Do you know Bidisha? Just "Bidisha" - like me, she is too pretentious for a surname. It's one of the things we actually agree on. Bidisha is a novelist and a frequent contributor to he Guardian and the Observer. I enjoy her angry, hyperbolic columns a lot. They are a flashback to dogmatic 1970's style feminism, but written with all the vitriol and the fanaticism of youth. I think society needs people like Bidisha. For entertainment value, and to kick dumb, disrespectful, chauvinistic males in the face until they squeal like the craven pigs they are. There are still way too many of those leering neanderthals around, and they annoy me almost as much as they do women.
Unfortunately, Bidisha on her part doesn't think that society needs people like me - kinky people, that is, who are into corporal punishment and BDSM. Never mind that it's between consenting adults, never mind that roles in BDSM aren't really fixed to gender, but to personal preference. I can claim all I want that I respect women. In her eyes, being a CP fetishist makes me a dumb, chauvinistic pig myself, someone who propagates exploitation and abuse. No different from a sexist creep who harasses female colleagues in the workplace, really. And what about the women in our community? Well, they are nutcases who have conveniently internalised male oppression and misogyny. See, I told you, Bidisha is a lot of fun. And the frightening thing is, she's dead serious.
In a recent column titled Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish, she fervently supports the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 that will make the possession of so-called "extreme pornography" a criminal offense. I have read some ill-conceived endorsements of this equally ill-conceived piece of thought police legislation, but this one really takes the cake. Coming from an obviously gifted young writer, it's rather tragic, actually. To see a mind so consumed by ossified ideology that she ends up welcoming the erosion of the very values that make her two chosen professions possible in the first place - the independent artist and the journalist.
Mind you, Bidisha doesn't believe that the law could have any such ramifications. After all, it only affects perverts and pornographers, right? As a self-described feminist, she is all in favour of that:
"Bad artists of Britain, beware... [I]t seems that we will no longer get to see any marvellous hipster pics of objectified female meat in danger. What a loss for the world of culture."
No loss for Bidisha, that's for sure. She doesn't like these pics, anyway. Consequently she doesn't think that putting people in jail for the mere possession of images - material that was produced by consenting adults, staged acts where no one was actually harmed - is problematic in any way. No, banning this crap is just fine with her. Surely, no sane person can claim that such sexist rubbish is art! The world of culture will be better off without it!
I confess that I admire Bidisha's ability to judge, I really do. I've studied the history of art in some detail - mostly film, literature and music, but other forms like theater and painting as well, from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century. I've also done a number of seminars on aesthetics and art theory. And still, I feel less comfortable making definite statements about what constitutes "good art" and "bad art" than she apparently does.
But Bidisha, the internationally celebrated author and astute socio-cultural commentator, has an infallible sense for what is legitimate art and what is no-good filth. Unlike the rest of us, who apparently need the nanny state to tell us what we should and should not see. My suggestion: in light of her massive scholarly qualificiations and her ardent desire to purge our culture of worthless drivel, Bidisha should help the government along. It's a perfect match. Let her chair a newly appointed "art regulatory committee" so she can simply outlaw all the bad art for us - in other words, all the stuff she doesn't like, with the rationale that a) it's bad art precisely because she doesn't like it, and b) bad art shouldn't exist. This pretty much sums up the gist of her article, by the way.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Bidisha's main beef is with "pseudo-artist" Ben Westwood:
"Westwood has said that 'Jack Straw and the home secretary Jacqui Smith need to be bound up together and gagged' – just the kind of act that the act opposes, of course."
Err, not exactly. Perhaps she should inform herself a little bit about the legislation she endorses. It defines "extreme pornography" as the portrayal of (a) an act which threatens a person’s life, (b) an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals, (c) an act which involves or appears to involve sexual interference with a human corpse, (d) a person performing or appearing to perform an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal (whether dead or alive).
The law certainly wouldn't target bondage pictures of Mr. Straw and Mrs. Smith being tied together and gagged. Assuming, of course, that they consent to such treatment. If they don't consent, it's assault / illegal restraint, and we already have laws against that. But you see, Bidisha doesn't want to make such subtle distinctions, anyway. Whether it's consensual or not, it's all the same garbage to her:
"The fetishisation of female pain is misogynistic regardless of its trappings, regardless of whether it was styled by a couture house, regardless of whether it comes with a poppin' soundtrack and shot by a cool guy director or some coercing creep with a videocam."
In other words, BDSM porn produced by consenting adults is equivalent to an act of sexual assault by a "coercing creep with a videocam". Because after all, as Bidisha asserts, both acts are equally "misogynistic". Simple, isn't it? This claim, that the fetishisation of female pain is inherently "anti-woman", is of course a favourite tenet of orthodox feminism. Note that Bidisha doesn't even bother to supply an argument for it in her article. To her, it is simply self-evident and irrefutable. Why even talk about it?
Because it is a shallow, narrow-minded dogma that ignores decades of sociological and psychological research on the subjects of pornography and BDSM, that's why. There isn't a single, serious study to substantiate the old radical feminist fairy tale that porn ("extreme" or otherwise) leads to violence against women or to a general brutalisation of society. On the contrary: societies where pornography is legal and freely available (such as most of Europe or the US) usually have a more enlightened view towards gender equality and human rights than those where porn is outlawed (China, most of the Arab world etc.). And when you come to think of it, that makes perfect sense: gender equality and the freedom of artistic expression (including porn / erotic art) are both hallmarks of a free society, while the kind of state censorship that Bidisha supports is more characteristic of authoritarian regimes.
What contemporary psychology and cultural studies tell us is that art and the human mind are a lot more complicated than Bidisha believes. Especially when it comes to kinky sexuality. We members of the BDSM community know this from personal experience. To say that the fetishisation of female pain is inherently misogynistic is a grossly simplistic view. Generally speaking, the fetishisation of pain (regardless of gender) isn't inherently degrading to the "victim" at all. Depending on your point of view, fetishisation and objectification can be empowering, cathartic, profound, sexy, fun or all of the above. The kinky people who willingly engage in these acts certainly seem to think so! Otherwise, we wouldn't do it, would we?
Speaking of which, I think Bidisha should visit a kinky video shoot sometime. Where the "bad rubbish" she disapproves of is produced. To see with her own eyes how sick, how horribly misogynistic our subculture is, to enlighten us about the errors of our ways. As for me, I used to be under the impression that we have more mutual respect and understanding between women and men here in the BDSM community than what is the norm among vanillas. Closer and more loving friendships than most of the people I see "out there". But I guess I've been wrong all along.
"In seeing how many projects are theoretically affected by the act, we see just how anti-woman contemporary culture really is, how ubiquitous the images of exposed, objecitified women – and how accepted this is."
It is accepted because the vast majority of people - women and men, BDSM and vanilla - doesn't subscribe to the sophomoric view that "kinky porn = anti-woman". Even within the feminist movement, that dogma has increasingly come under attack ever since the early 1980's. Did Bidisha ever hear about "sex positive feminism"? You know, traitors like Gayle Rubin, Wendy McElroy, Nadine Strossen, Rachel Kramer Bussel... All those chauvinistic female pigs who have internalised the patriarchal oppression. At least according to the orthodox view.
But seriously, most of us grownups do accept that our lifestyle choices and our personal preferences are not the only valid ones - that there are different people in the world with vastly different tastes and interests. In the absence of any evidence that "extreme porn" actually leads to violent behaviour or to the discrimination of women, that is what the whole thing boils down to: a matter of taste, not morals. In other words, if you disapprove of these pictures, you may choose not to look at them. It's easy, they are not nearly as "ubiquitous" as Bidisha claims. But you have no grounds to ban them, much less to put people in jail for looking at them.
"Thus Westwood can angrily bellow that his 'human rights' are being violated, ignoring the endemic exploitation of women in the fashion and beauty industries as a whole."
There is exploitation of women (and men) in the fashion and beauty industries as a whole - much more, actually, than in the BDSM subculture where most of the so-called "extreme porn" originates. However, I don't think Westwood is in any way "ignoring" this by pointing out that his freedom of speech is being curtailed by a censorious piece of legislation. Let's not conflate two very different issues here, okay? By the way, freedom of speech is commonly recognised as part of our human rights - no need for "inverted commas".
Again, Bidisha muddles the waters by equating real violence with staged, artistic depictions of violence. But of course, the "extreme porn" law will do nothing to prevent cases of exploitation in the mainstream fashion industry. Nor will it reduce violent crimes against women in any way. What it will do is criminalise kinky, but perfectly harmless people of both sexes, scare them into self-censorship and into an unhealthy suppression of their sexuality, and contribute to the erosion of individual freedom in our society.
"I feel feminist contempt for those pseudo-artists who think that sexy glossy naughty photos of near death experiences are in any way interesting."
What about liberal contempt for pseudo-intellectuals who pass off their ignorance and their personal prejudices as a contribution to the cause of feminism?
Feminism used to be about the promotion of equal rights, equal opportunity and equal freedom for women. In its very essence, it used to be a liberal and egalitarian philosophy. Before parts of the movement transformed into the anti-liberal dogmatism exemplifed by latecomers like Bidisha today: she arrogantly tells other women how to run their lives, attacks their sexual desires as "anti-feminist" simply because they are different from hers, and pontificates about which forms of sexuality and artistic expression are acceptable and which ones are not. That has nothing to do with real feminism. It's the opposite, actually - to paraphrase Clausewitz, it is the continuation of the patriarchy by other means.
"The legislation seeks to confront the violence of certain types of pornography, but it also shows us how far the pornification of general culture has progressed. Both, of course, are anti-woman."
Of course. And hooray to all those pro-woman cultures that haven't been "pornified" yet (like Iran).
"If sexist male artists and anti-feminist female artists are penalised for brainlessly fetishing female pain, then that's all to the good. Let them squirm."
"Anti-feminist female artists" like Pandora Blake, Niki Flynn or Adele Haze? I must say that I do not find their work or their writing "brainless" at all. On the contrary, I consider it to be infinitely more witty, ingenious and mature than Bidisha's clueless screech. More emancipated, too. Then again, I'm just a dumb sexist creep with a videocam, so what do I know...
Speaking of videos, here is an interesting footnote to conclude my rant: about a year before her condemnation of "bad misogynistic rubbish", Bidisha wrote a glowing review of The Brave One, a vigilante flick starring Jodie Foster. "Violence that transforms - The latest addition to the vengeance movie genre shows us the radiant power of female rage".
In other words, artistic depictions of violence against women are sexist, offensive and disgusting, while artistic depictions of violence against men are cool, empowering and a lot of fun. Bidisha endorses banning the former while raving about the latter ("uplifting", "liberating", "enjoyable", "even addictive"). I'm glad that we got this sorted out, then.
I suppose it's simply because she found herself entertained by "The Brave One" (as I did, by the way, even though I ultimately prefer Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45). Not like the "bad rubbish" of extreme porn, which she doesn't like. Naturally, Bidisha is entitled to her opinions on what she considers artful or interesting. That is not the issue here. But what she fails to understand is that, to be truly free, a society has to grant its citizens the freedom not only to look at great and uplifting art, but also at bad rubbish. And the citizens have to decide for themselves which is which. As soon as you install a "good taste police", you undermine the concept of individual freedom. Because freedom really begins with the freedom of those who have different views than you do.
In a free and fair society, we penalise bad (immoral) behaviour, not "bad taste". That is why so many people - including legal experts, members of parliament and human rights activists - are speaking out against the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. I believe that their well-documented and well-worded concerns, even if you disagree with them, deserve respect and a reasoned debate among adults. To dismiss the critics of the legislation as a bunch of brainless, sexist "pseudo-artists" who are afraid to lose their porn collection is flippant, lazy and unworthy of a reputable newspaper like The Guardian.