Thursday, 27 August 2015

Women-only train carriages are on a railroad to no-where

Nearly eleven years ago, when I was 20, a man sat next to me on the train from Berwick-upon-Tweed to London King’s Cross. He started talking to me – despite the fact that being the bookish chick I am I was clearly reading a novel. This is always a difficult conundrum for women in public space. On the one hand, we’re warned against strange men. We’re told never to speak to strangers. On the other, we’re told to always be nice, to be accommodating. Smile. Don’t complain. Don’t be a stuck up bitch. 

The latter lesson, as it so often does when someone is insistently talking to you, won out. I was nice. I was accommodating. I wasn’t a stuck up bitch. 

I later had to leg it across King’s Cross and jump on to the nearest bus, as this man chased after me, shouting my name. 

Don’t lead a man on, Sian. What did you expect him to think, with you being so nice, so accommodating, not being a stuck up bitch? What else had you led him to expect?  

It was this story, and a dreary litany of similar stories involving being harassed, groped, assaulted (but not wanked on, thank God, although I know women who have endured this) on public transport (in general, not always on trains) that meant my gut response to Jeremy Corbyn’s reported proposal of women-only train carriages was:

Wouldn’t it be nice. Wouldn’t it be a relief. To not have to worry. To not have to feel anxious. To not panic that the man sat there might turn into the man who chased me, who groped me, who harassed me, who tried to assault me.

And it would be nice. It would be a relief. But it wouldn’t be a solution. 

I should point out now that despite some media misrepresentation, Jeremy Corbyn was not announcing a policy of women-only train carriages, but wants instead to consult women about the best ways to tackle the daily harassment we put up with. This is a really good thing that, if he’s elected, will hopefully build on the work of Labour women such as Vera Baird and Yvette Cooper who have been raising this issue for years

Anyway, hope that clears that up. Now back to trains. 

So yes, women-only train carriages may be nice for all the reasons I mention above. But they won’t be a solution. 

Because all they do is move the issue away from the perpetrator’s behaviour, and instead put all the focus onto the victim’s behaviour. 

Women-only train carriages tell us that in order to avoid male violence, we need to move out the way. There’s nothing in this message that challenges abusive men. There’s nothing here that challenges male entitlement to women’s time and bodies. Instead, it’s a ‘solution’ that shrugs at male violence, treats it as something inevitable, and tells women that we must take steps to avoid it. We must sit in the women-only carriage. 

Anything that treats male violence as an inevitable part of women’s lives will never succeed in ending violent male entitlement. 

So-called solutions like women-only train carriages make women the problem – they treat harassment as a problem for women that we have to take actions to fix. It doesn’t tell the man who chased me that he needs to stop feeling entitled to my time and body. It doesn’t tell the man who wanked on my friend that he’s a criminal. It doesn’t tell the man who groped me that I have a right to my bodily autonomy that he had no right to violate. 

It tells those men that they can carry on as normal, because women will now keep out of their way. It tells men that we women will clean up the mess, and remove ourselves. It tells men that they get all the rights to public space, and we’ll squeeze ourselves into the back of the train. It refuses to admit that if violent men are assaulting women on trains, then those men are the problem. 

I had a conversation on Twitter yesterday about whether women-only train carriages would in fact work as a short-term solution to counter male violence on public transport. And sure, there is an argument here. The evidence suggests that levels of sexual harassment are reduced in women-only spaces (duh!) because men are not present. I know that sounds like it’s stating the obvious but it’s worth making the point. 

However, my counter argument would be that even as a short-term solution, we know that telling women to modify their behaviour is destined to failure. And we know this because it has been our response to male violence since the year dot. We already put a ridiculous amount of restrictions on women’s freedom in public space. The warnings about how best to “protect” ourselves from predatory men are engraved in our minds. We tell women not to drink too much, in case they get raped. We tell women not to dress in certain ways, in case they get raped. We tell women not to walk home alone, in case they get raped. We tell women to get taxis, in case they get raped. 

Every year in the UK, around 80,000 women and girls are raped. There are around 500,000 sexual assaults in the UK every year. 

Clearly, telling women to change our behaviour isn't working. Clearly putting the onus on women to 'prevent' rape isn't working, when so many men continue to rape and assault women with impunity. 

Because telling women to change their behaviour achieves nothing. It does nothing to stop rapes from happening. And it achieves nothing due to one very simple reason: male violence isn’t caused by women’s behaviour, it is caused by violent men. 

Women-only train carriages are on a railroad to nowhere. If we continue to tell women that they are the ones who need to change to avoid male violence, then male violence will continue unabated. Male entitlement to women’s space, to women’s time and to women’s bodies will remain unchallenged. The underlying attitudes that allow and excuse male violence will carry on as normal, as women once again are expected to remove ourselves from public space that we should all have equal access to. 

So, as tempting as it is to never have to feel that twitch of anxiety on a train again, I’m going to demand bigger change. I’m going to demand women’s liberation from male violence. 

Because it’s the attitudes and behaviours of men that need to change. Not where I choose to sit on the train. 

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

It's not feminists who believe "all men are rapists"

A couple of years ago, when Bristol launched their new anti sexual violence campaign, I was a guest on a radio show discussing the ‘This is not an excuse to rape me’ message. The show invited members of the public to phone in (love it when they don’t tell you that…!). One chap called in to let me know that campaigns like this don’t work. He explained that men simply can’t help themselves – that if they saw a girl with her short skirt showing her bottom (seriously, his words), then it would prove too tempting for men. 

I responded that I, clearly, had a higher opinion of men than he did. I explained that I didn’t believe that men couldn’t control themselves when confronted with a woman they fancied. I explained that rape isn’t about sexual attraction but about power. And I explained that I believed male violence isn’t inevitable – that rape is not a natural response of men when around women. 

In short, I told him that, as a feminist, I don’t believe all men are rapists. And that, through his claims that men simply can’t control themselves, he kind of did. 

I was reminded of this exchange last week, when I read about Catherine Hakim’s (yes, she of Honey Money Erotic Capital fame) latest piece of research about the male sex deficit and how it justified calls to legalise prostitution. I’m not going to rehash the arguments about decriminalisation/legalisation/Nordic Model of prostitution here. But I do want to talk about the relationship Hakim’s conclusions share with the phone-in man, and what it says about our views of men, sex, and sexual violence. 

In this article, the journalist summarises Hakim’s research like so:

She says the available evidence suggests that prostitution and pornography have no damaging social impact and may even help reduce sex crime. Dr Hakim says: “Spain, where prostitution is legal, also has exceptionally low rates of rape.”’

I’d be interested to know where she got that rate from – whether she’s focused on reports, convictions or estimate. But that’s for another day. What I want to focus on here is how she’s fundamentally saying that we need the sex industry in order to meet men’s sexual ‘needs’, and that this will in turn keep down the rates of sexual violence. 

Of course, I’m sure Hakim would deny how this translates. But to me, this reads in one way and one way only. If we are saying we need to ensure men can have access to sex on tap in order to reduce sexual violence, then we’re saying that all men are potential rapists. She’s saying that we therefore need to create a group of women that are available for men to ‘work out’ their sexual ‘frustration’ in order to stop them raping other women. 

It’s a truly disturbing and horrifying thought. 

Hakim argues that there is a sexual deficit between men and women – in other words that men have higher sex drives than women and that this: “cannot be dismissed as an outdated patriarchal myth as argued by some feminists”.

Well, actually I would argue that it could. We might have Sex and the City, we might even have 50 Shades of Grey, but there is still a lot of shame attached to female sexuality. Negative tropes around women freely expressing their sexuality still abound – from ‘he’s a stud, she’s a slut’, to the stigma that still surrounds women masturbating. We are still wedded to the stereotype that men need sex more than women. Why? Because it’s a stereotype that serves patriarchal control over women’s reproductive labour. It’s a stereotype that treats sex as labour for women and leisure for men – a stereotype which serves a capitalist sex industry. 

Yes, we live in a raunch culture that purports to be yo so totes cool with women having a free and easy sexuality. But when you peel back the raunch, what you really see is a culture that is okay with women who conform to patriarchal beauty standards performing a male-defined spectacle of sexuality. Women actually embodying their own sexuality, talking about sexual desire and sexual pleasure – all that is still seen as pretty problematic. Because despite its focus on T&A, raunch culture is fundamentally conservative about how it allows women to express themselves sexually. I could go on and on about this, but really, Ariel Levy writes it better than I ever could.  

Hakim says the:

“sexual deficit” between men and women “helps to explain many puzzles, including why men are the principal customers for commercial sexual entertainments of all kinds”.

This is not a puzzle, Catherine! This is capitalist patriarchy! There’s no ‘puzzle’ here – it’s not a random weird coincidence that men are the main consumers of sexual entertainment, when that sexual entertainment is a capitalist invention aimed to make money out of stereotypes of male sexuality! 

To paraphrase someone or other, it’s capitalist patriarchy, stupid

Again, this ‘conclusion’ about men and sexual entertainment is highly influenced by the cultural messages we receive about sexuality. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, or read, that men are ‘highly visual’ and therefore need p0rn and strip clubs, whereas women are more ‘emotional’ or turned on by status or power. 

In response, I give you: this photo

You’re welcome ladies! 

Just because something is repeated over and over again doesn’t make it true. Again, these stereotypes serve our current notions about sex and sexuality – notions repeated by a capitalist patriarchal industry determined to turn sex into a marketable product sold to men. 

However, even if it were true that men are more visual, and men need sex more than women, it still doesn’t mean that creating an industry that treats sex as work for women and leisure for men; that sends a message that women are disposable sex objects to be consumed by men – is okay. 

On the big capitalist patriarchal project that is the sex industry, Hakim

dismisses claims that prostitution, pornography and lap-dancing are harmful to women’ 

Again, this is so, so debatable. 

When I co-ran the Bristol Feminist Network, I met young women who talked about the impact of p0rn on their lives. Speak to any group of teenage girls, go on the Everyday Sexism website and hear their voices as they talk about the influence everyday, pedestrian and violent p0rn has on boys who then pressure them into performing sex acts they don’t want to. Then read this research on the levels of sexual violence in teen relationships. 

The normalisation of the commercial sex industry has an impact on women across the board and can contribute to levels of sexual violence. For example, when feminist groups targeted strip club licensing in Bristol, the police informed us there was an 80% increase in reports of sexual harassment and assault in the streets surrounding the five central strip clubs. 

Plus the psychological impact of knowing that, as women, we live in a society that views us as disposable sex objects – as tits and arse laid bare across a magazine cover, a website screen, a stage – is incredibly harmful. And that impact isn’t just on women. Research from the American Psychological Association found that exposure to sexist imagery makes men more tolerant of misogyny. 

And then, of course, there’s the woman within the sex industry – women who are trafficked, raped, physically attacked and verbally abused by the punters that so callously ‘review’ their purchases. 

Which leads me to my final point. Because in arguing that we ‘need’ the sex industry in order to reduce the levels of sexual violence, it’s as if we put a full stop on caring about the violence perpetuated against women within that industry. 

Hakim’s research suggests

that ending curbs on Britain’s £4.3bn sex industry could reduce levels of rape and sex attacks.”

What about the levels of rape and sex attacks against women in the sex industry? Does legalising it reduce those? Research on legalisation in Holland and Germany would suggest a BIG FAT NO. In fact, as demand increases with legalisation, trafficking has soared to help create the supply. And, by its very definition, trafficking is violence – women in the sex industry who have been trafficked are being raped every day. 

This all goes back to my earlier point. The reported statement purports to believe that if we are to reduce sexual violence, we have to give men an outlet that will allow them to expend their sexual frustration. We argue that if men aren’t given access to sex, then they will just go out and rape. 

Or, that all men are potential rapists if their so-called needs aren’t met. 

And that’s not okay, is it? That’s not okay to say. 

(can I just point out to that no one 'needs' sex? Sex is great but no one dies from not having it. A bloke's dick won't drop off if he can't pay to stick it in someone).

Anyway, back to the main point. In this analysis, Hakim et al ignore that rape isn’t about sexual desire, but about power. It tells lies about men’s needs for sex, and makes the false suggestion that men have a right to have their 'needs' met. 

But perhaps most horrifyingly of all, it argues that we need to create a group of women that are there to service men’s sexual 'needs', in order to protect another group of women from men’s sexual violence. 

It’s such a staggeringly Victorian idea I’m astonished that no one is embarrassed at promoting or praising it. 

Whatever one’s views on the sex industry, it is simply not okay to justify its existence by saying it will prevent men from raping. We can never justify its existence by saying that its purpose is to protect one group of women from male violence, by creating another group of women who are there for men to ‘act out’ their 'frustrations'. 

Because if we justify it on those terms, then how do we ever challenge male violence? How do we protect women in the industry from violence? 

And how can we ever achieve a world where ALL women are truly free from male violence, if we start from the position that men will rape if their sexual 'needs' are not met? 

As a feminist, I totally and wholly believe that not all men are rapists. I believe male violence is a product of violent patriarchy, and that it can be challenged. I do not believe rape is inevitable, and I believe in a world where we can all live free from male violence. 

That is why I cannot support any argument that says we need to create a group of women that men can use sexually, in order to prevent them from raping another group of women. I cannot support any argument that says some women can be raped so others aren’t. 

Because I believe better of men. I believe in a better world than that grotesque, Victorian compromise. 

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Stay in your lane, or: who gets to talk about the sex industry

So here I am, dipping my toe into that whirlpool of opinion for the first time in a long time, and breaking my own rule about blogging about the sex industry. Why do I have this rule? Because blogging about the sex industry is fraught, with strong and impassioned feelings on all sides, misrepresentation and bad faith, straw men arguments on all sides, and, at the heart of it all, women’s voices being silenced because - as one woman heartbreakingly put it in Kat Banyard’s book The Equality Illusion - it’s ‘hard to have a voice when there’s a cock down your throat.’

However, I’m breaking my rule. Why? Well because of all those reasons. And because I’m a writer who gives a damn about this issue and I’m sick of all the self-censorship. So, here I am. Writing about my views on an industry that affects all women. And I’m writing about it precisely because it affects all women, and so this is a lane that all women are in.

I want to start this post with a story about what happened in Bristol, the first time a woman in prostitution was awarded criminal compensation for the abuse committed against her. This woman was picked up a john, gang raped and then thrown from a four storey window, where she was left for dead on the street. She survived, and a charity working with street-based sex workers supported her with her decision to go to the police and go through the courts.

It was not easy. Despite everything she had been through, the judge and jury still equivocated over whether she should be compensated. After all, he had paid. It was her job.

That's the reality of violent male entitlement today. This is how society views violence against women in the sex industry. 

There has been a lot of debate in the media about the sex industry and the arguments for and against legalisation, decriminalisation, the Nordic model of decriminalisation, and keeping the status quo which to all intents and purposes criminalises women. For a break down of all these issues, take a look at the response to the Young London Labour Summer Conference Motion 8.

There is and continues to be a deliberate blurring of the lines between legalisation, decriminalisation, and criminalisation. I don’t know a feminist worth her salt who doesn't support decriminalisation. Anyone who cares about the safety and well-being of women can not and does not support the criminalisation of women in the sex industry. It’s common sense and it’s care. The existing system of criminalisation prevents a woman from seeking health support, in case she’s arrested. It prevents a woman from seeking police help in the event of rape or violence, in case she’s arrested. It forces street-based sex workers to work in more and more dangerous conditions, in case she’s arrested. And it leads to raids on brothels where women who might need police help are instead, once again, arrested.

Criminalising women in the sex industry is not working - full stop. The status quo is not working. It is dangerous for women and it serves the men who exploit women. That’s not okay and that is why a change to the existing laws is so desperately needed.

However, just because criminalisation isn't working doesn’t make legalisation an answer either. And that is why we have to look at the important differences between decriminalisation and legalisation. The main difference being, as one woman who works with street based sex workers told me:

Decriminalisation means women can access support. Legalisation turns the state into one big pimp.’

Women’s safety is paramount. It has to be. Decriminalisation supports women’s safety. It says to women in the industry that if you are hurt, or sick, or need support then you can access it without fear of police reprisal. And it says to women that if you want to leave the industry, you can access support to exit. It gives women who all too often have very few choices, some choices back. And, of course, it means that women who have been trafficked and abused come forward, they can be given support rather than criminalised.

Because trafficking can’t be ignored in this equation. They are not separate issues - they are massively intertwined. Sex trafficking depends on the sex industry. And as we all know, report after report has shown over and over again that legalisation does not reduce the level of sex trafficking. If nothing else, it just increases demand, and trafficked women are forced to make up the supply.

This, clearly, is one of the main issues with legalisation. It legitimises the demand, and if there aren’t enough women to make up that demand, then more women need to be found. All too often they’re found by traffickers making promises that lead to women being repeatedly raped by up to ten men a day. If a woman or girl escapes this life of slavery, then she is at the mercy of ever harsher immigration laws that could see her deported and then re-trafficked into the industry to to be raped and exploited all over again. Meanwhile, in a legalised setting it becomes harder to prosecute the traffickers who are able to present themselves as businessmen running brothels, and even lobby government to protect their rights as legal pimps.

Legalisation does something else too. And what it does affects every woman. Because it sends a message that women’s bodies are objects that can be bought and sold, and that women’s consent stops being an absolute right and instead becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold as well. It sends a message to johns that they have a legal right to buy women’s consent. And it sends a message to women that our right to consent to sex is dependent on all sorts of contexts.

As a feminist campaigner and writer, I have spent the last decade calling for a better understanding of consent - starting with better sex and relationships education at school. I have written post after post explaining how women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy, that consent is mandatory, and that women - contrary to popular culture - have a sexuality, experience sexual desire, have the right to sexual pleasure, and have a right to say yes and no to the sex we do and don’t want.

The debate to legalise the sex industry undermine all of these arguments. Because the sex industry relies on a basic untruth - that sex is a leisure activity for men, and a work activity for women. It asks us to see sex as something that men have a right to demand, and that women have a duty to give. It ignores the core belief that women have a right to their own sexuality, and instead treats sex as something that women give up in order to get something else.

I’ve seen this argument shouted down by people claiming that historically this is what marriage was like.

That didn’t make it okay either.

And this is where I come to the ‘stay in your lane’ part of the argument. Because if we live in a world where women’s right to consent is dependent on other factors, then this is my lane. This is something that impacts on all women - and on all women’s expectation of our right to bodily autonomy. If our culture sends out a message that women’s right to consent is negotiable instead of absolute, that women’s consent can be bought and sold, then that impacts on the way all men view all women. That sends out a powerful message about for whom sex is a leisure activity (men), and for whom sex is work (women). And that in turn sends out a powerful message about who gets to have an autonomous sexuality (men) and whose sexuality is only concerned with the needs and demands of others (women).

The existence of the sex industry impacts on all women. It is a visible sign of our inequality in a patriarchal and capitalist society.

So how does this impact on the ‘stay in your lane’ argument. First and foremost we need to listen to the voices of women who have experience of the sex industry - just as in any issue on women’s rights we need to hear the voices of women affected. However, more and more over the last week I have seen the ‘stay in your lane’ argument brandished as a weapon designed to shut up those very women whose voices we need to be hearing - as the survivors of prostitution who signed a recent open letter are ignored and silenced by a pro sex industry media agenda. Instead, the letter is portrayed as being chiefly authored by Anne Hathaway, who is then mocked because clearly an actress can’t have an opinion.  The signatories of that letter who have survived male violence in the sex industry, and the organisations that support these women, have been completely ignored.

Which is, quite frankly, disgusting. ‘Stay in your lane’ should not be about ignoring the voices you disagree with. It needs to be about raising up all women’s voices. It needs to be about giving women who have been historically silenced a platform, a voice. It should never - must never - be a tool used to shut women up. And yet that is how it is being used by the pro legalisation lobby - to shut up the women whose life experiences of the sex industry do not support their argument.

Before I finish breaking my self-imposed blogging rule, I want to devote a little bit of time to men. Yes, men - because they always seem to be forgotten about in this debate which always ends up focused on a split within the feminist movement.

Apart from a very small percentage, it’s men that make up the demand for the sex industry. It’s male entitlement that says to women that our consent and right to bodily autonomy is negotiable, purchasable, permeable, whilst there’s is respected as absolute.

I sometimes quip in response to arguments about legalisation vs decriminalisation that: ‘rad fems don’t kill women, violent men do’.

Because it’s true. I disagree with the existing legislation on prostitution. But it’s not the laws that kill women. It is men who choose to go out and rape and murder women. It’s not rad fems who cause violence to women, it’s the rapists and murderers - and those rapists and murderers are men. It’s male entitlement and male violence that causes harm to women. The laws need to be changed to protect women from this violence, but we can’t ever prevent that violence if we refuse to name the problem. And that problem is violent male entitlement to women’s bodies. That entitlement to women’s bodies is allowed by an unequal, patriarchal society that positions women as lesser than men and that sends a message to men that women don’t have an absolute right to our bodily autonomy, that we are less than human.

How will legalisation prevent violent men from buying women to rape and abuse? It won’t. It will, instead, send a message to men that they have a legal right to purchase women’s bodies, and legitimise the idea that once paid for, a woman’s body is there’s to do what they like with.

Legalisation won’t change the attitudes of johns who write on punternet (this is not a direct link to puntenet but to the invisible men tumblr) that the women they pay for are ‘dirty cows’ who don’t show ‘enough enthusiasm’; the men who complain that the ‘girls’ make them ‘feel like crap’ because they’re clearly ‘not into it’ (if a woman doesn’t want to have sex with you…and you fuck her anyway…then there’s a word for that and the presence of money shouldn’t change it). Again, it will just send the message to these men that they have entitlement over women’s bodies. That it’s okay for them to fuck a woman who doesn’t want to have sex with them. Which, in turn, impacts on all women.

Think about the rapeyness of those reviews. Remember the women at the start of this post. I honestly don’t understand how legalisation is going to change those attitudes, rather than re-enforce it.

And that’s why I support decriminalisation, which will mean women are no longer treated as criminals. In particular, I think the Merseyside Model makes a lot of sense. But legalisation, which tells men that women’s right to consent is negotiable? Which tells men that sex is leisure for them and work for us? That’s not equality. That’s not liberation. And that is not women’s safety - it’s male entitlement.

Find out more about one25 and how you can support this amazing organisation supporting street-based sex workers in a non-judgemental way.