On July 1st, 2001, a Left Labor Conference, was held at the Melbourne Trades Hall. It was meant to provide a speaking forum for 'left Labor activists and their supporters to force progressive reform'. The first session, entitled 'Our Bodies Our Rights', was meant to address issues of civil liberties and free speech. Two of the speakers in this session, Peter Tourney and Maureen Mathews, are members of the Eros Foundation, a lobby group for Australia's $1.2 billion a year sex industry.
Why is Left Labor in bed with mainstream business lobbyists and asking for their opinions on Human Rights, free speech and personal freedom but not including an independent feminist representative to provide a criticism of the sex industry?
Local feminists, both within and outside of the Left Labor, were asking the above question when we saw the email promoting the conference. Many of us emailed or phoned the conference organiser to express our concern at this omission; we also recommended a feminist speaker to be included. In response, he claimed that feminism is merely a 'sectional interest', rather than of 'universal concern'. Furthermore, he viciously attacked us in a public internet newsgroup by describing the feminists who contacted him as 'a tiny group of reactionaries' who have the 'gall' to meddle when 'it's not their bloody conference'.
Despite his cavalier dismissal, the issue of autonomy over women's bodies has long been of central concern to feminists, and it should be of concern to everyone who cares about social justice. As one feminist from Left Labor commented:
I find it both alarming and disappointing that a Labor conference which professes to build a left alternative within Labor, does not have a contemporary feminist view represented. Far from being a "sectional interest", feminist theory has much to say about the ways in which the discourses of both capitalism and socialism serve to perpetuate the status quo and limit the economic and therefore social choices available to people.
Feminism in action
When it became apparent to us that the organiser was adamant in his willful denial of feminist speech, we decided it was time to take action. We wrote a leaflet and contacted local feminists to participate in or support our protest at the conference. Feminists from other countries extended their support and encouragement. It was a wonderful thing to see feminist solidarity in action. Amidst those activities, we had a sense of hope: surely people will realise the inconsistency of the Left not seeking the views of industry bosses on issues of workers' rights, while deeming sex industry lobbyists to be qualified to speak on behalf of women. Surely, we thought, the pornographers' speech is not more important than the lives of women and children harmed by pornography.
On the day of the conference, we met half an hour before the conference began to pass out leaflets to the attendees as they arrived. After that, three of us including myself entered the conference; the plan was to listen to the speakers and then articulate our thoughts during the discussion period.
Jim Cairns, the first speaker, was right-on when he observed that 'Labor works within capitalism'. But when it came to discussing sex and the sex industry, all awareness of power relations seemed to vanish: according to Cairns, human eroticism is intrinsic to human biology and should be completely unrestricted 'free-flowing energy'. Cairns might want to consider that biology itself is a human discourse which is not free from the influences of the socio-political context from which it arises. Those in power often justify their sexual exploitation of those with less power by defensively appealing to their 'natural', biologically determined sexual urges.
Peter Tourney, member of the Eros Foundation, then talked about publishing rights and censorship. But he seemed to be more interested in portraying all anti-pornography perspectives as supporting censorship, right-wing conservatism and religious fundamentalism. As is common with such libertarian arguments, his accusations were not backed with any factually based evidence. He obscured the issue of pornography's harm against women and children (and sometimes men), instead issuing dire threats about the loss of 'free speech' and of 'personal freedom' to engage in sexual expression. While personal freedom is a privilege taken for granted by many middle-class Western white males, the same is not true for women and minority groups for whom personal freedom often depends on protection from abuse. For these groups, social and political equality is a necessary precondition to freedom.
Maureen Mathews, member of the Eros Foundation and Emily's List, as well as the storeowner of Bliss for Women, began by saying that she wished to provide a feminist perspective on the sex industry. As far as we could tell, the central point of her 'feminist' analysis was that women can, and indeed must, fuck their way to social freedom and justice. She showed no awareness that sexuality is fused with male dominance in our society and that this affects the workability of 'liberation through sex'. But in a world where vicious and pervasive sexism intersects with other forms of discrimination (such as racism, classism, homophobia, ageism and many others), anyone who assumes that women can ignore all those issues and blissfully sleep our way to liberation is either politically naive or has another agenda. What is especially dangerous about 'feminist' representatives such as Mathews is that the sex industry will prop her up as their 'feminist speaker' whenever there is a public forum of debate on the sex industry, and members of the general public who are not familiar with feminism will learn about feminism only what the sex industry wants them to learn, thereby discrediting the arguments of actual feminists against pornography.
We did manage to speak a little during the discussion period. (As one of the feminist activists present commented, she felt as though we were in the suffragette movement - literally begging the men to grant us speech.) Heather pointed out the inconsistency of Left Labor in asking representatives of the sex industry to talk about free speech and personal freedom while denying feminists a platform to speak. I rebutted the tired sexual-libertarian sophistry of Tourney's statement that 'sexual repression ... leads to rape and assault', pointing out that pornography itself contributes to the social construction of a particular version of masculinity and sexuality, one which eroticizes male power and dominance, including rape. We also showed a horrific picture of a woman being vaginally and anally raped which was found in an internet porn site, to illustrate that pornography is not all (or even mostly) the fun, liberating experience that the speakers had portrayed. Finally I spoke about the similarities between racism and sexism, and asserted that as a woman of colour, I do not find dominance and subordination to be erotic.
Surprisingly, some audience members applauded. Mathews quickly stepped in to characterise our position as merely based on 'emotion', without addressing the arguments we had made. (I had been choking back tears at the end of my comments.) We left the conference in disgust, feeling betrayed and manipulated by people who should be our political allies.
Our experience demonstrated, once again, that people often wilfully hold onto their ignorance of social reality when that ignorance allows them to maintain and justify their privileges. Doing so is much easier than challenging the status quo.
Furthermore, as an Asian radical lesbian feminist, I was disgusted by how the sexual libertarians and pornographers present at the conference presumed to impose their predominantly Eurocentric, Western ideology and under-standing about sexuality on a multicultural society such as Australia. Sexism is the dehumanisation of women as sexual objects, and racism is a 'flesh-coloured' dildo.
Although we did not attend the rest of the conference, I think the first session speaks volumes about what Left Labor is about: while talking about the evils of capitalism, it invites business entrepreneurs to enlighten us about free speech, personal freedom, and what our political priorities and alliances should be. It purports to give a platform to Left Labor supporters and activists, yet denies the speech of young women activists and of feminists within Left Labor.
In short, Left Labor has decided to be in bed with the sex industry. According to them, that is sufficient lip service to feminism and women's rights.