Posted by: Jack | April 29, 2008

Fem ’08

I wasn’t able to post anything this weekend because I was down in Sheffield at the Fem ’08 conference.

This was an interesting event organised to bring together feminist activists from across the UK for a day of discussion and organising, and I’m really glad I went along, not least because there really ought to have been more men there. It’s a bit of an indictment that so few male activists can be arsed getting involved in the fight against patriarchy, and shows how far movements against the existing world order have to go themselves to really understand how the oppression of women is such a fundamental part of what’s wrong with life on this planet.

That said, there was a really good plenary session in the morning with Chris Green, UK co-ordinator of the White Ribbon campaign, and Damian Carnell of the Nottighamshire Domestic Violence Forum, which was about challenging traditional ideas of masculinity.

In his part, Chris showed a video from US activist Jackson Katz called “Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity” which is on youtube here.

The video is well worth a watch, and Chris also dealt with the issues raised in it: how masculinity is something that boys learn from an early age means dominance, violence and control over women and indeed over other men.

Damian talked about an experience on a train on the way there where he challenged a young man who was reading a lads’ mag, asking him what he thought about it and why he read it. He admitted that it was an extremely difficult experience, and argued it would be much better if small isolated attempts by different men to challenge sexist behaviour and culture could become more co-ordinated, with people learning from each other’s experiences.

I think it’s possible to talk a lot of nonsense about how “patriarchy oppresses men too!” as if the ways that sexist society affects men are equivalent to the way it oppresses women. However, I do think that what’s going to be crucial in making all our lives happier and freer is working with and challenging men and their behaviour.

In conversations with comrades after this really thought provoking session, one of the things that came out was the idea that shame and guilt won’t work as methods of changing people. We have to really examine our lives as men. Yes patriarchal society gives us privileges and advantages, such as the ability to exploit and dominate women, from in relationships to their being turned into an object we can buy for sexual stimulation. Men who have grown up in a porn culture where women are constantly seen as being available to be bought are going to find it hard to give this up.

But in fact these advantages are false, because they stunt our lives and development, meaning we aren’t full human beings who can relate to each other, and women properly. I think when asking men to give up the advantages that patriarchy offers them we have to hold out a vision of a better happier life where we can live more fully and freely without dominating others.

In another session the reasons why we need to fight the ever expanding grip of pornography over our society and psyche’s were vividly illustrated in a heartbreaking film. Hardcore is a documentary made by channel 4 about an English woman who travels to Los Angeles with the aim of becoming a porn star.

The film brutally exposes the reality of the hugely successful pornography industry. It’s an industry that has come to be seen as more and more mainstream, but is in fact on the abuse and rape of women, as shown in the film.

Felicity, a single mum from Essex, has been brought to the USA by her agent Richard. She has had a difficult time growing up, and it’s clear in the film this is what led her to want to be part of the porn industry. But from the start she has clear boundaries-she doesn’t want to do anal sex or rough unpleasant scenes.

However, the agent Richard knows that in a market that is now saturated with every kind of horrendous material imaginable, porn users are always trying to get their hands on more and more extreme material. He knows that the real money to be made by him (through the exploitation of Felicity) is in anal sex scenes and films of abuse and domination.

Therefore he is constantly trying to break down her resistance to doing more “hardcore” scenes. He is an exemplary capitalist, caring nothing for the damage he does to human beings in his pursuit of profit. Indeed, he clearly loves his business and the opportunities it brings to posses and exploit women. In the film he leads Felicity around by the hand, and afterwards it was made clear what wasn’t included on screen-she was staying in his house where there was only one bed.

The process of breaking Felicity down culminates when Richard takes her to the home of Max Hardcore, a notorious figure in the porn industry. The house is far from anywhere in the desert, defended by armed guards and dogs.

Max Hardcore is renowned for horrendously abusive films in which he violently hurts the women he is working with. When he arrives home to Felicity there the first thing he does, without even looking her in the eye or properly speaking to her, is to rape her. While Richard looks on laughing, and the camera crew don’t know what to do, he walks straight up and penetrates her. Felicity herself doesn’t know what to do, and is unable to offer any resistance beyond nervous words.

He goes on to persuade her to take part in one of his films that day, an experience that reduces her to tears and forces her to run away from the set. Pursued by her abuser, she is only helped into being able to get away by the intervention of the camera crew, realising if they don’t intervene they will be complicit in her abuse and rape.

The purpose of Richard taking her to this place becomes clear afterwards. In the days that follow she continues to work under horrendous conditions on different porn sets, but her demeanour is different. She is basically suffering from shock and post traumatic stress from her experiences at the hands of Max Hardcore.

Richard himself is quite clear that this was his aim all along- “Once she’s been to see him everything else doesn’t seem as bad,” he comments. He has deliberately tried to break her so she can become an object to be abused for his profit.

The film really exposes any romanticised ideas people might have about how the porn industry works. The porn that really sells is abusive and horrible, and to persuade women to take part in that they have to have been through bad experiences already and be psychologically broken. Watching it is a harrowing experience, but it leaves you with renewed determination to confront people who try and paint a false picture of the harm this industry does to people.

There were some other sessions I took part in that I will post on when I get the chance, and I brought away a few good essays to read that were available on some of the stalls at the conference. Pretty soon I’d like to write about the work of a left wing writer I’m just discovering called Robert Jensen who really tackles all these issues, from race and gender privilege, to pornography to the crisis of masculinity well. But until I get a chance to do it, I really recommend checking out this article by him, Pornography is a Left Issue.



  1. interesting response from ITC here

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