Saturday, 2 August 2008

Boobs gone bad?

I always feel a bit conflicted about Boobs on Bikes.

In general my third-wave feminism tends to be pretty laissez-faire about this kind of thing. If women want to parade around the central city with their boobs on display, and they freely choose this, then shouldn't I put my prudery away, stay out of town that day, and respect their right to control their body and the way they express it? I have no problem with the Hero Parade* even when it involves giant penis statues. Can't this be seen as a celebration of women's bodies, an acknowledgement of women's sexual power?

Except that to me it seems that the whole thing is actually about making a pornographer more money. It's not a community event or a political expression of opinion, it's a commercial advertisement for the Erotica expo. Would we be ok about any other business venture taking over the main street of our biggest city for much of a day, disrupting traffic, to advertise its wares? And are we ok with the nature of the advertisement being something that wouldn't be allowed to show in ad breaks at that time of the day, or accepted as a print ad by any of the major newspapers?

I wonder how I would feel walking along Queen St while the boobed ones rode their bikes down the road. Or if I worked in an office that overlooked it, or a shop nearby, particularly if my male colleagues all jostled to get a good position and commented on the bodies on display. I wonder if I would feel like an object, rather than a person; as if my breasts were my most important, even my only, feature.**

Jafapete considers that it demeans both the women in it and the men oggling watching them, but that it's impractical to ban it. In many ways he has a point; say it was somehow made explicitly illegal, and they went ahead anyway, what would the Auckland City Council or the Police or indeed anyone, actually do about it? I suspect it would be one of those annoying occasions where the offending event went ahead unchallenged, got a larger crowd as a result (and a significant anti-feminist and possibly also anti-woman backlash too), and then maybe someone got taken to court months later, just giving them another chance to grandstand and objectify women.

So if we can't stop it should we embrace it? Should we open our feminist arms wide, proclaim our love for our enhanced sisters, and parade with them?

Ah.... you first ;-)

* 1999 I was in it, and let me tell you Ponsonby Rd is quite a long street to dance the length of.
** Even to Wriggly, my mammaries don't seem to be all there is to me. I've never once seen him smile at them, but many times he has smiled at my dial.


Anna McM said...

The reasons for the criticisms have a lot to do with how much sympathy I have. When Larry Baldock-style conservative dickheads complain about events like BoB, brothels, etc, it makes me furious. They simply have a problem with women's sexuality.

My concern is more with the women themselves. Sure, it's their right to do it, but it's one of those pretty hollow rights. You have to wonder, as with women in the sex industry, how they ended up doing that sort of thing. I don't think it's the kind of thing that women with a lot of life options get into, and you have to wonder if they're happy, being exploited in some way, etc.

I think the point about how BoB makes other women feel is a very good one. It's like the event does give men license to be disrespectful to women. I can't imagine any event that encouraged women to be disrespectful to men being popular.

Hugh said...

I agree that the main problem with Boobs on Bikes for society at large (as opposed to the women taking part in it) is that it can be seen as encouraging the objectification of women. The question is, how can a man react to something like this without objectifying women (other than by ignoring it)?

Lita said...

Great post. I have the same mixed thoughts; they wanna do it, so what, boobs are great! But then again - it's on our main streets, middle of a working/tourist day and it does seem to only benefit Steve Crow (and short-term, the thousands of guys who line the street).

I have been working on Q St for the past 2 years of BoB. I have been amazed at the sheer number of men waiting silently, looking one way up a street, for so many hours! And it's strange being one of only a few women on the main street like that. It's also a traffic nightmare - for hours, even after the event.

But, on the up, the parade itself is fun - I think the women and drag queens wave harder at other women (or maybe that was cos I was hanging out of a window?) and the office got to stop work for a bit. As the men attending my meeting were late ("took ages to cross the road cos of the parade" - insert Tui Ad), I got to stand on a desk and wave at a window instead of talking about boring rocket science.

I do, though, wonder what any tourists (espesh those travelling with kids) think. Not that Aucks encourages tourism in any useful way.

I guess I just hope it becomes old hat, something that happened in the crazy noughties. Meanwhile, Crow hopes it will be an annual event to beat the Santa Parade every year.

ms poinsettia said...

I think the agency of the women themselves is a red herring for a discussion about the legitimacy of a public parade. Ultimately this parade is about that guy Steve Crow and his expo. I mean, it's called 'Boobs on Bikes', not women on bikes! And why should Steve Crow get free advertising for his business. I hate how objectifying women's body has somehow morphed into an issue of 'free speech'for so many people - like people think it's daring to advertise an expo with women's bodies when men have made money off our bodies for centuries.

Like you, 'm not impressed by morality arguments because they tend to descend into diatribes against women's sexuality. If this were a 'non-profit' parade that was actually to do with celebrating or changing cultural attitutdes to sexuality, my perspective would be different. But as it stands it's just the same old, same old - some guy profiting by advertising his products (which in themselves sell women's bodies) with naked women's bodies.

Julie said...

Thanks for the comments, I was a bit nervous about putting this up. I agree with all of you, particularly the point about the options of the women in it (although I feel a bit patronising writing that) and the fact that it is called "Boobs on Bikes" not "women on bikes", which I think cuts to the core of my issues with it - it's about making money out of oggling breasts, and Crow's protestations that it celebrates and empowers women ring hollow. I wonder if any of the women in it would do it for free? Cf the Hero Parade where as far as I'm aware most of the people in it are probably doing it in their own time and off the clock, and it's not a commercial event, it's a community event.

Thanks Lita for your perspective on being there in the last two years.

And Hugh, I think you raise a really valid point - what can be done about it, particularly by men? I don't really know.

Ultimately it's not that I don't want to see naked boobs in public, it's that I don't want to see men oggling them in public. I'd quite like it if there was no oggling, and objectification, at all, thanks very much, as I see it as on the continuum that has at the far end the ownership of women's bodies by others.

Hugh said...

Before I say anything more I'm wondering if in your view, Julie, exactly what you mean by 'oggling'? Obviously it's a way for people to look at other people in a sexual way that you see as negative, but I'm wondering if you have a more specific meaning that separates a man 'oggling' from one looking in some other way.

Anna McM said...

Interesting question Hugh - I'm going to hazard an answer even though it wasn't addressed to me!

I think you can appreciate someone sexually, aesthetically or whatever in a respectful way, or you can just perv at them like a dehumanised bit of meat that's only there for your sexual gratification. It's kind of the difference between women being something than men have sex with or do sex to, if that makes sense - person vs object.

In practice, it's sometimes hard to say what's respectful and what's not, like saying the point at which erotic art or literature becomes porn.

I think it's really important for feminists to have a stab at defining the difference, though, so we can defend ourselves against that tired old accusation that feminists are opposed to sex.

Julie said...

Hugh, in short : What Anna said.

martin said...

what can be done about it, particularly by men?

Well, we don't have Boobs, but we do have something else that begins with B. I picture a horde of tandem bicycles, each with a leather-clad woman* on the front while a naked guy stands up at the back and waves. Maybe he holds a sign saying something provocative like 'your sister will be along shortly'. Anybody know a good lawyer?

I feel revolted and ashamed that so many men turn out to watch. That it should be acceptable to be so overtly objectifying. Or am I just projecting my internal conflict against my own sexism?

What really got my goat was how, a few years back, we were told that this parade supported top-freedom. Clearly self-serving red herrings, but that anybody would have the gall to try them. I'm with Julie - how many of these women would choose to parade if they weren't being paid to?

*middle-aged biker-style leather, not Irma Vep. And it's downhill so the heat won't kill anybody.

jafapete said...

I'm with Anna & Julie: it is clearly about oggling and Anna at 3.23pm is spot on. And as Ms Poinsettia says, it's the same old story of men profitting from the objectification of women. But would a Stephanie crow make it more acceptable -- I don't think so, because it's still objectifying women.

Anyway, on further thought I think that it should be possible to come up with some form of counter protest that brings home to the on-lookers just how pathetic they are.

Also, I'm thinking of going to the Sexpo in order to report it (critically). Anybody else interested?

Hugh said...

Well, I appreciate that you may find this question ridiculous, but how can one tell the difference between ogling and respectful appreciation of female sexuality, given that the difference is chiefly in the man's head?

I realise it might be ridiculous to assume that all of the men lined up in Auckland to catch sight of some breasts are doing so with full respect to the performers, but at the same time it seems all too easy for any given man to claim that, in fact, he is being respectful. On the other hand, to claim any man who finds a woman sexually attractive is being disrespectful would be a step too far.

Jafa, I must admit I'm a bit surprised by your hardline on this. Does all porngraphy objectify women, in your opinion? Do you object to sex shops the same way you object to the sexpo? Does gay pornography objectify men?

Anna McM said...

I'm not convinced that it's the ogler who determines whether the way a man looks at a woman is respectful or not. I think that if the man's behaviour is making women feel uncomfortable (the women in the parade or other women), then it's disrespectful. That's not a clear cut answer either - people have different thresholds for what makes them feel uncomfortable.

Hugh said...

I think that if the man's behaviour is making women feel uncomfortable (the women in the parade or other women), then it's disrespectful.

That is a very high standard of behaviour. Speaking as a man, I feel that operating under that standard, the only way to avoid oggling would be not to look.

Anna McM said...

I actually don't think it needs to be an onerous standard, and that's certainly not what I intended. Most people can look without perving/making derogatory comments, and know the difference. Even the guys who watch BoB wouldn't normally look at women that way. It's not that these guys don't know how to treat women respectfully - they just feel that the parade gives them a license not to for an hour or so. BoB isn't about not knowing how to behave respectfully - it's about which women men feel they have to be respectful towards, and in what environments.

ms poinsettia said...


That's such a good point about how Bob delineates women deserving of respect from those not.

It reminds me of a conversation with a colleague who told of his disgust when a date told him she was a prostitute. He was annoyed that she was shitty at him for ending the date early because 'why would he go out with someone of such low class values'. And this is a person who has passionately defended porn and sex work as providing necessary sexual outlets for men.

Something that disturbs me about mainstream attitudes about sex work, porn etc is this idea that women who do sex work are 'bad' - despite the fact that there's such a demand from men for women to do that work - combined with this whole idea that if you note the problems with sex work then you must be a prude. Either way, women are trapped in this virgin/whore dichotomy where their subjectivity doesn't count.

Carol said...

As an ex-biker, I always liked seeing the Dykes on Bikes in the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade. Some of them were topless.

I happened to be in Auckland City walking down some back streets when I couple of stray "Boobs on Bikes" bikes drove past. I did think they were kind of sexy, tho I thought some of the boobs on display didn't look that "real". And going to watch the BoB parade doesn't have that much appeal to me.

The BoB women who I saw were on the back of bikes driven by some pretty unattractive men. I don't know if that's true of all the BoB bikes, but women on the back of bikes driven by guys makes the women look like display objects. The Dykes on Bikes are much more about women in control.

Hugh said...

So what is it that about the environment of BoB that encourages disrespect? Is it the public setting? The fact that the women aren't interacting with the men in any way except exposure? The fact that the women are paid to do it? All of the above? Something else?

Anonymous said...

Personal comments first: the name itself! "boobs on bikes" makes me shudder... it is not in any way about women as human beings, but purely as a sexual objects. Being around this stuff makes me feel unsafe and vulnerable. I myself a young woman, I have realised that my peers and I have experienced a huge amount of sexual abuse growing up. Most if not all of my friends have been sexually abused/raped... this horrific consistency of experience extends to the women in my family. I am a white middle class woman, and do not believe that the women around me represent an exceptional example. The concept of this parade therefore makes me feel extremely uncomfortable .

More neutral territory now: There has been such interesting points raised in the comments above, thank you. It's funny, in respect to Carol's thoughts on Dykes on Bikes, y'know if these women in this parade were driving their own bikes I think I would react to it quite differently! The thought that they are driven by men just highlights the passivity ultimately these women hold under the male gaze.

Thank you for giving me the space to share this view. I've tried to come to terms with it by experimenting with contextualising it with celebrating sexuality/free rights/simple fun etc . But at the end of the day it just makes me feel unsafe.