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.***