Don’t condemn Donald Trump because ‘it could have been your wife or daughter’, or you’re a sexist too

In a leaked tape from 2005, Republican nominee Donald Trump can be heard bragging to TV host Billy Bush about how he is able to use his fame to sexually assault women.

First published by The Independent, 9th October 2016

In a leaked tape from 2005, Republican nominee Donald Trump can be heard bragging to TV host Billy Bush about how he is able to use his fame to sexually assault women. He describes his attempt to “fuck” a married woman and his penchant for kissing and groping women without waiting for them to give consent. He tells Bush that “you can do anything”, even “grab them by the pussy”, if you’re famous.

Several key Republican figures have been swift to condemn Trump, including Mitt Romney who tweeted: “Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.” Former 2016 Republican hopeful Ted Cruz, who has backed himself into an increasingly tight and embarrassing corner by his flip-flop endorsement for Trump, tweeted: “Every wife, mother, daughter – every person – deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”

The key word here is “person”. Every woman deserves to be treated with dignity and respect because she is a person, not because she’s a wife, mother or daughter. This couching of women as appendages to their husbands, fathers and offspring suggests that men might not be able to see Trump’s comments as “bad” if they can’t imagine women as being intimately connected to them. They can’t – or won’t – empathise with women as fellow human beings; they will only go so far as to think of their wives.

Trump is currently polling at near-unseen levels of unpopularity among female voters. He has previously referred to women as “dogs”, “pigs” and “slobs”, accused Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly of being on her period because she asked him difficult questions in the first primary debate, and called a Venezuelan winner of the Miss Universe pageant “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping”. When taken to task over the last incident, Trump falsely claimed that Alicia Machado had made a sex tape, as if that would in some way discredit her.

Trump was sued for sexual harassment in 1997, with the plaintiff Jill Harth describing him groping her, pushing her against a wall and trying to kiss her. Reportedly, she remembers vomiting to keep him away from her. She dropped the lawsuit a few weeks after it had been filed, but has restated her allegations this year. Trump’s former wife Ivanka used the word “rape” to describe an assault by Trump during a deposition in the 1990s.

After the tape of Trump’s blatantly misogynistic comments was released, former Miss Utah Temple Taggart has recounted an instance of Trump kissing her on the lips without consent when she was 21, and CNN anchor Erin Burnett has quoted a statement from a female friend describing the same behaviour, right down to the Tic Tacs.

He might have released an apology video, but Trump’s attempt to say sorry quickly devolved into an attack on the Clintons, accusing Bill Clinton of abusing women and Hillary Clinton of bullying her husband’s alleged victims. Trump has since retweeted a woman who claims to have been raped by Bill Clinton, as though he can make the latest blundering controversy go away by making the Clintons appear even more monstrous in the eyes of the public. This is a strange strategy for a man with a current federal lawsuit filed against him, brought by “Jane Doe”, a woman who claims to have been tied to a bed, hit in the face, and raped by Trump when she was 13 years old. Jane Doe has the support of a witness and describes her rape as occurring when she attended the party of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted paedophile. Trump has always denied the allegations.

Former model and Trump’s third wife  Melania has urged voters to forgive her husband in a statement issued by the Trump campaign. She said: “I hope people will accept his apology, as I have, and focus on the important issues facing our nation and the world.” Unfortunately, Trump’s heinous comments are part of the “important issues facing our nation and the world”, because they are part of rape culture.

Rape culture describes a social environment where the bodily autonomy of women is not recognised, where rape and sexual assault are normalised, and where men are not held accountable for their actions. In the leaked tape, Trump’s remarks manage to neatly espouse all three of those attitudes. He was demonstrably proud of how his celebrity status allowed him to kiss and touch women without their consent. This is sexual assault. This is a violation of women. This tells women that their bodies are not their own: they are merely objects to be fondled by men who know they can get away with it.

Canadian writer Kelly Oxford appealed on Twitter for women to share their stories of “pussy-grabbing” after Trump’s memorable remarks from 2005 were leaked, and was met with an outpouring of grief, pain and heartbreaking resignation. Millions of women responded with their experiences of sexual assault and rape culture and replies flooded in at a rate of 50 per minute, for 14 hours. I added my own story to the cacophony of voices.

Trump is a dangerous, grotesque political parody, and should be removed from the presidential race. His misogyny is so unabashed and so obvious that he shouldn’t be entrusted with a community bake sale, much less the White House. If he hasn’t got the decency to drop out of the race, I can only hope that America’s women will use their votes on 8 November to send a clear message.

We are not pussies to be grabbed. We are people.

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

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.

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.

Is there really no rape culture in the West?

Laura Southern, a reporter with TheRebel, attended a SlutWalk demonstration in Vancouver yesterday and held up a placard reading “There is no rape culture in the West”.

First published by The Independent, 11th June 2015

Laura Southern, a reporter with TheRebel, attended a SlutWalk demonstration in Vancouver yesterday and held up a placard reading “There is no rape culture in the West”.

It really made me think: wow, how completely wrong can someone be?

The term “rape culture” was first used by feminists in the 1970s, and unfortunately remains relevant today. It describes a culture where acts of sexual violence are normalised, and rapists protected by public opinion.

Approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year, which on average is just over 230 a day. And over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted every year. Why might this be? What else can possibly explain this ugly phenomenon?


1. Women are taught ‘not to be raped’

Above: Two examples of poster campaigns from the NHS (L) and Sussex Police (R) that have been accused on victim blaming Above: Two examples of poster campaigns from the NHS (L) and Sussex Police (R) that have been accused on victim blaming

From anti-rape nail polish to the “hairy leg stockings”, women are expected to take precautions to prevent rape. The responsibility for rape is placed upon the shoulders of women, which feeds neatly into a culture of victim blaming and slut-shaming. The idea that women are ‘asking for it’ if they’re drinking or out late or wearing a short skirt or walking home alone, is very pervasive.

It conveniently denies the fact that women are raped in baggy clothes and burkas and in their homes and at work and at all times of the day and when they’re stone cold sober. Which would we prefer? A society where women are hyper vigilant in guarding themselves against rape and are suspicious and fearful of men, or one where men don’t rape?


2. Rape isn’t believed, or goes unreported

False reports of rape are often pounced on by the media and “anti-feminists”, despite the fact that false reports of rape are no more common than false reports of any other crime. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) states that false reports of rape are ‘very rare’ and make up only 1 per cent of cases.

However, the myth that it’s common for women to lie or make up stories about rape discourages many victims from reporting their experiences to the police. CPS estimated in 2012 that as many as nine in ten rapes are never reported.  It’s hardly surprising, when some survivors of rape are even pressured into dropping charges by the police.


3. Rape is trivialized within pop culture

Sansa Stark and Ramsay Bolton in the terrible wedding scene in Game of Thrones season five Sansa Stark and Ramsay Bolton in the terrible wedding scene in Game of Thrones season five

From rape jokes to the way sexual violence is presented in films and TV shows (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones), rape is routinely normalized and trivialized in popular culture. It’s used as a shock tactic, and as a lazy way to definite male characters or paint a setting as “gritty” and “dangerous”.

More often than not, the effects of rape are not explored and the impact on the victim is skipped over. In the UK, 1 in 5 women between the ages of 16 and 59 have experienced some form of sexual violence. 1 in 3 female university students have been the victims of sexual assault. So maybe it’s time we stopped making it into a punchline, and instead presented sexual violence in a more meaningful and nuanced way.


4. Consent isn’t understood in the way it should be

As a society, we still seem to operate with the belief that unless the victim screams “no!” and fights back, it cannot possibly be rape. This feeds into the idea that there are “grey areas” when it comes to sexual assault, and that certain kinds of rape are “worse than others’”.

Survivors are further discouraged from reporting to the police, because they believe that what happened to them wasn’t serious enough or violent enough to be considered “real rape”.  But the bottom line is very simple.  Only yes means yes.  Sex without consent is rape.


5. We believe unhelpful myths about who can be a rapist and victim

The idea that rapes are carried out by psychotic strangers in dark alleyways still holds great cultural sway. We find it very difficult to reconcile our collective selves with the fact that anyone can be a rapist, because it’s such an uncomfortable truth. Rape Crisis England & Wales estimates that 90 per cent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.

And it’s not just young, attractive, cisgender women who are raped. Women and girls can be raped at any age, regardless of their class, culture, race, faith, ability or sexuality. Although it’s largely those who identify as female who are the victims of rape, those who identify as men can be raped too (and it’s believed that 9,000 are every year).

And yes, there are also women who perpetrate sexual violence, just like there are men raped by other men. Trans men can be raped. Trans women can be raped. Which is to say, there is no hierarchy – the experiences of all victims are valid.

All of the above is rape culture in action. It’s not made up. Laura Southern is either misinformed, or wilfully closing her eyes to the reality of rape culture. The West that Southern appears to believe in sounds very pleasant, but it’s a complete fantasy.

It’s not just banter: the epidemic of sexism on university campuses

University campuses should be the most progressive places in Britain, taking a revolutionary approach to gender politics and sexual equality, and aflame with a vibrant intellectual culture.

First published by Open Democracy, 10th March 2015
I was on a Manchester Magic Bus at 11:30 on a Friday night. It was packed with boozy students, travelling from the student district of Fallowfield to the city centre for a night on the town. I usually try not to take too much notice of what’s going on around me on the bus, but it was so noisy that I had no choice but to pay attention.
A young man was standing in the middle of the lower deck of the bus, taking a selfie. When asked why, he shouted that he wanted to ‘get the freak in the picture’, referring to a girl sitting behind him who was dressed in a steampunk-style ensemble. The guy’s friends found this absolutely hysterical, and suddenly it felt like the entire bus was laughing at one girl, dressed differently, sitting alone, her head bent and cheeks scarlet. The young man responsible took his seat again and proceeded to show his mates pictures of girls he had allegedly slept with, shouting sexual details about them, while the group loudly rated them out of ten.
It wasn’t a huge incident, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I’d witnessed bullying, pure and simple, of a girl on her own by a loud-mouthed sexist who had no qualms about sharing pictures of and intimate details about girls he’d *maybe* bedded. His behaviour and that of his friends turned the public space of the bus into their space, where they could bully and behave like sexist dicks with impunity. It felt like an unpleasant microcosm of the worst of student behaviour; where the privileged control a space that’s meant to be for everyone, and show utter disrespect for women and anyone who is different from them.
University campuses should be the most progressive places in Britain, taking a revolutionary approach to gender politics and sexual equality, and aflame with a vibrant intellectual culture. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The prevalence of sexist attitudes of campus and the quotidian nature of harassment and assault means that the university experience is sullied for many attendees.
There is an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault occurring on university campuses across Britain and it must be recognised and dealt with as a matter of urgency. One in five women in the UK are victims of sexual offences, and one in three female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances or sexual assault, yet universities seem reluctant to deal with the sexism rooted in campus culture, like a malignant cancer.
University lecturers are not exempt and can contribute to the drip, drip of sexism that students are exposed to. Hanna* attended a prestigious film school, where female students were told to ‘marry rich, girls’ during a talk on how to set up a successful business. Tutors would also refer to some male producers are ‘difficult’ while difficult female producers were ‘ugly’ or ‘bitches’.
Jess* was raped in her second year of university, by her boyfriend, while she slept. “At the time, I knew what he’d done was wrong, but I wasn’t brave enough to call it rape. At 20, I saw rape as a very black-and-white situation- I pictured rape as women having to be held down and screaming, – and I thought maybe it didn’t count.”
She didn’t report the experience because she didn’t think the university administration would take it seriously. “So many people are judgemental, and do see rape victims as attention seekers or lovers of drama, and I am still too scared to face what others think of me.” The toxic nature of rape culture at university means that rape is treated as a source of amusement and in some cases, the police and university admin figures are complicit in silencing students who have been assaulted. The majority of sexual assaults in Britain are not reported, with 80% of participants in a 2012 Mumsnet survey choosing not to go to the police.
I can’t talk about campus sexism without mentioning ‘lad culture’. The NUS’‘That’s What She Said’ report on campus sexism explores the nature and impact of lad culture more comprehensively than I am able to in this article, but a few points bear repeating. One of the key aspects of lad culture is a focus on sexist ‘banter’, speaking about female students (particularly female sports players) in a denigrating and disrespectful way, and making women feel excluded and unwelcome in public and campus spaces. The more that female students are dehumanised and viewed as things rather than people, the easier it is for male students to justify acts of sexual abuse and violence. The NUS research shows that 50 per cent of participants in the study identified ‘prevailing sexism, laddism and a culture of harassment’ at the universities they attend.
Let’s not forget the famous Uni Lad article entitled ‘Sexual Mathematics’ that included this: “If the girl you’ve taken for a drink… won’t ‘spread for your head’, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds … Uni Lad does not condone rape without saying ‘surprise’.” Or the Oxford University Ruby Club email that encouraged members to spike the drinks of their fresher dates.
Arriving at university as a fresher, I was warned about second and third year boys ‘sharking’ on newbie girls, as getting to ‘fuck a fresher’ gained them serious ‘points’. My male fresher friends were given no such advice. Throughout my three years of undergraduate, I laboured under the misapprehension that in a club, it was totally normal to be groped by strangers, and to move around the venue with friends, ‘hiding’ from the guy who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. Now, I feel horrified and upset that a stranger grabbing my body uninvited was just a regular part of a night out.
‘Lad culture’ on campus is often excused as harmless, as simple bonding among male students, or as ironic ‘banter’. Some dismiss critics of lad culture as classist, attacking a particular strain of working class male behaviour, when in reality lad culture has very little to do with social class. I attended an overwhelmingly privileged university, where proponents of lad culture were largely privately educated and wealthy.
When Lucy* moved to university, it was the first time she’d lived away from home. “A couple of weeks in, I met this second year guy, and we started seeing each other casually. Then one night, a couple of months in, I was out for a friend’s birthday and he said he had loads of friends staying and they were continuing the night at his, and I should come back too. I’d stayed at his before, and he always made sure I got home safe, so I thought it would be fine.
After we all hung out for a while, we got set up for the night. It was like a proper sleep over, with all the guys in sleeping bags and everything on the floor. I got to sleep in the bed with the guy I was seeing. Lucky me.
It was the guy I was seeing and his best friend who raped me, with four other guys in the room, none of whom stepped in to help me. At one point, I vaguely remember one of them telling me to shut up crying because they were trying to sleep. The guy I was seeing actually asked his mate “are you finished with her?”, and then handed me his joggers to sleep in.”
Lucy says that the bullying that followed was worse than the assault itself. “The guys in the room told everyone that I had slept with these two guys in front of everyone. It got back to my flatmates. The male flatmates were the worst. I stopped going out, but when they went out they would get home and shout abuse through my door. They would make loud sex noises outside my room, screaming my name, and the name of the guy who had raped me.
Sometimes they even had one guy being the rapist, and the other screaming and crying, obviously meant to be me. They wrote insults on all my stuff, like if I left notebooks of uni work in the kitchen, I would get it back later with the word “slut” scrawled all over the front. They drew obscene drawings onto post it notes and stuck them all over my bedroom door. Some of these drawings would actually be accurate to how the guys had pinned me down on the bed.”
Lucy’s story is horrific and it is not unique. A third of male university students said that they would rape a woman if there were no consequences involved.
University campuses should be spaces of academic growth that are comfortable and welcoming for all students, not just the white, heterosexual male portion of them. As a response to sexism and lad culture, some young women join in with misogynistic banter and harassment, perhaps so that they don’t feel at risk of being on the receiving end of it. Others become withdrawn, policing their own behaviour, not speaking out in seminars, avoiding social activities and moderating the way they dress. Some victims of sexual assault, like Lucy drop out of their courses altogether. Oxford and Cambridge’s ‘consent classes’ are a step towards creating a healthy culture where enthusiastic consent is viewed by all students as an essential part of sex, but more needs to happen, and more quickly.
It’s time to put an end to this pervasive atmosphere of exclusion and harassment on campus, to stand up to every inch of the sliding scale of sexism and encourage university tutors, administrators and union reps to do the same. Sexism, harassment, misogyny and abuse should have no place in higher education and both male and female students need to stand shoulder to shoulder against it.
*names have been changed to protect identities

Sam Pepper and Why Street Harassment Isn’t Funny


It seems painfully obvious to state that sexually assaulting women is not ‘funny’ or a ‘prank’. It should also go without saying that you can’t smooth things over when you’ve done something unpleasant to women, by doing the same unpleasant thing to men.

Sam Pepper, a popular YouTuber and former Big Brother contestant, uploaded a video over the weekend that shows him approaching various women in the street, and groping their bums without their consent. The ‘Fake Hand Ass Pinch Prank’ gathered more than a million views before it was removed from YouTube for violating their Terms of Service.

Viewers were angry, partially because what Pepper did was vile, but also because the majority of women have at some point experienced sexual harassment in a public place and the video’s content was all too familiar. The widespread nature of street harassment means that it forms an ugly canvas, against which our interactions on public transport and in public spaces are painted. It includes catcalls, whistling, sexual comments, groping, flashing and masturbation. It is so prolific that the Everyday Sexism campaign, founded by Laura Bates, receives thousands of tweets every week from men and women sharing their experiences of harassment, and currently has 172,000 followers.

We recognise street harassment because we’re so used to it, and this is why Pepper’s video was not welcomed by the online community. It doesn’t matter who is grabbing your boobs or bum without your permission, whether it’s a ‘creepy old man’ or a young, famous YouTuber. The effect is the same. It compromises bodily autonomy – meaning that your body is no longer yours when in public. It becomes common property, of men who feel able to touch you without resistance or consequence. The same anger and fear and shame is present, along with the weary sense that as a woman in public, you’re forced to put up with this shit.

Sam Pepper has more than 2.4 million subscribers on YouTube, and the majority are young girls. They should not be shown that sexual harassment is a funny or profitable prank that garners viewers while leaving the person being groped without consent as the butt of the joke.

YouTuber Laci Green, who broadcasts a popular sex education series, has released an articulate open letter, addressed to Pepper and signed by several internet stars, including Hank and John Green, Meghan Tonjes, Tyler Oakley and Wil Wheaton. Sam Pepper has released two new videos, explaining his intentions. One shows a female actor pinching the behinds of unsuspecting men, as though by reversing the roles Pepper has made a point with his sad little stunt. Someone should let him know that harassing men doesn’t make up for harassing women.

If the women in the first video are, as Pepper now claims, were actors who were fully aware of the situation, the question of why he turned assault or staged-assault into a prank remains pertinent. Would he have revealed that the women were in on the ‘joke’ had the backlash not been so strong? I suspect not, and kindly request that Pepper keeps his ill-conceived ‘social experiments’ and hands to himself in future. Where’s the unsubscribe button?

Lesbophobia is Alive and Well

It seems that there’s still a lot of rigid stereotyping going on when it comes to queer women and what they should look like.

First published in The Independent Friday 13th December 2013

My girlfriend and I were finishing our drinks in a pub in Cardiff. We shared a brief kiss and got up to leave. I was half-way to the door when I realised that a group of men were loudly applauding us and one was filming on his phone.

The incident wasn’t just intimidating. As a woman in a lesbian relationship, it made me feel that my girlfriend and I were being considered ‘entertainment’ by these men. Like we were something exotic from a porn set. Like our affection for each other existed for the personal pleasure of those outside our relationship.According to female friends who are also in relationships with women, these aren’t isolated incidents. Comments like “can I get in on that?” or “I’d pay to see a bit more of that” when we kiss are just as threatening and unpleasant as homophobic name-calling. These statements devalue the relationship. They make it into a sexy show that’s put on for the satisfaction of others. Since when does this happen with heterosexual couples?

I think this occurs because we like to put people in boxes, and we get annoyed when this doesn’t work out. Elizabeth, 23, says “it’s like people feel uncomfortable if they can’t pick out those who are gay in a crowd according to their own stereotypes”.

It seems that there’s still a lot of rigid stereotyping going on when it comes to queer women and what they should look like. Lesbians who look more masculine or androgynous are more easily recognised as gay, but being traditionally feminine-looking means that people don’t know until you start holding your girlfriend’s hand or publically displaying affection. I find it very strange that there are expectations regarding how a lesbian or a woman in a lesbian relationship ‘should’ dress or present themselves. Surely queer women are just like all other women, varied and all unique.

This seems to be an issue that has seeped into the LGBT community itself. Poppy, 21, says “I was in a bar in Manchester’s gay district and another lesbian asked me to prove my sexuality by getting off with her friend. They didn’t believe I was gay because I didn’t look a certain way.”
Statistics from the ONS indicate that more than twice as many men identify as gay than women. Is this because there genuinely aren’t very many lesbians out there? Perhaps feeling intimidated by inappropriate comments or like you have to look a certain way to identify as a lesbian has something to do with the relatively low numbers of young women coming out.

This kind of ‘lesbophobia’ is alive and well, but gains are being made for the LGBT community. Last week, the Montreal bar Le Manoir issued an official apology to a lesbian couple who were asked to leave the establishment because they were kissing. It’s important for queer women to feel accepted and comfortable in public, unafraid that they will be the target of sexualised remarks or the institutional homophobia demonstrated by the manager of Le Manoir. I’d like more lesbians and particularly more ‘feminine’ lesbians to feel comfortable coming out. I’d also like guys to stop catcalling or clapping me and my other half when we go for a drink. Yes, we’re wearing dresses and no, you can’t get in on that.

‘Carrie’ is back in cinemas today. But horror is still being let down by films that hate women

Innovative horror is meant to push boundaries. Too much falls back on misogyny.

First published in The Independent Voices 29th November 2013

I love horror. I love the jumps, the winces, the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a satisfying scare. There are lots of laudable things about the genre that are often overlooked, such as its ability to explore social fears in a way that other types of film do not. What happens when the good guys don’t win or when the rule of law is subverted or made irrelevant? What happens when the familiar (the home, our children, our partners) becomes unfamiliar or invaded by outside forces (hauntings, home invasions, possessions, abductions, psychosis)? Good, innovative horror is meant to push boundaries and challenge audiences, to shake them out of cinematic torpor and force them to really think. A horror film can allow a build-up and release of extreme emotion that will be cathartically left behind when one exits the cinema.

As Kimberly Pierce’s remake of the Stephen King classic Carrie opens in the UK today, I find myself wondering why horror claims so few female directors and so few films with female villains. The ABCs of Death 2 launched a competition in August, searching for the 26th director to be included in their feature length collaboration. According to only seven of the 78 entries to date have been from female filmmakers. The Carrie remake is both directed by a woman and populated largely by female characters with varied motivations and personalities, none of whom represent the standard Final Girl seen in male-directed, big budget slasher flicks.However, there is a subcategory within horror that substantiates uncomfortable claims of misogyny within the genre.  This is a strand of horror that seems to really hate women. It revolves solely around the rape and torture of female characters, with little in the way of plot, script, or motive. Examples of this include The Bunny Game (2012, Adam Rehmeier) where a prostitute is tortured and sexually abused for a grim 76 minutes, Murder Set Pieces (2004, Nick Palumbo) that shows ‘The Photographer’ hacking his way through a collection of prostitutes, Scrapbook (2000, Eric Stanze) that involves the kidnap, repeated rape and torture of a young woman and August Underground (2001, Fred Vogel) that opens with a nude, bound women who has had her nipple cut off and proceeds to endure having her face smeared with human excrement before she is killed. I’m also going to add Lucifer Valentine’s Slaughtered Vomit Dolls (2006) to this list because, puking fetish awfulness aside, all the women are naked, all the women are prostitutes, and all but one of them (she is required to star in the equally repellent sequels) are murdered by a male character.

My point here is not that rape and torture have no place on celluloid or that their inclusion in a film cannot make a legitimate artistic or political statement. Rather, that the films detailed above and those like them, are not saying anything. They seem to merely represent a plotless, pointless mass of ugly misogyny that does nothing to challenge its own sheer unpleasantness. (I guess a plotline or some non-victimised female characters would be too much to ask for.)

The Bunny Game is banned from being legally distributed in the UK and the BBFC states that “the lack of explanation of the events depicted, and the stylistic treatment, may encourage some viewers to enjoy and share in the man’s callousness”. It is this indolent lack of explanation and absence of motive that makes me certain that this subgenre of material presents sexual degradation and torture for its own sake.  The only questions I came away with post-viewing were regarding who the hell the target audience was supposed to be, and where I could find some strong soap to wash my eyes with. Far be it from me to use the phrase ‘artistically worthless’, but the boot certainly seems to fit.
More disturbingly, there are virtually no examples of gender reversal within this subgenre. Female killers are simply not as common as their male counterparts and when they do exist, they seem to at least have some kind of motive or backstory behind them, for example Misery’s Annie Wilkes. Even within the rape/revenge category, when the revenge bit occurs and the female protagonist regains agency by torturing and killing those who have wronged her, it is because of her victim status for the first 50/60 minutes of film. It is not random. Moreover, sexual violence in horror films is rarely perpetrated by female characters but no other genre seems to toss around scenes of violent rape enacted on female bodies so frequently.

Horror is being let down by these unpleasant fringe elements, by films that are at best sloppy, poorly written and unimaginative, and at worst, revel in violence against female bodies like pigs in shit. I’d like to see more female directors being successful in horror and for fans of indie horror to take a stand, through their choices of purchases and downloads, against films that lightly and lazily portray female degradation and powerlessness, in the wake of male violence. They are not welcome. They give the genre a bad name.

My favourite horror films, directed by women:

American Mary (Jen and Sylvia Soska, 2012) – A struggling medical student decides to eschew her course in favour of performing extreme body modifications and niche surgeries. Lashings of gross-out moments and asks some important questions about self-expression, femininity and the status of medical professionals.
Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001) – Cannibalism, desire and obsession. Part of the New French Extremity movement, which boasts some of the cleverest and bloodiest titles in modern horror.
In My Skin (Marina de Van, 2002) – After suffering a disfiguring accident, a woman becomes obsessed with mutilating her own body. Another New French Extremity film, exploring the disassociation women often feel towards their own physicality.
American Pyscho (Mary Harron, 2000) – If you haven’t already seen this adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ horrifying masterpiece, I suggest you do so, and fast! Shallowness, narcissism, pop-culture and murderous rampages all come together in this biting 21st century satire.