Friday, 29 August 2008

Monday, 25 August 2008

Reconstructed males

There have recently been some fantastic investigative features in the print and electric press on the touchy subject of female surgical circumcision, also called cosmetic labiaplasty. One of the best, curiously enough, appeared in this month’s DIVA. This is a topic that needs airing and re-airing, but I’m going to take this space to tentatively suggest that there is also room in the feminist movement for a discussion of that curiously taboo subject: male genital mutilation.

In a culture of commodified testosterone, growing numbers of boys and men, some as young as three or four, some as old as eighty, are turning to genital mutilation as a form of self-harm. This in itself is not a new phenomenon, but as the culture of shame, anger and idolisation around the male sexual organ continues to increase, the phenomenon of boys and men damaging their own genitals, sometimes with extreme violence, is gathering pace. There are myriad individual reasons for this phenomenon, many of which are exacerbated by mental illnesses such as depression and paranoid schizophrenia, but the baseline reasons are fairly simple to grasp: a lot of boys have no frame of reference for what their penis should look like. Men are taught to see the appendage as a source of unimaginable sexual shame and embarrassment, or as a symbol of a sick, overzealous , hypermasculised culture in which they did not ask to be included, or, more frequently, both.

It’s not only the mentally ill who mutilate their genitals in private: you can pay a surgeon to inflict far more radical damage, a snip (literally) at £3-12,000. I’m talking, of course, about the booming industry of surgical penis ‘enlargement’, the nearest male equivalent to labiaplasty. We’ve all had versions of those relentless spam emails, offering in poor English to furnish us with a magnificent schlong for the price of a university education. Well, they keep coming because some people keep clicking – millions of anxious men and boys, in fact, all over the world, every day.

Yes, it’s fucking political. Male sexual neurosis is massively damaging, to feminism, to society, and to men themselves. This is not male apologism, or backsliding, it’s one feminist’s request for more discussion of a damaging socio-sexual taboo, in the context of a blog post in which I get to shout ‘COCK!’ a lot.

There, I’m glad I got that out of my system.

Gruesome butchery as labiaplasty undoubtedly is, the butchery involved boils down to a fairly straightforward amputation. Not so with penis ‘extension': I’ll spare you details of just what can go wrong, because Penny Red is a welcoming family blog, but suffice it to say: lots. And often. If you enjoy Bizarre magazine, you may click here now.

Thanks to the stalwart work of feminist writers and bloggers, there are now a lot of good, informative sites out there setting the record straight on what real female genitals look like. Sites that reassure women of all ages that they, too, are far less abnormal than they might have feared. Sisters working tirelessly and for free to undo the visceral harm done by the iconography of pornography and the language of fiction, erotica and women’s magazines in persuading girls that their vulvae should present as neat, hairless, odourless, tight pink slits with the sole purpose of funnelling equally tight, odourless, virginal vaginas, where all sexual sensation occurs. This is an ugly and damaging lie.

So where is the equivalent iconoclasm working to tear down the damaging fictions that young men internalise about their gender and physical sex?

The rhetoric of dickhood is entirely misleading, with emphasis on stiffness, straightness, rigidity, awesomeness, bestiality and hard, raging, pole-like qualities. The myriad of slang terms for the appendage range from the sublime – schlong, manhood, prick, dick – to the ridiculous – one-eyed trouser snake, luncheon meat truncheon! In fact, as most people are secretly aware, even the most impressive penis is no fearsome beast. They are extremely fragile things, normally soft, squishable and defenceless, generally flaccid, delicate , painful when struck, sensitive to touch and temperature. Freud was wrong. It’s not women who ‘envy’ the fiction of the perpetually hard, straining, bestial cartoon-penis – it’s other men,. That envy can largely be blamed on the shocking lie culturally perpetrated to convince young boys that their genitals are supposed to symbolise their masculinity and accordingly be other than the sweet, small, defenceless things they are.

If you’re laughing, stop. Now. I don’t believe it’s possible to call oneself a progressive feminist whilst taking the piss out of the sexual organs of just under one half of the human race. When it comes down to it, everyone’s genitals are ridiculous: messy, demanding, confusing and difficult to manage, with no instruction booklet and contents that generally differ wildly from the serving suggestion on the box. This does not mean that they are abnormal, inadequate or worthy of the childlike awe, tentative mockery, anger and aggrandisement that by turns characterise the treatment of the human prick in contemporary culture.

It is not surprising, then, that so many men and boys turn to surgery to change what they see as defective or abnormal, or to self-harm when they see a part of themselves as shameful and socially loaded in ways they reject. We just do not know how many men go through these experiences, how many operations are botched or how many wounds inflicted in private, because the subject matter is so sensitive that there simply isn’t enough data, and no comprehensive study has yet been done. All that we know is that it’s happening, and that it’s happening more and more.

The cultural markers of femininity are worn like a cloak and meticulously judged – from breasts to width of the waist and hips to degree of ‘curviness’ to hairstyle to set of the face and features. For men, only one specific part of the body is sexualised, and it’s kept under wraps, endlessly mythologised and certainly not featured in any fashion spreads. Feminists might argue that because women’s whole bodies are inevitably sexualised, men have it easier. Those feminists are right: men do have it easier. But that doesn’t mean that men don’t get a raw deal too – where little girls grow up seeing examples of perfect sexual bodies plastered everywhere they look, little boys experience the opposite – the cock is spoken of in hushed tones and never revealed, fictionalised, aggrandised, reduced to a few furtive glances in locker-rooms and arcane priapic symbols scrawled on playground walls and toilet cubicles.

In a perfect world, school PHSE lessons would include mandatory classes on sex and gender, in which children would be shown lots of photographs – not crude and misleading technicolour ink-drawings – of what real genitals look like. During these ideal lessons there would be open discussion of gender roles, physical sex, sexuality, feminism and gender egalitarianism. It won’t happen on these prudish little islands any day soon, not here where so recently we had laws banning the discussion of homosexuality in schools, but it’s nice to dream. Some girls dream of ponies. Today I'm dreaming of full-frontal PHSE photography with explanatory notes. It’s a vision thing.

The movement to reclaim the female body as a self-defined space is still a vitally important one, and it is perhaps just as vital to complement that discussion by extending its rhetoric to the male form. Talking about the realities of the female body in its many forms is a starting point for massive amounts of crucial feminist discussion of physical femaleness, of personal femininity, and of the difference and interaction between the two and the socio-political realities they produce. Talking about the male body in a similar way, and specifically about the cock – unlike for women, the only explicitly sexualised part of a man’s body – might just promote similar much-needed debate about physical maleness, personal masculinity and the difference between the two. Or at very least, it might make a few more people hesitate before doing inadvisable violence to the most sensitive parts of their body and paying for the privilege.


Friday, 22 August 2008




I am quasi-orgasmically pleased to announce that Penny Red is branching out. Along with the glorified textual rants you’ve come to know and tolerate, you will now be treated to a weekly webcomic, brought to you by the graphic wizardry of Withiel Black (links to the rest of whose work will follow shortly) and scripted by myself.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Raising Our Game


I’ve had a lot of interesting reactions to this post about the Welfare Reform Bill, in comments and via email. And the message of most of those reactions was: Pennyred, you said something nice about Labour! What the hell is that about?

Let me explain.

Am I angry with this government? Yes, I’m angry, I’m very angry, I’m fucking angry. New!Labour let us down. New Labour invaded Iraq and trampled on our civil liberties. Anger, tempered with a real energy for change, is the only sensible reaction. It’s okay. It’s okay to hate New Labour - as long as we always, always remember that the Tories are our only real alternative, and the Tories are so much worse. And this is why we need to stand up for socio-economic equality and human rights, and to look around for those politicians who are standing up for them, too. Actually, there are some. And they sure as hell aren’t wearing blue ribbons.

Take, for example, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, who I’ve mentioned on this blog before. He’s one of the first truly interesting politicians I’ve met, and in the space of half an hour the man made me want to smack him in the face and managed to raise all the little hairs on the back of my neck with a sudden lust for social change. Gleeful and slightly manic in the way that only a real politics junkie can be, Lammy is an expansive orator with a soundbite for every occasion (‘a strong economy is not enough – we need a good society!’ is one that I’ve now counted in five different speeches). He’s the young gun from outside the nepotistic cesspool of Westminster who finds himself ‘wheeled in’, in his own words, ‘to talk to angry young black men or angry young white men’ or, indeed, to any audience requiring a politician young people can relate to. He’s frighteningly clever, annoyingly inspiring, and the patronising git knows it, too. I hate him, I hate his terrible smug face, I hated him from the moment he opened his mouth, and I would vote for him in any election you care to mention, because he’s an uniquely talented politican who cares about the poor and the disenfranchised and the young and the desperate almost as much as he cares about stroking his own ego, and that’s a hell of a lot.

The Fabian Society. What an odd place for me to be doing a work placement. The Fabians are stuffy and weird and broiling with reformist energy, and if you took away their kettle and their chocolate biscuits the whole hundred-year-old organisation would implode in twenty-four hours. I have a massive amount of respect for them, because they are for things as well as against things, even if most of what they are for is getting important people into a room together to talk about welfare reform, child poverty and human rights, feeding them enough coffee to keep them sharp and then listening very, very carefully to what is said. I’m here to learn, because I believe in quiet socialist revolution, in radical systemic change. I’m here to learn, because I’m happy to stomp around and shout with my big fuckoff socialist-feminist boots on until I’m hoarse and aching, but I won’t stomp through blood in the streets. No thanks. What the hell can we do but try to change people’s minds?

Civil liberties, yes, yes, yes. A succession of New!Labour governments have made a string of vile and incomprehensible reforms to civil liberties which will take decades to repair, and which will probably lose them the next election. Idiocy; breathtaking idiocy. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think that the Tories care one jot more about civil liberties than Labour. In fact, most of the reforms the Blair and Brown regimes have tried to force through have been won on the back of Conservative support in parliament because Labour back-benchers have revolted, time and time again, against their own government whom they saw betraying the ideals of liberty and equality to which a lot of these politicians have dedicated their lives. Whoever ends up in the driving seat in 2010, this country cannot do without a solid Labour presence in parliament, and the left needs to recognise that before it’s too late, before we’re landed with more LOL! leaders like the Johnson - hairdo on a pink and straining pillar of wilfully ignorant privilege.

We are cleverer than this. We are clever enough to recognise the better option of a bad handful when we see it. We are clever enough to distinguish between the principles of our elected representatives and the occasionally heartbreaking treachery of New!Labour governments. We are big enough and clever enough to get over the betrayal of the optimism of 1997 and grow the hell up, rather than running back to the Tories for a tummy-tickle and a few tax-cuts.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should stop holding Labour to account for its massive failures over the past decade. We must not forget how the mad optimism of 1997 was let down, even though it was always going to be. But we also need to remember what a luxury it is to be able to argue the details with a government which is, at least, nominally progressive; a government that sometimes talks about poverty, about human rights, about discrimination, equality and social mobility. A government that allowed civil partnerships. A government leading the parliament of Mo Mowlam, Tony Benn, Gwyneth Dunwoody, Harriet Harman, Dawn Primarolo and Diane Abbott. A government that encouraged, and continues to encourage, a female and ethnic minority presence in politics. A government that has no choice but to entertain industrial disputes because it still relies on Trade Unions to fund its big dinners. Let me go three rounds with that government, as long as you keep the lumbering Tory beast of bigotry and corporate greed out of the ring. Please, keep it out of the ring, because after ten years of arguing amongst themselves I’m afraid that dissenters on the left may have forgotten what the odds can really be like. I’m afraid we might not be fit enough for the fight that’s coming.

Pennyred is not a Labour blog. Pennyred will never be a Labour blog, and I will never be a Labour party member, but I sure as hell know which bastards I’d rather see royally rogering my country. The bastards with a clue; the bastards who can point to old red firebrands and socialist young bloods peppered here and there in their ranks. The bastards who are willing to revolt against their own government, not once, but continually. The bastards who do not hate the poor, women, ethnic minorities, and everyone who doesn’t look and think just like them. The bastards with just one knarled red toe on the party line.

I’m a little bit tired of listening to liberal, educated, privileged young men and women mutter some feeble sop towards the fucking Iraq war as an excuse for voting Tory, or not voting at all. If that’s you, Londoner or not, then Boris Johnson is your fault. The loss of the Labour heartlands to a clutch of ex-Etonians is your fault. The renaissance of a party that kicked the British working class in the soul in the 1980s, a party that’s already planning to roll back the welfare state and destroy abortion rights when it returns to power, that is your fault. It’s our fault. And we need to raise our game, right now.

We need to step the hell up and decide what we are for, as well as what we’re against. The British left are clever enough and resourceful enough to do that whilst still holding a nominally liberal government to account for its mistakes. Let’s get to it.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Who's your daddy?


In the news this week, British jockism scored a smackdown at international sports day in China, with tellies across the country sagging under a brief and terrible invasion of those kids who were popular at school. Oh, and Peaches Geldof got married to her boyfriend of one month. Hold the front page.

Can anybody tell me the point of Peaches Geldof? What is she for, exactly? She seems to dabble in all sorts of things – music, modelling, journalism, presenting – as mere facets of an amorphous party-going social entitlement born of pop-heredity. It troubles me, because I know so many brilliant, truly talented aspiring musicians and artists and writers and models who aren’t making it, who may never make it, not because they aren’t good enough but because they don’t get the breaks, because their daddy isn’t anybody important. Meanwhile, Peaches could fart and SoHo would applaud.

See also, Daisy Lowe. See also, Pixie Geldof. See also, Mark Ronson, Alice Dellal and Alfie Allen. See also, Jaimie Winstone, noted daughter of Ray, who’s currently starring in the 3rd-wave feminist retrospective,‘Donkey Punch’. See also, Coco Sumner, she of the broad shoulders, glossy tawny locks and distracting tartan mini-skirts, noted daughter of Sting. See also, every damn member of the gurning post-adolescent Hanoverian clan, grown up soured by grovelling, fawning, belly-exposing media worship. What the hell happened to meritocracy in this country?

At a recent debate at Portcullis House, David Lammy MP, Minister for Skills, noted the stalling in social mobility that has dogged the UK for the past decade and more. “Class is still very firmly on the agenda,” he said, “and we need to start thinking about what stories we can tell about class, education and social mobility.

“I think it is legitimate for the Labour party to have something to say about excess in the upper eschelons of society. It’s not the politics of envy – it’s the politics of humanity.”

Every morning, I drag myself onto the bus to work or school or my other work and am assaulted by lazy press adoration of a clutch of young people the same age as me and my mates, purely on the basis of their wealth and heredity. Was it really ever thus? The truly fascinating thing about the Geldof, Lowe, Allen and their ilk is that their parents’ generation really were, in many ways, self-made. They came from an era where celebrity actually meant something because it demonstrated that, for example, four young kids from lower-middle-class Liverpool could take on the world and win if they tried. An era where talent and ambition and charisma could win you success no matter who your daddy was. Where you could go to university and work hard and make something of yourself. But a generation later, the snivelling, forelock-tugging British obsession with lineage seems to have reverted to type, and with it, a new acceptance of social class as a measure of worth and entitlement.

Heredity is the rotten trench running through this society, and after barely two generations of social progress we are reverting to type. The sons and daughters of artists, musicians and politicians who made their names the hard way are raised for a life of privilege in which the cringing British press supports them from the moment they’re old enough to be papped. Celebrity used to be aspirational; it used to mean more than who your daddy was. We used to be better than this. Let’s hope we remember it before too long.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Welfare reform: what's the deal now?


Ooh, James Purnell. Those kindly eyes, that roguish smile, that cheeky little pro-war voting record. He can call me any time, but meanwhile, guys and gals, let's satisfy our post-adolescent political lust by calling the Secretary on welfare reform.

The national drive towards reform of the benefits system has been gathering momentum over the past 18 months, with the pace stepping up from January when the Conservative party released 'Work for Welfare', a short proposal for some pretty draconian reforms to the current welfare state where all 'able bodied' men and women would be expected to work (the fact that one in four claimants of incapacity benefit are severely mentally ill clearly does not register with tory stiff-upper-lippers). Hot on the heels of this report came Purnell's green paper, the rather more progressively titled 'No One Written Off: Reforming Welfare to Reward Responsibility.' Cue a tiresome little inter-party squabble with a lot of bitchy back-handing to the BBC over just whose idea it was to bring the British welfare system into the 21st century.

On first reading, both reports advocate a greater emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for and 'earning' their own benefits; both want to encourage more people into work and provide better checks to do so; both want a clearer distinction between the genuinely needy and those relatively able to work, those whom a medieval government might have called 'sturdy beggars'. The net effect of the reforms is that in October 2008 a new Employment and Support Allowance will be introduced for new claimants of Incapacity Benefit and other benefits before being rolled out to all recipients.

There, the similarity between the proposals ends. It must be made absolutely clear that Purnell's green paper treads an extremely fine line between positive reforms that empower people to work and victimisation and further isolation of already poor and vulnerable sections of society. For now, in the months pre-instigation, the proposals come through relatively successfully, with welcome additions such as a long-overdue simplification of the benefits claiming system, making it easier for genuinely needy claimants to access vital support. Until you've sat up with a severely physically and emotionally disable friend and watched them crying in frustration as they try to fill out the forms, you may not understand quite how vital this particular change is. The old system was designed to be complex in order to discourage fraudsters from bothering; the new system will build in more proactive checks. And about bloody time too.

The tory proposals, on the other hand, are replete with the rhetoric of disdain for the poor and needy. In the conservative worldview, people need to be stopped at all costs from 'playing the system'; the government has a 'moral right' to 'protect families', the practical upshot of which is tax benefits for married couples, as if a silver ring ever solved anything. Quite apart from the fact that Labour's report is massively longer and more in-depth, quite apart from the fact that it answers the conservative challenge with the diligence of a progressive government purposefully handling the difficulties of practical power, we cannot - simply cannot - have tory hardliners like Chris Grayling in charge of this delicate transitional period in the benefits system.

This welfare reform package is one that can only be successfully implemented by a socially aware, self-policing socialist party of the type that, at its best, Labour tries to be. Conservatives such as Grayling have claimed that Purnell's proposals are a 'straight lift' from tory plans; they are not. If anything, the latest proposals represent a visionary re-working of a policy which, under the Tories, would further criminalise the working classes and drive hundreds of thousands into poverty, debt, addiction and despair.

Because the tories have far less idea even than the incumbent government of what real poverty really means. You can't say 'credit crunch' with out baring your teeth into a snarl, and it's going for the throat of benefit recipients trying to live on £40 per week. MPs demonstrating 'belt-tightening' by not demanding increases on their sixty grand salaries live in an entirely different world from people on JSA and Incapacity Benefit. The welfare state was never designed, as the tories claim, to allow 'a young man to grow up' knowing that 'the state will support him' whatever choices he makes: if you live on benefits, you are poor. Very poor, and you'll stay poor unless your circumstances change. A life lived on benefits is a life on the breadline, a life replete with stress and starved of reward and acheivement, a life in many respects half-lived. The vast majority of people on state benefits are keen to return to work - the problem, is that many face tremendous obstacles in obtaining and retaining employment.

The conservatives' mantra of small government, of decreasing state support in every arena in favour of 'the family,' will be massively detrimental to the real good that has been done in moving millions of people off benefits and over the poverty line in the past decade. David Cameron believes that:

'The primary institution in our lives is the family. It looks after the sick, cares for children and the elderly, supports working people and the unemployed' -

Woah there. Reading between the lines, doesn't that mean that families should be doing the work of the state, just like they did in the pre-industrial era? Well, presumably they're planning to reward domestic work financially, then, aren't they, and take massive social steps to encourage social cohesiveness within all family structures, and provide equal benefits for civilly-partnered homosexual couples and married straight couples alike? No? Or, just for instance here, could it be another strategy to shove vital care structures such as 'caring for children and the elderly, supporting working people and the unemployed' out into the streets in order to save money? We've heard this one before. It was called 'Care in the Community.'

Oh, yes. And tucked away in the pages of 'Work for Welfare' are some really juicy howlers, such as:

'Equal pay audits will apply only to those firms which lose pay discrimination cases'.

Which is a logical and VITAL part of making the welfare state work for everyone, clearly. Only a progressive socialist government has the tenacity and social responsibility to make welfare reform work: we must work now to avoid handing a fledgling system based on 'rights and responsibilities' over to the tories, who will never understand in our lifetimes what it really means to be poor, sick and desperate.

Friday, 8 August 2008

And the beat goes on.....

This week, on Hiroshima day, I went to Somerset House to sit in on a debate, and during the evening I found myself sitting within three feet of a former defense secretary refusing to offer any sort of apology for his involvement in British nuclear proliferation in the 1970s.

After the talk, I walked out onto Waterloo bridge in the sticky evening mist. With my new eyes I can see all the way to Wharf Tower in the east and down to the crennelations of Parliament Square. I smoked a cigarette, and another, tossing the butts into the rolling, muddy river
underneath, like sins. Like prayers.

Unlike in poems, the river doesn't really wash away sins. It washes them together, all the swelling, teeming crimes of this city carried away until they're someone else's fault, a fairy story.

That's what nuclear weapons are, three generations on from the war crimes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A fairy story. Think about it. 25,000 nuclear warheads exist on the planet right now, most of them 8 times the power of the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Someone can decide that pride is more important than sense, someone could make a bad decision, someone could make a mistake, and that would be it. All human life, at the touch of a button or the clatter of a key-code. The enormity of this has become one of the salient facts of contemporary culture, a reality so huge and fucked-up that it doesn't even register anymore, and nor does the sheer criminality of the fact that eight or nine countries possess nuclear weapons. (Yes, not everyone has nuclear weapons. Eight or nine countries still do, and many, like South Africa, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, have dispensed with the technology.)

Media silence on the matter may give the impression that nuclear politics are a hangover from the 1980s. Nothing could be further from the truth. The UK's current project to replace the Trident missile system is going to cost upwards of £30 billion. Enough to provide free public transport for generations, enough to train and employ hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses and teachers. The decision to carry out this pre-emptive replacement was taken unilaterally, with very little media fuss, around the same time that states began discussing 'pre-emptive strike action' as a possibile tactic in their war on terror (please don't ever dignify that phrase with capitals around me, ever.)

There needs to be greater media acknowledgement of the inherent criminality of nuclear proliferation and of the feasibility of global disarmament within our lifetimes. Kate Hudson, Chair of CND, who spoke at Somerset House, spoke of a 'drumbeat' of anti-nuclear sentiment being heard around the world. John Pilger also acknowledged that British steps towards disarmament 'would also be heard around the world.'

What we can do, very practically, is make a conscious effort to sound back the drumbeat - as thinkers, as writers, and as voters. If no newspaper will put nuclear proliferation developments before Madeleine McCann in their line-up, let's talk about it online. Let's talk about it in the citizen media. Because one thing's for sure - in the latter part of this decade as much as ever, nuclear politics is something that this generation needs to take very, very seriously indeed.


****************


A full write-up of the debate will be live at Red Pepper soon. Meanwhile, a far superior analysis than any I could hope to bash out is up at Comment is Free now, by John Pilger. Who, incidentally and exclusively for Pennyred readers, I did manage to snatch a little one-on-one time with. A transcript of the conversation follows:

JP: Oh, dear, am I in the ladies?
PR: (washing hands) Yes, Mr Pilger. You are in the ladies.
JP: Ah! Well, er...never mind, eh?

I blame the meeja.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Wives and fathers, please stand up.


Disclaimer: nowhere in this post do I claim that fathers are irrelevant. What I'm standing up (well, sitting on a pile of blankets with my laptop) to say is that there are some pretty damn outdated notions of what fatherhood means out there. Male parents? Bring it on.

You bloody traitor, Kathleen Parker. You weak-willed, belly-showing traitor. Maybe you’ve the luxury of a man to help take care of your two sons, but, please, know for sure that that’s what it is – a luxury. Women have been raising children alone for centuries untold, and, since feminist liberation, we have been enabled to provide for ourselves and our children on a more basic level. If that alienates men from their traditional roles of breadwinner and head of the table then too bad. I was raised by a single mother who was also a part-time lawyer; it did me no harm whatsoever, and I fully intend to be one myself one day.
Michael Gove and his ilk can rant about absent fathers until they’re blue in the balls, but if what we really want is for men to return, of their own accord, to the home, then we’d better do something about how domestic work and childcare are seen in this country. House-work and the raising of children are not seen as noble occupations, worthy of respect; if they were, I’d venture that fewer women would be so desperate to throw themselves into the non-domestic world of work, still so fundamentally a man’s world. Since the opening up of legal gender emancipation in the 1960s-70s, women won the right to enter into work organized for men, on men’s terms. Nobody told men that they now had the right to stay at home with the children: the idea would be laughable. That’s women’s work. And, partly because it’s women’s work, child-rearing is still one of the least respected professions on the planet. No wonder the men aren’t lining up to take their turn with the late nights, dirty nappies and parents’ evenings.
So, precisely in what way do children ‘need’ fathers - or is it, in fact, fathers who need children? Traditionally, the role of the head of the household was to provide for his wife and kids on a material basis. Now that that financial role is being adequately filled by many women all on their own, if men want to be more involved in the lives of their children, there will have to be a genuine sharing of domestic roles on a more sustained level, along with policies to back that up from the highest levels of government. The plain fact is that now that women are allowed to financially provide for themselves, we no longer need husbands to raise children effectively, if, indeed, we ever did. What women could do with, fundamentally, are wives –other people, male or female, to share the load of domestic work and money-earning in a spirit of genuine support and partnership. When more men can stomach seeing themselves in the role of 'wife and father', then we’ll have a basis for negotiation. Parker goes on to claim that contemporary reproductive freedoms have emasculated men:

‘Legally, women hold the cards. If a woman gets pregnant, she can abort – even without her husband’s consent. If she chooses to have the child, she gets a baby and the man gets an invoice. Unarguably, a man should support his offspring, but by that same logic shouldn’t he have a say in whether his child is born or aborted?
Granted, many men are all too grateful for women to handle the collateral damage of poorly planned romantic interludes, but that doesn’t negate the fact that many men are hurt by the presumption that their vote is irrelevant in childbearing decisions.’


Why is it unarguable that a man should support his offspring? With state help, most women are perfectly capable of doing so on their own, in a pinch. I’m fervently pro-choice, pro-choice to the wire, and part of that passionate belief that women deserve no less than absolute control over their reproductive capacity entails a certainty that with full reproductive control should come full reproductive responsibility. When a women has made a choice to carry a child to term, unless she has chosen to put it up for adoption, she then has full financial as well as emotional responsibility over that child until it can support itself (and often long afterwards – thanks mum!). I know I’m not the only feminist and progressive who finds she can’t support mandatory child support payments from genetic fathers. The trouble with this position is that it’s an outright statement of what men have feared for decades – that their sacred role as breadwinner is no longer relevant, and that in order to have a say over the upbringing of their genetic offspring, the terms of fatherhood will need to be re-negotiated on a deep and radical level.
I love my partner deeply and would be thrilled to bear a child who carried half of his genetic material. If we are still together at the time my child is born I will be only too happy for him to help me raise it, for him to share legal guardianship and for my child to call him ‘dad’. And this is not because it’s his moral or genetic right, but because I’m lucky enough to have met an emotionally and domestically literate man who I think would make a wonderful parent. But I want him around because he's a fantastic person, not because my kids need a male parent. And if he doesn't want to be involved, I'll manage. Before they are their own, my kids will be just that - mine - and my money will pay for the nappies and school shoes.

So sorry about your balls, guys, but before they are their own these babies are ours, and they will remain ours whilst they are born from our bodies. We would be only too delighted for you to help us – genuinely help us – with the work of raising the next generation, but fatherhood is a privilege, not a right. If you’re truly man enough to be a wife and father, bring that to the table and we'll talk.

Friday, 1 August 2008

On Gaze

The point of being a woman who writes online is that nobody has to engage with you as a physical being. The point of having a blog is that it's a sphere of self-expression where your looks, whatever they are, don't come into it. You're not ogled as a pretty woman or dismissed as an unattractive one, you are free to be fully yourself, to have your ideas judged and digested on their own merit, whatever that merit may be. But today I've a visceral urge to talk about female beauty, and what it signifies, and I hope that in doing so I won't be betraying a sacred anti-physicality of feminist hyperspace by bringing my own experiences of beauty and lack of beauty into the picture.

A few months ago, I was discussing the layout of the next article animatedly with my editor. He seemed unusually friendly and kept looking away from my face. When he turned away, I realised that I'd been leaning over the desk, pushing my breasts together, and had a lot of cleavage showing. Although I wasn't being terribly indecent, I was crashingly ashamed and humiliated. Suddenly, I wasn't a journalist with good ideas for the headline feature, I was an intern with a killer cleavage. I never asked for this. I despise the fact that I can't avoid presenting as sexual if I take any care over my appearance.

A recent study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that 18% of women would rather give up 10 years of their lives than be obese, and up to 30% would rather be severely depressed and slender than fat and happy. The majority of women will clock up countless hours and sometimes spend money they can't afford in the name of 'grooming', and however many useless hours we put in, we already know we’ll never be good enough, not compared to the perfect airbrushed creatures gurning at us from a thousand posters, tv adverts, movies and magazine racks every day. We’re clever enough to have worked that one out for ourselves, but we do it anyway, because we’ve been raised in the certain knowledge that if we’re not pretty, we’re not worth anything.

Facebook, the cussing blind oracle of the modern world, informs me that I'm statistically not unattractive, and we all know that facebook cannot lie. I was never one of those girls at school. In fact, I was the sort of teenager who sat up late popping her whiteheads and weeping whilst listening to Janis Ian on repeat . But suddenly I’m twenty-one, my skin has cleared up (thank you, the combined pill) and I find myself worthy of a certain amount of hassle on public transport. Lucky, lucky me. Suddenly instead of invisible, 'pretty' is what I am, before I'm a journalist or a reader or a sister or a lover or a friend.

And this is something that men can be forgiven for not understanding. Men have the option of not presenting as sexual, but women don't - particularly not conventionally attractive women, and particularly not in a professional environment. Whatever I'm wearing, wherever I'm going, I'm now a sexual being whether I want to be or not. Because of my curves, my tits, the body I was born in, people stare at me on the underground to and from work, and I can't do anything about it, even though it's an erasure of personhood that prickles on the skin. A close friend, who happens to be extremely empirically and personally beautiful, recently confided in me that

'Since I started having it horribly brought to my attention that I fit one of the standard images [of female beauty], and since I started to get really creeped out and threatened by it rather than just irritated, I've hard to work very hard at being comfortable with my own sexuality. I feel that those strangers' eyes steal it from me.'

There is no freedom, for the young women of my generation, to define beauty in the way we want it, particularly not in the working world where a reasonable level of conventional dressing is expected. This is a sexuality that's imposed rather than joyfully accepted. A sexuality that any ogling guy is implicitly invited to participate in, with no assumption that we enjoy being stared at. That's not the point. Living in a body that's conventionally sexy means that you are there for others' enjoyment, not your own edification and certainly not for your own pleasure. And the more I feel lightly, ocularly raped every time I get on public transport, the less I feel I want to engage with my own sexuality in private. When you're a pretty woman, it's easy to feel like your sexuality is not your own, like your body is not your own. It's taken from you, and then sold back to you, every day, by the eyes of a thousand strangers. It makes you feel alien within your own skin. It makes you dissasociate from what you're told is your own sexuality. Since I sharpened up for work and learned to walk in high heels, I don't 'feel' sexy. I just feel angry.

In addition to the objectification of women, the media commits another assault on the dignity of women. This assault is the dismemberment of women, and it has not received the attention it deserves. - Kaycey D. Greening, Capital University.

Don't, don't for one second give me that crap about men having it just as bad. Men have no idea how bad it gets. The worn old argument that society has standards for everyone, not just women, and gosh, it sucks for straight white men too is universally the first part of a syllogism used by bigots, misogynists and defenders of the status quo. Men do not have to make the same power choices that women have to make when they are young. Men do not find themselves defined by how perky their tits and ass are, how bright their eyes, how high their heels, how bouncy their hair, how small their waist. Men do not struggle to remember what their own sexuality actually is under all the viral marketing. Little boys know that they are more than a set of numbers. Little girls learn to forget it.

And don't, don't for a second hit me with well, women judge other women far more harshly than men, so it must all be fine - because there is such a thing as the morality of slaves. Yes, women also judge other women, and no, that doesn't make those judgements okay, but hell, if we're going to be slaves then at least we can be the best slaves, and maybe one day they'll be grateful, and talk to us like human beings, and maybe some day we or our daughters will be free. For examples of strong, powerful young women being reduced to physical, sexual beings, I need point no further than the Jessica Valenti Breast Controversy (say it ten times fast).

Why don't we change? Because we're persuaded that we have so much to lose. So we continue to pluck, shave, starve, bleach, shop, polish, powder and wax until we can feel the weariness in our bones and the more we lay them down for approval, the less we own our bodies, sexually and otherwise.