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In other Fuck The Pope news…

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Vatican releases official statement saying that women’s wee is unholy.
The president of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, Pedro Jose Maria Simon Castellvi, said the pill “has for some years had devastating effects on the environment by releasing tonnes of hormones into nature” through female urine.

“We have sufficient evidence to state that a non-negligible cause of male infertility in the West is the environmental pollution caused by the pill,” he said, without elaborating further.

Another day, another scare story designed to misinform the public about the dangers of oral contraception when the real problem here is that the forces of conservatism just don’t dig female reproductive self-determination.

Let’s set this straight: in every sip of tap water you imbibe very tiny traces of mood stabilisers, heart medication, hormones that are added to fast-food and packaged meat in significantly higher doses than the hormones left over from the contraceptive pill in waste, factory run-off, tranquilisers, fluorine, and hundreds of other chemicals – almost all of them in doses too small to make any medical difference. Oestrogens are present in drinking water from a host of sources, most notably from the by-products of plastics production, and studies have shown that most oestrogens in drinking water are natural – not the synthetic oestrogens present in oral contraception. Oestrogens and xeno-oestrogens in water are a by-product of: petro-chemicals such as car emissions, vaseline based skin creams, many common detergents, wax floor polish and paints; synthetic hormones and oestrogenic compounds found in meat, pesticides such as DDT,DDE which are still used all over the developing world, dieldrin, toxaphene, mirex, heptachlor and kepone as well as hundreds of other herbicides and pesticides, all of which have an ability to mimic natural oestrogen, polycarbonated plastics found in baby bottles and water jugs, cling wrap and polystyrene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) used in the manufacture of electronic devices, and – minimally – from hormonal contraception in human waste.

Apparently, though, it’s only the oestrogen from contraceptive pills which is evil, at least as far as the Pope is concerned. Even though the dilution still isn’t enough to be an effective dose unless you were to drink, just for instance, the Thames.

Furthermore, contemporary causes of male infertility are infinite: traffic pollution, laptops, mobile phones, tight trousers and hot tubs, nappies, smoking, overeating, seafood, fast food and driving. In fact, being overweight actually increases levels of oestrogen in the bloodstream anyway, especially if you eat a lot of non-organic meat- meaning that if you’ve got moobs and want to shift them, back away from the cheesburger and stop pointing the finger at us self-sterilising ladies.

I don’t see the Pope asking us to stop eating so much junk in order to protect some sacred ideation of male potency. I don’t see that increasingly unfunny former Hitler Youth dresswearing cunt and his friends asking us all to wear looser trousers and stop smoking. Why would they, when they’ve already decided that by daring to decide for ourselves whether we want to have kids, we’ve symbolically castrated men?

Fuck you, Ratzinger, you terrible little cunt. The contraceptive pill is one of the most important inventions of the last three centuries, and doesn’t damage the environment so much as the status quo. I’m not a Christian, but if I were I’d get down on my knees every night to thank your God for the long-awaited miracle of contraception. We have the right to determine when and if we conceive as far as is technologically plausible, and if that makes you want to clutch your balls, then go right ahead – just don’t claim that there’s any scientific basis for it.

In order to make this point more fully, and because I have not been able to find a picture of the contraceptive pill anywhere that does not feature an artfully blurred, anonymous feminine hand tentatively reaching for a blister pack, here I am nomming my tasty tasty oral contraceptives. Om nom nom (Graphics by the ever-lovely Twitch, who is also a fan of the No Babies For Us plan).


Gender anti-fascism and the fourth wave.

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People have been asking to write about men and feminism, and for weeks I have been trying to put my thoughts down in something approaching a logical and consistent order. Then, today, I read Cath Elliot’s latest piece for Comment is Free – on sexual bullying of girls at school – and it all clicked into place.

Because of course, Cath is right. School is where it all starts. School is where girls learn to be sexually frightened of men. School is where girls learn that their bodies are objects of desire over which they do not automatically get sovereignty. And the fact that people are sitting up and taking this seriously can only be applauded.

But Cath’s article only tells a part of the truth, and sometimes a half-truth can be cripplingly misleading. I don’t remember school as an environment where the boys lorded it around without a care in the world and the girls squeaked in corners hoping not to be felt up. In fact, as I recall, bloody all of us were terrified nearly all of the time. Most pupils of both sexes were learning what violence meant, which was power, and what power meant, which was sex. And everyone, whatever their sex, gender and orientation, lived with the fear of being declared not quite right – not girly enough, not manly enough, gay. School is where those rules of gender, power and violence were laid down, and it was a game ultimately won by nobody.

Sexual bullying in particular happens across the board in schools, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with romance. It’s perpetrated by boys against girls, but also against other boys, and in rare cases girls are even the aggressors themselves, and in every case it’s about asserting power over the victim, about laying down rules of dominance and submission. Moreover, male violence is a more constant and immediate threat for boys at school than it is for girls, as a recent study by shows: 90% of school-age boys reported being bullied mostly or mainly by other boys, compared to 29% of girls. In Brighton and Hove, attacks on boys account for 75% of violent incidents in school. So, in a childhood world where sexual and physical violence profoundly affect children of all sexes in school, is violent bullying still a gender issue?

Of course it is. Violence– whether sexual, physical or both – is almost always gendered, and remains gendered throughout adulthood, because it is about power, and gender as constructed by patriarchal society has always been about power. That’s why rape is always a violent act, the opposite of romance. Sexual and physical violence has been ingrained as a method of asserting a primitive idea of ‘masculinity’ and of patriarchal might for as long as nations have relied on having expendable, damaged, violent young men to send off to war at a moment’s notice. For all our talk of civilisation, we remain an intensely divided, primitive and warlike society – and we will continue to do so as long as our young men grow up learning that every other punch goes unpunished, every other verbal assault unremarked, as long as they grow up learning that instead of becoming whole human beings, they have to learn to fight. We will continue to be uncivilised whilst the schoolyard remains the place where, as their parents and teachers look on, a violent policing of gender, sexual and power norms is beaten into every child with fists and words, a message handed down through the generations that this is the way it goes and the proper reaction is to be a big girl/ be a man and suck it up.

Most men are not violent, but when violence happens, it is mostly perpetrated by men. That is not a statement about the inherent character of half the people on the planet, any more than it is to say: most women are not designed by nature to be domestic slaves, but when domestic slavery happens, it usually happens to women. These things are not native to us. The statement that we were not put on this planet to be either passive homemaking childcare-dispensers or vicious inhumane soldiers is a simple one, but one which runs counter to at least two thousand years’ worth of socio-cultural indoctrination.

This culture has been achingly slow to even begin to let go of the archetype of masculinity bred from the archaic notion that whilst the female body is sacrosanct or profane- to be used and controlled – the male body is fundamentally dispensible. Women across the world remain unaware of the extent to which the Western model of masculinity is damaging – partly because we ourselves have spent way too long trying to emulate it.

In reacting against the artificial prison of Western womanhood, liberated women have turned against their former masters with all the righteous rage of escaping slaves, not realising that they too are indentured. A crucial mistake that continues to be made is the fallacy that the fact that men are also worked over by their gender somehow invalidates the whole concept behind feminism. It does not. Pointing out that the slavemaster is a slave too does not excuse the fact that he used the whip, but it does explain it – and it does not mean that he deserves his freedom any less. However, across the debate sphere for decades the cry ‘but men don’t have it easy either’ has been assumed as a direct attack on feminism – and sometimes it has even been meant as one. Otherwise perfectly intelligent commentators descend into petty fights over whose gender oppression trumps whose, not realising that everyone’s gender oppression is equally valid, not understanding that the expression of someone’s struggle is not an attack on everyone else’s.

Recent decades have seen the dissolution of the gender liberation movement into in-fighting, with men and women attacking each other as if each were somehow to blame for the other’s lot in life. Men have remained unreconstructed, in the truest sense of that term, whilst women have gone on to socially evolve beyond recognition in the space of thirty years. Instead of claiming their own reconstruction in tandem, men have reacted at the shock of having the ability to define themselves against women taken away. Feminists have reacted against that backlash in turn, and the whole thing has descended to wary stalemate, neither side trusting the other enough to put their weapons down and start drawing up a peace treaty.

If we are truly to leave gender fascism behind, we cannot allow ourselves to think in binaries – men and women, boys and girls, us and them. If we are to be liberated, then we must all be liberated, together: there can be noone left behind. Fortunately or unfortunately, the world is already moving to force us to the negotiating table, as the information age makes division of work by gender less and less logical and traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity belong increasingly to the past.

So what I hope for is a new kind of feminism – one that recognises that it is not only about liberating biological women from the constraints and indignities associated with their sex, but about liberating all human people from the cruelties and limitations imposed on them by their gender. It is still because it is about the exaltation and expression of ‘femininity’, but equally about re-imagining what masculinity and femininity signify. Women’s battles are at the heart of the movement, but they are part of the gender struggles of all human beings. We have to recognise that the spectrum of gender prejudice extends into everyone’s lives and places limitations on all of us. We must see that when a young boy in boarding school faces daily sexual and physical violence for not being ‘masculine’ enough, when a girl on a sink estate finds herself on the wrong end of the postcode lottery when she tries to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, when a woman is fired from a senior boardroom position after her maternity leave, when a young man is sentenced to years in prison for membership of a violent street gang whose excesses provide the only positive enforcement he has ever known, those cruelties stem from the same source, and they must be considered together.

The best term for what is perpetrated by patriarchal cultural mores is not misogyny nor even organised sexism, but gender fascism. Fascism in its most literal sense, in its etymological notion of the fasces, the ordered bundle, everything in its proper, pre-ordained and rigidly socially determined place. Ladies, gentlemen and everyone else in attendance: gender fascism is what we need to set ourselves against. And that is why – yes, Julie – we are all feminists are queer allies, every drag queen and transman and every nightclub queer and every straight conformist male living a life of quiet desperation and every person trying to live their live as a complete human being is a feminist ally who sets themselves against gender feminism, or if they aren’t, they bloody should be. Who’s with me?

But think of the kiddies!

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One of the many things that royally pisses me off about this time of year is the endless bloody slew of articles about ‘children of divorce’ at Christmastime. Commentator after commentator calling for us to think of the children and ‘make marriage work‘. Column after column sopping with souped-up stories of ‘suitcase kids’ being shuttled between mummy and daddy, clearly innocent victims of Broken Britain (c.Cameron 2007). This helpful Daily Mail article includes heart-rending testimonies from Tilly, Archie, Freddie, Cora and other improbably-named crisis tots, accompanied by laughable illustrations: a pixie-hatted munchkin kisses daddy goodbye; a ringletted white toddler moops mawkishly by a window, the epitome of Victorian chocolate-box fantasy; and everything is covered in a dubious blanket of perfectly crisp, white snowflakes. Gimme a break.

My fingers are balling into fists thinking of all of the women reading this arrant bullshit and feeling guilty for being unable to provide their loved ones with the perfect, industrial-capitalist, heteronormative nuclear family Christmas. My pansy liberal heart bleeds for the parents of both sexes currently ruining their own happiness and their children’s mental health by staying in bad marriages after buying this sick conservative propaganda.

Let me make it clear right now that yes, I come from a ‘broken’ home. My parents’ marriage disintegrated shortly after their children were born, and several years of ‘holding it together for the kids’, racked by unhappiness and infidelity, culminated in a messy and drawn-out divorce when I was in my early teens. Christmas since my parents separated has generally involved two sets of presents, significantly fewer rows, freedom to watch as much telly as we like and the blessed relief of not having to see my mother grit her teeth whilst serving Delia’s turkey to my father. These days, my mum, sisters and I scoff down chocolate from our stockings in front of Will and Grace and apologise to nobody. Cry me a fucking river. My one regret is that my mother didn’t leave my father sooner – something she might well have done had she not been convinced that my sisters and I would never recover. For the record, we have.

Because living with divorce is not bad for kids. Bad marriages are bad for kids (they’re not a barrel of laughs for their parents either), but divorces are symptomatic of family strife: they do not cause it. What divorce is extremely bad for is the maintenance of an increasingly outdated status quo, one in which a lifetime’s unpaid domestic labour is extracted from one partner – overwhelmingly the female partner – and in which male partners are isolated from the emotional sphere of family life as workers and as breadwinners.
The nuclear family, sustained by the middle-class myth of everlasting love and marriage, is an incredibly efficient way of dividing labour in the context of industrial capitalism, as observed by nearly every brave leftist writer from Engels to Betty Friedan. The idea of organising a household around one married, heterosexual couple and their children is, in fact, a relatively recent one, dating back to the mid-Victorian industrial surge: under a system where women were first blessedly permitted and then practically required to acquire paid employment, and following a welcome period of socio-cultural change, the myth of the nuclear family has become increasingly unstable. However, that hasn’t prevented it from being used as a stick with which to beat women who dared to imagine a life for themselves beyond the Nazi dictat of Kinder, Kuche und Kirche. The idea that divorce causes social breakdown is a colossal case of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Don’t get me wrong: I sometimes wish my parents had been compatible enough to stay together. But given that they weren’t, my family and I are all a damn sight better off with this arrangement. Let’s cut the pretense that the conservative pro-marriage, anti-divorce propaganda circulating at this time of year and in this political climate is anything to do with protecting the welfare of children. When the Mail squeals at us to think of the kiddies, it is lamenting the turning of a tide of social change which even the continuing torrent of right-wing propaganda cannot turn back. It’s Christmas. Everywhere, up and down the country, alternative families are celebrating together – single-parent families, stepfamilies, families with multiple and same-sex parents, families of friends, families of choice, families everywhere which fall outside an increasingly irrelevant socio-cultural norm. Many of us are having a bloody good time. And David Cameron can suck it right up.

No more the meek and mild subservients we!

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Thank you to Jennie for reminding me: sisters, brethren, today is the ninetieth anniversary of the first time British women went to the polling booths. Yup -less than a century ago, at least half of the population were forbidden from having any say in the political process whatsoever simply on account of lacking dangly nether bits and half a chromosome.

It has been said before, and it has been said better than I ever could. But I am grateful to my grandmothers’ grandmothers: I am grateful to Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Charlotte Despard and Emily Wilding Davies. I am grateful to those crusading women and men who gave their social security, their freedom and sometimes their lives so that my little sisters and I could own our political inheritance. Our lives are immeasurably the richer for it.

We still have battles to fight, ninety years on; all over the world, women are second-class citizens compared with men, and in this country and many others we are still fighting for full cultural and political emancipation. But today, I think, we can take ten seconds to look back at where we’ve come. Catch your breath: you’ll get dizzy.

Much as I abhor most Disney, this song is always rousing, and I can see no more fitting tribute to our illustious forbears. Rest in peace, ladies: you did good.

Milking it

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Human breasts are the most fetishised part of the human body, bar none. They have been drawn, painted, photographed, filmed, fantasised, mythologised and obsessed over by the men who are told to desire them and by the women who are taught to ‘make the most’ of them for centuries. Most girls’ and women’s rooms are stuffed with apparatus to push them out, plump them up, pull them apart, squeeze them together, flatten them down and otherwise force them to resemble the platonic ideal of the fantasy pneumatic breast, currently achievable only by surgery and a certain type of mesomorphic19-year-old. Walk down any street, open any newspaper and you’ll be confronted with bosom after computer-enhanced, barely-concealed bosom. And yet, whenever there’s the slightest risk of boobs being exposed in the course of their most natural function, we whip ourselves up into a moral frenzy.

Many cafes, restaurants and other social spaces, along with a significant part of the population in general, have a problem with breastfeeding in public. And occasionally, this will enter the public domain, feminists will clamour their protest, a legion of (mostly male) prudes will harp on about hygiene and social decency and the fact that it just isn’t done, and when everyone has calmed down nothing will have changed. Breastfeeding – the biological function of the human mammary gland – has remained socially unacceptable in public, a distasteful function of feminine biology seen as akin to leaving a streaming open wound unbandaged. In 2006, BabyTalk, a US magazine specifically targeted at pregnant women and new mothers was censored for showing a baby feeding from a human breast on its front cover (presumably BabyTalk shared display space with Playboy and Hustler, but these were deemed acceptable). Recent months have seen public prejudice flare up again against nursing mothers across the western world, and there has been a public outcry against the publication of pictures of a breastfeeding Angelina Jolie.

This week, a virtual storm broke around the humiliating expulsion of a nursing mother from a trendy café in Soho, London, because it was ‘a place for eating’ (for everyone apart from the kid, apparently). The incident has caused viral indignation across feminist and anti-feminist cyberspace. Male commentators have compared breastfeeding in public to shooting up drugs in public, claimed that the practice spreads aids, and squealed that it makes them want to throw up. What nobody has so far mentioned is that breastfeeding is not just a bodily function: it’s a form of work.

Childrearing is still seen as ‘women’s work’ in contemporary Western society, and is devalued as a result – but there are few parts of the task that cannot physically be acheived by either sex. Breastfeeding is one of them. No surprise, then, that this most technically female bit of ‘women’s work’ is seen not only as a personal indulgence but a disgusting one at that – no different to squeezing a zit or bleeding in public. But, in fact, the woman breastfeeding in that Soho cafe was doing her job every bit as much as the young executives hunched over their laptops. Prejudice against breastfeeding in company is not only practical and extremely physical misogyny: from a marxist perspective it is also professional discrimination. In fact, it’s already been recognised as such in New Zealand.

Next time you take a walk around Soho, just count the number of partly- or mostly-exposed breasts you see in any given street. I guarantee you that there’ll be any number of trendy young girls (and boys, it being Soho) with far more boob on display than any nursing mother, the reason being, you see, that when you’re breastfeeding, most of what you can see is the back of the baby’s head. Wearing a low-cut top won’t get you thrown out of a bar, though: it’s alright, as long as you’re getting your tits out for the lads.

Anti-breastfeeding stigma is not for a minute about modesty. It is about restricting women’s choices and underlining the message that women’s bodies are only acceptable if they are explicitly sexual.

Gender fucked: what does ‘healthy womanhood’ look like?

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Starting posts with ‘when I was in a mental institution’ is really something I try to avoid. Penny Red is not my personal headspace blog, and it’s not all about Me and My Mental Illness. [If you like that sort of thing, like me, then you should do what I do and read Seaneen Molloy’s fantastic site, mentally interesting.] Penny Red is about politics, and gender, and activism, and poetry, and feminism and freak power. But the personal is political, and sometimes, mental illness is about those things, too.

When I was in a mental institution, a lot of otherwise well-meaning medical professionals conspired to screw up my gender identity pretty much permanently, for the best of reasons (they wanted to help me get better) and the worst (they believed that conforming to received ideas of ‘feminine’ behaviour was the best way for me to demonstrate a new, mentally healthy outlook). They were wrong. I am incredibly grateful for the inpatient treatment I received, which probably saved my life, but my political and personal feminism took a massive battering, and that’s less than entirely forgivable.

Give them their due, they tried. When I turned up, with my seventeen-year-old crew-cut, wild eyes and baggy hoodies, looking like the small scrawny one out of the Jonas Brothers and suffering from anxiety, depression BDD, self-harm and severe anorexia nervosa, their first assumption was that any young woman who wanted to look like a twelve-year-old boy must simply be a Secret Gay.

I am not a Secret Gay. I am an unsecret bisexual – about a 2 on the Kinsey Scale – I consider myself gender-weird and trans-curious, I enjoy wearing drag and I love, love, love the cock. I just love cock, I always have, I always will. I also find women attractive, but that’s not the whole story – in fact, that’s one of the few things in my life that I’ve felt uncomplicatedly comfortable with. My psychiatrist and some of the nurses tried to convince me otherwise, that if I could just come out of the closet I would magically start eating, stop having panic attacks, my family would accept me and all would be well.

Believe it or not, this represents a positive step for the psychiatric profession. They were prepared, within certain rigid limits, to accept non-heteronormativity as an alternative model for good mental health. At no point did anybody (apart from some of the other inmates) suggest to me that if I were a secret gay that would mean that I was somehow a pervert. And that would not have been the case a decade or so ago. It just so happened that they got it horribly wrong.

After months of my stolid defiance, they gave up and tried a different tactic. If I wasn’t Gay, it followed that I must therefore be Straight. If I was Straight, the only healthy option was for me to Accept My Womanhood. A lot of the received wisdom about anorexia is that it’s a method that young women turn to to escape the stresses of modern femininity. Anorexia, the logic goes, removes you from this struggle altogether because when you stop eating, when you cut down from 600 to 400 to 200 calories per day, your periods stop, your curves disappear and you return to an artificial pre-pubescent state. And young women behave like this because they’re scared and angry about the roles that they are being forced into.

Really? Do you think so? Well, gosh, I don’t see any way in which growing up female and Western in the 21st century could possibly be something to want to avoid. They must be mad, those girls.

Well, yes, we were mad. We were completely and utterly bonkers, mental, loopy, batshit insane – but there was a reason. Instead of analysing why we might be unwilling to go through the process of self-subsumation that represents the western journey into ‘womanhood’, the doctors prescribed a strict programme of feminisation for me. I was told in no uncertain terms to grow out my hair, throw away my old baggy black clothes, start wearing skirts, pretty shoes and make-up, sit with my knees together and be less ballsy and confrontational. The other women on my ward, with nothing to do all day, were only too happy to dress me up like a tiny mannequin, teaching me to paint my face and nails and lending me foofy dresses until I was allowed off the ward to buy my own.

Pretty soon, as a day patient, I was getting regular compliments from leery men on the tube about my nice pink low-cut tops and nice tights and nice impression of absolute submission. This represented progress, my doctors told me. Wolf-whistles were something I should be proud of. I was nearly at my target weight: the attention of men in public places, wanted or unwanted, was proof that I was nearly ready to return to normal society as a ‘proper grown-up lady’.

And the worst thing is that I believed it. Desperate and distressed, I was ready to accept that what the doctors told me was true – note that accepting and submitting to the doctor’s rules, however seemingly illogical, is officially an important part of the ‘journey to recovery’ for many psychiatric inpatients, at least in the all-female wards I’ve had the good fortune to visit. I got down on my knees, and I swallowed it all. I lost my feminism. I believed that in order to be truly well, I would have to behave like a ‘proper’ woman: no more demos, no more trousers, no more going out with short hair and no make-up, a boyfriend as soon as possible and certainly no bisexuality. Being a ‘proper’ woman meant fitting yourself out for sexual and physical attention, and that was all there was to it.

It took me years. Years and years of relapse after relapse to even countenance the notion that the part I was acting wasn’t truly myself. Years to get up the courage to cut my hair short again and stop wearing mini-skirts. I listened to ‘normal’ music (whatever was on Radio 1) instead of the shouty punk-rock, riot grrl and folk that I truly love. I stopped reading almost entirely, which was a pain seeing as I was studying literature at the time. I’m still not there yet. I still find it difficult to leave the house without make-up on, and not just because I have low self-esteem, but because a part of me still believes that ‘healthy’ women should look ‘pretty’ at all times. I still try to dress in ways that flatter my body; five years on, I still spend far too much time, money and mental energy ‘fussing’ over my appearance. I’m still nervous to truly express my politics in person, when I’m not with my friends or writing online. I still think I’m too fat, and have to stop myself reading the diet supplements in trashy magazines.

Conforming to feminine norms doesn’t make you a good person. It doesn’t make you a healthy person. Facebook has allowed me to make contact again with some of the hollowed-out husks of desperate, beautiful women I met in hospital, and most of them have now relapsed. Most are too thin, smiling desperately out of fragile, oddly-angled bodies wrapped in clothes they can’t afford and polished for hours with make-up they don’t need. In pictures, their boyfriends and parents hold them like precious ornaments that might snap if they cling on too tight. If that’s real womanhood, I don’t want any of it.

But conformity is safe. No matter how much time and effort you put in to making yourself acceptable and well-behaved, never doubt that it’s the easy option. I never feel more alive, or more free, than days like today when I stamp into work in big boots, a baggy black hoodie covered with slogans, a bobble hat and no make-up. But it takes courage. Courage to step outside the cosy cage of automatic approval and be your own, real person, without rules.

I respect those few, fabulous women for whom living without conforming to stereotypes seems to come effortlessly. Those angels who stride down the streets of London and Birmingham and Brighton apologising to no-one, fizzing with life and snug in their own skins. One day, I’d like to be one of them, and until that day I’m reading all the feminism I can get my hands on and meeting all the inspiring women I can get my hands on I possibly can. I’m writing about feminism and gender identity to raise awareness of just how much these issues affect the lives of everyone in this country and beyond. You won’t be hearing reams and reams about my own issues on this blog – that’s not what it’s for, and besides, a surprising amount of my time is spent trying not to become Elizabeth Fucking Wurtzel. But I thought it might be useful to explain precisely where some of the nebulous feminist rage comes from. I’m alright now. I’m not mad anymore. But I’m pretty damn angry.

Tales from Turnpike Lane Station 2: the trouble with Reclaim the Night

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Last night, on the platform at Camden Town, I gave the friend I’d been out with a big hug and saw her onto her train before settling down to wait for the last tube home to Wood Green. Just then, I heard a voice behind me.

‘Do I get a hug too?’

Two lads, about my age, maybe a little older, looking like something out of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’, and grinning. I stiffened, smiled and said, ‘no, you don’t’, not wanting to seem what I was. Which was scared, and angry.

Suddenly, I was a small, skinny young woman in London on her own, and here were some blokes who might or might not be about to give me some trouble. Defence mechanism one: Blunt and Rude hadn’t worked, because they were now laughing and looking mock-hurt. So I opted for Defence Mechanism Two: bore them away.

I shook hands, introduced myself, started asking interminable questions about where they were born, what jobs they did, giving monosyllabic answers. The train rolled in and I still couldn’t shake them off: we were apparently going to the same stop. And not for the first time, I found myself thinking: if I’d gone to Reclaim The Night like a good little feminist, this wouldn’t be happening.

If I hadn’t refused to march through another biting November night, shouting
‘Men Off The Streets!’, I’d be surrounded by sisters with placards and bovver boots rather than having to negotiate the potential danger posed by two men decidedly *on* the streets.

As we rattled past Caledonian road, one of the lads went quiet. And then he started telling me how, about a month ago, he and his father were attacked by a group of guys at Cally Road station. He came out with a few scratches. His father was still in hospital, having suffered potentially catastrophic brain damage. The other man was his cousin, who had come down from Liverpool to help the family out.

I listened. And then I explained how, about a year ago, I was nearly raped outside the same tube station. I explained about the calculations women make when faced with a lone man, or a group of men – and they nodded, and talked about very similar calculations that men make when they’re out after dark. We talked about male violence against women, and male violence against men. I told them about Reclaim The Night, and why I wasn’t there.

Because violence in the streets is something that affects all genders. Because as much as I want to support my sisters in their anger and their defiance, I have too many brothers who have been mentally and spiritually broken by beatings, who have had legs, fingers and self-confidence shattered by laughing strangers, who have not yet recovered – who may never recover – from living saturated in a sick culture of masculised violence.

Brutality is bred in the bone in this country, in playgrounds, in the streets, and at home. It runs even deeper than a simple insult to women perpetrated by patriarchy. We are not as civilised as we like to think. Sooner or later, we all learn to fight, or we learn to run, or we learn to lie down and take the kicks and learn to hate. Sooner or later, we all learn to be afraid to walk the streets after dark.

Would I like to live in a world where all women felt safe at night? Damn straight. And all men, too. And all boys, all girls, all transpeople, bankers and shopkeepers and streetwalkers: none of us should have to steel ourselves for a beating when we pop to the shops for milk. This is something that needs to be addressed urgently in our culture. It’s not just a feminist problem; it’s a gendered crisis that makes new demands of feminism, and I will not be Reclaiming any Night until the men and transpeople whom I love are allowed to march beside me.