Fear and humiliation at the job centre

First published by Open Democracy, 23rd November 2016

The lack of self-confidence among young women looking for a job in Britain, revealed in the ‘Work It Out’ report, is a phenomenon engineered by social and cultural factors.

 

Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake provides a heart-wrenching exposé of the cruelty that bubbles beneath the surface of the Department of Work and Pensions’ dealings with some of Britain’s most vulnerable people. New research published on 15th November shows that Jobcentre Plus is currently failing Britain’s young women on a massive scale.

Young Women’s Trust, an organisation dedicated to supporting women between 16 and 30, has put together a report condemning job centres across the country for being utterly ineffectual in help young women to re-enter the workplace. The report found that only 19 per cent of young women who visited a job centre in the last year said that it helped them find a job, and 44 per cent said that Jobcentre Plus hadn’t given them useful information about work and training opportunities, compared to 34 per cent of young men surveyed.

Young Women’s Trust’s ‘Work It Out’ report sheds light on a situation where job centres are actually driving young women away and alienating them from claiming the temporary financial support that they need.

The clue really should be in the name. A ‘job centre’ should be a place where people are aided in their search to find a job, and prepared for employment with opportunities to hone and develop their skills. This is clearly not the case, when the majority of young women are having overwhelmingly negative experiences of Jobcentre Plus.

Hattie is a 24-year-old writer and illustrator. She’s been in and out of employment since graduating in 2013 and after doing two full-time unpaid internships, signed on at the job centre. She says:

“I was encouraged to apply for a job every day, even if it didn’t fit with what I wanted from a role. Seemingly they cared more about getting me off their books as soon as possible than what I needed from a job. Eventually they decided that I should apply for a couple of Christmas temp jobs to earn money, and I took a job at GAME. It didn’t guarantee me any hours and I usually had one four-hour shift a week, earning me less than £30. My mental health suffered immensely and I ended up quitting. As far as I’m aware, if you quit a role given to you by the Job Centre then you can’t go back on to claim JSA. The following month I had to survive on money given to me over the holidays, and I looked and felt horrendous due to poor diet and had little to no drive to even leave the house because I didn’t have any money.”

Dr Carole Easton, Chief Executive of Young Women’s Trust, says: “Young women are more likely to be out of education, employment and training than young men.  They want to work and be financially independent but they aren’t getting the necessary support. It is clear from this report that job centres need to change.”

Abby* is 23 and had to leave her paid job at a charity because they failed to make reasonable adjustments to help mitigate the effects of her health problems. She told me that the job centre ‘terrifies’ her. She says:

“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve burst into tears in the job centre. I went in with the attitude that it might be hard, but that they were there to help. This is not true, and it is only by preparing for a horrible experience each time I have to go I have been able to protect myself as best I can. I have had experience of three different job centres.

They were totally useless when it came to accommodating my disabilities, both in terms of helping me find appropriate work, and how to assist me when I was physically there. My disabilities mean I need to take lifts rather than stairs, and I have constantly been questioned and told I am ‘raising suspicions’ when needing to use the lift (where you have to be accompanied by a member of staff). When I’ve arrived early (because if you’re late you will be sanctioned) I am told I am not allowed to be there because I’m too early. And so they make you wait outside the building, regardless of the weather and regardless of your disability.”

Abby’s experience is not unique. With 59 per cent of young women surveyed describing their time at the job centre as ‘humiliating, and 68 per cent calling it a ‘stressful’ experience, it’s evident that Jobcentre Plus is not fulfilling its role. No one should go to a government branch, in need of help, and be humiliated or treated with base disrespect.

It’s clear from the testimonials of hundreds of benefit claimants and from anonymous information given by DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) employees that due to the measures introduced under Iain Duncan Smith, Jobcentre Plus staff are actively encouraged to impose financial penalties on those claiming support.

The PCS union produced documents in 2015 that show Jobcentre Plus managers threatening staff who failed to instigate enough sanctions with performance reviews, or denying them performance-based pay raises. Regardless of whether financial sanctions are appropriate, staff are pushed to approve them. There’s also evidence that staff are encouraged to use ‘the hassle factor’ to make claiming benefits so difficult and frustrating that people are forced off the DWP’s books. These tactics are corrupt, disingenuous and bullying, and have no place in a civilised, humane Britain.

In terms of the gender imbalance found in the Young Women’s Trust’s ‘Work It Out’ report, female respondents expressed higher levels of self-doubt. 54 per cent of young women said they lacked self-confidence, while only 34 per cent of young men reported the same. Young men were markedly more confident when applying for a new job than young women, and more young women said that they would be put off applying for a job if they didn’t meet all the criteria than the young men surveyed.

The so-called ‘confidence gap’ is likely to be a product of living in a stubbornly unequal society, where women are still viewed as ‘other’ and their work is demonstrated to be less financially valuable, due to the existence of the pay gap.

In the UK, the pay gap currently stands at 13.9% for full-time workers, meaning that women will in theory be working from 10th November until the end of 2016, for no pay at all. The pay gap continues to exist, because despite the 1970 Equal Pay Act, there are still men and women receiving different pay for doing the same role, and around 54,000 women each year are forced to leave their jobs after receiving poor treatment on returning from having a baby.

Caring and domestic responsibilities within the home still fall overwhelmingly to women, meaning that women are more likely to choose part-time work or jobs with flexible hours. Part-time jobs are typically lower paid with fewer opportunities for upward career progression. The labour market remains stubbornly divided, where ‘feminized’ sectors like the caring professions and the leisure industry, staffed by workers who are 80% female, typically involve poor pay and little professional esteem.

American journalist and author Jessica Valenti writes that the ‘confidence gap’ is merely an understanding of how little women are valued by society. She says that to lack confidence is “not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured”. Between the very real threat of sexual violence, the images of physical ‘perfection’ we’re deluged with on a daily basis via advertising, the pressures of the billion-pound weight-loss industry and the expectations placed on women from an increasingly young age via pornography, it’s hardly surprising that young women don’t report the same levels of confidence as their male peers. Remember, that if you’re too confident or capable, you’ll be branded ‘bossy’ or a ‘bitch’.

Another point worth addressing is that 85 per cent of young women said that they’d applied for jobs and not heard anything back. Often dubbed the ‘fight for feedback’, it has become increasingly difficult to receive any meaningful response from roles if your application is unsuccessful. Even if you attend a first or second-stage interview, businesses may not feel the need to provide any feedback on why they decided to go with another candidate.

This serves to make the process of finding a job intensely demoralizing. You can apply for literally hundreds of roles, and only receive a cursory email response from a handful of them. It’s unsurprising that searching for employment is viewed as a depressing or hopeless task, like chipping away at an unyielding rock-face. When applying for jobs, you can’t learn from rejections if you don’t know where you went wrong.

Businesses who fail to respond to unsuccessful applicants (even when they’ve attended interviews) might argue that they just receive too many applications to reply to unsuitable candidates, but surely this is an indication that there are too few jobs to go around, and that forcing JSA claimants to apply for roles 30+ hours per week is putting a strain on employers.

The UK government has a responsibility to support those who are out of work, both through financial aid and by providing opportunities for training and professional growth. In a wealthy, Western society, this responsibility should be fulfilled no matter which party has the majority in Westminster. However, job centres are failing those who turn to them for help precisely for ideological reasons. The Tory disregard for the vulnerable, dispossessed and unlucky is not beneficial to our society. It’s merely a form of kicking those who are already down, rather than extending a hand to lift them up.

The lack of self-confidence among young women highlighted by the ‘Work It Out’ report is a phenomenon engineered by social and cultural factors. When young women are faced with the arbitrary, inhuman nature of a bureaucracy (in this case, Jobcentre Plus) that’s specifically engineered to work against claimants, the effects of poor self-belief are incredibly damaging. Inadequate provision at job centres and unpleasant behaviour from DWP staff can not only prevent young women from finding appropriate employment, but can also cruelly bar them from reaching their full potential.

*Names have been changed.

Can porn be feminist? A conversation wth Erika Lust

First published by Open Democracy, 27th April 2016

Feminist porn is sex on film showing women and men as sexual equals – that sex is something you do together, not just something that a man does to a woman

Erika Lust believes that porn can change. The Swedish erotic filmmaker with a degree in political sciences has won numerous awards for her work, including the Feminist Porn Award Movie of the Year in 2012, Cinekink Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature, and the Feminist Porn Award for Hottest Straight Vignette two years in a row. Lust is a self-identified feminist and perhaps one of the most important alternative voices in pornography, due to her treatment of the medium as a legitimate art form that deserves time, care, and budget, and in which her actors are treated with consideration and respect.

Porn has long been a thorny topic within feminism, from the second-wave anti-pornography movement and subsequent ‘sex wars’ to the increasingly popular style of ‘Cool Girl’ feminism that posits all porn as empowering and positive. However, approaching the subject with nuance is key.

It’s simply untrue to state that all porn or porn as a concept is harmful to those who consume it or to those who work within the industry, and it’s equally disingenuous to argue that there are no issues with some of the most commonly viewed porn available online. Porn is an industry, but it’s also a product and it responds to the needs and desires and behavior of consumers. If we are to alter the product that mainstream sites are offering, then an alternative must be presented.

Can porn be feminist? Pornography is explicit material designed to sexually arouse the viewer and by definition, there is nothing inherently anti-feminist about porn, because there is nothing anti-feminist about wanting to be aroused or wanting to look at arousing images. Give me porn that shows women and men and non-gender-conforming folks enjoying themselves. I’ll download that. Hell, I’ll even pay for it. Porn can be feminist, but much of the content accessed by millions of viewers on the ‘porn giant’ websites like PornHub and RedTube is problematic.

The impression of variety and choice is belied by the fact that the majority of porn caters to the presumed desires of a male viewer. Mainstream porn makes weird, retrograde and highly racist categorizations of performers based on skin colour, and titles videos with the kind of misogynistic language you’d expect on a 4chan thread or scrawled on a school desk by a fourteen-year-old boy who thinks he’s ‘well hard’. Depictions of violent or degrading acts (slapping, choking, spitting, punching, biting, verbal abuse) towards women are now commonplace in mainstream pornography, and although these acts can be mutually pleasurable in a healthy BDSM context, they are not presented in a setting of trust and consent, leaving them open to interpretation by young people who assume that ‘this is what you to do girls when you have sex’.

The extensive research presented in the 2015 Girl Guiding ‘Girls’ Attitudes Survey’ is stark and damning, with 87% of the young women aged 17 to 21 surveyed believing that porn creates unrealistic expectations of female bodies, 71% saying that porn gives out confusing messages about sexual consent and makes aggressive or violent behavior towards women seem normal, and 65% agreeing that porn increases hateful language used to or about women.

Within porn, there are issues of consent (as in the case of James Deen, who has been accused of sexual assault on and off set by fellow performers, including the writer and porn star Stoya) of sexual health, of the kind of bodies that are represented, and of royalties (or lack thereof) and the ownership and dissemination of erotic material. There are also problems for performers who have left the industry and find themselves shunned, as former adult star Bree Olsen pens in her essay for the Daily Dot. She writes “people look at me as if I am the same as a sex offender. They look at me as though I am less than [them] in every way… I could never go back and be a nurse or a teacher, or work for any company really that can fire me under morality clauses for making customers feel “uncomfortable” because of who I am”. Shaming women for participating in porn, painting them as ignorant dupes, surmising that as long as they were paid everything is A-OK, or arguing that those who work in porn can’t be assaulted or raped – these positions are reductive, unhelpful, and often downright misogynistic.

Erika Lust on set. Photo: Rocio Lunaire for XConfessions.com

Erika Lust agrees that porn has problems, but she’s committed to changing the industry, one porno at a time. I decided to sit down with her and talk about the kind of films she makes, her politics, and her crowdfunded XConfessions series.

HW: Erika, tell me a little bit about the kind of movies you make. What can a viewer expect to see and experience if they watch an Erika Lust film?

EL: Through my films I want to show that sex as the beautiful, healthy, exciting, intimate, wonderful and positive experience that it can be. I think we get so used to seeing sex presented only as violent, traumatic or overly commercialized that I think healthy depictions of sex are very much needed today! That’s what I aim for, to show the exciting adventure of passion and intimacy.

I want to show that women are not just sex objects, but that they are sexual complex human beings with their own thoughts, ideas, interests and passions, and that they have the right to pleasure. Also I don’t want to show men as sex robots without feelings, but sex as something you do together. That people can meet, communicate and develop through sex.  I like to make the films as cinematic as possible. There’s no reason sex on film has to be presented as cheap or dirty. I think it’s worthy of artistic framing as any other grand human experiences.

HW: Would you describe your films as ‘erotic art’ or pornography? Do you make a distinction between these two terms?

I see them as erotic art yes. I think the word porn carries so many bad connotations with it, so it’s hard to “reclaim” it. And the vast majority of what gets called porn is so different from what I do, it’s not so strange that I don’t feel like my films are not part of that world.  Yes, I depict explicit sex on film. But does that really put me in the same genre as someone who records a sex scene on a porn set, with no consideration for cinematography or artistic direction?

We could get really academic about the word and look at the modern definition which is basically just visual material intended to arouse the viewer. And sure, that is definitely part of the intention of my films. But if you go even further back to the origin of the word, it’s from the Greek ‘pornographos’, meaning “writing about prostitutes” and I think a lot of the old ideas about the Madonna/whore views on women are still true today, and still true for anyone working in porn. So it’s a complicated word, one that I don’t have an easy relationship with, like many other words really. Like many other words, it has far worse implications and social consequences for women than for men. Part of me thinks semantic reclamation is the answer, another part of me wants to move on, create something new.

HW: Why did you decide to crowdsource for the XConfessions series? What has the response been like from those who’ve pledged and from viewers?

EL: I started it because I wanted to make films based on the actual fantasies and memories of people from all over the world. It had felt so great for me to get to bring my own ideas to the screen and I wanted to see if I could make that happen for other people too. And also, I was just very curious to see what people would come up with. Luckily people really connected with the idea and started confessing these amazing stories. Definitely some things I could never think of, and lots of funny and sexy memories from real life mixed with all things ranging from poetry to IKEA-fetishes. The XConfessions entries make up a huge library of human sexual imagination.

People submit stories on the site, and I handpick two each month and turn them into short films. It’s given me the opportunity to turn fantasies into reality, which is a fantasy come true for me as a director. Because after all, that’s what I want from my films – to show a true and fair representation of human sexuality. It can still be full of fantasy and imagination, but it’s based on something way more real and exciting than what you’d see in mainstream porn. It’s coming from the inner working of the people’s brains and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help from the public, who keep bringing in all these amazing stories.

HW: How important is it to you to make porn that’s ethical? How would you define ethical porn?

EL: It’s very important. It’s quite simple. It’s about treating everyone involved like human beings, being attentive to their needs, requests and emotions, compensating them fairly and providing a good working environment with good working conditions. I also think it’s important to be ethical in the signals you’re sending out with your stories – that you make consent come through, not showing irresponsible scenes or anything to do with coercion etc.

HW: I want to believe that we can have feminist porn that doesn’t just cater to men and their desires. Is your porn feminist? What makes it so? Is it intersectional?

EL: This might be a good time to talk about what feminist porn is! So, feminist porn is explicit films made by people who have a problem with how the mainstream porn industry makes films. I’m one of those people. One common complaint about mainstream pornography is that it shows women as mere objects without any feelings or any power to say yes or no – it mostly shows women as catering to the whims of men, with no attention given to her desire and needs at all. A lot of porn is misogynistic – and proud of it.

There is so much porn where women are insulted and humiliated and it’s just presented as “normal”, and it’s expected to be this that appeals to the male audience, which is just crazy! Because most porn is made by men for men, the films embody the male gaze, and it results in women being presented only as objects of desire, never as subjects of pleasure. Men are strangely missing from much of straight porn, only appearing as disembodied penises – also is a form of strange objectification. God forbid that the male viewer might have any homoerotic feelings!

But it’s fully possible for films to be both sexually explicit and still show women as human beings who deserve respect, even when they’re naked, and that they have an equal right to sexual satisfaction, pleasure and desire. We can definitely create films that show women as sexual collaborators with men – rather than sexual conquests of men.

So the idea of feminist porn is simple: sex on film made in a non-sexist way. It shows women and men as sexual equals, that sex is something you do together, not just something that a man does to a woman. It has nothing to do with what kind of sex is shown – it’s all about how the films are made, and that consent really comes through in the story. For example, Tristan Taormino’s Rough Sex series is a great example that you can shoot and show any kind of sex in a non-degrading way.

HW: Do you think that porn has a problem with perpetuating racist stereotypes and categorizations?

EL: Oh yes, definitely. Viewing someone as a fetish because of their race is… well, duh, racist – exoticism is racism too. Sometimes defenders of mainstream porn say it’s actually “really diverse” because it caters to “every desire and fetish you could have”. But that’s not diversity. That’s just different body parts, separated from the person and served up to the viewer to consume, all presented in the same old repetitive way. And some people try to tell me that’s diversity. It’s not. It has nothing to do with real sex.

HW: Can porn be used as an educational tool?

EL: Yes! In an ideal world, everybody gets to have proper sex education in school that allows people to ask questions and get information that allows them to make informed decisions about their bodies and health. Great sex education also includes critical discussions about pornography. But this is something that is not available, or even a priority in many countries.

No one can deny that porn is a huge cultural genre and that many people, especially young people, watch it to learn about sex. So it’s important that we can talk about it like adults, but also that there are all sorts of voices in porn – not just one type of film that teaches guys to disrespect women and treat them as objects, and teaches girls to be passive objects without any needs of their own. We have to have films that also show sex as a healthy, positive thing that people do together, not as something you do to someone.

HW: Do you agree that it’s problematic to see acts usually associated with BDSM presented as ‘the norm’ within mainstream porn, particularly because they lack a context of trust?

EL: Yes I absolutely agree. That’s not saying that people are not allowed to engage in certain sexual acts like you say BDSM, but the way many of these films show violence and humiliation is in a way that shows no consent coming through at all! It shows sex as something aggressive that men do to women, and as something that women do for men. It’s not just misogynistic porn that’s guilty of that, it’s also things like Fifty Shades of Grey, that again, shows the woman as a passive, naive virgin who just gets right into BDSM with an emotionally abusive man, before she’s even masturbated. Come on! It’s ok to have kinks, it’s ok to like BDSM, but for god’s sake, let’s not forget about the importance of consent and communication.

When I directed my first BDSM-scene in An Appointment With My Master, I made sure communication was essential to the whole story, showing the performers Mickey Mod and Amarna Miller, both experienced BDSM-practitioners, talking about boundaries and what they were going to do. And the tenderness and trust that comes through in that scene is just stunning. It made it so sexy. It was important for me to show that side of consent, enthusiasm and communication.

HW: How should we go about changing mainstream porn?

EL: My stance is that there has to be MORE voices in pornography, more people that get to share their ideas about sex. That could eventually change the mainstream by making it more equal. But I don’t expect to come in to the mainstream producer’s sets and change what they do. I create the change I want to see myself – I can’t expect people who are, for example, proudly misogynistic film makers to suddenly go “hey, maybe these films are not so great for humanity.”

What I want to see is more women behind the camera, and more people in general who think differently than the average white, male heterosexual pornographer. Many women are tired of being presented with tired old sex-clichés everywhere they turn. They want to make their own narratives. And many women are tired of being told that all porn is bad and that watching porn makes you a bad woman or a bad feminist or whatever. Wanting to see sex on film doesn’t make you brainwashed, dirty or bad. But it’s great to see there’s such a healthy and powerful movement working on the opposite side of mainstream industry, making the kind of films they want to see themselves.

HW: What does being a sex positive feminist mean to you?

EL: I’m a sex positive feminist and film maker and I firmly believe that sex is a healthy and natural part of life. I think that those who want to should be free to create erotic material that reflects that. I wanted to start making adult cinema to add my voice, to show women as sexual equals who also have the right to pleasure, who are complex human beings with their own ideas about sex.

I think that adult films can be used as a tool for liberation and education. I want my films to make people feel liberated and happy, not oppressed and sad. Feminist porn has the power to influence. If you show the performers talking to each other, you show them both being excited about the sex, if you show sex with a context, you show embraces, kisses, consent, passion, enthusiasm, pleasure and orgasms – then I think that is a great thing to share with the world. There are too many depictions of sex out there that are traumatic, aggressive and violent – it’s almost made people believe that sex is always traumatic and violent. And if people hold the idea that sex on camera is always inherently sexist… well, I don’t think women will get anywhere if we’re not allowed to create our own stories about sex. I think there should be female voices within all cultural genres, including pornography. Just because some porn is very sexist doesn’t mean that all porn is harmful, harmful and exploitative.

After my conversation with Erika, I’m even more convinced that porn can be feminist, that it can include women as equal consumers, and it can treat performers fairly and ethically. Why shouldn’t we remake porn into something that’s wonderful?

 

Can fashion’s commitment to feminism ever be more than lip service?

Feminists have long critiqued the fashion industry, which has often responded by – at best – co-opting feminism as a ‘brand’ in order to sell products. Can the two ever genuinely engage with each other?

First published by Open Democracy, 22nd November 2015

Feminism and fashion make uncomfortable bedfellows. The fashion industry continues to champion one body type that’s virtually impossible to achieve for the majority of healthy, adult women, and in doing so, denies the diverse reality of female bodies. It places medically unsafe expectations on models in terms of their measurements, leading to hospitalizations, models eating tissues to fill their stomachs, and, indirectly, it could be argued contributed to the death of several young women, including Luisel Ramos in 2006, who collapsed on the catwalk and died of heart failure caused by anorexia nervosa.

Fashion plays an undeniable part in the prevalence of body dissatisfaction in Britain, where one in four girls aged between 11-to-21 would consider cosmetic surgery and almost 10 million women report feeling ‘depressed’ by the way they look. As of February 2015, a report commissioned by the charity b-eat estimates that more than 725,000 people in the UK are suffering from an eating disorder.

Bar a few high profile examples, fashion largely ignores women of colour and trans women, preferring to populate runway shows, magazine editorials, and advertisements with tall, thin, white, cisgender bodies. Although plus-size models have become more commonplace, the term ‘plus-size’ is entirely arbitrary, illustrated by findings that three-quarters of the plus-size models at BMA models in London were a size 12 or below.

Fashion is an industry that excludes rather than celebrates, peddling the insidious message that we are not good enough to be represented within their ads and editorials, and therefore should continue to spend money on clothes and accessories and beauty products in order to combat this. Designer brands and high street retailers alike have demonstrated a complete lack of concern for the women around the world who produce their garments, the majority of whom live in poverty and are paid starvation wages for their labour. Bearing all this in mind, can fashion ever be compatible with feminism?

Sophie Slater, Sarah Beckett, and Ruba Huleihel, co-founders of the brand new online marketplace Birdsong, are determined to provide that it’s possible. If their initial launch is successful, Birdsong will be crowdfunding to produce non-sweatshop, non-Photoshopped adverts that will be placed on London tubes in the new year. Fans of the brand already include Lauren Laverne and Tansy Hoskins.

I spoke to Sophie Slater, to find out more about this new online marketplace that brings fashion, feminism, and community activisim together. Slater and her two partners met on a free postgraduate course called Year Here, based around social change. She says “we were all in our early or mid-twenties, had done tons of volunteering, and saw the effects that funding cuts were having on organisations. A lot of these groups, like the Age UK centre Sarah worked at, have women making things. The women there had formed a knitting circle that had been going for fifteen years, but they had mobility problems and a lack of digital skills that prevented them from being able to sell the things they were making. We were also excited and inspired by fashion, but knew that sweatshops, and the way that fashion is marketed to women has devastating impacts. So we came up with this idea, tested it, and people really liked it. We won a place on an “accelerator” in January (where they give you money to support your idea, and workshops on how to run a business) and we’ve been working hard to keep generating income for our suppliers since then.”

Slater was determined that feminism and fashion needn’t be in opposition to one another. She has been involved in feminist activism for a couple of years after personally experiencing sexual violence and unhealthy relationships, and has trained with Rape Crisis. Seeing organisations like Eaves having to shut down, after years of dedicated feminist work, prompted Slater to get  Birdsong seeks to support women’s organisations by putting 50-85% of revenue back into the collectives that make the garments and jewellery, and using profits to stop more refuges and non-profits from closing down. Slater says “we want to give them the means to make money, and make them less reliant on government funding that’s let them down”.

Birdsong is launching a campaign featuring inspirational women who aren’t typically represented in the media, that includes award-winning trans activist Charlie Craggs, Muslim feminist Hanna Yusuf and 83 year old knitter, Edna, who knits fairly made jumpers for Birdsong.

Sophie told me “it’s really important to us to empower women and have diversity amongst our models. We use our friends, makers, or people who inspire us, and never alter their appearance with Photoshop. As a team of three young women, we’ve all felt alienated at some point by a culture that objectifies women. A culture that sets unrealistic standards based on our beauty as worth. We wanted to create a campaign that fit in with our feminist values, so we’re launching #AsWeAre this week. We want to create a conversation around the way women are sold things, who gets represented, and in what way.

Most fashion is marketed to us in a way that’s a total fallacy. It’s meant to be ‘aspirational’ and ‘unattainable’ but we know that’s not what women want, or need. Most senior positions in advertising are men, and I think that’s why we still have patriarchal advertising for the most part. But we built Birdsong ourselves so we have the opportunity to do things differently.”

Charlie Craggs, founder of Nail Transphobia, says “as a trans person, seeing trans people being visible and represented is vital. It’s not a luxury, it’s so needed. This is advertising done right”.

I asked Sophie whether the relatively high prices (more than £100 for some dresses and £22 for a pair of plain cotton pants) would alienate buyers on low incomes, like myself. She says “cost is something that really influenced our decision not to become another “luxury” ethical brand. It’s tough, because on one hand, if the items are made in the UK, they need to be a certain price to pay the wages of the working class women who make them.”

“Our items start at £10, but there are things like our Palestinian embroidered dresses that take hours to complete, and are higher priced to cover that. Also, we’re working on a super small scale currently, which makes things more expensive. We want to get the balance right. We’re trying to get our prices as near to high street as we can, whilst still paying fairly and making things that won’t fall apart after one season. Our clothes are made really beautifully and carefully, so should last for years. Some clothes are just really unsustainably cheap, and we can’t compare to that. But hopefully, if you find something you can afford, it’s with the knowledge that a big chunk of that money is going back to working class women or organisations that need it. And in the meantime, we’ll be working on getting bigger, at the same time ensuring our clothes are as affordable as we can get them.

We have fourteen suppliers at the moment. Our jewellery brands Relevee and Jit-Win-Yan are made in India and Thailand, by women who’ve survived human trafficking, or are exiting sex work. They earn middle-class wages with the money they make from selling jewellery. We also sell from maker’s groups in Swaziland, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, and from single mums in the U.S. Our Co-Founder Ruba is Palestinian and grew up in Jerusalem, so obviously the conflict is really close to her heart. She got Two Neighbors on board, who work together to create dresses across Palestine and Israel, that pay for wages for both sides, as well as medical supplies and water in the Hebron hills.”

It’s fair to say that Birdsong is more than just a new place to buy cute underwear and gifts for Christmas: it does make a concerted effort to give back to the local community, supporting the Bradbury knitting circle, and Mohila, a group of mums from migrant communities in Tower Hamlets who make the cute avocado-print sweatshirts. Birdsong also supports the Heba Women’s Project on Brick Lane, who’ve been running a women’s project, creche, and seamstressing for 25 years. Birdsong pairs women from Heba with designers and run workshops to boost their design confidence, and ensures their stories are heard by interviewing them for the Birdsong website.

“We really hope that our defiant no sweatshop stance affects bigger companies, and opens people’s eyes up to the possibility of fashion that’s fairer for women. We’d love to advise bigger companies on how and where they could source ethically, or do more campaigning work to get them to improve conditions in factories they own. It’s totally viable to stop exploiting workers – they have the profit margins to affect huge change. It’s really sad, because even garment workers in the UK are being exploited and paid less than £3 an hour. With Birdsong, as well as selling things that are cool and beautiful enough to change people’s expectations of ethical fashion, we want to challenge all the ideas people have about the fashion industry. We want people to think about the fact that worker’s rights and feminism are linked, as is body image. Fashion is too fun not to want to change for the better. We want to see a fashion industry that uplifts women and workers, rather than doing the opposite.”

It’s not cynical to feel suspicious of highly successful brands co-opting diversity and feminism, for example in the case of Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, a world-wide ad campaign that encouraged women to see their ‘real beauty’ more clearly. What was this ‘real beauty’? Superficial, outward appearance, of course.  Brands use diversity as a marketing tool when it suits them, with no real commitment to women’s issues or improving the state of advertising in the long term. Birdsong was built as a feminist project from the ground up, meaning that its series of arresting adverts, featuring women of colour, trans women, and older women, are essential to the ethos of the project, rather than a gimmick thought up by a roomful of ad agents.

 

Although it’s possible to criticize Birdsong for promoting ‘consumer feminism’, the reality is that the majority of us buy new clothes to wear. Purchasing them from an organisation that gives back to skilled female creators and to women’s services is more than simply tossing more money into the gaping maw of the capitalist marketplace. Unless you live an entirely self-sufficient agrarian life, you’re a consumer, and clothing brands that do incorporate a feminist and progressive ethos into their work might just provide those of us who care about women and advancing the aims of feminism with a place where we can feel good about spending money.

Counting Violence Against Women

First published by Open Democracy, 13th November 2015

Treating acts of fatal male violence as ‘isolated incidents’ both downplays the frequency with which women are murdered by men, and ignores the underlying dynamics of patriarchy.

On 1st November, protesters gathered outside a museum in East London dedicated to the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who murdered numerous women in the Whitechapel area in 1888. Those protesting included members of Fourth Wave and a faction of Class War, an anti-austerity anarchist group, the Women’s Death Brigade.

Speaking to Broadly, organizer Sufei Lu said “we were promised a women’s museum, and then when it opens, it celebrates a man who murdered women. It’s like a sick joke. Then we found out they were organizing a Halloween event where you were encouraged to take selfies with the body of Catherine Eddowes [one of the Ripper’s victims]. Who wants to take a selfie next to someone who’s been violently murdered?”

Could anything be more profoundly disrespectful to women who were murdered by a violent misogynist than for them to be used as selfie props on Halloween? When the museum proposal was accepted, it was given the green light on the basis that it would celebrate the social history of women who had lived in the local area. However, it opened to the public as something very different, and women’s groups were quick to point out that a serial killer who disemboweled and mutilated sex workers is not the ideal candidate for celebration in a new cultural attraction.

Jack the Ripper expert Russell Edwards told the Telegraph that “what the museum does is perpetuate the myth of Jack the Ripper. Is it really doing the public good? Especially considering they set up a museum to highlight the women in Whitechapel at the time, which is by far the more important thing.” The distasteful spectacle of the Ripper museum’s Halloween selfie gimmick is all the more crass when we consider that by 30th September, 97 women had been killed by men in 2015, one every 2.8 days. As I write this, it’s certain that the number of female victims of fatal male violence will now have surpassed 100.

Karen Ingala Smith started what would become the Counting Dead Women project in 2012. It began quite accidentally, while she was searching for news about the murder of a young woman in Hackney, where the non-profit organization nia that Ingala Smith is CEO of is situated.  “Even though I’ve been working in women’s services since 1990, I was shocked by the number of murders of women that I came across and I just started a list of their names so that I could count them.  In the end it turned out that in the first three days of that year, 8 British women had been killed by men: 3 shot, 2 stabbed, 1 strangled, 1 smothered and one beaten to death through 15 blunt force trauma injuries. Then, the simple explanation is once I’d started, I didn’t feel like I could stop.  At what point do you say ’the next woman killed isn’t important enough’?” Counting Dead Women has now recorded and named every woman killed by a man in the UK since 2013.

Ingala Smith has long argued that if we record the killing of women by men, we will see a disturbing pattern emerge. She told me “I wanted to make sure the scale of the problem of men’s fatal violence was understood. I also wanted to challenge the notion that what we’re seeing is a series of so-called isolated incidents because if we don’t make the connections, we’ve no chance of comprehending the multi-level of social change that we need to end men’s violence against women.”

The ‘isolated incident’ narrative is one of the most misleading notions about fatal male violence. There were 144 women killed by men in 2013 and 149 in 2014. If a similar number of people in the UK were killed every year by Muslims, for example, the press would be very quick to establish a pattern. The word ‘terrorism’ would be used and a dedicated task force employed with urgency. When Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others in Isla Vista, California, after posting numerous hate-filled rants on YouTube about women not providing him with the sex he was entitled to, no one used the word ‘terrorism’. The major media outlets in the US did not make links to overall stats regarding misogynistic violence, or reference the particular race and culture of Rodger, as they almost certainly would have had he been a person of colour.

Referring to the murders of women by relatives or intimate partners as merely ‘domestic’ incidents trivializes and normalizes them. The tendency for us to consider occurrences of fatal male violence as ‘isolated incidents’ not only downplays the frequency with which women are murdered by men, but it also represents a denial of the impact of patriarchal conditioning.

Systems of oppression often work in insidious ways, and patriarchy is no different, perpetuating the narrative that women are the weaker sex, open to control and ownership by the men around them. It insists that men are ‘owed’ sex by women, as Elliot Rodger was adamant in his YouTube diatribes. It ensures that men are often protected by public opinion and legal rulings, like Oscar Pistorius who shot Reeva Steenkamp four times through their bathroom door, but only served a sixth of his paltry five year sentence.  It teaches us that some women are worth more than others, leading to an increased risk of murder and male violence for sex workers, disabled women, and trans women.

The death of Steenkamp is a tragic example of male violence, but it’s disturbing to note that her murder as an attractive white woman is given much more attention than the death of a black woman in South Africa. The patriarchy too often divides women into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims, opening the door to judgements about a woman’s sex life, education, career, lifestyle, and physical appearance, and allowing the public and the judicial system to view some women as complicit in or to blame for the violence perpetrated against them.

Speaking to Vice, Professor Russell Dobash, a criminologist at the University of Manchester, concurred that “the real issue is the sense of entitlement in masculine culture which is so prevalent”. If men were not taught that they are entitled to women and their physical bodies, would they extinguish the life from female bodies in such disturbing numbers? Paul Daly wrote for The Guardian that “men assault, rape and kill women and their children because they think they have a right to”.

An understanding of rape culture is highly pertinent to this issue. Men who rape women do so largely out of a sense of entitlement. They do it because they know their victims are unlikely to be believed, because the responsibility for the crime is often placed on the shoulders of the victims, whose sexual and personal histories are dragged through the mud in a disingenuous attempt to explain why the crime took place. Rape cases are also complicated by the ‘stranger in a dark alley’ myth, when most women are assaulted by those known to and close to them, just as the ‘isolated incident’ narrative clouds the issue of fatal male violence.

Karen Ingala Smith believes that the increased reporting of domestic and sexual violence is not exclusively a positive step. “We’ve seen a huge change in how domestic and sexual violence are responded to over the last few decades. But what we’ve also seen is the mainstream take-up, the male-stream take-up, of what was initially the preserve of feminist and survivors (not mutually exclusive) and whilst that could and should be a good thing, the issues have often had the feminist analysis washed right out of them.” Feminist analysis and recognition of the misogyny inherent in male on female violence is key to comprehending this crisis and ultimately resolving it. We cannot lay all the blame at the feet of law enforcement and judicial services when our society continues to instil in boys and young men the belief that they are subjective ‘takers’ and masters of their own destiny, while women are objects to be acted upon.

Our current government is determined to further degrading the lot of women in Britain, a fact that makes the recent Independent piece calling for ‘respect’ for Tory feminists even more misguided, given what the Tories stand for with regard to gender issues. Dr Louisa Cox, chair of the women’s charity Eaves says “we have seen a 70% increase in demand for services in the first six months of 2015 compared to the last six months of 2014. Yet, not only have we not seen a corresponding increase in funding; but, on the contrary, only cuts and closures across the specialist women’s sector”.  Between the toxicity of a patriarchal culture and a government that continues to slash and burn its way through women’s services, it’s more important than ever that we start joining the dots to see the connections across all forms of male violence against women, including non-fatal violence. We need to view male on female violence as the mass atrocity that it is, focussing on a societal-level injustice and tragedy rather than individual acts by damaged or ‘evil’ men.

Two women are murdered by current or former partners every week in the UK. This statistic is tired and often repeated but it is real. The Counting Dead Women project and the Femicide Census give faces and names to these women. The problem is of epidemic proportions and our response should reflect this. If we care at all about our mothers and daughters and sisters and partners, we as a society must urgently face up to unpleasant truths about victim blame, about misogyny, and about collective blindness.

Manic Pixies and Cool Girls: on female solidarity and the male gaze

First published by Open Democracy 28th August 2015

Pop culture tropes of ‘the girl who isn’t like other girls’ might seem subversive but they reinforce old sexist ideas that women are frivolous and exist for the male gaze.

‘I’m not like other girls. I’m more like one of the guys’. This is my voice. This is me speaking, before I discovered feminism. My hair changes colour every couple of weeks. I prefer writing and reading to applying fake tan, watching Zoella, or spending hours getting ready.  I’m different, dammit. I’m not like other girls. How many of us are guilty of uttering those words? The poisonous phrase that immediately degrades other women, whilst elevating and separating us from them.

Who are these ‘other girls’ that we’re so keen to distance ourselves from? Many women might have a couple of the tastes or characteristics we associate with stereotypical femininity, but no woman is in and of herself a stereotype. There’s no such thing uniform ‘femaleness’. The idea that femininity is characterised by weakness or triviality is a patriarchal construct, and ties into the misogynistic belief that women are somehow lesser than their male counterparts.

As women, we grow up in a world where we are already ‘other’. The man, as Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the key feminist text The Second Sex, “represents both the positive and the neutral, as indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general”. Maleness is considered standard in politics, finance, science, sport, and tech. Many music genres are dominated by men. Men are rarely relegated to the status of ‘sexual object’ and don’t have to use their sexuality as a tool to gain traction within various industries.

Pop culture doesn’t often help, mainly due to the fact that the majority of writers, producers, and directors are male. In films, men make up the bulk of action heroes, police officers, gangsters, spies, and ‘neutral’ characters. In games, men are much more likely to be the hero of the story and not a non-playable character with a limited, sexualized function. Men can fulfil a variety of roles, often without being stereotyped or forced to be part of a romantic narrative that’s crowbarred into the story. Women are too often tokenized, still the exception rather than the rule. There is no need to deny the individuality of women and ‘other’ them further by insisting on our difference.

Desperately not wanting to be ‘like other girls’ shows how sneakily patriarchal values can be internalized. It’s a form of sexism that we slip into as easily as a cosy, well-worn coat. In the most part, we don’t attempt to distance ourselves from other women due to a sense of gender dysphoria. We do it because we’ve realised that the prescribed idea of homogenous womanhood doesn’t look like us, and we don’t know how best to articulate this.

The ‘Only Girl’ and other isolating female tropes

The ‘Only Girl’ is very common in popular culture. She’s Evey in V for Vendetta, Marla in Fight Club, and Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. She’s important to the male-dominated plot, but it’s not her story. She represents another way that pop culture ‘others’ women, inserting them into stories as props to facilitate male character development, to be love interests, or to represent ‘all women’.

The stories available to us are crucial in terms of how we navigate the world around us, particularly when we’re young and trying to form an identity separate from our parents and friends. Consuming media that presents women as the ‘Only Girl Surrounded By Boys’, contributes to the I’m Not Like Other Girls or ‘Megan Fox aka Wendy from Peter Pan’ syndrome.

The latter term was coined by Molly Lambert, who describes it as “the delusion that you can become an official part of the boys’ club if you are its strictest enforcer, its most useful prole. That if you follow the rules exactly you can become the Official Woman”. Being the ‘official woman’ or the honorary boys club member often leads to other women being barred from joining the club.

In order to be the exception to the rule and the only woman in the club, you may be compelled to exclude other women to maintain your place. This can manifest itself in the spouting of ‘ironic’ sexist language, ‘rating’ other women because you’re one of the guys, or complaining about how needy and trivial the majority of the female species is. This behaviour is a kind of internalized oppression. It’s a survival tactic for women who realise that they are part of a marginalized group, and take on the discriminatory values of the dominant group to prove their exceptionality.

The ‘Only Girl’ comes in other shapes and forms. She’s also available in models such as the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ and the ‘Cool Girl’. The term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ was first coined by critic Nathan Rabin in his review of the 2005 film Elizabethtown, when he described the character played by Kirsten Dunst. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is quirky and interesting. She’s not like other girls. She helps the sensitive, moody male protagonist figure out how to enjoy life and fulfil his potential. Unfortunately, as cute and oddball as Zooey Deschanel’s character in (500) Days of Summer might seem, she and other MPDGs like her are completely devoid of an interior life. As Laurie Penny writes in her excellent essay for New Statesman, “instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe”.

It’s important here to mention that MPDGs are characters written by men. They might be vaguely quirky or subversive in terms of their music taste or dress sense, but they’re still seen through the lens of the male gaze. The normal power structure of man as subject, woman as object is still in place here because a male writer has created a shallow, cut-out woman, and she’s a muse rather than a fleshed-out character.

The term ‘Cool Girl’ was popularized by Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl. The Cool Girl, according to protagonist Amy, means being the “hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding”.

In the Guardian, Bim Adewunmi argues that the Cool Girl trope, just like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, doesn’t describe a whole person. “She is a collection of attributes, a list of someone’s favourite things. Womanhood is a broad church; call us legion, for we are many. The real issue is that we are still being boxed into narrow definitions of what we can be.” Although Gone Girl has a female author, the ‘Cool Girl’ described is a part that Amy Dunne plays to put the men in her life at ease. She is as unreal as the MPDG, but unlike many Manic Pixies, Amy’s performance unravels within the story and reveals the lie that is her ‘Cool Girl’ persona.

The decline of sisterhood?

It sounds a bit cheesy to talk about ‘sisterhood’ in 2015, and the notion that all women should be friends and love one another is both cringeworthy and unrealistic. However, the concept of solidarity remains important when it comes to fighting patriarchy.

In the 1970s, Conservatives were pretty frightened of female solidarity because they figured it could result in the mobilization of half the human race.

Unfortunately, despite the current mainstream status of feminism, we don’t seem to be very close to mobilizing half of humanity. This could be because we’ve become increasingly individualistic, particularly in Western nations. Thatcherism might be a distant memory to many of us, but her ethos of individualism and free market capitalism has forever altered the political landscape in Britain. She hacked away at the post-war consensus, dug chunks out of the welfare state, and promoted the idea that people should care about themselves and their family units at the expense of all others.

Thatcher is a striking example of a woman who rose above the glass ceiling, but kept it in place for others. She was a pioneer, but not a feminist. She climbed up the ladder, only to set it on fire afterwards so her female peers could not clamber up. In eleven years, she avoided female-friendly policies, promoted only one woman to her cabinet, and demonstrated an “utter lack of interest in childcare provision or positive action”.

Have capitalism and individualism co-opted feminism and made it more about ‘equality for me’ than ‘equality for everyone’? The ‘I’m alright Jack’ Thatcherite approach might allow some women (mostly white, wealthy, straight and cisgender) to get to the top and imagine sexism as something that happens to other people, but it does nothing for women who suffer most at the hands of the patriarchy. If your feminism doesn’t include women of colour, working class women, disabled women, trans women, queer women, and sex workers, it isn’t a feminism worth having.

Taylor Swift recently described herself as a feminist, and yet the sum of her feminism appears to be inviting a white parade of shiny famous friends onstage with her. It’s the perfect meeting of feminism and capitalism. As Dayna Evans wrote for Gawker: “Swift isn’t here to help women—she’s here to make bank. Seeing her on stage cavorting with World Cup winners and supermodels was not a win for feminism, but a win for Taylor Swift. Her plan—to be as famous and as rich as she can possibly be—is working, and by using other women as tools of her self-promotion, she is distilling feminism for her own benefit.”

When Nicki Minaj called out the VMAs for failing to properly recognize and celebrate black artists, Swift accused Minaj of ‘pitting women against each other’. This is ‘individualistic feminism’ at its most obvious, even while dressing it up in the language of solidarity. Swift failed to listen to a woman of colour’s experience of racism (basic intersectionality), and imagined that Minaj’s concerns were directed at her (‘it’s all about me’).

If we are committed to combating the patriarchy in all its forms, we need to address the bits that we internalize. This means giving up the idea that we’re ‘not like other girls’ or ‘more like one of the guys’. All women are individuals, so there really is enough difference and quirk to go around. It means seeing through idealistic female tropes in pop culture, largely created by men. It means really supporting other women and adopting a feminism that’s inclusive and intersectional, and not merely championing friends or fellow wealthy, white women a la Taylor Swift.

Misogyny and homophobia: patriarchy, gender policing, and the male gaze

First published by Open Democracy, 29th July 2015

It’s 2014 and I’m in a quiet bar with my then-girlfriend. We’re enjoying our evening, being affectionate towards each other, and playing pool. I’m pretty terrible at it (having virtually no hand-eye coordination), and an older man steps in, uninvited, to show me how to take a shot. He touches my waist and makes sexual comments to me, right in front of my ex-girlfriend, as though she isn’t there. To him, she is invisible, and not recognised as my partner. We both leave, feeling disgusted.

Homophobia and misogyny, just like racism and misogyny, are inextricably linked. They feed into each other, like the ancient image of ‘ouroboros’, a snake eating its own tail.

Women in same-sex relationships may not be treated with the same overt hostility as gay men, but this is usually only when they present themselves as femme (or traditionally feminine in appearance). For femme women in same-sex relationships, the blend of homophobia and misogyny they are subjected to is often based on men believing that the relationship exists for their sexual gratification.

The idea that lesbians are a source of sexual entertainment for men is exacerbated by the hugely inaccurate portrayal of lesbian sex in mainstream pornography, usually aimed at male consumers and often involving a male performer who enters to ‘finish’ the scene. The pornification of lesbian relationships is mirrored in pop culture offerings such as the 2014 music video for ‘Can’t Remember to Forget You’ with Rihanna and Shakira, where the two artists writhe around together, eyeing the camera and making it clear that their attraction to one another is pure performance, for the purpose of selling records.

This is connected to the reality that many lesbian couples do not feel safe in bars or clubs, as they are routinely treated as a sideshow and receive unwanted attention and comments like ‘can I get in on that?’ or ‘I can join in if you want a threesome’. Eleanor Margolis, who writes for New Statesman, says “I’ve been told by men that I’m ‘too pretty to be a lesbian’, which is obviously both homophobic and misogynistic. Then, sometimes they go on to say the usual stuff, ‘you haven’t met the right guy. I could turn you…’”.

Misogyny is defined quite literally as a hatred of women, and this includes a hatred of anyone perceived to be ‘like a woman’, explaining much of the homophobic aggression towards non-straight men. Homosexual men have long suffered homophobic abuse because they do not conform to heterosexual male norms, including pursuing women.  Homophobia is entirely underpinned and propped up by patriarchy, and our patriarchal society encourages the policing of the boundaries of what it means to be a ‘real man’ and behave in a truly ‘male’ way.

Interestingly, LGBT women who identify as ‘butch’ or present themselves in a more ‘masculine’ way, are treated with fear and contempt for trying to encroach on traditionally male territory and not conforming to normative ideals of female beauty. This kind of homophobia is very similar to the sexism that heterosexual women face when attempting to carve out a place in a world that is still dominated by men.

Now, this is where it gets tricky. The LGBT community does not exist in a vacuum. LGBT people still have to live in a patriarchal society, and unfortunately, the values of that society are often played out within the community. One of the side effects of misogyny-fuelled homophobia is that some gay men have attempted to distance themselves from their heterosexual counterparts as much as possible, by exaggerating their lack of interest in women.

This can manifest itself through the use of sexist slurs and through misogynistic comments about women’s bodies and appearances. Celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton has made his career out of criticizing the clothes, weight and lifestyle choices of female celebrities and slut-shaming them in a way that is clearly misogynistic.

As Patrick Strudwick wrote for the Guardian in 2014: “it is commonplace for women’s appearances to be analysed in brutish detail, in part through jealousy of presumed sexual power. As a movement we have ignored women, individually and structurally.” Strudwick goes on to describe how the popular US reality programme Ru Paul’s Drag Race includes the word ‘fishy’ in many of its episodes, to describe drag queens who look more naturally feminine.

According to the Drag Race Dictionary, “the term is a reference to the scent of a woman’s vagina, which is colloquially likened to the smell of fish”. Strudwick notes that “I have heard this vile denigration ever since I stepped into the gay scene in 1993 – ‘fish’, ‘tuna’, and any number of terrible words for female genitalia, often accompanied by vomiting gestures.”

Another issue that has been raised in this debate is how some gay men feel entitled to touch women’s bodies without their consent, simply because they are not sexually interested in women. In an open letter, Preston Mitchumn writes “we cannot touch a woman without her permission. We are not the exception and her permission to us is not implied. We, too, can promote rape culture. We do not get a “pass” to touch her hair or her body or her clothes. We do not have an automatic right to critique her weight or texture of hair. We are still men and women will always deserve our respect. For those of us who consider ourselves feminists, we cannot constantly promote feminism and women’s ownership, then be bent out of shape when she decides that she does not want to be subjected to touching, feeling, or unwanted contact.”

There’s also a racial element to consider here, relating to the recent debate about white gay men appropriating black female culture. Sierra Mannie’s piece for TIME magazine shows the hurt and anger of black women who feel that gay white men are perpetuating harmful stereotypes and caricatures of female blackness. This can also be related to the idea of ‘diva worshipping’ in mainstream white gay culture, and how it merely objectifies women in a different way. This is particularly problematic when race is part of the equation, for example when women like Beyonce and Grace Jones are fetishized as icons, in a way that obscures their complex humanity.

However, when actor Rose McGowan claimed that gay men are “more misogynistic” than their straight counterparts in 2014, she faced a sizeable backlash and later apologised for her comments. Many pointed out that gay men are not and cannot be more misogynistic than straight men, because they are not the men participating in rape, human trafficking, domestic abuse, or other instances of violence against women, a view shared by LGBT political campaigner Peter Tatchell.

My intention in raising these issues is not to shame or stereotype gay men, nor deny the continued discriminations and inequalities they face.  The point is rather to explore how the toxic values of patriarchy are adopted and enacted, often without us realising it, and even when patriarchy harms us in turn. In order to truly eradicate homophobia, men, women and everyone who identifies differently in the LGBT community must come together to oppose sexism.

Until there is gender equality, we can’t live in a world free of homophobia, and this is why Patrick Strudwick writes that he is “a feminist first and a gay rights activist second – second because there is no emancipation for gay people without the universal liberation of women”.

The intersection of homophobia and misogyny also includes the objectification and non-consensual sexualisation of LGBT people by other members of the LGBT community. This can be done by anyone, regardless of their gender presentation. In her book ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’, writer Ariel Levy explores the San Francisco lesbian scene and the way that ‘bois’ behave in sexist ways towards femme-presenting lesbians. She describes the internalization of patriarchal values by the ‘bois’ who speak about and treat the women they are attracted to in a similar way to how sexist heterosexual men would behave.

It’s also worth noting that the look of mainstream androgyny has gravitated towards masculinity. A cursory Google search for the term ‘androgynous’ will throw up a page filled with images of slender, white people with short hair wearing traditionally masculine clothes like suits and braces and trilby hats.

This ties into the notion that being male is ‘standard’, while being female is ‘other’. Femme-presenting people are often required to reaffirm or explain their sexual identities to both members of the LGBT community and heterosexual peers, because they look too ‘feminine’ to be immediately recognised and accepted as non-straight.

The intersection of homophobia and misogyny is also characterized by exclusion. The gender binary by its very nature is exclusionary, as it seeks to place people in two distinct categories. When this is enacted within the LGBT community, it involves the exclusion of trans people in gay and lesbian spaces, transphobic slurs and the use of the word ‘tranny’.

Trans people are equally valid members of the LGBT community, and while gay men and women have won significant victories in terms of representation and acceptance, trans people (particularly trans women of colour) are routinely victimized and subjected to hate crimes and violence.

Those who identify as bisexual or pansexual, such as myself, also experience exclusion from the LGBT community. I didn’t join an LGBT society at university, because I didn’t feel I would be considered ‘gay enough’. Unhelpful myths propagated about bisexual-identifying individuals include the idea that they are ‘greedy’ or ‘haven’t made up their minds’, which were explored in the recent hashtag #GrowingUpBi.

The imperfections of the LGBT community are not the ‘fault’ of any one group of people. The problems simply mirror our sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic society, where the voices of cisgender white men are prioritised. In every situation, it’s important that we are attuned to where power lies from an intersectional perspective.

Although it may be uncomfortable to assess your own privilege, we must recognise that many members of the LGBT community are victims of double or triple marginalization, in terms of their gender or race. If you are not female or transgender or a person of colour, consider how you can protect and promote the interests of those who are traditionally denied the privileges of whiteness, maleness or feeling comfortable in the gender they were assigned at birth.

We can only defeat homophobia if we recognise how it is linked to other structural forms of oppression, and if we behave in an inclusive, supportive way. Without the unity of LGBT-identified people, and without championing intersectional and trans-inclusive feminism, homophobia cannot be consigned to the wastebasket of dubious history.

Reddit, Ellen Pao, and the false neutrality of ‘free speech’

First published by Open Democracy, 17th July 2015

It would be disingenuous to look at what happened to former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao without factoring in endemic sexism and racism. ‘Free speech’ has to mean a space where everyone is safe to speak.

Freedom of speech is one of the most basic and important human rights. Freedom of speech allows us to criticize governments and the powerful, without being afraid we’ll be thrown in jail. Freedom of speech allows for artistic expression, for organising, and for engaging in meaningful debate.

But what happens when freedom of speech is used to absolve us from other crimes? Is it free speech to be able to share pictures of children in a sexual context? Is it free speech to share intimate photographs of people who have not consented to the use of their images? Is it free speech to encourage others to be hateful of a particular race of person? Is it free speech to make rape and death threats? To bully and frighten people that you may not like or agree with?

Reddit is one of the most popular spaces of the internet. It is the self-titled ‘front page’ of the online world and attracts around 164 million readers every month. Both my boyfriend and my sister use it, mainly to look at videos of cats and read news before it breaks even on the BBC. The majority of those who use Reddit don’t feel the need to turn it into a space where hate speech is normalized, but in such a huge, diverse community, there are unfortunately those who cannot behave with basic decency.

On Friday 10th July, Ellen Pao stepped down as the interim CEO of Reddit, after a experiencing, in her own words, “one of the largest trolling attacks in history”. She became the target of a campaign of harassment and abuse after overseeing the shutdown of five Reddit forms and supposedly sacking a beloved moderator. She has been subjected to rape and death threats, ‘strike action’ from moderators of some of the biggest subreddits, and a change.org petition that garnered over 200,000 signatures.

The decision to shut down five of Reddit’s most hate-filled forums was taken because the users were involved in because they were used to harass people, including the site’s 13th most active Reddit, FatPeopleHate. The US site XO Jane recently ran a harrowing It Happened To Me piece by a woman who was subjected to gross abuse on the FatPeopleHate subreddit, which should clear up any doubt over the impact of finding yourself a target on the link-sharing site.

Pao was widely criticised for ‘censorship’, with Redditors dubbing her ‘Chairman Pao’ and likening her to a Nazi. Ironic, coming from people who are to keep racist subreddits like ‘coontown’ and ‘ShitNiggersSay’ open…

Although Pao was blamed for the dismissal of Taylor, a popular communications director who presided over the Ask Me Anything Q&A sessions, former CEO Yishan Wong later revealed that she had merely taken the fall for Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. It was never clear that Pao had made the decision to sack Victoria Taylor, but that didn’t matter to the angry Redditors baying for her blood.

Since Pao’s resignation, Yishan Wong has become very vocal about behind-the-scenes decisions that were made about the ethos and purpose of the site, and the pragmatic reasons why the free speech policy was formalized.

“It seemed like the wiser course at the time. It’s worth stating that in that era, we were talking about whether it was ok for people to post creepy pictures of women taken legally in public. That’s shitty, but it’s a far cry from the extremes of hate that some parts of the site host today. It seemed that allowing creepers to post (anonymized) pictures of women taken in public, in a relatively small subreddit that never showed up on the front page, was a small price to pay for making it clear that we were a place welcoming of all opinions and discourse.

Having made that decision – much of Reddit’s current condition is on me. I didn’t anticipate what (some) Redditors would decide to do with freedom. Reddit has become a lot bigger – yes, a lot better – AND a lot worse. I have to take responsibility.”

Wong also claims that it was Ellen Pao who was preventing a wider move that would ban abusive and offensive forums, writing “on at least two separate occasions, the board pressed /u/ekjp [Ellen Pao] to outright ban ALL the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge. She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be a shitshow.” Ellen Pao who was demonized as the fascist Queen of Censorship was actually protecting hateful Redditors because of the community upheaval a mass-ban would cause. Wong describes the irony of this as “delicious” and he’s not far wrong. It looks to me like the free speech crusaders have really shot themselves in the foot this time…

Pao’s resignation has also raised questions about whether this was a case of another woman being set up on a ‘glass cliff’. The glass cliff phenomenon, backed by evidence from multiple studies, is where women and people of colour are given leadership roles in companies while they are in turmoil, leading to a higher chance of these women/PoC being scapegoated for poor performance and sacked.

Reddit was certainly in trouble when Pao came on board, with investors nervous about the ‘unruly user base’, the sharing of stolen intimate photos of celebrities and the proliferation of hateful subreddit threads. According to ThinkProgress, “the person who held the CEO job before Pao found it so ‘stressful and draining’, in fact, that he left after being ‘completely worn out’”. Perhaps Pao was being set up to fail.

Surrounding the debacle is the distinct feeling of resignation. Kaliya Young, an expert on digital identity, told the Guardian “Ellen was at the centre of a high-profile sexual discrimination suit versus a major VC firm and she was put in charge of the teenage boy section of the internet. What did you expect was going to happen? It was inevitable that they would turn on her”.

It’s certainly worth questioning whether Pao would’ve ended up demonized if the five-subreddit crackdown and the firing of Victoria Taylor had not occurred. It’s likely that the angry Redditors would’ve found any reason to use bullying tactics and attempt to force Pao out, particularly as they didn’t wait for the facts to be established regarding Taylor’s dismissal before going on the offensive. I’m prepared to suggest that their hatred for Pao came from what she represented, rather than anything she did during her time as CEO.

Ellen Pao was a woman of colour with power and influence. She had been involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit. She was a feminist. She was a threat and she represented change of the kind that seems to strike terror in the hearts of racists and misogynists, who like to cling to a vision of the internet as ‘their space’. At the website Feministing, former Reddit moderator Katherine Cross summarizes that “outspoken women, especially non-white women like Pao, are instant targets if they publicly acknowledge the existence of prejudice, worse still if they purport to do something about it.”

The abuse of high-profile women like Laurie Penny, Mary Beard and Caroline Cricado-Perez, the GamerGate phenomenon and the targeting of Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, and the vitriolic responses that the majority of women who speak and write on the internet have to just ‘get used to’, are all symptoms of the rot that is deeply embedded in the online world.

If we are to eradicate this toxic influence, forums like Reddit have to embrace change. Community spaces that allow people to speak freely should not only protect the speech of white, cisgender, straight males. Abusive users who hate women, people of colour, and those in the LGBT community should not be protected at the expense of already marginalized groups.

The ‘throwing my dummy out the pram’ response by those who feel that they should be able to abuse and harass others without recourse is beyond childish and entitled, and the argument that people should just be able to ‘take’ abuse on Reddit without a word is completely counter-productive. A space of ‘free speech’ is no longer free if non-white, non-straight, non-male members are silenced through the fear of being piled on by a faceless mob of bullies.

As Pao writes in the Washington Post: “the foundations of the Internet were laid on free expression, but the founders just did not understand how effective their creation would be for the coordination and amplification of harassing behaviour. Or that the users who were the biggest bullies would be rewarded with attention for their behaviour.” Treating others with dignity and respect should be an essential part of any community.

If your ‘free speech’ involves propping up sexism, transphobia, racism and other kinds of discrimination, it isn’t worth shit. Reddit represents the best and the worst of our online world, and I hope we can strive to do better. Ellen Pao deserved better.

Game of trolls: on pop culture and the public voice of women

First published by Open Democracy, 9th June 2015

Women who write online receive far more personal attacks than their male counterparts.  When women are driven out of public conversations on pop culture, it harms all of us.

 

I recently wrote a piece for The Debrief, criticizing the presentation of sexual violence in the ever-popular HBO television series Game of Thrones. I expected there to be some backlash, mostly from die-hard fans of the show, but I wasn’t prepared for the tidal wave of vitriol that I received once my article had been published.

The majority of people who sent abusive and insulting tweets after the article was promoted online seemed to have skipped over the part where I said I was a huge fan of the show. I was accused of hating the programme, trying to ‘spoil’ it for other viewers, being a whining, sensitive ‘femtard’, and getting some kind of sick pleasure out of the violence onscreen, while condemning rape in a bizarre double standard. It wasn’t just me, The Independent’s Lucy Hunter Johnson wrote a similar comment piece and was tweeted that her article was the most efficient way of prompting others to call her a ‘cunt’ online.

It’s absolutely possible to enjoy media while simultaneously recognising that there are structural problems present in it. I purposely began the Game of Thrones article with a sentence about how much I enjoy the show, watching it every week and even wearing my Game of Thrones t-shirt to work. (It’s a casual office…) My love of Game of Thrones is exactly why I felt strongly enough to pen the piece in the first place. Pop culture is important, not least because it’s a language that we all share and can identify with. Music, films, television shows, games and advertising are a lens through which we see and understand the world. The kind of culture we consume says a great deal about our society and the kind of things we value within it. This is why criticism is so essential. It prevents us from becoming blind consumers of culture, too afraid of saying something unpopular to interrogate the media we’re presented with.

Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian has been subjected to some of the most extreme online harassment following her online series exploring the portrayal of women in video games. She lives with constant death and rape threats, and has previously had to leave her home due to very specific threats to her safety. The content of her Feminist Frequency video series is not controversial. Sarkeesian’s critique is thorough and well-researched, and no different from the cultural criticism that films and books routinely receive. The reaction to her work is so disproportionate and extreme, that when I explain the situation to friends who haven’t heard of Sarkeesian or Gamergate, they are initially disbelieving.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Sarkeesian said “the reaction is like I’m trying to say that all games are bad, or all games should be taken away, or that these games shouldn’t exist, instead of “Hey, we are complex and intelligent creatures and we can hold multiple ideas in our heads at the same time.” We can be critical of the things that we love. That is possible.”

Why are we unable to have a meaningful conversation about certain areas of popular culture that some men wish to claim ownership of? Out of all the people who tweeted their disagreement with my Game of Thrones article, not a single one wanted to actually engage with what I’d written by having a discussion with me about it. Most of them didn’t appear to even have read the piece, and simply reacted to the headline. This is indicative of a bigger problem, namely that sexist abuse is consider part and parcel of being published online… if you’re female.

Women’s voices are routinely discredited and seen as illegitimate and lacking in credibility. If you’re a female speaking in a public space (on twitter, in a newspaper, on a message board, on YouTube etc.) the likelihood is that you will be the target of misogynistic abuse. This is particularly true if you’re talking about feminism or attempting to become part of a conversation about a typically male-dominated field.

It was interesting to recognise a disconnect between how those sending unpleasant tweets seemed to view me, and what was actually happening within the situation. The angry men appeared to believe me powerful enough to be ‘fair game’, perhaps due to my platform online or the places I’ve been published, and they attempted to take me down a peg or two. The reality is, of course, that I’m just starting out as a journalist, am pretty powerless within the industry, and I was being piled on by a group of largely much older men. Navigating the fraught combination of power and powerlessness that accompanies being a young woman with any kind of public platform is highly off-putting, and I’ve personally been tempted to give up writing on several occasions after similar incidents.

Women who write online receive far more personal attacks than their male counterparts. Personal attacks are not disagreement or debate, they involve comments about the writer’s appearance, sexuality, gender, mental health, and personal life. I don’t mind being told I’m wrong or that someone else holds a different view point. What I mind is being told I’m weak and stupid and ugly (one commenter encouraged others to check out the headshot accompanying my piece to confirm my displeasing appearance).

I don’t doubt that there is a significant trend of would-be female writers being driven away from journalism and similar professions due to the fear of a misogynistic backlash. Why would you open yourself up to ridicule and abuse by daring to have a public voice? This culture of bullying is serving to further narrow public conversation and reduce the diversity of voices that we can engage with via print media and online. It represents a loss to public life as a whole.

Female voices in journalism are also repudiated on a wider level. There’s an obvious gender imbalance in terms of the topics women are invited to speak and report on, and women are rarely positioned as authoritative experts. In 2013, a study by Women in Journalism found that 78% of front page stories in national newspapers were written by men, and 84% of those quoted as sources or experts in lead stories were men. Moreover, women and writers of colour are disproportionately encouraged to write about their personal experiences in style that is often dismissed as ‘confessional’. The male voice is consistently positioned as rational and universal, and “when people who identify as women write about their own lives it is more likely to be dismissed as ‘trivial,’ ‘oversharing,’ and ‘gossip’ ”.

Dawn Foster, writing for openDemocracy last year, asserted that “women, far more than men, are expected to put themselves at the centre of stories, or plunder their own lives for material. Male experience is treated empirically, and straight reporting seen as the norm, whereas women are expected to have, and share, first person experience, often at the expense of their own privacy.”

This is has been absolutely true in my experience, with many publications refusing to let me write unless I exposed details about my own life. Writing about the personal is a double-edged sword, because in one way, it becomes a kind of ‘emotional labour’ that women and people of colour must perform and suggests that their domain is first person narrative due to a perceived lack of expertise, but cutting out personal experience altogether denies its political importance. When writing her latest book, Unspeakable Things, journalist and activist Laurie Penny proceeded in a dry, academic style, only to realise that“courage was missing” and that she had “spent so much time working and writing in a world where women’s experience was treated as trivial” that she had assumed her own experience must also be trivial, rather than politically charged and deeply necessary.

I have acquiesced to the requests of editors from several publications and written intimately about my struggles with type II anorexia, depression and Borderline Personality Disorder, because I believe it’s the best use of my public voice. If I can help destigmatize mental illness even a tiny bit by documenting my own experiences, then it will have been worth doing. Unfortunately, this has opened me up to more targeted abuse:

The relatively poor representation of women in ‘serious’ areas of journalism and the way women’s personal experiences are ‘othered’ and trivialized, are both intimately linked to the way female writers are treated by an online audience. If we agree to writing about our own experiences, we may open ourselves up to even more specific, personal attacks online. If we do not, we deny the fact that important experiences, particularly of discrimination, violence, structural inequality, sickness and poverty, are deeply political and deserve to be valued as such.

My piece on Game of Thrones is just a drop in the ocean in terms of the numerous examples of how women’s opinions and analyses are dismissed, and drowned out by angry internet voices. I was accused of being oversensitive about sexual violence in Game of Thrones, but that seems ironic coming from a bunch of grown men who can’t take some online criticisms of a fantasy television show.

Which British party is making the most meaningful commitment to women’s issues?

First published by Open Democracy on 27th April 2015
As the British election approaches, political parties are trading in the discourse of ‘women’s issues’. But do any of the parties actually meaningfully address women’s rights and needs?
Women make up 52% of the electorate, and nine million women did not vote in the last election. Perhaps this is why the Coalition felt safe enough to wage all-out war on Britain’s female population with a series of austerity measures that disproportionately affected women in a negative way.
Research by the House of Commons Library has determined that nearly 75 per cent of budget savings since 2010 have targeted women’s incomes, and areport by the Women’s Budget Group found that the May 2012 budget primarily leads to women losing out.  One fifth of women have an average income consisting of benefit payments, and the planned £10 billion of cuts from welfare spending by 2016-17 will hit women the hardest. Women also make up two thirds of public sector employees, and the 30,000 planned job losses between 2011 and 2017 and proposed ‘regional pay’ rates will have a devastating impact on them.
If austerity is a gendered attack, then it is essential that female voters turn to a party that will protect their interests when they enter the polling stations on May 7th.
Labour
Harriet Harman describes the Coalition’s impact on women in Britain as aturning back of the clock, citing tax and benefit changes as the reason why women ‘have paid almost four times as much to bring the deficit down by 2015 even though they still earn less and own less than men’. Labour’s awareness of the gendered nature of austerity is encouraging, as are their promises to introduce a primary childcare guarantee between 8am and 6pm and provide 25 hours of free childcare a week for working parents with three and four-year-olds, worth £1,500. The latter will be paid for with a new levy on banks, which seems only fair since they plunged us all into the mess of recession and austerity in the first place.
Research released by the Fawcett Society shows that since 2008, almost a million women have moved into insecure, low paid work, and female underemployment has nearly doubled. Labour plans to give a tax break to businesses that introduce a living wage, consequently raising the wages of thousands of low paid women, and raise the minimum wage to eight pounds an hour. The Labour ‘Women’s Manifesto’ also pledges to protect the SureStart budget (decimated under the Coalition), open an additional 50,000 childcare places and put tackling violence against women and girls ‘at the heart’ of government. These promises are encouraging, but they are far from radical.
Conservatives
Women have suffered disproportionately from the Coalition government’s tax and benefit strategy, with analysis by the House of Commons Library showing that a net 3.047bn (21%) had been raised from men and 11.628bn (79%) had been raised from women. The Coalition’s criminalization of revenge pornography in 2014 definitely deserves commendation, but generally, meaningful positive change for Britain’s women has not manifested from Cameron’s residency in Number 10. Some rather cursory attention has been paid to women’s rights issues, but any benefit from this has been largely cancelled out by the effects of austerity. For example, a 10 million fund for women’s refuges was earmarked by the Coalition, but they failed to ring fence funding nationally at a time when local funding cuts have seen mass closures of specialist women’s services.
The Conservative manifesto promises to extend the tax-free childcare scheme from all children under 7, to all children under 12, and increase the scheme from 1,200 to 2,000 a year, per child. It also pledges to introduce a new, more flexible system of parental leave, so parents can make the decision of how to best divide up paid maternity leave between them. A new strategy for tackling violence against women has been proposed, that involves better training for police and professionals on the front line, and more focus on preventative work in schools.
Liberal Democrats
As part of the Coalition government, the Lib Dems have plenty to answer for in terms of the gendered nature of austerity and the heavy price paid by women. They have also been spectacularly unsuccessful in increasing female political representation, with just seven women among their 56 MPs. Nick Clegg did not give any women a Cabinet position during the Coalition, and chose not to reshuffle his team before the general election; a move that would have allowed him to promote a woman.
The Lib Dem manifesto pledges to extend the 15 hours of free childcare per week for two years old, and provide the same amount of free childcare to all children between nine months and two years, providing their parents are in work. Overall, the Lib Dems’ focus on equality and women’s rights seems rather lacklustre, with more attention being paid to what they have already achieved rather than what they will do if elected. The assertion that the Lib Dems have encouraged businesses to put more women on boards is flimsy at best, and totally unsupported at worst.
Greens
The Greens have a long-established commitment to women’s rights, and are the only mainstream political party dominated by women. First elected MP and former leader Caroline Lucas has been an outspoken campaigner for women’s issues in Parliament, and the Green Party promise to introduce ‘strong measures’ to tackle gender inequality in the UK, including a law requiring the boards of large companies to be made up of 40% women.
Under the Greens, rape crisis and domestic violence centres would be funded from core budgets, and women seeking asylum due to ‘forced marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, rape and other sexual assault’ would have their needs better understood and cared for. This is a truly radical policy and could pave the way for the end of female detention in facilities like Yarl’s Wood, where female asylum seekers are verbally and sexually abused by guards, stripped of their privacy, and many inmates quickly become suicidal.
UKIP
Much has been made about the ‘women-friendly’ nature of UKIP’s manifesto, published on 9th April, particularly due to the pledge to scrap the unpopular tampon tax. Women’s sanitary products are currently classified as ‘nonessential luxury items’ and are subject to VAT, whereas men’s razors are not. Under current EU law, items that have previously been taxed cannot have tax completely removed from them.
Head of Policy Suzanne Evans asserts that “no other party can pledge to take this simple step” as leaving the EU makes up the foundation of UKIP’s manifesto. UKIP has managed to conflate women’s issues with their negative view of the EU, a tactic that seems particularly cynical when coming from a party that has such a terrible track record regarding women’s rights. A few examples of this include Farage’s branding female city high-flyers as ‘worth less’ to employers if they have children, and MEP Stuart Agnew’s comment that women don’t have the ambition to reach top professional positions because babies ‘get in the way’. UKIP MEPs have consistently failed to represent women’s interests in the European Parliament, voting against or failing to turn up to votes on equal pay, tackling FGM, and eradicating violence against women.
Although it can be argued that the term ‘women’s issues’ is something of a misnomer, it’s essential that we remember that there are issues that disproportionately affect women. If we lived in a more equal society, where women did not shoulder the burden of austerity, face workplace inequality, experience a pay gap, or live their lives at a greater risk of domestic violence and sexual assault, there wouldn’t need to be ‘women’s issues’. There would just be ‘issues’.  Childcare, parental leave, and the low pay of care workers should be a priority for both men and women, but this is currently not the case, and as Helen Lewis writes in New Statesman, ‘robbing us of the right to call [care work, childcare etc.] a “women’s issue” is robbing us of the right to speak at all’.

Sex education in the UK: time for a far-reaching overhaul

First published by Open Democracy, Tuesday 31st March 2015

Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?
I don’t remember much about my own sex education lessons, other than an overwhelming sense of dread. We were taught about the terrifying prospect of pregnancy and about numerous sexually transmitted infections, with accompanying graphic images on laminated pieces of card. I was terrified that the teacher was going to talk about same sex relationships, knowing that it would lead to shouts of ‘dyke’ and my peers putting chewing gum in my hair. I realise now, of course, that if LGBT relationships and their validity had been discussed, the nightmare of homophobic bullying I endured during high school could’ve been dealt with much more effectively.
Everyone has a different story about their experiences of sex education, but the thread that runs through all of them speaks of inadequacy. Too little, too late, too biased, too focussed on the mechanics, too weird, too awkward, too many gaps. When 40% of teenage girls have been pressured into sex, and 22% surveyed by the NSPCC said that they had been subjected to physical violence by a boyfriend, including punching, slapping, strangling and being beaten with an object, it’s pretty clear that our approach to sex education needs an immediate and far-reaching overhaul.
The NSPCC’s report also found that the UK had the highest rate of children and teens sending explicit sexual images. 40% of the girls who had sent sexual pictures to a boyfriend said that their partner had then shared the images with other people. 39% of boys admitted to watching porn regularly, and 25% were shown to harbour extremely negative attitudes about women. In order to tackle these issues, sex and relationships education urgently needs to address them. The epidemic of sexual harassment and assault on our university campuses doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If children are taught early on about the essential nature of enthusiastic consent, and about the harmful culture of victim-blaming and rape myths, I believe that the prevalence of sexual violence can be combatted effectively and young people of all genders can be mutually supportive, rather than in opposition to one another.
Grace attends a selective state school. She wishes there had been more than a very basic model of safe sex and some ‘gory’ STI photos discussed, and describes her sex education as “totally penis-centred, with the vagina barely mentioned, let alone the parts labelled”. She says “there was absolutely no talk about consent or even what consensual sex means, or mention of anything other than heterosexual couples. Consent should be the most crucial thing when teaching young people about sex and when things like foreplay aren’t even mentioned, it’s unsurprising that teenagers turn to porn to answer their questions”.
Porn is currently a point of contention in the debate over what should be taught to children and teenagers in their sex education lessons. A leading Danish sexologist is calling for pornography in be shown in classrooms as part of a healthy, well-rounded sex education curriculum, so that teenagers can be“conscientious and critical consumers” who can tell the difference between fantasy and real relationships. Although there are those who think that young people are more than capable of separating the fantasy of mainstream porn, with its false focus on spontaneity and predilection for showing women in a subordinate and submissive role, if sex education is inadequate, it’s likely that porn will be used to fill in the gaps.
Anyone who opposes the expansion of sex education in the name of protecting childhood innocence is living in a fantasy land. Unless you cut your child off from all forms of technology and contact with other children (and their laptops and smartphones), you cannot prevent children from accessing or being shown pornography.
Teenagers need to be equipped with the critical tools that will allow them to view commercial sex as exactly what it is, rather than a guide to how they should behave in the real world. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes in the Guardian, that “young women have told me how surprised they have been when, during sex, hands have been placed around their necks, their hair has been pulled so hard they’ve wept, their faces and breasts have been ejaculated on without consent”, citing these stories as examples of how pornography has infiltrated the relationships of teenagers.
It’s also important to consider the differences in the kind of information given at faith-based schools, as opposed to the sex education curricula taught at non-denominational, secular places of learning. Claire attended a Catholic school in the 1990s and remembers attitudes to contraception being very poor. “There was a page missing from our biology text books and when we looked in the index to find out what was missing, it was the page on contraception. Our main sex education was delivered during an event called “family day” at a nearby convent where we mainly talked about adult life, getting jobs, having a family etc. This included a very uncomfortable talk from our form tutor who talked about how God only approves of the kind of sex that can make babies… so using your mouth or hand is very bad.”
Little appears to have changed in terms of how sex education is delivered at faith-based schools. Charlotte left school five years ago, and remembers her sex education at a Catholic school as “extremely biased and confusing, particularly to people who didn’t define as heterosexual. We were shown abortion videos and given a slut-shaming talk by people who told us we had to wait until marriage to have sex”. Female oral sex was never mentioned, but Charlotte was told that “giving your husband a blowjob is the most intimate thing you can do”. The teacher described this as part of a wife’s “emotional responsibility” to her husband.
There’s obviously a conflict of interests here. Some parents will inevitably choose to send their children to religious schools because they want them to receive teaching that is influenced by religious doctrine. Unfortunately, this is extremely harmful when it comes to sex education, as teenagers are often provided with information that is objectively false, that leaves out crucial material, and is inherently detrimental to young women when they are shamed for showing an interest in sex or becoming sexually active. All children and teenagers, regardless of whether they come from Catholic, Church of England, Muslim or secular backgrounds, deserve to receive unbiased information about sex and relationships, so that they are able to make their own, informed choices about their lives and bodies.
If teachers aren’t correctly trained to deliver a meaningful sex and relationships curriculum, it’s essential that schools employ outreach and youth workers who can pick up the baton in this area. Schools should be equipped to provide honest information about LGBT relationships and gender identity, so that gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender students are not excluded from sex education. Teenage years are full of exploration and are often the time when young people are discovering and coming to terms with their sexuality.
It’s important that we don’t overlook the interest teenagers have in the fundamental questions about sex and relationships. Young people need to be aware of the building blocks that will help them form healthy, mutually pleasurable relationships, including creating foundations of trust and respect. Otherwise, the myth that sex is something men should attempt to get from women (at all costs) and sex is something women should withhold from men (to prevent them being denigrated as ‘sluts’ or ‘easy’) will continue to be perpetuated.
The government’s plans to introduce the teaching of consent to children aged 11 are definitely a step in the right direction, but do they go far enough? The series of lesson plans on the meaning and importance of consent, produced by the Personal Social Heath and Economic Education Association (PSHEA), were backed by ministers but not made a compulsory part of the curriculum. This means that teaching of consent may be cursory or sporadic, and some schools may choose to ignore the lesson plans altogether.
The need for a more comprehensive sex and relationships curriculum is urgent. By providing young people with unbiased and broad-ranging information on consent, mutual respect, mutual pleasure, pornography, and the meaning of rape culture, structural problems of sexism and sexual violence can be challenged early on. It’s essential that teenagers are able to navigate sex and relationships in a safe and informed manner, so that their personal lives can be fulfilling and independent, and free from harmful misinformation and abuse.

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