2 Dec 2016

Protecting under-18s from porn: who's really being harmed?

*** [CONTENT WARNING: THIS POST DISCUSSES SELF HARM] ***

So much of adult control over media is justified in the name of protecting children. The concept is inextricable from British obscenity law; one of the principle factors (not additional) for finding a work obscene under current guidelines is whether under-18s might have access to it. The acts that are currently banned from any UK-produced porn are forbidden under the justification of "preventing non-trivial harm risks to potential viewers;" by the same token, OfCom demands that porn producers take steps to keep under-18s away from their work in case it "seriously impairs the physical, mental or moral development of persons under the age of eighteen." 

Yet in the same document in which it makes that statement, OfCom also reports that "no country has found conclusive evidence that sexually explicit material harms children," and that "research does not provide conclusive evidence that R18 material "might seriously impair" minors' development." You might wonder, then, why the UK government is quietly pushing through a bill that penalises any porn provider who does not adopt burdensome, costly and privacy-invading age verification processes, when there is no damn proof that a) it would work and b) that children seeing explicit material will do them any damage anyway. Yet as Pandora Blake, a porn producer who has already had her business shut down once by UK censors and is fighting to stop it happening again, writes, this is exactly what is happening.

It seems particularly ironic and misguided that the government is putting so much energy into forcing businesses to make ineffective and totally tokenistic gestures at keeping children away from explicit material, when it is denying them the one thing they are loudly crying out for - decent sex education. At present, British schools are obliged to provide no more than purely biological education about sex. Even in the face of reports that sexual harassment of girls in schools is on the increase, the UK government ignores adequate evidence that a comprehensive curriculum that deals with sex, relationships, porn, consent and respect is what teenagers want and need, and instead goes after the oh-so-easily-demonised porn industry. 

Last night, I was watching a Channel 4 documentary, Kids on the Edge, which showed teenagers self-harming as well as looking at self-harm images online - for inspriation, if you like. The programme was prefaced with a warning that it contained scenes that viewers may find disturbing, and although there wasn't any major gore as such, I think what frightened me the most was how easy it was for teenagers with severe mental health issues to find social media accounts that supported or encouraged self-harm. I've just gone into Instagram and found a video of a young woman with blood gushing out of a vein in her arm, with the hashtags #suicide, #selfharm, and the caption "I want to die," within seconds. Although Instagram clearly deletes harmful hashtags (you get zero results for #selfharm if you do a search, but the results are clearly out there), there are obviously plenty of users getting around the restrictions. 

Now, I generally believe that trying to censor the internet is like trying to catch gas in a butterfly net. You might catch some of the perpetrators, but you won't know just how many others you haven't managed to catch, and you won't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting them all. Short of an operation like China's Great Firewall - which also needs the terrifying machinery of totalitarian state repression behind it to really have any teeth - you simply cannot censor every instance of objectionable content. Nor do I think it's an answer; much as it troubled me to see seriously vulnerable teens getting inspiration for how to hurt themselves from social media, I don't think it's that different to how fans of the Manic Street Preachers used to mimic Richey Edwards' self-mutilation (and yes I know many fans empathised with Edwards because they were already self-harmers, but speaking as a Manics fan of two decades, I can tell you for sure there were also copycats - whether they did it to be "cool" or because the pictures they saw had genuinely given them ideas, only they would be able tell you). I'm not going to link to it, but you can Google "Richey Edwards self harm" and see some seriously disturbing pictures of the things the man did to his own body. And before the internet, that supposed source of all social problems? Well, you could go out and buy the NME, or Melody Maker, or Select or Vox or Q magazine, or a Manics biography, and have your very own full-colour, glossy pictures of Edwards' self-harm to stick on your bedroom walls. My point is, this shit didn't start when the world got online. It's been going on as long as time itself. And I don't believe that a picture in a music magazine "made" anyone self-harm, any more than I believe that the Instagram account which one of last night's interviewee was looking at made her cut herself; she was clearly already on that path, and was looking for affirmation of her actions from others. There is community, however, fucked up, in finding those who are damaged in the exact same way you feel damaged.

Yet, if the government insists on going after any online targets--and with the current ruling party, it seems a great, cheap vote-winner that appeases those fond of hand-wringing headlines about the future of our youth--it does seem like it would be more justifiable to deal with targets that actually encourage literal harm, such as sites or social media accounts that encourage self-harm or anorexia, than to go after those showing consensually produced adult material. I'd certainly be a lot more worried about a child of mine actively seeking out self-harm images, than a child exhibiting natural curiosity about sex. Either way, I ultimately don't think censorship is ever the answer. I don't know what is, but off the top of my head, offering children safe spaces to talk about both issues would be a good start. This government's failure to do so, and its habit of constantly scapegoating sex and porn instead, shows how far we still have to go in pulling this country's head out of its repressed backside. And yes, I know that kind of image is exactly the type that could get a website shut down by the UK censors, but I'd laugh more if public money wasn't actually being spent on legislating censorship that doesn't work and doesn't help anyone. 

Resources for those concerned about self-harm:

http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/self-harm/
http://www.harmless.org.uk/
https://www.selfharm.co.uk/
http://www.selfinjurysupport.org.uk/

Support the fight against the Digital Economy Bill here

10 Nov 2016

How Kink is Represented in "Transparent"

**Contains spoilers for series 1, 2 and 3 of Transparent**

There's so much good to say about the representation of sexuality in the Amazon original series, Transparent: the three-series show has so far shown older bodies being sexual, trans bodies being sexual, a breast cancer survivor being sexual, and has also managed to show lesbian sexuality in a way that's not viewed through the male gaze. While there are issues about the show's use of a cisgender man to play a trans woman, these have already been explored by people more qualified than I to speak on the issue in pieces like this; rather, I want to talk about how the show represents something I do know a bit about -  BDSM.

The show's kinky scenes are woven in to its complex fabric in a way that makes them feel fairly incidental; experimental youngest sister Ali experiences a D/s dynamic with a trans man in Series 1, oldest sister Sarah discovers the joys of kink at the hands of a professional, Pony, at the end of Series 2 and beginning of 3. Neither kink relationship ends the way Ali and Sarah - both the "bottoms" in their particular dynamics - may hope. In Ali's case, trying to have a raunchy bunk-up in a bathroom stall is disrupted by the real-life concerns about the dildo slipping and ending up on the floor, and the excitement goes out of the scene. In Sarah's case, it ends much more darkly--she tries the top role, loses control of her anger, and violates her bottom's safeword.

By using gender non-conforming individuals for the scenes, the makers do a powerful job of subverting our expectations about who should be a top or a bottom. Although the scenes initially fit the template that feminine presenting people "naturally" should assume the bottom (submissive) role, they also do a great job of showing that dominance--in BDSM, at least--is something that is given rather than taken, is conditional, and subject to change at any time. In Ali's case, her top only has as much power over her as she gives him. Although their play seems deeply gendered (he calls her "little lady," shaves off her pubic hair and orders her around), Ali is the one who chooses to dress up femininely for him, call him "Daddy," and, er, chooses the dildo they play with. When their sexual relationship doesn't work out, they still interact on equal and amicable terms. Sarah actively seeks out her kink relationship with Pony, having seen her (although played by the excellent genderqueer porn actor Jiz Lee, who prefers they/them pronouns, Pony is referred to as she/her in the show) walking another woman around on a leash at a women's festival in Season 2, episode 9. Rejecting the earth-mother vibe of one tent at the festival, Sarah is instead drawn to the kink area, with its intriguing yet discomfiting sounds of paddles hitting flesh and cries of pain/pleasure. She soon finds herself blissfully clutching a tree aiming her backside at Pony's flogger, and after the festival ends, returns to Pony as a client. Sarah may be femme and playing the bottom role, but any power that her butch top exercises over her is both actively requested and paid for; Sarah's pleasure from bottoming is also very apparent.

Furthermore, Sarah later takes on the dominant role with Pony's permission, showing that the capacity to switch is not so unusual. The more mainstream media shows people switching in BDSM, the better; as I wrote in my book Thinking Kink, "when it comes to mainstream pop culture and its love of simple and easy binaries, the switch is often the ugly stepchild--ignored, left out, invisibilized." And I think that a big reason the switch gets left out is that they're a figure who challenges the idea that power roles are set, unchangeable, and somehow natural. D/s dynamics can easily get hijacked by those outside the community, who use them to make pronouncements on what a particular group really wants--I remember reading a quote from anti-BDSM literature that claimed any gay man who liked to be dominated was really just living out mainstream culture's homophobic hatred of him. When the bottom becomes the top so easily, or demonstrates that being on bottom does not mean being weak or self-hating, it confounds these overly simplistic takes on kink, and that can only be a good thing.

Sarah's experience is also a dark one which shows how BDSM can go wrong in a distinctly unfunny way. Whereas Ali's experience is more slapstick (and all the better for it--I feel like expectations of sex would be much less intense if there was more mainstream representation of people falling off beds, bodies making unplanned sounds, and lovers being able to giggle about it afterwards), Sarah's topping of Pony leads her to release her anger in an abusive and unsafe way. She's not in a good headspace, having met her ex-husband's much younger lover recently, and is clearly feeling challenged and mystified by their connection. Although she's admitted that in some ways she's grateful to the younger woman for meeting the sexual demands she can't keep up with, the fact she's still living with her ex-husband and co-parenting with him means Sarah's feeling territorial. After a jokey start where Sarah tries on funny headgear and totters unsteadily in thigh-high boots, her play scene with Pony quickly goes awry. Sarah's verbal teasing about what she's going to do to her bottom escalates from sensual threats to screamed abuse, and she continues to bellow in Pony's face even after she has safeworded twice.

Showing kink going wrong is a risky venture in mainstream media culture. It risks feeding into the belief that kink is dangerous, damaging and only practised by psychologically unstable people. It risks muddying the message that like any contact sport, BDSM has its risks, but, as Gayle Rubin puts it, "S/M sex generally involves a much lower level of force than the average football game, and results in far fewer injuries than most sports." The only other mainstream depiction I've seen of a BDSM scene going wrong is in Secret Diary of A Call Girl, which, while being a more sensationalised and much less analytical depiction than in Transparent, does at least acknowledge that "hurting people is a very special talent," and that being a domme is not the same as being an escort. However, the trauma caused by Sarah's loss of control during her scene isn't just a punchline: she goes back to visit Pony only to be told "I think you're the reason she moved to Boulder," and find out that her domme has left town, left all her equipment behind and given up her profession. That's a pretty damning indictment of Sarah's behaviour, and her inability to control her anger is made further apparent when she loses her temper with her children soon after finding out Pony has moved--she has clearly been using their sessions as an outlet, and without them, can't express her rage healthily.

It's noticeable that none of the scenes I've described take place between a cis man and a cis woman (with the man as top), and there are many potential explanations for that. It could be that, as I've just said, there are already enough misconceptions around BDSM that it seems like too much of a risk to show it in a way that could replicate already oppressive gender roles. There are enough feminists out there who believe that male-top, female-bottom kink simply is patriarchal abuse, that even the relatively mild kink depicted in the 50 Shades of Grey movie was enough for women to descend in droves to accuse the movie (and myself, for not condemning it in my review) of glorifying domestic violence. It could be that programme-makers are trying to be less hetero- and cis-normative, which is probably true in Transparent's case, and no bad thing at all. It could be that woman-on-woman aggression is seen as less upsetting for the viewer, which although it sounds patronising, could indeed be true. There are already some pretty harrowing true stories out there of male doms ignoring their female subs' safewords; we are forced to ask ourselves fewer uneasy questions about men, women, sex and power when there are no cis male doms in a scene. Indeed, Transparent acknowledges the disproportionate availability of professional female doms who top male bottoms, whereas there are very few professional doms catering to women, and its suggested answer is unequivocal about why: "it's really not hard for a woman to find someone to treat her like shit for free."

That said, we do see Sarah's ex-husband trying to top her after she has apologised for her rage and admitted "Pony's gone...I scared her away." Offering to step into the role, Len says "What does she do, boss you around? Slap you a little?" and begins to top her, asking with each act (hair pulling, spanking), "Is that what Pony does?" Sarah's enthusiasm and consent is very clear with each nod and moan, and her eager expression and movement as Len brandishes his belt and ties her to the bedpost with it. Although we're seeing the BDSM pairing most likely to discomfit us - a cis male topping a cis woman - there is so much communication from the top and clear consent and pleasure from the bottom that the scene achieves what so few vanilla sex scene achieves; it makes active, ongoing, enthusiastic consent deeply sexy. Len keeps asking Sarah "Is this what she does to you? Yeah? Is that what you want?" and she keeps responding yes, yes, uh-huh. Unfortunately, the scene fizzles out when Sarah is reminded of their emotional intimacy and complex relationship (Len makes the mistake of saying "I know you better than anyone else," which is a pretty psychologically risky thing for anyone to say in the middle of a BDSM scene) and tells him to stop and untie her. Which he does, straight away. Wow, look at that--someone stopping when they're told to stop. Such a simple concept, such a regularly overridden one. I think we can't have enough scenes like this in pop culture.

In a media culture still too apt to try and make blanket statements about BDSM or how it looks, Transparent does a great job of not offering simplistic depictions or easy answers about why anyone seeks kink or what they get from it. It also shows how players let real-life anger bleed into their play at their peril; far from the image of out-of-control thrashings and savage violations, anyone in the BDSM scene will tell you that a responsible dominant exercises extreme control at all times. It's nice to see that shown in a way that doesn't demonise BDSM or its practitioners, and rather acknowledges that like in any contact sport, shit will happen when high emotions get the better of us. 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy my Thinking Kink blog series for Bitch media, or my book, Thinking Kink, available in the US and UK now!

6 Oct 2016

Saving women who didn't ask to be saved isn't feminism

I've seen this piece - "I clean up the messes of the pornography industry" by American lawyer Ann Olivarius - shared by several feminist groups that I follow on Facebook and Twitter recently. While I respect their right to hold different views to mine on the matter of porn, I do feel disappointed that feminists are getting behind such a post without deploying any critical thinking towards its content. 

I can see why the post is getting shares; it's not just written by a "random" feminist who has a beef with an industry with which (as is often the case with anti-porn activists) she has very little actual familiarity, but comes from a lawyer who has dealt with porn actors. (Or at least one porn actor.) That immediately appears to give it authority; it can't just be another piece advancing the moral biases of the author, now can it? Well, actually - the very title of the piece is misleading. What exactly are these "messes" Olivarius claims to be cleaning up? The first - very deliberately emotive example - is about a suicide caused by revenge porn. I hesitate to even call non-consensual sharing of explicit images "porn" because it implies there's no difference between that and consensually produced porn. But that's a deliberate tactics by people such as Ann Olivarius - to make it look like these things all exist on the same spectrum. But they don't. There's a world of difference between an adult woman making her living as a cam girl-- and I spent an evening amongst many such women last week, one of whom said "Everyone wants to know if I've been exploited in this industry; and I can honestly say I never have. In fact I sometimes wonder if I'm doing the exploiting, getting these men to pay me these amounts of money"-- and a vulnerable teenager being betrayed by their sexual partner. One has fuck-all to do with the other. The porn industry does not have the power to create 16 year-old rapists. Implying it does lets the adolescent scumbag off lightly.

Which brings me to another of the author's deliberately heartstring-grabbing points; when she uses the case of an 8 year-old girl sexually abused by her cousin, and tries to lay the blame at the feet of the porn industry because apparently the cousin got ideas for how to molest the girl from his smartphone. Again, it continues to amaze me how feminists can't see the parallel between blaming porn for rape and sexual abuse and blaming a short skirt, an alcoholic drink, a smile, a "no" that wasn't screamed loudly enough. Any adult or teen with a smartphone has instant access to a dizzying cornucopia of images and videos at any given time. I can watch a cat video, or I can watch adults engaging in faecal play. I can laugh at a dog on a skateboard, or watch Colonel Gaddafi get beaten to death. I make these choices. And even if I were to watch the more extreme choices, I would still consider no one and nothing but ME responsible were I to try and act out those things non-consensually on another adult or, god forbid, a child. Same goes for everyone else on the planet. Having access to those images is not what makes you force yourself on another person. Billions of us do, and yet we manage not to rape or molest anyone. That twisted, rotten part of a person which thinks it's OK to do so is already there and was already there long before they opened their phone screen. By shifting responsibility away from the rapist/abuser you are merely supporting a culture and a system that already refuses to blame perpetrators far too readily. That's not feminism.

These emotionally manipulative tactics aside, the part of the article that probably got up my nose the most was the total misrepresenting of the porn actor who approached this lawyer. It's important to note here that the actor did not approach the lawyer with any complaints of mistreatment or abuse from her industry, as the title of the piece would have you believe. Instead, her question was a factual one; whether she was entitled to any job protections while being off work with an injury. Now, because the injury was sustained in her line of work -- from filming a scene that the author calls "brutal", even though the actor's own words are conspicuous by their absence -- that apparently is sufficient evidence that the porn industry is an evil, misogynist place where women are routinely injured. Even though, again, the question from the porn actor is not a complaint of mistreatment.
Well, let's just take a moment and allow me to list the injuries I sustained in my decade of doing care work on and off.

- Needlestick injury (where a hypodermic syringe accidentally pierces your skin, necessitating blood test and in some cases, Post-Exposure Prophylaxis to guard against HIV. Hepatitis is also a risk here.)
- Multiple bites; hands and arms were the most common places
- Cuts and bruises from having someone gouge their fingers as hard as they could into my skin
- Facial swelling and bruising from being headbutted
- Various bruises on arms and legs from being kicked and punched
- So many sore scalps from having my hair yanked I couldn't even begin to count them
- Ear infection from having a full plate of food thrown at my head (got gravy in my ear!)

(To work in care you're also advised to have Hepatitis B vaccination, because of the likelihood of coming into contact with bodily fluids, needles and/or sustaining one of the above injuries and then coming into contact with them [like the guy who gouged my arm - he often had faeces under his fingernails]. If you think porn actors are the only people who come into contact with some nasty stuff, you really need to get out more)

All those injuries, assaults and precautions come alongside doing a job that's both physically taxing and emotionally stressful, where one regularly has to clean up faeces, urine, saliva, vomit and blood, dodge violence from dementia patients and those with learning disabilities who exhibit "challenging behaviour," often work understaffed or with poorly trained, apathetic workers (three male staff once stood by and watched as a teenage boy a foot taller than my 5'2" headbutted me), where one gets paid maybe a bit more than minimum wage but not much more, and where one enjoys *none* of the protections of holiday pay, sick pay or pensions because I usually worked for agencies or as relief staff.

So, are feminists going to say that care work is inherently evil and degrading because people get injured doing it and because it's underpaid and there's little job security? Or because it's mostly women doing it? Funnily enough, they are remarkably silent on that issue, except to suggest that we might need better working conditions and that care should not be seen as a solely female arena. I agree with both those statements. So why not suggest the same about the porn industry; that because "this is not an industry in which performers can grow old, have a pension, guaranteed holidays, or job security," there should be reform, rather than abolition? Because I can sure as hell tell you that writing, my main career, is sure as hell not an industry in which there is *any* job security, pension, holiday or sick pay. No advances, pitiful royalties, and a plethora of clients asking you to work for a pittance if not actively trying to get your work for free. I'm an internationally published author (not self-published) and yet if I relied solely on the money I've made from my book, I'd be homeless if not dead. I've worked for major publications on both sides of the Atlantic and yet I still have to supplement my writing work with private tutoring, care work and renting my spare room out on Airbnb in order to stay afloat. Where are the campaigns to save me from the evil, misogynist writing industry?!

I'm being facetious, of course -- I love what I do and I enjoy many privileges that mean I can manage to do it despite the insanely insulting remuneration offered. So why is it such a leap of the imagination to think porn performers -- who I would wager are HELLA better paid than care workers or writers - might feel the same? So it might not be a long-term career choice - so the fuck what? Neither is being an athlete, a dancer, a model, a racing driver, or indeed various jobs that require masses of energy and physical fitness, but we don't discourage children from aspiring to these jobs.

Ultimately what this misleading, mistitled, manipulative article is saying is "I don't like or understand porn, I don't see the appeal, and therefore I'm going to dress this personal distaste up as a moral fact." Did this lawyer ever ask the porn performer who came to her for a legal service how she actually felt about her job? Or did she just hijack her client's story to fit her own personal judgment on what is a legal industry? If a male boxer came to her for legal advice on whether he was entitled to any job protections while out of work from having been injured in his line of work, would she use that as an excuse to go on a protracted rant about the evils of the boxing world, portraying this man as a victim of an evil misandrist industry that preys on those too stupid to see the harm it's doing to them? Come on. You can't have it both ways. As feminists, we believe women are smart enough to make their own choices; a freedom enjoyed by men for millennia. You can't believe that and then simultaneously write off hundreds of thousands of women as moronic brainwashed children, preyed upon by an evil, male-dominated industry. You especially don't have the right to do that when your "evidence" that this industry is harmful amounts to nothing more than two unrelated anecdotes that deliberately use the old "won't someone think of the CHILDREN?!" tactic to manipulate readers into conflating non-consensual sharing of explicit images, rape and abuse, with consensual adult erotica, and one innocent legal enquiry by a worker who has made no complaint against her industry. 

So yes, please do fight against bad working conditions.  Absolutely fight against lack of job security. Fight against the fact that the industries in which work is shitty and low-paid are often disproportionately staffed by women and immigrants. Hell, come and help me fight for care work and writing work to be remunerated to a level that actually shows some bloody respect for those two jobs. But don't take your personal crusade against depictions of sexuality that you dislike (or which, more likely, you haven't even actually seen but have just heard about, clutched your pearls and then written about graphically for the purposes of nothing other than hyperbole) and hijack other people's stories to bolster that. It's cheap, manipulative and does nothing to improve anyone's job. That's not "cleaning up a mess," it's fighting an enemy that doesn't exist and then wanting a pat on the back for it.

15 Sep 2016

Lionel Shriver, Race and Privilege

Reading the comments on The Guardian's transcript of Lionel Shriver's speech, recently given at the Brisbane Writer's Festival about cultural appropriation, fiction writing and diversity, it's apparent that many see her words as a victory for "common sense," and view Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who walked out of the speech (and wrote about why), as a "special snowflake" who was just looking to be offended or pulling a publicity stunt.

I'm going to make a massive assumption here: that most of those commenters were white. And since Shriver is white, and so am I, I'm not sure my analysis is going to be tremendously helpful, so I'm going to suggest that it's up to those most affected by cultural appropriation to decide where the boundaries lie, not those of us who have benefited from and continue to benefit from white skin, the legacy of colonialism, an expensive education and the privileges of being middle class. In other words, I'm not going to examine Shriver's speech (much) as I think writers of colour have much more to add to it than I ever can. However, I do want to add a perspective that makes it much harder to defend Shriver as "just talking common sense," and which suggests that maybe she does actually have a worrying sense of white, European superiority.

Let me preface this by saying I did (do?) love Shriver and her work. As a proudly child-free woman who often found very little community or empathy from other women, it was a revelation to me to read her 2005 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin and find there was an author capable of speaking my thoughts so baldly and articulately. Finally, a woman was saying all the things I'd ever suspected: that motherhood was tedious, unfulfilling, robbed women of their mental, physical, social and career potential, and for most people was simply a method of keeping the wolves of life's futility from their door. Pregnancy meant being colonised and turned into public property in a way that men's bodies will never be, and motherhood inevitably meant some degree of return to 1950s-style gender roles--perhaps temporarily, but the damage would still be done--however hard one tried to resist the tide with feminist parenting. Basically, Shriver articulated all the uncomfortable truths that a pro-natalist society doesn't want said, and then raised the stakes even higher by suggesting you could do everything right to raise your kid and still create a monster. It was breathtaking to me. I loved that book so much I wrote excerpts of it on index cards and pinned them to bedroom walls, as if warning visitors that these were my beliefs (i.e. both life and having kids is pointless).

I've loved many of Shriver's books since then: So Much For That, which excoriates the American healthcare system, Big Brother, which takes on the twin devils of obesity and the obsession with thinness with surprising compassion, and The Mandibles, a no-punch-pulling view of a not-too-distant future America in economic freefall, predicting what might happen when the shit really hits the fan. However, some passages in the latter did point to what I've suspected about Shriver ever since I read her essay in the 2015 anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: 16 Writers on The Decision Not to Have Kids, which is that, frankly, she is a bit of a closet racist.

Maybe not even a closet one, actually: after all, Shriver's fiction writing is always bold, unapologetic and advances a pretty misanthropic view of humanity, so it stands to reason that her non-fiction would be similar. But it gets harder to defend her when you read phrases from her essay "Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later" like "Maybe the immigration debate has sufficiently matured for us to concede that white folks are people, too."

Wow. Where to even start with that one.
It's so disappointing to see such an intelligent, clear-eyed author fall for the same moronic propaganda that causes people to ask "Why isn't there a Straight Pride day?" or "What about White History Month?" or, as any feminist is so utterly sick and tired of hearing "There's sexism against men, too!" I mean, as if there has ever been any question that white people are human, nay, the default human, the dominant stereotype by which all other races have traditionally been measured and found wanting! 

She goes on to ask why the British can't be proud of their Yorkshire pudding, White Americans their apple pie, to which I found myself scribbling down the side of the page "They can be proud when those things stop being a pretext for racism and xenophobia!" Trust me, I'm a Brit and live amongst our fragile multi-cultural peace every day. In my very own town, Milton Keynes, just a few days ago, a pregnant woman of colour was kicked in the stomach so hard she miscarried, in a racist attack by a white man. I read with horror the story of the xenophobically motivated murder of a Polish man in Harlow just a few weeks ago. I've heard with dismay the tales of women walking up to Eastern European mothers at the school gates and saying "When are you fucking off back home, then?" the day after the Brexit vote. I am not going to buy for a second that we live in a world of "political correctness gone mad," or that "things have shifted so far in favour of minorities that white Brits are now second class citizens!" when this culture of casual hatred for other nationalities/colours is still on my fucking doorstep. 

I said I wouldn't talk about Shriver's speech but I do have to link this thinly veiled whine of "WHY can't I freely express my view that whites are the superior race?!" to the total straw man example she gives of complaints about sombreros at a student party. This is a deliberately selected, caricatured example of what Shriver and the "anti-PC" (far too often sadly, a synonym for "pro-the freedom to express one's bigotry") brigade deem a growing culture of thin-skinned crybabies who can't abide any expression of stereotypes, however "harmless"--and it's deployed for one reason only. To remind oppressed groups to get back in their boxes and fucking stay there.

Well, y'know what - my radical suggestion is that as a white, non-Mexican individuals, it's not actually my place to tell people affected by Hispanic stereotypes that they're being over-sensitive. And it never will be. As long as I enjoy the freedom to walk the streets without having to constantly carry my passport everywhere I go (as a Latina friend of mine currently does), as long as I will never have to worry about being called "beaner" or "wetback" or reduced to the stereotype of an overly fertile, hypersexual, big-bootied hot'n'spicy mama, and as long as I will never have to endure humiliations such as the waitress who a white couple refused to tip because "we only tip citizens," it's clear that I have massive privilege. So I'd rather hand off to those directly affected by the sombrero stereotype, and hear their voices. I don't get to decide what's offensive to Mexican people. Neither does white, middle-class, European-American Lionel Shriver.

And I'd believe her complaint that she's simply trying to strike a blow for creative freedom so much more if she hadn't previously penned an essay saying that if white Euro-Americans like herself continue to refuse reproduction (as she herself has), we might end up a minority, and wouldn't that be a shame. Seriously. That was the point at which I lost so much respect for this writer. Not just because she admitted that she had changed her tune since being portrayed as the "anti-Mom" at the time of releasing We Need To Talk About Kevin, (everyone changes over 10 years, and at least she hadn't changed it to the point of giving in and having kids, which everyone who fails to take my childfree status apparently somehow KNOWS I will do). It's her reasons for doing so that astonish and appall me. Which are that, despite her sneer that "liberally minded white Americans are not supposed to care. . .that by 2043 whites will constitute a minority in the US," she clearly does care (why else mention it?), and never gives a reason why except presumed racial superiority.

Her essay is cleverly couched; she uses the words of three other white women (couldn't find any non-white childfree women to speak to? Hmmm) to say what she doesn't want to just come out and admit. One says "Many Western cities will be largely black/Hispanic/Asian in fifty years' time. Does that bother me? Well, I vaguely regret the extinction of gene lines that in their various ways played a part in the establishment of Western civilization..."
...a civilisation often built on the invading, colonising and outright robbery of other countries and cultures, but do go on....
"But the gene lines coming in from the developing world will have their own strengths, energies and qualities, I guess." Not quite brave enough to stand up and simply say "Look, I think white people are superior, I prefer to be around them, I like it when they're in the majority, and if I could be arsed to have kids that would be my main reason for doing so," Shriver instead does it through her interviewees' words, saying "That poignant but politically charged "I guess" captures a conflicted melancholy that many liberal white Westerners will only give expression to in private--if then."

Who are these multiple closet racists masquerading as cheerful lefties for whom Shriver claims to speak? This here lefty is sure as shit not one of them. I think that the idea of anything being "truly British," "truly European" or "truly American," is both nonsensical and laughable, when all of these places are mongrel nations, built on the backs of immigrants, benefiting hugely from colonialism, and very good at forgetting both those facts when they want to pretend that there's something inherently superior about whiteness or speaking English. I am not proud to be British. It was an accident of birth. I'm definitely glad about and aware of my privilege at living in such a diverse, well-off, country where bonkers abortion laws and mass shootings are noticeable by their absence, but I have no "pride" beyond the occasional smile when we do something good at the Olympics, and that pride ain't got shit to do with white Europeanness (indeed, I do love the sarcastic memes that fill Facebook the moment British long distance runner, Mo Farah--a black Muslim immigrant--wins gold again and the right-wing newspapers all fizz with fury and swallow their own tongues). 

And what is this whitewashed "heritage" that I'm supposed to be proud of, exactly, anyway? Am I proud to have been born on the same landmass as Shakespeare? Meh, I suppose it's kind of cool. But I'm not proud that it took "my" country until 1928 to give women full voting equality with men, or until 1945 for every university to award women degrees. Not proud that the Equal Pay Act didn't pass until 1970. Not proud of Enoch Powell, the National Front, the BNP, Britain First, UKIP and the fact it was acceptable to display signs saying "No Blacks No Dogs No Irish" in boarding room houses until only a few decades ago. Not proud that "my" government spends taxpayer's money on illegal, pointless wars. Certainly not proud that people are being fucking beaten and murdered in this country for the crime of trying to live their god damn lives. Sure, I love Jane Austen and the Beatles, but ultimately national heritage is only something you can feel proud of once you've cherry-picked all the shit away--and my God, that's a lot of shit.

But Shriver never explains why she feels "oh, a little wistful about the fact the country of my birth will probably in my lifetime no longer be people in majority by those of European extraction like me," or why she gives considerable attention to the "the Lats" becoming the dominant population in her latest novel, The Mandibles. I guess she isn't quite gutsy or tell-it-like-it-is enough to give her reasons. And she, of course, would blame a culture of PC-gone-mad for her hesitancy to just come out and say that she prefers a world where the majority of people look like her. But she is not being censored; she clearly has a massive platform. Books, newspapers, writing festivals; the kind of free rein to say shit that most of us will never be awarded. What "PC gone mad" might just mean is that she actually has to face some consequences for saying she thinks white Europeans are superior, and naturally, she doesn't like that. But people holding you accountable for your words when they appear hateful and baseless is not a crime, nor is it going to hurt you that much when you're rich, educated, white, middle class and Western. It might piss you off, but it's not the same as someone's boot in your stomach, or their knife in your jugular. Which are acts you tacitly condone by pushing this bizarre, faux-inoffensive "wistfulness" for a society that never even fucking existed in the first place.

That's why it's so disappointing to see someone as intelligent as Shriver disingenuously setting up false equivalences, like claiming because she's German and she doesn't mind anyone donning lederhosen and perpetuating Bavarian stereotypes, that gives her carte blanche to dictate what's acceptable to people of other, usually much more globally shat-upon, nationalities. Funnily enough, I don't mind if anyone dons a moustache, deerstalker cap and pipe and runs around drinking tea and being overly polite, because that stereotype cannot hurt me (and not just because it's inoffensive/funny/accurate in some ways). No, it can't hurt me because my nationality can't hurt me. I'm never going to be turned down for a job because I'm white British, or assumed to be intellectually inferior, or lazy, or denied the right to stay in someone's country (more likely I'll be waved through customs without a glance and never referred to as an 'immigrant' but rather an ex-pat), or have shit put through my letterbox, or be sworn or spat at in the street, simply for having been born in Britain. I have the immense privilege of hailing from a first world, rich, politically powerful country who used to own half the world, whose language is widely-spoken as a result of this fact, and that is why I do not have any right to be telling people from economically disadvantaged, colonially ravaged, developing countries, that because I don't mind the deerstalker they should stop being such wusses and accept whatever reductive stereotypes being imposed on them. We are not coming from a level playing field. To pretend otherwise, as Shriver is doing, implies she thinks her audience is either a lot less intelligent than she is, or simply as racist and xenophobic as she is.

So, defend Shriver's words to the Brisbane audience all you like, but don't fool yourself that this is bravery or an important act for "freedom of speech." Defending the dominant group's right to assert its dominance isn't brave--it's easy. Standing up to that nonsense when you're going to be at best, shouted down as a crybaby and at worst, lose your fucking life for it; that's bravery.

22 Aug 2016

Latest writing by me

It's been an uncharacteristically busy summer for me, possibly the first ever in my life as a freelancer! As a result, I haven't had the time to post. However, here's a round up of the few bits of writing I have managed to do this summer:

A piece for The Daily Dot on feminist porn producer Pandora Blake's victory over the censors...

and another for the same outlet on women embracing the hashtag #BloodyDifficultWoman.

My review of Ghostbusters for Bitch magazine...

...and another piece on the same film for the Women's Media Center. (Spoiler: I liked the film - a lot!)

Hope to be back with some exciting news soon!

7 Jun 2016

Will it ever be enough?

Recently a friend of mine who is going through major weight loss publicly wondered if they would always feel like "that huge person" or if their mindset would eventually catch up with the reality of the mirror/scales. It took me back to my own musings on weight loss, where I wrote "What no one ever mentions in a weight loss success story though, is that you'll always be a fat girl in your head. It never leaves you." It seemed like it would be dishonest, then, to try and reassure my friend that eventually your mind updates and starts to believe the photographs and realise you're smaller than you were. It's partially true, but it's not the whole truth. This was highlighted by another thing she said - that even her friends who are a "normal" weight still refer to themselves as "so fat." This put me in mind of being 17, maybe half a stone overweight (thanks for highlighting that, doctor who could see from my records that I already had serious eating problems!), and resenting the fuck out of my perfectly slim friend as male attention continued to fly her way, passing me over as if I was a houseplant, yet she still complained about her weight, body shape, face, hair and seemed to loathe the way she looked as strongly as I did my own body. I didn't get it. Why weren't the skinny girls celebrating and walking around like they were hot stuff, when they had clearly won the contest of Who's Allowed to Be Attractive According to Incredibly Narrow Social Dictates? And yes, many teenage girls may appear to walk around like that, but if you've ever been a teenage girl, or spent time with one, you know that any veneer of smugness and arrogance is paper-thin, and will always be stretched to breaking point over acres of self-loathing, self-doubt, and the conviction that they are unsalvageably ugly.

That's the real pisser, though - by the time you've reached an age where your mental defences are sufficient to protect against the waves of confidence-destroying beauty bullshit that assault women every day, there will then be a new battle to fight (ageing, w00t!). The time when you're in possession of the universally worshipped looks is unlikely to align with a time when your personality is strong enough to realise how gorgeous you are and work it for all it's worth. In my case, being something of a, if not ugly, then somewhat grumpy duckling ultimately stood me in good stead, because it taught me never to rely on my looks for anything, and meant that when I did actually start getting some male attention in my late 20s, I was confident enough to feel like it was confirming what I already knew, rather than lavishing upon me something I lacked or wanted. But the point is, society never wants women to get too comfortable. You can be young and good looking, but not confident. You can be older and confident, but then you'd sure as shit better start worrying about ageing. Which leads me to the conclusion that the window in which a woman's confidence and the socially-approved version of the way she should look actually align with each other probably lasts about two days, and even that might be a generous estimate.

In her memoir Shrill, Lindy West echoes exactly my experience:
"As I imperceptibly rounded the corner into adulthood--14,15,16,17--I watched my friends elongate and arch into these effortless, exquisite things. I waited. I remained a stump. I wasn't jealous, exactly; I loved them, but I felt cheated.
We each get just a few years to be perfect. That's what I'd been sold. To be young and smooth and decorative and collectible. I was missing my window. . . Deep down, in my honest places, I knew it was already gone-- I had stretch marks and cellulite long before twenty [Chas: I had both at 12!]--but they tell you that if you hate yourself hard enough, you can grab just a tail feather or two of perfection."


That's exactly what they tell you, and that's exactly why my school friend--who I thought was ridiculous for loathing her looks when they were clearly exactly what society and those pesky things known as 17 year-old boys demanded and approved--was tormenting herself in grasping for that feather. She knew that no one, however much they may appear to fit the thin, white, young, long-haired, clear-skinned femme template, is allowed to rest on their laurels. A beauty culture that profits off women's self-loathing simply cannot have that. Because, as Lindy puts it "The real scam is that being bones isn't enough either. The game is rigged. There is no perfection."

And that's exactly what my friend going through weight loss now is discovering as she looks at the women who she thinks have perfect, enviable bodies--you never arrive at the promised land. As John Candy's character so wisely said about winning medals in every 90s child's favourite film Cool Runnings, "If you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it." Whether it's medals, flash cars, the latest bit of shiny nonsense from Apple or a certain amount of weight loss--none of it can make you someone new, someone better. I want to tell my friend that she was a great person before the weight loss and she remains that same person now. But I don't want to devalue what she's achieved, because I know what a journey it is: I've made it myself, albeit on a smaller scale, and I'm proud to have maintained the results for 7 years. I just want her to know the limitations of physical changes. Yes, I sweat less than when I was three stone heavier, I get acid reflux less frequently, I might even be a bit physically fitter although I'll still always view most forms of exercise with the horror of an overweight child being asked to run in front of the whole class. But my thighs still rub together so much that I have to wear lycra shorts under a dress or a skirt in summer. The scales at Boots still tell me that I "could" lose over another stone and still be in the "healthy weight" bracket for my height. I choose to reject their advice, because this is the weight I decided to stop at. I'm a size 10. I once mentioned my weight loss to a co-worker and she said "I wouldn't exactly call you slender." Instead of interpreting this as the mortal insult it could be perceived as (because the worst thing you can say about a woman is that she's *not thin*), I just figured she was being honest; I hadn't dieted myself down to the spindly-armed, visible-clavicled, bird-legged standard of the modern female celebrity, because I had no desire to. Incidentally, I stopped at the weight I did because once, when the light hit my chest I realised I could see the bones in it, and I'd never seen that before, and I didn't like it. Call it sod's law that even at that point, I still had plenty of flesh around my thighs and stomach, and still do. But funnily enough, I don't see possessing flesh as a sin, and I never saw the end goal of my weight loss to be the annihilation of every millimetre of me that might jiggle. I just wanted to fit back into my old clothes and for the doctor to stop bugging me. I also wanted to reclaim my body after a sedentary office job that I hated had made me depressed and driven me to comfort eat so much. So I quit the job, I lost the weight: achievement unlocked, as they say.

So what would I say to my friend, who fears that she may struggle to ever see her body clearly? I'm not sure there's much I can say that's of use, except to raise the point that the quest to like yourself once you're lighter requires an opposite; the fact you hated yourself when you were heavier. That's not a good starting point from which to proceed. Your body is you - you can't separate the two. Or as Lindy West puts it "I am my body. When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation. I am one piece." When I was three stone heavier, I still wore revealing clothes, bright dresses, tight tops, high heels, bold jewellery, colourful make-up, and met the world head on. I never hid or apologised for my weight. I shared my body only with partners who found it gorgeous and sexy and considered it a privilege to see it unclothed. (Incidentally, I was with the same partner during the 9 months that I lost all the weight and I'm not sure he really even noticed the change. Much as women think they're altering their bodies for male approval, I think it's usually other women who really do the scrutinising. Because we're trained to. Whereas a grown man recently asked me the difference between cellulite and stretch marks, because he genuinely didn't know, he just knew they were both things women worried about pertaining to their bodies.) 

Ultimately, I still decided to lose the weight, and maybe that makes me a traitor to the body positivity movement, or a bad feminist, but I tried to at least do it on something approaching my terms--no public self-flagellation, NO being a diet bore, no shaming of my old body, no fooling myself that anything other than my weight was going to change, no bullshit about "I'm SO much happier!" I'm still the same grumpy, misanthropic militant feminist who loathes diet talk, people tracking their jogs on Facebook (no one CARES about your faux-virtue) and the fact weight loss is still considered the apotheosis of women's ambitions. Recently I got violent, awful food poisoning and when I was slowly recovering from 24 hours of vomiting and diarrhoea, a woman in my life who will remain nameless said to me "Did you at least lose some weight from it?" As if that would necessarily be a positive side effect. As if, whatever my weight is, I must automatically wish to reduce it, as if it's impossible that a woman might actually want to stay the weight she is and might consider going under it a negative thing. And as if losing weight from all the food in your body deciding to violently and foully exit from both ends is a good way to go about it. I love this unnamed woman very much, but lady, please fuck off with that nonsense.

It's so culturally ingrained though. Another friend recently posted that they had found themselves gaining weight, and the comments underneath were all from other women either commiserating or sharing their own gripes about weight gain. I suppose there's no point patronising the friend in question (given that they made it clear they were unhappy with the gain) with the suggestion that getting bigger is only seen as a negative thing because we believe that fat is the worst thing a woman can be, and that what every woman must automatically want is to always be smaller. I still did think it to myself, though. That's why I call MAJOR bullshit on Polly Vernon's breezy suggestion in her book Hot Feminist that wanting to be a bit thinner is an entirely neutral act. Yes, she reassures her readers that "wanting to be a little bit thinner is just wanting to be a little bit thinner. It doesn't have to be an unsisterly act of simpering compliance with a restrictive physical ideal." Well of course, no woman is going to stick her hand up and admit to being unsisterly or a simpering idiot, is she - so Vernon's dubious argument gets to stand. But her second point doesn't stop her first point from being utterly untrue. None of us exists in a vacuum. As I've demonstrated above, we exist in a world where the imperative to reduce your physical size permeates every aspect of women's life. I can make all the arguments I want about why I wanted to lose weight, and I'd like to think that health was a factor in there somewhere, but I would never be stupid enough to try and argue that cultural pressures weren't also a factor in my feeling unable to remain three stone heavier and tell every doctor, nurse, family member, colleague, 'well-meaning' friend, magazine, TV show, online article etck to get fucked because I loved myself the way I was. It's enough of a battle just to defiantly refuse to lose any more weight, to refuse to become the bones that will still never be enough.

Wanting to be thin(ner) is not a neutral state of being. It's certainly an understandable reaction to a society that tells you you'll end up unloved, unfucked, unsuccessful, bitter, matronly and sexless if you don't dare to want it hard enough. But it's never just a context-free desire that emerges out of nowhere, and as someone who wrote about how she lost weight through illness and loved the props she received for her her new skinny figure, Vernon should recognise better than anyone the instant acceptance conferred by a (potentially physically dangerous) level of thinness. Who wouldn't want that? 

Ultimately, it's a battle that'll never stop - the friend I originally mentioned might always feel like "that huge person", her slimmer friends may still publicly criticise their bodies. They may do so because they genuinely feel that way, or because it's considered part of female bonding to slag your body off, and it's seen as arrogant to refuse to do so; we'll never know.They would all do well to remember Lindy West's warning that the game is indeed rigged, and you will indeed never win if you're trying to play on our culture's terms, because it will always find you wanting. We agree to love spouses for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. Yet we see no contradiction in then telling our bodies we'll only love them for younger, for thinner, and we wonder why they can never measure up. Goals become the ever-moving end of the rainbow, forever just out of our grasp. Realising all this is the first step to standing up and walking away from the gaming table.