Respect: our new moral guardians

Anne Mc Shane reviews Ariel Levy's Female chauvinist pigs: women and the rise of raunch culture (Pocket Books, 2005, pp240, £7.99)

The publication of Ariel Levy's book attacking 'raunch culture' has provoked something of a frisson among feminists. It has re-ignited a heated debate from the days of the women's liberation movement - how to challenge sexism and pornography. In particular, arguments have re-emerged about censorship and the complicity of women in their own oppression.

But far more significant for the left has been the response of the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP has seized on the book as the latest bible on sexism: prominently displayed on all Bookmarks stalls, glowingly reviewed in SWP publications and featured as a debate at Marxism 2006. The forthcoming Respect women's conference on March 3 lists 'Raunch culture and sexual exploitation' on its agenda. It is clearly an issue the SWP wants to highlight.

The book itself is actually a superficial and often prudish attack on the influence of the sex industry on how young women dress and behave today. Levy makes correct observations about the commodification and distortion of sexuality under capitalism. But her only answer is an exhortation to women not to be so foolish as to fall for the lie that displaying their bodies makes them liberated. She despises raunchy attitudes among young women, the popularity of strip clubs and the fact that the Playboy bunny logo has "become a symbol of liberation". Women, according to her, have supplanted men and become the new chauvinist pigs. They are selling out on the rights won for them by their older sisters.

But not all feminists are convinced. Criticising the book on the Guardian 'Comment is Free' webpage, Lynn Segal makes the point that "repeatedly labelling teenage girls 'bimbos' and 'trashy' for baring midriffs, thighs and knickers, or for trying out a spot of pole dancing, is hardly a good start for avoiding smug, class-ridden, self-satisfaction". In fact calling on women to desist from participating in a distorted sexualised culture and instead to practise "liberated sexuality" is a short step from "coercively prescribing one's own norms and tastes".

It is certainly true that sex is commodified by capitalism and the spread of 'raunch culture', particularly in the US, is a manifestation of that. And, of course, women are no more liberated by baring their bodies than by covering up. But that is surely not the point. Sexuality is a complicated expression of what it is to be human. As Segal says, "sex is all about wanting to be objectified - wanting to be the object of another's desire, another's gaze". The fact that capitalism distorts this simply illustrates how it distorts all human relations.

The oppression of women naturally reflects itself in popular imagery and sexual relations. But that is not to say that everything about so-called 'raunch culture' is bad. The fact that women feel able to be openly sexual must be a good thing. And if society dictates that a certain look is sexy then it is hardly surprising when many young women copy that look.

This, as you will have guessed, is not the approach of the SWP. In an interview with Levy in Socialist Review, Judith Orr supports her view that "raunch culture isn't about opening our minds to the possibilities of sexuality. It's about endlessly reiterating one particular - and particularly commercial - shorthand for sexiness "¦ The sexual freedoms of the women's movement have been swallowed up by capitalism and sold back to young women as boob jobs and push-up bras" (Septembers 2006).

Orr tries to paint Levy as a leftist - against the market but not anti-men. But that is far from the truth. Levy might blame the market for the spread of the Pamela Anderson look, but she blames young women even more. Men instead are painted as the victims of aggressively sexual young women.

Both Levy and Orr are particularly derogatory about women who have plastic surgery. Orr points to it as "another symptom of society's increasingly crude image of the ideal woman" and argues that it is a qualitative turn for the worse. True, plastic surgery is invasive and, yes, sometimes crude. But is it really that different to the horrendous things women have always done to make themselves conform to the ideal of the time? That is not to condone the 'Barbie doll' stereotype produced and pushed by capitalism as the look to aspire to. But to single it out as a phenomenon and mock the women who have it is both arrogant and elitist.

Orr is joined by others in her organisation in espousing moralistic attitudes on such questions. At a meeting I attended at Marxism 2005, long-time SWP member Elane Heffernan bemoaned the sex industry and the "so-called idea of choice" for women who work as lap dancers or porn models. A number of other SWP women speakers made similar, apparently rehearsed points. In her response, Lindsey German welcomed these contributions and regretted the continuing "objectification of women".

Respect had just come out of an election campaign where it had refused to defend abortion rights. As I argued at the time, there was "little point complaining when you refuse practically to take an active stance in defending our basic right to control our own bodies - an issue that surely lies at the heart of the matter. Without such a clear stance anything else is just prudishness - and it just so happens that organisations like the Muslim Association of Britain will agree with the comrades on porn and lap dancing - but from a rather different perspective" (Weekly Worker July 14 2005).

Of course the SWP's prim and proper stance on such questions is nothing new. They took part in a campaign in 2003 and 2004 to put Spearmint Rhino lap-dancing clubs out of business. Rather than join with the GMB union, which had targeted Spearmint Rhino in order to unionise and defend the women workers, the SWP preferred the company of rightwing feminists and religious bigots in picketing the venues to try and close them down (and put their workers out of a job).

So its recent involvement in a campaign to close lap-dancing clubs in Tower Hamlets is hardly a surprise. But what is slightly shocking is its enthusiasm to 'clean up' the East End. The Respect motion to the December borough council meeting had SWP fingerprints all over it. It noted the "almost total unity across Tower Hamlets people of all ages, ethnicities and faith groups in opposing the exploitation and degrading of women associated with sex and strip clubs" and called for the possible use of "discretionary powers" to "safeguard the rights of women, and to protect children and communities (Weekly Worker January 11 2007). It also mentioned "the growing concerns at the impact of strip clubs and other such venues in the borough, and the effect of these on local neighbourhoods".

George Galloway agrees and commits himself to campaign enthusiastically to "rid Tower Hamlets of these dens of iniquity, especially in residential areas and areas close to places of worship" (www.georgegalloway.com). The Tower Hamlets council meeting ended in chaos, as Respect councillors and their SWP policy-makers sought to shame the Labour Party. Unlike Respect, Labour was not sufficiently puritanical to rid Tower Hamlets of such "dens of iniquity".

One cannot but wonder what the Respect motion means when it talks about not only the evil of strip clubs, but also "other such venues". We know George prides himself on his catholic credentials and conservative views on many social issues. He will have plenty of willing supporters in Tower Hamlets (including Respect councillors) for a crackdown on drugs, youth drinking, prostitution, 24-hour licensing "¦ the list is endless. And how far the SWP is prepared to go is anybody's guess.

Also on the agenda at the Respect women's conference is the issue of choice. But unlike raunch culture, which is listed as an acknowledged evil, this last topic is framed as a question: ie, 'Should we defend a woman's right to choose?' It does not mention abortion rights, but presumably this is the particular choice under consideration. But why is it posed as a question when it is already a Respect policy to "defend the right to choose" (www.respectcoalition.org/index.php?ite=506)? Is there a plan to use the conference to undermine this policy? Given recent developments, it would not be totally surprising.

What we are left with is an organisation that becomes more and more politically conservative by the day. The wearing of the hijab cannot be criticised without allegations of islamophobia from leading SWP members. Indeed it is portrayed and justified as an 'understandable response' to raunch culture and the evils of contemporary society. Rather women hide their bodies from all men except their husbands than strip off and behave like 'sluts'.

The SWP wants to exchange one form of oppression for another.