Tuesday, 30 June 2015


Recently I've been spending a lot of time on the 9th floor of Auckland City Hospital - Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is currently the temporary home of my third child, born three weeks ago today.*  Even here, perhaps especially here given the stress of it all, there is violence against women perpetrated by men.

When Early first arrived I was admitted to Ward 96 and he was in nearby Ward 92.  There is a security door between the two wards, which requires a swipe card and only the mothers of babies in Ward 92, who are themselves in Ward 96, are allowed the cards.  Any visitors to my baby were only allowed in, one at a time, with me or the baby's father.  It seemed a bit over the top, until it became apparent that there was a mother and baby in the wards who had a father attempting to visit despite her strong desire for him not to do so.  To keep her safe, and the babies, hers and ours, it was necessary to be super vigilant about that door between Ward 96 and Ward 92, and no doubt at reception for NICU proper, because even here, even in the newborn ward of a hospital, there was a threat of violence.

Then there was this very sad sad story in Whangarei, unfolding at the same time that we were all guarding that door on the 9th floor:
Rachal, 20, died in Whangarei Hospital on June 10 after suffering a severe asthma attack at home. She was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Her baby was delivered by caesarean section while she was in a coma, but he died in Starship the following day. He was named Robert....Rachal was in the care of the Dingwall Trust, a care and protection facility in Papatoetoe, South Auckland, from nine until she turned 17.The trust's director, Tracie Shipton, says staff had serious concerns about what would happen to Rachal if she returned home. It was also feared she wouldn't get the medical treatment she needed for her asthma and eczema.
The violence is real, the threat is real; it happens everywhere even if we don't see it.  There is a lot of talk about terrorism, focused on the international scene, but it seems to me that so much terror, so much fear and harm, is in everyday lives because of men who hate women, men who abuse women. 
 At the root of most of the recent mass murders we have seen has been a man (or a group of men) who do not see women as full humans; Dylann Roof (Charleston, USA) reckoned he was protecting white women from rape by black men, yet the people he shot dead were mostly black women, and his extreme racism seems to have been coupled with an incredibly patriarchal (at best) attitude to females; Man Haron Monis (Sydney, Australia) had a history of violence against women which, had it been addressed, may have averted the Lindt Cafe siege; Anders Breivik (Norway) blamed feminism for eroding the culture of Europe and advocated for a resurgence of patriarchy; Jody Hunt (West Virginia, USA) killed his ex-girlfriend first; Elliot Rodger (California, USA) specifically drove to a sorority house for his second batch of killings, to punish women in general for rejecting him.  
We cannot properly address and eliminate violence against women until we address and eliminate sexism.  Until we can create a society where women are equal, both in perception and reality, we will not stop all these deaths, assaults and rapes.  And we have to at least try.

*  Baby and I are both doing well thanks, just arrived v early for no discernable reason. 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Call me feminist, but not the Burkett kind

My Facebook stream is full of feminism, queer activism, commentary on racism and funny stories about what my friends are eating/watching/doing with their children.  Just like everyone else's, I expect.  Yesterday Elinor Burkett's exploration of what makes a woman, written in response to Caitlyn Jenner saying her brain is female, got a few mentions - from people both for and against her description of trans activism and feminism on a collision course.  Her essential (pun intended) argument is this - that when trans people call on essential ideas of gender, they set back women's liberation fights of decades. 

Jaclyn Friedman has responded, and covered many points I'd otherwise be making.
I’m not privy to the Trans agenda, but I’m willing to bet that we also hear the “gendered brain” argument for reasons both legal and cultural, because like it or not (and I don’t), it’s a lot easier to demand freedom from discrimination and violence with the “I can’t help it” argument than it is with the “it’s none of your damn business” argument. The “born this way” talking point has been extremely effective for the modern gay and lesbian establishment.
This argument is problematic in terms of sexuality too.  Arguing "we can't help it" is not a recipe for honouring the complexity of gender or sexuality.  Of course there are genetic, biological things going on - complex things, like the fact there are a hell of a lot more intersex people out there than we recognize.  And of course the social world, our environment, determines how we express and understand our gender.  Do we really not get this by now?  I'm with Jaclyn Friedman - go read Julie Serano if you're strugging.

I'd have more respect for Elinor Burkett's critique if she'd engaged with Ms Serano's ideas about gender than dismantled those of Ms Jenner.  Ms Jenner is not representative of the vast majority of trans women; does not come from a place of having supported or worked with or researched transfeminine lives.  She has access to mainstream media - which includes being exploited and sexualised in ways other women should be quite familiar with - because she is rich and famous.  That's all.

And the response of trans and gender diverse peeps to that sexualisation was immediate, on point and fabulous.  Fake Vanity Fair covers with all kinds of people asking the world to call them by their name.  About as feminist as you can get.

I'm also struggling with Elinor Burkett's essentialising of female experience, to well, her own.  She says about trans women:
They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.
Of course trans women with sizeable breasts will have suffered through sexist men ogling them.  Why wouldn't they?  Not worrying about birth control pills?  You might be any kind of woman who cannot get pregnant, or any kind of woman who doesn't have the kind of sex that can get you pregnant.  You know who don't deal with periods on subways?  Women who don't get periods (anymore), or women who never ride the subway because they are rich.  I'm not sure where Ms Burkett gets the idea that trans women are raking in the dosh - and suspect, as with other women, that this will be heavily raced - but our research here in Aotearoa tells a very different story, of cissexism and transmisogny leaving trans peeps in poverty.

The last point is particularly tricky, and perhaps most illustrates Ms Burkett's problematic approach.  Feminists need to expand our understandings of gendered violence to include the increasingly obvious fact that trans people, particularly trans women, are experiencing horrific rates of sexual and domestic violence.  If feminists working in these areas cannot do that, our analysis is flawed.  It's not really so hard - because it's still about gender and power - we just need to stop the simplistic essentialising that Ms Burkett's piece, despite her protestations, is guilty of repeating. 

There are issues for feminism to consider in terms of trans activists smashing gender and sex binaries.  While it is important not to lose sight of this as a liberatory process for all genders, for those of us who do not sit at the top of the gender tree we are facing complex, entrenched sites of sexist and cissexist power over in every area of our lives.  Liberal "men are oppressed too" approaches are not the answer here, much as men need to find ways to dismantle the impacts of toxic masculinity on themselves as well as on others around them.

But if our feminism is about dismantling power over, then the questions being posed should be positive, should help us have a more nuanced and complex understanding of gender and power.  Just as paying attention, in Ms Burkett's quote above, to her essentialising about fertility status, age, sexuality, race and class helps us have a more nuanced and complex understanding of gender and power.  Ms Burkett's version of who counts as a woman is little more than old school transmisogyny, with the smattering of race, class and sexuality privilege that feminism has always wrestled with.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Stick and stones may break my bones, but verbal banter haunts me

It's fair to say Andy Haden and I have different views on the world, sharing only an enjoyment of the athletic.  But when he described high levels of fear of homophobia from lesbian, gay and bisexual sportspeople in New Zealand as a problem that "doesn't really exist" because it's just about "verbal banter" I found myself unable to respond until now.

Out in the Fields talked to 9,500 sportspeople in New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, Canada and Australia.  The headline results - that queer people play sport, but find it unwelcoming - is not major news.  The fact that 78% of New Zealand athletes had witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport is also unsurprising.  More gay men in New Zealand (not sure about bisexual men) don't play sports because of early negative experiences than queer men in other places.  And while our homophobic assaults of queer athletes are lower than other places, one in six gay men (again, bi men have disappeared) have been physically assaulted here.

It's taken me a while to write about this, because it's my story too.  Women's sport is easily the site of the most queer-hating set of experiences I've had, and perversely, at times the most queer affirming.


When I was 16, I made the Wellington Women's Under 20 Cricket Team.  I chased the ball hard and I was thrilled to make the team since I wasn't very good.  When I came back with my new Wellington jumper on, I was full of pride.

"Did she try and touch you?"  my teammates asked.  I didn't know what they meant.  Gradually it dawned on me, after other questions, that the woman doling out the jumpers was in a relationship with a woman, and the other girls in my team thought she might be trying to grope us.  It didn't make much sense to me; I was tiny, very pre-pubescent, and far more interested in playing the perfect cover drive than being sexual with anyone.  The key protagonists in this questioning have all been in relationships with women as adults.

When I was 17, I made my first full Wellington team and went away to tournament.  Our coach held a competition every night - we had to vote on the ugliest player in the other team.  He also warned us, repeatedly, about the lezzies who might try and "turn us".  The two things became combined, and most of the team participated.  No one in our team was out, though several players later had relationships with women.  I didn't take part, but nor did I challenge it.

When I was 18, I came out as bisexual, everywhere.  I'd also by this time, grown a bit, gone through puberty, and was quite a lot better at cricket.  I was in the New Zealand Under 20 team and captained the Wellington Under 20 team to our second year as national champs.

Then I was dropped as captain.  The woman replacing me led us to placing eighth of eight teams.  The gossip on the field was my shaved head was the problem, and not the image Wellington wanted. 

Aged 19, I'm asked to coach the Wellington Secondary Schoolgirls team.  They play wonderful cricket, beating every team they play.  Their team is full of homophobic abuse, and before the first game I ask the whole team if they want to play for New Zealand.  They all do.  I tell them that if that's the case, they need to change the way they talk about lesbians and bisexual women, since they will have queer teammates and captains.  The (straight) captain and (straight) vice captain take this on, stop the homophobic bullying, and three of the team come out.  One goes on to set up the first queer support group in a secondary school, and many play top representative cricket - including two for New Zealand - for years.

On tour with the New Zealand Under 23 team.  Our coach is a woman in a relationship with another woman, so there is no homophobic bullying, but I am the only out woman in the team.  In one game, a group of queer fans cheer us on enthusiastically, and when we walk off the field one runs up and kisses me and says "thank you."  Everyone, including our coach, pretends it hasn't happened.  Years later, another four women in that team have come out.

I'm away with my first-class team, and I'm sharing a room with another player I know is the captain's partner, despite the fact they are not out.  The first night she tells me she might hang out in the captain's room for a bit.  I tell her I don't mind if she wants to stay there, and that I won't tell anyone.  She spends the tournament with her partner at night.  A year later, they tell me they have hidden their relationship for 15 years because they believed it would stop them playing international cricket.  They come out to everyone else in the team that year.

I'm bowling, in the nets.  The coach of the Wellington team tells me as I run in: "the problem with women's cricket is, too many hairy-legged dykes play it."

I say, "actually, I wish there were more hairy-legged queer women playing."  I bowl another off-spinner. This is the same man, in his late twenties, that I carry a very drunk schoolgirl away from a year later, after he's pulled her into his bedroom at a party.  His teammate who helps agrees with me that we've stopped a rape.

My first-class team is batting, and we're talking about a high-profile television announcer who has just come out as bisexual.  "She looks bisexual," says our coach.  "What does looking bisexual mean?" I scoff at him.  "Do I look bisexual?"  I'm still shaving my head.

"Yes", he says aggressively.  "Do I look bisexual?" says another teammate, a Māori woman with long hair, who's been bringing her girlfriend to every game.

"Yes", he says, a bit more quietly.  "Do I look bisexual?" says another teammate (the Secondary Schools vice-captain from incident above).  She's blonde, petite, very conventionally femininely attractive.

"No", he says, horrified.  "Are you......?"  She refuses to answer.  He puts away his homophobia and biphobia.  It's after this incident that the couple above come out to the whole team.

These are some of the highlights, off the top of my head.  The coaches I'm mentioning are different men.  I love sport, and I played serious representative cricket for more than 15 years, both here and in England.  The teams that were safe from homophobia and biphobia were only that way when women in positions of power made them so, by coming out, and by challenging homophobic and biphobic bullying and abuse.  It's not linear progress either - in my last season of senior cricket in Wellington, not that long ago, homophobic abuse from men in the club was ever-present.  At the prizegiving that year, a drunk player grabbed his bits and told many of my teammates they just needed a good fuck.  They were intimidated enough to leave the public event.

So, dear Andy, you can dismiss homophobia and biphobia stopping queer athletes playing sport, or making us feel scared when we do as "verbal banter" if you like.  But you're wrong.  Sport is almost like the final frontier - it's ok to be racist, sexist and homophobic there in ways that are legally challengeable if they happen in other places.  It's about time New Zealand sports codes made it clear how much they care about their queer athletes.  We deserve to feel safe while we play.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Wanted: Health Minister who reads their own research

Content note: discussions of transphobia and it's impacts, focussed on the recent political discussions about trans* healthcare.

There's so much to find troubling about National calling life-saving healthcare for trans* people "nutty" and Labour leadership failing to stand behind regional conferences voting to have funded gender reassignment surgery on the table.

For our health minister to be so poorly educated about trans* healthcare needs is horrifying.  It's increasingly obvious that transphobia, transmisogyny, gender policing and the institutionalised discrimination and stigma that people from marginalised genders experience kills.  It kills by making employment and housing less accessible.  It kills through people seeking solace in drugs and alcohol.  It kills through increasing vulnerability to being targeted for intimate partner and sexual violence.  It kills through creating a climate where violence towards trans people is invisible, enabled and lethal.  It kills through people being unable to contemplate going on living.

The Ministry of Health fund our best research into trans* needs so far, the Youth 2000 research where thousands of secondary school students are asked questions about their experiences.  Seems our Health Minister didn't bother to read the trans* section - 20% of our beautiful trans* secondary school students attempted suicide in the previous 12 months.  That compares with 4% of other kids.  40% of trans* young people had "significant depressive symptoms" and half had self-harmed in the previous 12 months.

But the Labour leadership rush from the possibility of championing trans* rights to life-saving healthcare is equally disgraceful.  Andrew Little's happy with his gender.  David Shearer didn't know what gender reassignment surgery was.  Stuart Nash says the issue isn't important to the people in New Zealand.  I'll save special disdain for every(gay)man Grant Robertson though - he doesn't feel strongly about life-saving surgery apparently.  Must be nice to be that kind of Rainbow champion.

(In the queer press Grant Robertson is "absolutely committed" to the best possible trans* healthcare services.  I guess he thinks queer people are stupid.)

As usual, public debate about a socially contested issue - where there is real ignorance, I suspect, amongst the majority of the general cis public - is an opportunity for social change.  If at an incredibly hurtful cost for trans* and gender diverse peeps, as well as pain for those of us who love them.  And Jan Logie has stepped up to the gender diverse plate, not for the first time, to show us what a real Rainbow champion looks like.

She's pulled together an LGBTI rights MP group to educate, provide leadership and push for changes in legislation.  Beyond Marriage Equality.

So, improving access to life-saving trans* healthcare, including hormones, counselling and surgery.  Stopping once and for all state sanctioned (and funded) genital mutilation of babies and children in the name of gender policing.  Creating increasing space for queer people of colour to create and determine spaces which are culturally appropriate for them.  Providing inclusive and positive information about sexuality, sex, gender, relationships and all kinds of bodies to every young person in Aotearoa.  Naming biphobia as a real thing, leaving bi people with the highest rates of mental health difficulties, sexual violence and intimate partner violence of all sexualities.  Dealing with the homelessness risks for queer young people.  For starters.

First though: Writing the job description for the next Health Minister - whether they come from National or Labour - and making sure "understanding the health needs of the most vulnerable" is bullet point number one.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Guest Post: Saving incentives

Many thanks to Rebecca Fraser, manager of a community organisation that works with single parents, for this post.

The Budget released this week described an almost immediate end to the Kiwisaver $1000 kick-start incentive.  We know that inequality is growing within our current system and unless we start to look at things very differently, it will continue to grow. However, even within the system, sometimes there are mechanisms that work against unfairness. The Kiwisaver $1000 kick-start incentive was one of these. Income based retirement schemes like Kiwisaver tend to perpetuate inequality, because they don’t level out the playing field for people. The disappearance of the kick-start incentive makes the system worse.

Who is disadvantaged by the disappearance of the $1000 kick-start? They don't collect ethnicity stats about Kiwisaver take-up so we don't have any data about which ethnicities are enjoying the extra $1000. My reflection of this is based purely on what people I know have told me, when I asked them. Almost always I have heard from working Pākehā that they are enrolled in Kiwisaver and from working Māori that they are not, and I have noticed this trend amongst people I have employed. It might be different in different workplaces and sectors - I hope.

Because why would you save for a retirement when you're more likely to die before you get there? Māori are expected to live 7.3 years less than non-Māori. The gap is reducing, but not quickly. Having money in one's retirement inevitably prolongs life where lack of money shortens it but due to lifetime employment and income patterns, women are more likely to live in poverty in retirement than men, and Māori more than European. People who might not make it to retirement are not naturally incentivised to join a retirement savings scheme.

People who do not expect to own their own home are not naturally incentivised to join a scheme that can help them with the deposit on their first home. With Māori home ownership rates at 28.2% vs. European at 56.8%, people’s expectations that Kiwisaver would prove useful might understandably be different.

 And people who are struggling to make ends meet right now are not naturally incentivised to join a retirement savings scheme. Fair enough too, a bun in the hand is worth more than a loaf in the trees, as it were. According to the indicators about inequality for Māori and Pacific people put forward by the Victoria Business School, Māori end up with $96 a week less than European, on average. And this is only one small measurement of the current inequalities of our system.

 All the little inequalities add up. The tricky little fact that children who are not earning any money could sign up to Kiwisaver and gain the $1000 incentive was, in my experience, a piece of information shared across monied connections. A mortgage consultant looked at my daughter when I brought her into the bank and handed me a sheaf of forms that required signatures and proof of ID from both parents to sign her up for Kiwisaver. But people who don't have regular discussions with bank managers, people whose negotiation with the other parent of their child can barely cope with whose turn it is to drop them at school, let alone which Kiwisaver scheme to opt the kid into, people whose daily existence is in the 'Let’s get through it' mode rather than 'Let’s think about what happens when you're 70' mode - these people could all have done with the $1000 kick-start that isn’t available any more.

People who might not have natural incentives to join a retirement savings scheme is anyone for whom life is not an orderly procession from school to university to a job to marriage... home ownership, a couple of kids, a regular holiday in Fiji, the eventual divorce, the delighted remarriage, honeymoon in Europe and a peaceful retirement.

People who, in other words, distrust that the system will work for them, with good reason.

And they *are* perfectly good reasons not to take up Kiwisaver. But 'perfectly good reasons why not' are EXACTLY why incentives need to be in place. Incentives like the $1000 kick-start. I am gutted for us. I watched John Key on TV last night dismiss concerns by saying something to the effect of 'Well, it has been around for ages and they've had the chance, so if they haven't done it by now then they were never going to.'  He is wrong.  Incentives are not in place for the people who can get over the finish line first, but to encourage the people who feel like they’re not even in the race to begin with.

I bet his retirement still feels pretty cosy.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Fourth of three

In a couple of months I will be transforming my life, and my body, again, through the addition hopefully of another baby.  To answer the standard questions and get that out of the way:  everything is going fine for the fetus, it's a boy (joining two other sons) and I am just looking forward to having another baby, don't care about the sex although the others in the household wanted a girl, I've unfortunately been quite sick and tired and sore this time around.  Right, now that that's done (and thank you in advance for any congratulations you may wish to offer - please don't feel you need to do so in comments) let's move on to my motivation for writing this post.

Many many people assume this is my first, unless they actually see me with my children or know me well.  This means I get rather a lot of well meaning advice before I'm able to say actually this is my third child on the way, and get that deflated "oh" which goes along with the mental realisation they don't need to give me any instructions or horror stories or non-scientific anecdotes.  A few persist, but most flag it at that point.

Some have been unwise enough to assume I am disappointed about the physical sex.  I'm not, other people are, but genuinely not me.  I now try to get in first with telling them that, before they put their foot in it.

What I'm struggling with most though about these conversations is saying "this is my third."

Each time it niggles a bit, because this is actually my fourth (known) pregnancy - not because I had an abortion as I suppose many reading this will think given my activity on that issue, but because I had an early miscarriage.

It wasn't physically traumatic, more a delayed period at about the six week mark.  The stick had told me I was pregnant but I hadn't yet had time to go to my GP for confirmation; when I did instead it was to discuss the miscarriage, get ultrasounds to check everything had dislodged properly, and so on.  I was pretty upset, not least because this was my first attempt, but not distraught.  We didn't tell anyone really, and then I became pregnant again immediately, this time with the pregnancy that produced the child known to many of you in days gone by as Wriggly.*  I did end up telling quite a lot of people about the miscarriage during that second pregnancy because it skewed my dates and resulted in some out of the usual order scans and such like.

So when people say to me "is this your first?" and I say "it's my third" I mean third child, not third pregnancy, but I always feel a little stab of guilt that I'm erasing that very first experience, the one that was over before it had hardly started.

I don't mourn for that embryo, I don't imagine the child that could have been, I never have really since my children were born and I realised how for me what I miscarried wasn't at all a comparable life, a human being, in the way the now 7 and 4 year olds are and were since they were newborns.  It wasn't even an attachment as strong as what I feel now to the fetus moving and kicking inside me, even though I remain somewhat aloof from that, just in case.

But I do feel a sense of betrayal, or erasing an important part of my uterine history, when I use the word "third" knowing that most will translate that as third pregnancy, not third child.  I want to be upfront about it, and I know that experiences of miscarriage, especially probably those that happen early, are not commonly shared, serving to unfortunately isolate those who experience them.  I also don't want to end up giving too much information, thinking that those who ask me the standard casual questions about my now obviously distended belly want my full gynaecological history, which I must admit I'm not particularly inclined to give.

In my head I've decided now to think of this as the fourth of three.  Maybe I'll work out a way to articulate that in polite conversation sometime in the next six weeks.  Perhaps it'll be enough for me to have written it up here, and shared it in this manner, that I won't feel a niggle anymore.

*  He prefers me to use his real name now on the internet and I try to respect that, but he's actually irrelevant to this so I won't be in this post.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Guest Post: Fightback Magazine - Voices from Women and Gender Minorities

Fightback is a socialist-feminist organisation which publishes a website and themed bi-monthly magazines. This August, we are bringing together an issue that is edited, designed and written entirely by women and gender minorities on the kaupapa of anti capitalism / decolonisation / socialism / anti-racism / feminism.

Despite the centrality of women, girls and gender minorities to the social movements of today, we are still a smaller minority of writers in the socialist press. Fightback acknowledges that there are many reasons for this, some of them including the fact that these groups are weighed down by more unpaid work, that our work may not be as valued and that there's a higher chance we will come up against barriers for our involvement in political spaces.
Instead of just offering a space for writers to be read and heard, we are also raising money to support contributors in a tangible way – by paying a rate of $NZ100 per page of content. We understand that writing and creating takes time, and how much of our political work is unpaid labour. By offering this payment, we hope that people who usually wouldn’t have as much time or resources, can focus on creating a contribution they are proud of and offers further insight into anti-capitalist politics.
Fightback will be covering the printing costs, however, we are asking for donations to pay for the funding that will go to the contributors.
If you are keen to support this project, there are a couple of options:
  1. Write for us! We are looking for articles, art, comics, poetry or design work to be a part of this issue. If you are interested in contributing, then please submit a pitch of your idea (can be a couple of sentences) by May 20th (late submissions may be accepted). Our priority areas are perspectives from tangata whenua, Pasifika peoples, immigrants and gender diverse people. If your piece is relevant to these perspectives let us know. We are also open to supporting new writers, if you would like some help in developing an idea. 
  2. Help us make sure writers are paid!  While we aren’t expecting women and gender minorities to fund this project, we would really appreciate you sharing the Pledgeme link with your networks, or passing it onto male supporters who would be keen to donate. 
If you have any queries about the project or how you can take part, feel free to get in touch with Fightback.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Brown lives matter

The perennial cheerleader for arming New Zealand Police, Greg O'Connor, is at it again.  In true NRA styles, O'Connor has renewed his call for guns straight after Vaughan Te Moananui was shot dead by Police on the weekend.  He similarly used the shooting of Steven Wallace by Police in 2000 to campaign for more weaponry, in that case, the introduction of tazers.

Criminologist John Buttle described O'Connor's Police Association as "obsessed" with arming the Police back in 2010:
"The justification for routinely arming the NZP with pepper spray was that it could be used to protect the police from incidents of violence. When they wanted to introduce the tazer the police used the media to discredit the supposed effectiveness of pepper spray and champion their latest weapon of choice. Now it seems that tazers do not offer enough protection and only firearms can save police lives.... The way things are at the moment suggests that in the near future the police association will use the next unfortunate incident as a means to justify the routine arming of every police officer in New Zealand."
It's certainly topical. The wave of rage and grief sweeping through the United States right now was born out of community pain when Black teenager Trayvon Martin's killer was acquitted.  In the US, a Black person is killed by the Police or vigilante law enforcement every 28 hours.  Armed Police aren't the only reason.  But if you put a gun in the hand of institutional racism, you better believe Black lives will not matter.

And institutionally racist is exactly how the United Nations described New Zealand's criminal justice system in 2013, right before they told us we needed to improve our record-keeping about discrimination:
"The Committee, however, remains concerned at the disproportionately high rates of incarceration and the over representation of members of the Mãori and Pasifika communities at every stage of the criminal justice system."
By the time we're talking prison, differential treatment by ethnicity in the justice system is stark:

51% of people in our prisons are tangata whenua.  Colonisation is literally allowing us to lock up Māori, with Pacifica not far behind. 

But it's perhaps more salient to think about how the Police use their latest new weapon, the tazer.  We can compare two fascinating reports, from after national rollout in 2010 to last report 2013.  In terms of ethnicity:

In 2010/11, Pacifica were more likely than Māori, who were more likely than Pākehā, to be tazered.  By 2013, that hasn't changed.  Rates of tazering every ethnicity have increased dramatically at pretty similar rates and so the gaps between Pākehā and Māori and Pacifica are widening.    I've not been able to find the ethnicities of those killed by the Police in New Zealand (22 up until 2008), but I know the ethnicities of the men I remember, and they're not Pākehā.

How people experience the justice system in Aotearoa is "raced" at every point, including imprisonment and state violence sites.  If this concerns you - especially if you're Pākehā - don't turn your back, stand up against arming the Police.  Brown lives matter.
“Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.”

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Michfest cuts right through to your heart

The Michigan Womyn's Festival is calling it a day after 40 years.  For many, Michfest is the epitome of Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism.  The eviction of Nancy Burkholder in 1991 sparked protests which have continued to this day.
"She said that MWMF policy was that the festival was open to “natural, women-born-women” only. I replied that nowhere, in any festival literature or the program guide was that policy stated. I asked Chris to please verify that policy and she went to the office to contact the festival producers, Lisa Vogel and Boo Price.
Del stated that the reason the policy was not in any literature was because the issue of transsexuals had never come up as a problem before. Del added that the policy was for the benefit of the transsexuals’ safety and the safety of the women attending the festival. When I pointed out that there were other transsexuals on the land she acknowledged that this was true. Then she added, ‘We haven’t caught them yet, but we did catch you.”
I went to Michfest in the early 1990s in my early 20s, and it was beautiful.  Camping on forested wild land.  Music, workshops, arts, crafts.  Ten thousand women dancing under the stars.

I heard Melissa Ferrick and Phranc and Sweet Honey in the Rock.  Learnt salsa dancing with naked women.  Enjoyed workshops on racism, non-monogamy, writing and s/m.  Talked to women from all over the world about sexism and gender politics and queer life and violence.  Kissed some cute queer girls.  Asked Alison Bechdel to sign one of her books.  Watched sex toy demonstrations.  Realised for the first time that I "did" being queer like a bogan while listening to Dorothy Allison reading stories of working-class women-loving-women.  Went back to the tent and changed my flannel shirt.

There were separate spaces for women who experienced oppressions related to class, race, sexuality, disability, age.  Camping areas for disabled women and Women of Colour, caucus groups and workshops that were open only to specific groups.

I went to a Bisexual Caucus with about 150 women.  We spent an afternoon doing two things - hearing from every bi woman present what it was like being bi where she lived, and drafting a statement to Michfest opposing their exclusion of trans women. 

It's fair to say at that point I knew nothing about gender diversity.  I didn't know any trans people to my knowledge, I'd read one book talking about trans issues - the hateful Janice Raymond's "Transsexual Empire" - and I'd yet to consider that growing up comfortable in the gender I'd been assigned at birth was a privilege not available to many.  I'm grateful to the staunch bi women I met at Michfest for opening my eyes for the first time to what I'd call now cissexism.


The internet probably doesn't need another ode to the wonders of Michfest.  It's clear that for many cis women, particularly cis lesbians, Michfest has been an important safe space from sexism, misogyny and violence against women:
"Vogel was determined to have MichFest be as welcoming as possible for as many women as possible. Which demanded both that it be women-only and that it be accessible to women of all classes. Vogel also wanted to establish space for women of color to have the option of being in a space solely for them. One African-American lesbian told me that the WOC space was the only space her partner, a rape survivor, had ever felt safe. She said, “She knows no one will come for her in the night.” She said no one could imagine her own relief at being able to see her partner sleep soundly, free from nightmares. “That week–”she said."
Those women are angry Michfest has ended.  They say "only one" trans woman has been excluded in 40 years.  They quote key festival organiser Lisa Vogel saying she just wants respect for womyn-born womyn's experiences.  They describe as "McCarthy-like" the tactics of Michfest critics who call for boycotts of the festival.  They feel like their desire for safe space is not being respected.

But the truth is excluding trans women has made Michfest increasingly unpopular.  Even back in 1992, three quarters of women attending Michfest were happy for trans women to come.  These days just 3000 women attend, and artists are dropping like flies.
It’s in that spirit that in 2013, comedian/activist/writer Red Durkin called for a boycott of Michfest and its performers until the policy was changed.
Andrea Gibson dropped out in March. In April, The Indigo Girls announced that this would be their last year at the festival until the policy changes. The Indigo Girls are festival mainstays, and Amy Ray‘s partner is a longtime Michfest volunteer. By taking a stand, The Indigo Girls weren’t just standing up against political adversaries, they were severing decades-long friendships. I anticipated their withdrawal would be the ultimate catalyst for change, yet the festival’s intention lives on.
Nona Hendryx dropped out in June. JD Samson, who’d been attending the festival for half her life and was pulled from a number of queer events for playing it, announced in June that she remained confident “that the MWMF will one day become a place of safety, solidarity, and unconditional love for ALL Womyn,” but that “this will be my last year attending the festival until that day comes.”

Despite being a woman who loved Michfest myself, I'm not in that camp.  The consistency of founder Lisa Vogel's transmisogyny has been tracked by The Transadvocate, which is just as well, since it's been in serious danger of rewriting.  It's worth reading closely.

In 1971, Ms Vogel signed a letter outing a trans woman in an attempt to get her sacked.  "Men without penises" are compared to white women dying their skin to look like Black women. In 1991, Ms Vogel describes the eviction of Nancy Burkholder as necessary to ensure only "womyn born womyn" attend.  She describes Ms Burkholder as a "known transsexual man."  Again in 1999 Ms Vogel describes trans women as men.

By 2000, Michfest issues a pamphlet saying only womyn born womyn who live as womyn are welcome, and asks for this to be respected because it will not be policed.  The pacifist version of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  Throughout the 2000s, on a number of occasions, Ms Vogel compares Michfest policy of cis only (though never calls it that) with Women of Colour asking for and needing separate space.  To call Michfest policy transphobic is equated with calling Women of Colour space racist.  She also begins to refer to trans women as women.

In 2014 in an open letter, Ms Vogel acknowledges "trans womyn and transmen have always attended this gathering" but again asks for cis only space to be respected because "being born female in this culture has meaning, it is an authentic experience, one that has actual lived consequences."

It's clear Lisa Vogel's commitment to Michfest being for cis women only has not wavered, even if over time she has recognized trans women are women.  

What's curious to me is her justification - that an event open to cis women but not trans women is analogous to Women of Colour wanting separate space, and therefore, it's not transphobic.

This device only works if you believe trans women oppress cis women.  Only then is it possible to conceive of cis only space as necessary.  Because an oppressed group needing space to regroup from experiences of oppression, that's self-determination, that's resistance.  A group which experiences oppression, but not from the group they are trying to exclude, that's privilege.  

This is at the root of the Michfest controversy - and many other places where feminists who have established women-only havens have struggled to welcome trans women.  Instead of seeing trans women as other women needing safe space, trans women have been constructed as part of the oppressive forces, the oppressive patriarchal forces, which do not understand why women need a break from patriarchy.

Diverse experiences of women's lives should be part of any conversation about gender.  The fact is, working class girls get different messages about how to be female than middle class girls.  Race and ethnicity shape our understanding of ourselves as women.  Disabled women have experiences of female embodiment that bear little resemblance to non-disabled women.  And trans women and cis women have some things in common, and some experiences of femaleness that are profoundly different.

If we are scared of our diverse experiences, unable to name differences in women's experiences, we are never going to be able to change the social and material conditions that structure women's lives in ways which constrain us.  Our feminism will not be useful. 

I'm sorry Michfest is shutting it's gates, but not because I think I had an authentic experience of being a woman there.  Rather I'd like to think, after so many messages from other feminists and the surrounding queer community, that Lisa Vogel and Michfest could have acknowledged they were getting it wrong, and thrown the gates open to trans women.  Explicitly open.  They have been going for years anyway, and it's not made one cis woman any less safe.

There's perhaps a lesson here, for other feminist women's spaces that have been hard fought.  Trans women are not our oppressors.  Trans women as a group do not have power cis women as a group cannot access.  We have much in common, and many gendered experiences of lack of safety which may not be exactly the same, but nevertheless require mutual support and solidarity. 

I'm going to finish in the words of one trans woman attendee:
When people all around you are telling you directly that you have no claim to your womanhood, that there is no way you are welcome, and that by merely existing you are furthering the patriarchy, it cuts right through to your heart.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Power and ponytails

From the ongoing unfolding issue about the Prime Minister's ponytail pulling, specifically in the case of Amanda Bailey, there's one little bit I want to write about a bit more, and it comes back to this quote from The Nation interview with Patrick Gower.  (Quote taken from the transcript here).
Gower: Yeah and when you when you accept that you got it wrong, do you accept that you misused your power?Key: No because I didn’t intend to do that, it was the opposite, I intended to try and be in a much more informal sort of setting so that I put people at ease and we could have a bit of a laugh and a bit of fun so it’s really the opposite.
So Key is saying that the repeated ponytail pulling was the opposite of an abuse of power.
What would the opposite of an abuse of power be?
To me, it would be empowering, it would be giving up your power to someone else.  
If I were being generous, I'd interpret this as Key thinking that by engaging in verbal "banter" and "horse play" and "mucking around" with staff in a cafe he was effectively making it clear he is on the same level as them, an equal; that the staff should feel they can josh him in the same way he joshes them.  Key has given the impression he was wearing his Prankster Casual John Cap at the cafe, and had firmly removed his Prime Ministerial Top Hat.
That seems to me incredibly naive, at absolute best, for the following reasons:
  1. The presence of security guards, there with Key because he is the Prime Minister
  2. Both the Prankster Casual John Cap and the Prime Ministerial Top Hat are invisible; only John knows when he has changed hats.  
  3. There's a strong argument that the Prime Ministerial Top Hat can never really be removed entirely, certainly while he's in New Zealand and amongst the people he is primes inter pares (first among equals, which is where the name Prime Minister came from)
  4. Key has been Prime Minister for over six years now, he is by no means an inexperienced newbie in the role who has made a rookie mistake of forgetting about his day job
  5. Even if you accept that the Prime Minister was not being Prime Minister at the time, and that this was somehow able to be clearly understood by the people around him, there is still the significant power imbalance between customer and staff in a hospitality/service environment.
I've written the above points just focusing on the verbal interactions.  Because when you add in the touching, which was unwanted, repeated, and didn't stop even when he was challenged on it by a number of people around him, it really becomes impossible to defend these actions as somehow empowering, somehow the opposite of an abuse of power.

To be Prime Minister of a country and so unaware of the cloak of power and privilege you wear even when you are sleeping seems disingenuous at best.  Key possibly needs to make a choice here - is he being stupid by putting this line forward, or is he lying?

Finally, when he did apologise directly to Bailey, eventually, what did he give her to express his sincerity?

A symbol of his own power; two bottles of wine named and labelled for him, bearing his name and possibly his image.

The arrogance of the third term?  Or the ongoing deliberate and convenient ignoring of his own power which means he could, by his definition, basically never abuse his position.  

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Amanda Bailey is a legend, or victim-blaming, protector of the powerful

John Key needs a way to stop this story of creepy harassment, now.  It's become a big deal, with even the usually friendly reporters finding his behaviour unacceptable.  The National Council of Women and the Human Rights Commission agree this is plain sexism.  He's even become the source of a "weirdest moments" story in the Guardian.

But what to do?  There are other photos of him touching women and girl's hair.  Many National Party men, and friends of National Party men, also seem to have problems with sexual harassment.  Is this a big enough deal to seriously undermine John and the National Party?

But phew, rape culture.  It's easy.  You just blame the victim.

It's been working for years.  It will not only discredit this particular woman, but it will make sure any other women are less likely to come forward.  Makes the abusing of the power - in all kinds of ways - so much easier.

But how?  If he tells the media who the young woman is, says she's just trying to make a name for herself, makes her out to be exaggerating or lying, he might look even more like a bully.  Hell, he's already tried pretending it's not a big deal by calling it "horsing around" and no one seems to buy it.

But phew, he's got close friends to do it for him.  Time to give Herald reporter Rachel and David a call, and see what they can do. Luckily, he has their numbers on speed dial.  Rachel's been a good friend over the years, and a few discreet tips about the pesky waitress should sort this out.

David Farrar and Rachel Glucina.
Today, in the nick of time, Rachel Glucina has her story up.  Makes Amanda Bailey sound a little grasping, out to get John Key.  Names her, gives details, shows her picture, says where she works.  Opens it up nicely to the threat of more intrusion in her life if she doesn't go away.

But Ms Bailey doesn't go away.  She comes out swinging, dammit, and tells the world, again, her side of things.  She says Rachel Glucina lied to get the story.  Didn't give her name or her occupation.  That, interestingly, breaks the journalist code of ethics, which might just be sackable.  Is it just me, or does victim blaming get harder, the more we hear from victims?

Make no mistake, this little attempt to make John Key's creepy harassment go away is just as revolting as any kind of victim blaming, with a huge dose of power thrown in.  How many people have their own personal reporter set to do their bidding immediately a negative story about them comes out?

It's going to backfire, because those of us who don't think touching people when they don't want to be touched is a joke are going to keep saying so.  It's going to backfire, because the work of Nicky Hager has exposed the way this entitled, abusive National government operates, playing fast and loose with the media.

It's going to backfire, because Amanda Bailey is a legend. 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Sexual harassment and the Nats

Julie has covered John Key's disturbing sense of entitlement in his local cafe, where he clearly feels he can treat a woman as his own personal property because she's waiting tables.  Not much more to say there.

I've lots more to say though about the patterns of behaviour from this National Government.

It's not the first time a National MP has been caught out treating hospitality staff with disdain.  When Aaron Gilmore resigned after asking bar staff "Don't you know who I am?" because they refused to serve him, John Key said it was "the right decision."

It's also not the first time sexual harassment scandals have bedevilled the personnel in this government.  Or even the second or third time.

First there's Michael Woodhouse, before he was even in parliament, telling the student press in Dunedin what he thought of young women:
"I love spring around here, it's bloody fantastic, the skirts were never this short in my day."
He was a 42 year old father of three at the time.  Now he's the Minister of Police, responding to the Police bungling of Roastbusters. 

Then there's Minister Richard Worth, serial sexual harasser, forced to resign after the Police began investigations into his behaviour.  John Key "washed his hands" of Mr Worth at the time.

Or what about Gerry Brownlee appointee to CERA, Roger Sutton, who had to resign after being found guilty of sexual harassment?

And then there are the allegations from Dirty Politics, about National Party pollster David Farrar organising parties for "National Party friends" which treated Young Nats women as potential "targets". 

It's almost like National Party men and friends of National Party men think women are playthings for their own amusement.  That it's ok to touch us when we don't want to be touched, text us when we don't want to be texted, call us when we don't want to be called, make sexual comments about us when we are walking around our campuses, and target us for sex when we are drunk (otherwise known as rape).  National Party men appear to think women at work - or anywhere else - are fair game for whatever they feel like doing to us.  Hell, John Key appears to think even little girls are on the menu for unwanted touching.

What's the answer to this blatant, entitled sexism?  To be fair, lots of the culprits have gone already.  But it's scarcely an individual issue when it's happening this frequently.  If John Key wants to show he doesn't condone sexual harassment, he might have to think about more than just his own apology, more than just curtailing his own behaviour.

He might need to change the culture in his party.  He might need to work out how he shows New Zealand women that he does have some respect for us.  He might need to stop presiding over a government so blatantly tilted towards the powerful.  And he might need to start keeping his creepy hands to himself.

Open thread: The prime minister, the pony tail, and the disturbing sense of entitlement

Very quick post on this breaking news today, here are some links if you have no idea what this is about:

The guest post on The Daily Blog where the waitress explains that the Prime Minister has been pulling her pony tail when he visits the cafe she works at.

Herald article giving Key's apology

Stuff summary

My initial thoughts, after WTF, are:

  • There appears to be no dispute about the basic facts
  • You don't need to touch other people
  • There is a huge power imbalance between the Prime Minister and someone working in hospitality in a junior position 
  • When asked to stop he didn't
  • Intention isn't magic - harassment should be determined by the person the action is done TO, not the person who is doing it to them
  • Who pulls ponytails?  Seriously, why would you do that?

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Michael Bublé teaches consent

Michael Bublé has been blasted for posting a Twitter picture of a woman's bum, with leery racialised commentary, without her consent.  She's a woman of colour.

He's since posted his take on the issue: 
"Anybody who knows me would never misinterpret the message of the photo my wife took in Miami that seems to have caused unexpected rage by some people. I do not court controversy. But I realize that a photo that was meant to be complimentary and lighthearted has turned into a questionable issue. For the record, It hurts me deeply that anyone would think that I would disrespect women or be insulting to any human being.. I was not brought up that way and it is not in my character. I regret that there are people out there who found the photo offensive. That was not and is not my intention. Women are to be celebrated, loved, respected, honored and revered. I’ve spent my life believing that and will continue to do so."
He could not have written a more revealing aide to critiquing rape culture and consent if he tried.  He was meaning to compliment her; he doesn't disrespect women, he loves them; he's hurt because his intention has been misunderstood.

Any of that sound familiar?

He doesn't get into the woman's short shorts "asking for it" - that element of rape culture is nicely taken up by others on Twitter.  It would be easy to criticise Mr Bublé for this - too easy, to be honest - I'm far more interested in exploring the things it shows us about consent culture.

A few weeks ago, I was talking about Friend B with Friend A.  Friend B has a history of not asking for what they want directly, and even when others around them are explicit in saying what is not ok, repeatedly testing that through indirect actions.  None of this is sexual, it's about living stuff, friendship stuff, activist organising stuff.

I said to Friend A, as we discussed a recent situation, that Friend B was "naughty." 

It's been bothering me ever since.  The minimisation, the flippancy of my comment.  Because were the content of these interactions different, we would be talking about sexual assault.  Friend B is repeatedly disrespecting other's boundaries in order to do what they want.  And because they are clever, and because life stuff is complex, they do not take responsibility for what they are doing, and they would be absolutely horrified to be called on it as an issue of consent.

So it's been bothering me because I've been excusing behaviours that undermine consent, albeit in a non-sexual context.  To create a consent culture we have to do so, so much better.

Back to Mr Bublé.  What if he'd asked the woman concerned if he could photograph her, post the picture on social media to millions, make comment on her arse?  That would have been better, obviously, than what he did.  But it still would be chock-a-block with the power dynamics that he, as a rich, white, famous man, benefits from.  Could he borrow the racialised "baby got back" about an anonymous Black woman in the context of North America, slavery and the ongoing objectification and violence towards women of colour?  It's hard to see how it could be a free agreement to enthusiastic participation.  Consent processes are complicated, and sometimes need revisiting to get them right.

A few years ago now, I was arranging a conference, and one of the people I wanted to speak - because they were the best person in Aotearoa on a particular subject - said they were busy that day.  I remember noticing something in their voice, and stopping, noticing that I would usually have suggested helping them with travel costs to ensure they could do both things, trying to work out a way that would work.  What stopped me was knowing the person was a survivor, and hearing in their "no" something uncertain.  They were not sure I was going to listen.

It was a horrifying moment, because I realised that many times in the past, I might not have.  I might have continued to seek what I wanted, because I wasn't reading their "no" as definitive.

A consent culture, I believe, is only something we can work towards imagining at the moment.  Because consent culture would make neo-liberal capitalism impossible - why would workers consent to the greedy CEOs having so much?  Consent culture would dismantle colonisation and the ongoing harms to indigenous peoples and use negotiation, justice and equity as a basis for sharing space on the earth. 

In addition to organising for consent structurally, in all the ways that happens, we can and should be interrogating the personal spaces where negotiation and power sharing live.  We can and should be honest with ourselves about when we are over-riding someone else's consent.  We can and should ask for help from people to listen to us, even when we are having trouble saying what is ok.

And Mr Bublé, in your case, a genuine apology would be most welcome, acknowledging that whatever was going on for you, in the moment of posting that picture you were not thinking about the woman pictured having any needs or wishes that didn't suit you.  And that, ultimately, coupled with power, is the abuse of consent.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

NZ Abortion Access Back in the Dock

What if you had a way of providing an essential medical service that was safer, cheaper, less traumatic for patients, and meant they didn’t have to travel more than an hour each way to access it? Well, if it was for anything other than abortion, you’d be its champion. But this is abortion, and now the pioneering Tauranga Family Planning clinic, which has been providing early medication abortions in the Bay of Plenty since 2013, is under threat by anti-abortion court action that could worsen New Zealand’s already poor record on abortion access.
            The court action by the Catholic anti-choice group Right to Life is a direct result of our now 38-year-old abortion laws, which criminalise abortion and continue to block the use of newer and better ways of providing it. And it’s not the first time our backward laws have been recruited for the purpose of banning or restricting abortion access. A 7-year case by the same group seeking to wind back access went all the way to the Supreme Court, where in 2012 Right to Life lost by a frighteningly narrow 2-3 ruling. The fact that abortion access in New Zealand was one justice away from being severely restricted in 2012 should have been a wake-up call that our criminalised abortion laws need urgent change. But, again, this is abortion and if there’s one thing (almost) all politicians agree on, it’s that they’d rather do nothing than wade into a debate about reproductive justice. 
            So nothing happened, and so here we are again, with abortion access back in the dock. The implications of this case are significant (more on that below), and underscore the urgent need for supporters of reproductive choice and access to press politicians to take action to give our fragile abortion access a secure foundation.
 MPs have been on notice for decades that our laws are barely able to function: the Abortion Supervisory Committee has said so, the courts have said so, even the United Nations has said so. And still there is silence. To quote Prime Minister John Key during the 2014 election campaign: “I’m opposed to changing the law … I think the law broadly works.” And that’s been the standard line from the abortion liberals in Parliament for decades now – apart, that is, from a few stand-outs in the Green Party, which became the first-ever major party to adopt a pro-choice platform in 2014, some impressive Young Labour activism and a bold stand in 2010 by former Labour MP Steve Chadwick.

Importing U.S.-Style TRAP Laws

            The new case at hand was publicly announced on Sunday, when Right to Life said it was headed to the High Court to challenge the Abortion Supervisory Committee over granting a licence to Family Planning to provide early medication abortions at its Tauranga clinic. (Family Planning is only an “interested party” in this case, and it will be the Crown Law Office that plays defence.)
Though we haven’t yet seen Right to Life’s formal arguments, the media release and RTL’s previous posts about the Tauranga clinic indicate this effort is straight from the American TRAP law playbook (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers). In this case, RTL plans to argue that our law requires any institution providing abortion have “adequate surgical and other facilities” for the performance of safe abortions. As even RTL acknowledges, when the 1977 Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion Act was enacted, there were no medical abortions. Since Family Planning’s Tauranga clinic isn’t a hospital or a surgical facility, I’m assuming RTL will claim it doesn’t have the “adequate surgical and other facilities” needed to hold an abortion licence under the law so the ASC shouldn’t have given it one. (A hearing will take place at the High Court in Wellington on 2 June starting at 10 a.m. According to the court, it should be open to the public.)  
It’s important to explain a bit about what early medication abortion is. At the Tauranga clinic, medication abortions are available only up until 9 weeks of pregnancy (63 days), and involve bringing on a miscarriage using two medications usually taken 48 hours apart, Mifegyne or Mifepristone (formerly known as RU486) and Misoprostol (also known as Cytotec). You can read more here from Family Planning itself about what an early medication abortion entails. It’s also worth a reminder that people seeking abortions in the Bay of Plenty – as elsewhere – must still meet the requirements of our criminal statutes: Before you can get an abortion, two doctors (certifying consultants) must agree that your case meets one of the half dozen criteria listed in the Crimes Act. 

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Telling stories about rape

Former All Black Mils Muliaina was arrested last night in connection with a sexual assault in Wales in March.  It's very early days, with no information about the allegation having been made public yet.  When sexual violence is reported in the UK, their justice system does a better job than ours, with 63% of rape cases and 76% of other sexual assault cases resulting in conviction.  (Just to remind ourselves, in Aotearoa just 13% of sexual violation cases reported to Police result in conviction).
This post isn't about that though.  It's about how we tell stories about rape.

In 2013, research from the specialist sexual violence sector looking at how the media report on sexual violence in Aotearoa showed some disturbing stuff: journalists do not understand the law and they do not interview experts, with no articles featuring commentary from specialist academics or researchers and just 8% featuring commentary from community experts.

This means that our news is full of rape myths, because journalists are like everyone else - they grow up in our rape culture.  Despite the importance of the role of the mainstream media in educating the public about sexual violence, the only compulsory reading for student journalists in New Zealand features just three sentences about sexual violence in a 453 page book, and they are not helpful for unlearning rape myths (my emphasis):
“It is illegal to report the victims’ names in any sex crime; it can be unethical and untasteful to describe a sexual crime in graphic detail. It is particularly important to be cautious about taking sides in the reporting: with emotions running high, false complaints are often made regarding sexual offences. Both sides can be very believable in their differing accounts.”
For the record, Police estimate 8% of reports about sexual violence they receive are false.   It's far more common for people to choose not to report to the Police - just one in ten survivors report.  Both of these figures come from New Zealand Police, that bastion of feminist activism.

The media research identified six key areas where newspaper reporting could be more accurate.  As the most fulsome report is at Stuff, that's where I'm looking.
  • Sexual violence is not “just sex”
  • It is rare for a survivor to lie about being raped
Stuff doesn't call what has happened "sex".  Yet.  Watch this space.  It does, however, set the scene for the night in question like this:
 But rugby-mad Cardiff is a renowned party town, and the Welsh capital comes alive after a big match.
Come alive with the raping, Stuff?  Or is there already an inference that what happened may not be that serious?  Maybe the person calling this sexual assault - who we know nothing about, yet - confused partying with sexual assault?
  • Violent stranger danger sexual violence is rare
  • Unfortunately, rapists do not stand out 
There's nothing yet about the third point.  If this myth gets played up, it will reflect in later coverage describing all the ways Mr Muliaina is not a violent stranger - if the victim isn't physically hurt say, if there were no weapons involved - there will be implications that what happened probably wasn't sexual assault.  Despite the fact that perpetrators more typically use alcohol, coercion and isolation to rape - not physical force.  If the person alleging the sexual assault knew Mr Muliaina, of course this would make the sexual assault more typical - despite rape myths to the contrary - too.

This case has hit the headlines because Mr Muliaina is good at rugby.  So he stands out in that way, and we hear about what a popular All Black he was, that he's married with a son, that he has "silky" skills and a gold medal.  We know which teams he's played for and his solicitor and agent have both been quoted by Stuff.  

One of the ways news stories do a real disservice to communities around sexual assault is when they give a distorted view about people who rape.  Unfortunately, rapists can be good at sport, they can be fathers and husbands and medal winners.  They nearly always have other people in their lives who say good things about them.  Even though it would be handy, no rapists have it tattooed on their foreheads.  So while we will no doubt hear from many, many people how wonderful Mr Muliaina is over the next few weeks, none of this means he did not commit sexual assault. To decide that, we'll have to hear about his understanding of consent and his behaviour that night.
  • Being raped is worse than being accused of rape
  • Sexual violence has no excuses 
We know nothing about how the person alleging sexual assault is doing from the Stuff article, whether they are experiencing all of the symptoms associated with trauma that are common for survivors.  Panic attacks.  Depression.  Anxiety.  Insomnia.  Eating disruption.  Alcohol and substance misuse.  Fear.  

We do know:
The arrest could spell the end for the 34-year-old's 15-year career playing top-level rugby, just a week after he signed a fresh deal with Italian side Zebre. 
We also know that Mr Muliaina's agent was "shocked" and his coach "stunned".  We know he was "hauled away" by police "in the full glare of news cameras".  Police, apparently, "pounced without warning."  

So we already know this has been awful for Mr Muliaina.  

We also already have a handy excuse lined up.  Not only is Cardiff a party town, coming alive, but Mr Muliaina has a historic problem with alcohol.  


The coverage of this case isn't gold star awful.  Yet.  But Stuff have made a valiant effort to shore up several of the myths New Zealand news coverage suffers from.  Let's hope the rest do better.