Dec 28, 2011

Actual real human women of 2011

In case you haven't caught the brouhaha: the BBC published one of those supposedly humorous (if they were funny) lists of "faces of the year", in which the female face of the December was an animal, and most of the other faces were either brides or rape victims -because hey, one way or another getting fucked is all women are about.

There was a bit of a dust up on Twitter, shall we say. Not, as you might think, because women are humourless harpies who can't take a good natured item about a cute panda; but because many women simultaneously realised that even in a year as serious as 2011, when women worldwide have made enormous strides and gained amazing achievements, the natural instinct is to minimise and belittle those achievements. Or, as is the case here, simply ignore them as if they didn't happen. It's a prime example of the gendercide endemic in our cultural narratives: women are held back by the absence of precedents and role models, and existing precedents and role models are either erased or distorted.

Anyway, it got me thinking, who would be my women of 2011? I was delighted to discover that I can't actually fit them all into a list of just 12, so like on Desert Island Disks, I cheated a bit:

Dec 19, 2011

Why is it victim blaming to talk about rape and drinking?

I posted this a few days ago on a LiveJournal community, in response to a post that generated hundreds of irate comments but seems to have been deleted. In any case, a couple of people asked if they could have a non-locked link to the text, so here it is.

The context, very briefly for non-LJ users, was a post in which someone was defending the position that women should accept responsibility for sexual encounters when they are falling down drunk, rather than "use the blanket excuse" of rape / inability to consent. The discussion that followed fell very much along the lines described below - between those who said drinking has nothing to do with it, and those who took the superficially common sense approach that it does.

Nov 2, 2011

Feminists occupying all over the place!


Well, it seems that we've inadvertently struck a nerve. Feminism and the occupation has been an issue on many lips in the past week or so; there's a fantastic new blog, Occupy Patriarchy, that's doing some great thinking and centralising of information about the many challenges faced by women who either want to occupy or are sympathetic tot he movement but put off by lack of safety. Check out their most recent post, running down many of the incidents that have occurred at various camps and presenting a pretty compelling argument for why safe space is both missing and needed!

A Facebook community called Feminists Occupy London is also doing great work drawing attention to issues being faced by women who want to take part in the Occupy movement, and the Glasgow Women's Activist Forum is collecting signatures for a letter to Occupy Glasgow (where a horrific rape took place just as we in Bristol were getting ready to come together for our Portable Safe Space event last week).

Safe space is needed, safe space is wanted, safe space is absolutely in demand right now, and I for one am doubly confirmed in my belief that we as women need to create, take, claim, grab and demand our safe space, not wait in the vain hope that some benevolent males somewhere will grant it to us.

So. What, to this end, did we learn last Thursday?

We learned that feminists are every bit as socially awkward as other people (if not more). The initial milling around trying to figure out who the other feminists are was kind of toe curling. One piece of advice from an attendee is: bring a buddy, or at least come with someone you know. Another tip is to have some kind of sign/light to identify the Safe Space contingent so that people don't feel like they have to stride up to strangers and ask them if they happen to be feminists! 

We also learned that camp business comes first. This is, at the end of the day, about feminists supporting and participating in the Occupy Together movement. At Occupy Bristol last Thursday, the General Assembly was entirely given over to an urgent discussion of a letter received from the City Council inviting the Occupiers to a very short term and vaguely defined meeting with the Leader of the Council. No other topic was discussed that night, and so we had no opportunity to bring up and discuss issues of inclusion and diversity within the camp. 

On the one hand this was a shame - but on the other, it provided a great opportunity to test out the Portable Safe Space principle. Would women speak up? Would they be heard? Did we feel more confident with our numbers up?

Here I speak only for myself, but my answer to all of those is an emphatic "Yes". Just knowing that I was not the only woman there, or not in a tiny minority, talking and getting support from other women before and during the meeting, hearing other women's voices raised in prominent engagement with the meeting - these emboldened and encouraged me. 

I felt as awkward at the start as anyone would do in an unfamiliar setting, speaking in front of 40 or 50 strangers; but towards the end of the meeting (which went on well into the night) I was fully able to participate and feel like my contribution was being listened to. I'm completely convinced that this was enabled and encouraged by the small but supportive group of amazing women that surrounded me earlier on in the evening!

So the conclusion I draw from this is: we should totally do this again, and soon. I'm greatly encouraged by the fact that Occupy Bristol have suggested creating a Health & Site Safety working group that will work to refine and implement their already pre-existant Safe Space policy; they have kindly invited me to join this group  which I will endeavour to do as much as I can given time constraints. I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to do the same! It is also a step in the right direction (though the decision can not have come lightly and I personally am sad that it had to come to that) to declare the site a Dry site going forward. Both these things will hopefully work to make women feel safer in the camp.

I'm planning to attend the working group meeting on Friday Nov 4th at 7pm to continue the conversation on these issues. It is also my intention to participate in the General Assembly at 1pm on Saturday Nov 5th, where I hope to be able to expand the conversation into more than just "allowing" or "enabling" women to participate, but how to actually blend their voices into the aims and demands of the movement.

They may not yet realise it, but the Occupy movement needs feminists. We have experience and understanding of battling hegemonic structures that they could really use. Please come and join me - help me feel safe, help other women feel safe, and help us all raise our voices together for the good of the movement and the good of the world.

Oct 25, 2011

Portable safe spaces and occupying the occupation

Occupy the World is fantastic. It is wonderful and inspiring and in 2,000 cities around the world. It is the first truly global popular protest movement, it's made up of dedicated and self-sacrificing people with the noblest and best intentions. It is not vague, it is not spoiled, it is not destructive. It's ace, OK?

But Occupy the World is, well, part of the world. And that means that it contains, in microcosm, a lot of what is bad about the world as it is. To whit: patriarchy[1].

Some people think that it's OK to use the occupations as a pick-up opportunity; or so at least they claim - personally I take Amanda Marcotte's view that they are threatened by politically active women and are trying to belittle them through objectification. Other people think - and have thought from Day One on Tahrir Square - that the bodies of women are theirs for the taking, that sexual violence is exempt from the demands for a better future. These people are often bolstered in their belief by organisers and sympathisers who pressure women to forgo the small aims of justice and safety for the greater aims of the movement[2].

More prosaically, I know of women who have been heckled, called gendered names, dismissed, silenced and intimidated at several of the camps. I'm sure this is endemic in most if not all camps, not because the people occupying are bad people, but because it is widespread and endemic in the world. Not entirely surprisingly, all of this[3] has added up to a somewhat subdued female participation rate in the Occupy movement.

This is not quite OK, as far as I'm concerned. What the heck point is it in changing the world for half the people, by half the people? If you're going to be like that, then it should be "we are the 48%", not "we are the 99%".

So, last Sunday, my friend Jess organised a Feminist Picnic at Occupy Bristol. We came, we ate, we sat in a friendly circle, we interacted with the occupiers and the public (it was an "open family day"), and coincidentally we had an impromptu discussion about pole dancing. The sun shone and all was well with the world.

For a while. Here is what is absolutely fascinating to me about how the day went: whenever the number of women around our particular little enclave of blankets and chairs dipped below about 6, shit started going down. I'm not saying it was some kind of continuous campaign of harassment, far far from it; a couple of people who were maybe not quite with it and had had a bit much to drink or in general might have issues that we should not judge them for behaved inappropriately and in an intimidating manner. But as soon as ranks closed, women joined, a circle was formed - nothing. Nada. Zilch.

In fact the very same person who was talking over 4 of us, telling us how "things are done here" and being aggressive and belligerent, when surrounded by 10 of us, was raising his hand patiently to seek consensus right to speak and making cogent and helpful suggestions.

The circle grew and shrank once or twice, and the dynamic repeated itself each time: more women, nice atmosphere; fewer women, aggro. Really basic, obvious dynamics that nobody can dismiss as paranoid feminists making stuff us and "choosing to be offended"[4].

We had a fascinating discussion about how to continue interacting with the movement - because we all support the movement wholeheartedly, and frankly most of us could probably teach some of the organisers a thing or two about hegemony, delegitmisation of protest and privilege - while not exposing individual women or small groups to situations in which they feel intimidated or dismissed. It's easy to say "toughen up", but given that not every one can do that, what's the solution? Forgo the support of all the non-Boudiccas, or create a safe space within the movement where all women can come and contribute their creativity and passion?

Exactly. So, we decided to conduct an experiment in "Carrying Our Safe Space With Us". Given that a critical mass of female presence seems to be, in and of itself, a deterrent to misogynist bullshit, we propose to ensure this critical mass by arranging group presence at the Occupy Bristol camp. The plan, in outline, is:

  • Convene at the camp on College Green between 6.30pm and 7pm on Thursday the 27th of October
  • Participate as observers and guests (with a right to speak of course, but no agenda) in the camp's General Meeting
  • Stay, as a group, until 9pm exactly, displaying a sign that says "Ask Us About Women in the Movement"
  • Leave as a group, with only those who feel comfortable at the camp remaining behind, if any

Then we'll see. It is by way of testing the waters: are we right that being in camp in the dark but as a group can feel safe? Can we actually all commit to a solid 2 hour attendance? Will our presence be seen as a provocation or as disrespectful engagement with the movement? Can we find a way of getting stuck in and helping out without "breaking the circle" of safe space we have imported with us? And most importantly of course, shall we continue doing this as a way of enabling women's participation in the Occupy the World movement?

I hope it works, I really do - because if it does, it offers such a simple and effective way of helping women penetrate all kinds of spaces that they have traditionally been excluded from. And not just women - any group that feels marginalised or intimidated out of a given milieu can try this "portable safe space" approach to increasing visibility without making undue demands on brave and self-sacrificing individuals to be the token representative, the first penguin in the water so to speak.

I read recently, can't remember where, that the selective sex abortion epidemic in places like China and India is a huge problem, because historically, whenever the percentage of women in the population falls significantly below that of men, they suffer increased oppression and violence. At first this seemed counter intuitive to me, but I realised that this is because it flies in the face of a major patriarchal lie and underpinning of a lot of our sexual politics: that women are a resource for which men compete, not agents in their own right participating in society.

Under the patriarchal view (much loved by MRAs and evo psych proponents), the fewer women there are in a population, the more "precious" they are, and the better they will be treated by supplicants eager for their favour. And this is really deeply embedded in our psyches, or we'd all realise straight away that all this male attention is, even in the best and most PC of circumstances, little more than sexual harassment: to take an example I'm familiar with, one gets catcalled, groped and propositioned way more in places like SciFi/geek/atheist/comics conventions and fan clubs than at events with a more even gender distribution like pop concerts or weddings.

There does seem to be a basic principle of strength in numbers here, and while I'll need to think about it a bit more before I can write a pithy concluding paragraph for this post, I'm going to try and see if I can make it work for me in the meanwhile!

Remember: 27/10, 6.30, College Green Bristol. Be there or be a rectangular thing!

[1] And some other things, too. In the UK at least, it seems to be very white, and disabled representation is low more or less everywhere as far as I can see. These are important and serious issues, but I am not qualified to comment on them, hence the focus on stuff I do know something about.

[2] To those people I say: please, find a new tune. Women have been making the sandwiches for men's revolutions since forever - if you really want to change the world, why you be making it stay the same, man?

[3] And a bunch of other stuff, too: concerns for personal safety from the public (one woman at Occupy Bristol has had drunk revellers climb into her tent at night), responsibility for children (running water and sanitary facilities are a problem at many occupations), a sheer inability to not work, and so on - including good old fashioned social conditioning. All of the usual stuff that hinders women's political participation, in fact.

[4] They can, and they will - but that's because they're assholes, not because they have a leg to stand on.

Oct 6, 2011

SlutWalk Bristol Speech

SlutWalk Bristol was held last Saturday, and it was a fantastic day! We had a great turnout and a very successful march through the sunny city centre, with the majority of people responding very positively to us and some even joining in!

Afterwards there was a rally on College Green (in the disapproving, no doubt, shade of Bristol Cathedral) and yours truly was tremendously excited and proud to give a speech at it! Below, what I said in full.


Rape is wrong. Rape is a terrible, devastating thing to happen to anyone, and an evil, cruel thing to do to anyone.

Everybody agrees about this - even the Daily Mail.

And yet, in the UK today and in much of the Western world, rape is basically legal.

Based on a 6-year average of the most reliable data, there are 94 thousand rapes in the UK every year. 94 thousand. Taking repeat victimisation into account - that is, women who suffer rape more than once in a given year - each year 55 thousand women are raped in the UK. That's one every six minutes.

In 2008, the last year for which I could get statistics, 922 people were convicted of rape. Think about that for a minute: 55 thousand raped. 922 convicted.

If someone rapes a woman, getting away with it is not a problem they even need to worry about.

They know she won't tell. About half of all rapes remain a secret forever because the women are too afraid or ashamed to tell anyone at all.

They know if she does tell, she very likely won't be believed, or will be dismissed or blamed.

So you have to be really unlucky to be punished for raping a woman in this country. Getting away with it is the default.

Frankly rapists should be more worried about getting cancer or being hit by a bus, because that is more likely than being put away for something that’s technically illegal, and supposedly a crime.

And we know it. We know rape is basically legal. We'd like to think it's not true, but deep down we all know.

We've all heard about the Dominique Strauss Khan case; a powerful, well connected white man accused of sexually assaulting a poor black working class immigrant. How many of us were surprised when the case against him was abandoned? We all knew in our heart of hearts that Nafissatou Diallo was not going to get justice.

We know that Diallo is being denied justice because her attacker is powerful. But is that what we are told? No. We're told by the very people whose job it is to uphold the law, and by the press and media, that it's her own fault for being allegedly a liar, or a criminal. More damningly, she has been ‘accused’ of having multiple sexual partners, and of being a sex worker. A slut.

Nafissatou Diallo, and thousands of other women, are being systematically denied justice because they are sluts. They get accused of being to blame for what happened to them. Of bringing it on themselves, or lying about it, or wearing the wrong clothes, or walking on the wrong street, or drinking the wrong type of drink.

A third of people in the UK think that a woman is partially or entirely to blame for being raped if she has been drinking, did you know that? That's a third. One out of every three people you live and work with would accuse you of being a slut if you were raped, and think it was your fault.

And why wouldn't they? From where they're sitting, it's obviously not the rapist's fault, right? It’s reasonable to expect crime to be punished, but with only 922 people of convicted of rape in one year, and still so many women raped? Well it has to be someone's fault, doesn't it? And so, they blame the victim.
What that means for the lives of women - for our lives - is that we are all sluts in waiting. As soon as something bad happens to us, there will be those people - amongst ourselves first of all, then among our nearest confidantes, then among the police, the crown prosecution service, and finally, if we ever get to court, the jury - who will see being raped as evidence for the fact that we are sluts.

Rape can happen to anyone - whatever we wear, wherever we walk, however we act. We no longer believe the fiction that rape only happens to bad girls as punishment for promiscuity.

We know that most women are raped by someone they know - someone they trust. Are we really expected to believe that someone we trust would rape us just because we wore the wrong length skirt?

No. Rapists rape because they want to rape. They rape because they enjoy the power of humiliating a woman and bending her to their will. They rape because they think they are entitled to women’s bodies and no one has a right to say no to them. They rape because they don’t respect women’s autonomy, and they rape because they believe – correctly – that they are invulnerable, and that there is little to no risk to them.

Because of course it’s the women they rape who get blamed for it. It's a pretty cosy set up, if you're a rapist. From a rapist's point of view, the world is a sweet shop full of women who will magically turn into sluts the minute he rapes them. Handy!

A culture in which people turn a blind eye to rape being legal is a Rape Culture. A culture in which people blame the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator is a rape culture.

A culture that condemns women’s natural sexuality by calling them sluts,

that seeks to limit their contraceptive freedom to punish them for having sex,

that seeks to withhold the life saving HPV vaccine from young girls because it might lead to them having safe enjoyable sex

that wants sex education to be suppressed or at best limited to discussion the negative consequences of free, consensual, pleasurable sex

that culture is a rape culture.

It is a culture in which a man forcing a woman to have sex against her will is less of a crime than a woman choosing to have sex freely and for pleasure – because doing so would turn her into a slut, and mean she will lose the right to protection if she is ever raped.

The bad news is that if women never have sex with anyone, if they’re raped they’ll still get blamed for it. The good news is that you might as well go out and have as much safe and pleasurable sex as you like, since it makes no difference in the end anyway.

The other good news is that rape culture is a culture we're not prepared to live in anymore!

That’s why Slutwalk has been such an infectious and successful idea: that is why we are here today. We are here to say, to ourselves if to nobody else: bullshit! The whole concept of slut is bullshit.

The idea that only sluts get raped is bullshit. The idea that men can't control themselves around women dressed in a certain way is bullshit.

Calling women names because of what they wear or who they sleep with is double and triple bullshit!

We're watching you, rape culture. We're on to you, and we're calling out your bullshit. And if you want to call us sluts for doing that? Well, that's bullshit too.

Thank you.

Aug 23, 2011

Rich white man in evading justice shocker

Let's get one thing straight right away: the rape case against Dominique Strauss Kahn was dropped because the woman accusing him was not considered good enough to deserve state justice. That's it.

It doesn't actually matter if you think she wasn't considered good enough because of her race, her immigration status, her past, her behaviour right after the attack, what she told the prosecutors and how she told it. At the end of the day, the state has decided that a person against whom a crime was allegedly committed is missing something essential that would make them eligible for the state's protection.

A criminal offence is an offence against the state; when you are sent to prison for looting, you are not being punished for hurting the person whose shop window you stove in, but for violating the law of the land. The shop's owner may or may not be involved in your trial, and if they are it will be as a witness only.

When you read about rape cases as much as I do though, you realise that we live in this completely topsy turvy world in which women[1] who allege rape are not treated like witnesses in a criminal trial, but litigants in a libel case: they are invested with a responsibility of proving that a crime has been committed.

Women, under this system, are not considered to be as automatically deserving of the state's full legal might backing them up like, say, elderly barbers are. Only if they prove, outside of a court of law and under unwritten rules rife with Catch-22s, that a crime has been committed against them, will the state mobilise for the defence of its own laws.

What this means in effect is that there is a shadow court trailing women in high profile rape cases: while it is their alleged attacker who is facing prosecution, he is at least protected by the legal principle of presumed innocence. The accuser meanwhile has no such protection, because technically she is only a bystander in a showdown between the state and the accused, and witnesses have few rights in the criminal system (anonymity being one of the few available ones, and that has been recently challenged in the UK).

Women get caught between the social impulse to blame them for sexual transgression and exonerate the men involved (this is much more pronounced for famous, powerful men to whom many have given their allegiance), and the lack of any systemic barriers to doing so. They are placed in the impossible position of having to justify the criminality of the attack on them - somehow, passively and without any access to the apparatus of the legal system, to make a case that they are as important and as capable of being attacked as a barber shop.


[1] I use the word women advisedly. Men do suffer rape, at rates that though low are still completely unacceptable; but, while there are social barriers to them reporting these attacks, once they do they do not face anything like the systemic obstacles and prejudices that women do. So while rape is a problem of all sexes and genders, cases like Diallo's are a problem specifically for women.


Aug 17, 2011

Riots and tabloids and looters, oh my! A feminist reading of #UKRiots reportage

According to the Guardian data blog, 92.2% of defendants in magistrate cases related to the recent civil unrest in England are male.

That is a pretty significant gender differential; even if we take into account that women commit less crime than men in general, the rioting and looting seems to have been truly overwhelmingly a boys' day out.

And yet, if you were to get your new from the front pages of tabloids (which quite a significant proportion of people do), you'd think that there was some sort of apocalyptic outbreak of female lawlessness in the UK this August. On Friday August 12th in particular (as details of arrests and charges began to get out in a steady stream), 6 major national papers devoted their front pages to female looters: the Mail, the Sun, the Times, the Express, the Mirror and the Star. (Note that most of these stories overlap)

That's 46% of the national newspapers represented on Front Pages website, 50% if you count the Independent and i as one publication. More tellingly, all but one of the newspapers who lead with female lawlessness were tabloids, and 100% of the tabloids (not counting the Evening Standard as a tabloid) had a young woman being named and shamed on their front pages that day.

All the tabloid front pages told the story of women looting and rioting - despite the fact that women make up only 7.8% of the actual looters and rioters. Well, the ones who got caught. And then you have the mum who didn't loot or riot but was sentenced to 5 months for receiving stolen goods. Statistics are messy. That's just life.

In any case: we are not talking about some major spasm of feminine revolution, OK? (In fact: if only.)

No, if anything there is a story about toxic masculinity to be told here: a story of gang affiliation as an avenue to excitement and protection, of young men and boys who see violence and consumption as their only legitimate avenues for self expression. Of the feminisation - and subsequent devaluing - of social goods like education and empathy.

It's not the story of declining morals and crumbling families that the right wants to be told - that the right always tries to tell, in fact - but a more complex story of, actually, things being just as they were in the good old days. Except for when the good old days weren't so good.

And still we see item after item in the press about the girls and women convicted for looting or inciting riots. The naming and shaming is pretty much out of all proportion to the actual rate of participation of women and girls in the disturbances. What's going on?

Well, in part this is about editorial policy and selling papers. As Roy Greenslade writes in the Guardian, atypical, non-representative stories are attention grabbers: yet more black hooded tops can't compete with a party dress for audience draw. Nevertheless, it's instructive to consider what atypical profiles particularly draw papers: the very young, and women. Not, just to throw out some examples at random, old age pensioners, disabled people, Polish immigrants, nurses from the Philippines or members of the Berkshire Hunt (I have no idea if any members of the Berkshire Hunt rioted, but wouldn't it be fun if they did?).

It's also relevant that the majority of this focus on female transgression is coming from the most socially conservative part of the press - the tabloids. Why should that be true? Wouldn't they get more mileage out of pushing racist theories about hip hop culture and "Rivers of Blood"? Well, they do, of course - the Daily Mail lowered even its own debased journalistic standards to allow a defence of David Starkey's barmy and distasteful outburst on Newsnight. So the tabloids are keeping more than one string to their bow, but still pushing the moral panic about female transgression.

I think the context in which to understand this is twofold: one, the tabloid business model, and two, less trivially, the fundamental significance of female purity in a patriarchy.

Tabloids - and other conservative media - sell what I think of as "safe fear". A bit like a roller-coaster ride, what they provide their readers is a steady stream of outrage and disgust at the perceived (often made up) transgressions of others, the idiocy and immorality of the world around them. Vicarious and titillating, the steady stream of human frailty reassures readers of their own moral superiority (essential if they are to reconcile the cognitive dissonances inherent in being staunchly right wing) while confirming their opinions about the failure of liberal policies.

There is absolutely nothing like reading the Daily Mail or watching Fox News to convince the least informed, least intelligent and most prejudiced of readers that, by dint of intellectual superiority, they are fully justified in holding the most illiberal of opinions on issues of social and economic policy. This is the Chomskian manufacturing of consent at its very crudest: by fabricating "evidence" for the rank failure of any redistributive, humanitarian or just initiative, they help ensure these initiatives are forever relegated to the margins of democratic discourse. (PS Dan Brown novels work the same way. I'm just saying!)

And, to segue smoothly into my send point, misogyny is pivotal to maintaining this phantasmagoria. It is not in the least coincidental that The Sun has its Page Three girls and the Mail tops any other online publication in number of pictures of women in bikinis. The exploitation of the female image and ideas of femininity to manufacture social order exist on a spectrum, a continuum of opprobrium in which it is possible to find a balancing point from which to sexualise the female form while demonising female sexuality, and by extension female agency.

The extreme end of this spectrum is is honour killings: when a society invests its entire identity in the sexual purity of its women, nothing short of eliminating nonconforming individuals entirely can prevent transgressions turning into social upheaval. Nothing but a monstrous sacrifice (by male relatives who, I'm sure, love their sisters, daughters and cousins, and don't "choose" to kill them in the shallow consumerist way we think of the word) can reaffirm the commitment of the family or tribe to the prevailing mores. In fact, female genital mutilation operates on a similar plain, but in a preventative, pre-emptive fashion.

OK. British tabloids don't pour acid on people. I get that the examples I used can seem just a little bit extreme and maybe even far-fetched. But. Our society is not free fro misogyny; far from it. One in ten young women (and twice as many young men) believe that women can be blamed for violence committed against them. We're not quite as far from the lawless villages of northern Pakistan as we'd like to think, you know? And who, above all, peddles and encourages these antiquated, violent, retrograde attitudes? Who spreads moral panic about "ladettes", or young women binge drinking and peeing on the street, or the transgressive and nihilistic behaviour of self-destructive, troubled pop stars? You got it - the right wing, conservative media.

So for the tabloids, sticking women on the front page in the teeth the fact that 92% of looters convicted so far are male is the natural and only choice. It's is a double dip of win: they get to stoke fear of massive social upheaval by coding feminine transgression as being somehow emblematic of these riots, thereby making them "worse" - scarier, more deeply disruptive, viscerally immoral. Out of control women are qualitatively worse than just loss of control.

And they get to sell copy, by pandering to the very misogyny they thrive on spreading, stoking then stroking the fears and prejudices of their readers. Reassuring the flog 'em and hang 'em brigade that in fact, if we only flogged and hanged more people, then everything will be OK, and the scary pinko liberal feminazi looters won't be able to come for our gas guzzlers and our porn stash with their single benefit scrounging organic solar recycled climate conspiracy.

As I say, the story of "why so many men?" is more interesting and more important - and ultimately, more feminist - than the ridiculous attention grabbing focus on a few women. But the book on that will be written over decades, and it will be written by experts and academics. The tabloids though are so transparent in their motivations I live in wonder at their continual survival.

Jul 28, 2011

Reclaiming the medical narrative around abortion

Since the election of a Conservative led government in June 2010, we’ve seen a series of attacks on women’s rights, from the economic to the legal to the medical. The one that scares me, personally the most is the campaign against abortion and contraception, because it has the potential to increase human suffering not only for the current generation of women, but for the next generation of unwanted or severely disabled children they are forced to bring into the world.

The trend is a legitimate worry: in the US there were 80 different laws passed this year restricting access to abortion. Several states, chief among them Kansas but others as well, have become de-facto zones where abortion is illegal, in that it is impossible to obtain. And this enormous spike in legislation didn’t just come out of the blue – it is the culmination of decades of insidious and well organised work to prepare the ground through steady erosion of public support for women’s health through a campaign of polemic, misinformation and obfuscation.

We are not immune to this stream in public thought in the UK, and in fact I would argue that US-based propaganda has substantially prepared the ground for a similar move to legally restrict abortion over here; already the public, chiefly through the collusion of the right wing press, holds a mostly unrealistic conception of abortion as a traumatising, sordid experience undergone by feckless, chaotic teenagers who are too stupid or lazy to worry about contraception and who get to near end of their pregnancy before they remember to seek help “evading their responsibility”.

This is of course a wildly distorted and histrionic picure, and yet the Department of Health is actually considering changes to the way abortion support is provided today that may make it easier for anti-abortion groups to corner and abuse vulnerable women, on the strength of “common sense” objections from two MPs who have no sense at all, common or otherwise, and who seem to me to be arguably acting in bad faith on the behest of overseas Christian organisations intent on recriminalizing abortion.

One of the paths to success and public support these two MPs are taking is the path of framing the debate n language they can control the meaning of. This is a well known tactic, and we see it in operation in all kinds of areas of public discourse. After the misleading and disingenuous term “pro life”, of course, my favourite is the fascinating history of the phrase “politically correct”, so beloved of right wing columnists like Richard Littlejohn. 

This tactic is more common in the right than on the left; I say this not to disparage the ideological right, but as a simple statement of the fact that we on the left are often hampered by our own aspirations to intellectual rigour, and can therefore find ourselves unable to mount an effective response to things like outright denial of science being self-servingly labelled “scepticism”, or a refusal to accept science teaching in the science classroom presented as a “controversy”. We are getting a bit better at heading off these rhetorical traps and dealing with them when they appear; the terms “climate change denialist” has gained some currency for example.

Similarly, I would like to propose a change in how we talk about abortion. Rather than the awkward and easily distorted construction “women seeking abortion”, “women considering termination”, “women with unwanted pregnancies” etc., I suggest we consolidate all cases of medical intervention in pregnancy under the umbrella term “crisis pregnancy patients”.

To me this captures the essence of what a woman in all situations potentially resulting in a termination: that there is a human being with a problem here, and a medical procedure as part of the solution. After all, we don’t call cancer patients “people seeking chemotherapy”, do we? In all other cases of people seeking legal medical treatment, we concentrate on the problem/condition the treatment is supposed to address; it’s only when we talk about what we consider trivial concerns of silly women that we centre on the procedure, as in the case of cosmetic surgery and, well, abortion.

There are two main objections that I can anticipate to this approach:

        1. That switching to “crisis pregnancy patient” is no better than right wing propaganda in obfuscating and masking the real issue with consensus-seeking language.

This is an important objection and I want to deal with it very seriously. I don’t think what I’m doing here is putting a “spin” on abortion to make it less controversial. That is certainly not my intent. I think, rather, that we have swung too far into the rhetorical ground favoured by the opposition, of masking the realities around abortion in order to create a faux-controversy under cover of which it is easy to sell restrictive and cruel new proposals (like girls saying no to their abusers) to the public.

When we agree to talk about “women seeking abortions”, we implicitly agree that an abortion is what women in this situation want. This is obviously irrational – why would anyone want an invasive medical procedure? – and supports the wider portrayal of women who have abortions  as feckless, irresponsible, stupid and in need of protection from their own moral failings. The reality is that women undergoing abortions don’t want abortions: they’d rather not be having an abortion at all thank you very much, because they either a) don’t want to be pregnant or b) want to be a mother very badly but something has sadly happened to make that an impossible option.

Abortion is not the “goal” of women accessing the service of BPAS or Marie Stopes; the goal is to not be pregnant. The condition from which a woman wants medical deliverance is not the condition of “not having an abortion” – it is the condition of “having an unwanted or unviable pregnancy”. Abortion, like all medical procedures, is the way of getting from A (crisis pregnancy) to B (no pregnancy).

Tracey Emin I think said it best: “When you’re pregnant, you don’t make up your mind that you want an abortion – you make up your mind that you can’t have a child. Which is a very different thing”.
I hope I’ve convinced you that I am not proposing a rhetorical sleight of hand, but a serious realignment of the discourse that puts women and their medical needs at the centre. Which brings me to my next possible objection

2. That the term “crisis pregnancy patient” dehumanises women by taking them out of the narrative of abortion.

Rather what I intend is to undo the damage caused over decades by the over-concentration of anti-choice propaganda on “the baby”, and bring the woman back into the centre of the debate.

If you hang out on abortion related online discussion threads as much as I do (for general mental wellbeing, I don’t recommend it), you come across surprisingly many people whose main objection to the availability of abortion is openly and nakedly the discourse of choice and rights for women. Protected by the anonymity of the internet, they freely admit that what chiefly offends them about reproductive rights is the notion that a woman’s “right to choose” is something to take into consideration in the first place. They quickly drop, if they ever upheld, the pretence that this is about the rights of the unborn or any genuine debate about viability, when life begins and so forth.

These people are beyond the reach of mere persuasion; you have to plumb I don’t know what depths of dehumanisation before you can baldly claim that a whole class of people don’t deserve their bodily autonomy, or should be punished with a lifetime of unwanted parenthood for engaging in basic human functions like sex. The people who I am trying to reach with this proposal are those bamboozled by these fulminations into forgetting that abortion, contraception, antenatal care and so on are all in the same class of things enabled by modern medicine as root canals and chemotherapy, and that all human beings have an equal right to access these benefits.

This is not as uncontroversial an idea as you may think; many people, who in my view lack empathy, wish us to restrict medical access for those who are seen as being the architects of their own health problems, such as those suffering from obesity, or smokers. And of course we already lock up drug addicts in jail rather than treat their disease. The government policy wind is blowing very much in the direction of taking more and more entitlements to basic human dignity away from people, be it reducing mobility allowances for the disabled or cutting care and respite services at local level. I don’t want women as a class to slip under this descending portcullis of malice, and if I can help towards that just a little by reminding people that women are NHS patients too, then I think it’s worthwhile to try.

So to reiterate: I propose that henceforth, when we talk, write, tweet, blog, comment or argue about abortion provision and access, we refer to the people impacted by any change in the existing legislation as crisis pregnancy patients.

Thoughts? Comments? Will you do it, and if not, why not?

Jul 18, 2011

The DoH Responds to Our Letter

Today I received a response from the Department of Health to the letter we sent to Anne Milton MP, the junior minister in charge of public health, regarding the proposed changes to privision of counselling to abortion patients.

Here is the reply in full:

Thank you for your correspondence of 4 and 5 July to Anne Milton about abortion counselling.  I have been asked to reply. 

The Department of Health is aware of Frank Field's and Nadine Dorries' concerns and Anne Milton recently met with them to discuss this issue.

The Department is drawing up proposals to enable all women who are seeking an abortion to be offered access to independent counselling.  The Department would want the counselling to be provided by appropriately qualified individuals.  Independent counselling will focus on enabling a woman to make a decision that would benefit her overall health and wellbeing.   
Independent counselling will be for those women who choose to have it and will not be mandatory.  Full proposals are still being worked up within the Department of Health and it is therefore unable to provide detailed answers while this process takes place. 

I hope this reply is helpful. 
Yours sincerely,
[Name Redacted]
Emphasis mine. While it's reassuring to have it confirmed that there's no question of making counselling mandatory (for now), it doesn't really address the problem of explicitly anti-abortion organisations being allowed access to vulnerable women.

In terms of substantive content though, I was very concerned by two things:

1. That the Under-secretary herself has not responded to us and no comment has come from her office so far (I haven't seen any in the media).

2. That the highlighted sentence conflates advice and counselling in a dangerous and potentially damaging manner; part of the value currently being provided by the likes of MSI & BPAS is precisely that they do not mix advice about medical options with counselling for those in distress. 

This is not the first time I've seen this muddle-headed approach to counselling from the DoH - they seem to be ignorant of what these services that they plan to "reform" actually do. 

I wrote a response to this effect, but unfortunately the email came from a "do not reply" address, so in order to get this concern addressed properly it looks like I'd need to go though the whole rigmarole of writing to them from scratch, and probably getting a reply from someone completely different with no prior knowledge of the case.

It's like working with a third rate utilities call centre, but if I get anywhere I will immediately post updates!

Jul 10, 2011

Abortion rights and the tabloids (and a bit of Richard Dawkins, too)

Pro choice demo yesterday was super awesome! you can find some photos here and some videos here. The name Nadine Dorries came up a few times, in the chanting and the placards, because she has installed herself as the mouthpiece and media spokesperson of the anti-woman movement in the latter's campaign to inveigle itself into British society as it has into that of the US - with lies, with withholding medical facts from women, with exaggerating and inventing and constantly, constantly attacking non-existent straw men[1].

Nadine Dorries relies on a sympathetic media to spread her lies. And we know who the "sympathetic media" are, don't we? Tabloids. Red tops, who claim to be responding to public opinion but, because of the amount of sheer, well, lies and invention in them, can be doing nothing but leading/informing it. Pulling public opinion further and further to the right, against trade unions, against women, against progress, against fairness and justice and equality.

Well, tomorrow they will do so a little less than today - because one of them, one of the more pernicious and disgusting, is no more. And that, friends, is good news for a feminist like me, as well as for pretty much every other right thinking individual. Sure, Rupert Murdoch hates women maybe a little less than Paul Dacre has, but make no mistake - misogyny is one of the cornerstones of his empire, as it is one of the cornerstone of all patriarchy in its capitalist incarnation[2]. 

Henry Porter writes lucidly in the Observer about what this scandal means to the political system in the UK, the extent of the corruption revealed, the level of damage to public discourse and public trust. Read it, it's really good. He does say just one thing I'm not sure I can agree with though:
News of the World journalists ordered the hacking of as many as 4,000 people including grieving relatives of soldiers and of terror and murder victims because they thought their paper was untouchable. (emphasis mine)
D'you know, I don't think that's true? I can't believe that it is possible to be at the head of this kind of commercial empire and be complacent. On the contrary - you have to be paranoid, as Andy Grove of Intel would say. I think they did it because they were desperate, hungry for copy, sensationalism, scoops - at any cost. Because they were at the top and they were driven as if by the devil himself to stay at the top, or face the full consequences of the long fall.

But it's not impossible to become complacent when you're at the top, and for that complacency to lead to an occlusion of ethics. It's a well known dynamic, which is why Porter went for it of course. And it often happens to people who have been fĂȘted, admired and encouraged in an area of public life that doesn't directly impact on what they really consider their professional life. Like, you know, politics, if you happen to be a linguist. Or atheism when you're, I dunno, a biologist or something.

We have a nice saying in Hebrew: "the urine has risen to his head". I have no idea what the etymology is this is, but it's kind of evocative: where there used to be common sense, arrogance and self importance have imbued with, well, piss. And without question, Richard Dawkins is taking the piss. So the urological metaphor does seem apt after all.

It's easy, when you've had a lifetime of people asking for your opinion, to be misled into thinking that you opinions matter just because they come from you. Noam Chomsky has that little problem. Martin Amis does, too. These are men (funny that) who think we should listen to them because they're them, and they've been listened to for a long time. And, you know, they're wrong.

As is Richard Dawkins. Oh, he's had a good run, with both evolutionary biology and atheism. But he knows sweet fuck all about feminism, and the toe-curlingly embarrassing spectacle of him sniping in the comment section of a blog like some aggrieved teenager must go no further. Enough, Professor Dawkins. You have nothing to say on this subject that will enrich the general discourse. You are speaking without any prior knowledge[3] on the issues.

And we know what we think in the sceptic community of people who expound their strident views without any prior knowledge of the subject, don't we? It's kind of similar to what we think of tabloids and right wing demagogue politicians, really.

[1] As in the "teach girls to say no" example. We do this already of course, where parents don't (paradoxically) opt their children out of SRE education, because the curriculum includes discussion of when to not have sex. But hey, if you can make yourself sound righteous, and make women's lives a little worse, at the expense of the pinko commie state education system, why not, right?

[2]Misogyny is the biggest theme in advertising; 70% of all purchasing decisions are made by women, and advertisers have met the challenge of convincing women to choose their products by playing on and enhancing the feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred. From the cosmetics industry to toilet bleach to scented candles, the message is the same: women are dirty and unacceptable unless they spend money on our products. And advertisers own the media. Its only currently viable model for distributing mass media at a profit, which is exactly why a) The New of the World could not continue once advertisers began to pull out, and b) Murdoch is desperate for control of BSkyB and its lucrative pay per view revenue stream (to break free of advertisers).

[3] Before anyone jumps up to accuse me of not knowing anything about Richard Dawkins' feminist educational credentials: nobody who's read more than a couple of blog posts about feminism in their life would employ either the "you haven't got it as bad as some other women, so shut up" or the "there are much more important topics to discuss than your piddling little problems, so shut up" gambits. Because feminists don't tell women to shut up, duh. He did both in one paragraph, so: stupid.

Jul 4, 2011

Update on letter to Anne Milton MP

Owing to unforeseen technical difficulties*, the letter, which I planned to mail on Saturday, has been posted this morning instead. Forty seven of you excellent and socially responsible people added your names to the bottom of the letter, for which I am very grateful**.

I will post immediately when / if I receive a response from Anne Milton. I rather expect that she will respond, because that is very much the organisational culture in Parliament these days; but, just to be clear with everyone and avoid disappointment, I don't expect her response to be along the lines of "OMG you're so right, we will go and lock Nadine Dorries in the broom cupboard straight away".

This government is openly engaging in an attack on women's rights and well-being; we know this, we can see it, and so far we have been largely powerless to stop it. But it doesn't mean we should let them think they're getting away with it. My aim in writing this letter was to let the DoH know that we're watching them, and that we have a very good inkling as to where the wind is blowing with these "reforms" and "improvements".

If they're going to start attacking women's basic human rights as well as our economic standing and employability, then they're going to have to own that - because the voters are not buying any of this thinly veiled propaganda, with the Tip-Ex still dry on the "Made in the USA" logo. Now that we've sent our letter, and many other excellent people have emailed it too, or sent emails/letters of their own, the government official in charge of public health knows this to be unambiguously the case.

This much we achieved just by writing to her; if we achieve nothing else, I would still not consider this a failure or a waste of effort.

Thanks again to everyone for all the support! Mxx

* I couldn't get the £$%&@ printer to work
** I did change the wording from "I" to "We", given that the letter was now representing so many voices