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We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

As someone – now a 40 something woman – once a baby who was born into feminism, and who later rejected it, there’s plenty about the dogma I find troubling. But I think it’s feminism’s scare-mongering and moralising about sex (usually heterosex) via narratives of men’s sexual violence against women – and girls – that gets me the most. And, though the two may not seem intrinsically  linked at first, discussions of ‘internet trolls’ seem to be yet another way that feminist women are able to demonise and criminalise men, those dirty dogs. Bear with me.

Today, Chris Grayling the UK Justice Secretary, has vowed to quadruple the maximum prison sentence for convicted ‘trolls’. This statement, which actually relates to an amendment to the Communications Act via the Criminal_Justice_and_Courts_Bill proposed back in March this year, and confirmed in July, seems to be timed carefully. It also neatly illustrates  the  link between feminist preoccupations with rape/male violence and wider discourses around ‘trolls’.

Grayling promised ‘tougher sentences’ (under the communications act) against ‘internet trolls’ after Chloe Madeley received rape threats on twitter. The 27 year old daughter of iconic TV couple Richard and Judy, seemed to be suffering a backlash after her Mum had waded into the Ched Evans  rape case clusterfuck. Evans, a professional footballer, has just been released from prison following a conviction for rape in 2012. Judy Finnegan added her tuppence worth by saying she thought the alleged assault by Evans wasn’t as bad as some rapes because among other reasons no ‘bodily harm’ was suffered by the alleged victim.  I use the term ‘alleged’ as the case is ongoing. Dad Richard is baying for blood and threatening the ‘trolls’ who threatened his daughter with prosecution.

Meanwhile, at least 150,000 people have signed a petition calling for Sheffield Utd to refuse-to-reinstate-ched-evans-as-a-player.  Feminists and their detractors online and in the media have been at logger heads over the career prospects of this one man. It all seems a bit over the top. But ‘celebrity’ cases often serve as prisms through which we look at wider issues in society. The Ched Evans case is refracting a lot of heat and light. I think even whilst the storm (in a football boot) rages on there are some reflections and questions worth considering.

The first issue that concerns me is what was the motivation for increasing the maximum sentence for ‘malicious communications’ from 6 months (it was a summary offence) to two years? Angie Bray, the Conservative MP who proposed the amendment made her inspiration for doing so clear. She said:

‘My interest was first aroused by a visit to my surgery in Ealing by constituents who were desperately trying to understand why justice had failed to be done for their young daughter, who had been receiving wholly unwanted explicit sexual text messages from the husband of the mothers’ best friend. Such was the kick that he apparently got from sending those messages to her that he sometimes sent 30 a day.

That went on for a year or so. The young girl did not tell anyone, because she knew he was married to her mum’s friend, and did not want to upset anyone. She carried that torment on her young shoulders alone. Finally, the school got in touch with the parents to find out why their daughter’s work was going rapidly downhill. Was there a problem they could discuss? What was wrong with her? My constituents asked their daughter, but she said nothing was wrong.’

Bray goes on to explain how attempts to prosecute the man defendant (who she says was 42 when the girl receiving the texts was 13-14) failed. In part she blames this on the communications act making the crime of ‘malicious communications’ a summary offence, meaning a) the maximum sentence is 6 months in prison and b) the maximum amount of time between crime and criminal charges is also six months. Extend the sentence and you also extend how much time can pass between the two.

The case that got Angie Bray’s attention fits with what we could call a contemporary moral panic over child abuse in particular and sexual violence by men against women and girls in general. Its not that I don’t feel empathy for the girl she mentions. But it worries me that clumsy criminal law is partly made on the back of panic, and of individuals’ ‘concern’ for individual victims. It reminds me of the Extreme Porn Law (2008) which critics say came to be following the murder of a woman where her attacker was found to have looked at ‘kinky’ pornographic websites. In the case Bray cites, a prosecution partly failed because the girl involved did not tell anyone she was receiving the horrible text messages. I would suggest that the silence of abuse victims and their fears about speaking out about their ordeals will not be solved by increasing the maximum sentence for malicious communications. In fact,  I wonder how many ‘grooming’ communications will even be prosecuted under this law. As with the Extreme Porn Law, it is quite possible the souped up malicous communications legislation will do nothing to protect anyone, but will  limit people’ s freedom of expression. Have we already forgotten the Twitter_Joke_Trial? In fact part of the ‘moral panic’ could be around the use of new technologies themselves

So who will be prosecuted/punished by the new improved ‘anti troll’ legislation? I can’t help but believe that when it comes to ‘trolling’, there are ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims. Just as in Victorian times (not to mention now) there were the deserving and underserving poor. Feminists are drawn to ‘trolls’ like bees to honey. Feminist professional troll hunters such as Helen Lewis are forever painting a picture of poor innocent feminist women damsels attacked by marauding armies of men online. High profile cases using the communications act to prosecute online expression have involved ‘deserving victims’ such as feminist campaigner and g****ite Caroline Criado-Perez and feminist MP and g****ite Stella Creasy.  It’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘Trolling’ is presented as an example of ‘misogyny’ and feminist women who trade on these concepts will be most likely to mobilise the law, thus justifying its existence with prosecutions of ‘misogynist’ trolls to refer to.

All’s fair in love and retribution. But the feminists are not always standing shoulder to shoulder with their ‘sisters’ and fellow victims of ‘online abuse’. On the day when Chloe Madeley was reported to have received rape threats online, after defending her Mum for uttering a non-feminist-accepted viewpoint about a high-profile rape case, chief rape threat avenger Caroline Criado-Perez was conveniently unavailable to comment:

It is common knowledge that UK prisons are practically full. And, that they are full of men, not to mention including disproportionate numbers of working class men (many of whom are black men). I find it hard, sitting under my troll bridge, to see these current cacophonies about tougher sentences for ‘trolls’ and associated hysteria about rape, rape threats, rape apologism etc etc as attempts by precious middle class white women to put even more of that same demographic behind bars.

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I’ve not been publishing online much lately,  I have been working on my novel, so to speak. :D But I am moved to respond to something in the Observer today.

Lauren Laverne is a fantastic radio DJ and more. Her knowledge and enthusiasm for popular music and her ability to communicate that to the masses puts her up there with some of the great musos of our time. Im not saying she’s quite a Peel but yes even I think that should she be a man she’d be more lauded than she is for her talents and expertise in the field.

But Lauren’s forays into feminist oriented journalism are not quite so laudable in my view. Her latest piece, in the Observer, calls for ‘coercive control’ in (romantic? heterosexual?) relationships to be criminalised. The title of her piece uses the term ‘emotional abuse’ and the standfirst calls it ‘psychological violence’. These slips in terminology reflect the confusion of the article and of the calls to criminalise not physical but psychological harm in relationships. If those calling for new legislation cannot specify clearly what it should cover it is not a good sign for that proposed legislation. Indeed, the term ‘coercive control’ itself is a bit of a tautology. With ‘coercion’ and ‘control’ having very similar/overlapping meanings and synonyms. I can’t help but wonder how Foucault would translate the phrase – ‘powerful power’?

Whilst Laverne acknowledges  men can suffer emotional abuse in relationships her line on  criminalising this abuse is part of a wider feminist campaign led by organisations such as Women’s Aid (http://www.womensaid.org) which focusses  on emotional abuse by men of women in romantic /sexual relationships. When in fact there is plenty of abuse in the other direction. Laverne references a statistic of 30% of women having reported (to the national crime survey) suffering domestic abuse at some point in their lives, which further puts the emphasis on women being harmed – by men. It is not clear how this statistic was reached and what the questions were in the survey. Would men be less likely to report incidences of being hurt emotionally or physically by their women partners?

It is interesting to note in relation to women’s ‘emotional abuse’ of men in romantic relationships that the recent feminist Ban Bossy campaign seems to be saying we should not ever describe women’s behaviour in negative terms. I dont support  old- fashioned stereotypes of ‘nagging wives’ but on the other hand, I do know some domineering women who ‘control’ their male partners in some ways. And I am not even arguing against this as a phenomenon per se. I would go so far as to say some men consciously or unconsciously, like some women, enjoy being dominated! But (especially heterosexual) men’s submissive  tendencies are still unacknowledged to a large degree.

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And there’s the rub. As I have said before, I think any understanding of, and commitment to tackle domestic violence and abuse should take into account many people’s masochism. This is not to defend non-consensual harm – like Lauren I have experienced it myself – but rather to try and understand what drives people in sexual/emotional relationships and how they might be more happy in their power relations. Because a sexual relationship without power probably wouldnt have much/any sex in either.

I also think that when it comes to domestic abuse, one of the problems is the privatised couple formation of traditional heterosexual relationships. If we were more open to our neighbours and friends about our relationships then ‘coercive control’ might not go undetected and unchallenged as it does. I am not saying nobody should be monogamous, but I don’t think monogamy, marriage and coupledom as an ideal help protect people from harm by that one ‘true love’ we are encouraged to find and keep behind closed doors.

One of the key arguments in Laverne’s piece is that people suffering domestic abuse stay in relationships due to fear and ‘self doubt’ imposed by their abuser. I agree to an extent. But I do not think the question ‘why don’t they just leave them?’ should be dismissed altogether. I have asked this question to friends telling me of the domestic abuse they suffer, and have got short shrift. And yet as Laverne herself found, leaving is the solution to the problem. In most cases except for a horrendous minority of extreme ones* the ‘coercion’ does not stretch to preventing someone physically from leaving their abusive partner. And rather than criminalising the emotional hold that abusive partner has on someone, as Laverne is suggesting we should, maybe we could focus on trying to increase people’s confidence, support networks and opportunities to leave and start a new life.

*and I know of at least a few very extreme cases where people have taken great risks/made great sacrifices to leave an abusive/violent partner and of course, have not regretted it.

The previously shocking phenomenon of men wearing perfume, has become mundane in its ubiquity by now. And men looking pretty in perfume ads is not exactly rare either. So the latest Dior Homme ad starring Twilight heart throb Robert Pattinson almost passed me by. The fact I noticed it enough to stop and think about what it is selling, (apart from top notes of lavendar, sage and bergamot), is mainly due to the fab Led Zeppelin track accompanying the images.

The advert, shown above in its uncensored ‘directors cut’ form, expresses something else commonplace, but probably still worth commenting on: metrosexual machismo. The fragance itself might be screaming ‘IM STILL STRAIGHT’ despite the way it has made the lovely Mr Pattinson sensuous, coquettish, even passive (in this version of the ad, his girl straddles him in bed, and then he’s seen lying back looking all come to bed eyes into the camera). Metrosexuality may have gone mainstream quite a few years ago now, but it’s still not quite out.

Some of the motifs of this advert are positively 1970s in their macho symbolism – the beautiful girl on Robert’s arm reassuring us he’s not, you know… the car he drives down the beach in full on phallic pacifier mode, the red-blooded rock n roll Led Zep track. They all try and comfort the audience, and the man in the street about to indulge himself in some Dior Homme, that men’s self love is not gay. The (post coital?) cigarettes in the (ahem) uncut version of the ad didn’t make it to television,  being just too 1970s and against 21st c health and safety guidelines. And, inspite of the ‘uncensored’ tag, the film as a whole is very safe.

Of course wearing perfume doesn’t make you gay, but it doesn’t keep you straight, either. And I for one would like to see a few more media representations of metrosexuality that celebrate its sexual ambiguity. That is what I love most about it after all.

 

The Knowledge

Last week I had to force myself to watch the BBC documentary, Blurred Lines: The New Battle Of The Sexes. I knew it would be bad. I didn’t envisage quite how bad. But maybe in the midst of the horror, the programme had one single redeeming feature. Like Harriet HarmanBig Red and Lindy West, it at least serves as an instructive display of feminism’s true colours. The BBC have produced a perfect lesson in misandry.

For those of us involved in online gender politics, Blurred Lines didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. It rehashed some of the most well known internet ‘gender wars’ of the last couple of years. Playing the role of concerned, fussy grandma (or auntie?) to the young women of today, presenter Kirsty Wark reeled off a familiar catalogue of injustices that feminists claim damage women and girls’ wellbeing.  Twitter abuse sexism in gamingrape jokesobjectification of women , student lad culture , it was all in there. We’ve read it before in The Guardian, Jezebel, Slate etc. But on primetime National television, the blatant, stereotyped portrayal of women as vulnerable victims of brutish, ‘misogynist’ men came across as particularly manipulative. Especially narrated by a very  successful and powerful woman in the UK media.

One of the glaring flaws of the programme was its use of individual examples to make generalised claims about how awful men are, as a group, towards women as a group.  The Steubenville rape case, though horrific in and of itself, does not in my view tell us anything about gender relations amongst young people overall. It may help with the viewing figures though. Similarly, Grand Theft Auto is one single video game amongst thousands. Kirsty Wark heard young men gamers tell her clearly that they did not approve of or make use of GTA’s feature enabling players to simulate violence against women sex worker characters, but their words were drowned out by the graphic ‘misogynist’ imagery from the game.

This brings me to another weakness of Blurred Lines. In using the sensationalist examples above, Wark employed what I have termed concern porn. As another blogger has pointed out, the programme put  forward moralistic, anti sex views ( no sex workers were asked about the Grand Theft Auto footage, for example). But it combined those views with showing the very scenes of explicit sexual violence that it claimed to disapprove of so much. I can still see the middle aged Ms Wark in my mind, staring wide-eyed at her computer screen, tutting loudly.

The central ‘thesis’ of Blurred Lines was that the expressions of aggressive heterosexual male sexuality that emerged in the 90s in the form of ‘lads mags’ and internet porn have reared their ugly head again, in the full blown social media world. The message  I got was that if boys and young men are allowed the freedom to express themselves and their desires, their interests and passions, this will lead to all sorts of evil.

‘Evil’ is a strong word, that I use deliberately here.  because throughout the show, Kirsty Wark’s language evoked shadowy, malicious (male) forces. I lost count of the times she referred to ‘darkness’, as she referred to men’s sexism taking a ‘darker turn’ in recent years, or sexist behaviours by men leading to something ‘much darker’. She spoke of ‘visceral misogyny’, of men’s hatred of women ‘infecting’, and ‘polluting’ the lives of girls and young women. Once again, a feminist woman painted a picture of ‘patriarchy’, as a malevolent man in a dark cloak, threatening womankind everywhere.

I might have hated this ‘documentary’ a little less, if it had have owned up to its ideological bias. But it presented a semblance of ‘balance’ by including one or two critical voices. A male stand up comic and British journalist Rod Liddle made some good points. Liddle exposed feminism’s doublespeak when he pointed out that everyone gets abuse online, not just women. Is it that you think women are different from men, and less able to handle difficulty? he asked a bemused Kirsty Wark. But any reason coming from Liddle was undermined by the fact he’s a favourite ‘hate figure’ amongst feminists and liberals in the UK, and tends to be ridiculed and dismissed. Wark will have known this when she chose to speak to him on air. Here is a feminist on twitter illustrating my point:

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Then, right near the end of the broadcast, a final piece of hypocrisy flashed by. In promoting feminist resistance to all this misogyny in the internet age, Wark mentioned favourably the feminist parody of the Robin Thicke video hit, the original ‘Blurred Lines’. Maybe you can enlighten me in the comments as to why the women in the video talking of ‘castration’ and ‘emasculation’ whilst pushing some scantily-clad young men around is any different from the ‘offensive’ lyrics and images of the Thicke output. Anyone?

However much I disliked it, I wasn’t surprised, following the programme, to see that most reactions to it were positive – not just on twitter but also in the British Press. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the constant repetition of the word ‘misogyny’ on television was echoed throughout the land by the many feminists and feminist supporters who tuned in. What never ceases to anger and upset this non-feminist woman, no matter how many times it happens, is how the narratives of ‘misogyny’ are so often built on an unacknowledged hatred of men. It’s clever I suppose, if you think about it. But it doesn’t fool me.

This week I’ve seen two videos that ‘turn the tables’ on gender roles, and specifically in the realm of ‘street harassment’ of women by men, the brutes. One (above) is an advert for Snickers, the other an Everyday Sexism project featured in The Guardian

The snickers ad has generated some commentary, including two posts with differing viewpoints in Sociological Images and a not very complimentary piece in Time Magazine.

I was going to write something myself but realised I don’t have much to say about either, really. I actually found them hard to watch, cringeworthy and annoying, especially the Everyday Sexism one. I think what’s most irritating about both is their heavy-handed use of ‘irony’ or what passes for it in our oh so knowing, clever-assed post-ironic world. Perhaps the Everyday Sexism/graun effort seems particularly crass because suddenly, feminists are using ‘humour’ to cover a topic they have previously had zero sense of humour about. My pal Ben who first showed me the Everyday Sexism vid had his comments about it deleted at Graun/Cif HQ, along with those by some other commenters. Maybe that ‘humour’ doesn’t run very deep then?

What do you think of these videos? Do they ‘turn the tables’ on gender norms or do they spectacularly miss the point?

 

Ponders End #fridayflash

Posted: March 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

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I’d never been to Ponders End. I’d never even heard of it. Then suddenly I couldn’t get away from it. I thought I lived on the outer outskirts of North London till one grey winter’s day the jobcentre sent me on the 121 bus to the jobsnet thing and the bus kept going, and going but we still weren’t in the countryside. I was out of my comfort zone as we passed the Great Cambridge Rd and the bus still kept going till I asked someone where we were and finally got off in a nondescript suburb that didn’t feel like London at all. Ponders End is well named.

The skyline is dominated, if you catch it at a certain angle, by four blocks of high rise flats. Each one is painted a different colour –  purple, blue, green, orange. Maybe the council thought they could convince the good people of Ponders end they were in Marseille, or Barcelona, somewhere where housing estates are colourful and the sun bounces off the brick and you can buy huge juicy tomatoes and ripe camembert in the local shops, but they only have a Greggs and a convenience store selling tired courgettes and baked beans. Still it was a nice idea.

Jobsnet are supposed to help you find work but someone at the jobcentre had made a mistake so I couldn’t get registered. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in falling through the bottom of your life. I chatted with the blokes who work there, told them about my PhD apologetically, as if it might be a problem. Then I explained about my criminal conviction, how I didn’t even know if I’d make the next appointment as I hadn’t been sentenced yet and their eyes widened. I guess I’m an unusual case. But we agreed I’d go back in January. I wished I were someone else.

The next time I was in Ponders End I was really in it. Stood in the lobby of one of the tower blocks, wearing a bright orange high vis jacket that said ‘community payback’ on the back in bold letters. Stretching before me was a line of windows, in a partition between the lobby and a corridor that led to an emergency exit. Apparently the block was soon to be knocked down. I expect the community, being uprooted and rehoused, didn’t care I was paying them back some debt or other.  I cleaned the windows anyway. The task was symbolically pointless.

At the end of the shift, one of the lads from my project fell into step with me as I walked back to the 121 stop. We might have been teenagers, coming home from another scintillating day at school. I wondered why a boy was talking to me. He let two buses go by and got on mine and sat next to me on the top  deck. I don’t quite know how it happened but by the time I’d got off, relieved to be back on home turf, I’d given him my phone number and he said he’d text. Maybe I really was someone else. Maybe I’d walked into another life, in which I was doing community payback at the Ponders End flats, and giving my number to a young man with an electronic tag on his ankle under his socks.

I started to be filled with a long lost terror that has something to do with change, saying yes for once, being open to possibilities…

( b and w photo of Ponders End by Nico Hogg )

If you follow feminist discourse online, in the western liberal hemosphere, you won’t have failed to notice there’s been some trouble at t’ mill  lately.

A recent piece in US publication The Nation commented on Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars, suggesting that infighting and conflict in feminism is a contemporary phenomenon, linked in some way to social media.

There followed articles by UK feminists Helen LewisJulie BurchillJane Clare Jones and others, all variations on a theme, identifying feminism’s problems as being caused by or worsened by ‘identity politics’, ‘call out culture’, certain forms of  ‘intersectionality’ etc.

Burchill was her usual screechy, belligerent self, only matched in tone by @redlightvoices whose  diatribe entitled ‘I hate you all, media vultures‘ has caused Laurie Penny to drink gin and feel sad or something.
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As you can see I’m not quoting from these articles or commenting specifically on the content of the fall out.  Because theatrical conflict amongst feminists has been going on for decades. There have always been different schools of feminism, including Liberal, Marxist and Radical varieties. Feminists have always disagreed on issues such as sex work, domestic labour, heterosexuality (some feminists are against it, you know) etc. Social media provides a bigger, more visible stage for the performance of diversity within feminism. But, how diverse is it, really?

As I’ve written before, e.g. in my post Against Feminisms, feminists have much more in common than they do separating them. Speak to even the most intersectional of intersectional feminists for five minutes, and you’ll realise that they are united with their radfem and ‘white media’ sisters by misandry, a dogmatic belief that non-feminists are ‘misogynists’, a refusal to engage in research and writings that challenge their views, the ‘identity politcs’ of women v men, etc etc. Sometimes I wonder if the infighting and ‘divisions’ in feminism might be elaborate ‘ploys’ to present the movement as complex and diverse, when really its very simple, and united in its politics.

Even the great feminist philosopher Judith Butler, whose work has probably been one of the influences on my flight from feminism  –  what is gender anyway? why do we rely on binaries of ‘male’ v ‘female’, ‘man’ v ‘woman’? how is identity performed and contested? – falls back on the identity politics of womanhood. In a talk I attended last year, Butler grappled with some of the questions I’ve listed above, only to return to rhetoric about women across the globe lacking educational opportunities, political representation and economic power  ( to rapturous applause from her student fangirls).  So men are the problem after all? It’s the patriarchy, stupid.

Don’t get me wrong, watching a bunch of feminist women tear each other’s hair out on the internet is entertaining. But that’s all it is.  The real ‘debate’ to be had in gender politics in my view,  is over the value and purpose of feminism, any feminism, in the 21st century world.  And the fact that some of us are having that debate, and coming to uncomfortable conclusions, is probably what is upsetting those nice ladies from feminism.inc the most.