn – not even indirectly. Why isn’t the fashion industry, which promotes this ideal (along with the beauty industry, which has a multitude of things to answer for) subject to the same feminist opprobrium as the porn industry? Is it because many feminists like fashion and beauty?
To be fair, I’m not claiming that those industries have escaped feminist criticism. But I have been at far too many feminist events where participants spent significant amount of time railing against the evils of porn while saying little or nothing about the evils of the fashion and beauty industries, which I am pretty sure you would find have a much greater impact on women’s self-image.
In a similar vein, I’m not convinced by the argument that porn itself is to blame for the trend toward female pubic hairlessness. Again, I return to the fact that the women in mainstream porn tend to look the way that the porn industry thinks will appeal to men. This is pretty logical; the main purpose of mainstream porn is to get men off, and it best achieves that purpose by featuring women that men are attracted to. But a lot of men old enough to remember when pubic hair was the norm say they were more freaked out than attracted the first time they encountered a woman without it. So it seems unlikely to me that this trend would have appeared in mainstream porn until there was already a market for it, and thus porn was probably reflecting rather than starting the trend. I’ve tried without success to find actual studies on this; if anyone knows of any, please let me know.
I do accept that porn could reinforce this trend, and that it may have shaped the expectations of a younger generation who had never encountered women’s natural bodies. But if boys are learning what they know about women’s bodies from porn, is that really the fault of the porn industry? Is it not the fault of a society that tries to hide even the most basic sexuality information from children for as long as possible, virtually ensuring that porn is the first place they do get it?
And finally, if porn really does have the influence that some feminists attribute to it, why not turn that to our advantage? Why not support those porn artists who do promote women’s bodies in their natural beauty? I’m thinking of people like Sasha Grey, who apparently confused the hell out of emotional 12-year-olds all over the internet when she appeared on HBO sporting a full bush, and Furry Girl who, for all her self-proclaimed anti-feminism (and occasionally dodgy politics) has done plenty to promote the idea that a sexually attractive woman doesn’t have to be a hairless one. There are also plenty of women out there making amateur porn who simply aren’t bothered to conform to current trends. Why not celebrate these efforts, instead of lumping them all into this great untouchable category of awfulness that is how many feminists indiscriminately see “porn”?
I know the answer to these questions already, of course. I’ve been involved in feminist activism for too long to think that my resolutely anti-porn comrades can be persuaded to drop that crusade and instead frame the battle as one for better, more inclusive porn. But as long as porn isn’t going away, and we all know it isn’t, I still think it’s an argument worth making.
In any case, to the extent that it did promote the idea that women shouldn’t feel compelled to conform to this trend, I hope the Muff March went well. Future marches might go even better if they drop the unnecessarily alienating anti-porn rhetoric and welcome all women who want to demonstrate in support of women’s natural bodies – including those who make a living by showing off theirs.