Why life should not have an advisory role

It won’t surprise anyone to hear I am completely opposed to the views that Life subscribe too; that abortion is wrong in all circumstances. But this post isn’t about those views. This group has been chosen to advise government policy on sexual health; over BPAS and to the exclusion of all LGBT groups.

We elect politicians on the basis of their policy and views. I often disagree with those views, and will campaign against them, appealing to those politicians and their constituents. I will join lobby groups to help put pressure on politicians – lobby groups can be useful.

But I am absolutely opposed to lobby groups sitting on advisory boards. It is politicians’ job to have opinions. Advisory boards are there to provide expertise. BPAS and Marie Stopes are not lobby groups. They provide advice to women on all elements of sexual health, and access to all legal services. They are on the front line of service provision, and can advise on the facts of public health. They will continue in exactly the same role whatever government policy is. People can visit them and know they will be listened to and given tailored advice.

Life on the other hand are a campaigning organisation. Yes, they provide advice. But you know that rather than listening to your personal circumstances, they have a stated aim of reducing the number of abortions. If abortion was made illegal, Life would no longer have a reason for existing. They have every right to lobby MPs and policy makers. But they should not have a policy role.

The role of the advisory board is to provide government with a consensus of the facts and actualities of an issue. Including Life means that the board will not be able to provide a consensus for policy makers to draw opinions from. This is not including another view (a view already well represented in parliament), this is in effect side-lining all advice, so that government can make legislation purely based on their own ideology, ignoring the facts of real life.

And from a government that is continually showing it’s misogynistic views of women, refusing to listen to any neutral voice should be something all women are very worried and angry about.


Educating our politicians

Lets start here – Rape is rape. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we need to remind our politicians of this very simple fact.

Firstly, to Nadine Dorries:  A victim of sexual abuse is a victim. Not someone who should try saying “no”.

And secondly, to Kenneth Clarke; whatever else you meant or didn’t mean, please NEVER again use the phrase “forcible rape”.

So, to the Dorries’ comment.  She is trying to justify her comments by saying that her abstinence for girls campaign will help prevent the sexualisation of children.  I really couldn’t disagree more.  There are many studies which prove that abstinence-only policies increase levels of teen STIs and pregnancies.  But even if you really believe in abstinence, why is it that only girls should say no?  I hardly think her intention is to get the boys being sexual only with each other.  Couples don’t have sex because dirty girls finally “give in”.  This idea that girls are less sexual than boys is wrong.  It’s teaching girls that women shouldn’t enjoy sex, it’s something they just have to do to keep boys happy.  Which is unhealthy, and hardly going to discourage sex – if you want a boyfriend, he’ll want sex and you’ll have to give it to him.  And then there’s the deeply offensive idea that all men want sex – even children.  When Dorries is teaching female child-abuse victims to say no, what happens to the male victims of abuse?  Do male victims not exist in Dorries world, or are they just not important?

Abstinence is a damaging policy.  Female-only abstinence is ridiculously flawed and very offensive.  Positive sex education doesn’t sexualise children, it helps young people prepare for adult relationships together.  It helps young women and young men realise when they are ready for sexual relationships, and when they are not.  It doesn’t encourage sexual behaviours, it helps young people recognise sexuality and negotiate sexual behaviours.  A lot of the time, this will involve deciding no – and both parties realising that no means no.

And on to Ken Clarke.  I’m pleased he clarified his comments and stated clearly that “rape is rape”.  Rape happens when a man has sex with a woman against her will. Creating a special “forcible rape” suggests that some rapes aren’t forced.  If you knew your attacker – still rape.  If you were unable to say no because you were drugged or unconscious – still rape.  If an adult has sex with someone under the age of 13 (and not 15 as he said in his interview) – still rape.  If you froze with fear and didn’t fight back – still rape.   Whichever way you start categorising rapes it doesn’t work.  Rape is rape.  STOP THERE.

And the thing that links these two comments?  These are two members of our parliament.  Supposedly representing us, and making our laws.  These comments are not only stupid and offensive, they are also really very frightening.  Especially as the government haven’t distanced themselves from these comments.  Just as the education minister was kept on after blaming feminism for preventing men attending university, we have a Justice Minister keeping his job who doesn’t know or understand rape.  We have a government happy to turn a blind eye to any misogynistic clap-trap that comes it’s way.  Each week we get another of these insane comments, and we’re accused of “over-reacting” or “selectively editing”.  Which might ring true the first time (or not).  But this consistent pattern is wrong.


Why I’ll be at Slutwalk London

Whichever way you look at it, I am a slut – I’m living with a guy I’m not married to, and cleaning my bathroom rarely gets to the top of the priority list. Yet there’s something about saying I’ll walk under the slut-banner that is really uncomfortable.

It’s a nasty word, that sums up some really nasty attitudes towards women. There’s been a lot of arguments that we shouldn’t be reclaiming the word. That rape crisis counsellors have had people making jokes about how “they knew rape victims were sluts really”. But we can’t just ignore this word. I personally, wouldn’t want to use it. But if by reclaiming the word, we can stop society using it, that is a really strong motivation.

I’m also horrified at how many comments and how much victim-blaming has been uncovered by the popularity of Slutwalks. Jessica Valenti has brought together many of the comments, and @SantaEvita has written a great post about why you can’t compare rape to car crashes – preventing rape is not as simple as just wearing your seat belt.

Firstly, exactly what is “dressing like a slut”? Short skirt and tight top? Except lots of men like a bit of mystery. Or formal attire, or maybe knee-high boots. And there’s that famous case of a judge throwing a rape case out as the rapist couldn’t possibly remove tightly fitting jeans without the victim’s assistance. So basically, we need to wear long baggy clothes. Kind of like a burka. Except, rape happens in arabic countries where women are wearing burkas, and rape is still the victim’s fault and she is punished for adultery. How exactly should we dress to prevent rape?

And then, there’s the idea that otherwise good men will be driven so crazy by this glimpse of flesh that they just have to rape. I know plenty of men who have managed not to rape women, whatever they’re wearing.  Ben Pobjie has written a wonderfully useful 7 point guide showing men how not to be a rapist.  Rape isn’t because men just can’t help themselves.  Rape victims shouldn’t be told to feel flattered that someone wanted to rape them, or guilty that they led him on.  Rape is a violent crime.  Last year, a young man was walking home, was attacked and had a paving slab dropped on his head.  The press weren’t asking what he was wearing, or how come he was walking on his own anyway.  No, they were talking about the horrific nature of the unprovoked violent assault.   There is no other crime where people are so preoccupied with checking the victim wasn’t at fault.  If you report a mugging, you’re not told “well, it’ll be your word against the mugger.  Are you sure you didn’t just give him your handbag?”.  If you tell your neighbours you were burgled, they won’t be thinking “well, I did see that you left your window open last week”.

The Home Office stats on rapes actually show that the two factors that make you most vulnerable to intimate assaults are being disabled or long term sick, or having recently ended a relationship.  Women can’t protect themselves from rape by behaving modestly.  Rape is not the fault of the victim.

And this is why Slutwalk is so important.  By using the word slut, and all it’s connotations, society is keeping the discourse of rape focused on blaming victims.  And by suggesting that rape victims aren’t really victims, it makes it easy to justify removing funding from and closing rape crisis centres.  When actually, the criminal justice system is failing victims on a consistent basis.  The policeman who made the comment that started the Slutwalk movement is based in Toronto.  But I’m sure (from all the comments I’ve seen) that some UK policemen would agree with him.  That judges still allow a woman’s sexual history to be brought up as “context” in trials.  That victim’s compensation is reduced if a woman has been drinking.

The way that society deals with rape and views victims with suspicion is wrong.  Which is why I’ll be joining the London Slutwalk.


Being a good wife isn’t my idea of fighting the recession

The announcement from Clarence House that Catherine Wales (aka Kate Middleton) is going to be an ordinary RAF wife did wind me up somewhat.  For most of the last century, women have been fighting against the use of “wife” as a job title.  It’s completely meaningless – relationships are personal and are suited to fit each couple.  And even within the strict confines of the military, there’s still no such thing as an “ordinary” wife.

But it is her marriage and her life, and so I don’t really feel justified in being angry about this.  But I am angry about the reactions to this.  That somehow this has become a new stereotype to be celebrated.  Guess what girls, we don’t all need to be Katie Price anymore, we can be Kate Middleton instead.  Yippee!

Except I don’t actually see that much difference.  They both seem to have built a profile based around their looks.  Their big leap into the spotlight came through a high profile marriage.   Women’s Views on News points out, Kate Middleton’s style could help stem the passion for “hooker style”, but apart from elegance probably being better for self-esteem than plastic surgery, what is the benefit for women from this change?

The passion for Kate Middleton over Katie Price really isn’t doing women any favours.  As role models go, it’s still teaching young girls that the most important you can do is stay skinny and look perfect.  Or that the University is a good way to get a respectable Mrs which is much more useful than a BSc.  And that women are defined by the men in their lives.

Well none of the things I aspire to involve my appearance or my choice of husband.  So it really doesn’t matter to me whether my role-model is surgically-enhanced or elegant.  And the media’s continuing passion for a woman’s place being in the home is really scary.  In the 1980s recession, women were breaking glass-ceilings and ruling the country.  Love her or loathe her, no-one could forget that Maggie was PM.  As the country re-built after WW2, women started taking the pill and divorce from unhappy marriages became possible.  After WW1 women got the vote and started gaining rights to own property.  For centuries, as hard times struck, women fought hard for themselves and for society, and took huge leaps forward.  And yet, here we are in dire circumstances, and women are being ushered back into the domestic sphere.

We are living under the most patronising government I can remember.  The proposed married couple’s tax breaks are based on sharing the tax allowance, so that one of the couple can stay home.  The education minister blames feminism for the lack of working class men in universities.  The Prime Minister tells a woman MP to “calm down dear”.  Women are nearly invisible in responsible posts on both sides of the House of Commons.    Senior figures in business are coming out in favour of not hiring women because y’know, they don’t really concentrate on work as they’ve other priorities, and they’ll probably be going off to have babies soon anyway.  Just how long will it be before it’s suggested that a way to full employment for men is for those pesky women to get out of the workplace?

And we’re supposed to see it as a good step forward that we’ve another glamorous wife as our role model?


I think people should get a sense of humour

“I think people should get a sense of humour”.  Listening to David Cameron on the radio first thing in the morning on the first day back from all those lovely bank holidays was bound to raise my blood pressure somewhat.  But this one phrase really got to me.  At the end of an interview about something else, Cameron was posed the question about whether he now regretted his “Calm down dear” comment.  Given the benefit of hindsight, taken out of the heat of the moment, realising the hurt and anger he had caused, did he regret it?  No, he thinks people “should get a sense of humour”.

This accusation is hurled at feminists so often, and yet it is really hard to fight.  We’re being “over-sensitive” or “over-emotional”.  We’re making too much of something – reading things into the comment that don’t exist.  But context is everything with a joke.  Stereotypes can sometimes be funny.  People can ridicule themselves to show up problems in society.  I don’t personally get it, but jokes can sometimes be deliberately offensive and push boundaries.

So why am I so angry about David Cameron’s comments?  It’s the context in which they were made.  Cameron was standing amongst a government made up almost entirely of white, wealthy, privately educated men.  A government that is making cuts that have been shown to disproportionately hurt women.  A government where the education minister blamed feminism for the failure of young working class men to get to university.

And in this context, he made a “joke”, parodying a comment from a comedian known to be misogynistic (if in any doubt, take a look back at the attack Winner launched on @VictoriaCoren encouraging his followers to tweet sexist abuse at her), using a line known for being a patronising put down for hysterical women.  So a car insurance company thought it would be good for sales to resurrect this line?  “Yes, I’ve crashed into your car, but I’m famous and can afford to pay for the repairs.  Any inconvenience you suffer is inconsequential to me”.  It was a ridiculous campaign, but it is worse to make a joke of it in parliament because David Cameron is our Prime Minister.   This wasn’t banter.  If he had told an opposing MP to “shut up” he would have been called on to apologise.  And yet there has been no official come back from this.  Angela Eagle has responded well, responsibly and cleverly, pointing out that the comment was symptomatic of this government’s problem with women.  But no-one has officially called Cameron to account for this remark.  When a crude”joke” about a Welsh MP was made, the offending member was called on by the speaker to apologise.  And this hasn’t happened in this case.

David Cameron, the government, and in fact all of parliament don’t see what was wrong with this comment.  They don’t see that patronising women is wrong.  David Cameron blames this on “Punch and Judy” politics, which he “gave up trying to change many years ago.”  Our system is designed to be combative.  But there’s another problem here.  Punch and Judy wasn’t an equal fight.  Judy was the punching-bag.  Judy had to take a beating while protecting her children, and wait for a policeman to turn up and rescue her.  And there isn’t anyone to take a protecting role in parliament.   We rely on both sides to consider the best interests of us all.

Patronising and denigrating women helps persuade voters and selection committees that women aren’t up to the strains of “punch and judy” politics.   This comment has damaged the reputation of parliament, and has caused harm.  David Cameron probably at the time thought he was just being funny, as this kind of patronising comment is fairly common from him.  But now that it has been pointed out to him that the comment was wrong, why won’t he retract it?  Why won’t he apologise?

He is hiding behind a feeble excuse, that anyone who doesn’t find this funny just doesn’t have a sense of humour.  The only way to fight this criticism is to explain why something isn’t funny, and is offensive.  And yet Cameron has just ignored this explanation, refusing to listen.  This arrogance is dangerous, and symptomatic of the way this government behaves.

So where does this leave women in politics?  In a precarious position.  Which really isn’t funny.