Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Not another bloody top ten list.

Guys, I am ill. This is not fun. It's New Year's. I had plans, I did. But instead I'm curled in bed with my laptop and a streaming nose, reading old skool feminism and vampire porn and feeling extremely sorry for myself. So, treasured readers, please help out and make my evening bearable and your future reading experience shinier by responding to the following short survey or meme. Participatory citizen journalism for, as Stalin used to say, the win.


1)What is energising you politically for 2009?

2)What have you enjoyed on Penny Red in 2008 (if anything)?

3)What would you like to see on this blog? Are there any topics I should be covering and haven't? Things I should be writing more about? Would you like more or less of the delightful little excursions into my life in real life? If anyone suggests post ideas, I'll try and get around to them in the New Year.

4) Introduce yourself! What does 2009 hold for you? Who are you and what are you doing in my house?

5) If I were to make you a lovely cup of tea, how would you want it? (Milk, sugar, blood of Christian babies?)

6) How do you respond to the statement 'it's political correctness gone mad!' ?


Thanks, comrades, and thank you for keeping up with PR this year. See you on the other side.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Senseless in Gaza

Look, I'm a Jew by birth, I've been to Schul, my family live just outside Natanya in Israel, I've travelled there extensively. If I don't get to have an opinion on this, I don't know who does.

I have just watched that profoundly moving episode of Babylon 5 where Ivanova sits Shiva for her father. It made my heart swell with longing for the profundities of a culture I haven't reclaimed in far too long.

Following this, I made a cup of tea and checked the news.

Two hundred and ninety, murdered. Fuck you, Israel, fuck your leaders and your mindless orthodoxy, fuck your forcing my cousins to do military service and my family to live in fear, fuck your killing and your killing and your sixty years of killing. I've seen your promised land, and it stinks of melons and terror. This isn't the way it was supposed to go. You don't get to do this because you feel 'threatened'; that isn't what it means to be a Jew. Have we remembered nothing?

The true promised land is nowhere but in our own minds, and your false Zion runs with blood.

Friday, 26 December 2008

But think of the kiddies!

One of the many things that royally pisses me off about this time of year is the endless bloody slew of articles about 'children of divorce' at Christmastime. Commentator after commentator calling for us to think of the children and 'make marriage work'. Column after column sopping with souped-up stories of 'suitcase kids' being shuttled between mummy and daddy, clearly innocent victims of Broken Britain (c.Cameron 2007). This helpful Daily Mail article includes heart-rending testimonies from Tilly, Archie, Freddie, Cora and other improbably-named crisis tots, accompanied by laughable illustrations: a pixie-hatted munchkin kisses daddy goodbye; a ringletted white toddler moops mawkishly by a window, the epitome of Victorian chocolate-box fantasy; and everything is covered in a dubious blanket of perfectly crisp, white snowflakes. Gimme a break.

My fingers are balling into fists thinking of all of the women reading this arrant bullshit and feeling guilty for being unable to provide their loved ones with the perfect, industrial-capitalist, heteronormative nuclear family Christmas. My pansy liberal heart bleeds for the parents of both sexes currently ruining their own happiness and their children's mental health by staying in bad marriages after buying this sick conservative propaganda.

Let me make it clear right now that yes, I come from a 'broken' home. My parents' marriage disintegrated shortly after their children were born, and several years of 'holding it together for the kids', racked by unhappiness and infidelity, culminated in a messy and drawn-out divorce when I was in my early teens. Christmas since my parents separated has generally involved two sets of presents, significantly fewer rows, freedom to watch as much telly as we like and the blessed relief of not having to see my mother grit her teeth whilst serving Delia's turkey to my father. These days, my mum, sisters and I scoff down chocolate from our stockings in front of Will and Grace and apologise to nobody. Cry me a fucking river. My one regret is that my mother didn't leave my father sooner - something she might well have done had she not been convinced that my sisters and I would never recover. For the record, we have.

Because living with divorce is not bad for kids. Bad marriages are bad for kids (they're not a barrel of laughs for their parents either), but divorces are symptomatic of family strife: they do not cause it. What divorce is extremely bad for is the maintenance of an increasingly outdated status quo, one in which a lifetime's unpaid domestic labour is extracted from one partner - overwhelmingly the female partner - and in which male partners are isolated from the emotional sphere of family life as workers and as breadwinners.
The nuclear family, sustained by the middle-class myth of everlasting love and marriage, is an incredibly efficient way of dividing labour in the context of industrial capitalism, as observed by nearly every brave leftist writer from Engels to Betty Friedan. The idea of organising a household around one married, heterosexual couple and their children is, in fact, a relatively recent one, dating back to the mid-Victorian industrial surge: under a system where women were first blessedly permitted and then practically required to acquire paid employment, and following a welcome period of socio-cultural change, the myth of the nuclear family has become increasingly unstable. However, that hasn't prevented it from being used as a stick with which to beat women who dared to imagine a life for themselves beyond the Nazi dictat of Kinder, Kuche und Kirche. The idea that divorce causes social breakdown is a colossal case of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Don't get me wrong: I sometimes wish my parents had been compatible enough to stay together. But given that they weren't, my family and I are all a damn sight better off with this arrangement. Let's cut the pretense that the conservative pro-marriage, anti-divorce propaganda circulating at this time of year and in this political climate is anything to do with protecting the welfare of children. When the Mail squeals at us to think of the kiddies, it is lamenting the turning of a tide of social change which even the continuing torrent of right-wing propaganda cannot turn back. It's Christmas. Everywhere, up and down the country, alternative families are celebrating together - single-parent families, stepfamilies, families with multiple and same-sex parents, families of friends, families of choice, families everywhere which fall outside an increasingly irrelevant socio-cultural norm. Many of us are having a bloody good time. And David Cameron can suck it right up.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Hope and Humbuggery: a Christmas tantrum.

This sucks.

I’ve just arrived back from my mum’s place and been greeted with a bollocking HUGE gas bill that we have only a slim chance of paying, plus a plumbing system that’s still buggered to the tune of having to wash my hair and essential parts in the sink, with a saucepan. All this, and scrabbling to prepare for a parental visit: clean, fumigate, hide the S’M posters, hide the ashtrays, hide the kingskins, hide our same-sex partners, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll make 2009 intact.

At this most magical time of the year, I truly pity the undeserving souls who work in call centres. Having been on the line to a dogged unresponsive pissed-off hack for half an hour, you could hear a festering note of impending armaggedon in the weary British Gas man’s voice when he asked if he could keep me informed of any new products and services.

Talking of festering Armageddon, does anyone else feel like we’re approaching the end times?

Maybe it’s just me. But in the latter months of 2008, it’s become far less easy to be a freak in this country. The black dog of recession is crunching us in its bloody jaws and, unlike the States, we don’t have any liberal saviour preaching change who we can clutch at, whispering save us. The government is clamping down on everybody, no matter where they live or why. The poor, single parents and the mentally ill are going to suffer under the new welfare plan. The atmosphere in Whitehall is one of stunned denial, with ministers emerging over the ramparts to frantically fire desultory, mean sallies such as today’s announcement that bailiffs will be given new powers to enter debtors’ homes at will, physically restraining or pinning down the occupants if necessary.

Will Monaco and Jersey swarm with smart-suited Scrooges wearing knuckle-dusters?
Will hired muscle be sent to collect billions of pounds’ worth of debt from Britain’s richest tax-dodgers, like Philip Green? Will members of the treasury, recently found owing £645bn which my generation will have to stump up for in our middle age, be turfed out onto the street in their scanties? Nah, thought not. Once again, it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who are being targeted by this supposed people’s government, this government that promised us change, transparency, a new world order. Maybe that’s why Obamania is failing to cheer us up: we’ve heard this line before.

Meanwhile, in Vatican City a nominally celibate former Hitler Youth member in a dress has a Christmas message of goodwill and peace in our time. Yup, Ratzinger wants to defend holy heterosexuality from the despicable ‘gender blurring’ perpetrated by gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and women who don’t sit with their knees together in church:

‘We need something like human ecology, meant in the right way. The Church speaks of human nature as 'man' or 'woman' and asks that this order is respected.

"This is not out-of-date metaphysics. It comes from the faith in the Creator and from listening to the language of creation, despising which would mean self-destruction for humans and therefore a destruction of the work itself of God."

I would like, at this point, to swallow the greater part of the Fuck The Pope tirade that was going to be my inevitable next outburst and instead point Herr Ratzinger towards the roll-call of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christian saints recently enumerated by activist scholars, amongst them Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Sebastian and ooh, wouldn’t you credit it, Saint George, patron of this blinkered isle.

I apologise for the unseasonal amount of bile and hatred in this post. Believe me, behind this cold, hard exterior twitters the pink and fluffy heart of a perpetual six-year-old who bounces out of bed at 5am on Christmas morning and dreams in sugarplums and fairy lights. But behind that is the chill adult realisation that we’re going to have to take the long road home. 2009 will be a hard, hard year, we didn’t need the IMF to tell us that. The rest of this beautiful, broken, brilliant decade is going to entail threats to socialism, liberalism and freedom of thought and action from all sides, with governments offering no quarter and giving none. Those of us brave enough to weather the distance, those of us with the strength and temerity to hold on to our liberal ideals, will need everything we’ve got to keep the hope in our heads alive.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. [Tennyson, 'Ulysses']

And that’s my Christmas message. Hope, if nothing else: hope, because that’s all we’ve got, that we will come through this with our sanity and our integrity, everyone: the poor, the young, the mentally ill, the geeks, the freaks, the queers and their allies, the feminists and race-activists and socialists and war protesters and those who dare to dream of a better and a fairer world. When we have nothing else but hope, we will have to find the energy from somewhere to keep on getting out of bed, keep on striving, keep on thinking for ourselves. I’m certainly going to keep on writing; I hope you’ll keep on reading. Thank you all for keeping up with this blog over the past year, and please believe me when I wish you, whatever your faith, a merry Christmas.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Damn lies and statistics

Today I discovered that I am a migrant! Who knew?

Did North London secede overnight whilst I wasn't watching? (Again?) No, but since all the new jobs in Britain have gone to migrants since 2001, I must logically be one - three times over, in fact. Alan Green, Field and Soames' 'Balanced Migration' campaign is scantily concealed racism doing a desperate recession striptease to garner the 'send em home' vote with little regard for minor fripperies such as actual facts. As anyone giving the plans a cursory glance can tell. However, the distortion of its already distorted statistics by the right-wing press takes the cake.

The logical step at this point, being a patriotic soul, would be to follow general advice and 'go back where I came from'. Perhaps Ms Neeson and Mr Desmond, the Daily Star proprietors, could even pay for me? Islington is only ten minutes away on the bus, and I could visit a selection of its many fine coffee-houses with change for a tenner.

Are you a migrant, too? Take the frothing racist lies test to find out!

ETA: Because I didn't make it clear enough, this is a variant on a meme started by jacinthsong and theoxfordgirl over at livejournal. Meme, not original post. Propagate, spread, disseminate, internet children!

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The writing's on the wall.

You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them - George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
I am seriously considering whether the best use of my time would be to torch myself on the steps of Parliament in protest - Withiel Black Esq., this morning.

I am angry, today.

But Ms Red, I hear you cry, you are quite often angry. Well, yes, that's so, but today I'm bloody angry, angry for a reason. I am sitting in a house from which my current family and I may soon be evicted, because we have failed to make our rent. We have failed to make our rent because we have failed to gain employment, we are paying off debts, and the pissingly tiny amount of benefits to which we are entitled have failed to arrive. We are spending our time watching ripped downloads off the interwebs and living on fried potatoes and tea and cigarettes re-rolled from the butt-ends of what we'd imagined our futures would be.

We're in our early twenties; the whole world is ahead of us, but a recession-bitten employment market and an increasingly punitive welfare system are making the immediate world look grim. It's going to be worse, still, for those friends of ours who are due to leave school or university this year and take their first faltering steps into a world that won't let them work and can't afford to keep them. This is not romantic. Poverty and hopelessness are not romantic. They're a fucking pain, is what they are.

When I met James Purnell in September he was half-cut, coming out of a party and manifestly didn't want to be talking to the small insistent girl reporter in black, but he took the time to explain to me why he thought his welfare reforms were going to help the poor and incapacitated. He genuinely impressed me. He knew his stuff. Three months on, with the recession steaming in and all my friends and loved ones poor and depressed and rejected by a nominally caring Labour welfare state, I'm beginning to think we've been had. I have a visceral fondness for energetic, hobbit-looking men, but not when they instruct the poor and needy to bend over and spread for a rogering, telling them in breathless pants that it's for their own good. Let's take a look at that party line:

Myth: 'work is the best way out of poverty.'

Fact: work is the best way out of poverty provided that there is work available, and provided that that work does not pay a poverty wage. Most of the journalists and politicians smugly licking Purnell's shiny arse on this one are lucky enough to have well-paid, fulfilling careers. But have you ever worked as a fast-food waitress? Have you ever worked in a call centre? You spend nine solid hours in a cramped, light-sputtering cage being bullied by your bosses and harassed by people who didn't ask you to call and harangue them. The work is soul-eatingly dull and draining and when you come home, blinking, dried-out, feeling ancient and depressed, you have to do it all again tomorrow, and you are still poor. You are still poor because you are being paid way below what might constitute a living wage, and you have no career prospects to keep you motivated. You get to choose between this and staying on benefits, being ever so slightly more crushingly poor but more physically and mentally well. What will you choose? (NB: call centre work is the only work many school leavers and graduates in the cities are currently able to find).

Myth: There is work there for people, and we believe they should do it. We can't afford to waste taxpayers' money on people who are playing the system. [Purnell]

This recession is not the fault of the poor. It is the fault of well-off wankers who live in large houses and go on holidays to Majorca, and now that the proverbial has hit the proverbial, nobody wants to take responsibility. Treating people like criminals for failing to find jobs that aren’t there is kicking us while we’re down. And that is what ‘"a system where virtually everyone has to do something in return for their benefits” means. Yes, it’s right that people take responsibility for their own lives – but what creates poverty, worklessness and drug and alcohol abuse is not moral decline, it's social and economic decline, and that's the fault of governments and the fault of a financial and business sector which sees no reason to look after its workforce in any way whatsoever.

The alleged lack of virtue of the working classes is now being exploited in order to offload the blame for what this Labour government has done – over 2 million unemployed, a toppling economy, another million so mentally and emotionally incapacitated that they cannot work. The idea that people without jobs are lazy, exploitative, ungrateful and engage in piffling class-defined vices places the blame for ‘Broken Britain’ on a group of people who have less to do with it than anyone else. The political and financial classes refuse to take responsibility for where they have landed us, and are now telling us that it’s our fault, because we are just not trying hard enough.

Don't for a moment imagine that the Tories are planning anything better. In fact, as David Cameron's latest editorial in the Hate shows, Tory contempt for the poor is if anything more shameless and ingrained than frantic Labour scapegoating could ever be: Cameron and his gang believe that the poor are lazy, and should be punished lest they all turn out like 'evil' Karen Matthews. As Matthew Norman puts it in the Indy, it takes a rich man to pour such scorn on the poor.

But I've had enough. I've had enough with trying so very, very hard to be a Labour apologist out of fear of the Tories. The Labour DWP's strategy is not just not good enough: it's actively immoral, scapegoating the neediest and making it more difficult for us to work and live just at the time when we should be carrying our wounded.

Fuck you in the fucking eyes, Purnell. It just saddens me that by the time that you see the wrong end of a dole queue in 2010, it'll be way too late for you to help even yourself.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

No more the meek and mild subservients we!

Thank you to Jennie for reminding me: sisters, brethren, today is the ninetieth anniversary of the first time British women went to the polling booths. Yup -less than a century ago, at least half of the population were forbidden from having any say in the political process whatsoever simply on account of lacking dangly nether bits and half a chromosome.

It has been said before, and it has been said better than I ever could. But I am grateful to my grandmothers' grandmothers: I am grateful to Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Charlotte Despard and Emily Wilding Davies. I am grateful to those crusading women and men who gave their social security, their freedom and sometimes their lives so that my little sisters and I could own our political inheritance. Our lives are immeasurably the richer for it.

We still have battles to fight, ninety years on; all over the world, women are second-class citizens compared with men, and in this country and many others we are still fighting for full cultural and political emancipation. But today, I think, we can take ten seconds to look back at where we've come. Catch your breath: you'll get dizzy.

Much as I abhor most Disney, this song is always rousing, and I can see no more fitting tribute to our illustious forbears. Rest in peace, ladies: you did good.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Left New Media: next meeting details

Comrades, as requested:

LeftNewMediaForum

Reclaiming the internet


Chaired by John McDonnell MP


Next meeting: Monday 15th December 7.30pm, Grimond Room, Portcullis House, London, Near Westminster Tube (SW1)

If you're planning to be there, please email Owen at jonesop@parliament.uk to confirm attendance and to be added to the forums. Thanks!

Yrs waiting for the van,

PRxx

Monday, 8 December 2008

Youth power and the progressive future

I have had it up to here - higher than I can reach at my towering 4'11 - with standing by whilst my generation, one of the most enlightened, good-hearted, engaged, interesting bunches of young people ever to grace these undeserving continents, is slagged off as the root of all society's ills.

The last in the Guardian’s 2008 series of debates, fluffily titled Who Owns The Progressive Future?, was put down by its own keynote speaker last week as Caroline Lucas of the Green Party wryly declared that she’d rather share it. Lucas, Bea Campbell, Ken Livingstone and Aditya Chakrabortty made for an engaging panel, but the mood of the debate was distinctly glum. Who owns the progressive future? Not us, was the conclusion, where us was a gathered mass of Guardian readers, most of whom had voted for Blair in 1997. I was going to be good. I was going to sit there and eat my sandwich and be quiet and be grateful for my free ticket. But when the debate turned to blaming the moral failures of today’s youth for progressive political apathy, my fingers started to itch.

A man from the audience deplored the fact that he’d caught his teenage son stealing, and declared that the ‘post-Thatcherite’ generation were ‘politically vapid’ and lacked a ‘moral compass’, at which point I found myself yelling‘absolute rubbish’ across the hall.

Slander. Lazy, unthinking neo-liberal slander that tars a generation already unfairly dismissed as drunken, amoral, apathetic, selfish and useless, the 21st Century’s Gin Lane. I have no time for it.

First of all, if your kid’s a thief, you should bloody well teach him not to steal and stop blaming society for your failures as a parent. And secondly, at no point in my political memory has this generation been apolitical. What we haven’t been is party political, and that’s a very different matter.

I'm sorry to go on about this. But when two million of us marched through London in 2003, demanding that our government refrain from following the United States into what we knew would be our generation's Vietnam, and when we were utterly ignored, many of us ceased to believe in the power of government to change the world. For a lot of us, that was our first experience of direct political involvement - and it wasn't a happy one.

No wonder, then, that we have reacted by abandoning the parties in unprecedented numbers. As the Stop The War generation has grown up, become voteable, fuckable, marrigeable, big enough and ugly enough to make our own decisions, we have inherited a distinct political cynicism combined with an energy to effect positive change in any way we can. As the youth vote has dwindled and membership of mainstream British political parties trickled into the low hundred thousands in every age group, membership of voluntary organisations continues to soar. It is estimated that a third - a third - of 16-25 year olds is directly involved in voluntary work. There are 20 million volunteers in this country, a figure that dwarfs party membership by several degrees.

Just take a look at Redwatch, the spotters' site where fascists can go and wank half-heartedly over mugshots of wooly-hatted crusty lefties on demos (I like to think that this is BNP members' version of the Man In Uniform sexual paradigm). Well, firstly, the leaked membership list now makes Redwatch worse than useless (come on, what are you going to do? Photoshop us? Go through our rubbish? Really? We know where you live now, you terrible useless scum, so come and have a bloody go if you're going to. Are you going to write a letter to the Mail? Are you, really? Bring that storm down!). And secondly, there’s a surprising amount of fit young commies on there: Redwatch is becoming young, taut and hot as under-30s flood the anti-capitalist, green, anti-globalisation, feminist and pro-equality movements.

More of us than ever are on the streets, and fewer and fewer are choosing to engage directly with the political process. In my many soul-destroying hours interning with think-tanks and in dealings with the leached-out little New Labour finishing school that is the NUS, most of the young people I’ve met who would call themselves ‘stakeholders’ in the Tory, Labour or LibDem parties are some of the most spineless, career-oriented, name-dropping, politically vapid slimy Whitehall dishrags I’ve ever come across. They’re probably going to be in power in ten years, worse luck, and these will be the young people that MPs and political decision-makers spend most of their time with. But they do not represent the sum total of political energy amongst my generation.

Who owns the progressive future? Not Labour, not any more. They lost the young British Left unequivocally in 2003, and they might even have lost us anyway, finally sick of being screwed over HE fees, excruciating debt and an employment market that has failed to adapt to new workforce demands, leaving millions unemployed or afraid for their jobs at the start of a breathtaking recession and angry that the best Labour can offer us is ‘Not The Tories’. But despite watching our politicians fail us time after heartwrenching time, Generation Y has still not given up on the idea of saving the world: more of us than ever are socially and politically active; we are connected; we care. We just don’t care about the political process very much, and that's their fault - not ours.

*****

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: A new activist and social community has been set up to encourage and facilitate self-organisation amongst transpeople and their allies in the wake of last month's Stonewall demonstration. T-CAN, the Trans Community Activist Network, is live at http://www.t-can.org.uk/.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Friday, 5 December 2008

Milking it

Human breasts are the most fetishised part of the human body, bar none. They have been drawn, painted, photographed, filmed, fantasised, mythologised and obsessed over by the men who are told to desire them and by the women who are taught to ‘make the most’ of them for centuries. Most girls’ and women’s rooms are stuffed with apparatus to push them out, plump them up, pull them apart, squeeze them together, flatten them down and otherwise force them to resemble the platonic ideal of the fantasy pneumatic breast, currently achievable only by surgery and a certain type of mesomorphic19-year-old. Walk down any street, open any newspaper and you’ll be confronted with bosom after computer-enhanced, barely-concealed bosom. And yet, whenever there’s the slightest risk of boobs being exposed in the course of their most natural function, we whip ourselves up into a moral frenzy.

Many cafes, restaurants and other social spaces, along with a significant part of the population in general, have a problem with breastfeeding in public. And occasionally, this will enter the public domain, feminists will clamour their protest, a legion of (mostly male) prudes will harp on about hygiene and social decency and the fact that it just isn’t done, and when everyone has calmed down nothing will have changed. Breastfeeding – the biological function of the human mammary gland – has remained socially unacceptable in public, a distasteful function of feminine biology seen as akin to leaving a streaming open wound unbandaged. In 2006, BabyTalk, a US magazine specifically targeted at pregnant women and new mothers was censored for showing a baby feeding from a human breast on its front cover (presumably BabyTalk shared display space with Playboy and Hustler, but these were deemed acceptable). Recent months have seen public prejudice flare up again against nursing mothers across the western world, and there has been a public outcry against the publication of pictures of a breastfeeding Angelina Jolie.

This week, a virtual storm broke around the humiliating expulsion of a nursing mother from a trendy cafĂ© in Soho, London, because it was ‘a place for eating’ (for everyone apart from the kid, apparently). The incident has caused viral indignation across feminist and anti-feminist cyberspace. Male commentators have compared breastfeeding in public to shooting up drugs in public, claimed that the practice spreads aids, and squealed that it makes them want to throw up. What nobody has so far mentioned is that breastfeeding is not just a bodily function: it’s a form of work.

Childrearing is still seen as 'women's work' in contemporary Western society, and is devalued as a result - but there are few parts of the task that cannot physically be acheived by either sex. Breastfeeding is one of them. No surprise, then, that this most technically female bit of 'women's work' is seen not only as a personal indulgence but a disgusting one at that - no different to squeezing a zit or bleeding in public. But, in fact, the woman breastfeeding in that Soho cafe was doing her job every bit as much as the young executives hunched over their laptops. Prejudice against breastfeeding in company is not only practical and extremely physical misogyny: from a marxist perspective it is also professional discrimination. In fact, it's already been recognised as such in New Zealand.

Next time you take a walk around Soho, just count the number of partly- or mostly-exposed breasts you see in any given street. I guarantee you that there'll be any number of trendy young girls (and boys, it being Soho) with far more boob on display than any nursing mother, the reason being, you see, that when you're breastfeeding, most of what you can see is the back of the baby's head. Wearing a low-cut top won't get you thrown out of a bar, though: it's alright, as long as you're getting your tits out for the lads.

Anti-breastfeeding stigma is not for a minute about modesty. It is about restricting women's choices and underlining the message that women's bodies are only acceptable if they are explicitly sexual.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Gender fucked: what does 'healthy womanhood' look like?

Starting posts with ‘when I was in a mental institution’ is really something I try to avoid. Penny Red is not my personal headspace blog, and it’s not all about Me and My Mental Illness. [If you like that sort of thing, like me, then you should do what I do and read Seaneen Molloy’s fantastic site, mentally interesting.] Penny Red is about politics, and gender, and activism, and poetry, and feminism and freak power. But the personal is political, and sometimes, mental illness is about those things, too.

When I was in a mental institution, a lot of otherwise well-meaning medical professionals conspired to screw up my gender identity pretty much permanently, for the best of reasons (they wanted to help me get better) and the worst (they believed that conforming to received ideas of ‘feminine’ behaviour was the best way for me to demonstrate a new, mentally healthy outlook). They were wrong. I am incredibly grateful for the inpatient treatment I received, which probably saved my life, but my political and personal feminism took a massive battering, and that’s less than entirely forgivable.

Give them their due, they tried. When I turned up, with my seventeen-year-old crew-cut, wild eyes and baggy hoodies, looking like the small scrawny one out of the Jonas Brothers and suffering from anxiety, depression BDD, self-harm and severe anorexia nervosa, their first assumption was that any young woman who wanted to look like a twelve-year-old boy must simply be a Secret Gay.

I am not a Secret Gay. I am an unsecret bisexual - about a 2 on the Kinsey Scale – I consider myself gender-weird and trans-curious, I enjoy wearing drag and I love, love, love the cock. I just love cock, I always have, I always will. I also find women attractive, but that’s not the whole story – in fact, that’s one of the few things in my life that I’ve felt uncomplicatedly comfortable with. My psychiatrist and some of the nurses tried to convince me otherwise, that if I could just come out of the closet I would magically start eating, stop having panic attacks, my family would accept me and all would be well.

Believe it or not, this represents a positive step for the psychiatric profession. They were prepared, within certain rigid limits, to accept non-heteronormativity as an alternative model for good mental health. At no point did anybody (apart from some of the other inmates) suggest to me that if I were a secret gay that would mean that I was somehow a pervert. And that would not have been the case a decade or so ago. It just so happened that they got it horribly wrong.

After months of my stolid defiance, they gave up and tried a different tactic. If I wasn’t Gay, it followed that I must therefore be Straight. If I was Straight, the only healthy option was for me to Accept My Womanhood. A lot of the received wisdom about anorexia is that it’s a method that young women turn to to escape the stresses of modern femininity. Anorexia, the logic goes, removes you from this struggle altogether because when you stop eating, when you cut down from 600 to 400 to 200 calories per day, your periods stop, your curves disappear and you return to an artificial pre-pubescent state. And young women behave like this because they’re scared and angry about the roles that they are being forced into.

Really? Do you think so? Well, gosh, I don’t see any way in which growing up female and Western in the 21st century could possibly be something to want to avoid. They must be mad, those girls.

Well, yes, we were mad. We were completely and utterly bonkers, mental, loopy, batshit insane – but there was a reason. Instead of analysing why we might be unwilling to go through the process of self-subsumation that represents the western journey into ‘womanhood’, the doctors prescribed a strict programme of feminisation for me. I was told in no uncertain terms to grow out my hair, throw away my old baggy black clothes, start wearing skirts, pretty shoes and make-up, sit with my knees together and be less ballsy and confrontational. The other women on my ward, with nothing to do all day, were only too happy to dress me up like a tiny mannequin, teaching me to paint my face and nails and lending me foofy dresses until I was allowed off the ward to buy my own.

Pretty soon, as a day patient, I was getting regular compliments from leery men on the tube about my nice pink low-cut tops and nice tights and nice impression of absolute submission. This represented progress, my doctors told me. Wolf-whistles were something I should be proud of. I was nearly at my target weight: the attention of men in public places, wanted or unwanted, was proof that I was nearly ready to return to normal society as a ‘proper grown-up lady’.

And the worst thing is that I believed it. Desperate and distressed, I was ready to accept that what the doctors told me was true – note that accepting and submitting to the doctor’s rules, however seemingly illogical, is officially an important part of the ‘journey to recovery’ for many psychiatric inpatients, at least in the all-female wards I’ve had the good fortune to visit. I got down on my knees, and I swallowed it all. I lost my feminism. I believed that in order to be truly well, I would have to behave like a ‘proper’ woman: no more demos, no more trousers, no more going out with short hair and no make-up, a boyfriend as soon as possible and certainly no bisexuality. Being a ‘proper’ woman meant fitting yourself out for sexual and physical attention, and that was all there was to it.

It took me years. Years and years of relapse after relapse to even countenance the notion that the part I was acting wasn’t truly myself. Years to get up the courage to cut my hair short again and stop wearing mini-skirts. I listened to ‘normal’ music (whatever was on Radio 1) instead of the shouty punk-rock, riot grrl and folk that I truly love. I stopped reading almost entirely, which was a pain seeing as I was studying literature at the time. I’m still not there yet. I still find it difficult to leave the house without make-up on, and not just because I have low self-esteem, but because a part of me still believes that ‘healthy’ women should look ‘pretty’ at all times. I still try to dress in ways that flatter my body; five years on, I still spend far too much time, money and mental energy ‘fussing’ over my appearance. I’m still nervous to truly express my politics in person, when I’m not with my friends or writing online. I still think I’m too fat, and have to stop myself reading the diet supplements in trashy magazines.

Conforming to feminine norms doesn’t make you a good person. It doesn’t make you a healthy person. Facebook has allowed me to make contact again with some of the hollowed-out husks of desperate, beautiful women I met in hospital, and most of them have now relapsed. Most are too thin, smiling desperately out of fragile, oddly-angled bodies wrapped in clothes they can’t afford and polished for hours with make-up they don’t need. In pictures, their boyfriends and parents hold them like precious ornaments that might snap if they cling on too tight. If that’s real womanhood, I don’t want any of it.

But conformity is safe. No matter how much time and effort you put in to making yourself acceptable and well-behaved, never doubt that it’s the easy option. I never feel more alive, or more free, than days like today when I stamp into work in big boots, a baggy black hoodie covered with slogans, a bobble hat and no make-up. But it takes courage. Courage to step outside the cosy cage of automatic approval and be your own, real person, without rules.

I respect those few, fabulous women for whom living without conforming to stereotypes seems to come effortlessly. Those angels who stride down the streets of London and Birmingham and Brighton apologising to no-one, fizzing with life and snug in their own skins. One day, I’d like to be one of them, and until that day I’m reading all the feminism I can get my hands on and meeting all the inspiring women I can get my hands on I possibly can. I'm writing about feminism and gender identity to raise awareness of just how much these issues affect the lives of everyone in this country and beyond. You won't be hearing reams and reams about my own issues on this blog - that's not what it's for, and besides, a surprising amount of my time is spent trying not to become Elizabeth Fucking Wurtzel. But I thought it might be useful to explain precisely where some of the nebulous feminist rage comes from. I'm alright now. I'm not mad anymore. But I'm pretty damn angry.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

I'm an anarcho-socialist: get me out of here

Last night, an extraordinary thing happened. I watched open-mouthed as the United States of America elected its first non-white president. The country erupted with longing for democratic change, the world partied, and a million teenage fangirls squealed at the sexual tension between Rob Lowe and Brandley Whitford.

Oh, stoppit. Yes, I'm talking about The West Wing. Last night, I finally finished the series, and I find myself bereft like a late-night sugar junkie, suddenly coming to with sticky crumbs of the last of the biscuits smeared on my chin and down my pyjamas, subsumed by a creeping sense of shame; you know it's not real food, you feel a bit sick, but you still want some more.

Throughout this turpitudinous year, my housemates and I have purged our sorrows and self-doubt with liberal applications of all seven series of The West Wing, shock tea, narcotics and a metric buggerload of digestives. And now it's all over, three weeks after we stayed up to spoiler ourselves by watching the climax of season seven played out in real life on November the 4th, the biggest, best reality TV show politics ever paid for. That series is over, now, too, but never mind - we still have reams of fanvids, mashups and screaming teen slashfiction (Joebama, guys!) to see us through to Epilogue: Inauguration Day in January.

Is it me, or have we all been watching a bit too much TV?

In a speech written for the Fabians (well worth reading in full), David 'I was mates with Obama in college' Lammy certainly seems to think so -

What happens in the United States affects us all and there is a great deal that we can learn from it. But we need to make sure we don’t let politics become a mere spectator sport. We can’t adopt US politics as a new political soap opera to replace The West Wing. I know that the election campaign seemed to have hired the same scriptwriters, so that the plot of the final season happening for real. But this will remain fantasy politics for us if we engage – from the outside – in American politics as an alternative to taking responsibility for bringing about change for ourselves here.

I'm sick and tired of fantasy politics. I'm sick and tired of watching overseas politicians slug it out to exciting super-wrestling soundtracks on TV from a cold, crowded house in North London where our seventh flatmate, rattus africanus*, has recently returned to plaguify us all. I'm sick and tired of waiting for change and being delivered empty soundbites and endless, endless bloody fanvids.

When not writing this blog and searching vainly for paid work, I've spent this year doing endless internships for national newspapers, magazines and political thinktanks, and, as of last week, in parliament itself, hoiking my unemployed, overeducated little arse out of bed to be every editor and politico's least favourite helpmonkey. And all this time I've spent scuttling around various corridors of power I've been secretly looking for someone, anyone, who wants real change, someone even trying to angle the system to publish innovative articles, to get real groundbreaking work done, to interest themselves in something more socially affective than the latest dead celebrity. But to no avail. Because, and let's not pull any punches here, they've all spent the past eight years watching the sodding West Wing.

Seriously. The Fabian Society? West Wing fans. The Indie? The Graun? Parliamentary researchers? West Wing fans. When I say kill your damn tv I'm not talking to some fantasy socio-political underclass, I'm talking to everyone from the cabinet down: your next fix of social justice isn't bloody coming from Fox Networks.

We've got to accept that the fact that another country, a bigger, more powerful, more culturally significant country than this tiny clutch of islands just elected what looks like a genuinely liberal adminitration does not mean that we can now all clock off and head to the pub (and come to think of it, 36 of them are closing per week). It still smells unnervingly like we might elect a Tory government in 2010, and for no better reason than it might make us feel a bit less responsible for the state of our own lives for a while. If we truly want change, it won't come from the telly, it won't come from the tories, and it won't come from another administration in the New Labour idiom, either - so we'd better decide what flavour of change we want right bloody now.

Bring up the theme tune; let the credits roll. Time to get up off the sofa. Time to shiver at the static humming from the darkening screen, stretch, put the kettle on, and start planning a better world. Because it won't happen any other way. This revolution will be brought to you live.

But the backdrops peel and the sets give way and the cast get eaten by the play
There's a murderer at the matinee, there are dead men in the aisles
And the patrons and the actors too are uncertain if the play is through
And with sidelong looks await their cue
But the frozen mask just smiles

- Alan Moore, V For Vendetta, 1988


*The biscuit-stealing bastard is the size of a small dog, and my Ghanaian housemate assures me he ain't from round here. After a month of fruitless saucepan-flapping and definitely no resident camp artists squealing and standing on chairs, we eventually found it passed out halfway down a bag of caster sugar and threw it in the garden, where it rolled under a bush. I blame Boris.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

LeftNewMedia: let a thousand flowers bloom...

Last night: the first meeting of what, after a little bit of squabbling, has been titled the LeftNewMedia forum. In attendance: some techie types, several folks who have the esteem of being Famous On The Internet, John MacDonnell MP, who is famous in real life, and my rather bewildered housemate, who actually has a life. StroppyBird was there, as was Dave Osler, a representative of thoughcowardsflinch, and several other quasi-hacks with a laptop, time on their hands and a sense of public justice. The topic under discussion: how do we use the netroots to achieve objectives within the British Left?

The Obama campaign, it was proposed, has put the British Left to shame in terms of its use of the internet to harness liberal energy. And at first that seems to be incontestibly the case. The way that the campaign tapped into local energy, targeted resources and raised a rustling shitload of cash for the cause can only be seen as an unprecedented triumph for the international Left as it adjusts to the new technological order. For more technical details of just how this was done, go read Crashing The Gate, visit the MoveOn site, and be inspired.

This meeting, convened by John MacDonnell's babyfaced flunky Owen Jones, took the Obama campaign as its yardstick and key ideal. Our objective was no less than to use the internet to unite the progressive left.

Um.

Have you met the progressive left? Its representatives at the initial meeting took ten solid minutes of recrimination just to decide when and where we were meeting next. The British left are good at many things, but we can't find absolute ideological common ground with both hands and a torch. Just look at the abortion rights movement: indubitably a progressive campaign, and also ostensibly a single-issue campaign, but put two pro-choice activists in a room and I guarantee you'll find points of contention as well as articles of common ground. You will never get the British progressive left to agree. Let me repeat that: there is not, now, and never will be any such thing as a British progressive left consensus. And nor should there be.

The semiotic nature of the left is very different from that of the right. By definition, we are about a multiplicity of ideals and platforms. We can think in subtle and progressive tones, we can consider different causes and outcomes simultaneously, we are contentious, and we are clever. And that's why the world wide websphere is a natural home for our efforts:

Look again at the abortion rights movement. A myriad of different positions, one for every activist and thinker and ally involved, but let an *objective* come up upon which we can roughly agree - stopping Mad Nads' initiative to lower the time limit, for example - and look how we mobilise. The hundreds-strong protest outside parliament when the Bill hit the table in May, and the energy that accompanied it, was garnered online; thousands of internet activists wrote to their MPs using E-letters, we blogged, we talked, we organised. All we needed - all the left ever need - was a practical objective. And look at us mobilise.

And that's what the Obama campaign had. It had a very practical, comprehensible and time-specific goal: to get Barack Hussein Obama elected president on the 4th of November this year.

Now look, in a different way, at the trans-allied protest outside the Stonewall awards this month. That protest, the largest trans demo in UK history, was organised entirely online. The internet allows minority groups, like transpeople and their allies, to find each other, to share ideas and to raise debate. The point of the Global Village isn't to create one big ideological blanket for everyone to scurry under (a Global Longhouse, if you will) - the point is to let a thousand flowers bloom. To allow a multiplicity of tiny groups to coagulate and enable them to link up and unite behing causes when they need to.

At the meeting there was much talk of how the BNP website is the most-visited party political website in the country. With predictable disgust at the message, the medium of the BNP's online avatar was praised for its comprehensiveness, its soundbites, its clarity of message, its simplicity. Can we make left-leaning sites as effective in the same way?

No, we bloody well can't. The reason that the BNP website is simple is because the BNP is a simple idea. They're not about taking a considered ideological position. They have a few soundbites, and that's it - their soundbites are forcible because soundbites are all they have. Their message and objectives - hating immigrants, being proud to be British, feeling angry at the Damn Liberals - are fairly clear-cut, and either you swallow them or you don't. The BNP have been successful at organising online, but we do not want to emulate the BNP's online scheme, and even if we did there's no way we could apply it to the British left. We are better than that. We are cleverer than that. We can think in shades of grey. The strength of the right is that its message is simplistic and requires little actual thought. The strength of the left is that ours isn't. Our strength is in our numbers and our diversity.

And that is why the internet might have designed as a special playground just for us. All we need to do is abandon the notion of creating any kind of 'consensus'. Why the hell do we need consensus? We're the British left. We're never going to agree. You may as well go herding cats. When we have practical objectives to organise and gather behind - keeping out the Tories, fighting the far right, holding our own parties to account, supporting or opposing government bills, setting up community projects, organising protests - we are formidable, and we are very, very fast. And this week, we proved it.

The instant that the BNP membership list got out online this week, there was no stopping the anti-fascist hacktivists. Whine and stamp though Griffin might, within minutes the list was all over the world in millions of inboxes. Within hours Wikileaks had it, and some clever techies in their bedrooms had set up a tool to search the list by name and postcode and another tool mashing the list with GoogleMaps.

Without the online left, that list would never have become news, would never have reopened the debate around the far right in this country. We are powerful. We have at our disposal a great deal of talented people: techies, geeks, bedroom pyjama nerds, writers, bloggers, graphic designers, political canvassers and campaigners, directors, humorists. Obama's campaign remains an inspiration, but we're not doing too badly over here, and we'll only do better as the stakes are raised and we learn to own our syncretic differences. The future of radical politics is a geek in zir bedroom with a cup of coffee, a pile of manifestos and and internet connection.

LeftNewMedia aims to build a dynamic coalition of left-wing techies, computer geeks, writers, internet users, bloggers, activists and other interested parties with the aim of forging specific online campaigns. I encourage you all to come to the next meeting, at which we will set down details of our first campaign, and which will be in Central London on the 15th of December at 8pm, further details TBA. For those who can't make it, I'll be writing it up here.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Tales from Turnpike Lane Station 2: the trouble with Reclaim the Night

Last night, on the platform at Camden Town, I gave the friend I'd been out with a big hug and saw her onto her train before settling down to wait for the last tube home to Wood Green. Just then, I heard a voice behind me.

'Do I get a hug too?'

Two lads, about my age, maybe a little older, looking like something out of Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere', and grinning. I stiffened, smiled and said, 'no, you don't', not wanting to seem what I was. Which was scared, and angry.

Suddenly, I was a small, skinny young woman in London on her own, and here were some blokes who might or might not be about to give me some trouble. Defence mechanism one: Blunt and Rude hadn't worked, because they were now laughing and looking mock-hurt. So I opted for Defence Mechanism Two: bore them away.

I shook hands, introduced myself, started asking interminable questions about where they were born, what jobs they did, giving monosyllabic answers. The train rolled in and I still couldn't shake them off: we were apparently going to the same stop. And not for the first time, I found myself thinking: if I'd gone to Reclaim The Night like a good little feminist, this wouldn't be happening.

If I hadn't refused to march through another biting November night, shouting
'Men Off The Streets!', I'd be surrounded by sisters with placards and bovver boots rather than having to negotiate the potential danger posed by two men decidedly *on* the streets.

As we rattled past Caledonian road, one of the lads went quiet. And then he started telling me how, about a month ago, he and his father were attacked by a group of guys at Cally Road station. He came out with a few scratches. His father was still in hospital, having suffered potentially catastrophic brain damage. The other man was his cousin, who had come down from Liverpool to help the family out.

I listened. And then I explained how, about a year ago, I was nearly raped outside the same tube station. I explained about the calculations women make when faced with a lone man, or a group of men - and they nodded, and talked about very similar calculations that men make when they're out after dark. We talked about male violence against women, and male violence against men. I told them about Reclaim The Night, and why I wasn't there.

Because violence in the streets is something that affects all genders. Because as much as I want to support my sisters in their anger and their defiance, I have too many brothers who have been mentally and spiritually broken by beatings, who have had legs, fingers and self-confidence shattered by laughing strangers, who have not yet recovered - who may never recover - from living saturated in a sick culture of masculised violence.

Brutality is bred in the bone in this country, in playgrounds, in the streets, and at home. It runs even deeper than a simple insult to women perpetrated by patriarchy. We are not as civilised as we like to think. Sooner or later, we all learn to fight, or we learn to run, or we learn to lie down and take the kicks and learn to hate. Sooner or later, we all learn to be afraid to walk the streets after dark.

Would I like to live in a world where all women felt safe at night? Damn straight. And all men, too. And all boys, all girls, all transpeople, bankers and shopkeepers and streetwalkers: none of us should have to steel ourselves for a beating when we pop to the shops for milk. This is something that needs to be addressed urgently in our culture. It's not just a feminist problem; it's a gendered crisis that makes new demands of feminism, and I will not be Reclaiming any Night until the men and transpeople whom I love are allowed to march beside me.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Say you want a revolution

'Revolutions are the locomotives of history.' Marx, Class Struggle In France

'I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.” Brave New World

For three days I've been racking my brains for a witty and incisive new angle on current affairs to post on this blog that I love so much. Three days huddling on top of a tiny merciful space heater, drinking endless sugary tea in a cold North-London commune ringing with the hacking petrarchan coughs of smokers with chest infections: it's winter, we can't afford 5-a-day or red meat, we're precariously employed or unemployed, we're battling winter depression, viz: we are all sick. Here is the arena of the unwell: we have reached it. Nothing to do but scramble for dog-ends in the bottom of beercans, eat plain pasta and play thrash guitar late into the night whilst hallucinating Grant Morrison in between frantically applying for every job we can find. Dicking around with each other's hearts and groins because there's nothing else to do in the baby-killing socialist utopia of Haringey.

We didn't think it would be this hard.

The reason I can't quite summon a sparkly opinion about the US president-elect, or the various ways in which George Osborne is a disgrace to right-wing social economists everywhere, or what the car-crash spectacle of I'm A Celeb 2008 really signifies, is a lingering sense of betrayal. We're good kids. We did everything we were told to do: we went to the schools our parents picked for us and then to university because that's what everyone does these days, because everyone knows you need a degree or two to get yourself employed even if it lands you in crushing debt. Somehow, we made it through three years of higher education only to find that our parents' generation finally broke the economy for us and no degree in the world is going to make us any more employable, or fit us out with the training we need to make decent lives for ourselves. They told us that if we worked hard and did as we were told and stayed off the crack and didn't get pregnant, then the shiny new neo-liberal free-market world would be our playpen. They told us that if we behaved, we'd all get jobs in advertising and end up partying at Bungalow 8 with Peaches Geldof and Jaime Winstone. They lied.

And you know what? I'm sick of being lied to. I'm sick of accepting a shitty deal for myself and my loved ones because I'm told that it can't be any different. I'm sick of swallowing nonsense from a nominally liberal government that refuses to tax the wealthy to fund decent healthcare and welfare for people on the ground and yet comes up with untold billions when a real banking crisis hits. I'm sick of being told that nothing can change. I just don't believe it any more.

What the neo-liberal consensus has been achingly effective at doing is persuading the generation that has grown up knowing nothing else that there can be nothing else. We hear of different political paradigms like fairy stories, with international communism as the wicked old witch who gets cooked in her own oven at the end of chapter three. But in real life, the story goes on. The kids grow up, and the honey walls of the gingerbread cottage begin to crack and crumble.

And now the sheen has worn away, we can see with older eyes that although we are living in one of the richest countries in the world, with more than enough credit to its name for every citizen to live a comfortable and free life, millions of us still live in poverty, misery and personal and economic servitude. The amount that our government has spent on trident, the Iraq war and the maintenance of a massive standing army over the past three years could have eradicated child poverty in Britain. There is a choice here, and it's a choice that our elected leaders are making for us every single day.

The way the right and left wing corps in the press have used the tiny body of Baby 'P' as a bargaining chip is vile. But the point stands that there remains a vanguard of British citizens who continue to believe that, in a pinch, the state is there to protect their children. The state is there to enact justice and social decency. Our expectations of the state are justly high, and if the state fails in its duty, it deserves to be raked over the coals. There remains a social democratic consensus beating just below the surface of the British psyche, and the nation's response to the horrific case of Baby P bears that consensus out.

There is a hunger in this country for social democracy, for socialist ideals if not for socialism itself, and that hunger will only rumble the louder as this recession bites. Change needs to happen, and fast. As Saint Toynbee pointed out in a recent Guardian article, the last recession created a lost generation of young people entering the workforce unable to find jobs. I fear that the slow creak of social stagnation has already begun for my peer group, and that this time our leaders' failure to adapt to the transition between the information age and the industrial age will take a cruel chunk out of our futures. Whilst ministers squabble about how and whether and when to fund skills training, a generation of 16-to-27- year olds slides slowly into unemployment. We are not asking for the earth. We are asking for the chance to earn our keep.

When I say I want a revolution, I don't mean blood in the streets. Since 1688, this country has had a proud tradition of sweeping social change effected without the death of millions. When I say I'd like to see revolution in my lifetime, what I mean is that I'd like a government with the balls to give us what we need. Welfare that is positive, not punitive. A commitment to on-the-job training, along with more pressure on businesses to fill the gap in skills training that the state cannot fill on its own. A commitment to instituting a living wage, so that anyone can support themselves in a job of work and so that a life on benefits isn't truly the easiest option. A commitment to flexible working and to European working-time directives, making it easier for women and those unable to work full-time to really contribute to the economy and to their own lives. A commitment to taxing high-end financial transactions and to increasing the income tax payable by the wealthiest 10%. A commitment to chasing state money held in offshore accounts and channelling it back into the larders and school lunchboxes of the needy. Would I like to see David Miliband dressed in green and challenging the Sheriff of Nottingham to an archery contest? It'd be good for a giggle, but give me the rest and I'll go home happy.

Ask most of our generation if they think we'll ever see a socialist revolution in this country and they'll laugh at you. The Poppy Project laughed at me when I told them the sort of systemic change I believed was needed to end prostitution - but when I suggested that campaigning for a living wage would do a great deal to reduce the numbers of poor women choosing prostitution, they nodded in agreement, before suggesting that we get 'back to the real world'. But this IS the real world. Exploitation, suffering, class, race and gender discrimination happen, and part of the reason that they happen is that my generation has accepted the neoliberal paradigm that allows them to happen.
Today, Jacqui Smith's prostitution proposals have been made public: another moralising legal solution to a problem that can only be solved by a commitment to systemic social change. How we get there isn't the immediate problem: first, we need to say that this is not good enough. We need to say we want a revolution. Even quietly, in empty rooms, in the privacy of our heads, we need to reject the lie that this is the best of all possible worlds. Say you want a revolution, because - sometimes - even just wanting it is enough.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Poppy Project: the showdown...

On a grizzly, awful day in Brixton, I went to visit the organisers of The Poppy Project to see if we couldn’t resolve our differences. I’d love to be able to tell you that I stormed in there and showed them the error of their ways with copious intellectual shouting before setting the desk on fire, singing the red flag and lighting a cigarette off the debris, but I felt that it would be more helpful to listen and, at any rate, our common ground turned out to be more considerable than either of us believed. So much so, in fact, that most of the discussion time was taken up with sisterly bitching about the state of the world. Here's what was resolved, and here's what wasn't:


Conditional help
‘Every time someone tells me that I don’t really care about prostituted women, I see red. They have no idea.’ Denise Marshall, Poppy's chief executive, was keen to set the record straight, not least on the fact that she and her organisation support both the decriminalisation of 'the women' (by which I here assume she was inferring all prostitutes) and the offer of non-conditional support to all trafficked women. One thing that I hadn't realised when I wrote the original piece is that the conditions that the Poppy Project imposes on the women who receive its care, whilst very much a reality, are a government intervention in the scheme. Indeed, the original conditions of the funding included such gems as a mandate that women who received the Project's help would not then be allowed to apply for asylum, and a condition that they had to have sold sex on the day that they came to the Project. Poppy organisers fought these conditions and managed to get some of them reduced or even removed altogether - but some conditions do remain. Women are not obliged to appear in court, thanks to pressure from the organisers, but they are still obliged to give evidence to the police as a condition of Poppy's assistance. The situation remains unideal, and the marriage between even this most on-message of women's groups and the government which funds it is not an easy one.

Why did the government impose these conditions? 'That's a very interesting question,' said Denise. 'Partly, I think, it's an immigration issue.' The government, not fully understanding what the Project was trying to achieve with trafficked women, was keen that the Poppy Project did not become a vehicle for hundreds of terrible asylum seekers, simply desperate to work in the oh-so-fluffy British sex industry, to scamper into the country. Because protecting women is important, but so is securing the votes of Daily Mail readers.


Conceptual disagreements
Although the reasons behind the Poppy Project’s conditional help and their real attitude towards decriminalisation were quickly established, the research conducted by the Project - research recommending ‘The Swedish Model’ of prostitution reform along with other sanctions adopted by the government for its own ends - remained a bone of contention. The organisers did not persuade me that the research done for the Big Brothel report was in any way systematic or their conclusions sound, and the fact that they did not really attempt to convince a vocal critic otherwise is telling. Anna, Poppy's press officer, told me that part of the reason they push for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex is 'conceptual': 'we don't believe that men should feel that they can just buy women's bodies'. It is true, then, that a significant part of what the Project's research is trying to achieve is a shift in social morality through targeted legal change. The problem is that this rarely ever works, even if it were the job of the law to police people’s sexual morality. Legal prohibition often creates more problems than it solves, and certainly in Sweden, where criminalisation of the purchase of sex has been implemented, life has become riskier for the women who choose to stay in the sex trade.

We live in an amoral, free-market capitalist society where, like it or not, most bodies are up for sale for a given fee. Even were the buying of sex to become illegal, as the buying of some chemicals is now, there would still be outlets where sex could be bought, if in a much more underground fashion which poses greater risks for sex workers in the industry. Interestingly, even the Poppy representatives seemed to disagree on this one: whilst Denise was adamant that prostitution is not 'a fact of life', Hannah*, a former sex worker from the USA and a Poppy volunteer, claimed that she could not imagine a time when it would not exist. I cannot reconcile myself to the Poppy mantra that 'prostitution is not a valid career choice', because the fact stands that men and women who choose to go into sex work do have agency - agency predicated on poverty, desperation and, often, a misconception of what the job involves, but agency nonetheless. Prostitution may be a sad and disempowering choice, but it is a choice, and it has to be recognised as a valid one free from arbitrary moral stigma. The problem isn't prostitution itself, but the fact that in a society underpinned by class and gender inequalities people go into prostitution for all the wrong reasons, and are likely to face abuse within the industry – abuse which is all but sanctioned by the British justice system.

We also live in a society where prostitution, particularly female prostitution, has a negative moral loading which makes it far more difficult for sex workers to pursue justice when they are victims of crime such as rape and assault. And this is a fact that no legal move is going to alter until protections are in place to ensure that all women can bring their sexual abusers to justice. Without that sort of systemic change, without real commitment on the part of the police, of parliament and of society in general to valuing the personhood of all women, particularly the young, the poor and immigrants who are most likely to go into sex work, no legal change is going to make a significant difference to the experience of women who work as prostitutes.

The Poppy organisers and I are in agreement that prostitution is a dangerous and unpleasant industry to work in, and that the attitude of this society towards sex work is repulsively hypocritical. But I remain convinced that all that criminalising the purchase of sex would achieve would be to make some women feel a bit better for a short time and drive prostitution further underground in the long run, especially when combined (unlike in Sweden) with moves that further outlaw the selling of sex, which is what the Home Office is moving towards. The point isn’t that buying sex is wrong. The point is that it’s not okay to treat all women like whores, and all prostitutes like pieces of meat that you can punch with impunity. The ‘Swedish Model’ confuses the issue, compromising personal freedoms instead of addressing the real issue. The real issue is not the moral value or otherwise of a woman’s choice to work in the sex industry. It’s the state of the sex industry within a society that fundamentally does not value women, and that’s a complex distinction to make, but a vital one if we are to make progress for women without alienating our allies.

Prostitution is not a crime committed by men against women. The state of the sex industry is a crime committed by society against its poorest and most vulnerable. It is a crime committed by patriarchal capitalism against the poor women and young men that it values least. I believe that in looking to ‘criminalise men’ (their words), the Poppy Project are lashing out at the wrong enemy.

The fact stands, though, that if I spend much more time picking perfectly valid holes in the work of the Project on this blog, then so am I.

We have different ideological conceptions of what feminism means. But there is much that radically abolitionist, women-only groups such as Poppy and socialist feminists like myself can do together. Whether we believe the problem to be men in general or the entire structure of capitalist patriarchy, we all believe that desperate women working in prostitution need support, protection and rights. The practical work done by the Poppy Project is almost identical in motive to the work of socialist-feminist aligned Xtalk, a project established to help immigrant prostitutes improve their circumstances.

Even former employees agree that the academic rigour of the Poppy Project’s research leaves much to be desired, and the actions of government based on their recommendations more still. Our ideological differences are considerable, and we will come to those differences if and when there is a real chance of the most misplaced aspects of that research becoming law. Right now, though, we are more alike than we are unalike. And we have work to do.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Freak Power!

Thursday's event was the largest trans demonstration in British history. One hundred and fifty transsexual, transgender, transvestite, intersex, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queerfolk and allies gathered in front of the Stonewall awards, yelling 'Stonewall: hyp-o-crites!' as wonks in spangly dinner jackets made their way up the steps. A fantastic evening, although I did feel a little sorry for the tiny 'Julie Bindel fanclub' that gathered on the other side of the steps, a thunderous twelve chilly people at maximum who left early (although we did try to invite them along to the pub). Early press reports seem to be firmly on the side of the protest, with even Stonewall award-winners lamenting the exclusion of the trans community. We did good.

We screamed, we shouted, we complimented each other's dress sense, we stamped our feet in the glowing London winter air, we had fun, we were fabulous, and we made our point in song format: We are the trans nation, and we won't take crap no more! Summerskill can hear us shout outside his door!.

Bindel was not, in the end, named 'Journalist of the Year' by Stonewall - the honour went to Dr Miriam Stoppard of the Mirror. But will someone please take Julie's pen away before she pokes her eye out with it? Today, in the Guardian, in a piece which contains not one scrap of research but a great deal of bile, she's having a little tantrum, telling the whole queer spectrum to go 'way and just leave normal people like her alone:

'It is all a bit of an unholy alliance. We have been put in a room together and told to play nicely. But I for one do not wish to be lumped in with an ever-increasing list of folk defined by "odd" sexual habits or characteristics. Shall we just start with A and work our way through the alphabet? A, androgynous, b, bisexual, c, cat-fancying d, devil worshipping. Where will it ever end?'

Spouting such paranoid filth in a national newspaper and then demanding not to be held accountable for 'hate-speech' would be funny if it didn't make me want to eviscerate the nearest Guardian editor. It is clear that Ms Bindel does not want to be associated with anyone apart from other lesbians, literally or figuratively. If this hadn't been made plain already, her prudish, achingly unfunny little 'alphabet', where she links 'androgynous' and 'bisexual' people to 'devil-worshippers', spells it out. She resents the expansion of the Queer nation beyond the tidy little enclaves of 'gay'and 'lesbian', and seems to pine for 'the 1970s and 80s' when 'lesbians were left to our own devices, and mainly organised and socialised separately from gay men.'

And that's alright. That sort of rampant bigotry is what we have come to expect from Bindel and Rod Liddle's ilk of biscuit-eating armchair prudes, sneering at the young, the freakish and the brave. What's not okay is that organisations like Stonewall and the Guardian newspaper continue to give people like Bindel a platform for her horribly right-wing views. Please believe me: the only difference, now between Bindel and any fun-hating Daily Mail hack is that Julie likes cunt. But being gay, by itself, does not make you a liberal or excuse gender fascism.

Sarah, a young transperson and organiser of Thursday's demo, commented: 'I do genuinely feel sorry for her. I think she so wanted to be a big crusading journalist, who uncovered some great big medical plot to turn gay and lesbian people straight through surgery. But all she's succeeded in doing is managing to unite most of the trans community in annoyance at the organisations who are so keen on ignoring their own communities in order to cosy up to her, and make herself look increasingly stupid in print.
To the people behind her nomination for "Journalist of the Year", I think you should be ashamed of yourselves for the way you've treated trans people by proxy, and you should also be ashamed of yourself for nominating someone who produces articles like today's, because lots of people can recognise quality journalism, and that's not it.'

Bindel and her supporters have abandoned any notion of solidarity within the women's rights movement or within the queer rights movement. It's up to us to stand up for our generation of freaks and rule-breakers and say: we will not permit you to pull up the ladder of progress behind you. We are not ashamed. We're coming to rattle your complacent little cages: sexual deviants, transfolk and gender magicians, bisexuals, pansexuals, pagans and atheists, angels and demons, black, white, Asian, mixed-race, boys and girls, men and women and everyone in between. We will not ghetto ourselves any longer. We will not be denied again. In fact, you know what? We're here. And we're queer.

Get used to it.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

More news on Bindelgate...

Penny,

You are to be admired for your chutzpah! No, I will not talk to you on the record. I don' t mind so much your hate mongering re the trans issue, but I am greatly offended by the piece you sent to National Newspaper re my 'unethical and unreliable' research (she's talking about this one). The lies and distortions you both repeated and reinforced are nothing short of irresponsible and nasty. Prostituted women are the ones to lose out if you lot are ever listened to.

If I see you on the demo, and are able to get to you to say hello without being lynched, I will of course talk to you. But do not expect anything else after the duplicitous way you have behaved.

Best, Julie

*******

Hi Julie,

That's one of the issues I wanted to talk to you about. I'm aware that we have very different stances on the prostitutes' rights issue. I respect that you disagree with my views, but I don't understand how 'irresponsible' and 'duplicitous' is a fair description of an article based on several discussions with academics, sex workers and feminist activist groups up and down the country. I spent three days researching the article for a major newspaper, and would not have done so if I thought I were spreading lies. My intentions on that score were not to attack you personally but to question a piece of research from a government-funded body that seems to have led directly to government policy - I'm sure you see the necessity for ethical journalism on that score.

If there are distortions in the academics' response to the Poppy Project report, I'd be delighted to hear them. I've also been invited by the Project to go down and see for myself; I'm going to do so next week, with an open mind.

What worries me is your blase use of 'you lot'. The feminist movement desperately needs to move beyond this partisan politics; I'm the first to admit that we need to stop attacking each other and attack patriarchy instead. That's why I'm so keen that we talk to each other and see what we can share.

If you like, I don't mind doing it the other way round - I.e, I could talk to *you* on the record and you could write a report of it for, I don't know, wherever you want to, really.

We come from near-opposite sides of the feminist spectrum; we are from different generations and have different experiences of what sexism means, what sexuality means and what it means to be a woman in 21st-century Britain. But I think that's even more reason for us to talk.

By the way - I've posted a transcript of my original letter to you on my blog, (http://pennyred.blogspot.com) although if you object I won't post your reply, merely a precis of it. Just so we're clear!

In real sisterhood,

PR.

ETA for blog: [I did monger a small amount of hate in the past. I did monger it, I admit to that mongering. I am now a year past 21 and willing to, you know, get to the issues. Are the leading lights of the radfem movement, more than twice my age, willing to do the same?]

*******

PR, yes there were lies in the piece by the academics, and willfully misleading statements. You will hear about this when you visit POPPY. I will see you there.

I also hope to achieve a 'real' sisterhood.

All best, Julie


So! Result, sort of. I'll be reporting back from the demo tonight; hope to see some of you there.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

This could get interesting...


And now for something completely different: tomorrow, the demonstration against Stonewall's nomination of Julie Bindel for a prestigious journalism award will take place from 6.30-8.30pm outside the Victoria and Albert Museum in central London. I'll be there.

Julie, for her own part, has now read and expressed distaste at the content of this blog. In fact, I'm quoted twice as an anti-Bindelite (which apparently equates to lesphobia) in this statement that Ms Bindel has put out prior to the demonstration.

So, because someone's got to be the grown-up here, I've just sent her this message:


Dear Julie, I'm (firstname) (surname), the blogger who's been leading a bit of a charge against you, not without opposition. I stand by my opinions; I'm sure you stand by yours. However, I'd like to meet you, and if you can persuade me that I'm wrong, I'm willing to concede that in as public a forum as I can manage. Would you like to meet up at some point to talk about our differences and see if we can't resolve some things in sisterhood? I think there are things both of us wish we hadn't said, and I'd like to be able to articulate in person what I feel about your platform; I'm sure we'd both learn a lot from each other. If you'd like to come and talk to me tomorrow, not that you'll probably be able to do so, I'll be at the demo - small, caucasian, hair a bit like yours, wearing big boots, all black and a sparkly scarf. If not, I'd really like to meet with you at some point soon - it can be on or off the record (although obviously I'd prefer to be able to write about it). Please let me know when you're free - I can come to any London location and am fairly flexible as I work freelance at the moment. My telephone number is (myphonnenumber), and my email address is my@email.blah. In a spirit of hatchet-burying, and with respect for a media career that I can only hope to emulate, I hope the demo tomorrow isn't painful for you and your family. IMHO, if Stonewall are going to stand by their nomination of you, then they should damn well come right out and give you the award . So....good luck, I suppose. With respect, and hoping to hear from you soon, etc.

I hope she replies, really, I do. I hope we get to meet, and I hope she proves me wrong - I hope the feminists of my generation can work with the 'radical' label, and with the old guard. I hope we can stop distrusting each other. And I hope she allows me space to explain to her what elements of cissexism, misandry and partisanism we now have to abandon within the movement if we're going to adapt to the challenges of this generation. Because yes, alright, I watched those speeches too, and it made me realise somewhere amongst the just-hayfever-really sniffles that what we should be working together for goes beyond partisan squabbling. We're working for women, and men, and everyone else who's worked over by patriarchy every day. And that needs to be the bottom line.