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.

scudamorebantstwats

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.

MWPOWWEOT

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.

safetytipsformen

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.

JustinAward

 

Links

  • 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?


 

Links

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.

Scientists cure cancer but no-one notices

Licenced under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 (Image B0002108)

Wellcome Images: Human breast cancer cells dividing

Today the Cancer Research UK Science Update Blog has published an excellent post by Kat Arney: “There’s no conspiracy – sometimes it just doesn’t work“. Edit: for follow-up, a post about the top 10 Cancer Myths by Kat and Olly. Must-read.

It has prompted me to look back through my posterous archive for something I remember writing but couldn’t find on here – about how offensive it is when people accuse us (people working in cancer research in any capacity) of being part of some great conspiracy to hide cures. I’ve edited it a bit as it’s from 2011.

Let us not forget that many people are living examples that we can and do cure cancer, it’s just difficult to define “cure” – 5 years free? 10? We all die of something. But particularly “treatable” diseases include some forms of leukaemia, breast cancer, skin cancer – surgical techniques, chemo- and radiotherapy have come a very long way in the last 50-60 years, since DNA was discovered and we started to learn a lot more about this hugely varied set of diseases.

There is no cure-all, however, no magic bullet. Cancer is hugely complicated and treatment options and success depend on where it is (what kinds of tissues and cells are involved), what caused it (cancer can have a hereditary [genes inherited from parents] basis but it can also be completely due to the environment, but most often a combination of the two) and which mutations are involved, amongst other things. It’s not one disease but many. Some forms like certain brain tumours, pancreatic and ovarian cancer are still very deadly. Others aren’t necessarily a death sentence but more of a condition that can be managed over time.

People are working all over the world on all the kinds of cancer we know about, from understanding things down at the cellular level up to making and optimising drugs and testing them on people, all the way to surgeons, doctors and nurses looking after the patients.

Everyone is affected by it, and recently (Ed: now some years ago!) I commented on a friend’s post about how offensive it is when the alt-med conspiracy crowd accuse ‘the man’ of suppressing cancer cures.

There are some, they’re out there and they are used. We’re looking for better ones. But be wary of miracle cures; they’re a waste of time and money. See Sense About Science’s Ask for Evidence campaign that aims to address this.

A silly article was doing the rounds when I originally posted this (May 15 2011) saying that some research group has found the cure to cancer and it’s a simple, freely-available chemical that messes with aerobic/anaerobic respiration.

The article is mostly nonsense, with some bits of basic biology thrown in that make a small amount of sense on their own, but not in the way they’re cobbled together here.

I wrote this on a friend’s facebook post after they called me to come and have a look:

1. Glycolysis does not immortalise cells by switching off the apoptosis (cell death) mechanism, that’s BS.

2. Cells become transformed (potentially cancerous) for very many reasons, the mitochondria aren’t usually directly involved, though suppression of apoptosis is one of about 7 conditions that need to be met for cancer to occur.

3. Metastasis (the process of cancer cells leaving the original tumour and travelling to elsewhere in the body, forming new tumours) is not due to lactic acid production. This is just crap.

4. Mitochondria aren’t “human cells”, they are human cell organelles; there are many within our cells. They produce our energy. Wikipedia can tell lots about those but whoever wrote this clearly doesn’t have a clue.

5. DCA may well be a useful chemotherapeutic agent in some cases, but one paper showing it kills some cancer cells in a dish and maybe shrinks rat tumours is not enough to trumpet to the world that there’s a cure for cancer. Our lab wrote a similar paper last year; it’s just one of many findings that needs to happen before a drug gets taken seriously, and if something is widely-available and non-patentable, it may not be grabbed up by Pfizer and co. but that doesn’t mean other people won’t still work on it (see curcumin/turmeric, for example).

Overall, the article is rubbish, ignore it!!

Ed: the same advice applies to any person on the internet who claims they can cure cancer. They can’t. No one person is ever responsible for this*, no one agent, no one dose or visit. Talk to people who have lived through it and they will confirm this. And don’t dare tell me or anyone I work with that we don’t want a cure to get out, just because we’d have to find another job.

*Edit: treatments and cures for patients come from the following (including but not limited to): researchers – present and all who have gone before – and support staff; pharmacologists; medical doctors; nurses; often surgeons; patients who take part in trials; clinical trial administrators; statisticians; investors (making drugs is really expensive); manufacturers (can’t do experiments without equipment); fundraisers (CRUK for example could not afford to fund the research it does without donors, from charity shoppers up to those who leave substantial amounts in wills), animals and techs, and no doubt more.

I know that I, and all my colleagues past and present, would happily find something else to do if it meant that no one had to suffer through cancer and/or the loss of loved ones. I’ve done it twice, most of us have experience of it, and insinuating that my paycheck is more important than life itself is one of the most insulting ideas I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear.

Sexist “brand advice”? No thank you

Today’s rageblog is brought to you by sexism and racism in the worst analogy I’ve seen in a long time.

Phil Baty,  Times Higher Education and World University Rankings editor, picked up on this piece* on the THE news pages today. Having alerted the Everyday Sexism project, he rightly said that underneath the rubbish in this article lies a perfectly valid point about universities being encouraged to play to their strengths, whatever they happen to be, even if they are commonly overlooked in exercises like league table ranking. However, the analogy used is truly abysmal.

From the title: “Brand advice to rankings also-rans: find your own line of beauty” and sub-headline: “Universities told not to mope like teenage brunettes with blonde ambitions” we see that this is going to be about comparing Higher Education institution performance to expectations of female appearance. Sounds like a great idea! Apparently teenage girls with dark hair tend to “mope” because they wish they were blonde. OK then. I’m not even sure where that comes from, it barely makes sense. Ambitions to have a different hair colour are often easily rectified with some cheap, convenient chemical concoctions. That aside, there’s the assumption that this happens, and that if it does, it’s just what girls do – nothing to do with a sexist backdrop to our culture that consistently tells girls, from day 1, that their being beautiful is the main thing (and dictating what that “beauty” is).

THEsexismBrandAdvice

The picture accompanying the piece is also, um, striking. Underneath it says “Back to their roots: universities should make the most of their unique assets” – really running with the hair thing. Girl plays (we assume) mournfully with her impossibly-shaped blonde Barbie doll. Bless her and those unattainable goals of emulating this caricature of femininity. Why won’t she wake up and see that she is kinda pretty, anyway?

Brand advice, you say. We’re sure to find a PR firm involved, then – it’s Frank, Bright & Abel who (according to their website) “specialise in brand identity, brand and marketing communications, and internal engagement“. I’m not sure you’ve been particularly bright in this communication.

Going to Twitter, their HE-focused account has promoted the post. I did correct them to point out that it’s less “brand advice” and more ridiculous sexism, but no response so far.

More from the article:

Universities that are not top of the league tables are marketing themselves like a teenage girl who “spends all her time wearing a wardrobe that doesn’t suit her body shape”, a branding consultant has said.”

That branding consultant is FBA’s Rebecca Price (I haven’t had any response from her yet, either). She seems perfectly content here to run with the ridiculous “body shape” idea (promoted by the likes of Gok Wan and every body-shaming women’s mag you can wave a hot wax-covered stick at), that women should closely inspect all their limbs and pointy bits and inny bits so that they can buy some clothes that fit them just-so, because we’re all out there to model clothes and look pretty for everyone, right?

As if teenagers, and specifically teenage girls, aren’t already bombarded with enough prescriptive image “advice”. Girls grow up in a world where women’s bodies are used to sell entirely unrelated products; are constantly scrutinised by the media, peers and adults everywhere; are appropriated by political movements (it can be a shock realise that actually you can do what you like with your own fertility if you so choose, but quite a lot of people vocally oppose that choice) and used to measure women’s worth. Girls do not need more people pointing out that what they look like is what matters – particularly in the context of higher education!

It’s a bit like…the teenage girl who’s got black hair and brown eyes who longs to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and spends all her time wearing a wardrobe that doesn’t suit her body shape,” she explained.

“Universities…like that teenage girl need to get to the point where they realise: ‘Look love, you may not be blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but you’re lovely, and this is how you’ll make the best of it’.

I’m sorry, what? This reads to me like a shockingly racist, as well as sexist, line of thinking. Perhaps Ms Price draws on her own experience, doesn’t have blonde hair and wanted it when she was little, OK, but it’s truly dense not to stop and think about what you’re going to say here and realise how it will come across. I can’t avoid Godwin’s law, but holding up the blonde/blue-eyed (not that there’s anything wrong with them) as the ideal girls are aiming for in your professional communications (or indeed any conversation), really?

Look love…“? Is this how people speak to Ms Price? I’m sorry if that’s the case.  “Make the best of it“? As if anything else is sub par and you’ll have to scrape around to find something, anything, to be proud of when it comes to your looks and as a human being?

I know what the point is, I get it. But as Mr Baty said and, I assume, David Matthews (the THE journalist who published the comments) thought – even if it is a valid point on University rankings and how those who don’t always get noticed could attract more customers students, this was surely one of the worst ways of communicating it.

THE’s Twitter account have half-fairly pointed out: “We are reporting the comments, not making them” and the writer David Matthews has echoed that he is “reporting, not endorsing“. I think Mr Matthews could have made an effort to show some disapproval, shock, question or something about the comments, though perhaps that’s not within his remit in this case. [Edit: he suggests it is up to readers alone to interpret]. I usually enjoy reading THE pieces, they are often refreshingly not devoid of personality – I would prefer to see people picking up on this sort of unnecessary, damaging commentary (as later tweets have done), rather than just re-posting it without criticism. So this blurb is my criticism to attempt to redress the balance.

It’s almost funny that this has come from a supposed “communication specialist” – THE happily confirmed that FBA did not make any payments to have their firm mentioned, nor did any competitor do so (given Ms Price’s comments, it might be surprising if more institutions decided to take brand advice from them).

We are surrounded by sexism, Higher Education is certainly no exception and indeed people are very much trying to address it. Not regurgitating awful marketing “advice” would be a simple a good start. Not having the comments made at all would be even better, but sadly we’re not there yet. Only by questioning and critiquing this tired nonsense can we begin to see it as the odd mistake rather than the standard background noise.

*Available on Freezepage.

Edit: I have been somewhat told off for criticising the writer because he’s just doing news-style reportage. I had a rant about that as well but haven’t added it in because it’s a fair point in a sense. If anyone has something to add on the subject, please continue below in the comments.

Opt-Out Organs

I’ve never really felt the need to write about organ donation as an issue because what the right thing to do seems very obvious to me; make the system opt-out so that, by default, organs fit for donation are harvested and distributed to patients on waiting lists.

Unless you don’t want that to happen; if, for some reason, you actually care what happens to your body after you die. I don’t really get this POV – when you’re dead, you have no consciousness, no future, no considerations – you are no longer. You are an ex-person.

What’s the problem?

Some people do seem to have objections. Often religious ones; apparently it’s important when you transition to a non-corporeal afterlife that your corpus (for some reason) remains intact, such as it is. Embalming, coffins, all of that – try to preserve your physical form, even though you no longer need it. Very strange, really. But people do it.Organ transplant box

Perhaps you care what your family thinks after you’ve gone. Maybe you want to spare them the apparent trauma of doctors distributing your parts to others who could make use of them. Again I don’t really understand that – what better gift to give in your death than that of more life for others? Life for parents, for children, for friends and family and lovers. Why would you want to withhold that?

People are selfish, that’s why. You and yours matter more than anyone else and theirs. There’s reason to that, to an extent, but I think the world might be a nicer place if people were more concerned about others in both life and death, managing to lay aside what we want for ourselves when others could potentially benefit, at little or no cost to us.

Until research and technology allow us to grow whole, fully-functional organs in the lab, unfortunately we are reliant on organs people have grown in their own bodies for transplants. I also wonder what people who have objections to donation would do if they found themselves or one of their loved ones on a waiting list for an organ? Well, given that aforementioned selfishness, presumably hope that other families are more selfless.

It seems a similar kind of thinking pattern to that of anti-vaccination. We don’t want to take the (tiny) risks, I’ll do what I want despite the evidence, I’ll reap the benefits of a society that doesn’t share my views and shelters me and mine from my stupidity. Too harsh?

Another perspective

I posted about this recently when the opt-out plans enacted in Wales were in the news and someone made a point I had never considered before.

People have funny ideas about death; it’s one of those largely incomprehensible, stressful, emotional yet utterly everyday concepts we really struggle with as human beings. As a result, we sometimes do odd things in life.

One of those odd things is to be superstitious. Avoiding certain things lest we tempt fate and upset the supernatural forces that may or may not govern our destinies. That superstition could well include completely avoiding the idea that we may die unexpectedly, and thinking about what would happen after that event.

So, if someone is squeamish about the idea of death, and their own in particular, maybe they don’t really want to carry around a card that tells the world they’re happy for other people to make use of their organs after that collision with a bus/overzealous motorbike excursion/tragic fall/accidental overdose.

Some people might feel that signing those forms and receiving that card makes that death-reality come closer. They might be as rational as you like and know how ridiculous it is, but just that feeling, that discomfort, could deter them from participating in the opt-in system. They’d have no problem if it were all up to the people dealing with them after their death – they wouldn’t ever have to actively think about it.

I wonder, how many potential donors have we lost because of this emotional quirk? How many could we gain with the opt-out system?

Opt out if you have to

If you care so very much what happens to your no-longer-living flesh, surely at some point in your life you can find the time to sign the form that tells everyone else about it. The change would be publicised, the population educated.

Lives will be saved by that simple action; even if you don’t want to actively participate in donation, you minimise the impact your non-participation has by agreeing to the system change. Maybe that can satisfy you.

If it doesn’t, what exactly is the problem?

I really don’t understand. Religious beliefs are allowed, but surely where there are negative consequences, you should seek to contain those. Personal objections are also allowed, but again, if you care so much, what’s so hard about making sure you tell people?

Is it that it’s embarrassing? Perhaps, then, time to re-examine the position.

Like so many things, it seems to be a problem with failing to empathise, failing to seriously consider the future. A lot of people are really bad at that.

But, thankfully, I do think the majority want to help others when they can, and would welcome the change. It is of course a lot more complicated than the above, but those are my current thoughts.

For now, don’t forget to join the register if you haven’t already – it’s really easy. And I’m proud to have that card in my wallet.

Battling sexism

Recently there have been yet more stories centred around sexism and misogyny in our culture. I’d like to discuss two that have interested me this week.

At least they got the apostrophes right..? Via guardian.co.uk

At least they got the apostrophes right..? Via guardian.co.uk

A battle won

Today, thankfully, there has been some Good News! A rarity, it sometimes seems, and something to be celebrated. Congratulations to the Science Museum and everyone who spoke up about Boots separating their children’s toys by gender, and including the sciencey ones only in the boys’ section.

Other retailers have binned this outdated, damaging stereotyping behaviour so, while it’s unfortunate that it’s taken a company like Boots so long, it’s good to see them following suit.

“…It’s clear we have got this signage wrong, and we’re taking immediate steps to remove it from store.” – Boots

Yes, it’s wrong. I’ve said so before and will continue to be angered by needless gender separations in stores for e.g. toys and magazines.

It may well be a bit of a chicken and egg situation. So they say they organised it with the separation because of “customer feedback” – parents want to find toys for their boy/girl easily? They can’t just browse a toys section and pick out something they’d like?

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photo by Andrew Holding

To be honest, that sounds like it’s parental stereotyping at work. I’m not going to buy dolls for my boys or cars for my girls, that wouldn’t be right. Well, parents, I implore you – consider your child as a person, irrespective of their genitals/chromosomes, and encourage them in what they enjoy, what they find fascinating, whether you think it’s “gender-appropriate” or not. Be better.

Unfortunately there are other stores – such as Morrisons and Clarks (see image) – who continue to separate toys like this, and it’s frustrating for some parents. Read more in this article by Andrew Holding.

Edit: I have also contacted Wilkinson regarding their toy section that I spotted in Stratford recently. Through this I have discovered this excellent Twitter account, LetToysBeToys! They even have a petition.

A new conflict

You may also have heard that the Bank of England is suggesting that Churchill replace Elizabeth Fry on our £5 notes, which would likely come into effect in a few years, in 2016. This would leave no women on our banknotes. If you really think people are so stupid that you have to point out that the Queen is a woman, you are entirely missing the point. If I must explain, the figures on our notes (apart from the current monarch) are there because of their achievements; their contributions to society and UK progress. Not because they were born into a royal family. So be quiet.

At first glance, this might not seem like the worst thing. The figures on our bank notes change periodically, when we have to redesign the notes to counter fraud. Elizabeth Fry has been on £5 notes since 2002, and we had Florence Nightingale on £10 notes from 1975 to 1994. But they are the only two women, and replacing Fry will erase all acknowledgment of female achievement from our notes for some time – unless one of the others is redesigned with a new female figure at the same time.

Today’s BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour episode included a discussion on the banknotes decision (8 mins long in the link). Plenty of female candidates were pointed out; that most won’t have heard of many of them, despite their amazing work (for example, Beatrice Webb, economist and co-founder of the LSE), is surely reason to increase visibility of forgotten female influences in our history.

Wut about the menz?

I do not accept the argument that history has recorded men as the winners, therefore we should accurately represent that. Here and now we are trying to create a more equal society (well, some of us are) and part of that is doing what we can to correct the mistakes of the past. Acknowledge that sexism and misogyny are alive and well, and used to be even worse – so let’s pull the suppressed achievements of women out of the dark and show them to people living and growing up now. Similar instances of just that include the edit-a-thons in which people have dedicated time to editing pages to give due credit to women, for example in the history of science.

This is important for young women (and men) – to realise that gender is not a barrier to achievement, despite what the history books may show. These little sexist acts build up, and while lacking female role models on banknotes may be a little thing in isolation, it’s one of many that add together to give young people the message that women are underachieving and undeserving of recognition.

I do not agree that striving to have at least one woman on our notes, giving some small recognition to the contributions of approximately half of the population that have been systematically erased, is overcompensating or being unfair to men. Striving for something closer to equality instead of extreme (pro-male) bias, whether that bias be “historically-accurate” or not, is not overcompensating, only pushing for equality. That’s feminism, it’s not asking for no men to be recognised, only to make a positive change that will address an imbalance.

Aside from the gender balance issue, there are other reasons we might object to putting Churchill in particular on our notes (thanks to Liz for pointing that one out).

This will depend on your view of what our currency is for. If you think it’s simply a leaf out of the history books, then this is unlikely to bother you.  The Guardian have picked up on the story and are running a poll. If, however, you would like to object to the removal of all female achievers from our bank notes, you can sign the petition. Also follow @weekwoman and @TheWomensRoomUK on Twitter for more.

Edit: spectacularly on-topic and brilliant is Suzanne Moore’s article today about successful women eschewing feminism as if they don’t need it and never benefited from it. I have had direct experience of this kind of sentiment and am very glad someone has hit the nail on the head with a piece like this.

Another edit: I have also had a rant about the banknotes on this week’s Pod Delusion. Indeed, it is worth acknowledging that Clydesdale bank do in fact have two women on their banknotes; Mary Slessor on the £10 note (bit of a double-edged sword; women’s rights yay! Christianity-spreading boo) and Elsie Inglis on the £50 note – an excellent physician and suffragist.

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