Up Front by Emma Hart


Mind Your Language

I have to admit, I had some mixed emotions when I heard Clean Reader had been taken off the market. Delight, because the app was ridiculously stupid. Sadness, because it was hilariously stupid. I still think it's worth talking about Clean Reader because it highlights a few pertinent stupid things about censorship. 

Basically, the idea was that if people wanted to read good, classic books but didn't want to read all the nasty swears and stuff, there should gosh-darned be a way to do that. If you bought a book through the Clean Reader shop, it would replace all the Rude Words with nicer, cuddlier, more wholesome words. 

Now you might think this isn't really censorship, and what does it matter? It's voluntary: only people who wanted to read books this way were going to. Where's the harm? 

We start with this idea that some words, in and of themselves, are bad. Offensive. And that removing those words, and leaving the underlying ideas they express intact, solves the problem. 

Let me tell you about my personal experience of how mad this is. I once had a boss who believed this, and set our on-line writing forum's Prude Controls to maximum. Anything it thought was a naughty word – starting at 'damn' – would be removed and replaced with '#$%&*'. Whether you'd said 'fuck' or you'd said 'damn', it would come out as '#$%&*', which, and here's the start of the problem, always looks like 'fuck'. Also, the filter had, as they very often do, the Scunthorpe Problem. So bars had  #$%&*tails and planes had #$%&*pits, and if you read that as 'fuckpits', you can see how much more fun I was getting out of the filter than my boss was. 

At the same time, the slogan of the virtual 'entertainment facility' I was running, "A proud tradition of customer servicing", got through just fine. You don't need much ability with language to know that you can say the filthiest things using only the most cromulent words. 

Clean Reader also has the 'everything looks like 'fuck'' problem: sometimes it makes things ruder than they were to start with. All words for female genitalia are on the scarily-long list of things that Clean Reader replaces with "bottom". "Vagina" becomes "bottom". In Clean Reader, all sex is anal sex. 

And yes, the correct scientific terminology for naughty bits (you should watch The Naughty Bits, you really should) gets censored just as hard as the nastiest slang terms. 'Clitoris' also becomes 'bottom'. All terms for male genitalia are replaced with 'groin'. Imagine the effect on any kind of sex education. Blanket censorship has always taken out sex manuals and contraceptive advice, and one of censorship's greatest voices considered that a feature, not a bug. 

Take a minute, too, to ponder the implications of a vocabulary that leaves you no possible way of expressing the concept of 'clitoris'. You're not just removing the word, but the idea. It's like sex education from the 80s. 

But here's where Clean Reader really fell down, apparently to the great surprise of its creators. Authors, notably Joanne Harris and Chuck Wendig, were Not Happy. What Clean Reader does is Bowdlerisation. It doesn't just remove words, it replaces them with other words, words the author didn't write. Bowdler removed Ophelia's suicide from Hamlet, as being too disturbing for children. In the process, he removed the idea that Hamlet's revenge-obsessed behaviour had serious negative consequences for other people. If you hack about Shakespeare's plays, changing words and indeed whole incidents, to what extent are they still Shakespeare's plays? 

And I know it probably seems quaint and precious and selfish these days for authors to want to control their works. But this is vandalism. 

The kind of vocabulary characters use is part of the way writers define them as characters. If characters from The Wire start talking like they're in Famous Five books – "Gosh darnit, what the freaking heck is that freak doing here?" – they have become different characters. Less plausible characters. Completely freaking ridiculous characters. Language, including apparently 'rude' language, gives atmosphere. It can create tension. Words are all writers have. So I'm thinking the way Clean Reader says the mother of a puppy is a 'witch', and chickens have 'chests' is a whole lot less funny when it's your book being freaked in the jerk*.


* Yes, 'arsehole' is one of the few words that doesn't become 'bottom'. I love this so much.


I Walk the Line

There is a line on the floor at Christchurch hospital, a yellow line with daffodils on it. Here it is, blurrily stretching into a distance of institutional corridor. Every time I walk it – which is every day – I'm reminded of my Oncology Privilege. Only oncology patients get a line. Everyone else has to deal with the literally unreasonable warren which is that hospital without that help. 

It makes a certain amount of sense, of course. Who else is coming in here every day? Twenty days so far, and ten to go, though I get weekends and Waitangi Day off. There is a point where we have to leave the line, at the stairs, and head down to the oddly-named "Lower Ground" floor, but the line is waiting for us down there too. I wave my bar-code under the reader to let them know I've arrived, and enter the waiting room. 

There are always some familiar faces and some different ones. Our appointments are scattered randomly throughout each day. There are volunteer drivers, and women from the Cancer Society cheerfully offering people cups of really vile coffee. There's a bin of communal knitting and a table where a jigsaw is always being done; some indication of how much time people spend in here. There's a camaraderie of strangers. At this time of year, at least the mostly-windowless depths of the hospital are blessedly cool. There's free wi-fi but no cellphone coverage, so I can get Twitter and cricket scores but no texts or phone calls, which is pretty much perfect. 

So I go in to Treatment Three, and they check how and who I am before bolting my head to the table. Sometimes the mask is really tight, and the pressure on the back of my head makes me acutely aware of the sore spots on my scalp that tell me exactly where the beams are going in. Those must be the places where the hair in my comb every morning used to live. 

Someone on Twitter asked me if I could smell the radiation yet. A couple of weeks in, I realised what she meant. There's a coppery sensation around my soft palate. I don't know whether to call it a smell or a taste. I wonder if there's something directly stimulating that part of my brain. You analyse the experience because there's nothing else to do when you can't so much as open your eyelids. There's just machinery moving around you, and the bed moving, and then that sound I have grown to hate, that makes me reflexively cringe. 

A week or so ago, I was feeling pretty cocky. This wasn't as bad as I was expecting. About mid-week, everything hit at once. Today I will take eleven pills to deal with the symptoms of the treatment that is making me ill in order to make me well. I wonder how it feels to the people who work here. They know they're helping people, but what they see is people coming in reasonably well, and leaving very sick indeed. They're unfailingly patient, positive, and kind. They say very nice things about my tattoos. 

So while I know I'm supposed to be positive, all the time, no matter what, this is not a great experience. I have been told that "shithouse" is not an acceptable medical term for how I feel when I wake up in the morning, before I take my meds. 

I don't want to dwell on the shithouseness of it either, though, which makes talking about all this awkward and difficult. Part of the camaraderie of oncology, I think, is that we all know we're not going to casually ask "How are you?" or "So, what are you doing today?" with no discernable interest in the answer. ("My standard reply to "How are you?" is now "Hi." It makes no difference.) 

So what I do want to do is say thank you. Thank you to my treatment team, for continuing to treat me like a functioning adult. Thank you to my family, for picking up the not-inconsiderable slack and easing the pressure on me. Thank you to my friends, who invite me out and offer me rides and send me presents and sometimes are just there, making me laugh. Thank you to the guy who bought me Sky for Christmas, for those days when I can only lie on the couch. Thank you to the Black Caps for cheering me up no end through my treatment. I have been assured by many people that they're only doing it for me. And thank you to all The Isis Knot donors. You've eased a time of considerable stress for me, and made me feel useful and valued, even on those days when I can only lie on the couch. 

People. They're pretty fucking awesome.


Adric and the Art of Asking

Some of you may remember the time, five years ago, when I had to go into hospital and have the brain tumor that was blinding me removed. We called it Adric, we made jokes to cope with the fear, and you were all amazingly supportive and kept me sane through a long but ultimately successful rehabilitation. I complained about the endless MRIs afterwards, because I was obviously fine, and what was the point in putting me through that? 

As it turns out, we picked the wrong scifi metaphor. This isn't Dr Who. This is the Marvel universe: nothing ever dies. Adric is back. 

Right now, he's a tiny little thing, about the size of a 1x1 Lego brick, sitting on the front edge of my sella turcica. (In comparison, he was roughly the size of a 2x4 Lego brick the last time I had him removed.) He's not bugging anyone right now, but he's growing, and given time he'll be poking around buggering up my eye and/or my pituitary gland again. So, in fine comic-book tradition, we're going to dose him with radiation. 

As soon as I get back from my holiday in early January, I will start receiving radiotherapy, five days a week for five weeks. My oncologist thinks, given my underlying issues with fatigue, the treatment will continue to affect me for about three months. 

Next week, they're going to make a plastic mould of my head, so I can't move at all during my treatment. This sounds like the least fun way I have ever been restrained. I'm hoping we can keep it afterwards, and there will be prizes, or at least kudos, for the most imaginative uses. 

The treatment will come with side-effects. Almost certainly there will be tiredness, hair loss, loss of appetite, nausea, and difficulty swallowing. Things get worse from there right up to the very unlikely memory loss and cognitive impairment. 

I have been through Some Stuff in my time, but this is the most frightened I have ever been of something I could see coming this far in advance. When I had surgery, I had a mother and a partner. Not so much now. 

So here's where you guys come in. There are probably going to be three months where I can't work. People have wanted to help me, but I am terrible at accepting help. I may be unable to Internet very much, and I'm going to miss that sense of engagement. I kind of hope people would miss my voice, too. 

I believe I've come up with a solution to all these problems. For an embarrassing number of years, I've been writing a novel. Of course I have; who hasn't? For a ridiculous number of those years, a group of people – including a few PASers – have been reading it and providing me with feedback. It kept getting pushed onto the back burner, though, by paying work and an hilarious succession of major crises. 

Well fuck it, you know what? This is the time. Starting today, I will be releasing a chapter a week of The Isis Knot. I'm using technology to return to the fine traditions of Dickens, and serialising my book. It's free to read, but there's a donate button on the site if you'd like to help me pay for hats and access to cricket. An ebook will become available, but to begin with, I'll be sticking with drip-feed torture. 

A word of warning about content: I am the only person in the world currently NOT writing BDSM erotica. Well, not for commercial sale. Well, not this book. The Isis Knot is, I suspect, dispiritingly and surprisingly safe for work. It's about the things people will do when they're part of a group; what they will sacrifice to belong. It's also about asking the question, "In what circumstances could someone commit a murder, and I would think that was okay?" On counting, I've realised I could have called it "Four Funerals and a Wedding", but that makes it sound misleadingly cheerful. 

It's still hard for me to ask for help. And maybe this isn't your thing: that's okay. But even if it's not to your taste, or you don't want to give money, maybe link to the site? Tell someone who might like it. I want to give you lot something, and keep my voice around while I'm away, and if you want to give me something back, that's great. Most of all, I just want to tell this story while I still have the chance.


The Song of Angry Women

It's been a rough couple of weeks to be a woman. If the last couple of weeks were a person, it would cat-call a thirteen year old, punch her in the face, get her drunk and rape her at a party, then claim it was about ethics in gaming journalism. Then when she went to the police they'd point out they couldn't un-rape her, ask her what she was wearing, call her a coward, and then sanctimoniously bleat about how no-one respected her. 

I have fucking had it. 

Emma, you say, you seem angry. Of course I do. At this point you're either furious, exhausted, or you've raised Not Giving a Shit to the same level as my cat. The only light in this dark is the kind you get by setting everything on fire. 

It's just possible you haven't heard about GamerGate. If so, well done. That's its own reward. You could read this. Or I guess you could just take my word for it that they're the least successful activist movement in the history of everything ever, geeks whom Joss Whedon and Wil Wheaton think are basically a bunch of shitweasels. 

It's more possible, given all of you are less into BDSM and Canada than I am, that you've not heard about Jian Ghomeshi. He initially claimed that he was being discriminated against by his employer because of stories of his consensual BDSM encounters being maliciously spread by a spurned ex-lover. And this would be concerning, because people do suffer real and terrible consequences from being outed as BDSM practitioners, particularly male Doms. As more and more stories emerge of him being a Grade A Creeper, it seems that actually he is someone who feels okay using BDSM as a cover for sexually assaulting women, or as it's more commonly called, a "massive shitweasel". 

And then there are those Auckland shitweasels who've just got clean away with publicly admitting to serial rape. Everything else is really just the icing on this shit cupcake. Men lie, women tell the truth, everything stays the same, pass the fucking petrol. 

This is the paragraph that would normally be the Turn. This is where I'd start talking about positive things we can all do to make things better, and how we can all support each other. Let's be constructive. Well. I have some ideas. 

The abuse of women, in all its forms, is a serious health issue. It's a genuine threat to our society. It causes New Zealanders to alter their daily lives out of fear. Women's Refuge estimates the cost of domestic violence at up to $8 billion a year. 

There is no Five Eyes country where violence against women doesn't kill more people than terrorism does. So okay. Read our emails, track us, carry out warrantless surveillance, but do it so you can catch people threatening women. Imagine if you were walking down the street, someone yelled "Show us your tits! Hey babe, where you going? Give us a smile!" and a black van pulled over and they were thrown in the back of it and driven away. Imagine if, when you got abusive emails and threatening texts, when you read the comments on any Kiwiblog post featuring a picture of a woman, you could think, "Well, at least you're on a fucking watch-list now, shitweasel." 

There is, of course, an argument you hear, because an argument being completely fucking ridiculous doesn't stop people making it, that men who cat-call women on the street are "just being friendly". Sure they are. And picking them up in a black van is clearly over-kill. No. They should just have to spend the next day "just being friendly" to men. Tell male strangers to smile. That happens all the time, right? 

Also, there are some men who should have to wear a special collar containing an airbag-like device that inflates and entirely encases their head if they say something like, "Jeez, you women are uptight, can't you take a joke?" And it won't deflate until they apologise for being a misogynist shitweasel, and wash all the damn teaspoons in the office sink. 

There are many reasons that New Zealand women got the right to vote thirty years earlier than their English counterparts. One of those reasons is that New Zealand men in positions of power and privilege said, "I say, you know what? You ladies have a point. This is, indeed, fucking bullshit. Let's fix it." 

It'd be kind of nice if those men would step up again today. This is fucking bullshit. Let's fix it.


Good to Go?

A woman walks through a bar. As she passes his table, a man reaches out and grabs her hand. He pulls her onto his lap and kisses her. 

A woman walks through a bar. As she passes his table, a man holds his hand out to her. They make eye contact. He takes her hand, pulls her onto his lap, and they kiss.


I have said before, here on this very website, that consent is simple. I'd like to modify that statement now. Most of the time, consent is simple. Sometimes, though, it's incredibly fucking complicated. 

After reading this blog by an acquaintance of mine about our mutual social group, I started thinking about the complexities of consent. Consent can feel like a harder thing to police in a sex-positive environment like KAOS, or kink. That's not because it's actually harder, but because people are actually, consciously, doing the work. Looking out for people who are getting unwanted attention at parties isn't an issue if nobody's doing it. 

I think there are levels of understanding of consent issues. It's like when you're learning science: every time you progress to a new level, the first thing they teach you is that everything you've already been taught is bollocks. The basic, kindergarten level of understanding consent is "No means no." This is fine when you're also learning turn-taking and not to eat paint. Primary-level understanding of consent is "Yes means yes." An absence of a verbal refusal is not consent. California has just passed a law saying you can't have sex with someone who's unconscious, and it was controversial. 

And I don't want to take us to a tertiary level of talking about consent today. Let's not talk about consensual non-consent and stuff yet. Or indeed, for the peace of mind of most of you, at all. 

So let's look at a secondary level of understanding of consent. I like to think of this as "hearing about Good2Go and immediately realising it's a bloody stupid idea". 

“Are We Good2Go?” the first screen asks, prompting the partner to answer “No, Thanks,” “Yes, but … we need to talk,” or “I’m Good2Go.” 

So, you're 'good to go', right? You've agreed to have sex. So, lads, you've just agreed she can anally penetrate you with a strap-on? That wasn't what you meant by 'sex'? Well, you never said. The app never specifies what you're consenting to. It's supposed to help clear up "he said she said" (ugh) rape cases. Imagine using the app, and then wanting to withdraw consent later on. It might be well-intentioned, but it's a literal fucking disaster. 

One of the things about kink is that people pretty much have to be quite specific about what they're consenting to: 

Consent in BDSM is a really big deal, because the stuff we do would be torture without consent. It's sad that it's any different for [vanilla] sex, but not a whole lot of people could convince themselves "well they seemed like they wanted to be dressed up like a ballerina and smeared with mashed potatoes, they did go up to my bedroom after all" to themselves.

A secondary level of consent understanding realises that you're not consenting to sex, but to a particular act with a particular person.

Those of us who are big on enthusiastic consent, or positive consent, or having sex on purpose, have a set of ideals. There should always be talking. There should always be relative sobriety. There should be check-ins, because consent can be withdrawn at any time.

We also live in a country where, were it not for the drunken hook-up at parties, we'd have died out as a species.

Those ideals are bloody good ideas. Most of the time, consent is simple. Even without words, people should be able to tell the difference between someone who is really into what's going on, and someone who's hating every minute of it. If you can't do that, you should never, under any circumstances, have sex without getting verbal consent. A woman isn't a gatekeeper of sex, she should be an active participant.

See those examples up the top of the column? The bottom one happened to me. Not a word was spoken between the two of us, but he paused, and allowed me to consent. That was what made it a really great evening, and not an assault.

When we talk about consent like this, though, sometimes we erase the experiences of really decent people, and create an atmosphere where they won't talk about them because it doesn't feel safe. I asked people to tell me their experiences of complicated consent, and remarkably they did.

One recurring theme was intoxication. Now, I know we say you should never have sex with someone who's so drunk they can't consent, but that assumes that, as an observer, you can tell. Certainly I've run across people who, when they're intoxicated, appear pretty much sober. They don't slur, they don't stagger, they don't – like me – get incredibly loud and interesting. And when they wake up in the morning, they have no memory at all of what happened the night before. What if you sleep with one of those people, not knowing they do that?

People can refuse consent for any reason, and we don't get to say that reason's not good enough. But I've never actually bothered to ask anyone if they vote ACT before I slept with them. Can they be expected to realise it's important to tell me? What if they're in a monogamous relationship? Do I have to tell them I'm bi? Do they have to tell me if they're trans? It's not okay to lie to people – about your age, your marital status, whether you want kids – to get consent, but you're not always going to realise what the trigger issues are.

And then there's sleep. A friend told me this story, and it chimed, because I had it happen to me. You're asleep, and you wake up slowly realising that someone is engaging in foreplay with you, and it feels quite nice, and then you wake up enough to realise that NO that's wrong. And when you say, "What the fuck are you doing?", they look at you blankly and say, "You started it." And you did. In your sleep.

In cases like that, I think it's important to realise that one person can have a really awful, traumatic experience without the other person intending to hurt them at all.

Other things at a secondary level of understanding: consent can last longer than the relationship. If it was secret, do you have the right to tell people after it ended? I mean, it's your life, right? But it's also the other person's. Got photos? Great. Got consent to share them? No? Then don't.

All aspects of relationships can be tricky, especially because most of the time, we're just supposed to "know". We look back at situations and have no idea what we "should" have done. We make mistakes. It's important is that we have the space to acknowledge those mistakes so we can learn from them.