“It remains to be seen how the Eurozone crisis will affect the long term health of citizens in the PIGS, who’ve typically been held up as doyennes of health, with their much vaunted heart-healthy Mediterranean cuisine. But if the Argentinian financial crisis and resulting heart attack rates, and now the spike in cardiac arrests in Kalamata are anything to go by, using the European south as a guinea pig for austerity is fatal, as well as economically illiterate.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “A journalist.” “Oh, you don’t want to do that. If you like words, you should be a teacher or a librarian.” So I ended up at my local library for my first day of work experience, thanks to a school careers adviser firmly committed to crushing the dreams and ambition of teenage girls. Bloody Aled, a boy whose sole purpose in life was shouting “TITTIES” at you as you ran for the bus, was sent to the local paper, because he lived next door. I’m definitely not still bitter (I am so very bitter).
Carys, the weary looking junior librarian immediately told me to make everyone tea, then head to the room marked “Store” at the very back of the library. Internally grumbling as I squashed the tea bags against the sides of the cups, I pictured a week spent organising stationery, wiping snot off picture books and making endless cups of tea for librarians who hadn’t asked my name yet. I headed back to this “Store” I’d been told about, expecting to be met with boxes of library cards, elastic bands and those stupid annoying plastic book covers. Instead, I’m met with a different sight. Floor to ceiling pink book spines, with the occasional red cover peeking out. Thousands of well thumbed, dog-eared Mills & Boon novels. What is this?
“The store room for our ladies’ mobile library,” Amy explains, before talking me through the system I am to follow for the week.
Every woman has an index card, on which the numbers of books she has read are listed, along with her likes and dislikes at the top. The preferences are as diverse as the women. A typical list read “Likes: Italians, nurses, heiresses. Dislikes: virgins, marriage”. Some of them were outright racist. One woman’s card said “ABSOLUTELY NO BLACKS” in giant red capital letters at the top. This was added to underneath “Likes: painful sex, BDSM, dogs”. But for every “No blacks” card, there were fifteen begging for raunchy tales of mixed race shagging. A whole seam of British society that dream up elaborate and filthy fantasies involving Arab sheiks carnally coupled with them in picnic areas in exotic locations was opened up to me.
So my job, for a week, was to sit in this room, flicking through books, checking the women hadn’t read them, and that they successfully fulfilled 74-year old Margaret’s penchant for massively violent bonking. Day after day, I read passages of books, checking the attributes of characters, working out the ratio of dialogue to raunch and assigning them to a library member. Each morning after coffee, I immersed myself in a world of timorous virgins, callous yet rugged doctors, mysterious Spanish magnates and tragedy turned sexy. Watching Corrie with my nan each night seemed incredibly tame afterwards. Even when Kevin was tupping Tyrone’s girlfriend behind whinge-machine Sally’s back.
Once I’d bundled up a week’s reading for the women, we hopped in the van. Or the Porn Mobile as I liked to call it. With a city full of housebound OAPs awaiting their bodice-rippers, we had to assign each woman a day of the week so they’d know when to expect us. In scenes reminiscent of the women waiting for Father Ted’s virile milkman, the ladies were expectant and answered the doors instantly, with huge smiles, or the occasional remonstration that they’d finished all the books in two days and been bored and randy all week. I took to keeping a carrier bag in the van for the various foodstuffs given to me as thanks. Often, these were unwrapped pear drops or squares of chocolate, though one woman gave me a potato. “It’s better for your teeth”. Oh, thanks.
What seemed at first to be a baffling service to a fourteen year old girl was revealed to be an absolute lifeline for the women. Most of them were widowed, frail and rarely got out. They were lonely, as shown by the long conversations I had on the doorstep, where they told me their life stories, and let slip snippets of their younger sexual escapades. Most of their friends had died, or were also housebound, and their incomes were too low to afford much by way of entertainment.
At the end of the week, I was sad to leave them, with their noses deep in smut. So the furtive 50 Shades of Grey readers on the tube aren’t engaging in anything new: they’re learning from their elders.
Originally published in The Guardian
One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve grown older is how little I know about pretty much everything. Every birthday brings to my attention new gaps in my knowledge, and the yawning embarrassment of realising just how immature some of my past actions have been. Conversely, when I was 13, I was pretty certain I knew far more then my peers and elders. I held a steely conviction that I was an adult in all but the eyes of the law. So having sex at 13 seemed completely sensible, and if anything a sign of how very mature I was.
Would I do it in hindsight? Of course not. But that’s because I’m now 25 and have grown up an awful lot. Would anything have stopped me then? Of course not. But to me, the news that pharmacists could soon dispense the pill to girls as young as 13 without a GP’s prescription was hugely welcome. My school’s sex education comprised how to insert tampons, then a biology lesson on pregnancy. Nothing about relationships, contraception or consent. Everything I knew about contraception before I was 16 was cobbled together from hearsay from friends and boyfriends. Teenagers are absolutely terrible at dispensing advice on contraception if they’ve never been taught about it, and discovering how much of your received wisdom is wrong is embarrassing if you’re lucky, life-altering if you’re not. A school friend discovered that condoms need to be on from penetration rather than just before ejaculation when she got pregnant at the age of 14.
Pharmacists, on the other hand, are trained professionals and dispense healthcare advice every day. If a teenager has decided they want to have sex before the age of consent, the likelihood is little will change their mind. But knowing they can speak to a pharmacist and get advice and counselling before they choose to do anything means they’ll be armed with more facts and protected. Much of the media coverage of the pilot has led politicians to make sweeping statements that all teenagers having underage sex must be under duress and being abused. As a teen at a school where large numbers lost their virginity before 16, this wasn’t my experience at all. Teenagers are often in a rush to grow up and replicate adult relationships: this usually involves sex. Not because they were pressured into it, or influenced by sexual imagery in the media, but because they were human, and sexual urges are a biological function, not a phenomenon that switches on overnight.
When I volunteered at a youth club in Battersea a few years ago, I found many teenagers were desperate to talk about sex and ask questions of an adult who knew what they were talking about, but who was removed from their family and school. Many were too scared to approach their doctors for contraception advice, or even to ask questions, because their GPs had known them since birth and were also their parents’ doctors. Confidentiality was key, as is a certain distance from their lives. My impression from the young people I spoke to was that they were very keen to talk about sex, but were worried about parents and teachers being told they’d even asked. Universally, sex education was deemed completely inadequate. That relationships didn’t have to involve sex or follow a particular template was completely new to them.
Pharmacists can and will offer counselling. The pill won’t be handed over like a packet of aspirin. As a teenager, it would have been a huge comfort to be able to talk to someone responsible about sex. In an ideal world, no one under the age of 16 would have sex, but we don’t live in an ideal world; 27% of girls and 22% of boys have sex before they’re 16. Giving teenagers the option to talk to a trained professional about sex and have access to contraception if they are adamant they are going to have sex before their 16th birthday won’t encourage people to have sex, but it will encourage those who decide to do so to do it safely. When sex education fails so many teenagers, it’s the least you can do for them.
Understandably, Interpol’s Red Notice for Julian Assange, and today’s extradition hearing has garnered a huge flurry of press and online attention. That a warrant for his arrest on charges unrelated to the publishing of masses of highly confidential US Cables seems massively convenient for politicians that have been baying for his blood.
What I don’t understand is the need many journalists, bloggers and public figures have felt to examine the charges and exonerate Assange of any guilt. I’ve read countless blog posts, and tweets, predominantly by men, explaining that the Assange faces aren’t rape but “sex by surprise”, and snide remarks about those quirky Swedes and their bizarre laws. Predictably, the Mail are leading with the idea that Assange was set up, that the women acted as “honeytraps” (it’s Adam and Eve all over again). The fact that one of the women was mentored by a “militant feminist” has been brought up, despite the fact it seems a non sequitur.
Firstly, I’m uncomfortable with so many people feeling that they can expressly define rape, and say unequivocally that what occurred in a bedroom between two people does, or does not constitute rape. I have no idea what happened between Assange and the two women he is accused of raping. I’d argue only the three people involved do. Equally, I know very little about Swedish law, and I’m uncomfortable with people who aren’t conversant in it making statements that the charges he faces are charges that shouldn’t exist in any legal system.
This case has parallels to Roman Polanski’s: both initially avoided international arrest warrants, when both were detained people were quick to dismiss the cases against them. Whenever I see another person come forward to dismiss the claims Assange is being detained for, I’m reminded of Whoopi Goldberg proclaiming that what Polanski did, and admitted he did, wasn’t “Rape-rape”.
I enjoy Polanski’s work. Repulsion is one of my favourite films. In my head I’m capable of appreciating his art, and condemning what he subjected a 13-year-old girl to. The case against Assange is yet to be proven. However, I’d like to see the left accepting that as humans, we don’t neatly fit into “good” and “bad” pigeonholes. Just as I can concurrently enjoy Rosemary’s Baby and think that Polanski as a child rapist is a deplorable individual, I can believe that Wikileaks is necessary and a worthy endeavour, and accept that Assange may be a rapist.
By all means, argue that the timing of Interpol’s warrant may be suspect, or that the charges may not have received such attention had the Embassy Cables not been leaked. But don’t try and define rape, or examine the tabloid fragments of the case and claim that there is no case to answer. Assange was aware that the charges would be brought, and has come forward knowing the press attention would make scapegoating him difficult.
The Telegraph reports today that a woman was sentenced to 8 months in prison for falsely retracting a rape accusation. Not falsely accusing, falsely retracting a claim. The full story can be read here, and Rape Crisis’s statement here. Briefly, the woman went to the police, and reported that her husband had raped her 6 times on 3 occasions. Several months into the trial, she contacted the police to drop the charges. When the court proceeded, and she was arrested for perverting the course of justice, she admitted that the allegations had been true but she had been emotionally blackmailed by her husband’s family to drop the charges so he would receive a lesser penalty.
This story is chilling on a number of levels: it continues a trend of women being prosecuted when rape cases they have brought fail, and on a wider scale makes women far less likely to come forward. Unless you’re raped by a complete stranger in a dark alley, you can expect clouds of doubt, questions about your behaviour, and whether you brought it upon yourself. If you know, or even worse, you’ve dated or previously consented to sleep with your rapist, you can expect the sympathy to dwindle. If you had a drink beforehand, or were wearing, well practically anything, ditto. Stranger rape accounts for a small fraction of rapes reported, and yet it’s still viewed as a yardstick by which to judge how much someone has suffered. Never mind the emotional torment bound up in being raped by someone you’ve trusted, or even loved. Whoopi Goldberg was able to claim that Roman Polanski drugging and raping a minor wasn’t “rape rape” without much backlash.
And the way society views rape by someone who is known to you, and assumes that you could have prevented it, is massively damaging. I can count, from the top of my head, 11 women I know, myself included, who’ve been raped. They all knew their rapist, two-thirds were raped by an ex-boyfriend. None of them went to the police. It all came down to one reason: they knew they wouldn’t be believed, or if it did go to court would go nowhere due to lack of evidence. What evidence can you provide? Several of them had been drinking before being raped. Some had shared a room with the perpetrator. None of us felt able to go to the police. Perhaps most worrying is that two of them were law students.
I can’t see this getting any better under the current government with their grandstanding over anonymity for defendants in rape cases, and the fact that forces are now being pulled up for handling rape cases abysmally shows how rotten the system is. But I know that everytime the tabloids report and vilify a woman who’s been prosecuted, women read the story, and a large number decide there’s no point reporting rape.
As a friend asked recently: where are the headlines for women who don’t come forward, for fear of not being believed?
I noticed a few tweets earlier regarding a new video campaign from 10:10 had launched: what piqued my interest was that they seemed to be coming not from the usual green, environmental tweeters, but from political and scientific people, and that their responses were quite angry. I took a look, as you can, though not on the 10:10 site, as it’s since been removed:
The comments surrounding the video on Twitter and Youtube are telling: green campaigners are asking “what’s the point?” Who is the video targeted at? If it’s at those who are undecided on the need to cut their individual carbon emissions by 10%, they’ve effectively been told “agree with us, or we’ll kill you”. We’ve depicted ourselves as extremists which plays perfectly into the hands of those who wish to debase our arguments if that’s the case. If, on the other hand, the argument is that we can’t afford not to cut our emissions, the point is played so poorly, and so crassly that the visceral reactions of those who previously wavered show that many people who previously wavered, are now calling the 10:10 campaign “eco-fascists” and “enviro-nazis” or any other clumsy portmanteau evocation of Godwin’s Law.
As with Peta’s campaigns, I imagine one of the key aims of the campaign was to get people to talk. Peta regularly use semi-naked women, or porn stars as in a recent campaign to spay animals, to grab attention.
Unfortunately, sexualising women alienates a lot of people who would otherwise be brought onside with Peta’s messages. And that’s what I fear 10:10 have done today. I imagine they’ll come out and say they wanted people to talk about carbon emissions, and look! That’s what we’ve all been doing, but I think that’s poor form, and an argument that doesn’t hold. There is such a thing a a bad publicity, and the fallout from this has the potential to be far-reaching if people feel it gives them licence to abdicate personal responsibility in green matters. In essentially saying “Agree or we’ll kill you” and portraying those who won’t agree to do something about climate change as victimised, they’ve given those who aren’t willing to make an individual contribution to tackling the problem a moral get-out clause to do so.
I taught myself to cycle about two years ago, and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time. I’ve never had a driving lesson, so being able to travel as and when I felt like it, without being held hostage by public transports price and erratic timekeeping was a great freedom. Even cycling home last winter at 3am, in the snow didn’t feel like a chore: I started to relish wearing mittens and how pedalling uphill warmed me up. One thing that remained constant, and was a surprise to me, as a new road user and cyclist: the sheer volume of abuse I received whilst cycling. As a pedestrian, people occasionally shouted comments as they drove past, but this didn’t happen more than 3 times a month usually. Whereas when cycling, I seemed to be a magnet for the angry, the obnoxious, and the sexist. People swerved towards me, then laughed when I visibly freaked out a little. Men shouted at me to get off the road, or commented on my arse, or just shouted swearwords. Whenever I mentioned this to male friends they looked at me incredulous. Female friends who also cycled reacted very differently. One night in the pub, I broached the subject with a large group of friends who all cycled. The women in the group were immediately animated, proffering countless incidents of their own, battling to shock each other with the worst incidents (I still maintain the time that someone pulled my top down when I was waiting at traffic lights deserves that accolade). All of my male friends bar one were aghast. The lone bloke who understood our plight had, until recently, had long hair. In the winter, he found motorists often insulted him, then looked bemused as they overtook him, looked back and realised he had a Y chromosome. I went to a university on the outskirts of a Midlands city, so many of us had bikes, being middle class but also a bit Green and lefty. Often, women complained that a certain stretch of the five-mile journey from the studenty suburbs to the campus became a rat run for abusive idiots: some motorists would have a passenger who shouted an inane comment at every female cyclist he passed.
Moving to London increased this: I don’t necessarily think it’s more prevalent in London, but suddenly I was cycling on average 15 miles more a day, always on busy main roads. I passed far, far more cars, and this meant that incidents were more frequent. It didn’t matter what I wore. Whether I was cycling in a low-cut dress, or my gym gear, the incidents persisted, the comments were always asinine, and often lewd and explicit. Aside from the air pollution, it was the only thing spoiling my two-wheeled adventures around the capital. Male friends were always horrified, but intrigued by the kind of things people shouted at me. Female pals wanted to share their own stories and vent. One evening after an altercation with the driver of a company vehicle I was drinking with some friends. They suggested I record all of the comments asked the familiar question: “Where are the morons concentrated?” I wasn’t sure, but suggested that I might make a map of the incidents and write down what happened. And so the idea for the blog was formed. Even after blogging one lone incident, the level of interest it generated was phenomenal. I was getting around 20000 hits a day, a huge volume of traffic on Twitter and the map had close to 7000 views in 72 hours. I worried that people would react badly to it, but all of the comments I’ve received have been massively positive. Scores of emails from across the globe have arrived in my inbox, almost exclusively from men, saying what a great project it is. Journalists contacted me for interviews and background information. People actually found it funny.
I’ve been asked a lot of questions, mostly along these lines:
Why are they all in South London?
Mostly because I cycle across South London to get to work. I visit friends and go to events North of the river, so I imagine with time the map will be less biased.
What are you doing to make people so angry?
Honestly, nothing. I’m a good cyclist, I wear a helmet, always stop at traffic lights, indicate and I don’t take up much space on the road. People who shout at me tend to do so because they know I’ll be gone in seconds, or they’re angry I have the temerity to be on the road in the first place. Whenever I cycle with male friends, I don’t get any abuse.
If your chain keep falling off, there’s something wrong with it.
I know! My bike however is 28, so even older than me, and fixing it costs money I don’t really have. I’m saving up for a better bike, so I can cope with my old banger for a while longer.
What will you do when you reach 101?
I’ve thought about this, and what I’d like to do is set up a site for women cyclists to submit their own stories and map them, alongside articles and contributions on cycling for women. I love cycling, and spend a lot of time trying to convince other women to take it up. It’d be great to be able to promote cycling through doing this.
It’s early days, but I’ve really enjoyed this project so far. Mostly because now, whenever someone shouts at me, I don’t get despondent, or quietly seethe, I think “YES! Another one for the blog!” So now, every time someone insults me, I know that a couple of thousand people are a bit more amused and entertained.
After the French government decided to ban a small minority of women from choosing what to wear, it was only a matter of time before the Daily Mail realised they had a unique opportunity to combine hating Muslims and women, and jump on the burka bandwagon. And they’ve done so by misrepresenting Caroline Spelman’s interview with Adam Boulton on their front page (Monday 19th). Here’s the excerpted interview:
So Spelman argues convincingly that women should have free reign on their sartorial choices, saying:
“I don’t, living in this country as a woman want to be told what to wear… for a woman it is empowering to be able to choose each morning what you wear”
But the Mail lead with the headline “MINISTER: BURKAS EMPOWER WOMEN” which is a blatant misrepresentation of Spelman’s comments. They could equally have led with the headline “Minister: Motorhead T-shirts Worn As Turbans Empower Women”. Wearing anything in particular doesn’t necessarily empower women, but removing the right to make that decision unequivocally disempowers them. This is the point Spelman makes, and the point Damian Green also makes in the article. Despite Green also contributing, the Mail lead with Spelman’s comments, though they’re equally uncontroversial, and snidely remark that Spelman “appears to be making a feminist argument”. Heaven forbid. But Green also makes a feminist argument, because it’s the same argument. Still, best not miss the opportunity to have a potshot at a female minister.
The article also helpfully provides an update in European feelings on the burka.
Spain is to debate banning the burka this week. The ruling Socialist party has indicated it will support the the opposition popular party, which says the garments are degrading to women.
The lower houses of parliament in France and Belgium have approved a ban on face-covering veils, but their upper chambers have to ratify the law.
The Netherlands may yet decide on a ban, while Switzerland has outlawed minarets, from where Muslim are called to prayer.
Sorry, minarets? I thought we were talking about burkas. The section above is entitled “Opposition Grows in Europe”: opposition to burkas, or Muslims as a whole? It’s clear what the article’s insinuating.
This topic is likely to roll on for a while, especially while Philip Hollobone MP wages a one-man war on Muslim women in his constituency and Britain as a whole. Hollobone’s previous exposure in the press came when he claimed wearing a burka was “like going around with a paper bag on your head”, refused to meet constituents who did not want to remove face coverings and was investigated by the local police. He’s also a staunch defender of your right to hate gay people, thinks only a man and a woman should be able to have children, and was one of the few Tories UKIP actively campaigned for. A ringing endorsement if one was needed. Hollobone’s Private Members’ Bill is due for its second reading on the 3rd of December this year. Expect to hear far more on the burka from the tabloids, until then.
Edit: Jim Jepps has also written about the delightful Mr Hollobone here. I’ve a feeling we’ll both be keeping an eye on this MP for a while.
The Daily Mail’s fight to rid the world of women in trousers has been covered extensively elsewhere but on a recent trip to their website to peruse their Judging Women™ sidebar for tips on being more true to my gender (note to self: become shorter, blonder, thinner, wear less, have babies), the Mail appeared to have surpassed itself in thigh-rubbing voyeurism.
The Mail chose to cover the repatriation of the bodies of three soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, not by describing their upbringings, but by focusing their attentions on one of the widows and in particular, her dress. What should have been a sombre affair was, for the Mail, just another opportunity to up its daily quota of lecherous photos. Seemingly there’s nothing the Mail can’t illustrate with attractive young women in dresses. In the first piece that had mentioned the deaths of three soldiers in Afghanistan, Heidi Kirkpatrick’s pink dress was described as “vibrant” twice. Her dead husband’s picture was included once. Five almost identical full length photos of the widow were incorporated into the piece, with Heidi Kirkpatrick crying in every one. Apparently the Mail can’t accept that their readers will appreciate the full tragedy of an event without the visual aid of pretty people crying.
This is insulting, both to servicemen and their families. Whether or not you agree with Britain’s continuing involvement in the Afghanistan conflict, stories on military casualties should be just that: stories, of human interest, rather than vehicles for shoehorning blondes in “vibrant” dresses into your already facile, sexist rag. Here’s a primer for how to cover military deaths for the Mail:
1. Focus on the individual: their childhood, background, history in the army – all of these are more important than covering the colour of one mourner’s frock.
2. Make the headline about the casualties: that three of the first words in your headline concern a widow’s sartorial choices for a funeral is deplorable.
3. Cover the event: photographs showing the volume of mourners who have turned out is a) more sensitive and b) has more journalistic worth in news reportage.
4. If you have to include photographs, don’t make the majority of them of one person, in the same place: the story here seems more concerned with a widow’s dress. Why not include childhood photos of the deceased? Pictures from important moments of their life? Graduation, a wedding, the deceased with their parents?
5. Consider the impact of your reporting on those you cover. I can’t imagine the family of Jamie Kirkpatrick, including his widow, are thrilled that during one of the most traumatic days of their lives, you have interviewed them, under the guise of writing a genuine tribute to someone they loved, and then turned their loss into something more akin to a fashion spread. Papping celebrities is one thing: doing so to a woman in floods of tears is another.
Particularly galling is the fact that only last week, the Daily Mail berated the BBC for being voyeuristic in its coverage of Wimbledon (farcically, next to a column of papped shots of celebrities) ranting that televised scenes of spectators kissing are a “gross invasion of privacy”. It’s a shame that more of the Mail’s moral rage isn’t directed at their own coverage of grievers in Wootton Bassett.
Edit: Anton Vowl’s also covered this on the excellent Enemies of Reason