Learning the Hard Way

PornPCIt is a truth universally acknowledged that people like to google Holly Willoughby. It is a truth more esoteric that, alongside any other adjectives chosen to yield the perfect result, people like their Holly Willoughby to be smiling. (Or ‘smileing’, as it is with alarming regularity misspelt).

It’s not often you are afforded a peep through the grubby window and into the vast, sprawling world of other people’s google search terms. WordPress Stats has gifted me this, and it really is a perpetual yet immutable beast. I can, for worse, see the exact terms that directed someone towards my page. You see, I once wrote a blog about our dear old tabloid press and their endearing, cosy and innocuous as a granny in a warm jumper, obsession with the objectification and denigration of women. I talked about Holly Willoughby, the Sun and the Sunday Sport so was contextually obligated to talk about nakedness, about fetishised and isolated body parts. So now, with rote-like frequency, are the same terms, or variants thereof: adjuncts to Holly Willoughby’s name. Once, twice, five or six times daily: ‘naked’; ‘naked and smiling’; ‘nude and smiling’; ‘upskirt shots’; ‘fake upskirt shots’ (verisimilitude doesn’t matter, sayeth the googler, I can close my eyes and imagine you actually violated her decency and right to privacy, instead of just pretending you did). My favourite expressions of disembodiment and objectification are reassuringly featured too: ‘head on naked body’; ‘legs and bum shot’; ‘breasts smiling’. The latter begging the obvious question: are they looking for a smiling pair of breasts? The answer unfortunately is yes, probably. For I think this is the ultimate aim and a natural consequence. These are the insidious effects of a bombardment of imagery that gives prominence to the most obvious visual signifiers of sex; the reductive tactic of drowning out the other things that actually make a woman who she wonderfully is with a cacophonous roar of thongs, bum shots and boobs.  A smiling pair of breasts. The circle complete.

And herein I, by describing this, have ramped up the not-what-you-were-expecting; the oops I’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in some spitty, spiky, feminist cul-de-sac. For I am sure there is nothing more annoying when you are hungrily click-clicking through the pages of google, bug-eyed and ravenous for a bit of airbrushed flesh, than than to think you have hit the motherload and instead realise you have hit the equivalent of your mother wagging her finger at you in disgust. But all of this has made me think more about what people google, and more specifically what young people, google. And that need for ‘smil(e)ing’ keeps gnawing at me too.

What children get up to on the internet has been, well, a moderately warm (but still annoyingly solid in the middle) political potato of late. The government has said no to default internet filters and yes to ‘active choice’. This means parents will be asked to tailor their filter settings appropriate to the children in the household. Personally, I don’t think this will achieve a great deal as many children are tech-savvy enough to circumvent these, and can get all the imagery they want from their phones, their friends phones, older siblings. Maybe it’s intended to prevent accidental exposure in the very young, although I’m not sure what very young children would be searching for to stumble upon it, but I concede it can happen. Perhaps the point should be that imagery doesn’t have to be labelled as ‘pornographic’ to have damaging effects. Consistent displays of’ Up the skirt shots’ can achieve the effect of sexually diminishing women just as well. No, no, I don’t mean the Sunday Sport is the same as hardcore pornography. I mean the totemic nature of constant imagery amounting to the violation of women’s private spaces (I mean private because they are covered, and clothed, and therefore have a right to be left as such) could lead to a negative view of women, and of womanhood.

However, Helen Goodman MP’s recent discussion with teenage girls about their representation in the media swiftly took a sideways step towards pornography. These girls discussed how access to porn has glamourised sexual violence and made sexually demeaning comments and behaviour towards them acceptable. I have spoken before  about the visible, albeit winding, path between the availability of sexual imagery, the treatment of women in our popular press, street harassment and the statistic that 1 in 3 young people have suffered violence in a relationship. The repugnant force of ‘lad’ culture, riding bareback on the gnarly three-headed behemoth FHM-Zoo-Nuts, stands along this path. It serves to shepherd the uncertain, those who think maybe there is something off about rape jokes; about promoting the myth of ‘grey areas’ in rape cases; about reducing women to the size of their breasts or about featuring a columnist who advocates disfiguring a woman’s face in a revenge attack (hats of to you, Mr Dyer). Because it’s just banter, you see. Even if you say it with such frequency that it becomes acceptable, permissible, normalised. It’s still banter, innit.

I am not saying that watching pornography or being regularly exposed to the sexualisation and fetishisation of women’s body parts causes sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual assault. Violence is always caused by one person choosing to control, manipluate, hurt and violate another. And I have always firmly believed that. To suggest otherwise is to fan the searchlight around looking for someone else to blame. Three guesses as to who that burden naturally falls upon. What I am saying is that easily available pornographic imagery can make violent and sexually coercive behaviour more accepted, more palatable, more mainstream almost. It blurs the lines and shades around the distinctions. And for teenage boys, still formulating their opinions and figuring out how everything fits into place, this surely has the potential to be very damaging. It also serves to separate the world, to divide femininity into two separate, never-meeting spheres: the women you can do all manner of disgusting and degrading things to and those you’d let your mother meet. It isn’t for nothing that Rebecca Mott, a former sex worker turned visceral blogger, continually uses the phrase ‘copying porn onto our bodies’: to do all the nasty, degrading, dehumanising things that you wouldn’t do to your wife or girlfriend, all that twisted and violent behaviour that you see those porn actresses smiling through, smiling and simulating pleasure through the vomit and the blood. Because they have to look like they’re enjoying it. There it is again. Smiling.

For these very reasons, Kate Wills’ proclamation that Deep Throat was one of the ’50 Moments of Sexual Liberation’ stuck so resolutely in my craw. Erm, unless I’m mistaken, Linda Lovelace subsequently maintained she was violently coerced into making the film (literally, gun to head) and said the whole business made her feel ‘disgusting…like garbage’. It seemed a strange choice. Whilst we’re on this subject, Kate, lap-dancing clubs? Liberating? I get so tired of this narrative. The commercialisation and commodification of women’s bodies is liberating? I have no problem with women doing this if they want to – I’m certainly no moral guardian – but to hold it up as a great signifier of liberation? I’m not quite sure about that one. I love my partner for many reasons, largely because he is sometimes a better feminist than me, and comes out with things like this: “Misogyny’s greatest achievement: get women to strip for men, and then get them to believe that they are somehow empowered by it.”. Such ownership and decorative use of girls’ bodies, this breaking down into requisite sexual functions and signs, was a strong feature of the NSPPC’s recent report into ‘Sexting’ in schools (and thus I am saved from segueing into another diatribe completely, or from turning into Andrea Dworkin).

The NSPCC report discovered that “the way sexual attacks manifest in social networks, instant messaging, and mobile phones are interconnected and can influence the risk of physical attacks at school.” The report discovered how normalised sexism and sexual coercion was in schools: how girls were regularly wrestled to the ground whilst several boys thrust crotches into their faces; how demeaning sexual epithets were rife and the pressure to show and share breast shots saturated communication between teenage groups. Taken for granted ownership of girls’ bodies was another alarming feature of the report. Girls frequently uploaded and shared photos of themselves with a boy’s name written across a certain body part (usually the breasts, and often at the behest of the boyfriend): the starkest physical manifestation of teenage boys’ sense of entitlement to girls’ bodies. Boy as proprietor of teenage girl. In a world where rape is not rape if she once said yes before, or agreed to sleep in your bed. In a world where a woman has her breasts out, quite willingly (and for free if you pick up one of the many abandoned copies that litter park benches and tube seats) everyday in the Sun; where you can obtain and share pornography for free on your mobile phone; where nobody bats an eyelid or utters a word when an overbearing man grabs a woman’s buttocks as she attempts to deftly squeeze past him in a ticket queue. It’s hardly the greatest leap of imagination to suggest where this distortion of a mutually respectful relationship into one of property rights has its antecedents. And of how women become, universally, the done to.

Pornography is, apparently, for the virgins. The gauche, the uninitiated, search out the real thing to learn from, to copy. And it comes as no surprise that the girls complained heartily about the lack of reciprocity in sexual relationships. I have heard many times of young boys stating they get their sex education from pornography and, if true, this worries me. How much from pornography do we learn about healthy relationships, about equality and about consent? Sex education should not be about the mechanics but about safety and trust, consent and respect, self-esteem and equality. It should be about the emotional relationships that often (but granted, not always) come along with the physical bit. I think the government is too caught up in the moral panic of our astronomic teenage pregnancy rates to consider measures to mitigate and prevent the normalisation of sexual violence but at least they’ve started talking about it. No sex education should flaunt a lack of protection, normalise the absence of pubic hair or the gratification of the male above all else. I’ll say it again: boys should not be getting their sex education from pornography. I’m not saying there should be any shame in sex, and exploring sex and sexuality is a healthy part of growing up. I merely think that the continual white noise of sexual imagery, pornography and culturally accepted attitudes towards the denigration of women needs to be, at least, counterbalanced. Hopefully by speaking about healthy relationships between girls and boys, and men and women, the world will not be seen through a prism of accepted, normalised inequality. And women won’t be expected to smile through their tears and pretend they like it. And yes, I have seen pornography. And no, I am not a prude (I get so tired of pulling up the creaking reins on that defence). I did not enjoy it because I think I am hardwired to look for outward manifestations of coercion, lack of consent, pain, even when they are absent (and yes, this probably says more about me than anything else). I’ve watched it in a ponderous way and wondered if anybody at all is really enjoying what they are doing. I don’t know the answer to that question as not many people bother to stop and ask. I simply feel that unlimited, unfettered, unmitigated access to such imagery has the potential to be damaging to both girls and boys. If your parents don’t like to talk about sex, and your school only mentions it when it quietly, pink-cheekedly, reminds you to, please, not get pregnant, where else are you going to share your fears? Who are you going to talk to about what it is OK to do, and to not do? When teachers are too frightened to even allude to the existence of sexual relationships for fear of a stream of disgruntled parents beating a path to their door it feels as if teenagers are pretty much on their own. So who is left? Danny Dyer? Diedre’s photo casebook? They’ll tell you the best state for a woman is undress and physical sexualised retribution understandable, if not laudable.

Pornography and our media’s obsession with eroticising and sexualising women and girls is obviously not to blame for all that is wrong with the state of gender equality, particularly for young people, today and it is lazy and misguided to suggest that if we just protect ourselves from it we’ll all get along a hell of a lot better. So I don’t think Harriet Harman’s juxtaposing of the nice, sterile, homely Downton Abbey with the big bad wolf of pornography helpful to the debate. In a similar way I don’t think Durham Council’s bus-stop size perpetuation of the ‘rapist as big bad wolf’ myth is helpful either. We need to stop looking at societal problems, and at problems facing women today, as one dark, evil mass. If we ignore it, protect ourselves from it or cover our children’s eyes from it we’ll all be fine. Attitudes don’t emerge in a vacuum and we shouldn’t be afforded the responsibility for filtering them out. We should be talking about contributory factors, not dark matter. These are tangible things, not metaphorical scaremongerings, and should be viewed the same way as any other complex issue. Pick them apart, deconstruct them and look for ways to inform, re-educate.

It was only 15 years ago that I was at school. In that time it feels as if things have altered irreparably. Maybe I glided, invisibly, through all of the sexual coercion and property rights, the groping and the shaming. I was short-haired and angular, no breasts and too many brains. I, maybe, with my lack of outward sexual signifiers and librarian mother down the hallway was rendered beneath the sexual contempt of teenage boys. Easier targets and all that. I think I would have struggled to know who to turn to, and would have gone along with it all and smiled because the dissenting voice of an awkward, doubt-riddled teenage girl is never, ever going to be very loud.

The Blame Game: Domestic Violence and ‘Bad Mothers’


I am eternally distracted by words; by what you can do to them, and with them. I delight in nuances of syntax, inversions of word formation, and just plain old beautiful imagery. For, behind all of the noise, selflessly propping up the social consciousness and gender indignation, lies a Book Person. And I have read a lot of books. If you once substituted paperbacks for meals (the chunk your life now cordoned off as the meaningless bit where you did nothing but wait for something) you end up ingesting a lot of beautiful writing. You end up, in some senses (but probably not in the sense Milton intended), ‘nourished’ by it. And I could say so much about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s descriptions of emptiness and wealth in The Great Gatsby; the resignation and desolation of the last paragraph to The End of the Affair; every paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath. But, never having been American, or spoilt by wealth, blighted by poverty or tortured by the duties of Catholicism, their power for me lies in their ability to articulate the unimagined, the not-lived.

On the opposite side of this coin lie those accounts unfettered by lyricism; those that just plain old tell the truth without regard to artifice or construction. And these mean more to, and remain solidly within, the reader to whom they speak. I think particularly, and recently, of Patrick Stewart’s interview in last Sunday’s Independent. Patrick Stewart is a patron of the domestic violence charity Refuge and has spoken frequently and at length about growing up with a violent father. I never tire of his interviews on this subject and after reading, feel a visceral urge to give him a hug, and say thank you: the type of tighter than usual hug you give to someone – someone else – who knows. Reading this:

I became an expert at judging the heat of an argument…as the temperature rose I would get out of bed and on to the landing, and, if it rose further, I would go down the stairs, sitting on the stone steps so as to be as close as possible to the door if something bad happened”

left me, for the remainder of the day, weakened. There I was too, my childhood self, sitting, hovering on those stairs, not always knowing the content but understanding the tone, waiting for it to spill over and with clumsy hands and slight body weave my way into the danger. I am moved again as I write this – not because I am upset or triggered by those words – but because it sometimes feels so freeing, seems so essential, to have someone say the words for you. Your frame of reference tightens so much that you think you’re the only one and the shame and stigma that can surround coming from a violent home often stops you in the telling. I get used to the diatribes on ‘bad mothers’ that are swiftly abbreviated, hastily backtracked, when I point out the very clear and practical reasons my mother did not leave (for even the ill-informed can be pragmatists). I get used to the startled ‘but you seem so normal‘ looks and the underlying assumption that all children who witness domestic violence themselves become absuers, or drug addicts, or underachievers or in some other way become invaluable and invisible to polite society. Of course this can happen, and the possible effects of domestic violence on children should be prominent and continue to form part of the wider narrative of protection, awareness and eradication. Yet stereotypes – as always – are limiting and unhelpful. Someone, who in all other ways elicited a huge amount of empathy and reasoned reaction, ended our conversation on this topic with ‘well, thank goodness you weren’t a boy’. As if to say it was only by accident of gender that I was prevented from turning into a virulent, alcoholic, woman- abusing mess of a human being. This ‘cycle of violence’ explanation is too deterministic and seeks to absolve the perpetrator of responsibility. If there is such a solid reason why someone becomes an abuser then they are stripped of any responsibility for their actions; they are not acting by choice but on instinct, on socially and psychologically conditioned behaviour. And so if we can’t blame the perpetrator, who is there left to blame? And aside from all of that I just found the comment vaguely offensive. Part of a lineage of mother-blaming. There was an intrinsic assumption: an assumption that were it not for the random, chance occurrences during fertilisation my mother would have, by not leaving, by not seeking help, laid the conditions and foundations within which a monster could grow. Mother-blaming, along with victim blaming, forms part of the culture within which domestic violence sits. The ‘why doesn’t she leave’ argument, in itself a flagrant misunderstanding of the nature of abusive relationships and barriers to help seeking, increases in weight and volume when children are involved. In some respects it suddenly becomes an issue of choice or of obligation. If you are childless, it’s up to you if you don’t want to leave. It’s your choice, a free-will thing. Yeah, if you like getting hit and harassed and emotionally tormented, go right ahead and stay seated. This alters if there are children in the home. It is no longer a choice; it becomes an obligation, an obligation to do the best by those children, to protect them from further harm and from an adult life which echoes with sounds and acts of violence. If you don’t do this you are a bad mother, a selfish mother who has blighted forever the lives of your children. This entirely shifts the focus away from how resourceful and prepared and actively engaged in protection many mothers are. It heaps unnecessary blame and coercion onto women who are already suffering enough of this as it is.

Of course I am not saying that child protection is not important, and I would balk at  misinterpretation of what I am saying as a ‘mothers first’ argument. I am saying that opposing a woman’s experience of abuse against her ability to function as a mother can create an environment that impedes help-seeking. Judgements such as this are the shadowy obstacles that lurk between suffering in silence and speaking out. If we are focusing, as we should, on early intervention and prevention, shutting down routes to assistance by perpetuating false ideals of motherhood is something that needs to be tackled. The focus should not be on motherhood, but on safety, protection and routes to assistance. We need to steer away from creating monsters by way of the mothers who nurtured them. Excessive mothering created the draft dodgers and the Peter Sutcliffes; neglectful mothering created the Charles Mansons; abusive, warped mothering created the cartoonish yet murderous rage of Stephen King’s Carrie and selfish mothering creates the next generation of domestic abusers. I think I always hear this narrative, even if it is absent. Part of the legacy I am left with is a constant need to defend my mother, now with an adult’s words rather than a child’s hands, and tell people how goddamn normal I am and that look! I’m completely anti violence and really quite placid and sweet. I may have suffered in some ways as a result of my childhood, but I may just as easily have suffered had my childhood been one long uninterrupted dance of wonder. In any event there would only be one person to blame in all of this. And it wouldn’t be my mother.

This is why I think we need more Patrick Stewarts, more visibility for children who have lived in a violent home. We need to be thankful for Jahmene Douglas, who uses his X Factor fame to increase awareness of domestic violence, and who never fails to highlight how brave and loving and important his mother was when he was growing up. I want to hear more people speak out and articulate the realities of living with violence. But I want it done in a way that increases the prominence of routes to help seeking, and increases that sense of ‘I’m not aloneness’ for both mother and child. I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, nor do I have any other academic validity with which I can garnish or conclude those sentiments or this piece. I write about what I see, and feel and think. My credentials lie with literature, with linguistics. I make sense of things through the process of writing. So, whilst I do not know what it is to renounce one’s faith because it robbed you of the only person you truly loved, I can take Maurice Bendrix’s lines from The End of the Affair – ‘you’ve done enough, you’ve robbed me of enough’ – and make them plain, make them stark, make them mean to me that which I want them to. They resonate as a message to those misguided perceptions, and to the past.

Running Scared?


Some things remain. Some experiences, despite their brevity, have the ability to inform indefinitely that which follows.

Several years ago I walked a short distance to the house of a friend. The route, so numbingly familiar and so comfortably usual, lent itself to the illusion of safety. Yet I was followed, definitely followed; his speed oscillating perfectly with mine. I will never forget that great cavernous, yawning gap in possibility as I turned into an alley-ridden side street. The lack of options. That feeling of having nowhere to go; ‘this is it, this is it’ click-clacking with my feet in the rain. So when I saw a couple, each in rain macs, walking a soggy dog and looking wonderfully out-of-the-situation normal I practically knocked them sideways with the force of my relief. I asked them to talk to me for a minute until the stranger had passed, who at that point turned and ran back the other way. This was an act so stark in it’s display of intent that I was simultaneously relieved at having trusted my instincts and wretched at the thought of what might have happened if there weren’t dogs to walk. I never reported this, and my telling of the experience has been until now limited to a handful of close friends who greeted me at the other end that evening, and who muted my panic with warmth and guitars and tipsiness. Part of me winces as I recount this, sharp in the knowledge that silence allows continuity and that perhaps for the next woman that slightly baffled couple were absent. In reality, though, I would know little of the man’s appearance other than in blurred flashes as my head twanged and snapped from periphery to backward glance, desperately trying to determine proximity. So I could only deal in uncertainties, in vagueness. I would have been able to tell the police that a man I could not even loosely describe was probably following me a while ago. It felt insignificant when articulated and would more than likely have been ignored. But then, had women in this area been assaulted before, or reported suspicious behaviour? Had I suddenly become the broken link, my silence the perpetuator?

It’s amazing when you think on it: I was subjected that evening to a pretty frightening ordeal. For the time it lasted there was so much fear, so much desperation that I can feel my breath catching as I pull forward the memory to write this. Yet I did, and do, tie myself up with the knotty thoughts of what I should have done, of what I did wrong. Yep, what did wrong. This is of course a familiar and somewhat conditioned response. Women feel stupid for ‘letting’ it happen, for moving away from street lights, for going out alone, for taking up public space. Of course we all know that violence, harassment and rape are out there; out there lurking, scuffing their feet and sharing cigarettes until we forget the ‘rules’ and career blindly into their path. It is somehow perceived as a woman’s responsibility to deftly avoid sexual harassment or assault in public space. But there is also for many women a much deeper, less erroneous, sense of ambivalence towards the responsibility of speaking out: what will happen if you do or if you don’t, what it means to keep silent or to speak.

I know that I have probably until now given limited thought to how my willingness to move freely, to take up public space, has been hindered and hijacked by what has gone before. I do know that since that otherwise unremarkable autumn evening I avoid at all costs walking anywhere alone after dark: no distance is too short for my hanging-on-by-a-thread Fiesta to traverse. Yet unless I am, as now, giving credence to the potential limitations harassment places on women’s mobility, I rarely connect the two events. It wasn’t until I completed a survey on women’s safety in public spaces that I began to analyse where I go, how I act and how harassment can, in some senses, shape liberty. Coventry Women’s Voices are currently conducting this survey to gauge “the degree of concern women who live and work in Coventry have about their safety in public spaces”. The questions centre largely on harassment in public spaces, and if you live or work in Coventry I highly recommend that you take the time to fill this out. It really makes you step back and analyse those incidents which you possibly – probably – brushed off or sealed away as ‘one of those things’. Even if it made you angry. Even if it left you humiliated or questioning your validity. And you are not alone in this. The End Violence Against Women Coalition carried out a survey earlier this year, which revealed that 4 in 10 women in London have been sexually harassed in public spaces. International estimates put the figure at 80%. I would say anecdotally and logically this is closer to 100%.

As a society we do not tend to view as important the ubiquitous things, the acts that enmesh themselves with everyday life. Movements such as Hollaback! should be applauded for allowing women the space to share their experiences of street harassment and share in the collective thought that this is very much not OK. I do not think it is OK for a group of males to comment on my mother’s breasts whilst she waits for a bus. I do not think it is OK for a man to put his face so close to mine that I can feel the wetness of his spittle and then shout ‘you’re fucking gorgeous’ so aggressively that it completely nullifies any notion of a compliment. I’m also not a huge fan of being asked constantly, by men who clearly have a want of meaningful pursuits, what my name is. Like it matters. Audrey, Karen, Lisa. I’m Everywoman. There is a problem with how we view harassment in public spaces, in no small part due to the fact that many people struggle to see it as ‘harassment’ at all. It now seems to click so easily into the catch-all term ‘banter’ and so the challenging of it carries assumptions about the woman, rather than the perpetrator. You’re an uptight, histrionic, ‘women’s libber’ if you can’t absorb a few wolf whistles or kissing noises as you carry out the highly eroticised act of getting a pint of milk in your tracksuit bottoms. And this is entirely the point. The catcalling and wolf whistling, the jerky, spasmodic grabbing of sexual organs, the following, the sexual degradation, it all feels so indiscriminate, so done by rote. Such harassment is so pervasive, so entrenched, so normalised and routine that it seems completely devoid of the element it is ostensibly about: sex. Harassment of this kind does not correlate with what a woman is wearing, her age, her level of perceived attractiveness or the size of her breasts. It is not about sex, or sexiness, but it is about entitlement; about casually delivered discrimination and about how our culture carries the weight of the issue with impunity. You’re a ‘lad’, it’s a bit of harmless fun, it’s all so innocuous and trivial that we really should be turning our attention to something with infinitely more gravity.

Maybe like what you’re doing tonight, darlin’.


Acts should be judged by their effect on the recipient. If constant harassment, or fear of harassment, is limiting women’s freedom of movement, limiting their willingness and ability to direct the course of their lives as they wish, then this is a problem. I could cut vast swathes through the stomach-churningly obnoxious concept of a ‘lad culture’ but for now, suffice to say, if such virulent, hateful and vengeful language towards women is humourous and this is the kind of culture we are endorsing, or a least condoning, for young men then I don’t know what the heck is going on. Apparently these epithets, these demeaning comments, would never traverse the boundary from words to deeds. These are nice, healthy young men who are engaging in a bit of rape banter, a bit of collective gender discrimination, but it doesn’t actually mean anything because they’d never really knock their girlfriend out and then fuck her until she bled. They don’t really view women as only having as much validity as the time it takes to squeeze a breast. And they don’t actually think Chris Brown is a hero. (Please, God).

But it does mean something. It makes this kind of discourse acceptable and it perpetuates the normalisation of gender discrimination. It stretches further the myth that women are put on this planet only to have things done to them. They can be laughed at, they can be looked at, they can be shouted at, whistled at or grabbed. Women can be poked and pulled and twisted and their presence is required only to gratify. Of course I would never suggest that most men think this way; in fact I’d balk at the suggestion that all men are street harassers and devaluers of women. To suggest this is also to devalue men. Yet because a level of tolerance exists, because street harassment is rinsed in banter and laddishness and stripped of all importance it is granted continuation. People don’t consider what it actually feels like to be spoken to or touched in such an intimate way by a complete stranger; to be followed and to have your personal space and sense of safety encroached upon. People don’t consider the force and impact of these acts, made more forceful by being culturally intrinsic. For, you see, this is what men do, and this is what women receive. Few at all seem to consider how such acts, or fear of such acts, can impinge on a woman’s wellbeing. And this is why people in the street look away, or down, or at each other. Anywhere but at the problem.

I will not deny that the incident I recounted as I opened this piece arguably lies at the more sinister end of the harassment spectrum and if I had ‘merely’ been subjected to the odd unsolicited fondle or crude comment I may not so tightly adhere to the creed of never walking the streets alone after dark unless it is absolutely unavoidable. But I do still run on them. Running is my sanctuary, my little reclamation. I feel cocooned in the knowledge I am doing something positive and powerful and am breezing past so quickly that the comments barely have time to zing off my back. Of course I have had harassment: I have had people follow me on bikes and in cars, blocking my path or commenting on my arse. I have chosen to ignore them, because I am busy doing something I love. In a strange way my inclination to challenge street harassment is probably inversely proportionate to my awareness of gender inequality and women’s issues. In my teens and early twenties I would fire back. I was defiant and vociferous. As I have aged I have come to realise, and indeed witnessed, the harm that can come from answering back. I cannot predict the vagaries of street harassers and, if I am being candid, would never challenge harassment if I were walking along in the company of men. They probably don’t hit ladies, you see. And I’ve had enough of violence.

The survey asked what I thought could be done to make women safer. I blathered on a bit about some things that might make women feel safer, and give them a bit more light and company. But maybe these things are illusory. So afterwards, and over the next few days, as I thought more and spoke about this to the people I love and admire and respect, I realised that this feeds into other debates around awareness (re)education and responsibility. We need more awareness of the level of harassment women face on a daily basis; we need education in schools about respect, and gender equality and how what you say to a woman or girl can – out there in the world – mean a hell of a lot more than you meant it to. Teenagers and ‘lads’ need reminding that the world is not divided into two types of women: the nasty ones it is OK to denigrate and the nice ones you protect. Shifting attitudes can take time, but campaigns highlighting the issue and more people talking about what street harassment implies for our society can only be for the good. People should be encouraged to challenge the open and public discrimination of women. I have set out the reasons why many would not challenge directly the behaviour of a stranger, or group of strangers, and I do not think fear of violence should be shrugged off as an ‘excuse’ for remaining silent. But if we are talking about the issue more and challenging it through debate and discussion and just plain old visibility it will trickle in among the gaps within tight friendship and peer groups. Friends can remind each other that ‘bitch’ is not an acceptable epithet for a woman and ask each other if they’d be happy if a stranger grabbed their sister’s breasts whilst she was getting off the number 21 because that top she was wearing made her look like she was in the nasty half.

It will take time and many people will still suggest I have just created a linguistic mountain out of nothing. I would say to them that street harassment is one branch, one connection, of a sprawling problem. I am not being alarmist when I say you can connect the dots between objectification of women in our popular media, pornography, ‘lad’ culture, domestic violence, sexual violence and street harassment. I am not saying one leads to another or you can’t be involved in one without being involved in them all. I am saying that perhaps that gap between words and deeds is not immutable and we should not assume it is so. If we assume then we cease to notice. Cease to pay attention. And in the case of street harassment we need everybody looking.

*** I encourage any Coventry women to now fill out the Coventry Women’s Voices survey and help them with this important piece of research.***

Where For Art Thou, Geoffrey? Or, the Perils of Safe Seat Complacency

There was once a fairly sizeable list of phrases I imagined would remain forever unutterable. Forever unarticulated. “I do” for one“Oh yes darling, we simply MUST fly with Easyjet again” for another. And if I flipped through a few pages, down to the section marked ‘too preposterous a scenario to even contemplate’, I’m sure I would have discovered this:

 “Geoffrey Robinson is ignoring me” 

But that was back then. Then: before I made my first electronic, and admittedly largely formulaic, overture to my MP. Then: before I wrote a more lengthy, personalised and impassioned entreaty. Then: before I followed the object of my unrequited attention to Wesminster – in pinching shoes – and stood about for longer than I should have wondering if he would eventually emerge, satyr-like, from within the corridors of power.

A bit of background will probably help. On October 24th UK Feminista orgainsed a mass lobby of parliament in an attempt to increase the political will and engagement necessary to tackle gender inequality and discrimination. Hundreds of constituents met with their MPs inside the Houses of Parliament, calling on them to take urgent action on a range of issues affecting women and girls. I had decided to take part as a logical extension of my burgeoning activism and of my long term interest in issues surrounding gendered violence and the exploitation and objectification of women. I had wanted to focus on the evidence submitted to the Leveson Inquiry by Object and Turn Your Back on Page 3 (jointly),  Equality Now, Eaves and the End Violence Against Women Coalition. These submissions powerfully highlight the routine discrimination and objectification of women in the press and the way violence against women is trivialised, minimised and even sexualised. Seeing page after page of examples, printed in bare black font is haunting (Give them a read and then echo the words: How they hell do they get away with this? How on earth can this seem normal?) I had wanted to ask my MP if he would support any proposals that would ensure regulations are put in place to end the routinely harmful representation of women. And, indeed, if Levenson omits any proposals, to request further action. I had also wanted to discuss the increasing violence, sexual bullying and harassment suffered by young women and the increasing levels of acceptance of such violence in teenage relationships. I would have asked him to take an interest in raising awareness of such issues in local schools, and of working with some of Coventry’s wonderfully committed charities in order to achieve this.

I wrote to my MP twice detailing my concerns and requested a meeting. I heard nothing in response.

So, when I travelled to London on an excruciatingly early train, those two ignored emails and a watery cappuccino clinging – stinging – inside me, something else travelled with me. This was, unfortunately, the gnawing feeling that my efforts would be in vain. Actually, it was less of a gnawing and more of a knowing. So this is where we turn to Geoffrey the man, and the perennial issue of whether the greatest battles are the hardest fought or the ones that create the biggest show. You see, my MP is not already a committed feminist with a substantial knowledge of the issues at hand, ready and able to forcefully articulate these to the House. My MP is not fresh, new, sound-bitingly youthful and endearingly eager to please. My MP is a 76 year old male with a somewhat checkered history and, so legend goes, a predilection for sweeping up all concerns and questions into nice, comfy empty sentiments. If I could get him to attend to my concerns, he who routinely speaks of transport, of industry, of finance, then surely this would send a more powerful message than someone with a more ‘expected’ adherence to gender equality. I don’t think, for example, that many MPs would fall, open mouthed, off those uber-polished House of Commons benches at the sight of Harriet Harman decrying the shocking underfunding of rape crisis centres. What a coup it would be to have Geoffrey Robinson MP listen to my concerns on the safety of young girls, and to work with me on setting this right. According to www.theyworkforyou.com Mr Robinson – bizarrely – uses a high content of alliterative three word phrases in his speeches. Hey, Geoffrey, why don’t you try ‘stop sexualisation in schools’ or ‘prostitution, pornography, power’ for size?

As it turned out, my initial assumption was accurate. I queued in the central lobby of parliament and filled out a green card, requesting the presence of my MP. I then waited. And waited. Admittedly I did not wait vacantly. I nattered away to some stunningly bright women, some just about young enough to be my daughters, many certainly old enough to be my grandparents. I listened in on meetings taking place in corridors with other activists and MPs and, shamelessly, indulged in some political celeb spotting (I stared too long at Simon Hughes. Long enough for him to look mildly perturbed). They tried to get Geoffrey’s office for me but there was no answer. I was told, as per procedure, that he would write to me upon receiving the green card.

As I write this, it is over two months since I wrote my first email, and three weeks since I left my green card. I am bereft of a response. I would have thought politeness and sense of obligation would dictate some form of acknowledgement for my troubles. A simple and polite ‘I can’t help you but I appreciate the issues’ although disappointing would have been accepted – and expected – by me. To be completely ignored speaks volumes about his regard for his female constituents. Perhaps if I sexed up a pothole story and threw in something about a factory – maybe massive potholes outside a factory – I’d have more success at turning his head.

Yet I will not turn to bitterness, or defend my principles by attacking his. I will only give the vaguest reference to the flat in Mayfair, the villa in Tuscany (holiday home of preference for Tony Blair), the drink driving incident, the loan to Mandelson and the alleged dalliance with Robert Maxwell. In fact none of this would matter if I were able to at least say that he listens to his constituents; that he, in the least hackneyed sense possible, cares. The salient point is this: Geoffrey Robinson has represented Coventry North West for thirty six years. Despite comparatively dwindling support for Labour, he still retained his seat with a 42.6% share of the vote. People in Coventry vote Labour. A forklift truck couldn’t move our dear old incumbent and therein lies the problem. He could probably do nothing, literally nothing but fester away in his plush apartment over 90 miles from Coventry, and still get re-elected. Because people in Coventry vote Labour. Labour MPs retain large majorities. But, if you have that sense of inevitability, that cosy knowledge that your seat is safe, where is your motivation to reach ALL sectors of your electorate, to really work to win new votes, and to tackle new issues?

At the time of his comparatively smidgeon-like loan to Peter Mandelson, Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson was worth around £30 million. Thirty. Million. I am not saying substantial wealth precludes you from having left leaning principles. Indeed, if this were the case my-mates-the-Milibands would be, as per the Newsnight fiasco(s) adjective du jour, toast. What I am saying is that all of this makes him feel that bit more unreachable. I do not think Geoffrey Robinson represents me, or the vast majority of his constituents. I think he represents the perils of safe seat complacency.

Maybe he doesn’t check his emails. Or pick up his green cards. Or open his letters. Maybe he is so overwhelmingly busy doing stuff and moaning about how shitty Coventry looks these days that he hasn’t got round to it. I will nobble him the next time he deigns to attend a constituency meeting and call him out on this. Because, Geoffrey, I am not an hysterical, hyperbolic harpy. I am not trying to find weight and substance in the trivial. I am a smart young woman with something to say.

In the meantime, I think he looks a little something like this:

So, If you see him before I do, please tell him that I’ve been looking for him.

Say It Like You Mean It

If the XFactor hadn’t descended up it’s own backside several years ago it would have been more profitable than it is to open this post with a string of searing barbs, at least in part to mitigate the pain I felt through the show’s exposure of Gary Barlow as, well, a bit pissy. A certified exercise in redundancy, but I want to ensure I relieve myself of the majority of my XFactor acidity before I commence with the heart of this.

Oh! the vitriol I could pour onto my TV set every Saturday (if I didn’t know a bit about science, and know that this may cause a fire). There are a plethora of irksome XFactor factors: the booming, elongated annunciation of the voiceover guy; the fact every post judge’s house makeover seems to rely heavily on PVC, stratospheric level backcombing and three sticks of eyeliner; the Village of the Damned style dead eyed repetition of the phrase ‘you made it your own’; the way Tulisa pronounces her name ‘Tulisaw’ (which can also, presumably, be found in isle three of B&Q). Yet only one XFactor trope has the ability to inflame: the culture of poormeism. That is, the coldly cynical way the producers stretch and contort any vaguely disconcerting aspect of a contestant’s life into a grotesque parody of sorrow, into minutely engineered pageantry played out by unwitting pop puppets who see only the swiftly receding light of transient fame, not the manipulation and exploitation of their private lives. These tales have ranged from the insultingly innocuous (the cross Andy in series one had to bear was his employment as a bin man) to the punchy yet overstated (Rachel in series five was a former crack addict and petty criminal and also, as it turned out, not particularly nice). Yet, as with everything that continues to exist in it’s current form, there is the potential for someone to come along and scrawl all over your preconceptions.

Despite my seeming infinitesimal knowledge of the XFactor I haven’t, for years, watched it for longer than it takes to count a few cliches and wince at a few bum notes. So, it took a while for one of this year’s finalists, Jahmene Douglas, to filter into my consciousness. And then he seemed to be everywhere. Jahmene, for the uninitiated, has spoken out about living with an violent and abusive father and the subsequent, far-reaching aftermath. This daily torment culminated in a sustained and torturous attack on his mother, Mandy. She was imprisoned in her own home and abused for days with a blow torch; with fists; with knives. Then followed a series of refuge stays, of aliases and of trying to bear the seemingly unbearable. Coming to terms with a life lived in the shadow of abuse proved too much for Jahmene’s brother Daniel who took his own life. Yet this sequence of events has been imparted without sensation, without the vaguest whiff of self pity. It is hard to imagine Jahmene’s heartfelt words accompanied by the obligatory pre-performance ‘vote for me I’ve had a hard time’ piano refrain of a Coldplay or a Take That song. I hope I am not wrong.

Whilst the publicity generated by all of this has surely not hindered Jahmene’s progress in the competition, I think to focus on this is to miss the point. I have before seen contestants use their fleeting fame merely as a springboard to vacuity: entry into trashy celeb hangouts;  dubiously rendered carol concerts in shopping centres; posing and pouting in mens’ magazines. Never before have I witnessed an XFactor contestant use the temporary platform granted by the show to do something worthwhile. Yet here we have Asda selling ‘Vote Jahmene’ T-shirts and donating the profits to the national domestic violence charity Women’s Aid; The Sun donating to Women’s Aid following an interview with Jahmene; the XFactor’s own website providing a link to a site about domestic violence; Women’s Aid and Jahmene retweeting each other on the subject of Domestic Violence Awareness. We also have #raiseawarenessofdomesticviolence trending on Twitter, at Jahmene’s behest. We have his young followers opening up about their experiences of domestic violence and giving money to help support services. One follower had proudly told Jahmene she had donated £10 to Women’s Aid, as that was all she had, but was worried that this was not enough. I am not a sucker for a sob story and can root out the coldly cynical at ten paces. I am also aware that the ubiquitous hash tag alone does nothing to reduce the statistic that two women every week die at the hands of a violent partner. I do, however, think that all of this has brought further into public consciousness a very trenchant point. With regards to the reporting and awareness of domestic violence, and to quote Mandy Douglas, “everything at the moment focuses on the aftermath”. The story of Jahmene and Mandy played out in the popular press and on social media websites is surely that indictment writ large. We hear them in retrospect, we hear them reach back painfully into the past and recall how – somehow – they managed to survive. The focus needs to stretch, to incorporate and give equal weight to prevention, to early intervention, to increasing routes to help-seeking and to eradicate the shame that is so attached to all of this.

And I know from whence I speak. I have been – I am – that aftermath. I know what it is to cower and to fear, to listen to the anger and see the pain, to be a child and to not know how to make it stop, to be conditioned to see your suffering as shameful, as wrong. Reading Jahmene say that “the thing that stays with you is hearing your mother scream and not being able to do anything about it” made me feel, for that moment, that he was the bravest person alive. I have worked for a women’s refuge service and seen women time and again feel that no one is listening, and that to fight to be heard, and to fight to be given the right options is a battle too far. I know that teens and young adults are at most risk of suffering violence at the hands of a partner, I know that there are ‘worrying levels of acceptance of abuse’* in teen relationships. This increasing normalisation of abuse needs to be tackled at the earliest opportunity, through education, and the services need to be there for people to come forward. Crippling cuts to refuge services need to stop, for we cannot continue to live in a world where 230 women were turned away by Women’s Aid in one day as there was not enough refuge space to accommodate them**.

If young people are talking about the destructive nature of domestic violence on Twitter, or during XFactor advert breaks, it is surely a start.



*Home Office 2004; **Women’s Aid 2011

Commission This!

The upcoming Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections carry more than a whiff of impending disaster. They nestle, shivering, between the twin impediments of voter apathy and an I-can’t-be-bothered-to-go-out-in-the-cold-and-dark polling schedule. Combine this with an unfathomably muted publicity drive (a smattering of adverts during the X Factor? Really? Unless we’re going to have a PCC clap-o-meter on the iphone you’re wasting your time) and the results look bleak. At best, newly anointed PCCs shouldering teeny tiny mandates will hold little power in real terms. At worst, an absolute stinker of a candidate will be elected by virtue of the fact that those people with a political and social will, with valid viewpoints and progressive ideals, couldn’t muster the energy to care.

There are a lot of things I care, and care deeply, about. Some but not all of these things are related to my gender. Some but not all of these things may be affected by the election of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner. There is certainly scope within the PCC role to address the issues I am most passionate about: the, if you like, holy trinity of my activism. In an ideal world the PCC would become involved in increasing provision for victims of domestic violence and rape; in providing education and awareness sessions on gendered violence to schools and youth clubs and in supporting a prevailing opinion of ALL sex workers as victims of coercion and exploitation. And so, on Wednesday I attended a question time with all seven of the West Midlands candidates. I attended with the hope of clarifying the murky waters of an initiative about which I am, at best, skeptical.

Unfortunately it was not to be.

Instead, I watched seven individuals blunder and sound bite their way through a series of questions, questions it was searingly obvious they knew little about. The event was planned months in advance. The event was planned by Coventry Women’s Voices. The event came attached with a manifesto (on issues affecting women and girls) that the organisers were lobbying candidates to sign up to. There are several clues in there as to the likely content and tone of the evening. You know? WOMEN? Issues affecting WOMEN? Coventry WOMEN’S Voices? Although I doubt event rampant capitalising and size 60 font would have alerted this lot to the necessity to perhaps engage in a little light research before attending.

And so.

There are the usual suspects.

There are several things that are going to happen here tonight.

A man in an ill-fitting suit jacket will try to appease by pledging his attention to ‘crimes that affect ladies’ (this man will also represent UKIP so there really will be nothing else to say). The sole female candidate, our great hope for equal representation, will demolish the prospect of respect by closing her opening gambit with a bizarre cheerleader style chant cum hand gesture (which, come to think of it, is eerily reminiscent of something a doggedly loyal family member of an X Factor contestant may do. Maybe those adverts were onto something). Derek, dear old Derek, will raise the hackles of the audience by refuting the idea that street sex workers are subject to coercion and exploitation, stating that many are there because they want to be, because they are making an economic decision (You won’t remember much else of what Derek has to say, he lost you at ‘choice’). A lithe, lanky Tory will also distract you from the content of his questions by reminding you too much of the character Phil Smith from The Thick of It. The Tory and the Labour candidates will engage in a vitriolic spat, the source of which will remain elusive. Everyone’s opinions will appear based on a few hastily read briefings and the odd Panorama on sex trafficking (apparently British women engaging in street prostitution isn’t fashionable to talk about anymore…).

I am, of course, being glib. Yet my disappointment is sincere. I perhaps naively expected that at least one candidate would have a grasp of the issues that affect so many women and girls every day. The phrase ‘under reporting’ was repeated mantra-like by all of the candidates. Yet this was said with no sense or idea of how to increase reporting, or of how the provision of responses and support far removed from the criminal justice system are vital. Apparently the candidates, if elected, would hold regular meetings with the public. Not really the ideal setting for marginalised and vulnerable groups to make their opinions and needs felt and heard. What of the lack of access to rape and domestic violence services for LGBT victims, for disabled victims, for BME victims or for ‘looked after’ teens? There was a distinct failure to comprehend the reasons that people do not come forward. There was a further failure to suggest how access to justice and support can be increased, and also how to increase the trust in statutory agencies that is so lacking for some members of society.

I appreciate that there was a limited time frame for discussion and that many of the questions asked could not be given an unequivocal answer without research and careful planning. However, if a question time such as this is a glimpse into the hearts and minds of our candidates I can say only this: I may have ventured out on a cold, dark, rainy night to see what these candidates had to say for themselves. I certainly won’t be repeating the gesture on November 15th.