Saturday, 31 December 2011

THE HAND OF TIME



Everyone is abuzz with it being New Year. Strangely some people like it better than Christmas, despite the lack of presents and roast meat. I don't much care for it myself. Not only does it tend to be a time when people get maudlin and more pissed than normal, I find it more pressured. There are resolutions, grand declarations of forthcoming intentions and looking back to count up achievements. It always feels like time is ticking by to me. I prefer to avoid it if I can.

This year is a bit different. I'm still not keen to go crazy and embrace Hogmanay like someone who is half Scottish might be expected to. But not because I'm being anti social. I'm just sorry to see 2011 go. It's the first year in a very long time I've had any fondness for. Not only was it not unrelentingly crappy, it was surprisingly good. I feel like I achieved real things. The kind of things I can tell other people and have a conversation about, rather than have them smile indulgently at me when I mention managing a trip to the Post Office as if I'm a delicate and slightly batty old lady.

Obviously I don't live my life solely according to what other people think, but sometimes it's nice to be able to join in the big people conversations and talk about stuff everyone can relate to. Years of being single, unemployed and ill mean a lot of people feel they have nothing to talk to you about and when you add in being depressed and having had bad things happen, they are practically running away. It's a big confidence boost to be able to join in again, especially as I have more than one achievement under my hat this year.

I'm not quite sure where it all started to change. Possibly when I yelled at Naomi Wolf. Being able to withstand that level of unrelenting patronising and bullshit seemed to buoy me. I certainly took the confidence with me to my new volunteer job, leaving the attitude behind and calling on my reserves of empathy instead, trying to turn my own experiences with the DWP into something that would help others. Getting up and getting out of the house within a set time frame was a challenge, but seemed to come together a bit after some practice and lots of support from my ever patient boss. In fact, I took to being back in the world of work (oh how I missed you!) well enough to apply for a proper paid job, be offered it and decline it in favour of some more work experience.

Frankly, I haven't had time to have a job. I've been too busy. I got a bit further toward my gold badge for the person in the UK to have the most therapy (and it really seemed to help.) I went for a walk on more than one occasion. I learned that wearing make up wasn't the be all and end all. I bought some clothes that weren't black. I showed my knees for the first time in ten years. I socialised without having five excuses to get out of each event (just one or maybe two...). I went on more than one date with a man, who although not interested, wasn't a total bastard. I met lots of new people, both connected to the internet and in real life. I learned some new skills and how to put other people first. I made bread. I discovered my life had been lacking an ice cream maker. I spent an entire year away from Belfast and realised homesickness can get stronger after a decade. I had a couple of days that felt normal and anxiety free and reminded me that there might be more round the corner.

So why am I so nervous about seeing 2011 go? Why aren't I embracing 2012 with gusto? Partly because it means seeing Seb Coe on the TV almost indefinitely for the next few months, but mainly because for all my progress, change still scares me. I'd got 2011 all worn in nicely, like really well loved flannel pyjamas. What if 2012 is more like a pair of shoes that never quite get comfortable? I might not achieve so much. I might be disappointed again. I know there are bad things coming this year with the introduction of the Welfare Reform Bill for example. I just don't know if any of them will touch me directly. But I feel unsettled and tense about the change of year. I plan to circumvent this though. Not with the marvellous CBT based coping strategies I've been taught this year, but with some good old fashioned avoidance. Depending how I feel after a nap, I'll either go to bed at 9pm or open a bottle of Cava and be too tiddly to care what time it is.

I'll see you all on the other side. Thank you for helping make it the best year in a long time. I look forward (albeit tentatively) to keeping it up next year with you all too!

Friday, 25 November 2011

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE?

There are times that victim blaming feels like a national sport. Look at any article about rape or sexual assault in any newspaper and even if it isn't at Daily Mail standards, there's almost always an undercurrent of it. Look at the language used. You'll note that often a rape victim is an unmarried mother or a single woman, yet I don't recall ever gleaning the marital status of a male robbery victim from an article. Descriptions of what she was doing or what time of night or day it was add a salacious tone that often lifts it from simple police inquiry for witnesses to morality tale. It's the little comments about her clothes or her routine that are commonplace in sex crimes reports, but would jar if the paper told us what electrical goods or amount of money or type of bank card a man was mugged for.

But it isn't just the papers who do this. Read, if you dare, any thread on Comment is Free on the Guardian or the Daily Mail site about rape and about 80% suggest that if she hadn't been wearing that/doing this/ female/alive and had her vagina unpadlocked while not locked in a cupboard only she had the key for, then she must share some culpability for her attack. This is often dressed up as 'concern trolling' where said opinonated commenter publishes their view because they're just worried wearing a short skirt will end badly for womenhood. It's a convenient smokescreen though for trotting out all the ways that they feel women are ultimately more responsible for rape than the men who commit it. Without fail, these beliefs drip with misogyny and tie themselves in knots to try and justify why women doing legal and normal things in their lives are definitely worse than men committing an illegal act. Hang around long enough and you'll hit the clothing/alcohol/out after dark trifecta that shows the person commenting knows nothing about rape and probably believes it never occurs in countries like Saudi Arabia which to their mind sensibly ban alcohol, enforce burkas and have magically elimanated rape to the point where they can be sure they're stoning the woman to death for the right reason....

Victim blaming and rape myths tend to be a year round chorus to leading your life, but it picks up a notch every Christmas. Police forces, Transport for London, local councils and other public bodies get a free reign to indulge their belief that after a night out men are blameless happy go lucky fools who constantly have the problem of not being able to contain their pesky penises and falling into the drunken/not well enough covered or simply all too tempting Hungry Hippo style vaginas of those modern day Eves they've been socialising with. We are bombarded with expensive campaigns telling us women what we should or shouldn't do to avoid being raped. We must watch our drinks like hawks, spending money on special bottle stoppers, lip glosses and portable CSI labs to test for roofies. We must do everything in pairs as if we are partying in Noah's Ark. We must keep extra money in our shoe to afford a cab, but then carry extra shoes to make sure we aren't vulnerable in our heels, leaving our tiny lady brains wondering which of our four feet contains the magic cash and taking our attention away from the exact level of flirtatiousness and friendliness we must be displaying at all times around men so as not to give incorrect impressions. We should have nightclub bouncers learn a trick from headmistresses and have us kneel down upon entry to check our skirts touch our knees or issue us with a regulation shroud to protect us. And while we all know we mustn't have sexual contact with anyone because consent isn't really a time by time thing, but something that covers you for life. Instead we should be spending all evening considering how we get home. Should we try and renact one of those highly triggering TfL posters about illegal mini cabs or take a black cab and hope there aren't any more John Worboys out here? (This is actually a trick question. We shouldn't have been out in the first place so no matter which way you get home, you're in the wrong, silly!)

The appalling rate of attrition at police level, policy of 'no criming' rape allegations, lack of medical provisions for victims, bias amongst the police, judiciary or juries, stigma against victims, low levels of remand for those charged with rape and the reactions of trauma after assault that all help lead to the woefully low rape conviction rate of 6.7% in the UK don't tend to get a glossy poster campaign. These are expensive things to change and require a huge amount of effort and engagement from people who feel they would have to work harder and not get their own way like they've been used to. The willingness really doesn't seem to there when you read South Wales Police suggest it'd be offensive to men to ask some of them not to rape over the festive period, but refuse to see the disconnect that it's offensive (and patronising) to ask all women not to get raped. But then again, this is the force who hired the officer who deliberately destroyed the paperwork and evidence that allowed my second rapist to go free and said it would be unfair to punish him for something he did at a previous force, promoting him to Sex Crimes instead, so I'm not sure what I was expecting...

Well, a little something like the initative from my own council. For the second year running, Lambeth Council are promoting their 'Know the Difference' campaign this Christmas, making the valid point that not all men rape, but that all rapes involve a rapist and most of those rapes are by men. They've come up with a campaign that puts the onus on men not to rape, but that speaks across the lines of sexual assault to recognise it isn't always a heterosexual crime. But more to the point, they've identified the crucial fact. Rape is not for the victim to prevent, it's for the perpetrator to stop it happening. Nothing about this campaign is about victim blaming. It's about speaking to everyone, especially perpetrators and seeking to clarify the laws and morals that keep people safe. They show the fine line between harrassment and sexual assault and underline everything with the need for informed and enthusiastic consent, all delivered with a reminder of the law and options for victims. Nothing is about forbidding a good time, but about making sure everyone is participating equally.

As long as Lambeth Sapphire have upped their game since I dealt with them and aren't still leaving victims abandoned and scared, then I just can't fault this campaign. Informative, clear, clever and without the merest hint of scolding toward women, it proves to me that there's no excuse for the usual victim blaming cliches. It was widely displayed in Lambeth Tube stations, borough wide buses, bars, clubs, restaurants and prominent billboards last year and I presume this year will be the same. I've been trying to find out if the borough's above average reporting rate last year was because this non-judgemental campaign made victims feel more able to come forward or whether we really do have a big problem with sexual violence in the area, but I might leave the details til after Christmas and just enjoy living and socialising in Lambeth like a normal, non traumatised woman. Being told rape isn't my fault in a campaign like this makes it easier for me to believe it the rest of the year too. Maybe it'll also help me reclaim Christmas as a time to have fun, not be repeatedly triggered? Either way, I'm even more grateful than usual to live in Lambeth right now...

Saturday, 19 November 2011

DOCTOR, DOCTOR...


These days I dread going near a newspaper or the TV. Each day seems to bring another creeping insiduous way to make life more difficult for the sick and disabled in this country from the non stop hassle from Atos, the drip drip of 'scrounger' rhetoric and today, deciding that GPs are not suitable people to decide if someone is too sick to be signed off work for more than a week.

Bearing in mind that GPs are already not seen as suitable to assess whether people are long term sick when claiming benefits, it looks like the government is showing vague consistency by saying they can't do it short term either. Then you realise that they want to hand the entire running of the NHS in England over to GPs and you wonder if they understand what that the word doctor and manager are not actually interchangeable? One requires seven years of training, the other does not. Yet the coalition government seems to think it would help all of us to hand the medical stuff over the managers and the managerial stuff over to the doctors.

Not only do they want to save money, they also seem to be under the impression that GPs are such kind caring people that they are handing out the adult equivalent of lollipops left, right and centre and signing people off work and onto benefits in such droves that it's like a game of roulette as to whether you'll pop in for a prescription or come out signed off. This suggests they have never actually spoken to someone who has been signed off when they get sick but don't actually know what's wrong yet.

It's actually really quite hard to get a sick certificate. These days doctors can also issue something called a 'fit note' that directs employers that you need extra help and can't do your job fully due to ill health, trying to avoid the situation where an injury for example stops people working completely if the employer could try and find you alternative work within your role. This has merits, but sometimes you just need a break from work completely and trying to do bits and bobs just drags things out. I had had a period of employment upheaval for several months and had a few 'fit notes' due to an injury, but at no point did I ask my GP to sign me off even after a turbulent six weeks where I had lost my job, split up with my boyfriend, and been raped. I kept going to job interviews and failing to get them due to the fact I couldn't stop crying in them. I decided to sign onto Job Seekers' Allowance.

Only when my job advisor and his supervisor took me off into a smaller room off the main drag, sat me down and kindly told me that they could not allow me to sign the Job Seekers' contract to be available to work 40 hours a week because I was so clearly unwell and unable to work that the thought of going onto a sickness benefit even occurred to me. They sent me off to my doctor to get a sick certificate to go onto Income Support so that I could claim Housing Benefit at least. Totally and utterly freaked out that the JobCentre were being so nice, I stumbled through the door of the GP tearfully, explained what I needed and then proceeded to have a panic attack and cry for the next 30 minutes to the point where the practice nurse suggested sedating me.

I left without my certificate. The GP refused to say that I was unfit for work and suggested unless things got worse I go back and say I wanted JSA. She didn't think there was anything she could do. I went home and as luck would have it, was made homeless that night by the flaming mob that were my housemates. Shellshocked and unslept, I went back to the Job Centre and explained the last 24 hours. They conjured up a surprisingly formal letter to take to the doctor. I went back to the surgery and had an even more spectacular meltdown this time, but luckily enough, did it in reception and another doctore had to be called out to deal with me.

He took one look at me, signed me off work for 8 weeks and gave me a prescription for anti-depressants, a referral to a counsellor and a Valium. I have no recollection whatsoever of applying for Income Support later that day. The next 8 weeks generally passed in a blur of trips to the housing office, trying to move my stuff, find somewhere to live and continuing to apply for jobs. I was quite surprised when I was signed off again for another 8 weeks. Which took to me to the week I was raped again.

Almost immediately I developed a galloping case of Post Traumatice Stress Disorder and started to become extremely agoraphobic. Just getting to the doctor was an epic struggle and concerned enough about my mental health to only give me a week's medication at a time, but not enough to refer me to the Community Mental Health Team or more specialist services, I continued with the 8 weeks at a time certificates, always aware that everything hung on my doctor remaining sympathetic to me. If he decided there was no certificate, then there'd be no Housing Benefit and no hostel. It was nervewracking.

You might say that removing that pressure from the GP to an impartial body would lessen the pressure but I disagree on several points. What both the GP and I needed were better specialist services. The GP needed someone with more experience of someone in mental health distress to guide him and a faceless council looking to tick symptoms off a list isn't it. It would be better to spend the money it costs to set up this council on retraining GPs to be able to deal with undiagnosed conditions and get them moving people on to specialists to get diagnoses. I also fear that some Atos style pen pusher would have been less likely to sign me off as they'd only have seen me once the problem started, not developed a relationship with me over months and seen how things changed and progressed. They also have bad form on being able to take fluctuating conditions seriously and to see the tie in between mental and physical health.

If the government would like us to stop being signed off work long term, then they'd be better off imposing some kind of rule that you must be referred to the appropriate specialist team within a certain number of weeks if you are signed off for more than 8 weeks with one condition. I wouldn't have had to go through the gamut of emotion of wondering every 8 weeks if my GP was going to sign me off or whether I'd lose my house again if they said no. I wouldn't have had to take up a GP appointment every five minutes. I wouldn't have had to wait three years to get referred to the CMHT and another two and a half to get a proper diagnosis and my PTSD therapy. Waiting almost six years to know what is wrong with you is unacceptable. I literally had no words to describe what was wrong with me and this allowed my mental health conditions to become bigger and scarier and harder and harder to come back from. I had no idea if I'd actually lost my mind completely.

Improving GP services and encouraging them to ask for help and support and link to other NHS services (while we still have an NHS) would be the best thing for the sick and that taxpaying public (who shock horror, are often the same people...). It would also be of advantage to GPs as they'd be able to share the workload better and offer better support to the long term sick which might be a cost effective way to maintain confidence and interaction with the long term sick than yelling at them and giving the impression they are a burden on everyone. Bringing in Atos earlier and earlier will only lead to more money being paid to private companies and diverted from those in need. It will also conflict GPs further and bully them into making decisions only based on cost not care. And it will not help anyone get better, unless your idea of better is ignoring symptoms, rubberstamping forms and tossing people aside in to poverty and fear.

This is total Tory scaremongering to excuse commodifying health and vulnerability further in the UK. There might be a few people in the UK signed off who could work, but do we want to make it that it's impossible to take time of work unless you're dying? Plenty of people need some breathing room when life happens. People's physical health can fail, their mental health may not be stable, conditions fluctuate, people need time to grieve after a bereavement, recover when having a baby doesn't go to plan and cope with an unexpected accident. Unless you're a multi millionaire Cabinet member, you are vulnerable to needing these things on the NHS and welfare state between now and the time you die. Don't let them be sold off. And if you still think it's easy peasy to get signed off because you fancy lying on the sofa for a few weeks, doing some light scrounging, why don't you ask your GP and see how far you get before they hound you out of the surgery, howling with laughter?

Thursday, 27 October 2011

A SICK JOKE

This Saturday saw the Hardest Hit marches happen across the UK. These are designed to show how the sick and disabled are likely to face the lion's share of the Coalition's cuts programmes through the Welfare Reform Bill and the slashing of local services. The marches also hope to give the sick and disabled a voice in the onslaught of media and political hype about scroungers and fraudsters.

I'm not going to tell you there isn't benefit fraud. I'm just going to tell you how much it really is. For Disability Living Allowance, which is paid for the extra costs of being sick or disabled whether you are in work or unemployed, according to the Department of Work and Pensions who administer it, has a fraud rate of 0.5%. Yup, 99.5% of people claiming DLA are doing so legitimately. Just like David and Samantha Cameron were when they claimed for their severely disabled son Ivan. DLA helps with the cost of taxis when you can't get on a bus or the extra washing you have to do when you suffer bowel disease or the posher products you have to buy when you have arthritis and can't open things easily or the fact you have the heat on for longer and more frequently when you're housebound. Frivolous stuff like that.

DLA is hard to get. The form is over 30 pages long, takes on average 2 hours to fill out from start to finish and asks about every single part of your life in agonisingly intimate detail. Your words need to be backed up by your GP, specialists and support agencies. It's a major event. And even with those pieces of evidence, there is no guarantee you'll get it. Despite suffering from a combination of bowel problems, chronic fatigue, agoraphobia, depression, panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorder and providing eveidence from one specialist, my GP, a social worker, a psychiatrist, two psychologists and my current therapist, I was turned down for the benefit this week and told I don't need any care at any time in the day or night.

But, you say, I've seen you out and about holding court in social settings and seen pictures of the food you cook. You looked clean and immaculatly turned out to boot. You're obviously not that ill really and your benefit decision just agrees with that. But do you really know enough about my life to be sure? Did you know the reason I am early for everything is that I need to allow around 2 hours to get anywhere so that i have time to try leaving the house four times, have a panic attack or stave one off and arrive in time to scope out the whole area so that i can flee the scene at 5 seconds notice if I feel threatened? Did you know that taking the tube or bus places might result in me getting off it or changing seats three or four times because I am so freaked out by certain people just existing in the same space? And that to come and meet you, it's the first time I've left the house all week because the effort of getting washed, dressed into clean clothes that required the exertion of laundry is too much everyday? I, in fact, spent the other six and half days, in the same clothes I also slept in, either slumped on the sofa doing very little or trying to do housework and live my life but having to stop every 15 minutes to use the toilet or because I'm so tired I feel dizzy and the room is starting to spin. Pretty much everything I do is accompanied by gut wrenching nausea. This has been controlled by medication to the point where I no longer boak in bins in the street when I'm out, but is exacerbated by things like eating, bending over and changing temperature like getting in or out of a hot shower. Being sick on myself in the shower is quite my party piece.

Of course you didn't know all that. I didn't want you to know it. I don't want to have answer questions about it. I don't want your pity or your judgement. I don't want your helpful advice. (yes, I have tried hot baths and ginger...) I don't want to be defined by my illnesses. I find my life difficult. Even the basics many of you take for granted are just that bit more monumental for me, so I don't have time to take your feelings about my ill health on too. I also need a break from it all by not talking about it. Plus I'm concentrating on not throwing up on you. And more than anything I cannot bear to be that person you all dread saying 'how are you?' to and fearing a blow by blow symptom by symptom answer. So instead you get the version of me that's held together with sheer bloody mindedness and very strong painkillers. And also, having people around really helps, so it's hard to convey just how bad I feel by myself when you're there.

So if I didn't want you to know all this, why I am posting it on the internet? Well, I'm getting desperate, because the government wants to take my entire income away from me, bully me back into work and beg for my basic human rights with the Welfare Reform bill. They plan to make my migration from Income Support to the new Employment and Support Allowance a Herculean task by declaring Chronic Fatigue an unrecognised illness and not allowing fatigue to mention on the report issued by the private firm Atos who assess you. They also don't allow agoraphobics to be assessed at home and count the fact you made to an assessment on pain of death and destitution as proof that you can't possibly be agoraphobic. You'll also be time limited to a year's receipt of ESA if you have a partner no matter what you have wrong with you, incurable or degenerative. They plan to rebrand DLA as Personal Independence Payment and with one deft change of criteria, remove 20 % claimants in one go and make harder to get, even if you are dying. Housing Benefit will be capped and changed to the point where the sick and disabled can't live alone under the age of 35 or keep a spare bedroom in case they have serious flare ups and need a carer to move in to help. Social Fund payments to help with unexpected costs like the boiler blowing up or having to travel for medical treatment are to be abolished and replaced with food parcels and interest paying loans you have to beg for. Social services for the disabled children and the elderly are being scrapped by cash strapped councils while bins get emptied once a week. Legal Aid for benefits and housing issues is being cut. Libraries with free internet access are being shut as DWP forms are moved to being online only. Welfare advisors are being made redundant and people's eligibility to see them restricted by the closure of Community Mental Health Teams and specialist services. The terminally ill are being told to find jobs and we're all being tarred as undeserving lying scrounging scum not worthy of the gutter and refusing to work for shits and giggles. Not because there's a global economic crisis and only 8% of employers say they'd hire someone on sickness benefits.

Things are stable for me right now, but every single day I wonder if this is the day the postman will bring the buff envelope that starts the process of migrating to ESA. Huge numbers of people with all documented conditions fail the Work Capability Test for this benefit and appeal it. 70% of those people win their appeal after waiting up to 9 months for the appeal to be heard. So instead of changing the test, the government want to abolish your right to claim a reduced rate of benefits while you wait. That would of course stop your Housing Benefit and make it damned difficult to pay the gas bill with invisible money. Every morning when the letterbox clicks, I wonder if this is the day I start the route to losing my home again.


That's terrible isn't it, you think, but what's it got to do with me? Well, firstly,  it affects you because if you don't know and love someone who is terrified they are going to end up penniless and homeless under this bill now, you will very soon as your family ages and people's lives change. You might not know just how sick they are as they try to hold onto some dignity in face of ever enquiring forms and doctors but you do not get to judge. You might not think they are deserving, but it's not up to you. Same way as I don't get to tell you to sort your credit card out and discipline your bratty kids even though I think you're doing it wrong on both counts. You don't have magic X ray vision or you'd probably get paid more at work. Secondly, it says a lot about a society by how they treat the most vulnerable in it. And thirdly, you're telling me that if you agree with this despite your oh so fashionable disdain for the Daily Mail and the Sun, you're swallowing their propaganda without a moment's thought or attempt to educate yourself. Fourthly, you're also telling me you think you're better than me. You'd never get sick or disabled or ill or old or have an accident or anything weak and icky like that. And lastly, you're paying your National Insurance every week to allow you to use the welfare state and you'll notice that while they are getting rid of the services it provides you aren't getting a rebate. You're being ripped off and encouraged to think about private health and lifestyle insurance. Doesn't that piss you off?

The Welfare State does need reformed. It needs to be well informed and fair. It needs to stop propping up employers who don't want to pay a living wage. It needs to address the taper of rate that means people lose between 65 and 95 pence in the pound they earn when they come off benefits. It needs make part time work more viable. It needs to stop making sick people sicker. It needs to stop paying families on 50k pa child tax credits while the single and childless get nothing if they earn minimum wage. It needs to deal with Buy To Let landlords who want to get rich off high rents that cost a fortune in HB and mean their own family home is worth more while Housing Benefits tenants live in squalor. It needs to stop conflating fraud and error figures to make it look like people are cheating the system when the majority of incorrect payments are due to DWP fuck ups. It needs to stop energy companies taking 25% of your benefits before you even see it to pay fuel arrears and putting you on pre-payment meters. It needs to look at the inequalities it creates where single parents can get free prescriptions while MS sufferers can't or the families of disabled children can't afford to heat and eat while rich pensioners get £250 minimum Winter Fuel Allowance because it isn't means tested. Unfortunately, the government is only doing the last one and that's by scrapping the payment not looking at making it fairer. The rest of their policies can be summed up as moving the deckchairs on the Titanic and pointing the finger at the vulnerable and blaming them for the iceberg at the same time.

No one chooses to get sick or develop a disability. I'd much rather have even minimum wage than my £91 a week and the finger of blame and shame that comes with it. I'd sell my soul to Satan to be fit and healthy, even though it wouldn't make up for the fact I cannot count the number things important to be that ill health has spoiled in the nearly 20 years i've been sick. I refuse to get self pitying and slump further into depression over it. Instead I plan to try and draw attention to the unfairness of it all. Righteous indignation and the desire for justice keeps me warm on long cold winter days of ill health. I never did see a cause I didn't want to take up, but I hope you'll join me when I run out of spoons. Adopt a Lord, write to your MP, donate to a food bank, fight for Legal Aid, buy a friend a cup of tea when they have benefits issues and please please please, stop assuming you know who's really in need or not. The harder you make me fight to prove I'm 'deserving' the more energy you take up that I could be using to get back to work and off benefits...

Thursday, 6 October 2011

LOST FOR WORDS?


Rape and sexual assault have been the hot topics du jour in the last few months with Dominique Strauss Kahn, Ken Clarke, Nadine Dorries, Coronation Street and the Slutwalk movement all providing opportunities to discuss the issue. I was discussing this with a friend the other week when she basically said 'I know what to say about rape 'on paper', but I don't know what to say to someone who has just told me it happened to them.' I wanted to hug her. Of course you don't really know what to say to someone who has just disclosed something so personal and painful. But the mature (but difficult) solution is to admit that rather than blunder on for the sake of it.

I half forgot about the conversation until another friend linked to these amazing pieces about what and what not to say to a cancer patient from The Awl and it got me thinking about the social minefield that is talking about traumatic events and what we should say or do and whether there are certain things that are universivally insensitive or are all traumas different? Has anyone ever published an etiquette guide on such things? But since it's unlikely they included the seen as taboo affects of sexual violence, I thought I'd make a few  suggestions myself.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

NO SOFT SOAP



Most of you feel you probably know every single intimate detail about me after reading this blog, but did you know that under my massively middle class surface, I absolutely love soaps? I watch both Eastenders and Coronation Street, catching up on the omnibus if needed and only recently kicked my Neighbours and Hollyoaks habits. I feel no shame in admitting to this and have a low tolerance for soap snobbery, especially from those who don't realise Corrie is one of the greatest comedic programmes on TV. I usually revel in my evening visits to Weatherfield. So why on Wednesday did you finding me turning the television off completely and going off to tidy my sock drawer and polish the teaspoons?

Sunday, 18 September 2011

MAKE UP OR BREAK UP?


 Probably the longest, most intimate relationship I've had as an adult has been with make up. I could practically count the number of days I've left the house totally bare faced since I was an adolescent. I'd only consider a desert island if my make up bag counted as one item such is my devotion to mascara and eyeliner equally. I cannot remember my first proper kiss or what record I first bought was, but I can tell exactly what my first eyeliner was*. I know the day and date I started wearing blusher. Every event in my grown up life is just little bit more technicolour, more photogeni, more fabulous and less acne ridden due to the art of maquillage.

I'm really not sure how I came to worship so devotedly at the shrine of slap. My mum wears very little make up beyond the basics. Her sisters and mother sported a similar look. The women on my dad's side were slightly more au fait with the world of make up and hairstyling due to being hairdressers and beauticians, but I barely saw them when I was growing up and if I'm honest, my dad was fairly disapproving of careers he saw as rather shallow so it wasn't encouraged or expected. But somehow my mum's make up bag exerted a hypnotic pull from an early age.

Green with a blue trim, it lived in the downstairs cloakroom and I used to hide in there with it and apply its endlessly fascinating contents to myself with such absorption it's amazing I didn't fall into the sink and drown à la Narcissus. Everything called to me, but none more so than the mascara. Unaware of the hygiene rules of this miracle product, I was quickly lured in by the siren song of the thicker darker longer lashes that even clear mascara offers. But it was the discovery of the transformative effects of black mascara that set me on a path I've never wandered off since. My foray into Yardley Raspberry Ripple lipstick was much less life changing though. I don't own a single lipstick even now. Possibly because they don't have that old fashioned scent anymore...

I moved onto buying my own make up fairly quickly, probably to the relief of my mother who wanted her's back and less pawed over. My first foundation was Rimmel's Clear Complexion in a hideously branded maroon and yellow tube. It had the consistency of mortician's wax mixed with grit and a range of colours all based round an apricot in varying stages of ripeness. I slathered it on with gusto, feeling that something resembling a mask was preferable to my current face of lurid and painful acne. I added some extra colour contrast to this combo with an equally incorrect shade of Hide the Blemish concealer. Even now I don't think this product lives up to its name if you have an actual spot rather than the more demure sounding 'blemish'. To me it just makes them look like angry swollen uneven lumps with a coating of stuff on top. You might as well wear a spot cosy for all the good it does.

I soon realised that with limited funds, a lack of places to buy premium brands at the time and a complexion too pale for any range even in Ireland, I wasn't going to be able to hide my acne that well. Better to distract from its malignant presence by use of eye make up. As a child I loved to draw, favouring brightly coloured intricately detailed pictures until teenage self consciousness and an evil art teacher by the name of Miss Newell bullied away the idea of  putting pen to paper ever again. Discovering eyeshadow was like finding a way to bring that love of colour, tone and creativity back into my life and it wasn't long before my lids were rarely unadorned.

Whereas I used to spend my pocket money and disposable income from part time jobs on music and gigs, it all began to go on make up and magazines that taught me how to apply it and what look was in and with what. I saved up and then splashed out when I went to cities with trendy new brands, practically needing resuscitated in Browne Thomas and Kendalls where I discovered MAC for the first time and realised why being an adult could be wonderful. I scoured niche mail order companies like Beautique for Delux nail polishes and Le Club des Createurs de Beauté for Agnes B products. I braved a bomb scare in Oxford Street to be the first of my friends back home to own Hard Candy when those plastic rings on top of the bottle were the hottest accessory in town and Urban Decay when it was actually edgy. I went on waiting lists for Chanel products and still prize my red and black compact with eyegloss from 1998 which despite making me look like a lab rat is still the fanciest thing I own.

My poor brother became well trained in the art of avoiding the hard sell at beauty counters as he went on missions to get me coveted items for Christmas and birthdays, even learning how to branch out and choose for himself, as the 22nd birthday present of Fuji by Nars proved. Father Christmas got used to every list reading like the Beauty Hall of Selfridges (which ironically became my least favourite job of all time). When I think back over my late teens and early 20s the years aren't punctuated by music or fashions in clothing in the same way as make up. Turning 18 was all about my first MAC eyeshadow in Contrast. I still struggle to get this super pigmented product to blend and wear this dark metallic navy as a liner instead. 19 was Pigments in Melon and Vanilla and Aveda lipstick scented with clove and cinnamon. 20 was Lancôme Maquisuperbe, stacking pots from Ruby and Millie and my very first blusher. 21 was when I discovered Nars and found my signature look with the beautiful Lola Lola shadow from Space NK in Glasgow. 22 was cat eye flicks in Fuji, pinching my friend Jennifer's Cranberry Frost by MAC and realising how useful the right brush is.

At 23 I was working for Space NK in my first job in London and was like a kid in a candy shop. I was given bags and bags of products either as training items by PRs who wanted you to push them above all else or of testers that no longer looked the part in the store displays. The pay was minimum wage. The perks lay with the freebies. Beautiful fashionable products I had drooled over in magazines and would have had to work three or four hours to afford. By 24 I had trained as a make up artist at London College of Fashion and was working at it full time between stores, side projects and freelance jobs. I lived make up. I ate make up (and very little else as the stuff is so damned expensive). I spent most of my spare time either trawling make up stores or standing in front of the bathroom mirror applying make up and practising a variety of looks. I loved the stuff.

But somewhere in my late 20s make up stopped being something fun and creative and endlessly fascinating and became something I did out of habit and to hide myself behind a mask. When fully made up with my customary 20 products, primed, shaded, sealed and blended to perfection, I exude an air of haughtiness bordering on the fuck off. Men especially don't glance my way and thus don't hassle me in the street the same way they do as when I'm scrubbed clean. Make up makes me feel safe. I also feel it distracts women from commenting on my clothes choices or my body (as they did all the time in fashion.) I also feel more able to hold my head up and fake it when I've got my 'face' on.

I didn't really realise I did any of this, thinking it was perfectly normal to wear a full face of make up popping to the Post Office, although I did admire and slightly envy my fresher faced friends and have never thought they should wear more. I knew I wasn't wearing make up for men, but I wasn't aware I was daubing myself in the stuff to repel them either until my therapist dug a bit deeper and set me the challenge of going out with no make up on to confront my fears. I couldn't think of a polite way to say 'not on your nelly' and comprised somewhat by going light on the products instead.

Taking advantage of my Roaccutane perfected skin, I got this down to under eye concealer, primer and pressed powder on my face. But like Amy Winehouse (rest her soul) I understand the lure of a thick track of liner on the upper lids. It seems to keep the world at bay and convey a certain style of self. We've been together roughly 18 years. It was staying, but I've been shaking it up and using dark navy or green or brown instead of black. All topped off with my customary lashings of 2000 Calories mascara by Max Factor. I'm happy to trade somethings for good mental health but I'd rather not go back to looking like a blinking mole with my fair lashes.

As well as using make up as a mask, I'd forgotten what I could look like and was still buying into the industry urge to make everything smoother, tighter, lighter, sleeker, longer, deeper, pinker and less like yourself. I thought I look crap without make up and that people would avert their eyes or snigger if I cut out a stage. But wanting to be able to say I'd at least tried to my therapist, I streamlined my look for an entire week.

And promptly received more compliments about my appearance than the previous ten years combined. Not ringing my eyes with heavy kohl apparently makes me look fresh faced and luminous. It also gets me carded more often trying to buy gin. But it doesn't cause the sky to fall in. It's also made me feel more creative with colours and techniques than I have in years. And having more time to waste on other stuff before I leave the house is rather marvellous. A month in to my experiment, I'm starting to rather like actually seeing my own face without the idea of what I should look like superimposed on top of it. I haven't been hassled in the street at all, probably because I still give good bitch face. But I think I'll be keeping up the lower maintenance look for day to day life and the smoky eyes for when impact is required.

Of course, this means I'm not allowed to buy any make up probably ever again so stop me if you see me going near a MAC counter or sniffing round the Nars stand. It's for my own good you understand...




*Boots Natural Collection Black Kohl pencil. Slightly more comfortable on the eye and barely any darker than a 3B graphite pencil from my case. I learned quickly to move on.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

BLAME ME, SHAME ME...


Last week's decision not to bring the case for attempted rape and sexual assault against Dominique Strauss Kahn was hardly a shock. The whole case was a clusterfuck of supreme proportions. The prosecution went overboard trying to make Nafitassou Diallo out to a be a room cleaning representation of perfect womanhood, setting her up to fall very hard and fast if anything proved otherwise. The defence played a clever game in saying the prosecution ws biased against DSK because of who he was and hoist them with their own petard as Cyrus Vance Jr and his team did the defence's dirty work for them by digging very deep on Diallo to try and show just how unbiased  they were. Diallo turned out to be a flawed victim (but then aren't we all according to the very high standards set?) and her lie on her asylum application about a gang rape in Guinea did make a fair trial tricky to ensure.

But I'm not here to re-hash the DSK case. I really don't think much else can be said about it now. What has piqued my interest is the unbelievable amount of victim blaming, rape apologism and attempts to belittle sexual assault that have floated to the surface around it. Some of it is overt and palpable, some of it is so insidious and internalised that it blows my mind and some of it is borne of ignorance, the peddling of rape myths and the perceptions that our imbalance justice system creates. But despite the different paths, it all leads to one result. Women who report rape aren't believed and their trauma and fear is minimised at every step of the way.


Friday, 26 August 2011

PARK LIFE



I'm going to go out on a limb here. Whoever popularised the expression 'a walk in the park' for doing something easy-peasy did not suffer from agoraphobia.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

ANY ANSWERS?


I went on a date recently. And it was fantastic. We clicked immediately, there was a certain chemistry, we talked the whole evening away without noticing time passing and there was no game playing. He texted me at lunchtime the next day to say he'd like to see me again soon, was I free on Thursday? We met again and had another great evening over sherry and tapas. There was a enthusiastic goodnight kiss. Other commitments for both of us stopped us meeting the next week, but there were many texts and arrangement to meet again the first night we were both free. There were drinks and dinner, again not leaving the restaurant til the staff wearily told us to go home. We lingered on the way to the Tube and talked about meeting again, parting with giggles and jokes. It all seemed promising and delightfully grown up. And then he vanished into thin air and stopped contacting me completely...

Monday, 25 July 2011

TALK ABOUT A TIT...


I've been watching the all recent talk about phone hacking and police corruption with the kind of interest I normally reserve for the Christmas episode of Eastenders. I've been glued to the select committees and press conferences. I've seen a lot of people offer justifications and excuses. And I've started about eight intense and earnest blog posts about the whole thing to add my two cents to all the other endless pieces of debate, but I got bored wading through the minutiae of the Met's failings and realised all I wanted to say was ha ha ha, I was right, you were wrong...

Sunday, 3 July 2011

WHAT A BURDEN TO BEAR...


The Dominique Strauss Kahn case turned into a real rape investigation today. Not the eyes of the world are on us, let's pretend we're a Linda Fairstein novel investigation of the past six weeks, but the proper bare knuckle fight every victim who has ever told what happened to anyone, especially the police, recognises with a sinking feeling in their stomach. The kind where facts and forensics get shunted aside and all focus turns on taking every single part of the victim's life apart to intimate that even though the alleged attacker is a super nice guy who wouldn't do such a thing, the victim is a vile lying harpy that represents all that is bad about society and would have deserved to be raped...if of course a rape had taken place...

Obviously I have no idea what went on in that hotel room in New York, but I can smell the distinct odour of bullshit emanating from the vicinity as things progress. Strauss Kahn does not deny sexual contact, he just disputes that there was no consent, giving us the potential scenarios of him having consensual sex with a chambermaid who didn't even know he was in the room but upon seeing him emerge dripping wet and naked from the shower, didn't scream in surprise, but drop to her knees and show a guest at her place of work a good time orally. I find it unlikely that she'd risk her job for a quickie on the shagpile. I find it even more unlikely that after zipping himself back up, he was so overcome with the guilt of cheating on his wife on a whim that he hightailed it to JFK so fast he left his phone behind. Yet plenty of people seem to be thinking this is entirely feasible. I only assume they are the kind of people who don't realise that 9 times of 10 the pouting honeys in lads' mags are essentially playing a role when they are 'up for it' in front of the camera and that women don't actually walk round in a state of such permanent arousal and consent that they no matter what can't say no to cock? Not even when they sober, or working or in a long term relationship or hormonal. Women can't say no. Of course the chambermaid would have been wooed by the simple act of pulling back the shower curtain. It happened all the time in 70s porn films...

Or if it seems unrealistic that both of them were overcome with carnal lusts for each other within 30 seconds of their eyes meeting across the bathmat, maybe he paid her. I'm not naive enough to think everyone who phones down to reception for a spare pillow actually likes to sleep well supported. High end hotels probably see quite a lot of sex work. And without debating the ethics of prostitution, it is possible that the chambermaid might have been engaged in sex work alongside her cleaning duties. That doesn't mean you can't rape a prostitute. Prostitution invloves the exchange of a specific agreed sex act for money. It's not a entrance fee. Just because you paid for manual stimulation doesn't mean you get oral sex as well. And that doesn't even cover the fact that you can still threaten, cajole and coerce a woman usually charges for sexual services if you are that way inclined. But the people who are supporting the supposition that she's a working girl and thus lying are probably the kind of people to think the only thing worse than a prostitute, is a prostitute with the attitude to stand up for herself.

And even when the suggestion is made that Dominique Strauss Kahn sexually assaulted the chambermaid, as feasibily suggested by the vaginal bruising, ligament damage to her shoulder and cuts and bruises documented by police approved medical staff at the hospital within hours, there are still other excuses made. The usual one even when she's torn and bleeding and bruised is that she likes it rough. And not only does she like it rough, unlike most people in normal consensual BDSM relationships, she doesn't wait to have rough sex in a trusting relationship with boundaries and safe words, she engages in it instantly without discussion with a man she met mere moments earlier.

Even with the encouragement of a chorus of 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' monkeys, all the scenarios for consensual sex sound a little implausible*.( But since the truth is often stranger than fiction, that's exactly why both accused and accuser should get their day in court.) So that's when things step up a notch, the tone changes and the focus shifts from him to her. The character assassins have arrived with their insanely ridiculously unrealistically high standards. While no one suggests that anyone should be convicted of rape or sexual assault on mere whimsy, I find it telling that in every case, the focus changes from trying to prove a crime was committed into trying to prove the victim isn't worth the paper the law is written on. In a cute new twist on the witchtrials of yore, rape victims' trustworthiness are ducked in the pool of morality. Fail to mention one second of your attack or one aspect of life or past and howls of 'liar liar' go up and it is deemed that you can't rape a liar. Be brutally upfront and mention the recreational drugs at college or the prior flirtatious relationship with him or the year you were a sex worker and beneath the gasps of shock and fanning of one's self and inhalation of smelling salts at failing the test of social acceptability, you'll hear the belief that you can't rape a woman of low morals. These days the ducking stool is more likely a witness box.

And if you were the one lone woman who didn't fail the test that has no right answers, don't sigh with relief just yet. Even if you tick all the socially acceptable boxes, the boundaries will simply be moved until you are pushed outside the lines. So even if you were cycling home from the library with an unbridged Bible and a fully intact hymen, they'll go after those around you. Maybe you fraternise with prisoners. Maybe you stole a penny chew aged seven. Maybe you told a friend that hareem pants don't make her arse look enormous. Maybe you asked about how your finances even though you've lost your job after being assaulted.Maybe your dad has a few bondage magazines tucked away in the garden shed? You are no longer perfect by association. You no longer deserve to be protected by law and treated like a human being. You have fallen from grace. It's like you ate the bloody apple all over again. And you can't have been raped.

But strangely enough this intense spotlight of suspicion doesn't seem to shine on the other person involved. The accused is not held to the same unrealistically high burden of proof. His inability to remember the entire situation in pinsharp detail is forgiven. His drinking habits and dalliances with drugs aren't scrutinised. His finances, work history and wardrobe aren't put under a magnifying glass. Those trips to strip clubs with friends, subscriptions of men's magazines and internet porn history are just examples of being a red blooded male. Even in cases were there are prior allegations of domestic violence, rape or sexual harrassment are seen as irrelevant, just the rantings of those man hating feminazis. The allegations of his bad character cannot be used as grounds for conviction, but her perceived flaws are enough to dismiss her case and her as a human being.

Occasionally, just occasionally, a case sneaks through and gets a guilty verdict. These will be the cases so beyond the pale that everyone has run out of excuses for the accused and an invisible line has between flawed human being and monster has been crossed. The depravity and violence has become frightening and uncontrollable and starts repulse people. Girls are hit on heads with hammers, bodies are hidden in churches, rape victims are so numerous they couldn't all fit in one court, crossbows are used. And when Levi Bellfield, Peter Tobin, John Warboys, Delroy Grant and Stephen Griffiths are convicted and the country reels in horror, there is always a litany of dropped cases, short sentences, shoddy investigations and disappointed doubted victims left shattered and brutalised. And everyone who says 'it must never happen again' about those infamous events, start tutting at the length of her skirt or judging her for not wanting to sit in a room full of strange men and shooting the breeze about sex acts and semen or her Female Genital Mutilation the next time they hear or read about a rape victim again. And the cycle continues.

I'm not suggesting Dominique Strauss Kahn is a serial killer in the making. We don't yet have answers about whether he's a rapist. All my slightly hypocritical nitpicking earlier might be me showing how little I really know. But the problem lies with the fact that no one outside of the prosecution (and actually it was the prosecution who leaked the details to the New York Times in this case) in rape cases actually seems to want to get the truth. And that truth is that some men hurt and abuse and assault women. It's also that some women accuse falsely. It's that rapists are fucked up and flawed people. And that victims are humans, not idealistic representations of virtue. And that everyone involved in cases of sexual violence bring their pasts and presents and thoughts and feelings to it and it's not easy. But that's all the more reason to let events and facts and realities speak for themselves and show the way to answers in all their gritty reality rather than compel things into being as simplistic and saccharine as to say all men are one way and all women are another.

Life isn't black and white, but when the stakes are as high as they are with rape, we need to start accepting shades of grey. And we start doing that by having the same rules for victim and attacker, not letting bias be the bonus ball. But until we stop holding women to unrealistic expectations everywhere else in their lives, it's unlikely the balance of power will change and we will have the same debate the next time a case like this hits the headlines again.


*A Twitter commenter reminds me that I  "forgot the everyday more likely set-up scenario" and that DSK was framed. I have no idea how one conveys weariness with conspiracy theories in writing, but in real life I simultaneously sniggered, rolled my eyes and sighed...

Saturday, 2 July 2011


Wednesday, 1 June 2011

I LOVE THE INTERNET


I am not enormously technologically minded. I prefer my mobile phone to just be a phone rather than all singing all dancing and if given the choice, I'd rather write information on paper with a pen than use an iPad, but I do love the internet...


I was slow to warm to my first computer, hoping when my mother handed me a large box, that it was wine glasses instead. On finding a new shiny laptop, I wasn't quite sure what the hell to do with it, even when people suggested going online. In my defence, Web 2.0 hadn't happened yet so the internet appeared to just be full of price comparison sites and porn, neither of which much appealed. Plus I lived in a house with five other people, only one phone socket and a dial up connection that cost a fortune and could only accessed by sitting on the floor outside the kitchen.


It wasn't until I was shown the ways of Ebay that the internet started to have any resonance in my life as I discovered a penchant for vintage shopping at odd hours of the day with a cup of tea to hand. The arrival of cheap broadband in my life soon had me dabbling in the selling side as well as that interest in vintage helped pay for the net connection. Like any gateway drug, it wasn't long before Ebay led me to other online shopping sites and my agoraphobia became so much easier to contend with when I realised I could still shop without panicking in crowds and save money on my groceries to boot!


But the big turning point was when a now ex-friend introduced me to the feminist leaning pop culture site Jezebel. This was the first time I'd ever used the internet to interact with other people and since I was intensely lonely and experiencing some of the most intense stress of my life, I embraced it like the proverbial drowning man with a lifebelt. In those days, Jezebel was sharp, snarky and smart and the editors and commenters were both held to that standard. I had shied away from the formal title of feminist after my debacle of cliche and squabbling at the Marxist second wave leaning Women Against Rape, but suddenly I was confronted on a daily basis with a smorsgasbord of feminist thinking and a dazzling selection of witty women who were proud to call themselves feminists.


I created an online identity and got involved, reading and commenting daily and revelling in having something to stimulate my brain again without being too overwhelming. Depression destroys my ability to concentrate so the bite sized style of the internet suited fine. I also began to recognise others online and as I mentioned before, I met up with some of these London based commenters a few years ago. It was a turning point in my life where I put myself out there again and I was rewarded by meeting some of the most fantastic people I've ever spent time with.


I was amazed by how different these people were to my previous friends. While they liked a wee Pimms, they didn't spend every night in the pub and every day nursing a hangover. They had interests and hobbies and real careers based on skills rather than lurching from one poorly paid temp job to another to earn beer money. They read widely and could converse about anything. I felt shamefully unknowledgable in comparison so I took to simply using the internet to expose me to the things they mentioned and like Joey Tribbiani when the encyclopaedia salesman came to call, absorbed all the knowledge I could. My brain started wake up and work again from the stimulation and that's when I decided to start this blog (that and the fact everyone else had one and I felt left out!)


Suddenly I had the opportunity to speak out without being minimised like I had for the past few years. I could express thoughts and opinions into the ether in a more modern version of the old message in a bottle, not really bothered if they ever reached a readership. I began to aim these posts in the direction of some of the people I knew by using Facebook and this helped me develop a  belief that what I had to say was actually worthwhile. My confidence also began to increase as I wrote more and realised that a bit like riding a bike, you never forgot how to structure what's essentially an essay.


Then at the start of last year, I started to realise a lot of my friends were conversing on Twitter and that I was missing out on this. I signed up, not knowing what the hell it was all about and quickly found myself sucked in the joys of microblogging. Within no time I was passing the time chatting with friends, keeping up to date minute to minute with current events and being pointed in the direction of the choicest articles and stories to read online. These came from newspapers, magazines and blogs and my interest in life and curiosity in learning continued to come back steadily.


I also set up a second blog around then with my brother to write about food and began to turn Twitter into a useful tool rather than just an (albeit interesting) but almighty timesuck. Suddenly everything on the net seemed connected and useful and I began to use it for both blogs, feeling now that I liked having an audience. But keen not to bore those around me, I also aimed a lot of things I wanted to say at the world of newspaper commenting, alternating between giving my experiences on subjects people like to mouth off about to clear up a few myths and getting a kick out of winding up Daily Mail readers by leaving comments that expose my single childless benefit claiming ways.

While some might see this as the online equivalent of banging your head against a brick wall, it's been enormously rewarding for me. I was asked to write for the Guardian earlier this year, debate with Naomi Wolf, have an enormous photo of me splashed across in the Independent due to being interviewed about internet commenting and offered a volunteering job at Shelter this year alone. It's also been an amazing year to network in a way that allows me to recover from my mental health problems at my own pace and meet some great people.

Now it seems as if nearly all the people in my life come with an internet connection. Most likely I met them that way or even those who go back to childhood have a almost daily input in my life due to the power of social media or email. Being able to have 140 character chats with people or read their blogs allows me to have that close friendship feeling of knowing the minutiae of other people's lives while living alone or hundreds of miles from them. For me, this outweighs the bad of YouTube or Yahoo commenters or sinfully dull Facebook updates or the fact that online dating is a disaster for me that has ceased to even produce humourous anecdotes anymore...

Here's to many more hours online with you all. Where's the like button?




Wednesday, 11 May 2011

YOU'LL NEVER WALK ALONE...


 As you all know, I do love to bore you all with talk about the evils of rape culture, ponder the possibilities of 'rape prevention' and generally try to challenge people's ideas about rape myths. So it might surprise you to hear that I won't be joining the newest anti-rape march movement in London on June 4th. This movement is the 'Slutwalk', borne out of reaction to a Toronto cop's comment at a safety talk last year to some students that women should try not to dress like "sluts" to avoid being raped or victimised, and while I applaud their belief that no one deserves to be raped, just about everything else leaves me utterly cold about the idea.

The first thing that happens when you Google 'Slutwalk London' is that you simply get links to all the press articles written about it. There is no webpage for the project itself visible on the first page of hits. Then your eye falls on the descriptions in the press of the event. The words 'slut' 'scantily clad' 'revealing' dominate mixed in with 'rape' 'blame' and 'fault'. Without even trying, the Slutwalk has given us a little taster of rape culture. The media has immediately focused on the titillating aspect of the idea rather the details and without a clear mission statement to counter this and set out objectives for the project, I feel the whole thing is creating a perfect storm of word association where the average person, unschooled in the various waves of feminism, unaware of 'sex positivity' and naive to the concept of 'reclaiming' a word, simply gets a jumbled message that links the words 'rape' 'blame' and 'slut' in the same sentence. Doesn't that just reinforce already negative thoughts about the victims of sex crimes? In a soundbite culture, is it surprising that people don't sit down and read beyond the headline and seek to educate themselves about a subject that seems irrelevant to them, especially when it is punctuated by pictures of pretty white women in their bras?

Ah, but that's not the fault of the Slutwalk, I hear you cry. That's the fault of rape culture, icky side effect of the patriarchy. The Slutwalk can't help that the Daily Mail called them 'scantily clad' can they? Well, in my mind, yes they can. They could actually stop and think about the culture they are trying to challenge and consider whether their actions are going to change or perpetuate it. Does society usually really listen to a woman with visible breasts or does it just nod and pretend while enjoying the view? What makes them think the people who need to have their attitudes changed about rape are going to remember anything relevant from this movement afterwards apart from some images in their head of women in their skimpies? If rape culture is so damned important to them why haven't they considered that seemingly copying its actions isn't the best way to break it down?

And haven't they considered that if you don't want what victims are wearing to be the main focus of the discussion about rape, it's odd to make the outfits of women so incredibly central to their entire movement? I want us to move entirely away from the 'what was she doing/wearing/saying' debate about rape to the 'what was he doing when he raped her' question and I really really don't think focusing on clothes is the right way to go, even if that focus is saying clothes don't matter. Simply mentioning them makes them noticeable. That's how advertising works. Mention something repeatedly, even subliminally and people make associations. And to me, this constant focus on your clothes, no matter how normal or unslutty they are, forges that link to those people who just hear about this in passing and don't have the time or inclination to research further.

I am not naive to the importance people place on what a rape victim was wearing. The first question most people, including the police, want to ask me when they find out I was raped is 'what were you wearing'? Generally the level of sympathy they are willing to accord you very often depends on your answer. Mini-skirt? Crop top? High heels? Empathy levels tend to wane. In my case, people nod and tilt their head to one side sympathetically when I mention my ankle length skirt that night. The same head that snaps back in judgement when I also say I wasn't wearing a bra at the time. It's a fine line. I am applauded for having worn a slip to make sure my knickers weren't visible, but the police accused me of going out on the pull because both the slip and the knickers were pink. Matching my undergarments must mean I'm a slut, right?

And there's the other big sticking point with the Slutwalk for me. What is the definition of a slut? To some people it's sleeping with everyone you meet, for others, it's co-ordinating undercrackers. Even jokingly, ignoring the tradition that it's a woman who doesn't keep a clean house, seeks to ignore the very fact that it is an arbitrary term and incredibly gendered. We don't have a word for a man who hasn't mastered the art of taking the washing out of the machine on time, but we do have many admiring ones for a man who is sexually experienced. Who ever heard of a man being 'stud-shamed' after all?

Why do we want to 'reclaim' a word that has traditionally been used to divide and conquer women? While all sluts seem to be women, not all women are sluts. Unlike words such as 'queer' that I understand seeks to be a common umbrella term to promote a feeling of community amongst people who already feel on the fringes of society or using a racial word like 'Paddy' that was once used to reduce a whole race to an amorphous mass to be ignored and flipping it so that it conotates pride and power in your 'outsider' status, slut has no universal definition or use. So how can it be re-appropriated to create a sense of community and cohesion? Especially when to many women, it is one of the cruellest and most cutting comments they hear, rendering them helpless and angry no matter how positive a spin is put on it. Why reclaim something that even in its original statement was a cruel gendered slur? Why not appropriate another word? Something women have always seen a positive or at least something non gendered rather than trying to dress up something nasty.

I think the use of the word slut as a title for the movement would only work if women were united behind it and didn't abuse or judge each other on the same moral terms that slut suggests. By anyone putting a value on a woman for her sexual choices, we just perpetuate the same old bullshit that makes life so difficult for women the world over. We've all done it. We've all judged a woman by our perceived beliefs about her sex life. And I don't believe anyone who says they haven't. Ever called a soap barmaid 'a tart with a heart'? Classed something as 'stripper shoes'? Raised your eyes higher than someone's hem at their choice of outfit? It might not seem like it, but we've all had a teeny tiny hand in allowing women to be primarily judged by their sexual choices. And if women do it to themselves, in what way are we telling men they can't do it either? By judging ourselves, we give permission to others to do the same and I think it would be a hell of a lot more helpful to move things away from what a woman does or doesn't want to do in the bedroom when she spends so much of her life outside it. So instead of talking about 'sluts' and 'allies' ( a dichotomy that still forces women to take a place on one side of the sexual fence and keep up the old Madonna/whore thing under a different guise), let's focus on something else, something more inclusive of the gamut of women.

I also wonder where the hell the people who want to fill Trafalgar Square over a comment a cop in another country made, where when the police and the judiciary actively blamed and discriminated against women here in the UK and allowed their rapists to walk free? When this 15 year old's rape case was seen as less important than car crime did we see banners? Did the Twittersphere go apeshit when the hundreds of victims of John Worboys and Kirk Reid were laughed at and sent away by the Met? Did anyone take to the streets when a teenage victim of Ian Huntley was ignored? Why did I never hear so many people getting worked up about Rape Crisis centres closing? Did any of these feminists stand up for me when my case hit the front pages and male commentors in the media called me brazen and a 'vile faced slut'? Did they hell. Those cases feature actual women who've been raped with all the complications, flaws and realities of that crime, not headline grabbing representations of womenhood that can stir indignation amongst those on the sidelines. Something about the Slutwalk pushes a competitiveness between victims and those who are taking offense as if they don't want to be lumped in with the 'weak.' It echoes the classic denial tactic of telling yourself 'she was was wearing a short skirt. I don't wear short skirts. I won't be raped like her...' and having heard that shite from more women than I'd care to remember, the whole Slutwalk thing leaves a nasty taste in my mouth and smacks of 'party feminism' to me where the clothes and fun mean more than the cause.

So instead of 'slutwalking' I'll be challenging rape culture differently and in a way that is to me less about individual 'me me me' based actions and more about collective good. I'll be trying very very hard not to pass judgement on another woman that makes a presumption about her sexual life. I'll be moving the conversation away from clothing when people try make it central in conversations about rape and toward the common thread of the cause of rape being near a rapist, not what you wear. I'll be commenting on newspaper sites, debunking rape myths and offering a first hand of experience that those people might remember if they sit on a jury one day, taking the info to them. I'll be keeping up the pressure on the police and judiciary not to focus on the external details of victims. I'll be training to empower women who have been raped to take control back. I'll be criticising rape culture in the press and the people around me if they tell rape jokes. And I'll be respecting the fact that for some women, the Slutwalk does offer them just one small voice in the cacophony around rape, but I won't be keeping quiet when people involved in it try to suggest it is the best or only way to express ourselves. And I won't be answering what I was wearing the first time I was raped...

Monday, 25 April 2011

HOT AND BOTHERED...

Summer has come early this year. Temperatures in London this weekend were higher than Madrid, Sydney and Hawaii. And coming after the coldest December on record, you'd think I'd be embracing all that Vitamin D with open arms. Well, not exactly, because bright sunshine brings a particular set of tribulations for the supernaturally pale.

The rest of the year passes quite quietly, in part due to the murderous expression I wear in public deterring even the most lairy of white van men from hollering at me, but as soon as the sun comes out, all eyes are on me. Not because I'm shimmying down the street in a string bikini, bosoms bouncing. But because I'm doing something even more shocking instead. I'm completely covered up with only hands and feet poking out as I go from A to B...

While this stops me from being the colour of a lobster (and feeling as the kind of pain being said crustacean felt when being boiled alive), it really provokes people's attention. Men and women alike feel entitled to comment on my skin and my hair colour and my choice in clothing. Men seem affronted that I'm denying them their summer right to ogle my body in skimpy clothes (although if they'd seen an arse as pale as mine wandering down the road more often, they'd be less keen in future. It's more Caspar the Friendly Ghost than Copacabana.) Women seem to think I'm looking down on their hotpants and haltertops and everyone seems to regard it as practically un-British to not turn my skin red as part of the Union Jack.

You only have to see the frothing and gnashing and wailing over Nigella Lawson's burkini moment on Bondi Beach to see that the Brits regard exposing their tender flesh in large quantities and for long periods of time as something so dear to them that it should be enshrined in the Magna Carta. This is a woman who has a complexion that is just ripe for malignant melanoma and has lost her mother, sister and first husband to cancer and yet she has been castigated for covering up in the Australian sun. The fact that she has a sexy persona in her job means that she has no right to protect herself from short term discomfort and long term danger. Even the slightly less tabloidy readers of the Observer all had a opinion. Why couldn't she just wear a a T-shirt and leggings? Gloves? Factor 50? Sit in a box? Stay indoors?

But none of these things shut people up around the translucently pale. When I wear something as out there as a shirt in the summer, passers-by yell at me from their cars, tut at me in the street and pass comments on my chances of missing out my Vitamin D or needing some colour to look healthier or somehow being repressed. When I shuffle round in beer gardens to avoid the baking midday sun, people roll their eyes at me as if I'm acting like a total diva. If I stay indoors with the windows open, sampling the fresh air by proxy, people tell me I'm spoiling it for them, I'm no fun and I need to get out more. If I carry a parasol, they fall about laughing, cracking jokes about raining men and umbrellas. Going puce provokes howls of laughter and endless jokes. When I slather myself in Factor 50 million, they refuse to help me with the back bits I can't see, mock the level of SPF and then trot out the conspiracy that suncream causes cancer rather than protect from it.

Cancer is a frightening word and I understand that most people laugh in its face rather than think about its cruel realities, but from a very very young age, the spectre of skin cancer has hung over me. I am pale, the kind of pale that people gasp at, that veins glow through, that turns slightly blue in winter. I can't buy commercial foundations and even the sheerest tights look like gravy browning on my legs. I am also a natural redhead with a fairly good smattering of freckles (not that you can see 'em under the wrong shade of make up I have to wear) and I burn in the sun almost instantly. I famously once got sunburn over lunch in Glasgow. Even slightly overcast days have been known to give me water blisters. I am so Celtic looking people assume I'm Irish from 50 paces. I have a grandmother who never sunbathed in her life who had a melanoma removed and monitored for years. I am at such a risk from skin cancer, I'm like the poster child for dermatology students. Every time I go out in the blazing sun I am aware at the back of my mind that I might be paying for this period of pleasure for years to come.

Therefore it's beyond bloody annoying when people mock and mention my attempts not to die early. Yes, I also like staying out of the sun to avoid getting wrinkles and to keep my youthful complexion, but primarily, sun-dodging is for me about not ending up in pain and with a liefe threatening illness. Weirdly, neither myself or the sun police were so concerned by years of enthusiastic smoking and its wrinkle creating, cancer causing charms, rarely ever being told to give up or hearing any comments about it even though that's definitely the more antisocial habit. But everyone's got an opinion about my SPF habits...

I won't mind so much that interest involved telling me where the hell you can get a decent suncream with a high factor and good UVA and UVB protection that doesn't leave an unctuous oily white film on all exposed flesh while attracting every scrap of dust, dirt and dead insect life in a 40 mile radius, before sliding off and staining clothes, upholstery and melting plastic and leaving you broken out and slippery. Until then I'll continue with my attempts to dress like an eccentric Agatha Christie heroine crossed with a beekeeper and play musical chairs with the shade instead. And yes, I am hot and  in my layers and I'm envious of your golden limbs and well behaved skin. Try not to provoke me further please with stupid questions. You won't like it when I start commenting on your crow's feet and wrinkles in return!