Natalie Rowe’s arrest: George Osborne, whorephobia and journalist privelege

geo rowe-osborne1

 

“Natalie Rowe”, the escort agency madam and former dominatrix who was exposed along with George Osborne in a 1994 photo, was just arrested. She was arrested for “abusive behaviour” after tweeting a photo of George Osborne in her flat. The photo doesn’t appear to have been taken covertly, and “Rowe” purposely obscured the face of a client who was also present. Political blogger Tom Pride was first with the story after she tweeted her arrest.

Now, perhaps we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Perhaps Natalie Rowe (real name Shirley) really was behaving abusively to Osborne (or others) and her arrest is nothing to do with the photo. But that seems unlikely given what happened last October. 12 Drugs Squad police used an undercover police officer, dressed as a postman, to dawn raid her flat in an alleged drugs search. They came armed with a battering ram and lockpick, forced her to let them in while only wearing underwear and, after gaining access, continued to deny her requests to be allowed to dress. Rowe was then locked in the living room and threatened with handcuffing while the search continued for 2 hours, and was questioned about her upcoming memoir. No drugs were found. This all happened just days before she was due to make new claims about George Osborne.

The famous cocaine photo.

The famous cocaine photo.

This is like living in a dictatorship. You get arrested for telling the truth or criticising those in power. Though perhaps this isn’t that surprising in this case, as Rowe is a member of a few marginalised groups. She’s an ex sex worker, a madam, a woman, and black. And despite her having other interesting qualities the media could focus on she is always described as an ex call girl, erasing her talents, education and history. Even her super-rich partner and father of her child is not mentioned nearly as much as the fact that she was a sex worker. Yes, now she might be bringing it on herself by doing tell-alls, but that wasn’t always the case and it feels like lazy journalism to present someone as only, always and forever a whore, as the media so often does in sex scandals (whether they’re about free or paid sex).

This story also highlights the problems to our society caused by whorephobia and our hypocritical attitudes toward sex and sex work. If stigma against selling and buying sex didn’t exist, George Osborne wouldn’t need to use the police to protect his reputation. He could freely admit to being friends with a sex worker and to purchasing services from her.

The fact that George Osborne (and other politicians) buy sex will hopefully remind us of the hypocrisy of shaming and stigmatising sex workers. It’s clients of all genders who fund the sex industry and sex workers of all genders. If you’re against sex work, clients should be held equally responsible. That’s why we have laws against funding terrorists. Yet with sex work, though the client is stigmatised-which is why Rowe is being intimidated by abuse of police powers- the person selling sex is stigmatised more. Except in (some) cases where the client or unfaithful spouse is famous.

Arresting someone for tweeting a photo is not only undemocratic, it’s also absurd when you consider that posting revenge porn is still completely legal. If Rowe had posted a nude photo of Osborne, that’d have been fine. It also shows how differently the law treats journalists compared to other citizens who happen not to have an NTCJ Diploma or an attachment to a paper. Covertly taking nude photos of Kate Middleton in private with her man from a mile away and publishing leaked nudes of Prince Harry in private with friends to the media is just fine. Tweeting a consensually-taken clothed photo when you’re actually known and allowed to be present isn’t.

You couldn’t make it up.

The Porn Filter: A Censored Britain

First published as Censorship in the UK: The Internet, Media Myths and the Porn Panic on 16/5/14 on Cliterati.

 

 

No censorship plan could be complete without fearmongering. And as is often the case, the enemy these days is dirty, filthy, child-corrupting, woman-defiling, enemy-of-the-family, soul destroying sex. Well, porn, to be precise. But David Cameron’s porn filter blocks far more than porn. It blocks feminist, LGBT, sex education and political satire sites, as well as esoteric material, alcohol and smoking. Even more worrying is the fact that the porn filter blocks rape crisis sites and domestic abuse helpline sites.

During its test, lawyers were unable to access court decisions they needed to prepare their cases. An unnamed source in education says school porn filters already block politics sites and art which contains nudity, to the irritation of art teachers. My local library blocks the Tor (an anonymizing browser) site as well as this blog, which means I can’t blog on public computers without using a flash drive with the Tor browser installed. It’s been reported that smartphones already have the filter which means that feminist, sex education and LGBT sites- as well as political sites- are blocked. (I’ve tested touchscreen phones which are not smartphones and they also have the filter). So should we even be calling the filter a “porn filter” at all?

“It’s not a porn filter, although that’s how it was sold by David Cameron and the media,” said a spokesperson for Sex and Censorship, an organisation which defends free speech and sexual freedom in the UK, “[D]ozens of categories of non-porn content are blocked by the filters. The filters put censorship powers in the hands of the household’s bill payer, and can be used as a tool of abuse against teenagers and partners by denying them access to vast amounts of content.” The history of porn censorship does seem to support these points, as such censorshipoften ends up being used to oppress women and sexual minorities.

Psychologist Dr David J. Ley is best known for his much-needed services to science and good old-fashioned common sense in pointing out that “sex addiction” is a pseudo-disorder in his book The Myth of Sex Addiction. He’s also the author of Insatiable Wives, the Executive Director of the mental health and substance abuse program New Mexico Solutions, and acolumnist on Psychology Today. And he doesn’t think pornography is Public Enemy Number One.

The demonization of pornography and blaming of it for various issues, from rape to sexism, is an incredibly simplistic game of ‘straw man/scapegoat.’ By blaming these problems on porn, society at large is able to avoid responsibility for its contribution and perpetuation of these problems,” he says. “[P]orn, like any form of culturally/economically-driven entertainment, reflects the values, issues and conflicts within society. Porn is a mirror of social values and struggles, not the other way around. If societies and advocates want to reduce sexism, rape, and all other forms of sexually-related issues, they need to address them within society first.”

Image source: www.lovethispic.com

 

Girls Hate Porn: True or False?

The moral panic over porn is fuelled by myths. Pornography is inherently harmful to women. Pornography is something only men use and that women need to be protected from. Pornography causes rape (a variation of the anti-sexwork brigade’s ‘sex work causes rape’).

Myths that purport to be feminist, but in fact reinforce patriarchal ideas about gender roles, the gender binary, female purity, and rape culture. But the reality is far more complex.

Compared to men, women actually have a stronger, less discriminating physical arousal response to pornography,” he explains. “Whereas men, by and large, show a clear hetero vs homosexual arousal pattern, women almost universally respond in a bisexual pattern. Whether this is an innate or culturally-driven response is not known at this time. What is distinct between men and women is that men are aware of their sexual arousal, whereas women often show physiological arousal and deny being aroused to porn. It is strongly suggested that this is an artifact of the ways in which females are commonly taught to suppress and deny their sexuality.”

In a nutshell, women get hard- and wet- watching porn, but we lie about it. Dr Ley also points out that research suggests that most women who consume porn “tend to be women with higher libidos, who are more sexually adventurous, and are more like men, when it comes to sexual desire and values. These women actually tend to like the same porn that men do, rather than the ‘women-oriented’ porn.” Seems like the less repressed a woman is, the more likely she is to be a porn consumer.

Dr Zhana Vrangalova, sex researcher, Psychology Today blogger and adjunct instructor, also acknowledges the fact that though more men than women consume porn, women can enjoy it: “[M]any women do watch porn, and in fMRI studies porn appears pleasant and rewarding to both sexes. In both sexes, most people who watch porn report positive effects, such as increased breadth of sexual behaviors, more positive attitudes toward sexuality, novelty, joy, and happiness), and only a minority reports negative effects… Positive effects are also reported by couples who watch porn together.”

 

Does porn cause rape?

The myth that porn causes rape is not based on evidence; rape should be on an increase which matches the increase in the availability of porn, but this hasn’t happened. Anti-sex work groups have previously tried to claim that lapdancing causes rape, and that claim was debunked too.

“[T]here is substantial evidence that availability of porn in a culture is associated with a decrease in sex offenses, especially child molestation, and inhibition of aggression,” says Dr Vrangalova. “[Porn] is often accused of increasing coercive and sexist beliefs and attitudes in men toward women. However, research shows that porn, especially non-violent porn, might have such effects only among men who are already predisposed toward such beliefs and attitudes based on their personality.”

Sex and Censorship seem to agree: “There is an endless, but fruitless, search for harm caused by pornography, but no evidence. Probably the most pernicious (and dishonest) claim is the attempt to link porn to rape: whereas it actually appears that porn usage reduces rather than increases sexual violence.” Linking porn consumption to rape also fuels rape culture. It’s giving the rapist an excuse: “Don’t blame me- Porn Made Me Do It!”

 

Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN?!”

 

Image source: www.quickmeme.com

But of course no moral panic would be complete without invoking the fragile innocence of our nation’s youth. Sex and Censorship claims that the panic “focuses on harm caused to children – although the moral crusaders provide no actual evidence of such harm, of course. And inevitably, girls are considered more weak and vulnerable than boys, and thus in need of special protection. There is an old, sexist assumption that sex is something males do to females, and that appears in the new, ‘feminist’ anti-porn movement as well. In particular, gay porn is never mentioned by the moral crusaders: it is always the female that must be protected from such filth!” It’s all too possible that the media hype around sexting and ‘Generation Sex’ feeds into the panic, too. Boys and girls sext in roughly equal measure but the media focus is always on the deviancy or dangers of the girls‘ actions. Even stories about girls being slut shamed into suicide prod parents into telling girls not to sext instead of not to slut shame. Once again, the focus becomes the behaviour of girls, not the exploitative, coercive and slut shaming behaviour of boys. The porn filter could well be just another attempt to control the sexual behaviour of young women.

 

Who’s to blame for this porn panic?

But what’s causing the porn panic? Is feminism to blame, or the rise of a new moralism or sexual conservatism? “It’s a deep-rooted fear of sex, which has resurfaced throughout human history. Today, this sexual conservatism has reappeared wearing feminist clothing, but these are the same old conservative values, presented in new ways,” says Sex and Censorship.

Dr Ley’s view is that “Fascinating research has shown that women most commonly act to suppress the sexuality of other women, rather than men or society at large doing so. The belief is that this is related to women protecting economic control of sexuality, as a resource. It’s my belief that much of the female vocal antagonism and fear of porn reflects another aspect of this attempt to assert control of sexuality and maintain it as a limited, controlled, difficult to obtain resource. The old saying is, ‘don’t give away the milk for free, no one will want to buy the cow.’ Internet porn puts a high-speed milk faucet in men’s bedrooms. The film Don Jon is a great example of this, where the character voices that masturbation to porn is just more relaxing and satisfying than the work required for sex with a woman.

By asserting that women don’t like porn, are hurt by it, etc., there is definitely the effect that these attitudes and reactions are created by these narratives. Just as the belief that a woman’s first time having sex is painful actually creates the tension, anxiety and fear which leads to that belief being fulfilled. This may indeed reflect yet another aspect of women attempting to control the sexual expression of other women, through narratives such as MaryAnn Layden has put out, wherein she suggests that women who watch porn are increasing their chances of being raped.Watch out women, Porno will steal your soul!

 

Myths in mainstream media

There are certain media outlets from which we’ve come to expect mass fearmongering. But when the BBC shows a biased documentary on the subject, you know we’re in trouble. Sex and Censorship describes Porn: What’s the Harm? as an “appalling, biased piece of TV programming, which was riddled with inaccuracies” and have posted about the programme on their site.

Presented by a barely-legal dudebro with questionable expertise on the subjects of human sexuality or media, BBC3′s brand new Tyger Takes On Porn is very rude, funny, and explicit- but it’s barely journalism and doesn’t seriously investigate the effect of porn. The doc also portrays sex work negatively and whorephobic language is used throughout to distinguish pornscorts, adult performers and sex workers from “normal girls”. It is also alleged that “normal girls” do not like kink. 

Both presenters of the documentaries were very uncomfortable with porn and presenter Jameela Jamil has never used it.

Channel 4′s October attempt, Porn On The Brain, was almost as bad; Bad Sex Media Bingo, a site devoted to exposing junk science and myths about sex in the media, classes it as scoring “13 out of 24 of the squares on Bad Sex Media Bingo”.

I could go on and on (I made the mistake of facepalming my way through all three facsimiles of journalism) but the above links say it all. But enough of watching prudes googling “porn” and descending into spasms of writhing pearl-clutchery: what happens if you google porn documentaries? Well, you’re treated to documentaries such as Porndemic, which according to its blurb pushes the myth of “porn addiction”. Then there’s The Dark Side of Porn, which asserts that porn is now mainstream and there’s no stigma attached to being an adult entertainment actor. Way to deny whorephobia. While I can’t comment further without watching them, these documentaries’ titles and marketing obviously play up to the fearmongering.

So what does this all mean?

So it doesn’t appear that we need a filter to fix these nonexistent problems. But I’m certainly not saying that nothing needs to be changed. Labelling any portrayal of non-egalitarianism in porn as BDSM or fetish porn would ensure mainstream porn doesn’t include any degrading, sexist or misogynistic material. Surely we should at least try this idea before talking about filters?

A national debate about labour conditions for adult performers might actually be more helpful than one about porn filters- ditto a debate about equal pay, as female actors get paid about ten times as much as males, while trans performers struggle to find work outside the ‘shemale’ scene.

The porn filter idea seems to be more about protecting teens’ and women’s innocence than achieving change in our UN-denounced sexist culture, or achieving something for those most affected by porn-the actors, directors, scriptwriters, etc in the industry. It’s all about aesthetics, not about rights or lived experiences. It’s the idea of sex being incompatible with-and harmful to- ‘the family’-whatever that phrase means, because I’m betting it doesn’t include families which David Cameron disapproves of and is trying to destroy (single parent families and families on benefits).

Image source: www.moodsaplenty.wordpress.com

 

This is respectability politics gone mad. It’s hypocrisy gone mad. And as I previously wrote, it raises a lot of practical problems and cultural questions. And worst of all, the government can’t even be bothered to sell us something more believable to make us accept its Orwellian nightmareIt’s the ultimate insult to our intelligence.

Undercover Police Spies Committed Rape

In Scots law, pretending to be someone else or lying about your identity to get sex is rape. Which means that undercover police having relationships and families with the activists they were spying on was rape. (It may also constitute lying about the purpose of the sex act, which is also rape under Scots law, though this point may be harder to argue.)

In the US, undercover police posing as clients have sex with sex workers then immediately arrest them for prostitution (which sadly is a crime in most states). Sex worker activists say this is rape. It is rape. The police don’t pay for the services. And they’re lying about their identity. And if this is rape, then UK police officers having sex with activists was rape.

But what makes the UK police even more reprehensible than the US police is the fact that they had long term relationships and even children with their victims-meaning that the psychological damage to the victims and children when they discovered that their “missing”, long searched for partners and fathers had never existed was far greater.

Using sex to get information is of course nothing new. It was done in WW2 by British intelligence. They sent women to sleep with German soldiers and listen to their pillow talk (if I remember correctly what I read in a book about spies aged 14…yes I was an ubergeek and yes I really should’ve studied international relations at uni). But these were just one night stands and so far less unethical and emotionally damaging than 2-6 year long relationships. There would’ve been much less lying about identity involved as the duration of contact was so short, and therefore the pretence might not be enough to constitute pretending to be someone else or lying about their identity under Scots Law*. The pretence basically involved nothing more than a fake name (if that) and not mentioning being a British operative. I don’t think this should be classed as rape, otherwise lying about your name or job on a one night stand would make us all rapists. We should have the right to maintain our privacy and sometimes we may have good reasons for withholding our names and occupations. But by contrast, police spies pretended for years to share activists’ political beliefs and ambitions. They cultivated fake personas and fictional pasts, even accompanying their “girlfriends” on holidays and family outings.

I’m not saying police forces definitely ordered their officers to have sex with the activists, or that the officers necessarily meant to use sex to get access or information-perhaps it was personal attraction. But it was still rape. If it was casual sex used against terrorists I personally wouldn’t have a single problem with it. Why? Because we use sex for ulterior and covert motives pretty frequently. Sleeping with your boss to get a promotion. Using sex to lure someone into a more serious relationship. To get favours. To get someone on your side. Teens might use it to boost their popularity. Even using sex to get access or information might occassionally have its uses in civilian life. We don’t think of any of this as rape. Even pretending to like someone to get sex isn’t seen as rape and I don’t think it should be. So if civilians aren’t committing rape by using casual sex for ulterior motives, why can’t the state use it against terrorists or foreign agents (who, unlike civilians, have likely been warned against such tactics and have actually signed up for a life of being screwed with by the state/other states). Of course, police should avoid even using casual sex on civilians. But using long-term relationships means tricking someone into having sex with you and into loving you- or, rather, into loving a nonexistent person. It means having children who love a nonexistent parent (at least until deployment ends and they disappear).

Of course, rape wasn’t the only crime being committed here. The undercover operations may have resulted in wrongful convictions and Scotland Yard spied on Stephen Lawrence’s family. As the public investigation progresses, we’ll learn more.

The big question is whether Mark Kennedy and the other police officers were told to have relationships with the activists-meaning it is UK police policy to commit rape-or whether these undercover officers acted of their own accord, which would mean it was just their personal misconduct. The media tends to assume that the police formed relationships to get information but as yet it’s unclear if this is true. The officers might simply have been attracted to the activists or wanted to keep them emotionally dependent on them for personal gratification instead of policing-related reasons.

 

 

*The law in question came into effect in 2009 so even if it did constitute rape under current law, it wouldn’t have been legally recognised as rape at the time. And it would’ve fallen under the jurisdiction of French, German and possibly English law.

The Prochoice Litmus Test

 

Photo credit: Facebook/Josie Cunningham

Photo credit: Facebook/Josie Cunningham

 

First published on Cliterati on 30/4/14 as ‘Josie Cunningham: The litmus test of what it means to be prochoice’

 

Unless you don’t pay any attention to internet culture, you’ll have heard of Josie Cunningham. The model, escort and mum of two sparked a Fifties-style outbreak of outraged pearl-clutchery when she told the Sunday Mirror she was having an abortion. Big news, huh? Woman Gets Abortion. But what people- yes, even pro-choicers- were against was the fact that she was getting an abortion to further her career (by getting a chance to appear on Big Brother). Yes, now you can apparently call yourself “pro-choice” even if you’re against abortions if you don’t agree with the reason for abortion. Gone are the days when “pro-choice” meant supporting abortions if the woman, trans man or non-binary person wants one. Nope, now it just means you’re anti-choice without being 100% anti-choice; many anti-choicers aren’t 100% anti-choice-most make an exception for the life of the mother or rape.

 

As you’ll have noticed, the Mirror article is littered with anti-choice rhetoric like “unborn child”, and it’s a very scathing piece which is ignorant of UK abortion law. But of course media hate isn’t surprising. Josie Cunningham was always going to be a target. Even not counting the fact that she’s most famous for her controversial boob job, the toxic combination of her career, age and gender present an irrestible media bullseye: Cinderella, you shall be turned into our bimbo! This is because Cunningham transgresses several patriarchal rules. Firstly, she’s a sex worker, and most of our media is whorephobic. By glamour modelling she trangresses patriarchal norms of the chaste maternal woman. Then she’s a young mother- making her a member of two stigmatised groups. Then, by going public, she’s being confident and assertive- something women aren’t traditionally meant to be. Her statement to the Mirror that she wants to be famous for herself, not famous for having a footballer’s baby, is a further break with the passive wife and mother (or WAG) role. The potential fathers of the foetus are high achievers. Therefore her traditional role is as their support.

 

And then there’s the middle class anxieties over a surgeon buying sexual services and possibly impregnating a “lower class” woman- a hooker, no less. Cue the monocle-dropping! Cunningham’s situation shoves in our faces the fact that respectable, highly educated people buy sex and have children with the people we marginalise and despise. And let’s not forget the anxiety that the determination and career-oriented scheming of a young woman stirs in the minds of older people, who look at her and see a togetherness they didn’t possess at that age. As our life spans and retirement ages go up, the young are increasingly seen as tech-savvy competitors instead of the proteges or successors they might’ve been a few decades ago. It doesn’t take a recruitment consultant to work out that a woman who can trick the NHS into giving her a boob job, fulfil her modelling dreams and achieve more fame than most of us by age 23 is probably someone you want to watch out for.

 

The odd thing is, it’s the reason for her choice that angers those so-called “pro-choicers”. It would’ve been fine if Cunningham had aborted because she didn’t want another kid. It would’ve been fine if she’d been guided by traditional norms into aborting simply because she wasn’t sure who the father of the foetus is (it’s either a footballer friend or a surgeon who was an escort agency client). Apparently, fame, earning a lot of money to make a better life for her children, and further lucrative deals aren’t a good enough reason to have an abortion. That’s kind of interesting as it raises the question: what is a good enough reason?Not many women stand to lose as much from having a baby as Josie Cunningham does. Apparently, these days women should only abdicate their baby-squirting maternal role for the ‘right’ reasons-being a nice middle class girl thing, like lawyer or doctor- and anything too capitalist is not a ‘right’ reason. Respectability politics, innit. As Georgia Lewis points out in this excellent blog, if you’re okay with a lawyer having an abortion because of her career, you have to be okay with Josie Cunningham’s decision. But “because I want to” should always be reason enough.

 

 

The whole outrage on this story is riddled with slut-shaming snobbery and ignorance of NHS abortions.If you’re prochoice, you won’t object to a woman who has an unplanned pregnancy having an abortion,” says Georgia Lewis. Josie Cunningham’s story raises all sorts of questions about employment rights, motherhood, capitalism, celebrity, women’s rights and specifically how pregnant women are treated by employers. Why isn’t Cunningham allowed on TV while pregnant? That’s the big question. But these debates have been ignored. Instead, a sexist attack on Cunningham (with classist and whorephobic elements) is all that’s happening. She’s all of our hates rolled into one: the scrounger, the young mum, the sex worker, the vapid, stupid celebrity, the slut. We hate our bimbos- but even more, we love to hate them.

 

The abuse in comments and on Josie Cunnigham’s Facebook page by anti-choicers is no surprise. But it’s very, very worrying that the prochoicers have joined in (sometimes with arguments as ludicrous as ‘some people can’t have kids, so she should’ – never mind the fact she’s had two, plus five miscarriages.) It’s worrying because Nadine Dorries MP and Jeremy Hunt have both tried to limit abortion. And this kind of anti-choice-in-pro-choice-clothing thing can only be a good thing for anti-choicers and anti-choice politicians. This could all have very real consequences for pregnant women, trans men, intersex and non-binary people seeking abortions.

 

[I]f a woman is in a desperate position enough to beg for an abortion than her mental health is already at risk,” says Nicole Walsh, mental health activist and founder of Succession, a nonprofit organisation that helps students living with mental health issues achieve their ambitions. If pro-life groups make further restrictions to abortions then those with mental health problems or risks to their mental health will be at a huge [risk]. As they will be under the judgement of such groups. Like their abortions their mental health will come under the moral questioning of unqualified non-professionals who will choose for them whether or not they deserve the abortion and then shame them when they have problems parenting….Women with un intended pregnancy are four times more likely to suffer from postpartum depression twelve months after birth…The problem here is that it is nearby impossible to hear from women who will admit that they went through with unwanted pregnancies and are or have been struggling.”

 

The academic literature certainly seems to prove Walsh right, as in this article by the Transnational Family Research Institute.

But what about the trauma caused by abortions that the anti-choicers keep warning us about? Many pro life groups advertise that abortion can cause post-traumatic stress disorder – or post abortion stress syndrome. This has absolutely no medical grounding,” says Walsh. “Whilst abortion is very difficult for many- the sense of relief many feel is very real.
Unfortunately many of the stories of PASS come from women who’s only option was a medical late term abortion and do not come from those with unwanted pregnancies. PASS has little to no real scientific backing and is still used by pro life groups to shame and scare women who want abortions.”

 

A 2010 study completely debunked the theory of post abortion stress syndrome and this 2009 academic paper claims the syndrome is fabricated by anti-choice (pro life) groups. But even if it existed, preventing possible trauma by causing the real trauma of forced carrying and birth would not be a justification for denying abortions, especially when harmful substances like alcohol, cigarettes and junk food are permitted. Somehow people never seem to get that upset about the Pill even though it can sometimes cause abortion.

 

Whether you’re pro-choice or anti-choice, and whether you personally approve or disapprove of her choice, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Josie Cunningham is the litmus test for all of us who like to think of ourselves as pro-choice.

 

 

Teen Mothers Speak: Stigma, Misogyny-And The Failure Of Feminism

 

First published on Cliterati on 7/4/14.

Teen parents- especially teenage mothers- are stigmatised.

Pregnant girls are viewed as either poor immoral victims who need fixing, or manipulating devious sluts who need punishing,” says Prym Face, Telegraph blogger, researcher, former young mother and founder of Promoting Respect for Young Mothers. “Support for teen mums is sometimes couched in a context of changing and teaching them, rather than listening to what they want. The notion of being a ‘teenager’ does not sit well with our ideals of ‘motherhood’, so the term becomes a social construction. We don’t use ‘teenage’ to describe young carers, or young offenders or any other people professionally, yet teenage mother has continued to be used to label young mothers, reinforcing stereotypes and stigma. The reality is that young mums have to work hard to create their own paths and scripts, often with very little support. And then when their life isn’t the car crash it was meant to be they are told they are the exception to the rule!”

We all know this. When was the last time your gaze lingered over that fourteen year old pushing her pram? Were you surprised to discover a successful twentysomething whom you know actually has a child? I do these things. I do them even though I know that as a feminist I’m not meant to. I do them even though I know that the surprise and othering comes from the stigma. Just because I don’t feel disgusted by teen mothers doesn’t mean that my reactions, though internal, prop up society’s disgust. The BBC recently reported on the stigma- as if we needed them to tell us it exists. As a feminist what interests me is the wider issues of how feminism can be inclusive of and help fight for the rights of adolescent and young mothers, the reasons behind the stigma, and how the lived experience of stigma impacts on some of the most powerless people in our society.

Lucy V Hay is a script editor, author of two books and was previously a teacher. But the mere fact of having once been a young mum means people judge her educational status and career goals. “ If they see me with my son (himself a teenager now), they will assume I am badly educated, on benefits, a scrounger,” she says. “[T]oo often the subtext is, ‘I would have thought you were too posh/too clever to get knocked up as a teenager’. But it can happen to anyone who has sex — at any age!!…Sometimes people are openly admiring and say it’s great I have still achieved and I appreciate the sentiment, but again it’s that subtext: often they see me as achieving *despite* my son, when the reality is, I have achieved despite society’s lack of support and even blatant sabotage.”

[M]edical professionals have been some of the worst for me, even becoming blatantly hostile to me on occasion. Teachers are usually fine, though a couple have treated me like an idiot or as if I’m hysterical or whatever; I soon put them straight – I’m a trained teacher myself, for God’s sake! Of other parents, women have been the worst to be honest; Dads usually barely notice my age, but the Mums at the school gates have in the past been openly aggressive to me […] It’s the age-old chestnut of women doing patriarchy’s job for it by policing other women I reckon. I learned a long time ago to NEVER look at any other woman at the school gates or in the street long when with my kids, for fear of confrontation. It’s smile, avert eyes quickly — and only strike up friendships if *the other woman* initiates it.”

But it’s not just marginalisation and social rejection that we use to punish young women for conceiving or for choosing not to have abortions. We actually withold vital medical care from them, too. “I had severe mental health issues as a young person and I was not taken seriously by medical professionals at all. The help offered to postnatal mothers was not offered to me, despite my repeated attempts to get help. It never needed to get as far as it did, yet I was patronised constantly, told ‘Oh we all get down after having a baby, dear’ and given a pat on the head and prescribed some antidepressants and sent on my way[...]Yet when I had a baby at the “right” age…everyone was much more interested in me. Funny, that. It’s like we reward women for being “good” and withdraw everything when they’re ‘not’.”

I’ve always considered the stigma against teenage pregnancy and young motherhood to be related to, or a form of, slut shaming and misogyny more generally. But I’m not a young mother so what would I know? When I asked Lucy, though, she does share this view: “I have no doubt the stigma against young mothers is an intense dislike of teenage sexuality, especially young women’s – so yes, it’s connected to misogyny. Young women who have sex young, who have babies or abortions are considered “tainted” or “spoiled goods” and that’s just disgusting. Also, the double standard is ludicrous: contrast the negativity of names like ‘slut’, ‘bike’ etc with ‘stud’ and ‘Jack the lad’!”

Tracy Engelbrecht, founder of the South African social support organisation Young Mom Support, still gets asked questions 21 years after she became pregnant. Questions like “I get that you love him, but I’m sure you wish he wasn’t born, hey? I’m sure you wouldn’t want your daughter to be a teen mom, would you?” People also tell her “You’re not like ‘those other’ teen moms. You’re the exception” and “It’s good that you’ve made the best of a bad situation,” “I’m sure you think you’re happy, but you could have been so much more,” and of course “At your age, you should be *insert-debauched-activity-here*”. Through her work with young mothers, as well as her own experience of young motherhood, she understands just how damaging the stigma can be. “A mother who feels encouraged and valued in her parenting will always do a better job than one who feels judged and vilified by her community. Every parent needs support, no matter their age. If we insist on treating teen parenting as a punishment for sexual activity, we will continue deal with:


a) children raised by parents who hate themselves

b) the consequences of unsafe, illegal abortions instead of safe, legal terminations in a medical setting

c) babies abandoned and dumped at birth because the mother is too afraid to reach out for help. (this is a HUGE problem in SA and happens every day).”

As an intersectional feminist, I feel that the mainstream feminist campaigns have done little to address the stigma against young mothers or even understand their lived experiences and issues. Reproductive rights and reproductive justice seem to revolve around the availibility of abortion and contraception. In the UK where women over the age of 12 can have free abortions and contraception without parental consent, it appears (to me, at this time) that the reproductive right to have a baby while you’re a teen is more threatened than other reproductive rights. The stigma against young mothers is ludicrous. Everyone thinks teen births are skyrocketing when actually the conception rate for under-18s is at its lowest level in 40 years. Teen motherhood has been falling since the 1970s. In the 1950s teenage pregnancy was far more common than it is now, but was not seen as a social problem as long as the parents married before the birth, and teen marriage was tolerated.

So what can we, the childless young people and the older parents, do to stop the stigma against adolescent and young mums (and dads)?

Well first up, it would be great if young women could walk around with their kids without hostility and even open aggression directed at them!” Lucy says. “Just smile for God’s sake, it costs nothing – and stop staring. It’s just a baby, not the Antichrist. Secondly, consider WHY you find teen mothers so distasteful: if it’s because you don’t like your taxes paying their benefits, ask yourself why that’s such a big deal to you when your taxes also pay for really nasty shit like bombs. If it’s because you think that teen mother won’t do anything with her life now, again, consider this: a) how do you know she won’t and not ‘pay back’ those benefits by contributing to society? and b) why isn’t raising a child ‘contributing to society’ anyway? The birth rate is going down, remember. Most of us grow up to be useful members of society.”

You can find Lucy V Hay on Vizify, on Facebook, at Bang2Write.com or follow her on Twitter.

Prym Face is the founder of the Prym Face website, blogs for the Telegraph and is on Twitter.

Young Mom Support can be found here, or follow Tracy Engelbrecht on Twitter.

 

Job Centre Mole: The Second Interview

First published on Guerilla Policy on 20/3/14.

In November 2013 I interviewed the DWP whistleblower known as the Jobcentre Mole, who used Twitter to expose corruption and advise DWP victims. In the interview the Mole revealed the existence of sanctions bonuses and competition between JobCentres to sanction the most people. Now another whistleblower who tweets from the @JobcentreMole account tells his story, revealing that job centres use sanctions to reduce the number of JSA claimants and make it look like unemployment is falling. (All emphases mine).

Your partner Mole revealed that advisors are given bonuses for sanctioning and there is a list system to force Job Centres to compete with each other to sanction the most people. Could you describe when you saw bonuses being given out or when you saw advisors being blamed for not sanctioning enough jobseekers?

Staff were getting marked as ‘must improve’…because they had not [sanctioned enough jobseekers].”

Well, there is an annual bonus payment in place and it is supposed to be performance related. Basically staff have two reviews per year, an interim & then a final about every six months. Staff are “reviewed” on their performance over the previous 6 months by their line managers. The final reviews will be coming up shortly, btw. The reviews are basically conversations about what you have achieved over the period, evidence you supply of examples of good customer service, say. The line manager then makes an assessment and gives you a performance marking: Excellent, Good or Must Improve.

Excellent and Good means you will be paid a bonus. There are mainly 2 staff grades in a JCP office which deal with customers. Band B staff mainly do the signing part and administration support. Band C staff are mainly advisors or line managers to band B’s. Band C are generally thought of as being a junior manager grade, god help us as this is where most of the dead wood is, & the grade above! The bonus payments are approx £360 & £520 for B and C respectively, so we are really talking about a fortune here when the head of DWP Robert Deveraux allegedly was paid a £20K bonus.

6 months ago band B & C staff were getting marked as “must improve” and it is true to say that many band C staff admitted that it was because they had not done sufficient DMA action on jobseekers. (DMA is basically instigating the sanctions). Here though is the stupidity of this system, when staff were asking the line managers how many DMA referrals they had to do the answer was “there is no target”.

I must explain here that the grading system was being screwed with by senior managers as there were rumours that they were trying to cut the number of bonuses paid due to media focus. So the ordinary staff member got it in the neck again, a lower than inflation pay rise for 4 years, and now a bar raising exercise to attain a meagre bonus.

As you can imagine morale is very low in the offices, so much so that the managers are setting up work groups to try and find ways for staff to engage with the department. This is the truth, if you wrote it as part of a comedy script people would say you were mad.

At all staff meetings DMA is always mentioned, the number of actively seeking or the number of refusing employment, always mentioned along with being told that our off flow targets are going thru the roof. As though we can’t make the connection that it is DMA which is generating the false impression that unemployment is falling and employment is rising!

Anyone sanctioned still has to attend to sign as they have to sign for their National Insurance contributions. So each offices register will look on paper as though it is reducing, but the number of people attending each day isn’t dropping! Talk about Orwell’s ministry of truth!

I must say that in my office, we are not told about neighbouring offices sanction rates. I can see that it would go on as some managers have an agenda all their own. Civil Servants are supposed to be non political, but I have heard managers quoting popular political sound bytes and this culture is obviously filtering down to the front line staff.

It was a project that led you and the other Mole to set up the @JobcentreMole Twitter account. Was the project something you felt was unfair to jobseekers?

I have heard and read statements which senior management have issued which have mimicked the politicians’ statements.”

My self and the other staff member worked on an initiative together for about [Slutocrat has chosen to redact this information to protect the identity of the Moles] and became friends. He has a longer service record than I have, and he would deal with the questions regarding the conditionality and regulations. I am more for combing the Internet finding stories in the media which highlight the departments incompetence. Due to unforeseen circumstances my friend is unable to contribute to the account at this time.

We did not start the Jobcentremole account because we were disillusioned, the feeling we had was that there was a need for it. We were under the impression that there were no other whisleblower accounts, fortunately we have been proved incorrect. I just simply want people to realise that there are staff who work in jobcentres who do actually care about people. One of the biggest issues at the moment for me is that civil servants are supposed to be non political but, I have heard and read statements which senior management have issued which have mimicked the politicians statements. Phrases like “the end of something for nothing” & “a stricter benefit regime” are being used regularly by staff who should know better. Please, be under no illusions, JCP are solely wanting people to “sign off” the unemployment register and they are not interested in why they do it, I personally think there is a serious unmentioned campaign to frustrate people off benefits.

How do advisors and managers keep jobseekers in the dark about their rights to appeal, get travel funding, etc?

There is a culture of almost secrecy within the department, the steer from managers being that we wouldn’t tell people directly about [funds to help them get into work]”

In the dark? More like deliberately withholding information about services specifically introduced to remove a barrier to a jobseeker getting back into work. You are quite right about the travel funding also, many districts have local arrangements with transport companies which were introduced to help people looking for work reduce travel costs. You are asking why isn’t this information displayed in a prominent position in all jobcentres? Well think about this … When was the last time you ever saw a media campaign or advertisement informing the public about what benefits they may be entitled to? It just isn’t done is it? The department never advertises any benefits. The closest we get at the moment is information about claiming Jobseekers Allowance online. This is being done to force people to claim online, to save money & to pave the way for digitalising our services.

So similarly, there is a culture of almost secrecy within the department, the steer from managers being that we wouldn’t tell people directly about ADF (advisor discretion fund) a fund of money which can be used to help remove a particular barrier to work. Then there is Flexible Support Fund (FSF) another source of cash which can help pay for things like training or travel costs, again with the intention of helping people back into a job. We would only inform about these if a jobseeker asked about them directly. So we don’t tell & they won’t know!

There used to be the return to work credit, which was a payment of £100 for a single person or £250 for a person with a family, which was paid to someone signing off into work. The intention being that the payment would help someone until they were paid their first wage. The coalition scrapped it, so now lots of people worry about accepting a job with a monthly salary as there is no support for them.

Also to anyone reading this who is or has to attend appointments which are not on their signing day, claim your travel expenses!

The appeals process is in place for people to use, again no information about it is ever displayed in an office. One thing I will say here, a lot of buildings aren’t owned by the DWP they are leased from organisations like Trillium. This is going to sound crazy but there are rules about what can and can’t be displayed on the walls, and what size and shape it can be!

It really is like working in a parallel universe at times, you have to leave your common sense at the door.

Have you seen anyone being sanctioned unfairly?

A sanction can be imposed for…being referred to a vancancy…and hasn’t provided proff that they’ve applied for it”

I’m not an Advisor or a Work Coach as the role is being renamed. I’m therefore not privy to the circumstances behind a sanction. The commonest reason for a sanction is ASE or not Actively Seeking Employment. This is the jobseeker not providing enough evidence of active Jobseeking. Previously, ppl set out the steps they were going to take to find work in a contract between themselves and the Jobcentre called a JSAG (Jobseekers Agreement) The sanction for ASE is applied when a jobseeker hasn’t shown or taken enough steps to find a job.

A sanction can be imposed for RE which is refusing employment. Usually a jobseeker is referred to a vacancy, mainly on the horrible Universal Jobmatch and hasn’t provided proof that they have applied for it.

A sanction can also be applied for missing a mandatory appointment. The JC take the view that a person is not working so they will be able to attend an appointment at any time. When a jobseeker does not attend a doubt is raised about a persons availability to take up employment, this is usually not done to someone who misses just one appointment. It is generally jobseekers who persistently miss appointments who are sanctioned. A form has to be issued if someone misses one appointment and another is re booked, this form warns the jobseeker that they MUST attend, on time, or it will affect their benefit.

I think jobseekers have been given Directions to do an action, like create a CV, and this is beyond their capability. This often resultsin a sanction, and in some cases I think that this can be unfair. What you have to remember is that the Jobcentre deals with all the spectrum of society, and it is widely acknowledged that some people do not & will not ever work. This group have no health issues or mitigating circumstances so, is it right that they can stick two fingers up to society and say “I want benefit but I’m not prepared to meet the conditions to be eligible for it”?

 

Objectification: The Cause Of Slut Shaming

objectification

First published on www.cliterati.co.uk on 8/2/14.

“Objectification.” It’s a word we hear all too often. The charge of “objectification” is levelled at films, the news media, lyrics, art, and of course porn. Sometimes we intersectional or sex positive feminists might feel like it’s a catch-all term which silences those who have sex industry careers- especially since it is used to silence sex workers and take away our freedom to consume pornography. No wonder some women feel the word is overused or that objectification doesn’t exist. But the irony is that for all the rage against the sex machine, radical feminists are less vocal about the way objectification impacts on women’s basic freedoms.

objectification1

I’m talking about the freedom to be a single mother. A teenage mother. A sex worker. The freedom to have poly relationships. To be single and “older” without beng pitied or called a spinster. To openly and unashamedly consume porn. And, dependent on region or area, the freedom to be a nonvirgin.

Think about it: why are “sluts”, sex workers or even nonvirgins persecuted? Because women are seen as objects valuable only for our bodies. Valued for how “new” we are. The more partners we’ve had, the more “second-hand” and therefore worthless we become. In the USA, abstinence “education” lessons include teachers using a strip of sticky tape or a chewed up piece of gum to represent a girl getting dirty and unlovable by having sex. The teacher sticks the tape to a boy’s arm and then demonstrates how the tape won’t stick to a second or third boy’s skin. The girl is dirty- and that’s why kids girls should stay new pure. And who hasn’t heard of honour killings as a result of a girl being found not to be a virgin? Egyptian women buy fake hymens from China even if they are inexperienced, just to make sure they bleed on their wedding night. The government has criticised this enabling of immorality, but the Chinese aren’t that much better off; nonvirgins are stigmatised there too. Whether it’s Muslims in Egypt, Christians in America or atheists in China, the idea is the same: women are valued only as pieces of fresh meat.

Andrea Dworkin described how pornography reduces women to their genitals through objectification. But objectification has the power to do this without the vehicle of pornography. Why else is a piece of membrane valued more than character, brains, even beauty? Valued so much that women are murdered over their lack of it? Slut shaming and whorephobia are simply less intense versions of the ideology behind honour killing, and they also equate the whole woman with her genitals: how often she has sex, in what circumstances, with whom, her attitude towards it.

As for lone and teen mothers, they’re often stigmatised as “sluts”, which shows that the stigmas against lone and teen mothers are at least related to slut shaming even if they’re not just an extension of, or form of, slut shaming. If a woman is an object, she should be with a man, and this idea of a free, autonomous woman might be what makes some people uncomfortable. The same goes for “old maids” and “spinsters” who’ve been “left on the shelf”- bachelors are cool and desirable but the older single woman is seen as desperate for a hubby and kids. I don’t think I really have to explain how misogynists- and a lot of society- sees poly and openly kinky women: If you’re an object, you don’t get to have sexual agency or take control of your sexuality (being poly or kinky). And you certainly don’t get to objectify men by consuming pornography or using men for pleasure (casual sex or how some people see being poly).

That’s why women are assumed not to be pornography consumers- and sometimes stigmatised if they are. We are objects, things that exist to have stuff done to us. We’re not supposed to have sexual agency, to seek out pornography and want to do things, to be subjects or autonomous agents. And of course objectification, which leads to slut shaming, brands us sluts for watching porn.

We’re not real people, so if we’re queer it’s hot, it’s a male fantasy, because our sexuality isn’t “real”. We can be desirable as sex objects in revealing outfits, but also simultaneously despised because we’re “sluts” for daring to bare an inch of skin. We’re supposed to be available but if we are, we’re worth less- hence the whorephobia and slut shaming.

And that’s where whorephobia, slut shaming, and stigma against teen and lone mothers stems from. If women weren’t objectified, we couldn’t be equated with our genitals and thereby evaluated on the basis of our sexual activity. Slut shaming and whorephobia could not exist, and the stigma of lone and teen mothers would exist in a different form, if at all. The contribution of objectification to slut shaming/whorephobia, limited family choice freedoms, and limited sexual freedoms is not recognised enough by mainstream feminism. There is a disproportionate focus on pornography and the sex industry while the more immediate and daily-life effects of objectification are not recognised as a form of objectification.

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