Why men must believe women about rape.

CW; TW: rape

This is the first post I’ve written for a particular audience: other men.  This is because the last thing women need – and it’s not as if they don’t already have a near infinite supply – is another man telling them about something they are far more qualified to talk about.  Also, as a feminist/ally/whatever, I understand that the most helpful thing I can do is try to talk to other men, because that’s where – at least in theory – I have an advantage.

The key point is that rape is not like other crimes, and until men at large appreciate this, it’s going to be difficult to act effectively against it.  This is not to say that all other acts are the same, but rape cannot just be treated as another offence on the list the police and courts are to deal with.  This is not just because it is overwhelmingly directed at women (and, yes, I am perfectly aware that a significant number of men will also experience rape), nor because of the terrible stigma attached to being a victim, although both of these are related.  But in no other crime is it quite so common to find people denying that it ever happened.  This is why you’ll find campaigns, hashtags, petitions and the like circulating to announce that other women *believe* an accuser.  It’s all too easy to mentally dismiss these as being about female solidarity – and that is part of it, and a good thing in its own right – but it goes beyond that, as rape is the only crime where the public response routinely involves attacking the victim.

Take a murder trial: at some point in proceedings, the defence is able to provide a good enough alibi that the defendant is acquitted; so what happens next?  Obviously this may be upsetting for the victim’s family and friends, and a set-back for the police and CPS, but a setback is all it (necessarily) is.  The first thing you expect to see outside the court is the leading officer announcing that they intend to reopen the investigation and find out who *really* committed the crime.  The same would apply for an assault, a robbery, or any of a variety of other crimes, and it may be true in the case of the cliched attack-by-a-masked-man-in-a-dark-alley.  But with the vast majority of rapes, when the trial falls apart (assuming that things have advanced that far) the default assumption is now that the alleged crime never actually took place.  Or that there was sexual activity, but the nature of it magically changed to being either fully consensual, or a mere misunderstanding or miscommunication (not that the latter should be excusable).

It’s not so much that I’m arguing that we should treat rape differently de novo, as observing that we already do, so we need to react to that.  When a killing, or a theft is announced, we immediately accept the reality of the crime.  There may be all sorts of theories floating around about the perpetrator, or how the crime was committed, but things have to get to a pretty extreme state before we consider that it might not have happened in the first place.  So really, in saying that we believe a rape victim is only to restore that crime to the status we accord to the rest.  To say that we believe a rape victim is to accord to them no more than the basic courtesy afforded to the rest of society.

Some expected responses

Now a certain fraction of mankind will immediately leap up against the idea that any one crime should be treated differently to the rest as counter to various principles of justice.  My first response to that is to observe that legal and judicial systems are constructed and evolve over time; we might like to pretend that there are eternal underlying concepts, but the fact is that we have constantly modified both laws and systems to reflect the wider society.  Also we already treat different crimes in slightly different fashions.  Nobody seems to object to the notion that sexual crimes need to be handled with greater delicacy than others.

The second is to observe that apologists often seem very attached to a misreading of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  This is part of a whole raft of narrow legal principles that people like to interpret as general rights, but without any sound basis (see also: people shouting about Freedom of Speech while failing to understand that the right, as most clearly given by the first amendment to the US constitution, which even non-US citizens tend to use a benchmark, is purely to not have *the state* limit one’s speech).  If you’ve committed a crime in fact, you are not innocent up until the moment of conviction, in the sense of not having done it.  The facts themselves do not change.  You *are* innocent in the eyes of the law, but that is not the same thing.  Nor is there any expectation against members of the public forming opinions at any stage in proceedings, except in the case of their being required to perform jury service.  I challenge anybody to read the news without forming instant (if potentially malleable) opinions about the guilt or innocence of those reportedly involved in any incidents they read a few lines about.

And finally, and associated with the above, there’s the fact that a rape trial is, to an extent, zero-sum.  To say that the defendant is innocent is necessarily to imply that the accuser is guilty (of fabricating, or at least exaggerating the incident).  And in plenty of cases it goes much further than that: it has been horrible to observe over the past few years how many people tangentially connected to the Ched Evans case have attacked the victim in all sorts of public ways.  And the rest of us have largely let this go because this is what the friends and family of someone accused of a crime are *supposed* to do – leap to the defence.  But in the case of rape this can seemingly only be done by attacking the character and credibility of somebody who has already been subject to a horrific crime (and let’s not ignore that in this case he was convicted and hasn’t been able to provide grounds to appeal or overturn).

So this is why it’s important to believe anybody who says that they have been raped.  We all know it happens a lot, even if we refuse to believe it in the face of overwhelming statistics.  On the same basis we should also know that false accusations are vanishingly rare (not least because of the huge cost to the victim of going public.  I don’t know where this myth of women getting rich and famous of the back of making accusations came from, but it’s as persistent as it is poisonous).  But even if this were a possibility, with any other crime we’d expect the police and the courts to root it out.  The women who have been raped deserve our support, and much of that comes from simply saying that we believe them.  There is a time and place for scepticism, but it is not in the face of somebody who has just faced one of the worst experiences a person possibly can, and who will also be acutely aware that this is just the beginning of their ordeal.

Believing rape victims is the only decent thing to do.


Please note that when I’ve talked about rape in this, I include various other sexual offences; this is not about a particular legal definition, but a type of crime and how society does (and should) deal with it.


On Freedom of Speech

There’s been a lot of bullshit talked about freedom of speech lately.  There’s been a lot of bullshit talked about freedom of speech since it became a concept.  But perhaps the most frustrating thing about the recent spate is that people are talking at cross-purposes, and generally agree on the basic principle, just not how and where it’s applied.  This is not an argument about whether there should be a free press or government monitoring of what people say.  As such, I shall try to be charitable towards those I disagree with, as I think they’re generally well-intentioned but mistaken in their apprehension, rather than malicious.  Or at least most of them: some are awful trolls and haters (I’m not sure if I like the word ‘haters’ in general use:most people don’t hate indiscriminately – they do it directedly and for reasons, good or bad – but it’s about right here).

First, some pedantry.  When people talk about freedom of speech, they mean a whole range of different things, from being able to express an opinion in (what they regard as) private, up to the maintenance of a free press.  And this is the root of much of the disagreement at present.  But when one is talking about freedom of speech as a formal right, it must refer to the state, and nothing more.  The right to speak freely is the right to not have your speech arbitrarily monitored, limited, or controlled by the government.  It doesn’t stop other people from ignoring you or shouting you down.  It doesn’t mean you get to speak in any particular place.  It doesn’t entitle you to say anything you want without consideration for the possible effects.  The classic example is shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded room, causing a stampede.  It certain doesn’t entitle you to a platform, or any other means of amplifying your voice over those of others.

This is not to say that many of these things aren’t desirable.  Those with something to say should be heard.  But that comes down to matters of opinion about who should be heard, and who ignored.  What isn’t helpful is people framing any suggestion that a certain individual doesn’t deserve a given platform as censorship.  Especially when that person has access to all sorts of alternatives.  Most people in the world have little outlet (and probably nothing before the advent of the web), so let’s not get distracted by a few high profile people encountering a little resistance at universities.

The limits of free speech

Look, in an ideal world, everybody would have a public voice.  This sort of thing – a blog – is a pretty good approximation.  Of course, most blog content might as well be shouted into a well.  A few friends and family might read it, but unless you hit something zeitgeisty, or have contacts, you have no expectation that it will reach many people.  The thing is that the ‘free speech is everything’ people aren’t focussed on the right to speak, so much as the right to be listened to.  I think they make two major oversights.

The first is in trumpetting a simple multiplicity of views.  The more ideas and opinions we hear, the better.  In an ideal world…maybe.  It’s certainly good to consider contrary opinions, even if they do only lead to us strengthening our own.  Debate is a fine thing.  But to suggest that ignoring any given person  – generally someone the arguer agrees with – is a mistake is itself folly.  There are simply too many voices in the world, and we are all necessarily selective.  You should certainly temper your Fox News with some BBC (and vice versa), but you cannot possibly listen to every single position.  So people are very rarely just saying ‘don’t listen to this person’; rather, they are saying that you should give time to someone else you maybe haven’t considered.  To give a specific example: when a group protested against Germaine Greer speaking at the Cambridge Union, they didn’t just argue that she shouldn’t be listened to (on the grounds of her attitude to, and treatment of, trans* people), but they offered their own event and speakers, Roz Kaveney & Sarah Brown, to provide an alternative.  Oddly, this has been presented by some as ‘no platforming’ despite the fact that both events went ahead.

The second error is in ignoring the fact that speech can have negative consequences.  It is odd that they present it as being neutral, ideas as if they are completely objective prior to their application, when they are so determined as to the good that can be done.  If the world can be changed for the better by a speech, it can just as well be made worse.  We know that some things can be harmful if said in the wrong place and time.  The aforementioned shout of ‘fire’.  The use of abusive language directed at certain people.  This is all about context: a word is neutral when spoken in a vacuum; it is not in any circumstance where it has meaning.

The thing is that virtually all of those calling for more free speech know this.  I doubt many of them want to give neo-Nazis an opportunity to recruit at our institutions of learning (because even *wrong* words have power).  I’m sure they all repudiate hate speech.  But then who decides what hate speech is?  Denial of a genocide?  The suggestion that only white people can be British?  Arguing that women are inherently inferior?  Insisting that sex is purely physiologically determined and fixed at birth, and that trans* people are trying to fool the rest of us?  Of course, where you draw the line is a huge messy argument in itself.  This has long been the debate around the rise of UKIP to apparent ‘legitimacy’, but even Nigel Farage appreciates that there are some things that should not be said in public (even if he’s only kicking people out for reasons of expediency).

It’s odd that the one type of debate the arch free-speechers don’t want to hear is the one about what sort of public debate we should be having.  They like to pretend that the line between the acceptable and unacceptable is generally agreed and immovable.

A response to Mary Beard

Yesterday an open letter was published by the Observer, composed by Beatrix Campbell, and signed by a substantial number of academics, activists, feminists and others.  http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2015/feb/14/letters-censorship  Although a number of points are made in the letter, the central claim is that there has been a recent trend of restriction of freedom of speech at our universities.

Many people have written responses of varying length to this letter (mine is copied on this site), from articulate criticisms of the individual points to in a few cases, I am sad to say, more personal harassment of some of the signatories (more on this later).  Despite the existence of the latter, the vast majority of what I have read is polite, coherent and well reasoned.  The essence of these is that, firstly, some of the claims made by the letter are manifestly false, and secondly, that the broader situation described is at best misleading of the actual facts.

I shall resist the temptation to elaborate on the content of the original letter more that is necessary, both for reasons of the volume of other responses and because there are others far more qualified than I to speak on specific matters of content.  However I do want to focus on one particular detail of the ever-expanding furore.  One of the signatories who has received the most attention is Mary Beard.  I think that there are a good number of reasons for this: her general popularity and articulate manner, the fact that as a woman of a certain age she elicits more sympathy than certain others, that she has previously been the noted target of online abuse, and that she has not – to the best of my knowledge – been tarnished by direct claims of trans- and whore-phobia (matters of association being considerably more complex to unpick).  As a result, various of the responses to the original letter have identified Prof Beard as the reasonable person to whom their objections can be directed.

Professor Beard has now provided her own thoughts, on her website, and it is on these that I would like to make a few comments.  http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/2015/02/no-platforming-1.html  I’m going to address them personally to Prof Beard.

A response to a response to a response…

1.  You state that you have a long-held view that ‘no-platforming’ unpopular views is counter-productive.  While I understand the general position, this rather depends upon what is meant by ‘unpopular’.  There are, of course, things that people don’t want to hear but really need to (generally anything critical of themselves and their beliefs).  Then again there are those who simply preach hate, and who we do not stand to gain anything from hearing.

You acknowledge that we all draw a line somewhere on the matter of free speech, but this doesn’t mean that we need to be relativist about the matter: some people take permissiveness to an extreme level, while others will attempt to shut down anything outside their comfort zone, and both of these positions are wrong.  There is room for debate over the middle ground, but the essence of the disagreement between you and various of my co-correspondents is that we think that at least some of the examples cited in the open letter fall into the actively harmful beyond any redeeming quality category.

(the most egregious example being the various transphobes.  These people are not trying to negotiate with trans* people about the niceties and etiquette of trans*/cis daily life.  They are arguing that trans* people should not exist.  You cannot debate with somebody who refuses to acknowledge your essential nature, let alone your right to speak on related matters)

2.  You acknowledge that the Smurthwaite business may not be ‘as it has widely been reported’.  This is rather disingenuous.  There has been a sustained campaign of misinformation – beginning with Smurthwaite herself – and before you signed a letter like this, you should have made the effort to acquaint yourself with the basics.  Various people at Goldsmiths have published their view of the matter online, since they’ve not been permitted a national media platform, and it is pretty clear that Kate Smurthwaite exaggerated the situation, at the very least.

3.  You observe that Julie Bindel has been no-platformed by the NUS for several years.  I am afraid that you are mistaken, albeit to a lesser degree, on this matter too.  The LGBT campaign has done so, but not the wider NUS.  I mention this only to highlight the importance of accuracy in your response.  More pertinently it is odd that you fail to acknowledge (or were unaware) that Bindel herself is a keen advocate of ‘no-platforming’.  She and her affiliated organisations commonly refuse to allow trans* activists or active sex workers to speak.  She recently publish a ‘press pack’ for journalists that advised them against speaking to grass-roots sex workers organisations on the spurious grounds that they are a mouthpiece for pimps and the sex industry.  More generally, many feminist conferences fail to provide a platform for either trans* or sex work activists, despite the fact that matters of direct concern to them are commonly debated.  It has become commonplace to see panels on sex work lacking a sex worker, despite the fact that sex worker-led organisations routinely put members forward for these.

4. You appear confused, rather embarrassingly, about the notion of democracy (modern, of course, I wouldn’t presume to inform you on the ancient varieties).  Of course democracy must always be more than simple majority rule, but to suggest that democratically reached decisions made by democratically elected groups (and I realise the uninspiring nature of student politics means that people are commonly elected unopposed, but that is another matter) are undemocratic is strange.  And that they should be externally overruled (and by who?  The faculty?  The vice-chancellor?  The government?) is just perverse.  Democracies get things *wrong*, but it’s not because they’re not democratic enough.

5. You observe the difficulties of signing alongside unconfirmed others.  I sympathise somewhat, but this is the nature of the open letter.  The whole premise is built upon the notion of a group of people coming together from different backgrounds, to express a shared opinion.  You cannot have your cake and eat it: you chose to sign alongside these people in order to make a point, so you can’t complain when some of them turn out to have views which you would not whole-hearted endorse.

6. Having noted the above, you do mention a number of people with whom you are unequivocally happy to share a platform.  You then go on to suggest that anyone disagreeing with them would be a real reactionary.  This is nice rhetoric, but rather overstates their credentials.  Caroline Criado-Perez, for example, may have led a few well-meaning campaigns, but also has a track record of (literally as well as figuratively – I have heard her on the radio) talking over WoC.

7. You observe you think there is something very weird going on if me and Peter Tatchell (never mind the other 130 people) are held up as the enemy of the SW and trans community when (whatever the micro arguments are) we are on the same damned side.  Oh if only things were so simple.  For a start it is perfectly possible for people on the same side to disagree on certain matters, just as it is possible for enemies to see eye to eye.  More concerningly, this line is itself a method for stifling debate.  The idea that one can’t criticise one’s allies is to ignore the temporary and pragmatic nature of alliance.  At the very least I think it is uncontroversial to observe that (white, cis) gay men have at times left behind the rest of their allies in the LGBT+ community.  And that mainstream feminism has a huge problem acknowledging the experience and expertise of WoC.  There are not two clearly defined sides here.

8. I am sorry that you were upset by the nature of the response to your signing of the letter.  And I think that we can all agree that the individual who messaged you sixty times in one hour is not helping either ‘side’.  But, as you acknowledge, this is nothing on the scale of what many people receive on account of their gender (or indeed other aspect of their identity).  Many of those who wrote back to you, or blogged or tweeted about the matter will expect to be the subject of abuse, threats, doxxing and the like on a daily basis.  And I am afraid that the actions of you and your co-signatories help to legitimise this.  By painting yourselves as the victims, you make those who disagree with you out to be the aggressors, when they are the ones who really lack a platform.

9. Your final point: you can see why a lot of women (and there is a gender issue here) might choose not to put their heads above the parapet, cant you?  It is true that women face being the target of abuse, and that the public arena is dominated by (white) men.  But the fact remains that white, middle-class cis women are still the second most privileged group on the planet.  I don’t want to seem uncharitable, but at least the abuse directed at this demographic gets acknowledged: I am thinking of the recent Guardian front page story ‘Twitter chief takes blame for failure to act on trolls’ (6th of Feb, I think, as for some reason I’m having trouble negotiating the archives), which was illustrated with the pictures of seven white women – including yourself – and Matt Lucas.

The remark also rather glosses over the fact that women can be the source as well as the target of the abuse.  If high-profile white women are afraid to speak because of the negative attention, harassment, and threats from (largely) men, just consider what is like for female sex workers, for example, who face not only that, but the added opprobrium of their fellow women.


Many of the objections to ‘no-platforming’ pretend that it is a stand-alone form of action: a person is invited to speak, under pressure the organisation or society takes a vote, and the invitation is withdrawn.  The person has been ‘silenced’.  This is to take an entirely negative view of the process.  In actual fact, to take the earlier manifestation of the phenomenon, upon withdrawing an invitation to somebody of fascist sympathies, one would expect their place to be taken by a more liberal speaker, even a confirmed anti-fascist.  Similarly, when a campaign is formed against allowing a transphobe to take advantage of a prominent public platform, this will be in combination with a desire to allow actual trans* people to speak about their experiences.

The trouble with being opposed to no-platforming (as a matter of principle) is that it means that while one is openly supporting the right of anyone to be heard, it has the effect of degradation to a ‘state of nature’ where the loudest shout over everybody else.  If there is no active attempt to regulate balance and amplify certain voices, white men – already the receptacles of most public power – will continue to dominate discourse.  Below this will come the expected hierarchy: ‘respectable’ white women, and ‘articulate’ BME males (the above all being cis, of course), before anybody from a more oppressed background even gets a look in.  And this effect will be increased by the, already common, practice of allowing people from these preferred groups to speak for those in the tiers below.

Letter to the editor

This was a letter I wrote (in anger) to the editor of the Guardian following the publication of an open letter: http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2015/feb/14/letters-censorship
Haven’t heard from them, so I guess they’re not going to publish (I’ve about a 50% hit rate, but this one is probably too long anyway).  Hope it’s because they’ve chosen somebody more articulate than me. 
I was extremely disappointed to read the list of signatories beneath today’s letter (14/2/15) regarding censorship at universities; some names were to be expected, but I would have hoped that others would have looked more closely at the situation.  At the very least, a number of different circumstances have been conflated here to create the appearance of an orchestrated campaign against free speech.

It is striking how one-sided the reporting of the Smurthwaite affair, which seems to have occasioned this particular outbreak of hand-wringing, has been.  As anybody who has bothered to listen to the Goldsmiths comedy society is aware, there is no ban, and was going to be no organised protest.  The university feminist society declined to jointly present the gig, at least in part of the basis of certain of Kate Smurthwaite’s expressed opinions, but there is a lot of blue sky between deciding not to endorse, and calling for a ban.  They also voted against a picket.  It is possible that certain individuals may have decided to act privately, but this is both unclear and irrelevant to the stated case.  The main source of information regarding the probability of a picket has been Smurthwaite herself, who has conveniently managed to use her reported ‘no-platforming’ to acquire, er, a substantial media platform.

There has also been a deliberate juxtaposition of the original ‘no-platforming’ against fascists with the current movement, as if to suggest that those involved are claiming equivalence.  To be opposed to the institutional endorsement of those – such as Julie Bindel – who insist on objectification and denial of the agency of sex workers, for example, thereby indirectly perpetuating violence against a marginalised group is not to equate with groups who advocate direct violence.  Nor is it a reason to fail to act against such an unconscionable position.
Most disturbingly, there has been an attempt to reposition student feminists as those with the power, against those so voiceless that they are barely able to get onto Newsnight.  Presumably most of the signatories would support a grassroots (student or otherwise) movement against certain organisations – maybe Shell, UKIP, or BAe – so one wonders why the recent action has caused such consternation.  Maybe it’s because it has achieved a modicum of success; everybody thinks that students are supposed to protest, but the idea that they might be listened to is apparently beyond the pale.

On Violence

An argument I have heard far too often of late is that feminists and others misuse the term violence’.  The general position of some is that only ‘real’ violence should be a concern: that resulting in bodily injury or death.  Anything that does not result is of a lesser seriousness, if it should be regarded at all.  Obviously one aspect of this ridiculousness is to regard the fears of women and others.  The response is usually, and quite justifiably, to enquire if people need to die before anyone will act on an issue.

The opposing *male* position is that these groups are trying to manipulate language to their own end.  Firstly, there is of course nothing wrong with this.  Language is malleable.   But the objection is also based on falsehood.  I’m no expert, but I recall that many of those charged with violence and condemned to the Inferno of Dante hadn’t been physically so (we looked into it as part of a pub conversation about where exactly in hell we’d expect to find ourselves.  Which probably tells you more about us than the actual results of the ‘research’). The blasphemous were deemed to be violent against god, and homosexuals and other sexual ‘deviants’ violent against nature.  So even if I can’t win an argument with these fools on any more reasonable grounds, at least I can pedantically point out that the notion of non-physical violence has been knocking around for at least a few centuries.

Sex work and anthropology

I spent a moderate amount of time yesterday baffled/enraged/amused by the latest piece of shit put out by Julie Bindel.  Not her ill-considered attack on a non-existent protest by a group of young feminists (although that’s probably worth two or three seconds of your consideration to get an idea of how reliable she is as a source of information).  This is an item entitled Press for Change, and it describes itself as “a press pack for journalists with an interest in stories which involve trafficking of women for the purposes of prostitution.”  It is not, or at least not just that. http://www.childtrafficking.com/Docs/prostitute_traficking_women_070402.pdf

Firstly, let me be clear that I agree that trafficking is a terrible crime, and should have no place in the world.  Also that any form of forced work is wrong.  On sex work I am somewhat more equivocal; obviously to the extent that it intersects with either of the previous points it should be condemned.  But the idea that no woman (or person of any kind) can choose it?  Again there is an intersecting factor in poverty: many, probably the vast majority, only consider it because of straitened circumstances.  But then that itself intersects with stigma.  So two points to consider: if people only *choose* sex work because they need the money, how is it any worse – for that – than other jobs; and if you really want people to leave the industry, how about focussing on providing them with somewhere else to go, and to support themselves and their families, rather than hounding from frying pan to fire (mixed sort of metaphor there noted)?

I must confess that I do not like Julie Bindel.  I shall attempt to be objective here, but the point of this post is not to attack her, as she and her ‘press pack’ are merely a jumping off point.  Nonetheless I shall outline a few problems with her and this release, which is characteristic.  JB is a feminist and a campaigner for women’s rights, and this is entirely admirable in itself.  I’m sure I agree with her on many matters.  However she is at the very least an example of a tendency, common within any established political or ideological group, to spend more time policing the group boundaries than actually trying to get shit done.  A certain amount of this is necessary – to maintain unity of purpose, among other things – and there is the obvious starting point of men.  I have no problem with that.  Feminism is primarily for the benefit of women, even as it benefits all of us, and there’s no reason that men should be expected to be invited to the party.  We can, and should, be able to support it from the sidelines without demanding special recognition; sometimes you do things just because they are right, without needing to be given a gold star or a membership badge.  But the problem with Julie Bindel and her ilk is that they want to start policing which women get to be feminists.

Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you who should and shouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to be a feminist, but I would argue that neither should anybody else.  I don’t think it’s at all controversial to say that feminism is for all women.  You can focus on specific groups, with specific concerns and interests (intersectional feminism in particular for those who recognise that you can’t just examine feminist issues independently of other factors like race and sexuality), but if you’re going to start excluding women and groups of women, you have a problem.  One example of this is that Julie Bindel and her TERF associates don’t think that trans women are ‘women’.  Another, is the exclusion of sex workers (and it should be noted that these two groups have a considerable overlap).

The first is not only extremely cruel in that it excludes one of the most vulnerable groups in society – seriously, look at the statistics for trans women regarding both murder and suicide, if you can do so without feeling voyeuristic, as they’re horrible – but it brings the TERFs weirdly in line with the patriarchal power system they profess to be fighting, by assuming that you determine somebody’s nature from gross anatomy.  The second is perhaps even more bizarre in that it suggests that people move categories according to what they do.  In this case, all – cis – women are born women, and are thus part of the business of feminism, but if they enter the sex industry something strange happens: either they are trafficked or directly coerced into it, in which case they immediately become victims who have no voice and must be represented by the likes of Bindel; or they exhibit some autonomy and suggest that things might be a little more complex, that sex work is at least partially, for some people, a choice, and they apparently disappear.  We know that many women, millions across the world, are involved in sex work, and this is why the sex work is always likely to be a topic at feminist conferences, etc., but if you look at your panels and speakers at most events, you won’t see them or hear from them.  You may here from former sex workers, some trafficking victims who have been ‘rescued’, and many others who claim expertise in the subject, but actual, current sex workers?  Zip.  It appears that a large fraction of feminists are blind or, perhaps more pertinently, deaf to them.

But I have digressed rather too long in my excoriation of Julie Bindel.  She is regarded by many of the mainstream press as a leader of the feminist cause.  Putting aside the reasons behind her personal attitude, I want to explore how this is possible.  How the mainstream of society that regards feminism as a force for good in the world – I have no interest here in the external enemies of feminism – can take seriously as a representative of women somebody who excludes and silences so many.

An alien tribe

In short, the press and the public fail to remark upon the lack of sex workers voices within the feminist movement because they’re already accustomed to not hearing from them.  Sex workers are something you hear about (and almost invariably in negative circumstances, whether as the perpetrators or victims of crime), not people you hear from.  This is exacerbated by the fact that they’re frequently members of (sometimes multiple) other marginalised groups: women, trans*, non-hetero, non-white, those experiencing chronic physical or mental ill health.  Which means that it’s all too easy to fail to notice their absence within mainstream feminist discourse.

Now I’m going to advance my thesis on the premise that the general public base most of their opinions on the media.  By the media, I mean a huge range of different forms of communication, not just the traditional press, including radio, television, Twitter and other social media.  The public also communicate amongst themselves (assuming you can even define an entity ‘the public’), but the topic and direction of discourse is guided, sometimes only marginally, more formally recognised sources.  And the thing that identifies these sources, that entitles them to their status, is their access and reference to expertise.

Now the notion of expertise is a varied and a vexed one, but it is the primary source of authority in modern society.  Your mate down the pub tells you that ‘John Smith’ is the best striker in the laegue and you mock him, but a former footballer in suit sat in a TV studio says so and, even if you disagree, you take the suggestion seriously.  Your doctor suggests that the weird range of symptoms you are displaying are the result of lupus and, even though you’ve seen every episode of House, you nod along and follow her recommendations.  Orthodox economists advise you that austerity is the only way out of the world financial slump and, even though they were the ones that led us into the situation, we continue to listen to them (look at most of the West, where the debate is only really about how much austerity, and for how long, not questioning whether we should listen to these people in the first place).

In our modern society – and this is where we arguably get into territory where I myself have some formal expertise – there is no group more widely and highly regarded for their expertise than scientists.  We may mock them, adhere to the backward notion of them as socially-inept eggheads, but we listen to them when they talk.  Even people expressly opposed to ‘science’ rely on it: disagree with the notion that human life came about after billions of years of evolution?  Draft in a few ‘scientists’ to put together a ‘scientific’ theory of Intelligent Design.  Run an oil company and don’t fancy losing all of your business to renewable sources?  Put together a panel of ‘scientists’ to debunk the notion of climate change (doesn’t matter that none of them are climatologists, cos a scientist is a scientist, right?), and argue that solar power is completely non-viable.

Anyway, the gist of this is that I’m blaming scientists for the lack of consideration given to sex workers.  Not, by any means exclusively – there’d been thousands of years of prejudice built up before modern science even began – but because of its special status, it bears a certain responsibility.  To explain what I mean, a scenario: a public figure appears on the news and announces that sex workers are responsible for the high levels of sexually transmitted infection in the country.  This should seem a reasonably plausible situation, but what would your response be?  I suggest it depends who the figure is.  If a clergyman then no doubt some would listen – the members of his and similar faith groups – but the rest of us would likely identify prejudice.  If a politician, we might suggest that he is just being opportunistic.  But a scientist?  She will have done research, applied analytical processes, and is talking in terms of facts.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a great admirer of science and scientists.  I wouldn’t have devoted some years of my life to studying the matter if I didn’t think that science is probably the greatest single tool for the betterment of mankind.  But this has also *allowed* me to see certain of its flaws.  I know, I know, I’m using my own claimed expertise to try and undermine that of others, but I’d like to think that a healthy degree of scepticism is a good thing, and one that any proponent of science would appreciate.  Unlike many other systems of knowledge, such as those based on revelation, science welcomes criticism (if appropriately framed), absorbs it, and improves.  That’s the whole basis of scientific progress.  (this is not to argue that science is unique in this – many religions also welcome debate, and are prepared to change – but in no other major system is it an absolutely central plank)

Anyway, science is done by people, and people make mistakes.  In the physical sciences this is easier to accommodate – knowing of our tendencies to bias, we use machines to measure and to calculate, and we set (although as a philosopher of science I am aware that one cannot measure without theory, and theories require that dangerous human creative element).  Ideally we limit variables by containing our research to a laboratory or similar.  In the human sciences that isn’t possible to the same degree; we have to go out into the world, engage with people to collect data, and only then can we apply mechanical means to interpret.

To go off on yet another slight tangent, I want to make a few remarks on objectivity.  Most people think of objectivity as being a good thing.  Most scientists will say the same thing, and emphasise that they strive towards it in their research.  And most of both will think of it as being some kind of eternal and abstract standard.  But objectivity is a historically contingent idea, and a dangerous one because it creates the illusion that we are producing immutable and actual truths, when we are merely selecting a certain sort of bias.  Objectivity is good in that it aims to produce consistent results, regardless of who is carrying out a particular piece of research.  But it is bad in that the pursuit of it may mean that we ignore important results.

In the case of sex work, I think that the quest for objectivity has led to the overriding of common sense.  As an aside – this really is a rambling piece – I am extremely conflicted about the notion of ‘common sense’ as it is too often used to defend dogma and self-interest but, hey, go with me.  Common sense should tell us that if you really want to know about a particular human situation, you need to talk to the people involved in it.  You can’t describe a football match in anything like useful terms by purely listing the physical events that occur.  You can’t explain why people eat at a particularly highly-regarded restaurant by referring to nutrition.  Matters like this are, I think talked about by Daniel Dennett in his writings regarding the Intentional Stance, but I’ve only read a little of his work.  My point is that you cannot give any serious consideration to sex work without talking to sex workers.  You can count how many people are involved, track their movements, follow the money, but you cannot give any serious consideration to why any of this happens.

Let me explain why I think too many scientists ignore this, and what it has to do with notions of objectivity.  I think that too many scientists treat sex workers as they would any other subjects of anthropological study, at least up until relatively recently.  Just as a scientist in the lab wears latex gloves and uses instruments to manipulate the subject of her research, in order to avoid contamination, the basic position of field anthropology used to be one of remote observation.  Whether one wanted to determine why city dwellers moved around in certain patterns, people of a nation observed a certain tradition, there was always an attempt to maintain as much distance as possible.  The view was that if one asked, the result would immediately be tainted by the intervention.

While things have moved on in many areas, I think the concern still persists in research in certain areas, particularly those where there significant stigma.  Given the assumption that there is always a degree of coercion involved, researchers don’t want to talk to sex workers because they fear that they will only be told things that fit a particular narrative.  This might be a sinister line fed by a pimp or manager, or it might simply be what the interviewee thinks the researcher wants to hear.  And this is done with, usually, the best of intentions.  However, it is flawed methodology for two reasons.  Firstly, and more blatantly, it ignores a good – the best, for certain matters – source of data.  And secondly, they don’t apply the same standards to other groups.

Broadly, any research that is based on actual interviews with sex workers is undermined with insinuations about coercion of statements.  It is true that this can be a concern, but as in any other form of research, the scientists should be attempting to control for such factors.  But the actual result is that current sex workers are largely ignored by researchers.  And this brings me on to the second point, because the same standard is not applied to former sex workers.  Can you imagine any other industry where you would expect to receive even partially positive views from those who had left?  It’d be like trying to assess the current state of the Conservative Party by only speaking to those who had jumped ship to UKIP.  In addition, it rather insidiously suggests that only those still in active sex work are lacking in objectivity themselves.

More generally, this kind of approach insists on treating sex workers as other.  They exist to be looked at, quantified, judged, but not as autonomous beings who might just know more about their situation than an ‘objective’ observer.  And at last I get back to the idea that got me writing this piece in the first place (thought I’d completely lost track, there).  This is one of the dangers of an anthropological approach – you attempt to maintain a distance between observer and observed, and the very effort of doing so distorts more than the potential cross-pollination.  Observation is, and should be recognised as, a two-way process.  And this is no mean thing.

Finally, in addition to the other issues with researchers not speaking directly to the subjects of their research there is the issue of what happens to those that do cross this line, and refuse to compromise their best source of information.  In short, they face immediate attack for their intransigence.  Public questioning of their judgement, personal and private.  Above all, they are attacked as scientists.  And their research automatically faced insinuations of being tainted, and by the very factor that actually qualifies it so.

And so we get back to why the mainstream press takes Julie Bindel’s ridiculous bigotry seriously.  While she was once of the outside – a radical feminist, no less – she now sanctifies mainstream suspicion of sex work.  Which is really the more radical idea?  That, contrary received ideas, sex work could actually be viable (with all of the resources and protections that are – at least theoretically – available to every other worker)?  Or that millennia of ostracism of (mostly) women should continue, just framed in terms of concern rather than condemnation?


Although, as I said, this is not really supposed to be a post about Julie Bindel’s ‘press pack’, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least cover some of the more egregious problems with it.

  • The explicit refusal to recognise that there is a difference between those trafficked or directly coerced into sex work, and those who *choose* to enter the industry.  Choice is a tricky concept, but it’s important to grant that there is a difference between being forced to do something because one is threatened with violence, and because one needs the money to survive or prosper.  The latter is still coercive, but then in a capitalist system all work is coerced to some degree.  But you wouldn’t generally call your office job forced employment just because you need it to pay the rent.
  • A follow-up to this is playing fast and loose with the distinction: facts about trafficked persons are bandied as if they apply to all those engaged in sex work.
  • Similarly, facts are produced with absolutely no context.  A figure quoted is that 90% of women involved in the sex industry would leave if they could.  Sounds awful until you consider what the figure would be if you asked people in your place of work whether they’d stay there if they could leave.  I’d suggest that unless you’re really lucky, most of your co-workers dream of doing something else, or nothing, but they can’t afford it.  And the figure is likely to rise as the work gets increasingly menial, or lower in status.  Nobody is arguing that sex work isn’t, for the most part, a shitty job (although many of the reasons are external, and might be ameliorated), but the fact that lots of people would rather not be doing it doesn’t invalidate it as work any more that it does to, say, contract cleaning.
  • The very term ‘sex work’ is objected to, and it is claimed without any apparent basis that: “Interestingly, very few women in the sex industry use the term “sex worker” to describe themselves.”  Which is an odd thing to claim when you haven’t actually talked to any of them.  Odd, then, that various of the collectives within the industry refer to themselves as sex workers’ and instead reject language like Bindel’s preferred ‘prostituted women’ as it completely obliterates their agency.
  • Finally, in a series of examples of unvarnished egotism, several of Julie Bindel’s own pieces are approvingly quoted as examples of how best to write about sex work (but referred to in the third person; no honest ‘this is how I might do it’), and a report is applauded for its use of research, in citing Bindel and Kelly.

Again, I’d emphasise that trafficking is a terrible crime, as is forced labour of any kind, be it sex work or other.  And the sex industry clearly has many issues that need to be resolved.  But none of this can be successful without talking to those involved.  We cannot, nor should we, attempt to ‘rescue’ every person involved in sex work.  All we can do is listen, and if we are committed to allowing every sex worker the opportunity to leave the industry, work to provide them with other, better jobs.  It may be that all, or nearly all, sex workers are coerced, but the factors coercing most are simple poverty and lack of alternatives, rather than the concrete villains we might prefer to picture.

How to be a good ally

Wish I knew.  I’ve not got any answers, just a few thoughts on how to avoid fucking it up (much).

I mean, I’m aware of the basics: not declaring yourself to be one like it comes with a badge, or viewing it as a permanent status – you’re only one as long as you’re doing the right stuff – listening, rather than making it about yourself, and that sort of thing.  (There are plenty of lists out there, so I won’t attempt to compile one) http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/09/no-more-allies/ is one of the best I’ve seen on what not to do.

It’s difficult to keep to these, and there are plenty of places to trip up along the way.  I guess the trickiest is that as a person in a position of privilege – in my case a white cis male – it would be far too easy to lean on that privilege.  Probably the most obvious is that as a guy it’s easy to go into white knight mode, throwing (metaphorical) punches to protect the damsel.  And I know I can do that safe in the knowledge that I won’t get hurt.  Whatever happens, my particular combination of characteristics mean that I’ll wake up tomorrow knowing that the world still laid in front of me.

It’s hard not to do this when we’re worried that people we care about are being hurt.  It’s hard not to do this when we see things that offend our sensibilities, and make us really, really angry.  It’s hard not to do this because we’ve been conditioned to think of this as a good thing, admirable.  But it really doesn’t help the situation.  It’s really just another way of making it about you.  You ride in, save the day, and (although you might not think that you’re doing it for this reason) get the ‘girl’.

And even if you do ‘save the day’, what then?  The same thing will happen tomorrow.  The same structures, and the same people, whether genuinely evil or just callous little shits, will be out there.

Instead, you’ve just got to be there, but giving your support from behind the scenes.  And dealing with your own crowd – maybe gently pointing out to other [men] when they don’t even realise the effects of what they say and do.  But otherwise only getting directly involved, and then quietly, when you’re asked to.

You don’t do it to be a hero.  You don’t do it for the credit (and you damn sure don’t go fishing for anything from those you purport to support).  If you’re serious about it, you do it just because it’s the right thing to do.


I’m sure I get things wrong all the time.  I certainly do jump in sometimes.  Oh well, try harder.



(I’m not going to star out letters in the particular words because I’m not going to pretend that it means they’re neutered somehow by that, I’m not J*remy C***kson or the fucking S*n, to tip the hat to Marina Hyde et al http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/lostinshowbiz/2015/jan/22/page-3-no-more-tits-in-the-sun-campaign-stop-the-asterisk )

Ok, time to weigh in on the matter of whether TERF and SWERF are slurs (spoiler: they’re not).  This argument has been bubbling around for a while, but seems to have come to the surface as a result of a Green Party candidate and spokesperson using the term TERF, leading to a demand for apologies from various persons both in and unconnected with the party.  Some people have even gone so far as to compare it to calling someone a Paki, as if they haven’t already offended enough people.  Pretty much everything here applies equally to SWERF, but I shall come back to that at the end.

This, relating as it does to feminism, obviously falls in the category of things somewhat outside my wheelhouse.  I identify as a feminist and male (I’d prefer that you didn’t call me a male feminist, because it brings up the notion of  the sort of people who could read the excellent Onion piece ‘Man Finally Put In Charge of Struggling Feminist Movement’ unironically.  http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-finally-put-in-charge-of-struggling-feminist-m,2338/  But I’m not going to object too much, in line with what I’ll say later, as it is factually true – I am male and a feminist – and it’s not really a hurtful thing to say.  It merely highlights that men need to be careful about how they try to participate in and support what is necessarily a female-led movement).  But I’ll try to keep things general, and I’ll again observe that nobody else is required to read this – I’m writing to practice writing.

What is a slur?

The ‘TERF is a slur’ crowd have been acting as if any term one would rather not be addressed by is automatically a slur.  This is disingenuous at best.  I’d rather you didn’t call me Dave, because it’s not my name.  I’d rather you didn’t call me a Male Feminist, for the reasons I outlined above.  Neither would be a slur.  A real slur can be objected to on two grounds: that it is untrue, and that it has significantly negative historical associations.  The latter is relevant because history determines the meanings of words.  We might like to pretend that words are unambiguously associated with objects/actions/qualities, but where they have come from, and thus how they are used, is essential.

To take the first point, it might be a slur to call someone a criminal, but only if they have not committed the associated crime.  It is pretty offensive to publicly refer to a person as a murderer – and they might sue you for slander or libel – but there wouldn’t really be a good objection if they had wilfully and maliciously killed somebody.

Similarly, any complaint about being called a TERF is undermined if that is, in fact, an accurate description.  A TERF is generally translated to be a trans*-exclusionary radical feminist.  Now as far as I’m aware, nobody being labelled a TERF objects to being called a feminist – this argument is within the feminist movement, and while some people might like them to be excluded, they don’t want this themselves.  The trans*-exclusionary is based on either explicit statements to the effect that trans women are not women – thereby ‘excluding’ them from feminism – or public association with people who have made such statements.  As it turns out, the only remotely questionable term within TERF is radical.  This originates with the label TERF was originally applied to certain self-identified Radical Feminists (i.e. those who see feminism as a struggle to overthrow the power system they call patriarchy).   So, er, you could object to being called a TERF on the grounds that you’re not radical.  But on to the second constituent.

(Note: various alternative suggestions have been made regarding the ‘R’, including that it stands for reactionary, or regressive.  This doesn’t change the thrust of the argument – these may be accurate, in which case it’s hard to see a problem, or not.)

The other thing that is essential to a slur is that it must be have some historical basis for being regarded as offensive.  I might not like being called Dave, but there’s nothing about it that makes it a slur.  I could ask you nicely to not do it, or even stop associating with you, but that’s my call.  Onto the most offensive part of the recent farrago.  Again *content warning for offensive language* Certain of those complaining about being called TERFs have compared the term to ‘Paki’.  I’m not sure what they hope to achieve from this; one is associated with centuries of violence and abuse, and the other… just isn’t.

This reminds me of the witless fools who try to argue that calling somebody of South Asian descent a Paki is no different to calling someone from a certain group of islands in the North Atlantic a Brit.  As if the important part is that they’re both shortened versions of the relevant demonym (we’ll ignore the fact that the former is also indiscriminately applied to Indians, Bangladeshis, etc.).  One is associated with racist violence, the other with mild ribbing about being uptight by Americans and Aussies.  (note how the second of these is again, not offensive).

To return to TERF: nobody has been on the end of violence as the result of being a called a TERF.  To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been on the end of violence as result of being a TERF.  Being excluded from debates yourself because of your insistence on excluding others is not violence.  Intolerance of intolerance is not only not a problem, but necessary to stop everything collapsing in on itself.  Rather, it is TERFs who cause violence against trans* people, ironically by supporting an aspect of the very patriarchal system they profess to oppose.  They will freely claim that gender is a construct designed to oppress [women]*, but then take upon themselves to police that construct, and extend that oppression.

*I’ve bracketed women here because RFs refer to a particular construction of what it is to be a woman, highly dependent on physical features.

As to SWERFs, which have not necessarily been part of the particular argument I was examining, but are seemingly omnipresent in feminist circles these days (and may often be the same people because if you’re going to pick on people at the bottom of the pecking order, hey, you might as well pick on all of them.  Also, for various reasons, trans* people are more likely to be involved in sex work that cis people).  The exact same conditions apply 75% of the way, the only difference being that it’s sex workers they won’t allow to be part of their ‘feminism’.  This is egregious because they generally consider sex work to be a matter of major concern to feminism.  Still, there’s no better way to to approach something that you regard as a problem than by ignoring the very people caught up in the middle of it (and who therefore might be expected to know what they’re talking about).  Anyway, if you refuse to invite feminists who are sex workers – and there’s no reason why the two should be mutually exclusive – to your ‘feminist’ shindig, you’re a SWERF.

Some SWERFs try to defend their position by embracing former sex workers, which they like to  refer to as ‘survivors’ (rather bafflingly, because I’m not sure what this makes active sex workers).  Unsurprisingly, formulating your opinion of a group by only talking to people who have left it creates a pretty skewed impression.  Anyway, this leads them to believe that all sex workers would rather be out, and those who deny this are either suffering under some kind of false consciousness, or are being paid off by some nebulous organisation they call the ‘pimp lobby’.  It also fails to distinguish between people who are trafficked or otherwise directly compelled into the industry, and those who are forced into it by more mundane matters, which is to say because they need/want the money.  For the latter group, it is probably true that in the loosest possible sense they would rather leave sex work, but only in the sense that the vast majority of us would rather like to quit our jobs if only we could afford to.


As a side note I think that gender can also be pretty oppressive to men, particularly those who don’t fit the stereotypical masculine template.  Patriarchy is bad for all of us, apart from the elites who benefit most from the status quo.  This is why we should all be working together to dismantle it.  Which is not to dispute that it’s a hell of a lot worse for women, non-whites, and other ‘minority groups’ (not that either of the former is a minority on a global level).