Sex myths without substance: Mislabelling Japan

I wrote a piece for the Independent after the ‘No sex please, we’re Japanese’ BBC documentary and a number of articles that have cropped up recently on Japan’s declining population:

Every few months, as if to remind us what a disturbingly odd place Japan is, an alarming Japanese news story explodes online. Western media outlets clamber over each other in their haste to cover the story, with every report of bagel headssnail facials or ritual head shaving being used as further evidence of a unique Japanese weirdness. A lack of understanding (and, sometimes, basic fact-checking) means that entire stories are lifted, often without critique, and churned into dubious clickbait. Earlier this year, widespread coverage of a supposed eyeball-licking epidemic among Japanese teens that turned out to be a hoax left more than a few editors red-faced.

This round was kicked off with an article in the Guardian looking at reasons behind Japan’s rapidly declining population. Since then, sound-bites have been repeated and distorted, and the spiralling birth rate figures have become a hook for a spate of ill-informed, voyeuristic articles that fail to note that the ‘weirdness’ they see before them is far from representative.

Read more here.


Sex work: thoughts on ‘selling your body’

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while will know that I’m firmly against the criminalisation of sex work. I call it sex work because the term recognises that, as with any other form of work, there should be terms of sale and workers’ rights and safe working conditions. Besides, sex workers pay tax.

But this post is less about the actual work than the language we use to talk about it. Specifically, it’s about the huge problem I have with the phrase ‘selling your body’.
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#JusticeforJasmine, sex work and the Swedish model

#justice for Jasmine Eve-Maree Petite Jasmine, abolish Swedish sex work model legislation

On 11 July a sex worker who went by the name of Petite Jasmine was murdered. She was a sex worker rights activist and member of the Rose Alliance, “an organisation for former and current sex and erotic workers in Sweden”. Here’s the statement they released on Facebook today:
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Japanese pop star sleeps with boyfriend, shaves head

I wrote a piece for Indy Voices on the AKB48 singer who shaved her head as self-inflicted punishment for sleeping with another pop star. Turns out doing a Japanese degree does sometimes come in useful!

Shocked at the Japanese pop star who shaved her head for having a boyfriend and betraying band rules? Look around you

Minami Minegishi’s band AKB48 embody the disturbing schoolgirl fantasy: naïve and submissive, yet unattainable – and the hypocrisy isn’t unique to Japanese culture

When a video emerged last week of a Japanese popstar’s heart-wrenching apology for betraying the rules of her band, the British reaction was predictably dramatic.

It was difficult to fathom why a 20-year-old would go to the lengths of shaving her head in order to communicate the depth of her shame for having spent the night with a boyfriend. The offence was barely newsworthy. Although a traditional form of repentance in Japan, the self-inflicted punishment hardly seemed to fit the crime.

Yet Minami Minegishi’s response is perhaps less shocking in the context of idol culture in Japan. Minegishi, who was photographed leaving boyband dancer Alan Shirahama’s apartment, is part of the phenomenally successful girl band AKB48. Tickets to the band’s nightly shows are so sought-after they are allocated through a lottery. The band is divided into three teams, allowing them to perform in different locations, or even different countries, at any one time, and they are a powerful export. In 2011, AKB48 opened a café in Singapore: a replica of their own venue in Akihabara, the electronics district of Tokyo after which they are named…


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Fact-checking the ‘Biblical view of marriage’

The most tiresome argument I hear against gay marriage is that it is incompatible with the Biblical definition of marriage.

Quite apart from being irrelevant in our largely secular society, the argument that “the Bible defines marriage as between a man and a woman” is a lazy one. It also entails a lot of problems from a Biblical perspective, because marriage as practised by the Church* today differs wildly from that of Biblical times. At various points in the Bible, women are sold or traded as property, forced to marry their rapists and remain married to abusive husbands; and they lack autonomy throughout.
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George Galloway on Julian Assange: politicised allegations and ‘bad sexual etiquette’

Politicians seem to be making a habit of rape apology these days – yesterday it was Todd Akin across the pond saying that ‘legitimate rape’ doesn’t cause pregnancy, and today it’s our own George Galloway weighing in on the Julian Assange situation.

I was just going to talk about Galloway’s comments about rape, but having watched the full video I want to also discuss how the allegations are being discussed as a political issue.
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People for the Ethical Treatment of People

PETA BWVAKTBOOM vegan advertising campaign feminism - Beckie SmithIn an uncertain world, it is comforting to know that there are a few things which can be consistently relied upon – if only to provide disappointment. There is no longer any shock value in saying that a new ad campaign which uses sex to sell something which is in no way related to sex has overstepped a few boundaries and angered a few people.

I’ve talked before about the advertising industry’s perturbing reliance on sex to sell, well, everything – but there is usually a degree of subtlety involved. It’s rare to hear a narrator talking explicitly and at length about the sexual prowess a product has bestowed upon them. And while advertisers have a habit of subtly degrading women and suggesting that our self-worth should be defined by our physical appearance and sexuality, there is a certain kind of blatant sexism which is alarming and very, very ugly. While it’s easy to think that this particular brand of casual misogyny is confined to ‘lads-mag’-rags and Lynx ads, it’s particularly unsavoury when flaunted by those who claim to champion a moral cause. Speaking up for the defenceless, the abused and the downtrodden, welcome onto the scene PETA: the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

In their latest video offensive, Boyfriend Went Vegan And Knocked the Bottom Out Of Me (BWVAKTBOOM), PETA have once again stirred up needless controversy in order to gain publicity. The campaign is stunningly crass from start to finish, from its parody of a charity appeal for victims of domestic abuse, to its bizarre, fake video blogs in which people (mostly women) gush about getting laid and injured in the process.

The campaign begins with an appeal disturbingly like those designed to raise awareness of help for domestic violence victims, featuring a girl in a neck brace awkwardly climbing the steps to her home. We are told she suffers from BWVAKTBOOM: “a painful condition that occurs when boyfriends go vegan and can suddenly bring it like a tantric porn star.” The ad is grossly insensitive and tasteless on a number of levels, most of which don’t need spelling out.

The next stage of the campaign consists of a series of mocked-up home videos in which women testify about their male partners’ new-found insatiable sexual appetite and energy. Clearly aimed at men, the message of the videos is that adopting a vegan diet will lead to a huge increase in sex appeal and stamina. However, there is another, more sinister, interpretation: that a vegan diet increases the chance of becoming an abusive carnal maniac, to the point of inflicting physical harm on sexual partners. Women lament the injuries they have sustained as a result of prolonged sexual activity – bruising, sprains, joint pain and concussions. Interestingly, one of the only narrators not to mention any negative side-effects of their lovers’ change in lifestyle is male. This seems to add to the worrying view that men are more active participants in sex, whereas women are passive objects who are acted upon and ‘damaged’.

A few choice quotes set the tone for the ads:

He’s like a sex robot with no off button

Do they make joint cream for the uterus?

I was an only child with daddy issues; I went to private school; I pledged a sorority at a top-ranked, basketball university where I was also a cheerleader; and then I went on to become an intern in Washington. So, yes. I like to have a lot of sex.

Their justification for the use of ‘controversial tactics’ in the past has been weak at best, but surely even PETA must realise that perpetuating slut-stereotypes is tacky. Amongst the other complaints about the videos this seems like a minor transgression, but adds insult to (literal) injury and highlights the cheapness of the campaign.

No less disturbing are the responses to the videos. It seems pertinent in the wake of the recent UNILAD scandal, and discussions about sexual violence entering the mainstream in a major way, to mention the high volume of comments on YouTube whose sentiments range from ‘it’s only a joke, don’t take it so seriously’ to making light of domestic violence – “I’m mean come’on, who wouldn’t want to hurt their girlfriend during sex, and she actually enjoyed it” [sic]. PETA is shamelessly engaging with this kind of thinking in order to gain publicity.

It’s rare that comments of this calibre provoke from me any response other than utter disdain. However, one did cause me to rethink my perspective – though the likelihood of this being intentional is slim to not-a-chance-in-hell:

Quit your whining, Men are always portrayed badly in the media, don’t see you up in arms then. Darn feminists and their double-standards

This, of course, is quite true; questionable portrayals of men can be found throughout the media. These are valid concerns which should be addressed, beginning with the example of the PETA campaign videos.

My initial anger upon watching the videos stemmed from the misogyny displayed in the portrayal of violent, exploitative (towards women) sexual relationships. Since then, however, my feelings have changed.  Let me be very clear: I am no less disgusted on second view; but I have equally growing concerns about their portrayal of men. The campaign preys upon some men’s insecurity about sexual inadequacy, implying that a man’s worth is measured by his ability to guarantee sexual satisfaction.

Instead of focussing on the quantifiable and realistic benefits of adopting a vegan lifestyle, PETA delivers an ad campaign based solely upon exaggerating the chances of men who eat meat developing erectile dysfunction. In the interests of thorough research, I visited PETA’s BWVAKTBOOM website. If, like me, you begrudge them the traffic, here are the opening paragraphs from the page entitled ‘A Vegetarian Diet Can Help With Impotence’:

Every year, impotence, or “erectile dysfunction,” affects millions of men across the world, with one study showing that as many as half of men over the age of 40 are impotent at least part of the time.

Originally, it was thought that impotence was caused by anxiety, but according to the Erectile Dysfunction Institute, up to 90 percent of all cases of impotence are physical as opposed to psychological. That’s right: High cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, prostate cancer or inflammations, and hormonal imbalances cause the vast majority of all cases of impotence.

The good news is that medical science suggests that all of these conditions can be managed or in some cases even prevented with a low-fat vegan diet […] These foods will scrub the plaque off the arterial walls to get your blood flowing and your love life going again in no time.[1]

Leaving aside for a moment the dubious ‘medical science’ behind the claim that a vegan diet will “scrub the plaque off the arterial walls”, let’s consider a couple of the website’s FAQs. “Why can’t I eat all the meat that I want and then just take Viagra?” is followed by “What if I’m already experiencing impotence?” The implicit message is not difficult to spot: eating meat will definitely lead to impotence – a condition that few meat-eating men are lucky enough to enjoy living without.

It is not only the myth-making and scaremongering that demonstrate PETA’s apparent misogyny and misandry. Feminist film criticism challenges film-makers who objectify women by prescribing a particular physical appearance and attire for female characters; but also for their failure to represent women as autonomous beings with inherent value and the capacity for independent thought. This is typically demonstrated in a lack of female lines, compared to large speaking roles given to powerful and ‘important’ male characters. Interestingly, in all but one of PETA’s videos, the voiceless role is that of the man, who does not even make an appearance; no details are given about him beside his diet and sexual prowess. The male partner is no less objectified than the female.

This whole campaign is tasteless in the extreme. It preaches that men’s greatest worth is based on their ability to satisfy sexually women and themselves; preys upon men’s fears of impotence and sexual inadequacy; and trivialises suffering of and sexual violence towards women. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing positive about these ads. It is a great shame that PETA is incapable of showing the same respect to humans as it does animals; though in all honesty, I have come to expect nothing better.

Image: PJMixer on Flickr

Originally published here on 4 March 2012.