Monday, 31 October 2011

No Women No Peace vigil TONIGHT!

Ten years on from the invasion, Bristol feminists stand in solidarity with Afghan women. Their demands are simple. Include Afghan women in peace negotiations.

In 2001, the protection of women’s rights from the Taliban was used as a justification to invade Afghanistan.

10 years on, women’s rights are being compromised, as women’s demands are ignored and their presence is excluded from peace negotiations. The very negotiations that aim to decide their futures.

On Monday 31st October, women and men across the country will gather to hold vigils as they stand in solidarity with the women’s rights activists of Afghanistan. They ask the Foreign Secretary to remember and consider that without women involved, there will be no peace.

Why the 31st October? The 31st October is the anniversary of UN Resolution 1325 that:

  • Affirms the importance of women in peace making initiatives
  • Urges member states to keep women fully involved in conflict resolutions and the peace making process
What is the Bristol Feminist Network asking?

"Later this year, William Hague will attend an international conference that will decide what happens next for peace in Afghanistan. We ask him to respect the UN Resolution. We ask him to urge his colleagues to proactively ensure that Afghan women are involved and have a voice in the negotiations that will decide the future of their country. The 31st October will see women and men gathering across the country to tell William Hague: DON’T TRADE AWAY WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN AFGHANISTAN."

 Event details:

  •  Location: Pero’s Bridge, Bristol City Centre
  •  Demo gathers at 5.30pm, press photo call at 6pm
  •  Monday 31st October
  •  Wear green scarves, in solidarity with Afghan women’s rights activists.
  • More info:

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Anti-rape campaigns, men and offence

*trigger warning*

Note: this post is about victim blaming. I tend to talk about male rapists and women victims and survivors. This is not to silence or ignore that men are victims and survivors of rape and sexual violence too. It is just because that the safety campaigns are focused on women and issues around victim blaming are generally focused on women's behaviour.

Don’t drink. Don’t walk by yourself. Use the buddy system. Carry a whistle or an alarm.

Every woman reading this post will know what I’m talking about. This is the standard advice issued to women every Christmas, every time certain crimes are committed near to where we live.

How refreshing then, that Scotland has decided to direct this advise to someone else. To men.

The latest rape prevention campaign from Scotland has done what feminists have been campaigning for and arguing for, for a long, long time. They have decided to focus their attention on the cause of rape rather than the victims. And the cause is, of course, men who choose to rape. 

Compare the Scottish poster to this one from Wales. South Wales Police say this is an old poster (2 years I think?) but it is still being used in venues across the area. 

This is the more familiar message. Women, we’re told. Watch your step. You could be a victim, especially if you drink alcohol. It’s up to you to make sure you’re not vulnerable to rape. It’s up to you to make sure you don’t ‘put yourself in the position’ where you might be raped. The message is ‘don’t be a victim’. But the message really should be ‘don’t be a rapist’.

There are so many reasons why campaigns like this Welsh poster cause harm to women. Here are just a few.

One, by telling women that they are responsible for preventing rape by changing their own behaviour, we are creating a culture of blame. If we are ‘warned’ that we’re more likely to be raped when drunk, surely we’re more likely to blame ourselves for the violence committed against us if it has happened when drunk. The same goes for wearing a short skirt, knowing the attacker, having a relationship or friendship with the rapist, taking drugs etc etc. Of course there are reasons not to get drunk or take drugs, such as your liver and your brain, but this is not one of them.

Two, when you create this idea that a woman is responsible for not being raped, and is therefore blamed because her behaviour is seen as ‘causing’ the rape, you end up with women reluctant to report violence to the police. If we can’t trust that we will be believed and listened to, that we won’t be blamed, then how can we have the confidence to go to the police and tell them what happened to us? How can we trust that the court, the jury, the CPS won’t look at the victim-blaming advice dished out to women, and think that we should have taken steps to prevent rape?

Three, the advice is utter BS anyway. Women are raped when they are sober, when they are drunk, when they are wearing trousers, when they are wearing skirts, when they are young, when they are old, when they are walking home on their own at night, when they are in their homes, when they are in their workplace, by strangers and by people they know. Because of this, there is no preventative advice that is given to women on earth that will actually stop someone who has chosen to rape from raping.

This culture of blame is part of rape culture. It is the belief that women are responsible for the violence committed against them, and that they should feel shame for the violence committed against them. Rape culture means that women and girls can and will be held responsible for their rape, if they break a set of invisible rules that serve to exonerate the rapist and blame the victim.

When Jo Yeates was murdered in December last year, Avon and Somerset police issued safety advice for women urging them to not walk home alone in the dark. BFN quickly got on the case, getting in touch with the force regarding how the safety advice was inappropriate ( and met with the police to discuss how they could amend the advice. My colleague asked them whether they would consider changing their anti-rape campaigns so that they addressed men rather than women. The police explained that they couldn’t, because men would find that campaign offensive.

Because men would find that campaign offensive.

Never mind that women find it offensive to be told to police their own behaviour because some men choose to rape. Never mind the fact that victim blaming campaigns have a serious impact on women’s confidence in the judicial system, add to women’s trauma and prevent justice for victims of rape and sexual violence. Never mind any of that.

Because men find being told not to rape offensive.

The reason, of course, why men find campaigns that refuse to victim blame, and instead focus on the perpetrators of crime, offensive is because they believe that they are somehow being told that they are likely to be rapists when they’re not.

But this argument just doesn’t stand up for so many reasons. Firstly, there are plenty of campaigns that target the perpetrators of crime. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t steal. Don’t assault our staff. Don’t speed in residential areas. I don’t do any of those things and I don’t find a campaign that tells people not to do those things offensive. I find being told to ‘let your hair down, not your guard’ pretty offensive though. I find being told that it is up to me to not be a victim of crime very offensive.

Secondly, campaigns that tell men not to rape are not saying that all men are rapists. It’s not saying that all men are potential rapists. It’s telling men who choose to rape that if they make that choice, then they will be brought to justice. That the system won’t be blaming the victim for any longer, they’ll be blaming the rapist. It’s telling the person who chooses to rape that they are responsible for committing a violent crime – not the alcohol, not the skirt, not the victim.

If you find a campaign that targets the perpetrators of a violent and destructive crime offensive, then guess what? The problem is with you. Why are you so defensive? Why do you ignore the vital message (don’t rape and if you do, you will go to prison) and instead twist it into a ‘I’ve never raped anyone and never would how DARE you!’. I would advise taking a look at yourself and asking yourself why you find that offensive, and then ask yourself whether you would find it more offensive to be told:

‘don’t go outside. And if you do go outside, it is your fault if something bad happens to you’.

Don’t you think an effective curfew against women is a bit more offensive than a campaign to tackle the causes of a violent crime?

The final part of this blogpost will try and deal with some of the inevitable comments and excuses that this kind of discussion attracts.

1.     But campaigns that talk to men ‘tar all men with the same brush’
No they don’t. They say to some men that choose to rape that if they do so, they will be held responsible for the violence they have committed, not the victim. Just like a ‘don’t drink and drive’ campaign doesn’t offend me as a non-driver, an anti rape campaign should have no cause to offend men who don’t choose to rape people.

2.     It’s right to warn women to take precautions. If I left my car door open and was burgled…
A popular one this. So remember, women are not cars. We’re not houses. We’re not mobile phones or wallets or any other fancy goods. We are human beings. You cannot compare rape with stealing a car. Women do not leave ourselves ‘unlocked’ and vulnerable by living our lives – walking home from work, having a partner, living in a house, going to work or school or uni, having a drink, wearing clothes, knowing people. Unfortunately, there are not any precautions women can take to not be raped, because rapes are caused by rapists, not by women’s actions.

3.     Well, if women go out and get drunk and wear short skirts, they are vulnerable.
If women go out and get drunk and wear short skirts, then they are vulnerable to hangovers and cold knees. They are not vulnerable to being raped because the only cause of rape is a rapist.

4.     If I went out and got drunk and my wallet was stolen…
As per above, women are not wallets. And if you went out and got drunk, the police wouldn’t refuse to take your case forward because your drunken-ness meant you caused your wallet to be stolen. A jury wouldn’t tut at you and say that it was your own fault, and refuse to convict the thief. And women aren’t wallets.

So, in conclusion. Well done Scotland to running a campaign that says victim blaming is not acceptable. Ever. If you think a campaign that targets men is offensive, then ask yourself a few questions. And don’t compare women to wallets.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Useful info

Just discovered these useful links on rates of intimate partner violence in the UK, as well as a fascinating article on how incidents of domestic violence have gone up 25% since the Coalition Govt came into power (at a time of reduced resources for victims and survivors too - score Mr Cameron!)

Monday, 17 October 2011

I'm a woman. I'm excluded from the 99%

Trigger warning: this post contains some of the transcript from the Assange appeal hearing

I thought I was part of the 99%. I’m on an average income, and even though I own my flat, this is thanks to a first time buyer initiative from Labour. I’ve been on the dole and I’m from a (legally) single parent family. I have a lot of privilege – I’m white, able-bodied, cis-gendered and middle class (with a good degree) but I still fit that 99% model. I believed in a movement that was saying it wasn’t acceptable that so few controlled so much of the wealth, and used it so irresponsibly. I believed in a movement that was about collective action.

But then I heard about members of the movement calling women c**ts and b***es and denying that there is a problem with hate language ( - read this post if you read nothing else).

And I heard that accessibility was not really considered or noted (

And that 99%-ers on Wall Street had set up a Tumblr showcasing all the ‘hot’ women involved in the movement to try and encourage more men to take part (

And, in the straw that broke the camel’s back moment, I learnt Assange was invited to speak by the organisers of the London Stock Exchange occupation. Never being one to eschew the spotlight, speak he did.

And I realised that as a woman, I felt excluded from the 99%.

Assange is currently waiting to hear the results of his appeal against extradition to Sweden on two charges of sexual assault. Now, there has been a lot of debate in the lefty liberal media about whether what he allegedly did was actually sexual assault. So here’s a reminder of what the defence said at his appeal hearing:

‘AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom … She did not articulate this. Instead she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together in order to avoid a penetration … AA tried several times to reach for a condom, which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. AA says that she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly.’

The defence also tried to explain how, despite being asleep, and therefore unable to consent, AA actually did consent to sex with Assange:

'They fell asleep and she woke up by his penetrating her. She immediately asked if he was wearing anything. He answered: "You." She said: "You better not have HIV." He said: "Of course not." She may have been upset, but she clearly consented to its [the sexual encounter's] continuation and that is a central consideration.’

Now, if you don’t believe that someone penetrating another person when they’re asleep isn’t sexual assault, isn’t rape, then you have a pretty poor understanding of what constitutes a violation of someone’s bodily autonomy. The same goes for the first description. Remember, this isn’t the prosecution talking. This is his defence. His defence is trying to redefine rape.

The prosecution said:

“they did not freely consent without coercion" but agreed to sex because of physical force, or consented "already having been trapped into a position where they had no choice, and they submitted to Mr Assange's attentions".”

Now, Assange is innocent until proven guilty. But I find it distinctly troubling that the people who booked the speakers thought it was appropriate to invite someone who is facing rape and sexual assault charges. Because by doing so, they isolated a lot of the women who supported the movement. This decision said to women, and to survivors and victims of sexual assault, that they didn’t matter. The movement no longer feels welcoming. It no longer feels inclusive.

Inviting Assange is part of the continued history of left-wing politics where women are expected to ‘put up’ with sexism and misogyny for the “greater good”. In Nat’s blogpost above, she was expected to put up with being called a c**t for the “greater good”. The women who are being objectified and shared on Tumblr are being expected to give up their image to encourage more male members – for the  “greater good”. And women are expected to listen to an accused rapist for the “greater good” because after all, he’s a left wing hero who Bianca Jagger and Jemimia Khan like.

And yet, all these actions exclude women. All these actions entrench sexism. One of these actions stinks of rape apologism.

What’s the point of a greater good that excludes women? Why are women being sold out by the left? Again?

A movement that doesn’t challenge sexism; that actively invites the presence of an accused rapist; that excuses hate language; that treats women as objects – that movement is not fighting for a better world. It is upholding and entrenching the same old patriarchal world. You cannot fight capitalism and not fight patriarchy. Otherwise you will only change things for some, not for all.

And the same applies for a movement that is not questioning its own privilege by not considering accessibility and intersectionality.

If we want to fight for a better world, then that fight has to include ending sexism. That fight has to include holding misogyny and violence against women and girls to account. That fight has to condemn sexism and misogyny. That fight has to include women.

We shouldn’t have to put up and shut up. We should be included. Listened to. We shouldn’t have to put up with being called c**ts, or have our bodies used, or have to listen to an accused rapist tell us how to create a better world.

As @incurablehippie tweeted yesterday:

I mean it. Where's the revolution that doesn't invite people awaiting trial for rape to speak? That has an access plan? #wheresmyrevolution

Women make up most of the world’s (and UK’s) poor. Women are being hardest hit by the government’s spending plans. Women do 2/3 of the world’s work, earn only 5% of its income and own 1% of its property ( Any movement to redistribute wealth, any movement that aims to highlight the inequalities of wealth, this movement cannot risk isolating women.

Inviting an accused rapist to your event has made this woman feel that she is not part of the 99%.

And I'm not the only one.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Rape culture and victim blaming starts in the classroom

The BBC reported earlier this week that a school in Kent is thinking of bringing in uniform rules to make girls wear trousers as a 'safeguard'.

In my day (!) the debate used to be about whether girls should be allowed to wear trousers to school at all, but this school in Kent has woken up to the idea that girls are being sexually bullied, harassed and assaulted in schools. And they reckon the way to solve this is not to encourage better sex education about consent and respect; not to deal with the bullies; not to encourage boys to not bully, harass and assault girls. No. The answer according to Head Teacher Claire Owen is to make the girls cover up their legs to stop them 'putting themselves at risk'.

The BBC story can be read here:

Lets take a look at what Dr Owen says in the article. She worries that the girls are 'putting themselves at risk'. That wearing short skirts 'give out the wrong message' and and that short skirts are causing 'serious safeguarding issues'. Dr Owen seems to believe that it is the girls, and their skirts, that are causing the problems about safety in the classroom and the playground. She seems to believe that sexual bullying, assault and harassment are caused by short skirts and that all of these things can be prevented if the girls wear trousers.

The phrase 'putting themselves at risk' is the one that stood out for me. Girls are putting themselves at risk by wearing short skirts. What happens when you look at that sentence from another angle? Owen is saying that girls are taking a risk when they wear a short skirt, and that risk is sexual bullying, harassment or assault. If those things happen, then they happen because the girl took the risk that they might.

Parents have praised the suggestion by Clare Owen that girls are prevented from putting themselves at risk with a ban on skirts. Parents of daughters, parents of sons.

You of course won't be surprised when I say that this move, this suggested move, is completely unacceptable and will do absolutely nothing to protect girls from sexual bullying, harassment and assault, and will do everything to place the blame on the victim in the school's eyes, and the girl's own eyes, rather than the perpetrator.

Research published in 2009 by Bristol University and the NSPCC found that:
  • 1 in 3 girls and 16% of boys reported some form of sexual partner violence, that was found to overwhelmingly impact on girls' wellbeing more
  • Young women are subject to emotional pressure/manipulation to consent to sex and experience high levels of sexual violence
  • The 'continuum of sexual violence' as developed by Kelly in 1987 reflects that women's experience and understanding of coercive sex means that the issue isn't just about rape vs consent, but others such as coercive sex, pressurised sex, fair game (surrender the right to consent).

None of this is caused by short skirts.

Sexual bullying in schools is a big problem. In her book 'The Equality Illusion', Kat Banyard explores how despite girls being subjected to verbal and physical sexual abuse, teachers often don't know how to deal with it. They excuse the behaviour as 'boys will be boys' and refuse to challenge it. Girls shared with Kat their experiences of being groped, taunted, forced to look at pornographc images of women, and sexually assaulted, whilst the teachers turned away. And the impact of sexual bullying on girls is huge. An American 2008 study found that of the 34% of middle school and high school students who had been sexually harassed during the school year, girls suffered significantly more trauma symptoms and a greater toll on their self-esteem and health (J.E Gruber and S Fineran, 'comparing the impact of sexual bullying and harassment victimisation on the mental and physical health of adolsecents). Kat's interviewees report low self-esteem, reduced academic performance and disordered eating as a result of sexual bullying. But when they try to report the behaviour to their teachers, their experiences are written off, with harassment being attributed to boys' 'natural' behaviour.

But there is nothing natural or normal or inherently 'boy-ish' about sexual bullying, harassment and assault (and to claim there is is rather offensive to both girls and boys). It can be stopped, it can be challenged and, more importantly, it MUST be.

Of course, it would be easier to blame a short skirt. It would be easier to ban skirts and ensure girls wear trousers. Blame the girls' behaviour, and it is easily rectified. Ban skirts - there, the school has taken action and if it's the wrong group of people who are being punished, well, at least we've done something about it now. It's so much easier to ban skirts then it is to actually take a long hard look at why boys are growing up learning that it is ok for them to sexually bully, harass and assault their female colleagues. It's so much easier to ban skirts than challenge the idea that it isn't normal or natural for boys to sexually threaten their fellow pupils. It's so much easier to ban skirts than it is to ask why sexual bullying is not being challenged by teachers, why it is accepted, and why you are blaming the girls for the violence committed against them.

Just ban the skirts. And then, if a girl is sexually bullied, harassed or assaulted and happens to be wearing a skirt, well the school took pre-emptive action to warn her about the risk she was taking. And if a girl is sexually bullied, harassed or assaulted, the school can point to their no short skirts policy and say they have put measures in place to prevent it.

I would like to meet Dr Owen and have a long chat with her. I would like to explain to her that short skirts do not cause sexual assault. I would like to explain to her that no-one has ever been sexually bullied, harassed or assualted because they were wearing a short skirt. I would like to explain to her that a woman or girl is never 'taking a risk' of being raped by what she wears, drinks, who she's in a relationship with, who she's friends with, who she works with etc etc, because rape is not something that women can take precautions to avoid. A cliff edge, you can take precautions to avoid. Sexual bullying, harassment and assault is not a natural hazard. They are deliberate and cruel and violent acts that a person chooses to do to another. It isn't natural, it isn't inevitable and it isn't caused by anything except the perpetrator's decision.

But there are things that her school can do to prevent sexual bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault without blaming the girl and upholding rape culture that blames the victim.

They can encourage education around consent and respect. They can teach about rape culture, and send the message that women are never to blame for the violence committed against them. They could challenge and condemn sexual bullying. They can challenge the behaviour and the privilege and the culture that allows sexual assualt, that excuses sexual violence. They can hold the perpetrators to account and they can listen to and support the girls.

Because this is a crisis. In a rape culture, boys are growing up with a sense of entitlement to women's bodies that allows sexual bullying, assault and harassment to happen, unchecked and unpunished. A survey last year ( found that nearly half of boys think if the woman is too drunk to know what's going on, it isn't rape, and 23% believed that even if a woman says no, it isn't rape. 16-19 year old girls are now the most at-risk group of experiencing intimate partner violence (Home Office stats). This isn't caused because girls are putting themselves at risk wearing short skirts to school. This is because rape culture excuses, allows and promotes sexual violence.

This planned ban will have serious repurcussions and none of them involve protecting the girls from sexual violence. Banning short skirts will uphold rape culture that excuses the perpetrators and blames the victims. It shames the girls who wear short skirts. It excuses and writes off the violent behaviour of the perpetrators. And it prevents girls reporting, and getting justice for, the violence that is committed against them because they fear they will be blamed. And under this rule, the girls are being blamed. Because it's so much easier to blame the women, than it is to challenge the perpetrator, and the culture that allows him his violence.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Blocking p0rn is not the answer - ending patriarchy is

Eating my breakfast yesterday, I heard the headline on BBC6 Music that Internet service providers were going to start blocking pornography. Tentatively I wondered whether this was good news – seeing as I am a pro-sex anti-pornography (and wider sex industry) feminist. I decided to reserve my judgement however until I had read a bit more on the subject, and, surprise surprise, my initial sense of good news was quickly wiped away.

For those of you who don’t know the story or the background, the government recently commissioned a report by the Mother’s Union – which by the way, is headed by a man – to look into the early sexualisation of children. One of the upshots of this report then has been to ask ISPs to give parents a service they can opt-in to, blocking ‘offensive material’ from their home computers and protecting their children from stumbling across porn.

Anyway, this kind of covers that side of the story:

There are a number of issues I have with this proposal. Unlike some commentators (who perhaps don’t really understand the feminist argument against porn) who believe that this is feminism condoning censorship, or feminism getting into bed with the right, I believe that this is not a feminist move at all, and should be questioned and perhaps even condemned by feminists (although that is my view, don't expect people to do as I tell them!).

Lets start with the practical issue. How is this going to work? Will the block happen on a key word basis? I’m not sure how else it can be implemented. If so, will this have implications for young people looking for information about sex education, for LGBTQ teens looking for information, or even for young people doing projects on a certain sea bird? The Internet is a great resource for young people to educate themselves about their sexuality and again, for LGBTQ teens to search out online and real life communities and support. How will the opt-in block impact on teens seeking these services?

But my biggest concern is that this move (along with most of the Bailey Report) basically says that there is nothing wrong with the commercial sexual exploitation of women and men, there is nothing wrong with the violence and coercion that runs through the industry, nothing wrong with the racism, homophobia and transphobia that runs through porn, there is nothing wrong with the impact porn has on violence against women and girls (please see American Psych Association research), the only thing that is wrong with any of this is if you happen to see it before you hit your 18th birthday.

And this is not acceptable.

The average boy first sees Internet porn when he is 11. Of course I think that something needs to be done to ensure that young people aren’t getting the bulk of their sex education from porn that more often than not is violent, degrading and brutal towards women. And lets get this straight – that is most of it. A survey quoted in Banyard’s The Equality Illusion (which I don’t have to hand) found that nearly 90% of rented porn DVDs in the USA depicted violent acts or used violent language against women. Internet porn is no different.

But just shutting our eyes and pretending it doesn’t exist until children hit 18 is not the answer. Because that does nothing to tackle the actual issues and problems with porn, violence and ingrained sexism, or the wider world where sexism and violence against women and girls is endemic.

There is plenty of existing research from the APA, and research being done from the UK to New Zealand on the impact porn has on violence against women and girls. Of course there are issues with the ‘sexualisation’ of children, but hiding our heads in the sand and refusing to take a stand against the violence, coercion, trafficking and portrayal of unsafe sex that runs through the sex industry does nothing to protect children and refuses to engage with one of the many causes of rape culture.

Because, as I have written before, we are at a crisis point when it comes to violence against women and girls. 2 women a week are still being killed by their partners and ex partners, there are 94,000 rapes every year ( and the conviction rate is still 6.5% (not 13.5% Guardian reader’s editor). Young women aged 16-19 are now at the greatest risk of being victims of intimate partner violence and 1 in 3 teen girls experience intimate partner violence, 1 in 4 for adult women (Home Office, Bristol Uni, NSPCC, BCS for all stats).

Hiding violence against women and girls, hiding the commercial sexual exploitation of women and hiding the degrading images of women from children does not stop these images, this violence from existing. 18 isn’t an age when it is ok to buy into an industry that harms women, because no age is. The Bailey Review is not focusing on tackling violence against girls, but in many cases is about a squeamishness about young people’s very real and very natural sexuality.

It’s not ok to say violence, degradation and sexism is fine once you’re an adult.

I believe that the problem isn’t the sexualisation of children (although this IS an issue), because the problem is with patriarchy. It’s patriarchy that allows the commercial sexual exploitation of women. It is patriarchy that makes profit out of violence against women. It is patriarchy that means women can never have equality whilst our bodies are for sale.

So long as patriarchy means violence against women and girls is allowed to happen (and with a conviction rate of 6.5% for rape and men murdering their wives and getting an 18-month sentence then don’t be deceived, this is allowed to happen) then blocking porn sites in family homes is not going to have any impact. So long as we say that commercial sexual exploitation is ok so long as you see it when you’re an adult, then we’re not moving forward.

I’m not stupid. I know that we can’t ban pornography or ban the sex industry. I know that we can’t just make it disappear. But I do believe this. When we no longer live under a patriarchy, we will no longer have violent and degrading pornography or an industry that treats women (and men) as objects to be used and abused for profit. Such a thing would seem utterly ridiculous to a society where all genders, all people, were held in equal esteem, and where people were not seen as disposable objects to be wanked over (or in to) for profit.

This is how we end the sexualisation of children. This is how we end violence against women and girls. This is how we end inequality in a society where women’s bodies are for sale, or judged against an impossible ideal of ‘hot’. Not through banning web keywords to under-18s. But by ending patriarchy.

And that’s why as a feminist I do not agree with this proposal.

For more info on the research looking at links between porn and sexual violence, please see this post:

I've written it so many times it gets a bit wearing repeating it over and over!

Rape conviction and reporting rates:
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:

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Review of The Painted Lady by Maeve Haran

This post originally appeared on the F Word:

As a big fan of historical fiction, I was looking forward to reading Maeve Haran's The Painted Lady, which tells of the life of Frances Stuart, famous for refusing to be the mistress of Charles II.
I first came across Frances in the original bodice-ripper, Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, where she appears as a rather simpering and silly woman who refuses Charles' advances, not out of virtue and honour, but out of her distaste for sex. Next to the fiery and fierce Amber, Frances unfortunately comes across as a little boring, so I was really interested to see how different Haran's take on this character would be.

The book begins in Paris, where many cavalier families had ended up after the Civil War, Charles II included. It is here that Frances experiences her coup de foudre with the Duke of Richmond, who she cannot marry since - as in so many historical novels - he needs to marry for money and she simply doesn't have enough.

It is in Paris that Frances' great beauty also catches the eye of the King, and soon enough she is on her way to London and court, where she is the centre of attention and the object of the King's attraction. Will she resist his advances? Why does she resist his advances? Will she and the Duke of Richmond ever find happiness? The big questions posed by the novel seem limited to these; but if you love historical fiction like I do, you will probably want to follow Frances' journey to find out the answers.

Along the way, we meet the nasty and scheming Duke of Buckingham, who seems to spend all his time plotting others' downfall for his own amusement. His cousin, the wickedly fascinating rival for the King's attention, Barbara Palmer, is also a central character, and is forever trying to get rid of Frances either by complaining about her or trying to trick her into having sex with the King. Queen Catherine, Minette, Rochester - the whole cast of Restoration favourites - play across the page, whilst Frances Stuart stands grand and beautiful at the centre, a player but also a canny observer, and hero of her own battle to resist the King and find true love.

Her story spans the period of war with Holland, the plague, the great fire, and the comet that spelled doom for the Stuarts across the sky. Just like Forever Amber, the episodes of the plague and the fire are some of the most exciting in the book, as they are in history.

As a feminist, it is always interesting to see how women are portrayed in historical fiction. While some writers, notably Philippa Gregory, have strong feminist messages in their books, others like Jean Plaidy are bound by sexist conventions that don't allow women in the stories much self determination at all. Luckily, Haran is closer to Gregory when it comes to writing strong female characters. However, Frances is a tricky character to write for a contemporary woman to understand, and it is here that Haran is most impressive.

Frances refuses to have sex with a man she doesn't love (the King) for social gain and, as readers, we respect her for standing up for her bodily autonomy. The whole concept of royal mistresses is an interesting one for readers of historical fiction, or history in general, when we consider what it means for consent. Can a woman truly consent when her entire social standing, family fortune and 'prospects' are dependent on her saying yes to a king? This is the issue that Philippa Gregory so beautifully delineates in The Other Boleyn Girl. In her much loved novel, Mary imagines herself in love with the King, but as their relationship palls, she cannot refuse to have sex with him and must continue working as his mistress in order to secure a future for her children, as well as to keep wealth and status being awarded to her family. In this scenario, where she can't say no, consent is meaningless.

Historical fiction has a tendency to romanticise mistress culture and paint it as desirable and sexy, as opposed to recognising it for what it is: a financial contract for sex where consent, as we understand it, can never really be given. In this context, women are reduced to sexual commodities; if they refuse to enter this economy, they remain destitute, and if they give in to it, they risk being discarded and finding themselves 'tainted' and therefore unmarriageable. As Frances' story shows, a woman is given little choice in the matter as Charles threatens to rape her if she doesn't consent. So when we question what the role of mistress really means, had she given her consent under this social pressure, she would not really have been consenting at all.

Whilst Forever Amber portrays Frances' celibacy as part of what she sees as her honour and disgust for sex, Haran's Frances is much more subtle. She is a sexual woman, who feels intense physical and sexual desire. She just doesn't feel it for Charles, and she refuses to be his mistress because to do so would be to betray the way she feels about herself and her sexuality. Unlike Barbara, who is very sexual but sees sex as a means to get what she wants, Frances wants to own her desire and her body; guarding her virginity isn't about preserving honour and eligibility, but about desire and love. This subtle difference lifts Haran's Frances from being the one dimensional and asexual beauty, famed in history for refusing the King, to being a woman of intense intelligence, emotion and feeling who is selective and empowered in her sexuality. It's hard not to like her and it does give the book a feminist angle in its portrayal of a self-determined young woman surviving in a world pitted against her.

Haran is brilliant at writing dialogue and vividly brings the female world of the Queen's Court to life. The scenes between Barbara and Frances are superb, and capture the rivalry between the two women perfectly, and Haran is fantastic at portraying women's friendships, loyalties and conversation. Frances' friend Mall is also a well-imagined character whose own personal journey is as interesting as the main plot. One misgiving perhaps is that Haran doesn't quite capture the atmosphere and world of Restoration London as well as she does the lives of the women. However the chatter, fashions, passions and laughter, as well as the rivalry, gossiping and rumour of the court are vividly portrayed through Frances' keen observation and witty humour.

Fans of historical fiction with a feminist angle will enjoy this book - a great romp through a fascinating period of history, with a strong woman at its heart and a fulfilling end.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Daily Mail and the Sunday Telegraph and homophobia

Mini note: I agree with Stella Duffy that if we believe in equality we shouldn't talk about 'gay marriage' and 'gay families' but marriage and families. I hope that that day comes soon. But because we aren't there yet, and because I am talking about homophobia around gay people marrying and having children, I am using the terms gay marriage and gay families.

Look - it's got a sub head and everything:

The biggest harm to children of gay parents is your homophobia

What with David Cameron declaring he is pro gay marriage because he is a Conservative, and the passport people swapping 'mother and father' with 'parent 1 and parent 2' on their forms, there's been a little flurry of overt homophobia in sections of the right wing press at the moment. And it has made me rather cross.

Two articles in particular caught my eye, an editorial piece in the Daily Mail by Rev Peter Mullan, and an editorial piece in the Telegraph by Charles Moore, both of which you can read here:

Both blogposts rely heavily on homophobic stereotypes and try to define what is normal and what is not normal in particularly hateful ways.

Lets take the Mullan piece first. The Reverand writes:

'That “mother” and “father” should be replaced on our passports by “parent one” and “parent two” is a social atrocity approaching blasphemy'

A social atrocity? You will guess I am going to disagree. Lets get this straight. Writing parent 1 and parent 2 is not just to the benefit of children raised by gay parents. It also is better for single parent families, families where children have legal guardians who are not their mum and dad, families where one parent has been widowed and married again, and the step parent has taken on the role of legal guardian, and gay families too. The issue may have been raised by the so-called 'gay lobby', scourge of the Mail and apparently running the show according to their paranoia, but it is to the benefit to many, many more children from many, many different kinds of families as well as gay ones.

This man full of Christian charity goes on to say:

'I am against prejudice of all sorts. But there has to be some sort of normality according to which minorities can be tolerated. I was in favour – still am – of the reform of the law on homosexuality in the 1960s. It cannot be right that a person be criminalized for his sexual orientation. But the point is that the law was eased out of a sense of magnanimity and natural tolerance...Now, however, the vicious activist tail is wagging the docile tolerant dog'

Anyone who says i am against prejudice of all sorts, clearly not against prejudice. This paragraph tells us something very clear about what Mullan and those who agree with him feel about gay people and their families. The idea that we have to have a 'normality' against which minority groups should be tolerated suggests not that gay and straight and poly and bi and asexual people should be treated equally, but that they are somehow second class citizens that the 'normals' graciously allow space to. Mullan's statement patronises gay people by saying that homosexuality was legalised not because everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but because some magnanimious individuals allowed a form of equality - and they get to decide how that equality is defined. He argues that so-called normal people (and Mullan doesn't care to specify by what he means by normal) should put up with minority groups, but that is it. They should be 'tolerated' but not afforded equal rights. They should be put up with, so long as they stay quiet and keep themselves to themselves and - for God's sake - don't try and pretend to be 'normal' or be recognised in public forms.

The idea that gay people, straight people, bi people, poly people, asexual people, all people of all different sexualities should be treated equally with respect is, to Mullan, some symbol of social blasphemy. This man does not believe in equality. He believes in state approved homophobia. He believes that gay people should be grateful and that the day-to-day, little discriminations and formalised other-ing of gay people and their families is ok because it is 'normal'.

The article closes with what is perhaps the most offensive thing in an offensive article:

'It is a blasphemous scandal and the sort of thing which is destroying our society and whole way of life. No society can last very long when it redefines normal to mean abnormal'

Just in case we've forgotten, Mullan believes that having 'parent 1' and 'parent 2' on passport forms is going to destroy society. Where do we even begin? What Mullan is saying here, without embarrassment, without even seeming to realise that he is showing his prejudice, is that homosexuality is abnormal, and that mother and father is what's normal. He claims that the state recognising that not all families look the same, that not all families are made up of a mother and father, is a blasphemy, that it is sending the UK towards destruction.

What upsets me so much is that actually the change to the forms is a great idea. Asking people to write mother and father when they don't have a mother and father is a form of discrimination. And it's this kind of quotidien boring discrimination that invisible-ises gay families that can cause upset, harm and confusion. Of course it isn't on the big scale of violent homophobia, but it is one of those small snubs that serve to remind gay people and their children (and all the family types I mentioned above) that their families are 'other', that they are not the 'norm' as prescribed by the Mullans of the world, that they are invisible. And in 2011, this institutionalised level of homophobia is simply not acceptable. The passport office should be praised for recognising that its previous prescription of what a family looks like is out of date. They should be celebrated for pro-actively looking to be inclusive and family friendly.

I was once told on a feminist discussion board about polyamory and children that 'we all know what normal is' when talking in a family context. This is Mullan's argument too. That 'normal' is a married mum and dad, with children, and anything outside of this is abnormal. But this was not normal to me, as a 7 year old, 10 year old, 15 year old, 27 year old. My normal was two mums who I lived with, and a dad and stepmum who I didn't live with. My parents were divorced and this was my normal. For my friend's little girl, her normal is two mums. For my friend's little boy, his normal is a mum and dad who aren't married but live together. For more of my friends, their normal is a mum and dad who are married and live together. None of these normals are the 'right' or 'real' ones. None of these normals negate the other. For children their family is their normal, and if that environment is happy and healthy and nurturing and loving, then that is what counts.

On to the second article, titled 'Gay marriage is a step too far'.

Like Mullan, Moore crams his article with straw men arguments and homophobic stereotpyes as if they are going out of fashion. He begins:

'For the entire history of civilisation, marriage has been defined as being between a man and a woman. Throughout that history, almost all civilisations have regarded marriage as central to their survival.'

A lot of things have been said throughout the whole of civilisation. Just because something is old, doesn't mean it is right. Like homophobia. 

He goes on to make homophobic stereotype statement number one:

'The homosexual lifestyle, they may reason, is often even more chaotic and lonely than the heterosexual one.'

Jan Moir klaxon anyone? The idea that the gay lifestyle is chaotic and lonely is nothing more than a homophobic stereotype. Some straight people are lonely and chaotic, some gay people are. Lots aren't. People are chaotic and lonely, and people aren't. There isn't any evidence to back up the idea that gay people are more chaotic and lonely than anyone else. All relationships have ups and downs and most people nowadays have more than one sexual partner in their lives and go through a period of being single. Neither of these things means chaotic or lonely by the way, but I think this is what Moore means by the words.

The article then makes some stupid fag hag aside and goes on a detour into cat-flap, before arguing that human rights that seek to protect people from prejudice are in fact preventing people from behaving in homophobic and prejudiced ways:

'The word “tolerance” is used, but it is not what is actually being proposed. Anything that the authorities call “homophobic” will be treated – is already being treated – with the same intolerance that was directed, half a century ago, at anything that was called homosexual.'

Of course, a Christian couple being 'discriminated' against because they broke equality law in refusing their B&B to a gay couple is EXACTLY the same as a gay people being denied equal rights to stay in a B&B that welcomed straight couples. It makes me so cross that the very vital laws that protect people from discrimination and homophobia are criticised when they hold intolerance and homophobia to account. Because it is simply not the same. It is simply not the same to tell would-be gay parents that you will refuse to let them adopt a child because you have made a uninformed 'moral' decision about their sexuality and family life. It is simply not the same to tell a gay couple that you won't let them into your business because you are homophobic. There is a history and a present of homophobia and vicious persecution of gay people and there is simply not this discrimination against straight people. To claim otherwise is to blatantly ignore and trivialise the institutionalised and violent homophobia that has existed and still does exists.

Anyway, the article goes on and on in this vein for a while before saying that we're all too obsessed with defining people by their sexual desires (irony much?) and that we really need to be concentrating on:

'The need for men and women to have children, bring them up and look after one another'

And so we're back to families again, which brings me nicely to tonight's Channel 4 news where a Catholic commentator made some terrible points about marriage being the biological link between men and women and how marriage is all about having children (sorry child free married folks).

It's a lot of public and proudly spouted homophobia to take in a week. It's a lot of people pontificating about what is 'normal' and what is 'abnormal and who gets to define it.

And it's a lot of people speaking nonsense about how a marriage between a man and a woman is the right and only and best way to raise children.

But I believe this simply is not true.

The best family to raise children, in my view, is a family of love, respect, care and encouragement. A stable environment where the child grows up knowing that he or she is loved. That is the normal way. It isn't about being a man and a woman, being married, being single, being gay or straight. It can be any kind of family set-up you can think of so long as the child is loved and cared for.

As a child, I think the hardest thing about growing up in a gay family set up was other people's homophobia. And that is what has made me so angry about these news commentators. Because they are the ones causing the harm, they are the ones creating a situation where a child may feel othered. They are the ones trying to normalise homophobia and therefore homophobic bullying, and they are the ones who are acting as if  their right to be homophobic is more important than a person's right to live without fear of homophobia. They are the ones who want to encourage and maintain a world where a child's reality is made invisible, where a child's reality is not respected or validated. Not the gay parents. Them and just them.

I have heard people express concern that children of gay parents may be bullied at school because they have gay parents. Well, guess what. That is not the fault of the gay parents. That is the fault of the parents of the bullies, and often of the school. Gay people shouldn't be made responsible for other people's hate, for other people's homophobia. If you're not challenging homophobia, if you're allowing homophobic bullying to happen, then the problem is with you.

In my experience, the biggest harm to children of gay families is other people's homophobia. Because you know what? Homosexuality is normal. Pairs of mums and pairs of dads is normal. Single mums and step parents and single dads and mums and dads and married mums and dads - all of these are normal. What isn't normal is homophobia. Your homophobia is the abnormal thing here Peter Mullan, your homophobia is the chaotic thing here Charles Moore. You are the odd ones, not my family.

'What's your number' and promiscuity

This is something I wrote for fellow feminist Jess ages ago, after a brief chat on Twitter about promiscuity.

In light of the release of Anna Faris film 'What's your Number' which is based around the 'magic number' of sexual partners, I re-visited the brief para that I wrote and thought I would share it with you, readers.

So here it is:

Promiscuity is a posh or professional way of saying 'he's a stud and she's a slut'. Because when we talk about someone being promiscuous, we're talking about women. The idea of promiscuity is predicated on the idea that there is a 'magic number' of people a woman can have sex with, but if she crosses that number then she becomes a 'bad girl'. This number is not fixed, it is ever changing and no-one knows exactly what the 'correct' number of sexual partners is. When i was younger i read in the Guardian 'sex survey' a quote from a man who said he wouldn't go out with a woman if she had had sex with more than five men. So for him, six (male) sexual partners meant a woman was promiscuous. Another women's magazine put the number higher, at around 10.

It's all nonsense of course. There isn't a 'good' or 'bad' number of sexual partners. But I believe that categorising women's sexuality and women's desire as something that can 'cross a line' or become 'bad' is a way of controlling women's sexuality.

Promiscuity was historically a symptom of women's mental disorder, from 19th century hysteria to the more modern 'borderline personality disorder'. It was seen as a destructive trait, for women to go out and have sex that they wanted to have, that they desired and consented to.

This tells us a lot about how women's desire has been seen historically, and, as promiscuity is still a widely used term, is still seen today.

In modern Britain, young women and girls are faced with multiple pressures. They are expected to perform a narrow version of sexuality and sexual desirability at all times. However, they still know that they must not cross an invisible line, and 'fall' into being promiscuous or 'slutty'.

Promiscuity is nonsense because there is no good or bad number of sexual partners. The bad thing is if you are feeling pressured into having sex with people you don't want to have sex with. But that is a different issue to 'promiscuity'.

Whether you are having consensual, pleasurable sex with people you are attracted to because you want to, or whether you are choosing to wait, it doesn't matter. One is not a better choice than the other. The important thing is having your bodily autonomy, making your own choices and expressing your sexuality in a way that makes you and your partner happy – and not being judged for it.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Three women win the Nobel Peace Prize

Just a quick post to celebrate the great news that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to three women who have passionately campaigned for women's rights and representation.

These women know that peace and prosperity cannot be achieved in a society that excludes women from decision making and the infrastructure of a country.

In the face of violence, exclusion, exile and repression, these women have bravely fought for the right for women everywhere to be recognised as full citizens of the world.

They are the 13th, 14th and 15th women in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded the prize in its long history.

Their names?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Leymah Gbowee
Tawakul Karman

More here:

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Angels, whores and witches: the media and Amanda Knox

Disclaimer: this post is not about whether Knox is guilty or innocent, but about the media reporting and portrayal of a woman accused of murder. If in the comments you speculate whether or not the verdict in the appeal was correct or fair I probably won’t publish it, in case it falls into the libel end of the scale. So please keep any comments to the subject of the post, not wider ponderings.

So…I shall begin…

Witch. Enchanting witch. Motivated by lust. Demonic she-devil. Diabolical, satanic. You would be forgiven for thinking I was quoting something from Anne Boleyn’s trial. But no, these are all epithets used to describe Amanda Knox, who this week was acquitted of the murder of Meredith Kercher in Italy. And then, of course, there’s the tabloid favourite nickname that we can’t seem to escape from: ‘foxy Knoxy’.

Whatever you think of the fairness of the trial, and its outcome, there are two things that I am very certain of. One – that with the sensationalist reporting around Amanda Knox, the victim in all of this, Meredith Kercher, has been all but forgotten. And two, the mainstream media have shown that sexism is alive and well in their portrayal of Knox.

I don’t know what happened the night Meredith Kercher was killed and I am not using this post to talk about it. I don’t want this post to express any opinions about Knox’s guilt or innocence or to say that she is this, that or the other. This post is expressly about the language used to describe Knox in the media and how it has reflected some very real problems with how we talk about women, and the roles our mainstream culture still allows women. It is about how the focus has been on Knox, and not the men accused alongside her. It is not about my opinions on the case.

I really need to make that clear!

It would be easy to forget that alongside Knox, two men were also found guilty of murder, one of who has been acquitted with her. But unlike ‘foxy Knoxy’ their names have found themselves bereft of sexy nicknames, and barely register on the public consciousness. They aren’t witches and demons. The man who was acquitted last night has not seen his face on any newspapers today. There’s no public poll on a mainstream TV show today asking women whether they want to have sex with him! The attention today, and throughout the case, has been on Knox.

At the time of her initial conviction, the F Word published an interesting post about the media’s treatment of Knox:
They pointed out how her sexuality and the fact that she was ‘sexually active’ had been gleefully raked over by the media, including reports about the number of men she had slept with and the ‘revelation’ that she had had sex on a train. Similar questions about the sexuality of the men involved were never asked or brought up, and it would be surprising if they had been. Although there are some cases where a man’s sexuality are brought up in media covering of a murder trial, it’s rarely the fact that he has had consensual sex with a fairly average number of women (although there are of course cases when a man’s sexuality is judged in other ways). Alongside all the witchy and demonic language, it feels like we are back in the Middle Ages, where women’s sexuality was associated with evil, destruction and lack of control.

I know that some people are going to respond that her sexuality was brought up because of the accusations of sexual violence. But with the very particularly historic sexist language, and everything we know about the angel-whore dichotomy and the media thrall of ‘evil’ women, I think something beyond that was happening here. In my opinion, the discussion of the number of men Knox had slept with had less to do with accusations of sexual violence and more to do with the way women’s active (as opposed to performed) sexuality is discussed in the media.

As if expressly designed to prove my point, whilst writing this post Twitter started talking about the episode of Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff on 4th October (day after appeal verdict future readers). A segment of the show was titled:

‘Foxy Knoxy – would ya?’

This led to a discussion about whether (men) on the panel, in the audience and on the phones would have sex with Knox now that she wasn’t a convicted murderer. The discussion was led from the proposal that:

"She’s also undeniably fit and loves wild sex. So if you were a guy who’d met her in a bar and she invited you back to hers, would you go?"

It seems to me that this episode shows us something very clearly about how women appear in the mainstream media. It’s Angel and Whore again, with Witch thrown in. Knox has been taken her out of the ‘witch’ role and placed firmly in her new role of sex object for men to voice their approval or disapproval of. It completely takes Knox as a person out of the equation and treats her as an object to be judged as worthy or unworthy of male attention, as an object that they might or might not want to have sex with.

Throughout the media reporting of the trial, we have seen the media version of Knox inhabit all of the prescribed roles for women that are allowed to us. She has been the Angel – an innocent victim of a corrupt judiciary. She has been a Witch – an evil demon motivated by lust who is out of control. She has been a Whore – sleeping with men in trains, a woman who ‘loves wild sex’. And now she is an object who is judged by male spectators.

I would add one more thing. In all of this, in the trivialising nickname of ‘Foxy Knoxy’, in the post-verdict discussion about whether men want to shag her, in the flurry of sexist terms and the general prioritising of Knox’s role over those of the men accused with her, one very important thing has had a haunting silence about it. And that is that a young woman was murdered. As Kercher’s sister said, Meredith Kercher has been forgotten. I know I haven’t really helped matters by writing about Knox here, which is why I want to finish on that note.

Good piece on 'witch' language on CIF