Sun, Skirts and Shorts: What is Acceptable?

By Jo Gough

When the sun comes out, so does the issue of ‘appropriate’ school uniforms. In some schools, shorts are off the uniform list – seen as too immature for young boys, whereas skirts for girls are mandatory. Does this suggest that it’s acceptable to infantilise and sexualise girls? That the exposure of female bodies is normalised? Whatever the case, school uniforms should be practical and comfortable, and not a patriarchal vehicle to control the bodies of young people.

In the workplace these power dynamics continue: a man on Twitter showed himself wearing a bright pink dress, having been sent home from work for wearing shorts. More recently, in a row over uniforms, boys at a school in Exeter made the news for wearing skirts to school, to protest the fact that they weren’t allowed to wear shorts[1]. In a previous workplace, working outdoors with no shade and no shorts, a male colleague asked for a skirt and was denied. Wearing a skirt was unacceptable to the employer – as this would challenge the heteronormative structures put in place by institutions.

Traditionally, shorts were seen as clothing items for boys. From around puberty onwards trousers were given as a marker of becoming a man. The idea that trousers equal masculinity is pervasive, and the clothing revolution (unlike the era of the miniskirt) has not happened for men. Clothing symbolises male status and the conformity of being ‘a real man’.

Perhaps the refusal to allow shorts is also because tights cannot be worn. One of the school boys being interviewed in Exeter explained that they were told they would need to wear tights – as hairs were unsightly. Boys think that they are getting the raw deal, but tights are also part of a uniform, so girls rarely get more air flow than wearing trousers on a hot day.

Female clothing is made with no pockets, thigh rub is painful, skirts are poorly designed for the wind or sitting comfortably, and there is a sexualisation and vulnerability that comes with skirts and dresses. Why it that skirts is aren’t also seen as too immature for young women once puberty hits? How come there isn’t a transition, as with men, in becoming ‘a real woman’.

It’s natural to feel concerned over pleats in skirts, short summer dresses and frilly stark white socks. Girl’s school uniforms are sexualised symbols in the media, pornography, fancy dress and fantasies (see Brittany Spears). Teenage girls feel pressure to hitch up their skirts to feel more attractive. One school decided to ban skirts, because teenagers were making them so short that it was:

‘Not pleasant for male members of staff and students either, the girls have to walk up stairs and sit down and it’s a complete distraction. After a while it stops being a uniform issue and starts becoming a safeguarding issue[2]’.

Girls have to wear tiny tennis skirts for PE, but are told that this is inappropriate in other areas. Femininity is enforced through tiny skirts, but somehow it is unfair on men when women continue this past puberty. Women then enter the world of work, and the expectations for a professional female are tight skirts and high-heels. That schools are concerned for male teachers is a stark reminder of the victim blaming culture we live in, and it’s an insult to men to assume that they have no self-control, even in the presence of children placed under their care.

Therefore, school uniforms are framed to sexualise girls and women, and banning shorts because of antiquated notions of masculinity is archaic. It should be more acceptable that boys and girls should have the choice to wear whatever version of their school uniform that suits them. With the multitude of gender identities being expressed in our increasingly intersectional world, it’s crucial that we make room for autonomy in young people’s clothing choices. However, this seems disturbingly far away.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/jun/22/teenage-boys-wear-skirts-to-school-protest-no-shorts-uniform-policy

[2] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/school-bans-skirts-after-hemlines-5988614

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About the Author

Jo is an aspiring writer, deeply interested in gender, current affairs and popular culture. She has a degree in Education and Psychology, and it is what is not being said in news reports and how people react to the news and popular culture that gets her writing. To the left in politics, Jo has always tried to make the world that bit fairer. Twitter: @redphiend
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Are We Choosing Marriage Consciously?

By Taniya Shandil

“So, have you been thinking about boys and relationships then?” said Kal, one of my inquisitive neighbours. She popped over to my house for a cuppa and a catch-up, which we did whenever we met up. I was venting to her about how my dad had been hinting that I should be ‘doing certain things in time’. He would occasionally joke about posting my biodata online for some suitable matches to come through, so that he can get rid of me (quite literally is own words!). He said it teasingly, as a joke to wind me up, but to me it was more than a joke. He never said it directly but to me, but I felt like he meant there was a time to do everything, namely: a time for studies, a time for career and a time for marriage.

So, I being totally unready to even have that conversation or think about marriage at 25 was something that Kal found a bit surprising too. As we were discussing our life experiences, she said, “Well, you know, I got married at 24. I didn’t know what it would be like. But I learnt to understand how my life would change, and how to understand Ravi better. And now, two kids later we know each other well … we share our own little banter and that’s what it’s all about!”

She then went on to say, “You know marrying early is good because you can have your children, play with them and see them grow up while you’re young. I have some friends of mine who were very career-minded – now they’ve turned 32, 36 years old and they can’t have all that now!” “All what? Marriage and children?” I asked.

“Yes, you know. When you turn a certain age, it becomes difficult to have children. Also, it’s harder to marry!” she said.

I listened to her intently, yet had this strange feeling that she wasn’t entirely confident in her marriage at such a young age. Surely, we need to learn a little more about marriage before we go ahead and do it – just like you learn about the job prospects of a career before entering into it. Marriage being one of the life-defining decisions that we make deserves to be thought about, and not just ventured into blindly because it is the correct age to do so.

Practically speaking, the thought of ‘marrying at a certain age’ might be somewhat true since the biological clock exists, and has its limits. However, do we need to marry to have our children? Are we consciously choosing marriage and then kids, or is the choice being made for us?

Is it easy for a person, especially a woman, to make her own decisions without being judged? What happens if a woman decides she wants to marry when she is 40 years old, when she is filled with life experiences, financially stable and comfortable with herself as a person? Not to mention, she can emotionally support her partner better! Yes, with the biological clock ticking perhaps it would be difficult to have children. But isn’t this mind-set the stability that lays the foundation of a successful, and emotionally communicative marriage?

Why does it seem easier for men over 35 to find a younger woman to marry but not so vice versa? Logically speaking, isn’t there a higher risk of the marriage not working out when the woman is young and coming to terms with the idea of living with someone, discovering herself and trying to begin her career? Or does marriage choose her because she is of a certain age and can bare children? Is it biology, or our own conscious decisions? Do we feel incomplete if we don’t marry or don’t ‘have it all’? Is it necessary to ‘have it all’?

I am not saying that we should ignore our biology or shun marriage as an institution, but I do think it is important to question whether we looking at women as autonomous individuals? Are we accepting the fact that people will choose their marriage decisions? What about same-sex couples, are they similarly restricted by the social constructs which seem intrinsic in heterosexual couples? Are we acknowledging the fact that people will grow into more evolved beings with age who can provide better emotional, mental and financial support to their partners? Or are we associating a woman’s age as old = loss of youth = not a child bearing age?

Is the idea of ‘not having it all’ and ‘being left behind’ scary?

As I sit here and wonder about what Kal said, all I can surely say for now is that I don’t know what path I will eventually end up taking. Whether I will be ready mentally or not, whether I will find a decent partner or not, whether I end up having children or not. But one thing is for sure: whatever happens, I want to make sure that I choose it and not the other way around.

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About the Author

Taniya Shandil is a recent Chemistry postgraduate student from Cardiff University who is interested in gender and feminism issues. She has recently completed her master’s in Chemistry, and has took to writing for the purpose of self expression, creativity and making a difference by challenging perceptions of gender.

She also enjoys music, dance and reading as hobbies. One day, she wants to make a difference in the chemical industry with her work, and at the same time become a writer who can make a difference.

Taniya Shandil

Innocent Until Proven Otherwise: Is Rape Culture enshrined in our criminal justice system?

By Sorcha Dervin

Trigger Warning: Rape

Disclaimer: This article refers to the male as ‘the accused/perpetrator’ of rape. This is based on the definition of rape provided in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, outlining that only men can commit a rape.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 11, states: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”

There are profound reasons why the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” is well and truly cemented in our courts. It is the cornerstone of a valuable justice system, allowing the law to be fair and just, and critically punishing the guilty and not the innocent. It has unfolded to be a pretty nifty piece of legislation, especially given the context in 1948: two World Wars had been fought in under 30 years, with human rights violations beyond comprehension inflicted on the Jewish race in Europe, alongside detained prisoners of war in Asia.

However, in the reality of adult sexual assault and rape cases, does the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” restrict a victim’s access to justice? Consider this: approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year; that’s roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour, but – and here’s the crucial part – only around 15 per cent of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it to the police. Is our criminal justice system failing victims? And if so, which bit exactly?

There are two approaches to consider when viewing the law in conjunction with the effects it has on peoples’ lives. There is the language of the legislation, and then there is the context, which actually addresses the question – are the police, the media, the courts, “the system”, propagating rape culture?

The Legal Stuff

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines rape by including the usual legal jargon such as “intention”, and the standard of reasonable belief, and that all important word – consent. The law is very clear: section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act explains, “Someone consents if she/he agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice”.

So far so good. Although it you align this piece of legislation with the context of the criminal legal system, as opposed to a civil court, you will find that the burden of proof rests with the complainant to prove (beyond all reasonable doubt) that the defendant is guilty of an alleged rape. If we refer back to the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, (and all that it does for fairness and integrity of justice), and balance this against the conviction rate of accused sexual offenders: “justice” seems like a forgotten notion.

Take March 2014, for instance – there were 64,200 reported cases of sexual offences in England and Wales [including, but not solely referring to, rape]. In 1,401 of those cases, the perpetrator was given a “caution”, and only 33, 277 cases made it to formal proceedings. Out of those 33,277 proceedings, a further reduction of only 19,864 cases ended in a conviction. So, out of a total of 64,200 reports, only 19,864 were prosecuted. What is the most likely conclusion – England and Wales have an epidemic of thousands and thousands of women crying “rape”, or…the system is failing them in their pursuit of justice?

The Context – the police, the papers, and the prosecution

I have simplified my analysis of the “system” into three main areas, though I do not assert to understand any in great detail, nor do I deny that there are many shortcomings when it comes to regaining justice for victims of sexual assaults and rape. Broadly speaking, as a society and a legal system, the police fail, the (news)papers fail, and the prosecution fails.

Rape Crisis (England & Wales) have collated data based on reported sexual offences and surveys from those who have experienced some kind of sexual assault. From this, it is shown that only around 15 per cent of those who experience sexual assault choose to report it to be police, and only 28 per cent of reported rapes are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). If you were a victim of a sexual assault, would you report it to an institution which has a historical record of dismissing allegations, disbelieving complainants, and undermining the seriousness of sexual assault? I think not. But let’s say you were brave enough and determined enough to pursue your allegation, a disproportionate amount of allegations are still dismissed, a small amount of accused sexual offenders are cautioned, and if your case progresses to formal proceedings, there are further hurdles to climb…  

Have you ever heard of Brock Turner? Perhaps not, although you may recall his other titles: “Stanford University swimmer”, “20-year-old, All-American swimmer” or “Stanford student son…”. Although it is an American case, and the US legal system is vastly different to our own, The People v Turner and the media coverage surrounding it, epitomises the callous attitudes to reporting sexual assault cases. Brock Turner was found guilty of rape, and convicted of this offence, however, the media chose to present him in terms of a) his privileged education, b) his athletic abilities, and c) his family connections, rather than as the man who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman.

There are many debates surrounding The People v Turner concerning white privilege, institutionalised racism, and educational elitism, however, for the purpose of the article I am only going to focus on the media’s propagation of rape culture. Some media outlets act as the biggest drivers of victim-blaming, slut-shaming and rape-sympathising. Through cleverly designed headlines, and specific discourse, a newspaper or an article on Facebook can make you empathise with the rapist, rather than the victim.

Before you discount the power of the media, ask yourself whether a 20-year-old, unemployed and uneducated African American would have received a 6-month prison sentence (and only required to serve half of it) for a sexual assault which had eye witnesses. The media painted a version of Brock Turner, which pressured or allowed (depending on your perception of the legal system) the judiciary to view Turner as a young, intelligent, athlete with a bright future, simply a victim of “liquor” and circumstance. I would advise anyone interested in deciphering who the real victim was in this case, to read the victim’s statement: “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today.”

Prosecuting sexual assault: “raped all over again”

This is a statement made by Frances Andrade, after her experience in the witness box left her feeling violated. Days after, Frances Andrade committed suicide.

These are some extracts from her cross-examination: “That is simply not true…”, “You are indulging fantasy…”, “What you have told this jury is a complete pack of lies”. An (arguably) excellent barrister – defending their client with the upmost rigor, and discrediting the prosecution’s case, but it makes for an uncomfortable read in the light of this woman’s suicide.

Some other examples of cross-examination and courtroom exchanges include:

“What were you wearing at the time of the alleged assault?” “How much alcohol had you consumed?”, “How many sexual partners have you had previously?” Or, and this is extraordinary by any judges’ standards: “Did the victim try closing [their] legs?”

Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders summarises: “For too long society has blamed rape victims for confusing the issue of consent – by drinking or dressing provocatively for example – but it is not they who are confused, it is society itself and we must challenge that. Consent to sexual activity is not a grey area – in law it is clearly defined and must be given “fully and freely”.

It is time for defence barristers, whilst upholding the notion of “innocent until proven guilty”, to actually uphold integrity of justice, and do right by the victims of sexual violence. For a legal battle as sensitive as sexual assault, there is no place for “point-scoring”, or character assassinations. Instead, there should be a candid explanation of the facts, and a serious exploration to uncover the truth (from both sides of the courtroom).

It must be remembered when considering this principled notion, that there is a difference between believing the innocence of the defendant (until proven otherwise), and actively disbelieving the complainant, and the smear tactics which follow. It is one thing for a defence barrister to stand up in court and say “my client is innocent; it is for the prosecution to present evidence to the jury that, beyond all reasonable doubt, my client is guilty of the alleged offence”. But, as we’ve seen in the harsh reality of some cases (such as Frances Andrade), defence counsel often go beyond their role, and diminish the complainant to nothing more than a liar or a fantasist. This entire process goes against the principles of justice.

What next?

There is an urgent need for reform in the way society views sexual assault as a whole. This article has only scratched the surface on a complex and multi-faceted system, which is flawed in many ways. As I have tried to argue, there are layers of institutionalised thought processes, which allow attitudes towards victims of sexual assault to remain negative and unhelpful. The approach to reform, in my view, has to be “top-down”: the criminal justice system needs to review the way it prosecutes sexual assault cases, and the process in which these cases travel from police stations, to the CPS, and then to the courts. If the criminal justice system can send a clear and unequivocal message to victims about how they will be treated, one hopes that the media will shift in their perspectives also. With this in mind, gradually over time, society as a whole should start to view sexual assault as the serious crime that it is, and justice can be regained more readily for victims of sexual abuse.

What’s in a (Sur)name?

By Kitty

Predictable blog titles aside, when was the last time you thought about your name and what it signifies to your identity? I suspect a lot of people in the UK go through their lives not giving much thought to their surname – after all, it’s pretty much a given. Until it comes to getting married, that is.

It is estimated that up to three-quarters of British women change their birth surname to that of their husband after tying the knot. Same-sex couples face an even more complicated question, not only “should we have the same surname?” but also – in the absence of the heterosexual dynamic on which this tradition is based – “which one of us will make the change?”

The custom of a wife taking on her husband’s surname is uniquely British and spread to other countries through our imperial or otherwise cultural ties. According to the BBC, the Norman’s invasion first imported the rule that upon marriage a woman loses her surname, becoming a possession of her husband, referred to only as “wife of X”. The English in particular put their own spin on this by allowing married women a surname: that of their husband as a show of sacred unity.

Feminists looking on the matter now might argue that the tradition should be scrapped as it has historical roots in the subordination of women. One example is that of nineteenth century suffragette Lucy Stone, who had to fight legal officials who refused to let her vote using her maiden name which she had kept after marriage.

For some women, it’s a matter of future practicality; one colleague assured me that things can get complicated if, as a mother, you try to travel abroad with your children who have a different surname. Of course, this assumes that subsequent offspring of the marriage will take their father’s surname, which brings forth another gender issue.

Give a child a double barreled surname and people might (wrongly) assume it’s a child out of wedlock, divorce, or terribly posh. In my case, it was neither. In much of Spain and Latin America, women keep their surname and children take both parents’ first surnames, which are paternal. But, alas, I had a particularly long cumbersome name that involved switching languages (e.g. Carlota Miller-Gutierrez) so I decided at the age of 19 to officially axe one of them and be like my fellow single-surname Brits.

After a long, hard think I opted to keep my mother’s surname. It wasn’t originally as a feminist statement but rather because it was unique and more in-keeping with my “ethnic” first name. Five years on, I’ve invested physically and emotionally into this semi-new identity against which all my contributions to the world will be remembered, even if it is a hassle for others to spell and pronounce. My name is part of my legacy and no one is ever going to make me change that.

Do Civil Partnerships Have a Future?

By Hannah Bacon

December marked the 10th anniversary of the introduction of civil partnerships in England and Wales. But do they have a future? Can we even tell after such a short time?

Current legal recognition for relationships in the UK is a bit of a muddle. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was created separately to existing marriage legislation, rather than simply amending existing marriage law to make it gender neutral. Certain grounds for divorce in marriage law, such as ‘suffering from a venereal disease in a communicable form’ and adultery, are not present in civil partnership law. Plus, changes to new marriage certificates are being proposed in an effort to include mothers’ names in addition to fathers’, something that civil partnerships included right from the outset.

Despite campaigns led by Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, and the Peter Tatchell Foundation, there remains strong opposition to giving couples more choice. The Prime Minister opposes opening up civil partnerships to different-gender couples because of concerns about ‘undermining the sanctity of marriage’, an uncomfortably familiar phrase that does not promise equal treatment and respect for choice. Equality is precisely the reason why many couples wish to have the option of committing to each other without being married. Holly Baxter is put off by a ‘long history of women-as-chattel’ and considers that the ‘Labour [government]…accidentally made something genuinely worth having.’

A not very widely publicised consultation was undertaken by the coalition government in 2014, the results of which were inconclusive: ‘Given the lack of consensus on the way forward for civil partnership, the Government will not be making any changes.’ While it makes sense not to charge ahead with changes until they have been thought through properly, the reluctance to get around the table again to try to find a solution sends a glaring message.

This message seems to be that civil partnerships were never intended to be a proper equivalent to marriage in the first place. The report shows that 76% of respondents were against opening up the option of civil partnerships to different-gender couples, many of whom stated that their reason was tied to civil partnerships being inferior to marriage. As part of the consultation, Christian Concern expressed a worry about ‘greater instability within families’ if fewer different-gender couples opt for marriage. Perhaps it is worth questioning whether it is realistic or desirable to expect one size to fit all.

Encouragement to convert civil partnerships into marriage was relatively forthcoming, at the end of 2014, with some even (tellingly) referring to it as an “upgrade”. If we consider the language used when this is discussed, mention of ‘full marriage’ crops up quite a lot, both in the media and in everyday conversation, suggesting that even after a number of years of trying, a civil partnership just does not carry the same weight. Friends of mine were excited to learn in 2014 that I could now be ‘fully married’ if I wanted to, not because they would show a difference in respect for my relationship, but because it is very deeply ingrained idea that it is best to be married.

It is essential to remember, however, that many couples rejoiced at the opportunity to “convert”, particularly for those who grew up during a time where homosexuality was illegal. For Percy Steven and Roger Lockyer, being declared “husband and husband” was an emotional moment that they never expected to come, describing it as ‘really rather lovely’ to be ‘married at last’. Despite little change in practical legal status, emotional status is perhaps even more important, ‘To me, it feels like reaching the top.’ Like it or not, marriage does still seem to be the “gold standard”, and the power of social approval cannot be underestimated.

As a gay 15 year old, hearing that the UK considered my future potential relationships to mean something, lessened a fear of being misunderstood or treated badly. I remember listening to the radio on the way to school in winter 2005, and hearing the announcement that same-gender relationships were soon to be legally recognised. It gave me confidence. It gave me a starting point for beginning to be honest about who I was. The white dress did not matter, but the possibility that society thought I was okay definitely did. The idea that maybe, just maybe, I would be treated the same as everyone else, lifted a significant weight from me.

Now 10 years later, I am not as fussed about being like everyone else. I now strongly believe in not needing to be the same in order to be equal, and have learned to go my own way, even if it does not comply with what is expected of me. But it can take a long time to get to that point, and I do not believe that anyone truly does not care what others think of them.

Love comes in all shapes and sizes. Making fewer judgements about how others’ relationships should be conducted is the way to go, and perhaps civil partnerships have the ability to offer us this in a way that traditional marriage does not. Last year, a Conservative peer argued for siblings to be able to ‘ease the burden of inheritance tax’ by entering into civil partnerships. Opposition to his beliefs included the statement that ‘civil partnerships are the equivalent of a marriage: a loving union.’ One can see where this idea came from. The initial attempt to sell the idea of civil partnerships to same-gender couples was based on making it as similar to marriage as possible without having to call it marriage.

But what if we decided to apply the term ‘loving union’ more widely? Catherine and Ginda Utley are two sisters who have co-parented 22-year-old Livvy for her whole life, and simply wish for more security for their committed family. This is unobtainable for them because of the fact that siblings cannot form legal partnerships. Marriage is perhaps more difficult to change, given that it is much older and more tied with tradition in people’s minds. Opening up civil partnerships, however, could be a fabulous opportunity to recognise the many different ways in which people form loving and committed connections outside of romantic and sexual relationships.

Looking deeper into the nuances of human interaction can encourage us to question why we will formally recognise some relationships but not others. Queerplatonic relationships, for example, question why romantic and/or sexual relationships must always be prioritised over others, and attempt to create a space for individuals to determine their commitments and feelings for themselves. Some are prone to asking, “When will it stop?” but perhaps the question should be, “Should it stop?” Why not celebrate the wonderful diversity of human relationships in its entirety, and allow people to define their lives on their own terms?

This is also potentially an argument for getting rid of the need for state recognition of relationships altogether. Being legally bound to someone should not be needed for a human connection to be considered legitimate in the first place. Some are totally against entering into any legal partnership, due to beliefs about its outdatedness and irrelevance in today’s society. In an ideal world, perhaps, we would not need to prove the acceptability of our feelings for one another. Further, we would not require legal formalities for things like hospital visits and inheritance, but rather a culture of trust would be present, with no need to protect oneself. Further still, someone choosing to live a single life would not be penalised. In short, there would be respect afforded to a wider variety of people and lives.

Having said that, this is currently not the world we live in, and so it arguably remains very necessary for folks to be able to clearly state the nature of a relationship. An example of this is the fact that some couples wish to be in a secure position internationally. This could be due to factors such as: differing nationalities, deciding to relocate, or travelling together. So even if a couple feels that a civil partnership more closely matches their values concerning gender equality and modernity, they may still choose to enter into a marriage because of the universal recognition and respect afforded to that status.

Despite the fact that most countries in the world would not officially recognise two people of the same gender as married, the simplicity of phrases such as, “We are married,” or “She is my wife,” holds much power. The Irish campaign for marriage equality puts it as, ‘The word itself is a fundamental protection, conveying clearly that you and your life partner love each other…everyone understands that.’

Respecting individuals’ wishes in terms of relationships is vitally important, and arguably what this is all about. Formalising relationships remains significant for many, both in a legal and emotional sense. We just need to put some work into broadening our definition of what a “relationship” is, and perhaps we should keep civil partnerships around for another 10 years to see what else they can do for us.

Fight, Flight…or Freeze: Rethinking Reactions to Sexual Assault

By Lindsay Riddoch

September is my least favourite month of the year. I figure I’m not the only one who hates it — Green Day at least seem to be on my side. My hatred for it — aside from the obvious end-of-summer reasons — comes from September 9th 2011. I’d just been staying with a good friend in Cardiff. It was the summer between my slightly unusual sixth form and university. I had 3 weeks until I started my new life in London. I was booked on a Megabus from Cardiff to London, and then from London to Edinburgh. It was a hellish journey, but one I had done before. My iPlayer was fully loaded with documentaries and it was all going to be fine.

At Victoria Coach Station, a man sat next to me on the bus. I don’t have a visual memory, and probably couldn’t even describe what my best friends look like, but I could draw you a picture of this man. After about an hour (judging by the fact that I had watched one documentary on iPlayer) he started to assault me. Four long — though simultaneously incredibly short — hours later, he got off the bus in Manchester.

I didn’t scream, I didn’t even say the word ‘no’. I moved my legs, moved them again, and then my brain disappeared. In the last few seconds before my brain and body went into shut-down, I was more scared of causing a scene than I was of losing my autonomy over my own body. I had flashes of a video we watched in year six about ‘feeling yes, feeling no’. I considered, as instructed on this video, shouting no. But as I was considering this option my brain went into survival mode and decided that taking me out of that situation was the safest option. Without an option to physically escape, it let me mentally escape.

Those 4 hours changed my life forever. As I tried to process the trauma in my mind and body, I was told by a psychiatrist that I needed to ‘get counselling to learn how to say no’. My lack of assertiveness was seen as the problem that needed treating. Even as more empathetic people explained trauma theory to me, they kept talking about ‘fight or flight’. Common parlance and psycho-babble alike kept explaining to me that when in danger, my body goes into fight or flight mode. Yet I didn’t do either of those things — did that mean I wanted it, that my body betrayed me? I didn’t punch him, regardless of the fact he wasn’t that big. I didn’t get up and demand to be let off the bus. After attempting to move within my seat I sat completely still. I froze. In terms of evolutionary survival, I played dead.

Running and fighting are not the only two options when faced with a threat. There is a third option — often touted in response to grizzly bears. Play dead. Stop fighting. Wait for the attacker to get bored whilst inflicting as little violence as possible. As children, girls are told not to fight: they are taught not to raise their head too far above the parapet. They are taught to wait, to ignore. Meanwhile their subconscious mind quickly picks up on the strength of boys around them. Their subconscious makes a snap judgement — that on the balance of probabilities, this man is stronger than they are. Back then, as an 18 year old, I was faced with a situation that my rational mind had no map for — no learnt or taught reactions to — my evolutionary brain took over. It used all the information available to it and froze.

In an email I wrote a few weeks after my Megabus journey I said the following: “I know you’re going to be sitting there thinking this is some kind of super big deal. But this isn’t sexual assault. Honestly. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I just wish I could know why my mind shut down; and how to stop it doing that to me again, because it seems like whatever kicks in after the brain leaves makes incredibly unsound decisions.” Reading that now breaks my heart. I’d heard of ‘fight or flight’. It made sense to me, and as far as I could tell my evolutionary mind had let me down. It hadn’t fought and it hadn’t run. From there came the victim-blaming; from there came my guilt. Yes, the media is part of that problem, and so is all that advice about how not to get raped. But, in my opinion, the single biggest contributor is every single time we miss out the freeze when we discuss ‘fight or flight’.

The freeze response is, I believe, something less common in men, who are more likely to have been raised to fight, or to weigh-up that they are able to flee. In a world dominated by male ideas, we are given a male understanding of traumatic reactions. Yet actually, across the board, freeze is the most common of the three reactions. Last time a car almost hit you in the road, did you run? Or did you actually, to the mockery of those around you, stand dead still in front of it as it honked its horn? If we’re going to curb the misunderstanding and slander of rape and sexual assault victims, we need to start with a basic psychological education. We need to give people an understanding of how their brains react that is bigger than the basic ‘fight or flight’ idea. Preventing people from raping in the first place would obviously be the ideal, and lessons about consent are vital, but we also need to help people understand their own reactions. Boys especially need to understand the evolutionary reactions when one’s mind assumes a physical strength deficiency. Girls need to learn about freeze when they’re young, not only after — heaven forbid — they fall victim to a terrible crime.
In a sexual assault or rape scenario, freeze is by far the most common reaction. We need to remember that for ourselves, for our loved ones and for everyone who is sitting blaming themselves for something that happened to them. Even more importantly, however, we need to understand why our bodies do it. We need to not hate them for their attempts to protect us. We need to realise that, whatever the after-effect, in those minutes both our mind and our body were doing their absolute best to keep us as safe as possible. We need to remember that whatever happened to our body was not a sign of us enjoying ourselves, but instead of our evolutionary protection of ourselves. And every single time we say ‘fight or flight’ we must say ‘fight, flight or freeze’. We must raise a generation of young people who know that freeze is an evolutionary reaction. We must make judges, psychologists and police officers understand that playing dead works. We must forgive our own bodies for doing their best.

Dropping out of Childhood: The Silent Cry of Child Brides Around the World

By Angelica Belli

“My name is Thea and I’m 12 years old. On October 11th 2014 I will get married.” A few weeks ago, a child from Norway published a blog where she described her hopes and fears about her upcoming wedding to Geir, a 37-year old man.

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Selfies and photos depicted the journey any bride-to-be undertakes, from choosing the venue to having her hair and make-up done. But when Thea tried on wedding dresses, they all fell loosely over her small body and were unreasonably long for her stature. When she asked for a chocolate cake for the reception, it was deemed unsuitable. When she realised she would have to share a bed with her future husband, she was disgusted: “does that mean we should be naked together and touch each other and stuff like that?”, she wrote. Standing in front of the mirror in her pink and baby-blue pyjamas, she wondered whether she would have to wear the sexy lingerie that everyone seemed to be showing off in all those wedding commercials, and grew more and more concerned about the intimacy that this wedding would lead to.

Her blog has received over half a million readers, with many calling the police and child protection to prevent Thea from getting married. On the day, 400 people were present at the ceremony, shouting “Stop the wedding!” and hundreds gathered to demonstrate against child marriage outside the church. Fortunately, Thea did not get married. Her blog was in fact part of Plan International’s campaign to end child marriage, which went viral on social media, reaching more than 3.5 million people via Facebook and being the subject of around 8000 Tweets.

The outrage and media attention the campaign triggered towards Thea’s marriage reached extremely high levels – higher than those received for reports by UNICEF, Human Rights Watch or Save The Children, even if they feature not one, but hundreds of testimonies of child brides around the world.

Plan’s campaign aimed at raising awareness about all the victims of child marriage globally, and it did so through a very smart and provocative feature: the use of a white Norwegian girl as the victim.

The reason why people were so shocked to see a 12-year old about to get married is because it was so close to home. Thea was like any other child we see on the street daily. She was like our sisters, our daughters, our nieces. She had an iPhone to take selfies and send Snapchats, she went to school, she liked chocolate cake, she enjoyed going to friends’ parties. She is a reality we know and we can relate to, and this is why we are so appalled when that scenario changes so drastically.

However, we merely need to push that known reality aside for a moment to realise that there are currently 700 million ‘Theas’ around the world who were married off as children, but for them, nobody was there to cry out “Stop the wedding!” Many have had to drop out of school, missing their chance of education which would empower them as women. Most of them have had no access to family planning services or contraception and are unable to negotiate safer sexual relationships. A great number of them have fallen pregnant at a very early age, becoming more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) and are more likely to suffer from complications or even death from childbirth. According to UNICEF, 70,000 girls aged 15-19 die each year because of issues related to excessively early pregnancies. Child brides are very likely to be abused and exploited by their partners, and are often separated from family and friends. Their children also face major risks, since if the mother is under 18, her child is 60 times more likely to die in their first year of life than if the mother were older. Even if the child survives, they are at a high risk of under-nutrition and late physical and cognitive development.

Child marriage occurs all around the world and is most common in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Girls are disproportionately affected but boys are among the victims too. This harmful practice is rooted in tradition and culture, and is often seen as a way to protect girls from pre-marital sex and unwanted pregnancies, which would undermine family honour. It is also an important way for families to access resources such as cattle or money, since in some countries such as South Sudan, parents receive a wealth transfer through the traditional payment of dowries when they marry off their daughters. In India and Nepal, on the other hand, the dowry is the payment of cash or gifts that the bride’s family gives to the groom’s along with the bride herself. As the price of the dowry increases if the bride is not a virgin, parents marry off their daughters as children in order to pay less. Finally, poverty plays an important role as parents resort to marrying off their daughters if they are unable to support them.

Child marriage does not merely affect girls in developing countries and it is closer to home than we think. Many children who have been brought up in Britain are often taken back to their country of origin to be married off to older men, and according to an Observer investigation, a growing number of girls are now being married off in the UK itself through illegal and unregistered arrangements. According to the government’s Forced Marriage Unit, 29% of the 5000-8000 people at risk of forced marriage in England in 2012 were children.

Cathy Glass, an English foster carer and writer under pseudonym due to the sensitive nature of her work, exposes this reality in her book The Child Bride. Zeena, a British-born child from Bangladesh, was blamed for dishonouring her family after she was raped by a cousin at the age of 9 in Bangladesh, and was subsequently forced to marry a 49-year old man on her 13th birthday. After suffering serious abuse from her ‘husband’ as well as from her father and uncle, Zeena found the strength to ask for help. Thanks to her outstanding courage, together with the support received from her foster carer, a social worker and the police, her story had a happy ending despite the scars left from the many years of ill-treatment. But there are still millions of girls all around the world that are scared into not reporting, that have no one to turn to, that are too traumatised to trust anyone with their story or are brainwashed into thinking this is what they deserve.

Despite significant improvements achieved thanks to international organisations and NGOs, if progress remains at the current rate it will be unable to keep up with the growing world population and the total number of women married in childhood will rise to approximately 950 million by 2030. This cannot be an option. No child should be forced into a marriage wherever they live, whatever country or culture they are born into, whatever their religious background and whatever their family income. And while governments, international organisations and NGOs will need to scale up their efforts to end this harmful practice, we too have a duty to stand up for each and every one of these children and shout “Stop the wedding!”.

An Intersectional Analysis of the Reeva Steenkamp Trial

By Kate Gilchrist

Last week, Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison for the fatal shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, with a further three-year sentence for firearm charges to be served concurrently. The media coverage of the trial has been extensive and it is widely known as the ‘Oscar Pistorius trial’ – a fact that has already been critiqued by feminist analysis (see posts by Tumblr and Huffington Post). However, it has not, as far as I know, been analysed from an intersectional perspective. Such an analysis reveals a fascinating example of how systems of power are continually shifting, often in contradictory and coalescent ways. Thus, whilst taking an explicitly feminist approach, I want to explore how the strands of race, gender, class and disability are intricately intertwined within this one trial. Although this may be one individual, high-profile case, it is important to situate it within the social structures it is produced by and in which it is located.

I also want to counteract the shift in focus that the trial has brought to the gun culture and the militarization of post-apartheid South African society, as well as the South African prison system. Whilst such issues are important, I believe this focus only serves to further obscure the complex gendered issues at stake, centred around what was ultimately the brutal killing by a male of an intimate female partner.

Gender-based violence

The killing of Reeva Steenkamp occurred in a climate of domestic violence. In South Africa, approximately half of women who are murdered are killed by an intimate partner. Such incidents occur at a rate of an average of six women every day, which is the highest reported rate in the world. To place this in context, in the UK, two women are killed every week by their current or former intimate partner.

[While I have been conscious of closely situating this case within its specific location, it must be noted that domestic violence is of course by no means an exclusively South African problem. Although research has indicated it is a hugely significant problem there, domestic violence is a widespread, global, gender-based problem, not one which conforms to national or geographical boundaries. For more on this, see the recent UN report which describes the issue as a pandemic.

Although Judge Masipa convicted Pistorius of the lesser charge of culpable homicide rather than murder, it must be remembered (a fact that seems to be often forgotten) that there was clear evidence presented in the trial that Steenkamp – and Pistorius’s former girlfriend Samantha Taylor – had both felt controlled and harassed by their partner. The privileged positioning of both Steenkamp and Pistorius along the lines of wealth, race and fame, ironically worked to shine a spotlight on the often-ignored issue of intimate partner abuse, as well as highlight the fact that such abuse occurs across all social strata. It must be said, however, that throughout the case, Steenkamp was consistently positioned only in relation to Pistorius. Unfortunately, Judge Masipa’s institutionally privileged ruling only served to reposition the issue of violence against women and abuse within relationships as being ‘normal’. In reference to a text message that Steenkamp had sent to Pistorius saying: “I’m scared of you sometimes, how you snap at me and of how you will react to me” and describing how she felt attacked by the “one person I deserve protection from,” Masipa stated: “Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable most of the time, and human beings are fickle.” This is a frankly astonishing assimilation of abuse into ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ behaviour, because it occurs between intimate partners.

It is also significant from an intersectional perspective that Judge Masipa – in the context of post-Apartheid South Africa – is a black female judge. While it could be argued that Masipa’s positioning as a black woman is irrelevant to her legal standing, it is interesting to note that such a positioning effectively conflicts with her ruling which ultimately favoured the white, male in question. Her ruling and sentencing has been extensively criticised by the public, media and prominent figures. Would such a ruling by a white male judge have received more condemnation, coming from one who would enjoy similar racial and gender privileges as the accused? Or less, coming as it would from one whose authority and credibility is more supported by the social structures within which it is produced? Does Masipa’s positioning conversely add more credibility to her judgment coming as it does from one who more closely aligns with the victim?

Disability

The defence team in the trial sought to frame Pistorius’s disabled position as generating anger: a sense of vulnerability and anxiety that explained his actions, leading to acute anxiety and an over-defensive reaction to an exaggerated ‘threat.’ It was also used to argue that he should be placed under house arrest rather than be sent to jail. Pistorius’s positioning is, of course, distinctly different to that of an able-bodied person – both physically and psychologically (and in the trial he was not found to have an anxiety disorder at the time of the shooting). However, it must be remembered that he had, up unto this point, achieved a level of physical performance which far exceeded the average in his profession, successfully overcoming his physical impairment and competing against able-bodied athletes.

Race and class

As touched on above, the double racial and class privilege – as well as the wealthy famous status of both Steenkamp and Pistorius – collectively served to elevate the trial and draw widespread international attention. Taking an intersectional perspective reveals the depth in which such privilege is engrained. For example, if Pistorius had indeed done what he claimed, i.e. shot an implicitly black, male intruder, it wouldn’t have made half the headlines; such is the commonplace of such an occurrence in South Africa’s history. Similarly, it illustrates how the case has linked both patriarchal lines of violence against women with historic racial divisions.

Again, the defence ironically used Pistorius’s privileged position as a reason not to send him to jail saying that he had already lost so much he didn’t deserve to be punished any further, such was the huge fall from grace that he had “suffered” within society. This simply highlights and reinscribes the privilege he still enjoys as a white male within a society that remains deeply divided along racial and economic lines. No matter what the consequences of this case for Pistorius, this is a privilege he will always enjoy.

Rape is Rape.

By Kaammini Chanrai

On a number of occasions, I have been presented with the following analogy: if you leave your front door unlocked, you are partly to blame if your house is robbed. Therefore, if you are drunk, you are partly to blame if you are raped. Needless to say, this not only baffled me but – I don’t exaggerate here – it chipped away at the already damaged view that I have of humanity. I’m not sure what angers me more: the careless comparison of a woman’s body to an unlocked house door, or the conclusion of the statement itself. Likening a human body to property is like comparing the loss of an iPhone to the loss of a dear relative: it is ignorant and entirely lacks empathy. And deducing that fault lies with a lack of attentiveness to detail, well that’s just silly. If you get burgled, it was the burglar who did it. It was their actions, not yours, which resulted in the final outcome. What a dire world we live in if we, as human beings, cannot understand these basic morals.

Understanding a crime – particular one shrouded by controversy – can be deemed a difficult task given the diversity of opinions that are often exhibited towards the crime in the public sphere. Arguably, therefore, understanding a crime involving a celebrity figure is additionally difficult as such cases can amplify both the amount and polarity of views that a crime can induce. Several of these cases have been in the limelight lately, with the conviction of Oscar Pistorius as the most recent. So, when one public figure, Judy Finnigan, of This Morning and Richard and Judy fame, remarked on another public figure, Ched Evans, this caused a whirlwind media frenzy and catalysed a much larger discussion on rape.

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Ched Evans, a former footballer for Sheffield United, was convicted of rape in 2012. Although he maintains that he is innocent, a petition signed by over 150,000 people urged his former club not to allow him to rejoin. Finnigan, making her debut on Loose Women, said the following: ‘The rape and I am not, please, by any means minimising any kind of rape – but the rape was not violent. He didn’t cause any bodily harm to the person.’

The comments made by Judy Finnigan on Ched Evans’s possible return to football are just the most recent in a string of remarks which have publicly undermined the occurrence of certain ‘types’ of rape. Finnigan said that Evans had ‘served his time. He’s served two years’ and that the woman in question had ‘had far too much to drink.’ She later apologised ‘unreservedly’ for any offence that she may have caused ‘as a result of the wording [she] used.’

I am not going to discuss Ched Evans. So much has already been said with regards to whether or not he should be allowed to return to his football career. I am more interested in talking about the undermining of rape itself. Although she overtly stated that she is not ‘by any means minimising any kind of rape’, Finnigan manages to do just that. I wish to state that the proportionality of many responses to these comments have been grossly inappropriate and have entirely missed the real issue at hand. However, some have hit the nail on the head: the narrative of undermining occurrences of rape and victim-blaming must come to an end.

This was not the first time such comments were made about the occurrence of rape and, unfortunately, it probably will not be the last. Last year, CNN journalist Poppy Harlow became the centre of a controversy after a report on the conviction of two high school football players for the rape of a sixteen-year old in Steubenville, Ohio. Harlow said it was ‘incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures – star football players; very good students – literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.’ The victim in question was incapacitated by alcohol at the same and, during this ordeal, was carried from party to party by her assaulters. Although she was unresponsive, members of the high school football team digitally penetrated her and there were reports that she was urinated on.

‘She should have known better’, ‘she should have been more careful’, ‘she was partly to blame’ are not appropriate responses to rape. They are unhelpful in establishing the crux of the problem at hand and, importantly, these statements are simply untrue. They do not add to the debate, they simply distract from the real reasons why rape occurs. Rape Crisis deconstructs some of the common myths about rape. Just to summarise, rape is an act of violence. It is not anyone’s responsibility to avoid being raped. It is our collective responsibility, however, that society shifts this responsibility to where it truly belongs: with the perpetrator.

The extent to which rape can be considered tragic should not be determined by circumstance or brutality. The World Health Organisation defines rape as “…physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration– even if slight – of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object.” In England and Wales alone, 22,116 rapes were reported to the police in the last year. Indeed, there should not be an extent to which rape should be measured. It is always wrong. As is the case with murder, or assault, the perpetrator is the one who committed the crime and should be prosecuted, not the victim.

Rape is rape. If the rape was non-violent, it is still rape. If the rape occurred in a marriage, it is still rape. If the victim was drunk, it is still rape. This underlying rhetoric of victim-blaming needs to stop. Instead of propagating the narrative that places the blame of the occurrence of rape on the woman, we need to start perpetuating the truth: the rapist committed the crime. Crime is difficult to understand, yes. But some things are simple. Rape is rape.