Lord Rennard (r), who denies the allegations against him, with Sir Menzies Campbell at Lib Dem Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on the "Lord Grope" case: a system that discriminates against women

Systematic abuse happens when the system is abusive.

Sexual abuse is like every other abuse of power. It assumes that those who have power are entitled to do what they like to those who don’t, and it runs through the British establishment like veins of rot through stinking cheese. This week, when my editor asked me if I might write about “Lord Grope” – aka Chris Rennard, the Lib Dem peer at the centre of the latest high-profile (denied) allegations of sexual harassment – I hesitated. I’ve spent a solid month writing about sexual abuse and women’s rights – and young female writers who talk too much about “lady problems” often find ourselves edged away from talking about “serious politics”. Unfortunately, the fact that the sexual abuse and violence at the heart of the political establishment are not considered “serious politics” is precisely the problem.

Unless you’ve spent the past decade living in the bottom drawer of an elderly lecher’s bedside table, nesting down among the used tissues and copies of Razzle from 1983, you will probably have noticed that the way we understand sex and power is undergoing a vertiginous shift. Across the rainy vistas of the establishment, whether it’s the church, the media, politics or entertainment, sexual abuse by powerful people has suddenly become unacceptable, where for years it was tacitly condoned.

Now panic is setting in. Those with their own dirty bottom drawers are hoping like hell that throwing a few handsy pseudocelebrities to the tabloids to be torn apart will be enough. In the case of “Lord Grope”, it has become clear that Nick Clegg was made aware of complaints about his party’s chief executive years ago but did nothing. Why would he? Until extremely recently, it has been politically expedient to ignore such complaints. Nobody wants to be the next Anita Hill.

The scale and importance of sexual abuse, the difference between a naughty scandal and a rape allegation – these are things that the British public is more than intelligent enough to understand. We just don’t seem to want to. Just this past week I was invited on to ITV’s This Morning to explain to Phillip Schofield whether it is ever appropriate to grab a woman’s bottom. This taught me two things: first, that mainstream sexual discourse still struggles like a dying fish with the notions of context and consent, and second, that you’re not allowed to say “arse” on live television before lunchtime. You’re allowed to talk scurrilously about scandals, but not seriously about rape, abuse, or trauma. That might frighten the kiddies or, worse, the electorate.

Right now, we’re undergoing a small revolution in our understanding of what sexual and social abuse looks like. I do not use the word “revolution” lightly. In a courageous blog post, the Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow described how the Savile case brought back memories of his own experience of childhood abuse and explained that British society is undergoing a “sexual watershed”, where routine exploitation of women and children by those in authority is finally spoken about in public.

“This is a dramatic moment in the affairs of men and women; we shall all be tested,” Snow writes. “And while we in broadcasting, in the law, in parliament, in education, and in wider society must tread with diligence and great care to both accuser and accused, we owe it to those who suffered in a hopefully departing age to have the full protection of us all in ensuring that their claims [are] thoroughly investigated and responded to.”

The question is: are we ready to deal with the warped attitude to power and gender that underpins exploitation, or is bringing down a few gropers going to satisfy us?

In 2013, almost everywhere you look – from the Socialist Workers Party’s wincingly suspicious “rape tribunal”, to the Pollard report on the Savile inquiry, to Father Fiddly being kicked out of the Catholic Church – men who never expected to be held to account for exploiting younger, less powerful women and children are having to deal with the consequences of their actions. What links these cases, apart from a gobsmacking institutional acceptance of sexism, is that the accusations quickly become questions of discretion, discipline and protocol, not of routine exploitation of the vulnerable. The establishment is dealing with the new backlash against sexual and sexist abuse the only way it knows how – by talking to itself.

The voices of women are quickly muted in the press; what might begin as a case of “he said, she said” quickly becomes “he said, he said”. Issues of abuse and exploitation, after all, are “lady problems”, not “serious politics”. Serious politics, politics that makes and keeps headlines, is what happens when women shut up and let the men fight it out like dogs over an inappropriate boner.

When people keep asking themselves a question to which the answer is obvious, it usually means the answer is uncomfortable. Every time the newspapers ask themselves – on the pages opposite images of topless models soundlessly mouthing the editor’s opinions – how decades of sexual abuse of women and children have gone unchecked, they ignore the plain fact that sexual exploitation and sexist discrimination were and remain the background noise of power.

Systematic abuse happens when the system is abusive. It happens when those in power are allowed to exploit and dehumanise those less powerful than themselves without facing any consequences. And it won’t change until it is challenged.

UPDATE 28 February 2013 14:40:

Following a productive debate on Twitter, I'd like to remind readers that, although systematic sexism plays an enormous role in the normalisation of sexual harassment, it is not only women and children who are victims of institutional abuse. Some people felt that this piece didn't reflect this adequately, and I'm happy to make the point clear.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.