Monday, 17 December 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also read: Stavvers, The F Word and Perestroika

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

In which I RANT about Wikileaks Twitter Feed and Assange supporters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Some thoughts on solidarity and sisterhood after yesterday's rally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 December 2012

No women? No revolution. My speech from Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 3 December 2012

How does the media report murders of women?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably another domestic incident gone wrong.”

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

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

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

Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247