Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Fracking and feminism...

Zara is a 10-year-old girl growing up in a developing country. She does not go to school very often because she has to help her mother gather firewood for fuel. In Zara's country, "keeping the home fires burning" is still literally what has to be done to keep the household running. There is no electricity so even if she does make it to school, she won't have any light by which to do her homework at night. She can't access the internet and she has to help her mother do laundry, a labourious task without a washing machine or iron. Keeping floors clean and cooking meals in their basic shelter are not easy tasks for Zara and her mother. They don't have a vacuum cleaner, a dishwasher is an impossible dream, and meals are cooked on a wood-burning stove. This is the reality of an impoverished life without electricity. Zara will go to bed exhausted. If she gets sick, her demise may well be hastened by a substandard hospital with a sporadic electricity supply.

The next day, Zara might make it to school, she might not. It depends on the household fuel situation. Her 12-year-old brother is excused from household chores because that is just the way it is in a traditional, patriarchal society. He gets to school most days - it depends on whether the school bus is running in an area where fuel for transport is at a premium - and he will probably stay in school for longer than his sister will and he might have a few more opportunities in this world. Of course, he won't always get his homework done because of the lack of electricity but he does get to class more often than not.

But Zara will miss out, marry young and have children young because this is the only real prospect for an uneducated girl who is costing her family money to keep alive.

I made Zara up but the details of the story are played out in multiple developing countries all over the world. Last year, I attended a conference in Paris organised by the United Nations and the International Gas Union. It had a strong focus on issues affecting girls and women in the developing world related to fuel poverty. Stories like Zara's were shared by frustrated speakers, by women who work as gas engineers as well as in the arenas of government and development. There are still way more girls than boys who miss out on even a basic education and one of the biggest contributing factors in this injustice is lack of access to energy, something we take for granted in the developed world.

Imagine then, if shale gas or oil was discovered in Zara's community. Do we get our Sarah Palin on and drill, baby, drill?

This would lead to jobs being created, access to energy for towns and villages so families would have light at night, there would be money to buy labour-saving devices such as vacuum cleaners and electricity to power them, refrigeration would mean food would keep for longer, Zara would not miss out on going to school, Zara's mother would be able to cook dinner in a fraction of the time, Zara's mother may even have time to get her first job because her life is not revolving around finding fuel and trying to cook and clean without electricity, the school bus might run every day so boys and girls can all get to school, there may be enough money kicking around to buy a better bus or more buses, reliable access to energy would transform the experience of going to school as well as the lives of people in their homes.

These hydrocarbons would prove to be a great liberator of girls and women.

But to get them out of the ground, fracking would be required.

If you want equal opportunities for girls and women and you disagree with fracking, even if it is the only way to unleash fuel in some places, you have a conundrum. You are essentially opposing access to the one resource that could offer immense freedoms to girls and women. If you are sitting in a developed country reading this and freaking out about fracking, you are opposing access to a resource which probably played an immense part in you being able to complete your education.

So, what do we do?

We could look at best practice in fracking from around the globe and see what could be best applied to Zara's community. Germany has just declared a seven-year moratorium on shale gas fracking but is still allowing tight gas fracking - and Germany has several decades of successful fracking behind it so there are some good lessons to be learnt there. If Germany were to frack some more, they could end their dependency on Russian gas and that'd be a political game-changer. And it is important to know that fracking may not have the same environmental impact on a wide open space with nothing in sight as it would around, say, Blackpool. Not all shale gas sites are created equal.

Or do we say no to all fracking?

OK, fine. Let's say no to all fracking then. But that won't change the fact that fuel poverty is holding many developing countries back - and the resulting disadvantages this creates affect girls and women horrifically and disproportionately.

That fuel needs to come from somewhere.

So, how about we look at our foreign aid allocations? The notion of foreign aid is not a bad one but its implementation is frequently dreadful. How about we look seriously and constructively at ways to help bring energy to developing countries as part of our foreign aid programmes? This obviously raises new questions about whether aid recipients want a nationalised energy supply or to open it up to the free market. But even developing countries have the right to decide on what sort of energy economy they'd prefer and it is arrogant imperialism to suggest otherwise - and it would require sensitive negotiations about whether public-private partnerships would be involved.

If we are not keen to send fuel extracted by fracking to developing countries, or to frack such countries if unconventional oil and gas is found there, but we are serious about alleviating fuel poverty, we need plans B, C, D and E.

Could developed countries that are serious producers and consumers of renewable energy bring their knowledge and technology to the places where aid is needed? Bringing energy production to the developing world is a far better way to spend aid money that to send money directly into government coffers. I realise this is all very utopian, and helping a developing country produce energy could end up being a new way for a corrupt government to line its own pockets, but ending fuel poverty is an essential factor in ending all poverty.

Yet as we sit on our hands, non-fictitious Zaras are not going to school across the world and poor access to energy is a big part of this problem. Access to energy in homes, schools, shops, hospitals and communities - just as many of us have taken for granted for our entire lives - has the potential to be an incredible liberator of girls and women.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Get angry about jailed journalists in Egypt - but look in your own backyard too...

There is global anger at the jailing of journalists in Egypt. Three Al Jazeera journalists - an Australian, a Canadian and an Egyptian - have been sent down for seven years on absurd "terrorism" charges. Two British journalists and a Dutch journalist were tried in absentia and each sentenced to 10 years.

The whole case is completely appalling. In a world where news can break on Twitter, it is ridiculous that an Egyptian judge tries to silence journalists who are doing their job. And it is absolutely horrendous that the censorship is attempted via prison sentences.

But in the midst of the outrage, we should all stop to look at what is going on in our own backyards. On the weekend, thousands of people marched in London to protest the government's austerity measures. Regardless of your point of view on the current government's policies, a march of this magnitude is a news story. Of course, if the march descended into violence, if people were arrested, if anyone was kettled, if Boris Johnson could use it as justification for his stupid water cannons, if Nigel Farage spoke at the march, it would be guaranteed widespread media coverage. But a peaceful mass movement with numbers that have increased year on year? Tumbleweeds. It lurked on the fringes with a bit of Russell Brand-obsessed coverage in the Independent and Huffington Post. There was a wee bit in the largely unread Morning Star.

Oh, and a mere three sentences on the BBC news website for a protest that happened on their doorstep so it wasn't as if they would have even needed to pay for a reporter's cab fare. Not sure how those who keep banging on about "BBC lefty bias" will spin that one.

The Guardian did a slightly better job but, predictably, focused on Russell Brand for clickbait which led to a mea culpa piece to explain that the whole thing wasn't just about Katy Perry's ex-husband.

Yet today both the Guardian (which has confused media morals as it both covered much of the Leveson inquiry, apart from the few hours given to the portrayal of women in the media, and championed the ridiculous report) and the BBC news site have gone big with the Egyptian story today.

It is easy to wring one's hands about something happening in a foreign land far away.

Of course, the locking up of western journalists adds the much-needed proximity for media outlets in Canada, Britain, Australia and the Netherlands to ramp up the coverage. The Sydney Morning Herald has been diligently giving live updates. It's a shame Fairfax, the company that owns the SMH, has not been quite so diligent about preserving staff jobs or maintaining quality across the board. Murdoch's is also leading with the Egypt story - that'd be the same stable of journalists that are so deeply in bed with Prime Minister Tony Abbott that they were photographed after the last election toasting his victory.

Like I said, we all need to look in our own backyards because even if our countries are not jailing journalists for doing their job, they're not necessarily being conducive to giving people the free press they deserve either. Just ask any Australian journalist who has tried to get a visa to visit the detention centre for asylum-seekers on Manus Island about jumping through ridiculous hoops.

And then there is the elephant in the room - these journalists work for Qatar-based Al Jazeera and it is pretty clear that this is politically motivated. I don't think President Sisi will be sending warm Ramadan greetings to the Emir of Qatar next month. Indeed, tensions between Al Jazeera, the Egyptian government and Al Jazeera journalists working in Egypt are not new. And while Al Jazeera is obviously and rightfully reporting this outrage loud and clear, their journalists based in Qatar need to be constantly on their guard when reporting on local issues. On top of all this, Al Jazeera has been censored in the US, an act which deserves a slow hand clap.

Then there has been outrage expressed over the jailed journalists by expats in the Middle East. But a quick look at the today's homepages for newspapers in Qatar's neighbours in the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain reveals that none of these countries, all of which have heavily state-controlled media, are keen to make a song and dance about Egypt shitting all over press freedom today. It might give people in those countries ideas and all four governments are terrified of any dissent. All four countries have imprisoned journalists and bloggers. In the UAE, when bloggers went on trial, the ban on freedom of assembly was conveniently ignored by the police when a group of stooges gathered outside the court house to show their support for the government.

As such, lead stories on news sites for these countries include such groundbreaking stuff as Ferrari World opening a new ride in a mall, Ramadan working hours announced for the UAE private sector and Bahrainis being urged to commit to national unity, Interestingly,  the most hard-hitting lead today is from the Kuwait Times, with a call for action over an anti-Shi'ite article in light of horrific events in Iraq but there is nothing on today's news out of Egypt. The Saudi Gazette, meanwhile, leads with a two-steps-forward-one-step-back story on gender equality with a ban on visas for male tailors who make women's clothing and an unintentionally ironic story about the second Saudi woman to qualify as a pilot - except she won't be able to drive herself to the airport... But nowt on Egypt imprisoning journalists.

Who has the cojones to call out these newspapers on their ongoing commitment to peddling a government-approved line?

A terrible, terrible thing has happened in Egypt today. But as well as demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the three Al Jazeera journalists, we all need to be vigilant about calling out the assorted bullfuckery that goes on in the media we consume on a daily basis.

Nobody's backyard is full of roses.

Image by Dawn Hudson.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

And a second World Of Stupid for the week. Just because...

Hot on the heels of yesterday's World Of Stupid, which led to someone deeming me a worthy contender for Moron of the Year for daring to say women in developed countries probably aren't menstrually oppressed, I figured I'd wade back in for some more fun...

Here are a few more examples of idiocy that need to be exposed.

1. Cyclists versus motorists versus pedestrians...
I work near the dangerous Vauxhall gyratory. And the reason it is dangerous is because every day, I see multiple examples of stupidity. Three weeks ago, I walked past the tent that covered the body of the latest cycling fatality on my way to the office. There are people who blame cyclists, people who blame motorists and people who blame pedestrians. Frankly, after three years of crossing the road at the Vauxhall gyratory en route from the tube station to work, I have decided that the stupidity is evenly spread across all three groups. For every sensible cyclist/motorist/pedestrian there is inevitably a dickhead cyclist/motorist/pedestrian.

Since 2011, I have witnessed the following: Drivers who are incapable of working out how to get out of the way so ambulances can get past, a cyclist who called me a "fuckwit" for crossing the the road when the pedestrian light was green, cyclists running red lights, drivers who think the gyratory is Le Mans, drivers who almost mow down pedestrians by accidentally driving into the bit for buses, pedestrians who don't realise that the brief lull in traffic at the South Lambeth Street lights is always followed by a rush of cars driven at warp speed, an old woman nearly getting knocked over when crossing against the lights, a woman who stuck her pram-with-baby out into the traffic as some sort of test run to see if it was safe to cross (Hint: It wasn't) and today at lunchtime, a bloke walked into me while crossing the road because his face was buried in his phone.

Basically, if people are going to stop dying here or at any other London accident blackspot, everyone needs to use their brains.

2. Hand-wringing over homeless spikes
The spikes outside expensive blocks of flats and a Tesco, aimed at deterring the homeless from sleeping there, caused much outrage a few weeks ago. And fair enough - treating homeless people like pesky pigeons merely moves them elsewhere. But this is not new. Narrow seats in bus shelters that are really only comfortable if you have a Kate Moss bum, park benches divided into individual seats with hard, metal armrests, reduced access to public toilets... There are all manner of surreptitious ways that the government and private companies have tried to deter rough sleeping and it has been going on for years. But all this really tells us is that (a) we are no closer to finding any real solutions for homelessness and (b) while the spikes outside a Southwark block of flats and a Tesco have now been removed, it won't stop them popping up elsewhere. And then they will probably only be removed if a resident of an apartment building drunkenly trips up on them, lest a lawsuit be filed by someone who can actually afford a lawyer.

3. Labour's lurch to the right
Instead of offering a genuine alternative to Conservative policy, Labour seems intent on mimicking it with a pinch of pandering to UKIP thrown in for good measure. Seriously, how is today's announcement about cutting Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) for people aged 18-21 (because suddenly 18-year-olds don't seem to count as adults...) any better than the Coalition policy of cutting housing benefit for people under 25? And like any populist policy aimed at appeasing the Daily Mail while cynically hoping that young people won't bother to vote, it doesn't actually do a damn thing to create any more new jobs.

Frankly, the owls-for-everyone accidental tweet by Labour today makes more sense.

4. Forced marriage made illegal! Except it already is...
With much fanfare, it was announced this week that forced marriage is illegal in Britain. Hurrah! Yay, human rights! Er, except that it is already against the law to force someone to get married. It is already the case that both parties to a marriage must do so freely and give their consent. And there is a glaring loophole in the law that makes it fairly easy for forced marriage to be hidden in a veil of legitimacy. People aged 16 or 17 can get married with their parents' consent. It doesn't take Einstein to work out how this archaic law could be easily abused. It would make more sense for the legal age for marriage to be 18 across the board. (Even though you're not really an adult at 18 under Labour's JSA policy...).

The only real change is that parents who force their children to get married can now be jailed for up to seven years, which seems like a reasonable punishment for a terrible crime against one's own offspring. But will this, as the Home Office claims, make people more confident about coming forward to report such crimes? Will children report their own parents or aunts or uncles more readily if they know they will face jail? Hell, will this law even be properly policed or enforced? Such laws are notorious for a low rate of prosecutions. You've only got to look at the rates of prosecution for female genital mutilation in the UK (no prosecutions in almost 30 years despite more than 140 referrals with the first prosecutions only happening in March this year) to realise that all the laws in the world are fine and dandy but they need to be accompanied by education, awareness, safe places for people to go if they come forward to report such crimes and then fear for their safety, and wholesale, fearless cultural change.

Photography by Peter Griffin

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Because I am well overdue to share with you another installment of World Of Stupid!

All manner of things have been setting off my Damn Fool Radar of late and my Zero Tolerance of Idiocy policy has again taken a hammering. Here is a selection of choice morsels of recent stupidity in no particular order.

Seriously, everyone who is outraged at the recently bereaved Mick Jagger apparently finding a new girlfriend after the suicide of L'Wren Scott needs to get a grip. There is no statute of limitations on how long one must be celibate after the death of a partner. It is precisely nobody's business. Trust me, I know all too well that it can feel weird to have sex again after losing a partner, as if you're cheating on them, especially if you were perfectly happy when they died. There is no timetable for grief just as there is no timetable for scheduling in a convenient death but the two things that can outlive a lost partner are one's sex drive and desire to be loved.

2. BoJo offers to be cannon fodder
It was a stunt, pure and simple. A moronic distraction. Boris Johnson went ahead and bought secondhand water cannons from Germany, shitty, outdated water cannons that the Germans stopped using with one of the main reasons being safety concerns, such as poor visibility for the driver. It is easy to imagine bumbling Boris stumbling aimlessly around a used water cannon yard while a greasy-haired, shiny-suited salesman rubs his hands together in glee because another sucker has come through the door. And just to prove they are the law enforcement equivalent of being struck by a water pistol, Boris offered to be hosed by one of these beasts. He knew full well that (a) despite countless volunteers to either fire the water cannon or replace the water with their own urine, he was never going to be hosed and (b) it would prove a huge distraction to stop people talking about real issues such as policing by consent and why water cannons are ineffective.

3. Tony Blair: Middle East peace envoy
A farce and a joke. Except it's a sick, horrific joke that has killed countless people and will continue to do so. Nobody sane thinks Saddam Hussein was a lovely bloke. But more than 10 years ago, former Australian politician Carmen Lawrence got it right when she said that the scale of the original invasion was excessive for getting rid of just one man. Classic case of using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut on a deadly, expensive, tragically futile and violent scale.

4. A bloody mess in Spain
A group of Spanish performance artists, Sangre Menstrual, took the streets in apparently menstrual blood-stained jeans as part of their "Manifesto for the Visibility of the Period". They say they are tired of the shame that accompanies menstruation even in 2014. Except that in Spain, and indeed any developed country, the days of women being declared unclean and made to remove themselves from society during their periods isn't happening. Sure, some people, both men and women, might be grossed out by period blood, but plenty of us are also grossed out by other perfectly natural bodily fluids such as urine, excrement, vomit, bile and pus. It doesn't mean we want to walk the streets smeared in any of them.

Painful periods and heavy periods are real and they can be incredibly debilitating - it is important that if a woman is suffering like this, that she can access whatever healthcare she needs. If she needs time off work or school, that should also be acceptable. For women in the developed world, there are over-the-counter fixes for period pain, we can choose from tampons, menstrual cups, sea sponges and sanitary pads and most of us can attend to these needs hygienically and privately. To be able to menstruate and still get on with one's day thanks to all these things is wonderful. It levels the playing field between men and women. It means we do not have to be weakened by our periods.

Overall, a woman on her period in a developed country is not being oppressed. The girls and women who are being oppressed while menstruating are in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. ActionAid, a most excellent charity, is helping girls and women in such countries to access the menstrual accoutrements women in the developed world take for granted. They do not deserve to be insulted by a protest by women who fail to see how privileged they are. Click here to find out more about ActionAid's work in this field.

Photography by Petr Kocurek

Monday, 9 June 2014

Fifteen reasons not to get romance advice from e-harmony...

Yes, yes, I know it's a goddamn dating website and I know that e-harmony was only having a bit of fun with its clickbait article "15 Reasons to Date a Reporter" and I know I am a curmudgeonly old bag but seriously, it was one of the daftest things I've read in a while. And I have been trying to read a 290-page report written by NHS bureaucrats so I am spending a lot of time reading daft things at the moment.

I really hope the e-harmony article was not written by an actual journalist. Maybe they got the work experience kid to write it, someone who has not yet become a cynical, ageing, alcoholic hack, someone who still has a ridiculous, romanticised idea of what the reporter's life is like, because the following 15 points are bunkum.

1. Reporters have a great "B.S radar." They expect honesty and transparency - and know how to find out the truth if it's not being told.

Firstly, I have never heard a reporter say "B.S". It's "bullshit". We are potty mouths. You may or may not find that attractive. Also, knowing how to find out the truth in a work context can be a different kettle of fish to doing this in one's personal life. You have been warned.

2. Reporters are usually self-employed and have flexible schedules. If you're free for lunch on a Wednesday, your significant other might be able to join you.

For "self-employed", this may actually mean "unemployed" or "I'm only freelance because the media job market sucks and it is largely because of people working for free or next to nothing and because of the rise clickbait-as-news and Twitter-as-a-replacement-for-reporting." True, there are plenty of journos who are freelance by choice, and that is great, but it doesn't mean they have all this time for lunch at the drop of a hat. And if your beloved reporter does have a staff job, they are probably eating an unhealthy lunch at a crumb-infested desk. The glamour...

3. You'll be getting a great Scrabble partner. (Don't try to use fake words. He/she will know.)

Since when was Scrabble a game you played with a partner? Surely you mean "opponent"? This is strictly a game where it is everyone for themselves. This probably suits the egos of most journalists. While there are plenty of journos out there who are terrible spellers, there are plenty who could spell for their country. Think very carefully before playing Scrabble with such a person, especially if they are also competitive and/or prone to gloating.

4. Reporters meet deadlines. If punctuality is your thing, a reporter won't let you down.

I know of a monthly magazine that didn't come out for six weeks because of deadline failures. And I know of journalists who are so obsessed by the work deadline that everything else in life becomes secondary, including dates and loved ones' birthdays.

5. Feeling out of touch? Your date will be up on all the local news and current affairs.

Alternatively, go read a damn newspaper...

6. Successful reporters (like the one you're dating) are ambitious and aren't afraid to take risks.

But they are still probably chronically underpaid so if you're a gold-digger, you might want to reconsider. Also, "risk" can include "being sent to a war zone at short notice." On the flipside, you may be bitterly disappointed if your journalistic paramour is ambitious in the world of trade magazines and aspires to be the editor of something that is only ever seen by the wider world as the guest publication on Have I Got News For You?.

7. Related to #6, your date might even make the first move. (Or ask why you haven't.)

Here's the thing. While reporters are paid to ask fearless questions, this doesn't necessarily translate to dating. There are plenty of journos who will shamelessly ask the Prime Minister an embarrassing question at a press conference but are barely recovered high school nerds with terrible social skills when out on the pull. Alcohol may help or hinder this process.

8. Reporters make great dates to parties and family events, as they're great at asking questions and engaging others in conversation.

Good Lord. See Point #7.

9. Your date will always have interesting stories to tell.

Sure, plenty of us love the sound of our own voices and regaling people with tales of journalistic derring-do. And plenty of us are not the charismatic social animals that the e-harmony writer seems to think we are and we'd rather have a quiet drink rather than be performing seals at weddings, parties, bar mitzvahs...

10. Remember the time your ex forgot your birthday? Reporters pay attention to important details. Your date will remember your birthday, the way you like your coffee, and that promise you made her last week. Your words will matter.

Crap. We rely on Facebook birthday alerts as much as anyone else. And we may be so wrapped up in the details of a story that we forget we are even in a relationship. Honestly, we are just as rubbish at remembering adorable little things as anyone else.

11. Reporters are passionate communicators, excited to share stories with a wider audience. They also want to hear others' stories.

Unless your stories are completely tedious. On a night out, we don't need a flashback to working on a local paper and getting the dreaded "I've got a story for you!" phone call. The "story" invariably turns out to be something like: "The council forgot to collect the bins this week and I blame immigration!". And they will refuse to go on the record or have their photo taken. Much alcohol will need to be applied.

(By now, you might be learning that, despite countless pop psychology studies showing journalists up to be terrible partners, we tend to date, shack up with, and marry each other in the hope that, despite our often disproportionate egos, we find someone who understands us.)

12. Reporters are trustworthy. And when you're in a relationship with one, everything is off the record.

Unless you have the misfortune to be Liz Jones' boyfriend... Or you may recognise your failed relationship in an embittered column written by your ex after a truly horrendous break-up. Don't laugh. I have done this.

13. Reporters can act fast, redirect questions and problem-solve on the fly. If you like smart guys/girls, a reporter will keep you on your toes.

Or, after a long day at work, we probably can't be bothered to keep anyone on their toes. Like any profession that involves long hours, really. And if we do have the energy for such nonsense, we morph into the world's most annoying people with whom to have an argument.

14. Reporters get invitations to swanky events. If you've ever wanted to hobnob with the mayor and other local celebrities, dating a reporter helps.

And we can't always bring a guest to these allegedly "swanky" events. Swanky? Hello, 1978! If the reporter is going to an event in the hope of sniffing out a story, it might not be as much fun as you were hoping. Or, if your beloved works on Tiles and Taps Monthly, you might only ever accompany them to some thrilling event such as "Bathroom Sales Team Of The Year". Or your presence might be a hindrance rather than a help. In any case, no journo wants to be used as an accessory to social climbing. Grow up.

15. Clark Kent. Enough said.

Oh, do fuck off.

Photography by George Hodan

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Kirstie Allsopp and the location, location, location that is her phantom daughter's uterus

First, let me confess my unpopular opinion. Sometimes I don't mind a bit of Kirstie Allsopp. Yes, she is privileged and she is the daughter of some nobleman or whatever and I am not entirely sure what qualifies her to offer property advice and we have very little in common politically and she is apparently the kind of person people like me are meant to want to line up against a wall and shoot, but sometimes she is dead right when she tells house-hunters not to be so damn picky. When you're house-hunting on a limited budget, there is always a gap between hopes and reality.
But Kirstie this week illustrated a massive gap between hopes and reality of a different kind. I find myself scratching my head and sighing in response to her comments about advising girls to skip university, buy property and find a "nice boyfriend" this week.
Above all, I am confused.
The mother of two sons said she'd tell her phantom daughter not to go to university. When it comes to female fertility, these are her words: "“Women are being let down by the system. We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact that it falls off a cliff when you’re 35."
Honestly, there is so much noise out there about women's body clocks and how we must all breed before it's too late and, oh my God, you're over 30 and still no babies, you'd best hurry up, and if you don't have a partner, there are other ways to get pregnant but you'd better bloody have a baby or else you'll regret it for all time and you will feel you'll have missed out on an important part of womanhood and that would be the worst thing ever...
Trust me, Kirstie, we're aware of Mother Nature being a bitch when it comes to fertility. Talking about fertility "falling off a cliff" is a tad melodramatic but we know. My God, Kirstie, we know. 
We also know that, thanks to advances in modern medicine, there has never been a better time in the developed world for women over 35 to have children. And we are painfully aware that not everyone who wants to have a baby will do so. We also know that adoption is not always as easy as it should be and that is something worth talking about instead of creating further fertility panic.  
And then Kirstie took a radical departure from the real world and from the advances that have been made to help women out of subservience and poverty. Education is the best tool we have to fight poverty, especially among women. This has worked well in the developed world and in developing countries, there are direct links between girls being educated and economies improving.
So why has Kirstie come back to discouraging young women from going to university in favour of buying a flat and finding "a nice boyfriend"? Sure, some women get jobs straight out of school and go on to earn enough money for a deposit on a flat. Perhaps if Kirstie had said that there is an obsession with going to university at the expense of vocational training, there might not be so much ire. After all, university is not for everyone and there are plenty of vocational courses that lead to rewarding careers. 
By the time I left school, the old cadet system of training journalists had gone the way of the woolly mammoth. If I could have left school at 16 and worked my way up from being a copy kid to a journalist and beyond, I would have done so. But by 1994, it was all about getting a degree to be a journo. I agree that getting a degree has become fetishised but not going to university does not have to be the same as being untrained and uneducated. Perhaps a little more nuance from Kirstie here might have kept a few wolves at bay.
Instead, Kirstie plonks her ficitional daughter in a parallel universe where young people get amazing jobs after leaving school and it's all hunky dory. And to be fair, it probably would be hunky-dory for Kirstie's daughter as she goes on to say: "Start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit."
Yes, because that is always an option for every young person... 
And then there's the clincher when Kirstie tells this privileged imaginary daughter: “I’ll help you, let’s get you into a flat. And then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you’re 27.”
Yes, because every parent not only wants their kids living at home long after they're no longer kids, but they have the means to help out with a deposit. In the meantime, let's all raise daughters with no experience of living independently before moving into a flat bought with the help of Mum. These "nice boyfriends" who are keen to breed with a woman with no life skills before the age of 30 are simply everywhere! 
Sure, some men do become parents at an early age and they do a damn fine job. Some women find partners at an early age, have babies, and it works out perfectly well and that is also wonderful. But we have moved into an era where more women are delaying childbearing until they are financially secure and plenty are doing it without a partner. And lesbians can do it too in this era where sex with an actual man is not required to achieve pregnancy. And none of this amounts to the collapse of civilisation. For what it's worth, I actually don't believe Kirstie Allsopp is some raging homophobe but the whole "nice boyfriend" thing was cringeworthy. 
Kirstie says she was lucky to find a partner who was amenable to starting a family right away. Good for her! Just as she was lucky enough to find love, she is also able to help any offspring buy property and, it appears, she has matchmaking skills for her phantom daughter that would put Cilla Black to shame. 
And then there was Kirstie's notion of urging kids to breed first and then simply have a career later. Just like that! Again, it has been done, it is not outside the realms of possibility but, seriously, good luck to any woman who spent her 20s having babies and not getting any work experience or training if she somehow magically wants to start her career in her 30s. Human biology may not be fair but neither is the job market. I am curious to know what sort of jobs this woman might apply for. How much money can she expect to earn? Will she be able to afford childcare? Hell, will she able to afford to buy property if she doesn't have a Bank of Mum and Dad to rely on?
But, please, let's return to the real world. 
Plenty of women would like to be so fortunate in love but, for so many reasons, life just doesn't always work out that way. And for others, a "nice boyfriend" just isn't a priority. Or having kids. Sometimes we just need to let young people get on with their lives even if it's not a parental-approved path they take. Sometimes buying property isn't someone's ultimate goal. But if someone wants to buy a place, the fact remains that educated women tend to do better financially and Kirstie, as a "passionate feminist" as well as a purveyor of property porn should encourage that.
And if there are young men out there who aren't interested in educated women, frankly, that is their problem.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Reading Elliot Rodger's manifesto so you don't have to...

There are a couple of things that I can't see changing in the wake of Elliot Rodger stabbing, running over and shooting innocent people in California. One of them is gun control laws in the state of California (or indeed anywhere else in America) and the other is mental healthcare.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of gun control, it's hard not to be moved by the tearful, angry speech made by Richard Martinez, the father of Christopher Martinez, one of the young men killed by Elliot Rodger. In any case, Californian gun laws were tightened up after the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut and Elliot Rodger still managed to obtain a gun and kill people. This latest incident is not likely to inspire other states to tighten up firearms legislation.

Rodger's family alerted the police prior to the killings about his mental health issues and, perhaps if these reports were taken more seriously and police were able to uncover his manifesto and three semi-automatic handguns, perhaps his victims might still be alive. Or perhaps Rodger would have found other ways to kill people. We will never know now that Rodger is also dead. Should he have been detained against his will in a psychiatric unit? Will any of this lead to changes in mental healthcare for California or anywhere else? Probably not. And there are plenty of mentally ill people who do not kill people and they do not deserve the stigma of being tarred with the same brush as a murderer.

But the big conversation that is happening is centred around the bitterness and hatred towards women that is expressed in Rodger's 137-page manifesto. This is good because misogyny - endemic, entrenched misogyny among many men - was central to his actions and this needs to be discussed. I have seen this important conversation happen with people across the political spectrum and it is heartening to see that Rodger's issues with women are horrifying plenty of people from the left, the right and the middle.

He was a 22-year-old virgin and this seemed like a fate worse than death. He resented young men who were getting laid, he was particularly vitriolic and racist towards sexually successful black men, and he was seething with rage at women who would not have sex with him. This is despite him not apparently making any real attempts to interact with women. He seemed to think his mere existence as a wealthy male with a BMW entitled him to sex. The way he dealt with his hatred of women by committing multiple murders was an anomaly, but his vile attitude is not uncommon.

Rodger had wealth, privilege and a comfortable, international childhood, but this came with an inflated sense of entitlement in relation to women's bodies. He was a classic case of a guy who was viewed by women as the geek who gets "friend-zoned" or is invisible to them. But while the notion of geeks missing out on sex is a well-worn comedy movie trope, it's also the public face of much darker notions and this is uncovered in his manifesto.

When Rodger's family moved to the US when he was five years old, his first friend was a girl. In the manifesto, he deems her to be the only female friend he ever had - it would seem she was the only female he was willing to befriend before he started to believe that women were out to get him by denying him sex. But he also describes other women in his life, such as a teacher and his step-grandmother, with much fondness. Despite his parents splitting up, he was not isolated from positive female role models.

His manifesto describes his childhood in great detail. He attended good schools, he had opportunities, he writes quite well and his words are sometimes even touching, especially when he writes about his teacher. But a thread of bitterness runs through his words and deepens as you read on. Being told he was too short for an amusement park ride, not quite fitting in with the cool kids and having to change schools are described as injustices. He resents his mother when she encourages him to get a job. As puberty kicked in and he was attracted to girls, his story gets darker and more disturbing, a horrible case of a kid discovering he could have anything he wanted apart from social cachet and sex.

Rodger pinpoints his last satisfying physical experiences with girls as school dances where he was taught to slow-dance in the seventh and eighth grades. He never moved on from this. He discovered masturbation and then he hated himself for masturbating. He became obsessed with the way girls would interact with him, reading way too much into unremarkable behaviour, and he resented that self-pleasure was the only sex he was getting. He deemed sex as well as women to be evil, especially when he realised that, thanks to artificial insemination, women could get pregnant without having sex. He dreamed of a world where nobody had sex or relationships as long as he remained a virgin. His words are those of a hate-ridden, self-involved narcissist.

And so the hatred of girls and women and the resentment of sexually active boys and men built up, unchecked, over the course of his life. Rodgers was not an idiot. He had great potential to be a success in life but all this was warped by perceived sexual rejection which turned into a certain kind of misogyny that has found its place in the world. It is not new for men to feel entitled to sex and rage-filled if they miss out, but it is a notion that has been not been questioned enough. Now is the time to do so.

To any man out there who is enraged by the fact that women are not having sex with them, I'm sorry but sex with whomever you want is not a right. Sexual rejection, or simply being ignored by women, is hurtful but it's not an injustice. Being a 22-year-old virgin may be frustrating and annoying but it is not an injustice. Are any of you even trying to form meaningful relationships with women? Men like you have got to stop looking at female friendship as being akin to tokens you put into a woman like she is a slot machine until sex comes out.

Women get friend-zoned or unnoticed by men too. Sure, it feels like you've been consigned to the unsexiest kingdom of it all, but it is not an excuse for violence or wholesale hatred. As a woman who likes things like cars, cricket and rugby, it has happened to me plenty of times - I have often been the woman a with whom a man wants to watch sport but not take to bed. Shit happens. I didn't walk away from those cringe-inducing "I just want to be friends" conversations feeling entitled to the man-in-question's penis. Friend-zoning and merely not being noticed are things that happen among gay and bisexual people as well. It is simply what happens when the sexual attraction just ain't there and it is something people need to be able to deal with maturely, regardless of who they are.

But, like lifting a rock and finding it crawling with spiders underneath, Elliot Rodger's story has revealed a deep vein of hatred among some young men (and it is pretty much exclusively young men, let's not be shy about this). It is a vein made up of feelings of entitlement to women's bodies, of viewing women as prey or targets, of assuming women are all shallow bitches who only want musclebound, wealthy athletes, of hero-worshipping Rodgers, of rape apologists, of stalker apologists, and, chillingly, of plotting manifestos and copycat attacks in online chat rooms. They are not just talking about guns or knives but about bombs, about using their intelligence to kill as many people as they can.

To pretend this isn't a problem is naive. The geek who isn't getting laid is not merely a pitiful caricature. In Elliot Rodger, we have an example of the deep, violent hatred of women that is real and encouraged by an awful underbelly of men. If this is left unchecked and not talked about openly, if sex education is either suppressed or merely talked about in terms of genital plumbing rather than the broader context of respect and relationships, more awful things will happen to innocent people.

Photography by Piotr Siedlecki