Charity Challenges

I’m sure you’ve heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge. More and more people are doing it – film you or a friend dumping a bucket of ice water on your head, post it online, make a donation to charity, and nominate some other people to do the same.

In the UK social media circles – due to a shift that probably happened in the US where this is a better-known disease perhaps because of Lou Gehrig, the famous baseball player who suffered – it seems the most common cause to donate to is for Motor Neurone Disease (MND) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research charities. ALS is a form of MND; a degenerative disease that leads to muscle degradation, paralysis and eventual suffocation. Our famous sufferer is Stephen Hawking.

The Wellcome Trust did a great video explaining the condition, for those who’d like to learn more:

A wonderful friend from university whom I have seen far too little of in recent years decided to nominate me yesterday as he took the challenge. Having done the right thing and made a cup of tea ready for the aftermath, he decided to donate to Ebola Epidemic Relief Fund. I’m sorry I haven’t been “a good sport” as he put it and made my own video, but you can watch his and, if you like, read on for some more thoughts on the phenomenon and my explanation of why I’ve decided to donate and write this instead.

“I’m donating towards the Ebola Epidemic Relief Fund via GlobalGiving. One good turn deserves another so Kevin, Orr, and Marianne (because I’ve enjoyed her Facebook ruminations on this topic and I know she’ll be a good sport) get your ice and buckets and don’t forget to donate.”

All for one or..?

Despite the shift in focus to ALS, as the wikipedia page for IBC explains, the origins of the challenge are fuzzy, and it doesn’t appear to have been started by ALS charities specifically; people have donated to a range of causes for it. It’s often said that the point of the ice water is to, if only briefly, mimic some of the pain ALS sufferers experience. But cancer research and firefighting also seem to have been origin-causes. Macmillan are raising money through the challenge too – without them, my dad’s end of life care would have been even more difficult, so if the Ebola fund isn’t your thing, maybe send some cash their way.

As I said in a previous post about the similar viral fundraising campaign, No Make-up Selfie, it’s important to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, give people a) the means to donate and b) find out more information about the cause you’ve chosen to support. Otherwise it really just seems like an attention-seeking exercise, with the added bonus of some money going to charity, which is great.

Extrovert’s dream

So why haven’t I made a video? Sorry. I don’t like videos of me  – there’s only one that I know of. I like writing stuff – as you can see – I love talking to people on social media, sharing things I find interesting, having rants about what annoys me (quite a lot of stuff). But I’m not particularly attention-seeking in terms of people-staring-at-me. I know I’m not alone in that – some friends have said they too would find a nomination mortifying or otherwise uncomfortable. It could be an introvert’s nightmare.

People have different kinds of personalities, enjoy different things, struggle with different aspects of social interactions (or sometimes none at all). Those things manifest in different ways. This kind of challenge just doesn’t suit everyone, so I’m all for offering up alternatives.

Team MB all_namesThis is mine – have a look at the issue in a wider context, send some money anyway, but in a less showy fashion. That’s not to say this way is better, that the videos are wrong – just different.

A request

What I would ask is that, having read this, could you please donate either to the Ebola relief fund, Macmillan, a charity of your choice (let me know in the comments!) or to me!!

Not personally, you understand – I’m doing my own Charity Challenge next month, walking 25km on the Thames Path Challenge, for Barts Cancer Institute. There’s a little team of us, so you can pick your favourite on our BT Donate page (me, I hope, given you’re here).

If you’re wondering about the hat, follow the link on our team page, Arrow to the Knee.

Blah blah blah

As I said, I ramble about things online, so I suppose this started when I posted the following (ish):

- Donating to charities that don’t get much attention is good
– People are always going to be vain and irritating, especially online/in media generally; if that turns into a way to make money for charity occasionally, bonus.
– If you don’t want to watch them, don’t.
– If the self-congratulatory aspect annoys you, just donate quietly – as you may already do.
– Complaining loudly about it makes you as bad – if not worse. Unless you’re sending a donation with your complaint. But then what was the point of complaining in the first place?
– Go to learn about ALS/MND on Wikipedia for a bit. It’s what Stephen Hawking has, and he’s amazingly old considering. It’s a really difficult-to-research condition. Tack it onto your complaints if you feel information is lacking somewhere, or link to a charity.
– It doesn’t necessarily mean people are donating less/other charities are worse off. That’s not how it works.*
– It’s a bit like no makeup selfie, which I wrote a long thing about. Similar questions can be asked. Curiosity about how this kind of fundraising is good; critiques can be useful. Pretending you’re so much better [not so much].

*This is something I seem to be wrong about, more on that in a bit.

Edit: our Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia has some stats that are mildly encouraging


This word, ironically, gets a lot of criticism. I don’t think it’s as bad as all that – it’s a means of pushing for improvement. Without criticism, how can we improve? It’s not just about being negative, although identifying where things could be done better is a big part of a critique, it’s not the only aspect. Making note of what does work is also necessary.

It also doesn’t mean that, just because you have offered up criticism, you are “a heartless bastard”, as a friend put it. Are we all so sheltered as to think everything we do is beyond reproach, or so arrogant to think we’re already doing everything right?? Critical thinking isn’t just about deciding everything is rubbish, it’s about analysis, evidence, common sense, digging for truths and betterment.

I’m not usually one for dictionary definitions, but while a common use of the word is “expressing disapproval”, it’s also about “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults” – while this is usually applied to the arts, it needn’t be its sole preserve. Should we not be considerate and critical of most things we do?

Charity Critiques

via Wikimedia Commons/Givewell – public domain

A huge, sprawling topic I won’t get too deep into here – I just want to return to the *people are donating less/other charities are worse off aspect. It’s most people’s gut feeling that simply stepping up to a random challenge wouldn’t change people’s donation behaviours, or that a successful campaign for one charity would negatively affect others.

But, it seems that is in fact the case. Is charity giving really a zero-sum game? I can’t say with conviction here, but it seems at least in the US where donations have apparently been fairly static in recent years, that it is more a case of charities fighting it out amongst each other for their shares of that restricted pool than simply coming up with new ideas to add revenue to their available budget.

In reality I’m sure it’s a bit of both, and if you have access to some enlightening research on the subject, please do link in the comments. The “problem of forgotten emergencies” is similar and perhaps sheds some light on this. The UK does well at giving to charity, and I expect the nuts and bolts of inter-charity competition differs somewhat depending on which country you look at – and whether you’re interrogating individuals, corporations or other revenue sources.

Charities need money in order to function (government funding of research being a related issue). They need to ask people for money but people don’t like being asked for money. So “raising awareness” and other slight misdirections are more fashionable now – plus, with the increasingly popular phenomenon of social media permeating our lives, of course it’s an avenue to explore. And it’s not going to be perfect the first time.

Charities didn’t seem to have started this, really. At least it’s not a campaign masterminded and owned by any one in particular. If it were, we could hold it to higher standards, but I think we need to make the best of it – while being open to criticism.

Holier Than Thou

I suppose what made me notice the complaints was the context some of them came in. Ridiculous meme-like photos juxtaposing happy-looking Americans throwing water on themselves with a child living in poverty being fed water from a rusty cup. I don’t find this kind of complaint useful.

People in developed countries are better off than people unlucky enough to be living in developing countries. Some developing countries have water shortages (the whole of Africa, however, does not) – throwing water on yourself in a developed country doesn’ t make you an awful person. It makes you lucky, and we’d do well to be grateful for that sometimes.

Other people having bigger problems does not negate all of our own, and we cannot be mindful of every single problem all of the time; it’s impossible. You can just stand up for causes you care about and believe in and do your best not to be apathetic about everything.

If you criticised someone for doing this challenge when “there’re droughts in some states/Africa!” then I hope you are a regular supporter of Water Aid. If not, you really can’t use this line of attack. Not using water frivolously in one country does not mean that water will be shipped somewhere it is needed; that is not how water provision works, and probably where I put a foot wrong in shifting that argument over to the cash flow issue without thinking it through.

Thames personalised A2KsmallSo I would like to nominate you, reader, to do what you think is best.

Send some money where you think it’s needed. You might already be doing that – great! You might want to throw ice or coffee or baked beans on yourself. You might want to run a 5k or sign up to a challenge next year. I don’t mind – just remember to check your charities are “legit”.

Charities mentioned in this post:


  • Yahoo, Natasha Bird: Challenging the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – the problem with mega-donations
  • Independent: ALS ice bucket challenge: Over half of Brits polled did not donate to charity afterwards
  • Quartz: “The cold, hard truth about the ice bucket challenge”

Women and sexism in STEM

STEMNETLast week I tried to explain to someone whom I saw adding to abuse directed at a woman on Twitter why that’s a very bad thing for a STEM Ambassador to be doing – once I noticed that they shared that voluntary occupation in their bio.


STEM is now a popular acronym that describes “Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths” – the sciences and their applied disciplines, essentially. Some like to add another M for Medicine but I think that’s covered by Science and Technology, really. Separate debate.

What is not worth debating is whether women are disadvantaged, underrepresented, discriminated against and put off in these fields. It has been shown time and again, and I’ve placed links and references in this piece to demonstrate that. People with the ability to pay attention, women or otherwise, already know this. I intend this to be a resource to demonstrate this fact, and a push for people to try to tackle it however they see fit.

STEM Ambassadors are trained by a group called STEMNET and their purpose is to inspire young people, encourage them to learn about the scientific disciplines and perhaps aim for a career in one of the fields. I believe that if we’re to tackle gender inequality and discrimination in STEM, teaching children that everyone can do and work in science is vital.


Inspecting snails as a child of 6/horsing around in the lab as a child of 24

Personal touch

People ask me why I “left science” – I don’t consider that I have, I work at the same place I ventured to 7 years ago to begin my PhD (in cancer research) and I am now helping to spread the word about our work – my job includes supporting our students, new recruits and established staff, many of which are women. Many of whom are friends. I just didn’t feel like lab-based research was for me, for various reasons. I enjoy what I do and I’m lucky to have had the opportunities and support to get there.

I grew up around a lot of sexist older men and I could not possibly fully describe how galling it is to watch people you otherwise love and respect (family, friends etc.) speak of other women (and by extension, you) in a dismissive, insulting and belittling manner. The world already shows us what it thinks of us – we’re underrepresented and discouraged in the entertainment industries: games, film+TV, literature; our bodies are used to sell products; we’re taught they are public property, and people treat them as such.

How many times do strangers comment on men’s appearances in the street or aggressively instruct them to perform something sexual? Would you not find it shocking and inappropriate? Just as one example. These many things and much more is why I have long called myself a feminist, yet people still ask, and yes the question both surprises and bores me.

We are told that the proper, respectable, worthwhile jobs are for men – less than we were in the past, for sure, but it’s still out there with the boys’ toys and the girls’ toys; the blue and pink, the choice of fireman/spaceman/policeman/doctor, or the housewife-cleaner/nurse/princess (that’s not even a job!). I do not believe that women are less capable in these fields – curiosity is all you really need to get started in science, and most if not all children have that.

The “leaky pipeline”

To the point… women in STEM.

Less than 20% of grant applicants are women [1] and fewer grants are awarded to them [2]. Only 20% of UK professors are women [3]. Why? No, it’s not just because of babies and wiring.

Women are certainly discouraged from STEM [4] (very few girls take A level physics for example), and the few of us who get there regardless are still tested regularly [5,6,7]. Not everyone withstands these tests, and women continually ‘leak’ out of STEM fields [8,9].

Academia is still a sexist environment to work in, and it’s a battle for us. Women are not hired equally and paid less when they are [10,11] – even by other women – sexism is in the air we breathe from day 1 and none of us are immune to that, it can just be easier to acknowledge and try to move on from when it’s happening directly to you.

Edit: here’s a depressing piece on sexual assault in science.

A House of Commons report states that the causes of women’s underrepresentation are of 3 broad types:

(a) issues particular to academia;
(b) issues particular to STEM, and;
(c) the gendered nature of work and family care in the UK. [12]

For example, senior members of staff might criticise women who have to take time off for family. In fact, it’s not “what women do!”, as I heard someone put it, it’s what people who want children have to do and unfortunately we’re required to do the physically draining bit – men who want children often can’t seem to grasp this and consider that perhaps pushing for equal parental leave would make things better for everyone.

womenignoredStill, women worry that their job will be gone when they want to return to work and have to deal with these judgments about their ambitions and capability at work; on top of the usual being ignored, harassed and other common experiences.

I heard of one occasion when office allocations were decided in a pub on a Friday night, when people had to go to pick up children, so some find out on Monday they’ve missed that boat and ended up with the leftovers – perhaps official meetings that don’t exclude people with families to look after are more fair?

Obviously it’s not clear-cut, sometimes events must be given evening slots to ensure high attendance, and penalising people who do not have dependants is not always an acceptable trade-off. But the prevailing attitude is still that women have families and they are the most penalised; including being asked at interview whether they’ll “go off and have children”, despite this being illegal.

It’s not even that this is a new phenomenon. Women’s achievements have historically been ignored, erased, claimed by men as their own. We are having to work hard to show people that’s it’s not natural that the famous names are men – we just haven’t been permitted and taught to remember women.

Change: young minds

If you are working with children who want to get into this field, you need to be encouraging to them and try to make sure you’re not displaying behaviours that young women and girls will pick up on and internalise. We are not stupid, we live this and see it all the time so when someone who’s supposed to be advertising an industry to girls seems so ready to belittle and dismiss women, I am very concerned.

“The most effective age for intervention activities is pre-adolescence, before negative attitudes appear.” [13]

Research from California suggests that children need to be taught these things before society can mould them and prejudices set in.

Not good enough

People who insistent they have worked with and supported some women and say things like “But Florence Nightingale was great!” really isn’t good enough. We must at least try to understand that women, worldwide, in all professions, are systematically disadvantaged. We are at increased risk of discrimination, violence, and being blamed for what other people choose to subject us to.

Without accepting that a system of oppression is in place worldwide that constantly erects hurdles along women’s routes of progression, success and what should be simple choices, you cannot claim to be supporting women. Many women frequently discuss these issues and we are repeatedly told to stop. We’re exaggerating.

“Yes, of course, love”     “Lighten up”     “Get a sense of humour”     “You’re a scientist? But you’re pretty”  “Other people have it worse, you know”     “Are you sure you understand?”    “Make me a sammich”.

If official bodies (including parliament [14]) can do the work, look at the stats and tell you and everyone else that there is a problem, can you please accept that and start working to address it, not adding to the problems that already exist. It is actually part of the STEM Ambassador mission:

“The Government “funds STEMNET to run the STEM Ambassador programme which raises awareness amongst children and young people of the range of careers that science and technical qualifications offer”. Although not a central part of this inquiry, we are aware that the STEM Ambassador Scheme is very well regarded.

We have also previously recommended that engagement with industry should be a core requirement of teachers’ Continuing Professional Development as this would improve the provision of STEM careers advice to students.

We encourage the Government to work with the STEM community and schools to tackle gender stereotypes in education, particularly at primary level.

- Gender Perceptions in STEM Careers [14].

To quote that teacher you always respected, it’s so disappointing. Recently a colleague told me his daughter had explained how much street harassment she receives – he seems shocked and apologetic that he didn’t understand before (and her male partner still doesn’t) that this is a global problem that affects all of us.


Women are people, not possessions, not a different species, and we deserve the same respect you would show to your male colleagues and the same (if not more) encouragement as you would give boys showing interested in science. It should not require some personal experience to be able to empathise with women who tell you these things.

I’d rather budding feminist dads than sexist dads (like so many of us endured) but I’d rather still it didn’t require that one girl carrying your genes becoming so important to you that only in mid-late adulthood do you possibly start to consider women’s issues more widely.


Understanding and working against sexism is a process. We have to acknowledge that we all harbour sexist prejudices – we cannot exist in our culture and not absorb those messages. So “women do it” isn’t an excuse – we are, again, human beings and equally fallible. From a favourite article:

  1. Sexism is a fake idea invented by feminists
  2. Sexism happens, but the effect of “reverse sexism” on men is as bad or worse
  3. Sexism happens, but the important part is that I personally am not sexist
  4. Sexism happens, and I benefit from that whether or not I personally am sexist
  5. Sexism happens, I benefit from it, I am unavoidably sexist sometimes because I was socialized that way, and if I want to be anti-sexist I have to be actively working against that socialization

So in this case, I would implore you to realise that: sexism is very real. It happens and disadvantages women. You can choose to avoid sexism. You also benefit from lacking barriers that are placed in front of others whose traits you do not share for historical and cultural reasons.

You are not, nor should you be, “genderblind” or colourblind or any of those things – if you think you are, re-examine this attitude because it is not helpful. You do not exist outside of society, you do not breathe “clean air” – you’re as dirty as the rest of us, and unless you notice and work on it, you’ll still contribute.


So I hope people who proclaim to be fair and helpful will in future reconsider joining in with the abuse of women in public, because ultimately all fields and all facets of life need to be less restricted to men and male voices alone – how we think of our fellow human beings and address inequality is a fundamental part of that fight.

It feels like a fight so much of the time, because we are met with so much hostility, for even the smallest of things – for just existing, for daring to speak – and it’s tiring. But people care enough to keep pushing, because it is important.

You may not agree with other people’s behaviour. You may not think you support it, participate in it or have anything to do with it. But the thing that’s more important than saying “But not me!” is listening to people who do have those experiences, believing them, and helping. Not being dismissive and accusing people of lying. It happens all the time, I see it a lot – it’s infuriating. You can look at #yesallwomen for more on this (on twitter or the many articles based around it) [15].

Men’s sexism is not the same as women’s sexism (sorry), just as black people are not racist in the way that white people are. History and worldwide context is very important; there is a huge power imbalance at play that again, while you may not believe in or subscribe to, very much exists and makes the same actions impact upon different people in very different ways [16]

Looking ahead

I’d hope that people who have children/grandchildren or know any young people would want a fairer world for them – not just for the girls and women, but for the men as well – absurd ideas of masculinity harm men just as enforcing gender roles harms women. Telling boys not to show their feelings, telling them they must be physically strong, that anger is a permissable emotion above all others; these things reduce men. Accusing women of being tempting and blaming them for what men do is to underestimate men’s humanity and responsibility.

“Boys will be boys”? How about teaching them to treat other people with respect, as well as themselves, and don’t excuse unacceptable behaviour. Stop teaching girls to accept abuse, “He only hurts you because he likes you!” – help them to appreciate and respect themselves and not to settle for those who seek to own them.

This is part of why I challenge people. I think it’s important, and I think people are capable of doing better than what we so often see and experience now, for everyone’s benefit.


  1. Women In Science – BBSRC blog
  2. Women trail men in securing Research Council grants – Times Higher Education
  3. RCUK look for evidence of quality – Research Professional
  4. Girls love science, we tell them not to
  5. PNAS: “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students
  6. Bias persists against women of science” – NYT Science
  7. Study: Sexual harassment is a real problem in science” – review of PLOS publication
  8. “Stemming the Tide: New Study Examines Why Women Leave Engineering
  9. How stereotypes can drive women to quit science
  10. Women in science, you have nothing to fear but your own subconscious” – Jenny Rohn, Guardian. Links re: hiring discrimination
  11. Sexual discrimination in science: why we must act now” – Guardian
  12. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee: Inquiry into Women in STEM careers
  13. Position paper, California State University: “Why girls participate less in science, engineering and mathematics
  14. UK Parliament Science & Technology: “Gender perceptions in STEM careers” (quoted above)
  15. Not all men: How discussion women’s issues gets derailed” – Phil Plait explains why “not all men!” isn’t useful, just in case what women say doesn’t get through
  16. As bad as each other – men’s sexism, women’s sexism” – different groups, same actions, different outcomes – history, social context.

Added later:
– “Why is the media so obsessed with female scientists’ appearance?” – Guardian
– “Universities are urged to tackle gender segregation on courses” – Scottish Herald
– “Women in science: A temporary liberation” – Nature Comment
– “35 Practical Steps Men Can Take To Support Feminism” – xojane
– “The Gender Equation: Women and Science” – Diamond Light Source

More on this

- “Battling Sexism” – I write about sexist stuff reasonably frequently.
– “The Silent Misogyny” – another of mine with similar points to this post, but it jumps around more.
– “What next? Gendered science toys” – a tale of complaint success and a small victory against gendered marketing
– “Prejudice itself isn’t the only problem” – on accepting the status quo before mending it

Not just women

As is the case with any form of discrimination, it is not unconnected to others, and it is not just women who suffer in academia (and workplaces generally).

People having or belonging to minorities; race, sexuality, physical and/or mental illness/disability – also face adversity in these fields and in life more widely. So it is worth expanding these principles to them, drawing on their own specific challenges, and being mindful of the shared and distinct difficulties.

- BBC: “Fewer university offers for minority groups Gender & Race Swap Online (Podcast)
– “Why reverse racism isn’t real” – see also “reverse sexism”
– “Colorblind ideology is a form of racism” – see also genderblind/sexism.

Prejudice itself isn’t the only problem

I’d say it’s more often about getting people to admit to it.

I actually don’t think “more people admit to racism” is necessarily a problem. In fact, in a way, I’d say that’s a good thing. Bear with me.

Avenue Q’s “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” may be comedic but it’s true. Power/context/history important – it’s a song though, not an essay.

Everyone internalises prejudice, it’s impossible not to when growing up in a society that has inequality. We’re all sexist because of the messages that objectify and diminish women and this being true through history. We’re all racist because of messages that other and categorise certain races, and the history of it.

So what is the real problem? It’s people who are deluded and think they are not part of it. We all are. By not calling things out we are complicit. By parroting things we know to be wrong and/or reductive and offensive, we are making sure those problems continue.

We can do better, if we want to. Sure, if someone says (or more likely, thinks) “I’m racist/xenophobic because I hate everyone who doesn’t look like me!” then that needs to be addressed too. But a basic “Would you say you are at all prejudiced?” type question does not distinguish real hatred from an acknowledgment that we are flawed in our thinking and behaviour sometimes.

I accept that I haven’t looked too deeply into the questions being asked so I might be wrong about the degree of specificity, but I’ll go with that for the sake of argument. Perhaps it just reflects that more people are aware of what constitutes racism – which certainly would be a good thing; issues can only be tackled once they have been identified and defined.

What matters is:

a) accepting that inequality exists
b) accepting that means that people who are white/straight/male etc. have certain advantages and avoid disadvantages from day 1 that others have to deal with their whole lives
c) because of our culture influencing us, we all harbour prejudices
d) we have to constantly work at educating ourselves and do more to tackle inequality.

Simply acknowledging prejudice is arguably better than insisting it’s not there. “I’m not racist/sexist but [something racist/sexist]” – better to think, yes, sometimes I’m influenced to think negative things about people for no justifiable reason. But I work hard to realise and address when I do that, because no one deserves to be disadvantaged on the basis of something they cannot change. And I can change my behaviour to make my interactions and influences better.

Perhaps that’s an optimistic view but I’ll stick with it. In addition, there have been other angles that say racism has decreased recently.

It might be more enlightening to talk to the people who are affected – the best way to learn about how actions affect people, unintentional as those actions may be, is to listen to the people on the receiving end. Feminism is increasingly, and rightly, criticised for its white-central approaches, and while all too easy to take accusations personally, every privileged group has to remember it’s not about them, as individuals.

Of course, when discussing any kind of discrimination, there are similar and related issues to consider. Much like the list of ‘progress’ I scribbled down above, this is found in one of my favourite articles of late, “Not all men: a brief history of every dude’s favourite argument“:

  1. Sexism is a fake idea invented by feminists
  2. Sexism happens, but the effect of “reverse sexism” on men is as bad or worse
  3. Sexism happens, but the important part is that I personally am not sexist
  4. Sexism happens, and I benefit from that whether or not I personally am sexist
  5. Sexism happens, I benefit from it, I am unavoidably sexist sometimes because I was socialized that way, and if I want to be anti-sexist I have to be actively working against that socialization

So, let’s not pretend we’re all perfect and immune to the very air we breathe – let’s just concentrate on what we do about it.


Death to “Banter”

Just a quick rant about one of my least favourite words today.

In the last few years, “banter” has become an increasingly common excuse people trot out when they’re talking offensive crap and want to be let off the hook “because it’s just bants”.

Another meme that really needs to die on its arse ASAP

The claim tends to be that it describes “joking around with friends”, teasing people and such like, and indeed if it were restricted to groups of like-(small)minded people maybe it’d be fine. But in my experience it seems to mean something else entirely. Namely, while addressing people you do not know, “I want to be a dick here, leave me to it”. Why would someone request that, though?

Traditionally, when people say horrible things, we can remain silent, laugh along, or challenge them. More recently, these challenges tend to be met with calm down, love, it’s banter. This is just the latest iteration of a long-standing silencing tactic; your feelings on this matter are unimportant, my right to speak without consequence takes precedent, you are overreacting and should be quiet.

People like to say “no subject is off-limits in comedy” and the get a sense of humour line is itself quite funny. If you seriously think that parroting some of the oldest, most pervasive forms of discrimination found in our cultures (whether it’s sexism, racism, homophobia or whatever) is in any way edgy or indeed at all funny, it is you who is lacking a sense of humour. These “jokes” are not innovative or clever, they are as old-hat as they come.

“Banter” is simply a get-out-clause people use to protect their “right” to offend, remain ignorant, dismiss others and uphold the status quo that benefits them. Lol none of these things affect me, so I can joke about these issues that I’ve never thought for 5 seconds about and make fun of you chumps who have to deal with it! Get back in the kitchen and make me a sammich #bants

It’s truly pathetic that people think they can hide their sense of entitlement and desperation to fit in under one such revealing word.

So, next time you hear someone say it and they’re not just taking the piss out of this idea (if my favourite facebook group hadn’t been closed I could show you a truly comedic example of the supposedly humourless feminists, punning away on banter like masters; murder on the bantz floor, the unbearable bantness of being, Das Bant… you had to be there) do tell them to shut their stupid mouths and grow up.

I’m glad when I was at university the word hadn’t really taken hold yet – I wouldn’t go back to that culture if you paid me anyway (despite rather enjoying the course) but it would’ve been even worse if all the binge-drinking, cock-waving, bank-of-mum-and-dad-money-burning children had been throwing that wannabe excuse for their behaviour around as well.

For example

Another thing I’m glad I’m not involved in at all: football. I tried, I did. So many people talk about it so much of the time, it’s impossible to live life without having some unwanted info thrust into your awareness. But lots of us just do not care. One of the reasons I was never able to enjoy it is that it’s institutionally sexist.

A prominent example of this is the current coverage of the Premier League chief exec Richard Scudamore’s emails, and Musa says it best:

When accused of sexism, there is often an effort among men in football to infantilise themselves: what you might call the “boys will be boys” defence.  “We’re just kidding”, so the argument goes, “chill out”.  However, it’s strange to see these men rely on a defence of youthful irresponsibility, and in the same breath expect to be trusted with billion-pound budgets.

Indeed, LADS, why be satisfied with leading so basic and immature an existence? If the essence of that defence doesn’t offend you somewhat, well, it’s a bit of a chicken/egg concept – how much of that attitude comes from our surroundings? Can we counter it?

A mole in a group called Football weekly extraaaaaaa sent me a screenshot of a discussion – here are my picks of the TOP BANTZ. Burn it with fire.


Please do add your own examples of the Banter Fallacy and how irritating you find it below.

Edit: related

  • Tom Chivers hates banter, too.
  • Women have had enough – the misogynistic murders and defending sexism
  • Steve Coogan, 2011 – on the Top Gear ‘lads’ and their misdirected attempts at humour
  • On the Ethics of Teasing and Mocking People, in Groups, in Friendships, and in Debates and Satire – Camels with Hammers

Women who eat on tubes make menz cry

This post is to serve a few purposes: a love letter to my former favourite Facebook group – now sadly gone, a plea to fellow Londoners to take a (possibly literal) stand on this issue, and perhaps a bit of a general education to a few people, but I won’t make that objective #1 and I want to keep this short enough that people will read to the end.

I want to describe a phenomenon that’s had a bit of press attention lately, why it’s horrible, what could/should be done about it, and hopefully end on a funny.

Tl;dr: if you find yourself defending people who photograph and ridicule women without their knowledge, stop it. And then tell other people who are to shut up.

What is “women who eat on tubes”?

WWEOT (henceforth) is a creepy project set up by a man called Tony Burke that documents instances of him – and now many others – “catching” women eating something on a tube train in London. It’s creepy because the object of this “game” is to capture the moment without her sussing the photographer out. He started this on his personal facebook page in 2011 but this year the public group and Tumblr have seen a surge in popularity.

The “artists”, as they’ve decided to call themselves, then post these photos to a Facebook group (which I’m not going to link to) with a little description of her – including which train she was on and what time the photo was taken. All without her permission, and without her knowledge – unless someone later alerts her to her image being in public.

Is Burke seriously comparing women to wildlife, and saying every commuter should become a David Attenborough, examining the ‘Female Creature’…?

Yes, he is, because he’s that kind of guy. From what we can see of him online, he comes across as very disturbing. Originally in interviews he insisted the women part was “random”, but if we view his photos, we actually find that he thinks he does nothing annoying on trains ever, and to him it’s always women committing this heinous crime of appetite, which he finds irritating. His friends chip in with fat-shaming, sexual comments and so on. I have documented some of these in this album.

Yet 3 years later he's still going and has even taken to the radio to defend it. As "art".

Yet 3 years later he’s still going and has even taken to the radio to defend it. As “art”.

His film company, called “deadbird” (yeah) have made some telling stuff. He posted with sarcastic sadness about his “sexist films” not being watched on WWEOT (I no longer have access to this due to our group’s removal – see below – and WWEOT being a membership-only-on-request group). He is friends from school or work with many of his fellow WWEOT “artists”, or “digital peeping toms“, more appropriately.

Transport for London has even sent out a statement saying that anyone who feels ‘threatened’ by the pictures should contact British Transport Police.

Some people are genuinely upset by this and feel they now need to modify their behaviour to avoid being treated this way. Surely this is Burke’s goal – to stop women who “irritate” him, to hold and exercise that power. And his friends support it.

What’s your problem?

The comments on WWEOT’s photos tend to be belittling, shaming, and/or of a sexual nature. It’s fair to call it bullying. A more common term, perhaps, is “stranger-shaming“; one of those internet by-products we’re still working out. The most disturbing just now is probably r/creepshots.

It’s natural for us to watch people, to make snap judgments, to have fun with it. But to take that moment in time, capture it and then share it with the world online is a step beyond that can cause real harm.

“I also felt hurt and humiliated – especially by the comments mentioning my “gaping orifice” or sarcastically pondering, “I’d like to know the name of her finishing school.” I was the butt of a joke without my knowledge, in front of thousands of strangers.” – Sophie Wilkinson

There are a lot of “defences” people are now using to justify their membership of, posting in, administrating or general ambivalence towards WWEOT. It’s not art. I don’t really want to go through every single one, suffice to say most of them are standard “arguments” one finds on any bingo card for a discussion of sexism (or any type of oppression, really). For example:

It’s also not about free speech (or freezepeach as we’re now prone to calling it, given the frequency of this parroted argument) – no, I will not defend to the death your right to be a creep, ignore the necessity of consent and mock people openly against their will. Because that ‘right’ does not exist. This is free speech – people scrutinising and criticising what you say, in the hope that you will more carefully consider the results and the lives of others.

Yes, there are worse things that happen on public transport and no, it’s not illegal – but if your only barometer for good behaviour is “not illegal!”, is that not worrying? It was legal to rape your wife until 1991, for example. Women on trains just want to be left alone – why is it so hard for people to respect this?

[Edit: Telegraph pop-psychologist confirms this kind of behaviour should be cause for concern for friends; suggest they get help before they do end up committing actual crimes; a very real possibility]

Right of reply

In response to this growing popularity, as WWEOT approached 20,000 members on facebook, a journalist named Mimi Kempton-Stewart started a group called Men Who Post On ‘Women Who Eat On Tubes’ (MWPOWWEOT for short). Another protest group, “Women who eat wherever the fuck they want” also sprang into existence.


The front page before it disappeared; quotation at the top from a visitor


The aim of MWPOWWEOT was simple. Pick a guy who’s posted some “art” in WWEOT, have a look at his profile, and post one of his publicly-available photos on the group’s wall with a little description of how good an artist he clearly is.

I loved this group dearly. I made quite a few friends. We all learned from each other. Maybe we taught some silly boys a little bit about the world (optimism there). It was a safe space for feminist rage, where the people who were made to shut up were, for once, the harassers and creeps and not us – our anger was the visible thing, and their stupidity shone through in their impotent insults. I will miss it.

MWPOWWEOT, as of 8th May, has been closed by facebook due to a report made by a member of WWEOT about an apparent “credible threat of violence” (which is undoubtedly a lie) and facebook has conceded, deciding that MWPOWWEOT was against “community standards”. This is also questionable, and a read of the terms of service would suggest that WWEOT actually goes against clauses 3.6 and 3.7, with the complaint also breaching clause 4. We might resurrect the group in another form soon.

But aren’t you just as bad?

You know what? No. There’s good evidence that lifting the mask of anonymity, removing the shield of unaccountability and pointing the finger of ridicule are good ways to address anti-social and hurtful behaviours. Accosted by a flasher? Point and laugh. Their goal is humiliation, exerting power and control over their target, and taking the piss undermines them. This woman has nailed it – and with art, no less. This guy got his own back on a train.

So, taking images that these creepers have publicly uploaded of their own volition and turning them into a joke is the same or worse? No, taking someone’s image without their knowledge or consent and mocking it surely is not. It’s a similar tactic deliberately. If they’re hurt by it, should they not then realise why people are protesting their actions to begin with? If you really think calling out bullies is as bad as being the bully in the first placeI’m not sure where to go from there.

There are other stranger-shaming sites that I don’t like. People often say “but Tubecrush!” – where people take pictures of cute men on trains and upload them. It’s not, however, derogatory or indeed shaming at all. It doesn’t perpetuate negative ideas about men. It does encourage participants to speak to their subject and obtain consent for the photo. It doesn’t suggest male behaviour should be altered. One that does is “men who take up too much space on trains” – a problem many of us are no doubt familiar with.

I’d rather see these also disappear or at least be anonymised. However, pretending there is no difference between pictures of men and women in public is willful ignorance. If men did not want these groups to exist, they wouldn’t. They don’t care because it genuinely does not affect them. They have the luxury of it genuinely meaning nothing.

To understand the effects of actions on already-disadvantaged groups, you have to first accept the disadvantage exists. Then you have to consider the action in that context. Women face all kinds of judgement and discrimination throughout their lives, not least diet and weight policing. Women’s bodies are made public property in a way that men’s are not, and WWEOT underlines that. Eating disorders are far more common in women.

The same type of action has different effects on different people, depending on where they start in society – to borrow an analogy from a chat with a friend, think of hit points. The more you have, the less the same kind of attack actually hurts. Start of with less, harm is greater and more frequent.

Some people are fond of pretending that things are “just as bad” for the Straight White Man, but they are deluded.  Here’s a succinct comedic expression of that.


This train will terminate at the next station

It’s important for people expressing divisive sentiments and acting in discriminatory ways to be called out. If we don’t question and criticise them, their views are validated. This is why the calls for people not to laugh along to, but call out, things like rape jokes are increasing. The kinds of people who think misogyny, racism, homophobia etc. are funny are likely harbouring real unsavoury views. By laughing instead of challenging, you make them think this is normal and acceptable.

A pertinent example is Jeremy Clarkson. Again given a free pass despite clearly being an odious man, because he’s a famous dude who makes people money. People in a less privileged position than him would not be given the same leeway for being nearly as offensive.

“Lighten up and take a joke/get a sense of humour” should not be an acceptable smoke screen for this kind of behaviour. I’ve discussed before how actual decent comedy punches up, not down. Tony Burke is clearly a disturbing individual, as I went over at the start. His irritation at women living live means he can shame them for doing so. Because art. Makes sense – but it’s seriously worrying. People run with it, “If you don’t want to be photographed eating on the train, don’t eat on the train” – classic victim blaming.

Don’t want to be assaulted? Don’t wear that dress then. Don’t want to be taken advantage of? Don’t get so drunk. Women’s behaviour is policed in so many arenas and here’s yet another one. I’m not going to stand for it. Please join me.

Next stop: humanity

What can we do about any of this? Friend-of-a-friend who had a horrible experience sums up:

I don’t want taking pictures in public spaces to become illegal, I just want people to be nice and respectful. And I don’t think this is too much to ask.

Sadly, many members of WWEOT seem to think it is too much, and that, to me, is a red flag. People who think a request of respect is just too great a demand, who do not understand the concept and importance of consent and the sinister nature of watching women Big Brother style – I highly doubt covert photography would be the end of their transgressions against decency. To put it lightly.

if it was called “black people laughing on the bus” there’d be a national outcry and the creators would be dragged around town so we could all throw rotten tomatoes at them.

Indeed I expect we might see similar with “gays being all queer on the street”.

There’s so much more to say on this but I must wrap it up – please do add your thoughts and links in the comments.

I win the internet

Hilariously, last week a male member of WWEOT came to MWPOWWEOT to tell everyone how he thought I was one of the worst people on the entire internet because of the anger and rudeness I express in my comments in the group. Full comment here.

Lots of people found this as funny as I did and a friend has made me a special Interwebz Award (you can submit your own nominations – click on the image to visit the blog!).

If I can annoy creepers that much with my comments (that aren’t even in their own group, I’ll add), then I figure I’m probably doing something right. Cheers, everyone, and if you see a guy with his camera phone staring at a woman having a snack, do join me in pointing him out to the whole carriage.




  • TechDigest: James O’Malley covers the group’s closure today, comments from me and Mimi within and comments from WWEOT fans underneath.
  • Imgur album of mole-shots from WWEOT.
  • Imgur album demonstrating some comments on Tony’s original album and an album of some of the visitors we had in MWPOWWEOT
  • MWPOWWEOT has relocated to GooglePlus for now. Click through to see new examples of creepiness.
  • “But women are in WWEOT as well!” Internalised sexism, google it. And read Sarah Ditum.
  • Daily Beast: Tauriq Moosa also covered the creepy stalker-like WWEOT haven
  • Telegraph: The creeps shot TWitter trend: how creeps just got creepier
  • Independent covers the protest picnic of April 14th, which I sadly couldn’t make
  • Straight White Male – the lowest difficulty setting there is” – a nerd-friendly explanation of the idea of “privilege”
  • New Satesman: Why do misogynists deserve the “privacy” the women they abuse are denied?

University adversity – advertising rape

Dear readers, sometimes I feel like apologising that I spend a lot of time in posts on “feminist issues”. But I shouldn’t, so I won’t. I don’t write about this because it’s the only thing I care about, or because it’s particularly interesting – I do it because it’s annoying and it affects too many people I care about, and me, too. Content warning discussion of rape etc.

I’d love to spend more time on other things, but until people realise, accept and get equally angry that sexism and misogyny are everywhere, it’s not going to get better and everything else that’s interesting tends to get polluted with ridiculous-to-dangerous sexist attitudes and actions. So don’t be angry at me, be angry at everything you see that fits the bill – like this example:

Come to our party, find a vulnerable girl!

Kent Students’ Union poster advertising “Party in the Car Park” – apparently withdrawn

For some background: I grew up in Canterbury. I was there at the weekend. I spent a lot of time on the University of Kent campus as I was in a relationship with someone who went to study there when I was at school, and I did some work experience and courses there myself.  So I’ve a certain affection for it, and I know some other alumni who are equally upset by this.

The University of Kent’s official student union, Kent Union, thought this poster was appropriate to advertise an upcoming student event. It’s not – here’s why, here’s what they’ve said, and here’s what I’m doing (and what you could do).

Edit: following Kent Union’s comments, please see updates here and here.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Before we get into the other problems this poster presents, let’s start with the fact that they used this image of a student without her permission. She’s drunk outside the campus club, once called The Venue (but perhaps not these days, I don’t know), if I’m recognising it correctly.

On to the other problems.

This poster is advertising a party outside with the tagline that people (the image suggests female students) will be losing their friends and left alone. Yes, it is common to wander around looking for people while out at a busy venue. But that is not recommended, it’s not fun, so why use it? Well, maybe it’s fun for other students who find these lost, drunk people on their own. Why might that be fun? Why are we told to stay with people we trust while we’re out and incapacitated to some degree?

Because there are horrible people around who do not respect the idea of consent. They believe they are entitled to things, things like other people’s bodies, and to use them as they please without their permission. These ideas are reinforced by a lot of media and culture around us, and it’s dangerous. Teaching people they can take what they want without regard for the happiness, safety and wellbeing of others is what creates rapists. People might not think that’s what they are, if they offer to take a drunk stranger home, then go to her room and do things she hasn’t agreed to. She was at the party, alone, she wore that short dress, she didn’t fight me, so it’s fine, right? WRONG.

Why is this such a problem? University students are as young as 17/18. At school, these messages are also received loud and clear. At university, they are reinforced. This problem is not exclusive to Kent University, it is endemic in higher education. That is something that should worry everyone, and something we need to work to counter.

We know that sexual assault is rife at universities, and the majority of cases aren’t reported to universities or the police – for the same reasons rape and sexual assault is generally underreported (women aren’t believed; their behaviours are questioned; they are victimised further by the legal process; by family, friends and strangers; the conviction rate is low; they fear their situation will worsen) and more. You can find out how many people admit to rape and roughly how many victims there are, so long as you rephrase the “rape” part – people seriously don’t realise that it means forced sex. And they don’t realise that “force” is quite broad, or that “coersion” comes into it.

This is the same in the US, where studies show that not only do men admit to rape in colleges, those who do it do it repeatedly. Rapists think it’s normal – they think everyone does it, because it’s their entitlement. People around them must speak up – jokes are not harmless. Challenge, or no one ever learns, and more victims are created, and kept silent, carrying these experiences with them forever.

Existing evidence and guidelines

We already know this is a problem; the NUS knows it, and universities should know it. In 2010 the NUS released the “Hidden Marks” report, detailing the negative experiences of female students in UK universities with regard to sexual assault and harassment. Some exerpts (emphasis mine):

“The picture that we have revealed is disturbing. 14 per cent have experienced serious physical or sexual assault. 68 per cent have been subject to verbal or physical sexual harassment. Nearly one in four has experienced unwanted sexual contact… violence against women is widespread, serious, and is hampering women’s ability to learn.

Institutions, students’ unions and students have a pressing responsibility to take immediate action to tackle the problem… adopt a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to harassment and violence.

… Respondents reported a range of different consequences of violence, stalking and sexual assault to their health, learning, confidence and relationships, with the most common consequence being deterioration of mental health.”

The NUS and University of Sussex has reported on the effects of lad culture on student experiences. They recommend the following:

“… the student movement must take action to combat the emergence of ‘lad culture’ in higher education and the negative impacts this is having on students. This is not something that NUS can accomplish alone. We will need to work with partners inside and outside the student movement to determine how best to respond to this culture that is at odds with our values and is damaging to our students. We know that this cannot be achieved overnight, and it will require a nuanced and thoughtful response…

We will work towards… creating a safer, more positive, more empowering culture on our campuses”

I hope they can work with Kent Union specifically given this evidence. On to what the union have said in response so far.

Owning up

Kent Union have responded to people’s complaints with this nonpology:

“We would like to sincerely apologise to the students that have been offended by one of the posters we have designed to promote this year’s Party in the Car Park. It was never our intention for the poster and its message to be interpreted in this way.

The concept behind our marketing of the event is to use real photographs taken last year combined with factual statements provided by students.

We can confirm that the poster has been removed and will not be used within any further marketing. In the future we will check our designs with relevant people to ensure they cannot be interpreted in a different way.

Sorry once again,

Kent Union”

What is the purpose of an apology, and does this statement achieve any of the aims it should have had?

1) Admit fault. If you’re apologising for something, you have to recognise that the thing you did was wrong/negative/hurtful in some way. You should address that in your apology. The statement above makes no indication that they concede the poster is problematic in any way, that it encourages/endorses sexual violence (or at least uses the prospect of it as a positive reason for people to attend their event) or is otherwise damaging.

They do not apologise for using the image without consent (perhaps unsurprising, given the context). They pass the blame on to the observers. “for… its message to be interpreted in this way.” – it’s not about interpretation! People seeing this have informed them quite clearly about what it obviously means. What possible positives are there to drunk women losing their friends at a party?! Grow up, own up, apologise properly.

2) Apologise for your mistake and the hurt caused. “We would like to sincerely apologise to the students that have been offended” is not an apology. “Sorry you’re offended” isn’t saying sorry, it is, again, passing the blame on to you for having those silly feelings.

Also, you haven’t just offended students here, you’ve actively promoted the idea that taking advantage of people is ok – you’ve put students in danger. A range of people besides current students are unhappy about this. It’s not just about the university environment – people leave university and go on to jobs and the rest of their lives. Moulding people into inconsiderate abusers at university has a ripple effect and you have a responsibility to counter this.

3) Commit to rectifying the situation. Saying sorry isn’t enough – you have to do something positive to make amends, if you actually want the situation to get better. “We can confirm that the poster has been removed and will not be used within any further marketing. ” A good start. What are the other posters like? I’ve asked if any current students have seen others – do post below if so.

Another good thing would be to create a poster that explains consent to people. There are great sex educators around, like Bish whom I’ve just linked, who could help with this. There are also detailed recommendations in the NUS Hidden Marks report, linked above (pp. 30-33). Includes: “Use educational initiatives to challenge negative attitudes and stereotypes” and “Create a campus environment in which students feel safe“.

4) Commit to doing better in future. If you apologise without any indication of hoping to improve and prevent further harm from your actions, it’s pretty empty. “In the future we will check our designs with relevant people to ensure they cannot be interpreted in a different way.” – commit to researching the problem of sexual violence in universities, and how marketing actually affects people. Discipline the person/people who designed this in the first place. Make it clear that they will be educated. That everyone in the Union knows this is unacceptable.


University reponsibilities

As detailed in the reports linked above, it has been recommended by the NUS that university institutions, unions and students work together on these issues. Given UoK seems to pride itself on its environment:

“Canterbury is consistently rated as one of the safest university cities in England and Wales.”

One would think that they would be concerned by this clear tarnishing of their student life image. Sadly not:

It’s also made clear on the UoK Staying safe page that being around trusted friends is an important aspect of personal safety (emphasis theirs):

Best way to stay safe at night is to stick with your friends.

So, they could at least acknowledge that the union’s promotion was contradicting several guidelines, and that they will (and hopefully already do) monitor their activities and provide guidance to the union. If this is not standard practice in any UK university, why not, and how will the NUS’ guidelines be enforced if they refuse to interact on these important issues?

I’m writing to the Kent Union to link them to this information. Please feel free to use anything presented here if you wish to contact them, too. The more people who do so, hopefully, the fewer people will think this kind of thing is acceptable and harmless.

Edit: a friend points to Kent Union’s constitution (emphasis mine):

“The constitution has to be approved by the University so we can function as a Students’ Union.”

“Section D: Under the Education Act 1994, The University of Kent has a statutory duty to ensure that the Union operates in a fair and democratic manner and is held to proper account for its finances. The Union therefore works alongside The University of Kent in ensuring the affairs of the Union are properly conducted and that the educational and welfare needs of the Union’s Members are met.”

It is also clear that Kent Union receives the bulk of its revenue in the form of grants from the University of Kent:

“As a charity Kent Union receives grants from the University of Kent, income under contracts for the provision of charitable services, membership contributions and income from trading activity closely associated with its charitable purposes. Incoming resources are accounted for in the period in which the service is provided.”

It might be advisable to involve the Charity Commission if the university remain apparently unwilling to appropriately regulate the behaviour of the union.

This is not a problem exclusive to the University of Kent. I’d like to see them do better, and I think they can. They could be an example for other UK universities, and institutions worldwide, if they chose to tackle this with the determination and transparency that it deserves.

As the NUS said, it’s not just their responsibility. It could affect you, too. Maybe it already has. Maybe you have or will have children who are students. Not that we need to be directly affected by things to be decent people who stand up for our fellow human beings (hopefully). We all live in this society with other people, and a lot of them go through university, so let’s work to make it better, shall we?



Lots of depressing sexist things are coming up today. Here’s a few of them (and this happens pretty much every day, just to show the scale of the problem a little) and other links:

  • UoK and Kent Union have already been criticised by local media: Medwire, Kent Online (well done Bethany Taylor, women’s campaign officer, for voicing concerns)
  • The NUS have spoken about student feminism and sexual harassment – I hope they will engage with this instance too.
  • I have Storified both some of the responses to the poster and its removal here, as well as pro-feminist NUS tweets.
  • Our government’s cuts are disproportionately negatively affecting women, and as this piece shows, victims of domestic violence. Thanks, Cleggeron.
  • Crisis Pregnancy Centres, who hate and lie to women about abortion, are still open for some reason.
  • Gendered toys are becoming more and more common, but feeble “girl monkeys like pink things and boy monkeys like blue” arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny (New Scientist)
  • Tech website thinks it’s the online tech-focused version of Maxim. And we wonder why there aren’t as many talented women in tech as there really could be? (Sweary post).
  • Everydaysexism‘s book is out soon, and today an exerpt is available, which details some of the shocking experience of school-age girls in the UK.
  • A good post on how people misunderstand rape culture
  • Edit: following Kent Union’s comments, please see updates here and here.

Cancer selfie-awareness

I have to write about this, following some discussions.

I’ll start by saying that I obviously don’t have a problem with the concept of fundraising for cancer charities (having researched in a few places, now working at one and, y’know, being a human being). I’m not saying everyone who did it has missed the point, or shouldn’t have participated. I find the subject interesting; personally and professionally.

The questions I want to raise are generally more academic:

What is awareness? How effective are these campaigns/memes? What are the negatives, and do they matter?

What’s it about?

Some people woke up to find their Facebook feeds full of selfies – moreso than usual. I have to say I didn’t, rather my feed was peppered with criticisms of this mysterious selfie overload, mostly of women not wearing make-up and being proud of that. Apparently it is a big deal for some.

Under some posts came the clarification that the photo was “for cancer awareness”. Maybe they’d include a donation link/number to text to encourage people to give money to a relevant cause. Maybe they’d specify a charity. Lots of people seem to think it’s about breast cancer, although I find that odd, given it does not tend to manifest on one’s face.

According to this article (which I dislike mainly for its use of Facebook photos without stating that they sought permission), the idea took flight last year:

in September 2013… launched the nationwide DareToBare campaign for women across the UK to raise money and awareness for Breast Cancer Care. The campaign aimed to persuade women of all ages and walks of life to get sponsored to go to work, social activities or even a night out without their make-up on.

What motivated the company to do so is another question – as they sell cosmetics, focusing on their own product would make sense. It’s for a good cause. But between then and now something happened and it’s resurrected itself as #nomakeupselfie, flooding twitter and facebook with barefaced ladies (and some men getting their slap on, or posing bare-chested – men can get breast cancer, too – or people sharing images with basic self-check instructions, again usually for the breasts).

A friend wrote this post to mull over his feelings about it. I commented to link to a video about skin cancer that I saw on twitter that I thought was well-done.

I think it’s important to remember this wasn’t started by a charity. If it were, I’d be far more critical. I suppose because it wasn’t, that has led some to criticise individuals quite harshly – I wouldn’t advocate that. People are well-intentioned and the donations have come in at over £1m for Cancer Research UK alone now.

Cancer ‘Awareness’

by Alice Sheppard

“Look, I raised it!” – Image by Alice Sheppard (who does donate, calm down)

Awareness is one of those current buzzwords, no one seems to be sure what it means. Certainly when I think about it and try to pin it down, I’m not sure either.

Are you aware of cancer?

I believe just about everyone is these days. However, what do you mean by “aware of”? Or by “cancer”? There are many things to consider:

- How to be self-aware; what to keep in mind about your body, to see a doctor if anything unusual happens.
– To take up screening invitations (cervical, breast, prostate, bowel etc). The earlier cancer is detected, the more likely treatment will be successful.
– How survival has improved over the last 60 years for all cancer types (jump to Figure 1.5).
– Some cancers are still very hard to treat and require more funding – including pancreas, brain, lung, oesophagus.
– Some cancers are now cured* often (mainly testicular cancer, some forms of skin cancer and now breast & prostate cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma). *In cancer talk by cured, we usually mean “disease-free survival for at least 5 or 10 years”.
– Why does cancer seem more common? We live longer now, we’re also fatter and more alcoholic, but it’s always been with us, and it’s not an exclusively human disease – most animals and some plants get it, too. Even dinosaurs did.
– What is cancer?

Cancer is hundreds of diseases. We have more than 200 types of cells and more than 70 organs, and even when looking at a specific one, like the breast for example, there are many “sub-types” of cancer in that location that are quite different and will require different kinds of treatment. It will take much more research to understand all of these diseases. While they have some things in common – cells growing out of control – they have important differences. That’s why we need new drugs and more basic research into cancer biology.

Sometimes awareness is very important. Breast cancer research and treatment may not be where it is now without the dedicated campaigns we’ve seen. Hard-to-spot and unusual symptoms and risky behaviours can be spotted/avoided more easily with clear education.

For example, HIV/AIDS became a serious public health issue in the UK in the eighties but public health campaigns hammered home the important messages about safe sex and drug use, and it had measurable positive effects, on other STIs too. But you do have to specify what you want people to be aware of, and that seems to be lacking in this case.

Some questions

There are a lot of valid, important and interesting questions the campaign could raise. But, as far as I can see, it hasn’t really. So here we are. However, a simple, engaging campaign cannot take the place of a comprehensive education on a very complicated subject, and it never will. If it inspires people to learn more then that’s great. Here are a few things worth thinking about, if you are interested.


This is a complex topic that I can’t cover fully here but worth mentioning (follow Margaret McCartney‘s work for more). Screening has likely saved many lives – by detecting their cancers earlier, people can seek appropriate treatment, which will probably be less severe than if they wait and present at a late, advanced stage where their cancer may have spread (metastasised) and be uncurable or even without proven treatment options. Even then, there are clinical trials people can sign up to – oncologists should help people who wish to do so.

There are also valid questions about the potential harms of screening. Something that complicates cancer diagnoses is that we generally don’t know which pre-cancerous growths (for example, considering prostate or breast) will progress in someone’s lifetime become a serious and potentially deadly cancer, and which won’t. A favoured metaphor would be “how to separate the tigers from the pussy cats“. There is plenty of research into finding markers, indicators on cancer cells, that could tell us which patients we need to treat straight away, and who could just be monitored over time because they’re unlikely to progress.

The danger with treating everyone the same, whenever you find something suspect, is one of over-treatment.  Diagnoses are extremely stressful. Cancer treatment is generally unpleasant. Not something you want if you can avoid it. So explaining risks to people, and what options they have, is a priority. Ultimately, it should be the patient’s choice if they wish, for example, to opt for surgery to mitigate their risk, or to wait and have regular tests. Many factors can affect our cancer risk; our genes, lifestyle, environment – it’s hard to say for sure what will happen when we still don’t fully understand this complex set of diseases. Long story short; do attend your appointments/take the tests when they arrive!

Focusing on women

Once again this appears to be using the worn-out idea that women’s appearances are very important and essentially public property. There are a number of issues around making a big deal out of not wearing make-up:

Loads of women don’t; why should those who do be considered “brave” to lose it for a photo, particularly in the context of cancer and all it entails; the whole exercise seems to shift the focus from something important to something relatively trivial; women are being told that they “look better” without (usually by men; suggesting how we appear to men is something important to be considered) or are self-deprecating saying they must look like zombies – this reinforces harmful ideas that women are out on public display, mainly for the “male gaze“, and should act accordingly, and that make-up (or lack of) is necessary to look “acceptable”.

A friend shared a lovely comment she saw on a post:

“Isn’t it ironic that below every “no make up selfie” there are comments saying “looking beautiful hun xx”. No they do not. Stop lying”

While not everyone tends to see the world through feminist lenses, these are valid issues that should be considered in the context of such a campaign. Women (teenagers in particular) are pressured to look a certain way, to buy and wear a lot of make-up; the whole thing can be wrapped up in insecurity. The demands placed on women of all ages by media and society are very real and need to be addressed.

Finally, all of the above ignores that fact that many women will wear whatever make-up they choose to simply because they enjoy it. As it should be. It’s nothing to do with what other people think – you can style your own face, not other people’s. Again, all having very little to do with cancer or awareness of it whatsoever. If someone has an explanation as to why the “dare to bare” idea is relevant and useful, do add in the comments.

Men have participated too because yes, men can get breast cancer (but the lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is 1 in 8 for women and 1 in 868 for men: stats) and of course many other cancers. Some are putting on make-up for a laugh or, apparently, going bare-chested but I’ve yet to see evidence of this. I have seen first-hand the “you look better without it, ladies!” type comments, though, which remind me of “smile, love!” and make me very angry. Men may well be fed up of being excluded from cancer fundraising drives, but in fact I’m told male-focussed ones have been tried – the problem is participation.

Other unofficial campaigns have had more sinister ulterior motives. One, encouraging women to go bra-less, seemed to have been created by a sleazy individual (or a few), with very little thought for the realities of breast cancer patients’ lives and perpetuating tolerance of assault. Some are purely useless and really are just silly vanity projects, like those that encourage women to post colours that describe their underwear, with no added explanation; educating nobody.

Edit: a friend of a friend of a friend (yes, the internet) has posted her selfie, and it actually is brave. To raise awareness of the fact that violence against women is far more common and accepted than most people like to think, she has posted the image of her bruised face – she was beaten for telling a guy in a club not to touch her without her permission, and told to “smile” with it. She’s raised >£1k for Oxford Sexual Abuse & Rape Crisis Centre. Good going.

Edit II: The Vagenda have a good post exploring this point further.

Family and friends

Another problem can be that this tactic can negatively affect patients and families. A huge influx of these images, which might remind people of loved ones lost, or that they personally wear make-up to paint on eyebrows lost to chemotherapy. There are some angry responses to be found.

Of course, it’s likely that anything tackling a tough subject will upset and offend some people. That doesn’t mean it’s automatically wrong, but it is important to be considerate – again this would be more pertinent if a charity were responsible. For example, a recent campaign by Pancreatic Cancer Action featured a young woman, Kerry, who wished to draw attention to the consistently poor survival rate and treatment options for pancreatic cancer by explain that she would wish she had breast cancer.

I thought this campaign was very well done. It made people stop and look, it made them question, and quickly provided answers. It educated people about the need for more research into pancreatic cancer, and better diagnostic techniques (it’s so hard to treat because it’s detected so late; being inside the body, it can become very advanced before any serious symptoms occur and then it’s too late – in this case awareness of the symptoms really can save lives).

But people also hated this campaign and vociferously complained. I had a long chat with a metastatic breast cancer patient on twitter who really didn’t like it because they felt it trivialised the difficulties of metBC patients. I didn’t see it that way, but encouraged her to let the charity know. While they received many complaints, the campaign also seems to have met some of its aims and they are following up with more ads.

What was really awful was that people abused Kerry personally, sending her horrible messages and berating her decision to be part of the campaign (PCA contacted patient groups for guidance before running it). She died in February – and I still wonder what the people who sent her those words were thinking, and what they feel now.

I’ve lost family and friends to cancer, most people have. My personal questions about these campaigns don’t tend to stem from that, but it is always worth considering what a range of people are likely to feel, and to be confident that potential benefits outweigh the harms.

Does it work?

I’ve already linked above showing that CRUK has seen a spike in donations, as have some other breast/pancreas or other specific focus charities. However, there’s more to consider here.

Some have said most of the selfies they saw, beginning about 5 days ago, had no links or explanation whatsoever to accompany them. It was only after the criticisms began – focusing on those who failed to add relevant links or information as being lazy or purely narcissistic (well, most people are a bit) – that the donations and nominations and relevant links started to appear. So perhaps it wasn’t the campaign itself, but people’s irritation that it wasn’t working, that really made the difference… can we ever tell? Cancer charities like CRUK and PCA guiding people, creating some purpose and direction also helped.

One problem with uncoordinated campaigns is that their results can be difficult to keep track of. Without knowing what effect you’ve had, you can’t say whether something was successful and you can’t design better endeavours in the future. I hope to return to this idea in a post about a cancer charity linking with a well-known tabloid soon; link here when it’s done.

Will it have any lasting effect or will things go back to normal, or worse: below it, after the spike? How many people have donated for the first time? Will they continue? Has anyone learned about self-checks and will they do more after seeing friends participate in this? Have people posted photos in lieu of doing something genuinely useful (like people who say I’ll pray for you then do nothing of actual substance…)?

That last point is what drew the real criticism. If you don’t have a purpose besides showing people your face, you haven’t achieved anything. Even adding a link or naming a cancer type would help more than that.

Doing something

PrintA friend asked about doing something together to raise a bit of money. After talking I realised I am actually doing this year’s Thames Path Challenge in September with work (my leg is dodgy so I don’t run on it, before you ask…). So she will donate some money for that – all our fundraising efforts go to funding lab projects – and will be doing the Colour Run.


Don’t forget about other types of charity that support cancer patients and their families. Hospices need donations and volunteers. Marie Curie Cancer Care and Macmillan Cancer Support nurses provide invaluable support at the most stressful times and they are spread so thin. CLIC Sergeant and the Teenage Cancer Trust support younger sufferers and their families. Cancer-Research-UK_482There are many charities that focus on specific cancer types – you might choose to support one of these if you have been personally affected.

Many of them have charity shops so if you need to buy stuff you can donate at the same time! This is still my preferred route.

Otherwise, Cancer Research UK supports hundreds of excellent researchers across the country, who run labs dedicated to furthering our understanding of cancer biology, designing new drugs and surgical techniques, testing new treatments and running clinical trials, and helping to educate the public about cancer.

It’s very difficult to be fully “aware” of cancer, even when it’s staring you in the face, quite literally, as someone you love loses their life to it. It’s a huge thing, the Big C – but donations are important, wherever they come from.

As well as the donations, people are talking and hopefully learning – that’s definitely a plus.



Left: Nicked From Kat (centre). Right: Dr Harpal Kumar, CRUK chief exec (via @CR_UK)

More Links

CRUK answers FAQs about #nomakeupselfie

- Andrew Steele, creator of the Scienceogram, discusses the phenomenon in relation to the wider science funding landscape for The Conversation.

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