January 2008


In Brave Bitsy And The Bear, Bitsy is a small toy rabbit who falls out of her girl’s pocket in the woods. Lost and all alone, she finds her way home with the help of a big, sleepy bear. (Ah, but will bear make it back to his cave before he falls into hibernation?)

In real life, Pink Rabbit – pictured above – is a small toy rabbit who got left behind somewhere in Gloucester and hasn’t been seen since. He didn’t have much chance of finding a bear to help him, and he hasn’t found his way home.

Ariel’s grief was overwhelming and palpable. Once she realised that after retracing our steps unsuccessfully we were going to stop looking and head home, she cried his name over and over. His loss changed everything. It was so hard: mothers are supposed to be able to fix anything, yet there was nothing I could do but help her through her grief and her guilt and her loss. What do you say? To her, Pink Rabbit was a real person with hopes and dreams and fears, a person who had his own rich life but who nevertheless had been there for her always, whenever she needed him.

Perhaps this is why we make up stories for our children. We pretend that what is, isn’t. Because what is, is hard to take.

Right now, all we can do is to hope that Pink Rabbit is having an adventure. We couldn’t find him, so he must have gone somewhere. Perhaps he is in the jungle, perhaps he has gone to the South Pole to look at the penguins, or to the North Pole to make friends with a polar bear. Maybe he will send us a letter or call us on the phone.

When she got home today she said – Where’s pink rabbit, has he come home yet? I gave him to you, mummy, and you lost him, didn’t you.

Ah, love, he escaped to be a wild free travelling rabbit. He might come back when he’s been all around the world. Bitsy found her way home. In real life, we’ll just have to wait and see. Rabbits don’t always come back.

If anyone sees this rabbit: please ask him to come home, or at least to send a postcard.

Thank you.

I’m so happy today. Apart from being a bit ill, I mean (hence daytime blogging, so there is a silver lining for every cloud).

I’ve found a really simple way to help me read blogs and other website that otherwise would hurt my eyes – those with light text on a dark background. I’m so happy because in the past I’ve just had to give up on women with great things to say because reading their posts just hurt. Eyestrain is so not cool.

So obviously I need to share. The first thing is that this particular trick only works if you are using Firefox – if you are using some other browser you will either need to switch to Firefox or find another trick. Anyway, if you want this *really easy* fix, then you need to go here and read this article which explains how to do it. It really works!

Thank you, Kathy Frederick.

Remember I mentioned yesterday that I have been working on a new project?

Well here it iswhite noise, a new blog/resource for white feminists looking to explore what it means to have white privilege, and how we can confront privilege and racism in our daily lives. We are antiracist allies who are ready at last to start taking responsibility for our own white privilege.

This is a project that secondwaver and I have started and that we hope other feminists will join – whatever your experience or background. Seriously, get along there. And if you would like to join the project, by submitting posts, recommending resources or in any other way, get along there and volunteer!

I’m busy just now with a new, exciting project – you’ll soon see ;)

Meanwhile, I’d just like to share this article with you as it filled me with a little hope when I read it yesterday. It is about the visit of Vernon Coaker (Home Office minister) to a pro-Swedish-model conference on sex trafficking in which he made some really encouraging statements about the possible forthcoming step-change in Government thinking about men who buy women for sex.

[Vernon Coaker] told a packed conference hall… that the time had come for a major cultural shift in Britain regarding prostitution and sex trafficking. He said:

“One of the vilest crimes that threatens our society is the trafficking of human beings. This modern day slavery is an evil practice, perpetrated for profit with no regard for the consequences for the victims or society as a whole. It is often the product of organised criminality that knows no borders and that feeds on the exploitation of the vulnerable.

“Some men might question perspective a man can bring to leading the government’s agenda of dealing with these awful crimes. For me, the fact that the victims are women, and sometimes children, and that the crimes are very often perpetrated by men, makes it even more important that men should be taking some responsibility for the solution. As a result, I’ve taken a strong personal interest in this issue.”

CHASTE’S Chief Executive Dr Carrie Pemberton told delegates from India, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Australia and the UK how it was crucial to tackle issues surrounding demand:

“It is time to wake up to human rights in the 21st century. How come in the 21st century that trafficking for sexual exploitation is one of the fastest growing areas of global trade, amassing hundreds of thousands of pounds for those involved, and being fuelled by a growing demand for casual sex for payment with no societal accountability?… The time has now come that we simply have to pay attention to the demand which is driving the engine of this abuse…

Sweden’s pioneering legislation in 1999 has enabled the world to take a fresh look at the way governments and society can address the multiple abuses involved in purchasing sex. With a standard fine or a maximum imprisonment of six months for the offence, hundreds of men in Sweden have been prosecuted to date, and more importantly attitudes have been significantly altered – particularly amongst the purchasing target group – 20-55 year old males.

This is in stark contrast to Germany where legalisation of prostitution has triggered an extraordinary increase in demand, with one survey returning a statistic of 1.2 million German men daily purchasing sex…

“We need to take steps now in our general culture, legislation, education and media to properly inform one another of the real human costs of purchasing people for sex in our contemporary world.”

Take: some leftover mash*, a fillet of rainbow trout**, a little flour, a handful of mushrooms, plenty of olive oil, lime juice, black pepper and Worcestershire sauce.

[* Mine comprised neeps - i.e. swede - well bashed with assorted herbs, black pepper, a little milk and plenty of parmesan cheese. You could use any kind of mashed root veg including, if you feel boring, potato.]

[** You can probably use some other kind of fish. Rainbow trout just happened to be what was in the "Whoops!" pile at Asda :) ]

1. Slice the mushrooms.
2. Heat the oil in a frying pan with lime, pepper and W sauce.
3. Coat the trout in flour and put it upside down in the pan. After a couple of minutes turn it over and turn the heat down. Add more lime, pepper and W sauce along with the sliced mushrooms.
4. While the fish is cooking (about 10 minutes) get the mash warmed up (gently so it doesn’t burn). Stir the mushrooms a bit and occasionally lift the fish to help avoid sticking / burning.
5. As soon as the trout is done – serve! It is quite funky to make a nice bed of mash on the plate, stick the trout on top and sprinkle the mushrooms around over that. Garnish with fresh green stuff if you feel really in the mood.

Serves 1.

FOOD POISONING TIP

If, like me, you only ever buy fish when it has been reduced because it is up against the sell-by date, you will probably want to be absolutely sure that the fish is cooked right through. Just insert a knife and prise the flesh apart so you can see the colour. If it looks cooked, it is. This doesn’t make for the best presentation (see photo) but I’ll take broken fillets over a night in the bathroom every time.

As a white woman brought up and living in a white dominated society, I have white privilege. I also have deeply ingrained racist attitudes. Whether I like it or not.

I will not indulge in pointless navel-gazing about whether I personally am “a racist”as that term is popularly understood, or whether I personally am “as bad a racist” as Person A or Person B over there. Nor will I spend unconscionable amounts of time trying to exculpate myself by explaining that I don’t really hate people of colour, or pointing out that I have this many people of colour in my circle of family, friends and colleagues. Because – all that? Not really the point.

The point is, I want to do something useful to recognise and address my own harmful or alienating attitudes and behaviours, and to help the white people around me recognise and address their own.

I would like to thank the white feminists out there who are on the same journey (especially, recently, secondwaver) because you have given me the courage to put this in the public domain. I would like to thank the black feminists out there who keep beating white feminists over the head even when it seems like we might be a lost cause.

I will try hard not to be afraid.
I will try hard to listen.
I will try hard to be honest.
I will try hard to act.

That picture up there – it’s a sunrise. A January sunrise.

Today, the so-called boy crisis* rears its ugly head once more. Reports in The Times, and of course the Daily Hell which never fails to capitalise on these stories, focus on a new book by one Dr Leonard Sax, long-time advocate of single sex schooling and founder in the USA of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. (NB in the USA public schools means state schools.)

[* By which we mean that educational achievement for white middle class boys appears to be improving at a slightly lower rate than that for white middle class girls, both of which continue to be way ahead of poor children and/or children of colour who are almost always neglected in discussions of the boy crisis.]

Sax’s argument focuses on research suggesting that boys have less good hearing than girls, and respond in slightly different ways to visual stimuli. Thus, he says, boys suffer because teachers think they are not paying attention when the real problem is that they cannot hear what the teacher is saying. Thus, he says, boys suffer because teachers tell them off for drawing a picture of a horrid car crash instead of a nice still life like the one that teacher’s pet Emily drew. Oh, yeah, there’s also a lot of stuff about how boys are biologically less able to sit still or be quiet than their swotty female peers. Therefore, single-sex education is the answer! Apparently.

This article by Sara Mead is comprehensive and refreshing. Mead takes apart the statistics (based on evidence of achievement in the USA over the last few decades) to chart how well boys and girls have done in various subjects and where differences have arisen. Her conclusion is that overall boys have improved, certainly in the elementary years that so interest Sax, but that girls have improved faster in many areas so that they have caught up or pulled ahead of boys. So when you look at actual evidence, the picture that emerges is not of boys doing badly or failing or in crisis – but of boys doing well, and girls doing a bit better in some areas – but still doing slightly worse in others.

Mead goes on to consider the various claims made by some individuals and widely publicised by the media that boys genuinely are in crisis. She criticises not only their exaggeration of the significance of gender differences but also the dearth of evidence to support any of their assertions, never mind their various and often conflicting ideas about how to solve the so-called crisis. She says (among other things, I just picked the quote that summed it up for me):

A number of con­serva­tive authors, think tanks, and journals have published articles arguing that progressive educational pedagogy and misguided feminism are hurting boys. According to these critics, misguided feminists have lavished resources on female students at the expense of males and demonized typical boy behaviors such as rowdy play. At the same time, progressive educational pedagogy is harming boys by replacing strict discipline with permissiveness, teacher-led direct instruction with student-led collaborative learning, and academic content with a focus on developing students’ self-esteem. The boy crisis offers an attractive way for con­serva­tive pundits to get in some knocks against feminism and progressive education and also provides another argument for educational policies—such as stricter discipline, more traditional curriculum, increased testing and competition, and single-sex schooling—that con­serva­tives have long supported…. Few of these commentators have anything new to say—the boy crisis has just given them a new opportunity to promote their old messages.

So with all this in mind, what do we make of Sax?

I found an incisive series of posts by one Mark Liberman on Language Log in which he analyses various claims made (by Sax and others) about natural sex differences. I quote a few below – there’s more, but you will get the picture just from this.

Are men emotional children?

Liberman investigates Sax’s use of a very limited study of a very small number of children to draw sweeping conclusions about how boys’ and girls’ ability to articulate their emotions develops with age.

Among other things, Sax claimed that there is little point asking a 7-yr-old why they feel sad or distressed because they do not have the right brain connections to understand why they feel that way – that as they mature girls brains develop so that they can understand and articulate the reasosns for feeling sad etc whereas boys develop their brains differently so that they are never able to fully connect with their feelings of sadness. Liberman shows that this is utterly unsupported by the research evidence cited by Sax to prove his claim. Indeed, a 3 year old could prove him wrong – and mine frequently does because she (unlike Sax’s standard issue seven year old) has very little difficulty in understanding or articulating why she feels sad or upset!

Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes

This post is primarily about someone else (Louann Brizendine), but is interesting because it discusses what is known about hearing / sex differences.

Quote: “If you pick a man and a women (or a boy and a girl) at random, the chances are about 6 in 10 that the girl’s hearing will be more sensitive — but about 4 in 10 that the boy’s hearing will be more sensitive. Not only that, but the expected value of the sensitivity difference is extremely small… So if boys are really less attentive to their mothers than girls are, the difference is not very likely to be due to differences in hearing sensitivity.”

Of rats and (wo)men

Liberman tracks down another couple of pieces of research that Sax relies upon – and demonstrates that “facts” put forward by Sax about differences in the way that boys see (from which he extrapolates much of his theory e.g. about boys being primarily interested in motion and action while girls are primarily interested in things and people) are just false. They are based on studies done on rats. They do not apply to humans: studies on humans show completely different results, yet Sax did not cite the human studies – only the rat studies.

Leonard Sax on hearing

A further exposé on Lax Sax and his terrible abuse of science – a look at the studies supposedly supporting Sax’s claim for a significant difference in hearing between school age children finds that they do nothing of the kind.

Quote: “My conclusion from all this is that Leonard Sax has no serious interest in the science of sex differences. He’s a politician, making a political argument. For all I know, his political goal — single-sex education — might be a good thing. But he should stop pretending that he’s got science on his side, or else he should start paying some minimal attention to what the science actually says.”

That’s my conclusion too.

Apparently today is the gloomiest day of the year. Nothing to look forward to, festive period well in the past, totally skint and payday still a week away, resolutions all broken, spring still far away, skies still dark, SAD well and truly setting in…

Pshaw. Humbug.

In fact, today is the day when I first had a sense that the days are lengthening again. It is still pitch black when the alarm goes off in the morning, but the afternoons are getting longer. Coming home from work, I could see actual light in the sky. Not bright light, not what you would call daylight. But not nightdark either. The days are getting longer! They are, they are!

And it is always in about January that I get spring cleaning fever. I have been tidying up. My living room is still remarkably tidy, I’ve organised most of my books (and have a decent pile for chucking out) and installed a new bookcase for Ariel’s books. I’ve been actually cooking again, proper food. I’ve finally shaken off the winter bug that I’ve had since before Christmas. I’ve done about seven hundred loads of washing, including blankets. I am keeping resolutions I didn’t even make. We are going for walks again. Gloucester hasn’t flooded.

Spring is coming. It is, it is.
The sun is returning, and soon there will be flowers.

In view of the flurry of posts today – HT Grace, Debs, Sparkle, all worth a read if you feel like sharing a bit of righteous anger – on a new government campaign to raise awareness (ahem, like nobody thinks this already) that women who drink are to blame for being raped because 1 out of 3 rapes happens after a woman has been drinking…

I give you this:

A study published in the Journal of Sex Education & Therapy found that almost 70 percent of sexually assaulted women reported that their assailant had been drinking.”

That’s 1 out of 3 rape victims – and 7 out of 10 sexual assailants. Do the maths – for which group, victims or attackers, is drinking the big problem?

So here is my new campaign:

MEN – 7 OUT OF 10 SEXUAL ASSAULTS HAPPEN AFTER THE ASSAILANT HAS BEEN DRINKING. STICK TO JUICE, AND STAY OUT OF JAIL.

So today we are talking about disgust…

This is from yesterday’s Discovery on the BBC World Service, a documentary by Claudia Hammond on disgust – its natural purpose in helping us to steer clear of disease risks, how we learn disgust, its possible role in moral judgment, and even a possible link between disgust sensitivity and political opinions. I decided to split my response to this very interesting piece into two posts (see Part 1 here) because the types of disgust I wanted to talk about naturally fall into two camps – the physical or “basic” disgust response to perceived disease risks and the moral or social disgust response to people or actions of which we strongly disapprove.

There is by all accounts some fairly plausible evidence that disgust is not just an emotional but also a physical reaction: we don’t just feel mentally or emotionally repelled, we feel physically repelled. Well, duh. When the idea of touching something makes you want to vomit, or makes your insides literally and physically clench – that’s physical. But there are other, measurable physiological effects as well, including a slowing of the heart rate and activity in a specific part of the brain. This is quite different from other possible reactions such as fear or anger, where the heart rate increases and different parts of the brain are involved.

Consequently, it is possible to analyse what images, sounds or experiences evoke disgust in a subject who is wired up to a heart rate monitor or brain scanner.

Studies have been done to see whether the moral judgement of “disgusting” (such as we might feel for, say, Richard Littlejohn) is merely metaphorical or whether it really does involve the physiological form of disgust. Some studies showed a clear link, in that when people were shown things that they found to be morally “disgusting” they really did exhibit the physiological symptoms of disgust.

Interestingly, where the disgust related to images of people - homeless people or drug addicts evoked disgust in many subjects – the symptoms of disgust were associated with something rather disquieting. There is a part of the brain that reacts when a person is looking at another human being. The “disgusting” people did not cause that reaction – in the minds of the person who was disgusted by them, they were not really seen as people at all. Less than human.

Other studies have been done suggesting a plausible link between disgust sensitivity and political opinions. People were tested on how disgusted they were by a range of possible disgust triggers, and were then asked about their political views on a range of issues. It turns out that people who scored high on disgust were also more likely to have conservative / rightwing opinions on a range of political issues including such seemingly neutral issues as tax rates.

The interviewee speculated that this connection was based on or stemmed from sexual disgust. People who were sensitive to disgust were more likely to feel (morally?) disgusted by sexual acts that they did not personally enjoy and therefore more likely to align themselves with people (in groups including political groups) who shared that disgust – and then to pick up political opinions on unrelated issues simply because they have mixed with those people.

To my mind that whole idea is rather circular – why is a shared disgust for certain sexual practices related in the first place with conservative or rightwing views on tax or foreign policy? On this basis, the coincidence of disgust and rightwing politics might just as easily work the other way around: maybe people who come together to talk about tax or foreign policy influence each other’s disgust sensitivity. That is, people who like to pay the minimum taxes necessary to bomb the crap out of brown people might influence one another to be disgusted by homosexual acts; while people who don’t mind paying more taxes if it means we can have decent schools and hospitals and a humane foreign policy might influence one another to believe that whatever you want, man, that’s cool. But why would they? We could go round like this for ages.

As usual, I have my own theory, which seems to make a lot more sense.

People who are more easily disgusted by, say, bowls of sick or hairy warts, are certainly more likely to be disgusted by obviously physical things like sex acts they don’t like the sound of, or by the idea of someone injecting drugs into their body, or by images of an aborted foetus. But as research suggests, they may also be more easily disgusted by other people, and more likely to view other people as not really human.

Consequently, they will be less likely to care if lower taxes mean more hardship for those already living in poverty; they will be less likely to worry if an aggressive foreign policy means that brown people will suffer or die; they will be less likely to view certain people (women, brown people, disabled people, gay people, poor people, the drug-addicted, criminals, fat people, vagrants and basically anyone not like them) as fully deserving of the same basic rights and standard of living that people like them take for granted.

And you know what’s really disgusting?
The idea that people who are not like you are not people.

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