You’ve Got Something on Your Bum, Love.

Primark of the DamnedLast week I risked the vertiginous, headachy maelstrom of sequin and polyester that is Primark.

Oh, how I loathe that place.

The shop that staunchly eschews tidiness and teaches its staff that rehanging discarded dresses is an exercise in futility. As is disentangling the massive knot of infinity that was once the necklace section.

The tables, vomitous with nylon and elastic; a firey, Hadean explosion of captioned knickers and cutesy animals.

The tills, a scattershot assault of One Direction masks, flavoured Vaseline and E numbers, as if a teenage girl has tipped the contents of her life upside down and thrown them  every which way.

And what of the inexplicable but seemingly infinite stream of people carting suitcases behind them with the speed and emotional encumbrance of a funeral march? I doubt many people enter with the intention of buying a suitcase but, with the astonishment of post-automatism, arrive home to find they have done just that (I think this is what would happen if the kids in The Village of The Damned were hell bent on package holidays rather than the decimation of their hosts).

Now, I should really have prefaced this by stating that I am neither misanthrope, fashion guru or clothing snob, although Primark allows me to swerve grandiosely close to all three. I do have a horrible feeling (garnered largely from the fact I enter Topshop and either peer at price tags, sucking air through my clenched teeth, or hold items of clothing at varying angles in order to work out which way up they go) that I’ve somehow passed into that hinterland beyond fashion.

I’m not on higher ground here. I often buy cheap things from corduroy-scented vintage shops: shirts adorned with mystery pen stains and dresses weeping with the cloy of mothballs. I have learnt to strategically position my arm, or winch my skirt up to just the right side of decency, in order to hide an enigmatic scorch mark, or hastily stitched hole. I also think that, fashion wise, the 80s were a Good Thing.

So of course there is nothing wrong with mass produced fashion ephemera. It’s affordable,  accessible, inclusive. It does it’s job well enough.

I just hate Primark.

And I think Primark reciprocates in kind, to womankind.

You see, I went there for the wincingly non-essential reason that they sell cheap, tight pants. A combination of regularly running in lycra and the spectre-like last vestiges of an eating disorder mean I, with more regularity than I would like, experience the Phantom Wobble. No gossamer-like delicacies will adorn my rear whilst I cart around the dead weight of re-imagined corporeality.

And Primark seems to cater so beautifully for every conceivable bodily neurosis. There is a whole section dedicated to flattening out and squeezing in the flesh: pants, tights, leggings, tops, whole body suits. It’s the cultural equivalent to a barbed wire corset; an exercise in self-flagellation, diminishment and conformity.

Now it’s appalling enough that women of any size feel the need to truss up parts of their flesh whilst forcing out others but the fact you can buy hold in pants and leggings in size 6 is unfathomable. To conceive of a world in which we are telling women, some with the body weight of a child, that they need to bandage up their (presumably imagined) excesses is to conceive of a world in which women’s bodies are still coerced and controlled. It’s pretty far from an iron girdle, granted, but nonetheless serves to increase an oppressive cultural roar that seeks to shame women into hating their own flesh.

Think on it; hold-in high waisted pants in size 6. What exactly are we holding in here? The intestines after a zombie attack or particularly nasty hunting accident? (And for the record, I don’t wear hold in pants. Just tight pants. There’s a subtle yet probably indeterminable difference, so I’m not at all complicit or culpable in any of this, OK?).

It’s entirely possible Primark hates men whilst hating women too. From what I’ve seen most of the items on offer would make even the most erudite feminist ally look like either; a brain dead tosser or a card-carrying, t-shirt wearing misogynist. Hey guys! You can wear a torso sized espousal of the objectification of women! Why merely buy magazines that reduce women’s achievements and relevance to their breasts or blow job giving abilities? You can now, quite literally, walk around endorsing this view all day long! I also once saw a young man wearing a Primark sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘Witness the Fitness’. This was surely only designed to make the wearer seem like an arrogant, assonance-loving fool. All I wanted to witness was someone de-robe him of this monstrosity with a pair of garden shears.

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I realise that poking fun at Primark, it’s underwear section and dubious interpretations of acceptable daywear is like breaking a butterfly upon a wheel. Yet something more serious lies within the scathing, something that perhaps in its relative newness, in it’s relative novelty, makes me recoil. I have never wanted to commit an act of destruction in a public place since I was a teenage anorexic, wandering around Woolworths in my quiet madness, wanting to smash up all the Easter eggs I wouldn’t let myself have.

Seeing Primark’s ‘Bootylicious pants’ nearly changed all that.

The Bootylicious pants, for the enviably uninitiated, are pants padded with silicone, to give a woman that much-needed bum enhancement she was not previously aware she needed. It is seemingly not enough that we have poked and prodded and shaved and moulded ourselves, sometimes almost out of existence. We can now, along with detachable breasts, have detachable bums, like human dolls, which is of course the only logical response to the wildly vacillating perception of feminine beauty and acceptability.

I’m not sure what distinguishes a bum-enhancing kind of day from any other but there it is. Maybe on a Wednesday, during that mid-week spell of inertia, slipping on a pair of Bootylicious pants gives you the literal and psychological boost required to scrape your way through to Friday. Perhaps it’s just eroticised power dressing, the 21st century version of the shoulder pad. Or maybe, after you’ve starved your posterior into non-existence there’s a retractibility of sorts. A redemption. There’s a padded piece of nylon for the days you miss not feeling an excoriating pain as your coccyx grinds unforgivingly into any solid surface you sit on. See? You CAN have it both ways; you can diminish and enlarge at whim.

The name of the pants, equally, bothered me. ‘Bootylicious’ is of course more than a tacit nod to Beyonce, which is a nod to a form of female bodily empowerment, which is often re-communicated through the medium of the hypersexualised caricature of the Black woman. This eroticising of the ‘exotic’ and the Othering of certain women’s bodies, often under the guise of empowerment, is troubling.

Of course we could, if we ignored all other peripheral information, see the mainstream appropriation and projection of a stereotypical characteristic as a positive. And anyway, the Anglo Saxon arse of Pippa Middleton is being credited with the surge in desire for strap-on bottoms. Primark just presented it with a sledgehammer is all. So that’s OK, then?

Well, not really, no. It still bothers me, and is indicative of the compartmentalisation of women’s bodies; the representation of the female form as a constellation of sexual signifiers. It was once and always the breasts but I’m wondering if the bottom has become the most objectified, the most relevant signifier of sexuality and femininity.

A reliably crass article in The Sun once road tested these padded pants. They were deemed as good for hailing cabs but not so good for keeping your presumably sexually rabid colleagues focussed on their work. I’ve never hailed a cab with my arse but I have helpfully complied a short list of other uses for the Bootylicious pants:

  1. Sitting at cold bus stops for protracted periods of time.
  2. Reassuring your grandmother that you will never, ever get piles.
  3. Protecting your posterior from the pincer-like attentions of inebriated morons.
  4. Baseball.

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.

Running Scared?

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’.

Equality

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.***

The Space Between

A man sits in a cluttered room. Tasks of infinite consequence lie, shimmering, before him. With a few clicks and drags he creates work of unparalleled importance, work that bristles and crackles with the shock of the new*. This man has toiled and striven relentlessly to bring to the world truth, justice and a photoshopped picture of the space between a woman’s legs.

So the Sunday Sport, purveyors of gratuitous nudity, breezily delivered objectification and slumbering reportage have been called out again. This – oh, how it catches in the throat! – ‘newspaper’ previously superimposed Holly Willoughby’s head onto a naked female body. Last Sunday they decided that only one thing could supersede such an act of necessary, integral journalism: a photo of her thong bedecked bottom, taken from a ground-level vantage point. Like the journalistic equivalent of waving a sexual conquest’s pants in the air the Sport seemed to claim they now somehow owned Willoughby, and freely owned the right to share this stolen intimacy; to share her private space, her body. Only it wasn’t, apparently, her bottom. Like some kind of virulent, stalkerish, mass wish fulfilment the Sport photoshopped the image and emblazoned it across their front page. On Monday it was revealed that Holly Willoughby has reported this nattily titled ‘fake up the skirt’ incident to the Press Complaints Commission.

I like Holly Willoughby. She has a lovely smile and a juvenile appreciation of the double entendre. She makes me like Phillip Schofield more. I felt, in part, violated on her behalf, even if that violation was only simulated, only created electronically. And, no, I don’t think the fact she allows herself to be referred to as ‘Holly Willoboobie’ and laughs at sex jokes means she is fair game. The same as I don’t think short skirts or a lack of street lighting can be held up as credible ’causes’ of rape. The same as I don’t think answering back causes domestic violence. This narrative of blaming the subject, and in this horribly constructed context the object, of predatory, violent or harmful sexual behaviour (real or imagined) is far too prevalent.

The ickiness of our press is, of course, a hot topic right now and if Leveson hasn’t suffocated under the weight of testimony and expectation we will soon hear the results of his inquiry. I have spoken before of my respect for the submissions made by Object and Turn Your Back on Page Three to this inquiry. These groups tirelessly campaign against the routine, almost institutionalised, sexualisation and objectification of women in the popular press. And we’re not talking here of only the most obvious, salient examples; the page threes and the whisper thin stories centred around the presence of a semi naked woman. We are also talking of the more insidious, of the trivialising and eroticising of violence against women. Object and Turn You Back On Page 3’s submission included this headline from the Sport: “party girls thumped for having lesbo sex”. Incidences of violence against women  filtered through the lens of a Carry on Film. It is insulting, degrading and symptomatic of a larger malaise. The popular tabloids project antipathy, if not hostility, through their utilisation of the female form in a merely decorative manner, limiting female importance to a selection of chosen body parts. And there is certainly no space for you – apart from in their ire – if you are of a certain age.

These ‘newspapers’ have been an abrasive presence in my life for a while. But, what first began as a gentle niggling and scratching ended with excoriation, ended with me tearing my skin off: big gaping wounds of anger and defiance. For I do believe that the derogatory treatment of women in the popular press is so prevalent, so commonplace, so all-consuming that it appears innocuous. An involuntary shift in your brain means you forget that there is something more than a little off with the fact that Geoff and Brian from accounts are gawping, bug-eyed at a naked woman whilst you try to quietly sip your coffee and keep your mind on your novel. You forget that there is something very definitely not OK with the concept of young children seeing boobs in daddy’s newspaper and thinking that maybe this is what women do, that this is all women are. The reality is that the tactics and lexicon of such ‘newspapers’ are in themselves a hostile act. The cutting and the pasting, the superimposing, contorting and lying, feels like some sort of misogynistic art class. There is something viscerally sinister about our press electronically decapitating and disarticulating women and then creating something else out of the parts. The accusation that the Sun and the Sport see women as a construction of limbs and glands, or a constellation of erogenous zones, and nothing else finds it’s starkest manifestation in the recent treatment of Holly Willoughby. Cutting off a woman’s head and placing it upon the body of another feels like sexualised vandalism. It feels like the kind of thing you do to someone you don’t like, to ridicule and to humiliate them. It feels like the journalistic equivalent, the public dissemination, of defacing a photo in a jealous rage. It reminds me of my pre-teen anger and jealousy towards the partner of whoever was my latest crush. It reminds me of drawing a ‘tache and demon eyes on the woman currently dating Dexter Fletcher (I apologise profusely to Julia Sawalha, and to anyone who did not grow up in the ’80s). Yet this is our press.

I know that the Sport is like the spotty, nose-picking, marginally less intelligent younger brother of the Sun. I know that it is an easy target and, arguably, makes no pretensions to be anything other than a skin mag cut from cheaper cloth. I also know that a blessedly small amount of people actually buy it. Yet it operates as a newspaper, and is shelved at eye and hand level of children.  However the Sun, which shares more than a few genes with the Sunday Sport, is Britain’s most popular newspaper. It uses women as decoration. It diminishes them by reducing any achievement to the shape of their thighs or the size of their breasts. It objectifies the female from with page three. But not only this. It then ridicules these women by placing giant pearl necklaces around their neck (the hillarity), or concocting ridiculously erudite quotes and attributing them to the woman who couldn’t possibly know who Satre is, because she has her boobs out.

I know that there will be some who will level the accusation that I have a problem with page three because I have small breasts, or am puritanical, or uptight. Just think of the treatment of Claire Short when she tried to stand up to all of this way back in the 1980s. She was coerced by puerile bullshit until she gave in. But think on this, and see if it makes sense. You cannot show breasts on TV until after the watershed, yet you can pick up the Sun from a newspaper shelf any time of day. The wonderful triad of anti page three activists Object, Turn Your Back on Page Three and No More Page 3 staged a protest outside of News International last Saturday to mark the 42nd anniversary of page 3. A huge birthday card had been made, a ‘spot the difference’ card showing the differing representations of the male and female form in the Sun. This obviously featured a lot of breasts. Object put this onto Facebook, and it was subsequently removed. So lets recap. Facebook took down photos from page three yet groups on Facebook like one celebrating the space between a woman’s thighs or mocking domestic violence and rape victims somehow turn themselves sideways and glide through the decency standard by waving the caveat ‘controversial humour’. Images from page three were censored at the Levenson Inquiry yet they are OK for public consumption in a national newspaper.

I genuinely believe that the representation of women in newspapers such as the Sun is damaging and limiting to women. Page three is only a part of the problem but probably the largest visual signifier of the need for things to change. I do have small breasts but I also have a pretty large intellect. You see, breasts and smarts can coexist and women are more than the sum of their body parts. And yes, I know there are acts of devastating atrocity occurring in the world. I know this.  But what I’m saying here is important, funnily enough because women’s breasts are so unimportant, so usual, natural and unremarkable that their presence in a newspaper is entirely unnecessary. Night follows day. Women have breasts. The sky is blue and the pope is catholic. Please, The Sun, find something useful to say.

Sign This

Read This

*Apologies, in memoriam, to Robert Hughes.

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.

The Hunger Artist

***Disclaimer: This post is short on statistics and features virtually no referencing. If you would like citations or to be pointed in the direction of studies I will be happy to oblige***

When you’re in deep, so deeply entrenched in the recesses of an eating disorder that you believe the lie, you cannot conceive of the notion that what you’re doing isn’t somehow special, somehow different. You cannot address the reality: the reality that you share your affliction with an estimated 1.6 million others. The reality that one day you will wince at this mindset the way you now wince at the contact of bone on acrylic during aborted attempts to sit comfortably in the bath. And worst of all the reality that you will, ultimately, somehow feel less of a woman for the experience. I could drone on for hours about my experience of living with an eating disorder, of losing my formative years and a large helping of my twenties to what ultimately amounted to a waste of time as much as a wasting of flesh. But I don’t think the world needs another confessional. I will leave the poetically articulated misery memoirs, the eruditions on the netherworld, to the experts. Elizabeth Wurtzel and Marya Hornbacher have probably, between them, covered all that it meant to be miserable and starving in the ’90s.

Yet I do have something to say. Certain ideas have continued to preoccupy me long after the awkward and brutal manifestations of disordered thinking and eating became quieter. One of these ideas was brought sharply and acutely into focus at the recent UK Feminista lobby of parliament. There is nothing like sitting in a room full of inspiring and creative feminists, all clapping and whooping at the usurpation of emaciated models by those healthy, positive female forms generated by the Olympics, to make you feel small. And by this I mean small on principles, as if being in some ways a casualty of the representations of women I so vehemently oppose precludes me from helping to shut them down. I was fooled, I believed the lie. Ergo, being a skinny feminist is a problem.

Of course I know that this is nonsense and that my hang ups about how I am perceived as a former anorexic are one facet of what I find problematic about the way eating disorders are perceived in general. I, of course, worry deeply about how young girls today are exposed to pornification; to hyper-sexualised and unrealistic images of women. I am hugely concerned about the fact that the liberal, almost commonplace, use of airbrushing and photoshopping has created an impossible ideal. The message is painfully and destructively clear: to do more and to be more women have to be, physically, less. Yet to focus exclusively on this as the ’cause’ of eating disorders is a massive oversimplification. It is, I feel, a possible impediment to help-seeking and recovery, and limiting to our understanding of where eating disorders might fit into a broader spectrum analysis of femininity, gender and sexism.

For example, recent press coverage of the alarming statistic that referrals to eating disorder clinics have risen by 16% in the last year has in the main focussed on issues of visual representation. The twin evils of the media and the fashion industry have had blame heaped at their door. Of course I would never say that they are not culpable. Their, respectively, intense scrutiny of the female form and haunting ideal of sickness and bones are as repugnant as they are discriminatory. Yet I can’t help but feel that the dishonesty, or at least disingenuousness, or various celebrities fuels these problems. I am not an avid follower of showbiz gossip so forgive the less than contemporary references but I always remember Victoria Beckham chomping on about how she has a chocolate bar a day, and (the later to be revealed as severely eating disordered and clinically depressed) Gail Porter espousing her filling but healthy daily diet. They were both, clearly, full of shit. Yet Natasha Hamilton from Atomic Kitten (I know) was vilified when she replied candidly to the question of how she stayed so slim with a steely ‘I don’t eat much’. Such honesty, whilst low in the role model stakes, should be applauded for debunking the myth that you can eat what you like and stay skinny, and that if you can’t there is something wrong with you.

The studies are also there: girls felt their self esteem plummet after looking at pictures of fashion models and celebrities; the majority of young women said they’d prefer to be thin than have a career; younger and younger women are having tummy tucks, breast enlargements and liposuction. The latter no doubt influenced by the fact that the triad of supreme sexual objectification, Nuts, Zoo and The Sun, propound a cartoonish ideal that filters it’s way into the minds of young men, in turn dripping poisonously onto feminine self perception.

All of this is part of the problem. But only part. What of psychology, of the fall out from rape, from violence, abuse or exploitation? Or from an inability to determine our position in a society that still largely deems women as secondary?  Here, if you look, there are the studies: the prevalence of eating disorders in women and children who have experienced domestic violence; of women de-sexualising their body after abuse or harassment; of girls expressing a fear of making the wrong choices, of not living up to the career-mother-happiness ideal and so instead turning to something they can control. And this is to say nothing of the rise of middle-aged women suffering. The International Journal of Eating Disorders has revealed that 13% of women aged 50 and older struggle with disordered eating — some for the first time in their lives. I would suggest most of these women would be insulted at the suggestion that they are starving themselves to the risk of heart failure, osteoporosis and stroke because they looked at a picture of Cheryl Cole.

There is something going wrong for women.

What I have discussed here has touched upon the perpetuation of destructive myths and misconceptions; the issue of disempowerment and the compensatory, redirected control of the body; of the long term effects of rape and violence and of the uncertain place of women and girls in society. All of these sound incredibly familiar to me and feed into a wider debate on the issues affecting – and disaffecting – women today. To stereotype sufferers of eating disorders as vainly chasing a body like this months’ hottest celebrity will do nothing to bring the statistics back down.

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.