Monday, 31 August 2009

Book Review - The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism

The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism by Ellie Levenson
I've read a lot about this book, I've debated about it on blogs, I've even debated with Ellie Levenson directly on the F Word blog, but now it is time for me to review the book directly. I have been a bit reticient about writing this as I know that I am going to criticise her book and I don't want it to be taken as a personal criticism of Levenson, but rather a criticism of her book.
So – disclaimer over. It's my blog after all and I can write about whatever I like!

For those not in the know, Levenson's Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism is a book designed for women and men who may not already identify with feminism, but are interested in it, and want to learn more about what feminism is all about. In this respect, it is the first mainstream, non academic book that has been published in Britain on feminism since Natasha Walter's in 2000. this makes it an important book. In terms of publishing, this is the book that has been chosen by the publishing world to define what feminism means to people living in the noughties. No mean feat to try and create a book that says these things.

Levenson has therefore received a great deal of media attention, even being named by the Times as a feminist icon. But her book has courted a massive amount of controversory by the feminist community as they almost uniformly have shouted “Not in my name”. And this comes from the idea that a lot of the feminism Levenson writes about in her book doesn't represent any feminism that most feminists identify or work with. Which is a problem when her book is being publicised as the book to define the feminism of the modern woman.

First up I would like to deal with the good things about Levenson's book. Because they are there. A lot of the reviews I have read have focussed overwhelmingly on the negative elements, but it is important to recognise that some of the things Levenson says are fundamentally sensible and make sense, even if a lot of her work, in the view of myself and many other women, does not.
It seems to me that Levenson writes best about the issues she knows or cares most about. Chief amoung this is the issue around changing her name after marriage, and her decision to keep her own name. She writes about this eloquently and confidently, explaining carefully why this decision was so important to her, her frustration at people referring to her as her husband's name and the conversations she has had with other women about this issue, women who have chosen to change and keep their names. This is an important feminist issue, and needs to be discussed, and I think the way Levenson discusses it brings up a lot of the important issues.
Another area in which I think she hits the nail on the head was in her discussion of the TV show “How to look good naked”. She argues that Gok Wan's insistence on the woman he is making over being sexy at all times, including throwing away non-sexy knickers, enforces the idea that women are valued on their sexiness and need to appear sexy always, unconditionally, and that this does nothing to help women or feminism. I'm glad she brought this up, shows and shows like this really bug me, putting on the feminist mantle whilst simultaneously insisting that women are only good when they are hot.

She also explores the nature of housework and equal partnership in (straight) relationships, how it is important to be sure that we move away from seeing housework and childcare as something naturally done by the woman, and DIY and business as something naturally done by the man, and strive to encourage equality in relationships and within the domestic sphere. She also argues that the best way to achieve this is to revolutionise maternity and paternity leave so that men and women have equal maternity and paternity leave, therefore ensuring that women of childbearing age (a ridiculous phrase if ever there was one) can no longer be discriminated against at work. This is something I too passionately believe in, it would completely revolutionise the way we look at men and women and childcare and shatter a lot of the myths and stereotypes around the “family unit”.

But for all these good points, I came away from the book with a decidedly sour taste in my mouth. Firstly, throughout the book she refers to her reader as a “noughtie girl”. I read in an interview with her that this was because of the play on words. Ha ha very funny, but I do not want to be referred to as a girl for page after page after page, especially when accompanied by the word noughtie/naughty. I cannot imagine a book designed for adult men referring to the reader as boy throughout the work. It grates and grates on my nerves! Some people have mocked the feminist movement for taking things like the word girl so seriously, but it is an issue, Levenson says herself in the book that language is important. We don't criticise Civil Rights leaders for objecting to the word “boy” when referring to black men. The word “girl” has similarly been used throughout history to infantilize and patronize women. I am a woman. I stopped being a girl when I was 16. to use the word girl over and over again undermines the otherwise very pertinent points she makes about male-centric language.

A further continued irritant in the book was it's complete lack of identification of any other kind of woman who wasn't exactly like the author. That is, white, straight, middle to upper class, able bodied with disposable income. The idea that women come in all different manners simply did not get a look in in the book. In fact she writes in the introduction:

“As I have no direct experience of the issues specifically concerning lesbians I have not attempted to cover those here”.

Umm, it's called research Ms Levenson. And this is the biggest problem throughout the whole book for me. It completely lacks any sense of research. When I don't know much about something, I research it. But here Levenson illustrates the point that seems to gloss the whole book, if she doesn't know about something, she's not going to write about it. The fact is, it is quite easy to find about lesbian/minority ethinic/transgender/disabled experience, you can just ask someone or read a book or conduct a survey or have a discussion with these women to hear their views. But just as I get the feeling in the rape section that Levenson hasn't gone out of her way to ask rape survivors how they feel about rape and rape jokes, she hasn't seemed to make much effort at all to seek out any other opinion except her own. It is also a problem in that feminism is constantly criticised for being a white middle class issue which ignores the problems of the wider women community. Which it isn't, which it strives not to be. Books like this are not going to help us win that argument.

And relying entirely on your own opinion isn't a problem if you are writing a blog or an editorial. Use your own opinion, no problem. Fill the piece with anecdotes about your life and tell tales about what you got up to when you're a student. But when you are writing a book that purports to be a guide to feminism for the new generation, a definitive statement of the third or fourth wave, then surely it is at least polite to ask around and see what other women think about feminism? Surely the book should at least acknowledge different types of women and different types of feminist thought exist, rather than be the very narrow view of one particular type of woman drawing on her personal experience of her one particular type of life?

This is partly, I believe, stemming from her proudly proclaimed ignorance of feminist history. I agree with her that you DO NOT need to be able to quote the Female Eunuch to be a feminist, or to know who Camille Paglia is or to understand the ins and outs of Susan Browmiller's theories on porn. But when you are writing a book about feminism, and about what feminism means today, that is a different kettle of fish! To write a book about feminism and say proudly you don't know who Gloria Steinem is? To write a book about feminism and attribute a quote to Susan Brownmiller when it was a quote by Robin Morgan? (please refer to page 61 of feminist chauvinist pigs). That's just plain lazy! And what's more, it is disrespectful to the amazing strength and energy of the second wave.

To reiterate, I don't think you have to be an academic feminist to be a feminist. But I think if you are writing a guide to feminism then you should at the very least know what the second wave is! It isn't cool to say you don't know what that means! It isn't cool to deny any knowledge of the second wave, and then in the next chapter tell young women to listen to older women more. And you should have a bit more respect than to mock Germaine Greer's writing style! Yes, Germaine's gone a bit off these days, but ffs! She wrote the Female Eunuch! She was one of the most influential women of our time!

In her marvellous book Cunt, Inga Musico goes to great lengths to explain that she is white, gay, working to middle class, from the West Coast etc, and therefore her experiences are not every woman's experience. She interviews loads of women with different backgrounds from hers and quotes loads of books written by women with different background from hers so that even though the book is very much of her perspective, you also get to see how the things she says affect other women and how other women react to the situations discussed in the book. That, in my view, is what makes it so bloody good. It is universal, but from the heart of one woman.
In contrast, in the Noughtie Girl's Guide we just get Levenson's ideas. And as a book, that is how it feels to read, a long list of her opinions and anecdotes about her life. It doesn't read like an informed guide or important debate on the issues she raises, in fact on many occasions it becomes very boring. A lot of what she says has no relationship to my life. A lot of what she says only relates to one life – hers.

One main problem with the guide is that she raises a LOT of points that need to be raised, and that are important to feminism. But she doesn't develop these points. One stand out moment of this is the discussion of body hair. (ahh, body hair! My favourite issue!) Levenson writes how body hair is an issue for feminists and how it makes her sad that women's hair is seen as bad, but she isn't going to stop waxing. I turn the page expecting to see more, for example why is hair seen as bad, where has this cultural idea come from, why do some women shave why do some women go natural, why does she feel a societal pressure to wax, why why why and yet there is nothing. It just ends with her saying society thinks hair is bad. She doesn't address the argument. There is so much to say that she doesn't say. The same was true in an anecdote on pole dancing. She says her friend likes pole dancing and it's feminist because she likes pole dancing for herself, not to titillate men. But why does our culture see pole dancing as something empowering and sexually exciting for women? Why does our society see pole dancing as the ultimate in sexual empowerment? Why doesn't she ask these questions? It isn't enough to say it's feminist to pole dance. Why is it feminist to pole dance? The same goes for porn and a number of other issues in the book. Her continued argument is that if you choose it, it's feminist. No mention on why these choices are feminist and whether it is possible, in our media saturated culture, to really have a “free choice.”

I can't go through every issue in the book as I would be here all day. So I am just going to address abortion and rape before I sign off.

Firstly – abortion. Levenson is pro choice (but not pro abortion, she asserts, ignoring that no one is pro abortion, not really.) but believes that women can be anti abortion and still be feminist. This links to her central idea that feminism is about individual choice, and so long as the choice you make is your own, individual choice, it is feminist.

Well, I call BULLSHIT on that one.

I am vehemently pro choice. I do not believe you can be feminist and be anti abortion. I believe you can be anti abortion for yourself, but this is totally different. You can choose not to terminate your own pregnancy and not to have an abortion. But to deny other women the choice to have an abortion, to prefer to see women back in the old days of dying of backstreet abortions because your own individual choice is to be anti abortion, how the hell is that choice feminist?
Pro life that's a lie, you don't care if women die.

With respect to Levenson, her attitude I the book to abortion, the morning after pill and contraception was very positive and her argument that all three need to be made better available and we need better sex education for our young women is bang on in my view! But to say that the individual choice of a woman to be anti abortion, a choice that has devastating affects on our sisters, that is not feminist. It just cannot be considered a feminist position.
On the F Word debate Laura Woodhouse asked her to clarify this but she didn't. So I don't know what was behind her reasoning unfortunately.

Next on to rape. I have discussed this in another blog post with the issue of rape jokes, but I want to focus on another aspect of her piece on rape here:
“I think we do women an injustice when we say that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. It is, after all, just a penis.”

Now, I have never been raped and I am guessing that Levenson hasn't either. But to say this is so fucking disrespectful, so nasty and so narrow minded it makes me feel sick! And again, we come back to the research point. If Levenson had maybe asked some rape survivors about their experience, she might well have found that some women have recovered, made peace and moved on with their lives. And she would also find women who are suffering from PTSD and are struggling to overcome what was, to them, the worst thing that has happened to them.
The fact that the rape section is included in the sex chapter says it all really.
And rape is NOT always just a penis! Women are raped with fists, guns, glasses, bottles...I could go on. And anyway, it doesn't stop it from being basically a stupid thing to say.

She goes on to discuss that date rape is different to stranger rape, and that the latter is worse because of the threat of violence. The fact that feminists have been fighting for years and years to get date rape recognised as a crime doesn't seem to concern her. The fact that her definition of consent differs to the LEGAL definition doesn't seem to concern her. And that fact that rape is rape is rape, that the trauma of stranger rape is just as valid as the trauma of someone you love and trust raping you doesn't seem to concern her. To also suggest that date rape is non violent is to completely miss the point because rape is violent in it's very nature. To be penetrated without consent is A VIOLENT ACT. She argues that we see rape as bad because it defiles women's virtue but in modern, Western society that is not the full truth. We see rape as bad because of the terrific psychological damage it can inflict, because it can ruin a woman's life, because it is the grossest and most definite violation of a woman's body and self. To dismiss it as just a penis does all women, not just rape survivors, a great injustice. To say rape is just a penis contradicts her belieft that we need better conviction rates and better sentencing. If rape is “just a penis” then why bother?

The book is also incredibly sexist towards men. She claims men can't be trusted with a “male pill” as they'll either forget to take it, or use it to prevent women getting pregnant. As if we still should believe that men never want babies and women always want babies. She claims men can't organise social events and don't write Christmas cards. She says men buy dinner for women in the hope of sex. It's just down and dirty lazy sexism.

So. I have rambled on for a long time. But in short, although Levenson makes some good strong points in her book, I believe her writing really suffers from a lack of development of the arguments she raises, and a lack of research into her subject, beyond her own personal opinions and experiences. She disregards a lot of the great work feminism does, now and historically. She doesn't acknowledge what young and old women are doing today to campaign for women's rights, in the UK and around the world. She ignores women who aren't part of her lifestyle. And she makes statements in the name of feminism that many, many feminists find horrifying and untrue.

If this book was being marketed as a memoir or Levenson's wandering through the mires of culture and women's culture, then all these problems would be forgivable. But this book is being marketed as a guide to feminism, and it is for this reason I find it so difficult to accept. This book does not represent a feminism I recognise and it concerns me that women and men who read this book with no knowledge of the feminist movement will come out of it with a very warped and non representative view indeed.
Instead, I am greatly looking forward to Catherine Redfern's forthcoming book on feminism. She conducted surveys too.

this post has also appeared on

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Why rape jokes aren't a joke

Can rape jokes ever be funny? This is what Ellie Levenson asks in the Independent today:
This question has been asked in her book and has prompted debate across the feminist blogosphere, from the F Word in the UK to Feministing in the US. The majority of responses to this question that I have seen has been a resounding NO. And I have to agree with this stance.

Levenson proposes that rape jokes can be funny as they help us to see through the prism of humour that rape isn’t funny. I can kind of see her point here. Yes, humour helps us deal with pain and tragedy. Laughing is a method of working through a trauma, in the way we share tears and laughter by talking about funny and touching memories when someone dies. But I think that by saying rape jokes are ok because they help us work through the trauma of rape she misses one massive point, and that is often rape jokes aren’t told by rape survivors.

Levenson goes on to compare rape jokes to:
“a joke about an affectionate stereotype told by a member of that race to another member of that race?”
Firstly I am not sure I understand what an “affectionate” stereotype is but this sentence reinforces my point. When we think about rape jokes, I don’t think we picture women laughing merrily about rape and poking fun at the stereotype of rapists. I know that instead I tend to think of men on stage and on TV thinking it is ok to tell a rape joke, and thinking it is ok to make jokes about aggressive sexual behaviour (for example, Frankie Boyle informing Lucy Porter he was planning on masturbating over her when she appears on Loose Women). To say that rape jokes are the equivalent of gay people using the word queer or black people using the N word in the context of a group of people who have reclaimed such words is to completely miss the point. Because, just as in the public eye it isn’t white people who use the N word, in the public eye it generally isn’t rape victims making rape jokes.

The problem with rape jokes is that more often than not it is men who haven’t been raped making a joke about women being raped. An exception to this that I am aware of is Billy Connolly, who has made jokes about rape but is himself a survivor. It is a moment of massive privilege where a comedian takes the trauma of something that he hasn’t experienced and makes a cheap laugh out of it. It’s just stupid. It isn’t adding anything to comedy, it isn’t expanding the comedic genre. If anything, it is taking comedy back to the dull dull days of lazy sexism we associate with Benny Hill and Bernard Manning, and that comedy pariah, Jim Davidson.

Levenson goes on in her article to compare rape jokes to the jokes made in the aftermath of the tsunami:

“A couple of days after the tsunami that killed thousands of people across Asia, I went to a comedy show. The act was full of jokes about the tsunami – things such as tsunami being a high scorer on Countdown (presenter Richard Whiteley had just died) and the Tsunami (Toon Army) causing havoc across Asia. Did these jokes make me think the comedian, or the laughing audience, did not feel the horror of the natural disaster that had just happened? Of course not. We were coming to terms with tragedy through humour.”

But what is crucially missing from this example, and what is missing in the evaluation of rape jokes, is that it is (highly likely) that the majority of the audience and the comedian were in no way personally affected by the tragedy of the tsunami. These jokes weren’t being told in Sri Lanka, the audience wasn’t made up of people who had lost their homes to the sea, the comedian hadn’t watched his family swept away whilst he was helpless to save them. Far from allowing the audience to understand the horrors of the tsunami, joking and laughing about it shows how far removed from the tragedy the comedian and audience were. Personally, I don’t get how jokes about millions of people dying are funny. Similarly with rape jokes. The majority of people who tend to tell rape jokes haven’t been raped. The people who laugh often haven’t been raped. The jokes aren’t allowing the survivors of rape to work through their trauma with laughter. Why? Because most often the survivor often isn’t visible to the joker. The survivor is barely on the joker’s radar.

The other problem I have with rape jokes is the assumptions they make about the audience or the listeners of the joke. It completely ignores the fact that with 1 in 4 women being survivors of DV or sexual assault, there is probably a survivor in the audience. Now, I’m sure that some survivors may find the joke funny. But a lot of survivors won’t. And don’t they have the right to feel that? And don’t we all have the right to feel offended by some things?

I love edgy comedy and I love offensive comedy when it has a purpose, when it is satirizing corruption or greed or politics or right wing lunatics or media idiocy. But rape jokes are (often) non survivors taking the pain and horror of survivors and asking other people to laugh at it. And this is not ok.

In the rape joke that Levenson cites she says the joke is in fact about men’s egos rather than rape. If that is the case, why make the joke about rape? Why not tell a joke about male ego? She says that in the context within which he was telling the joke it wasn’t threatening or offensive. But what if the man who told it to her had then told the joke to a rape survivor? Surely this changes the context and could potentially make the joke offensive and triggering. Surely it is at the very least arrogant to tell a joke that could have that effect, and arrogant to say that the joke is ok because luckily on this occasion the joke was told in the right context.

I just don’t see the point of rape jokes. They have the potential to cause incredible damage and hurt to people, when for the teller it is a throwaway comment. And what concerns me most is that we live in a society where RAPE IS NOT TAKEN SERIOUSLY. The growing popularity of rape jokes fosters this atmosphere, it turns a devastating crime into a silly story, a one liner, and allows people to think that rape isn’t a serious problem. To draw another comparison to racist jokes – when racism was not taken seriously in our society racist jokes were considered acceptable. These days we (at least officially) take racism seriously, so racist jokes are not acceptable. We tell jokes that highlight the idiocy and ignorance of racism instead. Perhaps when rape is fully taken seriously in our society, we will tell jokes that highlight the idiocy and ignorance of those who find rape amusing.

However, I leave you with the funniest joke of the Edinburgh Festival:
Why don’t hedgehogs just share the hedge.

I think that is bloody amazing.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

TONIGHT - celebrate 6 months of the bridge, 6 months since reclaim the night and the new rape crisis centre



Date: Thursday 20th August
Time: 6pm
Location: One25, The Grosvenor Centre, 138a Grosvenor Road, St Pauls, BS2 8YA

Local charity One25 will be celebrating on Thursday 20th August as they are presented with donations raised by local supporters. The funds were raised at Bristol Reclaim the Night six months ago and will go towards One25’s work supporting local women who are trapped in a negative cycle of street sex-work and addiction.

The presentation takes place as the Bristol Rape Crisis helpline opens and The Bridge, Bristol’s specialist Sexual Assault Referral Centre, marks its first six months of operation. Both services provide support for victims of sexual violence in the city, and the last six months have already seen an increase in the conviction of rapists and in the numbers of victims coming forward to seek help in Bristol.

The presentation date is also exactly six months since men and women in Bristol took to the streets in an evening of Bristol Reclaim the Night actions to protest against rape and sexual violence. Protesters wanted to bear witness to the fear of violence which makes people feel unsafe after dark in Bristol.

Josie Hill from One25 explains: “In the last year One25 has seen 134 violent attacks against women involved in street-based sex work, and the level of brutality involved is horrific. Rape conviction rates for this group are extremely low nationally, with only 1% of rapes against sex-workers in the UK ending in a conviction. It takes courage to come forward after such a traumatic event, and it’s important that the victims of violence have the support they need.

“We’ve seen an unprecedented number of women finding the courage to report such attacks in the last six months, and this has led to convictions. In the last two months alone one attacker was sentenced to a nine year prison term, and four attackers have been arrested, with two already charged and remanded in prison. This is a fantastic result for the women involved, for One25 and for all the local agencies that have supported them.

“We feel that the improvements we have seen in the last six months are worth celebrating, but also hope they will raise awareness of the problem of violence in our city.”

Bristol City Council’s Safer Bristol Partnership has also made significant steps to support those who have experienced sexual violence. Rick Palmer, Service Director for Safer Bristol says:

“Avon and Somerset had one of the lowest conviction rates for rape in the country, but we can now be proud of the significant progress in tackling sex crime and getting justice for victims. Thanks to the great collaborative work between One25 and organisations such as the Bridge and the local police, Bristol now has the second highest reporting and conviction rates for violence against sex-workers in the country.”

Bristol’s support services for the victims of sexual violence include Woman’s Aid, Rape Crisis, One25 and The Bridge. Supporters are welcome to join in the presentation event, and it is still possible to add to the donation by visiting One25 Just Giving page.

- ENDS -

For further information please contact Josie Hill at One25 on 0117 909 8836 or email

Journalists are requested to avoid naming and/or using photographs of the victims of sex crime, sex-work and the violence associated with street-based sex work. Identifying such women can prove extremely damaging to their long-term rehabilitation. It will also discourage others from reporting violent crime which puts the wider community at risk. If in doubt, please call us first to discuss. Your support on this matter is greatly appreciated, both by us and the women we help.

Further information regarding partners can be found at:

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Times gets it really really really wrong

Umm - although I really like Nigella's recipes is she a feminist icon?
And seeing as Ellie Levenson has managed to piss off every feminist/woman i know with her "rape is just a penis" line of thinking, can she really be a feminist icon? ICON??
also - taking umbrage with the Times relegating all those who disagree with Levenson as the old guard - I'm 24 and i was pretty angry about her analysis of feminism.

so - who are my feminist icons? pretty tricky. but of the top of my head i'd say someone like jess mccabe and catherine redfern had a helluva lot of influence. i's put sandrine leveque down for founding object. i wouldn't want to miss out ariel levy because i bloody love her book. cath elliott for saying what others are too scared to say, and dealing so elegantly with the crap she gets back.
i agree with lubna hussein and hirsi ali, and there are many many women who are working in countries where women are oppressed and doing incredible work whose names i don't know.
i'd go so far as to say missy elliott and kathleen hanna and electrelane and miss kittin and ms dynamite and loads of pro woman music, not forgetting lovely thurston moore.
and then there are our older sisters - gloria steinem, germaine greer, bell hooks, irgaray and kristeva, woolf and wolf, the list goes on....

but my biggest feminist icons are the women i know. sue who was an activist now and in the seventies. sal who set up BFN. katy who works tirelessly for abortion rights. jenny who protests loudly against media objectification. jacky who set up rape crisis centres in the 80s. elaine and all the women who set up the rape crisis centre this year. jo who made a speech at reclaim the night. and many many more of the women i meet and talk to and keep in touch with who are working their asses off to make this world a better place for women and men.

Thursday, 13 August 2009


this is the video me, jenny, sue, angel and mark made when we had out guerilla protest against lad's mags. we went into newsagents, tescos, whsmiths, the co op etc and flyered the covers of lad's mags with our own inverted cover, and the message "lad's mags present a one dimensional view of female and male sexuality."

the voiceover comes from a radio debate on our protest that was on local radio GWR's breakfast show. they think we are women with beards.

Our protest was to try and say that lad's mags censor women and women's bodies, and that they are damaging to men and women.

we are planning to have a guerilla protest and make a film about airbrushing this november so watch this space!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

hands up if you've suffered street harassment

Hands up if you’ve been harassed in the street!

I wanted to invite people to discuss their experiences of street harassment. This is something that affects every woman I know, and yet when it is discussed on such sites as CIF and the ilk, its existence is staunchly denied by male commenters who say they have never harassed a woman on the street. Well, I’ve never murdered anyone but I won’t deny it happens. If every woman I have EVER met has been harassed on the street or in a public place, from yelling on the pavement or out a car window, to people not getting the hint in a club, something tells me that it is a problem.
A lot of the time discussion on this gets the response from men that they have been harassed by women when they walk down the street or are in a bar. This is true, and I imagine it is annoying. But I think the clear difference between this and the kind of street harassment I personally have experienced, is that I don’t think men are scared when women harass them. Pissed off, annoyed and embarrassed maybe, but not scared. Please do correct me if I am wrong, as I say this is just my assumption. I don’t want to belittle men’s experience of street harassment from women, I just make the point that firstly it is less common and secondly it has less impact to frighten or threaten.

I want to share with you two episodes of street harassment that I have experienced. I have had way more harassment than this in my life but these two were the most intensely frightening and threatening.

The first one happened on the number 38 bus at around 10am on a Saturday morning in 2005. I was hungover and on my way to Victoria to get a bus to Bristol. There was no one else on the top deck except me and the man who took the seat in front of me.
I was yawning and the man turned around and asked me if I was tired or hungry. I smiled stiffly, in the way Londoners do when spoken to on public transport, and said both. He laughed, and tried to talk to me for a bit, and because my need to be polite overcomes the need I have to stolidly ignore everyone on buses when I am hungover, I talked back to him. I don’t really remember what we talked about. Then, without warning, he lunged at me and tried to kiss me. I pushed him away, so he only managed to kiss my shoulder, and I said NO as firmly as I could. He just smiled, and shrugged, and got off at the next stop.
I remember feeling frightened, but more than that I felt absolutely furious. How dare he try to do that to me? What gave him the right to try to kiss me, when all I wanted to do was take the bus to Victoria without being bothered by anyone? I was so angry, and I was shaken. It was so annoying, it made me so mad that he had thought it was ok to do that. And I was frightened, because what if he hadn’t smiled and shrugged? What if he had got angry? We were alone on the top deck, and I was amazed at how feeble and weak I had felt when I said no and pushed him. I became so frightened that if things had got worse, I wouldn’t be able to defend myself, precisely because I was afraid.

I was so angry.

The second incident happened two months ago, when it was hot. I was wearing a short playsuit. I was leaving the job centre after signing on. The job centre is opposite a strip club. It was 11am, bright sunny day, and a group of men were sitting outside the strip club. 5 or 6 of them, in their 30s. As I walked past I put my glasses in my bag and went to get my sunglasses out, when one of them shouted “oy you dropped something”. I turned around thinking something had dropped out my bag and they said “you dropped your knickers”. I turned right round and kept walking, when they started chanting “bitch bitch bitch bitch” after me. I started crying.
Never have I heard someone put so much hate in the word bitch. I thought they wanted to kill me, their voices were so full of anger and malevolence and hate. Sheer hate. And this is important – even though technically I knew I was safe, I felt so frightened. I felt like they could hurt me.
When I stopped being frightened I got mad. I got so angry. I wanted to walk back over there and kick in their smug self satisfied faces. I wanted to pull their arms around their backs and make them apologise. I wished I knew martial arts so I could show them what should happen to them for treating women with such hatred, with such disrespect. I’m not a violent person but I wanted to make these men frightened like they had made me frightened.

What I want to know is why do these people think it is ok to chant bitch as I walk past? Why do people think it is ok to tell me I have nice tits and they’d like to fuck me? Why is it ok that once when a group of men started harassing me, they saw my boyfriend next to me and then apologised to him? Why is it ok to tell me that my outfit is nice and sexy – I don’t give a flying fuck if you think that or not! Why are women walking down the street public property, to be commented on, evaluated, commanded and told what to do? How is this still happening? How is this still considered ok?

If you have experienced street harassment it would be great if you could share it on my blog. I think one of the best ways to try to stop street harassment, learn skills on how to answer back and how to deal with it is to tell stories of what has happened to us, and how we felt. We need to make street harassment recognised as an issue, as a problem, and not just an insignificant moan. One way to do this is to show people how much it affects people and how many people it really does effect. And how, most of all it isn’t a compliment. It’s harassment. Pure and simple.

Friday, 7 August 2009

The Myth of the Old Humourless Feminist

The Myth of the Older Humourless Feminist

As you can see, today is a day for deconstructing the myths Sian style!

Like a lot of feminists on the blogosphere I have been getting a bit irate with the current business of Ellie Levenson’s new book. Lot of reasons for this, including the unpleasant things she has to say about rape, rape jokes, how you can be anti abortion and feminist, and how feminism is primarily about individual choice. I will hopefully deal with these issues in another post (not to personally attack Ellie, but because I think these are important issues to be questioned, and Ellie just happened to bring them up). But the one thing that I am going to talk about now, and which has been discussed at length is this idea that second wave feminists were dull, po faced and serious, and to attract new women to feminism we have to turn our backs on this history.

I have many, many issues with this philosophy which I will try to explain.

Firstly – even if this rumour were true, what is wrong with being humourless and serious? Surely when we are talking about issues that are so devastating and life changing as rape, domestic violence and assault, as important as equal pay rights, as vital as reproductive control and as globally necessary as education to rescue women from poverty, a little seriousness is in order? These are big, big issues. They are not be taken lightly. They demand concentration, respect and serious consideration. Despite the growing number of rape jokes (I’m looking at you Frankie Boyle) I think most of us can agree that we shouldn’t talk about rape in a non-serious way? Some issues don’t require lightness and humour. The fact that many in the feminist world can tackle these issues with humour and cleverness is applaudable. I will come to that later. I think we do feminism a massive injustice when we criticise it for being too humourless, as if any of the issues the second wavers tackled required anything less than a serious approach.

Second – exactly which revolutionary movement was a barrel full of laughs? Socialism? The Old Left? The New Left? The MRA? The October 1917 revolutionaries? Civil Rights? All of these movements can be similarly characterized as humourless! What these people were fighting for was the actuality of the deep, deep political beliefs they held. I’m pretty sure they didn’t feel the need to not take their beliefs seriously in case they are characterized as “humourless”. Yet feminism is criticised for taking itself too seriously, not understanding irony (as if there’s anything ironic about rape jokes) and being humourless. I would like to see one of these critics go up to Marx or Malcolm X and tell them to chill out, stop taking this all so seriously, it’s not that bad.
Why is feminism under attack for being humourless rather than all the other movements? Could it be because of the age old stereotypes that women aren’t funny? I think this is partly the problem. By saying feminists take themselves too seriously is a way of saying we won’t take it seriously. By saying we’re humourless is, in a way, saying that we’re a joke, an aberration.

But the final point is, and this is the most important one, is that the idea of the humourless po-faced feminist is a lie. It’s not true. It is a stereotype created to undermine feminism and to suggest, as I say, that it is not a movement to be taken seriously.

Obviously some older feminists are humourless and dull. So are some younger feminists. So are people you meet in all walks of life! You meet dull humourless people all the time, from the person you wish you hadn’t started talking to at a family gathering to the person at work you really don’t want to go for a drink with. But just as not everyone you meet is dull, neither is every feminist. People come in all personality types, feminists come in all personality types.

That was my disclaimer btw so no one can come on the blog and say “I met a feminist once and she was boring.” I can’t tell you how many socialists I have met that make me want to chop my ears off. Doesn’t mean I think all of them are like that. So there!

By characterising second wave feminists as old and humourless we are saying that they have nothing to offer us, nothing to say to us, that their concerns are not the concerns of younger women. But this is not true.

When I read stories about the second wave, from stringing up “Women of the World Unite” banners on the Statue Of Liberty to women pulling together on Greenham Common, I am struck by the humour, community spirit and vitality that characterizes these women’s experiences. These women came together to fight injustice, arm in arm, shining with excitement at the possibility of change. When I read Gloria Steinem’s essays, they condemn inequality but they are full of joy and love for the work her and other women were doing. Talking to my friend about her consciousness raising group in the seventies and eighties, she describes women talking, sharing, sometimes crying but mostly laughing (and drinking cider!). It was an inspirational time. It was a time when women discovered their voices.

Obviously I wasn’t there. And obviously life wasn’t a bed of roses and there were fights and factions and splits in the feminist movement. But that is characteristic of any movement. As with the humourless argument, I don’t see why this criticism should be specifically used against feminism. My point is that just as there were fights and anger, there was joy, vitality and a sense of togetherness. Because the former existed should not negate the other. And we should never have let the negatives become used to define feminism. Because just as the positive elements are only half the story on their own, so are the negative elements.

This is how we should characterize the second wave.
We should see it as a time where women won rights that we don’t even question these days.
The right to not have to get married.
The right to be able to work if you were married. (working class women kind of had this right already, but the class issue is a whole other argument I hope to address in a different post.)
The right to expect equal pay for equal work (a right we still fight for)
The right for a woman not to be raped if she is married. (sadly, a right we still fight for)
The right to have an abortion (even if this is a right we must continue to uphold)
The right to have your name on a utility bill (can you believe that wasn’t possible in the 70s if you were married!?)
And so many more rights and beliefs that I can’t fit them all on one post.
We should remember the second wave as a time when women stood up and showed that together they could form a movement to be bloody well reckoned with. That they had voices, that they had power, that they did not have to keep quiet and wait for a man. Feminism changed our lives, these women changed our lives. Just because we aren’t there yet, doesn’t mean that what they did didn’t mean anything. Again, this is a criticism only really levelled at feminism. Do we stop listening to Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech because racism is still a problem? No we don’t.

But because the movement has become tarred by this humourless brush, we forget that they fought the fight worth fighting for, so we didn’t have to.

So why was feminism portrayed this way? The reason, I believe, is very similar as to why commentators continue to deny the existence of young feminists. If the Mail style media and anti feminists portrayed feminism as a force to be reckoned with, a movement full of vitality that changed women’s lives for the better, then they would have to take notice, they would have to recognise its successes, and recognise that we have further to go. If they portray feminism as a bunch of grumpy dour women with an axe to grind, they are let off the hook in taking it seriously. They don’t have to listen, they can point and mock. It is in a lot of people’s interests to uphold this view.

It’s so sad. It’s so sad that such an exciting movement has been so derided by a few made up stereotypes.
So what’s the solution? I believe it is much, much bigger than the view that to get young women into feminism we have to turn our back on second wavers and say all the “you can be feminist and wear lipstick now!!” nonsense. I believe that we should look at the achievements of the second wave and say, hell yeah! We should applaud our sisters for what they did, and we should then move on to say – what still needs to be done? How can we take the lessons of the second wave to help us fight the battles we face today? We should talk to older feminists and find out more about their experiences, we should hear their stories and add our own. We should not see it in terms of us and them, we should see it in terms of ALL OF US!

Most importantly we should recognise that the stereotype just doesn’t hold water. And even if it did, why should we care? I’d rather that feminism was peopled by the dullest most unfunny people in the world rather than give up the rights they won for me. I’d rather they were all miserable and po faced than give up the freedoms I don’t even question.

A short anecdote to share with you now.
When we did Bristol Reclaim the Night we finished in the Trinity Centre, had some amazing speeches, and then Lipstick on Your Collar dj-ed. The first song they played was Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain and me and three or four of the other organisers put our tiredness aside and danced. We laughed and we danced and we sang along and I felt a huge rush of euphoria. I remember thinking ecstatically how we had done it, we had really done it. I felt such a flood of joy and excitement and I remember thinking that this must be what it felt like back then. I felt a beautiful connection with my history. And although I was sad that we are still having to do Reclaim the Nights, I feel that with the second wave on our side, this time we will win.

The Myth of the Invisible Young Feminists

The Myth of the Invisible Young Feminists

It seems a lot of people are very invested in the idea that there are no young feminists, that young women are turning away from feminism in droves, that young women just don’t care about feminism, that we are embarrassed and ashamed of it.

Well, all I can say to that is it is not my experience AT ALL. I know hundreds of young feminists. I am in touch with young feminists all over the country through networks and Ladyfests, and I am in touch with young feminists all over the world through social media and the blogosphere.

We’re everywhere. Get used to it.

Of course, not all young women are feminists. And a hell of a lot of young women seem to say “I’m not a feminist but” and then say they agree with a lot of feminist thought. But that’s ok, isn’t it? The thought is the thing, the badge can come later. I know women who shied away from calling themselves feminists, and now embrace the word wholeheartedly. Why? Because people are allowed to change, they are allowed to and they do change their minds. And the times, they are a changing. A lot of young women who didn’t identify as feminist may now be starting to do so, because they are sick to the back teeth of the way society views women at the moment. They’re sick of violence against women being ignored and low rape conviction rates, sick of exploitation, sick of objectification and sick of street harassment. Look beyond the UK and women are sick of how other women are treated globally, angry with FGM and floggings of women in trousers and televised beatings of women by the Taliban, of women being raped as a weapon in war, of women bearing the brunt of poverty. Ask these young women, and many will say how they are sick of how the patriarchy hurts men too. I know I am – and I believe that one of the ways to help fight injustices against men worldwide is to help fight injustices against women. The two are side by side.

Janice Turner wrote an article bemoaning the lack of young feminists. She obviously hasn’t heard of Google, as only fingertips away are groups of young women setting up feminist networks, setting up Ladyfests, organising Reclaim the Night and organising fundraisers, rallying to fund Rape Crisis Centres, organising marches, taking to the streets and flyering lad’s mags or hiding them in brown paper bags. We are everywhere! We are in your cities and your towns and we are making a lot of noise. Go on the F-Word, go on Feministing, pick up a copy of Subtext, hang out on my blog – young women everywhere are proclaiming feminism.

I have this week given up posting comments on the crazy world of Comment is Free as I was sick of reading all the nasty anti-feminist comments that in no way contributed to any debate, and sick of reading the nasty personal comments that abound. (as well as the ignorant ones – my favourite being that violence against women is always reported in the news but you never hear about violence against men. Uh – hello?) But one comment that came up over and over again was that all young women were rejecting feminism and so the movement was over. The comment was repeated over and over, even though myself and other young feminists were pointing out that we were young and feminist, ergo we exist. Why is this?

The only explanation I can come up with is that the anti feminist voice has a real invested interest in wilfully ignoring the rise of young feminists and the hard work they are doing in the UK. If they pretend we aren’t there, then they can proclaim the movement over, dead, defunct. If they pretend we aren’t there, they don’t have to face up to the inequalities that abound. If they pretend we aren’t there, they can feel smug that they are right. But the fact is they aren’t right. We are here. We’re very loud about it.
Most importantly – if they pretend we aren’t here, they can pretend feminism has failed. It hasn’t. it achieved huge leaps and bounds and we know we can achieve more.

The more confusing thing is when older feminists such as Germaine Greer deny we exist. This really troubles and worries me. But I guess the only solution is to keep insisting that we are here and we are working hard to make changes. We have to keep blogging, keep writing, keep marching, keep talking, keep consciousness raising, keep demonstrating and keep arguing. It is tiring to have to constantly try to prove we exist, but I believe it will be worth it in the end.

A further piece of evidence espoused by anti feminists to prove that we young feminists are mere figments of our own imaginations is their insulting insistence that young women and old women, especially young feminists and old feminists don’t get on. Well, I call bullshit on this one. Through Bristol Feminist Network I have met the most inspiring and incredible older, second wave women. Their stories of the second wave and their continued feminist fight never fail to inspire me. Their curiosity about how we younglings experience the world, how we deal with the aftermath of their battles, is one of respect and genuine interest. By making the contact between young and old we are able to see how far we’ve come, and we are able to see how far we have to go. The suggestion that old and young can never reach across an impenetrable divide is just another myth designed to perpetuate the idea that women are bitchy and catty. Instead, we support one another, offer advice, laugh and cry together. We are beautifully together.

We don’t all have to like each other, of course. We’re not all going to be bust friends. But that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss, debate and work together to affect change.

So, here we are. Young feminists, making noise, working together with old and young to continue the fight for women and men everywhere. Whether you like it or not!

a polite notice - comments policy

I've been reading a lot lately and have made the decision to start writing more feminist posts on my blog. Rather than just stories.
I used to do this back in the early days, and definitely when Crooked Rib was a beautiful little zine in print. But after some nasty negative comments on my blog I decided I wasn't sure I really wanted to read all the bile and mean-ness so stuck with the stories. (which i will continue to write). However, I now think that because some people think it is ok to be nasty and personal on blogs, safe in the knowledge that they can hide in the anonymity of the web, is not a good reason to stop saying feminist things.

in light of that, i am going to introduce a comments policy. it is quite simple.

Please do not make homophobic, racist, sexist, ablist, transphobic or hateful remarks on my blog. It isn't big, it isn't clever.

Please do not attack me personally or assume because you read my blog that you know me. It is just silly and quite hurtful. Criticise my writing, point out where you disagree, I am all for debate and questioning. I just don't want to read nasty things.

Similarly, please do not make assumptions about my class, background, history or lifestyle. What is the point? The ironic thing about when people make these criticisms is that they are actually being very prejudiced themselves, as it makes assumptions about behaviours of groups of people.

Please don't write blanket anti feminist statements on my blog, unless you can really back them up. As I say, it is great to have a debate and question why we think things, what we believe in and learn from debates. This is not the same as coming to a feminist blog with your mind made up that everything i say is already irrelevant and tell me so. It's just a waste of time! If you have something to contribute to a positive debate than that would be lovely jubbly.

I hope that is ok. One day we hopefully will live in a world where I wouldn't have to say explicitly to people to not be nasty but hey, we're not there yet and i think it is ok for me to politely ask for politeness.

Thanks and keep reading!!!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

want to buy a book that's like this blog? now you can!!

that's right everyone, i have self published a book which you can buy online here

it is lovely and jolly good, i'm sure you will all enjoy it!

i am also going to try and order some copies to sell in the here shop.