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What #slanegirl tells us about language and feminism

I know, it feels like it’s been a long week.

Apparently, the promise of Jane Austen appearing on banknotes was a victory for feminism. In our comments over the last few days there been lots of appearances from people who are remarkably unchanged in their attitudes and outlook despite this towering victory for feminism. All the old tropes and memes appear in full form, including the one that epitomizes slut-shaming in all its hypocrisy, the porno put-down. The only place I’ve ever heard anyone called a cum dump is in porn; for a pillar of assumed moral rectitude to use that term is to reveal exactly what you’re watching even as you condemn those who would enjoy it in real life.

However, this isn’t a post about the feckwittery of some men, or about the ambivalent relationship of some women to female agency in sexual diversity. Rather, it’s about the things we can divine from feminist responses to the original post by Jem.

Actually, I need to be careful here. Lots of feminists have responded to Jem’s post, and she is herself a feminist, and she’s had a huge degree of support. One post, however, caught my eye as an example of a type of feminist response, albeit an outlier, which had me pondering what a feminist political compass would look like, and what that would mean for feminist debates.

Louise Pennington responded to Jem’s post with a blogpost of her own. It’s heavy going in places, but also hugely revealing as to where she’d be on the feminist political compass in terms of the authoritarian / libertarian axis. And yes, I know that the original political compass questionnaire was deeply flawed, but bear with me, because the idea of political location being multi-dimensional is incredibly useful, and has a certain congruence with intersectionality.

So, here’s the Louise Pennington view of the world.

She doesn’t want to look too closely at the details, but goes on in great detail about certain aspects of what she believed happened. Unlike her, I’m going to cite evidence. She says

I do not know the exact details since it’s hard to shift through the rumours, of which there are many, and I do not want to accidentally come across the images.” OK, it is traditional for some women to hold their noses and ignore what causes the bad smells, but if you do insist on not knowing the details there’s a rather large methodological problem if you then asserting that something is or isn’t a crime. For instance, Louise says

The fact that the photos are of a teenage girl makes this crime child sexual abuse since a teenager cannot legally consent to sex with an adult

Let’s unpick that a little further. The picures were taken in Ireland, where the age of consent is seventeen, so lots of teenagers in Ireland can consent to sex, lawfully. The rule in Ireland, as I understand it, is the same as in England and Wales, that consent is not possible if you’re under age – it’s not simply, as Louise says, that a child can’t consent to sex with an adult – they can’t consent to sex with anyone, irrespective of age.

So, we’ve established Louise is no lover of detail, and no lawyer.

What about Louise’s view of the world? Well, there’s a pretty clear warning in the first paragraph.

I do believe that photographing anyone without their consent is wrong: I don’t care if this is a child skipping in puddles, a celebrity picking their nose or Prince Harry naked. Taking photos without consent and then distributing them is unacceptable and feeds into bullying culture, particularly since most of the images shared without consent are of people in embarrassing situations.

Now, better lawyers than me, of which there are many will remember with amusement the case of Lord Bernstein vs Skyviews. Ostensibly it’s a case about land law, but it also touches on this issue about what you can photograph. According to Louise it is wrong to take a photo of someone without their consent. Imagine what that would do to the TV news coverage of the Pope doing a walkabout in Glasgow, or the Queen in London. You’d need the consent of everyone present in order to show that footage.

I know the point Louise is trying to make, but she’s taken a key moral issue, about our responsibility for not misusing images we take, and turned it into a general proposition that is manifestly unworkable. In Louise’s world, for me to take a picture of my bairn’s university graduation, I’d need to get a signed consent from everyone who might be in the back of the shot and to promise not to laugh at Mrs Miggins bonnet lest I be accused of bullying.

Incidentally, in case you think I’m guilty of being cruel to Louise by highlighting the shallowness of her thinking, I’m not doing that at all. I’m trying to lead you, dear reader, to an understanding of where an authoritarian mindset takes you.

Louise is authoritarian. No doubt about that. She’s an absolutist, in the legal sense, too. How do I know that? Here’s what she says about the #slanegirl pictures.

Every single person who has shared or retweeted these images has committed sexual violence. The people who first put the images online deserve to be prosecuted, as does every single  person who has shared them including the people who claimed to be sharing them to demonstrate their “moral outrage” at the images being placed online. 

I hope every single person who has helped to repeatedly sexually violate this young girl gets prosecuted and ends up with a criminal record.

No mention of mens rea there; no exploration of the cultural factors that might lead young men and women to slut shame without considering the moral complexity of it all. Every one of them is a criminal, and must be criminalized, with all the consequences that implies. If I thought she’d get the point, I’d send Louise Pennington a link to Frank Dikotter’s book about Mao ‘The Tragedy of Liberation.’


Take a look, too, at the attitudes implicit in Louise’s cavalier approach to the details. According to Louise
Suggesting that adult men using the body of a teenage girl for their sexual gratification is something we should celebrate as an example of female sexual desire completely decontextualises sexual violence.

In a few weeks it will be Freshers Week. More than a few teenage females, all of them over the age of consent, will enjoy sex with males, or females, or possibly both, of the same age. Those females, if you accept Louise’s value laden language, will be victims of sexual violence. Teenage girls. Adult males. Two eighteen year olds giggling and fumbling their way to an understanding of their own sexuality, or gloriously revelling in pleasure and freedom from parental scrutiny. * Language is a funny thing, but it’s incredibly revealing about Louise. Whether those girls like it or not, Louise will reduce them to victim status, because they are teenage girls who can only be sexually violated as their bodies are used for male gratification.

Incidentally, Louise would do well to read this article; if it is true, then the sex act was legal from the point of view of consent in the RoI, unless intoxication is a factor and the males involved knew of the degree of intoxication so that it voided consent, and the images are not indecent per se in the RoI, although they undoubtedly are in the UK.

All of this of course is just preamble. It’s preamble to an important denouement. Louise decides to take issue with Jem’s post about #slanegirl. So it’s important that I set out the background, that Louise is a shallow authoritarian who doesn’t shy away from leaping to conclusions. She says, of Jem, in a footnote

This particular blogger has an obsession with radical feminism and has been caught on numerous occasions making outright lies about radical feminist theory.

Louise doesn’t produce a shred of evidence to support that assertion; it is enough apparently, that she makes it for it to be true. She is, after all, a member of the Mumsnet blogging network. Now, if Louise then went on to a careful philosophical dissection of what Jem said, you could excuse the ad hominem attack as being just bad form by a master rhetorician engaged in a polemic.


But that’s not the case. Instead, Louise, who did not want to know all the details, goes on to say

current media reports put the young girl below the age of consent which would make this a story of child sexual abuse. It doesn’t matter if the young girl was an active participant, the fact that adult men were involved makes this a crime. The Irish Independent is also suggesting that the young girl was sexually assaulted at the concert in an attack separate to that which is seen in the photos uploaded. This is a story of the sexual violation of a young girl.

Tellingly, Louise does not link to the current media reports she relied upon. I have – see the link above. Louise does not think such things are important. I do, even though I’ve added a significant caveat about not relying absolutely on one report. Method matters if debate is to rise above the level of the Daily Mail comments thread.


There is a point to all of this. I am no feminist. I am an ally to some feminists, and an intrigued observer of some of the debates about what feminism is, and isn’t. I know this, however. If feminism gives house room to shallow authoritarians with a cavalier attitude to facts and details, and who dismiss others contributions to debates in a high handed way that reeks of assumed privilege and self righteous indignation, it will stagnate and fail.

*As an ex SU welfare officer I know full well that for some women, and a few men, freshers week actually isn’t like that. I don’t know of anyone who’s had a bad experience of freshers week who would be helped by being told that that’s how men are,or that adult males sexually violate teenage girls in every case. Especially in cases where rape is preceded by an acquaintance with the rapist, the most help is offered to the victim, in my experience, by reassuring them that they have an absolute right to expect that any sex will be the subject of fully informed consent, and that they are not a bad person to desire or wish for that, or for sex.


3 comments on “What #slanegirl tells us about language and feminism

  1. Pingback: Our contempt for those who court publicity | Sometimes, it's just a cigar

  2. Pingback: Review of the week: Its all about sex baby. | Sometimes, it's just a cigar

  3. Pingback: Why #SlaneGirl is a Sign of the Times, and Not in the Way You Think |

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This entry was posted on August 23, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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