On Admiring Women: IWD 2018

Despite the attack of the Beast from the East, women of all descriptions (and some men!) flocked to Bristol City Hall on Saturday 3rd March to partake in the International Women’s Day events orchestrated by Bristol Women’s Voice.

Sadly there were a handful of scheduled speakers who couldn’t get to us across the snow-bound country, including well-known suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford and the women who were to lead the African Voice Forum Discussion –but the wonderful thing is that there were so many brilliant women on the programme that it easily took the hit.

I’m relatively new to Bristol, didn’t know anyone at the event and had sort of expected to spend the day weaving between the impenetrable faces of strangers; only it wasn’t like that at all. We collected in the foyer where Burning Brass, a collective of women drummers and horn players were very successfully turning even ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ into a rousing feminist anthem, and smiles of complicity met me whichever way I looked. I’m not generally given to waxing lyrical about ‘good vibes’, but I will say that a palpable atmosphere of cheerful co-operation seemed to unite the many women of diverse backgrounds and generations. I had been greeted at the entrance by a girl young enough to be my daughter and then fell into conversation with a woman old enough to be my grandmother: this felt precious. And the speakers were approachable in a way I hadn’t expected: suffrage historian, activist and comedian Dr Naomi Paxton granted me such a warm and stirring interview (read it here!) that I was left feeling like I’d been given a pep talk.

With all the will in the world I couldn’t wrangle being in three places at once but I did manage to take in a workshop on domestic abuse awareness by brilliant Bristol charity Next Link; some of Elizabeth Crawford’s talk on suffrage propaganda – read by Paxton; a panel on The Women Who Built Bristol by Jane Duffus; a talk on modern slavery and human trafficking from Unseen; a discussion on the concept of ‘Honour’ with the young people of Integrate UK (who work with other young people on issues around FGM and honour-based violence); and a final panel on fighting gender-based violence in Bristol.

One highlight I’d like to share is Next Link’s simple brainstorming activity on the possible ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ of leaving an abusive relationship, which provides a powerful rebuttal to the judgmental – and common – question ‘why didn’t she leave?’ The list of losses that we drew up together in the workshop was painfully long with items such as ‘the person you love’, ‘your home’, and ‘dreams’. The list of gains, though equally long, featured benefits that would have to be hard-won: ‘recovering mental health’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘new friends,’ ‘a healthy relationship one day.’ As someone who has had to leave the man I love to escape his escalating violence – the hardest thing I’ve ever done – and who met with painful incomprehension and judgment from those who thought it should be easy, it was balm to my heart to witness Next Link raising awareness of what is an all-too-common reality.

I didn’t get to attend the Wonderful Women Awards ceremony (BWV celebrating Bristol women who have been nominated for their contributions to the community), but as I sat, an eager beaver in the front row of the final panel of the day, with Charlotte Gage of Bristol Zero Tolerance (working against gender-based violence), Melissa Blackburn, CEO of Unchosen (working against modern slavery) and Alex Raikes of SARI (working against racist and now gender-based hate crime) – as well as Cheryl Morgan (who runs trans awareness courses) in the front row beside me – I was handing out the awards inside my own head. I had heard so many women speak that day about the work they were doing to make change and improve lives: hard-headed and warm-hearted women; women fighting, women leading. It seemed suddenly as though women were the ones turning the machinery of the world: driving it forwards.

That’s why we need International Women’s Day, I realise, and Women’s History Month, and as much noise as possible about the centenary of votes for (some) women, not to mention noise about the work that women are doing now across so many fields. We need to draw attention to the achievements of women, not as some kind of back-patting exercise but as remedial education. We are learning machines, we humans, collecting great banks of data and storing countless connections; but the dominant culture that most of us learn in does not teach us to associate women with courage, with hard-headed organising, with authority, with leadership. We’re deprived of the histories, of the news stories, even of the films and fictions that would teach us to connect the idea of ‘woman’ with the idea of ‘greatness.’

But just a day like this Saturday goes some way to redressing the deficit. So do books like The Women Who Built Bristol by Jane Duffus, which offers an A-Z of ‘250 inspiring women, three sheroic dogs and one heartbroken barmaid from Easton’ who had an impact on Bristol between 1184 and 2018. (In fact, reading books by women writers only is a good idea: I’ve been doing that for two years and it has had an enormous impact on the way I see the world.)

During the panel on The Women Who Built Bristol Duffus asked her panellists, who were also contributors to the book, what it meant to them to have these histories collected in print. I listened to Dr Naomi Paxton and Dr Finn Mackay agree that it was inspiring and that we can learn a lot from the strategies of the women activists who have gone before us. All true. But for me the book and their clear voices ringing out from the stage had, like all the events that day, one greater significance: they were lessons in admiring women.

#AzizAnsari 4: Consent II

You know what, I just can’t get enough of all those responses to the Aziz Ansari story which, like Bari Weiss’s, deny that ‘Grace’ denied consent. They just keep yielding up more for me to get my teeth into.

“If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you”, writes Weiss in the NYT. She defends Ansari, saying he would have had to be ‘a mind reader’ to have known the woman did not consent to penetration.

Of course Weiss’s views are not idiosyncratic: they are the dominant historical model.

It is a model in which the female body itself signifies consent. And that is rape culture.

By being born female you have consented to sex with men. (And as trans women will know, to become female-bodied or -identified after birth also qualifies as consent; trans men, meanwhile, will know that not even by becoming male-identified can they withdraw the original consent of their birth.) This consent granted by your female body can only be withdrawn through a perpetual and vocal effort. And be careful, because a number of your attempts to withdraw it will be refused: saying ‘next time’ and ‘I don’t want to feel forced’ will not be accepted. You will be cross-examined on whether you uttered the monosyllable ‘no’, regardless of whether you were asked a question that invited a yes/no answer.

And as often as not, your ‘no’ will be understood as a deferred ‘yes.’

Note that there are certain situations in which nothing you say – not even ‘no’ – can qualify as the withdrawal of your consent. For example, if you are naked. Your nudity in the presence of a man (even if you didn’t take your clothes off yourself) invalidates anything you may say. Also if you are within a man’s home: once you have stepped over that threshold you have no more right to withdraw your default consent and would have to leave again to be considered dissenting (“use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door”, as Weiss puts it).

As I pointed out in my last post, there are 127 countries in which marriage legally negates your right to withdraw your consent. This is true, in practise if not in law, in many more countries: marital rape remains more difficult to prosecute than rape outside of marriage – which is already difficult enough. In the UK it is only since 1991 that consent can be withdrawn within marriage; in the US, since 1993 – although exemptions for spouses remained in some states up until 2015. Attitudes certainly haven’t changed much: Donald Trump’s lawyer and campaign spokesperson Michael Cohen declared in 2015 ‘you cannot rape your spouse.’ Such attitudes extend to rapes by unmarried partners, too: women raped or sexually assaulted by partners face even greater scepticism than the rest.

(And this in despite of the fact that almost 50% of recorded rapes in the UK are committed by a current partner – and that partner rapes are twice as likely to result in injury to the victim, too, belying the belief that such rapes are less violent – and as such perhaps less ‘real’. Figures from a UK Home Office Crime Survey.)

Which other crime or violation must victims fight so hard to dissent from? You do not have to say ‘no’ in order for it to count as stealing when someone takes your property. We do not operate on the basis that everyone has consented to murder unless they specify otherwise.

Men must unlearn this reading of consent in the very lines of the female body. And women need to stop reinforcing that reading with their reactions to stories like Grace’s.

We have to challenge this deeply engrained notion of the female body as inherently consenting. We need to fight for a paradigm in which women have by default not consented, and in which consent must be explicitly, actively, enthusiastically and continually established.



#AzizAnsari 3: Consent

This one is going to be short if not quite sweet, I promise.

I’ve been busy putting together and delivering a workshop on ‘Women and Power’ (in relation to the centenary of women’s suffrage) for the National Trust, but that hasn’t stopped me thinking about this whole Ansari thing. Indeed, dwelling on history and some of the relatively recent legal gains that women have made has been grist to my contemporary feminist mill.

Let’s go back to Bari Weiss and that influential New York Times article of hers that acquitted Ansari of all blame other than of having failed to be ‘a mind reader’ while holding Grace responsible for avoiding unwanted sexual contact. Because Weiss doesn’t only blame Grace for the unwanted sexual contact she experienced, but also for single-handedly setting the feminist movement back (some unspecified period) in time.

To elaborate: she claims that while the Babe article ‘was met with digital hosannas by young feminists who insisted that consent is consent only if it is affirmative, active, continuous and — and this is the word most used — enthusiastic’ (notice the bizarrely mocking tone) it is in fact ‘the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since it began in October.’

The problem is, Weiss says, that ‘encoded’ in Grace’s story are ‘new yet deeply retrograde ideas about what constitutes consent — and what constitutes sexual violence.’

Let’s unpack that: retrograde means going backwards, especially to an earlier or inferior condition. So, she’s saying that Grace’s version of consent, in which the absence of the monosyllable ‘no’ does not automatically mean ‘yes,’ and in which a man should expect a woman to show enthusiasm rather than reluctance, is a version of consent that would take us back in time to something we have, thankfully, escaped.

Hold up there.

I’m not actually a historian, but I’m struggling to remember when it was ever the norm for men to seek the affirmative, active, continuous and enthusiastic consent of their female partners before engaging in sexual contact with them.

Is she referring to some prehistorical matriarchal society in which women were on top? Poor Weiss must have missed the memo: there is, sadly, no evidence that any such society has ever existed.

She might more realistically be referring to the medieval period, when medical theory held that a woman could not be impregnated against her will – without her experiencing pleasure – and that, therefore, no encounter resulting in pregnancy could have been a rape, no matter what a woman said to the contrary. (Actually, there are still politicians who make this argument.) Conception as consent: is that what Grace’s story is threatening to take us back to?

It may actually be that she is alluding to the whole of that Golden Age of sexual relations prior to the criminalisation of marital rape, which only hit the UK and US in the 1970s. Oh, in those good old days, marriage itself counted as permanent and perpetual consent to sex: legally, a man could not be found guilty of raping his wife, no matter how many times she said or screamed the word ‘no’. (Of course, this would only be going back in time for some of us. The 2011 UN Women Report revealed that 127 countries still hadn’t criminalised marital rape. In 2014 Lebanon carefully re-enshrined a ‘marital right of intercourse’ while passing legislation on domestic violence.)

Or perhaps Weiss is referring more generally to that period of Western history, dating from some of our earliest literature to, well, now, in which it was (is?) believed that a nice girl won’t give in easily, and that therefore her ‘no’ means ‘yes’. Octogenarian billionaire Warren Buffett got rapped on the knuckles last year for making this point in a CNBC interview – ‘if a lady says no, she means maybe. And if she says maybe, she means yes. And if she says yes, she’s no lady’ – but I’ve heard much younger men say ‘a girl always says “no” twice before she says “yes”’. From Ancient Rome to the Renaissance to contemporary ‘Rom-Coms’, our representations of ‘love’ are infect with the idea that women need to be persuaded.[i]

But all this is pure speculation: we really need our historian Weiss to tell us exactly which earlier and inferior model of consent Grace’s ‘insidious attempt … to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex’ is going to drag us back to.

While we’re waiting for an answer to this question (I’ve tweeted it to her but she has yet to respond) I’ll have a go at working out the conundrum myself:

Throughout much of history a woman’s ‘no’ has been understood as a ‘yes’, or simply as irrelevant


Grace’s story: not only should ‘no’ be understood as ‘no’, but ‘next time’ and ‘I don’t want to feel forced’ should also be understood as ‘no’


No resemblance between Grace’s position and the historical positions that Weiss pretends she wants to leave behind.


Which means that either Weiss is ignorant of the meaning of ‘retrograde,’ or of all history; or her argument is just deeply confused.[ii] If she wants to persuade us that Grace’s approach to consent is dangerously backwards, she’ll have to make her case more carefully.

Obviously that last sentence was purely rhetorical: there is no case to be made. The affirmative consent model simply does not take us back in time.

But where does a fixation on the word ‘no’ take us?

When trying to work out the implications of a certain argument (whether I can agree with it, or whether it dangerous) I find it useful to ask myself who is served by it. So, who does it serve if ‘no’ is the only valid means of communicating dissent?

Those who don’t want to get in trouble for non-consensual sexual activity, that’s who.


Which is why I say to you that it is Weiss’s position that is ‘deeply retrograde’ – or, more accurately, profoundly conservative. Note the small c: forget party politics and even the left and right wings; what we’re talking about is the desire to conserve things as they are. Weiss does not want relations between men and women to change.

The idea that ‘no’ is the only valid means of communicating dissent is an innately conservative idea. It allows for all sorts of non-consensual activity to take place, and those who perpetrate to get off on a technicality. So do not be fooled by anyone who claims they want ‘to change our broken sexual culture’ while championing the primacy of that little word ‘no’.





[i] Just for example: in one 2003 novel, The Love Secrets of Don Juan, Tim Lott writes of ‘the first thing’ he (or his narrator) ‘learned about women. If you’re completely determined … they usually cave in sooner or later. You can wear them down. With enough charm, and perseverance, you can bulldoze them.’ He claims to have learnt this from the young woman with whom he first had sex: ‘she said no, and she said no again. But she meant yes. … [we] went to bed, because I pestered her and bugged her, and made a complete nuisance of myself. I pulled it off because I had enough insight to understand that it was what she wanted … We got drunk, naturally … She didn’t say no. Well, she did, but not with any conviction. She didn’t say yes either. She didn’t seem to know what she was doing. Which made two of us. I had assumed that because she had a boyfriend she was fairly experienced but this was not so. She was nervous, and her fear communicated itself to me. We both had to master it. But by now I was beyond listening to the demands of anything other than the sound of my own heart, beyond smelling anything but the rich, earthy, unnameable smell that was her half-hidden desire.’

I include this as a fairly generic sample of a set of ideas that permeate our cultural atmosphere.

[ii] She really does seem to be confused. She claims that ‘the feminist answer is to push for a culture in which boys and young men are taught that sex does not have to be pursued as if they’re in a pornographic film, and one in which girls and young women are empowered to be bolder, braver and louder about what they want’ – and yet she sneers at the young women advocating enthusiastic consent.