Summers Sells Sexism

Critical Sisters’ co-founder writes about the partnership between Pornhub and Ann Summers for the New Statesman.

Pre-edited version below:

Pre-packaged sexiness is about as appealing to me as a petrol station sandwich, and a bit like hen parties, I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century.  It didn’t surprise me to learn that the high-street chain was founded by the Gold brothers, not the Gold sisters – there has always been something unconvincing about the ph-balanced ‘femwash’ of the Ann Summers’ brand.  To be fair, the current CEO and around third of the board of directors are female, but shop fronts are still adorned with images of impossibly perfect young women in uncomfortable-looking underwear.

The store claims to be ‘sexy, daring, provocative and naughty’ and somewhat predictably it positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

Sneering aside, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity.  This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The video-sharing website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as ‘illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive’ will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest, rape and paedophilia with of the more easily published film titles including ‘Exploited Teen Asia’ (236 million views) and ‘How to sexually harass your secretary properly’ (10.5 million views.)  When campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: in our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like ‘Teen Vogue’ offer tips to girls on receiving anal sex, and yet advice to men about how to pleasure women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year largely female audiences queued to watch ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ a survey revealed a twenty percent of U.S. women have never masturbated.  It is an odd truth, that in our apparently open society any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal.

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film.  Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be recognised as torture.  Pornography is not only misogynist, the tropes and language are often also racist.  In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?  Classics like Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Niggers’ are widely censored and yet the use of the ‘N-word’ in pornography is protected as if it were a fundamental human right.

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market.  This won’t make me popular, but feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which ‘choices’ are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences.  That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain.

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four in ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme.  For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter.  Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?

From Advocate to Adversary – Speech to Bristol Woman’s Place UK Meeting

On 8th February 2018 Co-Director of Critical Sisters Jo Bartosch was asked to give a talk in Bristol about her ‘peak trans’ moment.  The event was organised by the indefatigable, inimitable and generally awesome Woman’s Place UK. A video can be found here.

Protesters from Sisters (and Siblings) Uncut had vowed to stop the event from taking place, but were unable to find the central Bristol venue…. Below is the transcript of the speech.

Three years ago I wouldn’t have associated with someone who holds the views I have now, and standing here to warn about the threat to women’s rights from trans activism would’ve seemed ludicrous.  I’ve always been an activist and at about the time keyboard warriors Owen Jones and Laurie Penny were sitting the Oxford entrance exam I was camping in fields outside air bases in an attempt to try and stop the military industrial complex.  It is a weird experience to find myself at the receiving end of abuse from people I would have previously thought of as fellow travellers and comrades.

This is a poster I made for a feminist fundraiser.  In it you can see I have made a connection between Caitlyn Jenner and Christabel Pankhurst.  I’m afraid I knew nothing of Jenner aside from being on the cover of Vogue, and this was a crass piece of virtue-signalling.  A feminist friend had the courage to challenge me about this statement, and that’s what first made me start to question the dominant narrative and what I thought I knew about the social and psychological phenomenon of transgenderism.  She simply asked me what was it that made both me and Caitlyn women. Any answer to this question was buried by disgust that she would be so cruel about what I knew to be someone who must have suffered extreme prejudice from being ‘trapped in the wrong body.’  My reaction was so emotional and visceral, I didn’t immediately stop to question either the lack of biological proof or the inherent sexism the underpins the ‘wrong body’ narrative.  Looking back, I can see a certain irony in my defence of the authenticity of Jenner’s womanhood, I was unaware of how I was acting in accordance with my socialisation as a ‘nice girl.’ Nonetheless, she sowed a ‘nasty woman’ seed.

I love this quote about the socialisation of females from Shirley Chisholm, I’ve added it here because I’ve noticed many of the most zealous defenders of trans rights are young women.  I think this speaks volumes about what is expected of girls and women in this society; we are expected to look after the vulnerable.  When we see trans people in the media the narrative is always that of a brave individual battling a hostile world.  Indeed, perhaps at a deeper level it appeals because we recognise how hard it is to navigate a safe passage through man-made structures.  Moreover, there is an undeniable connection between having poor mental health and identifying as the other sex, and because of our socialisation as care-givers, young women are particularly susceptible to the idea that they must protect and champion the rights of this special group.

  1. Sex is sexier than gender:

Before I get stuck in I think it is important to clarify terms. For feminists like me the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ have very distinct meanings. The former refers to biology,(boobs and flaps) the latter to the sexist stereotypes.  For example, I know that as a woman I feel more comfortable facing you all now wearing make-up.  Covering-up my face to look prettier is conforming to my sex-stereotyped socialisation; or my ‘gender.’  In common usage these terms are conflated, which can make it difficult to distinguish between the sex stereotyped role of femininity from the material reality of being born female.

Transgender activists are fond of saying ‘gender isn’t between the legs, it’s in the brain’, feminists know this but ask the question – who put sex stereotypes in the brain? In a world where more than ever girls are taught that their value lies in being appealing to men and pornography normalises male aggression, gender is as inescapable as it is crushing for women and girls.

Transwomen are women?

When trans activists say ‘I’ve always felt like a man/woman’ what are they actually saying?  To suggest that certain interests, ways of thinking or clothing preferences are inherently male or female is limiting and regressive.  In a world without sexist stereotypes there would be no need to trans gender because regardless of what body one happens to be born in, people would understand their interests, clothing and behaviours to be expressions of personality  – not evidence of being born ‘in the wrong body.’

It should be remembered, that despite Theresa May’s bold assertion to Pink News last year that ‘being transgender is not a mental illness’ no evidence exists to support the notion that it is possible to be born into the wrong body.  No-one’s body is ‘wrong.’

When I am asked on questionnaires (as the LP are currently doing) whether I identify as a woman I am insulted.  I do not identify as a woman, I simply am one.  No woman ‘identifies’ into lower pay, into the daily experience of being belittled, harassed or spoken over by men. I do not identify into a one in five chance of being sexually assaulted. I do not identify into a one in five chance of being stalked, or a one in three chance of being in a relationship with a man where I experience domestic violence.  To suggest any woman does should be recognised as the insult it is.

So when well-meaning fools spout nonsense like ‘gender is a spectrum’ they probably think they’re being progressive.  Gender is neither a spectrum nor an identity, it is a hierarchy with men at the top and women the bottom. Moreover, it is the eroticisation of female submission.  I strongly suspect, that when those who have lived their lives benefitting from male privilege come out as ‘transwomen’ and declare that they want to live as women they don’t mean taking on the burden of caring for family members, or indeed, enjoying a weekend of DIY like I do. For many it is about the accoutrements of femininity and men’s perception of the sexual power that women apparently wield.

So how have we got here? There are a of course few people with a rare condition of gender dysphoria, but this does not apply to most of those who declare themselves to be transgender. In fact as of 2015, only 5% of trans-identifying people in the UK had sought medical treatment and only 20% plan to do so in the future.

I’ve chosen these slides here because I think they are quite revealing about male socialisation. Women have suffered a history of being silenced and shamed for speaking about our bodies. Here, two transwomen who have benefitted from a lifetime being socialised as male (one of whom was recently on Woman’s Hour) have assumed the position of experts on womanhood.  As with many transactivists, they are claiming that it is transphobic to equate women’s bodies with womanhood – despite the fact that across the world women are raped, beaten by men, subjected to female genital mutilation, forcible veiling and honour based violence and countless thousands die in childbirth precisely because we inhabit female bodies.  Some aren’t even born before they are discriminated against on the basis of their female biology: in India there are an estimated 63 million missing females due to sex-selective abortion and the cultural preference for boys.  Reducing that to an irrelevance to spare the feelings of those who find the performance of femininity to be liberating is grotesque conceit that can only be entertained by those with the privilege to do so.

Male Pattern Violence does not change with identities:

Regardless of the fact that I had begun to realise that those who claimed to be women might not be, I felt it was only polite to respect the identity of transgender people.  I was aware of the statistics about high suicide rates and was worried that I would exacerbate the suffering of a vulnerable group if I didn’t accept and validate the identities that trans people presented.  What changed my mind was when I began to notice male crimes being reported as committed by females.  It was at about this point that I noticed that my idea of what made someone transgender was out-of-date.  The transgender umbrella, as promoted by the leading LGBT organisations in the UK, includes cross dressers with no distinction between those who dress in women’s clothes for sexual arousal and those who suffer from dysphoria.  As aforementioned, the overwhelming majority of transpeople have not and are not seeking medical treatment.

I have chosen these three pictures as these are all transwomen who are local to the South West.  The first is the convicted rapist Davina Aryton, he (and I make no apologies for not respecting pronouns in this instance) was not sent to a female prison because he doesn’t have a GRC.  The second is Jasmine Hill, a paedophile who was found to have groomed boys online. This was recorded as a crime by a woman.  The final is one you might recognise – that’s Tara Hudson. There was a huge and well publicised campaign to have Tara moved to a women’s prison, Tara is now suing the Home Office after claiming to have suffered harassment while in a male prison.  What didn’t make quite so many headlines is that Tara Hudson was a fully intact biological male, boasting in an advertisement for escort services of his 7 ½” penis.  So, a biological male, a repeat offender who was convicted of a violent crime was moved to a woman’s prison, where it is known that the vast majority of women in prison have suffered at the hands of men.

Just last week there was a slew of hand-wringing articles about Marie Dean, a transwoman without a GRC in a male prison.  Dean currently is on hunger strike in protest at being imprisoned with men.  This was reported in both The Observer and The Guardian, neither of which saw fit to reference that Dean had a history not just of burglary, but of breaking into the rooms of teenage girls in order to masturbate into their underwear.  Dean also had 60 previous convictions including some relating to images of child abuse.  There is already a petition circulating to have this poor, vulnerable transwoman moved.

These are not isolated incidents, statistics clearly demonstrate that male pattern violence does not change with identities.  It is worth bearing in mind that those convicted are always a tiny fraction of the actual numbers committing crime.  When you consider that many transwomen will seek out women-only space to validate their identities the scale of the problem begins to emerge.

This is particularly concerning with regard to prisons as the male estate comprises 95% of the prison population, so even if just a small number of men decided to identify as women this would have a huge impact on women’s prisons.  It was this realisation that really brought it home to me that gender identity is not just a matter on an individual’s internal sense of self – it has real and lasting consequences for society, and in particular for those who are most vulnerable, the women who depend upon single sex services.


Deep down most of us know the truth, that transwomen are men, and transmen are women. In order to spare them discomfort it just seems polite to bury any misgivings and indeed to ignore material reality. Even if I have not convinced you with what I’ve shared this evening, what should make everyone of us here tonight fearful is the way debate is being stifled and censored.  Going back to my opening comments, I am a left-wing, bisexual feminist – not a neo-nazi and yet the venue of the event could not be publicised until the very last minute.

A Stalinist group think is emerging across the left- As a Labour Party member, I know of women in the party who have been suspended for saying nothing more controversial than ‘women do not have penises.’  A friend of mine here tonight is being investigated by the police for making factual comments on twitter that offended a transgender lobby group.  As a journalist, I have lost work and come under pressure to retrospectively change articles I’ve written so as not to offend.  There is a long and shameful history of silencing women and to my mind the transgender movement is a new form of this age old oppression.

I am thankful to have had the opportunity to speak here tonight, and I hope in doing so I have encouraged some of you to have the courage to question and speak up – after that’s what changed my mind.  Finally I want to remind each of you, that we can’t talk about the reality of our sexed bodies as women, sexism itself will become unmentionable.

Fighting Genderism in Politics

On the platform, Angela Eagle issued a rallying cry for women to support one another as a ‘tribe.’ She talked of the men in power who always have one another’s back, and the fight we have as women to be heard in the Labour Party.  A brave politician and proud lesbian who stands against sexism I have always looked up to Angela, weirdly I felt like I knew her.  As she walked from the stage my friend handed her a card from the gender critical feminist group Woman’s Place UK. Angela looked at us as if she’d just been handed a shit-stained parking ticket.  My heart sank and the words she had powerfully spoken on stage instantly became meaningless.  How can she claim to advocate for women, when to her ‘womanhood’ is nothing more than an identity?

Design courtesy of Angela C Wild

Throughout the day at the Labour Women’s Network conference we heard from powerful and inspiring women in the Labour Party. We heard their frustration about how our concerns are minimised, their pain that the party they love makes it impossible to safely report assault by men, about their dismay that ninety years on from universal suffrage the Labour Party still looks and feels male.

It should have been a cathartic experience, listening and sharing the rage of rightfully angry women, but it wasn’t.  Each of the speeches of the panellists were peppered with references to ‘transphobia,’ always in same breath as racism and misogyny.  Interestingly, there were few references to the struggles of the LGB part of the rainbow.

Sitting in a row of women mechanically clapping the statement ‘because all women are women’ had a disturbingly Stalinist feel.  While we were in the hall listening to women’s experience of sexism, in Rochester and Strood CLP a motion was proposed calling for the expulsion of anyone who fails to agree with the statements ‘trans men are men’ and ‘transwomen are women’.  This is effectively a witch-hunt of outspoken women. To combat ‘transphobia’ young men in the party have set-up a spreadsheet with the names of women who signed the petition started by long-standing Labour Activist Jennifer James in a bid to have them removed from the party.

Despite the inclusion of transwoman Emily Brown in a workshop on intersectionality, there was no discussion of the definition of ‘woman’ or ‘man’ or why this might matter, no analysis of how lesbians are increasingly pushed to accept transwomen as sexual partners, no acknowledgement that at a women’s event to discuss sexism it is quite important to recognise ‘sex’ as the axis of oppression.  A gender critical feminist group who tried to give out leaflets had them confiscated by the head of Labour Women’s Network, Liv Bailey.  At about the same time on Twitter, transactivist Munroe Bergdorf was instructing attendees of the women’s march not to wear ‘pussy hats’ as they’re transphobic (a powerful take-down of this raw male entitlement can be read here.)

In a moment of spectacular irony, the Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Deputy Mayor of London complained of how middle class white men in the corridors of power have no understanding of the struggles of transgender people.  I suspect she is blissfully unaware that a fair proportion of the middle aged white men currently passing laws probably spend a good portion of their weekends dressed ‘as women.’  For such men, identifying as female can be the height of sexual pleasure.  The tiny proportion of transsexuals who suffer from gender dysphoria have had their suffering co-opted by a vocal and vicious group of men’s rights activists who fetishize the accoutrements of femininity.  This has left those of us who believe woman is a biological category, not a vague sexy feeling to identify into, politically homeless.  It cut me to see a room full of well-meaning Labour women virtue-signalling away their own legal existence because they thought they were being supportive.

‘Gender Fluid’Banker 

I can’t blame them, in this time of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘preferred pronouns’ any dissent is quashed; most of the women there probably had no idea that a debate is raging at all.  Just before proceedings closed a woman I feel proud to know made an excellent comment – standing tall she reminded a largely hostile room that one hundred years ago every single transwoman would be allowed to vote, because they are of course biologically male.  There was some support, but not enough.

I should thank Labour Women’s Network because I left the conference more determined than ever to make change – and not least because to fight for the rights of women, we need to define ‘woman.’

Open Letter – Stella Creasy

Dear Stella,

After you were elected you said “You have to have the courage of your convictions and the courage to be able to get out there and debate and discuss and listen” and I was inspired.

As we both know, the Labour Party is riddled with brogressives who will occasionally make tick-box statements about equality with no real understanding. The reason I’ve stayed a member is because I have faith that feminists in positions of influence like you will make sure the needs of women are recognised and our rights protected.

As with you now, until three years ago I didn’t see a contradiction between the rights of transgender people and those of women. I trotted out the phrase ‘transwomen are women’ and was confident I was on the ‘right side of history.’ I remember being proud of myself when I made the leaflet below comparing Christabel Pankhurst with Caitlyn Jenner- I was so ‘woke’ I would never have knowingly associated with someone smeared as transphobic.

Nonetheless, deep down I think I knew that there was a contradiction between my aim as a feminist to dismantle harmful gender stereotypes, and my belief that somehow transgender people had an understanding of their gender that existed independently of a sexist society. I pondered on what transwomen did differently when they made the decision to come out and ‘live as authentic women.’ The question of how one could be ‘trapped in the wrong body’ was like a persistent mind itch – surely people should be free not to conform without that being cited as evidence for being transgender? A mismatch between the sex of a brain and body presupposes the brains of women and men differ, but this has been largely disproven. I was scared to acknowledge it, not least because as a woman I am expected to be ‘nice’ and also because the media landscape is saturated with stories of courageous transgender people at the frontier of a civil rights’ crusade. I understand why you reacted as you did at the weekend, transgender people are consistently presented as a vulnerable group and for those of us with a sense of social justice our instinctive reaction when challenged on this is to want to defend a minority. I will attempt to share with you some of what I have learnt since, and some of what changed my mind about the transgender community.

Male Pattern Violence & Identity
I wasn’t particularly surprised when the news broke that Soham murderer Ian Huntley now identifies as ‘Lian.’ Patterns of offending do not change when identities do and as with men- rates of criminality amongst transwomen are are far higher than those of natal women. It is estimated that at present up to half of trans women in prison are sex offenders. It is often argued that these are not ‘genuine’ transgender people and that they are simply opportunist men who want to be transferred to the women’s prison estate. This could be the case, though it poses the question, how can we tell? The leading LGBT organisations make no distinction between ‘transsexual’ and ‘cross-dressing’ people – both now shelter under the ‘transgender umbrella.’ I note you joined the outcry about Worboys, if tomorrow he identified as a woman would it be transphobic not to believe him?

How can we even record male violence accurately, when the crimes of paedophiles like Nicola Florida and Jasmine Hill are now frequently recorded as being committed by women? Categorising by a subjective sense of ‘gender identity’ rather than material reality renders the statistics that underpin policy meaningless and male pattern violence invisible.

Rapist Davina Aryton

Single-Sex facilities

Our foremothers fought for sex-segregated space so that we could take our rightful place in public life. We prefer not to acknowledge why this is necessary, it makes us feel vulnerable and sparks the familiar and defensive #notallmen outrage, outrage that is belied by the everyday #metoo experience of women. In many parts of the world women are still raped because they don’t have access to safe, single sex facilities. Men in the UK are no different, no more ‘civilized’ and being able to challenge their presence in single-sex changing rooms, counselling sessions and hospital wards should be a fundamental and uncontroversial safeguard. Regardless of how an individual identifies, we should feel confident to say ‘no’ to male-bodied or male-socialised people in women-only spaces. To do otherwise is to put an individual’s feelings above the safety of all women.

The standard response, when concerns about women’s rights are raised in relation to gender identity, is that transwomen are disproportionately likely to be victims of violence. It should be noted that the oft quoted “one in twelve trans women are murdered” refers to prostituted transwomen of colour in South America, not white computer programmers in the home counties. In fact thankfully here in the UK transwomen are less likely  to be murdered.

Young women & the pressure to transition
Often it is transwomen who bask in the glare of the media spotlight. The version of ‘womanhood’ as performed by transwomen like Lees and Faye doesn’t resonate with me. Unlike ‘new suffragette’ Lees, I don’t find street harassment a validation of my sexuality. Those who exist in the shadow of every Jenner, Cox and Willoughby are young transmen, the overwhelming majority of whom would otherwise grow up to be lesbian or bisexual. This is a matter close to my heart, as I fear that if I were growing to accept my sexuality in today’s climate I would bear the scars of a double mastectomy, an atrophied vagina and the side-affects of testosterone. A new wave of detransitioned women in their early twenties add credence to this. In a porn-soaked society with rigid sex stereotypes and so few young lesbian role models, I fully understand why so many want to identify out of girlhood. Moreover, young lesbians are routinely advised by sites such as the somewhat ironically named ‘Everyday Feminism’ they are transphobic if they do not consider male bodied transwomen as sexual partners. Gender non-conforming girls are collateral in the battle to affirm the identities of adult and often late-transitioning transwomen.

The #metoo campaign of late 2017 sent shockwaves that were felt from the Houses of Parliament to the houses on every street. The backlash was brutal – shouts of ‘witch hunt’ drowned out the voices of victims and the year closed with calls to protect the anonymity of men accused of rape. As feminists we know that Hollywood stars wearing black will not stop two women in the UK  each week being killed by the men they should be able to trust. That is why we look to women like you, women with the power to affect change.

I know you to be a woman of principle and I trust you to be open-minded enough to consider the points raised. I sincerely hope you will make the time to meet with us and other feminist groups who campaign to ensure that women’s rights are not forgotten in the rush to seem supportive of transgender people. We look forward to your response.

In sisterhood and solidarity,

Critical Sisters