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
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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.