Friday, 24 October 2014

The Boys on the Bus - a sample of a story

When I was 17 years old, two boys set my hair on fire when I was on the bus.

Which wasn't very nice of them, was it?

It's an experience that obviously stayed with me but it's not something I really thought about much. It was just something that had happened, something a bit odd, a bit cruel.

Then earlier this year, I kept seeing women being attacked online with the line 'go die in a fire'. And it started me thinking about how being set on fire, is something that has happened to women over the centuries. Witches, heretics, adulteresses in old times. Today, violent men set their homes on fire to kill their partners and children. And I also started thinking about hair, and women's hair, and how destroying women's hair is another long-standing attack.

So I was having all these thoughts, about fire, and hair, and women, and what happened to me. I didn't know what to do with these thoughts. I didn't know how to process them.

And in the end I decided to do what I do best. I wrote a story.

It's called The Boys on the Bus and you can buy it for the bargain price of £1.53 for your Kindle. You can also buy it for your Kindle app. Even better, once you've read The Boys on the Bus you'll find a second story called Anna's Interlude.

I'm so proud of both these stories and I hope you will enjoy them.

And to whet your appetite, here's a sample of The Boys on the Bus.

The boys on the bus set my hair on fire.

This, then, is a literary dinner. This is the world of books and plays and poetry and conversation, washed down with good wine, and a smile. This is the world that I dreamed of when I was sat on the bus, daringly wearing my sixth form clothes, my eyes focused on the metal arch of the seat in front of me, my ears stubbornly silencing the noise from the seats behind me. 

I’ve made it. I’ve made it here, and I’m sat beside someone who I think I can now call a friend. She is a writer whose name you will probably have heard of. Opposite me, just to the left, is a pretty blonde-haired publicist who lives near to where I used to live. We have talked about that, in the way you do with strangers, trying to find a point of shared experience. Just to my right is the world-famous writer we are here to celebrate. You will have heard of her. You will perhaps have sat there, on the school bus, her GCSE syllabus-approved novel jostling for space with a lunch box, exercise books, pencils and illicit packets of chewing gum and fags in your backpack. 

I’ve made it. I’ve made it this far, to this restaurant where the chatter, and the clatter of cutlery against crockery, is loud and buzzing. It’s hard to hear, and so the world-famous writer leans in to ask me to repeat what I said. 

The boys on the bus set my hair on fire. 

I have told this story before, with a smile, and a shake of my hair, long now, long and glossy, good hair, free from charred flakes that lingered, stinking, for days afterwards. 

Tonight though, I don’t tell it funny. Tonight, in the dimmed light of the restaurant, it doesn’t sound like a story to tell with a side smile and a shrug and a wide-eyed, ‘I know, right?’

The boys on the bus set my hair on fire. 

We are talking, at this literary dinner, about bullying. We are talking about the ritual of bullying. We are talking about how the patterns of bullying hark back to rituals that centred on cruelty.  My friend, the writer you may have heard of, has been writing a story where boys go back to the Bible to find examples of ritualistic cruelty. In the Bible, they discovered the clues they needed to become the most famous bullies in the school. The world-famous writer wrote the book on the rituals children play out to torment other children. Perhaps you have read it. 

It was ritual for those boys on the bus. It was ritual for the boys on the bus, when they set my hair on fire, on that sticky May day, eleven years before. 

But why? the world-famous writer asks. 

They didn’t like my brother, I reply. 


I’m seventeen years old, and the bus is winding its way along the road from the bus stop outside my school, swaying slightly as it goes with the weight of its load. It is winding its way, the same way once, twice, three times a day, to the bus stop at the end of my road, and eventually to its final destination at the currently-under-refurbishment depot. 

On the bus, we sit in obedient pairs. Some, like me, wear our sixth form clothes. But most of the pairs are in the cheap polyester trousers and the shirts that were once white but are now one smudge of grey. The seats force us into order, but our behaviour refuses to be confined into neat, detached rows. 


Buy your copy of The Boys on the Bus today



Thursday, 16 October 2014

Show a little empathy, John Grisham

John Grisham, the famous crime writer, has been condemned today for his comments regarding sentences for men who view images of child abuse. Just to be clear – it is not ‘child p0rn’ – the latter word implies consent. These are images of child abuse. 

[Just so you know, I have to spell p0rn that way because on previous occasions of writing about similar issues I have had search terms come to my blog that have made me wonder if I should call the police] 

Grisham argues that men who view images of child abuse online, but who would never actively abuse a child, do not deserve harsh prison sentences. He argues:

We’ve got prisons now filled with guys my age, 60-year-old-white men, in prison, who have never harmed anyone. Who would never touch a child, but they got online one night, started surfing around, probably had too much to drink whatever and pushed the wrong buttons, and went too far and went into child p0rn or whatever.’ 

Excuse me while I try and lift my head up from my desk. 

There are so many things wrong with Grisham’s statement I don’t know where to start. But we could start with the fact that in the US, the prisons are certainly not filled with 60-year old white men. 

But the main issue with his comments is his utter lack of empathy with the children who are being abused in these films and images. What is so startling about Grisham’s comments is the refusal to acknowledge the children. His empathy only extends to the men who look like him – the white 60-year-old American male. He is determined in his comments to ignore the actual victims. Instead, he recasts the victims as the men who look at the images.   

Grisham argues that men like his friend, who is in prison for viewing images of child abuse, would never harm a child. But what he is ignoring is that in searching for and looking at the images in the first place, his friend *is* harming the child. It’s not rocket science. Through his search, he is feeding an industry that sexually exploits children, as well as fuelling the demand for that industry. 

This colossal lack of empathy is not a one-off, and the comments are not unique to Grisham. Similar arguments to his were made when Chris Langham was was found guilty on charges of possessing child pornography and made to sign the sexual offenders register, or when Peter Townshend was placed on the sex offenders register for five years in 2003, after admitting he had used his credit card to access a website bearing the message "click here for child p0rn". Both men claimed ‘research’ as their reason for accessing these images. Their defenders argued that as a result they shouldn’t be criminalised. Looking for these images as research, they posed, was different than looking at them because you’re a paedophile. After all, the debate ran, these men weren’t getting sexual pleasure from these images. So what’s the problem?

But what these arguments missed, and what Grisham misses, is that it doesn’t matter to a child why a man chooses to look at the images of them being raped. It doesn’t stop the rape, because one man is looking for research, and one man is looking because he’s drunk, and one man is looking because he gets off on it. The individual viewer’s motivations don’t change what has happened to that child. It doesn’t matter why a man looks, because the fact remains that a child has still been abused for them to view. 

As long as men are looking for these images for whatever reason, people will continue to make them. And that is why the men who view these images need to face justice. They’re complicit in the abuse, whether they like it or not. 

How could Grisham justify his comments, if faced with someone whose abuse was filmed and shared online? How could he explain to that child that his friend didn’t mean any harm? What difference would his friend’s drunken justifications make to the child? It wouldn’t undo the harm done to that child. It wouldn’t change anything. 

When men look at images of child abuse, they are committing a crime. They are complicit in the rape and abuse of a child. Their motivation doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to the child being abused, and it certainly doesn’t matter to their abusers. All the former knows is that someone is willing to pay to view their pain. And all the latter knows is that someone is willing to pay them to abuse a child. 

Think about that, John Grisham. Try to feel empathy for someone who doesn’t look like you. Think about that child, and how your friend’s ‘mistake’ is complicit in the abuse of that child. Then maybe think about apologising. And then maybe donate some dollars to a charity tackling child abuse. 

If you need to talk to someone about rape or abuse, you can call Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999. You can also call the NSPCC on: 0808 800 5000

And I know none of my readers are as rich as John Grisham. But if you want to, you can donate to Rape Crisis or the NSPCC and help tackle sexual violence.  




Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Violent men and ruined lives - what about their victims?

On Friday, Ched Evans will leave prison, after serving around half of his five-year sentence for rape.

When I think of his sentence, I’m reminded of Ken Clarke back in 2010 disputing the fact that rapists only get five years in prison. I hope Ken Clarke is paying attention on Friday. 

It’s unclear yet whether Evans will be returning to Sheffield United. A petition signed by over 100,000 people has asked the club to turn him away. But there is certainly a group of people who would welcome him with open arms on to the pitch. If he is invited back to play, then every weekend for the next few years a woman will have to watch as her rapist is cheered by thousands of fans and celebrated as a hero to teenage boys up and down the country. The same fans who named her online, and forced her from her home and into changing her identity. 

Many of those calling for Evans’ return still refuse to believe he is a rapist. When I tweeted earlier that he is a rapist, a fan responded telling me to ‘read the facts, not the headlines’. 

Ok. Here are some facts for you. Ched Evans was accused of rape. He was charged with rape. He was convicted of rape. He served time for rape. Ched Evans is a rapist. 

He was convicted of rape because he raped a 19 year-old woman who was so intoxicated that she was unable to consent. That’s rape. It isn’t ‘bad sexual etiquette’ or ‘just something that happens’ and it certainly wasn’t her fault. She’s not a ‘slag’ or a ‘gold digger’ – as Evans’ fans have called her. She is a victim of rape, and he is a rapist. 

Of course, Evans has served his time (although what a short time it has been). I understand the arguments that he is entitled to get on with his life. And of course there is a whole debate to be had about our prison system, its purpose (punishment or rehab?) that I don’t want to go into here. 

I hear those arguments. 

And then I think of his victim. 

What about her life? What about her future? When Evans raped her, did he care about if her life would be ruined? When his fans named her, abused her, and drove her from her home into hiding, did they care about her life? 

Will the football club be thinking about her, if they give Evans a strip that will make him a role model? Will the sponsors be thinking about her, if they then arrange profitable deals that will make him the face of their products? 

Is anyone thinking about her life? Does anyone care about how it would be to see your rapist to be celebrated, cheered, feted, slapped on the back and held up as a hero? 

As a society, we pretend to think rape is bad. We write comments on articles saying ‘rape is an abhorrent crime, but…’ There’s always a but. Because at the same time as claiming our horror about rape, we still reward celeb rapists with plaudits, success (I’m looking at you, Mike Tyson). We promise them our silence, so that the devastating crime they chose to commit is never mentioned. And we tacitly agree to never, ever mention the victim. We co-operate, and pretend to forget that the man we are celebrating deliberately chose to violate a woman’s bodily autonomy.  

I don’t want Evans to rot in jail – I get that he’s served his time according to his sentence. But I want it to be fully, truly recognised that what he did was wrong. And part of that is agreeing that he can’t stroll back into the life he had, and revel in the cheers of thousands, and be held up as a hero to thousands more football fans. 

Because that’s not acknowledging the seriousness of his crime. That’s not acknowledging the impact rape has on women’s lives. That’s doing a Tyson, again. That’s just going along with what rapists want to happen. It is an insult to his victim. And it is an insult to women who have been raped everywhere. 

And then there’s Pistorius – a man who shot his girlfriend dead and was found guilty of culpable homicide. 

His PR people have been very busily re-writing his story. This is no longer the story of a man who fired his gun four times through the bathroom door and as a result killed his girlfriend. This is now the story of his ‘ordeal’ from which he will ‘never recover’.

Let’s make one thing very clear. Pistorius is more like to recover from this ordeal than Reeva Steenkamp. 

It didn’t take long for the Paralympics committee to talk about Pistorius as an ‘inspiration’ who they would welcome back to competitive sport. It didn’t take long before the memoir deal started being discussed. It’s a memoir where he’ll be cast as a ‘tragic hero’. This could be ‘the sports biography of the century’ guys! You hear that – the sports biography of the century! 

When I read that line I thought I might throw up. 

Because amid all the excitement, all the hype, and all the sympathy for Pistorius, we’ve forgotten the woman lying dead in the bathroom. 

Just like in all the angry defence of Ched Evans, and the cheers demanding his return to the pitch, we’ve forgotten the woman lying raped in a hotel room. 

In her superb article today, Frances Ryan discusses Evans and Pistorius, and asks why we value the lives of men over women? 

Why indeed! Because both of these cases show the truth in her question. Both of these cases show how much more concerned we are with the ‘ruined lives’ of these men, than the lives of their victims. 

We express concern about men’s ruined lives – while carefully ignoring the fact that it was their actions that caused this so-called ‘ruin’. We bend ourselves backwards trying to accommodate violent men, trying to make sure rapists and killers are ‘okay’, trying to make sure the crimes they committed don’t continue to impact on them. We feel embarrassed if we mention the crimes. We keep quiet about how they brought the ‘ruin’ on themselves. We tread carefully, so they don’t have to feel bad about what they did. 

And we don’t give a flying fuck about the impact of their actions on the lives of the women. We don’t care about how rape impacts on a woman’s life – how it can lead to PTSD, and physical and mental health complications. We don’t want to hear about how women’s lives are ruined by the actions of violent men. 

We don’t want to think about Reeva Steenkamp, when we buy Pistorius’ memoir. We don’t want to think about Evans’ victim, when he scores that winning goal. 

So we just conveniently take them out of the narrative. 

After all, it doesn’t matter if women’s lives are ruined by violent men, does it? It doesn’t matter that it happens every day. The Evans and Pistorius cases show that what matters to our society most is the fallen abuser. It’s more important to us that the violent man can have his life back. 

I’m not having it. I can’t put stay silent. I can’t join in with the pretence that these men’s lives are ruined. I can’t ignore their victims because they and their agents want us to

So just remember this. 

Pistorius’ life wasn’t ruined. Reeva Steenkamp’s life was ended. 


Ched Evans’ life wasn’t ruined. Ched Evans is a rapist.

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Butterfly Psyche Theatre’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


On Friday evening I headed across town to the haunting and evocative setting of Arnos Vale cemetery to watch the Butterfly Psyche Theatre’s production of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – adapted from Anne Bronte’s novel. The company have been running a season of Bronte adaptations – including the perhaps better known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

The novel’s narrative is mainly told through a letter from Gilbert Markham to his friend, detailing the arrival of the new tenant at Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham. The middle part of the novel is written as Helen’s diary, before switching back to Gilbert’s letter.  

This structure informed the performance of the play – with two actors taking on all the character roles and using the framing of a letter and a diary to directly narrate to the audience what was happening in the story. This successfully meant that the audience was able to negotiate what is quite a complex story, while gaining an insight into the inner lives of Gilbert and Helen. 

The play began with the male actor addressing the audience as Gilbert. He draws us into the world of his village – with the woman actor taking on the role of mother, sister, brother, landlord, and the wickedly flirtatious Eliza Millward, before entering the stage as Helen. It’s a real skill to be able to perform such a diverse set of roles in such quick succession and allow the audience to latch on to the change of character without feeling jarred, and it’s a skill she had. Changing her posture, her smile, the way she moved her eyes – these subtle movements helped the audience understand straight away whether she was, for example, Helen or Eliza. 

Gilbert’s narration meant that as well as the action on stage, we were able to comprehend and empathise with his changing feelings towards Helen, as slowly he finds himself in love with her – and she with him. We see a young man grappling with the first realisation of love and feel with him his shock and horror when he believes Helen has betrayed his love. 

The story then switches, and it is Helen who takes centre stage, as the narrative voice moves to her diary and the story of her increasingly violent marriage to Arthur Huntingdon. 

The devastating centre of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story of domestic abuse, and Helen’s struggle to decide whether to stay, and remain in a violent marriage, or go and risk the scandal and censure of her peers. It’s a very radical and brutally honest story – made even more so when you consider that Bronte wrote this novel when women didn’t have much legal status at all – and certainly not in cases of divorce. 

The actor playing Helen beautifully depicted how marriage turned her from a spirited and principled young girl full of verve and energy, to a grown woman who is trying to survive in a loveless and violent marriage. The actors powerfully brought to life Helen’s internal struggle – she optimistically hopes for a better future with her husband, whilst knowing that in reality such a belief is hopeless. As a result, she is torn between wanting to stay, and knowing she must leave.  

Just as in 1848, when the novel was written, readers and audiences today still question ‘why did she stay for so long’. It’s a question we don’t just ask of Helen, but of all women in violent relationships. The ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ question has echoed through the ages – dangerously ignoring the role of the perpetrator and the dynamics of male violence against women. Through witnessing Helen as she battles with the expectations put on her by society, her fears for her son, and her dying hopes for a better future, the audience perhaps are brought closer to understanding the impact of domestic abuse, and the difficulties women face in escaping violent marriages. 

Having two actors play all the characters meant that much of the novel was cut – for example the storyline involving Walter Hargrave, and the scenes where Huntingdon tries to corrupt his son by giving him wine and teaching him to insult his mother. As a result, some of the novel’s darkness and horror was lost, as both of those storylines bring to life even more just how impossibly placed Helen was. She knows that if she leaves her husband, she risks being preyed upon by men like Hargrave, and will be seen by her peers as a disgraced woman who is up for grabs. She also knows that if she doesn’t leave, Huntingdon’s influence on her son will increase, and the cycle of abuse re-enforced. 


But the effect of these cuts meant that the play could distil the two key core developments of the novel – that of Gilbert from a slightly frivolous and fickle boy to a loving and mature man, and of Helen’s journey towards freedom and a mutual, respectful love. As a result, the production gave the audience access into the inner lives of these two complex and challenging characters in a very personal and powerful way.  

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

If not now, when?

September was a good month. It was sunny, and didn’t rain much, and I went on holiday and turned 30. Pretty good month. 

It was also the month 11 women were killed in the UK by suspected male violence. Follow that link to the Counting Dead Women blog see their names. It’s important we remember their names - Palmira Silva, Alice Gross, Hannah Witheridge, Leighann Duffy, Glynis Bensley, Pennie Davis, Serena Hickey, Dorothy Brown, Nicola Mckenzie, Davinia Loynton, Lorna McCarthy.  

September was also the month we learnt that a rich white man who shoots a gun four times loaded with bullets that are designed to kill, and does kill, is not actually considered a murderer. 

Today I woke up to the tragic news that another young girl has been killed, by suspected male violence. It’s a horrible, horrible news story and my thoughts and sympathies go out to her family, friends and loved ones. 

I’m not going to comment on the specific case here. I want to instead talk about the wider response to the epidemic of male violence. 

Whenever there is a murder like this, feminist campaigners like myself start talking again about male violence. And we are told we’re disgusting, that we’re trying to make political capital out of a tragedy. That now is not the time to talk about male violence. 

It’s a similar response that conservatives make to gun crime incidents in the USA. A mass shooting provokes discussion about gun control. Those in favour of the status quo pronounce that ‘now is not the time to talk about gun control’ and accuse reformists of trying to make political capital out of a tragedy. 

To which the response is – if not now, when? If not in the aftermath of a mass killing by a man with a gun, when is a good time to talk about gun crime? When is a non-sensitive time to have this conversation? When everyone has forgotten again? Or on the days when no gun murders take place in the States? (hint, those days don’t actually exist). 

It’s the same with male violence. We know that 2 women a week are murdered by their partners or ex partners. We know that the vast majority of murderers of women are men (and the vast majority of killers of men are men too). We know that there are 80,000 rapes a year in the UK, over 500,000 sexual assaults – again a majority of which are committed by men against women.

When would be a good time to talk about fatal male violence? When would be a good time to talk about the patterns of male violence? When would be good time to talk about how male violence is not an ‘isolated incident’, how 11 women being killed in one month is not an ‘isolated incident’? If not now, when?

Shall we talk about it on the few days in the week when a woman isn’t killed by a man? We can’t talk about it on the days when male violence against women isn’t happening because – like gun murders in America – those days don’t exist. 

Talking about fatal male violence when it happens isn’t an attempt to make political capital out of a dreadful murder. It’s a very real and very necessary attempt to try and make sense of why these murders keep on happening, so that we can stop them from happening again. 

We keep burying our heads in the sand about the reality of male violence. We keep pretending that these are isolated incidents. We keep ignoring the fact that if 11 members of any other group of people were murdered by another group of people within 30 days then we wouldn’t call it an ‘isolated incident’. 

If we don’t talk honestly about male violence, then we can’t take action to stop it. If we don’t talk about causes, police failings, cuts to life-saving services; if we don’t talk about education; if we don’t talk about impunity then we can’t stop it. 

Ask yourself. How many women have to die before we start talking about fatal male violence? How long are you prepared to wait? 



Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dave Lee Travis and the response to sexual assault

Sexual assault is a crime. 

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, in recent days, I’ve found myself having to remind myself of this, and remind others of it too. 

Sexual assault is a crime. It is a crime to grab a woman’s arse or crotch. It is a crime to grope a woman’s tits. It is against the law to violate another person’s autonomy. It’s not funny. It’s not a joke. It’s not ‘just a laugh’ and ‘boys will be boys’. It is a crime. 

I feel I have to remind people of this because in the days following Dave Lee Travis’ conviction for indecent assault, there has been the usual flurry of people trying to minimise what he did, and what others like him did. They’ve tried once again to paint sexual assault as something that just ‘used to happen in the 60s/70s/80s’ (even though we now know that he was still assaulting women in the last few years - as Camilla Long’s excellent article illustrates). When that defence has failed, they’ve tried to act as though it’s not that bad for men to violate women’s boundaries, for men to treat your body as public property. 

That’s what sexual assault is, by the way. It is a deliberate choice by another person to violate your personal boundaries and to treat your body as their property - to treat your body as though it doesn’t belong to you. 

So why are so many people so determined to minimise this crime? Why are so many people determined to pretend that it isn't that bad? Why are people so invested - as one tweeter was this morning - in telling women to stop moaning and instead concern themselves with ‘real issues’? Why, when I tweeted about my own experience of sexual assault, did I receive the patronising response, ‘there there dear!’? 

I’ve got two suggestions. Firstly, I believe it is because of the oft-repeated refrain from the last couple of years:

If that’s a crime, then you’d have to lock up most of the male population!

In another instance that proves that anti feminist men have much less respect for men than most feminists, I believe that most of the male population are able to go about their lives without grabbing women’s body parts. I don’t think violating women’s bodies is something that blokes innately or naturally do. It is a deliberate crime that one person commits against another. So you wouldn’t have to lock up most the male population. (#notallmen !!!)

But if every sexual assault: if every grab; if every act of intimidation; if every flash; if every public wank on to a woman’s body without her consent; if every tongue forced down a throat without consent; if every rape - if all of these crimes were reported, and convicted, then there would be many, many more men in prison. When you consider there are over 500,000 sexual assaults in the UK every year. And that around 80,000 of those are rapes. And of those rapes only 15% are reported. And of that 15%, only 6% are convicted. 

Imagine for a moment, if every one of those sexual assaults and rapes were reported, and every victim was believed, and every perpetrator was convicted. We can’t, can we? We can’t conceive such a thing - if every time a man has groped or grabbed us he was arrested, and charged, and convicted. 

And the reason we can’t imagine it is because as women we have been taught for so long that these every day violations of our bodily autonomy are just things we are meant to put up with. From the age of 16, 14, 12, 10, 8…we are told not to make a fuss. We are told it’s just a bit of a joke. Boys will be boys. We’re told ‘not to make a fuss over nothing’. We’re told it’s just what happens to you when you are a girl or a woman, in public space. We’re not told that anything we can be done about it. We walk away, feeling sad, and frightened, and ashamed, and embarrassed. And he, the person who has made you feel this way, walks away feeling free. 

When I flick through my own main experiences of sexual assault assault, there are at least four offences of DLT proportions and worse. And those are just the four I remember. The general litany of flashings and gropings are too commonplace, too blurry, to really recall individually. I didn’t report a single one of them. I didn’t even report when my hair was set on fire. 

‘Don’t make a fuss. ‘Boys will be boys’. ‘What do you expect?’

Thankfully, in the case of DLT, women did stand up. They called the assaults what they were. They named the crime. And how do we, collectively, as society respond? By talking about how awful it is for him to have to go through this. By talking about how the assaults aren’t that bad. By telling women, once again, that they should just put up with it, and keep quiet. 

I’ve long observed how as a society, we have a dissonance in our approach towards violence against women. I have written about this before, in terms of our reaction to violent celebrity men.

We all agree that of course, violence against women is wrong. We all nod our heads vehemently and agree that rape is an abhorrent crime. And then we do our best to try and minimise violence against women. When we are confronted with rape, we find ways to blame the victim. When we are confronted with domestic abuse, we ask why she stayed. And when sexual assaults like DLT’s are revealed, we shake our heads and muse publicly about whether it’s actually that bad, whether being groped is actually that distressing.

(It is, by the way. Being a victim of sexual assault is deeply unpleasant. In my experience it has meant feeling grubby, and embarrassed, and ashamed. It has made me feel anxious in public spaces. It has been a constant reminder that under patriarchy, I am not entitled to believe that my body is my own, and that there will always be men willing to remind me of this.)

I’ve come to the sad conclusion that the reason we do this, the reason we condemn violence against women on the one hand, and excuse and minimise it on the next, is because the reality of male violence against women and girls is just too awful to confront. So we find ways to avoid confronting it. And the best way to avoid confronting male violence, is to focus our attention on women’s behaviour. 

So now I want you to confront the reality of male violence against women in the UK. Think about it for a moment. Think about how in the UK, there are 500,000 sexual assaults every year. 80,000 rapes every year. That’s around 1500 rapes a week. 1.2 million women every year experience domestic abuse. 2 women a week are being killed by their male partners or exes. 

Think about how,  at the same time this is happening, the government cuts are closing down the services that tackle male violence, and pick up the pieces left by male violence. 

It’s a lot easier to find ways to blame the victim, to ask questions of the victim, and to pretend that the crimes committed against women are not that bad. It’s a lot easier to do that then to confront the extent of male violence against women, to take action to prevent it, and to invest money in supporting the women who experience it. 

It’s a lot easier to tell women that the assaults committed against us aren’t that bad, than to ask why nearly half a million men feel confident that they can grope, grab and assault women and get away with it. 

I think there’s another reason why so many men in the last few days have huffed and puffed and tried to pretend that there’s not much wrong with what DLT did. 

And that’s because they are guilty of the same crime. But unlike DLT, and in common with the vast majority of men who grope, grab, flash, wank on, beat, and rape women, they got away with it. 

DLT’s conviction has reminded those men that what they did is a crime. And now they’re running scared they won’t be able to get away with it again. 


Fancy buying a book or two?

Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue
The Boys on the Bus 



Monday, 15 September 2014

Re-thinking sisterhood conference and what I said about women only space

So. For me the story of sisterhood and the importance of women-only organising is a story of moving from what might be called ‘liberal’ feminism to a more radical feminist outlook. 

When I started out in feminism, organising Ladyfest 2007 and then, not long after, taking over the stewardship of the Bristol Feminist Network, I believed in the importance of including men in my feminist organising. After all, I reasoned, men can be feminists too (a belief I now question) and patriarchy hurts men too. So why shouldn’t men come along, contribute, share, and listen? Why shouldn’t men be present? 

I do still have sympathy with this outlook in part. I do think that patriarchy hurts men too, and I do believe that men need to be allies to the feminist movement. I believe this because in order to achieve the goals of the women’s liberation movement, men need to change. They need to give up some power and privilege. And for men to do this, they need to see why it is necessary. Feminism is part of the why. I also believe that in many ways, patriarchy does hurt men too. It preaches a damaging ideal of masculinity that celebrates violence and machismo, and leaves men and boys feeling hurt and confused. A good example of this is the exposure of very young men and boys to pornography that glamorises violence against women – telling men that the only way to be sexual is to be violent and aggressive. This message helps no one. 

When I ran the Bristol Feminist Network, very few men attended our meetings. The vast, vast majority of meetings, although open to men, were women only by default. And it is in these meetings where I discovered the beauty of sisterhood. 

Sisterhood is not about liking women, it’s not about being best friends with every woman you meet. I met some women in these meetings who I couldn’t stand! Instead, sisterhood is about creating a space or a world where women’s voices are heard, listened to – really listened to – and respected. 

In these women only spaces, I found myself laughing with women who were ten years younger and forty years older than me. I found myself crying as we shared painful stories, and as I told painful stories myself. I found myself listened to, and heard. 

In those meetings, I discovered the importance of women-only space in creating an environment where all the women speaking had a shared experience of oppression, and where all the women speaking were equal and valued. 

Now, sometimes men would come to the meetings. Mostly these men were lovely. Kind, sensitive, “feminist” – but also filled with male privilege. And I started to realise how different the dynamic was when men were present. Collectively, the women in the room listened to men more. We privileged their voices. We looked to them to be the voice of wisdom and sense. 

This was not something these men consciously demanded from us – far from it. But it was something that occurred because as women, we have been raised from day one to defer to men. We have been educated to put men’s voices first. And it is hard to erase 25 years of patriarchal training to shut up and listen to him, even when you are in a feminist meeting. 

That was my first lesson in why we needed women only space. The second was from a story my friend told me about a meeting she had to go to with a cabinet minister, to talk about women’s rights in conflict zones. The minister arranged for the meeting to take place in his “club”. Yes, a male only club, like the ones you read about in Georgette Heyer novels. My friend had to get permission to enter. 

It was a lightbulb moment for me. For years, I had heard people tell me that women only feminist space was exclusive and excluded men. But in one flash, I realised that the centres of power in this country – the boys schools, the bullgindon club, the golf clubs, the gentleman’s clubs, they were male only spaces that consciously and legally excluded women. The places where the decisions were made, where the men talked, where the men made connections, where the men ruled – all of these were set up to deliberately exclude women. And no one was really talking about it. Whereas men were up in arms at women daring to come together in women only spaces to talk about rape, they were strangely silent about men coming together in male only spaces to talk about laws around rape. 

This is hugely important. If you want to speak to a cabinet minister about including women in conflict resolution in their own countries, as my friend was doing, and to have that meeting you have to go to a place that absolutely excludes women, something is very, very wrong. 

This was when I realised why women only space is so threatening to men. And threatening is the word – if it wasn’t threatening we wouldn’t have to spend so long explaining why we want it, justifying why we want it, and being forced to give it up because we’re ‘discriminating against men.’ Women only space is threatening because men know that male-only spaces are spaces of power. They’re the spaces where men make the decisions that govern society. Women only spaces are spaces where women are creating their own power. 

Because women-only space is empowering – for all of those reasons of sisterhood I explained before. It’s empowering in the real, true sense of the word, because it creates a space where we have an equal and valued voice. 

So that’s how I made the journey from mixed to women-only space. Since my light bulb moment, it’s one I’ve become more convinced by – having had the infuriating experience of being told by men who identify as feminists that I need to shut up, sit back, read more books, or being told ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’. I need a space that is free from male privilege, where women can share their experiences and self-organise and be empowered. 

Sisterhood has been the most important thing to me since becoming a feminist. As I said, sisterhood is not about liking every woman you meet. But it is absolutely about feeling that women’s voices can and must be heard. It is about recognising common experiences of oppression whilst valuing and talking about how intersectionality means that different women experience oppression differently. And it is about coming together, and creating our own, empowered spaces, having been locked out of the centres of power for so long. 

After all, as Robin Morgan so wisely said, SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL!!!!!