It must have been at some point between 2009 and June 2010 when Kaitlynn Mendes, a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at De Montfort uni called me for my views on feminism and the media. I talked a lot about how it can be tricky to get press attention for non London events, the way the press either ignored, mocked or silenced feminism (with some notable exceptions) and the struggle of getting noticed when the press was always telling you you didn't exist (unless they were telling you you were sour-faced harridans). We had a great chat and then I promptly forgot all about it until a month or so ago, when Cath Redfern sent me a twitpic of my name in the index of the book 'Feminism in the News'. I was in a book! Wahey!
Kaitlynn then very kindly arranged for me to be sent a free copy to review and I devoured it in a matter of a weekend.
This is an academic textbook that can be read by the non-academic (me!) and understood and loved by those who aren't using it as a source text for essay writing. The book is easy to read, thorough and fascinating, taking the reader on a journey through feminist history between 1968-1982 as seen by the news. The language is readable and not filled with academic jargon, whilst never compromising on meticulous research, sharp analysis and interesting conclusions.
The book is split into three sections - although there are two additional introductory chapters. The first deals with how The Times, The Daily Mirror, The Chicago Tribune and the New York Times reported The Women's Movement. The second analyses how these papers reported equal rights and the final section looks at how feminism was reported in 2008, across those four papers and The Washington Post, the Washington Times, The Guardian and the Daily Mail.
Mendes found that reporting of the women's movement and equal rights could be split into supportive, critical, and seeing feminism as contradictory. Some of her findings surprised me. For example, The Daily Mirror had a very anti-feminist tone throughout the period that loosley defined the second wave - something perhaps based in its appeal to white working class men audience. Rather than embracing feminism as a movement for positive social change, the Mirror saw it as harmful and dangerous, and gleefully reported backlash style stories to show how feminism had 'failed'. Contrary to my belief, the backlash against feminism as we understand it began a lot earlier than it's 1980s hey-day, with a 1970 Mirror article introducing 12 year old Linda Greally who believes it's 'wrong to be equal', and the 1976 article 'Why Adrienne doesn't want to be man'. This latter piece blames feminism for family breakdown and demonises women's libbers as mums who 'dump' their kids. Familiar tropes that seek to blame feminism for all social ills therefore appeared as early as the 1970s, with feminism blamed for shoplifting, bullying, crime etc. - something we still see today in Daily Mail headlines.
Negative reporting tended to focus on presenting feminists as 'deviant' - the usual man-hating, bra-burning steretypes, or else they focused on how feminism was irrelevant or out of touch from women's lives. Little has changed! Other criticisms offered a paternal view that the goals of feminism were legitimate (of course women *should* have equal rights) whilst the movement itself is illegitimate (we just don't think they're doing feminism right). Other critcism (again, plus ca change!) denied that there was a problem with inequality all together, suggesting that the problem wasn't with society, but with the feminists themselves. After all, says Mrs DMM from Kettering in 1970, don't these women enjoy being feminine?
The Times was more supportive of feminism and the fight for equality and women's rights - again quite surprising in some ways, known as it is for its conservative slant. Articles recognised the need for change and, along with the NYT, sought to legitimise feminism. This can be problematic in itself - the journalism that sought to make feminism palatable and 'nice' risked de-politicizing a movement, again an issue we still see today. For example, when the Daily Mail reviewed Natasha Walter's book 'Living Dolls', they wrote how lovely it was that she wasn't angry. She told a packed audience at FIL 2010 how much this annoyed her - she is and was, after all, very angry. Journalism that sought to legitimise, as well as support, feminism found itself reporting that the movement was full of 'normal' (i.e. white, middle class and straight) women. Again, whilst there was perhaps a well meaning positivity in this reporting, it not only resulted in selling feminism as just a movement for white, middle class straight women; it also toned down the angry, political and radical demands the women's liberation movement was fighting for. It was complex, as feminists were also willing to comply with this 'normalising' portrayal in an effort to not be seen as elitist or out of touch or 'fringe'.
Mendes found that out of her four publications between 1968-82, the Chicago Tribune was the one most likely to report on black women's issues and feminisms. These articles acknowledged the intersectionality between the oppressions of race and gender. Articles focused both on the tensions and the benefits of collective activism.
The second section of analysis explores the equal rights movement, particularly on reporting of the fight to pass the ERA in the states, and other legal rights to equality in the UK. Similar patterns were found - with some articles legitimising the movement, others focusing on the backlash, with papers using women who were against feminism (e.g. Phyllis Schafly) to 'prove' how unpopular the movement was.
Mendes focuses on the key issue of who was writing about feminism and where these articles appeared in the papers. Just like today, all too often women's issues weren't treated as 'news' but instead found themselves sidelined into features or comment. Even in 2011, if you're reading about VAWG in the DRC, or the pornification of culture, or lack of women's political representation on the Guardian website, you'll find you're in 'Life and Style'. News about women is still seen as special interest, for ladies only. Just as it was 40 years ago.
The final section was about reporting feminism in 2008 and included four additional papers, The Washington Post, the Washington Times, The Guardian and the Daily Mail. In some ways this was the section that was most relevant to me (and I'm in it!) although that does not mean that the journey to 2008 wasn't equally as fascinating and extraordinary in how some things were better than I imagined, and some things were exactly as I expected.
Mendes' research found that in 2008, popular culture was the most common 'news peg' to talk about feminism - i.e. it was used as the stepping stone to open up a feminist conversation. This results in articles such as 'Is SATC feminist?'. This can be seen as a way of trying to legitmise feminism - making it relevant to the 'normal' woman's life, but, as before, it can also de-politicize and trivialise feminism, as well as making it all feel very conceptual and not very 'real life' in itself. I mean, although as a feminist I care about how popular culture creates and shapes our attitudes towards women, winsome musings about how Bond Girls are feminist icons are not really getting to grips with what feminism means as a social movement for change. Politics was the second most popular news peg - from the Mail attacking the 'ultra feminist lobby' of Harriet Harman, to papers exploring Palin's self-declared grizzly mama style of feminism and her role in US politics - gender or otherwise. The final news peg was activism, with actual feminist events getting news coverage. My bit!
The book analyses how the papers explored 'issues associated with feminism' such as sexual objectification, equal pay and the glass ceiling. Mendes found that a higher-than-expected number of articles sought to legitimise feminism as a movement for good. However, were these articles always political? Some focusesd on how women can wear lipstick and still be a feminist - this way of making feminism pretty and non-scary could again be seen as legitimising feminism whilst ignoring its political anger and need for change. Few articles looked at radical discourse - identifying patriarchy as an oppressive force.
Just as in the first two sections of analysis, the anti-feminist articles followed a predictable pattern. Feminists are deviant - and crucially 'unattractive to men'. So, whilst some articles were gleefully informing women they can still wear pink and fight patriarchy, others continued to warn that if you're a feminist, then no-one will fancy you. Feminism is still portrayed as anti-family - bringing back to life the idea that feminism is not only bad for children, but bad for women as well. These articles promote the belief that 'having it all' is making women depressed and their children delinquent - whilst of course never questioning the fact that 'having it all' never meant 'doing it all'.
The good news is though that thanks to a lot of explicitly and unapologetic feminist journalists, women's stories and feminist issues are being reported positively. The movement is being legitmised by these writers who manage to do so without compromising the politics and radical demands. In my own personal observations this has continued to get better and better, as more and more women and men get involved in feminist activism. I would love for Kaitlynn to analyse 2011. Slutwalks? Playboy protest? Muff march? Anti cuts activism? The Arab Spring? These haven't been fringe stories confined to the blogosphere and one newspaper. Feminism is making headlines again - and it won't be long before we're out of the life and style pages forever.
I started reading the blog 'The Enemies of Reason' when it was still written by Anton Vowl, in 2009. I think I found it the day the Jan Moir/Stephen Gately scandal broke, and the world of media blogs opened up to me, including Tabloid Watch, No Sleep til Brooklands, Five Chinese Crackers and Angry Mob. Enemies of Reason quickly became one of my favourite blogs - funny, perceptive, honest and articulating everything about the lies in the press that I had always suspected, but had hitherto been unable to concretely prove.
Via Twitter and the blogosphere, Anton (as he was then known) and I became online friends (I hope!) and when I had my first brush with the press telling lies about me, he was one of the people I turned to for advice on how to tackle it. Eventually Anton revealed his true identity as Steve Baxter in a column on Comment is Free, and was quickly snapped up to write for the New Statesman, commenting on media behaviour.
In 'Musings of a Monkey', Steve has brought together some of his favourite blogposts from Enemies of Reason, Farewell Prozac and Warm Cherryade. I had only read Enemies of Reason online, so not only was I happy to re-visit old favourite and un-remembered gems, but I was also pleased to have the chance to read Steve's writing on other subjects, particularly on mental illness, depression and anti-depressants.
The book opens with blogs taken from Enemies of Reason. From insightful comment on news stories of the day (B&B couple banning gay people, and Daily Mail reaction), to how the media works and what it reports (sports personalities' sexual proclivities) and political questions (why we shouldn't wish Thatcher dead); this section meanders into delightful ponderings on what biscuits are best (Viscounts) to the best animals beginning with 'o' (otters. obviously). The joy in revisiting these blogposts is in Steve's writing. His style is very honest, and witty, sometimes sarcastic but never nasty or aggressive, sincere and clear. Sometimes the posts are written in an analytical way, as he takes us through a breakdown of a news story or item. Sometimes he writes very amusing satires of articles. And other times they're just musings of his own, that thanks to his fantastic writing ability and clear voice, never fail to entertain.
Truly in my mind Steve is one of the best writers composing blogs on the internet at the moment, and has been for as long as I have been reading his words.
It is hard to pick a favourite post in the opening of the book, but I do love and always have loved his 'What about the men' piece. Whilst I wrote four sides of A4 trying to explain just how angry I was with Giles Coren and the like, his short and criticial piece on what-about-ery summed it all up neatly and with humour. He manages to pinpoint exactly what it is about the argument that makes it so ludicrious - whether it's what about the men or Daily Mail hate - and quickly and clearly shows off the ridiculousness of it all, without falling into traps of being rude, aggressive or snide. Other favourites include his Lefty baiting: an idiots guide and The A-Z of Internet Commenting. The post on why we shouldn't wish Thatcher dead is also a stand out moment to me. Again, this post expresses the anger at Thatcher's legacy in a way that is clear sighted and meaningful without descending into cliche.
Warm Cherryade is rather a move away from the politics and media commentary and lists of Enemies of Reason. This was a side to Steve's writing that I hadn't really encountered before; observations, memories, short and delicate pieces of prose that capture every day moments, such as giving a spider a lift to work. Odes to cultural icons like Teletext. And reflections on blogging, fear and hope. It's hard to capture the section because there is this diversity there, but it all felt quite personal and quiet - in good ways. I love the idea of giving the spider a lift to work. It is such a lovely observation of something that is otherwise quite inconsequential.
Moving on to Farewell Prozac. In some ways I found this the hardest, but also the most inspiring, section of the book. It is very honest. Like Steve's writing on other subjects, the honesty is what makes it so absorbing and refreshing to read. We learn about triggers and making peace with those moments, those places that threaten to kick off episodes. The physical feeling of depression as well as the emotional feelings. The difficulties of coming off anti-depressants, and the sometimes need to go back on them is conveyed simply and carefully. The importance of recognising that going back on to medication is not a 'fail', but just something that needs to continue for a while, is dealt with in a clear sighted and accepting way. It made me think a lot about my own period of depression and mental unwell-ness (as I call it). It made me wonder how I would feel about writing about it. I don't know if I can. I talk a little bit about it in my book, in my chapter of The Light Bulb Moment. But I don't know if I can write more about it yet. Still, reading the Farewell Prozac posts, especially the one (that actually appears on Enemies of Reason) about how it does get better, reading these makes me think that maybe one day I will try and write about my own fairly minor experiences. I'm just not sure if I'm quite ready to yet. It's kind of all in the fiction posts on this blog anyway. It is helpful and also deeply moving to read about depression written in such a matter of fact and open way. Mental illness is still so hidden often, and so lonely. To have a space online where these experiences are shared in an honest fashion is really important and I hope other readers find Steve's words as valuable as I did.
The book moves on to reflect on journalism as a career, the state of the UK's newspapers, and, in the 'hastily cobbled together chapter on phone hacking', on whether the public can or will trust newspapers again. He writes about reading When Fleet Street Calls by JC Cannell as a teen and being inspired to be a hack, the changing world of journalism since then, and its potential future. His writing on 'prolls' (professional trolls) and how the ways in which the mainstream media whips up outrage and hate isn't without consequence is insightful, intelligent and spot-on. When you read Steve's writing, it feels like everything becomes clear. He has a way of communicating that makes sense of the lies and information overload of the MSM, cutting through the nonsense to bring to his readers an honest perspective that is often very amusing to boot.
On the back of the book, Steve describes himself as having been a 'mediocre journalist'. There is nothing mediocre about his writing. One of the best writers online today, no arguments. I would definitely recommend his book and I look forward to the next one.
Independent publisher Crooked Rib has spent the past year collecting the stories of why we are feminists from women and men across the UK.
Inspired by the Seal Press published ‘Click’, edited by Courtney Martin and J Courtney Sullivan; this anthology brings together writers, academics, grass-roots activists and professional feminists, as they share that moment of inspiration that brought them to feminism.
Some of the names you may recognise. Laurie Penny writing about Germaine Greer. Finn Mackay telling the story of how she went to peace camp. Jo Swinson campaigning for girls to wear trousers in her school. And then there are the women and men whose names you might not recognise, but who are working every day in the fight for gender equality and a better world for all.
Many of these stories are funny. Some are moving. Some tell of pain and trauma. Some are about family members or friends. All of them are inspiring and exciting.
Editor of The Light Bulb Moment, Sian Norris says:
‘After reading ‘Click’ I felt very strongly that we needed this book for the UK. We have such a rich feminist scene here. I thought it would be fascinating to hear how the women and men involved in UK feminist activism ‘found’ feminism. And I was right! These stories are so diverse and unique – I hope that people will enjoy reading them as much as I have.’
By bringing together the stories from women and men from a range of communities and generations, The Light Bulb Moment hopes to offer a snapshot of feminist activism in the UK today, and share the stories of the women and men involved.
The eye-catching cover was designed by illustrator Susie Hogarth.
Crooked Rib Publishing is a self-publishing, print on demand imprint set up by writer and feminist activist Sian Norris. Its aim is to publish feminist fiction and non-fiction work.
At the risk of sounding like I have '3,000 follower syndrome' I wanted to apologise for lack of blog management lately and taking ages to publish comments. I have five blogposts I want to write but been so busy with work and BFN and book publishing and Christmas shopping that it has taken a bit of a back seat.
All comments now published and new posts coming soon!
Part 2: Sexual objectification, self-objectification and silent bodies
Back in 2008, ROW took a quick survey of magazine covers in WhSmiths and
Borders. We found that the women on magazine covers were almost universally
white, long haired, slim, smiling, young and conforming to our current beauty ideal.
Whereas men were allowed to deviate from this young, sparkling model, with
wrinkles, grey hair and not universally slim, women were homogenized until we were
overwhelmed with a virtual tsunami of idealised, blank women. The only older woman
we saw was on the cover of a caravan magazine.
Women were also portrayed as being highly sexualised, but never in a way that
hinted at women's pleasure and women's own sexual desire. Instead, women's
sexuality was portrayed on our magazine covers as a performance for a male gaze
or audience. Lesbian sexuality was also overwhelmingly shown as a performance
for men, rather than as an authentic female desire. And whilst some men were
sexualised also, on the covers of gay magazines or men's health magazines, men
were never the object of the female gaze.
So, what does this mean? Well, all our research has shown us so far that whilst
women are marginalised in the creative, powerful, political or sporting sphere, women
are encouraged to appear as objects who embody a very narrow definition of what it
means to be beautiful. Women continue to be there as something to look at, rather
than as active citizens of the world. Whilst there is of course nothing wrong with
being young, slim and beautiful, there is something very wrong with the message
that women should only and always conform to a certain standard of beauty. There
is something wrong with never seeing our reality reflected back to us. And there is a
problem when women's successes are not recognised, because they do not meet the
beauty standard. Women in the public eye are all too often expected to conform to an
unattainable and often narrowly sexualised version of femininity, to look a certain way
whilst their own professional achievements, be it winning an Oscar, an Olympic gold
medal or a role in the cabinet are seen as subordinate to the ultimate achievement of
But awful as this situation is, is it violence? I believe that the impact of the
objectification of women and girls, particularly on young women and teen girls,
means that this culture is violent in itself, as well as upholding a rape culture that
excuses and allows violence against women and girls to happen.
Research from the American Psychological Association has found that:
• Pressure on women and girls to look and behave in certain ways negatively
affects their self-esteem and their mental health.
• Gender inequality is reinforced, and hopes for a level playing field are dashed,
when women are valued for their supposed sex appeal at the expense of their
other attributes and qualities.
• After being exposed to images that sexually objectify women, men are
significantly more accepting of sexual harassment, interpersonal violence,
rape myths, and sex role stereotypes.
What this means in real terms is that a culture that reduces women’s roles to that of
sex object, to be consumed by a default male audience, is allowing and encouraging
sexist attitudes, and ultimately violence against women and girls.
The widespread sexual objectification of women in the media has resulted in a
narrowing of young women’s ambition. It leads to a belief that a woman’s ultimate
achievement is to be in a permanent state of ‘hotness’ and failure to live up to the
mainstream cultural definition of hotness negatively affects women’s self-esteem and
belief in their other skills and attributes. It also creates a confusion around a woman’s
sexuality and issues around embodying her own sexuality.
Sexual objectification teaches women that sex and sexuality is something they need
to perform to a presumed male audience, rather than something to enjoy, own and
take pleasure in. This disassociation from their feelings and their bodies can cause
real trauma. Young girls are growing up with a muddled message about their bodies
and their sexuality, as illustrated by Deborah Tolman in her research on schoolgirls in
the USA8. She found that teen girls were experiencing what she called ‘silent bodies’,
as a result of:
‘how confusing it is to develop a sexual identity that leaves their sexuality out’.
Her research found that increasingly girls experience their sexuality through the
prism of being ‘wanted’ rather than ‘wanting’, and they were unable to express or
experience or embody their own sexual feelings or desire. Growing up and seeing
women only as objects to gratify male want and desire, as opposed to seeing women
as fully human with their own sexuality, is having a traumatic impact on girls who see
their bodies only in relation to being a spectacle or something that they want men o
boys to want.
Tolman’s 2004 book Dilemmas of Desire explains how silent bodies are often
accompanied by silent mouths. The inability to feel or voice or embody sexual desire,
whilst still feeling under pressure to perform a display of sexual availability, puts girls
at risk of violence. Not being able to express what you want, but seeing yourself
as a sexual object means that the word ‘no’ is hard to form, leading in some cases
to young girls feeling pressured into having sex that they don’t want to have, and
being victims of coercive sex and rape. Ariel Levy describes this in her book Female
‘Though these girls didn’t experience or had trouble recognizing sexual desire, some
of them had experienced sex – it was something that “just happened” to many of
them. Like Anne, some didn’t really want to, but told their partners they did. Others
had silent mouths to match their silent bodies and said nothing.’
What we are seeing here is how the sexual objectification of women, which teaches
girls that they are objects to be used, rather than as active agents with a voice,
desire and sexuality, is allowing and excusing violence against women and girls. The
example I have given is from an American book, but this is a universal problem.
This year in the UK we saw a horrific case where a 12 and 13 year old girls were
gang raped by a group of men, aged 18-21. It was not widely covered in the press,
except in the Daily Mail who reported that the defence called the girls ‘Lolitas’ who
tempted the men by lying about their age and offering them sex10. Although the men
were initially sentenced to two years incarceration, on appeal they were released
from jail with the judge saying that the ‘girls wanted to have sex’ and ‘were more
sexually experienced than the men’
I mention this case because I think it is a horrible example of the links between a
culture that encourages girls to see themselves as sex objects, and violence against
women and girls. That the men were guilty of gang rape is not disputed. The girls
were 12 and 13, so at least one of them was legally unable to give meaningful
consent. The case reported that one of the girls sent the men a text message and
invited them to a park to have sex. But rather than focusing on the responsibilities of
the men not to gang rape two children, this became enough evidence for the judge
to condemn the girls and blame them for the violence committed against them. The
defence called the girls ‘Lolitas’ who had tempted the men, placing the blame fully
and squarely on the girls. The older girl was reportedly reluctant and became upset
and distressed. She was then raped by one of the men. So whilst admitting that the
men had raped the girls: the judge in this appeal, the defence in their name-calling of
the girls, and the press in their sympathetic reporting towards the rapists, all colluded
to blame the victims. They all worked together to defend the men, and condemn the
children they raped.
When we see women as only and always sex objects, we take away their humanity.
We take away their voices and we take away their minds and we take away their
right to express their desires or say no. This is what happened in this case of gang
rape and the aftermath of the trial and appeal. The belief, enforced by our culture,
that women and girls are objects for men’s desire and sexuality to be acted out on,
as opposed to women acting on their own desire or even mutual desire, means that
women and girls can and will always be blamed for the violence committed against
them. Even when that girl is 12 years old.
Feminist activists call this rape culture. Rape culture is the idea that our culture
excuses and allows violence against women and girls. And with nearly 100,000 rapes
a year and a conviction rate of 6.5%, make no mistake: we do allow this violence to
happen. Rape culture is about blaming women and girls for the violence committed
against them, and telling them that the violence committed against them is something
they should feel ashamed of. But as a feminist and as an activist, I believe it is not
our shame. It is society’s shame.
The sexual objectification of women dehumanises us, and reduces us to objects.
It is far easier to commit violence against someone who has been dehumanised.
Our media landscape, and in particular the proliferation of violent pornography,
increasingly link violence with women’s bodies. A study in 2007 by Wosnitzer and
Bridges found that 89% of scenes in the most popular rented and bought porn videos
and DVDs in the USA portrayed violent acts against women and girls13. Considering
we know that internet porn is often more gonzo, we can assume that the numbers
are representative of online pornography too. Research has shown that boys first
watch porn when they are eleven years old.
This means that young men and women are growing up learning via objectification
and rape culture that sex is something that is done to women for men’s sexual
gratification, not something that women mutually engage in because they actually
want to. They are growing up learning that violence and non-consensual sex acts
are the norm. Coventry Rape Crisis Centre explained to me that more and more
often they are seeing very young women who have been raped by their partners
and their partners’ friends, but don’t have the language to call it rape. Instead, they
are learning from the images that surround them that being forced and coerced into
sex is something they have to do to have a boyfriend. As the rape crisis counsellor
put it to me, they see it as something they have to do ‘to be loved’. The result of this
education that boys and girls are receiving from the images they see every day is
that teenage girls are now the most at risk group of experiencing intimate partner
violence. 1 in 3 girls will experience inter personal violence.
I am sure that everyone in this room will agree with me that this cannot be allowed to
continue. We cannot risk the next generation having an even higher rate of domestic
violence and rape than our own.
So, what can we do? As an activist, I believe that we need to counteract the
objectification of women and girls by also ending the invisibility of women who
aren’t treated as objects. Let’s flood our media and culture with positive and exciting
images and voices of women. Let’s get more women in positions of inspiration. Let’s
end the cultural femicide of women and see our young women and men grow up
surrounded by role models that show them that women are not objects to be used,
and abused. Let’s end the silencing of women on our cultural stage, and the impact
will reach out and end the silencing of women everywhere. Rape culture is informed
and upheld by the objectification of women and the cultural femicide of women. This is how representation is violence. But we can, and we must, stop it. We owe it to
women and girls everywhere to stop it now.
So what? So, most of the films in the cinema are directed by men. Most of the books
in awards shortlists are written by men. So what if most the winners of the Mercury
prize are men, outnumbering women by more than 2 to 1, or that the majority of
artists performing at Glastonbury in 2010 are men (71% in fact). So what if only 7%
of BAFTA winning screenwriters are women. So what?
Well, what these numbers tell us is that men's culture, men's stories and men's lives
are being told, they are the default. They are the norm and any alternative version,
such as women's stories or women's culture, is considered 'other' or 'specialist'.
Women, despite being 51% of the population, are not mainstream.
And I believe that this sidelining of women, this invisibility of women is a form
of violence. Because it is cultural femicide. It sends the message that women’s
experiences and women’s lives do not count, that we do not deserve to be seen or
heard. It tells us that we are ‘other’ and as a result the voices and lives of women
The impact of this othering can be seen all around us. An interesting example that
I came across last month was the release in the UK of the iPhone 4S, and Siri.
For those of you who don’t know, Siri is the PA function on the iPhone, which talks
and responds to the phone owner via voice recognition. In the USA, Siri has a
woman’s voice, because market researchers found that consumers in the US like
the supportive and nurturing sound of a woman’s voice. But in the UK, Siri is a
man. Why? Because research found that in the UK, consumers respond best to an
authoritative voice. In the UK, authority is male. And why is this? Well, just look
around us. The current cabinet has more millionaires in it than women. The number
of women in board positions on the FTSE 100 list still remains pitifully low, barely
above 13%. The result of this lack of women in authority, this lack of women in
decision-making positions, has big implications. It means women’s voices are not
heard and that the impact of decisions on women is not considered. We just have to
look at the devastating effect of the coalition’s emergency budget on women to see
how true this is.
This silencing, this ignoring, this cultural femicide is a form of violence. It tells us that
women don’t matter. And, of course, the result of this silencing of women can result
in actual physical and sexual violence. One of the issues of the coalition cuts has
been the decimation of domestic violence support services, at a time when in 2010
rates of domestic violence increased by 25%. 90% of the victims and survivors of
intimate partner violence are women. The lack of women in decision making roles,
caused by the invisibility and dismissal of women as citizens of the world, is creating
a situation where decisions can be made that cause great harm to women, whilst
those decision makers avoid being held to account. We know that the vast majority
of domestic violence incidents are unreported. In a culture that silences women’s
voices, can we still be surprised at this?
The lack of representation of women in the media also leads to the furthering of
negative stereotypes about women and men. A recent online row between numerous
feminists and the comedy show Mock the Week revealed the scarcity of women
comics on TV panel shows. In its 5 year history, 18 out of 637 guests have been
women, and it is the comedy TV panel show that is least likely to feature women.
The invisibility of women on this show and shows like it perpetuates negative
stereotypes about women not being funny, and re-enforces a cycle that excludes
women from an industry. Now think about how often you hear or see women on other
TV shows – from University Challenge to Newsnight to CBeebies. Glastonbury. The
Oscars. Where are the women? Why are we not being seen or heard? And how
is this cultural silence preventing the next generation from taking their place in the
industries that currently unofficially exclude them? This exclusion, this refusal to
welcome women on equal terms in our cultural landscape maintains a status quo
that others and silences women. It upholds negative stereotypes that deny women
equality of opportunity. This is cultural femicide and this is violence.
I hope that has explained why as a feminist activist, I believe that the invisibility of
women in our cultural landscape is a form of violence against women and girls. I will
now try to explore how the ways in which women are represented as objects for male
consumption is also a form of violence, as well as a cause of violence against women
Here's the speech I gave at Bristol Reclaim the Night on Friday.
Thank you so much for all being here tonight. Standing here, together in solidarity, you are showing your commitment to ending the international crisis of violence against women and girls.
Today is a day of celebration. For it is the 4th birthday of the Bristol Feminist Network. I know that I am so proud to stand here with you all today, part of a network that is buzzing and vibrant and making such a difference to gender inequality in the city and beyond. I have been with the network since it began in November 2007, in fact I was one of the organisers of Ladyfest Bristol 2007, from which BFN was born. I am so proud of the achievements of our network, and so happy to stand with you all tonight, as we say no more to violence against women and girls.
So, why are we here? What are we fighting against? The recent Bristol Fawcett report, Cutting Women Out, estimated that 130 women will be raped in Bristol each month. That means that since we began planning this year's Reclaim the Night in August, there will have been approximately 500 rapes in our city. This week in the UK, two women will have been murdered by her partner or ex partner and many, many more will have been abused. In fact, across the world, 1 in 3 women will experience sexual violence in her lifetimes. In the UK, 1 in 4 adult women will experience intimate partner violence in her lifetime, a figure that goes up to 1 in 3 teen girls.
Surely then, these figures should be on the front page of the newspapers every day. Surely this should be a national scandal. Surely, with these numbers, our government should be investing serious money in funding support services, tackling rape myths and improving a justice system that so often lets rapists go free. And yet, instead of action to end violence against women and girls, we see cuts. Cuts to legal aid, preventing victims and survivors of domestic abuse from accessing affordable legal representation. Cuts to vital local support services for victims and survivors. Cuts to social housing, making it hard for victims and survivors to escape violent homes. When I wrote to Theresa May in April, she assured me that ending violence against women and girls was a priority for this government. But, as she said to the Women's Aid conference in 2010, it's actions that count, not words. And I've counted this government's actions. It isn't looking good.
It is very rare that cases of violence against women and girls get reported in our media. However, there have been three cases this year that have stood out in my mind and that have revealed so much about how rape and sexual violence is discussed in the mainstream. They were the accusations against Julian Assange and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the gang rape of 12 and 13 year old girls in Reading, where a group of men were found guilty and sentenced.
Whatever people here tonight think about the accusations against Assange and DSK, because of course we do not know what happened, one thing has been clear. The reaction to the cases was a checklist of how pervasive rape myths and victim blaming is in our society. All three alleged victims have been portrayed as liars, and have had their sex lives, politics, poverty, nationality and friendships used to discredit them. They have found themselves at the centre of conspiracy theories, and in some cases we have seen the legal definition of rape mocked and disregarded by lawyers, and by left and right wing commentators. We do not know what happened in either of those cases. But we do know that the immediate and continued reaction was to discredit and disbelieve the women. Because, in a rape culture that is almost always our reaction.
In the third case a 12 year old girl was gang raped, and her 13 year old friend was raped by one man. The men were convicted in March, but by July they were free after winning their appeal. One of the reasons given by the judge for their release was that the 12 year old girl was more sexually experienced than the men, and the convicted rapists had shown remorse. Yes, you heard that right. Our judicial system basically said that if someone rapes a child, but can then find a way that makes it look like the child was to blame, then they have nothing to worry about. Just admit it frankly, show a bit of remorse and easy. You'll be out of jail in less than a year.
In a rape culture, victim blaming, lack of justice and silence around the levels of violence against women and girls is the norm.
But what I want to say to you all here tonight is that rape culture does not have to be the norm. Violence against women and girls is not a fact of life. It is not inevitable. It is something that can change, something that can and will end. By standing here tonight, by marching through our city streets, you have shown your commitment to ending it. The aims of Reclaim the Night, education on consent and respect, support for victim and survivor services and improving the justice system - these are all steps on the road to end violence against women and girls. Things are better than they were when the first Reclaim the Night was held in the 70s, and together, standing in solidarity together, we can make a difference and we will make a difference. I believe that. That belief gets me out of bed every day. A world without violence is possible, and by being here tonight, you are part of the movement to make that world a daily reality for everyone.
This post was written in collaboration with Dr Helen Mott and Anna Mapson of Bristol Fawcett, who yesterday evening collated stats and sources for me to back up the claim in the Cutting Women Out of Bristol report that there are 130 rapes in Bristol each month. You can download the report here: http://www.bristolfawcett.org.uk/Economy.html
So, when I started sending out press releases for Bristol Reclaim the Night, I used the stat from the report that there are, on average, 130 rapes in Bristol each month. The BBC received the press release, and we arranged an interview for this morning. I was surprised then to get a call from the police yesterday, disputing the stats and saying that their figures showed that the number was closer to twenty. I explained that the 130 was based on unreported rapes, and that the 20 were just reported rapes. We had a good chat, and I think we found common ground and left on good terms.
However, the BBC then phoned me to warn me that in the interview this morning, the presenter was going to ask me about these stats and why our numbers were different to the police's.
So here's what I explained on the radio, from Helen's and Anna's fantastic and interview saving research!
Every month in Bristol more than 50 sexual assaults and other sexual offences are reported, 19 of which are rapes.
That gives us an overview of the varying numbers of reported rape in Bristol and in the wider Avon and Somerset area. If we return to that first number though, which supports the stats the police quoted, we have an average of 19 reported rapes per month in Bristol.
But this is reported rapes. When we look at the British Crime Survey over 6 years, we find that on average, only 15% of rapes are reported. In fact, when we include repeat victimisation in the figures, the annual reporting rate actually drops to 9%, or fewer than one in ten. We need to balance this against a reporting rate that is more like 41% for victims under 16 years old.
So, when we know that we have 19 reported rapes per month in Bristol, but that only represents 15% of rapes overall, we can estimate that each month in Bristol there are 127 rapes.
However, we really need to emphasise that this isn't us trying to trip up the police or make them look bad. In Bristol we can be really proud of the work that Operation Bluestone (the part of the force dedicated to looking at sexual violence) have made, including big strides in tackling sexual violence. Their work has won awards, and as well as working with survivors and victims, they are also running educational programmes to tackle the causes of violence against women and girls. They collaborate with the Bridge Sexual Assault Referral Centre and have always stood in solidarity with BFN and RTN. Of course it isn't perfect, there is a long way to go, but steps are being made in the right direction to ensure that women and girls in Bristol have a police force they can feel confident reporting rape and sexual violence to.
Bristol Feminists march to Reclaim the Night and end violence against women and girls
On Friday 18th November, hundreds will take to the streets of Bristol to demand the right to walk through the city, free from the fear of sexual harassment, abuse and violence. Not only this, but they will be marching to call for an end to all sexual violence, whether committed on the street, in the workplace, in schools and in the home.
Bristol Feminist Network believe that:
“In 2011, we still live in a rape culture. This means that we live in a world where rape myths that seek to blame women for the violence committed against them are widely believed. It means that women are held responsible for preventing rape and preventing violence, by being instructed to modify their own behaviour to ‘avoid’ rape. But rape is not a natural hazard that women can ‘carefully avoid’. It is a deliberate, vicious and violent crime.
When there are attacks on women that make the news, the response remains the same. Stay indoors, don’t drink, use the buddy system. Posters all over the country warn women about the dangers of rape by telling them to restrict their freedoms. ‘Let your hair down, not your guard’, we’re told. The fact that rapists, not victims, are responsible for rape remains unspoken.
Every month in Bristol 130 women will be raped. And yet the conviction rate from reporting to trial stays pitifully low, at 6.5%. Women who are brave enough to report rape find that it is they, not the rapist, who is put on trial. Reclaim the Night demands an end to this injustice.”
The aims of Reclaim the Night are to:
• educate about consent and violence against women.
• To bring justice to victims, by improving the conviction rate.
• To support the services in Bristol that are helping victims and survivors of sexual assault every day. One25 fully supports the aims of Reclaim the Night and are proud to be participating in the event again this year. We too believe that everyone deserves to be safe from violence on our streets and that everyone deserves the same high level of support if they are attacked, regardless of their personal background. It is of vital importance that the Bristol community get together this November to raise awareness of the plight of those who live in daily fear of our streets at night and campaign for safer streets for all of us.
Josie Hill, One25
On the 18th November, women and men will be marching in solidarity with women across the world. They will be fighting to end violence against women and girls. Ban-Ki Moon called violence against women and girls the ‘greatest human rights violation of our time’. They demand an end to the violence.
When? Friday 18th November 2011
What time? 6pm vigil (good for press photos)
Where? Meet in College Green for a vigil to remember the victims of violence, before marching through the city to Portland Square, for speakers and rally.
Who can march? We welcome people of all genders and ages, but the march will be led by a woman-only section (for all self identifying women).
I would like to say early on that I wish I had taken notes in this session as by now I was very tired and I can't remember lots of amazing things that were said. But I cheered a lot!
After the workshops, we all returned to the main hall for Feminist Question Time. The panel was made up of more feminist heroes, Shami Chakrabati, Zoe Williams and Bea Campbell, as well as founder of Anti Porn Men Project Matt McCormack-Evans and Carlene Firmin, a writer and the youngest black woman to be awarded an MBE (and now a new feminist hero of mine). The event was chaired by Cllr Rania Khan, who had spoken in the opening session.
The event was split into three sections to give direction to the questions. The first part was on the attitudes towards gender equality in the government; the second on the sexism industry and the final on 'what is feminism'. The first question to be asked was by BFN member and friend Jo! Who asked the panel whether the government's failure to improve or even consider gender inequality was a result of there not being many women in parliament.
The question went to Shami Chakrabati, who repeated the question and then paused, before saying 'YES!'. We all whooped and cheered and stamped our feet in response and I felt so elated to be surrounded by feminist women who all care so much about ending the mess that is gender inequality. Wahey! She expanded on her point to explain that without women in key decision-making roles we couldn't see improvements to gender inequality. The question moved in to discussing the disapproval of all-women shortlists in the judiciary. Zoe Williams quipped that the problem with this government wasn't just the lack of women in parliament, but the fact that most the people in government were tories. She went on to explain how no-one cared about impartiality in the judicial system when it sends in all male shortlists, something that we can all agree on I think. As I always point out to people who connect all women shortlists with a lack of 'merit'; George Osbourne did not become the second most powerful politician in the country on the merit of his vast intelligence and politicial know-how. As Matt went on to point out, all-women shortlists are a must if we want to see an improvement in women's representation. Bea Campbell talked more about how the government is entrenching inequality in amazing, articulate ways. I really wish I could remember what Carlene Firmin said because I remember cheering really, really loudly.
From political representation we moved to a discussion about the 'sexism industry' and its impact on gender inequality. As ever, this proved a divisive topic even in a UK Feminista ran conference with it's very firm policy on the sex industry. The first question was directed to Shami Chakrabati as her role on the Leveson Enquiry into media ethics. The woman asked whether the Leveson Enquiry would investigate the ways in which the tabloid media objectifies and harms women. Shami responded that it would be impossible to look at media ethics without looking at sexism and misogyny, and that she wouldn't be on the enquiry if she didn't think it could and would affect real change. I hope it does, but of course I have my doubts. Zoe Williams believes that the tabloids will eventually all shut down, promising to pose naked in the Guardian if page 3 is ever banned. This was an important question, as 'newspaper porn' is now so established, so insitutionalised in our culture, it's hard to know how to tackle it, or even consider it as actual porn. But it is, and it needs to be stopped.
The next question resulted in perhaps the moment that made me most angry at the conference. A woman in the audience asked why feminists were against 'strippers, lap dancers and prostitutes' and why she couldn't be a feminist because she enjoys 'lap dancing and watching porn with her boyfriend'. This made me angry because it seemed to me to be wilful ignorance about the feminist argument on the sex industry. That it isn't about being against women in the industry, it is about questioning why we have a sex industry at all and fighting its corruption, its normalisation of violence against women and girls and the exploitation of women and girls within the industry; as well as campaigning against the harmful effects the industry has on women and men everywhere. It really troubles me that people can't see or refuse to see the difference between challenging an industry that causes huge harm to women; and not liking or 'being against' women who work in the industry. The two things are very different and to me, the latter is not and never has been and never should be the feminist argument. The final question in that segment was on whether prostitution should be illegal.
Matt talked at length and articulately about the harm the sex industry does to women and how it results in a narrowing of women - women's sexuality and women's amibtions. Then Bea Campbell was just amazing. She talked about exploitation in the sex industry and asked some difficult questions about how we have to question our own choices. She says that she doesn't think prostitution should be illegal (I agree, although I believe in criminalising the exploiters - the johns) and then put forward what (according to Twitter) was the most challenging proposition of the day. She asked us to consider the abuse of children in pornography, the filmed and photographed child abuse, and then to consider the parallels between that abuse and the abuse of women in the sex industry. Unlike the impression given by some tweeters, she did not compare women to children or say that women didn't have agency. She just asked us to consider how people (women and children) are exploited and harmed by the 3rd biggest industry in the world and to ask ourselves some serious questions about how we value women.
Twice in the day the point about the sex industry being the 3rd biggest industry in the world was brought up. It is a really interesting point, especially if like me you believe that patriarchy and capitalism are intrinsically linked and both need to be tackled. As I have said before, I have often found the socialist and liberal support of the sex industry, which makes more money than the film, music, publishing and TV industry put together at the expense of exploiting women, very confusing. I also think it is important to say over and over again that when you watch a video of a woman being raped on youporn or whatever, you have no way of knowing if that is consensual. No way at all. You don't know where that woman has come from, what 'choices' she has, whether she was trafficked, whether she is in pain (probably). You don't know. Same if you go to a brothel, or buy a woman on the street, or go to a strip club. You don't know if that woman is being exploited and if, for example, you choose to pay for 'sex' with a woman without knowing she is being exploited then you are breaking the law. So turn it off. Put your wallet away. Stop. Exploiting. Women. For. The. Benefit. Of. A. Rich. Man's. Bank. Account. No-one died from not having an orgasm. Lots of women die in the sex industry.
I think this was what Bea Campbell was aiming at, to ask us to consider where and how exploitation happens, and to make us stop and think about whether our choices are encouraging exploitation. This of course applies to all capitalist ventures outside the sex industry as well, and I think boycotting the sex industry is the same as boycotting any other industry that makes its money from harming women - be that drugs, retail etc etc.
The final questions were about feminism and what it means, and led to a discussion about how we need to speak to men and engage men with feminism. I've been meaning to blog about this issue for ages so will use this space to do so instead. I believe it is important for men to be involved in feminism. This is because I think it is important for everyone to be involved in feminism. I don't think we should be pouring special, additional energy into getting men involved and I certainly don't think we should de-politicise certain issues or sugarcoat some of the more challenging aspects of feminism in order to make it palatable to men or to make men want to like us. Men should be allies, men should be feminists because everyone should want to make the world a better place through the fight for gender equality and liberation from patriarchy. But they need to listen to women, respect women and we should be able to talk freely about the more challenging things, we should be able to critique male privilege, we should be able to talk about women's issues and have women only space without being criticised for 'excluding men'.
But, to be honest with you, involving men in feminism isn't my priority. Because I think we also need to do more to reach out to other women, before we even start on reaching out to men. And I am a bit concerned about how often feminist discussion becomes a discussion about men, when there are lots of women and communities of women who see feminism as irrelevant and not part of their lives. Which was why I think my loudest cheer went out to Carlene Firmin, who talked about how we need to be make feminism relevant to young women, living on South London estates, trapped in a cycle of violence and gang rape culture, without even the language to describe what is happening to them. She talked about how we discuss the media pressure on women to be thin, but how the young women she works with care less about thinness and more about getting big bums through implants. This is exactly what I believe we need to do more of as feminists. My priority has to be reaching out to women, young women, who are experiencing sexism and misogyny every day as their norm. Rather than making sure that men like feminism, I want to make sure that feminism is relevant to young women across class, across communities, so that together we can fight against the sexism that places such serious restrictions on women's lives and denies them justice, a voice, to condemn the violence that is committed against them.
Carlene's speech led to huge cheers from an inspired audience and as the closing answer in the Question Time it left me with lots to think about. I'm not sure how I am going to be relevant to young women and I'm not sure how I am going to do more to help and support refugee women, but hopefully I will find a way to take what was discussed yesterday and do something about it.
And that is my last post on Fem 11. Thanks to the organiser and speakers for a fantastic, inspiring and thought-provoking day!
This was the first workshop I attended on the day. It was an obvious choice, seeing as the gender studies conference scene is preparing to be dazzled on November 24th with my impressive paper on 'representation of women as violence' at the forthcoming VAWG conference here in Bristol. This workshop, organised by the End Violence against Women (EVAW) Coalition (http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/) promised to explore how violence against women and girls (VAWG) is linked to media representation, and ask questions about how we can use the media to tackle vawg. It was therefore a bit surprising then that at the end of the session a woman complained that we had spent the whole workshop talking about the media!
The workshop was led by Holly Dustin, Sarah Green - both from EVAW, and Marie - an academic on gender based violence (I'm so sorry I can't remember her surname or if that was even her name!). The room was absolutely packed, I was sat on the floor and women were stood and sat in the hallway. I was really pleased to see how busy it is, as to me fighting violence against women and girls (and I have a very broad definition of that term) is a key and vital issue in the fight for liberation and equality.
The paper that I am delivering next week focuses on the ways in which the representation of women in the media is a form of violence against women and girls. This was perhaps a jump from one of the themes presented by Marie, who made the point that we can see how media representation of women and sexualisation culture is a cause of VAWG. However she nodded along with my comment that I see it as a form of violence in itself, particularly as we see young girls expected to perform sexuality but not emobdy or own their sexuality, which leaves them at a real risk of experiencing sexual violence in their relationships.
The workshop started with us all shouting into the room what made us angry. The conviction rate, Eammon Holmes still being on TV, victim blaming, labiaplasty, Nadine Dorries - there were lots and lots of points raised about how we were angry about the violence being committed against women and girls. It was really refreshing to hear so many women's voices talking about their anger and also their own experiences of violence and blame in a supportive and feminist space.
Marie then talked a little bit about her research and the recent shift in the conversation about sexualisation of girls and its impact on VAWG. Under the Labour government, she explained, a review on sexualisation conducted by Dr. Papadopoulous was published; followed in 2011 by the Bailey Review, commissioned by the Coalition govt. She explained that the Papadopoulous review looked at sexualisation as a gendered issue, and how it related to young girls' well being, self esteem and issues around violence. The Bailey Review however stripped out any context around gender and became a very moralistic report about hiding sex and sexuality from children. This is really important as it shows that in the case of the Bailey Review, feminist arguments around sexualisation were co-opted and twisted to become a 'pearl-clutching prudery' issue and not an issue about gender equality and the impact of sexualisation on VAWG and in teen relationships etc. I remember a friend telling me that the the Bailey Review suggested banning black bras for teen girls. Who is sexualising children here? Who is saying that black bras are sexual and not just practical to wear under black clothes? As feminists fighting against a culture that seeks to demean and degrade women as sex objects we need to be careful that our feminist arguments are not co-opted and mutated by a right wing argument that thinks it's fine to harm women, so long as no-one over 18 sees you doing it.
Marie went on to talk about how it is difficult to get these issues discussed in the 'academy'. This is something I have heard before - the reluctance in academia to investigate and research the links between sexualisation and sexual violence and gender inequality. Marie - if you read this post please get in touch as I would love to find out more about your research!
This part of the discussion encouraged the women in the room to talk about their own experiences of sexualisation and its impact on young women. We talked about how things have got worse in this area even in the last ten years, particularly with the rise of the internet and easy access to violent pornography. Debate was raised however about whether we are judging young women who buy into this industry and who want to present themselves in a highly (mainstream) sexualised way. Again, this is a key question to feminists campaigning on this issue and relates to the hegemonic ideas of choice (ooh long word!). We talk a lot about choice, but what does choice mean when young women (and men) are only offered a very narrow and male defined view of what it means to be sexy and sexual, often in a way that completely disregards women's desire or pleasure or sexuality. An interviewee in Natasha Walter's book 'Living Dolls' explained how as a teen girl in our culture she feels she has no choice but to embody this one narrow version of sexual presentation. She has no choice. And this 'choice' to perform a narrow version of sexiness or sexuality, that is divorced from women's bodies or sexual pleasure, often leaves young girls with 'silent bodies' and at risk of coercive sex and sexual violence.
These questions also relate to the sex industry. What is a free choice in a culture that values women's ability to fit a narrow view of male defined sexuality over their ability to be leaders, thinkers, scientists, writers, politicians, etc etc. One woman in the discussion rightly brought up class, and although I disagreed with her that the 'only' problem with the sex industry is capitalism, it is vital we look at class. To refer to Natasha Walter's book again, there were some very revealing comments from successful middle class men who financially support the sex industry about their attitudes to the women with working class backgrounds who bring in their profits (but see so little of that money themselves).
One particularly challenging part of the discussion was when a woman in the group brought up the huge issues women face on a global scale, particularly in Saudi Arabia and South Africa. She called the issues that western women face as small, and I have to admit this troubled me. Because the issues facing women across the world are all big and all vital and all need to be tackled. Sexual violence, for example, is an issue women face in every corner of the globe. She asked why we weren't raising money for rape crisis centres in South Africa. Of course we need to do this, but we also need to raise money for rape crisis centres in the UK. It isn't a competition of who is worse off in my view, it is about working together in sisterhood to tackle gender inequality wherever we find it across the world. I absolutely believe as feminists we need to have a global outlook, but we must not fall into the trap of ignoring the sexism we find at our own front door, just as we must not fall into the trap of ignoring the sexism in other countries.
The workshop then moved to look at how we can tackle VAWG through engaging with the media, and EVAW showed their We are Man film, a viral aimed at men to tackle rape culture. The video caused some division in the group. A few women questioned whether the Jackass style stunts in the video perpetuated stereotypical ideas of manhood and masculinity, stereotypes that as feminists we should challenge. On the one hand, I agree. Tackling gender norms and stereotypes are a big part of the feminist battle, after all, men are trapped by restrictive gender norms too. However, we don't live in a post patriarchal world and sometimes we have to step back and think about who we are trying to talk to. This video aimed to reach out to young men who want to watch something funny and silly on YouTube and who will hopefully be shocked by the twist and led to consider the issues it raises. During that first engagement, they aren't necessarily interested about deconstructing notions of masculinity. Sometimes we have to work within that patriarchal framework to reach an audience. We don't want to be in danger of losing the message, but we also don't want to lose the opportunity to engage men with that message at all, by talking at a level that is meaningless to them. Feminism is sometimes seen as irrelevant to young men and women, or to anyone outside an academic background or framework. So whilst we must talk about deconstructing gender stereotypes, we also need to make sure we are talking to young people in a way that they can respond to and engage with. We need to be relevant without being patronising and I think the video achieves this well.
The three men in the room loved the video, by the way.
(Nb. I won't use names of the women who spoke at the workshop in this post or go into a lot of detail about the stories told - this was a safe space and I respect the confidentiality of the women who spoke out)
I first came into contact with the workings of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) earlier this year, when me and two activist friends, Chitra and Ray, hastily set up a grass roots campaign to prevent the deportation of a young Ugandan woman who had experienced severe homophobic persecution and was at serious risk of harm if she returned. The woman, who I'll call 'T', had been horrifically assaulted and branded in a homophobic attack and since her arrival in the UK, had been outed as a lesbian in a notoriously homophobic newspaper. This outing meant it was not safe for her to return to Uganda. Her family had abandoned her and she sought asylum in the UK. Despite her medical report confirming her injuries and the obvious dangers she faced if she returned; asylum was initially refused because the UKBA didn't believe she was really gay, and therefore refused to believe she was really in danger.
I think before the morning when I sat reading the reports and the judgements on her case, I had had faith in the system. I felt that despite the pressures from a rabidly right wing press that is filled with lies about asylum seekers, and the resultant pressure on government to keep people out; I believed that deep down, in my wealthy, liberal country, we would help people who came to us looking for help. Not turn them away to face rape, violence and murder on the flimsiest of excuses.
I don't have that faith anymore. As far as I can tell, the UKBA's chief concern is not to help people find a new life; it is to send people back as quickly as possible to keep the Daily Mail readers happy.
Thanks in part to our campaign that raised some noise about her case and led to her getting better legal representation, T was released from Yarl's Wood and is now waiting for her case to come up. She is in limbo but she is not detained in what is basically a prison for women who have committed no crime.
Campaigning on T's case opened my eyes to what our asylum system actually does to women and men, but I had only seen a small slice of one case. So I was thrilled to see one of my ultimate feminist heroes, Natasha Walter, was leading a workshop about her charity Women for Refugee Women and the difficulties that women seeking asylum in the UK face. It was called 'From rape to refusal'.
Unfortunately, rather than being really cool and saying hello, when Natasha stood near me I went all weirdly star struck and looked at the floor. So shameful!
The workshop opened with a song from a group of women from WAST - women asylum seekers together. It was a welcome song about les modes preferees (favourite things?) with lots of clapping and joyful singing. Natasha then introduced why she had set up Women for Refugee Women. People mainly know Natasha for her books which concentrate a lot on UK feminism and the issues that are of particular concern to western feminists, so although I knew about her work with her charity, it was great to hear more about the work she does beyond the books.
Like me, Natasha's eyes were opened to the horrors women face when they arrive in the UK when she met a woman who had sought asylum from the DRC. She realised that she needed to do something to end the deafening silence around this issue, as well as find a way to provide support for women going through the system. Natasha explained the reasons why people seek asylum, such as persecution on religious, political grounds, or because they are a member of a persecuted ethnic group. Both women and men seek asylum under these terms. But she explained that women often have to seek asylum because of so-called honour based violence, the threat of FGM, intimate partner violence and rape (which can overlap with the other cited reasons). This is gender based persecution and it is a reason to seek asylum, but, just like in the UK justice system, it is often not taken seriously and women are not believed. Because we don't consider gender hate to be a hate crime or form of persecution, it is difficult for women to get asylum. To make matters worse, I found out from my friend that last week the:
'UK Government has decided to opt out of the EU directive which will give women seeking refuge from gender-related persecution, such as FGM, forced abortion or rape in situations of conflict or war greater protection in other European countries.'
Natasha didn't talk for long, this was a workshop, she explained, where we would hear and listen to the voices of the women going through the system.
The stories began with a woman talking about her arrival in the UK, and the first time she went to the home office to request asylum. In a room packed with people, the officer asked her to explain what happened to her and why she needed asylum. Because of the lack of privacy, she found it very difficult to took about the violence she had suffered, she couldn't go into details. Think about this carefully. A woman arrives in the home office centre. She is expected to tell a stranger about incredibly traumatic and violent experiences in a room full of people who can hear what she is saying. How can we expect women to do this? How can we expect women to talk about this in public, with no privacy, no support, no understanding?
The official's response?
'I don't believe you. You are lying. You have to leave.'
With no-where to go, she spent the night sleeping rough, and returned the next day. It was then decided she could go on the 'fast track' (where cases are decided in two weeks) and was put in detention whilst her case was processed.
In response to a question about whether women were entitled to speak to a woman official and see a woman doctor, Natasha explained that the right is there, but that we have to understand that women arriving at the asylum office often don't know what rights they have. They don't know the system and no-one is going to explain it to them. And the fear is always there that if they 'cause trouble' they will be seen as a problem, and put themselves at risk. Particularly against the context of what many of these women have experienced at home, you can see why it might be hard to speak out and ask for what they are entitled to have. So whilst the right is there on paper, it is rarely put into practise.
The women talked more about the horrors of detention in Yarls Wood. The family wing in Yarls Wood was recently closed down, and children and families are now kept in a different centre (not without its problems) but there are still over 400 women held at Yarls Wood. It is important to remember that despite these women being the victims and survivors of horrific crimes, in Yarls Wood they are treated like criminals, detained in a centre where they have no freedom. Is this how we treat women who come to the UK to escape horrors across the world? The women on the panel spoke about how detention triggered traumatic memories from the persecution they had suffered in their home countries. Is this how we help people?
From arrival and detention the talks moved to explain and discuss destitution. When an asylum seeker is refused asylum and has exhausted their right to appeal, they become destitute. This means that the (tiny) benefits and housing provision they had when they were in the system (£30 a week on a card that they can only spend in certain shops, no right to work) are no longer given to them and they have nothing. Nothing. Many destitute asylum seekers end up sleeping rough where they are at serious risk of sexual assault. One recent report found that a third of asylum seeking women sleeping rough had experienced rape and sexual assault - none of which was reported to the police. Because asylum seeking women are refused recourse to public funds, they often cannot go to refuges or shelters who might be able to support them as victims and survivors of violence. One woman on the panel had been destitute since 2004. Others had spent near to ten years in 'limbo', waiting for their cases to be heard, waiting for their decisions to come through. Limbo often goes hand in hand with destitution.
The lack of proper legal representation is one of the issues women seeking asylum face, leaving them in limbo and struggling to have their cases heard. The cuts to legal aid will of course exacerbate this.
One woman on the panel described how the scars of the physical torture she had experienced in her home country would heal. But that with the UK's asylum system she had experienced long term, systematic mental torture.
That is what our asylum system does. It tortures women who have already been tortured in horrific ways. It dehumanises women. It robs women of their dignity. It opens them up to shame and abuse and puts them at risk of assault and trauma. And it refuses to believe women. The opt-out of this directive will mean the government can continue to allow the UKBA to refuse to believe women.
The workshop finished with a message of hope, however. Because we have to remember that change is possible. Natasha talked about the progress we have made in the UK in getting rape and sexual assault taken seriously (yes we have a long way to go but progress has been made) and how we can use this to try and change the disbelieving attitude towards women in the asylum system. The women spoke about the importance of the support networks such as WAST. And, movingly, one woman spoke passionately about how the support of British women had given her hope. That support, a phone call, seeing women at the workshop, a hug, these gave her hope (by this point I had started crying).
Tomorrow no doubt the Mail and the Express will be wilfully confusing economic migrants, illiegal immigrants and asylum seekers with a pack of lies about the benefits they get, the jobs they 'steal' and the 'too full get out' message they so love. Their shit stirring leads to government decisions like the one to opt out of a directive that will save the lives of women across the world who need our support.
We need to listen to the stories of these women and we need to make the change so that no-one will ever be robbed of their dignity when arriving in this country ever again. We need to make the change. And after hearing the women talk yesterday, I believe we can. I hope we can. It will take a long time and a lot of fighting. But we have to do it.
Because I am ashamed to live in a country that looks at the scars of a woman like T's and says she's lying. I am ashamed to live in a country that puts women into a virtual prison when they are survivors of crimes against humanity. I am ashamed to live in a country where women are left destitute and at risk of sexual violence when they have been forced to flee a life of sexual violence. This is not a country that I want to see. I want a system that believes women, that supports women and that doesn't tell lies about women.
Trigger warning - because i quote some of the insults I've received.
Ooh i hear you say. A 'jumping on the bandwagon' style post about online misogynistic abuse, the latest thing being talked about on the feminist blogosphere and even in broadsheet left-leaning newspapers!
So, here you have it. The Sian and Crooked Rib guide to sexist online abuse, and the excuses that are made to silence it and pretend it doesn't exist.
Part One: Types of sexist online abuse.
Have you ever seen that episode of QI, when Reginald D Hunter tells the story about how he likes to tell white people that he doesn't know what corduroy is, to see them explain to him painstakingly and carefully what it is? Mansplaining is a bit like that. It's when a man reads something by a woman, often relating to her personal experience of a feminist issue, and carefully explains why they are wrong. Never mind the fact that they might be talking about a personal experience. Never mind the fact that they might be talking about their doctoral thesis. Never mind the fact that they actually do know what they are talking about, or are making sensible suggestions or don't really care whether you think they are right or not. It's that very specific gendered patronizing that aims to silence or undermine a woman's opinion with no real cause, back-up or strong argument.
Mansplaining is not the same as disagreeing with a woman writer. People disagree with each other on the internet and can do so politely, carefully, in an informed way and have a great debate. Mansplaining is different because it involves being patronized and silenced. No-one has a problem with lively online debate (even if sometimes in a perfect world we would all like everyone to agree with us and write comments going 'yeah! great! well said!') - mansplaining is when a woman's opinion or experience is undermined, ignored and said to be 'wrong' because it contradicts the mansplainer's own idea or comfort zone.
Calling a woman ugly is the misogynist's go-to card when it comes to online abuse. A misogynist thinks calling a woman ugly or fat or old or hairy or hairless-on-their-head is the nadir of insults. I like to imagine them, typing away and puffed up with rage, desperately trying to put their finger on the best ever put down and then going 'hah! i'll tell the bitch she's ugly! that'll shut her up!'.
My absolute all time favourite online insult was on the Evening Post website, when I was quoted criticising Hooters in one of the many 'EP loves Hooters' articles. It went something like this:
'I imagine that you're so fat you could jumpstart a jumbo jet. I imagine you sitting in your house on your own with a shaved head eating lentils out of a bowl.'
(not that it matters, but none of these things are actually accurate although i do quite like lentils)
The reason men who don't like women much think that calling a woman ugly is the perfect insult is because of the cultural value we place on female beauty. We equate being able to conform to the current culturally defined beauty standard as THE measure of success for a woman. So calling a woman ugly is the misogynist's way to call a woman a failure. It is a way to undermine, and to point out that nothing a woman says has any worth because she has failed in the most important aspect of being a woman - being attractive to men.
I mean, I have been quite flippant above but in all seriousness being told you're ugly over and over again does hurt. Because no matter how far our "consciousness is raised" as feminists, we still live in this patriarchal capitalist system and therefore the values of that system are still within us. During the Hooters debacle someone posted a horrible photo of what they imagined I looked like, along with some unfriendly remarks, and I cried. It is why it is even more important that we fight and act against a society that tells us that being beautiful is a woman's ultimate achievement, that we support each other and fight against negative messages about women's bodies, and that we constantly challenge the idea that fat, old, hairy etc. are insults. They're not and they shouldn't be.
3. Huh. Women. Hysterical! Emotional!
On International Woman's Day, I wrote an article on Liberal Conspiracy about international violence against women and girls. It was pretty much a list of stats from various sources, including WHO, the UN, the Home Office and British Crime Statistics. I deliberately chose the statistical route so as not to be called emotional. But that didn't stop one of the first commenters deciding to accuse me of writing a 'hysterical rant'. When Sunny, the editor, pulled him up on his use of sexist language, he went on and on and on about how hysterical isn't sexist.
Well, it is.
Hysterical is a word used to silence women. Again, it is a word that undermines a woman's argument. It says don't pay attention to her, she's hysterical, over the top, over emotional. It's historic meaning is sexist and gendered. And frankly, have you ever heard anyone call a man hysterical? No, me neither.
Emotional is the other one. It gets forgotten on the bloke-osphere that the opposite of 'emotional' is not 'rational'. You can write something that is emotional and still be rational, fair, factual and evidenced. But again, saying a woman's writing is emotional is silencing. Oh don't listen to her, she's being all over emotional again, letting her feelings get in the way.
Emotional is seen as something feminine, and in an unequal society, feminine is seen as lesser, as petty, as not important. The fact that there is nothing wrong with being emotional about a subject like violence against women and girls is lost in the effort to shut up and undermine the facts and figures of the issue.
Men are passionate. Women are hysterical. Men are assertive. Women are emotional. Men are rational. Women are letting their feelings get in the way.
These sexist double-standards infiltrate all aspects of life but online they are used to dismiss, undermine and mock a woman writer's argument.
Online misogynists love calling women writing online 'lesbians'. Just like saying we're ugly, they think that calling someone a lesbian is the worst insult of all. Of course, lesbian is not an insult. The only people who think calling someone a lesbian is an insult is the kind of dumb-ass teenage boy minded misogynist who delights in bullying women online. There are a lot of parallels between trying to insult a woman by calling her a lesbian as there are to calling her ugly. The idea that 'lesbian' is an insult is based on the idea that a woman's success in our society is based on her being in a straight relationship.
One of the most upsetting insults I had online was during the Hooters Evening Post nightmare. One man had obviously googled my name, seen the Guardian article where I wrote about growing up in a gay household and proceeded to use this information to abuse me and my family. I am never sure what I found more horrible; the fact that he wrote nasty things about my family, or that he felt the need to google me to discover more info to use against me as childish but hurtful insults.
The other form of abuse that I am categorising under Number 4 is the childish, spiteful and frankly pathetic 'speculation' about the woman writer's sex life. This can be speculating about whether the woman is a lesbian or not, but in my case it has involved taking my anti-porn stance to make suggestions about how they imagine my sex life to be. This is really unpleasant. It's really really fucking rude for a start. And also, it's trying to undermine an argument by making out that you think I must be 'uncool' and 'uptight' and 'prudish' and 'no good in bed' because I think there are perhaps other ways to enjoy myself that don't involve taking part in the commercial sexual exploitation of women and men. I know, I'm the freak here.
This has also taken the form of asking me inappropriate and intimate questions about my sex life, my sexual history and suggesting I try out different things sexually (even though the bully has no knowledge of my sex life). Mocking someone for their perceived (or known) sexuality and sexual preference is again a great way to silence women writers by trying to suggest that they aren't as 'cool' or as 'liberated' as the online bully, whilst again using patriarchal society's measure of success (women being sexually attractive/available to men) to make out that the woman writing is a failure.
5. Violence, rape threats and hate language
Of course, this is the most extreme form of online abuse. It is also the scariest and the one that most succeeds in silencing women, leading as it does and has done to women shutting down their blogs, turning down writing work and worse besides. Although I haven't had this happen to me as badly as some writers (see Cath Elliott's blog here for how extreme this can be: http://toomuchtosayformyself.com/2011/04/20/an-occupational-hazard) when it did happen it made me want to turn off my blog, refuse any more writing offers and hide away, silenced and thoroughly 'shut up'.
The rape threats, the threats of physical violence, online stalking - these things have become the reality for women feminist bloggers and women bloggers in general. They're so commonplace as to almost seem normal. But it is not normal and it is not acceptable. No-one should have to feel that fear that we all get as we check the unmoderated comments tab, to breathe that sigh of relief as we avoid the abuse...for now.
These threats are real, they are scary, they leave you shaken and they leave you feeling threatened. They need to stop and the culture that excuses it, brushes it off or reduces it needs to be stopped too. Which leads me to part two...
Part two: Excuses given to brush off sexist online abuse
1. Women! Women are mean too!
Yes, I know! Imagine. Women. Being mean.
I do take big umbrage with feminists being sexist and abusive to one another. We have enough to deal with with anti-feminists treating us like shit without starting on one another. Sisterhood is an important tenet of feminism and although we can and should disagree or challenge one another, lets not do that in abusive and sexist ways. Or, for that matter, in 'one-up woman ship' ways.
And yes, women can be abusive too. To other women and to other men. This isn't right. Sexism, whoever is saying it, needs to stop. In my experience however, and it is important to point this out, I have never been sexually or physically threatened by a woman, or a feminist. Although at least two of the examples I gave in Number 4 were from an anti-feminist woman.
2. If you're on the internet, you need to deal with people disagreeing with you
This one is sexist in itself! As it implies that we women bloggers are delicate flowers who can't cope with people disagreeing with us, or who aren't able to manage the manly nature of debate. This argument is BS. Look at any of my blogposts with more than 5 comments and you'll see people disagreeing with me and arguing with me until the cows have gone home, been milked and fallen asleep. Debate and disagreement will happen and we can deal with that.
The difference is explaining why you disagree with my argument that, for example, I believe we need to end the commercial sexual exploitation of women and men in our society; and physically threatening me in order to show me why I shouldn't even be daring to make the argument in the first place.
If you can't understand that difference, then I will give you another example. There's a difference between disagreeing with my stance on abortion; and calling me a 'fucking baby killer' for making an argument that supports a woman's right to bodily autonomy.
It's fine to disagree (even if I think you are wrong). It isn't fine to use misogynistic abuse to try and make me stop writing.
3. Ungh. You are making out that women are victims! Stop victimising yourself!
Speaking out against violence is not victimising yourself. Breaking the silence around the abuse women regularly receive is not taking a victim stance. It's being honest about a serious issue and trying to challenge why it happens to ensure it doesn't happen any more.
I think that people who try and say that women being honest about their experiences are behaving like victims feel uncomfortable with hearing the reality of misogyny. That's their problem. I don't see myself as a victim. I see myself as trying to write honestly about my experience of sexist online bullying, in order to join in a wider conversation with other women, who together are speaking out against something that is ignored and brushed under the carpet.
Trying to silence us by saying we are behaving like victims is pretty pathetic reaction IMO. It's like a desperate last resort to make out that we're the ones behaving badly.
4. But men get online abuse too!
I'm going to leave it to a male blogger who gets abuse on his blog to explain this one:
'never seen any of my male blogger acquaintances get similar kinds of abuse. Certainly not anything like as frequently.'
Just like street harassment, men get abuse too. But the nature of the abuse and the types of threats and the reasons behind it are different.
5. It's freedom of speech man!
Expecting people to not partake in any of the abuse example mentioned above is not about restricting people's freedom of speech. It is about recognising that no-one should use that right to freedom of speech to harm other people and threaten them with violence.
Using vile misogynistic insults and threatening women to intimidate them in to leaving an online space? Who's denying people freedom of speech in that scenario ey?
But I won't shut up on my blog. I won't have my freedom of speech, my freedom to write and my freedom to express my views taken from me because some people think they have a right to abuse me online. I won't be silenced.
And that, my friends, is the very special Sian and Crooked Rib Guide to Online Abuse and the excuses given to pretend it isn't a problem and doesn't exist!