Saturday, 31 October 2009

Day of the Dead

[written on the tube home from the Trafalgar Square vigil. Photos from BLTPicons are here - let me know if you'd like me to link to your photos of the event!]

Tonight was the second vigil I have attended in six months for a man murdered on the streets of London. The first, Ian Tomlinson, was a victim of police brutality at the G20 protests - an innocent bystander and family man who did nothing to provoke the violence he met at the hands and batons of those who were meant to protect and serve him. The second, Ian Baynham, 62, died in hospital on October the 13th after homophobes attacked him in Trafalgar square. Ordinary citizens, out walking in the heart of their own city, minding their own business; blameless men brutalised by a thuggish state and a society simmering with repressed rage and unthinking prejudice against anyone a little different.

Tonight, thousands of us have gathered in Trafalgar square, the site of the attack, for a candlelit vigil against hate crime. When I arrive, the square is packed, humming, glowing with little lights; St Martin in the Field Church has donated hundreds of candles, and organisers with great hair and horrible hi-vis tshirts are handing them out. The atmosphere is somewhere between a riot and a state funeral, an undercurrent of anger punctuating the speakers' every sentence with low howls of protest. This should not still be happening.

"We're here to stop violent hate-crime," says one teenager, his arm around his girlfriend. "I've been bullied in the street, and so have my friends," cuts in a lady with an orange crew-cut and fiery eyes. "It seems to be getting worse". She is right: in the past few years, homophobic hate-crime in the UK has risen by almost 20%.

Suddenly, a hush gathers in the flickering half-light. A list of names is read out: all the victims of homophobic hate crime in the past ten years, predominantly in London. On the steps a choir begins to sing, something soaring low and beautiful with a deep beat that might be drums, or clapping hands, or centuries of frustration and forgiveness. Looking around me I see people with their eyes closed, soaking in the music and the sense of sacredness, people embracing; a man with his arm around his wife, the light from their candles deepening the lines in their faces. Two middle-aged women are kissing softly; a boy of about twenty holds hands with another boy, quiet, listening. A teenage couple dangle their feet in the fountain, holding each other.

The year is turning. Today is Samhain; Hallowe'en parties are going on across the capital. For countless centuries, people in Britain have gathered at this time of year to burn offerings for dead friends and relatives. Tonight we're lighting candles of protest for those who were taken from us because of ignorance, violence and prejudice. Tonight we are here to make a reckoning; to celebrate our solidarity and diversity and stand together in the face of fear.

Outside the square, police cars drone away across London, but the choir's song rises above the idiot howling of the sirens. Noone can quite make out the words, but it's something about love.

Nelson's column burns like a pagan pyre with three thousand little lights of protest. London mourns its dead.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Painful Privilege

I have never done this before, and will certainly not be making a habit of it, but I'm going to repost something I wrote back in June, partly for new readers and partly because certain things that have happened this week reminded me that some concepts need reiterating. I'm going to be working on other 101s, but this is about owning privilege, and why it hurts, rewritten a little for clarity and progression of thought.


Dear whitepeople, straightpeople, cispeople, men: it's not about you. The work that anti-racists, feminists, queer activists and other equality agitators do to combat privilege and prejudice actually has nothing to do with you. No really, listen up.

Does the suggestion that white, heterosexual males might still be enjoying unfair advantages in today’s society give you the strange sensation that a tight knot of anger is squeezing your normally normal-sized brain into a smaller, gassier space? Does the idea that white males might be a minority panic you, and the notion that they might still be an advantaged minority panic you even more? Do you think all these crazy feminazis and liberals are whinging about nothing? Do you worry that you’ll be the victim of ‘reverse discrimination’ at work, at school or in any other arena of power?

Then I have a message for you: your privilege is showing.

Take it from a lilywhite daughter of the Sussex middle classes: it is a great horror to discover that you yourself are part of the overclass and yet to feel that you are not enjoying any special privileges because of it. The nature of privilege, of course, is that it is taken for granted: whoever you are, whatever race, class, gender, you, like me, do not notice your own privilege 99% of the time you spend enjoying it. But actually yes, it does hurt. It hurts, in this culture, to feel powerless, and with the current cornucopia of crises most of us are feeling pretty powerless right now; it hurts even more to be powerless and at the same time be told that you are lucky, yes, lucky, to have the privilege of being white, male, straight, able-bodied and/or middle class. What’s felt but too often unsaid is: how can you call white males be privileged when we don’t feel very privileged?

To which the only decent answer is: did you expect to?

There is a difference between being privileged and being powerful. That, in fact, is why we have two different words for the concepts. Not everyone who is privileged is powerful, and certainly not everyone who is powerful is in every way privileged - look at the most powerful family in the world, who can’t even take their dog for a walk in the garden without an op-ed in the New York Times. Just because privilege is often a precursor to power does not mean that all privilege engenders power. This is where the politics of white male resentment begin: with white men complaining that they feel underprivileged, like a marginalised group, when what they actually mean is that they feel powerless.

Well, guess what. So do I. So does your Asian-British neighbor. Most of us feel pretty damn powerless. Things are bad. There’s a recession, kids are killing each other in the streets, nobody’s certain of having enough money to put food on the table tomorrow. It may surprise you to know that the rest of us aren’t sitting here imagining that white heterosexual males are living in some kind of utopia. We know you aren’t. We’ve met you. It may also surprise you to know that we don’t want to strip this mythical dominion from you and leave you naked: we just want to be where you are, with the same opportunities, the same freedom from fear, the same right to be judged as a person and not a demographic, however limited those freedoms, opportunities and rights currently are. Make sense?

We also understand that just because you're privileged in some ways doesn't mean you're not underprivileged in others - many people who enjoy male privilege or white privilege do not, for example, benefit from class privilege. But privilege is not a numbers game. Please try, if you can, to understand that different types of privilege do not cancel each other out. Men do not stop having male privilege just because they happen to be poor, just as whitepeople do not stop having white privilege simply because they happen to be women. There is no cumulative tally of privilege here. It's not, for god's sake, a competition.

Ceasing to see the equality agenda as a race to be least inherently privileged allows us to understand why feelings of powerlessness are distinct from lack of privilege. You may feel powerless, but equality agitators aren’t the reason for your lack of power. We aren’t the problem here. We took nothing from you – well, actually, we took one thing, and one thing only, and we're still in the process of taking it: the right of people who are white, or male, or rich, or straight, in any combination, to gain preferment and to expect to enjoy a better and safer life than people who are not. And yes, the fact that we stepped up and demanded that right back slightly decreases the average white man's chance at a top job, decreases the average white man’s automatic right to status and power and respect, if suddenly he is competing against not only his own race, class and gender but all the others as well in a capitalist world where status and respect are finite. In short, we’ve taken nothing you actually needed.

Now, you may think that you needed those things, those free passes to the top, that unspoken advantage over women and minorities, to get the good things in life. But trust me, you didn’t. I have met a great deal of white men and loved some of them very deeply: white men have the same potential as everyone else to prove themselves without the advantage of unfair selection which currently – still! – is weighted in their favour in almost every sector of work and citizenship. Trust me. You don’t need your privilege. Not half as much as we all need a fairer world.

Reducing unfair advantage is not the same as prejudice. Just because something inconveniences you doesn't mean it's about you. Look at strikes by workers on public transport or - this week - workers at the Royal Mail. These people do not strike because they want to make everyone else's lives harder. Their reasons for striking have almost nothing to do with the minor inconveniences caused to our routine and everything to do with the real and imminent circumstances of the strikers' own lives. It might feel like it's about us, but it's not. And exactly the same thing applies when people call us on privilege, or work to combat the effects of privilege that we have and they don't. It might feel like a targeted attack on us, the privileged party - but it's got almost nothing to do with us at all.

And that’s the problem, really. We are so desperate, so very, very desperate to be noticed, to contextualise ourselves at the centre of any story. Actually, what's most frustrating about the tube strike is that it was totally out of our control, manifestly messed things up just a little bit for everyone, and was – to add insult to injury! – almost certainly also the right thing to do.

It hurts. I know, I know it hurts, it hurts to realise that you have privilege and you never even realised it; it hurts to know that you are privileged and to still feel powerless; it hurts even more to realise that there’s no easy minority to turn and blame for all your problems. How do you think it feels, as a lady and a lifelong feminist, to realise that actually the individual blokes in the street and in my kitchen are not the source of all my problems, that if they went away I’d still be earning too little to pay my rent? I get it. Really, I get it. But getting it doesn’t mean I can excuse it in myself or in others. Because it’s not enough not to be stupid. Unless we actively and at every turn avoid turning on each other, avoid condemning the struggles of minority groups for equal rights to work and citizenship and quality of life, unless we stop whining that it’s not fair and then actively join that struggle as allies – unless we do that, we become part of the problem.

No, really. You might not think that you personally, sitting behind your computer, reading this rant and getting pissy, are part of the problem -but you are. The people who attack feminist and anti-racist writers with such bile and vitriol are part of the problem, even though many of those are the very same hands-up-harries who were the first to condemn the far right.

Because there is a heartbeat’s space between the blind stupid rage of otherwise sensible people who felt hard done by reading that article and the creeping influence of right-wing policymakers in parliament. There is a heartbeat’s space between the growing tide of otherwise non-idiotic white male resentment in this country and the breathtakingly idiotic racist, homophobic and misogynistic logic with which we have just sent two far-right representatives to the European Parliament. And if you are not prepared to step up, own your privilege and be part of the solution, then, my darlings, you are part of the problem.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Can't Stop the Blog

This article was published on the Huffington Post on Tuesday; I wanted to leave a few days before cross-posting to keep the previous post at the top of this blog. Hope you enjoy it!

The people of Britain understand the political potential of the internet like nobody else in the West. We have a ferocious craving for democratic involvement, in part because we have been denied it for so long within our democracy, and electronic engagement offers us a voice where our own government does not.

The unique circumstances in which the United States was created has led to the overwhelming impression that the North American government, whatever its flaws, is of the people and by the people. In Britain, by contrast, government is still an arm of the elite, operating by mandate of the crown. Last week, 'The Unspoken Constitution', a document drawn up by Westminster insiders and journalists to expose our country's painful lack of a just and concrete political settlement, was published and disseminated online - just like nearly every dissenting element of British political thought. It is because we do not feel that we own a stake in our own democracy that the internet holds an unique fascination for the British as a nation.

This week, the power of the internet over the British political imagination spread its infectious energy to the world. First, there was Trafigura. When the London law firm Carter-Ruck obtained an order to ban the Guardian newspaper from reporting on Trafigura's dumping of toxic waste , millions of internet users fought to keep the information public - and won.*Trafigura and *Carterruck became trending topics on the social networking site Twitter, bloggers across the world published their own research into the cover-up, and Carter-Ruck found itself unable to contain the spread of information. The firm has withdrawn the gagging order, and international attention has been drawn to social and environmental abuses which might otherwise have slipped under the radar.

Then on Thursday Jan Moir, a columnist for ultra right-wing newspaper The Daily Mail, published an hatefully homophobic article claiming that popstar Stephen Gateley's sudden death from a congenital heart condition could not have been "natural", despite the coroner's ruling - because Gateley was civilly partnered to another man. The tweetosphere and blogosphere mobilised in disgust at Moir's column, again forcing a reaction from both the media elite and the international community, with retailers such as Nestle and Marks and Spencer withdrawing their advertising from the newspaper to distance themselves from Moir's intolerance. The Press Complaints Commission received 21,000 complaints about the article in a single weekend - more than it usually receives in five years. As blogger Iain Dale tweeted on Thursday: "Jan Moir's career has died of perfectly natural causes."

The latest instalment of the Welsh-American webcomic 'bunny', entitled 'Can't Stop the Blog', sums up the situation perfectly, with two suited figures under attack by giant blue birds that resemble the Twitter logo. For British users of the incongruously named site, the sudden sense of power in a progressive online consensus is thrilling.

Despite or, perhaps, because of our lust for freedom of collective expression, Britain boasts some of the strictest libel laws in the world. Trafigura was not the first international company to attempt to exploit this fact to its advantage, nor will it be the last. The state has good reason to tremble at the possibility of its populace being allowed to share opinions at speed. When the last earth-shattering communications revolution, the printing press, finally achieved widespread uptake in the 17th century, the explosion of handbills, newsheets, satire and subversive literature helped to catalyse a decade of bloody civil war. In a very real sense, moveable type set in motion the dire and righteous machinery whose trajectory ended, on a cold January morning in 1649, with the killing of a king.

The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips once said that '“What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind.” The internet has had the equivalent impact of the advent of atomic warfare on the world of ideas, making individual thinkers part of a chain reaction whose power can be immediate and devastating. Marshall McLuhan observed in ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy that "societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication". The British are desperate to see our creakily ancient institutions – newspapers and political parties dominated by wealthy Oxbridge graduates and a parliamentary system where official communication between the two houses is still overseen by the hereditary figure of Black Rod – reshaped by the internet.

Slowly, that reshaping is beginning to happen. Last year, Britain watched in awe as Barack Obama’s presidential campaign demonstrated the power of the internet to effect change, and activists of all stripes have determined to learn from the campaign: advisers on internet strategy for Obama/Biden ’08 are still swamped by requests to speak at seminars and conferences in the UK. Moreover, the boldness of online commentators and independent auditors this year has inspired British media institutions, particularly the Guardian group and the Daily Telegraph, to embrace for the first time in decades the duty of keeping the government and law enforcement honest.

The process is achingly slow. Twitter user Leon Green commented that “When Twitter campaigns lead to people voting 1 way or another then I'll be excited. It's just off starting blocks till then.” But a groundswell of online grumblers is gradually changing the shape of British politics.

We have always been a nation of grumblers, gossipers and whiners. Thirty centuries of being invaded by nearly everyone, ruled over by bloodthirsty fops in stupid tights and incessantly rained on will do that to you. Now that Britain has the highest percentage of internet users in the world, with 79.8% of the country's population connected, we finally have a chance to turn our national pastime of whinging into a focused endeavour. October 2009 may well go down in history as the month when Whitehall and the world learned not to underestimate the power of several million Brits grumbling as one.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Angry feminist Tuesday

I get angry when debates are skewed by lies and weasel words on both sides, as is happening right now with the debate around prostitution, trafficking and the Policing and Crime Bill currently going through the House of Lords. I get angry when the people whose side I'm nominally on, the people out to protect women first and foremost, the good guys goddamnit, make up, distort and exaggerate statistics. And I get angry when media outlets use that exaggeration to dismiss the whole debate - in this case, to claim that there are almost no trafficked sex-slaves working in Britain today , a claim which has led other commentators to alledge that trafficked women are not worth public funds and anyone suggesting otherwise is -and I quote - 'hysterical'.

I get angry when punters, bystanders and sex worker organisations claim that it's not okay to criminalise men who rape sex slaves, because that might make it a little harder for non-coerced prostitutes to earn their money, or even - shock, horror! - make it harder for yr average punter to get his no-strings fuck.

I get angry when groups that pretend to be supporting women try to push through illiberal clutches of contradictory laws based on bad statistics. And I get angry when I see clusters of people tearing each other apart over laws that, even if they are put into place, will leave us with exactly the same situation: namely that prostitution, an industry in which the overwhelming majority of sellers are women and nearly all buyers are men, will not actually be legal or illegal - it'll be just about illegal enough and just about stigmatised enough that those who sell sex get almost no protection or support from the law or their local communities, whilst still just about legal enough that 10-15% of men are free to pay for sex without having to consider the humanity of their partner whenever they so choose.

I get angry, too, when I make the mistake of reading my words twisted by idiots online, my feminism rubbished, my ideals mocked. I get angry when I hear, time and time again as my profile as a feminist writer grows, that I'm a prude, a frigid bitch, that I hate sex, that I believe in a sterile female supremacist state, that my sisters and I believe all heterosexual sex is rape. I get angry when I am lied about. No other kind of political writer gets their very selfhood, the deepest most intimate parts of themselves, trampled in the most malicious of ways by total strangers - only the few bloggers, journalists and authors who are brave enough to tackle feminist issues in the public sphere.

I get angry when I'm told that I am not allowed to take offence when women are objectified and served up as pieces of meat by the media, when I'm called a prude for hating the prevalence of lap-dancing clubs and wanting those clubs to be properly designated and licensed, when I'm called a crazy, bitter bitch for hating the fact that I can't leave my fucking house or even open a goddamn webpage without seeing pictures of unreal female bodies served up as the ultimate ideal that I should aspire to, when I hate being told to buy more things so that I can look perpetually young, odourless, hairless, shaved, de-sexed and dehumanised. I get angry when I'm ridiculed for wanting to own my sexuality, and wanting others to be allowed to own theirs.

I am a feminist. I am pro sex-worker, morally indifferent to the notion of a sex trade, fantastically opposed to the sex trade as it operates in Britain today - full of rape, abuse, sexual slavery, grooming, coercion and objectification. The voices of prostituted women who aren't having a good time are the only ones we don't hear - plenty of rape apologists, plenty of feminists getting it wrong, and plenty of people responding by telling us that those feminists are hysterical bitches who hate all men and all sex. A few brave people are trying to redress this balance: Rebecca is one of them. Go and read her blog before you read anything else.

All this anger makes me horny.

And when I'm horny and angry I need to get off if I'm to be any use to myself or anyone, not that masturbation is ever that much of a chore. So I go hunting online for a quick pornographic fix. But yknow what? All the porn I can find online involves raping, hurting, punishing and shaming women, endless thumping shots of cocks going into holes that just leave me cold and upset. I click on one that looks like it might be alright, only to watch thirty seconds of a young woman actually crying and screaming 'ow, ow, ow' whilst a disembodied cock fucks her in the anus. I hate it. It makes me want to throw up. Does that mean I'm a frigid bitch who hates sex? Apparently, yes.

The truth is that we have not even begun to tackle the sexual objectification of women in our culture. Slapping a ban on lapdancing clubs or fiddling around with the laws on prostitution will achieve sweet nothing unless it's backed up by cultural change - although it's always our right, as feminists and advocates of free speech, to object to the treatment of women in the sex industry or anywhere else, if we so choose. We are trying to hold back the sea, when instead we need to be building armoured submarines and diving into the water all guns blazing.

I am personally, right here and now, sick of being objectified by this culture, sick of denying my selfhood and performing for others and apologising for my wants and needs and desires. I'm only 23, and already I have starved my body into nothingness, I've nearly died from hunger and come out the other side, I've stripped on stage and felt no joy, I've experienced date rape and had sexual partners tell me I'm dirty and women tell me I'm a slut to my face, and every day I am forced to see thousands of pictures of how my body should look - plucked, shaved, starved, limp, white, pre-pubescent, drained, dead - and encouraged to beat myself into that mold - and yet people tell me that my experience is invalid, that my feminism is anathema, that I am 'bitter'. As a woman in my 20s I am told that I should constantly aspire to look sexy - but I shouldn't sleep with too many people, I shouldn't sleep with anyone on the first date, I shouldn't appear too keen, I shouldn't be 'slutty'. I am an object; I should aspire to be the best possible object I can be.

THAT is what objectification means. It's a denial of selfhood and sexuality and identity so absolute and all-encompassing that most of us don't even notice anymore that we've been duped.

Well, I'm sick of being an object. I'm sick of apologising for my 'frigidity', for my feminism, for my rage at not being allowed to express myself sexually and yet being expected to perform and bullied if I object to men, strangers or otherwise, treating me like chattel. There's something thundering inside me about to be unleashed, hemmed in by anger and the bawling of stupid, ignorant misogynists. I feel like my anger could howl away inside me and consume me if I don't let it out. I want to scream. I want to hit things. I want to climb on some high roof and yell that I'm a person, that all women are real people who deserve to be treated like human beings, until they come and drag me off for being 'hysterical'.

But don't mind me, I'm just your crazy neighborhood feminazi. Take me away before I upset somebody.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Daily Mail says Stephen Gateley's lifestyle was "unnatural".

The death of gay popstar Stephen Gately from pulmonary oedema this week was "unnatural", not by virtue of foul play but because of his sexuality, according to frothing baghack Jan Moir of the Daily Mail today:

" Gately's death...strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships. As a gay rights champion, I am sure he would want to set an example to any impressionable young men who may want to emulate what they might see as his glamorous routine. For once again, under the carapace of glittering, hedonistic celebrity, the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see. "

In what may plausibly be the worst article ever written, Moir says that there was "nothing natural" about Gateley's tragic death in Majorca this week, because "the circumstances surrounding his death are more than a little sleazy." Meaning that he was on holiday with his civil partner, another man, which of course is unnatural, do you see?

Unnatural. Right.

More unnatural than the death of 38-year old Siobhan Kearney, whose former husband this week lost his appeal to be acquitted of her murder. The judge confirmed that in 2006, Brian Kearney strangled Siobhan in her room then used a Dyson Vacuum cleaner flex as a ligature before trying to hoist her over the en-suite door in her bedroom in an attempt to make it look like a suicide. He then left the house, leaving their three-year-old son alone downstairs whilst his mother's body slowly cooled.

More unnatural than the death of Kate Ellerbeck, who rowed with her mutually unfaithful husband and asked for a divorce, attacking him in a rage when he refused. HSBC investment banker Neil Ellerbeck, who was this week convicted of manslaughter, told police that restrained his wife "forcefully", pinning her to the ground with his entire 15stone bulk until she stopped “wriggling and kicking”, and left her corpse in the hallway. He then texted his lover, bought a lottery ticket, and went to pick up the couple's ten-year-old daughter from school, telling her "Mummy's not here because she's gone shopping".

And definitely more unnatural than the death of Sally Sinclair, 40, a top business executive at Vodafone. A jury heard this week that when Sally confessed her affair to her husband Alaisdair Sinclair, he attacked her with a kitchen knife, stabbing her more than thirty times as she fell to the ground and sawing at her with a serrated breadknife as their children stood by, screaming. Alaisdair denies murder: the trial continues.

The Heil has not neglected to report all these stories, bundling them all up together in an article whose main thrust is how 'a worrying proportion of violence within relationships is perpetrated by women'. The article veers away from discussing the actual trials taking place this week (including one in which a woman is accused of murdering her husband, to which the bulk of the article is devoted) to remind us that some serial killers, such as Mary Cotton in the 1860s, have been female; that Vanessa George is a paedophile; and that up to 10% of violent crime is committed by women: "in contrast to the traditional gentle female image, the figures who lurk in these pages are savage matriarchs or brutal mothers, their menace all the more terrifying because of their gender." The fact that two women a week are murdered by their partners or former partners, the fact that three men were in front of judges this week in the UK alone for the savage slaughter of their wives, does not pass muster.

Should all this "strike another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of" heterosexual marriage? Oh no, no no. The history of heterosexual marriage, for a decent proportion of its male and female adherents, is a history of violence, of sexual, emotional and physical abuse, of enforced monogamy, shame, repression and desperate unhappiness - but it's "natural", you see, so that makes it all alright. Never mind that people have been living in homosexual partnerships for longer than heterosexual mariage has existed in its current format. Never mind truth, fairness or justice. The right-wing consensus backs "traditional families", and that's all that matters.

At the Labour Party Conference I watched Tim Montgomerie of Conservative home tell delegates that "studies show that there is something very, very special about marriage". Tell that to Sally Sinclair, Kate Ellerbeck and Siobhan Kearney. No wait, you can't! This "specialness" was given as justification for tax breaks for married couples after the encroaching Torygeddon and cementing of public prejudice against queer couples, unmarried partners and single parents.

I suggest that before we start signing up to the drooling Tory family fetish, we all have a good, hard think about what a 'traditional, stable' family really looks like - and interrogate just what we mean by "natural".

ETA: A deliciously complete deconstruction of Jan Moir is up now at Enemies of Reason.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Spice: third style column for Morning Star

I'm working on a few posts right now, but in the meantime, here's the third instalment of my style column for Morning Star. Hope you enjoy it. x (picture above is Victoria Beckham, or at least her legs, in the Marc Jacobs campaign)


Feminism and fashion have one thing in common these days - it's not done to criticise another woman, or at least, not to her face.

You can see the logic. After all, feminists and fashionistas alike come in for enough criticism without having our own tribes turn and skewer us with a sharp stiletto. So I want to make it absolutely clear that I have very deep-seated political reasons for being angry with Victoria Beckham, nee Victoria Adams, aka Posh Spice.

Posh was my hero. I was nine years old when the Spice Girls arrived in 1995. The first single I ever bought was the cassette tape of Wannabe. Suddenly, it was all right for girls to be powerful, to be spicy, to be fearless, to tell the whole world what they really, really wanted - even if, as it turned out, all they really wanted was to "zig-a-zig-ah." Nobody knew what that meant, but we were sure it was something rude.

For me, Posh Spice was where it was at - ladylike and assertive and reeking of "girl power." I wanted to grow up to be just like her but, by the time I did, the girl power-style brand had become weak, washed-out and ghostly - just like Posh herself.

Over the years, as Beckham has reinvented herself as a celebrity wife, mother and fashion icon, her image has changed beyond recognition. Now the former singer appears on billboards and magazine covers across the world looking pinched, sad and harassed.

Her most recent reincarnation as a designer encapsulates the difference between the Posh of yesteryear - the gutsy, grumpy, go-getting girl who couldn't sing and didn't care, her pale curves poured into shiny black frocks that hinted at sadism and sedition - and the Posh of today.

The dresses are constricting, dull and unforgiving, all muted greys and pastels. Despite their waist-sucking inbuilt corsets they can only be worn by the very, very thin. This might explain why Beckham's creations have been such a hit with a fashion press that values sickness and self-denial as the ultimate expression of a woman's success and marketability.

The news that Beckham is looking a bit thin these days is hardly likely to hold tomorrow's front page. Nor is the revelation that thousands of young girls across the world are developing eating disorders and citing Beckham's surprisingly visible bone structure as their "thinspiration."

If the fashion industry genuinely cared about women more than it cared about making money by making them miserable it would recycle these stories with significantly less morbid glee.

In fact, women in the public eye responding to pressure to starve themselves is nothing new [read the rest at Morning Star online].

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Me, the Patriarchy and my Big Red Pen.

I'm back from the Feminism in London conference, where there were tears, standing ovations, rants, arguments (one between me and a nutty racist apologist in front of about a hundred bloody people) and where, in Bea Campbell's words, 'a good old think' was had by all. My brain is buzzing far too much to give the event the full write-up it deserves, so that'll have to wait. Meanwhile, here's what I did on the way home.

Defacing sexist tube adverts is something that's been pioneered by the Feminist groups I'm involved with in London over the past couple of years, but somehow I never seem to have had a pen, or a sticker, or the nerve, at the right time. At the conference they were giving out free permanent markers, so I shoved a couple in my pockets. The last session on prostitution, rape and objectification made me chokingly angry, and as I walked back to the station the anger was still there. Anger on behalf of the women I spoke to who have been raped, abused and silenced, anger that my sisters and I still have to live in a world where rape goes unpunished and child abuse goes unspoken and women starve themselves to death in their thousands in order to take up less space, where girls are brought up to hate their bodies and service men and be quiet and say sorry and fuck when we're asked to and shut up when we're told to unless we want to be thought of as crazy fucking bitches stupid cunts whores slags, certainly not fit enough for Rod Liddle to shag after a few drinks ha fucking ha ha.

And on this journey home, with all this rage and frustration boiling in my head, it just so happened that I saw one too many adverts trying to sell me painful, expensive surgery to increase my 'confidence'. 'All it needs is a little nip-tuck', the advert promised, next to a photograph of a woman with unreal breasts bulging out of a skimpy top and her head thrown back in a gormless grin like someone had shot her with a tranquilizer dart.

And I thought, hey, screw you. I've got a big red pen.

So I took my big red pen, apologising to the people I stepped past like the ridiculously English person I am, crossed out the slogan, and wrote 'This is not normal - fight sexism!' in big red capitals across the advert.

God, it felt good. It felt good, and it felt naughty - naughtier than shoplifting did as a kid, and the rush was bigger and better and braver. It felt so transgressive. Everyone was staring at me. I was invading sacred advertising space! I was breaking two of our biggest taboos - one, you NEVER mention that there might be something more important to a woman than looking whatever is currently considered 'sexy'; two, you NEVER talk back to the adverts. Never. Not allowed.

Thrilled, I got off the tube carriage and climbed onto the next one along, where I did exactly the same thing on two more adverts. I continued in this manner, with commuters muttering and tutting and one elderly lady giving me a big thumbs-up, until a bloke in his thirties sitting opposite me beckoned me over - crooked his finger and beckoned - and said - 'Come on, what's the problem, isn't it the woman's free choice? Can't she do what she wants with her money?'

I said: 'Of course she can. Just as I can do what I want with my big red pen. She's free to pay people to mutilate her and I'm free to attack people for trying to persuade me that I should do the same, or that my baby sisters should, or my friends. That is MY free choice, and MY free speech. And by the way, the woman in the picture doesn't really look like that, see that little halo around her boobs? Photoshop.'

We screeched into the station, and I jumped off and onto the next carriage with a rush of blood and bile to my head, feeling suddenly powerful.

Because today I know something for sure about the free choice of the theoretical woman the apologists talk about, that theoretical woman who's glad she spent her money on cosmetic surgery rather than education or her financial future, that theoretical woman who just looooves to look good more than anything, that theoretical happy hooker without a care in the world, I know something about the theoretical choices of those theoretical women conveniently put forward by every patriarchal apologist I meet - I know that my choices are just as important as theirs. I know that the choices of the former prostitutes with PTSD who I met today and the choices of the thousands of feminists I know and the choices of the millions of women who would really like to feel safer and stronger in their bodies and lives, that those choices are just as important as any choice we might make to cut ourselves up to look sexy. And you know, I can live with challenging that choice.

By putting up adverts telling me that to feel confident I must look a certain way, for the purposes of which I must have surgery, the owners of these adverts are taking away MY choice to feel good about my body. But with my red pen and a little courage, today I took that choice back. And I feel more powerful, and more confident, than I have in a long time.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Little Lolitas?

[This entry comes with a trigger warning for mention of rape and abuse involving young girls. It's also possibly the angriest post I've ever written.]

Thanks to a new book, 'The Lolita Effect', and a kiddy-sized pole-dancing kit marketed to six year olds that got attention on both sides of the pond and, of course, Miley Cyrus, the 'sexualisation of young girls' is in the press again. Cue a great deal of handwringing and think-of-the-children-isms in the same international press that, this same week, gave a good deal of coverage to child-rape apologists.

All of these stories are just begging, just laying back like the wanton little semiotic nymphets they are and begging to be illustrated with faux-naive photos of young girls in suggestive states of undress - or, more frequently and legally, parts of young girls. Merely, of course, to demonstrate how awful it all is.

Western society has a curious doublethink going on over young girls and sex. Whilst young boys are acknowledged as having and acting upon sexual desire from a young age, the notion of young girls being sexual is still shocking - but it's also exciting. From the pages of playboy to music videos to porn, girlhood is sexualised and undeveloped female bodies fetishised as the ultimate in naughty fantasy. This trend has been going on for decades, and yet when real little girls do what they're told to do and play sexy, the hollow hypocrisy of the commentariat is deafening.

M.G Durham, author of 'The Lolita Effect', has a novel solution: why not actually tell little girls that it's okay to enjoy sex? In Carol Midgley's review of 'The Lolita Effect', she notes that 'some believe that shielding girls from sex for as long as possible — preaching the abstinence message and the pregnancy/STD/victimhood perils of sex — is the only way [to counteract The Lolita Effect]. Durham disagrees. Girls do not need “rescuing” from sex, she says. Merely the media’s one-dimensional, profit-driven version of it, which is based purely on male fantasies without a nod to female needs or desires.

'Rather, girls should be encouraged that it is their right to enjoy it, thus reclaiming their sexuality from a culture that increasingly positions them as passive, objectified sex kittens who are not encouraged to actually want sex or get any pleasure from it yet are mandated to be desirable to males — to look up for it but not, of course, act on it, for that would be sluttish.'

This fantastically sensible suggestion has not stopped the book being promoted in the press with straplines such as Lost Youth!. Nobody, moreover, has yet thought of asking young women and girls themselves what they want. What a silly idea: everyone knows that young girls are merely ciphers for the steamy fantasies of artists, advertisers and pop psions: they have no personalities of their own, and no agency to speak of. They are told what to want, and they'll damn well like it; they are the embodiment of patriarchal desire, and as such their own desires are irrelevant.

Curiously, I don't remember myself and my schoolmates morphing into vain, vacant sex-dollies between the ages of twelve and seventeen. As far as I recall, we were all people then, no matter how many parts of our growing selves were stamped down, stretched out, primped, polished, squeezed into shape or mercilessly stifled, and with any luck we're all still people now*. I do, however, remember being judged relentlessly on the way I looked, and being miserable because of it. I remember how my body and desires and the bodies and desires of every young woman I knew were ruthlessly policed, and how that process informed my feminism.

Now, this is the point where you might want to go and get yourself a strong drink or roll a fag**, because I'm about to talk about my childhood.

Like many people, I was emphatically not a Little Lolita. I was a pug ugly kid. No, really. I had braces, a scowl, an awful haircut and enough acne that I wouldn't have been surprised to be approached to be the new face of Pizza Hut. I often went out in unwashed clothes and forgot to brush my hair, which grew long and straggly. I used to look with envy at the same girls the papers are currently lambasting, the girls with boyfriends and the beginnings of breasts to fit in their push-up bras, the girls with highlights and lipgloss who strutted through the schoolyard in the shortest skirts they could get away with. Those were the girls who got attention and respect - from our peers and from the adults. Every magazine and advertisment I saw, every programme I watched, every message I got from parents and my peer group and the few friends I had told me that my selfhood was irrelevant because I was not beautiful, that my life would be immeasurably better if I looked more like those girls. I am reliably informed by my teenage sisters that the message has not changed in the past six years: if you're a girl and you're not sexy, you may as well go and lie down in a skip right now, because you're worthless and nobody will ever love you.

Note that I said sexy, not sexual. We were expected to look sexually available at all times - but if we actually were sexually available, we quickly developed reputations as slags. None of the effort we put into our appearance and behaviour was actually meant to result in any actual sex for us, because that was dirty and dangerous. We were supposed to look good, not feel good.

When sex started to be something that my classmates did together, the language at breaktime was all about what so-and-so had let Chris F. Studly do to her. Had she let him see her tits? Had she let him finger her? Had she let him put his penis in her mouth? All of it was - and still is - about what boys are allowed to do to you.

Which was doubly confusing, because at the time I was not only too shy and ugly to get a shag, I was crashingly horny nearly all the damn time. Nobody ever told me that would happen. The girls we were meant to look up to dressed for sex but didn't seem to be very enthusiastic about it - whereas I would have given my train-tracked eye-teeth for five solitary minutes of fucking. Sexualisation was never my problem. The problem - for all of us, whether we were pretty and popular or library-dwelling trolls - was that looking sexy was a game you had to win, whereas sex itself was forbidden. More than that: sex was dangerous.

You see, we were surrounded by rape. Not just rape as an airy warning, something that meant that you shouldn't walk down Eastern Road in the dark or catch night-buses on your own, but rape as a real, tangible thing, that had happened to people we knew. In year 9, after a school disco, one of my classmates claimed to have been raped by the class stud in the nearby park. Both she and the boy were immediately expelled. I still remember vividly how, in that same term, a girl broke down in a Maths lesson because she had been raped as a child by her stepfather. Eventually, after being caught sexually engaging with her boyfriend on school premises, she was suspended too. Not only did rape happen to some of us, if you were unlucky enough to be one of the ones it happened to, you faced punishment and moral judgement. God forbid you actually engaged in consensual sex - that was even worse.

This wasn't the case for the boys, of course, who could shag around to their hearts' content, and frequently did, without having any moral judgements attached to them. Their bodies and developing desires weren't policed by their peers and their parents as ours were, their sexuality was not taboo. Biologically, of course, this is more than illogical: whilst many men do not experience sexual feelings until puberty, women and girls are in theory capable of sexual pleasure and orgasm from early infancy, not that they are old enough to understand what that means. Whilst boys' first experience of heterosexual sexuality tends, these days, to be visual - catching a peek of a dirty magazine or simply being assaulted by a naked female body on a billboard - many girls' first experience of sexuality is of a parent telling them not to fiddle in their knickers without ever explaining why it's dirty, bad and wrong.

It's a trend that has held true for decades: the 'sexualisation' of young boys does not raise many eyebrows these days. Who cares if young lads watch porn from the age of thirteen, internalise the messages of pornography and violent rap music? Whilst young girls' sexuality is forbidden in any form apart from sartorial pantomime, young boys' sexuality is encouraged in almost any form (as long as it's a heterosexual form), with violence and the dehumanisation of women part of the language of schoolboy culture from an early age.

This is not entirely young boys' fault. The men I know today are largely mature, understanding and decent. But when I think of the fear I felt of young men as a child, when I think of the way they sexually terrorised me, my female classmates and each other, I cannot help but get angry that this is so roundly ignored. When I read statistics that tell me that one in three teenage girls has been sexually abused by a partner, they seem ludicrous at first - and then memory kicks in.

Sitting in a physics lesson, aged fourteen, I suddenly feel something hard, cold and sharp poking up under my skirt, prodding into the seat of my knickers. I jump, and turn around. The boy sitting behind me, Aidan his name is, is shoving a half-metre metal ruler into the fabric covering my anus. My expression as I turn makes him laugh. He withdraws the ruler, and the boys sitting either side of him echo him when he starts to yell at me, 'do you love it? Do you love it? Do you love it?'

Not knowing what he means, and not wanting to make an even worse mistake, I shrug. Aidan is triumphant. 'Penny loves it up the bum!' he squeals. 'Penny loves it u-up the bum!'. Everyone laughs. The teacher swoops in, and shushes them, and glares at me. What have I done to encourage them?

The author of the Lolita effect is absolutely right to point out that what I needed back then, what young women desperately need, is more, not less, honest sexuality. Little girls are already sexual - but instead of teaching them about sex, we teach them to fear it, just as the rest of society fears female sexuality. We teach them to become objects for others' enjoyment, rather than acknowledging that they themselves are capable of positive sexual agency. These days, young girls learn that sexuality is simultaneously shameful, dangerous, and the only sure way of gaining attention and popularity. We culturally castrate young girls before they're into training bras, and then the Polanski defenders, the critics of Little Lolitas, our parents, our teachers, our peers, tell us that little girls are all immoral because we're so clearly begging for it.

It makes me want to smash things. It makes me want to smash things like my sexuality has been smashed - into a thousand painful little pieces. These days, I'm a feminist. I understand that I have sexual agency, I understand that my body is not shameful, I know it's okay to like sex, I know that that doesn't mean I'm a slut or a slag or that I deserve punishment or to be treated like an object. I know that logically, but the damage has already been done, to me and to millions of others. I want us to stop talking about young girls as if they were not people. I want us to acknowledge a range of female experience. I want young girls to be allowed to be sexual without being taught victimhood, and taught that victimhood is all we deserve.

Above all, I want people to stop being so bloody frightened of young girls' sexuality, and the promise of positive, equal sexual experience that it entails. The sexuality of young girls is not there for the enjoyment or artistic appreciation of men, it's not an excuse to rape us and hurt us and shame us and punish us, it does not make us wicked, or manipulative, or slags. Young girls are people - not Little Lolitas, not tiny shameless sluts or else hopeless sad cases, we are all people, and we all have a right to healthy sexuality. Instead, we are offered a selection of ways to be victims, a smorgasbord of sexual shame and self-denial. I call time on this hypocrisy - right now.

*Although I just bet Sarah Williams is still a pen-stealing bastard, knowwhatI'msaying.

**people reading across the pond: I'm not advocating the gentle rotation of queer people as a relaxation aid, this is a piece of British smoking terminology. Don't you just love this weird fucking language?

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Fair enough?

I've a post on Comment is Free today about the equality agenda at the party conferences. Please go read it and comment, help me stave off the tide of stupid. TIA guys.

Friday, 2 October 2009

No going back.

A better day today. Whatever you think about the New Labour project, there are certain ways in which it has changed the country forever, and for the better. In partnership with gay rights groups, Labour has set the bar for tolerance and diversity. No, things aren't perfect, not by a long chalk. But for a sense of how Britain has changed, you only need to listen to the 1993 version of Tom Robinson's fantastic, angry dialectic, Sing If You're Glad To Be Gay - a cross between a cheesy popsong and the best stone-cold protest rant ever - and count how many of the complaints aren't relevant anymore:

Don't try to kid us that if you're discreet
You're perfectly safe as you walk down the street...
Make sure your boyfriend's at least 21
And if you're a lesbian, don't be a mum.
Gay Lib's ridiculous, join in their laughter
'The buggers are legal now, what more are they after?'

You know someone's rolled up the map when one of the most prominent right-wing voices in the nation is out of the closet, proudly civilly partnered to another man and, today, challenging the Daily Mail over its nasty, patronisingly homophobic comments about his campaign for election in Bracknell in today's edition of the paper. I never thought I'd say this, but Iain Dale's principled stance is actually pretty damn impressive:

"I really thought that we had got away from this sort of thing and it's very sad that we haven't...If by standing up to the Daily Mail, and drawing attention to this issue, it hijacks me in Bracknell, then that will be a bitter blow to have to take, but if I sat back and just accepted this sort of thing, what sort of person would that make me? And worst of all, if I did say nothing, it would just encourage them to do it again to someone else in the future. I simply cannot do that...PCC here I come."

Even more heartening are the hundreds of comments from Tory sympathisers expressing support for Dale's brave stance. There have always been gay Tories, but time was they were expected to shut the hell up about it. They certainly couldn't run for candidacy whilst going to the Press Complaints Commission about homophobic attacks on their lifestyle. The Tories were the party of the closet, the party of don't-ask-don't-tell, the party of Section 28, the party that stood against civil partnership laws and lowering the age of consent, the party of hate and self-hate. That old guard is still bumbling evilly around Whitehall (o hai, Ian Duncan Smith), but for the moment they no longer hold the majority consensus. In fact, at the Tory conference this week, the first ever Conservative Pride rally will take place. Maggie must be spinning in her wheelchair.

I'm not saying that there are no bigots in the Tory party. I'm not saying that they have anything but an appalling record on LGBTQ rights, feminism, anti-racism or any other aspect of equality-driven policymaking. But it might, just might be the case that twelve years of a Labour administration has changed the terms of the debate forever. The world has changed. There can be no going back to the days when queer-bashers escaped prosecution and gay men and women were called perverts on the front pages of every tabloid. And if the mood continues in this way, with millions of LGBTQ people and their allies of every political tribe standing up to defend equal rights, then there will be no going back - not even under a right-wing government.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Tea and sympathy.

Right now, along with most British liberals, I feel like I'm sprinting up a down escalator. There's to much to do and too much to oppose and too much to say; I'm overworked and exhausted and running on empty, to the extent that I've had a mental health crash and had to call in sick to drink strong tea, contemplate the future of the Left and watch True Blood, simultaneously the worst and most compelling show ever made. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

I mention all this partly to explain why all the posts I've been wanting to write, about gender at the Labour conference, about fucking Roman Polanski child rape apologists, about teenage mums and the notion of social justice and winning the argument on mental health and employment rights, are all boiling away in the charging ether of my hindbrain, and they're likely to stay there, because this weekend I need to chill the fuck out even more than I need to put the world to rights.

Because there's so much going on that I almost don't know where to start. It's been a bad week to be a lefty, a bad week to be a feminist, a bad week to care. Here's just some of what's made me angry this week:

Kate Harding reminds Salon readers that Polanski raped a child.

Melissa McEwan and Jill at Feministe give us the Roman Polanski defend-a-thon (trigger warning).

Anne Perkins sums up the gender agenda at the Labour conference fairly well (I was in that Tim Montgomerie event and almost threw a sausage roll at him).

...and Liberal Conspiracy uncovers Tory links to a European party with a right-wing, homophobic agenda. Hail our future lords and masters!

I've just got back from the Labour Party Conference, which was one of the most depressing events I've ever attended. Brighton was doing its tarty, gaudy best to lighten the mood, all brilliant sunshine, sparkling beaches crisply stinking of chips and sugar and the grand old seafront buildings lit up like the biggest wedding cake on the planet; but it was all to no avail. At the fringe meetings, the equality agenda was on the back foot, the feminist lobby was almost non-existent, and the loudest voices for social justice were those of the hordes of young Socialist Party members protesting outside the Conference zone on Sunday (Dave Osler has a great analysis of this over at Liberal Conspiracy).

The parties were the worst, hordes of apparatchiks drinking themselves into oblivion, staving off the terrible tory hangover we're all going to wake up with come 2010. One former MEP, hearing that I was a feminist blogger, told me that the only difference between the Tories and the Labour old guard is that the latter are 'only unofficially misogynist'.

At some point during the melee, I turned 23. And it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I'll probably be in my thirties before a nominally left-of-centre government hold the reins of my country again. From now on, being on the left is going to be a real fight. And whilst I've cut my blogging and journalistic teeth in the last days of Labour, it's all going to be a lot harder from now on, with more ideological territory at stake. John Cruddas MP summed it all up perfectly in the Fabians' Next Labour debate on Sunday, when he declared:

"There is a train coming down the track.It's brutal and it's extremely right wing. It is incumbent upon us to step up and face it."

Right now, today, that train coming down the track feels almost unstoppable. On Tuesday I walked along the seafront with Hilary Wainwright and John McDonnell whilst those two seasoned old campaigners- veterans of 1968, feminists and formerly die-hard Labour activists - mused that the future of the left lay in direct action. The left is not beaten yet, but we're flagging, caught between two parties scrabbling madly for the centre-right, with only the Lib Dems pursuing any sort of liberal platform at their conference. I feel tired before it's even begun: not because I'm ever, ever going to lie down and let them roll over me and mine and our agenda of tolerance and decency and justice. I'm tired because I know I never will, and it's going to get a lot harder from now on. Normal service will resume shortly, but right now I'm going to drink tea and collapse. I hereby give every other lefty reading this permission to do the same: we need all our faculties for the fight to come.


A small ray of sunshine: The Samosa, a new liberal-leaning, multicultural British comment site, launches today. I'm writing a column for them. You should check it out :)