Category Archives: Angst

Feminist Times: Ten things I hate about feminism

Hate is a strong word, which is why we thought you’d read it! Don’t get me wrong – I love feminism – but there’s been plenty of frustration and confusion in my time as Editor of Feminist Times. So in my final word on Fem T I thought I’d break my own rule and start taking some sides.

1) Pluralism is the most radical option in feminism.
I went to a convent where the one lesson we had on abortion was conducted by a nun, in a chapel, with a projector flashing images of dead foutuses onto the alter. The Catholic church is known for being balanced like that. Since then I’ve been pro-choice and suspicious of people who are very sure they are completely right.

I wanted Feminist Times to not be sure, but to definitely be nice. Instead of telling people what to think we should be presenting lots of contrasting ideas for everyone to make their own mind up. From the off we were being asked to take a side. How can you use the word “cis”? Why did you allow sex work to be in inverted commas? She said we shouldn’t wear high heels! Shut her up!

We had lots of high profile feminists refuse to take part in real life discussions with their online nemeses. A movement like this isn’t moving. It’s entrenched. Stuck, like that song, with clowns and jokers, etc. Being prepared to have offline conversations with anybody, particularly those who disagree with us, might be the most progressive thing we could all do. Some of our best writers have been people I’ve approached because they criticised us, savagely, online. Every one of them was lovely in person.

2) Feminism is being co-opted and by 2016 it will be dead again.
In 2009 I launched a feminist act called Gaggle, a weird punk choir. We were often ridiculed for being out and proud feminist. It was just five years ago and yet you couldn’t find a columnist who would admit they were a feminist, hence the website the F-word – it was taboo. You could tie several cats together, swing them and not hit a single feminist.

Now you can’t. Feminist columns, T-shirts and events clog up the zeitgeist. Every night there’s another panel discussion about Women in Music, so much so that I can’t remember what it was like before this 4th wave? Something about cupcakes and burlesque, I think.

Anyway, feminism is so popular right now that it’s one of the biggest buzz words in marketing for 2015, hence why Pantene is selling us feminist shampoo and Special K’s gone all “Dove” with it’s cornflakes. Unfortunately everything in fashion will go out of fashion. Like Skip Its, environmentalism and hipster beards, if feminism is dead again by 2016 what do we want to have achieved during this brief spell in the limelight?

3) The transgender tipping point is good for women.
It could be the single most important ally in killing gender bias – not because it says anyone can be a woman, but because it forces us to ask what the fuck are women and men anyway?

GenderWeek is perhaps the part of my journey in Feminist Times I am most proud of. It is a direct result of my disgust at the levels of hatred towards transgender women and also my sympathy for the old guard who are naturally suspicious and scared. We tried to build a bridge between two hurt parties, but who were we to think we could do that?! And so, six months after I asked for a membership level to be named after her, Roseanne Barr was hurling abuse at us!

4) Trolling is the worst kind of activism.
Being keen on pluralism I’m sure you can figure out why I’m not into the polarisation of Twitter. A lot of precious time and ideas are swallowed up by those timelines which are forgotten in minutes. If you troll as a form of activism…. yeah, good luck with that.

5) The idea of “choice”.
Lynne Segal said all this a lot better for us in Gender Week, but hardly anyone read it. So, in a nutshell – we are not completely autonomous consciousnesses outside of culture and all its perversions.

Our choices are not purely determined by free will but are in many ways pre-determined by our culture. I “choose” to wear heels is like saying I “choose” to drink a flat white. Before 2012 no one knew you could mix coffee and milk in such a new fabulous way and so this is where I find myself with Larry David when it comes to “choice”: you can’t choose what isn’t there, and very often a new choice is an old one rehashed.

7) Where is the revolution?
Why are we so polite when we are trying to insist that some people give up their grip on power and share. Russell Brand wants us to have a humorous revolution, Uncut continues to march with masks on, the Keiser Report calls for hanging – what does a feminist revolution look like?

I’m longing for a feminist revolution, where culture catches up with the law in places like the UK and where the law catches up with basic humanity in other parts. A world with a socio-economic F-plan.

We’ve been trying to get an economist to write a feminist economic blueprint for the future but no luck. Without it though, any feminist movement will have limited effect, capitalism is part of the problem.

8 ) Never use the word austerity.
Like the F-Plan, I’ve been trying to commission a piece about finding an alternative for the word “austerity”, but we still haven’t published it.

“Austerity” can too easily conjure, mistakenly, nostalgic images of blitz spirit, 1950s home economics, virtuousness, instead of the economic political ideology and the pain it leaves in its wake. The word “austerity” can appear innocuous, but like all words it has power, it can put a spell on you. We need a new word. Until then it’s like calling a 13-year-old girl who is forced into marriage a “wife”; she’s not a wife, she’s a slave.

9) I’ve put on two stone in this job.
Feminist Times has been an all encompassing venture. I had to start putting in every therapist’s favourite, “boundaries”, from week one: Don’t always be on Twitter, don’t take things personally, don’t email at night or weekends, don’t work in someone’s house, don’t eat two lunches. You don’t think the pressure’s getting to you, then suddenly you’re buying size 24 knickers! Tomorrow I’ll be eating my own words and taking up running.

10) The rest will be one for the memoirs.
Thanks to everyone at Feminist Times and everyone who read Feminist Times.  It’s been thrilling, challenging and an experience of a lifetime. <3

Deborah is a writer, producer, editor and tunesmith. She founded and directs all-girl radical choir @Gaggle, writes occasionally for the Guardian and can be heard making very authored reports for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Founding Deputy Editor of Feminist Times, Deborah became Editor in December 2013 and leaves Feminist Times today for new projects. Follow her @deb_rahcoughlin

Photo: Taken by Jim Eyre. Lucie Evans, Gaggle.

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Most rapists and murderers aren’t ill. Don’t call misogynists “mad”

An actor called him a lunatic, and newspapers and magazines called him a madman and deranged. And while it may have been tempting to use these words to describe the young man who killed six people because of his arrogant attitude of entitlement to women, Elliott Rodger’s videos and manifesto made clear that his problem was not his mental health, but rather his unbridled misogyny.

Using mental health slurs to describe people who are violent or objectionable is not only inaccurate, it also promotes stigma and damaging attitudes towards people with mental health problems. This is why describing rapists and murderers as crazy, psychos or nutters is dangerous as well as lazy.

It is these attitudes that prevent people with mental health diagnoses from getting on with their lives. They cause people in a leafy Sheffield suburb to actively object to a charity-run crisis house in their backyard on their street. The resulting prejudice prevents us from getting jobs and causes people to fear and loathe us. It makes people avoid seeking treatment because they are so afraid of the stigma that comes alongside the ‘mentally ill’ label. As an anonymous contributor to Fementalists wrote:

“For those of us who are mentally ill, however, it stays with us, stabs at us. Whenever we hear this kind of thing we’re getting the message we’re not to be accepted as we are, that we’re bad, wrong, to be mocked, or worse, dangerous. To me, it’s a constant message sent by society that we are unwelcome in it.”

The vast majority of people with mental health problems are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and 95% of murders are committed by people with no mental health diagnosis. However, whenever a killing makes the news, speculation about the suspect’s potential psychiatric state abound, not just in gossipy social media circles but in the mainstream press too.

The problem with abusers is not that they are “insane”. When we label violent and abusive men ‘crazy’, we fail to identify and address the real problems. In cases of domestic violence, rape and stalking, for instance, it is easy to call the perpetrators psychotic but, if we do so, we are missing the opportunity to recognise and tackle misogyny, entitlement and rape culture.

The use of mental health slurs as insults is unrelenting, and the undercurrent of unremitting microaggressions is exhausting. When I call myself mad and you use the same word to describe Jimmy Savile’s terrifying catalogue of abuse, I can only conclude that you think there is a parallel between the two. When somebody is diagnosed with psychosis and you call a perpetrator of vicious domestic violence ‘psychotic’, you are suggesting that you believe the person who is unwell is capable of the same cruelty and abuse.

We see news reports of violent misogyny and we might well get angry. We read accounts of domestic abuse and we may feel frightened and vulnerable. But resorting to disablist language to describe the perpetrators of these crimes makes it easy to ignore the problem, while piling stigma onto mental health service users that will limit our lives and encourage hate crimes and discrimination.

So, if somebody is brutal, call them brutal. If they are cruel, call them cruel. And what if an abuser or killer has a confirmed diagnosis of, say, psychosis or schizophrenia? Well, what if they have epilepsy? Or a broken leg? The likelihood is that their diagnosis bears little relationship to their violence. Assuming there is a connection with their impairment is submitting to dangerous stereotypes that cause palpable, daily problems for those with these diagnoses and issues.

Wait for the facts, don’t assume and never, ever try to diagnose somebody based on what you’ve read on the internet.

Philippa Willitts is a disabled feminist freelance writer in Sheffield. She has written for the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman and Channel 4 News websites and is part of The F-Word blogging collective. Follow her @PhilippaWrites.

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OJ, Yewtree & Pistorious: It’s time we listened to Sue Lees

Last week marked the twenty year anniversary of the deaths of two people whose names you may not recognise: Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. They’re famous only because of the name of the man who was acquitted of their brutal murders: OJ Simpson. And if you just went “OJ who?” it’s past your bedtime, go upstairs.

At the time many concluded that if you’re rich enough and famous enough you can get away with anything. This probably explains the Star Wars prequels. I’m not sure what the rules are – how famous you have to be to commit what crime. I’ve been on Question Time, I’m guessing that’s enough for a happy slap. I’ll take Farage.

For feminists, the television broadcast of the trial offered an insight into the court process and why men who attack women so often do so with impunity.

I read a lot of books about feminism at university, which might explain why I only scraped the narrowest of 2.1s in my maths degree. Objectification never came up in my modules, but statistics did.

One of them was Sue Lees’ book Carnal Knowledge. Lees had spent months sitting in court rooms watching rape trials and detailing the systematic ways in which the credibility of victims was undermined.

In December last year I did jury service for the first time. I drew two conclusions from my experiences. The first was that the system is still loaded with misogyny towards victims of rape and domestic violence. The second was that Ms Lees should really have been made a Knight of the Realm for sitting through all those hours of grinding legal argument and vicious victim-blaming.

Having trials on TV is a producer’s dream. Spend millions on a new series of Big Brother? No need, viewers will be queuing up to watch a famous athlete explain why he shot his girlfriend. So far we have resisted televising trials in the UK, resulting instead in coverage that has left me with a paranoid fear of chalk drawings.

Home and abroad the cases show a depressing set of similarities. The barrister defending Oscar Pistorius has produced as evidence romantic texts (true love always texts) and a video clip of the couple kissing. Here in the UK, the defense case for Rolf Harris called celebrity character witnesses.

Shouldn’t someone point out that being an outwardly “nice” guy doesn’t prove anything? Those who commit violence against women have so far refused to stick to a dress and behaviour code that lets us all know what they are really like. I suggest a “this is what a misogynist criminal looks like” T-shirts. Although of course within a fortnight we’d be hearing: “she can’t have been raped, she willingly got in a car with him while he was wearing his misogynist criminal T-shirt”. Doh.

While the Harris and Pistorius cases continue there are a string of others that have been dropped, not even brought to court. Freddie Starr, Jim Davison, Jimmy Tarbuck, and others have been cleared of all charges. William Roach, Dave Lee Travis, Michael Le Vell and most – famously of all – Michael Jackson.

Individually these things mean nothing. Any of them could be innocent. And we should remember that a “not guilty” verdict simply means the absence of sufficient evidence to convict. The basic right to be treated as innocent should prevail, but it doesn’t come with a prize or a medal: “Sponsored by Tefal – nothing sticks”.

No, seen together, as a pattern, they add up to a worrying picture – one that Lees was able to identify in 1996. Attrition at every stage of a system loaded against claimants means that – and this is a frightening concept to consider – the percentage of rape allegations that lead to conviction is now lower than the percentage of the UK population who voted for UKIP.

There have been flashes of hope out there. Mike Tyson went to jail. Max Clifford is in jail now. It may have taken years to get the result but Phil Spector eventually went to prison too. The court system has the potential to put dangerous misogynist criminals behind bars.

I’ve been careful with my language throughout this piece. I wasn’t at these trials, I can’t comment on the evidence presented, only on the system and the overall statistics. I can say this though: MAX CLIFFORD IS A SEX OFFENDER. MAX CLIFFORD IS A SEX OFFENDER. Phew. That does feel strangely exhilarating. It reminds me how empowering a conviction like that is, not just for victims and their families but for everyone who values a safe and just society. Maybe I’ll post him one of my “misogynist criminal” T-shirts. I hear his size is extra small.

We can do even better than this. Twenty years after OJ there are simple changes that could be made to our legal system that would give victims of sexual assault, rape and domestic violence a better shot at justice:

The right for claimants to demand a full trial, rather than allowing the police and CPS to just “give up”. Expert judges for rape and sex assault cases, including more female judges. Making it compulsory for judges to warn jurors that it is normal for victims to delay reporting and show no visible trauma as they give evidence. Information given to jurors on the defendant’s previous convictions, complaints and accusations.

And if you’re wondering where I came up with those simple, elegant ideas… they’re in Sue Lees’ book. And they’re as relevant now as they were when she wrote them nearly 20 years ago. The high profile, televised and media-sensationalised cases don’t really provide us with any new information, but they do provide an opportunity to talk about the legal system and demand much-needed radical changes.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and political activist. Follow her @Cruella1

Photo: Wikimedia

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The Daily Mail, “White Dee” & the “Happy Depressive”

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week. If you have an idea for an article email editorial@feministtimes.com

In this country 1 in 5 of us will have an experience of clinical depression in the course of a lifetime and there will be a higher proportion of women sufferers. The mental health services are in crisis with severe cash shortages and mental illness continues to carry a heavy stigma.

It is indeed hard to understand an illness that cannot be seen but to suffer from depression can feel like living under a curse. Most people think they know what a depressed person looks like but they would be wrong. A doctor friend of mine, when training to be a psychiatrist, was told ‘beware the smiling depressive.’ It is good advice and not stated often enough. Many psychotherapists will have had experience of the client who can appear cheerful and upbeat and then unexpectedly make a suicide attempt.

When reading the Daily Mail’s article on ‘White Dee’ I was shocked but not surprised. Dee, from the Channel 4 program Benefits Street, is seen partying during 4-day holiday, which she has been offered free. However, the potentially high price she is paying is having her picture in the paper, drinking, kissing a man and being offered up to the general readership as an object of contempt. The implication is that she is a liar who is fooling the benefit system. The reader can feel rightly appalled. But the premise here is that depressed people never laugh or smile and if they are able to do this then they are not depressed. This is simply not the case.

I can sit with a very depressed client who is in utter despair and full of self-loathing and hopelessness. Yet, even in the midst of this misery, we can sometimes enjoy a laugh together. I also know that such a client, often a woman, will then go home to their families and make a superhuman effort to be cheerful. Sometimes they manage better than others. It is interesting to note that buried in the article on White Dee was a comment she made on not really enjoying herself because she misses her children and hates flying. The reader is again invited to disbelieve this because all the pictures show her partying.

Ironically there was another article in The Mail the same week on Compassion Focused Therapy. (CFT). This is a relatively new therapy that is used for treating anxiety, which is often a feature of depression. One of the most painful aspects of depression is self-hatred and worthlessness. CFT helps the client treat and think of themselves with compassion rather than criticism. Compassion is not the same as self-pity. It is about being able to have realistic thoughts to combat negative self-beliefs. I’m just ‘completely useless’ isn’t a helpful thought but being able to think ‘I’m doing my best’ and ‘I’ll get better’ is vastly preferable and more constructive.

Depressed people will have such an internal bullying voice which attacks them for not being good enough, perfect enough, thin enough, rich enough and so on. The bully by definition doesn’t have compassion or empathy for the victim, which in the case of depression are the sufferers themselves. The tabloid papers frequently use bullying strategies that denigrate those they wish to attack. The article on White Dee was designed to prevent understanding or compassion. We only saw the photos they want us to see and which invited condemnation. They offered no possibility that this woman might in reality suffer from depression and that being at the receiving end of such media coverage might truly cause her harm.

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and EMDR Consultant in private practice in North London.

Photo: Daily Mail

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#GenderWeek: Truce! When radical feminists and trans feminists empathise

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

We wanted to explore the ground between the polarised, entrenched positions in the so-called “TERF-war”. Radical feminists on one pole, trans-inclusionary feminists and trans activists on the other. The disputed territory being women-only space, language and the ever changing legal framework surrounding gender.

Entrenchment leads to stalemate. Stalemate is no friend to progress.

We want to know how feminism can progress when it comes to these gender debates. Can we stop hurling abuse and start listening? What would happen if people in these polarised positions began to empathise with each other? Is it possible to find common ground and start building towards a shared vision of the future? Fighting common enemies?

We asked Finn Mackay, a radical feminist, and Ruth Pearce, a trans feminist, if they would help us explore the place between the poles, this no (wo)man’s land, with some radical empathy.

Finn Mackay:

The disagreements between some feminist theory and the growing movement for trans rights and recognition perhaps began most publically with Janice Raymond’s 1980 book The Transexual Empire and Sandy Stone’s famous riposte in The Empire Strikes Back. The main two critiques were that Raymond denied a history for trans people and stated that trans people are not ‘real’ men or women.

It’s not difficult to see why the latter would cause offence, and indeed Raymond does suggest this in her book. Mainly she is concerned with critiquing the medical industry and its pathologisation of gender in the clinics of the 1970s, which she sees as charm schools for gender stereotyping.

Raymond does not deny a transgender history; she is not naïve to the fact that gender rules are different around the world and are often flouted. However, Raymond argues that it wasn’t until legal and medical advancements that it became possible to talk about the identity of transexual.

This highlights an important distinction between gender and sex. I am not an essentialist; I believe gender is a social construct – by which I mean masculinity, femininity, camp, butch, high femme or androgynous, for example. Sex describes the biological features of our bodies, such as genitalia, reproductive capacity and hormones. In patriarchy of course, sex equals rank and gender roles are used, promoted and policed so that sex rank is obvious and unequivocal.

I don’t believe gender is natural, fixed or innate, but made and not born. It is made by all the stereotypes around us about how men and women are supposed to look, act and dress. Everyone works hard at their gender, it does not come naturally. Men and women work to live up to narrow and impossible gender ideals; they diet and spend vast amounts on cosmetics and plastic surgery. In that way we are all performing gender, and it is difficult to say if anyone is a ‘real’ man or woman.

Therefore, I don’t believe that trans people are any less ‘real’ men and women than anyone else, and I don’t believe trans women are ‘men’. I respect self-definition and use the pronouns individuals identify as; I would never refer to trans women as ‘he’ or to trans men as ‘she’. I agree that women-only spaces should be open to all women, including trans women. However, I also respect the right of all oppressed groups to self-organise. For example, recently a mixed feminist conference in Manchester held a workshop on girlhood sexual abuse which was open only to women assigned female at birth. I do not think it was right that the conference was attacked as a result.

I do not agree with the term ‘cis’ and do not use it. It suggests that all non-trans people are gender normative Stepford wives, which is far from the case. I do not get read as a woman in many daily interactions and experience harassment and violence as a result. I do not have the privilege of not being questioned about my sex and gender in the street, in passport control or in interactions with health services. I also do not believe that being categorised as female in a patriarchal world can ever be seen as a privilege, and the facts of sexual violence, marginalisation and poverty bear that out.

 

Ruth Pearce:

In you, I see the girls who spat in my face as I walked home from school.
In me, you see every man who has ever treated you like a lesser being.
In you, I see the boys who always wanted to pick a fight.
In me, you see someone who just won’t listen.
In you, I see my father, a man I’ve always considered to be wise and thoughtful, telling me that I’ll be outed by the press and kicked out of university for using the women’s toilets.
In me, you see a forceful male penetration of women’s spaces.
In you, I see a thousand tabloid headlines screaming “tranny”.
In me, you see a blind adherence to the oppressive system of binary gender.
In you, I see the doctor who tells me what I can and can’t do with my body.
In me, you see the stooge of a patriarchal medical system.
In you, I see how friends who have been beaten or raped were told that they brought it on themselves.
In me, you see a systematic desire to control and define womanhood.
In you, I see a systematic desire to control and define womanhood.

My truth and your truth are both derived from a fierce feminism, but somehow remain diametrically opposed.  Why is it that we disagree so much over the meaning of my body, over the meaning of your lived experience, over the existence of feminist events that exclude trans women?

I would tell you that my subconscious sex, the mental matrix that somehow marks the flesh I expect to see and feel when I behold myself, maps snugly onto the body I have inhabited since undergoing hormone therapy and genital reconstruction. I would tell you that for the last six years I have been happy and at ease with myself in a way I could never have been before.

I would tell you that yes, I agree that gender is a social construct which ascribes hegemonic power to the masculine. I would tell you that I, like you, am forced to negotiate a society where we cannot simply reject gender because we are constantly gendered by others. The body I inhabit, the things I enjoy, the manner in which I communicate, the clothes I prefer to wear all fit better into the artificial category of “woman” than the artificial category of “man”.

I would tell you that I too am subject to sexism and misogyny in many of their vile forms. My transness does not spare me. I would further tell you that I have experienced worse for being trans than for being a woman, although such unpleasant experiences have been limited by the privileges that come with my class background and the colour of my skin.

I would tell you that I believe in the importance of women’s spaces. I would argue that no group of women should be rejected from such a space.

I would tell you that I am a woman because I identify as a woman and because I move through the world as a woman. That I reject outdated ideals of “appropriate” female behaviour. That I rage against sexism and misogyny, and fight alongside my sisters for equality, for liberation, for choice.

I would tell you that this is my truth, and that there is no universal trans truth. I would ask you to acknowledge the diversity and complexity of trans truths.

And you would tell me your truth. You would tell me of the pain that comes from growing up as a girl and then living as a woman in a patriarchal world. You would tell me that I can never know what this is like, that I will always be male, that my chromosomes and life experience cannot be erased. You would tell me that you have a right to organise without me. That I should just leave you alone.

And our argument could roll on for a long time. I might draw upon the wisdom of black feminist thinkers to argue that there is no universal experience of womanhood. And you might respond that I, nevertheless, will always have with me the privileges that come with being raised as a boy. And I would say yes, I accept that, but seek to acknowledge and check this in the same way I seek to acknowledge and check my other privileges, and moreover this intersects complexly with the oppression I experienced growing up as a trans girl, learning to hate myself and unable to access hegemonic forms of masculinity.

Where does this leave us?

At the end of the day, we have to draw a line in the sand. So you read and write and share your critiques of my existence, and attend your conferences from which I am explicitly excluded. But I necessarily object to writings and events that actively oppose or undermine my liberation: articles that turn me into a joke or demean my struggle for survival, activists who out vulnerable children, keynote speakers who say that we are all rapists and call for the abolition of gender clinics.

I am left with no choice but to actively oppose the public manifestation of opinions that will do harm to myself, to my friends, to my trans sisters, to my trans brothers, to my queer and/or non-gender-specific trans siblings.

I oppose you not because I hate you, and certainly not because I oppose feminism. I oppose you because you would cause me harm.

And in doing so, you believe that I cause you harm.

And so the dance goes on.

Ruth’s piece is adapted from her 2012 blog post, which you can read here.

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#GenderWeek: Male violence goes beyond domestic violence

Click here to read all #GenderWeek articles.

I didn’t plan to start keeping a list of dead women, but in January 2012 seven women were killed in the first three days of the year. Three were shot, two were strangled, one was stabbed and one was killed though 15 blunt force trauma injuries. Michael Atherton, 42 shot dead his partner Susan McGoldrick, her sister Alison Turnbull and her sister’s daughter Tanya Turnbull before shooting himself.  He also shot Susan McGoldrick’s daughter who escaped. Atherton  was licensed to own guns despite a known history of domestic violence.

Atherton’s murders made the national news, as did that of 20 year-old Kirsty Treloar who  was abducted and stabbed to death the following day. Reading online I noticed that at least one of the seven killings was referred to as an “isolated incident” and was incensed that connections weren’t been made between the murders of women. I started keeping a record of the women killed through domestic violence.

In March, Ahmad Otak stabbed and killed Samantha Sykes and Kimberley Frank. Otak was in a relationship with Kimberley’s sister, these weren’t domestic violence murders. Samantha and Kimberley would not be included in the two women a week in England and Wales killed by a partner or former partner. Yet Otak had murdered them to exert his power over Eliza Frank, to scare and control her.

Only days before, the headless and limbless body of Gemma McKluskie was found in a canal, her head was not found until six-months later. Her brother had killed her; he had not only killed her, but chopped her up and tried to hide bits of her body in different places. That wasn’t sibling rivalry, it was hatred. Gemma was another dead woman whose murder didn’t count in the statistics.

Keeping note of things that don’t fit the pattern, sometimes reveals other patterns. By the end of 2012, I’d recorded six older women aged between 75 and 88 who were killed by much younger men: aged between 15 and 43. Delia Hughes was 85 when she was murdered by 25 year-old Jamie Boult. When Boult was sentenced, Delia’s daughter, Beryl said: “I’ve never seen a dead body before. Seeing my mum her head battered, covered in blood, black and blue with bruises, sitting in a pool of blood, blood splattered on the walls, this is a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Similarly, Jean Farrar, 77, was kicked and stamped on by Daniel Barnett, 20, until she was virtually unrecognisable. Her son Jamie was absolutely right when he said: “Daniel Barnett did not need to enter my mother’s house that night. He chose to. Upon finding my mum at home, he easily could have left. Instead he chose to beat her and throw her against the wall. And when she screamed in pain, he chose to kick her, stamp on her, and jump on her head until she was unable to scream anymore.” Like Gemma McKluskie, the murders of Delia Hughes and Jean Farrar were brutal; these women were not just killed. The men who killed them made choices to inflict horrific ugly violence.

I’ve now recorded 120 women killed through men’s violence in 2012; 33 of them were killed by men who were not a partner or former partner but robbers, muggers, rapists, friends and co-workers, strangers. 16 of them were killed by their sons. When a woman is murdered, who killed her and how, or what the relationship between victim and killer was, are not always made public until after the trial of the killer, so my records for 2013 aren’t yet complete. But I know that of 140 women killed through alleged or suspected male violence in 2013, 31 were not killed by a partner or former partner. 260 women dead in two years, at least 64 of them – that’s almost a quarter – not killed by a partner or former partner.

Will we ever be able to say that patriarchy – sexism, misogyny and socially constructed gender – did not influence the deaths of those 64 women? I don’t think so, and that’s why I think we need to look at women killed by men, not just women killed though domestic violence.

Karen Ingala Smith is the Chief Executive of nia, a charity supporting women and children who have experienced sexual and domestic violence. She blogs at kareningalasmith.com and tweets @K_IngalaSmith and @countdeadwomen. Sign her petition at: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/stop-ignoring-dead-women.

If you have been affected by domestic violence, call the national domestic violence helpline on 0808 2000 247. Calls are free and the line is open 24/7.

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Radical Agony Aunts: “I don’t respect my passive boyfriend”

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

My dilemma is that I am a total hypocrite when it comes to what I seemingly want from a partner. I find men who match certain gendered roles set aside for men attractive; I find physically brawny men attractive, men who are good at DIY, who can find their way about, who are smart, confident, competent and will debate etc.

I have a very lovely and sweet and feminist boyfriend (who is also gorgeous), yet I sometimes don’t respect him because he can be quite passive and doesn’t really participate in debates, so sometimes I wonder if he is smart enough for me. I can be quite dismissive of him and can accuse him of being a bit useless. He isn’t physically muscley and doesn’t do DIY and is crap at reading maps, doesn’t make decisions quickly, so I feel I have to take control ALL of the time and sometimes that is tiresome. I am a strong personality and I am definitely the dominant partner in the relationship and it saddens and worries me that I don’t respect him because of this.

I should be happy that he doesn’t expect me to do the cooking, shopping and cleaning, or expect that it should automatically be him that drives etc. I would be maddened by an alpha male who expected me to follow gender roles assigned to me as a woman – the nurturing little wifey etc. so as much as I know I am being totally hypocritical I can’t help it. How can I stop being a hypocrite and also stop being a bit of a bully to him? Why do I have this internal need for him to be smarter than me for me to respect him?

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Strong Personality,

So let me get this straight: you don’t respect your boyfriend, you feel he isn’t smart enough for you, you tell him he’s useless, you’re dismissive of him and you are more attracted to his complete opposite in terms of personality and physical type. Believe me, these are not words I say very often – but poor man!

But you know you’re treating him badly; that’s why you’ve written to us. Of course relationships have their ups and downs, and things may get better between you. But when you stop respecting someone, as you say you have, it’s a big deal. If you look at your partner and find your lip curling instead of your heart swelling, is there a way forward? I can’t tell from your letter whether your boyfriend has changed or whether he was never your type. Either way, are DIY and map reading really so important to you? Or are you (and I apologise for the phrase) just not that into him and looking for any reason why he’s not right for you? I think you need to consider whether the two of you have a future.

Like you, I’ve been out with men who looked good on paper – right-on types who wouldn’t hurt a fly, nice to their mums, good listeners, eager to please. In principle, my ideal men. In theory, a perfect match. In practice, kinda boring. We agreed on everything – but how was I going to develop my own thinking and my own view of the world without anyone challenging my opinions? Being with a good listener is great, but if we can’t learn from each other it’s bound to feel sterile. It’s a hard lesson that no amount of “looks good on paper” or 90% match from a computer algorithm is a guarantee that there will be a spark.

You give a pretty detailed description of the kind of man you find attractive, so I’m wondering if you’ve already met someone else who fits your ideal profile. You ask if it’s possible to hold feminist views and still be attracted to alpha male types. My very definite answer is: well, that all depends. If someone is an alpha sexually and that’s what you’re after, then of course – we are excited by what excites us, politics or no politics. The same goes for decisive personalities.

However if  someone’s view of alpha is insisting we play traditional female roles in everyday life, regardless of our own needs and desires, then we have to accept that they are a hindrance to us leading a feminist life and make our choices accordingly. That may be something you have to negotiate in a future partnership.

You use the word hypocrite three times in your letter and it’s a harsh word to use about yourself. I wouldn’t call you a hypocrite. But it is heartless to keep your boyfriend around when you seem to despise him, and it’s doing you no good either. If you really can’t respect who he is, then you need to take action. It’s nice when someone else takes responsibility for decisions, but sometimes you’ve just got to Do It Yourself.

Personal agony aunt

Political agony aunt

Dear Strong Personality,

Your question comes from the heart, and the sincerity in the expression of a deeply felt quandary is irrefutable. But when you ask how you can stop being a “hypocrite,” you introduce a term that is deeply unsuitable to the complexities of human relationships, especially sexual and romantic ones. Posed in such terms, the answer is simple: either change your desire or change your boyfriend.

The framing of your question, however, makes it difficult for the first to happen anytime soon. You talk about your desires as if they exist independently of you – as if such desires and tendencies had been offloaded onto your person, and could not be removed from you without some fundamental loss of personality. But to think about desires in such terms is to abstract them from the real situations and relations in which they develop and are expressed.

Even your self is presented here as if it were another person, fully formed and implacable. “I”, in your letter, operates almost in the third person. The same goes for the qualities that you attribute to your partner. You wonder if he “is” smart enough for you. But intelligence, so conceived, is an abstraction; and so is the lack of it. Intelligence arises in situations, and situations either release or stultify it. If desire could be so easily satisfied by items on a checklist (brawny, good at DIY, smart, confident, competent, good debater, etc.) then you ought to have no trouble upgrading. But we are not consumers when it comes to romance and love; desire is not so satisfiable.

You may not be attracted to your boyfriend. However, I don’t think this is due to his inability to read a map, or his lack of muscles. The negative checklist (passivity, lack of debating skills, indecisiveness) is as implausible as the positive one.

What would happen if you reconceptualise your boyfriend’s passivity as a form of agency, one that has developed over many years, and that has led him to his current situation of being partnered with a “strong” personality? Could you try to understand his map-reading incompetence, similarly, as a capacity – a decision taken early in life, in a specific situation, to organise the mind around one set of coordinates (for example, temporal ones) rather than another (spatial)? What happens if you approach his refusal to debate as motivated by intelligence rather than its absence?

Email your questions and dilemmas to agony@feministtimes.com

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#SexIndustryWeek: Dworkin was right about porn

It is 2014. A twelve-year-old boy rapes his 7-year-old sister after watching hardcore pornography. Should this be a feminist issue? Judging by the lack of any mainstream feminist response, no. Perhaps once it would have been, but not today.

We’ve grown too worldly wise for moral panic. No longer are feminists shouty, sexless beings, piecing together a politics based on exception, exaggeration and fear. Terrible things happen to women and girls but when it comes to blame (such an awful word!) we are circumspect. Men rape women, boys rape girls, but it’s nothing to do with how we represent sex. It’s nothing to do with the stories we tell our children. Hatred of women just is.

The 1980s backlash taught me well. I grew up thinking all radical feminists were anti-sex and anti-men. Absorbing the “generational model” of feminism, in which each wave improves upon the last, I chose not to be like my predecessors. I wanted to be “normal” – not vanilla, no-sex-before-marriage normal, but normal in the way a woman should be, before social conditioning teaches her she must not enjoy a good fuck. Open mind, open heart, open legs. I’m not sure why I assumed normality  – the “real” version – would be so sex-centric but this felt important. Any criticism of the sex industry or objectification struck me as bigoted and almost pathologically wrong. If you reject the virgin/whore paradigm, what else is there to fear? Why not simply embrace all that is left?

It’s only recently I’ve admitted the answer to myself. Because what’s left is pretty awful, that’s why. Much as we’d like to see sexism as an historical hangover, it remains active and powerful. Liberation does not come through insisting that rape and other forms of violence against women have no cultural context. Feminism has to do more than simply polish patriarchy’s turds.

Sex is just sex. It should not be taboo. And yet at some point, feminists need to ask themselves, “why are things still so fucked up? Why are women considered less human than men?” It’s not random. It’s to do with power and it’s to do with bodies. It’s to do with fundamental beliefs about what women are for and pornography and sex work feed into this.

In a recent Times column, David Aaranovitch was scathing of those who find sex work problematic, claiming that these people – let’s be honest, these women – believe “sex is either something that binds people together, a couply superglue, or else a terrible force for entropy, sending the moral universe into a spin”. This is utter bullshit. Sex is just fucking, David, no more and no less. If we are to form parallels with religious fundamentalists, the religion in play here is not some anti-sex puritanism, but the unquestioning worship of gender norms which repeatedly screw women over. This is the problem; it always has been.

Aaranovitch asks whether “we believe that some women (and men) can choose to buy or sell sexual services without somehow being lesser people,” suggesting that there’s an invisible army of sex negative feminists on hand who’d say “no”.  As Michaele L Ferguson notes, this thinking – at root patriarchal and conservative – tries to frogmarch feminists towards the “honey trap” which sees sex work purely in terms of individual choice and argues that not to endorse the choices of sex workers – whatever their implications – means siding with the men who abuse them. It is of course nonsense but it prevents us from asking uncomfortable questions about the relationship between arousal, cultural conditioning and oppression. It means men such as David Baddiel – offering Aaranovitch a twitter backslap for his “brilliant column on body usage rights” – are seen as more progressive than feminists who view sex workers and porn stars, not as mere bodies to use, but as human beings, whose decisions can be criticised in the same way as everyone else’s.

In Women-Hating Right and Left, Andrea Dworkin calls out the way in which pornography is granted a special “get out of misogyny free” card because it makes people come:

“Those who think that woman hating is all right—they’re not feminists. They’re not. Those who think that it’s all right sometimes, here and there, where they like it, where they enjoy it, where they get off on it—especially sexually— they’re not feminists either. And the people who think that woman hating is very bad some places, but it’s all right in pornography because pornography causes orgasm, are not feminists.”

Dworkin was right, and it’s annoying that she’s right, given the things that might turn us on. I’m only human, too. I don’t want to be Andrea Dworkin; I’d much rather be Belle de frigging Jour. But I want to participate in feminism with my eyes open and I’m not so prudish about what happens to women that I’ll insist we turn off the lights.

Sex is not frightening. It is just flesh touching flesh, going into flesh, moving and feeling. An orgasm is an orgasm, a penis a penis, an orifice an orifice, a tongue a tongue. Nothing to be scared of. It is what it is.

What we fear is violence and abuse. That’s why we don’t call out misogyny. That’s why we don’t question the context of sexual exchange. That’s why the real taboo – the thing that we skirt around – is a feminism that seeks neither appeasement nor accommodation, but change.

VJD Smith (Glosswitch) is a lifelong feminist and mother of two who edits language books when she’s not tied up with parenting, blogging and ranting.  Find out more @Glosswitch or glosswatch.com

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A Womb With A View: Antenatal depression

Read the first in Jude Roger’s series, A Womb With a View: The Anti-Medicine Brigade.

Thirty-five weeks in, I am enjoying lots of things about pregnancy. Watching my stomach doing a John Hurt in Alien. Getting seats on trains (when people aren’t cocooned in their technological bubbles, anyway). Waddling. Napping. And my favourite: not holding my belly in.

But then there are the other things, of course: the niggles, the concerns. The guilt about what food and drink you can eat. The worries about whether baby is moving enough. Random pains. Itchy skin. Recently, I’ve been physically monitored to check some of these out (and I’m fine, all is well), but I’ve been surprised how rarely their psychological repercussions are acknowledged by health professionals.

The thing is, everyone knows about post-natal depression. It’s a regular headline on women’s magazine covers and something addressed, very rightly, in many birth preparation courses. Antenatal depression, however, is a fairly unknown term. Perhaps, once again, it’s because pregnancy is meant to be a blooming, beautiful time, when an ordinary woman becomes a walking, talking miracle. For many of those people, pregnancy is not the easiest draw, though. The pregnancy may have been unexpected or unwanted. It might bring up difficult emotions from the past. It might feel uncontrollable.

According to pre- and post-natal charity PANDAS (Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice and Support), one in ten women will experience antenatal depression. In the UK, it’s meant to be on the health agenda too. In 2007, NICE [the National Institute for Clinical Excellence] published guidance to help women at risk from the condition, and encouraged healthcare professionals to ask women at risk of it three simple questions: if they had felt down or hopeless, found it hard to find pleasure in doing things, and whether they wanted help with these feelings. Even if these women didn’t have specific mental illnesses, NICE advice continued, they should be encouraged to get support from professionals or voluntary organisations.

From my experiences, and those of others I’ve talked to, this isn’t always the case. At 19 weeks, I texted one of my healthcare contacts in desperation, worrying madly about having felt the baby move a few weeks previously, but not since. I felt bleak and couldn’t stop crying, I said. She replied to say sometimes movement changes happen, but didn’t address my state of mind.

At my next appointment, she had forgotten our exchange entirely. Ah, everyone gets anxious, she said, when I reminded her. Worry is normal. Which is all correct, of course, but that wasn’t the point.

A lot of anxiety in pregnancy is put down to hormones – and yep, there’s a lot of them, swirling and rollercoastering around. But bring up slight concerns about your state of mind and most health professionals plump for the “don’t worry, dear” response. A friend of a friend of mine who felt very low during her pregnancy was asked if she wanted to be monitored on machines more often for reassurance. She was never offered what she really wanted: services to help her emotionally.

In October 2012, Netmums, in association with the Royal College of Midwives, published more research about antenatal depression. Their findings reinforced a causal link between antenatal and postnatal conditions. Press headlines at the time had a specific focus, as a result: ITV’s typical example was “Report reveals antenatal depression affects relationship with baby.”

There’s something missing from that headline, of course – the mother herself, and her initial experiences. Once again, the individual growing a new life inside her doesn’t have her own taken seriously. This makes me wonder, dispiritingly, if post-natal depression is given more time because there are two people involved by that point. Still, in so much rhetoric and care, the woman alone, the mere vessel, doesn’t matter as much.

What this comes down to is how psychological illness is treated in healthcare, of course. This requires resources and money, but more importantly the communication of guidelines to all staff working within the system – something that should make the treatment of these issues frustratingly simple. After all, sometimes all that pregnant women want is a listening ear, and a mouth that responds. They want the opportunity to tell someone, “this is how I feel when I wake up in the morning… this is how unmanageable things feel when I think that’s something’s wrong”, and then be given some leaflets, or website addresses, rather than flail around in the dark.

Only then can pregnant women start getting on with the business of enjoying their strange, pregnant lives – something we can only do if we can feel happy with ourselves.

Jude Rogers is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, romantic, Welsh woman and geek. Follow her @juderogers

For more useful information on antenatal depression, go to:

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Not into trains: Gender bias & Asperger’s Syndrome

When I tell people that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, I get a variety of responses. Some of the less impressive ones have been: “But you look alright at the moment,” and “I know I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think you have got it.” These have been from people who should know better – people who are, by profession, linked to the world of autism spectrum conditions.

It is perhaps not surprising though, given that almost all of the research, literature and diagnostic criteria have evolved from a starting point in the 1940s when Hans Asperger first identified the condition through studying groups that consisted solely of young boys. He noticed these children were all high-functioning but had difficulties with social communication and displayed repetitive behaviours.

Most people will recognise the same stereotype that is still perpetuated by the media – The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper or Coronation Street’s Roy Cropper.

My son was diagnosed last year at the age of seven, with his love of lining up toy trains and regurgitating strings of facts. But during the long assessment period I came to learn that one size doesn’t fit all. My son doesn’t mind eye contact, he has a great sense of humour and he is extremely loving and affectionate. It was when I stumbled across some information on women and girls on the autistic spectrum that it suddenly dawned on me: Asperger’s can look even more different, and I have it too.

Clinical psychologist Professor Tony Attwood writes: “Girls and women who have Asperger’s syndrome are different, not in terms of the core characteristics but in terms of their reaction to being different. They use specific coping and adjustment strategies to camouflage or mask their confusion in social situations or achieve superficial social success by imitation.”

Many women with Asperger’s appear to have no problems on the surface. These girls, perhaps helped along by a higher than average IQ, use intellect to work out how to interact rather than learning it intuitively.

The disadvantage of this is that none of it comes naturally. A conversation with a friend may be accompanied by an interior monologue: Am I making enough eye contact? Don’t forget to ask her something about herself. Keep nodding and laugh at the right times… It is in essence, an act, a conscious effort, which is literally exhausting.

Asperger’s was barely heard of when I was a child, but I can’t help but wonder what difference a diagnosis would have made to me back then. I was lucky I had a large group of girl-friends in high school that I could hide amongst. But when one of my two best friends left for a different college and I had a falling out with the other one, for reasons I never fully grasped until years later, I was left on the edge of a group that I was starting to feel more and more distanced from.

Everyone else was growing up emotionally and socially, but I found the unstructured setting of free periods in the common room to be something far too excruciating to bear. I couldn’t understand the reason for social chit-chat or see the point to a lot of the conversations. I didn’t know how to be part of that. I suffered a kind of breakdown. I was depressed and anxious and most days would either fall asleep in lessons or have to leave the classroom in floods of tears. Years went by of failing to make meaningful friendships, self-medicating, bulimia and eventually, suicidal thoughts.

Many women have similar stories to tell. It is essential girls understand why they feel different to everyone else – they are not defective and it is not their fault. It has only recently started coming to light just how many undiagnosed women and girls remain, and how many young girls are still slipping through the net, despite increased awareness of autism in schools and health and social care settings.

This is because many of the myths of Asperger’s are still circulated as fact. I have attended training sessions that put far too much emphasis on the outmoded theory that autism is a manifestation of the “extreme male brain“, a term first coined by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen.

I also often hear the phrase: “people with Asperger’s have no empathy.” This is not true for many men with the condition, and even less so for women. Many women with Asperger’s join professions such as nursing and teaching, and research now suggests that people with Asperger’s experience higher levels of concern for others when witnessing their distress than neurotypical people do.

Although the medical profession is making advances in its understanding of Asperger’s, it takes years for new knowledge to be disseminated and for mindsets to change. In the mean time, the best all of us can do is talk about women with Asperger’s as much as we can, and hope fewer little girls will have to face a future of mental ill health and unnecessary struggles.  

Michelle Parsons worked for five years for a charity that supports unpaid carers. She has two children with Asperger’s Syndrome; one is a little girl who is yet to receive a diagnosis. Michelle has a degree in Cultural Studies and Creative Writing and has just started blogging at aspergersanxietyadhd.wordpress.com 

Photo: Stephen Woods

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Review: My Life in Agony, Irma Kurtz

Our Personal Agony Aunt reviews My Life in Agony by Irma Kurtz, published by Alma Books.

Irma Kurtz, “the unshockable Queen of advice”, has been the agony aunt at Cosmopolitan since 1975. Her new book is part memoir, part compilation of typical reader letters, and part agony aunt manual. The book is juicily subtitled Confessions of a Professional Agony Aunt; I wasn’t quite expecting the saucy double entendres you’d see in a 70s British sex comedy, but I wanted to hear her stories – her Jewish New Jersey childhood and post-war adolescence, her move to Paris as a teenager, leading to her decision to lose her virginity on the boat to Europe – in a lifeboat, no less.

She was a lone parent at a time when that was presumably even more frowned on than it is now (the book is short on dates but this seems to be the early 70s). She has the odd teasing career story, such as being sent to interview a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and being thankful that her anti-Semitic hosts mishear her name as Curtis. She was a pioneer in London’s bohemia, living in Notting Hill and Soho when they were poor arty areas for sex workers and outsiders, rather than aspirational Millionaire Rows. Yes, that’s a broad I want to read about.

But if 70s sex comedies taught us anything, it’s that juicy expectations are always frustrated – and sadly Kurtz and her fascinating life are tantalisingly absent from most of her biography. If you’re looking to understand the feminist times of that era, or learn how a creative and independent woman experienced life in a Britain in social turmoil, you won’t find it here.

There’s no doubt she has seen all human life in her post bag – problems on sex, family, friendship, independence, body image, mental health and ageing are all used to illustrate her quietly feminist worldview and to reflect different stages in her life. And for all aspiring agony aunts, she confirms certain intuitions about the role. The person with the problem knows the answer herself deep down but needs to hear it aloud. The agony aunt’s experience “must be one ingredient of her response, but it is never the recipe.”

There’s no shortage of sound advice in this book but the tone can be irritatingly lofty – I kept seeing her sentences sewn and framed like “Home Sweet Home” above mantelpieces of yore. She describes the role of the agony aunt as one of common sense, leading to wisdom over time through constant learning. But this develops into a series of “Common Sense says…. and Wisdom answers… “ homilies, a conceit to which the reader ultimately responds “So what?”

Kurtz’s life story is intriguing – I wish I’d learned more about it from reading her memoir. She seems much more comfortable using reader letters to explain the world than telling her own story. At one point she quotes her advice to an ageing friend who has complained about the lack of attention paid to older women: “Invisibility is no bad thing. People reveal lots more if they can’t see you watching them…” Perhaps after a lifetime of listening to and focusing on other people, she is uncomfortable being in the spotlight herself. Dear Irma, if that’s how you feel, here’s my advice: don’t write a book.

My Life in Agony by Irma Kurtz was published by Alma Books on 15 February.

See more from our Radical Agony Aunts here, or contact them with your own questions: agony@feministtimes.com

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Taboo corner

Taboo Corner: He was gorgeous – but married

Taboo Corner is a small space on Feminist Times for women to be open about uncomfortable thoughts they have and the personal reasons behind them, helping uncover disconcerting female truths that are normally repressed and opening them up for honest debate. Feminist Times is different to other magazines in that it won’t airbrush your frown lines or your emotions… Submit your own anonymous Taboo Corner piece: editorial@feministtimes.com

This time a year ago I met the most amazing man. The moment I saw him, my gut told me that I had to know him. It was the thunderbolt cliché of so many pop songs and romantic films, and I was instantly hooked. Gorgeous, interesting, widely read, generous, gorgeous, extensively travelled, funny, a raconteur, did I mention gorgeous?  (He’d once been a body double for a well-known film star. I’m not kidding).

Astoundingly, it seemed to me, the feeling of attraction was also clearly mutual. “Oh my,” I thought, “This is the great love that people speak of and I’ve spent thirty plus years wondering what they are on about. This is it.”  Of course, as Shakespeare helpfully pointed out, the course of true love never did run smooth. In this case, it wasn’t magical potions or warring families that stood in the way but the simple fact that the gorgeous man was married.

Until this point in my life, I had always been firm in my thinking on this issue. With age had come a growing awareness that human relationships are far more complex (and complicated) than the simple labels that we try to stick on them, but even so I somewhat naively continued to believe that a band of gold functioned as a sufficiently strong deterrent: Warning – stay away.  But if Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was the most controversial song of 2013, I had my own controversial and increasingly blurred lines to wrestle with over the year.

Light-hearted and friendly emails morphed into heartfelt and intimate exchanges. Occasional lingering behind at the mutual territory where we’d met in the first place shifted to meeting up alone for hours on end at slightly out of the way pubs. “It feels like we’re having an affair without the affair,” I commented to a friend on the rare occasion that I dared to refer to my entanglement. Respectable physical boundaries still intact (well, largely…), we exchanged books and philosophical musings with passionate ardour instead.

After almost twelve months of such thwarted desire, running became my safety valve – a release for physical tension and my raging hormones. Getting out there in my trainers also gave me some precious headspace, a time alone when I could no longer ignore the feminist consciousness whispering in my inner ear. I wish I could write that it was thoughts of solidarity with the gorgeous man’s wife that stopped me. Only it wasn’t.

The sisterhood saved me from further pursuing what ultimately would have been a damaging and destructive affair for another reason: I value myself more than I value a man. Whilst running, I couldn’t escape the stark truth that the situation I had entered into was compromising my integrity.

As a feminist and a fiercely proud independent woman, I have worked hard to create a life of my own and am even slowly coming to love myself. All of this, all of the emotional lessons, all of the realizations, all of the striving – in short all I had built up – was in danger of being overturned because I was putting this man before everything else. I was pinning my future happiness to a decision he had to make. I was even rethinking major choices, such as whether to have children, in light of his preferences rather than my own wants.

I was putting my life on hold for him.  And I couldn’t live with myself for doing so anymore.  This moment of feminist insight marked the end of the affair.

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A Womb With A View: The anti-medicine brigade

Blissful, perfect, glorious pregnancy. A woman who is pregnant by choice, rather than chance, floats along like a princess on a cloud. Her child is the centre of everything, the reason for her existence. She is a happy, gracious vessel to the angel growing inside her.

That’s not the Daily Mail approach to childbearing, but the prevailing attitude to modern motherhood – or so it seems to me, experiencing it long-term for the first time. This is my second pregnancy after an early miscarriage a year ago and, 30 weeks in, I can reliably say it’s a messy whirlwind of emotions. There’s excitement and happiness, yes, but also terror and fear, and the people who exacerbate the latter, more than anyone else, are the ones who say they’re there to make it all better – the anti-medicine brigade.

To illustrate this, I’ll begin my first column with a personal, Dickensian story. This Christmas I got ill. A sniffle became a head cold, then a great, gurgly swamp in my chest. Every time I breathed I sounded like a human accordion, but with extra crackle and rattle at the end of each chord.

It being Christmas, and surgeries and chemists being shut, I scurried online for advice from various pregnancy forums. Most of it followed a theme: don’t take any drugs. Try steam inhalation. Concoct a hot drink from lemon, chilli and ginger. I did both, but still sounded like a French cafe busker every time I exhaled. Out of desperation one night, I doused a pillow with Olbas Oil, then looked online the next morning and dissolved into a wreck. Anything could harm your baby, went the chorus. Mum must suffer instead.

I ended up at an NHS walk-in clinic after my third night propped up on three pillows to open up my chest, my third night weeping in bed because I could barely draw breath. A week later, after a course of amoxycillin to treat my chest infection, I was right as rain… but judgement day arrived a few days after that. I made the mistake of telling my yoga teacher that I had been ill (yep, I’m not that un-alternative – my back’s always been dodgy and I’ll try anything to make it not hurt). “How did you treat yourself?” she asked. “Antibiotics,” I replied. Her facial expression suggested I’d said I’d been mainlining heroin.

“What about steam?” she railed. “Oils?” I wasn’t allowed an answer. My teacher moved on to another woman instead, who was anaemic and praised for treating her iron deficiency not through drugs but through diet (my iron’s low too, and you know what – I do both). The night continued from there. I carried on trying to make my dodgy back better while sneers wafted around me – not the most relaxing night ever for someone wanting to make her pregnancy better.

And that’s the rub. This isn’t just a rant about my yoga teacher and her irritation at me being desperate to, you know, simply breathe… but about the anti-medicine brigade and the effects they really have on other pregnant women. You’ll find them in newspapers, on chatboards, in antenatal classes, and constantly in your head. To me, the brigade seem more interested in policing women’s behaviour than improving their situations. Hey, don’t do that. Or do this. Your own needs? Forget them. Call me glib, but isn’t this basically the rhetoric of the right-wing press? Aren’t you, the woman carrying this baby, the one giving them life? As a consequence, shouldn’t you be allowed to exist as comfortably as possible?

I understand why some people don’t want to rely too heavily on conventional medicine, of course. Antibiotics shouldn’t be dished out for every little cold. Big pharmaceutical companies aren’t the greatest businesses on earth. The psychological legacy of the thalidomide has lingered long in our collective consciousness too – but that was half a century ago, and regulation has tightened and hardened like hell. Back then our mothers didn’t worry about every single sip of alcohol and pill they took, but we must. Is this progress?

These days, pregnant women are encouraged to deny decades of regulated, monitored science and behave like martyrs. I ask again: how exactly is it progress for women to deny progress? Because, you know, doctors are bad, girls. And we understand our own bodies, after all. But here’s the biggest thing I’ve discovered about pregnancy: we really, really don’t. Pregnancy is one long trek into the unknown. And the scariest thing about it, I’ve found, is the lack of control that you have – something I’ve experienced first-hand having gone through a miscarriage. Last time round, I ate healthily, rested and didn’t take drugs… in short, I did everything ‘right’, and still it went wrong. This time round, I’ve taken medicine that’s long been approved not to cause harm during pregnancy. It allowed me to breathe, rest and simply be – and surely that’s good for both me and my baby.

After all, before the progress of medicine changed the wellbeing of Western women forever, women ailed, women struggled, women died. This woman wants to be relieved, wants to prosper, wants to live life to the fullest – for both her precious baby, and for herself.

Jude Rogers is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, romantic, Welsh woman and geek. Follow her here @juderogers

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Porn searches lead to feminist websites

We were distressed to discover that half of the top ten keywords that lead people to Feminist Times were rape porn related.

Most of our traffic comes from readers sharing on Twitter, Facebook and in emails, so this is a tiny percentage of the actual visits our site gets, but the search terms we’ve found further down our list are terrifying.

Keywords lists certainly paint a concerning picture for those worried about porn, violence and even paedophilia – we wonder what other feminist sites have discovered in their SEO analytics?

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A 2014 resolution: Adopt a feminist

My New Year’s resolution is to adopt a feminist. A new feminist, someone who hasn’t been a feminist for very long and is not quite sure what they’re doing but has buckets of enthusiasm. Why am I doing this? Well because we, as a movement, don’t really look after new feminists.

How New Feminists Are Born

The tradition for women of my generation has been to discover feminism at a young age; late-teens or early-twenties. By that point, most women will have either met another feminist or have read an article about women’s rights/arse-clenching sexism and have decided “yes, this is for me!” Since then, the internet has completely change the way men and women discover feminism. It’s possible to build an entire digital world for yourself without ever meeting another feminist. Which is great.

But! The problem with discovering feminism online is that everything is documented and if you make a mistake it’s there for everyone to see. When I became a feminist, at the age of 19, I often used the phrase “slag off”. It’s a phrased used a lot in Newcastle and generally just means to deride someone. It wasn’t until a friend quietly took me aside and pointed out that “slag” still sits with “slut” as a word used against women that I realised I should try and phase it out. All this was relatively pain free but if I used the phrase now, on Twitter or on a messageboard, there are a lot of feminists out there more than happy to police me on it.

Which comes to the crux of my point: every feminist gets it wrong a bunch of times before they get it right. We use the wrong words, we make dismissive judgements, we haven’t read the right literature, we are human beings. Now the internet makes it possible for women of all ages, from all backgrounds, to discover feminism, but it also leaves us vulnerable and us lot, as established feminists, need to support new feminists.

The Pressure To Be The Know-It-All Everyone Expects You To Be

When you become a feminist, everyone expects you to know everything about the movement – from its history, through every wave and into the current day academic jargon. And even if they don’t expect you to know that, you still feel like you have to rep for feminism 24/7. I remember one delightful guy who cornered me and demanded to know if I’d read all of Andrea Dworkin and did I agree with her? I had no idea who Dworkin was; I hadn’t even (and still haven’t) read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Andrea Dworkin sounded like a feminist pseudonym for Angela Lansbury and I liked Bedknobs and Broomsticks so I said yes and didn’t realise what I’d agreed to until the next day.

People generally still assume that the word “feminist” is antagonistic, that you’re up for a wide ranging debate about the latent colonialism of westerners becoming involved in the anti-female genital mutilation movement. We’ve all been there, so why do we forget that other people have this experience as well? As a newcomer to feminism on the internet, women are constantly challenged by other feminists about topics that they are not familiar with. Oh, you like this Glosswitch article? So you believe that queer women are deliberately trying to derail the No More Page 3 campaign?!? And so on…

So Why Adopt A Feminist?

It’s not enough for us to tell people who are new to feminism that they don’t have to know it all and feminism is really fun and awesome and yay! We need to have their backs when they make simple mistakes and we need to recognise these mistakes when they are made. There is a world of difference between a prominent white feminist making bigoted comments about transgender people in a national newspaper, and someone who’s new to feminism not knowing that it’s better to use the word “woman” instead of “female”.

We need to support new feminists and help them find their place in the movement, recommend things for them to read, and stop jumping down each other’s throats if we see someone making a mistake. If you spend much time on Twitter or in The Guardian’s comments section then it’s easy to feel like it’s better to keep quiet, rather than risk incurring the wrath of other feminists who’ve read sinister intent into the fact that you don’t know the word for intersectionality or that “tranny” is offensive.

Feminism should not be a series of islands with new feminists floundering between; we need to actively support new recruits, rather than just paying lip service and then hopping on Twitter to police someone’s use of the word “female”. With the recent conviction of John Nimmo and Isabella Sorely (convicted for threatening Caroline Criado-Perez via Twitter), it’s clear that there are more than enough people waiting to shoot us down; let’s not do it to each other. It’s a new year and we can afford to extend a little more help and support to new feminists.

Beulah Maud Devaney is a freelance writer living in Amsterdam. She is the Features Editor at For Books’ Sake and regularly contributes to The Guardian, The Huffington Post and The 405. Follow her @TheNotoriousBMD.

Image courtesy of Claudio Matsuoka

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#IDontBuyIt: Immaculate Conception & Womb Envy

At this time of year, in nativity plays, churches, and in the general consciousness, we are reminded of the central role of the female in the guise of Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary takes a special role in Christian theology as the mother of Christ and has been called the ‘mother of the world’.

This concept of worship of the feminine predates Christ, with “Venus figurines” dating back 25,000 years. However, worship of the centrality of the role of woman as the mysterious bringer of life is not without its darker side. Modern feminists rightly reject the narrow stereotype of the nurturing, wholesome woman, consumed with a desire for children to fulfill her purpose in the world.

As a psychiatrist, during the psychoanalytical part of my training, I viewed Freud’s ideas on femininity as diametrically opposed to my own belief system. Freud was a man of his time, opposed to the emancipation of women and had a distorted view of the centrality of the masculine. In Lecture XXXIII: “Femininity” (1933) Freud ponders the “riddle” of women and argues that, in a woman’s psychological development, her first object of her mother must be rejected to fulfil her need to attach to her father.

Her associated despair at realising that she does not have a penis when glimpsing this, leads to envy of the penis, with a powerful “feminine” wish for a baby. According to Freud a woman’s happiness is greatest if her wish for a baby is fulfilled and more so if that child is male and brings the longed for penis with him.

Feminist psychology as a movement rejects this notion of penis envy and proposes the more intuitive concept of womb envy. After training as an analyst and gaining recognition for her talents, Karen Horney rejected Freud’s theories that sex and aggression were the main drivers in achieving personhood. She viewed man’s envy of woman’s ability to bear, nurture and feed children as a cause of conflict in neurotic men. She introduced the term womb envy to describe the drive to success as a compensation for their in-built inability to bear children.

She rejected Freud’s idea of penis envy as a defensive reflection of a patriarchal society. His analysis could be more explicable as a defence arising from a female envy of men’s unfair generic power in the world. The neo-Freudian concepts with the birth of feminist psychology were a decisive point in the psychoanalytical movement. Karen Horney’s own drive in the face of rejection by some of her purist contemporaries was inspiring. I felt this addressed my own uneasiness at the centrality of the penis and sexual drive.

Contemporary psychoanalytical theory has moved away from this phallus-centric model to a more appealing and authentic discussion with a humanist perspective. This more realistically reflects the impact of societal and cultural influence on the development of the personality, and a more acceptable view of childhood development.

As a clinician in mental health, the impact of childhood trauma and neglect, and its influence in the development of a sense of self, has been a recurring theme in my own therapeutic work. But the responsibility of this is not the maternal object and should be felt by both sexes.

Horney was convinced, through her work and own analysis, that the fulfilling of a child’s needs for food, safety and love allowed a child to develop healthy self concepts. This in turn led to successful interpersonal relationships. She felt children whose needs were not met – through neglect or inappropriately defined ideas of child rearing – would develop anxiety, with an associated adoption of maladaptive coping or defence mechanisms to manage this anxiety.

The centrality of the “objects” in the child’s life, or influence of caregivers has achieved its rightful place, and these ideas have developed further in the psychoanalytical community in the last century. The works of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott brought me back to accepting some value in the psychoanalytical model. Klein, although a Freudian herself, co founded Object Relations Theory and was extremely influential in the UK, where she practiced from 1926 to her death in 1960. A divorced mother of two, without an academic background (having halted her studies for her marriage), she must have been extremely determined and talented to excel in the then male dominated field of psychoanalysis.

As we reflect on the enduring symbol of Mary this Christmas we can view not only its religious aspect but an ongoing unconscious societal need for worship of female fertility which has changed little in 25,000 years. Our challenge I feel, as modern feminists, is to not be defined by our nurturing role but to transcend this with the acceptance and recognition of a equal role between genders to contribute to society in whichever way an individual chooses, with self actualization and happiness.

The views in this article are my own and do not represent those of my trust or other organisations.

Anna is a Psychiatrist, feminist, mother of one preschooler and fan of the arts. Follow her here @annacfryer

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Losing it. No one warns young women about anxiety

When I moved to Paris two months ago to start university, something really weird began to happen inside my body. It was something I couldn’t quite locate – a bizarre, nervy feeling that wouldn’t go away; strange things were happening in my head and my chest.

The first spell of this unsettling ‘thing’ was while I was on the Metro. In sum, this trip cost me at least three hours of my life, underground, sweating and fainting. Something in me was preventing me from getting out of whatever station I was in… I think it was Republique. My mind was blocked, my heart racing. At one point I remember standing up on a train, holding on to a pole with what minimal sugar I had fueling my body, and I lost grip. I fell onto an English man, who stood up and gave me his seat.

In a cliché we would have fallen ‘in love’ and my life would have been lalala… In reality, it wasn’t; I was convinced I was losing it.

IS THIS IT? I asked myself. Am I walking on the bridge from sanity to la folie?

In retrospect I wasn’t; it was simply a panic attack.

Unfortunately the word ‘simply’ doesn’t quite do the event justice. This perturbing episode of out of body-ness lasted for a few hours. Eventually I got myself out of the Metro and into a McDonalds, where I tried to explain to myself what had just happened.

For days I kept the worry to myself, but eventually phoned my mum and told her what had been happening. “It sounds like you have anxiety,” she told me. “What do you mean? I am feeling anxious, I know that.” “Yes,” she said, “It’s anxiety.”

In all honesty, this was the first mention I had ever heard of this thing that is, in scientific terms, ‘general anxiety disorder’. I had known what a panic attack was, and I had been aware that sometimes they happen, but I hadn’t known that they could be reoccurring, everyday, sometimes more often than mealtimes.

Anxiety is very common, especially among students, so why was I not warned? Why, when studies show anxiety is rising in student populations was I not told about it?

When I was at secondary school I remember there being a point when all adults were talking to me about was puberty. Periods, sex, contraception, pregnancy etc. I am very grateful to my form tutor for showing me how to put a condom onto a banana, however amusing I found it at the time.

But as I came towards early adulthood I do wish I had been warned about this anxiety thing; it would have saved me from spending weeks alone, utterly convincing myself I was insane.

If you’ve never had a panic attack I envy you. Anxiety puts its owner’s body into the state it would be in during an intense confrontation. It is a constant pump of too much adrenaline at any one time. This is why we get scared/panicky/think we are going insane.

If I could have located the reason for this anxiety, I would have been able to sort the problem straight away. To my grief, anxiety is hard to determine. It’s hidden in us while it displays itself absolutely everywhere.

When I was younger I used to become slightly anxious when I felt that I had overeaten. I would have irrational feelings that my waist was expanding whilst I was looking in the mirror, as though I was literally putting on weight as I breathed, watching myself.

It wasn’t normal but I don’t totally blame myself – I must put some of the blame on the society I live in. Women have to worry about keeping up with the standards that we are set by men, but also the standards that are set by women. You have to be clever and smart, but also look beautiful all the while. WHERE AM I GOING TO FIND THE TIME? I ask myself, anxiously.

When I came back to London for reading week, the first person I wanted to talk to was my very wise Grandmother. “It’s quite strange actually,” she began to tell me. “I’ve been worrying about you without even knowing that you had anxiety, I had a feeling something was going on.”

She then told me a very comforting story about when she first moved away from home at 16, from Hull to London. She said that when she first arrived, she was so anxious that she stopped eating and lost a load of weight. After a while, as she settled in London, this was resolved, but she told me that the transition had been so unnerving that she too had felt she was losing her mind.

Anxiety is something that is hopefully going to pass, however I am still questioning its causes. I don’t blame human beings for worrying so much, particularly women: women are twice as likely to experience anxiety as men. Women still have so many things to worry about. However, anxiety is something we can learn to cure ourselves, and for me a lot of the time that is done in writing.

Photo Porsche Brosseau

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Radical Agony Aunts: “Letting my family down”

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

Just wondering if you have any take on the fact that many woman suffer from guilt when they have not actually done anything wrong?

I have recently had to give up a job and career that I loved due to ill health. The doctors could not give me a diagnosis and I was left hanging in limbo, unwell and depressed having lost a major part of my life. I spent huge swathes of time trying to work out what had gone wrong and what I had done wrong. The concept of “bad luck” did not resonate, it must be MY fault! I also tortured myself emotionally because I was “letting my family down.” Needless to say none of this agonising helped anybody but it was there and dominated for a long time.

This does seem to be a self flagellating aspect of the female psyche in this country. We tend to self deprecate, self criticise and generally self demean as a regular default.

I hope that the next generations of women ease up on this along with the perfectionism script which I believe is linked.

Sorry if this is not in the format you want but please use it anonymously as you wish. It is very important niggling worm that wastes an enormous amount of energy and creativity as it erodes our strength.

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Feeling-Guilty,

Lena Dunham tweet, 6 November: Free epitaph: ‘She did whatever the fuck she wanted then worried mightily she had offended you’.  

What is it with women and our guilt? As Lena Dunham’s tweet suggests, even those of us who try to live an unrestrainedly feminist life are not free from the potential for guilt. I can cope with the real shame that follows the big mistakes I’ve made, the terrible things I’ve done that impacted hugely on other people. I seem to be able to find a way to forgive myself for those after time, and to learn from them. But I don’t feel like I’ll ever be free of the everyday guilt from (real and imaginary) things that I haven’t caused and can’t fix. I was never a fan of Bridget Jones but there’s no denying that character resonates with many women, with her daily tally of fags, booze and calories: a guilty checklist of failure, imperfection and self-imposed limitation.

I spoke to a lot of women when I saw your email, who all owned up to regular unreasonable guilt, and almost everyone blamed (guess who?) their mothers. A cliché I know, but maybe that’s true for some. I don’t remember my mother often laying guilt on me either explicitly or subliminally, and she’s heroically disinclined to feel guilt herself. But when I was young, my dad had a gambling problem and my mum had to work 6 days a week to keep the family going. So I saw her take responsibility for the family every day and that’s what I learned from her. But why does a positive lesson in responsibility turn into a psyche-damaging guilt?

Somehow we absorb the perfectionism that you mention, with expectations (from our mothers, maybe, but also from every kind of societal pressure) that we have to clean things up, make things right, never fail, never cut ourselves any slack because we don’t deserve any . We know rationally that’s not true, but as your story shows, guilt is a very irrational and all-consuming emotion.

There’s a bit of ego there for us, believing that only we can sort things out.  But I think that for some women (and certainly for me), guilt is our, ahem, guilty pleasure. We allow ourselves to feel guilty for the secret joy of private punishment, of dwelling on what terrible people we are. You’re right to describe this as “self flagellation” because although we may not physically beat ourselves (I’ll leave “food as punishment” for another column), we can give ourselves a good emotional kicking any time of the day or night in the privacy of our own heads. We waste time and energy on wallowing in guilt rather than focusing on the reasons we set (and allow others to set) such impossibly high standards for ourselves.

Time has given you the opportunity to see how artificial your guilt was, how it came from nothing to take over your life. Guilt is often baseless but oh so numbing. We can wrap it round us till it feels like a blanket but don’t be fooled – it’s always a straitjacket.

Personal agony auntThe Political’s response:

Dear Feeling-Guilty,

Is it really guilt you’re suffering from, or shame? The difference between guilt and shame is one of the great chestnuts of feminist theory, and of social activism more generally. The difference has tended to be elaborated in the following terms: I feel guilty for something I have done, but I feel shame for what or who I am. Following this distinction, guilt is seen to be relatively manageable. Shame, however, can cause deep, lifelong misery. In a state of shame, as a classic essay puts it, “the entire self is the object of denigration; the ashamed person understands herself to be bad” (Silberstein et al). Your experience of feeling “tortured”, together with your clear acknowledgement that you have done nothing wrong, leads me to think that shame may be a more productive term with which to characterize your problem.

Nevertheless, recent research has contested the close relation between shame and the self, on the grounds that selfhood is not a unity that warrants such a feeling. If we feel ashamed for “what we are,” that may be an indication that we are not what society insists on telling us we are, and tells us with special intensity in moments when we are most vulnerable. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir provides what is still one of the most incisive analyses of shame, in her account of the adolescent girl who, at the very moment her body is changing, becomes “for others a thing: on the street men follow her with their eyes and comment on her anatomy. She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show her flesh.” For Beauvoir, what is important is not what the girl “is,” but her reduction to a “thing” in the eyes of the men she encounters.

All this is to say that, despite what your present circumstances seem to be telling you, despite the changes that have been happening to you, you are not a nonproductive invalid, nor a failed breadwinner, nor an undiagnosable patient, nor a mid-career dropout. The first step away from the feeling of shame is to understand that shame results from the imposition of social categories that everything in us screams out against. The key to release is contained in your message: “the perfectionism script”. But to characterize your experience as shame rather than guilt suggests that the problem is not simply perfectionism, but the extended power of a consumer society that seems increasingly able to define the terms in which we perceive and evaluate ourselves.

Further reading:
Lisa R. Silberstein, Ruth H. Striegel-Moore and Judith Rodin, “Feeling Fat: A Woman’s Shame,” in Helen Block Lewis (editor), The Role of Shame in Symptom Formation, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 1987, pp. 89-108.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley, New York: Vintage 1952.

Silvan Tomkins, Shame and its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, edited by Adam Frank and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Durham, NC: Duke University Press 1995.

Email your questions and dilemmas to agony@feministtimes.com

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Garry Mulholland

#ManWeek: How to be a man – Mid-Life Crisis

The most loved television show of the last few years was not, in the final analysis, about crystal meth, cancer or severed human heads on turtles. Breaking Bad resonated because it was about a middle-aged man who had failed as a provider, and therefore, in his eyes, as a man. Walter White took somewhat extreme measures in his attempts to regain control of his recession-hit world. But take away the drug money and elaborate violence and you’re left with a familiar story in the 21st century western world: an impotent 50-something trying to relocate his penis in an unimpressed world.

My mid-life crisis hit ten years earlier than Walt’s. If I’d been outstanding at chemistry maybe I would have considered becoming a drug kingpin, but a key part of my meltdown was an overpowering feeling that I wasn’t outstanding at anything. This meant that the popular, almost jocular view of mid-life crisis – you know, middle-aged bloke confronts mortality, buys sports car, pulls young hottie with Daddy issues, starts running half-marathons – didn’t have a great deal to do with my nightmarish 40th year. I contemplated mounting debts and failing career, and crashed. I drank too much, ran up more debts, became depressed, contemplated suicide, had a complete nervous breakdown, and bottomed out, not in some dramatically resonant crack house or dark alley, but at A&E in a hospital in Chichester, with my sister-in-law holding my hand while I gibbered and sobbed to the duty psychiatrist. He offered me happy pills or sectioning. I opted for something dreamy in pink. And so began a ten-year climb back to the point where I can actually write about this without shaking and clinging on to a small cardboard security blanket with Mirtazapine written on it. I’m winning like Charlie Sheen.

So… what is my magic formula for a successful journey from 40 – worst year of my life – to 50, one of the best? Again, you may be underwhelmed. I took the medication for six years. I went into therapy for two years. And I clung on to my happy marriage for dear life. That last one was the pathway to what I actually needed to do, rather than distract myself with chasing teen-twenty totty or taking up skateboarding. I needed to get real.

As my 40th birthday slump hardened into something darker, I increasingly convinced myself that I was the worst man living. Working-class men are supposed to be salt-of-the-earth providers, and I was a very bright working-class man so, by the age of 40, I should have been wealthy, famous, universally respected and able to lavish my wife, son and mother with holiday homes in Cancun while bankrolling their own successful businesses. Instead, I was a failed and anonymous writer with mounting debts, living in fear of bailiffs and – and I want to stress that this was the depression-induced paranoia talking – the rest of the media world pointing and laughing at the ghetto brat who had dared to share space with the Oxbridge set. One of the horrors of depression is its narcissism. The media world was far too busy to notice me, never mind collude in collective Garry-taunting.

So, in the spirit of getting real, I took the therapy seriously and realized that the black hole sucking me in used money as its most potent magnet, but was actually made of the same kind of childhood issues that everyone else had. I’d repressed them for so long that I’d developed them into shadowy beasts with loud voices, loud enough to drown out all the real voices around me, like my wife’s, when she would tell me how much she loved and admired me. She must be lying, the beasts roared, and I believed them and took my self-loathing from there.

The therapy didn’t cure me, exactly, but it introduced my self-image to my real self, made us some tea and sandwiches, encouraged us to hang out to see if we got along. Ten years down the line, and we get along pretty well. I still don’t trust the notion of loving oneself – sounds like megalomaniac kinda business to me – but I began to realise, a few years ago, that I quite like real Garry, with his fear of failure, uselessness with money, tendency towards solipsism, but also decent amounts of intelligence and talent, loyalty to his loved ones, ability to open up and be open. Garry’s alright. And now he’s past medication and suicidal impulses, and managed it without abandoning his marriage or his family, he’s a little more alright.

So, eventually, I got my penis back. I’d missed him, funny little fella. Whether Walter White would see my crime and cash-free recovery as possession of a truly thick and meaty Heisenberg, I doubt. But I related much more to his apprentice Jesse Pinkman anyway. Young and pretty (some self-images die harder than others) and buffeted hither and thither by powerful forces he’ll never control. His future is uncertain. But at least he’s alive.

Garry Mulholland is a journalist, author and broadcaster. He has written four books on music and film published by Orion Books, including This Is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk And Disco. Find out more @GarryMulholland

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#ManWeek: Feminist Toolkit – Psychoanalysis

Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.‘ ― Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis is a theory of the mind first brought to the world by Freud, a neurologist whose early theories emphasised the repression of sexual desire, incest fantasy, and penis envy.

Since its conception in Vienna in the late 19th Century the discipline has changed with the advent of the neo-Freudians and feminist psychology. From the psychoanalytical hiatus in the 20th Century to the rebirth of biological psychiatry in the 1970s, psychoanalytical theory remains integral to the understanding of mental processes, and provides us with a model with which to try to understand a little of that most complex of organs: the mind.

Psychoanalytical theory started with Freud, but it developed into theories that encompass the personality and development, object relations (both internal and external), the understanding of the self, and much more. But its influence is not limited to the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Its application can help us understand the world around us; the arts, literature, philosophy, sociology and politics.

As humans most of us unknowingly practise the art of psychotherapy, with the engagement in empathic listening to our friends and family. This ability to reflect and understand allows conflicts to emerge into the conscious mind, which forms the basic premise of relief from the psychic pain and distress associated with them. Psychoanalytical theory offers us language with which to recognise these underlying conflicts.

The basics:
• Freud conceptualised the human psyche into the Id, Ego and Superego.
• The theory gives recognition to the fact that many mental processes happen without conscious understanding.
• According to Freud the Id is: ‘…the dark, inaccessible part of our personality…. We approach the Id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations…. It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle‘. Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933)
• The Id is the set of innate instinctual desires that we strive to satisfy. It is present at birth and is the unconscious will to satisfy our needs, including sexual and aggressive drives.
• The Id acts in accordance with the pleasure principle, which seeks to provide immediate gratification to any impulse, and to avoid pain and unpleasure.
• The Ego serves as the self, the conscious aspect of our personality which also acts in the unconscious. It acts to satisfy the Id, but in a way that is morally and socially acceptable, acting according to the reality principle.
• ‘The Ego represents what we call reason and sanity, in contrast to the Id which contains the passions.’ Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (1923)
• The Superego is a set of internalised moral standards and ideals that we have developed. This includes standards from our parents, or childhood caregivers, and from society in general. It serves as our view of right and wrong, and attempts at an unconscious and conscious level to suppress the unacceptable drives of the Id, and make the Id act in an idealised way.
• The mind in this model can be seen as an iceberg, where only a small conscious part of the Ego and Superego is visible. Below the surface lies the larger area of conflicts and desires, where the Id resides with the remaining Ego and Superego.

-8

Conflict between these aspects of our mind causes psychic tension or anxiety, and the mind deploys defense mechanisms to decrease the level of tension. Defense mechanisms can be adaptive and helpful and allow us to manage a problem for a certain amount of time until we are able to deal with our internal conflict. However defense mechanisms can themselves cause problems in our functioning and serve as overused methods of dealing with anxiety and distress that distort our reality.

Some examples of defense mechanisms employed by people to manage psychic pain and distress include:
Denial: The outright refusal to face reality. Frequently seen in people with drug and alcohol problems who deny their use is problematic despite the growing dysfunction and chaos in their relationships and life.
Repression: This acts to keep information out of our conscious awareness, such as the movement to the unconscious of traumatic memories of abuse or neglect.
Regression: A mechanism to regress back to a more childlike and dependent way of being to cope with distress. This can be seen in people facing hospital admission accepting painful tests and restrictions that they may have refused without the stress of their illness.
Displacement: If we feel afraid or otherwise unable to express our feelings of displeasure to the cause of our distress, we often will displace them elsewhere. This may include external displacement. The common example in everyday life is evident when we take out our frustrations at our boss by returning home to take this anger our on our family or friends. Self-harming behaviours can be seen as aggression inflicted on ourselves to deal and cope with anger at others.
Projection: Externalising unacceptable feelings and attributing them to others. For example feelings of guilt may be projected onto another with associated false accusation. This can be seen in a partner who is having an affair being suspicious that their lover is also cheating on them.
Reaction formation: Doing the opposite to that which we are driven to do and obscure unacceptable impulses. For example a drive to excessive cleanliness may obscure an internal unconscious desire for mess.
Rationalisation: An unconscious impulse is justified by a rational explanation. Consider Aesop’s fable of the fox that could not reach the grapes, and rationalised that they were sour anyway. The fox successfully defended against the psychic pain of his unfulfilled Id.
Sublimation: Can be seen as the conversion of an unacceptable impulse into something that serves a higher purpose such as a person with aggressive impulses sublimating them into a sport such as boxing.

Anna is a Psychiatrist, feminist, mother of one preschooler and fan of the arts. Follow her here @annacfryer

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Radical Agony Aunts: “Threatened, objectified and worthless”

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

I’d like to precede my question by describing two things that happened to me, within a few weeks of each other.

It was mid-afternoon and I was walking home from the tube. It was during the hot spell, so I had bare legs under my dress and was wearing sandals. I was walking down a busy pavement that runs alongside a main road. I hadn’t gone far before some called to me from behind, I glanced round and could see a youngish man a few metres behind me on the pavement, on a bike. He called out that yes, he was talking to me and then started making comments about my legs. I carried on walking and didn’t look behind again. He followed me, on his bike and kept making remarks. After a while I noticed he had crossed the road and I made my turning to walk home.

Another day, walking home after work from the tube. This time it was a little bit later, certainly cooler. I could see a man walking towards me from the opposite direction, and as he got closer, started making noises, then as we passed made some comments and stood still as I walked by. I didn’t make any contact or reply, just pretended to ignore the whole thing.

My question really is, what should I have done? In both cases I did not engage, ignored what was happening and hoped the men would go away. But I feel ashamed and hypocritical to have been so passive. My beliefs are that no man should feel they have the right to make me feel threatened, objectified or worthless at any point. I feel the best thing to do would have been to challenge both men at the time it happened, to let them know that it is not OK to treat me or any woman in this way. I’ve imagined myself doing this and the words I might use many times, but when it comes to it, I’m too unsure of myself and probably too scared to do it.

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Objectified,

I spent 6 months in Paris when I was a student.  Beautiful amazing Paris – and boy was I miserable. I was homesick, lonely, young and nervous, and all day long I got unwanted attention from men. I’ve never felt so totally beleaguered and diminished by a place, or so anxious about going out by myself. I was leered at and yelled at, and grabbed on the Metro several times. I’d go to the cinema and a man would sit right next to me, even in a practically empty auditorium. Once, when I was walking by a park, a man on the other side of the railings matched my footsteps and then, having got my attention, stuck his penis through the railings at me. My reaction till then had been to remove myself from the situation and ignore it, but this crudely symbolic violation was too much and I burst into tears. This wasn’t your archetypal dirty old man either – I’d guess he was maybe 25 and wearing  the uniform of every French student in the late 80s: slicked back hair, small round glasses and a Christopher Lambert mac . But what I remember most is his face before he scarpered – his triumphant smile. He’d won.

It’s unbelievable it still happens so often. Why do some men do it? Do they even see an individual woman, or does our presence just trigger some sexist motion-sensor? This isn’t about mutual attraction or a shared interest in talking, a flirty to-and-fro. This is a one-sided  affair; it’s not  a conversation, it’s control.

From the “Look At Me!” attention grabbing and the reduction of the whole woman  to component body parts, right through to the genuinely frightening threats like being followed, as you describe, it’s all about macho power and the need to intrude. “Woman minding her own business? Not good enough – I WILL make my presence felt and she WILL interact with me.”

So how should we respond? Of course it’s tempting  to challenge, to tell them it’s unacceptable, or even to imagine a violent response. Like you I imagine the words I’d use, the sheer force of my argument and logic forcing them to see the error of their ways (as if) or at least shut up until I’m round the corner. Except… isn’t a reaction, any reaction, the whole aim of their game? It’s not passive to walk on by. I’m starting to believe the most feminist response is the one you chose – not to be suckered into a conversation you didn’t want to take part in.

Of course some situations shouldn’t be ignored and threats and harassment should always be reported to the police. But for shouts and comments, I think back to my flasher. I don’t have a clear memory of his penis (one meets so many people…) but I won’t ever forget his gleeful face. And my response fed his glee. So now I do just what you did – silence, no acknowledgement, no indication that I’ve noticed  or that I care. This conversation’s over.

Personal agony aunt

Political agony aunt

The Political’s response:

Dear Objectified,

It is easier to understand what is happening in these two incidents than to know how to respond to them. Such violent episodes show us why so much attention has been paid by feminist theorists to vision, to the “gaze,” which for most feminists is gendered as male. For the work of feminist scholars such as Laura Mulvey or Griselda Pollock, the impact of this gendered gaze is most easily identifiable in the history of art and of cinema. Film, for Mulvey, especially conventional Hollywood cinema, naturalizes a basic asymmetry in the relations of men and women to vision itself, and the same goes for the history of European painting. The aggressive gaze being cast on you is not simply the gaze of an obnoxious man upon a vulnerable woman; it is a power that has been for centuries institutionalized as the natural right of men to look, and the burden upon women of being looked at. Mulvey talks, in the context of cinema, of woman’s status as the “bearer” of meaning and man’s as the “maker” of meaning. Our aesthetic categories are affected by this – most crucially, of course, the idea of beauty, which universalizes the asymmetry. It is why simply staring back at the man, responding with an equally invasive gaze, perhaps accompanied by a string of expletives, is desirable, but not necessarily possible.

A response that would emerge out of Mulvey’s film theory would involve the presence of a film camera, by means of which a third eye, one no longer snarled up in the disequivalent relations between men and woman, might be introduced. Mulvey is writing about the options open to feminist filmmakers faced with the weight of convention that naturalizes the male gaze by obscuring the presence of the camera. “The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions… is to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment. There is no doubt that this destroys the satisfaction pleasure, and privilege of the ‘invisible guest’.” Such possibilities have become widely available since Mulvey wrote these lines simply because so many of us now have access to video cameras via our personal devices as a matter of course. Turning the camera on the male upsets the gendered economy of the gaze.

In the absence of such a technical solution, we might draw an analogy with the colonial situation. Frantz Fanon presented the situation of the black man in colonial society in ways that are analogous to the analysis of feminist theorists. For Fanon, the black man always occupies the position of being passively looked at; only the white man can look. Vision, here, is again conceived as a universal myth that obscures the inequality of access to it. The question, Griselda Pollock writes, is one of who can look and who cannot. Fanon puts it brilliantly: “The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.” Like you, Fanon found the experience shaming. The insight led Fanon to understand the inevitability of violence in the colonial context: “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self respect.” This was not, for Fanon, a recommendation for violence but the characterization of a situation (Algeria in the 1950s) whose violence was already apparent, initiated not by the anti-colonial resistance but by the French occupying power. It is not necessary to advocate violence, the situation is already one of violence. The cold realization that, in our experience of being made the scopophilic objects of men on the street we are being subjected to an already existent, pervasive violence simply clears the way for action that can free us from the feeling of shame and passivity.

Further reading:
Griselda Pollock, “Beholding Art History: Vision, Place and Power,” in Stephen Melville and Bill Readings (eds), Vision and Textuality, London: Macmillan 1985, pp. 38-66

Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” from Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds), New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 833-44.

Frantz Fanon, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” Black Skin White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox, New York: Grove, 2008, pp. 89-119.

Frantz Fanon, “Concerning Violence,” The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1990, pp. 27-84.

Email your questions and dilemmas to agony@feministtimes.com

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Feminist Toolkit: How to grow a thick skin

Have you ever stuck your head above the parapet or thrown a hot potato into Twitter? If so you’ve probably been shot down or burned and, like many of us, wish you had a thicker skin.

In order to help us all feel free to express ourselves we’ve investigated how every one of us can grow a thick skin and feel more confident in our ideas. Feminism is about ideas and therefore feeling confident to share them is an essential feminist life skill.

We called in a world renowned expert in having skin as thick as a rhino, Julie Burchill – love or loathe her, you’ve got to admire her ability to take the kind of criticism that would send most writers crying to their mums.

Julie’s answers to our questions were so far removed from our own instincts we genuinely considered she could be a freak of nature, so we put this to psychotherapist and author of Happy Relationships Lucy Beresford, who explained why a thick skin can be an asset and why it’s not healthy to need people to like you.

Julie Burchill:

How important is it for you to be liked?  

Not a bit important. All my life I have been trying to avoid affection, as it comes so easily to me and can be quite restricting.

Is needing to be liked a weakness?  

Yes, it is practically an illness of the mind, I think. I don’t feel sorry for such half-wits, though, as they bring it on themselves.

What does it feel like to have a “thick skin”? 

I actually get a mild sexual thrill from being verbally abused by strangers. Just a mild one, though – I’m not kinky!

Why aren’t you on Twitter?  It seems the natural home for anyone who likes being controversial AND has a thick skin. It’s the recipe for Twitter success.

Exactly. I would be having a new feud every day – TOO predictable. And I have my novel to write.

Does having a thick skin make it harder to back down, change your mind, apologise? How does this affect the personal life of a thick skinned polemicist?

Because I am so secure in myself and my beliefs, I find it super-easy to apologise.

Did you learn how to be thick skinned to survive?  And how can others learn those skills?  

I was a very pretty, very clever teenager who in many ways was given everything on a plate, despite my extremely working-class background. So it was quite a perverse act to become such a bruiser while still very young. I just really like the way it feels. I enjoy being tough.

Do you read comments under your work? 

Only when in search of said mild sexual thrill!

Have you Googled yourself and was it like “like opening the door to a room where everyone tells you how shit you are” (Peter ManYum, Thick of It)?

All the time. It’s the mental equivalent of jumping into a very cold swimming pool with a hangover – bracing and invigorating and, in my case, I feel very much better afterwards.

Lucy Beresford:

To have “Thick Skin” is being able to really not care, not worry about what other people think. It’s to have self-confidence, being able to move on without being wounded. Thick skin is a support structure, so you don’t collapse psychologically.

Some people have always been thick skinned. Even as children. The rest of us have to acquire it. You develop your own self confidence by having a certain mental attitude: “I believe in it”. Over time it feels less painful.

On the internet you have to train yourself not to pick at the scab. If you’re writing an article or a blog, simply the writing should be enough ideally. Even an excessive addiction to good comments is just as bad as reading the bad ones. Don’t read, don’t reply. It’s hard to do because seeing something in writing burns into the retina more so than hearing someone say something.

Julie gets excited by the conflict, the confrontation and that’s why she’s brilliant at what she does, and at some point in the past she realised she was articulate and sharp and enjoyed the jousting. Other people would rather persuade. It’s like bungee jumping – some of us will do it, some not, but there’s an adrenaline.

The important thing is concentrate on your own self esteem. Ideally it’s about breaking free from the childhood obsession of needing mummy, daddy and everyone in the class to like you, and just doing things for yourself.

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Paris trip

My punk feminist tantrum

Never meet your heroes and don’t get drunk if you do. My track record of what happens when I meet feminists I admire is much more miss than hit, so I thought I should tell my story as a form of feminist parable – a warning to the young and impressionable.

There’s the time a well-loved pundit gave me the look Simon Cowell would give an overweight, middle-aged woman with rosacea and I almost cried. Then the time when I was so tongue-tied upon being introduced to an actress I adore that the only thing that came out of my mouth was a stuttery, whispered, “can I have a hug?”  Oh my, did she think I was weird.

But the time that beats all times, hands down, was when my old band 586 was supporting The Slits in Paris, 2007, as part of Les Femmes S’en Mêlent festival.

As the “feminist” in the band I was very excited to be supporting my heroes. Hell, the boys in the band were excited; we all regarded the Slits as being punk royalty with some amazing tunes, Typical Girls being my favourite.

On the journey there I fantasised about how our meeting would go. Ari Up would sense the brilliant punk feminist in me from our time together in the dressing room and invite me to hang out with them for dinner pre-show. They’d call me up on stage to jam out Heard it Through the Grapevine, having seen me be amazing in soundcheck, and I’d play some awesome solo as everyone claps. Then we’d all take on Paris’s nightlife and be best friends forever.

I didn’t yet know it but as I tasted my first small French beer, upon arriving at the venue, I was actually setting myself up for a lawsuit rather than my perfect, utopian, punk feminist fantasy.

I hung around the stage for their soundcheck, smiling a little too much, looking eager and clapping a lot when the stage manager came over to me and explained that the Slits didn’t want to share a dressing room as it was too small. Instead, we were being put up in a room upstairs with a view over Paris.

We waited up in this room for hours, taking photos that made it look like we were holding the Eiffel Tower in between our forefinger and thumb. Drinking small French beer after small French beer as the other band on that night soundchecked. By the time we soundchecked I looked around for my heroes and they were nowhere to be seen. They had gone for dinner.

More small French beers and we were on. My heroes had not returned and we played a good gig to a fair audience – in fact, the French loved us, my adrenaline rocketed. We watched the other support band and by the time the Slits were on were all pretty toasted, screaming and jumping up and down.

I tried to get to Ari Up after their show but she was busy – and being older and wiser now I can perfectly well imagine how she would want to avoid hanging out with a very drunk 20-something. But back then I figured I had to prove myself, so I decided to do something a little mental and very drunk.

I went back up to our dressing room, three floors up, and along with a “fan” started throwing glasses and bottles out of the window onto a roof below. More people joined in because it looked fun, and I could see the faces of the Slits as they looked up from the garden, several metres to the left of the roof we were hitting. Were they impressed?

No. It took only three minutes for security to come up to say the Slits had asked if we could be escorted from the premises. I went off into the night, had my own Paris adventure and awoke with a stinking hangover and these words being shouted down a mobile phone:

“Deborah, why am I having to avoid a lawsuit from the Slits?!”

Our manager was angry.  My band were kinda pretending they weren’t angry. And, by the time we arrived at the following day’s show in Camden, I ran off crying down the street. Oh the drama.

The lawsuit was avoided, as no one had been hurt in my punk feminist tantrum, but my pride was forever dented. All I had been trying to do was fit in, trying to fit in so badly I really stood out.

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Young woman in balaclava

Shying away from the front line

I once spent a Wednesday night with a group of French activists, covering the walls of Paris’ prestigious Sorbonne University with anti-rape posters.

I’m not a natural born activist – in fact, that Wednesday night three years ago took even me by surprise and was, to this day, the high point of my feminist activism.

There’s a well-known feminist adage that well-behaved women seldom make history. It always weighs heavily on my mind because, apart from briefly dabbling in sex, drugs and punk music as a teenager, I’ve always been quite well-behaved.

Becoming a feminist was probably the most rebellious thing I did at university – those wild years you’re meant to spend enjoying your first taste of freedom were largely spent poring over Simone de Beauvoir books and discovering a huge network of like-minded feminist women online.

My first attempt at drunken university casual sex failed spectacularly, quickly leading to the occasional dinner before escalating to a full-blown long-distance relationship, and later a mortgage and cats. Somewhere along the lines I snogged his (gay) school friend to prove some kind of point, and even that backfired – that same friend is, in nine months time, going to be a bridesman at our wedding.

I suffer from a combination of shyness, depression and anxiety that, on my worst days, can be crippling. Even on my best days it’s not conducive to the kind of bad behaviour that flies in the face of authority and overturns oppressive laws.

Aside from that one Wednesday night, much of my free time in Paris was characterised by hiding under the duvet, submitting to my depression with the blackout curtains closed, or mooching around obscure museums on my own.

I once made it as far as the door of a French activist meeting before deciding my French wasn’t really up to the job and dashing home. Sadly the same excuse doesn’t work for the many English activist meetings I’ve failed to attend, or the meetings I’ve sat through in silence feeling totally intimidated by the confident, articulate women around me, and unable to get a word in edgeways.

Not one of my feminist heroines reminds me of myself – shy, retiring and fainthearted. I suspect my true feminist soul sisters were quietly and invisibly working in the background, writing impassioned articles in favour of the vote, while the Pankhursts were being force-fed in Holloway prison.

The militancy of the suffragettes and, more recently, of Russian feminist punks Pussy Riot, makes me feel like the world’s worst feminist. My introversion, and the perfectionism that goes with it, make me a great writer and organiser, but I constantly feel that I’m not DOING enough.

Is getting angry and writing article after article, email after letter, really enough? I feel like a fraud for sitting on Twitter and retweeting a petition while women who I hugely admire are out there, arguing with sexists on Newsnight and chaining their wheelchairs together in protest at the government’s attack on welfare.

The mere thought of speaking in public – let alone being shouted at on national television – fills me with dread, and I’m only marginally less terrified of being arrested than I am of phoning my parents from a prison cell to tell them.

If there was a prize for least likely to pick up a megaphone at Reclaim The Night, I’d be top of the nomination shortlist. In fact, more than once I’ve chickened out of a Reclaim The Night march because I knew I’d have to travel alone. I’m still not sure whether to laugh or cry at the irony of that!

Even writing this article has well and truly dragged me from my safe journalistic comfort zone of News and Features, and into the scary and vulnerable realm of The Personal. So there you go, be gentle with me, and please say hello if you spot me at Reclaim The Night this year. I’ll be the one hiding behind a Pussy Riot mask.

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Radical Agony Aunts: “too much of a turnoff”?

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

I’m single and haven’t had the courage to attempt a relationship since I had breast cancer some years ago. A couple of years after the cancer I had plastic surgery and I think they did a rubbish job; I think it’s unsightly and I have no sensation in either breast. They did another operation to try to fix it with only slight improvement. I was worn out by surgery and refused to let them try again. So now I have what I think is a body that no person could ever feel aroused by. And a relationship has to have a sexual element, doesn’t it? Well, I want sex! I keep thinking through scenarios where I meet someone who’s attracted to my personality but when we try to go to bed they just can’t get aroused by my body and say “no, it’s just too much of a turnoff”.

I hope this isn’t taken as in any way insulting other women whose bodies have been damaged by breast cancer. Lots of women are already with a partner when cancer strikes and their partner simply continues to love them. But there are probably also lots of women like me who weren’t in a relationship at the time and who now don’t have to confidence to attempt it.

I doubt that more surgery would help and in any case the NHS (can’t afford private) might not be willing to do it now so many years have passed. I’m 46 and hetero. It was many years ago that I had the cancer. It’s been a long time.

Duh that reads back as very depressing. On the other hand I’ve always been a FEMINIST and that’s something to feel good about. Yes!

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Feminist,

You’re right, it IS something to feel good about – and you’re here and you’re well and you want something new. Congratulations!

I started down the wrong road when I first read your email. I spoke to a breast cancer survivor friend about her experience, I searched the Breast Cancer Care website for answers, I thought about conversations you might have with your doctor. Wrong approach.

Because as you say, confidence is what you’re missing. If you had your version of “perfect” boobs, I’m guessing you’d still feel nervous about a new relationship. I can’t deny body image has a huge impact on our confidence. We’re constantly under pressure to conform to some notional ideal and force-fed images of “perfection”. We all feel that pressure all the time, but it’s all a lie. There’s the actual lie of airbrushing and other digital manipulation. There’s also the lack of truth and the artificiality of us plucking every hair, whitening every tooth, whittling our bodies down so we can be the pocket-size dolls these images say we should be. But you and I are feminists, so let’s not breathe life into that lie by believing it. We know there is no perfect woman. There’s only you and me, and our friends, sisters and mothers with the various pesky body parts that we love or hate, but which are never going to add up to the perfect ten. There’s only our beautiful individuality.

But exposing that individuality needs confidence. I once dated a few people through a phone-based singles service. The initial phone chats were great – we were witty and flirty and could be anyone we wanted. But then the “So… shall we meet up?” question would arise, and suddenly everything seemed scarily serious. But how do we get what we want if we can’t open ourelves up to it?

All I wanted to be when I grew up was a fiction writer. I dabbled but never took it seriously enough or worked hard enough to make it happen. I read a lot of “how to write” books, I joined a number of writing groups, I went to conferences. I made time for all of that but never put the hours into writing. And now in my day job away from agony aunting, I do write for a living – fundraising and communication for a charity whose aims I respect. So I kinda like my job, and it’s kinda got a creativity to it, and a regular salary is nice – but I know I haven’t achieved my ambitions. And that’s because I haven’t taken risks. Sound familiar?

I don’t want to play down your issues with your breasts, especially the lack of sensation. Medical knowledge and response to breast cancer is increasing all the time. If you can bear the thought of putting yourself through it, maybe there are more up-to-date approaches that can help, even in the NHS.

But whether or not you decide on more medical intervention, exposing your body is a big deal. Exposing yourself to the possibility of something new feels even huger. You might be disappointed. You may meet some fools. It’s going to be hard to start with, but you have to risk it.

You survived cancer, lady. Don’t be afraid that dating will be too big a challenge. We can spend a lifetime waiting to feel brave. Or we can just be brave.

Political agony aunt

Political agony aunt

The Political’s response:

Dear Feminist,

In search of the conceptual key to your problem, I returned to Deleuze and Guattari‘s notion of the body without organs (in A Thousand Plateaus). Basically, the concept of the “Body without Organs” is a critique of the notion of the “body as such”, the natural body. The “body as such” is for Deleuze and Guattari the “organised” body, the body that has been defined by utility, by its separation into distinct, zoned, functioning and comprehended elements (a breast is for sucking, etc.). That process of definition/organisation is always repressive.

For Deleuze and Guattari, almost every imaginative activity of men and women – including sexual activity – is evidence of the fact that we cannot be reduced to the fact of our merely organic existence. Insofar as we see the breast as a “normal” part of the female body, as having a beautiful (that is to say, natural) form, and as necessary for the attraction of a sexual partner, we are existing in a highly normative and repressive system of the body, the ultimate logic of which is theological.

For Deleuze and Guattari, the only body worth talking about is not the organized body (the medicalised, zoned body reduced to its functions, the “body as such”), but the Body without Organs: a body that is always in the process of being produced. For in fact, there is nothing natural or given about the “natural” or “organic” body:

“The BwO is not opposed to the organs; rather, the BwO and its ‘true organs’, which must be composed and positioned, are opposed to the organism, the organic organization of the organs”.

Even the organism is produced: “The organism is not at all the body, the BwO; rather it is a stratum on the BwO, in other words, a phenomenon of accumulation, coagulation, and sedimentation that, in order to extract useful labor from the BwO, imposes upon it forms, functions, bonds, dominant and hierarchized organizations, organized transcendences.”

Desire, for Deleuze and Guattari, is a force that cannot be contained by these processes of organization (“sedimentation and coagulation,”), which are for Deleuze and Guattari counter-productive forces: ways in which the dominant society (for want of a better term) attempts to discipline and regulate the productive forces, which are desiring forces. Desire, for D&G, has nothing to do with fulfilling a primary “lack”; nor does it have anything to do with pleasure (Freud’s “pleasure principle”); nor is desire about fantasy.

In fact, all these “explanations” are for Deleuze and Guattari ways in which the BwO is regulated and normalized. For D&G, desire has everything to do with production, i.e. with the project of creating the BwO. Desire is creative: it’s a wholly positive force; so masochism, for example, is not a “symptom” of a childhood trauma (as it was for Freud), but an example of the project to produce the BwO that is entirely of a kind with the projects of painters or writers: none of these activities should be subjected to interpretation, but should instead be considered as experiments, “programs,” undertaken in the cause of the BwO.

The other D and G would advise you to be more perverse, to denormativize the breast, indeed, to see the very normalisation of the breast as the perversion of a repressive society founded on the fascism of the normative body.

For what it’s worth, D&G would fancy you more than before. Hope this helps.

Further reading: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnosota Press 1987, pp. 149-66.

Email your questions and dilemmas to agony@feministtimes.com

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Taboo corner

Taboo Corner: response

Taboo Corner is a small space on Feminist Times for women to be open about uncomfortable thoughts they have and the personal reasons behind them, helping uncover disconcerting female truths that are normally repressed and opening them up for honest debate. Feminist Times is different to other magazines in that it won’t airbrush your frown lines or your emotions… Submit your own Taboo Corner piece in no more than 300 words: editorial@feministtimes.com 

The response to our first Taboo Corner has been overwhelming.  

The whole point of being a crowd-funded membership organisation is that we listen to our members and respond to feedback. Our members have been in touch and said that this subject was unsuitable for Taboo Corner. We’ve taken that on board and removed the piece. We will be commissioning a response from one of the many people who’ve been in touch with us.

To clarify, Feminist Times was absolutely not condoning forced sterilisation, which our whole team considers violence against women. We sought some of our readers’ most shocking thoughts and feelings that clash with their feminist politics, to highlight controversial but personal inner battles between deeply held feminist principles and reactive emotions based on an intimate experience. In this instance, we got it wrong and we want to apologise.

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