This week's big questions: Is ‘marital coercion’ a feminist stance? Do we need boardroom quotas?

This week's big questions are answered by author and broadcaster Lisa Appignanesi

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Was Vicky Pryce’s marital coercion defence a feminist stance or an anti-feminist one? Or neither?

I’m not sure everything in the world can be transformed into an “ist” or an “ism”. Pryce wasn’t particularly situating herself as a woman in her actions. She felt wronged and she was hurting. I think all women and all men can recognise the irrational rage that takes a person over when a long-term partner cheats and walks out on a marriage/the family summarily. The rage can sometimes last almost as long as the marriage. And like those ancient Greeks – Medea, or Clytemnestra after Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter for the war effort – Pryce lost her loyal wife’s cool. It hasn’t been an illuminating spectacle on any side. I guess what we might want to ask ourselves as a society is whether we too easily sanction the break-up of long-term partnerships, which usually entail middle-aged men running off with younger versions of their wives. Is this also in some way propelled by our idealisation of the girlish body? The lack of older women in our image culture? Our reluctance – and I include both sexes here – to find older women attractive.

You have just co-edited Fifty Shades of Feminism. What was the idea behind the book?

The book grew out of a conversation among friends. We were sitting around and worrying about the state of the world and the state of women in it. This was election time in the US, and the Republican campaign statements about rape, abortion and women’s bodies were distressingly misogynistic and hideously retrograde. As if there had never been a women’s movement. As if women had no rights or, indeed, intelligence. As if despite subsequent waves of the women’s movement, we were still just bodies – alien ones at that, and devoid of mind.

What is your view of Fifty Shades of Grey? Has it been empowering of women?

Well, on the one hand 50 million readers can’t be altogether wrong. The book is an enthusiastic romp with a traditional romantic core. Girl meets boy, and love ultimately triumphs. Do we think of romance as empowering? In between, there may be a wish by women to say that we, too, can have porn, but for many women the turn-on really is romance with the man that Daddy used to be before we grew up and could see him eye to eye. There’s a modish preoccupation with bondage, which really isn’t terribly empowering. Everyone has fantasies and fantasies are fine and sex is great. But bondage for women also comes shadowed with centuries of domestic abuse, none of it wanted – except perhaps in distressing and distressed cases. Malign love is neither empowering nor particularly illuminating for either women or the men. Flirting with it on the page is fine, but we should know what we’re flirting with.

There is a growing debate around pornography on the web. But where should our priorities lie – on freedom of expression or on protecting the young?

I’ve changed my mind on this one. I am a firm believer in freedom of expression but I don’t think that violent porn in the industrial proportions we now find it on the web is a mere form of expression. And if anyone wants to argue that it’s a form of expression, then it’s an expression which is an incitement to violence towards a group. That group is women and also children. Both are also biological groupings, though never merely that. We have hate-speech laws for race and, indeed, against inciting violence against homosexuals. So perhaps we should institute laws banning incitement to violence against women. (This is not like banning criticism or satire.)

Are you in favour of boardroom quotas?

No – quotas can be too rigid. But I do think we should all attempt to beware of and take stock of our prejudices, which are inevitably in part unconscious when we’re hiring/interviewing. There are criteria in place for all this that hirers/interviewers should look at.

How do you react to this week’s findings that women graduates end up earning less than their male counterparts? What’s the solution?

We just have to keep battling on this one. Women need to ask for raises in salary. Like needs to be compared with like. Laws help.

As a past president of English PEN, what do you feel about statutory regulation of the press?

To quote the cliché, freedom of the press is essential to any democracy. But so, too, is an intelligent, responsible press that functions in the public interest and doesn’t just feed off muck and function on innuendo. That said, everyone gets hot under the collar about this and doesn’t question the details of what statutory regulation means. Universities are jealously free, yet they are governed “by statute”. If the newspaper publishers can’t agree on a form of Press Complaints Commission that has teeth, then statute which is completely at arm’s length but lays down a few rules is not to be reviled. Leveson got it about right.

And how concerned are you about the faltering progress of the Defamation Bill?

Terribly. I think the parties are playing politics with a piece of legislation that was three years in the making. We all fought the libel reform campaign long and hard and had cross-party agreement. It’s ludicrous to ruin all those hard-won gains by a sudden amendment which has to do with the Leveson report and nothing to do with libel/defamation reform. While all this politicking goes on, the current and utterly unjust libel laws continue to function, and they take good scientists, human-rights groups and responsible journalists down into the horrendous and hugely expensive grind of long court cases. Vide Simon Singh’s ghastly trajectory.

Lisa Appignanesi is an author, broadcaster and co-editor (with Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach) of ‘Fifty Shades of Feminism’, to be published by Virago on 28 March

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