No-platforming Smurthwaite: unspeakable females

The spaces that women can occupy are small and easily shrunk. For example, talk to a female comic and she’s likely to tell you that her job is substantially harder for being female.

Promoters are reluctant to book female comedians, because they assume audiences will be sexist and stay away (or because they impute their own sexism to the audience); audiences heckle more viciously and more explicitly, because a woman talking is still an offence against what women are supposed to be; and touring is essentially incompatible with the constant work expected of a mother, which means female comics with children have to negotiate career breaks and long absences from home in a way that male comics can generally avoid. TV panel shows are boys’ clubs – there have been some moves to improve the balance, but the default is still to book a single woman at best and then let the men talk over her – which means women comedians struggle to get the kind of recognition that shifts tickets.

Which is a long way of saying: Goldsmiths FemSoc, WTF? At the weekend, comedian Kate Smurthwaite announced that a gig she was booked to play at Goldsmiths (a collaboration between the Comedy Society and the Feminist Society) had been cancelled because of security fears, after a minority of feminist society members sought to get a vote in favour of axing the show and then, when that failed, declared their intention to picket.

Smurthwaite was no-platformed. And bizarrely, she wasn’t even no-platformed over the content of the show (which was about free speech, so there’s one gag that got through the FemSoc). Instead, the objection was to her position on prostitution – Smurthwaite is a supporter of the Nordic model, under which the purchase of sex is criminalised and the sale decriminalised.

This is the important bit, and also the most incredible bit so it’s important to pay attention: to a minority of feminists, the idea that prostitution is a form of violence against women is simply impossible to countenance. It’s so intolerable that not only will this group not permit that argument to be heard, they won’t permit a person who has previously made that argument to be heard, even on other topics.

I said “a person” there, though I suspect “a woman” might be more accurate. There are many male comics whose material includes jokes that could be cast as “whorephobic”, who play off sexist stereotypes, who make rape jokes with varying degrees of obnoxiousness. But “men speaking” is simply life going on as normal. Women’s voices are still sufficiently little heard to be a disruption, and easily stamped on. One might hope that a group of feminists would have some understanding that making space for women to speak – including women you disagree with – is a fundamentally feminist act. But then one would be hoping for rather too much from the politically vacant, perversely purity obsessed sect behind this no-platforming.

In Jonathan Chait’s New York Magazine article Not a Very PC Thing to Say, he described a protest from 1992 in which anti-porn feminists confiscated a pornographic tape from a video installation. It’s not much comfort but it is one more irony that modern-day enactors of no-platform use the same tactics to protect the very concept of “sex work” from any critique, however ambient.

For all the liberated posturing of the pro-sex work contingent, in this instance they seem to have shown no interest whatsoever in intercourse. At least, after all, anti-porn feminists have an analysis within which pornography is itself understood as a form of violence against women. You can disagree with the means, but at least there was some logic behind it. In the Goldsmith’s case, the argument seems to be: “Shut up shut up shut up shut up.” There is no stretch of the imagination big enough to encompass the recasting of support for the Nordic model as a kind of rhetorical violence.

Words fall out of fashion. They become unspeakable. The ideas they contain grow ungraspable. We used to have a word for people who thought women should be silenced, and believed men’s ability to coerce sexual access to female bodies was actually a right. We called those people “misogynists”. I suggest we revive the term, before women run out entirely of space in which we can speak.