Sep 21 2009

Looking at boobs. Saving the world.

Boo-hoo. My Mac is not well and I have to wait till Wednesday to see a Genius to cure the little mite. In the meantime, read this fabulous blog by Dr Isis on misogynistic breast cancer campaigning.

This reminded me of PETA campaigning which has been frequently branded sexist. Feel the anger from Feministing (Vote for the worst PETA ad), Jezebel (PETA explicit ad “banned” but actually not), Opposing Views (Save the Whale ad), Julie Bindel. A colleague of mine used to work for PETA and said that their strategy was to be as shocking as possible regardless of the fall-out – all publicity being good publicity. Defence from the President of PETA, Ingrd Newkirk here and audio here.

Hilarious The Onion take on this:

Advocacy Group Decries PETA’s Inhumane Treatment Of Women


Sep 17 2009

Science reporting: is it good for you?

The Royal Institution in London was packed to the rafters last night (I know because I was in the rafters) with bloggers, academics, journalists, bloggers, science communicators and bloggers for the Drayson/Goldacre face-off (watch the full debate here or read New Scientist’s report).

Less rumble in the jungle, more grumble in the letters page of a peer-reviewed journal (come on, it half rhymes if you say it quickly).

The debate didn’t really set the world alight and neither of them strayed away from their (after numerous radio interviews) well-trod arguments. My issue, as ever, is the trouble with gender and on this Lord Drayson used a pretty annoying headline to illustrate his point on the benefits of sensationalism. The front page story from The Sun on HPV and cervical cancer has a killer headline…

[thanks Kate Arkless Gray @radiokate]

What I found interesting is the sub-heading ‘ALERT TO ALL WOMEN’. To all those who read the Daily Mail, you will know that the Government has been rolling out a comprehensive HPV vaccine to girls and young women. The Daily Mail is running a series of scare stories about this continuing a rich tradition in anti-vaccination journalism.

(As an aside: If any of the researchers I know from my old alma mater who did some work on Cervarix and Gardasil are reading this, please do comment/link to your research).

One thing that this policy decision does is put the responsibility for sexual health again squarely with females. And before, you roll your eyes and exclaim ‘boys can’t get cervical cancer’, they can and do pass on HPV and they do get genital warts. I acknowledge that there is a cost-effectiveness argument but this call did get passed at the last BMA ARM – not the most rabidly feminist organisation I’ve ever come across.

My point is not to get into the ins and outs of the HPV vaccine, but more to take issue with Drayson’s, and to some extent Goldacre’s, view that sometimes ‘sensationalism isn’t such a bad thing’, that it can publicise an issue that should get a high profile. Drayson used the Sun headline above to illustrate the benefits of sensationalism. My concern is that there are negative fall-outs from such an approach to medical or scientific PR; namely, that sensationalist stories can reinforce and feed society’s prejudices, stereotypes and negative attitudes.

This is infuriating for those who campaign to challenge social attitudes whether on gender, race, immigration status, sexuality etc. It is hard enough to combat the Melanie Phillips’ and Richard Littlejohn’s of this world, without having scientists ‘proving’ that immigrants are coming over here stealing our women, eating our swans AND giving us HIV and TB.

I’m not advocating censorship, I’m pleading for responsible reporting. Sensationalism can and does regularly undermine scientific reporting of delicate and nuanced findings. This can both lead to health scares and dangerous health practices but can also feed negative stereotypes about social groups being diseased, stupid, promiscuous or all of the above.

However much we might point to outstanding examples of science journalism in certain papers, all newspapers are writing for their specific audience, influence their audience and have a political bias.

Plus there is a huge amount of research into the way people read newspapers and news online. Using eye-tracking and socio-semiotic research, we know that people tend to read the headline and first couple of paragraphs if you’re lucky (this is a fascinating article on some eye-tracking research). Which means that if you leave the caveats, the nuances or other statistical ‘health warnings’ to the end of the article – they’ll rarely be read.

Science reporting doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes place in a society with historical legacies, prejudices, tensions and pretty low levels of scientific understanding and critical thinking. Journalists and scientists need to take responsibility for the presentation of findings (assuming it’s good research in the first place) that can fuel discriminatory or unhelpful attitudes.

I only picked on one small aspect of the talk, coz I knew the blogosphere would do the rest. Here’s some more on the talk and arguments:
From Ben Goldacre himself
Basheera Khan at The Telegraph
New Scientist
Skeptobot
Nathan Chantrell
Skeptic Barista
And many many more.


Sep 15 2009

More Periods.


Further to an earlier period post (which interestingly has been the most commented on post both here and from friends in person) I’ve only just stumbled upon the fantastic blog by the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.

I particularly liked the post on the hidden nature of menstrual blood in film and TV as opposed to the graphic depiction of blood via fighting, shooting and crashing.

Oh, and having just moved into a new flat, THIS is the shelving unit I’ve been looking for!

Periods and science: a veritable wellspring of menstrual blood!


Sep 9 2009

My outfit does not consent on my behalf

“]

[a metal cilice, kind of thing worn by Opus Dei faithful for 'corporal mortification'

Inspired by a blog sent to me about EA Games ‘Booth Babes’ at ComicCon, I thought I’d write a blog about spanking. You know, as you do. Issues of Bondage, Discipline/Dominance, Sado-Masochism (BDSM), pornography and objectification are so huge I’m not going to pretend that I’ve done them justice here, but these are my initial thoughts so lets get, erm, cracking….

I’ve written before about misogyny in the gaming industry (here and here frinstance), which is ridiculous when 40% of (US) gamers are female. There was also a lot written recently about EA Games employing ‘Booth Babes’ and then asking for them to be sexually harassed by ComicCon delegates. But the most interesting blog (not worksafe) I have read on this was from a submissive model on the UK spanking scene.

This was interesting because it challenged me and my preconceptions about women engaged in BDSM. It wasn’t what she said on the EA Games issue, all of which I agree with: this objectifies women, ‘Booth Babe’ is a demeaning term, it encourages sexual harassment not just of the ‘Booth Babes’ but all women attending ComicCon etc.

There are two things that I find challenging about this: empowered feminists being sexually submissive and BDSM models criticising the objectification of women.

Now I’ve read a couple of blogs by sexually submissive feminists (such as the very good Girl With a One Track Mind) and it’s something I’m really trying to get my head around. It seems counter-intuitive to me because my instinct is to encourage women to be powerful and assertive against a historical backdrop of oppression. But this blogger dresses up in school uniforms and other costumes, and is spanked, dominated, tied-up and sexually submissive.

Plus she is a model on the BDSM scene and so is photographed in these situations and yet identifies the fact that encouraging men to get dodgy pictures with some ‘booth babes’ crosses a line into objectification.

I realise that finding these two things ‘challenging’ is an emotional response rather than an intellectual or philosophical one. So here’s why my emotional response is wrong….

What is definitely unfeminist, is a feminist telling another woman how to have sex and what she can and can’t get her kicks out of. I want my feminism to include, for example, those women who have a gendered analysis of the world, they campaign for women’s rights, they challenge people’s everyday sexism and yet they’re also down with consensual arse-slapping.

The counter argument is: these women are perpetuating rape myths, they’re playing out their own internalised misogyny and they are making it harder for other women who are fighting against patriarchy. I simply do not think that this is true.

Firstly, I have found that those involved in the BDSM scene or burlesque tend to have far greater social rules and sexual etiquette than in society at large. Because of the nature of the activities, trust, self-awareness and boundaries are far more strictly defined. These are people with a greater awareness of their own sexuality and the concept of empowerment through sexuality than your average non-handcuff owner.

Secondly, if you believe in the empowerment of women you have to accept that they should be empowered to do things you personally wouldn’t want to do. This sometimes manifests itself as ‘feminism going too far’ or ‘women just acting like men’. Well yes, because if you want to give women choices you can’t then try and make those choices for them.

If a woman chooses to engage in a bit of ol’ spanking then that is her choice. To say that I have a greater analysis of her motivations and am more aware of her sexuality than she is herself is deeply patronising, condescending and simply wrong. And it is particularly wrong when the women in question clearly demonstrate their political awareness, identify themselves as feminists and critically engage with debates around consent, sexual freedom and privacy.

This doesn’t mean that non-spankers can’t engage in debate about the issues, but it does mean you have to do so from an informed position and with a sophisticated understanding of human sexuality which goes beyond ‘sexual practice A is wrong, sexual practice B is alright – says me’.

Finally, I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea that individual women are responsible to women at large for their personal sexual proclivities. Women regularly bear the burden of their gender; if they succeed they are personally responsible for breaking down social barriers. If they fail, it in some way implicates all women in that failure.

The second ‘thing I found challenging’ was a BDSM model criticising the objectification of women in the EA Games example. The simple question being “isn’t that what you’re doing?”. Again this needs a little more sophistication on my part.

Two (linked) issues involved in the ‘pornography: right or wrong’ debate are female sexuality within the broad context of patriarchy and whether all porn is therefore objectification.

As a society we tend to make a direct link between female sexuality, what women wear, how they behave and how the rest of society should therefore react to them. This is the basis of the ‘she was asking for it’ rationale for rape, as though an outfit can consent to sex on behalf of its wearer. Just try and think what a man would have to wear in order to be asking for rape or sexual assault.

Putting aesthetics and scaring little children aside, a woman should be able to walk down the street naked without the risk of being raped. Clothes, lack of clothes or the wearing of sexualised clothing (for want of a better phrase) does not over-ride your ability to consent to sex. Your clothes do not remove the ability of another human being to stop themselves committing an assault.

Plus, I don’t think there is something intrinsically wrong with looking at sexual images of people. Yes there is a historical legacy of oppression of women, of women exploited by a male-dominated porn industry. That is context, not intrinsic so we try and change the context. This comes down to what sexual objectification means and its impact. Do all sexualised images, female or male, necessarily separate the physical appearance from their existence as an individual?

I think not. And while I understand the corrosive effect that pumping out degrading images of people can have (whether women or indeed, starving Africans) that is not true of all representations or all ‘consumers’. There is no getting away from the class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, age etc etc aspects of this. But they simply make this more complicated rather than less as many marginalised groups, identities and sexualities find great empowerment in representations of their sexual liberation.

All pornography and/or erotica is exploitative, sexist, racist, homophobic, size-ist? I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

In sum, if there is any walk of life where I want there to be feminists it’s in the BDSM scene.

So, ahem, more power to your elbow.

I am genuinely interested in debating this issue and am open to different points of view on it. Just don’t be pervy – I’ll just not publish your post and regard you a sad wanker.


Sep 6 2009

Damien Hirst is a cock

I think we get the artists we deserve, which is why our money-grabbing, commercialised, shallow, turn of the millennia, Western society has produced Damien Hirst.

Last century, and for century’s before, most artists died in poverty usually syphilitic, earless, reputationless – apart from a reputation for opium and shagging prostitutes – they were on the fringes of society. OK not the court artists, but you get what I mean.

Now they are multi-millionaires, who employ people to produce their art in three factory workshops for them and swagger around threatening to sue 17 year old artists who make collages of their work and then getting them arrested.

Art has always involved copying and appropriating. It’s how the Greats learnt their craft. Mentors would encourage their protege to learn from them.

But not today. Today we live in a world where art is brand and brand is money and all that matters is how much Saatchi will pay for your pile of shite (which is my idea fuckers – any of you try and sell your own pile of shite I’ll sue!). In 2009, we get a multi-millionaire shitty brand artist like Hirst with a righteous desire to stamp on a 17 year old street artist.

So what happened? Street artist Cartrain made some collages using an image of Hirst’s disgustingly expensive diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God. These collages were put up for sale on an art website. Hirst reported him to the Design and Artists Copyright Society and sent a bundle of legal letters to Cartrain’s art dealer, Tom Cuthbert, at 100artworks.com.

After the legal threats, 100artworks.com surrendered the offending pictures to Hirst with a verbal apology. Cartrain, the artist in question took this all very well, and in the spirit of the Dadaists went to Tate Britain and stole a box of pencils part of Hirst’s £50m Pharmacy installation. Cartrain was arrested, released on bail, and is waiting to find out if he will be formally charged with causing damage to the artwork. His father was also arrested in connection with the theft from Tate Britain, on suspicion of harbouring stolen pencils probably.

It doesn’t feel a lot different from McDonald’s stopping local family-run businesses using the name ‘McDonald’s’. In fact there are a lot of similarities, as the McLibel Two will tell you.

So Twitter has been buzzing with #hirstisacock and some have been debating whether Hirst is a shit artist or Cartrain is a shit artist. Both may be true but neither are important. What is important is a rich, establishment, art figure trying to stamp on a child artist because he can. This is why Hirst is a cock. He is a bully, a hypocrite and a sickening anti-competition capitalist.

Cartrain and 100artworks.com have asked that bloggers and twitters bring attention to this story. Woop here it is.


Sep 5 2009

New "Scientist" at it again

[Jessica Drew was down with the spiders, that's radiation for you]

At the risk of copyright infringement, I would like to quote directly from the BBC story on girls being afraid of spiders. This is a report on an article in the New Scientist which has a worrying habit of reproducing this kind of shite.

A new study in the US suggests that women have a genetic aversion to dangerous animals, such as spiders.

Let’s focus on the words ‘genetic aversion’, what kind of evidence do you think you would need to establish a ‘genetic aversion’? I would, for example, expect a geneticist to perhaps be involved in the research or maybe for it to be a twin-based study. But…

The research, published in the New Scientist, says women are born with character traits that were ingrained in our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

FACT. This research PROVES that women (i.e. all) are born with character traits (presuming manifesting in behaviours) that were ingrained (genetically pre-programmed?) in our hunter-gatherer ancestors (a catch-all term but where our character traits were cemented and untouched by 10,000 years of agricultural and pastoral society). Again, for this assertion I would expect an archeologist, palentologist, ethnographer, paleoanthropologist, or someone with some understanding of prehistoric societies to be involved in this research.

Previous research suggested women were actually up to four times more likely to be afraid of creatures like spiders.

Previous research. Not this research. Not credited research. Just other research.

The new research was headed up by developmental psychologist, Dr David Rakison, from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, 10 baby girls, and 10 baby boys were subjected to a number of pictures of spiders to gauge their reactions.

OK, so let’s recap shall we: no geneticist, no archeologist, no paleontologist, no ethnographer, no paleoanthropologist. A study on 20 babies where they GAUGED their REACTIONS to PICTURES.

A sample of 20 individuals who cannot adequately communicate were show pictures of things that they may have never seen before and the claim is that this research shows that women have a genetic aversion to dangerous animals.

Methods

First the babies were shown a picture of a spider with a fearful human face, followed by images of a spider paired with a happy face – alongside an image of a flower twinned with a fearful face.

This is supposed to be science. They are showing babies pictures of spiders with happy and sad faces (learnt behaviour) and stating that this in any way contributes to evidence for genetic aversion.

Results

The results showed that the girls – some as young as 11 months old – looked longer at the picture of the happy face with a spider than the boys, who looked at both images for an equal time.

The researchers concluded that the young girls were confused as to why someone would be happy to be twinned with a spider, and were quick to associate pictures of arachnids with fear.

The boys, it seems, remained totally indifferent emotionally.

“The researchers concluded that the girls were confused”. Seriously, why do these people bother working in a university when they could just prop up a bar somewhere shouting “I reckon…” into the air? Oh yeah, its on the BBC website…

I particularly like the caveat “it seems” in the last sentence. Because of course they don’t know, they weren’t even measuring heartbeat never mind any other tests of emotion. They just reckon.

Discussion

Mr Rakison attributes this genetic predisposition to behavioural traits inherent in our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Men, he purports, were the greater natural risk takers, the ones who took greater risks were more successful when going out to hunt for food.

With women, in their role as natural child protectors, it made sense for them to be more cautious of animals such as snakes or spiders, Mr Rakison adds.

By contrast, the research concludes that modern phobias such as the fear of hospitals – or that of flying – show no differences between the sexes.

Only at this stage in the article do words like ‘attributes’ or ‘purports’ come into play. It is interesting to compare what Dr Rakison is quoted as saying above and what he says when he is interviewed on the BBC’s The World Today. The interview is worth listening to for the vox pops they do with a few women at the beginning (none of whom are afraid of spiders) where one says she’s not frightened of spiders but is of men. Anyway, Mr Rakison says in his interview explicitly that this is a learnt response and that “its not that we’re born with the fear”.

Also the study is published in Evolution and Human Behaviour and is about fear learning.

So where does the ‘genetic’ and ‘hunter-gatherer’ bullshit come from? It’s made up. It had no basis. It’s just a cultural meme perpetuated by repetition. I’m not saying that humans do not have ‘instincts’ or that everything is environmental. I’m saying that the hunter-gatherer concept pisses me off. It invokes an image of big strong men hunting mammoths and home-bound women collecting berries which feeds cultural stereotypes about male and female characteristics which are false.

Apparently Dr Rakison thinks men are greater risk takers despite later stating that the is no gender difference in things like the fear of flying.

And on the point that this was a study of 20 babies, I came across this fascinating article in The Psychologist about psychology’s problematic relationship with empiricism.

Oh, and this was another one for #bullshitbingo and its sister game #BSbingo (bad science bingo).


Sep 4 2009

periods. Periods. PERIODS. P.E.R.I.O.D.S.

Carrie, the period horror film

It is about time, in human evolution – in Western society’s evolution – that we started talking about periods. We talk, joke and laugh about shitting, farting and puking but not about women bleeding for a week a month. Why? Because it’s dirty that’s why – Biblically unclean.

We don’t talk about menstruation – and by ‘we’ I definitely mean men AND women – yet pretty much all women do it all the time. Its something that looms large in our lives. We fear, expect and will it when it starts. It mortifies us when it leaks. It ruins romantic weekends and when you’re in an intimate relationship with a woman it is something you both have to bear (x2 for lesbians).

This post has been inspired by a conversation I have just come from in the pub with two men (can you tell?). They took it well. One of them admitted that the first time he spoke about periods at the age of 8-ish he said he was confused about the blue stuff that came out of women. I have had a handful of conversations in the past mostly with women about periods but it’s only ever come up with good friends and sometimes in hushed tones.

This is the point. Girls and boys are rarely told about the ‘stuff’ that happens to the opposite sex during puberty and beyond. It leads to fear, misunderstanding, shame and repulsion. The natural functions of women has for millennia resulted in the notion of women as fundamentality ‘unclean’. The woman who shouldn’t be touched during her monthly period or you will be unclean till evening (Leviticus, which is all about the periods, and sleeping with animals). It has spawned a fascination and abhorrence with female functions and feminine ‘dirt’.

It is ‘the curse’ and the ‘sin of Eve’. It has as many euphemisms: having the painters and decorators in, on the blob, got the curse, Aunt Flo is visiting, time of the month, on the rag, women’s problems, riding the crimson wave, closed for maintenance, ketchup on the burger (OK, I made that one up).

I’m not the biggest fan of Tracey Emin, but I admire the fact that she brought dirty femininity to the fore in her art. The visceral reaction to her work is often due to her use of things like used-sanitary products in her ‘self-confessional’ work. Yeah, you might not like it and think its lazy and attention-grabbing – but what attention! The reaction to a woman laying bare her ‘filth’ and remnants of menstruation still has the ability to shock.

Menstruation is something that punctuates women’s lives, a regular reminder of your potential fertility. I’m not saying that it puts me in tune with the earth or the moon but it is a regular reminder to me that I’m a mammal.

There is interesting research around blobbing and contraception where randomised controlled trials have been conducted on extended oral contraceptive cycles. The fact that most women on OC take the pills in 21 days followed by a pill-free and bleeding week is not medically necessary. Women can stay on OC pretty much permanently with minimal spotting and few ill effects over the general OC side effects and recommendations for use over time (i.e limit to 8 years [pdf]). And yet many choose, if made aware of the choice, to allow for a pill-free period if not monthly than every three or so months. This suggests that there may be a desire to menstruate which may be for a number of reasons: confirming no pregnancy, excuse for not having sex, the ancient Greek feeling of menstrual catharsis?

There are gruesome facts about perioding that rarely get mentioned: that you shit differently, sometimes it hurts so much you vomit, it can make you uncoordinated and bump into things/knock things over, your breasts can swell and hurt, you get incredibly hot at night and can’t sleep, you get water-retention and go up a dress-size (BTW these things don’t happen every time or all at once, that would be really inconvenient).

All women have had to make make-shift sanitary towels out of bog-roll at one time or other. We’ve all had to get blood stains out of our favourite pants and or jeans. We all have the stories about when we found out about what periods were, when we started, the chats with our mothers, sisters or teachers. But those chats were always hushed and never involved men.

We have to pay (albeit reduced) VAT on ‘sanitary products’ or ‘feminine protection’ (the euphemisms upset me more than the bleeding) despite them being very far from ‘luxury products’.

Sometimes it makes you emotional, sometimes it doesn’t – so it’s not alright to assume women are ‘over-emotional’ because of their ‘hormones’. Women are called ‘over-emotional’ and men are said to be ‘in a bad mood’. They both might be true, or it might be that they’re arseholes. There may be a chemical reason for it but it’s not necessarily because of a wandering womb or meandering testes.

And then there’s sex and periods. There might be a few jokes about men becoming men when they get ‘blood on their helmet’ but what about women masturbating to relieve periods pains – (messy but it works). Some lesbians make a sexual act out of blobbing – anointing themselves on with menstrual blood – more power to it, even if it does make you look like Nosferatu.

When do we ever talk about the blood clots, the changing colour of the blood over the period, heavy month followed by light month, sanitary towel – tampon transition, and let’s not even get started on moon cups (sorry, I’m a green but I draw the line here I’m afraid).

Plus I can’t think of any better argument against intelligent design – bleeding every month, intelligent? No. Where’s our endometrium reabsorption?

As it is such a regular function for half the world’s population, let’s stop pretending it doesn’t happen. If we do talk about it let’s not use it as yet another misogynistic insult (in a past workplace a twatish manager said of a woman: “Not sure if you can say this these days, but it was probably her time of the month!” NB: if you start a sentence with “Not sure if you can say this these days…” then you can’t say those kind of things these days).

So please talk about periods. Let’s destroy the myths and stop pretending its not happening. If you’re a woman ‘of child-bearing age’ its happening. If you are a man who sleeps with women, works with women, is related to women or knows women, you are in the proximity a woman who is, was, or is about to bleed.

There definitely are periods. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.