What actresses eat, Herman's gaffes and why I’m turning into Batman

My column from the latest <em>New Statesman</em> magazine.

Feminism has been such a success that I seldom have cause to think about why it's so necessary. Sure, there is the occasional reminder - it was the 61st Miss World in London on 6 November, because women's opinions are much more interesting if they're wearing an evening gown - but I have a job, a vote and the choice of when and if to have children. I'm part of the luckiest generation of British women ever to have lived.

In the past few days, however, I've had a pretty revealing glimpse of a place where casual sexism and just plain woman-hating still exists: internet comment threads. On 3 November, I published a post on the New Statesman website in which nine female bloggers described the kind of threats they routinely face in comments and emails, and on other websites.

Every flavour of low-grade yuckiness was there - you're ugly, you're fat, no man would want you, no one cares what you think - but there was also a large slice of something much more sinister. The feminist activist Kate Smurthwaite was told that someone should rip her tongue out "of her suckhole". Cath Elliott, a freelance writer, was told she was "too ugly to rape". The London Evening Standard columnist Rosamund Urwin heard that she deserved to have her fingers cut off. And, in a catalogue of threats of sexual violence, Caroline Farrow, a religious blogger and former vicar's wife, said she was often informed that "people would deign to have sex with me either out of pity or to teach me a lesson". Occasionally, writers reported receiving emails with their personal details included, or photos taken from Facebook.

The blog post had a huge response, with dozens of women getting in touch to say they had faced much the same kind of comments - and dozens of men saying they had no idea the problem was so widespread. My worry is that such relentless, remorseless abuse is discouraging a generation of women from writing on the web. One established female columnist agreed that she might have given up early in her career, had she faced similar abuse.

It's nice that people are talking about this, but what next? I hope that all the women who had been suffering in silence now realise they aren't alone. I hope website bosses will ask themselves if they want to host this stuff. And I hope that the police will take such threats more seriously. Petra Davis, who used to blog about sex, told me: "When I started getting letters at my flat, I reported them to the police, but they advised me to stop writing provocative material." Oh, and on a personal note, I wish that any man who thinks we're all whining little flowers would post an article under a female pseudonym. It would be an education.

Share alike

There is one subject on which my opinion sharply diverges from that of my editor. It's Twitter, which he worries is eroding our attention spans, but which I love unequivocally (admittedly, I was never that good at concentrating to start with). One of the reasons that the blog I wrote gathered such attention was that it was shared on the microblogging site by a host of people - journalists, celebrity tweeters, activists. Since then I've heard from women (and men) as far away as Australia and the US.

Twitter, unlike many internet forums, has a culture of using your real identity, and is therefore much more civil than the online badlands. Is it too much to suggest that all internet comments must be made under your real name?

Not eating Bree

There's a fascinating phrase in the Hollywood publicist's lexicon: DIPE, or "documented instances of public eating". It involves getting whippet-thin actresses who normally get by on smelling a celery stick to order cheeseburgers, gallons of Coke and two slices of chocolate cake when they're interviewed by journalists. The resulting article then breathlessly reports this, noting their "naturally fast metabolism".

It stands to reason that not every actress or model can have such miraculous biochemistry, and every so often someone gives the game away. In 2008, Desperate Housewives' Marcia Cross blurted: "Not eating is a constant struggle. It's like they pay me not to eat. It's a living hell." Now, a Victoria's Secret lingerie "Angel", Adriana Lima, has revealed the astounding discipline needed for a career prancing around in skimpies: twice-daily workouts for three weeks before a show and no solids - just protein shakes - for nine days. Lima says that she normally drinks a gallon of water a day, but 12 hours before going on the catwalk, she will stop entirely: "so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that". One fashion editor describes the regime as being like that of a long-distance runner, although I imagine they're allowed to eat solids.

Pizza his mind

Who could fail to be fascinated by Herman Cain, the pizza impresario-turned-Republican presidential front-runner? Allegations of sexual harassment could yet derail him but until now he's been unstoppable in spite of a string of gaffes, including the suggestion the Chinese have "indicated that they're trying to develop nuclear capabilities" (indeed they did, Herman: in the 1960s). My favourite Cain utterance was when he was asked how he would deal with the kind of "gotcha" questions that stumped Sarah Palin. Simple, said Cain: "When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say, you know, I don't know. Do you know?" You can't argue with that. I have a terrifying feeling that the US has found its own Boris Johnson.

Batman and Susan

In between playing Batman: Arkham City on my XBox 360, I note that Susan Greenfield, the baroness, neuroscientist and former head of the Royal Institution, has been talking about video games. Having earlier ascertained, apparently without the need for pesky peer-reviewed research, that Facebook is melting children's brains, she also believes that games could lead players to "lose their identities".

I'd like to give you my thoughts on whether that is likely - and whether it's advisable for scientists to float unsupported ideas from a position of authority - but I'm afraid I've got to save Gotham City from the Joker.

You can follow Helen on Twitter: @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.