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Feminism in London conference: sex work, glass ceilings and ‘vulvanomics’

It’s a grey Saturday morning and the lobby of London’s Hilton Metropole hotel is filled with rugby fans wearing matching All Blacks jackets. Projected on to the wall above their heads is a huge line drawing of three vulvas. As 9am comes and goes, they’re surrounded by women (and men, but mostly women) queueing up for their green-and-purple wristbands, chatting about sex trafficking and the glass ceiling. We’re here – more than 1,000 of us – for the annualFeminism in London conference, two days of talks, speeches and workshops.

The conference was founded in 2008 by the London Feminist Network, and, in 2010, Lisa-Marie Taylor attended for the first time. “It changed my life,” she tells me in an email hurriedly written from the back of one of this year’s panels. “It made me want to join the women’s liberation movement. I never dreamed I’d be running it.”

By midday on Saturday, I’m not sure whether my life has changed, but I’ve certainly seen a lot of feminism: I’ve learned about equality and austerity; nearly bought a book of photos of women’s breasts; and heard speeches from Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality party, and Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights organisation Liberty. The conference is full of T-shirts – on sale are “Intersectionality”, “I have Millicent Tendencies”, and “This is what a feminist looks like”. I spot two women wearing “Fuck off, I’m a witch”. The vegetarian buffet hasn’t even opened yet.

Post-lunch, I head to a session for teenagers. The session’s aim is to smash the glass ceiling by developing business skills, and the teens are briefed to pitch a new company or charity to investors. The young women on my table range from 15 to 18, and most came to the conference on their own or with friends, though one came “because Mum wanted to”.

A session on sexist language.
A session on sexist language. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi for the Guardian

For these young women, equality is key: “Let’s make sure our recruitment isn’t ageist,” one notes. “After all, gender is a spectrum,” offers another, as they decide on a store selling ethical, gender-neutral clothes called Unisex. They’re ambitious and punchy with their ideas, but as soon as Gill Owens, the business professor in charge of the session, mentions that setting up a shop can be pricey, they wilt, and start hacking their dreams down to size. In fact, when three teams come to pitch, they all shy away from asking for a specific amount of investment. “I do this with groups of both genders, and it’s completely different,” Owens tells me. “If this room were full of guys, they’d be asking for hundreds of thousands of pounds right off the bat.”

The range of ages and backgrounds is perhaps the best proof of the conference’s success, and Taylor tells me its aim is to bring “more women into the liberation movement”. Cleo, a Londoner who was an activist in the 80s and 90s, says she can see the difference: “The movement is, now, much more diverse, and we’re discussing different things – transgender issues, for example. It makes me feel hopeful.”

A session on men as feminist allies is heated, and nearly turns ugly, despite the benign, warm presence of our chair, Alan O’Neill, from the Men’s Development Network. Somewhat less benignly, he seats all the men in a corner of the room and opens the floor to questions. One audience member, puffing on an e-cigarette, delivers a damning verdict: “Fifty per cent of this planet are walking around completely delusional about their importance. You’re psychotic.” The room explodes in giggles, then boos.

The debate is divided between those who think men should be included and encouraged in the movement, and those who don’t. One young woman says: “I don’t really care how you feel about feminism.”

"Women can do anything."
Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi for the Guardian

What do the men think about all this? One stands up to say that, at registration on Saturday morning, “I felt alienated because we were in such a minority – but I should feel like that more often.”

Afterwards, I speak to him – his name’s Henry, who helps run workshops about gender in schools. “It was daunting, and I felt a little uncomfortable,” he says of the session. “I’ve never been shouted down purely on the grounds of my gender. But I loved everything I heard in there, even if I didn’t agree with it all.” As O’Neill tells us: “This is uncomfortable work. The more uncomfortable you feel, the better you’re doing.”

The conference kicks off again at 9am on Sunday. I start with Vulvanomics, a session on what exactly we should call our … bits. We all groan as the speaker, Professor Emma Rees, reveals that the Oxford English Dictionary defines the clitoris as a kind of inferior penis. “Cunt,” she argues, “is too far gone for us to reclaim now.” Her suggested replacement term is “V” – but, as one audience member points out: “You can’t call it V, Vee is the baddie in Orange is the New Black!” Back to the drawing board.

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Next, a panel discussion on the “abolitionist movement”: the campaign to criminalise the buyers of sex in order to end prostitution. A former sex worker tells the audience that she was “up and down” about coming to FiL: “Much of modern feminism is liberal and anti-abolition. I was glad to see this event took a strong stance in favour of it.”

That stance is outlined in a “position statement” on the FiL website: “We are critical of the sex industry. By this we do not mean that we disapprove of the women involved in it. We are critical of the hypercapitalist and patriarchal industry itself.” The event hashtag is flooded by sex workers and those who are pro-prostitution, angry that the conference did not include them and their voices.

The journalist Jane Fae, who was due to speak about free speech at the conference, pulled out after complaints were made about her views on prostitution. Julie Bindel and Caroline Criado-Perez also pulled out as a result.

The range of ages and backgrounds is perhaps the best proof of the conference’s success.
The range of ages and backgrounds is perhaps the best proof of the conference’s success. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi for the Guardian

In a session on sexist language, we shake our heads over a Peta advertisement where Pamela Anderson’s body is marked “leg”, “breast”, “ribs”, “rump” above the caption: “All animals have the same parts.” One attendee reveals that she once volunteered to lie on a plate naked, slathered in barbeque sauce, for a Peta campaign. “I don’t think it was sexist, and I was happy to do it.” We look at Anderson in a new light.

As Sunday draws to a close, I notice a restlessness among my fellow feminists. It’s hard to escape the fact that all the panel discussions and PowerPoint presentations in the world won’t change society, as long as the debate stays within the off-white walls of the Hilton conference centre. “Events like this are great – but we can talk all we like at conferences,” says Frances Scott, founder ofthe 50:50 Parliament campaign. “Until you actually get power, you’re just pissing into the wind, really.”

As I join the stream of feminists spilling out onto the Edgware Road, I think about a story Shami Chakrabarti told at the start of the conference. Once, after she delivered a long, haranguing speech on human rights abuses, a woman took her aside and said that she’d learned a lot from the speech, “but Martin Luther King never said ‘I have a nightmare’”. After that, Chakrabarti says, “I stopped complaining so much. I started to talk about what we can actually do.”


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