Monday, 28 October 2013

Russell Brand, and the revolutionary act of voting

When one of my grandmothers was born, women my age didn’t have the right to vote in the UK. 

It was that recent. 

A few years before that grandmother was born, Emily Davidson died. She died because she believed that by excluding women from the ballot box, the British government were treating women as children, who had no stake in their country, who were governed and oppressed by men who refused to hear them. Her fellow suffragettes were locked up and effectively tortured through force-feeding and physical violence. They fought and they fought because they knew the right to vote was important. It was the signifier of a society that believed women had the right to a voice. 

It was not that long ago. It was so recent that I’ll repeat it. It was in my grandparents’ lifetimes that women my age didn’t have the right to vote. 

The Civil Rights Movement, who fought to end unequal application of voter registration requirements in the USA, was in my parents’ lifetime.

It was that recent. 

In my lifetime, women and men across the world are denied the right to vote. They are denied a voice in the way their society is run. They are dying and being imprisoned and being tortured for asking for the vote. 

Men could do with remembering that they haven’t always had a right to vote. The right for all men to vote in the UK isn’t that old – beginning with the 1832 Reform Act and extending from there. 

It’s very easy to not vote, when you have the right to. It’s very easy to be Russell Brand and say ‘don’t vote’ when we have the choice to or not. It’s very easy to forget how recently we were denied a political voice in the UK. It’s very easy to forget that this is a right many believed was worth dying for. Believe is still worth dying for. 

I have sympathy for Russell Brand’s anger at today’s politicians and I think he made a lot of good points – both on Newsnight and in the New Statesman  – about why people are disaffected with politics and why change is needed. After all, I am angry too. I want a revolution. I don’t like the system we have today. (I also don’t like Russell Brand’s diminishing of editors of national magazines to ‘beautiful women who ask him to do stuff’ – but that’s an argument for another day.)

But changing the system doesn’t happen by not voting. 

I believe that when you don’t vote, you take yourself out of the conversation. You might not vote because you don’t want to validate a political system that is led by someone as objectionable as David Cameron. But David Cameron doesn’t know that. He can shrug at that non-vote, and assume you didn’t vote because you can’t be arsed. And then he’ll disregard your non-vote, and carry on creating policies that trash the lives of those who they know traditionally don’t vote – i.e. under-25s.  

Not voting is not a political or revolutionary act because no one knows you’re not voting. No one cares about your reasons why you’re not voting. Sure, it might be a conversation point on a current affairs show. But the politicians in power don't care why you're not voting, as long as the ones who do, vote to maintain their status quo. 

For decades, voting has been the revolutionary act. 

It was revolutionary when the Chartists did it. It was revolutionary when the Suffragettes took to the streets. It was revolutionary when Civil Rights activists marched on Washington. It was revolutionary during the Arab Spring, as people took to the streets to fight for an end to dictatorships and demand the right to the vote. 

It was revolutionary when men and women fought and died for it. When they gave their freedoms and their lives. 

Not voting isn’t revolutionary. It’s a negative. It’s just a not. It’s not recorded, it’s shrugged off. It changes nothing. 

I know how bad politics looks today. Here in the UK, we have a bunch of politicians who argue amongst themselves, contradict one another to make political points, snuggle up to big business and have a list of principles you could fit on the back of a stamp. 

But that system doesn’t change by us taking ourselves out of the conversation. Not voting doesn’t change anything. 

That’s why they didn’t let us vote for so long. 

Voting is the result of revolutions and revolts.

I feel proud every time I vote. I feel connected to those brave women and men who fought for my right to mark the cross in that box, and I feel respect for those still fighting for that right. It is a right that was hard won and is easily removed. 

And of course I was furious when my last vote was betrayed by the Lib Dems. But it is too precious a right to throw away because of bad politicians. It is the badness of politicians that makes it even more important to preserve the rights we have to demand change. 

I’ll leave the last word to Hunter S. Thompson

Vote. It ain’t much. But it’s the only weapon we have against the greedheads.’


Anybody who thinks that 'it doesn't matter who's President' has never been Drafted and sent off to fight and die in a vicious, stupid war on the other side of the world--or been beaten and gassed by Police for trespassing on public property--or been hounded by the IRS for purely political reasons--or locked up in the Cook County Jail with a broken nose and no phone access and twelve perverts wanting to stomp your ass in the shower. That is when it matters who is President or Governor or Police Chief. That is when you will wish you had voted.’

Russell Brand has good points to make and he makes them well (when he's not patronising women). But he isn’t the one facing the bedroom tax. He isn’t the one whose life is being disregarded by politicians, because those politicians believe they don't have to care about certain demographics. After all, those demographics don't vote. 

Friday, 18 October 2013

Police respond to Evening Post

Well, the last day or so has been a bit dramatic. Haven't had this kind of response before to the many posts I have written critiquing safety advice that emphasises women's behaviour over tackling perpetrators.

Still, good news to report. The police have responded to the Evening Post affirming their commitment to tackling male violence against women and girls, and challenging a victim blaming culture:

"The Bristol Post reported that he specified "women, in particular".
Although the Post concedes he did not use the word “women” in his safety advice, the Post understands the investigation team have not suspected men might be targeted by the alleged culprit or culprits.

Det Insp Gary Haskins said: "The personal safety advice which was given following this incident applied to both men and women and no reference was made to ‘women in particular’.

“General safety advice is offered by the police and other agencies to help people stay safe on nights out and raise awareness of not only personal safety but also how to protect your belongings.
“We agree strongly that the responsibility for a crime sits with the offender and always seek to prosecute, putting the victim first. However we also have a responsibility to provide safety advice to members of the public.""

Which is fantastic and really shows just how seriously Operation Bluestone take these issues.

In my previous two posts I wrote very clearly how Operation Bluestone have done really good work in tackling rape culture in Bristol. Their latest response supports this view.

I would also like to take this opportunity to clarify that at no point did I approach the Evening Post with my blogpost, and I was not contacted before they published it. I want to state this as I have been accused of a 'publicity stunt' etc. I had no idea that my blogpost would appear anywhere other than on this blog.

As I say, thank you Operation Bluestone for affirming your commitment to ending violence against women and girls, and to tackling victim blaming culture.

Responding to responses on my blogpost on safety advice and sexual assault

There was a higher than average number of comments on my last blog post critiquing the safety advice given out by police in the wake of a serious sexual assault in Bristol. Because many of the same responses to the post kept coming up, I thought I’d write a follow-up post to try and refute some of the recurring arguments. 

Response One: you wouldn’t leave your car unlocked

I’ve written it on my blog a hell of a lot of times, but let’s reiterate it again. Women are not cars. We are not wallets. We are not windows, or mobile phones. We do not leave ourselves ‘unlocked’ or ‘open’ by walking home on our own after dark. 

As well as being quite simply rude, this response I believe feeds into a culture where women are objectified. Our humanity, our right to live free from violence and attack, is diminished. We become the equivalent of a carelessly parked car. 

What this response comes down to is the idea of ‘sensible precautions’. We should take sensible precautions to reduce our vulnerability to crime. Therefore we lock our car doors, we keep our valuables hidden and we close our windows. They are all sensible precautions and they are precautions I take too. 

But not living your life freely is not a ‘sensible precaution’. Telling a woman like me, who often works late, that I should not walk home after dark is not telling me to take a sensible precaution. It’s telling me to restrict my freedoms and to change my way of life because of the actions of one or more men. That’s not the same as locking your car door. 

This argument presents the idea that simply by living their lives, women are ‘making themselves vulnerable’. And that is not ok. 

Response Two: You’re telling women to put themselves at risk

No. I’m not. I’m really not. 

There’s some confusion around safety advice, that when you criticise it you are somehow saying everyone can just behave however they like and damn the consequences. It’s not the case. We all have a responsibility to ourselves. We shouldn’t throw ourselves in front of cars or get so drunk we fall off a roof. We need to look after ourselves and – as friends or family members – we need to look out for our loved ones. 

My criticism of this specific safety advice is that – again – it’s presenting the idea that women’s presence in public space is enough to put her at risk. That by walking home alone, she has put herself at risk. 

This kind of advice presents rape and sexual assault as some kind of natural hazard that women can take action to avoid. If you just walk in daylight. If you just say sober. If you just tell people where you are. Then you’ll avoid rape. Then you’ll be safe. 

But as I say over and over again, the only cause of rape and sexual assault is the man that chooses rape and sexual assault. It’s not a woman’s responsibility to adjust her lifestyle to avoid rape. It’s up to men who choose to rape, not raping. 

Regardless of what the safety advice says, women still have strategies to ‘stay safe’. Whether it’s walking the long way home to avoid a dodgy area, or leaving early to get a bus, or fake talking on the phone or carrying keys. We all take action to ‘keep ourselves safe’. But it doesn’t change the fact that if we are attacked, it is solely the fault of the attacker. And walking home with a friend isn’t going to help if that friend attacks you. Especially when the vast majority of attacks against women come from someone the woman knows. 

Response Three: the advice isn’t gendered. Men have to be vigilant too.

The advice is gendered. How anyone can miss that is beyond me. 

Look at it this way. There are two facts that are incontrovertible about violence. Women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know – at home but also at work, college, school. Men are most likely to be attacked by a stranger on the street. 

But when a man is the victim of a violent attack on the streets, the response is not to tell men to avoid walking home on their own. It’s not to tell men to understand that alcohol leaves them vulnerable. We do not expect men to modify their behaviour or not live their lives because of the actions of other violent men. 

There’s also a difference between being ‘vigilant’ and telling women to restrict their freedoms. Being vigilant is – as in point two – about self care, caring for one another, being aware. Not living your life free from the fear of violence is not being vigilant. 

Response Four: the police response.

Operation Bluestone is committed to the idea that the only thing that can stop rape and sexual assault is to ensure men don’t have sex with someone who cannot or does not consent. I must reiterate that Operation Bluestone has done so much good work tackling rape myths and victim blaming culture, and they should be recognised for that. 

I think it’s really important to acknowledge the stand the police are taking and thank them for their action in tackling male violence against women

So these are my responses to the responses to my blog. In short, women are not wallets. We do not leave ourselves open. Not living our life free from the fear of violence is not a ‘sensible precaution’. Telling women we have the right to live free from violence is not putting women at risk. This advice is gendered. And thank you Operation Bluestone for your positive response. 

One last thing. In my post I did something I rarely do – disclose an incident I have experienced. In that incident, I had followed all the ‘rules’. No one commented on that. Had I put myself at risk for being in a public space? Did I deserve that assault? Should I have stopped getting buses? Of course not. The problem with this advice is it is unrealistic because sexual assaults happen anywhere and everywhere. The sad and scary thing is that whilst this crime is so common, there are no sensible precautions women can take. The only thing that can make a change is by some men choosing not to attack women.  

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Safety advice and victim blaming - an open letter to my local police force

I’m sorry to have to be having this conversation again. I really am. I thought, after our Reclaim the Night marches, BFN’s good relationship with Operation Bluestone and my BFN colleague meeting with you after the Jo Yeates murder to talk about safety advice, that you’d got it. That you understood that it wasn’t ok, in the wake of male violence, to respond by policing women’s behaviour. That you had listened to us, and to Bristol Fawcett, and agreed with us that, when a man is deliberately attacking women, we shouldn’t respond by restricting women’s freedom. 

So I was really, truly disappointed to read the following in local newspaper, The Post: 

 “Urging women in particular to be vigilant when out at night, Mr Haskins [Senior investigation officer] advised them not to walk home alone if possible, to stick to well-lit areas, always let friends and family know where they are and to remember that drinking alcohol can make them vulnerable.”

Avon and Somerset Police, I work near where the assault happened. If I have to work late, how should I get home? Should I spend my money on a cab? Should I sleep in my office? Perhaps I should not go to work at all? 

It is not good enough to tell women not to live their lives, not to do the things they need or want to do, because a man is choosing to assault women. It is not ok to tell women to live in fear, to be watching their back, to restrict their freedom, because a violent man has chosen to attack women. Women – we have to walk around. We have to go to work, go to school, go to uni, and visit friends or family. Our lives shouldn’t have to stop because of the actions of violent men. You should not expect us to put our lives on hold because of violent men. 

Alcohol. You mention alcohol. And how it makes women vulnerable. 

Drinking alcohol makes women vulnerable to hangovers and perhaps some regretted text messages. Alcohol does not make a woman vulnerable to sexual assault. The only thing that makes a woman vulnerable to sexual assault is the presence of a violent man. 

I was sexually assaulted on a bus at 9am. Not as seriously as this young woman, but it happened. I was stone cold sober, in a well-lit area, sitting on a bus. I wasn’t walking. I wasn’t in the dark. I wasn’t drinking. And I was assaulted. Why? Because walking, drinking and darkness do not cause sexual assault. Men who abuse women cause sexual assault. 

It’s so easy, isn’t it? It’s so easy to tell women to lock themselves away, stay hidden. 

My BFN colleague once asked you why you didn’t have a safety campaign targeting men. You told us ‘because men find it offensive’. 

I find it offensive to be told to police my own actions and restrict my own freedoms because of the actions of violent men. I find it offensive that if anything happened to me as I walk home from work, your safety warnings will have groomed people to believe I was somehow to blame. I find it offensive that people would ask why I was walking home, not why he feels he has the male entitlement over women’s bodies. 

When a man sexually assaults women – both at home and in public places – please, I beg of you, focus on men. Focus on their behaviour. Because in every single situation, the only cause of sexual assault is the man who chooses to be violent. 

I know you know this. I know because Operation Bluestone has done fantastic work in tackling victim blaming narratives, in bringing perpetrators to account – in doing everything right. I’ve collaborated with Operation Bluestone on campaigns and I know they do really good work. That knowledge is one reason why I’m so disappointed. So hurt.

But I also know that it’s easy. It’s easy to tell women not to go out, not to drink, not to walk home in the dark. It’s far easier to offend women than it is to risk offending men. It’s far easier to restrict women’s freedoms, than to try and show the public that we live in a society where there are nearly 500,000 sexual assaults every year, that nearly half a million men in our society are assaulting, attacking and raping women. 

It’s those men we need to be talking to. It’s the society that excuses them, allows them, and victim blames that we need to be talking to. 

Don’t tell women not to live freely. Don’t tell us that we can’t expect the right to freedom of movement. Don’t tell us not to live our lives, because a man is choosing to attack women. Tackle the causes of violence and stop offering ‘advice’ that fuels a victim blaming rape culture.

Thank you. 

Bristol Rape Crisis0808 801 0456

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Tips for David Cameron on how to be a feminist

Dear Dave,

When I wrote my essay for my self-published anthology (yours for £7.99! ) The Light Bulb Moment, I talked about how I had always called myself a feminist. But I wasn’t really a feminist. I read the books and I talked the talk, but I didn’t behave in a feminist way. I co-operated with the patriarchal culture that harmed women. 

Well, you have always said you weren’t really a feminist – until yesterday. Perhaps that’s why you have so spectacularly failed to behave in a feminist way. But now you are a self-proclaimed feminist, here are some tips for you on how you can act as feminist. Hope you find them useful. 

Number One: don’t patronise women in public and in private. 

Telling a woman to ‘calm down, dear’ is not a feminist action. Even if your wife says it to you. It undermines her as a professional woman with an impassioned and assertive opinion. It feeds into tropes that women are emotional and that emotional equals irrational. It suggests that there is something ridiculous about women having an opinion.

Equally, try to avoid making snigger snigger jokes about women MPs being frustrated. It pains me to have to defend Nadine Dorries, so please don’t give me a reason to. 

Number Two: don’t say you understand women because you are married to one.

I’m sure Sam is lovely. But she does not represent all women. 

Number Three: stop introducing policies that penalise single mums and support dads who don’t support their kids. 

Despite the Norgrove Review finding that the law around custody disputes should not be changed, you still seem determined to change a system that currently works for the safety of children and supports the primary caregiver. Whilst paying lip service to the idea that single mums do a great job, your government does what it can to demonise poor, single parents. The DWP put out bad data about how many men fail to pay child support once a relationship breaks down to obfuscate what should be a national scandal about how some men refuse to take responsibility for their children. Gingerbread has plenty of evidence to show that unpaid child maintenance has soared to £3.87 billion in the last quarter of 2012. You should really take a look at it, and maybe do something about it. But don’t do something that means single mums trying to reach those dads have to pay the CSA. Oh, wait. Meanwhile, your reforms to the benefits system are actively harming women who are caregivers. And now your Marriage Tax Allowance will benefit men who don’t pay maintenance and marry again. None of this looks very feminist from where I’m standing.  

Number Four: stop pushing women and children further into poverty through cuts

It’s almost forgotten now, but your government’s first emergency budget hit women hard. And it hasn’t got any better since then. In fact, 70% of the cuts from that first budget came from women’s purses. Services have been cut that women use most – including services that benefit children. Benefits have been cut that help women caring for children, and for child-free women too. Jobs have been cut that are mainly populated by women, so that women’s unemployment has risen by 20% whilst men’s unemployment has slightly fallen (although more men than women are classed as unemployed). Services have been cut that support families, such as Sure Start, and help children stay in education, such as EMA. Poverty has a female face in the UK and your policies have entrenched poverty and furthered economic inequality. Your economic policies have harmed women over and over and over again. If you truly cared about equality between men and women – as you claimed to do when you said you are a feminist – you would not ruthlessly create policies that do so much harm to women’s economic equality. Time and time again, we see your government proposing and enacting policies that are intent on pushing women back into the domestic sphere from the public one. 

Number 5: employ some women.

The ‘donut effect’, where you seat women around you, doesn’t fool anyone. The representation of women in key ministries and in cabinet is a joke. Five women in the Cabinet? No women in the Treasury? Come on! 

Number 6: actually take proper action on sexualisation 

Your policies on sexualisation culture are weak and transparent. I won’t rehash why now, you can read all about it here. If you really want to improve the situation and tackle attitudes towards women and sex in young people, invest in sex and relationships education that has respect and consent at its heart. And maybe take a stand on Page 3. 

Number 7: don’t negotiate with the Taliban

Just don’t. Do not exclude women from peace talks and the future of their country. 

 Number 8: stop cutting services that save women’s lives

So far this year, 91 women have been murdered as a result of male violence against women and girls. 

Government cuts have led to life-saving refuge services shutting down, as 236 women turn up to refuges to flee domestic abuse every day. 1 in 4 women experience abuse, and yet instead of investing in services to support women and investing in education to tackle abuse, we are losing what little we had. 

Meanwhile, with nearly half a million sexual offences in the UK each year, police are referring fewer rape cases to the CPS

With no-where safe for women to go to, policies like Clare’s Law aren’t much comfort. With police not pursuing cases against violent men, a list like the one Clare’s Law provides won’t be complete. Instead, any policy action you have taken on VAWG seems like a lot like words, where investment and action could make a real difference. 

So, Dave. If you are a feminist, as you claim to be, you need to start doing. It isn’t enough to bandy the word around because you’re struggling to get women onside and your PR people panicked. You have the power to put feminism into action, to enact feminist policy in Government that could save women’s lives, lift families out of poverty and secure justice for women and girls. 

But you can’t even manage not to patronise women ministers, can you?