Sugartits – Addressing harassment

“There you go, love.”

“Thanks, sugartits.”

It’s becoming a regular exchange but none of the men that R has called ‘Sugartits’ has even appeared to notice her campaign against being called ‘love’ or ‘darling’. Each time I hold my breath, but nothing happens.

I asked her why she had to go all the way to sugartits. Love and darling aren’t really on the same scale. She said that if she went with anything more gentle, they’d think it was a come-on. I saw her point.

I also see her point about love and darling. The terms that men use for other men bestow either equal or greater status; ‘boss’ or ‘mate’ or ‘bro’. The terms they use for women place us in an intimate, sexual or at least affectionate relationship; it is a verbal bonding to a complete stranger.

R also has strong views on people who harass or make comments to her. “They are just bullies, they want you to feel uncomfortable or afraid and they rely on the fact that you won’t say anything. So I just say the worst thing I can think of.” I won’t tell you the things she says. She can think of some pretty horrible stuff. When she starts she doesn’t stop until she has won. She calls it the ‘shock and awe approach’.

The strange thing is that when there are other people around, they seem to accept whatever the man has said, no matter how sexist or racist it might have been. At least, nobody bats an eye nor do they step in. What makes them stare is R’s response. It appears that harassing a Black woman is standard, generally accepted behaviour but a Black woman standing up for herself is just plain shocking.

“There was this one guy who clearly spent his whole life in the gym. He had something to say about me being fat so I said that just because he’d been a fat kid and nobody loved him didn’t give him the right to fuck with me. He looked like he was going to cry.”

The exchange highlights the abuse of the initial comment. R has been asked why she is being so mean, she says “Well, you were mean to me first and I have nothing to do with you. Why were you talking to me?”

What R is doing is increasing the risk for men who think that women are just going to accept their harassment. For many men, the silence of the women they harass and the men who witness their behaviour is approval. R makes them feel what she feels; abused and attacked. What she does is risky and brave and I love her for it.

So while I won’t be using the term ‘sugartits’ myself, I am going to stop pretending to be selectively deaf when men make comments. It’s not just for me; it’s for all of us.

Postscript

This course of action might not be for everybody. Men with dented egos are nasty and unpredictable, I wouldn’t grudge anyone who decided to opt out of the encounter.

If you are a man and you happen to overhear a woman being harassed, you stepping in is much more powerful and much safer for you than her standing up for herself. Two simple questions “Do you know her? Then why are you talking to her?” can be very effective. It’s crap, but that is the way power works. When you stay silent, you tell everyone that you agree with what is happening.

Sugartits – Addressing harassment

When good people say bad things

Saying something racist or homophobic is a bit like taking your eyes off the road for a second when you are driving and clipping a pedestrian.

When you are driving there are no free passes. If you hurt someone, it doesn’t matter how careful you have always been or how slowly you usually drive. Nothing in the past changes the fact that right now, here, you have made a mistake. You didn’t mean to do it, but the damage is done. You can’t claim that you are in a relationship with a pedestrian so you know what hurts them and what doesn’t or that the pedestrian that you ran over last week didn’t mind.

Lots of drivers get angry at the pedestrians they hurt. They get angry that the pedestrian is in their way, or blame pedestrians for being so squishy. Some pedestrians pretend they haven’t been hurt just to avoid this kind of response. It’s even been known for drivers to run over a pedestrian they have clipped because they are so angry. Sometimes I think it is because anger is a much more comfortable emotion than shame. It is easier to blame the pedestrian for getting hurt than to admit that you did something wrong and you are horrified at yourself.

Fortunately, metaphorical car accidents are much more easily solved than real ones. If you can get over the shame and not let it move into anger, you can apologise. You can resolve to do better. You can think about the underlying attitudes that prompted the mistake and start laying down new thought processes.

Having to watch out for pedestrians and cyclists and motorbike riders is annoying when you are driving a nice sports car, but remember you are having a much more comfortable ride. Cars are great, you just have to be careful with them.

When good people say bad things

Virtual Parenting for Virtual Kids

child

Our kids have an added dimension of self-hood; their virtual selves, yet we are doing nothing to shape it.

I have just returned from a very scary conference about child and adolescent mental health. The effect of the internet on young people’s mental health is terrifying: cyber bullying, the effect of porn on expectations of relationships, the increasingly negative perceptions of femininity, participation in trolling, creating and distributing sexual images, all are affecting our children at increasingly young ages.

As a teacher, I have often spoken to parents about monitoring their kids’ online activities. There are lots of basic things you can do – limit smart phone use, only allow internet access in shared areas of the house etc. Monitoring is great, but I have come to believe that it is not enough.

Just as we want our children to be self-regulating adults in the real world, we want our children to be self-regulating in their virtual realities as well, and it is not going to happen unless we actively socialise them on-line just as we do in real life (IRL, as the kids say). We do not expect children to gain the skills they need in real life just through monitoring, nor will this work in the virtual setting. I believe that parents must move to a more active engagement with the construction of their children’s online identities.

We must find a virtual equivalent of everything we do IRL, in effect, we must become virtual parents. We teach our toddlers not to run around naked IRL, it is just as hard and just as important to teach the same online. Lessons about kindness and feelings need to be taught in a virtual setting as much as on play dates. We must try and instil a sense of virtual right and wrong that will guide the child even when she is totally anonymous.

I have no real idea about how to do this. Off the top of my head, I would suggest modelling and scaffolding our children’s online experiences as we do other things. We guide their hands and narrate our processes when we bake cakes together, perhaps we need to narrate our own online choices, talk through our responses to a bad photograph or an opinion we encounter that we disagree with. We could work with them to help construct their own online identity through social media. Perhaps we even need a starter site, where parents can work with their children to interact in a monitored setting. I am very sure that if we don’t engage more actively than simply monitoring, the things that scared me so much over the last couple of days will become even worse.

If you have any ideas about what virtual parenting might look like or what we might do, please share them below. As I said, I have no proficiency in this field, I am simply aware that a need exists.

Virtual Parenting for Virtual Kids

International Women’s Day – Not your pity party

Forget celebrities and endless statistics, let’s celebrate the millions of anonymous women who look their oppression in the eye and say ‘fuck it’ and do what they want anyway.

Whether it’s International Women’s Day or any of the history months, two main stories emerge; the anomalous celebrity and the oppressed and victimised lump. So in LGBT month, we remember that Martina Navratilova is a lesbian and that people are still imprisoned for homosexuality in Russia; on International Women’s Day we remember that the windscreen wiper was invented by a woman, and that millions of women still suffer from domestic violence. The aims of these narratives are laudable, they remind us that members of an oppressed group can be successful and that much work remains to be done to end the oppression. However, there is a major problem with this pattern in that it only ever plays into the dominant narrative; that this poor minority can’t really manage for themselves and we have to help them, poor things.

Malala is a great example of the anomalous celebrity. Don’t get me wrong, she is fantastic. But there are thousands of other Pakistani girls who deserve admiration. Every day they know the risk they run, and yet still they go to school. I can’t face school when I have a cold. I wonder how many times the thought runs through their heads ‘I’m not sure I fancy risking getting blown up today, I think I’ll just stay in bed.’ But still they defy the pressure and the danger and they walk to school.

In history we have the Pankhursts who swanned to fame on the backs of hundreds of forgotten women. These women never became celebrities, often their children and grandchildren never knew the way they had campaigned in the face of abuse and violence, balancing political action with housekeeping, only to see themselves reviled in the press and then ignored by history. Without their groundwork, though, the vote for women would still be an issue.

We also have the countless women in this country who marched and protested and campaigned between the wars so that we now have maternity pay and holidays, reasonable working conditions and protection under the law from exploitative bosses. These rights didn’t appear out of thin air, they were fought for and won by women who refused to accept the status quo, who refused to be bullied or intimidated out of their demands.

Whether it is going to school or going to work or just continuing to breathe, I want to salute the courage of those whose names we won’t ever know, the ordinary bravery of women who won’t give up and who won’t give in. These women ignore the jeers and leers and harassment and go to work as engineers, plumbers and electricians. These are the lawyers and civil servants who know they are excluded from the Old Boy’s network and fight their way up anyway. These are the women who are everyday sheros and we ignore. Let us remember them on International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day – Not your pity party

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians

Just as DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act – the one which prevented any US federal body from recognising same sex unions and the legislation that meant that R and I couldn’t stay in the US) was in the process of being repealed, the New York Times published a lifestyle piece about a lesbian couple. For the life of me, I can’t find it – if you have any better luck can you pass it on as I would love to link to it! Anyway, this article was a well meaning attempt to ‘humanise’ same sex partnerships by showing that gays and lesbians are just regular folks. Obviously at the time (2012), the notion that queers have to put out the garbage was considered newsworthy.

As I’ve said, the article was well intentioned, but in its attempt to normalise us, it called on a whole slew of gender stereotypes. It really did talk about having to put out the rubbish and arguing over who got rid of the spiders. I suppose the point was to highlight that lesbians are just ordinary women. I’m sure that the writer didn’t mean to suggest that ordinary women needed a man to deal with their spiders.

There is a joke that is really old now; ‘Asking a lesbian couple which one is the man is like asking chopsticks which one is the fork’. It’s true. We can deal with our own spiders (R gently ushers them outside, I squash them). We know enough about ‘man stuff’ to have renovated our own house and have bought a used car without consulting either of our fathers. We are both strong enough to lift anything that needs shifting. This isn’t because we have special lesbian powers, it’s because gender stereotypes are rubbish.

What neither of us can do, however, is occupy a man’s status in society. The other weekend, there was a huge row at a house party we had been invited to. One of the other guests, a large white male, was angry that R (who is Black) had said that English people could be racist (see Racism in the UK on this blog). Then he went off on one about immigration. R refused to say what he wanted her to – why would she? What she was saying was true and what he was saying was racist. He kept arguing and arguing. I took him outside to try to talk to him. He wouldn’t listen and he still wouldn’t stop. Finally another guest, a white male, the same age, but shorter and less physically intimidating, said to him “Enough now, time to stop”. The man shut up instantly.

R and I can defend ourselves physically, but in situations like this, where the aggression is verbal, neither of us have the power to shut down an angry white male. We just don’t have the status. That is one of the few times when I really wish one of us had the power of a fork.

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians

No Gay Superpowers – Unfortunately

When I come out to kids in my classes (I have to do it regularly because we get a new batch every year) I like to demonstrate my lack of gay superpowers. I prance around the classroom trying to cause a major storm or an earthquake. I even direct my evil gay ray at a random kid in an effort to influence his/her sexuality. We all stare with interest at the kid in question, who looks slightly embarrassed. We wait. The kid does not sprout a rainbow halo or even hum a show tune. We ask if he or she feels any different than they did before I exercised my evil powers. The kid shakes its head. We are disappointed. I assure the class that when my gay superpowers kick in they will know because we will have 10 straight (!) snow days just before my reports are due.

The ability to influence the weather and the sexuality of the people around me are not the only superpowers which have sadly failed to manifest themselves. According to Jeremy Clarkson, R should be able to flick through the jobs section of the newspaper and demand any job she chooses. She is Black and a lesbian. The only reason, as far as I can see, that she isn’t running the BBC is because she is not also a Muslim. I have tried persuading her to convert; we could do with the extra cash.

Last week we were also attributed with the power to suck all of the joy out of the British public. “Man-hating, comfortable-shoe-wearing, hairy-legged lesbians” dictate what can and can’t be printed in the British press. We removed the topless ladies from Page 3 of the Sun and condemned the British male to never seeing any boobs again, ever.

Fortunately, I and my evil man-hating, comfortable-shoe-wearing, hairy-legged sistren were defeated. Page 3 has been reinstated and boobs are restored to the British male. Our dastardly plan came close to fruition, but the plucky and oppressed observers of boobs fought us so valiantly that we were forced to retire, hissing and spitting.

Leaving aside the obvious misunderstanding of the relationship between lesbians and boobs, I do find it somewhat trying to have such power ascribed to me by public perception, and yet to be so powerless in real life. The rhetorical device of casting the oppressed as the oppressor is particularly cruel because it highlights exactly what we haven’t got – power.

No Gay Superpowers – Unfortunately

Weightless

In order to have the best chances of success for our IVF treatment, I needed to lose at least 15kg (33lbs). It wasn’t last year’s resolution (which was to always take the stairs and to sit up straight), but I started the process around about the middle of January last year. Since then I have lost 20kg or 44lbs. I have come down from a size 20 UK (16 US) to a size 12/14 UK (8/10 US).

This may seem like an astonishing success. Friends and family are very vocal in their praise and admiration. In fact, nothing I have ever achieved, not renovating a house, writing a novel nor gaining a Masters, has ever been received so positively as becoming thinner. And I am decidely ambivalent about all of it.

I didn’t like the way I looked this time last year. It was hard to find clothes that looked good and were comfortable. I felt guilty all the time. I felt like everything else I had achieved meant nothing because I was an obese woman. I resented the fact that, at 40, if I were a man, I could slide into a rotund middle age without losing my status in society. Losing weight has not taken those feelings away. I don’t feel constant guilt any more, but I still feel that for most people, my weight means more than my achievements.

Losing weight wasn’t particularly difficult. Once I got into it, I enjoyed leaping about my living room with increasingly heavy weights. I like running. I don’t miss alcohol at all and I like the food I cook. I found what worked for me. So I don’t understand why my weight loss is treated as an incredible achievement. All of the other things I have done were much harder and are much more important to me.

There are definite drawbacks to being thinner. I am much more visible now. I don’t care for male attention, mostly it creeps me out (I’m that kind of lesbian). The blatant staring is far more uncomfortable than my clothes ever were. People assume I take up less space in the world – I have to fight for possession of the whole of my seat on the train. I feel like my excess flesh protected me from the world and now it is gone, I am exposed in a way I never noticed before.

Being thinner may have raised my status in some ways, but it has sexualised that status. It reminds me that as a woman, I am always defined by my body.

Weightless