Footballers, Prostitutes and Feminists

This week the story of Ched Evans, the Sheffield United footballer convicted of rape, has been all over the news. Debate has been centred around whether on release from prison he should get his old job back, and the feminist position has been largely that no, he shouldn’t: as a highly-paid footballer he has a privileged position as a role model to young people, especially boys, and his reinstatement would be to minimise the damage he has done and to reinforce a structural misogyny within football. There is broad agreement amongst feminists that the message this would send out would be detrimental to women as a whole.

Judging from the accounts of the case I have read, the 19 year-old victim was picked up in a drunken state by a man who then texted his friend that he’d ‘got a bird’. She was then taken to a pre-booked hotel room, where the first man had sex with her, and then the friend turned up and also had sex with her whilst some more friends filmed it. This part was rape because she was too drunk to consent. When she woke up in the morning she was alone in a strange room, wet with urine, and unable to remember what had happened the night before. She went to the police, and examination confirmed the sexual activity that had taken place.

These are the bare facts of the case, without projecting any assumptions about the victim’s feelings, which we can’t know. I am sure though that a lot of women reading this will be able to fill in the ‘feelings’ bit themselves, drawing on bad sexual experiences, or worse, in their own lives. Leaving aside the rape part of the story, these two men picked up a woman, used her for sex, and then left her on her own when they had finished with her. They planned it beforehand.

What I would like to know, from feminists who are pro-‘sex work’, is whether it would have made a tangible difference to their view of the men’s behaviour in this case, if they had paid money for what they did? Would the presence of a few crisp twenties on the bedside table make a substantive difference to what happened in that hotel bedroom? Would it have made a difference to the way the woman felt the next morning? Because this is essentially what happens in prostitution – the using of a woman for sex, without having to worry about her pleasure, or even her consent (”the money takes care of consent” right…?). In other words, is this the kind of male behaviour that can be legitimised by money: does money make it ok?

If it doesn’t: if you still feel that the kind of male behaviour on display should be discouraged in a civilised society, if not actively criminalised, then the issue of ‘sex-worker’ rights becomes more complicated. Respect for, and advocacy of, ‘sex-work’ is an intrinsic endorsement of pimps and punters too. You also cannot help but accidentally endorse the pimps and punters of prostituted and trafficked women and girls, and give them more power, because the rebranding of prostitution as ‘sex work’ lends it a sanitised respectability it otherwise would not have. I think the behaviour of those men in that hotel bedroom replicates the behaviour of a lot of men with prostitutes (it is not unknown for a footballer to book a hotel room and order a prostitute to go with it). If we can see that prostitute in the same way as we see that drunken teenager: with *outrage* that she can be treated like a piece of meat and then discarded, then how as feminists can we accept prostitution as a ‘job’ like any other?

I fully believe in the freedom of individuals to do as they wish with their own bodies, but when that choice is monetised, then in a capitalist society with its entrenched inequalities, it becomes the business of us all. There are laws on what we can and cannot sell, determined by morals and ethics. We already have laws  on the limits of bodily choice – surrogacy, organ harvesting and assisted dying for example. A judgement is made concerning the basic rights of humanity, the right to bodily integrity, the right to be treated as a human being. Often the law is there because it recognises the potential for exploitation that occurs when you introduce a monetary reward: the law protects the most vulnerable, those least able to protect themselves: often the poorest, most marginalised in society, often women. The fact that ‘some people like it’ makes no difference to this argument. Why is it so difficult to take a consistent feminist stance where prostitution is concerned? I believe it is because it’s about sex. The insults people can hurl at you for taking a stance on anything to do with sex are often too painful to contemplate because they drive at your own private sexual insecurities. You will become all those things you really don’t want people to think you are: a prude, a sex-negative feminist, a whorephobe.

Some of the supporters of Ched Evans think they have irrefutable proof that he didn’t rape anyone: he could have ‘any woman he wanted’ so why would he need to rape? I disagree. I think the fact that he could have any woman he wanted makes it more likely that he would rape. When you have that high level of entitlement I think it is less likely that you will be able to recognise ‘lack of consent’ when it stares you in the face. Famously there have been professional footballers who cannot stop having sex with prostitutes, despite having a *gorgeous* wife or girlfriend back home. I think there is a power thing going on here, as much as a sex thing: the rise in the numbers of men visiting prostitutes has happened at the same time as an increase in women’s (comparative) sexual freedom. So there is more sex available for men in general: casual sex, hook-up sex, first date sex – but maybe what there is *less* of is non-consensual sex (rape exists even in marriage now! Imagine!). And maybe that is what prostitutes and drunken teenagers are for?

I would like pro-‘sex work’ feminists to look at this young woman’s experience and to make the connection between her and the prostituted women who experience this, and much worse, every day. If you have ever hashtagged ‘IBelieveHer’ about a rape victim, then please do the same with #ListenToSurvivors – they are not believed either, and they suffer too, and it hurts them every time a feminist uses the term ‘sex work’ to describe their torture. I will not use the term ‘sex work’ out of respect for survivors, and it’s time to stand up and be counted and to face the inevitable backlash from the very rich and powerful lobby that is the sex industry. I hope a few of my feminist friends will join me.

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Not All Men v Yes All Women

Warning: the content of this blog might be triggering or upsetting for some people.

One Saturday morning in 2007 I was contentedly sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, when I came across an article which spoiled my day. It was so shocking that it made me feel sick and it made me want to cry. The story was about a fourteen year old girl who had been gang-raped and sexually assaulted by several different boys in various locations around a council estate in Hackney. During the assault she was dragged between locations while more boys were invited by phone to come and join the party, and some passers-by ignored her plight. I was so upset by the story that I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I read it, down to the details of how the light from the window fell across the table where I was sitting. Some people have memories of where they were when they heard of President Kennedy’s death, or the destruction of the twin towers, but mine are of a teenage gang-rape.

This may well be because I am a woman, and can identify with a girl’s feelings, and maybe this is more difficult for men to do. I have been reminded of it in the last couple of weeks because two stories in the news have frustrated me with their lack of understanding of the effect of male violence on women. The first story was the mass shooting by Elliot Rodgers in Santa Barbara. In this case, despite the gunman’s own words in his manifesto, the mainstream media failed to attribute any misogyny to the crime, and when some feminists began to point this out they were quickly shot down by male apologists crying ‘not all men’, as though they were being personally attacked by the simple telling of a truth. It was seen as a bit aggressive to say that Rodgers didn’t like women: the official line was that he committed his crime because he didn’t like *people*. The second story was of a video produced by men’s rights group Mankind Initiative which went viral, attracting millions of You Tube views. The video sought to show that men suffer from intimate partner violence just as women do, and it ends with the statistic that 40% of domestic violence victims are male. Again, in the debates following, it was deemed to be almost rude to suggest that the statistic was flawed, as though in doing so you showed you didn’t care about male victims.

What the hashtag ‘notallmen’ and the 40% statistic are trying to do is to show us that women are violent too, and that men are victims too, and while that may be true in some cases, violence is undeniably gendered. It seems that we cannot accept that fact. It is a little  previous to start a ‘me too’ bandwagon before the initial fact has even been acknowledged. Surely you have to *know* the rules before you can begin to challenge them? I have read so many posts this week purporting to have some previously unrecognised statistics to hand, which all prove that women can be just as violent as men, and don’t need special treatment such as refuges and the like, which just make men feel discriminated against. I am not persuaded by these statistics, and to back up my opinion in an entirely non-scientific way I have made a list of some of the news items which have been in the media in the years since that horrific gang rape I started with. This is what I remember, in an order which is only vaguely chronological:

  • Steve Wright murders five women in Ipswich, in the events reported as the Ipswich Prostitute murders.
  • John Warboys, known as the Black Cab Rapist, is convicted of 12 rapes, with possibly hundreds more undetected.
  • Joseph Fritzl is sentenced to life imprisonment for keeping his daughter Elizabeth in a dungeon for 24 years, raping her and fathering seven children by her.
  • A man in Essex is dubbed the Essex Fritzl after being convicted of enslaving his daughter, raping her and fathering two children with her.
  • Historic cases of sex abuse come to light in children’s homes in Jersey, North Wales and other locations.
  • Child sex abuse scandals are investigated in the Catholic Church
  • Tia Sharp, aged 12, is sexually abused and murdered by her stepfather Stuart Hazell.
  • The Jimmy Savile enquiry finds possibly hundreds of cases of sexual abuse against children and young girls, in care homes, hospitals and at the BBC.
  • Operation Yewtree, in the wake of the Savile scandal, names many more celebrity sex offenders including Dave Lee Travis, Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris.
  • Reports from the African Republic of Congo describe how rape is being used systematically as a weapon of war.
  • In North Wales five year old April Jones is murdered by Mark Bridger.
  • American journalist Lara Logan is gang-raped during the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square, alongside reports of sexual assault against women joining men in the Arab Spring protests.
  • Suicide of soldier Anne-Marie Ellement after an alleged rape and bullying, at the same time as sexual assault in the army is being highlighted as a problem.
  • Dominique Strauss-Kahn has to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund because of rape allegations, then further allegations of aggressive sexual conduct towards female co-workers and of pimping.
  • In Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford, grooming gangs are found to have been sexually exploiting teenage girls from care homes. Similar enquiries are going on in other cities and towns in the UK.
  • Joanna Yeates, a landscape architect, is murdered in Bristol by Vincent Tabak.
  • In Italy Silvio Berlusconi is charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute.
  • Raoul Moat shoots his former girlfriend and kills her new boyfriend before going on the run and finally being killed in a stand-off with police.
  • In Pakistan 15 year old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is shot in the head by the Taliban for the crime of believing girls should have an education.
  •  Catherine Gowing, a vet who lived in North Wales, is murdered by Clive Sharp.
  • In Steubenville, Ohio, two footballers are found guilty of raping a girl who they dragged round, filming her abuse.
  • Frances Andrade, a victim of historic sex abuse by her music teacher, Michael Brewer, commits suicide as a result of the cross-examination she suffered at his trial.
  • An 11 year old girl is raped in a park in broad daylight on her way home from school.
  • A number of women begin proceedings against the police over sexual relationships they had been ‘tricked’ into by undercover officers infiltrating groups of political activists.
  • Teacher Jeremy Forrest is found guilty of abduction after running off to France with a 15 year old pupil.
  • Anni Dewani is murdered on her honeymoon in South Africa, her husband Shrien is suspected of organising a contract killing.
  • Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins is jailed for child rape.
  • In Cleveland three young women escape from the house of Ariel Castro where they had been kept in captivity and repeatedly raped for years.
  • In California Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at the age of 11, is found 18 years later, with two children fathered by her kidnapper, Phillip Garrido.
  • Sheffield united footballer Ched Evans is jailed for raping a 19 year old woman in a hotel room.
  • Oscar Pistorius goes on trial accused of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
  • In India a student is gang-raped on a Delhi bus and dies from her injuries.
  • Serial killer Levi Bellfield is found guilty of the murder of Milly Dowler.
  • Savita Halappanavar dies after being refused an abortion at a hospital in Ireland.
  • More than 200 schoolgirls are abducted from a school in Nigeria by Islamist group Boko Haram, who then threaten to sell them.
  • Nigella Lawson is photographed in a public place being assaulted by her husband, Charles Saatchi.
  • Two teenage girls in Pakistan are gang-raped and hung from a tree.
  • Elliot Rodgers goes on a shooting spree in Santa Barbara.

Alongside these ‘famous’ cases (and my memory is not perfect so the list is not comprehensive) there have been countless other rapes and murders, alongside news reports on FGM, femicide in India and China, sex trafficking, forced marriage, online child abuse, increasingly violent pornography and so-called ‘honour’ killings. Sometimes the evening news has seemed to be entirely full of hatred and violence towards women and girls. The sheer scale of it and the variations world-wide of this kind of abuse is sometimes difficult to comprehend.

There have been crimes in this period which don’t target women and girls of course. Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway after writing a manifesto of neo-Nazi beliefs, which were acknowledged to be the reason for his crime. Soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death on a London street because of extreme, radicalised, religious beliefs, endlessly examined by the mainstream media. And in Tottenham Mark Duggan was killed by the police in an incident which not only caused riots but also, quite rightly, a degree of hand-wringing about race relations. Then there were the true ‘isolated incidents’ – the murder in the Alps and the shooting spree by Derrick Bird in Cumbria for example. But nowhere do we find the targeting of men *because they are men* except for the one example of Joanne Dennehy who killed three men in 2013. Aside from racist or homophobic attacks, men are hurt and killed by other men of course, but often this happens in incidents where men fight eachother, eg in gangs, or pub brawls, not just because they happen to be walking home alone down a dark street.

The effect on ordinary women of all this world violence is that it helps us to know our place: it disempowers us. It is assumed by some men that western women must feel lucky that we are not living under some oppressive foreign regime, and indeed should be grateful for the freedoms we have. It can actually have the opposite effect: we know from these world examples that our position is tenuous, hard-fought and liable to change. It engenders insecurity: we don’t take our rights for granted, we know that what can be given can be taken away. I imagine that gay people are not ’empowered’ much when they see that their sexual preferences might get them executed in a different country or culture. It’s a reminder of your position in the pecking order, and in the case of women, those reminders happen on a daily basis. In the crimes listed above, which have been a backdrop to my life over the past few years, the common factor is the violent control of women, their sexuality and their reproductive capacity. It’s about sex, but more than that it’s about power. In the case of domestic violence I am sure that the fact that there is ‘worse out there’ is a huge factor in keeping women in abusive relationships. In a world where the overwhelming majority of rapists and murderers are men, better to stick with the one you’re with rather than risk something worse. Men can and do use the appalling abuse by other men to boost their own sense of superiority – an especially popular pasttime when those other men are of a different cultural background to themselves, such as the Asian grooming gangs (but not the white British ones, which get overlooked). This is an aspect of gendered violence which is simply not there in men’s experience: however much a man may believe that all women are bitches, there are simply not the examples out there to back him up. For women there are all too many.

When men’s rights groups try to suggest a parity between the genders when it comes to violence they are completely and comprehensively missing the point. Violence against women and girls affects all of us because it is so normal, it is endemic and it happens everywhere, in all parts of the world, in all races, religions and social classes. Poor people do it, rich people do it, famous people do it, people in positions of power and influence do it, the people next door do it. When I say people I mean *men* of course, but I really don’t want to upset all those great men out there who don’t do it. However, when you look at the cost to society of male violence (98% of sexual offences are by men), and the cost to the tax-payer of all that policing (90% of homicides are by men), all those prisons (95% of inmates are male) and all those A&E departments, it is absolutely astonishing that certain groups of men would begrudge women a little bit of money to ourselves for some rape crisis centres or some domestic violence refuges, WITHOUT HAVING TO THINK ABOUT THE MEN.

If things were really so equal between men and women regarding violence against eachother, then I’m surprised there is not more outcry about the unfairness of having a predominantly male prison population. Are female offenders just getting away with it in vast numbers? Why aren’t there more female mugshots on Crimewatch? It’s either really really unfair or it’s just reflecting reality… In order to be truly equal women need some special treatment to level the playing field: we need protection and recovery from male violence, however much it costs, and it should not be just down to women’s groups to pick up the pieces. Men need to get in on the act too, particularly those in power, through proper policies, education and funding, and above all through a real recognition of the problem, without which there can be no proper solution.

Yes, all women are affected by male violence, and no, not all men are doing enough about it.

 

Pistorius and Holy Cows

This week two controversial pieces of writing caught my eye, and then stayed in my mind because, despite inhabiting different ends of the publicity spectrum (one being local and domestic, the other international and celebrity-driven), they actually had a lot of common ground. In certain respects the second of these two articles almost perfectly answered the question posed by the first. The first article was in the Birmingham Mail, it was written by Maureen Messent and it was entitled ‘Our ‘holy cows’ are own worst enemies’. The second article was in the Guardian, it was written by David Smith and was entitled ‘Oscar Pistorius’s emotional apology to Reeva Steenkamp’s unmoved mother’.

The Birmingham Mail piece was the most unapologetic piece of victim-blaming that I have read in a long time, based on the premise that women who are victims of domestic violence ‘allow themselves to be used as punchbags’ and are ultimately responsible for their own fates. Even the ones who have died as a result of domestic assault are not let off the hook, as we are ‘never told how many of the dead refused police advice to leave their attackers once and for all’. It might seem extreme to blame a murder victim for their own fate, but it is a surprisingly common reaction to domestic abuse: ‘Why didn’t she just leave him?’ There are many reasons of course, and most of them are practical and physical, like how to escape, how to look after any children involved, where to go, how to survive financially and how to stop him following you. Women who report violent partners only do so after an average of thirty five assaults. Most deaths from domestic assaults occur during or after the act of leaving.

However, before you even get to the practical difficulties, you have the emotional and psychological barriers to surmount, and these can be just as difficult as the physical ones, if not more so. Perpetrators of domestic violence usually have form: violent men are often controlling men, and will have displayed traits such as anger, jealousy and manipulative behaviour even before the first physical assault. Then, after the assault there will often be remorse and regret, declarations of love and promises not to do it again. This is a common pattern, and the reason it is so difficult to disentangle yourself from these abusers, is that they are emotionally believable; and who doesn’t want to believe they are loved rather than hated? Manipulative behaviour is just that: it manipulates. It makes you believe that remorse is genuine, it makes you believe you have a relationship worth fighting for, it can even make you believe the perpetrator deserves sympathy. And if somebody can evoke your sympathy they also by default evoke your guilt: how could you have been so over-sensitive/lacking in understanding/mistrustful/demanding/selfish (delete where not applicable) as to believe he really meant you harm? He REALLY didn’t mean it! Enough treatment like this (and it usually is repeated) leaves the victim with a lack of trust in her own perceptions and a corresponding lack of confidence in her own feelings and her own agency.

This is where the Oscar Pistorius article comes in. This is a man who has killed his girlfriend: that is an indisputable fact. His trial is attempting to determine the extent of his culpability: whether it was murder or an accident; but the identity of the victim is clear: it is Reeva Steenkamp, and by extension her family: her mother. So why, in this Guardian article, does the victim appear to be Oscar Pistorius? The emotive language used is one factor. The reporter says that Pistorius’s voice ‘quivered, cracked and trailed off…’ the voice is described as ‘tremulous, almost boyish’ and he is said to be ‘fighting back tears, jaw trembling and tissue in hand’. There is obviously a degree of sympathy in this choice of language, sympathy which is not shown to the ‘impassive’ mother of the victim. She is portrayed as emotionless, ‘unmoved’; there is no flowery language used to describe her grief: all the creative language is reserved for him. The reporter shows himself to be fully immersed in the drama of Oscar Pistorius, you might almost say identified with him: seeing things from his point of view. The BBC’s reporter, Andrew Harding, on the News at Ten, was similarly overwhelmed by this man’s tragedy, telling us that, whatever we thought about the emoting of Pistorius in court, it would be difficult for anyone to say this was ‘playacting’.

Well, I’m sorry, but I thought it was playacting.

And here’s the answer to Maureen Messent in the Birmingham Mail: a big reason women don’t leave abusive partners is because EVERYONE believes in their partner’s playacting. Friends, family and strangers see the side which is projected, and the victim is often the only one who sees the other side. If women are to be seen as weak, and culpable in their own abuse for not leaving, then you should look at the effect Oscar Pistorius has had on two men: David Smith and Andrew Harding. These journalists, who are not dependent on Pistorius for anything: housing, financial support or childcare, and have not invested their future in him or have a sometimes-loving relationship with him, are still reluctant to see any blame in him, or to call him out for what he is.  They believe in him. If they can be so gullible and easily seduced by this over-emoting in a man who, let’s not forget, has KILLED HIS GIRLFRIEND, then what chance does a woman stand, within a relationship, with all its complications, when faced with the same kind of emotional manipulation?

For all those people who, when hearing of another death through domestic violence, have the knee jerk reaction of ‘Why didn’t she just leave him?’ I urge you to look at the reporting of the Oscar Pistorius trial. The answer to your question is being played out in the Pretoria courthouse in South Africa right now, in the full glare of the spotlight, for everyone to see.