Thursday, 25 June 2009

Racism, sexism and gang rape in the city.

This week, the subject of Channel 4's ever sensational Dispatches was gang rape. 'Rape in the City' (was that supposed to echo 'Sex and the City' in some perverse way?) featured testimonials from women and girls who had been gang raped as well as interviews with young black men about their attitudes to women and sex.

I watched this documentary knowing that it was going to make me angry for several reasons. Warning bells started to ring when I read the programme information; it was going to explore whether or not this is a problem with black men. We were presented with some fairly shocking statistics about gang rape and its perpetrators: 86% were committed by non-whites, 66% were committed by black gangs. However many times presenter Sorious Samura referred to these figures, there was never any in-depth analysis of them. If only 1 in 8 gang rapes are reported, how representative can these statistics be? And if it is mainly black men who are committing gang rape, where was the discussion of why?

Saying that it is because of a pervasive negative attitude towards women and female sexuality in this community does not go far enough. Sexism is pervasive in all sections of our society. It sounded to me worryingly like the racist idea that 'black men cannot control themselves' whereas white men can hide their contempt for women and keep their libido in check. It's telling that the first result Google finds from the search 'dispatches gang rape' is a post from far-right website Stormfront. It also seemed relevant to me that in almost all of the cases mentioned, these rapes were taking place on council estates and yet there was no mention of poverty and what role it may play.

The interviews with the young men were chilling but again, another important factor was skimmed over. It is hard to believe that young men were being entirely honest, there certainly seemed to be a strong element of sexual bravado involved. I have no doubt that young women are being treated in the horrific ways described by the interviewees, but perhaps their accepting attitude towards such behaviour was exaggerated.

From the testimonials of the young men interviewed and comments from the police, it seemed apparent to me that the focus of sex education needs to change. Young people know how to have sex, they even know about safe sex. The real problem that needs to be addressed is ignorance surrounding issues such as consent and its intricacies. They may not think about the fact that a woman or girl faced with many men who expect sex from her may be willing at first but the fact that she is outnumbered may men that she may not be able to change her mind without fear of reprisals. A police officer reported that one man arrested for a gang rape said that he didn't know that forcing a woman to give oral sex was rape. Whilst this is in many ways a separate issue from that of gang rape which is deliberate and intended to damage their victim physically and emotionally, an ignorance of issues surrounding consent cannot be helping.

Equally as galling was the way in which each girl's account of gang rape was introduced, with a brief rundown of her sexual history. One girl 'had only just started to date boys and was still a virgin'. What is the relevance of this please? If the girl in question had had sex with everybody at her school, it wouldn't have made what happened to her any less terrifying and appalling. Whether this stemmed from a belief on the part of the programme makers that raping a virgin is worse than raping a sexually active woman, or from a desire to sensationalize an already shocking documentary, it is reprehensible. Such sensationalism detracts from the gravity of what happened to these women, the horror of which is apparent from their brave and devastating personal accounts.

Having a black presenter does not make a programme immune from being racist. At a time when race relations in the UK are precarious, it seems irresponsible to make a programme that merely scratches the surface of what is an extremely complex issue. And given that the presenter talks so much about the denigration of women by men, it is sad and ironic that he uses the virgin/whore dichotomy to sensationalize a subject that could hardly be more shocking. This documentary is not going to help prevent future gang rapes or encourage a real productive discussion on this subject. It came across as a poorly researched, lazy 'shockumentary', which does the victims of this crime a disservice.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Our mini feminist magazine

The previous two blog posts come from a feminist issue of Play, the culture supplement of the University of London newspaper, London Student. I co-edited Play through the academic year of 2008-2009 with the marvelous Ms. Chalcraft. We always tried to give it a feminist sensibility but we devoted an issue to our favourite topic and it's available online for you to read.

Here it is.

Zines: the basics

Zines as we know them today roughly date back to the 1970s with punk fanzines like 'Sniffin' Glue' but they also have links to the 1930s amateur science-fiction press and even political pamphlets of the 17th century. Nothing new then but they've always been a medium for minority groups to express marginalised, and frequently subversive, ideas.

Zines are self-published, d.i.y. magazines which are often produced using little more than scissors, prit stick and work's photocopying budget. Because of the use of these materials and techniques, many zines have retained the cut and paste aesthetic of many of the punk zines of the 70s. This is simply the cheapest way to produce your own publication and it reflects the anti-establishment stance taken by many zines.

Although many people think of zines as simply being linked to musical movements like Punk and Riot Grrrl, the subject matter is actually very varied. There are zines about anything: mental health issues, politics, bike maintenance, knitting and female ejaculation. Zinesters are an eclectic bunch of people.

From a feminist point of view, zinesters have created a community and network of women who support each other and reassure women around the world that they’re not insane. Many of the major zine distributors are women, supporting the women who write and produce them and friendships are often formed between readers and zinesters through letter writing. The publishing world is notoriously a boy’s club, difficult for women to infiltrate and rise to the top of especially if they retain a feminist sensibility. A sense of solidarity and a do-it-yourself spirit are ensuring that women’s ideas are being heard. It isn’t glamorous or glossy but in a world of Heat magazine and lads mags, it’s an honest and vital alternative.

Feminist porn: the review

What are the common complaints made by women about mainstream porn? That it has no plots, that there are too many un-sexy close-ups, the women in it are ‘faking it’, that it’s all about the ‘mighty phallus’, and, very importantly, the soundtracks are terrible. All very understandable and off-putting points I would say.

So you’d expect feminist porn to be different, to address these issues, right? I decided to put this to the test and settled down with a slice of marble cake and a pot of jasmine tea to watch ‘The Crash Pad’, an award-winning lesbian, feminist porn film directed by Shine Louisa Houston.

I don’t really know what I was expecting to be honest, but whatever it was, it wasn’t what I got. The Crash Pad is a place where women can go and have sex with each other whilst they have the key. After 7 times, you have to pass the key to another lucky lady. This isn’t a plot though, just a kind of framing device, the twist at the end being, all the women are being filmed.

The women who star in ‘The Crash Pad’ are certainly not your average porn stars. They don’t seem to be surgically enhanced and some of them even have love handles, horror of horrors. Lots of them seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, looking authentically flushed and sweaty. Interestingly, all of the women in the film are real-life couples.

The weirdest thing about this film (apart from the part when one of them uses the loo and then doesn’t even wash her hands), is that it is still all about the peen. There are huge strap-ons everywhere. And lots of close-ups of them being put to use. Before being introduced to the framing device we are introduced to the vaginas of two and then three of the stars. And the soundtrack to all this hardcore action is uniquely terrible. Although these women are not the Barbies we usually expect in porn films, most of them don’t deviate massively from the norm. Although a little less tanned and toned than other porn stars, most of their pubic hair is missing and the majority have hairless underarms and legs.

This film is made for lesbians, not for men who just want to watch gay-for-pay girls get ‘naughty’ with each other. The problem is that despite being made for women by women, the director hasn’t managed to escape the tropes of traditional, non-feminist porn. I’m not saying that women want to watch soft-core, romantic, take-me-roughly-in-the-barn films, but this film doesn’t really address many of the issues that put women off porn. If I had to write a (naughty Catholic) school report for this film, it would read, ‘Could try harder’. Lol, harder.

We're not laughing, Andrew Lowe

Feminists don't have a sense of humour. We know this because the media tells us so. At the risk of perpetuating this idea, I don't see what's so funny about an Oxford College's decision to elect the position of White Heterosexual Male Officer.

Many universities in the UK, have a Women's Officer. This role is designed to represent women and to provide female students with women-specific support and services. We also have the positions of Black and Ethnic Students Officer, LGBT Officer and Disabled Students Officer, amongst others. These officers are elected to represent groups within a university that could potentially face discrimination based on their sex, ethnicity, sexuality or disability. Automatically, surely, you can see why the idea of having a White Heterosexual Male Officer is problematic. You don't need a specific representative for a group who are the most privileged in a patriarchal society really do you? There are certainly problems facing young, white men; their high suicide rate is indicative of that. They aren't, however, facing discrimination and this is what these specific positions are created to deal with.

But whatever. The students at St. Anne's college don't seem to be arguing that they need an officer to represent their interests. They see it as a hilarious joke. Let's look at Andrew Lowe's manifesto pledges shall we:

To replace St Anne's college crèche with a finishing school.
To ban women from the library.
To save money by getting female students to serve food in halls instead of kitchen staff.
Extra funding for "middle-class activities".
To prevent college authorities from banning "any act succeeded by the word 'lad' or 'banter'".
(Thank you Rowenna Davis for this information which you can't access on the St. Anne's website anymore.)


No, sorry, I just can't do it. In a place like Oxford University which is shockingly white, male and middle class, this is not funny. Having a Women's Officer is not 'political correctness gone mad', it's necessary. The same goes for a Black and Ethinic Student's Officer, or LGBT officer. These are underrepresented groups who need a representative. This new, arbitrarily created, position undermines the work of officers who have a real job to do; supporting minority groups within the student body and encouraging a more diverse range of students to choose to study at their prestigious university.

Call me cynical, but I believe there is more to this than meets the eye. A backlash against women's rights, racism that Andrew Lowe and his supporters would no doubt deny, and homophobia. And a dose of good old fashioned snobbery.

Really not funny.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Police vans and prom dresses

(I wrote this originally for London Student, the University of London newspaper. For a bit of background on the contest have a look here.)

Loony liberal left, the great unwashed, ugly, jealous. Just a selection of charming comments from the Daily Mail website about the women, myself included, from Goldsmiths Feminist Society who blockaded the Miss University London contest on Tuesday 10th March. We arrived at 9pm with our bicycle locks and, after a bit of a door-pushing battle with the people inside, managed to secure the entrance and ourselves using chains and our limbs. Inevitably, the police and press arrived. The police made it clear from the start that we would have to be moved unless we moved ourselves. While we waited for the bolt-cutting team and police vans to arrive, we were interviewed by various members of the press who responded with incredulity when we told them that we were prepared and willing to be arrested for our cause. Women with the courage of their convictions? Whatever next?!

Eventually we were arrested for ‘Obstruction of a Highway’ and taken away in a van, to several whoops and cheers, but eventually released without charge. The D-Lock on the door took them another thirty minutes and two fire crews to remove.

We have all been asked over and over again why we object so strongly to what has been called ‘light-hearted fun’ and even ‘empowering and educational’. In our opinion, this pageant is part of post-feminist ‘raunch culture’ which masquerades as liberation but in actual fact is patriarchal society selling women’s sexuality back to them on its own terms.

It objectifies women and turns them into commodities, feeding into a culture where domestic violence is the biggest killer of women world-wide and women are blamed for their rape. Contestants have said that this pageant is about their personalities too. We would disagree and say that it is about portraying a very specific type of personality, one which fits into the narrow idea of beauty upheld by the contest. This is doubly sad because the contestants are all intelligent, educated women who most likely hold some interesting and challenging opinions. This competition has sold them short.

Our protest wasn’t just about a beauty pageant and it wasn’t meant as an attack on the women involved. We don’t believe that the fight for women’s liberation has been won so we believe that we’re far from post-feminist. As long as women are being raped and abused on the streets and in their own homes, there should be no place in our society for events where men sit and ogle women for entertainment. And I’m happy to be arrested for that cause.

Luke Janklow in Vogue

I read Vogue. Phew, it feels good to get that out. Although it always frustrates me, I buy it each month for my fix of couture and Tim Walker photography. I find that because it's so beautiful, I can avoid the women-hating articles. Being a music-loving feminist though, I felt compelled to read an article about the way men and women experience music differently. I knew I was going to be annoyed and I was right. Luke Janklow's article, 'Food of love?' left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

The argument of said article can be reduced to: 'Men have a very visceral reaction to music' where 'Women respond to the melody, the story, the beauty'. What Janklow is really saying here when you scratch the surface is, 'men experience music in a deeper, more important way than women.' They experience it physically, primitively where women experience it at the obvious surface level of pretty tunes and sad lyrics. I hope I'm not alone in taking umbrage at this assumption (which seems to be based purely on the different musical tastes held by him and his wife.) I also hope I'm not alone (as a woman) in my love of shouty, stompy, raw music. I really don't think that I am.

My favourite thing to do when alone is to stomp, stomp, stomp to my favourite songs and believe me, there's nothing beautiful about it when I get going. The soundtrack for this apparently male behaviour is usually growly, shouty, filthy and frankly ugly. Garage rock, Riot Grrrl and anything else dirty and loud always provokes a physical reaction from me especially when I'm getting dressed. At these moments when I'm in a partial state of undress (personal favourite: tights/vest/mega-heels combo) I'm not thinking about the beautiful story that the lyrics are telling as Mr. Janklow would assume. I'm not really thinking much of anything to be honest. I'm just stomping. (Although sometimes it occurs to me about how gosh-darn sexy I look doing it.) And it doesn't just happen in my room either, I flail about in clubs and get goose-bumps at gigs and I don't have any control over any of it. I know I'm not alone in this. I see women throwing themselves about on dance floors with abandon whenever I go out. They're not thinking, 'These lyrics are so moving. And the melody? So beautiful!' They're thinking '??#!!£@??!' All of these women are experiencing music in the visceral way that Janklow attributes to men.

I just don't understand how this article slipped through the editorial net with it's outdated, easy assumptions about gender. How can somebody write and believe such nonsense in 2008 when we're confronted with images of gender subversion on a daily basis? It's probably more comfortable to think that we fit into neat little gender labeled boxes. More comfortable for somebody who's frightened to think that perhaps women aren't ethereal beings, devoid of physicality and who's too scared to confront the fact that he wants to wear his wife's knickers to work.

(For legal reasons, I have no proof that Mr. Janklow wants to wear his wife's knickers to work.)