Up Front by Emma Hart


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.


The Kids are All Right

Somebody recently asked me for advice on raising teens. I have to admit, I did make that laughing noise with my face for a while. Yeah. Ask me. Though this may be one of those jobs that should only be done by people who don't want to do it. I'd be the last person to tell you raising teenagers is a joy and a blessing. I'd also be the last person to tell you they're terrifying little fuckers who are self-absorbed and completely anti-social. I mean, what if one of my teenagers heard me say that? 

Sometimes, though, they give me something that can be in pretty short supply: hope for the future. (Apologies for the disturbingly crotch-height angle of the video.) 

 You might think, who the hell thought it was a good idea to have Tony Abbot talk to a bunch of kids from a performing arts college anyway? What more predictable nest of stroppy outspoken lefty liberals? Of course they're not down with your racism and your sexism and your institutionalised homophobia. And it's not like they have to come up with solutions. Easy for them. Of course they're Sticking It to the Man, they're teenagers. Maybe they got coached by their teachers. Maybe they're just being contrary, and they'd just as happily have argued the other side of the coin. 

But here's the thing. The Prime Minister of Australia just got pwned by a bunch of Year 9s. (Those are third formers in the old money.) What teenagers are is challenging. Literally. They're supposed to challenge us. And the more scorn you hold them in, the more easily your ideas should be able to stand up to their challenges. I mean, they're not thinking things through, and you have, right? So it should be easy for you to explain it to them. 

While many teenagers are completely disengaged, some of them are more passionate about politics than anyone else on the planet – including their future selves. Teens have what I like to call Cynical Idealism. Everything is total and utter shit, but every problem is perfectly easily fixed, if people would just stop being dicks. 

When you're older, things get more complicated. So much more complicated that sometimes nothing gets done at all. I love me some nuance, but we also need to have someone who will just say, "But why? That's bullshit." Having to explain your ideas, your beliefs, your processes in simple terms is a great way to test them. Why they say "Why?" you better damn well have a reason. 

This current bunch of teens are actually pretty damn great, I think. We Gen Xers raised us some kids who are more liberal, more questioning, and less risk-taking than we were at their age. We're also passing on to them, possibly for the first time, a world worse than the one we grew up in. My teen years ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the invention of the internet. Thanks, older people. It's too early to tell what the defining events of my children's teen years will prove to have been. They're going to have to learn about the benefits of hindsight, but they will. 

We're coming up on that time when political parties, especially those on the left, remember that there are young people, and that it would be nice if they voted. So people their parents' age sit around and try to work out what would motivate them to become politically engaged. Don't get me wrong: I'm one of them. We were handing out enrolment packs at Armageddon. It's a noble cause: it just doesn't sit quite right with me. 

It'd be a start, I think, if we asked "young people" (that being an amorphous blob, like "the gays") why they aren't voting. They're not idiots, they know. I mean, what, currently, is in it for them? It's a reasonable question to ask, while we're undrinkabling their water, not building them schools, loading them up with debt, and pricing them out of owning a home. If they don't feel that they're getting anything out of this particular social contract, why should they participate? 

I've been told, by an educational professional, that I have no idea what a normal kid is like, so I'm not sure that my family can offer much insight. My son couldn't tell you why his peers don't give a shit any more than I could have at that age. One piece of advice I can give you about teens though: they don't owe us anything.



by Isabel Hitchings

Long-time PAS commenter Isabel is a resident of the area of Christchurch worst hit by the flooding. I've asked her to share her experiences, and explain what's happened in the area.

We bought our house in 2005, a charming, if slightly run-down, wooden bungalow, a month before my second son was born. The little corner of St Albans it was situated in (which, since last June has been referred to as The Flockton Basin) seemed near to perfect - close to town but not too close, on several handy bus routes, quiet leafy streets. It felt like a safe place to raise our children. And, for almost six years it was exactly that.

The LIM report mentioned a history of flooding but works done in the 1980s to divert Dudley Creek and install a pumping station in Philpotts Road meant that was no longer a concern. I recall remarking with wonder about how much more quickly water drained from our new property than our previous place in Northcote.

When the earthquake of February 22nd struck we were all in the central city and our car was stuck in the Grand Chancellor carpark. It was doubly fortuitous that a friend was able to squeeze us into her car as our street was flooded and impassable. That time the water stopped at the top of the joists beneath the floor.

We moved home a few days later, cleaned and scrubbed and shovelled until our house was a home again. Most of our damage seemed to be cosmetic and, when it took EQC less than a year to complete our repairs, we truly believed we were some of the lucky ones.

That first winter our street flooded severely a couple of times. At first it seemed an interesting novelty to sit in our warm, dry house and watch ducks paddle past the letterbox. We felt lucky (again), and a little guilty, when we discovered some of our neighbours did get water through their houses.

The novelty wore off fast. Surface flooding was a frequent occurrence and there were at least a couple of days each winter that we were simply unable to leave the house and had to miss work and school. On flood days the toilet would bubble ominously and, sometimes, become blocked.

On June 17 2013 we awoke to discover our house had, once more, become an island but, this time, instead of lapping around the steps before receding, the water kept on rising. When the water reached the car's exhaust pipe we called a relative to rescue us in his 4WD but were unable to reach him. When the water started coming through the floorboards we called the council, who told us to call civil defence who told us to dial 111. The fire service told us the water was too deep to get a truck through. They must have changed their minds because, a while later, a fire engine did appear in our street and, after yelling out the window, our family, complete with cat, were driven to safety. That was the only trip they were able to make down our street so some of our neighbours were left in their wet houses. We were out of our house for five weeks and some repairs are yet to be completed.

We are lucky to live in a community of strong, clever and articulate people, Jo Bryne chief among them. Jo has talked to the media, to the council and, to the community frequently since the June floods. At a public meeting Jo organised we were told, by council representatives, that some parts of our area had sunk by up to 500mm, that changed land levels and creeks meant that water drainage had changed radically over a wide area and that remediation, while possible, was a job that would take years due to the scale of the problem.

Since the June floods we have lived at yellow alert. Rain is a constant threat. More than a few drops and we turn the car around in the driveway, positioned for a quick getaway. When puddles form in the carriageway at the end of our drive (the lowest point of the street) we pack clean undies and pyjamas into a getaway bag and start piling belongings onto the dining table.

When it started to rain heavily on Tuesday we were, at least, prepared. My partner left work early to collect our older son from his school, rather than have him bus alone and a friend dropped me and the eight year old home from his (I work there and we usually ride the school bus.) We moved the car and packed a bag and started to clear the floors. At that stage the storm was predicted to be similar to that of June, a one in five year event, so we lifted everything we could to what we believed was a safe level, put our long-suffering cat into her carry cage, and left while there was still a scrap of daylight.

The rain kept going for the best part of another day and many parts of Christchurch experienced severe flooding. When we were able to visit our house this morning the tide line around our weather boards was 16cm above the mark the council made to show the June water levels and we estimate that 18-20cm of water went through our house. Some of our neighbours fared much worse while others stayed dry.

There are no easy answers here. Area wide remediation will be expensive and is not something that can happen in just a few months and raising individual properties will compound problems for their neighbours. Red zoning the area sounds tempting but there were plenty of houses that fared quite well in this week's extreme weather and it wouldn't be fair to force their owners to leave.

It's going to be another long clean up and, for some of us, it all feels like too much. With winter coming and proper remediation years away, even if the council can fast-track it, some people, ourselves included, are finding the thought of moving back to the flood zone hard to bear and the temptation to walk away is strong. That losing the equity on our home would be unpleasant rather than disastrous is yet another way in which we are, in a way, still the lucky ones.


Egypt: It's Complicated

So it turns out the longer I'm home from Egypt, the harder it is to write about. Everything I was going to say becomes hedged around with caveats. I kept telling people how lucky we were, seeing it the way we did, but was it luck? We made a conscious, and on my part pretty much agonised-over, decision, and that was the payoff. No, we didn't get shot, but I'm not sure that was any more of a risk than it would be anywhere else at any other time. 

I'm going to write about the politics elsewhere, so I don't want to get into that too much. I will say, though, that I had to rethink a lot of things once I was actually there, and get a bit embarrassed re: Western paternalism. I will say that if your view is basically "Democracy = Good, Army = Bad", you need to understand that, very broadly, the grassroots democracy movement supports the army and sees it as an ally. There's an Egyptian pop song thanking the army for coming to the aid of the people against Morsi. 

It's complicated. 

To focus on our personal experience, we never felt we were in any danger while we were in Egypt. Yes, there were times when security was heavy and obvious, and our bags were x-rayed and searched at every major tourist site, but it was less intrusive, and far less pointless, than security in transit at Sydney airport, for instance. In Egypt, they do it Because of Reasons. 

Tourism in Egypt is down 80% since the political unrest began. We wandered through tourist infrastructure designed to cope with thousands of visitors a day, practically deserted. Our Nile cruise ship was one of sixteen operating out of a normal four hundred. To see Philae, and the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Valley of the Kings, in this kind of tranquillity is normally impossible. It was fucking amazing. 

The down side was the touts. So many people in Egypt are dependent on selling tat to tourists in order to survive. Middle-Eastern sales tactics can be intimidating to Westerners at the best of times. At the tourist sites in Egypt, and the souk in Luxor, it was off the wall. 

It was interesting to note who coped with this better. For men who've never been able to understand why women get upset about street harassment, I heartily recommend a visit to an Egyptian tourist market. See how long you can handle, "Hello! Good morning! Where you from? Welcome to Egypt! What's your name? Smile!" from men who will not leave you alone. The women coped better because we already knew not to engage, to keep our heads down and not make eye contact, to stick together and walk briskly. Yes, they're being "nice". Because they want something. For a while we were worried that Egypt would make us permanently rude, automatically dismissive of any friendly gesture. It actually took longer to get used to wearing seatbelts again. 

It was a little better in the Khan-al-Khalili in Cairo, though that might have been the tourist police escort we had with us. One man made considerable headway with our group by throwing open his arms and shouting, "Good morning! How can I take your money?" 

In Egypt I saw things I had dreamed of seeing since I was a child. I visited sites I had studied in the abstract at university. No other country has this appeal for me. We also, because of the way we travelled, got to drink NZ$12 gin and tonics and watch Russian women hobble about archaeological sites in tiny skirts and high heels. Cruising the Nile from Luxor to Aswan is the perfect way to see Egypt, to watch it slowly drift into Africa. 

On our last night in Aswan, after the Sound and Light show at Philae and before a 4:30am start back to Cairo, my travelling companion and my shiny new friend Jackie sat up with me in the lobby of the most beautiful hotel. We had an expensive gin and toasted my mother on the anniversary of her death. 

The tour was made for me by our guide, Hoda Sayeed. When we went to the Egyptian Museum, she took us to see almost everything I had on my list. Everywhere we went, she showed us the things relevant to Hatshepsut, and spun that story out across multiple sites. While I was almost overwhelmed at the Temple of Isis at Philae, she confided that this was her favourite temple. When we tentatively suggested that we found Aswan rather more to our taste than Cairo, she dropped her forehead into her hands and, a native Cairene, said, "Cairo is the worst!" 

She talked to us about politics, about the Nubian land confiscations, about sleeping in Tahrir Square with her mother and using her guiding contacts to get the protesters food. Repeatedly, in answer to our increasingly bold questions, she told us what an arsehole Morsi was and why. By the time we left the tour, I don't think there was one of us who wasn't a little bit in love with Hoda. 

By the time we left, to be honest, I was even starting to love Cairo, with its noise and its filth and its incomprehensible traffic. It was becoming more exciting than terrifying. I would go back in a heartbeat. Hoda says we can stay at her house.