We still need to talk about consensus

A while back, I posted a few points about consensus decision-making and stimulated a wonderful discussion on its use. In the first piece, I highlighted some major issues I had with the process:

  1. That discussions are most frequently hijacked by a “core group”
  2. That those who speak most tend to be from privileged groups: i.e. they are usually white, cisgendered able-bodied men
  3. That the process can lead to a phenomenon called groupthink which impedes good decision making.

After brilliant discussion in the comments, a partial solution was happened upon: applying the principles of enthusiastic sexual consent to the consensus process. This solution, though, mostly solves the problem of groupthink. The first two, the core group and the unchecked privilege, remain problematic and deserve further discussion.

At the time of writing the prior pieces, I had not yet read “The Tyrrany of Structurelessness“, an essay which highlights these problems in structureless organisation, which was written in the 1970s. It is sad that these problems are still running strong in activist groups: I am hardly the only one who has noticed that core groups tend to take control.

There is a psychological phenomenon at play here: that of minority influence. Minority influence involves a person or small group of people swaying the decision of the majority: this was demonstrated by having people view blue slides of varying brightness and judge the colour. When a minority argued that the blue slide was actually green, the majority tended to follow. Minority influence can affect how people judge a colour. It is hardly surprising therefore that it can sway a group decision towards the views of very few.

Its facilitation of minority influence is both a strength and a weakness of consensus decision making. It is a strength in that it theoretically, it allows outsider’s views to sway the views of others. It is a weakness, though, that in practice the minority who hold the sway are the core group; they are the loud, privileged people.

In The Tyrrany of Structurelessness, a selection of solutions are proposed for countering this dominance by a small group:

  1. Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures
  2. Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them
  3. Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonanbly possible
  4. Rotation of tasks among individuals
  5. Allocation of tasks along rational criteria
  6. Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible
  7. Equal access to resources needed by the group

Applied to consensus decision making, with decent facilitation, these recommendations can certainly make headway, although they do not address some severe problems head-on: particularly that of privilege.

In an impassioned call to arms Forty Shades of Grey says:

It’s time to start kicking arse and taking names. And this time, I mean all of you. I’m sick of being alienated from scenes I like, and I’m not the only one.

Here’s the deal: Challenging one dominant ideal in society (patriarchy, theism, capitalism etc.), whilst displaying sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic or any other discriminatory traits is not on, and I’m calling you all out on it.

It is not enough to simply say “well, our group doesn’t discriminate” when patriarchal, white, cis-centric values are the norm.  

If you’re not actively fighting oppression, you’re propagating it.

I am displaying consensus jazz hands to this sentiment. While many of those who dominate meetings claim to be feminists and fighters of oppression, quite the opposite is true. They sway collective decisions. It is time to call this crap not just in social situations, but as part of formal discussions. We will be accused of derailing for raising a process point, identifying that the same privileged few are those who take over a supposedly collective decision, yet it is imperative to call it where we see it.

When we clear out the shit in our own backyard, maybe we can take on the world.

How the Tories stole choice

“Choice” is the buzzword of the moment, the favourite word of the Tories. They use that word a lot. I do not think it means what they think it means.

The anti-reality Nadine Dorries was once again given a platform to express her confused opinions in The Guardian’s Comment Is Free section. Her piece is entitled “I want to introduce more choice for those seeking abortion, not less“, which would be a noble goal if that was in any way her intention.

With lies and misinformation, Dorries claims that her amendment to the already-hideous Health and Social Care Bill would increase women’s choice regarding abortion, by giving them access to independent counselling before they make the decision to terminate. Dorries repeats the claim that her amendment is supported by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, which it is not; and claims that counselling provided by abortion services is inadequate and taking away choice from women.

This is not true. Services like the British Pregnancy Advisory Service provide counselling and abortions. 20% of women who approach them change their minds and choose not to have an abortion. This is hardly pushing women into abortions, and is certainly not for the “financial motives” which Dorries declares must be the reason. It is also infinitely preferable that services who are familiar with women seeking abortions to provide counselling services. They are the experts. They have the necessary information and understanding of the psychology of women seeking abortions.An “independent” source may lack such knowledge and provide inferior care.

Dorries asks “Why would anyone imply that I want to make abortion illegal? I fully support quick and easy access to abortion”. Yet this is not quite true. Dorries has said herself she would like to see the abortion limit reduced to 9 weeks.

What Dorries is doing here is part of a long-term strategy to removing access to abortion, starting with something seemingly palatable. This pattern has been seen across the Atlantic, where in many states “counselling” has been made compulsory. The aim of these measures is to discourage women from abortion. This is not widening the right to choose. It is using the language of choice to remove choice.

In this week alone, this is not the only instance of a Tory talking choice when meaning anything but. David Cameron’s White Paper “Open Public Services” hides an odious sentiment inside the pleasant language of choice.

The white paper aims to allow the private sector to take over public services. Cameron declares the aims of the paper to be “choice, diversity, decentralisation, fairness and accountability.”

The first three words, as operationalised in the white paper translate as “increase competition”. Cameron would like to see competition in the areas of the private sector who seek to peck over the remains of our public services. Such competition would not be beneficial to any but the rich and the private sector themselves: in combination with decentralisation, this would lead to exacerbation of “postcode lotteries”–difference in public service provision in different areas.

This is, of course, inherently unfair. Accountability is nothing but another meaningless buzzword from politicians as I fail to see how accountability can be possible if the private sector are not subject to Freedom of Information requests.

Privatisation will not improve our lives: it will make it markedly worse. For an example of this, look no further than Richard Littlejohn’s nemesis: wheelie bins. Rubbish collection is outsourced by most councils to the private sector. With their profit motivation, bins are collected less frequently. This is why waste collection is utter rubbish. The private sector do not provide good services. They provide as little as possible to make as much money as possible.

Imagine if all of our public services were this bad.

According to David Cameron, this is “choice”.

The Tories have stolen the word “choice” and used it as a charming euphemism to describe their imposition of their will on the people: Nadine Dorries with her religiously-motivated crusade against bodily autonomy; David Cameron with his reckless pursuit of a neoliberal nightmare.

It is not choice. It is a lie, and a rhetorical device. To fight this, we may be met with the phrase “do you hate choice?”

We should choose to fight these measures precisely because we like choice.

A few quick notes on body policing

A small row broke out in the comments under the post on Topshop and its use of a photograph of a model who was unrealistically, unattainably thin. The row was essentially about body policing and how it applies to women of all shapes and sizes.

Gwendolyn made this good point:

I am a size 4. There is nothing wrong with being a size 4. Size 4 and 6 girls get so demonised by people who forget there are a lot of people who are naturally small and slim. I have never dieted or over exercised, i am just healthy, being my size and shape is what is healthiest for my body yet bloody Gok Wan, the media and other women tell me and all the other women my size and shape that we’re not ‘real women’.

It is certainly true that the “real women have curves” ethos is just as harmful as the notion that the ideal body shape is that of the unattainably thin model.

Another commenter, Zoe Rose, then said this:

One of these days, I’m gonna snap. One of these days, some lady is going to say those stupid little words – ‘you’re so lucky to be so skinny!’ – and I’m going to snap.

And then I’m going to tell her that it must be awesome being so fat.

Zoe Rose does make a good point about the body policing thin women face, and that it is sometimes disguised as barbed comments about luck. The retort and solution, however, is completely wrong. One does not react to body policing with more body policing. That is never right.

Then commenter Het won the internet with one of the finest, most eloquent summaries of the harms of body policing I have ever seen:

It’s hard being A WOMAN. Of whatever size. If you’re thin, as you say, you have those problems to contend with, of inconveniences of finding clothes that fit you, or being excluded from some bogus definition of “real” femininity. But it’s not as if bigger (both fat and also those who are not particularly thin) women don’t have to face different but equally important problems.
At least if you look in a magazine you can see people who look like you. At least you’re not being encouraged to have dangerous and unnecessary surgery.
But it’s not a competition. Capitalism benefits from women fighting each other instead of it.

My point is, the fact of the matter is all femininity is an unreal construct. It seems to me that the issues you are describing that affect you are part of the same problem faced by bigger women: the problem of society feeling it owns all women’s bodies and has the right to control them and to make money from that control. The fact that you can say that you are made to feel that people think you are not a “real” woman, and that I as a fat woman can say the same surely proves that we are in the same boat: that of the impossible and self-contradictory demands made upon women’s bodies that aren’t meant to make sense but rather to procure money from our discontent and divide our gender in arguing about who has it worse.

One minor quibble with this, though: body policing is not only harmful to women: it is also harmful to men. This rather fantastic blog explores the unattainability of the masculine body ideal, providing examples of the horrifying things male models must go through to present the ideal male body:

And the illusion being sold by the fitness magazines is that this hyper-masculinity is attainable. If you just work out longer and harder; if you’re just more careful about your diet; if you just take the right supplements and drink the right sports beverage… then you, too, can have a body like a fitness model. A cartoon image of fitness is being sold to men as if it were actual fitness. And men are being taught that there’s something wrong with them if they can’t get there.

But this ideal of masculinity isn’t just difficult to achieve. It isn’t just narrow; it isn’t just rigid; it isn’t just out of reach for some or even most men. It is, quite literally, unattainable. Even the fitness models themselves can’t attain it: not without nightmarish physical ordeals, camera tricks, and Photoshop. It is a carrot being dangled in front of a donkey — which the donkey will never, ever get to eat.

Body policing and idealised body shapes and sizes are harmful to all, and inextricably linked to prescribed gender roles. This is another reason to fight patriarchy where we see it.

I think Julian Assange is a rapist. I still like Wikileaks.

Trigger warning for rape

If what his own defence lawyers say is true, Julian Assange is a rapist.

He described Assange as penetrating one woman while she slept without a condom, in defiance of her previously expressed wishes, before arguing that because she subsequently “consented to … continuation” of the act of intercourse, the incident as a whole must be taken as consensual.

In the other incident, in which Assange is alleged to have held a woman down against her will during a sexual encounter, Emmerson offered this summary: “[The complainant] was lying on her back and Assange was on top of her … [she] felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom … she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together in order to avoid a penetration … [she] tried several times to reach for a condom, which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. [She] says that she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly.”

In the first instance, he penetrated a woman without her consent. The penetration was not consensual. This is rape. Legally and morally.

In the second instance, he held down a woman and attempted to penetrate her while she was distressed and fighting him off. If penetration occurred, this is rape. If penetration did not occur, it is attempted rape and rather serious sexual assault. Legally and morally.

Even his own defence is saying that Julian Assange is a rapist.

Despite this, there are still those who leap to Assange’s defence. A top tweet referred to what Assange did as “being a bad lover“, and many others similar in tone buzzed around hashtags pertaining to Assange’s extradition hearing. Some of these voices even come from the left.

It is a far cry from the outrage surrounding Ken Clarke’s distinction between “serious rape” and “date rape”. Suddenly, the very same people who objected to a Tory engaging in rape apologism are doing the very same thing themselves: springing to the defence of a rapist, declaring there must have been some sort of misunderstanding, or perhaps the women are lying, or perhaps holding a woman down and forcibly attempting penetration isn’t anything like rape, or squirming around, groping for legal loopholes.

What Assange did was wrong. Thoroughly wrong. I had hoped we had reached a stage where penetrating a woman who is unable to consent or using force to penetrate a woman is known by all to be something that is thoroughly reprehensible and worthy of punishment. I am disappointed and furious that this is not the case.

It is perfectly possible to decry Assange while supporting Wikileaks. As a project, I think Wikileaks is a good thing. Some information needs to be made available in the public domain, and Wikileaks is brilliant for facilitating this. I also believe in free speech, something championed by Wikileaks. Free speech allows me to express my opinion that Julian Assange is a rapist.

Assange is not Wikileaks. For starters, Wikileaks is a large project which is staffed by many people other than Assange. Another difference is that Julian Assange is most likely a rapist, and Wikileaks is not. It is therefore perfectly simple to support Wikileaks while acknowledging what Assange did is completely and utterly wrong.

It is rather like Rebekah Brooks and the News of the World. Rebekah Brooks should have resigned or been sacked, setting up a distance between Brooks and the newspaper. Instead, Brooks was kept, while the newspaper was taken down.

There should be a distance between Assange and Wikileaks. Wikileaks is not Assange. Assange is not Wikileaks. It needs to be clearer: given that Assange is probably a rapist, he is poison to the project. There is a line of reasoning which suggests that the case against Assange was pursued to destroy Wikileaks. I believe that this notion has some traction, and it makes me sad that this case was only brought forward to further the interests of those Wikileaks damaged.

To dissociate Assange from Wikileaks is the solution to the problem. He is hardly essential; there are many competent people who could head up the project. The new head of Wikileaks would not be a rapist and therefore would not be toxic.

Yet many of the same people who called for Brooks to go are defending Assange with rape apologism, instead of divorcing him from the project.

This is unnecessary. We should be focusing on what is right and what is wrong.

Rape is always wrong.

Update: It is entirely possible the defence is referring to if Assange did it, rather than an admission that he had. This does not mean there are not charges to answer. There are. This does not mean he is innocent, nor does it mean the survivors are liars. The allegations must be taken very seriously indeed and not dismissed or brushed away from the discussion.

Update 2: Just want to point out that I am retracting my “still liking Wikileaks” assertion. While I support the notion of a service like Wikileaks which would allow people to anonymously leak information, which would hold the powerful to account, Wikileaks isn’t it. It’s become Assange’s personal propaganda machine, not leaking anything of value and merely waffling on about their leader. It’s beyond help, which is a huge shame as we really need something that would serve the function Wikileaks once did.

Reasons to hate Topshop

I do not have real, human enemies. There are, however, institutions which I hate as deeply as though they had crapped in my shoe. In fact, what they do is a lot worse than crapping in any shoes.

Take, for example, Topshop. There are so, so many reasons to hate Topshop.

Firstly, I have an almost Pavlovian reflex to quickly utter the phrase “pay-your-tax” following the word Topshop. A quick history lesson for the uninitiated: Topshop is owned by a company called the Arcadia  Group. The Arcadia Group’s business is run entirely by one Sir Philip Green, who is also, coincidentally, a government advisor on which public services to cut. Despite Green’s active role in the company, Arcadia is registered in the name of Green’s wife, who happens to be a resident of Monaco. In Monaco, one does not have to pay tax on personal tax. By exploiting this loophole, Arcadia have avoided paying approximately £285 million of tax. In December, Topshop was targeted by activist group UK Uncut, who exist mostly to point out how thoroughly unnecessary any cuts to public services are, when one could just ensure that the super-rich paid all of the tax they are supposed to pay.

That Topshop do not pay their fair share–no more than anyone else, just the amount they are supposed to pay–is thoroughly unfair when vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected by government policy. To put this into perspective, from £1.2 billion pounds, no tax was paid. The £285 million tax bill avoided would hardly make a difference to the Greens, and push the full dividend to slightly less than a billion pounds in one year. Despite this, they decided to grow richer. £285 million on its own is more than one could reasonably spend in a lifetime, yet it is equivalent to a year’s pay for 20, 000 NHS nurses. This money could mean the world to many.

In order to further maximise their profits and procure Philip Green yet another yacht, Topshop and the Arcadia Group use sweatshops for labour. This report suggests that workers who manufacture clothes sold by Arcadia are paid about 40p per hour. For comparison, the unpaid tax bill alone is worth more than £32, 500 per hour. This horrifying exploitation of people–human beings–in the name of allowing the already-rich to grow even richer is unjustifiably wrong.

Then there is this image, which until yesterday was featured prominently on Topshop’s website:

The model is so slim, it seems as though it has been photoshopped, like the classic botched airbrushing in which a Ralph Lauren model ended up with hips smaller than her head. I do not know whether the image has been doctored or if it is a photographic trick, or if, indeed, the model really is that thin. I am disinclined to believe the latter, as in all of the other photographs, the model does not look that unrealistically thin.

The article which managed to catch the screengrab before Topshop took it down calls for discussion over whether such images are a risk for eating disorder, but such a discussion is not necessary: science has cleared up the matter [article sadly paywalled]. A large number of studies have been conducted to understand whether exposure to “thin-ideal” pictures in the media is linked to eating disorders. Some have found that it is, while others found that it is not. In order to work out what the “true” effect is, the authors in the study above took all of the available data and put it together in the same spreadsheet. This is called a meta-analysis, and basically means turning a lot of small studies into one huge study. The authors found that exposure to images in the media like the image Topshop thought appropriate to use was linked to body dissatisfaction, internalising the thin-ideal, and effects on eating behaviours and beliefs about food. In other words, these images are dangerous. While they may not be sufficient to trigger an eating disorder on their own, they are certainly a contributing factor. For Topshop to run such a picture is therefore highly irresponsible.

Not only could this picture possibly facilitate eating disorders, it also represents some fairly tired gender stereotypes, selling women the ability to look “ladylike”. “Ladylike” is one of those unpleasant words used to regulate women’s behaviour. Being ladylike is submission, being ladylike is to accept the role prescribed for you, and, apparently, being ladylike requires buying Topshop’s products. Make sure you stay polished, ladies! That the words were run next to that picture speaks volumes: to be ladylike is to be feeble, frail, fragile. It is not enough to capitulate to docile femininity. You have to buy your own oppression. It is, frankly, fraudulent.

But perhaps you don’t care about how Topshop is a case study in the interplay between the foul side of capitalism and murky misogyny, with just a splash of dangerous body policing. Maybe you don’t care because this sort of thing doesn’t bother you much. Perhaps you don’t care because it is not like Topshop is the only company doing this. Let’s face it, they’re all at it. We just have the numbers and brazen evidence for Topshop. Even if you don’t care, there is still reason enough to hate Topshop.

Their products are really awful quality and terrible value for money. They are not built to last. They are horribly overpriced for what you get. I should know. Before I declared Topshop my nemesis, I bought clothes from there. It was always dimly disappointing.

I cannot go in there any more. I have participated in UK Uncut actions in Topshop, I have tweeted vitriol about them with my name and my face, and the last time I tried to enter a Topshop I was told politely by security to leave. By Topshop security’s standards, I understand that this was fairly lenient treatment.

I do not feel a sense of loss. I do not feel like I am missing out on their sub-par clothing, or their Stone Age attitude towards women or the opportunity to donate to Philip Green’s yacht fund.

If anything, I am relieved. I do not have to waste my energy on a boycott.

No, Diane. Abortions are not tragedies.

I went to the pro-choice rally on Saturday, and so did Labour MP Diane Abbott. We went for broadly similar reasons: we are both pro-choice, and we are both concerned about the vague, almost imperceptible chipping away of abortion rights. Abbott’s article rumbles along quite nicely right until two paragraphs from the end, where suddenly, as if from nowhere, a heron flies right into your face. It really is that jarring.

I believe every abortion is a tragedy. And I think that the number of teenage girls seeking abortion gives rise to concern. But the answer to teenage pregnancy is: better sexual health education and addressing these young women’s low sense of self-esteem.

A tragedy?

Here, Abbott has bought wholesale into the rhetoric of the anti-choice crowd: abortions are horrible, psychologically traumatic things. They are tragedies. Like Hamlet. Bodies, bodies everywhere. It begins strewn with lilies and ends strewn with bodies.

Abbott is right when she says that it is good to provide better sex education to young people to prevent pregnancy. But what is inherently concerning about more young women seeking abortions if they do happen to get pregnant?

Surely, it is better that every child is a wanted child, and every mother a willing mother? Surely, then, it is better that more young women are seeking abortions rather than enduring pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood?

The only reason it is concerning is when it is framed in an anti-choice picture: that abortions are tragic. Yet there is nothing that is inherently tragic about abortion. As Caitlin Moran, and numerous other feminists have pointed out, one can be relieved by an abortion. Not all abortions are tragedies.

If I were to find myself pregnant at this stage in my life, I would have an abortion. My only qualm about having an abortion is that I don’t really fancy having an operation. It is not that I believe that I am killing a baby, or that I will put myself at risk of psychological trauma.

I should not even have to justify this choice. Nobody ever should. It is a right: the right to choose to govern one’s own body.

For some women, there is no doubt that an abortion is a tragedy. This is not the same as saying that all abortions are tragedies, for they are not.

An ostensibly pro-choice person buying into the classic anti-choice line? Now that’s a tragedy.

A weekend in activism

This weekend, I have been busily chipping away at the state.

On Friday, I went to a demo outside News International’s HQ to point out that we hadn’t won just yet and all of the rot needs to be cut out and purged with fire. Metaphorically speaking. I had a thoroughly enjoyable shout into a megaphone, and according to photographs have started advertising biscuits.

On Saturday, I went to a pro-choice demo. The atmosphere was lovely–women and men alike came out in support of abortion rights, pledging resistance to the imminent attacks on such basic human rights. I suspect in the next year, we will be seeing more of these as the government start to move against bodily autonomy.

Finally, on Sunday, to mourn the passing of the filthy, vile, racist, misogynistic News of the World, I went to a funeral. I am very proud of this. It was a truly collaborative effort every step of the way.

Anyway, enough about me. How did you smash the patriarchy or state this week?

Small victories: battling the Hydra

Heracles had the misfortune of being born the bastard son of a god with a terrible marriage. The scorned wife, Hera, hated the boy, and hated the man he became, and strived to make his life a special kind of suffering. Life was a losing battle for Heracles, plagued by a series of unbeatable foes.

He found himself, one day, striving to kill the unkillable. The Hydra. Many-headed, it dwelt in a foul swamp and bled poison. Heracles went for the obvious solution: he took a sickle and chopped one head off the beast. Its head landed with a satisfying thump. This will be easy, Heracles thought. One of my twelve labours over before tea-time. He kicked the head aside.

When he looked up again, he realised the magnitude of his task. Two heads had grown back where moments before there had been nothing but a bleeding, fizzing stump.

Fuck, thought Heracles.

Heracles was nothing if not persistent, though. He happened, with a little help from his nephew and wise Athene, upon a solution: kill it with fire.

Each head was hacked off, and the neck cauterised with flame.

The unkillable was slain. Heracles prevailed.

Today, we have beheaded the Hydra: the News of the World, the vile, filthy rag, has closed down. It was, as I had hoped only hours ago, slain by its own rhetoric.

It is only one head of the beast, though, and this head will grow back twofold. As the News of the World dies, another member of Murdoch’s empire will ascend. Murdoch now owns less of the UK media than before, so it becomes more likely that he will be able to finalise his purchase of BSkyB, filling our televisions with yet more of his tawdry, spiteful pap. Another Murdoch Sunday paper will spring up: the Sunday Sun, perhaps, or the Sun on Sunday, or even, given the tabloid’s love for terrible puns, simply the SUNday. It will rise up unless we cauterise the stump.

Even then, it is still a many-headed beast. There is the rest of Murdoch’s empire to take on. And beside those heads, there is that of the Daily Mail, hissing poison and hate. Next to the tabloids sit the broadsheets, chattering vitriol, appearing composed.

And it is more than just the media, this beast. What of the police, with whom money exchanged hands in the News of the World scandal? What of the government, who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the gutter press?

Most importantly, what of the system, of which these scandals are merely symptoms? Rags like the News of the World would never exist in a world without grasping, greedy capitalism, or misogyny, or racism, or rampant, intrusive voyeurism. These heads need chopping off and purging with fire.

Today we have witnessed something a tiny victory. It may not even be a victory without more of a fight.

Like Heracles, we must keep burning and hacking. He persisted. He had a happy ending. If we keep fighting, so might we.

Girls, pitchforks and media feeding frenzies

I write this piece with a tickle of glee on the inside as I watch the News of the World eat itself and the rest of the media circle to peck over its corpse.

It was not a sudden realisation by the British public that they had been fed crap–vapid crap, dangerous crap, misogynistic crap, downright boring crap–by the News of the World that sparked the fury. It all started with a teenage girl.

I am going to assume that you have read the paper at least once this week, and are aware that the News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s voicemail, interfering with a police investigation and giving false hope to her worried family. Even by tabloid standards, this was pretty low, and later revelations in the ensuing feeding frenzy showed it was even worse. It is hardly surprising, though.

It took a tragically murdered young woman to make this story interesting. It took a tragically murdered young woman to make this story front page news. It took a tragically murdered young woman to make people care.

This is not surprising in the slightest, either. We have been trained by our media to react when something bad happens to a young woman. Take, for example, newspaper reporting on drug deaths. Such reporting is horribly distorted, with deaths from “media fad” substances grossly overreported, while those from commonplace, “unsexy” substances go unreported. In particular, drug deaths of teenage girls, are hugely, disproportionately reported [article sadly paywalled]. This distortion has an effect on public opinion.

Young women are “ideal victims”. Due to benevolent sexism, when something bad happens to a young woman, it becomes much more shocking and the ensuing moral outrage will be stronger. The media know this, and use this to push their agendas. They may use it as an excuse to name and shame paedophiles, or to campaign against a drug. A bogeyman becomes infinitely worse when he has harmed a young woman.

Trained by this, it took an old story about a murdered young woman to provoke anger at a tabloid which has behaved exactly as it always has.

I feel a frission of schadenfreude as I watch the News of the World strung up by its own rhetoric. It had spent so long trying to shape our opinions by using young women, that it seems fitting that its own undoing was caused by their involvement in a tragic story.

Do I feel uncomfortable that we are playing the tabloids at their own game, sharpening our pitchforks as we, perhaps, capitalise on a tragedy? Of course.

I do, however, want to see the vile, misogynistic, hate-fuelled rag burn.  I am glad it is by the tools that they sold to us.

How To Be A Woman: in which I review a book that I read

I have just read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, a semi-autobiographical book which has been hailed as The Next Big Thing in feminism, and has received rave reviews from noted feminists such as Jonathan Ross and Nigella Lawson. On the back, it says that Moran “rewrites The Female Eunuch from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller”. Overall, it seems exactly like something an angry feminist such as myself should despise with all of the burning fires of hell.

The short review is that I didn’t hate it. I only hated some of it, actually quite liked some parts, and the rest only left me with a bitter tinge of disappointment.

The writing style veered from engagingly, chattily conversational to annoyingly CAPSLOCKY and RIDDLED! WITH! EXCLAMATION MARKS! It is easy to tear through, in the manner of a sunlounger bonkbusting tome, and I found myself rather liking Moran: she has a good sense of humour and an honesty about her own flaws.

Moran is absolutely spot-on about some issues, and I found myself nodding in agreement in sections on pornography and lapdancing, where Moran argues that while there is nothing inherently wrong with fucking on film or stripping, but it is a problem with the industry. I also very much liked her discussion of what to call one’s cunt (Moran favours “cunt”, but was reticent to teach it to her daughters as it is still a taboo word), and her very frank account of her abortion and her suggestion that this is something we should talk about honestly and openly, and it is all right to feel good about having had an abortion. Moran also puts across good points about society’s expectation about how women should want babies, and this is not right, and not reproducing is perfectly all right, too.

This last good point, though, is sullied by a massive clanger. Talking about childbirth, Moran says:

In short, a dose of pain that intense turns you from a girl into a woman. There are other ways of achieving the same effect–as outlined in Chapter 15 [the chapter on abortion]–but minute for minute, it’s one of the most effective ways of changing your life.

Right there, Moran has declared that use of one’s reproductive organs is the only way to truly become a woman. This line of reasoning is a minefield: it automatically writes off the experiences of infertile cis women, of trans women, of cis women who have been fortunate enough with contraception never to find themselves pregnant. It jars with the rest of the book, the “anything goes” approach, yet it says it there as clear as day. Reproduction is the only path to womanhood. Before that you’re a girl.

When I read that paragraph, I considered rethinking my embargo on burning literature and setting fire to that book there and then. I decided to plough on. Perhaps Moran did not mean what I thought she had meant. Indeed, this is never mentioned again. I still cannot think of another way to interpret that sentence, though.

No other individual part of the book is quite so starkly, shockingly problematic: much of the rest of my issues with it lie in the tone. It smacks of privilege: an amusing point-and-laugh at the working classes here, a throwaway usage of ableist language (“retard”, “thalidomide pasties”) and fat-hating (Moran draws the distinction between “fat” and “human-shaped”) there, and a sort of vaguely patronising view of gay men as nothing more than arbiters of excellent taste in music bars. I prickled in rage each time I saw these.

This privilege also fans out into what is part of the central thesis of the book: that perhaps everything would be improved if we treated humankind as “The Guys” and sexism as “just bad manners”. For a woman in Moran’s position, perhaps this is possible. For many, it is not, and sexism is not dead, and is unlikely to be killed without confronting it head on. I take umbrage to her phrasing viewing everyone as “the Guys”, too, particularly as it jarringly occurs pages after I had been smiling in agreement at Moran’s acknowledgement that men are viewed as “normal” with women as the other. This hypocrisy goes unmentioned, perhaps unnoticed by the author.

The thing is, for much of the book, I was not angry. I was just disappointed. Firstly, Moran seems to have a confused relationship with feminism and feminists. She identifies as such, and, indeed, encourages her readers to identify as feminist as it is not a dirty word. This is laudable. Unfortunately, Moran seems to have a rather dated view of feminist writing, falling back frequently on Germaine Greer as though this is the only feminist she has ever read, and beginning statements with “feminists think”, then falling back on to a straw feminist trope. While Moran wishes fervently for more women to identify as “strident feminists”, the book itself is not particularly stridently feminist.

Most of the issues discussed in the book were very trivial concerns. An inordinate amount of space was dedicated to clothes and shoes and bras and knickers. Rape is given a cursory mention in one sentence somewhere. At no point in the discussion of whether marriage is necessary was it acknowledged that perhaps romantic relationships or traditional monogamous relationships may not be necessary either. The truth is, it all feels a little superficial: talk about handbags is favoured over broader feminist issues. For many women, after all, there are a lot of things more worrying than pubes or ill-fitting knickers.

Take, for example, a point where Moran recounts the story of having met Jordan and being struck by how obsessed Jordan was with selling things and selling herself as a brand. At this juncture, it seems like a fairly obvious place to segue into discussion of the relationship between capitalism and feminism. Instead, Moran just tells the story, then contrasts it with meeting someone whom she considers to be a genuine feminist icon: Lady GaGa.

I sometimes wonder if perhaps Moran knew she could have done this. Much of the book seems to be driving at good points which are never made. Perhaps the editor of the book cut all of the good bits out? Certainly, the editing of the book was poor; I noted numerous typos and the editor was very lenient about allowing all of the CAPITALS and ENHUSIASTIC! PUNCTUATION! to stay in. As I said earlier, I rather like Moran, and I wanted this book to be better than it was.

In the conclusion to the book, though, it becomes abundantly clear that Moran’s feminism–at least, as presented– is shallow, bourgeois feminism, concerned with consumerism: just don’t buy the things you think might be oppressive, is her message. I was thoroughly disappointed by this message. I had hoped for much better, much more. I had hoped for depth.

If this book is our generation’s The Female Eunuch, as it says on the back cover, we are well and truly fucked. The good news, is, I do not think we are. This book is not harmful, it is simply trivial, inconsequential fluff. It is something to read on holiday, and then forget about once the tan has all peeled off. Had the book ended with a list of other (better) feminist books and resources to check out, I would probably see it as a decent, readable, primer to feminism for those who had never thought about the issue before and may be inclined to learn more. It may have also been improved vastly by shaving out the patronising bits and replacing them with something vastly more substantial.

As it stands, though, it is just fluff. This book will not change the world, for better or worse. For that, I am thoroughly disappointed.