Rape discussed at school: shocking or sensible?

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

‘Pupils aged 11 debate rape, pornography and prostitution’ – it’s certainly the sort of headline you can guarantee will have Middle England keeling over with rage.

This week, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph were reporting that ‘irresponsible’ and ‘controversial’ education packs produced by Rape Crisis in Buckinghamshire – dealing with issues such as female genital mutilation, rape and forced marriage – are now available for schools to purchase and use as teaching material with young people aged 11-18 in line with government efforts to combat violence against women.

One lesson plan suggests that boys and girls debate myths about rape, such as those that the way women dress or act means they are ‘asking for it’.

The pack is an updated version of one which has been successfully trialled in other areas of the country and has the support of the government’s Violence Against Women and Girls strategy.

Predictably this has prompted outcry from campaigners who think that the materials are far too explicit for schools - and that young people simply do not need to be taught about these issues at all.

The attitude taken by the Daily Mail and (of course) the majority of commenters who commented on the story, is that educating ‘children’ about such unpleasant things is ‘shocking’, ‘depraved’ and ‘sick’ – with some commenters recalling that happier, more innocent time before the 1960s where the fact that abuse and violence was hushed up meant it didn’t happen. ‘Let children be children for as long as possible!’ they cry.

It’s worth pointing out again that the educational packs are aimed at those aged 11-18 – young people attending secondary school - and that its author has advised that teachers ‘use discretion’ over what discussions they have with certain age groups.

So while the packs will not be used in lessons where very young children are present, as the papers practically suggested – and most of the ‘children’ discussing these sensitive issues would actually be teenagers well aware of sex – it’s still, for the press, a matter of ‘protecting’ young people by denying them the chance to explore important issues. Issues that could well be affecting them.

Many of us, particularly parents, might wince to think of teens having discussions about rape and FGM at school because at the end of the day, they’re not pleasant things to be talking about. We don’t want young peoples’ first experiences of relationships and sexuality to involve violence and abuse. One critic has claimed that although we know ‘these things’ exist, we simply don’t need to teach our children about them.

But you only have to look at the wealth of evidence which has come to light in recent years to see that young people are hardly unaware of it all in the first place.

We’ve got research from the NSPCC suggesting that a quarter of teenage girls have been in a relationship with a guy who has been violent towards them and a third have had a boyfriend pressure them sexually. We’ve got the government urging schools to look out for signs that teenage girls may be about to be a victim of forced marriage as cases rise every year. And a 2007 study by the Foundation for Women’s Health, Reasearch and Development estimated that 23,000 girls in England and Wales under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM.

So unpleasant as they are, these are issues that are definitely not alien to young people in Britain today. Sadly many thousands will have already had their lives affected by the abuse the packs deal with. Not talking about them isn’t going to make them disappear somehow – it’s education and openness that’s needed.

Some people feel it’s the responsibility of parents or guardians, not teachers, to have these discussions. Where then, does this leave teenagers whose families are simply uncomfortable talking about sex, or are involved in abusive practices? Talking with peers or a teacher might help a young person to speak up about something that is affecting them.

Laura Colclough, who authored the pack, pointed out that young people today are definitely not naïve when it comes to issues surrounding sex.

Gone are the days when young people are not sexualised. Most, if not all, see the music videos. They see the culture and they surf the internet,” she said.

“It's not from an angle of supporting sexuality or pornography but critically evaluating it.”

Other supporters have pointed out the importance of discussing and trying to combat sexual violence in a culture where a quarter of all women will experience it. Stopping discussion of issues and access to information doesn’t solve problems, as those who have grown up in the US and received abstinence-only sex education can testify. Unpleasant as the subject matter may be, it’s not the time to brush it under the carpet and pretend young people aren’t affected by it.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image via The Telegraph.

Not quite quick enough off the mark

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Like most of you reading this I was disgusted to read Melanie Phillips's piece in the Daily Mail yesterday, giving her unpleasant reaction to proposals that rape defendants could be granted anonymity. I'm not even going to link to it and I certainly wouldn't advise reading the comments unless you want to be left despairing at the levels of vicious hate that some people have for women, but it made me angry. Unfortunately I was recovering from a migraine yesterday and couldn't be bothered to write anything about it, thinking I'd do it today.

We've been hearing about - and reeling from - these new proposals for a few days now. As Barbara Ellen said in the Observer on Sunday:

'On a wider level, what are we saying here – that all women are liars, and legislation must be brought in to counteract the innate deviousness of the female? That our nation is besieged with women who like nothing better than to go out of an evening, get wrecked, have sex they regret, and then pretend they were raped? What larks! As women's groups point out, there are not that many false rape accusations, and the ones that do occur are sensationalised to the point where it resembles a "cry wolf" epidemic.'

Throughout the day I've seen a few good posts which I'm sure you'd actually much prefer to read because I'm only going to spout the same stuff, albeit in a less coherent and more hurried way because I have to go to running club tonight. So have a few links:

Cath Elliott on the Phillips piece

'According to Melanie Phillips in today’s Mail, the new ConDem government is wrong to consider granting anonymity to those accused of rape. So far so good eh? Indeed, you might now be thinking: “At last! Mel “I’ve never been considered a part of the sisterhood” (Question Time 13/5/10) has finally seen some sense and come out on the side of the angels for a change.”

In which case calm yourselves, because no, that’s not what’s happened here.

In fact far from it. Because this time, Melanie Phillips has sunk lower than it was previously thought humanly possible to sink, and has suggested that rather than granting anonymity to men charged with rape, the government should instead be looking at abolishing anonymity for rape victims.'

Quiet Riot Girl has a thought-provoking post (with very interesting comments) on the terminology we use when talking about rape

'Also I think the term ‘rape culture’ discourages us from examining the specific contexts and situations in which men rape women, and other men. How do particular conditions in the military and prisons lead to high numbers of rapes? Why do some husbands rape their wives? How can we work to reduce the numbers of sex workers who are raped by clients and employers and strangers? I don’t know the answer to these questions. Talking about ‘rape culture’ as a blanket description of the whole of our society doesn’t help us to even ask them. my conclusion so far is that unlike ‘gender culture’ , ‘rape culture’ does not offer an analytic tool or a perspective for analysing how gender functions in society to cause violence by men against women and other men.'

Laurie Penny discusses why the anonymity proposals will silence victims

'It has been proven that naming rapists encourages women to come forward to report rape, just as it has been proven that a culture where women do not speak about rape and non-consensual sex allows rape to continue as an accepted part of our sexual dialectic - which is why anonymity for those accused of rape was waived in the first place. Just last year, when serial rapist John Worboys was eventually put on trial for nineteen counts of rape, no less than eighty-five women came forward claiming to have been sexually assaulted by him. Eighty five. Eighty five women who didn't know that they were part of a far broader picture. Eighty five women who didn't come forward until seeing their rapist's face in the paper convinced them that maybe it wasn't all their fault.'

A Very BitchBuzz Meetup

Saturday, 22 May 2010

On Thursday I travelled down to London in an attempt to purchase a wedding outfit. I have two weddings to go to this summer, a vision of what the outfit will look like and a budget. Did I find anything even approaching this 'vision' which suited me and came within budget? No. By 6.25pm I gave it up, thoroughly irritable and too warm (SO humid on Thursday) - and got myself down to Tower Hill for my evening engagement.

The other reason for my trip to London on Thursday was a meetup, dinner and drinks with some of the other UK-based BitchBuzz writers - Charlotta, Rebecca, Cate, Laëtitia, Alison, Iain and Lori. It was a gorgeous evening and we were able to take full advantage of the weather on the terrace of Ping Pong at St Katharine Docks.

After a few hours of lovely food, cocktails and great conversation I was definitely sad to have to leave a bit earlier than everyone else in order to start the trek back to Peterborough (thankfully I didn't arrive at King's Cross to discover the timetable had completely changed due to engineering works, as was the case after Million Women Rise when the helpful man at Peterborough station told me there was no work taking place that day). It was great to meet up with everyone and put faces to names and blogs. Looking forward to next time already!

Meanwhile, the search for a wedding outfit continues and there's just over a month to go until I need it...

Dyer is Axed: What Next For Zoo?

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Last week you can’t have failed to miss the outpouring of disgust expressed when actor Danny Dyer advised a man to cut his ex-girlfriend’s face as part of a column for Zoo magazine.

As Rebecca Thompson wrote at the time, it was almost unbelievable that a magazine could appear to be endorsing a vile attack on a woman. As the outrage mounted, aided by Twitter, the national papers got hold of the story and Danny Dyer’s name was making headlines.

Within a couple of days, we heard the news that Dyer’s ‘advice column’ for the magazine has been axed. A spokesperson for the magazine issued an apology and stated that Zoo planned to make a donation to Women’s Aid as part of a commitment to showing that violence against women is not acceptable.

But how much of a difference does this make? It’s been duly noted by many since that the disgusting misogyny of last week’s Dyer column is hardly a one-off for Zoo - and indeed other lads’ mags. Removing the column is a start, but what about the pages and pages devoted to objectifying and dehumanising woman?

To lads’ mags, which get ever more hateful as the years go by, we’re nothing more than pieces of meat. The subject of features where men can send in pictures of their girlfriends’ bodies for assessment, or discover how to persuade her to perform sexual acts she has previously refused to do, or even win her a boob job (this particular competition earned Zoo condemnation from the Advertising Standards Authority in 2005).

This is nothing new – my own ‘feminist awakening’ as a first-year university student came as I observed the way lads’ mag culture was affecting the guys I knew. For several years now, it’s been reported that sales of these publications have been falling and commentators have wondered if the sexism has finally started to leave a bad taste in the mouths of readers.

I know several people who have written to Zoo to complain about Dyer’s column. They’ve received an apology of sorts. But, no doubt sick of phone calls, the magazine is apparently now determined to forget about the incident, with the editor refusing to discuss the matter any further.

Sex educator and agony aunt Dr Petra Boynton reported on Twitter that she had been in contact with Zoo,’s press office and had been told that after canning Dyer’s column, the magazine is now ‘moving forward’. Dr Petra, who was angered by the implications of the column, offered to talk to the editor about advice-giving but concluded her thoughts on the matter by tweeting:

“So Zoo have been offered the chance to sort out quality sex/relationships features and have, again, ignored the offer. Says a lot.”

The Guardian last week reported that this week, Zoo plans to focus on raising awareness of violence against women in the space usually filled by Danny Dyer’s column. It’s all very well and good to fill one column with something worthwhile once, because people have got angry with you.

When it comes to the rest of the magazine’s content, such regret clearly doesn’t apply. Disgusting as it was, Dyer’s column is by no means the only example of misogyny in lads’ mags. These are magazines which treat the dehumanization and objectification of women as a bit of a laugh, something to joke about. As something routine.

We see this vile sort of mindset all the time on the internet, on forums and in comments on blogs. But when you see it in print and on the shelves of your local newsagent’s it’s even more depressing – and very telling that Zoo obviously has no plans to change. The magazine’s execs may claim that their articles are ‘all good fun’ but they undoubtedly have an impact on the way readers see women.

It’s all very well speaking out about violence and anti-woman vitriol once, but I can only assume that Zoo is going to carry on with its women-as-meat theme until another, more unpleasant scandal forces it to do otherwise. We can only hope that something forces a rethink soon.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image via the Guardian.

Bits and pieces: Dyer, Women Speak Out and Philippa Stroud

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Having spent the past couple of days in a state of advanced excitement/anticipation/trauma and disbelief that David Dimbleby managed to keep it going for 17 hours (I went to bed at midnight, got six hours sleep and was still flagging by Friday afternoon, although it's possible I wore myself out refreshing Twitter and the Guardian's live coverage) I'm pleased to announce that I'm having some down-time. And because the election isn't the only thing that's happened this week, here are a couple of interesting bits and pieces for you:

- You can't have failed to miss the outrage surrounding Danny Dyer's 'advice column' in Zoo magazine. If you did, we're basically talking about a man who told a reader he should 'cut his ex's face, so no-one will want her'. Now we live in times when half of all women will experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking and half of young men think it's sometimes okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex. Plenty of people encouraged us to 'lighten up', assuring everyone that Dyer must have 'meant it as a joke'. Oh, a joke! Silly me. There I was thinking that joking about committing acts of violence against women isn't acceptable either.

In an apology, a spokesperson for Zoo described it as a 'regrettable production error' before stating that the magazine does not condone violence against women. Obviously they'd forgotten about the time that Dyer's advice column instructed a reader to set fire to his girlfriend's pubic hair. Later in the week, we were told that Dyer's column has been dropped from the magazine. There's a great post analysing the ongoing issues surrounding Zoo et al over at soisaystoher, which tells us that many Zoo readers themselves have decided to stop buying the magazine following this week's incident and gives a couple of truly sickening examples of lads' magazines condoning violence and abuse.

- I was excited to hear, via UK Feminista, that two feminists from England are planning to undertake a tour of the country in order to speak to women about their thoughts on feminism, politics and what really matters to them. Jessica and Michelle decided to organise Women Speak Out after being inspired by GirlDrive, Emma Bee Bernstein and Nona Willis Aronowitz's road trip across the USA, in which they talked to both young women and older feminist pioneers about what matters to them today and subsequently wrote a book on their findings.

At present they're planning to visit London, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Bristol, and East Anglia and would love to hear from women who would like to get involved. Their first discussion is planned for May 29th in London. You can find out more at the Women Speak Out site or their Facebook page.

- Finally (and I didn't want to say too much about this, because it's been going on for a week now), I read a couple of good blog posts on the Philippa Stroud controversy which I wanted to share. Al Shaw and Steve Smith have analysed Christian reaction to the story, sharing many of the views I've had as I've observed it on Twitter and in the blogosphere this week. It was noticeable that much of the reaction from Christians was characterized by its description of the allegations as 'hateful', 'biased' and 'anti-Christian', going as far as to suggest that the allegations were completely 'made up'. Al Shaw made some important points on this:
...the article is triple sourced - three individuals (two named) are quoted. Uncomfortable reading though their testimony makes, it is surely unwarranted to automatically assume that they are lying about their experiences. The reality is that any local or national newspaper could find individuals who are unhappy with the pastoral care they claim to have received in virtually any church in the country - including the ones any readers of this blog may attend or even lead! Evangelicals have to accept this reality, rather than automatically dismiss such claims as inherently impossible just because they "know" that such-and-such a church leader is well meaning...

The tendency in some quarters to avoid rigorous and critical self-analysis about our beliefs and practices should hardly be considered a virtue. This defensiveness, which at its worst can come across as a kind of corporate brand protectionism, is sometimes confused with the Biblical mandate to "contend for the faith". It is even less consistent with the Biblical injunction to "test everything" - which I take to include our own beliefs and practices, not only those of others.
Having no experience of Philippa Stroud's church, I'm not in a position to comment on the facts of anything which happened there. But I do believe it's unwise of Christians to instantly dismiss allegations of spiritual abuse or hateful practices simply because they believe the person in question to be 'good', or because they attended that church and nothing untoward appeared to be going on. I don't believe she helped herself by issuing a single, unclear statement on the matter because it leaves the truth open to more speculation. Furthermore, as someone who is most definitely not a Conservative supporter, I'm happy she didn't win her seat on Friday. And no, this doesn't make me a traitor to my fellow Christians.

On another note, it was interesting to see the discussion on the allegations touch on gender roles in NewFrontiers - such as in this piece from Ekklesia.

90s nostalgia: are we ignoring the present?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Everything '90s is currently enjoying a renaissance - and I'm not just talking about the clothes. It's been a few months now since I started coming across discussions on 90s culture on Tumblr and on the blogs I read.

We have 90sWoman, the blog where Kara Jesella and Ada Calhoun discuss being female in the 90s and just how awesome it was. A new generation of viewers is enjoying My So-Called Life and Daria. 14-year-old fashionista Tavi Gevinson, is longing for a teen magazine just like the now-legendary Sassy, which folded before she was born. And you can’t escape blog posts which discuss the female musicians of the decade in awed tones.

It's so easy to get completely immersed in waxing lyrical about just how amazing things were back then. I mean, we're talking about the decade of riot grrrl and DIY. The decade when feminism was right-on, men were progressive and geeks, outcasts and the alternative crowd bonded over zines and the first wave of personal websites, right?

Over a decade on, it becomes easy to romanticise 90s culture and look at it through rose-tinted spectacles, especially when you consider how things have changed. I’ve seen a lot of young women writing online recently about how they feel their generation has no real ‘underground’ or ‘subversive’ scene. The accessibility of the internet has meant that everything remotely alternative becomes ‘trendy’ and ‘overdone’ – look at Myspace and the young people whose internet use it has shaped.

Being a ‘geek’ has been ‘cool’ for a good few years now, but as Tavi pointed out, we now live in a world where Disney markets manufactured ‘alternative’ teen starlets and rebelling against the mainstream IS the mainstream.

Her posts about Sassy magazine elicited a huge response from women and girls – the women fondly remembering 90s culture and the girls wishing they could buy magazines which cover serious issues, reject a narrow definition of femininity and cover subjects beyond those old advertising-industry approved favourites: fashion and diets.

However, at the same time as idolising the 90s I think it’s important that we shouldn’t write off the current decade and all the opportunities it offers us. We can cringe at the way the internet has made counterculture accessible to all, but we shouldn’t forget that the opportunities for learning, communication and self-discovery it has brought have changed so many lives.

This is particularly pertinent when it comes to music. In recent months I’ve seen numerous pieces on women is the industry, contrasting women in the punk and riot grrrl movements with today’s pop starlets and bemoaning how things have turned out (it was all downhill from the Spice Girls onwards, don’t you know).

We can look up to the heroines of the past but it’s also important that we move on and celebrate the present. Instead of longing for a return to the so-called golden age of talented female musicians with a whole lot to say for themselves, we shouldn’t forget that there are so many talented women out there today with much to contribute.

As Jessica Hopper, music critic and author of The Girl’s Guide to Rocking, wrote in a blog post last month:

“Feminism has to move on, salute new icons, be excited by the varieties of archetypes of women in music, be they Gaga or Nite Jewel, that are self-directed, self-produced, not operating under the shadow of a Svengali hand.”

She’s spot on, of course – and her words can be applied not just to the music scene but to the majority of popular culture.

Let’s be nostalgic for the 90s, because let’s face it, so much great stuff came out of that decade. But at the same time, let's not ignore the talent, drive, ambition and achievements of women from the Noughties and beyond - women who are challenging the status quo and doing things their way with amazing success.

This piece originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image via richkidsunite's Flickr.


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