Ideological Backlash

Part Two: Strategies for Change

5. Ideological Backlash

The collapse of the women’s movement dealt a blow to the idea of collective struggle against discrimination and oppression. This was reinforced by the move to the right by the former mass workers’ parties such as the Labour Party in Britain and their transformation into open capitalist parties in many countries. This rightward drift took place against the backdrop of the extended economic boom of the 1980s and was given added impetus following the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the subsequent ideological ‘victory’ internationally for the capitalist ‘free market’.

The leaders of the trade unions were also infected by these developments, promoting ‘partnership’ and ‘co-operation’ with the bosses rather than strike action and collective struggle by workers to improve their lot. As we have already seen, these developments led to a rolling back of many of the gains in the workplaces and in the welfare state, which working-class women and men had achieved through struggle.

It could also be argued that this has been accompanied by a rolling back of consciousness towards women’s oppression in general and a re-emergence and growing acceptance of images and behaviour which in the past would have been considered sexist and demeaning. However, this has been a complex and contradictory process which should not be viewed in a crude, one-sided way.

Attitudes towards domestic violence, for example, have undergone a sea change, with most people accepting that it is a crime which should not be tolerated. Unfortunately, while more women than ever before understand that domestic violence is not a private problem which they have to put up with, cuts in public spending undermine their ability to escape violence and abuse.

The ‘new’ sexism

However, in many countries there has been a growth in what has been dubbed ‘the new sexism’, with the revival and widespread use of sex and women’s bodies to advertise a whole range of products from chocolate to toiletries and cars. Pornography, which was once confined to the top shelf of newsagents, has become mainstream – repackaged as ‘lads mags’. High Street lap-dancing clubs, described as the fastest growing sector of the ‘entertainment and leisure industry’, have replaced seedy backstreet strip joints and become ‘respectable’. University students’ unions unashamedly organise beauty contests and even female trade union organisers define prostitution as a ‘lifestyle choice’.

In the past, the women’s and labour movements campaigned with some success to raise awareness of how sexist imagery objectifies and undermines women. By portraying them as body parts rather than thinking whole beings, sexist images strengthen the idea that women are inferior, second-class citizens, thus serving to maintain material inequalities such as unequal and low pay. At the same time, women appear to be sexually available objects for men to control and enjoy which can reinforce sexist harassment and violence against women.

Those who challenge this ‘new’ or ‘retro’ sexism are often branded as prudes, as sexually uptight and lacking a sense of humour. ‘It’s different this time,’ it is argued. Yes, in the past these things would have been sexist and devalued and objectified women. But now they are ‘ironic’, a ‘bit of a laugh’ which the ‘girls’ can join in because they are more empowered and free to display and enjoy their sexuality. So they can laugh at, and join in with, sexist jokes and behaviour, they can frequent lap-dancing clubs and learn to pole dance and they can produce and enjoy pornography without feeling degraded or demeaned.

There is clearly a positive aspect to women being able to freely express their sexuality, to wear what they want, to live their personal lives as they choose, free from the moral shackles and constraints which bound them in the past. But in a capitalist society where institutionalised inequality still exists and where everything, including sex, is reduced to a commodity for sale, this constitutes a very limited and distorted view of sexual ‘liberation’.

It might well be true that a minority of individual, well-paid lap dancers feel empowered and that some women see nothing wrong with joining men in lap-dancing clubs but the dancing still promotes an image of women as objects for men to control. Even if pornographic magazines are edited by females and women themselves buy and get turned on by porn, individual women are still exploited and abused in its production and these images objectify women in general.

It is true that attitudes towards violence against women have in general improved but it is still the case that one woman in four will experience violence from a partner or ex-partner at some time in their lives and one in seven will be raped. Young women are especially vulnerable. Scratch the surface and it becomes clear how imbedded backward ideas still are. Surveys carried out amongst young men and women in Britain have worryingly revealed that a significant minority believe that it is sometimes OK for a man to hit a woman (if she had slept with another man for instance) and, alarmingly, an overwhelming majority believed that girls and women sometimes encourage violence and abuse by the way they dress. Sexist bullying and harassment in schools is widespread with young women routinely called ‘slags’, ‘whores’ and ‘bitches’. Popular culture both reinforces and reflects this and other sexist attitudes and behaviour.

Campaigning against sexism

Because anti-sexism has increasingly become equated with anti-sex, a layer of young women in particular accept and even actively embrace the so-called ‘raunch culture’, and things which would have previously provoked protest and opposition. Others, while feeling uncomfortable, put up with sexism, either because they do not want to be considered prudes or lacking a sense of humour or, as is often the case, because they feel isolated and cannot see a way of fighting back. This has particularly been the case in non-unionised workplaces where women have been subjected to sexual harassment and feel they have no choice but to put up with it or lose their job.

Sexist imagery and behaviour do not just undermine and devalue women, they also undermine the ability of the working class to fight back because of the potential to create disunity between men and women. They should therefore be challenged by the trade unions and workers’ organisations in the workplaces and in society generally. However, campaigns against sexism need to take account of the changes in consciousness which have taken place over recent years, carefully explaining why sexist imagery, comments and behaviour are unacceptable and taking an approach which recognises the class nature of capitalism.

There is a big difference, for example, between objecting to imagery because it is sexually explicit, as the moral right and family values brigade do, and challenging the use of women’s bodies being used to sell products and make a profit. Collective campaigns can help to raise awareness of sexism and the way in which big business dominate and control society. A campaign, for example, to lobby a local council to oppose the granting of a licence for a lap-dancing club could highlight how these clubs serve to perpetuate backward attitudes and beliefs about women while at the same time make enormous profits for the giant ‘entertainment’ companies. This is a very different approach from the moral right who campaign to ban sexually explicit images and ‘immoral’ behaviour, and it is one that we have successfully employed internationally, with campaigns against sexism in schools, against ‘lads’ mags’ and lap-dancing clubs, etc.

There is also a difference between workers collectively campaigning in a workplace to raise awareness and to remove sexist and demeaning images of women, and campaigning for the introduction of legislation to ban these images more widely in society. Censorship can have unintended consequences. Two radical anti-pornography feminists, Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon, campaigned for many years for a ban on material considered ‘harmful to women’. In 1992, a version of the Dworkin/McKinnon definition of pornography was incorporated into the Canadian obscenity law. Within two and a half years over 50% of feminist bookstores had had material confiscated or detained at customs. The main targets were gay and lesbian literature. Books seized by Customs included Weenie-Toons! Women Artists Mock Cocks because of its alleged “degradation of the male penis”.1

The sex ‘industry’

Sex has been a commodity to buy and sell ever since the rise of class society, but it is under the capitalist market system that commodification is all pervasive, as the very words ‘sex industry’ and ‘sex worker’ testify. Sex sells, and selling sex is increasingly becoming acceptable and mainstream big business. So much so, that some jobs in the sex industry have been openly advertised in job centres and there have even been cases in some European countries of women being told to take such jobs or lose their unemployment benefit.

The sex industry itself spans a broad spectrum ranging from the brutal forced trafficking of women as sex slaves and violent pornography to lap dancing clubs and sex chat-lines. Clearly, the degree of exploitation varies between and within different sectors, but all exploit and oppress to some extent the individual women involved and all objectify women in general, reinforcing the unequal power relations which are at the root of violence and abuse.

The sex industry is underpinned by the terrible economic and social conditions which women suffer under capitalism; low pay, poverty, debt, etc., but also abuse – sexual, emotional and physical – all of which are factors in women becoming involved.

Only socialism could lay the basis for the complete eradication of the sex industry by eliminating poverty and the inequalities of power and wealth which exist in capitalist society. But what attitude should be taken to the industry and the women involved in it today? Should socialists and Marxists support the unionisation of sex workers, for example, or the legalisation of prostitution? Both of these are controversial issues which have come to the fore in the recent period.

Unionising sex ‘workers’

As socialists and Marxists we oppose the sex industry and have been involved in successful campaigns to close down lap-dancing and strip clubs or to prevent clubs and pubs from obtaining a licence to be able to introduce this form of ‘entertainment’. We also campaign for an ‘exit route’, including alternative training and employment for women involved in the industry; for a decent minimum wage to end poverty; for student grants and the abolition of tuition fees (many of those involved in the sex industry are students); for decent childcare; increased spending and investment in resources for women who have experienced abuse; more resources for drug rehabilitation (in many countries a majority of street prostitutes are drug users); for safe houses and refuges for women who have been trafficked and against the deportation of these women under asylum laws; and, most importantly, for the creation of mass workers’ parties with a socialist programme for a fundamental transformation of society.

We oppose the sex industry, not the women who are involved in it. As long as the industry exists these women should be entitled to the maximum protection and harm reduction that it is possible to achieve. So, if sex workers want to become unionised we would support their right to do so in order to collectively struggle to reduce some of the exploitation which they face and to make some improvements, however minimal, in their working conditions.

To oppose unionisation would be tantamount to arguing that because these women sell their bodies or because their bodies are a commodity they do not have the right to a safer environment. This is a moral, not a Marxist approach. However, we would oppose those who argue that selling sex is a ‘lifestyle choice’, that the sex industry is the same as any other ‘work’ and that jobs should be freely advertised in job centres, for example. We want to eliminate the sex industry, not legitimise it, but we also believe that the women involved in the industry have the right to organise to minimise the exploitation they face.


We would take a similar approach with regards to the legalising of prostitution. In countries where prostitution is illegal, laws mostly end up criminalising and endangering the women involved, and do nothing to reduce prostitution itself. In Britain, for example, women have been routinely fined for soliciting for sex and consequently sell their bodies again to pay off the fine. Women are often reluctant to report violent crime and abuse for fear of being arrested or deported.

While obviously campaigning against the conditions which force women into prostitution, and for measures which would help them to find a way out, we would also support measures which reduce the violence, exploitation and repression which women involved in prostitution face, whether at the hands of the men who buy sex, the traffickers and pimps who control them, or the state which criminalises them. We would not, however, support legalisation, where prostitution becomes a ‘normal profession’, where women are forced into privately (or more rarely publicly) owned brothels and big business (or local authorities) become pimps making huge profits out of selling women’s bodies, and exploitation and abuse are legitimised.

The beauty industry

In a system based on inequality, hierarchy and exploitation, in which the media, fashion, beauty, sex and leisure ‘industries’ are in the hands of big business, real control by ordinary women and men over what is produced is impossible. Big business will exploit whatever it can to make a profit and will constantly seek to create new markets for its products, latching onto already existing attitudes in society and in turn reinforcing and perpetuating them.

The multi-billion dollar beauty industry promotes and therefore strengthens the notion that the most important thing about women is how they look rather than what they think or do. Women are constantly bombarded with images of an ‘ideal’ which most could never attain. But they spend millions on make-up, skin and hair products, the diet industry, fashion, even cosmetic surgery, in the hope that if they become thinner, more attractive, have a ‘better’ body they will be happier, sexier and more successful in their personal and working lives.

Only a very small percentage of women say they feel happy with their body shape and girls as young as 11 feel that they are too fat and are on a diet. While it is too simplistic to say that media images of women are the cause of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, they are certainly a contributory factor and can delay recovery.

Increasingly, men have also become a target for the beauty, fashion and leisure industries, as the big corporations seek out and artificially create new markets to exploit.

Women’s anxieties about how they look can undermine their self-esteem and self-worth. American author Susan Faludi wrote about a cultural ‘backlash’ against the growing confidence of women, an attempt to put women back ‘in their box’.2 But although it is true that we have witnessed a backlash against many of the economic and social gains which women have achieved, this should not be equated with a big business or ‘patriarchal’ cultural conspiracy to undermine women in order to keep them ‘in their place’. Big business feeds off and maintains women’s anxieties and securities with one aim in mind, the pursuit of profit. Any other consequences are secondary, even though they may have the effect of weakening a ‘backlash’ against their own system.

Rebuilding workers’ organisations as strong vehicles of collective struggle will be essential in the fight against sexism whether ‘new’ or ‘old’. But a vital component of that rebuilding process will be an understanding of how sexism and the cultural oppression of women are part of a wider ideological apparatus which helps to maintain the capitalist system in place, and how challenging them is not peripheral but central to the struggle for an end to all forms of inequality and oppression.

1 Nadine Strossen, Defending Pornography, Abacus, 1995

2 Susan Faludi, Backlash, Vintage, 1991