Sunday, 28 February 2010

Young women aren't just sexual victims.

Something terrible is happening to young women. Despite the dazzling gains made for bourgeois white women by reformist feminism, we're....well, we're turning into sluts. Look around you: the streets are littered with half-naked young hussies vomiting their A-levels into spillovers with their skirts hoiked round their waists. At the merest flash of a web-camera, young ladies from nice homes will flash their tits for Nuts magazine. Feminism means we can do anything we want, but all we brazen little tarts seem to want are boob-jobs, brazilians and drooling attention. We don't know any better, you see.

Conservatives and a small number of high-profile feminists are unanimous in their assertion that contemporary culture has made desperate sexual victims of all women under thirty. In the UK, the reception of this week's Home Office report into the 'sexualisation of children' has been gleefully priggish, with Conservative leader David Cameron telling the BBC that 'We've all read stories about padded bras and Lolita beds...children are growing up too fast and missing out on childhood.' Oh David, with your nice hair and your nice wife and your house in Knightsbridge, only you can save Broken Britain from the march of the underage slags.

Press rehashings of the Home Office Report and of Natasha Walter's new book, 'Living Dolls', are stuffed with horror stories of young girls' wanton, soulless sexual promiscuity. Pre-teens who should be drinking ginger pop and going on picnics are wearing thongs and listening to Lily Allen. Just one glance at MTV and 54% of working-class teenage girls, according to fabricated Tory statistics, are pregnant. Even toddlers are now born with the Playboy Bunny image tattooed onto their eyeballs. Their fault, the salacious little strumpets, for daring to look at the future.

Walter is a thoughtful and empathic feminist, and her concern for young women is genuine. Her book (to which, in the interests of full disclosure, I contributed) is far more forgiving to young women who blandly objectify themselves or work in the sex trade than several stern, moralising editorials and reviews might lead one to believe. Dr Papadopoulous, likewise, reminds readers of the Home Office report that it is normal for children to experiment with their sexuality. And yet the automatic conflation of all sexual images and ideas with misogyny by media outlets reporting these pieces of research is evidence of a dangerous trend in contemporary thought: the idea that women and girls need to be protected from any and all sexual images and tropes for the good of our moral health. The notion that young women have no sexual agency of their own: we can only ever be 'sexualised'.

Young women and girls are blamed for their concessions to misogynist, 'pornified' sexual culture even as we are told that we're so thick we can't help but be complicit. Apparently, there is no middle ground between being an independent, dynamic young thing who makes joyful millions selling her body and the subsequent book-deal, and a cringing, broken victim of porn culture crying tears of shame into her cleavage. Elements of this binary thinking reinforce a stereotype which is just as damaging to young women as the 'happy hooker' fantasy beloved by bourgeois filmmakers. As the furore over 'raunch culture' escalates, all this baby-boomer moral hand-wringing is beginning to sound less like radicalism and more like priggishness. It's sounding less like genuine concern, and more like good old-fashioned slut-shaming.

I'm not arguing that raunch culture does not hurt young women. It hurts us deeply. It encourages us to lessen, cheapen and diminish ourselves, to think of ourselves as vehicles for the sexual appreciation of men who still hold economic sway over our lives. It makes us understand that what we look like is as important or more important than what we do, whether we're lap-dancers, librarians or lazy-ass freelance journalists like me. It warps our understanding of power, intimacy and desire and urges us to starve and torture our bodies and neglect our intelligence. It sells us a fake, plasticised image of empowerment that, for most of us, is deeply disempowering - as many wealthy and powerful middle-aged men and women have recently observed.

I am not asking for us to pretend that raunch culture is unproblematic, or that it's uncomplicatedly fun to be a Southend lap dancer. I am asking for honesty. I am asking for an analysis that is more rigorous, more grounded in an understanding of the gendered basis of capital, an analysis that is less focused on recalcitrant sexual morality. I am asking for an analysis that addresses itself to young men, who also consume and are affected by the brutally identikit heterosexual consensus. Most importantly, I want a consensus that actually gives a voice to young women, not just those who work as strippers or glamour models, but all young women and girls growing up in a culture steeped in this grinding, monotonous, deodorised sexual dialectic.

Recommendations that sexual images in advertising and music videos should be censored or age-restricted and the associated notion that all sexual messages are inherently damaging to women assume that our current plasticised, heteronormative, restricted social vision of female sexuality is in some way normal. It's far from normal. Our sexual culture isn't the logical conclusion of social libertinism: it's specific, it's deeply weird and it isn't, actually, all that permissive. Commentators, including feminist thinkers, are making the dangerously recalcitrant assumption that any sexually explicit culture is automatically misogynist, and that rather than working to challenge the sexual consensus, we should simply prevent women and children from coming into contact with it.

Censorship should never be an alternative to challenging the roots of patriarchy. Instead of slapping a blanket ban on pictures of tits, we need to look harder at the economic basis for sexual exploitation and at the reasons why many women make the choice to comply with raunch culture. Today's young women are neither soulless slags nor tragic victims: we are real people with real desires and real agency, trying to negotiate our personal and sexual identities in a culture whose socio-economic misogyny runs far deeper than conservative commentators would have us believe.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Generation Y, gender and ethics: shortest post evAr.

This is my contribution to the Guardian ethics series, which is out today. 'Talk about ethics and young people in 250 words' was the brief. I'm reproducing it here because it's only appearing in - *shudder* - hard copy.


British notions of morality used to be founded on rigidly gendered Judeo-Christian notions of social decency. Even for non-believers, living a worthy and decent life until very recently meant performing your public and private gender role to the best of your ability - especially for women, whose morality and ethics were expressly predicated on sexual control. The dismantling of this antiquated ethical system is extremely welcome, but the lack of any coherent effort to replace those received ethical codes has done a great deal of damage to young people.

The notion that being a good person is more important than being a good man or a good woman still lacks currency, whilst traditional gendered avenues of gaining a sense of moral worth are rapidly disintegrating. Young people desperately want to be good, but for many young women, being good still means being passive, conventionally attractive and sexually submissive. Young men are anxious to be modern, but are still expected to grow up to be tough, patriarchal breadwinners, business owners and fighters, even though such roles are practically defunct.

The forms of gendered social control that remain tend to be exaggerated in a desperate, almost pantomimic way from the playground onwards, whether that be aggression, gang membership and misogynist sexual posturing or self-objectification, sexual self-policing and obsessive personal grooming. A new ethical conversation is vital if we are to prevent a return to the painfully rigid gender norms of an older, more brutal age.

Checking in: a rare meta-post.

Hello, the blog. I'm sorry that the past month has mostly been cross-posts and reposts. This has been a particularly hectic week, since after the Cif piece and this Evening Standard Article everyone seems to want a slice of me. Which is very flattering and quite exciting, and I'm trying hard to remember that it won't last, because things like this don't ever last if you're socially awkward, politically unorthodox and a bit personally weird.

Right now, I'm beyond sleep. On top of my regular work for One In Four, I've been so busy and so tired I haven't even had time to get angry about things, which is unnerving. And it's given me some insight into how writers can get carried away with their own self-importance, to the extent that they lose touch, first with the reality of their emotions and then with the rest of the world. As I explained in the 'Penny for your Privilege' rant, even if you're coming from a relatively privileged position it's such a cunting slog to make it as a professional writer these days that by the time you even start to get there, the sense of numbing relief threatens to overwhelm what you were actually trying to do with your writing in the first place.

Despite having some parental financial help, I've been dirt poor for three years, living in filthy tumbledown houseshares, trying to support other people in similar situations through the knock-on effects of disillusionment, low wages, hard work and under-employment. And that inspired a lot of properly angry, impassioned writing, but it also came very close to breaking me entirely. Looking back, I've been sicker and more miserable than I have wanted to acknowledge, and this week, after two higher-profile articles, I've had a giddy sense of what could happen if I just sold out a little bit more. After eating frozen pizza in cold, rat-infested inner-city houses for months on end, the idea of a nice fluffy column, a warm clean flat of my own and enough money to buy new stompy boots is deliciously inviting. And that's how it happens. That's how they get to you. That's how they get you to write what they want rather than what you think, make you write what their advertisers need rather than what needs saying.

I've not yet had any sort of phenomenal crashing success, but it's been enough to distract me briefly from sitting down, thinking properly and writing proper polemic for the sheer joyful process of writing it and engaging with the responses. I've even caught myself wondering if I shouldn't delete some of the stupider old posts so that this blog looks better to people who might pay me money. And that urge to self-censor (not to mention all the great comments that would be lost in the process) is ugly, and it's terrifying, and frankly I'm setting that impulse down here because if I acknowledge it in public I probably won't act on it.

*[I confess that another part of the reason I've been neglecting this blog is that I've been getting a stream of really ugly, abusive comments in my inbox every day. I don't allow all the comments through, but I do read them all, including the trollish ones telling me I'm useless, spoilt, boring, fat, ugly and atrocious, that I can't write, that I don't deserve a job, and worse things, much worse. That hurts, personally and ideologically. Because I believe in the importance of blogging, and I believe that censorship is drastically unhelpful, especially online. And I know I should be a big tough writer and take it on the chin, but when I've been trying to force myself not to kick it in for three years, those sorts of comments are more damaging than I actually like to admit to anyone. Trolls are wily, and they are malicious, and they have a way of figuring out what the part of you that hates you wants you to hear and then aping it moronically in poorly-spelled diatribes that nonetheless manage to hit ever so slightly home. And that hurts. It turns blogging from something that's supposed to keep me honest, something that's meant to make sure I think in structures and form debates in ways that move on from the staid, restrictive, one-sided paradigms of fusty print, into something that makes me anxious and irritable, something that I resent prioritising.]*

I went for a drink recently with a well-known and accomplished lady columnist, who told me that although she'd started out writing diet blogs and gossip columns, which is a perfectly reasonable place to start, I wouldn't be able to. I would resent doing it, and it would show, and others I was working with would resent me for wanting something different. She told me that I would very likely stay poor for quite some time, and that eventually, maybe in my thirties, people would start paying me actual cash to write the things I care about. I think she's right, and I think that's okay. I have no interest in fluff writing and cheeky, packaged misogyny, and - when it comes down to it - I am a mediocre straight reporter at best. In fact, there's no part of my thought and writing that's straight. I've always been rubbish at pretending to be normal, and I refuse to be a mediocre, resentful square. I refuse it, and I will be keeping this post on my desktop to remind me why I refuse it, in the many long grey evenings when the consequences of that refusal come to bite me on the arse.

I think what I'm saying is: please be patient with me. I'm trying to negotiate an untested career path and keep on paying my rent in the process, and this blog is becoming a frantic slalom between my personal life and my professional writing. In return for your patience, I promise that whatever else happens, I will at every instance attempt not to be boring. Being boring should be punishable by network disconnection. Fuck my privilege, or lack of it: that's the baseline. If I'm boring, in this fucking exhilarating new online world, with its new rhetorical structures, its dazzling ephemeral paradigms and its endless pictures of slightly amusing cats, then I don't deserve to be in it.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Candy and lullabies: new column for Morning Star

I have an itch in my brain. It's called 'Fireflies', it's a twinkly, inoffensive little song by a band called Owl City, and it's been squatting in the radio charts earworming any poor sod who happened to hear it for some weeks now. The song is about falling asleep and dreaming about a variety of friendly invertebrates and, bar a few lyrical contortions, that's about it. Oh, and it's brilliant.

Listening to 'Fireflies' is like wandering through a magical petting zoo made of ambient sound. It's like your higher functions have been handed a glass of warm milk and tucked under a fuzzy blanket. It goes 'plinkety'. People downloaded it in their millions; it soared to the top of the charts in a happy haze of shiny beetleish bleeping, and stayed there for five weeks, and the only thing that managed to topple it from the number one slot was a bunch of dreary, anodine pop stars covering a dreary, anodine REM song in an effort to raise money for a high-profile humanitarian disaster that everyone had seen on the telly. Modern music is a big bag of candies: sweet, addictive and cloying, failing to nourish even as it congeals into a homogenised mass of sugar.

This season's fashion is another huge sleepy faceful of candyfloss. Sugary pastel colours, drapey sportswear, flowing, 'feminine' shapes, curves and softness everywhere, except on the models themselves - if Paris, New York and London fashion week are anything to go by, the brief trend for 'plus size' (size 10) models hasn't lasted the winter. Ruffles, flounces, florals and 'fairytale' styling were all over the catwalks, trends which will soon be filtering down to the high-street; the look is sugar-sweet and high femme, with advertising spreads already begging us to buy branded blush and lipsticks in a variety of candy colours. The escapism was overpowering. Unfortunately, the tragic suicide of designer Alexander McQueen right in the middle of Fashion Week, at the height of his career, belied the sickly fairytale logic of the shows: real life, even for the young and stunningly creative, has few happy endings.

Last weekend I went to see The Indelicates, one of the last real angry, clever, poetic bands, launch their new material. The upcoming album, 'Songs for Swinging Lovers,' is a white-hot work of nihilistic lyrical brilliance with its dark, dank roots in 90s grunge and Weimar cabaret. Be Afraid of Your Parents is a glorious parade of paranoid cadences, whilst Flesh is a jangling, brutal critique of contemporary pseudo-feminism: Hey doc, can you take my skin and melt it into plastic? Beauty isn’t truth, it’s just youth, and it’s adaptive, and it’s elastic. There is no place for this type of songwriting in modern culture, because there is no place for grim, searing originality in modern culture. Anyone who tries to give the lie to bland sex and plastic romance is probably doomed to commercial failure.

Cotton-candy pop culture isn’t nourishing, but it is addictive. In the depths of winter, in the depths of a recession that shows no sign of abating for those of us who are precariously employed or unemployed, with nothing to look forward to but climate change, Strictly Come Dancing and death, there's a part of me that doesn't want to be challenged.

There’s a part of me that doesn't want fire and rebellion and words and images that terrify and energise, that doesn’t want culture to be an acid-etched reflection of a nightmare future. I want the fairytale. I want sweeties, fluffy pastel frocks and pretty, vapid songs to lull me to a sleep full of fireflies and starshine. And that frightens me more than I care to admit. When the world is grey and uncaring, it’s far too easy to find oneself complicit in the chilling, soporific impulse that's slowly strangling contemporary creativity.

[written for Morning Star, 21.02.10]

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Penny for your privilege?

I had an article published by the Guardian's Comment Is Free site today. I'm pleased with it, bar a tautology in the last line that just goes to show you should never edit by email and by committee. As ever, and as often happens when I write something moderately high-profile, I've had a slew of comments suggesting that I'm horrendously posh, only get to write because my daddy is some sort of media pundit (he isn't), have never met anyone who doesn't live in Hampstead, etc, etc. Now, I try not to respond to these sorts of comments, especially not on CiF. But this time I cracked. I cracked pretty hard. And I'm going to reproduce the crack right here, right now, in bold, for the benefit of anyone who wants to make this kind of comment in future.


Right, sit down and roll a fag, you guys. I'm going to do some explaining.

Your criticisms have some legitimacy. But it's more than a little unfair to apply them to me. I've worked my butt off for years to get to the not-very-dizzying heights of where I am now, done stints at small magazines and local papers, lived on less than ten grand a year since leaving university, and most of that is because - privileged Oxbridge graduate though I am - I have no personal contacts and no family links with the media.

There's a huge problem with Gogartyism in the media. I'm not part of it: frankly, I really, really wish I were. I own the privilege I do have, and it's my responsibility to try and raise awareness of the fact that it takes money and privilege as well as talent, guts and determination to get anywhere in journalism these days. But actually, my money and privilege are not such that I'm not seriously worried about the future.

I know people from university whose daddies, mummies and uncles work at big papers, who have walked in to jobs at the Times and the Independent. I was unable to afford the place I was offered on the MA in journalism offered by City University - a standard entry-point to the industry, costing 8,000 per year exclusive of living costs, with no time to work and support yourself - so I settled for a shitty little part-time NCTJ course, and that choice has seriously held me back compared to the people I know who could afford City. Booga-booga personal finger-pointing actually obscures many years of hard work, knockbacks and disappointments because I wasn't lucky enough to have a daddy who worked in the media or a massive personal fortune to draw upon.

And that says a great deal, you know. It says a great big deal that someone with my opportunities - middle-class parents, nice school, Oxford - still isn't privileged enough to walk into a feature-writing job without years of being knocked back and getting up again, a process that, let me assure you, is very much ongoing.

The media is riddled with hypocrisy. I'm not going to argue with you there. Making it in the media today is tough. However clever you are, however brilliant, you have to slog and slog and slog to get noticed, whore yourself out promoting your work, write things you don't want to write for no pay or almost no pay, work long, thankless hours at large papers for free and smile every time they tell you to re-organise their filing system because you know you're lucky even to be there, because you know that behind you there are twenty other people dying for the opportunity to be trodden on in the same way.

So you smile. You grit your teeth. You offer to do more, work more; you hone your technique, you try to write better and faster than anyone else, you hold down shitty shop jobs whilst you're waiting for your break, you despair, you want to give up. And every day, you have to watch people who are less clever and less talented than you getting better jobs, more exposure and more money because they're the ones with the contacts, because they're quiet, inoffensive and pretty (if you're a girl), or because they just got lucky.

And then when you do get there, if you get there, you will be dogged at every stage by people writing in comments threads telling you that you don't deserve the little bit of success you've had - because you're [[under 25/a man/a woman/oxbridge-educated/not posh enough/ugly/beautiful/white/black/Jewish/Muslim -check all that apply]]. People who haven't gone through all this, or who aren't as far along, will resent your success and will look for any and every opportunity to tear you down. Meanwhile, the people above you are holding the door to the next stage firmly shut. If you complain about this, you're bitter, or you're not hard enough to make it in journalism. So, you shut your mouth and carry on working, carry on writing, trying all the while not to give up and bow out to the people with real privilege, because whilst you're exhausted, whilst every part of you is screaming for the day off you haven't had since 2007, you don't want the bastards to win.

That's what you need to do to be a journalist these days. That's the minimum. That's the minimum, from a starting point of having an Oxford degree and some savings. And you tell me that my generation has it easy. For shame. I tell you what doesn't help you get a writing career off the ground, though: making snarky, ill-informed personal comments in blog threads. I've wasted hours on it, and it has helped me not one jot. You want to change the world? Stop making personal attacks and start making a difference.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Resignations, rivalry and the future of the left.

Radical politics, like romance, inevitably disappoints. It has become a cliché that liberal infighting gets in the way of liberal action, but this week has been a flashpoint for the British left, struggling to organise itself in the face of an upcoming election which may well bring greater gains for its enemies on the right and the far-right than the country has seen for a generation.

Fifty core members of provocative far-left group The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) resigned their membership yesterday in a dramatic public walkout that has sent shockwaves through the British left. The catalyst for the walkout was the resignation of party stalwart and recent Mayoral candidate Lindsey German after members attempted to block her appearance at a local Stop The War meeting, amid ferocious internal debates. "Such sectarian behaviour does enormous damage to the standing of the party in the movement, [and] fits into what is now a well-established pattern," conceded the fifty former SWP members in their joint resignation statement.

They are right: sectarianism has crippled progress on the left since the formation of Respect in 2004, and has prevented any genuine electoral alternative to the three central parties from forming. The SWP has been at the forefront of every attempt to scupper cohesion on the left over the past decade, gaining themselves a reputation for petty squabbling that, for many, overshadows their valuable work in opposing the Iraq war and propelling the anti-capitalist mobilisations of the start of the decade. It’s almost enough, in the words of singer-songwriter Frank Turner, to make one hang up one’s banner in disgust and head for the door.

The inertia that inevitably results from destructive leftist squabbles is heartbreaking for anyone who believes in progress, but there is something to be said for infighting - within reason. The nature of the left is multifarious. We are progressive not in spite of our differences, but because of them: we are progressive because we have the imagination to think beyond the good old days or the status quo, and sometimes that thinking will take us in different directions. However, radical politics, like romance, isn’t a thought or a feeling – it’s something that you do. The usefulness of the British Left will not be judged by the purity of our ideals, but by our actions, and by what we manage to achieve together for the benefit of ordinary people.

Lenin's maxim of "freedom of discussion but unity in action" is the founding principle of Democratic Centralism, the nominal organising principle of most liberal and left-wing parties, as well as several others. Unfortunately, sectarian groups like the SWP have historically been so scuppered by internal squabbles and personality politics that they haven't even managed to nail the first part. And that's no way to build a flat-pack cabinet, much less a coherent platform for the future of British progressive politics.

Factional splitting is hardly unheard of on the left, but yesterday's walkout offers genuine cause for hope. Most significantly, the mutineers acknowledged the need to prioritise agitation over irritation, saying that “the most glaring mistake has been the SWP’s refusal to engage with others in shaping a broad left response to the recession, clearly the most pressing task facing the left.

“Even valuable recent initiatives, like the Right to Work campaign, have minimised the involvement of Labour MPs, union leaders and others who have the capability to mobilise beyond the traditional left,” said the mutineers, who recognised the achievements of the SWP in their statement. Their call for unity in action could hardly be more urgent.

Were we living in a period of peace, stability and economic ease, without the pressing necessity of a response to climate change, the left could be forgiven for allowing itself the luxury of protracted ideological self-scrutiny – a pastime that has never overly troubled the British right. But we are cowering on the tracks of a cultural crisis, and there is a train bearing down upon us, and it is brutal, and relentless, and recalcitrant, and intolerant, and if we don’t hold it up it’s going to roll right over us. If we want to halt the approach of a grim Tory future riddled with fascist pressure groups, the left needs to prioritise action over solipsistic squabbling – because if we don’t, the far right will.

[adapted from a talk I gave at Mutiny last week and cross-posted at The Samosa]

Friday, 12 February 2010

Feeling sinful?

[originally published at The Samosa, 13.02.10]

I have a confession to make: I am indifferent to chocolate in all its forms. This makes me abberant as a female, because everyone knows it’s been scientifically proven that all women love chocolate. The presence or promise of chocolate makes us go gooey inside: we melt, simper and attempt to fellate small sticks of foil-wrapped refined carbohydrate whilst a slurpy jazz soundtrack drones in the background.

On Valentine’s Day, the zenith of the candyman’s calendar, we women love chocolate harder and more urgently than usual. Unless a man buys us chocolate, we will weep tears of rejection into our pillows. Even women at the peak of their careers obligingly to confess to craving one thing above everything else: “I just love any excuse to eat chocolate, really…eating chocolate is my whole way of life,” said celebrated actress Anne Hathaway, promoting her forthcoming film, Valentines Day. Forget financial or professional gain; forget personal and emotional fulfilment;w hat every woman truly wants from life and love is a box of cut-price truffles.

“I think there’s a very real sense in which women are supposed to say ‘chocolate’ whenever someone asks them what they want,” writes Dr Nina Power in her recent book, One Dimensional Woman [London: Zero Books, 2009]. “It symbolises a naughty virginity that gets its kicks only from a widely-available mucky cloying substitute…the kind of perky passivity that feminized capitalism just loves to reward with a bubble bath and some crumbly cocoa solids.”

Chocolate is the one form of female desire that is positively sanctioned in the schema of corporate feminine identity. The sickly, sugary stuff is promoted as a legitimate excuse for the expression of pleasure, of selfishness, of lust. Chocolate is ‘sinful’ – but not really. It is explicitly associated with sex, and touted both as an aphrodisiac and as a direct replacement for sexual enjoyment. The inference can be subtle, as in the infamously phallic Flake advertisemets, or the Milk Tray narrative of a lusty adventurer risking life and limb to swoop into a lady’s bedroom with a box of mid-range caramel centres available in any garage. It can also be explicit: a recent survey, helpfully commissioned by Cadbury’s, claimed that 52% of women preferred eating chocolate to having sex. The reason? “Chocolate never disappoints”.

Cadbury’s International Science Director, Paul Hebblethwaite, offered the following rigorous analysis: "It's not just the endorphins -as it melts in the mouth at body temperature, chocolate's creamy texture and unique aroma hit all of the body's senses, heightening the sensuality of the experience." With a chocolate market worth £5billion in the UK alone, it’s surprising that we aren’t constantly dissolving in paroxysms of uncontrollable lust. My own sciencetastic experiments have drawn the conclusion that the brief sugar rush and tacky aftertaste of most commercial chocolate normally leaves one feeling merely a little bit full and a little bit sick.

Chocolate orthodoxy holds that the stuff is emotionally rather than bodily nutritious. Upsettingly large quantities of women self-define as 'chocoholics', and there are even support groups for women who have become physically and psychologically addicted to chocolate - an understandable phenomenon in a culture saturated with messages that chocolate is both a permitted conduit for the expression and acceptance of desire and that rare, precious thing - a way of being kind to yourself.

Being high-calorie, high-fat and almost entirely void of nutritive value, chocolate runs dangerously close to violating the other golden rule of commercial femininity – the imperative to get rid of one’s insulating fat layer at any and, indeed, every cost – but marketing executives have found a solution to this problem. Last Christmas, billboards across the land proclaimed Goodwill to all women : not only was consuming a KitKat Senses the ultimate in chaste, cheeky decadence, at only 165 calories a stick you, madam, could experience the corporate sanctioned female pleasure principle whilst continuing to take up as little space as humanly possible.

All of this heady indulgence comes with a cost. Whilst the Fairtrade movement is gaining currency, almost half the chocolate consumed in the West still comes from Ivory Coast, where child slavery and forced labour on cocoa farms is rife. It is estimated that in Ghana and Ivory coast there are 6.3 million children under 14 working in cocoa production, many of them victims of human trafficking working in brutal conditions. Go on, take a bite, you know you want to.

This Valentine's day, I have asked my boyfriend to exempt himself from the hordes of confused-looking men shambling through Thorntons in search of the key to women’s desires. I'd prefer a conversation to a box of chocolates: what I want from love and life is infinitely more complex and multifarious than a slice of dubiously-sourced, semiotically overloaded candies can provide. On the other hand, maybe I should just shut up and stick a Flake in it.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


***This is Part I of a collaborative art project between Laurie Penny and Katie West. For the next installment, Katie has challenged Laurie to take some self-portraits, whilst she provides the words. Watch this space!***

In case of emergency, break glass. I am becoming a silvered image of beauty; I repeat myself, endlessly. Mirrors can't show me blood and shit and snot and bone. Cameras can't show you gut and gristle and tongue and teeth and lips and language. Take my picture: I'm such a pretty girl.

So strip my sainted flesh and call me holy. Burn me a new face, something smooth and curving and perfect; I am searching for the outlines of myself. I am an infinite ratio of surface to soul. I repeat myself, endlessly.

Headline. Heartline. Outline. Angle. Flash I'm trying to find the contours of my sex in black and white. Behind these pale and sacred lines, my heart is a wet and screaming piece of meat. My guts are full of dirt. My brain is thick with ideas. Take my picture: I'm such a pretty girl.

Look at me when I'm talking to you. I don't want your love. I don't want your forgiveness. I do not forgive you. I do not love you. Down the dark cable of keys screen harddrive screen camera light skin I can feel your breath on my lens. My flesh in your dreams. I'm such a pretty girl.

Your screen is misted with tiny flecks of dirt and skin. Look closely; the dust is backlit by my cold crystal glare. In case of emergency, break glass. You're almost close enough to kiss me. Try. Push your stickydamp fingers through my screen. It's so bright and lonely in here.


Words: Laurie Penny
Pictures: Katie West

Monday, 8 February 2010

Conference report: Women, political blogging and the future of the left

I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time these days sitting in sessions about New Media and politics in which men tell women why women don't blog. The New Media debate at the Progressive London conference this month was exciting, and uplifting, and full of cutting-edge ideas about How to Use the Internet to Re-energise the British Left, and at the end of his speech, Andy Newman made a little, throwaway comment which made me feel as if all the air had been kicked out of my chest in one go.

"Not many women are really involved in blogging, because the blogosphere is quite pugnacious."

In other words, this brave new world of ideas is much too rough for girls. In other words, keep to your corner of the playground before the nasty boys push you around any more.

When men are telling women why women don't write about politics, they have a tendency to think of feminist politics as a niche subject, a fad, a schema somehow separated from the rest of political thought and action by a magical door of selective oversight. Coincidentally, whilst the New Media panellists were debating the apparent lack of female involvement in this new age of online activism, Matty Mitford was describing the progress of the Boris Keep Your Promise campaign in a much less well-attended Capital Woman session next door.

Boris Keep Your Promise is a multi-platform feminist, liberal coalition designed to embarrass the Mayor into keeping his election pledge to save London's rape crisis centres. The internet has been essential in this campaign: activists blogged, tweeted and made a massive hypertextual fuss, pointing out that the amount of money required to save London's one remaining rape crisis centre was exactly the same as Boris Johnson's £250,000 yearly salary from The Telegraph, a sum he described as 'chickenfeed'.

Mayor Johnson's 2008 manifesto, in which he had pledged the rape crisis funding that City Hall officials were later forced to admit had not been prioritised, was quickly removed from the internet - but to no avail. On the 21st of October 2009, The London Assembly voted by a large majority to demand that the Mayor of London deliver the £744,000 a year he promised in his election campaign. Boris Keep Your Promise has been a coup for the left in London, it has been a flashpoint for internet activism in Britain, and it has been a victory for practical feminism. By challenging the right on small matters like whether they believe funding rape crisis centres is less important than keeping £750,000 in the City Hall PR budget, the Left can win victories. This is valuable campaining territory that is being lost in the wash of misogyny that pollutes the liberal blogosphere.

The offhand way in which Newman's comment was made was what truly shocked me. Even if it were true that women don't blog, even if it weren't the case that thousands of brave, brilliant women from across the country and the world are right this minute raising their voices and debating online despite a great deal of targeted misogyny, Mr Newman and others on the panel made it seem that the presumed non-presence of over 50% of the population in the biggest conversation on earth was somehow a side issue.

Of course, the political blogosphere is pugnacious. It's ugly, and it's relentless, and it's full of spiteful misogynists, rampant rape-apologists, slut-shamers, and bitter men in lonely bedrooms across the world whose idea of a great night in is to shame, decry and otherwise tear apart the very personhood of remote, virtual women who they're never likely to meet. Nearly every female blogger I know has at some point spoken to me, half-amused, about her 'stalkers', and the strange and cruel things they've emailed to say they want to do to them. There is a reason that women bloggers moderate their comments, a reason why the majority of female World of Warcraft players choose male avatars, a a reason why we often feel unsafe in spaces where, as liberals or as conservatives or music fans or uploaders of inane vlogs about our cats, we should not have to expect hostility.

But when that hostility occurs, as it has for women since the internet began, most of us are big enough and tough enough to handle it, and handle it we do, quietly, exhaustively, relentlessly, fending off the misogynist attacks that any woman with ambitions to raise her voice above a whisper learns to handle. I have been called a cunt, a cow, a whore, a stupid little girl, I've been told that I deserve to be raped and beaten, I've been told I need to be taken in hand by a man who will fill me up with the babies that are the only thing my body and brain are good for, and I'm still here, I'm still writing, arguing and debating, and they haven't managed to shut me up yet.

The sort of repulsive, everyday abuse I'm talking about is perfectly anodine, and it's entirely expected, and it has all occurred within the liberal blogosphere. This isn't the nasty, evil Tories. This is the Left. The left urgently needs to clean its own house when it comes to misogyny and sexism online. The liberal blogosphere needs to stop marginalising women and condoning sexist attacks if we want our thousand flowers to bloom rather than strangling each other, weedlike, before we get off the ground.

Tonight, I am going to be attending What Difference Does Political Blogging Make?, a debate hosted by the Westminster Skeptics. The panellists - Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale, Nick Cohen, Sunny Hundal and Mick Fealty - are all men. And it's not like they didn't have women bloggers to invite. What about Cath Elliot, or Harpy Marx, or Sadie Smith? What about Jess McCabe of that phenomenal political campaigning platform, The F Word? If there's going to be any sort of future for the left, women bloggers need to be acknowledged as a central and vital part of the conversation.

Thinly Veiled Misogyny

...written for The Samosa, 08.01.2010

The Islamic veil is the most symbolically loaded item of clothing in the world. In the nine years of war that have followed the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, the various forms of Islamic female head-covering - hijab, niqab and full-body burqa - have been condemned as oppressive, celebrated or shunned as representations of cultural difference, denounced by those who claim to defend women's rights and defended by those who advocate religious tolerance.

The veil has been used to justify cultural conflict, to explain state attacks on civil liberties, to placate opponents of America’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, just recently, as a basis for cultural persecution of French citizens by their own government.

President Nicolas Sarkozy joins a litany of male world leaders with a strong opinion on the veil. His version of a solution is to attempt to force through a partial ban on the full veil, currently worn by an estimated 1,000 French women. For Sarkozy, like many world leaders and commentators, asserting symbolic state control over the way in which women dress is more important than, for example, pursuing a comprehensive strategy to support the tens of thousands of French women from every cultural background who are victims of domestic violence.

That doesn’t matter to Sarkozy, who is more concerned with “sending a message” to “extremists” – most of whom, one suspects, will be other men. Nor did it matter to David Aaronovich, who in an article for the Guardian in 2003 expressed his confusion over how to “understand” the dress code of some Islamic women: “Take the hijab – now ubiquitous in many British cities ... I really do not know what is being demanded of me. Is it saying, ‘Don’t look at me’, or ‘Look at me’?”

Aaronovich may not have considered the possibility that the hijab isn’t trying to ‘say’ anything to him at all – the possibility, upsetting to many men, that what women wear and how they behave is not necessarily to do with him. In her recent polemic One Dimensional Woman, feminist academic Dr Nina Power hypothesises that the veil, for Western men, represents an attack on the internalised ideology of misogynist capitalism. “Aaronovich's confusion is interpretable in terms of a generalized imperative that all femininity be translatable into the logic of the market,” explains Power.

It may come as a shock, but for individual women across the world, the way in which we dress is rarely the defining quality of our human experience. The fact that our clothing choices and the ways in which we present ourselves are understood by society as the sum total of our personhood is a difficult and dispiriting reality for women today.

Anyone who has had the traumatic experience of growing up female in a culture that diminishes the personhood of women understands that the way in which they choose to dress is compromised by cultural mores, and will inevitably affect how they are judged as human beings. Context is everything, as Tehmina Kazi, the director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), explains:

“As well as it being a religious choice, many women find the veil really liberating, in that they feel it allows them to be judged and spoken to as a person first, especially in a culture that over-sexualises women. I do not wear hijab myself, but I respect those women who choose to do so, and who knows, I may make that choice myself someday, if I become more devout.

“But of course, in places where women are forced to wear hijab or burqa, the garment is no longer liberating. Forcing women to go veiled destroys the real purpose of wearing hijab. It destroys the beauty of a woman reading the texts for herself and making an informed spiritual choice.”

For many women living in Islamic cultures, whether in Europe or in Asia, an independent, informed choice is difficult to come by. Maryam Namazie, spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, questions the assumption that all women who wear the veil outside Sharia countries do so out of choice: “Australia’s senior Islamic cleric recently compared unveiled women to ‘uncovered meat’ implying that they invite rape and sexual assault. Whilst misogynist sermons are the norm in mosques across the world … a climate of intimidation and fear makes many a woman ‘choose’ the veil even in places where veiling is not compulsory.”

Women wearing the niqab

For every woman wearing hijab because of personal religious conviction or comfort, there is another going veiled because of social or state pressure – and this is where feminist and liberal thought often fails to make a subtle enough case for personal freedom. In the course of writing this piece, I spoke to many white Western women who questioned the difference between women wearing the Islamic veil and women going out ‘bundled up in a hat, scarf and long coat’. The answer, of course, is that there is every difference.

For secularist activists like Namazie, the veil is more than just a piece of clothing – it has become a symbol of women’s oppression under Islam, and deserves to be treated as such: “The veil, more than anything else, symbolises the bleak reality [of life for women in strictly Islamic countries]: hidden from view, bound, gagged, mutilated, murdered, without rights, and threatened and intimidated day in and day out for transgressing Islamic mores. And this is why the veil is the first thing that Islamists impose when they have any access to power.”

British columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown agrees, citing Rahila Gupta's assertion that “we cannot debate the burkha or the hijab without reference to women in Iran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia where the wearing of it are heavily policed and any slippages are met with violence ... This is a cloth that comes soaked in blood."

The politics of symbolism are precarious, even if one’s eventual goal is liberation. Ariel Levy’s recent essay in the New Yorker decries the exchange of symbolic for systemic identity politics – a perennially tempting strategy for anyone working to enfranchise women or ethnic, cultural or sexual minorities. Feminism in particular is prey to the same confusion of the symbols and substance of oppression expressed by the French premier, which is why bra-burning - although the practice never actually occurred - has become such a tenacious image. In the same piece, Namazie advocates veil-burning as a symbolic gesture of resistance, but pro-woman activists cannot be satisfied with symbolic resistance if we want to change the world.

If a real strategy of global resistance to the oppression of women is to be built, it is profoundly anodyne to question whether the Islamic veil is a symbol of religious choice and cultural pride or an emblem of the second-class status of women in Islamist cultures. The veil is consummately both of these things, and the liberation of women across the world will not begin with veil-burning any more than the long march to freedom in the West really began with bra-burning.

In fact, the closer one looks at the extreme arguments both for and against the veil, the more one suspects that this issue isn’t really about concern for women at all. Footage recorded in 2008 of a speech by a representative of the fascist British National Party articulates this attitude perfectly. In it, the young BNP speaker expounds upon the right of average working men in Leeds to “look at women wearing low-cut tops in the street”; he declares that the right of men to objectify and consume the female body, is “part of British history - and more important than human rights”, and laments that “they” - variously, Muslims, foreigners and feminists - want to “take it away from us”.

Never mind the rights of the women in question to wear what they want or, for that matter, to walk down that Leeds street without fear of the entitled harassment made extremely explicit in this speech. This is not about women. This is about men, and how men define themselves against other men. Even Alibhai-Brown agrees that part of the problem with the veil in the West is that it has come to represent “a slur on decent Muslim men, portrayed as sexual predators who cannot look upon a woman without wanting her.”

In the dialect of male-coded cultural violence, whether it takes place on a street in Leeds, in a Middle Eastern valley, or in the minds of a generation raised on sectarian squabbling and distrust, women are valuable only and always as a cultural symbol. The furore over the veil dehumanises Islamic women, turning them into symbolic territory over which men can thrash out their cultural differences. And this is a strategy that goes right back to the playground; there are suggestions that in one school in North West England, male students from Islamic backgrounds have been bullying female Muslim pupils regarding dress codes and segregation.

Shocking as this might sound to non-Islamic sensibilities, it is just one more iteration of the everyday terrorisation of female students into following a dress-code – the pulling up of skirts, pulling down of tops and snatching away of cultural signifiers that goes on in every playground across Britain.

Competing male ideals of femininity have long been used as an ideological basis for militarism, colonialism and social control, and powerful men have long mouthed the noises of feminism to justify their militarism. George W Bush has never been a friend to the women of the world, having used his first days in office to establish his anti-abortion agenda as a condition of American aid to the world’s neediest people. Journalist Katharine Viner noted in the Guardian in 2002 that, just as President Bush used the premise of liberating the “women of cover” from their men in the days leading up to the bombing of Afghanistan, Lord Cromer, who was British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, declared that the veiling and seclusion of Islamic women was the “fatal obstacle” to the Egyptians’ “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation.”

Cromer expounded on the notion that Egyptians should be “persuaded or forced” to become “civilised” by disposing of the veil. But on his return to England, the “civilising”, veil-burning Cromer saw no contradiction in founding the Men’s League for Opposing Women's Suffrage – a group which tried by any means possible to prevent the women of Britain from gaining the right to vote.

Wars have always been fought by men over the bodies of women. Today, Islamic women in particular find themselves in the unenviable position of understanding their bodies as an ideological battleground, whether they live in Southend or Saudi Arabia. Hawkish leaders have long approached the Islamic veil as a tool in the symbolic politics of colonialism and repression; feminists and pacifists must not fall into the same trap. If we want to win the argument for the emancipation of women across the world, we need to counter the savage politics of symbolism with a mature politics of liberation – because wherever we live and whatever we wear, women are more than pawns in a cultural war between violent, intolerant men. We are fully human beings, with battles of our own to fight for the future of humankind.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Does Simon Jenkins shit in the woods?

... I feel that the best response to the careening unexamined prejudice of the esteemed Mr Jenkins' latest article on Comment Is Free is a line-by line takedown.

The pope is right and ­Harriet Harman is wrong.

I'm on tenterhooks, Simon, please explain.

I might prefer the ­opposite to be the case but, on the matter in hand, Voltaire's ­principle should apply. The ­Roman Catholic church may be a hotbed of religious prejudice, indoctrination and, somewhere in the United Kingdom, social division.

...and sexual discrimination, intolerance and ugly homophobic dogma.

But faced with Harriet Harman's equality bill and her utopian campaign to straighten all the rough timber of mankind, the pope's right to practise what he preaches needs defending.

Last I heard, it wasn't Harman who was anxious to straighten out her constituents.

The pope's complaint, in his outspoken announcement yesterday of his visit to Britain in September, is that Catholics are being denied an important human right: to decide their own employment criteria

Extremely original interpretetion of human rights, Simon, well done.

...for those working in churches and schools or applying to Catholic adoption agencies. The particular issue is homosexuality. Regarding homosexuals as unsuitable may be outdated, even odious, but it does not require the state to force private institutions to employ those whose character or habits they regard as not for them.

Regarding homosexuals as unsuitable is outdated, and it is odious, and 'freedom of speech' is no defence against bigotry and intolerance. Last I heard, it was beneath our ambition as a country to tolerate recalcitrant, ugly prejudice in any part of our infrastructure - and the Catholic church is a huge part of our national infrastructure, operating as it does as a sanctioned educational provider.

An idiot objection is that anyone who defends a pope is defending the comprehensively indefensible. Certainly I disagree even with the terms in which Pope Benedict expressed his dissent. I do not believe that denying him an aspect of his religious freedom is "contrary to natural law" or even inherently "unjust". No one, as the pope implied, is "disputing the gospel's right to be heard".

Oh noes! They be stealing my right to an unassailable dogmatic platform!

I deplore the attitude of the Catholic church to homosexuality...

Glad you got around to saying that, Simon, because I was wondering if you were about to imply that rampant, institutionalised Catholic homophobia is irrelevant to the debate, and suggest that forbidding gay people to work in one's institutions or benefit from one's services is just another harmless example of'free speech'.

That is beside the point. It might be comfortable for liberals simply to grant the pope the "human right" to express his views and no more. But a truly free society is not like Solzhenitsyn's Soviet asylum, where freedom of speech is permitted only to those safely certified and incarcerated in prison. Tolerance must be shown not just to an opinion but to the personal and group behaviour that results from that opinion.


That the pope might support the suppression of abortion clinics does not justify Harman's suppression of Catholic adoption agencies. But then I have little doubt that if Harman were a Catholic she would be stamping out clinics with the most draconian of powers.

Because she's an eeeeevil feminazi, OMG.

The avowedly socialist drift of her bill is "not only to build a new economic order but a new social order", a social order of her own devising.

Women's rights, racial and sexual equality, protection for the elderly, the disabled and the poor might not be interesting to you, Simon, but then hopefully we won't be living in a world run almost exclusively by people of your particular age, gender, race and social and sexual demographic for much longer. Till then, just you carry on believing that Harriet Harman invented feminism all by herself just to piss you off.

People with such ambition are usually intolerant of others, and often dangerous.

Women with any ambition are nearly always seen as dangerous.

The cabinet of which Harman has been a member for a decade has promoted and subsidised faith schools, allowing them to do what she is banning the Catholic church from doing – that is, use religion as a tool of human discrimination. Many people regard the consequence of faith schools as more widespread and communally divisive than the hiring practices of the Catholic church. Why is Harman doing nothing to end them?

Except that Catholic schools are faith schools. Do you want to ban all faith schools, Simon, or just the non-Christian ones?

There are still large numbers of Britons who are uncomfortable with those whose behaviour diverges from what they see as traditional norms. These conservatives have swallowed much this past half-century, as authoritarianism has been steadily eradicated by liberal legislation on homosexuality, abortion, divorce and free speech.

How terrible for them. My heart bleeds, it bleeds, just like a terrible cunt, which coincidentally, Simon...

Occasionally the liberalism has looked more like intolerance, as over smoking and aspects of "hate speech". Indeed to some people, liberalism's onward march has seemed more like a jackboot in the face.

All liberals R Nazis!!*$!

Harman is one of those Labour ministers whom no one would describe as a defender of liberty. Her campaign against domestic violence stands to her credit, but she cannot walk down a street without screaming for a policeman to find out what the world is doing and telling it to stop.

...the screeching, hysterical bint with her horrible ladybits all over the nice Deputy Leader's seat.

British liberalism has had a good half-century, but has begun to lurch into the intolerance it purports to oppose. It should loosen up and acknowledge that some communal space must be allowed the old illiberalism.

Communal space, perhaps. Unilateral control over the education of children or the provision of adoption services, no.

In reality, 11 Catholic adoption ­agencies out of 480 were hardly a monument to bigotry. A celibate Catholic chaplaincy or a Christian school headship is hardly a knife at the heart of social equality, any more than a men's club

Those harmless men's-only clubs that, until recently, helped to keep all women from positions of power for centuries.

or some miserable smokers loitering outside an office block (on whose freedom the ­government also wants to stamp).

This whiny attempt to curry favour with the chain-smoking wingnut libertarian contingent of Guardian readers just makes me want to stub out a fag in your face, Simon.

The ailing Catholic church, like most hallowed institutions, does much good work, and it does bad. But the bad is not an incarnation of such evil as to merit state persecution, as if this were still the 17th century.

Oh woe, the poor Catholic Church, with its insignificant, persecuted 1.3bn adherents. The poor Catholic Church, one of the biggest enforcers of punitive ideology and state-level persecution of anyone who happens to be a little bit different. Who will protect it?

Monday, 1 February 2010

More feminist cisfaff

[ETA: this post comes with an All About Me warning.]

Tonight I spent one bright, washed-out hour in a cafe in Soho talking shop and solidarity with two wise and steadfast trans activists, and am now feeling brave enough to stick my head above the parapet. Yes, I have been following the fiasco over Friday's protest against Julie Bindel's appearance at Queer Question Time, with her dangerously transphobic views in tow. Yes, I read and was tremendously upset by the casual transmisogyny of Bea Campbell's attack on the peaceful protests, including shaming the event organiser for using the phrase 'having the balls'. Yes, I'm glad that a retort made it into the mainstream press, and was delighted to see the Guardian giving space to C L Minou, who very graciously namechecked my recent F Word piece. But more than anything, I'm sick of this fight.

I'm sick of this fight, this childish, pointless, energy-draining fight to include our trans sisters within the feminist movement. Got home to find out that no, the anti-transmisogyny workshop that Sarah and Sally and I had worked so hard to push onto the agenda at Feminism In London 2010 will not be happening. Despite the fact that the workshop was designed as an expression of much-needed solidarity between transsexual feminists and the rest of the movement, despite the work we did to set it up as a signal that despite the many, many instances of transphobic speech and action by cisfeminists in recent years, the wider movement is ready to grow the fuck up and make room for trans people within our debate spaces, the workshop was not deemed a priority. We're still holding out hope that the workshop can be held on an alternative date, and maybe that will happen, and maybe progress can be made. I will never stop agitating within the movement for the vital importance of building solidarity with transsexual feminist women. But right now, I'm sick of this fight.

I get to be sick of this fight, you see, because I'm cis.

Because I am a cissexual feminist, I can divert my energies elsewhere and return to fight another day. Transmisogyny is my problem, because it's every feminist's problem, but when you get down to it, I can still walk into the lavatories or changing rooms assigned to my chosen gender without fear of punishment. Yes, I'm genderqueer and a bit of a weekend butch, yes, I have been and will continue to be privileged to act as a mouthpiece for transsexual women who are unable to bring their terrible Y chromosomes into cisfeminist 'safe spaces'. But when you get down to it: I am cis. I can walk away. If I disagree with my cissexual sisters, I will still be allowed to march alongside them and demonstrate with them and work on common issues and raise my voice in sisterhood and solidarity.

Because I am a cissexual feminist, I can put these issues to one side as the movement prepares for the massive right-wing backlash that's rearing on the horizon, whatever the result of the next general election. I can help strategise over how best to defend against Tory plans to limit equal pay audits, to "put marriage back on the agenda", to attack abortion rights. And I know without a doubt that when the fightback begins, trans women will be standing beside me.

I know without a doubt that next time we need to march on Whitehall to defend women's right to choose to terminate pregnancy, trans women will be marching alongside me - even those who, like many cissexual women, do not happen to have the capacity to bear children themselves. I know that my trans sisters will be there, standing up for the right of all women everywhere to decide what happens to our bodies, standing up for our right to control our own physical destiny even if that upsets the moral majority. Because when a shuddering, bone-crunching beast of patriarchal, hierarchial backlash is coming over the hill, solidarity has to mean something - doesn't it?