Posts Tagged ‘violence’
I’m writing this in the lover’s house, because I don’t want to go home.
Earlier, sitting on my bed, in my dressing gown, talking to the lover on the phone, I heard a noise. It was a lot like the sound of my front door opening. It couldn’t be, though, because the front door was locked, and the only other person with a key, the person, in fact, who surely locked the door as he left my house last night, was calling me from work on his lunch break. I chatted a bit more, then I heard another sound. I went out to see if the cat was eating my gladioli, and there was a middle aged lady standing at the bottom of the stairs.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m looking for Hard As Nails,*” she said.
“It’s next door,” I told her.
“This isn’t the manicurist?” she said.
“This is my home.” I thought she might leave then. The moment when she opened my door and stood on my post would have been a good moment. The minute when she pushed open the next door and looked up my stairs to the cat’s scratching post would have been good too. I can see how it may have seemed rude to leave just as a woman in her dressing gown asked her why she was here, but now seemed like the perfect moment to apologise and get the fuck out of my flat. Instead, she asked for more directions.
“This is the first time I’ve been.” She said. Well, yes.
After she left, I frantically locked the door. Then I called the lover back, and shouted, a lot. I don’t think he’ll repeat the mistake for a while.
Middle aged lady in hallway, looking for a manicure. No big deal, right? Well, no. I would consider it a favour if she’d stolen the yellow pages from the doormat, and she did, albeit slowly, go away without a fight. So why am I freaked out?
Partially, it’s because I’m scared of what goes on around my home. A couple of weeks ago I heard screaming and begging in the middle of the night. I opened the kitchen window and shouted,
“Are you ok down there? Do you want me to call the police?”
“Yeah,” a voice answered from the dark.
“Well, keep it down then,” I said. He was either ok, or wanted me to call the police. The cops arrived within about 30 seconds, in six police cars with flashing lights, which was nice.
Since then I’ve had an irrational fear that whoever was threatening someone in the alleyway behind my house that night is going to come round and smash up my car for thwarting him, which is a bit silly since it might just have been a couple arguing about the gas bill. That my door was unlocked all night brings out terrifying imaginings. Still, I suspect that isn’t really the root of my fear. It’s probably this:
I was once in bed with my girlfriend on a lazish sort of morning, when I was living in private halls. The door was locked, this time. I was in the middle of my room, walking to the bathroom, wearing nothing at all, when I heard a key in the door. There was a strange man standing in the doorway. He walked into my room. I said. “Get out!”
He didn’t stop. He told me he was here to test the electrics in my room. He kept walking towards me. I started yelling, “Leave now!” over and over. He kept telling he he wouldn’t go. Eventually, I must have mustered enough of a commanding tone, because he said he’d give me a minute. I put on my dressing gown, and stormed out to find he’d retreated to the kitchen. I demanded to know what he thought he was doing. He explained that since students slept late, he had a key and just went into the rooms and got on with his work. I said there was no way he was coming into my room now. He said I had to let him in, I’d been given notice by the sign on reception (“Electrical checks will be carried out in this building on …”). I said he had no right to walk into my room without permission. He sighed and exchanged a “silly women!” look with the teenage trainee he’d brought along. My girlfriend and I went to complain at reception. By the time we got back, they were in my room again.
I’ve developed a bit of a thing about people in my space since then. That might be why I yelled at the man from United Utilities yesterday when he turned off the water to my flat without telling me he was going to. It might be why I wasn’t friendly and helpful to the silly woman in my hallway. It might be why my landlady saying she’d let the surveyor in if I wasn’t there drove me to blind rage.
And you know why? It’s salami slices. The men are going to exchange that ‘hysterical woman!’ look sooner or later, so why not make that sooner? The man who pressures you into letting him walk you home is going to pressure you into letting him in for coffee, and the man who pressures you into a dance is going to pressure you into a close move; before you know it, there’s a penis poking you in the hip. The next place my girlfriend lived featured a landlady who used to hang around in the hallways of the shared house, and eventually turned up with two big men to force their way into her bedroom and take away her bed. Each individual step is only mildly objectionable, but it’s the journey that matters.
I’m stopping them sooner, the harassers and the landlords. And I’m getting an intruder alarm.
*Comedy shop names substituted to protect my address.
On Sunday I walked out of the front row of a burlesque show during a song about intimate partner violence. If you think you’ve read this post before, you kind of have, except that I had less courage in the last one. This time I’d had chance to think. I’d already sat through a song about killing a lover who wants to leave, and displaying his dismembered body parts. As the audience applauded at the end I’d stared at the performer, hoping he’d catch my eye. I’d told the lover how upset I was during the interval. When the performer returned in the second half I was hopeful. He’d been fairly funny during the song before the abusive, murderous one, he’d sung about dogging. But, no, he sang, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, and if you leave me I’m going to kill you.” It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny twice. I couldn’t sit through it, I couldn’t sit still. Also, I kind of needed to pee. So I left. When I returned, the compere asked, “Were you somewhere important?” That’s when I told the all the people at the Lowry that I was offended by the act. I guess the singer heard, too.
So now I’ve been upset by people singing about violence towards their partners at two burlesque events. Is it just coincidence? Or is it a genre?
The odd thing about this particular performer is that I know people he knows. Hell, I like people he knows, and they like his performances. So I began wondering whether they had heard the song very differently, in a different context. We’ve all made jokes that have fallen flat because we told them in the wrong place, to the wrong people. Like when an assistant got me to try on a particularly zipped and pocketed pair of cycling trousers with Velcro cuffs, and I told him they would be ok if I was going camping with dykes. The joke would have been ok if he’d known I’ve fallen for butch women, that I’m a card-carrying SM Dyke.
About a week after I saw Joe Black, I came across this interview with the author of 50 Shades of Grey. Everything that I’ve read about this book encourages me to hate it. Everything that I’ve read of this book (the first page, while stood in Sainsbury’s) convinces me it is very, very badly written. It’s Twilight fan fic, Twilight being a series that glamourizes abusive relationships in books for impressionable teenagers. I hate this book because it represents BDSM as unsafe and non-consensual, and represents kinksters as traumatised and damaged. And most of all, I hate this book because I’ve nearly finished writing a novel about kinky relationships, and I don’t like the idea that it will be lumped in with, or worse, compared to, this trash. I’m writing about kink honestly and wholeheartedly, and I’m looking at a success that tells big fat lies about it. I’m primed to hate.
But…the woman’s kind of sweet. She says the book is her midlife crisis. She’s amusing about frantically tapping it into her phone on the train. And she happily admits that she can’t write. I begin to wonder, am I
hating something out of context?
If my flatmate was an avid Twilight reader, I would sigh, and get her a copy of Wuthering Heights packaged for Twilight readers for Christmas. I wouldn’t be angry with her. If for two years she spent all her spare time obsessively writing out her erotic fantasies, I’d try to get her out more. In fact, I’d take her to kinky events where she could meet similar obsessives, who write their own sexual fantasies on their blogs. I wouldn’t be angry with her, although I might hope that her life picks up soon.
When you’re writing a blog for your kinky acquaintances on Fetlife you don’t have a responsibility to represent kinky people or play in any particular way. When you’ve sold 2 million copies of a book, that’s 2 million people you’ve misinformed. I’m sure she didn’t write it with that many people in mind, but there you go. The audience matters.
Which leads me back to Mr. Joe Black, and his audience at the Lowry. The lover pointed out that he normally plays to audiences of Goths. Much as I’m sure there is intimate partner violence in the Goth community, it would have sounded much more like an amusing take on Gothic eroticisation of death. In the bar he’s playing soon in York, Stereo, the audience would be a bit less mainstream, and the song would sound less like it’s reinforcing mainstream values. The Lowry, unfortunately, has the most thuggish audience I’ve ever seen at a burlesque show. Slippery Belle there featured a man yelling, “Show us your tits!” at the compere, and being cheered by a significant proportion of the audience. At this show, the compere made a song and dance (literally) about being gay, but the prevailing assumptions were that the audience was straight. The female performers draped themselves over the men, never the women. A singer danced with a man two chairs away from me, he groped her, she pushed him off, and he groped her again. Sexual violence, albeit in a form all of us have experienced, wasn’t a distant possibility, it was going on right there. The reality of people killed by their partners as they try to leave was a bit too close.
From now on, I’m going to try hard to ensure my writing communicates its tone effectively enough that the contents can’t be misunderstood. If it’s a fantasy about schoolgirl canings, there should be no way that you can think that I believe schoolgirls ought to be caned, if it’s my personal take on what it’s like to be a splosher, you should be conscious throughout that I have never practiced, nor knowingly conversed with a practitioner of, sploshing. It will be good for my writing, and it would be good for us all to take a little more responsibility for what we say. Don’t let the bastards think you agree.
The love interest in my novel is a burlesque dancer, and writers have to research. So, hardship as it is, I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time watching girls take off their clothes. I’ve clapped encouragingly through some truly terrible routines, I’ve bought earplugs to cope with the noise at Slippery Belle and I swear that next time I’ll remember to take a lemon of my own, because, as the bartender put it, “this isn’t the sort of establishment that puts lemon in gin.” I thought I knew the worse bits of the scene. Then, last week, I went to Carnival Divine.
I’d heard good things about Carnival Divine and the calibre of the performers was obviously higher than at my usual, sticky-floored, lemonless hang out. I booked a table and I wore my shiniest shoes. Sipping my strawberry daiquiri, I waited excitedly for the show to start. The acts were good. The costumes were beautiful. Kitty Bang Bang is one of the best performers I’ve seen, and when she stepped off the stage in her paw-print pasties, leaving one or two audience members with milk splodges on their clothes, I clapped and cheered with everyone else. The next act was Puppetual Motion. A man behind a taped-together cardboard screen readied his finger puppets.
I won’t go into everything that wasn’t politically correct, because I don’t really know what the non-racist’s response should be when people make fun of Frenchmen, and I’ve no clue what the sponge-puppet’s accent implied. I’ll tell you what made me really angry. It was the song about domestic violence.
The puppet told us he’d had a girlfriend and said he, “came home to find her sucking my best friend’s dick.” His reaction was to try to ruin her life in every way he could, from getting her sacked to downloading child porn on her computer. I didn’t find it funny, because the underlying assumption was that a woman whose sexuality didn’t conform to his wishes deserved to have her life destroyed, but I do recognise that anger at infidelity is not uncommon. It was when he sang that he was going to smash his guitar in her face that I felt the burning in my gut. It was a comic song about a man beating up his ex-girlfriend. People laughed and cheered. They applauded Peter Kennedy as he crept off the stage, concealing himself behind his piece of cardboard. I couldn’t clap. There was a buzzing in my head. I was so angry. I’m still so angry.
I expect to come across jokes about violence and misogyny in my everyday life. I expect to hear that women’s sexuality should be policed violently. Years ago I did the number crunching for this report and found that 10% of Northern Irish students thought violence was acceptable if your girlfriend nags, flirts or refuses to have sex. That’s slightly higher than the UK average. In the room of, say two hundred people the other night, perhaps there were fifteen who held those attitudes. And if they think that punching your girlfriend is a reasonable response to her asking one too many times if you’re going to do the dishes, something more than that is probably appropriate for when she has a sexual encounter with your friend. The man on stage, and all the people cheering him, surely reassured those people that they are right.
I’m angry and upset, more than I would be if I’d overheard a stranger’s conversation or seen it on the television. I’ve seen burlesque as a space where women’s sexuality is accepted. I’ve seen performances by fat women, skinny women, heavily pregnant women, trans women, women in drag, lesbians and queers: Women who don’t do what they’re told, from dieting to sleeping with men to putting on a nice skirt. And I thought I was in a place where they were recognised as attractive people, people with agency, whose sexuality we (for want of a better word) celebrate. It took the lover to point it out to me, but the reason I was so upset was that the rules Peter Kennedy was applying, that women’s sexuality should be limited by a male partner, judge every women in the room. He judged the women who were dancing for us (sluts!) and all of us watching (whores!). He implied we should be beaten up. Unfortunately I do expect that in many places. I just never thought I’d hear it at a burlesque show.
I’m angry, and I doubt myself. Surely by the logic that says Peter Kennedy is promoting violence or contributing to a culture in which it is normal and acceptable, I should judge other humorous songs. What about Tom Lehrer’s narrative of murder and mutilation, which I’m quite happy to laugh at? Is that allowed, since cutting off your girlfriend’s hand is rare, while women are injured and killed trying to leave their partners quite often? And how much defence does humour provide? How do you judge the delicate balance between showing a character and supporting the character’s views? I have a degree in English Literature, an MA in Cultural Theory, and very nearly another MA in Creative Writing, and I still can’t answer that question.
I started to doubt myself a little less, reading Kitty Stryker on the subject of FetLife tweeting a “drunk hooker joke”:
When people call you out on the entitlement that often comes with such humor, reflect on why it’s so important to you to cling to your “joke.” Is it that important to you to tell drunk hooker jokes? Really? Is that an important part of your sense of humor? Why? Does freedom of speech include hate speech? Should it? Where do you draw the line on what constitutes such speech? If you say something offensive, is it really so terrible to apologize? Is that “political correctness gone wild” or just being a polite human being who doesn’t like to inflict hurt on others and apologizes when things they do or say adds to institutionalized violence?
On the night of the show, I tweeted:
I was shocked that @carnivaldivine hosted an act, Puppetual Motion, with a misogynistic song about domestic violence. Empowering women?!
I received the reply:
Every act is a parody, even the finger puppets.
It had been deleted by morning. So my question is, Carnival Divine, is it that important to you that Peter Kennedy gets to tell his beat-your-girlfriend jokes? Perhaps you think I’m overreacting. Perhaps I should try to see the funny side. But I doubt that I’ll see the satirical humour of the next song about the joys of domestic violence, either. I doubt the other people in the room who’ve been subject to violence from a partner (one in four women and one in six men, so a probably significant proportion of those present) appreciate the sparkling wit of such songs. With Puppetual Motion as Carnival Divine’s “resident puppeteer”, I’m going to have to think very hard about giving up going to one of Manchester’s best burlesque nights. Given the empowering, celebratory atmosphere of the burlesque world I know, I think that’s really very sad.
I type this with aching arms. You’d know that, if you could see me, because I have mottled bruises on each upper arm. I look like a soft fruit that’s been dropped and retrieved.
I like marks. When tops have offered post-beating arnica applications, I have refused on the basis that I’d like to preserve the bruising. It isn’t a purely aesthetic decision; I like to think that marks justify the wriggling and screaming that went on while the pain was being inflicted. Sometimes marks risk betraying my predilections to the world, of course. A few months ago, freshly caned, I went dancing in a swirly dress. A partner said to me, “your outfit is very…aerodynamic.”
“Is that another way of saying it lifts when I twirl?” I asked.
“Well, maybe you should get your mother to buy you some big knickers.” He said.
I considered saying, “I don’t think I want knickers from beyond the grave,” but that seemed inappropriate. I conducted a mental review of that evening’s knickers and decided they provided sufficient coverage and laciness. And then I remembered the six livid stripes across my bottom, and my face went as red as the weals.I didn’t come up with a good comeback. I asked my next partner whether my dress was too revealing, though, and he was reassuring. I decided I was probably being wound up. Then I was thrown into a drop, and felt my skirt catch, high, on the arms that caught me. The thought that staid Stockport was seeing my cane marks left me slightly off balance all evening. The next day I bought some very big frilly knickers, which keep me safe from exposure as long as no one marks my thighs.
I didn’t even think of hiding the more innocent-looking bruises on my arms I displayed them without a thought at my grandparent’s wedding anniversary and no one made a comment. I took my cardigan off in class and no one said a thing. I went out dancing, though, and every partner seemed strangely interested. “What happened?” “Did someone grab you too hard?” “Are those love bites?” (I think that man thought he was funny) “Everyone is talking about you, asking how you got those bruises.” Now, unlike cane stripes, a bruise on the arm has many non-kinky explanations. The problem is, none of those explanations were true. The truth is, my lover punched me. Repeatedly. That didn’t seem to be the thing to say.
I tried to wriggle out of commenting as much as I could. As I was mumbling a response, one man said, “That looks like a punch to me.”
“Hmm,” I said.
I’m not ashamed of my kinkiness. I don’t find it necessary to sneak about and tell lies. At the same time, there’s no need to involve people who haven’t consented in something they don’t much like, by constantly displaying it (I wish others would apply this logic to penises and football). I don’t own any long sleeved dancing dresses, and my bruises have been topped up with a few extra punches since last week.
Fellow kinksters, how do you deal with visible bruises? Do you wear them proudly, announce their origins and enjoy the shocked looks? Vanilla readers (I assume there must be some) are you offended by bruising? Would you call the police if I told you my lover had punched me? And can any of you lend me a long-sleeved dress?
I’m not very good at talking about my kink. You might think that someone who blogs about the kinky things she’s done would happily rattle off lists of things she would like to do. Recording what has happened, though, is mere note-taking; speaking about desire is more akin to divination.
What I can do is document my systematic failure to tell anyone what I want. My first forays into formal kink (to be distinguished from casual kink, during which one must maintain deniability and use something fluffy from Ann Summers) were based on HH’s enticing scenarios. All I had to do was embellish on a story of his invention, and any embarrassing details could be blamed on the characters or dramatic imperative. It wasn’t that I wanted to be beaten, but that the narrative simply demanded it. Unfortunately, HH obviously deemed the story-based approach to kink insufficient and sent me a limits list. I’d seen one of these before, at the University Pride Society’s Annual Bondage Lecture. I’d taken it home, looked up several words and quickly put it down again.
HH’s scene questionnaire had ticky boxes and 0-5 scales, so you could note past participation and current eagerness. I tried, I really did. I started by putting a definite tick next to ‘hand spanking’ at the top of the list, then considered my degree of desire for hand spanking. After some time I decided that “it depends” was the only truthful answer. There are hand spankings and there are hand spankings, some are more tolerable than others. Some moments are better than others, too; a hand spanking which interrupts a gripping chapter is less welcome than one which enlivens a quiet afternoon. A general fondness for hand spankings doesn’t indicate that they’ll always be wanted. Especially, I reflected, as there’s one moment at which I can reliably predict that I’ll feel a strong dislike of hand spankings, and that is when they are happening. I could be bursting with desire for a spanking, I could have pushed cheekiness into downright rudeness in order to provoke one, but within minutes I’m squirming and begging for it to stop. I decided to leave hand spankings to one side and put a tick next to ‘tawsing’. Then I went through the same mental process before failing to indicate my degree of eagerness for the strap.
I managed almost a page of ticks and crosses before I got bored. My next attempt to complete the list coincided with a particularly playful mood. That’s the only explanation I have for the kamikaze spirit in which I annotated ‘Caning’ with, “Maybe I should save myself for someone who can manage parallel lines,”* and ‘Birching’ with, “One of the things I’m less eager to try. Maybe that’s a reason to do it.” Next to ‘Act as Object’ I wrote a little summary of Juliette’s adventures with Minski and, clearly on a literary roll, further down I quoted Frost—“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” The questionnaire provided several pages of such amusement. After a while, though, it struck me that this perhaps wasn’t the approach HH wished me to take. I looked at my scrawling and decided not to mention it again.
My silence wasn’t effective. HH asked if I was finished. I put forward cogent arguments about the flaws inherent in the ticky-box approach to kink. HH demanded my completed form. I said I’d make a final attempt to shoehorn my sexuality into scales from 0-5 while I was on the train. On my arrival, I realised I’d forgotten to. Honest.
As a compromise, I proposed a conversational approach, with more nuance and less quantification. That fell through when HH printed himself a copy of the list and got out a pencil. I tried my best to answer his questions; I definitely communicated my aversion to feet, incomprehension of rubber and physical factors preventing me passing for a Japanese schoolgirl. Other areas were harder to address. By the end, HH was interpreting my silences; apparently my most eloquent communications take the form of blushing and looking away.
Silences blossom from embarrassment, ignorance, and even the tendency to mentally recite poems rather than consider the horrors of birching. My most insoluble silences, though, are rooted in the central paradox of a desire for pain. The things I like best, I don’t like at all. They hurt. That doesn’t diminish the high or the delicious feeling of being in someone’s power, but that power would be demonstrably false if it was only used to do things I like. I want to hate it. Then I want a hug. I’m pretty sure that’s a sound, if ill-expressed, position. When people ask what I’m into, though, “whatever you like that I really don’t, except feet and some other stuff I probably haven’t heard of yet,” doesn’t feel like a useful answer.
I do have fantasies, of course, and relating those would be an option. However, while long, organically growing narratives about kidnap, captivity and rape are very nice in one’s head, they aren’t exactly the sort of thing one brings up over tea and scones. Even if I did find the relevant moment to say “actually, I was thinking this morning about being half-drowned” I don’t think I’d be too pleased if a play partner went off to run a cold bath in response. Holding me underwater is something we might work up to after many months of non-lethal play. Or not. I do prefer the version of myself that keeps breathing.
Fortunately, my fantasies have been getting less extreme. Significantly sillier, but also less likely to result in death or vitamin D deficiency.** I’m haunted by images of a schoolgirl self: a girl in a green gymslip and a white blouse, with a sash around her waist and a boater over her curls. She’s a good girl, and she’s trying, but the lessons are so very boring, and her teacher doesn’t understand the difficulty involved in listening to him drone on. In a truly worrying turn of events I’ve even found myself fantasising about the academic content of her classes. English grammar is the most desirable, but I’d take European geography or the fun bits of history (the eras when they’re pillaging nunneries and chopping people’s heads off, not making import/export law).*** I suppose I could tell play partners that I’d like to wear an unflattering outfit and learn the bits of English so boring they’d given up teaching them by the time I went to school. Then I could try to explain that I’d like to be spanked because I’d just hate it. The drowning has a certain classiness about it, in comparison.
Does anyone know of a remedy for coyness? Or have a better expression of the pain paradox? More importantly, does anyone want to teach me a lesson? I think I need a few classes lined up before I blow my pocket money on a gymslip.
*I’d been particularly wriggly during my last caning.
**My exploration of scene was stalled, incidentally, by a boyfriend who claimed the opposite would happen. Kink escalates; apparently a couple of taps on the bum are a gateway which leads ultimately to a day when a pale, scarred version of you will shudder on the street outside a grubby basement dungeon where you hope to get your next fix of flesh hook suspension. Either I’m an anomaly or he was talking claptrap, I’ll leave you to decide.
***That was all absolutely true when I typed it. Later, in bed with ‘Third Year at Malory Towers’ I read this:
“’Where’s Mavis? I haven’t seen her all evening.’
‘She said she had a singing lesson,’ said Darrell. ‘But what a long one it must have been! Well, she’ll come along when Mr. Young’s finished with her, I suppose.’”
My mind wandered to activities not usually in the lesson-plan. I’m sure I’m not the first girl to have been corrupted by Enid Blyton.
Last New Year, as I stood in a crowd watching the fireworks and feeling a stranger’s hand squeeze my bum, I made a resolution. I was going to stand up to gropers, harassers, wannabe-rapists and people who refused to read my subtle signals. I wasn’t going to put up with it any more, because putting up with it only encourages them. If I was to become a shrill harpy of a feminist in the process, so be it. I didn’t have a specific plan, just a vague anger towards the people who think my body isn’t exclusively my own.
I should have made a plan. As it turns out, not suppressing my first reaction usually leaves me feeling guilty as well as grubby and violated. A couple of months ago, when a man passing on the street leant close to my ear and said, “nice tits,” I didn’t reasonably respond with, “I object to your sexually harassing me,” but choked out, “fuck off!” at an inappropriate volume. When a man touched me last week, I said if he did it again I’d kick him in the balls. While he didn’t seem too phased, I’m ashamed of myself for threatening violence. If violence is ever the solution to anything, surely it should be the last resort.
None of my readers have admonished me. If anything, those who responded implicitly supported my reaction. The notion that violence is acceptable in these circumstances seems to be widespread, look at the comments on this post, for example. I can see why. There’s a fire in it. The same fire I felt when I first read this:
Lots of women (men didn’t dare comment on the subject) stood up to publically declare: “How revolting, we absolutely must not consider that violence is an answer to rape.” Why not? You never see news items about girls—alone or in gangs—biting the dicks of men who attack them, or trailing their attackers to kill them or beat them lifeless. This only happens, for the moment, in films directed by men. [...] You see how men, if they were women, would react to rape. A bloodbath of merciless violence. Their message is clear: why don’t you defend yourselves more fiercely? [...]
But women still feel the need to say that violence is not the answer. And yet, if men were to fear having their dicks slashed to pieces with a carpet knife should they try to force a woman, they would soon become much better at controlling their “masculine” urges, and understanding that “no” means “no”. I wish I’d been able to escape the values instilled in my gender that night [when I was raped], and slit each of their throats, one by one.
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory, trans. Stephanie Benson (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009), pp.36-37.
There’s something very seductive in that. I could write all of my pain on the bodies of men who invaded mine, those who raped me, groped me, squeezed me, prodded me with their erect penises or otherwise made me feel violated and afraid.* In so doing I would send a message to all of the others. Maybe if I’d punched that man on Portland Street, he wouldn’t rub his dick against any more women.
On the other hand, maybe he’d have punched me back, harder, and left me bleeding on the ground. I didn’t reform one rapist even after breaking two of his toes. When I hit a colleague, reacting to a girl shouting, “get this man away from me,” my boss told me I’d done the right thing, then went off to advise the man against carrying out his threat of breaking my arm in retaliation. I’d done a great job at de-escalation as you can see!
I think there are two reasons why, on some level, accept a violent reaction in these situations. One is that it proves you meant “no.” I would be very hesitant to turn up at a police station to tell them about rape or sexual abuse without a scratch on me. I don’t think I would be believed. I’d be even more reluctant to fight back hard, though, because I’d rather be raped and alive than unraped and dead or seriously injured. I guess I’m weird that way.
The other reason is that women are seen as weak. Lashing out at men, they can look like the poor, victimised underdogs going after the baddie and grinding him into the dust. It’s an empowering image. The might of the powerful being used against the weak is not. The flaw in this view (apart from its obvious inaccuracies) is that the violent reaction is only acceptable because we’ll lose. Its premise is our weakness, our vulnerability. I’m allowed to hit him, because it won’t really hurt, he’s tough. If we all started punching men who touched us uninvited tomorrow, I suspect the result would be the same horrible power dynamics and black eyes all round. If it wasn’t, soon campaigners would be calling for an end to the reign of terror, and suggesting solutions for the oppressed underdogs: the men.
I got it wrong last week. Threatening to kick a man in the balls felt like standing up to him, but I was positioning myself to lose. I’ve replayed it in my mind many times since, and I still don’t have the answer. It’s nearly a year since I first resolved to do it, and I still don’t know how to confront the gropers. Do you? Will you tell me how?
*Apart from the ones who made me feel violated and afraid in a good way: Sade, Nietzsche and a few others. You know who you are. You all deserve cuddles and cake.
I just threatened a man with violence, then bought Christmas cards. Well, Season’s Greetings cards, actually, because they’re for the Amnesty Card Campaign and I don’t want to offend non-Christians. I don’t want to offend anyone, me.
Except this man in a tracksuit on Portland Street in Manchester. I want to do a lot more than offend him. I want to punch him in the face and kick him until he cries. I don’t even know his name and I hate him. I’m a more violent person than I knew.
I got up this morning, looked out of the window and wondered if I could bring myself to leave the house. It is one of those days that looks inviting but numbs your fingers and scorches your throat when you go out. I decided to run a couple of errands on the bike and call it exercise. Knowing I would have to put everything in the wash when I got home I put on a pair of lycra trousers which have been chewed at one cuff by my bicycle and a jumper with at least two holes in it. I thought about tidying my hair, but it was only going to be crushed under my helmet. I looked decidedly scratty, but who cares? I was returning library books, and retrieving lost property, not going on the pull.
I got to the cafe where I abandoned possessions yesterday, locked my bike up and the pushed on the doors. It was closed. I harrumphed quietly in frustration and went back to my bike, listening to Linkin Park (yes, Linkin Park, I never pretended to have a sophisticated taste in music) being loud and angry through my earphones. I bent over my bike to coax the lock open. After a few seconds I felt something press—no, poke—against my buttocks. I straightened up, right into the body of a man standing immediately behind me. I jumped, I even made a little, involuntary noise of surprise. Stepping away from the man, I said, at a volume I couldn’t judge because my earphones were in, “what are you doing?” I couldn’t hear his reply over Linkin Park. I jerked them out of my ears and said, “What?”
“Oh, yeah, I was just going to ask you the time.” The man grinned.
I held up my bare wrist, “Sorry, I don’t wear a watch.” I had a few seconds to reflect on the fact that I had just apologised to the stranger who, I realised with gross clarity, had just been jabbing me with his erect penis, before he grabbed my arm and said,
“The thing is, yeah, my mate’s over there,” he gestured vaguely up the empty street, “and I was going to get behind you and do this, right?” He spread his arms and legs wide and thrust his hips forward in an obscene motion, then he laughed.
“Next time,” I said, “I’ll kick you in the balls.”
“Yeah,” he said, “do that!”
I wheeled my bike around and started to walk away. He grabbed my arm again. I wrenched free. “Don’t touch me,” I said, and again, louder and shriller as I reached the curb, “don’t touch me!”
I cycled aggressively, dangerously, and then shot people dirty looks as I browsed for Christmas cards. I turned the volume up loud and listened to Nickelback on the way home. It didn’t help. I feel dirty, angry, and ever so slightly ashamed. I’ve been a professional peace worker. People have spent real money on my mediation training. I’m a fair way to being a pacifist. All that, and after one touch I’m threatening violence. He wanted a reaction and he got it, which makes me angrier still.
Once a fortnight I resist throwing things at Martin Amis. Usually books, but it depends what else is to hand. I haven’t had the guts to knit during sessions with him, but if I did, I’d launch my needles like javelins. Amis isn’t evil—he hasn’t killed people or spoken at the theatre—he just has a habit of making smug pronouncements that force me to sit on my hands for fear of doing something violent.
Today he announced the end of class and gender discrimination. The only oppressive system left, apparently, focuses on age, so we should concern ourselves with the old. Martin Amis is white, male, and not getting any younger. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why his concern lies where it does.
We made some points about education, I pointed out that class affects identity, and pulled some faces. What I didn’t do was rant and gesticulate, talk about the disproportionate number of women living in poverty, weep over the woman jailed because her abuser pressured her into retracting her rape claim, or demand to know why he hadn’t set a single novel by a female author. It wouldn’t have felt appropriate. He’s eminent, after all. Most of the eminent people are old, white men.
I’ve never taken the toffee-hammer approach to feminism. Generally, I think we’re like to get further if we don’t give everyone a reason to write us off as hysterical madwomen. So I wait my turn and voice my disagreements, if invited, politely. Even if I haven’t bothered to shave my legs, I’ve put on a skirt, hold-ups and some new Chanel foundation that I really couldn’t afford. I’m a nice, middle-class girl, after all.
Sometimes I imagine a life in which I wasn’t polite. I replay the moment when Martin Amis said that women should stop sleeping with gloomy novelists, because it only encourages them, and visualise myself saying what every woman in the room must have been thinking: that he didn’t have a chance with us, and sex with women isn’t some sort of rewards system for writers, in fact, some of them are women. I’d go back and tell all the guys who talk about their aggressive driving that they are dicks, and strip off in front of men who harass me on the street. Every time a man made a sexist comment while pretending to seek understanding of women or feminism I would slap his face and walk away.
I know that this isn’t how you build understanding or change minds. I realise that people are more likely to forget what you told them than how you made them feel. I have ideals and mediation training and Martin Amis’s autobiography. None of that changes this: I want to throw things at Martin Amis. If I’m arrested for assault, will the feminists bail me out?
People tell me that I’m a boundary pusher. On a good day it means that I’m a rule breaker, unafraid of authority and ready to take a stand. On a bad day it means that I get myself into trouble for no discernible benefit.
Sometimes I push people. When they push back it gives me a comforting sense of security: I know where I am with them. A little, gentle pressure is all it requires.
Does HH do gentle pressure?
HH and I had a lovely day; by late afternoon I had suffered a beating, enjoyed a look around a castle, a few moments inside an iron maiden, time in a lovely bookshop and two meals composed almost entirely of flour, butter, sugar and jam.
It started at the castle. There was a sign. One of those signs, the tempting ones that tell you not to do something quite fun and mildly dangerous. In this case, forbade leaning over the parapet. I just couldn’t help myself. I stretched forward and looked down at the ground far below. Perhaps I would have got away with that, as HH surely recognised the lure of a forbidding sign and the lack of danger. It was when I turned and hoisted myself up to perch on the thin wall with the sky at my back that HH reacted. He yanked me off the wall and onto my feet. He moved close so that I was trapped between the wall and him, using both hands to hold me still. “What,” he asked, “do you think you’re doing?” I mumbled something. “What do you have to say?” Spoken to in such a stern tone, I couldn’t even meet his eye. “Sorry,” I muttered. A couple had wandered out onto the battlements and were trying to squeeze into the space beside us for a view of the gardens. “Sorry, what?” I squirmed. I was acutely aware of the people next to me, who could hear every word I said. “Sorry,” I replied, “sir.”
The urge came over me again at the bookshop. I was enjoying myself browsing, when HH appeared at my shoulder and said we should leave in a few minutes. I explained that I was enjoying myself, and, to my great surprise, he didn’t budge. He didn’t say, “Oh, well a few more minutes, then.” He merely took my book about sexual violence and went off to pay for it. I was slightly nonplussed. Where was the negotiation? Where was the indulgence inspired by a wheedling tone and the words “just one more page?” I considered the fact that it being a large bookshop, I could easily slip off between the shelves and not be seen for a good half hour, longer still if I kept my eyes open for HH and darted behind a bookcase whenever I might be sighted. I was pondering this plan when he appeared suddenly at my side. I gave a very guilty start.
By the time we got back to HH’s house I was tired, I’d been sociable all day, and I had a new book. A recipe, I’m sure you’ll agree, for solitude. HH wanted to know what I wanted to do for dinner. I said I didn’t know, did we have to rush into a decision? Apparently we did, for it was very nearly dinner time. I was so ambivalent that HH made the call. He told me that he’d booked a table and that we would be leaving in fifteen minutes.
I’m sure you’ll agree that fifteen minutes isn’t very long when you have a new book in your hand. It was very comfy on the sofa. So it may have been some time after HH told me that we had to go in a couple of minutes that I stood up and said “I’ll just go upstairs and check that I don’t look a fright.”He looked at me, and I looked at him, and, standing with one hand on the door handle and the other on my hip, I said, “I’ll be two minutes.”
I really wasn’t away for very long. Not long enough to seriously ameliorate any frightfulness in my look, anyway. I breezed downstairs, slightly more matt and perfumed, and was stopped in my tracks by HH’s expression. “That wasn’t two minutes,” he observed, “it was eight. Come here.”
‘Surprised’ doesn’t quite cover it.
“We’re going to be late, because you refused to be ready on time. You need to learn that ‘no’ means ‘no’.”
“We’ll be even later if we don’t leave now.” I observed, rather pathetically.
“I think it’s worth taking a few minutes now to ensure that we’re on time in future.” He said, and with that, he tumbled me over his lap. As his hand came down for the first time I could hardly believe that I was there. By the time it came down for the second or third time, I was no longer thinking of my situation, but only of the pain.
I wriggled. I screamed. I gritted my teeth and tried not to scream, but screamed anyway. I threw my hand behind my back to try to shield my buttocks from the blows coming down on them, but only succeeded in throwing myself off balance. When I did manage to get my hand into a protective position, all that I achieved was it’s being pinned to my back by the wrist, so that I had even less freedom than before. That’s when I began to plead in earnest. I was sorry, so sorry, for taking so long. I wouldn’t do it again. I’d be good. Please, please, stop. I’m sorry.
HH let me up and put his arms around me. I sank into him. I was a sweaty, dishevelled mess, but I didn’t care. After a while he said, gently, that we ought to go. I stood quietly in the hallway while he collected his things, sat down very carefully on my painful bottom in the car and restaurant, and was very well behaved for—well, how long do you think I managed to be good?
A couple of hours later I rolled my eyes and said, “eight minutes!” I wish I hadn’t done that.
A couple of hours after that I observed that I’d had to hang around while he looked for his wallet and keys. I really wish I hadn’t done that.
As some point in the misty hours of the early morning I suggested that he’d been looking for transgressions to punish. He threatened punishment in return for my cheek. I pointed out that his reaction supported my point. I find it difficult to regret that, as I was so clearly in the right.
Have I learned my lesson? I suspect not. There’s a chance that I will. Signs on parapets can’t punish me, you see, but tops can, and it turns out they do.
What I have done is achieve a safe distance. From nearly a hundred miles away I’m confident enough to be slightly provoking by email. Well, I say slightly provoking, but I haven’t actually provoked a response so far. It’s only after I’ve pressed send that it strikes me that I’m not going to remain at a safe distance forever.