Going to the hard core of the matter: the Transformation of Feminism into Capital

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Sun Jul 20 07:38:38 MDT 2003

(If you liked Stanley Kubrick's last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, check out this
story from The Observer).

A woman's touch

Girls-only strip clubs, porn films directed by women, handbag-friendly
dildos and bedroom toys that are not for the boys... The past five years
have seen an extraordinary shift in power in the sex industry, with women
finally taking a more active role. But is it emancipation? Or just another
twist in their exploitation? Anna Moore meets six sex pioneers

Sunday July 20, 2003
The Observer


In the mid-90s, Julia was one of Sheffield's leading businesswomen,
designing young fashion and selling it to the Far East. She won export
awards, showed Princess Anne around her factory and had tea at Buckingham
Palace. Then in 1997, the Japanese economy collapsed, taking 93 per cent of
her business. She lost her home, her cars and her 11-year relationship (he
was also her business partner), but hung on by her fingernails and decided
the future was sex. In 2000, she launched Gash, a website and shop
specialising in erotica. Regular Gash events include erotic writing
evenings, striptease classes and courses in self-defence. The business has
grown by 40 per cent year on year.


There are women directing and distributing porn (10 years ago Cosmo ran a
campaign against porn, now it tells readers how to make it), women designing
dildos (pretty ones, pink ones, pricey ones, but dildos all the same) and
women running websites. Last November, Emma Jeynes opened a UK branch of
Cake, the New York sex club for women. ('Men have strip clubs, lap-dancing,
massage parlours, what have we got?' asks Emma.) Well, now Cake members can
party away while men dance on their laps and porn is projected on the walls.
If stripping's their thing, they can go on stage and do it themselves. And
on evenings when they fancy something quieter, there are small soirees on
female ejaculation.

'There's a real surge of women entering the sex industry and of sisters
doing it for themselves,' says Julia Gash. 'There's been such a turnaround
in attitudes, and programmes like Sex Tips for Girls and Sex and the City
have been a driving force. Samantha is such an icon. She has made it fun and
cool to be professional and sexual. It's de rigueur to have a vibrator - a
sign of autonomy, a zeitgeist thing. The result is a big bandwagon of women
selling sex while waving the female-friendly banner.'

Naturally, Gash believes her own business goes deeper. It started with the
collapse of her relationship and a trip out to buy a vibrator. 'I'd had
quite a sheltered sex life and knew there was something missing,' she says.
'I went into a licensed sex shop with blacked-out windows, fluorescent
lighting and wall-to-wall porn and came out with a brown paper bag, feeling
I'd committed a crime. It took two weeks to get it out of its packet, and
when I finally found out how good it was, I kept thinking how different the
shopping experience could have been. I realised there must be a whole nation
of women like me out there.'

But isn't this why Ann Summers opened 20 years ago? It has gross sales
forecast for this year of £110m, and 75 per cent of its customers are women.
'Ann Summers is the market leader and they sell a million vibrators a year,
which is great,' says Gash. 'But they also sell sheep willy warmers and
condom earrings and maids' outfits. It's a traditional male agenda, and
British postcard humour. You could go there to buy something sexy and end up
slinking away with something that makes you feel ridiculous.'


Kathryn Hoyle, a true pioneer, who opened Sh!, a women's erotic emporium, in
London's East End 12 years ago, is also worried by the trend. Hoyle, a
former art student, opened Sh! after a depressing experience buying a
vibrator and, for many years, it was a struggle to stay alive. 'I was the
only one working here, I had money in a jar to pay the leckie, and all my
mates came down every Friday to buy something,' says Hoyle, 40. Swept along
by the changing climate, Sh! had its bumper year in 2000 when turnover leapt
by 94 per cent. (This was the year Cosmo ran a feature about masturbation
and Sh! sold 1,000 Rabbits in its first week of issue.) Still, Hoyle is
cautious to embrace the boom.


... the world of porn, which was suddenly made legal under the R18
certificate in the summer of 2000. The result is a brand-new, burgeoning
industry, respectable players setting up companies, all above board and
scrambling to secure a place in what will clearly be a multimillion-pound
market. Anna Span, 31, is one of them. The daughter of a finance director,
she grew up in Kent, then studied fine art and film at (surprise!) Saint
Martins. Now Britain's first woman porn director, she runs a production
company, Easy on the Eye, in the heart of Soho, above a shop up a dark set
of stairs. Span is open and friendly, and very serious about her porn.


At the same time, despite their handsome premises and healthy profit
margins, all the women are constantly fighting the old image of sleaze. 'Men
seem to think I'm sexually available, and some sort of guru who sits on a
vibrator all day thumbing through porn,' says Gash. Kieran knows what she
means. 'People think we drive around in limousines drinking champagne and
having sex in the back. They come to the office expecting to see naked women
and are disappointed to find 10 people sitting at computers.' Telling the
family is another problem: Kieran's mother told people her daughter made
wildlife movies. Mrs Zinn, a ballet teacher, has said she'd rather Shiri
were a chambermaid.

For these women, the rewards are clearly worth it but, Anna Span believes,
the whole of womankind will benefit. 'Men have always been able to choose
whether or not they buy porn, whether they go to a strip club or a shop in
Soho. Whatever they decide, they know that money and effort have been put
into an arena that caters for their sexuality. Until recently, women have
never had that. It's bigger than just sex. It's about saying to a woman that
she as a person is worthy of investment.'


Boynton, however, remains doubtful. 'My concern is that all these changes
are about getting people to part with money. They're top-down changes,
rather than from the bottom up,' she says. 'We see all these new sex stores
and openness as sexual freedom, but our whole culture for women is very
prescriptive. Name one overtly sexual female role model who isn't constantly
pilloried. Think about how they treat Jordan. The idea of a Peter
Stringfellow character for women couldn't exist.'

For too many women, says Boynton, sex is still surrounded by feelings of
confusion, inadequacy and embarrassment. Her recent analysis of the latest
sex articles in women's magazines showed the 50s not far below the surface.
'They were saying things like "Put candles round the bedroom so you won't
look fat" or "Position yourself with your feet behind your back as it hides
your cellulite." Hardly any mention of arousal, desire or pleasure.'

And as a teenage agony aunt, Boynton knows that young women are as
frightened about sex as ever. 'Girls as young as 13 write in saying, "My
boyfriend wants me to give him oral sex. What do I do?" It's clear that she
doesn't want to do it and she's not going to enjoy it, but she still doesn't
feel she has the right to say no. If we want liberation, the changes should
start with sex education. At the moment it's about cross sections of ovaries
and bodies fitting together. It should be about negotiation, and how scary
it is, how to say yes, how to say no, how it feels, whether it hurts. If we
start from there, girls may take charge of their sexuality,' she argues,
then gives a mischievous smile. 'Then perhaps they'll grow up knowing
exactly what to do with a £2,000 dildo.'


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