Domestic violence victims = sex workers?

A Scottish feminist organization refuses to accept proceeds from a nude calendar featuring abuse survivors

By Judy Berman

Published July 22, 2009 10:23PM (EDT)

Anyone who believes that vibrator-wielding third wavers have resolved feminism's internal conflicts about sex should check out today's BBC News article. Inspired by the 2003 film "Calendar Girls" (and the real-life women the movie was based on), a group of women created a nudie calendar to raise money to help domestic violence victims. Of 11 women featured in the calendar, five -- including the project's mastermind, Morag Hill -- are abuse survivors. But as Hill told the BBC, "When I phoned Scottish Women's Aid to tell them that we had a calendar and I needed to know how we could get the cash to them, the woman on the end of the phone said they would not be associated with it ... She said that they did not support women taking their clothes off to raise money and that they were a feminist movement."

Ouch. Meanwhile, when reached for comment, a spokeswoman for Scottish Women's Aid had this to say: "We are a feminist organisation and of course we are happy that these woman feel empowered by what they are doing ... But we are opposed to the sex industry and we have an issue with women removing clothes." Yes, you read that right: Not only is a feminist organization slut-shaming a group of domestic violence survivors for posing nude, but it's also implying that taking off their clothes for charity makes these women sex workers. And, in the world of Women's Aid, sex work is to be unequivocally condemned.

But instead of simply denouncing Women's Aid, I'd like to try and understand what they're thinking. It appears that the organization's spokeswoman is trying to say, "Women should feel great about their bodies, unless they're using them to raise (or earn) money." While I don't happen to agree, I do admit to bristling at the "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" ladies that pervade PETA's often salacious advertising. So, what's the difference between Hill's calendar and PETA's ads?

To me, the calendar seems pointed and celebratory: Many of these women -- real women, not airbrushed celebutantes -- have overcome domestic violence, and part of that process involves taking your own body back. The calendar is at least partially about these women feeling in control of their own sexuality. As they raise money, their smiling faces (and, yes, bare asses) provide evidence to current victims that there is life after abuse. While this group's grassroots calendar project seems hopeful and empowering, PETA's crass, provocative ads, obviously dreamed up in a boardroom and designed to stir controversy, have little to do with the women they feature or the cause they champion.

I get where Women's Aid is coming from, but ladies, it's 2009. Maybe it's time to stop judging women -- and domestic violence survivors, of all people -- for what they do with their naked bodies.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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