Glossing over: women’s magazines are “as intent as the average sexist in the street at making women feel bad”
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Germaine Greer: the failures of the new feminism

“Feminism in Britain has had two strands: as a media phenomenon and as an academic discipline. The vast realm of reality that lies between remains unaffected by either.”

The Vagenda
Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Square Peg, 296pp, £12.99

Everyday Sexism
Laura Bates
Simon & Schuster, 384pp, £14.99

The most curmudgeonly old feminist has got to be glad that in February 2012 two young women set up a blog raging about the insidious nastiness of the women’s press and got seven million hits in its first year of operation. The hope springs up that there might be sufficient angry women out there and they might be sufficiently angry to bring about actual change. But then we’ve thought that before and before any difference could be made to anything, we were told that it was over and that feminism was a dirty word again. Feminism in Britain has had two strands: as a media phenomenon and as an academic discipline. The vast realm of reality that lies between remains unaffected by either.

Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who set up the Vagenda blog, have now uttered a book of the same name. The title was meant to be an ironic version of the portmanteau words adopted by the lower end of the women’s press – a compound of “vagina” and “agenda” – but, like much of the wordplay on the blog and in the book, it doesn’t really work, being neither amusing nor informative. “Vagina” is a vile name for any female orifice, because it means “scabbard”. No feminist could in conscience adopt it despite the never-ending afterlife of the ghastly Vagina Monologues. A similar insensitivity besets The Vagenda, the book. The jacket design is as offensive as anything ever seen in print. It is based on the logo for the blog but with a hideous refinement; the image of a nude female from waist to nearly knee, now photographic, has a chunk ripped out of it, extending from hipbone to hipbone to below the mons pubis, forming a gaping black triangle, in which appear the words “The Vagenda” in Barbie pink. The page design is almost as brutal as the cover.

The writing style of the book takes its cue from the hyperbole of the magazines that are under attack and struggles to outdo it. Baxter and Cosslett (who also write the V Spot blog on the New Statesman website) tell us that, in their personal experience, “Losing your hymen is about as pleasurable as having someone rap your knuckles with a frozen veggie sausage.” Do they seriously wish us to believe that their hymen somehow got lost and that they were aware of its getting lost at the time? That is no more likely than that someone, anyone, would have rapped them on the knuckles with a sausage of any kind, much less vegetarian, much less frozen. To refer to a first episode of penetrative sex as hymen loss reveals a level of ignorance that is positively medieval.

For both writers then to cast themselves in this fictitious double devirgination episode is part of a pattern in which they allege their own behaviour as evidence for the rightness of their arguments. They know! They’ve been there, they chorus. “Let’s face it,” they shriek, “the absence of a bra only feels like freedom if you’ve got the kind of boobs that can stand on their own two teats.” What is the meaning of “stand” here? What is it we’re being asked to face, exactly?

Baxter and Cosslett have no doubt that, “A lot of lactating women do want to get jiggy with it, whether or not they accidentally squirt their sex buddy in the eye while changing positions” – a vision that seems to be derived from the behaviour of playful farmhands in the milking parlour. (The human breast, like the bovine udder, will not squirt unless compressed.) “Of course we all know that [a particular] kind of mock-satin static-inducing pants . . . would have your vag steeped in crusty discharge faster than you can say pH imbalance,” they yelp. Can these two young experts really believe that “crusty discharge” is caused by pH imbalance, as if the vaginal introitus were packed with potting mix?

As the reader flounders through a morass of soiled underwear, amputated body parts, obscure beauty treatments and minor surgery, the figure of the target male, like Moby Dick, appears only to disappear again. He is blamed for all of it, when he is probably as unaware of most of it as Moby Dick would be. Men did not make women wear thongs or Louboutins or false eyelashes or breast implants. Men don’t make women spend money on Glamour magazine or even Cosmo. Men exist in The Vagenda solely as mute sexual partners, sometimes mentioned as “the boyfriend” or “a boyfriend”.

Baxter and Cosslett took a leaf out of the golden notebook of Arianna Huffington when they accepted submissions to their blog and published them without payment or full credit (the Vagenda’s policy is to include the author’s initials but not their full name). When the Huffington Post was sold to AOL for $315m, a small group of investors, including the Stassinopoulos family, shared the money; the army of unpaid bloggers who helped to create the asset received nothing. Some writers for the Vagenda blog have challenged Baxter and Cosslett on their insistence on contributor anonymity. The six-figure advance paid for the book will presumably not be shared with those who helped to build the brand. Well, as the late great black feminist Florynce Kennedy used to say way back in the 1960s, if you’ll fuck for a dime, you can’t complain when somebody else gets a mink coat.

The Vagenda will hit the bookstalls at the same time as Everyday Sexism. This book, too, began life as a blog, set up in April 2012 by the “diminutive, blonde, beatifically lovely” (in the words of the Telegraph) Laura Bates, born in 1987. Bates invited women to upload their experiences of sexist behaviour and by December 2013 there were 50,000 contributions. The thesis of Everyday Sexism, according to the cover copy, is that: “From being harassed and wolf-whistled at on the street, to discrimination in the workplace and serious sexual assault . . . sexism had become normalised.” This is not what the blog revealed; it revealed not that sexual assault was an accepted part of daily life but that behaviour defined as criminal was rife. All the examples given were of men invading women’s personal space, touching them, intimidating them, assaulting them and raping them.

Though gay men are far more likely to be viciously harassed, bullied and assaulted in the workplace than women, they were not invited to contribute to the Everyday Sexism project. Gay-bashing is regarded in many communities as a rite of passage and the perpetrators are unlikely to be viewed as criminals even when the facts of the case are known. That is true normalising.

Sexism should mean discrimination against any individual on the grounds of sex. Women haven’t abused men solely because of their sex since the legendary Amazons bit the dust; nowhere in the real world are women in a position of sufficient power to enable them to persecute men just for being men. Only women suffer discrimination on the grounds of their sex (as distinct from their sexual orientation) and not only from members of the opposite sex.

Sexism is here a misleading name for misogyny, which is distrust, hatred and contempt of women. And it’s not just men who feel these feelings and act on them. Women persecute other women, humiliate them and discriminate against them. They may not grab their tits or threaten to rape them; women have more effective ways of doing other women in. “Horizontal hostility”, another gem from the Flo Kennedy thesaurus, is a by-product of oppression. Oppressed people don’t dare denounce the actual oppressor; instead they betray the people alongside them. They see their shared suffering as the consequence of a defect within themselves. What should be anger becomes guilt and self-blame.

This process can be discerned clearly and repeatedly in the caseload of the Everyday Sexism project. Though much of what is reported is criminal behaviour and not normalised at all, as the victims persist in imagining that whatever happened was their fault, there can be no access to redress. They should be furious but are terrified and ashamed instead. As long as a rape victim is considered to need anonymity, she is expected to shoulder shame and self-hatred as a consequence of someone else’s behaviour. Enough. Enough. Simply coughing up outrage into a blog will get us nowhere.

This curmudgeonly old feminist has argued for years that victims of sexual assault should refuse to feel shame and should not avail themselves of offered anonymity. She has also argued that, because under the present code the burden of proof is too onerous and guilt too difficult to establish, sexual assault should be reclassified under the general law of assault. If you turn up at a police station with a black eye, you are not going to be asked what you were wearing or whether you consented to the assault, but then your assailant won’t be sent away for ten years either.

What Bates’s book should demonstrate is that offences against women are not outrageous or extraordinary; they are par for the course. They are committed with total impunity and at the same time made to appear exceptional. A man who cops a feel on a crowded Underground train does nothing special but he tells himself that he is a helluva fella who has pulled off some kind of a coup. Mere fiddling about becomes exploit. What is truly weird about the degree of impunity assailants enjoy is that everyone is carrying a mobile phone; there are surveillance cameras everywhere and still the offenders get away with it. How hard can it be to track them down?

A woman who is insulted should be prepared to talk loud and draw a crowd, to kick ass and take names (Flo again); she should also be supported by the women around her. Unpacking your heart with bitter words to an anonymous blog is no substitute for action. Years ago I suggested that women who had been abused on a date denounce the perpetrator online. (Remember that most – almost all – rape victims know their assailant.) The immediate response was that the accusations might not be true and innocent men might suffer. (The remedy to a false allegation would be a face-to-face confrontation.) What I was pretty sure of was that most of the individuals who would be named would be repeat offenders; the point would be to protect women from the hazard represented by such men, which is also the most compelling reason for reporting sexual assault to the police.

Everyday Sexism, with its iterated narrative of bewildered pain and grief, is a hard read. Vile behaviour to women has become a fashion among young men and there are some who blame “equality” as the cause. But sexual equality has not been achieved and sexual liberation has not even been glimpsed. As Baxter and Cosslett remark in The Vagenda, “The feminist revolution never came. We are in no way a post-feminist society.” We are still caught in the nightmare of bitterness and misunderstanding that leaves two women a week in Britain dead at the hands of their partners or ex-partners.

The emergence of three young women who are not afraid to give voice to rage could be a sign of a mass movement on the way. In the first half of 2013, sales of Cosmopolitan fell by 15 per cent, of Glamour by 14.8 per cent, of Vanity Fair by 12.2 per cent, of Grazia 11.6 per cent, of Elle 10.2 per cent and of Marie Claire 9.4 per cent. So far the downward trend appears to be continuing. Part of the explanation of the fall in hard-copy sales has been a rise in digital sales but those figures, setting out as they do from a low base, are no match for the lost hard-copy sales.

Women’s glossy magazines are as intent as the average sexist in the street on making women feel bad. We can do without both. What we need is a women’s press that interprets the “malestream” information for its female readers – that explains how Cameron’s gift to working spouses leaves unsupported mothers at a crushing disadvantage, how Amanda Hutton came to let her four-year-old child die, why so many women are given custodial sentences for minor offences, why there is never sufficient funding for care homes or for carers whether for children, the infirm or the aged, or why a woman is six times more likely to die in childbirth in Britain than she is in Estonia or why it took so long to stop Shipman. Bitching and whingeing have their place but without the truth we never shall be free. We need a genuine women’s press. Now that it can exist online, we could afford to run it without having to pimp for the glamour industry.

Germaine Greer’s most recent book is “White Beech: the Rainforest Years” (Bloomsbury, £25)

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

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

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?