A promise to my daughters

As well as being on the progressive left politically, I’ve increasingly identified as an active feminist over the last decade. I’m sure that this has been apparent from my blog, which has at times posted about this topic explicitly. So this has been a depressing few months for me. After the inauguration of a racist, misogynist sex pest as the POTUS, and in the context of the thoroughly depressing situation in the UK with the toxic politics of austerity and Brexit, I have been thinking about the kind of world I want for my daughters. I have also been thinking about what I can do to to instil in them the values that I think are important and will help them have the kind of future I would want for them.

The massive turnout across the USA and around the world for the Women’s March has been a heartening message in a hard time. It is empowering to think that women all around the world and for several generations, as well as their allies, are working towards the same goals of equality and to further progressive causes (such as caring for the environment, LGBTQ and BME rights, and the value of science/evidence over propaganda and opinion). That sense of community and caring for each other and the future is also a refreshing change from all the aggressive posturing, selfishness and commercialism that seem to saturate the narrative at the moment.

The placards and quotes from the Women’s March have been particularly inspiring. I particularly like those shown on the MightyGirl blog. They illustrate how women all over the world are bringing up the next generation of girls to approach the world on their own terms and have whatever aspirations they want, without the boundaries of sexism and prejudice holding them back. There is one placard that says “I am only 4 years old, but I know everyone is equal” and that is the simple truth – until children are skewed by the prejudices they see around them, they understand the fundamental truth that whatever differences there are between people in how they look or how they live their lives, we are all equal in importance and all deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.

My children have often surprised me with their insight into international conflicts and world events. I remember driving them home from the supermarket when they were four years old, and them asking why the rich people of the world couldn’t give jobs to all poor people so that they could afford the things they need like food, clothes and places to live. I couldn’t really answer that, because I don’t think there is any justification for levels of inequality that mean that the richest eight men in the world have more money than the poorest half of the world population. Yet we have stopped seeing how odd and obscene that is, because we are implicitly given the message that we live in a meritocracy, and wealth is earned through hard work (when the reality is that many people inherit wealth, and few would argue that even the self-made plutocrats work harder than anyone else in the wealth spectrum). A year later, after explaining why poppy badges were being sold I remember having a conversation about whether there were still wars in the world. I said that there were, and most of them were to do with people having different religions. We talked about how wars don’t only affect soldiers, and how a recent bombing campaign had destroyed schools and hospitals. My daughters suggested that “we need to send people in that country postcards to remind them that schools are really important”, as “that is where children will learn that people are equal even if they are different, and you need to be kind to everyone”. I’ve never felt prouder.

I’d like to think I’m good role model of a woman facing the world on my own terms, setting up my own business and being “the boss” at work, as my kids see it, and being an equal partner in my relationship, which does not conform to traditional gender roles. We’ve worked hard to expose our daughters to a range of interests, and given them a variety of experiences. I’d hope that they can make choices about what they enjoy or how they want to present themselves unencumbered by narrow gender expectations or unhealthy/unrealistic body norms. Our bedtime stories have characters of both genders who solve their own problems, rather than princesses passively waiting to be rescued by a prince to live happily ever after. I’d like to think we’ve also modelled the way that we interact with each other, and with a wide variety of people with respect. We have taught them to appreciate diversity and to admire those who defy convention or achieve something despite adversity.

But I’m not sure I’ve done enough to show that we can take action to address issues we see happening in the world around us. I should have taken them to the march on the weekend. I think it would have been a great experience for them, but frustratingly I’m still too unwell to travel. So I need to think of other ways to involve them in activism. And I need to do more myself than donate to charities, sign petitions and write messages on the internet. At a time in which the news is dominated by a super-callous-fragile-racist-sexist-nazi-potus I want my daughters to know that I’ve done everything I can to give them the maximum range of choices for their future lives, and the best chance of being judged by their actions rather than their appearance. So I will finish with the words from a placard that resonated with me: I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change, I am changing the things I cannot accept.

Rape culture and blame

I blogged a couple of months ago about the Brock Turner sexual assault case, and intended to write this post then, but I left it as a draft for some time – perhaps out of discomfort for the personal disclosure involved, or a sense of distance from the incident that made me want to post about my own experience. But it has never really gone away, because it is so prevalent, both in the tip of the iceberg of individual rape cases, and the massive underlying mass of the pervasive cultural acceptance of male sexual coercion of women (eg the horrifying statistics about misogynic beliefs and rape myth acceptance amongst male college students, particularly those involved in sports that I shared in a previous blog). It seems that just as racial tension has come to a head in America over police shootings, rape has come to a head with the Brock Turner case – with 1.3 million signatures on the petition calling for the judge to be sanctioned for his decision to go for a sentence well below the ordained minimum. And this week debate about whether the olympic diver proposal was romantic or inappropriate*. It seems that themes of sexuality and gender have become fault lines, showing wider problems in society.

Of course there have been many other cases making headlines since my previous blog on the topic, and rape and sexual assault are rarely out of the news. A woman who was raped in Qatar was found guilty of the crime of having sex outside marriage and given a suspended prison sentence and fined (I suppose we should be grateful that she didn’t get the 140 lashes that her rapist got, given they were nominally convicted of the same crime), whilst a woman in Argentina was convicted of murder for possibly having a miscarriage (though the only proven miscarriage in the case was the miscarriage of justice). Here a photographer lured young men to his home for photoshoots where he drugged and raped them. Another victim of campus rapists from athletics teams. This man used a woman’s desire to protect her children as leverage to stop her resisting his rape. This 7 month pregnant woman was raped at gunpoint. The list goes on and on and on. And there is evidence of systemic problems in how US police handle rape cases. Meanwhile lots of people have been brave about talking about their own experiences of “rape culture”. For example, this one, and this one.

I thought I might share some of my own experiences, to talk about both what it says about the culture, and the blurry line around consent. To give this some context, I’m not an extraordinary woman. Nowadays I’m a middle-aged mum. Non-smoking, rarely drinking, overweight and a bit of a workaholic, with that boring but comfortable lifestyle that many families fall into of school and work and supermarket shopping and homework and swimming and weekend outings to parks and historic places, with the occasional family visit or trip to the cinema. I’ve been happily married for 19 years this month, and I lived with my husband for 3 years before that. But even before that, I wasn’t extraordinary in appearance or behaviour, and I wasn’t reckless.

So when I say there were two occasions in my life when I felt I was at significant risk of rape, I’m pretty sure that other people have had similar experiences.

The first was when I was sixteen and had just started at sixth form. I would go out drinking with a particular group of friends from school most weekends, but I usually just had two or three single shot drinks with a mixer to make them last longer (vodka collins was a favourite, and much like a Smirnoff Mule now). One night I was with a group of friends outside a pub and one of the lads bought a bottle of “Thunderbird” fortified wine from a shop. He was pretending to drink himself and with nothing more than encouragement and peer pressure, he effectively persuaded me to drink more than I wanted to. I was a very innocent 16 and when he walked me away from the group and down the dock road out of sight I hadn’t expected more than a snog and a fumble.

However I suddenly became aware of my own vulnerability once we were away from the group. I was wobbly on my feet and nearly fell over, and in an amazing demonstration of both his strength and sobriety he practically picked me up and walked me firmly down the street. A minute later he put me on some concrete ground up a few steps from the road, hidden from sight by a lorry. It was then it became apparent that he was very determined to have sex and started taking my clothes off. I was putting them back on as best I could, but I didn’t know him well and didn’t want to risk him becoming violent (he was a foot taller than me, and I was too drunk to run away) so from his point of view I didn’t give a clear ‘no’. I was still kissing him to buy time to pull my clothes back up and trying to figure out whether anything else would appease him or whether there was a means to escape. But there was nobody in sight, and he was bigger and stronger than me, and this was in the days before mobile phones, so I felt completely on my own. Thankfully after half an hour or so he gave up and walked off. He left me dishevelled and alone, down the dock road of a town that was closed up for the night, having missed my lift home. But even as I stumbled back to the phone box, called my parents for a lift and made excuses about being drunk, I was feeling relieved that things hadn’t gone much worse. I look back and feel it was a lucky escape as no form of penetration occurred.

It was a frightening but in retrospect enlightening experience. Firstly, I learnt never to be drunk enough to lose my ability to run away or plan an escape with my full faculties. Secondly, I realised that from his perspective he was just trying to persuade me to do with him what another guy had lied and said we’d done at a party. He thought that it was just a matter of persuasion and persistence, which are socially acceptable aspects of the interplay between potential sexual partners – and importantly I never said no. Maybe if I’d have said “look Chris, I don’t want to have sex, stop it” he would have. However, maybe he’d have been angry that I was leading him on. I have no way of knowing. If we’d have been interrupted or I’d escaped and I hadn’t experienced him leaving without sex, I think I would have felt it was a near miss. I don’t know if I’d have ended up reporting an attempted rape, but I certainly felt that repeatedly pulling my clothes back on was a pretty clear indication of lack of consent that he should have respected but didn’t.

Finally, I learnt that within that group of mutual friends he had done nothing wrong. They saw me leave willingly with his arm around me, and therefore everything that followed was presumed consensual. When I tried to steer clear of him they wanted me to make up with him as he was part of the group, despite the fact that I found his behaviour pretty sinister. However, for a teenage boy, plying a girl with drink, getting her to go somewhere private, trying to take her clothes off and ignoring the signals that she did not want to participate seemed a legitimate strategy, both to him and our mutual friends. He wasn’t a stranger, or someone menacing. He was an ordinary guy who was above average in appearance and intelligence. He now manages IT services for a bank.

The second time, was after the tragic abduction and murder of toddler Jamie Bulger. A friend of a friend at university came to my door and said he was from Bootle and really distressed about it and wanted to talk. Although it was clear he had been drinking, in light of his distress I let him in, and we went up to my room as other people were in the sitting room of my student house. We later heard them leave, and after that the conversation changed to how, despite having a girlfriend, he wanted to have sex with me. He tried to kiss me, but it was unpleasant and unwanted so I moved away. He started to undress, and try to grab at me. I realised I was cornered in the attic room of a house by a drunk man of substantial build with nobody else within shouting distance. However, this time I was sober and a bit more streetwise, so the balance of power was different. I told him that I wasn’t interested and wouldn’t be taking any of my clothes off. I suggested he get dressed and go back home, and I kept myself out of reach until he acquiesced. He knocked at the door the next day to nominally apologise in order to ask me not to tell his girlfriend.

Again, when I told my friends (and this time they were my friends, as opposed to mutual friends) they didn’t really see it as a big deal. I’d guess they didn’t see as having any bigger emotional connotations than “Drunk guy embarrassed himself. Assertive girl put him in his place”. But it’s never quite as simple as that. Because even if it is only for one moment, the awareness that somebody else in your social network could force you to have sex against your will is a pretty stark realisation, even for an extraverted assertive girl. And however you think about it, it has an impact.

Whether by coincidence or subconscious drive, I put on weight after those two events, adding 40% to my bodyweight over a four year period that has stayed with me ever since. I thought it might be due to the contraceptive pill, or a less active lifestyle at university. But it seems more likely looking back that I just didn’t want unwanted sexual attention, and a fat suit is quite good at narrowing your appeal and not conforming to the socially accepted norms for attractiveness.

But it does feel like the psychological equivalent of wearing anti-rape pants. That sucks because anti-rape pants are a terrible idea that I object to in the strongest terms**, because they place the responsibility for not being raped onto the individual women. Rather than stopping a few men being rapists and a heck of a lot of men feeling so entitled that they act like overcoming the woman’s resistance is a normal and acceptable part of the process of dating, it makes women take the responsibility for not being raped. Why should it be that we need special pants to indicate we are not accessible for non-consensual sex, rather than the default position? And why should I feel that being a more attractive version of myself would make me more vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances?

I should perhaps state the obvious here. I’m not a man hater, and I’m not tarring all men with the same brush. I don’t think of men as Schrodinger’s Rapist or at least, I don’t want to, because the vast majority of men I know are lovely human beings who care about other people. But yet, our survival instinct is a powerful thing. One fall down the stairs 20 years ago, and I am still careful about stairs and escalators. Two situations in which I felt vulnerable to sexual assault (and a fair few clinical cases in which I have heard stories of rape, sexual abuse and/or domestic violence) have made me see risk in men that I don’t know well, and to view being perceived as sexually attractive to those outside my trusted circle as a potential vulnerability. It is a troubling conclusion, and one I don’t know how to resolve.

*We’ve got men today saying it is ridiculous that people have questioned the romantic gesture of the Chinese diver proposal, even when the recipient of that proposal looks uncomfortable about it. They’ve been led to believe every woman wants to get married and is just desperate for her long-term bf to propose, rather than that deciding to get married and how to tell everyone about is should be a mutual agreement, or recognising that there could be duress involved. For me, the seed of doubt is in the body language and facial expressions when I watched the video. Of course, it might be a cultural difference, or the amount of adrenaline and anxiety about being in the spotlight with cameras all around her, but her face doesn’t suggest delight. It suggests hesitation and uncertainty. Quite the opposite of the rugby player and stadium manager involved in the proposal the previous day. From the silver medal diver’s reaction you could imagine the subtitles of the whisper in her ear, or the sentence after holding up the ring being “I don’t want it to be over, please say yes, don’t shame me in front of all these people” just as easily as you could imagine it being “I love you so much I want everyone in the world to know it, please forgive me for doing this in public”. And her response involved no grins, no kisses, no seeking physical closeness, just discomfort, tears, a delayed nod and then acceptance of his actions. Whilst we may never know the answers about the specific example, the themes have echoes in how gender roles are perceived across the world. So I believe the discussion is worthwhile and should not be shut down.
**I should also add that there is no evidence that these pants are effective. Instead it seems likely that a man motivated to remove the underwear of a non-consenting woman would play out in other forms of sexual assault or violence if he was thwarted by her pants. They also add to victim blaming of anyone who doesn’t use the product; “but if you didn’t want to get raped why didn’t you wear safer pants?” Similarly, a rapist might threaten the woman to get her to remove the pants, and this might then be twisted by defence lawyers to imply consent. I think this product shows a profound mis-reading of the problem. Most rape is by someone known and trusted by victim, not the kind of opportunistic attack by a stranger that will be thwarted by her wearing lock up knickers. Some thought about who will buy them, and how they will change behaviour suggests problems too. It seems to me that their main customer base will be women who are anxious about being raped who probably won’t put themselves in a position where stranger rape is possible, whilst women who buy these pants to mitigate a risky lifestyle might have false faith in their ability to prevent negative outcomes (eg if they wear them so that they can drink to unconsciousness they probably aren’t addressing why they are making themselves so vulnerable, or the risk to physical, emotional and financial well-being that this might lead to). It made me wonder about when you would wear the pants? Every day to reinforce helplessness and anxiety or just when you feel likely to be raped? If the pants are a means to say no to a partner when sex is not wanted that says something very disturbing about relationships that needs to be addressed in more than just her choice of underwear. Finally, would another person such as a partner or controlling relative ever make the woman wear the pants like a chastity belt?

The battle isn’t won yet: Why feminism still matters and is relevant to everyone

It is easy for me to be complacent about equal opportunities. I’ve never personally been held back by discrimination. I mean, I’ve had people think it is their right to comment about my appearance, and I’ve even had a few individuals who have bordered on stalking because of my internet presence, and my gender has certainly been a factor in that, but I’ve never not been able to do anything because I’m a women. Likewise, although I’m a second generation immigrant and my heritage is from a cultural minority, I’ve grown up as a white British atheist and have never experienced discrimination (even if there have been occasional incorrect assumptions about my religion or politics). I’ve had a broad social network, but I’ve never witnessed my friends or colleagues experience overt discrimination either.

I’ve always seen gender stereotypes as something of a challenge, in fact. I was one of three female students who did A-level physical, compared to about 50 males, and got good marks in maths and hard sciences before I went into psychology. As a student I bought a Haynes Manual and replaced the starter motor of my Vauxhall Astra along with an oil and filter change, because I couldn’t afford the quote from the garage. Likewise I have learnt all about the construction of houses, and was involved in the design and manual labour of various home improvements. I’ve been an early adopter of technology and a fan of video games as an emergent art form. And now I lift big weights at the gym, defying the gender pressure to lose fat through cardio rather than build muscle. I’ve encouraged my daughters to be brave and strong as well as kind, and to want more to the story than for the main character to marry the prince and live happily ever after.

So from my position of relative privilege it is hard not to assume that the battle for equal opportunities has already been won. However, as soon as I look a little more broadly at the world this is clearly not the case. So many different examples illustrate how my experience is the exception rather than the rule.

In the UK women on average earn 21% less than men per hour. This is the case in most of the developed world and the disparity is much worse in less developed nations. Although there has been significant progress over the last 50 years to reducing this disparity, economists admit the gender gap in wages is likely to take at least the next 100 years to close. Even in the most conservative figures, when all the variables that affect wages, such as lower experience due to career breaks and lower levels of qualifications for some population groups are taken into account, women still earn 5-10% less when equivalently skilled and doing equivalent work. In the most senior roles there are far fewer women, and those that are present earn substantially lower salaries. The earnings gap is larger as people get older, and in the higher earning percentiles of the population, suggesting that choosing to care for children does sacrifice status and earnings for the remainder of the woman’s career. These are figures I find appalling.

Thankfully there are movements and books containing advice about how to counter this effect. Cheryl Sandburg’s “Lean In” movement encourages women to take a seat at the table where big decisions are being made in big companies. The excellent “Give and Take” by Adam Grant advises people who are natural givers to advocate for their dependents when making decisions and entering salary negotiations, if they are not strong enough when arguing for themselves. And many women and men are advocating helpfully for the value that women bring to senior positions.

In psychology and therapy professions we hit another facet of gender politics, with the dominance of women in the workforce reflecting the idea that empathy and caring are perceived by much of the public as feminine qualities. This message that facts are the male domain and feelings are the female domain is seen to be natural and innate, because of the typical division in gender roles between hunter and home maker in the origins of our species. However, since industrialisation and the invention of effective contraception, these roles seem to be transmitted more as a story based on past experience than in terms of reflecting the current reality (in which we can purchase food by selling other skills, and few of us would be very good at hunting or gathering our own food if this involved strenuous physical activity). After all, women being naturally suited to be the home-maker was ‘true’ in a time that it was also true that the earth was flat, nobody understood the nature of germs, and very few people stayed alive beyond their 40s.

I believe that providing attachment relationships is probably the single most important job in society. That quality of caring about another person, and holding them in mind is essential for each of us to be happy. It is a powerful gift, whether in terms of parenting, friendship or a therapy relationship. However, I have seen no evidence that efficacy in this role is determined by gender. It may be true that in general women have slightly better ‘folk psychology’ and men have slightly better ‘folk physics’, as Simon Baron-Cohen’s research has shown, but apart from the head start that pregnancy and breast-feeding give to mothers, there is a paucity of evidence that the gender of parent who takes the primary carer role affects outcomes for children. Certainly, women feel more guilt about returning to work or choosing not to be the primary carer, but does that reflect a genuine concern about attachment security or the projections of a society where a women is supposed to ‘have it all’ in the form of balancing work, parenting and their own identity, having gained expectations of being an equal provider whilst not having handed over equal expectations of looking after home and family.

By devaluing caring and empathy for men, we lose a significant proportion of the potential workforce for psychological therapies. Those that remain often have less traditionally masculine qualities than are typical for males (whilst women who gain places in clinical psychology typically have more of the ‘masculine’ qualities of assertiveness, ambition and intelligence than are typical of their gender). We also make it unacceptable for boys and men to express their feelings openly, or to seek help for emotional problems without shame. And of course there is the wider issue of devaluing homosexuality, and through association any gentler or more feminine traits in men (for example with the playground taunt of “gay” for disliked characteristics or outcomes). This leads to lower uptake of psychological therapies or treatments for mental health problems, along with greater rates of completed suicide in young men.

More recently social media has provided a new means of networking which have been widely taken up, especially by young people. Mobile phones, text, Facebook, Twitter, chatrooms, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, forums, multi-player gaming and video chat have allowed people to find those with similar interests and to communicate in new ways, but have also been media in which new forms of bullying and harassment have emerged, along with pockets of rampant prejudice including misogyny. In these contexts sexism, racism and discrimination has emerged in new forms, and some media are better at moderating this than others. Facebook and Twitter in particular have proved to be free playgrounds for “trolls” (those who gain enjoyment by harassing others online) due to their lack of willingness to intervene about abusive content.

There have been remarkably sad examples of what happens when such media allows the predatory minority to find vulnerable targets, such as the tragic story of Amanda Todd, the teenage girl who was encouraged to flash over webcam and then blackmailed with these images by an adult man until the point she committed suicide. There was also the disturbing video manifesto of Elliot Rodgers, a college student who killed 6 and injured 13 before committing suicide due to the perceived injustice of him not being as attractive to girls as he felt he deserved to be.

In amongst the array of content on the internet a subculture has developed that is profoundly sexist and has disturbing ideas about how to “play the game” in ways that “put women in their place”. Some of the members identify as Pick-Up Artists (PUAs) or Mens Rights Activists (MRAs), but the idea that women now hold too much power, and that men have seized upon feminist and progressive thinking to impress women, seems to be a common strand. There is great anger from members of these groups against men who speak up for women’s issues or social issues more broadly, who are often disparagingly labelled “White Knights” or “Social Justice Warriors” (terms which are intended as insults, despite sounding pretty awesome). Many women have learned to use gender-neutral names on social media, and not to speak when playing multi-player online video games, rather than to risk the onslaught of comments, which range from “get back in the kitchen” to violent threats of rape and murder of them and their loved ones (especially when defeated by the superior skill of a female player).

The latest iteration of this undercurrent has been the harassment of women who have highlighted the sexist tropes within video games, or otherwise become a figurehead of progressive thinking within that culture. Anita Sarkeesian’s highly accessible video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” has been a focal point. When her Kickstarter attracted death threats, harassments and attempts to discredit and silence her the community spoke out by massively over-funding her project and giving it a much bigger audience, but she has continued to be subject to a variety of death and rape threats for merely casting a light on the fact that a small percentage of the content of many popular video games is a set of tired old tropes in which women are the decoration, damsel to be rescued, or die as motivation for the hero’s vengeance, rather than the protagonist of the story. Likewise a bitter ex-boyfriend’s rant about female developer Zoe Quinn led her to be a target of harassment (with a thin veneer of concern about ethics in games journalism that was not evidenced by similar hounding of the journalists who were wrongly alleged to have given favourable write-ups of her work due to personal relationships with her) and games writer Brianna Wu, for writing an article saying that the old stereotype of a gamer has been superseded by a much wider demographic. In each example, the profound sexism of the antagonists is evident, and the impact on the target has included them needing to move out of their homes due to the severity of threats to their safety, after their identifying information has been discovered and released into the public domain (a harassment tactic know as doxxing).

So whilst I observe from the safe space of being a successful female professional, who to date has had very limited personal experience of sexism, I am reminded that feminism is far from being a battle that has already been won, and equality is far from ubiquitous in the hearts and minds of the whole population. The internet has always been a great leveller, by forcing us to judge people on their words and not on their gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or any other aspect of their physical self, and I think that is an amazing thing and as close to a meritocracy as we will ever experience. So I am saddened by the resurgence of such hate and vitriol into places where these variables shouldn’t even be relevant, and that there are now seemingly topics about which women cannot write without fear of a personal backlash. It shames me that I have a little bit of fear about the repercussions each time I express an opinion online through this blog, or twitter or my forays towards podcasts/videos. We all need to do our little bit to change this, to speak up for equality and against harassment, and to reclaim those spaces in which prejudice is showing for the benefit of everyone.