Monday, 1 September 2014


"The Great Naked Celebrity Photo Leak of 2014" - that's what this is about. For those who need filling in, a 4chan user recently leaked naked photos of multiple female celebrities thus horrifically invading their privacy.

I heard about it via social media and due to the kind of pages that interest me, that means I got a whole lot of feminist critique.

Now I think it goes without saying, or at least without me saying (because everyone else has already said it) that if you decide to view these naked images, you're engaging in assault. Clementine Ford put it best in her article:

These images - which I have not seen and which I will not look for - are intimate, private moments belonging only to the people who appear in them and who they have invited to see them. To have those moments stolen and broadcast to the world is an egregious act of psychic violence which constitutes a form of assault.

The people sharing these images are perpetuating an ongoing assault. The people gleefully looking at them are witnessing and enjoying an ongoing assault. When you have been asked by victims of a crime like this not to exacerbate the pain of that crime and you continue to do so anyway, you are consciously deciding that your enjoyment, your rights and perhaps even just your curiosity are more important than the safety and dignity of the people you’re exploiting. 

No argument. If you choose to view the images you are quite simply a horrible, assaultive bumcheekheadcretin. But that's not what I came here to tell you.

I want to talk about vulnerability. I want to talk about it because, until you're made aware of your own vulnerability, you forget it's there. You're not even sure that you're vulnerable. You're not angry enough.

I was made to feel pretty vulnerable recently and I am angry about it. At first I was angry with myself for being vulnerable but then I realised that what I'm really angry with is this climate. A climate that cultivates vulnerability so that when people get bored, they can prey on non-consensual images of naked celebrities until they are satiated. Or they can harass you in the street. Or they can take advantage of you when you're drunk. Or they can rape you.

I'm not sure it's always got anything to do with sex. In fact, the more bad experiences I have, the more convinced I am that it hasn't. Sex epitomises vulnerability - giving yourself up to someone or being got - either way, the other person gains a similar psychological reward. It's the same feeling you get when you bully someone. When you enjoy bullying someone. And I know what that's like because I was an evil child who enjoyed bullying people. Your parents might tell you that bullies are just jealous, or suffering themselves and that might really be the case... but sometimes it isn't. Besides, the thrill is the same whatever your motive. As I was saying, I really enjoyed it. But as I got older, the fear and the hurt in their faces started to bother me. It's not like I wasn't aware they felt that way before, it was just that my feelings were somehow more important. I can only describe it as this urge I needed to satisfy. As it turns out, I'm not actually a psychopath, I just learnt empathy a tad later than most children. Maybe it was the ADHD, I don't know. But I awoke to the reality of what I was doing and my urges weren't so important anymore, gradually they stopped altogether and were replaced by a deep rooted loathing for anyone or thing that made other people or creatures feel small. Because it's easy. It's really, really easy to make people feel small. It's easy to make people say yes when they don't want to. It's SO EASY to manipulate people. People talk about consent a lot but they don't really talk about how easy it is to give consent when you honestly don't want to. Because you're made to feel a certain way. Some people have the courage to say no, and some people don't. We are vulnerable.

Naked images are used to expose female vulnerability a lot. I read Roxane Gay's article about the leaked photos and although everything she said relied heavily and fairly on this fact, the tone occasionally bothered me:

The Great Celebrity Naked Photo Leak of 2014 – or perhaps we should call it The Great Celebrity Naked Photo Leak of August 2014, given that this happens so often that there won’t be only one this year – is meant to remind women of their place. Don’t get too high and mighty, ladies. Don’t step out of line. Don’t do anything to upset or disappoint men who feel entitled to your time, bodies, affection or attention. Your bared body can always be used as a weapon against you. You bared body can always be used to shame and humiliate you. Your bared body is at once desired and loathed.

This is what we must remember. Women cannot be sexual in certain ways without consequence. Women cannot pose nude or provocatively, whether for a lover or themselves, without consequence. We are never allowed to forget how the rules are different girls. I suppose we should be grateful for this latest reminder. 

And it bothered me because sometimes it is about sex. I imagine a lot of people are going to look at those images purely to satisfy that baby makin' urge. They're not doing it to "keep women in their place", they're not doing it because women are getting "too high and mighty", they're doing it because they're horny. I hate that word, but that's why they're doing it. It's still assault though; these images are a human right violation. These people just need someone to point out that exploiting another human in order to satisfying their urges is bullying. And bullying leads to a climate of fear. And when people are scared they say yes to things they don't want to and I don't even see how we can have this big conversation about consent when even consent isn't consent yet! I hope you read that sentence with as much rage and heartfelt emotion as I put into it.

Because the second paragraph I quoted from Gay rings true. Women cannot be sexual in certain ways without consequence. Sex always comes with a huge risk of "consequence". Usually humiliation. Sex is a completely natural act and people have it either to make babies or to satisfy the urge to make babies. If you're not having safe sex then the only risks involved should be BABIES and STDs. Not shame or guilt or embarrassment (which you are also likely to be subject to if you refuse to have sex). Symptoms of bullying. Nevertheless, if you're a woman (not exclusively but especially) then, in this climate, you are always going to take these risks into consideration. You are vulnerable.

And you should be ragin'.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Taxpayers Fund Miss Cunningham's New Knockers

I wrote a Facebook status/mini-blog about this topic about half an hour ago so for those of you who have already seen it, this might feel a little like déjà vu... And yes, it's not the blog I promised but I guarantee that it's going to be a more enjoyable read.

When I logged into The Book of the Face today, my newsfeed was inundated with posts about Josie and her new knockers. I had no idea who Josie was, or why her boob job was invading my life so I decided to Google her (anything to avoid piano practice). Miss Cunningham is an aspiring glamour model who received breast augmentation on the NHS, and now she wants to thank the tax payers for it.
On behalf of the UK taxpayers, you're welcome Miss Cunningham. If you can't live with yourself in a world that makes you feel less than a woman, no, less than human for being a perfectly natural 32A, then I think the taxpayers (the ones contributing to and perpetuating this kind of thing) OWE you a boob job. It’s the least we can do. Obviously millions of women want to feel good about their natural bodies rather than have surgery, and we owe them too. We owe them a society where a woman doesn’t face judgement or criticism of the part of her body that exists to feed babies.

Posing naked for The Sun immediately afterwards? Destructive.

Destructive to all the women who feel the same way Miss Cunningham did before her operation, but want to be allowed to embrace their natural body. I might call it inconsiderate and selfish or I might call it everything you would want to indulge in after hating your body through all of its development.

I would hypothesise that more ‘average’ (I hate the word average because it implies that if you are not average you are somehow unnatural) and flat-chested women hunger after a body-flaunting profession than someone remarkably endowed because they are the ones who suffer the nasty comments on the bus, in school, at work, in clubs, at home, etc. They are viewing a world where glamour modelling equates to being able to feel good about your body, they are being excluded from the club, and more often than not they want to join it, because the notion that your natural body could be worth having is unthinkable.*

Am I disappointed that Miss Cunningham is perpetuating this? Of course, but I am not disappointed in her. I’m disappointed in The Sun, The Daily Star, and anywhere else where the most common and popular representation of women is a hypersexualised one. I’m disappointed in the people who slather over these images but complain when they discover that their tax has gone (and is still going) towards helping the self-conscious products of their slathering.  I’m disappointed that things look so bleak for the women who want to love their natural bodies. I’m disappointed in music videos, adverts and games. In fact, there isn’t a form of media that I am not disappointed in for its devastating representation of my gender. But I am not disappointed in Miss Cunningham, although if I’m perfectly honest… I doubt we’ll ever be friends.

When I posted my thoughts about this to Facebook I was amused by the response. When I vocalise my support for the No More Page 3 campaign, I receive a backlash from the same people over and over again. The very same people resent funding Miss Cunningham's surgery. Interesting. It seems blindingly obvious to me, that because these people do not acknowledge the problems I describe, they are unwilling to take responsibility for them. I like to think they'll wake up tomorrow.

Now I've got my little dig out of the way, let's address some queries:

We all have insecurities, does being insecure about my weight mean I'm entitled to liposuction? She wants to be a model and that's fine; I had to pay for my college to learn what I needed for the trade I want to pursue, why couldn't she pay for her surgery? You can't blame society for someones insecurities, it's the people around them that influence them. The reason she's probably insecure is because of who she is. Superficial and selfish. Why should the taxpayers, in a crumbling economy pay for someones insecurity, when children with cancer can't get the treatment they NEED because it costs too much?

I'm going to work backwards. Why should taxpayers pay for someones insecurity when children can't get the cancer treatment they need? It is unfortunate (tragic, actually) that children are being denied cancer treatment, but that doesn't mean we should deny other people treatment. I think this question is wholly irrelevant, although the newspapers seem to be loving it.

The reason she's insecure is because she's superficial and selfish, and to further elaborate (in case you misunderstood first time round, like I did):  I don't deny there are women out there who are suffering from depression and who feel miserable because of their chest size. She wasn't, she just wanted to be like Katie Price.

Ahem. She received breast augmentation on the NHS. Do you have any idea how practically impossible that is? Women have committed suicide because they couldn't afford their own surgery and were denied it by the NHS. You can't just visit your GP and have a wee cry, even if The Sun makes it sound like that's exactly what happened:

"The wannabe model excitedly flaunted her 36DD bust, which was boosted after she wept to her GP about being a 32A" -

You would have to have clinical depression, you would have to have tried various medication. You would have to have showed no signs of improvement. You would have to be a very serious case. Let's label the mentally ill as superficial and selfish, shall we? Let's deny them the treatment best suited to them because we had to pay for college. Let's only help  nice, selfless people.

It might be impossible to prove whether or not insecurity can be caused by being superficial and selfish, but it is very easy to prove how insecurity can be caused by social pressures. The fact that breast augmentation exists as treatment on the NHS is indicative of the social pressures surrounding it. You CAN blame society for someones insecurities, it's called 'objectification theory'. Read a few articles, journals, a book, Google, whatever - just help yourself out before you say something massively incorrect. A few starting points:

Cash, T.F., & Fleming, E.C. (2002) Body image and social relations. In T.F. Cash & T. Pruzinsky (Ed.), Body image: A handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice (pp.277-286). New York: The Guilford Press.
Cash, T.F., Theriault, J., & Annis, N.M. (2004). Body Image in an interpersonal context: Adult attachment, fear of intimacy, and social anxiety. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 89-103.
Carver, C.S. (1997). Adult attachment and personality: Converging evidence and a new measure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 865-883.
Fredrickson, B.L., & Roberts, T. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206.
McKinley, N.M., & Hyde, J.S. (1996). The Objectified Body Consciousness Scale: Development and validation. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20, 181-215.
McKinley, N.M., & Randa, L.A. (2005). Adult attachment and body satisfaction: An exploration of general and specific relationship differences. Body Image, 2, 209-218.
Salzman, J.P. (1997). Ambivalent attachment in female adolescents: Association with affective instability and eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 21, 251-259.
Sharpe, T.M., Killen, J.D., Bryson, S.W., Shisslak, C.M., Estes, L.S., Gray, M., et al. (1998). Attachment style and weight concerns in preadolescent and adolescent girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 23, 39-44.
Tiggemann, M. (2004). Body image across the adult life span: Stability and change. Body Image, 1, 29-41.
Tiggemann, M., & Lynch, J.E. (2001). Body image across the life span in adult women: The role of self-objectification. Developmental Psychology, 37, 243-253.

Why couldn't she pay for her surgery? Because she's a single mother of two, working in telesales. Next question.

We all have insecurities, does being insecure about my weight mean I'm entitled to liposuction? Can you see why I worked backwards? Because this is the real question, the one that's hard to answer. I would have to say that if you're insecurity was a result of social pressure, and the best treatment in your case was liposuction, then yes. But that's the simple answer, and there's a lot more that needs to be taken into consideration.

Firstly, you can lose weight naturally. Eat healthily, exercise regularly. Breasts don't magically grow. Even if you purposefully put on weight, it will not necessarily go to your breasts and the weight gain might lead to further insecurity. While weight is something you can alter without enormous difficulty, breast size is not. Nor should it be, your natural breasts are in most cases what's best for you and what's best for any children you may choose to have.

Secondly, weight is not a gender specific insecurity. You may feel bad as a human, but you are never going to feel like a failure to your gender. It is far less easy to relate and far harder to talk about. I would point you in the direction of and if you're at all interested in the two very different directions breast insecurity can take. Imagine being a man with boobs, I expect it's a similar feeling. I do not think penis insecurity is comparable because penises are not on public display like breasts are (although I'm sure it can be equally destructive). I think you have to imagine a highly visible insecurity, not one you can tuck into your trousers.

Furthermore, a woman's appearance is more important than anything else about her. As a woman, you will not get into a position where you can reach out to other women unless you look a particular way, (not without enormous difficulty anyway). Women decorate the news, they rarely make it. Our bodies are like Christmas tree decorations, placed here and there to make advertisements look nicer, with no further use or purpose. We are dehumanised, and hypersexualised. Our breasts are not for our children, they are for your eyes. You are allowed to tell 14 year old girls that their breasts aren't big enough when you see them on buses. You are allowed to talk about 'choice' and tell us page 3 should be allowed because it's the model's choice to bare her breasts,and you are allowed to deny us a public platform to challenge you. Public platforms are for pretty people willing to play the same game. Yes, male appearance faces scrutiny. Yes, men can be made to feel insecure by society. No-one is denying that it happens, it just doesn't happen on the same scale. My point is, a body insecurity, for a lot of women, is a really, really big deal, and the fact that boobs can't be altered easily makes it eeeeven bigger.

When a man is intelligent and attractive, his appearance helps him. When a man is intelligent and unattractive, he is not helped by his appearance but he is not hindered by it either; his intelligence is not challenged, he is still respected, it is not considered unfortunate that he is not aesthetically pleasing. When a woman is intelligent and attractive it is a hindrance, because her aesthetics are prized above her intelligence, and her intelligence is questioned. When a women is intelligent and unattractive, she is more likely to be overlooked, ignored, and her appearance is considered unfortunate. ** Damned if you are, damned if you aren't. Not everyone is going to have experienced this first-hand, but that does not mean it doesn't happen. It is what is happening. I am not a lone voice. I experience, I research, I am not inventing.

Finally, operations for weight problems are available on the NHS. As with breast augmentation, there has to be no other alternative, but if a person is too depressed to facilitate their own weight loss then they may be able to receive liposuction or a gastric band. I don't have an issue with that. I'm not going to accuse them of being superficial or selfish, and even if they happen to be the most superficial and selfish person on earth, I do not think they are any less entitled to treatment.

I better stop there, before this becomes too much to digest. Further queries are welcome.

P.S. Sorry that the small text is so small!

*There are, of course, flat-chested women who are not self-conscious, and those who are self-conscious do not necessarily aspire to be glamour models. Equally, my argument does not exclude large breasted women from wanting to be glamour models because that's plainly illogical.
** That wee argument is a well known one, not my own.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Wobbly Jubblies

I don’t remember what the article was or where I read it, but somewhere or other there was a titanic clash of feminist ideology (or should that be tit-anic?). One lady felt compelled to ride topless (or was it completely naked?) on an open top bus (need to check that detail out too) through London (pretty sure on that). Not alone, I hasten to add, but with fellow, middle-aged, naked ladies.

A journalist attacked her for her presumption that feminism is all about flashing your breasts in public.

Ah, hold on, I just found the article: Dawn O’Porter - Women Like Me are not Like Women Like You, Does That Have to Make us Enemies?

In Porter’s words:

“Me and about thirty other women jollied around London on an open top bus with no clothes on”.

She goes on to describe the journalists distaste:

“[The journalist] didn't like this, she didn't like it one bit. She drew the conclusion that I presumed that feminism is just about getting your tits out. But I don't think that is all it is about, I really don't.”

And explains what her actual intentions were:

“I wasn't tackling the broad subject of feminism. I wasn't tackling sexism, or the gender gap, or the sex industry. I was tackling the pressure put upon women by a totally contrived industry that tells us we should have perfect skin, no cellulite, straight noses and buoyant tits. The film [because it was filmed as part of a documentary] talks very directly about this subject. It questions why this pressure is upon us, realizes why it is ridiculous and then pulls a mooner at it and tells it to piss off.”

I wasn’t sure where I stood after reading this article. People will probably be surprised to hear that, as much as I hate pornography, page 3, lad mags and the hyper-sexualisation of women everywhere and anywhere, I have no issue whatsoever with nudity. It disgusts me that a man is able to walk bare-chested in public but a women faces arrest (seen it happen). What is so offensive about the female body? How can we have page 3 in the newspaper, and then deny a woman the right to take her top off in public?

Not a difficult one. People find women baring their breasts offensive because of its direct association with sex and sexuality. People find public displays of SEX offensive, and the female body has been reduced to no more than just that. So much so, that we’re offended by it.

So when it’s blatantly sexual and in the newspaper for some chauvinist’s viewing pleasure that’s just fine. That’s how it should be. Discreet-ish. I mean sex is so all-consuming these days, it can’t really be discreet anymore. Just as long as it’s not walking topless down the street…

I was raised in Uganda, and guess what? Breasts are not sexualised over there. You can walk around bare breasted and that’s just fine. You need to feed your baby. Breasts are just another part of your body, like your foot or your nose. A bloke who touched your breasts sexually would be considered a bit of a weirdo, maybe a pervert.

Can you imagine that over here? Where over 75% of bra sales are on push-up bras? Where women are going in their ever increasing millions for breast augmentation? With Playboy, page 3, and pornography?

Bottom line is, when our body parts are not sexualised, flapping them about is not offensive.

So how do I feel when a feminist rides through London topless?

A bit confused.

I don’t find naturists offensive. It’s wonderful that people can get together and talk to each other, butt-naked, without it turning into a massive orgy. That they’re so aware that their body is just a body is great. The other day I watched a program on channel 4 about nudism:

And after watching it, a little bit of me wanted to run off and join a naturist club. But what good would that do? I know that there are people who are unfazed by naked bodies. I’m friends with a lot of them. At the same time I don’t feel like I need to take my clothes off to express that – and in a society where nudity is so intrinsically related to sex – it would probably feel a little bit like exhibitionism.

But seeing a body as just a body is healthy. If everyone could do that, it would help A LOT of insecure teenagers, and it would help a lot of young children to grow up with healthy ideas, rather than a seemingly irrepressible urge to rape vulnerable people. There was a part of the program where one woman didn’t want to be topless because there was a small child around. That bothered me a little bit… A child shouldn’t find the naked, adult body weird or disgusting. IT’S PERFECTLY NATURAL. My sister and I used to bathe with our parents when we were really little. It wasn’t weird. It was having a freakin’ bath.

People who aren’t surprised by my thoughts re. nudity go one step further and assume that I must have an awful lot of self-confidence. No. I’d have to say that if I ever felt inclined to get naked in front of a group of people who don’t care about ‘body image’, that would epitomise my lack of self-confidence – that I would even go to that extent to try and feel less disgusted with myself… Well, I’m not ruling it out.

I’m avoiding my own question. How do I feel when a feminist rides through London topless?

I don’t find it offensive but I don’t agree with it. I do however, agree with Porter’s aims:

- Tackling the pressure put upon women by a totally contrived industry that tells us we should have perfect skin, no cellulite, straight noses and buoyant tits.
- Questioning why this pressure is upon us, realising why it is ridiculous and then pulling a mooner at it and telling it to piss off.

I just don’t think riding topless on a bus achieves any of those things. Maybe in context with the rest of the documentary it does, but who here has watched the documentary? How many of the people watching Porter ride about naked watched the documentary? I doubt any of them did.

Adopting your own stance and walking around topless because you know that you have a healthy perception of body image, isn't going to challenge anyone else’s perceptions. They’re either going to label you a 'mad exhibitionist', a ‘tart’, be jealous of you, find it amusing but not really think about it, or they will already be on board. I don’t think a group of 30 naked ladies can challenge wider perceptions by riding around London on a bus. It’s gimmickry. Maybe it achieves something if it converts just one person… Maybe all is not lost even if no-one has changed their mind, because at least you lovely ladies had fun… But what if it’s made someone feel worse? What if a teenage girl, seeing your outrageous body confidence in a society where there is so much pressure on teenagers to look a certain way and then be confident about it, is devastated that she doesn’t have the confidence to do what you’re doing?

If a few naked people could help tackle the, quite frankly, unrealistic sexualisation of our bodies, I would be one of them. I’d be naked on so many buses. I would be Asha the Unstoppable Naked Force. Until that day comes, I’m just a young woman who won’t even undress in front of her partner.

NB. Next post examining how realistic our most commonly spouted theories of sexual attraction really are.
NBthe2nd: I should say especially not in front of her partner. That's more realistic.
NB3: REPHRASE: I DON'T disagree with it either. I just don't think it's achieving what Porter would like it to achieve. Obviously people shouldn't be prevented from expressing healthy perceptions, as long as that's how they're coming across.


I haven’t posted since June 2012, and now it’s January 2013. Why? Because despite the positive feedback I’ve received from people who read this blog, negative feedback from people in my personal life has had me banging my head against a brick wall.

Sex discrimination doesn’t exist. Sex discrimination is illegal. Yeah, well so are drugs.  You haven’t experienced sex discrimination. Are you going to claim that suicide doesn’t exist with the same logic? Because you haven’t experienced killing yourself?

I didn’t want to start posting while I was finding it difficult to relate to this complacency. I don’t want my research to revolve around my personal opinions; I just want to report on gender equality and any persisting inequalities or misconceptions. So, and in addition to my post ‘We the Believers’, I researched complacency about sexual discrimination.

This complacency is a symptom of ‘progress’. We need to acknowledge the advances made in the 1960s, study their loss of momentum in the 1970s and recognise their altogether giving up in the 1980s. Only then can we move on to the worsening of sexual discrimination in the 1990s, 2000s and now, the 2010s. This post serves as an outline of the reasons behind our complacency:

1. We had our mind on other things in the 70s. Spiralling inflation, ‘Star Wars’ and the fear of a worldwide holocaust, assassination or attempted assassination of world leaders (Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Gandhi, Sadat), the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland and Poland. Sex discrimination became a low priority issue.

2. Surveys started to express a more accepting attitude towards women. A 1979 national poll concluded that males showed variety ‘along the entire spectrum from traditional to innovative responses about work, the family, religion, leisure, marriage and sex’. The implication was that many liberated men now accept women as equals. [1]
A 1980 poll found that 60% of women felt they had an equal chance in promotions, with the same salaries and work responsibilities as men. [2]
They key word here is ‘felt’. Opinion polls reflect attitudes rather than behaviour. Anyone equating attitudes with behaviour would then conclude that behaviour towards women has changed significantly. Opinion polls rarely differentiate between actual and expected behaviour. It is incorrect to assume that how things should be is synonymous with how things really are.

3. The mass media continue to emphasise superficial changes in terms of equal sex roles and this has led many people to conclude that “sex discrimination is only a minor problem”. On a national and local level the media is quick to publicise women’s ‘firsts’ e.g. the first astronaut, the first female bank executive. This emphasise on ‘firsts’ implies that women are indeed making strides insofar that people will claim women are ‘taking over’.  Many people believe that these firsts are numerous, widespread and representative across all institutions. Very few people realise that our ability to point to firsts is a reflection on female exclusion from most activities. Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that the ‘firsts’ move beyond entry level steps. [3]
Many of us believe that the mass media reflect ‘reality’ and real social change. Avid TV watchers will point out the occasional powerful woman executive or glamorous female physician as evidence of gender equality. Such shows however, mirror the media’s perceptions of women as tokens. The portrayal of women and their relationship with men is romanticised, trivialised, or treated in sex-stereotypical, simplistic ways [4].
I like to imagine that everyone’s heard of the Bechdel Test (and I’m definitely imagining it). The Bechdel Test is used to identify gender bias in fiction. In order to pass the test a work must feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man (talk about, not offer a single insignificant sentence). Commentators have noted that a great proportion of contemporary works fail to pass this threshold of representing women – and by ‘great’ we’re talking about almost every film you will watch this year.
An interesting point to note is that many people also believe that female nudity and more ‘women’s films’ are proof of ‘women’s liberation’. There’s still no discussion of female nudity as pornography rather than art (we’ll get on to pornography another time, that’s a whoooole issue of its own). There is also little recognition that the protagonists of ‘women’s films’ fulfil traditional, sex-stereotypical roles – as dumb housewives, sex symbols, domestic martyrs or clinging vines (people who behave in a helpless and dependant manner in relationships with others). Even when the heroine starts out as an interesting and intelligent person, she invariably ends up committing suicide, dying or being ‘done-in’, or being rescued by a man [5]. We haven’t really moved on from 1850s opera, have we?
During the 1950s and 60s, teenage films were quite different. Teenagers were pretty care-free (more like old children than young adults), they spent most of their time surfing and having beach parties, with cute cat-and-mouse courtships going on. That’s flattering compared to the anything produced around the 80s, onwards. Now the typical teenage view is that crude and vulgar behaviour is hilarious, sex is the most important thing in life, and that violent, manipulative sex is fun and funny. Adult women are presented in particularly demeaning and degrading roles and most teenage films reflect ‘little more than middle-aged male producers’ and directors’ somewhat pathetic fantasies about teenage girls’. Don’t even bother naming a female producer/director who does that kind of thing – why do you think she got the job?

4. Recent dramatizations of controversial issues such as rape, incest and homosexuality have led many people to conclude that we really are open about these issues and sex-related problems. Mass media does not go into depth. Turn off your television and read a journal.
The media have generated and publicised innumerable books and workshops, to advise individual women how to ‘get ahead’. ‘Find a job, get promoted, dress for success, handle an office affair, use cosmetics, get invited to a business lunch, sue for divorce, travel alone, locate child care, keep in shape, hide wrinkles’. What other advice could an individual, middle-class woman possibly need? You too can be like our cover woman; happy, smiling, attractive and fashionable, with a fairly interesting job outside the home. Need I even say, ‘because you’re worth it’? Wake-up general public, these books and magazines are portraying fantasies about, not realities of, working women [6].

5. It’s also been greatly publicised that few women have been upwardly mobile since the launching of the women’s movement in the late 1960s. These women are found almost exclusively in low-level management positions, and they are often touted as evidence of sex equality. I’ve heard more than enough people point to their female professor or doctor as evidence that “things really have changed”. These changes are highly skewed and they represent only a fraction of working women. How relevant is it? Not very. I find it very hard to hold my tongue when people say ‘but I don’t really understand what you’re upset about. Things have got so much better for us’. Are you all working women? Or are you an individual who feels quite positive about your prospects, because you know ‘plenty’(Really? Plenty?) of female policewomen, physicians etc.

6.  Read ‘We the Believers’ which is dedicated to this one: that many of us rely exclusively on our personal observations and experience to generalise about the world at large. Do not assume something doesn’t exist or is only a minor issue because you haven’t experienced it. With regards to sex equality you only need to look at the recently launched everydaysexism project: (if you have the time and the inclination, vote for them in the Shorty Awards, there’s a link on the website).

7. And back to where I started. Many of us assume sex discrimination is “not really a problem” because it’s illegal. Unlike most other offenses, annual statistics on sex discrimination aren’t published. Even data that are available – like the number of sex discrimination complaints or lawsuits filed – are not publicised or readily available. If they were I imagine that we would not only be shocked by the scope and severity of sex discrimination, but still unable to see how serious and widespread it really is. Most people will not report sex discrimination, they feel embarrassed, they ignore it, they often feel that they’re the problem. We shouldn’t be complacent, we should be angry.

[1] Lee Barton (1984) “To a Sherlockian, Coolness to Women is Elementary Canon,” Wall street Journal, p.1
[2] George Gilder (1981) Wealth and Poverty, New York: Basic Books
[3] Benokraitis (1986) “Modern Sexism”, (Prentice Hall) p. 4
[4] ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] “Modern Sexism”, p. 6

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Stereotype Threat

As the title suggests, this is a post about stereotypes and the negative effect they can have on people. As a rule, this topic is covered quite well by mainstream media, so I will try and keep the blindingly obvious to a minimum.

You’ll find that most cultures, if not all, make sweeping generalisations about male and female differences. To supplement these generalisations, we allow for ‘anomalies’ i.e. people who breakaway from their pink or blue mould.

We observe average differences between sexes; on average women are more likely to wear make-up. Yet these differences are tiny compared to the differences between people and even cultures; if you compare Germany and England for example, English women are more likely to wear make-up. If you then turn to England and compare female athletes with female bar tenders,  you’ll probably find that more bar tenders wear make-up. As you can see, the number of women wearing make-up is diminishing quite rapidly. And let’s not forget that plenty of men wear make-up too: Actors, presenters, musicians, politicians, in fact many men in the public eye are indeed wearing make-up. I have, perhaps unwisely, chosen an easily and widely observed gender difference, but it is nevertheless apparent how frequently these so-called gender differences are wrongly assumed.

If we turn once again to intellectual differences, we can see how scientists fall prey to generalisations; ‘there are a lot of pressures that result in scientists looking for a simpler picture. That’s kind of what science is meant to be about; we’re meant to be able to discover some rules that let us predict things, so there’s a tendency to want to simplify things in order to discover rules and predict things, and in most fields that works fine. But it doesn’t work well in fields where people already have stereotypes, because the stereotypes become the rules’ (Melissa Hines, Professor of Psychobiology at Cambridge University). Hence we have a tendency to explain things in gender specific terms, rather than through more critical analysis of our observations. (1)

This issue is not helped by the assumption that biological explanations are the latest thing, hot off the press, read all about it. Many scientists and journalists alike, give the impression that they are bravely publishing these modern ideas in the face of opposition. An American journalist recently said, ‘we’ll probably never know how great a role biology plays in gender differences, because feminists try to prevent anyone from researching it’(2). Au contraire Mr Journalist, ‘neuroscientists are by no means being prevented from researching the biology of sex differences. It’s hard to think of any topic that has been getting more study recently.’ (3)

I will be writing a post entitled ‘The Blue Taboo?’ that will go into more detail about whether or not feminists really are preventing scientists and the media from stating biological gender differences. Right now however, I should note that it is important for dissenting voices to be heard, for when biological differences fall into disrepute the stereotypes that remain in their wake can be devastating.

There are an increasing number of studies on how the expectations placed on the groups to which we belong can affect our performance as individuals. One of the first studies of this kind was published in 1999. Three psychologists, Steele, Spencer and Quinn, gathered male and female undergraduates to take maths test in which women had previously been seen to do worse than men. They split the women and men into two groups: men and women in the first group were told that in the past, there had been clear gender differences in performance. The second group was told that women and men had performed equally on this test in the past. The results showed that women in the first group performed worse than the men, whereas in the group which had been told that women and men had performed equally in the past, the sex difference in attainment was eliminated. (4)

What makes this study even more interesting is that the psychologists found the stereotype did not need to be ‘activated’ for women to perform less well. If told nothing about attainment, men still out performed the women; if told that gender differences had never been seen, women once again performed just as well as the men. (5)

It seems obvious to me that minds struggling with negative stereotypes and anxious thoughts, are not in a psychologically optimal state for taxing intellectual performance (6). It is important to note that these nervous and tentative states of mind are not characteristic of the female brain, but of anyone suffering from ‘stereotype threat’.

Unfortunately stereotype threat hits the people who want to succeed in quantitative domains hardest. People who feel they have the most to lose by doing badly (e.g. reinforcing a stereotype, losing a job, letting people down etc.) are hit hardest by stereotype threat. There is also the problem that as a female mathematician for example, climbs the career ladder, she finds herself increasingly outnumbered by men. This in itself is enough to trigger stereotype threat, and a woman in this position may grudgingly come to believe that females are indeed worse at maths. (7)

The good news is that people are becoming increasingly aware of stereotype threat. If you type ‘women worse at maths’ into google search, you will be drowned by articles saying ‘it’s not true!’, ‘studies reveal women are as good at maths’, ‘they‘re lying to you!‘ etc. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way, but the difficulty lies in establishing where it’s really needed.

What concerns me most about stereotype threat is that it can reduce interest in cross-gender activities. Mary Murphy and her colleagues at Stanford University devised two groups consisting of both female and male MSE majors (advanced maths, science and engineering) and played them an advertising video for a conference. There were in fact two videos, both with about 150 people depicted in them. One video approximated the actual ratio of men and women with MSE degrees: 3 men to every 1 woman, whereas the other video featured men and women in equal numbers. Physiological reactions (heart rate, skin conductance) of the students were recorded, to give a measure of arousal. After viewing the video, women and men expressed to what degree they felt they belonged to the conference in question. (8)

The women and men who saw the gender-equal video reported equal interest in the conference, sense of belonging and very similar physiological reactions were detected. This was not the case for women viewing the realistically imbalanced version: they became more aroused - an indicator of physiological vigilance, and they expressed far less interest in attending the conference. After seeing an accurate impression of current male dominance in such sectors, they were no longer so sure that they belonged. (9)

An example for men is childcare. It’s not only unusual for men to be seen in this profession, but there are an awful lot of horrible assumptions made about men who work with children. They are likely to be viewed with suspicion by both parents and by colleagues. You could be the most caring, honest and compassionate man in the world, and all you want is to work with children… but what man wants to step into that kind of environment?

So there you have it. Stereotype threat. That’s why people raise hell when Topshop or other popular retail outlets release clothes with sexists slogans such as ‘I’m too cute for maths’. Taken out of context these are innocent enough statements, but these statements cannot be taken out of context when you live in a society surrounded by stereotypes.

I suppose it could be worse. They haven’t released an ‘I like to play with my son’ t-shirt for men yet. If they did, I doubt the backlash of people saying ‘it’s just a joke, you’re making a fuss about nothing’ would be quite so severe, when it’s that obvious.

(1) Melissa Hines, Professor of Psychobiology at Cambridge, ‘Brain Gender’, 2004
(2) Christ Caldwell, ‘Taboos that Undid Summer’ Financial Times, 24th Feb 2006
(3) Mark Liberman, ‘More functional neuroanatomy of science journalism’, Language Log, 18th March 2008.
(4) Spencer, Steele and Quinn, ‘Stereotype threat and women’s math performance’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 1, (1999), 4-28
(5) As described in ‘Living Dolls’, Natasha Walter 2010 p. 206
(6) Cordelia Fine, ‘Delusions of Gender’, 2010 pp 33 -34
(7) Schmader, Johns & Barquissau, 2004
(8) Murphy, Steele & Gross, 2007
(9) As described in ‘Delusions of Gender’, 2010, pp 42-43

Monday, 25 June 2012

What am I?

I've taken a little break from the blogs as I'm a tad short of time at the moment. To keep you entertained, I've written a quick poem...

Am I just a piece of meat?
A pair of breasts with hands and feet.
Dare I think and dare I speak,
For fear of being told I’m weak?

Am I just a lovely bum?
A doting wife and loving mum.
Intelligence, well I have none -
All I want from life is fun.

Am I just a pretty doll?
As beautiful as I am droll.
Here to do just what I’m told,
Discarded when I get too old.

Do I even need a face,
A history, a home or race?
Or am I just a piece of meat?
A pair of breasts with hands and feet.

Saturday, 23 June 2012


Once upon a time in a little country called England, women were timid creatures and men were sexual beasts. Women thought this was very unfair but most of them kept quiet because it was normal, and they thought they were being over-sensitive for making a fuss about it.

-insert social change here-

We have progressed. Women are no longer the shy kittens of the 1900s, they are sexual forces to be reckoned with. This is both a positive and a negative thing. Positive because we're no longer pretending that only men want sex, women can sleep with whoever they want, whenever they want, divorce, remarry, all those empowering things.

Did I say empowering? Yes, being able to make those decision in your own life is certainly empowering, compared to the good ol' days. But there are two, rather disempowering negatives:

The first, as I'm sure you're all aware, are the negative connotations of a promiscuous woman. She's a slut, a hussy, a whore, a slag, a slapper, a tart etc. A promiscuous man is just having a good time. I personally think we've seen progress on this issue. While women are still being referred to by all these terms, the terms themselves aren't necessarily derogatory. A lot of men want a 'slut', and a lot of women are happy to be of assistance. Rather than sexist slurs, these terms have taken on a whole positive connotation - because men want hussies and we want to be them! How empowering.

The second negative aspect of women being able to express their sexuality, has pretty much caused 'slut' to take on it's more attractive connotation. Not so very long ago, strip clubs and lap dancing lounges were considered to be extremely seedy places. Even models wouldn't want to be seen dead in them. But now women are so sexual, (WAHAAAY GUYS!) it's OK to go to a strip club. Those  women want to work there, it's their choice! Can't argue with that logic can ya? Now that women like going out on a Saturday night with their tits out, we can justifiably fill our lad mags with that very thing. Women are for sex. Women want to be for sex. And just so women don't think we're only interested in their body, let's stick an occasional pretty face on too. (1)

And women, seeing what men want, seek to be that person (what a choice, eh?) Our culture has exceeded women and men meeting in the bedroom on equal terms, and has become hypersexual. Short of women walking out naked in the middle of the day, with a bag over their heads, there's not a lot further we can push it.

- insert reality here -

If that's the case, if this is what we all want and why it's doing so well, how do you explain one particularly interesting aspect of men being chosen over women in the work place? Ladies and gentleman, I give you: XXX-clusion

Legal scholar Michael Selmi suggests that 'our perceptions of discrimination may have changed more than the reality, and there is certainly strong reason to believe that intentional and overt discrimination remains a substantial barrier to workplace equality  for women'. His conclusion is based on a review of class-action employment cases, from the nineties to the early years of this century. (2)

So on the subject of discrimination, it's not ground-breaking to suggest that gender stereotypes contribute to claims that 'women want dead-end jobs'. It's not alien to hear the newspapers say, 'women start out very keen but by their mid-twenties they just want to have kids and settle down, they don't want a job on the top rungs.' It's not difficult to see how these conscious decisions on behalf of other people are having a knock-on effect on women looking for work; assumptions are made long before women have the chance to decide for themselves. This is not what I want to talk about however, there are enough studies and workforce reviews that prove this is going on. You don't need me to spell it out.

Beyond gender stereotypes, there is something far less obvious happening in our society. 'Homophily' (a psychological tendency captured by the adage 'birds of a feather flock together') is creating barriers against minority workers. Wall street professionals revealed that organisations made-up primarily of white men, prefer to deal with other white men, and that they were taking this for granted. Can you imagine a client organisation employing predominantly white men, having a business meeting with a client organisation made-up of physically disabled workers, or workers from an ethnic minority, or women? It doesn't happen very often. Wall street revealed that women and nonwhite men were 'concentrated in jobs without client contact and in client-contact jobs that generate less revenue'.(3)

Social exclusion is holding women back in a large range of domains. The Athena Report found that women in corporate SET jobs were missing out on important insider information required to get ahead. A major player in the technology industry gave herself a male alias and discovered that emails sent to her male alias 'Finn' received the 'scoop', while 'Josephine' received completely different e-mails, consisting of essentially useless information.  The Athena Report also revealed that men were failing to respect working women and didn't know how to communicated with them: 'One focus group participant described a recent uncomfortable experience. A male colleague walked up to a group where she was the only female. The man shook the hand of every man but avoided contact with her. "I could feel his anxiety in assessing how to handle greeting me," she noted. "But he also didn't think I was important. So in the end he just chose not to deal with me." (4)

Unfortunately social exclusion does not begin and end in the office. In fact, it's getting worse rather than better. I would hazard a guess that most of you have never considered how much a game of golf and a trip to the local lap-dancing club have in common. One is an old-man, sock wearing sport, while the other involves naked women rubbing their genitalia against male nether-regions. Furthermore if you're as young as I am and have yet to enter the corporate world, you may not be aware that out-of-office socialising is key to developing a good personal relationship with the client in business-to-business sales, and that golf courses and strip clubs are the two most popular client-entertaining venues.

To this day, people still think there is something unnatural about women playing golf at the same time, or alongside, men. This is further amplified through different tee boxes so that even when women and men can play together, these gender divided tee boxes succeed at keeping them somewhat separate. 'Many women reported that men used the different tee boxes to leave them behind on the course or to require them to ride in a different golf cart... In essence, they used the different tees as a way to exclude women even when playing with them', University of Michigan, sociologists L Morgan and K Martin studying the experiences of female sales professionals. (5)

Morgan and Martin found, unsurprisingly I think, another popular entertainment venue creating 'enormous challenges' for women. That's right, strip clubs. Mind blowingly, male colleagues and clients are reluctant to have woman from the office at such venues. Women are expected to go home, where they can't possibly remind men that a woman is more than a body for them to look at. In this study, saleswomen 'described over and over again being told not to come, not being invited, and even being deceived as the men snuck out to the strip club'. This male reluctance strikes me as odd if we are to believe that our modern hypersexual culture is so acceptable, desirable and all about 'choice'. If the women are so keen to accompany the men on these business outings (for the sake of their careers), surely men are admitting that their behaviour is not universally appealing and acceptable by disallowing women from doing so. What's more, women who were able to accompany the men described it as extremely awkward for them ('they felt different, out of place, and embarassed'). (6)

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten lap-dancing clubs. A UK survey revealed that it is 'increasingly normal', expected even, for clients to be entertained at these kinds of venues. A leading businessman reasoned that if a city has 'aspirations to be a major business area, then it has to have a quality adult entertainment area, and that would include a lap-dancing club'. (7) In the scathing words of Cordelia Fine, 'how on earth did men ever manage to get business done in the days before establishments where they can pay to have their penises massaged by the genitalia of a naked women?' (8)

Stringfellows clubs, renowned for their 'world famous nude dancing clubs', has a webpage
devoted to corporate entertaining: 'OK so you've just done the big deal, or you're about to do the deal but they need that little extra push. So tell me, where are you going to take them to clinch the deal???' Promptly followed by a picture of 'your perfect private party table'. The said table has a pole rising up from its centre, rather than more conventional tables. It is to the delight of all female investment bankers I think, that they can conveniently prepurchase with their company credit cards Stringfellows Heavenly Money (depicting a nude woman clasping a pole) to tuck into the garter of the naked woman gyrating between the salt and pepper pots. She can network with important clients, all the while enjoying the view of some other woman's genitals. Perfect. What woman didn't spend years at business school, studying for this? (9)

Whether you're for or against strip clubs, it is clear that using them as corporate entertainment serves to exclude women. A saleswoman working in the sector said, 'they will never have a woman work in that group because part of their entertainment is to take people to these topless bars'. Approximately 80% of male city finance workers are visiting strip clubs for work, 'woman in the world of business... are confronting a new glass ceiling created by their male colleagues'. Lap-dancing establishments don't ban women, they simply intimidate them. (10)

I could go on, but I want to reach my final example of female exclusion in the workplace before this blogpost turns into a book. Sexual harassment is as rife today as it was in 1869, and it's manifesting itself in ever more extreme forms. Whereas women in 1869 faced opposition in the form of paper missiles, tinfoil and tobacco juice, women of the 20th Century find their backsides are repeatedly fondled, they are obliged to network clients in strip clubs, or even have their clothes masturbated upon by male colleagues. By comparison, a bit of tinfoil in the hair seems almost gentlemanly. (11)

The Athena Factor report found that 56% of woman in corporate science jobs, and 69% of women in engineering, had experienced sexual harassment, (12) and almost all of the 99 female medical residents at Southern University interviewed by sociologist Susan Hinze reported experiencing 'sexual harassment that makes the workplace intimidating, hostile, or offensive'. (13) Surgery, the most prestigious branch of medicine, offered by far the most hostile environment to women. Yet the recurring theme of Hinze's interviews was not that these women were victims, but whether or not they were being too sensitive to this sexist and demeaning treatment. One surgery resident described the experience of discovering in the restrooms an explicit cartoon of herself, bent over, and her mentor engaged in sexual intercourse. Another resident had added an arrow and the comment that he wished he could be in the latter's position. The woman recalled to Hinze:

I thought, this just really sums up... my position in the department of [name removed] surgery, something I've worked for, for a lot of years, not my whole life, but a lot of years, and they reduced all my hard work and all my sacrifice and my brains and my technical abilities and everything that I've done to this, you know, like this is how they perceive, you know. Me. [R. becomes visibly upset and begins crying]. (14)

She, like countless women before who have experienced sexual harassment, did not register a complaint. Instead she looked to herself to adapt to this hostile environment. Hinze's report included accounts of female surgeons finding their behinds patted repeatedly by physicians and wondering whether their discomfort was a sign of them being too sensitive. These experiences are not anomalies. Women are finding themselves the victim of sexual harassment all too frequently, and blaming themselves for feeling degraded. I personally have been subject to sexual harassment and have ignored it rather than dealt with it appropriately. I understand completely what it's like to blame yourself, rather than the person who's touching you/referring to you etc. inappropriately. Because surely, if it were considered unacceptable behaviour, they wouldn't be doing it? (15)

(1) Dave Read, Neon Management
(2) Selmi 2005, pp. 41 and 25
(3) Roth 2004, p.630
(4) Hewlett, Servon et al., 2008, pp. 7 and 8
(5) Morgan and Martin, 2006, p. 121
(6) Morgan and Martin, 2006, p. 116, 117, 118
(7) Quoted in D. Valler, Business visitors expect this on the agenda. Coventry Evening Telegraph, Nov 9, 2005, p. 8
(8) Fine, 2010
(9) Barnyard & Lewis, 2009
(10) According to the court testimony of one London financial executive, cited by Lynn, 2006
(11) Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Nov 8, 1869. Quoted in Morantz-Sanchez, 1985, p. 9
(12) Hewlett et al., 2008, p.7
(13) Hinze 2004, p. 105, referring  to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definition of a hostile environment
(14) Hinze 2004, pp. 114-115
(15) Hinze 2004, p. 111