Scarlet Ladies: Sex Without Stigma

Preamble: HI THERE FAMILY MEMBERS AND PEOPLE OF A DELICATE NATURE! As the title of this post would suggest, the content of this post is going to be sexual in nature. Why don’t you preserve our relationship and read this nice apple pie recipe I wrote instead?

I climb three sets of dark stairs and enter the room through a door disguised as a bookshelf. A young woman with a clipboard takes my name and hands me a glass of prosecco and a small blue box. Upon investigation, the box contains two packets of condoms, a fingertip vibrator and a veritable wealth of information on safe sex. The room is lit in scarlet and the comfortable armchairs are occupied by a tantric masseuse, an orgasmic meditation coach, a member of the BDSM community, a sex columnist and the cofounder of Scarlet Ladies, a sexual empowerment organisation for women. This is my first Scarlet Ladies event and honestly, I’m not quite sure what to expect. I take a gulp of my prosecco and giggle as I remember that outside of this room, London is proceeding with a perfectly ordinary rainy Tuesday evening.

The small room fills with women: young women, old women, black women, Asian women, trans women. We swap salacious grins as the evening’s panel take their places. The night is presided over by Alix, a tiny, blonde hurricane of a woman, who cracks jokes that would make Christian Grey blush and whose writing has been featured everywhere from Vogue to the Guardian. She keeps the conversation flowing throughout the night, tackling sensitive subjects with tact and sensitivity and making lascivious comments about her low chair placing her knees around her ears at every available opportunity.

The first panellist is Claudia, an orgasmic meditation coach. Every hand in the room shoots up as she starts talking, all of us with one question on our lips: what the hell is an orgasmic meditation coach and how does one go about getting that job? Orgasmic meditation is a practice which distinguishes between orgasm and climax, focusing on bringing our attention to the state of orgasm and enjoying sensations in the moment, rather than racing towards climax. The practice is about connection and wellbeing as much as about sex. Claudia makes a point of having two orgasms before she gets out of bed each morning and while I can’t confirm that this is how she looks 27 while in her fifties, it certainly seems like she’s doing something right.

Next up, we have Alyssa, whose involvement in the kink community helped her work through her transition. She eases us in gently, confiding that she still has bruises on her thighs from the weekend’s activities, before opening up on London’s thriving kink scene. Some audience members start to look a little pale as she enthuses about creating in-body corsets using surgical staples and ribbon but other members look decidedly interested. We chat about trust, communication and enthusiastic consent in BDSM relationships. Huge focus is placed on consent in kink relationships and it’s easy to see why – if you’re approaching someone with a surgical stapler, you want to make damn sure that both of you are having a good time.

Then, tantric teacher Catherine speaks. Catherine is probably the most serene person I’ve ever come across and with three lovers and a career as a tantric masseuse, it’s no wonder. She talks about tantra as a practice that opens up your whole body, as well as your heart and mind. Once again, the topic of sex as communication comes up. She offers a tantric massage as a prize in the evening’s prize draw, an experience encompassing meditation, yoga and massage – all while completely naked, of course. She peaks everyone’s interest when she lists the mind boggling types of orgasms she’s experienced and takes issue with the term “alternative sexual practices”, posing the very good question – alternative to what?

Finally, we come to Jannette, confounder of Scarlet Ladies and self-confessed orgasm evangelist. She talks about founding Scarlet Ladies to help dispel the shame and stigma that surrounds female sexuality, and to provide a safe space for women to have these conversations. Many women feel isolated with their sexuality, sure that they’re the only one having complicated thoughts and feelings. An evening in a room with these women proves that none of us are alone in having complicated feelings about sex. She talks about her experience of growing up in a conservative household and how she balances her upbringing, her experiences as a black woman and her love of sex. She truly is evangelical about having the confidence to ask for what you want in the bedroom and both her confidence and her enthusiasm are infectious.

By the time the first half of the evening rolls to a close, the room is abuzz with chatter. Questions are whispered and scribbled on colourful post its, the air is pricked with stifled giggles and gasps as glasses are filled with more bubbles. Alix draws us back together and opens the floor to questions. At first, questions are surreptitiously handed to Alix on post its, but she is wonderful at making us laugh and putting us at ease and by the end of the night, we’re all talking at once, shouting over each other, screeching with laughter, having conversations that I never would have dreamed we’d be confident enough to have at the beginning of the night. We talk about exploring kink in relationships. We talk about the opposing pressures of the media and feminism in sex. We talk about whether some sexual acts are fundamentally un-feminist (Spoilers: no, they are not. If you are having consensual, communicative sex, it’s *all* good). We talk about boundaries and sex toys and using lubricant as moisturiser. No topic is off bounds and no one is ever made to feel uncomfortable or strange for asking a question or expressing an interest in a particular area. Over the course of the evening, it becomes clear that everyone is different, everyone has slightly different kinks and limits and the only way to have great sex is through – yes, you guessed it – great communication. Alyssa rounds off the evening with perhaps the best piece of sex advice I’ve ever heard: “Every day’s a school day”.

Flushed, slightly tipsy and more than slightly titillated, I head out into the rainy Tuesday night feeling thoroughly inspired and empowered, although not quite empowered enough to stop me panicking that I’m going to drop my goody bag of sex toys on the bus home.

Scarlet Ladies run weekly events ranging from presentations with inspiring women to blowjob workshops with professional dominatrixes. Whoever you are, whatever you’re into, you have something to gain from becoming a Scarlet Lady.

What to Expect When You’re Electing

Election day is drawing nigh and campaigning is reaching fever pitch. You forget what it was like to have normal post. All of your TV shows have been replaced with party political broadcasts. You pick up a piece of fruit and it starts talking to you about dementia tax. That’s what it can feel like anyway.

This Thursday, the nation will take to the polling station to choose what kind of a country we want to be for the next five years. The opinion polls are doing their best but there’s one unknowable factor that will genuinely determine the election’s outcome: who turns up to vote on the day.

Hopefully, lots of people have become engaged in the last few months. Say what you like about our times, they’re certainly not politically boring. If you’re new to voting or are considering voting for the first time in a long time, this post is for you! I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, that’s entirely your call. What I am going to do is run you through exactly what happens on polling day, telling you where to go, what you need to do and hopefully showing you how quick and easy it is to make your voice heard. After all…

uk election 2017

Before election day…

In the run up to election day, there are a few things you need to do.

Most importantly, decide who to vote for!

All party manifestos are available online, but if you’re not particularly enthused by any of the parties, a non-partisan website like Who Should You Vote For will ask you to rate some of the main policy ideas of the three major parties and tell you who will best represent your interests.
If, on the other hand, the only thing you want from this election is to see the back of the Conservative government, this website will tell you how to use your vote to the best tactical advantage.

Check where your polling station is!

Your polling station will be a public building, for example a community hall or a school, in your area. Shortly before election day, you should receive a polling card through the post, telling you where your polling station is. If you do not get a polling card through the post, don’t panic! You can vote without one. If you don’t get a polling card and you’re not sure where your polling station is, get in touch with your local elections office. They will be able to point you in the right direction. Contact details for local election offices can be found here. You must vote at the correct polling station, so if you’re not sure, it’s worth checking!

On election day…

So, the day has finally arrived and we’re all ready to exercise some democratic rights. Hooray! Now what?

When to vote

On election day, your polling station will be open from 7am until 10pm. You can show up at any point during this time but bear in mind that the early evening is likely to be busiest. You do not need to book a slot, just go along whenever you are ready. If there’s a queue, rejoice that so many people are taking part in our democratic process and stay there. This shit is important, you guys. As long as you are in a queue by 10pm, you will be allowed to cast your vote.

What to take (and what not to!)

If you have it, take your polling card with you. If you don’t, or you forget it, don’t worry! You don’t need it to vote. It is just a handy tool that can help the polling station staff find you on their register quickly.

You do not need ID to vote. There have been hints that this might change in the future but for the moment, you can leave that passport at home.

Another thing to leave at home? Your “I Heart Corbyn” t-shirt. Political clothing or paraphernalia is not permitted inside a polling station, as this could be intimidating to other voters.

You do not need to bring a pen with you. Pencils will be provided in each polling booth.

What happens inside a polling station

When you enter the polling station, there will be a registration desk in front of you. If you have your polling card, hand it to the polling station staff. If not, they will ask you for your full name and address. They will mark you off on their register and give you your ballot paper.

If there are other people waiting, you are welcome to talk to them about the weather, their lipstick, the Great British Bake Off…anything except the election. No election chat is permitted once you are inside your polling station.

There will be a number of private polling booths set up. Take your ballot paper to one of these booths before making your choice. The ballot paper will show all of the available candidates for your constituency. The name of the party leader will not be on your ballot paper. Your ballot paper will show the name of your local candidate, and which party they represent. If you’re voting for Corbyn, select the Labour candidate. If May is your dream Prime Minister, you’re looking for the Conservative candidate. You get the idea.

Put one cross in the box opposite the name of your chosen candidate. For general elections, we use a first past the post system, which means you only make one choice. Do not make any mark on your ballot paper other than your cross, as it might render your vote invalid.

Once you’ve put a cross in your candidate’s box, fold your ballot paper in half and put it into the ballot box. The box should be clearly marked but if you are not sure, your polling station staff should be able to help you.

Once your ballot is safely in the box, you’re done! Go buy yourself a pint and congratulate yourself on participating in our democratic process. If you fancy taking a selfie, this is the moment. Photography inside polling stations is frowned upon, as you may accidentally reveal your ballot paper or someone else’s. Once you’re outside, however, go wild! I love an election day selfie.

uk polling station

The result of this election absolutely hinges on who turns up on the day. Historically, the most privileged among us are the ones who turn out to vote. If you feel like politicians don’t represent you, this is the moment that you can take back the power. Make them sit up and listen. Use your voice. Use your vote.

We Came. We Marched. Now What?

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be a part of something momentous.

womens march london

All over the world, in all seven continents (yes, even Antarctica), people of all genders came together to march against the rise of oppression and fascism epitomised by Donald Trump’s ascent to power.

Millions of people took to the streets, waving placards splashed with hopeful, hilarious messages and the key message was this: we’re not going to let the bastards get away with this.

It was an amazing thing to be a part of and everyone I know who attended has been quite rightly riding a wave of feminist euphoria since. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more feminist than passing a flowery hip flask of rum around a group of freezing women clutching sweary placards.

It was an amazing, inspiring day and no one can ever take that from us. But. If we are really not going to let the bastards away with all of their nonsense, the march has to be a beginning, a jumping off point, not an ending. We have not yet “done our bit”. If we’re serious about stopping this massive, terrifying threat, we need to commit to fighting every day.

For a lot of people, this march was the first time that they had been involved in a protest. If that’s you – welcome! Come on in, we have felt pens and rum. I hope that the march left you feeling all fired up and ready for battle. We’re going to need you to keep that fire burning. If that all sounds good but you’re not sure where to start, here are a few ways you can resist every day:

  1. Give money to the people who need it. Homelessness is an epidemic in the UK. Hate crime is on the up. Domestic violence services, LGBTQIA+ support services, food banks, shelters, refuges and our welfare system are being absolutely gutted by our government. Cut out your morning coffee just once a week and set up a standing order for ÂŁ10 a month to a charity providing much needed support.
  2. Volunteer! As much as cash, these vital services need bodies on the ground. Whether it’s serving food at a homeless shelter, manning the tills at a charity shop or teaching English to refugees, I bet you have some skills you could share around.
  3. Teach. If you don’t fancy volunteering at a support service, why not volunteer at your local girl guide group? If we’re really hoping to bring about lasting, meaningful change, we need to empower the kids coming up behind us. Teach them well and let them lead the way and all that.
  4. Join a local protest group. Sisters Uncut are a brilliant, intersectional direct action group and if you’re UK based, they probably have a group near you. If not, they have instructions on how to set up your own group on their website.
  5. Sort of an addendum to number 4, but don’t just show up when things affect you directly. Feminism as a movement has been built on the backs of women of colour, LGBTQIA+ women, disabled women, refugee women, poor women, fat women, sex workers. Women belonging to these groups have been experiencing the sort of oppression and violence that we now fear for their entire lives. If we had listened to these women to begin with, maybe we could have halted this whole fascist movement earlier. This isn’t intended as a rebuke, just as a little something to remember. Go to a Black Lives Matter march. Write to your MP about detention centres. Send welcome packages to refugees. If each of us is only looking out for ourself, we’re never going to get out of this damn mess.
  6. A tangent from the addendum in number 5: listen to the experiences of those who are different from you. And when I say “listen”, I mean really listen. Don’t wade into conversations and talk over oppressed people to show off how clever and feminist you are, or look for reassurance about how great an ally you are. Twitter is a frankly unbelievable resource if you’re willing to acknowledge your privilege and listen. And look, I know it’s hard to be called out on your privilege. I’m a skinny, straight, white, cis girl. I say stupid stuff all the time and when I get called on it, it’s tempting to throw a huff and write a long, meandering blog post about how my intentions were good. But your intentions don’t matter if your actions are hurting people. Instead of doing that, I sulk for a minute, then take a deep breath and suck it up. Because accepting that you are wrong and learning to listen to the people who are traditionally silenced is how we move forward. If people are taking time out of their day to give you a free education, don’t throw it back in their face. Listen, listen, listen.
  7. Once you have listened and you’ve started to learn stuff, apply that knowledge. Challenge prejudice and microaggressions wherever you see them. If, like me, you have lots of privilege, odds are you have the choice to let shitty attitudes and comments slide because they’re not directly hurtful to you. Choose differently. This is a fight that will be won or lost over a dining room table, over whether you’re willing to pick your little brother up when he makes a racist joke.
  8. Okay, we’re back from the addenda and tangents. Campaign for abortion access, sexual healthcare access and better sex education. After the US election, a lot of people, myself included, made donations to Planned Parenthood in new VP Mike Pence’s name. This was worthwhile and also hilarious. But this fight is equally important much closer to home. People in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland  do not have access to safe, legal abortions. Lend your voice to their cause. Sign up for the FPA’s newsletter. Find a local Repeal the 8th meeting.
  9. Drop off a load of sanitary products at your local homeless shelter or food bank. Getting your period is bad enough as is, imagine having to go without sanitary products.
  10. Stick a big box in your office and ask people to bring in donations for your local food bank. Keep an eye out for 3 for 2 or BOGOF deals in the supermarket: pick up extras and donate them! (Remember: people who rely on food banks often won’t have access to fridges, freezers or cookers. Focus on things that can be made without these)
  11. Get informed. I know that the news is horrendous and it’s completely fine to take breaks and look after yourself when it gets too much. But if we want to win, we need to know what we’re fighting against.
  12. Write to your MP! Your MP will have an email address and a Twitter account. Get in their face and demand that they represent you.
  13. Vote. Please, for the love of god, vote.
  14. Keep going. There are hard, hard times ahead. Things are likely to get worse before they get better. Take a break, get yourself together and keep on keeping on. Giving up is an act of privilege. There are people whose very survival depends on them continuing to fight. They don’t have the luxury of deciding that it’s too hard. We will not abandon them. We will stand with them. Keep going, loves, keep going.

Well, this turned into a bit of a monstrous post. Apologies if that was a bit overwhelming. Of course, you don’t need to do all of these things (except the listening and challenging prejudice. You really do need to do those ones). If you try to take on everything, you’re going to burn out. We need you strong, so make sure you’re feeding your soul as well as your anger. Switch off the news and take a bath. Hang out with the people who love you. Watch a video of that Nazi guy getting punched in the face (No, violence isn’t normally my bag but if we can cheer John Smeaton for kicking a terrorist in the balls, you bet your ass I’m going to cheer a literal Nazi getting punched in the face. I’m an Indiana Jones fan, after all.) Pick a few actions, do them consistently, do them well. In fifty years time, your grandkids will be asking you what you were up to during this strange, tumultuous time in our history. Make sure you’ve got a good story for them. Courage, my darlings, courage. We’re on the right side of history.

womens march placards

Power to the Girls

To the littlest Longmuir,

In the past day, the internet has filled up with letters from women to their daughters, sisters and granddaughters. Many of them have been written by women much wiser and more talented than me (like this one!). This one won’t be much different, except that it’s for you.

kiera

You already know that America has picked a bully for its leader. There are a lot of reasons that this happened but here’s a big one: his opponent was a woman. In more than two centuries of voting, they have never, ever picked a woman. This time, it looked like they really might. The fact that they didn’t is a big loss. It hurts. But here’s the one glimmer of hope: someday, they will. Somewhere out there is a little girl like you who will be president someday.

Here’s something you might already know, and you might not: being a girl is really hard sometimes. A lot of people will think that they know who you are and what you are like, just because you’re a girl. It can get pretty overwhelming sometimes, pretty exhausting. Sometimes, you’ll feel like giving up, making yourself smaller or quieter to escape. From my heart to yours, I’m sending you all the courage in the world and saying don’t.

I know that you know all of the words to Matilda by heart, and if she doesn’t mind, I’m going to borrow a few of them. (She’s much cleverer than me anyway!)

Even if you’re little, you can do a lot.
You mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you.
If you sit around and let them get on top
You might as well be saying you think that it’s okay.

You can do anything that you put your mind to. You can become Prime Minister. You can write a book. You can run away and join the circus. You can be a scientist, who helps cure devastating diseases. You can design incredible buildings or beautiful dresses. You can do anything. And the only thing you have to do to get there is to try. Try, try and keep trying. Put your hand up in class. Read about Violet Baudelaire and Hermione Granger and Mia Thermopolis. Write down your thoughts and trust that they are important. Know that your voice matters. Learn to believe in yourself, even when other people don’t. Watch Mulan and know that you should never learn your place. Watch Legally Blonde and know that in your life, you will come up against countless Warners and Callahans who will underestimate you right up until you take their job and do it better than them. Sing in the shower. Wear pin badges. Google Maya Angelou, Sophia Duleep Singh and Ida B Wells. When you’re old enough, vote.

You are powerful beyond measure. But, to quote a great philosopher (Spider-Man), with great power, comes great responsibility. See, another reason that the bully won is because people are poor and alone and frightened. And when people are frightened, they can become cold and hard and selfish. When you are frightened, it can be easy to see everyone else as the enemy, out to steal what you have. My gorgeous girl, I need you not to do this. The world is a strange, scary place right now and folks like me need the people growing up after us to be better than us. The world needs kindness and warmth and big, open hearts. The world is full of people of wondrous variety: girls, boys, people in between, white people, black people, Muslim people, poor people, disabled people, gay people, young people, old people, and every single one of those people deserves to live a beautiful, happy life, just like we do. We are so lucky to have what we have, and when you are as lucky we are, it is your responsibility to share it.

Don’t let the world make you afraid of people who are different from you. Listening to people different from you is how we learn. Don’t let the world dim that wonderful, generous spirit I know that you have. Take your old toys and clothes to the charity shop, so that someone who needs them can have them. Pack a shoebox with surprises and send it to somebody who doesn’t normally get Christmas presents. Don’t be scared to tell adults that you have ideas. When I was little, I asked the people in my mum’s work to help me pack shoeboxes and ended up with a whole living room full of presents to give people. More than 70 kids got presents that year because I believed in myself. Stand up for what you think is right. Don’t join in when your friends tease that weird kid in your class. Don’t let anyone else tell you what to think – not even me. Be nice to other girls. Help them reach for their dreams and they’ll help you reach for yours. Love as openly and as massively as you can. Never stop believing in the power of kindness. And never, ever give up.

I’m going to finish with one last quote, something that I told your other sister many years ago, and something that I really, truly believe for both of you: kid, you’ll move mountains.

All my love, forever,

Fiona.

Beach Body Already

This week, my Twitter exploded for the second time when new Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced that he would be clamping down on body shaming adverts on the Tube. A lot of you lovely folks first found my blog through my fight with Protein World (if you’re a newbie, welcome to the party! You can read all about it here, here and here!) and I’m thrilled that people are still talking about it.

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I want to talk about privilege for just a second before the celebrations start – and make no mistake, this is a celebration blogpost. Body positive victories like this one are always, always built on the tireless work of brilliant, gorgeous, fat women who get a hundred times the abuse and none of the media attention that I did. I am so, so proud of the stand that I took against PW and continue to be blown away by the support I received but it’s worth asking – would the stunt have been so well received if I was fat? Even between Tara and me, two relatively thin girls, she bore the brunt of the abuse, I got the majority of the press. So please, continue to send your congratulations and I shall continue to bask in them because I’m a big millennial narcissist, but I’ll stick a list of excellent folks at the bottom of my post who fight for body positivity every day and often get nothing but abuse for it. Go show them some love.

At the height of the Beach Body debacle, one of the things I heard over and over (and over and over and over) was that we were wasting our time fighting against something as trivial as an advert. And there’s a grain of truth there. Women, especially fat women, face discrimination in much more overt, dangerous ways than having the beach body brigade shoved down their throats every summer. But I dare you to go speak to someone suffering from an eating disorder and dismiss body image issues as trivial. Anorexia is the deadliest mental illness faced by humans. It carries a higher risk of death than schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. This isn’t about an advert that hurts a few people’s delicate feelings. It’s about taking a little bite out of a culture that is actively killing people. So this might be a small victory, but it is absolutely 100% a victory.

take back the beach protein world

Photograph by Michael Mendones.

I’m not claiming that our protest single-handedly led to all of the changes that are happening, but I can’t remember the last time I saw an article about body shaming that wasn’t illustrated with a photograph of the Protein World advert. The advert, the protests, all of the trolling and argument, they made body image an issue that was suddenly worth talking about, worth writing about for the mainstream media. And that happened because we refused to shut up. We shouted louder and louder, over and over again, “This is not okay and we’re not going to take it anymore”.

The whole thing: the photograph, the TV interviews, the worldwide media, the Hyde Park party, the speeches Tara and I have given since, all of it was the product of a funny idea and about 12 seconds of mad courage. Everything hinged on the few moments it took to take a deep breath, steel each other and pull off our dresses in the middle of Charing Cross. Hundreds of thousands of women saw the advert and we just happened to be two of the many who dug our heels in and said no.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t think that you’re too small to make a difference. I took one photograph, had two mad weeks and held a protest party that was only about 100 people strong and the ripples of that are still being felt over a year later. We have the power to change things, if only we are brave enough to let ourselves care, if only we are brave enough to try. To steal a line from my blog’s namesake, even if you’re little, you can do a lot. I believe in you. And even at a time when it feels like the world is falling in on itself, I believe that people can be good. People can be great. And if we let ourselves, people can be powerful enough to change the world. Courage, dear heart. Courage.

 

Brilliant Body Positive People

Tara Catstello: my excellent partner in crime through the beach body furore, runs an amazing feminist blog that talks body issues, feminism and what it means to be a woman.

Bethany Rutter: plus size blogger and asskicker extraordinaire, made a huge batch of body confidence cards to hand out on the tube in response to a fatshaming asshat.

Hayley, Curves & Curls: pin up sasspot babe, runs a gorgeous plus size fashion blog.

Daisy Says: fabulous, opinionated, fierce as hell. Spends her days doling out positive vibes and dispatching trolls with gay abandon.

Lottie L’Amour: award winning blogger and ambassador for the Body Confidence Revolution, a project celebrating bodies in all of their glorious diversity.

Callie Thorpe: gorgeous blogger, Marie Claire columnist and longtime body confidence warrior.

MurderOfGoths: unreasonably talented plus size illustrator, creates the most beautiful, beautiful artwork of other plus size babes.

Danielle Vanier: fantastic plus size fashion blogger who campaigns for body acceptance and delights in breaking ridiculous “fashion rules”.

George Horne: plus size blogger and model who fights relentlessly for better representation of plus size women.

Because of the troll risk, I don’t want to add anyone to this list without their permission, but if you are or know an amazing body positive/fat positive activist, please shout! I’ll keep adding forever.

 

Peeking Under the Trollbridge

TW: misogyny, racism, sexual violence.

Just like last time, it started with a poster and a picture.

stand up to racism

Bones aching after a day at a Stand Up to Racism march, buoyed by the incredible, passionate voices that rung out throughout the day, thoughts very much focused on the vodka and lemonade awaiting me in the pub and my (erroneous) hopes that Scotland might beat Ireland in the rugby, I tweeted a photograph of me holding a Refugees Welcome placard.

My Twitter had been a relentlessly lovely place for a good few months, so I didn’t think much of it when my phone buzzed. And then it buzzed again. And again. And again. Not only were Scotland getting absolutely gubbed in the rugby, my mentions were suddenly gushing with racist, misogynist, violent abuse.

I was told that I was a repulsive person because I haven’t personally invited any refugees to live with me.
I was told that I must want to be raped.
My photograph was retweeted with an invitation for white men to rape and impregnate me, so I could continue the white race.
I was asked to post my address so that men would know where to come when they wanted to rape me.
I was sent photographs of beaten and bloodied women.
I was told that there was blood on my hands because I sleep in a warm bed while others freeze to death.
I was told there was blood on my hands because of the explosions in Brussels.
I was called precious. I was called naive. I was called a hypocrite. I was called a bitch.

The trolls, ladies and gentlemen, had descended.

As somebody who’s pretty vocal on the internet, particularly about the fact that I think women are people and should have rights, I get trolled a lot. Sometimes, for a few hours, I think the trolls have ruined my day. Sometimes, they make me cry. Sometimes, I feel like I’m standing on the edge of the sea, wave after caustic wave of hatred battering over me. Sometimes I feel as though I’m drowning.

Sometimes, I feel like Dorothy, peeking behind the curtain in the Emerald City. I remember that this huge mass of rage and venom isn’t born of some unfathomable, mysterious monster. There is no Wizard. And when I peek under the troll bridge, I find only people.

When I really think about it, I wonder what kind of lives these people must be living, to make them hate like that. I think of the little boys, high on the illicit thrill of saying the forbidden. I think of the young men baffled and frustrated that I would present my face and my body to the world and not invite their comment. I think of how society teaches our young men to express themselves through violence and anger. I think of the poor, terrified, lost boys, who don’t know how else to feel powerful. I think of the girls, so broken and battered by this messed up little world of ours that they step on other women as they reach for the approval of the lost boys. I think of the dinosaurs, the relics, clinging with their fingernails to a world that no longer exists, stubbornly refusing to see that history will not remember them fondly. I think of the panic that lashes out and escalates, rather than admitting it was wrong. It is easier to hate than to understand.

These voices, so huge, so loud online…how small they become in the real world. How small in comparison to wrapping myself in my boyfriends arms at the end of the day. How small in comparison with closing down my laptop in favour of drinking ginger beer in the sunshine or losing myself in a book. How tiny compared with the texts from my sister that say “I’m really proud of you”. How insignificant in the face of my full, beautiful, silly little life.

Their hate might be an ocean, but my love lets me float. And I hope that someday, they find that too.

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Boys Who Hit Girls and Boys Who Don’t

CW: violence against women, sexual harassment, assault.

Let me tell you a story. Today, a friend of mine jostled into a man on a rush hour tube. The man turned around and threatened to punch her in the face. She cried.

Let me tell you another story. Once, when I was walking home in the dark, a man ran towards me and screamed in my face. When I leapt backwards away from him, he laughed hysterically. I went home, turned on all of my lights and sat in the corner of my living room between the sofa and the wall. And I cried.

Let me tell you another story. A while ago, there was a post circling around the internet about a man who noticed that the woman walking in front of him had sped up to get away from him. He walked faster and so did she. Eventually, she broke into a run. When she tripped and fell, he ran past her and screamed “Who are we running from?!”. A lot of people shared this post. A lot of nice male friends of mine shared this post with notes on how funny it was. They laughed. I bet the woman cried.

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In at least two of those stories, the men involved thought they were kidding around. Not having been there for the first, I can’t say for sure whether the threat was a thoughtless, idiotic, off the cuff remark or a genuine threat. But here’s something I am sure about: being able to frighten women and think that you are joking or that we shouldn’t take it so seriously is an act of supreme, huge, massive privilege.

When you say or do something like the guys above did, you know that you don’t really mean it. Here’s the thing: we don’t.
We don’t know until we’ve ignored your shouts of “Hey beautiful!” whether you’re going to throw a bottle at us or not.
We don’t know until we’ve awkwardly returned your smile at the bar whether you are going to shove us against a wall and assault us or not.
We don’t know until we’ve refused to laugh at your inappropriate sexual joke whether you’re going to tell your friends that we were throwing ourselves at you or not.
We don’t know until we’ve pulled you up on sexist language whether you’ll send us photographs of mutilated women or not.
We don’t know when we sit next to you on the bus whether you’re going to start masturbating at us or not.

None of those examples are hypothetical.

I don’t presume to speak for all women here because I can’t. So I’m just going to speak for me. I live my whole life in the knowledge that pretty much every single man I come into contact with is stronger than me. In every interaction, I carry that thought in the back of my head: that you could hurt me if you wanted to. I’m smart, I’m funny, I’m brave, I’m strong, I’m confident and not one of those things would stop you killing me if you decided to.

I am afraid of you. And the numbers back me up in being afraid of you. The numbers say that actually, it’s quite likely that I’ll be seriously hurt by a man in my lifetime. It’s only a matter of time. It’s only a matter of who. It’s basically a miracle that women get out the door in the morning with that knowledge hanging over them. The only thing that stops me living in fear all the time is sheer, indefatigable stubbornness.

We have no idea whether your “joke” is a joke until it’s too late. When you make jokes like that and I give you the hilarious, terrified reaction that you’re looking for, I’m doing that because I’m afraid that you’re going to hurt me. I’m afraid that you’re going to kill me. So I’ll let you choose. You can be funny, or you can be frightening. Because trust me, you can’t be both. Violence isn’t always committed with a fist. Just because we’re not bleeding doesn’t mean you haven’t hurt us. Weigh your damn words, boys. They’re heavy.

The Body Monologue

Family, you might want to skip this one. 
Some musings on the ways that ownership of my body has been taken from me. Best read aloud.
TW: Sexual assault.

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When I was fourteen, a boy in my class took hold of my wrists and kissed my neck.
No one had touched that part of me before.
I felt his mouth hot on my skin, my tiny wrists fluttering like birds under his fingers.
It reminded me of a game Dad and I used to play.
Except I knew my Dad would never hurt me.
In seconds, it was over. And he broke away. And laughed.
I laughed too. But I didn’t feel like laughing.

When I was fifteen, the girls in the high school changing room
With their women’s bodies and their sharp, sullen tongues
Would pull at my bra straps and tug at the buttons on my shirt
Exposing my chest to the laughter of the room.
I’d turn away to hid my shame
Hot tears falling on my traitorous child’s body.

When I was sixteen, the weight of my age and all that it meant felt heavy.
I let a boy feed me chocolates. I’d pose and preen and twist my body.
Flicking my frizzy teenage fringe.
Squirming to escape the echoes of
“You’re such a good friend”
And
“No wonder the guys don’t look twice”
The message was clear:
Your body is a show for them
And you’re doing it wrong.

When I was seventeen, I met a boy.
A boy who would show me what my body could do.
A boy who would touch and kiss and love, but never presume to possess.
Who held my hands instead of my wrists.

When I was eighteen, I was walking home one night. It was Hallowe’en.
I was dressed as Cinderella.
A homeless man, crushed against a dark shop front, grabbed hold of me and pulled me to the ground.
As I felt the bite of the pavement on my knees
And his fingers circle my wrists,
I wondered, why do people touch me like this?

When I was nineteen, a boy pinned me to the wall
And tugged up my skirt
The music in the club pounded in my head as I felt his fingers climb.
I was drunk.
My skirt barely skimmed my thighs.
I was alone,
Waiting for my boyfriend to return from the bathroom.

When I was twenty, I felt tears sting my eyes
As a stranger spat that I probably spent my life in the gym
For a body that no man would ever want to touch.
Over and over
Your body is not for you to enjoy.
You’re doing it wrong.

When I was twenty-one, a man requested that I wrap my legs around his head
As I walked for a train at eleven-thirty in the morning.
When I politely declined, he suggested that
If I didn’t want to be treated like a whore,
I shouldn’t dress like one.
I should hide away my body
To keep it safe.

When I was twenty-two, I moved to London
With its cloudy, bustling streets
And the dusty tube
I stood in rush hour with the other commuters,
Pumping like blood through the veins of the city,
When someone pressed against me.
Everyone was pressed against me, but not like this.
I stood frozen with fear and shame,
Feeling his flesh against my flesh
Back and forth
Until my stop.

At twenty-three, I took a photograph in my bikini
In front of an advert that once again screamed
YOUR BODY IS NOT FOR YOU
YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.
A silly, wild, empowering stunt.
People asked, what does your boyfriend have to say?
Do you think guys find stick insects sexy?
Are you so desperate for validation that you need to get your tits out?
You have to hide your body away
To keep it safe.
It’s not for you.
You’re doing it wrong.

Baring Our Breasts, Baring Our Souls

This week, I was invited to the launch party for Laura Dodsworth’s amazing book Bare Reality. I was pretty excited, having never been to a book launch before, so I donned my finest “I’m-totally-a-sophisticate-who-goes-to-book-launches” dress and headed for Brick Lane.

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Me, failing to look even a little bit cool and nonchalant.

Bare Reality is an intimate and fond study of our complicated and often fraught relationship with our breasts. The book consists of photographs of 100 pairs of breasts, with 100 women’s stories underneath, ranging from age 19 to age 101, from burlesque dancers to nuns. What really struck me looking at these pictures and listening to the excerpts read was how different each woman’s body was, and how different each story was. Even as the owner of a pair of them myself, my exposure to boobs throughout my life has probably been pretty narrow. I see mine. I see my mum’s. I sometimes see my friends’. I see the ones in the adverts. And somehow, this had added up to the idea that all breasts look pretty much the same. Except mine, which are obviously weird and wrong. But seeing these 100 photographs made me wonder how we ever arrived at such a small ideal of female beauty. Every single one of the photographs was stunning. Their bodies were beautiful and strong and most had survived incredible things.

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For most of the women interviewed, their breasts were not just the lumps of sexualised flesh that we’re so used to seeing them portrayed as. They were what they used to feed their children. They were the stepping stone to sexuality – but these stories focused on the pleasure women got from their breasts, not the pleasure they gave to men. They were just body parts to lots of women, and those women couldn’t give a damn how aesthetically pleasing you found them. They had undergone surgery, changes, insults, huge life events like motherhood, cancer and menopause. In Bare Reality, women’s bodies became the subject, a canvas on which our stories are painted, rather than the object.

bare reality book launchOne excerpt read “when I bare my breasts, I am trying to bare my soul”, casting the idea of nakedness in a beautiful light. The act of being naked not as a sexual experience, but as a literal stripping back of the layers, a search for the you that lives underneath.

One woman talked about being tall, and how tall women, especially those with big boobs tend to hunch over, to make themselves small and inconspicuous. I glanced round the room at this point. Every single woman straightened up and stood a little taller.

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Laura, looking justifiably delighted with her book.

Laura described the book as “100 acts of feminism”, and I think she’s spot on. I’ve said this before, but we exist in a world where having autonomy over your body, taking up space and generally existing as a female is seen as offensive, as a demand for attention, as an attack. Our physical existence is a political act, whether we like it or not. And with that in mind, to stand up and say “Here is my body, and I think it’s great” is an incredibly brave thing to do. And I absolutely applaud every single one of these 100 women for their courage.

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Lots of boob love on The Canvas’s body positive wall!

Okay, to the event itself! The launch took place in the Canvas, an adorable-yet-edgy cafe and exhibition space a stone’s throw from Brick Lane. The white walls are peppered with questions, ranging from “What’s the best thing that happened to you today?” to “Where do you want to be in ten years?”. People have scrawled and sketched their answers beneath in pencil and thick black marker. It’s gorgeous. I spent most of the evening wandering around, reading the little snippets of their lives people had left behind.

Having never been to a book launch before, I was completely nervous about going on my own. I had reruns of old school discos playing in my head, although it being a book about body positivity, I hoped at least to avoid the question of why I was wearing a bra when I had nae tits to put in it. Fortunately, as soon as I arrived, I was adopted for the evening by Becky, founder of Who Made Your Pants, and her friend Clare.

bare reality book launchThey were both hilarious and gorgeous and world endingly fantastic, so I hope we bump into each other again. We went through a few glasses of Prosecco, more than a few chocolate truffles and chatted about everything from teenage feminists to religious mythology. No, really. They were great.

Laura was waiting at the door to greet us, and I shuffled a bit shyly when she asked my name, convinced that she would have no idea who I was. When I introduced myself and explained that I had been invited after the whole Protein World thing, my fears were immediately put to rest.

“FUCKING YES,” she shouted, giving me a high five, and then a kiss for good measure. She then proceeded to introduce me to everyone she spoke to. Basically she is warm, radiant and excellent in every way.

The event was a huge feminist love in, and I felt so absolutely honoured to be in a room with some of these men and women. I met Lucy-Anne Holmes, who founded the No More Page Three campaign. I met Caroline Criado Perez, who I chatted to for five solid minutes before suddenly realising who she was. Instead of playing it cool and acting like I’d known the whole time, I fully went “Oh my god! Caroline! You’re Caroline! Like, Caroline Caroline!”. Facepalm. I am the worst at being a sophisticate.

DSCF1252 DSCF1246Somewhat crazily, I spoke to at least three people who, when I introduced myself, responded with “Oh my god! That’s where I recognise you from!”

People recognised me you guys. I don’t even know how to deal with that. Again, I was super uncool about it. I’m basically a 23 year old feminist fangirl.

I left the event feeling ready to kick the patriarchy right in the face, despite the fact that my sexy-sophisticated Kate Middleton shoes had given me a bit of a limp by this stage. I felt so buoyed by the passion and confidence and sheer power of the women in that room. These women remind me what I’m fighting for, what I’m aspiring to, what I’m strong enough to withstand.

Stuff I’d Start Movements About

IMG_6081Since I decided to take a stand against Protein World, I’ve had a whole lotta insults hurled at me.

(You can see some of them here)

A lot of people have termed me a Social Justice Warrior, as if fighting for social justice is the worst thing ever. But more commonly, people have accused me of picking an unimportant cause to champion.

First, I’d like to say, anyone who thinks this is a small cause has obviously never watched their gorgeous, perfect best friend starve herself almost to death because she can’t shake the idea that her body is fundamentally flawed. Women’s perception of their bodies is not a small issue. This idea that our bodies are public property, to be commented on and criticised and improved is killing people. We are not overreacting. This is not just an advert. This is a deep running, cancerous societal problem that is ruining lives every single day. I am too light to legally give blood, and yet the Telegraph thought it was appropriate to run an article today calling me “chubby”. These standards that women are being held to have to be smashed and they have to be smashed hard.

But the other string of this argument is that in standing up for women’s right to be proud of their bodies, I’ve somehow chosen my issue. As if this is the only thing I’ve ever cared about or gotten angry with. So to clear up any confusion, here are a list of things that make me so cross I would start a protest movement against them:

  • Women being held responsible for men objectifying them. Whether this is in girls being sent home from school for dressing “provocatively” or in asking how much a rape victim had to drink that night, this sucks and has to be challenged every single time.
  • Sex education that focuses on mechanics and moralising, rather than emotions and consent.
  • The lack of access to sexual health services for women across the world. From women in developing countries using filthy rags to stem their periods, to women seeking abortions being shamed and abused, this is not okay.
  • Kitten heels.
  • Female genital mutilation.
  • Raisins that look like chocolate chips.
  • The belief that there are less women in senior positions because women are just not that good at stuff. This argument is rarely said so bluntly, but this is what it boils down to.
  • That I don’t know a single woman over the age of 20 who hasn’t experienced some kind of sexual violence.
  • People who swing their legs round on buses to let you out, instead of standing up like a normal person.
  • The decimation of mental health services in the UK.
  • The fact that half of all births in the developing world are to adolescent girls, who are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women over 20.
  • The lack of fathers’ rights.
  • Cersei Lannister.
  • Grown men on skateboards. Or anyone over the age of 12 on a microscooter.
  • The fact that women are still seen as walking incubators, and the lives of foetuses are placed above the lives of mothers.
  • Gender binaries.
  • People being blamed for their own poverty, while millionaires reap the rewards of a deeply skewed society.
  • The ostracisation and mockery of people who are perceived as different, whether that be on the basis of race, sexuality, non-binary gender, disability, age, appearance.
  • The idea that you can only be a feminist if you are wearing exactly the right amount of clothing.
  • Police brutality against the black community in America.

And a million more. See, people are wonderfully complicated and filled with infinite potential and possibility. Injustice makes me angry, and I like to channel my anger into actions. This week, I took action against the restrictive ideals placed on women’s bodies. It might take me my whole life, but I’ll work my way through that list up there, and I’ll take the flack for it every single time. And if that makes me a social justice warrior, then I’ll be over here, sharpening my sword. Maybe next time, instead of slamming me for standing up for something I believe in, you could get off Twitter and join the fight.

Oh, and next weekend, I’ll be hitting a different park, smearing myself in body paint again and yelling about something else that makes me angry. Except this time, it’s cancer’s turn to get a kick in the ass.