Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flasher
Most of us might think that a book about flashing would have little to say about our day-to-day existence. Surprisingly, Kate Gould’s Exposing Phallacy shows how we are all, however involuntarily, inevitably linked to exhibitionism. In her latest book, Gould brings to the fore the consequences of the perennial sexualisation of society, and of how this plays a major, albeit elusive, role in the oppression of women today.
Exposing Phallacy is important on a number of levels. Firstly, it is a much needed feminist work on the ins and outs, the psychology and the numbers, behind the act of flashing. It reminds the reader that this act is not merely the showing off of a stranger’s genitals, but also the invasion of another person’s privacy. It is perpetrated with the intent to visually and emotionally attack someone else, and in this way derive some sort of morbid pleasure. Flashing, Gould argues, is an abuse of power. It is not simply a psychological condition which strips exhibitionists from a sense of ‘decency’, but a consequence of a highly arbitrated and engendered set of social norms.
While there is data of women flashers, the numbers are widely surpassed by the male demographic. What is more, according to Gould, the modus operandi of each group is dramatically different. Women tend to expose themselves in situations of physical distance, or when there is possibility of escaping the area swiftly after the ‘incident’. Men usually have a confrontational approach, addressing their victims in unapologetic and, well, full frontal manner.
The book is a small analysis of the socio-cultural factors at play. It poignantly describes how (mostly male) flashers profit from the culture of fear prevalent in our society. Women are recurrently reminded not only of the seemingly universal peril of, but also of the stigma attached to being raped. Their role is to duck and dive, run, protect oneself, as if the actions committed onto them are somewhat their fault, for bearing breasts and hips and all other elements of sensual attraction. Gould goes onto show how the widely held assumption that most women will not confront their harasser, since they lack the social (and sometimes even legal) support to do so, encourages flashers to repeat their assault.
Through this more interdependent social analysis of different but nevertheless abusive practices, Exposing Phallacy is a much needed work about the consequences of rampant mass-sexualisation. Beyong this critique, Kate Gould argues that the solution to these complex malaises cannot be a mere return to the default position, i.e. the re-education of flashers to act as ‘normal’ males. To do this is to reenforce the underlying objectification of the Other (and, more often than not, that Other is woman), and to promote a behaviour that is predicated on the oppression of women. Gould points out the fallacy of ‘curing’ flashers through the re-channeling of their urges into accepted forms of commodified sexuality (e.g.: watching pornography), when it was the discrepancy between these accepted forms of sexual expression and individual experiences that created the ‘abnormal’ behavior in the first place.
But what is then left as a result? How can we deal with exhibitionism, particularly coming from predatory males, and eradicate it? How can we handle the objectification of women, and the perpetual commodification of sex in our culture? How can we stop the emotional and/or psychological decompensation at work in individuals who feel the urge to flash? The book points out the symptoms, but leaves no suggestions of ways to solve it. Perhaps the intent is for the reader to make his or her own conclusions. Gould could have given her two-pence worth and be none the worse. In fact, it would have nicely rounded off the work, bridging the male-female divide present throughout her analysis, exploring how we all, collectively and not only as individuals, are affected by the phenomena she depicts throughout the book.
If anything, I wished Exposing Phallacy had been longer. It mentions the work of several theoreticians – specifically Freud and Foucault – without seriously discussing their hypotheses. By solely alluding to these ideas, without deconstructing their premises which are still highly influential today, one cannot help but feel that the author is missing a trick.
The writing flows beautifully, entwining personal anecdotes and popular culture references, reminding the reader that Gould was once Germaine Greer’s research assistant. There is a lot of The Female Eunuch in Exposing Phallacy, and in a very good way. Alas, the brashness with which the content is sometimes dealt makes the reader feel slightly frustrated. Like a sumptuous meal one is only allowed to nibble at, Kate Gould’s latest offering leaves us wanting more. I can only hope that this book turns out to be just an appetizer.
Kate Gould is a writer, commissioning editor at The Fine Line, campaigner, and rat lover. Her book, Exposing Phallacy: Flashing in Contemporary Culture (Zero Books, 2012) is out now.