Thursday, 27 November 2014

Hoseland security

For the first time in my entire life, I actually feel financially secure. Not like the giddy spendthriftery that comes with the first student loan payment ("I can buy a DRINK! In a PUB! I don't have to smuggle in my own booze!!") or the fortnightly coming up for air when your JSA comes through or the monthly cash injection of an actual pay cheque that never lasts more than three weeks. But genuinely secure, to the extent that I'm going to put money in a savings account, like some sort of responsible person.

I knew I'd reached some marker of adulthood when I realised that when my tights got ripped, I didn't have to keep them ("well, this one has a hole in the shin, so I can wear it with boots; this one has a hole in the toe, so I can tie a knot in it, it's not that uncomfortable; make do and mend, don't you know there's a war on?"). I had, finally, got to the point where I had enough confidence in my income that I believed that if I had runs in all my tights, I would have enough money to buy a new pair.

Then I think, this is what rich people must feel like all the time!

It's like when I switched meds and got the SSRI high for the first time. I felt fucking invincible, man; I slept for eight hours a night and woke feeling refreshed and minor hassles did not bring me to tears and gentle criticism did not instantly trigger visions of gouging a dirty great hole into my left arm. It only lasted about a month, but it was the best I've felt since I hit puberty.

And that, I guess, must be what sane people feel like most of the time!

Don't get me wrong, I know that mentally healthy people don't all have easy lives; I get that life isn't wall-to-wall sunshine and periwinkles for everyone who isn't me. I imagine even rich people have feelings of some sort. But there is a meaningful difference between "not having a perfect life" and "tube journey making you want to actually die".


But tights are really a perfect example of our disposable, oil-guzzling, decadent western lifestyle, aren't they? Usually made of synthetic fibres derived from oil; easily damaged; impossible to repair, so you just have to keep buying them, buying, buying, forever.

So it was lucky that my "I can afford to buy tights!" realisation came at the same time that I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and This Changes Everything and started actually thinking about The Environment and that and stopped using my vegetarianism, lack of a driving license and sustainable menstruation practices as a get out of jail free card.

So I can't send the tights to landfill. They're probably recyclable, but the likelihood of my finding the nearest collection point and actually delivering them before the ever-growing pile of manky old nylon drives the boyfriend to distraction is... slim.

The answer, of course, is to cut old tights up into strips and knit with them.

Even better, I can knit little bags to put Christmas presents in, removing the need for wrapping paper.

I'm pretty sure this idea is either pure genius or utterly insane.

I just hope someone stops me before I end up in a yurt woven from my own leg hair, eating nothing but wild dandelions and drinking only dew.

Monday, 24 November 2014

A hard day's mug

I have somehow ended up on the Conservative Party's mailing list.

This concerns me.

To reiterate: "While Labour are bankrolled by the trade unions, we rely on hardworking people like you."

Okay. Trade unions aren't like gigantic piggy banks, though, are they? Their money comes from members' subscriptions, members who are... "hard working people", like me, actually. And don't think I didn't notice your sneaky use of the phrase "bankrolled", implying that Labour and the unions are rolling in money. You can try and deflect it all you like, but you're still the fucking Tory party. Pointing at someone else and calling them rich does not change that.

And claiming that the Conservative Party is funded (exclusively, by implication) by "hardworking people like [me]"? Seriously?

It took me two minutes on google to find out that

In the first decade of the 21st century, half the party's funding came from a cluster of just fifty "donor groups", and a third of it from only fifteen. In the year after the 2010 general election, half the Tories' funding came from the financial sector. 
For 2013, the Conservative Party had an income of £25.4 million, of which £749,000 came from membership subscriptions. (Source: Wikipedia, of course!)

And thirty seconds on a calculator to figure out that "hardworking people like me" are providing a whole 2.9% of the party's income. Fair enough, though; it must be hard to  twist "we are funded by the financial sector. Yes, by bankers. Who are our current folk devil, for good reason." into a cheery invitation to buy a mug.

Fun as this was, I really don't need bullshit missives from David Cameron gumming up my inbox on a daily basis, so I shall send the above back to him, unsubscribe, and brew myself up a cup of proletarian tea in a mug that does not taste of lies and the destruction of the NHS and pure, pure evil.

Mmm, tea.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Meet my new husband

I am an American man, and I have decided to boycott American women. In a nutshell, American women are the most likely to cheat on you, to divorce you, to get fat, to steal half of your money in the divorce courts, don’t know how to cook or clean, don’t want to have children, etc. [Damn, that is a pretty big nutshell. ~ Ed.] Therefore, what intelligent man would want to get involved with American women?
American women are generally immature, selfish, extremely arrogant and self-centered, mentally unstable, irresponsible, and highly unchaste. The behavior of most American women is utterly disgusting, to say the least.
This blog is my attempt to explain why I feel American women are inferior to foreign women (non-American women), and why American men should boycott American women, and date/marry only foreign (non-American) women.

Such was the strident call to arms left by An American Man disgusted by American Women, on a blog post predominantly about the bacterial inhabitants of my vagina.

I'm curious: does he think I'm an American Woman (GET AWAY FROM MEE-HEE, as Lenny Kravitz would say, before he became a fashion designer in the Hunger Games and approximately 900% more cool) and is therefore coming to tell me what an immature, selfish, arrogant, self-centred, mentally unstable, irresponsible and highly unchaste woman I am, by virtue of the bacterial inhabitants of my vagina?

ARTIST'S IMPRESSION: why would any intelligent man want to get involved with this cheaty divorcing fatty half money stealing uncooker or cleaner? WHY, GOD, WHY?

Is he aware that I am an English woman, and therefore within his Foreign Women Group, and therefore asking me to join his valiant crusade against American Women? (This would be difficult: boycotts rarely work unless you tell the people you're boycotting a) that you're boycotting them, and b) why. I am friends with around ten American Women on Facebook, so could inform them by a handy group email that I am Boycotting them because of their immaturity, selfishness, etc, but there are several million other American Women who wouldn't know that I was deliberately choosing not to date them. Perhaps some sort of nationwide poster campaign? Or, hey, I know! I could trawl the internet for blogs that are probably written by American Women, and post my manifesto in their comments section, for no real reason! YES!)

Or... given that I am, by his rules, a Foreign Woman, could this possibly be a marriage proposal?

I'll be over here, in Foreign, pulling petals off daisies and hoping that he faxes me a big fat blood diamond.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The capitalist-patriarchal anti-vagina complex: on feminine freshness sprays

Once, years ago, a guy drunkenly asked me about the relationship between sexism and capitalism. (My reputation for being fun at parties, clearly, precedes me!) I'd just finished Lindsay German's Sex, Class and Socialism, so briefly outlined concepts like middle class women as a reserve army of labour (who can be encouraged into factories when lots of workers are needed, like during WW2, before everyone suddenly remembers that actually biology dictates that they should be in the kitchen hoovering up spilt fake-baby-milk-powder, like in the 1950s).

What I really should have said, though, was: Femfresh. That one product is the best example of how capitalism and sexism work together in perfect harmony to make money out of exploiting female insecurities created by sexism.

Femfresh's argument is: "Your vagina smells GROSS! Everyone around you is secretly thinking, my GOD, that vagina smells SO MUCH LIKE A VAGINA, because your vagina smell is SO STRONG that it can penetrate three layers of clothing, and possibly walls too - which is why your neighbours hate you! You'd better spray our fabulous vagina deodorant all over your vagina to stop passing strangers passing out from the toxic vagina fumes."

As a marketing strategy, it's fucking genius: firstly, harness the widespread cultural belief that vaginas smell bad. Second, convince the vagina-enabled that the only possible solution to this infernal stench is to use your product. Thirdly, cackle madly with evil-genius glee at the fact that your product will in fact make the normal smell into a bad smell, ensuring that your customers are locked in to a never-ending arms race of vagina fumigation, for the rest of time.


Nine years ago, I came home one day to find that the entire house stank to high heaven. My housemates and I ransacked the place, trying to figure out where it was coming from - was it the mouldy yoghurt in the fridge? The sanitary towels in the bathroom bin? Had Mrs Next Door turned her house into a pop-up slaughterhouse and forgotten to tell us?

Turns out it was a dead rat decomposing under my floorboards. Over the next few weeks I had the chance to get intimately familiar with the smell, as the estate agents outdid their usual uselessness by dealing with the problem by sending us an air freshener. Super: now my bedroom smells of sickly-sweet vomitous pink chemicals, as well as rotting flesh! What joy!

So when I got a similar whiff the other week, there was no mistaking it. Somewhere, something had died, and the odour of its decomposing cadaver was permeating the flat. I hunted high and I hunted low; I sniffed into cupboards and behind appliances; I considered training the cat as a corpse-hunter. It took a couple of hours of this incredibly gross Easter egg hunt for me to realise that the smell seemed to be following me around.

And that, my friends, is the story of my first encounter with the exciting condition known as bacterial vaginosis.

Too much information, you say? Well: I say this is just enough information to make it entirely clear why using "feminine freshness sprays" is a ridiculously bad idea.

As we learned from Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, the vagina is a self-cleaning organ. That's what its usual clear discharge is for. If you mess with its very precise internal balance of microbes (penicillin was my downfall) or increase its pH by using soap or feminine fucking freshness sprays, things go wrong. Good bacteria get crowded out by bad bacteria. And bad bacteria? In this instance, they smell like something has crawled up your cunt and died.

The point is that if you think your snatch smells bad, go to a damn doctor. Go to your local sexual health clinic to reassure yourself that you don't have AIDS, or syphilis, and to load up on free condoms. (I'm told the Soho clinic is very groovy.) If it does smell bad, that's a sign there's something wrong, and the correct course of action is to ask a vag-specialist: not to smother it in glorified air freshener.


I'm sure you'll be relieved to hear that I'm better now. My lady garden does not smell of lemon thyme and rainbows, nor does it smell like a rat turning itself back into its constituent parts: it smells like a vagina.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Alias nothing

Weird things that happen when you rewatch Alias for the first time in five years:

1. OH GOOD GOD THE CULTURAL DRAG IS FUCKING UNBEARABLE. Nope, dressing up as a geisha or an Indian lady is really, really not the same as doing your sneaky spy biz disguised as a maid or a soldier or a hot girl. Other people's cultures: not your fancy dress.

2. Speaking of Hot Girl, good grief there is a whole lot of pandering to the male gaze going on. Are you aware that Jennifer Garner has breasts? She does! Two of them, right there on her upper chest! Barely covered with a filmy layer of nothing! Let's take a long, slow, camera-trawl over them, taking in some stomach and butt and legs for good measure.

"The key to doing this well," Sydney informs Marshall, is to "be inconspicuous". And what's more inconspicuous than a skin tight rubber mini dress?

I mean, I get that there is more than one way to be inconspicuous, and that dulling evil doers' suspicions by hypnotising them with your tits before kicking them in the head and stealing their microwave bomb laser could be construed as a quasi-feminist girl power kind of dynamic, but the entirely gratuitous "HEY LOOK BOOBS!" shots that are apparently obligatory every time she changes outfit (ie. six or seven times per episode) take the shine off this message of empowerment somewhat.

3. Thinking about it, the scenes where she's at home, having discarded all aliases and disguise, she's usually dressed in jeans, no apparent make up, no "FOLLOW THE BOOBS" camera work: the implication being that this is Sydney in her natural state. This posits femininity as performance, inherently artificial, and used to deceive and befuddle men - which is troublesome enough. But it also implies that the other cultures she plunders for her dressing up box are equally artificial, whereas early 21st century urban middle class life is neutral, default humanity.

4. At the same time that I was coasting through season three, I was reading up about MKUltra and Project Artichoke, and the roads that led to Guantanamo. The cognitive dissonance between "the CIA are wackily, bizarrely, and yet grindingly prosaically evil" and "the CIA are our only defence against cartoon villains with nukes designed by a 15th century prophet, go team USA!" is kind of odd.

5. The phones look so quaint.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Chastity: the new rape defence

And the award for Today's Most Hilarious Troll goes to...


I'm glad he's called Larry. I've never met a Larry I didn't want to avoid the heck out of.

So, a quick recap: a 17 year old girl became pregnant as a result of rape. When she discovered this, she became suicidal, and requested an abortion. Too bad for her, she was in Ireland, and didn't have a visa to travel to England, so her only option was to become an unwilling guinea pig for the shiny new Protection of Life During Pregnancy, If Two Psychiatrists And An Obstetrician Agree That You're Going To Be Really Very Dead If You Carry On Being Pregnant, Maybe, Maybe, We'll Let You Make A Decision Regarding Your Own Uterus Act.

So the psychiatrists supported her claim, while the obstetrician - you know, the one whose job isn't assessing people's psychological health - ruled against.

In utter desperation, she went on hunger strike.
[She] believes that the government deliberately delayed her case – both through the state’s decision to ignore psychiatric experts and via her inability to travel because of her legal status – so that she would have to carry the pregnancy at least through the fetus’s viability. After going on a hunger strike, she was forced to undergo a caesarean section at just 25 weeks into her pregnancy. 
That’s 17 full weeks after she first sought help.

She first requested an abortion at eight weeks, by the way.

You know what, that is unbelievably fucking depressing. And infuriating. And heart breaking. We need a break: let's generate an artist's representation of what "Larry" looks like.

Eurgh, Larry.

So in response to this case, Larry thinks we should focus less on the desirability of killing babies, and more on the virtues of chastity.

Chastity does not actually mean never having sex. That would be celibacy. Chastity means having the appropriate amount of sex for your circumstances, as defined by the baby Jesus: it includes nuns and single people saying no to nookie, but also honeymooners fucking like bunnies. So presumably Larry isn't aware of the hundreds of married women who contact ASN each year.

But bringing up the "don't have sex unless you're prepared to have a baby!" argument - which is gross at the best of times - in a case where the woman is pregnant as a result of rape, is just mind-blowingly cruel.

"Sorry love - you played by The Chastity Rules, but your rapist didn't, and you know who should pay the price for that? Yes! It's you! When life gives you lemons, the Irish government gives you major surgery against your will!"

Thursday, 14 August 2014

An arm through a doorway

That thing men do when they insist on holding the door open for you, even when you both got there at the exact same time, and the door is opening towards you, so it would be much easier for you to hold it for them to go through.

Firstly, it's annoying, in a basic "what, my spindly lady arms will snap if I open a door for myself?" kind of way.

Secondly, it's annoying on a more complex, "I am being chivalrous and demand that you accept my chivalry, or I will castigate you as ungrateful, unfeminine, and out to symbolically castrate me" level.

Thirdly, it's actually kind of invasive: unless it's a very wide doorway, you're basically forced to slide your body incredibly close to his, hoping that he won't take advantage of the configuration of your two corporeal forms to grope you or grapple you or press his wang into your hip on your way past.

It's one of those moments where you see so clearly that this system of social relations that makes life so difficult for women is not perpetrated exclusively by moustache-twirling patriarchal villains, but, sometimes, by individual men who think they're doing a nice thing. Who can't step out of their own experience for thirty seconds to understand what an interaction looks like from someone else's point of view. Who don't deal with the daily encounter with Schrödinger’s Rapist, and don't realise that women do.

This is one of bell hooks' many vital concepts: that those on the margins must understand the rules of those in the centre, but those in the centre can live in total ignorance of what life is like on the margins. I understand that every guy who's ever held a door for me is not trying to piss me off or violate my personal space, either to enjoy the exercise of his tiny little power, or to remind me of my subordinate place in The Grand Pecking Order Of Oppression. But he doesn't know that this is exactly the impact it has on me.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Feral Youth: bootstrapping for beginners

I've just finished Feral Youth - and loved it, mostly - but while the story was engaging, its overall message troubles me.

The protagonist is Alesha, a 15 year old mixed race girl living on an estate in Peckham. She's lost touch with her mum (and has never met her dad), and is living in her friend's great-grandma's flat. In the first chapter, she gets permanently excluded from school for assaulting a girl who's affiliated with a rival gang. The book follows her attempts to hold on to family, money, a floor to sleep on.

Luckily she has a saviour in the form of her lovely white middle class ex piano teacher. It was these passages  that struck an uncomfortable note, for me: Miss Merfield is basically always right, always knows best, and will always save Alesha from whatever scrape she's got into this time. As the book goes on, it becomes clear that Miss Merfield will also save Alesha from her entire life.

The message of the book seems to be: learn to work within the system; negotiate bureaucracy at the housing office and the job centre; get a minimum wage job and hope it will lead to something better; all with the help of your white lady-knight in piano-playing armour. Relying on gangs - or even your friends - for support, employment, protection, a place to stay might be the easier option, but it is morally wrong and will lead to deserved disaster in the end. Don't, whatever you do, try to change anything, it's too big and it will crush you.

Basically, don't try to change the system, don't operate outside the system, definitely don't take a fucking big hammer to the system: just learn to work within the system. That's the only way to succeed.

It's the Tory model of aspiration that revolves around trying to escape from the working class - rather than trying to improve the lot of the working class as a whole. A lucky few are allowed to do so against the odds, and held up as examples of industry and bootstrapping. If they can do it, you can too; you just have to try harder. Believe in yourself. Failure to escape into the well-heeled tree-lined life of East Dulwich is proof of your lack of ambition, drive, self-belief. A psychological failing, not the almost inevitable result of trying to work a system which is designed to keep you down.

It is a good book. I loved the character of Alesha, I loved the window the book opened onto a world we white middle-class people so often ignore, steadfastly avoiding eye contact on buses or scurrying home to close the curtains over our barred windows in sold-off council flats. I loved that this young scarred woman of colour, living precariously on London's margins, got a voice - got to tell her story without whitewashing or intermediary. That hoods and knives and muggings and riots got put into context, not just explained away by Moral Decline or Absent Male Role Models or plain old Badness.

But going through all of this to have Alesha come to the blinding realisation that the middle class lifestyle is what I should aspire to! and if I don't succeed in life, it's because I haven't tried hard enough! seems, to me, to be doing her a disservice. The world genuinely is fucked, and the odds really are stacked against people who are poor and not white and not "well-spoken". There really are more people than there are jobs, and all the positive thinking in the world won't find decent work for all of them. Even if Alesha herself manages to claw her way out of poverty by Self-Belief and Hard Work and having a posh white saviour who will teach her how to trim her personality and voice and behaviour to fit this new world - that doesn't make the system any less awful. It changes Alesha's life, which is no small thing, but it leaves hundreds of thousands of other Aleshas languishing behind her. Feral Youth's philosophy offers scant hope to them.

Man Trousers.

Weird places I have celebrated my birthday over the years:

1994, age 8: Netley Marsh Steam Fair
2002, age 16: Stay Beautiful (in retrospect, my 21 year old not-boyfriend getting 'Barely Legal' dedicated to me was maybe a bit creepy)
2007, age 21: Tottenham Job Centre (aka The Day I Memorised My National Insurance Number, due to having to write it out no fewer than 23 times in a two hour appointment)
2014, age 28: Wood Green.

You may laugh, but I stand by my choice of birthday activities. I have been trying to steal Straight Best Friend's trousers for years now, ever since I hemmed them, tried them on to check whether they were hanging right, and discovered that man trousers are the most comfortable trousers in trouser town, make me look like Katherine Hepburn, and also have pockets as deep as the ocean. Seriously, you could fit a fucking marrow in those things. Sadly, it turns out that they are in fact his only pair of trousers, so their theft is unlikely to go unnoticed.

And my birthday was the day I realised that I could sidestep this whole apparel-appropriation attempt and just... go to a man shop to buy me some man trousers.

Now: due to having hippie parents (and old ones at that), a 'unique' dress sense, a big mouth and a big brain, my childhood was basically a crash course in People Are Going To Look At You Funny, It's Really Not Worth Getting Embarrassed.

Furthermore, I never stop banging on about restrictive gender roles and the irrational separation of clothing, behaviours, toiletries, jobs, emotions (I could go on! If you'd like!) into MALE and FEMALE piles.

And yet, wandering through the gentleman's department of Next, holding pairs of trousers up against myself to try to gauge what size I might be, and striding up to the changing rooms with several pairs slung over my arm: I got some weird looks. And I felt them.

It's not like they were enough to halt my quest for the perfect man trouser. Or enough to make me lie and say I was shopping for my boyfriend/brother/whatever. But it's interesting: this is how culture gets transmitted, norms and values and what we as a collective deem it okay to do. Thou Shalt Not Kill is inscribed in statute; Thou Shalt Wear Gender-Appropriate Clothing is inscribed in sidelong looks and half-hidden sniggers.

It's worth noting that I got off incredibly lightly, relatively speaking - a lady doing man stuff is always more acceptable than vice versa (because man stuff is obviously better, why wouldn't you want to move up the ladder? Whereas lady stuff is inherently inferior and a man choosing to move down the universal pecking order makes everyone nervous.). A femme-enough lady wearing dudely clothing is vaguely eccentric, but a stone butch in the same trousers is more often the subject of ridicule, disgust, and scorn. I'm thinking of Eddie Izzard shoplifting make up, not because he didn't have the money, but because he didn't fancy being outed as a transvestite at 15 in a town where the girl behind the till in the chemist knows everyone you know.

So I'm not telling this story to elicit pity - wahh! It is so hard to be me, shop assistants looked askance when I bought man trousers! - but to build a bridge, I suppose. To notice those little moments in your own life which are a flickering shadow of bigger oppressions that blight other people's.

I got the trousers. They are epic.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

special and unique snowflake, level 8

You've probably seen this beautiful letter sent by a headmaster to his pupils after taking their Key Stage 2 SATs. It's flipping heartbreaking, the fact that this guy can see through the league table box-ticking bollocks that pervades English schools, and the fact that he cared enough to send letters reminding everyone of that.

The endless grind of academic pressure was one of the things that sent me mad in the first place: SATs, mocks, coursework, GCSEs, A levels; there wasn't a single moment from 1999 to 2007 that I didn't have a constant, low-level anxiety running alongside whatever else was going on: have you revised enough maybe you should get started on the reading coursework needs to be handed in next week why haven't you written that fucking essay you are going to fail everything and if you don't get top marks you are a worthless human being learn facts remember facts spew facts get marks repeat forever.

(That and the fact that five sixths of my A-level History course was about fascism, which is just ridiculously depressing.)

Sadly, my headteacher was not quite as lovely as the chap at Barrowford Primary School. Instead, she sent a letter saying:
I understand that Hannah has been feeling the pressure somewhat.
Which is a nice way of saying "Hannah is mad as a bag of mad things, had to be artfully arranged in the school photo to cover up her gaping wounds, and was given detention for writing 'I hate myself and want to die' in her Biology workbook". I mean, detention, for fuck's sake. If it had been detention for the deeply embarrassing decision to quote that Nirvana song with no ironic distance, I'd applaud their decision, but you'd think at least one of them would have thought, "Gee, if she tops herself, we're gonna get sued - let's  send her to counselling or something".
However, wouldn't it be wonderful if she could be the first person at Heartless Bastards Secondary School to achieve all A*s in her GCSEs!
My point - and yes, I do have one, this isn't just a Prozac Nation pity party - is that this league table box-ticking soul-sucking individual-ignoring education culture isn't just annoying. It doesn't just churn out students who have only been taught how to absorb facts rather than think for themselves. It has the potential to kill people really, really dead.

So. More Barrowfords, please.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Piper Chapman: a walking lesson in privilege navigation

Once again, Piper Chapman gives us all an object lesson in how not to navigate your own privilege.

When I finally succeeded in getting my Gentleman Admirer to watch Orange is the New Black, I explained that you just have to suffer through the scenes with awful Piper and her awful pie-fucking boyfriend, via the Trojan Horse principle, in order to get to the good stuff.

Quite often, on my first view of an episode, I'll drift off a little during Piper and/or Larry scenes: they're a good opportunity to deal with the dropped stitch, put the kettle on, check my phone. I'll keep half an ear open so I get what's going on, but neither Piper or Larry are what I'm watching for.

There are times, though, when Piper's incessant, inexorable Piperness is used to tell an actually interesting story: a story that isn't "rich white girl goes to prison, meets people who aren't rich or white, Hilarity Ensues", but more like "rich white girl meets people whose lives break through her nigh-impenetrable self-obsession to bring a tiny glimmer of awareness of just how privileged she is in every way". Life throws you these little tests every now and again. And Piper fails them, every time.

So. Spoilers! Piper's grandmother is ill, possibly dying. She applies for furlough - a temporary leave of absence from prison, granted so rarely as to be basically mythical - explaining to her counsellor that she has no real hope of getting it, but wouldn't be able to live with herself if she didn't try.

She gets it. Sister Ingalls describes this as "a miracle".

So here is how Piper deals with this boon she has been granted, in no small part, because of her unearned privilege as a well-off white lady:

1. She tries to give it back. After hearing other inmates' stories of being denied furlough - for the deaths of their mothers, children, husbands; for the birth of grandchildren; Sophia has a particularly heartbreaking story about her father hoping to reconcile with her before he died - Piper realises that she does not deserve this good fortune. (In the words of Aleida, "Tell me how it's dark at night and cold in the snow.") So the most humane thing to do is, obviously, to give the grand prize back.

Except that this solves exactly fucking nothing. Piper giving up her prize doesn't mean anyone else gets to have it. It doesn't let Anita DeMarco hold her first grandchild. It doesn't give Poussey the chance to "say the things you're supposed to say to your moms before she pass". It doesn't give Sophia the chance to hear her father say he's sorry for being a dick when she transitioned. All it would achieve is making Piper feel better about herself, which is, ultimately, the only thing Piper cares about.

2. She tells everyone to stop being mean to her. Tiring of her fellow inmates muttering about her everywhere she goes, suggesting she only got furlough because she's white and middle class, or because she sucked off her counsellor, she flips out. Stands up in the dining hall and shouts that even if she's getting special treatment because of her white privilege, SHE LOVES HER GRANDMOTHER AND EVERYONE SHOULD LEAVE HER ALONE.

I mean, jesus fuck.

"My feelings! This is all about my feelings! Your feelings about entrenched, systemic racism, about the innumerable ways, from the microscopic to the life-defining, that life is made easier for white middle class people, are completely irrelevant, because you expressing your feelings about that is hurting MY FEELINGS, which, lest we ever forget this for a second, is THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IN THE WORLD EVER. PS you can't call me a racist because I know the phrase 'white privilege'."

Thank you, Piper Chapman, for giving us all a shining example, in every situation you find yourself in, of what not to do.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Haircuts and big ears: learning to STFU

This year, on Pride weekend, I celebrated my love of the Elgybeeties by having the world's most righteous haircut.

They are explicitly LGBT-friendly. They have a sliding price scale where you pay what you can afford, so that even the impoverished can have queer hairdos. They have an option for you to indicate your preferred pronoun on the booking form.

They are Open Barbers, and they are awesome.

You know that awkward hairdresser conversation which rarely strays beyond the officially ratified safe topics of work, holidays, and split ends? Not here. We chatted about mutual friends, sordid pasts, Orange Is The New Black (which, thinking about it, is possibly the feminist/trans/ladygay equivalent of Nice Weather We've Been Having), Irish abortion law, Belgium's haircutting equality law, and, well, my haircut, obviously.

At the beginning of your appointment, you are also given the option not to chat at all.

I'd been thinking a lot about counselling training and empathic listening, about how, when talking to the women who call the Abortion Support Network hotline, your politics and beliefs are instantly sidelined: they're probably what brought you to the work in the first place, but they could hardly be less relevant to the woman on the other end of the phone. Like, if the woman you're talking to refers to Londonderry, that's what you call it for the rest of the conversation. If she says she lives in Northern Ireland, or Ulster, or The Unlawfully Occuppied Six Counties And By The Way I'm Still Pissed Off About The Treaty Of 1921 - well, you'd probably shorten the latter, but you don't, ever, correct her. She has the right to define her own life. When so much agency has been stripped away from her, the last thing she needs is you taking that little bit more. Similarly, you follow her lead in referring to The Pregnancy, or The Baby, or This Fucking Alien Parasite Squatting In My Uterus. If she tells you flat out, "I am going to hell for killing this baby," this is not the time to convince her of the righteousness of the pro-choice cause. You're there for the practicalities: first and foremost, to listen to her.

So during my revolutionary haircut, we were talking about the unexpected similarities between righteous barbering and volunteering for an abortion fund. Of the importance of listening to what people are actually telling you, leaving a blank slate inside yourself rather than a series of tick boxes. Monitoring your own responses so you're not giving people cues as to the "right" response, whether the question is "how long do you want your sideburns?" or "does anyone else know you're pregnant?".

It's something I try to do in life, as well; while there are some non-negotiables - like, if someone starts revving up the Men Are Just More Visually Stimulated Than Women bandwagon, I'm not going to respect their right to define the world as they see fit, because they're talking untrammeled bullshit and also disrespecting my right to define my own reality, so fuck them - when people are talking about stuff that matters, I make a conscious effort to leave a space around what they say rather than mentally shoehorning it into the most appropriate pigeonhole and racing to give them my own interpretation of what they've just said.

One of the most common ways I've screwed up around social justice stuff is in trying desperately to show how cool I am about someone's gender identity or ethnicity or whatever. "LOOK," I shout, metaphorically speaking, "I AM SO COOL ABOUT THE FACT THAT YOU ARE NOT A STRAIGHT WHITE MIDDLE CLASS CIS DUDE, LET ME SHOW YOU HOW COOL I AM." I'm learning that, sometimes, just not responding - leaving that space open for them to say more - is infinitely more valuable. Chilling the fuck out, basically. Not leaping in with what you think they mean to show how read up on The Issues you are.

It's also a lot less tiring.

So back to Open Barbers.

They give you the haircut you actually want, rather than the one they think you should have. They give you the option to face away from the mirror while they're working. They create a sense of endless time, never making you feel like you should just cut your losses and accept a do you don't actually want rather than boring them any longer.

They are awesome, and you can book your very own righteous haircut here.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The bark on your very own crazy tree: queerness and mental illness

Content note: self harm, suicide, homophobia, fun shit like that. Also, if you are my mother, I would consider it a great favour if you didn't read this. Thanks!

LGBT people are ten times as likely to try to commit suicide as cis straight people.
LGBT people are three times as likely to experience anxiety disorders, and six times as likely to experience depression.

Up to 50% of LGBT youth will try to kill themselves.

(Source: The Polarised Project)

I'm never sure how to think about these statistics. When I think about my colourful psychiatric history, the fact that I like to fuck girls doesn't seem particularly salient, you know? Queerness is about sex and love and life and joy; throwing 100 painkillers down your gullet in your empty teenage bedroom is about the opposite of all of those things.

When I was digging holes in my left arm back in the heady days of 2002, I wasn't thinking, "Gee, I am so sad because the kids in year 8 called me a dyke outside Maths, also because I do not see positive representations of queers on TV and because people who are into sleeping with people of the same gender face workplace discrimination".

But getting to the point where you want to throw 100 painkillers down your gullet in the first place is, in part, about having been treated like a freak your entire life; about never fitting in and losing your ability to hope for a future which will let you breathe.

(Yeah. I know. Whiny teenager alert. This shit was over a decade ago, but I can think myself back there like it was yesterday.)

My comparatively easy ride is unsurprising given that I grew up in a nice white middle class home with parents who were pretty much unfazed at having produced two queer daughters. Any oppression is easier to deal with in isolation: this is the basic point of that impenetrable academe-speak "intersectionality", yes? No one told me I was going to hell for wanking over Chloë Sevigny; I wasn't thrown out of the family home for "losing" my "virginity"* with a girl long before I met my first boner. The abuse I got was from people I hated anyway: it still takes a toll, but it doesn't gut you like abuse from people who are supposed to love you.

* Just because I hate that phrase and the entire worldview it encompasses

I think I just get nervous when people attribute mental illness to social discrimination because it seems so pat, so easy: pump stigma in, mental illness comes out. I've lived through both, and I know it is never that simple.

But then, when you take a step back, stop minutely examining the bark on your own particular crazy tree, and get a look at the whole gigantic New Forest of not-straight people who are so miserable they want to die: yeah, maybe there's a link. Not being straight doesn't inexorably lead to discrimination, unemployment, homelessness, drug use, survival sex work, but there is a correlation; these life experiences don't cause mental illness, because mental illness is a lot more fucking complicated than that, but they can be part of the oh-so-fabulous cocktail that sends someone down their own, very specific, rabbit hole.

In 2004, maybe, or 2005, a 15 year old boy came to stay with us for a week because his parents had kicked him out when they found out he was gay. I made him dinner, baked a cake, watched shit tv with him. It was one of those houses where there's always someone new on the sofa, impromtu parties starting on Friday night and ending a few days later when the drugs run out or the last person has to go to a lecture or sign on. So it wasn't a big deal to give him a roof over his head for a while, but I think back now and wonder what he would have done if he hadn't happened to have bumped into my housemate in Heaven that night; how many other kids end up sleeping rough because they didn't have a friend who could offer.

I took myself on a date to see Kate Bornstein Is A Queer and Pleasant Danger at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival a few months back. I arrived early, sat in the foyer, and watched people stream through; I couldn't put my finger on what it was - I still can't define it, really - but it felt so fucking good, after living in an increasingly straight milieu for longer than I want to think about, to be around the homo multitudes again.

Because being queer isn't just about fucking at all. I was going to say "How nice it would be if it was" - if it didn't come with a massively increased chance of depression and anxiety and trying to make yourself dead - but there is a positive side. That part of the "community" that actually acts like a community, that cares at least as much about homeless kids as marriage equality, that reminds us that the Q can stand for Questioning and prods us not to stop at questioning the reductive maths of boy + girl.

Heteronormativity may well have played its part in dragging me down, but it's my eccentrically, brilliantly unheteronormative friends who help me back up again every time.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Disabled Dinosaurs

If you're looking for a quick and easy way to explain the social model of disability, I have come to tell you that the resource you need is:

T-Rex Failing At Life.

The social model of disability states that individuals are not disabled by their bodies' defective nature (ie. T-Rex's arm being too short to reach his mouth) but by society's refusal to make appliances, buildings, furniture, streets (and so on ad infinitum) that can be used by people with all sorts of bodies. In this instance, there's a nice simple solution: longer lollipop sticks. Or for a more widely applicable solution, something akin to those grabber devices favoured by litter pickers and old ladies who don't bend as much as they used to.

Going back to humans for a minute, the social model says that someone who uses a wheelchair to move around is disabled not by the fact that they can't walk, or by the illness or accident that caused this inability. They are disabled by the fact that so many doorways are not wide enough to let wheelchairs through. By the fact that so many buildings have steps up to the entrance. By the fact that so few tube stations have lifts, let alone full step-free access from street to platform. By the fact that the vast majority of cash machines are set at eye-level for a person who's standing up. It is the decisions made by the people who design our built environment - the priorities of society as a whole - that rob wheelchair users of their ability to participate fully in society, not the fact that they can't walk.

T-Rex trying to turn off a ceiling fan, use a buffet with sneeze guard, or use a water fountain all illustrate this same principle. His arms are not the problem: the design of the equipment is the problem.

And just for kicks, this series also shows how we automatically assume that a creature is male unless we're told otherwise: women are constructed as Other, different, a variation on the norm. Note how all of the T-Rexes are simply labelled 'T-Rex' - except this one:

Male T-Rex = normal; the 'male' is implicitly assumed by the creator of the image and by us, its viewers
Female T-Rex = Other.

Also in my mind all T-Rexes are French. "All Ah want to do ees brush ma teeef, Ahm so peessed oeuf weez zees tiny toofbrush. Wanquere!"

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Very Simple Concepts Day: Don't Get Raped!

Welcome to Very Simple Concepts Day at the old jaw jaw: perhaps a recurring event! In this series, I retread well-covered ground, in the hopes that repeating observations that many have made before me will somehow help the forces of goodness reach critical mass and triumph over evil.

Today we will be discussing why my Facebook feed being filled up with people telling me not to get raped makes me want to pluck out my surgically-enhanced eyeballs and throw them at people who are idiots!

(That last comment is why I still get out of bed in the morning.)

You know what? Fuck this. I am too tired to explain rape culture, to explain that strangers jumping out of bushes are extremely far down the list of people you need to protect yourself from, especially when the entire feminist blogosphere has done such a good job of articulating this already.

Instead, I propose that every time someone reminds you that it is your job to avoid being raped, you come back with one of the following:
LADIES: don't risk spending any time alone with your boyfriend, as he is statistically more likely to rape you than anyone else is! 
FELLAS: don't risk getting drunk, as you are statistically more likely to rape someone while you're under the influence of alcohol!
I'm sure we can come up with hundreds of these.

For people who don't spend a significant portion of their free time thinking about rape culture (it is true, these people exist!), I do understand that sharing this sort of thing feels like a moral obligation - offering information about how women can protect themselves. Because the popular conception of rape is the Stranger Jumping Out Of The Bushes model, because the general public isn't aware that the rapist has a prior acquaintance with his victim in circa 80% of cases - and because of the Just World Hypothesis, whereby bad things don't happen to good people - we can convince ourselves that figuring out the rules will protect us from harm.

Even if they are in the minority, stranger rapes do occur; you could argue that sharing information like this, about a specific threat, is worth it if it saves even one person from being attacked.

But on a society-wide level, you have to balance the possible good of such warnings against the definite harm inflicted on women as a whole by being constantly lectured on keeping themselves safe, circumscribing their behaviour, tailoring their whole lives around avoiding sexual assault - all of which carries the unavoidable implication that, should you be raped, and if you failed to follow each and every one of these rules, you will be responsible for the crime committed against you.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Privilege, illustrated

1. A few years back I ended up in A&E with an extremely exciting heart rhythm (250 beats per minute, not that I'm bragging). I got propped up in bed with about twenty electrodes superglued all over my body, hooked up to some mightily terrifying machines monitoring every facet of my heart's function, before being taught a very simple method of halting a supraventricular tachycardia (basically, make a hamster face and pretend you're really constipated). Five hours later I was deemed fit as a fiddle and sent home.

I was working for a deeply evil company at this point, which gloried in paying me as close to nothing as legally possible - so despite my weakened and freaked out condition, a taxi was not an option, and I took the tube home alone.

It was only when I looked in my bathroom mirror on my return that I realised I still had every single electrode still attached, with several wires snaking over my torso. One can literally be shot in the face on the Victoria line for less. Lucky for me, I am white, and thus remain unshot in the face!

2. I appreciate that this might make me sound a bit odd, but I actually quite enjoy going to the crotch rot clinic. I'm not particularly self-conscious about strangers peering up my hoo-ha; I get a silly-but-enjoyable Strong Independent Lady Taking Charge Of Her Sexuality And Reading Cosmo vibe from the whole thing; and it's always nice to get a text message informing you that you don't have chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, herpes, or HIV. Plus: free condoms!

Now: some things leave my handbag after only a short stay, some pop in and out on a regular basis, but the net flow is of things going into my handbag and never seeing the light of day again. Current contents include:
 - a map of Walthamstow (last used November 2013)
 - three lipsticks (last worn August 2013)
 - an unopened pack of razor blades (bought in a weak moment in January 2014)
 - six or seven knitting patterns (various)
 - two sizeable envelopes stuffed with free condoms.

It's conceivable I'll transfer said prophylactics to their allotted home at some point or other, but until then, I will be prepared for al fresco fucking wherever I go.

Lucky for me, I am cis and white, unlikely to be profiled by the police as a sex worker, and so don't have to worry that possession of condoms will be used as proof of intent to commit heinous crimes! - they are awesome, support them.
This is your daily reminder that, while the world is rubbish, it is more rubbish to some people than it is to others. Which is rubbish.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Let me invite you to my baby-burning: RSVP!

The Telegraph's abortion coverage continues to bemuse. On the one hand, they have OMG SEX-SELECTIVE ABORTION IS TOTALLY HAPPENING RIGHT HERE BECAUSE FOREIGNERS stories. On the other, they have OMG CRISIS PREGNANCY CENTRES TELL LIES AND BULLY PREGNANT PEOPLE investigations.


For real.

So let's start with the obvious: it is an oft-observed fact that all abortion articles must, by law, probably, be accompanied by a picture of a spectacularly pregnant woman: like, full-term pregnant, holy-crap-she's-swallowed-a-spacehopper pregnant, foetus-sending-a-Christmas-letter-to-Santa-out-of-the-womb pregnant. Oh look, this is such a truism that there is even a tumblr devoted to it.

According to The Guttmacher institute, 90% of all abortions occur in the first trimester. According to WebMD, a 12-week old fetus is 2.5 inches long and the typical woman will have gained three to five pounds. Most of these women’s pregnancies are essentially undetectable to an observer. ~ "Mis-illustrating Abortion" at Sociological Images
The Telegraph has, in this instance, gone one stage further: it has illustrated its article about the evils of abortion - which, just to clarify, ends a pregnancy, does not kill an infant which has already been born - with a picture of a teeny weeny baby hand holding onto an adult-sized finger.

Which echoes the emotive and inaccurate language in the headline - "Aborted babies are being used to heat UK hospitals". Conflating blastocysts, zygotes, embryos, foetuses and babies is classic anti technique, because apparently their case is so blatantly, inarguably, self-evidently strong that it needs sneakily-heartstring-tugging bullshit and flat-out lies to convince people.

At which point you may be thinking, come on, Han, you're dancing round the edges of this article, mocking its outer trappings because you're too chicken shit to address the fact that HOSPITALS ARE BURNING BABIES. So, because apparently I can't resist an imaginary dare, to the meat of the article itself:
The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals, an investigation has found. Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning foetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants which generate power for heat.
Now: I get this. I really do.* For a lot of people, the incineration of foetuses just feels gross. Somehow, the fact that this incineration is serving a practical purpose - that of heating the hospital - makes it feel more gross, in a dystopian Soylent Green sort of way. So I can ask you some logical questions - like, how would you like foetuses to be disposed of after abortions? Would a mass grave make you feel better? Should each of them be given an individual coffin and a headstone?** If you are okay with incineration, why is it better that this process is only serving one purpose (destroying medical waste) rather than two (heating the hospital)? With early medical abortion, the pregnancy will typically be shed outside of a hospital setting, so the remains will end up down the loo or in a landfill site wrapped in a maxi pad: is that, too, tantamount to "the demise of human dignity"?

But that wouldn't change your mind, would it? These are logical questions, and we're in the domain of illogical queasiness. I'm not dismissing people's discomfort with this practice by calling it 'illogical': feelings are often illogical, and feelings are valid anyway.

But feelings make crappy legislators. We can't build law or medical guidelines on whether or not something makes us feel gross. That icky feeling is a signpost - a hint from your body or your subconscious that you need to look into the issue further to figure out why it makes you feel the way it does. It is not a cast iron guarantee that the object of that icky feeling is Morally Wrong.

For example, I find the idea of scraping my septum unimaginably disgusting. No idea why, but even typing that has made me cringe and pinch my nostrils shut until the thought goes away. This does not mean that I spend my days advocating for nose-picking to be made illegal.

So the fact that incinerating embryos and foetuses strikes you as unimaginably disgusting, similarly, does not mean that this procedure should be banned, even if your feeling is shared with millions of others, including some dickhead journalist in the Telegraph.

* I've never been super comfortable with "it's just a bunch of cells" / "abortion is just like getting an ingrown toenail removed" rhetoric, not because I think it's blase or unfeeling - some people do feel like this about their abortions, and all power to them. You are allowed to feel however you want to feel about your abortion, and you are allowed to express those feelings in public. But on a wider, 'movement' level, I don't think it's the best way of promoting a pro-choice message. I'd rather side-step the "bunch of cells" vs "heartbreaking but sometimes necessary" dichotomy and focus instead on bodily autonomy arguments: people's reasons for having abortions, and the moral code which lies behind those reasons, are just not the point. The point is that no one should be forced to be pregnant against their will.

** Trying really hard not to err on the side of overly snarky here, because some people who have abortions do choose to keep the foetal remains and have a burial/cremation; these cases tend to be second/third trimester abortions of wanted pregnancies with fatal foetal anomalies. The last thing I want to do is to take the piss out of their pain.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Veronica Mars: somebody puts hookers in a corner

Words cannot express quite how giddily excited I am about the Veronica Mars movie coming out. I may have mentioned my love of the show before? I donated to the Kickstarter; I've been on a marathon rewatch to get my gentleman friend up to speed; I have tickets for Saturday night, and I have been trying desperately to fill up my Friday with lots of activities - including a trip to the GUM clinic, of all things - so I'm not tempted to download it and spoil my big screen experience.

And yet, following a mind-bendingly amazing talk by the Sex Worker Open University at the Wowzers Festival (on which more later!), I feel like the whorephobic remarks which pepper the script are jumping out of my tv and dancing around on my living room floor going "la la la, sex workers, they are preposterous and hilarious, AMIRITE?? Boo boo de boop, sex!"

Artist's representation

2.7, Nobody Puts Baby In A Corner
Madison: "Pretty Woman is still my favourite movie. Vivien is like my hero."
Veronica: "She's a hooker."
Gia: "Yeah, but only cos she had to be!"
Veronica: "She's a hooker."

The level of derision and disgust that drips from Veronica's voice at the idea of respecting sex workers as autonomous human beings is hard to capture in words. Man alive, a hooker as a hero? Ridiculous! Obviously, she is defined, always and forever, as someone who makes a living by having sex with dudes for money, has no other characteristics that could possibly be valuable, and is utterly beyond contempt.

1.22, Leave It To Beaver
"I can't risk my career on the testimony of, all due respect, a hooker."

2.16, The Rapes of Graff
Veronica opens the door to a blonde lady in a red dress and fur coat. She turns to Keith and says - as if their visitor isn't there, or can't hear her, or isn't an actual human person -

"Dad. Your hooker's here."

This storyline gets progressively more fun - turns out Cliff's one night stand was in fact a hooker, paid double by some mystery man to seduce Cliff and steal his briefcase. Because sex workers, even more than the rest of womankind, are two-faced, duplicitous bitches. We know this to be true.

It's been a while since I've seen 3.11, Poughkeepsie, Tramps and Thieves, so I can't give much in the way of analysis here, but the general message of "once a whore, always a whore" sticks with me.

It's one of those things that grates all the more because of the sensitive, inclusive way the show treats the stories of people from other marginalised communities. People of colour, LGB folks, people with disabilities, rape survivors - all get episodes devoted to exploring their experiences as people, beyond the difference that would define them in other shows. But apparently dipping even one toe into the sex industry instantly dissolves any other history, character, ability, story that a person has, leaving them uninteresting except as plot devices and punchlines. It's sad. The show has proven, over and again, that it could do better, if it wanted to. I hope the movie wants to.

Very Simple Concepts Day: Wifebeating is hilarious

Today is Very Simple Concepts Day, here at oldjawjaw towers. Today we are going to be discussing the concept of The Wifebeater.

You see, we call it a wifebeater because it is associated with men from the working classes, like domestic violence is! It's okay to call it that because we're being ironic, duh, and also because we don't think domestic violence is important or that survivors deserve respect. LOL!

Similarly, we call this The Old Wifebeater, because it is associated with men from the working classes, like domestic violence is - but with a fun new twist: not only is domestic violence inherently hilarious, but it is probably caused by booze, AKA the "beer made me do it, m'lud" defence.

Fun fact: I myself have drunk several pints of Stella in my time! I have worn many vests! I have even done both of these things at the same time - while not being rich, at that. And yet I have never beaten anyone's wife, nor committed violent assault on anyone I happened to be dating.

It's almost like being poor and drinking lager bear no relationship to one's propensity to perpetrate intimate partner violence whatsoever.

Thursday, 6 March 2014


Good news, feminism! Remember the whole Feminist Sex Wars thing? When Dworkin, MacKinnon et al were all, "under the patriarchy, women are defined as the Sex Class, and therefore cannot give meaningful consent to intercourse; porn depicts and actually is violence against women; BDSM fetishizes power differentials and sex work is collusion with the patriarchy"? (Paraphrasing.)

And then other feminists were like, "Okay, porn is often sexist, because lots of media produced in a sexist society is sexist, and putting all the responsibility for patriarchy on porn seems to miss the point a bit; BDSM actually features a hell of a lot more negotiation and work around consent than vanilla sex; queer and feminist porn can and does exist; finding a feminist and non-oppressive way to inhabit our sexualities seems a valid way of resisting the patriarchy; sex work is only degrading in that all work under capitalism is degrading, and is demonising sex workers - you know, who include some of the most vulnerable women in society - really the best way to achieve a lovely feminist utopia?"

Again, paraphrasing. Turns out summarising one of the most contentious and complex debates over the last forty years of feminism and attempting to do justice to both 'sides' in two short paragraphs is actually pretty difficult!

Anyway: whatever your take on the matter, don't worry about it, because some random dude in The Times has SOLVED THE FEMINIST SEX WARS. Forever.

In response to a Leeds University study showing that nearly a third of all UK strippers are middle-class students, Kevin Maher has some opinions to share.

You may be wondering why Kevin Maher, who is neither a stripper or a student, feels that the world will not be able to rest easy until his very important opinions on the question of the place of sex work in society are known, but hold your horses: he has read some SCIENCE. Which proves, incontrovertibly, that stripping is

"bad for women. It's that simple."

Wowza. Thanks, Kevin! All this hoo-ha, and you had the answer all along! Thanks for bringing us to the light.

How does he know this? He knows this because
I simply look to the data in the groundbreaking 2003 Lilith report, which found that the number of rapes near lap-dancing clubs were three times the national average, or that in the years after the opening of a lap-dancing club in Tottenham Court Road, London, reports of female rape in the borough increased by 50 per cent.

Oh, Kevin. Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. Here I was, thinking that you had some amazing new data for me; a beautifully designed, value-neutral, empirically robust study which could settle this whole kerfuffle once and for all. But instead you just have... really bad science. Which you clearly read a press release on, rather than parsing the reports themselves. Which you clearly did not google before including them in your world-shakingly revelatory column, because, had you done so, you would have discovered this study does not show what you think it does.

So, the Lilith Report claimed that Camden, which had seven licensed strip clubs at the time, recorded three times the national average number of rapes between 1999 and 2002. It also claimed that the number of rapes increased by 50% between 1999 and 2002.

Which would be fairly solid proof that stripping IS BAD FOR WOMEN, except that

1. Correlation does not equal causation: just because a number of strip clubs opened in a particular area, and that area saw an increase in the number of rapes, does not mean that strip clubs cause rape.
2. The numbers literally do not add up. There were 72 rapes in Camden in 1999, and 96 in 2002. Do you have a calculator? Then you can work out that there was a 33% increase in thenumber of rapes in Camden between 1999 and 2002. Not 50%.
3. Raw numbers are an incredibly misleading way of presenting change in crime stats. (Man, I feel like I'm in The Wire right now, being leaned on by Mayor Carcetti, who in my mind is still Stuart in Queer as Folk doing his funny walk down Canal Street.) For this reasons, crime figures are presented as incidents per 100,000. Chasmal explains this really well in her takedown of the Lilith Report on Stripping the Illusion. This means that presenting a percentage change in raw numbers tells you basically nothing: what you need to know is the change in the rate of incidence - the number of rapes which occurred in Camden per 100,000 residents. In 1999, this was 36.8; in 2002, 43.4: a 17.9% increase.
4. When you're dealing with such (thankfully) small numbers, it's really easy to perceive a trend where there is in fact just random fluctuation. The rate of incidence actually went down from 2002 to 2003, and again in 2004, before going up again in 2005, down again in 2006... you see what I'm saying? A very small number of incidents produces a seemingly dramatic change if you present it as a percentage.
5. The overall trend over the last ten years actually shows a decrease in the incidence of rape in Camden. Funnily enough, no one is suggesting this is because Camden issued an all-nude license to the Spearmint Rhino in the late 90s.
6. You know what a study needs in order to demonstrate causality? A control group: in this case, an area with no strip clubs, which presumably would have no rape whatsoever. Unfortunately, this study's control groups were Islington and Westminster. Both boroughs also contained strip clubs and were therefore useless as comparisons. A better choice might have been Lambeth, which had no strip clubs during this period - and, um, had a higher incidence of rape.

I COULD GO ON. But this has been covered, a lot, by smarter people than I - Brooke Magnanti's chapter on it in The Sex Myth is brilliant. You can also check out her paper on the topic. What you will find is that the Lilith report tells us absolutely nothing about the effect of strip clubs on the incidence of rape - and all too much about its author's opinions on sex work.

See, on one level this is a story about men barging into feminist conversations, totally ignorant of the history and theory and debate that has gone before, and announcing that they have fixed feminism for us - and being surprised that we're not falling over ourselves in gratitude.

But on another level this is a story about how journalists in national newspapers need to check their fucking sources before making such claims as fact.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Life Choices: Ask Hannie's Granny!

I have this fun new game I like to play, when faced with difficult Life Dilemmas, that I call: What Would Hannie's Granny Say?

Now: to be clear, this is not actually my Granny. This is Miss Marple. However, I am confident that Miss Marple would have pretty much the same opinions on stuff as my Granny would, with a bit of sleuthery thrown in just for fun, and using this picture means I don't have to violate my actual Granny's privacy against her will. "Hey Granny, would you mind if I use a picture of you to illustrate a post about your attitudes to life on my blog on which I discuss things like BDSM and kyriarchy and how the world would be so much better if women had sex like cats?"

So! The rules of the game are pretty simple. First, you formulate your Intractable Life Dilemma, preferably in the most high-falutin modern fancy talk you can manage. Then, you imagine Miss Marple and/or my Granny making the facial expression pictured above, while saying, "blust, ha' you gone soft?"

For the remainder of the game I will be translating GrannySpeak into high-falutin modern fancy talk, with more swear words, to avoid charges of taking the piss out of people from Norfolk.

"Granny, I am in a quandry," I say, approximately once a year since the age of 15, in my mind. "Relationships are HARD. What dating situation would be most beneficial to my mental health? Is it possible to maintain desire and affection indefinitely in a long-term, monogamous relationship, and if so, how? Am I defective if I can't do so?"

Imaginary Granny response:
"Are you fucking nuts?" responds imaginary Granny, side-stepping the fact that I am, in fact, fucking nuts, because she doesn't know this. Every time I visit her and have a daytime nap or display some other exciting symptom of depression, she takes my dad aside and asks him Extremely Discreetly, "Is Hannah pregnant?" NO. STILL NO, GRANNY.

Anyway, back to Love Advice. "Are you fucking nuts? You want relationships to be fulfilling? You think being single might be better than being married? WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS? Of course you're going to get married, to the first person who offers and who you don't hate. You're worried about still fancying your paramour in ten years? It doesn't matter whether you fancy him at all! Women don't enjoy sex, not really, but you'll put up with it, because it's your duty, and because you want children."

"Granny, my job is B-O-R-I-N-G, for real. I'm stuck in this admin basement where I'm spectacularly underemployed, I can get through my work in about one day a week and I spend the other four desperately looking for something, anything, to keep me occupied; I want to do something more interesting, but I have no idea what - should I be an accountant? A solicitor? A writer? A mental health nurse? Should I move to Madagascar and devote my life to saving lemurs? Or move to Dorset and farm llamas? Should my career be Being Lemar? Or Mark Lamarr? I hope not the latter! How do you know what it is you want to do with your life? What if I spend the next thirty years in an agony of indecision and wasted potential and never amount to anything and never get to go HA, all those miserable years getting picked on at school were so worth it because now I have a fantastic career and have therefore WON? Or what if I do make a decision, but it's the WRONG decision? WHAT THEN, IMAGINARY GRANNY? WHAT THEN??"

She makes this face again.

This face combines derision, bewilderment, and barely-kept-in-check hysterical laughter.

"Are you actually serious?" asks Imaginary Granny. "You want work to be fun? Stimulating? Personally fulfilling? It's WORK, you idiot, not a fucking voyage of self-discovery. Does your work run the risk of giving you cancer from breathing asbestos dust in all day? Does it leave you screaming with pain from twelve hours straight bending over in the strawberry fields (and don't you dare sing that rubbish hippie song at me)? Has anyone you work with ever got hypothermia from working an illegal double shift in cold storage? No? THEN WHAT THE FLYING FUCK ARE YOU WHINING ABOUT? Also you should keep chickens. Free eggs!"

Now, this game can be dangerous. It is not for the faint of heart, or the unstable of mind (WHOOPS). It is also not very useful in actually solving those Life Dilemmas, because "in the 1930s people of the rural working class didn't expect marriage to meet their every emotional and sexual need, had substantially lower expectations re: said needs, and did whatever work would feed their families without expecting it to blow their minds" is not particularly good life advice: it is, rather, a very short history essay.

I do, however, find it refreshing, in moderation. It is a healthy reminder of the unimaginable social progress we've made over the course of the 20th century, and of how grateful we should be to have these choices. Plus, a gentle nudge not to get so desperately fixated on your own middle class white lady problems is always to the good.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

A History Lesson: women work.

If I read one more article claiming that women didn't work before the fifties I'm going to beat said article upside the head with my history degree.

Shit, was that classist? Okay. I'm going to beat it round the head with my ABILITY TO READ FUCKING WIKIPEDIA.

"What was the most important technological invention of the last four hundred years?" asked the lecturer, back in English Social History 1851-1991. "The spinning jenny!" said one dude, who was very into Marxism and the Industrial Revolution. "The internet!" piped up another, who clearly had his own website on Geocities back in the 90s and was so proud of himself for thinking outside the box.

"Would any women like to make a suggestion?", Mr Lecturer asked. I grinned. I was going to like this class.

"The pill?" I proffered. "Or the washing machine?"

Southampton City Council paid a giddy fortune for me to get educamacated, and I took on a hefty wallop of debt for the same reason, and from my perspective, it was all worth it just for that one moment in a cramped, musty corner of a converted Georgian townhouse. We beamed at each other in a smug haze of humanities joy, silently congratulating each other on being at least six times cleverer than anyone else in the room. It was ace.

So yeah, the washing machine probably had more impact on society than the internet. But saying things like
"Rather than spend their time washing clothes, women could go out and do more productive things. Basically, it has doubled the workforce."
displays not only a racist, classist conception of "women" as a category, but also a basic lack of appreciation of actual historical facts. When people say "women" didn't work before the fifties (or 1939, or 1914, or whatever arbitrary date you're throwing at me) they mean middle class white women didn't work.

Poor women, which, then even more than now, included virtually all women of colour, have always had to work. It wasn't a choice between sitting at home in a Feminine Mystique nembutal haze or throwing off domestic shackles to take up a fulfilling career in advertising or whatever - it was a choice between shitty, back-breaking, poorly paid work, or your kids not eating.

Rather than spend their time washing clothes... do you really think that middle-class and aristocratic white women scrubbed their own knickers? Come on. They hired poor women to do it for them, as well as light their fires, swab their floors, cook their meals and raise their kids. Hundreds of thousands of working class women made their living this way - before and after marriage - because there was no other option.

Let me take you on a whistlestop tour of female engagement in the British workforce. Back in ye olde medieval times, they worked on the land; with the rise of cottage industry, the home and the workplace were one and the same, and women worked as weavers and candle makers and cobblers and locksmiths and in dozens of other trades. Women dominated the factory workforce during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Up until the Second World War, women also made up the bulk of domestic workers, before inventions like the washing machine - oh hi! - radically reduced the availability of jobs in this area. Even before this, more women chose factory work when it was available (particularly in war time) due to the greater freedoms and higher wages it offered. Particularly from turn of the 20th century, women also worked in shops, as secretaries, as waitresses.

Obviously they were mostly forced into the more menial, lower paid end of every industry, and paid less than men for identical work, because sexism. Bit like today, really.

Oh yeah, and you'd better clarify that you're talking about work outside the home, or are you saying that raising kids and scrubbing floors and feeding families and growing food and making clothes and washing huge tracts of fabric by hand only counts as work if someone's willing to pay you a pittance for it? Really?

What people really mean when they talk about Women Working Outside The Home is women getting fancy white collar professional work - fields like law and medicine which didn't open up to women as a class until much later. (For more on how traditionally female fields of healing and midwifery were taken over by the chaps, who, centuries later, deigned to let the ladies back into 'their' field, try Barbara Ehrenreich's For Her Own Good.)

Claiming that women as a class didn't work before some kindly gentleman rocked up to liberate them with his exciting new labour-saving washing machine is to ignore vast swathes of historical reality. It reduces the millions of women who were active in the workforce, and in the trade union movement, to footnotes in the important business of Dude History. And it's just not true.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

we're exactly what this country needs

Four conversations:

1. Is monogamy a problem, and, if so, what is the solution? Is it creepy 70s style swinger parties where you'll inevitably end up face to face with your dad?

2. Compare and contrast the popular and media reactions to John Terry calling an opposition player a "black cunt", and Luis Suárez calling an opposition player "negrito". The former remains England's Brave JT, beloved in his besieged, boring stolidity; the latter decried as a latter day demon, the diving, cheating, out-of-control biting little fucker. a) Racism? Racism. b) How much does this depend on applying West European/USian colonial conceptions of race and integration, wherein we're all supposed to pretend to be Colourblind and treat the fact that some people aren't white as a secret that dare not speak its name, to a South American context? c) How much of our attitudes to the issue is based on i) the fact that we support Liverpool, and ii) this video?

3. If class expresses itself in part in terms of attitudes, beliefs, and ways of living, and most people retain those attributes when they change their material circumstances (eg. someone from a working class family earning over £30k and meeting world leaders on a semi-regular basis still finding that expensive dinners and posh hotels feel exclusionary; or someone born into the monied middle classes living out the Common People lifestyle but still feeling that expensive dinners and posh hotels are a human right), is it still meaningful to describe individuals as being working- or middle-class? Is class something better understood on a macro level (while still acknowledging the micro effects on people's daily lives), with individuals' migration between classes basically irrelevant on a larger scale?

4. On difficult conversations:
"Dude, you just need to suck it up and talk about it. Get over your natural British reserve about discussing difficult subjects."
"I think it's a female thing too, the imperative to say whatever will make the most people the most comfortable, rather than what is actually true? Social lubrication, emotional drudge work, that sort of thing."
"Sure, but that's a very class- and nationality-specific version of femaleness though isn't it? Like, I'm not going to trot out the stereotypes, but not all women in the world are socialised into the nicey nice kind of womanhood you're talking about."

On the one hand: I have really good friends. Yay for us.

On the other: if we can do this in normal conversation, poking and prodding at our respective privileges and working through difficult ideas together, utilising our differences in terms of class and race and sexuality and gender rather than getting pummeled by them - over email when we're bored at work; on the phone while we're cooking dinner; on the sofa with the Champions' League on in the background - why is it so difficult for feminism, and social justice movements in general, to do this on a bigger scale? I suppose I'm back at the eternal question of Why Does Feminism Keep Fucking Up, a post which, hilariously, has no comments.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Ruddy bloody brave strikes again

Because I am a tireless warrior against the heterosexist patriarchal implications of Valentine's Day, I spent the first three hours of February 14th in the Whittington Hospital having my heart function monitored.

For romance.

In sadly less hilarious news, the ECG tech was the worst. I go for tests so often that we've kind of bonded - we greet each other by name, I ask after her kids, she compliments me on my boots, I forget that I'm semi naked in a seriously cold room.

Sadly, a shared love of charity shops does not preclude someone being an intrusive, overstepping, disableist fuckwit.

The referral form said "high resting heart rate noted after switching anti-depressants, please check for recurrence of ablated tissue".

The ECG tech said, "You don't need to be on anti-depressants! You just need to be brave!"

I could have said, "well, I've been exhausted since 2009, I feel like I'm walking through a thick, viscous fog most days, I have been trying really hard not to kill myself or lacerate my long-suffering left arm since last May, and the only thing that has had any noticeable impact over the last eleven fucking years is the combination of mirtazapine and venlafaxine which are upping my serotonin and noradrenalin and making being awake feel like an achieveable possibility, and no, "being brave" is actually not as effective at that."

I could have said, "when you do ECGs on patients who take insulin to manage diabetes, or beta blockers to address cardiac arhythmia, do you tell them that they should ditch their meds and just 'be brave'? When you have a headache, do you take a paracetamol, or do you just tell yourself to 'be brave'?"

But, y'know, fuck it. I made a split second decision that, if she was going to say something so cruel and make me feel so uncomfortable, I would, for a moment, drop the constant effort to make unmad people feel comfortable when faced with mental illness. I would make her as uncomfortable as she made me.

I said, "Well, I want to die, so I think I kind of do."

Not to brag, but I think my response was actually pretty brave.