Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Gertrude Stein and Cultural Femicide

The other morning I re-watched the film Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen in 2011. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s hardly a classic, but it is good fun. In it, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is visiting Paris with his fiancée. He’s a ‘Hollywood hack’ who wants to write a novel, and is obsessed with 1920s Paris. He is walking through the city at midnight, and finds himself transported back in time to 1920s Paris, where he meets the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Man Ray, Bunuel, Cole Porter, TS Eliot – the whole crowd. He falls in love with Adriana, played to perfection by Marion Cotillard, who had affairs with Modigliani, Picasso and Braque. In the film, that is.

It’s a fun film and it makes you want to go to Paris. But on my second viewing I noticed something that escaped my attention first time round, and it’s been making me cross.

When Gil meets Hemingway, he asks him to read his novel. Hemingway refuses, saying that you should never give your work to another writer to read. He then says he will take it to Gertrude Stein.

Hold on, I thought to myself. If you should not give your work to another writer to read, why would you give it to Gertrude Stein, who not only was a writer, but was one of the most prolific and one of the most exciting writers of the twentieth century?

It felt to me that this was a classic piece of cultural femicide, where Woody Allen completely erased Stein’s writing, and her contribution to modern literature.

It sounds like just a small thing. But Woody Allen presenting Stein as someone who read work because she was not a writer herself is just part of a much greater dismissal of Gertrude Stein’s importance and influence, and a wider dismissal of women writers living and working in Paris in the 1920s alongside the men who wrote ‘the great American novels TM’.

Hemingway knew the importance of Stein as a writer. Although they fell out over Torrents of Spring, he admitted later that ‘Gertrude was always right’, and explores her influence on him in A Moveable Feast.  In fact, contrary to Woody Allen’s portrayal, everyone in Paris knew the importance of Stein as a writer as well as a salon hostess. Janet Flanner, in one of her letters from Paris in 1926, wrote:

No American writer is taken more seriously than Miss Stein by the Paris modernists.’

But time and time again we see Gertrude Stein erased from our understanding of modernism. She’s not taught on university syllabuses, her influence on writing is not mentioned or celebrated, and trying to get hold of her work at your local bookshop is a bloody nightmare. Yet when you read Stein, you see in her bold, truthful prose that she wasn’t lying when she said that what Picasso was doing with art, she was doing with literature. She knew that Picasso was the most important artist and she was the most important writer. Her experimental form, her desire to create literary cubism – all of it is incredibly influential on the male writers we are all told to read.

The reason that men and women writers went to Stein with their manuscripts and asked for her views on their own words was because they knew her as a writer, as a genius with words. They didn’t just rock up to 27 Rue du Fleurus for Alice’s cooking and a chance to meet Picasso. They went because they knew that she was a writer who they respected to view their work, and advise on their work.

So why is Stein so ignored today, when her male peers and pupils are so celebrated?

Well, part of the problem is the one presented by Allen. Stein knew, and wrote about in Everybody’s Autobiography, that people in the USA were more interested in Stein the figure, than Stein the writer. This is exactly the trap Woody Allen falls into in the film. Here’s Gertrude Stein, the mentor, the hostess, the personality. But where is Gertrude Stein, the writer?

Another part of the problem was the widely-held conception that her work was difficult. Well, yes. Her work is quite difficult but only because it is challenging everything we accept about form and how we use language. It’s exciting. A lot of great modernist literature challenges you as a reader, Stein is no different. But while the linguistic gymnastics of her male contemporaries was admired, in Stein’s case it became something to dismiss and to mock.

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas was an instant bestseller, but the perceived difficulty of Stein’s work meant most of her writing was unpublished for most of her life. In fact, she famously fell out with Sylvia Beach – proprietor of Shakespeare and Company – because she felt Sylvia was championing James Joyce’s work over Stein’s own. It wasn’t until the success of Alice B Toklas that more of her work began to be published, and ever since then it seems to have fallen in and out of print.

Yet everyone who reads Gertrude Stein surely knows what an extraordinary writer she was. She was the genius she claimed herself to be. Janet Flanner doesn’t lie, everyone knew it in 1926. So why have we forgotten it now?

Stein isn’t the only women writer in Allen’s film who has been sidelined. Djuna Barnes makes a brief appearance, dancing with Gil, who “jokes” that it was no wonder she wanted to lead (this joke annoys me in so many ways).

Now, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is widely accepted as a modernist masterpiece. TS Eliot wrote the introduction, and it is a hugely influential text. It is also beautiful, frightening, heartbreaking, funny, transgressive – and the prose is poetic and gorgeous and sensual and stark. Nightwood is a truly great novel.

But where is Djuna Barnes in our cultural landscape? Again, she’s not taught on university syllabuses. She might turn up on women’s history reading lists, her Ladies Almanack is a literary curiosity for students of lesbian history, she’s read by geeks like me who love 1920s Paris and the women who lived there. She’s recognised and celebrated in ‘the academy’ but she doesn’t enjoy the fame of her male contemporaries, even though Nightwood is the masterpiece it is, even though the stories in Spillway are magnificent.

I love Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, and I love Sherwood Anderson and all the big American writers who flocked to Paris and met at Gertrude’s salon and talked to her, writer to writer. But I am constantly frustrated and amazed by the lack of mention of Gertrude Stein, by the lack of respect paid to her, or to Djuna Barnes, or to the many, many women who were writing and working and creating in 1920s Paris, just as the men were.

So, what can we do to try and counter this cultural femicide? Well, we can start by reading Gertrude Stein. Below is a handy reading list for you…

To find out more about Gertrude Stein and her circle, you should start by watching Paris was a Woman and reading the accompanying book. Then try Women of the Left Bank by Shari Henstock. You can also read Noel Riley Fitch’s biography of Sylvia Beach.

To read Gertrude Stein, the best place to start is The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas.  Then Tender Buttons (my favourite is Sugar).  Then there’s Everybody’s Autobiography.  And The Making of Americans.  And Three Lives.

There are loads more – she was incredibly prolific. She wrote every day, barring a period of writer’s block after the success of Alice B Toklas. There’s her writing on Paris, her Novel of Thank You, her portraits of Picasso and Carl van Vechten – seriously there is just so much to read!

You can also read this anthology that has a lot of the above in it, as well as lectures and other things.

Gertrude wasn’t the only writer in the family. Alice B Toklas wrote her memoirs too, and even better it’s packed with her favourite recipes. It’s called The Alice B Toklas Cookbook.

If you want to read Djuna Barnes, this volume includes Nightwood, The Antiphon and Spillway.

Janet Flanner wrote her Letter from Paris for the New Yorker between 1925 and 1939, and her ‘best bits’ are recorded here. If I could have a drink with anyone in 1920s Paris, it would be Janet.

Happy reading!

Finally, here’s Gertrude herself, reading her portrait of Picasso.



Monday, 16 December 2013

Review of Purefinder by Ben Gwalchmai

What is Purefinder, the first novel by Ben Gwlachmai and published by Cosmic Egg, about? It’s a more complex question to answer then it sounds. Is it about Purefoy, a ‘pure finder’ who, stumbling away from heart-breaking news, is pointed to as a murderer, and is taken on a Dantean journey through London by a terrifying moustache’d Irish man? Is it about the fetishization of our Victorian past? Is it about the living geography of the city of London? Is it about grief and violence, about brotherhood, about survival and death, about the impact of a corrupt political elite on all our lives? 

It’s about all these things, of course, and much more. 

Disclaimer – I do know Ben, who wrote this book, but haven’t known him that long and if I didn’t honestly like it I just wouldn’t have reviewed it. I hardly ever do reviews on this blog, as regular readers will know. But I really liked this book and so thought, what the hell. I’ll write something down saying so. Also, we are publishing stable mates, both being in the John Hunt stable (buy my book!). 

Purefinder is an immersive read. It topples you head first in to that ‘living geography’ of London, taking you through its twisted streets – often frightening, sometimes beautiful (discovering the feel of a forest in the heart of Soho), always surprising. There’s a charm in reading this book as someone who once lived in London, although that doesn’t mean those beyond the M25 won’t find that excitement of recognition and difference either. London is a city that lives and breathes in history, the footsteps of millions lies beneath that veneer of tarmac and pavement. You feel the ghosts around you when you walk through some of its older, idiosyncratic streets and you recognise that feeling in the maps that Purefinder draws for you. 

It’s immersive in another way too – in the way Gwalchmai writes the physicality of Purefoy’s journey. Sickness, pain, aches, dehydration – Purefoy experiences the day through the prism of these disorders, and it can make for an unsettling and dizzying read. The visceral descriptions of his physical feeling are unflinching, as the physical reflects the emotional turmoil of grief, surprised joy, fear and desperation. 

Purefoy’s ‘guide’ is a violent Irishman. From the beginning, he is overbearing and frightening. But he also has moments of charm and wit – nothing is one-dimensional in this book. We’re not quite sure where he has come from, or where he is going, but we know where he is leading Purefoy. He has flashes of kindness, but he is too unpredictable for you or Purefoy to ever feel safe. 

The London Gwalchmai writes is populated with memorable characters. There are women working as prostitutes, labourers and lamp-lighters, Opium dens and Polish men and clients and pimps. It is a violent world but it is also a world of friendship, alliances, and brotherhood. 

And then there are Flash and Gideon, two men whose hands show no signs of work. Flash and Gideon are the elite, they are the ones with power. It’s obviously Gwalchmai’s intention that through these characters we recognise the political analogy between power and poverty in Purefinder’s world, and our own present. It’s the same with the Cabinet gang. This could be a risky strategy, but he pulls it off. 

Because you don’t have to read Flash and Gideon and the Cabinet as political allegories (is that the right word? So long since I reviewed fiction!). You can read them simply as characters who reside in the world of the novel and in the world created by the novel. This means that while their role and their voices create another and important dimension to your reading, it also allows the novel to live on into the future. It still works even if you are not engaged with today’s political personalities. In this way you get the best of both worlds – a novel that engages with and criticises our political establishment, and a novel that is packed with original and vivid characters that populate Victorian London, and continue to populate our London of today. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that sly references to the present situation in a book set in the past can be clumsy and unwelcome, but in Purefinder they enrich and excite your reading experience. And although I don’t agree with all the political arguments in the novel, that is hardly a negative. It is about provoking thought and debate. 

The relationships between men are important in the novel, and not least the relationship between Purefoy and his father. This is a particularly difficult and heart-breaking part of the story, as Purefoy remembers his father’s mental breakdown precipitated by that other war in Afghanistan. Punctuated with fragments of Welsh language songs and phrases, fragments that reflect the fragmentation of memory, the recollections are frightening and moving. 

The shape and sounds of words are important to the novel too. We are reminded how to pronounce words, we are prompted to look at how words look to mean one thing but might mean another. It’s all part of that immersive experience – asking us to take notice of how we are reading as well as what we are reading. 

Purefinder is about all of those things in the first paragraph and more. It can be read in many ways and it invites you to explore all those ways. The characterisation is rich, that ‘living geography’ of the city pulls you in, and the political themes and analogies are cleverly drawn. 

Not bad for a first novel hey? Well done Ben! 

You can buy Purefinder from Foyles and for your Kindle, and all the usual places. 



Connections and Departures by Gaptooth

A friend and I were recently bemoaning the lack of political thought, or any kind of thought, in pop music today. It might be because we’ve reached the age where we start looking for the ‘good old days’, or it might be because, well, it’s kind of true. If you look back through musical history, you see plenty of evidence for a guitar, a keyboard and a voice being wielded to say something. Something important. From the Civil Rights songs, the poetic protest of the blues, to big hits criticising Thatcherite politics to satirical comments on the rich-poor divide. And then, of course, we had riot grrl and cool edgy women in pop claiming their feminism and slamming misogyny in popular culture. 

Recently it feels that there just hasn’t been that much of that. Sure, there’s an old Etonian singing about how Thatcher fucked the kids. And there’s Lily Allen trying to critique music industry sexism whilst simultaneously using all the tropes of that sexism in her video. My two great hopes for some kind of statement, MIA and Lady Gaga, kind of messed it up with their Assange alliance. 

Then, bam. At the end of 2013 something changed. Beyonce put Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche in a furious feminist anthem on her new record. And Gaptooth released her first album, Connections and Departures

I’ve known Hannah, the woman behind Gaptooth, since the mid 2000s when I moved into her house. We organised Ladyfest Bristol 2007 together and have been friends ever since. And so it is with great pleasure and excitement that I take this opportunity to review her album. 

The album opens with the electrifying Ladykillers, a catchy, angry piece of pop that wears its feminist politics on its sleeve. The music crashes in, and Gaptooth’s sweet voice slices through, telling us ‘it’s a man’s world, it’s a man’s business’. From there she explores the side-lining of women in left-wing politics, violence against women, (‘as he’s pinned you to the bed and you’re becoming the 1 in 3, the right to vote did not set you free’), with sly references to ‘being de Beauvoir to your Sartre’. And then the chorus swoops in, her voice soaring over the guitars that she’s ‘tired of settling for less’. 

The song is angry. It is angry about ladykillers – in every sense of the word. But it’s also a brilliant pop song with a chorus that you cannot get out your head and a beat you can’t help but dance to. It's so refreshing to hear some feminist anger in pop music again. It's so exciting to hear anger and passion and pissed off-ness at the horrors women face in a song you can sing along to and dance to. We need music and popular culture to give us pleasure, but we also want it to talk about what is happening, to protest and to criticise.

It’s no easy feat to write a song that makes you want to think and dance, but Gaptooth pulls it off with panache. 

Ladykillers sets the tone for the rest of the album, a mix of synth pop, dancing beats, big guitars, sweet vocals and the personal is political lyrics. There is the touching and painful duet with Oli Trademark, Enduring Freedom. It’s a soaring dance record with a euphoric beat that belies the personal heart of the lyrics. Then you have the witty two fingers to a break-up, Plans and Friends and Records, where Gaptooth celebrates a creative future and waves goodbye to the past with what is perhaps my favourite lyric in the world ever, ‘and when I said I had no protection, that wasn’t what I meant.’ The song goes on to re-write the marriage vows in an unabashed dig at patriarchy. 

Baggage is another stand out track, a little more understated than Ladykillers and Enduring Freedom, with quirky synths and an introspective exploration of being young and feeling alone with the line ‘when the glasses are all empty and the ashtrays are all full, we still are stuck with ourselves’. The song ends with staccato keys that jerk and surprise. 

These Machines takes a slightly different tone, with a driving bass and rockier way in, with angrier shouty lyrics that takes on capitalism and corporations, and the distractions offered to us by politicians: ‘while you were worried about immigration…we send them our carpet bombs for free’. 

Then there’s the heart-breaking ‘Same ghost every night’. The synths take on a darker note, they’re stripped back. It’s a beautiful if almost unbearably painful song about loss that can’t be forgotten once heard. As the song moves forward, the haunting soundscape builds up, becoming more and more intense, with the promise that ‘one day this will be alright’, before bringing you back down again.

It's followed by Badly Planned Recovery which has got hit written all over it as Gaptooth promises that she's 'not the wreck you've seen today'. This track should definitely be released as a single. The last track on the album, Take it Down, is a very pared back vocal and guitar number, with Gaptooth singing over simple guitar chords about liberte, egalite and fraternite, and socialist politics ('you won't find reality in reality TV'). The keyboard comes in but the song remains delightfully simple, letting Gaptooth's voice take priority as she tells her story. 

Each song is unique and individual, but they are all unmistakeably Gaptooth. They are political, personal, feminist, human, angry, witty and catchy. Connections and Departures is a collection of fantastic pop songs that make you want to dance and dance, before lifting up your placard and demanding change. Could this be a new dawn of politically minded pop? I hope so! 

Buy the album on iTunes or listen to it on Spotify 


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Violence against women, statistics and ignoring gender

I can hear you all now. Another blog on domestic violence statistics? How many does that make in the last seven-nearly-eight years? 

But the truth is, talking about the numbers is important. And so I will continue to do it. 

This post was triggered by a discussion on Twitter with a man to whom I gave the benefit of the doubt, but who turned out to be a troll. 

I had tweeted about how Clare’s Law – the new legislation that gives people the chance to find out if anyone has reported their partner for violent behaviour – could not really be effective when refuges are closing and the safety net for women leaving violent men is being slowly ripped apart. This was in light of a report from Women’s Aid who had a ‘snapshot’ day to show the problems women seeking refuge face. They recorded that on one day, 155 women and 103 children were turned away from refuges because there was no room. 

This man on Twitter got in touch to remind me that 1 in 6 men are victims or survivors of domestic abuse too. 

This is true, and it’s a statistic from the Walby and Allen report which also found that 1 in 4 women experienced domestic violence and abuse in their lifetimes. 

The Walby and Allen report – and these two stats in particular – are hugely important in shaping our understanding of how widespread domestic abuse is in our society. The fact that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience at least one incident of intimate partner violence should always be a wake up call to all of us. 

What these two statistics on their own don’t reveal is the gendered nature of on-going domestic abuse – and how women are more likely to experience repeat incidents of violence that can take place over many years

The 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 statistic covers all incidences of domestic abuse – including one-off incidents. When we look at the repeat incidences of domestic abuse however, we see that women are far, far more likely to experience on-going violence. 

The Walby and Allen report reveals that 32% of women who had ever experienced domestic violence (1 in 4 women) did so four or five (or more) times, compared to 11% of men. Women constituted 89% of all those who had experienced 4 or more incidents of domestic violence. These stats from the report are helpfully summarised on the Women’s Aid website

(Ironically, the Twitter troll called those stats ‘Christmas Cracker Statistics’ despite the fact that they came from the same report that he quoted the 1 in 6 number from. At that point I blocked and moved on with my day.) 

We know that, according to the Dodd report from July 04, domestic abuse has the highest rate of repeat victimisation. A woman will on average experience 35 incidents of violence before she calls the police, and still less than 40% of domestic abuse crime is reported to the police. We also know that 2 women a week will be killed by a violent partner – constituting nearly 40% of all female homicide victims (Povey, (ed.), 2005; Home Office, 1999; Dept of Health, 2005). 

Bringing up the numbers around repeat incidences is not to diminish the horror and cruelty of one incident of violence. One incident is one too many. I just want to talk about repeat incidences because, on many occasions, I hear the 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 stat quoted in an effort to try and smudge our understanding of how domestic abuse is still an issue of gender-based violence. And this is really important. 

Increasingly I feel there’s a gender blindness going on when we talk about violence against women and girls. For example, last week I wrote an article for Open Democracy about sexual harassment in schools – a form of bullying overwhelmingly committed by boys, with girls the vast majority of victims. In response to my article, I was reminded on Twitter that girls take part in this kind of bullying too. 

Now, of course girls bully too. But it is undeniable that sexual harassment in the classroom – from non-consensual upskirt shots to groping to sexually degrading name-calling – is a gendered issue. It simply is. If we try to deny the gender element, if we refuse to name the fact that sexual harassment in schools is overwhelmingly boys harassing girls, then we can never solve the problem. We can never take the action needed to reduce levels of harassment and sexual bullying. 

In that article I quote research from the NSPCC and Bristol University regarding violence in teen relationships. Just as before, we see a real gendered difference when it comes to repeat offending. The study found that 25% of girls and 18% of boys reported physical violence, and 1 in 3 girls and 16% of boys reported some form of sexual partner violence. For severe physical violence the numbers were 1 in 9 girls and 4% of boys. Girls were more likely than boys to say that the violence was repeated, and that the repeated violence either remained at the same level of severity or worsened. 

Another example of refusing to see gender was in the recent Children’s Commissioner report on ‘child on child abuse’. Again, all the evidence in the report points to the fact that this is a crime where girls are overwhelmingly the victims and boys are overwhelmingly the perpetrators. Yet most of the reporting of the report talked about ‘child on child’ abuse. The gender of the majority of the perpetrators and the victims was not acknowledged. 

Now, perhaps there is some sensitivity needed when we talk about crimes committed by children against other children. It runs the risk of generalising about young men in a culture that already demonises ‘youth’ so horribly. But if we ignore the gendered element, if we refuse to talk about how these are crimes committed against girls and women because they are girls and women, then again, how do we tackle it? How do we address the causes? How do we tackle the perpetrators, and how do we tackle the lack of accountability, when we refuse to acknowledge that the problem is male violence against women and girls?

If you go back to that report by the NSPCC and Bristol University – 1 in 3 girls report sexual violence from a partner. One third of 16-19 year olds have experienced sexual violence from a partner. This is not ok. We have to talk about how this is a gender-based violence issue.  

This post started out as a chance to explore what domestic abuse stats look like when we compare one-off and repeat incidents. It’s ended with a plea to not deny the reality of gender-based violence – where women and girls are victimised because they are women and girls. If we don’t look at gender, if we don’t look at why gender-based violence happens, then we can’t stop it. We can’t pretend this isn’t happening to women and girls because they are women and girls. It is. And as long as we ignore it, it will continue to. 


This, by Karen Ingala Smith, is a very important read on the statistics around gender and reporting domestic abuse. 

Friday, 29 November 2013

Christmas Presents and Stocking Fillers

It's Black Friday! Whatever that means. Something to do with shopping they tell me. So here's a post all about how I can help YOU with your Christmas shopping!

Because I've got a book out!

It's called Greta and Boris: a daring rescue.

And it's published by Our Street Books, an imprint of John Hunt who have also published Nina Power, Laurie Penny and Ben Gwalchmai.

Here's the deal:

Greta’s best friend is her cat Boris. However, little does she realise her bewhiskered buddy is actually the Prince of the Kingdom of Cats. So when he is kidnapped by the Rat King, a young warrior cat named Kyrie Mi-ke is sent to find Greta, and together they face a mystical and magical adventure to bring Boris home again.

Greta must face the challenge of the staircase of the autumn leaves; cross Cloud Top Land and the Milky Sea; end the war between the two tribes of mice and face the truth of the Millpond; before facing the Rat King himself.




I think it's pretty great. But don't take my word for it. 

Bidisha says:

Greta and Boris is touching, exciting, cheeky and vivid, with wonderful characters, a strong narrative and sudden delightful details. It is an adventure that is both heartstopping and heartmelting, at once sentimental and comfortingly predictable. The story's sprinkled with sparkling details, with each location fully realised and a joy to traverse.

And Kid Lit reviews say:

I enjoyed Greta and Boris and loved all the imaginative places and things Greta comes upon in her journey to save Boris. Each kingdom is vibrant and special, except the Kingdom of Rats that is too dark and desolate to describe in any other terms. Chapter 2 tells us all we need to know about Greta. The journey reinforce Greta's qualities and self-identity. 

Although there is lots for grown-ups to enjoy, this book is designed with 7-10 year olds in mind. 

You can buy it at Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, Blackwells - pretty much everywhere.

It really is the perfect stocking filler for a child in your life who loves books. And because I wrote it, it's got lots of feisty, adventurous female characters too.

Sounds PURR-fect!

AND THAT'S NOT ALL!

Two years ago, I self-published a feminist anthology called The Light Bulb Moment. It collects the stories of women and men from all over the UK, as they share with us why they are feminists. The book includes stories from Laurie Penny, Nimko Ali, Finn Mackay and Jo Swinson.

You can buy it direct from Lulu for just £7.99.

It's the perfect stocking filler for the feminists in your life.

AND THAT'S NOT ALL!

You can also buy a copy of Carrie Dunn's fantastic 'A Brief History of Mothers in Fiction' which I published last year. Her witty and insightful look at mothers in fiction is a great read, and another lovely stocking filler for lovers of literature, and your mum!

So, what are you waiting for?

Your new Christmas shopping list should look like:

Greta and Boris: a daring rescue

The Light Bulb Moment

A Brief History of Mothers in Fiction

And, of course, buy Ben Gwalchamai's book, Purefinder. It's going to be awesome.







Thursday, 21 November 2013

Bristol anti-rape campaign says there are no excuses for rape

This morning I woke up to be greeted by Safer Bristol’s new anti-rape campaign.

And what a wake-up it was! Gone are the ‘let your hair down, not your guard’ posters that told women to live in a climate of fear. Instead, the campaign boldly states that there are ‘no excuses for rape’.  Finally, we have a safety campaign that focuses on the perpetrators, not the victims, of rape. 

This campaign marks a real sea change from the days when my Bristol Feminist Network colleague was told by the police that they couldn’t run a safety campaign focused on perpetrators as it would be ‘offensive to men’. Now we are seeing really positive leadership in Bristol, with the council, Safer Bristol, Operation Bluestone, the PCC Sue Mountstevens and Avon and Somerset police working together to promote the message that a woman is never to blame for the violence committed against her. 

The posters warn that a woman’s drinking is not an excuse to rape her. 



That being married to a woman is not an excuse to rape her.



That a woman consenting to kissing is not automatically consenting to sex.



That how a woman dresses is not an excuse to rape her. 



The campaign includes a booklet on rape myths, produced with the contribution of the amazing women of Bristol Fawcett.

This campaign is important. It sends out a message loud and clear that there are no excuses for rape. Rape is always and only the fault of the rapist. 

But posters are just the start. Now we need to follow through with what this campaign promises. 

We need to make sure that women feel supported to go to the police and report. In a week where we discovered that police forces are persuading women to withdraw allegations, and marking allegations as ‘no crime’, we need to give women the confidence that if they report rape, they will be listened to and believed. 

We then need to make sure the message that there are no excuses for rape is heard throughout the criminal justice system – by the CPS, by lawyers, by judges and by jurors. We need to make sure the message is heard by our media, who still publish victim-blaming editorials. And we need to make sure the message is heard by every single member of the public. After all, we all live in a rape culture that blames women for the violence committed against them. 

Today, only 15% of rapes are reported and only 6.5% of reports end in a conviction. A campaign like this can have a real impact in improving those numbers. But it needs to be more than words. We need to see the promises made in this campaign – the promise to believe women – followed through at every level.  

This morning, I was on BBC Radio Bristol discussing the importance of this campaign in tackling rape myths and supporting women to report rape. A member of the public called in to say he thought that women provoked men to rape by the clothes they wear. 

Now, I have a better opinion of men than that. I know that women’s behaviour doesn’t provoke men to rape. If it did, then every man who was ever in the same space as a woman is a potential rapist. I don’t believe every man could be 'provoked' into being a rapist, like this guy seemed to. Because I know that rape is not a ‘natural hazard’ that ‘just happens’ because women exist in the same universe as men. I know that rape is something a rapist chooses to do, because he can. And because he knows he is likely to get away with it. 

These posters have a real chance to challenge the persistent belief that women’s behaviour causes rape, because rape is something that men just  “do”. It can do it in a way that safety advice focusing on women’s actions never could. By bringing the rapist’s attitudes and actions into the picture, the campaign challenges the belief that rape is something that only women can prevent. It refuses to pander to the idea that preventing rape is women’s responsibility, that it is our responsibility to stop rape by restricting our freedoms and modifying our behaviour. These posters have a real opportunity to challenge attitudes, to encourage reporting and to change minds about who holds responsibility for violence against women and girls. It’s not going to change everything tomorrow. But it’s a beginning. 

I think it’s important to recognise that we would not be seeing this campaign if it wasn’t for years of feminist campaigning against rape culture in Bristol. That’s why I want to take today as an opportunity to thank every feminist voice in Bristol who has campaigned and lobbied for this change in safety strategy. I want to thank every voice that has argued against the message that women should ‘let their hair down, not their guard’. Because it’s those voices that began this change. And I want to thank Safer Bristol for responding, and for Operation Bluestone, and A&S Police and the PCC for supporting that response. This is a positive change that could have a really positive impact. 

And all those men who told me I was wrong to criticise gendered safety advice? This proves it was never just me saying it. 

Rape Crisis: 0808 802 9999 


Monday, 28 October 2013

Russell Brand, and the revolutionary act of voting

When one of my grandmothers was born, women my age didn’t have the right to vote in the UK. 

It was that recent. 

A few years before that grandmother was born, Emily Davidson died. She died because she believed that by excluding women from the ballot box, the British government were treating women as children, who had no stake in their country, who were governed and oppressed by men who refused to hear them. Her fellow suffragettes were locked up and effectively tortured through force-feeding and physical violence. They fought and they fought because they knew the right to vote was important. It was the signifier of a society that believed women had the right to a voice. 

It was not that long ago. It was so recent that I’ll repeat it. It was in my grandparents’ lifetimes that women my age didn’t have the right to vote. 

The Civil Rights Movement, who fought to end unequal application of voter registration requirements in the USA, was in my parents’ lifetime.

It was that recent. 

In my lifetime, women and men across the world are denied the right to vote. They are denied a voice in the way their society is run. They are dying and being imprisoned and being tortured for asking for the vote. 

Men could do with remembering that they haven’t always had a right to vote. The right for all men to vote in the UK isn’t that old – beginning with the 1832 Reform Act and extending from there. 

It’s very easy to not vote, when you have the right to. It’s very easy to be Russell Brand and say ‘don’t vote’ when we have the choice to or not. It’s very easy to forget how recently we were denied a political voice in the UK. It’s very easy to forget that this is a right many believed was worth dying for. Believe is still worth dying for. 

I have sympathy for Russell Brand’s anger at today’s politicians and I think he made a lot of good points – both on Newsnight and in the New Statesman  – about why people are disaffected with politics and why change is needed. After all, I am angry too. I want a revolution. I don’t like the system we have today. (I also don’t like Russell Brand’s diminishing of editors of national magazines to ‘beautiful women who ask him to do stuff’ – but that’s an argument for another day.)

But changing the system doesn’t happen by not voting. 

I believe that when you don’t vote, you take yourself out of the conversation. You might not vote because you don’t want to validate a political system that is led by someone as objectionable as David Cameron. But David Cameron doesn’t know that. He can shrug at that non-vote, and assume you didn’t vote because you can’t be arsed. And then he’ll disregard your non-vote, and carry on creating policies that trash the lives of those who they know traditionally don’t vote – i.e. under-25s.  

Not voting is not a political or revolutionary act because no one knows you’re not voting. No one cares about your reasons why you’re not voting. Sure, it might be a conversation point on a current affairs show. But the politicians in power don't care why you're not voting, as long as the ones who do, vote to maintain their status quo. 

For decades, voting has been the revolutionary act. 

It was revolutionary when the Chartists did it. It was revolutionary when the Suffragettes took to the streets. It was revolutionary when Civil Rights activists marched on Washington. It was revolutionary during the Arab Spring, as people took to the streets to fight for an end to dictatorships and demand the right to the vote. 

It was revolutionary when men and women fought and died for it. When they gave their freedoms and their lives. 

Not voting isn’t revolutionary. It’s a negative. It’s just a not. It’s not recorded, it’s shrugged off. It changes nothing. 

I know how bad politics looks today. Here in the UK, we have a bunch of politicians who argue amongst themselves, contradict one another to make political points, snuggle up to big business and have a list of principles you could fit on the back of a stamp. 

But that system doesn’t change by us taking ourselves out of the conversation. Not voting doesn’t change anything. 

That’s why they didn’t let us vote for so long. 

Voting is the result of revolutions and revolts.

I feel proud every time I vote. I feel connected to those brave women and men who fought for my right to mark the cross in that box, and I feel respect for those still fighting for that right. It is a right that was hard won and is easily removed. 

And of course I was furious when my last vote was betrayed by the Lib Dems. But it is too precious a right to throw away because of bad politicians. It is the badness of politicians that makes it even more important to preserve the rights we have to demand change. 

I’ll leave the last word to Hunter S. Thompson

Vote. It ain’t much. But it’s the only weapon we have against the greedheads.’

AND 

Anybody who thinks that 'it doesn't matter who's President' has never been Drafted and sent off to fight and die in a vicious, stupid war on the other side of the world--or been beaten and gassed by Police for trespassing on public property--or been hounded by the IRS for purely political reasons--or locked up in the Cook County Jail with a broken nose and no phone access and twelve perverts wanting to stomp your ass in the shower. That is when it matters who is President or Governor or Police Chief. That is when you will wish you had voted.’


Russell Brand has good points to make and he makes them well (when he's not patronising women). But he isn’t the one facing the bedroom tax. He isn’t the one whose life is being disregarded by politicians, because those politicians believe they don't have to care about certain demographics. After all, those demographics don't vote. 

Friday, 18 October 2013

Police respond to Evening Post

Well, the last day or so has been a bit dramatic. Haven't had this kind of response before to the many posts I have written critiquing safety advice that emphasises women's behaviour over tackling perpetrators.

Still, good news to report. The police have responded to the Evening Post affirming their commitment to tackling male violence against women and girls, and challenging a victim blaming culture:

"The Bristol Post reported that he specified "women, in particular".
Although the Post concedes he did not use the word “women” in his safety advice, the Post understands the investigation team have not suspected men might be targeted by the alleged culprit or culprits.

Det Insp Gary Haskins said: "The personal safety advice which was given following this incident applied to both men and women and no reference was made to ‘women in particular’.

“General safety advice is offered by the police and other agencies to help people stay safe on nights out and raise awareness of not only personal safety but also how to protect your belongings.
“We agree strongly that the responsibility for a crime sits with the offender and always seek to prosecute, putting the victim first. However we also have a responsibility to provide safety advice to members of the public.""


Which is fantastic and really shows just how seriously Operation Bluestone take these issues.

In my previous two posts I wrote very clearly how Operation Bluestone have done really good work in tackling rape culture in Bristol. Their latest response supports this view.

I would also like to take this opportunity to clarify that at no point did I approach the Evening Post with my blogpost, and I was not contacted before they published it. I want to state this as I have been accused of a 'publicity stunt' etc. I had no idea that my blogpost would appear anywhere other than on this blog.

As I say, thank you Operation Bluestone for affirming your commitment to ending violence against women and girls, and to tackling victim blaming culture.

Responding to responses on my blogpost on safety advice and sexual assault


There was a higher than average number of comments on my last blog post critiquing the safety advice given out by police in the wake of a serious sexual assault in Bristol. Because many of the same responses to the post kept coming up, I thought I’d write a follow-up post to try and refute some of the recurring arguments. 

Response One: you wouldn’t leave your car unlocked

I’ve written it on my blog a hell of a lot of times, but let’s reiterate it again. Women are not cars. We are not wallets. We are not windows, or mobile phones. We do not leave ourselves ‘unlocked’ or ‘open’ by walking home on our own after dark. 

As well as being quite simply rude, this response I believe feeds into a culture where women are objectified. Our humanity, our right to live free from violence and attack, is diminished. We become the equivalent of a carelessly parked car. 

What this response comes down to is the idea of ‘sensible precautions’. We should take sensible precautions to reduce our vulnerability to crime. Therefore we lock our car doors, we keep our valuables hidden and we close our windows. They are all sensible precautions and they are precautions I take too. 

But not living your life freely is not a ‘sensible precaution’. Telling a woman like me, who often works late, that I should not walk home after dark is not telling me to take a sensible precaution. It’s telling me to restrict my freedoms and to change my way of life because of the actions of one or more men. That’s not the same as locking your car door. 

This argument presents the idea that simply by living their lives, women are ‘making themselves vulnerable’. And that is not ok. 

Response Two: You’re telling women to put themselves at risk

No. I’m not. I’m really not. 

There’s some confusion around safety advice, that when you criticise it you are somehow saying everyone can just behave however they like and damn the consequences. It’s not the case. We all have a responsibility to ourselves. We shouldn’t throw ourselves in front of cars or get so drunk we fall off a roof. We need to look after ourselves and – as friends or family members – we need to look out for our loved ones. 

My criticism of this specific safety advice is that – again – it’s presenting the idea that women’s presence in public space is enough to put her at risk. That by walking home alone, she has put herself at risk. 

This kind of advice presents rape and sexual assault as some kind of natural hazard that women can take action to avoid. If you just walk in daylight. If you just say sober. If you just tell people where you are. Then you’ll avoid rape. Then you’ll be safe. 

But as I say over and over again, the only cause of rape and sexual assault is the man that chooses rape and sexual assault. It’s not a woman’s responsibility to adjust her lifestyle to avoid rape. It’s up to men who choose to rape, not raping. 

Regardless of what the safety advice says, women still have strategies to ‘stay safe’. Whether it’s walking the long way home to avoid a dodgy area, or leaving early to get a bus, or fake talking on the phone or carrying keys. We all take action to ‘keep ourselves safe’. But it doesn’t change the fact that if we are attacked, it is solely the fault of the attacker. And walking home with a friend isn’t going to help if that friend attacks you. Especially when the vast majority of attacks against women come from someone the woman knows. 

Response Three: the advice isn’t gendered. Men have to be vigilant too.

The advice is gendered. How anyone can miss that is beyond me. 

Look at it this way. There are two facts that are incontrovertible about violence. Women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know – at home but also at work, college, school. Men are most likely to be attacked by a stranger on the street. 

But when a man is the victim of a violent attack on the streets, the response is not to tell men to avoid walking home on their own. It’s not to tell men to understand that alcohol leaves them vulnerable. We do not expect men to modify their behaviour or not live their lives because of the actions of other violent men. 

There’s also a difference between being ‘vigilant’ and telling women to restrict their freedoms. Being vigilant is – as in point two – about self care, caring for one another, being aware. Not living your life free from the fear of violence is not being vigilant. 

Response Four: the police response.

Operation Bluestone is committed to the idea that the only thing that can stop rape and sexual assault is to ensure men don’t have sex with someone who cannot or does not consent. I must reiterate that Operation Bluestone has done so much good work tackling rape myths and victim blaming culture, and they should be recognised for that. 

I think it’s really important to acknowledge the stand the police are taking and thank them for their action in tackling male violence against women

So these are my responses to the responses to my blog. In short, women are not wallets. We do not leave ourselves open. Not living our life free from the fear of violence is not a ‘sensible precaution’. Telling women we have the right to live free from violence is not putting women at risk. This advice is gendered. And thank you Operation Bluestone for your positive response. 


One last thing. In my post I did something I rarely do – disclose an incident I have experienced. In that incident, I had followed all the ‘rules’. No one commented on that. Had I put myself at risk for being in a public space? Did I deserve that assault? Should I have stopped getting buses? Of course not. The problem with this advice is it is unrealistic because sexual assaults happen anywhere and everywhere. The sad and scary thing is that whilst this crime is so common, there are no sensible precautions women can take. The only thing that can make a change is by some men choosing not to attack women.  

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Safety advice and victim blaming - an open letter to my local police force


I’m sorry to have to be having this conversation again. I really am. I thought, after our Reclaim the Night marches, BFN’s good relationship with Operation Bluestone and my BFN colleague meeting with you after the Jo Yeates murder to talk about safety advice, that you’d got it. That you understood that it wasn’t ok, in the wake of male violence, to respond by policing women’s behaviour. That you had listened to us, and to Bristol Fawcett, and agreed with us that, when a man is deliberately attacking women, we shouldn’t respond by restricting women’s freedom. 

So I was really, truly disappointed to read the following in local newspaper, The Post: 

 “Urging women in particular to be vigilant when out at night, Mr Haskins [Senior investigation officer] advised them not to walk home alone if possible, to stick to well-lit areas, always let friends and family know where they are and to remember that drinking alcohol can make them vulnerable.”

Avon and Somerset Police, I work near where the assault happened. If I have to work late, how should I get home? Should I spend my money on a cab? Should I sleep in my office? Perhaps I should not go to work at all? 

It is not good enough to tell women not to live their lives, not to do the things they need or want to do, because a man is choosing to assault women. It is not ok to tell women to live in fear, to be watching their back, to restrict their freedom, because a violent man has chosen to attack women. Women – we have to walk around. We have to go to work, go to school, go to uni, and visit friends or family. Our lives shouldn’t have to stop because of the actions of violent men. You should not expect us to put our lives on hold because of violent men. 

Alcohol. You mention alcohol. And how it makes women vulnerable. 

Drinking alcohol makes women vulnerable to hangovers and perhaps some regretted text messages. Alcohol does not make a woman vulnerable to sexual assault. The only thing that makes a woman vulnerable to sexual assault is the presence of a violent man. 

I was sexually assaulted on a bus at 9am. Not as seriously as this young woman, but it happened. I was stone cold sober, in a well-lit area, sitting on a bus. I wasn’t walking. I wasn’t in the dark. I wasn’t drinking. And I was assaulted. Why? Because walking, drinking and darkness do not cause sexual assault. Men who abuse women cause sexual assault. 

It’s so easy, isn’t it? It’s so easy to tell women to lock themselves away, stay hidden. 

My BFN colleague once asked you why you didn’t have a safety campaign targeting men. You told us ‘because men find it offensive’. 

I find it offensive to be told to police my own actions and restrict my own freedoms because of the actions of violent men. I find it offensive that if anything happened to me as I walk home from work, your safety warnings will have groomed people to believe I was somehow to blame. I find it offensive that people would ask why I was walking home, not why he feels he has the male entitlement over women’s bodies. 

When a man sexually assaults women – both at home and in public places – please, I beg of you, focus on men. Focus on their behaviour. Because in every single situation, the only cause of sexual assault is the man who chooses to be violent. 

I know you know this. I know because Operation Bluestone has done fantastic work in tackling victim blaming narratives, in bringing perpetrators to account – in doing everything right. I’ve collaborated with Operation Bluestone on campaigns and I know they do really good work. That knowledge is one reason why I’m so disappointed. So hurt.

But I also know that it’s easy. It’s easy to tell women not to go out, not to drink, not to walk home in the dark. It’s far easier to offend women than it is to risk offending men. It’s far easier to restrict women’s freedoms, than to try and show the public that we live in a society where there are nearly 500,000 sexual assaults every year, that nearly half a million men in our society are assaulting, attacking and raping women. 

It’s those men we need to be talking to. It’s the society that excuses them, allows them, and victim blames that we need to be talking to. 

Don’t tell women not to live freely. Don’t tell us that we can’t expect the right to freedom of movement. Don’t tell us not to live our lives, because a man is choosing to attack women. Tackle the causes of violence and stop offering ‘advice’ that fuels a victim blaming rape culture.

Thank you. 

Bristol Rape Crisis0808 801 0456



Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Tips for David Cameron on how to be a feminist

Dear Dave,


When I wrote my essay for my self-published anthology (yours for £7.99! ) The Light Bulb Moment, I talked about how I had always called myself a feminist. But I wasn’t really a feminist. I read the books and I talked the talk, but I didn’t behave in a feminist way. I co-operated with the patriarchal culture that harmed women. 

Well, you have always said you weren’t really a feminist – until yesterday. Perhaps that’s why you have so spectacularly failed to behave in a feminist way. But now you are a self-proclaimed feminist, here are some tips for you on how you can act as feminist. Hope you find them useful. 

Number One: don’t patronise women in public and in private. 

Telling a woman to ‘calm down, dear’ is not a feminist action. Even if your wife says it to you. It undermines her as a professional woman with an impassioned and assertive opinion. It feeds into tropes that women are emotional and that emotional equals irrational. It suggests that there is something ridiculous about women having an opinion.

Equally, try to avoid making snigger snigger jokes about women MPs being frustrated. It pains me to have to defend Nadine Dorries, so please don’t give me a reason to. 

Number Two: don’t say you understand women because you are married to one.

I’m sure Sam is lovely. But she does not represent all women. 

Number Three: stop introducing policies that penalise single mums and support dads who don’t support their kids. 

Despite the Norgrove Review finding that the law around custody disputes should not be changed, you still seem determined to change a system that currently works for the safety of children and supports the primary caregiver. Whilst paying lip service to the idea that single mums do a great job, your government does what it can to demonise poor, single parents. The DWP put out bad data about how many men fail to pay child support once a relationship breaks down to obfuscate what should be a national scandal about how some men refuse to take responsibility for their children. Gingerbread has plenty of evidence to show that unpaid child maintenance has soared to £3.87 billion in the last quarter of 2012. You should really take a look at it, and maybe do something about it. But don’t do something that means single mums trying to reach those dads have to pay the CSA. Oh, wait. Meanwhile, your reforms to the benefits system are actively harming women who are caregivers. And now your Marriage Tax Allowance will benefit men who don’t pay maintenance and marry again. None of this looks very feminist from where I’m standing.  

Number Four: stop pushing women and children further into poverty through cuts

It’s almost forgotten now, but your government’s first emergency budget hit women hard. And it hasn’t got any better since then. In fact, 70% of the cuts from that first budget came from women’s purses. Services have been cut that women use most – including services that benefit children. Benefits have been cut that help women caring for children, and for child-free women too. Jobs have been cut that are mainly populated by women, so that women’s unemployment has risen by 20% whilst men’s unemployment has slightly fallen (although more men than women are classed as unemployed). Services have been cut that support families, such as Sure Start, and help children stay in education, such as EMA. Poverty has a female face in the UK and your policies have entrenched poverty and furthered economic inequality. Your economic policies have harmed women over and over and over again. If you truly cared about equality between men and women – as you claimed to do when you said you are a feminist – you would not ruthlessly create policies that do so much harm to women’s economic equality. Time and time again, we see your government proposing and enacting policies that are intent on pushing women back into the domestic sphere from the public one. 

Number 5: employ some women.

The ‘donut effect’, where you seat women around you, doesn’t fool anyone. The representation of women in key ministries and in cabinet is a joke. Five women in the Cabinet? No women in the Treasury? Come on! 

Number 6: actually take proper action on sexualisation 

Your policies on sexualisation culture are weak and transparent. I won’t rehash why now, you can read all about it here. If you really want to improve the situation and tackle attitudes towards women and sex in young people, invest in sex and relationships education that has respect and consent at its heart. And maybe take a stand on Page 3. 

Number 7: don’t negotiate with the Taliban

Just don’t. Do not exclude women from peace talks and the future of their country. 

 Number 8: stop cutting services that save women’s lives

So far this year, 91 women have been murdered as a result of male violence against women and girls. 

Government cuts have led to life-saving refuge services shutting down, as 236 women turn up to refuges to flee domestic abuse every day. 1 in 4 women experience abuse, and yet instead of investing in services to support women and investing in education to tackle abuse, we are losing what little we had. 

Meanwhile, with nearly half a million sexual offences in the UK each year, police are referring fewer rape cases to the CPS

With no-where safe for women to go to, policies like Clare’s Law aren’t much comfort. With police not pursuing cases against violent men, a list like the one Clare’s Law provides won’t be complete. Instead, any policy action you have taken on VAWG seems like a lot like words, where investment and action could make a real difference. 


So, Dave. If you are a feminist, as you claim to be, you need to start doing. It isn’t enough to bandy the word around because you’re struggling to get women onside and your PR people panicked. You have the power to put feminism into action, to enact feminist policy in Government that could save women’s lives, lift families out of poverty and secure justice for women and girls. 


But you can’t even manage not to patronise women ministers, can you? 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Symposium on Pauline Boty - you should go because I can't

My very good friend and amazing feminist Dr Sue Tate has recently organised a retrospective of Pauline Boty's fascinating, challenging and exciting contribution to British pop art.

Boty died as a young woman in the sixties, but during her all too brief career she produced art that found a way to represent women's subjective sexuality.

She featured in 'Pop goes the Easel' and her work was exhibited alongside Peter Blake but she never had a full exhibition in her lifetime - or since. Until now.

I went to the exhibition on Saturday and I can only urge you to go. It is powerful, sensual, challenging and full of life, love and sensuality.

Sue has organised a symposium to discuss women in pop art. It's happening on 27th September and tickets are available.

Speakers include:

Dr Sue Tate
Kalliopi Minioudaki, PhD 
Lina Džuverović on the The Makings of Critical Pop: Women, Socialism and Pop Art in Yugoslavia
Holly Crawford, PhD on The Expressionistic Aging Pop Art of Pensato
Lucia Gregorová on Girl Power: Jana Želibská in Context of the Sixties in Slovak Art 
Guilluame Vandame on Yayoi Kusama as Global Pop Artist
Professor Anne Massey on The Mothers of Pop? Barbara Jones and Dorothy Morland 
Catherine Ince on ‘Having Words’: Pop women in architecture and design 
and
Althea Greenan

Book your tickets now! 

And just go to the gallery to see the exhibition. You'll love it. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The hypocrisy of calling for anonymity for rape defendants

TW for rape and rape apolgism

I don’t know how many more times I can write this blogpost.

But, unsurprisingly, the not guilty verdict in the Michael LeVell trial has led to more calls across the media to introduce anonymity for rape defendants. From Philip Schofield’s tweet to this frankly disturbing Peter Lloyd piece in the Mail, those who believe that those accused of rape should be afforded the same protection as victims of rape are out in force.

The formula is the same. A man’s life has been ‘trashed’ because – in their belief – a woman ‘lied’. His reputation is in ‘tatters’. In this case it’s the reports of drinking and extra-marital affairs that are the problem. The logic goes that if this girl had not made a rape complaint, no one would know about the affairs and therefore all rape defendants should have anonymity.

The hypocrisy of the press in this matter is astounding.

It’s the press that gleefully reveals the embarrassing personal details such as affairs and drinking, and then use the fact that this embarrassing information is out there as a reason to re-open the debate for anonymity  for rape defendants. In the run up to the trial I saw gleeful headline after gleeful headline on the tabloids in my corner shop on alcoholism and affairs - the very stories that are now seen as reason to change the law in favour of men accused of rape.

As Glosswatch  says in her superb blog, we don’t know what the motivations of his accuser were. But we know what the motives of the press were in reporting his affairs and drinking. And it wasn’t motivated by showing solidarity to the rape complainant, but a prurient delight in celeb bad behaviour.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It isn’t rape survivors or rape crisis centres of feminists campaigning against violence against women that are ‘dragging a man’s name through the mud’. We just want to encourage victims and survivors to feel safe and supported and for victims and survivors to have access to justice. And part of that involves naming defendants.

Despite the views expressed across the press today, and the increasing results of public polls on the issue, naming rape defendants works in the interests of open justice. It improves justice for victims and survivors. It simply does. The academic research bears it out – with research from Professor Clare McGlynn  published in the Criminal Law Review making a comprehensive case for why naming defendants supports justice and encourages convictions for rape.

In her concluding comments, Professor McGlynn writes:

‘First, there is no justification for singling out the offence of rape for special treatment. There are many stigmatic crimes: indeed that is one of the reasons for labelling an activity criminal. Secondly, while parts of the media may be irresponsible, this alone cannot justify limits on media freedom which may impinge on its ability to report issues of public interest and attempts to catch the public’s attention. Similarly, and thirdly, it may be that the difference between suspicion and guilt are not as apparent as they should be to some people. But this does not include all people, and it would be dangerous indeed if public debate could only proceed at the level of the least able. There is, therefore, no basis on which to single out the offence of rape. The final lesson, and perhaps the most important conceptual message to be drawn from the analysis in this article, is that privacy rights, the mainstay of justifications for reform, are generally not accorded greater weight than freedom of expression, when open justice and media freedom come into play. If the media are to be able to report matters of important public interest, such as rape cases, the choice of method of doing so, often likely to include the personal details of a defendant, is an important element of media freedom and open justice.

It isn’t just academics. Police and legal experts are also of the belief that anonymity for defendants will impact on justice for victims and survivors. Responding to the Stuart Hall case, Lancashire Police confirmed that naming the suspect helped survivors to come forward, leading to his conviction.

The cases like Stuart Hall’s bear out the argument for naming defendants over and over again. Rochdale, Worboys, Gordon Rideout are all cases where naming the defendant(s) has encouraged survivors to come forward, report and secure convictions. Without the ability to name these defendants, without women seeing the reports and feeling that finally, they are able to come forward, these men probably wouldn’t have been convicted. We all know, after all, how often the police knocked back women reporting Worboys, delaying justice as he continued to rape. How often the girls in Rochdale were ignored.

And I’m sure we can all agree that we are glad these serial rapists have been convicted and put into prison. I’m sure we can all agree that we would not have wanted anonymity for rape defendants in those cases – anonymity that may have prevented the cases progressing. And yet this is what those calling for anonymity are leading us towards.

But unfortunately it doesn’t matter how much research you quote, how many case studies you give and how many experts you refer to – the belief that anonymity for defendants is necessary sticks. Why? Well, the argument against naming defendants lies in the belief that a rape accusation ruins lives. But it is something else too. It is the belief that has developed that somehow false accusations are equal to being raped, and that false accusations are common. We know the latter isn’t true and in fact false accusations of rape are rarer than false accusations of other crimes. And, let’s face the facts. Being accused of rape is not the same as being raped.

Rape can ruin lives. It does ruin lives. It can lead to depression, PTSD, it can leave women with STDs that impact their physical health or their fertility. The impact of rape is far reaching, and can go on for years. Each woman or girl will respond differently to the violence committed against her and not everyone will feel the same long-term impact. But the fact is rape isn’t just a one occasion thing that happens and then is done with. And it is astoundingly, terribly common. The BCS estimates there are between 60,000 and 90,000 rapes in the UK every year. That’s 60,000 to 90,000 people every year who are living with the devastating impact of rape.

It simply is not equal to false accusations of rape. It certainly is not equal to being accused of rape. And let’s remember that most men who are accused of rape actually committed the crime. In fact, for the handful of cases that make it to court, 63% of defendants are found guilty (the conviction rate from incident to guilty remains at 6.5%).

Of course I know that to be falsely accused of rape can ruin lives too and I appreciate that. But – and there is a but – we only have to look at our popular culture that celebrates, lauds, welcomes and supports men who have been found guilty of rape or domestic abuse to know that men who abuse women aren’t automatically placed beyond the pale. It’s embarrassing just how much our culture is happy to boost convicted rapists and abusers, whilst hounding and attacking their victims.

The calls for anonymity ignore the reality of what rape is. It places making a rape complaint on the same level as being raped – suggesting that one is as damaging as the other. It argues that rape defendants are victims too, victims of women who have a legal right to make a rape complaint. They’re not. They are defendants. They have been accused of rape. They are not victims.

The calls for anonymity ignore the overwhelming and repeated evidence that naming defendants is good for justice. And that is what matters in the end. Justice. There is no convincing argument out there that supports anonymity for rape defendants. There isn’t. Each one of the arguments ignores the rights of victims and survivors and the voices of victims and survivors. And that isn’t good enough.

Rape crisis helpline: 0808 802 9999

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

On two dangerous and persistent rape myths

Trigger warning for rape and rape myths

I’ve been thinking about two rape myths today, and what they mean for our understanding of rape in and out of the courtroom. 

The first myth is the idea that there is a ‘correct’ way to respond to being attacked, and that response is to scream. And the second is that a if the jury acquits a man accused of rape, the accuser is immediately guilty of the crime of ‘false accusation’ or perverting the course of justice – despite not being found guilty in the law courts. 

The ‘she didn’t scream’ myth is a persistent one. It’s the belief that a woman or girl would always scream or fight back if they were attacked, and that if they didn’t scream or fight back, then there was no attack. It is based on the idea that ‘rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman, and therefore a woman would do everything in her power to stop it’. Responding to this statement, CWASU writes on their rape myths page: 

 Many women assess their attacker, and make moment by moment decisions about their survival. In many circumstances, women being sexually assaulted fear for their lives. When rapists have a weapon, or threaten the victim, most will strategise for their own survival by not unduly alarming or aggravating their attacker; they follow his instructions in order to stay alive, and this may include not making a noise or resisting. Being raped is not worse than being dead or permanently injured - opting to submit is a rational decision, made in a context where there are very few choices or options.

Some women may scream and fight. Some women may freeze, from fear or because they believe it may keep them safe from additional, physical violence. No one should apply a moral judgement to either response. No one should tell a woman that she responded ‘the wrong way’. And yet, we hear this all the time. Women who scream may find themselves told they ‘put themselves in more danger’. Women who freeze are told they ‘should have fought back’. 

One of the problems I see here is our skewed understanding of consent. We see consent as the ‘absence of a no’, not the presence of an ‘enthusiastic yes’. Freezing and not screaming is not an indication of consent. Consent does not rely on silence, and the fact we continue to believe it does leads to the rape myth that if she didn’t vocalise no, she must have meant yes. This myth then leads to women blaming themselves for not saying no. 

When I interviewed TV writer Emilia di Girolamo about this issue, she said: 

‘It was something that I felt had happened to me and I didn’t understand – I grew up thinking that I was in the wrong and that I should have fought and should have shouted no, and I didn’t. It was only when I started reading about freeze response that I realised that’s exactly what happened to me. That’s how I felt, I couldn’t move and I couldn’t shout or scream.’

Freezing and silence is not an indicator that no assault happened. It is a survival tactic and it is a normal response to being attacked. It should be respected and understood to be so. 

Every time we repeat the myth that there is a correct way to respond to rape, then we are telling women who don’t respond that way that they are to blame, that they were in the wrong. As with every single rape myth out there, it moves the focus from the perpetrator’s behaviour onto the woman’s. It says that it is up to the victim to behave in an approved manner, and that her response is then ‘proof’ of her innocence or guilt. We ignore the responsibility of the perpetrator not to rape, we ignore that it is up to him to prove that the rape didn’t take place. It is his behaviour that should be under scrutiny and yet time and time again we return to the woman’s actions.  

The CPS has started to challenge the defence that if a woman didn’t behave in a pre-approved manner, then it wasn’t rape. In their guidelines on rape myths, they write: 

If she didn’t scream, fight or get injured, it wasn’t rape.

Implications:

Disbelieves and re-traumatises victim
Invalidates the experience of the victim
Discourages him or her from seeking help
Facts: 

victims in rape situations are often legitimately afraid of being killed or seriously injured and so co-operate with the rapist to save their lives;
the victims perception of threat influences their behaviour;
rapists use many manipulative techniques to intimidate and coerce their victims;
victims in a rape situations often become physically paralysed with terror or shock and are unable to move or fight; and
non-consensual intercourse doesn't always leave visible signs on the body or the genitals.

The CPS is right. Accusing a woman of not responding in the ‘correct’ way to rape invalidates the victim, brings back trauma and tells them that they shouldn’t report because no one will believe them or respect their experience. And so the terrible cycle continues where reporting rates stay low, and those who do report risk being disbelieved, and the rape myths infiltrate the public imagination and the conviction rate stays low. 

That’s what makes this myth so dangerous. 


The second myth I want to talk about is on how when a man is found not guilty of rape, the woman is found guilty in the court of public opinion of making a false accusation. 

Making a false accusation of rape is a serious crime which results in a jail term if an individual is found guilty. It is perverting the course of justice. 

If you believe in the principle that everyone is innocent before proven guilty, then you MUST extend that right to women who make a rape complaint too. They are innocent of the crime of making a false accusation unless the courts prove otherwise. 

Here’s an infographic of false accusations against incidents of rape:



It really seems to confuse people, the idea that the principle of innocent before proven guilty applies to women who make rape complaints too. 

A not guilty verdict of rape does not equal a guilty verdict of false accusation. The belief that it does fosters the rape myth that false accusations are incredibly common and rape is rare. We know this is not true. According to Keir Starmer, in the period of 17 months there were 5,6751 prosecutions of rape, and 35 prosecutions for false accusations of rape. In the same period, there were 111,891 prosecutions for domestic abuse and 6 for false allegations of domestic abuse. Every year, according to the BCS, there are 1.2 million incidents of domestic abuse and 500,000 incidents of sexual assault – up to 90,000 of which are rape. False accusations are incredibly rare and rape is incredibly, terrifyingly common. 


Last night I was talking with a friend of mine about these rape myths. We said we both believe that in the future, perhaps in the next generation, we will look back at society today in horror. We will be horrified that we were a society that allowed rape to happen. We will be ashamed that our response to rape was to find ways to blame and accuse the victim. It will be as ridiculous and embarrassing as witch burning or other historical disgraces. Our grandchildren will look at us and ask how we dared to allow this, how we dared to tell a woman that she should have screamed, she should have said no, that she is guilty of a crime she hasn’t been convicted of because she made a rape complaint. 

I believe this will happen because things are changing, and they are changing because of feminists. Two years ago, when a group of men group raped a 12 year old girl and they got out of jail on appeal because the judge said she was sexually experienced and wanted sex, there was silence. This year, when a lawyer called a 13 year old rape survivor ‘predatory’ and the judge gave her rapist ridiculously low sentence, David Cameron got involved and action was taken against the lawyer. Feminists didn’t get any credit despite Everyday Victim Blaming leading the march on this case, but at least there was uproar. At least people said it wasn’t ok to victim blame a child. 

Things are changing. Feminists are leading this change. We are having an impact. We are facing a helluva backlash as a result. But the day when we are ashamed of our attitude to rape and survivors is coming. It is coming. 


Rape crisis helpline: 0808 802 9999