Monthly Archives: June 2011

This is not what victory looks like

The IMF has appointed its new chief, and she happens to be a woman. This is apparently a victory for feminism, particularly as the former chief was arrested for sexual assault. Having a woman replace an alleged rapist is what passes for victory these days.

This is not a victory for feminism. The “feminist agenda” was never so simple as to just be pushing for putting more women in positions of power. Having more women in power within our current system will not change a thing.

Margaret Thatcher was not a victory for feminism. Giving Nadine Dorries a political platform is not a victory for feminism. Appointing Theresa May as Home Secretary is not a victory for feminism. All of these women are working or worked towards changing nothing, or making life actively worse for women. That they identified as women meant nothing.

The IMF is a corrupt institution, forcing countries to impose budgets which disproportionately negatively impact marginalised groups. For Lagarde’s appointment to be considered a victory for feminism, the IMF would need to change radically, becoming an institution which actively helped build and improve the lives of those who need the most help. This is unlikely to happen.

A victory for feminism is not simply placing a woman into power. Someone of any gender can actively strive to help make life just a bit better for women. Someone of any gender can fight for real equality. That is what a victory for feminism looks like.


An angry childhood

Through my life, I have always been somewhere on the radical left end of the political spectrum, with the exception of a small rebellious phase in my early twenties of being a Liberal Democrat. My parents were broadly left-wing, drifting right with age, following the trajectory of the Labour Party, though I strongly credit them for shaping my opinions and my world view.

One of my earliest memories is a ballet lesson. I was four or five, and anybody worth knowing was utterly furious with Thatcher. I stood in a cold community centre in a purple leotard, awkwardly failing at forming second position in a graceful manner. The activity changed; we were to extend our right arm and right leg into points, and artfully tell off an imaginary naughty dog.

Charmlessly, I assumed the pose. The pointing and stamping reminded me of something that my parents did and I had learned.

‘In my house, we say this’ I declared. I enthusiastically performed the pose. ‘MAGGIE MAGGIE MAGGIE! OUT OUT OUT!’ I chanted. My voice echoed through the hall. No megaphone was required.

I didn’t go back to ballet lessons after that.

I remember, vividly, the day Thatcher finally left. I was allowed to stay up late as a treat.

I didn’t like the new man who took over. He was grey and boring, and I didn’t trust his face. He was just as bad as Maggie, I thought. He hated me as much as Maggie hated me.

I knew Maggie hated me because I had to bring milk money into school, even though I didn’t like milk.

I knew John Major hated me because he didn’t want me to learn at school. I marched with my mum and the NUT for education.

The idea of protests captured my imagination. When we moved house, I played with the estate agent’s SOLD sign, pretending it was a placard. It hardly compared to the real thing, with all the whistles and the shouting, but it was better than nothing.

It was around the age of seven that I undertook my first direct action. The aim of the action is lost to the ages, but the process remains clear as day.

I locked myself in the one bathroom in the house, with a pile of books and some biscuits. With full bladders and an unwillingness to unscrew the hinges from the door of the one bathroom of the house, the demands of my occupation were swiftly met.

I discovered my own power that day, so marvellously effective was my simple act.

The year after that, we got a downstairs toilet and I had to occasionally concede to the whims of others.

I took a break from direct action after that, until I was fourteen and my best friend and I decided to protest against being forced to play football in PE by sitting in the goal. We agitated, and the other chubby, unpopular kids joined our improvised blockade.

Seven was a crucial year for me. As well as developing a taste for direct action, I became an atheist and a pacifist.

The atheism happened as I stopped believing in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Santa, I realised, had my dad’s handwriting and kept my presents in my parents’ room. The Tooth Fairy had my mum’s handwriting and looked a lot like my mum when she strolled into my room and put 20p under the pillow. That, in conjuction with my mum showing me a jar of my baby teeth, led me to the obvious conclusion that neither of these characters actually existed.

It became immediately clear to me that God, too, must be one of those harmless white lies and fairy tales. At least Santa left presents and ate the mince pie we left for him.

It was my love of Fungus the Bogeyman that led in a roundabout way to becoming vehemently anti-war. One day I spied on the bookshelves a graphic novel by the same author. As a bookish child, I fell upon it hungrily.

To parents, here is a tip: never leave a copy of When The Wind Blows within reach of children. It will permanently fuck them up.

From that day on, I slept under my duvet in a vain attempt to keep the inevitable nuclear fallout away from me. I made sure that the curtains were fully drawn so I would not die a slow radioactive death.

We were moments away from nuclear catastrophe, I believed. Why was nobody doing anything about it?

The answer was, of course, that it was 1993 and the Cold War was over. I did not learn we were no longer under perpetual threat of mutually assured destruction until I was about ten.

I still feel uncomfortable if I sleep in a room where the curtains are open a crack.

These experiences, these little slices of life moulded me. Each time, I drew my own conclusions from what was available. It was a love of learning and synthesis that made me myself. I have, of course, adjusted my belief system with age, but I savour developing my own convictions. It is fluid. It started as far back as I remember.


A Glastonbury tale

I have eaten real food off a plate made of china and drunk tea from a mug. I have scrubbed my fingernails until the point of rawness; all traces of mud are gone. I have washed the faint stink of cowshit from my hair and skin. It is now time to tell a story about something that happened at Glastonbury.

It is not a cool, sexy story. The story I will tell does not involve a cocktail of psychedelic substances, or a celebrity encounter, or a clawing, sweaty, passionate fuck in a hot tent, or seeing the face of Thor appear in the sky to a soundtrack of tribal drums inside a stone circle.

It is not a disgusting story. The story I will tell does not involve a taxonomy of mud types, or running out of bog roll at a crucial moment, or dead Tories in portaloos, or pissing into a paper cup.

Some of those things actually happened.  They are not important stories.

The story I will tell is unglamorous, homely, even mundane. And that’s part of the problem.

On Sunday morning, I attended a debate in the Leftfield tent entitled “Equality and the Cuts”. It opened with the three speakers taking a few minutes to talk about equality issues: Laurie Penny spoke of how the cuts affect women, another of a successful campaign to allow deprived children the same opportunity to attend a nearby school as more privileged children, and the last of how the trade unions are engaging with equality issues.

After ten minutes, equality was never mentioned again, and the whole debate, thanks to questions from the audience, turned into the classic lefty infight: are trade unions A Good Thing?

That was it. Equality was ignored for the rest of the debate.

So much was left unsaid. Only the mere surface on the extent to which the cuts increase inequality was scratched. Women and deprived children had been discussed. What of, for example, people with disabilities who are facing horrendous cuts to a welfare state which helps them live a dignified life, while dribbling cockend Tory backbenchers declare they should work for less than minimum wage?

Why was there no discussion of the inequality and shit that exists in our own back garden, as foul as the squelchy brown lakes surrounding overflowing latrines? Being a woman and an activist is difficult when one’s opinion is not even taken particularly seriously by some male activists. How about the trade unions themselves? How are they looking in terms of equality? The left is still dominated by the voices of the privileged. Will this impede our ability to fight for equality for all? We are all under the umbrella of people fighting the cuts. We need to discuss how we practice equality. What is being done is generally little more than a sticking plaster over a gaping wound.

Some said that there was no need for debate, that everyone agrees that equality is good, the cuts are bad and that the cuts are going to disproportionately affect already disadvantaged groups in society. It is, perhaps, true that everyone inside that tent held that opinion, but this is not the general consensus. How can we work to get the message out and make people care?

We could have discussed whether the government was wilfully targeting the abjected, the deprived, the underprivileged. Do the Tories actually hate poor people, women, disabled people, travellers? Or are they just so fat on champagne and caviar that they have not noticed the lives they are destroying.

These questions buzzed through my head, yet I did not speak. In part, I was tired and inarticulate. In part, I did not want to interrupt the lively debate on trade unions in which everybody else was wholly engaged.

Even in a time slot dedicated for discussion of equality, the topic was the same thing I see so frequently on the left. It was talk of process, it was talk of theory. It was not talk of the actual issue at hand.

Discussion of equality isn’t cool or sexy. It isn’t even particularly interesting. It is, however, vital that we talk about it, as it is an integral part to rebuilding society into something that is, at the very least, more palatable than what we have now.

My Glastonbury tale does not include poo-pirates, spiritual experiences or sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It is unpretty. But it’s a talk that we need to have.

 


Avoid condoms. Spunk makes you happy, apparently.

From the magazine that brought you “black women are ugly because they’re fat, stupid and manly” comes a shower of fresh herpetic pus.

The title alone is thoroughly awful: “Attention, Ladies: Semen Is An Antidepressant“. It is steeped in various societal expectations regarding women and sex: women don’t really like semen, and it is up to the men (and male columnist) to persuade them otherwise.

The science is equally shaky; the column itself links three thoroughly unrelated concepts.

It begins with a discussion of the McClintock Effect, the phenomenon where women’s menstural cycles sync when they live or work together, which is apparently due to pheromones (which may not even exist in humans) (and the evidence for the McClintock effect is fairly poor in and of itself) (basically it’s bollocks). According to the article, the phenomenon does not occur in lesbians, and it is posited that the only difference between heterosexual women and lesbians is exposure to semen.

This assertion is complete rubbish for a number of reasons, and I promise I am not oversimplifying the text of the article. It actually says this:

But at the State University of New York, two evolutionary psychologists were puzzled to discover that lesbians show no McClintock effect. Why not? Gordon Gallup and Rebecca Burch realized that the only real difference between lesbians and heterosexual women is that the latter are exposed to semen.

The absence of a scientifically-dubious effect in lesbians is due tolesbians being unexposed to semen. There is no mention of the existence of bisexual/queer women, and absolutely no critical thinking regarding whether there are other lifestyle differences between lesbians and heterosexual women.

Furthermore, they put this ridiculous assertion into the mouths of the cited evolutionary psychologists who published the semen-is-an-antidepressant paper. They wrote nothing of the sort in the original paper (sadly paywalled). Quite what lesbians and their lack of a dubious effect has to do with semen as an antidepressant is unclear, but it speaks volumes about the quality of science reporting in Psychology Today.

I read the whole paper. I had to find it myself, as Psychology Today cited an article in a popular science magazine, outright admitting to churnalism. It is entitled “DOES SEMEN HAVE ANTIDEPRESSANT PROPERTIES?”. Psychology Today summarised it as this:

Given vaginal absorptiveness and all the mood-elevating compounds in found in semen, Gallup, Burch, and SUNY colleague Steven Platek wondered if semen exposure might be associated with better mood and less depression. They surveyed 293 college women at SUNY Albany about intercourse with and without condoms, and then gave the women the Beck Depression Inventory, a standard test of mood. Compared with women who “always” or “usually” used condoms, those who “never” did, whose vaginas were exposed to semen, showed significantly better mood–fewer depressive symptoms, and less bouts of depression. In addition, compared to women who had no intercourse at all, the semen-exposed women showed more elevated mood and less depression.

Meanwhile, risky sex is usually associated with negative self-esteem and depressed mood. Among college women, risky sex includes intercourse without condoms, so we would expect sex sans condoms to be associated with more depressive symptoms, and more serious depression including suicide attempts. However, in the Gallup-Burch-Platek study, among women who “always” or “usually” used condoms, about 20 percent reported suicidal thoughts, but among those who used condoms only “sometimes,” the figure was much lower, 7 percent, and among women who “never” used condoms, only 5 percent reported suicidal thoughts. (This study controlled for relationship duration, amount of sex, use of the Pill, and days since last sexual encounter.) So it appears quite possible that the antidepressants in semen might have a real mood-elevating effect.

The first paragraph is largely correct: 293 women were surveyed, using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), which is a self-report questionnaire designed for screening for depression. The BDI is limited in its utility as it is a self-report measure, and it also contains a mixture of physical and emotional symptoms.In samples of college students, the BDI may not necessarily measure depression, but rather, general psychopathology, meaning that in this study, the authors may not have been measuring depression, and therefore it is not possible to conclude that semen has antidepressant qualities as depression has not been measured.

The second paragraph is rather misleading. The authors did not control for any of the variables that the article said it controlled for. The results section of the original paper is what can only be described as a clusterfuck of various correlations, none of which actually include controlling for anything. The women differed on many of the variables, for example, on frequency of intercourse (the women who never used condoms had the most sex). This was not statistically controlled for: everything was simply chucked into the same regression model. The model was not significant and explained a trivial amount of the variance in depressive symptoms. Although the coefficient for condom use was statistically significant, the coefficient itself was small, and likely trivial.

Important variables were also not measured: for example, the authors failed to measure the quality of the relationships the women were having, something which may be highly relevant to their mood.Furthermore, the authors had adequate data to identify a “dose-response” relationship–in keeping with their hypothesis that semen is an antidepressant, there should be a relationship where women who were had greater exposure to semen reported lower depressive symptoms and vice versa. This could easily be analysed from data, combining condom use frequency and frequency of intercourse. It is not. I wonder if they ran the analysis and nothing emerged?

The authors also fail to comment on a very noticeable pattern in their results:

The women who reported always using condoms had markedly lower BDI scores than those who used condoms “usually”. This pattern was also present in the data regarding suicide attempts. It runs counter to the authors’ hypothesis: the women who always used condoms, by the authors’ use of condom use as a proxy for exposure to semen, were less depressed than those who would sometimes be exposed to semen.

The suicide attempts data is bafflingly high. 29% of the women in the “usually” use condoms group had reported previous suicide attempts.  The population average is about a tenth of this. It is probably that the data were gathered poorly. Given all of the other effect sizes, it is highly unlikely that exposure to semen is related in any way to a ridiculously high rate of suicide attempts.

On the whole, then, the study is shaky at best, though the phrase I would use would be “HOW THE FUCK DOES SHIT LIKE THIS MANAGE TO GET ITSELF PUBLISHED?” followed by throwing my (as yet entirely unpublished) PhD at a wall.

The Psychology Today article then flies off on another tangent, discussing human concealed ovulation, a topic of obsession for evolutionary psychologists. According to speculation, semen can force ovulation in a woman. It is such unsupported bollocks that to destroy this would be like punching a kitten in the face.

The Psychology Today article ends on an important caveat:

Now, I’m not advocating that reproductive-age people shun condoms to elevate women’s mood at the risk of unplanned pregnancy. But this effect might come in handy for women over age 50, who are experiencing menopausal blues.

There are so many things wrong with this paragraph that it is hard to know where to begin. It is commendable that the columnist thinks that unprotected fucking is not the way to cure depression. He is, however, completely oblivious to the fact that the risks of unprotected fucking go far beyond “unplanned pregnancy”. If he is, as I suspect, an evolutionary psychologist, it is understandable why he thinks that: the evolutionary psychologists tend to construct sex as something for nothing more than reproduction. He is also utterly wrong about how this effect may be useful for menopausal women. Even if we pretend that the semen-antidepressant study was done really well, the findings still only apply to young women.

In sum, then, spunk will not cheer you up or stop you killing yourself. Don’t avoid condoms unless it is safe for you to do so. The science is thoroughly awful.

If sex cheers you up, have sex, with the level of protection of your choosing. It is unlikely that it will be a magic panacea, but a good fucking is tremendous fun.

__

Big thanks to Tom, Alice and Fabi in the PhD room for reading through this drivel with me and having brilliant scientific brains


Revolutionary envy

As I write this, Athens is aflame with metaphorical revolutionary spirit, and literal fire from firebombs and the revolutionary tendency to burn stuff.

They call themselves the Αγανακτισμένων, the indignant. In parallel, the Spanish have the Indignados.

Greece and Spain are doing fairly well in terms of revolution. Srtiking images of crowds of people sick of the parasitic system they inhabit flood the news. Their efforts may prove futile in the future, but they are not without soul. It is a beautiful sight: a roiling mass of faces screaming against their masters. They have, for now at least, had enough.

Contrast with the British anti-cuts movement.

We are not indignant. We are a little bit pissed off.

There are those of us who care, of course there are. We are the ones who expressed disappointment at the failure of the March 26th marches. Some of us tried to occupy Trafalgar Square, imitating the Egyptian example. It seems to be working well in Greece and Spain, the occupation of public squares.

Our revolution is currently confined to interminable consensus meetings leading to small direct actions leading to arrests. We do not have the tipping point, where seemingly most of the population of a city runs riot through clouds of tear gas and smoke. We sit and listen to the same male voices drone about minor theoretical points.

Our “anti-cuts movement” lacks rage, lacks anger. Perhaps it is a by-product of British culture. Perhaps it is because the majority of British people see no reason to be furious.

We are not the indignant. We are the dry, the boring, the floundering; against something, but unemotional.

Is it time to become the Absolutely Fucking Livids?


Understanding men who rape and why they rape

Studying who rapes and why is a difficult task: it is far more than a simple matter of strolling up to your local neighbourhood rapist and saying “Oi, you, why did you do it?”

The first issue is that most rapists do not get caught. The majority of rapes are not reported, and of those that are, the conviction rape is very low.  Because of this, it is difficult to identify rapists to understand who rapes.

Two recent studies have addressed the question of identifying “undetected rapists”: the first, McWhorter and colleagues, used a sample of young men enlisting in the navy, while the second, Lisak & Miller, sampled college students.

In the McWhorter sample, approximately 13% of the sample had perpetrated attempted or completed rape, while approximately 6% of the Lisak & Miller sample had done so. In both samples, the reperpetration rate was high: in the McWhorter sample, 71% of the men had repeatedly attempted to or successfully raped a woman. Lisak & Miller found an average of 5.8 rapes among the repeat rapists in their samples. These findings are startling: in both samples, the rapes had never been reported to the authorities by the victim, yet these rapists had perpetrated multiple rapes. In the McWhorter study, it was found that the majority of victims were acquaintances of the rapists.

These findings are in keeping with those regarding rapists who are caught: that they frequently reoffend, and the victim often knows the rapist. The evidence is not in favour of the classic rape myths that rapists are a stranger in a balaclava leaping out of a bush. It also fails to support the folk notion that rape is something that happens just once when a man gets a little bit hot and bothered by a woman all dressed up sexy near him.

It is frightening to note the sheer quantity of undetected rapists. The McWhorter sample is unrepresentative of the general population, being young men enlisting for the military: 91% were single, and they had a lower level of education than the US average. Likewise, the Lisak & Miller sample were drawn from a particular college. However, these figures are informative about certain population groups, and it would merit further investigation into other groups using similar methodology to identify the true prevalence of undetected rapists.

To identify undetected rapists, both studies used the Sexual Experiences Survey (SES), a 13-item self-report questionnaire. This measure never mentions the word “rape”, instead asking questions such as “Have you ever had a woman misinterpret the level of sexual intimacy you desired?”, “Have you ever obtained sexual intercourse by saying things you didn’t really mean?” and “Have you ever Had sexual intercourse with a woman when she didn’t want to because you used some degree of physical force (twisting your her arm, holding her down, etc.)?” Crucially, questions in the SES do not mention the word “rape” at any point. Statistical tests have found it to be a reliable and valid measure, i.e. it measures what it is attempting to measure, and all of the items in it are distinct.

There are two major criticisms of the SES. First, it is a self-report measure, which are prone to people answering the questions in a socially desirable manner. This is the best one can hope for in this type of research: it is not possible to follow people around, videotaping their every sexual encounter to check for signs of coercion. Second, the SES is entirely focused on men’s sexual violence against women. To address this issue would improve the quality of research into rapists and why they rape greatly: sexual violence is not exclusively men against women, after all.

A further question to be addressed is why do rapists rape? One study has attempted to address this question. The researchers administered a battery of tests to men who were in prison for a range of offences, using a modified version of the SES. Although the majority of participants were imprisoned for non-sexual offences, 51% had engaged in verbally coercive sexual behaviours, and approximately 20% in sexually aggressive behaviours. There was some evidence that the self-reported measure was underestimating the number of men who raped: 85% of those who denied using sexually aggressive tactics on the questionnaire were classified as sexually aggressive due to previous criminal history. This corroborates the problem outlined earlier with using questionnaire measures.

Some characteristics were common to both coercers and aggressors. Both groups had a history of sexual promiscuity, aggressive tendencies and were poor at empathising. Furthermore, both groups were more likely to subscribe to rape myths. Belief in rape myths was measured using a questionnaire called the RAPE scale. The RAPE scale was developed from clinical work with sex offenders and validated on a sample of incarcerated rapists, therefore representing beliefs which many rapists hold. It consists of 36 items which read like a rape culture checklist, such as:

  • “Before the police investigate a woman’s claim of rape, it is a good idea to find out what she was wearing, if she had been drinking, and what kind of a person she is.”
  • “A lot of women claim they were raped just because they want attention.”
  • “Often a woman reports rape long after the fact because she gets mad at the man she had sex with and is just trying to get back at him.”
  • “I believe that if a woman lets a man kiss her and touch her sexually, she should be willing to go all the way.”
  • “Most of the men who rape have stronger sexual urges than other men.”
  • “If a woman gets drunk at a party, it is really her own fault if someone takes advantage of her sexually.”
  • “I believe that any woman can prevent herself from being raped if she really wants to.”

Belief in such myths was found to differentiate between men who were sexually coercive or aggressive, and those who were not. This study therefore provides some evidence that these rape culture myths facilitate rape, and provides an important reason to attack such beliefs wherever they are seen.

Differences in coercers and aggressors were also found: coercers were less able to imagine others’ reactions, while aggressors showed higher levels of hostility towards women, higher impulsivity and reported higher levels of emotional abuse in childhood.

As with the other studies, this sample was not particularly representative of the general population. Men in prison are different to men who are not in prison.

In general, it is difficult to study rapists, and the existing tools we have need work. Due to our current measures, it is not possible to investigate men who rape men, or women who rape, and we must rely on self-reported measures on which it is possible to lie.

What evidence is there suggests that, thankfully, not all men are rapists, and that rape culture is very dangerous indeed. With further research and a constant attack on the flawed belief system which allows rape to happen, we can fight rape.


Cunts, bitches and weeping syphilitic chodes

In a recent post, I called Brendan O’Neill a weeping syphilitic chode, and I was deluged by complaints that I had used a gendered insult. Hypocrite!  Twitter harrumphed. Look at the big mean feminist saying nasty things about men! 

I received more complaints from that one remark than I have ever received for using the word “cunt”, which, Cursebird tells me, has been 640 times on Twitter alone. A more detailed breakdown of my swearing was unavailable, but I imagine a large proportion of that was during episodes of Question Time, where I tend to tweet prolifically about how the entire panel is comprised of terrible cunts.

In fact, had I called O’Neill a weeping syphilitic cunt, I doubt much would have come of it.

I swear a lot, then. I will gleefully throw around cock, cunt, bellend, twat and ballbag with impunity. To me, anatomical terms are, as Forty Shades Of Grey puts it, just words

I use other body parts as insults too: arsehole, and its derivatives, for example. “You big shitting arsehole”; “you sphincter”, “you ringpiece”, e.g. I heard a fantastic anecdote which culminated in a thoroughly odious person being put down with being called a “little finger”.

I am not convinced that using a body part as an insult can be gendered. Gender is, after all, nothing to do with what is hanging between one’s legs. Men can have cunts; women, cocks; and moving beyond traditional binary notions of gender, anything goes. Anyone can have a weeping syphilitic chode.

To me, there are some slurs that do have gendered connotations. They are not disembodied parts of the anatomy. They are the words used to regulate behaviour of those who do not conform to their prescribed gender roles. Take, for example, “bitch”, which, with a variety of different uses tells women how to behave. Don’t set boundaries, or you’re a mean bitch. Don’t show more than the “correct” amount of emotion, or you’re a crazy bitch.

Some of these words are not even rude, but used to tick off women for behaving in a certain way: prima donnas, divas and drama queens. These are women who draw too much attention to themselves rather than sit meekly in the shadows.

Although I walked in the SlutWalk and self-identify as an ethical slut, I have misgivings about the word. We are in the process of reclaiming the word; it is still thrown as a weapon to attack women who fail to conform to society’s sexual expectations. I believe this word to be salvageable–a person who enjoys consensual sex–but we have far to go before the word becomes neutral.

These words are all thrown at men, too, once again to enforce gender-appropriate behaviour: if a man is a drama queen, a bitch, a diva, he is like a woman, which is supposed to serve as doubly insulting. Some feminising words are developed entirely to be hurled at men, like “sissy“. I am unfamiliar with any words which are used to enforce behaviour for men which do not feminise. If there are any, I would like to know.

It is the weapons to force me to behave in a manner which is acceptable to society that I truly find offensive. A floating anatomical part cannot hurt me. Behavioural enforcement can.


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