Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Why everything Brendan O'Neill said about rape is wrong and offensive

Trigger warning: contains discussion of rape and rape apologism

Disclaimer: because O'Neill, and all the discussions of rape this last few weeks, talk about men as perpetrators and women as rape victims and survivors, I am doing the same. It's not to deny the experiences of men survivors.

So, today Brendan O'Neill joined the legions of commentators who have taken it upon themselves to tell women, survivors and experts that everything they know about rape is wrong, and that the commentator is right, simply, it increasingly seems, because they are men and men know best.

His piece in the Huffington Post does something a little different to his colleagues such as Galloway. Like him, he's a man who is ignoring everything we know about rape and consent in order to re-define it. But, unlike him, he claims that it is feminists who re-defined rape first - by stretching the definition to encompass behaviour that he doesn't call rape, but instead calls 'bad sexual experiences'.

O'Neill believes that the phrase 'sex without consent is rape' is undermining the serious crime of rape. He's getting this from the part of the Sexual Offences Act that states rape occurs when the perpetrator "does not reasonably believe" that consent existed. To quote the law fully:

"(1)A person (A) commits an offence if—
(a)he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,
(b)B does not consent to the penetration, and
(c)A does not reasonably believe that B consents.
(2)Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether B consents

O'Neill is using the wording of this law to challenge the statement that 'sex without consent is rape', because he believes it ignores what's in the mind of the perpetrator or alleged perpetrator. He, tellingly, doesn't mention (2) of the law that mentions efforts made by A to get consent. He also doesn't understand that 'reasonably believe' means that the court can disagree with whether that 'reasonable belief' exists, for example if a rapist bases that reasonable belief on a rape myth such as 'she was wearing a short skirt so that meant she was consenting'. He argues instead that feminists are ignoring the law, coming to the conclusion that:

"[i]n essence, we are witnessing the redefinition of rape to mean effectively "bad sexual experiences". The subtle, inexorable downplaying of the idea of criminal intent in rape means that all kinds of horrible or just foolish sexual encounters can be rebranded as rape, even if the intention to commit this heinous crime is lacking."

He's wrong of course. And he's wrong in ways that are not only offensive to survivors of rape, but also to all men who aren't rapists.

O'Neill, like many of his fellow commentators of recent weeks, is perpetuating the myths that there is 'real rape' and then there is 'bad sexual experience'. These 'bad sexual experiences' - as he defines it - are committed by:

"stupid men, drunken men, thoughtless men and idiotic men who engage in ill-advised or regretted acts of sex"

It barely seems worth explaining why O'Neill is wrong, it's so obvious. But I'm writing this post anyway, because so long as high profile media men seek to undermine the experiences of rape survivors, then I'll keep calling them out on it.

The Sexual Offences Act does contain the point that a rapist is someone who knows that consent has not been given. However, I don't believe, and deep down I don't think O'Neill believes, that a man doesn't know if a woman is consenting or not. And to suggest otherwise is frankly offensive to all the men who don't rape.

He writes:

"a civilised society should only brand as criminals those who set out to or intend to commit a crime. A civilised society should only punish those who are morally and mentally responsible for their criminal acts. Feminists who are subtly rewriting the meaning of rape are taking us away from this civilised approach and towards something more backward, even feudalistic: the criminal punishment of people who do not have criminal minds."

Rape doesn't happen by accident. Men's penises don't accidentally fall into women. It's a deliberate act. Every man who has sex with a woman without her consent therefore has a 'criminal mind', because they are a rapist by definition, no matter how Brendan O'Neill tries to spin it. Men know when a woman isn't consenting, they know that they are committing the crime of rape. I just don't believe there's any argument.

Because it isn't hard. Consent shouldn't be confusing. And for Brendan O'Neill to say that we're confusing rape and a lack of consent with a 'mistake' undermines the experiences of victims and survivors who have been raped. And it denies men the agency, the  intelligence, to know when a woman is and isn't consenting. What's more, it puts all the onus on women's behaviour, and lets men who choose to rape off the hook because they can claim they simply 'don't know what consent looks like'.

If a woman is too drunk, or unconscious, or sleeping, then fundamentally the man knows consent hasn't been given. If she says no, or fights back, or cries, or freezes, or acquiesces because she is afraid of further violence to her or even her children, or any of the many other situations in which rape is committed, then the man knows consent hasn't been given. Whatever the situation, sex without consent is rape. Always. The man committing the crime may be, as O'Neill suggests, drunk, may be stupid, may be thoughtless, may be idiotic. But they must, they should, they do still know when consent has been given, and when it hasn't.

What all this points to is that O'Neill doesn't know, and believes men don't know, the difference between enthusiastic consent, where both parties are clearly up for it and want to engage in sexual activity, and lack of consent, i.e. rape. And, I have to say, I have more respect for men than that. I truly believe that men do know the difference. And that men know that sex without consent is rape.

Now, it may sound that the next part of the blogpost is going to contradict everything I've just said. Because I'm going to suggest that there is perhaps one tragic and terrifying way in which some men and boys do not know what consent means. But it's not the way O'Neill thinks, it's not men or boys using excuses to pretend they don't know when a woman isn't consenting to sex, and using that to allow society to deny or minimise the crime they have committed. It's because a combination of half-arsed sex education that doesn't teach consent and respect, and a rape culture that glamorises and sexualises violence against women and girls, means that boys are growing up not learning what consent actually *is*.

A 2010 survey by Havens of young people aged 18-25 makes disturbing reading when it comes to consent. They found that:

  • "Less than half (47%) of young adults would assume that the person they are intimate with doesn’t want to have sex with them if they are being physically pushed away. This indicates that more than half would not view this behaviour as a deterrent.
  • Only 57% would assume that the person they are intimate with doesn’t want to have sexwhen they say no. This suggests that 43% don’t think ‘No means No.’
  •  Although 56% say they would never pressure their partner into having sex with them against their will, this suggests that 44% would.
  • Over a third (37%) say that they would assume their partner does not want to have sex with them if they were crying. This suggests that 63% would not be put off by tears.
  • 92% of women agree that when a person says no and the other goes ahead with sex, it constitutes rape. Only 77% of men say the same and the research suggests that nearly 1 in 4 (23%) men don’t believe this is rape.
  • Three quarters of women (75%) compared to just over half (54%) of men believe that if you change your mind and the other person continues with sex, that is rape.
  • 71% of 22-24 year-olds, compared to just 60% of 18-19 year-olds, believe that it is rape when someone continues having sex with a person who is asleep."

The Havens survey shows that young people are growing up with a terrible understanding of consent. And in a world where sex education doesn't address respect and consent, and where filmed rape or filmed simulated rape all too often fills the gap of that education, it's not entirely surprising. But the solution isn't found in Brendan O'Neill's thesis that this ignorance leads to 'bad sexual experiences'. It means that instead we should be insisting that consent is taught, and taught some more, and that we should insist on the message that sex without consent is rape.

It's so irresponsible for O'Neill to argue that men and boys might not know the difference between rape and consent, and use that to excuse those who have sex without consent, to say that they haven't committed a crime. Sex without consent is rape, it is a crime. And rather than trying to find ways to pretend a crime hasn't been committed, when the Havens survey clearly shows we're in a crisis around understanding consent, we need to be firm and strong and teach our young people that sex without consent is rape. No ifs, no buts. We must never excuse it or minimise it. We must fight against the tide of rape culture, so that all young people grow up respecting enthusiastic consent. This survey shows that we must try harder to teach about consent, not shrug our shoulders and re-define rape instead.

I have to say, I'm getting increasingly nervous as to why so many men are denying and re-defining rape. Because they know that if you have sex without consent, it's rape. They KNOW! They know when someone isn't consenting. And, deep down, I think Brendan O'Neill knows that too.

Rape Crisis Freephone Helpline number 0808 802 9999. Open 12 - 2.30pm & 7 - 9.30pm

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Thoughts on sexual assault, and naming our experiences

A conversation between two feminists on Twitter has got me thinking a little bit about sexual assault, and how we name the things that happen to us.

On various occasions when I was younger, I was pushed against the wall in a club or in public spaces and had someone stick their tongue down my throat, or attempt to. I’m going to focus this post on two incidents that have stayed with me the most – one in a club and one on a bus. In the bus incident, he didn’t manage to hit his target as I pushed him away and so he instead kissed my shoulder. In the club, he actually did get his tongue in my mouth. Not with my permission, not with any overture or even a cheesy line. It was just push, tongue. It was, absolutely, sexual contact I hadn’t consented to. Sexual contact I didn’t want to happen. In the club situation I was really drunk, but on the bus, what with it being around eight in the morning, I was sober. Not that that detail matters. My drunken or sober state made no difference to whether a man felt it was ok to push and kiss me, and it made no difference to my ability to defend myself. 

At the time, I dismissed these experiences as just something I had to put up with, being a woman out and about, going clubbing, going dancing, getting on buses. I didn’t forget them, and the experiences upset me and left me feeling sad, angry and distressed. But I didn’t name them as sexual assault. 

I’ve always felt wary of naming things like this. I remember describing a one-night stand in an online discussion; a one-night stand that I consented to but in actual fact didn’t really want to happen. This guy tried to tell me that I had been ‘coercively raped’ (what even is that? All rape is coercive!). I hadn’t, and I was really angry that he was trying to tell me how to experience and label something that, although I perhaps regretted and had gone along with out of nothing more than a desire to avoid awkwardness, I had absolutely consented to. But more and more I’ve been thinking about how to name those non-consensual, forced sexual encounters in clubs and buses, and the only way I can name them is as sexual assault. 

I first started thinking these issues through, and re-considering my experiences of this kind of behaviour, with the #ididnotreport Twitter campaign. I started to wonder whether the fact I had never called these episodes ‘assault’ was because the thought of reporting being pushed against a wall and having some guy force his tongue down your throat seems fairly ludicrous. And the reason it seems ludicrous is because it is so common, so commonplace, that to complain about what is essentially sexually aggressive behaviour from men feels like you’re making a fuss. You feel like it’s too common, so that it doesn’t count, it doesn’t matter. 

And this got me thinking about how this behaviour is so normalised, to the point that to complain about it seems like you’re the one with the problem. 

On these occasions, I didn’t react with a fight. I just accepted it as something that happens. To react with anger, with shouting and kicking out seemed like an over-reaction – so much had I accepted the idea that, as a woman, men had a right over my body. It’s not an idea that our society likes to admit of course. But it’s an idea that is re-enforced every day. Every time you walk past a lad’s mag shelf, a strip club, a brothel; every time a man shouts at a woman on the street, we’re telling women that our bodies are property, that men have some kind of right over our bodies. 

So when a man acted on that supposed right, I accepted it. I didn’t name it. I didn’t complain. I felt sad, cross, distressed – but not like I could do anything. Because, I felt, it was just the way things were, the way things are. 

But as I’ve grown older, I feel like I can’t accept these episodes any more, and that I am right to call it assault. Because it isn’t ok for a man to push a woman against a wall and shove his tongue down her throat. It isn’t ok that this happened to me, more than once, and that society told me to accept it, to think it’s just part of life, to shrug and stay silent. That it’s just what happens when you’re a woman, and you’re living your life. 

So now I will say that those men sexually assaulted me. That they forced sexual contact on me that I didn’t consent to, didn’t want. And they got away with it because we’re taught as women to accept the idea that men have some kind of rights over our bodies, rights that don’t exist and should never exist. It is my body, and my right to bodily autonomy. 

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what is and isn’t rape, thanks to Republicans, Assange and George Galloway. And I think this conversation has its roots in ideas around women’s rights to their bodies. It starts with the shrugging off of street harassment as a ‘compliment’. It starts with people ‘explaining’ sexual harassment as ‘just flirting’ or ‘just a joke’. The dismissal of sexual assault as something that ‘just happens’ or is ‘just a guy coming on a bit strong’. It’s part of the culture where we have women’s bodies as consumable goods, to be bought at the newsagent counter, at the lap-dancing club, at the brothel. 

It’s not hard then, is it, to dismiss women’s claims of rape. Because the root of that dismissal is in the basic refusal to believe that women have any rights over their body at all. Again, it’s not a refusal that society likes to admit. But it exists.

Because if that accepted refusal didn’t exist, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to name what happened to me as sexual assault. I wouldn’t have spent so long thinking it was just ‘something that happened’ because I was a woman in a club, on a bus. 

And now I think it is important to name it. Because not naming it gave those men license to behave in this sexually aggressive way. It re-enforced the idea that their behaviour was ok, was acceptable. I can’t accept that. I can’t allow that to happen.


The strange thing about writing this is that i still feel like it might be an over reaction. I wasn't traumatised by these events, beyond feeling angry and a bit upset. Angry more than anything. I know that many women will have had similar experiences that they, like i did, will brush off. I feel almost guilty or hyperbolic.

But i absolutely do also believe that when it comes down to it, those men shouldn't have behaved like this, towards me or to any woman. It was unacceptable, and it was unwanted sexual contact, it was sexual contact without my consent and with physical force. So to me it matters to name it, because if i don't, then i feel like i'm letting them off the hook for their behaviour. It's not up to me to tell other women that they should feel the same way if they've had similar experiences. Just that, for me, I find I want to say that men can't get away with seeing women's bodies as their commodities.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A response to George Galloway, and what we mean by consent

TRIGGER WARNING contains discussion of rape and sexual assault, and descriptions of allegations of rape

Dear George and others who believe the accusations against Assange aren't 'real' rape,

I wanted to write to you after reading the transcript of your podcast about the rape allegations made against Julian Assange, to tell you a little bit about myself. 

I’m a woman in my late twenties who over time has had numerous sexual partners and who, for the last five years, has been in a lovely and happy relationship with my boyfriend.

Up until this point, I thought my sexual history and present would have no bearing on my highly treasured right to bodily autonomy. You know, my right to consent to the sexual activity I want, and not consent to that I don’t want, and to consent to have sex with the people I want to have sex with, who equally want to consent to sex with me. 

But I now see that, thanks to your podcast, I may have been wrong all this time. By consenting once to sex, or, as you so… how can I say… clinically put it, ‘an insertion’, I may well have given up my right to bodily autonomy. The way I read your podcast, it would seem agreeing to that first ‘insertion’ means that my body is in a constant state of consent, and asking for my consent on other occasions is no longer necessary. Please, correct me if I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong.

Because the way I read it, my body, as the common parlance would suggest, is ‘fair game’ to anyone who has ever had sexual access to it. If those people tried to have sex with me without my consent, it seems you believe they would merely be guilty of ‘bad sexual etiquette’, rather than rape. 

This is what you apparently believe happened in the case of Assange. You seem to believe that, because one of Assange's accusers had consensual sex with him, after cooking him dinner no less, then she immediately consented to any other sexual contact. That by consenting once, she consented to sex with him afterwards. That she gave up her right to bodily autonomy. If I’m reading it right – and again I hope I’m not – according to your podcast when she allegedly woke up to find him having sex with her, the fact that it was impossible for her to actively consent whilst asleep is simply not important. 

After all, as you so tastefully put it:

I mean not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.”

Because, according to you, once you get into bed with someone, you’re:

already in the sex game with them

Thankfully the law does not share this opinion of the unimportance of an individual’s bodily autonomy. It recognises very clearly that what Assange is accused of is rape. That women’s bodies aren’t open access to any man who has had sexual contact with them before. That saying yes once does not mean yes forever more. As you can see from paragraph 109 of the Supreme Court’s assessment of the European Arrest Warrant for Assange, the law has respect for everyone’s rights to bodily autonomy: 

109. On this approach, then, intentional penetration achieved by coercion or where consent is lacking to the knowledge of the defendant would be considered to be rape. In our view on this basis, what was described in the EAW was rape. Coercion evidences knowledge of a lack of consent and lack of a reasonable belief in consent. . .

The recognition that women are not the sexual property of their partners is one reason why marital rape was made a crime in this country in 1991. And why we don’t have laws that recognise degrees of rape. Such degrees don’t exist. 

Because I am sure that comments of this nature come from nothing more than an ignorance around what we mean by consent, sexual assault and rape, I’m going to help out with some facts. 

Firstly, 1 in 3 women will experience rape and sexual assault across the world in their lifetimes. That’s over 1 billion women. This stat is from the UN Commission on the State of Women. In the UK, it’s estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 women will be raped each year. That’s according to stats from numerous sources, including the British Crime Survey 2011. According to a survey conducted by Mumsnet, 1 in 10 UK women respondents have been raped.

According research collected by CWASU,  most rapists are known to their victims, and most rapes happen in a familiar or a private space such as the home, hotel room, or workplace. In fact, CWASU’s analysis of Rape Crisis Lines found that 97% of victims knew their assailant at the time of the assault. Stats quoted on the site from Canada found that 83% of victims knew their attacker, and Kelly research from 2005 also found that most women knew the men who raped or assaulted them. 

By refusing to believe the allegations made by Ms A and Ms W are ‘rape as anyone with any sense would understand it’, by calling it nothing more than ‘bad sexual etiquette’, you are invalidating and silencing the very real, very traumatic experiences of billions of women who have been raped by men that they know, men that they may even have consented to sex with on previous occasions, the millions of women raped by men whilst they slept. 

Now, in the UK, English law understands that a woman is not in a constant state of consent, and believes that when someone is asleep, they are unable to consent. In the case of allegations against Assange, that law looks like this

what is alleged here is that Mr Assange “deliberately consummated sexual intercourse with her by improperly exploiting that she, due to sleep, was in a helpless state”. In this country that would amount to rape.

Consent is pretty easy to understand but because so many people seem a bit confused, I’ll just go through it for you quickly. 

Consent is not an absence of ‘no’. It is not a permanent state of being. It is the presence of an enthusiastic, mutual ‘yes’. It’s present, for example, when your partner is responding enthusiastically. It is NOT present when your partner is asleep, or when it’s dependent on using a condom and no condom is used, or when you’re trying to fight off a man pushing your legs apart (the other allegation made against Assange) and that woman is trying not to cry, or when, out of fear, you’ve frozen and can’t speak that ‘no’. Those are just a few examples of when consent is absent. 

Consent can be withdrawn at any point, even when you’re having sex that started out as consensual. 

Sex without enthusiastic consent is rape. It’s not bad sexual etiquette. It’s rape. 

If you agree with George that:

Even taken at its worst, if the allegations made by these two women were true, 100 per cent true, and even if a camera in the room captured them, they don't constitute rape. At least not rape as anyone with any sense can possibly recognise it.’

…then I have a piece of advice for you. Until you understand what consent is, until you understand the difference between consent and rape, please don’t go near any women. If you truly believe that women are in a constant state of consent, even when they are unconscious, because consent once given is permanent, just keep away. 

Because if the allegations are true, 100% true, then they are 100% rape and sexual assault. Under English law, under Swedish law. 

And the fact that so many people don’t understand that? Don’t wish to accept that? Well, that terrifies me. 

Next - I'll be writing to Paul Akin...

Friday, 17 August 2012

Some thoughts on Women and the Men's Rights Activists

So, looking obsessively as I do at my blog statistics the other day, I noticed a surprising number of hits had come from an MRA (men’s rights activists) site called ‘A Voice for Men’. Because, you know, men don’t tend to have much of a voice on the interwebz.  Anyway, I’m not going to link to the website because it’s not very nice and having more than a cursory look at it might make you feel ill. But anyway. The reason I was getting traffic was because an article written by a woman who has ‘quit’ feminism began by talking about my book, The Light Bulb Moment

I can’t be bothered to give her any publicity so we’ll just leave her name out of it. 

Anyway, as this was on an MRA website, the intro to the article was less than complimentary to my book, and the book's title with its ‘religious, Road to Damascus style imagery’ (what? Does ANYONE think of that with the pretty common phrase/cartoon image of lightbulbs?). To me, it’s a real shame that a book packed with honest, moving, funny stories about women’s and men’s lives was being held up for mockery on a site that thinks that women’s experiences are lies/crap/of no interest. Stories about childhood unfairness, depression, sexual assault, harassment, domestic abuse and more. As well as being completely irrelevant to the rest of the article, the whole tone of this introduction contributed and held up the MRA belief that women’s experiences aren’t real, aren’t serious and shouldn’t be respected. 

The article went on to talk about how the writer had left feminism and, I’m assuming from the fact that she writes for A Voice for Men and the Good Men Project, embraced MRA-ism. And this got me thinking about women’s position in a movement that is, at its heart, anti-women. Not anti-feminism, although it is that too. But purely and simply, anti-women. 

A movement that doesn’t really believe in rape and violence against women and girls.

A movement that actually really does believe that men are victimised by single mothers who simply want support when it comes to raising children.

A movement who think that there are degrees of rape, and have a scarily stupid understanding of consent. 

You know the drill. I could go on. But fundamentally, from everything I’ve heard and read about the MRA team, it’s a movement who think women are not as good as men. With a healthy dose of paranoia added in for good measure (I’m looking at you Tom Martin and your ‘hard chairs are feminazi conspiracy’ BS). 

And this is what I find hard to understand about women MRAs. Because we can be as friendly with these guys as we like, and they might even let you into their tree house for a bit, but, in the end, we'll still be women. 

We'll always be women to them.

And so long as they see being a woman as something inferior, we'll always be inferior too. 

As if to prove my point, one of the commenters on the article wrote the following:

I wonder. . . If I were an Israeli who happened on a German who used to run the ovens at Auschwitz and he told me that he no longer hates Jews; how do you think I would react?
Congratulations. You’ve have an advanced degree in hatred that you now repudiate.
Here’s your cookie.”

A movement based on disrespecting women will never respect women. They’ll always see you as less than them. They might not ALL see you as an ex-Nazi that never deserves forgiveness. But they'll always see you as a woman. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Asylum for Assange. But what about the women?

So, the Guardian reported last night that Julian Assange had been offered asylum in Ecuador

The Ecuadorian government, like many of Assange’s supporters, believe that extradition to Sweden to face questions around rape and sexual assault allegations will lead to extradition or even rendition to the USA, where he might face the death penalty or be imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. 

This is in spite of the fact that Sweden will not extradite anyone for political offences, will not extradite anyone to face the death penalty, and will not extradite anyone if their life or human rights are threatened. 

Sweden are also pretty good at not rendering people too – particularly since 2006 when a diplomatic row broke out between the government and the USA over rendition flights.  This is quite a contrast to the UK who are happy to try to extradite people on evidence gained by torture and are potentially very, very guilty of rendition

Now, every time I write about Assange, a few accusations pop up on Twitter and in the comments. So let’s get this straight. I do not believe Assange should be extradited to the US. I absolutely am against him being sentenced to death or being imprisoned in Guantanamo. I have and always will be against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have campaigned and written about both. In my day job I write about and research the death penalty in America, and their use of torture in Guantanamo bay. I think it is a disgrace that in the UK we even have an extradition policy with a country which last year was ranked number 5 in the nations that carried out the most death sentences. 

But do I think that he should be extradited to Sweden to face questioning around sexual assault and rape accusations? Absolutely. 

It’s a fact worth repeating that the crimes Assange are accused of are rape and sexual assault. The accusations were described by his defence as follows: 

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

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

This is not having sex without a condom (which, by the way, if a woman asks you to put on a condom and you refuse and still have sex with her, that’s a total violation of her bodily autonomy). It’s not ‘sex by surprise’ (which, again, is not a thing. Men aren’t led around by wandering penises that surprise! fall into women). It’s rape and sexual assault. 

One of the most chilling things in the statement is this line here:

“She may have been upset, but she clearly consented to its [the sexual encounter's] continuation and that is a central consideration.”

No. I’m sorry. That’s not correct. Penetrating someone who is asleep is rape, it isn’t and can never be consensual. Because you cannot consent when you’re asleep. And being upset, but not fighting back or kicking out is not a sign of consent to the continued act. The violation has already happened, and very often when a woman is raped she won’t fight back because she’s afraid of further violence. As CWASU write in the rape myth busting page of their website:

"To be raped is the worst thing that can happen - so you would resist to the utmost"
Many women assess their attacker, and make moment by moment decisions about their survival. In many circumstances, women being sexually assaulted fear for their lives. When rapists have a weapon, or threaten the victim, most will strategise for their own survival by not unduly alarming or aggravating their attacker; they follow his instructions in order to stay alive, and this may include not making a noise or resisting. Being raped is not worse than being dead or permanently injured - opting to submit is a rational decision, made in a context where there are very few choices or options.

It isn’t the woman's behaviour that matters here. It’s Assange’s alleged behaviour – sexually penetrating a sleeping – an unconscious – woman. 

The danger of Assange supporters saying that the crime he is accused of isn’t rape and sexual assault is clear. It’s saying that women and girls who are raped in their sleep haven’t been really been raped. It’s saying that women and girls who didn’t fight back or who knew their attacker or willingly got into bed with their attacker, or went to a party with their attacker weren’t raped. And this is simply not acceptable. It’s not. It’s silencing. It’s invalidating the experiences of millions of women. The more Pilger, Chomsky, Moore etc. stand up there and mock the idea that a woman could be raped whilst she slept are mocking the millions of women and girls who have been. 

And when these high profile men and women appear on TV, telling the world that penetrating someone when they sleep isn’t rape, it’s ‘sex by surprise’, how much harder is it for women who have been attacked this way to name what happened to them? How much harder is it to believe that the crimes committed against them should and will be taken seriously? 

Sometimes when I read the support for Assange, I feel that we’re in Animal Farm – where everyone is equal but some people are more equal than others. 

Here’s a man who claims to be a human rights activist, who claims to be for freedom of speech. Yet, his supporters believe that his human right to live free from violence is more important, more valid, than the rights of his alleged victims to live free from violence. That his right to avoid questioning (a right which doesn’t even exist) is more important than the right for his alleged victims to see due process and justice. 

And Assange’s disrespect for human rights goes further than this. His previous employers, Russia Today, are owned by the Russian government. A government, in case we forget, that is currently involved in two huge cases of human rights violations – as well as many more that we don’t hear much about in the news. They’re the government that are currently supporting Assad’s murderous regime in Syria,  who, like Assange’s US enemies, are killing civilians in a war. And they’re the government who you’ll know, unless you’ve been with Curiosity on Mars, are currently trying to send Pussy Riot to jail and labour camps for daring to sing that Putin needs to go. 

Then of course there was his naming of the sources for many of the Wikileaks cables, a leak too far that put the lives of many brave men and women who were standing up for free speech in serious danger. 

And now there’s his cosying up with Ecuador, a country who doesn’t care much for free speech and freedom of the press and have been criticised by Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, and who have a pretty unpleasant attitude towards the Indigenous population.  In fact, it seems Correra’s concern for Assange is more motivated by ‘proving’ that he is more pro freedom of speech than his actions would suggest. 

I’ve kind of given up on Assange cheerleaders giving a flying fig for women’s rights and bodily autonomy, or even the due process of the law. But surely the whole mission of Wikileaks is compromised when the leader is taking money from a government controlled TV station who parrot the words of a repressive regime? When they compromise the freedoms and human rights of the very people who helped them name the crimes that they did so well to uncover? When their leader accepts asylum from a country that doesn’t care for freedom of speech? 

None of us know if Assange is guilty or not, despite what that stupid Ballad of Julian Assange song says. What we do know is that he is wanted for questioning on allegations of rape and sexual assault. We know that the crimes he is accused of are rape and sexual assault and nothing else. We know that Sweden’s extradition policy and stand against rendition mean it would be unlikely he would end up in the US. And we know that in Sweden, two women are very, very unlikely to ever see due process happen. To see justice. And thanks to the voices of his cheerleaders, our understanding that women can  be and are raped in their sleep, our accepted understanding of consent, and the voices of rape victims across the world, have been severely undermined. 

Monday, 13 August 2012

Where were the women in the Olympics closing ceremony?

This post was written for the Evening Standard.

It all started so well.

From suffragettes to Mary Poppins, from children’s nurses to JK Rowling, Shami Chakrabati and Doreen Lawrence – the Olympics opening ceremony brought women into the spotlight, celebrating the our place in British history, literature, politics and culture. Even the most famous British woman in the world got to outshine James Bond, starring in her own mini action flick.

And then there were the games themselves. Lauded the ‘women’s games’, women athletes were finally allowed to compete from all Olympic nations, including Saudi Arabia. Jessica Ennis became the face of the competition. The first team GB medal was won by a woman, our first gold was won by a women’s team. Every day, we saw strong women, passionate women, women jumping, running, rowing, swimming, cycling – their talent and their dedication celebrated across the world.

As we cheered, Lizzie Armistead spoke out against sexism. Zoe Smith hit back against Twitter bullies who were more concerned about her appearance as opposed to her incredible talent. Nicola Adams proved those who thought women shouldn’t box wrong, as she clutched her Gold medal, a huge smile on her face. Everyone agreed that, when it came to nominating 2012’s Sports Personality of the Year, the BBC wouldn’t be missing women from the shortlist again.

I know I wasn’t the only feminist who, watching the Olympics, felt full of hope. Hope that finally, the women’s representation in the media was on the cusp of changing. Surrounded by images and voices of women who were lauded for the incredible achievements, perhaps we were moving towards a new era of positive women role models; a world where women’s value wasn’t primarily placed on how they look, but how they do.  

But then the Olympics closing ceremony started. And it was a return to form.

In their celebration of fifty years of British music, the organisers only managed to find three women solo artists to perform, and one ‘girl group’. They found one woman artist who, although she didn’t perform live, lent her incredible voice to the event. Successful women performers are apparently so thin on the ground, that Emeli Sande and Jessie J were required to sing twice.

Now, I’m not the only one who can be thinking that there are more than four women solo artists and one girl group from across the last fifty years of British music. Where were the women? Where were our rock women, our soul women? Our indie women, our pop women, our dance women? Our Grammy award-winning, Mercury Prize-winning, Brit award-winning women?

The organisers said they wanted the event to reflect British music, to show how great British music was to the world. Are our women singers not part of that greatness? I can’t believe that of all the other women recording right now, or who have shaped the scene over the last fifty years, that none of them wanted to be part of the biggest gig London has ever seen, or were washing their hair.

Of course, women were visible at the closing ceremony. We were there, standing and smiling in sequins, holding the flags. We were there in sexy police uniforms, flanking Russell Brand as he played a Willy Wonka playboy. We were silently dressed as beautiful angels, looking on adoringly as Eric Idle sang Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. And we silently, beautifully, walked across the stage in gorgeous ballgowns, as David Bowie’s voice rang out across the stadium.

Throughout the closing ceremony, women were seen and not heard. We were there to look nice, as men did the singing, the talking. Women’s strength, talent and dedication – so powerfully present and demonstrated over the past two and a half weeks, were almost completely absent.

Watching the Olympics Closing Ceremony, I felt genuinely sad. Because as I watched more and more men take the stage and sing, and felt the powerful absence of women, it was as though normal service had resumed. Where men get to stand up and make things happen, and women get to stand up and be looked at.

But there’s still time to prove me wrong. I hope that the Olympics legacy turns its back on the representation of women offered by the closing ceremony. I hope it reverses the sexism spoken about by Lizzie Armistead. I hope it teaches young girls across the UK that they’ll be valued for what they say and do, and not for how they look. Let’s put that funding in place, let’s give women athletes the TV and media coverage they so clearly deserve. Let’s make the change of the last two and a half weeks last for a whole lot longer than the 2012 London Olympics.


My uncle has given me a list of the running order to check the gender diversity.

It works out like this:

Women singers/groups/recorded: 5 – Emeli Sande, Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, Jessie J, The Spice Girls

Men singers/groups/recorded: 24 – Madness, Pet Shop Boys, One Direction, Beatles, Ray Davies, Elbow, John Lennon, Queen, George Michael, Kaiser Chiefs, Ed Sheeran (with Nick Mason, Mike Rutherford and Richard Jones), David Bowie, Russell Brand, Fatboy Slim, Tinie Tempah, Taoi Cruz, The Bee Gees, Beady Eye, ELO, Muse, Eric Idle, London Welsh Male Voice Choir and London Welsh Rugby Club Choir, Take That, The Who (27 if you count Ed Sheeran's collaborators).

Mixed musical groups: 4 – Urban Voices, LSO, Urban voices collective and Dhol foundation, London Philharmonic

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Some book news

Today I uploaded the final files to my publisher for Greta and Boris: a daring rescue.

It will be published soon by Our Street Books, part of John Hunt Publishing.

I'll keep you updated with news about publication date, promotional events and the rest.

But for now, let's just say - I'm so excited!!

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Bristol Women's Literature Festival

Because I'm not busy enough already (ha!) I've decided to organise a festival next spring (16th and 17th March to be exact) called:


And today I launched the website!

The festival has three aims.

The festival has three aims:

1. To celebrate the diversity and creativity of women writers
2. To counter the male dominance of literature and cultural festival line-ups
3. To promote women’s writing and literary history

We’ll be joined by some of the best writing talent around, across three panel discussions along with a talk and film screening. So far, our speakers include Stella Duffy, Helen Dunmore, Kate Williams, Dr Helen Hackett, Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Emilia di Girolamo, Kristin Aune and Kat Banyard. Writer, critic, broadcaster and novelist Bidisha will be chairing the festival.

The programme includes:
Out of the Ivory Tower: writing feminism for a non-academic audience
Women’s Writing today: contemporary women writers discuss their fiction
Bluestockings and Muses: a history of women’s writing
Bringing women’s issues to a mainstream TV audience + film

Please keep an eye on this website. It’s going to be a hub of activity leading up to the festival, with info about the writers taking part, fundraiser events, programme updates and much, much more.

The Bristol Women’s Literature Festival is entirely unfunded. So if you want to support us, please donate through our PayPal account. No profits will go to the organisers, all the money will pay for the venue, publicity and travel costs. Any left over cash will be distributed between the speakers and women’s charities.

Seriously, donate. I need the money! 

Missing Marilyn

Correction: i thought the date yesterday was the 5th August. It was the 4th. Have updated the post accordingly.

Tomorrow it is fifty years since Marilyn Monroe died.

I don't know when it was that my love affair with Marilyn Monroe began. I had always loved old films, I was always watching Casablanca as a child, and I had postcards of Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo on my bedroom walls growing up - alongside ballet dancers (a story for another blogpost), Madonna and Annie Lennox. But I think it started properly when I was 16, and watched a documentary on NYE 2000 or 2001 called 'Marilyn on Marilyn' on BBC2 that was purely her own voice talking about her life, an interview put together during the final shoot, cut with footage of her and 1950s/1960s America. I watched the video taped programme over and over again until videos became obsolete, and I lost it. If anyone has a copy of that programme, or knows where I can find it, then please let me know. This clip is from that documentary.

Anyway, I then picked up a box set, read plenty of biogs and picture books and just fell in love.

There's loads of crap that surrounds Marilyn. The conspiracy theories about her death. The speculation about her sexuality. The split between the 'stupid dumb blonde' and the 'great comic actress' debate (I'm in the latter camp, naturally). The endless arguing over her body. Which, for the record, should be stopped now. This was a woman who was endlessly defined by her body, at the expense of her humanity, and the fact that we're still holding her body up as somehow more important than her makes me cross.

But underneath all the noise, was a woman who was a wonderful actress, who seemed to be a good, caring and political person, who went out and educated herself, who had a tragic life where she was used and abused by men, over and over again, as a child, as an adult. Who was hurt and abandoned by the people who she should have been able to depend on to care for her. And who was turned into a sex symbol, a body when she wanted to be seen as so much more - when she was so much more.

And more than that, she was a great actress. Nothing makes me laugh more than the Seven Year Itch, or her turn as Lorelei in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. There's pathos in her hilarious Sugar Kane, and is there a sexier entrance than in Let's Make Love? And of course, she could act act too - the scene where she cries as they take on the mustangs in The Misfits is just perfect.

I love Marilyn Monroe. And I am sorry that she died.