Friday, 26 November 2010

Bristol City Council let down women survivors

Nearly a week later and Councillors Poultney and Janke have not replied to my letter. They have also not responded to other letters from other women who were that day.
I do not believe my letter was aggressive or unfair. Neither was my behaviour towards the councillors on the day. Either they are ashamed and embarrassed by their own behaviour, or they simply don't care. They don't care about survivors, they don't care about the women in their city. They care about photo calls in the newspaper.

 yesterday i attended an exhibition of art work by women survivors of male violence. it was beautiful and moving, and gave female survivors of violence a voice.
i was shocked then by the blatant 'what about the men' attitude of two of the councillors in attendance. i have written about the experience below, and hope to outline why responding to the UN's day to eliminate violence against women and girls by asking why no male survivors were represented was inappropriate and callous.

domestic violence against men is awful, a tragedy, just as all gender bases violence is. if there was an exhibition of work by male survivors i would support it whole heartedly. i would wear a ribbon and support a UN awareness raising day. but the 25th November was about women. And the council appeared to want to silence those women, by refusing to acknowledge their experiences and invalidating an attempt to give women a voice.

Here you go:

I was really pleased that the council had chosen to host this moving and important exhibition that gave a voice to the women survivors of violence of Bristol. I assumed that the council understood that yesterday (25th November) was the UN International Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls day ( Therefore I was shocked by the hostility from the leader of the council when she realised that the art and writing on display came from women only workshops, and were recognising, remembering and offering a voice to women victims. Rather than paying respect to the women who had bravely told their stories, the exhibition was instead criticised for being 'exclusive'.

The UN dedicates the 25th November to recognising violence against women and girls, and the need to combat it. This is not a Bristol Feminist Network or Bristol Fawcett or Rape Crisis Centre or Avon and Somerset Police or Women's Forum initiative, but an international event that says to the world that violence against women and girls is one of the 'greatest human rights violations of our time' (Amnesty International). It is not about being exclusive or ignoring that men are victims of violence too (as was intimated by the councillor) but about recognising that violence against women and girls is an issue, a gender based issue, and one that needs to be treated as an issue on its own. It is recognising that the scale of violence against women and girls is so huge, and pledging to do something about it. There are 100 million women missing in the world, as a result of male violence against women and girls (Half the Sky,, 1 in 3 women internationally will be subject to sexual assault or rape, 1.5 women a week in the UK are killed by a former or current partner, 100,000 women a year in the UK are raped and 6500 girls in the UK are at risk of FGM. The 25th November is the one day when this is internationally recognised. To try and make out that there was something wrong with this international UN led initiative showed a troubling lack of understanding about the issues of violence against women and girls. It also left me very concerned about the council's commitment to tackling gender based violence, and supporting victims.

Women are too often left to suffer in silence. This exhibition gave the women of Bristol a voice. It gave them a chance to speak out about what has happened to them. To draw attention away from this, in order to criticise its 'exclusivity', did a great disservice to the women in the exhibition and the women in Bristol. It showed a refusal to engage with the art on display and the issues that are so relevant to the women of this city every day, not just on the 25th November. Furthermore, I felt the tone of the conversation was rude and disrespectful towards the time, effort and money that the organiser of the exhibition had invested in running the workshops, printing the zines and creating the event.

It seemed to me that the Bristol City Councillors were more concerned about having their faces seen and their voices heard in the local press, than listening to the voices of women survivors, on a day dedicated to ending the humanitarian crisis that is violence against women and girls.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

consent, education and rape

This is a bit of a rambling lunch break constructed rant.

You’d hope by now, in the year 2010, that most people would have worked out what rape is. But, in what seems to be a fairly regular happening, a new survey has come out today that, yet again, suggests people are pretty confused about rape.

Today survey says:
Nearly half of young men think that if a woman is too drunk to know what is going on, it is not rape.
46% of men think that if a woman changes her mind during sex, and he carries on, it isn’t rape.
23% of men think that ‘having sex’ with a woman even if she has said no from the start is not rape. (I have put ‘having sex’ in inverted commas because it’s rape, not sex)

Don’t read the comments unless you want to vom.

This survey has come out the week after we see a victim of rape being jailed for perverting the course of justice, because her violent husband threatened her if she continued to press charges. By a judge who has repeatedly released domestic violence offenders because they ‘don’t pose a big risk to society’ (

As you can imagine, this survey has made me pretty angry. And perhaps I am most angry by how much these myths persist, and how, with a bit of education, they could be resolved.

In the past, feminists have suggested that better education about rape and consent would help reduce offences and encourage reporting of rape. This proposal is often met by hand wringing about ‘stolen childhood innocence’ from the Daily Mail, and scorn that ‘education won’t stop people from raping’ from that charming, well informed bunch on CIF (sarcasm :-/). But this survey shows that, actually, many young men don’t even know or understand what rape is. This survey shows that  some young men are committing a gross and inhuman crime, without understanding or knowing that it is what they are doing. And, on the flip side, this suggests that all too often, young women don’t know what rape is. A heart breaking radio phone in had a teenager confusedly asking the presenter whether she had been raped, when her boyfriend and all of his friends raped her. Because she had not been taught about what consent meant, because she had not learnt that she could be an active agent in sex, with real and important desires, she didn’t understand what had happened to her. With better education about what active consent means, and what rape is, perhaps men would think twice about what they are doing.

The key is active consent. Not being too drunk to know what’s going on. Sex is about mutual pleasure and desire, about you both actively wanting it to happen. If one of you doesn’t even know anything is taking place, then how can you be actively engaging in sex?
It is important to move away from the idea that not consenting to sex means clearly and loudly saying no. Commonly, we see situations where women have been intimidated or coerced into sex, threatened if they don’t go along with it. These are situations where saying no could put her in further danger. Perhaps they are in a violent relationship, and are even more afraid of the repercussions of the word no. Perhaps she has frozen, and is too scared to know what to say or do. There are lots of reasons why a woman might not say no. But not saying no doesn’t mean she hasn’t been raped. This is why the issue of active consent is so important. The idea that both parties are actively engaged in and want to have sex. It can be with someone you love, someone you’ve only just met, someone you don’t even like, but it has to be something you want to do and want to be part of.

The myth that men can’t stop once they’ve started is terrifyingly pervasive and as well as being dangerous to women, it is insulting to men. A long time ago I had an argument with a guy at uni about this, who insisted that even if a woman withdrew consent during sex, a man could not stop what he was doing. At this point my friend screamed at him ‘have you ever been penetrated?’ Because, although when it happens consensually it can be great, without consent it is a gross violation of another person’s body and boundaries. If a woman says stop, then you stop. It doesn’t matter whether you don’t want to stop. You don’t have anything inside you that at that moment you don’t want to be there. You don’t know what that woman is going through, physically and emotionally. So have some fucking respect and do what she’s asking. It isn’t hard to stop. It isn’t impossible. It IS rape if you don’t.

And the final point in the survey. The 23% who just rape because they don’t see no as meaning no. The men who see women’s bodies as their entitlement. The men who have learnt that women’s bodies are objects for them to use. A lesson learnt from the sex industry. A lesson that says that women are not active agents when it comes to sex. Just bodies that are to be used. The men who don’t understand and who don’t care, who think that they deserve what they want, with no regard for what that means for the woman on the other side of their body.

Where does this sense of entitlement come from? Well, one place is violent and degrading porn, strip clubs and prostitution. Young men are seeing, from the age of 11 on average, imagery that tells them that sex is something that is done to a woman, that he ‘takes’ from her and that she won’t complain, no matter what you do to her. They experience one of the most intense physical sensations whilst watching a woman being harmed and hurt. They come to view women’s bodies as something they are entitled to, that belong to them no matter what. Young women grow up seeing sex as something they perform, not as something they actively engage in. It’s a toxic combination.

Mix this with an education system that refuses to talk about consent and respect, and that doesn’t discuss desire and pleasure. Add in schools that ignore sexual harassment of its female pupils, seeing it as ‘boys being boys’. Stir in a culture ruled by patriarchy, where women are not viewed as full and equal citizens of the world, where rape is seen as a hazard that women have the power to avoid, and the results of the survey are no longer surprising.

But they can be changed. They can be changed with education. They can be changed by teaching respect. By teaching consent. By teaching that sex is a mutual thing. They can be changed by transforming society’s view of women’s and men’s sexuality. And it all starts with education.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Sex Entertainment Venue Licensing in Bristol

This is the statement that i will be making to the council later on this evening.

We hope that they use the new licensing powers to help protect women, to take into account the gender equality impact of licensing decisions and to ensure that the rights of the women and men of Bristol, rather than business powers, are treated with respect and consideration.

After the embarrassment of giving Hooters a licence in a cumulative impact zone, because its sexist mores and degrading attitude towards women offers something 'really different to the city' we hope that the council uses this opportunity to take gender equality seriously.

Please note that the proposed licensing changes relate to sex entertainment venues, such as lap dancing clubs, not sex shops. Just because it needs to be clear that this is about taking a stand against businesses that treat women as only and always sex objects, not businesses that sell frilly pants!

So here we go:

Bristol Feminist Network, on behalf of the women of Bristol would like to thank Bristol City Council for the hard work undertaken so far in developing its sex entertainment venue policy. The consultation period is drawing to a close and the Council will be considering the final draft of the policy at the December Full Council meeting.

We trust that the Council will take on board the views on the policy and on the standard conditions that have been submitted from those concerned with the safety and wellbeing of women and girls and that any final policy will:

- Redress the current imbalance of power between lap dancing club owners and local authorities
- Reinstate local democracy
- Help to improve conditions and safety for lap dancing club performers
- and will uphold legal obligations to promote gender equality

We would also like to draw attention to the strength of the responses of several other authorities and we hope that Bristol does not allow itself to fall behind in implementing innovative policies which hold real hope for improvements in the treatment of women and girls, and would promote wider beneficial effects on social order in Bristol. London is proud to report that eight of its boroughs, including Hackney and Islington, have proposed to put a nil cap on licensing for sex entertainment venues, to end what one councillor has called 'endless sleaze swamping our communities' (Paul Smith

These councils are led by Conservatives, by Lib Dems, by Labour. This is not an issue that has split parties. This is an issue that has brought men and women from all over the political spectrum together to fight a culture that demeans and degrades women.

Peter Stringfellow has called the proposed nil cap an assault on his human rights to treat women as disposable objects that can be valued in pounds and pence. But, in fact, the opposite is true. The adoption of the nil cap shows that councils from across parties respect women’s human rights. The right to not suffer sexual assault and sexual harassment in the work place, as 100% of sex entertainment venue workers in Vancouver reported. The right for women to not suffer sexual harassment and assault as they walk past sex entertainment venues, as research by Eaves has shown. The right to be viewed in society as full human beings, as full agents in the world, rather than as only and always sex objects.

We hope that Bristol City Council will follow the example of their London colleagues.

We ask that the Council does not miss this opportunity to use the new licensing powers effectively, and that the concerns of local people and issues related to social justice and equality can finally be put at the very heart of the licensing process.