The Women’s March and the Erasure of Women

On Saturday January 21st the Women’s March on Washington took place in order to protest the potential effects the election of president Donald Trump would have on women’s rights in the USA. Conceived of by women, organised by women, networked and shared by women and overwhelmingly attended by women, the Women’s March became a chance for women worldwide to join in solidarity with their American sisters, and march for women’s rights in towns and cities all over the world. And this is what women did, in large numbers and in many places.

It is quite clear from the pictures that this was a women’s event, though it was by no means exclusionary – anyone could attend, but the focus was on women. In the UK for example there were many feminist and women’s groups represented:

It was a powerful opportunity to get across whichever feminist message meant the most to you, or whichever feminist campaign you have been working with, or simply to register your opposition to sexism. Although not all the signs and placards at the march were overtly feminist in nature, they were overwhelmingly so. Some of the subjects of inequality that women marched for included sexism, objectification and the sex trade, reproductive rights, political representation, violence against women and girls, women’s health and childcare. The other issues represented included racism and homophobia which obviously affect men too, and climate change and poverty which affect women disproportionately, as women bear the brunt of world poverty and the effects of climate change. I am trying to get across here the fact that even though there were some men present at the march, and even though some of the issues represented concern men too, you would have to be wilfully blind to ignore the fact that this was a women’s march, about women’s issues.

So why did the BBC do just that?

In the reports on BBC TV News on Saturday evening the march was referred to as an ‘anti-Trump’ march which was attended by lots of ‘people’. On BBC Radio 4 the same language was used, both on the Saturday evening and the Sunday morning news bulletins. We only got to learn that it was a ‘women’s march’ towards the end of the programme Broadcasting House, when one of the guest reviewers mentioned it. The choice of words really jarred after a day of following the march on social media and other news outlets, where the constant repetition of the words ‘women’s march’ had a feeling of power to it, which is a rare experience for women listening to the news. It felt as if the BBC had some kind of agenda. WHY was the word ‘women’ so dangerous to use?

Online it was a similar story, at least at first:

BBC online (thanks in part, I like to think, to a couple of tweets sent by myself and others…) changed their headline from ‘Anti Trump marches take place all over the world’ to ‘Women’s marches take place all over the world’. So thanks for that BBC. A small victory.

If the marches were just that: ‘anti Trump’, then I wonder why so many women came out the whole world over, in countries far and wide, none of which actually have Trump as their president? It doesn’t take much analysis to see that it was not Trump himself that the rest of the female world was protesting against, but the attitude towards women represented by Trump – an attitude which unfortunately can still be found all over the world, and which women still have to deal with on a day to day basis. The election of Trump acted as a catalyst for a powerful outpouring of dissatisfaction everywhere with the current state of women’s equality. The specific problems vary from culture to culture, but the strength of feeling is the same, and the election of Trump gave us a rallying point to express it.

It was not only the BBC which seemed intent on erasing the women from the Women’s March. Transactivists too were less than happy with the emphasis on the female population, particularly the biological aspects of being a woman:

Transactivism has been getting more and more extreme of late (the more it’s been allowed to get away with stuff…?) but this is a new low. Now we are being led to believe that simply HAVING A FEMALE BODY AND MENTIONING IT is transphobic and cissexist.

All women are now in the wrong.

Remind you of anything?

This is what happens when you allow men to dictate what you can and cannot say about your own body and your own experience. Women must simply disappear from the story in order not to hurt the feelings of trans people, and if we don’t do that we are wilfully contributing to their oppression. So it’s difficult, because we’re nice. We’ve been socialised to be nice. We don’t want to hurt anyone do we?

We need to wake up to this as women. On the one hand we have all that power and energy out there. We were funny and creative. We got angry. We did a good march:

On the other hand we are standing by when the very words we have to describe ourselves and our lived experience are being taken away from us. It has been happening for a while: Green Party Women call us ‘non-men’, to Sussex Police we are anyone who ‘self-identifies’ as a woman, to Planned Parenthood in the US we are ‘menstruators’ and to some people we are literally anyone who ‘doesn’t identify as male’:

brighton-hove-police-postermenstruatorswho-does-not-identify-as-malegreen-party-women-non-men

It’s time for women to wake up and stop being nice. The Women’s March felt like a celebration of how brilliant women are and what it looks like when we get angry. We should be more angry and we should be able to name the reasons for our anger. I hope the Women’s March has sown the seeds for further action and more awareness, but to be able to fight for your rights you need to be aware of how they are being eroded and who is doing the eroding.

It’s as if the BBC has sent a memo round saying ‘The word Woman is only to be used when it’s a case of a transwoman being done for murder or assault. Otherwise the word People will be sufficient. Woman’s Hour can apply for an exemption to this if and when it’s necessary.’

The trans lobby seems determined to erase all words to do with women, especially the biological ones, and many organisations have already capitulated. We now have birthing parents instead of mothers and chest feeding instead of breast feeding, amongst many more examples.

Is the timing coincidental or is the BBC’s choice of language meant to appease the trans lobby?

Women often find it hard to say no to men, but we really have to now. Current legislation around ‘gender identity’ will harm women and benefit men, and our ability to talk about this, let alone organise against it, is being eroded by the same ideology which is harming us in the first place. The downgrading of ‘sex’ as a category in favour of ‘gender identity’ has this one very important result: instead of the axis of oppression being male/female ( where 49% of the population who are male oppress 51% of the population who are female) the axis is being changed to cis/trans (where 99.97% of the population who are ‘cis’ oppress 0.03% of the population who are trans). It’s a clever way for men to say they are being oppressed by women, and it’s a reason we must all reject the category of ‘cis’ which only ever functions as a means to make us feel guilty when we assert our female rights, and to obscure the sex-based oppression we suffer. If 51% of the population cannot name their body parts for fear of upsetting the 0.03% this is an obvious and overwhelming injustice. You’d think.

The other result of this new language is that everything previously fought for on the axis of sex oppression becomes de-sexed, or, in common parlance, gender-neutral. It’s a tactic used by Men’s Rights Activists, for obvious reasons: if you can argue that domestic violence for example affects men almost as much as it affects women you can grab some of that (woefully inadequate) funding for yourself. Regarding trans people, if you can argue that transwomen (and particularly transwomen of colour) are the most oppressed of all then you have to give them priority treatment to compensate. Which is, I suppose, how two male-born speakers, one a self-confessed rapist and the other an apologist for child sexual exploitation, got to be two of the speakers at the Women’s March:

To get back to something positive, here is a reminder of the wonderful job women made of the Women’s March on Saturday:

And now let’s ensure that the complaints resulting from the Women’s March are seen for what they are: an attempt to silence and erase women. The (frankly ludicrous) assertion of trans rights over women’s rights, in response to the Women’s March, should be a wake up call to all of us.

If we don’t tackle this now then next time we need a protest march we may not even be allowed to call it a Women’s March.

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Feminism is for Women

The thing about feminism, which really shouldn’t need to be said (but here goes), is that it was invented by women for women. It is intended to identify things from a woman’s perspective and to look after a woman’s needs – so by definition, whatever the current subject of discussion, as a feminist you centre the woman’s point of view: you always ask ‘what does this mean for the women?’ This is important because historically it has not really been done: in a patriarchal system, rules, regulations and social structures have traditionally been invented by, and implemented for, the benefit of men. Sometimes this has benefited women too, but too often it has not. Feminists exist to look after the concerns of women: somebody’s got to do it. Feminists are interested in equality of course, but when all’s said and done, it centres women. Unapologetically. That’s how we roll.

We live in a culture shaped by thousands of years of patriarchy, where men are automatically centred, so it can be difficult sometimes to notice when women as a class are being shoved to one side, ignored, unrecognised, overlooked… it’s just normal. We have all to some extent been socialised to think of men as representative of all of us. Even as a feminist it can sometimes feel unnatural, or even selfish, to ‘think of the women’ when we have been socialised to think of others before ourselves. Add to that the fact that many feminists are also socialists and therefore committed to the idea of equality in their politics, and it becomes even more complicated. If we want our feminism to be intersectional we have to take into account race and class and all other inequalities as part of the picture, because they all impact on women’s lives. Feminists as a rule abhor racism and homophobia as much as they do sexism, BUT, crucially, as feminists we put the women first. Some recent examples of where this approach has been lacking in the public sphere include the practice of FGM and the sex grooming scandals in Rotherham and other places. Left to the authorities, cultural and racial sensitivities have taken precedence over the safety of women and girls. This is normal, this is patriarchy in action, and this is why we need feminism: we need to point these things out to stop them from happening again. It’s not easy, but as feminists it is our duty to see issues first and foremost from the perspective of what it means for women, even at the risk of being labelled racist, which is one of the worst slurs most of us can imagine. It takes courage and belief and clear priorities, and it’s hard: practically everything we have become accustomed to needs correcting…

The subjugation of women has traditionally been based on biology. It is more complex than this, but just to sum it up in simple terms: women’s bodies have a nice place in which to put a penis, and they are capable of bearing and giving birth to children. As Janet Radcliffe Richards points out in her book ‘The Sceptical Feminist’: ‘…only the female has the ability to carry, give birth to, and nurse the child once it is conceived, and this is an ability corresponding to which men have nothing at all.’ In other words, women as a class have a biology that men as a class want and need. If you couple that with the fact of men’s largely greater physical strength, then the possibility of forcing women to comply with men’s needs through physical threats, strict laws and social constructs follows close behind. If women did not have this different biological reality to men then maybe the oppression would neither be necessary nor possible. Janet Radcliffe Richards again:

‘Presumably women must in some sense tend to be weaker than men, or men could never have reduced them to such a state of subjection in the first place, but the suggestion that a weak group can be protected by being abandoned to the total control of a stronger one involves as remarkable a piece of twisted reasoning as can ever have been devised. If women are weak and need protection, it should have been the men that were controlled. A similar argument shows that the pairing arrangement cannot be one into which both sexes enter automatically as a result of some deeply-rooted instinct. If women had acquiesced willingly, there would have been no need for a colossal superstructure of law and convention to keep them in their place. The existence of rules to keep women in the power of men shows that men must have wanted of women something which women could not be trusted to provide of their own accord.’

The general characteristics of what we refer to as ‘femininity’ then, were not innate in the female sex in the first place, but a response to the position in which women found themselves. To survive in a society in which most things were controlled by men and owned by men, women had to develop ways to please men in order to survive. Traits such as kindness and caring, modesty, submission and deference would have been popular, as well as good looks and a range of homemaking skills. That would have kept the men looked after. That became the blueprint for femininity.

It’s interesting to speculate on what the true nature of woman would look like, or would have looked like, without enforced femininity: just how strong, capable and clever could we all have been had we not had to be so NICE…?   Anyway:

The inequalities based on biology are still very much in force, despite the fact that culturally, socially, politically and intellectually we have moved a long way from our biologically-determined origins. Women’s bodies are still the focus of much of the unequal treatment women suffer, whether it’s through the sex trade, rape culture, abortion rights, childcare or even the tax on tampons. Much of the structure put in place to keep women under the control of men, such as the system of law, marriage, unequal pay and unequal opportunities, are still here to a greater or lesser extent, and therefore disadvantage women, whose needs they were not designed to meet. Especially not their different biological needs: the needs that differ the most from male needs.

I have hugely skimmed over the details but you get the picture: it is important to have an idea of how big a part biological reality plays in feminism. Feminist theory cannot help but be concerned with women’s biological, lived reality.

And that, essentially, is why some feminists are currently on a collision course with trans activists.

I would like to be a trans ally. From the point of view of discrimination, equal opportunities, mental health problems, domestic and male violence, trans people suffer many of the same problems as women, as well as the other groups within the LGBT community. Trans people have the right to live their lives without fear of violence or discrimination. Feminists should be natural allies, and indeed many feminists are, and see no conflict between their support for trans people and their feminism. That would be fine except for the fact that feminists who are gender critical and therefore believe that a transwoman is different from a woman, are now in big trouble. No matter that this does not equate to a lack of support for transwomen, or a wish to hurt them; just to have a critical analysis of gender is enough for the more extreme and vocal trans activists to label you as a TERF (Trans-exclusive Radical Feminist), a transphobe, or cis scum.

The problems arise when the needs of trans people conflict with the needs of women, and the stumbling block is biology. To be a *true* trans ally it is necessary to pretend biology doesn’t exist: a penis can be female for example, and it’s not only *women* who bear children! Traditionally, the penis has been a symbol of male power (witness all those phallic buildings and sculptures raised as monuments to this power). It also of course has  power quite apart from the symbolic level (witness the gendered crime of rape). The penis is biologically and symbolically male and it therefore  has a gendered meaning. For women who have been sexually abused the penis is a weapon. As a feminist, the biological reality of the penis, and its role in the oppression of women, both historically and in modern times, makes it impossible to see it as ‘female’, even if it is attached to a trans woman. It is hugely insulting as a woman to be told to give up what you know and experience to be the truth lest you get labelled a transphobe. It is a particularly intractable problem for lesbians, for obvious reasons, and so they bear the brunt of the name-calling.

As a feminist, however much I agree with trans rights, when those rights are in direct conflict with women’s rights, I will choose the women every time. That’s because I’m a feminist, not because I’m a transphobe.

I am embarrassed to watch so-called trans allies lying and lying and lying again to appease the most voiciferous and extreme trans women. I think it’s patronising and stupid and dangerous to say ‘yes, a penis can be female’, or ‘trans women are women’ just to save someone’s feelings: it reminds me of how people talk to children: ‘yes dear, you really are a flower fairy…’ It helps nobody. It makes trans people look stupid, it makes feminists look mean, and it erases women’s history. To be ‘trans-inclusive’ it is not possible to talk about biology anymore: to talk about periods, pregnancy, childbirth, rape – all ‘trans-exclusionary’ because it’s stuff that only affects women. Even talking about FGM is ‘cissexist’ because it contains the word ‘female’, which leaves out trans people. (And in the words of the song: If FGM is cissexist I don’t wanna be cis…). Why do so many trans women want to be part of feminist groups when almost everything feminists talk about contains some reference to biological reality and is therefore offensive? And why are all the attacks on feminists rather than, say, the homophobic heterosexual men who are their worst enemies?

There are many gender-critical trans people on social media who I consider to be friends and feminist allies: they are not afraid to tell the truth and they know that a trans woman is different from a woman. I have respect for them and they have respect for women, and feminist theory. We can be supportive of eachother and co-exist with understanding and to mutual benefit. I wouldn’t dream of insulting their intelligence by pretending they are what they are not. I accept them as they are! We have different, but parallel oppressions: we don’t need to invade eachother’s territory for validation. This is how it should be: we can come together but we can  separate when we need to. There is loads of stuff that trans women would want to discuss that is not relevant to other women, and they should be able to organise as they see fit. So should women. This is not transphobic, it is respecting boundaries.

I know that what I’ve written will be called hate speech by some people, and cleverly linked to the idea of a kind of homophobic right wing hysteria about gay men being paedophiles that is so abhorrent and now so discredited. Luckily though I’m not about to speak at a university femsoc and I don’t have a media career to lose or a book coming out, so I will take that risk… The tipping point for me has been seeing how the power of the trans lobby has effectively led, through mass blocking, to the policing of what feminists can and can’t say on Twitter (and yet it’s somehow feminist to support this). And also it has galvanised certain men who actually don’t like women very much (especially not feminists, and especially not lesbian feminists), into an enthusiastic support based on a sudden opportunity to take the moral high ground in the Oppression Olympics. Now, by vocally and loudly trumpeting their support for men who have transitioned, they can still effectively support men whilst looking as though they are more feminist than feminists. It’s a dirty trick, but it’s based on a lie. They know they are throwing lesbians to the wolves when they say a penis can be female, which is why, when you call them out on it, all they have to say back is ‘Bigot!’ They cannot defend their stance with argument because there is no rational argument that proves that a male sex organ is not a male sex organ.

Objections to the Sex Trade

This article by Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes has been circulating on social media this week, following the failure in parliament of the proposed amendment to the modern slavery bill, which would have criminalised the clients of the sex trade:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/06/sex-workers-decriminalisation-amendment-modern-slavery-bill

There is so much in it that I disagree with that I thought I would jot down my objections. So here’s my response, paragraph by paragraph:

Para 1:  ‘…attempts to attack sex workers by criminalising their clients.’                              The tone is set in this first sentence: I think it is acting in bad faith to use emotive and incendiary language such as ‘attack’ in an attempt to discredit those with opposing views. No one I know who supports criminalisation of clients wishes to ‘attack sex workers’, in fact the opposite is true. The debate is around removing the historical stigma attached to the women in prostitution and placing it firmly on the client (as the people with more real choices in the transaction), thereby reducing demand. At the same time there must be put in place exit strategies for those who wish to leave prostitution (estimates vary from 85-95%). Damage limitation is an important part of the argument: nobody wants to throw any other woman under the bus for the sake of ideology. For my part I take the view I do because I believe that in the long term more women will suffer if prostitution is completely decriminalised than will suffer if buying sex is criminalised. That is not an ‘attack’ on anyone. Furthermore, the link in this paragraph to an article about Swedish prostitution law is almost wholly in support of the Nordic model, with a few reservations, and points out that the liberal approach is not working. It does not support the view of the English Collective of Prostitutes regarding the safety issues. I’m not sure why it was used in this article.

Para 2: ‘…plea from sex workers that mobilised hundreds of individuals and organisations…to oppose legislation.’                                                                                               In response : hundreds more support it:     http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/2014/10/end-demand-fawcett-supports-new-sexual-exploitation-campaign/

Paras 3 and 4: Prostitution is already underground, but see point 1 above and read the article about Swedish prostitution law. You can be against prostitution and for the safety of the prostituted at the same time.

Para 5: ‘LBGTQ groups called for an end to this “last vestige of Victorian moralism”, asking why some feminists had allied themselves with evangelical Christians who oppose gay marriage, sex outside marriage and abortion.’                                                                           This is my least favourite paragraph in the whole article. Firstly, as a seasoned supporter of the NoMorePage3 Campaign, I am used to being name-called, and the accusation of ‘Victorian moralism’ is a favourite, as though it is simply a matter of old-fashioned prudery to want equality for women. It’s a straw man, but I can see why it’s popular: nobody wants to identify with a description that neatly combines the idea of  prudishness with an out-of-touch, old-fashioned right-wing moral panic, and in using it the accusers place themselves firmly in the camp that is hip, young, cool, exciting and chilled about such things. Win-win. Except that it’s a misrepresentation. The same is true of the list of ‘allies’ we are supposed to have joined with – this is a particularly bad argument because nobody can police who does or does not support the same issues as them, and having one belief in common does not mean you agree on everything else. Again: see the NMP3 Campaign, with its fantastically diverse set of supporters who are opposed on many other issues but all come together to support the one issue they agree on. (But, if you insist on using that argument as if it is meaningful, I am quite happy to point out that the groups you have aligned yourself with include pimps, johns, traffickers, pornographers, misogynists and MRAs…)

My other problem with this paragraph is that it is the voice of LGBTQ groups that is cited. I think this group has a meaningful voice on other issues, and of course something to say on this one, but I question the prominence given to a minority group when the overwhelming majority of prostituted people are women and girls who do not identify as LGBTQ. When you demand we listen to ‘sex workers’ should they not be more representative?

Para 6: ‘…exploitation is rife…Why this double-standard with sex workers?’                 Exactly for the reason that ‘sex work’ is not like other work, however often you call it that. The sex trade, apart from the damage it does to people trapped within it, reinforces the patriarchal status quo, whereby women are the ‘sex class’ so it’s only natural to exploit them. It is both a symbol of, and a contributor to, inequality. It is very highly gendered, and more demand leads to more trafficking. A society that endorses that view of women is not a safe society for women to live in. Decriminalising prostitution and earning taxes from it makes the government a pimp. It is definitely not like any other ‘work’. So there are no ‘double standards’ there, just different standards, as there should be.

Para 7: ‘…claim that 80% of women in prostitution are controlled by their drug dealer, their pimp or their trafficker…discredited’.                                                                                 This is not quite true. The 80% figure has not actually been discredited, but questioned. There is agreement that the figure is hard to calculate, but no consensus on whether or not it still might be true. As for the fact that the BBC is one of the discreditors, that’s nothing to boast about: since when were the BBC experts on the sex trade? They have something of a record themselves, on ignoring sexual exploitation in their midst…

Para 8: ‘Scores of women, trans and male sex workers wrote to MPs…’                                     I have to point out again here that although trans and male ‘sex workers’ have their own experiences, particular to them, within the sex trade, and need to be heard, they are still a tiny minority of the prostituted class, and cannot be representative of the majority, and especially not of trafficked women and girls who do not have a voice at all. As for the Swedish stories, this is anecdotal evidence, not born out by the statistics, and anecdotal evidence is plentiful on the other side too.

Para 9: The ‘conflation of prostitution and violence’ does not assume that ‘sex workers’ don’t know the difference: that would certainly be insulting to the women concerned. However the fact can’t be ignored that for vast numbers of (mostly) women, violence is exactly what prostitution is.

Para 10: Two MPs quoted – both men: ‘We must listen to sex workers’.                                   In my view we should also listen to survivors. Globally it is overwhelmingly women and girls who are exploited sexually, many of whom don’t have a voice. I would be happy to listen to them, given the chance, and listening to survivors is the closest we will get to hearing the voices of all the women trapped in prostitution who don’t want to be there. The term ‘sex worker’ is self-selected: people who identify as ‘sex workers’ have to a greater or lesser extent, chosen, accepted or resigned themselves to a way of surviving that many others cannot freely choose. If we have to take into account the views of self-identified ‘sex workers’ (which we should) we need also to have represented, in every discussion, a survivor, a trafficked woman and a groomed and pimped teenager, to ensure a balance. I would like to know of the English Collective of Prostitutes: have you listened to survivors? If you have, did you believe them? Their voices are more representative of the prostituted experience than trans or male ‘sex workers’ but are often absent from the debate.

So here they are on the terminology around ‘sex work’:

http://www.catwinternational.org/Home/Article/587-over-300-human-rights-groups-and-antitrafficking-advocates-worldwide-weigh-in-on-sex-work-terminology-in-media

I will let survivors have the last word.

Disclaimer:  Although I have mentioned the NoMorePage3 Campaign here, and my blog is called Not The News In Briefs as a reference to it, I would like to point out that all views on this blog are my own. I am not a spokesperson for the campaign, just an enthusiastic supporter. The campaign and its supporters hold many different views on other issues apart from Page3. If you started following my blog on the strength of your support for NMP3 and now feel disgruntled with the direction it is taking, please feel free to unfollow.

Everybody else: if you haven’t already done so, please sign the campaign and download the Christmas single…

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.

 

An Object of Beauty is still an Object

Debating on behalf of the No More Page3 campaign can sometimes feel like a thankless task, but it certainly helps to hone your opinions and arguments when you are constantly challenged on your beliefs. I have been thinking lately about the argument that comes up time and time again about women who oppose Page3 as being ugly, bitter harridans, jealous of the models’ looks because they are not beautiful enough to be models themselves. This is in fact one of the most popular points of view expressed by opponents of the campaign, and it always makes me ponder, because a) it is one of the most popular points of view expressed by opponents of the campaign, and b) I am *actually* not beautiful enough to be a model myself. So – maybe they have a point…?

Well, except no…

I have thought carefully about whether or not I appreciate beauty enough, and whether my own lack of the required standard might influence my views. When I am told repeatedly by Page3 fans that it is a question of  ‘seeing, valuing and celebrating women’s beauty and sexuality’, it can make me feel a bit churlish for not joining the party, for miserably finding the whole premise problematic. Because the real question is not whether some women are ugly and therefore jealous of other women who are beautiful, it’s the fact that we are framing women in these terms at all. Hordes of people, as far as I know, aren’t spending all night on Twitter defending and arguing about MALE beauty. Beauty is a concept, and it is a concept which has traditionally been identified with the female, but it is still only a concept, divorced from a real human being. There have always been women famous for their beauty, from Helen of Troy onwards, and the idea of beauty being a female attribute which is desirable above all others has permeated art, literature and history throughout the ages. Conversely, and famously, Anne of Cleves was too ugly for Henry VIII to bear consummating his marriage to her. Female beauty is very very important. You don’t want to be one of the ugly ones.

When modern men talk about their right to look at beautiful sexy women, there is often the claim (the excuse) that this is a natural urge which historically men have always had, and that to go against it is somehow to go against nature itself. The argument is that men are hardwired to want to look at sexy women, to the point that it is cruel and unnatural to attempt to restrict their access by, say, removing a daily picture in a newspaper. Fair enough if you believe that, but to these men I say that in order for you to assert your ‘natural’ sexual characteristics, a woman often has to repress hers. It is not ‘natural’ for a woman to be an object: she may take the role in order to please a man, or to earn some money, but she is not ‘hardwired’ to do it. It is not ‘natural’ female sexuality to pose passively and obediently and to subsume her own desires in favour of the male’s. In the past the male of the species has been capable, I believe, of mating with a female without the benefit of readily-accessible images to feed his desire, despite all this talk of hardwiring and male ‘needs’.

What is undoubtedly natural is for people to fancy eachother and to want to have sex with eachother. Everything else is culturally determined, and therefore organised according to the prevalent beliefs of the day: homosexual and mixed-race relationships, adultery, monogamy, polygamy, covering up, letting it all hang out, being a ‘slut’ or a ‘prude’… all these ideas are invented and policed by the societies we live in, and are therefore changeable. The same goes for beauty and desirability: there is not one gold standard that men simply can’t resist, and there never has been. There are well-known examples of the lengths some cultures have gone to in order to constrain women’s lives with extreme and dangerous ideals of desirability: the Chinese practice of foot-binding, some African and Asian societies’ elongating neck rings, and the practice of female genital mutilation are all examples of the ways in which women have been forced to conform to a damaging ideal in order to be attractive to a potential husband. I’m guessing that the men who claim that their love of Page3 is only natural male behaviour are not ALSO lusting after the above examples of beauty. That will be because it’s not natural, it’s culturally conditioned.

In our own culture the beautiful, sexy, desirable attributes of women have been commodified to the point where often the real woman is left behind. Whereas Cleopatra for example was a woman *renowned for* her beauty (that is, a woman first), today Page 3 gives us the beauty without the woman: beauty (or ‘hotness’) has become an end in itself and the individual has been erased. Tina, 19, from Weymouth, doesn’t really exist, she’s become the sum of her parts, interchangeable with other young women who fit the template. This ‘ideal’ is as manufactured as the other examples of female beauty mentioned above. Today’s beautiful women are constrained by the need to be waxed and groomed to acceptable modern standards, to the point where there is a widely held disgust for natural female body hair even for those women (the majority) who are not in the beauty business. The ‘correct’ body type has been selected and repeatedly refined so that it now rules out 95% of women. Cosmetic surgery and invasive procedures are acceptable and promoted, so that the idea of cutting a body up for the sake of beauty is becoming normalised. The boob job has replaced foot-binding as the acceptable face of female bodily mutilation in the quest for desirability.

When certain sexist men take up the subject of FGM as their feminist cause celebre, I can’t help feeling that they do so partly because they don’t stand to lose anything by it. It is not their culture so it is not their sexual ideal that is being challenged. When they use the FGM issue to throw ridicule on the NoMorePage3 campaign, as Neil Wallis, former deputy editor of the Sun, is fond of doing, I am even more suspicious. At the risk of generating a few ”NMP3ers say Page3 causes FGM!!!” headlines, I would say there is a link between cultures which are prescriptive about the representation of female sexuality to the point where surgical procedures are a normal part of the picture. The more that men like Neil Wallis insist upon their right to view photos of slim, large-breasted, airbrushed, photoshopped, clear-skinned and glossy-haired young white women every day over their morning coffee, the more they are encouraging the view that to attain acceptable standards of beauty today a little bit of surgery might be needed. But to acknowledge that possibility would be to risk losing the privilege of access to your particular sexual preferences.

What starts off looking like a celebration of female beauty and sexuality quite clearly becomes an issue of power and control when challenged, and in a culture plastered with a wallpaper of sexualised images of women it is hard to stand up and be the ‘ugly’ one. When I argue against Page 3 I am quite sure I am not arguing against beauty. To ‘celebrate’ women by erasing what makes them unique and insisting they conform to an increasingly narrow ideal is to promote their object-ness, and as a woman myself I’ve always had the radical idea that I am human.  I love beauty as much as the next person, but an object of beauty is still an object.

 

 

 

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.

Page 3 on a Train

I got a lot of flack last week for taking a photo of a man reading Page 3 on a train, and then posting the photo on social media. Even though the Sun reader himself wasn’t in the photo: it was just the newspaper splayed across his knees open at Page 3, a few people took exception to the ‘invasion of a stranger’s privacy’ and accused me of public harassment and of spying on a member of the public. The state of my mental health has also come under question several times. Personally, I was pleased with the photo: I thought it captured that moment very well where a man *gets on a train, sits next to a random woman and displays a soft porn image right in front of her face*. I thought I might call the photo ”If You Don’t Like It Don’t Buy It”, in a kind of ironic way, because OF COURSE it proves the point that Page 3 can be, and is, seen by people who have not chosen to view it. Actually I was quite lucky that this experience, which many of us have had so many times, happened to me at a time when a) I had my camera phone with me, and b) I was feeling confident and bolshy enough to use it. The Sun reader didn’t even notice. Too busy looking at tits I expect.

Page 3 on a train

Anyway, the usual arguments ensued – is it porn, isn’t it porn, why does it matter etc etc, and that pejorative word ‘offended’ kept being used, as in: ‘Just because you’re OFFENDED by the sight of a pair of tits, it doesn’t give you the right to blah blah blah..’ Hot on the heels of the ‘offended’ word often comes the advice to JUST look the other way, ignore it, grow up, get a grip… and if you’re really lucky the trusty old Diet-Coke-Man and David-Beckham-in-his-pants examples are trotted out to show that men get it too but they’re just better at dealing with it than us. More mature. Less insecure. Less easily ‘offended’. What really IS the problem with catching sight of Page 3 on a train? How IS that offensive?

Well I agree that all else being equal, and, say, the history of misogyny not being what it is, and gender relations not being a bit one-sided, then it would be a bit of an over-reaction to get all hot and  bothered about one picture of a topless woman accidentally glimpsed in a public place. But however much you try to invoke the image of a kind of delicate Victorian sensibility, blushing and fanning and reaching for the smelling salts at the sight of a nipple, the fact is that there is a historical context to female sexual objectification which gives it a meaning, and there are valid reasons why a woman might find it genuinely threatening to come across soft porn in a public place. A lot of men understand this and would not wish to be the source of a strange woman’s discomfort or embarrassment, but there are some that persist in minimising the problem, based on the fact that they were once unsettled by a picture of a hunk on the front of Men’s Health magazine, and GOT OVER IT.

These men remind me of the worst kind of white tourist, who feels entitled to say, after a two week safari holiday in Kenya, that they REALLY UNDERSTAND racism now, and how it feels to be in a minority ethnic group, and what THEY’D do when faced with a racist slur, would be to just ignore it, work at feeling good about yourself, nobody can MAKE you feel bad unless you let them…

Or the kind of government minister who, for a gimmick, spends a week living on benefits, and comes out feeling able to give advice on how to choose cheap fresh ingredients (it’s not that difficult!) and cook from scratch, in order to make the budget go further…

Or the girl in Pulp’s ‘Common People’ who fancies a bit of rough for a while, but never has to ‘watch her life slide out of view’ because at the end of the day Daddy’s there to bail her out…

So, that’s what I think of you, you men who think women are overreacting, making it up, being over sensitive or insecure – I think for a start that you’d have to experience a lifetime of being underrepresented except as a sexual object, frequently marginalised in other roles; as well as an awareness of your physical weakness compared to the opposite sex, and a whole load of rape and violence statistics that weren’t in your favour. And because breasts are the sexual feature that women are judged on by size, you’d have to see MASSIVE COCKS  every day in the newspaper, and frequently encounter women rating you on the size of yours and making it the butt of their jokes.

And if you don’t experience that, or you don’t possess enough empathy to be able to imagine it, then you are just a tourist in the world of sexual objectification, and at the end of the day you know you can always go home. Why not take the train?

 

If you don’t want to see Page 3 on a train you can sign the petition here