Thursday, 27 February 2014

In Defence of Anonymity

Last month, I was invited to speak at TEDx East End. The theme was 'Society Beyond Borders,' so I opted to talk about the history of anonymity, and why it is so important to preserve it for marginalised activists and writers.

Very often when you see the word 'anonymous' these days, it's followed almost immediately by the word 'troll'. But the rich history of anonymity and pseudonymity is far more than that, and has been a refuge for artists and others almost since the beginning of recorded history. In this talk I explore some of the leading lights of anonymity, and why they chose not to use their real names.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

An Open Letter to New Port Richey

Dear New Port Richey, Florida,

Hey there, it's been a while since we touched base. Soz about that. I've been away writing books and getting up to no good in the UK; you've been busy increasing your suburban sprawl to the point where there is now no clear boundary between you and the rest of the West Central Florida region (a.k.a. "the bit too far west of Disney").

Anyway, I thought we should probably catch up after you recently announced a new plan to arrest sex workers in the city limits. As I am arguably the city's best-known export, and certainly its best-known prostitute export, I'm surprised you didn't run this by me first. Because this plan of yours? I'm telling you this now, it ain't gonna work.

Just to catch up the rest of the folks reading this - the grandees of New Port Richey got tired of rigging elaborate stings to entrap sex wokers, so are giving cops free rein to arrest people who tick any three of eight "behaviours" off a list. These behaviours include asking if someone is a cop, getting into and out of cars at the same place by the road, trying to attract attention of drivers, and more.

You know who else asks if you're a cop? People who are trying to get help in an emergency. You know who else gets into and out of cars by the road every day? Students and workers waiting for their carpool. You know who tries to attract the attention of people driving by on US 19? Anti-abortion protestors. Last time I checked, New Port Richey had all of these in abundance.

That's the problem with these kinds of laws, you see. Profiling has a false positive rate greater than zero, and some of those false positives will no doubt lawyer up. Also, picking up people because you think they might possibly commit a crime in the future is not the same as detecting people who are actually breaking the law. It is - hm, how you say? - oh yeah, now I remember the word. "Unconstitutional." (My time in Florida's schools did not go to waste, as you can see.)

And while we're on the topic of what's legal and what's not, please explain to me what the point of criminalising sex workers is again? Because harassing people over a victimless crime seems like a pretty poor use of resources.

Back when I lived in Florida I knew a few women who were out there selling sex on the streets. Not one of them ever said, "you know what would change my life in a positive way? A mandatory minimum jail sentence and a thousand dollar fine." For the most part they were just trying to get by day to day, put food on the table, hoping maybe for something better someday. Jail is not that something better.

Remember how that Prohibition thing worked out with booze? The War on Drugs with drugs? Yeah, this is bound to backfire, too. The people you're trying to target - some of whom really are vulnerable - will be getting criminal records instead of a helping hand.

Meanwhile, the indoor sex workers like me who can easily dodge these ham-fisted vice moves will continue making money, because the truth is you can't stop the world's oldest profession.

Florida's an odd place, I'll grant you that, and it can be tough to set yourself apart when virtually every other town and city in the state has attracted international attention for doing strange stuff. Why, just down the road we have Clearwater, a place that's both the spiritual HQ of Scientology and the world HQ of Hooters restaurants. It's hard to compete with that kind of weird.

But this approach is not the way forward. Becoming well-known for something you didn't exactly plan on is kind of a bummer. I feel your pain. You know what? Sometimes you have to roll with the hand you're dealt. Like, maybe offering the sex workers passing through the Pasco County law enforcement system options other than going to jail? Or - if you're feeling like pushing the boat out a bit - letting adults mind their own business.

New Port Richey, you and me parted ways a while ago. But that doesn't mean there isn't still a part of you with me, and a part of me with you. I'd really appreciate it if you could do me a solid and reconsider this ill-thought idea. Otherwise I'm going to have to keep telling people I'm from this town, and from what I gather, that would probably rub you up the wrong way.

Sunshine and kisses,


Sunday, 11 August 2013

BREAKING NEWS: I was a sex worker.

This morning I awoke to find a claim published in the Mail that I was not a sex worker. 

It is a direct attack on my integrity as a writer, to claim that I lied. And I have been prepared.

When the case goes to trial, I will have to present evidence that I was a sex worker. Starting with this - an Archive.org snap of my first escorting ad from October 2003 (link NSFW).

(Readers of the first book may recall this was the session with the grumpy photographer I wrote about. As I have often said, it was that experience - being made to wear terrible lingerie, awkward poses, all the rest - that first made me think, 'hey, I should be blogging this.'

And if you read the third book, I made a reference to a restaurant on Old Compton Street that has the same name as my working name - that is, of course, Taro.)

I will also be presenting my bank records from 2003-04, showing the cash deposits from the money I earned as an escort, and tax records from the same years showing that this income was declared to HMRC and tax paid. Here is a sample:

I also have the notebook in which I recorded details of appointments, etc. In several instances I have been able to piece together entries from the notebook, deposits to my accounts, and the corresponding entries in the book. If pressed, I will name a client, but only as a last resort.

The Mail also claims I didn't own nice enough clothes so couldn't have been an escort!

That's from December 2003, and is the same red silk top I wore to meet the manager for the first time (as written about in the first book). The next is at Henley Regatta in July 2004, suit is from Austin Reed, the bracelet was a gift from a client.

The Mail claims I was in Sheffield when writing the blog, but I moved to London in September 2003 and started escorting in October, starting blogging a few weeks later. All of which is easy - trivial, even - to prove.

Oh, and the "former landlady in Sheffield, who did not wish to be named", where I supposedly lived for three years? Who apparently saw me in 'Oxfam jumpers'? Hmm... I lived one year in university accommodation (St George's Flats),  one year in a shared flat with an absentee landlord I never met (Hawthorne Road), and one year on my own in a house let through an agency (Loxley New Road). All well before moving to London. So either the landlady is lying about the timing of my tenancy and having met me, or (shock, horror) they made it up.

There's much more but it would be boring to put it all here. It's amazing to me the MoS made no effort at all to match anything they printed against things that are easy to find and in the public domain. But that's by the by, and will come out in due course.

It matters because this is a concerted and direct attack on my work as a writer. When I was anonymous, being real was my main - my only - advantage. The Mail on Sunday have made some frankly nonsense claims, and I will be going to town on this.

Because I know people do not trust the word of a sex worker, that is why I saved everything.

I look forward to the opportunity to rebut all claims in court. (The MoS claim the trial is expected "within weeks." In fact it is scheduled for June 2015.)

Friday, 26 April 2013

Should Mia Freedman Apologise?

I went to Australia last month as a guest of the Opera House for the All About Women symposium.  As part of the event, I agreed to do some media appearances on ABC, including the Drum and Q&A.

All About Women was a fantastic day and I feel privileged to have met so many interesting and talented people there, including people I would put in the category of genuine modern heroes

As for Q&A… this is the Australian equivalent of Question Time, so I went anticipating a varied panel with a wide variety of opinions jostling to be heard. I was told Tony Jones was a strong moderator, so I went expecting him to rein in the conversation if things went off-piste. This was to be Q & A's first all-woman panel and expectations were high. The topics they circulated beforehand indicated I was in for a grilling while everyone else got softball. I went, not to put too fine a point on it, loaded for bear.

I thought it went pretty well. Opinions differed. Points of view were exchanged. Margaret Thatcher died. All in all, a good night. The producers seemed very pleased with the outcome.

So imagine my surprise, weeks later, that fellow guest Mia Freedman is still flogging her commentary about the appearance as content on her site MamaMia. The topic: should she apologise for continually insulting sex workers?

During the show Mia kept falling back on sloppy, ill-thought, and pat little lines that were easily countered. I found to my surprise a lot of common ground with Germaine Greer, hardly known as a fan of sexual entertainment, on the fact that conditions of labour and not sex per se are the most pressing issue for sex workers worldwide right now. Then in comes Mia with her assumptions about the people who do sex work (men AND women) and the people who hire them (men AND women). With Tony backing her up. So much for the disinterested moderator, eh? Maybe he felt bad for her. I don't know.

Here's the thing. I agree with Mia on this: I don't think she should apologise.

Why not? Because if she did it would be insincere. My first impression when we met backstage was that she was insincere, and damn it, a successful lady editor like her should have the guts to be true to herself and stand by her opinions no matter what they are.

Because the general public needs to see what kinds of uninformed nonsense that sex workers who stick their heads above the parapet get every single day.

Because for every 100 people who visit her site, there is one who is both a parent AND a sex worker, who knows what she is saying is nonsense. Yes, that's right Mia: sex workers raise families too. It's almost as if we're people.

Because she is a magazine editor who cares deeply about hits and attention, and clearly this is delivering on every level.

Because the sort of people who think sex workers should be topics of discussion rather than active participants are fighting a losing battle.

Keep digging, Mia. I ain't gonna stop you. Keep writing off other people simply because they didn't have the privileges you did or didn't make the same choices you did, and you can't accept that. Get it off your chest, lock up your children, whatever you think you need to do. Perhaps you have some issues about sex you want to work out in public, or this wouldn't be the biggest issue on your agenda weeks after the show went to air?

Mia, you have my express permission not to apologise. No, don't thank me… I insist.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Right to a family life 'not absolute'?

Theresa May, as per her now-weekly ritual, manages to make herself look ridiculous again. This time it's over Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, or as Ms May likes to refer to it, "Human" rights. That's okay, Theresa - I use scare quotes when referring to you as a "human" too.

Article 8 is the right to a family life which, if you read the right-wing papers, is somehow responsible for everything wrong in Britain today. How exactly something intended to keep families together is in direct opposition to the aims of a government that claims its priority is to... err... keep families together is some question indeed.

This is the law that, according to May last year, let someone brown and gay stay in the UK because he had a cat. Only, that isn't what happened. Because as people who have interacted with the law know, it's wasn't the immigrant's rights that were being upheld. Nor even the cat's. It was the human rights of his UK-born, British partner. A right which May does not consider "absolute".

The changes are set to come in July 9th. If your wedding is scheduled for the day after, too bad, according to May. It's being couched with stories of criminals for now. Andrew Marr interviewing May this morning tried to focus on that aspect. But in the interview May clearly spoke of targeting all family settlement visas. As those of use who have been following the proposed changes know, the government would like very much for this policy to apply to everyone. Unless of course they're rich.

Chew on that a while if you please. Because for every story of some migrant who, according to the rabid anti-immigration types, is packing the country full and sheltering behind their "supposed" "human" "right" to "a" "family life" (have I got enough quotes in there for you, Theresa?) there is actually a British person whose family is being threatened.

You might not like the idea of British people falling in love with foreigners and wanting to settle here, you know, the place where they live. But there it is.

Add to that the fact that people from elsewhere in the EU can bring their non-EU spouses here, claim treaty rights, and settle with almost no need to navigate the byzantine UK Border Agency applications. The government is endorsing a policy that actively discriminates against the families of British people. Surely even people who oppose all immigration must be wondering what the hell is going on there.

And while we're here, let's bust a few myths:
  • The criminal myth. This route lets in criminals? Um, no. Applying under the family route already means you can't enter if you have unspent convictions (even traffic violations) in the UK or your country of origin.
  • The benefits myth. This route leads to foreigners eating up UK benefits without paying in? Wrong again. Applying under the family route already means you have no recourse to public funds, i.e. benefits. It's stamped on your visa so there's no mistaking.
  • The job-poaching myth. Non-EU migrants are stealing jobs from British people? Go on, pull the other one. By EU law it is illegal to hire a non-EU/EEC person unless the employer can show there were no minimally qualified European applicants. This is one I've run up against before. It's deeply depressing to be told you were by far the best applicant, but someone whose qualifications barely scraped the job description is hired instead. If someone like me gets a job, say, scrubbing toilets for minimum wage - which I have done - it's not because I was willing to work for less. It's because British people didn't want that job enough to even apply for it. Not my fault.
No one disputes the right – indeed, the responsibility – of a government to oversee migration and restrict it where necessary. Most of us who come here do not object to playing by the rules. But the reasons May gave for the changes are misleading. The consultation she references was heavily influenced by suggestions from the pressure group MigrationWatch and concerned mainly with forced marriage and money. And crucially, they will do nothing to stop people who flout the rules, only punish people who do try to do things by the book.

May claims changing the settlement rules will "differentiate between genuine and non-genuine relationships". Only the government's already making forced marriage illegal. Detailed spouse interviews might be a sensible policy to put off sham weddings but May has no plans to introduce these, as presumably that would mean hiring and training more Border Agency staff. May is concerned about migrants not fitting in, as well. But there are no suggestions the Life In the UK test will be changed to become more relevant... and in fact, May wants more people to take it. The laughably unfit-for-purpose LIUK tests out-of-date information that is not remotely useful for living here. I memorised the percentage of single-parent families in Wales circa five years ago for why, exactly? It's as good a tool for integration as a spork is for digging the Channel Tunnel. A 1950s ship steward's handbook is better prep for living here. A copy of Heat better still.

Let's look at a couple of suggestions for reforming immigration that are often suggested by the public, who probably have a better understanding of the needs of the British economy than most politicians do:
  • Many people say they would like to see an immigration points system across the board, like the one used for the now-discontinued Tier 1 General visas. This system took into account a balance of age, qualifications, employment, history in the UK, as well as income. It wasn't perfect but at least it acknowledged that people who are young and qualified or employed as key workers are unlikely to have high incomes (yet).
  • People also say they would like a system "like Australia's". Australia is sometimes assumed to be the last word in hardline immigration policy. But as far as I know - this from friends of mine who have moved - the British people who qualify for skills-based residency are allowed to bring their partners and families regardless of income. Short term access to cash isn't the main factor; the longer-term needs of the local economy are. An electrician's wife gets to stay because she is a family member and he is vital to their growth. It seems reasonable.
So why is Theresa still harping on if forced marriage, sham unions, integration, and net benefit to long-term economic health are not actually being addressed by the change?

The key to what these proposals really mean is in the election pledge: Cameron promised to reduce net migration. That's not the number of migrants total, that's the difference between migrants arriving and British citizens leaving. Sorry to break it to those who think the country is "packed full" or "under siege": the government is not interested in decreasing migration per se. They'd be as happy if immigration increased, as long as loads of Britons left. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mail readers.

While the majority of incomers to the UK come from Europe, EU inward migration is something that can not be changed legally without leaving the EU. As well, fewer Brits are moving to Spain and France than used to since the bottom fell out of the new build market there. So attacking the family route, non-EU migrant is the easiest way to lower the numbers. If a married couple cannot settle, not only has a migrant left, so has a UK citizen. This gets net migration down twice as fast as controlling other visas. The approach is crafted to appear successful to the rightwing without producing meaningful change for anyone.

Getting extra British people to leave must be part of the consideration, otherwise why attack family route visas at all? It's not the largest category by a long shot. Last year 564,005 non-visitor visas were issued outside the UK. Of those, 57% were student visas, 26% were work visas and a scant 8% were family settlement. They've already taken steps to ensure coming in as a student is not a route to settlement, and work visas are being tightened as well. Even with those changes it's going to be next to impossible to get net migration in line with the party's promise without a lot of people leaving. The potential to double the result is what makes raising the bar for family settlement so attractive to the likes of May.

Even so, the numbers are not going to go down that easily - even someone whose stand on immigration is very conservative should be able to see that May's plan will not deliver the promised numbers. EU migration in particular can not be addressed in the current system. Well, helpfully, the stalling economy affects net migration too. Plenty of folks say they would leave if they could, many are. Hey presto, population control achieved at the cost of making people into the very economic migrants they say they hate. Way to go Dave and Co.!

If I sound cynical about the government juking the stats that's because I am. In 2010 I changed from highly skilled migrant to a marriage visa out of attachment to my husband and as a statement of our intent to live in the UK. Little did I think that it might have been better to stay with the visa I was on, or even remain single. Those aren't the kinds of jaded assessments you want to make when planning a life together.

Our situation is better than many because I was already working here, so my income counts on our applications. For those who meet abroad the picture is very different. Overseas income doesn't count unless you have huge savings to bring here - over £16k under the new rules. Third party support (aka getting cash from family) will no longer count towards income. And there will no doubt be people who fall in love and get married before they realise there's no way they can bring their new husband or wife to live with them. Not legally, anyway.

May proposes upping the minimum income level to £18600, goes up to £22000 if you have a child, then adds £2400 for each additional dependent. In other words: means-tested love. It doesn't consider a family's real expenses, wealth such as house equity, or where they live. Apart from London and the Southwest, average gross earnings for families of any size everywhere are close to or below this amount. Huge numbers of UK households would not meet the new requirement. The applications care about income only - not the type of work you do or whether it's in demand - so key workers like teachers and nurses would be unable to sponsor a partner. Here is a template to write your MP about these changes.

In spite of the vast differential in living expenses between various parts of the country, there is no suggestion a family's actual expenses will be taken into account. For example: we live in the Scottish Highlands and own our house outright, so basic monthly outgoings are minimal compared to someone who is carrying a mortgage in London. We all know people who are barely making ends meet on professional incomes and others who are living their dream on a shoestring budget. Applying an arbitrary income level to all applicants makes no sense.

Under the old rules, family-visa applicants must already show they have enough income to cover essential bills. Most submit a budget to reflect their individual circumstances. This is to prevent migrants from relying on the state; what critics of family immigration don't realise is that most of us can't receive benefits anyway. My biometric ID (remember those? You may not have them, but we do) clearly states "No public funds". Family migrants can – and do – go to work and pay into the system like anyone else. If you have the right to work but no right to public funds of course that's what you do. And we are not exempt from UK taxes just because we weren't born here.

There is a pervasive myth that migrants do not contribute, which is in stark contrast not only to most people's real-life understanding of the immigrant work ethic, but also  just about any stats you care to present (see below for the numbers on benefits). Look at the representation of visible first- and second-generation migrants in food service, in the NHS... these are not people who came over with established careers and huge bank balances, because if you already had those, why would you move halfway round the world? They're people who came with skills, desire, and elbow grease to spare. If you think migration started with New Labour and is a net loss to Britishness, then maybe it's you who should be taking the Life in the UK test.

DWP statistics [pdf] show foreign-born residents – at 13% of the population – represent only 6.4% of benefits claimants; 7% of foreign-born residents receive them, compared with 17% of UK-born residents. (In these stats, 'foreign born' can mean EU, who are entitled to benefits here unlike most non-EU; it can also mean born abroad but British passport holding as well. So for foreign-born, non-EU, non-UK passport, the percentage is probably rather lower.)

Consider same-sex partnerships, for whom moving elsewhere as a couple may not be an option whatever their income. I hope the LGBT community starts to make more noise about this, because my guess is it will be a same-sex union that is the first to test May's changes in court. Many same-sex couples do not have the option to "just" settle elsewhere as a family. Here's a couple already facing potential problems from those changes, whose wedding date was set ages ago for what now turns out to be three weeks after the new rules come in. The media fallout should things like this hit the court system? Will not be pretty.

Since when was income correlated with how real love is, or how well anyone fits in? Being able to afford jumping through the hoops does not make my marriage more genuine than anyone else's. It just means I have the money and time to negotiate the new rules. Most overseas partners will not be as lucky.

Vince Cable had it right when he criticised "the timewasting bureaucracy which stops foreigners working, studying in – or even visiting – Britain legitimately". The changes May suggests don't do much to worry the people who are staying illegally and cause a lot of stress for those who are on the level.

May's weasel words about the right to a family life not being "absolute" - her talk about "balancing" this right against other rights - doesn't hold water. How does a family settling here affect someone else's human rights? I've scratched my head on this a while and can't come up with a single sensible example.

The spouses and family members, and British people who love them, are paying the price for political expediency and pandering. These are British families plain and simple and the current government wants them out. Make no mistake, natives: this government wishes you would all just go away.

This year I finally became a permanent resident of the UK after two years of marriage and a whole lot more of living and working here. As we left the Border Agency appointment my husband seemed a bit put out. "All they wanted were my bank statements and your fingerprints," he mused. "They didn't even ask me what colour your toothbrush was."

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Truth About Julie

A number of people have asked if I would respond to the piece Julie Bindel wrote about The Sex Myth in the Grauniad. Clearly as she took the opportunity to let rip, so too must I?

Maybe, maybe not. Because the truth about Julie Bindel is that she is - shock, horror - actually decent company. You would totally have a drink with her as long as you stayed off the topics of sex work, trafficking, porn, trans issues, gay marriage and... well you get the idea. There are definitely people with whom my politics are more closely aligned whose company I have enjoyed a lot less.

But in the interest of "setting the record straight" (as if such a thing exists) here are my notes on the encounter:

- I approached Julie to ask if she wanted to interview me, in part because I figured she would write about the book anyway. Since I criticise her writing extensively in The Sex Myth it seemed fair to give her a face-to-face.

- She's prettier in person than in her photos. Not that that's relevant, or important, but she is.

- We met three times that week: once for lunch, once for the photos, and again on Sky news. The first words out of her mouth on the air at Sky were "As much as I hate to say this I agree with Brooke." I did a little mental air-punch at that one. (It was also approximately the first thing Claire Perry said when we were on the Today programme. File under: win.)

- The "offal", by the way, was calf's liver and very good it was too. Though I did wish I'd ordered the lamb sweetbreads special instead.

- The dessert was an Eccles cake with cheddar cheese ice cream. Hand on heart, I loved the ice cream. The Eccles cake was not nice. If you have occasion to go to The Gilbert Scott at St Pancras, ask them for a bowl of that ice cream.
- She thought my criticism of Swanee Hunt mentioning her father's political background a bit out of line. My reply to that is if Hunt's still trading on his name and his connections, then she has to expect that. Her extreme privilege (yes, even in supposedly classless America; yes, even when your work is deemed charitable) is a huge hurdle to overcome. Eye of the needle and all that jazz.
- Julie's a big fan of Viz, especially Eight Ace and Sid the Sexist. Who knew? Also she liked Fat Slags better when it was shorter whereas I prefer the longer ones.

- In principle we both agree that sex workers themselves should not be criminalised. After that our thoughts on sex work are mainly opposed. When I put it to her at lunch that the much-talked-about "Swedish model" and Icelandic approaches could never work in the UK, she agreed.

- Julie's piece was filed after we met for lunch on the 17th April, I believe before we had photos on the 20th. The final edits to the book were made on the 25th and approved on the 27th. First edition came off the presses May 1st. (Yes, we cut it fine.) This unfortunately means some of the things from her piece may not be the book.* I'm not sure if it is the writer's or the editor's responsibility to check reviews against the published copy, but someone should have done.
- We both think the Grauniad will cease to exist in printed form soon. Probably most people think that though, so no news there.
- She seemed concerned that I think feminists of her stripe/generation are against sex, and took pains to assure me plenty of sex was going down among the redfems in the 70s and 80s. I said "I bloody well hope so," because what would be the point of rejecting the model of virgin-to-wife-to-mother only to not get laid? However, in my experience, the lesbian-identified feminists when I was at uni in the very early 90s were not so free and easy with the sexual favours. Not that I'm bitter, mind. It wasn't a great place or time to be a woman who slept with both women and men.
- She think my husband looks like a model. As far as independent assessments of attractiveness go, that's about as airtight as they come.
- Her claim that I was 'roundly criticised' by Catherine Hakim for my educational background is a misrepresentation of Hakim's review; you can read it here. My education is in anthropology, maths, forensic science and epidemiology. I've also worked in chemoinformatics and child health research (mainly cancer). If anyone thinks that makes me unqualified to comment on academic research... with all due respect, check yo self.
- The last thing I said to her, when we were leaving Sky news: "Civilised is the new uncivilised."
So there it is. No particular desire or need to fetch a hatchet, because who benefits? (It might also help that I have professional experience of finding common ground with just about anyone for two hours as long as they're buying.) The Grauniad is a known quantity and the "pity" angle of her article frankly unbelievable... you don't bother tearing down someone if you feel actual pity for them. You might even wonder why I bothered. To which I say: lunch? On their dime? Admit it, you so would. And so I did.

It's a pity her piece was, in the end, so misleading. I was told it would be presented as a conversation; it's a rant. She accuses me of accusing her of taking money from the far right: evidence for this claim is undisputed, and considering the libel threats that Eaves For Women put on the book the day of its release,  thus delaying its actual release by weeks while lawyers hemmed and hawed, you would have thought she'd feel free to take it to court if I was actually wrong.

The nuisance suit was dropped very quickly, of course; its fantastical claims included that I had somehow "hacked" the Eaves mainframe... by reporting details of a paper they presented at an international conference, and posted online... well, I guess it got the job done, from their point of view. Ugly but effective.

Helen Lewis, as well, gave a very misleading review. She blasts me for praising a study from Keele University, missing the entire point of why it was praised: because even given the selective inclusion of only a certain kind of sex worker, the results are still positive - which sets it apart from other, negatively skewed, studies. Point well and truly missed. She seems like a smart girl, so I can only imagine she went in with a aprticular result in mind: namely, punishing me for not wanting an interview with her. Hey, I'd already booked Juile... one in-person assassination is enough for my well-being, thanks! Usually reviewers are expected to rise above such petty machinations. (That her review contained some exact wording found in the Eaves libel threat is, I am sure, a complete coincidence.)

But as I say, no hard feelings. They have a point of view that includes taking no prisoners. Apt, I suppose, for a style of feminism that considers the police to be adequate protectors of sex worker safety. Obviously it's a view I disagree with. I'm sure they're both perfectly lovely if you don't disagree with anything they say, ever. But the tenor of so-called debate in this country lately dictates that all differences must be fought to the last. A shame for fact finding, and missing the point of the book.
Right now you're probably thinking I should go to the cinema with Tanya Gold and discover maybe she's not as bad as all that? Hey now, let's not get crazy.

tl;dr - I was expecting a snarling nemesis, what I got was a lesbian Michael Winner... hugely offensive, yet surprisingly charming, bon viveur.

Believe it or not The Sex Myth is not only about columnists, or trafficking, or even feminism: those are only a small part. Most reviews have barely touched on any of the other chapters. It also discusses the medicalisation of female desire and the denial of women's appreciation for erotica, for example. It examines the criticisms of "sex addiction" as a disease. It champions under-reported sexualisation research that is more interested in representing real families than in reflecting a political agenda. It includes citations of all referenced material so you can read them and decide for yourself. My aim is not to force people and certainly not Julie Bindel to think the way I do: it's to open up the discussion in ways we simply are not doing around these topics. It's a call for less panic, not more.

Go get it. Read it. Make up your own mind.

* [Update:  Yes, I have checked this against the email record between me, my editor, and the Orion legal bods; and yes, I have run this blog past them and got the thumbs-up. Proceed to question it at your own risk.]

Saturday, 14 April 2012

On Scars

It was slightly surprising - but not altogether unexpected - that on the weekend when my book The Sex Myth has its first excerpt and interview in the Telegraph that "feminists" would immediately take objection. Interestingly though the shape this appears to have followed, rather than an actual criticism of work I have done or books I have written, is a number of nasty "terrible skin" remarks about me from lady columnists who really ought to know better.

It speaks volumes about the preoccupations of critics that when faced with a woman whose attitudes, thought processes, and life experience are almost orthogonal to their own their first response is to criticise her looks. I am not conventionally attractive, but to paraphrase Steve Martin: when presented with all this, that's the best you can come up with?

Last year I wrote a commentary on the ubiquitous blogging that was going on surrounding the bullying of feminist bloggers. As I pointed out then, bullying does not only happen to feminists, and some of the people who were getting group hugs out of being the victims of trolling have themselves trolled other people. (Top tip: just because you write above the line doesn't make you not a troll. @'ing someone in to your insults of them on Twitter? Does.)

So to make explicit in case it was not clear: I will never ridicule someone I disagree with because of their looks. If you can't craft a sensible argument against someone's thoughts and actions and have to go for the low-hanging fruit instead, you have failed at rational discourse. And arguably also failed at feminism.

I wrote previously about the experience of having facial scars on my original blog but have since taken that content down. However Emily Hornaday archived it and so I reprint it here. If you are someone who is going through a rough time confidence-wise, please know that while haters never, ever change, how you feel about yourself will. It really does get better. (Update: I have also written about this theme for Guardian Weekend magazine.)

mercredi, janvier 13

Let me tell you about the best gift I ever received. And it's not a bit of sparkly jewellery, or a shiny car, or even a thoughtful trinket of affection.

I'm talking about my scars.

I had terrible acne as a teenager. By the age of 16 it was so bad a dermatologist said it was the worst she'd ever seen, which, ya know, is not super encouraging. At the hospital where I volunteered mothers pulled their children away from me, convinced I was plagued with something contagious. Strangers avoided making eye contact.

It was so bad I could not wash my face without bleeding. Many mornings I woke up stuck to the pillowcase. And oh yeah, it was only on my face. Not one blemish anywhere else on my body. To this day, I still never have seen a photo of anything like it - apart from some daguerrotypes of smallpox patients.

It was a very long, and very expensive, journey to improving my skin - remember, this all went down in America where having a disfiguring condition you have no control over is not covered by health insurance, and duh, there's no NHS.

Long story short a lot of Roaccutane and Dianette did for the acne. And more importantly here's what I learned:

1. Beauty is fleeting. Thank fuck for that.

I had a narrow escape from being just another boring blonde - not to mention an early release from the cycle of self-hatred and frantic desperation that plagues many women as they age. Corollary 1a: The larger part of how people perceive you is how you present yourself.

2. People can be hurtful to strangers. That's their problem.

My best childhood mate had spina bifida. She walked on sticks and refused to use a wheelchair for reasons I only started to appreciate years later. Looking like a medical oddity gave me, for a very brief time, a very small taste of what she encounters every day of her life. It made me pity people who equate someone's appearance with their value as a person. This generalises magnificently to strangers judging you for, in fact, anything at all. Corollary 2a: The most vocal critics are often the most insecure.

3. Other people have things you don't. Big deal.

There is no such thing as the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (sorry Buttercup). Who cares? What is considered desirable is not especially worth getting hung up on. You may not be a six-foot Amazon so will never have legs up to your neck - but for all you know, that same supermodel would give her left arm to have your hair. This concept generalises to wealth, success, talent, and intelligence as well. Corollary 3a: Envy of other women's looks is a zero-sum game, and uses far too much time and energy to be bothered with.

4. Quality of love is not a function of attractiveness.

Elizabeth Taylor, for instance, has been married eight times. Beautiful people have dry spells and get their hearts broken like everyone else. The most worthwhile and loving relationships in my life all happened after my skin problems. And for what it's worth, I've been fortunate to date some pretty nice, smart (and attractive) men in my time. See Corollary 1a above.

5. Confidence doesn't come overnight.

It also doesn't happen in a vacuum; it requires nurturing. As with anything else worth having it's work. But let me tell you, it is so worth the work. A mate recently told me about a magazine 'happiness quiz' in which one of the questions was, "are you comfortable with your body, and do you exercise regularly?" If you can see why this should not have been a single question, you're on the way. Corollary 5a: Confidence happens when you let it happen. No one gives it to you, which is great, because it also means they can't take it from you.

6. When someone says I am beautiful, they really, really mean it.

There is something about knowing someone sees you, quirks and all, and likes what they see... something rare and kind of overwhelming (in a good way). 'Beautiful' is one of those words (a bit like 'awesome') that has lost meaning in being overused as a generic affirmative. We call all sorts of people beautiful in one sentence and tear them down in the next. I'm happy to be different enough that anyone who uses it to describe me sees more than just hair and makeup.

Monday, 11 July 2011

...And Now For Something Completely Different

This is not about sex, and not about The Sex Myth. This is about the old blog, and the growing scandal in News International's paper the rules they played by. And as Prince Humperdinck so eloquently put it, I always think everything could be a trap.

Very early on in blogging as Belle de Jour, I had an email address associated with the blog. It was with one of those free email providers and not very secure. Later, I wised up a touch and moved to doing everything through Hushmail. But for some reason I kept the old email up and running, and checked it occasionally.

So on the day of the book's release in the UK, I logged on to a public library computer in Clearwater, Florida, and had a look at that old account. There was a new message from someone I didn't recognise. I opened it.

The message was from a journo at the Sunday Times. It was short, which struck me as unusual: Come on Belle, not even a little hint? There was an attachment. The attachment started downloading automatically (then if I remember correctly, came up with a "failed to download" message).

My heart sank - my suspicion was that there had been a program attached to the message, some sort of trojan, presumably trying to get information from my computer.

Now, I understood the papers regarded all of this as a game. There were accusations that the anonymity thing was a ruse to pump sales. It wasn't. I was really afraid of losing my job and my career if found out. But I knew the rules they played by. And as Prince Humperdinck so eloquently put it, I always think everything could be a trap.

I did several things:

1. Alerted library staff that I thought there had been a virus downloaded on to the computer, so they could deal with it.

2. Phoned a friend who knew my secret. I explained what happened. He agreed to log in to that email account from where he lived, halfway around the world, open the email and send a reply, so they would have competing IP address information.

3. Alerted the man who owned the .co.uk address pointing to my blog, someone called Ian (who to my knowledge I have never met). He confirmed he had been contacted by the Times and asked if I was indeed in Florida. He told them he didn't know (which was true).

Point 3 is the part that makes me think my suspicions were correct. I hadn't replied to the message from the computer in Florida, so why would they have a Florida IP address? They did get a reply from "my" account, but it would have had an IP address from Australia.

(It's been suggested on Twitter that this could also have been because of a read receipt or embedded images. However, if my memory serves - and it usually does - the service I used did not send read receipts and I had images/HTML off as a matter of habit. There could of course be other explanations for what happened, but it is certainly true that the Times were trying hard to find me. Thanks for the comments, I hope this answers any concerns.)