Friday, 23 March 2012

Sian, 27, has some thoughts on Page 3

Ok, so i totally stole the title of this post from Helen Lewis-Hasteley's New Statesman article but it's just too good not to. It's a compliment Helen :-) 

On Facebook yesterday, Turn Your Back on Page 3’s status update informed me that Ben Westwood (son of Vivienne) had weighed in on the ban page 3 debate. He said:

"The reformation began in Germany 500 years ago and puritanical ideals are spreading from there once again. I agree with Dominic Mohan, The Sun editor, and believe that page three is a British institution that celebrates beauty and reminds every man that opens the newspaper that he is alive."

As you can probably guess, I don’t agree with his frankly infantile defence of topless women in daily newspapers. 

There have been numerous calls to end page 3 over the years, calls that have pretty much agreed that a newspaper that treats women as disposable objects to be consumed with toast and coffee just isn’t really acceptable or normal in a modern and equal society. Claire Short led the way a few years ago, with the Sun responding to her complaints like giggling year 9 boys. They Photoshopped her head on to a page 3 model. Towards the end of last year, a group of women’s organisations presented evidence to Leveson regarding media sexism included discussion on Page 3. The editor (Dominic Mohan) and other Page 3 cheerleaders answered the complaints with the weak arguments that topless models are a British institution, that the ‘girls’ are ‘empowered’ and that it’s a celebration of female beauty. 

There’s a pervasive idea, illustrated by Westwood’s comments, that an objection to the commercial sexual exploitation and objectification of women is somehow puritanical and prudish. But I believe that in fact it is Page 3 that is puritanical and prudish. Why? Because Page 3 isn’t about sex or sexuality or desire, and it certainly isn’t about women’s sexuality and desire. It is a commercially packaged-up version of women’s bodies that can be sold (admittedly at a small price) to customers. And in my view, that’s nothing more than a commercial view of sexuality, a man-made creation for profit. And it doesn’t get much more prudish than a restricting commercial view of sexuality. Because this packaged-up-commercial sexuality seeks to control and restrict what is actually a pretty cool and adventurous and unpredictable and exciting thing – human sexuality. Page 3 and everything around it (porn, lad’s mags) are actually incredibly boring and restrictive. They reduce the whole wonderful smorgasbord of human sexuality into a topless shot of a young pouting woman. It doesn’t celebrate anything, it doesn’t break down any boundaries, it isn’t daring or earth-moving. It’s about selling papers via women’s bodies. And, let’s face it; selling anything through women’s bodies isn’t exactly free love, it isn’t the sexual revolution. It’s generally something done by men in suits with an eye on their bottom line (ahem. Pun totally intended). 

I don’t object to Page 3 because I’m prudish or anti-sex. I object to Page 3 because I think women’s sexuality is too diverse and exciting to be reduced to something as bland and prudish as a topless shot of a woman. 

To understand how prudish Page 3 is, we just have to look at the tabloid outrage at women who ‘break the rules’ when it comes to sex and sexuality. These include shaming women who have posed for Page 3 (e.g. Geri Halliwell), nasty editorial about women’s sexuality, slut-shaming, biphobia and homophobia. Page 3 is only interested in women’s bodies when they can use them to sell a performance of sexuality. Actual lived and embodied experience has no place in this essentially commercial enterprise. 

On to Westwood’s second argument – that Page 3 is a British Institution. Well, there are a lot of British Institutions. Slavery was rather the institution for a while no? Burning witches? Imprisoning gay people? Football hooliganism? Ok, it’s a low blow, but just because something is old or happens in the UK does not mean that it is beyond criticism. Culture isn’t immutable, it is ever changing and moving forward and when a cultural ‘thing’ becomes outdated, or evolves to be offensive and archaic, well we tend to drop it. 

Isn’t it actually a bit embarrassing to be defending Page 3? I mean, topless women being mocked via ‘news in briefs’. Women being treated as disposable objects to make money for Murdoch. Aren’t you embarrassed that this is considered normal? Britain should be red-faced at having commercial sexual exploitation claimed as an ‘institution’. 

Finally, Westwood argues that Page 3 celebrates beauty and reminds men that they are alive. This argument is patently ridiculous. First of all, Page 3 does not celebrate beauty. Instead it showcases one very narrow definition of female beauty (young, topless, pouty, slim, generally white) whilst marginalising and reducing the spectrum of beauty across all men and women. Again, this is essentially a commercial and capitalist issue. Page 3 perpetuates the idea of a very narrow and male-defined beauty that women are then expected to live up to and aspire to. Rather than celebratory it is reductive. Boring even. And, of course it is harmful, as increasingly women turn to the surgeon’s knife to try to embody this narrow and one-dimensional idea of what it is to be beautiful. It also positions beauty as only and always female. 

And whilst beauty is positioned as female, the passive object of the gaze, men are positioned as the active gaze-r (I know, not a real word), the spectator who needs topless women to feel alive. 

Seriously, if you need a look at a young topless woman on some bad quality paper to feel alive, you need to get out more. Maybe talk to some women. Go to a gallery. Lie in the sun, eat a great meal, drink champagne, actually have consensual sex, breathe on a mirror – do something. Because I am not here to bare my tits so that you can get some kind of kick to remind you that you’re alive. Women aren’t your toys, we’re not your objects and your life does not depend on us being treated that way. 

Westwood betrays a real and embedded sexism in his comments. His argument that men need Page 3 to feel alive completely ignores and eliminates women’s voices and right to bodily autonomy. It places the completely untrue belief that men need to see boobs above women’s right not to be treated as disposable objects. 

Page 3. You’re not a British Institution. You’re not celebrating beauty. You’re not saving men’s lives. You’re a prudish, puritanical, capitalist venture that we could all do without. 

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Book launch and lists

This is an information post really.

Firstly, I am thrilled to announce that Crooked Rib Publishing, the Festival of Ideas and the Watershed are teaming up to put on a launch event for The Light Bulb Moment: the stories of why we are feminists.

The structure of the event will be so:

Firstly, contributors to the book will read excerpts from their chapters for 45 minutes.

Followed by a 15 minute loo and wine break.

Then we will have a panel discussion on 'The Future of Feminism' featuring:

Natasha Walter, Women for Refugee Women
Anna Van Heeswijk, Object
Chitra Nagajaran, Southall Black Sisters
Zohra Moosa, Action Aid
Mara Clarke, Abortion Support Network

It's going to be a really amazing and exciting event and I can't wait!

When? 15th May, 7.30pm
Where? The Watershed

Here's more info:

And if you haven't bought the book yet - then why not! You can find it here:

Secondly, I entered my blog into the Orwell Prize. OK, so unlikely to get a look in but as the National Lottery used to say, you've got to be in it to win it! Here's the list of all the entrants and I'll let you know if I make it to the longlist later this month...It's probably the only time i will be in the company of Melanie Phillips and QRG on a list

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Happy International Women's Day

Today is a day to reflect on the inequalities we face under patriarchy. 

Here are just a few of them:

  • Two women a week are killed in the UK by their partner or former partner.
  • 1 in 4 women will be a victim or survivor of domestic violence and rape in the UK
  • This number goes up to 1 in 3 if you're a teenager.
  • And the UK conviction rate for rape is stagnant at 6.5%
  • And 1 in 3 women globally will be a victim or survivor of rape and sexual assault.
  • 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to school across the world.
  • 4 million women and girls are trafficked across international borders every year.
  • Women do 2/3 of the world's work, but only own 1/10 of the world's property
  • Women still earn on average less than their male contemporaries for the same work, and 30,000 women a year in the UK are sacked for being pregnant
  • Meanwhile, the government cuts are destroying our domestic violence support services and hitting the purses of women disproportionately.
  • There are only 5 women in the UK cabinet and only 22% of our MPs are women
  • In the developing world, a woman dies in childbirth every minute. 
  • Across the world, millions of girls are at risk of female genital mutilation. 20,000 in the UK. 
Meanwhile, all too often women are mocked and degraded as sex objects, are commercially sexually exploited and we're swamped in a cultural femicide that sidelines women's voices, stories and truths. And if you decide to speak out against that, then you're threatened, judged on your fuckability or simply ignored.


Today is also a day to celebrate our sisters and stand in solidarity across the world with them. There are so many amazing women and men working together to end the inequality, fighting to liberate us all from patriarchy and bring about equality for all. 

By speaking out, standing up, marching, writing, talking, reading, sharing and supporting we are all making a difference. However you do your activism, wherever your feminism lies, you are making a difference. 

Every time I think about the stats above, I feel sad. Angry. Furious! But I don't feel despair because I believe that change is coming, that we are fighting together to make the change. This inequality, this injustice isn't inevitable. It doesn't have to be this way. And we know that. And that's why we are standing together to say no more! 

I hope you all have a fantastic IWD, standing together in solidarity with our sisters and brothers for a better future. 

Stat sources:

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Oy! Cardinal O'Brien! Your homophobia's showing

Another day, and another violently homophobic rant is published in the Telegraph (this is what, the 3rd this week?). This missive, penned by Britain's most Senior Catholic Cardinal O'Brien, pulls every homophobic trope out of the book in what is basically politely written hate speech.

I'm going to write this Cruella Blog style, with an-almost line by line deconstruction of why every word in this article is ill-informed, ignorant and motivated by hatred and fear of gay people.

As regular readers of my blog will know, this is not the first time I have written about this. After my parents divorced when I was four, my mum moved in with another woman and they have been together since then - over 23 years. My brother and I were raised by them and maintained regular contact with my dad and his wife. Despite one blog commenter telling me I should not use my personal experience because it's cliche, I am not prepared to hide or apologise for my history and my family. This issue is personal to me, but that isn't the only reason I care about it. I care about it because I despise homophobia and prejudice and I am sick of bigots moaning that they are oppressed when they are wielding oppression.

Let's start at the top. Cardinal O'Brien is Britain's most senior Catholic. Well, I don't want to go religious-bashing, but I can't help but be a bit cheesed off with somone who has chosen to live a celibate life telling other people who they should and shouldn't have sex with, and how they should conduct their family.


'Civil partnerships have been in place for several years now, allowing same-sex couples to register their relationship and enjoy a variety of legal protections.

When these arrangements were introduced, supporters were at pains to point out that they didn’t want marriage, accepting that marriage had only ever meant the legal union of a man and a woman

No they didn't. Some campaigners don't want marriage rights extended because they believe that marriage is an outdated patriarchal institution that has no place in modern society. Some campaigners did campaign for equal marriage rights. And some people campaign for straight civil partnerships. No-one ever signed a contract to say 'this civil partnership right...and no further!'. What people want is equality - whether that's in
marriage or civil partnerships or an end to distaste for straight unmarried couples and gay unmarried couples.

'Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership, believing that such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, warned that in time marriage would be demanded too. We were accused of scaremongering then, yet exactly such demands are upon us now.'

Apparently committing to love someone and share your life together is deadly bad for you if you share the same genitals. But if you are straight, and you're making a commitment in a legal, civil or church ceremony, then you are immediately protected from sadness, illness and atheism. Who knew?

'Since all the legal rights of marriage are already available to homosexual couples, it is clear that this proposal is not about rights, but rather is an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.'

This isn't true. If it was true, no-one would be campaigning for equal marriage rights. The fact is that this two tier system is unfair. Secondly, the annual British Social Attitudes survey and research by the EU’s Eurobarometer research arm says that now 45 per cent of British people agree that ‘homosexual marriages should be allowed throughout Europe’. The anti-crowd was around the same percentage, and a few percentage points said 'I don't know'. So this is not the whole of society being forced to change because of a minority of activists. Nearly half the population are in favour, and if history's anything to go by, that percentage is likely to keep increasing. Instead, a positive change for society is being denied 'at the behest of a small minority of activists' like O'Brien. Pow!

'Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense
But can we simply redefine terms at a whim? Can a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history suddenly be changed to mean something else?

Ahh, the first 'won't somebody think of the children' argument. Listen O'Brien. I grew up in a gay family under Section 28. Throughout my school life, my reality was never reflected back to me. Gay people and the idea of gay people was silenced, and that, more than anything else, is upsetting and traumatic for gay children or children in gay families. Not that being gay is bad, because it isn't. Being told that gay is bad is the problem. Your life being totally silenced and ignored is the problem. If schools are forced to talk openly and positively about gay relationships then that is a good thing.

Also, marriage isn't static. In our Christian history, and still in some religious communities, if a woman's husband died she was expected to marry his brother. Marriage has traditionally been a deal between male powers, to ensure women breed, rather than anything to do with love and stability. Divorce was banned for years, unless the woman failed to deliver the goods and then she could be cast aside (I'm looking at YOU Henry VIII and founder of the Anglican church). Some changes to marriage have been positive. This is another positive and progressive step.

'If same-sex marriage is enacted into law what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that marriage can only mean – and has only ever meant – the union of a man and a woman?
Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed? Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

Well, thanks to a lack of will to encourage comprehensive and healthy sex and relationships education by this government, we know that a teacher will be perfectly free to preach that marriage is a holy union between a man and a woman. Schools are magically exempt from the equalities act and there's even a virulently homophobic booklet doing the rounds that Gove seems perfectly happy to have as curriculum material.

However, I think that a teacher should be reprimanded for being homophobic, just as, one would hope, they would be reprimanded for racism or sexism or ableism. Because imagine if you were me, aged 5 or 12 or 15. And your teacher turns around and says that your family, your upbringing, is wrong and evil and shameful. How would that make you feel? Shamed? Embarrassed? Guilty? And how would your classmates, who use gay as an insult, then react to you? You'd keep your family a secret. You'd feel secretly shamed. And the fault would be with that teacher, and the government who is turning a blind eye to homophobia in schools. Not your parents. Not your own sexuality. The fault is with homophbia and biphobia.

That didn't happen to me because I went to a school with lots of nice non-homophobic teachers. I did go to school with lots of homophobic kids though, and it was Section 28. So I can't emphasise this enough. The problem for gay kids and children of gay parents is other people's homophobia and the silencing of your experience. The problem is not with your parents or your sexuality. That is why it is so important to end this hate, this prejudice.

'In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women. But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren’t derided.

Instead, their attempt to redefine reality is given a polite hearing, their madness is indulged. Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.

Erm, I actually don't think it is. I remember arguing this point with someone on CIF. The right is for men and women to marry, not marry each other. Therefore subversion of this accepted human right is refusing men and women to marry the person of their choice.

But don't let facts get in the way of you telling us that women like my mums' friends who are marrying soon are grotesque!

'today advancing a traditional understanding of marriage risks one being labelled an intolerant bigot.'

Here's a tip O'Brien. If you don't want to be called an intolerant bigot, stop writing articles that make you come across as an intolerant bigot.

'There is no doubt that, as a society, we have become blasé about the importance of marriage as a stabilising influence and less inclined to prize it as a worthwhile institution.

It has been damaged and undermined over the course of a generation, yet marriage has always existed in order to bring men and women together so that the children born of those unions will have a mother and a father.

This brings us to the one perspective which seems to be completely lost or ignored: the point of view of the child. All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well-being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be

Yes, there probably is less respect for marriage these days. Kim Kardashian is the oft-given example. Newt Gingrich and his mutiple affairs and divorces. Britney and her speedy wedding. Funny how none of these people are gay...

Anyway, my main beef. The point of view of the child. Well, O'Brien, I am one of the children you are talking to. My mum has been in a gay relationship since I was four, and I'm now 27. As I said, I have always had contact with my dad and his wife.

My home life was loving and stable and supportive. I don't want to big myself up, but I am a well-adjusted, successful and intelligent woman. I'm happy and caring and I'm a damn good writer. My parents weren't just 'well-intentioned', they were good parents. All of them. Like all families, we had our ups and downs. But stability and well-being - these are two words I would use to describe my upbringing.

Here's some research that backs up my own experience:

You have no right to sit there from your throne and try to tell me that my childhood was wrong. You have no right at all.

If anything undermines the security and well-being of children in a gay household, it is the homophobia of people like you. The people who preach hate and intolerance and look askance at the families you disapprove of. People like you, who tell others to look down on and judge my family. The problem is not with my parents who love me, but with you, who hate my parents.

If all the history of intolerance and hatred of lesbian, gay, bi, queer and trans people has told us anything, it has told us that the prejudice must end. Because it is that hatred that makes life difficult for LGBQT people, nothing else.

I would also like to point out that having a mother and a father, married, doesn't gurantee stability. I have friends with straight parents who have been victims of physical and sexual abuse in their own homes, or who have chaotic home lifes, etc. Heterosexuality is not a magic spell against unhappiness. Look at the domestic violence statistics if you want proof of that (of course all these things also happen in gay and lesbian families, I am not denying that. It just angers me that O'Brien suggests it would never happen in straight families and that the sex of your parents is the issue, not the people).

'Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child. It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father.'

No it doesn't. Equal marriage rights isn't going to prevent me from marrying my boyfriend and having children if we so choose. It just means that my gay friends can do the same.

'Other dangers exist. If marriage can be redefined so that it no longer means a man and a woman but two men or two women, why stop there? Why not allow three men or a woman and two men to constitute a marriage, if they pledge their fidelity to one another? If marriage is simply about adults who love each other, on what basis can three adults who love each other be prevented from marrying?'

First of all, poly marriages aren't exactly unheard of in Christianity! And secondly, if people in a consensual and happy poly relationship (as opposed to some of the unhappy and coercive arrangements that occur in some religious communities) want to get married and raise children, then they should be able to.

'In November 2003, after a court decision in Massachusetts to legalise gay marriage, school libraries were required to stock same-sex literature; primary schoolchildren were given homosexual fairy stories such as King & King. Some high school students were even given an explicit manual of homosexual advocacy entitled The Little Black Book: Queer in the 21st Century. Education suddenly had to comply with what was now deemed “normal”.'

My very good friend who has a daughter with her femal partner has recently campaigned to have books that feature gay characters used in her daughter's school. This is a fantastic thing to do. It prevents children from gay families feeling that there is something wrong with their upbringing. It stops them feeling invisible. When I was at school, such books were, effectively, illegal. My reality was never reflected back to me or talked about. It is vital that teachers and schools make the effort to be inclusive and sensitive to the needs of children from all types of families. It is so important to teach equality and tolerance from an early age, and to recognise that not all families look the same so that children from gay families don't feel marginalised.

Further, talking openly about gay people and particularly gay people in history has shown a reduction in homophobic bullying. This is vital in a world where young LGBQT people are often bullied to suicide.

'The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is crystal clear: marriage is a right which applies to men and women, “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”.

This universal truth is so self-evident that it shouldn’t need to be repeated. If the Government attempts to demolish a universally recognised human right, they will have forfeited the trust which society has placed in them and their intolerance will shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world

Interestingly, O'Brien gets it right here. Marriage is a right which applies to men and women. Whoever that man or woman is, they have the right to marriage.

What really pisses me off is that O'Brien is talking as if straight married couples are being attacked by this extension of their rights. To use an example from history, not so long ago marriages between two people with different colour skin was illegal in America. That law was overturned because it was wrong, and although we know that some racist people felt that their all-white marriages were threatened, it's now nothing to blink at. The same will be true when marriage rights are extended to all. If you're homophobic, you'll be cross. But if you're homophobic, then that is your problem (and, don't be mistaken, if you are anti equal marriage rights because you think marriage is just for straight people, then I'm afraid you are homophobic, whether you think you are or not. If you're anti equal marriage rights because you think marriage is an outdated patriarchal system that should be abolished, then you're possibly excluded from that accusation!).

Throughout my life, I have been so proud and happy to be part of my family. If I ever experienced upset it was the result of other people's homophobia, from kids at school to comments in the workplace, to hate preaching by those like O'Brien. This upset can be remedied, because it will happen by ending homophobia.

Hating people for who they fall in love with is not normal. Marginalising and mocking the children of those relationships is just cruel. Refusing to tackle homophobia that leads young people to suicide is morally wicked. O'Brien, well done. You've just advocated all those things.