Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Some musings on 'fun feminism'

There’s been a lot of debate lately about so-called ‘fun feminism’. From Julie Bindel’s post on the New Statesman (FTR, i agreed with some but not all of her points in that article) to conversations in comments sections on blogs and on Twitter, fun feminism seems to be everywhere this summer, lauded and derided in equal measure.

And, judging from the comments and the conversations, I don’t think I’m the only one who is confused about what ‘fun feminism’ actually is. Is it having fun whilst being a feminist? Is it cupcake feminism? Is it Slutwalk? Can it be found in glossy magazines? Is it good or is it bad? Is it powerful or is it frivolous? What on earth is it?

So, I am writing this blogpost as a plea to my feminist fellows across the world. Lets stop talking about fun feminism. It is a meaningless term that just seems to be used to disagree with one another. Instead, I would ask that we use the term ‘Feminism TM’ as trademarked (aha! A pun!) by Nina Power in her fantastic book, One Dimensional Woman.

Feminism TM, in brief, is about feminism that has been co-opted by patriarchal capitalism. It’s about treating feminism as something designed to make the individual ‘feel good’, that puts individual happiness or fulfilment above a collective goal. With Feminism TM, buying a pair of designer shoes or a Primark handbag is as ‘empowering’ as marching for your right to choose or volunteering at a rape crisis centre. Feminism TM means that Sarah Palin can call herself a feminist because she is a powerful woman, a ‘grizzly mama’, even though her anti-woman policies are an anathema to feminist ideals. Power writes that, with Feminism TM:

‘the political and historical dimensions of feminism are subsumed under the imperative to feel better about oneself, to become a more robust individual. As a response to the ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ pose it’s very successful. Almost everything turns out to be feminist - shopping, pole dancing, even chocolate.’

The problems with this are clear. Feminism isn’t a lifestyle choice that we can define for ourselves. It isn’t a matter of saying ‘this is my choice as a woman and therefore it’s a feminist choice’. ‘Liberalising’ feminism ignores the impact our individual choices have on others, on other women, in favour of telling you ‘if it feels good – just do it! Go on, that’s empowerment!’. And this isn’t good enough. Feminism has to mean something, or it risks meaning nothing at all. Feminism is a social revolution dedicated to making the world a better place for women and men. It isn’t a 12-step guide to making you feel not guilty about shopping for clothes made in sweat shops, and eating chocolate bought from Nestle.

If feminism becomes something you define for yourself, then what stops feminism becoming defined as being anti-choice, pro-war, anti-sex education and gun-toting, like Sarah Palin? What stops feminism being used as a rhetorical term to justify harm to women?

Fundamentally, I think this is what a lot of people were driving at when they talked about ‘fun feminism’. And I think that there is a big problem with individualist feminism or me-me feminism as defined by Power’s Feminism TM. So, if that’s what I think fun feminism is, why do I want to change the term?

Well, first of all because I think Feminism TM says a LOT more and it says it more clearly about capitalism and patriarchy and how feminism can be co-opted by a liberatarian idea, and how this is problematic. I don’t think ‘fun feminism’ says or explains this.

But I am also really concerned that by framing Feminism TM as ‘fun feminism’, and the ‘fun’ bit as being something bad, then it supposes that feminism can’t be fun, and if you are having fun as a feminist then it’s because you’re doing it wrong. It suggests that there is ‘proper’ feminism which is hard work and difficult and not fun, and then there is ‘fun feminism’ which isn’t serious and isn’t the ‘real work’ of destroying patriarchy.

And that’s bullshit. It’s also destructive and divisive. And, finally, it plays into dull, dull stereotypes that feminists are humourless and boring. And we know that’s not true. Angry, yes. Strident, always. But humourless? No.

A lot of the work of feminism isn’t fun of course. I hate it when people accuse feminists of not having a sense of humour about women’s rights, when we are often dealing with issues such as the fallout of the horror of male violence against women. There’s nothing funny about that and I don’t recall any other movements for social change being criticised for not being funny enough. But many things we do as feminists are fun. I stand by the fact that one of the most enjoyable (and hilarious) days of my life was when Jenny, Sue, Angel, Mark and I ran through Bristol in hoodies and dark glasses, flyering lad’s mags about their effect on violence against women and girls. Leading the Reclaim the Night march last year was one of the most empowering and exciting experiences. Sharing stories of street harassment in a room full of laughter and tears with other women is both fun and painful.

There’s been a lot of debate around whether Slutwalk is ‘fun feminism’ or not. Although I have written elsewhere about my concerns about some aspects of Slutwalk (and mainly the Canadian and USA ones) I think by calling it ‘fun feminism’ there was a suggestion that it wasn’t ‘proper’ feminism, not ‘real’ activism and that the women involved weren’t ‘real feminists’. I don’t feel this is fair and it certainly isn’t true. Marching on the streets to say that violence against women and rape culture must end? This isn’t drinking a glass of Chardonnay whilst going to a lap-dancing club (it’s my choice as a woman so it’s a feminist choice and so the impact on other women is irrelevant). Of course one of the problems with Slutwalk has been the individualist element that has not addressed the impact of the word ‘slut’ on survivors of violence but I think the Bristol and London events have gone some way towards remedying this. To write off everyone who is involved in the Slutwalk movement as ‘fun feminists’ really does a huge disservice to many of the women involved who do so much feminist activism.

The issue I have with the term ‘fun feminism’ is that it tries to define what is and what isn’t feminist activism in a very negative way. It also tries to define the ‘proper’ way to discover feminism. We all approach activism in different ways. We all become feminists for different reasons. Some feminists are activist by volunteering, some by guerrilla actions, some by signing a petition, some by reading or teaching or attending consciousness raising groups. It’s important that we support one another and listen to one another and encourage one another in our actions. And, of course, we should question each other’s actions and activism when it’s needed.

Take one example. I do lots of feminist activism. I write, I organise meetings, I fundraise, I organise awareness raising events, I speak at conferences, I advocate for charities, I do guerrilla stuff, I lobby the government. I don’t however, volunteer at a rape crisis or helpline. I don’t do this because I know I wouldn’t be very good at it, that my skills are more suited to other work and because I can’t commit to the regularity of it. It doesn’t mean that I am not as ‘proper’ as the women who do amazing and vital work in this area and who I have endless respect for. It’s that I recognise my skills and my abilities as a feminist activist lie elsewhere.

Feminism TM is a clearer way of saying that a meaningless self-defined feminism is a problem. It doesn’t create a false division between what is ‘fun’ and what is ‘proper’ and instead reminds us that feminism isn’t and mustn’t be just about me, but about a collective social movement to end patriarchy.

So, that’s my muddled rallying cry to say no more using ‘fun feminism’ and lets call it by its proper name ‘feminism TM’. Feminism to me isn’t about hierarchies. It’s collective. It has meaning. And it’s changing the world.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The government's war on women's wombs

I try to avoid writing about Nadine Dorries. I am loathe to give her the oxygen of publicity she so clearly craves, and that helps thrust her into the spotlight so that her marginal and ill-informed views are given a platform that allows them to be taken seriously.

But clearly, today, we need to be writing about what the Telegraph called on its Sunday front page the ‘biggest shake-up’ in abortion regulations for a generation.

I don’t think any of us really believed that the government would take Dorries’ and (Labour) Frank Field’s ridiculous proposal to prevent abortion and pregnancy experts offering women counselling when they’re seeking a termination seriously. But then, this is the government who thought it could be a smart move to offer Life a space on their pregnancy and sexual health advisory board, instead of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. You know, Life. The charity that thinks condoms don’t prevent the spread of STDs.

A bit of background. Ultimately, Dorries is an anti-choice campaigner who, despite couching her rhetoric in anti-sexualisation and ‘caring’ terminology, wants to eventually restrict a woman’s right to bodily autonomy when it comes to ending or continuing a pregnancy. Over the years, she has taken many different approaches. She campaigned to reduce the upper time-limit of abortion from 24 to 20 weeks, a vote that was defeated in parliament in 2008. She has put forward a motion asking for girls (and only girls) to receive abstinence education in schools. She calls this ‘empowering girls to say no’. We call it, ‘removing vital sex education that informs girls about contraception and safety’. And now she has proposed that ‘abortion providers’ such as Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service be prevented from offering women counselling when seeking an abortion. Instead, ‘independent’ counselling will be offered – which of course allows anti choice charities and campaigners the chance to step in and offer biased (and often unscientific) advice.

And it is this latter policy that the government are considering adopting.

Dorries defends this idea on the basis that Marie Stopes and the BPAS offer ‘biased’ counselling, encouraging women to have an abortion because, as the abortion providers, they gain (financially) from providing as many abortions as possible. This is such a stupid and ludicrous thing to insinuate that it is mind boggling that the government are even taking it seriously (especially considering the Tory dedication to privatising health care). The idea that either group actively encourage women to have an abortion in order to get money is so offensive and so far off the mark as to feel almost libellous (I’m not a lawyer and am not actually accusing Dorries of libel – figure of speech). By that logic, all healthcare (especially private) could be accused of the same thing.

And, of course, the groups that Dorries wants to see take on the role of counselling have a vested interest in persuading the woman they speak to not to have an abortion. Their interest may not be financial but it is ideological. They want to see an end to abortion, and so it is likely that they will take a counselling angle that seeks to persuade the woman to not have a termination. If you don’t believe this, then take a look at this little number. Anti-choice campaigners believe that the proposed changes to counselling provision will reduce the number of abortions in the UK by 60,000. This change is not about offering independent, unbiased advice that will give women a choice between having a termination or continuing with her pregnancy. This is about silencing the voice that offers women that choice.

Dorries’ approach to abortion is wholly unscientific. She is a firm believer in the completely made-up condition ‘post-abortion syndrome’. This so-called syndrome is based on the idea that after an abortion, a woman is traumatised and depressed. Of course, some women are. Some women do feel pain and sorrow after an abortion and they need support and to be listened to. But what those women don’t need is people telling them that they feel depressed because they were wrong to terminate their pregnancy. What those women don’t need is unscientific rhetoric from the film ‘The Silent Scream’. It’s so illogical, and indeed harmful, to punish and demonise the women you are supposed to be helping.

Just as there are women who feel depressed after an abortion, there are women who feel relieved. And this needs to be spoken about more. I have so much respect for writers such as Caitlin Moran and Zoe Williams who have written honestly about this side of abortion. According to the way our culture talks about pregnancy and abortion, women are ‘supposed’ to feel traumatised and sorrow after a termination. And so the relief, the feeling of getting your life back on track, the feeling that you made the right decision is silenced and hidden. But this silence allows anti-choicers the space to fill the debate with nonsense about post-abortion syndrome and how women always and only regret the decision to end a pregnancy.

I have never had an abortion. I put this in because I want you to understand that I do not know how I would feel after a termination – whether I would feel relief or sadness or something completely different. But if I ever find myself pregnant and not wanting to be, I want to know that I can speak to people who will listen to me, unbiased, and give me the medical advice I need. I want to know that I won’t have to listen to a twisted morality-based rhetoric about how a woman is supposed to feel. I want to know that I will be listened to, and that my choice over my body would be respected.

Dorries and her gang are trying to take that away from women, to replace it with counselling that does not respect a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.

Despite her earlier efforts to reduce the upper time limit, Dorries’ proposals to offer counselling, and her plans to create a ‘cooling-off’ period for women making the decision actually creates a delay for women having an abortion. To me, this clearly shows that she doesn’t really care about reducing the time limit, but instead wants to stop abortion all together. It also shows that she doesn't respect or acknowledge a woman's ability to make a decision about her body. It's infantilizing and it creates more problems by pushing back the date of the termination.

Finally, it is important to remember that when anti-choicers talk about reducing the number of abortions by 60,000, that they don’t care about what happens to those 60,000 babies. Dorries isn’t campaigning for an increase in child benefits. She isn’t campaigning for more support for single parents, or for better childcare for working families. Anti-choicers aren’t demanding the re-instatement of the health in pregnancy grant, or for greater flexibility of parental leave. They aren’t calling for more maternity wards to be opened with better facilities, and despite their obsession with post-abortion syndrome, they’re not researching how to tackle post-natal depression. They don’t care about women and they don’t care about children. They care about restricting women’s freedoms and denying women one of our key human rights – the right to bodily autonomy.

What can you do?

Email your MP to ask that they don't restrict a woman's right to choose: http://www.abortionrights.org.uk/content/view/422/110/ - it takes two minutes with the template letter.


Monday, 22 August 2011

Why it's Diallo, not Strauss-Kahn, who has been on trial

At time of writing, it looks like the sexual assault case against former head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is about to collapse. He is set to return to French politics (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/22/dominique-strauss-kahn-return-politics) whilst his alleged victim, Nafissatou Diallo, will join the long, long line of women who have reported rape or sexual assault, and never seen their case tried in court.

Since his arrest three months ago in May, we have been treated to a series of bizarre articles about whether the French are more relaxed about 'adultery' (as opposed to sexual assault). We've heard plenty of conspiracy theories about whether Diallo was a honey trap, a plot by his political enemies to destroy him. But most of all we have seen lengthy articles that have set out to discredit and destroy Diallo's version of events.

Now the case against Strauss-Kahn is collapsing, with Diallo accused of being an unreliable witness who lacks credibility. The official reason? She lied on her asylum application to enter America. However, this is just the official version of the many, many suggestions that have been put forward by the press and DSK apologisers in an effort to discredit her.  These include that she didn't inform immigration that she had gone through female genital mutilation, that she knows 'dodgy people' including some people who are in prison, and that she was trying to extort money from DSK.

Meanwhile, according to the law, DSK's history of 'sexual misconduct' cannot be discussed. Whilst Diallo's history is raked through the mud, previous accusations against DSK cannot be spoken of. I don't necessarily think that previous accusations should be brought up in court, but I think if we have that rule for the defendant, then we need that rule for the accuser too. Because the question to me now is, who is really on trial here?

The cornerstone of the justice system is innocent until proven guilty. This means that neither me, you nor the editor of the Daily Mail knows or can judge if DSK is guilty. But it also means that we cannot know or judge whether Diallo was lying about sexual assault. And it is this that has been forgotten, both in the reporting on this case, the Assange case and almost every single incident of sexual assault and rape that I have ever heard of. The emphasis is never on the alleged perpetrator. Instead, the woman is on trial. The woman is accused. The woman is assumed to be guilty, before proven innocent.

Forensic evidence tells us that sexual contact occurred on the night of the alleged assault. Diallo was reported to be distressed and upset in the aftermath of the alleged assault. She took the brave step of reporting to the police. The speculation that she had made up the assault in order to extort money from DSK was later proven untrue, when an accurate translation of the phone call was released. In the phone call she explained to her friend that DSK was rich and powerful (which he is), and later on in the conversation she assured her friend that she knew what she was doing in terms of going to the police and finding a lawyer. There was evidence enough to charge him. So surely, for real justice to be served, this case should go to trial. DSK should answer those charges in court. He should defend himself from charges of sexual assault. Diallo should not have to defend herself from accusations that she lied.

Diallo's lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, has this weekend criticised the prosecutor's office, saying:

“[this] is consistent with the unfair way the Manhattan district attorney's office has treated Ms Diallo throughout this process. It's as if she is the defendant and Strauss-Kahn is the victim."

This is not surprising in the rape culture we live in. After all, we're used to this. We're used to reading articles that paint the alleged perpetrators of sexual assault as the victims of 'lying' women. We're used to the cry that a rape accusation can ruin lives, whilst the life-ruining impact of rape is silenced. I'm sure being falsely accused of rape is awful. But, unlike the mainstream media coverage, it is a lot rarer than rape. And lets not forget that even men found guilty of rape do not necessarily find their lives ruined. After all, Mike Tyson is a movie star. Polanski is a hero. DSK is likely to be welcomed home to French politics by Francois Hollande, his wife at his side, two pending accusations and all.

Diallo is said to have lied about rape on her asylum application. Although I don't condone lying about rape, I think perhaps we can attempt to try and understand the desperate circumstances she was in, trying to flee her home country to forge a life away from the horrors of a war that has ravaged her home. And although I don't condone this lie, we need to remember one very, very important thing. A woman who has lied in the past can still be raped. A woman who has dodgy friends can still be raped. A man can still rape a woman who has lied. A man can still rape a woman who has dodgy friends. And if a man is accused of, and charged with, sexually assaulting a woman, and there is evidence to suggest sexual contact took place, and the accusation that she was trying to extort money has been shown to be untrue, then that man should face trial and he should be found guilty or innocent in court. And that woman should not be found guilty in the 'court of popular opinion'. That woman should not be treated as a criminal by the justice system and the media. Because, just like DSK, she is innocent until proven guilty. And unless DSK takes her to court over a false accusation, I doubt very much she will be proven guilty.

When I last wrote about this issue, I was accused by a commenter on my blog of 'not understanding how the world works'. He said that I didn't understand that this was likely to be about 'greater forces' trying to destroy DSK's career and reputation.

So let me lay it on the line. This is how the world works. One in three women will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. Most of the men who commit that crime will get away with it.


I would really really recommend reading Hadley Freeman's post on this case on Comment is Free http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/23/dsk-trial-accuser-not-accused


As a result of the lengthy discussion in the comments section, here are some sources on stats.

Fact #32: Globally, at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. (UN Commission on the Status of Women, 2/28/00)

From: http://www.feminist.com/antiviolence/facts.html

See also:





2. Rape conviction and reporting rates: http://www.crimestoppers-uk.org/crime-prevention/latest-crime-statistics
False accusation stats: Fawcett Society report on 'Rape: The Facts'
Rape rate stats: Fawcett Society report on 'Rape: The Facts' and the BCS figures cited here: http://www.ministryoftruth.me.uk/2010/11/29/rape-statistics-what-can-we-rely-on/

 More on DSK by me: http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com/2011/07/media-reporting-on-rape-daily-mail-and.html

Sources for news and quotes:



Friday, 19 August 2011

The single mums are alright

My parents split up when I was four, and little bro was three. In 1988-89. It was fairly amicable, and we have always maintained contact with my dad and would see him in the holidays. No divorced family escapes having some issues, just as no moody teenager escapes having moodswings. But all in all it was a happy story. Splitting up was the best decision for my parents, both of whom had their own issues. My mum met her partner and we moved in with her and, 22 years later, both my parents are in happy, loving and stable relationships.

So that’s my story anyway. The reason I am going more personal than usual is because I want to write about the demonization of single mums and the ‘breakdown’ of families that seem to be on the agenda lately as riots swept the UK.

My family is both a single parent family in that my mum and dad were divorced, but also a two-parent family in that my mum was in a stable and loving relationship throughout my childhood and adulthood (as was my dad). So, I guess, technically, ‘legally’ I was in a single parent family, but in reality, I was in a two-parent family. In some ways perhaps I am not qualified in my personal experience to talk about this. But hey, that’s never stopped me before! There’s also the second ‘prejudice’ as it were in that my mum is in a gay relationship.

Right, I think that covers all you need to know about my background. Personal blogging! Scary stuff!

There are two tabloid ideas of the single mum. The first is the girl who gets pregnant to get a council house and just sees a man as a piece of equipment she can use to get the house.  The second is a golddigga who when her hubby leaves her, goes on a mission to wring him dry and get all his cash to help her raise her child. Often both these things are painted as feminism’s fault.

You don’t need me to tell you why these stereotypes are phenomenally stupid.

Parents split up for a multitude of reasons, across a range of classes. A recent report (that I can’t find a link for – damn!) shows that most single mums are in their 30s. Which makes sense really, seeing as the majority of women have children in their mid to late 20s and single parent families make up about a quarter of the families in the UK (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/single-parents-now-head-a-quarter-of-all-british-families-643849.html).

When politicians, when the tabloids, blame single mums for the breakdown of society and ‘feral youth’ they are generally talking about single mums on low incomes. It’s classist and sexist. And they need to stop, think and then probably shut the hell up. Single mums are blamed for everything, when what we should be doing is supporting them. After a break-up, single mums are often left a lot poorer than their male partner. I remember reading in The Whole Woman a report stating that when parents break up, the mother’s income almost always goes down, whilst the father’s goes up. This makes sense. The one with the kids is going to need a house with enough rooms, buy food for herself and her kids, and if she works, maybe go part time or pay for childcare. The father may pay child support but he has more options, more freedom with an income that is now almost solely his. Single mums are often stretched. They may be working part time or full time, they may have to take lower status, lower paid jobs so that they can work more flexible hours to juggle childcare. With the coalition cuts, single mums needing financial support are seeing their benefits disappear, and reports now show that single mums are the worst hit groups by these ridiculous measures (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2011/jun/23/single-mums-biggest-losers-from-benefit-cuts). On top of this, single mums are blamed for everything wrong with today’s young people via stereotypes that don’t reflect reality. The impression by the tabloids and often by politicians is that single mums are feckless; popping out babies all over the place, they don’t really care about their kids, their kids run wild, and then they have more babies they don’t care about in order to get more benefits. Sometimes they don’t put the father’s name on the birth certificate! Gasp! Sometimes they put another man’s name on the birth certificate, even if he isn’t the biological father! Clutch your pearls!

And never mind the fact that their benefits are vanishing. Never mind the fact that they are demonised. Never mind the fact that they STAYED.

Because the other side of the single mums is the dads. Now, I know that a lot of dads stick around. They see their kids and phone them up every day and pay child support and help out and care and love their kids. The good dads. I also know that I will get F4J types shouting at me that the court system benefits mothers, that some mums don’t let the dads see their kids. Yes, most of the time mums get custody of the kids. This is because, in the main, mums are the primary caregivers. Why this happens is a whole other feminist question that starts with gender stereotyping about how we look at family structures; that asks why are dads effectively excluded from the family unit with our stupidly unequal parental leave; why are ‘caring’ and ‘nurturing’ seen as feminine, and what does this mean for men who are fathers…it is generally feminists that are leading the way on this debate despite the fact that we are accused by MRA types of TRYING TO DESTROY FATHERS!! EEK!! I hope soon we will get a more level playing field when it comes to caring responsibilities in families. This is what will cause a change in favouring the mother in custody battles. But until that happens, whilst mothers are seen as the primary caregivers, they will tend to get custody.

If a man is refused access by the courts then I think there must be a good reason for that. The judicial system is designed by men and more often than not, it supports male privilege. The judicial system is not generally great with women’s issues – just look at the way rape is handled by the CJS for proof of that. I find it very hard to believe that if a court refuses to let a man see his kid, they don’t have a reason.

Of course, there are mums who refuse access even when it is legally granted and this can be problematic. That is very difficult.

So anyway, yes, some dads stick around and are lovely. But a lot of dads don’t. A lot of dads just go away. They disappear and they take their love, and care and their money with them. This happens across class, across ethnicity, across the UK, across the world. It happens all the time. And the women who stay, the women who stay to raise their kids; they’re portrayed as bad single mums who don’t care. Who are doing a bad job. Who are just trying to get more benefits. Who are to blame for all social ills. But the invisible man standing next to her, he’s not in the tabloid picture.

One of the most vindictive and nasty cuts that the government has made is its decision to make single parents pay a fee to track down their absent ex-partner to get them to pay towards the upkeep of their child (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12174121). It is nasty because it refuses to recognise that people who need to ask their ex for money to help them raise their children probably don’t have that much cash floating around in the first place. And it is vindictive because it is saying to the single mum that it is her problem to sort out, it is snidely saying that she got herself into this situation and she needs to get herself out. It completely lets the parent who has run off and refused to pay child support off the hook. It puts the blame and the emphasis on the parent who is left holding the baby.

1.5 million children are left without financial support because one of the parents doesn’t pay maintenance. Seeing as the vast majority of single parents are mums, and seeing as the vast majority of these children are born from heterosexual relationships, that’s a lot of dads who have left their kids in the lurch. That’s £4 billion of unpaid maintenance (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12174121).

And we’re blaming single mums for this? The tabloids and the politicians have achieved something remarkable in the way that they manage to blame single mums for the ‘breakdown of society’ and any ‘youth’ issues, whilst also blaming them for disenfranchising fathers; whilst also blaming evil feminists and Labour for diminishing the role of the father. That’s a hell of a lot of things to blame on one group of people. Years ago I spoke to Iain Duncan-Smith on the phone to ask him about the Tory view on gay parenting. He said that that wasn’t an issue, but that there was a conspiracy in the corridors of power to destroy the role of the father. Yet, cutting benefits so that it is cheaper for mums and dads who claim support to actually live apart? Not the Tories fault. Cutting benefits so that mums already struggling to make ends meet are even worse off, thereby making the kids worse off? Not the Tories fault. Creating an idea of marriage as the Holy Grail, even though some families (like my own) are better off with divorce or separation? Not the Tories fault. Blame the single mums! It’s their fault if they haven’t got any money. It’s their fault the dads left. It’s their fault if dads don’t feel part of the family unit. It’s their fault it’s their fault!

So, you can guess that my conclusion is that we should stop blaming single mums. We should make sure lone parents raising kids get the support they need, be that childcare, financial support or, you know, not getting a bashing every day in the press. We need to end the idea that parents breaking up is always a disaster for the children. We need to recognise that not all single mums are poor (although obviously I have mainly focused this post on the demonization of single mums living in relative poverty or financial difficulty, these are not the only single mums) or golddiggas. We should value the great parenting that most single mums do. Raising a child, children, on your own is hard. The way we heap praise on single dads recognises this. Lets recognise that it’s still hard when you’re a mum!

Of course, this post has been pretty harsh on dads who leave. That’s because I think if you bugger off and never have any contact with your kids and contribute nothing to their lives, then you deserve a dose of harshness. But just being angry about it is not going to improve the situation. We need to empower dads too. We need to show them why their kids need them, why it’s important to maintain contact with their kids and why being a dad is great and rewarding. We need to make sure dads are supported. We need to ensure that when the break-up is painful, and awful, and heart wrenching, that dads aren’t then left out of the picture. I fully support the great work done by dads charities like Dads House etc who want to encourage men to be good, loving, involved fathers. I want this to happen. I like dads. I think they should like being dads too.

Single mums as a group aren’t to blame. Dads as a group aren’t to blame. Individuals who do terrible, nasty things in relationships can often be to blame. Cuts to services that help and empower mums and dads, so they are no longer supported, these are to blame. But lets not play the blame game any more. 1.5 million children are not getting support from one of their parents. That’s a lot of children. Blaming people isn’t going to make that change.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Bristol Feminist Network and what we mean by activism

this is a conference paper annifrangipani and I wrote together and presented together at the UWE Trans Disciplinary conference "Reporting from the gender frontline'.

It's a useful and interesting paper because it talks about our history, what BFN do, but also what activism can be and what activism can mean, as well as the intersections between academic and activist feminism. It's something that's come up a bit lately on online and offline conversations (what is activism? what counts as activism?) so thought I would take this opportunity to share this piece of writing which helped us define what activism means for BFN.

The conference took place on the 9th June


Who we are?

Sian Norris and Anna Brown, we are the co-ordinators of Bristol Feminist Network which was set up in 2007 after Ladyfest Bristol.

What do we stand for?

A community group of women and men from the Bristol and area who are interested in discussing feminist ideas, who believe in the importance of women's liberation, and who actively campaign on issues of gender inequality and oppression. 

We believe that challenging gender stereotypes, resisting sexist oppression and fighting for the rights of women can positively change the world  for ALL who inhabit it.

For BFN, activism means many things. It can mean attending a Reclaim the Night march or picketing an anti-choice rally. It can mean signing a petition or writing to your MP. Attending a discussion group, reading and sharing a feminist book, writing an article or blog post or paper – all of these are feminist acts.

For us, attending a discussion group is activism. What is so important about discussion groups is that the agenda is set by our members. They decide what they want to talk about, and the process of listening, sharing our stories and learning from one another.

Our activism is very tied up in social media. Twitter, Facebook and blogs allow us to connect with women and men across the world, discover more about wider campaigns and share our own campaigns with a wide audience. Social media is a fundamental tool for feminist activists today. This is not unique to Bristol. All feminist groups now use Twitter and Facebook, and many young feminists when searching for women who share their views turn to the blogosphere. Research conducted by Cath Redfern and Kristin Aune support this, showing that many of the women they surveyed cited the internet as their introduction to feminism.

What have we done?

We want to get people talking about feminism and working together to overthrow the patriarchy in world of equality for all.
We organise monthly discussion groups about all areas of feminism, from feminism and men, violence against women, women and the internet, feminism and relationships, FGM, forced marriage and much more.
We have a book group where people read feminist books – fiction and non fiction, academic and populist.
We work with other community groups such as Bristol Indymedia, the PCT and local charities to put on talks, fim nights and panel discussions.
Every year we have a Reclaim the Night march to raise awareness of violence against women and girls and to tackle rape culture, and over the past few years we have worked closely with the Bristol Fawcett Society on a project called ‘Representations of women in the media’.

Our experience of activism

Because BFN has a very diverse membership we have been lucky to get a very wide view of what issues matter to feminists in the city today. A lot of these issues reflect the aims of the second wave. Women are still fighting for bodily autonomy, their reproductive rights, their rights to:

•    live without the fear of violence
•    equal pay
•    be seen as fully human rather than as merely sex objects.

Despite the many wonderful changes for women in the UK since the start of the second wave, including better access to abortion, the legal right to equal pay and the criminalisation of rape within marriage as examples, women in the UK today still face gross inequalities and prejudices that prevent them from taking their place as full citizens of the world stage. Globally, women bear the brunt of poverty, are victims and survivors of rape as a weapon of war, oppression and global sex trafficking. The recent book by Nicholas D Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn told us that due to violence against women and gender inequality, there are 100 million missing women in the world. Feminism is still as vital a movement and as necessary a social revolution as it has ever been.

Although we have made many exciting leaps and bounds towards equality since the start of the second wave, this past year has seen what many consider to be steps backwards. The coalition government only has 4 women in its cabinet. The emergency budget last year disproportionately affected women and vulnerable people, and when the government admitted not conducting a gender equality assessment, no action was taken by the judicial system. 100,000 women are raped every year in the UK and recent comments from MPs Ken Clarke and Roger Helmer show that victim blaming and rape culture is still very real. Rape culture means that the conviction rates for rape stay low at 6.5%, whilst false accusation stories, which make up only 3-5% of rape cases dominate the media narrative. The government recently removed the ministerial post to tackle female genital mutilation and budget cuts have hit domestic violence services so severely that Women’s Aid predict that 60% of refuge services will receive no council funding by next year. Meanwhile, the proliferation of violent porn, the normalisation of women as sex objects performing for the male gaze, the normalisation of the sex industry and the opening of retro-sexist establishments such as Hooters and the Playboy Club are perpetuating the view that women’s worth lies in their ability to conform to a narrow view of beauty and sexuality. If women do not fit this narrow mould, then they are expected to re-shape their body, face and style to do so. Procedures from breast enlargement to labiaplasty, Brazilian waxes to vajazzling are part of this pattern that expects women to conform to a commodified view of women’s bodies.

The result has been a real resurgence in young people taking an interest in feminism, claiming themselves as feminists and demanding an end to gender inequality. Last year alone saw at least 18 new feminist networks spring up across the UK, the publication of four non academic feminist books, as well as far more press attention to feminist causes – some good and some not so good.

In our experience as activists, we have found that young women and men coming fresh to feminism are mainly focused on fighting the sexual objectification of culture, and violence against women. We believe this may be because all women, regardless of class, ethnicity, age etc, experience the effects of the normalisation of the sex industry in our every day lives. We all walk into supermarkets to be confronted with wave after wave of lad’s mags. We have all seen Page 3 – now considered to be a British institution. We all experience the invisibility of women who do not fit into the accepted mould, and we all live through the effects of a society that normalises the treatment of women as commodities. We now know that there is compelling evidence that links violence against women and girls, and an increased tolerance of sexism, with the increased sexual objectification of women. The view of women as only and always objects for consumption underpins a lot of the inequalities we now face. We believe that this begins to explain why these issues are so key to attracting young women to feminism in the first place.

A general surge of activism has taken place in the last year, from the student marches to the anti-cuts protests. Although not always explicitly feminist, the cuts to student funding and the public sector will disproportionately impact on women, and so have brought issues such as gender-based poverty, the pay gap and wider inequalities in the workplace to the forefront of many people’s minds. Wider activism around the peace movement and global poverty, international sex trafficking and conflict have also started to bring many newly politically aware young women and men to feminism, as we learn that without gender equality, aims for a fairer world can never be achieved. For example, economists have shown over and over again that educating women in the developing world will lift whole families out of poverty – bringing economic benefits to all. Equality cannot exist for all when it does not exist for women.

BFN and academia

As mentioned before, two of our main activist activities have been focused on Reclaim the Night, tackling rape culture and violence against women; and looking at how women are represented in the media. The latter has taken many forms, from exploring the sexual objectification of women, to seeing how women are absent in our cultural landscape, to asking questions about the absence of news stories that tell us about the extent of local and global violence against women.

In all these campaigns, we have been lucky to work with academic feminists, whose depth of knowledge and research has enabled us to build exciting and informed campaigns.

For example, research conducted by the Bristol University Centre for Gender Based Violence on violence in teen relationships, and the American Psychological Association’s work on the links between intimate partner violence and sexual objectification of women has allowed us to build convincing and intelligent arguments for our activist campaigns. We believe that academic work is activist work and we are lucky to be able to bring the two tenets of feminist activity together to build a more equal society.

Obviously, like all social movements for change, feminism is not always popular. It is often attacked by those afraid of losing their privilege. Therefore, for all our feminist campaigns, we have found it vital to work closely with academics and their research when making sure that our campaigns are evidenced and informed.

As we have seen with the opening of Hooters, the Playboy Club and arguments around lad’s mags and the wider sex industry, the media is often keen to publicise and discuss stories that have a perceived “sexy” angle. Although it is fantastic to have media coverage, we also need to ensure that the media portrays feminist campaigns on other issues, such as global feminism, violence against women and girls, and poverty. These issues may seem less exciting to the newspapers, they can’t be illustrated with pictures of scantily clad women, but just like the sexual objectification of women, these issues underpin the inequality between the genders and need to be tackled. We believe that by working with academic research and researchers, we can bring these issues to the forefront of the public’s consciousness with robust evidence for why gender inequality impacts on everyone’s lives, and bringing about equality for all benefits everyone.

So, that is our experience. Now we want to hear from you.
•    As academics, do you think our own activist campaigns and issues reflect the work that you are doing?
•    Do you consider academia to be activist in itself? 
•    Is the research in feminist academia reflecting the work of non academic activists?
•    Are there any disconnects between the issues we see, and the issues that form the bulk of today’s academic research?
•    What issues are dominating the academic sphere when it comes to feminism?

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Response to BBC Bristol's volleyball article, featuring ME!!

this is kind of an open letter. i haven't actually sent it. i just wanted to let my feelings out about the latest article on the BBC website featuring me. The end of the article said that Betfair had declined to respond to my comments. I felt that I actually wanted to respond to my comments, as I felt my comments didn't actually reflect what I said. So that's what I've done.

Dear BBC Bristol

Last week, I had a call from the your local radio station. Despite once telling me to ‘make sure you are available for when we need to speak to you’, I’ve never been adept at guessing which vital feminist news story you are going to pick up on, and want a feminist angle on. When you rang me last week, I racked my brains. Would it be the impact of the riots on women? The blaming of single mums maybe? Or an international issue? Something about our forthcoming workshop on the women in Afghanistan (4th September) or our forthcoming film night on female genital mutilation (5th September)? What could it be?

What it was, in fact, was about some beach volleyball players working with Betfair to have QR codes put on the backs of their bikini bottoms, which, when snapped on a smartphone would take the phone user to the Betfair website.

In all honesty, I couldn’t think of much to say about this issue. So I had a little think, and thought, well if I am going to say anything, I might as well make it about Bristol Feminist Network’s wider exploration of women’s representation in the media, including some excellent research done by one Fawcett member on the representation of women in sport.

I’m not stupid. I anticipated that the stance you were hoping I would take would be one of outrage. Outrage about bums, and bikini bottoms, and sexiness. Because that’s what us boring anti-sex anti-fun feminists get het up about, isn’t it. I know that I was phoned to give an angle of criticising the women, something I clearly was not going to do. Something I did not do. In fact, for the pre-recorded slot, I was asked the extraordinary question of whether I ‘blamed’ the women. Blamed them for what, I wondered? Living in a patriarchy that values their physical appearance more than their impressive sporting ability? I’m a feminist, I’m not in the habit of blaming and condemning women (or men for that matter). I’m more interested in tackling and exploring how patriarchy works, with the ultimate end to making it stop.

With my representation of women in the media angle firmly in my mind, I spoke about the bigger questions at stake. The ones about how we value women. The ones about whether women’s sport is taken seriously. Are these women seen as athletes, I mused, or are they seen as objects? In the live phone in, I asked whether we want to see sportswomen as advertising billboards. I said that we all know that athletes wear logos and sponsorship from all sorts of companies, and so it begged the question why were the QR codes on the womens’ bums. I talked about the lack of coverage of women’s sport in general, and how the BBC got a slapped wrist over its Wimbledon coverage which favoured matches played by conventionally attractive women players than those played by former champs. I did not criticise the women. I didn’t feel like I had criticised anything. I hoped I had raised some interesting points. Some ‘food for thought’. The interviewer told me at the end that I had been diplomatic. I thought I had been honest.

Later that day, I discovered that the story had gone on your website, with the headline ‘Volleyballers' bikini bottom ads criticised by feminist’. This understandably annoyed me. I felt it implied that I had got in touch with you, raising this issue, making a noise about this issue, standing at Horse Guards with placards to criticise the women’s team!! It also suggested that I had a problem with bikini bottoms and what women wear when they play sport. When, as described above, it was YOU who got in touch with me to ask my opinion on a story that your news team thought was worth making a fuss off. I hadn’t really ‘criticised’ anything so much as discussed how women are represented in sport.
My comment about how the women were being seen as advertising billboards was removed from the context of how advertising in sport works, making me sound like I was pretty ignorant. As it happens, I work in advertising. I know how it works. Although you mention that I raised concerns about whether women’s sport is taken seriously, by stripping this statement of its context, a reader of the article would be left with the impression that I was pro-actively criticising women volleyball players for creating a situation where women’s sport was disrespected, rather than asking whether we live in a culture that means women’s sport and athleticism is devalued.

Your actions have not been without repercussions. Since the story went online (which, by the way, I was not told it would be) I have received two nasty and rude emails having a go at me for being ‘out of touch’ and, to paraphrase, denying men the chance to ogle women in their bikinis.

If this was the first time we’d encountered issues with the way you represent the Bristol Feminist Network, then I’d probably let it go. Except it isn’t. In May 2010, you said that BFN and Bristol Fawcett were protesting the ‘sexiness’ of a Dita Von Teese performance (http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com/2010/05/bbc-radio-bristols-reporting-of-dita.html) when we were arguing about the normalisation of sexual objectification. Earlier this year, my phone was cut off when I was talking on your breakfast show about the police safety warnings in the wake of Jo Yeates’ murder, followed by the snide comment that ‘perhaps she just didn’t want to answer the question’. This was not true, and as far as I know it was never clarified on the show that this wasn’t true. In fact, that whole live interview (the pre-recorded one was better) set us up as encouraging other women to take irresponsible risks with their safety. Rather than engaging with the idea that to stop male violence against women, we had to stop men being violent towards women, I ended up having to counter the ridiculous suggestion that we were telling women to take risks. Walking home in the dark after work should not be a risk. Earlier this month, I took part in a phone-in where I wasn’t made aware that I would be expected to respond to calls from the public. About housework. At a time when we only have four women in the cabinet.

Don’t get me wrong, we have had some wonderful experiences with you. Your TV coverage of the 2009 Reclaim the Night march was great (even if you did ask us to pretend to march!). A phone-in where I discussed the Andy Gray and Richard Keys incident was lively and interesting. A discussion on International Women’s Day about whether women could have it all was fun and respectful, even if the subject felt a tad outdated on a day when we recognise the global impact of gender inequality.

I want to work with you. I LOVE the BBC. Our positive experience of working with you shows how good it can be. I want to see you covering feminist stories that really matter. I want you to cover them with passion, interest and enthusiasm. I want to see you devote time to the work done in Bristol to tackle violence against women and girls. I want to hear debates about trafficking and the work done in Bristol to combat this. I want to hear discussion about how the objectification in the media impacts on gender discrimination – I want lively debate, I want to talk to you, I want to share with you the wonderful work happening in this city and I want to share with you the huge challenges we face.
But I don’t want to be set up as a bogeywoman who is against bikini bottoms. Because that isn’t who I am. And it isn’t what feminism is about.

It makes me sad that lately you have chosen to portray feminists and feminism in this negative way.
I hope we can continue to work together to raise the profile of the great feminism activism happening in this city. I hope that next time you call me (if you call me after this!) we can make a positive, exciting statement about what feminism in Bristol is today.

Loathe as i am to link to it, here it is http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-14502888

I'm in Venue

Amazingly, despite being owned by the Northcliffe group, who's papers have called me numerous names in the past, Venue have written an absolutely lovely and positive and exciting article about the Bristol Feminist Network.



Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Enduring Power of The Women's Room

I first read Marilyn French's feminist classic The Women's Room when I was 17, a burgeoning schoolgirl feminist, proudly carrying my copy of The Whole Woman around with me and struggling to get to grips with Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, as well as de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (a book, I am ashamed to say, I never finished). My favourite feminist novel at the time, discovered when I was 16, was Small Changes by Marge Piercy. My 16-year old self thrilled at the naughtiness and sexiness of Lisa Alther's feminist romp Kinflicks. I knew the next feminist novel I had to read was The Women's Room, a book I had grown up with on my parents' bookshelf. And so, like the good academic feminist I was, I took it off the shelf and into my room.

I didn't understand it. I didn't get it. I may not have experienced the sexist atmosphere of the sexual revolution, as described by Piercy in Small Changes, but I did understand Beth's shyness and her trials to find out who she wanted to be. I despaired at Miriam's irrevocable slide into conformity, and cheered on Dorine's growing passion for her own life. I certainly hadn't 'done it' with boys in bomb shelters or with girls in showers, like Alther's irrepressible Ginny, but like her I was desperately searching for an identity with a fairly gung-ho attitude towards it all. But The Women's Room? I didn't understand it. I didn't understand the trapped lives of the suburban women. I was bored by the horrific parties where the husbands and wives danced with one another. I didn't engage with Mira's life-after-divorce. I finished it, and went back to Marge Piercy.

Years later, friends on Twitter started to share their experiences of reading The Women's Room. They talked about it with passion, with excitement, with sadness and with joy. 'The Women's Room?' I thought. 'The book with the ghastly parties?'. I watched Eagles' documentary on feminist activism and listened to Marilyn French talk about the impact her book had had. I read her obituaries and followed the Twitter tag 'thewomensroom'. So when on my 26th birthday I was given a book voucher I decided to give it another go. Perhaps there was something in this book other than boring parties.

Which, of course, there was.

The novel falls roughly into two parts, Mira's marriage to Norm, where she lives in a suburban nightmare, trapped by the feminist mystique; and her life post-divorce, studying at Harvard and slowly learning how to live as her own person.

With often brutal honesty, French shows us how her generation of women became imprisoned in unhappy marriages, living their lives attached to scrubbing brushes and polish; where ambition becomes moving to a nicer house 'further out' and where sexuality becomes a game to be played out with meaningless flirting in lounges at parties. We meet women who are found disgusting by their husbands for being sexual and feeling desire. We meet women (Mira included) who are deemed frigid because they do not find pleasure in sex that ignores and silences their bodies. We follow the lives of women who's friendship groups are splintered by petty jealousies, affairs and lies, but that equally offer the only respite from the loneliness of the isolated suburban housewife. As the post-war American dream of the smiling housewife in a pinny, greeting her successful husband with her smiling, rosy-cheeked children is exposed and broken apart, we watch women go mad with the strain of being un-loved, unfulfilled and of having to repress their sexuality and desire. And finally, the women who have given up their lives, who have given up their selves, who have hidden their passions and desires and wants in order to be the 'wife', find their husbands are leaving them.

In an era that has seen an increasing fetishization of 'the wife', from make-and-do fashion, cupcake culture and Royal Weddings, reading The Women's Room is a vital wake-up call. When journalists like Amanda Cable (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1375913/50s-housewife-Amanda-Cable-loses-weight-finds-inner-peace.html) wax lyrical about their time re-creating the fifties housewife life, they forget that this was a culture that disenfranchised and isolated women. A world that excused male violence and allowed rape in marriage. A world where women were driven mad and into hospital by a lack of hope, a lack of a voice. Women had no rights over their reproduction, where contraception was patchy and abortion was illegal. Where women without a husband were seen as 'fair game' and 'sluts'. Where women who embodied their sexuality were seen as perverted and sick, whilst women who lay back and thought of (New) England were seen as 'good' but frigid. I will address later how this world as portrayed by The Women's Room does not just exist in the past. One of my favourite moments in the first part of The Women's Room is when Mira explains her cleaning schedule. Cleaning filled up almost every minute of her day, as she strove to create the perfect house for Norm. The tendency to romanticise the past, to see this period as a golden age of the family, of the wife, ignores and silences the very real issues of inequality that women faced.

Unlike her friends Lily and Theresa, who end up in a psychiatric ward, unlike Martha who finds herself left by her lover, unlike Samantha and Bliss and Natalie; Mira escapes to the big city. She escapes to a world of education and conversation and thought. We join her in Boston with the excited and wise Val, with gay and artistic Iso, with neurotic Kyla and her self-obsessed husband, with Clarissa and Ava, and with Val's daughter, Chris. She discovers her intellect, she tries to find the words to describe what has happened to her, the language to explain her previous life, and she often succeeds. She discovers sex with the gorgeous Ben, and she learns how to live her life as the woman she wanted to be. It is slow, it is painful, it is like being born again. But it is hopeful.

However, even in the seemingly perfect world of friends and women, good food, tasty wine and inspiring conversation that Mira finds in the city is not insulated from the pervading sexism that women on the cusp of the second wave were faced with. Kyla's marriage is heartbreakingly dysfunctional, as her husband refuses to respect her intellect, her femininity, her independence. Iso becomes an emotional sponge for Ava, for Kyla, for Clarissa – all seeking solace from a male world that has hurt them. Val's young lover Tad punishes her for her sexuality and desire. Ben refuses to recognise Mira's ambitions as being as valid and equal as his own. Women in political groups are silenced as the men talk. College Professors dismiss women's intellectual capability. And ultimately, Chris is raped by a stranger, before she is metaphorically raped by the police, lawyers and courts who refuse to believe her.

This book is historical. It is set in a very specific time of history, where second wave feminism was beginning to rise and where the feminine mystique was at its height, but about to be challenged and partially destroyed. But in a country where 100,000 are raped each year, whilst 90% of rapes are unreported, and the conviction rate stays at 6.5%, where 1 in 4 women will be a victim or survivor of domestic violence, where 2 women a week are murdered by their partners and ex-partners and where justice is so rarely seen, this book is still vital. In a world where abortion is still illegal, or endlessly under attack, this book is still vital. In a world where women working full time do 23 hours of domestic work a week compared to men's eight, this book is still vital. In a world where we see the new feminine mystique embodied by the need for women to present as only and always sexual, and are required to match up to an impossibly idealised level of beauty, this book is vital. Reading Chris' experience of her rape, you aren't reading something historic, embarrassing and long gone. You are reading what happens to women all across the world, right now, every day.

As a result of Chris' rape, Val declares that all men are rapists. This seems to be one of the things that the book became most famous for, as anti-feminists castigated French for claiming that all men are rapists. These critics ignore that Mira rejects Val's assessment and that Val is one character in the book who's life is ruined by rape.

The book has been rightly criticised by some for being racist. Many of the characters in the first part of the book express racist sentiments, and Mira struggles to come to terms with her own, unexpected prejudice towards black men when she meets Chris' friend Bart. It has been rightly criticised for not portraying any black women, and critics argue that Bart is just a plot device for white women to 'test' their liberal values on. This issue really reflects one of the big problems of the lack of intersectionality in broad swathes of the feminist movement. I am glad to see that intersectionality is increasingly becoming a priority for UK feminists.

So, when I was 17, I didn't really get it. At 26, the book meant a lot more to me. I know that when I am 36, 46, 56, 66, 76 etc, it will mean something new to me as well. And I hope that when I am 76, we won't still be living in a world where so many of the book's issues and sadnesses still exist today.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

P0rn, sexual violence and The Scientific American

(hides behind hands as traffic sources prob will contain unpleasant search terms...)

links and sources at end of post

Porn, and the links to violence against women and girls

Research reported last week in The Scientific American claimed that using porn can actually reduce levels of violence against women and girls. The article explains that the research has found ‘associations’ between porn and sexual violence, arguing that in states where there is low internet access (something which, they suggest, makes it harder to access online porn) there was “a 53 percent increase in rape incidence, whereas the states with the most [internet] access experienced a 27 percent drop in the number of reported rapes, according to a paper published in 2006 by Anthony D’Amato, a law professor at Northwestern University.”

The piece is clear to point out that these are ‘associations’ and there is nothing to prove that access to the web is actually linked to a decrease in sexual assault levels. However, the article cites a number of views that argue that pornography allows men* to act out their “deviant” sexual fantasies in their own space, thereby making it less likely that they will go out and rape.

The article says:

‘the trends [cited above re internet access] “just don’t fit with the theory that rape and sexual assault are in part influenced by pornography,” Ferguson explains. “At this point I think we can say the evidence just isn’t there, and it is time to retire this belief.”’

Unsurprisingly, I don’t think it is as simple as that.

First of all, this article doesn’t cite or explain ANY of the research and evidence that has found associative links between exposure to pornography and sexist imagery, and an increased tolerance for sexism and sexual violence. The American Psychological Association conducted vigorous research in this area and found:

• Gender inequality is reinforced 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.

This research is backed up by the work of a number of feminist academics, including Gail Dines, who, in a recent interview with Julie Bindel said ‘"We are now bringing up a generation of boys on cruel, violent porn, and given what we know about how images affect people, this is going to have a profound influence on their sexuality, behaviour and attitudes towards women."’ She believes that pornography can have a driving effect on men to commit acts of violence against women. She is clear that this does NOT mean (as her critics sometimes suggest) that all men who look at porn will go on to rape, but instead suggests that “‘porn gives permission to its consumers to treat women as they are treated in porn."’. With so much free, online pornography that portrays acts of degradation and violence against women, she therefore does see a link between violence against women and girls, and exposure to porn. Her research has also looked at men who have raped and abused children, all of whom had watched child pornography in the search for something more ‘extreme’ than the porn they were used to. She explains that ‘“What they said to me was they got bored with 'regular' porn and wanted something fresh. They were horrified at the idea of sex with a prepubescent child initially but within six months they had all raped a child."’

Dines is not alone. I recently spoke at a conference with Dr. Nicola Gavey of the University of Auckland, who has spent much of her academic career looking at violence against women and girls. She is now conducting research into the effect mainstream internet pornography has on levels and acceptance of violence against women and girls. In their books, ‘Living Dolls’ and ‘The Equality Illusion’, Natasha Walter and Kat Banyard cite both academic research and women’s personal stories to explore associations between porn and violence.

There are two more points I would like to make about the initial report. It seems to me that this research completely ignores the violence committed against women (and men) who work in the sex industry. It ignores the fact that women are being raped within the industry (on camera and off). One example of this is Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat. During production she was virtually imprisoned and repeatedly raped both on film and when the cameras stopped rolling. Outside of porn, women who have been prostituted are raped daily. So the suggestion that porn prevents rape completely silences and devalues the voices of those within the industry who are victims and survivors of violence – those who may be raped themselves to supposedly “prevent” the rape of others. I find this very revealing in terms of how women and men who work in the sex industry are seen by some of those studying/running it.

My final point is that this report is fundamentally making a sexist statement against men. It suggests that if it wasn’t for the ‘release’ that porn offers men to ‘act out’ these “deviant” fantasies, then men wouldn’t be able to help themselves. The age-old criticism that anti-porn feminists believe all men to be rapists is actually being suggested by those who seem to criticise the anti-porn feminist position! The idea that men can’t help themselves, that they need to ‘release’ their pent up sexual desire to prevent them going out and raping someone is an idea often mooted by sex industry advocates. And yet we know on every level that this is a nonsensical suggestion. It also, once more, completely ignores the fact that women who work in the sex industry are raped too. Douglas Fox, of the International Union of Sex Workers, says his industry provides a “much-needed” service that should be available on the NHS. But surely, rather than making the argument that some women should be treated as objects to be used (and often abused) to prevent some men from raping, we should in fact be arguing that rapists shouldn’t rape.

As a feminist, I believe that rape can and will be prevented by education about consent and respect, better justice for victims and an end to rape culture. Pornography that more often than not portrays women as objects to be hurt and degraded; that portrays women as objects of violence; and that encourages men and boys to associate sexual pleasure with violence and degradation is not a solution to sexual violence.

*I am referring to men in this article as men are overwhelmingly the consumers of pornography. TOPTenReviews.com reported that in 2006, 96% of those using search terms including the word ‘porn’ were men; these are the most recent stats I could find

TopTenReviews.com page, page 152 The Equality Illusion (1st edition)
Douglas Fox quote ‘We don’t sell sex for a living’, Northern Echo, 7 August 2006
Linda Lovelace – Gloria Steinem essay in ‘Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions’

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Airbrushed ads are banned! And a chat with Jo Swinson

this originally appeared on the Fresh Outlook at http://www.thefreshoutlook.com/index.php?action=newspaper&subaction=article&toDo=show&postID=6479

Last week Jo Swinson MP’s campaign against airbrushing in advertising gained success as L’Oreal and Maybelline ads were banned for not offering a true representation of the product’s results. I spoke to Ms Swinson and psychologists from the Centre of Appearance Research in 2009, around the time of the launch of Ms Swinson’s campaign for a more realistic portrayal of women’s bodies in advertising. Here’s what she had to say.

Ms Swinson is aiming to work with the advertising industry to develop some limits when it comes to re-touching. Her argument is simple: by exposing young men and women to airbrushed images we are presenting them with an unrealistic representation of the human body. She hopes that by raising the public profile of the effects of airbrushing, the media will be encouraged to “portray women as they are, images of women looking good but without this ideal narrow fixation on thinness and particular shapes that we have at the moment”.

The evidence does suggest that unrealistic representations of women’s bodies can have damaging effects on body image and self esteem. Psychologist Dr Emma Halliwell has conducted extensive research into the ways body image and self esteem are affected by media imagery. She believes that: “Ultra thin models can lead to body dissatisfaction, low mood and low self esteem in women who are vulnerable and who have internalised the idea of being thin as being ideal. Increasingly we are growing up in a culture where we see being beautiful as being thin.”

Airbrushing is everywhere in the media. Women’s shoulders are made smaller and narrower by the magic of photo manipulation; arm hair is carefully erased; cheeks and eyes are made brighter and hair gets an added lustre. The result? An ad or fashion shoot is created featuring unreal woman. And because we use “enhancing” technology to change the image, the implicit suggestion is that the altered body and face is also the perfect or ideal body and face.

“Throughout time we have looked at pictures of beautiful women,” explains Ms Swinson. “But this idealisation of extreme thinness is something new, and the current media ideal of a woman’s body is a shape most women can’t achieve. This is then made so much worse by airbrushing to extreme levels.”

The problem with airbrushing, both Jo Swinson and psychologist and Co-director of the Centre of Appearance Research, Professor Nichola Rumsey have argued, is the way that digitally altered images perpetuate the beauty myth. They, quite simply, contribute to the pressures on all women, and increasingly men, to achieve the “perfect” body.

“We are increasingly under pressure to conform to these ‘perfect’ faces and bodies we see in the media. This discrepancy between what we actually look like and what we feel we should look like has been identified as one factor in why young people, especially young girls but increasingly young men, feel dissatisfied with the way the look,” argues Professor Rumsey.

The perfection airbrushed images demand is impossible. Women can’t match the software’s paintbrush. Yet we are allowing airbrushed images to dictate what women should look like even though we know that the images themselves are not even real. As Cindy Crawford famously quipped, even Cindy Crawford doesn’t look like Cindy Crawford. So how is anyone else going to?

“I want to make people think twice about these images as an interpretation of reality,” Ms Swinson explains. “A public debate around this issue is so important, as it allows us to really ask: what is ideal? Is it health, is it a body shape, is it confidence and inner beauty? We want to say that airbrushing no longer has to be the norm, celebrating a more natural beauty.”

The issues are beginning to reveal themselves at younger and younger ages. Research conducted by the Girl Guides has found that girls under 10 equate beauty with happiness. According to Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, 90% of women and girls were dissatisfied with their body. Although it would be fatuous to just blame airbrushing for women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies, it would be as equally disingenuous to say it plays no part at all.

So where can we find solutions? The first, Ms Swinson argues, is through working with the advertising industry to put sensible limits on manipulating images. But airbrushed images are only part of the problem in a culture where, if we’re not looking at Charlize Theron’s perfected torso, we are looking at a red ‘circle of shame’ highlighting Julia Roberts’ body hair.

One solution lies in encouraging greater discussion on body image and self esteem issues through media literacy as part of social and health education.

“With proper training available to teachers we would encourage classes to look at the media, maybe use before and after photos to learn about airbrushing, engage with journalists and have more discussion about this issue with young people,” explains Ms Swinson. “Many young women and men feel insecure about their bodies; these lessons would help young people to gain the skills to deal with these pressures, to teach them that people in the media aren’t ‘perfect’.”

The re-touching of these ads tell us that being two of the most beautiful women in the world is not enough to match the industry’s exacting and exaggerated idea of beauty. Their banning is the first step towards saying that we have had enough of this damaging portrayal of women.