Monday, 17 December 2012

On how women are not wallets, and why media feminists must not parrot rape myths

Trigger warning: discussion of rape and domestic abuse, and rape myths

[I just want to emphasise this post isn't an attack on Caitlin Moran, as some comments on other blogs about this issue have suggested. It's using the comments in her interview to talk about tackling rape myths and victim blaming, and challenging those rape myths. Because we should always challenge rape myths - whether repeated or spoken by an ally or a feminist, or someone we don't like.]

The following is quoted from an interview between Caitlin Moran and an Australian blogger, Mia Freedman: 

[MF] And of course it should never be about victim blaming but I worry about the idea of saying to women "don't change your behaviour, this is not your problem!". I feel like that's saying, "You should be able to leave your car unlocked with the keys in the ignition, or leave your front door unlocked, and expect nobody to burgle you."

[CM] Yes. It's on that basis that I don't wear high heels - other than I can't walk in them - because when I'm lying in bed at night with my husband, I know there's a woman coming who I could rape and murder, because I can hear her coming up the street in high heels, clack-clack-clack. And I can hear she's on her own, I can hear what speed she's coming at, I could plan where to stand to grab her or an ambush. And every time I hear her I think, "Fuck, you're just alerting every fucking nutter to where you are now. And [that it's a concern] that's not right.
Society should be different. But while we're waiting for society to change, there's just certain things you have to do. But again the thing is, so many things you could do instead are predicated on having money. She could come out of a nightclub and get into a taxi, that would be the right thing to do.

Caitlin Moran then goes on to talk about how a lot of this is to do with class – mind bogglingly stating that billionaire heiresses don’t get kidnapped, raped and murdered because they have taxis and chauffeurs. 

No billionaire heiresses are ever abducted and raped and murdered, because they are just being put into a taxi or have their driver waiting around a corner for them. Again, it’s not just a feminist thing, it’s a class thing. It’s a money thing. It’s a problem of capitalist society. 

This interview really has left me with my head in my hands. It makes me feel total despair that the woman who is potentially the most famous UK feminist around at the moment, the woman who is doing so much to attract young women to feminism, is quoting a load of victim blaming, equality damaging, rape myths. 

Firstly, some facts. According to a range of studies, the vast majority of women experience violence from someone they know, such as a partner. Research quoted by CWASU  suggests it’s around 90% and most other research I’ve seen on the subject correlates with this. Women are comparatively safe click-clacking down the street in their heels. Men are far more likely to be attacked by a stranger in the dark. Women are far more likely to be attacked by the man in their home. 

I don’t know if research exists on the number of rapes committed in taxis but we know that it happens. After all, one of the most dangerous serial rapists in recent times was a cab driver. 

And you know what? The reason he got away with raping women for so long was because of the rape myths repeated in this interview. Because the police didn’t believe women who told them they’d been raped by a cab driver. Because rape myths tell us that taxis are safe, that rapes happen by strangers on the street. The women he raped did what Caitlin says are ‘just certain things you have to do’, the thing she says is the ‘right thing to do’. The police heard this message and didn’t listen to the women. After all, they’re just women. 

I can just hear some of the commenters on my blogposts about anti-rape campaigns rubbing their hands with glee at this exchange. You know, the ones who say that women should take sensible precautions when they’re out because you wouldn’t leave your car unlocked, you wouldn’t leave your wallet on the table. Look! They’ll say. One of your feminists is saying what we’ve been saying all along! 

I’ve said it before, but women are not cars, we’re not wallets. We are people. We don’t leave ourselves open or unlocked by walking around in public spaces. Not going outside is not a ‘sensible’ precaution to take whilst waiting for society to change. Not living our lives freely and independently is not a ‘sensible’ precaution. Telling women where they can and cannot be present in order to ‘avoid’ violence is not helpful. It does nothing to tackle male violence; it does nothing to stop rape. It just re-enforces the idea that rape is caused by women’s behaviour, and if we just stopped insisting on going outside then we might all be ok. 

It’s so dehumanising to compare women to material objects. And it’s so dangerous to tell women that they just need to follow some rules to be safe. As if rape is a natural hazard, and not a violent crime deliberately committed by another person. 

It is hugely problematic that one of the most famous and influential media feminists in the country is repeating these rape myths. I know that feminism is a broad church, and I know that feminists disagree with each other on a LOT of issues. But surely one thing we can all agree on is that women’s behaviour has absolutely nothing to do with whether a woman is raped or not? Surely that is just Feminism 101. Rape is caused by rapists. That rapist might be a stranger on the street or he might be your husband. Rape is not caused by women not taking sensible precautions. Rape, abduction and murder do not happen because women advertise their presence on the street by wearing high heels. Rapists choose to rape. 

What’s more, rape, abduction and murder happen to women across social class. Patti Hearst springs to mind in history. But we all know of famous, rich celebrity women in violent relationships, we all know rich women, middle class women, working class women who have been raped or who have experienced domestic abuse. Male violence is not a respecter of class or social status. The statement that billionaire heiresses don’t experience male violence is incredibly silencing of women across income brackets. It’s parroting a myth that only a certain kind of woman or girl experiences violence. Meanwhile, the voices of women are left unheard again. One of the problems I’ve spoken to IDVAs about in the past is the lack of financial help available to women who on the face of it are wealthy but who, on account of abuse, have no control over their finances and therefore little means to escape violence. We cannot make such sweeping statements about which women experience violence. 

There is a point to be made about how telling women to get cabs is problematic because it puts an onus on women to either spend money they might not have, or stay indoors. But the argument isn’t that women should suck it up until ‘society’ sorts itself out. The argument is that we need to do more to tackle the causes of rape, that we need to do more to dispel rape myths that do so much harm to women. 

In this exchange, Caitlin Moran and Mia Freedman ignore that women are raped at home, on the street, at clubs, in pubs, in the office, in schools, in universities, when they’re drunk, when they’re sober, when they’re wearing heels or flats or skirts or skinny jeans or pyjamas. They’re ignoring that the ONLY thing that all rapes have in common is the presence of a rapist. Not the woman. The rapist. No-where do we get a sense that the cause of violence is the perpetrator. 

Of course, it is comforting to believe that there is set of rules to follow to prevent rape. It’s comforting to think “it won’t happen to me because I don’t wear heels”. But these statements dangerously re-enforce rape myths. And it’s these rape myths that prevent women from having the confidence that they’ll be believed if they report rape. They keep the conviction rate at 6.5%. And they lead to judges saying that a rape survivor ‘let herself down’ when she took drugs and got drunk. They’re why rapists get 4-6 years in jail and victim compensation is so rare. Rape myths have a huge impact. They’re not throwaway comments, they impact on justice. 

And of course following these rules does nothing to reduce the incidence of rape. It does nothing to stop rape. These rules don’t tackle the causes or stop the perpetrators. They just teach women to feel frightened all the fucking time. 

Finally, we have the ‘fucking nutters’ comment. Not only is this disablist – stigmatising mental illness – but once more this statement puts women at risk. It emphasises the idea that rapists are strange monster-men who jump out of bushes. A rapist might be a respected, loved, popular man. He might be the life and soul of the party, he might be your friend. By re-enforcing the stereotype of what a rapist is meant to look like, the rape myth that popular, so-called respectable men aren’t violent towards women is emphasised. The more this myth is repeated, the harder it is for a woman who reports a rape by one of these ‘nice guys’. The myth can mean she’s either not believed or, in the case of a man who killed his wife a few years ago, he gets a tiny sentence on account of being “respectable and successful”. 

The conversation between Caitlin and Mia encourages the dangerous myth that rape can be prevented by women’s behaviour. It props up the absurd assertion that women are like objects that can be stolen if we’re careless. It perpetuates an atmosphere where women are taught to live in fear of male violence. This is not acceptable. I really worry that some of Moran’s young fans might read this and not question the damage rape myths cause. Or they might read it having experienced violence, and believe that they were to blame. Caitlin Moran has a huge influence, she has a huge audience. Her words have an impact. As feminists we need to do all we can to empower women and men to speak out about violence, to challenge these rape myths so that every single person understands that the only person that causes rape is a rapist. As feminists we simply cannot and must not be re-enforcing the idea that women’s behaviour can keep us safe from rape.

Also read: Stavvers, The F Word and Perestroika

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

In which I RANT about Wikileaks Twitter Feed and Assange supporters

Make no mistake. This is a rant. But I am really, really cross.

This week the Wikileaks Twitter account decided to take umbrage that the Guardian had put Malala Youasafzi up as one of the people you could vote for in their person of the year poll. They encouraged followers to go on and vote for Bradley Manning, who won. Of course, this is free poll so it’s fine to say you want someone to win. What isn’t fine is to be dismissive about the case of a fourteen year-old girl who risked her life for the rights of girls to go to school, simply because you don’t like the Guardian. But that’s exactly what Wikileaks did. 

Before going on this weird anti-Guardian rant about how they were trying to fix the vote so that it suits their ‘pro-war’ agenda.

This, in case we forgot, is the Guardian who printed the Wikileaks cables until Wikileaks named sources, has printed articles defending Assange regarding rape allegations multiple times, who even published a long and extensive interview with Assange this week, and who ran a poll where Manning was judged person of the year (which is cool BTW, Manning should have recognition, not least for the awful treatment he has received in the USA). 

But despite all of this coverage, the Guardian is like totes part of a media conspiracy INTENT on silencing Assange and his supporters. 

Anyway, it’s the tweets about Malala that made me angry. It’s the statement that she was ‘reportedly shot in the head’ – a ‘report’ that apparently meant she has been exploited by the pro-war lobby and gave the Guardian another opportunity to write on the ‘evils’ of the Taliban. It’s made me angry. It all hangs on that word to me, ‘reportedly’. 

Malala was not ‘reportedly’ shot. She was shot. She was shot because she believes that girls like her have the right to an education – an education and a future that the Taliban would deny her. Let’s get this absolutely straight. She was shot by a group of adult men who are so scared of girls getting an education that they respond with attempted murder. Malala is brave. She is an outstanding young woman who has been vilely attacked for standing up for girls’ and women’s rights to freedom of speech. 

Well DONE Wikileaks! Well done for classing what happened to her as nothing more than something to be exploited by the pro war lobby. Well done for diminishing her bravery and the violence done to her by using the words ‘reportedly shot’. Well done for deciding that her courage and her campaigning work and the shots that were fired are just fuel for more anti-Taliban propaganda. And well done for casting everyone who believes Malala is a ‘person of the year’ as being part of the pro war lobby. 

Malala put her safety on the line to stand up for what she believed in. At the age of 14 she was shot for standing up for what she believed in. She wasn’t ‘reportedly’ shot. That tweet was pathetic, a pathetic attempt to undermine her bravery and the terrible violence committed against her just to fuel a further pathetic vendetta against the Guardian. I mean, for fuck’s sake.  

Bradley Manning is in jail, suffering terrible privations for taking a stand too. 

Julian Assange is in the Ecuadorian Embassy hiding away from rape and sexual assault allegations. 

I don’t particularly want to delve into the ins and outs of the legalese of Assange’s rape case. I’ve done it before. But whenever I see or hear his supporters I start to wonder. I mean, Galloway? Bullies on Twitter calling Emma Kennedy a ‘fucking retard’? John Pilger hectoring us on how Julia Gillard isn’t feminist whilst denying women’s voices at the same time? A former ambassador ignoring that we don’t name rape complainants? A TV station controlled by a dictator? A President who enjoys cracking down on the freedom of the press? Galloway? I mean, wow. With friends like these…

Do you know which people don’t believe women when they talk about violence committed against them, or who name rape survivors, or who minimise violence against women such as a girl being shot? Not very nice people, that’s who. It seems that for all their so-called liberal lefty credentials, Assange supporters have a lot in common with Daily Mail columnists. You know, people who believe that rape can’t happen when two people are ‘in the sex game’. People who believe that women routinely lie about rape. 

In this weekend’s interview with Assange, the rape allegations are brushed aside, quite literally:

Leaving aside the two women in Sweden who were once his admirers and now allege rape and sexual assault,”

The subject is briefly returned to when Assange says that he would go to Sweden if they assured him he wouldn’t be extradited to the USA. As has been pointed out many times, Sweden cannot give that assurance – beyond the fact that Sweden will not extradite anyone to face the death penalty or on political charges. 

I personally hope that Assange is not extradited to the US. I don’t believe anyone should be extradited to a country that has the death penalty, full stop. I disagree with the UK having an extradition agreement with the US on this basis. What I do hope, what I think so many of us want, is for him to go to Sweden and face the rape allegations, so that justice can be done. Justice for the women, which also means justice for him. 

I don’t understand how people can continue to defend Assange. I really don’t. Look at yesterday. “Reportedly shot”. Those words attempt to diminish a terrible crime against a young girl who simply wants freedom and education. Then there was the encouraged online bullying of a critic. And don’t forget the solidarity sent his way by men who don’t call it rape when a woman is asleep, who bombastically redefine the law around consent. This behaviour, this defence – it’s not maverick, it’s not cool. It’s the same old misogyny, the same old rape apologism, the same old victim blaming, the same old silencing. It’s embarrassing.  

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Some thoughts on solidarity and sisterhood after yesterday's rally

Yesterday UK Uncut organised a series of occupations across the UK of Starbucks. The focus was on how if tax dodging companies paid their taxes, then women’s services such as refuges would not be facing the cuts that are destroying the violence against women support services. Obviously, Bristol Feminist Network is on board with any protest that challenges cuts to these services that save lives. We encouraged our members to join the UK Uncut protest in Bristol, whilst also organising our own rally, flyering members of the public with info about the cuts, the impact of domestic violence and what we can all do to challenge any cuts to the sector – i.e. writing to councillors to ensure the budget protects women’s services. This rally and protest will be followed up by letter writing. BFN will be posting statements up on our website that members and interested parties can send to the council.

We gave out 300 flyers yesterday, to 300 people who may or may not care about the cuts, but who may read the information and decide to take action. The way I look at it, if 10 people take the flyer and write to the council, then we’ve done a good job. If another ten sign a petition, or talk to their friends about what they’ve read, then that’s great. We know that 300 people aren’t going to respond. But some people might and that’s hugely important.

It was a great hour and a half. We giggled at how the police watched us like hawks, whilst allowing a charity group who were also flyering the public to do so without observation. Some people were aggressive towards us, shouting at us for being intimidating when they were intimidating us! But as ever with feminist gatherings, the atmosphere was great, we were laughing, chatting and stubbornly not intimidating anyone – including Starbucks staff and customers. We were just there to hand out flyers.

When planning yesterday, we wanted to create three levels of action so that everyone who wanted to could get involved. This meant telling people about the occupation so they could attend that. For those of us who were concerned about being arrested – for example teachers, social workers and mums with childcare issues, or those who weren’t sure about shutting down a café without knowing if the staff would get paid for the afternoon they weren’t working, we had the flyering rally. And for people who couldn’t attend either, we have letter writing – an action that can be done from your living room. In my mind, it was a truly accessible event for feminist activist. There was a way for everyone to be involved.

So I was kind of upset when a sour note entered the day. One fellow feminist seemed upset that we weren’t going to invade Starbucks, despite me explaining that UK Uncut would make this happen later. She told me she didn’t know what was wrong with young feminists today, that she despaired of us. I explained that BFN couldn’t be seen to be doing an illegal action. Instead we were making the protest accessible to everyone by ensuring that anyone could attend at least one facet of the day. The fact is, risking arrest is not optional for a lot of people, including those I mention above. Having a legal and peaceful flyering gathering meant that those excluded from occupations could still come together to make a stand against the cuts to domestic violence services.

To me, yesterday was a group of feminist women coming together to reach out to women and men in our city with info about how they can take action. It was empowering and fun and we were making a difference. I don’t know what there was to despair of. The event was planned in a women-only open space event last month, another empowering gathering of women’s voices and minds where we planned to take action against these cuts.

I don’t expect a medal or praise for doing what I do. But I can’t help but feel frustrated when I see women coming together to make a difference, women who have given up their time and energy to create a feminist action, being criticised for not running the risk of being arrested. Being criticised for not doing enough, when we already struggle on the meagre resources we have. What I saw yesterday was an uplifting, awareness-raising rally that had the potential to reach people who might not have thought about the cuts to DV services and now want to take action. If that’s something to despair of then I don’t know how to respond.

We don’t get it right all the time. But to me, we did yesterday. I don’t think I deserved that criticism, and I don’t think any of the women standing in the cold talking to people about the cuts to domestic abuse support services deserved it either. They didn’t have to be there. I, for one, am proud that we were.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

No women? No revolution. My speech from Monday

On Monday, I took part in an event organised by Bristol Indymedia about what a resistance to the cuts would look like. Here's what I had to say.

NB: For stats sources please see the Bristol Fawcett report on Cutting Women Out

There are a few things everyone wanting to fight the cuts needs to know about. A few numbers. 
The first is that 70% of the cost of Osborne’s austerity budget came from women’s purses, after the government failed to make an equality impact assessment on its economic policy. The government has since decided that equality impact assessments are a layer of red tape and have got rid of them completely. Telling, I thought.  

The second is that since 2010 women’s unemployment has increased by 18% whilst men’s has fallen:

"Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that, since the end of the recession (at the end of 2009), women’s unemployment has been rising at a significantly disproportionate rate to men’s. In February 2012, men’s unemployment stood slightly below where it did back then (at 1.535 million) whereas women’s unemploymenthas increased by over 20% (from 945,000 to 1.14 million). In fact, over the past two years women have accounted for 100% of the increase in unemployment"

As the cuts to the public sector continue, this will only get worse. 

The third number is 230. That’s the number of women turned away from refuges across the UK every single day. And 104 is the number of women murdered so far this year as a result of gender based violence – women who may well have been turned away from full refuges to return to violent homes. I had to put that number up again today, as reports came in of a man killing his wife and then himself. In the first week of 2012 alone, 4 women were killed as a result of domestic violence and one other woman’s body was found. That was a death for every working day in the first week of the year. 

In Bristol, 99,000 women will experience domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking in her lifetime. That’s nearly half the city’s women. As this happens, we’re seeing funding centralised so local support services lose their money, and local women lose the safe places they need to be able to go to in order to escape violence. We are living in a world that seems to believe that support for victims and survivors of violence is a luxury, an indulgence in times of prosperity and something to be taken away in times of hardship. This is in spite of the fact that evidence suggests domestic abuse increases in times of recession – in fact attacks on women have gone up by 2,000 a week nationally since the recession began. 

It isn’t just cuts to support services either. Cuts to the NHS, to legal aid, to policing, to child benefit, to housing benefit, the introduction of universal credit – all of these have a huge impact on women trying to escape violence. The increase of women’s unemployment is another contributory factor. There is nothing in these cuts that does not have an impact on women’s safety. 

According to the Bristol Fawcett report on the impact of the cuts on women, “the cumulative impact of all these cuts is that there is a high likelihood of significantly worse outcomes for women in terms of the violence they suffer and its impact upon them. These include less successful investigation and prosecution of offenders, more women trapped in violent relationships and more ongoing mental, physical and sexual health problems for women.”

One of the great and terrible ironies of these cuts to support services is of course that the outcomes cost the state far, far more than the preventative safety nets these services provide. It costs far more to run a police investigation into gender based murder than it does to provide a woman with a refuge place. These cuts are happening because they are seen as easy. Because they are affecting some of the most voiceless and marginalised in our society, affecting people who don’t have the time or space or energy of safety to fight back. Domestic abuse isn’t even a news story anymore, it’s so common. It’s easy to cut these services because who’s going to fight back?

Well, I am fighting back. Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett are fighting back. UK Uncut is fighting back. This Saturday, we’ll be on the streets of Broadmead in solidarity with the Starbucks occupation, flyering Christmas shoppers with information about the impact of the cuts on violence against women and girls. We’ll be presenting a statement to the council every month in the run up to the budget announcement to make sure that there are no cuts to support services. We are urging you to write statements as well – in fact you can download a template from our website. And we’ll be working in coalition with women’s groups to meet councillors and hopefully the Mayor to ensure that ending these cuts is high on the agenda. 

I know that we’ll be talking about resistance in a moment, but I wanted to end on this. When planning resistance to the cuts, you need women at the heart. Because there are more women in the 99% and there are more men in the 1%. Because it’s women who are bearing the brunt of these cuts. The numbers are clear. You can’t talk about the cuts without women, you can’t talk about child poverty without talking about women’s poverty, you can’t talk about power without recognising women’s lack of power. We are bearing the brunt of these cuts and therefore we have to be central to the resistance. 

All too often in social justice movements, women are seen as an afterthought, our rights and our needs are seen as secondary. That’s why the Suffragettes happened, that’s why 50,000 women marched on Washington in the 70s. Everyone resisting the cuts needs to know and needs to understand that there can be no revolution without women. Otherwise we’re just repeating the same old power structures again and again. Make your resistance accessible to women. Don’t repeat sexist mantras, don’t create environments that are hostile. I have a slew of examples which I won’t share now, where women’s concerns and voices have been ignored in this way. I’m the only woman on this stage, and yet it’s women who are paying the price of this government’s austerity budget. This is a woman’s issue, this is a feminist issue. So don’t leave us behind. 

Monday, 3 December 2012

How does the media report murders of women?

Hot on the heels of the Daily Mail re-branding stalking as romance, the BBC report today that tributes are being paid to a man who shot his wife before killing himself. 

I honestly cannot think of another situation where tributes would be paid to a man who committed a violent crime.

The police describe how the man, who was the leader of the council, shot his wife and then himself. But this doesn’t seem to be the news story. The news story instead is about the tributes made by councillors, colleagues and neighbours to the man who:

typified what's good about the town and the district of North Norfolk.”

It’s a story about how the flag on the council building is flying at half mast, how despite ‘being from different parties’ he was ‘always very good to deal with’, how he was a ‘good public servant’ who was ‘respected across the political spectrum’. No-where is it really mentioned that by shooting his wife, this pillar of the community murdered a woman

Because that is what just happened. There's nothing in the article to suggest suicide pact or complicity. He shot his wife. I don’t know why, I don’t care why, I don’t know if there was a history of domestic abuse. What we do know is he shot his wife before killing himself.

It seems to me that it’s only in the case of domestic abuse when the news coverage bends over backwards to talk about the perpetrator as really a good person. It seems that it’s only when crimes are committed against women does the media try to mitigate it by assuring us that – apart from in his relations to his wife – the man with the gun was a ‘good guy’. I think it happens because it’s simply too terrifying to face the fact that twice a week, men murder a current or ex partner. That at least two men a week are killing women. 

It reminds me of the man who killed his wife and only got eighteen months because his actions were ‘out of character’ and he led a ‘respectable and successful life’. The deaths of the women became subordinate to the story of the man. And make no mistake, it's this kind of reporting, that diminishes blame for a violent crime against women, that then has an impact on juries finding violent men guilty, on judges handing out sentences to men who kill their wives. This has a real impact. Every time a man is violent to a woman, and the media reports it as a crime of passion, of jealousy, or a retaliation because 'she took his kids' or 'she left him', then that media is victim blaming, and it's a victim blaming culture that means we have a 6.5% conviction rate for rape, for example. The way the media reports violence against women matters. It has an impact on all of us women. 

Today’s story is a tragic one. As before with the stalker, any death is awful and of course those who knew him are devastated. But it’s a tragedy that involves her death as well, and what this reporting does is just focus on how he was a "good guy". Her death and her life just does not seem to be considered in this article at all. 

On the Yahoo report of the story one of the commenters says:

Probably another domestic incident gone wrong.”

It’s a telling comment. It’s not murder, it’s a domestic incident gone wrong. That’s how this story can so easily be re-framed, to be one about how tributes are being paid to a man who shot his wife and then killed himself. It’s just another example of how our culture refuses to acknowledge what violence against women and girls looks like. 

This year, according to the OneinFour Twitter feed, 104 have lost their lives as a result of gender based violence. 

If you can, please make a donation to WomensAid and Refuge, so no more women lose their lives to men. 

Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Stalking isn't romance. It's violence.

In the Daily Mail today, the day that Leveson reports after hearing evidence from women’s groups about the terrible reporting of violence against women and girls in the mainstream media, there’s an article about a stalker who died whilst harassing his ex. 

Although, if you read the Daily Mail report, that might not be the story you hear.

Just to start – of course it is sad when anyone dies and I am not in any way saying otherwise. I am sorry for his family, who are obviously devastated. It’s for that reason that I won’t link to the article or name names here. 

But I have to take issue with the way the Mail approaches a story of harassment, intimidation and stalking, and turns it into a tragic tale of thwarted love. Particularly when this is the week stalking was finally made an actual criminal offence, and nearly a quarter of women experience stalking from the age of 16. 

Let’s start with the headline. 

‘”Gentle giant” who camped outside ex-girlfriend’s home in bid to win her back died following a heavy drinking session.’

Camping outside a woman’s house is not the action of a gentle man who wants to win back his lost love. It is the action of a stalker who wants to frighten and intimidate a woman. By calling him a ‘gentle giant’, even as a quote, the Mail is setting this guy up as someone we should feel sympathy for, someone who was just in love, and heartbroken. There is no mention of how scary it might have been for his ex, to wake up to find him outside her house, all the time, demanding her attention when she just wants to be left alone to live her life. 


[He] had inundated former partner [name redacted by me] with poems, letters, phone calls and text messages…When she refused to give in to his attempts to win her back, he began following her around and took to sleeping outside Ms Buchanans [sic] flat.’

This is stalking. This is harassment. Being inundated, bombarded with unwanted contact, being followed around – this is not romance. It’s a crime. And check out the victim blaming language too – the Mail says ‘she refused to give in’. As if somehow she should have just shrugged, and let him back in her life, that she was somehow selfish to not acquiesce to this harassment. After all, it’s just love, right? He’s just showing how much he loved her. 

The article goes on:

‘[he] was described as a “gentle giant” who was simply “trying to rekindle a lost love”’

‘One response sent by [his ex] a month before his death read: “I’m sorry but it’s over. Please let me get on with my life.”’

Stalkers, like all perpetrators, give themselves all sorts of excuse for their behaviour. They might be convinced that the victim of their crime loves them, and that they’re in a relationship. They may believe that she deserves it, or they may have the conviction that they are behaving romantically to bring a relationship back together. None of these reasons are true. There is nothing romantic, or mutual, or deserving about a campaign of harassment. It’s frightening and upsetting and it all too often leads to violence.

When I was a teenager I had some experience of harassment or stalking. It wasn’t a really serious case, but it happened. The victim was someone in my family and it involved phone calls at all hours. Nothing else, it wasn’t on the same scale as many cases. It was just phone calls, breathing down the phone, night and day. I remember how frightened I was. That someone had this power to scare us. I know what his so-called justification was, I won’t share it here. It was no justification at all. Not for the fear, and for the fact I have never, ever forgotten it. No justification for that whenever a story like this comes up, or a documentary about stalking is screened, or even, once, when some colleagues were cracking loads of jokes about stalking, I remember that fear. That fear comes back.

The Mail reports a statement made by the man’s family:

[he] never mean any harm to anyone.

I’m sorry, but he did. Harassment is harm. I understand the family wants to believe otherwise. But following someone around, phoning and texting incessantly, camping outside someone’s house – this is harmful. It’s threatening. It’s a crime. 

The rest of the article is made up of quotes from his family. They talk about how he was devastated by the break-up, how he felt betrayed and ‘spiralled downhill to the point where he just sat outside her flat.’

No-where in the article, particularly in the sections written by the journalist, is there any sense that his behaviour was against the law. No-where in the article does the Mail give the reader a chance to see this isn’t a tragic romance, a gentle knight nobly trying to win the heart of a fair maiden. No-where do we hear a sympathetic voice for the woman victim who was harassed and intimidated. In Mail world, stalking isn’t a crime. It’s a campaign, a bid to win a woman back. No-where do we get a sense that the woman has autonomy, the right not to have to be with a man who she doesn’t want to be with, to accept the attentions of a man she no longer loves. 

In Mail world, harassment is a sign of love, and women who don’t accept it are selfish. 

One positive thing is that at least the commenters under the article recognised his actions as stalking. 

As I say, this week Leveson will report back on his inquiry. He was presented with evidence from women’s groups about media sexism, and how reporting of violence against women and girls is minimised. They talk about victim blaming, sympathy with the perpetrator and not acknowledging the crime. All of this is present in this article. We have a man who stalked and harassed his ex girlfriend. We have that man presented as a kind, gentle person who was in a bid to win back that ex. And we have a woman who is portrayed as someone who didn’t ‘give in to his attempts’, a refusal which, we are led to believe, resulted in his death. I say ‘led to believe’ because it is not her fault that he acted in this way, it is not her fault he camped out and harassed her and drank. It is not her fault, no matter how the journalist frames it. 

I hope that, amongst no doubt all the furore about regulation, there is something in Leveson that recognises the damaging sexism in media reporting of violence against women, and a plan is created to tackle it. 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Publication date set for Greta and Boris: a daring rescue

Hip hip hurrah!

My book, Greta and Boris: a daring rescue will be published on 29th March, 2013.

The book tells the tale of Greta, who must go on a magical mission to rescue her cat, Boris, Prince of Cats. Along with warrior cat, Kyrie, Greta must face the staircase of autumn leaves, cross Cloud-Top Land and the Milky Sea, rescue the Land of Mice from a devastating war and face the challenge of the terrifying Rat King.

In her review of the book, Bristol Women's Literature Festival chair, and all round amazing writer, broadcaster and woman Bidisha writes:

Greta and Boris is touching, exciting, cheeky and vivid, with wonderful characters, a strong narrative and sudden delightful details. … Greta and Boris is billed as a children’s novel but is more of a tale or fable – a fast and picaresque vision quest in which a young hero finds her destiny and with it, of course, her inner strength, which she had all along. It’s a standalone work which ... is suitable for 7-9 year old readers and is structured in such a way that it can be read or acted out to younger kids too.”

The book is published by Our Street Books, an imprint of John Hunt, and will be available to buy on 29th March 2013

Friday, 2 November 2012

Blogging break

So, as some of you may know, I'm always trying to write more fiction. In fact, I HAVE A BOOK COMING OUT NEXT YEAR KLAXON. And I've had an idea for a novel, and half-written novel notes, percolating for some years now. So seeing as this month in Nanowrimo, I thought I'd give myself a kick up the ass and try to write it. Or, at least, one section of it. Not going to put myself under pressure to write the whole thing in a month. But going to commit to a month of writing it, if that makes sense?

So, no matter what feminist crisis raises its head in November, I might try and keep this month a blogging free zone.

See you on the other side gang.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Yes, i do look lush. No, you don't need to tell me.

On my way to work this morning, headphones in, umbrella up, this young man walked out of his house, looked at me and said ‘you look lush!’

He then fell into step with me, looking at me under my umbrella and said ‘are you deaf or something?’ He then laughed and said ‘you must be’, and walked along his merry way down the next street.

Throughout this interaction I was completely silent. I kept walking, looking straight ahead of me, hoping my headphones would lend credence to me not ‘being able to hear him’. My stomach was knotting, as I tried to assess how this one-way interaction would end. Then, as soon as he left, I felt guilty. Guilty for not acknowledging, for not thanking him for the compliment, for taking too seriously what he meant as something nice. And then I remembered that I have no reason to feel guilty, because there is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to walk down the street without a man commenting on what I look like, or my presence there. 

The thing is. I’m pretty sure that this guy genuinely wanted to pay me a compliment. He wasn’t being aggressive, or rude, he clearly did think I just looked nice (which, I must say, in my mini knitted dress and knee-high boots, I do!). But what he didn’t understand, what he didn’t know, is that as soon as a strange man starts shouting things at me on the street, I feel scared. 

I feel scared because since I was 15 I haven’t known whether that shout will be safe or not. Will it be someone just saying I look nice? Or will it be someone screaming that I’m a fucking bitch for ignoring them, or someone yelling that they’re going to follow me and rape me in the ass, or that I’m a cunt, or that I’m a bitch who needs to drop her knickers, or that I need to stop walking and give him a fucking blowie. I don’t know and so as soon as that voice is raised I can’t take the chance that it’s going to be a well-meaning compliment. 

He doesn’t know that, of course. Men don’t really get it. They don’t understand how quickly that compliment can turn to violence. They don’t see the context – they don’t have the echoes of every single shout or threat in their heads when that voice is raised on the street. They don’t see it because it rarely happens in front of them. And, of course, compliment or not, that man would never have said a word to me if I was walking with another man. 

I keep saying that I feel confident he was genuinely being nice, that he wasn’t trying to be rude and he certainly wasn’t trying to scare me. But the fact is, there really was no need for him to say anything to me this morning. 

I don’t know why some men think it’s so important to express their opinion on how I look as I walk down the street, or occupy public space (online, as another example). I don’t know whether they genuinely do think that it must be pretty great to be told you look nice by a total stranger (of course, the rest of the time I'm being told I'm ugly!) I think it might have something to do with the fact that society as a whole places a lot of value on women successfully fitting the male-defined beauty ideal, so, in their eyes, to be told I meet approval must be a good thing. But it doesn’t make me feel great. As I say before, any man shouting anything at me on the street instantly makes me feel nervous, and exposed, and triggered. And then, weirdly, guilty. For not fulfilling my feminine role of supporting a man’s ego. 

There’s something here too about the role women occupy in public space. Particularly a woman on her own. When men shout at me, even something seemingly nice and innocuous, I’m reminded that as a woman, I'm an object of the gaze. When women are out on the street, the gaz-ee to the male gazer. It’s a set-up where men have the right to comment, to make judgement. It’s about who has power over the space. There’s a difference in the violence of language, but there’s not really a difference as to why words are shouted at me in the first place. 

So, guys. If you see a lady walking down the street, and you think she’s looking pretty fitty mcfitson, you don’t need to tell her so. It might not make her day. It might remind her of the hundreds of times when hundreds of men have called her names, and made her feel small, and afraid, and like she has no right to walk on the streets alone. 

Monday, 22 October 2012

It’s not in-fighting to call each other out

Ok, so this is a post that’s been stewing in my head all day, and it’s probably going to be a bit garbled and confused because I’m basically throwing down those circulating thoughts after a long day at work, as my casserole cooks in the oven. But, here goes…

It feels like over the last couple of weeks there have been a lot of accusations flying around within the feminist movement about ‘in-fighting’. But in my experience, this accusation only flies around when someone has said something stupid, and then said person wants to make sure no-one blames her, and accuses critics of ‘in-fighting’. See the Elly Levenson article on the F Word as a case in point – we weren’t in-fighting, we were just questioning her statement that rape is just a penis.

This recent round began with a tweet Caitlin Moran said in response to a question as to why she didn’t ask the writer Lena Dunham’s lack of women of colour in her hit show ‘Girls’.  Moran tweeted that she couldn’t give a shit. Women who were angry with Moran’s tweet (which I was, although in general I don't have strong feelings about Caitlin Moran either way. Her book was funny.) called her up on her privilege. Defenders of Caitlin Moran accused her critics of in-fighting and said we should focus on the “big” issues such as fighting patriarchy – as if the marginalisation of black women’s voices isn’t one of the big issues and part of patriarchy.

I believe it's wrong to characterise this as ‘in-fighting’. Because calling out any woman for saying she doesn’t ‘give a shit’ about the representation (or lack thereof) of black women in popular culture is simply that – calling her out. It’s saying that one of the issues in feminism has been and still is a lack of intersectionality and the prioritising of white, cis, straight, non-disabled, middle class women’s voices and needs – both in the media and in the movement. And saying that this is a problem. And therefore it’s a problem when it’s ignored, or side-lined, or considered ‘not as important as, like, fighting patriarchy’ (again, as if patriarchy only effects the lives of white, cis, straight, non-disabled, middle class women? I don’t get it!). We need to be able to criticise each other without being accused of cattiness or bitchiness.

There seems to be a real anger or fear about being called out for having privilege. Which is quite concerning, in my opinion. Having privilege isn’t a fault. It’s only a bad thing if you refuse to recognise it, and that refusal leads to you being rude, or un-inclusive. But understanding we have privilege, and understanding intersectionality, is a really important aspect of moving the feminist movement forward. And it’s ok to be called out on it when you get it wrong. I saw a commenter on the Bim Adewunmi piece on the Girls row say that being called a racist was ‘almost as bad’ as being the victim of racism. That’s such bullshit. If you get called out for saying something offensive, then take responsibility and apologise and make sure you don’t make the same mistake. Listen! Don’t try and make out you’re the victim all of a sudden.

I’m a white, cis, non-disabled, middle-class (with working class roots) woman. I’ve got a helluva lot of privilege. In my time, that privilege has led me to say some stupid things and I’ve been called out on it. For example, when planning the first Bristol Reclaim the Night, I tried to explain on the poster that all self-identifying women were welcome to march in the women only section. I messed up and phrased it in a way that wasn’t very trans-inclusive. A trans woman emailed me, and asked if I could change it. I didn’t throw a tantrum and say ‘how dare you, I’m not transphobic, I’m TRYING!’ I apologised, accepted I had made a mistake, took her advice and tried not to make the same mistake again. It wasn’t hard. I have cis privilege and I didn’t know, so when someone called me out, corrected me, I was happy to be better informed (similarly, please call me out on any fuck ups in this post).

Another occasion – on the receiving end this time. I’ve had straight people online try to tell me about bi-phobia and homophobia, with no knowledge of my sexuality and family history, and of course I’ve had men trying to tell me about sexism. Mansplaining, if you will. I would call them out and hope that they would listen to me, and respect my lived experience. I wouldn’t expect them to refuse to listen and instead lecture me on how they’re not bi-phobic, homophobic or sexist. As feminists we expect this of men all the time. For example, when a man called me hysterical after I wrote for Liberal Conspiracy, and we called him out for sexism, he insisted he wasn’t being sexist. He didn’t want to check his privilege that meant for him hysterical isn’t a word loaded with gendered meaning.

I can understand why people might feel embarrassed or awkward when people call them out, why they might get defensive. But seriously? It’s not that bad. It’s not as bad as centuries of oppression. I get it wrong all the time. We all do. So we have to listen, to make sure we get it right next time.


So anyway, the main reason this post has been floating around my head like a bee all day was because of an article in the New Statesman written by the Vagenda women that frustrated me and plenty of women on Twitter. It was a piece defending Caitlin Moran and ‘populist feminism’.

The article rightly argued that feminism needs to be accessible, but then seemed to take issue with the word ‘intersectionality’, saying that mainstream feminism was too intellectual and not relevant to women’s real lives.

Of course, in many respects this is true, hence why intersectionality is an issue in the first place. This isn’t helped by documentaries purporting to tell the history of women’s movement that feature no black women working class women, or trans women, or disabled women. Or articles about how ‘feminism’s back’ in the newspapers that are so excited about featuring men that they don’t feature black women, or working class women, or trans women, or LGBQ women, or disabled women.

Vagenda criticise the feminist movement for not relating to women’s lives, with the idea that feminists are sitting around talking about how many women are on boards, at the expense of the impact of the cuts on single mums. But I don’t believe this is true of the feminist movement on the ground. It’s true of how the feminist movement is portrayed in the media.

One of the issues I have with the Vagenda article is that whilst they are rightly talking about intersectionality, they’re also failing to acknowledge the vast number of feminist voices out there who don’t fit their portrayal of a feminist as someone privately educated, white and doesn’t understand poverty. It's also a failture to acknowledge that intersectionality means that women can have all sorts of different privileges. And in doing that they are joining the mainstream media who also never bother to mention the hundreds if not thousands of women who don’t get featured in their headline articles.

I should say that I mentioned this on Twitter and Vagenda said to email them with info about grassroots activism so they can publicise it. Which is great, and I did.

The article is right to criticise when the feminist movement is not accessible, but we must not do this at the expense of the voices that are truly fighting for an intersectional feminist movement that includes all women’s voices. Like this group, for example.

Making feminism comprehensible and accessible is not at odds with intersectionality. If the feminist movement is going to develop we must be intersectional and not be afraid to call out privilege. Even when calling out that privilege means we have to criticise each other.

The article says

 ‘Moran at least speaks a language that we all understand. And how many other feminists can you credit with that?

I can credit many, many feminists who speak a language we can all understand.

They’re in the grassroots, discussing, talking, activist-ing, making speeches, running workshops, running rape crisis centres, doing and talking and making change happen. And yes we make mistakes and yes many, many of us need to do better at being intersectional (me included). And no, we don’t get many articles written about us.

I don’t think we get better at being intersectional by joining in with the silencing of many activist women’s voices. We do it by recognising them. What’s more, we don’t succeed at being intersectional when we refuse to call out successful, privileged women for saying offensive things because to do so ‘would distract from bigger issues like patriarchy’. It's ok to call out each other out. It's not infighting, it's something we need to do if we want to be a better, stronger, more open movement.

Right, my casserole is ready. Sorry it’s so garbled. Please call me out if I am guilty of anything I am criticising. I won’t be offended.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Can you donate and support Bristol Women's Literature Festival?

Dear blog readers,

As some of you may know, I am putting on the brand spanking new never been done before Bristol Women's Literature Festival next year. It's going to be a weekend of inspiring talks and panels all focused on discovering more about women's writing, past and present.

The main programme will take place at the Watershed on the 16th and 17th March and will be chaired by Bidisha. The programme so far includes:

Women’s Writing today: contemporary women writers discuss their fiction

Feat: Stella Duffy, Helen Dunmore, Kate Williams, Beatrice Hitchman (more TBC)

Out of the Ivory Tower: writing feminism for a non-academic audience

Kat Banyard, Kristin Aune, Debi Withers and Josephine Tsui

Bluestockings and Muses: a history of women’s writing

Prof Helen Hackett, Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Dr Charlotte Crofts (more TBC)

Bringing women’s issues to a mainstream TV audience + film

Emilia di Girolamo plus film

As you can see it's a fascinating programme with a whole host of amazing speakers.

BUT. Putting on any event like this costs money. Venue hire, expenses - it adds up. And that's why I'm hoping you, my lovely readers and commenters, will help me today and make a donation to support this important and fascinating event. If everyone donated £2, or whatever you can afford, then that could go towards covering the costs and ensuring that any profit is split equally between the speakers and a women's rights charity. I should stress here that I won't keep any money from this event. All the money raised will be spent on venue, publicity, speakers' expenses, and any leftover will be split equally between the speakers and a women's charity.

You can donate to support the festival using paypal here

Tickets for the festival aren't free, so donations wouldn't mean you could have free tickets if you want to attend. But your donation will help so much in making sure this event is as amazing as it should be.

Thank you so so much for your generosity.

Please donate today.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Men talking about women's right to choose

In his controversial New Statesman article on Sunday, Mehdi Hasan wrote that he believed you could still be lefty and anti-choice (I refuse to use the term ‘pro life’ as it’s a lie). He wrote:

Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and “defending the innocent”, while left-wingers fetishise “choice”, selfishness and unbridled individualism.’

He argued, like Christopher Hitchens before him, that the pro-choice stance of ‘my body, my choice’ is individualistic and more akin to right wing notions about the importance of individual choice, than the left wing aims of equality and giving a voice to those who are silenced. He goes on to clarify this with:

Isn’t socialism about protecting the weak and vulnerable, giving a voice to the voiceless? Who is weaker or more vulnerable than the unborn child? Which member of our society needs a voice more than the mute baby in the womb?

The decision to have an abortion is an individual decision. But that doesn’t make it a selfish one. In fact, I believe that Hasan has made a huge mistake in his argument in that he has conveniently forgotten that being anti-choice is an individual decision too, and it’s a decision that’s inherently selfish. Because it’s that decision, if taken to the anti-choice aim of no abortion (Hasan doesn’t actually call for a ban on abortion, I should make that clear), that has an impact on the lives of half the world’s population, silencing women’s voices and denying women the basic right to bodily autonomy. Isn’t that more selfish? To think an individual, personal belief is more important than the human rights of 3.5 billion living women and girls? 

In my view, the decision to be anti-choice is to make the decision that an individual, personal belief on abortion is more important than the universal human right to bodily autonomy and a woman’s right to have control over her own body. Therefore deciding to call women’s bodily autonomy ‘selfish’ only makes sense if you don’t think women’s rights over their body matter, if you don’t think that women’s rights count.  

Since the article was published, Hasan has complained that he has been the victim of sexism, as women reacted with anger and upset over his words. He bemoaned that it showed how men aren’t allowed to talk about abortion, that the reaction wasn’t fair. He seemed to not understand that the anger arose because once again, men are telling women what they should and shouldn’t be allowed to do with their bodies. And I for one am sick of men telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies – from telling us we can’t walk outside at night, to telling us we can’t drink, to telling us we can’t decide for ourselves whether to have a baby or not.  

And anyway, despite both Hasan and Dominic Lawson complaining about the fact that men aren’t allowed to talk about abortion, they seem to be doing a jolly good job of getting their views aired. Men are so much allowed to talk about abortion that the Today show even had two men and no women debating the subject a couple of months ago. As it stands, I don’t mind men talking about abortion per se. What I do mind is having women’s voices erased from the conversation. 

What I object to is the lack of consideration taken for our bodies, our rights and our views on the subject. I’m sick of abortion being reduced to an ethical debate as left and right wing men treat our bodies as a ping pong ball to score points off. I’m fed up of our bodies being talked about in abstract terms, as ethical battlegrounds that deny us our voice and humanity. And I’m pretty pissed off that our right to our bodies is being framed as a selfish choice, and not as a basic human right. 

Men can talk about abortion if they want to. But to be honest, I’d rather they just listened. Because, fundamentally, it’s selfish for anyone to tell anyone what we can and can’t do with our bodies based on a personal opinion. 

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Men like Jimmy Saville will get away with it until we listen to women and girls

Trigger warning – discussion of rape and child abuse

Yesterday I caught a little bit of Newsnight talking about the Jimmy Savile horror, and they showed a clip of Nick Clegg, asking in disbelief how Saville was able to get away with abusing girls for so long, without it coming out. To quote:

I just keep asking myself why did this remain buried for so long…There must have been just so many people who knew what was going on in hospitals, the BBC, maybe in the police. The only explanation I can come up with is what we are seeing is the dark side of the culture of celebrity, and actually in this case it wasn't a culture of celebrity it was the cult of celebrity. I get the impression people felt that with all that glitter and shine there can't be a dark side, there can't be a seedy side”

It’s a question many people have been asking over the last week and a half since the revelations came out. It’s a question that has evolved from “why are the women only speaking out now” (answer, they weren’t) to “why did the BBC/police/hospitals/government do nothing?”

Maybe, as Clegg seems to think, it was something to do with the cult of celebrity.

But I think it’s a lot, lot simpler than that.

It’s to do with the fact that when women and girls come forward with allegations of rape and abuse, the default position in a rape culture is to not believe them.

When the revelations first broke, it felt a little bit like screaming into an echo chamber, as commenters on CIF etc. demanded to know why the women were only speaking out now, when Saville was dead.
‘They didn’t!’ we who had bothered to listen to the women shouted back. ‘They told at the time and no-one believed them!’ In fact, in some cases the then girls were punished for “telling lies” about Saville. And once you’ve been called a liar once, and seen the power and respect your abuser commands from everyone, then it would be hard to speak out again, I imagine. It would be hard to go against the huge tide of public opinion, when you know that speaking out again means more punishment, more disbelief. When you’re a child, and no-one believes you, no-one listens, and everyone calls you a liar.

It’s becoming increasingly clear since last week that it was the silence of his victims that Saville counted on. And in this, he is like every other abuser. But he was also counting on a rape culture that doesn’t listen to women and girls. And again, in this way he is like every other abuser.

There’s been a lot of comforting talk about how this culture was just something about the seventies, when we had a ‘Life on Mars’ attitudes towards sexual politics, and harassment and violence simply wasn’t taken seriously. Thanks to our sisters in the Women’s Liberation Movement, our society now at least pays lip service to the idea that violence against women and girls should be taken seriously. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we have moved on so much that sexual abuse on this scale could not happen today, that today we’re more enlightened and would listen to girls, and would make sure the violence stopped.

Because a couple of weeks before the Saville story broke, the Guardian gave a comprehensive report on the failings of multiple services to protect girls in Rochdale, where girls as young as 13 were repeatedly raped and abused for profit by a vicious gang of men who hate women. The right wing press tried to push the notion that the gang remained unchallenged for so long because of ‘political correctness gone mad’. But I find this hard to believe. I believe, and the Guardian report reveals, that this was nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with rape culture, where we simply don’t believe girls who come forward to report violence. Suzi, the fifteen year old who was brave enough to tell the police what had happened to her, was deemed ‘unreliable’, and the rape and violence continued for four more years. ‘Unreliable’ is the ‘liar’ branded on Saville’s victims by the authorities back then. Just as Saville was able to get away with it for so long because no one believed the accusations made against him, so the Rochdale gang, the Derby gang, and the hundreds and thousands of rapists that never get caught, were able to get away with it because as a society we simply fail to believe women and girls when they tell us that men are violent towards them.

Even when we do listen to the women, and a rapist is found guilty in a court of law and fails any appeal to have his rape conviction over turned, too many people still don’t really believe the women. The case of Ched Evans earlier this year proves that. With a conviction rate of 6.5% (that rises to a higher number when the case reaches court), proving anyone guilty of rape still seems to be pretty hard, so when someone is found guilty I tend to believe that yes, they’re guilty. But that guilty conviction wasn’t enough for the thousands of men, and some women, that came out in support of Evans. Even when the evidence was there to convict, they still held strong to the idea that the woman was lying, that she was a liar, and he was a wronged hero. So hard it is for our society to accept that men rape, and women tell the truth, that even when there seems to realistically be no other conclusion to draw, the conclusion is still that she lies.

Across the channel, and again we see another case where women are simply not believed when they report the violence committed against them. In the tragic and horrifying case of Nina and Stephanie, who were repeatedly gang raped and terrorised in the Parisian banlieues, they have seen their attackers get away with it. In the case of Nina she was gang raped every day for six months by between 6 and 25 men, who would cue up to abuse her. Her rapists threatened to kill her family if she reported them. But she found the courage to, taking her abusers to court. Unfortunately the French Justice System did not share Nina’s courage, they did not have the courage to believe what the two young women were telling them. They instead chose to believe the men who told the court that the girls wanted it, that they consented, that they were lying. The court acquitted six of the accused, four were given a suspended sentence and one went to jail for one year. One year between 11 men for terrorising and repeatedly raping a 16-year old girl.

Nina and Stephanie now have to live in the banlieues with the men who raped them. The men who threatened them with more and more violence if they ever told.

So when Nick Clegg and his fellow politicians and his fellow commentators wring their hands and ask how, how, HOW did Saville get away with it for SO long, he doesn’t need to look into the past for his answers.

The answer is because in the seventies, eighties, nineties, noughties and today, our society didn't and doesn’t believe women and girls who report rape. The Met are launching their investigation into the Saville case, at the same time as they wrap up the investigation into an officer who repeatedly falsified rape reports because he chose not to believe the women who came to him. That’s how ingrained this culture is.

Until we start believing women and girls, really, really believe them, then we’ll still continue to ask the same question over the next Saville, the next Worboys, the next Huntley, the next gang.

Because to me, living in a rape culture means living in a culture where we find the reality that men rape and abuse women and girls so hard to cope with, so hard to accept, that we will do anything to make it not seem true. And that results in us refusing to listen to women and girls when they tell us that truth.

So, Clegg, and everyone else. Start listening. It’s our refusal to listen that lets abusers get away with it. Stop hand wringing and start listening.

Rape Crisis Number: 0808 802 9999

Friday, 12 October 2012

Pimps, hoes and the university campus

On Tuesday, I had the always dubious pleasure of being invited on to BBC Bristol to discuss with their Breakfast Show team the forthcoming ‘Pimps and Hoes’ party organised for the city’s students by Carnage. 

Anyone with a glancing familiarity with this blog can imagine my reaction to Pimps and Hoes parties, a frankly pathetic attempt to glamorise an “industry” that, globally, is responsible for the trafficking, rape and murder of hundreds of thousands of women (a claim that Steve LeFevre disputed but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and deciding that he didn’t understand I was talking global figures). If we just take trafficking into the sex industry as one example, according to Stop the Traffik up to 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked over international borders each year – 80% of which are women and girls – and many of whom will be trafficked into the sex industry. These men, women and children will be raped every day.  Further, a study quoted in The Equality Illusion found that of a survey 1500-ish deaths of women in prostitution in the US, 50% were as a result of homicide. A study quoted in the same book in Canada found that 79% of women asked had been raped. 

So yes, my argument on the radio was that Pimps and Hoes parties glamorise an industry that fundamentally hurts all women and gender equality. An industry where, in my own city where this party will take place, a woman was gang raped by ‘punters’, chucked off a building and left for dead, and she still had a fight on her hands to get criminal compensation because she was seen as just a prostitute, and juries don’t understand that women in prostitution have the right to consent and bodily autonomy too. The right to live free from violence. 

I had a lot I wanted to say on the radio about pimps and their often violent attitudes towards women, but the discussion veered more into whether it was the party-goers’ choice to wear skimpy clothes on a night out. Which of course it is. I couldn’t care less about what women wear when they go partying. What I care about is the normalisation of sex industry, which the bandying around of words like pimps and hoes as something fun and glam does.

But it did make me think a little bit about what exactly the attendees would be wearing – particularly the men. What do they think pimps wear? Because, the reality? Those gangs in Rochdale and Derby? They’re pimps. It’s not sharp suits and trilby hats. It’s ill-fitting jeans and anoraks, worn by men who sexually exploit women and girls for profit. There’s nothing cool here. There’s nothing aspirational and desirable. There’s that guy from Punternet, complaining because the woman he bought didn’t seem to find him attractive, didn’t seem to want to have sex with him. Is that really who you want to identify with, to dress up as on a night out? 

The Pimps and Hoes party seem to be part of increasingly sexist and misogynistic entertainment on university campuses. 

Now, I was at university in London between 2003-2006 and I honestly don’t know if it was the same back then. My university social life consisted of three-day long house parties, drinking in the local pub and going clubbing at drum n bass nights. Me and my friends drank at the union but being a bit of a party snob, I would never go to the Union Party Nights which seemed to be boring people dressing up and doing belly-button shots. I know there was a ‘chav’ party which outraged me and my friends, and I think there might have been a Playboy night. I did go to a party in Oxford where men and women were dressed in their underwear (not a pleasant experience, I left when a bloke in just y-fronts started trying to grind-dance with me) (FTR I didn’t just wear my underwear, I wore a short knitted black dress). 

So perhaps it was the same back then, I just wasn’t interested to see it. 

But whether it’s new or old, Pimps and Hoes parties are just one aspect of campus social life misogyny. This week I’ve also been reading about Slags and Drags parties, and CEO and Corporate Hoes gatherings. All of these parties use sexist and degrading language to identify the women who attend. All of them rely on men keeping their clothes on, whilst their women counterparts have to take theirs off. 

There’s something I find particularly chilling about the CEOs and Corporate Hoes party. Because the message is clear – despite girls doing great at school, despite young women doing well at university, the men still get to be bosses. It doesn’t matter how fantastic her analysis of Milton’s depiction of God, the woman shouldn’t aspire to CEO, she should just be a hoe. 

And when you consider how unequal gender representation is on company boards, and the prevalence of business deals done in strip clubs, this kind of party sets a depressing tone for how women aspiring to be big in business will be treated. We don’t have the power. The man will be the boss, and keep his clothes on. The women will be the hoe, and take her clothes off. 

I find it unutterably depressing that in 2012 student parties are upholding and strengthening the idea of sexism in the city in the guise of “fun”. 

Another uni-life phenomena doing the rounds at the moment is known as ‘slut dropping’. Now, to be clear, there’s only one example of this actually known, so it might not be a phenomena so much as a group of total dickstands who hate women being allowed driving licenses. But one thing I noticed about slut dropping, that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, is that it’s an abuse taken straight from a strand of porn, where men pick up a woman, have sex with her and then dump her miles from no-where. I don’t think the slut dropping incident involved sex, but it does involve the humiliation and cruelty that makes that porn series so popular. 

And at its core, that’s what so much of this horrible, misogynistic behaviour is about. It’s humiliating and shaming women, characterising us as hoes and sluts whilst men get to emulate those with power. It’s the lads at Unilad writing hideous little articles about why you should try and have sex with a ‘slut’ because she’ll be good, but don’t forget she’s a ‘slut’ and so is therefore disgusting and dirty. 

All of this disturbing misogyny is existing in the context of young men growing up thinking that no doesn’t mean no, and neither does being pushed away, or a girl crying, or a girl being asleep.  It’s existing in a world where 1 in 7 women students report experiencing sexual assault and violence. 

So, hoes, slags, sluts and more hoes. It isn’t a pretty picture is it? 

University is a wonderful time of life. It’s a time when you learn a lot about yourself, and the world, and that six pints on no food isn’t the best diet for getting to a 10am lecture the following day. But this awful misogyny and violence is not what university should be about. It’s not acceptable that university life teaches women that whilst her male housemates can aspire to be CEOs, she can only aspire to be a corporate hoe. It’s not acceptable to pretend that a pimp is a cool thing to want to be, when the reality is that a pimp beats up women in order to intimidate them into making him more money. It’s not acceptable to tell young women that the best thing they can be is a hoe. 

And it’s not acceptable to silence the millions of women in the so-called sex industry, the women who are treated violently by pimps and clients, by making-believe that the way they are treated is something cool. It is, quite frankly, pathetic. 

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Remember when you were 15?

Do you remember what it was like when you were 15?

A raging ball of hormones who thought periods were the worst things ever, who loved your parents but found them awfully embarrassing too, who had a taste in music that you deny now and who really really thought you knew everything to do with boys, but were really so emotionally stupid that you still probably don’t admit how stupid you were even now? Just the thought of 15-year-old me makes me want to curl up in a ball of sheer embarrassment at just how embarrassed I was.

The last few days have made me really worry that there’s a very troubling disconnect in the minds of us “grown-ups” about how we think 15-year-old girls are, and what the reality of being 15 is.

When we hear the moral panic talk about the sexualisation of young girls, we see headlines about pole dancing kits and padded bras. But there’s something else going on with that debate that doesn’t make the headlines. And that’s how we, as adults, sexualise teenage girls by refusing to believe that they are anything other than victims of sexualisation. We are so caught up in this panic (and, don’t get me wrong, there is reason to panic), that we have stopped believing that 15-year-old girls today are like the 15-year-old girls we were. And yet, likely as not, they are. Sure, different cultural references and god knows they are under different pressures to act sexual, to be sexual, before they feel ready for it, but really they are still, more often than not, the hormone-raging, embarrassed, naïve children that we were. We forget that, I think.

One of the things I find frustrating about the mainstream, non-feminist sexualisation debate is how we don’t separate out teenagers’ very natural and normal sexual curiosity, and sexualisation. The former is part of growing up, and might be fulfilled by bad snogs, fumbles or consensual sex with a partner. There isn’t anything wrong with teenagers having pleasurable, mutual consensual sexual activity. But there is something very wrong with the pressure on girls to be sexual all the time, the sexualisation of girls. Because that isn’t about want, or desire, or pleasure. I talk at length about this here - about silent bodies and the disconnect between embodied and performed sexuality. It all too often leads to abuse, rape and exploitation. The problem is that the idea of sexualisation of young women has meant that we forget to separate out the two, and so when we see a young woman in trouble, being forced into sexual situations she doesn’t want to be in, we shrug and think that’s just what teens do. In Emilia di Girolamo’s Law andOrder UK episode ‘Line Up’ she captures this perfectly, when the judge and defence lawyer accept that a gang rape is just how teens have sex in today’s modern world. We think they’re different from us. We treat them like aliens. And we don’t hear the cries for help.

In the Guardian today, they revealed the extent to which the police and social services failed the girls who were victims of the Rochdale gang. Girls like the 15-year-old, known to Social Services as Suzie. She was repeatedly raped by the gang for years, drugged and exploited by adult men. And when she and girls like her asked for help, they were ignored. They were disbelieved. In the end, looking for help seemed hopeless because no-one listened to the stories of these girls. They were called chaotic and unreliable and were blamed for this – as if a child who has been so horrifically abused might not feel and act troubled.

The CPS chose to dismiss the case, believing the girl to be unreliable.  No-one acted on the 83 NHS referrals about girls they worried were being sexually exploited between 2004-2010. No-one acted on the 44 referrals the Crisis Intervention Team made to the police in the same period. These girls were judged to be “making their own choices” and “engaging in consensual sexual activity” when they were being repeatedly raped.

Making their own choices?

Or, as Oborne put it on Question Time, ‘sold their innocence for a bag of crisps’.

As I say, I believe that our society has become so overwhelmed by the idea that teen girls are sexualised with padded bras, that we’re ignoring what can happen when children are sexualised – abuse. We believe the panic, and process it to believe that this is what teen girls do, this is what they’re like. We decide that it’s their choice, and ignore the glaring obvious exploitation because that would mean focusing our attention on who is actually to blame.

The men.  

This terrible human tragedy has been a classic case of victim blaming that has ignored the role the men played in grooming and exploiting very young women. Girls of 13, 14, 15. Children. Instead, services blamed the girls, shrugged at their ‘choices’ and let the abuse continue. It took four years between the initial report, and the girls actually being listened to. How many rapes in that time? How many lives ruined?

Blame is one aspect. Not believing is the other.

And not believing, not acting on the words of girls, is part of another case this week. The police, the school, even Michael Gove were warned about the 30-year-old maths teacher Jeremy Forrest. They were starting to act, but too late. Now he’s in France with a 15-year-old girl. Another 15-year-old that too many media commentators are blaming, are saying ‘made a choice’ – as if the adult is not responsible for his behaviour and a fifteen year old girl is.

The media doesn’t help of course. They call these abusive crimes ‘affairs’ and ‘relationships’ to cover the fact that they’re adult men choosing to sexually exploit a child. This builds a blame culture where a child is seen as being as responsible as the man – that it’s really mutual, really consensual, that despite being a child she has the same maturity as an adult man, sexually and emotionally.  

By focusing all our attention on the girls’ behaviour in these cases, and across so many other cases of child sexual exploitation, we ignore the role their abusers play. And that’s rape culture, right? It’s the culture where it’s easier to blame a child for their rape, than to acknowledge that there are men who rape.

If as a society we believed women, if we truly and honestly and really believed women and girls when they say they have been raped and abused, then these cases would have been resolved when they should have been. At least four years earlier in the case of Rochdale. Before Forrest reached France in that case.  

And for as long as our society refuses to believe women and girls, then men who choose to rape will continue to choose to rape.

Because we will have let them. 

Rape Crisis Number: 0808 802 9999