Sunday, 4 October 2009

On the move....

Hi All

I've moved sites, to a pretty wordpress blog site with a url of my very own:

Please change your bookmarks and RSS feeds - I would hate you loose you :)

I'll keep this address for a few more months but it won't be updated.

Thanking you.

Naomi Mc

Monday, 21 September 2009

Looking at boobs. Saving the world.

Boo-hoo. My Mac is not well and I have to wait till Wednesday to see a Genius to cure the little mite. In the meantime, read this fabulous blog by Dr Isis on misogynistic breast cancer campaigning.

This reminded me of PETA campaigning which has been frequently branded sexist. Feel the anger from Feministing (Vote for the worst PETA ad), Jezebel (PETA explicit ad "banned" but actually not), Opposing Views (Save the Whale ad), Julie Bindel. A colleague of mine used to work for PETA and said that their strategy was to be as shocking as possible regardless of the fall-out - all publicity being good publicity. Defence from the President of PETA, Ingrd Newkirk here and audio here.

Hilarious The Onion take on this:

Advocacy Group Decries PETA's Inhumane Treatment Of Women

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Science reporting: is it good for you?

The Royal Institution in London was packed to the rafters last night (I know because I was in the rafters) with bloggers, academics, journalists, bloggers, science communicators and bloggers for the Drayson/Goldacre face-off (watch the full debate here or read New Scientist's report).

Less rumble in the jungle, more grumble in the letters page of a peer-reviewed journal (come on, it half rhymes if you say it quickly).

The debate didn't really set the world alight and neither of them strayed away from their (after numerous radio interviews) well-trod arguments. My issue, as ever, is the trouble with gender and on this Lord Drayson used a pretty annoying headline to illustrate his point on the benefits of sensationalism. The front page story from The Sun on HPV and cervical cancer has a killer headline...

[thanks Kate Arkless Gray @radiokate]

What I found interesting is the sub-heading 'ALERT TO ALL WOMEN'. To all those who read the Daily Mail, you will know that the Government has been rolling out a comprehensive HPV vaccine to girls and young women. The Daily Mail is running a series of scare stories about this continuing a rich tradition in anti-vaccination journalism.

(As an aside: If any of the researchers I know from my old alma mater who did some work on Cervarix and Gardasil are reading this, please do comment/link to your research).

One thing that this policy decision does is put the responsibility for sexual health again squarely with females. And before, you roll your eyes and exclaim 'boys can't get cervical cancer', they can and do pass on HPV and they do get genital warts. I acknowledge that there is a cost-effectiveness argument but this call did get passed at the last BMA ARM - not the most rabidly feminist organisation I've ever come across.

My point is not to get into the ins and outs of the HPV vaccine, but more to take issue with Drayson's, and to some extent Goldacre's, view that sometimes 'sensationalism isn't such a bad thing', that it can publicise an issue that should get a high profile. Drayson used the Sun headline above to illustrate the benefits of sensationalism. My concern is that there are negative fall-outs from such an approach to medical or scientific PR; namely, that sensationalist stories can reinforce and feed society's prejudices, stereotypes and negative attitudes.

This is infuriating for those who campaign to challenge social attitudes whether on gender, race, immigration status, sexuality etc. It is hard enough to combat the Melanie Phillips' and Richard Littlejohn's of this world, without having scientists 'proving' that immigrants are coming over here stealing our women, eating our swans AND giving us HIV and TB.

I'm not advocating censorship, I'm pleading for responsible reporting. Sensationalism can and does regularly undermine scientific reporting of delicate and nuanced findings. This can both lead to health scares and dangerous health practices but can also feed negative stereotypes about social groups being diseased, stupid, promiscuous or all of the above.

However much we might point to outstanding examples of science journalism in certain papers, all newspapers are writing for their specific audience, influence their audience and have a political bias.

Plus there is a huge amount of research into the way people read newspapers and news online. Using eye-tracking and socio-semiotic research, we know that people tend to read the headline and first couple of paragraphs if you're lucky (this is a fascinating article on some eye-tracking research). Which means that if you leave the caveats, the nuances or other statistical 'health warnings' to the end of the article - they'll rarely be read.

Science reporting doesn't happen in a vacuum. It takes place in a society with historical legacies, prejudices, tensions and pretty low levels of scientific understanding and critical thinking. Journalists and scientists need to take responsibility for the presentation of findings (assuming it's good research in the first place) that can fuel discriminatory or unhelpful attitudes.

I only picked on one small aspect of the talk, coz I knew the blogosphere would do the rest. Here's some more on the talk and arguments:
From Ben Goldacre himself
Basheera Khan at The Telegraph
New Scientist
Nathan Chantrell
Skeptic Barista
And many many more.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

More Periods.

Further to an earlier period post (which interestingly has been the most commented on post both here and from friends in person) I've only just stumbled upon the fantastic blog by the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.

I particularly liked the post on the hidden nature of menstrual blood in film and TV as opposed to the graphic depiction of blood via fighting, shooting and crashing.

Oh, and having just moved into a new flat, THIS is the shelving unit I've been looking for!

Periods and science: a veritable wellspring of menstrual blood!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

My outfit does not consent on my behalf

[a metal cilice, kind of thing worn by Opus Dey faithful for 'corporal mortification']

Inspired by a blog sent to me about EA Games ‘Booth Babes’ at ComicCon, I thought I’d write a blog about spanking. You know, as you do. Issues of Bondage, Discipline/Dominance, Sado-Masochism (BDSM), pornography and objectification are so huge I’m not going to pretend that I’ve done them justice here, but these are my initial thoughts so lets get, erm, cracking….

I’ve written before about misogyny in the gaming industry (here and here frinstance), which is ridiculous when 40% of (US) gamers are female. There was also a lot written recently about EA Games employing ‘Booth Babes’ and then asking for them to be sexually harassed by ComicCon delegates. But the most interesting blog (not worksafe) I have read on this was from a submissive model on the UK spanking scene.

This was interesting because it challenged me and my preconceptions about women engaged in BDSM. It wasn’t what she said on the EA Games issue, all of which I agree with: this objectifies women, ‘Booth Babe’ is a demeaning term, it encourages sexual harassment not just of the ‘Booth Babes’ but all women attending ComicCon etc.

There are two things that I find challenging about this: empowered feminists being sexually submissive and BDSM models criticising the objectification of women.

Now I’ve read a couple of blogs by sexually submissive feminists (such as the very good Girl With a One Track Mind) and it’s something I’m really trying to get my head around. It seems counter-intuitive to me because my instinct is to encourage women to be powerful and assertive against a historical backdrop of oppression. But this blogger dresses up in school uniforms and other costumes, and is spanked, dominated, tied-up and sexually submissive.

Plus she is a model on the BDSM scene and so is photographed in these situations and yet identifies the fact that encouraging men to get dodgy pictures with some ‘booth babes’ crosses a line into objectification.

I realise that finding these two things ‘challenging’ is an emotional response rather than an intellectual or philosophical one. So here’s why my emotional response is wrong….

What is definitely unfeminist, is a feminist telling another woman how to have sex and what she can and can’t get her kicks out of. I want my feminism to include, for example, those women who have a gendered analysis of the world, they campaign for women’s rights, they challenge people’s everyday sexism and yet they're also down with consensual arse-slapping.

The counter argument is: these women are perpetuating rape myths, they’re playing out their own internalised misogyny and they are making it harder for other women who are fighting against patriarchy. I simply do not think that this is true.

Firstly, I have found that those involved in the BDSM scene or burlesque tend to have far greater social rules and sexual etiquette than in society at large. Because of the nature of the activities, trust, self-awareness and boundaries are far more strictly defined. These are people with a greater awareness of their own sexuality and the concept of empowerment through sexuality than your average non-handcuff owner.

Secondly, if you believe in the empowerment of women you have to accept that they should be empowered to do things you personally wouldn’t want to do. This sometimes manifests itself as ‘feminism going too far’ or ‘women just acting like men’. Well yes, because if you want to give women choices you can’t then try and make those choices for them.

If a woman chooses to engage in a bit of ol’ spanking then that is her choice. To say that I have a greater analysis of her motivations and am more aware of her sexuality than she is herself is deeply patronising, condescending and simply wrong. And it is particularly wrong when the women in question clearly demonstrate their political awareness, identify themselves as feminists and critically engage with debates around consent, sexual freedom and privacy.

This doesn’t mean that non-spankers can’t engage in debate about the issues, but it does mean you have to do so from an informed position and with a sophisticated understanding of human sexuality which goes beyond ‘sexual practice A is wrong, sexual practice B is alright - says me’.

Finally, I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea that individual women are responsible to women at large for their personal sexual proclivities. Women regularly bear the burden of their gender; if they succeed they are personally responsible for breaking down social barriers. If they fail, it in some way implicates all women in that failure.

The second ‘thing I found challenging’ was a BDSM model criticising the objectification of women in the EA Games example. The simple question being “isn’t that what you’re doing?”. Again this needs a little more sophistication on my part.

Two (linked) issues involved in the 'pornography: right or wrong' debate are female sexuality within the broad context of patriarchy and whether all porn is therefore objectification.

As a society we tend to make a direct link between female sexuality, what women wear, how they behave and how the rest of society should therefore react to them. This is the basis of the ‘she was asking for it’ rationale for rape, as though an outfit can consent to sex on behalf of its wearer. Just try and think what a man would have to wear in order to be asking for rape or sexual assault.

Putting aesthetics and scaring little children aside, a woman should be able to walk down the street naked without the risk of being raped. Clothes, lack of clothes or the wearing of sexualised clothing (for want of a better phrase) does not over-ride your ability to consent to sex. Your clothes do not remove the ability of another human being to stop themselves committing an assault.

Plus, I don’t think there is something intrinsically wrong with looking at sexual images of people. Yes there is a historical legacy of oppression of women, of women exploited by a male-dominated porn industry. That is context, not intrinsic so we try and change the context. This comes down to what sexual objectification means and its impact. Do all sexualised images, female or male, necessarily separate the physical appearance from their existence as an individual?

I think not. And while I understand the corrosive effect that pumping out degrading images of people can have (whether women or indeed, starving Africans) that is not true of all representations or all ‘consumers’. There is no getting away from the class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, age etc etc aspects of this. But they simply make this more complicated rather than less as many marginalised groups, identities and sexualities find great empowerment in representations of their sexual liberation.

All pornography and/or erotica is exploitative, sexist, racist, homophobic, size-ist? I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

In sum, if there is any walk of life where I want there to be feminists it’s in the BDSM scene.

So, ahem, more power to your elbow.

I am genuinely interested in debating this issue and am open to different points of view on it. Just don’t be pervy – I’ll just not publish your post and regard you a sad wanker.