Sex is for joy, not for judgment

Sydney Morning Herald
1 March, 2008

Emily Maguire, the author of Princesses & Pornstars, talks to Ruth Pollard about the sisterhood and being labelled a slut. That Kevin Rudd put only one woman on his 2020 Summit steering committee would have come as no surprise to the 51 per cent of the country who are female. In the past two weeks, Australia's dark underbelly of sexism has revealed itself as alive and well in four of the pillars of our society - politics, employment, sport and religion.

One of country's largest football codes - Australian rules - felt the need to issue a DVD that asks players to consider whether it is OK to watch their mate have sex with his girlfriend, or to have sex with a woman who has had too much to drink or, in an improbable case of mistaken identity, have sex with another player's girlfriend.

Meanwhile, the Pope urged men to respect women's mysterious "feminine genius", and the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirmed - again - that, at $1009, women's average weekly earnings are still significantly less than the average man's $1247 pay packet.

But it is our Prime Minister's extraordinary lapse in judgment in not recognising that symbolically, and practically, it is important to have equal representation of men and women on committees that best illustrates the state of play.

That such things are still happening in 2008 does not shock Emily Maguire. The 31-year-old author and commentator - who admits to believing, once upon a time, that women could do anything - has issued a call to arms to her peers, men and women, to get informed, get organised and get equal.

"There is a widespread belief that the sexual revolution and the women's rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s freed women from the tired old virgin/whore and spinster aunt/glowing housewife archetypes into which we used to be placed according to our sexual behaviour and marital status," Maguire writes in her new book, Princesses & Pornstars, out on Monday.

"If only this were true. While the professional and legal position of women has improved enormously in the last half-century, socially and domestically we have barely progressed at all. We are still judged by how we conform to gendered norms that were already looking tattered in the 1950s."

#Talk to Maguire, or read her impressive body of work, which includes two novels, Taming The Beast and The Gospel According To Luke, and you realise this is a young woman with strong opinions, many of them about sex. In Princesses & Pornstars - a mix of intensely personal stories, interviews and commentary - Maguire is deeply critical of the idea women should be defined by their gender or their sexuality and is scathing of the relentless public shaming of women who enjoy sex.

Along with the gossip magazines and the sexist sports writing, there are the so-called serious opinion pieces that attempt to chart the downfall of the modern world via women's overt sexuality.

In USA Today, Elizabeth Sandoval wrote: "Women are non-self respecting because they willingly sacrifice such an important part of their being for just a few moments of pleasure."

"No, no, no," Maguire responds. "Non-self respecting is thinking that all you deserve is a few moments of pleasure."

Maguire herself describes being known as a slut at her middle-class suburban high school. "When I started being a slut I was 14 years old and was still a virgin. Slut status did not depend on having sex but on people thinking that you did."

Yet there was a flipside to this newly empowering sexuality. It is a complicated issue, and not to allow teenage girls to speak openly about being sexual puts them in danger. "Some of the most dangerous situations I was in was because I felt so ashamed and so on the outer that I would never speak up about anything to do with that part of myself," Maguire says.

"The best thing you can do is acknowledge that many teenagers are sexual - not necessary sexually active, or sexually knowledgeable, but that they are sexual creatures - that is what part of what they are."

In a chapter headed "Your vagina is not like a car", Maguire describes the deeply misogynist views of many male commentators who appear to have trouble accepting that some women like to have lots of lovers.

"Depending on who is doing the comparing, a woman (or more specifically a vagina) is either like a battery (can only be used so many times before it runs out) or a car (value decreases with use)."

Female commentators do not escape her sharp observations either. The attacks of the Herald's Miranda Devine on the behaviour of the pop star Britney Spears and socialite Paris Hilton are revealed for what they are: flawed and fatuous. Devine wrote: "When women treat themselves like sluts, why would men treat them any differently?" Maguire responds: "First of all mutual respect is exactly the point here. Why no chagrin for the male counterparts of Britney and friends?

"Secondly, women who have sex without regard for the sensitivities of this sort of newspaper columnist do not treat themselves like sluts. They treat themselves like adult women who want to have sex."

Describing her feminist awakening, Maguire is frank about the lack of connection she felt to the so-called "women's movement".

"I wouldn't have even described myself as a feminist or thought about feminism at all until I was in my mid 20s, when these things started to hit home, and almost against my will I started to notice things.

"I had really internalised the message, that we are equal, girls can do anything boys can do - and I absolutely believed that."

Maguire married her high school sweetheart at 20, and so far it has been happily ever after. In her experience, men are as affected as women by this deep social conditioning about women's sexuality.

"Men are really hurt by needing to stick to gender stereotypes, but the way things are, they are rewarded by sticking to those roles. They actually like us and care about the women in their lives, and they can change - they can be part of this consciousness raising."

But it is a large consciousness that needs raising if women and girls are to be kept safe from rape and sexual violence. As Maguire notes, women are told if they do not go out alone or get drunk, if they take self-defence classes, don't dress in revealing outfits and don't lead men on, they will protect themselves from rape.

She argues that instead of focusing on women, rape-prevention education should be targeted at boys and men, saying that not a single women has ever caused her own rape.

"Am I arguing that girls and women shouldn't be held responsible for their behaviour? Not at all. If a woman drinks to excess, then falls over in the street, loses her wallet and vomits all over her shirt, she has only herself to blame. But rape is not a consequence of getting drunk. It's a consequence of a man deciding to rape someone."

Eva Cox is chairwoman of the Women's Electoral Lobby and a long-time feminist commentator and sociologist. She says part of the problem for women is that all the visible signs of discrimination against have been removed, leaving behind the insidious, invisible forms of cultural discrimination. And she agrees with Maguire that there is still a double standard for women.

"Culturally there is still a fairly narrow set of assumptions about what women should be, and young girls fall into those traps. They think they have choices but they do not realise how limited their choices can be."

Cox, too, was horrified by the composition of Rudd's 2020 ideas summit steering committee, saying what was most disconcerting was that no one organising it noticed the group was predominantly white, middle-aged and male.

"I hope that this is the last time a government is stupid enough to appoint nine blokes and one woman to represent the future of Australia," she says.

Maguire's commentary is also found on the opinion pages of this newspaper, where she has written on the disenfranchisement of young voters, the treatment of women in the NSW Parliament, and her most controversial piece, on the culpability of the late Pope John Paul II and his condemnation of condom use at the expense of millions of lives taken by HIV.

"I still get hate mail to this day," Maguire admits. Not one to sit on the fence, she acknowledges that on the subject of pornography, she is torn.

While writing Princesses & Pornstars, she visited Australia's biggest online porn emporium and sampled the recommended DVDs - "over seven hours of huge cocks in tight asses, the hardest action, lashings of milky sperm splatter on the faces of beautiful models".

How do women respond to mainstream pornography, given that although it is clearly and overwhelmingly misogynist, many women buy, watch and enjoy it?

Two interviewed for Maguire's book describe it thus: "It's definitely an aphrodisiac but the second you're done it's the most revolting thing."

Alternatives to the mainstream, including films made by Anna Brownfield, a feminist erotic filmmaker, as well as sites such as goodforher.com and SuicideGirls.com (where, despite the name, and its relative tameness, the site shows women who look like they want to be there), prove there are other, better ways of portraying sex.

Essentially, Maguire argues, we must abandon the either/or choice women are forced to make. Not damned whores or God's police, nor princesses and pornstars, just equal amounts of social, economic and political power that enhance, not constrain, women's lives.

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