Annabel Chong – Can a Porn Star be a Feminist Icon?

As I’m currently in Singapore on vacation, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about someone who is possibly the most controversial woman in Singapore’s history. Or perhaps controversial is the wrong word; after all, to qualify as being controversial, one has to have generated some difference of opinion. ‘Infamous’ might be a better word, but I’d like to make her a little more controversial today.

Though I live and work in London, I spent a good part of my youth in Singapore, and growing up we all knew who Annabel Chong was. High-achieving school girl-turned-record breaking porn star, her name was bandied about as a joke, a disappointment, a warning to young girls everywhere. To agree with her actions or attempt to discuss them was to invite shock, outrage, and ridicule (especially when talking to one’s parents, as I found out).

For those who do not know Annabel, it’s the stage name of the porn actress who set a world record by engaging in 251 sex acts with more than 70 men, within 10 hours. You can imagine the kind of things that are said about her in her conservative hometown.

But what I find fascinating about Annabel is how she entered the porn industry with a sense of – one could call it – youthful idealism. She holds a degree in Gender Studies, and in the film ‘Sex – The Annabel Chong Story’, she speaks of her motives:

“[I wanted to challenge] the notion of women as passive sex objects…We’re not wilting violets, we’re not victims, for Christ’s sake. Female sexuality is as aggressive as male sexuality. I wanted to take on the role of the stud. The more [partners], the better.”

Unfortunately, the porn industry, and her audience, did not agree. Rather than portraying it the way Annabel wanted, with her as the ‘stud’, having her way with lots of men, the film is called ‘The World’s Biggest Gang Bang’, which is defined as ‘the successive rape of one person by a group of other people.” And it did seem like a gang bang too. Protection was not ensured, and Annabel was passed around from man to man, without power or agency of her own. Far from being a woman on the prowl, she was cast as a victim, a slut, doomed to be the butt of endless jokes and ridicule. She wasn’t even paid.

Something else that complicates the idea of Annabel as a strong feminist figure is her own disturbed emotional state, which renders her actions rather more complex. A victim of an actual gang bang in her youth, she has suffered from bouts of depression, has self-harmed, and has said in an interview that she wished to feel like a piece of meat. In 2003, she turned away from the porn industry entirely, leaving a final message on her website – “Annabel is dead.” She now leads a quiet life as a web developer, and it seems that all the negative publicity, prejudice and societal condemnation has broken her already fragile fighting spirit, and she’s washed her hands of the whole business.

Annabel’s motives were admirable. Her actions led to failure and disaster because the world was not ready for them. No one seemed to understand, or if they did, they refused to acknowledge it. Certainly not the producers, directors, or the 70 men in the film. Certainly not her audience, and certainly not her countrymen. I look upon her as a brave martyr, and while she may be no Germaine Greer or Simone de Beauvoir, if she’s woken some people up to the horrific inequalities and double standards that exist in society, as well as the routine exploitation of women, then that sure as hell counts for something, doesn’t it?

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Parental Leave in the UK – A Step Forward

In my first year at university, I came across a career magazine, in one of those information packs designed to provide graduates with advice about their future career choices. An article caught my eye – “The 20 Best Companies for Women”. Intrigued, I had a look. One thing was clear, a key element of the criteria used to choose these companies was maternity policies. Jaguar and Land Rover were mentioned, where women were offered an entire year off, on full pay. Accenture offered nine months maternity leave on full pay, with attractive benefits to entice women to return to the company after their leave was up. Such policies were hailed as a blessing for working women, the perfect way for them to combine their careers with having a family.

This was just over four years ago, and though I was only a budding feminist then, something niggled at me. Why is it assumed that women are the ones who have primary responsibility of the family? And surely, the more attractive your maternity package seems to you, the more unattractive you seem to your employer. Guess who’s going to own the important project that requires long-term commitment? I can tell you who it won’t be – the pregnant employee, that’s who. Or even the potentially pregnant employee.

When I found out about the law regarding paternity leave, I was flabbergasted. Across the UK, women are entitled to a total of 52 weeks of maternity leave, some of which may be unpaid. Men are entitled to merely 2. Two! That’s hardly time enough for a relaxing holiday, let alone looking after and bonding with your child, and caring for your partner, who is recovering from delivery. It also removes all choice from the relationship. The mother has to take on the role of primary caregiver, and the father has to don the suit of the breadwinner; it makes too much economic sense for a family to choose otherwise. And that reinforces the familiar pattern – the woman is the victim of unofficial prejudice at work before birth, stagnates in her position during maternity leave, realizes that her job earns less than her husband’s when she returns, and eventually drops out of the workforce. The man is forced back into work, becomes the sole provider of his family, loses the chance to foster a strong bond with his child, and earns the stereotype of being the less caring parent. It’s all too predictable.

Which is why this article from the BBC fills me with delight.

Finally, a choice! Of course, this is just a first step towards a long and potentially difficult change, but it’s definitely worth celebrating. I do understand employers’ concerns though, that completely ad-hoc parental leave-taking would wreak havoc on management strategies, with no ability to plan for these sudden absences. I have a rudimentary proposal (if you’re listening, Nick Clegg) which is this:

1. So there is a maximum of one year’s parental leave.

2. It is the employee’s responsibility to let his/her company know once they become aware that a child is on the way.

3. During this time, the couple decides how the leave will be split. 50/50? 70/30? 60/40? 100/0? Whichever they choose, the leave has to be taken as a chunk, not split into little chunks.

4. The couple informs their respective employers of their plans, which has to be confirmed x number of weeks in advance, to enable the company to make the necessary arrangements.

Sounds perfect in an ideal world. I suspect though, that despite such purely egalitarian rules, deeply embedded cultural prejudices will still result in women taking much more leave off than men, which makes Clegg’s “use it or lose it” blocks of leave especially reserved for fathers rather appealing.

I guess I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled in 2015. At the moment, I just have a smile on my face.

On Comment Moderation

Before starting up my blog, I had a look around the internet for other blogs about feminism, and searched for tips to start up a successful blog. Something that caught my eye and set me thinking was the common recommendation to moderate comments. The likelihood of a feminist discussion attracting sexist trolls is high, the advice acknowledges, and many people find it best to remove such offensive behaviour from their sites.

I’ve been lucky – so far I’ve met with nothing but support, kind words from fellow feminists that have buoyed me up and inspired me to keep writing, to keep fighting. But I cannot help but wonder, if I were to one day receive an offensive, misogynistic comment, full of violence and threats (and I’m sure everyone’s seen these before), what should I do? Delete it? Leave it up? Respond to it?

Let’s dismiss the last option straightaway. If an individual can read a thoughtfully-written, sensible feminist blog, and still think it appropriate to threaten the author with rape, I doubt an argument with him would do much good. So let’s consider the other two options – deleting it, or leaving it on the site.

I can definitely see the benefits of disallowing it straightaway. After all, feminist blogs should be areas of support, where women rally round to vent their frustrations and articulate their hopes. We get so little support in real life that online support is vital. Allowing vile comments to parade about on my blog feels like a violation, a discouraging slap in the face. And it won’t be just me who is affected, others who read my blog (if they support the cause) will receive an indirect threat as well. If a budding feminist were to stumble upon my blog, I want her to find support, to be empowered. Seeing men hurling abuse may well discourage her from speaking out for herself in the same manner.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that deleting these nasty comments will only serve to further cultivate one of the biggest problems of combatting sexism today. And that’s the fact that most people do not believe sexism exists. With clear-sighted feminists on one end and unapologetic misogynists on the other, it is the people in the middle of the spectrum that we need to reach out to if we want to see change. And how can we convince them that sexism is a problem if we painstakingly hide away all evidence of it?

It isn’t an easy decision. I would be curious to know the thoughts of bloggers more experienced than I am – there may be an aspect of the problem that I’m missing. But for now, I’m leaning towards fearlessly displaying sexism in all its nakedness, and showing the world exactly why I am a feminist.

“But What About Men’s Rights?”

In any discussion about feminism, this question is bound to come up sooner or later.

“Figures for gender proportions in domestic abuse are wrong, because men don’t report rape and abuse.”
“There are hardly any support groups out there for male sufferers. They are disbelieved or ridiculed.”
“Girls have it easy. You can wear dresses or jeans, play with dolls or trucks, but if a boy doesn’t like sports or loves dressing up people call him gay.”
“People think lesbians are hot, but gay men are laughed at.”

And so on. What strikes me though, is that these people always seem to think that these are counter-arguments to feminism. The way they see it, it’s women’s rights on one side, men’s rights on the other. But this simply isn’t the case at all. What they don’t realise is that we are all fighting the same enemy, namely, a society that values men over women, masculinity over femininity.

We see it everywhere. I do a form of boxing called Muay Thai, and over the years, I have had many ‘compliments’ that run along the lines of, “You fight like a man.” Sometimes, I let it go. Men are indeed generally stronger, it is true, so I’ll reluctantly let that pass. More often than not, though, they specify that they aren’t referring to strength, but my attitude when fighting. Why thank you, thank you very much, mister.
For a man, on the other hand, the worst insult he can possibly receive is to be called a woman. In Secondary school, when a male schoolmate was complimented by the teacher on his sewing skills in class, the general reaction was sniggering, and he was extremely embarrassed. Imagine that–embarrassment at having a talent, just because it was seen as a female skill! Men behaving like women is a running joke in popular culture – in “Friends”, the competitive Monica frequently refers to the underachieving Chandler as a girl, and men dressing up as women is always a source of hilarity, and a form of humiliation in certain sexual activities. It is no surprise that it is men who are usually far more homophobic than women. It is my belief that homophobia is mainly the anger that men feel towards other men for sullying male power by acting as a woman might. They mock them, believing them to be undeserving of the male body, the male identity, and that they are shaming themselves and men in general.

Ironically, this sexism towards women has negative consequences for men. Because men have to conform to a narrow definition of manhood (strength, power, dominance over women), to admit that they have been hurt by a woman, that they need help, is to invite ridicule from society. On batteredmen.com, a male victim of abuse tells the story of his failed attempt to get help from the police. The police took one look at him, and told him “to go home and sort her out [him]self.”

So let’s call a ceasefire and recognize that we can solve this problem together. When women are no longer seen as inherently inferior, when both women and men can be good, or bad, gentle, or strong, weak, or fierce, victims or perpetrators, keep house or run the country, only then can we all be free.

PS. To anticipate the question, “So why don’t feminists concern themselves more with addressing the issues that impact men?” my answer is this.

Do a google search of the word ‘man’, and you get 6500 million results. Search for the word woman and you get 1850 million. Add the search results for the word ‘girl’ to that number and you still only get 5860 million, while ‘man’ + ‘boy’ go up to 8660 million. So please forgive us if we want to take centre stage in our own writings. Heaven knows it doesn’t happen often.

Introduction, or “Why I have Decided to Start a Feminist Blog”

Growing up, the word ‘feminism’ has always been a source of unease for me. Like many, I thought the women’s movement was a thing of the past, something that had been fought and won. Now was the time to reap the benefits, and we could smile smugly to ourselves, congratulating ourselves on how enlightened we are, compared to our unfortunate ancestors. To continue to be a feminist was to be deliberately awkward, to desire a childish form of anti-boy “girl power”, which I was keen to avoid.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why one might get complacent. More women than ever before are graduating from university, entering the workforce, and playing a part in politics. Female authors no longer need to use male pseudonyms to be published, and a female doctor no longer causes a stir. Laws have been rewritten, policies have been realigned…what is there to hold women back now?

But as I grew older, I couldn’t help but feel that something wasn’t right. They were little things at first, familial things. Like how my brother was encouraged to join a martial arts class (he hated it), while I, who had always expressed an interest, was discouraged. Or my dad’s well-meaning advice to me about marriage, claiming that the life and destiny of a woman hinged on the man she married, whereas a wife had a much smaller effect on a man’s path in life. Or the endless bombardment from society to be ‘pure’, to ‘save ourselves’ for our husbands, as though a woman who wasn’t a virgin was somehow second-hand, damaged goods, while the man had ‘gained something’ from her. As my intellect and insight developed I started fighting back, but it was in vain, for the argument, “That’s the way society is,” or “Men and women are made for different things” would come up again and again, and while I was heard, I wasn’t listened to.

My rising indignation led me to look deeper into the feminist movement today, ‘third wave feminism’, if you like. My feelings were mixed – I felt vindicated (yes, my feelings of unfairness ARE valid), shocked and upset (things are worse than I thought), but also hopeful.

We can do something about it. It doesn’t have to always be this way.

Hence this blog. To me, the search for gender equality isn’t just about law-changing or quotas or anything like that. What is needed now is a huge cultural realignment, a shift in the way we view men and women. We need to step away from our gut reactions and really think about how we see the world, what we expect, and what we believe. This post is merely an introduction; subsequent entries will start looking a little more closely at the sexism and anti-femaleness, deliberate or not, that is prevalent throughout the world as we know it.

Why have we assumed that equality has reached its natural limit? Those resistant to change 50 years ago were saying strikingly similar things, and look how far we’ve come. Gender equality has not yet been reached, and progress will continue.
I may be but a lone, small voice in the immense blogosphere, but by perhaps making some rethink their values, I, together with all the other courageous fighters out there, can bring about real change in the world.