It was a panel of writers drawn from the Sydney Writers’ Festival but last night’s Q&A zeroed straight into porn, irresistibly drawn by the presence of Pornland author, Professor Gail Dines. The theme would not go away.

Jewishness and Israel in the news skewed the conversation — as it happened, three of the panelists are Jewish: the Israeli-British Dines, this year’s Man Booker winner, Howard Jacobsen, and Leslie Cannold, local ethicist, public intellectual and lately, novelist. But by the time an audience member asked the writers about writing — as a moral influence — it just felt like a distraction, despite the fine and considered answer* by Michael Cunningham, backed by the noisier Jacobsen.

Terms of endearment, Queer, Jewish, SlutWalk

There was a question about reclaiming words which seemed poorly framed: “Having observed the use of words such as ‘gay’ become part of the vernacular, I am wondering about the use of terms such as ‘nigzz’, ‘Jew’ and ‘bitch’ almost as terms of endearment.” It’s the inclusion of ‘Jew’ in that mix which made my eyebrows pop. Perhaps the questioner meant an actually abusive term, like ‘kike’?

And the panel circled back to the sex and porn wagon — Cunningham being, as he put it, the ‘gay’ panelist, talked about the reclamation of “queer”. Then Dines and Cannold were set off by “slut”, a term currently radioactive because of this coming weekend’s SlutWalk, a topic which led to a, dare I say it — cat fight.

The two women, both self-proclaimed activists, had earlier tussled over expending organisational energy on pornography and … brazilian waxes; Cannold suggesting that it was diverting from the main game of gender equality and the work-life balance. Dines deployed her ammunition of graphic terminology to make us sit up as she evoked the brutalities of her chosen field of pornography.

On SlutWalk, Dines has been quoted as saying, “‘The men who are responding to this message are not getting the irony at all … Men want women to be sluts and now they’re buying in.” The report doesn’t make clear who “they” are here, but I think Dines might mean the women attending the SlutWalk. Indeed, her assessment of the situation is quite extreme: ”Young women today have two choices, to be fuckable or invisible.” Cannold took an opposing position, saying she wasn’t buying the notion — that men were the enemy, the problem.

The Damned Whores and God’s Police effect

There was an odd air about this episode — Dines and Cannold easily spoke the most — Dines quite aggressively, going so far as to scold an audience member about how it was feminism that had got us where we are today and she should remember that. The dissenter sulked back into her seat. Dines was adamant on the topic; in answer to one questioner on how to deal with the “problem” of porn Dines said that men should just stop watching it. (A comment on the TV tweet scroll: “Gail – you’re not going to make the world better by shouting at it.”) Cannold tried a sunnier approach by cajoling the audience and co-opting menfolk; “I’m not buying that” being her rejoinder to Dines.

Nonetheless, I had the distinct feeling that the males on the panel, including host Tony Jones, were mostly peripheral to the dynamic interactions between the women — activists, academics and authors, feminists and mothers of son/s, Jewish and political. And it was obvious that the male panelists — gay sensitive novelist; young blokey sex and violence novelist (Brendan Cowell); and older Jewish comic novelist — were trying to lighten (or evade, if you like) the darker heart of the evening’s very hot topics. Indeed, Dines made that thought explicit, noting disapprovingly that the men were making a joke of pornography consumption. (Another tweet comment: “I am loving the look of horror on Gail’s face at everything Brendan says.”)

What it felt like was that the women on the panel were schooling the men, and everyone else besides. Talking about damned whores — women as sexual objects — they came across as God’s Police, to adopt the marvelous title and argument of Anne Summers’ classic study on women in settlement history. Last night, we saw that the work goes on.

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* See the transcipt of the show.

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