A Pox on the Patriarchy
- Caroline Criado-Perez
As the title of Exposing Phallacy suggests, Kate Gould’s book is an exploration of sexual exposure – otherwise known as flashing – which positively thrives on the satisfaction that only a successful turn of phrase can give. It is also, as again suggested by the title, one of the very few rigorously scholarly books that has actually made me laugh out loud. In so doing, it is continuing in a fine Zer0 Books tradition of demolishing the disconnect between popular culture and academia.
And disconnect is curiously pertinent to the major theme of Gould’s over-in-a-flash [sorry] page-turner: Gould exposes a disconnected culture in which ‘we are all exhibitionists’, in which flesh is flashed wherever we look, from TV, to posters, to magazines, to just everyday people, and in which the flasher is pathologized, medicalized and ‘cured’ – more on the reason for these scare quotes later. In her exploration of the female flasher, Gould compares the ubiquity of the ‘plastic’ female form – pruned, painted, injected, photoshopped for our pornographically-inspired pleasure – with the raw “femaleness” of the ultimate absent presence when it comes to popular culture: the vagina*. “It’s the ultimate in female sexual expression, of a woman knowing the power of her body and experiencing the full potency of her desires”, Gould claims, “Or is it?”
It is typical of the Gould’s deft use of irony and humour that she brings her readers to their richly built-up fall using those three little words beloved of the advertiser in search of suspense; Gould uses these words as her base-jump off into a relentless undermining of the insidious trope of female empowerment through objectification, so beloved of an advertising industry. Her argument summarised is that women flashers are submissive to male reaction; gender power relations remain firmly in place despite the ‘empowerment’ rhetoric, and Gould’s killer blow can perhaps be located in this quotation, which deploys the deflating juxtaposition she frequently uses to devastating effect: “The women choose to take off their underwear, but that is the single aspect of the situation over which they have any control. Everything else is controlled by the men to whom they display their vaginas.”
Having exploded empowerment, Gould turns her attention to the male flasher and his “magnificent” penis – and yes, this self-love does seem to propel most male flashers. For Gould, the male flash is an “aggressive act”, in contrast to the female flasher’s submission; she terms it “the eroticization of abuse”, since “flashers know the likely response to their actions is distress and fear’. In conjunctions with flashers’ semantic commodification of the vagina as “the goods”, the repeated theme of contempt for the women they flash, and the assumption that they have “a greater right to get off than [a woman] does to live her life in freedom” it is hard to dissent from Gould’s view that “all the flasher actually feels towards women is hatred”.
Gould does not exactly place the blame for this hatred squarely at the feet of the flasher – although she does want them to accept responsibility, although not perhaps in the way, or for the reasons, you might think. Rather, having delved into the psychology of the male and female flashers, she then widens her focus to encompass the culture of female submission and victimisation, and the cult of alpha male masculinity. And this is where things get really interesting.
Gould delivers a galvanising message of true female empowerment, castigating the culture of victimhood for women, that reduces them to passive objects being acted upon. She uses the example of being given rape alarms at university, which she refers to as a ‘prop, the effectiveness of which was entirely dependent on it gaining the intended response’, recalling the female flasher, or the page 3 model, whose ‘empowerment’ relies upon getting the correct response – that is, an empowerment which relies upon an outside actor. In other words, no empowerment at all, just the same tired rehearsal of gender power relations whereby men act, and women ‘act’ by attracting others to act upon us.
And suddenly it all clicks into place: the cultural disconnect of which Gould speaks is not so much a disconnect as a cultural toin-coss. Flashing is at once the expression of, and the reaction to, contemporary and historical gender power relations. This is perhaps most potently displayed [apologies for inevitable image associations] in Gould’s exploration of ‘masculinity’ and the psychiatric approach to the male flasher. Gould speaks of “an eruption of anxiety” (and having come to know Gould’s wit with words, I suspect that is an intended pun) in ‘masculinity’ as a result of a “devaluation of citadels of male power” not having been “accompanied by compensatory alterations in the markers of masculinity”; this seems painfully obvious. Nevertheless, the psychiatric approach, which combines a combination of humiliation and punishment seeks to ‘cure’ their patients by reinforcing the very tropes of masculinity which seem to be causing so much damage in the first place.
Reading about these treatments in the context of the argument that Gould has subtly built up without your consciously realising it, is an exercise in frustration: they not only sound inhumane and short-sighted to the point of idiocy (one seeming to guarantee that an adolescent boy will grow up to be a paedophile), they also suffer from a basic lack of understanding of the culture in which flashing thrives. And the approach to the female flasher is just as bad: they are simply labelled ‘narcissistic’ and ‘exhibitionist’ – even, as Gould drily notes, “with quite astoundingly archaic reasoning”, as having “a partial masculine identity” (whatever the hell that means anyway).
Gould ultimately wants more responsibility. She wants women to use their righteous anger at their cultural treatment and turn it towards true empowerment – an empowerment that doesn’t rely on the reactions of others, whether than be for protection or admiration. And she wants psychiatrists to give male flashers some responsibility for their actions, rather than ‘treating’ them via the medium of placing the responsibility entirely upon the rise of feminism, or perhaps a childhood trauma. This is not the same as ‘blaming’ the flasher; this is in order, strangely, to ‘empower’ the flasher: the infantilization achieved by removing responsibility can surely do little to assuage the “eruption of anxiety” in contemporary masculinity. It might stop a single flasher who happens to have been caught from flashing, but it doesn’t address the root causes of the desire, which Gould leaves us in little doubt lie outside of an individual’s experiences.
Just as women can be awakened to patriarchy and choose to stop living as passive commodities, so men can be awakened to a cult of masculinity which sets them up as failures unless they consistently dominate and subjugate those around them. This is the responsibility that Gould agitates for in this brilliant polemic, which should be read by everyone – but especially, it seems, by psychiatrists.
* Yes pedants, I’m aware that vagina might not be the exact medical term, but language is malleable. Go with the flow; all potential associations intended, I assure you.