Dec 5, 2013

Extra, Extra! Scientists misunderstand own research!

Look below the line on any newspaper article dealing with women’s equality, and you’re guaranteed to come across at least a couple of comments condescendingly reminding you that there are differences between men and women. Sometimes it’s accompanied by the wink-wink-nudge-nudge “apart from the obvious, haha!”, sometimes it’s a sort of exasperated superiority at the author’s sheer silliness. Often, it will appeal to scientific authority along the lines of “research has repeatedly have shown”, or my personal favourite, “it’s proven by science”.

And frankly, you can’t really blame people, can you? Quite apart from the success of books (and the myths they engender) like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” and “TheEssential Difference”, which one could say simply capitalize on a pre-existing thirst to have gender stereotypes bolstered by the borrowed authenticity of science, when actual new research does come out, it’s invariably reported in the press in ways that hysterically emphasize the parts of the findings that fit with prevailing notions about the difference between men and women, and usually utterly ignore the rest.

The reason this week’s neurobabble scoop is worthy of notice though is not that the newspapers trumpeted it as the final proof that men are better at reading maps (and should therefore presumably continue to dominate the higher echelons of politics and business, not that I’ve ever seen the connection, personally), but that in doing so they did not misrepresent the researchers’ own conclusions.

Which is quite remarkable, considering that the work actually didn’t turn up the results the scientists say it turned up.

Two excellent pieces written by people who have the patience to trawl though the newsprint babble point out two key ways in which this research did no, in fact, demonstrate that behavioural differences between men and women are explained by difference in the brain.

This piece, by Cordelia Fine, brings to light the interesting fact that the data set these researchers used doesn't show any measurable behavioural differences:

To give a sense of the huge overlap in behaviour between males and females, of the twenty-six possible comparisons, eleven sex differences were either non-existent, or so small that if you were to select a boy and girl at random and compare their scores on a task, the “right” sex would be superior less than 53% of the time.
 Even the much-vaunted female advantage in social cognition, and male advantage in spatial processing, was so modest that a randomly chosen boy would outscore a randomly chosen girl on social cognition – and the girl would outscore the boy on spatial processing – over 40% of the time.
 As for map-reading and remembering conversations, these weren’t measured at all.

And this one, by my friend Paul Harper-Scott, winkles out the hidden detail that they didn’t find any structural brain differences in children, either:

Male and female brains showed few differences in connectivity up to the age of 13, but became more differentiated in 14- to 17-year-olds. That really is very interesting, to anyone willing to pause for thought. Let us allow that the observed differences in adult brains are significant, and that brain science is capable of communicating details of value (though there is considerable scientific scepticism on this point). Those differences are not manifested until the age of 14–17. It follows that the assumption that girls and boys below that age are ‘essentially’ different, ‘because their brains are wired differently’ is unsupported by the evidence. It is wrong to suggest that boys and girls have a ‘natural’ difference, which can be traced to brain design, because the study does not support such a claim. On the contrary, if we think that gendered difference is explicable only by brain design, we ought to conclude from this study that there should be no difference, at least no difference occasioned by brain design, between boys and girls.

In other words, this new and exciting research, reported to “finally prove” why men and women behave differently because of their different brains, didn’t prove either that 

a) men and women behave differently, 
b) they have innately different brains, 
c) that there’s even a connection between the two.

And yet not only the gullible science journalists and credulous public, but even the people looking at the data themselves, interpreted these non-findings in a way that reinforces the dominant stereotypes about men and women in a post-industrial liberal democracy.

It’s hard not to feel like the world has gone just a little bit delusional; like we’re arguing with someone about the colour of the sky, pointing to it and going “but look, look at it, it’s right there!” only to have them give us a pitying glance and say “yes, it is indeed yellow, like we told you. Your problem?”

It’s not up to science to prove or disprove the stereotypes about the sexes and gendered patterns of behaviour, in other words, because as long ago as the 90's, people like Stephen Jay Gould wrote about the persistent under-reporting of brain research studies whose findings showed little or no structural or operational difference between the sexes (over 90% of all such studies, if I recall the quotation correctly). This stuff is not new, and we can't leave it to the assumed objectivity of scientists to debunk decades (centuries!) of bunk. It’s up to feminists to get it through these people’s thick lab coats that there are no differences worth speaking of, and make them get down to the more interesting work of trying to explain why we so persistently believe there are. Because ingrained attitudes manufacture their own brand of "evidence", in spite of and in the face of everything that we can justifiably advance as fact.

Nov 9, 2013

Katy Perry, Joss Whedon, and who is and isn't a feminist

Anyone who says "I'm not a feminist, but..." is not a feminist. Not because they don't “really” believe in equality or anything like that, but because they clearly don't want to align themselves with the radical potential of feminism. And that's fair enough.

I don’t like the discourse that says "if you're not a terrible person and in principle are pro-equality, then you’rea feminist, by definition, because we say so". Quite apart from being kind of arrogant, it's wrong, because belief in equality is nowhere near being a sufficient condition for feminism. It's all well and good to say that you’re against discrimination, but discrimination isn't like a coffee stain, something discrete that can simply be rubbed out of the world and then everything will be hunky dory. It's part of a system - in fact it's just a means to an end - and if you're not ready to see the system collapse, then your belief in equality is about as much use as a chocolate teapot in terms of improving people's lives in meaningful ways.

The systemic discrimination against women, people of colour, people whose gender identity or sexual/romantic preferences don't support the capitalist heteronormative dualist model, people who are disabled, people who have mental or cognitive problems - all of this is not a bug. It’s a feature. In order to continue existing in its current form, the capitalist white supremacist patriarchy needs to sort us all into neat little pairs in which one is economically and morally subordinate to the other (it also needs to sort us into larger groups in which one is always subordinate to another: poor to rich, black to white, female to male). That’s frankly what makes the world go round (nope, not money - this arrangement is what gets the money made). 

You can’t get rid of discrimination - or inequality, they're two sides of the same coin - while leaving the rest of the system in place. The whole thing needs to come down, the world needs to change in startling and as yet unimaginable ways, in order for anything like “equality” to be a remotely viable proposition.

The revolutionary potential of feminism is in the fact that it sees, unmasks, explains, analyses and critiques all of the myriad mechanisms that the capitalist white supremacist patriarchy employs in order to make sure that these dualist, antagonistic alignments stay in place. There are of course some superficial changes from time to time. What used to be achieved through out and out coercion - physical and economic - of women into the subordinate role of dependent wife, now continues to be achieved through the blanket propaganda of the beauty industrial and entertainment complexes. Unlike liberalism, which sees this as progress, radicalism (and all real feminism is radical) sees this for what it is: same shit, different century.

This being the case, of course the majority of people find the few feminists who call out the duplicity and pervasiveness of this system aggressive, man-hating, extremist lunatics. If they didn't, we'd be doing something wrong here, frankly.

So when Katy Perry says "I'm not a feminist”, or Joss Whedon does, or Lady Gaga, my reaction is: of course you're not. If you said you were, you'd be lying. Your wealth and success are inextricably dependent on the beauty and entertainment industrial complexes. You are entirely in hock to the capitalist white supremacist patriarchy, whether you like to think of yourself as such or not.

So I never try to say to anyone "no wait, you really are a feminist, you just haven't realised it yet" (with the single exception of my sister, but that's a separate blog post). First of all, it's damned patronising. And secondly, it's wrong, as we saw. Anyone who says "I believe in equality but I'm not a feminist" is telling the truth, because a belief in equality is not even a fraction of what it means to really be a feminist.

Sep 11, 2013

On Michael Le Vell, and why arguing about rape is a waste of time

"Anyone making any sort of claim (need not be criminal) has the burden of proof. That's Philosophy 101." So went the crushing, irrefutable logic of some dude's argument on the internet, that legitimate arbiter of things judicial, with regard to the demonstrable guilt of Michael Le Vell's accuser. Her crime? Lying about rape. How do we know she lied? Because he's been "declared innocent".

There is a lot wrong with this so called logic, and a lot of very intelligent women have stepped into the breach and written eloquently on the various flaws in it.

Laura at the F-Word starts us off by pointing out the obvious fact that it's not the victim who's just been on trial - the veracity of her claims were not something the court interested itself in. What the jury decided on was the prosecution didn't make its case beyond reasonable doubt, nothing more, nothing less.

Glosswitch beautifully dismantles the ridiculous false equivalence that posits that accusing someone of rape is as bad as raping someone. I like to call it the "both sides" argument; it's very popular these days in all kinds of contexts, but especially in the news media. Tories entirely funded by millionaire tax evaders? Well, Labour takes some money from the unions! It's exactly the same! Climate change deniers distorting the evidence and using paid-for research? Well, that guy at UEA wrote that dodgy email one time, too! They're all at it! And so on. In the case of rape, the false equivalence serves to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of believing women are lying bitches while being faced with so much evidence of rape and abuse.

Abstract Lucas writes movingly about how hard it is to make a rape complaint, reminding us of the vanishingly small likelihood of anyone, but especially a child, taking that burden on just for shits and giggles. Only a profound ignorance of the system would make anyone bloviate at length about how easy it is to just "cry rape".

Sian ties together the concept of "rape myths" and the fact that there is no correct, appropriate or common way of responding to abuse. Constructing an idealised picture of how a "real" victim would react and then measuring women in that Procrustean bed is just one of the many cruel indignities inflicted on victims of sexual violence; its epistemic value is less than nil.

Lastly for this roundup, Louise Pennington provides some practical solutions to the problem of how to conduct fair trials in an atmosphere in which rape is considered the one crime where the burden of blame is automatically placed on the victim.

As I say, these are all really great pieces of writing. They seek to inform, educate, illuminate and clarify. I think that's really nice, I really do. And for the maybe three and a half people farting out opinions on the matter who aren't yet aware that the number of false accusations is tiny, or that the vast majority of sexual assault goes completely unreported, they're useful and necessary.


Personally, I haven't got the same faith in humanity that my sisters above do. I haven't seen these people carry on on Twitter about how, now that Stuart Hall has been convicted, every rape allegation ever must be correct - even the ones we've been pointedly ignoring for decades. Or that, given how Jimmy Saville was enabled to get away with his industrial scale rape for decades because of his celebrity status, all famous men should be seen as unreliable in principle. Or maybe even just that there's more at stake for the accused, and more reason for them to lie in the first place, so hey, mister "Philosophy 101" logic guy, maybe we should take that into account.

In particular, I haven't seen anyone jumping up and down over Nigel Evans, who resigned from his Parliamentary role today following multiple allegations of serious sexual abuse against him. This is a senior fucking politician here - one of a handful of elected representatives we've entrusted with the running of our country (well, sort of, but you know what I mean). There is some heavy shit being alleged against him right now, by multiple complainants. So where are the "anonimity for rape suspects" brigade in his case? Where are the people bemoaning his ruined reputation? What's so different about his accusers from the run-of-the-mill lying bitches maliciously pulling rape fantasies out of their asses?

What's that you say? His accusers are men? Well fancy that.

I'm all for education and dispelling myths. I just think it's important to recognise that for a lot of people, the "women are lying fantasists" trope is not a belief in itself - it is a means to an end. And that end is to make sure that rape persists. That the key weapon of intimidation and suppression against women remains in excellent working condition. Rape apology and rape denial are absolutely pivotal to the perpetuation of the oppressive status quo, and we mustn't fool ourselves (like some well meaning climate change campaigners do) that if we simply put more info out there, tell the stories just one more time, "educate" a little bit more, we can change people's minds enough for rape to just go away.

This is not about hearts and minds. The hearts and minds of rape apologists are not worth winning. We need to continue working with the CPS, who under Keir Starmer have made some important, if still insufficient, advances. We need to put serious, credible pressure on the police and the Home Office (e.g., by demanding they record the cases of male femicide). We need to change the system such that gradually, making a rape complaint becomes less of a second rape than it is today.

We need political power, in other words; organised, coordinated and mature. Let's go.

Sep 9, 2013

If you want us to care when you're killed, don't be born

The broadsheet Right is suddenly worried about misogyny. It's terrible! cry the respectable pages of the Daily Telegraph. It's dangerous! chimes in Cathy Newman. It's a feminist issue! adds Tom Chivers.

Yeah, alright love. You totes worry about the terrible implications of two non-illegal non-abortions that non-happened as a result of a cockamamie sting op run by the Torygraph, worthy of the swivel eyed creativity of a James O'Keefe or a Lila Rose. Here, have your feminist cookie.

The Telegraph only cares when women are killed in one place: the womb. Zero female fetuses were aborted in the Telegraph investigation. Meanwhile, two actual, already-born, living, what one might call "real" women are murdered by male partners or relatives every. Single. Week. Month in, month out. While you sit there wanking it up about how "worrying" and "dangerous" it is that the CPS won't prosecute doctors for thought crime, actual women are dying.

Has the Telegraph run an in-depth investigation on male violence against women lately? Has Channel 4 done an incisive interview with Karen Ingala-Smith, CEO of nia? 'Cause she's running a campaign to get the Home Office to at least record instances of male femicide, and you would think, wouldn't you, that people who are so concerned about the potential termination of female pregnancies would really care rather a lot about actual women being murdered?

What's that you say? They don't? They're actually using this non-scandal to ramp up opposition to safe and accessible abortion, because they really hate women and are using these fictitious unborn ones to cynically call for changes that would harm them? Well I never.

Glosswitch and Sarah Ditum have written beautifully in the New Statesman about what a cynical, shallow, transparent attempt this whole "controversy" is on women's freedom and well-being. Contrasted with the absolute silence from Hunt, May, Newman, Chivers et al about the relentless march of sex based murder, be it in family, homophobic, transphobic or sex work related contexts, the whole thing is enough to make the gorge rise in my throat. They make me sick, the lot of them. Literally.

Aug 27, 2013

Trans* murder rates - under-reported?

I came across this old tweet today, where the LGBT rights campaigner Peter Thatchell challenged feminist Julie Bindell to condemn the murder of transgendered people:

Now, I want to just say that I personally abhor all gender based violence; I was going to say "equally", but in some ways, the violent murder of a person who aspires to be accepted as a woman is even more chillingly misogynist than the murder of a woman for the crime of already being a woman. In any case, the danger that trans women find themselves in is non-trivial and must be opposed, condemned and mitigated by all means necessary[1].

(For the avoidance of doubt, and for those of us who are more closely involved with Twitter / than is good for us: death threats against trans women are vile, hateful expressions of the deepest visceral misogyny. End of discussion.)

Being cussedly fact-based in my thinking though, I was alerted by the infographic Thatchell cites to what seemed to me an under-reporting of the murder rate of trans* people in Europe. If the information contained therein is correct, it strikes at the heart of a key precept of trans* activism, namely that trans people are proportionately much more in danger of male violence than non-trans women.

According to the latest census, there are 56.1 million people in the UK, 28.5 of them women. Of the latter, 172 were victims of homicide in the calendar year of 2012 (not exactly identical to the onfographic's November '11 - November '12 time frame, but analogous). That's 0.0006%
 of all British women.

According to Jennie Kermode of Trans Media Watch, the proportion of the population that is trans* can be estimated at about 0.08%, which would bring the trans* population to approximately 450,000. One victim of homicide within that groups in that time frame represents 0.000223%.

It's possible that my calculations are wrong, or that Thatchell's numbers are under-reported; but on the face of it it looks like he should be careful what statistics he goes around quoting, because if what he's saying is that trans* people have about the third of the chance of being victims of homicide as non-trans women do, then who should be called upon to condemn violence against whom?

Again, none of this is to dismiss or minimise violence against trans* people, and trans women in particular. But if we're to make head or tail of the thorny debates on this issue currently threatening to upend the boat of the next "wave" of feminism before it's left the harbour, then being careful with our facts is of paramount importance.

A note on Brasil: I know. It's a terrifying, heart-stopping number compared to the rest of the world. What the hell is going on over there?


[1] I also believe that trans* people "really are" the gender they feel they are. Not necessarily that they are identical in every way to all others who were assigned that gender at birth, nor that they should have unrestricted access to any and all fora they wish to be included in; but they genuinely have a claim to their own gender definition and deserve full legal, medical and social recognition as such. This is a set of opinions nicely calibrated to make me popular with exactly no-one, but what can you do.

Aug 21, 2013

The Myth of Shared Girlhood

The below first-hand accounts of sexual victimization of young girls are taken from a sample of 200 submissions to the Everyday Sexism Project from a roughly 10 hour period on June 17th & 18th this year. I implemented a cut-off age of 16 and included only stories with an explicit age mention.

The project currently has over 60,000 distinct entries and has been active since March 27th this year. If we assume the same ratio (7%)  of accounts of girlhood sexual victimization, it now contains approximately 4,200 such testimonies, although the real ratio is likely to be somewhat higher.

This is only a small sample hinting at the magnitude of the problem.
I have walked by men who leered at my twelve year old sister, I've been called a bitch for turning down dances and I had my legs groped by a taxi driver pretending to reach for the clutch. Men have pulled my arms at parties, run their hands between my legs, grabbed my ass and smirked at me as if they were being funny, and not until I turned 20 did I start retaliating. I slapped the last man that grabbed my ass, and I wish I had done the same to all of them.
Was living in Russia when I was about 16. Some drunk 30 year old just picked me up and dragged me into his room while I was screaming NO NO NO. Luckily he was so high I was able to push him off. I didn't come out of the apartment for a week.
The next year a 40 year old I barely knew drove up next to me and pushed me into his car and told me we were going camping, the two of us. I crawled out the window on the other side and ran home.
In 10th Grade during a class, a boy asked me for a hug. I decided to be friendly and give him one.
As I hugged him, I felt hands on my rear and immediately pulled back. I asked if he groped me, looking disgusted. He responded with a 'no' his face mixed with laughter and mockery.
I was only 15.
15 yrs old at a small family fair & local music festival with 2 friends, standing in a line listening to the 3 gross and disgusting adult males (I refuse to call them men) discussing how amazing my tits were.
On my way home from school as a fifteen year old a man approached me and told me I was looking 'fit'. he said he knew me and that I had been at his house at the weekend but I didn't remember it because I was so drunk. He told me that I had been there with him and implied that we had done something sexually.He asked me to come back to his house. I said no but he started following me. I had never been to his house. 
During my junior year of high school everyday upon entering my math class I would be greeted with profane and suggestive things yelled at me by a group of boys. My male math teacher was directly in ear shot and never acknowledged or reprimanded any of the students but instead pretended not to hear and continued to write the day's lesson on the board. Their yells hurt but his silence confirmed that I should expect this as normal. 
I was followed home and the man groped my thigh the lift/elevator. I managed to call the police and they caught him after they watched the tapes of the security cameras. I'm 14.
My ride to middle school also had some high school students in the van. A junior year high school boy would try to sit in my lap each day and I would have to slide away to avoid stares. One day he tried to do what he did everyday and I punched him on the behind. He screamed, "Who did this?" No one responded and he sat far away from me that day. Never came near me again.
When I was 14, I was walking to a restaurant with my older sister (18 at the time), and it was summer so I was wearing shorts and she was in a sundress. On the way there we got honked at. And on the way back, some man yelled something along the lines of "I'd hit that!" out of his window at us. For both things to happen within an hour of each other was astonishing and terrifying.
I was 14 years old and in school. Due to a scheduling fluke, I didn't have lunch with my class like I should have, so I sat alone at a table and read a book while I ate. On the way out of the lunch room one day, someone slapped my ass, way too hard to be an accident. Because a hundred or more students were rushing out the doors at once, I looked behind me and had no idea who it was. But I strongly suspected it was one of the boys in a laughing group. They were all delinquent kids who had been held back once or twice and were several years older than me.
I still fantasize about what I would have said to that creep.
A man backed me into the corner, felt up my inner thighs, and told me he wanted to "make love to me". I was fourteen on a church mission trip.
I was walking down a fairly public street and behind me some guy shouted, "Hey how much you cost?" I ignored it because that's apparently what you're supposed to do and he caught up behind me and forced my hand onto his erection as he grabbed my penis too. I was 14.
When on holiday last year, a cleaner from the hotel took a shining to me.
One day when I was riding down the elevator alone he got right up to my ear and whispered "you look very pretty today". Not wanting to be disrespectful I said thank you and went on my way. He kept bumping into me and hanging round this huge hotel waiting for me.
One afternoon there's a knock at my door and he's there, he asks me to go out to the town with him for the evening and when I say no he carries on asking me. He explains he can't date me during his working hours because it's against hotel regulation but he sees no problem once he clocks off. I keep telling him no. He then asks for a kiss, and when I say no, he asks for a picture, and when I say no, he asks me not to leave him at the door.
I ask him his age and he tells me he's 27. I was 14 at the time, and look about 18 max. 
I was at an amusement park. Since it was over 95 degrees, I was wearing shorts like any sensible person. I had climbed the stairs to a tall slide, and after I came back down, a friend that was waiting for me at the bottom told me that the ride attendant had taken a picture at an inappropriate angle of my bum ss I climbed the stairs as well as my breasts when I had turned my head. I was only 13 years old.
I was taking extra German classes when I was 13, outside of school. The teacher, a man in his 50's, repeatedly suggested that I should be eager to earn extra credit (blowjobs) if I was a good student. Mind you, no-one else was allowed this 'privilege' and of course the 'opportunity' was never offered in front of any other students.
13. I went to a summer camp and there was this counselor and he kept staring at all of the girls boobs. None of the teachers noticed so they didnt do anything, but it made all of us uncomfortable. I mean, we are 13 year olds! 
Age 12/13/14 a boy 1 year older than me at school would grab and slap my ass and say "alright darling". When I told my family about it they just laughed.
My ass is not public property and you have no right to touch it.
At age 12 the Recreation Director of a senior's home at which I am a volunteer offers me a ride home. He drives past my home and stops the car. He insists that I want to kiss him. I insist that I don't. After a short time and very fortunately he puts the car in reverse and drops me off without further incident.. 
I couldn't have been more than about 12 or 13 years old, and I was in the grocery store with my mother. 2 men came up to us and asked her how much money she wanted for me. I didn't realize until I was much older what they had meant. Afterwards my mother never spoke about it to me or anyone else as far as I know.
I have a friend who is younger than me, though she looks older than she is. I met her in town a few weeks ago. She was very shaken up when I met up with her. She told me about what happened. While she was waiting outside the library, a man approached her and asked her for her number. She told him no, but he persisted and asked her four or five times. He kept on saying how he liked her legs. She lied to him and told him that she was 16 years old and had a boyfriend. This man, 25+ years old creepily said "That's alright." When she tried to escape him and walk into the library, he blocked the door, but eventually she got past him. She told me not to tell any of the adults, so they wouldn't freak out.
Later that night, she saw him around multiple times, in the teen section of the library where he was told to leave, and on the streets. My friend is eleven years old.
I was 11 an shopping in Primark when a man who must've been over 50 came up to me and asked me if I wanted to come with him and pointed outside the shop. All the while he was looking at me up and down, almost undressing me with his eyes. I couldn't think of anything to say to make him go away. Thankfully my mum came back around the corner just then and he got scared and ran away. 
As a 11 year old in my football kit walking home from school I turned round to see a 20 something man down an alley masturbating at me. I was so scared I ran home in hysterics, terrified that this man was going to rape me although at that age I didn't even really know what that meant.
It was the end of class and I was bending down to put something away like the teacher asked me. While bent over, something smacked my butt. Hard. I jerked up to see my male classmate, who I knew well, holding a wooden ruler in his hand and laughing as he stroked it. This was 6th grade. We were 11 years old.
I was walking home from school when two boys in their late teens were barking at me from the back of a truck. I was 10.
My cousin, 14 at the time, took me to my bedroom. He took off his pants and told me, a nine year old girl, to take my clothes off. I started to cry, I was confused and so scared. He pulled his pants back up and told me to be quiet. He had the audacity to tell me, a nine year old girl, that it was my fault he felt this way. I believed him for a very, very long time.
Summer of my 9 years old, our class just had a water gun fight in the park. I was drying my shirt with the hand dryer in the women's bathroom. Adult guy (maybe 40?) steps into the doorway, watches me, comments on my drying technique. He comes in and puts my still-wet shirt back on, then he gropes my breasts and between my legs. A teacher came in to fetch me and he ran. I never told anyone because I always believed "nothing really happened" and that it was my fault for being there, drying my clothes, "letting" him, not giving a police statement. But the fact is that something did happen, and none of it was my fault. None.
When I was about 9 years old I was staying round a friends house, lying in a campbed next to her. Her brother who is a year or so older walks into the room and sits on the end of my bed. He starts touching my feet and up my legs, as I pull away he is there again. I am very ticklish so I was laughing through it, but I was also scared and absolutely did not want him to get anywhere near my crotch. His sister sat there and watched the whole time, saying nothing.
When I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, I was waiting in the car for my mom when a man pulled up next to our car, opened his door to adjust his seatbelt, shut it, & then re-open it to reveal his half-naked body to me. He began to masturbate. He then shut the food and drove off. I never told my mom. I'm 28 now & this still creeps me out.
The first time I was sexually harassed I was 8 years old. A boy in my class told me that he was going to force me into the corner and give me a "good fucking" because I was "too cute". I never told anyone because I believed it was my fault. I am now 17 years old and have been harassed lots of other times and that moment is still the clearest.

All rights reserved to The Everyday Sexism Project. I redacted names to help further preserve the writers' testimony, however the testimonies themselves are now published and visible on the main website and in some cases the US website. It is not technically possible at this time to link individually to entries on the main site.

Aug 12, 2013

The press blogger, the feminist campaigner and Jack of Kent

SubScribe, a journalism blog, has a post up about the Mark Neil Wilson trial case, in which the prosecutor and judge referred to the 13 year-old victim as "predatory" and "sexually aggressive" (in case you've been living under a rock, here's a link to the EVB campaign against such language). This blog post was tweeted out by David Allen Green today, so that probably means that lots more people will be reading it, and possibly nodding their heads sagely and saying to themselves "yes yes, this is a lot more complicated than I had originally thought".

But I don't think that's true at all, because at least with regard to the fundamentals of EVB's complaint, none of the additional facts revealed by the blogger really change the conversation. Without quite coming out and saying it, the writer insinuates that there was something untoward, premature, not to say - ahem - hysterical about the reaction to the Wilson case. The Times is mentioned as having "its own child abuse agenda" - not a pretty sentence however you parse it. The fact that 45 thousand people signed EVB's petition is returned to and reiterated, almost as if to subtly signal: "too many! Too fast! By the law of averages they must have not known what they were talking about!".

Should we, asks the blogger, "celebrate [EVB's successful campaign], or worry about kneejerk politics?". Er, the former, thanks - but we all know that when a rhetorical question like that is left hanging, the intention is usually on the side of "go ahead and worry". People don't usually ask rhetorical questions to reassure. Declarative statements are better for that purpose.

I think what is particularly egregious is this embedded series of tweets from George Pavlou, the reporter who originally "broke" this story, quoted without comment:

The implication of including these tweets in an article criticizing media coverage of the story is that Pavlou is in some way right, that he is exposing something obvious that the rest of us, notably the EVB campaigners and petition signers, have missed. This impression is further strengthened by the immediate reference to a blog post Pavlou approves of as "calm and reasoned" - presumably, one can't help thinking, in contrast to the hysterical and ignorant reaction from others.

Here's how I think this story played out in Gameoldgirl's head: the original trial was mis-reported, which lead to an overheated, uninformed moral panic among campaigners, and the suspension of the prosecuting QC.

But that's not how it happened. The story may well have been mise-resported, or under-reported; but the one salient fact about it that never varied is that the judge and the prosecutor did refer to a 13 year old who was inappropriately touched by an adult male as "predatory" and "sexually aggressive".

Let's just get one thing straight here: even if Nigel Wilson had been a straight up reincarnation of Mother Theresa wrapped in a bunny rabbit saving rainbow cloud, a thirteen year old girl could not have been described as a sexual predator. However she behaved, whatever she did in order to maintain and prolong his interest in her, she is legally and morally incapable of being the aggressor.

It frankly doesn't matter if the sentence meted out to Wilson was lenient or strict. It is of no possible relevance who went to the police and whether it is correct to think that reluctance to be a complainant is evidence of guilt on the part of the alleged victim of sexual misconduct (on which: are you fucking kidding  me??!). All of this clever-clever journalistic fact dredging stuff is neither here nor there. The QC and the judge in this case described a young person by negative epithets she is incapable of being. They may as well have called her a werewolf, or a witch (actually, not a bad parallel there). They were wrong to use these words, and the 45,000 people who joined EVB's stellar campaign were right. It really is as simple as that.

I don't think Gameoldgirl necessarily meant harm here; like George Pavlou, I'm sure she thinks she's doing a service to "the facts". But she's not. She's falling into common victim blaming tropes and providing tacit support to people who would openly accuse victims of child molestation of being manipulative little Lolitas egging innocent men on. I think the tone - and quite a bit of the content - of this blog piece is ill advised, and I wish David Allen Green hadn't given it a wholly undeserved signal boost.

It is further notable - and notably absent from all the reporting on this case, including Gameoldgirl's - that sexually aggressive and promiscuous behaviour in young women is often a response to trauma. Attention seeking from predatory men is not a cause of abuse, it is a symptom of prior abuse. In this sense there is every chance that the QC and the judge have committed a double and devastating injustice against this young woman.

A deeper investigation into this case, it would seem to me, would interest itself in these kinds of background details. Clearly the identity and biographical details of the young woman are not available, nor should they be; but some kind of deeper look into what, if any, details of her past were in the case would go far towards demystifying the "acting out" elements of her interactions with Wilson and placing the comments of the judge and the QC in better context.

Implicitly criticizing the widespread popular indignation about these comments will not help this young woman (or the perpetrator of the offence against her, if we assume that he is deserving of hep by virtue of being a fellow human being), and it will not protect other young women in the future. Donating money to EVB is a far better use of our benevolent energies.

ETA: Edited in accordance with Dorian's note below.

Aug 10, 2013

Ignore this post if you're not on Twitter; seriously, for your own mental health

To nobody's surprise as much as my own, I have some thoughts on the whole Graham Linehan / Sam Ambreen. I think.

I kind of stayed away from the sitch on Twitter so I'll be the first to admit that I might be getting the wrong end of the stick here, but what I think happened is that Sam asked Graham to tweet out and acknowledge threats that she has been receiving, and when he refused it lead a lot of people to accuse him of favoritism and racism.

Anyway, even if this isn't what happened exactly, there's been this vibe of "why does online misogynist abuse only matter when it happens to white famous women" for a few weeks now, and I think that there's a common thread or underlying dynamic here.

There is certainly justice in demanding the same recognition of humanity as anyone famous, anyone white, anyone rich. "I am a person, and an attack on me matters as much as an attack on you". This is right. But to then  make the leap to demanding that all people take the same action as a result of an attack on you as they would if the attack was on anyone else is unfair and unrealistic. Indignation (or, be generous, sympathy) is cheap, but action - even the tiny amount of action that goes in to that is termed "clicktivism" - is not. It takes something out of our resources and we save it for those instances where we care the most.

Someone ran an experiment on Twitter yesterday: she tweeted out a campaign to lobby the government against cuts to services for women, serious stuff to do with DVA shelters and rape crisis funding. Crickets. Everyone was so busy being mad at Graham Linehan that the campaign went pretty much unnoticed. Why? Not, I would submit, because people are narcissistic hypocrites who say that they want campaigns about VAWG but actually only care about Twitter drama. But because even Twitter resources are limited, and people were putting their attention where it mattered to them, where it hurt. And that's OK.

There are people who've been reading and enjoying Caitlin Moran since they were 16. They'd spent countless little intervals of pleasure, humour or irritation, so to speak in her company. They feel a certain kind of intimacy, a relationship of sorts has developed, and they are committed to seeing this person as someone who is on the credit side of an interpersonal relationship - someone who has given them some fun, some interest, a joke or to to laugh at, and frankly, has never asked for anything in return. Entertainers are the best friends, in some ways.

It's fashionable to dismiss writers, journalists and entertainers as "slebs", and say that as such, their brand recognition is all they have to distinguish them from you or I. But that derogatory term was invented for a reason: it's supposed to apply to people who came out of nowhere and are famous for nothing - people who stake a claim to the public's interest and love without having first put in the hard work of giving something to people.

No, you (generic, not specific, you) really don't matter to a lot of people. Bit it's wrongheaded to say "I only don't matter because I'm not a celebrity". You don't matter to a lot of people because they don't know you, and they have no reason to feel a commitment to you. You haven't given them anything.

 And you (generic you) do matter to a lot of other people because they do know you, through your blogs and through Twitter, and they have the same pleasure/intimacy relationship with you, and they have been raising hell on your behalf. Otherwise we wouldn't be here, because of course I'd never have heard of this controversy in the first place. You, too, have a "platform". It's just that your platform has, so far, earned you fewer loyal defenders than those of Suzanne Moore or Helen Lewis.


A separate note on racism. All the named people in the above text are white. They are white because it's easier to break into the media in this country while being white. They've had a lot of unfair advantages. And that is monumentally unjust, wasteful of human talent, and wrong.

But individual people don't love them because they're white. People love them because they wrote Father Ted, or organised a huge all-female panel debate in London, or written lots of pieces over the years that made people feel like someone understands them, someone shares their concerns, someone is on their side. So now they're on those white people's side in return.

My point s that there is racism in this situation, but it is institutional and not personal racism. And to confuse the two isn't just counterproductive, it's unjust - because it takes the best of human nature, our capacity to develop loyalty and affection, and turns it inside out to look like a capacity for exclusions and discrimination. Granted, those really are the two sides of that particular coin, and they both exist in all of us; but which side of the coin you're looking at at any given moment is not trivial or irrelevant.

Jul 2, 2013

It's not the women in science who have a problem

Google "women in science" and you get a worrying picture. You know the kind I'm talking about - "Fewer women in top positions mean fewer female role models for students." "Gendered Media Representations as a Barrier to Inclusion for Women." "STEMS came in for particular criticism for not encouraging enough women into their industries." And, today, "Women in science have an image problem.

It's all well meaning stuff, and certainly breaking down the many barriers that still stand in the way of women's professional self-fulfillment should be high on the list of social justice issues. But what is a bit off about it all is that it's always presented as being a problem for women. Those poor women, the unspoken (or spoken) argument goes, they are being unfairly denied the access, recognition and credit they deserve, and it is oh so unfair, and we must make sure we are nicer to them from now on.

But science - and, frankly, social justice - doesn't really work that way, does it? Without getting into a debate about epistemology here, let's just set the baseline for the scientific method and say this: it makes truth claims. They are conditional and hedged about with process, but they are truth claims nevertheless, and they are based on a certain kind of engagement with the world that privileges completeness of facts and informational integrity. So when data is cherry picked, elided, ignored or misrepresented, this is the problem for all scientists, because it undermines this fundamental basis for the scientific method.

The erasure of women's historical contributions to science is unjust and in many ways just plain ugly; but from the point of view of students int he STEMS disciplines today, it should be a big concern that they're not taught who was the first person to ever get two Nobel prizes, or who really discovered nuclear fission, or who the greatest fossil hunter of the 19th century was, who was the first person to twig that genes were not static instruction manuals but had regulatory networks, who invented debugging, who tidied up relativity, and that sometimes brilliant people give up their ace science careers because they have a crazy-ass husband. The "problem" is not "for" the brilliant and remarkable women who scaled enormous obstacles to make these stunning achievements - it's for the students themselves. Because they are being given a shit education. And they should be mad about that, be they male or female.

Science progresses by taking the best results from the most talented researchers (or the luckiest, frankly sometimes it makes no difference) and incorporating them into an ever evolving body of knowledge. It is the paradigmatic case of "garbage in, garbage out". But even if what goes in is not garbage, you're not going to get diamonds out if you don't make sure you plough all the available diamonds in. That this happens - that some diamonds drop out on gender discrimination grounds - is not a "problem for" the young women who are discouraged from entering or staying in STEMS: it's a problem for STEMS.

How many Jane Goodalls have been intimidated, under-funded or ignored out of pursuing field work? How many Anne McLarens were denied the reproductive care that enabled them to continue their research? How many Dorothy Hodgkinses found they had to take care of their husbands instead of working towards a Nobel prize? How many, finally, young women have been simply raped off campuses? Or sexually harassed out of science departments by senior academics unable to collaborate with anyone whose gender threatened their authority?

Are all these (hypothetical only in their detail) events grave injustices to the women in question? Without a doubt, they are. But they are also a massive, incalculable loss to science. Imagine if we discovered that in some labs, they simply throw away 50% of the valid results without incorporating them into the research. Why, we'd take away their tax-granted funding, for starters! But that's basically what happens when we - as a society, not just the STEMS departments in universities - either exclude women from the sciences with a shrug or, at worst, wring our hands about "the problem of women in science".

It's not a woman problem. It's a science problem. Sort it out.


Jun 17, 2013

On the bystander effect and how it perversely protects victims of male violence

In the wake of the terrible news about Charles Saatchi seemingly assaulting his wife in public last Saturday, one of the most persistent bits of outrage I’ve seen is directed not at him, but at the other patrons of the restaurant in which the alleged assault took place. Namely: how could they have not intervened? How could they have just gone on with their lunch? Why did the photographer not do something? They are all terrible, callous, selfish human beings & should be ashamed of themselves.

It’s a question that comes up a lot: how come nobody did anything? In all sorts of crimes, but especially crimes of male violence against women and children, when the crime becomes public and the full facts of it emerge (or as full as can ever be the case for events that are normally private and hidden), it becomes obvious that there was in fact a web of people who had known all along that something was wrong and chose not to intervene. The recent revelations of systemic rape and sexual exploitation of vulnerable girls in Oxford is a good example.

The culprit, though, is not people’s inherent callousness and lack of empathy: it’s a psychological phenomenon called “the bystander effect”, and it’s an incredibly powerful instinct. It works like this: when there is more than one person witnessing some kind of event (say, a man throttling a woman), the likelihood of any one of them responding/intervening is in inverse proportion to their number. In other words, the more people witness an attack, the less likely any one of them is to offer help to the victim.

There are all kinds of reasons hypothesized for this phenomenon (read the Wiki article), but I think at least in part it has to have an adaptive element to it. Being the first person to respond to an abnormal situation can be dangerous, especially if one is not sure of the social rules governing the situation. Be the case as it may, the point I’m making is that the bystander effect doesn't make us bad people, just people who have a tendency to react with a remarkable degree of similarity to certain stimuli.

The good news about the bystander effect is that it’s relatively easy to disrupt. As soon as one person moves to intervene – it can literally be something as simple as getting up and turning to walk in the direction of the incident – the charm is usually broken and more people will offer help. The question, specifically in the case of what looks like a domestic violence incident, is: should they?

Male violence in the context of intimate relationships is not just a series of unconnected incidents; it has its own cycle and follows an internal logic that can sometimes be counter-intuitive. It’s possible that the bystander effect unwittingly protects women who are victims of violence from worse violence. Confronting an abuser might feel good to us, and might stop the attack that is happening in front of our eyes, but it is highly likely to lead to further retribution for the victim behind closed doors. The perpetrator may, and in fact probably will, punish the victim for “embarrassing him” by “making him” hit her in public, exposing him to what he sees as undeserved shaming.

The most dangerous times for victims are times at which the perpetrator feels like his power over them is being questioned or shaken. Most people now know that a key turning point can be when a victim tries to leave (the majority of women who are murdered by partners are killed during or just after leaving), but the challenge can come from outside the relationship as well as inside. For example, when family members try to stage an intervention or openly get the victim away from the perpetrator, she often ends up getting  worse than usual beating, to reinforce the man’s power over her.

So while it’s tempting (and certainly common) to sneer with contempt at the over-privileged restaurant patrons who failed to lift a finger to help Nigella Lawson, we must remember that 1) it’s not really their individual moral failing and 2) it might have put her in greater danger. As it happens, she has already been put in greater danger, by the exposure of the attack in the press and the media circus around it. Charles Saatchi has not, so far, paid any kind of price for allegedly attacking her; in fact, he’s been given a bigger than usual platform by the Evening Standard, to pooh-pooh the whole thing as a “playful tiff”. Meanwhile we don’t know how his wife is doing, or what she is thinking and doing – or whether she is even OK.

May 30, 2013

Here's some basic "reality" for ya

In a week when a British feminist took on & defeated Facebook, Louise Mensch writes disparagingly of the supposed flaccid ineffectiveness of non-US activists, compared to such feminist luminaries as Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg.

This, per La Mensch, is a "reality based" approach to feminism.

It's boring and stupid arguing with Louise Mensch. She is one of those people in whom an early aptitude for conventional education had instilled the unfortunate belief that they possess a comparable level of native intellect. This is unfortunately not the case. The ability to identify the commonplace achievements that carry the most desirable incentives (school grades, mediocre fiction) is useful, but it doesn't follow that to have it is to possess the skills to analyse complex phenomena or comment on serious issues.

So I'm not going to do a close reading of Mensch's piece, but instead highlight the risibility of her "reality" through the example above and one more telling throwaway line. Men, per Mensch, "have been the primary breadwinners in all cultures at all times in history".


Well I don't know that Louise Mensch is a student of history, especially, but OK - she can make such sweeping claims if she substantiates them. Unfortunately this is not the case here. Having made this jaw droppingly bold assertion, she moves swiftly on to argue that given that men have always been the primary sustenance providers, in all societies, for all of human existence, then they must like it. Like, you know, people have always suffered from bouts of malaria, which is how come it's such a hoot.

But it bothers me, this small bit of abysmal reasoning, because it ties in to a hobby of Mensch's that is also a central problem in the public understanding of feminism and gender roles, and that is biological (or in this case historic) determinism.

The standard evo-psych story goes something like this: women are weak and vulnerable, especially when pregnant or breasfeeding. They depend on men to provide them with food and protection. This is why women have "evolved" feminine wiles to attract and retain male partners, and men have "evolved" strength and aggression to compete for and then defend the best female partners. Men then gradually used this aggressive instinct to amass possessions and compete with one another, eventually "inventing" agriculture and thus civilisation.

Never mind for a moment that this is a kindergarten-level understanding of evolution; it's just not true.

In observed hunter gatherer societies, gathering (usually but not always done mostly by women) provides the majority of the group's calories and all its staples. Hunting is an intermittent and risky activity and cannot be relied upon to sustain a group or family unit reliable, especially around vulnerable times of infant rearing.

In existing and historical pre-industrail agrarian societies, women do 90% of the labour and produce almost all of the staples the family or village depend upon. When men engage in agriculture it is more often a) separate from women's growing activities and b) concentrated on production of cash crops, the proceeds of which are not reinvested in the community but are used to purchase personal luxuries such as tobacco, alcohol and clothing for the man.

Chances are that if I say the word "farmer" to you, your brain will supply the image of a man to fit that role. But the crushing majority of farmers in human history have been and still are women. In fact, given that farming probably developed from a kind of enhanced-husbandry model of seasonal gathering, it's perfectly reasonable to suppose that it was invented and perfected by women, too. Even in Europe, up until the modern period women participated in all aspects of cultivation, from walking behind the plough to rearing domestic animals. Men, meanwhile, never took part in the refining and useful application of the resulting products through spinning, weaving, cooking, preserving and so on.

The second shift is not, as we are so often told, the fault of feminists "telling" women to go out and work (never of men for not stepping up to plug the gap). Women have always worked twice as hard as men, and mostly the work they did won and baked the bread. Men have never been and are not today universal "breadwinners", or frankly there wouldn't be all this talk of single mums on benefits, now would there.

Yes, Louise Mensch is blinkered by privilege and yes, that makes her say some really stupid things about how black people should and shouldn't react to racism. But quite apart from that, this woman who's taken it upon herself to lecture us about reality is ignorant and disdainful of the facts. She's just a bit... Full of shit, really.

May 25, 2013

Feminist theory and the blue sweater

In the movie "The Devil Wears Prada", which is otherwise a pretty uninspiring non-exposé of the underbelly of the fashion magazine industry, there is one scene of transcendent importance that has stuck with me through the years, and that I am often reminded of when people tell me that some subject of philosophical, political, scientific or sociological inquiry is "academic", "ivory tower", "has no relevance to people's lives" and so on.

I think of it as "the blue sweater speech":

In context of course, the scene give us a glimpse (not enough of a glimpse, and it;s a shame the film didn't explore that subject further) into how what we think of as our personal choices are really determined by executives, advertisers, buyers, magazine editors and so on. The relationship between fashion designers - the creative people who actually conceive the patterns and shapes of the clothes that we by necessity must choose among - is mediated by an enormous chain of other, often extraneous relationships that mean that at the point of purchase (or even closer to home, at the point of dressing), we can't really be said to make an informed choice between neutral options.

This is true everywhere in the consumer society; in food, in literature, in leisure activities and holiday destinations, in the jobs we go for and the degrees we choose etc. it's not really the amorphous concept of "society" that shapes the limits of our choice, it's groups of specific individuals whose job it is to do that, in various forms. On a side note, the vagueness of "society" and "culture" is a deliberate neoliberal ruse, and no wonder that it was set up for Thatcher to attack - of course there is no such independent, sentient agent called society. Making it sound ridiculous made it easier to nudge the choices people - individuals - to disengage from it and stop believing in it.

So much for Miranda Priestly and her unintentional critique of capitalism; but how is the blue sweater relevant to feminism? Well, the blue sweater is "lived experience".

I've been seeing that term about much more lately, almost always juxtaposed with, and opposed to, the idea of "theory". Feminism, the critique goes, is too detached, too academic, too theoretical. what it needs to be relevant to women's lives is an injection of lived experience. And example would be a woman who says "I have a basic belief that my (any) theories aren't as compelling as lived experiences."[1] the implication is that "theories", lower case T

it is now seen as an insult, as an affront to intersectionality, for example, to talk of queer theory. Transgender, the riposte invariably goes, is not a theory. It is real, and by claiming that it's "only a theory" you are insulting and erasing transwomen's experience. The saying goes: "your analysis doesn't trump our existence." This attitude often crops up in other controversies within feminism, such as the fight for sex workers' rights, in which the lived experience of individual sex workers is often advanced as a rebuttal to policy suggestions or research findings: theory is impersonal, obtuse, out of touch, and at its worst a deliberate bad-faith attempt to avoid taking the lived experience of women into account when it doesn't agree with the desired outcome.

Clearly, that is sometimes the case - "don't confuse me with facts" is a mental attitude that a lot of people wedded to their ideologies adopt rather than rethink their actions (see: Osborne, George). but that is not in and of itself a condemnation of theory, and more importantly it is in no wise a reason to suppose that there isn't a long, varied "supply chain" of sorts, mediating between what we think of as our independent agency and the theorizing of some feminist philosopher somewhere.

I remember sitting on a bench on the island of Santorini once, having a discussion with my best friend about the Spice Girls (yes I am that old!). Her position was that Girl Power was a real force that could be harnessed for women's liberation; mine was that it's a shallow flash in the pan. The conversation stuck in my mind because it was the first time that I heard this argument advanced: that what philosopher and feminists do in their ivory towers is so disconnected from the lives of ordinary women as to be entirely separate from and useless to them.

At the time I instinctively felt that this can't be right, and tried to rebut it with a fairly hand-wavy conception of a "trickle up" effect from academia to the privileged realms of Real Life(tm). I don't know that I did a very good job, because I didn't really know how things like Parliamentary Committees, policy think tanks, UN research reports, charity lobbying campaigns, popular science/politics/psychology/self help book commissions and so on interact with the world of academia and mediate between it and the seemingly independent everyday world of jobs, traffic jams and childcare dilemmas. Possibly even more importantly, I didn't know how very porous that connective tissue between "theory" and "lived experience" is - how directly, in some cases, academic conceptions are imported into the conditions that govern seemingly trivial parts of our lives (if you don't believe me, Google "jamology").

What Miranda Priestly is saying, in her inimitably blood-chilling style[2], isn't just that the Anne Hathaway character is being stupid and naive to think "this stuff" doesn't have anything to do with her; she is also hinting at the fact that without "this stuff", she'd simply have nothing to wear. If it were not for the temper tantrums and drug habits (sorry) over highly strung creatives in the Fashion World, we might not have all those "choices" we like to defend from encroachment, in the first place. We might all still be wearing petticoats.

Now, we might also not - we might discover a hidden wealth of creativity and variety within each of us. That is a somewhat Utopian view, but I don't discount it entirely. Certainly, to come back to feminism, the conception of an ideal post-gender society includes the complete freedom from external influences on individuals' socio-sexual identities. I mist say though, history is against us: one of the things we definitely had less of, before the age of universities (and fashion designers), is variety. People more or less all wore the same thing, even though they had full control of the production process, from flax to handkerchief; and they quite often more or less thought the same, too.

However that future might turn out though, that hypothetical world in which everybody can simply be free to have their own individual theory of identity is still to come; in this world, we're all the products of the same sausage factory, and that sausage factory is built on blueprints that have a lot of theory in them. To imagine that any one individual's lived experience is entirely above or beyond engagement with theory is like thinking that you really did "choose" that blue sweater. And, when we identify beneficial changes that have filtered into women's lives through decades of feminist work, to fail to acknowledge the important contribution of theory to that would be short-sighted and ungrateful.

[1] I'm sorry for the lack of proper attribution; I did think about and decided that depersonalizing the discussion is probably the better choice here.

[2] I'm not advocating being that nasty to anyone (ever!), but isn't it kind of marvelous how Meryl Streep manages to portray absolute power without an ounce, a breath of male patterns of aggression? Masterful! And a bit of a template for would-be non-violent dictators. Er. Don't quote me on that.

Apr 10, 2013

Femen vs. Pussy Riot: Russia and the Ukraine are not in the "West"

I've been interested in the discourse about Femen that's been going on ever since the story of Amina Tyler hit the news. One of the things that strikes me the most about it is how hostile the reaction to them has been compared to Pussy Riot. I've thought about it a lot, and what I think is this:

If as a feminist you have a different reaction to Femen than you did to Pussy Riot, you need to think about that. I know, really helpful.

Pussy Riot are part of a male-headed, heteronormative collective called Voina - "war" - and lead by Oleg Vorotnikov and his wife Natalia Sokol. The collective engages in traditionally male forms of artistic expression such as punk rock, as well as some heavily porn-inflected performance art (in which it is female members who are shown in explicitly sexual contexts).

Femen is a woman-lead, non-hierarchical and quite amorphous group of women appropriating not just the symbolism of female nakedness, but traditional markers of femininity for purely political aims. [In case you don't know: those flower garlands they wear are Ukrainian women's folk headress, which adds an interesting twist to the bare chests.] 

So why the reverence of one and the hostility to the other?

I'm not really interested in how the establishment views Femen or Pussy Riot, but that the left sees them so differently is concerning.

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that there is an element of puritanism in the reaction to Femen naked breasts. It's the wrong context. In a society like the Ukraine, one that enforces the most shocking extremes of pornified femininity and supports horrific male violence, nakedness takes on a different meaning than in a society in which female bodies are forcibly hidden. Femen tactics are essentially Ukranian, and it is incorrect to compare them to, for example, PETA - who really do explicitly objectify women's bodies in essentially Anglophone cultural contexts. 

As an aside, it's been a surprise and a disappointment to read almost nothing in the coverage of Femen in feminist circles, most notable Bim Adewunmi's otherwise measure piece, about their origins and cultural background. Because they are white, they just get folded into the imperialist, Islamophobic "West". But the Ukraine is not in the "West". Eastern Europe, and especially ex-Soviet states, have their own cultural trajectory and a different engagement with imperialism & post colonial analysis.

And yes that does mean that the transplantation of those tactics to Muslim countries can be problematic and clumsy; that is a valid concern. So I don't necessarily want to critique the #MuslimaPride hashtag on Twitter or the other reactions to Femen by Muslim feminists. That's a conversation that needs to happen inside Muslim feminism (especially given that it was essentially kicked off by a Muslim woman, not Femen or anyone else), and I don't think I've much of a right to comment on it.

But still, I'm kind of curious why most feminists & lefties are so much more lukewarm, if not hostile, to Femen than to Pussy Riot. Not to come over all Nick Cohen, but is it because Pussy Riot only took on the church, whereas Femen branched out into mullah bashing? Or is it because some feminists have imbibed the anti-objectification message to such a degree that the naked female body has become anathema to us? Or is it because the - literally - naked anger and hatred of Femen simply refuses to play by our rules?

Apr 3, 2013

Vile Product: Mick Philpott & our cosy acceptance of male violence

The Daily Mail is doing what the Daily Mail does: taking a human tragedy & obscenely distorting it to score a cheap political point, in the process shedding or neglecting every semblance of decency or tact. Small things like the fact that children are born, not "bred" like piglets; or that if you plaster an enormous headline screaming "VILE" above a photo of six dead kids, people will assume that's what you're calling them.

The Daily Mail is, of course, interested in twisting this awful, incomprehensible event to have a dig at people on benefits. All of them, it implies, are morally bankrupt scroungers who would murder their own children to do the taxpayer out of a buck. Who's more morally bankrupt is of course a debatable point, but the debate wouldn't be very long or very interesting (hint: it's the Mail).

But almost as interesting is what the Mail is almost equally interested in eliding, turning away from, hiding. Reaching back into some unspecified past, the Daily Mail news team implicitly posit a scrounging attitude, engendered by reliance on benefits, that developed over an unspecified length of time to a murderous approach to benefit fraud. That's the implication of "product" - first there was the benefits system, then there was this murderous monster, so clearly the two are connected.

But we don't really need to engage in hand-waving and insinuation to offer an opening bracket to the kind of mindset that leads a man to set this own children on fire: we can go back to when Michael Philpott was 21, and broke in to the home of a 17 yer old woman who dared to leave him. He stabbed her 17 times, attacked her mother, and was sentenced to 7 (!) years imprisonment for attempted murder. When he was 21, he thought that the penalty for daring to rebuff his violent, controlling advances was death, whereas the penalty for trying to kill a woman was a few years bread & board at Her Majesty's pleasure. If he really is such a determined scrounger as the Mail makes him out to be, he must have been in heaven.

Is it any wonder, then, that a man who was allowed to go back out into society and inveigh vulnerable young women with a history of abuse or violence to give themselves over to his control would have drawn the conclusion that leaving him was a crime that should -and could - be severely punished? When Lisa Willis decided to leave him, is it really such a stretch that a man who'd been breezily getting away with abusing and nearly enslaving one teenage future wife after another would decide that she should be punished?

This man killed six children trying to get back at a girlfriend who dumped him. That's all there is to it. He didn't do it because he was on benefits (in any case, both of the women he'd been controlling worked, not that the Mail would care for such a detail of fact) or because he was particularly evil or twisted. He did it because that's what men get away with in society all the time.

Two women a week die at the hands of their abusers; the majority, while trying to leave or just after having left. The Philpott children are just another such statistics. You'd almost think that this unusual circumstance would lead us to ask: why? Why do we let men like Mick Philpott get away with decades of violence, abuse and exploitation? You'd almost hope we'd ask those questions instead of the inevitable "why did she stay with him" (look at happens when "she" does!).

But nope. Our leading daily newspaper uses this opportunity not to start a conversation that will possibly safeguard the lives of other children, other women, but to ram home a mendacious, rancid piece of propaganda that will probably endanger their lives even more.

I don't know whether the national conversation about the Philpott case can ever rise above the sexual prurience of it all and really get into the mechanics of how men such as him find, target, groom and control vulnerable women with our collective support and connivance. Certainly the Fred and Rosemary West case never gave rise to anything other than polite but ultimately ineffectual horror. But we can and should try; we can and should tell people when the topic comes up: no, he wasn't especially or uniquely evil. He was a common or garden variety abuser who had gotten away with it for a very long time, and thought he could get away with it yet again. We never gave him a  reason to believe otherwise.

ETA: Apparently Philpott only served just over 3 years for the attempted murder & GBH of his ex-girlfriend and her mother. If I were given to making up hysterical screamy outraged headlines for tabloids, that's what I'd be shouting about.

ETA II: Women's Aid have released an excellent statement highlighting the mechanics of "decades of domestic abuse".