Tuesday, 2 February 2016

For Politics.co.uk: Why are abusive men like Floyd Mayweather still given a platform?

I wrote something for the lovely people at Politics.co.uk about celebrity men who abuse women, and why our society turns a blind eye to their violence.

It's called: Why are abusive men like Floyd Mayweather still given a platform?

Have a read.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

For Visual Verse: Cloud-Spotting

What's this? Fiction you say?

Yes indeed, I've a short story up on Visual Verse.

It's called Cloud-Spotting

The idea is you are given a picture to respond to in 50-500 words and you have an hour to do it.

Have a read!

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Book Diary 2016

Following on from 2015, 2014 and, ahem, 2012, I'll be keeping my Book Diary up this year.

Goals are to keep up the energy of Diverse December and read more diversely.

I'm also now the co-editor of the Read Women account, so you can expect lots of women's writing here as per usual. Some men do tend to slip in...!

And remember, if you want to add the books I've written to your own Book Diary, you can!

Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue

The Boys on the Bus

EVB Short Story Anthology

EVB Essay Collection

So. The Diary...

The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoir, Bryher: (new) I love Bryher. I've been fascinated by her for years. And yet apart from poems here and there, I'd never really read her. This is such a great memoir. She had an extraordinary life.

Margaret the First, Danielle Dutton (new): I'm reviewing this for 3am Magazine and it's excellent.

A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf (re read): like much of Woolf, I hadn't read this since university. It's so fascinating and depressing how much of it is true today - re women and poverty, lack of social mobility in the arts, and the devaluing of women's stories. It's definitely worth a re read if, like me, you read it when you were 19.

The Old Man and Me, Elaine Dundy (new): imagine my joy that the author of The Dud Avocado had written more than that! This is a pacy, blackly funny read with London all sordid and seedy and a heroine worthy of Sally-Jay.

Frenchman's Creek, Daphne du Maurier (re read): I love this book. I love it! I read it every year. And every time I wish the last page would be different. And it never is. I love the equality of their relationship.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Review: Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

I’ve never really read YA, not even when I was a YA myself. Except A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian, proving there is always an exception to any rule. 

So it was a real treat for my first proper YA experience to be the fantastic Beautiful Broken Things by my very clever friend Sara Barnard, published by Macmillan. 

There’s the disclosure: Sara is a friend of mine but I would be writing the following glowing review whether I knew her or not. Because this book merits it. 

The novel is told in the voice of Caddy, a teenager living in Brighton. Like most teens, she’s concerned with schoolwork, exams, parents and, of course, boys. But, in a refreshing twist from a lot of fiction aimed at teenage girls, boys are not the primary pre-occupation of this book. Female friendship is. 

Caddy’s best friend is Rosie. Although they don’t attend the same school, the pair are inseparable - doing everything together and calling or texting each other every evening to update on the day’s events. However, when the beautiful, cool and mysterious Suzanne starts at Rosie’s school, Caddy is worried that their close bond is under threat.

The exploration of this friendship triangle is the first reason why I love this book. Beautiful Broken Things is chiefly a wonderful and insightful portrayal into the complexities of female friendship during adolescence.

After all, when you’re in your teenage years, boys may come and go but your first real romance, the most intense relationship you have at that age, is with your best girl friend (hi Emily!). She’s the person you spend your spare hours with, the person you giggle hectically at nothing with, the person you curl up on the sofa watching movies with, the person you share every secret, insecure, sad and happy thought with. The best friend relationship between girls is such an intense and fairly universal experience that most girls share, and yet its importance is so often neglected on our cultural landscape (think how many books and films and TV shows are about the bond between young men. Not so many for girls, hence why Girls itself generated so many thinkpieces). I think this was one of the reasons why My Brilliant Friend by Ferrante was such a hit (and why we women know it could never have been written by a man!) - so many women were able to relate to the complex, messy and rewarding friendship between Lila and Lenu (reviewed here). 

In Beautiful Broken Things, Barnard has written a similarly beautiful portrayal of female friendship that will be instantly recognisable in all its loving, messy, resentful, difficult and ultimately sisterly complexity. 

Barnard cleverly portrays the seductiveness of Suzanne’s mad, wild recklessness to Caddy who is herself feeling fed up of being seen as the sensible ‘good’ girl who always gets her homework in on time and never skips class. She explores how difficult those teenage negotiations of identity can be, as we try and work out who we are, how we want to be and how we want to be seen. Through her friendship with Suzanne, Caddy gets to flirt with her more daring and dangerous side; she gets to try and stymie everyone’s expectations of her. That’s a highly intoxicating thing when you’re a teen - hell, it’s a fairly intoxicating thing now. 

Barnard’s exploration into these questions of identity and friendship are sensitively handled. She shows the highs of those moments of pushing our own boundaries, and pushing against the boundaries imposed upon us by school and parents - as well as the devastating lows when those experiments come crashing down, and the satisfaction of finding some kind of balance and resolution, of finding a way to be.

The interactions between Suzanne, Rosie and Caddy are wonderfully and genuinely written. Barnard has captured the love and warmth the protagonists feel for one another - from the silly jokes and teasing about school and boys, to the genuine and moving demonstrations of care for a friend in trouble or in need. Her characters are multi-faceted - Caddy is quite straight and sensible with a desperate desire to do more than what people expect of her; Rosie is confident and brash and yet has very real feelings of insecurity; Suzanne is mad, bad and dangerous to know but she's also full of warmth, heart and love for her friends. 

Because the characters are so very three-dimensional, the chats they have feel real - from the text message gossiping to the longer, more thoughtful and revealing conversations Suzanne and Caddy share when they sneak out to the beach and enjoy an illicit drink. Barnard is such a deft and skilful writer when it comes to portraying the lived experiences of teenage girls - she is never patronising, never talks down to her readers, and is fully emotionally invested in their world. It’s a skill that will ensure she has a dedicated and generous readership who will be thrilled to see their own inner-lives and emotional narratives reflected back to them. 

There is a second key theme running through Beautiful Broken Things and that is male violence and the aftermath of abuse - abuse suffered by Suzanne in her life previous to meeting Caddy and Rosie. 

And it’s that word ‘aftermath’ that matters here. So many books, from ‘misery memoirs’ to teen fiction, deal with the happening of abuse. Sometimes this is done in a respectful and educational way that seeks to reveal the horror and impact abuse can have on a young person (Once in a House on Fire springs to mind). Others linger on the wrong side of sensationalism. Few however, focus on what happens after the abuse - how one copes away from the abuser, how one integrates into a new life, a new setting, and how one deals with the lasting and often ever-present impact of that abuse. 

In Beautiful Broken Things, Barnard sensitively explores life after abuse. Through Suzanne, she shows the complexities of survival - the difficulties of finding new friends, relating to new carers, keeping a terrible secret, dealing with basic triggers, and the challenge of trying to create a new future where you are not defined by the trauma and horror of the past. 

Importantly as well, Barnard looks at how the impact of abuse plays out on the people around the survivor. By making the novel Caddy’s story, she explores the ripple effect of abuse - how the hurt done to Suzanne affects her friends and friendships, as well as her relationships to the adults in her life and to boys too. It’s so powerful to see the aftermath of abuse portrayed as it really is - abuse doesn’t end with a ‘rescue’ and the survivor riding into the sunset, it moves into a new phase of the survivor negotiating the past and the future and her relationships. 

There’s an honesty in showing how the happy ending just isn’t that simple; how the future is more complex than that moment of freedom, and that pain and abuse reach out and touch the lives of those around the survivor in frightening and in loving ways. 

This is a vital book for young women to read - and for those of us who remember what it was like to be a teenage girl, in love with the most important girls in your life. 

Beautiful Broken Things is available for pre-order now. 

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Sexual assault, and the dangers of Cologne's Code of Conduct

Yesterday, the news reported that on New Year’s Eve in Cologne nearly 1,000 men descended on the city centre and sexually assaulted dozens of women. Many women complained to the police, although from what we know about reporting rates we can surmise that the number of assaults was higher. We know that there was at least one rape. 

In the wake of the attacks, the Mayor of Cologne has issued a ‘code of conduct’. But this code of conduct is not, as one might assume, directed at men. It does not seek to remind men that groping, assaulting and raping women are crimes for which they will feel the full force of the law. It does not seek to remind men that it is illegal to violate a woman’s bodily autonomy. It doesn’t even bother to give a cursory reminder of the importance of consent. 

No, this code of conduct is focused on women. It aims to tell women how they had better behave should they want to avoid being groped, assaulted and rape. 

The code of conduct advises women to keep men at an arm’s length – something that is very difficult to do if a man has decided he is determined to grope, assault and attack you, as many women including myself can attest to. It reminds women to stick together with friends, and not to be near men who they don’t know and trust (never mind the fact that around 90% of women are raped or sexually assaulted by men known to them). To finish off her victim blaming nicely, the Mayor warned women to remember the potential dangers of drunken events

It’s shocking that in 2016, we are still hearing the same, tired messages that tell women it is up to us to change our behaviour to prevent rape and sexual assault. 

The code of conduct sends a clear message: that women are not entitled to the same freedoms as men. It tells us that while men can go out and enjoy their New Year’s Eve, women must follow a set of rules that we are falsely told will keep us ‘safe’. These victim-blaming attitudes restrict women’s freedoms – our freedom of movement and our freedom to occupy public space in the same ways men do. 

But it’s not just the impact victim-blaming messages have on women’s freedoms. The dangers are more extreme than that. Firstly, telling women to change their behaviour does nothing – absolutely nothing – to prevent male sexual violence. And secondly, the more we repeat the idea that women are responsible for preventing the violence committed against us, the harder it becomes for women to access justice. 

Let’s take that first point – that telling women to take ‘precautions’ will stop male violence. Well, we know this isn’t true. After all, we’ve been trying this tactic for decades and on average 85,000 women are raped in the UK every year and there are nearly half a million sexual assaults.  If telling women not to drink, not to walk home alone, not to wear short skirts was an effective way to stop rape, then we wouldn’t see these numbers. 

The reason victim-blaming prevention messages don’t work is because the responsibility for rape lies wholly and solely with the rapist. Although it might seem comforting to imagine that if women just did x, y or z then rape would go away, there is really nothing women can do to prevent rape. Our best way to reduce the number of rapes and sexual assaults is to educate men and women about consent, respect and our rights to our own bodily autonomy. Telling women that they can’t enjoy the same freedoms as men offers no solution. 

The victim-blaming narrative has other dangerous consequences: that the more we send out a message that it's up to women to prevent rape, the more we risk women’s access to justice. 

Today in the UK, only 6.5% of reported rapes end in a conviction and on average only 15% of rapes are reported. These devastatingly low numbers are inextricably linked to the idea that women are to blame for the rapes committed against them. 

It starts with reporting – women are less likely to report rape and sexual assault if they fear being blamed and disbelieved. Once in the courtroom, the rape myths that blame women and seek ways to absolve the perpetrator have an impact on juries. Research has found that jurors who hold stereotypical attitudes towards rape – stereotypes typified in Cologne’s code of conduct – are more likely to judge complainants harshly and defendants leniently. 

Victim blaming attitudes seriously impair women’s access to justice. They do nothing to stop rape, they don’t help lock sexual offenders up, and they restrict women’s freedoms in a way that entrenches gender inequality by tacitly denying women public space. 

So what should we do instead? Well, we could start by launching safety campaigns – such as this one in Bristol – that focuses on perpetrator behaviour. And we could encourage open and educational conversations about consent, respect and our absolute right to bodily autonomy. We could encourage training for police and the media in victim blaming and its repercussions, and put a stop to the police practise of ‘no-criming’ rape reports. 

We need to change the conversation. Blaming women and telling women to bear the responsibility for male violence isn’t working. So long as we keep falling back on this tired old method to ‘stop rape’, then we are doomed to failure. And that failure is coming at a huge, unacceptable cost to women. 

Need support? You can talk to Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999 

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Miss Universe and accusations of femmephobia

*sits back on rocking chair, puffs on pipe*

“In my day kids, femmephobia was what happened when you went to a gay bar in a dress and the bouncers questioned you about whether you knew what kind of place this was”

Okay, not strictly true, the term ‘femmephobia’ wasn’t invented when that was happening to me, but when I first came across this new word I thought that’s what it meant. 

But no! Turns out that femmephobia is the dislike/hatred/fear of traditionally feminine pursuits, such as pink, glitter, high heels, lipstick and being an angry, axe-wielding paid-up member of SCUM (only kidding on that last one). It’s the devaluing of the traditionally feminine, or deciding that the things that are associated with traditional femininity are a bit shit. To wit:

Long nails. Lace. Pink. Make-up. Dresses. Long hair. High heels.
I’ve noticed a trend in feminism that seeks to place these things as ‘lower’. As ‘less than’

Quoted here

 *sits back on rocking chair, puffs on pipe*

“In my day kids, that’s what we called sexism

Yes! Sexism – remember that? You know, the embodiment of a patriarchal society that positions gender as a hierarchy with men as a class on the top and women as a class on the bottom, all kept in place by violent misogyny? That’s the one! Sexism! 

It was sexism that decided the things associated with women and constructs of femininity were a bit shit – be it fashion and baking and crafts and care; and decided that careers associated with women should be paid less and valued less. Not femmephobia, but sexism. And sexism is the system that positions women as lesser than men, and violently keeps women there.

But apparently talking about sexism and patriarchy is so bo-ring and passĂ© and just a bit *whispers* second wave and the real devaluing of women’s work and pursuits is not sexism, anymore. No, it’s femmephobia! 

And who are the main femmephobics? Feminists! 

Yes, that’s right. Feminists who fight against the ways in which women are forced to conform to restrictive gender roles that cost both time and money; and those same feminists who fight against the ways women are violently punished for not conforming to those roles, these feminists are not fighting sexism, they're femmephobic. According to the femmephobic rhetoric, feminists are attacking women’s right to choose to embrace and profit from those repressive gender roles, rather than tackling the ways in which violent patriarchy represses and devalues women. 

Oh what brave new world is this; that has such people in it. 

Anyway. The reason I’m banging on about femmephobia is because after the Miss Universe mis-crowning debacle this weekend, I witnessed various women trying to defend the beauty pageant while slamming any criticism of it as ‘femmephobic’. To criticise Miss Universe et al as a sexist parade where women are valued by their ability to meet the Patriarchal Fuckability Test (PFT) was not seen as a criticism of our unequal society, but instead a femmephobic attack on women who want to take part in pageants. 

Well, I’m sorry, but that is just such bullshit

It’s not femmephobic to criticise an industry that teaches women that our true value, that the true measure of female success, lies in our ability to match up to beauty norms designed by and policed by men. It’s not femmephobic to criticise an industry that teaches women that we are objects to be judged, and are too often found wanting. It’s not femmephobic to criticise an industry that rewards women for being silent objects to be gawped at, rather than active agents valued for what we say and do. 

The problem with femmephobia is the problem of what happens when you ignore structural oppression and the feminist theory of patriarchy. It’s what happens when you drill everything down to individualism and choice, and blank out the fact we live in an unequal society where women are seen as lesser than men.

Let me elaborate. 

The accusations of femmephobia are based on the idea that any criticism of beauty pageants is a direct criticism of the women engaging in the competition. It’s the idea that if you criticise the industry, you’re saying that the women who take part in the industry are somehow wrong and should be judged. 

And yet, this is simply not true. There is a difference between critiquing an industry, a system of oppression, and mocking or deriding the women who are part of that industry or system of oppression. No one is saying that the women who perform in pageants are anything but lovely. No one is criticising individual women who, like all of us, are doing what they can to survive in an unequal and unfair society. 

We are criticising an industry – a structure – that teaches women that our worth is based on how we look, not how we do. 

Some of the defences of pageants I saw on Twitter yesterday just made me despair at how neo-liberal and blatantly capitalist these accusations of femmephobia can be. For example, one woman stated that we couldn’t critique pageants because they gave the winners money, career opportunities and a flat. 

Well yes, that’s great for the winner. And of course, in our unequal society, women are going to grab at whatever opportunities for survival we can. But how can it be right, how can it be feminist, to have a contest where women are judged to be worthy of these opportunities by a bunch of men who look like potatoes – men who have made a list of what they think a feminine woman should be? How can it be feminist to defend an industry where men get to decide who is and isn’t an acceptable female? 

It’s not femmephobic to say that an industry that treats women this way is simply not okay

It’s not an attack on the individual contestants to criticise an industry that values women as disposable objects with a sell-by date. 

Another argument I saw on Twitter was that to critique Miss Universe was to ignore the intersection of race and class with sexism. 

But again, this simply isn’t true. Miss Universe is pretty damn racist in its enforcement of western ideals of beauty. It’s not a coincidence that despite race and ethnicity most of the winners have more-Caucasian-than-not features. It’s not a coincidence that Donald Trump was in charge of the contest until recently. 

And in terms of class – well again, the problem lies in sexism and patriarchy. It’s patriarchy that means women are on a whole poorer than men. The solution then isn’t to tell women that they can achieve riches by entering a beauty competition. The solution isn’t deciding that women who meet the PFT are to be financially rewarded while their less attractive sisters can remain poor and denied opportunities. 

How is that fair? How is it feminist to say that in order for women to achieve success, they have to look and behave in a male-approved way? How is it okay to defend a structure that says it’s for powerful, fully-clothed men to decide a woman’s success based on how she looks in a bathing suit?

Again, where is the theory of structural oppression? What is this neo-liberalism, bootstrap-pulling nonsense? 

The issues around femmephobia are also echoed in the use of the term ‘whorephobia’ to silence criticism of the sex industry. Just as femmephobia positions feminists as criticising individual women within pageants etc. then whorephobia argues that feminists criticise the individual women engaged in the sex industry. 

But again, this is simply not true. Feminist arguments against the sex industry are not focused on hating the women within it, but are instead focused on damning the inequality that means the industry makes its money through the commercial sexual exploitation of women’s bodies. 

To argue that criticising the pageants industry is ‘femmephobic’ and criticising the sex industry is ‘whorephobic’ is basically the same as saying that anti-Tesco protesters who smashed up my old street are ‘checkout worker-phobic’. 

Of course they’re not. Whether their methods were questionable, they were criticising capitalism, not hating individual shop-workers.  

You have to ask who gains from this new language of femmephobia and whorephobia. Who gains from the replacement of an analysis of structural oppression with individualism? Who gains from ignoring the structures of patriarchy in favour of neo-liberalist choice rhetoric? 

It’s not women, that’s for damn sure. 

While feminists are silenced by accusations of femmephobia, patriarchy can get on with telling women that our value lies in how we look, not what we do. While feminists are silenced by accusations of whorephobia, patriarchy can continue sexually exploiting women’s bodies for profit. 

The issues women face today are not caused by femmephobia and whorephobia. The issues women face are not caused by feminists not liking pink, or apparently hating individual women within the sex industry (we don’t).

The issues all women face today are caused by a violently-enforced patriarchy where gender is a hierarchy that positions women as subordinate to men. 

And that patriarchy is not going to be defeated by a neo-liberalist approach that celebrates individual choice over everything else. It will only be defeated when we name the structures that oppress us, and take them on (preferably while wielding an axe in one hand, and a copy of SCUM Manifesto in the other).

Monday, 21 December 2015

Bristol Woman magazine interviewed me!

I recently did an interview with Bristol Woman magazine to tell them all about my children's book, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue (shop link).

It was really nice to talk to them about writing and children's books and the writing I'm doing now.

Read the full interview.

You can buy the book from Amazon, and other places.