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Blogging on sexual objectification – developing a critical lens is more important than telling people what to criticise.

In a week that began with David Cameron voicing his support for the forthcoming Bailey Report on the sexualisation of children and ended with the opening of a reincarnated Playboy club in London’s Mayfair, I have found myself in equal parts enthused and irritated by the discussion of sexual objectification in the mainstream media. Delighted that some degree of accountability is likely to be enforced on the industries that shamelessly exploit children and young people’s vulnerability, peddling a cynical, commodified distortion of adult sexuality. But more than uncomfortable with the vision of society that this report and its recommendations might represent for the Tories, the Daily Mail and its author and MALE Chief Exec of the Christian organisation, the MOTHER’s Union (I’m Anglican and even I don’t get how that works) – hardly a line up of supporters that screams “Yey feminism!” In fact the images of smiling, energetic feminist protestors in Mayfair gave me much more satisfaction, if tempered a little by the news media’s determination to paint the events as more amusing than significant, complete with all the smirks and eye-widening that accompany all stories in the ‘And finally…’ slot. At least there were opportunities for important feminist voices like Kat Banyard to take on the ‘Just a bit of fun’ brigade with some serious feminist ass-kickery.

One way or another, this week has reminded me of why I started writing here at soisaystoher in the first place – the need for a place to discuss these issues in a little more detail than the average news soundbite allows for, and in doing so to encourage people to develop their own critical lens, something which will stand by all of us much better than stricter legislation of the magazine, clothing or entertainment industries. This is something I had the opportunity to speak about recently at the members’ meeting of the National Women’s Council of Ireland. The event focused on the presence/absence of women in the media in Ireland and included thoughts from a panel of academics, print and broadcast journalists, and bloggers like myself, as well as fantastic input and debate from the 100 or so women in attendance. All the panelists’ talks from the day are available to view on youtube – I posted mine below as a bit of a reminder of what it is this whole blogging malarky is trying to achieve.


Ken Clarke’s horrendous views on rape – more than just a political ‘gaffe’.

It’s not often the media are clambering over one another to condemn the ignorance of someone who trivialises the pain and trauma of women who have been raped by perpetuating myths about what constitutes ‘real’ rape compared to attacks where the events do not involve violence or bushes or raincoats. But when that person is a government minister of course, it’s suddenly as hot a topic as a Sky Sports presenter, who happens to be suing his media empire employers, making sexist remarks about female football officials. For women however, the fact that the ignorance in question has come from the Justice Secretary is nothing less than terrifying. I know all aspects of Ken Clarke’s diem horribilis have been written about and discussed at length everywhere from The Daily Record to Newsnight and our own Belfast Telegraph. For that reason, I’m going to keep it brief. The issue of sexual violence and the barriers for victims going through the criminal justice system is one which has been highlighted before on soisaystoher so it seems important to write something on the events of this week, given that it feels like a bit of a landmark development in the public discourse on sexual violence. Here are the particular low points in Clarke’s bullshit pit, in my opinion:

1. His total lack of knowledge of the law on sexual offences which led him to inaccurately suggest that consensual sex between an 18 year old and a 15 year old would result in a conviction for rape. Having spent years working with young people I knew instantly that this wasn’t correct and took the opportunity to confirm my understanding of it today with a senior PSNI officer in the Public Protection Unit who deals with both child abuse and sexual crimes. He supported my suggestion that Ken Clarke had gotten the law very badly wrong…in fact the exact phrase he used was “utter tripe”. While a 15 year old is under the legal age of consent to sexual activity, any incident reported to the police would be investigated on the basis of assessing the potential vulnerabilities and the Gillick Competency of the 15 year old in question. A conviction for a sexual offence would only be pursued if they had evidence that there was some form of coercion or abuse taking place. Even under those circumstances, the conviction obtained would not be one of rape. Unless of course they had actually been, you know, raped. The charge of statutory rape only applies in the UK where a child is under 13. Not 16…13, because at this age a child is automatically considered unable to give their consent to sex due to their developmental stage. There is a myth in the public consciousness that any sex with a person under 16 is considered statutory rape and may lead to some poor lad being thrown in jail for unwittingly getting busy with a saucy little jailbait minx who tricks him into thinking she’s older. I think it’s a deliberate distortion of the law that adults tell kids to scare them out of having sex with each other – in the absence of proper sex education, fear seems to be the only tool people are willing to employ. The problem is, I can understand the general public getting this one wrong but when the justice secretary’s knowledge of the Sexual Offences Act appears to be no more nuanced than the average Daily Mail reader’s then that is pretty infuriating. Oh and when Nick Robinson asked Clarke on the Politics Show “No apology then – no resignation?” and he responded, “If someone can explain anything I have said that is factually inaccurate then of course I will consider it.” You’re welcome Mr Clarke. Now fucking resign you idiot.

2. His attempts to categorise rape in terms of how “serious” it appears. This is probably the aspect of his remarks that has incited the biggest reaction, and for very good reason. Despite his later protestations that he didn’t mean to suggest there was such a thing as a non-serious rape, the rhetoric used in his discussion of the subject very strongly suggests the kind of subtle but pervasive attitudes that shape many people’s core beliefs about rape under a variety of circumstances. No one would admit when asked that they think a man forcibly penetrating a women with his penis is ever excusable or less than “serious” but they may hold a set of assumptions about the boundaries of consent and the right of a woman to “cry rape” after an unwanted sexual experience. Clarke was heard to use language like, “forcible rape”, “a serious rape where, you know, violence and an unwilling woman…”, “rape in the ordinary conversational sense where some man has forcefully, with a bit of violence…”, “date rapes can sometimes be very confusing…they do vary extraordinarily”, and my personal favourite, “the classic rape of someone who leaps out on an unsuspecting woman and forces her to have sex…nobody is suggesting that a proper rapist is going to be let out of jail in 12 months.” It’s all there really, in his own appalling words. He’s confused as to how he gave the impression that he considers some rapes to be less serious than others. I’m confused as to how he could possibly be confused. Victims of sexual assault and rape are still fighting painfully hard to increase the understanding that most rapists are known to them, that lying there and waiting for it to be over because you are terrified of the violence that may result in your fighting back does not constitute consent and that having your body used by an opportunistic attacker when you are unable to give consent due to the effects of drugs or alcohol is a serious sexual crime and is not your fault. For Ken Clarke to reiterate the myth that to be a real victim of rape someone would have to have lept out at you is just heart-breaking.

3. His cynical attempt to make it sound like the proposals around 50% sentence reductions for early guilty pleas are to make victims feel better. While the experience of giving evidence in court is no doubt a difficult one, it seems to me that the whole process of reporting the rape to the police and pursuing a conviction is all pretty harrowing. How much worse then if you find out that your attacker has managed to get a shorter sentence for playing ball with the CPS/PPS? This happens in domestic violence cases all the time and there is evidence to suggest it actually deters women from reporting assaults more. This commenter at The Guardian Politics Blog, who describes herself as a victim of sexual assault, says it best:

On the issue of shortened sentences for an early guilty plea, victims are being spoken for, rather than spoken to. Whilst I agree that appearance in court for a rape victim is traumatic, the main issue is to have the attacker brought to justice. Trauma at a trial is only one result of rape; the anger and sense of injustice at the most basic of human rights violations is far more overwhelming.The thought of an attacker halving their sentence, after weighing-up the odds and tactically pleading guilty with the advice of a lawyer, would bring no solace to victims whatsoever. If the victim’s trauma at going to trial is the issue, then more support should be given in the form of counselling and other services.

Currently word in the tabloids is that David Cameron is backing his man, but is unlikely to include any mention of the 50% reduction proposals for sexual offences in the policy on sentencing reform due to be announced soon. I’m impressed by the public outcry. I’m glad it appears to have led to this ridiculous proposal being shelved. I just hope it helps further the public’s understanding of how far we still have to go in properly dealing with sexual violence.

Feminism and football: Lessons in workplace sexism.

Sian Massey - Sunderland v Blackpool - Premier League

I got this message from a football loving man friend yesterday on Facebook “ffs Kellie. I was expecting a feminist diatribe from you today. Is that baby turning you soft?”

Yes, perhaps being up the duff is dulling my feminist sensibilities but whatever the reason, I definitely was remiss in not blogging about the biggest sexism in the media row to hit the UK in a long time. As if by magic, I immediately got a call from the BBC to ask if I would debate the subject on Good Morning Ulster and obviously had no choice but to agree, my conscience having been well and truly provoked. Unfortunately the segment was bumped, as happens fairly regularly with women-related issues I get asked to comment on in the media, and was relegated as yesterday’s news for the fine listeners of the Nolan Show to pick over instead. So I decided not to let my preparation for the non-existent debate go to waste and thought I would post some thoughts here on the blog.

Obviously, like most people, I welcomed the news yesterday that Sky Sports football commentators Richard Keys and Andy Gray would be disciplined for their off-air sexist comments about the capability of assistant referee Sian Massey who was officiating at Saturday’s premier league match between Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Their crass assumption before the game that she would most likely be rubbish and make a dodgy call purely because she was a woman and therefore couldn’t possibly understand “the offside rule” was met with almost universal revulsion from every corner, EVEN the Daily Mail. Their comments were especially ironic given that Massey’s skill and ten year’s of experience led her to make an extremely tough call on Meireles run to set up Liverpool’s first goal, with undisputed accuracy. I was however, slightly concerned that Sky Sports might wait for the storm to pass, sweep it under the carpet and refuse to take their responsibility to promote fairness seriously. I hardly expected great things from the network that brought us the ‘Sky Sports Hotties’, a generation of young female sports newsreaders hired and styled purely to enhance the viewing pleasure of the assumed-to-be-male audience.

Thankfully however, Sky have imposed sanctions, with the pair of dinosaurs being suspended from their totemic role and issued with a reportedly terse warning that any repeated incidents would constitute a sackable offence. Then today came the news that having uncovered another incident of sexism recorded back in December 2010, Sky have followed through with their threat and given Andy Gray his P45. While there may be internal issues influencing this decision that go beyond Sky’s heroic commitment to anti-oppressive practice in the workplace, this is a hugely important result for women, and not just those working in the world of football. Across all professions, most people know that it is not acceptable to publicly express sexist attitudes. That is what equality legislation has achieved for us – the right to participate fully in any workplace without facing direct discrimination and public prejudice. However, as many women can testify to, what legislation hasn’t managed to eliminate is the undercurrent of hidden sexism, maintained by degrading humour, flippant assumptions, casual stereotyping, subtle jibes, sexualising of female colleagues and the conversations people have that they think they will never be held accountable for. These things create the ‘boys’ club’ culture where women are undervalued, passed over, and even ridiculed. Some have suggested Gray and Keys didn’t deserve to be punished for what they believed was a private conversation, a notion which I totally dispute. To begin with they were both wearing mics and have been working in television long enough to know that despite not being on air, this still means you are speaking to an entire production room full of people – people they clearly didn’t mind offending. The importance of making people accountable for sexist attitudes, especially in a male dominated profession like football, cannot be overstated.

Another defence I’ve come across in the last couple of days is that of the ‘just a bit of a larf’ variety, with some football fans confessing on message boards that they express similar views to Gray and Keys most weekends down the pub watching the match. I’ve also seen a number of men bemoan the unfair treatment of men in the media who they seem to think are subject to a torrent of assumptions that they are incompetent idiots. Feelings that have been ignited perhaps by Tory MP Dominic Raad’s ignorant misunderstanding of gender inequality and misrepresentation of feminism in yesterday’s press. I personally am not entirely convinced as to the volume of insults men are apparently subjected to and I think that constructed ideas about ‘man-flu’ and men being rubbish at housework are not the work of nasty feminist bigots but rather the ugly by-product of patriarchy, ultimately serving to maintain traditional gender roles as women are reminded to be martyrs as they care for their families and clean their houses with pride while men go off to work and deal with all the important stuff. Anyway, the fact is there will always be a level of humour between the sexes based on exaggerated perceptions of difference and these will prove to irritate or offend different people to varying degrees, or not at all. Even I am willing to accept that. However, what happened to Sian Massey is a far cry from Jimmy Carr getting a cheap laugh at some stereotype about women’s sexual behaviour or the gals from ‘Loose Women’ laughing about their crap ex-husbands. What happened in this case is that the ability of a professional was seriously called into question solely on the basis of gender. While working at a high level within her chosen career, before she even had a chance to make a single call, she found herself being undermined by two powerful if not particularly well-liked men in her profession. That is totally unacceptable.

And it reminds me that power is the key issue here. It is clear from the tone of the conversation recorded and released to the press that Gray and Keys spoke with no level of irony or humour. Rather they sound serious and even a little bitter. Keys’ weary sigh half way through and his statement that “the game’s gone mad” reveal that their sexism comes from a genuine desire to keep women out of football and maintain the power and status quo. Just last week UEFA discussed research into European football that showed more than 99% of senior administrators at clubs and football associations are middle-aged to elderly white men. In Northern Ireland we have seen, through the controversy surrounding the IFA in recent years that the culture of an old boys’ club is very much alive and well in the sport’s governing body here, despite major achievements in tackling sectarian, racist and to a lesser extent sexist attitudes among the fans and players. It is important that the dark little corners of football where sexism festers and produces the kind of power-mongering that prevents talented young women from pursing their dreams is exposed, just as we have seen this week. The attitude of Gray and Keys makes me wonder, if this it the kind of treatment Sian Massey received at her level, what must it be like for all of the women trying to break through in refereeing at a local level who turn up every weekend to officiate at club matches in leagues up and down the country. How many skilled referees may have dropped out before now because they just got fed up with being taunted or ridiculed or sexually harassed? It would be nice to believe that wouldn’t happen but it is with some sadness that I would have to suspect it probably does. I’m glad Gray and Keys got caught because otherwise the legacy of Sian’s contribution to Saturday’s match would have been a plethora of football blogs and sports publications pedalling subtle but just as damaging sexism as they noted how the ‘female linesman’ made a really great call. At least this way we have had the chance to say, actually what on earth has her gender got to do with anything?


The weather keeping you indoors? Write a letter to your MLAs for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence.

It is currently Day 8 of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence. The half way mark is here and we have already secured support from a number of female MLAs who are committed to publicly reading out the case studies they were sent, showing solidarity with women who experience violence by letting their voices be heard. We also had some great conversations with the public in Belfast city centre last Saturday during our awareness raising activities handing out white ribbons and facts about violence against women on snowflakes. Not to mention the great turn out and rigorous questions to the brave panel of politicians who attended the event ‘What is the NI Assembly doing to tackle violence against women?’ hosted by QUB Feminist Society.

Now there is just one important job for YOU to do to help bring this campaign to a great conclusion. To really show our politicians that the public demand they take action and prioritise violence against women, we need as many of you as possible to write to your own representatives and tell them what you think is required to make our communities safer places for women and girls. You may want to compose your letter based on the following suggested outline:

1. Why do you think this is an important issue?

Remind them about the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence. We’ve already given them lists of statistics but what about the real lives beyond the figures? What kind of violence do women face in your community? What have you seen and heard that has impacted you enough to want to write this letter? (NB Please respect the confidentiality of individuals by not sharing stories with identifying details.)

2. Join us in making these important demands:

(Feel free to copy and paste any of these that you would like to include)

– Northern Ireland needs a comprehensive violence against women strategy. The ‘Tackling Violence at Home’ and ‘Tackling Sexual Violence and Abuse’ strategies are important but fail to address the more complex and diverse problem of violence against women and girls. It is an internationally recognised issue which the UN states is “a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” If we do not produce policy that addresses violence against women in all of its forms, as both a cause and consequence of gender inequality then we will fail in our obligations under CEDAW to provide women full access to their human rights. We would like you to recommend a cross-departmental group to progress such policy.

– In the ‘Tackling Sexual Violence and Abuse’ strategy, we were assured that a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) would be open at Antrim Area Hospital by the end of 2010. This has not happened and we would like to know when this vital service will be available? In England these centres are a vital part of supporting victims of sexual violence as well as ensuring the best evidence to pursue convictions through the courts.

– There are many women who have experienced or who are experiencing violence who do not have access to Legal Aid. The initial ex-parte cost in seeking a non-molestation order is £400, and within two weeks the pursuit of a full non-molestation order can cost a further £400 or more. These extremely high costs could prevent women from seeking justice. We are asking you to support an immediate amendment to the Legal Aid rules to provide an automatic right given to all victims of gender violence to have access to legal protection and justice free of charge.

– Some of the most at risk women in Northern Ireland are those who have an insecure immigration status. Due to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy, when these women face violence or abuse they are often trapped by the lack of financial support available as well as their fear of deportation if their immigration status is dependent on their husband or partner. We would like to know what will be done to ensure a long term solution for women in this situation.

3. What would you like to see in your own constituency to keep women safer?

Is there a domestic violence refuge facing closure? Is the poor street lighting putting women at risk of attack? Do you have concerns that illegal brothels are trapping women in cycles of sexual violence through prostitution? Your representative needs to know about the issues specific to the community they serve.

Don’t forget to finish by thanking them for their time and asking for feedback on the questions you have raised.

Contact details for all MLAs listed by constituency are available here:

Feel free to email them or send a real life letter. One of our members who has some lobbying experience has suggested that MLAs are particularly prone to respond to hand-written letters due to the obvious amount of personal effort involved. So if you have a bit of spare time in the next week why not give it a go!

Please try to get your letters sent before the 10th December as this marks the end of the 16 Days of Activism. Good luck and please keep us posted about any responses you get either through the Belfast Feminist Network facebook group or by emailing

Opposing the cuts is a feminist response.

Last Wednesday my husband got up for work before me, and came downstairs to make us both a cuppa accompanied by his daily dose of ‘Good Morning Ulster’. My first awareness of the dawning of this inauspicious day was his repetitive chanting, growing in volume as he made his way back upstairs cups in hand, which culminated in him bursting through the bedroom door with a chorus of ‘CUTS, CUTS, CUTS, CUTS, CUTS!’

And so it began. I’ve been reluctant to blog on the issue of the Comprehensive Spending Review and all of the drama and debate it has unleashed, largely due to the complete media saturation and a need to sit back and find the useful messages in all the frenzy. In the days that followed the UK coalition government’s announcement of the deepest cuts to the state’s public spending budget in (apparently) living memory, two things have by consensus become painfully clear:

Continue reading ‘Opposing the cuts is a feminist response.’

Recent Belfast Feminist Network event on sex industry.

I’ve been so busy with Belfast Feminist Network of late that blogging has definitely taken a back seat. I don’t mind though. I always wanted to be an activist, surrounded by activists supporting each other, making a noise, refusing to back down. And getting to do stuff like this…

(Post originally appeared in UK Feminista here.)

As the Facebook group for Belfast Feminist Network hit 200 members and our fortnightly meetings began to attract more keen new people with each one, we decided to host a public awareness raising evening on the subject of the sex industry. In fact it was something we’d had in the pipeline for a while as we discussed feminist activities on the issue in other parts of the UK and Ireland. We wanted to learn more about this industry as it is currently playing out in Northern Ireland. Given the cultural peculiarities of this place, it is really important that we don’t try to import campaigns and activist strategies from other places without doing everything we can to find out what’s really happening for women and girls involved in the sex industry in our own towns and cities.

Continue reading ‘Recent Belfast Feminist Network event on sex industry.’

A very feminist weekend.

There is surely no better way to spend a weekend than surrounded by strong, compassionate women who have come together to share their vision for a feminist peace on our still troubled island. When I came home from the Hanna’s House summer school yesterday I was suffering from a satisfied exhaustion, full of so much information, inspiration and craic, overwhelmed by the whole experience and simultaneously wanting more of the same! The seminars, workshops and panel discussions were an opportunity to hear from the activists who have been tirelessly building the path to gender equality in this country for years, rolling their sleeves up, breaking new ground, breaking windows, breaking themselves at times to make sure that women are heard and that our human rights are respected. With the exception of reproductive rights (a workshop on the issue would have been a courageous and welcome addition) the diversity of issues covered was fantastic, from domestic violence to women in prison, dealing with the past, women and the media and what feminism means to younger women, to name but a few. The joining of dots between many of these issues was equally as impressive, reminding me that the oppression of women in our wee country occurs across all spheres and so has to be addressed with this in mind – something that keeps one woman in fear or without full realisation of her potential and agency, affects all of us. My continuing sense of being a part of something that requires all of our pieces to be brought to the table for the whole picture to be revealed and imagined, was very much heightened by the Hanna’s House experience. As the leaders of the project attempt to create an island-wide approach as well as knit together the experiences of feminists past, present and future, from the suffragette to the blogger, I find myself humbled and delighted to have a sense of fitting in and being able to contribute.

Continue reading ‘A very feminist weekend.’

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