A year of feminist blogging.

As I’m reviewing the year that has passed since starting the blog here at soisaystoher, today has presented 2 events that provide a starting point for reflecting on how the feminist landscape has changed, or stayed the same!

Women’s bodies – NOT FOR SALE!

My adventures in feminist activism started with a billboard that presented a faceless, personless pair of boobs to encourage people to buy cars. Since the message was sent, by us, to local companies loud and clear that women deserve to be treated like human beings rather than a sum of their body parts, have we seen any real change in the way our gender is depicted in the media here? We’ve had the Hunky Dory’s furore, with some useful debate and a decisive ruling from the ASA. The outgoing Labour government showed some late commitment to tackling the hyper-sexualisation of women’s bodies through a home office report that highlighted the particular effects of the mainstreaming of porn through lads’ mags and music TV in particular. But on the other hand, feminist groups all over the UK have had to take on retail giant Marks and Spencer over their decision to profit from sexual exploitation by sub-letting property in Bristol to the infamous Hooters restaurant chain. Products like ‘POM Wonderful’ juice still think the only way to break into a new market is to place your juice bottle beside some naked ladies on every TV ad – when you run out of creativity in your marketing department you can always rely on the currency of sexism. Local company Harlequin / Burning Desires costume shop have recently drawn a snarl from my lips every time I pass their billboards advertising their sexy Halloween costumes for women, with a tacky porn0-vampire character accompanied by the truly cringeworthy tagline ‘HELLOween boys’. Because there’s nothing like drawing your pop culture references from 1994. There are many people who’ve written brilliantly on their frustration at the strict code of Halloween practice for women which apparently states ‘Thou shalt be sexy and look like a het male fantasy and we shall ensure this by not giving you any choice of costume that doesn’t allow us to view your boobs and legs through nothing but corsets and fishnets.’ My biggest problem with the whole culture is actually that it seems to say women are never funny. Men are funny – they go as crazy cavemen and whacky werewolves. Women are not allowed to be funny, therefore we should settle for sexy and shut the hell up.

One local company that has upped its game of late is the notoriously sleazy Creations furniture who seem to have finally grasped the concept that they are selling furniture and therefore a near-naked woman does not have to appear in every ad. I’m wondering did they have a spate of people expecting to get a free lady with their chest of drawers like the one in the billboard and realised they better stick to picturing the essentials? Whatever has caused this apparent enlightenment I say, well done folks. More of the same please.

The reason I bring this issue up for reflection is that a bunch of us from Belfast Feminist Network are preparing to restart Feminist Friday this evening after a bit of an extended summer break. This simple piece of activism which involves covering lads mags with positive feminist slogans and explaining to shop owners that we’d rather they didn’t sell them, is a hugely satisfying and motivating thing to be involved in. We’ll keep working in this way at the grassroots, keep pushing for the debate to be aired and keep reclaiming the idea that women’s bodies are not for sale.

Update: having braved the rain and cold tonight to take a swipe at lads’ mags I felt it worth commenting on that the stance ‘Spar’ (run by Henderson foods) has taken on the publications is truly fantastic. What it means in practice is that a massive percentage of local grocery shops and petrol stations do not stock these offensive mags. Because of that we have real choice as consumers and I can’t imagine it helps the fortunes of what is a disgustingly sexist corner of the magazine industry. It would be great for us women to find a way to show our appreciation. On the other hand, tonight I was struck by the difference between Spar and Centra on this issue. While we have invariably found pleasant and sympathetic sales staff in all the Centra stores, any managers we have come into contact with aggressively defend the sales of lads’ mags and dismiss our feedback with rudeness and disdain. One particular manager prides himself on having the highest sales of one of these mags in all of Northern Ireland. I’m increasingly feeling that a focused campaign to single out the attitude of Centra and compare it to the progressive policy and practice of Spar might be in order.

Understanding sexual violence.

This morning’s lead headline in the local radio and television news was the announcement that the PSNI and DHSSPS are relaunching their ‘Be SMART’ anti-rape and sexual violence campaign as a response to rising numbers of this type of crime being reported – a 10% increase in the last 6 months. My heart sank. In an earlier post I expressed my complete disgust at the pink version of this public awareness flyer that is riddled with victim blaming ‘advice’ and the very clear implication that if you are raped then you have not been smart enough to stop it. However, as the police officer interviewed began to speak the first words out of his mouth were,

“This campaign is designed to encourage people to better understand the issue of consent” (slight paraphrasing perhaps as I can’t access iPlayer to check it.)

The fact that this was his starting point left me feeling that at least progress is being made. There is a blue version of the Be SMART flyer which carefully outlines advice for men on how to ensure they have consent for any sexual act and helping reinforce the fact that consent cannot be assumed under the new legal framework in the Sexual Offences Order (2009). Hope at least that some of the feminist discourse extremely visible in the UK and Ireland over the last year, which challenges victim-blaming assumptions about the ‘causes’ of rape, may finally be filtering through. Policy makers and law-enforcers are starting to realise that it is simply unacceptable for the focus of rape prevention work to be on demanding that women engage in fewer ‘risky’ behaviours. The conversation must begin at the point of men’s behaviour and their abuse of the physical, mental or emotional power that enables them to rape. I have to admit that this is heartening.

It would also be naïve however to think that this is any more than a baby step in the right direction. Until we see an increase in the conviction rates for rape and other serious sexual offences and we see the number of these attacks significantly decreasing then we definitely have more to work at than to celebrate. Even the ongoing confusion of messages shows how far we have yet to travel – while the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster report may have provided space for a coherent and appropriate interview to be aired, their local news website features the same story with a very different focus. Here the discussion of consent has been sidelined in favour of what appears to be a regressive focus on the implications of drinking too much:

“We, as a police service, want this campaign to encourage people to make more informed, responsible and healthy decisions about their alcohol intake and also to think about the possible harmful consequences of impaired judgement.”  Det Ch Insp Don Glass

This leaves me with so many questions, like when you say ‘people’, do you mean women? Is it women who need to watch our alcohol intake? Or do you understand that for many who are attacked their attacker is the drunk one, just too big or intimidating to fend off? When you say ‘impaired judgement’ do you understand how offensive it is to make rape sound like nothing more than a one night stand we cringe about the next morning? Do you have any idea how much damage these few simple lines can do in the mind of a rape victim, already riddled with the voices of prejudice and stereotyping that our culture tortures them with? Do you give a shit about improving reporting and conviction rates when you come off with patronising bollocks like this? And then there’s this little piece of nonsense:

“Sex without consent is rape and the consequences for being convicted can have a devastating effect on both the victim and accused.”

No actually, I think you’ll find the consequences of an attacker NOT being convicted can have a devastating effect on the victim, something you should perhaps be a little more concerned about.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it until they wise up and treat us like adults – everyone, male and female, should be encouraged to be aware of our own personal safety. But when the overwhelming majority of all communications from the authorities tasked with protecting women from rape focus on telling us to be more careful then that is sustaining the problem. It puts people off reporting, it creates a myth that women raped by someone they know/flirt with/be polite to have only themselves to blame. It provides a protective layer of secrecy and shame that allows rapists to safely manipulate and abuse women again and again and again because they will get away with it. The only way this will change is when we leave the victim blaming out of it and throw all our efforts into convicting more rapists. End of.

Update: A very similar story was announced in London today, with that city reporting a horrifying 37% increase in reported sexual attacks in the last year. Notice the difference in how this trend is being responded to however – when will we have this level of insight and commitment to equality? http://www.womensviewsonnews.org/wvon/2010/10/rape-education-in-london-schools/

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