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Thoughts on “Muff March”

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.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

14 responses »

  1. Bravo – this is excellent on how wrongheaded the discourse of “pornification” is. After all, you’re infinitely more likely to see natural muff and unsculpted labia in porn than you are in any other media, while mainstream press has been undeniably complicit in promoting dangerous, unnecessary surgery (see http://www.drpetra.co.uk/blog/a-tragic-case-of-medical-misconduct/).

    Reply
  2. Excellent post, music to my ears, thanks Wendy. Quite how hairless ‘muffs’ took off, I know not, but there are those in the sex industry who think that it began with a belief that pubic hair was ‘in the way’ ie, a visual barrier to the revelation of a naked woman. Personally, I’ve always thought public hair to be part of a naked woman, but then it became a fashion thing and, of course, not only shaving but also waxing and dying and the development of ‘Brazilians’ etc arrived.
    But then, a feminist approach might welcome the disappearance of pubic hair. After all, there isn’t much of male genitalia that isn’t visible when naked, but by far the greater part of female genitalia will never be seen by male eyes, naked or not. The departure of female pubic hair might therefore go a percentage poiint or two towards evening things up, as it were?!
    Frankly, I could think of a lot better things to protest about.
    How do we think the Government should respond?

    Reply
    • The departure of female pubic hair might therefore go a percentage poiint or two towards evening things up, as it were?!

      Hmm, I’d describe that as “evening things down”! I don’t think men’s obsession with the appearance of their genitalia has been a particularly positive thing for them, so this is one case where I think we were better off being different!

      How do we think the Government should respond?

      I don’t see a role for government in this at all, except in regulating providers of surgical or hair-removal procedures, to avoid cases like the awful ones described in Sarah’s link.

      Reply
      • Yes, Sarah’s link is very concerning, Petra writes a good blog.
        As for Government action, I was thinking in terms of a Pubic Inspectorate to ensure all ladies’ pubic hairs were in their right and correct place. Perhaps not the number one priority at a time of fiscal restraint, but it ought to be there somewhere…
        If not, perhaps we could develop the English style for export to Brazil. After all, it’s were the nuts come from, as Oscar Wilde would say….

        Reply
  3. Pingback: Are we there yet? « Sarah Ditum

  4. I have to say, I disagree with so many of your opinions, but I am really glad to have found your blog. It is refreshing to hear another point of view and to challenge my own views.

    Reply
  5. **read** another point of view… 😛

    Reply
  6. Thank you for saying this. Every time I go to a UK Feminista event, EVERYTHING appears to be blamed on porn, and this never sits quite right with me. As a poster above rightly said, how much porn have these critics actually seen?!

    Reply
  7. The irrefutable fact of the matter is these cosmetic procedures can make you a ‘commodity’, rather specifically your sex organ as a ‘commodity,’ and this is where pornography comes in. Being a ‘model’ of an art piece and being a ‘porn star’ are not the same. I believe being subject to every sexually explicit topic is not ‘porno,’ but when it makes a woman or parts of her a ‘product’ it’s almost always associated with male-dominant consumerism.
    (Please read and share your views in my recent blogging on comparison of FMG of both East and West. http://feminine-fragrance.blogspot.com/)

    Reply
  8. I consume porn all the time. I don’t consider any harm in it. I consider it anthropological studies. Of course, there are so-called “radical feminists” who think I have a mental disorder and think I should check myself in or be checked into a sex addiction clinic. I reckon there are a few who would like to line me up with similar miscreants against a wall and shot.

    I think there is an overlap between these anti-porn activists and the anti sex work activists to the point where they are almost one and the same.

    As far as I’m concerned, the vast majority of these activists, both anti-porn activists and anti sex work activists, are right wing conservatives. Right wing conservatives tend to think that there are quick fix solutions to social problems and issues. So, for example, the other week, we had the Fine Gael TD, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, raising concern about the violence of shoot ’em up video games, such as “Call of Duty”, and the record sales of such games and games consoles. Presumably, she thinks the problem can be fixed by an increase in the VAT rate on such items. Banning porn would be another extreme quick fix. Criminal sanctions against porn consumers would be another quick fix. Criminal sanctions against those who work in the sex industry would be another quick fix. That one has been tried for decades I think and it has failed. Quick fixes are cop outs. And, of course, in the Republic of Ireland, we are all too familiar with our quick fix for abortion – we let the Brit Bastards take care of it or we force our people to import abortion pills. I presume that some women of lesser financial means may attempt to abort in the Republic of Ireland in an unregulated environment and in a way that puts their own health and life in danger. But our government doesn’t care about that because they have embraced the quick fix. Hallelujah!! Same in Sweden. They claim that they have cracked the prostitution nut in 1999.. They criminalized those who purchase sex but not those who sell it. Sex work was then supposed to magically disappear or at least be significantly reduced because the so-called radical feminists had come up with a amazing formula. Pay for sex = men raping women.

    Social problems or social issues are often not amenable to a quick fix. There are no magic formulas. They can not be wished away. They need to be addressed with hard work that may last for years and even decades. Perhaps an eternity. That’s life.

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  9. Just a thought I had on this in relation to porn
    There is no question that fully shaved or the “landing strip” in common on female porn stars.

    This may have transcended into the main stream but whether women are been influenced directly by porn is questionable.
    Yes we may live in a more sexualized world now but it is still hard to encounter full frontal nude images unless you seek them out even on the internet.

    Also I think it’s pretty much universally agreed that more men watch porn than women
    I recall reading a statistic from the US that said by 18 years old 100% of males had viewed porn movies or images (playboy and the likes)
    The fashion of shaved pubic hair has transcended to male porn stars particularly in the high end US productions but also – to a lesser extent in the armature/homemade videos.
    (Ican provide links as proof)
    The fashion in men may not have transitioned to the mainstream as much as in women
    But considering more males watch porn than women – it’s hard to blame porn for it

    Reply
  10. I both agree and disagree with the idea that porn is responsible for the growing trend of women removing hair from their nether regions. More males may watch porn than women (though I believe that fact may be debatable) but nobody can doubt the fact that some men then put pressure on their female partners to remove the hair as a result of watching porn.

    I live in Africa, in a predominantly Muslim culture. The women here have removed the hair from their entire bodies for many, many generations. Equally, the men also remove hair from their bodies as well. In their words – it is to keep them clean for their sexual partners.

    When I learned that, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I grew up in a culture where “hair” down “there” meant that you had crossed a threshold from being a girl into being a woman. During my adult years, this all changed. In order to be a considerate sexual partner, women must remove their hair. Women are now cajoled, threatened and pressurized into completing this act of hair removal solely for the gratification of their male counterparts. – At least in the Islamic world, the pressure is on both men and women and it is not only an aesthetic concern but also a hygienic one.

    Does the “hygienic” argument work in cold, cold Ireland? Having lived in temperatures of 42 degrees + for the last 3 years – the argument the locals espouse does make sense. But what bearing does this have for the Irish women? For me – it would have to be equality in all things – if the man I am with wants me to remove hair for his pleasure then I would hand him the epilator and say “you first!”

    Reply

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