All in Row Review – representing autism on stage

I’ve spent longer than usual ruminating on this one. There is so much to unpack and I want to do my best to do it all justice. This is a longer read. So buckle up!

First of all I’m not an autistic person. I have not experienced this hostile world from an autistic perspective nor have I faced the discrimination or prejudiced that many of my autistic friends will have.

I am, however, a mother to two wonderful autistic daughters with learning disabilities and auntie to two autistic nephews with additional needs.

Professionally I am a theatre maker with a specific interest in theatre for young people and extensive experience working with people with learning disabilities and autistic people. I have also been privileged to have worked alongside a range of brilliant autistic adult artists and academics.

As a playwright I have just written and we are about to record an audio drama podcast about Judy Fryd who founded mencap, in response to the lack of support she received for her daughter Felicity who, if she’d been born now rather the in 1938 would probably have been diagnosed as autistic.

As a neurotypical person I will never be an expert on autism but, both professionally and personally, I have knowledge about autism, learning disabilities and neurodiversity and a vested interest in these topics.

Many of you will have seen the #puppetgate controversy in response to Alex Oates play All In A Row at the Southwark playhouse. The play tells the story of a family with an autistic son Lawrence who is violent and his parents as they spend their last night together before their he moves away to residential school. The main focus of people’s objections to the play was that 11 year old autistic Lawrence was represented by a puppet.

Some people seemed to suggest that the playwright, who I understand had worked extensively with autistic children and their families, was not allowed to tell this story. This bothered me. As a writer, I regularly write characters whose stories are worlds away from my own. I do this by researching a lot and listening a lot.  I think it’s my job to tell a range of stories from a range of perspectives. This doesn’t mean that I would stand in the way of someone more qualified or experienced to tell my story but I definitely think that I should be allowed to write beyond my own experience.

From what I read most of the people who objected had not seen the play. I felt uncomfortable about this. I can think of plenty of examples of theatre where a puppet has more humanity than an actor. Without really understanding the intention of this decision or experiencing its affect I felt uncomfortable condemning it. It plainly shows a lack of compassion if neurotypical people demand that autistic people, who may have felt excluded or othered, deliberately go and see something potentially triggering and traumatising. However, I remained concerned that, if the piece is condemned without it being seen, then stories about children like mine, families like mine, may never be told and we remain invisible.  I don’t know how to reconcile this problem.

So I went to see it. I was actually lucky enough to be sat next to producer Paul Wilshaw from Mind the Gap who told me he is one of Britain’s only learning disabled theatre producers. He was there for the same reasons as me. He couldn’t critique it without seeing it. He quite rightly pointed out how inaccessible the performance seemed to be from the off with a very clear guide from the stewards that if we left we would not be readmitted. I realise that this is an intimate performance space but it didn’t really set a great tone in terms of inclusivity although I am aware that they did offer a relaxed matinee.

So what did I think? The play is exceptionally well crafted. I wept uncontrollably through a lot of it as so much of it chimed with my own experiences. I think that Oates has created an exquisite piece which gives voice to an experience which I have not seen on stage before. The acting was truthful with outstanding performances from all three performers. 

In terms of the subject matter, I think some people might take exception to the way in which the piece problematises the autistic person. The focus is very much on the impact of having a child with uncontrollable behaviour on the whole family. It is about a family at breaking point. Is this representative of autistic people as a whole? Of course not. But it is representative of some families and I think it is a story that, especially in a time of austerity where disabled people and their families are disproportionately affected, needs to be told.

Autism is, as we all know, a spectrum. Having the honour to love, live and work alongside a range of autistic people I now feel that we need more words to express what this is. My children seem a world away from some that I teach and even further away from some of the gifted and intelligent artists whose work I have admired. All in a Row, in part faced a backlash because we are not telling enough stories about autistic people and autistic people are not being given the platform to tell their own stories. This needs to change. 

So, now for what you really want to know – what about the puppet? 

Let’s backtrack. If Oates wanted to tell this story what options did he have available? He could have chosen for the Lawrence to be always off stage and only spoken about. He could have made this choice but, as Lawrence, and his extreme behaviour is central to the story, I don’t think it would have been a good choice. 

He could have cast an autistic actor in the role. Yes, he could. However, Lawrence is 11 and, I think, needed to be child size. Casting a child would have been problematic owing to the physical nature of some scenes not to mention child licensing laws. 

It would not be ethical or possible to cast someone who is as disabled as the child in this story. Someone so profoundly affected, like my children, could not have given informed consent and would not be able to perform on demand. 

For all these reasons I can see why the decision was made to use a puppet. Obviously a puppet was never going to be a realistic depiction of an autistic child but the frankly odd design choice of giving the puppet grey skin added to to the weird and alienating affect of the puppet. Personally, I didn’t think that the puppet moved very effectively. Yes, I know not all autistic people move in the same way but I’ve been around lots of people who have non verbal autism and he didn’t seem true for any of them. This may be in part because of the strange design. 

Would it have been better if the puppeteer was not neurotypical? Well, we don’t know that he was neurotypical. Should the puppeteer be forced to declare his autistic status? Surely not. If he is autistic then he is obviously not affected in the same way by his autism as Lawrence is in the play. Autism is often referred to has a hidden disability. This is true for many but often autism displays itself loudly and proudly. Sometimes you can tell by looking. If the puppeteer was more visibly autistic would this have felt better? Would a performer like this have been able to capture the way a child like Lawrence might move more effectively?

The short answer on the puppet was that I didn’t think it worked but I wasn’t offended by it. Ok, I’m not the subject of the puppetry but four members of my family, who I could not love more, are and I am usually up first to go in to bat to defend my kids and my nephews. Many of the people who were upset by the decision are autistic people but they are not autistic people like Lawrence. I’d find it fascinating to introduce Lawrence the puppet to my daughter and her classmates to see what they made of him but they are not his audience nor would this specific group understand the concept of being offended by something like this.

This doesn’t mean that I would seek to silence any autistic people who were offended. Their opinions are important to me but, as the story is so close to my heart, I wanted to explain how I felt as a parent of a child like Lawrence. I think this goes far further an a debate about a puppet.

I’m glad All in a Row was produced and that stories like this are being told. It opens up a welcome and much needed debate about representation, neurodiversity and identity. I was particularly mindful of this when I came to write my Forgotten Women podcast episode Green Class about mencap founder Judy Fryd whose daughter Felicity (born 1938) would today most likely have been diagnosed as autistic. Like Lawrence she was a more severely disabled person although she did have some language skills. I found myself facing many of the same dilemmas. 

Green Class is about a mother fighting for the rights of children with learning disabilities. Although Felicity is extremely important, it is not her story. I think we need to tell stories about autistic people and people with learning disabilities but this isn’t one of those stories.    When I was writing this audio drama I was always thinking about how I would bring Felicity Fryd to life. Thinking about this forced me to find a new way of telling the story. Working with partner organisations Access all Areas and The Orpheus Centre I was able to find two performers to voice her. Emma Selwyn is an autistic actor. She is a far more capable person than Felicity was able to be but her neurodiversity is central to her artistic work. I didn’t feel comfortable asking an actor of Emma’s calibre to come in and make some noises and echo some lines. I wanted to find a way to empower Felicity especially as that’s what Judy wanted. I needed to go inside Felicity’s head. I knew, from interviewing her family, that Felicity was gifted musically and loved to sing. I therefore chose to find another neurodiverse performer in classical singer Charlotte Rowling. When Charlotte sings Felicity’s aria Emma is able to take the narration and tell a little of Judy’s story from Felicity’s perspective. I’m not telling you that I’ve got it completely right but I do know that by trying to think inclusively the young actors at Peer Productions have had the opportunity to work with two gifted and talented neurodiverse performers and I, as a writer, have found a new way to tell stories. 

 

If you’d like to join us for the live recording at South Hill Park there are a handful of tickets available – https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/events/forgotten-women/

Alternatively subscribe to the Forgotten Women podcast where the finished piece will be dropped – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/forgotten-women/id1441259768?mt=2

 

 

Green Class – This time it’s personal…

This Friday the Peer Productions’ team led by my colleague, the creative and dynamic Rebecca Alloway, will record my audio drama Green Class as part of the Forgotten Women Podcast series.

And I’m nervous…

I’m nervous not just because, as someone who usually writes for the stage, this format is less familiar to me.

I’m nervous not just because this recording will be these emerging young actors’ first attempt at audio drama and they will have to hold their own working alongside two professional artists.

I’m nervous not just because one of these artists is autistic and the other has learning disabilities and I want to be sure that my writing has done justice to them, other people like them and their families.

I’m nervous because this piece draws on my own experience in a way that none of my other plays have. All playwrights will tell you that there are pieces of them in everything they write and I’d agree with this. As I often write for teenagers I regularly draw on my own adolescent experience but, as I turn forty next year, that me feels so different to who I am now that it might as well not be me at all.

No, this time, it’s deeply personal and it feels exposing. It feels dangerous and it feels exciting!

I have been a parent of a special needs child since 2009 and am now mum to two autistic girls with learning disabilities. I can’t help but wonder why it has taken me almost a decade to charter this terrain. When my eldest daughter was small, a much loved writing mentor told me that one day I would need to walk down the cellar steps and open that door and that, only when I was able to do this, would I really find my voice. He was referencing Caryl Churchill talking about writing her surreal play about depression, The Skriker which uncharacteristically took her seven years, as she could apparently only bear to step into the cellar for short periods at a time.

I don’t know if it was my reluctance to ‘go there’ that stopped me or whether I needed longer to process and reflect. Perhaps only now I feel able to talk about my world and the ‘extreme parenting’ that it involves.

Maybe I just wasn’t ready to expose this bit of myself to the young artists who I mentor. This year’s team are a particularly kind and compassionate bunch. Maybe I needed this particular team to be able to tell this story.

Mainly, I think it’s the opportunity to delve into history and draw connections between then and now. The space that Rebecca has created, in the Forgotten Women podcast series, has opened up this possibility for me.

Rebecca’s vision for the project was that it needed to be as intersectional as possible; women of colour, non binary folk, trans women and disabled women’s stories have been particularly marginalised and she was, understandably, keen to use the project to address these inequalities. When I started to research I was looking for a disabled or autistic campaigner to write about. That’s when I discovered Judy. Judy Fryd founded the charity Mencap back in 1946 when she struggled to find appropriate schooling or care for her daughter Felicity, who would probably have been diagnosed as autistic if she was a young person today. Judy was not disabled or autistic herself but, as a mum to special needs kids, her story resonated with me so strongly that I knew I had to write about her.

Together with colleagues from Peer Productions, Rebecca has gone back to Arts Council Engand to ask for more funding to employ a disabled or autistic writer to write a piece about a disabled or autistic campaigner and we plan to work with our friends from The Orpheus Centre to realise this. If this funding bid is unsuccessful we will keep applying to a range of sources as we remain committed to telling stories from this perspective.

Meanwhile, it was Judy’s story that was crying out to me to be told. From interviewing one of Judy’s daughters and one of Judy’s granddaughters it was clear to be that she was an incredibly tenacious woman. She spent a lifetime fighting for opportunities for people with learning disabilities. It was, in a large part, owing to decades of campaigning for children with learning disabilities to have the right to an education that resulted in an amendment to the education act in 1971 that, for the first time, included learning disabled children.

Whilst, as any SEN mum will tell you, if you want something for your child you have to fight. At a mediation session with the local authority about my eldest daughter’s schooling I was forced to repeat the same question over a dozen times until my point was acknowledged and heard. I was reminded of the suffragettes asking the same question over and over again, “When will you give women in the vote?’ and of Judy’s tireless campaigning and with all of it, with the spirit of tenacious women who have walked my path before me, I felt a little stronger.

When I started to research Judy’s story I didn’t know that I planned to intertwine it with my own but, the more I learned about her, the more I felt a connection with her.

I’d like to thank Judy for giving me the strength to share my story alongside hers. Hearing and researching her story has given me the courage to share my own.

Thanks Judy.

If you’d like to join us for the live recording at South Hill Park there are a handful of tickets available – https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/events/forgotten-women/

Alternatively subscribe to the Forgotten Women podcast where the finished piece will be dropped – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/forgotten-women/id1441259768?mt=2

 

 

My Life Is Not A Tragedy.

My life is not a tragedy.

I am setting my intention for the forthcoming year.

2019 is going to be my year for reframing.
You see we all tell stories. It’s human to weave our lives into neat little narratives. We edit our anecdotes, curate our social media feeds and, without really thinking about it, we cast ourselves into our very own soap operas.
We also cast other people based on their inaccurate stories too. Those who are better off than us, those who are more lucky, more successful, those who have it harder and those for whom we feel pity.
If we are not careful we start to believe the way others cast us. I’d started to believe a story that was not my own.
Special needs mums, we’re usually in the ‘to be pitied’ category. A brilliant mum I know posted on Facebook admitting she was hiding in the loo at an event in a desperate bid to avoid the aggressive pity of well meaning friend. I’ll take your empathy, ideally I’d take your offer of practical help or emotional support, but you can keep your pity thank you very much because my life, my family, is not a tragedy!
This year we discovered that our younger daughter has autism and a speech and communication delay. I’m not going to pretend that it didn’t hurt or that, having spent almost a decade fighting for our older daughter who has autism and brain damage, that it wasn’t a serious kick in the teeth. But it wasn’t – my smiling. laughing, funny, beautiful three year old – she is not a tragedy.
This year our much needed holiday at center parcs was cut short when my elder daughter pulled me over and I shattered my wrist bone and I was told that this was an acquired disability from which I was unlikely to make a full recovery. Yes it hurt. Yes it was inconvenient.
What it also showed me was that people, some people, rally in the face of adversity. Of course my family and close friends queued up to support me and kept me laughing even when the pain was blinding.  Then there were also those people who stepped up who were not expected to. Those who didn’t have to. My daughter’s carer who stayed all night in casualty with me and stepped in to care for both my complicated people and me for months on end even volunteering to do an overnight so Chris and I could get a break. There was the woman I hadn’t seen for years who came to chat with me whilst I was stranded in a hospital far away from home, the woman I barely know who brought me a huge gluten free pasta bake to feed my kids so I didn’t have to cook, my new group of students who constantly carried and fetched for me and even drove me to and from work keeping me entertained even when I was fairly delirious on pain medication. These brilliant humans. They are not part of a tragedy.
So 2018 has been a shitty year to say the least and I will be glad to see the back of it. However, aside from managing challenging health issues and disability needs and watching CBeebies midsummer night’s dream at least 300 times, this year I also, in no particular order:
– I went to India to research a new play and ran a wonderful R and D with inspiring actors.
– I was privileged to get to know and learn from my daughter’s carer and have her brighten all our lives.
– I cared for my mum who had a hip replacement and she now has far more mobility.
– My marriage didn’t just survive this challenging year but thrived and every day I am reminded how lucky I am to have that strength of love in my heart reflected back by my husband.
– I saw one team of brilliant young actors graduate and welcomed another.
– I wrote three new plays.
– I won my appeal to get my eldest the school provision she needs.
– My youngest learned to give kisses.
– I started a new contract working with autistic women and girls which is fascinating, run by really interesting people and has opened up a new world of creative collaboration and critical thinking for me.
– I have submitted to transfer my PhD to a university more able to support me.
– We’ve hopefully (if cross everything if my hand injury would allow!) found a new house where we will have more space to do therapy with our girls.
– I dyed my hair purple just because.
So I’m not going to let myself believe some bullshit tragic narrative. So don’t feel sorry for me and remember you get to choose how you cast yourself.
It’s your story.

I was not quite 9 when it started….

I am preparing to start the research and development phase of my new play for an urban Indian youth audience. It’s about gender and it’s about growing up so it’s got me thinking…

I don’t know if this was the first time this happened. I know it was not the last and I know that it has stayed with me in the back of my mind for a long time.

I am not quite 9.

I am with my mother. We are in a marquee. I am at a craft fair and there is a man with a spinning wheel demonstrating how to spin cotton. I am interested. I have read both the ladybird books – Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin – so many times that their spines are battered and frayed. I have never seen a spinning wheel in real life before.

It’s then that it happens. Actually almost nothing happens. Not for anyone else in that muggy tent. If you blinked you would miss it but for me everything changed.

I looked at the man operating the spinning wheel and I smiled.
I smiled because little girls are encouraged to smile.
He smiled back.

And in that moment I knew that I couldn’t or shouldn’t smile at men any more. I can’t describe exactly what it was I saw when he looked at me. I know that something was not right in the way his eyes scanned my fledgling flesh on the turn to womanhood, my budding chest, my hinting hips, like a hunter surveying his prey. I knew in that moment that I was not a child anymore and yet I was every bit still a child. I felt shameful for making him think those things about me. I didn’t know what those things really were but I knew they were not nice and made skin crawl with shame. I resolved not to make any men think those things again. I resolved not to smile for fear I would prick my finger of that spinning wheel and fall asleep for one hundred years.

“Cheer up darling, it might never happen!.”

It already did and it started when I was not quite nine.

When there are just too many damn balls!

I am not juggling nor levitating any balls in this workshop with young people in Mumbai organised by the G5A Foundation.

Working, with any degree of success, in the creative arts usually involves a fair amount of multi-tasking and a decent grasp of project management.

For example, just at the moment I have recently finished redrafting a play which Peer Productions are reviving this summer called That Guy. I go into rehearsals later this month and will also be liaising with designers, musicians, tour booker and tour manager and placement MA student before it goes out on tour a month later. Last week I held auditions to recruit a devising team of professional actors for research and development of my new play LBA which, following my research trip to Mumbai in February, will hopefully be touring to Mumbai later this year. I am also working with Peer Productions’ Associate Director Rebecca on her Forgotten Women Podcast project and, having written one of the pilot episodes last year (about the Women of Greenham Common), funding permitting, I will write another fairly soon. I am undertaking a PhD with Kingston University and have some visiting lecturing work there too. I have been working with a leading academic from a different university and have been part of a team supporting her in developing a major bid which, if successful, will investigate a new approach to using creativity with autistic people. I continue to be part of the management and strategic team for Peer Productions. We are currently auditioning actors for next year’s cohort and supporting our current team through their qualifications and drama school applications. We are working to develop a range of different bids for new projects including the rolling out of our Generation Girls programme which uses drama to empower disadvantaged young women.

I am also a mum to two beautiful little girls with additional needs. We are currently in the process of working with a lawyer to contest the details of the EHCP plan for my eldest daughter, whose needs are extremely complex, whilst her little sister undergoes assessments and therapy. The admin and emotional labour involved in parenting children with special needs is very challenging and that’s before you take into account the burdens involved with being a full time carer.

I am telling you all this not to show off but to prove that it is possible to have a busy life and manage multiple projects even if you’re not the most organised or logistically gifted of people.

When I talk to people about my work/life balance (or lack thereof) they are often baffled by how one person can have their grubby fingers in so many pies.

“How do you do it?”             “You must be exhausted.”        “Do you ever sleep?”

In truth,

“With great difficulty”         “Yes.”                                              “Not much.”

The reality is that multi-tasking and project management skills are not my strong point. My enthusiasm for all these projects, and of course for my children, far outweighs my desire and ability to manage, administrate and organise them. However, the old adage ‘If you want something done ask a busy person,’ rings true. I am often overwhelmed and never feel like I am on top of things. I do work incredibly hard and I don’t have a magic trick to share to help you manage the unmanageable. I do however have 5 pieces of sage advice.

1) Say Yes

At Peer Productions we wouldn’t have survived these eleven years if I hadn’t, optimistically and often blindly, said yes to all sorts of weird and wonderful requests. We always have to work up and ask for money for more projects than we could ever deliver as we know not every bid will be successful. If, as if by magic, they all are, we will of course have more work than we can comfortably manage but, when this has occasionally happened, it’s a nice problem to have and leads us to think creatively and collaborate with new and exciting people.

2) Administrate to facilitate the art don’t make art just to facilitate admin!

What I mean by this is that it is very easy to get bogged down into unnecessary administrative duties. Think, at the outset – what needs to happen to make this project happen? Then find a streamlined and methodical approach to the work. Work smart. Don’t waste time, and therefore money, using a system that doesn’t quite do what you need it to do. There is lots of free software out there so look for something that will help you rather than struggling on with a glitchy or unfit for purpose system.

3) Surround yourself with the best people.

I am truly blessed that I have a husband who understands me and knows how important my work is to me. He supports me and relishes in my successes and that is a rare and precious thing.

I am lucky to have a team of collaborators at Peer Productions who support my vision and put up with my often chaotic approach to things. They pick up the pieces when I am called away or drowning under the weight of too many things. My students’ talent and enthusiasm remind me daily why I set up the company and how magnificent it really is to see young artists flourish.

Know your own weaknesses and try and find collaborators who complement instead of duplicate your skill set.

4) Know and remind yourself of your privilege

If you work in the creative arts then you are probably privileged to do a job that you truly love.Your hobby has become your career. How many people can say that? Yes, the work is challenging sometimes but it is rarely actually hard. We’re not climbing down mines. We have, usually, some autonomy over our practice. As a working class kid, and one of the first generation in my family to go to university, I am so glad to do something every day that I love.

If you no longer love it. Move out the way and do something else, which will probably pay you more, allowing someone who does love it to fill your shoes.

5) Just keep swimming …

…or juggling, or what ever other metaphor you want to use. Keep spinning those plates for as long as your work keeps fuelling your soul and enriching your heart.

 

 

He’s letting me go to India!

On Monday, I leave for a week’s research trip to Mumbai. It’s the culmination of a lot of work, and a big step in bringing a play tackling the challenges faced by young people in urban India to life.

The most amazing thing about it though is that my husband (of 15 years) is letting me go!

Now, before I am deafened by the collective outcry of my fellow Feminists, let me explain a thing or two.

I have not been out of the country for ten years. I have never travelled outside of Europe and the US, and even then hardly at all. I haven’t spent more than a night apart from my husband or kids in twelve years. We have never spent Valentine’s Day apart.

From this description, you might assume that I am a risk adverse, home-loving kind of woman, who lives her life very much in her husband’s shadow. I am not.

I’m a successful playwright, theatre maker and entrepreneur. Eleven years ago, I set up Peer Productions – a youth arts charity – and we reach in excess of 15,000 young people a year, employing a team of six permanent staff members. I am also studying for a PhD.

The thing is that I am also a special needs mum. My eldest daughter has severe brain damage and autism, and my youngest daughter too has developmental delays. Travelling, even within the UK, is a huge challenge and internationally, both practically and financially, impossible. Having disabled children is very expensive and Government benefits, whilst helpful, don’t come close to covering everything that they need. The mental load, the admin of constant appointments, form filling and fighting for their rights is exhausting and all consuming. The care required is extensive, and it is not currently really possible for one of us, on our own, to leave the house with both children.

When dealing with things for the children, I am regularly assumed to be a stay-at-home parent, who is readily available at all times. “Yes, I know we promised you your prescription and this is the fifth time you’ve come in, but could you just pop back later?” – With kids in tow, I cannot ‘pop’ anywhere.

Having disabled children strains relationships and, sadly, often fathers leave.

Going away for a week means leaving my husband to manage all of this on his own and that’s an enormous ask. Yes, we’ve booked in respite and we have carers coming to take some of the load, but ultimately the buck is going to stop with him. That’s why, when the opportunity first came up, I said no, as I couldn’t imagine being able to cope if it were me being left to my own devices.

He, however, is a better person than I am, and immediately wanted me to do this. He knew I really wanted it and he didn’t want to stand in my way.

Letting me go to India is an incredible gift and makes me so grateful for my marriage.

Happy Valentine’s Day, darling!

Give me back my radical feminism!

I’m a radical feminist. I believe that the world would be a better place if we dismantled the patriarchy and the power constructs within and built a new society where people of all genders are treated equally with respect. I think that’s pretty uncontroversial.

I campaign on issues that include violence and oppression of women, sexual violence and misogynistic pornography.

 

Yes, things have improved here in the UK.

No, we are not there yet.

Yes, we still need to do this for women and girls worldwide.

 

But this is not just about women and girls. Men, yes, actual cis men who conform to binary experiences and expressions of gender, can be victims of the patriarchy too. The man who is ostracised at work for taking shared parental leave, the boy who is told crying is only for girls and the young man who is viewed with suspicion if he wants to work in a caring role or with children – they too can dream of a post patriarchal world in which their needs and desires are nurtured.

And this is not just about men and women. Trans people, gender-fluid, non-binary, a-gender folk (people of all genders and none) join me in this radical feminist space. Come in, pull up a chair, drink tea, or rant with me, march with me, argue with me. The door is open. Forget that. There is no f*cking door. There are no walls. There is no (glass) ceiling. This space, regardless of what some misguided, ill advised people think, this space welcomes you.

If we, the radical feminists, want to dismantle or deconstruct gender roles then how on earth could we justify leaving some peoples, some genders out? Why would we want to rebuild the wreckage into the same oppressive shape again?

Couldn’t the cis gendered radical feminists gain valuable insights from trans people who have lived experience being assumed to be a gender with which they do not connect? I am not saying that trans people must speak about their oppressions or that they owe us an education but, if they want to talk about it, we should listen and learn!

Some of you will know that I run a girls’ empowerment programme to help vulnerable young women find their voice. It is (in principle) a trans inclusive space but it is for self identifying females. So often I hear some feminists argue that to welcome trans people means losing these gender specific spaces and services and oppressing cis women further. To me the two things are not incompatible. In the future, when radical feminism has stopped focusing on irrelevant things, people of all genders and none will be treated equally. When this happens we won’t need generation girls groups. But, right now, with eating disorders, self harm, mental health problems, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and abuse an everyday lived experience for young women this space is needed too.

I am not trans. I am not an expert on trans peoples’ experiences but I am frankly pissed off with being aligned politically with people who claim to be rad gem but, in reality, are adding to the oppression of some genders. The trans inclusive radical feminists (TIRF – how are we even pronouncing that and how is that meaningfully going to be distinguished from the TERF label?) need to find a new way to talk about our feminism. We need new words with which to align ourselves. Radical feminism for all!

#metoo

I have been watching the hashtag metoo gradually take hold on twitter with a stomach full of knots.

In one way I am pleased and proud of my sisters in arms for standing up to be counted. If we collude in a silent culture of fear and we don’t out ourselves and the gender based violence, harassment and oppression we face then how can we seek to make a positive change in the world?

And yet, it is not us, the so often silent majority, who need to make this change. It is not victims but perpetrators who need to change to make the world a safer place for women and girls. I fear for those too traumatised to speak out that they will feel condemned for their silence.

We do not owe you our stories of abuse. It is not our job to educate you. But there is no #itwasme trend and instead #notallmen lingers in cyber space as a perpetually bad smell.

#metoo in it’s bid to raise awareness of violence against women and girls misses the point. Yes, notallmen are perpetrators but yesallwomen experience harassment, abuse and violence. Whilst some women will tell me they have been lucky and never felt restricted by their gender even a tiny bit of questioning usually unveils stories which ‘were not a big deal’ or ‘harmless banter’ or ‘just his way.’

This year I ran a group for young women with learning disabilities. Every girl and young woman in that group had received either unwanted attention, unsolicited sexual images, verbal abuse or sexual touching. The youngest was twelve. And, whilst I taught them to speak up for themselves, get help and call out misogynists where they encountered them, I was grimly aware that they should not have been the focus of my attention.

For every survivor who posts #metoo there is someone who perpetrated that crime and violated that woman. They walk amongst us Hidden in plain sight. Change is possible and it starts with them.

#metoo

Pornography: A Personal Feminist Battleground

Photo by Polly Bycroft Brown

I’ve just written a new play.

It talks about porn a lot, and it’s targeted at 13 year-olds.

Lots of people would view this as controversial, but with most boys accessing pornography online by eleven, sixteen year-old lads with erectile dysfunction and the prominence of a pervasive rape culture, I think what we’re doing is nothing less than a public service!

Regardless of whether it offends our sensibilities, or contradicts our views about childhood, all children are being exposed to pornography. Even those who have not actively looked will most likely have been added to social media groups where these type of videos are shared – and that’s before we even start to examine the pornification of the mainstream media. Messages which suggest that women and girls’ bodies are solely objects for male pleasure are everywhere.

From the tone of my writing, you might assume that you can tell some things about me. As you may suspect, I’m white, married, in my 30s, live in the Home Counties and am a mother. What you may not realise is that I have always been very sexually liberal, and consider myself to be body positive, sex positive and am openly bisexual. If you had asked me my views about pornography five years ago, I would have talked about our rights to express ourselves sexually, the long history of erotica and the need for women to create pornography of their own as an antidote to the prevalent male gaze. I would have dismissed any opposition to porn as a restriction of our liberties and a policing of women’s bodies.

So, what has changed?

While researching for this play, alongside talking to large numbers of young people aged 12-19 years, I have looked at quite a bit of porn – My job is weird sometimes! When I say porn, I mean mainstream, easily accessible free pornography available to any young person with a smart phone without filters, not ethical, feminist, pay-for-it niche sites. I typed the word ‘porn’ into Google and saw what popped up, which I’m guessing is what many curious young people do.

There is a vast array of material, which young people can click between in an instant.

Here’s what I discovered:

Categories: All porn sites catergorise their content, making it easier for users to find their personal preferences. Pornhub state that the most searched for term is overwhelmingly ‘teen’, with ‘milf’ and ‘lesbian’ coming in second and third. The fetishisation of youth is evident everywhere.

It is, of course, illegal to promote pornographic material featuring people under 18, but there are countless ‘barely legal’ images with young women who may or may not be of age. The brutal reality of these sites is that it is very difficult to know whether those taking part have consented, and are old enough to make those decisions.  Even older performers largely subscribe to the hairless genital look, making young people think that their pubescent bodies are weird, ugly or dirty. Many young girls we talked to believed removing pubic hair to be cleaner – it isn’t.

With these catergories alone, we can see that porn normalises sexual behaviour in very young people and gives them unrealistic and destroyed views of what their bodies, and those of their partners, should look like.

Bodies: It’s about more than just body image. Many pro-porn campaigners will say that because porn promotes a variety of different body types (eg. different skin colours, sizes, ages), it is a highly inclusive art form. Whatever you are into, you will find. This is, to an extent, true, although there is still something of a “pornstar” look (i.e. boob job, no pubes) which dominates. However, what they are missing is the way in which porn assumes bodies are ready to be sexual at a moment’s notice.

Contemporary porn rarely includes any narrative, and largely excludes foreplay in its entirety. Many young women I know had miserable first sexual experiences, because they need to feel relaxed and that they need to feel turned on for their vaginas to become wet, in order to make penetration possible. Basic understanding of the female anatomy is sorely lacking. This is one of the things I have talked to lots of workshop groups about. Boys are always very quiet when I explain. They don’t want to hurt their partners, but due to watching porn, they assume that’s all there is to it.

Kinks: Everyone is different and unique; we don’t all like the same food or music so, it stands to reason, we don’t like our sex the same way either. Embracing our sexual preferences or kinks in an open and non-shaming way is great. However, mainstream internet pornography moves what would have been considered fetish or at least unusual sexual activity into the mainstream. I broke every rule in the sex educator’s handbook by talking about my own sex life when I told a group of 15 years-olds that I have never had anal sex. I made it clear that lots of people do and, if done safely by consenting adults of any gender or sexuality, it was normal and healthy, just not for me. Some of them were genuinely shocked. Anal sex is seen as so mainstream that girls are actually being labelled as weird or prudish if they don’t want to do it. I thought it was important for someone to tell them that not everyone does this, and they shouldn’t assume their partner wants this without asking first. They were genuinely surprised! It doesn’t stop there. Content of choking, strangling and multiple men with one woman, often simultaneously, are easily accessible too, and that’s really dangerous.

So yes, I have come to the conclusion that I would prefer it if young people weren’t watching porn, and that it distorts their view on sex and relationships dramatically. As we can’t stop this from happening, we need to talk to them about it.

‘Losing It’ Public Gala, Friday 16th June – http://www.peerproductions.co.uk/show/losing-it-public-performance/

Market forces rip off those most in need of help

Okay, so we’ve been up since 3am. Sadly, this isn’t unusual. Lots of SEN, Special Educational Needs, parents like me live off of caffeine and nervous energy, as our kids struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Last night, however, our daughter woke up because her incontinence pad leaked and soaked the bed. This is unusual, and this only happened because (owing I am sure to competitive tender) the incontinence supplies brand has been changed to a cheaper one. They’re too big, they leak. For the same reason, yesterday she had an accident on the school bus.

A choice to change suppliers was made by bureaucrats seeking to save a buck or two. It’s the same, but it’s not the same. We’re lucky that our daughter copes quite well with these kind of changes, but for other ASD kids, the change of colour alone could cause meltdowns. So, I’m emailing, complaining, consulting other SEN parents with the same issue – I’m filling up my coffee cup again. Incontinence services do their best to be helpful, but they are inundated and the products they have to use prove inefficient. I’m so tired of having to fight for the basics just to get by, and as austerity continues to bite, it only gets worse. 

Now, you may be thinking “just buy better nappies”. The truth is that, because children’s incontinence supplies for Over 4s are thankfully NHS funded, there are very little available on the market. The only real choice is overnight bed wetter’s nappies. These usually cost £8 for twenty, so 40p a nappy. Let’s say she uses 5 in a day… that’s £2 per day, or £730 per year!

A couple of weeks ago, Surrey announced the results of their competitive tendering process for short breaks. ‘Short breaks’ is basically a euphemism for respite care. It’s not a luxury, but a necessity that stops millions of us from becoming so exhausted and mentally unwell that we are unable to cope with the burden of caring. It saves the nation millions. In some areas, well-established, trusted and loved schemes that are able to accommodate even the most complex of medical or behavioural needs have lost their contracts. Again, let’s cue ASD meltdowns due to change, even if the alternative providers are up to par, which seems unlikely when they have less specialist knowledge and are unable to offer the same level of one-to-one support.

Let’s just look at that for a second. One-to-one. If, like me, your child requires one-to-one, that means they need constant supervision either for their own safety or the safety of those around them, or both! If they need supervising constantly, this means that exhausted parents are supervising them constantly, and it will be those families for whom respite is the most vital. 

If you think this is unacceptable, what can you do? 

Have your say with the online Surrey survey about proposed changes to short breaks –

https://www.surreysays.co.uk/csf-syp-commissioning-development/short-breaks-user-engagement/

Like the Save Our Respite campaign page and get involved in direct action – https://www.facebook.com/Save.Our.reSpite

Finally, and most importantly, when you go out to vote next month, don’t just think about how this will effect me. Think about how this would affect me or my family if luck dealt us a different hand. Think about whether you want a system that protects and cares for the most vulnerable, or one which assumes vulnerability is a choice, or a result of fecklessness. Think about what kind of society you want to be part of.

Then vote.