Women in the Public Sphere: Gendered Responsibility -2019

CW: Violence against women/sex workers, femicide

On Tuesday the 13th of August this year, a woman was stabbed to death while at her place of work. Police described the attack as ‘terrifying carnage’ and it was initially speculated that it was perhaps linked to terrorism, which they later clarified was not the case (ABC News, 2019). The attack happened in the early afternoon and was played out quite publicly with a number of eye-witness accounts immediately releasing footage of the ‘rampage’ to social media sites. It wasn’t long before the focus shifted away from the perpetrator and onto the victim whose occupation became sensationalised and central to the discourse emerging from the attack. Michaela Dunn was a sex worker working under the decriminalised model in the state of NSW and was still not safe from misogynistic violence which ultimately took her life. This essay will explore a number of intersecting factors that have converged with Michaela’s death and will interrogate the cultural perception of such an event. I will begin with a discussion on how violence is used to enforce patriarchy and how that links to ideas of appropriating of femininity. Statistics highlighting how prevalent misogyny is within contemporary Australian society rounds out the first section. The next section will analyse the role of discourse and mass media and how the pathologisation of both perpetrator and victim have direct impacts on our cultural understandings of gender roles. An internalised tension between sexual vigilance and the right to feel safe is also discussed in regards to gendered responsibility. The final section will consider the impact of dichotomous understanding of women through the Madonna/whore complex.

In a patriarchal society which is organised in a way that give men the majority of power; they dominate, oppress and exploit (other men and) women as a way of maintaining that power, violence is often employed when there is a direct challenge to that power (Macionis & Plummer, 2012, pg. 394). Kane & Schippers have suggested that women are the gatekeepers to heterosexual activity and therefore hold a potential power over men; “men fear women’s ability to use sexual allure as a manipulative tactic to ‘unman’ them” (cited in Bareket et al, 2018, pg. 520). In this regard the stigma that is attached to sex workers makes a little more sense as sex workers directly threaten the patriarchal dominance through their awareness of their sexuality. Double standards are rampant in modern society, especially when it comes to sexuality and sexual practices between the genders. Bareket et al. argue that double standards play a specific role in line with patriarchal ideology and seek to regulate, control, and restrict women’s sexual expression and sexuality (Bareket, 2018, 2018, pp. 520-521). Violence against women is no new phenomenon but the rise in visibility has gained worldwide fame through the recent #metoo movement. The movement highlighted how prevalent misogyny and sexual violence against women really is and along the way created a community of survivors rallying for social change (Me Too, 2019). Vicious attacks on women like the one that tragically took the life of Michaela Dunn could be argued as an attempt at restoring social order to the world (Butler, 2004, pg. 34). Kimmel further argues that “Men’s violence toward women does not happen when men’s power over women is intact and unthreatened; rather, it happens when men’s power breaks down, when his entitlement to that power is threatened and insecure. Violence is restorative, retaliatory.. When that entitlement is aggrieved, they don’t just get mad; they get even” (cited in Everbach, 2018, pg. 17). The aggressive nature of these sorts of attacks place women in a particularly vulnerable position in wider society as Gilchrist et al revealed that “although women are not inherently more fearful of crime in public spaces than are men, women’s fear is strongly associated with the performance of appropriate femininity” (cited in Fanghanel & Lim, 2015, pg. 344). The discussion that followed included a number of examples of ‘flawed femininity’ including “walking home alone at night, or drinking too much alcohol” (Fanghanel & Lim, 2015, pg. 345). Sex workers may be seen as the embodiment of everything anti-feminine, the perfect example of inappropriate femininity.

Given the precarious nature of sex work in much of the globe it is difficult to obtain true figures surrounding attacks and murders of (predominately female) sex workers. Often seen as the most vulnerable in society, it has been suggested that the more labels attached to a woman, the less she is seen as a full human in the eyes of others; nobody cares much when a ‘street-based, ‘homeless’, ‘drug-addicted’, ‘trans’, ‘woman-of-colour’ goes missing, or even worse, is murdered (Fox & Wykes, 2015). The statistics around violence against women in Australia are slightly easier to gather and prove that gendered violence is a patriarchal epidemic deserving of attention and scrutiny. According to Our Watch a woman in Australia is murdered on average once a week by either a current or former partner; a third of all Australian women have experienced physical violence; a fifth of Australian women have experienced some form of sexual violence; almost 10% of Australian women have experienced violence at the hands of a stranger; and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were experiencing violence at 3.1 times the rate of non-Indigenous women (Our Watch, 2019). When incidents such as the murder of Michaela Dunn occurs it is a stark reminder of the value that women hold in society, and that female sexuality does not hold the same respect and value as male sexuality.

In an article by news.com.au the main problem represented in the reporting is that violence and murder are a part of the job if you are working within the sex industry. The article has a number of quotes from a prominent sex worker who goes by the name of Jessie-Lee Pierce who states; “I’m not shocked by it [Michaela’s murder], but it saddens me because I think violence and murder are a part of our job” (cited in Graham, 2019). The words expressed by Jessie-Lee are an example of internalised whorephobia and highlights the gendered responsibility that women are expected to carry while navigating through society. Her words appeal to many anti-sex-work radical feminists whose ideology rests on the idea that sex workers “become the victims of regular sexual objectification, exploitation, and violence; and that, by participating in this kind of industry, sex workers become co-perpetrators of these crimes” (Miano, 2017). This perception is highly damaging as it places the blame on women working within the industry and frames it as though sex workers are responsible for any violence inflicted on them. The mass media then plays its part by exacerbating and reproducing these narratives further excusing the behaviour by men. The discourse surrounding sex work, bodily autonomy, as well as questions surrounding appropriate forms of labour always have a gendered focus and the responsibility of men is a constant silence throughout these public discussions. One of the ways that the media perpetuate the gendered nature of public sexual discourse in regards to violence is in the way that perpetrators are presented to the public. A number of scholars have argued that violent men are represented in one of two dichotomous ways; on the one hand we see media representations of vicious ‘monsters’ and ‘assholes’; and on the other we have presentations of ‘normal’ men who are facing a misunderstanding or even a full fabrication (Quadara, 2014; Fanghanel & Lim, 2015). By pathologising the perpetrator as an irrational abject figure, the concept of risk is externalised and the ‘asshole’ functions as the source of danger relieving ‘society’ of the responsibility to manage similar issues of safekeeping, public danger and security. The role of governmentality becomes apparent here as motivations behind these abject attacks are individualised and are not seen as a symptom of wider rape culture. Instead, these figures become anomalies and a scapegoat for which other (good) men publicly condemn the attack while shouting “not all men!”. The lived effects of the invisibility of these ‘normal’ men results in what we now have come to consider as rape culture, feminist writer Clementine Ford argues in her book; “[rape culture] characterises a society in which the impact of sexual violence is not only minimised but the definition of what constitutes ‘real’ sexual assault is considered up for public debate and scrutiny. It enforces and codifies the language of victim-blaming and perpetrator excusing” (Ford, 2018, pg. 293). Consider the statistics from the ABS Personal Safety survey 2016; over half a million women (553,700) experienced sexual assault by a male they knew (87%), with only 1 woman out of every 10 reporting the incident to police (ABS, 2017). Perpetrators are created through the legal discourse, that is, their performativity needs to be verified in order to be legally labelled as ‘perpetrator’. The failure of so many cases to be reported (and subsequently of those that are reported but fail to reach a conviction) truly defines the rape culture we currently live in.

It is clear through the reporting that emerged after Michaela’s murder that discourse and language are extremely telling of the gendered inequalities in wider society. In many of the articles in the days that followed much of the focus was on the ‘heroic’ men who stopped the perpetrator once he was out in the streets; “social media has been full of praise for the men, and Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said they were ‘the highest order or heroes’” (ABC News, 2019). Some within the sex worker community have spoken out about the dominance of the ‘hero’ angle in the media, suggesting that the overshadowing of Michaela’s death highlights the disposable nature of the ‘prostitute’ in society; “her job does not make her a lurid story” (McGowan, 2019). Speaking in regards to the media framing of two particular incidents in Melbourne a number of years ago Jane Gilmore argues that “women are not people in the eyes of the news, at least not the way men are. Women are tits and arse, they’re glamorous or fat, they’re wives or mothers or stupid or demanding or nagging or annoying or sweet or pretty. Men on the other hand, are fully-rounded, complex people- as long as they’re not too womanlike” (Gilmore, 2019). Simone de Beauvoir argued that society needs prostitutes as scapegoats; “the existence of a caste of ‘lost women’ makes it possible to treat ‘the virtuous woman’ with the most chivalric respect” (de Beauvoir, 1949, pg. 613). The explicitly titled; “’She was a whole person’: Michaela Dunn’s murder and its impact on Sydney’s sex workers” further alludes to the point that women within the sex industry are less-than-whole beings, with society focusing on the sexual dimension of the work as the question of morality trumps all questions surrounding rights and autonomy (McGowan, 2019; Mac & Smith, 2018, pg. 25).

For many women, an internalised tension is always in play in regards to personal safety and/or freedoms. On one hand woman believe they should have the freedom to wear/say/do what they please within public spaces without fearing for their safety, yet on the other they are equally aware of their personal obligation to be safe in public spaces. This vigilance of personal safety is extremely gendered and emerges through particular discourses which are further perpetuated through mass media. Fanghanel & Lim argue that the representation of women within the public realm as problematic stems from the 19th century construction of gendered public and private spaces (Fanghanel & Lim, 2015, pg. 342). They argue that the public domain was seen as the man’s place while the private domestic sphere was expected to be inhabited by women. The sexual vigilance women face serves to solve the ‘problem’ of women in public spaces and is an example of victim-blaming discourse, a key component to wider rape culture. At the beginning of the 20th century women were increasing their presence on the labour market and scholars have suggested that the discourse surrounding trafficking of (predominately white) women “helped to draw the literal and figurative borders of the ‘nation’, and became a way to police (especially) female and non-white sexuality more broadly” (Laite, 2017, pg. 38). The anti-trafficking discourses which began to emerge around this time put emphasis on the anti-exploitation of particular bodies within sexual labour paradigms. However as a number of scholars have suggested this perspective was carefully calculated to ignore certain intersections of work and sexual labour, specifically for women, as their unpaid labour was still crucial to the workings of the capitalist system (Laite, 2017, pg. 42). The moral panic that was created at this time helped distract the public away from the inherent exploitations built into the capitalist system and stressed the “moral over the monetary” when discussing the plight of the sexually fallen women who had ended up in the sex industry (Laite, 2017, pg. 48). For many women had consensually chosen to step into the field of sex work as a way of gaining financial freedom at a time when there were very limited (paid) employment opportunities, in line with de Beauvoir’s argument that equality is not a possibility without women’s economic freedom from men (de Beauvoir, 1949). Although the unemployment rate for women in Australia is a considerably low 5.2%, women are still seen as imposing on the public male domain and remain ‘responsible’ vigilant subjects within wider society (Australian Government, 2019).

Fanghanel & Lim have argued that the ‘safekeeping’ that women are expected to perform in their everyday lives is an extremely gendered experience and links back to the performativity of gender (Fanghanel & Lim, 2015, pg. 344). As one of Butler’s core ideas she argues that “it is important to distinguish performance from performativity: the former presumes a subject, but the latter contests the very notion of a subject” (Butler cited in Macionis & Plummer, 2012, pg. 392). In other words it is through the performance that we are constituted as subjects and that doing brings into being that which it names. For women in society are also often portrayed as a dichotomous entity embodying either the virgin or the whore (Brownmiller cited in Fanghanel & Lim, 2015, pg. 343). Stemming from psychoanalytic theory, Freud coined the term Madonna-whore complex to stipulate a hindrance that some heterosexual men face when engaging with the opposite sex (Bareket et al. 2018, pp. 519-520). Freud’s understanding of the Madonna/whore complex stems from his psychoanalytic training and disregards all social and cultural aspects arguing instead that the root causes lie in the unresolved sensual feelings towards the mother. The Madonna-whore complex speaks to the way women are expected to perform (in)appropriate femininity represented by both the Madonna (good, chaste & pure) or the whore (bad, seductive & promiscuous). These polarizing perceptions have long existed and can be traced back to the ancient Greeks which has, over time, permeated outside of the Western context (Pomeroy, 1975; Bareket, 2018, pg. 519). Coming back to the original argument presented by Fanghanel & Lim, what they suggest is that within media discourses, the types of women who are attacked are presented as not performing the right kind of femininity. In the case of Michaela Dunn she was quite literally a whore, an aspect of her life which was sensationalised throughout the media as a way of dehumanising her to the public. It highlights the way in which we organise and stratify different sexualities and reveals how society punishes or rewards certain kinds of intimacies. Mechanisms for holding accountability through governmentality are more apparent from this perspective. Pathologisation of Michaela as the ‘whore’ not performing the right kind of femininity and the condemnation from those even within her own community speaks to the way women are expected to be in society. The ‘safekeeping’ advice women are confronted with on a daily basis comes from a number of sources including other women. Coming back to the article posted on news.com.au Jessie-Lee also implies that particular websites attract “sick” clients and that advertising on higher end websites, instead of the classifieds page Michaela was advertising on, could have had a potentially different outcome (Graham, 2019). Jessie-Lee fails to condemn the behaviour of the murderer, maintaining her position that violence is a part of sex work and even ended the article with tips for other workers to “eliminate as much risk as possible” (Graham, 2019).

This essay has attempted to highlight that the way in which mass media, and increasingly social media, frames particular events and the importance of language to perceptions. Michaela Dunn’s death was overshadowed by the pathologisation of her killer, as well as the sensationalism of her job choice. Women who are sexual continue to be demonised by society, an interesting paradox given that women are socialised to recognise themselves as sexual objects yet are highly punished when they recognise and attempt to capitalise off of that very same sexuality.


ABC News, 2019, ‘Sydney stabbing suspect tackled by ‘highest order of heroes’ using chairs and milk crate’, ABC News, 13 August 2019, < https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-13/sydney-stabbing-suspect-tackled-by-highest-order-of-heroes/11409676>

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Bareket, O, Kahalon, R, Shnabel, N & Glick, P, 2018, ‘The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy: Men Who Perceive Women’s Nurturance and Sexuality as Mutually Exclusive Endorse Patriarchy and Show Lower Relationship Satisfaction’, Sex Roles, No. 79, pp. 519-532

Fanghanel, A & Lim, J, 2017, ‘Of “Sluts” and “Arseholes”: Antagonistic Desire and the Production of Sexual Vigilance’, Feminist Criminology, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 341-360

Gilmore, J, 2019, ‘Rape is not ‘sex’, and ‘broken hearts’ don’t cause murder. Women are dying- and language matters’, The Guardian, 1 September 2019, < https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/31/is-not-sex-and-broken-hearts-dont-cause-women-are-dying-and-language-matters>

Graham, B, 2019, ‘’Murder is part of our job’: Sex worker calls for protections after Sydney stabbing’, news.com.au, 15 August 2019, < https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/news-life/murder-is-part-of-our-job-sex-worker-calls-for-protections-after-sydney-stabbing/news-story/8ccb05130f6a84c20ab04543068ba3b9>

Laite, J, 2017, ‘Between Scyalla and Charybdis: Women’s Labour Migration and Sex Trafficking in the Early Twentieth Century’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 37-65

McGowan, 2019, ‘’She was a whole person’: Michaela Dunn’s murder and its impact on Sydney’s sex workers’, The Guardian, 17 August, 2019, < https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/aug/17/she-was-a-whole-person-michaela-dunns-and-its-impact-on-sydneys-sex-workers>

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Quadara, A, 2014, ‘The Everydayness of Rape’, in Powell, A & Henry N (eds) Preventing Sexual Violence, Palgrave Macmillan, London

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Censorship and Subjectivity: Identity Construction in Online Spaces-2019

The way in which we interact, consume and produce media has changed dramatically in the 21st century. The influence of the media in the way in which we construct our identities is dramatically changing, especially in the identity construction of young boys and girls. The rise of social media has created a new economy of the self, where ‘likes have become the new metric for evaluating self-worth’, particularly in adolescents. Within the discourse surrounding social media use, it is often young women who are criticised for the way in which they are choosing to (re)present themselves in online spaces. The way in which we all curate our public selves is part of this new economy of the self, however there is clearly a difference in the representation and policing of content between the genders. Within a patriarchal capitalist society, the female body has been objectified and commodified in order to sell anything from make-up and clothes, to burgers, booze and even vegetarianism.

The prevalence of social media and the permeation into everyday life is challenging the status quo of image production, which has historically been dominated by the male gaze stemming from the patriarchal perspective. Social media is reinterpreting the user as both subject and object simultaneously, and female ‘artistis’/users are attempting to take back agency and autonomy of their bodies through digitised virtual spaces. From the perspective of Braidotti, this is an example of “a new form of materialism that emphasized the embodied and therefore sexually differentiated structure of the speaking subject” (Braidotti cited in Echavarria Alvarez, 2008, pg. 23). Rather than woman as ‘Other’, social media is a way for women to explore their own subjectivity presenting themselves in an individualised way that takes into account different cultural intersections. Not just women, but other minorities are able to have a voice in the way that they are constructed online. Braidotti discusses her anti-humanist understanding of human subjectivity as a rejection of the Eurocentric, male ‘default’ understanding of humanity. Modern image construction takes a literal form in the online world and may be seen as a departure away from phallogocentric definitions of ‘Woman as Other’. Braidotti reflecting on the work of Irigaray, discusses the unrepresentability of women stemming from the colonisation of the feminine by the male imaginary. This male-centred understanding of ‘woman’ has shaped the modern social world and many social and cultural norms are reflected in the community guidelines of social media platforms. The following part of the essay will look specifically at the platform Instagram, and the sexist contradictions present within their terms of use.

Gendered double standards that exist within our society are especially obvious when looking at acceptable sexual behaviour among the genders in adolescents. The concepts of both boyhood and girlhood are modern concepts that carry different meaning in today’s understanding of ‘the self’. In the wake of ‘post-feminism’ neoliberal ideas push for a more individual responsibility of the self, in which girls are held more accountable for their actions and ‘being’ than that of boys. The use of social media is a new way for young people to explore different identities, while also being exposed to different forms of self-expression from a range of different contexts. Instagram is the most popular photo-sharing app in the world with over 1 billion users currently registered around the world (Carman, 2018). Their Community Guidelines in respect to nudity and sexuality states:
We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples but photos of post mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of painting and sculptures are ok
(Instagram, 2019)

The censorship of female bodies is much more prevalent than that of male bodies, and the nipple exemplifies this perfect. The way in which the female body is commodified for public marketing and consumption is telling of the control that men seek over women in order to assert their masculinity. When looking at the images and messaged from society in regards to the female body the nipple is always censored, not the whole breast, but the nipple. The female nipple is no different than the male nipple, so we can see that it is not the nipple itself that is offensive. Unlike the male nipple, the female nipple actually serves a function and helps facilitate life, yet it is still removed from online spaces. Biased censorship of women’s body’s teaches girls that they are sexual beings; that regardless of the artist/users own perspective; female nipples are sexual and may never be seen outside of a sexual context. This gendered censorship is sending different messages to young boys and young girls; girls will learn that their bodies are shameful and sexual while boy’s bodies are invisible in the conversation. Women are experiencing censorship in the online world which is impacting how they are in the real world. Social media is like a double edged sword when it comes to the critical response to patriarchal world views; on one hand social media is opening up to different interpretations of femininity, embodiment, gender and self-identity to anyone who has access to a smart device and the internet, and on the other it is a space in which power is exercised through censorship ensuring women conform to the gender role assigned to their physical body; a sexual being.


Braidotti, R, 2013, ‘Post-Humanism: Life beyond the Self’, in The Posthuman, pp13-54, Cambridge; Polity Press

Braidotti, R, 2003, ‘Becoming Woman: Or Sexual Difference Revisited’, Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 43-64

Carman, A, 2018, ‘Instagram now has 1 billion users worldwide’, The Verge, 20 June 2018, viewed online 17 June 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/20/17484420/instagram-users-one-billion-count

Echavarria Alvarez, J, 2008, ‘Telling Different Stories: Subjectivity and Feminist Identity Politics’, The Virtual Peace Library of the UNESCO Chair for Peace Studies, viewed online 18 June 2019, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjooYyuuPziAhUCU30KHbLPAscQFjAAegQIAhAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.uibk.ac.at%2Fpeacestudies%2Fdownloads%2Fpeacelibrary%2Ftellingstories.pdf&usg=AOvVaw1tOz5Piub7ZQnVvNfkDS2N

Instagram, 2019, Instagram Help Centre, Instagram, viewed 14 June 2019, < https://help.instagram.com/&gt;

Precarity in the Labour Force: Discourse as Distraction-2019

For many in the West the idea that some people in the world are suffering through different forms of exploitation (more often than not for the benefit of the West) is unimaginable, especially considering modern technologies that have been developed to benefit human civilisation. It is impossible to deny that exploitation across the globe is both racialised and gendered, and the rise of globalisation has changed the understanding of how and where our products and services are being produced and provided. The dominance of ‘convenience’ in a modern society has changed the global political and financial economies, as well as having a detrimental impact on our environment. In contemporary times, the ways in which we understand ‘exploitation’ has been shaped by particular institutions and have come to reflect economic and political agendas of a specific group of elites who hold political, economic and social capital. Arguably sex trafficking has dominated global discourse surrounding human trafficking as a whole. The significance of this weighted rhetoric is calculated in order to further the political agenda of those in power. Exploitation and precarity go hand in hand with the migrant worker and this essay will attempt to highlight the ignorance of the intersection between women’s exploitation within the wider labour force and human trafficking. The essay will begin by looking at the early 20th century history of trafficking discourses which came about at a time when women’s participation in the labour force was increasing. Following on will be a discussion around the separation of different forms of labour and impact that patriarchy has had on understanding gender roles within modern societies. The final part of the essay will be a case study on the recent anti-trafficking bill in the US and the implication on migrants and other marginalised people.

While many scholars taking an historical approach to understanding trans/international trafficking of humans and take a positivist perspective in regards to the human rights protection the debate affords, others have been more critical in regards to the driving factor for these discourses (Laite, 2017, pg.40). One such critic argues that “the historical anti-trafficking movement was about crime control rather than relief or rights” (Knepper cited in Laite, 2017, pg. 40). To better understand this point, an investigation of the events that birthed this discussion within modern times is essential. At the turn of the 20th century a new debate surrounding the exploitation of white women and children in the context of mistreatment and prostitution began in Europe. This has had a considerable impact on the way in which we understand sex trafficking around the globe. It was during this time that key studies surrounding the exploitation of women within licit work were undertaken. This prompted The League of Nations to create a committee known as the ‘Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children’ in 1921 (Laite, 2017, pg. 46). In 1927 the committee commissioned research to be undertaken to investigate both the extent and the character in which women were being exploited within the entertainment industry. Labour migration within the entertainment industry was extremely common, especially in women aged 15-25 years. It was understood that this particular group of women were especially at risk of being coerced or duped into the sex industry. The vulnerability of these women was framed to highlight the exploitative nature of sexual labour while ignoring the exploitation that was inherent in other industries, including the entertainment industry. The need for legislation was justified in the intent to ‘protect’ these susceptible women from the immorality of the sex industry. This reflected the perspective held by the majority of the committee, who believed that all forms of sex work are inherently immoral and degrading (Laite, 2017, pg. 48). The 1927 report found a direct link between the exploitative nature of ‘women’s work’, in that the wages were not enough to be considered a ‘living wage’. It was this economic factor that pushed many women into prostitution. What is important to note here is that although the report stated that the economic factor was to be considered, the focus was on morality rather than financial; “Though members of the Traffic Committee bemoaned the influence of women’s low wages and subsequent poverty, they emphasized the moral over the monetary” (Boris cited in Laite, 2017, pg. 48). Focusing on morals rather than the financial was a calculated move by the Advisory Committee; by ignoring that sexual labour may be considered work like other forms of labour, it ignores the fact that regulation may be beneficial for those participating in the industry. By imposing specific ‘morals’ on women in the industry disregards their agency and autonomy as citizens within society, and has helped to fuel a designed discourse that has perpetuated into contemporary discussions on the same issue.

As already mentioned, one of the key issues in this discussion is the separation of sexual labour from other forms of labour, which has resulted in forced sexual labour coming to be understood as “the nexus of all so-called social evils” (Shah, 2008, pg. 20). Towards the end of the 19th Century the development of a “free” global labour market in conjuncture with the move to abolish slavery gave way to a new (gendered) understanding of unfree and free labour, an understanding that continues to persist to this day (Laite, 2017, pg. 44). This is made obvious in the statistics surrounding time spent providing domestic and care work within family institutions and the gender disparity that exists today; 86% of women in Australia believed they did the majority of the housework, while 73% of men stated that they were the primary breadwinners (Acharya, 2018). This highlights the understanding that women are natural care givers and this type of labour should remain in the domain of unpaid labour. Understanding the gendered dimensions of labour is vital to this discussion. The way in which sex is viewed within our contemporary society is still based on religious and patriarchal ideologies, which stem from a misogynistic worldview that women are ‘less’ than men. In the words of the French feminist Simone de Beuvoir “He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (2011, pg. 6). The patriarchal dominance of Western society is important as it dictates what is allowed to be commodified in an open market. When it comes to female sexuality and the female body, commodification only appears to be acceptable when the objectification is coming from the outside. Morality is questioned when women provide sexual services (consensually or not) yet society has no problem in objectifying women in the name of marketing, using the female body to sell anything from beers to vegetarianism. The sexual autonomy of women has long been seen as immoral, and many people who hold abolitionist views on the issue (of consensual sex work) disregard the inherent exploitation that capitalism thrives off. The way in which this issue is represented in the media is also calculated and as Andrijasevic and Mai argue;
Stereotypical trafficking representations conveniently distract the global public from their increasing and shared day-to-day exploitability as workers because of the systematic erosion of labour rights globally. In doing so, they become complicit in the perpetuation of the very social inequalities, hierarchies and conflicts that allow exploitation and trafficking to occur” (2016, pg. 9)
The issue of sex trafficking is a gendered issue that transcends national borders. It is impossible to discuss gendered understandings of labour, especially in the context of paid/unpaid labour, without discussing the dominance of patriarchy throughout history. The assumption that patriarchy is naturally inherent for humans is wildly misguided; the end of the nomadic period for humans dramatically changed the gender dynamics of communities and the physically stronger men were in charge of defending and providing for the physically weaker females (Ananthaswamy & Douglas, 2018). Marx also understood the importance of this societal shift and discussed it in relation to the rise of the labour market: “great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians” (cited in Cohen, 2006, pg. 13). The way in which Marx uses the word ‘free’ is specific in its use, and refers to the freedom that proletariats have from ownership of land or resources that allows them to sell their labour power as a commodity. The subordination of women taken as something natural helps to enforce particular ideas around what can be commodified within a patriarchal capitalist society. The role of the media in perpetuating certain rhetoric’s within the public discourse is significant, not just through news media but also through film portrayals including biased representations within the documentary field (have a think about how many films, both fiction and non-fiction, that have been made about sex work without any consultation with ACTUAL sex workers). A number of scholars have highlighted this media influence, stating that it is not just news media that help frame the situation in a particular light but general understanding are a product of both history and contemporary media.

Prostitution is commonly referred to as ‘The Oldest Profession’ and the exchange of sexual services for economic or other material gain has been around since the Greek Dark Ages approx 1100 BC (Bassermann, 1993, pg. 1). Prostitution has been framed in a number of different ways over the course of history, depending on the political climate of the time. In modern times, the conflation between sex work and trafficking has been extremely damaging to those (mostly women) who are engaging in consensual sex work. Those who are even more susceptible to this damaging rhetoric are minority sex workers, including migrants, people of colour and transgender workers. While consensual prostitution or sex work may be defined as “the exchange of sex for money, drugs or influence between two consenting adults” (Galucci, 2019), trafficking on the other hand involves third party control. The key difference between the two is agency, something that is more than often overlooked within the political discourse. The remainder of this essay will focus on the current US context since the implementation of FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Traffickers Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) bills in April 2018.
The image conjured in the public mind when we hear about a victim of trafficking is often of a “young, innocent, foreign woman tricked into prostitution abroad” (Andrijasevic& Mai, 2016, pg. 4), which is why the events leading up to the enforcement of the FOSTA bill was even more shocking to the US audience. Classifieds website ‘Backpage’, which predominately hosted adult services content, was involved in a high-profile court case in which it was found to be not-guilty of hosting illegal content, even though the court found that Backpage were aware of the illegal content on their site. The content in question was advertisements of underage girls being trafficked through the site. The most shocking thing to both the local and international audiences was the fact that the majority of the girls being trafficked through the site were American citizens, challenging the above notion of who the victims are. The not-guilty ruling was thanks to Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act which stated that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (Reynolds, 2019). In basic terms; prior to FOSTA/SESTA websites were not held liable for what third parties posted to their websites, these bills changed the onus and the effects are being felt by many not just in the US, and even those outside the realm of ‘sex work’. This ruling prompted the FOSTA/SESTA bill and it was signed into law by the Trump administration on the 11th of April 2018 (Romano, 2018). These bills amended the Communications Act so that responsibility was in the hands of the website should the content be involved in “the promotion or facilitation of prostitution” or “facilitating traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims” (cited in Peterson, Robinson & Shih, 2019). It is clear by the language used in the policy that sex trafficking and prostitution are conflated and doesn’t allow any protections for consensual sex workers. Given the public understanding of ‘trafficking’ the bills received a lot of public support including support from both sides of the political spectrum and even some high-profile celebrities (Romano, 2018). However, although these bills appear to have good intentions the actual impacts are far more detrimental than expected, hardly surprising once you consider that sex workers were not consulted throughout the policy development process. To avoid potential liabilities a number of websites that were used by consensual sex workers have been removed from the internet putting the lives of sex workers (who are already marginalised within society) at even greater risk. The way in which sex work has operated since the birth of the internet dramatically changed improving the safety of many workers (giving them access to networks and lists of ‘bad johns’ etc.) with FOSTA reversing a lot of these advanced safety measures and pushing sex work into the shadows. Within the first month following the enactment of the bill thirteen sex workers were reported missing with two more confirmed deaths by suicide, highlighting the danger imposed on consensual sex workers by pushing them into an invisible economy (Chamberlain, 2019, pg. 2174). Many anti-trafficking advocates and social commentators have argued that these anti-trafficking bills will have ‘unintended consequences’ and the threat to internet freedom is wildly ‘unconstitutional’ (Patel, 2018).
Evidence suggests that migrants and other marginalised people such as queer identifying, transgender people, disabled and people of colour have been more affected by these bills and some have suggested that this is intentional as the US has a history of “profiting off the mass incarceration of already vulnerable people” (Patel, 2018). The status of workers has a direct impact on the resources they have access to, and often face extra hurdles in landing a stable job such as language barriers, cultural differences and blatant racism. For many undocumented migrants in the US the employment opportunities available to them are very limited, leading many of them to unregulated jobs, including within the sex industry, making them more susceptible to trafficking (Murphy-Oates, 2018). Although there are many industries where trafficking of people occurs, it is only the sex industry that seems to garner the most attention. This speaks to the gendered and racialised understanding of trafficking victims and as Alice Miller suggests “we need to avoid the perpetual retelling of the story of the sexually abused victim who needs only rescue rather than a demanding woman who needs rights and social justice as a citizen” (cited in Crosby, 2007, pg. 46).

What this essay has attempted to highlight is that work under a capitalist system is inherently exploitative and political discourses are crucial to understanding different flows of not only people but also information, both within and across national borders. Criminalising a particularly gendered form of labour, in this instance sexual labour, has done more to “serve more the interests of states in controlling their borders than protecting women in situations of vulnerability” (Crosby, 2007, pg. 46). While many immigration controls do foster precarious working conditions for migrants this essay emphasizes that within patriarchal society, precarity is prevalent for all those who are seen as ‘the other’ including women, migrants, people of colour, disabled, non-cis and non-heterosexual people.

Acharya, M, 2018, ‘Majority of housework done by women in Australia: Survey’, SBS Australia, 4 December 2018, viewed 10 June 2019, < https://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/hindi/en/article/2018/12/04/majority-housework-done-women-australia-survey&gt;
Ananthaswamy, A & Douglas, K, 2018, ‘The origins of sexism: How men came to rule 12,000 years ago’, New Scientist, 18 April 2018, viewed 10 June 2019, < https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23831740-400-the-origins-of-sexism-how-men-came-to-rule-12000-years-ago/&gt;
Andrijasevic, R & Mai, N, 2016, ‘Editorial: Trafficking (in) representations: Understanding the recurring appeal of victimhood and slavery in neoliberal times’, Anti-Trafficking Review, Issue. 7, pp. 1-10
Bassermann, L, 1993, The Oldest Profession: A History of Prostitution, Dorsett Press, USA
Chamberlain, L, 2019, ‘FOSTA: A Hostile Law with a Human Cost’, Fordham Law Review, Vol. 87, No. 5, pp. 2171-2211
Crosby, A, 2007, ‘People on the Move: Challenging migration on NGOs, migrants and sex work categorization’, Development, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 44-49
De Beauvoir, S (Translated by Borde, C & Malovany-Chevallier, S), The Second Sex, Vintage, London
Galluci, J, 2019, ‘Human Trafficking Is an Epidemic in the US. It’s Also Big Business’, Fortune, 14 April 2019, viewed online 14 June 2019, < http://fortune.com/2019/04/14/human-sex-trafficking-us-slavery/&gt;
Hodge, D, 2008, ‘Sexual Trafficking in the United States: A Domestic Problem with Transnational Dimensions’, Social Work, Vol. 53, No. 2, pp. 143-152
Laite, J, 2017, ‘Between Scylla and Charybdis: Women’s Labour Migration and Sex Trafficking in the Early Twentieth Century’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 37-65
Murphy-Oates, L, 2018, ‘Shutting Down Websites to Curb Sex Trafficking Has Life-Threatening Consequences for Sex Workers’, The Feed, viewed online 9 June 2019, < https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-feed/shutting-down-websites-to-curb-sex-trafficking-has-life-threatening-consequences-for-sex-workers&gt;
Patel, S, 2018, ‘We Must Repeal SESTA, a Deadly Law That Does Nothing to Help Trafficking Victims’, Vice, 22 May 2018, viewed online 14 June 2019, < https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xwmdkk/repeal-sesta-fosta-sex-work-suraj-patel&gt;
Peterson, M, Robinson, B & Shih, E, 2019, ‘The New Virtual Crackdown on Sex Workers’ Rights: Perspectives from the United States’, Anti-Trafficking Review, Issue 12, pp. 189-193
Reynolds, M, 2019, ‘The strange story of Section 230, the obscure law that created our flawed, broken internet’, Wired, 24 March 2019, viewed online 14 June 2019, < https://www.wired.co.uk/article/section-230-communications-decency-act&gt;
Romano, A, 2018, ‘A new law intended to curb sex trafficking threatens the future of the internet as we know it’, Vox, 2 July 2018, viewed online 10 June 2019, < https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/4/13/17172762/fosta-sesta-backpage-230-internet-freedom&gt;

Gendered Sexual Shame: The Jezebel Club in the Handmaid’s Tale-2018

This essay aims to explore the gendered nature of sexual shame. I argue that female sexuality is a direct threat to patriarchal values and that as a result of that threat women are sexually shamed more so than men. I will be using the ‘Jezebel Club’ as an object of reference to highlight my argument. I will begin with a brief description of the Jezebel Club which will be followed by a discussion around oppression of women and how that impacts the sex work industry. Next I take a look at the basis for patriarchal systems and briefly analyse the notion of nature and biology as the explanation behind patriarchy. In this section biology is also discussed in regards to gendered sexuality. The importance of women’s reproductive role is also vital to the discussion in regards to male power. I also investigate the significance of religion and the male gaze over history and how that has impacted our cultural understandings of gender. The final parts of the essay will focus on the value of different forms of capital and who has access to this capital as well as a discussion around shame and the link between shame and the body.

In The Handmaids Tale, all women are repressed or oppressed no matter where they sit within the Gilead hierarchical society. While the Handmaids tale was written in the 1980’s it seems more than relevant to certain contexts within our globalised contemporary society. Foucault warns that repressing desire actually results in a production of it (Taylor, 2009, pg. 21), and religion has long been an institution of repression not only of desire but of sexuality as a whole. At the core of Gilead society is an ultra conservative Christian understanding of the world, in which sex is a tool for reproduction and not a site for pleasure or desire. While discussing sex trafficking in Asia, Brown proposes that the more repressed and male-dominated a society is, the higher the levels of prostitution, trafficking and abuse, specifically of vulnerable women. “There is a beautifully neat symmetry: strict sexual codes and rigorously male-dominated societies are mirrored by widespread systems of sexual slavery” (Brown, 2000, pg. 25). We can see a perfect example of this in the Jezebel Club in the Handmaids Tale. The vulnerable, otherwise untouchable, women who have deviated from the strict gender roles assigned to them have the ‘choice’ of ‘working’ in the Jezebel Club, or to be cast away to the colonies (and ultimately to their death).

An explanation behind this ‘neat symmetry’ is that patriarchy involves male domination not only over women, but over each other. To show any sort of vulnerabilities would be a sign of weakness and therefore result in being ‘less’ of a man which then leads to insecurities surrounding their status among other men. By having access over an objectified ‘whore’ creates the fantasy for these insecure men about their ability to dominate within society. While this explanation works for the real world, it’s not so clear in Gilead. It is quite apparent that patriarchy is operating within the Gilead society, but the level at which that patriarchy is operating is not highlighted in either the TV show or the book. Rather, Atwood focuses on the roles of women within this dystopian society.

One of the key things to note here is that the women who ‘work’ in the Jezebel Club have not really chosen that line of work. While the women did make a choice, they were choosing between their death (the colonies) or to be repeatedly raped but remain alive (Jezebel). Instead of receiving payment for their services, these women are paid in their survival. The Jezebel club symbolises the ultimate paradox of the Gilead society highlighting the gendered sexual double-standards between the sexes. The justification of such a place within a totalitarian society comes down to the argument of ‘nature’. The commander declares:
“Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, its part of the pro-creational strategy. It’s nature’s plan. Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes in the old days? To trick men into thinking they were several different women. A new one for each day.”
-The Commander (Attwood, 1985, pg. 237)
While this essay focuses on the social side of things we may also note that biology does have a role to play in this. Brown argues that
“[Domination over women and other men] is a biologically driven need and its goal is to enhance reproductive success. This need makes power, domination and sex inextricably linked” (Brown, 2000, pg. 129)
When Brown discusses biology she is referring to the contentious notion that sexual interactions are supposed to increase a person’s capacity to continue their genetic lineage onto their offspring. While men have been encouraged to ‘spread their seed’; Brown suggests that biologically speaking, women are vying for a mate who can provide protection for both herself and her offspring while also possessing ‘an enticing gene bank’ (Brown, 2000, pg. 128). From a biological perspective then, it actually doesn’t make much sense for either of these gender roles to perpetuate; men do not have the capacity to care for the amount of children he is capable of producing, and the ideal mate for a woman may not embody all of the attributes to produce idyllic children for women. This biological debate completely ignores women’s sexuality and agency. If nature only intended for men to enjoy sexual pleasure why would women have an organ such as the clitoris? As discussed a little later a woman in control of her sexuality is a threat to patriarchy and we can see many examples throughout history of sexual oppression of women, such as the ‘hysterical woman’ and religious head coverings. But the biological debate continues, and I argue that the cultural understanding of these biological gender roles have been key to ingraining these gender norms.

While gender is socially constructed, we cannot deny there are biological differences between men and women. Sexuality is quite controversial when analysing the nature vs. nurture debate and it is still unclear as to whether sexuality is a naturally occurring biological function or if our socialisation is the key to our sexualities. Regardless, attempting to repress something as prominent as sexuality is bound to have consequences. The repression of female sexuality in particular certainly isn’t a new trend; women are child-bearers, they provide life. In order for men to hold complete power they must also hold the power of reproduction: women. In the context of Gilead fertile women are a rarity, and Attwood proposes that “.. ruling classes always make sure they get the best and rarest of desirable goods and services..” (Atwood, 2012). In Gilead this means the Handmaids are property in which the ruling class get to ‘own’ the women, which I argue is just the amplified version of the reproductive rights debate happening in many places around the world. Religion is central to the reproductive rights debate and is key to understanding how Gilead came into power. In an interview with Attwood in regards to her novel she states that in order for the coup of the United States to occur (which resulted in the take-over by the Gilead elite) the ruling class had to use religion as the premise of their take over. Had they used socialism or communism the US would’ve outright rejected it. Instead they had to base their claim on already existing ideas from the 17th century, prior to the Enlightenment period when there was still a heavy bias against women and before the separation of church and state. She also stated that restricting sexual freedoms also impacted the rise of the conservative powers (Atwood cited in Mead, 2017).

The role of religion in current society is less influential than previously throughout history, but it has impacted Western culture a great deal. One of the things religion has perpetuated over time is the binary understanding of femininity between the virgin/whore. This dichotomy of femininity not only exists within the Christian faith, but many religions resulting in this as a cultural understanding of women. The understanding of women as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in terms of their sexuality and/or sexual history still continues today which directly influences gendered understandings of shame surrounding sex and sexuality. Foucault suggests that the Christian approach to sex is one that attempts to eliminate pleasure and/or desire; “Acts have to become something neutral; you have to act only to produce children, or to fulfil your conjugal duty” (Foucault cited in Taylor, 2009, pg. 22). Women who fulfil their ‘role’ as childbearer/mother are seen as ‘good’ women; women who have deviated from this ‘good woman’ role are seen as ‘bad’ and stigma is then attached to these women. Ignoring pleasure and desire, as well as individual agency, makes shaming women for their sexuality easier. If sex only has one purpose (to procreate) then any deviancy outside of that is wrong and immoral and women should be ashamed. The importance of religion reinforces patriarchal understandings, as Christ states: “Patriarchy is an integral system of interlocking oppressions, enforced through violence, and legitimated by religions” (Christ, 2016, pg. 223). Therefore women who attempt to control their own sexuality are directly threatening the patriarchal system.

In the case of the Handmaids Tale the only place where we see sex and sexuality functioning outside of procreation is within the Jezebel Club. It highlights the dichotomy of the virgin/whore role of women even within the most conservative societies, as discussed previously. Prior to marriage, women were ‘their own property’ and could have sex with whomever they chose resulting in children being born with no absolute confirmation of who was the father. The concept of marriage was created so that men would know who their offspring were, so that they could pass on their property and wealth to their own progeny. Marriage not only provided a guarantee (should the woman remain faithful) of genetic lineage the woman also became the property of the man. Hence why the term for a married woman is ‘Mrs’ or ‘Mr(‘)s’, as in she is the property of Mr. In the context of The Handmaids Tale, women as property is extremely evident as the main character’s name is Ofred, literally ‘Of Fred’ named after her ‘owner’. Not only are the handmaids considered property but all women are the property of men including the wives and the girls in the Jezebel club.

Through different forms of art over time we can see that historically women have been represented through the lens of heterosexual men as sexual objects existing for their pleasure; “the male gaze”. The performance of the male gaze has become so ingrained in our understandings of gender and sexuality that women have been conditioned to internalise certain values as dictated by patriarchy. The impact of the male gaze in a patriarchal society is important because of the cultural implications over history. Evans & Gamman suggested that Colonial Europeans who were viewing other cultures, such as Asian or Arab, could not be seen “as it is, but through their own eyes” (Evans & Gamman, 1995, pg. 17). The same could be applied to our understanding of society through the male perspective. I argue that because history has been dominated by men we all view society from the male standpoint. This has led to internalised misogyny and self-surveillance of women.

In a patriarchal society men hold the ultimate power because of the valued capital they possess. Bourdieu recognises a number of forms of capital which include: economic (property, wealth etc.), cultural (knowledge, artistic taste etc.) and social (social networks and obligations etc.) (Bourdieu, 1986). It appears that sexuality, especially female sexuality has extremely high value, just as those who formed Gilead understood, yet when we speak of capital, even cultural capital; sexuality or reproductive abilities don’t come into the discussion. Much of the historical gendered conditioning has led us to a place where different social positions hold different power in regards to the forms of capital they can and may possess. Bourdieu suggested that “women are not typically capital-accumulating subjects. Rather they are ‘capital bearing objects’ whose value accrues to the primary group to which they belong (eg. her husband, the family)” (Bourdieu cited in Thorpe, 2009, pg. 493). For women who choose to use their bodies to accumulate economic wealth in order to hold more valued capital, threatens the concept of the patriarchal system. It is important to note here that this is not applicable to the women in the Jezebel club as they have limited agency to make the choice of working in the club.

Berger proposes that perspective is based on who holds the most capital suggesting that “It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity” (Berger cited in Evans & Gamman, 1995, pg. 17). As men are the ones who traditionally hold most of the capital their perspective has a higher value. It appears that to capitalise off sexuality is only acceptable when men are profiting. We see this in the Jezebel Club (although not explicitly stated) it is safe to assume that the women in the club are not receiving any compensation for their services aside from allowing the women to live. The commodification of the body, or even of women doesn’t allow much of a differentiation between a wife and a prostitute according to Simone de Beauvoir. In her book ‘The Second Sex’, she has a whole chapter dedicated to ‘Prostitutes and Hetaeras’ where she states: “For both [the prostitute and the wife] the sexual act is a service; the latter is engaged for life by one man, the former has several clients who pay her per item” (de Beauvoir, 1949, pg. 614). This highlights that within a patriarchal society we are all objects exchanging our own capital (in this example emotional labour and sex) in exchange for economic gains. When women attempt to gain their economic freedom through the commodification of their own body’s they are shamed for it. The basis of this shaming stems from the historical and cultural interpretations of patriarchy.

The body as a site of shame (discussed below) is interesting in the context of the Handmaid’s Tale as we can see that women’s bodys have a different value to men. Female bodies in Gilead are seen as ‘national property’ and different women have different roles to play within the hierarchy. The self-surveillance and internalised misogyny mentioned before is exemplified in the role of the ‘Aunt’s’. Their role within Gilead is to brainwash the incoming Handmaid’s (& other women) to conform to their new gender role within the new society. The Aunt’s assist in oppressing female sexuality in several ways including shaming Handmaid Janine for being gang-raped, as well as manipulating the women during the initiation process. As discussed already Christ suggests that violence is used to enforce gender roles and it’s ironic that the Aunt’s are a part of this violence against women “even though the Aunt’s put emphasis on the abuse of the female body in the old time, it is exactly the Aunts that carry out the punishment on their bodies” (Pei-Hsuan Hsieh, 2009, pg. 3). By each woman having their place in society together they form the subordinate part of the society. From the perspective of Foucault the discipline exercised in Gilead “is no longer simply an art of distributing bodies, of extracting time from them and accumulating it, but of composing forces in order to obtain an efficient machine” (Foucault cited in Peir-Hsuan Hsieh, 2009, pg. 10). The society of Gilead is as a machine that operates through surveillance and power relations to enforce the gender roles expected of the citizens.

Many consider shame to be the central ‘affect’ of the self. Probyn suggests that “the distinct nature of affects provides an optic into the complex combinations that characterize the everyday” (Probyn, 2004, pg. 329). In other words affects help form the habitus, both individually and societally. The affect of shame helps shape our own selfhood through reflexive actions “that also seem to force an experience of inter-subjectivity” (Roberts cited in Stark, 2016). Shame is an affect closely linked to the body, and it is a physical reaction to feeling ‘out of place’ (Probyn, 2004, pg. 328). Sexual shame is very closely linked to religion in many different contexts. In the West, even if you weren’t brought up religiously the Western culture has been influenced by religion, mainly Christianity (although gendered sexual shame is common amongst most common religions). The way in which we are socialised and educated encourages us to feel shame about certain sexual feelings we may have. Our social environments automatically incite shame in certain contexts and more often than not it is women who are subjected to sexual shaming more than men. We can see an example of this in the Jezebel Club, and the character of Moira. We know that prior to the rise of Gilead Moira was a lesbian, which is seen as “non-reproductive, [which] is incompatible with the republic, where compulsory heterosexuality is built into the social structure” (Himberg, 2018, pg. 196). Her failed escape attempt resulted her being placed in the Club, and when Ofred catches up with Moira there you can see the shame and defeat Moira experiences by being in that environment. Her shame is contrasted by all the men around her who all appear to be having the time of their lives experiencing no shame. The men aren’t shamed to be in a place like that because as discussed before it is ‘natural’ for men to pursue many women.

Patriarchal values have a long history borne through the value of private property enforced through violence and perpetuated by religion. From the perspective of the male gaze we have come to understand the world through a patriarchal lens which in contemporary society is increasingly being challenged. Binaries are also important here, whether it be the binary of masculine/feminine, the virgin/whore, or even heterosexual/homosexual. Within Gilead reproductive fertility in women is a rare commodity in which the ruling class has been able to control through violence and fear as women have no autonomy or agency regardless of their hierarchal place. Long-standing conditioning has in turn impacted how we understand gender roles in the current society and we continue to see a lot of self-surveillance of women, as well as the entitlement of men over women’s bodies. The role of the Aunts show us how the effects of internalised misogyny can impact a women and the policing of women of other women is also highlighted here. The entitlement men feel over women’s body is very visible at the current time, and we can see discourse beginning to change around how we report domestic violence and violence against women within greater society.

Atwood, M, 2012, ‘Haunted by the Handmaids Tale’, The Guardian, 21 January 2012, < https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/20/handmaids-tale-margaret-atwood&gt;
Atwood, M, 1986, The Handmaid’s Tale, J. Cape, London
Bourdieu, P, 1986, ‘The Forms of Capital’ < http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/bourdieu-forms-capital.htm&gt;
Brown, L, 2000, Sex Slaves: The trafficking of women in Asia, Virago Press, London
Christ, C, 2016, ‘A New Definition of Patriarchy: Control of Women’s Sexuality, Private Property, and War’, Feminist Theology, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 214-225
Evans, C & Gamman, L, 1995, ‘The Gaze Revisited, or Reviewing Queer Viewing’, in Paul Burston and Colin Richardson (eds.) A Queer Romance: Lesbians, Gay Men and Popular Culture. London, Routledge
Himberg, J, 2018, ‘The Lavender Menace Returns: Reading Gender & Sexuality in the Handmaid’s Tale’, Communication Culture & Critique, pp. 195-197
Mead, R, 2017, ‘Margaret Atwood’s Grimly Relevant Additions to the “Handmaid’s Tale” Audiobook’, The New Yorker, 13 April 2017, < https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/margaret-atwoods-grimly-relevant-additions-to-the-handmaids-tale-audiobook&gt;
Pei-Hsuan Hsieh, J, 2009, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale- The Female Body as a Site of Resistance’, < https://www.yumpu.com/en/browse/user/english.fju.edu.tw&gt;

Probyn, E, 2004, ‘Everyday Shame’, Cultural Studies, Vol. 18, No, 2-3, pp. 328-349
Taylor, C, 2009, ‘Pornographic Confessions? Sex Work and Scientia Sexualis in Foucault and Linda Williams’, Foucault Studies, No. 7, pp. 18-44
Thorpe, H, 2009, ‘Bourdieu, Feminism and Female Physical Culture: Gender Reflexivity and the Habitus-Field Complex’, Sociology of Sport Journal, No. 26, pp. 491-516

Gendered Advertising Analysis-2018

The following essay is an analysis of an ad for the brand ‘Thinx’, who have come up with a new menstruation product in the form of underwear that can be used to replace pads, tampons and menstrual cups. I will begin the essay by looking at the context and target audience, following on with a discussion around gender assumptions and how femininity is being challenged. Then I take a closer look at the visuals of the advertisement itself and how they work to convey a particular message and finish up the essay with how the brand, and the ad, are specifically attempting to breakdown the status quo, not just of the products but around the whole taboo issue of periods.

The ad depicted above is aimed at ‘menstruating humans’ (taken from another advertisement within the same campaign), this in and of itself is already breaking down assumptions around gender as we often think of a very feminine representative advertising/using feminine hygiene products (itself a problematic term). This ad is using a transgender man which is the first of its kind for this particular product. You can see when you take a look at the full campaign that the brand is trying to be as inclusive as possible, there are women from different backgrounds, as well as different sizes included in the campaign. The overall simplicity of the ad emphasises the inclusivity of this particular product; and the context of where the ads were placed (NYC Subway) also says something about the targeted audience.
I argue that this particular advertisement challenges, rather than mobilises, many assumptions around gender, including assumptions surrounding transgender people. We assume that only humans who look like women are the humans who menstruate, and this ad directly challenges that. Although advertising for these products (historically very stereotypically gendered to women) have been around for decades, periods and menstruation is still seen as a taboo topic. These Thinx ads are attempting to fight the taboo and normalise periods, and trying to show the people represented in their ads as strong and empowered humans. In reality, Thinx are not doing anything overly shocking aside from calling a period exactly what it is, yet we have been conditioned to avoid the reality of periods (eg. the use of blue instead of red ink to show the effectiveness of the product). While researching this ad, I found that Outfront Media (the company that sells the advertising space in the Subway) almost didn’t approve the ads because of the use of the word ‘period’ as well as the ‘suggestive’ and ‘inappropriate’ use of the fruit (Cauterucci, 2015). But if you take a look at other ads that have been approved and presented in the Subway we can see this as a shocking double standard, and one can understand why Thinx (who has a female CEO) is attempting to breakdown these taboos.

Throughout post-feminist discourse many scholars argue that the body is representative of our femininity/masculinity, and Gill argues that the body itself is more representational of our identity than our social, structural or psychological features (2007, p. 149). So by using a transgender model in their ad, Thinx have directly challenged the connotations that our systems attach to the word ‘feminine’ and/or ‘masculine’. Terms like ‘she’ and ‘her’ are words we use as labels to facilitate assumptions about the human experience. As this ad suggests not all people who present their outer body as male (or even as female) necessarily experience menstruation, something we have come to associate with women and femininity. Helene Shugart discusses the threat that ‘metrosexuals’ pose to normative masculinity; from that we can only assume that a transgender man must pose an even greater threat. She references Faludi and the term ‘ornamentalisation’ which refers to shifting of the gaze; “men.. are now available for display and objectification in ways that, historically, women have been” (Shugart, 2008, p. 285). Shugart goes further in saying that this ornamentalisation of men is based on their feminisation and one could argue that the use of the transgender model is yet another threat against masculinity, and potentially, the patriarchy.

The dominant part of the visual ad is the use of a transgender male model; this alone represents a manipulation of our assumptions in regards to gender and ‘feminine hygiene’ products. The piece of art that is on the wall behind the man is a photo used in another Thinx ad, which is the yolk of the egg falling off an edge. This represents the shedding of the egg inside the uterus and is actually quite a clever, non-threatening and inoffensive image to depict the monthly cycle of women. The text on the ad really is simple, clear and relatable. It is also worth noting that these ads use the word ‘period’, a new concept within the feminine hygiene industry. As discussed earlier the use of the word period is one of the reasons the ad was nearly unapproved and sparked controversy before it was even released. The colour scheme has also been left quite neutral and hasn’t reinforced any gendered stereotypes, again making this as inclusive as possible. These Thinx ads have not only challenged how we view gender, but have challenged the way we view ‘feminine’ hygiene products overall. Thinx have really impacted the market, both through the product itself (a whole new way of dealing with menstruation), as well as the way it has advertised the brand.

For many humans who experience menstruation Thinx and these ads have really challenged the status quo and brought something very real and refreshing to the public eye. The controversy surrounding the ads highlights how these ads are still seen as quite threatening and confronting to a lot of people, predominately cis-males, but also to people of both genders who experience ingrained misogyny. It still baffles me that something as natural as menstruation can still be seen as such a taboo topic, especially considering it is vital to our very existence. Both men and women have been conditioned to view menstruation as dirty and shameful, a conditioning that I argue has come from patriarchal systems as another means of oppressing women. Since the 1990’s post-feminism dominated discourses surrounding gender and many assumptions were generally accepted as truths. Gill claims that “..discourses of natural gender difference can be used to freeze in place existing inequalities by representing them as inevitable” (Gill, 2007, p. 159). This understanding of naturally occurring gender difference needs to be broken down and Thinx have made a successful attempt to begin that process. By using a transgender model as the subject of focus, Thinx attempts to normalise trans people especially within the discourse around feminine hygiene. Thinx are directly challenging gender assumptions in both the product context but also within the larger societal context.

Cauterucci, C, 2015, Ads for Period Underwear Might be Too Lewd for the NYC Subway’, XX Factor, viewed 20 April 2018, http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2015/10/21/ads_for_thinx_period_underwear_might_be_too_lewd_for_the_subway.html
Gill, R, 2007, ‘Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a sensibility’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 147-166
Monllos, 2016, ‘2016 Campaign’, [images] A Trans Man Stars in an Inclusive New Subway Ad for Period Underwear Brand Thinx, AdWeek, viewed 20 April 2018 http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/inclusive-new-subway-ads-period-underwear-brand-thinx-feature-trans-man-171508/
Shugart, H, 2008, ‘Managing Masculinities: The Metrosexual Moment’, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 280-300