Sacking Saatchi wouldn’t have helped Nigella – and that’s not condoning his behaviour

Saturday evening, reviewing the papers on Sky News, and I found myself wondering if I’d come across as a domestic violence apologist.

It shouldn’t happen to a gender equalitest, and as much as I might want to blame the fact I’ve been in the US for two months and was rusty on paper reviewing, feeling out of sync with UK news, and struggling to get a word in edge ways against the consistently confident Alex Deane, the fact is I fucked up in not nailing my colours to the mast.

Mentioning the campaign for London Evening Standard Editor Sarah Sands to sack Saatchi, I said I didn’t think it was the right move, on the basis that the strangulation incident was ‘not relevant’ to the column he wrote. Before I had a time to explain further, we’d moved on to the next story and there was I sounding as though I was I touting the old ‘private matter’ argument.

What I actually meant was that in his column, Saatchi does not seek to evince a gender equalitest point of view, nor elucidate his views on family morality, domestic abuse, or human rights. The feminist riposte to this, espoused by, amongst others, Louise Mensch (proving it wasn’t a case of so-called Guardianista indignation) was that Sands should sack Saatchi. If she did this, they said, it would send out a strong signal that domestic abuse is not ok; not if you’re an illustrious art dealer; not if you’re a respected intellectual; not if you’re a friend of the editor.

I suppose my rationale in defending Sands’ decision at the time was the knowledge that Saatchi had only been given a caution from police. But a police caution doesn’t mean that was Saatchi was not guilty – rather that he was, but that the police deemed the offence not serious enough to warrant either a ‘conditional caution’ which requires a course of treatment or attendance of a rehabilitative group to be undertaken as a result, or a criminal record.

Given that the conviction rate for domestic abuse in the UK is so pitiful and the incidences of it so frequent (around 1 in 4 will experience it at some point), and our education and willingness to talk about it so poor, a police caution hardly makes for effective action. But that is a problem with the justice system, not with Sands’ decision.

On further reflection, I decided I agreed with Sands for an even more important reason – consideration of the victim. Would Nigella Lawson have really benefitted from the added adverse publicity of a sacked Saatchi at what one can only imagine is a terrible time for her and her family? Her needs and wishes should surely now be paramount. Given that Sands knows the couple, presumably this was also on her mind – sack Saatchi and the story (and Nigella Lawson’s public-facing distress) would have continued.  Instead, Sands took the measured decision to allow the case to be fiercely debated within the pages of the Standard itself.

Whatever the context of those shocking pictures, I only hope that, at the very least, Saatchi makes a public apology – but only once Lawson has been afforded the privacy she now needs to move forward with her life – whether that’s alone or with her abusive husband. Post-Leveson, the paps really should be putting down their cameras.

I also hope that I keep my wits about me the next time I’m in a position to condemn domestic abuse and make sure I do so unequivocally, and quickly, so that the possibility I’m excusing abuse doesn’t cross either mine or anyone else’s mind.

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Porn and prejudice

If you didn’t catch last week’s Observer feature on the launch of a new academic journal called Porn Studies and the controversy it’s causing, it’s worth a read. Not only because of the way it highlights the polarisation of attitudes within the academic sphere as well as the public one, but also because of how it steers towards exposing the writer’s personal discomfort as it progresses.

Author Carole Cadwalladr does a fair job of giving traction to those of both sides of the fence, namely the editors of Porn Studies, Clarissa Smith and Feona Attwood and their opponents, Pornland author and academic Gail Dines, and Professor Clare Mcglynn. But as the piece progresses, her own journey into the internet porn hinterland takes precedence:

“After reading the Mail article, I type “rape porn” into Google to find more articles on the subject. But “rape porn” doesn’t bring up articles on the subject. It brings up videos of women being raped.

All but one of the top five results on Google are for mainstream porn sites that host videos – click, click, and you’re there – of women being raped by men. There’s vaginal rape, oral rape, anal rape, often all three together. Some of the videos are “simulated”, acted, and some of them aren’t. They show actual women being actually raped.

Maybe you already knew that. I use the internet every day but I didn’t. Does that make me naive? A prude? Possibly both.”

What Cadwalladr does is more than purely reporting what her investigation has uncovered. Instead, she takes the piece in a completely different direction – uses evidence of her own ignorance about porn to imply that the issue with something like Porn Studies is that it cannot affect the everyday attitudes of everyone else. The implication is that high mindedness is all very well but it will not keep our society safe from the nefarious affects of much pornography.

I would argue that what it will do is keep us safe from misinformation about the porn that’s out there. It will help us make better decisions about how we prosecute those that produce non-consensual and abusive material. And it will help develop our cultural understanding of porn, and its place in society, which is crucial if we are to begin with the seemingly inexorable force that is internet porn.

Cadwalladr should have taken more time to explain the likely content of the journal, rather than wading into an argument about its seemingly futile role in combating domestic violence, for example.

From labelling Jeremy Forrest a ‘paedophile’ to telling us that schools want to teach our primary schoolers about anal penetration, the tabloid media is awash with misinformed and fear-mongering sex reporting. The Observer didn’t quite do that. But it still allowed for a story that should have engaged with the theoretical debate to become an overly personalised and tangential response.



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Banning porn is the irresponsible answer

I’m usually impervious to an “EU bans…” headline. Basically, because I think the EU is actually quite good at banning things that we are better off without, fish dumping and old-fashioned light bulbs, for example (and let’s face it, who could defend incandescent light bulbs on any basis apart from the fact they were brutally cheap.)

But porn? I nearly gagged on my anti-censorship feminism.

I had to read more.

Turns out ‘a ban on all forms of pornography in the media’ is but one clause of a detailed proposal to end gender stereotypes, which the parliament will vote on this Tuesday. The report itself is actually full of robust recommendations for how we tackle horizontal and vertical segregation in employment, female poverty, the issue of fathers and childcare etc. But the wording of the report is alarmingly vague, with neither porn nor the media defined anywhere at all.

By the report’s own assessment, every sphere of life is dogged by gender stereotypes. That said, the report is primarily concerned with women’s representation, not men’s, and doesn’t trouble itself to refer to either trans representation, or non-hetero-normative gender stereotypes. But gender only means men and women, of course. Advertising is singled out as the main perpetrator of gender stereotypes. So why have the proposers decided that porn alone must be banned? In their minds, do all stereotypes emanate from porn because sex is the act from which life evolves? Perhaps not always being able to see the contraception used has confused the MEPs into thinking that porn stars populate the world with pervy babies, who distort the ‘natural’ order of sex and equality or something. It makes about as much sense as banning all pornography on the basis that, without exception, porn replicates gender stereotypes. And then there’s the minor issue of freedom of expression.

If the report cannot even take the time to define porn, much less assess the quality of the porn out there, or trouble itself to watch films made by directors such as Candida Royale or Anna Arrowsmith or investigate Cindy Gallup’s Make Love Not Porn project, for example, how can we even take the proposal seriously? A ban on porn would be nothing but an electronic cache-sex, a reactive and cowardly response to one of the most pressing ethical questions of our day. Some porn may perpetuate misogyny and gender inequity but it’s not as though those things don’t exist in countries without it. Saudi Arabia springs to mind.

Don’t get me wrong – I think there is a lot of undue misogyny in porn (though what constitutes misogyny is itself open to debate – consensual degradation and general misogyny being too separate things. Read this I wrote for the F Word once upon a time if you want an argument on the ethical viability of so-called violent porn).  But porn isn’t by definition misogynistic. I thought we’d left that radically restrictive argument behind a long time ago, but apparently not. And unfortunately, those that condemn the industry as a whole are very ill-informed about their pornographic options. I’ve just come back from a pornography debate at the Women of the World 2013 festival. On a three-person panel, comprised of Chitra Nagarajan, Dr Julia Long and Martin Daubney, and chaired by Baroness Kennedy, neither Nagarajan nor Dr Long had ever seen any feminist porn, admitting this only after they had attacked the stuff as a whole. When Dr Long peddled the archaic ‘porn is violence against women’ line, and ‘I’ve never seen these female pornographers,’ I was forced to shout ‘I am one!’ At least Baroness Kennedy asserted her belief in civil liberties and that banning anything was not a way of doing things in a democracy.

Now, I watch a fair bit of porn. Sometimes for work-related research, sometimes for stimulation. When I was writing Bound To You, I primed myself with a quick viewing during the afternoon slump; it inspired my sex scenes and helped me to motor on through my six-week deadline. And I watched all kinds of porn, some of it high-quality, imaginative and wildly erotic, some of it clichéd and basely stimulating. It didn’t alter my conceptions of gender any more than watching Christmas adverts where the mothers are responsible for every act of preparation and cooking did. That’s because I’ve been educated to interrogate notions of gender so that when I watch adverts or encounter sexism in professional life or watch porn, I can separate out what I think from the alternative realities I’m being presented with. Like most of the other sentient adults in the European Union. Children are a separate issue, but this is not what the EU ban on porn in the media is explicitly concerned with.

I tend to think of most internet porn rather like fast food. It dazzles the eye, overloads the taste buds, and can only satisfy its own craving. It can be fun to eat on occasion, but most of us wouldn’t want to indulge all the time. We know it wouldn’t be fully nutritious if we ate it every day, but we chose to enjoy it for what it is, and we get a different kind of pleasure from consuming fast food to health food. And we exercise our agency in choosing to consume it at some times and not at others.

That said, we could certainly improve the quality of the porn out there and improve its production. How about an ethical porn stamp, for example? Proof that the workers were there of their own accord, that they knew what acts they would be performing before they were filmed, that they really were consenting to their work? Business regulation is, after all the way we temper ethics and money when it comes to every other enterprise. A basic understanding of consent and adult agency wouldn’t go amiss either. Then a debate about whether facials can be feminist might have some decent legs to stand on.

And for those who think ethical porn, like feminist porn, is an oxymoronic impossibility, take a look at the Fair Trade model. That was similarly criticised for its idealism and lack of commercial viability back in the day. Now Kitkats are made with fairly-sourced sugar.

What is even more damning is that the UK had the chance to work with the British adult industry on regulation but decided instead to push it offshore. ATVOD is the body that regulates video-on-demand content in the UK.  Its remit has never been debated in Parliament (instead it ‘bought’ its authority off  OFCOM ) and yet, through a combination of fines and censorious demands, British VOD providers have simply re-registered their companies in other jurisdictions, the Canaries for example. Once there, the British government has no power to either prosecute them for producing obscene material (if they do) nor to regulate them. The government could have set the bar for porn production around the world by negotiating with its own porn companies. But it chose instead to make them the burden of other legal systems, shirking both its opportunity – and its responsibility – to monitor and guide British porn production.

Porn isn’t the problem; lack of education and alternatives to stereotypes are.  Unfortunately, it is the opponents as much as the producers that sell us this line.

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My sly Valentine

Happy belated Valentine’s Day!

For someone whose working life consists of espousing the life erotic, you may be surprised to hear that I genuinely loathe the annual sentiment-and-spunk fest. This is purely on the basis that I’m not very much into the collective celebration of very individual communion (I take the same approach to God and working out). Nonetheless, despite sending my CP (Californian Paramour) a message on Facebook to double-check that we were not celebrating V-day earlier that morning, I was rollering my hair in the bathroom when said CP came home and filled the apartment with the suspicious sound of rustling cellophane.

CP appeared empty-handed moments later. Disappointed? How could I be? I’d strictly instructed him to forget about it. With relief, I found myself saying, ‘You know what I hate about Valentine’s? The fact hapless men decide they might as well buy a lacklustre bunch of flowers on the way home. Either do something grand and original, or don’t bother!’

‘Erm..’ He takes me into the living room and shows me the spikey native blooms that are my floral gift. ‘I looked everywhere for a cabbage for you [he means ornamental cabbage, my current floriferous obsession] but I couldn’t get one I’m afraid. At least they aren’t roses.’

‘You really didn’t have to, babe.’

‘Oh, but I did. As I said to my feminist co-worker, “my girlfriend’s a feminist too but I know that when a woman says she doesn’t want something, you ignore her at your peril.’

Shame on me for conveying a ‘no means yes’ – but I’m secretly glad he ignored my protests.

Anyway, here’s a little interview I did with the website West London Mums about erotic writing and partner pleasure to coincide with the festival of love. Enjoy.


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Free speech, feminism and trans politics: the will should be to respect

Re the transphobia Moore/Burchill debate: I wasn’t going to write about this topic again, mainly because it has already been covered eloquently and diversely by writers including Paris Lees, Laurie Penny and Brooke Magnanti to name but a few. But I want to make it very clear that I was both perturbed and disturbed by Julie Burchill’s diatribe in the Observer. I do not want to be associated with any feminism (or any argument in general) that can be that essentialist, prejudiced, misinformed and downright nasty about another gender. Not even when it’s meant to be defending a friend, highlighting the alleged prejudice and contrariness of others, and protecting the feminist castle itself.

Burchill’s general vitriol and contempt for transsexuals also served to compound negative stereotype about feminists –  their exclusivity, their contempt for men (a contempt Burchill cattily extends to ‘chicks with dicks’), the ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ mentality. I understand that neither being ’nice’ nor endorsing a ‘likeable’ feminism is of little concern to Burchill. But by invoking so many hackneyed stereotypes, by being so disproportionately vitriolic, Burchill undermines the credibility of feminism as a well-reasoned and humane system. Why give feminism’s doubters, let alone feminism’s detractors, any more reason to denounce it as philosophically and ethically unsound?

Springing to Burchill’s defence in the Independent, Terence Blacker says the line ‘dicks in chicks’ clothing’ is ok because: ‘would someone who had the mental and physical courage to change sex really be upset by the appearance of the phrase’? By Blacker’s reasoning, the more adversity you have faced, the less respect you require. Racial slurs, gay slurs, misogynistic slurs are all fine as long as the object of your tease has experienced far worse abuse in the past, Blacker asserts. Besides being uncompassionate, it’s also hardly the point. Maybe you might like to ask the transexual community, rather than telling us, eh, Terence?

Blacker doesn’t grasp that there’s a balance to be struck between free speech and being informed, fair and considerate. Nor does Toby Young, who made a similar argument on Radio 4’s The Media Show on the topic. By all means, produce misinformed cant. But don’t expect sentient people to let it slide without challenging you to justify that cant. Neither Blacker nor Burchill nor Young seem to understand that power – how it may be wielded and used to dismiss others – is at the heart of any debate relating to gender. In his Independent piece, Blacker goes on to say: “The terms Burchill used may have been insensitive, but had the target of them been more acceptable to liberal opinion – Scientologists, say, or gun-toting American Christians – they would have prompted no more than a few fond chuckles.” Targets, Blacker might want to consider, that are wealthy as hell with considerable power, having their backs covered by banks and politicians as well as the First Amendment. Targets that are not privy to sexual harassment, violence and social ostracisation on a daily basis the world over.

As for Burchill and Moore’s working-class backgrounds being cited as proof of their lack of privilege, the fact remains that both of them have aired their views in national newspapers – one of the most privileged public forums out there (although given their contempt for intersectionality, they may not see it the same way.)

There is of course one thing that trumps power. And that’s respect. Not when you’re debating nuclear disarmament or when there’s a gun involved, perhaps, but surely when it’s about human beings relating to other human beings. Whatever side of the fence we are on in this debate, can those involved not just apologise for causing offence, unwitting or otherwise, and move on? Whatever our power and privileges, showing respect is free.

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In defence of intersectionality

The debate surrounding Suzanne Moore and Juliet Burchill’s views on transsexuality and its relation to feminism looks set to wage for a while longer.

I’m not going to continue it here – not because I am abdicating moral responsibility, hedging my bets or being cowardly about nailing my trans politics to a public mast – but because I had started this post on Moore’s views on intersectionality (as evinced in her Guardian piece) several days before. I want to publish it because I still think intersectionality needs defending, regardless of the more serious debate that may now have eclipsed it.

In Suzanne Moore’s piece in the Guardian she said this:

 “Intersectionality is good in theory, though in practice, it means that no one can speak for anyone else. It is the dead-end where much queer politics, feminist politics and identity politics ends up. In its own rectum. It refuses to engage with many other political discourses and becomes the old hierarchy of oppression.”

The writer Stella Duffy has also written an interesting blog post on the academic cold shoulder offered by intersectionality. When I first came across the concept, it wasn’t at university on a high falutin Gender Studies course. Instead, it was in a very accessible book called Men and Feminism edited by Shira Tarrant. Admittedly Tarrant is an academic, but the book, published in North America was recommended to me by a high school drop-out (her self-identification) I met at a community yoga class in California (stereotype her as you will).  The book is easy to read, engaging and not the slightest bit interested in theories that cannot be applied to every day life. Rather, it takes its theories from observing how power plays out in daily life. Which is actually rather like intersectionality.

Now let’s get back to Moore. Intersectionality is about recognising that every human is a bundle of relative privileges. Race, class, socio-economic status, education, ablebodiedness, and gender are some of the most obvious ones, as Moore identifies. But far from preventing us from speaking about anything we are not, when it comes to feminism, this means recognising that not all women are subordinate to or subjugated by all men. For example, the homeless guy that asked me for a dollar outside Walgreens this morning wasn’t innately more ‘privileged’ than me because he was male. It isn’t apologetic, rather self-reflexive and commonsensical to recognise that. That is what intersectionality is about.

In fact, acknowledging that the system might need some refinement is, to my mind, the most sage self-observation identity politics has ever made. If ever proof were needed of feminism’s dedication to its own evolution, to ensuring it does not become what Moore called ‘the old hierarchy of oppression’ then embracing intersectionality is it.

As a young feminist (just under 30) I am deeply depressed by the suggestion that we diluted play-feminists are to blame for the persistence of misogyny. Women’s rights, as recognised by law, are incredibly new to life in the West, and still to be achieved in much of the rest of the world. Yet the idea of gender equality being a social work in progress, a social work that needs to undo thousands of years of so-called ‘patriarchal’ normalcy, a system that still needs to better engage men if it is to truly transform gendered relations, that idea seems to be as readily forgotten by the ‘real’ feminists as much as by anyone else. By all means cite the civil rights movement or the apartheid movement as proof that peacefully ‘negotiating’ with the gatekeepers is a disenfranchised mug’s game (although ultimately, peace needed to prevail before they could be heralded as successful). Whether radical violence is the only precursor to social progress is another argument altogether. By all means, let’s have that debate. But please can we stop blaming, by insinuation or otherwise, feminists who are trying for equality a different way to our own.

Instead, it is we ‘femin-ishs’, with our love of lipgloss and BDSM-inspired lingerie, and proclivity to question how we might better engage men in the quest to prevent rape or to increase childcare provision, that are apparently undoing all the good work of our foremothers, and letting womankind down in the process.  All because we think there might be something in that intersectionality business.

Ultimately, Moore’s argument – that feminism is failing because we have forgotten to focus on real social deprivation – would benefit from a little revision. Rich women do not suffer in a recession the way poor ones do. As much as being an unpleasant fact of life, that is almost certainly proof of intersectionality. We don’t blame the first or second-wavers for not securing gender equality first time; why, then, should we contemporary feminists be any more guilty of going about it all wrong?

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Pink Japan with sexplorer Midori

Last night I had the pleasure of attending renowned sex educator and author Midori’s salon on the sexual sub-cultural life of Japan at my new home from home, Coco de Mer.

Midori was born and brought up in Japan before moving to the US as a teenager. Consequently, she uses her dual heritage to straddle the two cultures, and often finds herself explaining to either nation the other’s sexual predilections.

Having visited Japan earlier this year myself to report on Tokyo Rainbow Pride, I was relieved to have my base deductions on Japanese shame vs Western Judeao-Christian guilt confirmed by our tour guide and teacher.  In a nutshell, the only sexual taboo in Japan is the open discussion or display of ones sexual preferences or predilections, a ‘do but don’t tell’ approach. By contrast, in the West, ‘tell but don’t do’ seems to be the prevailing ethos.

Midori’s thorough practical guide to using a love hotel has definitely inspired me for my next trip Napori-side. Her sneakily snapped photos detailed the decor and dildo-vending machines better than a Lonely Planet could have managed. Also revealing was her explanation of teen boys’ ‘relationships’ with full-body manga cartoon-embossed pillows,  attributed to the inordinate pressure on teenagers to study for most hours of the day. ‘2-D love’, as it is known, is your only option when there’s no time to be socialised as a mature sexual being.

But the most personally pertinent revelation of the evening? That tentacle porn, dating back to the Edo period and something I have long been morbidly fascinated with but always slightly squeamish about, is not as sinister as first appears to my myopic Western eye. Admittedly, my tentacle terror began when I started to eat octopus on a regular basis during my relationship with ‘Christos’ (see my book ‘Bound To You’ for elaboration).

In Japanese culture, however the octopus is a comic character, the ‘dirty old man of the sea’, as Midori so deftly put it. So getting tentacle-groped is basically like having a poly-podded Uncle at a festive family reunion prod you. I don’t have any such uncles. So maybe it’s time to revisit those lurid woodcuts. Midori, I’ll have you to thank you for the ensuing fantasies – or nightmares…

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My BDSM sex memoir, Bound To You is released!

Bound To You, my BDSM sex memoir and authorial debut is out now! Buy it, oh please buy it, at WH Smith Travel branches, where it’s Non-Fiction Book of the Month, Tesco or Amazon. It’s also available for download as an e-book.

Following a revealing piece I wrote for Stylist magazine back in July 2010 on my own experiences of sexual submission, Hodder & Stoughton commissioned me to write Bound to You just a fortnight later.

Referencing diary entries, emails and the half a chapter I’d intended for a literary novel on the topic of domination (you can still spot the odd converted para in Bound – it’s the best constructed stuff in the whole thing) I wrote the 90,000 word-memoir in just six weeks, a record for any work of fiction or memoir commissioned by Hodder & Stoughton. Like running a marathon with no training, turning out 3000 words a day was definitely the meanest feat I’ve had to attend to in a while.

Let me know if you think it was worth it…

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No Gay Hurrah for Katie Price’s coming out

Katie Price’s revelation last week, made while performing at Madame Jojo’s Trannyshack, that she is actually bisexual and enjoyed fucking ex-husband Alex Reid with a strap-on largely went unreported outside of the tabloid gossip columns. Even in the red tops the subtext was the same: Katie gets pissed and says crude things in Soho, so it’s not really a story if she admits to a penchant for muff.

That said, following the news, the gay press recoiled and LGBT rights campaigner and journalist Patrick Strudwick accosted her on Twitter to ask if she would now be campaigning for sexual equality herself. The implication was that Price could only count herself as a ‘real’ bisexual if she were out flying the Rainbow flag henceforth.

Price, it seems, adheres to the Gore Vidal school of sexuality: ‘there are no homosexual people, only acts’ – and her honesty about her own sex practices doesn’t compromise LGBT rights so much as highlight the fact that the dividing lines between gay and straight, kinky and vanilla and all those other desirable/undesirable binaries, are as simplistic as they are restrictive.

Human beings are ‘deviant’ by nature, their desire defined and regulated by social stricture as much as hormones. The real sexual ignorance in this instance then comes from the demands on Price to pick a label and live it out according to some Establishment definition of sexuality. Whether you’re straight, bi, spankoholic or delphinophilic it seems there’s always a ‘right’ way to be so. And Katie Price’s way isn’t it.

Who’s perpetuating sexual apartheid now?

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