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The Full Monty

p03lcphhWe do, inadvertently, have Harvey to thank.

Enfin, the journalist who published the story.

Because with the tongues of some of the world’s most famous actresses finally freed comes a freedom and release for every other ordinary woman.  The freedom to speak up, to bear witness, in what has become a collective confession ever since the Weinstein story broke.

Here in France there have been two responses.

The first was the rapid adoption on social media of French versions of the Harvey hashtags, in the form of #MoiAussi and #BalanceTonPorc (#NameYourPig, a Francophone #MyHarveyWeinstein).

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The second Harvey happening, mostly as a consequence of the first, was from the French government. Faced with an unprecedented wave of women claiming they had been victims (a 19 October survey found over half (53%) of women have faced sexual harassment at some stage in their lives) ministers moved quickly to promise a new law to broaden the definition and prosecution of sexual harassment.

More on that later.

First, the hashtags. And some old-fashioned question marks: name and shame, or shame when name?

The social media outpour which has followed the Weinstein stories is to be welcomed. As French sociologist Irène Théry put it in Le Monde last week, “shame has swapped sides.” Both #MoiAussi and #BalanceTonPorc provide that outlet. Both help signal the scale and frequency of the problem.  Both have helped female (and male) victims to finally come forward. Both have galvanized governments into action.

But if both hashtags spring from the same source, why do we need two? The answer is that they are not quite the same. While #MoiAussi offers the space to say, this happened to me too, and it is time to stop it; #BalanceTonPorc is about, this happened to me too, and here’s the guy who did it.

Useful, perhaps, for big fish who might otherwise be protected by their name, and those prepared to go after them. Ariane Fornia, daughter of former French Budget minister Eric Besson, asserted last week that she was molested during an opera performance in 2010 by another former minister, Pierre Joxe.  When told on national radio that Joxe was going to press charges for defamation, Fornia replied, “Very good. Let him.”

#BalanceTonPorc is robustly defended.  To those who fear the legal implications of identifying an alleged attacker on social media, the answer is that very few women have actually gone so far as naming names.  To those who find the French coarse or violent, the retort is that sexual harassment is coarse, and violent.  And to those who worry that a quick Tweet will discourage women from using the proper channels of pressing charges, the response is that women are already discouraged from doing so: Osez le Féminisme says 90% of women do not press charges (other estimates are even lower) and of those who do press charges, only a small minority end in prosecution (for example: 5% for sexual harassment cases at work).

And yet. In our instant-everything world, where is the fair trial (we have fought so hard for ourselves as feminists), where is the reflection, in 140 (and even 280) characters?

What is the difference between #NameYourPig and, say, #NameYourNazi, or maybe, #NameYourNeighbour the next time their hedge overgrows, or, allez, #NameAnyoneWhoDoesAnythingWrong? By directing this movement toward a pitch-fork manhunt, we not only weaken the basic tenant of feminism – equal assumptions, equal rights – but slide dangerously into populism and the righteous mass.

It is extraordinarily depressing that so few women (and men) suffering sexual attacks report them to the police. According to Odoxa, a polling institute, #BalanceTonPorc led to 335,000 tweets in the space of six days. 17,000 of these tweets contained a direct allegation of assault or harassment.

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17,000 women who had not wanted or been able to bring that testimony to a police station, or court of law.  Common justice, at last, you might say?

Perhaps. Especially considering the humiliation, time and energy of pressing charges, and unlikelihood of prosecution. But in providing a quick-and-easy alternative to denounce, do we not in fact run the risk of the opposite: making it easier to commit sexual harassment and get away with it?

Which brings me to the last problem: the void, after the rush. This is common to both hashtags and pretty much anything on Twitter. Yes, it is good to speak out. Yes, the shame-swapping is essential, moving, and to be cheered. Yes, it has resulted in governments finally thinking about how to better capture and punish offenders.

But what about the why?

The why of your attacker, of everyone else’s attacker, of all current or future unnamed attackers: why harassment exists in the first place, and why it is permitted to continue, on 21st century planet Earth.

The first is answered easily enough. Harassment occurs because it can:

  • physical strength (I can’t say no: I can’t fight back)
  • hierarchy (I can’t say no: I will lose my job)
  • community pressure (I can’t say no: my reputation or my family’s is at stake),
  • isolation (I can’t say no: no-one will believe/help me),
  • anonymity (I can’t say no: it was in a dark cinema),
  • dependency (I can’t say no: who will look after me)
  • or *just* from fear (I can’t say no: I can’t)….

In other words, because of power. The answer therefore is the same, whatever the situation: empowerment.

Posting to hashtags is a form of that empowerment – a shaking-free from some of the binds above. But for all that those statements are brave, honest, and wield their own force, they are also fleeting, temporary, and personal.  Empowerment can be instantly triggered: but it cannot be maintained without permanent effort and enforcement.

So yes. Changes to laws are necessary.  Especially better and agreed recognitions, since part of the dismissal of the issue is in the rejection of subjectivity (or tutting about political correctness).  Have a listen to the Radio 4 programme Any Answers from 28 October: the flood of calls received by the host Anita Anand covered the usual range of irritation over ‘feminist hijacking’. One father complained that his sons were now

too scared to ask a girl out these days: the power ratio has been reversed, because girls have the power, the power of rejection

(heaven forbid).

So with clearer definition of what harassment is (and is not) stricter punishment will protect women’s integrity, lessen the fight, and make idiots or misogynists think twice (maybe) before they follow you down the street.

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Feather-brained

Good, good. But, as always, not good enough. Where is the beyond-a-plaster reflection? Tweets aren’t enough. Laws in themselves aren’t enough. We need to go much further, and build on this remarkable, courageous movement to investigate – and invest- into that why.

For me, it is about the education you receive. At school, at home. The images and roles you see as you grow up, and then imitate, expect or attribute. Your own self-worth.  Your definition of femininity and masculinity, and your community’s definition of those.

Complicated. But there are simple changes we can make. Like:

  • reading books, films, stories without damsels in distress or girls valued only by their beauty and/or feminine qualities
  • encouraging young women to explore studies or careers traditionally dominated by men, and vice versa
  • promoting women’s sport (my daughter, aged five, coming home from school: “the boys wouldn’t let me play football today, maman, I’m a girl”)
  • providing sexual education which is not just about biology, but equal respect, responsibility and pleasure
  • doing something about women and women’s bodies as portrayed in the media or advertising.

Yes: though I’d like to think that we are finally turning a page on harassment equalling a male-pigeon-in-the-park, healthy, harmless urge, when I see responses like the pleasant one below, I know that isn’t the case.

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Lovely. In the meantime, a little light relief.  The next time, ladies, you are being hassled for your number and he literally won’t take no for an answer, give him this:

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Oh, and for the record?

#MeToo.

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Make, or Brake?

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Credit: National Geographic

“I can’t believe I’ve got off scot-free for so long,” says the woman opposite me.

We are in a revamped youth hostel near the Gare du Nord in Paris. It is busy with young people relaxing into their Friday evening. I am (I admit) feeling slightly too old to be here (ordering a hot chocolate instead of a beer may be proof of this) but also rather proud, given the cool company I’m keeping.

The woman I have come to meet, you see, is a Major in the British Army, and who better to help me understand why only 10% of serving military personnel in the UK are female?

Starter for ten?

I have come armed (ho!) with my statistics, articles, and studies.  It makes for fascinating reading, and as usual I have more questions than answers. But there is an easy starting point: the depressing 10% of women in the armed forces is the same miserable 10% we find for female heads of state or government.

Nothing like consistency, eh.

Late to the table…

My Major is at pains to stress that it is impossible to analyse female participation today without remembering what it was yesterday.   Before the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) merged with the main British Army in 1992, their training included deportment lessons and flower-arranging (perhaps to cleverly camouflage an AK47?). And even after the merger, women were not allowed to carry weapons (so as not to put their posture out).

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WRAC members 1940s. Credit: BBC News

So that is one (simple) part of the answer: our armed forces have fewer women because it’s a relatively recent career option. But that doesn’t explain why the numbers applying to join today are still low. At current rates, it will be difficult for the armed forces to meet their (not overly ambitious) 2020 target of 15% servicewomen.

So do we need a specific recruitment drive for women? Current advertisements are generally like this one: rousing, fraternel, and usually with some extreme Bear-Grylls type climate conditions.

But if the argument is that women can (and want to) do whatever men can, why should they need any special encouragement in the first place?

A man’s world?

Maybe it’s because we ladies just don’t have the inclination for that kind of thing. Women are by nature soft, cuddly things, with an instinctive abhorrence for war, mud or manslaughter, right?  After all, when was the last time you saw a little girl running around the playground with a play pistol?

And aside from that natural disinclination, there’s those pesky female biologies that get in the way.

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Ewe, too?

My Major says she is often asked questions about how she manages her period, for example, during fieldwork. And the perception of physical weakness is not just popular rhetoric. Decisions from the US and UK governments in the last two years to open front-line combat positions (e.g. infantry) to women have been met with dismay from some senior figures who claim such equality would “endanger” lives.

The physiological differences between men and women are an undeniable reality. Jessica Ennis will ever beat Usain Bolt in the 100m gold, and there it is.  But we are no longer in trench warfare of the 20th century. The breadth of non-combat roles across the armed forces, due to modernisation of war, weapons and machinery, have by and large removed any unique prerequisite of brawn before brain.

“On paper, it’s all open”

And of course, intake is one thing. But there are also outflows, or (aptly named) “wastage”: those who join the armed services, but leave.

For women, there are apparently two reasons for throwing in the (tea)towel.

The first is discrimination. This takes a variety of forms, from unconscious or engrained attitudes, to deliberate exclusion, physical or emotional harassment. It is always hard to quantify discrimination, but a survey in 2016 carried out by the UK government found 39% of Army servicewomen (v. 22% of servicemen) had suffered unwelcome attention or comment on their appearance or behaviour.

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Source: Speak Out government report

Though it is worth remembering the (much lower) rates of more serious manifestations of sexual harassment, the fact that only 30% of all service personnel responded to the survey in the first place – and that so few of those who did think they had been victim of it felt they could report it – would imply the reality is likely to be worse.

In recent years, recognising the impact on personnel and on reputation, armed forces have made efforts to tackle this discrimination (and the rates in 2016 report cited above are lower than for 2009). In the UK, officers must undergo diversity training, for example; in France, following the publication of a damning book in 2014, the French Ministry of Defence launched an ambitious action plan to prevent and penalise harassment.

(Whether or not such measures are effective is another question. Three years on, there has been no evaluation of said action plan, for example).

So: discrimination is a very real reason why women leave. The other: babies.

Work-life balance?

Because getting pregnant, getting back into shape, and coping with little people all takes time and effort: and might cost you a promotion.  Arguably this is the case in many organisations – but it is especially important in the forces given the pyramid hierarchy and limited opportunities for flexible working on return.

And, well, combining bairns with defending one’s country can be tricky. The Royal Navy’s ‘duty of care’ policy, for example, means ships must return any female member of the team who discovers, well, a baby on board. And dropping everything and hauling out to some barren, hostile environment (for which you receive an non-negligable 18% retainer in your Army paypacket, fondly known as the ‘fuck-around factor’) is hardly easy for soldiers with young children. This is why, as late as 1990 (when the law was changed) servicewomen who fell pregnant were asked to leave.

Cultural change?

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And yet, and yet. These obstacles are being recognised, partly because senior management understand that gender equality is not only moving with the times, but is essential to counter a shortage of personnel in specific roles.

In the UK armed forces, for instance, part-time work (previously not an option) or “static” career paths (for those less able or willing to be mobile) are now being considered. Women are now welcome in formerly male-only roles; in submarines; on the front line; and more and more women are making the senior grades, including two star positions in the RAF from 2013 and Army from 2016.  Not to mention that both the Army and the Royal Navy were in the UK’s top fifty employers for women in 2016 (based on a commitment to “fundamentally changing workplace processes and cultures to make them inclusive to all, benefitting women and men at every level in their organisation”).

And, despite the “wastage” that happens before pregnancy, the number of women returning to work after maternity leave has risen from 76% in 2003 to an impressive 93% by 2014.

So it’s not all doom and gloom. But we still don’t seem to be going very far, very fast. Why is there no % target for, say, 2025? Is full gender equality – all roles open to all, a 50% male and female breakdown – realistic or even desirable? My Major shakes her head when I bring up the idea of fifty-fifty. It is not about targets, she says;

Equality must be achieved through merit.

In an organisation run on discipline and allegiance, legitimacy comes from everyone, male or female, meeting the required standards.  Move the goalposts to promote diversity (e.g. easier physical tests for women) and you actually  make it harder for them in the long run.

That said, she says, eyeing my uneaten Speculoos biscuit, the obstacles which women face in military careers are real, and frequent.  Sometimes it is hard to believe until you actually witness it. Beyond friendly ‘banter’ which never bothered her, my Major recalls the first time she was whistled at by French regulars in an operation in Chad.  The experience was a shock, and something which made her think about her own responsibility (and ability) as a senior female officer to shape the Army from the inside out.

I finish my interview reluctantly. It is fascinating. I have another hundred questions for this impressive woman, but duty calls, and we are out of time.

So instead I give her my thanks, and (in a rare act of food-related generosity) I surrender the Speculoos biscuit, too.

Well, anything for Queen and country, after all.

Everything under the sun

images-8On the postcard that I forced my daughter to write to her grandmother last weekend was a vintage photo of the beachfront where we were staying. My child peered at the picture, grainy black and white, with its stiffly-smiling, fully-dressed ocean-goers.

“Why are they wearing so many clothes?” she pondered. “Aren’t they hot?”

“Well, monkey,” I replied all-knowingly, “people covered up a bit more in those days.”

These days, too?

You might have caught a bit of the volleyball in the Rio Olympics. Probably my favourite sport, having tinkered with it passably through college. It would appear Donald Trump is partial, too, to a bit of volleyball (at least, when the women are playing).

I am lucky enough to have never met Mr Trump, but I am guessing that he would have huffed and puffed (for different reasons) had he seen the Egypt-Germany beach-volley match. This photo, by British photojournalist Lucy Nicholson had much Twitter-ink spilling:

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The question of religion and dresscode is a frequent bone of contention, especially in countries with large migrant communities of different faiths, or where – such as France – there are restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols in public places.

Leaving the Olympics to one side (and Donald Trump – permanently, if possible) let’s return to our starting point: the seaside. On 13 August in Corsica, a violent quarrel broke out on a beach, originally believed (but since refuted) to be over a “burkini” (a loose-fitting body bathing suit worn by Muslim women).

Immediately afterwards, some Mayors in mainland France banned the wearing of burkini on their beaches. Some claim “hygiene” reasons, others “an incompatibility with French way of life”; others still linking the burkini to a radicalisation of the Muslim faith – and oppression of women.  If President Hollande has so far steered clear of commenting, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently refused to condemn the Mayors:

I support those Mayors who have taken this decision, if it is taken to promote community life, and without political motivation (…) the idea that a woman is immodest and should be covered does not fit with the values of the [French] Republic

But the bans have, in turn, caused an outcry in France – denounced as another populist attack on France’s Muslims, or the right of any woman to choose how to dress.

This debate has been picked up elsewhere, too. In the view of British Muslim feminist Huda Jawad for example, the ban is nothing less than “misogynistic”:

What is it about French secularism’s blindspot to its own racism and misogyny? The obsession to the point of fetishism with Muslim women’s mode of dress and covering curtails the basic of human rights – that of self-determination and freedom of expression (…) instead of extending the hand of fraternité, [Mayors] are excluding Muslims, if not pushing them into the arms of radicalisers.

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Two-peace?

Jawad’s point – that active exclusion feeds radicalisation – is a valid one. But it is also hard to imagine Burkini and bikini wearers happily cohabiting on the beach. Given the recent attacks in Paris and Nice perpetrated by those acting in the name of radical Islam groups like ISIS, any Muslim symbol is (unfortunately) viewed with conscious or unconscious connotation.

And yet all religious faiths have long had requirements on how women and men should dress. Let us not forget Catholic nuns in headdresses; Jewish men in kippahs; Sikh men in  turbans. Does it not follow that the covering of a Muslim woman’s head is in the same context, and thus unfairly singled out?

Well, I think the answer is legitimately nuanced according to the type of covering. The hijab (covering the hair and shoulders, but not the face) is one thing. But what of the burka (full body coverage except the eyes) or niqab (also covering eyes)?

From a theological point of view, there is no obligation for any Muslim woman to wear either of the latter. The Koran instructs that women, from puberty, show only hands and face when in public or with strangers:

 

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source: http://www.dinosoria.com/burqa.html

So, a “burkini” (slight misnomer, since it does not in fact cover the face), is a logical water-proof extension of these teachings, and simply allows Muslim women to enjoy the same seaside fun as everyone else.

Good. Isn’t that what equality is all about?

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Many happy returns?

And after all, the women who choose to wear them would say they do so freely, as part of their religious and cultural identity, or that doing so empowers them: freedom from being looked up and down as a sexual object (precisely the concern of some women back when the bikini was introduced in 1946, amid much controversy).

Have a listen, for example, to this strong testimony from Muslim women living in Los Angeles:

 

 

Watching it, I am almost convinced. It is hard to be a feminist, after all, and refute clear-headed arguments of empowerment and choice.

But, but. There is the inevitable question about why a hijab, burka or niqab should be worn by women in the first place.  Is the right to decide still valid if the need to choose only exists – today – because of a view on women’s bodies and appropriate behaviours defined in a very different era?

There is no similar requirement of men, and that basic inequality sits uneasily with me, just like any other. Why should women have to cover herself, or demonstrate modesty, but a man is free to dress as he pleases?

I understand the need for men and women of all religions to follow rules or customs. It is part of faith, and beyond that, identity. Those, indeed, are fundamental human rights.

But the existence of certain constraints, dos and don’ts, that only apply to women: should we embrace them because they have always existed? Because they are presented not as inequality, but as a cultural norm? The challenge is hard: at best, an accusation of wilful misunderstanding, at worst, of cultural imperalism.

So how do you assimilate difference, and how much should you assimilate, when that difference means one thing to one person and another to another?

These are the questions behind today’s debate, which is understandably knee-jerk, and often reduced to a battle of values. But if the answers (on a postcard) are hard to find, that doesn’t mean we stop trying.

In the meantime, maybe the solution is nudism. That all-over tan is very pleasing to my OCD, I have to say.  And they do seem a peaceful lot  – just don’t borrow their Factor50 without asking. Bare necessities, and all…

Money can’t buy you love

We’ve all been there.

You know – when you fancy a bit of rough and tumble, but there’s no-one to rough and tumble with?

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And I would walk five hundred miles

You can compare it to that late night Ben+Jerrys craving, which drives you out of the house in your pyjamas and flipflops to the corner shop.

(Good luck with that in France – you’ll have to just wait for the boulangerie to open, and make do with a 6am croissant instead.)

Much the same with sex, right?

If Tinder isn’t coming up with the goods, you can head to your local brothel, “massage” parlour (technically speaking, it is a bit of you that needs massaging) or darkened urban woods, and pay someone some money to er, satisfy those needs.

Prostitution: the oldest profession in the world.

Sex sells, after all – miserably, as we have already discussed, in the form of transactional relationships, or human trafficking.

But surely, without coercion, cash-for-cuddles is not A Bad Thing?

Well, you tell me.

Firstly, who’s “bad”? (apart from Michael Jackson, c. 1987). And what is bad? Morally bad? Is there difference between selling your body and, say, sitting behind a checkout all day every day? (I can tell you from experience: the latter is also tough love. Especially with customers who present you with two hundred coupons when it comes to paying).

We all have to earn money somehow, and it’s usually done by providing something that someone else is willing to pay for. Is trading sex any different, any more subservient, to scanning other people’s shopping for hours on end?

And bad for whom? Bad for the prostitutes themselves? Not if recent protests in France are anything to go by, with hundreds of sex workers demonstrating in April against a new law penalising clients (a 1,500euro fine, raised to 3,750 euros for reoffenders: that’s an expensive orgasm).

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If you’re happy and you know it

Presumably the clients don’t see anything wrong with it, either. 343 men (including some French household names) even signed an open petition, Touche Pas A Ma Pute (“Leave My Whore Alone”) rejecting the government’s meddling in affairs of the heart, ahem, other love muscle. 

So, then. Sex: supply and demand, just like any other traded good?

Of course not.

Because you don’t buy sex like you do your tub of chocolate-chip-cookie dough (I think on most nights I’d prefer the latter, anyway).

The hand-wringing (?ho) that accompanies prostitution comes down to morality and human rights, not economics. Generally, we approve of sex if it is voluntary, pleasurable to both parties, and legally conducted (granted, the last condition often depends on religious or moral norms; sex between two men is still a crime in many countries; adultery in Saudia Arabia carries a death sentence in some cases).

So the idea that women (70-80% of sex workers are female) engage in sexual intercourse with men they would never normally want near them, were it not for the money, has us at best clearing our throats and at worst enraged.

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Credits: “Lieux de plaisir” from the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

And even while it is understandable that sex workers would oppose any new law which would puts their livelihoods at risk, it is hard to believe that anyone would willingly aspire to sell sex as a livelihood in the first place.   Spot the false quote:

I love my job! I love having to have sex with lots of different men every day, men I’d never otherwise sleep with. Perks include being at constant risk of violence, rape, pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Ever since I was little, this is all I ever wanted to do. Dreams can come true!

Put it this way. If prostitution is such a cheerfully chosen route, then why are sex workers mostly migrants or from poorer backgrounds? For example, of the estimated 30-40,000 prostitutes in France, 80% are from Eastern Europe, Africa, China and South America.

Coercion is not then just a question of being forced by someone else. It is also being forced into choosing prostitution over destitution: which doesn’t feel like much of a choice to me.  If you lack money, employment, skills, a visa, have a family to feed, or even just yourself to feed: are you still freely choosing to become a sex worker?

 

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Source: Soroptimist

It is for this reason the new French law provides funding and support (e.g. temporary visas for migrants) to help sex workers leave prostitution. Although the amount of funding has been criticised as largely insufficient (“sticking plasters” in the words of French Senator Esther Benbassa), the aim is laudable, and follows similar moves elsewhere. France is the 5th EU country to legislation in this way, taking Sweden as its example, where similar laws passed in 1999 are said to have halved street prostitution.

Penalising clients or prostitutes is one response to prostitution; the others are  legalisation … or simply pretending it’s not happening. Regulation has the advantage of offering social protection to those officially recognised as sex workers (e.g. pensions, healthcare) or removing illicit conditions which trap sex workers in a life of invisibility and dependency.

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Bargain prices, up against the wall

Governments who opt for the second approach (*crosses street whistling*) may do so because sex is seen as a private (non-state) matter, or too much of a moral conundrum to tackle, or perhaps because the act of buying sex itself is tolerated as a boys-will-be-boys fact of life (on which more anon).

But whichever the preferred response, none receives universal support. The legislation in France was passed after two and half years of vivid parliamentary debate, and many MPs abstained in the final vote.  Feminists themselves are divided: selling sex is about the right for a woman to choose what she does with her own body, versus, well, the right for a woman to choose what she does with her own body.

I still don’t know what to think, myself. I instinctively abhor the idea that anyone, for any reason, feels obliged to endure the intimacy (and, frankly, discomfort) of unwanted sex. Even if you are paid, so what; is that anything less than monetized rape?

And yet how can we not respect those who say they can and will continue, since there will always be clients willing to pay?

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alright, but only if this turns out to be a Hollywood fairytale, ok?

Why is that, actually?

It is simply that Men Have Needs (akin or greater to the Ben+Jerrys cravings) that cannot be self-served or simply contained? Needs different from women, who seem to be able to make it through the night without going curb-crawling?

I wonder what would happen if we started to question that assumption, if we approached prostitution as an indulgence, rather than an inevitability.  Would men think twice about paying for sex, if there were a bigger reaction against doing so? Would society think twice about tolerating those “needs” so comprehensively? Would there be a longer-term change in demand (and therefore supply)?

Who knows. The focus of the debate is elsewhere for now: on whether or not – and how – commercial sex, and sex workers, should be regulated.  There doesn’t seem to be much room for philosophical ponderings about why it has to happen in the first place: the bottom line is that money can, and will, buy you love.

Or at least, that BJ.

(Ben+Jerrys, of course.  What did you think I meant?)

 

 

 

 

All creatures great and small

 

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grub’s up

My five-(“and a half! and a half!”) year-old daughter will tell you: the only living thing it’s ok to squash is the mosquito.

(however, now that she is into wildlife documentaries, questions are starting to be asked about whether one can also squish a black widow spider in cold blood, in the interests of self-preservation).

Mosquitoes – the insect incarnation of La Poste – deserve whatever bloody end they get (and indeed, if it is bloody, then it is even more well-deserved, since that’s your blood on the wall).

Urgh. Mosquitos. They serve no positive purpose, unless you have a sado-masochistic penchant for that nails-down-blackboard whine, issuing seemingly from inside your eardrum, startling you from your sleep; or for the ensuing, desperate game of “where is it? where is it?” as you turn the light on and blink, red-eyed, at the expanse of wall around you.

Yes: the mosquito; the ultimate bad one-night stand.

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That kind of Night Nurse

But not only do they leave you sleep-deprived and somewhat uglier, with those maddeningly itchy bites: they also delight in injecting you with some of the world’s deadliest diseases.  Through malaria, dengue, yellow fever or the superbly-named chikungunya, mosquitoes kill 725,000 human beings a year (definitely more than that black widow spider).

And – just when you thought it was safe to come out from under the bed net – now there’s another one for the list.

I first heard of Zika a few months ago.  I admit I initially thought it was a new fitness craze: next-level Zumba. But no. Zika is a virus.  And not some new-fad-virus, thank you very much:  Zika is actually a sextogenerian, first identified in 1947 in Uganda.

Despite its comic-strip baddie name, Zika is actually fairly harmless.  You get a temperature, a red rash, some aches and pains. Symptoms fade within a few days.  Aside from the few occasions where Zika has been associated with the rare Guillain-Barré syndrome, it isn’t anything to worry unduly about.

Unless, that is, you happen to be pregnant.

Because Zika is tentatively linked to a neonatal malformation known as microcephaly, or babies born with unusually small heads.  This rare condition affects one birth in a thousand, but since autumn last year Latin America – and particularly Brazil – has seen a surge of cases in parallel to the Zika epidemic.

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Zika

Although experts are still wary about making a conclusive link between Zika and microcephaly, the peak in suspected cases has lead to governments and the World Health Organisation proactively recommending measures to prevent being bitten, such as removing water sources where mosquitoes commonly breed; sleeping under bednets, or donning long sleeved/full-leg clothing (joyful, in hot countries).

Oh, and not getting pregnant in the first place.

Simple, right?

Or not, since avoiding pregnancy requires one of two things: abstinence (never overly popular) or contraception.

The latter, on the face of it, is easier. Brazil scores fairly well on overall access to contraception (measured by the % of women with “unmet need“).  But there is a difference in contraceptive access between socioeconomic classes or urban/rural locations. Couple that with a peak of Zika infections in the less-wealthy north-east of Brazil (with a hotspot in the slums of Recife) and you have a situation disproportionately affecting women from poorer backgrounds: uninformed about the risks of falling pregnant, or
unable to avoid pregnancy through poor or unreliable birth control methods.

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who you gunna call?

So as rousing as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s
declaration of war on mosquitoes was (including limited edition t-shirt),  what about ensuring women have the access they need to contraception?

Hear hear! said the Pope.

Yes, yes, the Pope. I kid you not: reversing the Vatican’s position on contraception in between a Zumba lesson and midnight mass.  Is the Catholic church finally moving with the times?

Alas, not quite.  Because what Pope Francis actually said was:

Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime (…) an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. (…) avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil (…) I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.

So no: no dramatic departure from teachings of old (the Pope is indeed a catholic). Au contraire, not falling pregnant every time your body is biologically capable of it is still evil, apparently, just a tad less evil, than abortion.

Not that Catholics appear to pay much attention. A 2014 survey showed that 78% of Catholics worldwide support the use of modern contraception, and even 65% are in favour of abortion in some cases.

So you may legitimately ask: if Catholic wo/men do not take the humanae vitae literally, what does it matter what the Pope says or doesn’t say?

Well, it does matter. For two reasons:

  1. such rhetoric entirely misses the point of – and therefore diverts attention from – access to reliable and low-cost birth control. Without which the question of whether you should or should not be using it is moot; and
  2. labelling women who try to prevent or put an end to unwanted pregnancy as “evil” (as opposed to addressing unmet need – especially for poor women) – is, frankly, criminal.

Criminal, yes: and yet those who are considered the criminals are the women themselves. Abortion is restricted or illegal in many Latin America countries, including in Brazil, hotspot of the Zika epidemic.  If you abort (apart from to save the mother’s life; in the case of anencephaly (absence of a portion of the brain or skull); or as a result of rape) you risk up to 3 years’ imprisonment.

Oh – and your life.

In Brazil, there are an estimated 850,000 illegal abortions per year, resulting in around 200,000 women requiring treatment for, let’s say, injecting corrosive substances into the uterus in a desperate attempt to abort alone.

And with the Zika virus, these numbers are on the rise. Which is why the resistance to strict abortion laws is increasingly criticised, and not only from traditional quarters.  Jon O’Brien, head of Catholics for Choice, says that

progressive Catholic theologians argue that abortion can be justified under a range of situations (…) traditional Catholic teaching about conscience gives women the the final moral authority over the abortion decision

Moral authority or not: the fact of the matter is this. If a woman falls pregnant, and the pregnancy is unwanted, she may well take matters (and her life) into her own hands. This is especially true faced with the possibility of a baby born with microcephaly.

Ignoring that reality, and badging abortion as an “absolute evil”, is therefore not only immoral, but pointless.  If the Pope really is as progressive as he would have us believe, then it is time he moved the Catholic church away from wielding women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights as a moral pulpit, and used his considerable influence to make every pregnancy wanted, and every childbirth safe.

Simply: the word evil has no place in this debate. Unless, of course, we’re back to talking about the mosquito.

I think the jury might still be out on the black widow spider, though.

 

 

It’s a man’s world

If you can manage to cast your minds back to that long, long ago time of pre-Christmas and New Year, you might vaguely remember a big climate conference – COP21 – that happened in Paris (ok, technically, Le Bourget, near Paris).

You might remember it because on 30 November, the biggest ever gathering of world leaders turned up to inaugurate the conference – 150, all told.

Look, here they are:

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Notice anything?

Ok, I know it’s sort of small and you have to screw up your eyes (what do you expect, with 150 of them; Paris is a popular place to come shopping-slash-planet-saving).

But actually, sorry, there isn’t much point in screwing up your eyes: you still won’t find many.

Many women, that is.

Where are the ladies, in this heart-warming photo of people who run our planet?

(out shopping?)

There are a few – eleven, apparently – but good luck spotting them. And in fact you get nul points for picking out Ségolène Royal, the French Energy and Ecology Minister, who (despite having stood for President herself, and being the mother of the incumbent’s children) does not run France.

But how come? With that hard-to-ignore reality of 50-50 boy-girl birthrates (oh, except in countries where having a baby girl is irritating, and we arrange an abortion after a scan or leave the newborn baby to die or systematically mistreat girls in families if they are allowed to grow up), basic maths suggests should be seeing at least 75 women vying for position in that photo, right?

Alas, no. According to UN Women and as of August 2015, there are only 13 female Heads of State (HoS: in some countries, a representative rather than decision-making role) and 12 women serving as Head of Government (HoG: often a Prime Minister).

So if you add the handful of independent/self-declared countries to the 193 UN member states, that’s about a 10% ratio.

Can you imagine it the other way round?

It’s bizarre: after all, 52% of the world’s population are women. Surely that implies more women voting than men. And, by the by, wouldn’t that also imply an electoral constituency more likely to vote for female candidates?

Well: no, on either count.

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… and now for that driving licence

Firstly, without rehashing the suffragettes’ movement, a woman’s ability to vote is still not common currency. Granted, Saudi Arabia finally bit the bullet and allowed women to vote in December 2015, but we’re still not at universal voting rights (thanks to the Vatican city; only cardinals can vote for the Pope … and only men can be cardinals. Because, you know, God said so).

But there is a difference between de jure and de facto voting rights. Just because a constitution confers the possibility to vote doesn’t mean that women know about, or are able to actually post a ballot paper: and in countries where democracy is young or unstable, corruption or poorly organised elections can mean casting a vote doesn’t actually mean… well, casting a vote.

Secondly, research indicates that despite the popular concept of “women’s issues” (for example, a keen interest in which biscuits campaigning politicians eat, according to the BBC) women do not vote as one block – or especially for female candidates.  Voting patterns have moved on from days when housewives and stay-at-home mothers followed their parents’ or husbands’ political preferences.  Now women vote as men do: according to the issues that matter to them individually.

Women don’t necessarily vote for women, either, when a female candidate is actually on offer to them, as this survey found in Israel. Surprised? I’m not, actually. I for one would not automatically base an electoral choice solely on gender (even if that would be an influencing factor for me given a choice between two competent and credible candidates, one of whom was a woman).

(Interestingly, a startling exception to this seems to come in the form of Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right party le Front National.  Le Pen took over from her father in 2011, and since then, there are three times more French women voting for the FN.  Is that because the party has undergone a mainstream makeover, or because its leader is now Madame and not Monsieur Le Pen?)

But of course, it’s not often you get the choice anyway, at least not at national level. In the USA, the electoral gender gap is explained through incumbency (if a man holds the contested seat, it is harder for a woman to run against him); the cost (easier for men to secure the financial support a campaign requires) as well as less media coverage (men being quoted five more times than women in news reports).

It’s difficult for female politicians to get beyond traditional portfolios, too. Only 17% of ministers globally are women, with the majority are still confined to responsibilities for family, education or health, reinforcing perceptions that those ball-/brain-busting areas of economics, defence or diplomacy are best left to men.

Interestingly, even when women are elected, they aren’t necessarily champions of other women. Although research shows women in local government invest in families, health and standard of living, there is nothing automatic about a feminist female HoS/G (who wants to be pigeon-holed as the eternal woman’s advocate?).

Soit. But no taxation without representation, remember: so how do we fix the fact that 90% of world leaders represent only half (ahem, 48%…) of the global electorate?

Through quotas? Obligations for political parties to field female candidates, or for seats themselves to be reserved for women, have done much to increase women’s political participation (look at Rwanda).

But quotas are controversial, as we’ve already discussed; and I think we all agree it’d be tough to impose a global gender-parity leaders’ quota for the world’s 200-odd countries.

Instead, then, it’s about making quotas unnecessary in the first place. Starting with, of course, education (of both girls and boys), and the freedom to form and defend opinions.

Alright. All that opinion-defending has me left me quite tired. Yes, please, to women in politics; I’d like to think my daughter will grow up and not still have to search for female leaders in a UN family photo like a page from her Where’s Wally book.

After all, as new Canadian PM Justin Trudeau responded when journalists asked him why he had  appointed an equal number of male and female ministers in his government:  “Because it’s 2015.”

True dat.

Oh come, all ye faithful

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this must be underwater love

The theory goes that there are only two species which have sex for pleasure: dolphins, and human beings.

Now I don’t know about female dolphins (there’s a whole other definition of aqua-aerobics) but just how fun is sex for the women of this world?

Not-so-chandelier-swinging, it would appear. Or so implies an IFOP survey released last week, painting a dismal picture of women’s orgasms across eleven countries – including France, who (would you believe it?) scooped the trophy for least-satisfied ladies.

Yes, France, where the cinq à sept and the presidential mistress are the norm, but where 49% of Françaises do not have regular orgasms from sex and one third apparently regularly fake them.

(maybe those not having a cinq à sept?).

But other nations shouldn’t get too cocky (ho!). No other country has much to be crowing over, either. Even in the Netherlands, who came out on top (ho!) there were still a third of women who claimed regular difficulty reaching orgasm.

What’s worse is that these dreary results concern our consensual, everyday love lives. We are not talking about forced, transactional or commercial sex; intercourse intended only to get pregnant; or the recognised medical condition of being unable to orgasm (anorgasmia: will add to glossary), which is thought to affect 10% of women.

So: do these statistics not strike others as pretty grim? What exactly is the pleasure of sex without regular orgasm? Some strange altruism in watching your partner reach seventh heaven while you cannot? Feeling good about fulfilling your conjugal duty? The joys of inadvertently rolling onto a one-way wet patch in the middle of the night?

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But what happens when you get there?

Well, mystified, and in the interests of benchmarking, I consulted my (British) female friends. To my surprise, it was my surprise that surprised them: not only were such statistics to be expected, but they were hardly catastrophic.

Sex without orgasm? (Non)-Gaullic shrug. Still good fun, they said: emotional connection, feeling close to your partner, genuine physical enjoyment.

So orgasms = a nice, but non-essential extra?

Sorry – I’m not feeling it (ho! ok, ok, I’ll stop). As enjoyable and/or inevitable as occasional good-but-orgasmless-sex might be, it just doesn’t beat regular good-and-orgasmic-sex, and that’s all there is to it.

Because these results do not a describe a one-off. If half of half of France’s population are missing out regularly on that (ok, exaggerated, but still) Meg Ryan #WHMS rendition: well, quel dommage. After all, the average person has sex 127 times a year. So should we not be trying harder to fix the stats below?

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But maybe it’s not as simple as if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed.  This thoughtful article summarises research suggesting that orgasms are easier for certain women (size or exact positioning of clitoris; fabled “G-spot” more likely when thinner tissue between the vagina and the urethra).

On that basis, it’s probably pointless to petition our MPs to get a woman’s right to orgasm enshrined in the national constitution.

Ok. But even if can’t sue our partners for failing at their civic duty, we can (as women, as a society, as men partnering women) make an effort to address some of the underlying issues to make an orgasm that much more likely.

Take the faking thing, for example.

All credit to Meg Ryan, but why on earth do women fake orgasms?

Well, a quick google search later, and reliable sources inform me it’s nothing to do with honing of porn actress skills, but rather:

  1. to avoid hurting your man’s feelings
  2. to not appear abnormal if not utterly delighted with all that bumping and grinding
  3. to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible
  4. to stimulate – and not simulate – a real orgasm.

Hmm.

As depressing as that list is, the upside is surely all of the above could be addressed by a bit of simple communication – and patience – between partners?

That, in any case, is exactly what this article argues: the chances of orgasm increase with sexual touching (foreplay, affection outside of intercourse situation, etc, rather than just diving on in there).

More time, more effort – not quite rocket science, so far.  And yet those two things are not a given in any sexual relationship. Is it because men *massive generalisation warning* are pretty much guaranteed an orgasm given the design of their equipment? Are they therefore puzzled or impatient with the more complex workings of the female kit?

(guys, if that is the case, fear not: Men’s Fitness have got it covered with the elegantly-named 9 Sex Positions That’ll Get Her Off Every Time).

But there’s something else necessary, too, and that’s a woman’s self-esteem, indulgence, and willingness to define her own pleasure. We struggle with that, I think, because it’s not something our society likes to talk about – let alone encourage -against a backdrop of virginal fairy tales and religious or moral taboos about female sexuality.

Look, for example, at the success of the Fifty Shades phenomenon and the countless spin-offs it spawned (ho!) now vying for space in bookstores.  How much of that success is simply about untapped need? And those top-shelf magazines or x-rated DVDs in your local newsagent: how many cater for women, visually?

But we don’t need to go that far to see how the facts are treated.  Look at this nice gentle advice, for example, from a this women’s health website:

“For some couples, love making ends once the man ejaculates. Often, at this point the woman is very aroused. If this is the case, you might ask your partner to continue stimulating you with his hands or his mouth once he is finished. Some women feel uncomfortable doing this, thinking that this would be selfish or that their partner would be bored. In fact, your partner may enjoy giving you pleasure. Rather than being selfish, you are giving your partner the chance to please you.”

Hear hear. Tough job, ejaculation. Give the poor guy a break, would you?

Yeah. Alternatively, invest in a good vibrator.  That way, when he’s rolled over and fallen asleep (preferably in the wet patch), you can finish the job in your own sweet time.

Failing that, you can always pack your bags (and the Rabbit) and move to Brazil, where enlightened males celebrate the International Day of Female Orgasms every 8 August.

Ok, ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic.  But, then, I’d hate to leave you on an anti-climax.