Thursday, 6 March 2014

Street Harassment - a response to Paris Lees in Vice

It started when I was a schoolgirl. Standing alone at the bus stop, after my after-school dance class, in my school uniform. Then, the beeping horns would begin. Beep. Honk. Beep. Grown men, adult men, honking their ‘appreciation’ of a girl-child in school uniform. 

The first time I remember it getting violent was when I was about 16 or 17. I was walking down my road as a group of lads followed me, threatening to rape me in the ass. 

A trip to Paris where I was groped insistently on the Metro. Flashers in Farringdon. The men who screamed ‘give me a fucking blowie’ in my face. The men who chanted ‘bitch’ at me as I walked down the street when I didn’t oblige them by ‘dropping my knickers’. The men who pretended to mug me for a laugh. The man who grabbed me and tried to stick his tongue down my throat on the bus. The man who grabbed me and did stick his tongue down my throat in the club.

They’re all part of the dreary, depressing litany of shout, bitches, cunts, gropes, insults, threats that make up the pattern of street harassment that has been the wallpaper of my life and of every woman’s life that I know. 

Today I read Paris Lees’ Vice article about how she enjoys catcalls and wolf whistles, and I felt compelled to respond. This isn’t an attack on Paris – for the record I admire her hugely for her activism and for her writing. But I do want to challenge some of what she has written, based on my own experience of harassment. 

In the article, Paris argues that she enjoys getting wolf-whistled, that cat calling is a compliment, (‘One woman who emailed me in response to an enquiry I put out on Facebook[…]takes catcalling as a compliment, too’) although she does recognise that not all women feel that way, and that there is a power imbalance at play. She also differentiates between what she considers a compliment, and harassment – the latter being the more violent stuff, the former being called ‘princess’ or ‘hey beautiful’. 

To me, there isn’t a differentiation. Catcalling, wolf whistling, street harassment – whatever you want to call it – can never be to me, a compliment. 

Why? Because, sorry to say, but those guys that yell at you on the street? They’re rarely doing it because they think you are so stunning, so gorgeous, so super hot, that they can’t resist expressing that appreciation. 

They shout and whistle at you because it’s an expression of power. 

These men aren’t ‘brave because they’re just there in broad daylight, shouting down the street.’ Harassment is deliberate assertion of power to exclude women from public space. Whether it’s a sexist joke at work to remind you that you’re not part of the boys club, to the showing off of pornographic material to intimidate girls in the classroom, to the shouting of sexually violent words on the street – the root is the same. It’s the man or men explaining to you, in the most demeaning way possible, that this is their space, and that they have more of a right to be in it than you do. 

Even the seemingly innocuous shout of ‘smile’ (always aggressively, always to put you off smiling!) is an assertion of power. It’s being told that you are not behaving in an acceptable way in the public space, your behaviour is not pleasing and – because we as women are on display, the spectacle to the male spectator – we need to amend our behaviour to be acceptable. We’re public property and we’re not measuring up. So we’d better smile sweetly and demurely like a proper woman should.

Of course, I can understand why some women choose to define a whistle, a shout of ‘alright gorgeous’ as a compliment and I do not judge their decision to do so. After all, we live in a patriarchal society that values women by their ability to pass the patriarchal-fuckability test and we all have to do what we can to survive in that society. As Ellie Mae O’Hagan says in Paris’ piece:

'“One of the ways patriarchy sustains itself is by convincing women that their worth is determined by the approval of men along a strict set of terms. Getting wolf-whistled at is a small confirmation that a woman is meeting the terms patriarchy demands of her.”' 

We live in a society where women lack power, and one of the powers we are allowed is a certain kind of sexual power (but not too much! And only for a short amount of time!). To feel validated by male approval can feel powerful. But what happens when the catcalls stop? What happens when you no longer pass the test? What happens if catcalls were never about your ability to pass as hot, but actually about male power over women in public spaces? 

In her piece, Paris argues that telling women that catcalls and wolf whistling is harassment is:

part of a culture that infantilizes women and teaches them to be constantly afraid. I wasn’t brought up that way, and I don’t feel frightened when some spunky dude comes and talks to me. I hate this idea that all men are rapists-in-waiting and that all women are victims-in-waiting. It’s patronizing and doesn’t help anyone. Many women are sexual and like to look and feel and be seen sexual. I’m one of those women.’

I’m sorry, but this is when I lost my temper. 

Not enjoying street harassment is not perpetuating a culture that teaches women to be constantly afraid. Not smiling and nodding along to catcalls does not infantilize women. In fact, I would argue the opposite is true. Living in a culture where a manifestation of inequality is men calling you a bitch on the street – THAT is what teaches women to be afraid. Existing in a world where men have a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies, that teaches us to be afraid. The knowledge that we are not welcome, that our presence in public spaces could lead to harassment, assault, violence, is what makes us afraid. 

But more than that, who says we’re afraid anyway? Why can’t we just be angry? I’m fucking furious with the men who have abused me on the street. At the time, when I panic that they will follow me, that it won’t stop with shouting, then I feel fear. But after that, I feel rage.  And that rage spurs me on to expose the harassment, to not put up with it, to raise my voice against it. Speaking out about harassment, raising my voice against it, is, for me, an empowering act. It claims my space back. 

Saying women don’t have to accept catcalls as a compliment isn’t casting us as a victim-in-waiting. It’s recognising that we have the right to live our lives free from hassle, free from shouts. We have the right to exist in public space. We are not passive objects to be commented on, to be judged by the shifting measure of the patriarchal fuckability test. 

And then we get to the sex comment. I too would consider myself to be a sexual woman. I too like to look and feel sexual, whatever that means. But to me, being told by a stranger that I’m ‘fit’ or by another stranger that he wants to ‘fuck me in the ass’ doesn’t make me feel sexually empowered.  It makes me feel disempowered, because I have been reminded once again that as a woman in public space, my body is no longer my own. It’s public property to be judged and approved or disapproved. That doesn’t make me feel sexy. It makes me feel worthless.

It feels like a real straw man argument to me, that accepting these compliments is part of being a sexual woman, with the implied judgement that those of us who rile against it are somehow 'non sexual'. But if the not wanting to be an object of the male gaze makes me uptight, then hell, I'm uptight. 

Moving on, we have the class argument, broached by Nichi Hodgson, who is quoted in the piece:

“There’s a sense of being sullied if an uncouth or lower-class kind of man—a white-van man, for example—heckles. But if it's a Roger Sterling type who can just about pull it off with a certain retro-sexist panache, the offense isn't experienced the same.”

Well, I call bullshit on that one. I’ve been flashed by middle class university students, my friends have been groped by posh city boys in posh city bars, I’ve been hassled by kids in tracksuits and by drunk hipsters and by old men and by teenagers and I have hated every single experience. I haven’t looked at the cut of a harasser’s suit and thought, ‘hey, he totally just degraded me but wow, he’s kind of cute’, and then looked at another harasser’s trackie bottoms and gone ‘well, how dare he! Can’t he see I’m middle class!’. 

To argue that women don’t like harassment because of class is just another way of silencing women’s experience. It’s the kind of things misogynists say below the line on CIF – that women don’t mind being harassed if they find the harasser attractive. They only don’t like it if he isn’t pretty. That ignores the experience of women like me who simply don’t want to be objectified in that way by anyone, at any time. What's more, it suggest that women who don't enjoy being harassed are somehow snobs exercising their class privilege. That we should just suck it up, or be accused of being classist. 

Paris and Nichi argue that it’s a misnomer to link sexual violence with wolf whistling and cat calling. Again, this seems like another straw man argument. Of course no one would argue that men who harass women on the street are all rapists. And no one is arguing that. But I agree with Kat Banyard’s assessment of street harassment in her book, The Equality Illusion. She argues that the culture of entitlement over women’s bodies – which leads to a man calling me a ‘fucking bitch’ because I didn’t respond to his ‘invitation’ to take me home that night – is part of a culture that denies women their right to their bodily autonomy. Again, it’s about who has power in public space. Put simply, we live in a rape culture, and street harassment is part of it. 

So, I’ve gone on now for nearly 2,000 words and I’d better stop. But I want to make one final point before I finish. 

My views on street harassment are not to deny that Paris and other women truly do find it complimentary and feel affirmed by catcalls and wolf whistles. That is their experience. As I said before, I will not judge any woman on how they choose to define their experience. Although, as earlier, I would urge caution about what that kind of validity means, and what happens when it’s gone. 

But for so many women I know, and for myself, the experience is very different. I tried to explain how harassment made me feel in this post, back in 2012: 

But what he didn’t understand, what he didn’t know, is that as soon as a strange man starts shouting things at me on the street, I feel scared. I feel scared because since I was 15 I haven’t known whether that shout will be safe or not. Will it be someone just saying I look nice? Or will it be someone screaming that I’m a fucking bitch for ignoring them, or someone yelling that they’re going to follow me and rape me in the ass, or that I’m a cunt, or that I’m a bitch who needs to drop her knickers, or that I need to stop walking and give him a fucking blowie. I don’t know and so as soon as that voice is raised I can’t take the chance that it’s going to be a well-meaning compliment.’ 

I have grown up with street harassment. Since I was 14 I have lived with men beeping horns, grabbing my ass, calling me ‘beautiful’ and then calling me a ‘bitch’ for not responding, telling me what they want to do to me, what they want me to do to them. I have never felt like I’ve had a choice about being randomly objectified, or had a choice about how I respond to it, because in patriarchy every response is the wrong one. Fight back? You’re an angry, ungrateful feminist. Ignore it? You’re a bitch. Respond positively? You’re a slut.

Street harassment can be triggering, it can be frightening and it can be intimidating. And it makes me angry. I have a right to my experience of street harassment, just as Paris has a right to hers. And my response to it doesn’t make me uptight, or classist, or a victim. It is my response. 

Happy World Book Day! Buy my Book!

It's World Book Day! 

What a week. First pancake day, today World Book Day, Saturday is International Women's Day - all my favourite days in one week! 

But today has a special place in my heart as it is my first World Book Day as a published author. Woohoo! 

Yes, that's right, the first World Book Day since my debut novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue was published by Our Street books. 

So if you fancy treating yourself to a fabulous read, I would heartily recommend you get yourself a copy toot sweet. 

But what's it about, I hear you ask!

Well, it's about a girl called Greta. On the first day of the summer holidays, she wakes up to find her cat, Boris, has been kidnapped by the Rat King. Why? Because Boris is no ordinary cat. He is the Prince of Cats! 

The Kingdom of Cats know that Greta is the only person in the world who can rescue Boris, as she loves him more than any other living thing. But they also know she can't do it alone. So they send their bravest warrior, Kyrie, to help her on her journey. Together, the pair go on a magical adventure to rescue Boris from the Rat King's clutches. They climb the staircase of autumn leaves, cross the Milky Sea, end the war between the mice tribes and face the terror of the millpond of truth. 

Sounds good huh? 

Here's an excerpt to get you hooked: 

Swish, swish, was the sound that broke into the stillness of the night. Swish, swish, accompanied with scampering and scratching of claws and paws, rushing forward through grass and fallen leaves towards the palace. And if anyone had been awake to hear it, they would have heard that each scurrying paw-step was landing in time, in the rhythm of a march. A soft thud, thud, swish, swish, echoed through the sleepy kingdom, as only the moon looked down on the onward journey of an army that didn’t want to be seen.
The cats slept on, oblivious to the menace that was slowly surrounding them.
The pack of marching creatures started to head up the hill where the palace stood, imposing and magnificent. In the moonlight, the towering building looked even more beautiful and impressive. The rainbow-colored tiles glistened like tiny fairy lights, a blinding spectacle that illuminated the hills and villages below it. The army continued to advance. As the moonlight reflected off their furry backs, it became increasingly obvious which creatures of the animal kingdom were threatening the peaceful palace of the cats. And there could be no doubt at all, when one of the marching many kicked a stone and let loose a wild and pained ‘SQUEAK!’ before hastily being seen to and told off by the leader of the procession.
The moon could see the horrible truth below her now, yet from her lofty place in the sky was powerless to stop it. It was an army of rats. The rats had invaded the Kingdom of Cats. Under the cover of darkness, safe in the knowledge that every kitten, tom and queen would be sleeping soundly, they had made their cowardly advance, confident that no-one would be able to stop them.

I like it, but I wrote it. What do other people think? Well, journalist, broadcaster and writer Bidisha is a fan. She liked it so much, she wrote:
Greta and Boris is touching, exciting, cheeky and vivid, with wonderful characters, a strong narrative and sudden delightful details. It is an adventure that is both heartstopping and heartmelting, at once sentimental and comfortingly predictable. The story's sprinkled with sparkling details, with each location fully realised and a joy to traverse.

So, what are you waiting for? Treat yourself this World Book Day with a fabulous, feminist, fantastic, feline adventure. It's got cats, it's got peril and - most importantly of all - it's got two feisty female leads who will inspire your daughters and your sons. 
Buy now from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, Blackwells, or download it for your Kindle

And one more thing...
Today is my friend's first World Book Day as a published author too! What's more, he's my publisher stable mate. So if a Dantean journey through Victorian London is more your thing this World Book Day, and you're a lover of beautifully written Gothic horror with a political edge, get yourself a copy of Ben Gwalchmai's Purefinder. Look, I reviewed it, so you know it's good. 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Fabulous feminist event happening in Bristol

I'm posting this to promote an event run by a good friend of mine. Go and take part! 

Press Release
For immediate release:
Film Season Celebrating Women’s History month throughout March at Watershed
Over Women’s History Month in March 2014, Translation/ Transmission: Women’s Activism Across Time and Space will host seven screenings at Watershed, celebrating the diverse ways women activists have communicated their struggle through film.  Well-received and less well-known films will be shown together for the first time in a season that explores the potential of film and feminist media to translate across the boundaries of language, genre, time and culture.
Translation/ Transmission features activist documentaries and women filmmakers from the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain, Jamaica, Palestine, Germany, Vietnam, USA, Iran and France/ Cameroon, highlighting the diversity of different feminisms across geographical locations and historical moments.
Screenings will take place on Sundays at 1pm and Tuesdays at 6pm every week from 9th March.
The film season opens on 9th March at 1pm with a screening of Calypso Rose the Lioness of the Jungle, about the diva of Calypso music and pioneer of women’s rights, Calypso Rose.  There will also be a singing performance from Nia Melody.
Kingdom of Women (2010) screens on 11th March. It tells the story of women from the Ein El Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon and the screening will feature a response by Rita from the Bristol-based Palestinian Embassy and Nakba Museum. Rapunzel Let Down Your Hair (1978) and In Our Own Time (1981), two films from the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain, screen on 16th March, with a response from Clarissa Jacob.
Audre Lorde The Berlin Years: 1984-1992 (2012), a film about the poet’s time spent in Berlin will be screened on 18th March alongside a video of Alexis Paula Gumbs reading her letter to Lorde. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s personal documentary Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) will be shown on 23rd March, followed by a discussion led by cultural translation expert Dr Carol O’Sullivan.
A film from the Sistren Theatre Collective from Jamaica, Sweet Sugar Rage (1985) will be screened on 25th March. It will be followed by a response from Dr Gail Lewis. Screening on 30th March is Facing Mirrors (2011), set in contemporary Iran, the film is about a relationship between Rana, a traditional wife and Edi, who is transgender.  Elhum Shakerifar, a documentary film maker, will offer her thoughts on this groundbreaking film.
All tickets are £5.50 full/ £4.00 concessions or as part of the season, buy 4 Translation/ Transmission tickets and get a 5th free when bought in person or over the phone.
Translation/ Transmission is grateful to Watershed, Feminist Archive South, Intellect books and University of Bristol for their generous support of the film season.

Friday, 21 February 2014

An honest, too honest, post about being triggered

Before I start this post, I’ll check we all know what we mean by being triggered. It is when something unexpected happens that reminds you of something painful or violent, and it causes a painful reaction in you. Some of the common triggers in feminist writing are discussions of sexual assault, rape, domestic abuse and child sexual abuse. It’s why we put trigger warnings above blogposts that tackle these subjects. It helps to create a safe space for women (and men). 

I am not a victim or survivor of any of the above beyond a couple of incidents of ‘non-severe sexual assault’ and so although I often read articles about violence against women and girls and feel a sense of pain, horror and outrage at the violence committed against women as a class, it doesn’t ‘trigger’ me on the level of a personal experience. 

However I have been a victim and survivor over the years of men abusing me online. And it was this that gave me, the other day, my first experience of being ‘triggered’ in the way I describe it above. 

So, how did this happen? 

A friend of mine tweeted a line-up for a conference and, being nosey and searching for ways to distract me from work, I had a look to see what it was about. The conference had an interesting title, and I wanted to know more.  

One of the speakers shared a name – let’s call him John Smith – with a man who, for a while, persistently left patronising, and then aggressive, and then abusive comments on my blog and, a while later, on my Twitter feed (I blocked him on Twitter pretty swiftly).

Seeing that name, John Smith, made me feel dizzy. I had felt the same when his name turned up in my Twitter @ mentions, after I thought he had decided to leave me alone. I felt sick, and like I wanted to cry. I felt that heaviness in my stomach and that tightness in my chest. I felt angry that he would be speaking at a conference, and then reassured myself that it probably wasn’t the same John Smith. Even so, I couldn’t still the questions in my mind. What if it was same John Smith? What if this conference was giving a platform to a man I knew had written horrible things and had truly upsetting views on women? How could I know for sure? How could I know for sure that he wasn’t the same man, and that he wouldn't be greeted with applause, when all the time he had written these things. My heart was racing and when my colleague tried to ask me something I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. 

And then I felt embarrassed. I felt embarrassed to be triggered by an experience of online abuse. After all, I told myself, it’s just online. I have no cause to feel triggered by this, when so many of my sisters all over the world have survived such awful violence. I felt guilty for reacting so seriously. And then I felt ashamed, like I was some kind of coward. And then I felt furious that a name, a name of some unpleasant man who has since disappeared from my online life, could leave me feeling so shitty, so long after it all happened. 

I’ve had worse abuse than the words he dished out to me. In lots of ways, he wasn’t that bad – he didn’t threaten me, for example (it’s so ridiculous that I think it wasn’t as bad because it wasn’t a rape threat but hey, that’s the world of being a woman online). Regular readers will know I went to the police over worse abuse. I think my main upset was caused by the fact that this was the first time it had happened when someone kept coming back for more. While it was happening it felt so persistent. It was the first time I felt that someone was targeting my blog, was watching for everything I wrote, and was using what I wrote as a reason to intimidate me. His words had a pattern, as they went from merely patronising, to aggressive, to outright abusive. 

Why am I writing this post? Partly because of the confusion of emotions I felt after seeing that name – the confusion of horror, upset, guilt, shame and anger. I still feel guilty even writing this. I feel I have no right to these feelings over something that seems so trivial. I feel like I have to keep pointing that out. I have to apologise for being over-sensitive, I have to apologise that something so relatively small on the scale of violence against women had an affect on me. 

And I wanted to write this because I also want to say something about the impact online abuse can have on you. It doesn’t disappear when you delete the comment, or hit the block button on Twitter. There’s some feeling that remains, after you know someone has targeted you with such rage and hate. There’s a feeling that remains. 

But I think most of all I wanted to write this because I don’t want this to happen again. I don’t want some stranger with a common name to have the power to make me feel that shaken. I don’t want him to have that kind of power over me. 

I hope that I won’t allow him to have that power over me again. I am determined he won’t have that power over me again. 

It’s just a name. He was just a nasty coward. He has no right. He has no power to upset me. 

This post is very honest, and as such it’s not that well written. But I needed to write it. 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Feminism and the language of abusers

What do you call a man who tells a woman online that she’s a cunt for writing a blog post expressing her opinion? What do you call a man who says a woman should be slapped for something she tweeted? What do you call a man who tells a woman she needs to shut the fuck up and die, needs a good fuck, needs some dick, should be burnt at the stake, for daring to voice an opinion?

I would call a man who says those things a misogynist. I would call him an abusive man.

I have had nearly all of these things said to me by abusive men at one time or another because I have been outspoken, because I have challenged rape culture, because I have dared, as a woman, to have a voice while living in patriarchy.

It hurts. It hurts when men say these things to you. It makes you feel afraid. It knocks your confidence. It happened last week and I shook all over, and wondered if I could carry on writing. It makes you hesitate before checking your @ mentions, before opening your blog dashboard to read your comments. Seven years of abusive men trying to silence me online, and it has never stopped affecting me. It doesn’t stop.

Yesterday, I saw someone online call a woman blogger a cunt, another saying she should be banned from the internet. I saw another person online tell another woman that she should burn in a fire. I saw someone else making “jokes” about how a woman blogger is probably frigid.

Now, because I have had many abusive men say those words to me, I assumed the perpetrator of these insults were abusive men.

But they weren’t abusive men. They were ‘feminists’.

So I ask the question now. Why are feminists using the language of oppression, using the language of misogyny, using the language of abusive men, to attack other feminists? What does that achieve? How is calling a woman a cunt and saying you hope she burns to death – as thousands of women through history have at the hands of patriarchy – compatible with feminism? What are we hoping to achieve by using the words that have oppressed us, silenced us and harmed us for centuries against other women?

I don’t understand it. I truly don’t. However much you disagree with a woman, however much you want to challenge her views, when you decide to silence her with the words of abusive men, you are putting yourself on the side of patriarchy.

When a man who claims to be feminist writes that his hand is itching to slap a woman who is writing online, that ‘feminist’ is using the tactics that abusive men have used for centuries to silence women. When a woman who claims to be a feminist mocks a woman’s sexuality, she is using the tactics that abusive men have used for centuries to shut women the fuck up. When someone claiming feminism calls a woman a cunt and doesn’t mean it in a ‘hey cunts are beautiful and powerful and awesome’ way, that ‘feminist’ is using the tactics of abusive men to intimidate and silence women.

We know that 1 in 3 women are survivors of sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse. We know that. And yet we seem willing to ignore it when we use the language of abuse to attack other women. We ignore that it might be triggering, that we might be repeating words used towards them in violence, that it might be happening offline as well as online.

We know this is the case when an abusive man does it. That’s why we argue against online abuse.

I don’t believe that there is ever really a good reason to use a misogynist’s language against other women. After all, there are enough misogynists out there already trying to shut us up.

When I started thinking about this post, I remembered when Nadine Dorries was humiliated by David Cameron in the House of Commons, as he ‘joked’ about her being ‘frustrated’. As feminists, we rose up in her defence. We agreed that her views are abhorrent, that her beliefs on abortion are dangerous. But we also agreed that it wasn’t ok for the most powerful man in the country to use sexism to shut her up in a male-dominated parliament. So we defended her. We said that however much we condemn her views, we would not accept the use of misogyny to silence her.

I guess what I’m asking is for something similar to happen today. Other feminists, other women, might have views that we don’t like. They might say things that we totally disagree with, that we find horrible. But that doesn’t mean we act like abusive men. That doesn’t mean we use the tools of patriarchy to silence one another.

This isn’t about not being angry, or about silencing our own anger. It’s not about tone policing or trying to silence women’s voices. Because patriarchy is always trying to shame women’s anger, or minimise it, or refuse it. We need to be angry, and we need to be able to express our anger freely. We have a right to our anger, always. This isn’t about saying that abusive language is ‘unladylike’ etc. etc. It’s about understanding how as feminists, using the language of abuse, the language of misogyny, to silence other women is colluding with patriarchy’s project.

I know I’m not going to make any friends writing this blogpost. But as feminists, I think we always need to think about how our actions, our words, our language works in patriarchy. How our actions collude with patriarchy and how we confront and challenge it.

Audre Lorde famously said that the ‘master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.

I am remembering her words, because I believe using patriarchy’s words will never dismantle patriarchy. Adopting the tactics of violent men will never dismantle the structures that enable violence against women and girls.

We need to be angry. We need to fight. We need to shout and scream and yell. But I have had enough of hearing the language of abusive men used to silence women. I don’t care who is using it. Because if you call me a cunt, if you say you hope I get slapped, if you say I need dick, if you say I should die, I will always assume you are an abusive man. Because that’s what abusive men say to me. I don’t put up with it from them. And I won’t put up with it from you.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Celebrity abusers, rape culture and Jim Davidson

This post was originally published on the FWSA blog.

Jim Davidson has won Celebrity Big Brother. Jim Davidson, a man who has an alleged history of intimate partner violence, and whose racist, sexist and homophobic “comedy” led to him being chucked off Celebrity Hell’s Kitchen in 2007. 

Jim Davidson’s third wife alleged that within the first three months of their marriage he had blackened her eyes, damaged her ribs using training weights and kicked her down the stairs. But this abuse is given a free pass. The harm he has caused is ignored. His career continues, the money pours in, and those who dare to mention his history are told to let it go, it’s in the past.  

On Saturday, the Guardian wrote a long and loving article about Mike Tyson. His conviction and imprisonment for raping a woman was brushed off as ‘distressing problems with women’. Since his release from prison, Tyson has become a cult figure, starring in TV shows and movies, going on a book tour and all the while ensuring that his rape conviction is not spoken out loud. Those of us who say this is at very best ‘problematic’ are shouted down, are told he served his time. We’re told we should just let it go. 

On Sunday morning I woke up to find an abusive tweet in my @ mentions because I had in the past called Ched Evans a rapist. For the record, the courts found Ched Evans guilty of rape and sentenced him to jail. He is a rapist. But the fact that he raped a young woman doesn’t prevent his legions of fans from trying to intimidate and silence anyone who points this out. 

These are just three examples of violent, abusive men being lauded, celebrated and defended in one week. Throughout the year you will see many others, while the women they abused are silenced and ignored. These men will receive their awards, will win their popularity contests, and will take home large cheques. All that time their violence will be ignored and brushed aside. Those of us who talk about it will be accused of being ranty feminists who need to let it go. 

When feminists talk about rape culture, this is (in part) what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a culture that excuses, forgives, minimises and ignores men who commit violence against women and girls, and – in these cases – celebrates them as cultural icons. 

Rape culture works like this. No one is going to say rape and violence against women are good things. Look under an article about violence against women on CIF or the Mail Online, and everyone will say ‘of course, rape is an abhorrent act’. And then comes the inevitable ‘but’. Because when faced with a man who is popular, a fun guy who everyone likes or even loves to hate, and who is then revealed to be an abuser of women, people become confused. They have to find a way to bring together their obvious abhorrence of violence against women, and their fondness of this abusive man. So instead, they find ways to minimise the violence. They say that Polanski didn’t commit ‘rape rape’. They say that the woman Ched Evans raped was drunk. They say that Tyson served his time. They say that Jim Davidson’s marriage broke down a long time ago. By doing this, they can maintain that balance of still knowing that ‘violence against women is bad’ while defending the man they admire. 

Meanwhile, as they make these mental gymnastics to absolve male violence, the victims and survivors are silenced and forgotten about. Their experience and the impact of the violence inflicted upon them is dismissed as insignificant. Some go so far in their defence of male abusers as to say that it is in fact worse to be the accused than the victim or survivor. The Grammy awards even counted themselves as the true victims when Chris Brown beat up Rihanna, as his crime meant they couldn’t invite him to perform for at least two years.

This is rape culture in action. And the impact goes further. By ignoring or absolving or excusing the actions of violent men in the public eye, we send the message that if you beat, rape or abuse a woman it doesn’t matter. You can still be a cult hero. You can still win Oscars. You can still have fans willing to abuse other women on your behalf. We send the message to violent men who aren’t famous that their behaviour isn’t so bad. That they can probably get away with it too. Which of course, with a conviction rate of 6.5% and around 90,000 rapes a year, most violent men will. 

When popular men, famous men, love-to-hate men, talented men in the public eye abuse women, our culture closes ranks. We move in to protect them from the feminists who dare to point out their violence, their abuse. Articles are written where the rape is never mentioned. Popularity contests are won because the abuse no longer matters. A man who allegedly beat his partner so viciously that she requested a restraining order against him is described as someone who ‘genuinely likes women’. Our culture protects them, as we develop a conspiracy of silence that hides the truth of their abuse. 

This is what rape culture looks like. Jim Davidson winning Big Brother is what we mean, when as feminists we say that our culture doesn’t care about violence against women. Rape culture is when abusive men’s behaviour gets a free pass, and the women they abuse are silenced, mocked, belittled or become victims of further violence themselves. 

It’s not good enough. 

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Last night, the House of Lords let down our young women

TW - description of sexual bullying/violence

grabbing my breasts in the school corridors. Sitting opposite me in class and making obscene gestures and threatening comments (“I’m going to fuck you”; “Are you going to sit on my cock?”). Jumping on me in the playground and rubbing against me.

The above quote is taken from an interview with a young woman interviewed by Kat Banyard in The Equality Illusion. She’s describing the sexual bullying she experiences in school.

Recently, I looked at the Everyday Sexism website to get some testimonials from young women experiencing sexual bullying in school. I looked at just four pages before it all became too painful, and in that short space of time collected the following: 

One girl writes that when she was 12, boys would stand at the bottom of the stairs to look up girls’ skirts. When she and her friends reported it to the teacher, they refused to see the problem. Another girl reports that boys taunted her with sexual language, including ‘slut’, for over an hour in class. The teacher responded that ‘boys will be boys’ and the sexual bullying continued for another two years. One girl began to hate her body after boys put empty milk cartons under her breasts and asked for refills. A 12 year-old girl went to her head teacher to report boys who were inappropriately touching her. His response was – surprise surprise – ‘boys will be boys’. He also advised the girls to dress in a less ‘inappropriate fashion’ because boys ‘can’t control it’. Now 14, the girl has endured two more years of sexual bullying, with no help from her teachers.

Last night, the House of Lords had a chance to do something about this kind of sexual bullying in schools. They had the opportunity to vote in favour of bringing education on consent and respect into schools. And they chose not to

In the NSPCC and Bristol University research on Partner Exploitation and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships, researchers found that a quarter of girls reported some form of physical violence and 1 in 9 girls reported severe physical violence. Three quarters of girls reported emotional violence and 1 in 3 girls reported sexual violence. Girls were more likely to experience repeated violence than boys and 75% of girls with a “much older” partner experienced physical or sexual violence. 

Research published by the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that 1 in 3 16-18 year olds have experienced unwanted sexual touching, and 1 in 4 said their teachers have never taught them that this is not ok. 

Those numbers, which I have written here before, make me feel physically sick. It makes me feel sick that one in three teenage girls are suffering violence at the hands of their male partners and peers.  

Yesterday, the Lords had a chance to do something about it. And they didn’t. They chose instead to do nothing. 

Education around consent and respect isn’t the only way to tackle violence against teen girls. But it is one way, and it is one very significant way. 

If we teach our young people about consent and respect in relationships, then (duh) they have a better chance of understanding the importance of consent and respect. It’s hardly rocket science. It’s how education works. If we teach young people that enthusiastic consent is a must for sex, if we teach young people that an absence of ‘no’ isn’t the presence of a ‘yes’, if we teach young people that they can have a voice to express what they do and don’t want out of sex, if we teach young people to respect bodily autonomy and integrity then we can help young people begin to discover how to negotiate their sexuality in a mutually consensual and respectful way. 

Of course, it’s not going to eliminate all violence and sexual bullying. But at least it’s a start, and it starts to give young people a context. 

But because of some squeamishness about talking to young people about sex, our political leaders have decided to leave young people out to dry. 

I’ve seen the argument made lots of times that it’s up to parents and guardians to teach their children about sex and consent and respect. Sure, in a perfect world this would be the case. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where some parents are abusers themselves, or don’t feel comfortable talking to their children about sex or don’t have the language to talk about it. 

That’s why we have an education system. We don’t trust parents to teach kids long division. We hope that parents will collaborate with teachers and support their kids through their long division homework. But we know that if parents don’t, children will still be given an opportunity to practise their sums. 

Sex education should not be any different. Parents can be encouraged to be a positive voice, but if they’re not then school fills in the gaps. School is a place to learn about being a grown up. It’s the perfect and most logical setting to talk to young people about consent, respect, bodily autonomy, integrity, sex. 

Otherwise, who fills in the gaps of knowledge and understanding? The internet, with p0rn that fetishizes violence and lack of consent and no condoms? From the time I’ve spent doing feminist activism with young women, p0rn isn’t helping them negotiate their sexuality. Instead, we hear story after story of p0rn being used to groom young women, or young women feeling coerced into sex they don't want to have because their partner has seen it in p0rn. Young women's voices are silenced. 

Young people will always have a very natural sexual curiosity. Refusing to teach them sex education isn’t going to change that no matter what the abstinence only crew say. Sex education that focuses on consent and respect helps them develop the tools they need to have mutually consensual and respectful relationships. It teaches them that aggressive sexual bullying is not ok. It teaches them that coercive behaviour is not ok. It teaches them that physically and sexually violence between partners is not ok. 

How can we in good conscience deny our young people that? 

The research by Bristol Uni and the NSPCC and the stories I quote above show us what happens when we deny young people education on consent and respect. And that’s not ok. It’s not good enough. 

How many girls need to be hit by their partner before we stop burying our heads in the sand and start teaching young people about consent and respect? How many young girls must endure sexual taunts, upskirt shots and groping before we recognise their lived experience and do something about it? How many young women will we let down because of an immature squeamishness about talking about sex?

And what about when they grow up? 

Proper sex education needs to be part of a wider solution to tackle male violence against girls. It’s not the only part, but it’s a starting point. It could make a real and important difference to the lives of young people. The fact that our political leaders continue to refuse to bring these conversations into schools is a disgrace. 

Last night the Lords let down Britain’s schoolgirls. They should hang their heads in shame.