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The parable of the rats on the boat

February 21, 2013

In the past couple of days I have been feeling very angry. I have been angry about sexual harassment, sexual assault, creepy douchebaggy harassy behaviour, men exploiting the way in which women are socialised into being polite and non-confrontational for the purposes of the aforementioned creepy douchebaggy harassy behaviour, and also the fucking cover up and culture of silence around the above. Especially the phrase “don’t rock the boat”. As in “don’t say anything to that creepy guy in X society who always hangs around the youngest women possible; that would be rocking the boat”. As in “don’t make a big deal about that one guy who sent you those creepy, sexually harassy emails: don’t rock the boat”. As in “yeah, there’s this guy who’s a creep and we all know about him but we don’t DO anything about him because we don’t want to rock the boat” (oh my god, the amount of times I’ve heard this). This is a stupid fucking metaphor which is used to silence women and values calmness and stability (and the feelings of creepers and sexual harassers)  above the feelings and comfort and happiness of those women. (Disclaimer: yes, women can also be sexual harassers, yes men can get sexually harassed, but the societal dynamic is overwhelmingly weighted towards men sexually harassing women and this happens a lot more than the other things and can we please not use the comments on here to be all “But the men!”, please?)

If you’ve got a boat which can’t stand a little rocking (and considering most boats are going to face rough waters at some point, it really should be able to), IT’S NOT A VERY FUCKING GOOD BOAT, IS IT? And if you’ve got a boat with a rat infestation and the rats make everyone unhappy and keep gnawing through things and causing leaks, and you’ve got some people on the boat trying to get rid of them, but in their efforts to throw the rats overboard and get rid of the rats the boat’s making some swaying motions (and maybe the timber’s creaking a bit), you then say “oh guys DON’T ROCK THE BOAT, I mean I know we have a bit of a problem with rats but everyone knows about them, it’s fine – we tell all the new sailors to keep away from them (once they’ve already got on the rat infested boat, that is), and it’s not as if the rats are ALWAYS bad; I mean, I know there’s the whole plague problem but really they can be quite cute and fluffy sometimes, when they’re not biting you, and anyway it could be really upsetting to the rats to throw them overboard: does that really create the welcoming atmosphere we want on this boat? AND THE BOAT’S SWAYING A BIT AND I CAN’T DEAL WITH THE ROCKING MOTIONS I’M GETTING SEASICK (I’m not sure why I even got on a boat, being this prone to motion sickness, but yeah) and the timbers are creaking and I’m scared of what might happen, let’s just live with the rats, m’kay? I mean, what can we really DO about them?” YOU’RE SAYING THE WRONG THING.

And then the people who are doing everything in their power to DEAL WITH THE RAT INFESTATION say “but for fuck’s sake there’s a rat GNAWING AT YOUR ANKLE LET ME JUST THROW HIM OVERBOARD COME ON” and then other people say “oh look he’s only a rat he probably doesn’t MEAN to gnaw at my ankle; that’s just what rats DO” and then the people-trying-to-deal-with-the-rats say “but people keep jumping overboard because they CAN’T BEAR THE FUCKING RATS ANY MORE” and the other people say “oh come on you’re leaping to conclusions we don’t actually KNOW why people leap off the boat, shouting ‘the rats the rats THERE ARE SO MANY RATS ON THIS BOAT’. Why are you going around causing trouble?”. Then the people trying to deal with the rat infestation say “I have had it with these motherfucking rats on this motherfucking boat!” and leap overboard themselves, and the people left shrug and go “Crazy, huh? I wonder why people keep leaping off the boat? It’s probably their time of the month or something. Bitches, man.” and eventually THE RATS TAKE OVER and the boat keeps leaking and people keep throwing themselves overboard to get away from the rats, when really if they could just have endured a bit of rocking and mild feelings of sea sickness for a few days THERE’D BE NO MORE RATS.

I will now explain the parable of The Rats on the Boat.

The rats are creepy, douchey, sexual harasser guys who often operate under a guise of plausible deniability and “what, me? I was just being friendly,” and “man, these women think everyone fancies them” and in general creep on women and harass them and make them feel uncomfortable. The boat is….well, it can be society at large, it can be a society (a dance society, a fetish society, a knitting circle), it can be an academic institution, it can be the workplace, it can be anywhere you get rat infestations. I mean, creepy douchey guys. The people who are trying to deal with the rats by rocking the boat are the people who try to speak up about the harassy guys. Women, perhaps, who’ve been harassed by harassy guys trying to tell other women about them and make everyone more aware of the problem, or people who say “um shall we SAY something about Jeff-who-keeps touching women on the buttocks” or “look why don’t we just take Sebastian-the-serial-creeper-on-young-women OFF the mailing list so he won’t turn up to events any more” or “you know how Adam is verging on stalking Sandra…shall we SAY something to him?”. The other people on the boat are the people who say “look, we might upset Sebastian if he finds out he’s no longer on the mailing list,” or “Adam is very unhappy, you know, let’s not make him unwelcome,” or “look, if we just try to steer the newer women away from Jeff we should be fine…most people can dodge him, anyway,” and “I mean, he hasn’t actually assaulted anyone”, and above all “look, don’t rock the boat, it’s not worth it”.Then women will leave the society (dance society, fetish society, knitting circle), feeling driven away by the creepy fuckers who make them feel uncomfortable and unhappy, and people say “we don’t know that’s why they left; they never told us”. Well, no shit they didn’t. It’s almost as if there was a culture of silence around the subject, and people who do speak up are told not to. They’re told they’re being aggressive and confrontational, and unwelcoming, and overreacting, and disturbing the peace, and are in general being trouble-makers and people learn not to say anything. They learn to accept the rat infestation as a fact of the boat, and when new people come along and say “…um…there seems to be a rat scurrying up my leg?” they’ll get the response “oh, that must suck for you, but what can we do? We mustn’t rock the boat.” Fuck that shit. All I want is a boat with no rats on it, and I am willing and enthusiastic to rock it to achieve that aim. And IF the boat can’t handle a little rocking and capsizes, then fine. Let’s build a better boat. A BOAT WITHOUT A FUCKING RAT INFESTATION. The old boat was clearly rotten through and through.

(I wanted to end this with “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” but couldn’t quite figure out how to work it into my already-stretched-to-breaking-point metaphor. Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.)

Shoddy reporting on sub fusc

July 30, 2012

I have rarely seen such bad journalism and shoddy reporting as I have in the past couple of days, after Oxford University altered its subfusc regulations in order to be more flexible and inclusive to trans and gender variant students. Nearly every article I read on the changes was riddled with inaccuracies . I was quoted using male pronouns, and Jess Pumphrey with female pronouns.  Jess is OUSU’s LGBTQ officer, not the LGBTQ society’s executive officer, as has been reported. Furthermore, many articles took misleading slants, bordering on transphobia. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph both took the angle that men would now be able to wear skirts to exams, focusing on the idea of cross-dressing and transvestism.

Setting aside the somewhat baffling obsession with men in skirts (so what if a man wears a black skirt to an exam? Who on earth does this affect?) it is important to note that the cross-dressing angle not only misses the point of the subfusc changes, but is the complete reverse of the point. Had any of the newspapers hurriedly rushing out what they’d received from the Press Association actually read the information provided, they might have noticed this quote from Jess Pumphrey: “In future there will be no need for transgender students to cross-dress to avoid being confronted by invigilators or disciplined during their exam”. The aim of the sub fusc changes was not to allow cross-dressing (although again – so what?) but to stop transgender students feeling the need to cross-dress for exams.
A brief outline of what subfusc actually is may be helpful at this point.  Read more…

DIVA’s response

April 10, 2012

I called yesterday in my blog for a response from DIVA about my criticisms, and a response I have got. (I stirred things up quite a bit on twitter.) Louise Carolin emailed me; she wrote both the original article in DIVA, and the response to my letter. She is also an out bi woman herself – something of which I was not aware when I wrote my blog. I don’t want to add too much commentary to the emails; I’m satisfied with the response, although I remain in disagreement with Louise.

Read more…

Oh dear, DIVA: leading magazine for queer women legitimises biphobia.

April 9, 2012

Many of my readers will be aware of my former dispute with DIVA magazine, the UK’s leading magazine for lesbian, bisexual and other queer women. Last time it was about their behaviour over internships, which got rather dramatic and resulted in being brought up in the House of Commons. This time, it’s about biphobia; the bigotry and ill treatment of bisexual and other non mono-sexual people.

In April’s edition of DIVA, an article was published entitled “Why do you have to be such a heart-breaker?”, focusing on relationships between lesbians and bisexuals. Although it was supposedly about biphobia, and presumably biphobia being a bad thing, everything about the article seemed to suggest that a fear of dating a bisexual woman was something perfectly natural. The line on the cover was “How to overcome your fears and date a bisexual,” which implied that such fears were natural, to be overcome, and further more made clear that DIVA magazine is perhaps not aimed at all queer women but just lesbians. The article’s headline, quoted above, immediately framed bi women in the role of fickle cheat, breaking the hearts of those steady, ill-done-by lesbians who date us. The sub-header was “Can lesbians and bi women ever find true love?”, to which the answer is so obviously “yes” I wonder the question even needs asking. The article itself was less objectionable, but what really frustrated me was the “Reader Experience” section. No bisexual-positive quotes from lesbian women were given; just anecdotes about bad experiences with bi women and bi women in turn talking about the bigotry they’ve experienced. As if the two were equal! I have seen the facebook discussion from which these quotes were taken: there were lesbian women who were not only happy to date bisexuals, but expressed disgust with the biphobia displayed by other lesbians. DIVA presented the case as if all lesbians encountered showed an unwillingess to date bisexuals.

Read more…

Sherlocked – the humiliation of Irene Adler

January 2, 2012

It is hardly news that Steven Moffat, lead writer on Doctor Who, co-creator of the critically acclaimed Sherlock, has a tendency to fail a bit when it comes to talking about women. This quote is quite gloriously awful, with its double whammy of being misogynistic itself and implying that misandry is a serious problem in “civilised” countries. Smooth.  A wonderful blog post here discusses the representation of women in Series 1 of Sherlock.

Despite that, and the fact that I have felt uncomfortable with his writing of female characters in both Doctor Who and in Sherlock, I love both shows. And I naively hoped that last night’s episode of Sherlock, A Scandal in Belgravia, would perhaps redeem him a bit in my eyes. Irene Adler, in the stories by Conan Doyle, was one of the few characters ever to get the better of Holmes. She was an opera singer, witty, with “the mind of the most resolute of men” according to the King who brings the case to Holmes in the story. She outwits him, the way in which she gains his respect.

Read more…

Ladies present! How to deal with chivalrous sexism.

August 17, 2011

     During my lunch-break today (having recently become Gainfully Employed) I was sitting in my favourite cafe, drinking tea and eating a slice of lemon cake. Two or three men walked into the cafe – all, like me, regulars. I know them by sight. They recognise me. One of them commenced telling an anecdote of some variety to the man who works there (who I chat to frequently). Now, I’m not sure exactly what the anecdote was about, but the words “useless fucking cunt!” were uttered by the teller. The guy working there immediately said “Shh, ladies present!” and gestured to me.

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Internships and DIVA magazine – the consequences.

July 8, 2011

Since my blog post on Internships, exploitation and social divisions, there’s been a huge number of developments, as anyone who follows me on twitter will know.

There’s been a series of blog posts about me and my issue with DIVA magazine – starting with this one at Harry’s Place. There have also been follow ups at this website. There is also a blog post here and now here at Intern Avenue. I must point out that I did not press anyone for these posts to be written or ask anyone to write about me.

Read more…


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