Up Front by Emma Hart


Oh, God

I'm not a militant atheist. I've always been grateful that I was raised by a good Christian woman; one who believed in kindness, and giving, and generally not being a judgemental homophobic arsehole. Those people's voices are largely missing from our religious discourse, and it's good to be able to remember they exist. 

I went to church, and to Sunday School, for years. From the age of about eight, though, I was quite conscious that the other people there were getting something out of the experience that I simply wasn't. There was something going on that I palpably stood outside of. The only things I really enjoyed about church were the singing (I have a sneaking suspicion the thing my mother most liked about Protestantism was being allowed to sing) and getting to dress up in my church clothes. Asked about them recently, I realised for the first time that my favourite church clothes involved a miniskirt and knee-high cowboy boots. Perhaps it was always too late for me. 

I'm not a militant atheist – except when it comes to kids. 

I didn't exactly agonise over which primary school to send our kids to. We were poor, they walked, it was the closest school. I was pleased, though, that it wasn't a school that had a Bible class. 

I'm going to call it Bible class, by the way. I'm not going to call it religious instruction or religious education. It's not education, and it's not about religion. In New Zealand, the "religious" instruction that takes place in schools is entirely and exclusively Christian. Its sole purpose is indoctrination. There is a place for teaching comparative religion and looking at the role of religion in society. It's in social studies, in school time, taught by proper teachers. Unlike many Bible classes, it in no way involves telling small children that they're going to Hell. 

Legally, theoretically, Bible class cannot take place in New Zealand state schools. Yet practically, it clearly does. The school must, legally, be closed when Bible class takes place, but children who don't participate cannot leave the school, as they would be able to if it was closed. Over a year, Bible class adds up to about a week of class time that non-participating children aren't getting. About a week in conditions that in most schools are identical to those for children in detention. 

The Ministry of Education's response to cases taken before the Human Rights Commission this year – by parents, backed by the Secular Education Network – has been that having Bible class in school is necessary to give parents choice. If non-Christian parents don't like it, they have the option to send their kids to a different school. 

I just want to take a moment to dwell on the astonishing arrogance and privilege of that view. "Just" take your kids to a different school. Easy. Especially if you live in eastern Christchurch. We have so many schools we had to get rid of a whole bunch. And if you live in the country... Something. Boarding school. Fuck knows. 

Thing is, there is no choice easier to make than to give your kids a Christian education. There are no special Atheist Schools, but maybe if your school doesn't offer Bible class, you could send them to one of the special ones that does? Or, if it's that important that they get educated in Christian "values", you could take them to church. They could go to Sunday School. You could teach them at home. A secular state school is never any parent's only option for a Christian education. It is an atheist parent's only choice for secular education, though. 

Some parties have actually made statements about their position on Bible class in state schools. Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First (!) oppose it. National thinks you should just drive Tristan and Felicity to a different school. 

A survey of schools carried out last year made for terrifying reading: 

Just over 800 state schools are believed to be running religious instruction classes. 578 schools responding to the survey confirmed the existence of lessons run outside of the New Zealand Curriculum, and inside school hours.

Further, 92 schools are not currently teaching any science subjects, despite being obligated to do so by the New Zealand Curriculum, and 159 are not teaching evolution in their classes.

Out of 1833 schools that actually replied to the OIA, 251 are not teaching evolution. What the ever-loving Fuck. 

This is part of the reason I'm opposed to Destiny Church's school becoming state-integrated. Should be a good idea: they'll have to teach the curriculum, and there'll be more oversight and supervision. 92 schools, not teaching science. Oversight's working like a charm there, right? 

Religion in state-integrated schools? I like to consider that idea in the framework of a magical world where we have an entrenched Bill of Rights that's superior to other legislation, and no school's special character can contravene it. No teaching discrimination, no matter how fervently you believe it. 

Unlike SEN, however, I'm not opposed to any Bible class in state schools. What I want is for the existing law to be enforced properly and in a way that makes sense and doesn't actually privilege one religious position above all others. Bible class can be available, but it must be:

 - opt-in, not opt-out. Australian experience shows that this will cause a massive drop in participation.

 - actually outside of normal school hours. Like any other club or activity, it can take place before or after school or at lunchtime, but those who participate will be giving up their free time to do so. 

Nobody's choice will be taken away. In fact, by removing the coercive choice of Bible class being opt-out, and children who are opted out being ostracised, there'll be more choice than there was before. The school can still reflect the nature of its community – all of it, not just the loudest voices. Everybody wins! 

Knock off that fucking 'hymns in assembly' shit, though. 


Tomorrow Lives Forever

A while back, I promised you that next time I wrote, we'd have more fun. In that time, the world in general and my life in particular have become much grimmer. Therefore, in my opinion, the Fun is even more necessary. 

So we're going to try an experiment. It might not work. But the last time I said that, we made PA Story, which is the most fun I've ever had on this website mostly sober. 

Let's try to use this site and this community to write a story together in a kind of Exquisite Corpse/line at a time way. I'll give you the beginning, and you guys add the rest, a bit at a time in the comments. So the first person reads what I've written, and adds the next couple of paragraphs of the story as a comment. The second person reads all of that, adds the next bit, and so on. 

This is an imaginative, and largely ridiculous, exercise. There are no restrictions on content, as long as the start of your bit follows from the end of the bit before. Add or remove characters, change genre or tone, throw in an unexpected plot twist (to the degree that there is any plot anyway). Play with it. It's not about end result, it's about playing together, having fun with the process. 

Just to note: if you're typing straight into the comments box, please refresh to check that nobody else has posted before you do. If we get into tangles from simultaneous or contradictory additions, I may close comments briefly while I try to weave the disparate branches together into a single – though possibly not coherent – narrative. 

And above all, have fun.



Renowned secret agent Stud Lampjaw woke to the bright Venice sun reflecting brightly from the hotel ceiling. Turning to the side as he lit his breakfast cigarette, he saw the warm, moist presence of Tatiana Rolanovski, her blonde Russian hair tumbling across her exhausted shoulders. She looked so peaceful now, such a contrast to her desperate flight last night, in four-inch stilettos and a lab coat, from her underground nuclear physics bunker. 

A soft sound from the next room made his senses snap to attention, and he slid noiselessly from the bed, for some reason wearing boxer shorts even though he'd clearly recently had sex.  He took the Walther  PPK from the hollowed-out copy of Unspeakable Secrets of the AroValley next to the bed and slid the clip in with the practiced dexterity of a man who could undo the clasp of any bra while he was wearing it. 

As he stepped quietly through the door, another sound greeted his ears; the gentle clink of someone stirring a martini so as not to bruise the gin like any right-thinking person. Incensed, he raised the gun and stared at his visitor through the sights the Walther clearly didn't have. "Clint." 

The other man twisted his face into what might have been a smile on another man. "Lampjaw. You have something of mine, I think. And as it turns out, I have something of yours. Hand her over, and no-one gets hurt. At least, not here in this room, where the cleaning will be charged to your credit card."


Dropping the A-Bomb

When friends of mine were first messing around with bulletin boards back in the early nineties, they used to say that when commenting dropped off, all you needed to do was Drop the A-bomb. Mention abortion, and the impassioned raving on both sides would get your traffic right up again. All heat, no light. 

Back in March, when I was talking about women's blogging to Wallace Chapman and I wanted an example of a "women's issue*" that was never going to be an election issue talked about by Important People, it was abortion that leapt to mind. I mean, okay, we've made some moves towards becoming a proper grown-up country, but let's not get ridiculous. We can't talk about sensible abortion law. 

And okay, just a couple of weeks later, Marama Davidson wrote a column in the Herald on Sunday in which she – a serious political candidate – not only talked about abortion, she admitted having had one. 

All this time I'd been thinking about, and talking about in pubs, writing a column on abortion. It was tricky, though. I'd need to get it exactly right, and be in a place where I could deal with all the head-kicking. I have two children. I've had four pregnancies. This was never going to be easy. 

Then the Greens put abortion on the agenda, and some news agencies even reported it. 

So here we are, talking about abortion. The first thing you have to say when you have this conversation in New Zealand is this: abortion is illegal. Abortion is a crime, which carries penalties including imprisonment. Rather like marriage equality, legalising abortion is so controversial a lot of people think we've already done it. There are only two circumstances in which you have a right to a safe legal abortion: serious foetal abnormality, and serious risk to your physical or mental health. There is no right to an abortion if you have been raped. 

But the system is sort-of functioning now, right? Our Prime Minister is happy with where our abortion law is at. We have de facto abortion on demand. If it's only slightly broken, why fix it? 

Under our current law, in order to get an abortion, you have to game the system. That means you have to have the knowledge and the resources to do that. My GP is fantastic: one of the many who break the law with crushing frequency in order to do their job – caring for their patients' wellbeing. Not everyone is so lucky. Sometimes your GP is this guy. 

So if you're a white middle-class well-educated urban woman, accessing an abortion is relatively easy.  If you live in the country, if your GP is uncooperative, if you don't know the right things to say or places to go, it's all much more difficult. There are massive inequalities of access, and they disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. 

And I did say "relatively easy". There are still a series of hoops to jump through, in a process which must be driven by the person who's just been certified as mentally unfit to be pregnant. It all takes time: the average wait time for a woman trying to access a termination is twenty-five days. That time lapse eliminates less traumatic methods of termination. With more sensible law, a termination could be "Go home and take this pill." 

And it's harrowing. You'll be sent for a scan, and sit in a waiting room full of happily pregnant women. Because you're (probably) very early on and the foetus is so small, you'll be asked to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound. (Warning: link contains image.) You can't be forced to do this, of course, but the clinic may not proceed without the scan. 

On the way into the clinic, you will have to walk past protesters, probably holding up pictures pretending an eight-week foetus looks like a baby. As lovely as the staff always seem to be, you won't get to hang around long after they're done. 

And if you need to grieve, which some of us find we do, you'll probably do it utterly alone, and feel bad about betraying the Cause while you do it. You won't have talked to many people about it, because having an abortion is still something to be deeply ashamed of. 

Preventing unwanted pregnancies, and dealing with them once they've happened, are two quite separate things, and reducing the number of abortions must focus on the former, not the latter. Comprehensive sex education, a wide range of easily accessible contraceptive options, reducing the stigma around sex so people can talk about contraception: these are the things that reduce abortion demand, not torturing pregnant women. 

Sometimes there are situations in which there are no good options. Some people seem to forget that once you have an unwanted pregnancy, "travel back in time and not get pregnant" is not actually a choice. If you take away a woman's right to a safe, legal abortion, all you're doing is leaving her with the options that were worse than abortion to start with. The fact that it's awful is why we need to make it as easy as we possibly can. For that, the law must change.

*i.e. an intractably difficult poisoned chalice avoided by pretending it's not a 'real' issue for real grown-ups


Lighting the Dark

I spent Sunday crying. Not actively or anything; just every now and then tears would fall out of my eyes and down my face. This happens sometimes, just like the accidental forty-minute showers and the fifteen minutes sitting on the side of the bed because working out what to do next is just Too Hard. 

There's never been a time in my life when I didn't have hands-on knowledge of gendered violence, some of it directed straight at me. This has never been theoretical for me, but always personal. Any time the news is full of something like Isla Vista, or the self-confessed serial rapists who called themselves the Roast Busters, it's all sitting not moving and silent crying again. And a lot of the time, it's not engaging, because for women like me, engaging is simply too hard. 

I say all of this to explain why I don't want to have the discussion I don't want to have. It's not that I think it's not necessary, or it's not valuable, it's because it's too fucking hard for me. We do need to talk about how this bullshit, this fear, cripples the lives of women. Read the #YesAllWomen hashtag. Read Laurie Penny's column. For the love of kittens don't read the comments. Those conversations are important, but right now, I can't engage with them. For the sake of my sanity, I need to have a conversation that focuses on hope and positive action. Also, I'd like to think that here, we don't have to start the discussion from first principles every time. 

What I want to do is move on to the questions I've seen several times in the last two days, almost entirely from men: What can we do to stop this? And while the onus is, and must be, mostly on men, when I say "we", I mean all of us together. 

I don't want to talk about This One Guy. While this is Not All Men, it's so far from Just This One Guy it's intensely not funny. This is so much not an isolated incident that I could have written this column just by cutting and pasting things I've already written. This guy was a Creeper. Whatever else was going on in his head and in his life, our society provided him with a handy script to play out. There is nothing in that video we haven't all heard before. 

These guys, with their funny jokes about how we owe them sex, their comments about our tits and our clothes, who only see women as Potential Sex, they’re part of our lives, something we live with. Something we’re expected to work around.  

...there’s all our collective experience of what sometimes happens when you say No clearly and politely. The times that’s the point at which the “compliments” become abuse. Because Jesus, chill, and get a sense of humour, and you’re probably a lezzer and you’re too ugly to fuck anyway. The times that’s the point at which the abuse becomes assault.

This narrative is classic entitlement misogyny. It's this guy, a little further down the line. Entitlement misogyny sounds something like this. "Okay, I've played this level a whole bunch of times, and I can't get through it. I've done all the things on the list, and it's not working. Tell me what the trick is. Give me the cheat codes. Tell me how to get sex out of women. This stupid fucking thing must be broken. I put my coin in and I am owed some sex." And who hasn't thrown a controller or punched a vending machine at that point? 

So, what do we do now? How do we break this narrative? 

The last few days, I keep thinking about something I said to Jolisa re: Crossbow Boy: 

I believe his problem, being a lower-class bloke with a very limited paradigm of acceptable male behaviour, was that he just didn’t know how to cope with what he was feeling. In a very real sense, violence was the most acceptable way for him to react to the situation. It was what was expected. If we want to stop this kind of thing happening then perhaps what we need is a new generation of sissy men for whom it is permissible to go to bed with a tub of ice-cream and cry when your girlfriend dumps you.

In other words, we need to let men out of the Masculinity Box. We need to be accepting of men having actual real emotions and accept them finding healthy ways of processing them. A man crying needs to be more socially acceptable than a man punching, and it's not. 

Something I realised recently (I can go a really long time without realising things) is that basically my favourite people are men who have lots of female friends, and vice versa*. If a man has female friends, I can be pretty sure he's not That Guy, because that guy doesn't see women as people, just as machines for dispensing sex. 

And there we've kind of hit the heart of it, in that old feminist cliché: it's about seeing women as people. 

More specifically, I think it's about teaching our kids to see all people as people first, and their gender well down the line. That means no gendered toys. It means encouraging your sons to play with girls, your kids to have friends of all genders from the earliest age. It's about utterly rejecting "boys don't cry" and "ha, you got hit by a GIRL!". It's about giving them media to watch that doesn't reinforce gender stereotypes, and surrounding your kids with adults who are Good People, who don't make sexist jokes at Christmas. 

And I know, as every whiny liberal cry-baby parent does, the pain of raising your kids like this as much as you can, then sending them to school or kindergarten, and having it all undermined. They come home and suddenly they won't read science books, because they're for boys, or they won't read at all, because that's girly. Your daughter comes home confused and sad when her male friends won't play with her any more because it's not cool. It sucks and it's awful, but the more of us who try, the better it gets. I crave a future devoid of gender-based school bullshit. 

There are a whole bunch of tiny little actions we can all perform repeatedly, and they will, agonisingly slowly, make a difference. (While I was typing this list, it turned out ScubaNurse was typing one of her own. You guys will have them too: share.) 

 - When women speak about this stuff, listen. Give them space to speak. If you don't know what to say, it's often a sign you shouldn't be talking. Believe them, and appreciate the value of an insight into an experience that isn't yours. 

 - When it feels safe to do so, call your friends, family, co-workers, etc, on their bullshit. You don't have to fight every fight, nobody can do that, but do it when you can. 

 - When someone else does the bullshit-calling, back them up. Be the One Other Person. Don't be the guy who enables and excuses That Guy.

 - Learn. I can't fathom why smart, educated people get so pissed about "feminist" terms they won't even bother finding out what they actually mean. There's a power of information out there, and you can find it by yourself. Get started with this fabulous video explaining what objectification is. 

 - When you have the spoons, and the people doing the asking are being genuine, take the time to share, and explain. Try to be the person who changes a mind, even if it's only one. I've had people tell me I've changed their minds, and if there's a better feeling than that, I can't talk about it in public. 

 - Be a good example. The 'when' for that is 'all the fucking time'. Be a good example for your kids, and other people's kids, and total strangers in bars. 

 - If you can't be the one who helps, help the people who help. Donate to a rape crisis service or a women's refuge. Take a friend out for a beer and a vent. Send a feminist blogger some cake she can eat while she reads her hate mail. Just say thank you. It makes a difference. 



*I didn't mean "female friends who have lots of men", but when I examine the proposition, it holds up, so...


Just Like Unicorns

For those of you who aren't obsessive about every detail of my life, I work and write at a co-operative writing site. We make stories together in a way that's more about the joy (and frustration) of the process than the sparkling end result. Sometimes, that process involves jarring lessons in other people's value systems. 

A while back, we'd reached a point in a story where we needed to talk about what happened next. One of our writers had a great idea. What if, he suggested, the Evil Cult kidnapped my character, to use as a virgin sacrifice? 

What boggled me about this (all right, what boggled me about this the most) was that the character he was talking about was not only sexually-active, but involved in a sexual relationship in that story. Yet by his cultural construction of virginity, she was a virgin. How? She was a lesbian. 

That was the beginning of a process of thoughtful consideration which has brought me firmly to one conclusion: virginity doesn't exist. It doesn't exist in any kind of objective scientific sense, anyway. It's pure social construction. 

So in this case, my social construction had run smack into his. I couldn't fathom how you could consider someone who'd had lots of sex and many orgasms to be in any way a virgin. But then, if I was counting manual and oral sex as sex, didn't that mean I was saying a whole bunch of heterosexual people who regard themselves as virgins because they haven't gone "all the way" are just kidding themselves? 

You might very well think that, etc. What I'm saying out loud where other people can hear me is that I can't fathom how anyone could not regard lesbian sex as sex – especially as the people who get all het up about virginity are often also the ones who get very exercised about The Gays. You can't have it both ways*. 

Now, some of you are thinking, wait a minute, whether you agree with him or not, that guy had a point. The Lesbian in Question hadn't had penis-in-vagina sex, so she still had an intact hymen, so by that possibly ridiculous measure, she was technically a virgin. 

Hymens, right? There's this impermeable membrane that stretches across the vagina, deep inside it. It can only be broken by a penis, and that's why when a woman has sex for the first time it's really uncomfortable and there's bleeding. This is why a woman could have her virginity "inspected", and why bloody bedsheets would be produced after wedding nights. You wouldn't want to buy a woman who'd already had her safety seal popped. I mean, sometimes that doesn't happen, true, but that's because the girl has had some kind of tree-climbing or horse-riding accident that's broken her hymen in a perfectly sensical way. 

All complete bollocks. These are the three truths nobody seems to tell girls about their own bodies. Clitorises are enormous. Placentas are arseholes (figuratively speaking). And hymens aren't real. 

Okay, there's a thing that's called a hymen, but almost everything historical romance novels (and indeed, 50 Shades of Grey) taught you about it is purest fuckery-bollocks. It's not a solid membrane, it's a mucosal body. It's just inside the vaginal opening. It's permeable, (of course, because periods), stretchy, and in almost all women doesn't cover the whole vagina. It's not possible to damage your hymen by playing sport or falling down: probably these women simply never had any significant hymen. 

Many, many women don't bleed the first time they have penis-in-vagina sex. Bleeding is probably from damage to the walls of the vagina, and can happen at any time, not just the first time. Your hymen doesn't go anywhere. You still have it, as much as you ever did. So in a way, I suppose, we're all virgins. 

So even this most restrictive-seeming definition of virginity, which only applies to straight women, is meaningless. There is no tamper-proof seal on women, and there never has been. It's almost as if the myth of physical, hymenal virginity was just invented to stop women having sex. 

So with that dismissed, when we try to define virginity, what we're really asking is "What counts as sex?" 

I have trouble answering that question as reasonably as Scarleteen have there. I can no longer really fathom how anybody could regard many hours of rolling around giving and receiving sexual pleasure that happens to not involve penetration as "not sex". Same-sex couples have sex, and we really need to stop being so heterocentric in our definitions. 

And if, say, manual sex counts as sex, does it have to be someone else's hand? Why? If there's pleasure, if there's orgasm, if there's expression of sexuality, in what way is that not sex? It might seem going a bit far for me to suggest that anyone who's had a wank is no longer a virgin, but Jesus said it counts if you just think about it. So Christians should believe your virginity is shot at "impure thoughts". 

Now, if you're thinking, "There's another of those third-wave feminists, pushing 'sex-positive' into 'sex-compulsory'"; no. I don't want to place value on virginity at all, positively or negatively. Particularly the way it's currently constructed, as positive for girls, and negative for boys. If someone wants to place value on their own virginity (however they choose to define that), I'll happily respect that. What I won't happily respect is placing value on someone else's virginity. 

The joy of realising that virginity is subjective is that you get to decide for yourself what it means, and if it matters. It can be the first time you have sex you actively chose to, or the first time with someone of your preferred gender. It could be the first time you have sex in a particular way, or the first time you orgasm. If you happen to be a young girl who's been told her virginity is precious, and who has been sexually abused, that can mean the world. Much less seriously, I can relax about not being sure when I lost something I never really had.


*Bless. Of course you can.