Thursday, 30 January 2014

Celebrity abusers, rape culture and Jim Davidson

This post was originally published on the FWSA blog.

Jim Davidson has won Celebrity Big Brother. Jim Davidson, a man who has an alleged history of intimate partner violence, and whose racist, sexist and homophobic “comedy” led to him being chucked off Celebrity Hell’s Kitchen in 2007. 

Jim Davidson’s third wife alleged that within the first three months of their marriage he had blackened her eyes, damaged her ribs using training weights and kicked her down the stairs. But this abuse is given a free pass. The harm he has caused is ignored. His career continues, the money pours in, and those who dare to mention his history are told to let it go, it’s in the past.  

On Saturday, the Guardian wrote a long and loving article about Mike Tyson. His conviction and imprisonment for raping a woman was brushed off as ‘distressing problems with women’. Since his release from prison, Tyson has become a cult figure, starring in TV shows and movies, going on a book tour and all the while ensuring that his rape conviction is not spoken out loud. Those of us who say this is at very best ‘problematic’ are shouted down, are told he served his time. We’re told we should just let it go. 

On Sunday morning I woke up to find an abusive tweet in my @ mentions because I had in the past called Ched Evans a rapist. For the record, the courts found Ched Evans guilty of rape and sentenced him to jail. He is a rapist. But the fact that he raped a young woman doesn’t prevent his legions of fans from trying to intimidate and silence anyone who points this out. 

These are just three examples of violent, abusive men being lauded, celebrated and defended in one week. Throughout the year you will see many others, while the women they abused are silenced and ignored. These men will receive their awards, will win their popularity contests, and will take home large cheques. All that time their violence will be ignored and brushed aside. Those of us who talk about it will be accused of being ranty feminists who need to let it go. 

When feminists talk about rape culture, this is (in part) what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a culture that excuses, forgives, minimises and ignores men who commit violence against women and girls, and – in these cases – celebrates them as cultural icons. 

Rape culture works like this. No one is going to say rape and violence against women are good things. Look under an article about violence against women on CIF or the Mail Online, and everyone will say ‘of course, rape is an abhorrent act’. And then comes the inevitable ‘but’. Because when faced with a man who is popular, a fun guy who everyone likes or even loves to hate, and who is then revealed to be an abuser of women, people become confused. They have to find a way to bring together their obvious abhorrence of violence against women, and their fondness of this abusive man. So instead, they find ways to minimise the violence. They say that Polanski didn’t commit ‘rape rape’. They say that the woman Ched Evans raped was drunk. They say that Tyson served his time. They say that Jim Davidson’s marriage broke down a long time ago. By doing this, they can maintain that balance of still knowing that ‘violence against women is bad’ while defending the man they admire. 

Meanwhile, as they make these mental gymnastics to absolve male violence, the victims and survivors are silenced and forgotten about. Their experience and the impact of the violence inflicted upon them is dismissed as insignificant. Some go so far in their defence of male abusers as to say that it is in fact worse to be the accused than the victim or survivor. The Grammy awards even counted themselves as the true victims when Chris Brown beat up Rihanna, as his crime meant they couldn’t invite him to perform for at least two years.

This is rape culture in action. And the impact goes further. By ignoring or absolving or excusing the actions of violent men in the public eye, we send the message that if you beat, rape or abuse a woman it doesn’t matter. You can still be a cult hero. You can still win Oscars. You can still have fans willing to abuse other women on your behalf. We send the message to violent men who aren’t famous that their behaviour isn’t so bad. That they can probably get away with it too. Which of course, with a conviction rate of 6.5% and around 90,000 rapes a year, most violent men will. 

When popular men, famous men, love-to-hate men, talented men in the public eye abuse women, our culture closes ranks. We move in to protect them from the feminists who dare to point out their violence, their abuse. Articles are written where the rape is never mentioned. Popularity contests are won because the abuse no longer matters. A man who allegedly beat his partner so viciously that she requested a restraining order against him is described as someone who ‘genuinely likes women’. Our culture protects them, as we develop a conspiracy of silence that hides the truth of their abuse. 

This is what rape culture looks like. Jim Davidson winning Big Brother is what we mean, when as feminists we say that our culture doesn’t care about violence against women. Rape culture is when abusive men’s behaviour gets a free pass, and the women they abuse are silenced, mocked, belittled or become victims of further violence themselves. 

It’s not good enough. 

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Last night, the House of Lords let down our young women

TW - description of sexual bullying/violence

grabbing my breasts in the school corridors. Sitting opposite me in class and making obscene gestures and threatening comments (“I’m going to fuck you”; “Are you going to sit on my cock?”). Jumping on me in the playground and rubbing against me.

The above quote is taken from an interview with a young woman interviewed by Kat Banyard in The Equality Illusion. She’s describing the sexual bullying she experiences in school.

Recently, I looked at the Everyday Sexism website to get some testimonials from young women experiencing sexual bullying in school. I looked at just four pages before it all became too painful, and in that short space of time collected the following: 

One girl writes that when she was 12, boys would stand at the bottom of the stairs to look up girls’ skirts. When she and her friends reported it to the teacher, they refused to see the problem. Another girl reports that boys taunted her with sexual language, including ‘slut’, for over an hour in class. The teacher responded that ‘boys will be boys’ and the sexual bullying continued for another two years. One girl began to hate her body after boys put empty milk cartons under her breasts and asked for refills. A 12 year-old girl went to her head teacher to report boys who were inappropriately touching her. His response was – surprise surprise – ‘boys will be boys’. He also advised the girls to dress in a less ‘inappropriate fashion’ because boys ‘can’t control it’. Now 14, the girl has endured two more years of sexual bullying, with no help from her teachers.

Last night, the House of Lords had a chance to do something about this kind of sexual bullying in schools. They had the opportunity to vote in favour of bringing education on consent and respect into schools. And they chose not to

In the NSPCC and Bristol University research on Partner Exploitation and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships, researchers found that a quarter of girls reported some form of physical violence and 1 in 9 girls reported severe physical violence. Three quarters of girls reported emotional violence and 1 in 3 girls reported sexual violence. Girls were more likely to experience repeated violence than boys and 75% of girls with a “much older” partner experienced physical or sexual violence. 

Research published by the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that 1 in 3 16-18 year olds have experienced unwanted sexual touching, and 1 in 4 said their teachers have never taught them that this is not ok. 

Those numbers, which I have written here before, make me feel physically sick. It makes me feel sick that one in three teenage girls are suffering violence at the hands of their male partners and peers.  

Yesterday, the Lords had a chance to do something about it. And they didn’t. They chose instead to do nothing. 

Education around consent and respect isn’t the only way to tackle violence against teen girls. But it is one way, and it is one very significant way. 

If we teach our young people about consent and respect in relationships, then (duh) they have a better chance of understanding the importance of consent and respect. It’s hardly rocket science. It’s how education works. If we teach young people that enthusiastic consent is a must for sex, if we teach young people that an absence of ‘no’ isn’t the presence of a ‘yes’, if we teach young people that they can have a voice to express what they do and don’t want out of sex, if we teach young people to respect bodily autonomy and integrity then we can help young people begin to discover how to negotiate their sexuality in a mutually consensual and respectful way. 

Of course, it’s not going to eliminate all violence and sexual bullying. But at least it’s a start, and it starts to give young people a context. 

But because of some squeamishness about talking to young people about sex, our political leaders have decided to leave young people out to dry. 

I’ve seen the argument made lots of times that it’s up to parents and guardians to teach their children about sex and consent and respect. Sure, in a perfect world this would be the case. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where some parents are abusers themselves, or don’t feel comfortable talking to their children about sex or don’t have the language to talk about it. 

That’s why we have an education system. We don’t trust parents to teach kids long division. We hope that parents will collaborate with teachers and support their kids through their long division homework. But we know that if parents don’t, children will still be given an opportunity to practise their sums. 

Sex education should not be any different. Parents can be encouraged to be a positive voice, but if they’re not then school fills in the gaps. School is a place to learn about being a grown up. It’s the perfect and most logical setting to talk to young people about consent, respect, bodily autonomy, integrity, sex. 

Otherwise, who fills in the gaps of knowledge and understanding? The internet, with p0rn that fetishizes violence and lack of consent and no condoms? From the time I’ve spent doing feminist activism with young women, p0rn isn’t helping them negotiate their sexuality. Instead, we hear story after story of p0rn being used to groom young women, or young women feeling coerced into sex they don't want to have because their partner has seen it in p0rn. Young women's voices are silenced. 

Young people will always have a very natural sexual curiosity. Refusing to teach them sex education isn’t going to change that no matter what the abstinence only crew say. Sex education that focuses on consent and respect helps them develop the tools they need to have mutually consensual and respectful relationships. It teaches them that aggressive sexual bullying is not ok. It teaches them that coercive behaviour is not ok. It teaches them that physically and sexually violence between partners is not ok. 

How can we in good conscience deny our young people that? 

The research by Bristol Uni and the NSPCC and the stories I quote above show us what happens when we deny young people education on consent and respect. And that’s not ok. It’s not good enough. 

How many girls need to be hit by their partner before we stop burying our heads in the sand and start teaching young people about consent and respect? How many young girls must endure sexual taunts, upskirt shots and groping before we recognise their lived experience and do something about it? How many young women will we let down because of an immature squeamishness about talking about sex?

And what about when they grow up? 

Proper sex education needs to be part of a wider solution to tackle male violence against girls. It’s not the only part, but it’s a starting point. It could make a real and important difference to the lives of young people. The fact that our political leaders continue to refuse to bring these conversations into schools is a disgrace. 

Last night the Lords let down Britain’s schoolgirls. They should hang their heads in shame.  

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Book Diary 2014

ISo, last year I stopped keeping my book diary as I was a judge on a book prize and it would have meant giving long list details away. But this year I am judging-free (for now...) so book diary is back on.

As before, I will indicate if it's a new or re-read, with a thumbs up or down review.

Happy reading!

Sylvester, Georgette Heyer (new): I came rather late to Ms Heyer and although The Grand Sophy and Venetia are my favourites, Sylvester is good fun.

Alfred and Emily, Doris Lessing (new): a touching novella of what her parent's lives should have been, with a short memoir/reflection of the reality.

The Summer before the dark, Doris Lessing (new): a fantastic novel about a woman's summer away from her family, and what it means when women rebel against convention.

When I lived in modern times, Linda Grant (new): I can't believe I hadn't read this before. It's a fantastic novel about a young Jewish woman going to Israel in 1946.

We had it so good, Linda Grant (re-read): Linda Grant's last book is about the baby boomer generation, from 1960s students to 60 year olds.

How to be a heroine, Samantha Ellis (new): part tour through literature's best heroines, part memoir this is a must read if you love Austen, the Brontes, Little Women, Valley of the Dolls, Lace, Cold Comfort Farm and more. Love love loved it.

Someone at a distance, Dorothy Whipple (new): just started this last night and wish I was curled up reading it now, instead of at work.

Lace, Shirley Conran (re-read): like eating a huge bar of Dairy Milk and feeling a bit sick afterwards. I love the story lines about their careers and women's friendship.

Paris France, Gertrude Stein (new): just wonderful. She is wonderful. Or, as she would say, 'she is very lovely'.

Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender, Rhian E Jones (new) It takes an angry and political look at the portrayal of/impact of Britpop on class and gender and how it's influenced our idea of class today - particularly around 'chav' and working class women. It's brilliantly political and angry and well researched, as well as an exploration of Britpop itself.

The Clothes on their Backs, Linda Grant (new): I'm having a real Linda Grant moment and loving it. This is about a young woman living in London trying to understand where her family has come from.

Claudine in Paris, Colette (re-read): Question - do you need four copies of this book? Answer, yes. Because it's ace. (ftr - in Claudine collection, one in French, one on Kindle and one because I needed a book when I took myself out for lunch and saw it in the charity shop).

The Lie, Helen Dunmore (new): Of course it's brilliant. It's Helen Dunmore's new book and it's heart wrenching and tender and understated and explores shell shock. She is ever awesome.

The Sweetest Dream, Doris Lessing (new): This is so epic in scope and ambition and she pulls it off brilliantly. But of course she does, she's Doris Lessing.

Sedition, Katherine Grant (new): It took me a while to get into this, as it is such a strange book with such weird and unpleasant characters. But once I got into it, I enjoyed it.

The Driver's Seat, Muriel Spark (new): Dark, unsettling, weird. I sometimes people ignore how dark, unsettling and weird her writing is.

Quartet, Jean Rhys (re-read): Rhys' superb roman a clef about her horrible time with Ford Madox Ford. "she could afford to display coldness, and that no good ever comes from being too polite."

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys (re-read): Isn't it wonderful? Isn't it though? Is there anything like this book? I don't know. "You changed my name and that is a kind of obeah too"

Wise Children, Angela Carter (re-read): After the misery of Rhys, I needed a rollicking sexy ride through 20th century theatre land. Oh "what a joy it is to dance and sing!"

A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett (re-read): Because sometimes you need a children's book.

Heartburn, Nora Ephron (new): Inspired by Hadley Freeman, I read this and loved it. I want to give it to all my friends. It's bittersweet, and hilarious, and painfully honest.

The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy (re-read): I used to read this in the library as a teen. It is wonderfully weird and funny and touching. When I go to Paris in April, I'm totally wearing an evening dress at breakfast time. Hopefully won't fall in love with violent thieving pimp though.

Mrs Hemingway, Naomi Wood (new): I really enjoyed this novel that explores Hemingway's four marriages from the perspectives of their ends. It was beautifully written with a really interesting use of tense in the Hadley section.

I feel bad about my neck, Nora Ephron (new): I feel eternal gratitude to Hadley Freeman whose book, How To Be Awesome, introduced me to the truly wonderful Nora Ephron.

Crazy Salad, Nora Ephron (new): Nora's journalism about the women's liberation movement is not only a brilliant read for the quality of her writing, it's a fascinating history of second wave feminism with lessons for how we work within the movement today.

How to think more about sex, Alain de Botton (new): This book was recommended to me and it is really interesting, if sometimes uncomfortable reading, about how our attitudes towards our own sexuality are complicated by societal expectations about sex and relationships.

The Cat, Colette (re-read): Her short novella about the conflict between Saha the cat and Camille the bride for Alain's soul is disquieting, beautifully written and full of Colette's trademark sensuality.

Minka and Curdy, Antonia White (new): When Antonia White had writer's block writing the Frost in May books, she wrote this. Never has writer's block created something so joyous.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (new): How how how amazing? How wonderful is this book? She's incredible. It's stunning. Read it! Read it now!

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Gertrude Stein (re read): I love this book. It's one of my favourite books of all time. It's a fascinating discovery of the arts and literary scene of Paris from 1907, full of funny and personal stories about Picasso, Braque, Marie Laurencin - the whole gang! But most of all it's a love story about one of the most enduring marriages in literary history.

Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel (new): stunning. Simply stunning. 

From Whitechapel, Melanie Clegg (new): v enjoyed the new Melanie Clegg book - about 3 women whose lives become entangled as a result of the Jack the Ripper murders.

Be Awesome: modern life for modern women, Hadley Freeman (re read): love love love her.

How to be a heroine, Samantha Ellis (re read): revisited this book as I was searching for my literary heroines in Paris.

Bossypants, Tina Fey (re read): got into a "reading memoirs by funny clever women " tip it seemed! 

The Paris Wife, Paula McClain (re read): well, I was in Paris! And was eating dinner in Pre de Clerc when reading about Hem & Hadley eating their dinner there too! 

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (re read): see above! 

Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway (new): and again. I love the first section, when young Tom remembers Paris. Ahh, Paris. What a wonderful week I had!!

Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively (re read): I forgot I read this again a few weeks ago. One of my favourites, a desert island book.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (re read): it's been a while. It's spectacular. So much passion & rage & desperation. I'm reading Jane Eyre again next.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (re read): always #teamjane! I read this again last year too. I love it so much. Mostly when Rochester talks about the cord that binds them, and Jane's incredible "do you think because I am poor and plain" speech.

Frenchman's Creek, Daphne du Maurier (re read): One of my all time favourite books. I cry every time.

Three Lives, Gertrude Stein (re read): Her classic exploration of the lives of three women. I love the way she uses repetition to create strange rhythms.

The Queen of Subtleties, Suzannah Dunn (new): I think the Lucy bits work better than the Anne sections to be honest.

Paris without End, Gioia Dilberto (new): This biography of Hadley, Hemingway's first wife, is a real joy to read. It reads like a novel (good for someone like me!) and brings to life the world the Hemingways lived in, and the vitality of Hadley. 

The Other Side of the Story, Marian Keyes (re read): no one gets million pound book advances anymore do they? But it's nice to dream...

The Blazing World, Siri Hursvedt (new): this is an extraordinary book, really spectacular, made up of fragments, notebooks and interviews to explore identity and sexism and art and psychology and philosophy - it wowed me totally.

The Nonesuch, Georgette Heyer (new): because sometimes you need Ms Heyer.

Cheri, Colette (re read): Just started re reading this. It's her masterpiece. Sex, food, loss, female strength, intelligence - all Colette is here.

The Last of Cheri, Colette (re read): I had forgotten just how incredible this book is. It's really special.

What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt (new): It's just superb. So so fantastic, so beautiful, so incredibly intelligent. I think I love her.  

Women of the Left Bank, Shari Henstock (new): If you want to know everything there is to know about the women of 1920s Paris - which I do - this is THE book.

Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (new): I loved this. I loved it. My favourite of his novels so far. Understand why people rank it up there with the best. 

For Whom The Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (new): technically this is a re read but at 15 I didn't know what was going on. It's a special book isn't it? Full of Hem truth. Chapter 13's section on seventy hours vs seventy years is monumental.

HERmione, H.D (new): This is a beautiful book that overwhelms the senses with its dense poetic prose. Have long been intrigued by H.D so glad to finally read her properly. 

The Queen's Fool, Philippa Gregory (re read): my fave. Robert Dudley is so swoony. 

Gertrude and Alice, Diana Souhami (new): it's a truly brilliant & passionately researched biography, full of both their voices. You have to read it if, like me, you are fascinated by the pair of them.

Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise, Sally Cline (new): meticulously researched and thorough biog of Zelda that is honest whilst empathetic. Horrific indictment of 1930s treatment of mental illness.

Save me the Waltz, Zelda Fitzgerald (re-read from a long time ago): So much more than a literary curiosity. It's an intense read.

Been reading lots of sections of The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, which has been a joy.

How to be Both, Ali Smith (new): Very lucky to get my hands on this and WOW WOW WOW it is utter joy. She is a genius, the writer of our time. Proper review to follow.

Middlemarch, George Eliot (re-read): I read this at university but it was so wonderful to rediscover this intensely rich and beautiful novel.

The Boys on the Bus by ME!!! (re-read): I self-published a Kindle Single and you should definitely buy it, best book I've read all year ;-)

Tigers are better looking, Jean Rhys (re read): Long time since I read Rhys' short stories. Man, Ford's intro to the Left Bank is a bit me, me, me isn't it! 

Good morning midnight, Jean Rhys (re read): Why didn't you just throw yourself into the Seine? The pain in this novel is almost overwhelming. A perfectly perfect and perfectly frightening book.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Jean Rhys (re read): I was going to do a PhD into the use of clothes and make up to construct identity in Rhys's novels. It never happened...

Voyage in the Dark, Jean Rhys (re read): I'm nineteen and I have to go on living and living and living.

Flappers, Judith Mackerell (new): Great biog of Diana Cooper, Tallulah Bankhead, Josephine Baker, Nancy Cunard, Tamara de Lempicka and Zelda Fitz. Interesting to see a different biographer's perspective on Z. 

A Lady of Quality, Georgette Heyer (new): classic Heyer but was expecting a shocking elopement and rescue tbh!! Rather than an influenza epidemic.

The Talisman Ring, Georgette Heyer (new): good fun. 

Upstairs at the party, Linda Grant (new): excellent new novel from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

The King's Curse, Philippa Gregory (new): I think the best Plantagenet novel remains The Lady of the Rivers. This is alright, not one of her greats. But the afterword - which covered the writing our of women of history and our collective refusal to recognise that Henry VIII committed gross acts of domestic violence, and was a cruel, vicious man – made me cry a bit.

The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters (new): I've only read her Victorian novels which I must now change! This is a fantastic book. 

A place of greater safety, Hilary Mantel (re read): what is so hard with this book is you know how it ends and yet you become so close to Camille et al that it becomes unbearable to reach the end. I love it.

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent (new): This novel is very intense, very beautiful, frightening - I don't really know what to say about it, how to articulate it. You'll need to discover it yourself.

The Quick, Lauren Owen (new): This is a beautifully written Gothic novel, with descriptions that haunt you.

Treasures of Time, Penelope Lively (new): Another great read from this wonderful writer.

Eat my Heart Out: Zoe Pilger (new): Angry, impassioned, challenging and feminist from a really inspiring new talent.

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (re read): Really powerful to revisit this very special novel.

Down the Rabbit Hole, Juan Pablo Villalobos, trans Rosalind Harvey (new): It's very hard to write in the voice of a child and be authentic and convincing. This book achieves it beautifully, and through the child's voice the violence of gang life in Mexico is revealed to us. 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte (re read): A long time since I re read this and I'm really glad I did. 

Jeeves volume 2, PG Wodehouse (re read): Read this up North, many chuckles and over cups 'of the old life saver'

Marilyn the passion and the paradox, Lois Banner (new): Very interesting, very sad. Was delighted to discover the dinner party with Marilyn, Shelley Winters and Dylan Thomas. 

The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf (re read): I love this book

The Other Ida, Amy Mason (new): This was a great read by an exciting new writer who is speaking at next year's Bristol Women's Literature Festival.

The Millstone, Margaret Drabble (new): A strange but wonderful book, reminded me a bit of Penelope Lively.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler (new): YES PLEASE! This book is WONDERFUL!!!

My Thirty Years' War, Margaret Anderson (new): The founder and editor of Little Review, the first publisher of Ulysses and all round amazing woman. Her memoirs are ace!

The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory (re read): Because I love it.

Jeeves Volume 1, PG Wodehouse (re read): because I was tired and on a train. And you need Jeeves on such occasions. Better than a cup of the old life-saver!

Gillespie and I, Jane Harris (new): What a fantastic book! I bought this on the South Bank because my Kindle battery was low and I was immediately gripped, I read it in a day! Such a surprising, absorbing and brilliantly wicked book.

Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson (new): I'm reading this at the moment (between Jeeves and Gillespie) and it's a fascinating account of the lives of the surplus women post WW1.

Some more Wodehouse (re read): because you can't just read one!

Riders, Jilly Cooper (new): Ok. I have never read a Jilly Cooper in my life. And it seemed like it was some kind of teenage rite of passage that I had missed out on. So I read one. It was shit. I will never read one again.

The World is Round, Gertrude Stein (new): magical.