I was on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour yesterday, talking about self defence and sexual violence. You can listen to the programme here for the next year or so.
I am delighted to share that as of October 1st I will be starting a PhD at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, University of the West of England, Bristol. Those who know me will no doubt be entirely unsurprised by the fact that my chosen area of study is at the intersection of multiple fields: politics, culture, gender and sexuality, fandom and the digital world. In my fully-funded PhD project, I will investigate fanfiction narratives and discourses of consent and sexuality in a political context.
After over ten years as a technology manager in the private sector, it was time for a change in direction. I have enjoyed my career so far, and I have learned a lot of from it. I have had the opportunity to lead business-critical projects, manage relationships with key business partners, analyse and leverage retail data to directly increase sales. I've recruited some great people, and I've had the opportunity to help my employer become a fantastic place to work for LGBT employees. I've worked with some amazing people, whom I will miss.
I am almost at a loss for words about how much I am looking forward to this exciting new challenge. I left my heart in research and academia, and I am incredibly privileged to be able to go back to find it. My PhD project combines many of the different strands of my interests, from the interaction between politics and culture, through LGBT issues and violence against women, to digital rights. My experience in these areas will inform my research, and I intend to continue to be an active campaigner in these areas in a variety of ways.
I will probably be fairly quiet over the next few weeks as I pack up my life and move to the other end of the country, but I expect this blog will very soon start reflecting my academic interests and research, in addition to the mix of topics you are already used to. I very much hope that you will come along for the ride.
So many times as an activist I have run into the conflict between pragmatism and idealism. One of the more useful people on the doomed Yes to Fairer Votes campaign for instance was Nigel Farage - a man whom otherwise I find thoroughly despicable. Another example is my work on QUILTBAG+ issues in the workplace. It's easy, when confronted with a corporate environment, to tackle the "low-hanging fruit" of lesbian and gay issues first and save what a friend of mine calls "the gold-plated conversation" for a "later" that somehow never comes.
I've been guilty of this myself. Last year I very nearly stood up in front of an LGB conference to talk about bisexual issues and played the respectability card of "Well, I am the good monogamous kind of bisexual." I was saved from myself at the last minute by another friend.
Read more at The F Word.
I left the country of my birth at the age of 10. For six years I was only tolerated in my new home because my father had a work visa. My mother, too, was in Austria on a family visa with no right to work. It is telling what I remember from those years. My father's present to my mother for our first Christmas in Austria was a bank card allowing her to access his account. My parents didn't often go through really rough patches in their marriage but the one time they did, when they didn't speak to each other for two months and it looked like they would be getting divorced, my mother asked me if I wanted to stay in Austria with my father or return to Bulgaria with her. I was 11, maybe 12. I knew even then that if she wanted to leave my father she had no other choice - and that I would not go with her. I remember my mother struggling to learn German with very little social contact, and then struggling again to get a work permit. I know what she bought with her first own paycheque in Austria: a dishwasher. My mother, a research chemist originally, is now on her fourth career as a result of our migration; and while her current work is reasonably skilled and highly-paid, it is nothing like her first career.
Read more at The F Word.
ETA: You now also read this article in Polish on Codziennik Feministyczny. Many thanks to translator Robert Kielawski.
Last week saw the publication of Julie Bindel's new book, "Straight Expectations", partly based on a survey which deliberately and specifically excluded bisexual people. Ruth Hunt, Acting Chief Exec of Stonewall, tweeted on Monday morning,
Finished @bindelj Straight Expectations. Don't agree with everything said (and wouldn't our world be dull if we did?) but an important book.— Ruth Hunt (@ruth_hunt) July 7, 2014
Read more at The F Word.
I am guest blogging on The F-Word this month. My first piece was on our society's obsession with the reputation of alleged sex offenders. Trigger warnings apply for the piece and most of the links in it for discussion of sexual violence.
It's been an interesting couple of weeks for sexual assault and the law. Last week Radio 4 ran an edition of the Moral Maze titled "Should the accused as well as the victim be given anonymity in the trial of sex crimes?" Panellists fell over themselves to explain how the legal system was tilted in favour of alleged victims of sexual assault, how the accused's reputation was in tatters forever even if they were acquitted. (As I have written elsewhere, there are good statistical reasons for that.) This week has of course seen the conviction and sentencing of Rolf Harris on 12 counts of indecent assault. And there it is again, that phrase, "Your reputation lies in ruins", this time uttered by the judge himself.
The New Statesman today had yet another run-in with Poe's Law. Caroline Criado-Perez apparently thinks that suggesting women learn self defence is the opposite of victim blaming.
I happen to have some personal expertise on this matter, being both a survivor of several sexual assaults and the holder of several martial arts qualifications, including a black belt in kickboxing. For the sake of accuracy, I should point out that the assaults predate my learning martial arts, but there is no correlation, let alone causation here. So let me tell you a few of the things I've learned over ten years of practicing martial arts.
- I am not a small woman and I possess a fair amount of physical strength. Particularly when I'm training regularly, I have the muscle mass that allows me to pack quite a punch. Even when I'm not training regularly, my technique is good enough to make my kicks and punches quite effective. (This is something I am proud of.)
- Men tend to be stronger than me. Obviously, most of the men I practise martial arts with are likely to be stronger. But often even the newbies have more muscle mass and a stronger grip than me. I may be able to kick head-high, but if they really want to hurt me, they can easily do so. (This took me a while to realise, and still upsets me.)
- Martial arts is not the same as self defence. I have done both, and they are very different things. Self defence moves tend to be simpler and more practical (if your instructor is any good). Martial arts moves have more potential to truly hurt - if you can get them right. Having said that, sometimes the difference is as subtle as your hand position: a fist indicates an offensive move; a strike with an open hand is legally classed as a slap and is therefore defensive. If I actually landed a martial arts kick or punch, even in the heat of the moment of a self defence situation, I'd probably get done for assault. (The reader is invited to make their own comparisons to men who "in the heat of the moment" can't stop themselves from raping.)
- While self defence moves are simpler, self defence is still fucking hard. Not the moves themselves - they tend to be straightforward. What's hard about self defence is practising it to the point where it's muscle memory - where you don't think about it, you just react. Not only do you need to be able to just react, you need to be able to get yourself out of the situation. That means disable your attacker and either run or call the police. You need to be able to deal with all sorts of eventualities. How good's your wrestling, if you both end up on the ground? How good are you at continuing to fight while injured? (I know for a fact that I'm not there.)
- And then there's the small matter of the practicality of self defence when dressed for a night out. I have yet to see (and I have occasionally looked) a self defence class that asks participants to wear high heels and tight skirts; or for that matter to show up tipsy; or to practise in anything other than a safe, well-lit environment on a flat and even (and sometimes cushioned) floor. Any and all of these factors are likely to affect how you react, even if you have practised to the point where you can do the moves in your sleep. (Reality, alas, bites.)
Armed with this knowledge, let's think our way through a few scenarios. [Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse]
You're a 15-year-old girl. The man who's abusing you is your uncle. You have trusted this man your entire life. He's the one you ran to every time you had a fight with your parents as a child. "If you don't like it," he says, "all you have to do is slap me. I'll stop." Yes, that young woman is me, minus the martial arts training. But all that was "required" was a slap, right? You don't need any training for that. I couldn't do it - physically and mentally I couldn't get myself to do it. And do you think he would have stopped if I had? Even if I had had any martial arts of self defence experience, my mind was so disassociated from my body I couldn't actually feel anything, let alone lash out and hit him.
Let's do another one. You're a black belt in karate. The man forcing himself on you is your husband. Your children are in the next room. What do you do?
Another. You fall asleep at a party wedged on a sofa and wake up to someone pulling your underwear off and pushing your legs apart. What self defence techniques would you apply?
Another. You're walking home from the bus stop after a night out. You've had a couple of drinks, you're wearing high heels and a cocktail dress. Do you stop to take off your shoes before trying to kick the guy harassing you in the balls?
Another. You fight back. You use all your techniques, perfectly. You kick, you scream, you claw, you punch. You end up with a broken arm, broken jaw, and still raped, for all your trouble. How do you feel about yourself? At least you tried? Not good enough? All your fault?
I have days when I am so angry I imagine kicking in my abuser's face - in defense or in revenge, I don't particularly care. But I also know that is not an option - was never an option. I can see the attraction of trying to take control of a situation that's beyond our control; of doing things that make us feel less at the mercy of others, even if it means investing two nights a week over years and years to learn and then keep up your self defence skills. But in a world where - as Ms Criado-Perez acknowledges - our attacker is much more likely to be our uncle, our father, our brother, our partner, our friend rather than a random stranger, let's not kid ourselves that this actually makes us in any way safer.
By all means, take up martial arts. It's a great way to learn to love your body, to stay fit and healthy, to learn how to kick in your front door when it's jammed, to burn off excess energy and emotion. It's also a hell of a lot of fun. But don't feel that it will make you safer from sexual assault and street harassment; don't feel that if you are attacked you have to physically fight back for it to not be your fault; do not, even for a second, think that it is (in Ms Criado-Perez's words) a solution. To suggest otherwise is, indeed, victim blaming.
Max Clifford has been found guilty of eight counts of indecent assault. I must admit, I am surprised that the criminal justice system has finally managed to deliver justice to the victims in a high-profile sexual assault case where the perpetrator is still alive.
Of course, had the verdict gone the other way (by far the more likely outcome), we would today be treated to a parade of Clifford's friends and the man himself declaring in the media that the case was an outrage, what a lovely man the accused was, how false allegations of sexual assault should result in harsher punishments for the accusers, and how the accused's legal fees should be paid by someone else. They would be bemoaning how the accused can never clear their name as people tend to think there is "no smoke without a fire", how this terrible ordeal will forever be a stain on their life and reputation, how they had been dragged through the dirt.
I have a simple suggestion for the likes of Bill Roache and Nigel Evans (only the two most recent high-profile defendants to be acquitted of sexual assault charges) if they truly want to clear their names. Instead of grandstanding, explaining how you are the victim, sending in your friends to tell everyone how you wouldn't hurt a fly, throw your energy and considerable resources into ensuring that the criminal justice system is actually fit for purpose when it comes to sexual assault and rape cases.
Right now, regardless of the actual court verdict, statistically [US data, the UK data is similar] there simply is no smoke without a fire with regards to sexual assault allegations. The vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported, of those that are, the vast majority do not go to trial, and of those that do, the vast majority result in acquittals after the victim has effectively been put on trial and dragged through the mud. So yes, even if you are cleared of all charges, the most probable scenario is that you are guilty but got away with it, not that someone made up the allegation.
Having a criminal justice system that can actually deliver just that - justice - in sexual assault cases would therefore be in the interests of anyone who has ever been falsely accused. Lowering the odds that an acquittal means you probably did it anyway should be good news for anyone wanting to truly clear their name. I look forward to the day when Nigel Evans campaigns to make reporting of sexual assault easier, to sack judges who think it's "inevitable" for the jury to laugh during the testimony of a victim, to re-examine what kinds of "evidence" should be admissible as defence ("He's a nice bloke guv" just doesn't quite cut it), to look at whether "beyond reasonable doubt" is a sensible standard of evidence for a crime which generally happens in private between two people, and which affects about one third of the population.
Until that day, I'm afraid, there will continue to be no smoke without a fire, regardless of what conclusion the jury reaches, and I will continue to be surprised at every guilty verdict. My thoughts are with the victims and survivors of sexual assault everywhere. I believe them.
The first time I crossed a border, I was ten years old. I was in the back of my father's car, wedged in between a significant chunk of my family's earthly possessions, with the book I was reading at the time stored securely in the microwave oven at my feet. We were leaving Bulgaria for good. We were going to start a new life in Austria. I have a couple of very specific memories about that first border crossing.
I remember setting my watch to CET. And I remember my Dad telling me how he'd picked up some East German hitch-hikers in their late teens or early twenties and how crossing into Bulgaria had been the first time they had crossed time zones. He wanted me to understand what a privilege it was for me to be doing this aged ten.
I remember, in the lead-up to our emigration, my grandmother telling me how Bulgaria was the most beautiful country on earth. If you've never driven through eastern Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and western Bulgaria, there are some stunning landscapes and geographical features there. And if it wasn't for the queue and border guards and document check and strip of no-man's land and then another queue with border guards and document check, there's no way to tell whether a particular tree or rock or hill belongs to Bulgaria or to Serbia. I remember very clearly thinking how beautiful that landscape was on the "wrong" side of the border and wondering if it was okay to think that.
I don't remember crossing the Yugoslav-Hungarian border that day. What I do remember is arriving at the Austrian border at 9 o'clock that evening, July 31st 1991. My father had been living in Austria for a month already at that point, but my visa and my mother's didn't start until August 1st. The Austrian border guard was very nice about it (or at least he was the way my father translated him), but he wouldn't let us enter the country until midnight. We slept for three hours in no-man's land.
My early and mid teens were characterised by crossing borders bearing a passport that marked me out as the undesirable kind of immigrant. Travelling east, "home" ostensibly, was relatively painless. I don't know how many times I crossed those borders, collected the relevant stamps: Austria to Hungary, Hungary to whatever successor state of Yugoslavia was flavour du jour, that to Bulgaria. In cars and in coaches, sometimes relatively quickly, often after four or five hours of waiting. Travelling west remained a near-impossibility for years. Nothing came of the plan to go to Berlin to see the Reichstag wrapped by Christo - I would have needed a Schengen visa for that. I did manage to get a visa for a school trip to the UK, but not one for a yearbook editors' training event in Amsterdam. It was as if the Iron Curtain had simply moved a few hundred miles to the west.
And then I was Austrian: citizenship applied for with years to go before we met the minimum residency requirements, and granted - I suspect - based on some nebulous concept of "integration" and how well I in particular spoke the local dialect. (Thank you, former classmates who made me say "jo" instead of "ja" and wouldn't put up with my misguided attempts to speak Hochdeutsch.) I was a citizen of the European Union, of a Schengen member state. My passport gave me the right to be anywhere in Western Europe. The freedom was almost unimaginable.
Border crossings were different after that, yet for me no less noticeable. They stay with you, those borders you couldn't cross for years. There was the time I flew to Greece from Munich airport. Part of the journey to Munich involved a train that had started out in Slovenia. Schengen or not, you bet that train got checked at the German border. I was wearing branded clothes and had been on the train for two hours, rather than twelve like my fellow passengers. I was the only person in that carriage to not get asked for a passport. There was the epic "going home by train for Christmas - UK to Germany via Belgium, France and Austria" trip of 1999: only two years earlier I couldn't have dreamed of that! There were regular trips to Ireland to see my then-boyfriend, complete with getting sniffed for drugs when getting off the ferry at 7 a.m., not having slept in 24 hours. One memorable weekend shortly after the introduction of the Euro, I found myself, completely unexpectedly, going from Austria to Germany to the Netherlands and back to Germany in the space of a couple of days - no border checks and even more startlingly no currency exchanges.
Bizarrely, for a time going east became an issue. I needed a visa to study in the Czech Republic for three months. The Czech embassy in London was confused by the Austrian living in the UK with no entry stamp in her passport. In mid December, I withdrew my application in order to get my passport back, so I could travel to Germany for Christmas. A trip in person to the consulate in Bonn on one of those ungodly days between Christmas and New Year sorted it all out eventually.
These days, my more adventurous border crossings tend to be outside of Europe. I check my sense of humour at the US border. Russia - as expected - is not that different. Europe is still good for a few surprises though. Entering Schengen at Schiphol continues to be a bane of my life as I invariably get interrogated about what I'm doing there. Last time I cleared immigration at Newcastle, an Asian-looking woman got pulled out of the EU passport queue in front of me, presumably because people like her couldn't possibly be EU citizens. Perhaps my favourite recent border crossing though was an unintentional one: there is a length of road somewhere in central Europe one side of which belongs to Austria and the other to Slovenia. I like that the Iron Curtain has become a three-letter country code either side of a dotted line.
It won't have escaped people's attention that I am a queer, foreign woman. It sort of goes with the territory that occasionally, I will be exposed to microaggressions, or outright instances of harassment - on the street, in media, from friends and acquaintances, and sometimes in the workplace. Frankly, I am mouthy enough that most people who know me know to behave around me and when they slip up it's genuinely that - an honest mistake - and not intentional harassment. But over the years, with various employers, I have accumulated my fair share of "colourful workplace experiences" - from my boss making blow job jokes, to strategy deployment videos containing jokes about violence against women, to people casually informing me that something is "so gay" (and no, the fact that they rephrased it to "camp" and then "awful" did not help their case).
I want to give you an insight into what goes on in my head when I'm cheerfully going about my business and I'm suddenly blindsided by one of these things. Perhaps because in most workplaces I've worked at these instances have been mercifully few and far between, my first reaction is always one of disbelief and surprise. The workplace culture is such that it is clear these things are unacceptable, and so when someone does slip up, I tend to do a double-take and think, "Did they really just say that?" At which point my brain enters "fight or flight" mode.
That may sound slightly dramatic, but I literally have two choices here. I can say nothing and live with the knowledge that I to an extent sanctioned and enabled the behaviour in question. More likely than not, the person doesn't even realise what they said or did and that it was wrong; or if they do, they think they got away with it. Either way, they are likely to do it again - to me or to other people. Again, I am mouthy, I've been in workplaces for 15 years, I have some experience with these things and broadly speaking can look after myself. But there are people around me who either witnessed the incident or who may be exposed to similar future incidents who aren't as mouthy, haven't been around as long, or who for other reasons are more vulnerable than me. In many cases, I simply cannot let it go because I have an obligation to other people. By not challenging the bahaviour I am setting a tone where it becomes acceptable, and that's not a culture I want others to work in. Over the years, I have let a few things go - and I still remember, and regret, every single one of them.
My second choice therefore is to call out the behaviour. There are different ways to do this, and depending on the situation one may be more appropriate than another. Over the years, I have done everything from casually asking people to rephrase their comment to taking formal complaints to HR, and all of these have generally yielded good results for their respective situations. I have got company policies and promotional materials changed, I've got people to change their language and understand why something they said was inappropriate. Whatever I do though, chances are it will leave me a bit shaken (and often physically shaking), emotionally drained, and unable to focus on my work for at least a couple of hours as my brain processes the conflict.
I want to make it clear that this is what goes on in my head. But one thing I can guarantee you: that fight or flight choice is something everyone who experiences or witnesses workplace microaggressions or harassment is faced with. And there isn't a right or wrong choice here. All sorts of factors play a role in whether we choose to challenge the behaviour or not: concerns for our safety, how much the issue in question affects us personally, whether we feel the structures around us are such that our action would lead to genuine change. Neither choice is wrong. You are not wrong for "making a fuss", and neither are you wrong for "standing by". What is wrong is that we are having to make the choice in the first place - that we've been put in a situation by someone else where we are forced to pick the lesser evil out of two pretty horrible options.
Here are a few things that employers can learn from this. Firstly, if your workplace is an environment where microaggressions and harassment - on whatever grounds - thrive, your company is losing out because a significant proportion of your employees is spending time and energy either being upset by the harassment and trying to dodge it, or trying to call it our and change things. All the time and energy spent on dealing with harassment is time and energy not spent being productive. This is a lose-lose scenario - don't let it happen.
The way not to let this happen is to create a workplace culture in which harassment and microaggressions are clearly unacceptable. It's not enough to just have an HR policy gathering dust in a filing cabinet that says "Don't harass people." Start with the identity of your organisation - think about what it is that you want to stand for, and how that relates to the experiences of your employees, customers and other stakeholders. Make sure everyone knows this. Then move on to policy. Make it clear in your policies what harassment looks like - be specific, give as many different examples as you can think of, but also keep it open so people can relate their own lived experience to your policy. A clear statement in a policy that the situation I am experiencing definitely counts as harassment will give me confidence to report it. A clear statement that this is not an exhaustive list will also give me confidence to report things that fall outside it. Use your people: make sure that senior leaders are role models and set the right tone; enable people managers to set that tone in their own teams and to challenge inappropriate behaviour when they see it; train everyone on diversity and inclusion - and not just on the "legal" bits but also on the awesome bits, on why having a diverse organisation is valuable and exciting. Ensure that your values and your policies permeate every level of the organisation.
Finally, recognise that people will occasionally get things wrong - and have strong processes in place for dealing with it. The one thing that has consistently enabled me to call out inappropriate behaviour has been the certainty that it will be addressed appropriately by management and HR. The first time, that confidence comes from the company values, and policies, and training - and that's great. However if someone is encouraged by all of these to make a report, and it gets mishandled, all that credibility and confidence you'd built up vanishes in an instant. So make sure that managers and HR know how to handle issues, that they do so quickly, effectively and sensitively, and that feedback about the outcome is always given to the individual. This way, you enable everyone in your organisation to create a harassment-free workplace, and you end up with people who are motivated and focused on their work rather than on distractions.