Oct 25, 2011

Portable safe spaces and occupying the occupation

Occupy the World is fantastic. It is wonderful and inspiring and in 2,000 cities around the world. It is the first truly global popular protest movement, it's made up of dedicated and self-sacrificing people with the noblest and best intentions. It is not vague, it is not spoiled, it is not destructive. It's ace, OK?

But Occupy the World is, well, part of the world. And that means that it contains, in microcosm, a lot of what is bad about the world as it is. To whit: patriarchy[1].

Some people think that it's OK to use the occupations as a pick-up opportunity; or so at least they claim - personally I take Amanda Marcotte's view that they are threatened by politically active women and are trying to belittle them through objectification. Other people think - and have thought from Day One on Tahrir Square - that the bodies of women are theirs for the taking, that sexual violence is exempt from the demands for a better future. These people are often bolstered in their belief by organisers and sympathisers who pressure women to forgo the small aims of justice and safety for the greater aims of the movement[2].

More prosaically, I know of women who have been heckled, called gendered names, dismissed, silenced and intimidated at several of the camps. I'm sure this is endemic in most if not all camps, not because the people occupying are bad people, but because it is widespread and endemic in the world. Not entirely surprisingly, all of this[3] has added up to a somewhat subdued female participation rate in the Occupy movement.

This is not quite OK, as far as I'm concerned. What the heck point is it in changing the world for half the people, by half the people? If you're going to be like that, then it should be "we are the 48%", not "we are the 99%".

So, last Sunday, my friend Jess organised a Feminist Picnic at Occupy Bristol. We came, we ate, we sat in a friendly circle, we interacted with the occupiers and the public (it was an "open family day"), and coincidentally we had an impromptu discussion about pole dancing. The sun shone and all was well with the world.

For a while. Here is what is absolutely fascinating to me about how the day went: whenever the number of women around our particular little enclave of blankets and chairs dipped below about 6, shit started going down. I'm not saying it was some kind of continuous campaign of harassment, far far from it; a couple of people who were maybe not quite with it and had had a bit much to drink or in general might have issues that we should not judge them for behaved inappropriately and in an intimidating manner. But as soon as ranks closed, women joined, a circle was formed - nothing. Nada. Zilch.

In fact the very same person who was talking over 4 of us, telling us how "things are done here" and being aggressive and belligerent, when surrounded by 10 of us, was raising his hand patiently to seek consensus right to speak and making cogent and helpful suggestions.

The circle grew and shrank once or twice, and the dynamic repeated itself each time: more women, nice atmosphere; fewer women, aggro. Really basic, obvious dynamics that nobody can dismiss as paranoid feminists making stuff us and "choosing to be offended"[4].

We had a fascinating discussion about how to continue interacting with the movement - because we all support the movement wholeheartedly, and frankly most of us could probably teach some of the organisers a thing or two about hegemony, delegitmisation of protest and privilege - while not exposing individual women or small groups to situations in which they feel intimidated or dismissed. It's easy to say "toughen up", but given that not every one can do that, what's the solution? Forgo the support of all the non-Boudiccas, or create a safe space within the movement where all women can come and contribute their creativity and passion?

Exactly. So, we decided to conduct an experiment in "Carrying Our Safe Space With Us". Given that a critical mass of female presence seems to be, in and of itself, a deterrent to misogynist bullshit, we propose to ensure this critical mass by arranging group presence at the Occupy Bristol camp. The plan, in outline, is:

  • Convene at the camp on College Green between 6.30pm and 7pm on Thursday the 27th of October
  • Participate as observers and guests (with a right to speak of course, but no agenda) in the camp's General Meeting
  • Stay, as a group, until 9pm exactly, displaying a sign that says "Ask Us About Women in the Movement"
  • Leave as a group, with only those who feel comfortable at the camp remaining behind, if any

Then we'll see. It is by way of testing the waters: are we right that being in camp in the dark but as a group can feel safe? Can we actually all commit to a solid 2 hour attendance? Will our presence be seen as a provocation or as disrespectful engagement with the movement? Can we find a way of getting stuck in and helping out without "breaking the circle" of safe space we have imported with us? And most importantly of course, shall we continue doing this as a way of enabling women's participation in the Occupy the World movement?

I hope it works, I really do - because if it does, it offers such a simple and effective way of helping women penetrate all kinds of spaces that they have traditionally been excluded from. And not just women - any group that feels marginalised or intimidated out of a given milieu can try this "portable safe space" approach to increasing visibility without making undue demands on brave and self-sacrificing individuals to be the token representative, the first penguin in the water so to speak.

I read recently, can't remember where, that the selective sex abortion epidemic in places like China and India is a huge problem, because historically, whenever the percentage of women in the population falls significantly below that of men, they suffer increased oppression and violence. At first this seemed counter intuitive to me, but I realised that this is because it flies in the face of a major patriarchal lie and underpinning of a lot of our sexual politics: that women are a resource for which men compete, not agents in their own right participating in society.

Under the patriarchal view (much loved by MRAs and evo psych proponents), the fewer women there are in a population, the more "precious" they are, and the better they will be treated by supplicants eager for their favour. And this is really deeply embedded in our psyches, or we'd all realise straight away that all this male attention is, even in the best and most PC of circumstances, little more than sexual harassment: to take an example I'm familiar with, one gets catcalled, groped and propositioned way more in places like SciFi/geek/atheist/comics conventions and fan clubs than at events with a more even gender distribution like pop concerts or weddings.

There does seem to be a basic principle of strength in numbers here, and while I'll need to think about it a bit more before I can write a pithy concluding paragraph for this post, I'm going to try and see if I can make it work for me in the meanwhile!

Remember: 27/10, 6.30, College Green Bristol. Be there or be a rectangular thing!

[1] And some other things, too. In the UK at least, it seems to be very white, and disabled representation is low more or less everywhere as far as I can see. These are important and serious issues, but I am not qualified to comment on them, hence the focus on stuff I do know something about.

[2] To those people I say: please, find a new tune. Women have been making the sandwiches for men's revolutions since forever - if you really want to change the world, why you be making it stay the same, man?

[3] And a bunch of other stuff, too: concerns for personal safety from the public (one woman at Occupy Bristol has had drunk revellers climb into her tent at night), responsibility for children (running water and sanitary facilities are a problem at many occupations), a sheer inability to not work, and so on - including good old fashioned social conditioning. All of the usual stuff that hinders women's political participation, in fact.

[4] They can, and they will - but that's because they're assholes, not because they have a leg to stand on.

Oct 6, 2011

SlutWalk Bristol Speech

SlutWalk Bristol was held last Saturday, and it was a fantastic day! We had a great turnout and a very successful march through the sunny city centre, with the majority of people responding very positively to us and some even joining in!

Afterwards there was a rally on College Green (in the disapproving, no doubt, shade of Bristol Cathedral) and yours truly was tremendously excited and proud to give a speech at it! Below, what I said in full.


Rape is wrong. Rape is a terrible, devastating thing to happen to anyone, and an evil, cruel thing to do to anyone.

Everybody agrees about this - even the Daily Mail.

And yet, in the UK today and in much of the Western world, rape is basically legal.

Based on a 6-year average of the most reliable data, there are 94 thousand rapes in the UK every year. 94 thousand. Taking repeat victimisation into account - that is, women who suffer rape more than once in a given year - each year 55 thousand women are raped in the UK. That's one every six minutes.

In 2008, the last year for which I could get statistics, 922 people were convicted of rape. Think about that for a minute: 55 thousand raped. 922 convicted.

If someone rapes a woman, getting away with it is not a problem they even need to worry about.

They know she won't tell. About half of all rapes remain a secret forever because the women are too afraid or ashamed to tell anyone at all.

They know if she does tell, she very likely won't be believed, or will be dismissed or blamed.

So you have to be really unlucky to be punished for raping a woman in this country. Getting away with it is the default.

Frankly rapists should be more worried about getting cancer or being hit by a bus, because that is more likely than being put away for something that’s technically illegal, and supposedly a crime.

And we know it. We know rape is basically legal. We'd like to think it's not true, but deep down we all know.

We've all heard about the Dominique Strauss Khan case; a powerful, well connected white man accused of sexually assaulting a poor black working class immigrant. How many of us were surprised when the case against him was abandoned? We all knew in our heart of hearts that Nafissatou Diallo was not going to get justice.

We know that Diallo is being denied justice because her attacker is powerful. But is that what we are told? No. We're told by the very people whose job it is to uphold the law, and by the press and media, that it's her own fault for being allegedly a liar, or a criminal. More damningly, she has been ‘accused’ of having multiple sexual partners, and of being a sex worker. A slut.

Nafissatou Diallo, and thousands of other women, are being systematically denied justice because they are sluts. They get accused of being to blame for what happened to them. Of bringing it on themselves, or lying about it, or wearing the wrong clothes, or walking on the wrong street, or drinking the wrong type of drink.

A third of people in the UK think that a woman is partially or entirely to blame for being raped if she has been drinking, did you know that? That's a third. One out of every three people you live and work with would accuse you of being a slut if you were raped, and think it was your fault.

And why wouldn't they? From where they're sitting, it's obviously not the rapist's fault, right? It’s reasonable to expect crime to be punished, but with only 922 people of convicted of rape in one year, and still so many women raped? Well it has to be someone's fault, doesn't it? And so, they blame the victim.
What that means for the lives of women - for our lives - is that we are all sluts in waiting. As soon as something bad happens to us, there will be those people - amongst ourselves first of all, then among our nearest confidantes, then among the police, the crown prosecution service, and finally, if we ever get to court, the jury - who will see being raped as evidence for the fact that we are sluts.

Rape can happen to anyone - whatever we wear, wherever we walk, however we act. We no longer believe the fiction that rape only happens to bad girls as punishment for promiscuity.

We know that most women are raped by someone they know - someone they trust. Are we really expected to believe that someone we trust would rape us just because we wore the wrong length skirt?

No. Rapists rape because they want to rape. They rape because they enjoy the power of humiliating a woman and bending her to their will. They rape because they think they are entitled to women’s bodies and no one has a right to say no to them. They rape because they don’t respect women’s autonomy, and they rape because they believe – correctly – that they are invulnerable, and that there is little to no risk to them.

Because of course it’s the women they rape who get blamed for it. It's a pretty cosy set up, if you're a rapist. From a rapist's point of view, the world is a sweet shop full of women who will magically turn into sluts the minute he rapes them. Handy!

A culture in which people turn a blind eye to rape being legal is a Rape Culture. A culture in which people blame the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator is a rape culture.

A culture that condemns women’s natural sexuality by calling them sluts,

that seeks to limit their contraceptive freedom to punish them for having sex,

that seeks to withhold the life saving HPV vaccine from young girls because it might lead to them having safe enjoyable sex

that wants sex education to be suppressed or at best limited to discussion the negative consequences of free, consensual, pleasurable sex

that culture is a rape culture.

It is a culture in which a man forcing a woman to have sex against her will is less of a crime than a woman choosing to have sex freely and for pleasure – because doing so would turn her into a slut, and mean she will lose the right to protection if she is ever raped.

The bad news is that if women never have sex with anyone, if they’re raped they’ll still get blamed for it. The good news is that you might as well go out and have as much safe and pleasurable sex as you like, since it makes no difference in the end anyway.

The other good news is that rape culture is a culture we're not prepared to live in anymore!

That’s why Slutwalk has been such an infectious and successful idea: that is why we are here today. We are here to say, to ourselves if to nobody else: bullshit! The whole concept of slut is bullshit.

The idea that only sluts get raped is bullshit. The idea that men can't control themselves around women dressed in a certain way is bullshit.

Calling women names because of what they wear or who they sleep with is double and triple bullshit!

We're watching you, rape culture. We're on to you, and we're calling out your bullshit. And if you want to call us sluts for doing that? Well, that's bullshit too.

Thank you.