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’.

[Disclaimer: this is in the context of female sex workers/male clients. This is mainly because I’m criticising public discourse, and discussion of male sex workers is usually excluded from that. I have no experience of sex work, and I don’t presume to speak for those who do. I am not talking about sex trafficking. That is an entirely separate issue.]

‘Selling your body’

When someone pays for sex, they’re buying sex. They don’t suddenly gain ownership of a woman’s body any more than any other man who sleeps with any other woman does.

If I sleep with someone, I don’t ‘give away’ my body. My body is no one’s but my own, no matter who I have sex with; I retain the right to do what I like with it, and to give or refuse consent as I wish. So do people who have sex for money. We must never lose sight of everyone’s right to bodily autonomy.

Talking about selling a body rather than a service implies a permanent state of affairs. It leads to the belief that consenting to sex on one occasion means that consent is automatic from then on. That’s George Galloway territory, and that’s nowhere we need to go.

Women are constantly told that their bodies are not their own. There’s an assumed public ownership where we’re told that we need to look a certain way in order to please others. We’re taught that bodies are for decoration and for pleasing men. Let’s take every opportunity we can to avoid language that buys into this.

‘Selling yourself’

This is so much worse. Not only does the client now own a woman’s body; they actually gain ownership of the woman.

If you’ve ever used the phrase ‘selling yourself’ and gone on to talk about sex work being degrading and dehumanising, then bravo. You’ve done a fantastic job of dehumanising the people you’re talking about. By equating the service someone provides with their actual personhood, you’re implying that that’s all their worth. Is your estimation of women so low that you think they’re worth no more than the sex they’re having? Sex workers are selling a service, an experience, or their time. They’re not selling their very being.

Sexual behaviours as states of being

There’s an interesting aside to all of this. There are parallels to be drawn between the unsold|sold distinction and the way we talk about virginity. It all reflects this obsession we have with categorising sexual behaviour as states of being. We talk about virginity as though there’s a profound and irreversible change in someone’s character the moment they have (usually PIV) sex for the first time. What other experience do we talk about like that? Trying drugs, alcohol, different types of food? Swimming? Praying?

The idea of exchanging rights over someone’s body being a turning point – your body was yours, but now you’ve given it away and it’s not – suggests that behaviour defines you and enacts an irreversible change. But that’s not the case; shockingly, people aren’t defined by their sexual behaviour. They may choose to have (or sell) sex at some times and not at others. There’s nothing helpful about adding an arbitrary cut off point between ‘unsold’ and ‘sold’. All it achieves is adding to stigma by suggesting there’s something inherently other or lesser about women who decide to have sex for money.

There’s a lot more to be said about sex work and the language surrounding it; this is just something I’ve been thinking about today. I think this needs saying as much as possible: women are not sex, and they are not their bodies. It’s an important distinction to make.

#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:

Our board member, fierce activist and friend Petite Jasmine got brutually murdered yesterday. Several years ago she lost custody of her children as she was considered to be an unfit parent due to being a sex worker. The children were placed with their father regardless of him being abusive towards Jasmine. They told her she didn’t know what was good for her and that she was “romantisizing” prostitution, they said she lacked insight and didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm. He threatened and stalked her on numerous occations, she was never offered any protection. She fought the system through four trials and had finally started seeing her children again. Yesterday the father of her children killed her. She always said “Even if I can’t get my kids back I will make sure this never happens to any other sex worker”. We will continue her fight. Justice for Jasmine!

One thing seems clear: if sex work was considered more worthy of punishment than domestic abuse, then there’s something incredibly wrong with Swedish legislation. Laws intended to protect people who might be exploited by the sex industry instead fuelled stigma that meant a mother lost custody of her children, and failed to protect her.

This excellent post from Jem at Sometimes, it’s just a cigar gives further details; until any news reports appear English I’m going to hold off from commenting in detail on this particular incident, as I don’t want to rely on shoddy Google translations. But Jasmine’s death highlights a broader problem of the laws surrounding sex work around the world: legislators seem determined to listen to anyone but sex workers when making legislation that most affects them.

Anyone interested in sex workers’ rights will have heard frequent references to the Swedish model (or Nordic model) on both sides of criminalisation/non-criminalisation argument. Basically, the Swedish model criminalises the buying of sex (as well as pimping or running a brothel), but not selling it (so Jasmine wasn’t doing anything illegal, but was still apparently deemed an unfit mother thanks to her job). The aim of the law is to eradicate prostitution by eliminating demand. Here’s why:

Prostitution is considered to cause serious harm both to individuals and to society as a whole. Large-scale crime, including human trafficking for sexual purposes, assault, procuring and drug-dealing, is also commonly associated with prostitution (Government Offices of Sweden)

The problem is, it hasn’t eliminated demand at all. Instead, it just means that there are fewer mechanisms in place to protect people who sell sexual services. It means that sex workers may be afraid to speak out if they suffer violence or abuse thanks to stigma perpetuated by the legislation, and that they’re forced to work in unregulated, often unsafe, conditions.

In 2012, Pro Sentret, the City of Oslo’s service for women and men who sell sex and a “national centre of expertise”  released a report entitled Farlige Forbindelser (Dangerous Liasons) into the effects of similar legislation in Norway in 2009. Thomas Larson has helpfully translated the document into English – you can read it here. The report revealed that “59% of the participants in the investigation from 2012 said they had been exposed to violence in prostitution after the sex purchase law was introduced.”

This pretty conclusively dispels the myth that the Nordic model effectively protects sex workers from violence.

Larson goes on to make the point that in Norway, sex work is a buyer’s market. The claim that no one would voluntarily choose sex work has, to an extent, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than ensuring that no one should ever have to sell sex, it merely creates conditions under which no one would want to work. The likely outcome is that a higher proportion of sex workers do so because they have no other choice – because they’re desperate.

So the Swedish model makes it more difficult and less safe for those who freely choose sex work to do so, while doing nothing to protect those desperate enough to have no other choice. What’s more, it means that sex workers’ client base is limited to people who aren’t deterred by the idea of breaking the law.

And are we really that surprised? As Dr Eilís Ward writes in the Irish Times, there’s “no evidence that prostitution can be abolished”. Any legislation that aims to do so is based on a fallacy. More worryingly, it’s based upon an ideology – once that sees selling sex as inherently wrong, whether or not people actively choose to work in the industry. As Ireland edges closer to adopting the Swedish model, it’s not difficult to identify religion as a key factor influencing policy when the Catholic Church remains powerful and abortion illegal.

In other cases, prohibitionists claim that sex work is inherently exploitative; several groups have labelled the sale of sex “paid rape” or “voluntary slavery”. Not only is the implication that people (usually women; male sex workers are often erased) who freely choose to sell sex lack the capacity to do so rather insulting, it has another, more sinister implication. By denying sex workers’ agency and saying that any instance in which they consensually exchange sex for money is rape, you’re saying that their consent is meaningless. That it doesn’t matter. And so, by extension, if they don’t consent, what then?

The only logical conclusion I can reach is that if governments are serious about tackling trafficking and violence against sex workers, they need to provide legislation enabling them to work in safer, more regulated conditions. This isn’t my idea – it’s something that sex workers have been saying for years. A lot of what’s shaped my thinking is reading blogs written by current and former sex workers, and following activists on Twitter.

Which is funny, because sex workers seem to be conspicuously absent from this conversation about legislation – at least in official circles. Why is it that those with the power to put policy in place are ignoring the demographic that their decisions will affect most? It’s about time those in power started listening to people who know what they’re talking about – people like Jasmine.

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.

There are good arguments for these changes, from both a secular and a religious point of view. Few people would argue that we should go back to those archaic laws, and few would maintain that allowing marriage between people of different ethnicities ‘damages the institution of marriage’.

Peter Atkinson, the Dean of Worcester, has spoken up in support of equal marriage on the basis that marriage is not an institution. In Halesowen News, he describes how marriage, far from remaining unchanged for the last two thousand years, has evolved:

My loyalty is to her, not to a thing (let alone an institution) called marriage.

The idea of marriage has evolved, and it continues to do so.

Today we take it for granted that a marriage must be formally celebrated, whether in a religious or a civil ceremony, but no formality was required in England until 1753.

Until relatively recent times, it was agreed that a wife was subject to her husband, but we have seen a social revolution here.

Few would argue for a return to the days when a husband could sell off his wife at a fair (as happened late into the 19th century).

This seems to me to make a lot of sense.

To illustrate how ridiculous the ‘Biblical definition of marriage’ argument is, with the help of Bible Gateway I’ve collected together a few passages which illustrate the ways in which marriage has changed within the Church since the Bible was written. For the sake of consistency, all passages are taken from the NIV**.

Why defending “the Biblical definition of marriage” is inconsistent with what the Church practises today

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”: Polygamy and extra-marital sex

Conservative Christians often protest that marriage is “between a man and a woman” – ie. one man and one woman. It is also widely accepted that sex outside of marriage constitutes adultery, which violates the Biblical institution of marriage.

2 Samuel 3:2-5 says that David had sons in Hebron with Ahinoam of Jezreel, Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel, Maakah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur, Haggith, Abital and his wife, Eglah. That’s not all, though.

After he left Hebron, David took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem, and more sons and daughters were born to him. 2 Samuel 5:13

Nor was David the only one.

Rehoboam loved Maakah daughter of Absalom more than any of his other wives and concubines. In all, he had eighteen wives and sixty concubines, twenty-eight sons and sixty daughters. 2 Chronicles 11:21

[King Solomon] had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines 1 Kings 11:3

Subordination of women

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:22-33

Women as property

Women are often described in the Bible as the property of either their husband or their father. There are several examples of women being traded as part of a bargain or ‘won’ as the spoils of war:

Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelek, Kilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite,Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown. Today you are witnesses!” Ruth 4:9-10

David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage. 1 Samuel 18:27

Then the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of everything and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Burning with anger, he returned to his father’s home. And Samson’s wife was given to one of his companions who had attended him at the feast. Judges 14:19-20

Marriage between believers and non-believers/interracial marriage

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry.” Kings 11:1-6


Some Pharisees came to [Jesus] to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? [a reference to Genesis 2:24] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. […] I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19: 3-9

If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her  and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” […] [and the accusation is found not to be true], the elders shall take the man and punish him.  They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives. Deuteronomy 22:13-20

Virginity and capital punishment

 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. Deuteronomy 22:13-20

Death of a spouse

In the event of a husband’s death, his brother must marry his widow:

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” Genesis 38:8

If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. Deuteronomy 25:5-6


If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. Deuteronomy 25:28-29

*This is written mainly with reference to the Church of England. I am aware that in some conservative branches of the Church, some of these ideas are still upheld. A certain amount of generalisation has gone on here, but will be applicable to most ‘mainstream’ Christians, including many of those who oppose gay marriage.

**It’s been pointed out to me that the NRSV would be better because it uses inclusive language, so if I do another Bible-related post that’s the version I’ll use in future.

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. TL;DR version: click here to skip to the part about his verdict on the rape allegation.

If you’d like to watch the video, here’s a link – Galloway begins speaking about Assange from 10:20, and after a brief musical interlude gets to the topic at hand at 13:55.

“It’s about Wikileaks, stupid. It’s not about totally unproven allegations, on which Assange has never been charged; on which the Swedes refuse to question him by video link in London; on which the Swedes refuse to send their police officers to London to question Julian Assange; on which the Swedes refuse to give an undertaking that if Julian Assange returns to Sweden to face questioning on these matters which could easily be cleared up in London, that the Swedes will not extradite him to the United States of America. When you know all that, it’s kind of obvious what’s going on.”

Galloway goes on to criticise William Hague for threatening to enter the Ecuadorian embassy, making the fair observation that this is Ecuador’s sovereign territory and to enter would be in violation of the Vienna Convention.

“And yet, the same William Hague has sent Inspector Knacker of the Yard and PC Plod by the dozen, who’s better out on the streets of London dealing with the actual crime wave that’s taking place, have sent them to effectively blockade a thin, rather odd, flaxen-haired fellow called Julian Assange, whose only crime is a big one. His crime was through Wikileaks.”

I believe in democracy and the power of the law, and I believe that it is of the utmost importance that we live according to the maxim of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. So it’s right to say that we should’t call Assange a rapist; he hasn’t been tried in court and so we cannot justifiably call him guilty. However, it’s neither necessarily correct nor responsible to say that Assange did not commit the crime of which he is accused. To claim that the work he did through Wikileaks was his ‘only crime’ is to say that he is necessarily innocent – something we can’t claim to know at this point.

By referring to other crimes in London as ‘actual crime’, Galloway implies thatwhat Assange is accused of – that’s rape, guys – is not an actual crime. That, for a politician, is an incredibly unsavoury thing to say.

Not content with absolving Assange of one accusation, Galloway goes on to praise Assange for his work with Wikileaks, which, he says, “has revealed more secrets that the rich and the powerful would liked to have concealed from us forever than any individual, any organisation ever in history… secret information that we deserved and needed to know.”

This sums up the attitude of many voicing their opinions on the Assange case at the moment: an inability to separate his professional work with Wikileaks and the associated crimes from his personal conduct. Even if we accept the premise that Wikileaks has exposed information that we “deserved and needed to know”, that should have no bearing on how we discuss his personal conduct.

It’s because of these political events that many are questioning the motive behind the women’s claims. In an aside, Galloway implies what so many have already said: that the women are making up the allegations for political reasons.

I’m not even going to go into their political connections; I’m gonna leave that for others and for another day. I’m gonna leave the fact that one, maybe both of his accusers, have the strangest of links to the strangest of people, organisations and states.

It would be foolish to deny altogether the possibility that the women are making false accusations to further a political agenda. But is is also foolish and irresponsible to believe that they are without evidence. Women with political connections are sexually assaulted just as others are. We can’t at this point judge the women to be guilty or innocent of false allegations any more than we can Assange of rape.

George Galloway: Julian Assange is accused of ‘bad sexual etiquette’

So, we’ve established that Galloway doesn’t believe the allegations brought against Julian Assange; but perhaps the greater, or more shocking, issue here is what he believes those allegations to be:

“Even taken at its worst, the allegations made by these two women were true, one hundred per cent true, and even a camera in the room captured them, they don’t constitute rape; at least not anyone with any sense can possibly recognise.”

Galloway’s statement is not only tasteless, insensitive and offensive; it is factually incorrect.  Having sex with someone who doesn’t consent is rape. If, as the first woman claimed, they’re not able to consent because they are asleep – it is rape. It’s explained in very simple terms under Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003:

1 Rape

(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a) he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,

(b) B does not consent to the penetration, and

(c) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

In this situation, B has not consented (because B is asleep), and A cannot reasonably believe B to consent (because B is asleep).

Galloway continues:

“Not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion. Some people believe that when you go to bed with somebody, take off your clothes, and have sex with them and then fall asleep, you’re already in the sex game with them.

“It might be really bad manners not to have tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘do you mind if I do it again?’. It might be really sordid and bad sexual etiquette, but whatever else it is, it is not rape or you bankrupt the term rape of all meaning.”

No, George. It is not “really bad manners”. It is rape. As a member of the Vagenda team eloquently wrote: “Do you know what bad sexual etiquette is? Bad sexual etiquette is farting when I’m going down on you, not fucking me without my permission.”

Let’s look at the comment about asking ‘”prior to each insertion”. Rape can happen even where consent has been given previously. It can happen within long-standing sexual relationships. It’s no longer – thanks for a regard for basic human rights – legal in this country for a husband to rape his wife. But it does happen, and it is still rape. Are we to infer that George Galloway considers sexual assault between people who’ve had consensual sex in the past merely “bad manners”?

Addressing the second woman’s allegation that Assange refused to stop having sex with her when the condom they were using split, Galloway said that Assange’s behaviour was “”loathsome… caddish… brute-ish; but is it rape?”

Yes, George. It is rape.

This is the latest in a string of people seeking to limit the definition of rape in order to de-legitimise (sometimes literally) other kinds of sexual assault. It’s a definition which only considers rape by physical coercion by a stranger, on a street corner, during daylight hours and when a woman is dressed in a certain way to be real rape. It’s damaging and dangerous, and becoming ever more pervasive in everyday and political discourse. And it needs to stop.

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.