Object #2: ‘don’t let CEDAW hit you on the way out’.

I’ve already looked at the ways in which Object’s house style inadvertently reveals a certain dishonesty in their analysis – for instance, by using the word “female” in an attempt to disguise the fact that they’re asking us to treat seven year olds and twenty-seven year olds the same. Obviously, I have a borderline-unhealthy interest in the way seemingly-minor stylistic tics highlight wider problems within an argument (no detail too insignificant! no premise too axiomatic! That would be my battle-cry), but today I’m going to look at the more traditional, meaty kind of dishonesty: Object’s “facts“. This is going to be fun.

In the course of approximately two hundred and twenty words (so great that they can express themselves so well on such a complex issue in such few words. Oh, wait), they mention the United Nations Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) six times (including once as ‘the Committee’. ‘No, Object, slow down! I’m still not sure which committee you mean! Won’t you tell me again?!’). You’d be forgiven for imagining that CEDAW must be really unambiguous on the issue of “objectification”, given it’s apparent centrality to Object’s “facts” – “imagine” being the key word here, since their shoddy referencing makes it very difficult to quickly or easily check up on their sources. Indeed, the only hyperlink provided goes straight to …  the homepage of the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport. Not a specific area, report or policy they want to highlight. Oh no. Just the department itself. Um, thanks?

In fact, despite an attempt to make it appear otherwise (Object: “[CEDAW] … calls on States to take decisive action to tackle objectification – which it links to stereotypes and prejudices based on gender …”), CEDAW barely deals with the media’s portrayal of women (and never uses the word “objectification”). I had to repeatedly cross-check article five of the treaty with Object’s footnotes, because I honestly couldn’t believe that this constituted the meat of their argument – I thought I must have gotten confused and looked at the wrong bit. Here’s what article five looks like:

“States Parties shall take all appropriate measures: (a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women”. (It also has subsection (b) of course, but that’s even less relevant. Though you’re welcome to click on the link I’ve provided and see for yourselves.)

I mean, yeah. Stereotypes. Social and cultural patterns. Sure. I hardly think it’s such a ringing endorsement of the Object world-view that it deserves citing in ‘the facts’ every thirty six words, y’know? It just isn’t a call for “decisive action to tackle objectification”; it’s more like, “stop portraying girls as housewives only”, though really the terms are so vague as to be essentially meaningless. Object are also keen to tell us that in 2008, CEDAW assessed the UK government’s progress and the report card came back with a big sad face for lady-pictures. They don’t provide a link – or a very comprehensive reference – to this, so the best I could find was this thing (pdf), which certainly appears to document some interaction between CEDAW and the UK in 2008.

Under the heading, ‘Stereotypes and Negative Cultural Practices’ (p.7), the 2008 report tells us, “The Committee notes with concern the stereotyped media portrayals of women and of women’s roles in the family and in society, which contribute to women’s disadvantaged position in a number of areas, including in the labour market and in access to decision-making positions, and affect women’s choices in their studies and professions. The Committee also notes the lack of positive media portrayals of ethnic and minority women, elderly women and women with disabilities.” No mention here of “sex object culture”, “sexualisation”, “objectification” or “strippers are bad, you guyz”. Observing that the media portrays women in stereotyped ways is hardly an argument for top-shelfing FHM; CEDAW might just as well be concerned about the lack of women on Have I Got News For You. (And rightly so. I think the UN should intervene.)

Argument by authority is hardly the strongest argument around, even if (as is not the case here) the authority unambiguously agrees with you. (“Sex work is work”, as Jesus said.) But from the number of citations CEDAW gets, you’d think it was some profound ur-text of feminism, possibly offered as a secular alternative to the Bible for women giving evidence in court. In fact, CEDAW is controversially vague: despite its claims to be working towards the eradication of discrimination against women, it makes no clear statement on reproductive justice, allowing countries such as Ireland, Burkina Faso, and Rwanda (pdf), where abortion is illegal, to nonetheless be full signatories. Yay, the rights of women!

There is one afterthought other piece of evidence – I hesitate to say “cited”, because the only hyperlink given is for the government department – but, y’know, impressionistically offered. We’re told that, “The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) has also repeatedly highlighted the sexualisation of women in the media and popular culture as a ‘conducive context’ for violence against women and has called for action to tackle this, in particular via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport”.

I dug up the report they mean (although, given that this has been “repeatedly highlighted”, you’d think they could find more than one. I’m not sure one thing counts as evidence that something has occurred “repeatedly”), and was amused to see Jan Mcleod of the Women’s Support Project thanked in the acknowledgements. (The report in fact notes, “… women in prostitution are poorly served by specialised support services” (p.27). A pity the authors didn’t ask Ms Mcleod a bit more about that.)

Anyway, though, the EVAW report barely mentions “the sexualisation of women in the media”. There’s one bullet-point pertaining to the effect of pornography on teenage relationships, a couple of throw-away remarks indicating that the authors consider “prostitution” to be synonymous with “violence”, and the line “How […] can the public sexualisation of girls and women, including in pornography and its role in legitimising sexual violence and exploitation, be addressed?” (p.31.) Which is fine: the report isn’t really about sexualisation (it’s primarily about service provision), so you’d hardly expect much on “sex object culture”. What I like about this citation is the way it demonstrates the circularity of Object’s mode of argument. The EVAW report authors obviously buy into the Object world-view, but they don’t, y’know, prove it, they just state it as some obvious, already-accepted fact, and move on. Object then cite this report in their ‘facts’ as if “people who agree with me, agree with me” is some kind of meaningful measure of truth – though, um, they don’t think the citation is perhaps so watertight-persuasive as to provide an easy hyperlink. For people so supposedly interested in the quality of the media, their own media is remarkably untransparent in quite sneaky, problematic ways.

Just to remind you, Object is serious beans – or, as they’d put it, “an award-winning human rights organisation”, sponsored by lots of people and organisations who really should know better. (Dear trade unions, the strippers you’re helping to try put out of work? Are your unionised colleagues. Thanks for the solidarity, sex workers won’t forget!) They get a lot of press coverage, from The Guardian newspapers that apparently forget to ask them why the key kernel of their website – and raison d’être – either doesn’t exist, or fails to make much sense.

Y’know, there’s more to come on this. I still haven’t yet looked properly at the FAQs. We sex workers will no doubt stop telling the truth about Object once they stop telling lies about us, is that a deal?

[Edited to add: my previous post on Object gives credit to Moronwatch for doing the research that brought their ‘facts’ down to the pitiable remnant that I’ve looked at, but if you’re coming to this blog newly, you won’t have seen that credit. So. Go look at Moronwatch’s original research, too! There’s a great blogger over there who works as a stripper in London, i.e in the direct line of Object-fire. Read her! In my next (last!) Object post, I’m going to link to a couple of other directly affected sex workers.]

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4 thoughts on “Object #2: ‘don’t let CEDAW hit you on the way out’.

  1. I remember the Unison trade union being heavily involved in the campaign for a ‘nil’ policy, with local councils pressured to ban strip clubs in their areas.

    Before that I wouldn’t have thought that activists who supposedly fight for workers rights would instead be trying to take away people’s jobs. But of course they don’t accept dancing as real work, or acknowledge any sex industry unionisation as legitimate. They see themselves as saving women from exploitation and abuse rather than forcing women into unemployment.

    • It seems like the women’s caucuses have been really hijacked by prohibitionism. Which is frustrating, because sex workers who are trade unionists already have more than enough to contend with in terms of trying to make the industry better, without constantly having to fight a rearguard action against the nil policy/the nordic model/etc. I have a lot of hope that we can turn that around, particularly by building alliances within LGBTQ trade union subgroups, although it has to be said that my current TU activity is hugely hampered by fear of being “outed” … sigh.

  2. Hi

    Thank you for your articles on Object, I too have an interest in them and have linked to your work from my blog at strippingtheillusion.blogspot.co.uk . I look forward to your next piece about them.

    Chasmal

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