A week in the porn debate: a numbered list of rage

1) Liberalism is utterly fucking useless when you’re addressing a situation that has arisen through thousands of years of power imbalance. It is, quite simply, the wrong tool for the job.

2) Straight men: society has privileged your sexuality above all others for thousands of years.  Like any other group experiencing a loss of power, you’re going to be pissed off at times. Please try to recognise this for what it is, rather than coming over like a drunk Boer farmer shooting the staff.

3) The right to ‘freedom of expression’ has long trumped the rights of women and girls to live their lives free from harassment, and to develop their own unmediated sexuality. Crying censorship when someone makes the tiniest attempt to redress the balance is, frankly, a bit thick. Women self-censor throughout their entire lives because they’re living in a structure that was created to disempower them.

4) If a woman dares to raise her voice against porn culture, and her website is immediately hacked to display porn, that’s gross sexual shaming. If you’re going to snigger over something like that, let’s not pretend you’re any kind of progressive.

5) Morality and ethics didn’t become irrelevant just because there’s an intellectual fashion for evidence-based policy (an ambiguous term in itself). Use of the term ‘moral panic’ often betrays an unwillingness to think about difficult ethical questions.

6) I don’t know whether a porn filter will work. It could be a complete farce; it might make things worse. I reckon a species that put humans on the moon might well be able to produce responsive filters if the resources are made available. The web is not a religion, and we do not lack agency.

A life on your knees

Today’s unveiling of a memorial to the ‘Bevin Boys’ – conscripted men who were sent down the mines during the Second World War – got me thinking about my grandfather Colwyn, who died about 20 years ago now.

Col was a wiry, grumpy old bugger who made the mistake of thinking that small children appreciate sarcasm (they really don’t). He was also an expert whistler and a champion grower of tomatoes. When courting my grandmother, Morfydd, he walked a fifteen-mile round trip every Sunday to see her.

He started work at the Wyndham Colliery in South Wales as a young newly-wed, and was quickly promoted to Safety Officer. Jobs in coal mines don’t come much more significant than that. This was in the glory days of the South Wales Miners’ Federation – the ‘Fed’, which sent so many radicalised young men to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. If you ever find yourself in the Wyndham (which is admittedly unlikely, unless you’ve got family in Nantymoel or you’ve got badly lost on the way to the Gower), you’ll find the ‘Fed stone’ – a massive boulder where unofficial union meetings were once held – set into the playing field that now covers the decommissioned slag heap.

Federation Stone, Wyndham

Federation Stone, Wyndham; photo by Mick Lobb

The seams of the South Wales coal field are notoriously narrow. Men spent their working lives bent double in knee-high water, unable to stand fully for an entire shift in the baking underground heat. In the winter, when they went to work before sunrise and came up after sundown, it meant not seeing the sun at all during the working week. Deaths, amputations and grievous injuries were known hazards – and, given his job, were Col’s responsibility when they occurred.

Col hated mining, but unfortunately for him, he was too damned good at his job. When war was declared in 1939 he asked immediately to be released so that he could sign up for the army instead, but – despite repeated requests – he wasn’t allowed to leave the pit. By the time of the miners’ strike in 1984 – the Wyndham Colliery had closed at the beginning of that year – he had long retired. But despite the economic devastation, until he died he counted the day of the pit’s closure as one of the happiest in his life. ‘It was a filthy place. No man should spend his working life on his knees.’

So I’ll raise a glass to the Bevin Boys today – but also to all the men who worked for decades in conditions most of us couldn’t withstand for more than a couple of hours. Seems to me they deserve a national memorial too.

Wyndham Colliery, Ogmore Valley

Wyndham Colliery, Ogmore Valley

Going home for Christmas

The prickling sensation that something was wrong started when I got off the train – seven months’ pregnant, lugging my big bag, waddling through the ticket barrier at the familiar suburban station. I looked for my father’s face, but instead saw my brother’s. ‘Where’s Dad?’ ‘He’s had to take Mam to the hospital.’ ‘On Christmas Eve?’

Mam barely ever went to the doctor; she certainly didn’t go to the hospital. Christmas Eve was the day of hunkering down. The front door would close to the world at mid-morning, and we would turn in on ourselves. The rest of the world could do church, or pub, or extended family, or whatever the hell it is other people do at Christmas; we didn’t really care.

‘Why is she at the hospital?’

‘These headaches she’s been having. They’re not going away. Dad’s really worried.’

We reached home – the house my parents had moved in to when Mam was pregnant with me. I walked into the kitchen and saw a packet of Mr Kipling mince pies on the side; shortcrust had never seemed so sinister. My mother was a stupendous cook, and spent the pre-Christmas week nursing syllabubs, steeping herbs, marinating steaks. And yet here was Mr Kipling, which could only mean one thing: dad had been doing the food shopping.

Looking back, that was the last time I ever went home for Christmas. At the hospital, Mam was being told that there was a shadow on her lung on the x-ray, and that she needed an MRI. In mid-January the consultant would tell her that she had Stage IV lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain: two fat tumours were causing the crashing headaches that had put a stop to her shopping. Later, she would stand in front of her wardrobe and laugh quietly, pulling packets of paracetamol out of every pocket in every piece of clothing. ‘You would have thought I would have worked out that something was up.’

‘I can’t die now. My daughter’s about to have my first grandchild.’

‘When’s the baby due?’

‘In six weeks.’

‘We might just about be able to get you there. But you won’t survive much beyond that.’

But she did. She saw her first grandchild born, and two years later she saw the second one. Of the first one: ‘This one is clever.’ Of the second: ‘This one, not so much. But he’s a pickle.’ She outlasted the consultant’s prognosis by over five years. The nurses at Charing Cross used to say: we’ve never seen a lung cancer patient with a file as fat as yours. The files are usually very thin. And Mam would laugh, and say, have you checked the name on that bag of chemo? Because there was that time that you nearly gave me someone else’s.

When I was in my twenties I adopted a runaway cat who turned out to be pregnant. As labour approached, I went around the house trying to find her a place to have the litter: all the books said, the queen will want somewhere quiet and dark, away from humans. So I opened cupboard doors, lifted up valances, showed her little spaces between pieces of furniture. And she would have a sniff, and I’d walk away and find her trotting behind me. After a while I realised that as far as she was concerned, I was her safe place – she was going to labour on me.

And now every Christmas I’m a bit like that cat. The tree is up, and the presents are bought, and the meals are planned. I’m a very lucky woman with no major troubles or worries. It’s just that I can’t go home for Christmas.

Mam 1

Three cheers for the News Quiz

It’s been an uncomfortable week for the BBC, in which it’s been asked to address the possibility that it has been institutionally remiss in ignoring both internal gossip and direct complaints about Jimmy Savile’s apparently appalling record of child sexual abuse. The BBC needs to get serious about equalities issues, and ensure that its organisational culture is above reproach; there are still too many indications that it’s failing to do this.

If any BBC executive is in search of a model of best practice, s/he might be reassured to find one very close to home. This week’s News Quiz provides an example of something that remains curiously unusual on the BBC: a broadcast segment in which the only voices heard are those of women (made even more satisfying by the story under discussion, which was Julia Gillard’s furious destruction of Tony Abbott).

It is marvellously easeful to listen to three articulate women discussing the episode, switching between anger and humour without ever straying from the essential point. There are no irksome interventions from anyone seeking ‘editorial balance’; the essential justice of Gillard’s position is simply taken as read. (The two men on the panel, Francis Wheen and Nick Doody, either remained silent throughout or were edited from the broadcast version.) And it’s difficult to imagine a male host rounding off the discussion as Toksvig did – with an angry pay-off about another hateful example of misogyny.

(You can hear the show here, with the Gillard discussion starting at 14.43 . Apologies to anyone reading this after it’s been removed from iPlayer.)

What we talk about when we talk about abortion

Another big news week in what we are pleased to call the abortion debate; Maria Miller saying she would like to see the limit reduced to 20 weeks, and Jeremy Hunt letting off what some think was a UED (unintentional explosive device) just as the Conservative Party conference is about to begin.

Just to state it upfront: I’m pro-choice, and comfortable with the 24-week limit; and yet I don’t have a problem with Conservative politicians (or anyone else) wanting to open the issue up. Polling seems to show that roughly one-third of the British population are comfortable with the current limit, one-third want it reduced, about 10 per cent are more extreme (wanting either no abortion at all, or for the current time limit to be extended). We can’t claim that the debate has yet been settled.

The national conversation about abortion in the UK seems to me to be utterly borked, for two main reasons.

Abortion isn’t like anything else

Given that most of us aren’t professional moral philosophers, our tendency when discussing ethical issues is to reach for a comparator and draw parallels. When it comes to abortion, this just isn’t possible; there is no other situation that involves weighing up the respective ‘rights’ of an existing human and something that represents a potential life. Some of the ethical aspects of abortion recall debates about end-of-life care, but only in a tangential way.

I think this is one of the reasons that so many of us struggle to express (or even form) a coherent moral position. When society needs to consider the brain-achingly complex ethical issues provoked by new reproductive techniques, we turn gratefully to super-brains like Baroness Warnock. Yet abortion – a much older process, and one with which on some levels we are all familiar – is a debate to which, for better or worse, we are all invited.

People don’t say what they mean

Few people who actively participate in this debate are prepared to explicitly express the true personal motivations that underlie their positions. Maria Miller and Jeremy Hunt this week both reached for the argument that advances in medical technology have meant that babies of less than 24 weeks gestation may now be considered viable. This is, as many have already pointed out, nonsense.

I suspect that what Miller and Hunt both actually believe is that it’s morally repulsive to abort pregnancies that are nearing viability; they want a buffer (Hunt wants a bloody large buffer). Yet neither is prepared to publicly express their underlying moral revulsion. Why not?

Pro-choice activists, on the other hand, rarely express what seems to me to be the underpinning of the pro-choice position (one that I share): that we must place relative values on the self-determination of a woman, and the potential right to existence of an unborn child. And those of us who are pro-choice conclude that the self-determination of the woman has, in an absolute sense, more value; a value that is so much greater that we are prepared to terminate a potential life. This is another thing that’s almost never said in public.

I think people on both sides are simply afraid to express their essential beliefs. Maybe we look at the murderously poisonous state of the abortion debate in the USA and think ‘fuck that, let’s deal in ideological proxies’. I don’t think it’s doing us any favours, though.

What do I think? I think abortion is not morally weightless; it is a serious thing. If a woman (and her partner) chooses to have a termination and emerges from the clinic thinking ‘thank Christ for that, let’s have a celebratory piss-up’, I don’t have a problem with that; most women are familiar with the dread that is associated with a late period or a split condom at a time when a child is absolutely the last thing you want. I’m glad that abortion is, largely, available to women who want one; I think that the two-doctor-signature thing is a disgrace.

But termination is not, morally speaking, nothing. It’s not analogous to the removal of a wart. It’s not just another medical procedure – and those who claim that it is, in my view, are not only being disingenuous; they are contributing to the degradation of the public debate, and repelling those who may be instinctively pro-choice, but who recognise the ethical discomfort contained in that position.

There are just three groups of people who, when they talk about abortion, actually say what they mean: those with strong religious faith; radical feminists; and moral philosophers. That might be a fun-sounding line-up for a dinner party, but it’s useless for forging a meaningful consensus.

How I experienced black-on-white racism, and somehow learned to get over it

About six months after Stephen Lawrence was murdered, my flatmates and I moved from Earlsfield (boring) to Brixton (edgy!). Basing ourselves in a deeply unpleasant unfurnished house with an outdoor toilet, we did what middle-class white kids did back in the early 1990s: took recreational drugs, made half-arsed attempts to get into jobs in the media, pretended that we liked football. We read the Guardian with devoted intensity (it was, after all, where the media jobs ads were to be found), but led utterly apolitical lives as the Major government fell apart like a clown’s car. I remember reading about the Lawrence case, and being aware of the accusatory swirl around the Met’s investigation; but when we staggered back from the Landor or the Eagle late on a Friday night, police patrol cars were reassuring, not sinister.

In my entire time living in Brixton (five years, during which I saw things at the Fridge nightclub that I really don’t think a hetero girl was supposed to see), I don’t think I spoke on a purely social basis to a single non-Caucasian local. After living in white areas all my life I was no longer part of an overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group, and I was utterly disconcerted by it. I was amazed to discover that the non-white population in Brixton was a substantial minority, but not a majority: this fact simply didn’t tally with my perception.  An inchoate sense of alienation was compounded by my realisation that my responses were, at the very best, irrational and distasteful; at worst… even in my head, I rarely allowed myself to finish the sentence. The discovery that I had racist kneejerk impulses made me, frankly, a bit miserable. I rationalised it to myself as a primordial response, and never missed an opportunity to be inappropriately over-familiar with the guy who sold the Big Issue outside the tube.

And yet, for all that I was a bit of a tit in those days, it was instructive. In the Acre Lane Tesco, I stepped over a basket left in the middle of an aisle by two Caribbean women; they sucked their teeth noisily at me, and remarked that they’d have to put their goods back, because white women don’t wash properly and their veg would now be contaminated some sort of infernal genital spray (these weren’t their precise words, but the meaning was clear. And, although I do have very short legs, and may well have been stoned, I feel I should make it completely clear that I really, really hadn’t absent-mindedly squatted on their basket.) For about ten minutes I enjoyed the sensation of being discriminated against, before being struck, as I so often am, by the thunderingly obvious: experiencing a social response based entirely on my ethnicity, rather than my Rowan-ness, was thrillingly novel. For the women with a morbid fear of white fanny, it was (I assume) as dreary as the Number 2 bus, if more predictable. And I couldn’t claim that I wasn’t guilty of it.

And so, as Diane Abbott wanders into what we used to call a ‘race row’ the day after Norris and Dobson were finally convicted, what it comes down to is this: white people in majority white societies may occasionally be on the sharp end of racist assumptions,  but unless the offence is grievous, whining about it just makes you a jerk. Hugh Muir wrote yesterday that immigrants in the UK need to accept the British framework, and I think he’s right. But when it comes to racism in the UK, non-white people get to set the framework. White Britons can (and should) contribute to the debate, but to assert an equivalence of gravity is bullheaded nonsense.

Some time in 1995, on a beautiful summer’s day, I spotted a black woman standing outside Brixton town hall, filming a well-attended protest outside the Ritzy cinema. I asked her what was going on, and she answered sharply that it was nothing to do with me. Piqued, I crossed the road to see for myself; it was a march calling on the Home Office to set up an inquiry into the Met’s handling of the Stephen Lawrence case. The woman with the camera was wrong; it was something to do with me. I fully supported the marchers. But it wasn’t my march.

Revenge

My father once spent three months living with Moshe Dayan on his farm in Israel, making a documentary about Dayan’s archaeological collection. One night towards the end of his stay, when everyone was out of their gourds on hummus, my dad asked Dayan about the Israelis’ execution of Adolf Eichmann. ‘What really happened? I don’t believe that you would have that man in your power and just execute him cleanly.’ Dayan replied: ‘I’m not going to tell you what happened. But no, we didn’t just execute him.’

I’m not making any assertions here about what the Israelis did or did not do to Eichmann. But let’s say – in an entirely hypothetical scenario – that Eichmann was tortured before his death (which was my father’s interpretation of Dayan’s remark). For all my liberal pantywaist leanings, I would find it a comprehensible response to the almost incredible burden of terror, pain and grief for which Eichmann was personally, instrumentally responsible. As someone who has led a laughably comfortable life, I don’t think I have the right to condemn the actions of people who had lived through such horror and state-instigated sadism, and finally had the chance to extract some revenge.

And yet, like many of my fellow pantywaists – not least my hairy namesake in Lambeth Palace – my response to the execution of Osama Bin Laden has seen me picking fence splinters out of my arse. Here was a man who was unarmed, unwell, and had spent five years watching Cash in the Attic without so much as a telephone connection to distract him. I know of no evidence that he was actively commissioning further acts of violence (although do please put me right if you do). But I understand the impulse that made the US, despite ten years and a new administration, determined to exact unilateral punishment.

Most of the sources of my discomfort are predictable, and not worth rehearsing here: due process, international law, opposition to the death penalty. But there is one factor that is not so bound up with legal processes: revenge. Revenge is a powerful human instinct, but it is not a laudable one. Most of us can comprehend the vengefulness behind the killing of Bin Laden, but it is the naked celebration of vengefulness that is discomforting.

The extraction of revenge is what happens when communication, mediation, reason and kindness have failed. It represents the bleak defeat of the best human instincts, and the forces that prompt it are the same forces that lie behind all human violence, whether rationally justifiable or not. Bin Laden’s killing was a public performance of cruelty designed for public consumption, as were the horrifying acts that prompted it.

Anyone who lost people they cared about on 9/11 deserves a moment of catharsis, and I won’t condemn them for that. But nor will I laud the stone-cold execution of a burnt-out enemy combatant. Indulging the basest human instincts is something we all do, but it’s not a cause for celebration.

In praise of Jacqui Smith

Uh-huh, oh yeah. You read that right.

Massive disclaimer: she did some downright bloody awful stuff as Home Secretary, notably on civil liberties, and she deserves all the flak she gets for that. No arguments from me there. She also did some good. Policy staff at domestic violence service providers have told me again and again that she took their sector seriously. (This is why having women at the top in politics matters; domestic violence was never any sort of priority before the 1997 generation of Labour women appeared.)

She’s judged more harshly than the other highly illiberal Labour Home Secretaries, notably Blunkett and Straw. And I reckon that’s because her old-style, anti-porn feminism irritates the po-mo, ‘sex-pos’ libertarian left, for whom any viewpoint is acceptable so long as it’s theirs.

You only have to look at the rather ugly public sniggering occasioned by her current publicity splash for her 5Live documentary on porn. I listened to it; I didn’t think it was all that. I thought Smith’s emphasis on the effects of porn on long-term relationships was misplaced, as was her apparent belief that men who don’t want long-term relationships are somehow damaged. I did, however, think it was immensely brave of her to address the topic at all, given the public humiliation she experienced as a result of her husband’s porn use. I’ve got no problem with a Home Secretary legislating on porn without ever having watched it; it’s not like classifying DVDs was an important part of her job. I’ve never watched porn either, and I hold opinions aplenty on it. Bite me.

If you’re more exercised by Smith’s naivety than you are by the fact that footage of women being throttled during sex is precisely two clicks away from this screen, your values are screwed. If your response to her intervention is to comment that you wouldn’t like to fuck her, be aware that you’re part of a long and shameful tradition of trying to silence women by demeaning them. By all means let’s have an honest debate about porn, but leave your sense of superiority at the door.

Breastmilk, taboos, and sheer, unadulterated crap

I’m not going to force you to drink my breastmilk. Partly because I’m no longer lactating, but mostly because, since that unfortunate incident with my son and the Marmite ricecakes, I make it a principle never to force anyone to eat anything. If you don’t want to spend £15 on an ice cream made with human milk, that’s A-OK with me. I don’t want to spend £15 on that either.

You  may have concerns about the commodification of people; I can understand that. You may dislike political posturing; that’s fine.

But if you espouse any of the following points of view, I may well get my leaky friend to squirt you in the eye with some of her finest breast-juice. (It’s great for conjunctivitis!)

It’s just like snot! Or shit! Basically it’s like eating shit!

It’s really, really not like that at all. Breastmilk is specifically designed to be ingested by human beings. Unlike, you know… COWS’ MILK. And comparing breastmilk – one of the most extraordinary substances known to humankind – to shit makes you a woman-hating knob-end.

I don’t mind breastmilk, but it’s for babies. When adults eat it it’s disgusting

Well, it’s not just for babies. Many children aren’t fully weaned until they are seven or so; some continue to feed even after that. Many nursing mothers talk about using up expressed breastmilk in their coffee, or in puddings. There’s even the famous scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which a woman nurses a dying man. Sure, the norm in developed countries is that breastmilk is consumed by babies. But there are plenty of things that children eat and adults don’t: fromage frais, Space Dust, Happy Meals, stuff that they find up their noses. You probably don’t convulse with horror when someone offers you a bag of chicken nuggets. So when you say that your revulsion is caused purely by the age factor, I think you’re lying. Probably to cover up your embarrassment at the stupidity of your own response.

It’s like eating shit!

It’s still not like eating shit. But you are evidently impervious to rational argument. And your mouth-breathing repetition of Ricky Gervais’s gag about the spunk sandwich isn’t impressing anyone.

Adult consumption of breastmilk is taboo, and taboos are there for a reason

You know, another word for ‘taboo’ is ‘superstition’. A longer phrase for ‘taboo’ is ‘thunderingly stupid stuff dreamed up before the Enlightenment’. Seriously, name me one taboo – other than the incest one, I’ll give you that – that represents rock-solid common sense? You know other things that used to be taboos? Menstruating women. Men having sex with men. The taboo argument is pure bunkum, and is most often espoused by people who will demand five pieces of peer-reviewed evidence when you suggest that Nuts might not be good reading material for eight-year-olds.

There is – with deadening inevitability – a serious point to this. New mothers who choose to breastfeed are met at every turn with attitudes that make it likely that their breastfeeding will come to a premature end (by which I mean, before they and their babies are ready to stop). The pursed-lipped customer at the next table in the cafe; the TV doctor who says that they should ‘give their breasts back to their husbands'; the partner who says ‘you’ve done it for x weeks now, it’s time to move on to formula’. These attitudes are of a piece with the don’t-touch-me-with-breastmilk-I-might-die comments that have been expressed since the Baby Gaga story came to light. We live in a culture that is terrified by the idea of breasts being used for their primary purpose. A little rational self-examination, in these circumstances, would go a long way.

Mothers: fear and loathing

When I decided to have my children, I anticipated a few things: disturbed nights, perineal stitching, unending devotion (of me, obviously). But there was one sickening development that I hadn’t prepared myself for. By the simple act of having children I became – in the eyes of many – stupid. If I’d been commonly thought to be stupid before my gametes did their business, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. But I wasn’t, and so I did. And some years later, when I come across garbage like this piece from Eva Wiseman (purveyor of dreary columns about make-up), it still pricks me. Like Winston at the beginning of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I haven’t yet settled to the inevitability of my fate.

Yes, mothers are thick. Haven’t you heard? They’re bovine and unreflective. They can’t help it; it’s just what happens. They’re ruled by their emotions, unable to think clearly about anything beyond the next nappy change. If they continue to work full-time (in a proper job – you know, in an important sector, like the media) then they might just hang on to their personalities and intellect; but you’ve got to admit, it’s a struggle, and one that most of them lose.

Another thing about mothers: they lose all sense of perspective; their worlds shrink. It’s not their fault, of course. What with all the tiredness, and their new-found stupidity, and their inability to reflect, there’s something inevitable in the closing of their minds. And frankly, in a lot of ways, it’s preferable. After all, who wants mothers going anywhere near a voting booth, or offering up their ridiculous views? They can’t possibly have anything useful to say about anything that occurs beyond their front doors, and they’d only embarrass themselves. They may once have understood electoral reform, or cultural tropes, or pastoral agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa; but these things are lost to them now.

So when – bless them – they step blinking into the sunlight, and put forward a point of view – about culture, about sexuality, about politics, about geothermal engineering – it’s really best that they should be ridiculed and dismissed. It’s for their own good, you see: they don’t belong in the grown-up world of power and debate; not any more. They’re in the twilight zone of motherhood, en route to the utter invisibility that our society is kind enough to accord to older women. It’s really best that they get used to it.