Can feminists wear engagement rings?

I recently came across a blogpost (dating from 2010) written by a woman who had recently got engaged but was not going to wear an engagement ring. The post had been linked to on a Facebook group, where quite a lively discussion had developed about the tradition of wearing them. I found it pretty interesting, so linked to it in the Sharing Thoughts & Taking Action forum where a similar debate broke out, which I’ll admit surprised me. 

The original blogpost was fairly reasonable. Rather than having strong feminist objections to wearing an engagment ring, the writer seemed to feel a) that it was too much money to spend on a ring, and as a couple they could do more interesting things with it, b) she didn’t like to wear expensive jewellery in general and c) she had ethical objections to diamonds - all of which are fair enough. However more feminist arguments against rings were made on the forum. 

In the interests of disclosure, I’ll first state I wear an engagement ring. When it was given to me, I didn’t debate whether to wear it or wrestle any feminist demons. My excitement about it, and love of the ring, may have been coloured by the fact that my (now) husband had spent six months designing it to be something to give me as a token of how much he loved me. I love it, and it’s a daily reminder of how happy I am to be with him. 

Not long afterwards a work colleague, who was fairly new to the company and barely knew me personally, asked me if I felt uncomfortable wearing it and did I not see it as a symbol of my fiance’s ‘ownership’ of me. I dismissed the comments at the time and told her that because my fiance could never view me that way, it wasn’t an issue in my relationship. But it niggled. Inside, I was pretty pissed off that someone viewed my decision that way and I felt like she was calling into question my feminist credentials -who did she think she was? She didn’t even know me well enough to know that I would identify as a feminist. I thought it was rude.

However, as a teenager I’m sure I viewed things differently. I used to say that I wouldn’t get married at all. The phrase ‘legalised slavery’ may have been uttered (embarrassing) and I would probably have been horrified by the idea of wearing an engagement ring. But that was at a stage when I’d never had any relationships, let alone serious ones, and didn’t understand that your relationship with your partner is what you both make it. The roles you adopt, whether traditional or not, are up to you. If you feel like someone’s property, or feel like a domestic slave, then that’s because the role you have in that specific relationship has left you feeling that way - not because you wear a ring. 

Engagement rings were traditionally given as a symbol of a promise of commitment. It marked the woman out as being off the market and the money spent by the groom-to-be meant that they were not given lightly. It’s in this light, that some of the objections to engagement rings are made now. Only the women wear them and the men are expected to spend a lot of money on them. The woman wears it as a symbol of being ‘taken’ (which could be perceived as belonging to someone else) and the man shows his provider credentials by flashing cash. It’s old school, no doubt. But is it really anti-feminist to wear one? Is it, as one of the forum members claimed, an attempt to ‘cherry pick’ the things we liked about traditional female roles and while fighting against the rest? 

Many women I know bought their fiances a gift in return, like a really nice watch for example. The symbol may not be as obvious to everyone else, but it redressed the balance in their relationship in a way that made them happy. I suppose for me, this is what’s key. How you view an engagement ring is coloured by the context of your relationship. Because I feel like an equal partner in mine, I didn’t strongly feel that wearing a ring threatened that. Also, it was only for 10 months that I wore a ring and he didn’t - by last July we were married and both wearing wedding rings. In any case, I think my evolving sense of myself and my views on feminism have left me just not feeling that strongly about this issue. What I do in my relationship is up to me, and how I choose to express my position in that relationship is my own business. I am a feminist. And a wife. With two rings. 

The Ched Evans case and rape myths

The recent jailing of Ched Evans has brought the worst out in many people, and Twitter has given them the perfect platform to air their views. The #justiceforched hashtag has, in particular, seen some very familiar rape myths put forward.

Most of the people dismissing the case against Evans are doing so on the basis that the victim was a ‘moneygrabber’. I’m not sure where they think this money is coming from however. She has not waived her right to anonymity, and has not sold her story to anyone. There’s no indication that she ever intended to. There’s no payout coming her way anytime soon as a result of being raped.

Confusingly for many the other defendant in the case, Clayton MacDonald, was acquitted. Some cannot seem to grasp the idea that she could have consented to sex with one man without consenting to him calling his friends to come over and have sex with her too. Similarly I’ve seen tweets along the lines of ‘obviously what ched evans did was wrong, but I don’t think the girl is entirely innocent, so many girls beg it off footballers its unreal’ (grammar is the tweeter’s own). So, since loads of women want to sleep with footballers this woman should, what? Have wanted it? Have expected it? Count herself lucky that not one, but two footballers slept with her whether she wanted it or not?

Some writers have picked up on these tweets and referred to ‘rape culture’ but even on sites like The Guardian’s Comment is Free, the mere phrase ‘rape culture’ has been dismissed in the comments. There’s a refusal to accept that just because some ‘idiots’ on Twitter are making these comments that there is a ‘culture’ at play - but I honestly don’t see how you can argue it’s any other way. The sheer volume of tweets in support of Evans speaks of nothing else. The hatred towards the woman who accused him is tangible, not least because she was tracked down and named online, and subsequently accidentally named on Sky News. Her legal right to anonymity has been trampled on by the very people who accuse her of being fame-hungry and publicity seeking. The hypocrisy is staggering and there’s a clear trend towards people refusing to believe that having sex with a woman too drunk to consent is rape. 

Similarly many of the tweeters saying she should have been responsible for her own actions in getting drunk are the self-professed ‘lads’ - the same types who frequent sites like Unilad that actively encourage preying on drunk and vulnerable young students. If you perpetuate a lad culture where the aim of an evening is to get a girl drunk so you can have sex with her, then don’t be surprised if she passes the level where she can consent to sex with you and you’re later accused of rape. It’s not because she’s a slag/whore/bitch. It’s because that’s what you’ve done. 

A large number of tweets have also accused the woman of merely regretting having sex with these men and therefore accused them of rape. She would have been subjected to lengthy questioning by police, a physical exam, the stress of testifying in court, cross-examination by the defence and at all stages had her version of the night queried while everyone wonders how drunk she was, how had she behaved and could she be trusted. All that just because she regretted having sex? Really? Surely just trying to put it out of mind would’ve been a lot easier. And people wonder why so few women do report rape. They’re not believed when they do and they’re vilified if there is a successful conviction.

Nita Dowell, senior crown prosecutor in Wales, said “It is a myth that being vulnerable through alcohol consumption means that a victim is somehow responsible for being raped. The law is clear: being vulnerable through drink or drugs does not imply consent”. It’s about time this message go through to young men. 

Image above is from Rape Crisis Scotland’s campaign working to end sexual violence and can be found on their website.

The case for and against pornography

I’ve been blogging about feminist issues for just under a year now but there’s one topic I’ve studiously avoided in that time - pornography. In some ways it’s because I can convince myself that it doesn’t affect my life. I don’t watch it. I don’t purchase it. I’ve never been with a partner that, to my knowledge, consumes it. However, I know it’s an area of contention and debate in feminism and have always thought I should at least put it out there for discussion. 

My big problem is that I don’t know where to start. I’m confused about it and the issues surrounding it. I don’t believe that just because I don’t enjoy it, everyone who does is wrong. I believe in people having healthy sexual appetites and if watching other people engaged in sex is something that works for you, go for it. However I’m not blind to the fact that what was previous soft porn is now just the front covers of mainstream ‘lads mags’ like Nuts and more worringly what was previously considered hardcore, niche-interest is now mainstream. And what is mainstream is more easily available than ever before - online and on mobile phones - which means that instead of passing around copies of Playboy in school, young men are seeing quite skewed versions of sexuality and believing it to be what ‘normal’ sex is supposed to be like. 

On a gut level my feelings about porn have always been that it tends to subordinate women. Porn is largely created for and by men and so has little regard for how women are portrayed. As an industry it makes billions from the objectification of women - so much so that when the US government was bailing out the car industry, the porn industry argued that they should receive help as well as they were one of ‘our nation’s most important businesses’. On the flipside, I don’t believe in banning things that I’m uncomfortable with. I’d rather people were educated about an issue to the extent that they choose, by and large, not to participate in things which adversely affect others so badly. 

With all this in mind, I was really disappointed to miss the WOW Festival session on Mary Whitehouse - Prude or Prophet (there was so much I wanted to see that weekend that some sessions just clashed). Fortunately for me, the session was one of the ones filmed and uploaded to the site afterwards. I was interested to hear that the prime reason for holding that particular debate was that Jude Kelly was as confused as I am. She had grown up in an era of censorship. As the world became more liberal the mood of society became one where people should feel entitled to learn about things on their own, and that nothing should be hidden from them. Mary Whitehouse became a lone voice, and a figure of fun, in the way she argued that women would be debased and disgraced by the way they were beginning to be portrayed and would rue the day that they allowed this to happen. Jude Kelly hated everything she stood for. But now? She was beginning to wonder if Whitehouse had had a point all along. The portrayal of women in mainstream porn, and in fact in much modern media has in fact left us feeling objectified and judged. So now, Kelly said she didn’t know what she felt and wanted to learn more. 

The panel was made up of Kelly, Rachel Morris (Cosmopolitan’s resident sex therapist), Amina Doherty (co-ordinator of the Young Feminist Fund) and Julia Long  (feminist activist involved with the London Feminist Network and Object) and was chaired by Helena Kennedy QC. It was a lively and really interesting discussion with plenty of input from the floor. 

Amina Doherty really impressed me with her confidence and her assertion that what young women need is space to talk about and develop a healthy, sexual identity. Being aware of the good and bad that’s out there is okay as long as they have space to talk openly and freely about it and be educated about what it all means to them. Encouraging critical engagement was key.

Julia Long probably took what I would interpret to be a more expected, feminist line. She quoted examples of what is considered mainstream in porn these days and the mere descriptions brought tears to my eyes and prompted me to cross my legs.  She also made the good point that discussions of porn have, as Jude Kelly pointed out, been often painted as good versus bad morality. The common ground on both sides of the fence be they pro-sex, freedom of expression, liberal views or anti-porn, repressive, moralistic views is that women are oppressed - they are an economic commodity to be bought and sold. Food for thought.

Rachel Morris approached the discussion from the perspective of someone who’s not an academic or expert on this, but who does deal with the effects that porn and the objectification of women has on our culture. The letters she gets from women are laden with expectations of what their sexual experiences should be like, which are directly taken from porn culture. Women think their vaginas are hideous, their labia too big or malformed. Men don’t ‘do’ pubes anymore and so women feel pressure to be hairless. She strongly felt that if she was a young woman, what she would need is for someone like her to be teaching sex education in schools. 

Needless to say one of the big points discussed was censorship. We’re all nervous of it and for those of us who are liberal, it feels wrong to censor what consenting adults want to see or engage in. However, Julia Long felt that women were being censored anyway, as their voices are not being heard (she quoted women’s disappearance from mainstream media as a related issue). Amina agreed that women are silenced and that porn is produced from the male gaze. However, she really wants young women to engage in the discussion and embrace positive sexuality. Claire Short’s campaign to end Page 3 was raised, along with her subsequent vilification in the media. All the panellists agreed that this had contributed to women feeling fearful to speak out.

A question from the floor supported Julia’s stance on possible censorship - we already have rules that limit what we can see as well as rules against racial hatred. Why did rules like this not apply to gender hatred? Why could the more hardcore content, which could be construed as torture, not be restricted or banned completely? The simple answer, from Helena Kennedy, is that it’s an industry that makes an awful lot of money and needs to be tackled on that basis. 

Another question from the floor raised a real crux of the debate - consent. If women do want to be in these films, or engage in these acts, who are we to stop them? Of course, ‘choice’ is informed by our culture and life experience but some women really do choose these actions. Julia Long felt that consent and freedom of expression dialogue is usually brought out as a ‘get out of jail free’ card to silence criticism. I thought his was an interesting point. Choice is not always about personal rights but personal responsibilities - we need to view our choices in the context of how our actions affect society at large. The power relationships and submission of women in our society is normalised and played out in pornography. Choosing to be in, or even create, these films may have a detrimental effect on many other women - and our society restricts individual freedoms all the time to protect potentially vulnerable people in our society. Incitement to racial hatred is an example of this as we restrict people’s ‘right’ to say what they like, for the sake of protecting ethnic minorities in our culture.

There was so much more in this discussion and more themes to come back to. The possibility of feminist pornography - created for and by women - was not raised, as  an hour was just not long enough to cover everything. Did I leave this session clearer about what I thought? I’m not sure I did really. I take on board everything Julia Long said about power relationships and the silencing of women. I’m also personally horrified by the idea of young men viewing some of what’s now mainstream and pressurising young women to engage in these acts during their early sexual experiences, as they convince them that it’s ‘normal’ sex. However, I really respected Amina Doherty’s view of the need for education. We need to give young people the space and the language to openly discuss healthy, sexual appetites and to create a positive idea of what sexuality means to them. I’d like to think that this is what will ultimately change people’s appetites for pornography. I’m still uncomfortable with banning certain pornography as it’s difficult to draw a line between what’s acceptable and what’s not and I worry, as Jude Kelly does, about it opening the door to repression. I would love to find ways to limit young people’s access to it however and I think parents need to be much more involved and in control of their teenagers access to the internet. There’s so much more to say and I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the issue. Let’s keep talking about how this affects us as adults.

Why men need to drink less

Don’t drink too much, you can’t guarantee your safety. 

Watch out for your friends. 

Don’t let friends get too drunk and make sure they get home safely, alone.

As a woman, these are messages I’ve been hearing since I was young. At Christmas we’re reminded that it’s our responsibility not to be raped and to keep ourselves safe by not drinking too much. The media constantly reinforces the idea that a woman who was drunk was in some way responsible for being raped (if in fact it was rape at all). Earlier this year Alison Saunders, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service commented that 

If a girl goes out and gets drunk and falls over … they are almost demonised in the media, and if they then become a victim, you can see how juries would bring their preconceptions to bear.

It’s no wonder then more than a quarter of people (30%) say that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk.

Men however are expected to drink. It’s only a bit of fun. They’re legends if they can drink vast amounts of alcohol and stay standing. Any ill behaviour is just ‘boys being boys’. Rowdiness is part of the package. A rape case in the courts this week however showed exactly why the ‘don’t drink too much’ messages are being aimed at the wrong people. 

Yesterday Zack Thompson was jailed for six year for raping a 17 year old woman. For two and a half years he stuck to the defence that he had been sleepwalking - he didn’t deny having done it, but he said he couldn’t remember it. He had however, drunk 7 or 8 pints of lager that evening. When investigating his sleepwalking defence an expert in the field found that 

Thompson’s memory loss began around half an hour before he went to bed, and concluded his memory loss was highly likely to have been the result of drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and not sleepwalking.

When the sleepwalking defence was disproved he then claimed insanity, which was also disproved. Eventually he admitted to rape. 

In a recent case in Ireland another man admitted raping a woman under after having

drank 13 cans of beer, three pints, six shots, three double vodkas and smoked a cannabis joint before the incident. 

In this case the Judge, Justice Paul Carney said

it was the “experience of the court” that a young man taking the amount of drink that he had, along with a cannabis joint, could wake up the next morning unaware that he had committed homicide or rape.

Interestingly, in the Irish Times report on the case, they still made sure to point out that the victim “had drunk a large amount and went to sleep in one of the bedrooms at about 3.30am.”

So why is it that women are still the ones being told not to drink too much? The consistent message sent is that if they do, they won’t be able to consent to sex and are at risk of being raped. Surely the message should be to men. Don’t drink so much that you cannot control your behaviour or gain consent. Don’t drink so much that you can’t remember what you’ve done.

When the Reclaim the Night marches were relaunched in the UK it was largely a response to women being told not to go out at night as they were at risk of being attacked by the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’. But if a man was the perpetrator and women the victims, why weren’t men being told to stay at home? Reclaim the Night followed.

Whenever I’ve seen these kinds of issues raised before the response from many men is that all men are not rapists so why do they need to be told not to behave like one. And yet, it’s perfectly fine to tell all women to modify their behaviour because some men are rapists. In the Irish case the man convicted was genuinely remorseful and told the court “I’m sorry, I’m not a bastard. I have feelings”. He wouldn’t see himself as ‘a rapist’ and probably would’ve raised objections at being targeted by anti-rape messages before this happened.

Drinking to excess isn’t good for any of us. Drinking to the extent that you don’t know what you’re doing or can’t remember it the next morning is just not healthy and a lot more needs to be done to tackle drinking culture generally in our society. But targeting women in these campaigns is misguided. Women are constantly told to protect themselves but we now need to tell men to control themselves instead. If you are at risk of behaving violently when drunk then you’re the one who needs to drink less - not us.

No Makeup Day?

Today is apparently No Makeup Day. I’m struggling to find out who declared this and to what end but Twitter seems to confirm that press releases have been issued and it’s been accepted that today’s the day. The aim isn’t clear but it seems to exist to pull women out of their usual routine and make them think critically about why they wear it and whether they can live without it.

Women have complicated relationships to beauty, fashion and their bodies. The influence of fashion mags and a celeb-obsessed culture are clear as we’re bombarded with messages about who is attractive (skinny white women), and what it takes to look like them (vast amounts of airbrushing and Photoshop) as well as ‘circles of shame’ showing us just how unspeakably horrific cellulite is on an otherwise perfect-looking celebrity. Let’s not even contemplate how awful it must look on the rest of us. 

So what about makeup. Are we really trying to live up to an impossible ideal? I find it hard to swallow this argument. I like to think that women are clever enough to know that some expensive, big-brand foundation isn’t going to give them the flawless skin that the magazine ads and cover photos show you.

So what is it for? For most of us, it’s for fun. Sure, I wear foundation to cover up my spots and even out my skin tone. But when it comes to mascara, eye liner, blusher, lipstick it’s because I like the way I can slightly change my face to look different and suit my mood - the same way I do with clothes. I think I look better with a bit of colour on my face but I’m a well-educated, 35 year old woman so I don’t think it’s going to make me suddenly look like someone else. I don’t want it to. I just want to look like a slightly different version of me sometimes. I’m also not afraid to walk out the door with no makeup on. 

A the recent Women of the World Festival I attended the Body Politics - Skin and Hair session and The Guardian Weekend Magazine’s beauty columnist Sali Hughes was on the panel. She’s a vibrant and successful woman and as a writer her column on beauty is just one aspect of her work. She spoke brilliantly about what makeup and beauty meant to her and how the pursuit and ritual of beauty can be beneficial and genuinely life-enhancing for some women. She countered the idea that women are somehow stupid if they enjoy something shallow and that an interest in the shallow does not mean that you are intrinsically without depth (I loved her phrasing). This is completely true. As she went on to note, we don’t think people are stupid just because their interests include football, food, wine or any other hobbies. Why do we dismiss women who take an interest in how they look? 

We, as women, do need to critically look at the images we’re bombarded with every day. We need to recognise that it’s okay to be who we are, lumps and bumps and all. But we also need to give ourselves enough credit to know that we can combine being smart, successful, opinionated and driven with getting sheer joy from playing with how we look.

Image above is by Stuart Miles downloaded from FreeDigitalPhotos.net It is reproduced here with permission.