In her first book, Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism, journalist and activist Laurie Penny argues that the commodification, sexual objectification and degradation of women’s bodies, is key to maintaining advanced capitalist societies. If women said ‘No’ – no to pornification, no to dieting and eating disorders, and no to doing all the housework – late capitalist-patriarchal societies would collapse. The latent power of organized women is aching to be tapped into.
In the first part of this interview, we discuss Penny’s views on sexualisation, and the second part will look at the other issues in the book – eating disorders, transphobia and domestic labour.
What is the premise of the Meat Market?
The basic idea is that the way we talk about body image, and the way we talk about women’s bodies, self esteem and femininity relate to capitalism and relate to class and they’re not two isolated areas of debate. Because I think too often you have a lot of debate about how women feel about their bodies and how women feel about their sexuality and how that’s portrayed, without really relating that back to issues of class. The theory I wanted to put forward is that they’re actually intimately related because women’s bodies as a source of labour power, and as a resource used by capital, are connected to how we treat women’s bodies in the public arena.
You wrote a piece in the Independent saying the recent Playboy protests were bourgeois. Why do you think there’s a contradiction between being anti- the sexualisation of women and anti-cuts? Why can’t you be both?
Because I think sexualisation is entirely the wrong word. It suggests two things. Firstly it suggests that women can only ever be sexualized, never sexual, that sexuality is something that’s imposed on women. And secondly that the whole Playboy image of female sexuality is sex. The chapter’s called “An Anatomy of Modern Frigidity” because I believe that kind of sexuality is anti-sex. I think it’s far more anti-sex than feminists who are out there campaigning against pornography.
I think it’s possible to fight objectification and fight the cuts but at the moment something very interesting is happening. You have people within government who are putting forward this austerity programme also clamping down on women’s sexuality, putting out statements that are nominally feminist and getting feminists who are in the public eye to write about them; saying the sexualisation of women is wrong, and the sexualisation of children is wrong (by which they mean girl children, they don’t really mean boys. Boys are free to do whatever they want really, fiddle with themselves, it’s alright). And if you look at the ideology behind that I find it very interesting, because what they’ve done is they’ve invited fundamentalist Christian groups into Parliament to dictate sexual health policy and to write these reviews. The Bailey Review, which is where all the headlines and debates about sexualisation over the past few months have come out of, was written by a fundamentalist Christian charity, called the “Mothers’ Union”. But it’s not a union and it’s not about mothers. It’s a Christian charity dedicated to preserving marriage and family life. And I think there’s a really dangerous element of that kind of social prudishness and censoriousness at the heart of the sexualisation debate, which is unhelpful.
It’s very damaging in a way, because you’ve got that on the one hand and on the other hand you’ve got the slutwalks, which again there’s been a lot of debate about – “You can’t reclaim the word slut” – and then more right-wing people, particularly right-wing women saying “this is encouraging promiscuity, this is encouraging bad sexual behavior”. One of the positive things this means is that there’s a real debate about what feminist sexual liberation could look like, because obviously capitalism is very, very good at taking people’s desires for liberation and selling it back to them in a homogenous and repressive fashion, so you had the call in the 60s and 70s for female sexual liberation, coming out of the sexual revolution, coming out of more widespread use of contraception. Women finally wanted to take control of their sexuality. What that turned into, as people like Ariel Levy in her book “Female Chauvinist Pigs”, talks about extremely well, is a fake image of liberation which is actually – I think Ariel Levy would say is a male image of sexuality. I’m not sure it’s just a male image of sexuality, but it’s certainly a homogenous, repressive, oppressive image of what sexuality should be, which I think is very anti-sex, but sometimes the feminist response to that has been called anti-sex partly because feminism has failed to come up with alternative models of what female sexuality could look like because they’ve been so concerned with fighting the culture of “sexualisation”.
I think it has to be on two fronts. It has to be telling people that this image of how women’s sexuality is is wrong, but also saying the problem with that isn’t sex, the problem is sexism, so the solution isn’t just to ban things, the solution isn’t just to protest against Playboy, the solution is to provide a strong and powerful model of female sexuality that people can really feel that they can engage with in their own life. The solution is to combat shame, which is what I think the slutwalks were about. Interestingly, in London at least, there was a lot of discussion on the slutwalks about austerity, about the cuts, and people having signs that weren’t made by the Socialist Workers, they’d just made themselves, saying “sluts against cuts”, which I thought was brilliant. This is an attack on women too, the austerity programme is an attack on women too.
You’re saying that feminists need to provide an alternative model of female sexuality, but surely there is no model. Female sexuality is different for every person.
No, of course you’re right. I’m not saying that feminism needs to set out a manifesto for how sex should be and how sex should look, but that’s part of what the feminist response to sexuality should be. I think in one of the articles I wrote recently I talked about the model of sex we’re given by consumer culture being a bit like MacDonalds. That model of nutrition, and consuming, enacting and performing that kind of sexuality is a bit like living in a world of Macdonalds, and only eating Macdonalds for so long that you forget what other food is like and you forget that actually there are all kinds of things you can eat. And that it doesn’t always have to be damaging and bad for you and a bit naughty, whilst at the same time acknowledging that sometimes you just want a happy meal and that’s fine. Sometimes that’s ok.
I’m still not convinced though that there is a contradiction, because you argue in this chapter that the mass-produced symbol of the Playboy bunny represents our alienation from female sexuality. So why not challenge Playboy on the grounds that women should be able to define their own sexuality, not capitalist men like Hugh Hefner? Is that not a valid reason to oppose Playboy?
I think it’s a valid reason to oppose Playboy, but I don’t think Playboy is the big problem at the moment. One of the reasons I wrote that article is that I think that the problems facing women at the moment are much more urgent, much deeper and wider than a culture of “sexualisation” and this kind of weird retro sexism you get with Playboy and strip clubs on the high street. I think that is the symptom, not the problem itself. I would never come out and say I think Playboy on the high street is a great thing, I think it’s an awful thing, but I think it’s a distraction rather than the main problem. I have no problem with there being a protest, but rather than just saying playboy shouldn’t exist, I would rather create a world in which the notion of a club like that is so abhorrent and so counter to mainstream culture that it can’t possible be set up.
But isn’t protesting against it the first step in achieving that?
I guess you could argue that it is, but I still think that the Playboy protests have been coopted as part of the sexualisation debate, you know the Playboy bunny image on little girls t-shirts, rather than as part of a class debate. There wasn’t enough discussion at the time about the terrible working conditions in Playboy clubs, as described by Gloria Steinman, who had a brilliant, brilliant essay where she went undercover in a Playboy club. It’s seen as an issue of over-sexualisation rather than an issue of exploitation, which is not a word you see used much in these debates.
You mentioned the Playboy symbol being on little girls T-shirts, and you also said in that article that if sexualisation is threatening to an 8 year old, why not an 18 or 28 year old. But I see a very big difference between an 8 year old and an 18 or 28 year old, because the 18 and 28 year old are adults and they have developed a capacity for critical thinking; so they can take it or leave it in a way, but a child can’t. A child doesn’t have agency in the same way and can make the same choices as an adult, so that’s why there’s a problem there.
I disagree in a sense, because our sexuality is conditioned by the culture in which we grow up and the culture in which we live and I don’t think you can separate an 8 year old wearing it from an 18 year old wearing it, because that’s the argument that particularly a lot of vacuous male commentators make on this issue, well they’re free to be strippers, they’re free to be Playmates, it’s their choice. I think choice and agency are misunderstood in this context, because whether you’re 8 years old or your 28 years old, if you’re given a choice between a staid form of sexual performativity for the male gaze or social stigma, that’s a terrible choice to have to make. It’s not a free and wonderful choice, it’s a circumscribed and exploitative choice, and I think that holds true whether you’re 8 or 18. Obviously children have less maturity and less sexual awareness than teenagers or older women, but at the same time I think the way that sexualisation is discussed really strips children and young women of any notion of sexual agency. Because the fact is that young women are sexual and children are sexual, they have their own developing desires at that age. The horrible thing is not that they’re showing signs of sexual desire, I wouldn’t say that having a Playboy bunny T-shirt on is a sign of sexual desire, the horrible thing is that they’re growing up into a world where desire is circumscribed and desire is a way of forming social status and sexual desire is stolen from women and sold back to them. It’s awful seeing little girls grow up into that world, but the debate at the moment is focused on how to stop the girls growing up rather than having to change the world.
I don’t think it is about stopping the girls growing up, I think the point of not giving this stuff to children is that you’re not selling them that brand of sexuality at a very young age, in their formative years when they’re working out their views on sexuality, or when they’re even younger than that, and then they have less choices when they get older.
Well the phrase being used is “our little girls are growing up too soon”. That’s the headline of the Bailey Review, that’s the phrase being bandied about, and that’s the phrase I have a problem with. What you say about the Playboy bunny protests is quite right in that creating that atmosphere of protest is a first step to creating a culture in which it’s not acceptable. On the other hand, just discussing it in terms of sexualisation rather than talking about what kind of sex we have is wrong.
I thought there was another contradiction in this chapter, because on the one hand, you argue that female sexuality and real sex is threatening to capitalism because it’s free, so can’t be controlled by the market; on the other hand you argue female sexuality is threatening because women can sell it and gain proceeds from their sexual labour. The passage is, “The labouring sexual bodies of prostitutes are hated, feared and punished by society at large as part of a culture that understands female sexual objectification as labour whilst remaining terrified of the notion of women gaining real control over the proceeds of that labour.” So which do you think it is? Is it threatening because it’s free or can be sold?
The phrase “proceeds of that labour”, by that I don’t mean money. I don’t necessarily mean we’re frightened of women making money from sex. I think the idea of women being able to control their bodies and being able to control their sexuality, and anything that comes from that is threatening, because what people are really frightened of is women being able to enjoy sex and women being able to control their reproductive capacity freely, and being able to control the proceeds of sex work in the sense of making and raising families, owning and enjoying pleasure. That is threatening to capital. Women making money off sex is not threatening to capital, I don’t think it ever has been, it won’t be for the foreseeable future. Clearly I didn’t explain it well enough, I think proceeds is probably the wrong word.
But why do you think women enjoying their sexuality is threatening to capital?
Because I think that the way in which sexuality is sold to us is inimical to any understanding of real satisfaction and real pleasure.
But couldn’t that change? Isn’t that the point of a market economy, that if a new market emerges then it’ll change.
No, no not at all because people don’t grow up in a vacuum and then turn up as fully-fledged adults with specific desires that are unique to them. The market in which they grow up and the kind of sexual images they’re seeing, particularly from pornography increasingly, creates those desires and creates the model of how that natural sexual urge is formed in someone’s mind. People’s ideas about what they want are formed by the market itself. The idea of us all moving together by making our own free choices towards a wonderful pure ideal vision of sexuality is clearly not what’s happening at the moment. If you open up every form of human sexuality to profit, what you get is not a better form of sexuality, what you get is simply a form of sexuality that is more saleable. Intimacy is not something that can be mass marketed, and orgasm is not something that can be produced on a factory line and sold.
Take the example of the female sexual revolution of the 60s. Part of that were the infamous Betty Dobson workshops where she taught women how to have a clitoral orgasm. From that the rabbit has emerged and other kinds of vibrators, and other products that can help women achieve orgasm; and they are produced on the factory lines. So that’s an example of where women took control of their sexuality and then a product was made to help them do that better.
Of course it was made to help them do that better, and there are many wonderful things you can buy that can help you have a better time in the bedroom. But ultimately you can have all the rabbits and strap-ons and whips and chains and fancy lube that you like, but if you’re still ashamed of your sexuality then you’re not going to have a good time. What worries me at the moment is that capitalism doesn’t just sell us vibrators, it also sells us the idea that if we go out in the street wearing a short skirt we deserve to be raped. That’s what worries me. I don’t think the selling of vibrators is a terrible thing, on the other hand we’re still a very long way from a culture that celebrates female sexuality in any positive, genuine way and teaches women how to understand and enjoy their own bodies.
I think that’s threatening to patriarchy, but I’m not entirely clear why that’s threatening to capitalism.
I read this quote in a book about five years ago, but I think it was Alan Greenspan that said that if every woman woke up tomorrow feeling good about her body then the bottom would fall out of the economies of the world. Because a lot of contemporary capitalism, a lot of products that we buy and a lot of consumerism is focused on making women sexually submissive, socially submissive, economically submissive, and they’re all part of the same web.
But wouldn’t it be that the cosmetics industry and maybe the plastic surgery industry and the diet industry would collapse, but not necessarily the entire capitalist system?
I don’t think the entire capitalist system is going to collapse if women suddenly start feeling a little bit better about their bodies, but I think that women’s sexual submission and women’s social submission is essential to capitalism as it is currently formulated. It all comes back to the issue of domestic labour, the issue of reproductive labour and reproductive rights. Fundamentally it’s about taming women and telling women they can’t be free and full human beings.
One of the things Marx failed to predict was the adaptability of capitalism. I suppose that’s what my vibrator example is trying to show. Whenever there is a change and some kind of revolutionary movement, capitalism can co-opt it in some way or adapt it. So it might be that even if women did take control of their sexuality and did become happy with their bodies, in a general sense, that capitalism would find a way of adapting to that.
Of course it would and it’s already trying to find those ways. One of the things I find the most fascinating is the make-over industry and the idea of make-over programmes, where you have people like Gok Wan saying “all you have to do is feel better about your body and then you’re going to feel happier with yourself and your life will be perfect”. It’s focusing the deep discontents I think a lot of people have, the discontents of capital and the discontents of contemporary living on the body of women and putting forward personal transformation as a kind of revolution, because ultimately, you can learn to love your body all you like and you can learn to have as many orgasms as you like, and that will be very nice for you and I’m sure you’ll be a happier person, but the system is never going to change unless there is some sense of collective action, some sense of an economic as well as an individual critique of gender and of patriarchy. Having women on this terrible treadmill whereby you’re told on the one hand your body’s awful and on the other hand you’ve got people telling you that you’ll feel better about yourself as long as you buy these things and if you diet a bit more, and as long as you have your vibrators and your pole dancing classes, or whatever it is. And I don’t think that’s the way to freedom.
Laurie Penny’s book is Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism.