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.
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.
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!
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.
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.