Monthly Archives: September, 2020

QotD: “Misogyny is much more than a wolf-whistle”

Reece Thompson broke his girlfriend’s jaw with an iron bar, smashed a mirror over her head and, during a three-day ordeal, made her lick up paint. He was jailed for 40 months for GBH and given a ten-year restraining order. The first time he was released, he joked on Twitter about the attack on Danielle Thomas and was re-imprisoned. The second time, he was signed by Selby Town FC.

Would a club have blithely awarded a “second chance” to a 26-year-old former youth player if these offences were racially motivated or a homophobic attack? The odds, I’d wager, are slim. (And rightly so.) Thompson’s offences would bear the additional weight of being hate crimes. But doing them to a woman? Well, it’s pretty bog-standard stuff. Only after a monumental outcry did the club’s bosses change their minds.

The Law Commission, in a consultation launched this week, is proposing that misogyny also become a hate crime. It suggests that sex/gender (the two words being used interchangeably these days) be added to the protected characteristics of race, religion, trans identity, sexual orientation and disability. Before the harrumphing begins about builders being banged up for wolf-whistling — they won’t be — let’s step back and consider why misogyny has been omitted from this list for so long.

Every year in parliament Jess Phillips reads the names of women killed by an ex or current male partner. All these Jessicas, Yasmins and Enids strangled, stabbed or bludgeoned by men they once loved. One woman every two days: around 150 a year. The number never drops. This grim recitation should be a call to arms, but has become a roll call. Men kill their wives and girlfriends across the world. It’s sad but normal. What can you do?

That annual list only exists because ten years ago the domestic violence campaigner Karen Ingala Smith, angry that femicides disappeared into general statistics, started counting. So, what if such killings were officially classified as misogynist hate crimes, along with sexual assaults, rape and domestic violence? It might be instructive for society if this staggering tower of misogyny — 1.6 million women experiencing domestic abuse in 2019 alone — was starkly visible? And before anyone cries “what about Rose West?”, men commit 98 per cent of sexual offences and 90 per cent of all violent crime.

As JK Rowling remarked about her own experience of domestic abuse, “female trauma is white noise”. It ranks way below racism or transphobia as the least significant abuse. For her views, Rowling was subjected to the most sustained misogyny since social media began. The fact that rape threats weren’t removed by Twitter only amplified her point.

Misogyny is the sea women swim in: it is the groping hand on the Tube, the Jimmy Carr rape jokes, the disgusting abuse suffered by every woman MP from Diane Abbott to Theresa May. It comes from both straight and gay men, from all generations, from both left and right. It is so prevalent that women often ignore it with a shrug. Can something so “natural”, so universal, really be wrong?

So let’s come to wolf-whistling builders. They’ll be fine. Misogyny would only apply to existing crimes, which cat-calling is not, although contractors discourage it anyway in modern codes of conduct. Rather, Nottingham police, one of seven forces in a pilot scheme, classified misogynist hate crimes as those “targeted at women by men simply because they are women”. These included stalking, sexual harassment and upskirting.

Researchers analysing data found that officers took offences with a hate dimension more seriously and victims were more likely to press charges. It often enabled women to discuss other crimes they had not considered reporting before.

“Misogyny,” says Helen Voce, of Nottingham Women’s Centre, “is the soil in which violence against women grows.” Women are rarely killed in one-off “red mist” attacks, but after a slow escalation from degrading public remarks to stalking and coercive control. If early low-level abuse is classified as misogyny, police will be better equipped to see a pattern and keep women out of danger.

Misogyny is a reliable bellwether for other serious crimes. Terrorists from the Westminster Bridge attacker Khalid Masood, to Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who drove a truck on to the crowded Promenade des Anglais in Nice, were first domestic abusers. As Nazir Afzal, the former chief crown prosecutor, has noted: “The first victim of an extremist . . . is the woman in his own home.”

The key impediment to it becoming a hate crime is how it will be defined when there is no legal definition of “hostility” — with the CPS adopting dictionary definitions; for example, prejudice, unfriendliness, spite. If calling someone a racial epithet for cutting you up at the traffic lights is a “hate incident” what about screaming that a woman is a “filthy whore”?

The chief concern of lawyers in the field of violence against women is that pursuing low-level abuse will give police “easy wins” and come at the expense of tough investigations. Especially given how rape convictions and prosecutions in England and Wales have fallen to a record low.

Until recently, I’d have opposed misogyny becoming a hate crime on the grounds that there’s too much of it. Would police have time to do anything else? But look into the lives of any of those 150 dead women, read about the unreported incidents which foretold their deaths. Then tell me, if making your battered, bleeding girlfriend lick up paint isn’t a hate crime, what is?

Janice Turner

QotD: “The German medical students who want to learn about abortion”

Abortion has been available throughout Germany since the 1970s but the number of doctors carrying out the procedure is now in decline. Jessica Bateman meets students and young doctors who want to fill the gap.

The woman at the family planning clinic looked at Teresa Bauer and her friend sternly. “And what are you studying?” she asked the friend, who had just found out she was pregnant, and wanted an abortion.
“Cultural studies,” she replied.

“Ahhh, so you’re living a colourful lifestyle?” came the woman’s retort.

Bauer sat still, hiding her rage.

Stressed-out by the discovery of her accidental pregnancy, Bauer’s friend had asked her to book the appointments needed to arrange an abortion.

It wasn’t just a case of calling her friend’s GP to arrange a time for her to request a termination.

First she needed to arrange a counselling appointment, which is designed to “protect unborn life”, as German law puts it, and discourage a woman from going ahead with the procedure. Some of the clinics providing the service are run by churches – Bauer took care to avoid them, fearing that they would be judgemental.

Then she needed to hunt down a doctor who could prescribe pills for an early medical abortion. It became legal last year for doctors to publicise the fact that they provide abortions but they cannot indicate what kinds of service they provide, so Bauer had to call medical practices one by one.

“Berlin is a liberal city, so I thought it would be easier than it was,” she says.

“Even when we went to get the pill, the doctor’s assistant kept asking, ‘Are you really sure?’ Seeing what my friend had to go through, and how she was treated, made me so angry that I decided to do something about it.”

Bauer was a third-year medical student at the time, so a few days later she emailed Medical Students for Choice Berlin, run by students at her university, telling them she wanted to start volunteering. She now works with them, campaigning for improved training on abortion for medical students, and raising awareness of the obstacles that [women] seeking an abortion may face.

Although Germany is widely perceived as a liberal country, its reproductive laws are surprisingly restrictive. Abortion isn’t actually legal – it’s just unpunished up to 12 weeks from conception, providing the woman has undergone the counselling session, followed by a waiting period of three days.

For this reason abortion hasn’t been taught at medical schools, and there is a shortage of doctors performing the procedure as a result.

In some parts of Germany women have to travel long distances to reach a clinic where abortions are carried out. In 2018 more than 1,000 crossed into the Netherlands, where the process is simpler and the time limit is 22 weeks. Some doctors also commute from Belgium and the Netherlands to carry out abortions in northern German cities such as Bremen and Münster.

Medical Students for Choice Berlin is trying to address the difficulties faced by women seeking an abortion by holding papaya workshops, where the procedure is carried out on the tropical fruit. Its size makes a handy stand-in for a human uterus, and its seeds are vacuumed out to demonstrate how the foetus may be removed. The idea is to get students in touch with the topic, and to encourage them to pursue specialist training after finishing their undergraduate course.

The group was founded in 2015 by Alicia Baier, who says she only found out about the difficulties faced by women seeking an abortion by chance, at a conference during her fourth year of medical studies.

“It’s a taboo subject and no-one talks about it, so most people don’t know about the access problems until they actually need to get an abortion themselves,” she says.

She then discovered that most doctors performing abortions in Germany are in their 60s and 70s and are due to retire soon. “They’re the generation that experienced the past fights for women’s rights,” she says. “They became politicised. But the younger generations never learnt how to do it.”

Baier got in touch with a US group called Medical Students for Choice, which explained that papayas can be used in demonstrations. “They even posted the tools for us to use,” she adds. A lecturer then connected her with some gynaecologists who could host the workshops. “They said to me, ‘We’ve been waiting so long for students like you!'”

Continue reading here

‘Vaginal bleeding in post-menopausal women is cancer of the uterus until proven otherwise’

QotD: ‘If you find it problematic, you’re the problem’

It’s weird, given how many magazines I used to plough through, that I’ve never forgotten this one piece. Even my recollection of Smith’s particular pose for the photograph was correct. I guess that no matter how hard I tried to persuade myself otherwise, there was still something about it that creeped me out. Embedded in it is what I might now think of as groomer logic. It takes things that you might find exploitative or harmful and presents them as normal or even positive; it takes advantage of the fact that you haven’t yet got the vocabulary or conceptual framework to articulate your discomfort; it alienates you from those who might validate this discomfort (the faux ‘outraged’); it confuses you by insisting rules that might apply elsewhere — don’t rape teenagers — don’t apply in this particular case. Above all it makes you feel like a massive idiot for still having that feeling, deep in your stomach, that things aren’t okay.

There’s something of this I see in the backlash to the backlash to the film Cuties (Mignonnes). Having criticised the marketing and one of the scenes on twitter, I felt I had to watch it “to be fair” (which is annoying, since had I not been offended, I might have overlooked it completely). And, to be even more fair, I thought the vast majority of the film was brilliant. The actresses are superb and it somehow manages to depict the viciousness of female friendships without resorting to crass “girls are just bitches” tropes. I’d have liked to see even more of the friendships. More friendships and fewer close-ups of gyrating bodies.

To be clear, the “bad” clips from the film circulating on social media show most — but not all — of the unpleasant scenes. There’s a point (I was about to say how many minutes from the end, but then thought, no, don’t make looking it up that easy) where you suddenly think “hang on, why are they filming it this way? It was fine up to now!” Yes, there is a point to be made: little girls simulate pornified performances from popular culture without fully understanding what they are doing. But it is surely possible to film this in a way that does not replicate the production values and principles of pornography. The close-ups are excessive and it is frankly jarring in a film that spends so much time conveying the perspective of the main character, Amy, to suddenly find yourself watching from the viewpoint of a dodgy porn consumer. And yes, that may be the intent — see how this girl, who you know is so human, is now just an object! See how you, the viewer, are made complicit in her objectification! But intentional or not, this is harmful.

I am conscious of how much of a twat you sound when you start declaring certain artistic productions “harmful”. Ooh, hark at Mary Whitehouse over there! Get you and your moral panic! This has been the tone of much of the response to the original criticism of Cuties. The Telegraph’s review declares it a “provocative powder-keg for an age terrified of child sexuality”, insisting that “Netflix’s controversial French import is disturbing and risqué because that’s exactly what it aims to be”. Meaning, if you find it problematic, you’re the problem (because obviously, sexually objectifying children is exactly the same as recognising that children will wish to explore their own sexuality. As opposed to, I don’t know, being the exact opposite).

Then again, the issue might not be that you’re a prude; it might just be that you’re stupid. Alyssa Rosenberg declares that “if conservatives [because all critics must be ‘conservatives’] who have jumped on the debate over #Cuties, want to be taken seriously as cultural arbiters, they have to be able to talk about the *text* of a movie like this in an honest, responsible way”. Ooh! The TEXT! As though having a problem with close-ups of pre-teens humping the floor isn’t enough. As though saying so out loud reveals you to be shallow, lacking in learning, too dumb to grasp the broader message. As though, like some moron who never even noticed that FHM and Loaded sexism was, like, totally ironic sexism, you’re just too thick to differentiate between the thing in itself and a critique of said thing (what with both things looking exactly the same).

I’m not saying the question of “how do you produce a criticism of X without replicating X” is an easy one to answer. I’m put in mind of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Marti Noxon’s To The Bone, both of which fall down by assuming the answer is “it’s criticism because I say so”. Yes, in its extreme misogyny and violence American Psycho “holds a hyper-real, satirical mirror up to our faces” but really, this is something the reader will have already worked out about a quarter of the way in. Only the book goes on and on, and it kind of has to, because nihilistic repetition is part of the point, innit, and oh look, you’re at one of the ‘women being raped and tortured’ bits again and yes, maybe as a cultural event (ahem) the book would otherwise fail. Part of the genius of American Psycho is that it is so unremitting, yet the misogynistic fantasies aren’t any less misogynistic because of this. The narrative rhythm depends on Patrick Bateman tearing women to pieces and fucking their corpses, then listing men’s toiletries and pondering the work of Whitney Houston or Huey Lewis and the News. It’s clever, yes, but it’s also hate-filled. It’s higher art but if you can get in a tizz about Blurred Lines, you might also want to question the impact of books like this.

Meanwhile the film To The Bone tells the story of an anorexia sufferer, played by Lily Collins, who lost a significant amount of weight for the role. I reviewed the film when it was released and felt that, had I still been suffering from anorexia, I’d have found it dangerous. What struck me was that Collins — herself a former sufferer — wasn’t performing starvation. She was literally starving, just as the girls in Cuties are literally thrusting for the cameras. To me, this is unjustifiable. There are times when the gap between being and critiquing is unclear, but this is not the case with American Psycho, To The Bone or Cuties. There is no gap at all.

Anyhow, that’s enough on the complex tension between artistic intent and the uncontrollable demands of a fluid audience . What really pisses me off about those defending the pornified scenes in Cuties is the intellectual snobbery, the way in which it’s suggested that those who raise concerns about child safeguarding are just incapable of grappling with the complex socio-cultural themes of the oeuvre. I totally agree that Cuties explores some fascinating themes. I’m just guessing that those who fast-forward to particular scenes in order to do particular “things” aren’t particularly arsed about those. I don’t think anyone sits down to “focus on” those scenes then thinks “hang on, there’s a broader message here about the immigrant experience and the way in which patriarchy is transmitted intergenerationally by women themselves and how social media blah blah blah”. The girls who are featured in these scenes have no control over how others respond to them and these scenes are out there, forever.

One of the aspects of Amy’s characterisation that I loved was that she’s the one who pushes things too far without realising what she’s doing, and while remaining the least dominant member of the group. It felt entirely relatable, yet I’ve never seen this dynamic portrayed so well before. This could so easily have been the story. It’s almost as though there’s a point at which Amy’s inner life, so beautifully portrayed, ceases to be considered interesting enough to hold its own. These actresses deserved better, so much so it is very tempting to stay quiet about the film’s bad parts (in much the same way that it is difficult for feminists to criticise any aspect of the sex trade without being told they are undermining sex workers. Industries which sexually objectify create their own human shields).

In recent years Mandy Smith — who divorced Bill Wyman at 20 — has become a born-again Christian and recommended raising the age of consent to 18. Speaking of her past, she has said “You are still a child, even at 16. You can never get that part of your life, your childhood, back. I never could” (so much for “acts much older than her 16 years”). One could argue that she is replacing one patriarchal regime with another (in much the way defenders of Cuties have tried to use the film’s exploration of different forms of patriarchal control to defend its explicit scenes). In any case, it seems clear to me that the ‘outraged’ were onto something all along.

Newspapers today might not salivate over “wild children” as they did in the eighties; they wouldn’t get away with it. Still, I don’t find it hard to imagine a similar phenomenon being repackaged by Teen Vogue as “teen girls exploring their sexuality”. It is very easy to shame people out of expressing misgivings (you’re prudish, you’re immature, you’re stupid, you’re in league with the Christian Right). But things that are done to bodies can’t be undone. Young girl goes for it. There is so much spirit in girls. We shouldn’t be crushing it while claiming to celebrate it.

Glosswitch, full article here