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, na├»ve 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

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Rich and famous men who beat women - Madonna song included!

I've written about this issue before, here, mainly. But I wanted to write about it again, mainly because yesterday one of my favourite eighties Madonna songs came on to my iPod.

It's called 'Til Death do us Part' and it's an album track on that wonderful record 'Like A Prayer'.

The lyrics are a thinly veiled reference to her marriage with Sean Penn, and contain the lyrics:

'The bruises they will fade away
You hit so hard with the things you say
I will not stay to watch your hate
As it grows
He takes a drink
She goes outside
He starts to scream
The vases fly
He wishes that she wouldn't cry'

It's a song about a relationship breakdown, but it's also a song about a violent relationship - Madonna tells us that she's being hit, even though the words hurt more than the physical bruises. It's well documented that Sean Penn beat up Madonna, he was charged with domestic assault and pleaded guilty to misdemeanour. And he isn't the only one. What makes this song so powerful is it's honesty. OK, the beat is hopelessly cheesy and it's very eighties, but it's a really strong speak out about her experiences of violence. And perhaps I find it all the more powerful because now so much talk about male violence, particularly of celebrity men, is silenced. We're not supposed to remember that Oscar-winner and human rights campaigner Sean Penn beat up his former wife. We're supposed to forget the crimes of men, particularly famous ones.

Last week, stickers started to appear all over Chris Brown albums, warning people not to buy his album as he beats women. We all cheered. He did beat up Rihanna, horribly, and he is still lauded as a popstar, his fans defend him ferociously and he's well-protected by an industry that sees themselves as the victims of his crime as it meant he couldn't perform sometimes. Some people say we need to stop 'picking on him' but, quite frankly, we shouldn't. We should keep talking about what he did, a horrible horrible crime that he doesn't seem that sorry for (tattoo anyone?). Anyway, as I say, he's pretty protected by the industry, normal people like you and me condemning his actions aren't exactly halting the juggernaut of publicity and radio play that man gets.

However, we need to stop *just* picking on Chris Brown. We need to talk about the others too.

When the 'Warning don't buy this album: this man beats women' stickers started appearing on John Lennon albums, a man who very openly spoke about how he hit his wife, the reaction was a lot more muted, a lot less 'yes, tell it like it is!'. Most right thinking people don't like Chris Brown. He behaves badly and his music is pretty crap. But everyone likes John Lennon and he's responsible for some of the best music of the last 50 years. It isn't comfortable to think that he hit his wife. It doesn't fit with our image of him.  Having named him their Biggest Icon Evah or whatever, NME merely called the story about the stickers 'interesting'.

But should we forget that John Lennon was abusive towards women? Should we forget Norman Mailer? Roman Polanski? Shouldn't we talk about the allegations against Fassbender? What about David Soul, Ike Turner, James Brown? We do talk about OJ I guess, but like there's some debate to be had. After all, whether or not he killed Nicole, he beat her up when they were married. Mel Gibson - who as well as anti semitism beat his wife - Nicholas Cage, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee, Axl Rose, Bobby Brown? There's a long list here. Shouldn't we at least mention it? Or should it just be forgotten, or excused as rock n roll behaviour, or that's just what happens.

And that's before we even get on to Charlie Sheen, whose drug antics may have ended Two and a Half Men, but whose abuse of women is apparently funny enough for him now to be starring in a 'comedy' called Anger Management.

People can change. John Lennon acknowledged what he did, as far as I know Sean Penn hasn't hurt any other women. Lennon made great records and Penn was good in his films. I'm not saying that men who beat women can't change, can't go on to do other things, to be defined by other things.

But I do passionately believe that there is something wrong when we don't acknowledge what happened, when it's just forgotten and treated as something that doesn't matter. We brush the crimes under the carpet and pretend they didn't happen. Meanwhile, crappy sentences are handed out that don't reflect the gravity of the abuse - Gibson only got a probation for punching his wife so hard he broke her tooth. Did you know that?

The crimes of men against women rarely get mentioned, and nine times out of ten, when a famous man commits a crime against women, public and publicity will jump to the man's defence. Even when, as in the case of Tyson, Polanski and Ched Evans, the man has been proven guilty.

That's what I find troubling. It's the silence. Because when we stay silent about men who are violent towards women, then we make that crime ok. And when that perpetrator is in the public eye, we say to society that we think that crime is ok. When we defend and excuse men in the public eye, then we declare as a society that we think domestic abuse and violence against women and girls is ok, isn't that bad.

I don't want Penn or Lennon or Gibson or Oldman or Brown or whoever to be branded, to wear a scarlet letter. I just want to know that we don't think it's ok for men to beat women, no matter how famous or talented they are. I don't want the voices of women to be silenced. I want an acknowledgement.

And that's why, although musically Madonna has produced better tunes, that song is so powerful. It's an acknowledgement that this thing happened to her, at a time when her voice as a survivor was drowned out by those defending the man who beat her.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Words but no action? The government's change to domestic abuse laws.

After much campaigning by VAWG charities and organisations, including fantastic research conducted in my home city of Bristol by the Centre for Research on Gender Based Violence and the NSPCC, the government has extended domestic violence laws to include children – i.e. teenage relationships. The law now recognises that teenagers experience domestic abuse in partner relationships that is separate from child abuse. 

And it’s about time. Research suggests that girls aged 16-19 are the age group who are most likely to experience domestic abuse – with 12.7% of women reporting some kind of domestic abuse last year (6.2% men – source BCS quoted in Guardian). 

The research from 2009 conducted by the NSPCC and Bristol University surveyed teenagers about their experiences of intimate partner violence with shocking and frightening results. 75% of girls surveyed reported emotional abuse, 33% of girls had suffered sexual abuse including rape, and 25% reported physical abuse from their boyfriends. The rate of physical abuse rose to 75% for girls with partners who are more than two years their senior. 

I still find those numbers hard to stomach. 75% of teenage girls with a partner over two years older than them has experienced violence from that boyfriend. 75%. 

Along with the high rates of violence in teen relationships is an acceptance that this kind of behaviour is normal. This is backed up by findings from Haven who surveyed young people to understand their attitudes towards sexual assault (a summary of the full findings are quoted in this post).They include that 43% of young people asked did not believe that if their partner said ‘no’ to having sex, and they had sex with them anyway, that this would be rape. On a more anecdotal level, I have spoken online to rape counsellors who have told me that girls simply accept violence because they believe it’s what you have to do to have a boyfriend, to have someone ‘love’ you. Let’s not forget in context of this that teen media tells girls having a boyfriend is the most important thing in the world evah. 

So in the face of what is an overwhelming crisis in the levels of violence against girls, it’s good that the government are standing up and saying that it’s a crisis that must be recognised. 

But in essence, that’s all they’re doing. They’re simply saying it should be recognised. 

Because the domestic violence sector has already been cut by around 31%,  and those cuts are going to get worse. In fact, the introduction of universal credit could lead to every refuge being forced to close its doors, domestic violence charities have warned. Already 230 women are turned away from refuges every day because they’re simply aren’t enough places to protect women from a crime that affects a quarter of us in our lifetimes.  According to the British Crime Survey, 1.2 million women experience domestic abuse each year in the UK, and that’s not including the teenage girls that the law now recognises as victims of the crime. As refuges close, as support services close and lose their funding, where are women and girls supposed to go to get the help and care they so desperately need? 

It’s no good for the government to say that they care about domestic abuse of teenage girls when their administration is allowing the dismantling of a system that will protect them from the impact of violence. It’s just words, again. 

Another facet to this is that we all know that one of the best ways to challenge the attitudes and beliefs that allow and excuse violence in teen relationships is through education. But just as the last government was finally about to push through mandatory sex and relationships education that would include a focus on consent and respect, as well as the biological side, progress under the Coalition in the this area has stalled. There’s a squeamishness about sex education and a stubborn refusal to accept that all children need to be taught about consent. In fact, in this area we seem to be taking steps backwards, with proposals from Gove last year to use sex ed to focus on marriage as the superior form of relationship.  And let’s not forget Dorries’ failed proposals to tackle teen violence through abstinence education for girls.  So again, whilst the decision to recognise violence in teen relationships for what it is – the crime of domestic abuse – is right, we need to see action taken to ensure the causes of that crime are tackled in schools through education. 

Back in 2010, Theresa May addressed the Women’s Aid conference to say that the Coalition would bring actions, not words to the fight against domestic abuse and violence against women and girls.

But all I’m seeing are words. Words in law books, words at conferences, words from the dispatch box. 

And the only actions I’m seeing are those that are devastating a sector that is dedicated to saving the lives of women and girls. Actions that are ignoring the voices of women and girls who need help, who need support. Those aren’t the actions we want. 

One final thing. Since the 1st January this year, over 78 women and girls have been murdered as a result of gender-based violence.