Sex, Consent & Video Tape

If you’ve never heard of Tulisa Contostavlos, you’re right where I was 7 days ago. The 23-year-old, I’ve since learned, was a member of N-Dubz and a judge on the last series of The X Factor. I’ve also learned that, a few years ago, she and her then-boyfriend Justin Edwards made a video of her giving him a blowjob. This last detail became, according to the British press, newsworthy when said video was released online last Monday. Things actually got interesting on Thursday, when Contostavlos posted her response on YouTube. Describing herself as “deeply betrayed”, the star names and shames, accusing Edwards of releasing the footage, and categorically denies that she has done anything wrong.

While I’m generally not too concerned with celebrity sex scandals, I’d like to make some observations on the discourse around this episode. Firstly, I want to note my great respect for Tulisa’s reaction. I won’t go into this in-depth as Eva Wiseman’s done a great job of explaining its significance (and awesomeness):

“Sex tapes are not uncommon, but what is rare is for their female star to be unapologetic on their release. To discuss ideas of shame, intimacy, consent and privacy, instead of agreeing to a sad-faced interview in the Sun, pictured in polo-neck and natural makeup to denote modesty – that’s unusual. There’s no shame in happy sex, Tulisa asserts. The shame should lie with the person who uses it as currency against his partner’s wishes, who uses a record of it as a weapon. She’s not in the wrong for having sex, for enjoying sex, or for being filmed – her (until now anonymous) ex should be ashamed for betraying her, embarrassing her and attempting to damage her career.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself – so I won’t try. What I want to do is hone in on the issue of consent, and draw out some connections between the way this debacle has been discussed, and common rhetoric around sexual violence.

When the video was circulating, many tweets and comments condemned Tulisa as a “slut,” a “chav slut”, a “Dreadful girl […] and common as muck!” (analysis of the intersection of sexism and classism surrounding this story here). Some men felt entitled to critique the video as though it were porn made for their personal consumption (YouTube comments include: “5 out of 10 for your head game,try spitting on it more”; “boring … it was a waste of a wank”; “I’m surprised she wasn’t better. Surely she’s downed enough dinkle to get where she is now”). The world is full of haters. The internet is their playground. No surprises so far.

I was interested, though, in the supportive messages, comments and tweets of this nature: “I respect tulisa for posting that video and confronting the issue but I’ll never get why you’d let someone film that in the first place.” Online and in conversation, I’ve noticed this time and again: disgust that the video was leaked, sympathy for her embarrassment, and respect for her response – all underpinned by an implicit agreement that in making the video to begin with Tulisa was, if not in the wrong, then at the very least, foolish.

If I’m honest, I don’t understand why she made the film, but I also don’t understand foot fetishes. Sexual desire is profoundly subjective, and whether you get off on the same things as someone should not be a determinant for respecting their rights. We can only assume that Tulisa and Justin got off on making this film. They were two consenting adults, hurting no-one. In her video, Tulisa describes feeling “violated” by what has happened, and makes clear that she did not consent to the video being distributed.

The understanding that it was “stupid” of her to make a video that she didn’t want distributed implies that, when it comes to sex and violation, it is stupid for women to trust men. Men will violate women eventually, given half a chance; women should know better than to put themselves at risk. This premise is what connects the discourse around the Tulisa saga to deeply entrenched ideas about gender, sexuality and violation: ideas that shift blame from (male) perpetrator to (female) survivor.*

Why would you make a video like this if you don’t want it going viral?

Why would you work as a stripper if you don’t want to sexually harassed?

Why would you consent to have sex using a condom, but not without?

Why would you get drunk and lapdance if you don’t want to be a sex object for 9 guys?

Why would you fantasise about consensual group sex if you don’t want to be gang-raped?

Sometimes it seems that each time a woman consents to sexual activity, she is chipping away at the sympathy and credibility that will be offered to her should she one day be violated. I’m not saying that what happened to Tulisa is “the same” or “as bad” as what happened to these women. I’m saying, in this context, it’s hardly surprising that a woman who consented to make a sex video is subtly held accountable when it is non-consensually shared with millions of people.

Using the consent of all parties as the sole barometer for the acceptability of any given sexual act is a radical move, because it requires us to dispense of other moral frameworks. Carla Buzasi, of the Huffington Post, champions Tulisa as a “new feminist icon”, but writes:

“why should she apologise for making the tape? This wasn’t some seedy one-night stand in the alley behind a night-club, she was in a relationship with the man she thought she might marry, and who’s to comment what’s right and what’s wrong behind bedroom doors in that case.”

Hmm… In that case. Is it just me, or is Buzasi implying that if it’s outside of a socially normative (loving, committed, long-term) relationship, commenting on the right and wrong of someone’s sex life is fair game? And, furthermore, that Tulisa would have something to apologize for had this video been made in the context of a one-night stand? Personally, I don’t think someone needs to apologize for being sexually violated, whether it’s by a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, someone they’ve hooked up with in what Carla Buzasi deems “seedy” circumstances, or any other person.

The issue is not whether or not we approve of the relationship, or whether we would make that kind of video ourselves: the issue is that it was shared without her consent. By highlighting this in her video, Tulisa creates a position from which to name her experience of betrayal and violation while refusing the victim-blaming and slut-shaming discourses encircling her. I hope others can follow her example.




*Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that all survivors of sexual violence/violation are female, nor all perpetrators male. I’m focusing here on specific ways in which female survivors are held accountable for male perpetrators’ actions – which don’t always map onto sexual assaults with different gender dynamics.

What’s in a Name? Saying the F-Word and Why it Matters

This weekend I got into a conversation with someone who described himself as an “anti-feminist.” It was actually a conversation (an exchange in which both parties speak and listen), not an exhausting encounter in which one person attempts to antagonise and undermine, rather than hear, the other: I know I’m not alone in having experienced many of those “conversations” about feminism! Towards the end of what was, for me, a fun and respectful exchange, I shared a brief 3-question test. It goes like this:

1. Do you believe that there are power imbalances in the world along gender lines?

2. Do you believe that this is a bad thing?

3. Do you believe there’s something that can be done about it?

The deal is, if you answer yes to all 3 questions, you’re a feminist – if you answer no to any, you’re not (were I more technologically able, I would have made a flowchart).

I don’t know who originally came up with this; I learnt it from friends who had taken Professor Deslauriers‘s Intro to Feminist Theory class at McGill. * While it has limitations, I like a lot of things about this formula. It puts the issue of power right at the centre of feminism: exactly where it should be. It doesn’t specify where power imbalances lie, describe their impact, or advocate methods for tackling them, leaving plenty of room for differences and debate among feminists. It outlines a skeleton of core beliefs, but allows individuals to flesh out their feminism based on their ideas and experiences.

My favourite thing about this “test” is that it’s simple and clear. As a result, I’ve found it an invaluable tool when debunking myths about the movement, challenging generalisations, and, above all, suggesting to people that “feminist” is a word they could use to describe themselves. On this occasion, my interlocutor – though he answered yes to all 3 questions – laughed off my conclusion that he is a feminist. This got me thinking: if someone’s beliefs and actions are feminist, should it matter to me whether they adopt the label?

International Women’s Day recently provided some discussion in the media about what being a feminist means and why it matters. Novelist Linda Grant directly addressed “young women who say they are not feminists” on Twitter, recalling that in 1979 she couldn’t get a store card without her husband or father’s signature. Her point – that many women enjoy rights and freedoms that were won by feminism, yet recoil at the idea of identifying as feminists – clearly resonated with a lot of people. Thousands shared their experiences of sexism, both historic and contemporary; a spontaneous, communal testimony to the relevance of feminism which became

I share Grant’s frustration with, as she calls them, I’m-not-a-feminists. I’ve spent many hours trying to convince people that they’re probably feminists already and just don’t know it – perhaps because they’ve been misled by all the misogynist claptrap about feminism that’s rife in the media. When people do come around to the idea, I feel it as a small victory. But is persuading someone to call themselves a feminist an end in itself?

Also on IWD, Zoe Williams argued that feminism has “a problem with ideological purism”, with feminists wasting valuable energy on an impossible goal of total unity. She denies, though, that she is “one of those beaming, inclusive” types who priorities self-identifying as a feminist above all else. Williams’ point, and her aside about “blue feminist” Louise Mensch, highlights for me one of the weaknesses of the model above. The 3 questions don’t necessarily rule out those whose values and actions perpetuate the oppression of women (for example, supporting economic policies that disproportionately disadvantage women).

While I believe that dissent is healthy within any moment, I know that I draw the line somewhere. If you’re passionate about closing the pay gap, but spend your weekends intimidating women accessing abortion services, I really don’t want you on my team. It would, however, be naive and counter-productive to suggest (or require) that no feminists ever participate in the oppression of women, particularly if you’re alive to the intersections of sexism with classism, racism, capitalism, ablism, transphobia, lookism, heterosexism, etc. Maybe a 4th question on intention would be useful: “are you committed to ending oppression?” This might weed out those who call themselves feminists to court much-needed female voters (cynical? Me?) while in reality doing worse-than-nothing to advance women’s position in society.

I digress: enough on the tiny minority of self-identifying feminists whose use of the title I question, and back to all those I’m-not-a-feminists who I really want to start claiming the name. Why do I care? Maybe because I believe that people identifying as feminists helps create solidarity. If someone uses the label, it suggests that we’re going to have things in common: not that we’ll have similar answers on everything (how dull that would be!), but that we’ll be interested in similar questions. Depending on the context, there can be a tangible feeling of relief and safety accompanying this connection. Challenging patriarchy can be demoralising, frightening, and dangerous. Everyone needs allies, and it’s good to know how to find them.

Secondly, I value precision: if we’re advocating or denying “feminism”, let’s check we’re talking about the same thing. When I ask what someone means by “I’m not a feminist”, frequently they’re distancing themselves from a total caricature. They mean that they don’t hate men, or that they are a man, that they don’t believe women are essentially victims, or that they like having sex. People really believe that these things are mutually exclusive with being feminists. Stereotypes about feminism are powerful tools to generate misogyny and maintain patriarchy: they scare people away from the label, from the movement, from noting or objecting to sexism for fear of being called a feminist. And those stereotypes are pervasive as fuck.

The most important thing, I recognise, is dismantling those power imbalances foregrounded by the 3-step feminist test. If the I’m-not-a-feminists are fighting oppression, maybe it’s a misdirection of my energy to get evangelical about the label itself. But the fact that feminism is such a dirty word is evidence of how vital it still is. More people identifying as feminists means more people challenging the misinformation and mudslinging about feminism. And I can’t help but feel that that would give us a better a shot at being heard and making change.

* And I apologise to Prof. Deslauriers, and those who actually took the class, if I’m getting the precise wording wrong!

Beware the “Sexualisation” Bogeyman

After the publication last week of a French government report on the sexualisation of children, the Guardian called for readers’ thoughts on the topic for their People’s Panel series. My submission wasn’t among those selected for publication, but I thought I’d share it with y’all here.

When the sexualisation of girls hits the headlines, various concerns emerge and are merged. These include the imposition on children of rigid gender stereotypes; the media’s relentless regurgitation of a “pornified” idea of female sexuality, to the exclusion of other models; and the impact on kids of being targeted as consumers. While these issues are interconnected, “sexualisation” is a misleading banner.

Firstly, it creates a narrow, sensationalist focus: cue push-up bras for pre-teens. Putting “sex” and “children” in the same sentence guarantees some tabloid moral panic. Phenomena such as the pinkwashing of girlhood, virtual disappearance of gender neutral toys, and perpetuation of gender stereotypes within education settings, cause less outrage. The sexualisation bogeyman distracts from the harmful effects – on boys and girls – of everyday gender socialisation.

Secondly, “sexualisation” suggests that sexuality is the problem. The rhetoric of sexualisation fits a socially conservative agenda centred on protecting “innocence”. I’m wary of this framework, which implicitly situates sexuality in the realm of guilt and shame, and skeptical that it best serves the interests of girls. I’d favour a debate on how we best support children to grow into adults with a healthy sexuality: one that develops at their own pace, grounded in a sense of self-worth and mutual respect with others.

A good starting point would be holistic, age-appropriate sex ed that explores gender and incorporates media literacy. It’s unlikely that companies will spontaneously stop targeting child-consumers, or the media be purged overnight of its inclination to titillation and widespread sexism. Kids need to be equipped for the world they live in, and encouraged to question it. Rather than fixate on what we can ban and regulate, let’s think about how we teach and nurture.

Sticks and Stones

Learning a new word can be a powerful experience: a thing or idea that has been lurking at the edge of your awareness suddenly takes shape, called into existence by the solidity of a name. This is captured beautifully in Fun Home, as we follow the young Alison Bechdel’s dictionary discoveries. Masturbation; orgasm; lesbian. There they are in the dictionary: she is not the only one. Unfortunately, the realities revealed are not always so joyous. My new word this week is troll. No, not those beady-eyed, punk-haired, plastic folk from the ’90s – how inoffensive they were. A troll, I have learned, is a person who abuses others online. It’s a verb, too: wikipedia defines trolling as posting “inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages,” while the Urban Dictionary cuts to the chase and calls it “being a prick on the internet because you can.”

[Trigger warning: I’ll quote some of this “trolling” below]

I’d never heard this term 7 days ago, but I’ve spent a lot of reading about them since the New Statesman published a piece by Helen Lewis Hasetely last week about the abuse routinely experienced by women who write online. Misogynist trolls are a special clan, and a rather large one at that. Arguing that “ there is something distinct, identifiable and near-universal about the misogynist hate directed at women online”, Lewis Hasetely recalls some of her own experiences and then offers the floor to 9 other female bloggers, each of whom has a catalogue of incidents to draw from.

Kate Smurthwaite, of cruellablog, quotes from a troll who recently began “IF THIS TRASH TALKING K*NT HAD HER F*CKNG, TONGUE RIPPED OUT OF HER SUCK-HOLE…”, before commenting, in a brilliant aside, “I won’t correct the spelling or grammar, that would seem odd”. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the language that women are commonly subjected to, Smurthwaite links this trolling to the pervasively misogynist nature of internet porn. Cath Elliot recalls “graphic descriptions detailing precisely how certain implements should be shoved into one or more of my various orifices”. Rape threats seem to be the bread-and-butter of the misogynist troll, and several writers have disclosed that they have received such threats in messages that included their home address.

This abuse, almost universally sexualised, seems to descend upon women writers regardless of the content or ideological stance of the blogger: Dawn foster concludes from her experience of threats and harassment that just “being a woman on the internet seem[s] to be enough to anger people.” While many women writers are decried as “sluts” and “slags”, catholic blogger Caroline Farrow, who describes her politics as “right-of-centre”, is condemned as “uptight and sexually repressed”: “I am often told how my mouth would be put to better use giving fellatio or that […] my defence of conservative values stems from a deep-seated need to be anally penetrated.”

I have no first-hand experience of trolling, but reading women’s accounts of being victimised hit a very personal nerve. I toyed with the idea of blogging for a long time before starting Lipstick and Teeth. There were pros and cons, and certainly degree of procrastination, but the main thing holding me back was fear. I was afraid because I’d noticed how vicious people can be to one another online and the hateful, personal attacks that women, in particular, are regularly subject to.

Technology has no morality in and of itself, and I’ve been reluctant to infer that the internet has caused people to be nastier. I was, though, aware that the anonymity afforded by online communication gives carte blanche to those wishing to dispense with the level of civility generally required for face-to-face interaction. Reading comments ranging from the casually rude to those that seem to bubble with a violent energy millimetres below the surface had made me question whether I was thick-skinned enough to blog. There’s been a wealth of articles and posts over the last week, with countless women sharing the regularity and vehemence of the hostility and threats they receive. While I have in the past found posted comments chilling, the fierce abuse and absolute abhorrence of women in this kind of trolling (most of which goes unpublished as it is unapproved, moderated out, or sent in private messages) shocked me to my core.

Realising just what women writers are up against made me feel at first justified in the fear that initially deterred me from blogging: that dark, nebulous force I’d been afraid of has a name, is real, and is scarier than I’d been able to imagine. In the original New Statesman piece, freelance political writer Eleanor O’Hagan argues that “misogynistic abuse is an attempt to silence women” and illustrates that it works – explaining how she has “watered down” her opinions for publication, and now avoids writing about feminism almost entirely in order to reduce the amount of hatred that she suffers. The fact that this terrorising of women works, effectively shuts women up, and almost deterred me from writing at all, fills me with rage and sadness in equal measure.

It’s been a strange week for my relationship with the internet. It feels like a less safe place, but also a more exciting one. The speed with which new pieces on this topic have appeared has been invigorating; writers’ readiness to disclose their personal experiences inspiring. I keep thinking about the Speak-Out movement in the 1970s: rape survivors talking to others about what they had been through. I feel that this week I’ve been witness to individual acts of courage and a collective show of strength. Following links from one blog to another, seeing women bounce off one another’s ideas, debate, encourage, and build, has made the internet feel like a true network, and has brought home a sense of the web’s immense capacity for facilitating constructive, empowering communication.

A blogger who wished to remain anonymous shared that she hasn’t received much abuse, and explains “I think a major factor in my avoidance of such abuse so far is that I am not particularly high-profile”. I have not yet been the victim of a troll, but if I keep writing and keep acquiring readers, it seems that I inevitably will one day. I’d really like to live in a world where receiving rape threats is not the marker of being a high-profile female writer. In the meantime, I’ll draw inspiration from the thousands of women who keep on writing.

Dykes on Mikes (to watch out for)

I was on Pride Live again this Monday – how can I resist when they keep asking me to talk about books? This time the spotlight was on Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, creator of the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For I was introduced to Fun Home earlier this year through a London lesbian bookclub of which I am a very-part-time member. It’s a memoir in graphic novel form which explores a surreal and macabre childhood, the joys and perils of coming out, and the ultimate skeleton in the family closet. You can hear me musing about it here. My bit starts at around 41 mins in. Enjoy!

We’re (actually) All In This Together

An Essex County Council report on bullying has generated headlines this week by documenting the experience of pupils “being told to act less gay […] as teachers felt they were making themselves a target for bullies.” The report, which drew on testimonies from students gathered at a conference, records other victims being advised to “wear their hair differently” and, perhaps most depressingly of all, summarises: “Pupils wanted teachers to be more accepting of difference”.

Gay rights campaigner and Colchester Labour Party chairman Jordan Newell was reported to be “shocked”. In the “appalled” sense, I’m right there with you, Jordan; but surprised? Sadly not. The School Report, Stonewall‘s 2007 research into the experiences of LGB pupils in Britain, showed that over half the young people interviewed had heard teachers or other staff make homophobic comments, while 30% identified adults as the perpetrators of homophobic bullying at their schools. Quotes from pupils included in the report suggest that the “act less gay” mantra is not exclusive to Essex. One pupil recalls that the “teacher said it was my fault for being open”; another was told by a school librarian that she’d caused the bullying by “admitting” her bisexuality. The research suggests that just 7% of teachers consistently challenge homophobic language when they hear it.

Clearly there is a spectrum, of which teachers who are outwardly homophobic themselves are (terrifyingly) a part. There are also amazing, queer-positive teachers doing fantastic work to keep their pupils safe while they educate them. My sense is that, in the middle, there are lots of well-meaning teachers who know that homophobic bullying is A Bad Thing, but feel ill-equipped to deal with it and therefore deny its existence.

I had cause last year to speak to a teacher about some homophobic bullying that was not being addressed. She told me “We don’t have homophobia in our school.” I resisted the urge to reply “my mistake, I thought that your school was in THE WORLD”. As such, there will be some homophobia there, and to pretend otherwise helps no-one. In fact, the hands-over-ears “lalala I can’t hear you” approach (which teachers of all people should recognise at 100 paces) harms pupils. Erasing the suffering of victims and granting impunity to bullies denies children any opportunity to learn from their experiences of one another – for example, through restorative justice.

In many ways it’s positive that this story has made the press. Across the papers “act less gay” has been framed as ridiculous advice, with soundbites from Beat Bullying, Stonewall and the NUT putting weight behind the argument. But if we pretend that the sentiment expressed to the pupils involved is extraordinary, an anomaly in our queer-positive world, then we’re no better than the teacher who says “there’s no homophobia in our school” (in a “these aren’t the droids we’re looking for” voice).* Plenty of people would suggest that advising a child to act less gay is a perfectly reasonable, indeed benevolent, response to homophobia: check out the comments on the Sun’s coverage if you don’t believe me.

I’m frustrated by how often discussion of bullying implies that what happens in schools is unconnected to what happens in the rest of society. To start from this premise surely limits how effectively we can challenge ignorance, cruelty and abuse – in all its forms, in all contexts. To my mind, it’s a no-brainer that mandatory, quality training for teachers on anti-oppressive practice, and on responding to and preventing bullying, would improve the lives of children and young people. But we can’t bestow sole responsibility for eradicating homophobic bullying onto the teaching profession – because children live in the world. We can help (whatever our sexuality) by fostering meaningful, open dialogue about homophobia – what it looks like, how it feels, why it happens, where we go from here – as we go about our lives.

* if you don’t get the reference, don’t worry, it just means you’re not a geek like me.

3-Dimensional Women? Overrated.

Want to hear me talking on Future Radio’s Pride Live show about awesome, queer, comic book superhero, Batwoman? You can check out my review of Elegy via the podcast here. I’m on from 37.55 but the whole show is certainly worth listening to!