Fierce roast.

The following post is about an episode of America’s Next Top Model that has yet to air in the UK, so if you’re a die-hard ANTM fan, this will contain spoilers. If you loathe and despise ANTM, I apologise for mentioning it. I enjoy really naff American reality TV. Be grateful I’m not blogging about Jersey Shore (which is fascinating from an anthropological and sociological perspective and you should TOTALLY watch it)

The video linked above is a segment of the most recent episode of America’s Next Top Model. The Next Top Model franchise involves young women competing for the chance to win a modelling contract by leaping through a series of humiliating hoops in the hope of achieving their lifelong dream of being photographed wearing clothes. There is already a lot of good writing on problems with the franchise, and so I am reserving my ire for one specific incident.

The women are briefed to shoot an advert in which they are to be “flirty, fun and seductive” in a way that is “retro yet current”. This translates to writhing like the face of a late night premium-rate phone line while dressed as Betty Draper. The women are informed they are even expected to utter lines, as though this is the thirteenth labour of Heracles.

The concept of the advert is promoted as one would expect: a little bit of charming retro fun in which women use a very narrow definition of sexuality in order to challenge oppression. As they put on their costumes, filling out their fashion-industry approved bodies with socks to create breasts, the women discuss this notion. The general consensus is that it is empowering. It is how to get ahead: by using boobs and bums and the nebulous hint of sex (never given, for that would make you a whore!).

One woman differs from the rest. Earlier in the episode, Sara mentions that she is a feminist. while dressing, she looks uncomfortable with the false breasts stuffing her bra. At 3.10 in the video above, she says:

My whole life I’ve just been trying to get away from the stereotypical, subservient, docile woman, and I’m really embarrassed to have my fem-core friends back home see this.

Sara is the only one of the women who points out the problematic concepts within the advert, and she words her reservations articulately. The fact that she mentions the F-word twice in one episode of America’s Next Top Model makes me love her a little bit, and I do hope that her fem-core friends forgive her for her participation due to her excellently succinct critique of the task. Never before have I heard the F-word uttered on a Next Top Model franchise.

The women perform the image of the stereotypical, subservient, docile woman to camera, many relishing in the empowering nature of being “flirty, fun and seductive”.

Sara, meanwhile, struggles. The other women smugly smile, believing her unable to deliver the dull, narrow “sexy”. The director is disappointed and declares that she “did not believe in it”. Too right. As Sara says,

I’m finding it really hard to fake any sort of sexual energy and emotion. I mean, I’ve never had to fake anything like that in my life. Doing it for a commercial was just really difficult.

Of course it was. Sexual energy is not something that should be faked. It is not something that needs to be faked, and it is certainly not something which should be performed in the coquettish, cutesy, teasing manner which is commercially acceptable.

Yet this is what sells. Coffee, we learn from America’s Next Top Model, is sold by a hint of cleavage flashed at a man. Coffee is sold by a whisper in a man’s ear. Coffee is sold by competition between women for the attention of a man. Coffee is sold by playing subservient, vaguely suggesting sweet submissive sex with a man.

The whole concept of the advert was problematic as hell, and Sara was not comfortable with playing ball.

There is no room for an understanding of the problems with this sort of advertising message in America’s Next Top Model. Sara’s reward for her beliefs and reservations was a sympathetic cocked-head from Tyra Banks, a message to “believe in herself” and a bus ride home.

There is no room in this modelling competition for feminists. There is only space for those who will perform dull clichéd cartoons of what a sexy woman should be.

Enthusiastic consensus

This post is a follow-up from yesterday’s discussion about consensus decision making, groupthink and inclusion. It might not make sense on its own.

In the comments, it transpired that good facilitation can go a long way towards addressing some of the concerns I have with consensus meetings, and so it may well be that what I talk about here is also “good practice” which I have not witnessed.

A tiny fraction of a thoroughly brilliant comment from .j inspired a conversation with some friends yesterday. .j said:

Of the problems you list, I suspect that the illusion of unanimity is the most pervasive and hardest to combat. Encouraging portions of a meeting to brainstorm on devil’s advocate positions can help allow some unspoken reservations to emerge, but it’s certainly not a perfect method.

The illusion of unanimity certainly is a problem, and one which is exacerbated by people feeling unable to express opinions. Silence is generally taken for agreement.

A parallel can be drawn here, and that parallel is with sexual consent.

Sexual consent is traditionally constructed as “no means no”, that is, it is a person’s responsibility to say “no” to unwanted contact. Under this model of consent, silence can be viewed as an implicit nod. Silence, however, does not mean “yes”. One particularly horrifying example of this is a rape case involving a celebrity where the woman said:

The young woman did not push Tweed off or tell him to stop because she was “frozen with fear”, the court heard.

“I wasn’t able to physically move or say anything, or even function about what was going on,” she said.

The rapist was acquitted, because the woman never said “no”.

In many cases, silence is not a “yes”. Silence may be an expression of fear, of powerlessness, of being unsure, of years of socialisation that means not blindly submitting will make you a frigid bitch or a mean bitch or a crazy bitch.

There is an alternative: enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent means that “yes means yes”. Enthusiastic consent means that an enthusiastic “fuck yeah!” is what passes for consent, not an absence of a “no”. Enthusiastic consent means that if enthusiasm is not shown, it is best to check whether the other person is comfortable and consenting.

Thinking back to consensus decision making, many marginalised people do not feel empowered or comfortable in speaking up. I have seen decisions made where many people do not show their jazz hands of agreement, yet a decision is still taken to be “the mood of the room”.

What if we reverse this? What if we take silence as not assent, but dissent? What if, in the face of silence, we checked for enthusiastic consensus rather than implicit agreement?

Consensus meetings would take longer, that’s for sure, but how can that be a bad thing if we are ensuring that all present are comfortable with the decisions being made?

Could enthusiastic consensus help empower marginalised groups to participate in group decision making? On its own, of course not. But, as with enthusiastic consent’s role in building a world without rape, it is a tool that we should, and must, use to bring ourselves baby steps closer to optimising our decision-making.

The trouble with the consensus model

I write this post with a horrifying blend of psychological literature and my own personal observations. It makes my scientist side cringe. What it therefore represents is the subjective experience of a person with too many psychology degrees.

The consensus model for decision making is used large swathes of the protest movement. It is adopted as it is thought to be democratic, inclusive and non-hierarchical. A consensus meeting is facilitated by a person whose job it is to make sure that everyone who wishes to speak, will speak. Somebody will raise a point, and others will address the point, called upon by the facilitator when they indicate they wish to speak. Through hand signals, people express agreement and disagreement. Agreement is represented by “jazz hands”; disagreement by downward-facing jazz hands. People may make direct responses to any point, and anybody can raise a proposal. I may have done a poor job of explaining consensus meetings for those who have never attended one. This page gives a good overview of the process.

Many people give enthusiastic jazz hands of agreement to consensus decision making due to its leaderless, non-hierarchical nature.

This does not mean the model is without its problems.

First of all, as acknowledged by Maeve McKeown and Lisa Ansell , the model is open to issues with power relations. Both identify an issue which I have noted in my experience of consensus meetings: that typically the same voices will dominate a consensus meeting, and that these dominant voices will often reflect unequal power relations that are inherent in our society. To put it more bluntly, it’s often the loud white guys doing the talking.

In a situation like this, many people do not feel able to speak up. Some feel unable to speak because they feel as though they know less than the dominant voices wheeling out minor, inaccessible theoretical points. Others do not speak as they are afraid of being shouted down with a “direct response” from a dominant voice. Others, still, are overlooked by the (often white, male, able-bodied) faciliator and never get called upon to speak. Some people cannot even attend the meetings: for example, when I visited the old Anti Cuts Space on Bedford Square, the building was not readily accessible to people with disabilities.

Another very important effect, one which I experience in every consensus meeting I attend,  is that of feeling unable to speak because I am an “outsider”. In situations where consensus decisions are made–occupations, direct action groups, and the like–there is often an “ingroup”: a core group of individuals. These cliques are often highly cohesive–they share an identity as members of the group. To those in the group, and those outside, powerful effects emerge.

Outside the ingroup, it is difficult to sway the opinion of the group–the consensus. This makes it harder for outsiders to speak and to be heard.

Inside the ingroup, a sometimes toxic effect emerges: groupthink. The word “groupthink” is loaded, melodramatic, reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia, but this does not mean it does not happen. Through analysis of historical decision-making, and observations of group decision-making, a well-documented effect emerges: cohesive groups, particularly those under pressure, often make poor decisions. Crucially, this tends to happen when the group is attempting to reach a consensus.

The theory behind groupthink proposes eight “symptoms”:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

While I have not observed all of the symptoms, I have certainly noticed a few. Silence–and/or the absence of any form of jazz hands–is generally viewed as a sign of agreement. With all of the talk that goes on, warnings are rationalised. As I outlined above, self censorship can–and does–occur.

So how is groputhink bad for decision-making? Decisions made by groupthink may not be opimal for the following reasons:

  1. Incomplete survey of alternatives
  2. Incomplete survey of objectives
  3. Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
  4. Failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives
  5. Poor information search
  6. Selection bias in collecting information
  7. Failure to work out contingency plans.

One more concept from social psychology and the study of group processes is a concern for the consensus model: the Abilene paradox.  This happens when a group decides upon a course of action which is to the preferences of none of the members of the group. Again, it is linked to self-censorship: people do not want to rock the boat and speak up against what they mistakenly believe to be the consensus of the group as a whole.

While, theoretically, the consensus model should stop these group processes from occurring and allow the voices of people from marginalised groups to be heard, in practice this does not happen. For some, like Maeve, the consensus model still represents the best we can get, and it is better than alternatives. For others, like Lisa, the issues relating to inclusivity are insurmountable hurdles to reaching a decision which is genuinely representative of all involved.

I myself think that these problems with the consensus model need to be addressed. I hope that the movement will lead to widespread social change. This will not be good enough if voices are still marginalised.

An example of this is what happened in Egypt to the women of Tahrir Square. The women were part of the revolution, or at least they believed that they were. And yet, they were marginalised and silenced, put back into their place after the government had been overthrown.

If we cannot check our privilege within our own meetings, if we cannot genuinely ensure that all voices are heard as we make plans–from anything to the cleaning of an occupied space to a full-scale revolution–how can we expect to create positive, lasting social change?

Just because we say that the consensus model is non-hierarchical and inclusive does not mean that it is.

So how do we fight the group processes that lead to poor decision-making? How do we genuinely make sure that each voice is heard?

There are alternatives, some more palatable than others.

One could be to anonymise everything. The Delphi Method is used frequently in medical decision making to reach a consensus.  I have used this method in my own research. It is an iterative process in which the decision-makers fill in questionnaires anonymously, indicating their agreement or disagreement with particular courses of action. A facilitator will then provide anonymous feedback and the decision makers fill in the questionnaires again, eventually converging on an acceptable course of action. A strength of this approach is that the dominant voices are now given equal weight to those afraid to speak out. Another strength is that those with disabilities who cannot access spaces in which meetings are held can still participate. There are two limitations, though. Firstly, it is time-consuming, although arguably traditional consensus decision meetings can be long and drawn-out. A second limitation is resources: rather a lot of paper or webspace and internet is required for the Delphi method.

Or, perhaps, one of the proposed “cures” to groputhink may be useful–talking to others outside the group, formally or informally. A drawback to this is security concerns, but in making decisions regarding something which is safe and legal, surely it is good to get as much divergent opinion as possible.

A final suggestion may be unpalatable to many: giving priority to those who have not yet spoken. It may seem undemocratic to bump a person up the queue, but for those who do not feel empowered to speak, it may make the difference between being heard and not being heard. Affirmative action may be required to ensure that we are truly listening to every voice.

It is important that we become aware with the flaws in the consensus model. It is not good enough that it is “the best we have”. We must address these flaws, and be mindful of them. It is not the panacea of perfect decision-making. It is rooted in group processes and societal forces which allow the loudest and most privileged to express their opinions.

To fight this, knowing our enemy is a good place to start.

I warmly invite comment on this post. There is an alternative; the traditional consensus model is not the best we can ever have. Together, we can find this and make better, more inclusive decisions as a result.

Special thanks to Lisa Ansell and Ellen for great conversations which helped me write this.

Edit: I followed up on some of these thoughts and some things which emerged from the comments here.



While waiting for the bus today, I spotted this advert for a ‘new way’ of sizing jeans. In Levi’s utopia, women are classified into three body shapes, the mysteriously-titled ‘bold curve’, ‘demi curve’ and ‘slight curve’.

Each body shape appears identical to the others, so I cannot discern the criteria upon which this classification system is based.

The women’s hips appear to be the same size. The women’s thighs appear to be the same size. Perhaps, therefore, the classification is conducted upon arse size.

If this is true, then why is only the ‘slightly curved’ bottom visible?

Is it that anything above ‘slightly curved’ is inherently repulsive and must be shielded from the general public lest we see a FAT DISGUSTING FEMALE ARSE? Oh, the humanity.

Is it because Levi are protesting the recent paradigm shift that ‘real women have curves’, and subverting this by presenting us with only what is presumably the smallest amount of ‘curve’?

Is it because Levi are commenting on the fashion industry’s insistence on a body with no fat, no hips, unattainable to most people? Perhaps they are cleverly playing with that idea by presenting us with three identical women?

Or is it because they are playing that last question completely straight? I have a sneaking suspicion that they are.

The reverse Rorschach test

The Rorschach test is a psychological test where people are shown inkblots: amorphous blobs of colourful ink, symmetrically folded. What a person sees in the Rorschach test is thought to give an insight into their state of mind.

If you show me something symmetrical, folded and with flashes of pink, I tend to think of cunts. Experts in projective testing may draw their own conclusions about my psyche. I think it might be because most of them look like cunts. Never the flowers or butterflies one is meant to volunteer as a socially  desirable answer.

Yesterday, a friend of mine received this book as a birthday present. The book is entitled The Cunt Colouring Book. It does exactly as advertised. It presents a series of cunts: line drawings taken from photographs of real women, cunts in all shapes and sizes, showcasing the glorious variety of female genitals. The reader is encouraged to colour, with felt tips and crayons, to become acquainted with cunts.

We flicked through the pages, and found ourselves remarking on the cunts. “That one looks like a cabbage!” “That one looks like a flower!” “That one looks a bit like a KKK wizard!”

It was the Rorschach test, in reverse.

When presented with cunts, we saw anything but cunts.

When presented with an inkblot, I see a cunt.

I wonder why it is, when presented with a cunt, that our minds chose to process otherwise. Are we so uncomfortable with the form of a cunt that we see a cabbage instead?

I do not believe this. The book begins with a foreword: they were cordially asked to change the name of the book to something involving a word that is less frightening, less powerful, less intensive. They renamed it “LABIAFLOWERS”. It sold poorly. People did not want to be told that cunts looked like flowers.

Much of what we perceive is processed and spat out by our brains into something which we can interpret. We do not like to be told what we are seeing. We like to interpret.

If a cunt looks like a flower, we will choose to say that it looks like a flower.

As for the Cunt Colouring Book? Give it a go. See what you see.

A day in the life of a radical feminist lesbian separatist

This post follows 24 hours of viewing the world through my feminist lens, and the things I noticed that others may not notice.

I saw in International Women’s Day furious. I had tried to explain to a person on Twitter that perhaps they needed to re-examine their privilege and that they had used the word “slutty” in an offensive context. The person dismissed all of these concerns, all the while insisting that they were feminist and knew better. A friend of mine blocked the person over that as she was so upset and frustrated by the flagrant privilege denial and complete dismissal. Shortly after midnight, the person tweeted the following:

International Women’s Day coincides with Pancake Day. I think this means women are pancakes but I might have got confused.

How very feminist, minimising International Women’s Day. I replied to that effect. I got a sarcastic reply. I considered blocking the person, too, but decided instead that I will call them on their bullshit where I see it in the hope that one day they might just get a clue.

I woke up to glorious sunshine and beautiful messages of solidarity celebrating women all over Twitter. For just one glorious moment I felt as though perhaps there were finally enough people on our side to win this fight.

Then I read this. In short, the UK is attempting to water down legislation defining violence against women as a violation of human rights.  The anger prickled. How is violation of the rights of a human not violation of the rights of a human? Are women less than human?

After lunch (mortadella, mozarella and artichoke ciabatta, delicious) I was heartened again. Today has been a good day for feminist writing. As tweeter MediocreDave put it:

I am having a lovely afternoon sitting by a sun-lit window and reading feminist blogs. Can we have #IWD more often, please? 🙂


If only every day were about celebrating people.

While doing all of this, I was, of course, working. I work in one of the few areas of science that lacks the stark gender gradient: I work in psychology. My main supervisor is a woman, a brilliant woman. My office is teeming with smart, brilliant women. There is none of the age-old problem of “but women can’t analyse” here. We all deal in advanced statistics, and our genders are irrelevant. I am writing a paper. Four of the five authors are women. The stark gender gradient is hardly here at all. The sun streams through the window of my office, and I am happy to be here.

Another reason I like my office: we’re discussing female genital mutilation right now, and the politics of pubic hair, and bodily autonomy. At least two of my office-mates are feminists; the rest probably are but don’t know it yet.

It was a beautiful, glorious afternoon until I saw the news about Tahrir Square. Our Egyptian sisters marched to make themselves visible, to be included in deciding on the future of their country. They were greeted with thugs telling them that this was not an option. This reaction to women wishing to determine their own lives is global, it is entrenched. Where I see it, it is usually tweets or blog comments. The sarcastic “make me a cup of tea, love”; the furious “you’re wrong” with no elaboration; the feeble attempt to justify something which to me seems completely unjustifiable. In Egypt, it is bigger, it is more overt. It is all part of the same problem; and it strengthens my resolve to fight this wherever I see it.

I check Facebook periodically. Old school friends, barely remembered faces from the past comment on statuses relating to International Women’s Day with their hilariously ironic assertions that women should make sandwiches and react defensively when it is pointed out that this is not good form. Targeted ads, spotting my age and gender, try to sell me manicures and brazilian waxes. I prefer Twitter. Since I became a feminist, I’ve liked Facebook a lot less.

Today has been my first day of blogging, and my introduction to feminist blogging is much as I’d imagine. I have faced the kind of comments I expected: a mix of gratifying and head-smashingly frustrating. I talk to people about my experience. Those who see through the feminist lens understand perfectly. Those who do not, do not discuss the issue. To me, feminism is like a community of people who see the world in a similar way. We can come from anywhere, we can be any gender, any race. We see things that others don’t. We react differently.

Of course, we are not a homogenous of seething anti-patriarchy ire. We simply see what others cannot or will not.

For the evening, I fuck. It is good. I do not think of the politics surrounding sex: gendered power differences, consent, and on and on; I am too busy fucking.

So ends a day in the life of someone who has once been termed a radical feminist lesbian separatist. It was not a typical day. No day is truly typical.

That was my International Women’s Day.

“The way things are”: fight the status quo

I am a white, middle-class British woman, and my privilege is sticking right out as I write this. However, I wish to highlight that even for someone of my privileged status, feminism’s work is not yet done. On International Women’s Day, I send solidarity to my sisters all over the world. I will fight for them wherever I can.

Women in the UK have come a long way. Nominally, we’re equal now. Legally, we’re supposed to be equal now. What women lack is now invisible and counted by many as a gender essentialist ‘this is how things are’. Apparently, any residual inequality exists because men and women are fundamentally different and that women must have chosen differently.

Women are  severely under-represented in the sciences and engineering because our brains are better suited to empathy rather than analysis. There’s science to back that up, and everything!* It’s just the way things are.

Sex is something that is sold to women as part of a long game to please a man. Try typing “how to please” into Google. Autocomplete provides “how to please your man”, “how to please your man in bed”, “how to please your man sexually” and so on. Sex still isn’t really for women, or else we’d be sluts. It’s just the way things are.

The end game for sex is to get a ring on your finger. The end game is always marriage, evidenced by countless jokes and supposedly amusing t-shirts. It’s just the way things are.

Walking along a street while appearing female is enough to merit catcalls, overt sexual messages and unwanted touching. It’s supposed to be a compliment, we’re told. It’s just the way things are.

Some of my sisters from other countries in Europe tell me that British men are better. They’re more polite, apparently. There’s less groping and what they say is less sexually aggressive. As women, of course we should expect harassment, and British women are lucky that our brand of harassment is marginally less noxious. It’s just the way things are.

You might think I sound like some kind of angry radical feminist. That would be because I am some kind of angry radical feminist.

I refuse to accept “the way things are”. I want better. I think we women deserve better. I dream of the day where women are not objects, not punchlines, not walking wombs or disembodied tits. I want to bury, once and for all, that “the way things are” is as good as it will ever get. Women deserve better. Women deserve to be treated as people. Just people. Ordinary people who are not in any way different.

Perhaps some of the lack of fight against this status quo, the blind acceptance of “the way things are” lies in the fact that the word “feminist” is seen to be a dirty word: an irrational woman fighting an imaginary battle, when really she just hates men. Surely our work has been done, because we aren’t automatically packed off to the poorhouse if we can’t find a husband?

I don’t think our work is done. Discrimination has taken on a covert form, and we are sold the myth that this is what equality looks like.

That is not what equality looks like.

If you agree, you might just be an angry radical feminist, too.

*The “evidence” for this assertion is completely demolished in this rather fantastic book, which I would thoroughly recommend.