Monday, 30 May 2011

Ken Clarke, Roger Helmer, Daily Mail Fails and Rape

*trigger warning*

Reasonable expectations

A couple of weeks ago, the feminist blogosphere and beyond was shocked by Ken Clarke’s remarks that there were degrees of seriousness when it came to rape. His comments came in response to questions about rapists receiving five year sentences, saying that the five year sentences included those for “date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15 year olds...” but that ‘classic rape’ with “with violence and an unwilling woman - the tariff is longer than that."

Further, as if convinced that he hadn’t done enough to appear ignorant and confused on the issue of rape, he went on to say that campaigners had singled out rape sentencing from his plans to reduce jail terms for guilty pleas because it added “sexual excitement” to the conversation.

So, why is this problematic? For starters, it is troubling that the Justice Minister does not know that a seventeen year old having consensual sex with a fifteen year old is not legally rape, but ‘unlawful sex with a minor’ and so wouldn’t be included in the five year sentence stats. It is rape if the child is under thirteen, as was the case with a gang rape of a 12-year old girl a few months ago, because at that age the law decides the girl or boy cannot give meaningful consent.

Clarke’s comments that some rapes are less violent than others are not only offensive, but show ignorance of the law. It’s a fact that bears repeating, all rape is violent. Rape is an inherently violent crime. Forcing someone to have penetrative sex that they do not want to have is violent, whether it’s a stranger in the park, your boyfriend or your husband, your mate’s best friend, your colleague or someone you just met. Knowing the perpetrator doesn’t make it less violent. Having had consensual sex with the perpetrator at a different time doesn’t make it less violent. It is for this reason that marital rape became a crime in 1991. Additional violence, such as actual or grievous bodily harm or kidnapping are further crimes, but this is not the same as saying that the act of rape is more or less violent depending on its context.

Ken Clarke’s comments that some rapes are more serious than others tie into a culture of rape myths that blame the victim, rather than placing blame firmly and squarely where it belongs, on the perpetrator. His assertion that ‘violent rape’ is the stranger leaping from the bush scenario, and ‘less serious rape’ involves the victim knowing the perpetrator relates closely to myths and stereotypes about the ‘perfect victim’ and subtly, or sometimes not so subtly, takes responsibility away from the perpetrator and asks the victim to carry the blame. This is not acceptable.

Receiving less press attention was Roger Helmer MEP (Conservative) who wrote in defence of Ken Clarke that some rapes were less violent than others, and that if a woman “voluntarily goes to her boyfriend’s apartment, voluntarily goes into the bedroom, voluntarily undresses and gets into bed, perhaps anticipating sex, or na├»vely expecting merely a cuddle [b]ut at the last minute gets cold feet and says “Stop!” [and t]he young man, in the heat of the moment, is unable to restrain himself and carries on…the victim surely shares a part of the responsibility, if only for establishing reasonable expectations in her boyfriend’s mind.”

Lets repeat that sentence. ‘reasonable expectations in he boyfriend’s mind’. What Helmer is saying here is that by having a boyfriend, by getting into bed to maybe just go to sleep, a woman is always at risk of being raped and should take responsibility for the crime if it happens. Quite what women are supposed to do avoid rape Helmer doesn’t explain, (stay celibate? Never be alone with a man at all ever?) but his belief is that women can somehow prevent rape, and if they don’t it is their fault. He says that women are to blame for rape, and that men are animals who can’t control themselves (a truly misandrist view in my opinion, men are qite capable of stopping once they’ve started). As Kat Banyard says in her book ‘The Equality Illusion’, rape isn’t a natural hazard that we can avoid, like falling off a cliff edge. It is a crime that one person chooses to commit against another, a violent crime about power and domination, whether it happens in the bedroom, the street or the office.

A range of commentators have added to Ken Clarke’s and Roger Helmer’s narrative of serious and less serious rapes, from Richard Littlejohn saying that women cry rape when they regret having a one night stand, to Peter Hitchens saying that a drunk rape victim deserves less sympathy because they have behaved stupidly. We have seen a veritable parade of rich white men pontificating from their ivory towers about what constitutes real rape, and explaining to women and men who have perhaps survived rape themselves how they should feel and react to the crime committed against them, and informing them to exactly what degree they were to’ blame’.

And amidst all this to-ing and fro-ing and arguing about what a ‘classic rape’ is and where the victims are to blame, the voices of survivors are silenced.

If we had a conviction rate that meant most rapists went to jail; if 2,000 women weren’t raped every week; if 100% of rapes were reported because the victim knows she would be believed; if rapists didn’t get five year sentences or domestic violence offenders didn’t get suspended sentences; or a man who murdered his wife didn’t get 18-months in jail then none of this would really matter. Because we would have faith in a system that didn’t blame the victim, because we would know the media wouldn’t tell us that most women lie about rape (as opposed to the 3-5% of false accusations that actually happen), because we would trust that a jury would not arrive at the courtroom with heads filled with rape myths telling them that if the victim was drunk/wearing a short skirt/on drugs/knew the accused/had had sex with the accused on another occasion/had had sex at all then it was partially the victim’s fault. But we don’t live in that world. We have a conviction rate from reporting of 6.5% and 100,000 women are raped in the UK every year. And over and over and over again we are told that the victim is to blame. In my home town of Bristol, a 14 year old girl was raped and her rapist sent to jail, but readers of the local newspaper and the rapist’s defence team placed the blame firmly on the child.

Rape is rape. It is violent. It is a crime that someone chooses to commit against another person. Rape doesn’t happen because a woman is drunk, or outside, or going to sleep in bed with her boyfriend, and it doesn’t happen because men can’t ‘help themselves’, as Helmer suggests. It happens because a rapist makes a decision to rape. However or wherever it happens, it is violent. And it is certainly not up to journalists, writers, politicians, comedians or the bloke in the pub to decide whether one rape is more serious than another.

Hooters, bikini contests, boob cakes and licensing

Members of Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett have drafted a letter to go to the council complaining about potential breaches of Hooters’ license conditions. You can sign the letter here:, but here’s a bit of info about how Hooters have been laughing at their license restrictions, and why their curious brand of ‘family friendly’ sexism is harmful to women and men.

This post contains lines and phrases from that letter so is a collaborative effort.

On Wednesday, 11 May, the Hooters “restaurant” on Bristol’s historic Harbourside held its inaugural bikini contest: whereby its young, female staff dressed in swimwear and high heels to be judged who the “diners” perceived to be the most “sexy”, according to our current culture's narrow definition of “sexiness”. This event, which encourages the view that women should perform as sex objects for a (presumed) male audience, began at 7pm.

In the heavily contested license application in August 2010, Hooters’ lawyers were at pains to state there would be no such sex entertainment events, and that they wanted the restaurant to be more up-market than some of the others in its self-styled “tacky” chain (which, it should be noted, is referred to as a “breastaurant” by its own lawyers). In fact, the licensing committee were assured by the Hooters' lawyers that bikini contests and wet t-shirt competitions would not form part of the restaurant's activities. Instead, Hooters was presented as family friendly, with the entertainment on show being sports related.
However, by hosting a bikini contest, Hooters were offering semi nudity and sexual entertainment. By treating women as sex objects for the male gaze, Hooters are reinforcing negative stereotypes and beliefs about women and women's bodies; beliefs which contribute to wider problems of sexism in society.

There is plenty of research and evidence that the continued sexual objectification of women is causing harm to children, women and men, from a rise of violence in teen relationships (1 in 3 according to research conducted by the NSPCC and Bristol University) to self esteem issues in young men and women. Girls aged 16-19 are now the highest risk group for experiencing intimate partner violence. The American Psychological Association has found convincing links to sexual objectification and violence against women and girls. The research evidence is clear on these points:

• 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.

There are very real concerns about the impact bikini contests and the “lad's mag” imagery that surrounds Hooters has on the female staff working there. Displaying sexist and pornographic imagery contradicts sexual harassment guidelines and creates a hostile working environment for women and men. The council should be concerned that Hooters believe it to be acceptable to expose their staff to competitions and imagery that presents women as only and always sex objects. This doesn’t encourage a safe and positive working environment, and I feel that by displaying such imagery and hosting these events, they may cause upset and distress to staff members.
Furthermore, in May 2011 Hooters served a 12-year-old boy and his school friends a pornographic birthday cake in the “restaurant”. This cake was in the shape of naked, disembodied breasts, decorated with the words “Happy 12th Birthday”, and in the Hooters colours of white and orange. This is all part of a pattern of the commodification of women’s body parts, selling women’s sexuality or bodies as entertainment. Serving up women’s breasts for consumption, treating women’s disembodied breasts as the ultimate consumable.

What impact does this has on the female waiting staff who are once more being confronted with pornographic imagery in their day-to-day working lives. As Hooters is not classified as a sex-entertainment venue, it is surely not ok for the establishment to expose their staff to sexist imagery such as naked breasts and bikini contests.

Complaints have gone to the council and a formal letter has been drafted here, so that if you want to sign up to complain against Hooters potentially breaking their licensing conditions you can do. The letter explains the breaches, but hopefully this blogpost explains to you why this is an issue for feminists and women and men everywhere who have had enough of the commercial sexual exploitation of women.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Violence against women and girls in the DRC - event!

The civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been the bloodiest since the Second World War. Millions have died and mass rape has been used across the country as a weapon of war, But beyond the odd Special Report or Unreported World, we rarely hear about it in the western media.

We will be showing a film created by V Day who have worked with the women of the Congo to build the City of Joy, a safe space for the survivors of rape. The film features the women of the Congo telling their stories of violence, and the hope they have for a better future.

We will also be joined by a range of speakers, actors will tell stories and we will have a discussion at the end.

We will learn how we are all connected to the Congo.

We will refuse to accept silence on this issue.

Katharine Viner, deputy editor of the Guardian, is confirmed as a speaker at the event.

Doireann from V Day

Rona and Walter from Amnesty International (Bristol Branch)

Where? The Cube, Dove Street South, Bristol
When? Monday 6th June
What time? 8pm!/event.php?eid=148711171860810

Saturday, 21 May 2011


Hi all

I will be blogging about ken Clarke and hooters bikinis soon, but am poorly at the mo and so am mainly drinking lemonade, sniffing and feeling sorry for self.

Watch this space.


Thursday, 12 May 2011

Slutwalk, Feminism TM and the Daily Mail

To say everyone is talking about it would be an understatement. It’s the biggest comment thread on the Bristol Feminist Network I’ve ever seen. Media outlets from the Daily Mail to the Guardian to the BBC to Newsnight and beyond have been covering it. About to embark on my third round of organising Reclaim the Night, I can only gasp in wonder at how a march that ostensibly is saying what RTN has said before has won so much press attention. Whatever your thoughts on Slutwalk, you have to admit, they know how to get noticed.

And it has caused big debate. I am still unsure exactly what it is I feel about it all. So please allow this blogpost to meander slightly as I try to explain my confusion that in some ways supports the aims to raise awareness of why victim blaming is wrong, and in other ways questions the language and reception that Slutwalk has received.

This is just my opinion. I know many, many women feel differently and completely support Slutwalk and I respect the reasons they give for this. I ask that you respect my concerns, wonderings and questions as my personal opinion, just as I respect the opinions of others who think differently.

So, in case you didn’t know, Slutwalk was kicked off in Toronto after a police officer said that if women didn’t want to be attacked, they should avoid looking like ‘sluts’. This attitude won’t come as a surprise to many women. Blaming the victim for wearing a short skirt, a low cut top, skinny jeans, being drunk, knowing the rapist, being outdoors, being indoors, being ‘sexually active’, taking drugs – if there’s a way to shift the blame from the rapist and onto the victim, then it will be found, spoken out loud and used to shame the victim, reducing conviction rates and encouraging rape myths.

This is one of the many reasons that women march at Reclaim the Night, an openly feminist march that says that victims and survivors of rape, sexual assault and violence should never be blamed. We shout ‘whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and NO means NO!’. We demand the right to freedom of movement, the freedom to go where we want, wear what we want, sleep with who we want etc without the fear of rape and sexual violence permeating our world. It is a march, for me, of strength, of sisterhood, of feminism.

Where the aims of Slutwalk are to fight victim blaming and challenge rape myths, I can clearly support them. Sexual assault and rape is only and always the fault of the attacker. The idea that if a woman ‘dresses provocatively’ then she is attracting rape is still terrifyingly prevalent and rather than be embarrassed about saying such women-hating, ignorant nonsense, people are happy to go on Radio 2 and say:

‘"If you dressed as a pork-chop to feed lions, you'd get eaten,"

And here’s some choice quotes from the Daily Mail website:

‘They would be lucky if any man decided that these women were worthy. Tree hugging, ugly feminists - nothing worse.’

‘Attractive girls dont need to wear such revealing outfits to be noticed.’
‘women must take some responsibility for their own actions, and I'm sorry, but going out in your underwear with parts of your body that should remain covered up on show is only asking for trouble....FACT, like it or not!’

‘Booking the day off work for this I cant wait to see loads of nearly naked women walk past me hehe’

‘if women demand respect from men, women should show more respect to men and act and dress more modestly.’

‘I never understood how women can demand respect and not to be treated like sex toys from men and yet they flaunt their sexually in front of men, and don't expect any kind of reaction.’

‘Of course outfits like this are invitations. It is twisted and evil to say otherwise.’

Victim-blaming is so pervasive, that even feminists have fallen into its ugly trap, with Naomi Wolf defending Julian Assange and blaming his accusers. And with a pernicious right wing press keen to label women as liars, it is vital that we fight back and shout out that we are never to blame for the violence committed against us.

But Slutwalk isn’t as simple as that, and that is for many reasons, not least the use of the word Slut which I will come to later.

Firstly, as pointed out by, is the lack of conversations around actual feminism happening, especially in Toronto. The post argues that there is kind of an elephant in the room when it comes to talking about violence against women and girls as a gendered issue and discussion about feminism seems strangely absent. I’m not going to reconstruct her entire argument here, although I urge you to read it, but to me violence against women is a feminist issue, and victim blaming plays into the oppression and silencing of women, and ignoring that this is gendered problem suggests a real confusion about what the aims of the event are.  The post writer found a lot of anti-feminist language being employed by the walkers, who distanced themselves from the ‘not fun’ radical feminists (you know, the man hating, bad shoe wearing lot :-/ ) in a way that, for me, uncomfortably re-packages feminism as something that should always and only be fun and sexy, and not threatening.

This feeds into much bigger issues about what Nina Power called Feminism TM, that proposes feminism as fun and sexy and all about what the individual wants. The idea that it is MY choice and I made this choice as a WOMAN so therefore it is a FEMINIST choice. Through this, a glass of pinot, getting a lap dance, watching porn, eating chocolate and buying clothes from Primark are all justified as feminist choices, in the sparkly and friendly world of individualist feminism. It is cute and sexy and it certainly isn’t scary, unlike those angry women who, you know, don’t shave. The problems with this kind of attitude mainly manifest themselves in a disregard for sisterhood, as it proposes that an individual choice that might harm another trumps working for a communal, greater good.

It’s not that feminism shouldn’t be fun. Feminism can be loads of fun, and involves a lot of love and laughter. But feminism can also be scary and challenging and angry and ugly and painful because it is about overthrowing the status quo and saying no to oppression and insisting that the current, patriarchal system that keeps a few people very happy and very powerful needs to end. And it is upsetting and ugly and scary because a lot of feminist issues ARE these things – violence, poverty, oppression. Not saying that or feeling embarrassed about pointing this out and making a feminist statement is not cool.

I love how Slutwalk is trying to find a creative and empowering way to show off the message that victim blaming is unacceptable. I am just concerned from what I’ve read that the feminist, gender message is getting a little bit lost. Although, please do prove me wrong!

Of course, the feminist and gender message is not lost with Reclaim the Night.

There is still a view in the world that feminism is dour and dull and not fun and sexy and that we need to rebrand it to make it more palatable. My view is that feminism is fun, and hard work, and full of sisterhood and laughter, and tears, and anger, and upset and yes it can be sexy too. But I don’t want feminism to be solely re-branded as fun and sexy to make people like us more. Because there is NOTHING fun and sexy about violence against women, or poverty or oppression. And if we have to make it fun and sexy to get people to take these issues seriously, well, there’s a logic leap to me there. Do other human rights movements have to look sexy? Is it actually precisely because we are women, and women have to fit a mould of sexiness to be visible, that we are asked to make the fight for gender equality sexy? And by doing that, are we not actually playing into the hands of those who seek to oppress us, i.e. patriarchy?

I should caveat here that you don’t have to dress “sexy” to go on Slutwalk where the message is that women should be able to wear whatever they want ( This is more a wider point about why I think rebranding feminism to make it attractive is a defeatist plan.

Ok, so the next big issue is the use of the word slut in the first place. Is Slutwalk about reclaiming it? Can it be reclaimed? Can language ever be reclaimed? It’s so tricky and complex. I personally revolt against the instruction/request to label myself a slut. I am a woman (hear me roar!). Not a slut or a bitch or a ho or a cunt or frigid but a WOMAN and a FEMINIST. But I can see the attraction of wanting to reclaim words that have been used against us. To take away the power they have to hurt us. My doubt lies in whether it actually works.

I’ve now read a few testimonials since this debate began from women who have had the word slut used against them within violent and abusive situations, and feel strongly that they don’t want to reclaim it. I personally feel that this has to be respected. Because if the whole point of Slutwalk is to make a stand against violence against women, and then ignores or rides over the thoughts and wishes of survivors and victims of violence, then that is problematic. As rmott62 says on her excellent blog: ‘this whole thing has made me very sick. Remember my sickness is part of being reminded again that I am sub-human by women privilege enough to reclaim the term Slut’. (

Because privilege is coming into play here. I doubt deliberately, but so often privilege isn’t exercised deliberately. Doesn’t mean we don’t question it.

The other issue with reclaiming the word slut is that you might reclaim it for yourself, but what about everyone else? For example, sometimes my mum uses the word ‘dyke’. I find the word offensive and jokily tell her off. But if a straight man or woman used it against her, then it would be really offensive/abusive/violent. And this is the root of the problem for me about reclaiming. Can it really stop the word being used to hurt you or attack you? I tried to reclaim the word cunt, but rather than seeing it used to describe strong, exciting, amazing women, it was still used to describe David Cameron. So was it reclaimed? Or was it just a word used to express hate, but used more commonly? Did it just become more acceptable to use cunt to hate people, without the feminist, reclaiming motivation?

The Daily Mail illustrated their article with images of women ‘scantily clad’ (as their headline termed it) on Slutwalk, whilst below the line commenters discussed whether the women were attractive, feminine, real ‘ladies’ and decided most of them didn’t have to worry about being raped. Ahh yes, that old chestnut, that rape is the ultimate compliment and about desire, rather than a crime about violence and power. The images made me stop in my tracks. Yes, the women looked angry, empowered and motivated. But the images were being used to objectify, criticise and narrow women’s identity to ‘hot’ or ‘not’ according to our current cultural (male defined) definition of attractiveness. The word slut was being used to insult the women. Men were chortling about the opportunity to go and gawp at women in their underwear.

Was this what we wanted? Obviously I’m not saying we should never take action in case the Daily Mail gets the wrong end of the stick, but it felt to me that the ease with which power was taken away signified that what was happening was an attempt to defeat patriarchy using the language and appearance of the oppressors, which patriarchy and the oppressors were then able to turn around to use against us.

One of the problems I have with raunch feminism and feminism TM (which I recognise Slutwalk might not be to many women and again, tell me if I’m wrong!) is that it seems to attempt to challenge sexism within the confines of patriarchal capitalism. So it becomes ‘porn is empowering’ or ‘my boob job is empowering’ or ‘my choice is empowering because it is my choice and I am a woman etc etc’. But actually, I believe as Audre Lorde said that ‘we can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools’.

Obviously it’s great that these issues about victim blaming are getting publicity. And creative and dynamic ways to get these issues talked about are fantastic. But me? Well, I won’t be marching on Slutwalk. To me, Reclaim the Night is a march to combat victim blaming, raise awareness about violence against women and is inclusive to all (well, in Bristol it is!) whilst being avowedly, openly feminist and unafraid to tackle violence as a gendered issue. That is where I’ll be.

But this is just my long, rambling confused take on the situation. I appreciate that many women have very different thoughts to me about Slutwalk, which I completely respect. And once more, I think it is so important that these issues are being debated openly and excitedly, so that we are reaching more and more people with the message that rape is never a woman’s fault. Full stop.  

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Neuro-sexism - a bar to equality

This originally appeared on the Fresh Outlook at

This is also my 200th post! 

Girls like pink, boys like blue. Girls love caring, boys love maths. Girls are nurturers, boys are leaders. And we can’t change that. It’s innate, it’s genetic, it’s to do with the size of our left brains, or our right brains, or the way different parts of our brains light up, or testosterone levels in the womb, or oxytocin levels outside the womb, or… well it’s just science, ok? And it certainly has nothing to do with societal expectations, prejudices, stereotypes or sexism. Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars, men don’t listen and women can’t read maps, and the answers lie in our genes.

The current trend of biological determinism has been eagerly reported by our press, from the surreal study that ‘proved’ girls like pink and boys like blue because our ‘male primal ancestors hunted under clear blue skies and women picked pink berries’ (paraphrased) to Lawrence Sumner’s claims that women were innately unsuited to science. Voices of scientists, psychologists and activists who have disputed these claims have been rarely been heard in the media, who instead have hailed those pushing the bio-determinist views as crusaders against the unscientific nature of political correctness, fighting the taboo that women and men are different. The fact that much of the research actually reinforces stereotypes that are, if anything, deeply old fashioned in their outlook is casually ignored.

Biological determinism or ‘neuro-sexism’ is harmful to both men and women. Make no mistakes about that. The theories that women are caring, nurturing and good with empathising with emotions perfectly suits women to low paid, low status caring careers. The idea that we are emotional and therefore ‘not rational’, that we are talkers and therefore not good with ‘systems’, and that because we are good with language we are therefore bad at maths basically excludes women from what have become traditionally male-dominated areas of life and the workplace. Conversely, the idea that men can’t be emotionally intelligent, caring or nurturing excludes them from the caring professions and family life, which is equally as sexist and harmful.

Recent feminist literature, including Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender explore how sexism still manifests itself in our day-to-day lives, from harassment in the workplace to unequal division of labour at home. They look at how pernicious the influence of stereotyping is, so that even when parents think they are offering a gender-neutral upbringing, society still encourages rigid gender roles. They break down flawed studies and force you to ask uncomfortable questions about your own attitudes towards gender and stereotyping. Fundamentally, they question and argue against the idea that gender roles are innate and fixed, and ask whether prejudice, sexism and stereotyping are, in fact, influencing women’s and men’s choices, as opposed to women’s so-called love of pink being directly descended from our ancestors’ taste for berries.

The problem with bio-determinism and neuro-sexism is it kind of puts the breaks on a move towards equality. It says that there’s no point fighting for better representation for women on boards/parliament/engineering/science or buying our daughters trucks and our sons dolls, or campaigning for more equal parental leave, because our genes innately mean that men and women are different and should stick to different paths. By looking for alternative theories beyond biological determinism, we can find a sense of hope. It tells us that there is a world of opportunity beyond the idea that women and men are stuck with a genetic make up that reduces our outlook and chances for the future. By reminding ourselves about how wrong gender difference science has been in the past, and exploring how it is still getting it wrong today, we learn that if we move beyond stereotyping and sexism, women and men can perform equally well on the public and domestic stage. Neuro-sexism does not have to define our present, or our future.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Nadine Dorries - just say no

Ahh, Nadine Dorries, a politician who if she was a character in The Thick of It would no doubt be amusing, but in real life, where she exists as a Tory MP, is so much less funny.

Last week Dorries, who has apparently based her entire political career on preaching a twisted morality that disrespects women, managed to push past the first reading of a bill that proposed that abstinence is included in sex education lessons for girls only, aged 13-16.

A bit of context. Dorries is a virulent anti-choice campaigner who has aligned herself with various anti-choice groups with an agenda to overturn the legalisation of abortion as it stands. She has campaigned for reductions to the abortion time limit, and recently proposed that a woman seeking an abortion should legally be required to seek counselling from a non-interested party (as in, not the abortion provider) which handily pushes her belief in the non-existent medical condition ‘post abortion syndrome’. Her endgame, it seems to most feminists, is to do away with abortion altogether.

It is highly unlikely that Dorries’ proposal to bring in abstinence education for girls only will make it any further but we also didn’t think it would get this far, so it is important we pay attention and consider what the problems with her proposals are.

On the surface, Dorries co-opts feminist language around sex and education that is very persuasive. She explains that she is introducing this bill because we are living in a world that is ‘saturated with sex’ (although I would caveat that by saying it isn’t sex so much as a version of performed sexuality) and that girls need to be empowered to say no to sex. She says that it needs to be as cool to say no as it is to know how to put on a condom.

Now, in many ways, I completely agree with this. Of course we should empower young girls to say no to sex if they don’t want to be having it. Young girls these days are under all sorts of pressures to constantly be seen as sexual and conforming to a narrow idea of what it means to be sexy. They are undoubtedly being pressured into having sex and they should absolutely be educated that they have a right to respect, and that they can say no to sex they don’t want. Recent Home Office research has found that girls aged 16-19 are now at the most risk of experiencing intimate partner violence and having spoke to rape crisis workers, these girls are so often confused about consent, that they don’t see the violence committed against them as rape or assault. Instead they see it as something they have to put up with to earn or deserve their boyfriends’s ‘love’. Girls are growing up in a world that frames sexuality as a performance to win fame/approval as opposed to something you engage in because you want to, because you feel desire or pleasure. On top of this, porn promotes a view of sex as being about violence and conquest, saying no but meaning yes…hell yeah we need to empower girls to say no if they don’t want to have sex.

Also, if a girl chooses to abstain from sex, and has made that choice because she wants to, then this choice needs to be respected. It’s all about empowering girls and boys to be happy and comfortable with their sexuality, their choices and their bodily autonomy.

But this is categorically not what Dorries means. Because you don’t empower girls to say no via abstinence education. All that achieves is teaching girls to say no whether they want to have sex or not. It takes away the choice to engage or abstain from sex as the girl wants to.

Dorries seems to have a rather warped idea about how sex education happens in schools. As well as getting Year 7 confused with 7 year-olds (her claim that seven year olds are taught how to put on a condom is untrue) she seems to think that school sex ed is a great big love in that encourages young people to go out, experiment, sleep with a string of people, and that so long as they use a condom they’ll be ok.

This isn’t true.

When I was at school, my sex education was pretty patchy. We’ve all heard the story about how we learnt about STDs from a booklet illustrated by a hedgehog family. Yes, that’s right, hedgehogs. But we were taught that we should wait for ‘the one’, that we shouldn’t rush into anything and that we should use contraception. The onus was always on waiting. In fact, I could have done with a bit more info about going out and having fun and enjoying my sexuality, rather than lectures on how we really should wait, because, you know, you just should. I even remember being told that getting the morning-after pill over the counter wasn’t a good thing because it made having sex too easy. And that abortion was wrong. In a secular school!

It’s important to note this because it kind of undermines Dorries’ argument that sex education isn’t talking about waiting and instead is ‘sexualising children’.

But, if schools are already promoting the idea that we should wait, what’s the problem?

Well, actually, not all schools are teaching that. Some schools shy away from sex education altogether. And if it became law that girls aged 13-16 had to be taught abstinence education, then in those schools that would be sex education full stop. And as everyone who takes a passing interest in this knows, abstinence only education doesn’t work. Teens have always had sex. Teens will always have sex. So if you don’t teach them about contraception, choice and consent, when they do go and have sex they are woefully underprepared for keeping themselves safe. And then teen pregnancies and STD rates climb up and pressure is piled on.

The other massive issue of course is that Dorries is only promoting abstinence education for GIRLS. Boys don’t need it apparently. This is so blatantly sexist it is hard to know where to start, but basically it positions girls as the gatekeepers of sex, and puts the onus on girls to say no. She thinks that boys will always pressure girls into sex, and so girls need to be equipped to say no. The fact that we should be educating boys to not pressure girls into sex doesn’t seem to register with her, because, after all “boys will be boys”! (Not all boys pressure girls into sex obviously. This also doesn’t register with Dorries).

But this is typical of the abstinence-education movement, through which sexism runs like an ugly vein. From comparing women who have sex to ‘damaged goods’, or Ariel Levy’s ‘Miss Tape’ example – the tape who ends up used, ruined and ugly – abstinence-only advocates suggest that it is the woman’s responsibility to prevent sex and if she fails in that duty, then she is a bad, bad girl. So Dorries’ exclusion of boys from her plan suggests that it is ok for boys to pressure girls into sex. The problem is when girls say yes.

So, what is the solution? It is a complex problem. Girls are being pressured into having sex that they don’t want, and they do need to be empowered to say no when they want to. But trying to fix this by ignoring that a teen girl has very natural and normal sexual feelings and may actually want to have sex is not the answer. Telling girls that they shouldn’t have sex is not the answer. And not teaching about contraception is certainly not the answer.

I believe, and I have always believed, that the most important thing sex education can do is teach boys and girls about consent and respect from an early age. So that as children grow up, they are informed about respecting their peers, and understand about equality. As they get older, and more detailed sex education begins, they are taught about the importance of informed consent. They should be taught that it is ok to say no, but that if they want to have sex, it isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ and their sexual feelings and sexuality are perfectly normal and natural. They should be taught about contraception and responsibility and, once more: respect and active, informed consent.

If girls are being pressured into having sex, they need to be taught about consent so that they understand they can say no. And if boys are pressuring girls into sex they need to be taught about consent so they understand that you should NEVER force someone. Boys and girls are growing up confused, they don’t even understand what rape is (, and, as in Levy’s book, girls are increasingly seeing sex as something they perform, rather than because it can feel amazing. By teaching about respect and consent and desire and pleasure, we are encouraging young people to see sex as something they engage in because they want to, because they are consenting to, and because they are sexual beings.

Because come on. 1 in 3 teen relationships were found to be violent by the NSPCC and Bristol University. Teens are now the highest risk age group to experience intimate personal violence. We are failing our daughters and our sons by not talking to them and educating them about consent, and instead giving them confused messages about waiting and saying no, whilst porn tells them that violence and coercion is cool and sexay and media culture tells girls the most important achievement they can have is to be permanently sexual according to a narrow definition of sexiness.

What Dorries is proposing isn’t the answer. It shames young women, instead of supporting them. It leaves them unprepared to deal with sex and sexuality. And it ignores the fact that we need to talk to boys about consent and respect, rather than treating girls as the moral gatekeepers of sex.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Calm down, dear

This post first appeared on The Fresh Outlook:

Last week, in the juvenile bear pit that is the House of Commons, David Cameron responded to Labour MP Angela Eagle's questions about the NHS by asking her to “calm down dear” in the style of Michael Winner's memorable turn as an insurance flogger for the eSure ads.

The ensuing row raised questions about just how 'in touch' our PM is, telling a 'joke' that wasn't even funny when it aired early in the noughties. It also has caused rather a sexism row, as people debate the appropriateness of calling a woman MP “dear” and telling her to “calm down” whilst doing her job. Whilst some commentators have criticised the row as being a storm in a teacup, I think we need to consider how language matters, and how language can still be used to put women in their place, make women feel unwelcome and emphasise negative stereotypes that disrespect women's place in the public sphere.

First of all, we need to look at the context in which these words were uttered. Parliament has a dismal representation of women in its houses. Only 21% (139) of MPs are women, making us lag slowly behind many countries across the world when it comes to equal representation in parliament. Analysts have predicted that in the next election, we may lose women MPs from the Lib Dems altogether, as (typically) all the safe seats are held by men, whereas the more risky seats are held by women. To encourage equality in parliament, to encourage women to believe they can be taken seriously in parliament, it is vital that sexist language, stereotyping and behaviour are wiped out. For many young women, the House of Commons has not lost its 'old boy's club' look and feel; in fact the last election arguably made this worse, with a cabinet full of 'old boys' of Eton and Oxbridge and Bullingdon. We also need to take a look at how the current government has behaved towards women, with the budget cuts hitting women's purses hardest, cuts hitting services that primarily effect women, discussions about cuts to maternity leave, cuts to services that protect vulnerable women, proposals to scrap the equalities act – this government is working its hardest to push women back out of the public and into the private, domestic sphere. So when David Cameron tells a woman colleague to “calm down dear”, there is a lot more going on than a throwaway 'joke'.

Historically, women had been pushed out of the public sphere because they were believed to be irrational, emotional and 'hysterical'. Our pesky wombs roamed around our bodies, making us upset and emotional (which, by the way, isn't the opposite of 'rational') and incapable of responsibility or decision-making. Of course, science has moved on and we now know that hysteria wasn't caused by a wandering womb so much as it was caused by repression and oppression, but a lingering stereotype of the unreasonable, irrational woman remains, and usually manifests itself when a woman questions, argues with and disagrees with a man. So telling a woman to 'calm down' is an effective way of shutting down the argument, making out that her questions and points are not made 'calmly' and 'rationally' and therefore must be being made 'irrationally' and 'hysterically'. And an irrational point does not require listening to, or responding to.

As a feminist writer, I have had experience of this myself. When writing about international violence against women, I was accused of writing a “hysterical rant” (I hadn't, I had listed statistics from a range of sources to show the extent of violence against women across the world). When the editor of the site warned that the use of 'hysterical rant' was sexist, the writer of the comment became immediately defensive and denied he was being sexist. It seems that he, and David Cameron, may not have realised the intent behind the words, but within the historical context of how hysteria was used to silence women, telling a woman to "calm down" when she was merely doing her job of questioning the PM (it isn't like the men MPs in PMQs are particularly 'calm' or solemn is it?), or writing an article about violence against women is a way to undermine her and to shut her up.

Moving on to 'dear' then. I have been surprised to read many responses to this debate arguing that 'dear' isn't a gendered word, and therefore Cameron couldn't have meant it in a sexist way. I can only assume these responses have been written by men. Again, it depends heavily on context. In a relationship – be that familial, friendly or as a couple, use of words such as 'dear'; 'darling' and 'love' are not necessarily gendered. I could call my boyfriend 'darling' and vice versa. Move into a workplace setting and I would be surprised if many male bosses called their male colleagues 'dear' or 'darling' or 'love'. But a woman? Maybe. Because again, these words have historically been used in workplace settings to undermine, silence and disrespect women. They say that women don't have names. The word 'dear' can treat a woman like a child, or an object, or as an 'old dear'. We still live in a world where sexism exists. Words like 'dear' are used to put women in their place, to say they should not be speaking out, to say their points are not worthy of being listened to.

In a post-feminist, post-sexist, post-patriarchal world, telling a woman to “calm down dear” in parliament wouldn't matter. Actually, scrap that, in that world, it simply wouldn't happen. But in a world where women are under-represented in parliament, where sexist mutterings about the suitability of women as MPs still exist, where women are being hit by decisions made without their consultation because there are so few women in cabinet, where women are being regularly silenced and pushed out of the public sphere – well, with all this going on, I am not going to calm down, dear. I'm going to stay angry.