March 2009

There was:

  • A question which starts with the words “fifteen individuals who attend a weightwatchers’ clinic are each to be assigned at random to one of the treatments A, B, C to reduce their weights”, and goes on to list “differing amounts of weight” that they need to lose.
  • A question that starts “a surgeon wishes to compare two possible surgical techniques for curing a specific heart defect…” and goes on to list 24 patients, together with “sex: M/F” and “age”.

Why am I highlighting this?

Well, actually, there’s a few reasons.

Firstly, diets don’t work. So the first example grates on me. Secondly, both questions are about changes to the human body. One of them merits the sex of the individuals being known. The other one apparently doesn’t.

Are we meant to assume that weight loss will occur (assuming it does occur, for which, see my first point) at the same rate for men and women? At this point, I’m not getting into discussing the gender binary, because we’re dealing with statistics, and one of the things that statistics does is identify trends. The problem occurs when people start to take trends to be indicative of not only the whole population, but for each individual within that population.

So, if we can assume for the moment that people socially identified as male tend to have a different bodily structure to those socially identified as female, surely it would make just as much sense for the weightwatchers trial to be stratified by sex as it was for the heart defect trial.

In which case, I’m surprised that the question didn’t make that clear. Yes, I know that in the real world there are many factors that ought to be accounted for, of which sex is only one. And the questions that we do are, of necessity, very generalised, as they exist mainly as a way for us to show that we understand the concept. But this is a strange omission, as it is the only question, out of four, which does not in some way mention the sex of the person(s) in question.

Are we, then, meant to assume that there is no need to specify the sex of the people dieting? And why?

I know what I think. I think that the underlying assumption is that dieting is for women. And I know that I don’t like this assumption. In fact, I think that when I hand this homework in, it will have a note to the effect that the sex of the participants was not included, and that this could have made a difference.

Once upon a time, I used to believe my teachers when they spoke of the objectivity in science. Now, more and more, I feel that belief slipping away*. And these aren’t even real studies.

*It’s the small things as much as anything. One of my tutors has a habit of referring to all of the people in our questions as “he”, even when on the sheets they are explicitly gendered female. I’ve also noticed that women in our examples sheets tend to do things like diving and gymnastics, whilst men drive cars. This frustrates me, because when we’re in a parallel universe in which a car is doing a totally constant speed, and the speedometer does not lie, surely we can mix things up a bit and get rid of some patriarchal assumptions whilst we’re there!


Yes, it is Sunday, and yes, that means I ought to have a Weekend News-Surfing post lined up. But, you know, I’m not feeling up to dealing with the myriad of nastiness that’s around in the news this week, so instead, I have taken inspiration from the long-suffering sidekick of Captain Obvious:

I’m going to give you three quotes that have appeared in the news this week. And then, if you haven’t already guessed, I’m going to point out why one of these things is not like the others.

Pope ‘distorting condom science’:

“the London-based Lancet said the Pope had “publicly distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine on this issue”. It said the male latex condom was the single most efficient way to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV/Aids.”

School lunch rules too strict:

“The government had been working with local authorities and schools to create better dining facilities and organise lunch breaks better because it knew students were put off if there was nowhere to sit, long queues, unattractive dining rooms or no time to eat.”

Sex attack on woman in alleyway:

“I would advice ladies in the area to take reasonable precautions and if possible avoid walking alone in that vicinity at this moment in time. If they are walking around during the hours of darkness I would urge them to be with a friend or something like that.”

Have you guessed yet?

In fact, there are two right answers. The first is that one of these things is not held to be “conventional wisdom” – and that would be the second story, which says that students don’t want to stand in long queues to get their lunch.

The second, and the one which I was going for, was that, while the quotes from the first two stories are clearly true all the time, the third story is one of those rare occaisions where the “conventional wisdom” for women is actually relevant.

Here’s what gets to me, Detective Inspector Dilly*: if women in our culture don’t know by now that they’re not meant to walk around late at night without some suitably muscular man to look after them, they never will. You saying “don’t walk around in the dark” isn’t anything new or helpful.

I know I’m not meant to walk around in the dark on my own. I know I’m not meant to go out clubbing in a short skirt, but then on the other hand, if I go out in jeans and get raped, the judge won’t believe me because my jeans will have been too tight for the man to get them off without my help. I know I’m not meant to get drunk, because if I do, I can wave goodbye to that rape conviction – after all, just because I was unconscious, doesn’t mean I didn’t consent! I know I’m not meant to use public transport to get home – but then, if I take a taxi and get raped, who will believe me? I know I’m meant to take my boyfriend with me everywhere I go, so that potential rapists know that I’m somebody else’s property, but then, if my boyfriend rapes me, it won’t even get to court because the police will label it as a “domestic incident”. After all, I don’t normally object to having sex with him, right?!

Of course, if you were honest you might have said, “face it, ladies, whether a man rapes you has nothing to do with what you do, and everything to do with whether that man is a rapist”. But that doesn’t make for nice, friendly police officer advice, does it?

Don’t get me wrong – I want women to be safe. I want to feel safe, as a woman. But let’s face it – the only time I could ever consider myself completely free from the threat of rape is if I was the only person left alive. Being pre-pubescent doesn’t mean I won’t get raped. Being post-menopausal doesn’t mean I won’t get raped. Being lesbian… well, in some places, being lesbian might actually increase my chances of getting raped.

I hope they find that man in Portsmouth. Maybe when they’ve done that, they can work on challenging rape myths so that women actually feel confident in reporting rape in the first place.

*yes, his name really is Dilly.

When you’re too drunk to give consent!

This story highlights what for me is a very important issue : that there are different ‘forms’ of rape, but they all amount to the same thing –  non-censusual sexual activity. Examples:

Date rape: even within this category there are variations. You can just be out in a club or bar, and someone you are most certainly not with can spike your drink. You can be out on an actual date with someone, and they can spike your drink. You can be on a date with someone who believes that consenting to a date means relinquishing all rights to your own body, and will force themselves on you.

‘Out-and-out rape’: the form people are most likely to be sympathetic towards the victim, where an attacker stalks you, forces you into a secluded area and rapes you. What is frequently used against those who are raped is the fact that you are likely to at least casually know your rapist in almost every circumstance – somehow you are meant to have a magically ‘rapist’ sensor that alerts you to someone creepy, so you can what? avoid them? prevent them from following you home? Or maybe no one should be allowed to walk home on their own ever again – that’ll stop the rapes! Oh wait! But you also shouldn’t get into cabs, because someone might drive off and rape you! So… stay indoors if you don’t want to get yourself raped. The solution couldn’t possibly be educating people that just because they WANT something, doesn’t mean they can HAVE IT. Your dick will not fall off if you do not have sex. Deal.

Statutory rape: sex with someone under the age of consent. Obviously a tricky area. The law is designed to protect vulnerable young people from predators, and to have a means of prosecuting them. Sadly, it also means that my first boyfriend was technically a rapist, me being only fifteen and he seventeen. It just shows how many variables have to be taken into account when discussing rape. And they ALL focus around consent. I most certainly consented with my boyfriend, fully aware of the nature of my own desire. An eleven year old being groomed by a forty year old man: they might ostensibly ‘consent’ to sex, but they do not know what that means – they are consenting to satisfy the desires of someone they want to please, not to mutual sex.

I don’t really know what to call this last one – I welcome suggestions. This is the one that fits the article above. It is the ‘too drunk to say no’ rape, and causes such controversy. Quite why, I am uncertain – if someone is too drunk to speak, to articulate their desires – DO NOT HAVE SEX WITH THEM. They cannot want it. If, as the man in this case claims, you ‘mis-read’ the signs – TOUGH. Deal with the consequences. Accept responsibility for the fact you had sex with someone against their will. This is not rape in the Big Bad Rapist sense, as with that disgusting taxi driver Rachel wrote about. It is the rape of female desire. If the man wants it, and she can’t refuse it, then he deserves it, and should not be punished for taking what he thought he should have. It sickens me, because it is contrary to everything I believe about sex: mutual enjoyment, desire, trust…

There needs to be more awareness about the different forms rape can take. More than anything, the victim-blaming needs to stop.

Sorry for all the long posts – its been an angry day. They’ll be some light entertainment soon 🙂

I thought I should explain the origins of my name, and direct y’all to some of my favourite feminist reads.

First off is The Laugh of the Medusa by Helene Cixous. Cixous advocates that women find their own voice in writing and not try to mimic that of men, especially when talking about womanhood. She called this ‘ecriture feminine’ which, although the literal translation is feminine writing, in fact means a style that expresses the neglected aspects of the human experience. Virginia Woolf is an example; James Joyce another. Ecriture feminine does not have to be written by women – it is a rejection of masculine libidinous language, not a rejection of men. On a side note, I think this is a large part of the hostility feminists face: too many people think that feminists are ‘anti-men’, that we want to cut off their penises, burn bras, force everyone into communes and all the other stereotypes. It simply isn’t true. What I want, as a feminist, is to have my voice recognised as equal to a man’s – and Cixous offers a way in which to strive for this. Why ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ as a title? Medusa represents the threatening female, the creation of masculine fears: Cixous’ Medusa laughs in the face of these masculine insecurities and the way in which she has been painted.

In terms of why I chose roflingmedusa as a screen name, someone already has the name laughingmedusa, so I thought I’d go with rofling, as it sounds so amusingly pleasing.

OKAY. More:

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is a thorough examination of the gender and its construction: brilliantly written, incredibly insightful and damn inspiring.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is another must-read: this is one of the most influential late first – early second-wave feminist texts ever written.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is a gentler read than the above, which are more in the vein of literary theory. A Room of One’s Own is based on lecture notes and essays written by Woolf over a number of years. The sections on androgyny are of particular interest, especially read in light of Butler.

The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar looks at the woman writer in the nineteenth century, examining the ‘madness’ that women appeared to suffer from, owing to the repression of the female in a male-centred world.

Finally, for now, Monique Wittig’s One is not Born a Woman is in the same vein as de Beauvoir and Butler, focusing on sexuality to a greater extent.

This is a reminder, I suppose, that I should not laugh too much about the activities of American politicians, lest I look at the BBC website and find an equally ridiculous story about my own.

Basically: there’s a filter on the House of Commons internet, so that MPs can’t waste their time (and our money) looking at sites that feature “offensive or illegal content or are sources of malicious software”. Which is a good thing.

Unless, of course, you’re Adrian Sanders, Lib Dem MP for Torbay, who, because of the filters, was prevented from reading Lembit Opik’s column in The Daily Sport. Mr. Opik (MP for Montgomeryshire, apparently) is quoted as not believing that The Daily Sport was inappropriate.

Where to begin?

Firstly, when I did a quick Google search for the paper, it told me that related searches were for “FHM” and “playboy”. Not a good start.

Eventually, I found the website (either the site’s designers are shite at getting their hits up, or my internet usage is also monitored!) and what I found was… well, pretty much what you’d expect.

The front page of the website has a grand total of:

  • 6 pictures of  women, bare-breasted, with nipples showing
  • 6 pictures of women, bare-breasted, but with either bikinis or strategic signs saying things like “wanna be a stunna?”
  • 2 areas of constantly changing pictures, which during the time I was watching included such wonders as a photograph of a woman suggestively eating a banana, women in open-necked shirts suggestively pulling at the collars, and women posing in bikinis in what are presumably meant to be their own homes.

It should be said at this point (not that it will be a surprise to anybody) that where I say “women”, you may as well read “large-breasted, white, able-bodied, thin, young women”.

An advert at the top of the page shows yet another woman, reclining in what is presumably meant to be post-coital bliss, but looks to me suspiciously like boredom, next to the tagline: “life’s short – have an affair”.

The pages are broken down into six categories, of which the first four are:

  • Free Stuff (featuring “babe galleries”, “naked celebrities”, “search for a stunna” as the first three items; “news” is down in sixth place)
  • Rude Stuff (seriously, you don’t even want to know. Suffice it to say that “XXX” appears more than once.)
  • Play Stuff (amazingly, nary a mention of S-E-X; this category is for gambling. Yay.)
  • Read Stuff (“agony”, “Michelle’s sex clinic”, “students talk sex”, “girls who kiss”, “my first time”, “milf talk”… and oh, look! Lembit Opik appears three links down from that, after what I’m assuming are two other columnists.)

The only story visible without scrolling down is, funnily enough, this very one. Of course, their take on it is “the site is considered too raunchy for those surfing the web at the House of Commons.” There are many words I could use to describe this festering shitpile of ill-considered, tasteless porn masquerading as an actual publication, and “raunchy” is not the first thing that comes to mind, I can assure you.

In all honesty, looking at this site didn’t upset me in the same way that FHM upset me. I suspect this is because FHM is wholeheartedly and – if you like – professionally hateful. The Daily Star still retains a passing notion that it is claiming to be a newspaper, and is therefore torn in two directions; porn and not-porn. On the other hand, how on earth can The Daily Star actually claim to be a newspaper? Out of painful curiosity, I clicked on the “news” link. There were a whole 10 links. Yep, ten. Out of which 6 (six) related in some way to sex, or sexual areas of the body. Including “Eastenders star caught wanking” and “My boobs fell out!”.

This, to reiterate, is the website that Lembit Opik claimed was “not inappropriate”. Of course, he also referred to his articles as “my words of wisdom”, and let’s not forget, this is writing done for a publication that seems to have a deep and abiding love of ending words inappropriately with the letter “a”. Wanna; stunna; outa… the list is endless, and, for a pedant like me, deeply, deeply annoying. Frankly, I’d ban the bloody thing on the grounds of shite spelling alone, never mind the badly photoshopped porn that they’ve thrown all over it.

I just realised that I completely ignored a very relevant news-based example: the proposal to abolish male primogeniture. This law means that a woman can only ascend the throne if all other male possibilities are exhausted. Far, far too many of the responses to this proposal centre on the fact that this is a long-standing tradition of English monarchy, which should be proudly preserved as an example of our heritage. A heritage that allowed a king to execute his wives on the grounds they didn’t provide a male heir: a heritage that has allowed stark raving bonkers kings to rule rather than see a vulva instead of a penis perched on the throne. Marvellous.

There are all sorts of complications involving the Commonwealth as to why this flagrantly sexist law cannot be easily changed, as highlighted on the BBC Website, which can explain it all far better than I. But, in the name of equality and common sense,  changed it should be.

Firstly… Hello! I am entirely new to this sort of thing, so any feedback would be really welcome (as long as it’s all totally positive and fawning and all…)

Now. To the point.

There was an incident in the past few weeks that caused me to reflect upon tradition as an argument against change. During a seminar, a young woman claimed that it is instinct for a woman to nurture, and that it follows that women belong in the home. A minor kerfuffle ensued, leaving me fuming, and desperate to respond in some way other than being very, very red. This it it, I guess.

It is generally accepted that, as human beings, we are able to transcend our base instincts. This is how we are distinguished from animals. It must always be kept in mind that ‘tradition’ does not equal ‘natural’. It is tradition in some countries to mutilate the clitoris. This is not natural. Obviously this is a horrific example, but because it is so extreme it illustrates that enforced gender roles are just that – enforced, not natural. The young woman of my seminar claimed that nurturing on the part of the woman is natural, and breadwinning by the man is the same. Leaving aside the fact that she and I are currently studying the Renaissance (widely acknowledged by our tutors to be the period in which early modern gender roles were formed) we can look at nature itself. Female mammals give birth, and feed their offspring. Both sexes are involved in protecting the young from predators. Once the offspring are weaned, they’re on their own. Exactly how does this compare to our elaborate nurturing rituals? Answer: it doesn’t. These are as constructed as gender roles: roles that exist by tradition, not nature.

Further, even if it is instinct for a woman to nurture, there is no evidence that this is right. Again, we are humans and have a sense of morality. Animals instinctively have sex for procreation – there isn’t a whole lot of choice involved. Humans have choice – we have sex for recreation as well as procreation. If someone ‘instinctively’ tried to have sex with me, this would be rape. They couldn’t justify their actions by saying they were doing what was natural, and therefore right. It would be immoral, because we have a choice to not follow our instincts.

Lastly, and more childishly, because I’m still angry: if you feel so strongly that women belong in the home, my tradition-loving friend, why on earth are you at university? Get back in that damn kitchen where you NATURALLY belong.

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