Mental Health in Cambridge

TW: mental health, depression, self-harm mention, anxiety, medication

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for a long time, and I’ve finally found the courage to do it. This is hard to write, but here we go: last summer, I was diagnosed with depression. Sitting in that GP surgery didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know. I suffered from depression as a teenager, and I knew the symptoms by heart. I recovered the first time when I was 16, and every year, on my birthday, I would close my eyes and thank a deity I don’t even believe in for giving me one more year free of the pain and the fear. I carry the scars from those years, both physical and mental. I prayed that I would never have to go back there. But I know how depression works, and I know that it is often a problem that affects people throughout their lives.

This time around, there was no obvious trigger: no family problems, no school bullies, no bodily insecurity. Maybe, if I had to guess, the stress of returning to Cambridge for my final year and the fear of finding a job when I graduate (a quest I am, incidentally, still on) proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

At first, it was mild depression. I had days when I functioned relatively normally. I had days when I struggled to get out of bed, but I usually managed it by midday. I was told to start exercising more rigorously, so I started running: I ran every time I felt sad, and it helped. I ran nearly every day, until a knee injury forced me to stop. Without my coping mechanism, my depression spiralled out of control. Daily activities became a nightmare. I would desperately struggle to drag myself out of bed every morning. Basic things like showering and cooking became insurmountable challenges. I missed nearly every single one of my lectures. I spent whole days sitting on my bed, staring at the wall in my bedroom. I cried constantly.

Still, I didn’t tell anyone outside of my close circle of friends and my boyfriend: not my college, not my family, not my crew. I was ashamed. I felt weak. When I was bullied as a teenager, I learnt how to defend myself, how to put up shields. It has served me well since, but it means that I find it hard to open up emotionally. When I told my two closest friends at home, it was through a letter: I physically couldn’t bring myself to tell them in person. When the holidays came, I worked as hard as I could to catch up. I started applying to job after job. I learned how much rejection can hurt, as one by one, every graduate scheme I had applied to rejected me.

I hit rock bottom in January. Away from my friends and boyfriend on a training camp in London, I lost my support network and I failed to cope. I was sharing a room with two other girls, and I couldn’t find time in the evenings to cry if I needed to. Instead, I walked the streets of Teddington, sobbing down the phone to my boyfriend. Between training sessions, I retreated to the women’s locker room and cried, wiping away my tears in time to go outside and cox another outing. When I came back to Cambridge, I was broken. One night, midnight, I felt the familiar urge to hurt myself, as I had all those years ago. Panicked, I ran downstairs and sat in my housemate’s room until the urge subsided. I knew I needed to get help.

Another GP, this time a sympathetic woman with kind eyes. She put me on anti-depressants for the first time in my life: and it felt like a failure. But I took them, desperate to stop feeling this way. The side effects were horrendous. I stopped sleeping for nearly a week: I would lie there, exhausted, knowing that I had to get up in the morning and work. I felt nauseous all of the time: one of my housemates introduced me to the wonders of peppermint tea, and brought it to me whenever the sickness hit too hard. The medication made me feel dizzy, and anxious, and afraid.

Yet, when the side effects passed, the depression did not. I was prepared for this: the GP had told me that it could take weeks for the pills to kick in fully. The crying didn’t stop. If anything, it got worse. I stopped eating, and it was only through the kindness of my boyfriend and friends that I didn’t starve most days. Waking up remained a huge struggle. I finally went to see my tutor: a new one, a woman I hadn’t met before. I sat in the office of this stranger, and I cried, and she sat there and awkwardly tried to console me. Later, she would take me around the fellow’s garden and point out the different trees, and the bees making honey. I went to see my DoS, and I sat through our appointment and didn’t say a word. It took the encouragement of a friend to take me back. She sat outside while I finally broke the news to my academic role model that I wasn’t coping. I finally – after over a month on the university waiting list – saw a counsellor.

My work suffered, of course: but here, a few emails from my DoS to the relevant supervisors exempted me from handing in any essays that I couldn’t cope with. My sport suffered; I would spend an hour crying in my room, and then dry my eyes and head to the boathouse. Any mistake during an outing made me panic, stressed and fearful, the new chemicals in my body introducing an anxiety I have never before experienced. More than once, I cried in the middle of an outing, hastily covering the microphone and hoping that my stroke seat hadn’t noticed. If he did, he never made me feel bad about it. Several times, my friends suggested that I leave my sport behind. But most days, it was the only thing that kept me going. Whether they knew it or not, those eight men became my support network through the worst of my depression. Even on the worst of my days, I found the energy to haul myself out of bed to go and meet them. I structured what little work I did around training with them. Most days, they managed to make me smile and laugh, even when no one else could.

Slowly, the depression started to lift: I would have good days again, in amongst the bad. I started to laugh again. I attended supervisions and lectures. I forced myself back into exercise, and baking, and all of the things that I love. By the time that exam term came around, I was roughly stable: not happy, by any stretch of the imagination, but functioning and able to revise.

Of course, this is not the end of the story. The medication I’m on still gives me severe anxiety: when I told my new GP about this, she asked me if my boyfriend was cheating on me (twice, in case my flat “…no” wasn’t enough for her) and then wrote me a prescription for two more months without enquiring further. A month ago, I put in a repeat prescription, only to be given 6 months of contraceptive instead (helpful, but not ideal when you’ve run out of sertraline and been told that the withdrawal symptoms make going on it look like a picnic.) That day, I cried outside Sainsbury’s for half an hour, while my boyfriend held me close and tried to shield me from curious passers by.

Throughout this, I have been lucky: I have been supported by my friends, my housemates, my old (and new) crew (whether they know it or not), and especially my boyfriend. Some days are hard: this morning was hard. On my bad days, I still struggle to get out of bed and feed myself. But on my good days, I laugh and cox and bake and hang out with my friends. On my really good days, I dance around my room singing aloud to Taylor Swift. My depression does not define me: it is a battle, but one that I will win.

If you’re struggling with any of the above, there are places that can help:

In Cambridge: your tutor, your DoS, your porters, the college nurse, the university counselling service, Student Minds

More generally: Samaritans, Depression Alliance, Mind

Taking a break in exam term

I have often thought, during the last three years of my degree, that the working culture at Cambridge is incredibly unhealthy. Perhaps it is to be expected when you put a group of highly intelligent students – who are often used to being top of the class at school – in the same place and then publicly rank them at the end of the year (a practise that, thankfully, Cambridge is soon to abandon). It is a culture in which long nights in the library are seen as the norm. Days off and weekends are a luxury seldom taken. Working 6 hour days in the holidays is not only encouraged, it’s expected: how else are you going to cover everything on the incredibly long reading lists? In my first year, I remember my DoS saying that I could maybe take Christmas day off, but certainly no more than that. I wasn’t entirely sure at the time that she was joking.

This is my final term at Cambridge, and my entire degree is riding on the three exams that I have coming up, and the dissertation I handed in several weeks ago. I spent the entire of my summer holidays working on that dissertation: I would sit, in my boyfriend’s back garden, ploughing through as many books as humanely possible. I knew that when I came back to Cambridge, devoting that kind of time to it would be impossible, and I was right. It put me in good stead for actually writing it, but it also meant that I barely took any time off over the summer.

My dissertation was handed in maybe a month ago: and since then, I have worked solid 7 hour days, balancing that with attending job interviews and coxing my rowing crew. In spite of my exams not finishing for another two weeks (thanks for that, politics department), there is an overbearing sense that I cannot afford to stop working. I must keep waking up early, I must keep spending hours each day in the library. So what if I’m tired, and unhappy, and my friends are finishing their exams and having a good time? If I stop, I will fail. This is why, on the way to job interviews, I have taken work and revised on the train, on the tube. This is why I went to a job interview yesterday morning, and was back revising again by 2pm.

The problem is, I am not working efficiently anymore. I am staring at facts, and numbers, and theories, and feeling increasingly unhappy and isolated. This morning, a good friend of mine came round for a cup of tea, and suggested that I take a day off. At first, I was adamant that I couldn’t. I had to keep working, how could I justify the time off, I would slip a class mark and then I would never get a job… but that’s not true. The truth is, I’m tired, I’m not motivated and I need some time to just be me. I am not being “lazy”, nor am I wrecking my chance of getting the degree I want. Sometimes, we need to take care of ourselves before we look at our academic commitments.

So, today I have been productive, but in my own way. I have:

  1. Picked up some stuff I needed from Superdrug
  2. Gone to Sainsbury’s and stocked up on food
  3. Baked brownies
  4. Sung along to Disney songs while making said brownies
  5. Done the mountain of washing up that has accumulated in the last few days
  6. Spent time with a friend
  7. Gone sculling with my crew
  8. Written this blog post

Perhaps tonight, I will get an early night. Perhaps I will practise some yoga. Perhaps – the most likely outcome – I will finally watch another episode of The Walking Dead, having left the show on a massive cliff hanger the last time I found a spare hour to watch it.

It might be exam term, but I urge any of you who still have exams and feel burned out: take some time out. Get outside. Look after yourself. You deserve to be happy, and it’s ok to prioritise that.

(P.S. and for anyone who wants the recipe for my kickass brownies, it’s below:)

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Ingredients:

200g dark chocolate – ideally good quality, but I use Sainsbury’s basics and it works fine

150g unsalted butter

100g milk, dark or white chocolate, to preference (I use white)

125g brown sugar

125g caster sugar

4 eggs

85g plain flour

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp cocoa powder (again, Sainsbury’s own brand is fine)

A pinch of salt

Method:

  1. Grease and line your tin, and set the oven to 170 degrees.
  1. Over a pan of simmering water, melt the dark chocolate and the butter in a heatproof bowl. When melted and combined, set aside to cool.
  1. Beat in the sugars and the vanilla extract.
  1. When fully combined, beat in the four eggs one at a time.

5.  Stir through the flour, cocoa powder and salt.

  1. Finally, roughly chop the white/milk/dark chocolate. Pour the brownie mix into the tin, top with the chopped chocolate, and bake for 20-25mins. It should have a slight wobble in the centre, but not too much. Wait to cool slightly, and then slice.

Mansplaining, Derailing and #NotAllMen

TW: discussion of rape, rape culture, victim blaming, domestic abuse

In my bid to get away from revision by engaging in kind-of-revision-but-not-as-useful-as-real-revision, I spent a good hour today looking through my old A-level notes. There was a point to this exercise: my A-level politics course covered various strands of feminism in relative depth, and I wanted a quick overview for my gender exam in a fortnight. While looking through my old notes, I found a power point presentation, entitled “The Patriarchy in Modern Britain.” Intrigued, I opened it up and flicked through the slides. It contained many of the depressing statistics that are burned into my brain for my upcoming exam: the fact that there are currently only around 18 female world leaders, the fact that 70% of the people living in poverty globally are women, the number of female MPs (which has risen by 7 percentage points since I wrote the presentation in 2012-3, so that’s something.)

In amongst the presentation, I found this slide (notice the middle bullet point):

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 21.14.08.png

Now, perhaps the word “acceptable” in the middle bullet point was the wrong word to use. I meant to illustrate the idea that we accept rape as a fact of life in contemporary culture: we characterise rape are “just something that happens”, an act committed by monsters which women need to protect themselves from by “dressing appropriately”, not drinking too much and not walking home alone at night. I remember the class discussion after that presentation: every male person in the room was fixated on my use of the word “acceptable.” No one wanted to discuss the far more important issues of low conviction rates for rape, or the still high levels of domestic violence in the UK. Instead, the entire conversation became about one – perhaps slightly misplaced – word.

As I have grown older and become bolder in my feminism, this is something that happens over and over again. Men, taking offence at feminist statements. Men, changing the conversation to suit their own agenda. In this blog post, I would like to go through several of the ways in which men do this, and explain why it really needs to stop.

Firstly, the above example, which is an example of derailing. Derailing is when a feminist (or a member of a marginalised group) tries to begin a discussion about a topic, and someone else (usually a man, but not always) changes the focus of the conversation for their own ends. In the case above, a serious point about rape was derailed by the boys in the room to become a conversation about my use of terminology. It is perhaps most obvious when men’s rights activists attempt to challenge conversations about women’s inequality with how men are disadvantaged in contemporary culture. This is not to deny that men suffer from the effects of patriarchy: they do, and this is something that feminism seeks to address. However, derailers are only ever interested in talking about men’s rights when the conversation is on women’s equality. It is a tactic to distract attention from feminist issues, and turn them instead to what the derailer feels more comfortable discussing.

Secondly, many men engage in mansplaining. Mansplaining is when a man attempts – often in an incredibly patronising way – to explain to a woman something that she already knows, or does not need explaining. It is rife in feminist spaces online, which often include multiple men telling us what we “really mean to say” or why our opinions are, in fact, wrong. Although I did not have the language at the time, the incident in my A-level class was also an instance of mansplaining. The boys in the class felt that the word “acceptable” was the wrong one and, with little interest as to why I had used it, proceeded to spend the rest of the discussion laying out exactly why I was wrong. One of my favourite instances of mansplaining happened around a month ago. I was having lunch with my dad, and conversation turned – as it often does between us – to politics. My dad and I differ hugely on politics, and our debates are usually heated and frustrating on both sides. The abridged version of the conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m just saying dad, it’s harder to make your voice heard as a woman. Not only are men’s views and opinions prioritised in our society, but women are often talked over and have their opinions dismiss-“

Dad, interrupting: “Now, don’t be ridiculous. No one talks over women or ignores their opinions.”

Me, eyebrows raised: “… you do see what you did there?”

Dad: “…”

Me: “…”

Dad: “I will concede that you have a point.”

And finally, the idea of #NotAllMen. Again, this was utilised in the classroom: how could rape be acceptable when all of the boys in that room were so adamant that it was an abhorrent crime? They would never dream of raping someone, so why was it their problem? This, of course, totally misses the point. No one is saying that every man is a rapist: but part of the fear of being a woman is that any man could be. We have a perception in our culture that rape is something that happens in the dark, by a stranger – a random act of violence. It is not. Most rapes are committed by someone that the victim personally knows, and most are committed within the home. Rape is a systemic phenomenon; one that finds a breeding ground in a culture that objectifies and degrades women.

#NotAllMen are rapists: but that is not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen are potentially at threat because of rape culture. Focusing on men once again takes the attention away from women and women’s problems.

Perhaps you are a man reading this, and you feel defensive. Don’t: none of this is an attack on you. It is instead a plea to recognise your own privilege. You, as a man, are more respected and listened to than we are. You are more likely to have your opinions taken seriously, and you are more likely to be a position of power to have that opinion heard. Next time a woman tries to tell you about her experiences of sexism, listen to her. The same goes for other marginalised groups: if a person of colour is telling you, as a white person, about racism, don’t try and talk over them. Recognise that they are not attacking you personally, but expressing their frustration at the systematic inequality in our society. Who knows? You might even learn something.

Imperfections: Learning to love your body

TW: self-esteem issues, counselling, exercise, weight loss, weights given in numbers

Growing up, I wasn’t what you would call a sporty girl. In fact, I was the opposite: shy and awkward, I tried to avoid getting involved in sports at school, for fear of being mocked. It didn’t help that my school operated a segregated PE programme: sports like football and rugby for the boys, cheerleading and (I kid you not) “Bollywood dancing” for the girls. As an uncoordinated, gangly teenager without a sense of rhythm and chronically low self-esteem, dancing around with pom-poms was not my idea of a good time.

Even then, I was intensely aware of my body. I have always been slim: pictures of me as a young girl show a freckled, lanky wildling. My sister and I spent our childhood out of doors, running around, climbing trees and racing our bikes around the estate. Yet, when puberty struck, my body understandably began to change. My hips began to jut outwards, my body filled out, and – to my absolute horror – I grew breasts. All of this was accompanied by a kind of dysphoria: I knew logically that this was supposed to happen, that I was still slim and that even if I wasn’t, it was hardly the end of the world. And yet I still cared.

My teenage years were a battle with my body, as I think many young people’s are. I would spend hours, alone in my bedroom, desperately doing sit up after sit up in the hope of elusive abs. I would look in glossy magazines, despairing when the women were either gorgeously curvy or stick thin: but no one like me, slim on top and then widening out massively at the hips. I once sat in a counsellor’s office, 15 years old, and had her ask me what I liked about my body. The only thing I could say was “my ears.” I genuinely had found fault with the rest of my body.

I grew out of the gangly, insecure phase. I hit 17, 18, and I could legally go out. I realised that in spite of what I’d always feared, men did find me attractive. The realisation that I could go up to a man in a bar and ask for his number was a revelation to me. Coming to Cambridge continued this revelation. I’m not ashamed to say that I spent my first year dating – and bringing home – as many men as I could. Slowly, I realised that men really don’t care what you look like with your clothes off: most are just happy to have a naked woman in the room. Self-esteem needs deeper roots than being attractive to men, however, and Cambridge helped me to find that as well.

Coming up to Cambridge, I knew that I wanted to take up a sport: I just had no idea what. In fresher’s week, I attended my college boat club barbeque, and I’ve never looked back. Rowing became my obsession, and for the first time in my life, I found a sport I enjoyed. I also found more than that, however. I learned how to do circuits with my crew, how to work out my core, and my legs (of course – every day is leg day for a rower) and my arms. I still remember that first week, shaking on the mat, unable to hold a plank for more than 20 seconds.

In turn, a new found love of working out led me to the college gym, where a friend and I would spend hours trying out all of the machines, before giving up and running on the treadmills, discussing feminist politics (much to the consternation of everyone else in the gym, I’m sure.) It led to learning to run last summer, really run – and finally I understand what Caitlin Moran meant when she said that running fast is like dancing in a straight line. I learned to rock climb with my boyfriend. I regularly practise yoga. And, for the last couple of weeks, I have been lifting weights with my new crew.

When I exercise now, it is very different to that scared teenage girl, performing sit-ups to look like an unattainable ideal of beauty in a magazine. Of course, I still have insecurities. I feel like my hips are too wide, my nose too big, my freckles ugly, my stomach not perfectly flat. If I could change all of those things though, I’m not sure that I would. The thing is, I have been thin: really thin. At the end of my first exam term, stress and heartbreak caused me to lose 2 stone. I was 19 years old, 5’8 and I weighed just over 7 stone. When I look back at pictures taken on holiday that year (including the one at the top of this post), you can count my ribs. My hipbones jut out alarmingly. My stomach isn’t flat: it actually caves inwards. Perversely, I thought at the time that I looked good.

Coming to terms with my body has been years of work in the making, and the battle is not yet won. Perhaps it never will be: I certainly will never escape the ideal of “the perfect woman” that society seems to intent to press upon us. My mantra when I work out – as cheesy as it sounds – is that I’m doing this because I love my body, not because I hate it. I am not contorting my body into challenging yoga poses to shave that little bit of fat off of my hips: I am doing it to stretch my body to its limits, to places that I couldn’t achieve even a few months ago. When I run, it is not to fit into a smaller size of jeans; it is to be outside, in the cold air, feeling my feet pound the pavement. Now, when I do sit ups, it is not for perfect abdominals (although I certainly wouldn’t mind them) but for the endorphin rush when I finish exercising.

Acceptance and self-love is a long journey, one that many people spend their lives working towards. I hope, that as I get older and my body continues to change, I will continue to love it. I hope that I can keep seeing my body not in terms of how it looks compared to the women in the media, but to what it can do: how fast it can run, how much it can lift, how deep it can squat. And I hope that I love my body for all of things that it allows me to do everyday: for the ability to cook, and dance in the kitchen, and cosy up with friends on movie nights, and hug my boyfriend whenever I want to. It’s a long journey: but it’s one well worth undertaking.

Sexism in Cambridge

TW: Mention of sexual violence, victim blaming, sexual harassment, homophobia, sexism, mental health mention

I’ve thought a lot about this blog post in the last few days. In my head, I’ve been running through my time at Cambridge, which has, on the whole, been incredible. I’ve spent it in the cold on the river, in the heat of Cindies, debating with supervision partners and laughing with friends. And yet, the more I’ve reflected on my time here as I come up to graduating, the more I have realised how sexism has coloured my time here.

Some of it has been run of the mill, barely-needs-to-be-mentioned sexism. It has been men staring in the street when I dare to wear a short skirt. Being shouted at out of car windows as I walk to the boat club. Being groped in Life. Wolf-whistled as I walk home from a club. And once, memorably, a fire truck pulling over and the fireman driving commenting on my arse before speeding away.

It has been supervisions with supervisors telling me to “write like a man.” It has meant being gently mocked for an interest in gender studies, as though that is less of a valid interest than global politics, or political economy, or history of theory. It has been my dissertation supervisor, one of the women I admire above all others, telling me “street harassment doesn’t happen anymore.” (Perhaps I should send this to her with the above paragraph highlighted?)

It has been arguing with – overwhelmingly male – students, who seem to believe that feminism is no longer necessary, that I am just being “shrill” and “overbearing” for expressing my opinions. I have explained my dissertation to men who clearly think they know better. I have been told “asexuality isn’t real.” I was once forced to remove my roommate’s friend from our shared set after he claimed that “most rape victims are lying.” I recently sat in the hall of my college and spent two hours listening to the guy next to me explaining that “gay marriage isn’t necessary” and that “women are just not as suited to law as men are.” Needless to say, I drank rather a lot that night.

Much of the time, I have walked the thin line between calling out the people who are sexist, and keeping quiet. As I said in my first blog post, my feminism and womanhood do not need your justification. I am a person before I am a woman, a woman before I am a feminist: and sometimes I get tired of arguing with ignorant men for my right to be recognised as a human being. Part of being a feminist is walking that line, weighing up whether it is worth your time to engage, or whether you should just let it go. Sometimes, the consequences for speaking out can be difficult to deal with.

One of the most shocking instances of sexism that I have encountered in my time here came from within my sport. Until recently, I was part of a nearly all male sports team. Overall, they were a lovely bunch of guys: witty, smart, fun to be around. However, being the only woman in a male sport’s team can be tough. Being a feminist in a male sport’s team can be even tougher. Sexism wasn’t a regular occurrence, but when it did happen, I mostly kept quiet. I was new to the team, and I wanted their respect and trust: I didn’t want to be “the angry feminist” or to cause resentment.

Two times I broke that tenant. Once, it was a member of the team who posted a video to our group Facebook chat showing multiple young women dancing, barely clothed. I felt uncomfortable, and the next day, I raised it with him. Although he was very amicable about it, I felt thrown off, on the wrong foot: as though I had done something wrong by calling him out. Nevertheless, he graciously accepted my criticism, and refrained from posting anything sexual in nature.

The next incident was harder for me to handle. Again, the incident happened online: perhaps showing the way that men feel somehow bolder posting their sexist thoughts online. We were having a team discussion on critiquing each other. Several of the guys were enthusiastic; a few were reluctant as to how effective it could be. Then, to my shock, a member of the team (a different one from the video poster) waded in and commented something along the lines of “we’re all men, we can call each other out without our tampons falling out.” I was horrified, and this time, I couldn’t keep quiet. I told him that what he had said was offensive and unnecessary. He told me to stop being so sensitive. I told him that I wasn’t going to discuss it any further, and I turned off my phone and fell asleep.

My alarm went off at 6am the next morning, ready for a training session. As I got dressed, I talked to my sleepy, half-awake boyfriend – of how nervous I was going to meet the team, how I was worried what the atmosphere would be like, how I was hoping not to get into another argument. In the end, I didn’t need to worry: no one mentioned it, until right at the end of the training session. Another guy raised the point that it had been inappropriate (not because it was sexist, but because it could call our team into disrepute if the college found out) – I kept quiet in much of the ensuing discussion, unable to make my voice heard. Comments like that weren’t rare: that was just the most shocking one.

Even writing this, I feel ashamed. I feel as though I am betraying my sports team, the men who made me laugh in the midst of my depression and gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I feel as though I am in the wrong for calling attention to this. But I also feel like it is precisely this kind of shame that stops women from speaking out. We don’t want to be called “irrational.” We don’t want to be called the “angry feminist.” But maybe I do. I am a feminist, and I am angry, and I am tired of your patriarchal bullshit invading my time at this university.

Why we need trigger warnings

Posted below is the link to an article that recently popped up in my newsfeed (TW: sexual violence, rape, Islamaphobia, sexism):

http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/claire-fox-the-fear-of-giving-offence-is-killing-democracy-and-stifles-truth-a3245226.html

You’ll notice that for the above post (and for the content that follows), I included trigger warnings. This may seem ironic, considering that the article in question is arguing against the use of trigger warnings. In it, author Claire Fox contends that trigger warnings are creating a generation of overly sensitive, politically correct “special snowflakes” that need to toughen up.

One of the first examples she references is the recent terror response practise in Manchester, in which the actor playing a terror suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he detonated a fake bomb. Claire Fox is derisive of the backlash to this, saying that instead, Manchester Police should be praised for preparing so vigilantly for a potential terror threat.

In this she is right: the police should be praised for being prepared. After all, sources indicate that the security services believe that the UK is at high risk of potential terror threats. What was not acceptable, however, was the use of religious language during the bombing. Such language spreads fear and prejudice: it lends credence to the idea that “all Muslims are terrorists” or at the very least “all terrorists are Muslims”, both of which are patently untrue. Islamaphobia has been on the rise in the UK in last few years, with The Sun recently claiming (misleadingly) that 1 in 5 British Muslims are “sympathetic” to jihadis and reports that hate crimes against Muslims (and in particular, Muslim women) have risen by nearly 70% in London alone since 2014.

The use of Islamic language was also incredibly offensive. Either Fox doesn’t realise – or doesn’t care – that the phrase “Allahu Akbar” has actually been co-opted by Islamist jihadis as part of their crusade against the West. However, the phrase has roots much deeper than that. Literally translated, the phrase roughly means “God is great.” It is said during Islamic prayers, as well as after the birth of a child. To use it as a “prop” during a fake police siege is in poor taste.

Next, on to Claire Fox’s main claims: that trigger warnings make us weak and overly sensitive. As her first example, she references Oxford law lectures, which have been given trigger warnings for content such as rape and murder. Fox laughs this off, ignoring the very real need for trigger warnings. Fox completely fails to acknowledge the effect that rape can have on the women (and men) subjected to it. Around half of women who are raped experience PTSD. This can include – but is not limited to – depression, anxiety, nightmares, trouble sleeping, and numbness. Now, imagine you are a survivor studying at Oxford University. You walk into your lecture, maybe chatting with your friends about what has happened over the weekend. And then, the lecture starts, and you are exposed – without any prior warning – to images and words that could be deeply distressing. To suggest that trigger warnings are “weak” and that students need to be “thicker skinned” is the height of callousness and thoughtlessness.

Fox also has a lot to say about the idea of political debate needing to be offensive. Of course political debate will often become heated: of course, people will have clashing opinions and different views. But why does that imply that those views need to be offensive? One could have a rational debate, for instance, about whether or not equality legislation is the best way of achieving feminist goals without either side being offensive. Conversely, Donald Trump referring to numerous women as “fat pigs” and “slobs” is extremely offensive, but hardly politically radical. The problem is that the kind of people who shout the loudest for “free speech” and “open debate” are always the ones who benefit from those structures. They are the people who don’t mind being offensive: because they have no concept of how it feels to be on the receiving end. As a woman, I don’t have that luxury. Neither do other marginalised groups. Rape survivors at Oxford do not need trigger warnings because they have a right not to be “offended”, but because they have the right to protect their mental health. For those who have never needed to do that, the distinction may be lost.

It is not “weak” or “sensitive” or “politically correct” to be a decent human being. Don’t utilise religious language for staged terror plots. Don’t mock sexual assault survivors. Don’t needlessly offend other people just to make your point. To sum up: don’t be a dick.

Feminism, and why it matters

I first called myself a feminist when I was 14 years old. I don’t think there was ever a time when I didn’t feel like a feminist in some way: I just didn’t have a word to describe what I was feeling.

I was being bullied at school at the time: but that was nothing new. I was nerdy, socially awkward, always too keen in class. I had friends, of course: but I spent many break times hiding in the school library, praying for the end of the school day.

The internet is a friend to lonely, bullied kids the world over, and I was no exception. I spent a lot of time on my computer as a young girl: and most of that time was spent reading feminist websites. In them, I found a source of empowerment. Of course, it didn’t solve the bullying problem, but it helped with my self-esteem. It helped to have an explanation of why I felt so embarrassed of the dark hair on my legs during PE lessons. It helped to explain why I was mocked for my lack of understanding of makeup or fashion. It explained the day a boy behind me in the lunch queue grabbed my developing chest and then laughed uproariously with his friends, while I stood there blushing crimson.

My feminism has grown and developed as I have. My opinions have changed, my eyes have been opened to the world beyond my small town. It has been a tool, a comfort and a mentor over the years. I read the words of great women – Beauvoir, Olympe de Gouges, Wollstonecraft, Plath – and I am comforted that I am not alone. Feminism has helped me to understand the world around me, and my place within it. It shapes how I view the world. I cannot imagine myself without it.

Why is feminism still important? I could spout statistics here. I could tell you that 25% of UK women will be subject to domestic abuse in their lifetime. I could tell you that the conviction rate for rape in the UK is at around 6%, and that close to 90% of rapes are not reported at all. I could tell you of the stubborn gender pay gap, or the street harassment that becomes second nature, or the lack of political representation, or being told to “write like a man” in Cambridge supervisions.

But if you’re the kind of person who needs to hear all of that, then this blog is not for you. I am tired of justifying and explaining myself to men who never cared in the first place. My feminism and my womanhood do not need your justification or validation. I do not need to prove to you why we still need feminism. The question is not why I am a feminist: but why aren’t you?