UniLad: when "banter" crosses a line

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Today's Twitterstorm of Hysterical Outrage concerns a website called UniLad. In typical Twitterstorm fashion, the site was actually taken down while I was in the process of writing this post, but here's the rundown on what's happened so far.

- Horrendously misogynist website runs post insinuating that rape is acceptable and to be encouraged.
- Woman challenges them about it. Retweets galore. Twitterstorm ensues.
- Offending post is taken down.
- Apology about "cleaning up our act" issued, made reasonably pointless by every other post on the site, photo on UniLad Facebook group etc.
- Twitterstorm continues.
- Offending site is taken down. Victory for the Thought-Policing Pitchfork-Wielding Twitter Mob. Sort of.

Almost a decade ago, I was an innocent sixth former, looking forward to going off to university and meeting lots of amazing new people who would be "more mature" and "have more in common" with me. Then I went off to university, and I met Unilad. Unilad was often the most 'popular' guy in the hall. He had a crew of identikit unilads. He was obnoxious and offensive, intimidating and pathetic at the same time. This was 2003; the word "banter" wasn't widely used and I think you could say that the UK was still experiencing the glory days of the lad's mag, before circulation figures started declining and titles started folding and Maxim was still in print and running articles entitled "How to cure a feminist". Sadly for lad culture, however, Unilad was doing a really good job of making feminists and activists out of the young women he targeted.

Unilad cracked jokes about my friend's appearance - and called me "ugly" when I told him where to stick his opinions.

Unilad groped me umpteen times on nights out and laughed in my face if I reacted.

Unilad wrote misogynist articles for the student magazine and responded with something about "stupid humourless feminists" when he was challenged about it.

Unilad put all his support behind a Playboy-themed RAG week.

Unilad made me feel like I was the one in the wrong for feeling uncomfortable about a social event being held at a lapdancing club.

Unilad stood in front of the stage at the union, leering, cheering and filming on his his phone as a young woman was goaded into stripping as part of a "dance contest" to win drinks, before she ran from the room in tears.

Unilad told my boyfriend to dump me so he could have some fun and stop having to hang around with a "bird" who was anti-porn.

Unilad made me really upset, then he made me really angry. The anger took on a whole new dimension when I found out that two of my closest friends had been victims of rape and I understood how this had changed their lives. These days I know that Unilad usually hasn't had the chance to form meaningful relationships with women yet, especially sexual ones. It's obvious from the way he talks about it - just look at UniLad Magazine's neverending posts on the subject. It's a bit tragic. But his mindset still persists on campuses across the country.

No wonder I found so many blogs speaking out about this sort of culture when I got understandably riled by all this and started looking into gender equality issues. There were a lot of young women about who felt the same and wanted to do something about it. And there still are. When I go to conferences and look at blogs, I meet - and read the thoughts of - young women who are having their own gender equality awakening because their eyes have really been opened by incidents like this and the fact they're still apparently acceptable. Of course it's not the only reason we come to feminism and activism, but it's a major concern among most of the young feminists you'll ever meet, because it affects us all.

For me, it happened in 2003 and you'd think things would have moved on. "Lad culture" wasn't the "in thing" the last time I checked. The majority of men I know - and the majority of the men I've spotted on Twitter talking about this today - have serious issues with it all. They don't want to be associated with it. But it's still around, and it still leads to straight-up regressive and vile websites like UniLad having nearly 70,000 "fans" on Facebook. Websites where every other post appears to be about rape - making jokes about it, attempting to dress it up with euphemisms and pretending it's "just a laugh".

Last week, when I came across UniLad for the first time, reading the famously deleted post "Sexual Mathematics". I was confused, because it seemed like the site was supposed to be all about the banter. All about the banter, yet strangely lacking in anything remotely resembling "banter", and instead full of the sort of stuff that no-one could actually find amusing. Mostly a lot of jokes about rape and sexual assault, if you're wondering. If you fancy letting yourself in for a treat, you can read the cached version of the post here. That is, of course, if you're up for reading such gems as:

"And if the girl you’ve taken for a drink happens to belong to the ’25%’ group and won’t ‘spread for your head’, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds."

Damn, I just love the stench of rape apologism. Especially deleted rape apologism that then becomes the subject of a half-arsed "apology" ("Sorry that people were offended. It won't happen again.") that's rendered totally pointless by the fact the site is crammed full of posts making jokes about raping women AND men, making unpleasant comments about the way women look at the same time as being apparently unable to refer to them as anything but "wenches" who need to "get back in the kitchen". Oh, the fact that posts with titles such as "The Angry Shag" end with sentences like this:

"To finish off, I doggy-style her head into the wall attempting to knock some sense into her."

UniLad's readers weren't happy with this "apology". Concluding that it must have been a woman who forced this apology from the site's creators, they're on fine form. "Rape the bitch," says one. "Fucking PC faggots," says another. We've even got "Slap a hoe like a true lad" and "Whoever complained should be raped". Doubtless all those comments are Just A Joke, from Average Guys Just Having a Bit of Fun. And let's not forget Average Girls Just Sticking Up for The Guys. The ones who say things like: "Girls complaining about this article are probably closet lesbians". Which, funnily enough, is the same sort of thing the UniLad account tweeted at the woman who started all this off by challenging them about that post.

"Are you a dyke?" they asked. Because at the end of the day, next to "fat" and "not in the kitchen" it's the worst thing we can be.

Maybe they just need to grow up. Let's hope that when they do, they leave all this behind them. I wouldn't bank on it, though, because these attitudes stick around, They work their way into relationships and the way people treat women. I probably just need to lighten up, though, because it's all about the banter, right?

Page 3, rape myths and bikini bodies: media misogyny at Leveson

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Today saw representatives from several women's groups speak about media misogyny at the Leveson Inquiry. Speaking on behalf of Equality Now, Eaves, Object and End Violence Against Women, they called for changes in the way newspapers operate around a culture of sexist stereotypes and objectification, while perpetuating damaging myths and insinuations regarding violence against women and girls.

No-one can say this wasn't long overdue. One of the issues I have been most passionate about - since I first began writing gender-equality themed missives in my journal and before this blog existed - is the way the media rarely manages to portray women in a positive light. Whether it's the obvious grim sexism of Page 3 and the thankfully now-defunct Daily Sport, the misogyny masked as "women's interest" pieces on working mothers (boo! hiss!) and body image in the Daily Mail, or the frankly disturbing way some media outlets will do anything they can in an attempt to paint rape victims as "evil liars", there's often nothing for us to be encouraged about. Even positive coverage of all things woman-based is relegated to the "lifestyle" sections of the papers, with the fashion and the recipes and the dating ads.

I was angered afresh on seeing old stories mentioned as part of the evidence. The time the Daily Telegraph misrepresented research findings and completely made up others in order to run a story entitled "Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists". The story was quietly pulled after several people had debunked it, but the intention was there. Then there was the time the Daily Mail, in one of the most unpleasant instances I've ever seen, took 12-year-old girls who had been gang-raped to task over their clothing, Facebook profiles and upbringings, describing what happened to them as an "orgy" and calling them "lolitas", while discussing how the allegations would probably have ruined the careers of the accused.

All this, of course, was punctuated by numerous tales of upskirt shots and headlines about celebrities' breasts - and what happens to those who speak out against this culture. Clare Short, lest we forget, was vilified by The Sun as "fat" and "jealous". A woman in the public eye who speaks out against media sexism is letting herself in for accusations of being humourless, bitter and "ugly" - just as we who blog about it expect these comments from trolls below the line.

Some people might dismiss all this. Why take notice of such trash? They're tabloids - what do you expect? But for many people, it's not a case of being to tune out and dismiss it all and look down their noses. We should care about media misogyny because it influences public opinion, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding VAWG. The tabloid rape and sexual assault narrative, that there are "good" (virginal, wealthy, attacked by a stranger in a dark alleyway) and "bad" (working class, dressed in a miniskirt, in a relationship with their attacker) rape victims - has become the narrative many members of the public ascribe to. The disproportionate coverage of "false accusation" cases and "women ruining men's lives" has led to these sort of things being the first thing people often mention if you bring up rape cases. It has been getting worse for several years now, as outlined in the 2008 report Just Representation? Press Reporting and the Reality of Rape. Victim-blaming is the norm.

So what effect does this have on women who have experienced rape and assault? The End Violence Against Women Coalition's submission to the inquiry states:

"Coalition members tell us that when the media reports stories in a way which implicitly or explicitly blames women for attacks on them, they receive a spike in calls from new and former service users who are ‘retraumatised’ by this continuing implication that what happened to them was in some way their fault."

One thing mentioned at the inquiry today was the way women being abused or even murdered by their partner or husband is reported in a decontextualised way, the actions of a "psycho" or a "monster", drawing attention away from the fact that violence within relationships is, in fact, incredibly common and often perpetuated by men who appear to their friends and colleagues as "normal", the "average family man". The insensitivity of journalists towards service users in their quest for sensationalism is also highlighted:

"They commonly ask for case studies who are willing to forego anonymity (with little thought to the consequences of this for some), and who, more sinisterly, fit a certain ‘type’ which they (or their editor) has calculated will suit their editorial line or their perceived readers’ prejudices (victim should be young, should be attractive, should be British, should have no criminal record etc). It is rare for the journalist to ask any question about, or make any provision for, the impact of giving an interview on the victim and any follow up afterwards."

It's easy to dismiss media sexism as the preserve of pathetic rags that aren't worth our time, but the impact of the damaging messages they use to shift copies hits women hard and affects the way people see VAWG. They're also unacceptable at a time when such material wouldn't be permitted on television before the watershed, and in some cases has actually been censored for content by the inquiry. All this and yet it's freely available in the daily papers for all to see.

The groups appearing today called on Lord Justice Leveson to consider regulation of the press to ensure more balanced and contextualised reporting of VAWG, with journalists receiving training on the myths surrounding the issues. It's so important that we see changes take place. Although I sadly can't see the tabloids changing their tune on objectification in the near future, will the inquiry be the start of something good?

Further reading
New Statesman - Helen, 28, has some thoughts on Page 3

Mark Driscoll v the British church

Friday, 13 January 2012

"You don't have one young guy who can preach the Bible that anybody's listening to on this earth."

"I go too far sometimes; almost every other pastor I know doesn't go far enough."

"What you're doing ain't working so you need to do something else."

These are the words of Mark Driscoll, addressed to Christians in the UK. The latest controversy involving He Who Must Not Be Named comes as he has a book to promote - quelle surprise - and is therefore on the global interview circuit. The above quote was recorded as part of an interview for the February issue of Christianity magazine, which is available to listen to in part here (from 34 minutes in).

It's predictable that people - especially those who have dedicated their lives to ministry - were upset when Christian Today broke the story yesterday with a piece entitled: "Mark Driscoll takes aim at the cowards in the British church". I've refrained from writing a post about Driscoll's new book, Real Marriage, because it has inspired so many posts and debates that at present I feel I have nothing to add, especially since I certainly have no plans to buy the book. Some people have said that Driscoll's comments about UK Christianity are best ignored lest we give him the oxygen of publicity. But as Krish Kandiah said yesterday, how can we move forward and see change without engagement, especially on an issue which has made those working in the church feel very hurt?

“Let’s just say this: right now, name for me the one young, good Bible teacher that is known across Great Britain. You don’t have one – that’s the problem. There are a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.”

It is, according to Driscoll, a "full-blown crisis".

Let's look at this carefully. The problem for us is not that the church is full of "cowards", but the problem affecting the way Driscoll sees it is that he doesn't know any "big names", which he feels we need to have - and which he feels must be male and under 40 - in order to reach out to unchurched men. I believe that to a certain extent, people are able to relate easily to and feel comfortable with those of their own age and gender, so yes, of course it's important that we see the younger generation "stepping up" into ministry, whether they happen to be men or women (and I know he wouldn't agree with me on that point). But effective ministry does not mean "being like Mark Driscoll" or "being famous".

As a nation, we are extremely uncomfortable with personality cults surrounding leaders and "celebrity pastors". It has been said that being British is characterised by "social dis-ease", and there is certainly a lot of "dis-ease" about "big name preachers". It's not that we don't have them. I can think of so many church leaders and Bible teachers who are well known and well respected on an international level - and they're not preaching "vaguely spiritual self-help", as Driscoll also believes. I just don't think we elevate them to such a place that they own private jets and people talk about being their "fan". We're the same with our politicians. A US-style election would never work here because most of the electorate would feel too embarrassed by the rhetoric to watch any of it, save for whatever they could see through the slits of their fingers with hands clamped over their eyes.

I know a few people who feel uncomfortable at that moment when a guest speaker who's also an author comes to your church and mentions his or her latest book and the fact you can purchase a copy after the service. For some, it's pretty much the first step on a slippery slope that culminates in demanding money with menaces in return for "blessings" on some obscure religious cable channel. It's just not cricket.

And so we do have groups of pastors who work together for common goals and hold events together. We do have plenty of conferences every year with a full programme of excellent UK-based speakers. We do have internationally-known Bible teachers and evangelists. And you could never say that Christian initiatives in the UK aren't "working". I could name you plenty of excellent "young" preachers. They just tend not to get branded, like the so-called "Reformed Big Dogs" - John Piper, Al Mohler et al - a term that makes me cringe. Just because they don't have 10 satellite set-ups from their original megachurch doesn't mean they're not doing great work in their communities. And it is often the those who shy away from the limelight and the accolades who have had a major impact on people's lives.

I'm being really facetious, but what I'm trying to illustrate is that talking about UK Christian - and certainly UK evangelical - culture on the same terms as the culture in the US, means there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way things are - and it doesn't mean that we're "in the wrong" or have a problem. Around half of Americans attend church on a Sunday, compared to around 10 per cent of Brits. Britain IS a more secular country. There are plus points though - we have a negligible number of fundamentalists, for a start - and no dominionists making bids to run the government. Around 60 per cent of these churchgoing Brits are Anglican. Yes, that's right - 60 per cent attend churches that put sissy, limp-wristed excuses for men in dresses on a Sunday and let women lead a church. The Church of England, like every group of churches, has its issues, but it's our issue-filled group of churches, and it works for many very faithful people.

Those attending churches of the sort Driscoll would see as the "right sort" probably make up 10 per cent of that 10 per cent of British people who go to church regularly. And there we have the reason why there is no UK equivalent of the "Big Dogs". In his blog post hitting back at his UK critics and lampooning Justin Brierley, who interviewed him for Christianity, Driscoll made reference to anti-Christian attitudes from the public and in the media "that can cause preachers and teachers to whisper their beliefs rather than proclaim them".

It is true that the media here tends to use the word "evangelical" as an insult or something to be suspicious of (and I really dislike this fact), but it is no small part down to the way US "evangelical" culture has become stereotyped as narrow-minded, as steeped in excess, as populated by pastors who end up spectacularly falling from grace. In no way is this right, but since Driscoll's remarks were made public yesterday I've seen several people say things to the effect that "this is why I'm happy we don't have more input from American Christians over here". In making these comments about the church in Britain, Driscoll has once again assured that many Christians here will have a negative view of the church in the US, which is unfair and sad.

I feel that his post yesterday has only made the situation worse. He goes into more detail about what he sees are the problems facing British Christians, but has nothing good to say about his interview with Brierley, who he brands "cowardly" and a "liberal" (once again, he needs to think about the fact that this is a term with different connotations in the UK than in the US), apparently thanks to him being married to a minister and saying that he believes the doctrine of penal substitution "can be expressed in an unhelpful way".

Ruth Dickinson of Christianity has commented in a statement published today that:

"Justin’s interview with Mark Driscoll was robust and fair, and I utterly reject the claim that it was adversarial, disrespectful or subjective [nb: as he has claimed on his blog]. We took great care to ensure that his quotes were in context, and gave him the opportunity to talk about his new book, as well as his life and theology."

I'm sure plenty of people are now awaiting the publication of the full interview with interest, but doubt that Driscoll's latest attempt to engage with Britain has won him many sympathisers.
Further reading:

James Ogley: "An open invitation to Mark Driscoll"
Kouya Chronicle: "Driscoll, Kandiah and Cultural Assumptions"
Gurdur's blog: "A blog post for American Christians and Mark Driscoll"
Christian Vision For Men - working specifically and successfully to reach men in the UK (without espousing potentially damaging views on gender).

Image via Mars Hill Church on Flickr.

Phrase du jour: "the new Tory feminism"

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

It started with the build-up to the release of The Iron Lady. In the past week, it's gained momentum with newspaper articles and magazine features about Tory women. And yesterday, Cristina Odone blogged on the "superior form" of "blue feminism". That's right - here in Britain we finally have our own version of the neverending debate that began across the pond when Sarah Palin claimed feminism for herself and heralded the emergence of a band of supposedly equality-minded conservative women.

Sure, our version doesn't carry the requirement to be in favour of limiting reproductive choice, the expectation that they'll be vocal Christians and that they'll champion those who choose to have many children. But in many other ways it's very similar - from the emphasis on personal achievement and success, the talk of the "potential" of women to the calls to "reclaim" gender equality from the left. And of course it's generating debate - for the simple reason that while the spokespeople for "blue feminism" are all about what a good thing it is, it doesn't actually have much to say about most aspects of most women's lives.

My disclaimer here is that as a left-wing woman, I often find it impossible to concede that the policies dreamt up and supported by the right can truly lead to any sort of equality. I think we need to be careful about being precious about left and right and whether a woman from the latter can truly be an advocate for gender equality - but at the same time there are some important points to make on the subject. I'm also really aware that in newspaper coverage of a subject like this, opinions and quotes are going to be cherrypicked to fit an agenda. So I'm not saying that these women have absolutely no interest in certain important issues. They're just not talking about them.

What we have are some glaringly obvious issues surrounding "the new Tory feminism", and while I may seem biased because I'd never vote for these women, this is my take on them.

1) You can talk about "merit" all you like but that doesn't mean you're good for women.

One of the main points to come out of all this is that apparently, your average Tory gender equality warrior has got her head screwed on properly because she doesn't believe in tokenism and quotas. Instead she believes in women getting to the top through hard work and merit and ambition. What that often translates as, of course, is celebrating the achievements of women "at the top" as empowering and inspirational. And much of the time, such women can be considered "inspirational". But at the same time, is there concern for tackling the entire spectrum of inequality so that women who aren't white and middle or upper class get to "rise to the top"?

Louise Mensch sees self-made women as the "essence of feminism" but I don't believe that an emphasis on personal success is the right way to go. It is, of course, very typically Tory - don't think I don't see that; don't say "well what do you expect?". Mensch told Gaby Hinsliff for the Guardian that she believes women should be encouraged to "chase money rather than career satisfaction at work". She speaks of "getting on" and "breaking the glass ceiling" as if it's the be all and end all of being a woman. People keep talking about "bootstraps" with reference to the way Margaret Thatcher saw everything. How realistic a focus is this for many women today? What hope for the disadvantaged and those who are discriminated against and those who actually, simply don't want to strive for buckets of cash and a seat in a boardroom? Making your interest in equality about profit and "getting ahead" doesn't exactly sit right with the current economic and societal situation, even if it does sit right with Tory thinking.

If, as Mensch believes, such success makes it easier for other women to achieve the same, why the complete refusal to admit that the cuts might be doing women a bit too much harm? Why the sneering from women on the right at feminists like Harriet Harman, or the refusal from women like Charlotte Vere to be lumped in with all those "extreme" man-haters on the left along with much talk about not wanting to upset or alienate men? I agree that this works both ways (we can probably be too quick to criticise those who are not on the left and assume that we can't work with them), but they're not exactly helping themselves. If we're talking about the "true blue sisterhood", I'm not feeling the "sisterhood" part all that much. It's not just about party politics and getting one over on the opposition.

2) Let's not pretend Margaret Thatcher was something she wasn't.

Namely, a feminist icon. Yes, she can be considered inspirational for the fact she was Britain's first (and so far, only) woman Prime Minister. It would be nice to think that in the near future, someone might follow in her footsteps. She showed that a woman can lead a country. But she had no time for "women's issues". She wasn't interested in solidarity and she certainly had no interest in equality of any kind. Michele Hanson summed it up last week when she said:

"The grocer's daughter who fought her way up to the top job. But what did she do to help other less fortunate women when she got up there? Even on the way up she'd taken their kiddies' milk away. Then she took away much of their affordable housing by egging everyone on to buy council houses. She privatised the utilities, and up went the household bills, and she crushed the unions. The miners' wives didn't have much to thank her for. And just to show that women can do anything men can do, she started a war, rode around on a tank in her headscarf, created loads more widows, thought herself terrifically grand and used the royal plural for her very own. What a wasted opportunity. From the great heights she looked down and thought not 'How can I raise up other women?' but only 'How can I poop on the poorer ones?' ".

Following this post on the Women's Blog, a woman wrote to the Guardian to tell of the time they'd written to Thatcher - in 1979 - to ask what she could do for victims of domestic violence. She had been running a refuge at the time. She received a response explaining that the Prime Minister was "not interested in women's issues". What would the Tory sisterhood have to say about such a letter today? We know they have concern about some of the same issues as left-wing feminists - porn, Page 3 and objectification are all mentioned in the Hinsliff interview. But what about areas where - unlike sex - feminists and the right might traditionally not overlap? And in the areas where we do overlap, how can we stop everything boiling down to a discussion about morality and actually achieve something?

3) A successful woman and a feminist are not the same thing.

Being a woman in a position of influence doesn't make you a friend to other women. It doesn't mean you have any interest in tackling misogyny, making things better for all women and changing attitudes in society. It might just mean that you're personally successful in your career. And if people think that's an indication of a gender equality heroine, they're confusing feminism with individualism. It's all very nice for the person in question, but for the most part, it has no bearing on the lives of other women or the global equality situation in general. To talk about getting more women from your own party in government, to crow about the fact you've set up a group for conservative women MPs - that's great. But what about the rest of us? Do we only matter when the government is worried that women voters are angry at them? Last year, when a leaked memo revealed the coalitions's plans to "win back" women voters, it came across as being about approval ratings and polls, about coming up with some plan to make us trust David Cameron again.

Fair enough, a successful and wealthy woman might be an inspiration to others who see themselves choosing the same path in life, but I'm not sure it goes much further. Hopefully, she can show men in her field that she's their equal. But we know that doesn't always happen. Cristina Odone's bizarre blog about the superiority of Tory feminism ticked all the boxes in assuming that power and feminism are the same thing - Thatcher as icon purely for being PM, an anti-quotas and tokenism stance meaning that Tory MPs know they're "the best for the job". And then there was the bit about "feminine wiles" being an asset to your average "blue feminist". Odone cited Louise Mensch's "gloss" as a prime example. This brings us on to the fact that...

4) Everyone is really confused about femininity. And it needs to stop.

The Guardian asked Louise Mensch about cosmetic surgery (and whether she has had any) in a recent interview. Certain newspapers gave her a telling-off (referring to her as "the twice-married mother of three") for posing for a photoshoot (for GQ magazine), to accompany a feature in which she talked about women in the public eye being trivialised over their appearance. Janet Street-Porter has gone for her this week too, attacking her for supposedly being interested in clothes and calling herself a feminist at the same time. I agree with JSP's concern about this new right-wing support for gender equality but really, Janet? Picking her up on her appearance?

Let's just stop talking about what women in politics wear. And what they look like. And their "feminine wiles". And what reflection it has on "the sisterhood" if they dye their hair. Because it has no bearing on their job. I often struggle with this apparent need from some quarters to wrangle over "femininity" so much - in relation to any women's issue, or whether or not people identify as feminists. If it's finding its way into a discussion about politics, it's just not relevant. Yes, I know that the media is compelled to talk about women's clothes and appearance as if it's all we should be thinking about, but I expect better, especially when the politicians themselves are criticising this approach.

Blog Design by Nudge Media Design | Powered by Blogger