Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dave Lee Travis and the response to sexual assault

Sexual assault is a crime. 

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, in recent days, I’ve found myself having to remind myself of this, and remind others of it too. 

Sexual assault is a crime. It is a crime to grab a woman’s arse or crotch. It is a crime to grope a woman’s tits. It is against the law to violate another person’s autonomy. It’s not funny. It’s not a joke. It’s not ‘just a laugh’ and ‘boys will be boys’. It is a crime. 

I feel I have to remind people of this because in the days following Dave Lee Travis’ conviction for indecent assault, there has been the usual flurry of people trying to minimise what he did, and what others like him did. They’ve tried once again to paint sexual assault as something that just ‘used to happen in the 60s/70s/80s’ (even though we now know that he was still assaulting women in the last few years - as Camilla Long’s excellent article illustrates). When that defence has failed, they’ve tried to act as though it’s not that bad for men to violate women’s boundaries, for men to treat your body as public property. 

That’s what sexual assault is, by the way. It is a deliberate choice by another person to violate your personal boundaries and to treat your body as their property - to treat your body as though it doesn’t belong to you. 

So why are so many people so determined to minimise this crime? Why are so many people determined to pretend that it isn't that bad? Why are people so invested - as one tweeter was this morning - in telling women to stop moaning and instead concern themselves with ‘real issues’? Why, when I tweeted about my own experience of sexual assault, did I receive the patronising response, ‘there there dear!’? 

I’ve got two suggestions. Firstly, I believe it is because of the oft-repeated refrain from the last couple of years:

If that’s a crime, then you’d have to lock up most of the male population!

In another instance that proves that anti feminist men have much less respect for men than most feminists, I believe that most of the male population are able to go about their lives without grabbing women’s body parts. I don’t think violating women’s bodies is something that blokes innately or naturally do. It is a deliberate crime that one person commits against another. So you wouldn’t have to lock up most the male population. (#notallmen !!!)

But if every sexual assault: if every grab; if every act of intimidation; if every flash; if every public wank on to a woman’s body without her consent; if every tongue forced down a throat without consent; if every rape - if all of these crimes were reported, and convicted, then there would be many, many more men in prison. When you consider there are over 500,000 sexual assaults in the UK every year. And that around 80,000 of those are rapes. And of those rapes only 15% are reported. And of that 15%, only 6% are convicted. 

Imagine for a moment, if every one of those sexual assaults and rapes were reported, and every victim was believed, and every perpetrator was convicted. We can’t, can we? We can’t conceive such a thing - if every time a man has groped or grabbed us he was arrested, and charged, and convicted. 

And the reason we can’t imagine it is because as women we have been taught for so long that these every day violations of our bodily autonomy are just things we are meant to put up with. From the age of 16, 14, 12, 10, 8…we are told not to make a fuss. We are told it’s just a bit of a joke. Boys will be boys. We’re told ‘not to make a fuss over nothing’. We’re told it’s just what happens to you when you are a girl or a woman, in public space. We’re not told that anything we can be done about it. We walk away, feeling sad, and frightened, and ashamed, and embarrassed. And he, the person who has made you feel this way, walks away feeling free. 

When I flick through my own main experiences of sexual assault assault, there are at least four offences of DLT proportions and worse. And those are just the four I remember. The general litany of flashings and gropings are too commonplace, too blurry, to really recall individually. I didn’t report a single one of them. I didn’t even report when my hair was set on fire. 

‘Don’t make a fuss. ‘Boys will be boys’. ‘What do you expect?’

Thankfully, in the case of DLT, women did stand up. They called the assaults what they were. They named the crime. And how do we, collectively, as society respond? By talking about how awful it is for him to have to go through this. By talking about how the assaults aren’t that bad. By telling women, once again, that they should just put up with it, and keep quiet. 

I’ve long observed how as a society, we have a dissonance in our approach towards violence against women. I have written about this before, in terms of our reaction to violent celebrity men.

We all agree that of course, violence against women is wrong. We all nod our heads vehemently and agree that rape is an abhorrent crime. And then we do our best to try and minimise violence against women. When we are confronted with rape, we find ways to blame the victim. When we are confronted with domestic abuse, we ask why she stayed. And when sexual assaults like DLT’s are revealed, we shake our heads and muse publicly about whether it’s actually that bad, whether being groped is actually that distressing.

(It is, by the way. Being a victim of sexual assault is deeply unpleasant. In my experience it has meant feeling grubby, and embarrassed, and ashamed. It has made me feel anxious in public spaces. It has been a constant reminder that under patriarchy, I am not entitled to believe that my body is my own, and that there will always be men willing to remind me of this.)

I’ve come to the sad conclusion that the reason we do this, the reason we condemn violence against women on the one hand, and excuse and minimise it on the next, is because the reality of male violence against women and girls is just too awful to confront. So we find ways to avoid confronting it. And the best way to avoid confronting male violence, is to focus our attention on women’s behaviour. 

So now I want you to confront the reality of male violence against women in the UK. Think about it for a moment. Think about how in the UK, there are 500,000 sexual assaults every year. 80,000 rapes every year. That’s around 1500 rapes a week. 1.2 million women every year experience domestic abuse. 2 women a week are being killed by their male partners or exes. 

Think about how,  at the same time this is happening, the government cuts are closing down the services that tackle male violence, and pick up the pieces left by male violence. 

It’s a lot easier to find ways to blame the victim, to ask questions of the victim, and to pretend that the crimes committed against women are not that bad. It’s a lot easier to do that then to confront the extent of male violence against women, to take action to prevent it, and to invest money in supporting the women who experience it. 

It’s a lot easier to tell women that the assaults committed against us aren’t that bad, than to ask why nearly half a million men feel confident that they can grope, grab and assault women and get away with it. 

I think there’s another reason why so many men in the last few days have huffed and puffed and tried to pretend that there’s not much wrong with what DLT did. 

And that’s because they are guilty of the same crime. But unlike DLT, and in common with the vast majority of men who grope, grab, flash, wank on, beat, and rape women, they got away with it. 

DLT’s conviction has reminded those men that what they did is a crime. And now they’re running scared they won’t be able to get away with it again. 

Fancy buying a book or two?

Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue
The Boys on the Bus 

Monday, 15 September 2014

Re-thinking sisterhood conference and what I said about women only space

So. For me the story of sisterhood and the importance of women-only organising is a story of moving from what might be called ‘liberal’ feminism to a more radical feminist outlook. 

When I started out in feminism, organising Ladyfest 2007 and then, not long after, taking over the stewardship of the Bristol Feminist Network, I believed in the importance of including men in my feminist organising. After all, I reasoned, men can be feminists too (a belief I now question) and patriarchy hurts men too. So why shouldn’t men come along, contribute, share, and listen? Why shouldn’t men be present? 

I do still have sympathy with this outlook in part. I do think that patriarchy hurts men too, and I do believe that men need to be allies to the feminist movement. I believe this because in order to achieve the goals of the women’s liberation movement, men need to change. They need to give up some power and privilege. And for men to do this, they need to see why it is necessary. Feminism is part of the why. I also believe that in many ways, patriarchy does hurt men too. It preaches a damaging ideal of masculinity that celebrates violence and machismo, and leaves men and boys feeling hurt and confused. A good example of this is the exposure of very young men and boys to pornography that glamorises violence against women – telling men that the only way to be sexual is to be violent and aggressive. This message helps no one. 

When I ran the Bristol Feminist Network, very few men attended our meetings. The vast, vast majority of meetings, although open to men, were women only by default. And it is in these meetings where I discovered the beauty of sisterhood. 

Sisterhood is not about liking women, it’s not about being best friends with every woman you meet. I met some women in these meetings who I couldn’t stand! Instead, sisterhood is about creating a space or a world where women’s voices are heard, listened to – really listened to – and respected. 

In these women only spaces, I found myself laughing with women who were ten years younger and forty years older than me. I found myself crying as we shared painful stories, and as I told painful stories myself. I found myself listened to, and heard. 

In those meetings, I discovered the importance of women-only space in creating an environment where all the women speaking had a shared experience of oppression, and where all the women speaking were equal and valued. 

Now, sometimes men would come to the meetings. Mostly these men were lovely. Kind, sensitive, “feminist” – but also filled with male privilege. And I started to realise how different the dynamic was when men were present. Collectively, the women in the room listened to men more. We privileged their voices. We looked to them to be the voice of wisdom and sense. 

This was not something these men consciously demanded from us – far from it. But it was something that occurred because as women, we have been raised from day one to defer to men. We have been educated to put men’s voices first. And it is hard to erase 25 years of patriarchal training to shut up and listen to him, even when you are in a feminist meeting. 

That was my first lesson in why we needed women only space. The second was from a story my friend told me about a meeting she had to go to with a cabinet minister, to talk about women’s rights in conflict zones. The minister arranged for the meeting to take place in his “club”. Yes, a male only club, like the ones you read about in Georgette Heyer novels. My friend had to get permission to enter. 

It was a lightbulb moment for me. For years, I had heard people tell me that women only feminist space was exclusive and excluded men. But in one flash, I realised that the centres of power in this country – the boys schools, the bullgindon club, the golf clubs, the gentleman’s clubs, they were male only spaces that consciously and legally excluded women. The places where the decisions were made, where the men talked, where the men made connections, where the men ruled – all of these were set up to deliberately exclude women. And no one was really talking about it. Whereas men were up in arms at women daring to come together in women only spaces to talk about rape, they were strangely silent about men coming together in male only spaces to talk about laws around rape. 

This is hugely important. If you want to speak to a cabinet minister about including women in conflict resolution in their own countries, as my friend was doing, and to have that meeting you have to go to a place that absolutely excludes women, something is very, very wrong. 

This was when I realised why women only space is so threatening to men. And threatening is the word – if it wasn’t threatening we wouldn’t have to spend so long explaining why we want it, justifying why we want it, and being forced to give it up because we’re ‘discriminating against men.’ Women only space is threatening because men know that male-only spaces are spaces of power. They’re the spaces where men make the decisions that govern society. Women only spaces are spaces where women are creating their own power. 

Because women-only space is empowering – for all of those reasons of sisterhood I explained before. It’s empowering in the real, true sense of the word, because it creates a space where we have an equal and valued voice. 

So that’s how I made the journey from mixed to women-only space. Since my light bulb moment, it’s one I’ve become more convinced by – having had the infuriating experience of being told by men who identify as feminists that I need to shut up, sit back, read more books, or being told ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’. I need a space that is free from male privilege, where women can share their experiences and self-organise and be empowered. 

Sisterhood has been the most important thing to me since becoming a feminist. As I said, sisterhood is not about liking every woman you meet. But it is absolutely about feeling that women’s voices can and must be heard. It is about recognising common experiences of oppression whilst valuing and talking about how intersectionality means that different women experience oppression differently. And it is about coming together, and creating our own, empowered spaces, having been locked out of the centres of power for so long. 

After all, as Robin Morgan so wisely said, SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL!!!!!