Saturday, 11 February 2012

It happened one Wednesday...

It feels like there can't be anyone left on the internet who doesn't know what happened to me on Wednesday. But I wanted to write about it anyway to reflect on what happened, to answer some accusations and just to continue to speak out about it to show that I won't be silenced by threats and abuse.

On Tuesday I got a text saying that Hooters had closed down. On Twitter, people were posting the same. Then the BBC called, they wanted a statement from BFN about the closure. I was in the middle of doing some work and hadn't had a chance to really look into the issue of why it had closed, so just said that we thought it was a positive step as it meant that Bristol had rejected this retro-sexist establishment, that they had voted with their feet to say they weren't interested in a restaurant whose USP was the sexual objectfication of women (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-16932892).

I mention this as I've been accused on some online comment boards of gloating over job losses and been told that I should have waited a few days before I issued a statement (that's not how news works btw!). The BBC contacted me and it isn't actually my fault that they didn't contact a Hooters Girl or other member of staff instead (or maybe they did and for whatever reason they didn't get a quote, I don't know how the BBC makes its decisions).

I was then asked by a Bristol Fawcett and BFN friend and colleague whether I'd have time to write a joint press release about the closure. Which I did, and which was signed off by the BFN co-ordinators. I put it on my blog and sent it to some press outlets - I knew I was going to have a busy few days at work in my day job so we wanted to ensure that we had done what we could to prevent phone calls from the press by issuing the group statement instead.

Then, on Wednesday, I looked at the BFN Facebook page to find comment after comment from Hooters staff and Hooters fans accusing BFN of being responsible for closing down Hooters. It was quite remarkable really. How we could possibly have the power to close down a restaurant ran by an international corporation when we couldn't even prevent it opening is beyond me! Perhaps we also have the power to prevent the city council granting renewed licenses to lap dancing clubs...oh no, sorry, they've decided to let most of them stay open.

When we heard that Hooters was opening, BFN did take part and co-organise the campaign to try and prevent it happening (http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com/2010/10/trouble-with-hooters.html). We wrote to the council, attended the licence application hearings, we signed and circulated petitions, we worked with concerned residents and we organised an event to discuss the issues around the commercial sexual exploitation of women. We were also subjected to some vile misogyny from Hooters supporters during the Evening Post's bizarre pro Hooters editorial campaign (http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com/2010/08/stop-calling-me-ugly.html). However, despite our objections, despite resident objections, despite police objections and despite it being in a cumulative impact zone, Guy Poultney and the rest of the licensing committee gave Hooters permission to open its doors on the grounds that it 'offered something really different to Bristol'.

Sexism, degrading imagery and language (careful! blondes thinking!) and the sexual objectfication of women. A restaurant that caters to stag parties. Yep, that's 'different' all right. Never seen that on my high street...

But anyway, it opened and our campaign was pretty much over. We kept an eye on things, and when a bikini contest appeared to be in breach of the licence (which was pretty clear on how wet t-shirt and bikini comps etc were not 'family friendly') we encouraged members to complain to licensing. Residents who were disturbed by apparent licence breaches such as outdoor drinking after 9pm and standing drinking indoors also kept the pressure on the police and licensing. But Hooters stayed open and over time I distanced myself from the campaign as I was busy working on other issues and had some concerns around some areas.

I'm going through this history to show categorically that BFN didn't have anything to do with Hooters closing and if we did have that influence then it would not have opened in the first place. Gallus (the management company) could not, as one supporter threatened, sue me for harm to their business. We never threatened staff or customers, and, apart from speaking out about the sexism and the impact this sexism has on equality, we never put pressure on people not to attend. After some of the accusations any one would think we had picketed the doors and thrown rotten eggs at customers! Hooters in Bristol closed because the management company are mired in debt, have been in an expensive row with a neighbouring business and because people did not go there. The money they were making was not enough to cover their costs.

I've heard from various people that Gallus management didn't pay their staff for two weeks and then made everyone redundant. Hooters employees have a right to be furious. Having been made redundant twice I know how utterly crap it is. We consistently made it clear that the we are sorry people have lost their jobs. But employee fury should be directed at the employers who sold them down the river. Not at me.

Throughout the day the nasty and angry comments continued until a friend emailed me to say that she had looked at one critic's own Facebook profile to find that he was calling me a cunt who needed to pay. He was writing how he was going to find me and make me pay, post my online details on 4chan, as well as encouraging his friends to join in with harassing me. Another critic commented on his profile how I was a douchebag, writing 'screw you'. His friends joined in, one of them saying that he would like to 'kick me in the vagina'. The original poster liked the comment, and his friends joined in the threats of kicking me. Because I have a private page on Facebook they couldn't threaten me directly. And because they have public profiles I was able to screen grab the threats and call the police.

The police have been incredibly supportive and taken the incident seriously. I reported it because this is an incident of gender based hate crime, and needs to be recognised as such. There's a real disbelief in whether gender based hate crime exists, and a consultation is happening right now as to what to do around recognising it. I hope that by reporting the threats against me it offers more evidence that gender based hate crime is real and happening and very, very common.

Bristol 24/7 contacted me to do a short interview on the harassment (http://www.bristol247.com/2012/02/09/hooters-campaigner-reports-online-abuse-to-police-40260/). Comment is Free got in touch and I wrote a short piece for them, making the links between these kinds of threats, and the so-called 'bantering' tone lad culture takes when it comes to violence against women (indeed, the vagina kicking comment defended the words as a joke) (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/09/closure-of-hooters-breastaurant-welcome?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038). BBC Bristol have called me repeatedly and the Evening Post ran two articles about it (stupidly illustrating an article about the online abuse with my face - collusion I wonder? Have I grounds to go to the PCC? Advice appreciated). I have declined to talk to the BBC and any further press outlets as I kind of just want it all to stop now and go away. I was happy to do the CIF piece as it gave me the control to make the very important links between lad culture and the threats. But without that control I'm concerned the story becomes about me being a victim of crime, not as a woman speaking out against how this culture dehumanises women.

The conversations continued on Facebook, CIF and the Evening Post. The mantra that feminism is about choice has been repeated ad nauseum, along with the assertion that we therefore need to respect that women choose to work at Hooters. I have to call bullshit on this one. Yes, feminism is about choice in lots of ways. But for me, feminism is about liberation from the patriarchy, and the capitalist patriarchy at that. Feminism is about questioning how our choices under patriarchy are not always free, or how they are influenced by the inequality we experience and the unfair ways in which women are valued. I have real beef with "choice feminism" that completely de-politicises our choices. Under patriarchy, where women's value is placed on her ability to conform to a narrow male-defined beauty ideal, then what do our choices mean? And when this pressure to self-objectify and fulfill this beauty ideal has a negative impact on our self-esteem, mental health and leads to increased tolerance of sexism and sexual violence (http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx), then I ask again, how meaningful, how real is this choice? Do you really think in a world where women are equal and valued we would need to perform a narrow version of male-defined sexuality for the minimum wage? Don't make me laugh. Being told how to dress, how to smile, how to laugh, how to talk, how to perform your sexuality - this isn't choice. This isn't liberation.

However, let me be clear, these restrictions on our choices through patriarchy does not make us victims or mean we are floating helpless on a tide of oppression. Laura puts it brilliantly in the F Word's 'Ask a feminist' blog this week, saying:

"[this] doesn't mean painting women who use fake tan or remove their body hair as incapable of thinking for themselves. The same goes for other examples of social and cultural pressures. Women have the capacity to make different choices, but given that most people want to feel a sense of belonging and do not want to be singled out as different, it makes sense to go along with the dominant cultural norms. And if they're not exposed to any alternative perspectives, or if those alternative perspectives aren't perceived as credible because they're demonised within mainstream society, women are unlikely to question the status quo. That doesn't mean we're unable to: we just need access to alternatives and the tools required to deconstruct what has always been portrayed as normal and natural. We can then make more informed decisions about our lives, which may or may not include conforming to social norms.
For me, that tool is feminism. Reading feminist theory enabled me to stop thinking my hairy legs were disgusting, but prior to reading it I had never come across anyone or anything that told me any different. That doesn't mean I was helpless or irreparably brainwashed, just that I didn't have any reason to think outside the box."

http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2012/02/ask_a_feminist_7

The conversations have also included a lot of confusion as to where our criticism of Hooters was aimed. As a feminist, I have never criticised or commented on the women and men who work there. Neither has BFN as an organisation and no comments of this nature have ever appeared on our page. Our criticism and anger has always been reserved for Hooters the brand, the corporation, and the culture that allows for companies to profit from the sexual objectfication and dehumanisation of women. The company that values women as nothing more than T&A that brings in money. Contrary to some of the comments I've received, I have never made negative remarks about Hooters' employees. My feminism is (in part) about tackling the culture that tells us a woman's worth is based on her ability to conform to a male defined beauty ideal - a culture that fundamentally harms women and men. I think that the abuse I have received this week pretty much proves me right in my belief that this culture contributes to the dehumanisation of women. Do you think that men who respected women, who saw us as humans with rights and bodily autonomy would threaten me with violence? Or make 'jokes' about kicking me in the vagina? Nope. But men who see women as objects might do. After all, as the APA research linked to above shows us, this culture that sees women as sex objects contributes to the increased tolerance of sexism and sexual violence. I've certainly felt that this week.

In contrast to us not criticising the employees of Hooters, staff and supporters have called me many variations on ugly, unable to get a man, a bitch, a cunt and threatened me with violence. I challenge anyone to find me writing anything like that about them!

The silver lining to what has been a horrible week has of course been the overwhelming support I have had from women and men on Twitter and Facebook. Some of them are people I know in real life or online, some are strangers. I must have had around 200 @ messages within hours of me tweeting the abusive screen grabs. Messages of solidarity, support, care and kindness. Overwhelming doesn't really cover it. I'm sorry I was not able to reply to everyone individually but there were so many and I was desperately trying to not let anyone at work see that anything was wrong (futile in the end, work have had to have a meeting with me to check that they don't need to do anything to ensure my safety after all the press coverage). It was incredibly moving and heartening to see and hear all the messages of solidarity. In a week that has shown some of the worst of the internet, I have also seen some of the best of the internet. A vast, international commnunity of women and men standing against sexism and online abuse. The love and support of family, friends and boyfriend has also been wonderful. In spite of all the nasty things said and written about me this week, the abiding memory is of this support, and the sense that I am so lucky to be surrounded by so many people who care about me. Thank you.

4 comments:

Socrates said...

TL;DR but cyber *hugs* and don't let the bastards grind you down...

Rebecca said...

Great post. It's very saddening you had to go through such a shitstorm Sian.

Flo Fflach said...

good to hear of solidarity. Although it is never pleasant that something bad needs to happen first to find the good.... I got embroiled in argument on FB with friends of a friend. I am puritanical, am living a sheltered life, am accusing them of sexualising children.
Thank you for your clarity of thought and writing

em said...

I appreciate and admire the positions you've taken and the principles you've defended. Thank you.