SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 77, September 2003

The new sexism

A recent ad for easyJet featured a pair of disembodied women’s breasts below the slogan ‘Discover weapons of mass distraction’. Is this a clever, humorous take on British and US imperialism’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – or a blatant sexist use of a woman’s body to sell air flights? Should we be amused or outraged? CHRISTINE THOMAS writes.

WOMEN’S BODIES ARE widely used to advertise any number of products from chocolate to men’s toiletries. In the past, anti-sexist campaigns targeted adverts featuring semi-naked women draped over the bonnets of cars. Yet, a recent car advert thought nothing of using a naked Claudia Schiffer to sell its product. Ads for Yorkie chocolate bars haven’t featured naked women, but Yorkie’s advertising slogan unashamedly declares ‘It’s not for girls’.

Images of women, which many people would classify as soft porn, have now become mainstream in men’s magazines such as FHM and Loaded – magazines that are read by around one million men in Britain every month.

Lap dancing clubs (described as the fastest growing sector of the ‘entertainment and leisure industry’), which in the past would have been confined to seedy back streets, are now deemed ‘respectable’, frequented by businessmen and celebrities like Stephen Hawking and Kate Moss.

Some writers on women’s issues claim that we are witnessing a ‘new’ or ‘retro’ sexism: images which the women’s movement campaigned against in the past because of the way in which they objectified and demeaned women, are becoming more visible and, it appears, more acceptable.

Others, however, have argued that we are now living in a ‘post-feminist’ society, where the old rules no longer apply. Women are more empowered and young women in particular are more confident, especially about their sexuality. Things that were once considered sexist are no longer so. Anyone who objects to the ‘ironic’ way that women are portrayed or spoken about is lacking a sense of humour or sexually uptight, or both.

These ideas have gained a certain credence, including amongst a layer of young women. They have coincided with a ‘post-feminist’ ideology which has emphasised individual self-improvement within the current system.

Adverts and women’s magazines exhort women to transform their lives by changing themselves. For young women, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ‘porn queen’ and a role reversal ‘ladette’ attitude to sex and sexuality are defined as ‘liberation’.

This has taken place against a political backdrop where many of the economic and social gains which working-class women and men had achieved through collective struggle have come under attack through neo-liberal policies. At the same time the women’s movement has collapsed and the Labour Party has become an openly big business party. Collective struggle to improve working people’s lives has become superseded by the idea of individual solutions. New Labour politicians argue that their policies are improving equal opportunities for women – it’s up to women to grasp these opportunities themselves.

So with the New Deal and child credits in place, lone parents should be able to come off income support and find themselves a job. If they don’t, it’s down to their own individual failings, not the fact, for example, that in many areas affordable childcare simply doesn’t exist.


ALL THIS HAS been reinforced over the past few years by a wave of ‘new’ and ‘post’ feminist writers.

One of these writers, Naomi Wolf, coined the phrase ‘genderquake’ to describe processes which she argued were having a dramatic effect on women’s lives. She wrote about men’s ‘empire’ crumbling, how more women than ever before were in powerful positions, and how legal barriers to women’s equality had been eliminated. But, she argued, if women were to secure the equality that was within their grasp, they had to experience a psychological change, eschew ‘victim’ feminism and instead embrace ‘power’ feminism. (1)

Other writers, while not necessarily endorsing Wolf’s assertion that equality was just around the corner, concluded that an important transformation had taken place in the lives of most women. Educationally, young women are surpassing boys in school, they are more confident about their own abilities, and their expectations about work and relationships are higher than those of previous generations of women. In the world of work, women are moving into jobs and positions previously the preserve of men. Because of these developments, these writers argue, the programme and methods of the women’s movement in the past are no longer valid – a fresh approach is necessary.

Journalist Natasha Walter called for a ‘new feminism’: [old] feminism, she argued, has become too associated with "sexual politics and culture". (2) Women do not want to have their personal lives "policed by feminism". They want to wear what they choose, enjoy pornography, celebrate their sexuality, and be allowed to "live their personal lives without the constraints of a rigid ideology".

"This generation of women must free itself from the spectre of political correctness", she wrote. The new feminism "aims to separate the personal from the political".

Undoubtedly, many young women would agree with the sentiments that Walter expresses. After all, her book emerged from interviews with young women themselves and her findings on women’s attitudes have been backed up by other surveys. Nevertheless, her conclusions flow from a distorted view of ‘old’ feminist ideas.

‘Political correctness’ was originally concerned with challenging offensive language and behaviour. Now it is increasingly used as a derogatory term to trivialise the concerns of women (and men) who object to images and speech which they consider sexist.

‘The personal is political’ was one of the slogans of the women’s movement in the seventies and early eighties. For most women this did not mean that they should be restricted in how they dressed or expressed their sexuality. Rather, it was shorthand for explaining that issues such as domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexism generally are experiences shared by other women: experiences that are not separated from but flow from the wider structures and ideology of society and, as such, are not personal problems but issues that require a political and collective response.

Domestic violence, for example, is rooted in outmoded ideas about men’s control and authority over women within the family. The unequal power relations that exist in capitalist society as a whole are reflected within personal relationships and therefore reinforce and perpetuate domestic abuse.

This analysis, which defines domestic violence as a social rather than a personal problem, has been important for women suffering abuse. They have gained the strength and confidence to leave violent partners or take action to end the violence perpetrated against them through understanding that it is not they or their behaviour that ‘provoked’ the violence – that they are not at fault.

Given that one in four women will experience domestic violence at some time in their lives, the understanding that domestic violence is ‘political’ and not ‘personal’ is as valid as ever.

Natasha Walter does identify domestic violence as a serious social problem which needs to be addressed. But she makes an artificial and false distinction between the ‘cultural oppression’ and ‘material oppression’ which women face. She argues that "feminism has recently been associated more with a movement to change women’s attitudes and society’s culture than with [these] material inequalities". "Feminism now must attack the material basis of economic and social and political inequality".

There is no doubt that, despite the important economic and social changes which have taken place over the past two to three decades, women still experience serious material inequalities. The average income for women in 2001-2002 was £145 a week compared to £287 a week for men. Even when women work full-time the overwhelming majority still assume the main responsibility for childcare and household tasks. In old age, women are far more likely to live in poverty.

As Walter points out, these inequalities need to be fought against. And she correctly criticises the dominant ideology of the last ten to 15 years which promotes individual solutions to the problems that women (and others) face in society. A collective struggle is needed.

But such a struggle cannot separate material from cultural oppression. Ideology plays a crucial role in legitimising, reinforcing and perpetuating the material inequalities which women experience.

Cultural & material oppression inseparable

ONE OF THE main reasons why women are paid so much less than men, is that they are overwhelmingly segregated in a narrow range of low-paid jobs such as retail, catering, cleaning and caring professions. Most of these are an extension of work which women have traditionally carried out unpaid at home. The ideology of women’s second-class status – which has its roots in the development of class society thousands of years ago – has been adopted and adapted by capitalism to maintain its profits and its rule.

Sexist images, which objectify women, both reflect and reinforce deep-rooted ideas about women’s inferiority and second-class position in society. As such they serve to strengthen and maintain material inequalities such as unequal and low pay.

Sexism is also divisive. It creates obstacles to forging the unity between working-class men and women which is so essential in the struggle for the economic and material changes which are needed to transform women’s lives.

Divisions between workers strengthen the hand of the capitalists in the workplaces and in their aim to maintain their profit system. As capitalism developed in the 19th century, for example, the capitalist class used cheaper female labour to undermine the conditions and jobs of male workers. Initially, instead of fighting to improve women workers’ wages and conditions, male workers campaigned to restrict female access to the factories and the workplaces. Many used the argument ‘a woman’s place is in the home’, echoing the prevailing ideology, to justify their stance, which inevitably played into the hands of the bosses.

Historically, working-class women have had to wage a huge battle for their organisations to challenge such things as sexual harassment and pornographic imagery in the workplaces, and establish them as trade union and political issues. These are issues which don’t just undermine and devalue women, they affect the whole labour movement because of their potential to create disunity.

Of course, economic and social changes influence how women experience oppression and how ideology is expressed. Nothing is static. Advertising, for example, to a certain extent reflects the changing reality of women’s lives. Claudia Schiffer might be naked but she is driving the car – not draped over it as an accessory.

A woman is shown giving the kids breakfast and cleaning the kitchen floor. But she does all this before she goes to work – she is not totally defined by her role as a wife, mother and household drudge as would have been the case a few decades ago.

Nevertheless, while reflecting economic and social changes, advertising also strengthens and perpetuates existing inequalities. Women go out to work but they are also the main person responsible for the housework and kids. When men are shown washing and cleaning they are invariably figures of fun because it’s not really their thing and they just don’t seem to be able to get it right. Women are expected to hold down a job, be a supermum, a ‘domestic goddess’ as well as striving for sexual fulfilment.

Real life for most working-class women involves a constant juggling of work, children and housework with very little time for self-improvement. Men are doing more to help than they did in the past but the majority of women are still disadvantaged by the historical gendered division of labour within the family. And while individual men might benefit from a few extra hours leisure time, the main beneficiary of this unequal division is capitalism, through its ability to continue to exploit women as cheap labour in the workforce and as unpaid labour in the home.

In the same way, adverts have reflected the increased confidence and openness of women with regards to their sexuality. Take the Wonderbra advert, for example, with a smiling, confident Eva Herzigova in her underwear and the ‘cheeky’ slogan, ‘Hello boys’.

It is a positive development that many women feel more empowered and freer to express themselves sexually. But in a society where institutionalised inequality still exists, just how liberating is it?

Lap dancing, it is argued, is empowering not exploitative because, when ‘dancers’ can earn as much as £500 a night, they’re often on better money than the men they’re stripping for. As one student told the BBC’s Inside Out programme: "I work when I want to. I make the amount of money I want to, and if I don’t feel like it I can quit. No one is pushing me to do it".

But contrast this with the comment of a regular frequenter of lap dancing clubs: "It makes me feel like a king to be sitting there with all those women surrounding me, giving me loads of attention. Nothing beats the thrill of calling a woman over, sitting her down and talking to her, knowing that if you give her money she is going to take all her clothes off. It’s great to have that kind of control, that power, and it’s an ego boost to have girls competing with each other to dance for you". (3)

However empowered individual dancers might feel (and of course not all dancers are well paid), lap dancing itself promotes the idea that women are not thinking ‘whole’ beings but body parts – objects available for men to control and enjoy. The fact that women sometimes join businessmen in attending clubs in no way detracts from this. In the same way, female editors are sometimes employed on pornographic magazines and women themselves may buy and get turned on by porn. But the images portrayed still objectify women in general and therefore strengthen ideas about male control, which unfortunately are deeply embedded in society.

A survey for Edinburgh Zero Tolerance, for example, found that one in two men thought that raping a woman might sometimes be acceptable while one in ten men would rape if they could remain undiscovered.

The power of imagery

OVER THE PAST few years, anti-sexism has come to be equated with anti-sex. But there is a big difference between objecting to imagery of women because it is sexually explicit (which the moral right and family values brigade do) and objecting to women’s bodies being used to sell products.

However, the two different kinds of objections have become conflated. Women who are offended by sexist imagery are accused of being prudes and not having a sense of humour. Yet, it is perfectly possible to ‘get the joke’ in the easyJet advert while at the same time recognising that it is treating a woman’s body as a commodity to sell a product and make a profit; that it is just one of a myriad of images which devalue and objectify women, therefore reinforcing wider inequality and discrimination. The fact that young women are deemed to be more liberated and ‘in control’ of their sexuality doesn’t alter that one iota.

Under capitalism, real control lies not with women but with the fashion, beauty, sex and leisure industries, etc, which are responsible for creating the all pervasive female images in society. They are products of a system which is based both on the selling of commodities to make a profit and on institutionalised inequality.

Sex sells – as does manipulating and artificially maintaining socially constructed norms of what the ‘ideal’ woman should look like. These are omnipresent images that women absorb and internalise, often subconsciously. But they bear little resemblance to ‘real’ women – causing anxieties and insecurities, undermining women’s self-esteem, and contradicting many of the positive developments that have affected women’s lives.

The global beauty industry, which includes make-up, skin and haircare, fragrances, cosmetic surgery, health clubs and diet products, is estimated to be worth $160 billion a year. Six multinational companies control 80% of US make-up products, while eight corporations control 70% of the skin care market. Americans spend more annually on beauty than they do on education. (4) Beauty is most definitely big business.

The beauty industry directly contributes to a situation where only 1% of young women feel ‘completely happy’ with the shape of their body; where 54% of ten to 14-year-olds are worried about being fat and girls as young as seven are dieting. The images they promote don’t necessarily cause eating disorders but they are a contributory factor and one that can delay recovery.

The way that women are represented by the beauty industry strengthens and promotes the notion that how women look is more important than what they think or do. In one survey carried out in 2001, two-thirds of women thought that their lives would improve considerably if they were happy with their body. Thinness was equated with attracting men, being sexy and achieving career success. Two-thirds said that they would consider cosmetic surgery to improve their self-image.

Big business will exploit whatever they can to make a profit. Increasingly, men are also targeted by the beauty industry. They too are encouraged to buy products which they don’t really need in order to improve their life chances. However, although this is undoubtedly exploitative, it does not impact on wider, structured gender inequality as is the case for women.

Collective campaigns can play a useful role in raising awareness of cultural sexism and the way in which big business dominates and controls society. A campaign, for example, to lobby a local council to oppose the granting of a licence for a lap dancing club could highlight how these clubs perpetuate backward attitudes and beliefs about women while at the same time make enormous profits for ‘entertainment’ companies like Spearmint Rhino. This would be a very different approach from the moral right, who campaign to ban sexually explicit images and ‘immoral’ behaviour.

Some European Union officials are pushing for a directive which would ban sexist images on TV or in advertising. Examples cited to back their case for a ban include two French adverts. One is for Suchard chocolates, featuring a nude model with the words: ‘You say no; we hear yes’. The other, is an ad for Babette cream which portrays a woman wearing an apron with words printed on it. Literally the words translate ‘I thicken it, I whip it and sometimes it goes in the pot’. Colloquially they mean ‘I tie her up, I whip her, and sometimes I have sex with her’.

But censorship can have unintended consequences. Two radical anti-pornography feminists, Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon, have campaigned vigorously for material which is considered harmful to women to be banned. In 1992 a version of the Dworkin/McKinnon definition was incorporated into the Canadian obscenity law. Within two-and-a-half years over 50% of feminist bookstores had had material confiscated or detained at customs. The main targets were gay and lesbian literature. Books seized by customs included Weenie-Toons! Women Artists Mock Cocks because of its alleged "degradation of the male penis". (5)

Who would decide what constitutes sexism? There were 186 objections to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about the easyJet advert – the second most complained about advert of the year. Yet, the ASA rejected the complaints stating that the ad was "unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence", and that it was "in the best tradition of British humour such as the Carry On films".

Many ‘post-feminist’ adverts, like the French examples, are deliberately ambiguous. It’s not difficult to imagine the moral right using anti-sexist laws to target sexually explicit material.

Challenging sexism

ANDREA DWORKIN ONCE argued that "at the heart of the female condition is pornography, it is the ideology that is the source of all the rest". But sexist images of women, of which violent pornography is the most extreme expression, do not cause women’s oppression. They are the products of a society based on inequalities of power and wealth. The roots of women’s oppression date back thousands of years to the rise of class society, private property, and the family as an institution of economic and social control.

Ending oppression requires a fundamental transformation in the way that society is structured and organised. Through democratic workers’ control and management of industry; through moving away from a system based on inequality, hierarchy and exploitation to one where equality and co-operation prevail, it would be possible not just to end the economic problems which women face, but to prepare the ground for eliminating cultural oppression too.

The ‘new’ sexism can be complex and ambiguous. This is a reflection of the contradictory processes that have taken place over the past two decades. But now the political landscape is gradually beginning to change. Last year the number of strikes increased; many, such as the local government workers’ strikes, involved large numbers of women workers. Historically, when women have become involved in action over issues such as pay and working conditions, they have also gained the confidence to challenge wider issues which affect them as women as well as workers.

Movements towards collective action by workers, including the building of a new mass workers’ party, will be crucial steps in the struggle for socialism. However, as part of that struggle, it is important to recognise that sexism, whether ‘old’ or ‘new’, is not just the product of class society but part of a wide ideological apparatus which helps to maintain the capitalist system in place. In this respect, understanding and challenging sexism is not peripheral but central to the struggle for an end to inequality and oppression in all its forms.


1. Naomi Wolf, Fire with Fire, Chatto & Windus, 1993

2. Natasha Walter, New Feminism, Little Brown, 1998

3. Evening Standard, 13 December, 2002

4. The Economist, 24 May, 2003

5. Defending Pornography, Nadine Strossen, Abacus, 1996

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