Thursday, 29 May 2014

From 'Not All Men' to rape threats - on feeling like I've had enough, but not stopping fighting.

The news over the last few days has been starting to get to me. 

There’s nothing new here. But sometimes the overwhelming-ness of it all, the absolute horror of living in a world where women are routinely killed, beaten and raped for being women, sometimes simply gets too much. 

And that’s what I’m feeling right now. 

Last week, as part of my day job, I researched the case of a Sudanese woman sentenced to 100 lashings and hanging for marrying a Christian man. Yesterday she gave birth to a daughter, shackled, in prison. 

Then, on Saturday, Elliot Rodger killed two women and four men. His YouTube videos and 141-page manifesto explained his motive. He wanted to kill women because he hated women. He said: 

"I'll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one."

Then yesterday I learnt of the woman in Pakistan who was stoned to death whilst community members looked on. Her so-called crime? Falling in love with someone she wasn’t supposed to. 

Then I read about a woman shot dead by her husband. Like most murders of women, this one didn’t make headline news. Men killing their wives, girlfriends, sisters and mothers is just too commonplace a story to really count as news anymore. Fifty women were dead at the hands of men in the first four months of 2014. Fifty women, killed by men, because they were women.  

Today I read about the UKBA threatening to deport a family back to Nigeria where the girls are at risk of FGM.  The government’s promises on FGM ring rather hollow when they send girls back to be cut, just as Hague’s statements on rape as a weapon of war seem rather empty when his colleagues deport survivors of the crime back to where it happened.   

All of this violence has something in common. All of this violence is about male entitlement to women’s bodies. It is about men believing women do not have the right to do what they want with their own bodies. It is about denying women the right to bodily autonomy. 

Take the first example. Meriam Yehya Ibrahim is facing death because she married the man she wanted to marry. She made a free choice to marry the man she fell in love with. She is now in prison, awaiting death, for exercising her right to bodily autonomy. 

Elliot Rodger’s misogyny is rooted in the idea that women should have had sex with him, regardless of whether they chose to or not. He wrote that women should not have a ‘choice’ about who they ‘mate with’ – that the choice should be left for men to decide. His words echo the sentence pronounced by the Sudanese court. He did not believe women had the right to bodily autonomy. His refusal to accept that women have that right, that no one should tell a woman what to do with her body, led to the deaths of six people. 

As in Sudan, and as with Rodger, Farzana Parveen was murdered because she didn't believe someone else should choose who she married, and what she should do with her body. She married the man she chose to marry. Her family were enraged that she chose to marry him instead of the man they picked for her. They killed her for exercising her right. The thirty people who stood by and watched her murder gave their tacit acceptance to the concept that women do not have that right. They stood by, and refused to recognise Farzana Parveen had the right to love who she wanted to love, and had the right to live free from fear and violence. They stood by and refused to recognise she had the right to live

I don’t know why Harold Ambrose killed his wife. But the patterns are the same. It’s unlikely this was the first incidence of violence in their relationship. Another man who believed women shouldn’t have bodily autonomy. Another man who believed women shouldn’t have the right to live.

Organisations like Daughters of Eve have done a huge amount of vital work raising awareness of how FGM is a form of violence against women and girls within a patriarchal culture. Once more, it is about patriarchal control of women’s bodies. It is about denying girls bodily autonomy.

233 UK women will be raped today. None of their rapists believe they have the right to bodily autonomy. None of them believe women have the right to say no. None of them believe women have the right to decide what happens to their bodies. 

This week has proven to me once again that there is a war against women and we are all living in it. We are living in a world where women are raped, beaten and killed because they are women. We are living in a world where too many men do not believe women have a right to bodily autonomy. 

This would be bad enough on its own. 

But part of my utter despair this week is the response to all of this. 

A response that says ‘not all men’ as soon as any woman dares to speak about male violence against women and girls. 

You don’t need to tell us ‘not all men’. We know that. We know that not all men are rapists, or killers. We’re not fucking stupid. 

If you say ‘not all men’ when a woman discloses her horror at the violence committed against her and other women because they are women, you need to ask yourself why you are so defensive. And then you need to listen to what women are saying. 

‘Not all men’ is a derailing tactic. It forces women to stop talking about the violence committed against us, and instead start reassuring men. And then the conversation comes to a halt. The conversation stops being about male violence against women, and instead becomes a cookie hunt. 

These two things would be bad enough on their own. 

But there are more responses that have prompted my despair. 

The cousin of ‘not all men’ is ‘men are victims of violence too.’

Again, we know this. We’re not fucking stupid. 

Once more, this is a derailing tactic. It’s saying it is not ok to just talk about male violence against women and girls. It says it is not ok, it is not acceptable, for women to talk about the violence committed against us. It demands that we shut up, and start talking about something else. It tells us we “should” instead be talking about what happens to men. 

But why? Why can’t we talk about male violence against women and girls? What is so scary about that conversation? Why can’t you stand it? Why do you not want to talk about it?

Whenever someone derails a conversation about male violence against women and girls in this way, I can’t help but believe that they think that what happens to women doesn’t matter. That they think the lives of women and girls, and our right to live free from fear and violence, is unimportant. That they believe it’s certainly not as important as what happens to men. I can’t reach any other conclusion than that. 

These three things would be bad enough on their own. 

But there is one more response that has prompted my despair. 

And that is how when women write about male violence against women and girls, we are met with more violence. We are met with rape threats and death threats and sent vicious ‘fantasies’ of what men want to do to us, ‘fantasies’ which would not look out of place in Rodger’s manifesto. As Laurie Penny wrote in her response to the Rodger murders: 

I know for sure that just by writing this I will have exposed myself to more harassment, more threats, more verbal assaults.’ 

When discussion of male violence is met with male violence, you can’t ignore how pervasive it is in our society. And yes, ‘not all men’. And yes, women can be nasty online too. But do you know how frightening it is, let alone how disheartening it is, to know that when you speak out about violence, you have learnt to expect that someone will threaten to rape you? Do you have any idea how that feels? Do you have any idea how hard it is to talk about these issues anyway, without dealing with the knowledge that talking about it marks you out as a potential victim in the eyes of some men? Do you know how often we then hold our tongues, because to speak is dangerous, and the response is devastating?

I have had enough today. I have had enough of the violence. I have had enough of the derailing. I have had enough of the silencing. Enough, enough, enough. 

But I won’t stop. 

Yesterday my niece was born. As I held her in my arms, I told her that I was her ‘fun, feminist aunty’ (not a ‘fun feminist aunty’!). Silently I promised her that I would do everything I could to make sure she grows up in a world where we, as women and girls, no longer have to put up with this violence. I want her to grow up in a world where her right to bodily autonomy is not just respected, it’s not even conceivable that anyone wouldn’t respect it. I want her to grow up in a world where women’s bodies are not seen as objects that men feel entitled to. 

It shouldn’t feel like such a big ask, should it?

No matter how much I feel like I’ve had enough, I won’t stop fighting. I won’t stop talking about male violence against women and girls. I won’t stop questioning it. I won’t stop working to end it. Because not only does my niece deserve better, we ALL deserve better. Every woman and girl across the world deserves better than the headlines, and the non-headlines, this week. 

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Calling misogyny what it is - a response to the Rodger murders.

When is a hate crime not a hate crime? Apparently when it is committed by a man against women.

That’s the lesson I’ve learnt this weekend, from the reaction to the Elliot Rodger murders.

At the weekend, Elliot Rodger killed six people – shooting two women and four men – in ‘revenge’ for the treatment he believed he had suffered at the hands of women. In a long and ranting and deeply frightening ‘manifesto’, he detailed his hatred of women in vicious detail. He fantasised about rounding women up and putting us in concentration camps, where he would watch us die. He ranted about women’s ‘power’ over men by the fact that we ‘control’ breeding, and pronounced that women should not be allowed to choose who to ‘breed with’ because men should make that decision. It was a screed of hate. No one reading it could mistake the hateful rhetoric, with every word dripping with misogyny.

Except people could. Yesterday, in an exchange with writer and former MP Louise Mensch, she told me she felt ‘sorry for him’ and that feminists were wrong to link his violence to misogyny. Many more people agreed with her. Many people expressed sympathy with Rodger, one tweeter saying he blamed ‘blondes not guns’ for this killing. Others wondered how hard it would have been for a woman to ‘put out’ for him.

Who wouldn’t feel sorry for this guy? they write. He just wanted to get laid, and selfish, selfish women wouldn’t sleep with him. No wonder he was angry. No wonder he was hurt. Selfish, selfish women, with their belief that they should be able to have sex with people they want to have sex with, and not have sex with people they don’t want to have sex with. Selfish, selfish women with their belief that their bodies belong to them, not to men. They’re the ones at fault here. Not him, he just wanted women to have sex with him. It was women’s fault for not complying with that demand.

It’s so much easier to blame women for the hate and violence committed against us, isn’t it? It’s so much easier to point at women, rather than look at the manifesto and see what is written there as clear as day. The manifesto reveals a man who hated women, a man who believed he was entitled to women’s bodies. His manifesto wasn't about being a man after "love" as some sympathetic tweeters speculated, as love includes mutuality and respect. The manifesto reveals a man who believed he was entitled to access to women's bodies, a man who believed women do not deserve, do not have a right to, bodily autonomy.

It isn’t just people expressing sympathy with Elliot Rodger. There are the people treating him as a sort of MRA superstar. It didn’t take long before someone set up a Facebook page celebrating Rodger as a hero because he killed women, and because he wrote in graphic detail about killing women.

As a woman who has been writing online for over seven years, this MRA response was no surprise to me. After all, Rodger’s writings were nothing I hadn’t seen before. They are in keeping with the MRA rhetoric that stalks women online. I’ve had comments on my blog screeching about women’s control over sex and reproduction, and how that punishes men. I’ve had the odd death threat and rape threat, and god knows I have seen on other women’s blogs the vicious and violent fantasies of MRA men detailing how they want to watch specific or nameless women die, how they want to kill and rape those women. I’ve had men on my blog bemoaning how real life women aren’t like the women in porn movies, and how that isn’t fair on men – revealing a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies and sexualities that frightens me (we’re not your fuck toys. We are human beings. I can’t believe we still have to say it). I’ve read MRA rants on how children who are victims of sexual exploitation are actually exploiting men, (not a direct link obviously but a link to a blog discussing the views) that men are the victims because those children have ‘sexual power’ over men (one day I want every news outlet in the UK to make a sincere apology for giving that specific MRA activist uncritical and endless coverage a few years ago).

What happened this weekend was that the misogyny I have seen in so many comments and articles over the years was acted out. The violent rage was acted out. The result was a terrible tragedy, the deaths of six people, the grief of their families, the horror of their friends. The result wasn’t a victimised man driven to kill by selfish women. The result wasn’t an American hero who ‘paid the ultimate sacrifice in the fight against feminazi ideology’. This was a misogynistic hate crime that led to six people dying.

It’s time to join the dots now. There is no evidence to tell us that these killings were related to mental illness. His parents have confirmed there was no diagnosis. Yet there are pages and pages of evidence to tell us that these killings were related to misogyny. So why are so many people so eager to pretend it has nothing to do with misogyny? Why are so many people desperate to point to any other reason for the killings – pointing at mental health, or the actions of symbolic women? Why are so many people determined to ignore or deny or brush off the misogynistic outpouring that preceded these murders?

It’s hard to admit misogyny. It’s hard to face up to the fact that some men hate women so deeply, and that so much of our culture allows, excuses and forgives that hatred and violence. It’s so much easier to turn away from the obvious misogyny, and place the blame firmly on women’s shoulders, to say we should be less precious about bodily autonomy and support male entitlement. Then nothing has to change. Then no one has to confront the misogyny.

But it’s not good enough. Because this was misogyny. And misogyny kills. Women not wanting to have sex with individual men has never killed anyone. No one has ever died from not having sex. Women’s right to bodily autonomy has never killed anyone. Some men believing women shouldn’t have that right – well, that’s killed plenty.

If we refuse to see this as a hate crime against women, if we refuse to explore how this was a hate crime against women, then we can do nothing to prevent it happening again. If we refuse to take misogyny seriously, if we refuse to look at patterns of male violence and male entitlement, then we can do nothing to stop the next murder, the next killing.

Rodger’s writings revealed a man who believed he was entitled to women’s bodies, a man who viewed women as lesser, a man who believed men should have control over women. The concentration camp fantasy, the view that women should not have control over their own sexuality and reproduction – it’s all there to read. As I say, I have read similar things from MRA men over the years. This, coupled with the celebration of him by MRA groups show that this is not an isolated ‘mad man’ fantasy. This is part of a pattern. I know from first-hand experience that Rodger was not alone in believing this about women. He is not alone in killing women because of a belief that women aren’t fully human and aren’t entitled to be treated as fully human.

We need to call this killing what it is. If we don’t, it will happen again. As one tweeter said,

He was a great man, a hero for 1000s of betas. Next week there will be blood of feminists in the streets.’

You might tell me that this one tweet is the ranting of an ‘idiot’, a ‘mad man’ who shouldn’t be taken seriously. Yet that’s what they would have said last week about Rodger and his manifesto. Now six people are dead.

How many more women need to die before we stop talking about "isolated incidents" committed by "deranged" men? How many more? How many more before we stop trying to turn the blame on to women and instead start calling these crimes what they are - misogynistic hate crimes?

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The system doesn't care why you don't vote. That's why I voted today.

Yesterday I tweeted this image from @FeministPics (follow them, they’re awesome) 

and my timeline went whoop! Seriously, so many RTs. And, inevitably, so much backlash from people informing me that voting was a waste of time. After all, the Suffragettes weren’t fighting for a vote in the kind of Parliament we have today (yes they were!). Voting? What about the Arab Spring! (you mean, the revolutionary movement for democracy instead of dictatorships? Surely that’s about why voting matters?). Voting is a waste of time when they’re all the same, dontcha think? CaMORON and BLIAR – all in all voting won’t change anything, we need to overthrow the whole system and get rid of the current Parliamentary democracy and you know what? The best way to do that is to do…nothing. Nothing. Apparently. 

You don’t need to tell me the system is a bit crap. Being a feminist in the last few years has brought home day after day just how much the Government’s actions are screwing us over. Every day I see policy after policy disproportionately impact negatively on women – from benefit reform to cuts that lead to refuge closures to the continued presence of Yarls Wood. I hate this system. I’m sick of it. I just want to get that out of the way before anyone calls me a stooge. 

But you know what doesn’t change the system? Doing nothing. And that’s what not voting is. Not voting is a negative. It changes nothing. 

Unless you’ve been on Mars for the last month, you’ll have noticed that UKIP is expected to do surprisingly well in this election. This is despite their continued racism, more racism, sexism and homophobia. Somehow they have positioned themselves as the ‘anti-establishment’ party despite their totally establishment views, and now are seen as the obvious ‘protest’ vote against the main parties. 

People who want to vote UKIP are going to go out and vote today. People who are on that section of the right, or who are disenchanted with Labour and the Conservatives and believe the answer lies in scrapping the Human Rights Act and stigmatising immigrants for the failures of domestic policy; they are going to go out and vote today. They’re not going to register their “protest” by doing nothing. 

And so when UKIP does well, and all the non-voters stay home, what do you think happens next? Do you think Cameron and Miliband look at the proportion of non-voters and say ‘hold up! A bunch of people didn’t vote! Better try and start appealing to them, even though I don’t know why they didn’t vote. Maybe they did it because they’re disenchanted with the Parliamentary system that ignores them and passes policies that hurt them. Lets do something to get them on our side! Just in case!’ 

I don’t think they’re going to do that. I think they’re going to look at the people who voted for UKIP, and try and work out how to woo them back to the centre in time for next May. 

And seeing as we know that UKIP has flirted with their voters by whipping up fear of immigration and distaste for human rights, I think we are going to see a lot more statements and announcements that will appeal to that view point. 

It sounds strange I know, but in a Parliamentary democracy, the political parties are always going to make an effort to appeal to those who vote. 

If you don’t vote, they’re not going to make any effort to appeal to you. Because they don’t care why you didn’t vote. They have no reason to take any action to talk to you. They will not revise their policies to try to appeal to non-voters because they want to put their energy into people they know are going to turn up at the polling station. 

As a result, you can bet your bottom dollar they will make an effort to appeal to UKIP voters.

If you are on the left, and you don’t vote today and UKIP does well, and in response the Tories make more noises about scrapping the Human Rights Act, and make it a manifesto pledge to scrap housing benefit for under-25s (a group who notoriously don’t vote), and put in more policies that discriminate against families where the spouse is not from the EU, and send out more racist buses, don’t be surprised. Don’t complain to me. Go and vote instead. 

And you know what else? Check your privilege. Voting should be a right, but it isn’t at the moment. Whilst it is denied to millions across the world, it remains a privilege. When people are dying and being put in prison for demanding this basic right, it remains a privilege. This isn’t just a Suffragette issue, although the battles women fought for me to have the right to even be writing this blogpost is one of the reasons I always vote. It’s too easy for too many people to forget that not having the vote and being imprisoned for demanding it is the reality for women and men across the world today. 

Do you know why their Governments and Dictators still deny their people the vote?

Because they know how much having a vote matters. They know that the vote can change things. 

That’s why they didn’t let us have the vote for so long. 

I know the system sucks. I feel so disenfranchised sometimes, I feel so angry at the ways in which politicians have repeatedly betrayed us. I watch the braying men in the House of Commons and despair at how they will ever represent me. 

But I don’t believe I can change any of that by removing myself from the conversation. Change comes from doing, not from doing nothing. 

I’ll leave the final word to Hunter S Thompson:

Vote. It ain’t much. But it’s the only weapon we have against the greedheads.’ 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Women of the Left Bank series part 3: It all started with Colette

Other posts in the series:
Gertrude Stein and Cultural Femicide
Having a drink with Janet Flanner

It all started with Colette for me – this obsession with Left Bank women that put me on the path to writing my book. To be precise, it all started in Barter Books in Alnwick, and me picking up a Penguin edition of The Vagabond.  You know the type, orange and cream, with a black and white illustration on the cover, in this case of a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman brushing her hair at a dressing table, a top-hatted gentleman by her side.

‘What do you think of Colette?’ I said to my well-read uncle. 

‘I haven’t read her,’ he replied. ‘But those books were written when people didn’t have television.’

So I bought it. Immediately I was swept up into Rene Neree’s world of the fin-de-siecle Parisian café-concert and music hall, a disastrous marriage behind her and an ill-fated love affair with the ‘Big Noodle’ throwing her carefully-structured life and carefully-controlled emotions into confusion. Through the evocative descriptions on the yellowing pages, I could smell the sweat of the rehearsal studio, feel the emptiness of her big bed, the heat of the south coast’s sun on the crowded train, hear the shouted commands of her dance teacher/partner, the throaty singing of Jadin – every sense tingled and responded to this extraordinary, tiny novel. 

I was hooked. I wanted to gobble up every word Colette had ever written (and she wrote A LOT). So I turned to the Claudine novels. They were a revelation. Fifteen years on, these are the books I still return to when I need to read something that feels like a hug in a cosy blanket.

From the moment I joined her wandering alone through the tall woods outside Montigny, I fell head over heels in love with Claudine. I was enthralled by her naughty antics with her school friends as she flirted and frolicked with dubious doctors, seductive teachers and bumbling assistant masters (as an aside, I overheard a conversation in Paris where a woman introduced a man called ‘Antonin’. It took me straight back to Colette’s line about the Antonin Rabastens – ‘one simply can’t be called Antonin!’) After she quitted the woods of Montigny, I longed for Claudine’s Paris, observed from her room on Rue Jacob as she fell for the handsome Renaud. I read about her feeding grapes from her mouth to her lover Rezi and about the awakening of her friend Annie from her horrible marriage. The novels are a wonderful and honest depiction of a young woman’s budding sexuality.

Next came Cheri, The Pure and the Impure, Gigi, The Cat, The Break of Day, The Ripening Seed – as well as her short stories, most notably The Hand. I devoured Colette’s novels and stories. I scoured second hand bookshops for forgotten memoirs and novels that I hadn’t yet discovered. To me, Colette was my key to the world of the senses, she was my escape from boring late nineties/early-noughties Bristol, my teacher of what it was to be a woman. Through Colette I learnt about sex and costume and food and animals and jealousy and dizzying love and dizzying lust. I learnt about opium and cross-dressing and madness and the joy of being outside in the woods. 

For Christmas in 1999, I was given Judith Thurman’s excellent biography of my favourite writer. And that’s when I discovered just how much The Vagabond, the Claudine novels and much more of Colette’s writing were essentially autobiographical. Somehow this made it even more thrilling. 

Colette had a most extraordinary life. Born in 1873 in Yonne, she moved to Paris when she was twenty with her older husband, Willy. Mostly forgotten now, Willy was a huge success in turn of the century Paris, the quintessential man about town with his top hat and tache, publishing novels that he never wrote under his name. Instead, he employed a factory of ghost-writers, turning out saucy, sexy texts that fitted neatly into the whirlwind of Belle Epoque Paris. 

The marriage was not wholly happy. Willy was not a faithful husband, and Colette had affairs with women (including Natalie Barney who was a life long friend). She had some kind of nervous breakdown and there’s some suggestion she contracted an STD from Willy as a result of his infidelities. As she recovered from one bout of illness, Willy suggested Colette tried writing something for him to publish. 

Colette famously describes this incident in My Apprenticeships. She bought herself some school exercise books and wrote a memoir of her school days. Willy read it, and rejected it. The books were put away and not mentioned again until a while later, when they were found in a drawer. On second reading, Willy decided there was something there. He asked Colette to spice them up a bit, and a hit was born. 

And that’ Colette writes ‘is how I became a writer.’

Claudine at School and its follow-ups were all published under Willy’s name and they were HUGE! The naughty schoolgirl with her big white collars and jabots became a national obsession. The books were performed as plays with Polaire and her 16-inch waist taking on the title role. Paris was hit with  Claudine fever. Willy needed more to fuel the fire, and so allegedly he locked Colette in her room until she delivered the goods. She wrote and wrote – and got none of the credit. Meanwhile, Willy got richer and richer off his wife’s labour. 

Eventually the pair divorced and a bitter legal battle on who owned the rights to Claudine followed. But it wasn’t until Willy’s death that Colette succeeded in getting his name removed entirely from the books and was able to claim sole authorship. 

After her divorce, Colette began a long affair with the Mathilde de Morny, known as Missy and immortalised – along with Renee Vivien, Natalie Barney and a whole host of gay and lesbian personalities – in Colette's stories about gay and lesbian Paris, The Pure and the Impure. But without the security given to her by marriage, and unable to claim the recognition she deserved as author of the Claudine and Minne books, she needed a new way to support herself. So she took to the stage – training as a mime and a dancer. It was these experiences that led to the creation of Rene Neree in The Vagabond – a character she returned to throughout her writing career as another foil to herself. 

Colette excelled as a mime – but her career was not without controversy. In her performance of La Reve d’Egypte she caused a riot when she kissed Missy on stage. 

Missy and Colette split up and she married again – this time to Henri de Jouvenal who edited Le Matin. She embarked on a journalism career, reporting throughout the First World War. Her journalism is often forgotten but an important part of her writing that deserves celebrating. The marriage didn’t work out – Colette had an affair with her stepson and de Jouvenal wasn’t exactly a great husband – and the pair divorced in 1924. She married for a final time in 1935, to Maurice Goudeket, and the pair stayed together until her death. 

Her career in the music hall and her incredible (in the true sense of the word) marriage to Willy led to Colette collecting a host of experiences in the Parisian demi-monde of dancers, prostitutes, singers, gay and lesbian men and women, cross-dressers and drug addicts that she would draw on to create some of the most exciting and original literature of the 20th Century. Her writing is truly sensual – not just in a sexual way, but in her appreciation of ALL the senses and all the experiences that stimulate the senses – from the Asti and shrimps that Claudine gobbles down on the night she realises she is in love with Renaud, to the drawing of the gardens in A Retreat from Love, to the descriptions of physical longing and satisfaction with a new/existing lover. 

As well as sensuality, Colette is one of the truly great writers of animals. From Saha the eponymous cat in The Cat, to Claudine’s Fanchette and Rene’s bulldog – animals and their sensibilities and personalities are beautifully – but never sentimentally – drawn. In fact, with Saha the opposite is certainly true, as this beautiful demon wreaks destruction on the failing marriage of Camille and Alain. 

Cheri is probably her most famous work, and it is Colette’s masterpiece. Written whilst she was still married de Jouvenal in 1920, the novel tells the story of Cheri’s separation from his much older lover, Lea. Having always believed their relationship to be casual, it is only when Cheri marries that the pair realise they have been in love. But when Cheri goes back to Lea, he sees her as an old woman and leaves her for good. 

Cheri is spoilt and beautiful, charming and cruel, unbelievably selfish and immature. And yet, through Colette's sensitive and evocative writing, you understand why Lea loves him, and why he loves Lea. 

What makes Cheri so good is what makes all of Colette’s novels and short stories so wonderful – her gift at writing the senses, and her ability to conjure up passion, loss and resignation, of wanting what one can’t have, of longing, and of satisfaction followed by dissatisfaction. Cheri is a beautiful, stunning novel that captures in a short volume the depth of Colette’s brilliant gift. 

I loved Colette as a teenager and I still love her now. I love her daring. I love how she refused to conform – how she refused to bow down to Willy’s stealing of her talent. I love how when the chips were down, she did whatever she could to survive, and that meant dancing and writing. I love how she was determined to live a life that was true to herself. And I love her short hair, and how she looks equally gorgeous in a tux as in a Grecian dress…

Life was so important to Colette. This matters, because in so many ways her marriage to Willy threatened to drown her life. She writes about the lethargy of being married to him, the laziness and the loss of her sense of self. So when she was given the chance to live again, to live her life, she took it and she never let it go. 

Colette’s absolute need for life is perhaps best expressed in Shari Henstock’s description in her superb book, Women of the Left Bank, of Colette’s relationship to Renee Vivien – the alcoholic, anorexic lover of Natalie Barney who died aged just 32. She explains:

Natalie Barney claimed that Vivien’s life was a “long suicide” from which she tried to save her, and Colette, whose will to live was so strong, could not understand the nature of her young neighbour.’

Henstock goes on to say that through writing:

Colette discovered…that writing was an essential act of creativity bearing direct relation to her womanhood, a way of discovering herself as a woman’ 

You can understand this when you read Colette’s work. Every word she writes sparkles with life and self-discovery. She is not necessarily a happy writer, and her books aren’t happy books. But they burn with a desire to live. I think that is what makes them so attractive and how, even now they are out of fashion, they still burst with excitement and energy to a new and returning reader.  

Colette isn’t widely read any more and a lot of her books have fallen out of print. But you can still find them, in second-hand bookstores around the UK. I am so glad I did. 

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Women's football - and women everywhere - deserve better than Richard Scudamore

It’s 23 days until the World Cup! Woo! So what good timing to have a row about sexism in football! Oy oy! 

As someone with very little interest in football, it seems the only contact I ever have with the sport is when a sexism or racism storm kicks off. As a result my view of the game is seen through a prism of dead labourers building a stadium in a country where homosexuality is illegal, sexist pundits, racist players, and rapist players. So you’ll forgive me if I struggle to see the beauty in this beautiful game. 

The latest sexism row to erupt in football features the Premier League boss, Richard Scudamore, who, among other things, swapped emails with others which referred to women as ‘gash’, and an ex girlfriend as a 'double decker' . Only, the word ‘personal’ is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as they were sent from his work account. Oops. He also talked about women being irrational:

'Scudamore started talking about China’s one child policy being a way to stop women becoming more irrational after having children. I thought, he’s had five children – he’s talking about his wife. How does his wife feel? His wife has been humiliated, so has his daughters.'

Thankfully, the guys (mostly men but some women) at the Premier League have been called in to sort this mess out. And sort it out they have. By doing exactly…nothing. Nothing. No disciplinary action. No censure. It’s business as usual and can we all just forget about how utterly dehumanising it is to refer to women as ‘gash’ now please? 

Scudamore has, of course, apologised, in a way that the term ‘mealy-mouthed’ was invented for. The emails, he explains, were ‘received and sent from my private and confidential email’ (they were from his Premier League address) and he argues that no one should have seen them except the recipient. However, Scudamore goes on to say:

I accept the contents are inappropriate and apologise for any offence caused, particularly to the temporary employee. It was an error of judgement that I will not make again.’

It’s not clear whether the error of judgement was in the view of women as ‘gash’ or that the view was written down in an email. 

You know what the problem is with this apology? It isn’t an apology. 

Scudamore, like so many men who express sexist views, seems sorry he got caught. Having been caught, he now accepts the ‘contents are inappropriate’. Before being caught, he clearly considered the contents perfectly fine otherwise he wouldn’t have written it. It’s quite simple – people who actually find sexism and misogyny offensive tend not to write emails dehumanising and mocking women. 

I know this from my own experience of dealing with online harassment. It’s AMAZING how quickly men switch from wanting to 'kick you in the vagina' to being snivellingly sorry when you tell them you know their full name and the town they live in, and will pass that information on to the police. Just like those men, Scudamore seems sorry the emails were seen – those ‘personal’ emails. He’s apologised not for being offensive, but for ‘offence caused’ to his employee. There’s a difference. A subtle one, but it is an important difference all the same. 

What this apology tells us is that it’s ok to be sexist and to dehumanise women and to think women are stupid and irrational, to exchange emails where woman are referred to as ‘big-titted broads’ and ‘joke’ about fending a female member ‘off their shaft’ – but only so long as it’s done in private where women can’t see it. The apology tells us that you can say what you like about women in your own personal time. The offensiveness only occurs when a woman hears it and calls it out. It’s like the tree that falls in a forest. If there’s no woman to hear you talk about ‘big-titted broads’, then it’s just ‘classic bantz’. 

Now, of course, this story has been met with the argument that they were personal emails and therefore Scudamore’s views don’t interfere with his role as boss of the Premier League. No one should be criticising the head of the Premier League – the man who is responsible for promoting equality in the league – because the story goes that you can call women whatever names you like in your personal life, it probably won’t affect your professional life. 

But this is just nonsense. 

If you think of women as ‘gash’, if you think women are ‘irrational’ or that women are just there for your sexual titillation, then you don’t wipe those views from your mind every time you step into your office. There isn’t a sexism-amnesia formula that misogynists can take every time they go to work – the effects wearing off just in time to let them send some personal emails packed full of their actual views of women. If you dehumanise women in your personal communications, if you reduce women to objects and orifices, then that will impact on your ability to see them as fully human in your professional AND your personal environment. 

Scudamore, as boss of the Premier League, is responsible for promoting equality in football. It’s up to him to support efforts to ‘kick out sexism’ from the game. How can he do this, when he holds such nasty and offensive views of women? How can a man who seems happy to join in with the utter dehumanisation women that the word ‘gash’ evokes be at all qualified to lead efforts to end sexism in football? 

You cannot be a champion for women’s equality in your professional life and discuss women in terms as big-titted irrational gash in your personal life. How can someone who thinks of women in these terms be trusted to promote equality in a sport where inequality between male and female teams is already such a huge problem? And it is a big problem. The Jane Martinson post on the Guardian reports that 2/3 of women employed in football had experienced discrimination. She explained that only £2.4 million has been invested in the new FA Women and Girls programme over the last two years – a sum roughly equivalent to Scudamore’s basic salary. She also quotes Sue Tibballs, the former head of Women’s Sports and Fitness Federation, who calls the Premier League’s support for women’s sports ‘nonsense’ and Scudamore a ‘dinosaur’. She explains: 

My own view is that the Premier League has taken very little interest in women’s football despite a huge opportunity to get behind them.’

Scudamore can clearly talk the talk about raising the profile of women’s football in front of the cameras. But his personal views of women betray him as seeing us as objects or fools. 

The word ‘gash’ literally reduces women to a hole. It’s a horrible, nasty, violent and disturbing word. A man who happily exchanges emails where women are referred to as ‘gash’ should not be in charge of promoting equality anywhere – let alone in an already grossly unequal industry. Women footballers – and women everywhere – deserve better than this. We deserve better than a non-apology. Women Premier League footballers and wannabe footballers in particular deserve a boss who sees them as fully human. They deserve better.

Monday, 19 May 2014

John Lyndon Sullivan, homophobic violence and why voting UKIP is a poor 'protest'

I was going to write about this last week, when it was revealed, but I was so angry everything I put down on paper became INCOHERENT WITH RAGE. So I’ll try again now that the sunshine has calmed me down somewhat. 

(Hmm, reading it back it’s pretty rage-y.)

On Friday I came across a quote from UKIP politician, John Lyndon Sullivan, saying:

I rather often wonder if we shot one ‘poofter’ (GLBT whatevers), whether the next 99 would decide on balance, that they weren’t after-all? We might then conclude that it’s not a matter of genetics, but rather more a matter of education.”

The quote ends with a smiley face. Because shooting gay people is all the LOLZ AMIRITE??!!

Confusing punctuation and clear lack of research on the ‘gay gene’ debate aside, I am sure you can understand why this quote made me incandescent on Friday. 

My childhood meant I grew up with an understanding of homophobia and what hatred of gay people looked like in the lives of women and men. But I think the first time I really felt the true, intense fear of homophobia was after the nail bombing in Soho. I was 14 years old at the time, and identified as bi. As the news reported that a former BNP member had bombed a popular gay pub on Old Compton Street, I had a chilling feeling of realisation. I learnt that day how some people wanted to kill women like me. They wanted to kill people like my mum, and my family friends and family members. 

Two people were killed in that bomb attack. Two people were murdered by a homophobe who hoped that by threatening and destroying the lives of gay people, he would make them all disappear. Which is kind of what John Lyndon Sullivan is demanding, isn’t it? What would happen if we shoot one, he ‘jokes’. Then 99 more might decide on balance they don’t have to be gay. In his comment, he implies that through threat, they’ll ‘choose’ to be straight. Never mind that sexuality isn’t a choice. Never mind that no one asks why heterosexual people ‘choose’ to be straight. 

In recent years, we’ve been hearing more and more of the term ‘corrective rape’. This is when men rape a gay, lesbian or bi woman to ‘turn’ her straight. Put plainly, to ‘correct’ her sexuality. We have mainly heard the phrase ‘corrective rape’ in relation to South Africa, but just to be very clear, this violence isn’t confined to one country or to recent times.  

Corrective rape is the use of violence to try and erase gay women, to try stop women from being gay. In this, the term and the crime share a root with Lyndon Sullivan’s comment. Corrective rape is the brutal acting out of a belief that using violence against LGBTQ people will force them to renounce their sexuality or gender identity. 

A few years ago, I volunteered to co-run a campaign to stop the deportation of a young Ugandan asylum seeker, B. She is gay, and had been outed in the Ugandan press (even if she wasn’t gay, the fact that she had been outed in the media would be enough to put her in serious danger, but try telling that to the bloody Home Office). The young woman had been horrifically beaten and attacked by a group of Ugandan men – again in an attempt to ‘correct’ her sexuality. 

For as long as I live, I will never forget reading the internal report by the UKBA on her injuries, or the photographs of what had been done to her. Even just thinking about it makes me want to break down and cry. That anyone could commit such acts of terror on another human being because they hated her sexuality makes me feel sick to my stomach. 

Once again, the root of the attack on B is found in Lyndon Sullivan’s comment. When the gang of men beat B, they were acting out that ‘wondering’. They were putting into reality the conviction that all it takes is fear, intimidation and violence to ‘educate’ an LGBQ person out of their sexuality.  

The awful violence committed against this young woman happened not long after the murder of gay Ugandan activist David Kato. He was killed with a hammer. His life was violently taken away from him by people driven by hate, who hoped their hate would erase gay people. 

My point with all these examples is that Lyndon Sullivan doesn’t have to ‘wonder’ about the impact of shooting one gay person. Every day, LGBTQ people are being killed, beaten and raped simply for existing. He doesn’t need to ‘wonder’ about it, he can just open a newspaper. The murder of LGBTQ people is not the ‘joke’ of a UKIP politician. It’s the reality faced by millions of people in every country in the world. 

I cannot understand how anyone could say something that is not only hugely ignorant about the reality of violent homophobia, but that is basically cruel. How can someone sit there, and type a message imagining the murder of one person, in order to teach a wider group of people a lesson? How can he do that? How could he speak those words out loud? 

Since the Soho bombs, there have been real gains made for LGBTQ rights in the UK. Section 28 was repealed when I was in the sixth form. Around the same time came changes to the law allowing gay people could adopt. Before that, we saw the equalisation of the age of consent between men. Homosexuality became legal in the military. By the time I started university, civil partnerships were beginning to happen. This year the first marriages between same sex couples took place. In fact, at a (straight) friend’s wedding last weekend, I nearly shed a tear when the registrar announced that the UK law said marriage was a legal commitment between ‘two people’ as opposed to ‘between a man and a woman’.  

The vast, vast majority of the British public have welcomed these reforms. Men like John Lyndon Sullivan really are out of step with popular feeling on this issue, as are Farage and Roger Helmer. 

But some people, like the aforementioned UKIP-ers, have felt “threatened” by progress on LGBTQ rights. As a result, they have come out with reactionary and violent statements in their political efforts to roll back equality. 

Let’s be clear. No one is threatening the existence of homophobes. No one is beating or raping homophobes to 'correct' their views. One in six UK homophobes aren’t reporting hate crime. No one is even threatening their opportunity to air their toxic views – after all, UKIP seems to have had ample opportunities to freely express their nasty BS on the mainstream media. It isn’t UKIP-ers and the like who are threatened. No, it is LGBTQ people who are being beaten, raped and murdered simply for existing, and freely expressing their sexuality or gender identity. 

One wonders what it is going to take for people to decide that a ‘protest vote’ for UKIP on Thursday is a bad idea. How far will they have to go before everyone puts the ballot paper down and say, ‘hang on… Do I want to vote in protest for a party where men call women “sluts” and talk about “bongo bongo land”? Do I want to vote for a party where the leader talks about how he doesn’t want Romanians next door because immigration should be about “quality not quantity”? Do I want to vote for a party where a member says getting into bed with your boyfriend puts “reasonable expectations” in his mind, so if you get raped it’s your fault? The same man who says older people find homosexuality “viscerally repugnant”? Do I want to vote for a party where a member says he wonders if shooting one “poofter” would lead to 99 more changing their mind? Do I want to vote for a party with a councillor who calls the police because someone dared to tweet a list of UKIP policies?’ (they’re your policies FFS!)

John Lyndon Sullivan, across the world LGBTQ people are being raped, beaten and yes, shot, because of their sexuality. You should be ashamed of yourself for your nasty, violent, homophobic comments. You, your party, and your party’s supporters should be ashamed.   

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Women of the Left Bank series: Having a drink with Janet Flanner

This post is part of my Women of the Left Bank series which started with this article on Gertrude Stein

(Apologies for not putting in correct accents on the French names - am having issues with Word)

I recently went to Paris to work on my book (seriously – my favourite phrase in the English language right now!) and to walk in the footsteps of my literary heroines through the narrow streets that open up into Church flanked squares and verdant parks of Montparnasse. Walking down Rue de Fleurus past Gertrude Stein’s house, along Rue Bonaparte and Janet Flanner’s pad, turning left down Rue Jacob to see where Colette (and Claudine) lived, and where Natalie Barney had her Temple d’Amities, on to Rue de l’Odeon where Sylvia Beach set up the original Shakespeare and Company, with Adrienne Monnier’s shop across the road. It was a wonderful week, soaking up a world of poetry, paintings and literary experimentalism.

‘If I could go back in time and have a drink with anyone,’ I said to a friend of mine when I returned, my heart still left somewhere in the Left Bank, ‘it would be Janet Flanner.’

‘But that’s such a hard decision to make!’ he cried.

‘If you had a drink with Janet,’ I explained wisely, ‘everyone else would turn up.’

She should need no introduction. But because she is less famous than many of her female contemporaries (who in turn are less famous than their male contemporaries), I’ll give you one anyway.

Janet Flanner was a writer who, in the early 20s, left her husband in Indiana and came to Paris with her lover, Solita Solano, to write. Like so many of the women and men expats who flocked to Paris in the 1920s, Janet arrived at the Left Bank determined to shape her own life – and to have the freedom to be a creative and sexual woman. She explained her reasons for coming to Paris as:

I was looking for beauty with a capital B. And I couldn’t find it in Indiana.’

Janet and Solita settled on Rue Bonaparte and started writing novels. But it is as a journalist where Janet found her calling, and where her real talent shines through. From 1925 to the outbreak of World War Two (during which she became a war correspondent with that other famous Left Bank alumni, Ernest Hemingway) and for the years after, she wrote the Letter from Paris for the New Yorker magazine, under the pen name ‘Genet’.

Her editor thought Genet was French for Janet, proving just how much The New Yorker needed their Parisian! Through her letters, Janet's prose style came to epitomise the tone of voice of the New Yorker, and her unique tone of voice has been a huge influence on journalists and columnists for decades.

Janet was at the heart of the Parisian expat community that created the artistic waves that are still loved by us today. She was a true Paris enthusiast, claiming that:  

When America was making candles, France was making Voltaire.’

Shortly after her arrival in Montparnasse, Janet became close friends with Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, and a much-loved member of their circle. Stein was at the cultural centre of the most cultural city in the world, and through their friendship, so was Janet. From her seat at Les Deux Magots, coffee and cigarette in hand, she recorded Paris’ activities with an insight and wit that transported her American readers to the City of Light’s dusty and buzzing streets.

Janet’s letters cover all aspects of creative Paris. She was there when Josephine Baker danced on the stage of the Moulin Rouge for the first time, when Paris’ streets filled with mourners of Isadora Duncan and when Kiki de Montparnasse first exhibited her own paintings. She wrote about art shows, about book publications, about the scandalous memoirs of Liane de Pougy and who the real people were behind the characters in The Sun Also Rises. Nothing happened in Paris without Janet seeing it, recording it and bringing it to life for a reader thousands of miles – or eighty years – away.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Janet knew everyone - which is why she would make such a perfect person to have a drink with. As such, she is a fabulously funny and sharp guide to the people of Left Bank Paris, introducing us today to the foibles and fancies of the women and men who have been mythologized in countless novels and films about the 1920s.

From Janet, we learn that Gertrude Stein had a laugh like a ‘roaring oven’. She tells us that when Gertrude laughed, ‘it was like a signal’, and everyone joined her. In a wonderful interview in the documentary Paris Was a Woman (watch this film – you won’t regret it!), she explains the influence Stein had on Hemingway as follows:

So Hemingway would write, "it was a nice day. It was a very nice day. It was a very nice day for fishing". Not that Gertrude was one for fishing, except at the dinner table.’

I would love to know what she means! It’s such a sharp remark, and it clearly means something to Janet, but we are left to wonder just what Gertrude was fishing for…

One of my favourite Janet stories is about Nightwood author, Djuna Barnes. She begins by explaining:

I was devoted to Djuna, and she was, in her own way, very fond of me’ 

(I love that – ‘devoted to Djuna’). Barnes had just written The Antiphon and was asking Janet for her thoughts. Janet confessed that she couldn’t understand it.

‘Oh Janet,’ Djuna responded. ‘I never thought you would be as stupid as Tom Eliot.’

Janet acknowledged that it was one of the best compliments she had ever received. In 1928 she was immortalised with Solita as the journalists ‘Nip and Tuck’ in Djuna Barnes’ Ladies Almanack

Another typical Janet quote is her assessment of Picasso, who she teases for always taking the same route home from Montparnasse to Montmartre. Describing his conventionality when it comes to walking the city streets, she remarks:

You’d think for a mad modernist he’d change the route every once in a while!

In her essential guide to the women of the era, The Women of the Left Bank, Shari Henstock writes that Janet, like her friend Natalie Barney, was a happy and optimistic person who wasn’t given to feelings of shame or depression about her sexuality (unlike say, Radclyffe Hall). This is something I love about Janet – she was fun loving and funny, with an effervescence that bubbles through in her writing and her recorded interviews. You can almost tell what an awesome woman she was just from the women who loved her – Solita Solano was one of the most fabulous (and beautiful) women on the Left Bank and the pair had a non-monogamous relationship for fifty years. Then there was Noel Murphy, an absolutely stunning singer from outside Paris.

Janet’s letters weren’t just about the arts and fun of the Parisian Left Bank experienced in La Rotonde, Select, La Coupole, Le Dome and Lipps. She was a very incisive and insightful recorder of the rise of fascism in Europe, and on the Spanish Civil War. She understood that dark clouds were gathering, and what those dark clouds meant for her world. Her reflections and analysis of what was happening in Europe and her adopted country make up some of her best letters. She was one of the last Americans to leave Paris, on a boat, and from her new home in New York she reported on the war and its aftermath – including the Nuremberg trials.

Returning to Paris after the war, Janet went on to cover the Suez Crisis, the Soviet Invasion of Hungary and the troubles in Algeria. Whatever was happening in the world, you could trust Janet would be there, bringing the world of the crisis to her readers with her incredibly personal and intelligent understanding.

Janet Flanner isn’t well known today and I wonder if that is partly because the medium that she was working in, journalism, can have a shorter shelf life than the novels, plays, poetry or visual art that her contemporaries were creating. On top of the fact that our cultural legacy favours the male creators of the Left Bank over its women, it is perhaps of little surprise that Janet is not a household name. But throughout her career her letters were loved and cherished by thousands. She was made a Knight of Legion D’Honneur and awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Smith College.

When you look through her letters from Paris, Janet’s voice sings out as clear as a bell, despite the eight decades separating our time and hers. When you read ‘Genet’, you feel you are sat there, beside her at Les Deux Magots, as she updates you on who has published what and who is rivalling with who. She opens up a half forgotten world to you, until you can smell the sweat and excitement at the Moulin Rouge, until the wails at Isadora Duncan’s funeral are ringing in your ears.

You can read a selection of Janet’s letters in the Virago collection Paris was Yesterday. Whether you are interested in 1920s Paris, women’s history, or just want to read some damn fine journalism, I cannot recommend Janet Flanner enough.

Cheers, Janet. 

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Sexual assault and why it's not me who should feel shame

Last weekend, my best friend and I met for brunch at a little ‘pop up’ place in Bristol where there’s a café and a bar and a shared portakabin of toilets grouped together. It’s a lovely spot, and a real example of Bristol creative entrepreneurship. I spent a great deal of time there last summer, as really this bar is best enjoyed under the hot, hot sun.

My friend and I were talking and she said she needed to go to the loo. I told her then that when I was here last year, this guy followed me to the toilets and tried to kiss me. Confused and angry, I pushed him away and told him he was in the wrong toilets. He laughed, and shrugged, and went away.

‘Was he embarrassed?’ my friend asked, even though she knew the answer.

‘No, of course not. I was embarrassed.’

‘These guys, they just think, well it’s worth a shot, and then don’t give it another thought, do they?’ she said.

‘Right. And there I was, feeling embarrassed, and ashamed. And he had no idea about how he had made me feel. And even if he did have an idea, he simply didn’t care.’

I’d met this man a few times over the weeks I was going to the bar. There were always lots of people around, and he was friendly and chatty, and because when the sun comes out I feel friendly and chatty too, we had talked a little bit – nothing much, just a ‘isn’t this great! What a lovely venue! What lovely weather!’ I was just being friendly, and I thought he was just being friendly too.

So when I found him in the toilets, it was a bit of a shock. And then, afterwards, I found myself reviewing all my actions. Had the fact I was chatting to him given the impression that I was looking for something more? Had the fact I’d said hello given that impression? Was it my general summery breezy attitude that suggested I wanted something else? I kept asking what I had done, to provoke this man into doing what he did.

When, of course, it was what he had done that was the problem. It was him that had behaved badly, not me. So why was I the one feeling embarrassed? Why was I the one feeling like I didn’t really want to go back to the bar again, in case I saw him again, and felt awkward? Why did I feel ashamed, and like I had done something wrong, when all I had done was follow the rules that a woman should be ‘nice’ and welcoming, and he had broken all of the rules and chosen to come into the women’s toilets?

On a rational level, I knew that it wasn’t my actions that had caused this. And yet, I was the one who felt in the wrong. I was the one who felt I had ‘led him on’ by being friendly and this was the result.

It’s no surprise I felt like this. After all, this is a message women and girls get bombarded with every day.

It’s one of the great contradictions in our skewed up attitude towards sexual assault. On the one hand, we teach girls from an early age that the most important thing is to be ‘nice’. We tell them that to be argumentative, confrontational, to stand up for oneself, is ‘unladylike’. And the message is that this is especially true in women’s relations to men. It’s why I have, in the past, found myself talking to men I really don’t want to talk to, because to tell him to go away, that I’ve got better things to do with my time than talk to them, is to transgress the rule that women must be ‘nice’ and ‘accommodating.’

At the same time, we tell women that if they talk to a man, and he then assaults her, then she is to blame. We ask women what they did to ‘provoke’ the assault. We ask whether she ‘led him on’, whether she led him to believe through her behaviour that she was ‘up for it’. We don’t talk about his behaviour. We don’t talk about the fact that talking to a woman isn’t a ‘free pass’. We tell women to be nice, and then we tell her that her niceness ‘led him on’. We find a way to blame her for any violence committed against her. It’s a pretty horrendous and dangerous double bind.

In the Guardian last month, there was an article by David Foster saying that projects like Everyday Sexism, and campaigns against street harassment, are trying to destroy flirting. It was the usual bluster that seemed to miss the crucial difference between mutual flirting, and harassment and assault.

No-where in the article did it consider how women felt. No-where did it consider that one of the consequences of experiencing harassment and assault is that it might make women feel a bit wary of a man flirting with her. Nor did it consider that if that is the case, then that’s not the fault of Everyday Sexism. It’s the fault of men who choose to harass and assault women.

My experience last summer means that now, when a man I don’t know is friendly and wants to talk to me, I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want to joke about the weather or the music. I don’t want to fulfil my expected role of being ‘nice’ and receptive to a man’s attentions. Because I don’t want to risk another man deciding it’s an invitation. I don’t want to be put in the position – again – where me being nice results in me being assaulted, or nearly assaulted.

After all, this isn’t the first time this has happened. And I would prefer it to be the last.

It’s so messed up that I have been the one to feel shame and embarrassment  whenever incidents like this happen. That it’s me that is left to question my actions, whilst the men just don’t seem to care. It’s not ok that it was me who felt like I shouldn’t go back to the bar (I did, the following week, and I told my friend what had happened, a bit embarrassed, in case he thought I was over-reacting). It’s not ok that I was made to feel like that, because I hadn’t done anything wrong.

And it’s not ok that because of the actions of a minority of men, I feel like I have to change my behaviour. It’s not ok that because of the actions of a few men, I no longer feel happy or comfortable talking to men I don’t know.

Summer is nearly here, and I’m sure I’ll be back at the bar, wearing a summer dress with a pint of beer in my hand. But this time, I’ll just talk to my friends. And if any man tries to talk to me, I won’t care if he thinks I’m unfriendly, if he thinks I’m ‘not nice’. Because it’s not my fault that past consequences of being friendly have been painful.

The next time a male journalist or man on the street moans about feminism killing flirting, perhaps they should lay the blame in the right place. Because if I don’t want to talk to you, it’s not because I’m a feminist. It’s because too many men have taught me that the consequences of being friendly are simply too nasty to risk.