Oct 23, 2009

I can has PCC complaint too

On today's Guardian Science Weekly podcast (around minute 30), the presenters read out loud a number of comments that were left by listeners on the web page after last week's podcast.

As part of the podcast concerned the topic of "penisology", a predictable number of the comments had a bawdy tone. Two of the ones read out were directed at last week's presenter of the podcast, Nell Boase.

The first referred to her "giggle" adding "much needed sex appeal" to the podcast, and invited her to look the poster up if she were ever in Vancouver. The second commenter agreed, and added that Ms Boase would make a wonderful "romance novel narrator".

I feel that these comments are not only sexist, objectifying, and down right rude, but that the first one in particular constitutes a case of public (but safely anonymous) sexual harrassement, to which the Guardian is now a party by re-publishing it (without condemnation, and even with the jokey comment that "Nell could not refuse the offer") on a much wider platform than it would have otherwise had.

That the Science Weekly team don't - and should not - exert control over the behaviour of their forum commenters is a given. But to embarrass Ms Boase and legitimise such bullying behaviour by singling the coments out for praise on this week's podcast is not simply inappropriate; it is offensive, and sends the message that far from being valued colleagues and listeners, women are welcome to the otherwise all-male Scence Weekly team only as light sexual relief rather than journalism. To do so on the already sexualised background of the penisology piece, furthermore, creates a hostile, aggressively sexist environment in which female listeners, too, are made to feel threatened and superfluous.

The Guardian newspaper should not be lending its name to such misogynist tactics.

[Under the section asking what part of the code was breached, I put:]

I believe this constitutes sexual harrassement of Ms Boase, as well as a breach of her privacy by her sexuality being discussed in a public forum without her consent or presence.


Join me in slamming the Grauniad for this piece of juvenile violence. Link to the PCC complaint site helpfuly provided. (on a side note: how much are we loving the fact that they had to put a whole separate page in place just for Jan Moir complaints?)

Oct 21, 2009

"Forever young and never forgotten. A man, a friend, a brother, a son, a husband and a hero."

So said Ronan Keating of his friend Stephen Gately, who sadly passed away last week.

Doesn't sound like anything special, unless you know that Stephen was gay, and that Ronan was talking about him having been somebody's "husband" - Andrew Cowles's, in fact - in a church in Ireland.

It's uncomfortable in a way, trying to draw attention to the wider political point here; ghoulish almost, definitely opportunistic. Surely we should be campaigning for gay rights every day, and not just at the time of a tragic death? Guilty as charged: most days, gay rights are sufficiently below my political horizon to barely rate a thought, and I can't pretend that that's OK.

Nevertheless, here we are, so let's talk about marriage for a minute, rather than use some double-Dutch mea culpa to ignore the issue for yet another day.

First off, definitions: the human right in question is not the right to get married itself. Marriage as we have come to understand it – the dress, the rings, the arguments about name changes, the cranky in-laws and the cheap fizzy wine - can cease to be tomorrow, and the systemic problems will remain exactly the same, because the rights denied to those prevented from entering into marriage are the rights that are conferred on married couples.

These are truly prodigious, and mostly economic. Shared property rights, access to deceased spouse’s funds and tax exemptions in case of widowhood, visitation and financial support rights in case of a marriage involving children breaking up, next of kin decision making rights in case of incapacitation, preferential treatment by the immigration authorities, and many more. Frankly, it’s as if the state is bribing people to get married, on which more anon.

It is a self evident violation of the principle of universal human rights to forbid anyone from entering into the voluntary arrangement that will allow them access to these privileges. Kind of like saying “you can take driving lessons, and pay for the test, and pay road tax, but we won’t give you a driving license, because you have size 7 feet”. But people – and I’m not just talking about Jan Moir here – still do object to gay people being accorded equal rights to heterosexuals, and even when the Human Rights act forces rubs their noses in it, they squirm and pretend that it’s not happening if you call it Civil Unions instead.

The usual explanation for this (advanced by Liberals - the “reasons” that gay rights opponents give are too ridiculous to analise seriously) is basically the Eww Factor. Religious and Conservative people are freaked out by Gayness, the theory goes, because they are sexually repressed and easily frightened by change. They can’t sleep at night thinking about all that delicious sodomy and cunnilingus happily going on behind England’s green and pleasant net curtains, so they contort themselves into paroxysms of illogic and hide behind such things as “tradition” and St. Paul (who was a bugger, no pun intended).

I have always found this theory unconvincing, because it’s based on the definition of marriage that religious and conservative people like: partnership, love, family, commitment, apple pie, blah blah blah. On the face of it, yes, it seems illogical to deny people who love each other these things just because there’s one too many willies (or one too few) in the equation, and the right wing / religious bigots are just stupid and inconsistent.

Well… I don’t buy it.

Let’s have a look for a minute about what marriage actually is, with special reference to “between one man and one woman” bit.

Imagine a world in which there is a systemic and society-wide imbalance of power between two groups, and in which there is a given number of tasks that need to be preformed either at individuals’ expense, or at the expense of the state.

Now neatly subdivide all of your available population into groups of two, each pair to include one member of the more privileged and powerful group, and one member of the oppressed group. These people can be peers in all other ways – class background, education etc. – but this one basic power imbalance has to be present in every case.

Then limit the amount of money you give to the performance of certain vital but unglamorous tasks, and limit the overall number of tasks that are supported by the state. People will be put into a position where they absolutely must absorb some of the workload individually.

Which member of the two-person pairings is more likely to be handed the performance of these extra tasks: the privileged, powerful one, or the oppressed, disempowered one?


That’s what marriage is all about, and that is why the state is so damned eager to bribe you to do it: because politically, it is easier to harp on about the joys of motherhood and the sanctity of marriage than to raise taxes for the provision of, say, universal free child care (or even universal parental leave – watch employers kick up a fuss when it’s the half of the workforce they actually pay decent wages to that is liable to be absent for six months at a time). Or a subsidized laundry service.

And that’s why gay marriage I such anathema – because absent the power imbalance inherent in a two sex pairing, it’s economically meaningless. And I’m not saying that Sir Elton getting hitched will mean that overnight women are not picking up socks from the bathroom floor anymore; it’s not going to be anything like that straightforward or linear, but the door has been opened.

But that is the fear from the religious and conservative elements opposed to gay marriage. It is not a coincidence that these are the same elements that are the most misogynistic in their outlook, most committed to the subjugation of women to their – hah! – “natural” roles as providers of free domestic labour, and also by the way tend towards the economically “liberal” (for which read: they don’t want to pay taxes and they don’t care who that deprives of basic services).

There will come a point of critical mass where women will look at gay couples and be able to make a credible argument that it doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been for them, because it patently isn’t for same sex couples. Or there will come a time when women who don’t self identify as feminists look at feminist couples and think to themselves that things can obviously be different for them, because they already are for other women.

And to put the final polish on that argument, I present to my rapt audience the new charming companion of Gay Marriage Panic: Feminist Marriage Panic. New York feminist Jessica Valenti recently got married, and such august engines of misogynist oppression as Playboy magazine are getting hot under the collar about it. I can’t link to it I’m afraid – paid subscription only – but here’s a link to the NY Times, with its own brand of snide coverage (I think their thesis is along the lines of she was a feminist only as long as nobody wanted to marry her, but soon changed her mind when and offer was on the table, or something). Gloria Steinem also caught a lot of flack for getting married, with accusations of hypocrisy and insinuations of really just wanting that ring after all.

Anything that violates the basic template of marriage – man on top, woman unpaid domestic support system – is seen as threatening, both economically and socially. And that kind of brings me back to Stephen Gately I guess, and to why even though I think that marriage inequality is a travesty, it's a travesty that is a reflection of, and a part of something bigger. And while I’m totally in favour of any couple being able to celebrate their love publically, what I’m really looking forward to is the day when we just do away with marriage as “two people incarcerated in a private drudgery hell” altogether.

Oct 10, 2009

Fragment: some out of context thoughts on the Primark padded bra thing and young girls' sexuality/sexualisation


I wrote this ages ago as part of a wider rumination on how we panic about the sexualisation of young girls because it might lead them to have sex, and possibly even enjoy it; but we pretend that what we're worried about is pedophiles and sexual predators, because we're so uncomfortable with female sexuality, at any age, that we just assume any expression of it spells disaster. The feminist angle of sexualising and objectifying people, again of any age, never gets a look-in: the underlying assumption is that all female sex is bad and dangerous, so the potential damage to young girld through being sexualised is that they may be introduced into that evil state earlier than is strictly necessary.

Young girls are not binary, digital little femibots. Empowered to listen to their
own feelings and with their agency acknowledged by society, they are able to react differently in different situations, in accordance with their own wishes and depending on the circumstances. Almost like they were, you know, actual people or something.

In other words, if girls are encouraged to explore and acknowledge their real (not performative) sexuality at a young age, rather than being exhorted to suppress it entirely, it does not follow that they will become sexually available to predators, or more vulnerable to abuse. Quite the opposite, in fact.

If girls are taught what pleasure feels like (which we are not, not even as women - there isn't even medical agreement on what an orgasm is, the G Spot veers widely from non existent to all important every few years, and the British Film Council still thinks that female ejaculation is urination), they will be more likely to know what dis-pleasure is when they feel it. If they are allowed to say "yes" when they want to, they will know when the time is to say "no".

At the moment we teach girls that their job is essentially to say "no" until somebody bullies them into changing their minds. We teach them that sex is rape. Not feminists, who never actually made any such claims, but the worthy family focus conservative types who teach them about abstinence and chastity. And when you teach someone that any expression of their sexuality is damaging to their better self, be it with their first love or their creepy middle aged neighbour, how are they to tell the difference between what they experience with one versus the other?

Of course girls can tell the difference, because we're not as stupid as the patriarchy would like; we know perfectly well that kissing the school stud is wonderful while being rubbed up against on a crowded bus is horrible. But we bury both our desires and our misgivings under layers of shame and self-blame. Far from offering any protection, that toxic mixture just means that we sublimate and absorb the abuse that we are left vulnerable to, turning the damage inward.

Oct 6, 2009

A quick summary of the past week's papers

Look, it's actually quite simple.

We don't want young girls getting the HPV vaccine, because they are pure, innocent ingenues who should not be exposed to the possibility of penetration of their delicate pink ladybits by marauding penises. Giving them the idea that letting themselves be fucked[1] is anything short of a heinous offence against society, morality, motherhood, and apple pie, is a crime we will not countenance. If some of them later die of cervical cancer because our dread of women having sex is greater than our concern for their safety, well, that's a sacrifice we're willing to make.

We don't care about Roman Polanski getting the trial and punishment he deserves, on the other hand, because young girls are all brazen, lascivious nymphets. Those of them who have allowed their delicate ladybits to be penetrated by marauding penises are obviously lying, disgusting sluts who like it up the bum, and who like to make up accusations about innocent men, trying to ruin their lives and reputations for no other reason than they belatedly realise and regret their monumental sluttitude.

If young girls weren't such whores in the first place, they wouldn't get cervical cancer. Duh.

[1] What's this you say? Some girls actually enjoy fucking and see it as something they participate in, rather than something shameful and humiliating that is done to them against their better selves? Well, that's obviously an Absurd Liberal Myth. Seriously, who'd believe that? Haha.