Sunday, September 12, 2010

Feminist activist Kat Banyard

I was thinking of writing about needing more fun, when I read this article in The Guardian on Kat Banyard, who wrote The Equality Illusion. Fun can wait.

Some quotes:

In some ways, she is a slightly unlikely feminist figurehead. She is modest, mild mannered, quiet, with just a subtle edge of intensity when she speaks. I ask where her incredible drive comes from – the motivation that has led her to pursue full-time feminist activism, without pay, while many of her peers are (often understandably) forging careers based on the size of their salaries. Is she driven by anger? No again. "I think I just like seeing the best in humanity. If you believe in the inherent dignity of people, in justice and human rights, then feminism is for you. It says that rape isn't natural for men, that men aren't inherently violent, and that women aren't just naturally insecure about their bodies and other issues. The best of us is to be found in feminism. I find that hugely inspiring." (It's no surprise, on some level, when Banyard half-jokingly says that Lisa Simpson is her feminist heroine – she does seem to share a prodigious, thoughtful morality with that small, yellow cartoon character.)

In March, Faber published Banyard's book, The Equality Illusion, and she decided to sink the money from her deal into activism. In the book, she lays out the issues facing women – including domestic and sexual violence, the pay gap and abortion rights – and sketches out ways to tackle them. It is a great introduction for anyone who hasn't followed the women's movement closely, and while it is faintly familiar territory to those who have, it is still an enormous achievement, packed with eye-popping and fundamentally depressing statistics. Women own just 1% of the world's land and property; murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the US; each year an estimated 5.1 million women worldwide are left permanently disabled or infertile – and 68,000 die – as a result of unsafe abortion....

There are many other details to make you weep. I knew that it is estimated that tens of thousands of women are raped in the UK each year, and I knew that the rape conviction rate stands at 6.5%. I did not know, as Banyard points out, that "a diversity or vulnerability issue is identified in more than 40% of reported rape cases – mental health or learning disabilities being the most frequent." Not surprisingly, the horrendously low rape conviction rate is even lower in these cases.....

Banyard's interests are broad-based. She isn't content with working on a single issue, but aims to tear down the entire spider's web of sexual inequality. When I ask what most fires her, what she would concentrate on if she could attack only one issue, she slowly, ardently, argues – true to form – for two. The first is the sex industry. She says that in terms of the basic arguments, people generally accept that rape is bad, and that we need more women in power. But ask people about the sex industry, and the arguments are still ongoing. There are continued suggestions that prostitution is just another potentially enjoyable career choice, that pornography has no ill effects whatsoever. "There's so much misinformation about the reality of the sex industry," she says, "what it does to the women involved, what it does to consumers, and what it does to all women in society."....

Banyard points out in her book that the porn industry is now estimated to be worth $97bn (£63bn) a year, "more than the combined revenue of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Yahoo!, eBay, Apple, Netflix and EarthLink". Her concern is that this industry is proliferating unchecked; we have absolutely no idea how a world with so much pornography and prostitution might play out. "We're currently experiencing a level of sexual exploitation which is industrialised," she says, "the scale of which is unparalleled in human history. We don't know exactly what the effects are going to be – we just know that they will be big, and we need to deal with it urgently."

The other issue that Banyard is most passionate about, she says, "is men". She bursts out laughing, then elaborates. She says that the future of feminism "depends on men's engagement – it needs them, and it also helps them . . . Right now, manhood is highly political, it means being in control, often being aggressive, and essentially being dominant over women. Until we change that, we won't end rape, we won't end all sorts of violence and mistreatment. And that level of change can't just be imposed from the outside. Men have to be involved in the process of change."

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