Saturday, 26 November 2011

(UPDATED) An open letter to Steve Burton, Transport for London's Director of Community Safety, Enforcement and Policing

On Tuesday night I was watching tv with a couple of my female housemates. An ad break came on and suddenly we were watching a simulated rape. It was the latest development in Transport for London's victim-blaming Cabwise campaign. The current ad isn't on Youtube yet but it's similar to previous ads. As the advert finished we all felt disturbed and deeply unhappy that TfL felt that was an appropriate way to spread the message that unlicensed cabs can be dangerous.

Back in October last year, I wrote a blog post about the Cabwise campaign in reference to a poster I'd seen, so I almost felt there was no reason to have another go this time around. Then, thanks to being on the TfL mailing list, I received this email:

Dear Ms Jones,
I am writing to remind you that unbooked minicabs picked up off the street are dangerous and put you at risk of sexual assault. The safest way to get a minicab home is to:
Book it - by phone, email or in a minicab office to guarantee your trip is carried out by a licensed, insured driver and vehicle
Check it’s yours - ask the driver to confirm your name and destination before you get in the car, and check the driver’s photo ID
Sit in the back - and carry your mobile in case of an emergency
Our Cabwise text service makes it easier to find and book a licensed minicab or taxi near you. Text CAB to 60835* to receive three local cab numbers.
For further details please visit Yours sincerely,
Steve Burton
Director of Community Safety, Enforcement and Policing
Since he'd gone to all the trouble of contacting me, I thought I'd let him know what I thought of his handiwork. If you are unhappy with the Cabwise campaign I invite to you contact him at

Dear Steve,

Thank you for this timely reminder. After seeing the latest Cabwise television advert last night I had been planning to contact TfL to complain about it.

I am glad that you recognise how huge and serious a problem it is that large numbers of women are raped by unlicensed cab drivers each year. I understand that Transport for London appears to believe that the best way to combat this horrific reality is to scare women out of taking unlicensed taxi cabs. However, my concern is that this approach is both deeply harmful and utterly unhelpful both for rape survivors and those who will go on to suffer the same fate in the future.

The advert makes every effort to simulate the experience of a rape. This is no doubt intended to be "hard hitting", to make women stop and think before they make a decision about how to get home. What doesn't appear to have been considered is the effect this advert will have on the millions of women in this country who have survived rape and sexual assault. Without any shadow of a doubt, that advert will force them to relive a deeply traumatic experience and trigger memories they may have struggled for years to put behind them. This approach has been used by Cabwise time and time again. In October 2010 I wrote a blog post about a poster I saw displayed in tube stations ( Please note the comment underneath: "My girlfriend has been raped and she relives that awful moment every time she sees this advert on TV."

As I wrote then, TfL appears to be of the opinion that creating pain and trauma for rape victims is a necessary price to raise awareness of the dangers of unlicensed cabs. I might find that more convincing if the adverts didn't also actively contribute to a culture of victim blaming that can only serve to hurt future rape victims.

Every Cabwise advert I have ever witnessed, both on television and displayed in tube stations, puts the responsibility for rape firmly on the victim. Your latest television ad tells us: "know what you're getting into". The poster I wrote about before read, "whether you approach the driver, or they approach you, there's no record of the journey and you're putting yourself in danger". To reiterate, the message is that if you get raped after taking an unlicensed taxi, it's because you put yourself in danger. I can hardly believe I have to say this, but: the only person to blame for rape is the rapist. The reason why so many women are raped by unlicensed cab drivers is not that women persist in taking unlicensed cabs, it is that drivers of unlicensed cabs choose to rape women.

If you genuinely want to help end the rape that is happening on your watch, you need to figure out how to get unlicensed drivers off the streets and how to prevent them posing a danger to women. Your approach will not end rape. What it does is encourages victims to blame themselves and discourages them from coming forward and taking their attacker to justice.

Please put yourself for a moment into the shoes of a woman who has been raped after taking an unlicensed cab and sees your adverts. The message she receives is that she caused it; she is responsible for it; she is to blame for it. After all, she'll think, she should have "known what she was getting into". It is extremely common for victims of rape and sexual assault to examine their own behaviour and seek any possible wrongdoing on their part so that they can make sense of the attack by blaming themselves. Your ad campaign encourages this.

This will prevent women reporting their attacker and trying to get a conviction. If she's to blame, why should the police listen to her? Why should a judge take her seriously? She'll probably also be put off seeking support from her friends and family or from professionals, as her experience then becomes a source of shame and guilt for her - when the only person who should be feeling ashamed and guilty is the rapist.

It's also extremely harmful to perpetuate the idea that women can prevent being raped by taking safety precautions. The fact is that the vast majority of rape victims do not experience what Ken Clarke earlier this year termed "classic rape". They do not usually suffer at the hands of a stranger who leapt out from behind a bush or grabbed them in the back of his taxi. The vast majority are raped by someone they already know, usually a partner or ex partner, usually in their home or a similar space which is not generally understood to be risky or dangerous. Telling women that they can avoid rape by avoiding unlicensed taxis is fundamentally untrue and unhelpful.

All the feedback I have seen from rape support and campaigning groups about the Cabwise adverts has been negative, so I'm inclined to believe that you did not consult any such groups in planning this ongoing ad campaign, which, given its content, seems like an inexcusable oversight. I would invite you to consider some of the much more constructive work on rape prevention which has been done in the last few years: for example, Lambeth Council's Know the Difference campaign or the Not Ever campaign by Rape Crisis Scotland. These both recognise what Cabwise resolutely fails to: that the only way to stop rape is to stop men from committing it. I also invite you to read some of the anonymous accounts of their experiences rape and sexual assault survivors have written and shared on the collaborative blog We're Telling. I am happy to recommend further reading which may help you and your team to develop an understanding of the complex issues surrounding rape and sexual assault.

In the interests of full disclosure I should inform you that I intend to publish this letter on my blog as a follow up from the aforementioned post, as well as any reply I receive from you. I would be happy to enter into ongoing private correspondence to work constructively with TfL and help you to develop more appropriate and less harmful advertising materials in the future.

I look forward to hearing from you.

This email was sent on Wednesday the 23rd of November. On the 12th of December I received the following reply:

Dear Helen
Thank you for your email in which you raised concerns about the latest Cabwise television ad. I am sorry about the delay in replying to you but I have been out of the office
The ad you refer to is part of this year’s Safer Travel at Night (STAN) campaign which aims to raise awareness of the serious dangers of unbooked minicabs, particularly to women, through hard hitting and thought provoking imagery and messages and provide the public with information on safer travel options including licensed taxis and minicabs. 
Any minicab journey, even those licensed by TfL, that isn’t booked through a minicab office is illegal and is potentially dangerous. Unbooked minicabs continue to pose a serious risk to the travelling public and can be a cover for some of the most serious crimes in London including sexual violence committed by strangers. Furthermore, these ‘cabs’ are unregulated and uninsured for the purposes of carrying passengers.
The campaign has been informed by extensive evaluation and pre testing research with focus groups of women who use unbooked minicabs.  While it is definitely not our intention to upset or blame women, we are determined to do everything we can to stop Londoners and visitors to London from becoming victims of offences committed by unbooked minicab drivers.  Our research has shown that strong hard hitting and thought provoking messaging is the most effective way of raising awareness and persuading women not to use unbooked minicabs, which is why the campaign highlights the risks of getting into unbooked minicabs. 
We work closely with the police, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and other relevant organisations to make sure that the messages in the campaign are effective but not inappropriate or likely to cause unnecessary distress. Furthermore, this element of the campaign is supported by a strong press and communications strategy to raise the profile of enforcement action being taken against perpetrators of cab-related sexual offences and illegal touting.
The marketing and communications campaign is only one part of the STAN initiative, a partnership between TfL, the Mayor of London and the police which aims to make travelling in the Capital safer at night. STAN also involves enforcement activity (including police action) to crack down on unbooked minicabs, licensing and regulation of the taxi and minicab trade, delivering improved late night travel services (there are now 114 buses running through the night, more than ever before), enhanced travel information and public education. 
TfL works closely with the Metropolitan Police Service and the City of London Police to tackle unbooked minicabs and now funds 68 dedicated cab enforcement officers. The Unit has made almost 8,000 arrests for touting and other cab-related offences since 2003. The Unit’s core activities include evening patrols in the hotspot locations from Wednesday to Saturday, covert anti-touting operations, high visibility enforcement activities to detect and deter illegal cab drivers, vehicle and licence checks and crime prevention activities.  The Unit carries out around 600 additional planned enforcement activities and operations in addition to the core anti-touting patrols every Thursday – Saturday evenings. Operation STAN is running across London over three weekends in December when more people are out and about and the demand for late night travel increases. The multi-agency operation aims to deter illegal cab activity and get people home safely during the festive period.
A proactive sexual offences team has also been established in the Cab Enforcement to enhance activity around cab-related sexual offences by targeting sexual predators and minimise the risk of attack. The team works closely with the MPS Serious Crime Directorate, the unit responsible for improving victim care and investigating sexual offences, to identify and apprehend sexual predators.
STAN has been extremely successful in reducing cab-related sexual offences, a 37% reduction since 2002/3 and reducing the demand for illegal cabs.  The latest market research shows that the proportion of women using illegal cabs in London has fallen from 19% in 2003 to 3% in 2011.

Apparently the ads are not "likely to cause unnecessary distress". Tell that to a rape survivor who's triggered by them. I also noticed he mentions that TfL work with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and other "relevant organisations" in developing the ads. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust is an organisation which campaigns for better personal safety awareness. Their website states: "Personal safety is a life skill that can be learnt." No surprise, then, that they would not challenge TfL's victim-blaming stance. Steve did not mention the involvement of any rape crisis centres or similar organisations supporting survivors of rape, so I can only assume my assumption that none were consulted was correct. Surely that would be the single most relevant organisation that could possibly be involved?

 If you would like to tell Steve what you think of the campaign, email him at

Sunday, 2 October 2011

What do we ask of one another when we ask one another to identify as feminist?

I recently came across a blog post - which, annoyingly, I can't find now - that reminded me a lot of this well-known discussion of self-identifying as a feminist: Yes, You Are. It's a fantastic piece and I recommend you read the whole thing but the key message is this:

If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist.

Yes, you are.

In other words, whether you like it or not, whether you agree or not, whether you choose to adopt the label or not, if you believe in gender equality then you are a feminist. This position is one that I've always enthusiastically agreed with, and I try to advocate for wherever possible; I dislike the idea that "feminist" is an exclusive label reserved for those who read Judith Butler, or who march to take back the night, or who use 'Ms' rather than 'Miss'. I still feel this way, and even though there are deep divisions of thought within the broad movement of feminism, I believe there's space for us all around the big, diverse, feminist table.

But lately I've been thinking. When I know someone self-identifies as a feminist, I tend to expect (or at least hope for) a little more from them than if they didn't. I'm more likely to invite them to a rally or protest, and more likely to feel disappointed if they don't want to come. I'm more likely to start a conversation with them about an issue of gender inequality, and more likely to feel disappointed if I find they don't see it the same way. I expect them not to use sexist language, not to make sexist jokes, rape jokes, or jokes about domestic violence, and not to enable people who do. So there's a conflict here: while on the one hand I want to say that the bar for self-identifying as a feminist is set really low, so low that most people qualify for it, on the other hand when someone does accept that self-definition, suddenly the bar has risen. That seems unfair.

Imagine the following conversation -

A: You believe in equality, right? So why don't you call yourself a feminist?
B: Fair enough. Okay, I am a feminist. Now I'm going to go and watch that film with that hilarious attempted rape scene.
A: What? How can you watch that? I thought you were a feminist!

See? Problem.

One of the things that prompted this train of thought was a post from a feminist blogger in the wake of the UK Feminista Summer School earlier this year. Here, Madam J Mo writes:

... Matt’s Powerpoint display flashed up the overused image of Bill Bailey wearing Fawcett’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt. This is an image that most people agree has been publicised to death because it’s, like, a funny man, and he’s wearing a feminist t-shirt, titter titter. But shockingly the giggles in the room were fresh – many people seemed not to have seen this photo before. But how could they have missed it? It’s been all over Fawcett’s website for a verrrrrry long time, and it’s all over the internet. The only way they could have missed it was if (gulp) they had never been to the Fawcett website. But they’re feminists. How could they NOT have been to the Fawcett website? (The tailback of implications here is terrifying, considering all of the attendees at the conference were self-identifying feminists.)

Personally, I don't find it terrifying that someone who identifies as a feminist may never have been on the Fawcett website. I think it's very probable that there are many awesome feminists who don't even know what the Fawcett Society is. But I wonder whether Madam J Mo fell into the same trap I described above - wanting anyone who looks fondly upon gender equality to identify as a feminist, then expecting more of them when they do so. And if I'm wrong about that, I wonder what her criteria for qualifying as a feminist include, apart from visiting the Fawcett website.

I guess the conclusion to be drawn here is that perhaps that we should try to be aware of this problem when we talk to other self-identifying feminists, and, if our goal is to ensure that all people who are feminists identify as such, we should try not to expect too much of them. I know that conclusion sounds thoroughly depressing in some ways, but I don't see how it does any good to alienate rather than accommodate those people whose feminism doesn't identically match our own.

I find it easier to come to terms with this solution when I think about the development of my own feminism. If I met a self-identifying feminist who spouted the thoughts and ideas that I did at 14, I might feel that her brand of feminism was somehow incomplete or sub-par. I might feel disappointed in her lack of radicalism or her failure to let her feminist principles influence her day-to-day life and relationships. But if, when I was 14, someone I saw as a fellow feminist had condescended to me like that, told me I was doing it wrong, suggested I hadn't earned the title of feminist - well, that could have put me off identifying as one for good, and I never would have ended up where I am now. And I still don't have all the answers; my views are constantly shifting and developing, as I hope most people's are. We aren't entitled to feel disappointed in other people's feminism because there is no single perfect form of feminism for us to unify around. So I suppose, as much as it galls me to say it, you can go off and enjoy that godawful film and still identify as a feminist. Because neither I nor anyone else has the authority to say you can't.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Brave enough to mobilise, too shy to socialise: reflections on UK Feminista's Summer School 2011

Although I’ve self-defined as a feminist for as long as I can remember, it’s only in the last four years or so that I’ve started taking my feminism seriously and made it central to my life – and only in about the last year I’ve done anything that I consider “activism”. I had never volunteered for any kind of feminist cause before October 2010; I had never tried to create anything that would benefit women until We’re Telling in December 2010; the first time I took to the streets over a feminist issue was mere months ago at the London Slutwalk. The way I see it, even if I’ve always been a feminist, I was a pretty crappy feminist until relatively recently (or, to put it the way I did yesterday, I’ve been radicalised by the Tories).

The UK Feminista Summer School of 2011 marks the first time I have attended any sort of large scale feminist event other than a protest, so it was interesting for me on a number of levels: firstly, and obviously, to see what went on, what kind of debates took place, what everyone was like; and secondly, to see how I would behave in that kind of environment, when I’m more accustomed to being the only feminist in the room.

I’ll talk about the Summer School first. Overall, it was great. I came away from most sessions feeling energised and motivated to go out into the world and act, which is presumably kind of the point. There were some pretty glaring issues around diversity – while the programme contained a high proportion of workshops around the intersectionality of gender and race, the event hadn’t actually attracted that many BME women. Other intersections were essentially ignored – most conspicuous in its absence was anything around sexuality or gender identity, but it would also have been good to see something that dealt with disability, mental health, size privilege, etc. Hopefully the event organisers will take this criticism on board for next year, as it’s one I’ve heard coming from all corners.

I’ll just talk about one workshop – one of the most insightful and thought-provoking ones I attended, Engaging Women in Collective Action: insights from social psychology. Essentially this covered the science of why people get involved in activism, and one of the biggest things I took away was to do with what kind of activism engages people better: promotion (i.e. we are trying to achieve [x] positive thing!) or prevention (i.e. [x] negative thing will happen if we don’t act!). Turns out framing things in terms of prevention has been shown time and again to be more successful than promotion. This was a bit of a surprise to me at first: aren’t we, after all, trying to make the world a better place? In short, no we’re not: we’re trying to prevent the world becoming a shittier place or remaining as shitty a place as it already is. Over the next day and a half it started to sink in that this was absolutely right. One of the big campaigns that saw a lot of attention over the weekend was No Women, No Peace – prevention. One of the other talks touched on the No Recourse, No Safety campaign – prevention. What was Slutwalk about? Rejecting victim-blaming – prevention. Why did I attend a Pro-Choice Demo recently? Because there’s an attack on our reproductive rights – prevention.  So that kind of blew my mind.

As far as what the Summer School was like for me, unfortunately I have to say I was largely disappointed in myself.  I didn’t dare to go up to any of the speakers or workshop facilitators I found inspirational and tell them so. I did speak to the people around me, but only once gave out any kind of contact details. I was ultimately too anxious to attend the social event arranged for Saturday night and instead shut myself off, hermit-like, in my Birmingham University student accommodation (I did, however, get an amazing night’s sleep for the first time in a long time). I do regret not using this weekend as an opportunity to network and promote my own work and connect with women who could help me to achieve the things I want to achieve. I keep asking myself, why am I confident enough to go out in public wielding a sign that says “HEY, DORRIES! IF I’M A SLUT, YOU’RE ONE TOO” but not confident enough to go up to someone and tell them they’re awesome? I don’t know – but I know I have to work on that. Maybe next year I’ll be braver.

On the other hand, participating in the workshops, I was in my element whenever a topic was opened up to discussion. It felt just like being in a university seminar, an environment where I’ve never had trouble speaking my mind. In fact, the whole experience made me think about my own struggle over academic feminism a lot. But that’s a story for another blog post...

When the Summer School feedback form asked me what I liked most about the event, my answer was this: being in a community of feminists and amazing, inspirational women. There was so much talk of the power of women this weekend and I honestly feel strengthened by the experience. I intend to make a much bigger effort to go to local feminist groups and events, because if it is possible to feel like I feel right now more often, then why the hell would I pass up that opportunity?

To round up, for anyone reading this who kind of wishes they had been there: go to Go Feminist or Fem 11, two big feminist events coming up! I’ll probably go to at least one of them so let me know if you want to join me. And if you were at the Summer School, please follow me on Twitter and don’t hold it against me that I was a bit too shy and nervous to talk to you more! This is kind of what I look like, except normally without the wreath of flowers, in case anyone remembers me. Peace out yo!

Friday, 10 June 2011

In Defence of Slutwalk

Since the announcement of the London Slutwalk I've seen a lot of criticism of the idea and, especially, the name of the event. These have come from the usual corners - right-wing and old-school commentators - but also, in a large part, from feminists. The degree of negative response from feminists has surprised and disappointed me. This is my last-ditch attempt to convince you that, if you care at all about women, if you care at all about stopping rape, you should join me tomorrow afternoon and (slut)walk along with the other thousands who will attend.

I suppose I must start with the name.

I can't remember any other occasion when the name of an event, institution, or organisation has been analysed as closely as this one - certainly no other occasion on which disagreeing with the name was considered a sufficient condition for boycotting it altogether. I see no more sense in refusing to attend Slutwalk because it contains "slut" and you dislike the word than in refusing, for example, to read The F Word because it intimates a swear word and you dislike swearing. But there it is: for a lot of people, the name is important. I happen to think it is a fantastic name.

Let's talk about sluts. "Slut" is an imaginary concept, not one based in reality. It does not refer to any one single kind of person or any single kind of behaviour. You can qualify as a slut by doing just about anything.

You cheated on your husband? Slut. You slept with a married man? Slut. You've slept with "too many" men, where "too many" is defined by the subjective terms of someone else? Slut, obviously. You slept with the wrong guy - someone's ex, someone's brother, someone's friend they fancied even though you didn't know that? Slut. You've kissed a lot of guys? Slut. You flirt with a lot of guys? Slut. You choose to dance in a particular way? Slut. You choose to wear certain items of clothing? Slut.

I'm reminded of the scene at the start of High Fidelity, where John Cusak's character is a child with his first girlfriend. She dumps him the next week for someone else. He's out with a friend and they both see her kissing her new boyfriend on the benches, and what does his buddy say to try to make him feel better?


So that's the base line we're talking about. If you kiss one guy, and then later on you kiss another guy, someone can and will call you a slut. So please, for the love of all that is holy, can we stop talking like there is such a thing as a slut and that this is a very bad thing? If anyone's a slut, everyone is a slut. That's how low the bar is set: so low that everyone qualifies.

That, to me, is what the name "Slutwalk" captures. You want to call some women sluts because they dress in a certain way? You have to answer to all of us. If she's a slut, we're all sluts, and you'd better watch out because the sluts are organising.

Can this reasonably be called "reclaiming" the word "slut"? Maybe. The power of reclaiming, in my opinion, is that it means someone insults you and you defeat them by refusing to take it as an insult. The exchange would be:
"You're a slut."
"Sure I am, what's your point?"

Now I agree to a certain extent with the writers and commentators who see "slut" as being too hateful to reclaim. I myself can't imagine being called a slut and hearing it neutrally, rather than loaded with bile. My response, as above, would not be "sure I am" but "well, if I am, we all are, including you" - which is rather different. The idea that Slutwalk is about reclaiming "slut" is, in my opinion, simply wrong, and I've found it frustrating that so many people have decided not to go on the basis that they don't want to support that agenda.

Pulling in the same direction

The name has been a major focal point for feminist criticism of Slutwalk, and there has been a lot of feminist criticism: I've seen articles and blog posts aplenty by women explaining why they won't be attending Slutwalk, even though (of course) they agree that no woman is to blame for her rape regardless of what she wears. I despair at this. Here's my take:

If we all want the same thing, we need to work together.

If you and I agree that we need to combat victim-blaming, that "dressing like sluts" has nothing to do with the reality of rape, that we need to protect survivors, not abusers, then we are pulling in the same direction and we need to support each other on that basis. Maybe we don't agree 100% on every issue. Maybe there are legitimate debates to be had over one aspect or another. But if we share the same end goal, we should not be deliberately dividing ourselves from one another. The only people who should be railing against Slutwalk are the people who do not share its aims. Its primary aim is to combat victim-blaming culture. If you're on board with that, you should be there with us in London tomorrow.

The trouble with us 21st century feminists is we're all so keen to pick at one another. There's so much fighting within the movement we never join together as a movement. And I'm worried if this trend continues there'll soon be no movement left to speak of. Critique is good. Debate is good. But when we're all pulling in the same direction, we need to be working together.

The comments that started it all

To move on, one of the more common criticisms of Slutwalk I've heard from non-feminists is that it is a disproportionate response to a very minor incident. The incident, as reported, is that a police officer said the following while addressing a university:
"I've been told I'm not supposed to say this - however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised."
One police officer saying one stupid, wrong thing has sparked a worldwide movement. Is that disproportionate? It's not, because his views are replicated across Western society. You know how I know that? By the overwhelming number of people whose response to Slutwalk has been to say "obviously rape is the rapist's fault, but..."

I've seen time and again this response - believed to be a moderate, sensible, realistic point of view by the person expressing it - that women need to accept that the way they dress and the way they behave has an impact on the likelihood of them getting raped. That dressing modestly and avoiding excess alcohol are simply sensible anti-rape precautions to take, like locking your door at night. This is what victim-blaming looks like, and it is a source of anger on two levels: because it's fucked up, and because it's factually wrong.

It's fucked up to tell someone who has been raped that it was her fault. It's fucked up to point to her behaviour and use it to justify a rapist raping her. It's fucked up to be on the side of the rapist. If you can't agree with that, I have no hope for you.

It is also factually wrong to suggest that the clothes a woman wears have a direct impact on the likelihood of her getting raped. The vast majority - at least 85% - of women who are raped know their attackers. Rapists are boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, friends, family members, trusted adults. Overwhelmingly they are not evil men lurking in dark alleys waiting to jump out at a scantily-clad woman. Statistically, the biggest risk factor for a woman in terms of experiencing male violence is being in an intimate relationship with a man. Yet people are so desperate to pretend that what a woman wears has a serious impact on rapists. Trust me, it doesn't.

Fundamental misunderstandings

Blaming "sluts" for getting raped demonstrates a basic lack of knowledge about how the vast majority of rapes happen. The general public have in their minds only a few pictures of what rape can be. One is the - as Ken Clarke would call it - "classic" rape scenario where a man jumps out at his unsuspecting victim from behind a bush at night. One is the "date rape" scenario, where a woman is plied with drink until her defences are sufficiently down that she cannot resist her attacker. There is very little awareness and understanding of the kind of rape that makes up many women's realities: a trusted partner or friend abuses that trust in the worst possible way.

The same fundamental misunderstanding underpins Nadine Dorries' plans for sex education to compulsorily include teaching girls to say "no". This is a pointless endeavour unless you are simultaneously teaching boys to listen to "no" - to care when they hear it. For many boys and men, violent sex is considered normal, sexy even. There are too many accidental rapists who don't even understand that they're doing something wrong, who think that that is just what sex is like. If you want to reform sex education in this country, you should probably start with that.

Sex-positive feminism vs. sexy feminism

One way in which feminists have endeavoured to address the problem of the accidental rapist is by promoting enthusiastic consent: emphasising "yes means yes" over "no means no". For these feminists, sex itself is no bad thing and we should all be free to participate in as much healthy, consensual sex as we want without being condemned for it. That's your basic definition of a sex-positive feminist. Here lies one of the chasms of division within the feminist movement - for many feminists, sex-positive feminism is interpreted as encouraging promiscuousness and sexual objectification of women, thereby furthering patriarchy. Some of the many criticisms of Slutwalk I read picked up on this aspect - the feminists of Slutwalk were decried as part of a movement to make feminism cool and sexy, stripping the label "feminist" of substance.

There's a separate post on sex-positive feminism that I'm meaning to write, but for now I just want to say that I don't think there's anything feminist about seeing sex negatively by default. Judging and labelling women who have sex (however much of it they have) should be left to misogynists. Saying that women should be entitled to wear whatever they want without having to bear in mind the preferences of any rapists they might come across is not the same as "making feminism all about shoes" (not a direct quote, but a paraphrase of something I've seen thrown around quite a lot).

Exclusion and privilege in the Slutwalk movement

Another criticism of Slutwalk that's resurfaced in a number of places refers to the fact that its organisers and participants appear to be overwhelmingly the white, middle-class feminists who are well known for dominating feminist discourse throughout history. This is a valid complaint: wherever a feminist group or organisation seems to exclude any marginalised group we have to take that seriously and consider where we are going wrong. I cannot speak for anyone else and postulate the reason why the movement seems to have lacked support from black and minority women (and I really hope this is not the case at Slutwalk London tomorrow), but I will counter the suggestion that it lies in the very purpose of Slutwalk. Rape is not a white girl problem, and neither is victim-blaming. Where the aim of Slutwalk is properly understood as combating victim-blaming, there is no reason to suggest that race or class need play even the tiniest role in deciding whether it's for you or not. This is for all of us. This is something we need to unite for and band together over, so that we can deliver the message in the loudest possible voice: we will not tolerate a victim-blaming culture. Feminists need to unite or die, and if we can't unite over this, the uncontroversial statement that the only person who should be blamed for rape is a rapist, then frankly, we're screwed. And I don't mean that in a sex-positive way.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Golden Notebook, a book review; or, The value of reading things you don't agree with

Stepping away from my usual vitriol and polemics, today I will be writing a book review, something I haven't done in perhaps ten years. I have just finished the 600-page epic novel The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Given its reputation as a "feminist masterpiece" I thought it might be interesting for my feminist-disposed friends to hear about, if they haven't read it already, or to discuss if they have. I hope the following will also be interesting for those who, given its feminist reputation, would never pick it up.

I should start by saying that I borrowed this book from my mum's bookshelves maybe two or three years ago. I had heard it mentioned in the context of the feminist canon or whatever you want to call it, I saw she had a copy, and I thought I ought to read it. It's the kind of book that, if you're anything like me, you think you ought to read. I was put off actually reading it for a long time - put off by the length and the fact that the synopsis didn't particularly reel me in. Having opened the book I very quickly learned that I was, as they say on the internet, doing it wrong. In the preface (written in 1971, nine years after its original publication), Lessing writes:

"...this novel was not a trumpet for Women's Liberation... Some books are not read in the right way because they have skipped a stage of opinion... This book was written as if the attitudes that have been created by the Women's Liberation movements already existed."

"There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag - and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or movement."

In other words, I was wrong to believe it was a feminist masterpiece and I was certainly wrong for wanting to read it because it was seen as a feminist masterpiece. By Lessing's account I shouldn't have read it at at all, but of course, I did.

My reaction to the book isn't straightforward. I'm not going to instantly start listing it as one of my favourites. But it contains so many ideas and concepts and returns to them time and again, lodging them in your brain, making you think about them when you don't mean to. It's what I would call a slow-burner: it's not immediately arresting or gripping, but I expect it to stay with me for a long time, and I expect to have the impulse to reread it in 5 years time or so.

Having said that, it was something of a relief to finish it. It demands a lot of the reader. We have to keep up with a huge cast of characters spanning a number of years, and while the narrative is vaguely chronological, if you fail to keep the portion of the book you've already read in your mind as you continue reading, you miss the point of reading it at all. I am an impatient reader with a tendency to skim rather than to invest in every word (at least that's a quality Lessing might approve of?) and as such it's probably going to take a second reading for me to fully appreciate the work.

So, is it a feminist masterpiece? What does that question even mean? When we give something that label, are we saying that it comes across as having a feminist agenda, that it promotes an overtly feminist message, or is it just that it tells a story which is honest about women and femaleness, that we can point to and say "look, this is what it's like, this is what needs to change"? The Golden Notebook is categorically not the former; you could argue it has something of the latter.

It is fundamentally about a woman and her relationships: her relationships with men, with her close female friend Molly, with her daughter Janet, with herself, with her work, with the British Communist Party, with the turning of the world at large. I feel like it does have that quality of honesty, but it feels like honesty about an era that has passed. Lessing's observations about the way women and men are sometimes feel very dated; you don't get the sense of universality that you do with some other books that deal with similar subjects (I would point to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence as examples; neither of these are necessarily feminist masterpieces, but they are two of my favourite novels, and I suspect part of the reason for that is the way they deal with the subject of femaleness).

I think the way that I read it, the state of mind from which I read it, perhaps made it especially interesting to me. At the back of my mind were always the thoughts: people call this a feminist work; its author refutes that label; would I call it feminist, do I think that it is? By the end of the book I had come to a pretty strong conclusion on that point.

You could call it feminist on the basis that it is female-centric, and concerns a woman who attempts to live an independent, "free" life at a time when it was impossibly difficult for women to do so. I personally am happy to call it a masterpiece, but not a feminist masterpiece. However, I do think it is the kind of book that feminists like me, who tend to seek out "feminist" books, should read.

This is because I feel like the more open and diverse media becomes, the more we work ourselves into the little niche that we occupy, and the more we reinforce our position in that niche through what we read, what media we ingest. For example: as a vaguely left wing liberal and a feminist, I primarily read the BBC for my news, I enjoy reading the Guardian from time to time, I frequent feminist blogs, and I avoid clicking through to anything from the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, Fox News or similar like the plague. I defriend people on Facebook if they continually write loudly and obnoxiously about political views they hold that I find abhorrent (only when they're people I don't know or like that well in the first place, naturally). The people I follow on Twitter overwhelmingly agree with me on most major issues. I justify all this by saying that there are enough things in the world that make me feel deeply angry and outraged, and seeking out things that will make me even more angry and outraged is pretty bad for my mental health - better surely to choose the media that reflects your views and allow yourself to be happy, on the whole.

I think it's a good justification, and I have no particular intention of drastically changing my approach to how I ingest media. However, I know that to do this - to read only what Cass Sunstein called "the daily Me", for political theory geeks - is problematic. When we pick and choose our media to reflect our existing prejudices, our views are rarely challenged by what we read and the chance of us changing our minds and learning something is decreased. Surely this isn't something we want to endorse, surely there should be some element of the media people ingest that doesn't just tell them what they want to hear.

Which brings me back to The Golden Notebook. Part of the reason I have enjoyed reading it so much is that it wasn't straightforwardly feminist. I never thought "yes, this is exactly how I feel! This is what I try to communicate!" It's ambiguous in its discussions of women and gender relations - there were parts I could approve of and parts I couldn't. But it was interesting to feel that way. We get stuck into only responding to two kinds of things: things we agree with (see above), and things we despise and seek to destroy (see: the Daily Mail). It's too easy to approach everything we meet with either a stamp of approval or a withering glare. We need to appreciate and seek out the middle ground, the grey area, the pieces that we agree with up a point but which then challenge us and make us re-evaluate our position, even if they don't cause us to change our minds.

That's why I would recommend The Golden Notebook to feminists. Not because it's an obvious feminist masterpiece, but because it isn't.

It also holds interest for so many other kinds of people than just feminists. The book offers excellent commentary on the state of left-wing politics and British Communism in the 1950s, and the concepts of sanity, madness and "cracking up" are all central to the narrative. It's structurally unusual and engaging, and it's quite fantastically well-written. It's something of a shame it has become so exclusively associated with feminism as I suspect this puts a lot of people off reading it who might enjoy it - or who might at least have something interesting to say about it.

The next book I plan to read is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Metro calls it "a heartbreaking account of racism and injustice... Moving and magnificent". It looks very good and I've been keenly looking forward to reading it. But I don't expect my views to be challenged by it. Perhaps, after that, the next book I read should be something that drags me back into that ambiguous grey area.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Defining Feminism: A Riposte to Some Dude on the Internet

I'm a Twitterer and I follow Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is a fantastic writer who once wrote a book that many consider a feminist masterpiece, The Handmaid's Tale. So when Margaret Atwood retweeted a message from a young man who was promoting a short essay he'd written called "Is Feminism the Opposite of Misogyny?", I was inclined to click through.

Unfortunately (given that I read it shortly before I planned to go to sleep), the piece left me angry and upset. I felt that the author was well-meaning but had ended up writing something utterly misguided and rather appalling in its own way. I Tweeted the author in question telling him so, and suggested I'd write up a longer response the next day. This blog post contains my response.

I'll reproduce the original piece in full for you here, copied from

I Googled the term “feminism antonym” – check this out:
Then, I looked up the definition of feminism:
Let’s speak English – I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. Most of what I understood of “feminism” growing up was that historically, women were treated as “lesser” than men, (in a variety of ways), and that in recent history the balance was shifted to one of equality by way of the “feminist movement.” Roughly. This was, of course, the impression gleaned from living among adult men and women, and not from historical or sociological study – so the particular cultural events involved and their individual significance is beyond the scope ofthis discussion – though not to be denigrated.
Now, I speak English, and I like to think I understand the language pretty well… I also understand other things, and I like to think my understanding of things, (incomplete though it certainly may be), isn’t terribly inaccurate on matters I’ve sought to understand… If “feminism” is the doctrine of equality among men and women, and “Misogyny” is “hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women” ( – how can the two terms be considered opposite?
I think the answer is clear – “Feminism” can be considered opposite to “Misogyny” with the help and support of laziness. Other words might include carelessness, ignorance, or even stupidity (a rare case, I’d like to think). Even still, a case can certainly be made for the idea that the actual spirit and thrust behind feminism has been the suppression of masculinity among men and the establishment of femininity in the same role that men had previously occupied. I like to think differently about it though, but hey – why would Google results mislead…?
Think of the word itself – feminism. The -ism of femininity, right? Doesn’t the word itself sort of clearly suggest an inequality in ovarian-favour? C’mon!
Now of course, the origin of the word has a great deal more to do with its historical/sociological significance as a movement to counter a typically male-dominated social paradigm than its actual etymology – somehow “equalism” mightn’t’ve had the intended impact – but if feminism seeks to propound equality between the sexes, (oops, sorry – genders …), then I think equality should be at the heart of the feminist attitude – and while I can’t speak for individuals who consider their equality-based attitudes an aspect of feminism , I certainly can’t fail to notice how weighted both the term and its local effect on social attitudes so often seems to be.
In this day and age especially, it’s easy to get lazy about correct terms and their correct meanings – in the wake of an allegedly misogynistic-paradigm, it’s understandable that super pro-femininity should be the force driving gender-equality – but gender-equality does not mean feminism (in its etymologically correct sense), any more than a culture tending to place women at home with primarily household and family duties means oppression of “the weaker sex.”

Real Words with Real Meanings

It’s still a common social-norm that a man striking a woman, regardless of it being initiative or retaliative, is considered taboo. I can’t speak for the reasoning of others, necessarily, but to me, a bruise on a man’s face doesn’t seem as out-of-place or upsetting as one marring the otherwise alluring sight of a woman’s. Which, of course, is not to say that I don’t see a problem with striking other men arbitrarily – and it’s my personal understanding that striking another in anything else but self-defense is abhorrent.
The antonym of “misogyny” is misandry – simply defined (at as hatred of males . (It’s curious to note: misogynydoesn’t set off Microsoft Word’s spellchecker, but misandry does…) I almost wonder whether the concept of misandry might just be too practically inconceivable to so-called “free thinkers” to warrant acknowledgement – but like I say, I prefer to think better of people, even as it becomes clearer that most people don’t prefer tothink better .
People call themselves feminists and say that they perceive men and women as equals. Maybe I’m just an annoying stickler for correctness of speech, but nevertheless it is not correct to promote femininity over masculinity in the name of equality – and that does seem to be what feminism does. I know a lot of women who insist on believing themselves equality-minded, while taking as full advantage as they can of whatever privileges they may receive by being considered unequal to the same treatment deserving of men. I know women who declare “sexism” if treating them differently than men is inconvenient for their purposes, but when receiving the same treatment as men is similarly, (or differently) inconvenient, the story changes – “but I’m a girl! ”
Should men consider this the indication of the natural inconstancy of the female mind? Ought we explain it by saying that women are merely fickle, and can’t help it? I think not, because most men (these days anyway), will speak and behave in just the same way. The real reason, I think, is the laziness I mentioned earlier – it’s far easier to let cultural events and social paradigms determine what we nevertheless still call “our” thinking, and seldom do we look further into it than social expectation leads us to.
I don’t hit women, but I don’t hit men either. However, if a man should attack me, I’ll defend myself by attempting to prevent him from injuring me in whatever way is most effective – yet should a woman attack me I’ll likely be careful about defending myself, so as not to injure her, even if I suffer greater injury as a result. Why? The most obvious reason is because I can reasonably expect a woman to quickly change her act when Police arrive, and if she’s bruised somewhere, I’m in big trouble, even if I’m bleeding. Thankfully, I’ve never been attacked by a woman (physically, that is…), and I don’t expect to. I don’t expect to be attacked by a man either, though adolescent-drunkenry has caused it to happen once or twice.

Girl Power!

The idea that feminism is antonymical to misogyny is absurd. When I looked through the rest of Google’s results for “feminism antonym,” I found a website where the question was posed:
There were three answers (check out the last one and feel my frustration!) and the first was from a woman who described herself as not being a feminist, but being a woman who believed in equal-rights, but also enjoyed the gentlemanly courtesy of opening doors for women, standing when a woman enters a room or stands herself, etc – and she seemed to have an honest and legitimate perspective on what it means to be a woman in the world today (the post was from 2008, btw). But then, she disappointed me, badly. Of course, I cannot believe that she was attempting to seriously treat the term literally when she closed her answer thus:
As far as the antonym of feminism… could it be slavery?
No! No madam, dear madam, it cannot. Freedom is the antonym of slavery, and feminism is not synonymous with freedom, though feminism does seem to trysupporting freedom. Might you be representative of an increasingly lazy and inattentive evolution of modern-language? Laziness supports slavery, of course – the more the run of your thoughts is determined by your conditioning and not your deliberate reasoning, the more pliable you are for the forces acting upon you to reshape as they will.

As Polonius to Laertes Said...

It does not do to simply be swept up in the tide of social-consciousness – if we truly be individuals ourselves, and truly bring our individuality to bear in society, then it must be our own reasoning and determination that we bring. Laziness in consideration, understanding and speech too often determines for us what we blindly call our very own selves, and we find ourselves enslaved. The cure for laziness, and indeed the best way to attain to sincere and genuine understanding of whatsoever we seek to understand and convey, is attention.
As physical beings, we are endowed with the miraculous ability not merely to swallow, we chew, we digest, we absorb and transform what we’ve eaten and we expunge waste – why should our absorption of experience and information be any different? Never simply swallow the words and dictums of others, but listen closely to what wisdom might be conveyed by your own discerning reason. To excerpt the admonishment of Polonius to his son Laertes (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet):

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement.

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Now, I feel a certain degree of sympathy for this guy, because I think I understand what he was trying to do, and I don't think he was trying to do something malicious. It seems like he wanted to write a dispassionate, objective linguistic analysis of the term "feminism" and its relation to "misogyny" in order to show that if what we want and strive for is gender equality then we should adopt a word which doesn't appear to have a bias in favour of one sex over another. The author uses "equalism" as a possible alternative.

Unfortunately, I believe the author makes a couple of key mistakes that prevent him from representing the impartiality that he clearly wants his writing to emit. He also strays into some matters that are far from relevant to his mission, which was, as he put it to me on Twitter, "[advocate] literal-thinking"and "define words and antonyms". The piece is misguided in its method and its conclusions (or at least, what I understand to be its conclusions, since none were straightforwardly drawn at the end of the essay, the author preferring a heavy dose of flowery prose and Shakespeare).

This is where he makes his first major mistake, which is a factual error:
in recent history the balance was shifted to one of equality by way of the “feminist movement.”

Has the feminist movement sought to bring society from patriarchy to equality? Yes. Has the balance shifted, since the birth of the feminist movement, towards equality? Yes. Have we reached a state of gender equality, as implied by the author? No.

I think it must be difficult, sometimes, for men in patriarchal societies to understand the power they have. They don't feel like they have power. They feel like they are treated just as badly as - hell, sometimes worse than! - their female peers. The feminist argument that women continue to be severely disadvantaged from birth does not convince them. Yet it's hard to escape the facts:
  • Despite equal pay legislation, a persistent and significant wage gap (usually estimated at 15-25%) persists between men and women, even when factors like maternity leave and women working part time are accounted for
  • Women remain incredibly under-represented in all high-profile professions and in Parliament
  • One in four women will suffer violence at the hands of an intimate partner
  • Half of all women will experience an attempted or completed rape or sexual assault
There is still deep-rooted and significant gender inequality in this country and the West more broadly, and women are still on the receiving end of the vast, vast majority of it.

His second hurdle is where he states:
a case can certainly be made for the idea that the actual spirit and thrust behind feminism has been the suppression of masculinity among men and the establishment of femininity in the same role that men had previously occupied
He claims he doesn't think this way, but given what he goes on to say -

Think of the word itself – feminism. The -ism of femininity, right? 
it is not correct to promote femininity over masculinity in the name of equality – and that does seem to be what feminism does 

- I rather think he does. 

Feminism does not mean and has never meant the promotion of the feminine over and above the masculine. To suggest that it does paints a picture (and a popular one) of feminists as man-haters, tearing down masculinity to replace it with something they believe to be superior, femininity. This picture is bullshit. The only way I can imagine it being even remotely relevant is in regards to those particular feminists who believe that women have certain special qualities different to men, and that women's perspectives should be valued and appreciated on this basis. But even then, what feminism means isn't properly captured. 

What feminism means is the promotion of gender equality. The author clearly has a lot of trouble dealing with this due to the fact that the FEM of FEMininity is in the word FEMinism. However, I would advise him against putting too much stock into the etymology of -isms. Look at Fascism. We know what Fascism means, right? It's a political ideology which promotes authoritarianism, nationalism, the totalitarian state. But by this guy's logic, it means the -ism of fasc. Where did the fasc come from?

The term fascismo is derived from the Latin word fasces. The fasces, which consisted of a bundle of rods that were tied around an axe, was an ancient Roman symbol of the authority of the civic magistrate (Wikipedia)

Yeah! It's the -ism of a bundle of rods tied around an axe! ...wait, what?

So why is feminism called feminism if what it's really about is "equalism"? As the author rightly ascertains, it's because historically, the balance of power has been in favour of men. What he misses (remember the first mistake) is that overwhelmingly, it still is. A better definition of feminism than "the promotion of gender equality" might be "the promotion of gender equality through the uplifting of women", because that is correct on both levels - it allows for what the author sees as a "bias" in favour of women, while acknowledging that this "bias" is actually what is needed for equality to be achieved.

Perhaps you are still not convinced, and you think that, since our culture has in many ways bowed to the demand for gender equality, "feminism" is redundant as a term and advocacy of gender equality should be rebranded "equalism". What concerns me about this argument is where you would draw the line. In Somalia, 95% of women still experience genital mutilation in childhood. Are the people there who strive for equality allow to call themselves "feminists"? In China, selective abortion and infanticide of female foetuses and babies is still common. Is it okay to be a ""feminist if you're in China? In Turkey and other parts of the Middle East, women are regularly murdered for "honour crimes" such as making eye contact with men. If I want gender equality there, can I say I'm a "feminist"? (I could go on.)

If your answer is yes, then why should it not apply equally to those Western countries where the oppression of women is still a major feature of our culture, although a better-hidden one? The word "feminism" will only become inappropriate and outdated when there is actually in reality a rough balance of equality between men and women.

To finish off, allow me to deal with the part of the essay the author devotes to hitting women.

It’s still a common social-norm that a man striking a woman, regardless of it being initiative or retaliative, is considered taboo. I can’t speak for the reasoning of others, necessarily, but to me, a bruise on a man’s face doesn’t seem as out-of-place or upsetting as one marring the otherwise alluring sight of a woman’s. 
I know women who declare “sexism” if treating them differently than men is inconvenient for their purposes, but when receiving the same treatment as men is similarly, (or differently) inconvenient, the story changes – “but I’m a girl! ”
I don’t hit women, but I don’t hit men either. However, if a man should attack me, I’ll defend myself by attempting to prevent him from injuring me in whatever way is most effective – yet should a woman attack me I’ll likely be careful about defending myself, so as not to injure her, even if I suffer greater injury as a result. Why? The most obvious reason is because I can reasonably expect a woman to quickly change her act when Police arrive, and if she’s bruised somewhere, I’m in big trouble, even if I’m bleeding. 

Most of the essay is misguided but largely innocuous. Those bits are blood-boilingly vile. Allow me to give you a little much-needed education on violence against women, Dude From the Internet. The reason why a man hitting a woman is considered "taboo" and "upsetting" is to do with the context within which a man hitting a woman usually takes place. When a man hits a woman, it is almost exclusively a man who is in an intimate relationship with that woman, hitting her because that is one of a wide variety of ways of controlling her. Women do not get hit by men due to what you call "adolescent-drunkenry". They get hit by men they love, men who claim to love them, often men they live with, have children with, share a life with. The reason we feel our stomachs churn when we hear of violence against women is not because women are dainty and fragile and have faces that are "otherwise alluring", it's because of what that violence means.

The part about Police behaviour is almost laughable. You would know, if you had researched violence against women like I have, that the way the Police have traditionally treated incidents of domestic violence against women is with flippancy and neglect. Over the last 5-10 years, things have improved, as Police have been more properly trained in the root causes of domestic violence and the appropriate way of dealing with those situations, but they are still far from reliable as a means of women being able to protect themselves from a violent abuser. Again, the reason you would be in "big trouble" is not that women benefit from preference and privilege in our society, but the very opposite - the fact that a man who bruises a woman is overwhelmingly likely to be the abuser, not the abused. 

I get what you were trying to do, dude. You just did it really, really poorly.

As Shakespeare might have said: The End.