Sexy Summer Book Club

I am pretty undisciplined when it comes to reading. I usually have seven or more books on the go at any one time, read on the loo, on the bus, while stirring porridge, often just a page or two at a time, before I put the book down and move on to something else. I do plenty of reading but seem to take ages to finish individual books.  It is not unusual for a book for a book to lie untouched for several weeks and, when I pick it up to resume reading, I find I have lost the thread.

For this reason, I am great joiner of book clubs. I regularly attend the Birmingham Feminists Book Club and have read some wonderful books by the likes of Sarah Waters, Maya Angelou and Angela Carter. Book clubs make you read to a deadline and think about what you are reading so that you can contribute to the discussion.  In short, it gives you discipline.

Strange as it may seem, I don’t read nearly as much smut as I ought to.  So I thought that the Sexy Summer Book Club might be an opportunity. We began with the sexual reminiscences and reflections of Girl on the Net. Now I have known GoTN for a few years, having originally met her at Eroticon. I got to chat to her quite a bit as we were often to be found outside the building with the smoking crew. And bonding over a cigarette is a great way to bond, at least with people you are probably never going to go to bed with.

But I had never read very much of her writing. Partly this is because I don’t read a lot of blogs and things online. After a day in the office mired in Excel spreadsheets I just don’t like spending much time reading from screens in the evening. Book Club seemed like a good opportunity to make good the omission.

And I totally loved How a Bad Girl Falls in Love. The GoTN who came off the page was  the same GoTN I love smoking and drinking with. Witty and clever, with a sharp eye for the detail or observation that saves five hundred words, forthright in her opinions, a big personality.

Yet there is more here than opinion, humorous asides and fab sex (although there is plenty of all those). She also writes about her struggles with anxiety and low self-esteem and this, too, is something I can relate to.  I sometimes think it goes with the territory for those of us who became aware, possibly at a young age, that we were different in terms of our sexuality.  The journey away from shame and self-loathing towards an acceptance of who you are and the confidence to simply be yourself is a long one. And even when you find soul mates, in the kink scene or the sex blogging community, for example, the black clouds never quite leave you. Maybe life would be untroubled if all my sex was vanilla, if I didn’t know what a spreader bar was or a dildo?

But ultimately we are who we are. And in my darkest moments  I know that they are people lime GoTN  who will get me, will not judge, will give me love. Which I will reciprocate. Because that is one of the great things to come out of the book for me, the realisation that GoTN is not just a companion in nicotine and cider, but, in all her complexity, a soul mate.

I also understand where she is coming from sexually and why she likes the particular pieces of writing of mine that she does. And some of the writing in this book is hot. I read the book in the gym and had to interrupt my workout on one occasion to go to the Ladies and play with myself. And that, dear reader is the acid test, isn’t it?

Identity

This post arises from the happy coincidence of two books I have been reading recently, books which, at first sight, don’t seem to have much in common. The first is Maya Angelou’s “See How The Caged Bird Sings.” We discussed it this morning at the monthly Birmingham Feminist Book Club. Part of a wide-ranging discussion revolved around literature as a means of self understanding, this arising from Angelou’s won discussion in her book of what reading the classics of English literature, and especially, Shakespeare, meant to her, and how she was able, by engaging with the texts, to make sense of her own experience.

This was a concept that was made real for me a couple of years ago when I was a volunteer buddy for a Community Interest Company that worked with adults experiencing mental health difficulties, in particular by encouraging them to read literature and sharing their experiences. To get a flavour of what they did I was invited to attend one of the meetings. We were reading Rose Tremain’s novel The Road Home. The group consisted of people of varying ages, many of whom lived in considerable isolation, an isolation made worse by anxiety and phobias. Some of them only left the house for the weekly meeting in a local library. Most of them had little experience of serious reading. From the discussion, however, it became clear that the book was opening doors for them and all of them were able to use the text to make sense of their own lives, at the same times bringing their won experiences to bear in interpreting the text. As they talked they gave me new insights into the book. This experience was both illuminating and humbling.

These experiences and thoughts are particularly relevant to the other book I have been reading. This is an anthology called Identity, whose contributors all attended the recent Eroticon conference. I have to declare an interest. I was one of the contributors. But that is now why I am writing about it. The content is pretty eclectic, some of it personal reminiscence, and painful reminiscence at that, some of it fantasy, some of it opinion, some of it seriously hot, you know, the stuff you read one handed.  And then there was Meg-John Barker’s piece on erotic fiction as means of self understanding which got me reflecting again on my own identity, or in this case my sexual identity and what it means to me. This short essay was in my head as I read the other pieces and enriched my reading experience.  This really is as a wonderful anthology and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Erotic fiction has changed my life. I really don’t know why, one day in 2012, I felt the urge tio write a story about a carer in a elderly person’s home who has a relationship with a gay man whose carer he is. Other stories followed. I went online, I set up a Twitter account, I read voraciously, I discovered Eroticon and became part of a community. And a new Eve emerged, an Eve who is kinky, bisexual, who is proud to know sex workers she can call friends, an Eve committed to the freeest possible expression of human sexuality (subject to consent). In short an Eve I could not have imagined even existed only 6 years ago. It is through erotic literature that I have discovered what was previously latent, and been able to articulate it.

The main protagonist of my first story was Eric, an Oxford graduate who had been jailed for “gross indecency” in the dark days before 1967 and who experienced late sexual joy with a younger man. I killed him off at the end as the younger man had to move on and make his own way as a gay man in a different age, but acutely aware of the debt gay men, indeed all of us who are in some way not heteronormative, owe to those who suffered for daring to be different. I made sure, however, that Eric died happy, at peace with himself. I knew then that I owed him that. I know now that I owe him much more.

A Few Wishes for 2014

2013 was a strange year for me. It was a year in which I met online a whole range of new people and was exposed to a number of debates of which I had only been dimly aware. The whole experience was educational, stimulating, absorbing, at times fun, at times deeply depressing. It might have been even more depressing but for the fact that  haven’t spent a lot of time on Twitter recently and missed out some spectacular fights. What I wish for 2014 is:

For me personally to continue to learn about my sexuality and enjoy my sexual self. I have recently begun to explore this in new ways and may blog about it in due course.

To meet some of the people who have inspired me. I know that at least four of them will be at Eroticon in March so that may be sooner rather than later 🙂

To learn how to make Polish poppy seed cake properly.

For everyone else:

I wish everyone the right to enjoy their sexuality as they please without condemnation from others, subject only to the fundamental condition of consent.

I wish it to be recognised by all women that being sexually submissive does not make a woman a doormat of the patriarchy

That anybody freely choosing to earn money by providing sexual services is allowed to do so, without condemnation, criticism and without others claiming to speak on their behalf.  I wish too that the Europe’s politicians see the propaganda for the ‘Swedish Model’ for the fraud it is.

That trans people are respected and accepted for who they want to be.

That issues can be debated and discussed without the rapid descent into personal abuse that has marked much feminist debate in 2013.

That our Bulgarian and Rumanian friends find a warm welcome and that anyone thinking of voting UKIP sees the benefits of having such hard working and enterprising people in the country and take their vote elsewhere.

That we have an end to moral panics about pornography.

I would have added England winning the World Cup but that’s a bit too much to ask for isn’t it? So I’ll settle for wishing that England’s cricketers avoid the Ashes whitewash that has looked inevitable. Which reminds me – late to bed again tonight!

A Few Thoughts from Poland

This post begins and ends with a holiday. Recent news from the Irish Republic about the abortion debate reminded me of my first ever visit to Ireland, a cycling trip with a friend from Dublin to Dun Chaoin at the end of the Dingle Peninsula with its magical view out over the Great Blasket to the vast Atlantic stretching away behind it. This was in 1983 when the big news topic was the upcoming referendum to amend the constitution to include a clause protecting the unborn, effectively putting abortion, or rather the ban on abortion, beyond the legislative reach of the Dail. It became quickly apparent just how much power the Roman Catholic hierarchy exercised 60 years after partition. We didn’t , of course, know that, just a few streets away from where we were staying, ‘fallen’ women were still slaving away in laundries for the good of their immortal souls.

This was before the child abuse scandals which, conventional wisdom has it, have broken the Church as a political force. Recent reports from Ireland, concerning both abortion and possible legislation to criminalise sex work, suggest that the demise of the Church has been much exaggerated.

Further east the position in one of Europe’s arch Catholic countries was a little different then. Communism was crumbling in Poland to the extent that only a military coup had been able to shore up the system and 1983 was a from year of shortages, power cuts and so on. Nonetheless it had brought some benefits to women. Abortion and contraception were both freely available. Not that i wanted to exaggerate the benefits. Most women worked and received little help at home with cooking and child rearing. They also bore the brunt of the soul destroying waits in queues before empty shops. Nonetheless they were spared the worst effects of ecclesiastical misogyny.

This all changed in 1989. It is important to say that Poland has become a relatively stable democracy in the last twenty four years. The clergy have had to learn the hard way that Poles will not put up with instructions from the pulpit on election day. Indeed between 1995 and 2005 neither the President nor Prime Minister were Catholics. This was a disappointment to the likes of the Primate Cardinal Glemp who genuinely wanted Poland to become a confessional state but he soon discovered that he could bully governments of any colour and the list of demands was soon handed in, a Concordat was demanded and granted, Church lands confiscated by the Communists were restored, resulting in an unseemly land grab, while a systematic attack on the rights of women was orchestrated.

A ban on abortion was introduced in 1993. This has resulted in two important cases being brought to the ECHR. The first was that of Alicja Tysiac who wanted an abortion for health reasons, specifically that she had impaired vision and her pregnancy carried a threat of her losing her eyesight altogether. Polish law would actually have allowed her to have one but she could not find a doctor willing to perform one. The other case involved a 14 year old girl, pregnant following a rape, who was similarly denied an abortion. Polish law does have limited exemptions to the ban as I mentioned above but in practice the right to a termination can be difficult to enforce. Even these limited exemptions are under threat. r even though was denied an abortion. There are some on the right pressing for an Irish style amendment to the constitution but, thankfully, nothing has come of this yet.
What the Church wants, it generally gets. There will be no in vitro fertilisation anytime soon, and no gay marriage. I have discussed Poland’s antediluvian attitudes to LGBT people here. Having said that Poland does not have its first openly gay MP and the world’s only transgender MP, Anna Grodzka. They are both members of the Palikot’s Movement party, named after its founder, a milionaire businessman called Janusz Palikot. this party standing on an openly anti-clerical platform achieved 10% of the vote in the last elections and as much as 25% amongst first time voters suggesting that things are changing.  Palikot is saying things that need to be said but has a history of opportunism and if advances in women’s rights and LGBT rights are in his hands we need to worry.

The Church is keen to promote the idea of the ‘Matka Polka’ the devoted mother who stays at home to care for her children, to cook and clean for her husband and so on. In reality most women in Poland work. Low wages mean that families with children cannot survive on one income. At work they enjoy little job security. What does the allegedly pro-life Church have to say about employers who sack women for becoming pregnant? You’ve guessed it – nothing. At home, as in Communist days, the work falls mainly on their shoulders.

Domestic violence has never been taken seriously by many in Poland. It doesn’t happen, many people think, because every Polish man is a gentleman who opens doors, gives up his seat on the bus and would never dream of raising his hand against a woman. Some twenty years ago a left of centre government funded a helpline for victims of domestic violence, with a hard hitting poster campaign to publicise it. The scale of the problem quickly became apparent, painfully so for many Poles, so much so, in fact that a minister in the subsequent right of centre government withdrew funding on the grounds that it was encouraging Catholic mothers to desert their families and, therefore, wrong. He had nothing to say about the abuse that drove women to do this.

So we arrive in 2013 and my latest holiday. I had the chance to discuss these issues with some women but sadly the general awareness of them is low. One woman I spoke to suggested that Alicja Tysiac was a ‘whore’ for wanting a termination to save her sight. Feminism is seen as the hobby of a handful of educated metropolitan women and of no relevance to others in their daily struggle to make ends meet. Some Polish women have had successful careers in business and politics. They are the exception. The power of the Church has been a major factor (but not the only one) in making Polish women second class citizens in their own country. If the position of Polish women in 1983 was in some respects better than that of Irish women it certainly isn’t now.

Thank You Rhoda Grant

So Rhoda Grant’s  misbegotten Bill to criminalise the clients of sex workers has died the death it deserved. No more do we need to get angry about her consultation with its loaded questions or her wilful misrepresentation of the responses to that consultation. It’s all history. She failed as she deserved to.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that her Bill was in trouble and that she knew it. What else would explain her sharing a debate platform with a frankly batty Evangelical Christian who apparently believes in curing gays, who thinks that consensual sexual activity should be criminalised just because he thinks it’s immoral.  She said she would share a platform with anyone but it smacked of desperation and probably alienated people whose support she needed. Her pronouncements since Friday reveal her to be a stubborn and charmless person. She has listened to no-one who did not agree with her to start with and learned nothing. If reality doesn’t accord with Rhoda’s views it is, of course, reality that is at fault.

Nonetheless it is a wonderful thing that the powerful arguments against the Bill have prevailed against the evidence free articles of faith of Rhoda and her supporters, that those who demonstrated rather than  simply asserting have won the argument. The battle now moves to Ireland, North and South.

It was a year ago that I stumbled across this issue. I read anything I could find on the debate, for and against. In doing so I came across a number of people, opponents of the Bill, who have been an inspiration and helped me to develop my own thinking not just on sex work but on the broader issues to which it is linked, issues of feminism and sexuality. Most of these people, but not all, are women. A number of them are sex workers, current or retired. All of them are clever, committed and unafraid to say what needed to be said, sometimes in the face of personal attacks.  .

I will not mention names here. I know that some of them will be reading this. You will know who I mean. I want to say thank you and that I look forward to reading your Tweets and blog posts in the future and to engaging with you. Most of all I want to thank Rhoda Grant. Without her Bill I would never have met you.

Asserted Not Demonstrated

Once upon a time there was a university lecturer who scribbled AND in the margins of his students’ essays. This stood for ‘Asserted not Demonstrated’ and was a sign of the importance he attached to structure argument supported by facts, in other words to intellectual rigour.

Last week Rhoda Grant MSP published the results of the consultation on her proposal to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland. Her headline was that 80% of respondents were in favour of the proposal. The individual responses can be seen by visiting http://www.rhodagrant.org.uk . That is to say most of them can as a number of omissions have been identified. It has been claimed that these omissions are mainly submission opposing criminalisation.   Notwithstanding this I had a look through and ;picked out what seemed a representative sample. My thoughts are that quantity and quality are not the same thing and that a certain long retired academic would be writing AND until his arm ached.

Leaving out the responses that just said ‘I agree’ and nothing more, most of the responses in favour did not engage seriously with the issues but simply asserted the assumptions on which Rhoda Grant’s case is based. There are three main assumptions:

Where prostitution exists there can be no gender equality.

The majority of prostitutes are coerced into undertaking sex work.

Sexual intercourse with a prostitute constitutes sexual assault. .

The first point does not make clear whether prostitution is a cause or a result of gender inequality. This is important since, if it is the latter, criminalising the purchase of sex can do nothing to promote equality. If the former it is surely only one cause of many and by no means the most significant,  particularly given the relatively small percentage of the population that either provides or uses paid sexual services. Are there no more important battles to fight?

The second point is not supported by available evidence. Rhoda is not, however, interested in this as she has, as she said in her TV debate with Laura Lee, extended the definition of coercion to include all women who engage in sex work through economic necessity. The problem with this, of course, is that, on this logic, most workers in most jobs are coerced, including those, probably women, who clean her office at Holyrood. .She has rendered the word ‘coercion’ meaningless and, in doing so, done a great disservice to those who are genuinely coerced into sex work by blurring the definition of consent. There is no logic in arguing that a woman’s consent to sex is automatically invalidated because she receives an envelope full of cash before getting into bed.  Sadly, logic is not Rhoda’s strong suit.

The third point follows from the second. We do not, therefore, need to say too much about it except to ;point to more muddled thinking. If you accept the second point you must logically accept that paid for sexual intercourse is not just analogous to rape, you have to accept that it is rape. Rhoda is not prepared to follow her own logic, since she seeks views on appropriate penalties. If you think it’s rape then why seek views? The punishment for rape is set down in statute already.  Perhaps she is looking to follow the model of Sweden with its on the spot fines. But, as we have seen recently, Sweden is not a country where rape is  taken seriously.

Pretty much all of the submissions in favour simply parroted the flawed assumptions and muddled thinking I have talked about here. I formed the impression that many respondents dislike sex work for moral reasons and, knowing nothing about it, have grabbed the ready made arguments provided for them. I am not clear why particular weight should be attached to what they say..

The submissions opposing  criminalisation were generally longer and contained detailed argument. Many were clearly written by people with detailed first hand knowledge of the sex industry. The main arguments I saw were:

Academic research dies not support the claims made for the so-called Swedish model.

The United Nations is opposed to criminalisation mainly for reasons of public health.

It was argued brilliantly from a feminist perspective that, after decades of struggle to get the state out of our bedrooms, no feminist should support proposals that will result in the state again policing the sexual behaviour of women.

Last but not least there was the personal testimony of sex workers saying that it was their choice to work, that they enjoyed their jobs, that clients treated them with courtesy and respect, even that it was not unknown for regular clients to become friends.

These submissions are, it seems to me, worth far more than the unproven assertions of supporters of Rhoda Grant. They may only account for 20% of responses but surely contain 80% or more of the truth. Yet they are being ignored. Why?

None of the submissions I read addressed a point that I think is fundamental. My partners’s (missing) submission did pick this up. It is that both sex and payment elude easy definition and will result in bad law, law which may lead to function creep and rank injustice. What is the position, for example, of the professional dominatrix? Or the professional submissive?

Those opposed to sex work should also realise that they too can, indeed should,  oppose Rhoda Grant’s ill thought out proposals, because they will not achieve their stated aims. If you want to see and end to sex work you have to address the question of how sex workers can earn their living. Many sex workers are mothers, often single mothers, and the  victims of Rhoda Grant will ultimately be their children, unable to go on holiday, unable to go on the school trip, waiting in vain for a Christmas present. This question was put to her last week. She had no answer.

As so often when policy is based on unproven assertions, on abstract ideas untested in the real world, real people suffer. All too often these people are women. That a woman is behind this, appealing to feminist ideas as she does, is depressing. And I don’t need to demonstrate that do I?

In Mary’s Month

In the Catholic tradition May is Mary’s month, a month of devotions to the Blessed Virgin. Events I read about this week reminded me about a short story by the Polish writer Marek Hłasko.  Hłasko (1934-1969) was the enfant terrible of post-war Polish literature, not so much attacking sacred cows but rolling them in the dirt and making his relish clear.  He revelled in the seamy side of life and spared his readers nothing. In 1957 he was forced to leave Poland and spent the rest of his short life in Israel and West Germany where he died of an overdose of sleeping pills aged just 35.

The story ‘Mary’s Month’ is set in wartime Warsaw, during the brutal Nazi occupation.  Two men walk into the courtyard of a tenement block where  many of the residents are kneeling in prayer before a statue of Mary, reciting the May Devotions. They walk up the stairs and knock on the door of a flat. An elderly woman answers the door and is ordered out. The men have come to see her daughter, specifically to punish her for allegedly sleeping with German soldiers. One of the men holds her down on the bed while the other forces a vodka bottle into her vagina before using the butt of his pistol to smash it. They leave quickly ignoring their bleeding and traumatised victim.

The story is short and nasty. On one hand it can be argued that  Hłasko is attacking both what he sees as the irrelevance of Catholic piety in a brutal world and also the idea that the Polish Resistance was always heroic and noble. On the other hand this story can be seen as nothing more than a pornographic fantasy. I have always found it deeply uncomfortable reading.

Fantasies like this are not confined to Poland. This week I read about a case in a Northern European country where a young woman was assaulted at a party by having a bottle forced into her. What was truly shocking were the comments of the judge who, if he was reported accurately, said that she had contributed to her injuries by being modest, that is by resisting the violation.

What country was this you may ask? The surprising answer is Sweden, a country that a number of well known feminist commentators seem to regard as some kind of paradise for women, a model for our country to follow.

I am not saying this to attack Sweden. I have visited that country on several occasions and found much to like there. My point is that Sweden itself has a long way to go to achieve equality and should not be seen uncritically as a model for us to follow. We have our own struggles, our own problems, and need to find our own answers. And British feminists going to Sweden need to take their critical faculties with them.