If you’ve never heard of Tulisa Contostavlos, you’re right where I was 7 days ago. The 23-year-old, I’ve since learned, was a member of N-Dubz and a judge on the last series of The X Factor. I’ve also learned that, a few years ago, she and her then-boyfriend Justin Edwards made a video of her giving him a blowjob. This last detail became, according to the British press, newsworthy when said video was released online last Monday. Things actually got interesting on Thursday, when Contostavlos posted her response on YouTube. Describing herself as “deeply betrayed”, the star names and shames, accusing Edwards of releasing the footage, and categorically denies that she has done anything wrong.
While I’m generally not too concerned with celebrity sex scandals, I’d like to make some observations on the discourse around this episode. Firstly, I want to note my great respect for Tulisa’s reaction. I won’t go into this in-depth as Eva Wiseman’s done a great job of explaining its significance (and awesomeness):
“Sex tapes are not uncommon, but what is rare is for their female star to be unapologetic on their release. To discuss ideas of shame, intimacy, consent and privacy, instead of agreeing to a sad-faced interview in the Sun, pictured in polo-neck and natural makeup to denote modesty – that’s unusual. There’s no shame in happy sex, Tulisa asserts. The shame should lie with the person who uses it as currency against his partner’s wishes, who uses a record of it as a weapon. She’s not in the wrong for having sex, for enjoying sex, or for being filmed – her (until now anonymous) ex should be ashamed for betraying her, embarrassing her and attempting to damage her career.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself – so I won’t try. What I want to do is hone in on the issue of consent, and draw out some connections between the way this debacle has been discussed, and common rhetoric around sexual violence.
When the video was circulating, many tweets and comments condemned Tulisa as a “slut,” a “chav slut”, a “Dreadful girl […] and common as muck!” (analysis of the intersection of sexism and classism surrounding this story here). Some men felt entitled to critique the video as though it were porn made for their personal consumption (YouTube comments include: “5 out of 10 for your head game,try spitting on it more”; “boring … it was a waste of a wank”; “I’m surprised she wasn’t better. Surely she’s downed enough dinkle to get where she is now”). The world is full of haters. The internet is their playground. No surprises so far.
I was interested, though, in the supportive messages, comments and tweets of this nature: “I respect tulisa for posting that video and confronting the issue but I’ll never get why you’d let someone film that in the first place.” Online and in conversation, I’ve noticed this time and again: disgust that the video was leaked, sympathy for her embarrassment, and respect for her response – all underpinned by an implicit agreement that in making the video to begin with Tulisa was, if not in the wrong, then at the very least, foolish.
If I’m honest, I don’t understand why she made the film, but I also don’t understand foot fetishes. Sexual desire is profoundly subjective, and whether you get off on the same things as someone should not be a determinant for respecting their rights. We can only assume that Tulisa and Justin got off on making this film. They were two consenting adults, hurting no-one. In her video, Tulisa describes feeling “violated” by what has happened, and makes clear that she did not consent to the video being distributed.
The understanding that it was “stupid” of her to make a video that she didn’t want distributed implies that, when it comes to sex and violation, it is stupid for women to trust men. Men will violate women eventually, given half a chance; women should know better than to put themselves at risk. This premise is what connects the discourse around the Tulisa saga to deeply entrenched ideas about gender, sexuality and violation: ideas that shift blame from (male) perpetrator to (female) survivor.*
Why would you make a video like this if you don’t want it going viral?
Why would you work as a stripper if you don’t want to sexually harassed?
Why would you get drunk and lapdance if you don’t want to be a sex object for 9 guys?
Why would you fantasise about consensual group sex if you don’t want to be gang-raped?
Sometimes it seems that each time a woman consents to sexual activity, she is chipping away at the sympathy and credibility that will be offered to her should she one day be violated. I’m not saying that what happened to Tulisa is “the same” or “as bad” as what happened to these women. I’m saying, in this context, it’s hardly surprising that a woman who consented to make a sex video is subtly held accountable when it is non-consensually shared with millions of people.
Using the consent of all parties as the sole barometer for the acceptability of any given sexual act is a radical move, because it requires us to dispense of other moral frameworks. Carla Buzasi, of the Huffington Post, champions Tulisa as a “new feminist icon”, but writes:
“why should she apologise for making the tape? This wasn’t some seedy one-night stand in the alley behind a night-club, she was in a relationship with the man she thought she might marry, and who’s to comment what’s right and what’s wrong behind bedroom doors in that case.”
Hmm… In that case. Is it just me, or is Buzasi implying that if it’s outside of a socially normative (loving, committed, long-term) relationship, commenting on the right and wrong of someone’s sex life is fair game? And, furthermore, that Tulisa would have something to apologize for had this video been made in the context of a one-night stand? Personally, I don’t think someone needs to apologize for being sexually violated, whether it’s by a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, someone they’ve hooked up with in what Carla Buzasi deems “seedy” circumstances, or any other person.
The issue is not whether or not we approve of the relationship, or whether we would make that kind of video ourselves: the issue is that it was shared without her consent. By highlighting this in her video, Tulisa creates a position from which to name her experience of betrayal and violation while refusing the victim-blaming and slut-shaming discourses encircling her. I hope others can follow her example.
*Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that all survivors of sexual violence/violation are female, nor all perpetrators male. I’m focusing here on specific ways in which female survivors are held accountable for male perpetrators’ actions – which don’t always map onto sexual assaults with different gender dynamics.
This weekend I got into a conversation with someone who described himself as an “anti-feminist.” It was actually a conversation (an exchange in which both parties speak and listen), not an exhausting encounter in which one person attempts to antagonise and undermine, rather than hear, the other: I know I’m not alone in having experienced many of those “conversations” about feminism! Towards the end of what was, for me, a fun and respectful exchange, I shared a brief 3-question test. It goes like this:
1. Do you believe that there are power imbalances in the world along gender lines?
2. Do you believe that this is a bad thing?
3. Do you believe there’s something that can be done about it?
The deal is, if you answer yes to all 3 questions, you’re a feminist – if you answer no to any, you’re not (were I more technologically able, I would have made a flowchart).
I don’t know who originally came up with this; I learnt it from friends who had taken Professor Deslauriers‘s Intro to Feminist Theory class at McGill. * While it has limitations, I like a lot of things about this formula. It puts the issue of power right at the centre of feminism: exactly where it should be. It doesn’t specify where power imbalances lie, describe their impact, or advocate methods for tackling them, leaving plenty of room for differences and debate among feminists. It outlines a skeleton of core beliefs, but allows individuals to flesh out their feminism based on their ideas and experiences.
My favourite thing about this “test” is that it’s simple and clear. As a result, I’ve found it an invaluable tool when debunking myths about the movement, challenging generalisations, and, above all, suggesting to people that “feminist” is a word they could use to describe themselves. On this occasion, my interlocutor – though he answered yes to all 3 questions – laughed off my conclusion that he is a feminist. This got me thinking: if someone’s beliefs and actions are feminist, should it matter to me whether they adopt the label?
International Women’s Day recently provided some discussion in the media about what being a feminist means and why it matters. Novelist Linda Grant directly addressed “young women who say they are not feminists” on Twitter, recalling that in 1979 she couldn’t get a store card without her husband or father’s signature. Her point – that many women enjoy rights and freedoms that were won by feminism, yet recoil at the idea of identifying as feminists – clearly resonated with a lot of people. Thousands shared their experiences of sexism, both historic and contemporary; a spontaneous, communal testimony to the relevance of feminism which became athousandreasons.com.
I share Grant’s frustration with, as she calls them, I’m-not-a-feminists. I’ve spent many hours trying to convince people that they’re probably feminists already and just don’t know it – perhaps because they’ve been misled by all the misogynist claptrap about feminism that’s rife in the media. When people do come around to the idea, I feel it as a small victory. But is persuading someone to call themselves a feminist an end in itself?
Also on IWD, Zoe Williams argued that feminism has “a problem with ideological purism”, with feminists wasting valuable energy on an impossible goal of total unity. She denies, though, that she is “one of those beaming, inclusive” types who priorities self-identifying as a feminist above all else. Williams’ point, and her aside about “blue feminist” Louise Mensch, highlights for me one of the weaknesses of the model above. The 3 questions don’t necessarily rule out those whose values and actions perpetuate the oppression of women (for example, supporting economic policies that disproportionately disadvantage women).
While I believe that dissent is healthy within any moment, I know that I draw the line somewhere. If you’re passionate about closing the pay gap, but spend your weekends intimidating women accessing abortion services, I really don’t want you on my team. It would, however, be naive and counter-productive to suggest (or require) that no feminists ever participate in the oppression of women, particularly if you’re alive to the intersections of sexism with classism, racism, capitalism, ablism, transphobia, lookism, heterosexism, etc. Maybe a 4th question on intention would be useful: “are you committed to ending oppression?” This might weed out those who call themselves feminists to court much-needed female voters (cynical? Me?) while in reality doing worse-than-nothing to advance women’s position in society.
I digress: enough on the tiny minority of self-identifying feminists whose use of the title I question, and back to all those I’m-not-a-feminists who I really want to start claiming the name. Why do I care? Maybe because I believe that people identifying as feminists helps create solidarity. If someone uses the label, it suggests that we’re going to have things in common: not that we’ll have similar answers on everything (how dull that would be!), but that we’ll be interested in similar questions. Depending on the context, there can be a tangible feeling of relief and safety accompanying this connection. Challenging patriarchy can be demoralising, frightening, and dangerous. Everyone needs allies, and it’s good to know how to find them.
Secondly, I value precision: if we’re advocating or denying “feminism”, let’s check we’re talking about the same thing. When I ask what someone means by “I’m not a feminist”, frequently they’re distancing themselves from a total caricature. They mean that they don’t hate men, or that they are a man, that they don’t believe women are essentially victims, or that they like having sex. People really believe that these things are mutually exclusive with being feminists. Stereotypes about feminism are powerful tools to generate misogyny and maintain patriarchy: they scare people away from the label, from the movement, from noting or objecting to sexism for fear of being called a feminist. And those stereotypes are pervasive as fuck.
The most important thing, I recognise, is dismantling those power imbalances foregrounded by the 3-step feminist test. If the I’m-not-a-feminists are fighting oppression, maybe it’s a misdirection of my energy to get evangelical about the label itself. But the fact that feminism is such a dirty word is evidence of how vital it still is. More people identifying as feminists means more people challenging the misinformation and mudslinging about feminism. And I can’t help but feel that that would give us a better a shot at being heard and making change.
* And I apologise to Prof. Deslauriers, and those who actually took the class, if I’m getting the precise wording wrong!
After the publication last week of a French government report on the sexualisation of children, the Guardian called for readers’ thoughts on the topic for their People’s Panel series. My submission wasn’t among those selected for publication, but I thought I’d share it with y’all here.
When the sexualisation of girls hits the headlines, various concerns emerge and are merged. These include the imposition on children of rigid gender stereotypes; the media’s relentless regurgitation of a “pornified” idea of female sexuality, to the exclusion of other models; and the impact on kids of being targeted as consumers. While these issues are interconnected, “sexualisation” is a misleading banner.
Firstly, it creates a narrow, sensationalist focus: cue push-up bras for pre-teens. Putting “sex” and “children” in the same sentence guarantees some tabloid moral panic. Phenomena such as the pinkwashing of girlhood, virtual disappearance of gender neutral toys, and perpetuation of gender stereotypes within education settings, cause less outrage. The sexualisation bogeyman distracts from the harmful effects – on boys and girls – of everyday gender socialisation.
Secondly, “sexualisation” suggests that sexuality is the problem. The rhetoric of sexualisation fits a socially conservative agenda centred on protecting “innocence”. I’m wary of this framework, which implicitly situates sexuality in the realm of guilt and shame, and skeptical that it best serves the interests of girls. I’d favour a debate on how we best support children to grow into adults with a healthy sexuality: one that develops at their own pace, grounded in a sense of self-worth and mutual respect with others.
A good starting point would be holistic, age-appropriate sex ed that explores gender and incorporates media literacy. It’s unlikely that companies will spontaneously stop targeting child-consumers, or the media be purged overnight of its inclination to titillation and widespread sexism. Kids need to be equipped for the world they live in, and encouraged to question it. Rather than fixate on what we can ban and regulate, let’s think about how we teach and nurture.