Saturday 30 September 2017

The Death of a Pornographer

Earlier this summer there was a press flap over R Kelly, the almost forgotten superstar of 90s R&B. Capturing the newswires' attention were allegations he ran a cult, that several young women lived with him, were manipulated by him, and were effectively forced into having sex with him. Sensational news that got the celebrity gossip columns singing not out of concern for the women involved, but because of its salacious character. It was new, eccentric, and entirely icky - the depressing but well-trod story of yet another male celebrity exploiting the differential in wealth and power to use young women for sex. Yet there was an establishment figure who not only did the same, but paraded his sex cult on an internationally syndicated TV show. Eyebrows were rarely raised, let alone questions asked about the character of these relationships. He was instead sometimes celebrated as a trailblazer and, occasionally, a friend of women. I am, of course, talking about the recently deceased Hugh Hefner.

The official blurb and friendly obituaries stylised him as a sexual revolutionary. He stood against censorship and fancied himself a champion of freedom, and indeed he backed reproductive rights for women as well as gay rights. As Christina Cauterucci notes, Hefner funded abortion-related court cases before the landmark Roe v Wade ruling by the US Supreme Court. It also turns out he put money into women's refuges and rape crisis centres, supported civil rights and added his voice to a range of progressive and liberal causes. Yet simultaneously he was opposed to feminism and attacked it from the pages of Playboy. And there is the small matter of the pornography, which puts his progressive creds into question - to put it mildly.

As per many feminist comrades, porn isn't just a bit of harmless fun. It repeats and recycles gendered power relations through the depiction of sexual acts. Or as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin put it in their famed but unsuccessful anti-pornography civil rights ordinance, "we define pornography as the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words, that also includes women dehumanised as sexual objects ...". Porn is therefore an ideology, and like all ideologies it distorts the social world to the advantage of the powers that be. In this case the framing of women in pornographic terms reinforces patriarchal social relations, and therefore benefits men generally. It naturally suits the fraction of capital invested in the porn industry and the various markets that cluster around the exaggeration of gendered difference.

The MacKinnon/Dworkin ordinance goes on to describe the penetration, degradation and abuse of women's bodies which, to be fair, is far from characteristic of Playboy's output. Theirs are "tasteful" spreads of artfully photo shopped bodies entirely consistent with hegemonic feminine body types. Hefner's women were slim without a sliver of cellulite, skin unmarked by blemishes, and hairlessness that left no trace of the means by which this was accomplished. Playboy's women were to be ogled, but its sensibility and aesthetic privileged ornamental display over the explicit content one normally associates with porn. While there is a world of difference between this and the content to be found on PornHub and other tube sites owned by MindGeek, there is less a distance in business terms. The latter was formerly in control of Playboy's website and runs a number of TV stations with Playboy branding. Therefore the memorial decorating of their sites with graphical tributes to Hefner was in equal parts a tribute to the man who made them possible, and in remembrance of a previously close business relationship.

Nevertheless, despite the tame content Hefner has done substantially more to promote pornographic culture than his hardcore brethren. In addition to the magazine and its famed articles and interviews (which include not a few luminaries), the Playboy clubs, the bunny girls, and the merchandising ensured Playboy was something other than a skin magazine: it became a cultural juggernaut. The execrable The Girls Next Door/Girls of the Playboy Mansion wasn't the first product aimed at women, but carried through Playboy's ornamental theme. These were grown women reduced to children, who were required to appear non-threatening and sycophantic to papa Hef, and reinforce the message that women can get by if they submit to Western beauty myths, use their bodies to get ahead and prostrate themselves in front of men. Just like photos in the magazine, their personalities evacuated and transformed "the girls" into simulacra of human beings. As Holly Madison revealed in her excoriating memoir, this is because the young women who passed through the mansion were objects. Hefner wasn't very interested in the people these women were, just what they represented: trophies, lackeys, sex objects. We should not be surprised to find the pornographic imaginary he worked hard to inculcate in others was deeply embedded in his own relations with women.

How then to explain the progressive causes Hefner supported? A case of a guilty conscience and/or a touch of corporate responsibility? As a rule, I believe people should be taken at face value until there are reasons to believe otherwise. Hefner saw himself as a champion of sexual freedom against repression, and it's hardly shocking to observe that he had a material stake in the liberalisation of attitudes. Yet like all liberal takes, there is a blindness to wealth, power and privilege. While it is morally objectionable for rich old men to provide broke young women with bed and board in return for sex, as far as Hefner was concerned the women chose to be with him. This was economic compulsion and the lure of celebrity wrapped up in a toxic gendered mix. As Hefner was not a stupid man, it was not beyond his wit to realise this, it's just that he alternated between periods of not caring because he was living his stunted dreams, and lying to himself about the nature of his behaviour. Hefner is entirely typical of the parasitic class of capital owners vis a vis the myths they tell themselves. Following from this, because the women he patronised and degraded entered their arrangements "freely", he felt it his duty to support the freedom of more women to do the same without "repression" getting in the way - up to and including women as survivors of sexual violence and women wishing to end unwanted pregnancies. A less generous reading might position Hefner as a representative of liberal patriarchy, of wanting to extinguish traditional sexual mores centered on marriage and the family to make more women more sexually available to men. Male sexual supremacy was rewritten away from the right to the body of one's wife to the potential access to the bodies of all women, with the "women's causes" he handed cash to a means of maintaining/rationalising this state of affairs. I think there's merit to both arguments as they locate a consistency and not a paradox in his attitudes to women.

Hefner then was no revolutionary or sexual trailblazer. He contributed to the liberalisation of sexual attitudes, but did not challenge gender dynamics and identities, which is the hallmark of the true revolutionary. Indeed, through his magazine and other Playboy enterprises he promoted a reductive and stilted model of women's gender identity and one that is absolutely centered on a narrow range of female body types. The consequence of this was the inculcation of large numbers of men and women into the acceptance of this as normal and natural, when the logical consequences of his actions were to replace repressive with permissive patriarchal relationships. When we're talking about how Hefner will be remembered, it won't be as a celebrity or a "legend". No, to future generations he's going to be known simply as a pornographer.

Quarter Three By-Election Results 2017

Overall, 89,580 votes were cast over 63 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison see Quarter Two's results here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Q3 2016

* There were four by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were four Independent clashes
**** Others this quarter consisted of A Better Britain - Unionist Party (858), Chase Independent Party (65 and 42), BNP (75), Demos (25), North East Party (80), Save Our Stretton (455), Scottish Libertarian (12 and 12) Yorkshire Party (19 and 37).

Last quarter proved to be pride before the Tory fall, both in terms of declining vote share and the gifting away of council seats while Labour's support continues to strengthen. What is interesting is how polarisation is working out. The LibDems are falling back, UKIP are getting eviscerated and yet life is tickety-boo for the Greens and Independents.

Are we likely to see similar happen next month? Probably.

Friday 29 September 2017

Local Council By-Elections September 2017

This month saw 51,321 votes cast over 32 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. 15(!) council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with August's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Sept 16


* There were three by-elections in Scotland this month
** No by-elections in Wales
*** There were two Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of A Better Britain - Unionist Party (858), Scottish Libertarian (12 and 12), Chase Independent Party (65 and 42), BNP (75), Demos (25), Yorkshire Party (19), Save Our Stretton (455),

And so it goes. While not quite as pronounced this month thanks to decent showings from the SNP, the Greens and the Independents, polarisation is the name of the game as the two main parties remain light years ahead of the rest of the pack - even though the Conservatives suffered a big monthly fall. Just look at the year-on-year figure. Last autumn we were talking about the LibDem surge and now, well, their vote has collapsed back to their "traditional" historic range. And as for UKIP, not the best story to greet their anonymous new leader with.

Yet what does annoy is despite Labour being the largest political party in Europe and the Tories languishing with a reputed hundred thousand members, at least where by-elections are concerned the blues persistently out-organise the reds. They may scrape the barrel for their candidates but it matters they are on the ballot paper more than we are.

For the electoral supergeeks, please find below the outcome of each by-election contest by date.

7th Sept
Barbergh Sudbury South: Lab gain from Con
Cannock Chase Hednesford Green Heath: Lab gain from Con
Cannock Chase Hednesford South: Grn gain from Con
Colchester Shrub End: Con gain from Lib
Croydon South Norwood: Lab hold
East Cambs Ely South: Lib gain from Con
Glasgow City UA Cardonald:  Lab hold
Herefordshire UA Golden Valley South: Ind gain from Con
Lancaster BC Skerton West: Lab hold
Lewes DC Ouse Valley & Ringmer: Grn gain from Con
North Lanarkshire UA Fortissat: Lab gain from Con
Peterborough UA Eye, Thorney & Newborough: Con hold
Staffordshire CC Hednesford & Rawnsley: Con hold
Suffolk CC St Johns: Lab hold

14th Sept
Mid Devon Council, Westexe: Con gain from UKIP
West Dorset DC, Lyme Regis & Charmouth: Ind gain from Con
Trafford MB, Bucklow St Martins: Lab hold

21st Sept
Holmebrook: Lib gain from Lab
Oadby Uplands: Lib gain from Lab
Waveney, Oulton Broad: Con hold

28th Sept
Barnsley MB, Kingstone: Lab hold
Breckland DC, Thetford Priory: Lab gain from Con
Durham UA, Trimdon and Thornley: Lab hold
East Staffordshire BC, Stretton: Con hold
Harlow DC Toddbrook: Lab hold
Harrogate BC Washburn: Con hold
Lancaster City Council, Halton with Aughton: Lab gain from Ind
Northampton BC Eastfield: Lab hold
Northampton BC Nene Valley: Con hold
St Edmundsbury BC Chedburgh: Con hold
St Edmundsbury BC Hundon: Con hold
The Highland UA, Tain and Easter Ross: Ind gain from Lib