What My Mum Went Through

My mum was twenty eight when she had her first baby. That was quite late for a first baby in those days, especially as she had been married for a whole five years at that point, but she and my dad wanted to wait till they could afford a baby and had their own home to live in first. Finally they got a mortgage on a narrow two-up two-down terraced house with damp on the walls, silverfish in the fireplace and a toilet in the back yard, and then they started their family.

My sister took a whole day to be born, she was a big baby, and my mum had to have stitches after the birth. However, that didn’t prevent her from getting pregnant again within a few months. It has to be remembered that rape within marriage was not a crime in those days, and although I am not casting aspersions on my dad, I do think that those ideas, that a wife owed her husband regular sex whenever he wanted it, were strong enough at that time to ensure that most women would see sex as their duty (and most men would see it as their right). Even after a difficult and painful birth.

So: eleven months after the first baby, and worried about the extra costs of this new (unplanned) baby, my mum was ready to give birth again. Only this time it was twins. A full ten days before the due date, during a regular health check, it was discovered that there were two babies in there. There were no scans in those days so my mum had assumed by her size that she was just going to have another big baby. Although she’d had a previous home birth (because everybody did back then) she was rushed into hospital to prepare for the birth of twins. It was a Friday night and she was expecting to be looked after for at least a week before any chance of the birth happening. She therefore had little preparation for the two babies that arrived early, at about seven o’clock the following morning.

My parents had no phone and no car. They were poor, but my dad still went to the football every week, so on this particular Saturday morning he went off to Anfield to watch Liverpool as usual, completely unaware of what had happened in the hospital. He left my older sister with an aunt for the day. My mum doesn’t remember when he first met his new twin daughters, but she does remember being discharged from hospital a week later, only to find on her return home that my dad had contracted the flu and was bed-ridden, with my older sister beside him in the bed because he was too ill to look after her. My mum had a sick husband and three babies under the age of one to look after, a week after giving birth to twins.

Things were quite difficult. At five weeks old I was rushed into hospital with an abscess in my groin. The hospital was on the other side of town, a walk and a bus ride away, which was difficult to do with two babies and a big pram. My mum managed to visit the hospital a couple of times in the week that I was there, but at that time parents were not allowed to stay the night, so on both occasions she had the stress of first, arriving to see a crying baby, and second, leaving to the sound of a crying baby. At home the childcare was very definitely her job and her job alone. My dad worked five days a week and then expected a rest at the weekend, and his football on a Saturday.

My mum did her best, with little support. All her family still lived on the estate where she had grown up, too far away to visit easily with three young children. Her mother in law, my dad’s mum, would visit from time to time and criticise her housekeeping. Eventually she went to the doctor feeling stressed and anxious and the doctor prescribed her some medication for her nerves.

Then, one evening when she had just finished putting us all to bed and was walking back down the stairs, she began to feel very unwell with agonising stomach pains. She felt something leaking down below and she rushed into the kitchen to get outside to the toilet, but she didn’t make it. She had a miscarriage at the back door. She didn’t even know she was pregnant. My dad was out that evening, he was decorating his mum’s front room with the help of one of my uncles, so my mum cleared up the mess on the back step as best she could, packed herself up with as much padding as she could manage, and went and lay down on the settee for several hours on her own, in pain. She couldn’t go out to get help because she had three young children asleep in bed upstairs.

Finally my dad arrived home, in my uncle’s car, and finding my mum in that state, got my uncle to drive him to the nearest phone box to call for an ambulance. My mum was in hospital for a week, and the most upsetting part of the experience for her was hearing the nurses refer to what had happened to her as a ‘spontaneous abortion’. That was difficult for her to hear. Almost as difficult to take in were the numerous news stories that began to come to light shortly after that time, about the number of babies being born with unusual deformities. It took some time and investigation but eventually the blame was laid on the drug Thalidomide, which some women had been prescribed whilst they were pregnant. Thalidomide was the drug my mum had been taking for her anxiety.

I think she felt very guilty about her miscarriage. She didn’t know whether to be upset about losing a baby or relieved that she hadn’t had a baby with physical defects. She didn’t know whether the miscarriage was her fault or whether it had actually been caused by the Thalidomide. As time went by she found it more and more difficult to cope with her three pre-school children, effectively on her own. And then one morning it all came to a head. When she walked into our bedroom to get us all up for the day she realised with a shock that she was disappointed by the fact that we were all still alive. She hadn’t consciously wished us dead, but she noticed her disappointment and was scared. She was worried about what she might do. So she walked out and had a breakdown.

I still don’t know how long she was away for, but I know that she was offered a place in the local psychiatric hospital (which she refused) and that she endured two bouts of electric shock therapy, which, to this day, she regrets having agreed to. She was patched up enough to come back to us, but she always said that my dad never trusted her again: would never allow that she had competence in anything from that day forward.

So, did I appreciate all my mum had been through in order to raise me? Of course I didn’t! As a teenager I despised my mum for being ‘weak’ because my dad was always in charge and always had to have his own way. It took me a long, long time to see exactly how much strength it took for my mum to keep going, and how belittled and undermined she was by the attitudes of the time and the lack of understanding and support she had. Today I cannot imagine going through what she went through, and I can only see her strength in surviving it all.

I’m glad that in this country our view of maternal care has evolved since those days, and that the technology is better, and that some men are somewhat more enlightened as to how to support their partners when they are being pregnant and giving birth, and that it is no longer legal to rape your wife. I still wish there was more recognition of the labour women endure when they go through the process of bringing new life into the world (as much fuss as is given to the men who go and fight and take life away would be nice).

This is just my mum’s story. There are a million and one different stories about pregnancy and childbirth from all around the world which can be terrifying and inspiring in equal measure, including the stories of women unable or disinclined to get pregnant in the first place. The ability to get pregnant and give birth and nurture a baby does not define us as women but it does inform something of our psychology and our experience of life and our notion of ourselves. I like to think that Mother’s Day is not there to celebrate just the women who have actually given birth, but women as a class. After all, we all came into this world in the first place through the body of a woman.

And, thank you, Mum.

And, sorry, Mum.

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

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We Are All Non-Binary Now

I was born a female baby. I was not ‘assigned female at birth’, I was born female and this fact was noted: an F rather than an M went on my notes. The word ‘female’ in humans means the same as it does in other animals, that is: the sex which has the capacity to carry young and give birth. When people insist on using the phrase ‘assigned female at birth’ they are suggesting there is a choice being made, and that choice is dependant on belief systems, but actually, except in the rare cases of people born intersex, there is no choice involved at all. Your sex simply is. The fact that it is ‘written down’ does not mean it has been ‘assigned’.

Now that’s been cleared up, let’s move on to gender. Gender is not sex: it is a set of characteristics commonly *associated* with your sex. Unlike sex, the meaning of gender is open to interpretation and its meaning can change, because it is a social construct rather than a biological fact, and social constructs are open to discussion and opinion. However, even if you mean gender and not sex when you are talking about being ‘assigned at birth’, this is still inaccurate. I was not ‘assigned a female gender’ at birth, I was simply born female, this was noted, and then I had gendered things thrown at me accordingly. It would be more accurate to say that I was ‘dressed in clothes which were assigned female’, and ‘given toys which were assigned female’, and ‘rewarded for exhibiting behaviours that were assigned female’. This is usually the way that gender is thrust upon you: it is done according to what is considered appropriate for the sex class you were born into.

Biological sex is dimorphic (the example of intersex is just the exception that proves the rule) but gender exists on a spectrum, which has exclusively masculine at one end and exclusively feminine at the other. Whatever your biological sex, you can feel more comfortable at one end of the spectrum or the other, or anywhere in between, depending on your personality. In this sense it is obvious that one big difference between sex and gender is that sex is binary and gender is non-binary. Men can have qualities which are ‘assigned female’ and women can have qualities that are ‘assigned male’. In fact I would go so far as to assert that even the most ‘masculine’ of men still have a tiny bit of ‘feminine’ in them, and even the most ‘feminine’ of women still have a tiny bit of ‘masculine’ in them. We are all in fact ‘non-binary’ as regards gender. It gets confusing when people use ‘non-binary’ to mean a mixture of the two sexes or no sex at all, as this is impossible.

As a child I had a preference for toys and activities which at that time were assigned a masculine gender. I went through a phase of wanting to be a boy, and even pretended to be a boy, because all the boy stuff was so much more interesting to me than what was assigned for girls. I was genuinely ‘non-binary’, but in those days it was called ‘being a tomboy’. That was a possibility for girls at the time, although you were expected to grow out of it eventually. It was more difficult to remain gender-nonconforming as you got older. Suddenly it was labelled ‘being a feminist’ and that wasn’t quite as affectionately indulged as ‘being a tomboy’ was. Life can be made difficult for people whose gender identity does not match their biological sex: for women who present in a way that has been ‘assigned masculine’ or men who present in a way that has been ‘assigned feminine’ there is often resistance, or worse, from people more ‘matched’ in their sex and gender, who feel this non-conformity as a threat. One of the objections to the label ‘cis’ is the fact that it implies a conformity to gender that no individual in practice completely lives up to (or would want to).

Crucially, having a non-conforming gender identity does not mean you can change sex. You can present yourself as the opposite sex, usually by conforming to a different set of stereotypes from those associated with your own sex, but you cannot identify yourself out of the sex class into which you were born. Current transgender ideology has it that a combination of surgery and ‘identifying as’ makes you into the sex you want to be, but this is not the case: at best it can make it a possibility for you to ‘live as’ your preferred sex. You can change gender but you can’t change sex. It’s a nice idea, but when push comes to shove the truth will out. Maybe it’s a recognition of that truth which has led to a change from ‘transsexual’ to ‘transgender’ as a descriptor in the trans community.

When I was a student, the men who tried to rape me when I was hitch-hiking did not respect the rather masculine gender identity that I felt inside. They didn’t care that I had grown up preferring football and racing cars to dolls and make-up. They didn’t even care that I was wearing combat trousers and a donkey jacket! They just cared that I was female. Calling yourself ‘non-binary’ will not identify you out of that threat if you are a woman, and that is why we have sex-based rights for women: biological sex matters. When it comes to safety for women the way you ‘identify’ is a mere indulgence: it’s about as important as whether you consider yourself to be a Goth or a Punk for example, no more and no less. And, to be clear, people are not oppressed for being ‘non-binary’: they are oppressed by virtue of their female biology.

The current government inquiry on transgender rights is proposing to expand the rights of people in single-sex spaces, such as prisons, changing rooms, toilets and refuges, based on gender identity. At the same time, the definition of trans has been expanded to include ‘non-binary’ and ‘genderfluid’ people (which is great because that includes me!) (Hint: it includes everyone!). The recommendation is that gender identity should always be accepted as self-certified rather than proved by a medical opinion or a gender recognition certificate. In reality this means that women’s sex-based rights will disappear as gender-based rights will cancel them out: the two cannot co-exist. Male-bodied people (we used to call them ‘men’ when sex was the relevant criteria) will always be able to gain access to women-only spaces through the method of self-identifying as women. When you consider that women-only spaces have traditionally been fought for and implemented *because* of the threat of male violence, you can understand what a threat this is to women’s rights. Actually *being* a woman could be overridden by a man *claiming* to be a woman. What could possibly go wrong?

It is worrying that a government inquiry set up by the Women and Equalities committee can misunderstand so completely the connotations for women of the changes they are proposing. There were many submissions to the inquiry from women’s groups, which have clearly been ignored. We need to complain now, before the proposals become law, to try to get the message across before it’s too late. After all, we are all genderfluid, non-binary folk now and our voices deserve to be heard.

 

Another Bloody Feminist Campaign

There’s another bloody feminist campaign to get behind – it can seem like there’s always another feminist petition to sign. The latest one is about Feminism being removed from the A level politics syllabus. The petition was started by June Eric-Udorie and quickly reached over 40,000 signatures. It is an important campaign, but as usual it attracted a fair share of ‘whataboutery’ comments from people who think there are more important things out there on which to spend one’s time. This led me to think about two things:

  1. The reasons why this particular campaign is important, and how it ties in with other feminist campaigns.
  2. The reasons why we need so many bloody feminist campaigns in the first place.

If the lack of Feminism on the A-level Politics curriculum was a stand-alone instance of women being erased, marginalised, misrepresented, demeaned, underestimated or otherwise ignored, then it wouldn’t be so much of a big deal, obviously. We could look elsewhere for inspiration, self-respect, pride, role models and a sense of our place in the world. But a quick look at the feminist campaigns and petitions which have been necessary over the past couple of years tells a story which is fairly constant in its message about a woman’s place. From the absence of women on banknotes and passports, and mothers’ names on marriage certificates, to the objectifying images on Page 3, in lads’ mags and on ‘beach body’ advertising billboards, to the lack of women composers on the A-level Music syllabus and the lack of older women on BBC TV, to the opening of a Jack the Ripper Museum where a women’s history museum was meant to be, and to the highly stereotyped representation of girls in children’s toys, books and clothes: all of these separate elements combine to make a very consistent whole.

It is difficult to get away from the dominant narrative. For children growing up surrounded by this culture the same message is found again and again, whether it is in school or in music videos, magazines,books, television or the internet. Women are there for their sexiness or not at all. At school there is a chance to redress the balance by making sure that women and their achievements are represented as much as possible, but this is not happening. Women in history for example are largely there for the same reasons they exist in contemporary culture: they are either titillating, married to powerful men or being murdered (sometimes all three). There are some notable exceptions, but often they are used as the exceptions that prove the rule. Powerful women in history, like those now, tend to exist as stand-alone figures, with little trickle-down effect on other women. Exceptional women remain just that: exceptional.

Jung coined the term ‘collective unconscious’ to describe how ideas and beliefs are passed down through the generations and amongst contemporaries, almost like a kind of osmosis. The resulting belief systems are ones we are hardly aware of, let alone able to challenge, because they go in so early and so deep and are continually reinforced. It is a form of indoctrination which means that our beliefs become ingrained and take on the veneer of truth. In the case of beliefs about women, it means that restricting and damaging stereotypes are seen as normal and natural, to the point where it can seem more ‘unnatural’ to challenge them. As far as I know the ‘female of the species’ doesn’t have to mean ‘modest, passive and eager to please’ in any other animal on earth. There is no reason at all why it should do in the case of humans.

The representation of women, whether it’s the ubiquity of sexualised or pornographic imagery, the way women are referred to in stereotypical, old-fashioned and insulting ways in the media, or the way that women are left out when it comes to the ‘important’ stuff (particularly BME women, older women and women with disabilities) paints a broad picture which is more than the sum of its parts. It’s all linked: we can’t teach either boys or girls that women are human too if we consistently leave out all the evidence of women’s diversity, brilliance and achievement at all stages of the educational process.

All of this stuff matters because, as a complete picture, it is so bloody relentless. Each of the problems the above-mentioned campaigns were set up to address serve to reinforce all the others. And it all makes more work for women. It’s worth remembering that women work largely for free on these projects, campaigns and petitions (along with all the other unpaid work that still falls to women). Whilst the default sex (male) gets on with life, women have to challenge nearly every new idea that crops up, because the default decisions don’t usually don’t take them into consideration. It can feel like fighting to stand still. When there is criticism of a new feminist campaign, particularly if its subject is one I personally find slightly boring, I am always grateful to the woman/women who find it interesting enough to pursue. Somebody’s got to do it.

Men don’t generally have to spend their time campaigning just because they are men, so they have more time to spend campaigning on other issues that are important to them, or on getting most of the top jobs, or on doing most of the crime. The few men’s rights groups that do campaign on men’s issues tend to concentrate on feminist-bashing and complaining about the advances women have made, in terms of the impact they feel it has on their own sense of entitlement. They are not fighting to establish a level playing field, as women have to do, but rather to protect the beneficial injustices that have existed for so long in their favour.

It would be surprising if a man were to start a campaign such as June Eric-Udorie has done, even though men obviously sometimes have girl children and presumably wish them well. Even men who otherwise fight for equality issues tend to leave sexual equality well alone, even when it affects children in areas such as education. Without the work that women are doing the collective unconscious will keep absorbing the same old ideas and prejudices: boys will have less of a chance to learn to respect girls as equal human beings and girls will have less of a chance to see themselves as deserving of respect. Some of these boys will grow up to be men who perpetuate current sexist attitudes, and some of these girls will grow up to be women who start campaigns against their ill-informed decisions. They will probably be as dismayed as I am about the complete lack of understanding shown by many men regarding the common experiences of women, and wonder why something wasn’t done earlier about educating them.

This ignorance, coupled with a lack of empathy or respect, is part of what feeds into a culture of violence against women. Many more feminist campaigns deal with the serious issues around rape, abuse and men’s fatal violence against women, and again many of these are run voluntarily by women who are also trying to earn a living and/or bring up a family. June is running her campaign whilst also studying for her A-levels. You can understand why many women do not or cannot get involved – we’ve all got busy lives to lead. So thanks to June for taking this on, and thanks to all the other women who give their time for free or for little reward in order to make the world a better place for other women. The true purpose of feminism of course, is to smash the patriarchy, but in the meantime let’s all kick up a big stink every time we see women being erased or misrepresented in the public sphere, so that the generations of girls to come have a better chance than we did at knowing how brilliant, strong and inspirational women can be.

Have We Reached Peak Trans?

In recent months the issues around transgender equality have become more mainstream in the US and UK media. There have been TV programmes such as Louis Theroux’s documentary ‘Transgender Kids’ and Channel 4’s three-part series ‘Born in the Wrong Body’. Laverne Cox from ‘Orange is the New Black’ did a nude photoshoot for Allure magazine and Caitlin Jenner has appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, and been included in the Woman’s Hour Power List. Stonewall have publicly apologised for sidelining the T in LGBT and promised to do better in future, and Kelly Maloney has told us why Germaine Greer should be punished for her ‘transphobic hate speech’ after she was no-platformed for her ‘transphobic hate speech.’ Sky News did a special report on the increased demand for gender realignment surgery by children, trans teen Lila Perry made headlines in the US when there was a protest at her high school over her use of the girls’ locker room, and in the UK transwoman Tara Hudson was moved to a women’s prison after an online petition garnered over 150,000 signatures in favour of her being moved from the male estate.

In all these stories the mainstream media has been broadly supportive of transgender issues. In all the news reports on BBC TV and radio, and in the UK press, the emphasis has been on the discrimination experienced by transgender people, and their courage. (And, in the case of ‘transgender kids’, the courage of their parents for being so supportive). So, if you are an ordinary person going about your life, without being, say, a radical feminist or a gender-critical trans person, to whom these questions matter a lot, then you could be forgiven for thinking that the only problem here is from the nasty transphobic bigots causing all sorts of trouble for brave transgender people suffering discrimination and inequality. In fact the reporting has been so one-sided that I wonder if mainstream journalists have secretly noted what happens to feminists and gender-critical trans people on social media (Transphobe! TERF! Bigot! Cis scum! Die in a fire!) and decided to steer well clear. I wouldn’t blame them.

The trans lobby has done a good job of indoctrinating the media, as well as some feminists and the wider public, firstly by aligning with the larger LGB rights movement and putting transphobia on the same level as homophobia in the public consciousness, and secondly by expanding the trans umbrella to include a rather nebulous idea of ‘identity’ which is so vague as to be unchallengeable. Both these tactics seem about to backfire. Trans rights, as promoted by activists, tread on women’s and girls’ rights, (and, paradoxically, the rights of gay people) and so do not sit comfortably in the same bracket as gay rights. The challenging of trans rights by feminists is not a phobia, as it is based on the defending of the rights of women and girls, rather than on a hatred of trans people. Recently some members of the gay community have petitioned to have the T removed from LGBT as they see trans ideology as being inherently homophobic. Lesbians suffer particularly from the trans agenda, for the following reasons:

The majority of trans people (around 80%) are male to female, and within this group there is a proportion of autogynephiliac males, ie males who derive sexual pleasure from presenting as women. Most of these males keep the male sex organ: a minority have full genital reconstructive surgery. It follows that the majority of trans activists are biologically male, and have benefited from male socialisation, and it is the dogma of these activists which says that lesbians should accept transwomen as sexual partners, or be deemed transphobic. Many lesbians are understandably unhappy about this. Their sexual preferences are being policed and judged, and their boundaries violated: their rights are being trampled over for the sake of trans rights. It doesn’t come up as often, but the choice of gay men to have same-sex partners must also be transphobic for the same reason: desiring a partner with a penis rules out transmen. Logically then, straight people are also transphobic: desiring a partner with the opposite genitals to yourself rules out most trans people. It is beginning to look as though the only safe sexual preference these days is pansexuality, which effectively means no preference at all.

In the case of toilets, locker rooms and prisons, women and girls are being asked to quell their own instincts for safety in favour of believing the trans ideology which says that anyone is a woman who identifies as such. There are obvious safety implications in allowing men who ‘identify’ as women into women-only spaces, and in this case the trans lobby has shot itself in the foot by insisting on the definition of transgender being so wide: it is obviously open to ludicrous misinterpretation by any ill-intentioned male. The existing system in law, which requires a Gender Recognition Certificate (based on surgery, hormones and living as the chosen sex for two years) is criticised for being long-winded, difficult and like jumping through hoops for trans people. Tara Hudson for example did not have a GRC and was still male on her passport, despite identifying as a woman. This made her legally male (and some would say the addition of a fully-functioning penis made her sexually male as well). If these legal definitions are to be overridden, as they were in Tara’s case, then there is no longer any legal safeguarding in place for women and girls. Legislation to protect women has gone, just like that. With no public discussion.

The trans community needs to be more honest about the problems within its ranks, rather than calling names every time there is disagreement. One of the favourite put-downs towards feminists, regarding the bathroom issue, is that they are getting into bed with the religious right. This is intended as a slur but in reality the politics of feminism hasn’t moved to the right: the fact is that radical progressives AND reactionary conservatives can find fault with transgender ideology, which means that it is an equal-opportunities opposition, not just a minority protest group. This should be worrying for trans activists rather than cause for gloating: the ability to alienate both extremes of the political divide does not bode well for mainstream acceptance, and there will inevitably be a backlash. Trans activists’ position that it is unacceptable to question anyone’s gender identity lends itself to ridicule. The research we have so far on the subject tells us that male pattern violence does not change when males transition: the levels stay the same. (Just to remind you: 98% of sexual crime is committed by males). When the bathroom issue is being discussed trans allies will scream transphobia at the idea that transwomen are being portrayed as potentially violent and/or sexual offenders, but when an offence does occur they are quick to assert that this was not a true member of the trans community. We need a workable legal definition in order to protect trans people themselves as well as women and girls.

In the school case mentioned above the outrage from the trans community was partly based on the premise that Lila Perry was personally being accused of violent intent. In the Tara Hudson case the argument became about this one particular transwoman and the odds of her causing harm to female inmates. The individuals in both these cases are irrelevant to the bigger picture, and it is unfair on them that the discussion has been focussed on them. The truth is that #notallmen are a threat to women but all men are required to keep out of women’s private spaces because of the ones who are. The same is true of transwomen, and should be so as long as our knowledge of a born-male propensity for violence stays the same after transition. This fact does not constitute hatred towards any one particular transwoman, or transwomen in general. The position expressed by trans activists and their allies is essentially that ‘it’s not our problem if a few dodgy sex-offenders slip through the net because they’re enabled by the legislation we are demanding’. It is an outrageous position to take.

Recently the Women and Equalities Select Committee met for the first time to discuss transgender rights. In the part of the discussion I saw, and in the media reporting afterwards, there was not one mention of the potential conflict between transgender rights and women’s rights, just as there was no mention of the rights of women inmates in the reports on the Tara Hudson case. I hope this was merely an oversight and that someone somewhere has done their research and understands the issues, and that decisions are not rushed into too quickly in order to appease the trans community. I want transgender people to have the right to live free of (mostly male) violence and free from workplace discrimination and to be able to live with dignity and respect. Trans people are human beings, whether male or female, and of course they deserve to be treated equally.

But many of them would agree with me when I say this should not be at the expense of women and girls.

Is Amnesty Throwing us all Under the Bus?

Amnesty’s draft proposal to decriminalise all aspects of the sex trade is being debated this week and there have been numerous articles, blogs, research reports, comments and tweets about it all over the media. There is an enormous amount of research and counter-research which seems to prove one thing and then proves another, depending on whose interpretation you read, and which side you’re on. Funnily enough, despite the strong feelings on both sides of the argument, and the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between us, we do actually agree on the main premise, which is that the (mainly) women who provide sexual services to (mainly) men should be decriminalised. You wouldn’t know that from the decrim lobby, but it’s true! Feminists opposing the Amnesty International proposal are doing so, not because we want the women in prostitution to be punished in any way, but because we want the men who exploit the women to be held accountable. Full decriminalisation, however, would mean that all ‘sex-workers’ would be free to work legally with no restraints, and that includes pimps, brothel owners, strip club managers and other people who make money out of women’s sexual services. It’s that aspect which causes the conflict.

When this concern about decriminalisation is expressed though, (because of misgivings about the resultant free-for-all), the decrim side points to Amnesty’s assertion that there would need to be some regulation of the trade to make sure this doesn’t happen. Although nobody on either side is arguing for legalisation, it seems to me that ‘decriminalised with regulation’ is just another way of saying ‘legalised’. State regulation is definitely not wanted by ‘sex workers’ as it would interfere with the freedom of the individual to work, and the example of Germany with its legal mega brothels and vastly expanded sex trade is seen as a red herring. Decrim, we are told, would not be like that. The example of New Zealand is used to illustrate successful decriminalisation, but aside from the fact that there is no reliable evidence to suggest that the violence inherent in the trade has been reduced there, there is also the important point that New Zealand is a small and remote country compared to Europe, and therefore not as attractive to traffickers. None of the examples used by the decrim camp can comprehensively provide evidence of an increase in safety for the women in the sex trade there, or of a reduction in trafficking.

This is a complicated issue because, uniquely in this trade, empowering the ‘workers’ means unavoidably empowering the exploiters and abusers as well. Reducing the stigma for the women who sell sex automatically reduces stigma for the men who buy it. The side you pick then, depends partly on whether you are focusing on the women in the trade (and their safety), or the men who are paying for their services (and their exploitation), or on whether you think it’s possible to protect the women whilst discouraging the men at the same time.

Traditionally, prostitution has been a ‘women’s’ issue, in that the focus has (unfairly) been on the women’s role in the transaction: women are ‘whores’, ‘harlots’, ‘sluts’, ‘temptresses’, ‘fallen women’, whilst men are just men, in the background somewhere, being men. In one of the first stories we have that features the subject, Jesus famously forgives the prostitute her ‘sins’, but nowhere is there even any question that her customers may have needed forgiveness too. The assumption that the prostitute needed forgiveness is a given: the social stigma is all hers. Prostitution has never been equal: fallen women are sinners who lead men astray. A man does not suffer the same stigma for being a punter as a woman does for being a prostitute. If a man is murdered in the street he is not defined by whether or not he has engaged in paid-for sex, but a woman always is if she has offered it.

The focus on men and the part they play is way overdue. It’s currently fashionable to talk about agency, out of respect for those women who ‘choose’ to sell sex of their own volition and do not see themselves as victims. I can appreciate that, and acknowledge that they know their own minds, and their lives, better than I do – but as many women in the sex trade are there because they have been trafficked, forced or otherwise coerced, or indeed because their life choices are so limited, I think the agency of the men who buy should not be overlooked. Their agency is more unequivocal: they buy sex because they want to, and they can. When people define ‘sex work’ as ‘consensual sex between adults’ they fail to put it into the context of unequal choices, and therefore they conveniently ignore the exploitation involved. The Nordic model, favoured by the opponents of the Amnesty proposal, takes this on board by criminalising the buying of sex but not the selling, with the aim of reducing demand as well as protecting the women.

In my opinion, it is the reducing of demand which is the most important factor in the debate, in that only this will ultimately protect the most women in the long run. When legal restraints on the sex trade are lifted it means that the most vulnerable women and girls are even more vulnerable to exploitation. When an activity is illegal or regulated you know that the society you live in sees it as wrong, and sometimes that knowledge acts as a final safety net for girls vulnerable to coercion or grooming. Take that away and it can be much more difficult to say no: it’s like your abuse is state-sanctioned. In Germany the favoured method of pimping now is the so-called ‘lover boy method’, which, as it sounds, means forming a relationship with a girl with a view to persuading her to work in one of the brothels. The fact that prostitution is legal and state-regulated has not reduced the stigma, or the threat of violence, for the women, but it has made it easier for a man to persuade his ‘girlfriend’ to do something which, after all, is not illegal any more. And the punters are still not interested to know whether a girl is working there by choice or not, as long as they have access to her.

The other important point about removing any legal impediment to the trade is that market forces will then determine the fate of many women and girls. Businesses succeed by creating and then meeting demand, and an unregulated sex trade would have a business model like any other. The mega brothels in Germany have ‘Specials’ where customers are offered food and drink and a certain number of girls at a fixed price, in order to attract new customers: much like an all-you-can-eat buffet or a buy-one-get-one-free offer. In New Zealand some enterprising spin-off businesses offer ‘classes’ for girls wishing to enter the sex trade. People involved in legal businesses are free to advertise and recruit and find ways to grow their business. This will inevitably lead to an increase in demand, and as there are never enough women to meet the demand, there will have to be an increase in trafficking too.

In this particular sense it makes very little difference to outcomes whether the sex trade is legalised or decriminalised. Either way, the removal of restraints on business gives the green light to those who would exploit the demand and expand the trade. This is not a preferred outcome for women in general.

There may be a minority of women who identify as ‘sex-workers’ who wish to make their own choices and be protected from the harms of their chosen trade, and they deserve to be protected from the men that would harm them. Supporters of the Nordic model do not want to ‘throw these women under the bus for the sake of ideology’, as is sometimes suggested, and nor does their concern constitute a ‘moral crusade’. The Merseyside model of hate crime goes some way to helping protect women in the trade, and should be rolled out more widely, but at the end of the day the sex trade is a dangerous place to be, and being able to report a crime with more confidence does not mean you will be protected from suffering it in the first place. Whether indoor or outdoor, in a brothel or a flat, the violence can happen to anyone anywhere who is alone with a punter, and the idea that you can screen out the bad ones is a myth, according to many women who have exited the trade.

Unless the behaviour of the men who are punters can be challenged, the sex trade will continue to claim more and more victims, and most of these will be women and girls. The criminalisation of paying for sex would act as a deterrent to men, and send a strong message about what our society deems acceptable, and how it views and respects women. At the same time further work on equality needs to be made an urgent priority to provide better economic and life choices for women so that prostitution does not have to exist as a safety net for the most vulnerable in our society. It should be a source of shame to us all that this state of affairs exists in the twenty first century.

It should be possible, if the will is there, to protect current ‘sex workers’ whilst at the same time reducing the scale of the trade for future women and girls. The sex trade impacts disproportionately on women who are economically disadvantaged, indigenous women, migrants and BME women. Concentrating legislative decision-making on a minority of currently self-identified ‘sex-workers’ instead of looking at the broader picture of the devastation the trade brings to the lives of the most vulnerable women all over the world, will lead effectively to the ‘throwing under the bus’ of many many more women and girls – now and in the future.

”Standing up for All Women”

A motion is due to be proposed at Young Labour in London on Sunday June 7th regarding the decriminalisation of ‘sex work’. The motion is here.

In response to this, here is a post called Standing up for All Women, compiled by WAPOW (Women Assessing Policy on Women), which sets out the arguments against this proposal, and shows where the assumptions it makes about sex work are flawed. If you are a Labour supporter, please read and share this important post, particularly among younger Labour supporters, so that the counter-arguments are available to everyone involved in the debate.

Poldark, Prostitution and Protein World

In recent weeks several public conversations and debates have taken place on subjects that primarily affect women and girls: objectification, body-shaming, the sex trade…the usual suspects. A new way of minimising the harm of these practices for women seems to have emerged, in the form of claiming they are all gender-neutral, or at least ignoring the aspect of gender, and therefore erasing the equality issue. It’s been done before of course, notably in regard to domestic violence (brilliantly dismissed as an argument by Karen Ingala Smith here), but as a way of silencing feminist debate it seems to be growing in popularity: #NotallMen is being joined by #Don’tForgetTheMen! Men who want us to recognise that they are not *all* bad also want us to believe that they share *equally* in the oppression.

First there was the Student Sex Work Project by Swansea University. This study, based on a self-selecting online questionnaire, found that there was parity between male and female students doing ‘sex work’ and that this should have implications for the services provided to offer support to these students. There was a lot wrong with this survey, primarily to do with the methods used and the stated aims – unsurprisingly it concluded that ‘stigma’ was one of the most significant downsides of the work (as opposed to, say, threat of violence), and, more surprisingly, that ‘sexual enjoyment’ was one of the motivations to go into the trade. This is much less surprising when you note that significantly more male than female students had responded to the survey with a positive response to the question of whether or not they were involved in ‘sex work’ and that the definition of ‘sex work’ included porn acting. A lack of scepticism over this blatantly unrealistic result further discredited the project findings and, bar a couple of newspaper reports, it sank without trace.

Except that Ally Fogg picked up on it, and wrote an article highlighting the statistic of ‘male student sex workers’ and helpfully linking to another report that showed that 42% of ‘sex workers’ are male. This report relied on data from an internet site advertising adult services, and the 42% referred to the number of ads featuring men. Looking more closely though, the actual response to these ads was negligible compared to the responses to the female advertisers, and therefore the men could be seen to be ‘fishing’ rather than actually engaging in the sex industry. As with the students in the first study, it is tempting to point out that there is a certain branch of male thought which holds that to be a porn actor or ‘sex worker’ would be the perfect job – the envy of all your mates!- and possibly there are many men trying to get into the trade by advertising themselves. It doesn’t mean there is corresponding demand for their services. Ally Fogg was happy though to report on these statistics uncritically. He also does not engage with the question of who is buying the sex from the men who are involved in the sex trade, and in fact the title of his piece: ‘Britain’s Student Gigolos’ gives the impression that the customers are women when clearly they are predominantly men. (To be fair, when I pointed this out to him he agreed it was misleading but said that the title was not his. He couldn’t do anything about it. Bit lame though).

At the recent debate at Conway Hall in London: ‘Buying and Selling Sex’, almost every aspect of the argument for and against the sex trade was explored before the subject of gender came up, almost as though it was rude or inappropriate to mention it. When it was suggested by Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes that the current austerity measures have made it more necessary for women to enter the sex trade out of desperation, to feed their children, I wondered why this was not also true for men. All over the world in every different society and every social class there are women forced into prostitution. Correspondingly, all over the world in every different society and every social class there are men who can afford to buy sex. It’s not hard to detect a pattern. The small percentage of male prostitutes mostly serve other males, so although they may well experience a power imbalance due to age or race, there is not the power imbalance due to gender that women face, and therefore it is not always helpful to women to include male prostitutes in the analysis of their particular problems. If you persist in saying ‘but men too’ in trying to make the subject gender neutral, I would turn the question round and ask instead why women, as a rule, do not buy sex? That is something which would be hard to talk about without mentioning gender. The answers may seem obvious to some but that’s not usually a reason to refrain from asking the question.

And then there’s objectification. The Poldark phenomenon hit the headlines a couple of weeks ago, and was discussed on Woman’s Hour with guest Martin Daubney, presumably because the article he wrote on male objectification for the Telegraph makes him an expert. Women have apparently been ‘perving’ over Aidan Turner’s naked torso in the BBC series Poldark, and according to Daubney this is exactly the same as the objectification that women have always experienced, but, because objectification is everywhere now, we should all just learn to deal with it. Men can deal with it you see, but women can’t. Men are ‘bigger than that’, despite the fact that they are objectified EVEN MORE than women now.

As if to prove him right, up pops the Protein World ad and up jump the women to complain about it! If only we could learn to deal with objectification like men have done eh…? But no: there are protests and petitions and vandalism all over the place instead. And, helpfully, another piece by Ally Fogg (in which, even more helpfully, he links us to that previous piece by, you’ve guessed it, Martin Daubney!) These two are spoiling us at the moment!

This piece pays a brief bit of lip-service to the fact that there might be reasons for men and women to respond differently to objectification (in a nutshell: it’s been going on for a long time so women are sick of it!), but largely once again men apparently do it better. For Daubney it’s all about the ability to ‘grow up’ and take it on the chin, whereas for Fogg the emphasis is on the very real political and social changes men have suffered, which gives them more of an excuse than women if they respond negatively to objectification: either way they’re exonerated compared to women, who inexplicably tend to do things like ‘peevishly whinge to Everyday Sexism’.

What is missing from these smug accounts of male superiority is any sense of the context in which these objectifying images appear and impact on women’s lives. So here’s a handy guide:

  • Historical context. Under patriarchy women throughout history have had to bend towards what men want of them in order to survive. Many laws and social rules have existed to keep women dependant, so that pleasing a man was the only option available. What men have always needed from women is sex and babies, so women have always been defined by, and valued for, their biology. The march towards equality consists for a large part in challenging this narrow definition of women in order that we can be seen and respected as full human beings, equal to men. Objectified images of women reinforce the old order and remind women of their ‘place’. They remind men of women’s ‘place’ as well. Objectified images of men carry no such meaning.
  • Social context. Sexually objectified images of women exist in a culture where sex crimes are overwhelmingly enacted against women and almost exclusively perpetrated by men. Many men enjoy the idea of being objectified by women: it might mean they’ll get more sex! Many women are unsettled by being sexually objectified by men: it might mean we’ll get raped. Studies confirm what most women know instinctively: that viewing sexualised images has an impact on a man’s ability to see real women as full human beings, with, for example, the right to say no. So this background wallpaper of images in our lives can encourage attitudes and behaviours which come under the general heading of ‘thinking with your dick’ – the impact of which is not usually positive for women.
  • Media context. Media representation of men is varied, like men themselves. The oiled six-pack image is one choice amongst many for men to aspire to or identify with. If that’s not you then you could look to the nerd, the skinny rock star, the many types of sportsmen, politicians, TV stars, actors or business leaders who are successful role models whilst coming in a variety of different sizes, shapes, colours and ages. For women there is no such embarrassment of choice. We live with a media saturated with images of young, slim, white, large-breasted hotties, and the small percentage of media attention paid to other kinds of women (Older women! Black women! Successful women!) are often accompanied by criticism due to the lack of the preferred attributes mentioned. In advertising 95% of objectified images are of women. By contrast 95% of sports coverage in the media is of men’s sport: it’s not just a question of the images we see all around us, but of the images we don’t see. This is not true for male representation in the media.
  • Physical context. Women’s physical shape is much more diverse than men’s. Most of the arguments I have read assume that because the Protein World ad model is thin, the protesters must be fat, otherwise what’s their problem? But actually it’s the shape of the currently fashionable media woman of choice that is more important. It used to be that women had ‘vital statistics’ (ah, the good old days of objectification!). It was considered that a figure measuring 36-26-36 was the ideal: that meant you had a bust, some hips and a waist, and although not perfect in terms of being seen as a full human being, it did at least allow you to have a whole body. That changed over the years (and I blame the Sun’s Page 3 and the lads mags for this), until women were classified by individual body parts alone, particularly their breasts. Now we get ‘Debbie from Manchester, 32EE’- not just measurement but cup size too. And that’s important because the emphasis on the fullness of the breast has led to a corresponding reduction in the size of the back (I suppose because breasts look bigger on a smaller frame). The Protein World model, like most of the Page 3 models, has a tiny ribcage supporting relatively large breasts, and although this might be natural in the model’s case, it certainly isn’t in the main population. Analysis of the range of Page 3 model body statistics done for the NoMorePage3 campaign showed that the currently desirable shape is unachievable for 95% of the female population. It is clearly impossible to achieve for those of us who have a pear shape, an apple shape, a straight up and down shape or a wide ribcage, whatever weight we are. It is not an image which exists to inspire women to get fit and lose weight, it is designed to make as many women as possible feel bad about themselves so that they will buy your product. I would go further and say that it’s a type of image that might inspire girls to go on crash diets and then have breast enhancement surgery, neither of which are healthy choices. Sometimes I stop what I am doing in my day and wonder how many teenage girls at that particular moment in time have suddenly come to the gut-wrenching and devastating realisation that as they continue to lose weight their breasts get smaller too! (I feel for you girls…) It’s cruel to demand both skinniness AND large breasts for the ideal body shape, it’s a huge stroke of luck to have both and nothing to do with ‘working for it’. You can see why anorexia or obesity might be a solution for some young women, to escape the endless conflicting demands made on their bodies. Needless to say, this is a conflict that does not exist for men. It would be like having a continual barrage of images exhorting you to lose weight, but knowing that if you did your penis would shrink.
  • And finally, yes: it’s been going on forever and we’re sick of it.

But do you know what I’m also sick of? I’m sick of being misrepresented as a woman and as a feminist by men just trying to score cheap points for their own gender off the back of women’s protest. Writers who should be intelligent enough to analyse and understand the bigger picture, and even have some human empathy, or at least imagination, to inform their judgement, are instead characterising women as moaning whinging jealous losers who just need to grow up a bit. Martin Daubney, as a former editor of Loaded, used to get paid to misrepresent women in pictures: now he’s getting paid to misrepresent women in words. But it is this final paragraph from Ally Fogg that hit me the hardest:

Boys do not need to be shielded from aspirational or sexualised images, they need to be secure that they have a meaningful role in society beyond zero-hours contracts, the call-centre and brief respite in the gym. They need to feel like they have more to offer the world than a perfect set of abs. Achieving all that will take more than removing a poster from the Underground.

Because, you know, God forbid that anyone should show that amount of empathy for a woman. Try substituting girls for boys and breasts for abs in that paragraph, and you have the perfect illustration of how it is for girls. Only a hundred times more so.