Counterfire was launched on International Women’s Day. Throughout the website a lot of work has been done to assure the appearance of gender equality and to foreground the women’s struggle. Photographs of picket lines, for example, carefully show as many or more female workers than male ones. This sounds like PR nonsense but it is important: to develop as a socialist feminist entity in action as well as name, Counterfire, like all of us, must guard against the possibility of misinterpretation.
This launch-day effort to highlight women’s rights included a front-page story by women’s editor and SOAS student union women’s officer Elly Badcock under the headline, “Pyjamas don’t harm us but lads’ mags do”.
The story was a report on a demonstration that Badcock had been part of at Tesco King’s Cross on Friday 26 February. A group of student feminist activists went to the superstore in their pyjamas, in protest at the fact that it is now against store policy to admit customers in their nightwear.
The demonstration was called by the high-profile feminist organisation Object, and intended to highlight the perceived hypocrisy of banning pyjamas in a store where lads’ mags showing pictures that objectify women are readily available.
Now, the idea that there is a specific hypocrisy at play here is quite hard to grasp. Object’s angle is that pyjamas were banned as they may cause offence to customers, and that Object activists are offended by lads’ mags, so Tesco managers should ban those too. This is not a logical position to take; the question of lads’ mags and of wearing one’s pyjamas in public are entirely different, and Object’s decision to take this opportunity to flaunt their anti-objectification position doesn’t make sense.
Or, it wouldn’t make sense without a clear reason why a pyjama ban is an attack on women. Because it is mostly likely to be women who go to the supermarket in their pyjamas? Because it is not the place of Tesco managers to dictate what women should wear?
This is alright as far as it goes; however neither Object nor Elly Badcock offer any statistics on the sex or gender of those who wear their pyjamas in public. The only conclusive reason for assuming that the new regulation is an attack against women is that in the eyes of Object everything is an attack against women!
In Badcock’s article, she quotes fellow Counterfire activist Clare Solomon saying: “This is clearly a class issue. The ban was sparked because working-class mothers turned up in pyjamas; if they had been wearing designer ones it would have been a totally different story.”
Apparently the major impetus behind this class analysis of the Tesco ban is that in Liverpool, there is a strong counter-cultural tendency among working-class women to wear pyjamas outside as a statement about reclaiming leisure time. Indeed, Badcock notes (in personal correspondence, notably not in the online piece) that in Tesco outlets in Liverpool, warm pyjamas are sold for precisely that purpose. At last! Some form of hypocrisy on Tesco’s part now becomes clear.
Solomon’s statement still doesn’t make sense, however: designer nightwear could hardly be considered more suitable for public consumption, given its tendency to resemble lingerie. Surely Christopher Robin-esque comfortable striped flannels are far more “respectable”.
The assertion that there is a class element to Tesco’s ban may have some grounds for support, but that grounds is not to be found in Badcock’s article or in Solomon’s assertion, both of which seem to fall into the overall Object modus operandi of deciding to make a statement around a specific issue, and then shoe-horning the reasoning in later, no matter how ridiculous, no matter how made up.
As an organisation, Object is manipulative, dishonest and anti-sex. I have heard an Object activist accuse a sex worker of condoning rape by having sex for money, going on to say, “rape is part of the job description” (Anarchist Bookfair 2009). This statement is not only personally offensive; it is also an attack on workers’ rights. It is a line of arguement that Object made their niche during the debates leading up to the passing of the Policing and Crime Act in September last year. This is the law which criminalises the purchase of sex in certain circumstances and, overall, takes self-control and self-protection out of sex workers’ hands, forcing them, and particularly the precarious migrant section of the workforce, into ever more dangerous conditions.
Counterfire is very new; whether it is to be a campaign, an organisation or nothing more than a website is not clear at present. Overall, the focus on the women’s struggle as part of the fight for socialism is to be commended. Indeed, even the participation in the pyjama demonstration may have begun for the right reasons, but this logic was not drawn out clearly in the way that the action was reported. In order to clarify its position as a socialist-feminist endeavour, however, it is imperative that they climb out of bed with Object at the earliest possible opportunity.
There is nothing wrong with disliking the manner in which female objectification permeates society. But there is also nothing wrong with a woman choosing to use her body for money either, if it is her own free choice to do so. The battle against a disproportionate representation of women as sex objects in our culture should be fought by working with women in the sex and advertising industries to organise against their exploitation as workers — not by graffiti-ing and tearing down pictures of naked women wherever they occur, or staging opportunist demonstrations which have little substance or logic to them.