Thursday, 26 July 2012

A classic case of victim blaming from West Mercia police

*trigger warning*

“Don’t let a night full of promise turn into a morning full of regret”, says the headline on West Mercia Police’s web page dedicated to tackling rape. “Did you know”, they ask “if you drink excessively, you could leave yourself more vulnerable to regretful sex or even rape?”

It seems ridiculous that in 2012 we are still having to have the same conversations with police forces about how they try to raise awareness and prevent rape and sexual assault. To the women in West Mercia, rape is presented as some kind of natural hazard that we can avoid, keep safe from, by staying sober. In one sentence, the police have reduced the causes of rape to one thing – alcohol. 

When, of course, there is only one thing that causes rape. And it isn’t Pinot. It’s rapists. 

By focusing entirely on women’s drinking behaviour, West Mercia police are indulging in a classic case of victim blaming. Don’t get drunk! they warn. You might become a victim of rape! The perpetrator, the single cause of rape, is completely invisible. To a woman who is raped when she’s been drinking on a night out, the message is clear. You made yourself vulnerable. You let yourself become a victim. And it is this culture of victim blaming that makes it so much harder for women to come forward to report rape, for them to feel they will be believed and not blamed. West Mercia’s assurances that they will listen to and support the women who come forward to report rape and sexual assault don’t seem particularly solid when preceded with the message that rape is caused by women drinking. 

The West Mercia police are also running a campaign focusing on men, explaining to them that rape and sexual assault are a crime. It's therefore a shame that they are pairing it with one that so insistently focuses the responsibility for preventing rape on women's behaviour as well. 

Back in early 2011, representatives from the Bristol Feminist Network met with Avon and Somerset police to discuss their safety warnings for women in the wake of Jo Yeates’ murder. The warnings told women to stay indoors and not walk around after dark (it was January). One of our co-ordinators asked the police if they would ever consider running a safety campaign that spoke to perpetrators about not committing violent crimes against women. 

Their answer? Such a campaign would be ‘offensive’ to men. 

Never mind that campaigns telling women to curb their freedoms is offensive to women. Never mind the fact that campaigns telling us that our behaviour could lead to rape are offensive. Apparently it simply doesn’t matter if we offend women. 

There are plenty of campaigns that focus on the perpetrators of crime. Drink driving ads spring to mind. I’ve never felt offended by ads telling me not to drink and drive – a crime I would never commit. 

The only people I can think of who would be offended by a campaign telling rapists not to rape are, well, rapists. 

What I would like to see are more campaigns like the one in Scotland that speak to men about what they can do to prevent rape. This campaign understands that the responsibility for rape lies with rapists, not with women. It reminds those who choose to rape that they are committing a crime, and they will be punished, they will be sentenced. 

It isn’t up to women to prevent rape. Because, no matter what West Mercia say, there is nothing we can do to prevent rape. The only person who has the power to prevent rape is the one who chooses not to commit the crime. Women are raped when they are drunk, when they are sober, when they are wearing jeans, when they are wearing short skirts, when they are outdoors, when they are indoors, when they are at home or at work or at school or at a club. When they are awake and when they are asleep. Women’s behaviour is not the linking factor when it comes to rape. The rapist’s is. 

A survey by Amnesty International in 2005 found that 30% of people believe that a woman is partially to blame for the violence committed against her if she is drunk.   Campaigns like West Mercia’s should be tackling these beliefs, not perpetuating them. Because it isn’t alcohol that leaves women vulnerable to rape. It’s only and always the rapists. 

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Attempting to understand the numbers behind 91,000 domestic abuse prosecutions (by someone who is shocking at maths)

Yesterday it was announced that Keir Starmer’s plan to improve prosecutions for domestic abuse was working. Prosecutions have increased to 91,000 per year, so that the conviction rate once the offender lands in court is 73%, as opposed to 61% in 2007-8.  The Guardian reported that, on the same measure, rape convictions have also improved. Once a case is in the courtroom, the conviction rate is 62.5%, up from 58% in 2007-8. However, the conviction rate for rape from reporting to being found guilty still stays very low, at 6%. And let’s not even get onto sentencing. 

Of course, in many ways this is cause for celebration. It shows that the very valuable work being done by Starmer and his team in increasing prosecutions is paying off. Women (and I am going to talk about women victims/survivors and men perpetrators in this post, as that is the majority of cases, this isn’t to silence male victims and survivors) who are reporting domestic abuse are being listened to, and supported, as they press charges. Specialists are in place to ensure that mistakes aren’t made, and that women who falsely withdraw allegations aren’t criminalised. As Starmer says, over the past four years efforts have been made to improve understanding and care, so that women coming forward to report violence are listened to and treated professionally. 

And the work of women’s groups is paying off to. For decades we have been working to raise awareness of violence against women, so that when cases are heard in court, women are believed. The work of feminists is succeeding in changing hearts and minds (to some degree – still a long way to go!) when it comes to issues around VAWG. We're getting better at finding guilty men guilty. Women’s groups also deserve praise for creating the support networks that give women the safe space and help they need with coming forward to the police, with reporting the violence committed against them. 

In fact, one of the things that makes the devastating cuts to these services even more terrifying is that they may well lead to these successes being reversed. As refuges close, as support services lose their contracts to private companies in it for the money,  will the gains we have seen made by Starmer in the last few years start to reverse? 

So, as I say, it’s good news that prosecution rates have gone up. 

But when we look closer at the numbers, we see that we still have a long way to go. 

According to the British Crime Survey (quoted in Guardian), 1.2 million women suffer domestic abuse every year. 91,000 prosecutions therefore make up less than 10% of incidents. When we consider the repeat offending rate of domestic abusers, it's even less. Fewer than 1 in 4 people (men and women) who suffer abuse from their partner report it to the police, and on average, when it comes to physical violence a woman is assaulted 35 times before she goes to the police.  In terms of rape and sexual assault, 300,000 women are sexually assaulted every year and around 60,000 are raped (some estimates put this closer to 100,000). 1 in 10 of these incidents are reported, and, as we mentioned, the conviction rate from reporting to guilty stays low at 6%. 

Meanwhile, a letter sent to me from Theresa May last June assures me that £28 million has been allocated until 2015 to deal with domestic abuse. A second letter last month from David Cameron’s office confirmed that 87 independent sexual violence advisors have been funded until 2015. 

If we round down to 1 million women suffering domestic abuse each year, that’s £7 per woman between 2011-2015. If we accept the 60,000 figure for rape, that’s one ISVA per 690 women. 

Another set of numbers caught my attention last week too, with a report that the overall homicide rate decreased last year to 550. I was interested to see how this fitted into the domestic abuse murder rate, which tends to move between 90-104 every year.  Luckily for me, and my terrible maths ability, Ally Fogg has written an excellent blog post putting domestic abuse murders in the context of the overall homicide rate. 

In it he explains how a confusion in media reporting of the drop in homicides has arisen between the drop in murders by “friends and acquaintances” with domestic abuse murders. As he explains, they’re not the same. I won’t rehash his argument here so please read the post. 

Last year, 91 women were murdered by their partners or ex partners. In April this year, NIA reported that 33 women had been murdered in 111 days – an average of one woman every 3.3 days. Yesterday that number had risen to 68, a woman every 3.01 days.  This means that if the trend continues, the number of domestic abuse murders will likely be higher than the 91 of last year. 

So, going back to the initial numbers in the article. As I say, it’s fantastic news that prosecutions of violence against women and girls have increased. But whilst 1.2 million women suffer domestic abuse each year in the UK, whilst 300,000 are sexually assaulted, whilst 60,000 women are raped and whilst 1 woman is murdered every 3 days – well, prosecution numbers are just one slice of the issue. 

The real celebration will be when no more women are subjected to gender-based violence. Alongside the improvements in the criminal justice system, we need to see action in preventing violence against women and girls in the first place. We need to see mandatory sex education for young people around consent and respect. We need to tackle this rape culture that rewards men who harm, and that silences women. And we need to see more, sustained funding for the support sector, so that if a woman is trying to leave a violent relationship, she can go to a safe and secure space. We need an end to these cuts.

91,000 prosecutions aren’t enough when more than 1 million women are abused every year. Both of those numbers are too high for the world we want – the world where violence against women and girls is no more. 

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The HPV Vaccine, Religion and Promiscuity

It was revealed in the news this week that twenty-four schools across the UK have been denying girls the HPV vaccine - the injection that protects them from the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer - on religious grounds. These religous grounds are that because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, protecting girls from it will lead to them becoming promiscious and 'sexually active'.

According to these twenty-four schools, it is better for young women to get cancer, than it is for them to take control of their sexual health and maybe have sex.

There are so many screwed up things about this story and its impact on young women that it is hard to know where to even begin.

So let's try and start with the facts.

The HPV vaccine was introduced a couple of years ago to immunise women from some of the strands of the HPV virus which can cause cervical cancer. More accurately, it protects against those which cause 70% of cervical cancers. Because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, it was decided that girls should be vaccinated at ages 12-13, because it is likely that they are not yet sexually active at that age. I remember well the outrage in certain sections of the media at this, who protested that by vaccinating girls against at STD when they were still children, we would be 'removing the dangers' of promiscious sex and 'sexualising young girls'. The Press Complaints Commission were also involved in ruling on a number of scare-mongering stories that linked the HPV vaccine erroneously to young women becoming ill or, in some tragic cases, dying.

Of course, there is no evidence that giving girls a vaccine that aims to protect them from a disease that kills around 1,000 women every year leads to them becoming sexually active. As a schoolgirl in the late 90s and early 00s, protecting ourselves from cervical cancer was not high on our list of concerns when it came to 'what might happen if we do it'. Heck, STDs weren't even high on that list. The threat of pregnancy, the unwanted pregnancy - this was pretty much our number one concern when it came to starting our sex lives. I don't recall ever even being taught about HPV. That might have something to do with the fact that my sex education on STDs involved an 80s World in Action video about AIDS, another AIDs video with interviews with Liz Taylor's daughter-in-law, and a booklet featuring a couple of hedgehogs who were unlucky enough to have caught chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and crabs. Bad hedgehogs. (as an aside, I have told this hedgehog story to many, many people. No-one else I know was taught about STDs at the age of 16 via Mr and Mrs Hedgehog. I went to one of the top comprehensive schools in the UK.)

I refuse to believe that girls across the UK, 12 and 13 year old girls, who are given a jab that they are told will protect them from a virus that can cause cancer, are then going to jump into bed with the first pimply-faced, Lynx-wearing boy they come across, thinking they are safe from ALL potential outcomes of unprotected sex. Do you? As Helen Lewis said in the New Statesman, we never go '"TB jab, you say? Whoopee! Now I can go get consumptive people to cough in my face, for kicks!"'

Anyway, back to these 24 schools.

All of these schools claim that they refuse to give the vaccine because it doesn't reflect the Christian ethos of the school - the ethos being that sex outside of marriage is a sin. They claim:

'"There is already evidence that the vaccine is giving some girls a false sense of security and leading them to think that because they have been vaccinated they are protected against the worst effects of sexual promiscuity and can therefore engage in casual sex without consequence."'

Where this evidence is no-one knows. It doesn't get cited, because it doesn't exist. But the thing that strikes me most about this quote is the phrase 'the worst effects of sexual promiscuity'. Now, to me, the worst effects of having sex are STDs. Particularly STDs that can kill you. Which is why it is so important we do everything we can to make sure that no-one is at risk of contracting horrible and dangerous illnesses. Free condoms. Comprehensive and intelligent sex education. And, if we have a vaccine that can do that, then we need to use it to protect young women.

But for these schools? The worst effects of having sex is the promiscuity in itself. (read this on why I don't believe in promiscuity) It's the idea that there's something inherently wrong with sex outside of marriage in itself, that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong.

It sounds extreme, but I keep returning to the same conclusion. These schools would rather girls get cancer, than have sex outside of marriage. 

We all know from America that schools teaching abstinence-only education does not stop young people having sex. Young people have a very natural and normal sexuality that they are going to want to explore. Some may choose to wait until marriage and that is fine, And some won't. Although I don't agree with it, I can understand a school teaching about why you might want to wait, why you might even want to wait until marriage (again, this was a lot what my sex ed looked like). But this has to be coupled with education about consent, respect, and how to look after your body. How to have safe sex, so that you don't catch STDs or get pregnant when you don't want to be. It has to include education about contraception. Most young people will have sex whether we want them to or not. So we have a duty to prepare them, to help them negotiate their sexuality in a positive way. In countries where young people aren't taught about contraception, then the rates of STDs and unwanted pregnancy are high. In the US, at the height of Bush's abstinence-only funding regime, there were 80 teen pregnancies per 1000 (compared to Holland who have good sex ed, only 12 per 1000. Most Western Europe countries are less than 40 per 1000 - stats from pg 161 of Female Chauvinist Pigs). In the US, 1 in 4 people under 25 have an STD (page 167).

We have a duty of care to young people, particularly in a school. It is perfectly possible to teach that you might want to wait, but still say here's a vaccine that will protect you from a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cancer. Having a jab is not going to cause you to have sex. Having unprotected sex when you haven't had the jab may cause you to get cancer. All these schools are doing is burying their heads in the sand at the expense of the health of the girls in their care.

Another ugly twist in this story is that the schools are not telling the young women that they aren't being given a vaccine. They're not consulting with parents - many of whom might not share the religious ethos of the school. Fundamentally, they are taking away the girl's choice to protect herself, to take control of her sexual health. She might want to have the vaccine, she might want to go to her GP and get the vaccine. I mean, wouldn't you? If you knew that there was a vaccine that could go some way to protecting you from a life-threatening illness, wouldn't you want to know about it and get it? These schools are wilfully and determinedly misleading their students so that they can't make an informed and intelligent decision about their sexual health. And it's also taking that decision away from the parents.

And of course, there's the sexism. As is often the case when we talk about abstinence-only education, boys aren't really mentioned much. This was apparent particularly last year, when Nadine Dorries proposed that girls - and only girls - should receive abstinence education. Girls are seen as the gatekeepers of sex and 'sexual virtue'. As I heard it described last week, girls are the 'vessels of honour'. All the talk is about how girls will 'become promiscious', when, unless we're suggesting that girls are having sex only with each other, boys are probably going to be involved somewhere. The fear, the outrage, it isn't around boys having sex though. All of this completely silences the fact that young women are sexual beings who have an active sexuality. It teaches girls that they are passive, that sex is something that is done to them and that they must stop from happening, rather than something they might want to engage in because they feel desire, because they're in love, because they want to. It taps into a whole historic horror of women's sexuality, and puts girl in the role of sexual gatekeepers who must prevent sex from happening. It victimises us, as the idea that we might want to have sex is silenced and forbidden.

My final point is that all the abstinence education and banning of vaccines in the world aren't going to make a damn bit of difference if a girl or woman is raped.

And, considering that half of young girls in an NSPCC study with Bristol Uni reported being victims of sexual violence,  and in a recent Mumsnet survey it was reported that 1 in 10 UK women have been raped n this is, sadly, a common occurrence. I know a woman who was raped as a teenager, contracted the HPV virus from her rapists and was diagnosed with cervical cancer a decade later. The vaccine wouldn't have prevented her rape. But it could have prevented this particular subsequent horror.

Surely we owe our young women better than this? Surely we should never want to see a woman go through this? It is outrageous that schools are playing so recklessly with girls' health, girls' lives, because of a religious ethos.

Last year, 957 women died from cervical cancer. We now have a way to protect women from this horrible disease. We need to use it.

Monday, 9 July 2012

I hope some C*** rapes you. Online harassment strikes again.

My Fathers 4 Justice post got picked up on Lib Con last week. The comments were the usual fare, some agreeing, some disagreeing, some informed, some less so (yes, you can get a print ad out in less than nine days. I’ve done it in four days, I know). Then, on Saturday, I read the following:

‘You are a complete fucking fascist idiot and I hope some cunt rapes you. Fucking thick bitch’. 

I’m not telling you this to make you feel sorry or bad for me, or to paint myself as a ‘victim’ of online abuse. In fact, when I saw it I laughed out loud, read it out to my friends and rolled my eyes. 

No, the reason I’m telling you this because the more we speak out and name what happens to women online, the more we can do to expose it, and tackle it. 

The day before the comment appeared, Helen Lewis, who has done amazing work in keeping the issue of online abuse on the public consciousness, published a piece regarding the frightening levels of hate directed at women gamer, Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian had put a call out for voluntary donations to fund research into ‘tropes vs women in videogames’. The response she got included men putting together pictures of her being raped by Mario. Her address and contact details were published on the Internet, along with exhortations to use this information to commit violent crime against her. Perhaps most shockingly of all, guys created a game which involved the player beating up her face. 

I felt sick seeing this.

You would hope that most people would feel sick when presented with such a blatant example of gender-based hate. And yet, so many of the comments under Helen’s piece persisted with the idea that this was just banter, this was just a joke, a game. It wasn’t threatening. It wasn’t horrible. And anyway, what about freedom of speech? After all, if women can’t cope with a little name calling, if women need to be protected from bad language, then clearly women aren’t tough enough to be on the Internet anyway. If you can’t take the heat, get back in the fucking kitchen. 

I’m pretty sure that none of the men that left those comments have ever woken up on the weekend to read that someone hopes they get raped. I’m pretty sure that none of those commenters have had to go to the police after someone threatens to post their contact details all over the Internet whilst encouraging other men to find them and ‘make them pay’ (which is what happened to me). 

If you think a game where you beat up a real, live, named woman is funny, if you think that game is ‘banter’, then you need to take a long hard look at yourselves. This is hate language. Pure and simple, this is about (some) men hating women for speaking out, for having a voice.  It’s about trying to silence us. 

When I tell people that I’ve been threatened with rape, again, on a blog post, those who don’t blog ask why it doesn’t make me quit. And my answer is always the same. If I stopped writing as a result of these threats, then they have won.

Now, the level of threats I get is pretty minor compared to a lot of women I know. And some women have been forced to stop writing because the threats they received were too awful, were too dangerous. It is a disgrace that some men have forced women to give up their voices, their spaces, due to the violent hate directed against them. 

I believe that when someone responds to something I’ve written with threats (or, more commonly with ‘you’re ugly anyway and I wouldn’t have sexytimes with you’), then it means they’re frightened. They’re frightened that their patriarchal power is being threatened. Our feminist voices are powerful, increasingly powerful, and they can’t cope with it. Threats of violence are the Internet coward’s last hurrah. Feminism is scary. The idea that we need to liberate women and men from patriarchal capitalism is scary. It means some people will have to give up power. And it terrifies them. So they respond violently. They hit out, cry out and attempt to use violence to stop us talking. 

But it isn’t going to work.

One final thing. Hate language is not the same as freedom of speech. If a woman writes something, and a man tells her that he hopes some cunt rapes her in order to frighten her into silence, it isn’t his freedom of speech that is being threatened. It’s hers.

This post is quite garbled and doesn’t have much of a thread. But I just wanted to speak out against this episode of online harassment. By talking about what happens to us, by exposing it, refusing to be silenced by it, we will continue to have a voice. And we will win. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

ASA rule against Fathers 4 Justice ad

The Advertising Standards Agency have ruled against the controversial Fathers 4 Justice ad that ran in national newspapers this Mother’s Day. The ad was targeted at brands who advertise with the Mumsnet social network, which Fathers 4 Justice believe paints men as rapists, paedophiles and wife beaters. 

Fathers 4 Justice argue that Mumsnet is full of distressing misandry that’s as unacceptable as homophobia and racism. However ASA instead found that there are 1000s of comments on the web forum, some which may be more extreme than others, and that Mumsnet did not endorse sexist comments. Therefore the site was not at fault.

I kind of had to laugh a little bit at this. I mean, if women asked for brands to withdraw ads every time we experienced incredible levels of unpleasantness below the line, we would be on the march against CIF, the Daily Mail, every gaming blog, every political blog… every single day!

But that’s beside the point. 

I don’t believe it can be a co-incidence that Fathers 4 Justice produced this ad around a similar time that Mumsnet launched their ‘We believe you’ campaign. This was a vital web space for women to share their experiences of domestic abuse, rape, sexual abuse and violence. It was a space for women to be supported and believed, as they detailed the terrible crimes committed against them – yes, by men. For some women, the silence had been maintained for years. For some women, when the silence was broken, they hadn’t been believed. The We Believe You campaign gave women the space, the time and the support to speak out about the violence, the horror, the torture. It said to women that they were safe, that they could speak and, most importantly, that they would be believed. Whoever hadn’t believed them before, Mumsnet and the women online would believe them now. 

I think there is something singularly wicked about taking something as strengthening and empowering as the We Believe You conversation, and turning it into a weapon for Fathers 4 Justice to hit women with. 

Many of the men talked about on the We Believe You space are rapists, are paedophiles, are wife beaters. But never was it said that all men are. Never was it implied or suggested by Mumsnet that all men are. Because as we know, not all men are these things. Some men choose to commit these crimes. 

It isn’t Mumsnet’s fault that these men chose to commit these crimes. Mumsnet didn’t label the men who committed these crimes as rapists, paedophiles and wife-beaters. They took that label when they chose to rape, to abuse, to hit. 

Despite fervently supporting equal parental rights for years, I’ve never been a fan of Fathers 4 Justice. This is a campaigning group who use criminal actions to get noticed. Who, as well as publicly threatening Mumsnet, have also had members send threats to offices of domestic abuse support services (a friend of mine who’s mum works in the sector confirmed this). Who's members once made statements around 'No More Lesbo Dads'. And who now have targeted women sharing their experiences of male violence, in order to silence those women, to take away their safe space. 

There are of course terrible situations where divorcing parents use their children as weapons to harm one another, and where women withhold access to punish their ex. This needs to be tackled, and dealt with, so that the children are cared for and are safe. But, as a recent consultation commissioned by the government has shown, these incidents are far, far rarer than the public believe. Of all the divorces that happen, only 10% seek custody through the courts. A tiny percentage of these then lead to contact orders. In 2010, 300 litigated custody cases out of 95,000 resulted in the father being denied access to his child. Considering the British Judicial System is built on centuries of patriarchal rule, where only 170 years ago women were completely denied custody of their children in every case, there’s generally a very, very good reason for denying access. Considering it is so rare hopefully shows that it’s not a decision the courts take lightly.  

Contrary to the beliefs of F4J and much of the general public, the government-commissioned consultation found that there was no bias against fathers in the family courts. There was, rightly and of course, a bias towards the primary caregiver, and in our current society that is the mother. However, in a situation where the father was the primary caregiver, the bias would be towards him. 

The idea that feminists are at fault for ‘promoting’ the mother in the courts system is a long-standing myth. In fact, equal parenting is something that feminists have been campaigning about for a long, long time. The assumption that women are the primary caregiver has been a feminist issue since before F4J were in short trousers. For decades now we’ve been arguing for equal parental leave, so that mothers and fathers are involved in child rearing from the start. We argue for more flexible working, for a reduced pay gap, for an end to the ‘mother gap’, so that all parents in a family are equal, involved and caregiving.  

Fathers 4 Justice have congratulated the government for ignoring the findings of their own consultation. This is despite advice from lawyers, who have expressed concern that changes to the law will not be beneficial to children. And surely that’s what has to matter in the end? That the safety and welfare of the children is paramount? Surely that’s more important than rhetoric about Walton family values, and political point scoring? Surely what matters is that children are safe, and happy, and protected. That they are not failed by the system, by their families. 

I’m glad ASA have found against F4J. I hope this means they start to understand that bullying tactics that defame women will not help the cause for equal parenting. I hope they understand that using the words of survivors against them is not acceptable. We Believe You was never about misandry. It was never about calling men rapists. It was about naming the crimes committed against women. It was about raising our voices, together in solidarity. If F4J want to blame anyone for building a world where men can be called rapists, blame those men who choose to rape.

This piece has been cross posted in a shorter version at Liberal Conspiracy 

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

After three divorces, will Tom ever find happiness?

In the interests of not getting sued, the italics section of this post is made up in my imagination.

The news shocked the showbiz world as it ricocheted across the globe. After a year of seemingly living separately, TomKat was no more. This weekend, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes announced they had split up.

Now the inevitable speculation has started, with fans and supporters wondering what this means for one of Hollywood’s most famed power couples. But here at BS, the question on all of our lips has been, what does this mean for Tom?

After three failed marriages and an increasingly erratic public profile, Tom must be starting to wonder whether he will ever find love again. After all, he’s no longer as young as he was when he met Mimi, Nicole and Kate. He must be feeling concerned that after another divorce, his chances of lasting romance and happiness are slipping through his fingers. 

Close pals of the star told us exclusively: ‘Tom is really down. We’re all worried about him. He’s wondering if he can bounce back from this. He’s getting older, and he’s wondering if Katie was his last chance at happiness. It’s so sad.’

Of course, Tom isn’t alone. Johnny Depp, a contemporary in age if not career, has also just very publicly broken up with long-term partner Vanessa Paradis. Johnny has had a string of rocky relationships with women, including Winona Ryder and Kate Moss. 

BS’ sources told us: ‘You do start to wonder, why is it these handsome and talented men are failing to keep their relationships together. It’s ok for Vanessa and Katie, they’re a lot younger than their now ex partners. But as Tom and Johnny approach middle age…well, it’s no wonder they’re worried. The heartache is of course, also taking a toll on their movie-star looks. It’s so sad’. 

Of course, I just made all of the above up. I actually care very little about these two break ups (beyond the fact that Depp is now single and has a house in the West Country – hello!). But I wanted to do a little experiment to see how the break-up narrative we so often see in women’s mags worked with the genders in reverse. 

Every week we see these terrible headlines, informing us how broken and sad women in the public eye are. We hear how, years after divorcing Brad, ‘Jen’ is still searching for love. We hear how ‘Demi’ is ‘desperate’ and ‘Cheryl’ is ‘in crisis over Ashley. The lip-sucking magazine editors turn to their dubious sources, anonymous so-called friends who endlessly write ‘it’s so sad’. Seriously. That’s like the anonymous source mantra. ‘It’s so sad’. But the men? It’s never their ‘last chance of happiness’. They’re never portrayed as being scared that they’re ‘too old to find true love’. They’re never pictured fretting over the ‘mistakes’ they made, free from speculation over the ‘toll’ the ‘heartache’ is taking on their ‘looks’. Men, in media world, bounce back from relationship break-ups, blameless, fancy free and ready to take the next bonny lady into their arms. The women are doomed to loneliness, sadness, despair. 

Back in 2009 I did some research for the Representation of Women in the Media project on positive and negative news stories in weekly women’s mags. I found that across Heat, Grazia, Closer, Now, New, Star and OK front covers over five days, 27 of the headlines about women were negative, whereas three headlines about men were negative. There were seven positive stories about women, all relating to babies and weight loss. There were three positive stories about men. I think the stats about men are mainly representative of how men don’t really feature in women’s magazines, unless they’re attached to a woman. Peter Andre is, of course, the honourable exception. 

When we talk about the representation of women in the media, we’re not just talking about absence or objectification. We’re also talking about how women are so often denigrated and degraded by the way we are talked about in a press that is designed for women. How we’re told we’re a mess, how we’re desperate for love and marriage. How women are weak, in crisis, crying and suffering. We’re not successful, unless we’re in bridal wear and have lost weight to fit into it. We’re certainly failures if that ring comes off our fingers. 

In women’s magazine world, it doesn’t matter that Jennifer Aniston was one of the funniest actresses in one of the most successful comedy series of all time. It doesn’t matter that Cheryl is one of the most successful girl groups of all time. It doesn’t matter that Demi Moore’s career has been longer and far more successful than Ashton’s. Because in women’s magazine world, all that matters is that woman’s marriage and divorce. 

This double standard of reporting men and women when it comes to relationship break down is just one area where women’s mags are harmful. But right now it’s the one that pisses me off the most. So when you read the inevitable headlines about how it was probably Katie’s fault that Tom left her (with a nod to how he was controlling) and now she’s scared that she’ll never find love again, spare a thought for Tom. Because they won’t be writing those sentences about him. After all, men’s successes aren’t measured by a ring on the finger. It’s measured by what they do.