Monday, 30 May 2011

What I Did On My Holidays

We apologise for the late running of this service; there were the wrong kind of leaves on the line. No, wait, I've been in Barcelona's fabulous Primavera Sound, dancing my aged feet off to Pulp, Belle & Sebastian and PJ Harvey. So in the grand back-to-school tradition, I shall tell you What I Did On My Holidays, with sun, sea, and the fucktacular fun-policing of people with disabilities!

Thursday night, my gentleman companion and I went to watch The Walkmen. After a hard day's sightseeing, swimming, and stomping city streets, I was not entirely full of beans, so was enjoying the music in my own special way: lying supine on the floor. I was having a whale of a time, so it was quite surprising when some ghastly self-righteous smugface took it upon herself to lean down to scream in my ear "WAKE UP! It's a FESTIVAL!"

Due to aforementioned surprise, I didn't get to express my fury at this; but that's the good thing about blogging: those elabourate comebacks you compose days later have somewhere to go. So imagine I'm saying this to her.

"FUCK OFF! It is indeed a festival, and one of the main tenets of festival life is that you can do whatever you want! And what I want right now is to enjoy the music and the atmosphere while conserving what little energy I have left! It's 10pm, the music goes on until 6am, and if I need a little disco nap then you have no damn business telling me off. Fun thing about living with chronic fatigue: you learn to enjoy the things you want to do in whatever damn way you can, because otherwise you don't get to enjoy them at all. There's a guy on crutches over there: are you going to berate him for not dancing vigorously enough? Are you going to shout at wheelchair users until they Empower themselves with the magical force of Positive Thinking and get up and Shake their respective Thangs because IT'S A FESTIVAL? I actually wouldn't be surprised if you did, because you are so clearly a bad seed.

"And if you're now getting all apologetic and "Oh sorry, I didn't know you were disabled", let's be clear: if I was 100% able-bodied that would still not be okay. How other people choose to enjoy themselves - or not, because what's with the endless imperative to Have! Fun! All the time! anyway? - is absolutely no business of yours.

"Also, you're in Barcelona, you chump: shouting at people in English is not the best way to represent our country abroad."

On a much happier note, the indignats had taken over the Placa de Catalunya to demonstrate their outrage at the country's financial situation, and everything else that's wrong with the world. At the edge of the protest camp was this sign:

If your revolution isn't wheelchair-accessible, I'm not coming.

Monday, 23 May 2011

I hereby admit that knitting needles will not, in fact, take down the patriarchy

I finished Laurie Penny's first book, Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism on the way home, and while it was awesome in loads of ways - it's a Marxist-informed look at fear and control of lady bodies, taking in anorexia, transphobia, and housework, along with a surprising number of other topics in its scanty 66 pages - there's one thing that's been niggling at me since.

I know! Nitpicking at three whole sentences out of several thousand words is kind of a dick move! But it's a move I am going to make.

Meanwhile, the most brain-bleedingly pointless domestic tasks have, for some young women today, become so alien and fantastic that they are now a lifestyle option. Cookery classes and knitting circles encourage young, trendy western women to indulge in a sanctioned fantasy of glamorous domesticity that never really existed, an arched, kinky fetishism of the trappings of a drudgery that is still the reality of many women's lives. I know plenty of women my age, educated and emancipated, who view the baking of immaculate muffins and the embroidering of intricate scarves and mittens as exciting hobbies, pastimes which should be properly performed in high-waisted fifties skirts and silly little pinafores.
 Yeah, diss knitting and I will blog at you.

So the overall point - that white western women have the luxury of employing cleaners, shopping in supermarkets and buying clothes made by sweatshop labourers in third-world countries, and so can perform an imaginary version of Mad Men-lite housewifery as a retro quirk - is solid. But the examples picked interest me.

For centuries, the task of making clothes so the family didn't freeze fell to women. While this was often a boring chore, it was clutched at as an outlet for creativity. Incredible intricate and inventive techniques like Aran cabling (where each motif has symbolic meaning, asthetic beauty, and the practical advantage of keeping rain out) seem to be a way of sneaking art in to lives which didn't have much opportunity for self-expression. No one could criticise you for wasting your time on fripperies, because clothing your family is a necessary task and a virtuous feminine activity. I'm not saying it's always a rhapsody of creative joy - any knitter whose heart doesn't sink at the instruction work five acres in stocking stitch is made of sterner stuff than I - but if "time-wasting" activities like art or music or writing are frowned upon because look at her messing around with a paintbrush; five kids, you'd think she could find summat to do, then you'd take your pleasures in any socially-acceptable work you could find.

And over time, they become part of the mythology of femininity: Good Women know how to knit. Good Women spend hours creating delicate cross-stiched handkerchiefs for no earthly purpose. Good Women cook proper meals, because they care enough about their kids not to resort to microwave ready meals in an emergency. What started as drudgery and blossomed into creativity can become part of the system of oppression again (I'm thinking of Laura Brown obsessing over cake icing in The Hours).

But taking up the needles - even in the space age year of 2011, when there's no material need to - doesn't have to be about idealising that imaginary 50s housewife past. When I'm knitting (usually in my jimjams, actually; not so glamorous) I'm not picturing myself as Betty Draper, whipping up some darling little bed-jacket for my abused and acting-out daughter. And if I'm strictly honest, I'm not usually basking in the glow of participating in a centuries-old tradition handed down from mother to daughter, either. I'm just making stuff. Because it's fun, because I like clothes, because it's something to do with my hands to stop me chain-smoking myself into oblivion. People knit for a lot of reasons, is what I'm saying, and just because something looks regressive, doesn't mean it's spearheading the assault on feminism.

All of which is in no way just an excuse to say I MADE THIS WITH MY OWN HANDS I AM SO PROUD.

It's a fox. If you were wondering.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Emails that might get me fired

"Whenever I talk about feminism, people start yawning. What's your secret?"

The most amazing thing about that guest post for Feministe was that really surprising people read it and liked it and were touched by it. People in my family, people I went to school with, people I had never mentioned this blog to because it hadn't occurred to me that they were into politics at all, and I'd just assumed that they'd take one look and go 'feminism, BORING', and that would be that. But! Turns out that even if you're not already a paid-up member of The Social Justice Blogosphere, you have opinions about abortion access, and maybe thinking about the position of women in NI makes you extra-grateful for the lack of obstacles between you and that one abortion you had that you've never told anyone about. Maybe you start reading because 'oh wow someone I know got published in a real place!', then maybe you're laughing at my silly turn of phrase, and you're learning before you know it. It feels awesome, not just preaching to the choir. Don't get me wrong - I love the choir, I am the choir, The Social Justice Blogosphere is one of my favourite things - but getting the outside world to listen and change is sort of the point of our whole Making Stuff Better project. So, yay for that.

My answer to that email, if you were wondering, was:

"Dick jokes."

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Lunchtime conversation

"Feministe published my post! I am so excited I think I might throw up! Or that might be the virus!"

"Congratulations, you're a real feminist now."

"What was I before?"

"You were... in training?"

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

A Tory a day keeps valuing people as autonomous human beings away: Ken Clarke thinks your rape wasn't that bad

Good golly, what a week. Things have been hectic in llama-land: first my gentleman admirer came down with a conglomeration of ghastly viruses (which resulted in a lot of people making 'man flu' jokes: no, actually, he's puking blood and has been prescribed amoxicillin for a chest infection! The fact that he's a dude doesn't in fact preclude his being ill!), then I came down with a mystery infection, which means I've spent the last few days falling asleep fully clothed at odd times and having freaky fever dreams; the worst one involved Sady Doyle, ladyblogger extraordinaire and my own personal blogspiration, tweeting that I was a terrible writer and didn't care about trans people. So I guess my subconscious is actively exhorting me to check my cis privilege (good) but also telling me I suck at life (bad).

But! The sexism does not stop just because a phlegm plague has descended on me and mine. Amazingly, or amusingly, on Monday I was going to do a Femail smackdown, just for the fun of it, but it seems that I don't have to go looking for fucktacular pronouncements: our beloved government insists on hurling them in my face.

It's a sad day when Ken Clarke makes Nadine Dorries sound compassionate.

So. The never-ending push to stop spending public money on anything at all has now reached the courts. Justice Minister Ken Clarke has proposed that jail sentences could be halved for those who plead guilty early in proceedings, saving Taxpayer! Money! by removing the need for a jury trial. Former Solicitor General, Vera Baird, pointed out that the average sentence for rape is a mere five years, and that if this was halved - and if those inmates were released halfway into their sentence on license, as is common - then most convicted rapists would serve all of fifteen months in prison.

Fifteen months. Even if we managed to catch and convict 100% of rapists, as opposed to approximately 0% (6% of reported rapes end in conviction, but the vast majority are never reported), punishing the crime with little over a year inside would be a vivid demonstration of just how seriously we take the issue.

But oh, Ken came out swinging! When this was pointed out to him, he said that the average sentence included "17-year-olds having intercourse with 15 year olds". Which it doesn't, actually! Because under current UK law that does not constitute rape! Later in the interview he amended this to an eighteen year old having sex with a "perfectly willing" 15 year old. Again, this would not be included in rape statistics, as it is technically classified as "sexual activity with a child". For the sake of clarity, let's have a brief refresher course in what UK law says rape actually is:
(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a) he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,

(b) B does not consent to the penetration, and

(c) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.
And as a comparison, what Mr Clarke believes real rape is:
"A serious rape with violence and an unwilling woman ... a man forcibly having sex with a woman and she doesn't want to ... a violent attack on a woman who doesn't know the man attacking her."
 Oh good. "Forcibe rape" is back. Because someone just sticking their penis into you without asking if you were into that? Barely traumatic at all, I would imagine! The sudden realisation that someone you know, maybe someone you love, has in fact been a monster all this time? Way less traumatic than an actual stranger actually raping you!

An "unwilling woman" - or, more accurately, an unwilling victim of whatever gender - is kind of a prerequisite for rape, Mr Clarke. And "a serious rape with violence" is really something of a tautology, in that rape is violent in and of itself. As to why you think being attacked by a stranger would be worse than being attacked by someone you know... I just don't think you've thought this through. I have never suffered this horrific crime. I can't imagine what it would be like to be violated in such an intimate and wounding way by someone I had believed cared about me. I can't imagine the psychic shock, I can't imagine how difficult it would be to trust anyone again, I can't imagine the endless damage it would do to my life, my relationships, my world. But I don't think you've even tried to imagine it. Which is why it is fucking terrifying that you are in charge of justice in this country.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Dear Mid Bedfordshire, you have a lot to answer for: Nadine Dorries strikes again

Jumping Jesus Christ on a bicycle, Nadine Dorries is the new Richard Keys! Preposterous, provider of endless blog-fodder; reactionary, sexist as all hell, in a way I didn't truly believe still existed! Except she has actual political power.

Which is a shame.

So you may have heard about her "Just say no, girls!" campaign for an abstinence component in school sex ed. The preliminary bill passed 67 to 61 - because apparently only 19% of our elected representatives give a shit either way - and since then, she's been making the rounds trying to drum up support for this madcap scheme. Yesterday, the Dorries campaign trail hit The Vanessa Show, which led to a couple of bombshells: firstly, Dorries effectively said that children who are sexually abused bear some culpability for the crimes committed against them. Secondly, something of political import happened on Channel 5.

If you've got the stomach for it, you can watch the full show here until Sunday; if not, aren't you lucky that I spent most of my morning transcribing the good bits? (By "good", I mean "HOLY FUCKING BANANA CAKES HOW ARE YOU ALLOWED.")

Firstly, we have further elaboration on Dorries' rationale for focusing on girls:
I want the emphasis on girls because it's girls who lose their education, girls who go on benefits, girls who usually throw in the towel and spend a lifetime on benefits, girls who enter old age and poverty, girls who usually end up with a row of guesting fathers and more babies because they can't get back into education, and can never get the opportunities that would have been theirs if maybe when they were thirteen or fourteen years old or whatever age they got pregnant, somebody had given them some counselling on the fact that they could say no and what might be the options.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there might be an element of snobbery in her views, here. I am also going to question exactly how many thirteen year olds get pregnant in this country every year, how many continue the pregnancy to term - and how many gave full, enthusiastic, informed consent to having sex. Because I'd hope that Dorries is focusing this "it's cool to say no!" advice at people who actually have the option of saying no and having that 'no' respected, as opposed to victims of abuse, given that, by definition, their attackers are not concerned with consent, right?
It's very interesting because one of the reasons for this is that some of the evidence that I've heard is that if a stronger 'just say no' message was given to children in school, that there might be an impact on sex abuse, because a lot of girls, when sex abuse takes place, don't realise until later that that was a wrong thing to do ... I don't think people realise that if we did empower this message into girls, imbue this message in school, we'd probably have less sex abuse.
Oh. So basically you're saying that if girls (only girls, apparently; boys never get abused, I take it?) were just a bit more assertive, they could explain to their abusers that they didn't want to be raped, and those abusers would take this on board and be a bit less rapey? Because before that they assumed their victims were, say, "asking for it"? That all seems very clear.

The thing is, I've watched this about five times today, and it's not a slip of the tongue, it's not taken out of context; this is honestly something she believes and is very keen to get out there. And as ever, she's taken a strand of truth and twisted it into something grotesque.

Because solid sex and relationships education would of course involve educating people about abuse, about boundaries and what to do if someone's making you uncomfortable and how to help someone you think might be suffering, but lesson one would be a fucking big sign saying IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT. You didn't lead him on, it doesn't matter what you were wearing, you're not a bad person, it's not your fault for not saying no, or not saying it loud enough or enough times, it is not your fault. Abuse is the fault of the abuser: end of lesson one.

And Nadine Dorries, impassioned champion of SRE reform, apparently has yet to grasp this lesson. Someone send her back to school.

Edit: May I wholeheartedly recommend this and this for unimaginably brave people talking about how it actually feels to be told you were asking for it.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

In more tweeting for choice news

  @ the best thing for a raped woman is a child the worst thing for a raped woman is to kill the child
How fucking dare you presume to tell any survivor what is 'best for her'? How fucking dare you tell her that the best way to recover from a violation of her bodily autonomy is a further violation, by continuing an unwanted pregnancy? The best thing for a survivor is to have her needs and desires listened to, and for her to heal from her assault in whatever damn way she sees fit, without dickwits like yourself having the unimaginable gall to lecture her on morality.

You're scared of government? I'm scared of you.

Friday, 6 May 2011

In which I tell Nadine Dorries about my sexual history

I have this dream that we, as a nation, will one day live up to the rational, moderate, secular image we have of ourselves. In this dream, sex and relationships education (SRE) focuses on giving students the information and confidence they need to make whatever genital-touching decision is right for them. People will be able to say the words "single mother" without advocating removing the social safety net from beneath some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the country precisely because of their vulnerable position. And Radio 4's Thought For The Day will be presented by Eddie Izzard. Every day.

But then I wake up from that dream to find that Parliament has passed a Bill supporting abstinence-focused sex education. Just for girls. Nadine Dorries, we need to talk.

I think almost everything I could rant on the topic has been said elsewhere - why only girls! Boys have sex too, and also not all teenage fumblings are of the heterosexual variety! They also don't all follow the Horny Dude Pressures Insecure Girl model - and if they did, surely teaching the Horny Dudes how to not badger people into receiving the penis would be at least as important as teaching Insecure Girls how to decline the penis! Isn't this essentially enshrining victim-blaming into the law? This lays out the ridiculousness of the proposal nicely, to the point where I almost wasn't going to write about it.

Turns out I had some thoughts, though. Surprise!

Firstly: how much has sex education changed since I left school? I remember the animated video about your body is going to change, an extended film of a woman giving birth, and a whole lot of tampon talk, but nothing about contraception - or, god forbid, consent - comes to mind. Everything I learned about the relative merits of condoms, diaphragms, femidoms and the pill, I learned from Sugar magazine. I wish someone had shown me how to put a condom on a cucumber - and I really wish someone had taught three of my previous naked dance partners the importance of correct post-ejaculation condom procedure, because then maybe I wouldn't be the Morning After Pill Queen. (Four times, you guys. But that is a whole nother story.)

So if kids really are being taught the mechanics of contraception, I'm nothing but thrilled: Judy Blume books are great, but they're no substitute for a comprehensive sex education program. I agree the 'relationships' aspect of SRE is also vital, but one half of the equation is better than neither.

Secondly: the quote from Dorries (as to why she's pushing for this now, when teenage pregnancy rates are falling) on the sexificatory pressures felt by our younger sisters...
Dorries told MPs the sale of porn magazines in newsagents, and high street shops selling padded bikinis for seven-year-old girls showed "how far the sexualisation of young girls has gone in our society".
...misses the point, in quite a sad way. It conflates the pressure to be sexy with the pressure to have sex - which are, to an extent, separate things. I think there's a tendency among adults - which increases when they have children themselves, and as they grow further away from their teens - to be so grossed out by the idea of girls having sexy feelings that they prefer to deny its existence, and assume that all teen sex must be due to the twin demands of Horny Dudes and Social Pressure. So they want all SRE to promote abstinence, Just Saying No, with contraception as a reluctant afterthought.

Do you remember how it felt the first time you really kissed someone you had a huge crush on? How exciting it was, how terrifying, how you were sure you were going to vomit, or come, or both at once? Teenage sex isn't just grim enduring, lying back and thinking of Kate Middleton while a Horny Dude wallops around on top of you for thirty seconds. It can be fucking amazing.

And yeah, there are problems; there are guys who think they're entitled to have a girl touch their wang and girls who don't know they're allowed to say no and neither knowing the finer points of condom-usage, but that's true of adults too. The best chance we have for making things better in the future - for making rape unacceptable, for minimising STDs and unwanted pregnancies, for making happy enthusiastically-consensual sex the norm - is really good SRE now. Which Dorries' "it's cool to say no!" information should be a part of. But there should be a whole lot more besides: there was no shortage of people encouraging us to say no, but very little information on how to say yes: how to say yes safely, what it was we were saying yes to, how to say no-to-that-but-how-about-this?, the very idea that we could make suggestions of our own. Yes opens up a whole world of new questions that teenagers, as well as everyone else, need guidance in answering.

Feminism can stop now. We've won.

You guys, something really weird has happened. I don't quite know how to deal with it, and I just hope that you'll be with me to find a way out of this dense thicket of bizarritude back to the clear, high plains of logic. Just brace yourselves - this is far, far stranger than anything we've dealt with before.

The Daily Mail published a feminist article.


Assistant Professor of Sociology at Florida State University, Janice McCabe, has conducted the most comprehensive study ever of gender bias in children's books, and found that male lead characters outnumber their female counterparts by up to two to one. This disparity was particularly notable with animal characters - male animals star in 23% of books per year from 1900-2000, while female animals lead in only 7.5%. You can even read the full study here to double-check that the Mail's reporting is accurate.

And... it is: they pretty much reported the research straight, free of the snidery and derision which characterises their usual approach to any story which sort of suggests that maybe there is such a thing as sexism and maybe it kind of a little bit might impact on ladies' lives, ish.

I mean, they try to disguise it with the headline (put "sexist" in "scare quotes" and you have "basically won the argument", I guess?), and an intro paragraph saying the research damns all children's books as "inherently sexist", which will "will baffle fans of Alice’s Adventures  in Wonderland, Anne of Green Gables and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" (ah yes, three books out of an entire century of fiction: you "win"!) ... but the rest of the article just tells you the plain old facts of life, libraries and gender bias with no attempt to belittle the findings, diminish their importance or argue them away with a tirade of blusterous inanities about IT'S POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD blah blah green sheep is this what we fought the Nazis for.

Which is cool! And weird! The Daily Mail: bringing feminist academic research to my attention! I mean: I know the number of people who read past the headline isn't high, and the number of those who read past the first paragraph is even lower, but that usually doesn't put Mail writers off: anywhere they see an opportunity to stick the reactionary knife in, swish-squelch in it goes. So I shall chalk this one up as a tentative victory for righteousness everywhere. We have taken the Daily Mail: the citadel is ours.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

And that's why mums shop at Sexism!

There are some kinds of sexism that feel like a punch in the gut. There are some kinds of sexism that are interesting on an analytical level. There are some kinds of sexism that are so brilliantly preposterous that I just laugh and laugh.

And there are some kinds of sexism that make me so fire-spittingly furious that I want to break something in half.

Oh, mums! They are wonderful! They cook, they clean, they change nappies! They are happy never to be noticed, "like the air"! They are basically the Virgin Mary, but now with a new and improved formulation (guaranteed 27% more effective than the leading brand), sponsored by your friendly neighbourhood multinational conglomerate, Proctor & Gamble!

Seriously, "proud sponsors of mums"? We have sponsored schools, those irritating video ads on buses, Guy's Hospital canteen is a flipping McDonalds - and now mums everywhere are officially sponsored by P&G? Did the Mothers' Union take a vote? Is everyone who's ever pushed a baby out of her vagina now required to wear the P&G logo prominently on her (solely for breastfeeding!) chest? And will they be monetarily compensated for this? I should really phone my mum more often.

"The head without a body." Yes, that's not creepy at all.

And the logos at the end? The brands chosen out of P&G's mighty stable to best represent motherhood? Behold: Fairy (Why do women have small feet? So they can get closer to the kitchen sink!), Ariel (wash my clothes!), Pampers (change my nappy!), Pringles (uh, feed me junk food? Not sure how this one got in), and Lenor (wash my clothes MORE!). Ah, the joy of motherhood: there are some experiences so precious that money cannot buy them. For everything else, there's over-priced and unethically-sourced products for performing menial and unappreciated tasks.

The whole thing's reminiscent of the Iceland "because mums are heroes!" campaign: the faux-sisterhood "we totally respect you while defining you solely by the fact that you are a mother, which equals primary caregiver, so good for you but also get back in the kitchen" attitude.

This is not the kind of sexism I really expect to be confronted with during a Sky Sports ad break. Girls in bikinis, new Lynx Eau De Wanquer, instant microwaved sex on a plate, that was all normal - but sanctimonious "be nice to your mum, but make sure you don't link her oppression to the wider social forces shaping patriarchal capitalism!" was just weird.