Sex Scribbled On My Skin: Body Politics and Sexuality

by Johanna Qualmann

As featured in Wom*news #7: The Body Issue!

Whether it’s in the way we dress, the gender we perform or the shape we are, our bodies shape the way we think about ourselves and the way that society thinks about us. Our bodies are texts to be read, with meanings and values and rules scribbled onto our skin. Some are personal, and some are political. Some are our own choice, while others are dictated by outside influences.

When it comes to sexuality, they way our bodies are read play a central role in what is seen as appropriate. Who is allowed to be sexual, or even required to be? Who is not allowed to show their sexuality? In what contexts are our bodies acceptable?

Despite sex being so naturalised in our society, there are still a multitude of rules imposed on different kinds of bodies, allowing them sexuality or denying it. Simple acts like kissing a partner in public are problematised as soon as the bodies of the people kissing don’t fall into certain categories such as heterosexuality. Queer bodies still represent a challenge to mainstream opinion and media- among other issues, gay men are often chastised for “flaunting” their sexuality, and lesbian or bisexual women are put on display for the eyes of male heterosexual viewers. Our bodies seem to be subjected to an absurd double standard of compulsory, but immoral, sexuality.

So who is allowed to be sexual, and own their sexuality in public? In many spaces, this is reserved for heterosexual bodies only. But there’s more to this designation than sexual orientation alone – all sorts of marginalised bodies are denied sexuality. Fat bodies are among the most frequent to be portrayed as non-sexual, because the underlying idea is that fat cannot be attractive. Fat people who are openly sexual threaten this belief, and as such, and when fat women do represent themselves as sexual (or are represented as sexual in the media), they’re cast as hypersexual or vilified as ‘sluts’.

Likewise, disabled bodies are denied ownership of sexuality by also being portrayed as non-sexual entities in both public representation (such as in the media) and in private (such as by carers). Self-described body revolutionary and disability activist Jax writes:

I am invisible as a lesbian in the queer community because my disability renders me a-sexual, and I feel invisible as a lesbian in the disability community due to dominant heterosexual discourses. My disability negates my sexuality; my sexual identity becomes ‘unintelligible’ to the gaze of others (Personal communication, 9th September 2012).

In general discourse, disabled bodies are perceived as non-normative and even defective or incomplete, and sexuality is the first casualty.

The list continues: ageing bodies, non-white bodies, non-heterosexual bodies and non-gender-conforming bodies are all limited in the extent to which they are permitted to be sexual. Attractive bodies, then, are allowed to be sexual and express their sexual identity however they wish, while bodies classed as ‘undesirable’ or ‘defective’ – indeed, any bodies that are not valued and upheld as ideal – are not.

At the same time as bodies are being denied sexuality, however, the bodies of those who are generally allowed to be sexual (young, attractive, gender-conforming bodies) are required to be sexual – often for someone else’s gaze or benefit. Being sexual becomes a requirement rather than an option. For people who actually identify as asexual, this poses a whole new set of issues, because their bodies are expected to conform to sexuality, to act sexually, to be sexually available. Indeed, when sexuality becomes compulsory, it often just as many negative effects as being denied sexuality.

It seems to all come down to value: whose bodies are valued, and whose bodies are marginalised. Those that are valued are required to express sexuality – albeit in a narrow range of ways, and whether they want to or not. Those that are not valued – disabled bodies, fat bodies, queer bodies, old bodies, non-white bodies, non-gender-conforming bodies and many more – are limited or denied access and expression. The scribblings on our skin are never fully our own – not unless we make a conscious effort to understand them and reclaim them.

~ Johanna Qualmann

Wom*news #7: The Body Issue is OUT NOW!


Yay! The UQ Wom*n’s Collective is proud to bring to you issue #7 of our zine Wom*news: The Body Issue. We have some super cool pieces for you this time around on topics such as nudism, menstruation in art, body politics and learning to treat yo’ self to a better body image!

You can peruse and keep the online version of the body issue here; alternatively, you pick up a hard copy from the women’s room on UQ St Lucia campus (building 21A).

 

We hope you enjoy this issue, and please let us know what you think!

~ Emma and Rosie

Why Am I So Short?

by Izzy Manfield

Have you ever wondered why you are the way you are? More importantly, have you ever excused your characteristics or behaviours with your gender?

I’m sure everyone reading this has had their own little adolescent identity crisis, but why did you subsequently decide that your gender is what limits your identity? I personally hate the fact that gender differences are all too often attributed as sex differences. (Try not to confuse gender with sex; it tends to close your mind.) It’s become apparent to me that most people’s minds are totally closed when it comes to height, or shortness, or women: there’s no doubt to most lay people (non-feminists and science avoiders)  that the reason I’m so much shorter than my boyfriend is being I’m a woman. And we females are meant to be shorter than da boizzz. It’s how biology works.

But – gasp! This gender stereotyping totally incorrect, and while the determining of height or shortness has some basis in sex, it’s really society’s fault that someone will coo, “Ohh, you’re so cute and little!” like it’s perfectly justifiable to be cute and short because you’re female, and that’s an admirable trait in women in comparison to men.

Gender stereotypes appear to have some biological basis to them, but evolution is perhaps the most significant playing card in the success of the development of sex. Genetics and evolution interplay with each other to create diversity in life. Where mutations create new genotypes (types of genes and proteins being encoded) and phenotypes (types of characteristics displayed as a result of the genotype), natural selection selects these phenotypes by acting on environmental pressures. This allows particular phenotypes or traits to be favoured as more desirable traits will potentially be passed on to the next generation and thus will spread throughout the population in only relatively few number of generations. This is exactly how sex and sexual differences arose.

The development of sexual reproduction (and therefore sex) brought a whole new range of diversity to the planet. Suddenly DNA could be passed on to the descendants of individuals not as exact replicas of the parent bar a few mutations as in previous generations, but as a combination of genes from two parents with potentially different genomes in a process called recombination. Sex is beneficial to life because it creates diversity which therefore leads to a better chance of survival as there are varying traits to work with. I regard the development of sex as simply one big mutation that got out of hand. But sex in living organisms does not necessarily mean one male and one female individual like we see in humans; mosses, for example, experience most of their life cycle as haploid (basically as asexual) and only have very small segments and time frames for their sexual stages. In addition to this, sponges (amount many other organisms) can reproduce both sexually and asexually depending on their circumstances. The idea that being male equals this and being female equals that is very, very narrow in popular culture. Some may argue that differences between the sexes exist as fundamental differences in the human genome, which is true. But what we need to expand in our thoughts is the idea that our society existed before these changes. Society came before sex differences such as average height did. Society is humanity’s own form of natural selection. Society selects whose genes will be passed on to the next generation, and whose will be lost in the sands of time. This is an important concept to understand the differences between the sexes.

So, does sex have any correlation to height? Well, yes it does. Height is a polygenic trait, which means it is controlled by many genes. There are many components that can attribute to height; some people may be tall because their legs are long, while others have an elongated backbone. Of course, one gene does not encode for all these things entirely. Each of these features are controlled by the aptly titled growth hormones, thyroid hormone, cortisol and the sex hormones, or rather, oestrogen and testosterone. It is also normal to experience growth spurts in puberty, and girls can experience these two years in advance of when boys experience it. Again, another sex difference. Males have more testosterone than females, which could perhaps independently account for the average male being taller than the average female. What this article is trying to stress is that these differences are in existence because our environment, or our society, has selected those traits as desirable for each sex. Height differences were not inbuilt in women and men because of their sex, but because our ancestors continually throughout herstory have selected their sexual partners on the basis of their height relative to their gender.

Both societal and scientific discourse surrounding height and shortness is important for feminism. Height, in both reality and in our language, is thought of as a display of male dominance to some degree. Height is a desirable trait for humans, particularly for men. Women being shorter than men on average feeds the argument that men are naturally dominant over women. Some anti-feminists will use this kind of information to ‘support’ their claim that women have no right to want more for themselves because they are physically or biologically made to be subjugated by their male counterparts.

I’d like to conclude that this is pure ignorance of evolutionary processes that are truly the basis of height differences between the sexes. Men were not born taller to dominate over women; but because men played a more dominant role in very early western society, over time have evolved to be taller.

My shortness it doesn’t make me less dominant than any man – but in order for wider society to accept this idea, we must educate the masses on the vital difference between gender and sex.

~ Izzy Manfield

The Problem with Victim-Blaming

by Caitlin Gordon-King

This piece is featured in Wom*news #7: Bodies, out tomorrow!

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence and victim blaming; an example of victim blaming is also quoted within this paper. 

In the following paper I ask the question: ‘Is blaming the victim of sexual assault ever valid and/or justified?’. I conclude that it is neither. Although I in no way intend on awarding credibility to arguments which imply otherwise, it is important to engage with them in order to illuminate their flaws and curtail their popularity. Such engagement could distress or otherwise trigger some readers. I therefore ask you to please read the following with discretion. Given I am writing for a women’s magazine, I will be specifically speaking on female identifying victims.

Earlier this week, a friend of mine posted a link to a news article on his facebook page. The article described a court case in the US, during which a judge told a victim of sexual assault that she should avoid going to dangerous bars in the future. By doing so, the judge insinuated that the woman’s failure to accurately evaluate the consequences of going to a male dominated, ‘dangerous’ bar was partly to blame for her attack. If the judge’s remarks didn’t concern me enough, then people’s defence of them when commenting on the article certainly did the job. These comments demonstrated something which has become increasingly clear to me over recent months; as much as we wish it weren’t true, victim blaming is not restricted to old, uneducated, misogynists living in Texas, but is disturbingly common amongst people we all know.

The apportioning of blame for a woman’s sexual assault onto the woman herself is a trend which permeates the mindsets of both men and women, from a variety of social classes, political inclinations and educational backgrounds.  It is alluded to by politicians, experienced in our judicial system, disclosed in drunken conversations and often contemplated by victims themselves. The problem is so pervasive that often we don’t realise when we are encouraging it ourselves. I’ve had moments when I’ve thought to myself of a friend – ‘What did she think was going to happen?’

Thinking thusly comes naturally, and it is not difficult to see why. The rates of sexual assault seem so overwhelming, and its trauma so great, that it is almost too much to bear to consider that its victims are entirely innocent. For a perpetrator especially, it is easier to imagine that the victim could have avoided the situation had they really wanted; that subsequent psychological distress is not solely one’s own fault. I also attribute the popularity of this mode of thought to the seeming common sense underlying it. Every person who commented on my friend’s post did so intellectually, and more troubling still, posed seemingly plausible arguments as to why victims are partly responsible for their sexual assault if they fail to identify and avoid risky situations or actions.

Such an argument was aptly summarised by Kody:

‘…But I’m also sick of hearing people taking their ‘rights’ to some idealistic fantasy land e.g. ‘I should be able to wear a KKK outfit in a black neighbourhood in the US’. Of course you should… But you have a HUGE chance of being beaten up. What about: ‘I should be able to walk where I want, when I want, dressed how I want’. I totally agree, you SHOULD. However, there is some level of common sense that says if you choose to exercise that right in a fucked up neighbourhood… you are likely to have something bad happen to you… (to play devil’s advocate) perhaps the judge had more info to go on? Perhaps: ‘I just happened to be in a rough bar in the worst part of town, and got assaulted’. That might warrant the judge giving some advice… It seems to me that there is definitely a point (of risk) where a victim starts taking part in the consequences.’

For the remainder of this paper, I will specifically address Kody’s comments, because I feel that they epitomise arguments which attempt to justify victim blaming. Alluring as they might be, these arguments are not logically sound. Further, the consequence of their implementation in real life is, and would be, socially and psychologically damaging.

Firstly, Kody’s argument is invalid because it over-estimates the ability of individuals to avoid particularly ‘risky’ situations. Intuitively, we apportion less blame to a person who suffers the negative consequences of taking a risk the more difficult it was for them to avoid that risk. By claiming that the woman in question was partly responsible, Kody’s comment insinuates that it would have been an easy task for her to avoid the bar. However, saying so ignores the social context in which women make the decision to ‘risk it’. Women are constantly bombarded with the messages:

‘You will have fun if you go out. If you don’t go out and experience the night scene, you are a prig and missing out on lyf.

When you go out, you have to dress provocatively – otherwise you are a prude. You’re worth nothing if you do not look sexually attractive. The way to look sexually attractive is to dress in provocative clothing.

You will only be happy if you find a man. Any man will do. 

You will only get a man if he is sexually attracted to you. And you can find a man when you go out at night.’

Women who dress provocatively to garner sexual attention, and go out to bars full of the kinds of men who will make them feel sexually attractive, aren’t too dumb to evaluate the consequences – they’re products of society. When a girl abides by that society’s rules and does the things she’s been told to do – it tells her that it’s her fault when she is abused.

In the long run, it would be immensely difficult for any woman to avoid ‘risky’ situations, not only because they’re reared to enter them, but also simply because ‘risky’ situations are everywhere and impossible to always avoid. Given the number of dangers faced by women on an everyday basis, they cannot be expected to let such dangers dictate their lives, as doing so would greatly diminish their opportunities and inhibit their happiness. Women cannot and should not be expected to always stay inside and only wear clothing which men deem ‘acceptable’, because fulfilling such expectations would be severely limiting. If I were to always choose the safest option in what is a pretty constantly dangerous environment, I would be choosing to deny myself other desires. The negative consequences of denying myself these desires would accumulate over time. Therefore, ultimately, risking some danger will procure more happiness in the long term than avoiding that danger entirely. Hence, it is not unreasonable for me to go to a bar if I so desire. Having evaluated the consequences, going out and having fun is most likely to make me happy in the long term. It is not my fault if that probability is not realised, because at the time that I made the decision it seemed the best option.

Further still, Kody’s argument splits women into two groups – smart and dumb, suggesting that dumb women get raped. This is clearly an over-simplified, damaging and obviously false suggestion. Individuals who choose to take risks aren’t necessarily flippant or stupid, but do so for a reason. They are dressed a certain way for a reason they deem valid, and are in a certain place for a reason they deem valid. Not only that, but they are simply making choices that most of us would. When faced with the decision as to whether to go out and have fun, or to stay inside to absolutely ensure safety, the average person will choose to go out. We might all acknowledge that this is a more dangerous decision, but given it seems almost impossible to fight the temptation, and the majority of us would succumb to it, is it really anybody’s place to blame a person when they do?

Even if it were a valid point that the risk undertaken by victims somehow makes them responsible for the actions of another, victim blaming is still an unjustifiable and destructive way of thinking.

The moment we lay any blame on the victim of sexual assault is the moment that this blame is detracted from that laid on the perpetrator. It doesn’t matter whether or not the woman is actually, abstractly, in any way responsible; when someone says ‘Well, YOU should have stayed home’, it decreases the guilt felt by men for their actions. Not only will men feel less responsible for crimes committed in the past, but less responsible for their actions in the future. And that will directly affect how they act towards women in the future.

Not only does justification of victim blaming encourage individual crimes, but it solidifies the power structure which greatly limits 51% of the population. Kody’s comments, and any arguments which justify victim blaming, clearly send the message that women should accept that men hold the power in society. If all women take Kody’s advice, not only will they always fear men and stay inside knitting on Friday nights instead of having fun, but society will continue to believe that male aggression is inevitable. Some men will continue to think that it’s their right to sexually harass women because their bodies demand it of them (and that it’s the woman’s fault for provoking their ‘natural’ bodily urges), and others will continue to view women as feeble and in need of their protection.

Failing to challenge, and even endorsing, the status quo = continuation of the status quo. It is akin to racial segregation in the US. I doubt Kody would look back on that period of history and say – ‘If Rosa Parks got beaten up after sitting at the front of the bus, that would partly have been her fault. Therefore, Rosa Parks should have sat at the back of the bus. Rosa, make sure you sit at the back next time.’ Women need to keep going out, to keep entering male dominated spaces and to keep dressing however they please because they must continue to remind men that it is their right to be able to do those things without being harmed.

It is important to spell out plainly and simply what arguments like Kody’s are really saying. What they are saying is that there are public places which women should not enter, times that they should not go out and clothes they should not wear, and that they will be punished by men if they do any of the aforementioned. If the woman is irrational enough to risk this punishment, then she is partly responsible for it – meaning, she deserves what she gets.

To Summarise: Segregation should be continued, for the protection of the oppressed.

Because this is its crux: victim blaming not only has a destructive psychological impact on victims themselves, but on women and society in general. It should therefore never be encouraged or practiced.

If a man attacks a woman, that is the man’s fault. Not hers. Any amendment made to that basic idea – like ‘in some circumstances it’s partly the woman’s fault’ – erodes it. I should feel free to go out at night. Sure, TECHNICALLY I am free to go out by myself. But in reality I’m not. My actions are severely limited because I live in a patriarchal society which says shit like ‘If you go to that place, or if you go out at that time, or if you go out by yourself, it’s your own fault if you get raped.’ For a liberal society, that’s not good enough. It is the basic premise of liberalism that every person is free to act as they best see fit, so long as that action does not harm others. The onus is therefore solely, and should always remain on the perpetrator of sexual assault, not the victim.

 ~ Caitlin Gordon-King

Bodies: Taking Up Space

By Charlotte Audley-Coote

This article will feature in the upcoming issue of Wom*news, out this Thursday.

While it may not be a new observation that women’s bodies are often exploited as political playgrounds, I’ve been noticing something interesting for the last month or so when it comes to the gendered ways in which people are allowed or expected to take up space. I’m definitely one for a set of good manners, but it’s interesting how some of ‘the rules’ are not always meant for everyone. It would be easy to ‘disobey’ these social laws if it would only mean to be ‘rude’, however, the attitudes that prevail for how a woman occupies space often seem to transcend trivial judgements. A polite woman is a woman who is quiet and does not take up much space. You can find her sitting with her legs together, tucked in and taking up as little space as she can on a public bench. This same rule doesn’t seem to apply to men, who you may see beside her with legs stretched out and arms draped over the chair.

These rules on space did not ‘just happen’, of course. For a long time girls in school were taught actual ‘deportment’ as a part of their education. Here a few lessons:

–       Girls were taught to walk down the side of a hall, alongside the wall, as boys were to walk down the middle.

–       When you opened the door, you only were to open it as little as possible.

–       There were an array of different feet and hand folds required when sitting so as to make sure that you would not draw attention to the space you were in.

–       Always accept a man’s conversation, but never start one on your own.

Particular manner words such as ‘demure’, ‘modesty’ and ‘seemly’ all happen to only be applicable to women, and they all happen to dictate that women are to be reserved, quiet, taking up as little space as possible and making sure to always be accommodating to men. While I don’t intend to argue what is actually ‘polite’ or not, it is interesting to see how these rules and this ‘polite culture’ manifest in different ways.

Something that accompanies the rules that dictate how a woman can take up space is the commoditisation of her body in order to ‘pay’ for that space that she has been so generously allocated. In one way or another women’s bodies have often been commodified so as to justify and police their presence in the little space they are allowed to take up. As a false criterion, whether this is in marriage, in media or in the workforce, women’s bodies are usually naturalised to reflect a perspective that necessitates our bodies to be of a certain utility in order to exist. We can see this in the way women’s reproductive abilities have been exploited as natural resources and in the way that women’s presence in public or work spaces must be accommodated by facilitating the male gaze. Culture dictates that women should not be met with any understanding as an independent individual if she explains that she doesn’t want children or pushes back against the male gaze or unwanted attention, because it’s just not meant to seem fathomable for a woman to be taking up space anywhere if she is not doing so for the arbitrary benefit of others.

Women’s ‘spaces’ were once restricted to the home, and a woman with ‘manners’ definitely knew her place in this and would not be caught outside occupying space that was not hers. Obviously though, even ‘the home’ was not a space for women in their own right. Women paid for their domestic spaces by ‘being wives’. Once women started entering the work force, the commoditisation of women had to shift. This turn was a turn onto women’s bodies in a new way, and while attention on women’s bodies was obviously not a recent phenomenon, it was definitely a new level of hostility in response to women’s bodies in the new context in which they were now participating. While deportment classes became outdated, there was a new form of communication to take its place to teach women how they should occupy space.

This was around the time that advertising towards women dramatically changed and ideas of ‘beauty’ and ‘diets’ started to evolve in a shocking way. It seems far too coincidental that the patriarchal powered vehicle of advertising began manipulating women to be preoccupied with their weight (to be thin) at the same time that they started entering more space than before. While women are now ‘allowed’ to walk outside, wear business suits and go to meetings, the fabricated necessity for a woman’s body to be of use or disposal to culture is treated as an objective truth, and it means that the space women occupy is still not theirs in their own right. These elements which have been falsely injected into the apparent essence of women’s bodies enable the hateful and judgemental attitudes which result from the beliefs about ‘manners’, ‘space’  and ‘gender’ to go unquestioned. I, for one, would like to think that there’s no ‘women specific’ DNA which physically propels one to walk down the side of a hall, to accommodate unwanted conversation, or fold one’s feet into some demure form of origami.

~ Charlotte Audley-Coote

“Free Yourself, Man – Woman!”

“Free Yourself, Man Woman”
By Samantha Kelly

This article will be featured in the upcoming issue of wom*news: bodies!

The textile world.

That is the phrase used by members of Aquarius to describe the outside world, occupied by the general, non-nudist public. That is, world where everyone is expected by society and required by the law to wear clothing. This is one of the phrases uttered in the conversation between Maureen and I as she steers us toward the camp at Browns Plains.

At this point, I think it’s important to rewind and explain why the hell the readers of a feminist magazine should care about a caravan park half-way to the gold coast occupied by people whose only known common ground is their aversion to clothing.

My interest in naturism spurs from a variety of different sources. The first time I began to think critically about the stigma that is often associated with nudity was at the beginning of 2011 when I began modelling for a life-drawing class. I was living with my Mum in Bribie Island and it was virtually impossible to find a regular job in a town full of family businesses. What I did find however, whilst flicking through the local paper, was an ad seeking amateur models for an amateur drawing class. The work I soon became involved in was extremely casual: about one shift every month or two. But the extra cash on top of my youth allowance wasn’t my only motivation. I felt an inherent contrast between the way these artists viewed the human body and the way it was seen by others. I felt as if this difference existed in two primary ways.

Firstly, because the human body is too often sexualised. Something completely natural has been hijacked by raunch culture. Being nude is naughty. Pornographic. Secondly, because the human body is subject to standards that dictate what is attractive or unattractive. People who fit these narrow criteria are encouraged to expose their flesh on public beaches, on television and in magazines. Those who don’t are mocked and marginalised. The life artists had no interest in perpetuating these ideals. In fact, the group appreciated being able to draw diverse range of men and women with different body shapes. Having figures that were bonier and others that were fleshier, some that were muscular and some that were curvier was a good way to practice drawing real human beings.

I have since moved to South Brisbane and have become less involved in this particular class. But I have learned that two of my friends practice nudism regularly on a clothing-optional beach in Byron Bay.  I have also attended a nude dinner party and have grown more interested in the idea of disassociating nudity from sexuality, and rejecting the concept of an ‘ideal’ body type.

Recently, I discovered the Topfree Equal Rights movement, which overlaps the philosophy underlying naturism and the goals of activists who advocate gender equality. So I decided to further explore the nudist community and set out to answer this question: How compatible is nudism with feminism?

I’d been emailing Maureen throughout the week and we had arranged to meet in the city before heading to Aquarius for the day. On the way to our destination, she revealed a few interesting things about herself. Maureen grew up in New Zealand, where there is no law explicitly forbidding nudity. She recalls that it was much more accepted in this country, and quite common on public beaches. She was secretary of the Naturist Federation Australia until she developed breast cancer, after which she resigned for health reasons. She said that she is “feeling pretty much back to normal now” and “committed to this great lifestyle.” We also discussed the portrayal of beauty in the mainstream media, and the idealisation of certain body types. This was a topic on which we seemed to think in much the same way.

When I asked about nudity outside of Aquarius, she revealed that she’s often naked in her own house. She emphasised that although she believed in accepting nudity, she is always careful to consider others. This is why naturists wear clothing out in public. It is also why, she explained, she would put clothes on if she knew that someone was visiting who was uncomfortable with nudity.

It was a quiet day at Aquarius. Most of the members had plans for Father’s Day.  But I did see a couple playing tennis as Maureen gave me the tour of the grounds. After Maureen ditched the sarong and singlet she’d worn in the car trip, I was the only person clothed. And about twenty minutes afterwards, I undressed as well ¾ mostly because I’m not a fan of standing out.

Almost every caravan in the park was decorated with bumper-stickers or hippy-ish décor. The flags also suggest that quite a number of other members grew up in New Zealand. Sport seemed like a fairly popular thing amongst the community at Aquarius.

Maureen introduced me to her partner Mark, who was preparing tea and coffee. One of the few regular traditions at the club was for everyone to have afternoon tea together on a Sunday. Members took in turns to host the afternoon tea, and this particular week was Maureen and Mark’s. There were usually a large crowd, but because it was Father’s Day, Aquarius was particularly quiet. When the five other club members who weren’t off celebrating with their families showed up, we introduced ourselves and had a good conversation about life, work, study and our mutual dislike for Campbell Newman. Maureen asked me about the Zine I was writing for, at which point I described the women’s collective.

“And is that still a big thing, women’s equality?”

It was apparent to me at this point that Maureen doesn’t identify as a feminist – despite her views about body image mainstream media. But when I began to explain the attitudes and injustices that still exist, I realised that much of what I described was not so evident at Aquarius. The prelevance of scantily clad women in the media, for example, is only a problem when nudity is seen as sexual; and to Maureen, that in itself is a bigger problem. The behavioural expectations also seemed less relevant to a woman owned a motorbike, played a lot of sport, didn’t wear make-up and whose male partner was in the kitchen washing the guests’ dishes.

I am by no means attempting to claim that sexism is entirely a textile-world problem. Many of the other forms of inequalities I mentioned such as equal pay were things that Maureen suggested to be the result of individual women’s choices, rather than a system, which I thoroughly disagree with.

But she did go on to mention other women who embraced the lifestyle as an aspect of their support for gender equality.  The vice-president, Jackie Fuller, wrote on the website for the Australian Nudist Federation:

I would like to encourage more females to join social nudism rather than stay at home behind closed doors. Being a social nudist helps with self esteem, relaxation and builds self confidence.

There is also the Topfree Equal Rights Association (TERA), which is geared toward pointing out the injustice about the lack of legal and social acceptance of women who are topless, as compared to men. Again, it is important to understand that a part of the female body has been deemed taboo, simply because it has been objectified and sexualised by men.

Although TERA like to be recognised as being distinct from naturism, there are a number of members who are also involved in nudist groups.  A common pattern I found amongst many of those from the online TERA discussion group was those who advocated for gender equality, and believed the current state of laws and social norms to be sexist- but didn’t identify with feminism for various different reasons. And yet the small number of younger people I know who embraced the lifestyle are all strongly feminist-identifying.

At this stage, having only been exposed to a small part of this lifestyle, I can’t draw any definite conclusions about it. But I do believe that whilst nudism and feminism may have their differences, they are compatible with one another. That is, that the principles of nudism and the goals of TERA are an excellent way of addressing some of the forms of inequality. 

Later, after the other campers had left, I had the chance to ask Maureen a couple of questions. Since reflecting on the interview and my visit to Aquarius, I’ve been following the TERA discussion group. In future, I’d be interested in seeing how many people who embrace nudism or Topfree Equality do so from a feminist perspective.

The important thing for me is that there can be a positive relationship between these causes and I feel that this is somewhat illustrated in my interview with Maureen. Read on to see what she had to say!

S: How did you discover nudism?

M: My husband saw an ad for the local club… looking for members or people interested in nudism, and it was actually more like a dare. He made some sort of sarcastic remark to me and I was like ‘well, yeah, why not?’  So he said, ‘right then, next Saturday we’re going out to visit.’ So, it was curiosity really.

S: How is nudism perceived in the mainstream of Australia in comparison to other parts of the world?

M: I find Queensland people are really conservative and… are surprised by nudism. Or are probably misinformed, because they’re so conservative that they don’t want to know or find out about it. But then you get people who say ‘I’d love to do that, but I don’t know if I could’. So…. They’re not quite ready to look into it. And in New Zealand it’s not illegal. Like, Queensland and Tasmania are the only states where it is illegal. There are other states where it is legal, but I don’t know how accepted it is.

S: What kind of positive effects do you feel nudism has for the individual?

M: Oh, great because… your forced to learn acceptance, tolerance and respect. And the positive things that come back out of it, is that you get it all back. You know? When I had breast cancer, I had a lot of friends here. And to come back here, when I was off-guard… and really felt… blergh… you know? And sitting here… it didn’t seem to matter. You know? The people here… don’t care. They’re mostly just really genuine people. Because they get to know each other… instead of getting to know what you look like.

S: What kind of effects do you feel nudism could have on society?

M: Well, I think, because of the respect and tolerance… the good thing that it does is promote those things. And, health-wise, too.  I think you become more aware of nature… and of the sun. There’s a lot of active people. I think people feel free here, too.

S: Have you ever been subject to negative reactions from those who might misunderstand social nudism?

M: Oh yes, absolutely. Probably the most shocked people are those who think it’s all to do with sex. People think it’s a big swingers party… and it’s nothing to do with that at all. Or others think we’re all tree-hugging hippies…  which we’re not.

S: What is your opinion on the double standard that exists in relation to the exposure of male chests and that of breasts?

M: Oh, so unfair. Absolutely. I mean, on a hot day… why should we have to tog up… you know? But I do think it would be better again if we could just all wear nothing, too.

S: Do you feel as if the nudist community has a positive attitude toward diversity?

M: Definitely. Because of the many different body shapes. Different races. Genders. All age groups…  although more of my age group, for some reason.  But I definitely think there is diversity here and it would be good to have even more.

I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to become a nudist, or to embrace nudity with open arms. As a person who has had insecurities about my body for my entire life, I know how deep-seated it can be. I know what it’s like to know rationally that you should accept yourself and still fail to do so. To be aware of an ongoing problem and still be damaged by it. However, I think it’s worthwhile to consider nudism and recognise its legitimacy in our society, especially in regards to feminism: because hey, which one of us wouldn’t like to be a part of a community where all genders in their naked form are not ridiculed, sexualised or objectified?
~ Samantha Kelly

August/September News Round Up

Wom*news’ bimonthly news round up of feminist and wom*n-related news, by the fabulous Laura Howden! This news round up will be featured in the upcoming “Bodies” issue of wom*news.

National

  • RU486 has been approved for wide(r) use by Therapeutic Goods Administration. It is now available for prescription by GPs as an option for women seeking termination, subject to the completion of online training. This will be of particular benefit to women living in areas with limited or no access to abortion facilities. Angela Taft, co-ordinator for the Women’s Health Special Interest Group, says the challenge now is to extend education around sexual health and contraception and ultimately, ensure the accessibility of good quality abortion services.
  • #destroythejoint, a feminist public media response to Alan Jones suggestion that women shouldn’t be participating in politics, has gathered considerable support among Australian women and men. Within days of the radio presenter’s now infamous rant, a ‘Destroy the Joint’ facebook page (now hovering at 6500 likes) and change.org petition had been established to put pressure on 2GB Radio and their advertisers.Public twitter feeds have overwhelmingly supported this movement: “Dear 2GB advertisers,” tweets TeineSamoa, “as a woman who’s #destroyingthejoint I’ll be boycotting any and all of your products until Alan Jones is taken off air.”
  • The recent cessation of funding to the ‘Queensland Working Women’s Centre’ by the Queensland government, has since been saved thanks to intervention by the federal government. Campbell Newman’s decision has been described by Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten as “short sighted,” and attributes the decision to save the centre as “the federal government standing up for working women in Queensland.”

International

  • Julian Assange remains in the Ecuadorian Embassy after a successful bid for political asylum, in light of possible extradition to Sweden over alleged sexual offences: including one count of sexual assault and one count of unlawful sexual coercion. He has since commented that “the Swedish government could drop the case… I think this is the most likely scenario,” during an interview conducted inside the embassy.
  • U.S. Republican Senate Nominee Todd Akin’s recent, and highly controversial, statement on “legitimate rape”is not as isolated an incident as one might believe. Paul Ryan, a Republican representative from Wisconsin, framed rape as simply another “method of conception” in an interview just days after Akin’s comments.Conservative Columnist for the National Review, Mona Charen, took it upon herself to defend Akin’s views with a series of left-of-field comments. “[Although it] appears that there is no evidence that pregnancies are less likely in cases of rape… it didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility to me. Many things about the human body are peculiar and amazing.”
  • A collective gathering of 16 women’s social reform groups in the Togo have called for “sex strikes” protesting against the current regime, and recent electoral reforms aiding current president Gnassingbe’s bid to win seats in the upcoming October vote. “Women don’t have a lot of power in Togo, but everybody knows that men rely on us for certain things. This is a powerful way of expression,” said Astou Yabi, one of the protest organisers.

Celebrity

  • Despite the recent jailing of three of its members, over a performance critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian punk group ‘Pussy Riot’ have plans for further protest action. We first of all want to do a new protest finally, so that we have something to talk about,” said two band members, nicknamed ‘Balaclava’ and ‘Tomcat,’ in a radio interview with Russian program Radio Liberty. The members, sentenced to imprisonment, will appeal their sentence on October 1st. Moscow police continue the search for two unidentified band members, who partook in February’s “Punk Prayer” action that led to the subsequent jailing of their three colleagues.

Sport

  • Four female athletes from the University of Sydney have collected, among them,one gold, four silver and two bronze medals in the British 2012 Paralympics. Swimmer Prue Watt qualified fastest for the final race, and subsequently beat that mark again with a time of 1:19.19 to secure gold. Psychology honours student and athletics competitor, Angela Ballard, won silver in the women’s T53 400m; her third medal from the London Games. Sarah Stewart and Katie Hill collected silver medals as part of the Australian Women’s Basketball Team.
  • Jacqueline Freney, a swimmer from Brisbane and competitor in the 2012 London Paralympics, won an incredible 8 gold medals in swimming at the London Paralympic Games. Bravo, Jacqueline!
  • The London 2012 Olympics was the first games in which all nations included women in their contingent of athletes. Winning four gold medals and one bronze, U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin became the most decorated woman of the 2012 Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Committee attributed the success of Ms. Franklin and her fellow national female athletes to Title 9: a 40-year-old federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in American school sports. It was also the first time in history that the U.S. contingent included more women than men.Like the U.S. the majority of medal winners from Russia and China were also women, sparking comments from several journalists that the 2012 London Olympics were “momentous” for the recognition of women’s sporting achievements.
  •  The first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in the Olympic Games, Sarah Attar, says her presence in the London 2012 Olympics could well prove a significant inspiration for women in her conservative home country.

Collective

  • Emma Di Bernardo, Rosie Cuppaidge and Caitlin Gordon-King, on behalf of the UQ and QUT Women’s Collectives, composed and sent a letter to Premier Campbell Newman expressing extreme concern and discontent around his decision to withdraw funding from the ‘Sisters Inside’ initiative. We hope that this will send a message to the Queensland LNP as to the vital nature of this service, for the welfare of women within Australian prison systems
  • The UQ Women’s Collective bake sale held on August the 9th, in honour of Bluestockings Week (celebrating the unsung academic accomplishments of women) was a roaring success! Members of the collective baked a range of vegan, gluten free and all-round delicious baked goods to fundraise for future Collective Events.
  • Johanna Qualmann, Emma Di Bernardo, Charlotte Audley-Coote and Joanna Horton penned a collaborative letter of concern on behalf of the UQ Women’s Collective, regarding several incidences of mistreatment and disrespect by the current UQ Student Union. 

References
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