1. War on women: three reasons to march on Westminster tomorrow #femlobby

    1) Cuts hitting women hardest

    Austerity isn’t working. There is no evidence that cuts are being made in an intelligent way to boost the economy - instead, we are seeing an ideological attack on the big state and social welfare being forced through tactically at a time of economic crisis. However, you don’t need to be a Marxist or share my views on economics to see the stark evidence that cuts are disproportionately impacting on women, (along with children, the disabled, and ethnic minorities), increasing the hierarchical structure of society. Cuts to public services - health services such as breastfeeding support, childcare at Surestart centres, cuts to public transport - hit women harder because women are more dependent on these services. Pay freezes hit those at the bottom economically (disproportionately women) harder. Public sector pension reform will increase the gender gap in old age poverty. Cuts to jobs across the public sector again fall disproportionately on women. Benefits reform is set to take away financial autonomy for women who work in the home and will again hit women hardest in terms of who stands to lose the most. On top of this, women are having to provide care labour for free to replace services where care is being cut.

    2) The “bonfire” of equality legislation and employment rights

    Attacks on legislation mean equality in the workplace will be hit hard. For example, the introduction of costs at the beginning stages of the employment tribunal process will price many out of justice. Changes to legislation will also mean employers found to discriminate no longer have to make substantial changes to the workplace as a result of a tribunal. The slashing of the EHRC will have long term consequences for the makeup of our society.

    3) Bodily autonomy up for debate - again

    In the last couple of months we have had many a soundbite from politicians talking about their difficult moral choices over abortion. The thing is, their opinions are irrelevant. Abortion ethics belong to the realm of medical science - anything else is religion, opinion or supersticion: a personal choice, not a valid argument for controlling others’ bodies. We have also had rape apologism across the political spectrum over and over again. Our bodies - our choices.

    I will be joining with other feminists tomorrow to march on Westminster and take part in a mass lobby of MPs. I’m going to take the message to politicians to stop concerning themselves with my uterus and instead to look at the mess they are making for my living breathing daughter. See you (if not my non-responding MP, Chris Kelly, Dudley South) there.


  2. Rape excusism: this week is a wake-up call

    Last year, I wrote about the Slutwalk movement. I was involved in the Birmingham event and wrote a couple of pieces looking at the psychology of victim blaming. It feels like I, like so many of us, have been saying this stuff over and over and over again. Rehashing the same arguments, deconstructing the same weak analogies (leaving the door open, flashing your jewellery - anything that implies rape is to do with an object being left open to theft or damage rather than a process of having power over another human being).

    This week has been “concentrated” in terms of the extent to which victim-blaming narratives of rape (and the fight against them) have dominated the media. Over in the US, we’ve seen mainstream politicians talking about rape with the kind of bizarre misunderstanding of biology normally not expected outside of an evangelical Sunday school. Over here, the Assange extradition circus, which has included amongst other things

    • Galloway’s disturbing attempts to trivialise the issue of consent by creating the straw man of insertion by insertion requests (amongst other things)
    • Assange’s defenders blithely explaining how the whole rape issue has been used to raise emotion, that feminists have been drawn into a smokescreen of sexual politics used to hide the powerful forces trying to bring Assange down, and that if they would just calm down a bit and think rationally about the issues they might make make more sense of it all

    For the women and men who have survived rape, it is inevitable that when rape gets opened up for political debate there is a reliving of trauma. Some of the voices we have heard have been the voices of survivors, but the vast majority has been “comment” - political punditry, a sterilised discussion.

    This week may have been notable in terms of the volume of rape stories in the media, but it a drop in the ocean in terms of the global shift towards conservatism in terms of women’s rights over their bodies. The comments we have heard from leading politicians have been shocking, but the political arena where these comments have taken place is an increasingly irrational and regressive place, and this is something which has been building and building over time.

    The Slutwalk movement felt like the start of a big fight back. It was an incredibly depressing and painful experience to share in so many different stories, to see how so many lives (for some years after assault) were still shaped around survival of the physical and psychological trauma of rape. But it was also uplifting; there was a real sense of power, a global coming together centred around the message (both to rapists and to the culture which excuses and encourages their actions) that we are fighting back.

    It is easy to get tired over time in any political movement, particularly when you are faced with a drip-drip cultural feed of messages which disempower - there doesn’t seem to be week that goes past without some Republican politican pronouncing in biblical terms his honourable fight to protect the foetus (whilst simultaneously pledging to take away the health care of the prospective family), or a public official making some dodgy comment about suitable clothing for schoolgirls, or a commentator attempting to distinguish, from his position of enlightenment and reason, the different forms and varying authenticity of different forms of rape.

    This week has put rape back on the agenda for public discussion. This has been painful and frustrating for many: discussion is obviously a good thing, but when it is weighted so heavily in terms of power it can feel exhausting to be constantly making the same points - that most rape happens in the home, that most rapists know the people they attack, that rape is just as likely for those who wear the veil as those who wear bikinis, that while we continue to teach our daughter’s “don’t get raped” we continue to obscure the message “don’t rape”.

    We are tired, but this week is a wake-up call and an opportunity for discussion, coming together and growth. The political messages, both here and in the US, are a timely reminder of how very fragile our liberty in terms of determining bodily autonomy can be. Time to renew the fight back.

    (Previous posts can be found here:


    http://onehundredmilesfromthesea.tumblr.com/post/6493719865/in-defence-of-slutwalks )

  3. Slutcamp thoughts: the psychology of rape and victim blaming and the need for a Birmingham rape crisis centre

    Birmingham Slutcamp

    Yesterday, in the drizzle, a group of women and men stood together in solidarity for Birmingham slutcamp. It was a scaled down event after the council refused permission for a march, but for those who came along it was an emotional event with some excellent speeches from a variety of different walks of life, including psychotherapy, sex work, the arts and education. There were many more unable to make it who stood with us in spirit, but as the speakers outlined the overarching message of the day - “the radical notion that no-one ever deserves to be raped” - I found myself wondering why thousands more were not stood there with us.

    Beyond those who could not make it due to other commitments (and of course there were more of these once the council cut the march because the window it took place in shrunk significantly), those who agreed with the message but had issues with the delivery, and those who really are apathetic to any form of protest, there is a real unpleasant underbelly of victim blaming in our culture and this, the reason behind the movement in the first place, was I suppose also the reason why we weren’t filling the square or even the city with our anger at the injustice of the guilt and shame heaped onto rape survivors from the very society which should be helping them to pick themselves up.

    So, where does it come from? Standing there in the rain it occurred to me that I haven’t up to this point spent much time thinking about the psychology of victim blaming, but this really needs to be understood if we are ever to make those who choose deafness listen to our painful but important message.

    There are two main cognitive problems in the way we as a society think about and try to make sense of rape. The first, which is perhaps a simpler problem, is that we misunderstand the psychological purpose of rape, believing that it is about sexual desire when it is actually about power. This is where non-evidence based stereotypes of confused rapist comes from. To clarify, rape does of course involve sex and arousal, but that arousal comes from act of overpowerment itself rather than, beyond a surface level, the characteristics of the victim. This is why we have huge levels of male rape in prison - it is not that the perpetrators are suddenly able to experience homosexual urges in the absence of female company, but rather that they seek to overpower and humiliate their victim. We do our rape survivors a huge disservice in not recognising that this is not in any way different from rape on the outside.

    The other main mistake in victim blaming basically comes from what is called an attribution error. Attribution is the psychological process by which we seek to make sense of the world, particularly in terms of understanding the motives and reasons behind other people’s behaviour. The error comes from a human tendency to try to uphold a belief in a “just world” - a defensive form of thinking where we see all events as having an understandable but more importantly avoidable cause. This kind of thinking helps to navigate the moral complexities of modern life but also provides a defensive cushion from what would otherwise be a world full of risk. It gives the psychological resources to live life as if we are protected from the ever present possibility of unfair suffering. In the case of rape, people take the mental shortcut where dressing in a certain way (which is within the survivor’s control) is elevated as a causal factor up there with the psychology of the rapist (which obviously is not). This way, if we buy the “dress sensibly” argument instead of doing any deeper thinking on the matter we are psychologically protected from the real and terrifying truth that we, our daughters, our sisters, our wives and mothers (and of course all the male equivalents) are actually vulnerable to rape.

    Unfortunately this type of thinking and arguing, which ignores the statistical evidence that most are raped in their homes, that women who do wear sensible clothes are just as vulnerable from “classic jump out from a bush rape” (or whatever the lovely description was), that, as was addressed by Salma Yaqoob, one of the speakers yesterday, rape is just as big a problem in countries where women wear the veil as it is over here, has real and terrible psychological consequences for others. Real consequences which I have heard in the stories of women who have shared their stories with me this week - real people. Women like you and me. Women like those who fought their tears to stand with real courage in Centenary Square yesterday against a culture which excuses their attackers.

    When someone affected by this “just world” thinking makes an argument that women should dress “defensively”, that if only they stopped giving out these signals rapists would no longer be confused (poor confused rapists) and be able to control their urges, they add to a huge cultural reserve of very similar arguments, and reinforce a strong (if not dominant) belief about rape that reaches out and strikes survivors when they are most vulnerable. Although a lot of majority thinking is often based on mental short-cuts like the just world belief, we are evolved to be social creatures so majority arguments are often very difficult to resist mentally. And so we end up with rape survivors internalising the belief that they are somehow to blame, that they somehow confused their attackers - the 15 year old who blames herself for wearing a mini-skirt after she is raped by her friend - and have nowhere to turn. We end up with mirrors of doubt and uncertainty from family, from friends - the very people survivors would normally turn to in times of stress often look on with disapproval and disbelief, and so the support network which another crime might invoke crumbles. And lastly and just as damagingly, we continue to muddy the waters in terms of how rape is understood to the people who potentially could carry it out. We perpetuate the belief in society that not all rape is straight-forward, that there are grey areas, that sometimes women (or men) really are asking for it, providing the rapist with some self-justification which allows him to live with and repeat his act. Herd thinking is dangerous exactly for this kind of reason.

    So, there are difficult challenges ahead in terms of breaking down this kind of thinking. Attribution errors are very resistant to change, because they provide a foundation of sense in terms of the way the world is understood. Change would lead to a whole reevaluation of core beliefs, and would leave the individual in a place of uncertainty and fear. I don’t have any answers as to how to tackle this, and while we can all continue to work on putting arguments out there that look at the evidence and the actual experience of rape, these are very easy to dismiss when one’s whole sense of well-being is otherwise at stake. One very important concrete thing to come out of yesterday is a group of committed individuals determined to lobby for a Birmingham rape crisis centre. A crisis centre to provide the backing that society strips from our survivors, to help them deal with the psychological after-effects of assault, by giving them the understanding and support mentally and legally that they deserve. In a time of economic uncertainty rape crisis centres are under threat but we absolutely have to stand up for survivors. It is really the very least we can do.

    (link to working group here: http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Slutwalk-Birmingham-Working-Group/219502104750358?sk=wall)

  4. In defence of slutwalks

    Years and years ago, some time in the late nineties, I remember seeing an article in a glossy (Marie Claire maybe? Probably my sister’s as back in those days I used to always buy the music mags for the free cds) which caught my eye. It was a photograph of 2 female Italian MPs (or equivalent) dressed in their jeans. They were wearing their jeans to parliament (or again, whatever the equivalent was) in protest against statements made by a prominant male MP (or was it a judge? too long ago) with regards to the opinion that a rape victim should not have worn her jeans cut so close to her curves. At the time I remember feeling very impressed with and moved by the protest, and also being glad that our politics/judicial system were not so openly chauvinistic. Though in hindsight, maybe open chauvinism is easier to fight.

    Fast forward 15 or so years, and where are we? Well, as most people are aware, there is an international display of solidarity springing up at a grass roots level in response to an incident in Canada where a police officer made the comments:

    women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

    Of course, it is not just about the reaction to one individual man’s beliefs, or it would not have rippled out so widely across the world. In the last couple of weeks the slutwalk has hit the UK, with protests in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and another taking place this Saturday in Birmingham which I will be going to.

    So, what is it all about? Obviously for every different person attending there are different reasons and motives, although the common cause is an end to victim blaming, worldwide, specifically in relation to rape and other sexual assaults. Not everyone is going to be coming at this from the same point of view - I look at things from the point of view that the wider issue is a society that encourages the female body to be viewed from a predatory point of view and also a society that condones the view that women should police the way they dress in order to avoid rape. There will be others at the slut walk who believe that sex offenders are not punished effectively. It is a different viewpoint from mine, but the wider issue is the victim blaming.

    For some reason, critics in the left as well as the right seem in places to be getting their collective knickers in a twist (do you see what I did there?) about the whole thing. I have heard a number of different arguments from a number of different sources, some better expressed and reasoned than others, against the slutwalks. Not a single one has convinced me that slutwalks are ill-thought out, irrational, trivialising, demeaning, although these are the points they have been trying to make. There may be more and you are more than welcome to put them to me, but here are the five main ones that seem to be bobbing about the place online. I will deal with them one at a time.

    1) Slutwalks are stupid because it is logical to dress appropriately to avoid assault. You wouldn’t go out and leave your door unlocked/valuables in the window would you?

    2) Slutwalks are stupid because people will not be able to tell the difference between “sluts” and Sluts.

    3) Slutwalks support a good principle but the way they are done trivialises the issue. I don’t like “slut” as a concept.

    4) Slutwalks support a good principle but are attention seeking and will be misrepresented in the press.

    5) This is an overblown response to something that happened hundreds of miles away and has nothing to do with us in the UK.

    Ok then, argument number one. The “you wouldn’t leave your house unlocked” metaphor. Clearly this argument comes from the right. Nothing irritates me like a poor analogy, and the analogy between the body of the rape survivor and and an unlocked/valuables-in-the-window house is particulary poor. This is for three reasons.

    a) First and foremost, guess what you are likely to be wearing prior to an assault? Is it a mini skirt and a boob tube? No, it’s a pair of jeans. Are you likely to be out in public when it happens, and is the person assaulting you likley to be someone you don’t know? No. So the analogy is not evidence based and does not reflect the reality of rape.

    b) Secondly, even if it was the case that there was a strong statistical link between skimpy clothing and sexual assault, this does not mean that ethically there is a responsibility on behalf of the survivor to dress “appropriately”. A body is not bricks and mortar, clothing is not as simple as property, it relates to identity. The reponsibility is on the society to educate that clothing or lack of it is not an invitation, or alternatively, if you come at it from a different point of view, to police the offender.

    c) Thirdly, the argument that the offender is given poor signals from the clothing and is somehow unable to control his natural virile urges is invoked here. How many sex offenders are incapable of the language comprehension to understand the word no? And, as someone put it on the birmingham slutwalk site the other day, how many boyfriends have you had who would not be frozen mid-action like a rabbit in the headlights if they heard the words “I think I can hear my dad coming”?

    As far as leaving valuables on display goes, I don’t think anyone with the mindset capable of rape is going to temporarily forget that you have a vagina (or anus because of course not all rape is female) provided that you wear some nice sensible jogging bottoms. As far as leaving the door unlocked goes, what is the alternative? A chastity belt? To my mind this analogy would be closer to the reality if the argument was as follows

    "It’s like not painting your house in drab colours because a police officer told you to under the misguided impression there was some kind of statistical link between decor and burglary."

    Ok then, onto the second one. How will our audience know the difference between “sluts” (feminists dressed provocatively in protest) and Sluts (you know, those slaggy girls who go up town on a night and are more interested in a shag than becoming a lawyer. This argument really repulses me - it invokes class-based misogyny and has no place in feminism, although I have heard it spouted by supposed feminists (in the Independent, notably). I’m not planning on dressing provocatively for the slutwalk, but guess what? Feminism is for everyone who believes that the genders should be equal. It isn’t the reserve of middle class intellectuals, and I have no time for anyone seeking to either attack those who are educated for their education, as though it somehow automatically makes you distanced from reality, or anyone seeking to make ideological differences between a hen-night “gaggle” and a group of “respectable professionals” in terms of who does and who doesn’t deserve to be derided for their clothes, or, more seriously, raped. I don’t like it when men go out wearing socks in sandals but if a man dressed like this got his laptop stolen I wouldn’t say it was down to him dressing like a geek.

    The distinction between the groups is probably much bigger on paper than in reality, quite apart from anything else. Believe it or not, you do get plenty of educated feminists who like to dress in a boldly sexual fashion, and you do get feminists who are not extensively educated or who come from lower down in the social-economic strata. So yes, I don’t dress in skimpy clothes as a rule but I will absolutely defend the right of anyone else to, and I would applaud anyone who is going to dress up for the slutwalk for their visual protest. 

    On to the third argument then, and the view that the reasoning that women should wear what they want is sound but the slutwalk is trivial and/or the use of the terms slut is wrong. I’ll start with the trivialising argument. As some of you may have noticed, I have been quite outspoken on the topic of victim blaming in recent weeks (first there was Dorries, then there was Clarke, then Hitchens - but I’ll come to that later). I have received very strong support from the rape survivors who I happen to know. They supported me on Dorries, they supported me on Clarke, and they support me on the slutwalk. So, if anyone was in a position to tell me that the slutwalk is a trivialisation it is these people (and I am more than aware that there may be other people amongst my circle who are also rape survivors who have not given an opinion either way, as it is so often invisible, but I can only go on what is shared). At the London slutwalk last weekend a leading member of the prostitution support group spoke out about the violence she and her colleagues experience - and believe me there are plenty of people out there who believe you cannot rape a prostitute, and that it is just negation of payment and a separate offence. Is that trivial to you? Is dressing up as a “slut” trivial?

    Again I would say to critics that you know absolutely nothing about what these people do or wear in day-to-day life and the idea that it is somehow dress-up is a crass simplification - it is visual protest at the very real prejudices about women, especially women from a certain class group but also women in general, experience, with regards to how something as ever-present as the way you dress effects how you are viewed and what rights you are perceived as having. As far as the slut thing goes, the movement rose out of solidarity with the original Toronto group and the wording of the original police statement. If the movement had sprung up in Britain, maybe it would be called the Slagwalk. Different word, same double standard. We are marching in solidarity with our sisters (and brothers) in Canada, and that includes not calling it the “We don’t like what you have called it originally so we are changing it something more sterile and palatable like the league of annoyed ladies-walk”.

    There seems to be a misinterpretation that the movement aims to reclaim the word “slut” (maybe the same arguments you get, usually from white middle class people, about why black gang-members shouldn’t call themselves the n word -while I wouldn’t be diametrically opposed to that, I think it is more to do with highlighting the politics of everything that the term slut represents. Although maybe that is a part of the whole n word thing too.

    Right, so, onto the argument about misrepresentations in the press. There have been arguments made that the slutwalks will be misconstrued and misrepresented by the right wing press. This is an ethical issue - do you do the thing which you believe expresses your view fully, or do you try to tailor your argument to make it most possible to reach out to and educate the ignorant. The older I get, the more I see the folly in playing ball with the right wing press. Stay at home and write a letter to your MP about how you don’t believe victims should be blamed - I have done this (hmmm, how many weeks now, and still no reply?) and will continue to do this on every issue I have strong beliefs about and it is absolutely a good thing to do, but I am under no illusions that murdoch and the mail will suddenly have a journalistic epiphany, decide left wingers are actually civilised rational people, and start printing liberal reasoned articles in which we are fairly represented. They will never like protest. I don’t believe in pandering to ignorance. I also don’t believe in arguing aggressively (I know I may have been guilty of this, as we all are, and the line between passion and rage is quickly crossed and difficult to step back over) although I’m all for emotive expression. I will be true to my views, I will not avoid expressing an opinion on the offchance it is misrepresented, and I will not hide my views just because they coincide with those of others who are opposed to me in other areas. In this instance, I suppose I’m talking about my firm belief that Clarke should have been made to apologise regardless of if this view was shared by people who believe rapists should be castrated, because we both agree that the blame does not lie with the victim and have strong views that victim blaming is one of the most emotionally damaging aspects of rape and sexual assault.

    Well, this leads me to the final point. Why are we slutwalking in the UK? Well, a number of reasons.

    1) We live in a society of double standards, as far as sexual behaviour goes. Where is the justification in condemning a woman who enjoys sex? I am alarmed at the gradual creeping in of the religious right in the matter of deciding who plans the policy for how our sons and daughters are educated about sex. The view seems to be that sex is a female responsibility and that all sex outside of marriage is bad (unless like some of the backers of Dorries’ 10 minute bill including Dorries herself it is outside your already existing marriage or inside someone else’s - although of course typically we tell our young people do as I say, not as I do). I have every respect for religion as a support system and I will defend the right of anyone to practice and worship as they see fit but it has no place in guiding education.

    2) As I said at the start of this post, there is a nasty undercurrent of chauvinism in the higher echons of our society and the media which I will absolutely protest about and oppose. We saw it in Clarke’s comments about date rape, but these were nothing compared to a couple of further articles I read (one from Peter Hitchens, in which he explained that the majority of rape is actually drunk women deciding the next morning that she didn’t actually want to have sex or was too drunk to be sure if she was having it or not, and one from an MEP who explained how rape was down to teasing behaviour where women offer up the goods and then expect red-blooded males to suddenly stop mid thrust.

    Back in the 70s, feminists marched on the streets to proclaim “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no”. 40 years later, we have had progress legally, but we must continue to fight for the rights and freedoms of women (and men) - freedom to dress how we want, freedom from assault, and the freedom to express our disatisfaction with a system which covertly views our bodies as property and our survivors as responsible for crimes which have come from the mindset of their attackers.

  5. No 1) Poor stereotyped comparisons between western women and “others”

    No 2) Somewhat ill-informed review of western clothing history

    No 3) Assumes men are stupid

    No 4) Assumes rapists are stupid

    No 5) Assumes a link between feminism and aspiration towards monied middle/upper class career paths. As I will say over and over and over again to my students, correlation does not show cause and effect. Feminism can involve the attempt to have intellectual credibility recognised but it is just one of a number of issues involved.

    No 6) Seems to assume that “proper” feminism has to be anti feminine sexuality

    No 7) Creates a false view of feminists who participated in 2nd wave feminism as being somehow no longer in the picture - is feminism reserved for a particular age range? - and also comments negatively on behalf of these feminists without any evidence of any discussion with any of them or any other form of research into getting opinion.

    No 8) Very patronising/vaguely class sneery remarks on the women going out in newcastle at the night time and women caracaturised by the age of reality tv/wags etc.