Finally

CN: descriptions of surgery, endometriosis, medical stuff

I lie awake most of the night before. I am irrationally nervous. A few hours earlier, my boyfriend and I had gone through the documents that the hospital had given me. Risk of bleeding. Risk of damage to internal organs. Risk of loss of hearing. Risk of death. They are tiny percentages. They apply to the whole population, and course you are at more risk if you are very young, very old, overweight, unfit, if you smoke. I am, as my boyfriend constantly reassures me, a very low risk case. I will be fine. I still lie awake most of the night, listening to his deep, regular breathing beside me.

Sleep must come, because I am jolted awake by the alarm, 6am. I stumble out of bed and up the stairs. They said to have a shower, so I strip naked and turn on the water. They said to keep warm, but I can’t stop shivering even as the bathroom around me swirls with steam. Loose clothes they said, so I slip into a pair of trackies and a tee-shirt, one of Jack’s baggy jumpers. My stomach rumbles, but they said no food or water so I ignore it. My flatmate hugs me, my boyfriend holds me close, and then I get into the car with my mum and we drive to the hospital. It’s a warm waiting room, and I get out my book, expecting to be there for hours. I’m not; we’re there barely half an hour when a staff member calls me through. I speak to a nurse, run through my date of birth and my address and who’s going to look after me for the next few days. I speak to one of the doctors, as she explains exactly what they’re going to do and asks for my consent. I speak to a kind anaesthetist, who asks me if I have any allergies and makes me laugh as I sign the forms.

Then I am alone, in my thin hospital gown and my ridiculous compression stockings. I have left my book and my mobile phone, stupidly, with my mother in the waiting room. It feels too late now, so I sit in silence and stare at the garish curtains around my bed. I don’t know how much time passes. The friendly anaesthetist is back. She guides me to lie back on the bed, and then she wheels me a few hundred yards into the operating theatre. My glasses are back on the ward, and the room is blurry and indistinct. People in surgical gowns bustle around me, and I have a moment of panic. This is stupid, I don’t need this operation, what am I doing here. I have a moment when I want to scream, tell them I’ve changed my mind, tell them I want it called off. And then the friendly anaesthetist is back, her hands reassuringly on my shoulders as she attaches a heart monitor. She keeps her hands on me, an anchor, as another staff member put the drip into my hand and then, nothing.

When I come to, the room is blurry. No glasses, I realise. But it’s not just that, I can’t seem to make my eyes focus on one spot for more than a second before my vision drifts again. I feel horribly sick, and I am dimly aware of a nurse holding a bucket by my left shoulder. Someone is talking to me. It could be a man or a woman, I have no idea. I can’t seem to make any words come out, I can’t seem to speak at all. They hold something to my face, a photo, and I turn away and retch. I think I hear them say “you have endometriosis” but I can’t be sure. I think I hear them say “I’ll talk to you later.” And then again, nothing.

I awake again, to a nurse holding a glass of water and some biscuits. I drink the water gratefully, my throat feels raw and tender. She brings me more water, and more. I need to rehydrate, she says. I need to drink as much as possible, and then I can go home. I eat the biscuits, but they taste like sawdust in my mouth, dry and claggy. I ask for a cup of tea, which she brings me. It has that horribly plastic taste that cheap tea does, but I drink it down. I pass out again. I wake up, I drink more. I pass out again, I wake up, drink more. At around 1pm, I ask if they’ve told my mum I’m awake. They haven’t, but I hear a nurse call her. Pass out again. Every now and then, I’m helped to the bathroom by the nurse. Once you’ve been to the loo, you can go home, she says. But I can’t seem to, everything feels numb, and as the hours pass I feel more and more frustrated. She tells me that I’ve had four litres of water. Four! She does an ultrasound on my belly, pressing painfully into my new cuts, and tells me I haven’t drunk enough. I want to cry. Twenty minutes later, and miracle of miracles, I come back from the bathroom and smile at her.

You can go home now, she says. But I haven’t seen the doctor, I say. Yes you have, she says. You spoke to him earlier. I stare at her. When I was dizzy and retching and couldn’t speak. That was the only contact I was to have with the man who had cut my belly open, the only man who could tell me exactly what had been causing the last two years of pain? I would like to say that I was assertive, and strong, and told her exactly what I wanted. I didn’t do that. I cried. I cried, and I couldn’t stop crying. I was vulnerable, and scared, and still dressed only in a thin paper gown, and this woman was telling me I could talk to the doctor in three months. Three months.

While all of this had been going on, my mother had sat faithfully in the waiting room. They had called her, as I had heard, at 1pm to tell her I was awake and would be coming out in an hour. I had been in and out of consciousness ever since. I had assumed they would have kept her up to date. She was less than a fifty metres from my room. They had her phone number. They didn’t call her again. By this point, it was nearing 5pm. She had sat, in that room, for four more hours. My boyfriend had been calling her for news, as had my dad. She had nothing to tell them. Eventually, my dad told her to walk into the ward and find me. When she did I was sat there with the nurse, crying and trying to tell her that I didn’t even remember the doctor. I couldn’t even fully remember if I had endometriosis or not.

My mum is a nurse. She took over, and calmly explained why I was upset. That I needed to speak to a doctor. The head nurse came over, quietly patronising. Ooh, I can see you’re upset. Not to worry. You can talk to the doctor in three months. I asked where they had found the lesions. This is crucial to knowing whether its endometriosis or something else that means that my partner and I can’t have sex. She said it wasn’t in my file. The doctor would tell me in three months. I’m an articulate and well educated woman. And this woman reduced me to frustrated tears as I tried to make her see how important it was that I knew. My mother asked for a copy of my file, and they handed it over. My file did say where the lesions are. I have them in various spots, but predominantly on my ovarian ligaments, which run behind the cervix and close to my womb. I googled it when I got home – lesions here almost always cause pain during sex. At last, after two years, I was closer to answers.

There were photos too, of the inside of my stomach. I found them fascinating. Perhaps that’s morbid. But there was something about seeing the curve of my fallopian tubes, the jumbled mass of tissue and fat and muscle that is so uniquely me, that I found strangely intimate. When the nurse wasn’t looking, I took a photo of the medial report, and the photos of my insides. The nurse tried to explain it to me, but it was obvious she didn’t know what the medical words meant. Luckily, I have a medical student for a boyfriend, and a small web of medical student friends. I will find out what it all means. Before we left, I got them to email the doctor who operated on me and ask him to call me in the morning. I would not be waiting three months.

He called this morning. I have endometriosis, but its mild. They burned the lesions, but they will probably come back. Hopefully my symptoms will improve, but they might not. It’s a mysterious condition, and not much is known.

1 in 10 women are estimated to suffer from endometriosis. In the UK, it takes an average of 8 years for a woman to be diagnosed. I have done it in two. But I have had so much privilege to get this diagnosis. I am eloquent and well spoken, I have done my research. Perhaps because I am dating a medical student, I don’t see doctors as infallible. I have been quite happy to argue with them, to tell them that they’re wrong, that something is wrong with me and that they need to listen. I have been backed up by a family history, of my grandma and my mum, and my 21 year old sister. I have known exactly what endometriosis is, and I have begged, and bullied, and cajoled doctors into getting me the tests I have needed to get to this point. Most women are turned away, afraid and alone, feeling more and more that there is nothing wrong with them after all. I, at least, have avoided that.

Now, I am sore. My belly hurts when I move. I have three neat little cuts that they tell me will scar, evidence of what I have gone through. My shoulders hurt, a remnant of the gas they pumped into me. My appetite is low, and I could barely sleep last night.

I am also angry. Endometriosis is a lifelong condition. There is no cure. And I was told I had this when I couldn’t speak, see or move, when I was at my most vulnerable. I was told that they didn’t know where the lesions were, when it was written plainly in my medical record. I was told that a doctor would talk to me in three months. They sent me away without any information about my condition. For some women, endometriosis is a debilitating illness, akin to a disability. I have been diagnosed young. I will live with this for the rest of my life. At the moment, I can’t have sex. It might get worse. I might be incapacitated during my period. I might become incapacitated at other points of the month. I might be infertile. Time will tell.

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Men, shut up and listen

I can already hear the men clicking on this and getting outraged. “It’s not all men!” “That wasn’t even sexist, it was just banter!” “Why are you so upset?” “Telling men to shut up is sexist in itself!”

A week ago, I gave a speech to nearly a hundred people on my graduate scheme. The theme was public narrative, and we could choose to talk about anything we wished. I talked about street harassment. I talked about two weeks ago in Clapham, when a man gave me a red rose, the spines pricking against my hand, and then proceeded to follow me the not inconsiderable distance to the tube station. I told them about how, after boarding that train and travelling across London to my boyfriend’s nearest station, I was harassed by two men, their faces shadowed by hoodies as they crowded up against my body and asked where I was going that night. I got home, angry, afraid, shaking. Angry because I should be able to walk less than 30 minutes through my own city without being made to feel fundamentally unsafe. Afraid, because I didn’t know those men. They were all taller than me, more solid, probably stronger. Coming home should be a sanctuary. The room was full of my boyfriend and his (male) flatmates, men I have come to care for, who I see as friends. I told them, and then “women never hit on me in public!” in that tone of voice that says “what are you complaining about?”

My speech touched on that, the idea that men need to listen. I was afraid, that night in Clapham. I was afraid in Finsbury park. I have been afraid in Oxford, and Cambridge, and now in London. I have been angry at men who shout at me, furious that I can’t even go and buy milk in peace. I have been humiliated by wolf whistles and car horns honking, as people nearby turn their head and try and see what I’ve done to deserve it. I have been reduced to tears in public by a man who followed me in a car honking his horn until I turned around and told him to fuck off, at which point he released a torrent of horrific abuse before speeding off. As I cried, another man approached me, and I flinched away from him, before he kindly asked me if I was alright. I had expected more abuse. The most extreme example of this I wrote about here, when a man in a balaclava masturbated at me in a deserted public park. I have never been more afraid in my life than in that moment.

I wrote a while ago about #notallmen, but it clearly bears repeating. Not all men are rapists, are harassers, are abusers. But all men benefit from systemic sexism, and all women bear the damaging effects of it. There isn’t a tiny subset of men doling out this abuse, and if only we could root them out we could achieve equality. Sexism is pervasive, it invades every facet of our society, and we all need to examine our privileges and assumptions. Rapists and street harassers are not weird outliers, waiting to harass women at the slightest opportunity. They are someone’s son, brother, boyfriend, date.

Rewind to many years ago. I was 16 or 17, awkward, gangly, desperate for male attention and utterly unaware how to get it. I went to a friend’s party one night, where I was introduced to a friend of a friend. He was tall, dark haired, not especially handsome but not bad looking either. At the end of the night, he asked for my number. I was giddy. I went to a museum with this boy, and then lunch, and he kissed me at the bus stop and asked to see me again. The next time, I went to his house, and we played Mario kart and had pasta and then went to watch a movie. It was Hot Fuzz. I remember that to this day. After the movie, he rolled on top of me and started kissing me. I kissed back for a while, and then I started growing uneasy. His hands on me were painful. He was pressing against me in a way that I didn’t like. I couldn’t breathe, and I tried to push him away. To this day, I don’t know if he didn’t notice or just didn’t care. He kept going. And in that moment, for the first time in my life I think, I was terrified. No one else was home. He was taller than me, at least 6 foot if my memory serves correctly. I seem to remember he played sport, hockey or something of the sort. And I knew that if I screamed and said no, and he didn’t listen, I wouldn’t have been able to stop him. I kept struggling, trying to push him away, and eventually he stopped. I left, and I never heard from him again.

That boy grew up to study PPE at Oxford. We have friends in common on Facebook. He has a girlfriend. I don’t know if he meant to scare me like that. I don’t know if he realised that I was trying to push him away. I just know that that moment of fear is etched into my brain. I looked him up on Facebook before I wrote this, and even the sight of him again made me shiver. Just a little bit. He’s a normal bloke. He has a degree, and a girlfriend, and yet in that moment when I was 16, I was so so afraid of him. And I bet he doesn’t even know.

Men, you need to listen. These experiences are not outliers. They are not unusual. After I spoke to those people on my graduate scheme, I had a score of women come up to me afterwards, telling me about their experiences. As women, we need to share these stories. They help us to build a sense of collective identity. They help us consolidate our experiences, to stop men gaslighting us and telling us that our experiences aren’t valid. Most importantly, they tell us that we’re not alone.

Men, you need to listen. When I say something is sexist, when I talk about misogyny on the television or sexual harassment at work, or catcalling in the street, why do you dismiss my experiences? Is it your arrogance? Your privilege? Do you think we’re having a nice little debate about feminism? We’re not. You are actively and aggressively denying my lived experience as a woman. You are gaslighting me and telling me that my experiences aren’t real. You are part of the problem. You don’t believe you are sexist. In that moment, you are. I implore you. Shut up and listen. And I mean really listen. Don’t just sit there, waiting to come up with a “witty” comeback for me. Don’t laugh and make jokes. Just fucking listen. You might learn something.

And to end on a positive note, I said all of this last night to my boyfriend. We were huddled together under the covers, our faces in shadow, but I could feel his eyes on me as I talked. I was angry, and sad, I ranted and I raved and I spoke dejectedly, and he laid there in silence until I had finished. One of the things I love about my boyfriend is how quietly principled he is. He thinks about things, long and hard, until he’s reached a position. It’s a nice balance to my angry passion.

When we met three years ago, he didn’t know anything about feminism. I remember going with him to the fair, a few months after we started dating, and pointing out all of the pictures of half naked women on the side of the rides. He told me he’d never noticed before. I remember him asking me what kind of birth control he should go on, and me laughingly telling him that the pill only existed for me. I was touched that he cared. There have been so many nights like last night, when I have been angry and sad, and he has just listened. Sometimes he pitches in with his own experiences as an ethnic minority. He tells me about his experiences of having parents who were immigrants, what it feels like to be part of two cultures, but not fully part of one, and I try and stay silent and let him talk. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable for me, as a white person. That’s just tough though, it’s not his job to make me feel better about my privilege. Last night though, he just listened to me. And then, for the first time in the three years we’ve been dating, he told me that he would now call himself a feminist. I don’t think I’ve ever loved him more.

“Asking for it” – rape culture and misogyny

CN: Graphic description of rape, rape culture, alcohol, drugs, victim blaming, consent issues, rape.

I heard a story today. I was sitting on a train, a train that would take me in to London, to the place where I would begin work, to visit my boyfriend. Usually I would read; today I forgot my book. A couple of seats behind me, on the other side of the aisle, a couple of men were having a loud conversation. I had nothing to do; it’s over an hour into London from where I live. I sat and I listened to them, first in amusement, then horror.

They started talking about a night out – whether it had been themselves or someone they knew, something they had read about in the paper, perhaps even a legal case they were working on – I couldn’t say. I don’t know.

I know that the story was about a group of men. Men, that was the word they used. And this group of men had met up with a group of girls. Girls, that was the word they used. They had gone drinking. By the sounds of it, they had all had rather a lot to drink. They had taken some cocaine. Most of the females – females, that was the word they used – left, while the men and one of the women went back to the office to get some champers (their words.) There, the woman – girl, they said – had continued drinking, until she fell asleep on an office table. When she woke up, several hours later, still drunk, she found one of the men one top of her. Raping her. While she had been passed out.

They laughed. They laughed as they said this. They didn’t use the word rape, of course. They said “what could she have expected?” They said “it was her own fault.” They said “no court would convict him.”

Several seats away, I shook in silent anger. I cried. I cried, thinking of that woman, waking up, realising what had happened to her. What has happened to so many women.

This is what victim blaming is. It is telling women not to walk home alone in the dark, not to drink too much, not to take drugs, don’t go home with men you don’t know, don’t wear anything too revealing, don’t flirt if you don’t want to follow through. Our bodies, our actions, policed constantly by ourselves and society to keep us safe. Safe from the men, the rapists, who are the real problem. And if we don’t follow these rules, right to the letter, being raped is our fault. Even if we do, rape is our fault. It is our fault.

One night, in my first year at Cambridge, I got drunk. Really, really drunk: possibly more drunk than I have ever been before or since in my life. I had recently had my heart broken, and I wanted to forget. Naively, foolishly, I thought that alcohol was the way to do that. I went out clubbing, losing my friends quickly. I stood on the dance floor in Life, spotted a man, grabbed him and kissed him. I don’t remember what he looked like. I never knew his name. I took him back to my college, and we kissed for a bit… and then I promptly ran to the bathroom and threw up. Then, I passed out.

I woke up the next morning, naked and lying in my bed. I panicked. I assumed the worse. There was no sight of the man, I couldn’t remember anything past throwing up, and I was naked. I found out later that nothing happened. My roommate, thankfully, had been home. He had heard the man carry me from the bathroom, put me into bed and then leave immediately.

I could have been raped that night. I wasn’t. I was lucky. The man I took home acted with decency and did the right thing. But how many men don’t? When we live in a society where grown men can talk about rape so flippantly, so openly, in public, we teach boys that women can’t say no. We teach boys that women are there for their sexual pleasure. We teach them toxic lies, about sexual worth and virginity and consent. We tell them that if no one says “no”, it’s consent. We tell them that if the woman is drunk, or passed out, she was asking for it. We give rapists like Brock Turner six months in prison, and then let him out three months into his sentence for “good behaviour.”

The whole cultural conversation surrounding rape is fucked up. We tell men they can’t control themselves, and make it easy for them to get away with sexual assault when they don’t. We tell women that rape is their fault. We have one of the lowest conviction rates in Europe. We talk about how much the woman was drinking, what they were wearing. We give rapists light sentences, and then let them off early.

I waited until we were nearly in London. Then, I stood up and walked over to the men. My heart was hammering in my chest. I could feel the eyes of the surrounding passengers on me. I felt, already, the familiar shame of speaking up, of saying something that no one wants to hear. The men were older than I imagined, maybe late fifties. Made no difference to me.

I had imagined what to say. I had run through the curse words, the anger, the pain. Instead, I stood before them, calmly.

“I heard what you were saying about that woman. Earlier in the train ride. And I just thought you should know that what you said was disgusting, and you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Most men argue back. These ones were stunned into silence. I left the train, heart still hammering. What difference does it make? Maybe not a lot. But leaving that train, saying nothing, would have been worse. I hope they think about me tonight. I hope I threw a spanner into their nice little commute into London. I hope I forced them to think about their words. If nothing else, I hope in that moment I made them feel like the victim blaming, misogynistic wankers that they are.

“Provocative” dressing and the female body

CN: Burkini ban, racism, rape, transphobia, street harassment 

A few months ago, I bought a new top. It’s a denim crop top, lace on the sides, Hollister, second hand for £4. I fell in love with it; how comfy it was, how well it fitted me, how it looked hugging my ribs. In spite of that, it took me months to wear it. Why? Because it is easily one of the most revealing tops I own (which, for me, is saying something.) I was worried to wear it in public.

Why be worried? Because, as the burkini ban (more on that in a bit) has illustrated perfectly only this week, clothes are never simply clothes, and women’s bodies are battlegrounds. Women are judged much more harshly than men on the way we look; the clothes we choose to put on our bodies speak for us before our mouths can open. Our bodies become public property; what we wear, how we dress, becomes something that the world feels able to comment on (see: any article on the Daily Mail ‘sidebar of shame.’)

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The Daily Mail, reporting on important current affairs

There are so many rules to follow: personal, professional. How short can a dress be? How much cleavage is too much? Can you show your legs and your chest at the same time? Is it ok to wear a backless dress without a bra? Is it acceptable if your nipples show through your shirt? Should your bra straps show? What if you’re plus sized? Are the rules different? (To the last: no, they shouldn’t be.) Work wear becomes even more of a nightmare – heels, not too high, dress, not too tight, skirt, not too short. Always thinking about what to wear, how to present yourself, while silently screaming “I’m a goddamn educated woman, look at my ideas, not my tits.”

As a woman, navigating these rules is, at best, an inconvenience and at worst, the difference between life and death. Rape cases have been dismissed based on what the victim was wearing (as though that should make any difference.) Trans women face pressure to “pass” by wearing female clothing, and are often murdered for failing to do so, or doing to “too well.” I know the fear of walking home, feeling male eyes rake over a bare shoulder, an exposed midriff, a shadow of cleavage. Or the shame of having a friend point out that they can see your nipples through your shirt. Hearing men shout in the street, commenting on any part of your body they see fit. Dress codes in certain parts of America have spiralled out of control, placing male sexual desire above female education. We degrade our men by assuming they cannot control themselves, and we shame women for dressing as they feel comfortable.

Covering up is not the answer; we are not the problem. When I wore that denim crop top, it was because I liked it, and it was a warm day. I should have the right to show my legs, and my cleavage, and my arms, and any part of myself that I feel like. Incidentally, a reason why I am a supporter of the Free the Nipple campaign; I am incensed when I see a man, shirtless in the summer sun, while I sweat into a tee-shirt. I digress.

Covering up is, for some women, not the answer; but for others it is. Our bodies are ours, to cover or reveal as we see fit. The rules that call women “sluts” and “whores” for wearing a short dress, the rules that say that the rape victim in a short skirt was “asking for it”, are the same rules that objectify and exoticise ethnic minority women for covering up. Of course, for women of colour, the sexism and misogyny of dress codes and clothes rules come layered with xenophobia, racism and, in the case of the French burkini ban, Islamaphobia.

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Obviously a key part of winning the war on terror

It is humiliating and wrong to force women to undress in public to fit in with Western, colonial ideals of how a woman should dress. No one should make me cover up; no one should make a Muslim woman undress. Do we honestly believe that all Muslim women are oppressed? They’re not – but even if, even if they were, on what basis do we think that we as white people ought to intervene? Women of colour don’t need saving by the rules of white men.

The truth of the matter is, we can’t win. If we wear too little, we are sluts. If we wear too much (if we are white) we are prudes. If we dare to be both a woman of colour and wear too much, we are oppressed. Clothes don’t oppress us in of themselves. What oppresses us is the mindless and numbing rules, the what to wear and how it impacts on our lives. We are not the problem. We have the right to wear what we like, be that string bikini or burkini.

A Patriot on Brexit

A few days ago, I flew home from a family holiday in Croatia. I love travelling; I love the adventure, the new food to be tasted, clear seas to swim in, unexplored dusty roads to walk. And yet, at the end of every holiday, I find myself sitting in the window seat of the aeroplane, watching with eagle eyes for the lush green fields and scattered houses that will tell me I’m home.

To be a patriot is, perhaps, unfashionable among my generation. We are, more than ever, children of the global age. We are connected through the Internet to thousands of other people, with the same shared interests and ideas. Travel has never been cheaper or easier, and we can hop on planes to far away destinations at the drop of a hat. We grew up in a more multicultural society than our parents and grandparents did, taking new languages and skin colours and ethnicities as a given. I remember a girl at school saying to me once that she didn’t feel British; she had lived all over the world, moving around with her parents, and she felt more than anything to be a bit of everything, a citizen of the world.

I’ve never felt that way. I feel British to my bones. I couldn’t tell you what it is, exactly, without resorting to trite stereotypes. A love (addiction, my boyfriend says) of freshly brewed tea, so hot it burns the tongue. A desire for order, queues, structure. A straight-laced sense of humour, a sarcastic quirk. A knowledge of Britain’s history (both good and bad), and a sense of belonging when I hear that distinctive Oxford accent. Of course, this feeling has changed and developed. In many ways, I feel less British now than I did when I was younger. Meeting and falling in love with my boyfriend showed me – intimately, in a way my small town girlhood never had – what it means to be between two cultures, to be both British and Other. Travelling, reading, exploring; these are the things, I think, that expand our horizons and make it harder to call oneself simply “British.”

All of which leads to the EU referendum, just a few short weeks ago. I voted of course; I voted to remain in, as did nearly everyone I know (certainly nearly everyone of my own age.) That night, my boyfriend and his friends were set to graduate; I sat up until late in the night, drunk on life and cheap wine, watching the results roll in. It looked positive, it looked in our favour, and I fell asleep confident that we would survive this.

When you have a nightmare, waking is the only relief. But the next morning, the nightmare was my new reality, and I couldn’t wake from it. My boyfriend and I sat in bed for hours, reading as many news articles as we could, both in shock.

As the news sunk in, the shock got worse. I didn’t expect Brexit to pass; I certainly didn’t expect to feel as I do. I feel heartbroken. I feel scared for my future, and the future of people I care about. I feel angry. I cling (desperately, foolishly, bleakly) to the hope that I might wake tomorrow and the result will have been reversed.

I am angry at the politicians who manipulated the public perception for their own personal gain. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage; I believe, with everything that I have, that these men lied and wormed their way into the leave campaign for political gain and then, when they won, quit rather than face up to the disastrous consequences of what they’ve done. I am angry with the people I know who voted for leave in the referendum. I’m not the only one; such is the depth of feeling among my contemporaries, many have removed pro-Brexit friends from their Facebook feeds. My own grandparents voted to leave. Of course, I still love them; I have always, and will always love them and do everything I can to make them proud. But knowing that they were complicit in what I see as the ruin of my country and the narrowing of my future chances in life is hard.

Sitting in the sun in Croatia, in amongst the wine and food and swimming, there were moments of heartache. Every time I saw an EU flag, I flinched. My passport – EU and British – was a stark reminder all the way through Gatwick of what my country had done. One night, I sat in the harbour of the town we stayed in. There was live music, English songs crooned with a slight foreign accent. Stopping to listen, you could hear Croatian, German, Italian being spoken. I wanted – I want – to be a part of that. I believe, more than anything, that we are stronger united than we are divided. I believe in the greatness of Britain; but a Britain working within Europe, with the people who – after all – are not that different from us.

We cannot know what the future holds, and I pray that it will not be as bad as I fear. But the day Britain voted to leave the EU, I became less proud of my county. I became, for the first time in my life, ashamed to be British.

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):

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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.

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.