Feminism: Sex positive or sex negative?

There’s an awful lot to like about Zoe Williams. She became a parent a few weeks after I did, for one, and I absolutely relished her column Anti-natal, which rubbished the non-evidence base of so many holier-than-thou pre-natal recommendations in fashion at the time. I also totally agreed with her oblique take on that other supposedly non-controversial good, social mobility. But this piece – it’s not that I disagree, exactly. It’s just that, like virtually all mums of kids the same age as mine, it’s clear she’s from a different generation; of feminist, socialist, journalist and everything else.

Like Zoe, I had occasion to leaf through some early editions of Spare Rib in the British Library some months back. Unlike her, I can actually remember the appearance of the 1980s ones; I even wrote for some of them. And I totally know what she means when she contrasts that early, no-holds-barred, every lugubrious- detail-please approach to sexual and female-biological matters with the later feminists’ defensive, do-not-encroach-upon-my-temple fastidiousness. What’s more, I think I can pinpoint that moment she’s after; when, if you like, sex-positive feminism became sex-negative; when feminists switched, to use the stereotypes, from being Germaine Greer’s sexually “liberated” gorgeous girls about town, to dour, dungareed, humourless lesbian man-haters.

“When Promiscuity Became a Duty”, the title of an early-1980s article in The Leveller magazine by a feminist a decade or so older than me has stuck in my mind down the decades. I believe I read it and thought, ugh, I know what she means; that dreadful period when you had to “Do It” on demand to prove that you were hip and with it and not an old-fashioned square. Being still quite young, and a shy late starter, I had pretty much missed the promiscuity-as-duty phase, though I spent a few years attempting a modest sort of catch-up. In the interests of research, naturally, by an over-sheltered country girl of the opinion that her extreme sexual ignorance was putting her at an extreme disadvantage. And no, not a lot of it was tremendous fun, actually; much of it was embarrassing, uncomfortable and a bit boring. Frankly, a laugh down the pub usually made for a better night out.

But maybe that was just me; “liberated” on the outside, but inside still cramped and inhibited; quite possibly. It was still worth trying, I maintain; I had every right to experiment, and on balance got a lot out of it, including some very good friends. Round about then, too, one started to hear the argument even in radical circles that those benefitting most from the advent of the Pill and the whole gamut of sexual-revolution legislation were not in fact us women but our randy, feckless, commitment-phobe multiple male partners. Which dovetailed neatly with Irish Catholic and other conservative arguments against legalisation of divorce, abortion and other modern horrors. Which in turn, to do us justice, felt extremely uncomfortable to feminists; we didn’t and don’t like the sense that we had common ground with Mary Whitehouse conservatives. But we were insufficiently able to grandstand the distinctions, and became vulnerable to the anti-sex caricature. Which must have put off a lot of younger experimenters, exactly the type of girl I had been.

So, in the end, who’s right? Obviously, once “liberated” by law and free access to contraception, women and men had and still have a load of work to do to work out the best way to use it. I remember a conversation with a woman, again, a few years older than me, at Greenham Common; a mother of two who had just walked out of her marriage. We were talking about rape in marriage, which was still perfectly legal in those days. “I was raped twice a night for six years,” she commented. I wouldn’t want to pass judgement on that, even with the benefit of decades of hindsight. She had two small children, a factor I would have insufficiently registered at the time, but even to me it was clear she was referring, not to violence, but to the routine marital sex she put up with just for the sake of a peaceful night. It’s always easier to succumb than to risk a bad-tempered partner on whom you depend, even if he’s not a brute.

Which is just some context. Clearly this argument – is, in general terms, Lots of Sex with Multiple Partners a Good or Bad Thing for Women? – is no more simply concluded than any other political football. The fact that a woman’s sexuality is still primarily defined as her attractiveness to men is as much a product of barely-ruffled patriarchy as the fact that, once “liberated” from family and religious tradition, women and girls all over the world are still exposed to the most brutal kinds of sexual abuse. But they are, let’s not forget, exposed just as much when left “unliberated” within them, only we hear less about it, just as we once heard less about child abuse. And who does that end up protecting?

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Too Much Taking Control; an outsider’s view

What is it about this column, about a divorced woman in her 50s exploring online dating, that I find so addictive? There but for the grace of God . . ? Actually, I do know someone in exactly this position; 50 +, separated, single, female; bright, very fit, a well-off, professional, working mother; now online dating with diminishing hope and enthusiasm.

The blatant misogyny, the old-fashioned double-standard of it all is fascinatingly awful; that women this age will struggle to raise the interest of a man under 80, while a man of similar age, similarly professional and solvent, will have, or imagine he has, the pick of the nubile under 30s at his disposal. Plus, it’s so strange and new to my generation, this manner of finding a mate, which the young apparently take for granted. She’s trying hard, this Stella Grey (not her real name) and clinging doggedly to her sense of humour all the way. But I can’t help feeling she’s missing some essential point.

Online dating, by its very nature, will exacerbate the first-impressions impact, which is brutal enough at the best of times. When your face, if it ever was, is absolutely no longer your fortune, this can only count massively against you. However hard we try, the profiles of ladies of 50+ are unlikely to seem a good prospect to a halfway desirable man under 80, unless the age is doctored. Online daters go online shopping, obviously, for someone already half-formed in their imagination, and sift all comers ruthlessly.

Yet how many great romances you’ve heard of were originally sparked by mutual dislike? As an online dater, Lizzie Bennett would have written off Mr Darcy, Jane Eyre swiped Mr Rochester, even Romeo (“Good-looking young Montague seeks similar, Capulets need not apply . . .”) rejected Juliet before the story even got started! None of these iconic passions would have flared if the lovers had had to rely on online profiles to get them going. OK, so they’re old-fashioned fictions, and may be inadequate contemporary models. But love at first impression is not the most auspicious prognosis. Coming to love someone, even falling in love, especially with someone not “your type” at the outset, generally takes a while.

And then the attraction is all the stronger for the journey. For that journey to stand a chance, people must come together for reasons other than the upfront (we older people might have said desperate) search for a mate. A mutual interest (in sex a la Fifty Shades for all I know), or shared work experience; or a social circle in common; somewhere where ongoing meetings will happen as a matter of course, not linked to success or failure, to the passing or failing some brutal audition . . . I don’t know, call me old-fashioned, but particularly for mature, clearly very personable ladies like Stella Grey, taking a few steps back seems to me to be the only realistic way forward. An attractive man her own age, who fantasising, as they all do, apparently, about a younger, prettier girl, would have “swiped” her instantly online, may, over time, realise what a treasure, and indeed, how sexy she is, after working or playing alongside her for months or maybe years. It happens. And for some of us, the less obviously nubile ones, it may be the only way it happens any more.

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The decline of inner London

I’ve lived here, in this exclusive little inner-London conservation area, for about 15 years. My family has been here for 35 years, not long by local standards. For the past ten, I’ve been sharing the house with a black man, for the past seven, with our kid.

Since then, there have been one or two distressing incidents involving stupid local police officers. There’s a simmering tension between the majority private-school and local-state-school mums, as regular readers may know. But on the whole, the kids and everyone gets along. My partner’s and kid’s may be the only non-white faces at the summer party, or at annual carol singing, but the mainly young professionals who move in, as older, less-moneyed people sell at huge profit and move away, are generally open, tolerant people, and we do not feel unwelcome.

But the exceptions are brutal, and not actually about race, although that comes into play if deemed convenient. It’s about being the Right Sort. You see, he’s not only black, my partner, but he works with his hands. He has a white van, which is colourfully painted with his company logo. He parks it, naturally, when not at the workshop, in our lovely conservation area, which, as a resident, he has every right to do.

A Tory grandee type in his 60s with a well-groomed, 40-ish wife, relatively new residents I believe, just told me in the most unpleasant terms that the van, “blatant advertising” has “no right to be parked where it is. It’s always here, have you noticed? And what’s more, have you seen how scruffy it is? I’m quite sure he has never got a single job out of it.”

“That’s not why it’s parked there,” I said. “It’s parked there because the owner lives here.”

This failed to penetrate. “I’m taking it up with the council!” he declared. He stormed off, I hope to do just that, but more likely heading for the House of Lords bar.

I don’t think he has a leg to stand on, but it’s worrying nonetheless. He and my family are supposed to be neighbours, though that’s precisely the fact this snob couldn’t countenance. If he’s mainly bothered about his blocked basement window, which I really don’t believe, he could have tried asking us nicely.

When you live your life cushioned by liberal assumptions, whereby you assume everybody basically assumes all people equal, tradespeople and professionals doing equally valid work, and equally deserving of respect, irrespective of income (though it would be nice if that were more equal too), it’s a shock to run up against a manifest conviction to the contrary, even though you know in theory there’s a lot of it out there. I confess I’m spoilt by my lifestyle. At home and with my kid, the only real-live people I encounter on a regular basis are my extended family, my one or two friends, and my kid’s lovely teachers. Beyond that I choose my influences, which books to read, which emails and blogs to write and receive, who and what to listen to; and I choose, obviously, according to my preconceptions.

So when I’m confronted suddenly with someone who might have been Rupert Murdoch (though it wasn’t), accompanied by someone else who might have been his ex-wife Wendy Deng (though she wasn’t), but anyway, both obviously much wealthier than I am, I am astounded to find that their manners are a hundred times worse. Surely, some old-fashioned corner of me thinks, this cannot be, my evident superiors, if not elders, behaving so obviously badly? What happened to the gentlemanly-liberal assumptions of my parents?

It’s distressing. I’m still distressed. I hate this city as much as I love it, and here’s one more reason to start thinking about moving away.

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Feminism at home and school

2014 was a good year for Feminism, I’ve been reading. Women suffered all over the world in the most horrendous ways, just for being female – no news there – but 2104 was the year some kind of critical mass of protest was reached at last, or so it has been proclaimed. For the first time ever, ordinary “non-feminist” women were agreeing publicly that it is not ok to trivialise rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation. It is not ok to routinely blame the victim, to somehow imply she asked for it. That these things, not just the crimes themselves but the attitudes to them, are a real affront to us all, not just to ugly lesbian-feminists with chips on their shoulders. And when the conservative matrons of the world agree on something, then their husbands, sons and fathers cannot be far behind. For the first time in history, maybe, they just might have to give the matter some serious thought.

Trouble is, when you start thinking – when do you stop? The enormity, the self-evidence of sexual inequality worldwide when you start noticing it just ends up inducing total paralysis. Every single established social activity seems complicit, from fashion to literature, politics, dating and sport. It ends up calling everything we do into question; and that’s why, I think, that up to now, so many of us have always been so confused and ambivalent about something as apparently straight-forward and humane as a simple appeal for sexual equality.

*

It starts in the playground. A few weeks ago, my son announced, like he’d made an important discovery, that girls are actually not as good as boys. Good at what? I said sharply. Is that the case in your class, that the boys are the best at everything? He admitted it wasn’t.  What he was talking about, it transpired, is the way “like a girl” has come to be the ultimate playground insult. Being like a girl is a boy’s ultimate humiliation. We all know, don’t we, that for girls who are “like boys” the situation is not remotely comparable.

My son isn’t a terribly boy-boy, and, as a feminist, I’ve always seen that as a good thing. For ages, his favourite colour was pink; as a pre-schooler, all his favourite people outside the family, female. On the other hand, he was physically active, and thoroughly obsessed with trains; an early Lego enthusiast and definitely a contemplator of things and mechanics rather than people. But he is quiet, sensitive, afraid of sudden loud noises, shy with strangers and not particularly competitive.

School put an end to his pink-phase, and encouraged him to befriend other quiet boys, which he did, successfully; these are friendships he has maintained. At seven, he seems well-balanced, sociable and popular, with a good range of interests and aptitudes. But as the years roll by I see the pressure on him to avoid all things “girly” increasing. It’s mainly a risk of being “teased” by the class policemen (and some girls); he can’t wear a certain, slightly fluffy fleece, openly enjoy dance class, or choose certain books from the Accelerated Reading boxes. He has to avoid some, the Rainbow Fairies, for example, he’ll read avidly anywhere there is no chance he’ll get caught at it by other kids. What I declare– that he should just read, wear, do what he likes, for goodness sake – is of no consequence beside his certainty that if he makes the wrong choice, he will be “teased”.

I find this seriously upsetting. I don’t think the school and other staff do enough to counteract it. It’s not seen as bullying, because the pressure is largely invisible; the children, especially the more sensitive ones, can be counted on to police themselves. It may also be the case that large sections of our parent body see proper gender-role indoctrination as an essential part of their children’s education, and would actually like to see more of it. Certainly some casual parental comments I’ve overheard suggest that. In the context of our school, it’s a controversial issue which is simply glossed over. Both boys and girls and all of us are losing out.

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An Urban Fairytale Under Threat

In the late 60s, a baby boy was born to a Nigerian woman living in a Hackney council flat. It was her fourth child, her third son; and her husband left soon after for another London woman. With her father’s help, she and the children eventually flew back to Lagos.

Her little boy played on the streets, bonding with cousins and the neighbours’ children, while she went to work and the older children to school, to which he eventually followed. Lagos was mainly decent back then, the beach still clean, and they were an aspirational, well-connected family. The boy, who could sing in tune, joined the church choir with his brother. Then, aged 13, he fell seriously ill. He recovered, but his hearing was gone. He was completely deaf.

His schooling finished, for three years he kicked a ball about the streets and bits of waste land, weekdays and weekends in the company of ever younger and rougher children. By the age of 15, he had forgotten most of what he had once learned. His speech had virtually disappeared, his reading ability contracted. He could follow only the most basic written English, no Yoruba at all.

But he was biddable, on the occasions anyone took trouble with him; good-natured, with a ready smile. His family came up with a solution; he learned carpentry, helped out in Lagos workshops for a year or three, then packed up his modest toolbox to join his elder brother in London. He still had a British passport, and they’d have facilities there, his mother reasoned, social workers and so on. When it came to a young man’s ability to focus on the important things in life, with the grace of God, deaf-mutism just might be an advantage. It was the early 1980s, and he was not yet 20.

*

I always wanted to make a fairy story come true; to be, if not a fairy princess, then a fairy godmother, a little condescending though that seems to me now. By 2004, I had waited long enough.

He had his own business by then, been a sole trader turned limited company via a spell at Furniture college, with a rented workshop in a rapidly gentrifying part of southern Hackney. He’d moved from a hostel, to a condemned council flat, into a newly-built one, on the ground floor of a smart low-rise, with a neat patch of garden out the back. He was slow off the mark for Right To Buy, he was aware, but his business turnover was too irregular to commit to a monthly mortgage, and Hackney workshop rents increasingly punitive. But he kept an old estate car on the road to transport his handmade tables, wardrobes and chests into the attractive homes of liberally-minded, white-middle-class clientele. He fitted them, quietly and competently, attracting a certain amount of housewifely flirtation as he worked, of which he rarely took advantage.

Most importantly of all, two decades of total silence had been broken by the insertion of a cochlear implant, courtesy of the unbelievable NHS. It had been the best 30th birthday present ever. Against all odds, he could hear again.

It’s not perfect. He still needs to lip-read, and group conversations in noisy settings, like pubs, is still out of the question, or any group conversations at all, really, are still way beyond him. But he can follow some radio and TV programmes, without subtitles. Best of all, he can hear music again.

He traded in his weekly martial arts in for social dancing. He took up salsa and tango, and became a regular at city clubs. Gentle and unthreatening, he was quickly popular with mainly-white ladies, especially the larger or more mature ones. He was looking for love, of course, like most of us there were. But like all of us, he also loved music and dance, and he had talent, rhythm, and good manners. He didn’t grope. He didn’t show off. He was simply, quietly competent.

I invited him to move in with me. He bought his flat off the council at last, smartened it up, and let it to cover the mortgage. And then I got pregnant.

His workshop rent, meanwhile, kept rising. With my consent, he went site hunting across south London. Eventually, he found the ideal unit, high ceilinged, just south of the river. We entered into a bidding war and finally acquired it for a sum which seemed a lot to me, but he was adamant it was the space for him. I got my well-off siblings to buy my share out of our parents’ old family home, and made his down payment. There was enough left over to build a mezzanine floor with office and install shelving and equipment. He had his dream workshop. We had another mortgage, and soon, a gorgeous baby boy.

That boy is now seven, still gorgeous; bright and talented. His dad observes his privileges with a mixture of pride and envy, for already, the boy’s state-primary education outstrips much of his own. A proper middle-class kid, he takes violin, piano, and swimming lessons. It’s not fair, his father thinks ruefully, even as he tries to keep pace with all three.

Business, in the meantime, has weathered the recession. An impressive woodwork portfolio has accumulated from over 30 years in the trade. He has employees, a pool of loyal customers and a solid reputation. Our combined ages are 100-plus now, and neither he nor I have a pension, but our massive personal investment, in that workshop, in his business, will, we hope, pay us off.

*

But now it’s under threat. Developers are circling over what are probably the last small-industry sites in inner London. They are offering silly sums – less that we paid for the freehold nearly ten years ago – to buy up that dream site, and all the other sites on the estate, waving the threat of the council’s Compulsory Purchase Orders at us all. The piddling sums they are offering would make resettling anywhere, really, but especially inside the M25, out of the question, and effectively close us all down.

We all know there are vast amounts of money to be made from land and property speculation in inner London. It’s mad and it’s wrong when tiny, pokey flats and garages in places like Earls Court sell for half a million. But, given that they do – who, legally, morally and actually, should be drawing that profit? The modest local people who invested, fortuitously or otherwise, in the places before the madness took hold – or the developers, swooping in now to exploit as best they can what they hope is local fear and ignorance?

We and other businesses and residents don’t actually want the cash, not yet. We want to be able to carry on doing what we do, where we do it. If we cannot keep our spaces, then we want access to others, not too far away. In our case, we know the developers have new work spaces planned. We should be top of the list to receive one; to exchange one prime-inner-London-freehold site for another. Why ever not?

Versions of this story are happening all over town, it’s happening to local residents and small businesses, like ours. Each victim has a story behind them, as we do. Someone needs to make a big stink about it. This is my small contribution.

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White middle-class cheater, moi?!

Here, a private-school mother accuses middle-class parents who use state schools of taking the high moral ground while making damned sure that Their kids won’t end up as “cleaners or lorry-drivers” – which is all, after all, that private school parents (henceforth PSPs) like her want to ensure. She should be congratulated, perhaps, on lashing out in public, in The Guardian no less, at what probably bothers most PSPs most, at least the thinking ones, the ones with some kind of social conscience (not the Russian oligarchs of course): that non-PSPs, that is (middle-class) state school parents, will persist in claiming the moral high ground. When really, we are doing f***-all for equality, or social mobility, since Our (middle-class) children will succeed anyway. Whatever school we sent them to. So (she doesn’t say, but I’m extrapolating) the really socially committed thing to do would be to become a PSP, like she is. Pay a private institution. Given that we can. Either that, or encourage our (middle-class) children to opt out of university and be cleaners and lorry drivers instead. I think.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that most so-called middle-class people couldn’t even afford today’s private school fees, what these PSPs are really doing is assuaging their twinges of guilt. Not all suffer them of course (viz. Russian oligarchs again) but enough do to make this point of view not hard to unearth.

But there’s an angle to this account which I think other commentators have missed. This PSP, Claire Hynes, is black; so is her child, presumably. I know nothing about her cultural background; she may well have been born and raised in this country. But either way, there are many PSPs for whom succumbing to the British or any state school system would be the height of personal indignity. The quality, Ofsted reports, even the actual school intake are all beside the point. Decent families simply do not do it.

Plus, you only have to read a book like I am Malala to understand the essential role that small private schools play in remote parts of remote countries. Without them many more children would not reach school at all.

It may be different here, but I am fairly sure that for many first or even second generation immigrants from around the world the British private/state education divide is easily transferable from back home, partly because of the old colonial inheritance. Of course you pay for your children’s education if you possibly can, just like any British gentleman. The difference in quality is more than worth it.

And black parents have other considerations too. Labour politician Diane Abbott famously defended her decision to send her son to a private London day school with the argument “Hackney schools are letting down black boys.” A statement, incidentally, manifestly disproven by the many Ofsted-outstanding Hackney state schools’ results; no thanks to Abbott, the sitting MP. The argument that black children need to grasp all the privileges coming their way with both hands in order to stand any chance of a decent future is I expect common currency in black middle-class families; perhaps that’s why they continue to re-elect her there. A social conscience, they might well argue, is a luxury only whites can afford.

All of which overlooks one thing, however, highlighted by the initiator of this Mumsnet thread. Education is not just about what you learn and who you network with along the way. It’s also about who you learn to think you are.

Not a subject area, probably, which troubles much the offspring of the thoroughly established PSPs. But finding yourself, from a very early age, one of very few non-whites, in a place which takes wealth and whiteness pretty much for granted, I don’t think would help the rest of our kids with it greatly.

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