Category Archives: Observations

Throwing girls to monsters

In European myths, folklore and fairytales, girls are given to monsters in order to appease them. They are offered as sacrifices. The girls themselves must be young – they are not adult women. They must be beautiful, and virginal. The monster will kill them and be satisfied and leave everyone else alone. I don’t know what, if anything happens in other traditions around this so if you have insights, do please share.

If the monster is assumed to be real (for the purposes of the story at least) then we have to ask why it wants a small, virgin girl to eat, and not a steady supply of cows. In terms of monster racketeering, you’d think ‘keep me in cows or I burn the village’ would make more sense. One small girl is hardly a decent meal for a dragon or sea monster. I refuse to believe it’s for the sex – small human virgin versus large monster… just no. Perhaps it’s for the pain this will cause the humans – going with Poe’s theory that there’s nothing more tragic than the death of a beautiful young woman. Except that groups of people sacrificing to monsters always seem a bit eager, for my liking.

Sometimes there is a sense that the girl might be being punished for being too beautiful. When the monster is human – and I’m thinking specifically of the Arabian Nights stories – the beauty of the girls being sacrificed is very much part of the issue. I wonder if this is the story that unlocks all the others. Each night, the human monster takes a virgin girl to his bed and in the morning has her beheaded. His lust is insatiable. His desire to kill girls is insatiable. Because he is at the top of the hierarchy, he is allowed to do this.

It is not dragons and sea monsters who crave young women to despoil, it is men with entitlement issues. It is also men who are fussed about human beauty standards. I think our stories of sacrificial virgins may be metaphorical ways of talking about how power imbalances corrupt relationships. When fear of those who hold power over you means you hand over your daughters to them, relationships are destroyed. It might be easier to talk about dragons, than to talk about comfort women, and what happens during wars, and what dictators do when they have the power to do what they like. It might be easier and safer to talk about a dragon than to talk about a president who feels confident describing in public how he sexually assaults women.


How not to be a victim

So much advice about safety and avoiding crime is about how not to be a victim. We teach girls how to avoid sexual assault while investing little or no time teaching boys that is their responsibility not to assault girls. Victim blaming, and misplacing the responsibility has massive consequences.

Part of what we teach when we teach people to stay safe, is that it is the victim’s behaviour that causes or attracts the crime. If I was assaulted when walking across town alone at night, it would be understood that I had been assaulted because I was walking across town alone at night. We tell each other that it is just common sense to take safety precautions without examining what the safety stories actually do.

If your clothes, or where you happen to be make you a target, then we’re telling each other that the criminals can’t help themselves. They have no defence against a woman in a short skirt, or a person who is alone and looks worth mugging. We apply this more to the victim of sexual assault than we do to the mugging victim. We tell a story that says crime is responsive. It can’t resist your open window, your unlocked car, your low cut top. If you can’t expect people to avoid temptation, you tell a story that we’re all basically awful and that perhaps any of us would do the wrong thing given the chance. That’s affirming to those who are inclined to harm others.

This is an especially pernicious idea when it comes to sexual assault. We are too quick to ask what a person could have done to avoid being a victim. Every time we do this, we send out a message that we don’t really expect people to resist temptation. Every ‘stay safe’ message carries a subtext that the woman who isn’t staying safe is pretty much asking for it. Every time we ask what the victim was wearing, we give credence to the idea that clothes justify assault. We reinforce the idea that we cannot expect men to control themselves if they see a woman in a sexy outfit. We keep perpetuating the idea that anyone faced with an attractive woman in an appealing outfit might feel the urge to do something criminal to her. We normalise it.

Too often, we lose the key facts here. 100% of rapes are caused by rapists. All abuse is caused by abusers. Theft is a consequence of people stealing – not of what security measures you had in place. We don’t talk about the likelihood of your attacker being known to you – that you are more likely to be harmed by someone you trusted than by a stranger on the streets. All those safety measures we are encouraged to take don’t work if you’re dealing with someone you thought you could trust.

It’s hard to live fully if you have to organise your life to avoid becoming a victim. Many women are doing this. We need to be much clearer that the responsibility for crime does not lie with the victim, but the perpetrator. Here in the UK, we really need the police to stop telling people what to do to stay safe (invariably aimed at women) and to start being a lot clearer about the legal responsibilities of perpetrators and the things that you are not allowed to do to another human being, no matter what they were wearing at the time.

The best way to avoid being a victim, is not to have anyone feel entitled to attack you. Until we dismantle the things in our culture that create those feelings of entitlement to attack, no amount of doing things to try and stay safe can actually guarantee your safety.

Thin Privilege

I’ve always had issues with my body size, and have spent much of my life larger than I wanted to be. After pregnancy, I was a lot larger than I wanted to be and it took a long time to change that. I’ve had a lot of experience of fat shaming, and some experience of what happens when you don’t have thin privilege. I’m starting to get back into that more privileged thin space and want to talk about what that means.

The first and most obvious difference over the last few years has been the greater ease buying clothes. I can walk into a shop and expect to find clothes that I like and that will fit me. If I want loose clothes I can actually buy things a few sizes bigger and wear those. When this is normal to you, you don’t notice it, or the implications for people who don’t have that privilege.

The odds are that if I went to a doctor with any complaint at this point, I would not be diagnosed with being fat but might get the problem itself taken seriously. This means my chances of survival are improved. It also means I have a better chance of accessing mental health support. At a previous round of asking for mental health support (when larger) and admitting that I mostly just wanted to die, I was told to get more exercise.

I am much less likely now to find people around me feel entitled to comment on my food choices. I’m painfully uncomfortable about scrutiny whilst eating, so this is always an area of anxiety for me. One of the great ironies here is that I have never lost weight or even managed my weight through calorie control. Since I’ve been eating with a view to maintaining good energy levels and supporting my mental health, I’ve become healthier. The things casual commenters would likely judge are actually good choices for me. When you are carrying visible fat, so many people feel that they are qualified to speak as nutritionists without knowing a thing about your body or your circumstances.

The things that some people think, and state in relation to body fat, are nuts. Here’s a selection of things I’ve been told over the years…

That my heavy periods are caused by being fat. They aren’t – my weight has fluctuated, my periods have been constant.

That fat people can’t dehydrate – because no, I am not actually a camel, thank you.

That no one will ever love me or want me because I am fat – that’s not proved true in practice.

That I must be miserable because I look terrible. Well, no, it’s more the fat shaming that makes me miserable than my body shape.

That because I am fat, it is difficult to imagine that I might have any delicacy of feelings. Fat people cannot be delicate in other ways. Because obviously my emotions are also fat, and solid, and big. It’s funny how largness in one aspect of being is interpreted as being a whole-person issue.

I’ve also noticed that much of this shaming has had little relationship with how large I actually am – that carrying less fat has not reliably reduced the shaming in proportion. It is as though I am haunted by the ghost of the fat I have carried in the past. The lack of relationship between my size and the criticism I’ve been subjected to does flag up all too clearly that this isn’t about my body shape at all. It’s about a desire to hurt and humiliate. Unlike my arm length or the size of my feet (I’ve been criticised about those, too), my body mass can be interpreted as something I have total control over, which makes it the more effective target. It becomes a judgement of me as a person.

To be thin, is to not have your personality assumed from your body shape. That’s a privilege which underpins many other things, but is invisible to the person benefiting from it unless they’ve also experienced how their identity will be inferred from a larger body.

Giving it sixty percent

I’ve been going to a Tai Chi class for a few weeks now. One of the ideas my teacher reminds us of every lesson, is the principle of giving about sixty percent. Don’t go for the maximum you can do. Don’t push your body. Don’t over-extend or try too hard. Just relax, and do about two thirds of what you reckon your upper limit might be.

This is a very long way from conventional western thought around developing strength and fitness. We’re normally told to push, to feel the burn, go through the pain barrier. No pain no gain. My experience of life with a body is that if I hurt myself, I lose scope for movement and end up less active in the short term. Hurt yourself enough and you’ll be obliged to quit. Perhaps this is the inevitable price if you want to participate in sports at higher levels, but is it necessary for all of us? What if it isn’t?

I’m enjoying the process of giving it about two thirds of what I’ve got. I’m careful with my joints and muscles, and as someone with various pain issues, I’m enjoying feeling relaxed about doing what I can and not pushing into discomfort. A few weeks in and there are several things I can now do better than when I started, so even though I’m not pushing, I am clearly developing. My balance in some of the moves has improved. The flexibility in a shoulder I’ve had problems with, is improving too.

I’m also finding the sixty percent idea relevant for the rest of life. I tend to feel like I should be going at everything with everything I’ve got all of the time. I know it doesn’t work. A sixty percent approach would be kinder and more sustainable. As I learn to work kindly with my body, I may manage to work a little more kindly with my head, as well.

The no pain no gain mentality can make physical activity seem unavailable to those of us who really can’t afford any more pain. It can discourage people from action on the grounds of disability, age, physical delicacy, ease of being hurt. It can take us down a path towards injury that then limits what we can do. It is definitely possible to strengthen and develop your body without pushing it to, and beyond its limits. However, the idea that pain and gain go together, that growth is good and growth hurts are part of a bigger story our culture tells itself about how we have to push for success and how we should expect to struggle and suffer along the way.

Giving it sixty percent allows me to step back from all of that, rethink my natural limits, rethink other natural limits, and make radical changes.

Erased by two sexes

One of the standard ways of undermining any consideration of trans rights, is to focus on the idea that two fixed sexes are a biological reality. Anyone taking this stance because they are averse to trans people is not likely to be persuaded by any arguments relating to that. However, trans people are not the only people hurt and harmed by a focus on the idea of two sexes.

Intersex people exist. If the idea of ‘choosing’ your gender offends someone, then there is none of that argument to make here. Intersex people do not choose. When we focus on the idea of two sexes, we totally erase them. It is a hard enough situation to be in without also being told that you don’t exist.

The idea of two sexes is firmly rooted in white, western culture, and is not a world-wide ‘truth’. When we insist that there are only two sexes, we erase the cultures and experiences of many other people around the world. This is particularly an issue with indigenous peoples who have had to deal with colonialism trying to strip away their approaches to gender – along with the rest of their cultures – for some time. White erasure of non-white experience is something we really need to stop doing.

Many people don’t sit neatly in the boxes offered by the notion of two genders only. My experience suggests that people who do not respect trans folk also tend to have no qualms about harming non-binary people as well – again I think because there’s the sense that we choose. So, let’s focus on the people who cannot choose – the people whose bodies do not conform to gender norms. Women with male pattern baldness and women with beards are perhaps the most obvious examples. The more we tell people there are only two sexes, the more we exclude and disempower people whose bodies don’t fit with that. We erase their complexity and we deny their existence.

Traditionally, feminism has been all about championing equality. I don’t know what to do with the kind of ‘feminism’ that will happily erase people in this way simply to try and create a context that invalidates trans people. However, I think pointing out the erasure of intersex people and indigenous people is really important. Attacking trans people makes it easier to attack other people as well, and if your basis for not liking trans is that you think trans people are choosing, you should be able to spare a thought for people who clearly cannot choose and are being hurt by this ideology.

Evil Sexy Women

You’ve probably run into this story too. There are two women. One is gentle, romantic and chaste. The other is sexually active, demanding, predatory. The actively sexual woman dresses in an overtly sexual way and may push her attentions towards the hero of the tale. She may seduce him. She may use her sexuality to hold power over him. By the end of the story, she will probably be dead, and the hero will get it together with the nice girl.

Outside of erotic fiction, the odds of running into a story about a woman who is both sympathetic and sexual, are much reduced. There’s the tart with a heart option – Pretty Woman being the most obvious example. There’s Salma Hayek in Desperado, and I’m struggling now to think of anyone else. It is normal in stories however, to associate enthusiasm for sex with being evil, and I can think of many examples of that. If a female character is at risk of being turned to the dark side, then as in Legend, or Mirror Mask, she’ll get a much sexier wardrobe.

The idea that a sexually potent woman has an unpleasant kind of power over men is with us in all kinds of ways, and not just in fiction. The idea that empowered female sexuality is inevitably disempowering for, and dangerous to men.

Looking back, I can see how much this kind of story got into my head and formed my sense of who I was supposed to be. It wasn’t until I got into the world of erotic fiction in my twenties that I had regular exposure to stories about women who are sexy and good. Stories about women who know what they want and aren’t afraid to go after it, and are still good people. Stories about women with intense sexual appetites, who are also good people. The years I spent reading, and editing other people’s tales in which female sexuality was de-coupled from ideas about being a good or bad person, helped me enormously.

The idea that female sexuality is sinful to the point of being evil, is an idea that comes to us mostly through Christianity. Many of our Pagan stories have passed through the hands of Christian scribes, too, so it’s hard to know how much they have changed. I think about Blodeuwedd, made out of flowers and given to a man, turned into owls. I think about the innate promiscuity of flowers. I think about Aphrodite, and Ishtar and Mabh of the friendly thighs – there are better models for female sexuality out there.

I wonder also if I’d be more at ease with a female identity, and less drawn towards gender fluid stuff, if the evil sexy women who dominate our stories did not still have some space inside my head.

Real Christmas Elves

All of the gifts we give have been made by someone, or made by machines with people keeping an eye on them. Unless you buy directly from the creator, or from an outlet that cares about individual creators, you’ll know nothing about the elves who made your gifts.

Where do they live? What kind of standard of living do they have? Were they happy, while they were making that gift? We can’t tell, but at that same time, I think we all know the likely answers here are not happy ones.

It’s a whole other story with the elves we imagine making Santa’s gifts. Smiling, happy elves, willing to do the work. But at the same time we never see any rewards for those elves. We don’t tend to tell stories that give them rich personal lives.

So much of the ‘joy’ in this season depends on having money and resources. It’s fine and dandy if you can be the person who buys gifts, and a whole other story if you’re an invisible elf tucked away in some factory grinding this stuff out.

Happy elves tend to be working for themselves and making something they are invested in. Even then, most creative people don’t earn much for their labours. A few extra purchases here and there can make a world of difference, whereas spending your money with a big retailer just puts a bit more in the accounts of their shareholders.

When you buy gifts for others, you are, for a little while, in the Father Christmas role. It’s up to you what kind of real life elves you have.

What does it mean to dance?

I was sent to dancing lessons from early on in life. I’ve always thought of dance as being about the music, especially once I got to the point of being able to improvise. I’ve danced as a performer, but more usually I’ve danced amongst people with no audience.

This weekend I had the experience of watching dance – some I realised I’d not done in a long time. I’ve watched morris dancers in the last few years, but it’s not the same as sitting down quietly in a room to watch something that isn’t about repeating patterns. The dance I watched – Without Measure – had no music. Some of the pieces were performed in silence, some had spoken work soundtracks. In the absence of music, it had me thinking about sound and bodies in some unexpected ways.

When you dance in silence, it is the sound of the movement, and the sound of the audience, that occupies the space. Small sounds that would normally disappear under the music become intense and important. The breath of the dancer becomes part of what you experience. Watching anything in silence is normal, but when there is so little constructed soundscape, you become really aware of the smallest sounds you accidently make. This is not a performance in which it is easy to cough.

We normally dance to music. We normally have the speed, rhythm and mood of the dance shaped by the music playing. We’re used to the sense of dance coming from this relationship with sound. Take the music away, and a whole host of questions arise about the nature and purpose of dance.

Nonbinary and the ambidextrous body

It’s not easy finding a language to talk about nonbinary experience, but I think this gives me a shot. Most people are right or left handed. Right is considered normal, left is more acceptable than it used to be. You can make this a male/female metaphor or a straight/gay metaphor if you like! I think it works best as the latter because left handed people used to come under a lot of pressure to try and act right handed.

Looked at from the outside, most bodies have discernible right and left sides. A person with a single dominant hand will likely lead with the foot on the same side as the leading hand. They will experience one side of their body as dominant and one side as less useful to them. Right and left aren’t abstract concepts at this point, they are names for a lived and felt difference in how bits of a person’s body works.

I don’t experience the right and left-ness in my body in the same way. I can lead with either side, hands or feet. I find it more convenient to write with my right hand, but my left handed writing is adequate. I iron left handed, I paint passing the brush back and forth. I don’t deny that I have right and left hands any more than I deny that I have a female-appearing body, but my experience of them is not the same as the experience of a left or right handed person. However, I can easily demonstrate to someone else how some of that ambidextrousness works. I can demonstrate that I can catch left or right handed. It’s much harder to demonstrate anything about how I experience gender.

In practice it’s much the same. I see other people leading with their maleness, or their femaleness. I see them having a dominant side, but the other side is still there. Some of them really can’t use the offhand at all. Some people probably could use their offhands pretty well if they invested some time in it. Many people assume their offhand isn’t up to much simply because they haven’t given it the same developmental time.

I see qualities attributed to right and left hands (strong, dextrous, good, evil, weak, unreliable, etc) that have parallels with the way we attribute qualities to gender (strong, dominant, delicate, weak, unreliable…) I see that in a culture where male and right handed are both treated as normal, it can be a challenge being female or left handed, and things aren’t set up to work for you. Even in small, stupid ways. My spell checker accepts ‘right handed’ but not ‘left handed’ as good grammar.

A person who mostly only uses one hand for all the things can, with a bit of effort, imagine how that might be different. I’m pretty confident that a person who experiences their body in heavily gendered ways might, with a bit of effort, be equally able to imagine what it might be like not to be like that – not necessarily how a specific other person experiences their body, but just the possibility of different experience. Once you can imagine difference, exactly how it plays out is less of an issue. What makes things difficult is when people who have spent their whole lives being told that their way is the only way, can’t flex at all when other people experience something else.

We tell each other stories about what is normal. It doesn’t make those stories a fair measure of anything, and to deny a person’s experience based solely on a story about normality, isn’t very helpful.

Poetry as a tool of entitlement

She was sat on a bench in a public space. She’d eaten her lunch and was looking at her phone. He came and sat at the other end of the bench. I was on the grass some yards away with other people. I sort of know him, but I don’t know his name.

Next thing we know, his voice is raised and he’s reading her his poetry. She’s hunched over her phone. I watch for a while, trying to work out how uncomfortable she is and whether I should go over. He moves to reciting poetry. It was not the sort of thing I think a person would be happy to have forced on them during their lunch break, unsolicited.

He starts telling her how to find him online. This may well be because she’s still staring intently at her phone. I do not know what she said because her voice was low and she’d not said much. He’s pretty loud. My suspicion is that she was not eager to look up more of his work on the internet.

She leaves, and I am relieved. She could have left at any time, she’d not been physically cornered and it was a public space. If he’d followed her I probably would have got involved. I think she was going back to work. However, she should have been free to have her lunch, sit on her bench and play with her phone. Fair enough to ask if someone wants to hear a poem, I guess, but not fair to keep grinding them out. Everything about her body language said that she wanted him to shut up and leave her alone, but he didn’t notice that, or didn’t care.

Being alone in a public space is not an invitation for an approach. Women are socially conditioned to be polite and not cause offence and to listen to men – I could write a great deal about the mechanics of this, but that’s not for today. Women don’t always feel safe antagonising men – even in the middle of the day in public spaces. If you give a man an excuse to get angry with you it can and does turn into verbal abuse and physical assault. Anyone who has previously experienced that won’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to stand up to a pushy man who wants their attention.

Of course in theory having a man recite poetry to you is romantic. In practice, if you don’t know the man, it might instead be weird and creepy. In this case, poetry was functioning as a monologue (manalogue) – great long stretches of the man saying his thing, where it would be rude to interrupt him because it’s a poem. It wasn’t a conversation. He wanted to speak and be listened to – her only role was to listen and approve. It’s the traditional role poetry casts women in – woman as muse and audience, man as speaker and poet. Silence and applause on one side, everything else on the other. Anyone who has read The White Goddess may remember that Robert Graves was very keen on this distribution of labour.

Writing poems does not entitle anyone to attention. Claiming to be a poet does not entitle anyone to interrupt someone else’s lunch break. It was an illustration of entitlement in action. It was difficult to know how to respond. While it was all happening, I made eye contact with the victim. I hope it reassured her to know that she was seen, and I hope I managed to express concern.

One of the things that put me off intervening, was that I do sort of know the guy. He turns up at things I go to and he’s been weird with me and I don’t want to invite more of it. Solidarity-fail on my part, but at the same time, a keen awareness that it shouldn’t have to be my job to sort out the entitled behaviour of a creepy poet.

It’s the sort of behaviour that, in a film or a romance novel would have been portrayed as wild, dashing, exciting – and the woman would probably have been swept off her feet. In real life, it’s unsettling, inappropriate and she didn’t want to know. We need to stop telling stories about how women love to be the passive recipients of such advances.