Sunday 31 May 2009

Pro-what now?

In case you hadn't heard, Dr George Tiller, one of the USA's few late-term abortion providers, was shot dead by 'pro-life' terrorists in Wichita today as he was going to his Sunday morning church service.

Via Feministe:

Dr. Tiller was one of the few late-term abortion providers in the country. He had previously been shot, his clinic burnt down, harassed by ideological anti-abortion attorney generals, and threatened with death countless times. Still, Dr. Tiller continued to provide abortions to women who desperately needed them, to save their own lives or health, or due to tragic fetal deformities. He put the health of women above his own life. And now he is dead.

This is the first time an abortion provider has been killed in over a decade, although in that time countless numbers of brave men and women have faced death threats, attacks and intimidation and continued to do their jobs. My thoughts are with the family, friends and co-workers of Dr Tiller, and with all of those held morally and physically hostage by the crass hypocrisy of the mindless terrorists responsible for his murder.

Cath Elliott has more.

Saturday 30 May 2009

Humourless feminazi *2: why it's not about you.

Yesterday I was interviewed by Natasha Walter for her upcoming book 'Living Dolls'. I absolutely adore talking to feminists who are a bit older than me, and as we bounced ideas off each other I found myself being asked, time and time again, why I was sounding so cynical, so resigned. And that got me thinking.

In the women's movement today, it is easy to feel that problems are insurmountable; that the tyranny of beauty culture and the ubiquitous rhetoric of misogynist pornography can be challenged but never defeated; that female poverty, unequal pay, violence against women and uncertain access to reproductive healthcare will always be salient facts of our societies. This feeling of perpetual frustration is, I believe, more typical of my generation of feminists, who no longer have the luxury of believing that we're dealing with a clear cut war which can be decisively won.

Let me explain.

For the women of our mothers' generation, patriarchy was the screaming head, projected to awesome proportions, the Wizard of Oz in all his terrible fury. Feminists could and did approach the throne confident that they would be able to simply pull back the curtain and drag out the real, shambling perpetrators: a gang of embarrassed men who had been pulling the controls all along and who would then agree to come home with us to a gender-utopian Kansas where we all belonged. But feminists today face a new problem: the horror of pulling back the curtain and finding noone there at all. The shock realisation that perhaps there never was a man behind the curtain. The terror of the absence of any tangible, flesh-and-blood enemy, whilst all the while the wizard's head continues to scream us into submission, a hundred feet high and running, seemingly, on automatic.

Last week, I wrote about date rape, and I felt that an opportunity for constructive discussion was wasted in wrangling over whether or not the particular incident was 'his fault' or 'my fault', when the entire point I was trying to make was that the whole situation was and is much more complicated than 'fault'. Over the past month, I have written about the equality bill, about sex work, about burlesque, and each time the debate has descended into a shouting match over whether or not I believe all men are misognynists, whether or not I'm 'prejudiced against white males'. For god's sake. Guys, it's not about you. Girls, it's not about them.

That's not to say that I think no man is ever culpable in individual acts of misognyny and gender hatred. What I'm saying is that I do not believe all men, or even most men, to be the footsoldiers of patriarchy. On the contrary: women are sometimes just as likely to perpetuate the misogynist lies that keep other women down. Look at Thatcher. Look at Anna Wintour, or Posh Spice, or Sarah Palin: sometimes the man behind the curtain is a woman. I'm not of the school of feminist thought that holds that you never ever point fingers at your own side - because I don't believe in 'sides'. I don't think this is about 'sides' anymore, if it ever truly was. Unfortunately, the notion of 'sides' persists, and is incredibly destructive. The belief by both men and women that activists of the opposite gender hate them, personally and indiscriminately, is a major stumbling block for progress.

So how are we to cut this Gordian knot of pointless conflict? Very simply. For a start, feminists of all stripes need to look carefully at our rhetoric whenever we fall into the trap of blaming *men* - as if *men* were an amorphous block of faceless privilege, rather than one whole half of the human race - for our problems. That doesn't mean that we need to stop calling out male privilege wherever we find it - but it does mean that as liberals we have to entertain the notion that what we're fighting might not be people, but ideas, which are much harder to crush.

Secondly, and even more crucially: men, you need to get over yourselves and stop being so damn paranoid about feminist ideas. It. Is. Not. About. You. Men need to stop interpreting every mutter of the word 'misogyny' as a personal attack: it isn't, not even for those feminists who DO see men as oppressors. We seem, for the most part, to be able to grasp the fact that the gay rights movements is not a direct attack on all straightpeople, and that anti-racist sentiment does not constitute an assault on whitey. Why, then, is it so hard for us to stand together as men and women against the forces of recalcitrance and bigotry?

It might come as a shock to some of you, but most feminists do not spend their time plotting ways to undermine men. Actually, most feminists care far less about men than men would like to imagine. What we want, as feminists, is freedom from the constraints of gender, and if you're a man, there's a good chance that that's not about you at all. We need to stop looking for that man behind the curtain - all of us - and get on with the real work of opposing gender tyranny, the real work of personal and social gender liberation. Are we clear? Good.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Shiny Dave and the Lightweight's Cant.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Shiny Dave has made his bid for the big job. And I'm not so young nor so caught up in my own factional worldview that I didn't make the time to really listen to what he had to say. I tell you what, Mr Greasy has some decent speechwriters on board. He can say almost nothing and make it sound really quite exciting.

Almost nothing, but not quite nothing. Limiting parliamentary terms to four years and introducing open primaries for candidate selection: good ideas. Not new ideas, and not Tory ideas, as many Labour and Lib Dem bloggers have been quick to point out – but then, real opportunities for constitutional reform are like bloody buses. You wait for them for god knows how long until eventually the whole notion of a bus seems like a stupid idea anyway and you start wondering if it might have been quicker to walk. The stop is getting crowded. People are muttering that the whole notion of buses is idealistic and unworkable. You consider ordering a taxi for just you and your mates and putting it on expenses. But then the bus arrives, and it comes without warning, and all that matters is that you're at the front of the queue with your ticket ready.

Shiny Dave has his ticket ready.

He's not considering real, widespread reform, however. He won't touch the Lords; he won't introduce proportional representation; most worrying of all, I distinctly heard him mention reducing the number of MPs, which redistributes power to glossy nobody and which gives whichever party happens to be in government, ahem, the power to totally redraw the poitical map of Britain according to their tastes.

I have listened to Shiny Dave, and I don't trust him to run a hotdog stand, let alone my country. In fact, screw it, I don't trust him with that puppy. He's a middle manager in sales, is what he is. Just look at his hair. He should be running a regional branch of a stationary company in the Midlands. He's a hand-shaker. A lightweight. A smiler, and not even a clever smiler. But today I have accepted that this man is probably going to be Prime Minister, and there's nothing I can do about it.

The last time I got this feeling, during the 2008 mayoral elections, a strange thing happened. I'm a recovered anorexic, and I haven't skipped a meal since 2006. Think of it like a teetotaler sipping lemonade in the pub and you're in the right ballpark. But when I walked out of my lecture that day and saw that Alexander Boris De Pfeffel Johnson was going to be running my city, I got the most terrific urge to run to the nearest loo and throw up my lunch. The world was spinning beyond my control; I was powerless; I wanted to exert my self-determination in the first and best way I learned how.

I didn't, of course. I took myself home and made tea, a sandwich and a cigarette and made myself eat, drink, smoke and chill the hell out in that order. I allowed myself one evening in which to be pissed off, scream at the television and get munted with my hippy friends whilst planning radical comic strips.

And then I got up the next day and decided to get on with things. Since then I've attended assembly meetings and protests, helped plan occupations of public buildings, been involved in organising women's networks and had the London Underground symbol of the tube station nearest my birthplace - Angel - tattoed into the nape of my neck. I love this city and I will not see it turned over to the right, or for that matter to apathetic media squallbabies with the BNP breathing down their necks.

There's hope. I look at the game unfolding in Westminster and I see the left being outmaneuvred at every turn. Liberal energies are mounting, have been mounting before and since the Convention on Modern Liberty – but we are disparate, bickering among ourselves, in retreat. I firmly believe that the last thing the British left needs at this point is a Labour victory.

I've spent all day interviewing very sick people who've been screwed out of the measly amount of benefits they were living on by Wee Jimmy Purnell, he of the twice-as-much-as-annual-incapacity-benefit-spent-on-TAXIS-ALONE-in 2008. I won't say that I can't imagine things being any worse under a Tory government, because I don't trust them and because I've got a great imagination, I used to win prizes in school and everything. But I just don't think the current Labour party is fit for purpose any more - it's serving neither the principles of its members nor the people of this country. We have been screwed in both directions, and it's time to slink off and lick our wounds.

I want to see a decent egalitarian socialist like John Cruddas in charge of the Labour party in opposition, I want to see them reconnecting with their roots whilst the Tories make the pig's ear of bringing us out of the recession that they're going to. And they're going to: Shiny Dave can be as right-on has he likes about 'the man and woman in the street' (whilst doing dodgy deals on abortion rights behind closed doors), but the fact is that those people are in the street because they've lost their homes, and winter's coming on. Whilst we're ladling up the soup ,I want people of the left and every Blairite in Whitehall to remember what the point of a Labour party used to be: to empower ordinary women and men to live decent, free and honourable lives.

The Labour party in government is not the British left; it never was, and this is not the end for liberal values and egalitarian ideals in this country. We'll take a little while to work off some justified disappointment, we'll have some catfights and drink some (much cheaper) booze, and then we'll pick up again and carry on as we have been since it all went down the porcelain man in 2003: challenging, holding them to account, organising underneath their shiny brogues and dreaming up big ideas for the just society we want to live in. With one difference. Now we won't have to waste our time apologising for the behaviour of ministers who do not represent our interests. Now we can get back not to first principles - those are by definition yesterday's politics - but to new principles. I believe that a Labour defeat can signal a new beginning for the British left, and one thing's for sure: we definitely won't run out of work to do anytime soon.

Sunday 24 May 2009

The R-Word

In a blandly pretentious Murukami nod, I thought about titling this post 'what I talk about when I talk about date rape'.

So an unspecified time ago, there was this guy, right, quite a bit older than me, and we went back to his room during a party to share a bottle of really quite nice rum. There was some snogging, and some toplessness, all of which had been anticipated pre-booze. Then, next thing I know, I'm coming to from an unspecified period of blackout, and penetrative sex was...happening, to me. And, and it really does make me cringe to write this, I felt sick and I didn't want to be rude, so I just lay there until it was over.

I actually can't give any more details than that, because I am still friends with this person, and we share mutual friends. Maybe I could have said more a year ago, but at the moment, for better or worse, I've got quite a large (and largely lovely) following of readers, and if I were to elaborate much more I could seriously inconvenience this man, who is on the whole a good guy.

Found out afterwards that he didn't use any protection. Had a serious STD scare, which entailed a fortnight of shaking in my bedroom at night feeling dirty, and ashamed, and scared, waiting for the results to arrive. Test negative, still felt cheap and used. Got into a bit of a downward spiral of drinking, anxiety attacks and one-night stands. Then, after a few months, I was alright again.

I'm finding this harder to write than I had anticipated. I don't think that I was criminally raped. Nor do I think I had consensual sex. What's in place here is a sliding scale of consent and domination, penned in by silence.

Penned in by silence. I still am, on this one. In the past few months, I've deliberately skipped out on a few big social events because of a worry that, now I've been thinking things over a bit, I'll lose my rag and start accusing this man in front of his friends.

Which is why it makes me so fucking angry, so very fucking angry that when a political party promises to lift court anonymity for victims of sexual assault, when a political party says 'innocent men who are falsely accused of rape have their lives ruined while their lying accusers cannot even be named', when a political party says those things *and is the BNP*, even then generally reasonable commenters let their paranoia overpower their common sense and start saying things like well some people do make it all up you know (for the record, 3% of reported rapes are false, same as for any other crime) and you're just trying to attack men, and what about the poor men who get accused of rape, have you thought about them for one single second you crazy feminazi bitch. That’s deeply upsetting. I've got an experience here which if you notice I haven't even categorised yet and I'm keeping my mouth shut. Partly out of personal shame; partly out of fear of social reprisals; mostly out of sheer consideration.

It may surprise you to know that I do not believe all men who have sex without another person’s permission to be irredeemably evil, violent abusers. I don't believe that all men who rape even know that that's what it is that they're doing. I think that sexual consent is a deeply fraught piece of semiotic territory in a real and ongoing ideological battle between the sexes, and – crucially – that sexual consent and non-consent takes place on a scale of abuse and trust that we currently just do not have the scale of legislation in place to deal with. Given that it’s only eighteen years since a man in this country could not be charged with raping his wife, our legal strategy for prosecuting rape – entirely separate from an acknowledged police and social bias against bringing cases to court at all – is manifestly not fit for purpose in today’s society. But that’s not the whole picture either.

Some political lobbies want to paint false rape accusation as a real, and widespread, social problem. It isn’t (I repeat, 3%). But it IS a real, and widespread, fear – and one that deserves to be acknowledged and understood, rather than simply dismissed. As a male friend of mine explained to me recently, ‘from the age of thirteen one of my biggest fears was that I would make a fool of myself in bed – that I’d in some way underperform, or disappoint her – and she would claim I’d raped her, and I’d go to jail, where I might be targeted and even killed. It’s still a fear that preoccupies me. I know there isn’t some clich├ęd conspiracy of women out to falsely accuse men of rape – that just isn’t happening. But it was, and is, a fear – I think it’s a natural, normal thing to worry about that.’

Men’s sexual vulnerability is not widely discussed – not in public, and not between men. A lot of the anxiety that’s expressed by right-wing lobbies over ‘lying women crying rape’ can be traced back not just to a creeping paranoia about female power, in the bedroom and out of it, but to genuine male sexual vulnerability as men find themselves without models of behaviour to draw upon in this new age of equality, where the old rulebooks for how to prove yourself a man have been roundly tossed away.

‘I believe that what most men and boys want, really want, is consensual sex,’ my friend tells me. ‘Yes, at my school like at any other, there were a number of boys who everyone knew would deliberately get girls drunk and rape them, and boast about it afterwards. Everyone hated them, and avoided them – because they were normally the same people who were vicious and inhuman in every social context. Some of these guys beat a friend of mine almost to death with iron bars,’ he said, non-committally.

Indisputably, a minority of men and boys are damaged enough by their culture and their upbringing that they are incapable of non-violent relations with any human being at all. I believe that there are men who hate women and hate their own lack of power enough to rape deliberately, premeditatedly, as punishment or revenge. And I believe that this happens hundreds of times every day in England alone. Violent rape, whether by strangers, friends or a partner, cannot and should not be excused, and nor should less violent rapes and assaults, whether or not the perpetrator was aware of his transgression. However, I believe that it is appropriate for the feminist movement to step away from absolute, categorical condemnation and try to understand why men rape. In a world where almost all sexual offences are committed by men, if we don’t try to understand the modern male sexual psyche, we cannot hope to legislate properly when its owners go feral.

I’m not trying to do a backdoor John Redwood here and suggest that we should prosecute on a ‘sliding scale’ of rape. I’m not suggesting that date rape is somehow not as bad as stranger rape, or that ANY rape is less damaging, less painful, less fucking insulting than any other. What I’m saying is that there are many, many instances of sexual assault, of non-consensual sex, which whilst damaging to their victims are simply unproveable in a court of law. What I’m saying is that we need, as a society, not only a more effective system for rape prosecution but a language for sexual consent that extends beyond the parameters of a courtroom. What I’m saying is that this is far more complicated than rape-or-not-rape; if it weren’t, men wouldn’t have to get so damn paranoid. As it is, with our limited grasp on the legal-rhetorical overlap, too many men , and women too, see rape purely in terms of whether or not something can be proved in a court of law.

What today’s young men need, and what we desperately need them to have, is some form of guidance on how not to become a rapist. Because this is something men and boys just do not have – and now, in a culture where non-consent can come in many forms and the rape epidemic is acknowledged as a problem, they need that knowledge, and we need them to have it. It doesn’t come from nowhere. On one side of these boys is an increasingly widespread expectation that they should instinctively know how a decent person behaves. On all other sides, young men are bombarded by a culture that glamorises sexual violence and objectifies women, a culture that makes it cool to treat sex as a competitive sport with women as the dumb racing animals, with lads’ mags, rapstars and rape played for laughs in Hollywood blockbusters, with rape-role-play video games and commercial fantasies of male sexual dominance leering at them from every billboard.

And I think it’s stunning that, even hemmed in by captain commercial’s xtended rape-o-rama culture jam, even with boys as young as 14 committing brutal gang-rapes in this very city, no teacher is obliged to sit down with a class of young boys and go through with them just how to tell if a girl (or boy) is too drunk to consent, or for that matter if they themselves are too drunk to consent; I think it’s stunning that noone thinks to ask young boys what they feel is appropriate force to use in persuading a girl to have sex with them. How in hell are they supposed to know, when the question is never raised?

We have allowed generations of men to grow up without giving them the tools to learn how a decent person behaves in the bedroom, in a culture that tells them that non-consensual sex is acceptable, even cool. This doesn't excuse rape, but it might occasionally, partially, sometimes explain it. And explanations deserve attention when there are problems to be solved and heads to bang together.

The language of consent and abuse is complex, and it is painful. I, for one, no longer want to live in a world in which men are encouraged to see sex with women as something they either do or do not ‘get away with’. More than anything, I want there to be real discussion of what rape is and why it happens. Only when girls and boys and men and women can have full and frank discussions about this, between themselves and with each other, will we come close to achieving real sexual and social maturity in this culture.

Friday 22 May 2009

Notice: comments policy.

Okay guys, this is my official response to the debate that's gone on over the last few days about potential comments policies.

This blog is, currently, uncensored except in exceptional circumstances, and I'll be keeping it that way. If you've got something to say, even if I don't agree with you, I will defend to the point of extreme inconvenience your right to say it. Moreover, keeping the blog uncensored stimulates debate, and it's important, if we're going to have any sort of real-world discussion, to allow anyone and everyone in. Yep, I have some unpopular views (and some stupid ones!); so do many people who comment on here. But the haters don't pose any threat to us. They're a pain to argue down - but that's all they are, and at the end of the day it does more active harm to right-wing frothery to leave it up there for the whole world to see it for the patent nonsense it is.

I am totally and wholeheartedly in favour of feminist and other 'safe spaces', where any comments which make the target demographic feel uncomfortable or attacked are deleted. I completely see the need for spaces like that. But this isn't one of them; in fact, part of the reasoning behind Penny Red in the first place was to write a blog in which feminism and equality-based arguments could interact wholly with realtime politics, just like they do in the meatspace. And for that, I think it's essential that we hear all kinds of voices on this blog - even if we don't like what they're saying.

HOWEVER. I also think it's useful if we all know what 'exceptional circumstances' mean, and I will as such be instituting a small but strict comments policy, shortly to be detailed permanently on the left, whereby comments which are blatantly and horrendously misogynist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, ablist or otherwise personally offensive to individual commenters will be deleted. I don't honestly care if anyone tries to insult me personally, in fact I find it quite funny, but I will not tolerate bullying of any kind on this blog. I hate bullying more than almost anything else. I'm sure you'll agree how important it is that a space for free and constructive debate doesn't descend into cruel and meaningless dogfighting. And if you've got a real point to make, there's no harm in putting it reasonably and objectively.

In short, I don't anticipate having to delete comments often, because I trust you guys not to abuse the liberal comments policy we have here. Put your point across well and without deliberate offence, and whatever it is, it'll stay up there. Okay?

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Feminism vs fascism: vote out the stupid!

There are going to be European elections soon, and the fascist British National Party are hoping to get an MEP elected. On top of the far-from-insignificantly fucking scary racism, xenophobia and homophobia that riddles their policy platform, the BNP are pushing a specifically and deliberately sexist agenda. Stopping these stupid bigots from gaining any more of a toehold in our nation is a feminist issue, too. Here’s why:

The BNP hate what they call, without a shred of irony, 'feminazis'. By this they seem to mean not just self-identified feminists but any woman who, in the words of a recent BNP candidate, is 'unnatural and vile... it is a strange kind of woman who would want to invest [her] energies into her job rather than into a man.' The BNP are specifically and explicitly AGAINST equal rights between men and women. Party leader Nick Griffin has described the very idea of gender equality as 'feminist poison'.

One of the first things they plan to do if they attain power is repeal the anonymity currently granted to rape victims, on the basis that "innocent men who are falsely accused of rape have their lives ruined while their lying accusers cannot even be named" (P7, BNP manifesto). And it doesn't stop there. Go on, read it for yourself in the BNP's white paper on family law, but have a little bag to hand to be sick in. You're going to need it.

This, lest we forget, is the same party which forwarded a senior London Assembly candidate who went on record saying that "rape is a myth...rape is simply sex, and women enjoy sex. To sugest that rape is a serious crime is like suggesting that force-feeding a woman chocolate cake is a heinous offence".

Have you ever been f0rce-fed chocolate cake, Mr Eriksen? Finallyfeminism101 has a perfect (but potentially triggering) debunking of this ugly reasoning.

Footage of a BNP spokesman and pimply racist wassock youth leader demonstrates the party's belief that the right of average workingmen in Leeds to "look at women wearing low-cut tops in the street", the right of men to objectify and consume the female body, is "part of our history - and more important than human rights". 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 harrassment. No, this is about our right to look at boobies, and damned if 'they' - whether 'they' are 'Islamists', 'foreigners' or 'feminazis' - are going to "take it away from us".

The BNP also want to reform family and tax law, bringing back tax credit schemes that would re-establish women as dependents of their husbands; introduce strictly fault-based divorce law "aimed at protecting the injured party instead of the current gender bias against women"; allow only married couples to benefit from artificial insemination; ban all homosexual partnership arrangements and, yes, deport all furriners.

*deep breath*

And in a shock move, the BNP is violently anti-choice.

Everyone's experience of suffering the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, ablism or any form of prejudice is different. However, the idiot, schoolboy logic of fascists like the BNP throws up some interesting similarities in the reasoning between casual and not-so-casual racism, sexism and homophobia. It's the whipping-girl syndrome. It's the process whereby a gang of disenfranchised, angry and often fairly personally inadequate people cast about for any convenient, preferably marginalised group to blame for the fact that they, the (mostly) white, (mostly) middle-or-working class, (mostly) miserable (mostly) men, are in so much bloody pain. The BNP are angry, heartsick, dissatisfied, and terrified by how individually powerless they are. Easier by far to blame immigrants, Muslims or 'feminazis' than to turn and look at one's own culture and how it shapes you and works you over.

Watching the videos of speeches available on BNP live tv, what I felt to start with was amused. Then nervous. Then angry at the reams and reams of stupid lies coming out of these people like so much oily drool. But beyond that, I found myself...moved. Yes, genuinely moved. I felt the stuttering rage of these men like a punch to the solar plexus. I felt their bewilderment. I felt their utter incomprehension at what was happening to a world they were once sure of growing up to inherit. And I felt full of thick anger at the sheer stupidity of misdirecting those emotions towards a pointless bullying of other people who, guess what, haven't inherited it either. In 'Stiffed: The Betrayal of Modern Man', feminist journalist Susan Faludi points out that

By the century's end, [there began] a search for someone to blame for the premature death of masculine promise. What began in the 1950s as an intemperate pursuit of Communists in the government, the schools, Hollywood...would eventually become a hunt for a shape-shifting enemy who could take the form of women at the office, or gays in the military, or young black men on the street, or illegal aliens on the border...but none of it would satisfy, because the world and the fight had changed. The real fight was between men on the same side...

Writing about feminism and equality movements often feels like one long game of 'we are not your problem'. The further we get from living memory of what life was really like for men and women of all races and classes before the civil rights movement in the US, before the women's movement, the more mythologised that time becomes. Certainly, old ways of life have been stripped away. Certainly, men in particular are suffering the loss of certain automatic loci of security and social status, and feeling their own disenfranchisement harder as a consequence. But if you or I asked even the most frothing BNP man if he genuinely thinks that he will be a happy, free, powerful, confident individual as soon as all the furriners and wimminz are sent back to their respective homes, I wonder what answer we'd get? Have they even bothered to think that far?

Louise Livesey, who broke this story at and who is also a Hope Not Hate activist, reminds us that we have a chance to stop these bastards in their tracks by using our vote against the BNP:

So what’s the message - Ensure you are registered to vote and then go out and vote in the European and Local Elections on June 4th!

The European election voting system means that the BNP can only win if turnout is low. The fewer people that vote, the better the BNPs chances are of getting representatives elected because they can and will turn out their hardcore supporters, sensing a miasma of politically opportune apathy at the moment. So go and cast your vote - don’t let the BNP win through a willingness to not oppose them.

The BNP need only 9% of the vote to win a seat in the European Parliament. Please. Don't sit at home and let it happen. Vote them OUT. Not just because they're sexists, racists, homophobes, xenophobes and crashing red-faced bigots who are a disgrace to the actually quite good country we live in. Vote them out because they're stupid. They're stupid. They're idiots, idiots, crashing toe-sucking thickoes who shouldn't be running a website, much less a department in Brussels. Please, if you're a Brit, do your bit for your country and vote out the stupid.

Sunday 17 May 2009

The blusher-brush of righteous rage!

"It is catastrophically bad for politics, but it is disproportionately catastrophically bad for us," was the verdict of one cabinet minister as he returned to his constituency in mourning to mark the week in which the last vestiges of a form of parliamentary democracy died. The initial postmortem is death by suicide - Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, 15.05.2009

Oh my, this just keeps getting bigger and bigger, doesn't it? I've been holding back on MPs' expenses, because I already laid most of it out for you guys right at the beginning when the snowball started rolling with McNulty, and because others have been saying it far better than I possibly could, including the worthy men and women at the Torygraph. But the MPs' expenses 'scandal' has now gone way beyond party politics, way beyond any individual fable of greed, curmudgeonliness and comeuppance. This public- and press response is something new. It's not just another minor yet symbolic piece of political theatre that the left-wing press are desperately trying to drum up some attention for. This rage is real, it's informed, and it's infecting everyone.

I've heard people discussing the minutiae of those Tory claims for moat maintenance at the bus-stop. I've heard muttering and kvetching over Andrew Mackay's dual-home scam whilst rummaging through the coffee-and-biscuits aisle at Sainsbury's. Yesterday I took a trip to my old stomping grounds in Brighton, and whilst I was meandering around Boots a nice lady pounced on me (steady on) and asked if I wanted my make-up done for free. She then proceeded to cheerily and somewhat absent-mindedly streak my face with pink slap whilst telling me in laborious detail about Elliot Morley MP's claim of £16,000 per year for his mortgage. 'And guess what his mortgage cost?'

I murmur my ignorance through a mouthful of alien lipstick.

'Nothing - he didn't have a mortgage!'

Upon learning that I have claims to political webcommentating, Louise (for 'twas her name) informed me that 'If you see that Mr Morley, you tell him from me never to come into this shop, unless he wants a make-up brush in his eye!'

All the parties have been quick to offer up sacrificial lambs - Shahid Malik for Labour, Andrew Mackay for the Tories. But I'm not the only one who suspects that that won't cut it, not this time, and nor will party leaders' bland, vacillating apologies. This is not a one-off gaffe. It isn't even really illegal. This has been going on for decades, over the span of countless administrations and governments, and nobody is exempt. This rage is nothing less than a reaction against the hypocrisy at the heart of our political system itself.

Not so long ago, it was an accepted fact that our political representatives would live like kings, and that our kings would live live emperors, a wide and specific hierarchial gulf between the men and women at the top of the heap and your average working stiff. Now, this week, we're questioning that. Now, this month, in this unique socio-economic atmosphere, the citizens of Britain are muttering daggers about the unfairness of it all. Muttering against hierarchy itself, as activist Tom Ogg explains in his hilarious account of doorstepping this week:

'One voter said upon seeing the rosette, "sorry, I've not got any 800 pound TVs here, no gardeners to put on expenses, and definitely no pornography". I don't get any expenses either, I reply. Do you have any problems in the area, anything we can help with, I ask? "Well," he said, "you could start by stringing up a few MPs up the lamposts". Slam.'

It's brilliant, it's invigorating, and it's slightly frightening. So instead of rehashing what everybody's saying, I'm going to ask the specific question that a lot of people are wondering. If we're this angry, this stutteringly and suddenly outraged about the unfairness of the Westminster remuneration system, when is the great and terrible finger of public opinion going to swing round to the one politician who claims more from the public purse, gratuity free and without a murmur of discontent so far, than any of the others put together? When are they going to go after the Queen? The Queen receives a great many millions from the public purse and the civil list every year. She's allowed to, but so are the politicians. She's less explicitly a public servant, but since 1649 it's been pretty damn clear that our hereditary monarchs are here on our sufferance. If anyone thought any different deep down, there's a chance that the Queen might have once, ever, in her 57 year reign, have intervened in affairs of state or expressed her personal political opinion in a public forum. Will the press go so far as to extend the dissent to the very top?

Where's it going to end? Sunny has some worthy suggestions for cleaning up politics, but the critics are right to suggest that the rage of the make-up-counter-lady on the street is more nebulous than that: most people are not sure what they want to see happen now, and you can count me amongst them in the certain knowledge that I'm not going to get my benevolent revolution of the people before teatime. But equally, the naysayers are wrong to suggest that just because public anger is vague, that means that it's not powerful. On the contrary.

Much as I hate to sound like a hacky hack hack, whatever his shortcomings, Barack Obama acheived something monumental in November, and he did it by harnessing and soundbiting and t-shirting a nation's desire for change. Sometimes, when things have got bad enough and people are frightened enough of where their leaders might take them, any change is enough. Anything, anyone, as long as they behave more decently and nobly than the old order. The mood on the streets of Britain is that same universal dissatisfaction, that same hunger for a new way of life, that allowed the remarkable to unfold across the pond.

And I think we're starting to want it here, too. We're starting to understand that something at the heart of Westminster is rotten enough that it cannot be purged by a simple game of New-Cameronite Switcheroo. I don't doubt that His Pink and Shininess will be in the hotseat by 2011, but we know, now, that there's more to it than that. The pressure is mounting in England's green and garish land; a storm's coming. And when it breaks, the left will need to be ready with answers. There's work to do.

(pic: Elliot Morley orders the veal, courtesy of The Torygraph).

Thursday 14 May 2009

Equality Bill: 'political correctness' be damned!

Boys and girls, you may be interested to read the first part of a new Penny Red comment column appearing at Labour List, which is now - thankfully - under new editorship. It's about the Equality Bill and why we shouldn't care if it upsets a few recalcitrants. It's here.

In other, no less pressing news: the House votes tomorrow on a Tory motion which, if passed, will effectively scrap the minimum wage. Please, sign this petition and/or go to Wage Concern's rally at Parliament tomorrow. We need to fight to defend our right to basic wages now, to make it more difficult for the scumbags to take them away when they're in government.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Humourless feminazi *1: fuck the animals.

I’m astonishingly late to this particular party, but it’s the sort of party that’s still going strong on Sunday night, people keep going to the shop to buy more booze, and the crazy kids who just won’t go to bed are lying around in little piles groaning in defeat. So let’s turn up the music again on PETA’s horrific advertising campaign.

A fuller explanation of the long-running campaign would include a skim over all of the ways in which the images used are ugly and vicious: equating women (not men, just women) with animals; portraying women as, variously, pieces of meat or brood-mares; offering nubile, willing pornstars as 'rewards' for vegetarianism; implying in no uncertain terms that the dignity of female human beings is less important than the autonomy of widdle bunny wabbits; the gross, boringly porny imagery; the constant rehashing of rape and murder fantasies; the incitements to violence against women.

But what's most astonshing to me is that the campaign just doesn't work. These images are supposed to shock - and in this day and age, seeing images of naked or half-naked women beaten up, abused, equated with meat, served up as tasty morsels, or tied up and having thick dribbling tubes shoved into their mouths is not shocking at all. It's commonplace. It's part of the language of contemporary pornography, part of the way we understand our entire sexuality, a secret and not-so secret code under-writing all gender-relations in this culture. If these adverts really were designed to shock, it'd be naked men in those cages, men shrinkwrapped and fetishised as murder victims, men explicitly phrased as no better than animals, without higher reasoning, worthwhile only for the way they look and (for so many pet owners) for how warm and fluffy they make us feel. Seeing Jodie Marsh's bottom is not shocking. Seeing Jenna Jameson's tits is not shocking. Given that the campaign continues to run, there must be something else going on here. What could it be?

Could it be that yes, in fact, PETA are explicitly trading on women's sexual autonomy to 'sell' animal rights? Could it be that PETA just don't give a fuck if women get raped, beaten, abused, used, if young girls grow up without self-respect, if young women develop eating disorders, mental health problems and low self-esteem? Could it be that this animal rights group doesn't give a crap about one half of the whole mess of human animals? If that's so, given that PETA actually kills 90% of the cats, dogs and other pets left in its care, I wouldn't take a desk job in their office.

In case it wasn't clear already, yes, I do think that women - and men, children and intersex people for that matter - are more important than animals. I don't get warm fuzzy feelings for 90% of the animal kingdom. I couldn't care less if pandas finally become extinct despite millions of pounds of national and international money being poured into trying to make them fuck. Sure, animal cruelty is bad, it probably shouldn’t happen, I’m definitely not down with the kitten-microwavers, but at the end of the day, I prefer people. Really. I think people are fantastic, and worthwhile. I’m behind animal testing, if it saves lives, which it does. I’d kick a hundred kittens in the face to save one AIDS victim. I'd shave several litters of puppies to save one junkie. I wouldeven inconvenience an asthmatic gerbil to save James Purnell.*

I find it stunningly hypocritical when people like PETA, who claim to have such massively bleeding hearts that they have to carry a little cup to catch the overflow, behave with basic disrespect towards their fellow humans. It’s not a new thing, of course. We’ve always found it easier to be humane to creatures that can’t talk back, creatures that don’t pose any real social threat to us, creatures that aren’t likely to call us out on our failings or break our hearts*. Maybe that’s why in the UK we had a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals (RSPCA, founded 1824) a full sixty years before we deigned to intervene to even try to stop people torturing, abusing or murdering their own kids (NSPCC, founded 1884).

On this picture – the offensiveness of which should not need spelling out, but hey, yknow, for the tired and unreconstructed, it’s a naked woman in a bag, covered in blood, pretending to be a piece of meat – Laura Woodhouse of TheFWord says:

55,000,000 animals killed a year for meat - how many women do you think are killed by male violence and oppression PETA? And do you give a shit? One of the comments under another photo in this set reads (in Spanish) ‘Now that’s the kind of meat I do eat!’

It's demeaning, it's degrading, and, as About-Face puts it, shows no compassion whatsoever for women, especially those who don't conform to narrow definitions of beauty.

This is one of a number of related things making me incredibly angry today. I've spent the past week writing an article for the Guardian about my time as a burlesque stripper, and writing it tapped into how very, very little stripping made me think of myself. Suddenly I'm getting growly at female objectification everywhere I see it, where last week I might have filtered it out, or ignored it, or just tried not to let myself get stressed over it for fear of being called 'humourless'. This, um, may or may not have just led to my picking a pissy little fight with Warren Ellis. Oops.

*Apart from when they die in various gratuitously horrible ways, like all of my sodding hamsters did. I really loved those hamsters, I took care of them, and the bastards repaid me by going bonkers, losing all their hair and vomiting up their intestines. That or having heart attacks on their cage bars so I found them the next morning hanging stiffly by their teeth, ripping my ten-year-old soul into little pieces in the process. I kid ye not.

Friday 8 May 2009

Notice: Sima Valand

My darlings, I'll be away from the net for a few days dealing with a large and pendulous deadline. I apologise in advance for not updating this blog properly. Meanwhile, via TheFWord, please help out if you can to stop Sima Valand being forcibly removed from the UK. This is down to the wire, so please, if you get a minute, call Virgin or to send an email (the form letter is below):

Sima Valand arrived in the UK, from India, legally in 2006 with her husband. During the 15 years of their marriage Sima was subjected to frequent verbal, physical and sexual abuse by her husband. Following their arrival in the UK, the violence escalated. It culminated in a horrific rape in May 2008. The attack was so severe that Sima made the decision to report it to the police.

While her husband was on bail, the threat to Sima was sufficient to force her to move to Nottingham for her safety. She was subjected to frequent death threats from the husband’s family in the UK and in India because she was pursuing the court case. In spite of this, Sima continued with the case and her husband was eventually convicted and given a lengthy prison sentence.

As a result of the persecution, Sima applied for asylum on the grounds that she had a genuine fear of being killed by her husband or his family if she were returned to India. Before she left India, she had been treated as a slave and beaten by her husband’s family. Their treatment of her was so bad that she attempted suicide. The husband’s jail sentence and the fact that she has begun divorce proceedings have only exacerbated their malice towards her. Her in-laws have contacted her on frequent occasions to tell her that they will cut her up and kill her if she returns to India.

India has a deeply entrenched patriarchal system and women are expected to conform to a strict social code. As a result, although it is Sima’s husband who has been responsible for appallingly violent behaviour, it is Sima’s action in reporting that behaviour and giving evidence against him that is considered shameful amongst her family and the community as a whole.

It is extremely common in India that incidents of serious domestic violence against women are not taken seriously. The police and courts are often unwilling to intervene in such matters. Amnesty International have noted that it is very difficult for women to seek justice through the criminal justice system in India and that women victims of crime are at a severe disadvantage. This means that it is highly unlikely that Sima will get the protection that she needs should she be returned.

Sima was born and brought up in Sudan although she is of Indian origin and has an Indian passport. She has few family members in India and following the court case, these ties have deteriorated. The Home Office have argued that Sima could live with her uncle if she is returned to India. However, the details of the rape case have become widely known and he will no longer speak to her.

Sima’s in-laws in India are aware of Sima’s movements and since being detained on Tuesday, Sima has received threatening messages stating that they know she is about to be removed from the UK and that they will track her down.

In addition, Sima has been diagnosed with and was being treated for deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Her treatment for this has been disrupted by being put in detention and putting her on a long-haul flight would be extremely dangerous to her health.

Please, email the model letter available at IndyMedia or, if you have time, your own version of the letter, to:

Please E-mail/fax Indymedia's model letter (or if you have time, your own version of this letter) to:

CEO Steve Ridgeway
Virgin Atlantic Airways
Manor Royal
West Sussex
RH10 9NU

Fax: 01293 444124

Monday 4 May 2009

Just another Monday evening.

I'm taking a test tonight.

I've been away from the blogosphere, trying to write a report for Red Pepper on the progress of abortion rights in Ireland and the new reproductive activist wave in London. I've also been nauseous, off my food and feeling generally off. It's probably nothing. It could be stress. It could be coughing pig death. Or, I could be pregnant.

Despite a rigorous contraceptive routine, despite taking every precaution, despite the fact that I'm still bleeding, I could be pregnant. No method is 100% failsafe. So tonight, I'm taking a test, and before I do, in order to break the silence and calm my nerves, I'm going to talk about it.

Since I started this blog, I've had three pregnancy scares, not counting the frisson of gut-knawing panic that precedes the monthly gut-crunching pain. And every time, I've thought about discussing the process, and every time, I've decided against it. Some things are just a bit TMI, aren't they? Some things you just don't talk about. Pissing on a little stick in an ecstasy of paranoia and worry in your bathroom is one of them. Nice girls aren't supposed to talk about needing to do things like that.

Well, bollocks to it. No more prissy little silences. When gender activists talk about the personal being political, this is what we mean.

If you have never been a female person of childbearing age, you cannot possibly understand what we mean when we say pregnancy scare - but I'd like you to try. Firstly, scare is precisely the right word. For the hours or days or weeks between having a hunch and knowing for certain one way or the other, you're rent by the possibility that your body is not your own. Personally, it's not so much the idea of actually having a growing embryo inside you that's terrifying. We've all had headlice. No, it's the knowledge that if you are pregnant, your very nethers are suddenly in the grip of forces outside your control: arbitrary social taboos, the machinations of a hypocritical state that hates female reproductive independence, the personal morals of not one but two total strangers who are meant to know best what you should be allowed to do with the best dreams of your one life just because they have medical degrees. Compared to that, a tadpole in my tummy is not scary.

Because if by some slim chance this test comes out positive, if it's the red cross this time, that portentous clowneye leering back at me, I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to have an abortion.

And in a rational, sensible world, that's all I should actually need to say. My decision over whether or not to incubate a fetus in my own belly for nine months and go through agonising labour should be justification enough. But of course, it's not like that, is it? If this test comes out positive, I will have to explain myself, like a criminal, like a naughty schoolgirl called in to the headmaster's office, if I want a perfectly reasonable medical procedure, a procedure that wasn't even a misdemeanour before 1803. Oh yes, abortion wasn't always illegal. Far from it. It's only recently that the state has seen fit to stamp its morals all over our bodies. But unless I want to be considered a criminal - like this poor girl - I'll have to explain myself. So here it is.

I want to have a child at some point in my life. Unlike quite a lot of my female friends, I *am* a maternal person. I'd love a little baby to take care of and bring up. And I want that child on my own time, when I'm confident in my own ability to bring it up in financial and emotional security. Right now I'm broke, broken, living in a house full of stoners with a fledgling career that may one day prove lucrative but right now has me working 12-hour days for a half-salary. I am determined to ground myself in my own life before I even think about having a baby. How can I raise a kid to be independent before I have the first clue who I am?

Right now, I'm finding it bloody difficult just to take care of myself, although I'm getting better at that. I'd be rubbish at taking care of a child. I'd be far, far worse at taking care of a disabled child. Oh, yes, that's the other thing: my partner has a genetic bone disorder. His main symptoms are physical incapacity and near-constant pain. There's a fifty percent chance that any child we have together will inherit the condition, and a slim chance that it would be born with a much more aggressive strain. Not to mention that the kid would almost certainly also inherit a tendency towards mental health difficulties of various flavours, from both of us. For this reason...well, we're young, but we've already had the baby talk. Our options when and if the time comes include screening or IVF, if we have the cash and tenacity; sperm donation; or adoption. Our options, my options, definitely do NOT include raising a severely disabled child, a child in constant pain, on my salary and his benefits, when we've got the whole world to explore before we make that decision, before I make that decision.

I'm telling you all this because I want you to understand what I mean when I say reproductive freedom. Reproductive freedom is the freedom to make choices like this without having them imposed on you by a misogynist state. Reproductive freedom is the freedom to choose your own destiny. Reproductive freedom is something that, at the moment, women in England, Scotland and Wales have in limited capacity, and women in Ireland and many, many other parts of the world have not at all. Even here in the People's Republic of Haringey I can't, for example, just pop down to my GP's surgery and ask for an abortion because I happen to want one. I'll have to beg and cry and point at my mental health record, declare myself an unfit mother when I know that in a few years' time, fates willing, I'll be no such thing.

The standard line is that every abortion is a hard decision, every abortion is a tragedy. Well, there's nothing hard for me about this decision. There's nothing tragic about this, in my mind. Tragedy would be three lives ruined by bringing an unwanted child into the world. Tragedy would be a child growing up raised by children, a child growing up in poverty and self-doubt. That's one tragedy I won't allow to happen, not to my kid, not to my partner, and not to me. I've too much self-respect, and too much to lose.

Soon now I'll be squatting scared over a ridiculous little stick, about as alone as any girl can be. My heart in my mouth, my own pee on my fingers. This happens regularly, actually, to most women. We just don't talk about it. Part of that is fear, part of it is a deliberate campaign of deception on the part of the right-wing media, a press bias whereby we hear regular stories of women bitterly regretting decisions to terminate pregnancy, and no stories at all of the many, many occasions where women choose to have abortions, and it's the right choice, and it turns out fine. Until we start being honest about it, until we start standing up (remembering to wash our hands first) to claim sovereignty over our own bodies, until we stop making these excuses, making cringing little justifications for what should be our right as human beings, then it's only going to get harder to hang on to the small freedoms we still have. The freedom to talk about reproductive choice openly and honestly can be a start, if we want it to be.

I'm writing this because I don't want to be part of the conspiracy of silence any more. I wish more than anything that there were positive stories for me to read, for me and my friends and sisters to read, stories of strong women making positive decisions about their own lives and the lives of their future and current children. Because if there were more of these honest stories out there, maybe I wouldn't be quite so scared right now. Wish me luck, guys.

ETA: Negative. Phew.