A book you have been waiting for!
A book that joins the dots between neoliberalism and sexism, between equal pay, war zones, the veil, The Wire, the web and welfare states…a new way of thinking about where we’re at.
A book you have been waiting for!
A book that joins the dots between neoliberalism and sexism, between equal pay, war zones, the veil, The Wire, the web and welfare states…a new way of thinking about where we’re at.
Earlier than usual — maybe 7.30 am — the BBC rang: What did I think about the woman who’d gone to the police over a wolf-whistle from a building site? Should she have gone to the police?
The incident had not crossed my radar. But in any case I found myself in a generational fade: Going to the police, a wolf-whistle…?
Unsure how to think about it; there had to be more to this story but I didn’t know what it was, and pointed the caller in the direction of Everyday Sexism who, to be sure, would know how to think about it.
The Daily Mirror’s version on 29 April was this: ‘Builder quizzed by police over wolf-whistle says he was complimenting ‘silly little girl thinking things above her station’
The paper asked its readers whether they agreed with the action taken by digital marketing director Poppy Smart: Would you go to the police over a wolf-whistle? 8 per cent said YES, 92 per cent NO.
If I didn’t know what to think beforehand, now I do know: Poppy Smart did not complain to the police about a wolf-whistle. She contacted the police and the site contractor about her daily encounter en route to work with a group of men she didn’t know; they didn’t know her either but they presumed to show her what they thought of her in a daily performance of what in any other context would be interpreted as sexual harassment, intrusion and insult.
She didn’t just contact the police, she contacted the site contractor after deciding that this sexism was similar to racism, she shouldn’t have to put up with it.
European directives on sexual harassment are clear: It is behaviour that is unwanted, that is designed to violate the dignity of a person, that creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Employers are expected to ensure that their workers do not engage in such behaviour.
Poppy Smart’s story is illuminating both because she challenged behaviour that many men tenaciously affirm as, variously, banter, a joke, a compliment irrespective of what women might feel, behaviour that is deemed weightless yet worth defending to the bitter end, and also because her complaint prompted the police and the building company to actually do something.
One of the perpetrators, a 23-year-old Ian Merrett, protested in his old-fashioned chivalrous way that wolf-whistling was a compliment, he’d done it many times and ‘snogged so many girls off the back of that’ .
Poppy Smart ‘must be thinking things above her station,’ he said. Thinking things? Station? Two crimes: Thinking and trespassing. Here was a woman who seemed to think that she could occupy terrain — her own body — as if she owned it; that she could exercise both freedom of movement and freedom of thought as if she wasn’t living in Saudia Arabia.
Merrett had form. He told the press that in the past he’d get ‘pissed up and fighting’; he’d received a 12-month jail sentence when he and a dozen or so pals provoked a fight on a Worcester-Birmingham train in 2009.
His friend had ‘indecently exposed’ himself to other passengers after he accused one of them of looking at him. Merrett punched another passenger, who received stitches to his face.
But he was a reformed character, he said, he was only doing what men on building sites do.
The Daily Mirror conducted a poll among its readers on 1st May: 92 per cent supported the men and 8 per cent the woman.
However, police showed the men Poppy Smart’s video of their behaviour, ‘so we stopped doing it.’
She achieved something rather remarkable (despite the mass media’s trivialisation): she showed men dedicated to sexual harassment what it looks like and made them stop it.
Poppy Smart also offered us her own version of events: read it, be sad; be inspired.
FOR A DAY in July 2014, the advocates of children in care institutions who have been sexually abused by adults — including suspects shielded from scrutiny by the Establishment — tasted triumph: their campaign for an inquiry into historic abuse and cover-up had finally been rewarded, there was to be a public inquiry.
Then the government appointed a retired judge, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, to lead the inquiry. The campaigners tasted defeat.
A woman of integrity, said her supporters. Yes, a member of the Establishment, but an honourable woman, well-placed because of her judicial inquiry into a child abuse in the county of Cleveland in the north east of England in 1987.
I wrote a book about the Cleveland crisis, the Butler-Sloss judicial inquiry and the consequences. My only encounter with her was when I asked her permission allowed to interview witnesses to her tribunal. After I’d submitted to her the stories written for the New Statesman, she agreed, on condition, of course, that my book would follow publication of her report.
Day by day after her appointment to head up a new inquiry, worrying evidence billowed around her — and not just because she is a quintessential Establishment figure charged with investigating the Establishment’s cover up of sexual crimes against children, but because her brother, Sir Michael Havers, was Attorney General in the 1980s, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and allegedly implicated in cover-ups.
Oh no, nothing to do with me, she protested.
Then, on 11th July 2014, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme broadcast a report on Butler-Sloss, including a recording of a marvellous moment: a speech she made in 2003 at Gresham College in the City of London.
She gave a light-hearted insight into the Establishment modus operandi when Gresham Professor of Law, Richard Susskind, asked her: “Who instigated the inquiry? How does such an inquiry get set up?”
“I think it was my brother actually as Lord Chancellor,” she said.
“So the Prime Minister wanted somebody and my brother said it probably would be politic because there was some Marxist Leninist feminine…feminism area on there. The social worker had some strong views and there was a certain element of women against men.
“And so I think my brother said ‘well I think you’d better have a woman judge’ and there were only three women judges and by a process, I have to tell you, of elimination — because the other two were not available — I found myself doing it.”
This was simultaneously a laugh-out-loud moment — her exquisite difficulty with the f-word — and a bomb.
The Establishment recruited a woman to do in women in the child health and welfare professions at a radical moment in the history of childhood and protection from adversity and abuse. Thereafter, Butler-Sloss reserved her ire for the women in this case — seemingly impossible women, fortified with authority and knowledge; women who just would not yield, witches; women who mesmerised and discombobulated men, women who created professional alliances with men, women who weren’t afraid of men, of staring abuse in the face…’feminine’ and ‘feminist’ women, whatever…
Now we know.
That crisis was, of course, thoroughly gendered — but not for the reasons proposed by Butler-Sloss, not because there was a ‘women against men element…’
The crisis was something to do with men: men who buggered little children; physical signs on the bodies of children whose average age was six, suggested penetrative abuse; And a police force that refused to investigate suspected crimes against children.
By 12th July 2014, neither the government nor Butler-Sloss could cling on. She withdrew. Her demise takes our gaze beyond the horizon of the elite gene pool: it was not just her dynastic connection to the Establishment that offended people; it was her brother’s role in alleged cover-ups that went all the way to the top; that involved not only the elite but the security services.
And the problem was her way of doing business: Her Cleveland report, published in 1988, was a defining moment: it framed the terms of engagement thereafter between the state, professionals and children suffering sexual oppression. It set the template for how those who are not victims or abusers may come to some understanding: it isn’t possible unless you open your eyes and ears to survivors, or those who work with them.
Her report was compromised by Establishment guile and bad faith. This doesn’t mean she was a bad woman, or a corrupt woman, it merely means she was unavailable to challenge the status quo, to learn or to listen to people with less power — always very hard for an Establishment person.
Ultimately what was more important than anything else, it appeared, was to have and to hold a myth.
In the millions of words published in her Cleveland report, two stand out: she accused doctors seeing signs of abuse of refusing to ‘suspend belief’.
Ever since then, health, welfare and criminal justice professionals — together with society in general — have been obliged to suspend belief.
A new e-edition of my book, Unofficial Secrets – Child Sexual Abuse: the Cleveland Case, is forthcoming.
Meanwhile, here is an extract from the 1997 edition:
ONE MORNING early in the summer of 1987 a story appeared on the front page of a national newspaper, which didn’t make sense. The story ran and ran and ran, measuring more column inches than any other single saga that year – and yet the story went on not making sense. Nevertheless, it became a defining moment in the British state’s response to childhood adversity.
This was the Cleveland case, the story of 121 ‘innocent’ children being snatched from their ‘innocent’ parents by practitioners perceived as witchdoctors so suspicious of sexual abuse that they saw signs of it everywhere – including in children’s bottoms. ‘Innocence’ itself became an actor in this drama, an impersonator, disturbing the safe categories of victim and culprit, which had shaped the statutory services in the image of Freudian fantasy: after all, sex doesn’t happen to children – unless they incite it. And sex doesn’t happen in bottoms. Unless you’re queer.
These fundamental principles of sexual ideology were confounded in the Cleveland case: the ghost of budding Lolitas inciting incontinent men was undermined by the average age of the Cleveland cohort: six. And the orthodoxy of the orifice was shaken by the evidence that a baby in a buggy, with a very sore bottom, was being buggered by her father.
The Cleveland case challenged our world view about sex. It also became a crisis of knowing, of what is known and how it may become knowable. As the months and then the years went by, we were not allowed to know what had happened in Cleveland.
Just as there was a determined not-knowing in 1987, there was equal resistance to any attempt to follow up those 121 children, and reluctance to co-ordinate referrals. Some children did return to the attention of the statutory services. Some children did go on enduring abuse by adults who – having been acquitted by the public debate – had permission to carry on…
The government, suddenly that summer, announced a judicial inquiry, not into the phenomenon but into the response to it…
The inquiry conspicuously evaded the questions on everyone’s lips: ‘what has happened to these children? What brought them to the attention of the statutory services? What do the signs scripted across their bodies mean?
The government guaranteed that these questions would not be asked or answered.
In cases of alleged sexual abuse there has always been something more important than knowing – and that is not knowing.
I am abashed at what we thought was controversial.
For example, the first edition of this book contains an interview with a man and a woman whose children all showed worrying symptoms. The father was already a convicted sex offender. He was candid: yes, he had ‘previous’; yes, he’d confessed and then retracted. His explanation for anal and vaginal medical signs? He didn’t have one. I didn’t believe his protestations, but I faithfully reported his story. And I didn’t ask why his career as a sex offender and his absurd alibis weren’t relevant.
If this case was deemed controversial, it was not because a convicted sex offender was given custody of his children. It was because Dr. Marietta Higgs’ diagnosis had ignited an investigation. If this case was controversial, it was not because the convicted sex offender made a confession — like his previous record, that didn’t matter.
It was as if Dr Higgs, not the man with convictions and a confession, had to be found guilty. Revisiting his case was a revelation: what would now be interpreted as a significant — convictions and a confession — were then irrelevant; they were put to one side and made to not matter. Since then, he has been the subject of a new investigation – based, this time, not on signs but on a story of sexual abuse.
During 1987 the civil courts were pre-empting the outcome of the judicial inquiry by throwing out many of the local authority’s applications. The Butler Sloss inquiry’s report did not criticise the dismissal of these applications.
So, although the government acted as though nothing had happened, it read her report knowing that something had indeed happened to many, if not most, of the children.
What did they know? That the signs scrolled on the bodies of children suggested serious sexual abuse. They also knew that, if the children had indeed been abused, then the signs were telling us something more – that the children were so marooned in their abusers’ needs and pressure and point of view that silence was itself a survival strategy. A tactic of accommodation was revealed by the signs: the architecture of the body suggested the anatomy of adaptation, of small bodies adapting to overwhelming intrusion, orifices scarred and altered by incoming objects, orifices speaking into the silence of their young subjects.
Not all the children were silent. Some spoke loudly and clearly. Some spoke obliquely and hesitantly. But the adult community chose to interpret the silence — rather than the signs — as the relief of suspicion, rather than as a clue to the difficulty of disclosure. Instead of interpreting the matrix of signs and silence as a dynamic, as a drama of physical suffering and survival shrouded by secrecy, it chose an interpretation of this eerie scenario that reinstated the ideologies and institutions that were so stiffly challenged by these children.
Thereafter, a determination to act as if it did not know what had happened to the Cleveland children defined the disposition of the government. The ‘top men’, the medical and legal establishment gossiped over cocktails and confided to each other that well, yes, those doctors probably got it right…
When the judicial panel inquired into the response by professionals it never investigated perpetrators — the absent presence in the whole debate. Experts who worked with perpetrators were shunned. The only evidence the inquiry heard about alleged abusers came from an American advocate for the accused, Ralph Underwager, an itinerant ‘expert witness’ who specialised in giving evidence on behalf of defendants, whose confidence in the campaign to discredit children’s evidence of abuse prompted him to pronounce only five years later that paedophiles should proudly proclaim their sexual desire for children as the will of God.
The government and the inquiry report never asked or answered the question: What do we do to protect endangered children when the children themselves do not, or cannot, protest? Just as silence as a strategy, as a source of agency amid calamities that did not originate with the child, was not assimilated, neither was the weight of children’s fear, nor their dissociation as another survival strategy to protect themselves from chronic, extreme pain. Far from learning from the children’s difficulties, the government’s procedures actually relied upon them, regulating even more intensely the limits upon the space and time available to children to begin to speak. That is the scandal.
In 1987 the Department of Health was already well aware of all this and more. When it set up the judicial inquiry, the Department, social services staff and the police were themselves already addressing a different difficulty: how to help children who had a complaint to make. All over the country statutory services were struggling with the same things; how to help children who were speaking, protesting, to get justice; how to listen, gather evidence, consolidate a case, and protect children in danger; how to help doctors become definite instead of defensive; how to help the child psychiatric services embrace the possibility of an external event.
The typical difficulty for child protection workers was the absence of medical signs to corroborate strong stories that rarely survived the rough journey to the criminal courts. Here were physical signs that had been regarded as forensic gold. If the revelation of Cleveland was the closed circuit of strong signs and silence (although we must never forget that some of the Cleveland children did speak), then the inquiry’s shift from the signs to the silence was an intimation of collusive cynicism – once the argument about the signs was settled, the inquiry turned its mind not to the question of silence, but to how to patrol the possibility that children might speak.
Procedures, according to one child protection specialist, were designed to police the professionals and to control the conditions in which children might speak.
Those with an investment in silence, accused adults — sometimes parents — appeared as the victims of a new contagion: system abuse. And the arrangements created in the aftermath gave even convicted sex offenders the right to participate in planning the futures of the very children they had oppressed. ‘The fact that they were parents was more important than anything,’ said the specialist. ‘When I saw the list of participants at a case conference and read that minutes were to be sent to the father in prison, and that the Governor was to be approached to invite him to the next meeting, I knew it was all finished, particularly for his children who were terrified every night they went to bed that he’d come and get them again. Of course, they were right. The procedures ensured that he would.’ That is the codicil to Cleveland’s bequest to British children.
The first edition of this book was written during the controversy, when anger was directed not at alleged abusers but at children’s advocates.
Now, I wonder why. And I wonder why, like most other people, I reserved my restless discomfort for the people who had decided to do something about the evidence before their eyes. That disposition did not mute a critique of the outrageous mutiny by the police, the most masculinised public serve, who seemed to abandon their duty to investigate and to co-operate with their colleagues. They were the detonators, but their behaviour never aroused anger. Was that because Britain was already pessimistic about the police, the one agency that cannot be called to account? The report’s criticism of the police didn’t matter: no one noticed; no one was disciplined. But, nevertheless, that discomfort still lies like permafrost across the enduring controversies about child abuse. We still think nothing happened. We’re still angry with the wrong people.
I talked to child protection professionals and members of survivors’ movements elsewhere in Britain and in Ireland. They weren’t surprised by the signs that were so contested in this case – they’d already encountered them. They weren’t surprised by the combustion, either, because professional conflicts and political panic were endemic to sexual crime.
Now I understand the meaning of the meeting in 1987 initiated by child protection workers in Nottingham, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands, who were trying to tell politicians that the scale and seriousness of the problem were straining their resources, too. They were also asking: ‘What are we supposed to do about this?’ Why weren’t people like this invited to the inquiry?
When Elizabeth Butler-Sloss reported that she had no reason to doubt the medical signs, professionals and the public could reasonably infer that the doctors might have been right. But that would have been wrong, because the message inferred by some from that report was that it didn’t matter. Those doctors had – with the arrogance of innocence – blown the whistle. They thought their suspicions of abuse that imperiled the well being of their patients might have mattered.
They were wrong. What mattered more was that the sovereignty of services built on an acceptable level of abuse was retrieved. I did not understand that then.
Confidential documents (never acknowledged by the Department of Health) confirm what was only coded at the time: that the government and the health authorities had reason to believe that the doctors were probably right, but that no one would be allowed to know. That is the scandal.
Lifestyle or self-determination?
What should be the focus of debates about abortion in Britain?
The Daily Telegraph reports ‘lifestyle abortions warning as serial termination numbers surge’.
And I’ve had a sporting ding dong with the catholic former MP Ann Widdecombe on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show, during which she berated the ‘sheer number’ of abortions and women ‘putting their careers ahead’ of a ‘life in the womb.’
What is a lifestyle abortion? This is an example of bad language; of what the great Doreen Massey calls ‘vocabularies of neoliberal economy’ — the way the very language we speak has been skewed by the Right.
‘Lifestyle’ is associated with conspicuous consumption; it is associated with IKEA identity — we are what we consume, we are our kitchen cabinets and our build-it-yourself beds, we are endlessly re-making ourselves by endlessly discarding cushion covers. Lifestyle is anything from gardening to diet; from sex to sexual orientation. Lifestyle connotes pleasure.
However, this coupling is about ‘style’ rather than ‘life’.
So, abortion trends are being set up as consumption rather than self-determination; women’s control over their own bodies becomes caprice. That, in the misogynist mind is the cause for concern. The Daily Telegraph, it seems, is on a mission.
But what does the evidence tell us about who is having abortions, and when? And what, in any case, is a cause for concern?
Something significant is happening, however, but it isn’t about either ‘shopping’ or ‘surges’.
According to the 2013 statistics recently published by the Department of Health, abortion is declining, including among teenagers; the ratio of early abortions is rising, and the rate of medical (pill) rather than surgical abortions is rising, too:
If there has been a surge it is in early abortions: under 13 weeks — now 91 per cent.
Under 10 weeks: 58 per cent in 2003, 80 per cent in 2013.
The proportion of medical (a pill) — as against surgical — abortions has reached almost half, at 49%. A decade earlier it was only 17 per cent.
The implications for women themselves and for the National Health Service (the provider for the overwhelming majority of women) are palpable: abortion is less costly to the health and the funds of both women and the NHS.
There is another story — the numbers are falling: at 16 per 1000 women, this is the lowest since 1997.
Teenage abortions are also declining:
The number of women who have had more than one abortion has risen to 37 per cent, compared to 33 per cent.
And the number of women having abortions who already had a child rose from 47 per cent in 2003, 53 per cent in 2013.
The Daily Telegraph and Ann Widdecombe have a new target: not the ‘not bovvered’ teenagers, but mature women making choices.
They interpret these figures as indicative of women having serial abortions, ‘a casual attitude to multiple abortions’, says Widdecombe.
Women don’t have casual attitudes to abortion. We don’t know how to explain these figures.
Unsurprisingly the age at which most abortions happen is 21-22 years. What is these women’s experience? Why aren’t their male partners using condoms? Are they having an abortion in their 40s — having had one in their 20s? Do they think they are past getting pregnant? Do the men they have sex with use contraception, and if not why not?
There isn’t a surge of serial abortion but there is evidence that, among older women, having a child doesn’t necessarily mean they feel able or willing, or safe, to have another.
What used to be called ‘family planning’ and reproductive choice is now traduced as ‘surges’ in ‘casual attitudes’ among women who ought to know better. The moral right always needs to blame some woman or other.
I am a woman
‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ — Maya’s revolutionary book about abuse, adversity, segregation and poetic resistance.
Back home. Mud to show for a mind-expanding sojourn at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival at Hay, a parallel event to the annual book jamboree that takes place every May in this town-of-many-bookshops.
HowTheLightGetsIn is only six years old, and it does what maybe nothing does in our culture — it brings great minds, ordinary minds, curious minds, philosophers, physicists, political theorists and activist scholars together — all of them as participants.
Speakers and listeners have access to each other, and the organisers ensure that book writers are available to their readers; theorists are available to congregate with…well…anyone.
There is a lovely democratic esprit.
I was fortunate to be doing both — talking (about End of Equality) and listening. This year, its spirit was signified by mud.
LSE sociologist Catherine Hakim turned up in baby-pink shoes (was she carried in a sedan chair?), as if her feet were her manifesto. By contrast, green wellies were de rigeur for the philosopher Mary Midgley, who was extraordinarily busy at Hay this year.
Midgley becomes exponentially more prolific with advancing years — she is 94 — as she smothers brittle Darwinists with the tough soft tissue of really wise, big knowledge and philosophical ‘good sense.’
I wish I could have got in to hear Mr. Scruff. Sold out.
And I wish I could have heard cosmologist Laura Mersini-Houghton, theorist of the multiverse — in contrast to universe — debating with particle astrophysics pioneer John Ellis, their research on the origins and structure of our universe/s…
“I think this is a wonderful place to come and release these things,” Mersini-Houghton told Observer journalist, Tracy McVeigh, “As a scientist you are isolated, and I have spent the past five months locked up with equations. It is wonderful to come here and see people’s eyes light up in front of you as they get it. The big scientific questions are just as interesting to everyone.”
She said it: this festival lets the light in. It’s a way of thinking — people gathering, listening, speaking, dancing, chilling — about philosophy and music and everything in between, is democratic: speakers mingle with everyone; heroic intellects get to share their thoughts with people like us, who are, of course, people like them.
To paraphrase John Ellis’ book, ‘A Theory of Everything’, HowTheLightGetsIn is a smart challenge to the lowering horizons and narrowing aperture of what passes for politics — it encouraged and enabled everyone to be interested in everything.
Odd, isn’t it, that sexism is indulged as just silly? That’s how it seemed in my conversation on Radio 5 Live this week Richard Scudamore’s sexist correspondence with colleagues who run the elite pantheon of football. Scudamore’s Premier League mates decided against any further disciplinary action. Scudamore himself said he would do his utmost to support women in the game. And we will await with interest news about just what he, and the league, propose to do to kick sexism out of the league — and, in particular, out of Scudamore’s conversations with his colleagues.
The worry is that the Premier League and Scudamore will ride the row, feel furious, appear contrite, and do nothing. They will enjoy the indulgence of those who reckon the row itself is silly, like sexism is, well, just silly.
His friends — including senior women in the game, have rallied: he’s not sexist, they say. So why did he not only tolerate but participate in sexist talk? They seem to live in a capsule sequestered from the great changes shaking the world. They need to get out more and see what the rest of us see. How else will they help Scudamore as a person and as a professional sort out the institutionalized sexism in football?
The usually witty, cuddly and clever journalist Matthew Norman reckoned the row about sexism in football prompted by the exposure of Scudamore’s horrible correspondence was concerned with stuff that was just ‘witless’ and ‘silly’. He wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Scudamore was just being a Neanderthal pillock. Oh, we are obliged to reply, that’s all right then. Furthermore, this was ‘private’ correspondence.
This notion of the ‘private’ is a dodgy alibi: What’s private about writing this stuff at work, in work time? On the Premier League’s email? To colleagues concerned with the business of the Premier League? About female colleagues in that business? In emails that his PA — another colleague — is required to read as part of her duties?
The former PA, Rani Abraham, who revealed this sexist stream of unconconsciousness to the Daily Mirror – and risked her own professional life – reminds us, however, that there is no such thing as private when you are in your professional/public function, when you are Richard Scudamore, the boss of a business at the heart of national culture, when the stream of sexism runs through your public/professional function.
Scudamore, after all, runs the corporate elite of British football. There are 20 top clubs in his business. He and they have some responsibility for the ethos of an industry from which they profit, and which they have pitched at the heart of popular culture.
Football culture has been a notorious proponent of prejudices of which UKIP would be proud. But it is not a homogenous blob – there are football fans that don’t want the beautiful game to be associated with sexist, racist, capitalist crap. They’ve launched campaigns for cultural revolution that are about more than being nice to women or black people, that are about a different ethos of masculinities being made in the football universe.
But the recidivists profit from reform whilst laying hold of any old excuse to do nothing. At first the FA whimpered that this was a Premier League row, beyond the remit of the FA. Well, maybe this is the time for the FA to find a voice and a brain, and rediscover its power in the game.
Matthew Norman suggested in our conversation of Radio 5 Live that the row needed a ‘bit of nuance’. Well, what would be more nuanced than the clarifications that emerged in the week after the revelations?
At the beginning, commentaries circulated around misconceptions: the idea of ‘private’, the problem of FA or Premier League jurisdiction and responsibility. Now the debate has aired the relation between public and private: there was nothing private about Scudamore’s correspondence, it was professional, conducted in his professional milieu, about other professionals. It wasn’t even secret — Scudamore’s PA was required to read his correspondence so that she could manage his life for him.
We’ve learned something about sexism, too: it is no longer the zeitgeist: from Sports ministers, to football bosses, to campaigners trying to reform its culture – from Kick it Out to Women in Football – to the commentariat and you and me, we’ve learned that a lot of people think sexism isn’t silly.
Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t think it was silly — he told Radio 5 Live on Monday that such correspondence among ministerial colleagues would be a sacking offence. Matthew Norman agreed that ‘the sooner they change the better’ but he didn’t offer any suggestions about how; and — as a football fan — didn’t take responsibility for making that happen. All these big, powerful men, just being silly, eh? But the silly alibi doesn’t address just how these men might stop being silly (and sexist and racist); it doesn’t take responsibility for change. We used to send children down the mines. Now we don’t. Change happened — but it didn’t just happen. People made it happen. And that’s why the response to Ms Abraham’s revelations is a contribution to change: she showed us what these men really think of women. She has, therefore, given the people who have some power in football a gift to effect change.
Vogue Italia finds itself in an imbroglio about violence against women.
Every year editor Franca Sozzani attempts a ‘political’ spread. She is alert to the ambiguities of the fashion industry and tries to lend her resources of her 100,000-circulation magazine to a progressive theme.
So far, so noble. She tells The Independent:
I think about not what could make the magazine different, but what could make a good issue, that people will remember. Anyway, I’m using fashion! I’m using what everybody else is using. I’m more or less using the same girls that everybody’s using. I’m very politically correct in this way, but in the other way, I feel that we can use fashion in a different way.
The controversy is less to do with the fact of Vogue doing violence against women, more to do with whether it can do it, whether the magazine has pulled it off.
Sozzani has explained her commitment to the project, it is ‘our civic duty’ she writes, ‘to convey a message against barbarism.’ She has expressed her alarm at the statistics showing that two women are killed every week in Italy — the same statistic as the UK.
Her photographer Steven Meisel captures exquisite corpses, horror scenarios evoking The Shining, and of course, the frocks.
Sozzani herself has said that when she considered the concept, ‘the idea was cinematic’. This, then, was a genre shoot.
But did she pull it off? Could women who, she writes, are suffering, ‘feel our nearness’?
Having registered how young people relish the horror movie genre, she writes that the death rate from domestic violence ‘is really a horror show.’
But of course it isn’t a show. And that’s a clue to the problem with the spread: it is defined by form, by cinematic allusion and the codes genre, but not the content of violence against — the cultures that sponsor men’s domination and defeat of women.
The spread doesn’t show the relationship so much as it rehearses the mis en scene that saturates popular cultures of violence. It doesn’t rupture them, it repeats them.
That’s why Vogue Italia’s domestic violence spread is controversial: its message is overwhelmed by the medium — the pleasures of seeing the bodies of women, dead or alive, are repeated, again and again.
The Daily Mail ignores in its purported exposure — shaming — of Harriet Harman and the National Council for Civil Liberties over the organisation’s tolerance of, and confusion about, the Paedophile Information Exchange in the 1970s:
Liberals and civil libertarians were routinely muddled or utterly wrong about personal power and oppression — often unable to detect the problem of power in intimate relationships.
It was feminism that strengthened the will of those who resisted PIE’s sly overtures.
There were always men and women on the left who were opposed to PIE. But some men were soft on it — both gay and straight.
Some gay men promoted the ‘love of boys’. Like some straight men — notoriously Roman Polanski — promote, as he puts it, the wish to ‘fuck young girls.’
I recall ferocious arguments among some comrades on the left in the 1970s and 1980s about PIE. It seemed inconceivable that it should have been tolerated within the NCCL community. But as civil libertarians the NCCL was as muddled as liberals and libertarians on both right and left.
Ultimately, people who advocated sex with children were kicked out of the gay movement, and Britain’s civil liberties movements, and they never had any traction at all in the Women’s Liberation Movement.