Thursday, 16 October 2014

Show a little empathy, John Grisham

John Grisham, the famous crime writer, has been condemned today for his comments regarding sentences for men who view images of child abuse. Just to be clear – it is not ‘child p0rn’ – the latter word implies consent. These are images of child abuse. 

[Just so you know, I have to spell p0rn that way because on previous occasions of writing about similar issues I have had search terms come to my blog that have made me wonder if I should call the police] 

Grisham argues that men who view images of child abuse online, but who would never actively abuse a child, do not deserve harsh prison sentences. He argues:

We’ve got prisons now filled with guys my age, 60-year-old-white men, in prison, who have never harmed anyone. Who would never touch a child, but they got online one night, started surfing around, probably had too much to drink whatever and pushed the wrong buttons, and went too far and went into child p0rn or whatever.’ 

Excuse me while I try and lift my head up from my desk. 

There are so many things wrong with Grisham’s statement I don’t know where to start. But we could start with the fact that in the US, the prisons are certainly not filled with 60-year old white men. 

But the main issue with his comments is his utter lack of empathy with the children who are being abused in these films and images. What is so startling about Grisham’s comments is the refusal to acknowledge the children. His empathy only extends to the men who look like him – the white 60-year-old American male. He is determined in his comments to ignore the actual victims. Instead, he recasts the victims as the men who look at the images.   

Grisham argues that men like his friend, who is in prison for viewing images of child abuse, would never harm a child. But what he is ignoring is that in searching for and looking at the images in the first place, his friend *is* harming the child. It’s not rocket science. Through his search, he is feeding an industry that sexually exploits children, as well as fuelling the demand for that industry. 

This colossal lack of empathy is not a one-off, and the comments are not unique to Grisham. Similar arguments to his were made when Chris Langham was was found guilty on charges of possessing child pornography and made to sign the sexual offenders register, or when Peter Townshend was placed on the sex offenders register for five years in 2003, after admitting he had used his credit card to access a website bearing the message "click here for child p0rn". Both men claimed ‘research’ as their reason for accessing these images. Their defenders argued that as a result they shouldn’t be criminalised. Looking for these images as research, they posed, was different than looking at them because you’re a paedophile. After all, the debate ran, these men weren’t getting sexual pleasure from these images. So what’s the problem?

But what these arguments missed, and what Grisham misses, is that it doesn’t matter to a child why a man chooses to look at the images of them being raped. It doesn’t stop the rape, because one man is looking for research, and one man is looking because he’s drunk, and one man is looking because he gets off on it. The individual viewer’s motivations don’t change what has happened to that child. It doesn’t matter why a man looks, because the fact remains that a child has still been abused for them to view. 

As long as men are looking for these images for whatever reason, people will continue to make them. And that is why the men who view these images need to face justice. They’re complicit in the abuse, whether they like it or not. 

How could Grisham justify his comments, if faced with someone whose abuse was filmed and shared online? How could he explain to that child that his friend didn’t mean any harm? What difference would his friend’s drunken justifications make to the child? It wouldn’t undo the harm done to that child. It wouldn’t change anything. 

When men look at images of child abuse, they are committing a crime. They are complicit in the rape and abuse of a child. Their motivation doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to the child being abused, and it certainly doesn’t matter to their abusers. All the former knows is that someone is willing to pay to view their pain. And all the latter knows is that someone is willing to pay them to abuse a child. 

Think about that, John Grisham. Try to feel empathy for someone who doesn’t look like you. Think about that child, and how your friend’s ‘mistake’ is complicit in the abuse of that child. Then maybe think about apologising. And then maybe donate some dollars to a charity tackling child abuse. 

If you need to talk to someone about rape or abuse, you can call Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999. You can also call the NSPCC on: 0808 800 5000

And I know none of my readers are as rich as John Grisham. But if you want to, you can donate to Rape Crisis or the NSPCC and help tackle sexual violence.  




Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Violent men and ruined lives - what about their victims?

On Friday, Ched Evans will leave prison, after serving around half of his five-year sentence for rape.

When I think of his sentence, I’m reminded of Ken Clarke back in 2010 disputing the fact that rapists only get five years in prison. I hope Ken Clarke is paying attention on Friday. 

It’s unclear yet whether Evans will be returning to Sheffield United. A petition signed by over 100,000 people has asked the club to turn him away. But there is certainly a group of people who would welcome him with open arms on to the pitch. If he is invited back to play, then every weekend for the next few years a woman will have to watch as her rapist is cheered by thousands of fans and celebrated as a hero to teenage boys up and down the country. The same fans who named her online, and forced her from her home and into changing her identity. 

Many of those calling for Evans’ return still refuse to believe he is a rapist. When I tweeted earlier that he is a rapist, a fan responded telling me to ‘read the facts, not the headlines’. 

Ok. Here are some facts for you. Ched Evans was accused of rape. He was charged with rape. He was convicted of rape. He served time for rape. Ched Evans is a rapist. 

He was convicted of rape because he raped a 19 year-old woman who was so intoxicated that she was unable to consent. That’s rape. It isn’t ‘bad sexual etiquette’ or ‘just something that happens’ and it certainly wasn’t her fault. She’s not a ‘slag’ or a ‘gold digger’ – as Evans’ fans have called her. She is a victim of rape, and he is a rapist. 

Of course, Evans has served his time (although what a short time it has been). I understand the arguments that he is entitled to get on with his life. And of course there is a whole debate to be had about our prison system, its purpose (punishment or rehab?) that I don’t want to go into here. 

I hear those arguments. 

And then I think of his victim. 

What about her life? What about her future? When Evans raped her, did he care about if her life would be ruined? When his fans named her, abused her, and drove her from her home into hiding, did they care about her life? 

Will the football club be thinking about her, if they give Evans a strip that will make him a role model? Will the sponsors be thinking about her, if they then arrange profitable deals that will make him the face of their products? 

Is anyone thinking about her life? Does anyone care about how it would be to see your rapist to be celebrated, cheered, feted, slapped on the back and held up as a hero? 

As a society, we pretend to think rape is bad. We write comments on articles saying ‘rape is an abhorrent crime, but…’ There’s always a but. Because at the same time as claiming our horror about rape, we still reward celeb rapists with plaudits, success (I’m looking at you, Mike Tyson). We promise them our silence, so that the devastating crime they chose to commit is never mentioned. And we tacitly agree to never, ever mention the victim. We co-operate, and pretend to forget that the man we are celebrating deliberately chose to violate a woman’s bodily autonomy.  

I don’t want Evans to rot in jail – I get that he’s served his time according to his sentence. But I want it to be fully, truly recognised that what he did was wrong. And part of that is agreeing that he can’t stroll back into the life he had, and revel in the cheers of thousands, and be held up as a hero to thousands more football fans. 

Because that’s not acknowledging the seriousness of his crime. That’s not acknowledging the impact rape has on women’s lives. That’s doing a Tyson, again. That’s just going along with what rapists want to happen. It is an insult to his victim. And it is an insult to women who have been raped everywhere. 

And then there’s Pistorius – a man who shot his girlfriend dead and was found guilty of culpable homicide. 

His PR people have been very busily re-writing his story. This is no longer the story of a man who fired his gun four times through the bathroom door and as a result killed his girlfriend. This is now the story of his ‘ordeal’ from which he will ‘never recover’.

Let’s make one thing very clear. Pistorius is more like to recover from this ordeal than Reeva Steenkamp. 

It didn’t take long for the Paralympics committee to talk about Pistorius as an ‘inspiration’ who they would welcome back to competitive sport. It didn’t take long before the memoir deal started being discussed. It’s a memoir where he’ll be cast as a ‘tragic hero’. This could be ‘the sports biography of the century’ guys! You hear that – the sports biography of the century! 

When I read that line I thought I might throw up. 

Because amid all the excitement, all the hype, and all the sympathy for Pistorius, we’ve forgotten the woman lying dead in the bathroom. 

Just like in all the angry defence of Ched Evans, and the cheers demanding his return to the pitch, we’ve forgotten the woman lying raped in a hotel room. 

In her superb article today, Frances Ryan discusses Evans and Pistorius, and asks why we value the lives of men over women? 

Why indeed! Because both of these cases show the truth in her question. Both of these cases show how much more concerned we are with the ‘ruined lives’ of these men, than the lives of their victims. 

We express concern about men’s ruined lives – while carefully ignoring the fact that it was their actions that caused this so-called ‘ruin’. We bend ourselves backwards trying to accommodate violent men, trying to make sure rapists and killers are ‘okay’, trying to make sure the crimes they committed don’t continue to impact on them. We feel embarrassed if we mention the crimes. We keep quiet about how they brought the ‘ruin’ on themselves. We tread carefully, so they don’t have to feel bad about what they did. 

And we don’t give a flying fuck about the impact of their actions on the lives of the women. We don’t care about how rape impacts on a woman’s life – how it can lead to PTSD, and physical and mental health complications. We don’t want to hear about how women’s lives are ruined by the actions of violent men. 

We don’t want to think about Reeva Steenkamp, when we buy Pistorius’ memoir. We don’t want to think about Evans’ victim, when he scores that winning goal. 

So we just conveniently take them out of the narrative. 

After all, it doesn’t matter if women’s lives are ruined by violent men, does it? It doesn’t matter that it happens every day. The Evans and Pistorius cases show that what matters to our society most is the fallen abuser. It’s more important to us that the violent man can have his life back. 

I’m not having it. I can’t put stay silent. I can’t join in with the pretence that these men’s lives are ruined. I can’t ignore their victims because they and their agents want us to

So just remember this. 

Pistorius’ life wasn’t ruined. Reeva Steenkamp’s life was ended. 


Ched Evans’ life wasn’t ruined. Ched Evans is a rapist.

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Butterfly Psyche Theatre’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


On Friday evening I headed across town to the haunting and evocative setting of Arnos Vale cemetery to watch the Butterfly Psyche Theatre’s production of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – adapted from Anne Bronte’s novel. The company have been running a season of Bronte adaptations – including the perhaps better known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

The novel’s narrative is mainly told through a letter from Gilbert Markham to his friend, detailing the arrival of the new tenant at Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham. The middle part of the novel is written as Helen’s diary, before switching back to Gilbert’s letter.  

This structure informed the performance of the play – with two actors taking on all the character roles and using the framing of a letter and a diary to directly narrate to the audience what was happening in the story. This successfully meant that the audience was able to negotiate what is quite a complex story, while gaining an insight into the inner lives of Gilbert and Helen. 

The play began with the male actor addressing the audience as Gilbert. He draws us into the world of his village – with the woman actor taking on the role of mother, sister, brother, landlord, and the wickedly flirtatious Eliza Millward, before entering the stage as Helen. It’s a real skill to be able to perform such a diverse set of roles in such quick succession and allow the audience to latch on to the change of character without feeling jarred, and it’s a skill she had. Changing her posture, her smile, the way she moved her eyes – these subtle movements helped the audience understand straight away whether she was, for example, Helen or Eliza. 

Gilbert’s narration meant that as well as the action on stage, we were able to comprehend and empathise with his changing feelings towards Helen, as slowly he finds himself in love with her – and she with him. We see a young man grappling with the first realisation of love and feel with him his shock and horror when he believes Helen has betrayed his love. 

The story then switches, and it is Helen who takes centre stage, as the narrative voice moves to her diary and the story of her increasingly violent marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. 

The devastating centre of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story of domestic abuse, and Helen’s struggle to decide whether to stay, and remain in a violent marriage, or go and risk the scandal and censure of her peers. It’s a very radical and brutally honest story – made even more so when you consider that Bronte wrote this novel when women didn’t have much legal status at all – and certainly not in cases of divorce. 

The actor playing Helen beautifully depicted how marriage turned her from a spirited and principled young girl full of verve and energy, to a grown woman who is trying to survive in a loveless and violent marriage. The actors powerfully brought to life Helen’s internal struggle – she optimistically hopes for a better future with her husband, whilst knowing that in reality such a belief is hopeless. As a result, she is torn between wanting to stay, and knowing she must leave.  

Just as in 1848, when the novel was written, readers and audiences today still question ‘why did she stay for so long’. It’s a question we don’t just ask of Helen, but of all women in violent relationships. The ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ question has echoed through the ages – dangerously ignoring the role of the perpetrator and the dynamics of male violence against women. Through witnessing Helen as she battles with the expectations put on her by society, her fears for her son, and her dying hopes for a better future, the audience perhaps are brought closer to understanding the impact of domestic abuse, and the difficulties women face in escaping violent marriages. 

Having two actors play all the characters meant that much of the novel was cut – for example the storyline involving Walter Hargrave, and the scenes where Huntingdon tries to corrupt his son by giving him wine and teaching him to insult his mother. As a result, some of the novel’s darkness and horror was lost, as both of those storylines bring to life even more just how impossibly placed Helen was. She knows that if she leaves her husband, she risks being preyed upon by men like Hargrave, and will be seen by her peers as a disgraced woman who is up for grabs. She also knows that if she doesn’t leave, Huntingdon’s influence on her son will increase, and the cycle of abuse re-enforced. 


But the effect of these cuts meant that the play could distil the two key core developments of the novel – that of Gilbert from a slightly frivolous and fickle boy to a loving and mature man, and of Helen’s journey towards freedom and a mutual, respectful love. As a result, the production gave the audience access into the inner lives of these two complex and challenging characters in a very personal and powerful way.  

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

If not now, when?

September was a good month. It was sunny, and didn’t rain much, and I went on holiday and turned 30. Pretty good month. 

It was also the month 11 women were killed in the UK by suspected male violence. Follow that link to the Counting Dead Women blog see their names. It’s important we remember their names - Palmira Silva, Alice Gross, Hannah Witheridge, Leighann Duffy, Glynis Bensley, Pennie Davis, Serena Hickey, Dorothy Brown, Nicola Mckenzie, Davinia Loynton, Lorna McCarthy.  

September was also the month we learnt that a rich white man who shoots a gun four times loaded with bullets that are designed to kill, and does kill, is not actually considered a murderer. 

Today I woke up to the tragic news that another young girl has been killed, by suspected male violence. It’s a horrible, horrible news story and my thoughts and sympathies go out to her family, friends and loved ones. 

I’m not going to comment on the specific case here. I want to instead talk about the wider response to the epidemic of male violence. 

Whenever there is a murder like this, feminist campaigners like myself start talking again about male violence. And we are told we’re disgusting, that we’re trying to make political capital out of a tragedy. That now is not the time to talk about male violence. 

It’s a similar response that conservatives make to gun crime incidents in the USA. A mass shooting provokes discussion about gun control. Those in favour of the status quo pronounce that ‘now is not the time to talk about gun control’ and accuse reformists of trying to make political capital out of a tragedy. 

To which the response is – if not now, when? If not in the aftermath of a mass killing by a man with a gun, when is a good time to talk about gun crime? When is a non-sensitive time to have this conversation? When everyone has forgotten again? Or on the days when no gun murders take place in the States? (hint, those days don’t actually exist). 

It’s the same with male violence. We know that 2 women a week are murdered by their partners or ex partners. We know that the vast majority of murderers of women are men (and the vast majority of killers of men are men too). We know that there are 80,000 rapes a year in the UK, over 500,000 sexual assaults – again a majority of which are committed by men against women.

When would be a good time to talk about fatal male violence? When would be a good time to talk about the patterns of male violence? When would be good time to talk about how male violence is not an ‘isolated incident’, how 11 women being killed in one month is not an ‘isolated incident’? If not now, when?

Shall we talk about it on the few days in the week when a woman isn’t killed by a man? We can’t talk about it on the days when male violence against women isn’t happening because – like gun murders in America – those days don’t exist. 

Talking about fatal male violence when it happens isn’t an attempt to make political capital out of a dreadful murder. It’s a very real and very necessary attempt to try and make sense of why these murders keep on happening, so that we can stop them from happening again. 

We keep burying our heads in the sand about the reality of male violence. We keep pretending that these are isolated incidents. We keep ignoring the fact that if 11 members of any other group of people were murdered by another group of people within 30 days then we wouldn’t call it an ‘isolated incident’. 

If we don’t talk honestly about male violence, then we can’t take action to stop it. If we don’t talk about causes, police failings, cuts to life-saving services; if we don’t talk about education; if we don’t talk about impunity then we can’t stop it. 

Ask yourself. How many women have to die before we start talking about fatal male violence? How long are you prepared to wait? 



Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dave Lee Travis and the response to sexual assault

Sexual assault is a crime. 

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, in recent days, I’ve found myself having to remind myself of this, and remind others of it too. 

Sexual assault is a crime. It is a crime to grab a woman’s arse or crotch. It is a crime to grope a woman’s tits. It is against the law to violate another person’s autonomy. It’s not funny. It’s not a joke. It’s not ‘just a laugh’ and ‘boys will be boys’. It is a crime. 

I feel I have to remind people of this because in the days following Dave Lee Travis’ conviction for indecent assault, there has been the usual flurry of people trying to minimise what he did, and what others like him did. They’ve tried once again to paint sexual assault as something that just ‘used to happen in the 60s/70s/80s’ (even though we now know that he was still assaulting women in the last few years - as Camilla Long’s excellent article illustrates). When that defence has failed, they’ve tried to act as though it’s not that bad for men to violate women’s boundaries, for men to treat your body as public property. 

That’s what sexual assault is, by the way. It is a deliberate choice by another person to violate your personal boundaries and to treat your body as their property - to treat your body as though it doesn’t belong to you. 

So why are so many people so determined to minimise this crime? Why are so many people determined to pretend that it isn't that bad? Why are people so invested - as one tweeter was this morning - in telling women to stop moaning and instead concern themselves with ‘real issues’? Why, when I tweeted about my own experience of sexual assault, did I receive the patronising response, ‘there there dear!’? 

I’ve got two suggestions. Firstly, I believe it is because of the oft-repeated refrain from the last couple of years:

If that’s a crime, then you’d have to lock up most of the male population!

In another instance that proves that anti feminist men have much less respect for men than most feminists, I believe that most of the male population are able to go about their lives without grabbing women’s body parts. I don’t think violating women’s bodies is something that blokes innately or naturally do. It is a deliberate crime that one person commits against another. So you wouldn’t have to lock up most the male population. (#notallmen !!!)

But if every sexual assault: if every grab; if every act of intimidation; if every flash; if every public wank on to a woman’s body without her consent; if every tongue forced down a throat without consent; if every rape - if all of these crimes were reported, and convicted, then there would be many, many more men in prison. When you consider there are over 500,000 sexual assaults in the UK every year. And that around 80,000 of those are rapes. And of those rapes only 15% are reported. And of that 15%, only 6% are convicted. 

Imagine for a moment, if every one of those sexual assaults and rapes were reported, and every victim was believed, and every perpetrator was convicted. We can’t, can we? We can’t conceive such a thing - if every time a man has groped or grabbed us he was arrested, and charged, and convicted. 

And the reason we can’t imagine it is because as women we have been taught for so long that these every day violations of our bodily autonomy are just things we are meant to put up with. From the age of 16, 14, 12, 10, 8…we are told not to make a fuss. We are told it’s just a bit of a joke. Boys will be boys. We’re told ‘not to make a fuss over nothing’. We’re told it’s just what happens to you when you are a girl or a woman, in public space. We’re not told that anything we can be done about it. We walk away, feeling sad, and frightened, and ashamed, and embarrassed. And he, the person who has made you feel this way, walks away feeling free. 

When I flick through my own main experiences of sexual assault assault, there are at least four offences of DLT proportions and worse. And those are just the four I remember. The general litany of flashings and gropings are too commonplace, too blurry, to really recall individually. I didn’t report a single one of them. I didn’t even report when my hair was set on fire. 

‘Don’t make a fuss. ‘Boys will be boys’. ‘What do you expect?’

Thankfully, in the case of DLT, women did stand up. They called the assaults what they were. They named the crime. And how do we, collectively, as society respond? By talking about how awful it is for him to have to go through this. By talking about how the assaults aren’t that bad. By telling women, once again, that they should just put up with it, and keep quiet. 

I’ve long observed how as a society, we have a dissonance in our approach towards violence against women. I have written about this before, in terms of our reaction to violent celebrity men.

We all agree that of course, violence against women is wrong. We all nod our heads vehemently and agree that rape is an abhorrent crime. And then we do our best to try and minimise violence against women. When we are confronted with rape, we find ways to blame the victim. When we are confronted with domestic abuse, we ask why she stayed. And when sexual assaults like DLT’s are revealed, we shake our heads and muse publicly about whether it’s actually that bad, whether being groped is actually that distressing.

(It is, by the way. Being a victim of sexual assault is deeply unpleasant. In my experience it has meant feeling grubby, and embarrassed, and ashamed. It has made me feel anxious in public spaces. It has been a constant reminder that under patriarchy, I am not entitled to believe that my body is my own, and that there will always be men willing to remind me of this.)

I’ve come to the sad conclusion that the reason we do this, the reason we condemn violence against women on the one hand, and excuse and minimise it on the next, is because the reality of male violence against women and girls is just too awful to confront. So we find ways to avoid confronting it. And the best way to avoid confronting male violence, is to focus our attention on women’s behaviour. 

So now I want you to confront the reality of male violence against women in the UK. Think about it for a moment. Think about how in the UK, there are 500,000 sexual assaults every year. 80,000 rapes every year. That’s around 1500 rapes a week. 1.2 million women every year experience domestic abuse. 2 women a week are being killed by their male partners or exes. 

Think about how,  at the same time this is happening, the government cuts are closing down the services that tackle male violence, and pick up the pieces left by male violence. 

It’s a lot easier to find ways to blame the victim, to ask questions of the victim, and to pretend that the crimes committed against women are not that bad. It’s a lot easier to do that then to confront the extent of male violence against women, to take action to prevent it, and to invest money in supporting the women who experience it. 

It’s a lot easier to tell women that the assaults committed against us aren’t that bad, than to ask why nearly half a million men feel confident that they can grope, grab and assault women and get away with it. 

I think there’s another reason why so many men in the last few days have huffed and puffed and tried to pretend that there’s not much wrong with what DLT did. 

And that’s because they are guilty of the same crime. But unlike DLT, and in common with the vast majority of men who grope, grab, flash, wank on, beat, and rape women, they got away with it. 

DLT’s conviction has reminded those men that what they did is a crime. And now they’re running scared they won’t be able to get away with it again. 


Fancy buying a book or two?

Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue
The Boys on the Bus 



Monday, 15 September 2014

Re-thinking sisterhood conference and what I said about women only space

So. For me the story of sisterhood and the importance of women-only organising is a story of moving from what might be called ‘liberal’ feminism to a more radical feminist outlook. 

When I started out in feminism, organising Ladyfest 2007 and then, not long after, taking over the stewardship of the Bristol Feminist Network, I believed in the importance of including men in my feminist organising. After all, I reasoned, men can be feminists too (a belief I now question) and patriarchy hurts men too. So why shouldn’t men come along, contribute, share, and listen? Why shouldn’t men be present? 

I do still have sympathy with this outlook in part. I do think that patriarchy hurts men too, and I do believe that men need to be allies to the feminist movement. I believe this because in order to achieve the goals of the women’s liberation movement, men need to change. They need to give up some power and privilege. And for men to do this, they need to see why it is necessary. Feminism is part of the why. I also believe that in many ways, patriarchy does hurt men too. It preaches a damaging ideal of masculinity that celebrates violence and machismo, and leaves men and boys feeling hurt and confused. A good example of this is the exposure of very young men and boys to pornography that glamorises violence against women – telling men that the only way to be sexual is to be violent and aggressive. This message helps no one. 

When I ran the Bristol Feminist Network, very few men attended our meetings. The vast, vast majority of meetings, although open to men, were women only by default. And it is in these meetings where I discovered the beauty of sisterhood. 

Sisterhood is not about liking women, it’s not about being best friends with every woman you meet. I met some women in these meetings who I couldn’t stand! Instead, sisterhood is about creating a space or a world where women’s voices are heard, listened to – really listened to – and respected. 

In these women only spaces, I found myself laughing with women who were ten years younger and forty years older than me. I found myself crying as we shared painful stories, and as I told painful stories myself. I found myself listened to, and heard. 

In those meetings, I discovered the importance of women-only space in creating an environment where all the women speaking had a shared experience of oppression, and where all the women speaking were equal and valued. 

Now, sometimes men would come to the meetings. Mostly these men were lovely. Kind, sensitive, “feminist” – but also filled with male privilege. And I started to realise how different the dynamic was when men were present. Collectively, the women in the room listened to men more. We privileged their voices. We looked to them to be the voice of wisdom and sense. 

This was not something these men consciously demanded from us – far from it. But it was something that occurred because as women, we have been raised from day one to defer to men. We have been educated to put men’s voices first. And it is hard to erase 25 years of patriarchal training to shut up and listen to him, even when you are in a feminist meeting. 

That was my first lesson in why we needed women only space. The second was from a story my friend told me about a meeting she had to go to with a cabinet minister, to talk about women’s rights in conflict zones. The minister arranged for the meeting to take place in his “club”. Yes, a male only club, like the ones you read about in Georgette Heyer novels. My friend had to get permission to enter. 

It was a lightbulb moment for me. For years, I had heard people tell me that women only feminist space was exclusive and excluded men. But in one flash, I realised that the centres of power in this country – the boys schools, the bullgindon club, the golf clubs, the gentleman’s clubs, they were male only spaces that consciously and legally excluded women. The places where the decisions were made, where the men talked, where the men made connections, where the men ruled – all of these were set up to deliberately exclude women. And no one was really talking about it. Whereas men were up in arms at women daring to come together in women only spaces to talk about rape, they were strangely silent about men coming together in male only spaces to talk about laws around rape. 

This is hugely important. If you want to speak to a cabinet minister about including women in conflict resolution in their own countries, as my friend was doing, and to have that meeting you have to go to a place that absolutely excludes women, something is very, very wrong. 

This was when I realised why women only space is so threatening to men. And threatening is the word – if it wasn’t threatening we wouldn’t have to spend so long explaining why we want it, justifying why we want it, and being forced to give it up because we’re ‘discriminating against men.’ Women only space is threatening because men know that male-only spaces are spaces of power. They’re the spaces where men make the decisions that govern society. Women only spaces are spaces where women are creating their own power. 

Because women-only space is empowering – for all of those reasons of sisterhood I explained before. It’s empowering in the real, true sense of the word, because it creates a space where we have an equal and valued voice. 

So that’s how I made the journey from mixed to women-only space. Since my light bulb moment, it’s one I’ve become more convinced by – having had the infuriating experience of being told by men who identify as feminists that I need to shut up, sit back, read more books, or being told ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’. I need a space that is free from male privilege, where women can share their experiences and self-organise and be empowered. 

Sisterhood has been the most important thing to me since becoming a feminist. As I said, sisterhood is not about liking every woman you meet. But it is absolutely about feeling that women’s voices can and must be heard. It is about recognising common experiences of oppression whilst valuing and talking about how intersectionality means that different women experience oppression differently. And it is about coming together, and creating our own, empowered spaces, having been locked out of the centres of power for so long. 

After all, as Robin Morgan so wisely said, SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL!!!!!


Monday, 18 August 2014

Women of the Left Bank Series Part 4: Djuna Barnes

Read the rest of the series


I was devoted to Djuna and she was very fond of me in her own superior way…’

So goes Janet Flanner’s reminiscence of Djuna Barnes, and it’s one that seems to speak for most of those who knew this extraordinary writer. Barnes inspired devotion in her friends, and it was a devotion that saved her life on various occasions. 

Janet goes on to tell a story about how Djuna gave her one of her manuscripts to read. Janet read it, and returned it, admitting she was baffled by the content. Djuna responded in her magnificent way:

Oh Janet. I never expected you to be as stupid as Tom Eliot.’ 

Born in 1892 in New York State, Barnes had a terrible and traumatic childhood, something she explores in her picaresque Elizabethan epic, Ryder. Her father was a failed composer, musician and painter who was unable to support his family financially. And he had a big family – moving in his mistress when Barnes was five and fathering eight children. Barnes spent most of her childhood caring for the kids. Barnes was raped as a teenager, and when she was 17 she was married off to the brother of her dad’s mistress, in what was not a consensual match. She remained with him for two months. 

Barnes’ violent and unsettled childhood influences much of her writing. As I mentioned, Ryder deals with the impact her father’s sexual antics had on her family, and it also obliquely references her rape. She later deals with this latter subject more explicitly in her furious play, The Antiphon

In 1912 Djuna Barnes moved to New York, where she pioneered a new kind of journalism – documenting her own experiences of the stories of the time. She volunteered to be force-fed so she could document the trials of the hunger-striking suffragettes, and was rescued by a fire fighter from a skyscraper. Barnes joined the thriving bohemian community in Greenwich Village and in 1915 published her book of poetry ‘The Book of Repulsive Women’. 

But like many women of the time, Barnes believed that in order to live the life she wanted to live, she needed to be in Paris. And so, in 1921, she travelled across the Atlantic and arrived in the City of Light. 

One of the things everyone remembers about Djuna is her incredible beauty. She was stunning. And she knew how to make the most of her gorgeous looks. She was always immaculately made-up, with red lips and red nails, wearing the fashions of the day. But her beauty was a double-edged sword. Gertrude Stein dismissed her talent because she didn’t believe such a beautiful woman needed to be taken seriously. Whilst other raved about her work, Stein merely referred to her as having ‘beautiful legs.’ It was not a compliment Djuna took kindly. 

In Paris, Barnes became a member of the expat community, and one of Natalie Barney’s circle. She had a brief affair with Natalie not longer after her arrival (but then, who didn’t?). 
Natalie eagerly promoted Barnes’ work at her salons, and was a lifelong friend and patron. Barnes later went on to pay a tribute of sorts to Natalie in her privately-published ‘Ladies Almanack’. This hand-illustrated book was a satire of the lesbian circle that orbited Natalie. Stars of the Almanack include Janet Flanner and Solita Solano as ‘Nip and Tuck’; Dolly Wilde as ‘Doll Furious’; and Natalie herself as ‘Dame Evangeline Musset’. 

Djuna’s reputation as a writer went beyond the lesbian Paris scene. Despite Ezra Pound calling her a ‘baboon’ (Fuck You Ezra!), her talent was hugely respected by the leading modernists of the day. She had a very close relationship with James Joyce. She saw him as her equal, and would talk with him about her writing and her work. TS Eliot was a great admirer – he would go on to edit and write the introduction to her masterpiece, Nightwood. And Ford Madox Ford championed her work in his Atlantic Review. 

Which brings me on to Nightwood – Djuna’s 1936 novel that, among other things, tells the story of her relationship with the artist Thelma Wood.  But before we deal with Nightwood, we should deal with Thelma. 



Born in 1902 in Kansas, Thelma and Djuna began a relationship in 1921 that would last for eight years. Thelma was very tall and boyish looking – a very attractive woman who dressed in androgynous clothes and pursued ‘silverpoint’ art. At first, the relationship was very happy. ‘They were so haunted of each other’ is how Barnes described the intensity of their attraction to one another. 

But over time, the relationship started to show cracks. Thelma was a drinker and unable to remain sexually faithful to Djuna. And that was what Djuna wanted, and needed, from her lover. A drinker herself, the pair became lost in a painful spiral of drunkenness and infidelity, until they could no longer sustain their relationship. When Thelma began an affair with Henriette Metcalf, Djuna ended it for good. 

The end of the relationship was devastating for Djuna. She locked herself away and drank solidly. Finally, increasingly concerned for her welfare, Natalie Barney brought her to her home on rue Jacob and her housekeeper, Berthe, who fondly recalled Djuna’s elegance, nursed her back to health. 

As she recovered, Djuna poured her heartache into Nightwood – a novel that remains one of the greatest and most beautiful works of the modernist period. 

I first read Nightwood as a teenager and it is a book that has haunted me throughout my adult life – a book I return to year after year, each time discovering something new and frightening and beautiful. That is its power. 

Nightwood tells the story of Felix Volkbein, an Austrian trying to uphold the traditions of European nobility – a section of society which he doesn’t really belong to. He marries the androgynous Robin and she has a child, but Robin leaves him and their son in pursuit of her own wandering adventures. She meets Nora, and the two fall in love, but Robin constantly seeks out affairs with strangers. In an appallingly frightening and intense chapter, Robin meets a woman called Jenny – a grasping bitch who is intent on stealing the happiness of others. Jenny grabs at Robin, who leaves Nora. 

Nora desperately tries to find Robin and bring her back to her, searching for her across Europe and America. She looks for her in the bars and the ports, tries to love the girls Robin has loved, but only finds women who Robin has left. The descriptions of her search are among some of the most heartrendingly painful and beautiful passages in the novel. 

Central to the narrative is the character of Dr Matthew O’Connor, a transvestite who opines on the nature of the night (in my fantasy film version, I always imagine him played by John Hurt). His babbling monologues on night, sex, history, philosophy and Robin are the heart of the novel. Despite not taking part in any of the main action, he is the observer. Through Matthew we understand everything that is happening in the novel. 

It is impossible for me to put into words the extraordinariness of Nightwood and its impact on me as a reader. There is no other book like it. Although it is seen as a cult gay novel, it really is so much more than that. It is a novel about gay characters, certainly, but it is also a novel about pain, despair, the encroaching fascism taking over 1930s Europe, of misfits and strangers, of love and loss, and of life. Its prose is poetry – rich with visions and intense, sensual descriptions. It is grotesque and beautiful all at once. 

Nightwood was a success, yet the applause didn’t bring Djuna happiness. She continued to drink and drink, and she was broke. But the devotedness she inspired in her friends never faded. With war approaching, her friends recognised the need to get her out of Europe. Worried for her safety, Peggy Guggenheim paid for Djuna’s passage home to America. She was so ill that Peggy worried she wouldn’t survive the journey. 

She did survive. After returning to New York, Djuna became increasingly bitter and reclusive. In fact, she lived a very long life – dying in 1982. Throughout she maintained correspondence with Natalie, the pair reminiscing on their life in 1920s Paris.