University challenge

Published in The Guardian on 9 February 2007
View the published article here

With the sex industry now targeting students, more and more young women are taking a stand against lads’ mags and lap-dancing clubs. Rachel Bell reports

It was after a trip to see the film, Sin City – in which female characters run the gamut from prostitute to stripper – that Laura Woodhouse became a feminist activist. “I went to see it with four male friends,” she says, “and suddenly the misogyny hit me. I looked around and my friends were all loving it and I felt really shocked and alone. That’s the first time I’ve walked out of a film. I got home and typed ‘feminism’ into a search engine and found the feminist website, the F-word. Then I followed the linksto feminist blogs and read them into the night.”

Shortly afterwards, Woodhouse, 22, became one of the founder members of Sheffield Fems, a feminist group set up at Sheffield University, and largely made up of students. In the group’s short life, they’ve become quite a presence on the feminist circuit, partly due to the remarkable success of their first campaign, which got them coverage in the local press, and an invitation onto Woman’s Hour.

“At our first meeting, the one thing that we all brought up was the mainstreaming of porn-type images and the Playboy bunny, which we’d seen around a lot on children’s products in WHSmith, John Lewis and Claire’s Accessories. So we decided to go with Playboy as our first campaign,” says Woodhouse. They put together a leaflet and hit Sheffield town centre in the Christmas rush. “We got a lot of positive responses from the public,” she says, which the group passed on to the head offices of WHSmith, John Lewis and Claire’s Accessories. Within a few weeks, they received some replies. John Lewis and Claire’s Accessories had both pledged not to order any more Playboy-branded stock. According to Woodhouse though, “WHSmiths sent us the same old thing that they send to everyone, that it’s a popular product and people are allowed to choose, blah, blah, blah”.

Over the past two years, a new wave of feminist groups has been burgeoning across the UK. Like Sheffield Fems, many were formed on campus, although they have since attracted other women too: teenagers, working mothers, and men as well. Groups like Mind the Gap in Cardiff, the London Feminist Network and Warwick Anti Sexist Society (WASS) have been established for a few years now, while Resisters, East Midland Feminists and North West Feminists all got started last autumn.

There have been many triggers for this burst of activity – not least the growing number of feminist blogs, which have helped inspire women like Woodhouse, as well as giving women a place to meet online and mobilise. The student environment also makes it easier to organise. Kat Banyard, a Sheffield graduate who set up the FEM conferences in 2004 (a regular event where feminists can meet, debate and get inspired – more than 200 people attended the last one), thinks that student unions offer people a great opportunity to get involved in activism. “They have society structures and sometimes a women’s officer. They offer meeting rooms and funding. There’s so much potential for people to put their ethics into action”.

Perhaps the biggest trigger for this growing movement though has been the mainstreaming of the porn and sex industries, and, specifically, the way they have begun targeting their products, branding and culture at children and young people, including the student population.

Sex industry-themed club nights have become increasingly common on campus (‘Playboy mansion’ and ‘pimps and whores’ as well as ‘schoolgirl’ nights, where female students who dress as schoolgirls are given free drinks). In Manchester there is now a lap-dance club marketed specifically to Students. Last year Loughborough University student union invited the FHM High Street Honeys Tour for a visit, during which female students were invited onstage to be judged as potential new ‘high street honeys’. (In one ad for the tour, women were pictured in pseudo-lesbian poses, typical of pornography, accompanied by the teaser-line, ‘Want to know how far they’ve really gone with one another?). More recently, Loughborough followed this event with a Nuts Brat Pack Tour in which male students were promised the chance to have their photographs taken with models from Nuts magazine. Warwick and Bath have marketed ‘Uni Babes’ calendars featuring female students in varying states of undress.

Kat Stark, the NUS women’s officer, says that she gets a lot of complaints from people whose student unions are putting on sexist events. “One was planning to get some strippers in and I had lots of emails about the the FHM High Street Honeys tour.” Stark recently managed to halt plans at the University of Bedfordshire to hold a Mr and Miss University UK competition. Has there been a rise in feminists speaking out? “Definitely,” she says. “And once a group gets a stronghold, like Warwick Anti-Sexist Society, there is a snowball effect.”

Warwick Anti Sexist society (WASS) have recently campaigned to stop a ‘Uni Babes’ calendar going ahead. “It’s an FHM-style calendar of ‘Warwick’s sexiest students” says WASS president Lauren Kay, 21. “Just female students, that is.” At York university, third year student, Bronach Kane, led a campaign against a ‘Playboy Mansion’ club night and the advertising of the Pole Exercise society. A poster for the society featured their logo, a naked woman sliding down a pole of coins, which clearly “promoted the idea of women as sexual objects to bought and sold,” says Kane.

North West Feminists are considering an action against the Ohm Bar, advertised as ‘Manchester’s only student lap-dance and nightclub’, which offers student discounts – a topless lapdance is a fiver and there are ‘free pole dancing lessons’ for ‘girls’. Over at Loughborough University, East Midland Feminists (Em Fems) tried to stop the FHM High Street Honeys and The Nuts Tour. Em Fem, Jan, 36, a student at Loughborough with two teenage children notes that there can be huge social pressure for young women to accept these events. These young women “are away from home for the first time,” she points out, “and presented with this as their entertainment.”

Em Fems originally met over the internet as supporters of the pressure group, Object, which campaigns to put publications such as The Sport and lads mags on the top shelf (or, as the NUS suggests, behind the counter). The group’s first ‘action’ was in Leicester city centre, raising awareness about misogyny in lads mags and the extent of porn sold in WHSmiths. Some of them campaign as individuals as well. “I’ll put ‘This is porn, stop sexualising young girls’ stickers on Playboy-branded products, and where lads and men’s mags are displayed under [the heading] ‘lifestyle’ – such as in Tesco – I’ll change the sign to ‘porn'” says Jan. Sheffield Fems’ ‘Turn it Over’ campaign, in which they go into shops and turn over all the lad mags, has also been widely adopted by many feminist groups and individuals.

This pro-active spirit is spreading fast and one individual who is helping to inspire it is recent Lancaster University graduate Charliegrrl, a founder member of both the North West Feminists and anti-porn group, Resisters. Her blog, encourages others to act. “I started noticing the aggressive marketing of lads mags,” she says, “these huge displays as soon as you entered shops. Porn used to be men perving in their bedrooms, something hush hush. Lads mags and the attendant lad culture are normalising not just our objectification, but our harassment. It’s trivialising it, making it something for people to joke about. I set up the site to document my feminist activism.”

Charliegrrl attracted media attention when she staged a protest at the National Labour Conference last year. (Having a blow-up doll featuring the face of Tony Blair may have helped). Joined by men and women from Em Fems, North West Feminists, Object and men from the White Ribbon movement (who oppose male violence against women), she read out editorial from lads mags on a megaphone. This included the phrases, ‘Get your girlfriend to dress like a prostitute’ (Front) and ‘Wanted: UK’s Hottest Virgins. Do you know a lady who is still ‘intact’? (Zoo)’. As Charliegrrl recalls, ‘the policemen present said it was offensive, that if I didn’t stop, they would arrest me, that a little boy passing with his dad had no choice but to listen. That was my point though, that little boys can go and buy these magazines, they’re at the tills with the sweets.’

For many, ‘raunch culture’ is simply the starting point that links a host of feminist issues. Kimberley, one of the women who helped form Em Fems, is 17, and doing her ‘A’ levels. “The issues I’m passionate about,” she says, “are the normalisation of porn, abortion rights . . . and sexual violence. All these things are connected. When me and the other Em Fems were in Leicester raising awareness about lad mags, girls of 12 and 13 came up to me and said the magazines made them uncomfortable.”

Pippa Lewis, 35, a blogger and member of North West Feminists has been spurred along by the stories among her daughter’s peers. “I know a teenager who made her own pole. She’s 14. She went to Carpet World and got one of those huge empty rolls that the carpets are wrapped on and installed it in her bedroom as a pole dancing pole. I know quite a few of them who want boob jobs. You’ve got to be strong enough to realise that looking the way society is telling you to is not the most important thing. A lot of women aren’t though. They’re just not. They haven’t got that support. I’m the only feminist mother I know. It seems to be getting worse, so much more entrenched. That’s why there’s a mini revolution going on. It’s going on underneath everything else, because it has to.”

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