Why we shouldn't deride Liz Jones for her sperm-stealing revelation

If these columns represent reality, rather than calculated provocation, they should be met with comp

Liz Jones has got Twitter angry. No, that won't do at all; it hasn't narrowed anything down for you. She's got Twitter angry about something she said in the Mail, about women. No, that still doesn't do it. OK, it's something she wrote about women being sperm-snatching desperados raiding their lovers' condoms for testicular emissions. Ah, now we know where we are.

Billed as "her most shocking confession yet", today's article details Jones's quest to get herself pregnant, in which she claims: "I resolved to steal his sperm from him in the middle of the night. I thought it was my right, given that he was living with me and I had bought him many, many M&S ready meals." Well, I suppose if you have gone to the trouble of making someone a posh dinner in a plastic tray, you can pretty much stake a claim to whatever bodily fluids they've got going.

It's easy to mock. Sometimes it's right to mock, and sometimes it's not. I don't know what to think of these rather boggling revelations, other than to see why it has got others more than a little steamed up. Jones writes: "But I do believe that any man who moves in with a woman in her late 30s or early 40s should take it as read that she will want to use them to procreate, by fair means or foul, no matter how much she protests otherwise."

Now, as a man who tends not to get his advice about sex and relationships from the pages of the Daily Mail, I might take this advice with a pinch of salt. I won't turn into the Rick Moranis character in Parenthood, who checks his partner's diaphragm every night to ensure she hasn't sneakily put holes in it. But I suppose this kind of overly sweeping statement gets people irritated by the way in which it reduces a whole generation of women into deceptive sperm-harvesting condom raiders, man-milk snatchers on a mission to get themselves up the duff by any means necessary.

On the other hand, there's more than one way to look at Liz Jones. We could see her as a brilliant creator of a ditsy comic persona who ends up being the butt of every joke and on the wrong end of every story. That's comforting, because it means no-one gets hurt if we slag her off, because we're essentially just finishing off the effacing that she's already started; and besides, it's just a character, rather than a human being in these columns, maybe with elements of truth and elements of fiction.

But is that right? Let's assume that the Liz Jones who appears in print is not some confection or caricature, and that every word is true. Here's someone who was so desperate to have children she stole sperm from her lover's condom while he wasn't looking; and not only that, she has written about it in a national newspaper, exposing herself to ridicule and contempt. Here's someone who has, in the past, run up huge debts through overspending, over and over again, so much so that readers sent in scratchcards to give her a helping hand. Imagine that person is someone you know rather than just a byline in a newspaper you don't particularly care for. Would you think of them as someone who needs help, rather than a bunch of strangers on the internet taking the piss out of them?

I've said it before, but fun as it is to stick the boot into someone like Liz Jones who sets herself up as an Aunt Sally (or is set up as one by others), I can't really bring myself to do it anymore. If it's not true, it's just a bit of trolling, designed to light up the Twitter mob's flaming torches and get them to drive huge amounts of traffic towards the Daily Mail website -- there's nothing the Mail Online likes more than a bunch of angry liberals to boost those unique visitor numbers.

Look at a sentence like "As a feminist, I looked down on mumsy types" and you have to wonder. Is that really what she thinks, or is it rather more cynical red-rag-waving? I suppose we shall never know, and I certainly don't claim to have any particular insight. But the way I look at it is this: if there's a chance that these columns represent the reality of another person's life, instead of a calculated bit of provocation, then the person who has been brave enough to share such negative aspects of their personality should be met with compassion, rather than animosity or ridicule. Fine, the sweeping statements about whole groups of people aren't helpful, but they could be seen as justifying the author's own behaviour by imagining it to be commonplace.

You can argue whether it's really in that person's best interests to share such deeply personal insights with thousands of others, but it's their decision. And, if it is all true, I just feel sorry for the person who wrote it, rather than thinking them worth of derision. It's just a sad, sad story.


Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.