Tag Archives: feminism

Unwanted Attention

I travel alone to and from and around London pretty frequently. I wrote a post on 26th March 2014, the day after the “conversation” below happened. It sat in my drafts because I wasn’t convinced it was worth saying out loud. Today it’s suddenly relevant.

The original draft post from 2014 follows:

As I said in another post, I don’t let fear of a small minority of men stop me. I’m also basically a friendly and polite person (sweariness aside). I’m not an idiot though and have had a few unpleasant incidents over the years. Being assertive enough to get across the message “fuck off” without riling someone up isn’t easy and if anyone reading this has advice, I’m happy to hear it.

The scene: on the last train, phone in hand, tweeting. Usually I have my ipod on as much to discourage people from talking to me as for the music but for some stupid reason I don’t have it on now. A man walks down the carriage and sits in a seat on the opposite side of the carriage. He’s holding a can of lager. He starts talking at me as if we’re half way through a conversation about an obnoxiously loud kid who just got off the train with his mates. I stare at my phone. He tells me the kid’s a “cunt and a killer” who got his mates to beat up lager guy. I say nothing, although it’s obvious I heard because you don’t hear something like that without reacting. I tweet what he just said to show I’m busy, don’t want to talk.

He asks a direct question: “What station was that?”
This time I look up: “Cuffley, I think.”
“Are you sure?”
“I looked at the sign because they were all getting off.”
“He used to live in Letchworth. I live in Letchworth. Where do you live?”
No avoiding it because I’m stuck on the damn train with him…”Letchworth”.
“I live in Jackmans. Where do you live?”
“Further in.”
“The Lordship?”
Why not? I don’t but I want him to stop asking questions. “Yeah.”
“You’re rich then.”
“Um”
“Money can’t buy happiness”
“Ok”
“No. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Love. Love making. They’re happiness”
Shit. Shit. Shit. Leave me alone! You’re having a go at me for having more money than you and you just mentioned sex. Fuck off! “—”
“What you going to do with all that money? Pass it on to your kids?”
“Uh. Is there a toilet back there?”
“No. You could piss in the aisle. Some do.”
“—” I look down at my phone to see if getting off at Stevenage could get me home to get away from him. I discover that the train terminates at Hitchin and I’m not comfortable about getting off the train with him around
“So what do you do then?”
This is where I do something really stupid. I tell the truth: “Lawyer”
“Oh well you’re fucking loaded then”
“No. I’m better off than you but I take home less than a teacher.”
“Legal Aid lawyers. Raking in millions”
“I’m not a legal aid lawyer and most of them earn less than the national average salary. It’s the very rich getting richer under this fucking Government.”
“You work in London then?”
“No”
“Money can’t buy happiness. Just love”
“I think I’m going to look for a toilet, in case.”
“There isn’t one”
“Just in case”
So I move up two carriages and sit quietly listening to a teenage drama in my carriage for a little while before: “no toilet, is there? Told you”
“Yeah”
“There’s a quiet spot at Hitchin station you can squat”
“—”
“So. You might know my lawyer. Legal aid lawyer. Helped me out with some bother”
“Dunno. Lot of lawyers around”
“Yeah. Yeah. You must know him. His office is…”
“Sorry. I don’t.”
“Getting the coach from Hitchin?”
“Uh”
“Ohhh. You’ll get a taxi. You can afford it. Can I share?”
“No”
“Why not? We’re both going to the Lordship.”
“No. We’re not.”
“We are.”
“No. You’re going to the Jackmans and I don’t live in the Lordship”
“But you said…”
“I lied. I’m alone and you’re a total stranger who wants to know where I live”
“Stuck up bitch”

scene ends

Would a women only carriage have helped in a situation like that? I doubt it. Late at night I’ve often seen people smoking on trains for heaven’s sake. And there were other men in the carriage and no one suggested to him I might want to be left alone. The only thing that would help is transport police patrolling the late trains.

I take the point that women shouldn’t have to be segregated or do anything differently at all to accommodate the fact that men harass them but my perspective on that is that if you want to do something about it now and not at some hypothetical future date when men start respecting women’s rights to go about their lives without being harassed or assaulted, put more staff on public transport. Sometimes strangers will step in to help someone travelling alone but it’s dangerous trust a woman’s safety to the assumption that they will. It’s also unreasonable to expect women to travel in packs so they can intervene on behalf of other women they’ve never met if a man enters a carriage. As I said, there were men around during the incident below and they did nothing. If I was in a women only carriage with one other woman would it be fair to expect her to intervene? I’d be terrified of getting involved if the shoe was on the other foot and he was talking to someone else because if there was one thing almost guaranteed to set him off, it would have been being challenged.

Jeremy Corbyn is right that there is a problem. He’s suggested a possible solution. He said he will listen to women and wants to know what they think. That’s what I think. It’s all very well to say it shouldn’t happen anyway but that guy openly told me he’d had problems with the police. If it’s a betrayal of feminism to say I want more staff/transport police on trains, I’m ok with that because here in the real world telling myself I have a right to be left alone doesn’t help when faced with an actual person like that.

Hard Out Here

I have breasts. Therefore it’s my sworn duty to have an opinion on Lily Allen’s new video, or something. I’ve talked about body image hypersexualised content in pop videos and a porn culture before so it’s not surprising that I found Hard Out Here, well, interesting. Musically, it’s awful but I watched it a few times so this post wouldn’t be based on a quick view where the only impressions left once the shit music ended were the endless repetition of the word “bitch” and masses of jiggling female flesh.

When it comes to the racial aspects of Allen’s video I’m well aware that I’m a privileged white 30-something woman. I don’t even like hip hop. I don’t feel qualified to get into the race issues but it’s impossible to ignore them completely so I’m going to say that I thought Hip Hop Doesn’t Need Another White Savior was an interesting read which chimed with some of my thoughts as a non-hip hop fan and took them much further as far as race issues go.

I was surprised by the initial hype among some people who’re acting like Hard Out Here should be celebrated as a feminist anthem. Quite apart from the legitimate arguments about race issues, it’s a very limited song. It’s not a complex sociological commentary on women’s role in society today. It’s only a pop song and it felt like a mix of personal bugbears being brought out more than a serious attempt to address problems. Putting the word “injustice” in a song doesn’t automatically imbue it with depth. It felt to me like Allen’s pissed off about a few things and that the difference between her and most women is she can get a few million hits on Youtube, ably assisted by her record company, when she wants to have a rant. You could say it’s better than nobody within her genre talking about feminism at all but the reason I took it to pieces in my head is because of the people trying to make it go too far. It’s not just fans of the song. Some women complaining about race are suggesting it represents white feminism too. It doesn’t even do that as far as I’m concerned.

I get her decision to use the word “bitch” but personally I’ve got absolutely no desire to see it appropriated. It’s one of a very small number of words where I feel some kind of sisterly requirement not to use it (unusual because I’m quite sweary and I prefer not to create even more barriers between men and women by buying into the sisterhood). But it’s a word only ever used for women and often comes with the word “silly” before it. I don’t feel a desire to respond “yeah! I’m a bitch. That’s our word now” just because every time any woman makes a vaguely feminist statement we’re all meant to jump on the bandwagon.

You’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen

Allen starts off by defending her right to work. Maybe my lack of interest in what male pop and hip hop artists have been saying is showing here. Maybe they have been making music suggesting women should get back to the kitchen but it doesn’t chime with me at all. If it had been released in the 1950s it would’ve been revolutionary but seems like a really lazy rhyme. It isn’t a choice between work or the kitchen these days. Modern women have to do both and that is hard. I was talking to a few the other day about the utter exhaustion they feel trying to juggle work and home. It feels like a sloppy play on the saint/whore thing too. I’ve never got the idea that women should be passionless about food, which just adds to my irritability over this line. Any man who wants a saint in the kitchen presumably doesn’t care very much about good food.

I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars or talking ’bout my chains

Uh. Ok Lily. Don’t. I sure as hell don’t feel any need to defend the fact that I don’t. My assumption is that she’s drawing a line in the sand between her and materialistic women as well as men so, far from representing all women, she’s having a go at the ones she disapproves of. The article linked to above expands on the race elements of this.

Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain

I have a brain. It functions pretty damned well. I can shake my ass if I want to. I do shake my ass when I want to (although the line reminds me of the Afghan Whigs’ Somethin’ Hot which is a bit slower than shaking). Nobody’s making me feel I have to. There aren’t roving bands of men demanding I do it out here, in the real world. What’s happened instead, with monotonous regularity, is that if I shake it there’s always at least one who thinks he owns it. It’s my choice whether to give it or not and there’s little doubt some men don’t get that. Back in the days when I regularly went clubbing, I had fake boyfriends who were willing to step in as needed if I didn’t have an actual one with me because it was the quickest way to stop total strangers from grabbing me. When we were in a pretty big group, there were always at least a couple of men in the group making sure us women were ok. That’s the real world outside the rarefied air of the pop music industry.

The music industry demands women should strip down and shake their asses and a lot more besides but by wording the line in the way she has, Allen is dismissing all women do it as stupid. How is that a feminist statement? Some women may feel coerced into it. Some choose to do it. Some do it for stupid reasons. Some are stupid. but that doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship between stupidity and ass shaking. Again, it feels like Allen’s drawing a line in the sand between her and any woman who does shake her ass. I did something slightly shameful the other week. I half watched a “documentary” on Miley Cyrus. There wasn’t anything else on and I was curious, partly because I’ve never knowingly heard a single one of her songs. It was really a combination promo for her new album and the MTV Europe awards, which were being broadcast after it. After the US Awards I wondered if she was being manipulated. Not according to her. She said she wanted to cause waves bigger than Britney Spears and Madonna did when they performed at the awards. It was all about novelty and pushing the envelope to her. She wanted to shock. She thought her performance was funny. She even said:
“I live in America and we’re the land of the free. If you can’t express yourself you’re not very free”
Yeah. Calling her stupid, I have no problem with. Calling everyone else stupid is a different matter though.

If I told you about my sex life, you’d call me a slut
When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss

It’s interesting that she says “boys” because it makes a clear distinction between men of my generation and boys. I often hope that all the slut shaming stories are blowing the scale of the problem out of proportion but I have the nasty thought that maybe my generation was both the first and the last to come close to sexual equality. Slut shaming takes away a woman’s right to be a sexual person while at the same time pop and hip hop culture is sending young women the message that they should obediently do anything and everything they’re asked to because they’re asked to, rather than because they want to. It’s also notable that Allen’s married. She’s saying people would call her a slut if they knew the specifics of what happens within her marriage? I really hope she’s wrong because if things have reached the point where having a satisfying monogamous relationship makes a woman a slut we really are completely, well, fucked.

Still, there’s also something hypocritical in the line when you consider she’s just called women who shake their asses publicly stupid. She shouldn’t be judged but other women should be? I wonder if she’s ever been in a situation where she’s chosen to shake her ass for one specific “you”.

There’s a glass ceiling to break, aha, there’s money to make

I see the glass ceiling as quite a specific thing. It’s what stops women getting to the top. Women can reach the top in the music industry. They bring something different to the table which has nothing to do with objectifying their bodies. They have female vocals. I pondered the lines and decided the “money to make” is being made by industry execs who tell women they’ve got it made but then require women to do things men would never be asked to as a condition of their label’s full backing but the problems she’s talking about are quite specific to the music industry. For most women, the glass ceiling has more to do with questions over their commitment to work. It starts long before women have children. A partner once said to me he was worried about how heavily the firm had come to rely on young women who might all get pregnant at the same time. A friend was told she wouldn’t want to be a partner because she had a husband at home to take care of. It can also involve stereotyping around “male” and “female” traits and which ones are considered to be more valuable to business. These more mundane problems are a long way from the music industry.

Artists have always been beholden to their audience to a greater or lesser degree. The reality for the past 75 years has been that there’s a choice to be made between commercial success and personal integrity. Some are able to have both but not many. If any artist is willing to just do what they love, they can make a living if they’ve got the talent. That’s about more than just the gender of the artist. Yes, we should question why the most popular artists are expected to play the particular games Allen’s talking about but not everyone does. I love both female and male artists who don’t play the game although admittedly that’s partly because I just don’t like the kind of music that makes the most money, regardless of the lyrics or videos.

Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits

As my generation was the first to whom buying your breasts became acceptable, I don’t see this as a feminist war cry. I see what she’s getting at. It just doesn’t work for me because of those undertones.

You’re not a size six, and you’re not good looking
Well you better be rich, or be real good at cooking
You should probably lose some weight
‘Cause we can’t see your bones
You should probably fix your face or you’ll end up on your own

Within the pop music industry and film/tv there’s an enormous amount of pressure to look a certain way and women don’t help by buying magazines that take the piss out of imperfections. I agree that there’s enormous pressure on celebrities and that it trickles down. My read is this was a major factor in the song ever getting written.

Allen’s justification for using dancers in bikinis while she’s in something less revealing is that she’s uncomfortable with her body after having had children. I’ve said before we shouldn’t be too critical of each other’s insecurities. It would be pretty hypocritical of me to say “hey, you. Stop being insecure.” I could kick myself for my own insecurities and how they affect my actions sometimes (seriously, I annoy myself by seeking reassurance he actually is interested) but I’m not about to kick someone else for having some. That said, I find it really hard to see how it benefits feminism for a woman to complain about the kind of societal pressure that adds to insecurities, concede to it herself in her choice of outfit and then have a bunch of perfectly proportioned backing dancers in bikinis behind her. Quite apart from their race, can’t she see how unhelpful that is? Calling it satire isn’t an answer. Keeping her clothes on meant that the satire was lost as the rest of the dancers did a barely hammed up version of what we’re used to seeing.

Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?
Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?

Well, we all know what this is about and that she’s got Robin Thicke and his pals in the cross hairs. Yes, rape culture sadly seems to be rising but the problem with the simplistic way in which Allen delivers her opinion on it is that it creates more divisions. Who’s her anger actually directed at? Men in general? That would be unfair and anathema to my vision of what feminism ought to be. It ought to be about genuine equality and I’d really like to put the days of crying “all men are bastards” behind us. Based on the exact words, another alternative interpretation to the one that she only has a very specific group of men in mind is available. It could also be read as a criticism of women. Young women mostly. The kind of women who might listen to her music. It reads like she’s calling those women out, telling them to examine their choices and she’s doing it using sarcasm. It’s not wrong to want those women to realise they deserve better but it’s wrong to do it in that way.

We’ve never had it so good, aha, we’re out of the woods
And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you misunderstood
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trust the injustice ’cause it’s not going away

The implication of the sarcasm is that other people are saying we’ve never had it so good but not many people really are, are they? There have been improvements in the workplace but very few people are saying we’ve achieved equality. And as for sexual politics, we have an endless stream of unpleasantness coming over from the States, rape apologists from the religious right to rappers, like a particularly virulent disease that’s impossible to ignore.

An anthem isn’t one which concludes we’re fucked and we’d better get used to it. An anthem gives hope. Her final lines bitterly suggest there is none. All in all, I don’t have a clue why anyone would call her a standard bearer for feminism off the back of this song. It hits a couple of hot buttons but it’s personal, clichéd, snipy and divisive. It’s only a pop song though. If she really wanted to be taken seriously I’m sure she could’ve done better. It wouldn’t be hard to improve if she just ditched the pop format and gave herself more space. Not my cup of coffee musically but, in the form she’s delivered it, not my brand of feminism either, thanks very much.

Sugar and spice and all things nice

Should girls be nice? asked the Guardian following a blog in the New York Times. The NYT blog left me with a lot of questions but “niceness” is open to such a broad range of interpretations that that seems inevitable. I’d imagine Catherine Newman’s main blog goes into more depth (but admit I haven’t read it). I’m just taking the concept and filtering it through my own lens, which also means I’m meandering around a bit in this post.

I don’t know if either writer stopped to think about this (surely they must’ve) but I immediately thought “sugar and spice and all things nice”. Certainly, women shouldn’t be forced by societal pressure to conform to a nursery rhyme version of femininity but then men shouldn’t be forced to be slugs, snails and puppy dog tails either. Outside of nursery rhymes, the arts, politics and social commentary, have women ever really been sugar, spice and all things nice? Oh sure, wealthy women (or more accurately, the female family members of wealthy men) could afford to be but how much sugar and spice was to be found in the daily life of a woman whose routines revolved around family and the back breaking grind of housework and often paid work (whether in agriculture, industry or otherwise) in the centuries before feminism? Women who aren’t fairytale princesses can buy into the whole sugar and spice thing now that we’re not scrubbing clothes and plucking chickens by hand anymore. Did women who had to do those things ever take it seriously? Did their fathers, husbands sons and brothers? If this concept is now being applied to more girls and women, it’s because it’s been imported from our so-called betters, and I don’t mean men. The higher up the social ladder you go, the more bland and princessy girls have historically been expected to be. Being sugar and spice isn’t just about being girly or womanly: it’s about not being a commoner. It differentiates the ladies from the women.

“Nice” can be used as a way of trying to enforce moral judgements: “nice girls don’t [insert outdated code of morality or etiquette here]”. My school even taught us nice girls don’t eat in the street (I still don’t, to this day, because it was enforced by punishment for so long it became normal to me) and I absolutely agree that these kinds of gender specific directions are a bad thing. They are used to impose specific norms, often on the basis of morality, and make girls (and later women) uncomfortable being themselves and desperately trying to live up to someone else’s concept of how girls and women should be and behave. In theory it’s possible to make a “nice girls don’t” statement which isn’t intended to subjugate them in any way (nice girls don’t bully/set fire to things etc) but the reality is that we all know how they are used in practice.

Maybe Newman only ever intended to talk about social conventions of niceness like smiling through life, even in the face of unpleasantness. Do women smile when embarrassed or apologising for some minor inconvenience to others? Yes, often, I’d think. I did it today while rummaging in my handbag for my purse at the till and I smiled at the guy behind me as I left to acknowledge I knew he’d been kept waiting (my debit card was playing silly buggers too, as it happens). What’s wrong with that? Would no man ever do something similar if he’d chucked his wallet in a ruksack before going out? When I see people faffing at the checkout and they don’t once acknowledge the people waiting behind them, I think they’re rude and arrogant and I don’t think that makes me an unenlightened specimen of womanhood. Do women slap a rigid smile in place in the face of rudeness, discrimination and harassment? Yes. Most of us probably do (and how many of us have steadfastly ignored worse things like being groped?) but that’s not to say men never do it either. They just face less discrimination and harassment. I think the word “nice” is being made to work a bit too hard in Newman’s blog, which makes it a bit jumbled but she seems to discard the idea that niceness purely for it’s own sake is ok. Polite, friendly and doormat are different things with different consequences though.

Newman mentions her son knows how to be nice, to use being nice and seems to be saying her own niceness is acceptable only when it’s a business advantage and puts people at ease. Lots of people do this and I’m one of them. I smile and am friendly. Mostly, that’s just naturally how I am. It’s not self-consciously done but I am aware in a general way that it smooths my path through life. I’m aware it can get me what I want but not because I feel it’s the only available option for a woman in a patriarchal society. It’s not like I simper and jiggle at men and I do smile and am friendly to women as well as men. It’s always been a particularly effective way of getting secretaries on board, as it happens. Yes, it’s arguable that knowing the impact makes the action manipulative but no more than any of the other things people do to smooth their way through life and it’s not sexualised behaviour on my part. People, whether men or women, who yell to get their way are pretty effective in getting what they want too, as are liars. Sugar and spice is a nursery rhyme. You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar is a trueism. What bothers me about Newman’s take on this is the implication that this is the only time it’s acceptable for her to be nice. Even her nod to the fact that niceness can put other people at ease still isn’t the same as accepting niceness for its own sake.

Niceness can also be an attribute of someone’s character, rather than something they just do. None of us behaves nicely all the time but it doesn’t mean we can’t be nice. If Newman has such strong reactions to her own nice behaviour, it doesn’t have to mean she doesn’t have this attribute. It’s just as likely we have different interpretations of what it means to be nice – she seems to see it as something passive and apologetic. I take it to mean, well, just plain nice: friendly, kind, decent, honest, that kind of thing. What’s so wrong with that? And is it really controversial to suggest the world contains a lot of nice men as well as nice women? In fact, it’s a trait I value pretty highly in a man. On one occasion I ended a description of someone to a friend “he’s just so nice”, I was frustrated by lack of a better word which goes to show how beleaguered the word has become. Come to think of it I’d definitely describe that friend’s husband as nice and I remember friends years ago envying my always managing to meet nice men even when drunk so I’m hardly alone in this. I don’t value niceness to the exclusion of all other aspects of a person’s character but someone who’s nice in the way I use the word isn’t dull, charmless, straight laced or weak (or isn’t necessarily – I suppose there’s bound to be some people who are and they’re the ones I wouldn’t be interested in). Maybe nice people need to retake the word nice.

Sometimes being a nice polite person who believes other people are basically nice can lead you into trouble. 99% of strangers who say something to me in the street are nice. The 1% can create a real risk but I’m not willing to treat everyone as a potential threat on those odds. I’ve met some lovely people by not giving in to the fear of the 1% and remaining nice. Not everyone’s willing to risk it though. I met two men within a couple of weeks of each other, neighbours who both said they thought we live in a pretty unfriendly neighbourhood. They were nice men. One, a former bouncer, had recently become a Jehovas Witness and was about to go to South America to do charitable work when I met him. Neither of them was sleazy towards me. The only reasonable explanation I can see for their experiences is that the nice people I know in my neighbourhood were intimidated by them and weren’t willing to take the risk of being nice. Incidentally, when one of the 1% started seeking me out, following me for weeks, it was the brother of one of those two men who intervened and chased him off for good.

Another niceness versus risk example: mostly if I don’t have human company and I’m out walking I have a giant woolly dog or a barky smaller dog along but I sometimes just wander off into the fields of North Herts to blow away the cobwebs of office life. One time I was walking near Wallington (home of Orwell and the farm Animal Farm is supposedly based on). I saw various people who I greeted cheerfully as we tend to here (if I find myself in a place where people are grumpier I take great delight in being even more chirpy once their sour faces get close enough – Newman didn’t mention niceness as a form of mockery), including an older couple who stopped for a chat. Since retiring they’d taken to walking the area. The wife said she thought it was “very brave” of me to go walking alone. I was surprised. To me, the biggest risks are getting attacked by marauding sheep and getting lost for long enough to desperately need the loo in an area with no pubs within spitting distance. That and the fear of being hit by a car on the stretches of road walking (which I avoid as much as possible). She asked what I’d do if I got injured. I said I’d be surprised to get a serious injury on a walk like that but there’s always people around. Someone would come past and help me. What about the risk of being attacked, she asked. Well firstly, I said, I look pretty boyish all bundled up and with a woolly hat on but mostly I don’t believe there’s a serious risk of being attacked. I said I refuse to live my life trapped indoors because I’m a woman (if it sounds like I was a bit rude, I wasn’t. I’m just cutting through most of our waffle). There’s something desperately sad about nice people not realising they’re in the majority and/or living their lives in risk adverse fear. I choose not to.

Newman’s daughter seems to be strong minded and true to herself. The odds of her making it to adulthood without abandoning some of what currently makes her her seem quite slim. She’ll probably come to realise you can’t act as if other people’s feelings and egos don’t matter when it comes to politeness (and I sympathise with the idea some conventions seem stupid, for example the requirement to say goodnight to everyone in the office Waltons-style has always niggled at me but I do it because sometimes life involves doing silly unnecessary things to keep the peace) but she may also be pushed by peer and societal pressure to become the more negative form of nice: compliant. I’m wary of extending what Newman’s saying too far beyond her daughter’s particular character and/or the form of niceness that involves conforming to the unhealthy convention of simply accepting discrimination and harassment though. “Nice” can also be used as an alternative way of saying meek, mild and even biddable. Some women might naturally be meek, mild and biddable. They might be happy that way. Some men might also be meek, mild, biddable and happy. Newman doesn’t do so but sometimes it seems we berate the women and mock the men who’re like that. What lies behind that isn’t just gender stereotyping though. It’s the assumption that it’s better to be the opposite: to be extroverted, or even aggressive. It seems like an increasing number of people are so intent on making themselves heard and winning every argument (even when there was no argument there in the first place) that we’ll be lucky if the economic and societal gears don’t get completely clogged with self important bullshit. I see it in a business context. There is definitely such a thing as taking a good thing too far and both genders could be accused of doing so in the crushing desire to keep it real, a juvenile concept with no basis in the reality of interaction which is making it increasingly tedious to work with people who watch The Apprentice. Yes, I appreciate the irony in my forcefully expressed opinions.

Newman’s blog was a jumping off point to thoughts already brewing in my head. She’s talking about her own daughter but the Guardian put the wider question, “should girls be nice?” I’m just as tired of feminists who feel the burning need to tell other women how they should be as I am of glossy mags etc. No. Don’t be a shy quiet unconfrontational person! Go balls to the wall (no balls, no barrier after all) after anyone regardless of who they are and what the broader circumstances are! Stay feminine! Adopt masculine behaviour! Shout out! Be silent!* Say, do, think, be what we tell you to!

The concept of stubbornly trying to classify others and to judge them by whether they fit heavily politicised views of how people should be and behave (whether demanding they conform to gender stereotypes or the opposite) annoys me because I’m a mass of contradictions and act and think in ways which are traditionally both masculine and feminine. Lots of people (most?) can say the same and why shouldn’t we? As long as we’re basically decent people and true to ourselves, why should we listen to women telling us not (for example) to be diffident and mild mannered in the face of rudeness any more than we should listen to men telling us what to do? I’m impetuous and stubborn despite also being polite and “nice”. I’m outgoing, outspoken and cheeky when I’m in my element but shy when I’m not and always need time to myself either way. I’m very nonconfrontational (to the point that I physically get mildly panicky if I even hear an argument breaking out near me) and I rarely stand up for myself but despite this I don’t think twice before standing up for someone else (one time getting kicked out of a club along with all the fighting men because I’d plunged into the middle to rescue a friend’s glasses when they got knocked off in the fray and I knew how strong his prescription was). I’m a problem solver (traditionally a masculine trait, of course): it’s my answer to just about any crisis and why I’m suited to my job. I’m not cold. I’m certainly not unsympathetic or dispassionate but I do want to fix the problem. I don’t think any of this is related to gender politics particularly. It’s who I am. I don’t exist in isolation and you could argue I’m just deluded but while my environment has an impact on me, I don’t see why anyone, misogynist or feminist, should have the right to pick at any of these things and tell me they’re wrong because I’m a woman

image
Left: me and my grandad with a book of nursery rhymes (probably why I remembered these photos). Right: taken the same day, presumably I was “helping” my mum and grandma in the kitchen. It’s my expressions that make me think sugar and spice one minute and slugs and snails the next.

I drink beer, watch rugby, swear, make rude jokes and my car doesn’t have a name. I also drink wine (although only red so not such a stereotype), do pilates, cook amazing food, go soppy over cats and dogs, cry over the news sometimes, wear pretty clothes (an emotional weather vane – if I’m looking at the wardrobe thinking “I don’t care” what I’m going to see all day it’s a sure sign I’m really unhappy and/or exhausted because fabrics and cheerful colour reflect when I’m happy or I’m not but want to be) and an ever growing collection of cute sexy shoes. I read fantasy books (great female authors include Kate Griffin, Kat Richardson and Tanya Huff by the way), love Dumas’ Three Musketeers books (even the non-famous ones) and find Jane Austen boring. I don’t like romance novels but am privately a hopeless romantic. The friend with the nice husband I mentioned above? Her husband’s an only child and I know his parents. Apparently his dad’s in awe of me because I can “read Ikea instructions and bake cakes” (as my friend pointed out, so can she!). So what, to all of this. Should I be testing all of these characteristics against a litmus chart running from oppressed to independent as defined by famous feminists?

Yes, I bump up against societal norms – my hang ups about myself being a case in point (let’s face it men have plenty too though, and just as many about their bodies as women from what I’ve seen). A common theme in the press and blogs at this time of year is the great bikini debate, with glossies saying “get a bikini body!” and feminist writers “wear a bikini with pride!”, followed by blogs by other feminists saying “don’t wear a bikini if you don’t want to!” – if women keep writing the same thing every single year we’ll eventually have vast plains of data warehouses devoted solely to the issue of bikini wearing…and still more for the politics of hair removal. Although I agree glossies add to our insecurities, criticism of insecurities (overt or implied) is the most pernicious kind of criticism for women to make about other women to my mind because insecurities are normal. If we didn’t have one kind, we’d have another. I fall into the same traps as anyone else, like hating my thighs and thinking men want someone more sophisticated than I’ll ever be (someone who never has bruises on their legs because she’s not a clumsy oaf, for instance). Oh, and I hate my walk, which is ridiculous because I’ve never even seen it properly. I can walk normally (I think) for a few metres but anything more than that and I have to compensate for the back and hip problems. I can temporarily hide it by wearing heels but in flats I feel like my right side gives me the gait of an inelegant duck. So, yeah. That’s the double, isn’t it. A hang up about a physical condition I can’t change and how it affects my femininity. Like I say, we’ve all got them. Why do some women add to the load by demanding that we shed our insecurities, slough them off because they tell us that we’re being insecure about the wrong things and should really feel bad about the way we’re aiding and abetting the patriarchy by allowing ourselves to have them (particularly if they’re related in any way to how men see us)?

I haven’t studied feminist theory, don’t belong to a particular camp. I’m just another woman but it seems to me the point of feminism to make it ok to be all these things, do all these things: that it’s ok for women and men to be themselves. My advice to women and men alike would be do, think and say what you like, love who you like and be who you are without any regard to your gender. But do, think and say what you like, love who you like and be who you are with every regard to your humanity. That’s what feminism means to me. In fact, I’d rather shed a badge which has become a bit tarnished and call it humanism. Oh, and I’d add to feel free to ignore my advice and the advice or demands of any other stranger on the internet because you’re probably complicated and contradictory too and none of us have the right to tell you who to be.

* (no separate post on the Twitter Silence by the way because I was a bit meh on it as a form of protest and had nothing to add. I certainly didn’t have an issue with people I follow doing it but did get irritated by some of the media types)

Note 12/8
@HayesThompson shared this FT article from last weekend with me saying that we Brits are nicer and kinder than we think. For a peaceful life, I’d better point out he didn’t buy it – it was lying around in the office. He was quite clear about that 🙂

Tough on the causes of sexual thoughts

I think everyone can agree that the presence of paedophilic images and videos on the internet is a bad thing. The children in them are being abused. It’s not controversial to say we should be trying to stop that. However, I disagree with David Cameron over whether making it impossible (if his proposals actually do, which seems highly doubtful) for paedophiles to see such images prevents them from committing future offences against children in the real world. That’s not how paedophilia works. You can’t take away the underlying urge by removing what is, for the paedophile, a relatively risk free method of satisfying it. The recidivism rate for paedophiles demonstrates this (not to mention that they didn’t just suddenly pop into existence on the day the internet was born). So, I don’t believe his plan prevents future harm to children. I’m not saying we don’t need to deal with the presence of sexual and violent content involving children. I just think the emphasis should be on catching the people who make the films and take the photos and that’s a worldwide endeavour. We should protect the children who’re already victims and prevent more children being assaulted and filmed. We should learn lessons from the failed war on drugs and focus on the big players. My dissertation back in 1997-98 was on populist, ineffective law making and a third of it was devoted to our plans for a paedophile register and the lessons from America’s Megan’s Law. Intended to stamp out sexual assault of children by strangers, the fact that only 4% of abuse involved a stranger was ignored. This reminds me of that. It’s a sop. A soundbite. It won’t really achieve much.

Slightly to my surprise, there isn’t universal agreement over the issue of violent pornography (I’ve mentioned sadomasocism below – distinguishing between the two things is important). There are even women arguing that a ban on rape porn is unfair on women who fantasise about rape and might want to watch it. I accept that what we call rape fantasies aren’t that uncommon but I don’t accept the argument that filtering out rape porn hurts women who fantasise about rape. Its not like I’ve ever watched it but I assume it’s called rape porn for a reason. Does witnessing brutality against another woman actually fit into their fantasies? I don’t know. I doubt it. I also don’t know what proportion of the content online is simulated and how much isn’t but for these purposes, does it really matter? At the risk of bringing these objectors down on my head, the word fantasy implies it’s something you can do in your own head. If you’re a woman who prefers visual aids, fine, but I don’t believe the right to watch rape, simulated or real, is a right due to you as a feminist. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong in women fantasising about it themselves – have at it, even if I strongly suspect your fantasises aren’t really about rape in the legal sense – but I do believe it’s wrong to victimise other women in the process.

Before I say anything more, let me say this. There is no such thing as “good” or “better” rape. I’m not saying that at all but I do believe rapists don’t all do it for the same reasons. If you want to reduce the occurrence of rape, it’s important to recognise the distinction. There are rapists who rape through the need for power and violence. As with paedophiles, I’m not convinced removing one stimulus makes them less likely to offend. We’ve never successfully made any real progress on reoffending among that kind of rapist. Then there’s another kind of rape. The kind which seems to be becoming more common and even socially acceptable again. This is rape predicated on the assumption that the man’s sexual needs trump the woman’s choice but you won’t hear them admit that because this is the kind of rape which many men (and even some women) won’t admit is rape at all. Maybe the vast availability of porn is making it easier for men to justify rape by objectifying women but that’s not to say the availability of rape porn encourages these rapists because many justify their actions by denying that it’s non consensual, along the lines of she wanted it, she was asking for it, she got into it. I haven’t seen rape porn but I’m assuming it wouldn’t leave you in any doubt that what you’re seeing is meant to look non-consensual, whether it’s real or simulated. I just don’t see men who tell themselves rape was consensual when it wasn’t, or even those who think sex with or without consent is their societal due, being influenced into that belief by obviously violent porn. That being the case I believe:
a. The first type of rapist will rape with or without violent porn to watch, and
b. The second type of rapist will rape with or without the presence of violent porn in the world.

Although some of the women in rape films might not strictly be victims, we know that sex trafficking is a huge problem and that many are likely to be victims. Apart from anything else,  there’s a booming industry in non-violent porn for women who choose to be in porn. Again, given how little difference I think filters are likely to make to the commission of new offences, I’d rather we prioritise shutting down the people who make these films.

I don’t object to the censorship of images and films which involve the abuse of children and women. The proposals do go beyond existing law by extending the ban to content which appears to depict rape but I don’t have a major issue with that. My first problem, as I’ve said, is that I don’t believe his plan prevents future harm to children and women. To me, Cameron’s strident call to ISPs and search engines is an admission of failure. We, the Government, together with other governments around the world are failing to catch and stop the people making films of paedophilia and rape so we’re outsourcing responsibility (only you won’t get paid) so that we can shift blame to you. Well, they are the party of privatisation. We should probably just be grateful they aren’t putting G4S in charge or they’d be inadvertently filtering mumsnet while simultaneously opening backdoors that leave us all knee deep in hitherto unimagined volumes of pornographic spam before you know it.

My next problem is that I have concerns about where this is all leading and the moralising surrounding adult viewing of porn. How will the filters differentiate between the illegal acts and lawful consensual activities?  What about sadomasocism? Lawyers reading this might remember Laskey Jaggard and Brown. A group of sadomasocist gay men ended up in the European Court of Human Rights arguing that they shouldn’t have been prosecuted over consensual, if extreme (and believe me it was extreme – I read the entire judgement for an assignment at University) sexual activities. They argued (and there’s no doubt they were right) that they were prosecuted not because their activities were non – consensual but because they were gay men and they were into things which others couldn’t cope with. If they’d been able to upload footage of their entirely consensual activities back then, how would the filters be applied? They used fish hooks where no fish hook has ever gone before but they were all willing participants. Human sexuality is complicated and we run the risk of going backwards and pulling non-mainstream activities into the net with illegal ones.

I said recently that I feel the seepage of porn into popular culture is a bad thing. It warps attitudes to sex. It messes with body image and promotes the kind of objectification which may be contributing to the fact that rape seems to have become more acceptable to some people again. Far from saying anyone should have less sex (including teenagers), I think it should be better, that respect and self-respect matter. It’s never a good idea to just say “right. We’ll limit access. That’ll do the trick”. Barring teenagers from watching porn seems like a bit of a shabby, lazy compromise. We still aren’t getting it right when it comes to sex education. Personally, I think honesty is the key to pretty much all issues involving teenagers. Sex, drugs, alcohol. They can be good. They can be great. They can also be awful, make you feel bad about yourself and even kill you. And then there’s the fact that this doesn’t address the existing problem. There’s a whole generation of people whose attitudes to sex have already been moulded by porn and is that seepage into popular culture just going to disappear? Will people magically change, as if 15 years of steadily increasing levels of porn never happened? Will it stop young people filming footage and taking pictures of their own and sharing them that they’re bound to regret sometime? Will it give them body confidence?

Despite my own reservations about the extent to which porn is messing with people’s minds, I’m still concerned about the moral judgements being imposed on adults. Cameron was on the wrong side of the moral argument on equal marriage as far as many of his own party were concerned and we’ve just seen more moralising rants about teenage mothers. The party of small government was always keen to moralise and I am concerned that there’s an element of this in the filtering of lawful content. Cameron’s been banging this drum for a while now, slowly moving further towards the point where he says it’s not just children who have to be protected against the possibility of seeing porn but adults too. As the Register put it:
“Cameron said the new “opt-in” scheme will give all internet users the “unavoidable” choice of whether to use filters on their connection. Quite what will happen to the lists of adults who disable the filters is not clear.”
I’m all for a society capable of happy healthy relationships in all respects, including sexual, but I draw the line at interfering with what consenting adults do in the privacy of the bedroom, or any other room for that matter. I’m reminded of the old “pornography causes sexual thoughts” thing. No it doesn’t. It’s just a cheap imitation of the real thing, like staring at a McDonald’s when you could be eating a steak when you’re hungry. My view is that the problem isn’t the existence of porn; it’s the normalisation of it. It’s trying to turn steak into a burger (of course the reason this analogy works so well is that our attitudes to food have become that screwed up). For some people, it’s using a recipe for a cheap takeaway burger and hoping that you end up with steak. What matters is knowing the difference and preaching from the moral high ground isn’t the way to get the fact that there’s a difference across. Part of me hopes most adult households disable the filters as a matter of principle, just to tell the Government they don’t get to make choices for them. There’s something unpleasant about leaving electronic post it notes asking adults “are you sure you want to watch this? Well, ok. If you must but know this: YOUR COUNTRY THINKS YOU’RE A PERV”.

Bypassing the Brain

If you told me in the 1990s that it was a halcyon age for sexual equality and liberation, I’d have laughed at you. I wouldn’t have believed society would move backwards after so many years. Now though, I’m genuinely shocked by what passes for normal for the current generation of teenagers. I hate to blame the internet but I do agree with all those who argue that the flood of porn and social media have a lot to do with distorting today’s teenagers’ views of sex and relationships. This post isn’t really about asking broad questions about what went wrong and what needs to change though. It’s about music.

I feel incredibly old saying this but the music industry and music channels like MTV are feeding the monster. The vast majority of the top female “artists” (I can’t bring myself to write that without being sarcastic) are expected to jiggle around, not just with next to nothing on but in leather and latex. Some of these women might think they’re liberated but when I see Nicki Minaj snarling at the camera while jiggling her preposterously large breasts, I think of a stripper who knows what she has to do to get paid and resents the hell out of it. Even women in their 30s who initially tasted success back in the days when work experience on a porn set wasn’t an essential on a pop star’s cv are at it. When I saw Kelly Rowland’s video for Down For Whatever I pitied her. I imagine that when they filmed that video she was constantly stopping, asking “does this look sexy?  This? What if I?” And, of course, the men’s videos look like what you’d get if Pan’s People were spliced with porn.

As for the lyrics, I’m Down for Whatever is also a good example of what’s wrong with them. It would be better named “please don’t leave me. I’ll do anything to satisfy your porn based fantasies”. The actual lyrics, which suggest they should “get creative” but only specify “when it comes to you I would make love on the floor”, are a big “huh?” When did that become creative? Someone also needs to tell Kelly there are more appropriate descriptions for what she’s suggesting than “make love” and none of them actually involve any love whatsoever between what would probably be best described as “the participants” (not saying everyone always has to be in love but let’s be honest about it and not tell kids that what Rowland’s singing about is love). Finally, of course,  the endless repetition of “I’m down for whatever” suggests “whatever” means a lot more and that the only way to keep her man is to unquestioningly do whatever he asks. That’s not sexy. It’s pathetic and that’s the kind of tripe today’s teenagers are fed.

Genuinely sexy music can and should bypass your brain. It should send a shiver down your spine from any or all of the instrumentals, vocals and lyrics. Yes, different people have different reactions and find different things sexy but I honestly believe the kind of synth pop crap being churned out is distorting a generation’s understanding of what sexy actually is. Lyrically and musically it’s hard to imagine how anyone can think these songs are sexy, while the endless parade of skin, leather and latex creates an oddly sanitised effect. It’s music for the dead inside and all that latex is about as sexy as a smear test. There’s no passion or heat in these songs or their videos, as if an entire generation is having its passion surgically removed. In my day (ahem), it would have been unthinkable to put these kinds of things on tv because they would have been seen as obscene. They are obscene but not in the way a previous generation would’ve have used the term. They’re obscene because they pevert natural, instinctive passion and tell young women to be submissive barbie dolls and tell young men to take what they want, when they want from however many barbie dolls they want.

All this is by way of introduction to a playlist of 10 songs, which have nothing in common with chart music other than the fact that they can be bought on Amazon. They’re not love songs. They’re music by adults for adults. It may not be your thing (although a fair few of my Twitter pals have impeccable taste!) but nobody could call the artists a bunch of dolls manipulated at the whim of the pop industry on the evidence of these tracks. It’s music that engages the senses. Incidentally, some of the sexiest songs ever written include some pretty dark lyrics if you pay attention. Personally, I think teenagers are supposed to feel. They’re supposed to love passionately and hurt passionately and there’s nothing wrong with music that reflects that angst. It’s music with heat and soul and it’s a hell of a lot better than music which reflects the porn industry.