18 Jul 2014

Control and The Cool Girl

A lot of my life is about control. As a formerly overweight person, I have to be extremely vigilant about diet and exercise, lest I gain the weight back. As a person with mental health problems, I have to remember to take my medication, and be constantly monitoring my mental state for signs of an imminent bout of self-destructive despair. As a freelancer, I am the only person responsible for when I work, how much I work, and how successful my career is - no one else is going to remind me, nag me or pick up the slack if I don't keep a grip on my work.
 
Being female, or should I say, successfully fitting the dominant stereotype of what a female should be, also requires a great deal of control. You're expected to control your body - how slim it is, how toned it is, keep it free of hair, marks, wrinkles, sags and yet still have flesh in all the right places. You're expected to control your face - keep it constantly fresh-looking, dewy, unmarked, unlined and of course always smiling, pleasing to others and preferably fully made-up. You're expected to control your hair - even if it's meant to look 'tousled' or 'just-got-out-of-bed', you should still have preferably spent hours colouring, conditioning, applying products, blow-drying, tonging and spraying in order to achieve that wild, devil-may-care look. You're expected to control your body's excretions - cover the smell of your sweat, mask any smells your suspicious lady-parts may emit, and hide the fact you ever menstruate from anyone, even those most intimately acquainted with your body. You're expected to control your emotions, lest anyone assume you are 'hormonal', 'hysterical', or behaving like a 'typical woman' and decides to use this to attempt to discredit the whole female race. You're expected to control your fertility, even if that means increasing your risk of certain cancers, or causing weight gain, horrific depression, migraines, nausea or an array of other side effects - you're simply expected to be grateful that you have any control over whether you have children or not, because your unfortunate foremothers did not enjoy such a luxury, and why should it be down to men anyway when they're not the ones who get pregnant? And, of course, you're expected to control your sexuality - it should be constantly bubbling under the surface and suggestible to everyone while not being 'blatant' or 'desperate' and not intimidating to the opposite sex, it should be apparent from the way you dress and act without, of course, making you come across as a 'slag', it should 'ask for it' without 'asking for it', and of course if you put a foot wrong in how you express it, you should resign yourself to the fact that you'll be labelled either a prude or whore, and if you're a victim of sexual aggression, the way you presented yourself will be the first thing people will focus on, rather than the person who attacked you. Because men's control of themselves and their actions is rarely, if ever, under the microscope the way women's apparent failure to control their wild and tempting sexuality is.
 
(Think about it. A man who attacks a woman is excused as 'not being able to help himself'; the woman is accused of 'leading him on'. Men are portrayed as passive victims of their own unstoppable, unquestionable sexuality, and the question of them exercising control over their desire to sexually violate someone is never up for debate. It's the woman who apparently should have exercised control - over how she dressed, how she looked, how she spoke to him. Funny how the only times we attribute power to women are the times when they are utterly powerless - just a way to add insult to injury, really. But I digress.)
 
I got to thinking about control while pondering the concept of 'The Cool Girl', as made famous in Gillian Flynn's psychological thriller Gone Girl (described by some as feminist, others as misogynist - I generally just view it as sociopathic with the odd pseudo-feminist rant thrown in to justify utterly self-serving behaviour, myself). Just a quick reminder of how Flynn describes the mythical 'Cool Girl':
 
"Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want."
 
I think a lot of women smiled wryly and sighed with relief when they read this passage. Finally, someone had identified this utterly false phenomenon and called it by its true name, and pointed out that no such person actually exists. Women who were tired of explaining to people precisely why you cannot throw caution to the wind and behave exactly how you want and still expect anyone to find it attractive now had a neat explanation, nestled within the pages of a best-selling novel. Everyone's seen the advert where the woman with jutting collarbones and visible hipbones pretends to get orgasmic over creamy yoghurt or full-fat chocolate and thinks "Yeah, like SHE actually eats any of that - bet she spat it out as soon as the director called 'cut.'" Everyone's seen yet another female character supposedly waking up au naturel when she's clearly in full make-up. And plenty of us have watched One Day and wondered why the makers were happily willing to age the fuck out of Jim Sturgess' character Dexter but could not bring themselves to put even a smidge of ageing make-up on Anne Hathaway who played Emma, even though we are supposed to be watching the character across the timespan of 20 years.
 
Still, it can hard to remember that no one possesses the Cool Girl Secret. We all will have some facets - some girls can eat what they want without gaining a pound. Some girls do genuinely enjoy football, video games, sci-fi and rugby. Some girls have a very high sex drive and are very adventurous in the bedroom, and some of us would rather eat broken glass than spend a Saturday trailing dreamy-eyed around Ikea or a wedding fair (yo!). But we'll all have an Achilles' heel that means we don't quite make the grade. Sometimes I become more conscious of mine when I feel like other girls are more 'fun' than me. I can't eat or drink what I want, because my shitty genes mean that it would not be difficult for me to gain back the 3 stone I worked hard to lose in order to be a healthy weight for my height. It would also not be difficult for me to be even heavier, and therefore even less healthy. If I never had to see another human being again as long as I lived, I imagine I would get obese pretty quickly, because we all have a catastrophic trapdoor that we could fall through if we truly 'lost control', and eating is pretty sure to be mine. But in this life, I would like to be reasonably healthy. I would also like to be attractive. I know I should be musing on higher things and telling myself that it's what inside that counts, but I'm honest. I want a life that includes feeling sexy, and I certainly want a life that includes having sex with people who find me sexy. If I were happy to be celibate and hermetic for the rest of my days, then great - bring on the red velvet cupcakes and deep-friend mac n' cheese balls. But I know where that would lead - so I have to keep exercising control.
 
There are other trapdoors that I know await me, and they also make me feel like the opposite of the cool girl some days. I can't stay out as late as I want, because sleep is massively important to my mental and physical wellbeing. I also have to take medication to help me sleep, and if I don't take it at a certain time at night, I won't be able to wake up the next morning. Which will in turn impinge on my ability to work, socialise and do the things that keep me sane, such as roller derby. So any night out involves a constant eye on the clock, and the luxury of full relaxation in the knowledge that it doesn't matter what time I get to bed is one I cannot enjoy. Drinking excessively is not open to me for this reason, and is also connected to the weight issue (when I was heavier, a lot of my body was composed entirely of Strongbow). I'm also an introvert at heart, and can only take so much group activity before I long for the satisfying intimacy of a one-to-one with a good friend, or an intense exchange with a small group of trusted people. Those who know me well enough understand this, and won't assume I'm rude or snobby or 'high maintenance' just because I sometimes need to be alone and haven't got the energy to assume a persona that's not true to me. But when I look at other girls drinking and joking and larking as I slope off to take my Quetiapine and read in bed, I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a twinge of "Guh, why am I so dull, and how do they manage it?"
 
I've managed to hang on to enough self esteem over the years to be proud of carving my own path, to know that what I need and what I aspire to are very different from what the majority of women my age seem to pursue. I don't want: marriage, children, monogamy, a career that's 'stable' at the expense of being fulfilling, or pots of money at the expense of having a life. I do want: great friends, fun lovers, travel, adventure, a career that is nothing other than what I want and makes enough money to keep body and soul together, and a neverending supply of good books. Like most of us, I also want to enjoy physical and mental health. I'll probably never manage to balance these demands with the expectation that I be slim, smiley, fragrant, hairless, uncomplaining and 'fun', and in general I couldn't care less, since those in my life like me just the way I am and most of the time, so do I. It's just sometimes hard to remember that those other women, who in my shameful, petty and insecure moments seem to me like shining examples of all the things I can't be because I have to spend so much of my life exercising so much damn control, will also be nursing insecurities and fatal trapdoors of their own.
 
But that's feminism, innit. Being kind to yourself, and being kind to other women too, however much mental work it takes. Because the most feminist thing you can realise is that none of us are The Cool Girl, nor should we want to be, because she's ultimately just a patriarchal fantasy. What we all are is simply cool girls, every one. 

8 Jul 2014

Seven Crucial Things I've Learned As A Writer

  • To the older generation, getting published on teh interwebz means nothing.
My parents' generation (those in their 50s/60s and above) can be terribly quaint. They still buy proper newspapers, those bulky physical paper things, rather than reading the news on their iPads. They write actual letters and postcards, and even seem to enjoy receiving such things. They don't see text message or even email as an acceptable form of communication, and they are deeply suspicious of Facebook, viewing it as a dastardly medium which will inevitably result in molestation, stalking, identity theft and the end of your career, even if you only use it to chat to your schoolfriends and post pictures of your dog. So when it comes to publishing, they want to see Real Old-Style Evidence that you've written something. A webpage or a link does not impress your grandma. If it can't be cut out of this weekend's Telegraph and shown to the whole family, then it's not 'Proper Writing'. Never mind that some of the pieces of which I'm most proud have only been published online, or that I wrote a 19,000 word blog series that was widely read, acclaimed and reprinted across the globe. The internet may be the platform upon which my generation's whole life takes place, but to those born before 1955, it's still Not Really Real.
 
  • Everyone thinks they can do what you do
And hey, maybe they can. Blogging software has democratised writing to an extent that many people are putting their voices out there, and I've found that blogs by people who only do it as a hobby and do not consider themselves 'writers' as such, can be just as funny, articulate and thought-provoking as the work of those who write for a living. That said, there's nothing more irritating than telling someone what you do and them responding with "I've always thought I could write...", even when they work for Halifax and have never shown any sign of being seized upon by the muse. If you have written something, great! Tell me about it, I'd love to read it sometime. But don't idly speculate that you could do my job as if it's just something that one can pick up on a whim. It's serious business. It takes brains, talent and mind-melting effort. Don't tell me "I've always thought I've got a book in me...." if you've no intention of prising that book out of your core and putting it into words. It trivialises my job and makes you look ignorant of the work I put into it.
 
  • Everyone will say they'll buy your book. Those who actually do are worth kissing all over.
This one is by no means unique to writers. Artists, actors and musicians will all know exactly what it's like when friends trill "Oh sure, I'll come watch your play/see your band perform/visit your exhibition!". You know that if you're lucky, maybe one in ten of those people will actually make good on their promise, and the rest will flake. We know it's just life, it's just human nature, and we're all guilty of it ourselves (right now I'm thinking of a friend's art upcoming show which I've said I'll go and see, and am writing myself multiple reminders to make good on my promise). Nonetheless, it's incredibly frustrating. When the world and its whippet says they'll come to your book signing, and five people end up trailing through the door, plus a sixth an hour later who was just passing on their way to Starbucks and happened to see you, it's disheartening to say the least. However, those five people are worth their weight in gold and should be given massages, red velvet cupcakes and advance copies of all your future work signed with a lipstick kiss. They didn't flake when everyone else did, they remembered and they cared enough to come out and support you. Those people matter and deserve your thanks. 
 
  • If you tell people you've written a book, their next question will inevitably be "Is it published?"
...And if the answer is no, their level of interest will plummet by 99%
 
As with the first point, physical books published by 'real publishers' still retain a kind of clout that people are impressed by. We're a terrible, shallow, fickle race really, susceptible to the sway of big names and promises of money. Never mind that you poured your heart and soul into 90,000 words - if those words only exist as a PDF on your computer, rather than an actual tome people can buy, put on their shelves and admire (preferably with a HarperCollins logo on the spine), then no one's interested.
 
  • Trying to get published the traditional way is like trying to nail a jelly to the ceiling
I've written 3 books since I decided to really give writing a go back in 2009. Back then, approaching a publisher or an agent involved 1) Buying a massive compendium such as The Writer and Artist's Yearbook or The Writers' Market and trawling through the whole thing A - Z, highlighting possible outlets who might be open to your work. 2) Printing out 50 pages/3 chapters of your book, plus a synopsis, an author biography and a covering letter plus SAE to send, since for some reason publishers have been extremely slow to start accepting electronic submissions. 3) Waiting for up to FOUR MONTHS for a response - that is, indeed, IF the publisher or agent ever deigns to get back to you. If you're lucky, publishers accept simultaneous submissions so you can fling out several at a time, but by no means all do.
 
Just for fun, take a look at the spreadsheet I began keeping when I started submitting my first novel, 'Phil' to publishers. I've generally stopped keeping track like this nowadays, because it's frankly just too depressing. Out of 24 publishers and agents, 7 never responded to me. That's a pretty lousy hit rate for all that time and effort (not to mention 200+ wasted sheets of paper and a fair bit of printer ink sent to the four publishers who refused to accept email submissions). Of those who did deign to get back to me, it was not unusual to wait 3 months for a response, which in the event would likely be a photocopied slip of paper with my name filled in, saying "Ta, but it's not for us." Occasionally I'd get a slightly more personal response but there would be no useful feedback and usually a maddeningly cryptic phrase like "We did not feel sufficiently passionate about your work to take it any further." I know publishers are pushed for time and it's not their job to give fledgling writers critiques, but frankly I'd prefer it if someone just bluntly said "I thought it sucked" rather than rejecting my work in such pretentious terms.
 
Agent 16/06/2009 Phil Email Rejected 16/06/2009
Agent 17/06/2009 Phil Post NO RESPONSE
Agent 17/06/2009 Phil Post NO RESPONSE
Agent 23/06/2009 Phil Email Rejected 20/07/2009
Agent 23/06/2009 Phil Post NO RESPONSE
Agent 23/06/2009 Phil Post NO RESPONSE
Agent 24/06/2009 Phil Post Rejected 21/08/2009
Agent 26/07/2009 Phil Email Rejected 07/08/2009
Agent 26/07/2009 Phil Email Rejected 01/10/2009
Agent 10/08/2009 Phil Post Rejected 01/12/2009
Agent 18/11/2009 Phil Post Rejected 13/01/2010
Agent 05/01/2010 Phil Email Rejected 06/01/2010
Agent 06/01/2010 Phil Post Rejected 27/01/2010
Publisher 13/01/2010 Phil Email NO RESPONSE
Publisher 21/01/2010 Phil Post Rejected 28/01/2010
Publisher 10/02/2010 Phil Email Rejected 24/02/2010
Publisher 10/03/2010 Phil Post Rejected 31/10/2010
Publisher 20/04/2010 Phil Email Rejected 06/08/2010
Publisher 12/08/2010 Phil Email Rejected 16/08/2010
Agent 04/04/2011 Phil Email Rejected
Agent 04/04/2011 Phil Post Rejected 7/5/11
Agent 11/11/2011 Phil Email Rejected 1/12/11
Agent 11/11/2011 Phil Email NO RESPONSE
Agent 11/11/2011 Phil Email NO RESPONSE
 
  • Writing takes no time at all. It's everything else that takes the time.
When people ask me "Ooooh, does it take long to write a book?" I always say no, and they're always surprised. But I really believe that people miscategorise "Time spent writing". What they really mean is "10 mins of actual typing, followed by 10 mins spent  checking email, 10 on Facebook, 10 on Pinterest, 10 making a cup of tea, 10 trying to get back into the flow of typing but you can't because you've lost the momentum by getting distracted with all the other stuff, and oh bollocks there's a whole hour gone." Actual, pure, nothing-but-writing writing doesn't take much time at all, but it's rare that a writer actually gets into this mode. We all live lives that demand constant multi-tasking and which try to seduce us away from our work with multiple distractions. Of course, there is writing that requires a lot of work around the writing  - research, interviews, correspondence - and you can't always rush that. But even then, we all know that "research" can easily translate into "10 minutes of productive Googling followed by 30 minutes getting into a pointless argument on Twitter" or "Half an hour looking at relevant books in the library followed by an hour browsing the fiction section just for fun". It's not writing that takes the time, it's all the pissing about and procrastinating that we do around the writing. I challenge any writer to disagree with me...
 
  • It can suck so much, but there's still no other job that comes near it.
Pursuing writing or any other creative career means throwing yourself upon the mercy of a deeply uncertain market and numerous variables you can't control. Just in the five years since I started writing fiction, the publishing market has been turned upside down by the advent of e-books and the increasing decline of the print market (and with it, the slow death of traditional bookshops - which makes me so sad I can't even get into it here). If you refuse to self-publish and believe that you should be paid for your work, you have to be pretty stoical, not to mention driven, to make any headway. Yet for all the rejections, silences, time-wasting, money worries, career worries, self-doubt, and temptation to slug the next person who breezes "So where's this bestseller then?", I wouldn't trade it for anything. My writing has taken me across oceans, both literally and virtually. It's introduced me to people I never would have met otherwise and brought some of my dearest friends into my life. It's got people talking, arguing, agreeing, exclaiming, confessing, enthusing. It's allowed me to put my voice out there and have it listened to, it's resulted in me being asked to speak on TV, on the radio, at conferences. It's made my family proud of me, it's made me proud of myself. It's kept me sane. It's kept me alive. And sometimes, it's even earned me some bleedin' money.
 
Catherine Scott encourages you to pre-order her children's book, 'Destiny Calling', check out her published clips and never, ever say the words "Well, E L James managed it!" to her.

2 Jul 2014

"Revenge porn" can't exist without sexism

The concept of "revenge porn" - the act of someone, usually male, posting naked or sexually explicit images/video of their ex-partner, usually female, online in order to humiliate and distress them, is in the news today. Yesterday it was reported that the UK Justice Secretary is considering new laws in order to tackle this distasteful trend, and empower victims rather than leaving them with bewildered police telling them "there's nothing we can do about it." I've been listening to discussions about revenge porn on Radio 1 and 2 today, with comments ranging from "It happened to me and was horrendous" (mostly from women) to "If you're silly enough to let someone take naked pictures of you, you get what you deserve" (funnily enough, that one was from a man). In between all the hand-wringing about whether today's selfie-crazed generation no longer has any concept of privacy and are therefore all hopelessly naïve to expect that intimate pictures stay private, very few people have raised the question of why exactly "revenge porn" has such a devastating effect on its (usually female) victims.
 
The only article I've seen that touches on this was today's piece by Dr Brooke Magnanti, who writes "We need to assess why, exactly, revenge porn is considered so humiliating and so embarrassing in the first place. In a nutshell it is because so many people believe that a woman who has ever been naked in front of a camera is and should be dehumanised to the point of being seen as a slut." This, to me, goes to the heart of the issue, and I can't believe Magnanti is the only one pointing it out. Why do we still expect grown women to be so ashamed of the fact that they - gasp - sometimes take off their clothes and have sex? Why do we shame them for wanting to show themselves to their partner in an erotic manner? Why do we deem the hundreds of men who think it's acceptable to send women they've never met pictures of their penises on online dating sites merely a subject for gentle laughter, while we judge and sneer at women who trustingly send explicit pictures or videos to their intimate partner as naïve daft cows who deserve everything they get?
 
"Revenge porn" is a self-perpetuating concept. Shame and humiliation is the expected result, and it's what the victims duly display. But why? Why is the evidence that an adult has been sexually active seen as more shameful and disgusting than say, evidence that they were a homophobe? An anti-Semite? There are plenty of acts that can be caught on video or picture that are shameful - harming our fellow human beings, especially children, or animals, or being cruel, rude, bigoted and selfish. Posing in our natural state and indulging in consensual erotic acts with another adult should not be viewed on the same level as the many terrible things human beings can and do carry out every day.
 
Now, that's not to say any of us want our parents, grandparents, children, employers or friends to see us naked or having sex. It's a pretty icky thought (not to mention one that goes both ways - I want to know LESS THAN NOTHING about my parents' sex lives, thanks very much!). But, let's be grown-up about it for a second. We're all adults. We know the majority of us are sexually active. If we happen to stumble across concrete evidence of that, it may put you off your dinner, but what harm has actually been done? We all have parents who have seen us naked, squalling, shitting, pissing and puking. We all have friends who have seen us drunkenly shape-throwing to the The Final Countdown and dribbling Blue WKD down our fronts. We may be lucky to have grown up in a pre-internet era when all of this wasn't captured and distributed online for all to see, but unless we are celebrities, it's unlikely that we care much about how people perceive us beyond our immediate circle anyway.
 
My point is, the 'shame' we expect women to feel over their naked form being spread over Tumblr or Facebook is in direct proportion to the shame we expect women to feel for being sexual, full stop. And this is nothing but full-blown sexist hypocrisy. Our society demands that women sexualise themselves at every turn - but never for themselves. And despite women's magazines effectively churning out a never-ending parade of advice on how to please a man, should a woman actually send erotic images of herself to her male partner with the objective of doing just that, she must be condemned for it. Confused? Yeah, I would be too - if I let the tidal wave of misogynist hogwash that still colours our media dictate my behaviour.
 
So let me come out and say something that sadly still constitutes revolutionary words in Britain, 2014. I'm a 30 year-old sexually active woman. I have sex with men. I get naked. I sometimes wear things considered 'sexy', and display my body in ways that might be considered 'erotic' or even 'explicit', sometimes for my pleasure, sometimes for that of my partner, very often for both. If there are any adults in my life who don't know that, they would have to have been sleeping under a very big rock for over a decade. If pictures of me indulging in any the above acts were to appear on the internet, it would be embarrassing, sure. Of course I wouldn't want my family, friends or employers seeing such images, (and not just because it's often that when you think you look your sexiest, you actually look like a sockful of clothespegs - yet another reason I haven't fallen prey to the selfie cult), but I'd like to think I could get over it once all the sniggering stopped. Because what's really to be ashamed of? I have a body. I have a sex life. Big fucking deal. Post a video online of me kicking a cat to death, and I'll rightly be ashamed, go into hiding and be chased with pitchforks. But till then, fuck the very idea of "revenge porn". Because without sexist beliefs that sex, nudity and being sexual is degrading to women, it couldn't exist. 

24 Jun 2014

In praise of realism - stop telling single people "You'll find someone"

A few years ago I remember a friend of mine suggesting that a lot of the platitudes we're fed as kids - "Follow your dreams and you will achieve your goals!" "You can do anything if you set your mind to it!" - are actually 'sweet poison' which set us up for failure and disappointment. This kind of Pollyanna, one-size-fits-all advice fails to account for the lottery of genes and birth which means I'm white and rich in a world where to be a poor person of colour is basically the shittiest hand you can be dealt, yet billions of people have still been given it. It also fails to consider the millions of slings and arrows that injurious fortune may send our way - disease, disability, deaths of loved ones, accidents, redundancies, economic crises, natural disasters. It'd be a whole lot more honest and accurate to say "It's more likely that your time on this planet will be a thankless struggle than a joyous parade of constant fulfilment, but if you're very fortunate it might end up being somewhere in between, so savour the good bits when they occur", but I guess it's seen as overly harsh to say that to children.
 
I got to thinking about this when I saw people posting on a (different) friend's Facebook status where she was bemoaning her long-term single status. While they all (rightly) pointed out that this person is intelligent, funny, great to be with and physically very nice looking, most of them also felt obliged to add the obligatory "You'll find someone, it just hasn't happened yet" or "He's out there - keep looking" statement that apparently certifies the speaker's ability to see into the future and guarantee a soulmate for the singleton in question. I'd wager that nothing winds a single person up more, not least because these statements often seem to come from the patronising viewpoint of an already coupled-up person, who believes that their lifestyle is so desirable that no one could possibly not want it, and that any poor soul lacking a partner just needs a bit of an ego pat in the form of "There's someone out there for everyone." But it winds me up for a different reason - not just because it's glib, or patronising or presumptuous. But because it is the perpetuation of a myth that I believe sets us all up to fail.
 
What if there isn't someone out there for everyone? What then?
Or, what if there are several someones out there for everyone?
What if some people are better suited to multiple short romances, or lots of brief sexual relationships, or prefer overlapping, polyamorous encounters? What if some people are asexual? Aromantic? Or only interested in sex? Or only interested in romance?
Also, what if finding a partner isn't actually a solution to much at all? Because life will still continue to batter you with its frustrations, and the only consolation you'll have is someone to share your misery with, and it's still not much guarantee you won't end up alone, because people cheat, people leave, and unfortunately, in every couple, someone's going to be the one to die first.
 
My, I am being cheery today, aren't I?
 
Amazingly, the point I'm trying to make isn't that life is terrible and we're all doomed to die alone. What I am doing is deliberately focusing on the negative and scary aspects of life that starry-eyed romantics don't want to think about. And I don't blame them for shying away from these truths, because "negative and scary" is putting it mildly. However, when I sit and listen to people's tales of infidelity, dissatisfaction, broken families, failing marriages and romantic/sexual lives generally spinning out of control, all I can think is how some realistic thinking earlier down the line might have saved these folks a lot of bother. If we considered that expecting sexual fidelity for 60+ years to be easy and effortless may be a smidge ambitious, we might stop making monogamy the benchmark for successful relationships. That's not saying that everyone has to go out and become polyamorous, but at the same time, if you never even discuss the possibility that you or your partner may be attracted to others and may one day want to act upon it, then that possibility may well be what undoes you when the time comes. Especially if you make a long-term commitment with someone whose sex drive, preferences or kinks are vastly different from your own. Thinking that marriage or long term commitment is just going to steamroller such differences is about as sensible as assuming my Ford Ka will run like a Porsche if I just rebadge it. Yet that's precisely what a lot of people do seem to assume.
 
And it's by no means their fault - after all, what fairy story starts with 'They had just got married'? We're not given many life lessons about how 'happily ever after' is actually supposed to go. We're told that monogamous marriage should still be the ultimate aim for all of us (gay? No problem there now!), preferably plus some babies, add water and stir and bingo! Total happiness is the result - apparently. Even though this is a model from an era when we lived half as long as we do now and married for economic and social reasons, e.g. to legitimise children and strengthen family ties - reasons which really don't apply any more, we still adhere to it. Why? Because we've been told that 'love' will take the place of all the other reasons to marry, and love will be what carries us through the bad times.
 
Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. Philip Larkin once reflected that he was too "withdrawn, selfish and easily bored to love", and I'd suggest that unfortunately, many of us are in the same boat. Personally, I'm OK with that. I don't see long term monogamous relationships as something that can fulfil me, so I don't get into them. That doesn't mean I don't have partners, but just not of the type that society tells me should be my ultimate goal. I don't look for a potential husband or future father of my children, because I'm not interested in either of those things. I accept that one day I might be old and unpartnered, but I don't see that as the same as being 'old and alone', nor do I see it as a fate worse than death. I strongly believe that it's up to me to make friendship networks and be part of my community to a strong enough degree that someone will still want to come and see me when I'm 85, rather than just assuming that a partner or children, or grandchildren, will be there to keep me company. Also, I'm a logical gal and I've seen the statistics - at the end of the road, it's still more likely to be us women on our own as the guys unfortunately tend to head off this mortal coil earlier. We're probably all going to end up unpartnered at some point, but what I disagree with is viewing this as a terrible position to be in, or as something that renders us incomplete.
 
So don't tell my articulate, whip-smart, beautiful friend that "there's someone out there for everyone". I don't know if there is and I don't care . I'm not going to set her up to be disappointed by spouting these lazy myths. If she wants romance, if she wants sex, if she wants affection, if she wants children, yes, I don't doubt that she can get those things. But love, soulmates? I don't think any of us have the right to say those things are guaranteed or that we will all find them. What we can definitely find is intense love with the family and friends we already have, and keep showing it to them. We can seek new experiences and new connections. But the idea that "he's out there, just keep looking?". To hell with that toxic platitude. I would say to her "You are perfect the way you are. If someone nice comes along and appreciates that, great. If they don't, you've lost nothing - just keep living your life."
 
Because ultimately, that's all any of us can do.

10 Jun 2014

I Want Your Opinions...

 .. on the 'No More Page 3' campaign. I am writing a presentation to give at the European Popular Culture Association's annual conference in July, and the working title of my presentation is

"A Very British Problem? An Intersectional Examination of the ‘No More Page 3’ Campaign". Here's my abstract:

"The “No More Page 3” campaign has been running for over a year and has gained 190,000 signatures, including those of Jennifer Saunders, Clare Balding, and Alistair Campbell. However, it has also been widely criticized; for every feminist promoting the campaign online, there have been others blogging about why they refuse to sign. I would like to examine the critiques of the campaign and the issues of class, race, censorship and capitalism raised within. Some feminists have condemned the campaign on the grounds that it is patronizing towards women who choose glamour modelling; others have highlighted its middle-class bias. Those condemning Page 3 are unlikely to ever have read The Sun, and there is a sense of prejudice towards the largely working-class readership of the tabloid. Others simply believe that objectors are ‘jealous’, as MP Clare Short was labelled when she condemned Page 3.

In a capitalist economy, one might argue that Page 3 is a simple matter of supply and demand – “It’s a good way of selling newspapers” says editor David Dinsmore - and even with 190,000 signatures, the campaign will have a job outweighing the 2.2 million readers of The Sun. Some would say that it is only repressive British culture which makes Page 3 controversial at all – in other European countries, female toplessness is standard in advertising. Others feel that Page 3 would be less objectionable if it featured a wider variety of body shapes and races. Yet is the tide turning against high street soft porn, as ‘lads mag’ Nuts folds following the vocal ‘Lose the Lads’ Mags’ campaign, and even Page 3 loses its ‘News in Briefs’ section? I would like to examine the factors at work here and whether these changes can be viewed as a success for feminists, or evidence of censorship at work.
"
 
I would really like to hear people's opinions on this issue. In short, what I'm looking for are:
- Reasons why you support or do not support this campaign
- Thoughts on the criticisms levelled at it
- Feminist analyses
- Reasoned arguments, rather than polemics
- Reflections on how race and class come into the debate
 
Feel free to comment below, or email me if you prefer. Please keep comments civil and free of abuse or hate speech towards any particular group. Thank you.
 

2 Jun 2014

Gender policing and roller derby

"The bar was regularly raided by the police, and female patrons would be arrested for not wearing at least three items of "feminine clothing" and males for dressing in drag."

Tui Gordon, writing in Revolutionary Women about the Stonewall Inn, a popular 60s hangout for gay and trans people.

I've been reading Emma Donoghue's latest novel Frog Music, set in San Francisco's great heatwave of 1876. Far from being the capital of liberal sexual attitudes that SF is considered today, the city is a nightmare of racism and sexism, and also - as cross-dresser Jenny Bonnet finds out - a place where gender policing is rigidly exercised. Jenny spends most of her life on the run from the police for the crime of wearing "male attire". We can congratulate ourselves that, in Western society at least, progress in this area has been considerable. Although it's telling that cross-dressers and gender-nonconforming individuals were still being arrested nearly 100 years after the era in which Frog Music is set, we like to think that in the open-minded 21st century, we have put all that unpleasantness behind us, that unpleasantness being a world where gender presentation was so oppressively policed.
 
Unfortunately, I think that's a fiction, and this article reminded me why. I was really disappointed to read that the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, considered the representative governing body for the majority of women's roller derby teams, has a gender policy which places the onus on transgender or intersex individuals to prove they are 'sufficiently female'.
 
I play roller derby. I love it. And I understand why there are heated discussions about gender in this sport, because in its present life cycle (2000s onwards), derby started as a female-only sport. The appearance and growth of 'merby' has been controversial for those who loved the fact that women finally had a sport to themselves, one that they founded, ran and which was not just considered an adjunct to a male version of that sport. That's a debate for another day, but I'll say now that I don't believe that shitting on men ever elevates women. Asking that men respect and behave appropriately in what some clearly felt was a sacred space for women is one thing - trying to oust them with the same tactics used on, say, women in all-male golf clubhouses, is nothing short of hypocritical.
 
But anyway. What I and many others love about derby is its diversity. A place where people of all ages, races, body shapes, athletic ability, sexual orientation and gender presentation come together, put on some skates and knock the bejesus out of each other. A place where you're as likely to see a man in tiny spandex shorts or garish knee socks as you are a woman, where you can dress up in glitter and fishnets if you like, or keep it purely athletic in compression tights, or rock baggy basketball shorts, a skort, a kilt, skate shorts... no one bats an eyelid. Derby is a community in which nobody polices anyone's appearance (beyond, say, the rules that say you can't wear safety pins on track...which I think we can all live with) and that's why so many of us who find mainstream society hostile to our personal style or gender presentation consider it a safe haven.
 
Now, I know style of dress and biological sex aren't the same thing. However, where I think the parallels hold up, is in WFTDA's demand that transgender or intersex women who wish to play women's derby provide evidence from a healthcare provider "that the athlete’s sex hormones are within the medically acceptable range for a female". I don't even know where to start with that sentence. For one, I'd love to know who gets to dictate what the "medically acceptable range for a female" is, and on what basis? Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) have a higher level of testosterone than women who don't, so by this logic are they to be considered, say, 10% 'less female' than the rest of us? Am I more of a woman than my female friends whose body hair is thicker than mine, and less of a female because my voice is deeper than theirs? Are my male friends who have man boobs less masculine than their smooth-pectoralled counterparts, and are the bald guys I know more 'medically male' than guys with full heads of hair, because apparently higher testosterone levels are more likely to result in male pattern baldness?
 
To make these distinctions would not only be hateful, but it would also be pointless. And it would be especially pointless in roller derby, a sport where I regularly marvel at the varieties of way in which people demonstrate that it is possible to present as male, or female, or neither, or both. Few of us would make the cut for adhering to 'expected' standards of masculinity and femininity - the tall, solid Amazonians and muscular, athletic women would be rejected immediately, as would the extremely slim, sometimes bony, boyish-figured women who often make excellent jammers. Those of us who prefer short hair, or eschew make-up, or who are tattooed and pierced from head to foot would be immediately under suspicion. And then we'd have to turn round to the merby players and start weeding out those with long hair, soft skin, higher voices, less body hair, lack of muscle, plump pectorals etc etc. Those, of course, are just physical manifestations of sex and gender - don't even get me started on the bajillion different aspects of personality which are woven into each individual in a unique way, and yet which are still, often frustratingly, considered 'typically male' or 'typically female'. Even I, with my long hair, cisgender body and love of make-up would still probably miss the "sufficiently female" mark due to my high sex drive, assertive personality and failure to get excited about trips to Ikea.
 
The powers that be would say we have to draw a line somewhere, and that if the line is drawn 'medically', that somehow makes it OK. But take a squiz at these statistics and tell me if you'd know where to draw the line. 1 in every 1666 births results in a human being whose chromosomes are neither XX or XY. That's (roughly) 63,000 people in the UK who do not fit the 'medical definition' of maleness of femaleness. That's a fuck of a lot of people. And that's just one way of presenting with ambiguous biological sex. If we factor in all the other known intersex conditions - Androgen Insensitivity, Klinefelter's Syndrome, hypospadias etc - as well as people who present as intersex without known cause, we're looking at more like 1% of the population not fitting into exact categories of male and female. In the UK alone that's over half a million people. Hardly a 'niche' group, is it?
 
This is obviously not to account for those who are not intersex, but are assigned a gender at birth and wish to transition to the other gender, or who feel that the gender binary offers far too limiting and simplistic roles and would rather live on a fluid spectrum, and who consider themselves transgender, genderqueer/genderfluid or a-gender. But they also make up a significant part of our population, and one which is already subject to enough hatred, violence and policing to put our supposedly civilised society to shame.
 
So why, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, would WFTDA perpetuate the myth that fitting neatly into category 'male' or 'female' is "just that simple" and then add insult to injury by putting the onus to prove maleness or femaleness entirely on an individual who will already have been given enough shit about their gender identity to last 100 lifetimes? Why must the spotlight be on them, when none of the rest of us cisgender folk probably 'pass'? Why does the transgender or intersex person have to undergo unnecessary and invasive tests and then submit private medical information to their league, when none of the rest of us are obliged to? How on earth does that create "a level playing field. . .free of discrimination", which WFTDA claims to provide?
 
Either we're all subject to this gender policing or none of us are. Don't give me false scare stories about men trying to infiltrate women's sport and then skewing the limits of competition by being 'too fast' or 'too strong'. Does anyone really believe someone would go to the trouble of falsely presenting as transgender, with all the vile abuse, threats, violence, legal discrimination and increased risk of your death by suicide and murder which that entails, just to beat other women in the 100 metre sprint? Come the fuck on. It doesn't work like that. People present as the gender they feel themselves to be, it's pretty simple. (Also, apparently higher testosterone alone doesn't necessarily guarantee better athletic performance and again, as this article points out, 'normal' levels are incredibly difficult to define). Anyway in the world of roller derby, which is DIY, run nearly entirely on volunteer power and is probably the least lucrative sport to get involved in unless you're a tiddlywinks fan, no one stands to make any money by secretly fielding a man in disguise to play in a woman's game, so I'm not really sure what WFTDA's logic is. Quite apart from anything, my team already plays co-ed, and plenty of the female players (probably not this unsteady rookie, but our big-hitting, experienced A team women) can hold their own against male players, so 'male' strength/speed isn't necessarily the 'advantage' that it's automatically considered to be.
 
So I say it again. Unless we're all willing to be subject to invasive questions about what's in our pants, and get needles stuck in our arms to prove we're 'medically acceptable', I don't see how WFTDA can claim that its policy promotes a roller derby world "free of discrimination". They may believe they're trying to protect safe spaces for women, but to me the need to police gender comes precisely from sexism. It comes from a belief that to be female or feminine is degrading, that men who want to present as such as sick, weak or deviant, and that women who want to deviate from presenting as such must be firmly slapped down, lest they get ideas above their station and want to behave 'like men'. It comes from a harmful binary that demands we split ourselves with an arbitrary line and then fling mud from either side of it, and spit poison at anyone who dares try to cross that line.
 
And therefore, it's not something I want any part of.