by Chella Quint // 1 September 2014, 21:40
Hello! Each month, we invite guest bloggers to contribute regular posts from their unique perspective. Many thanks to Abigael Watson and Mag the Blag for their thought-provoking contributions during August! It gives me great pleasure to introduce September's guest blogger, G*. As the new school year starts, it is particularly apt that G*, a primary school teacher, takes on the role. I have asked him to write a bit more about himself in the third person by way of introduction:
G* has been a primary school teacher for five years, training first in Scotland and now working in the North of England. Before that he worked in a number of national retail establishments after finishing his (really useful) degree in sociology. In his spare time he enjoys stand up comedy, reading and fine-tuning his zombie apocalypse survival plan. He can often be found cooking up wonderful meals before ruining them in some culinary disaster and eating hula hoops for dinner instead.
G* has been an active member of the LGBT community through volunteering and activism work and has supported the feminist movement by shutting up, listening and speaking out when appropriate.
He'll be writing about gender and sexuality in the primary school and about being a male feminist in a predominantly female but frequently anti-feminist workplace.
Welcome, G*. We look forward to your posts and wish you well at the start of the new term!
Photo description: The photo is by Chella Quint and has been used with permission: all rights reserved. The photo is a view of the Peak District taken from the train between Sheffield and Manchester. In the foreground there is a ramshackle barn in the grounds of a working farm. Some hedgerow-divided fields rise up into a tree-covered peak in the distance. The day is so bright and the sky is so blue that it appears white, and two low clouds drift by. There is an almost intangible sense of movement that seems to capture that this picture was snapped from the train - the lack of blurring serendipitous and entirely by chance.
by Mag the Blag // 31 August 2014, 19:09
This post discusses rape and child sexual exploitation.
The exposé of sexual exploitation in Rotherham is deeply shocking because it shows that gangs of men continue to see it as their right to sexually abuse young girls.
The media described two shock waves. The first was that the events happened. The second shock was the lack of action by the authorities, mainly the police and child protection services, that allowed it to continue over decades.
I want to talk about a third shock, albeit a more subtle one, that relates to the media itself and how it reported the events. Despite the profoundly disturbing nature of these crimes, the media is still incapable of seeing the crimes for what they are: an aspect of patriarchal culture.
The media and political reaction to Professor Jay's report is to demand heads. Of course, this is right to some extent. The senior managers and political leads should resign. However, the media have taken it on themselves to ask questions about those people who have moved on into other positions and investigate the front line workers who were involved in child exploitation cases. (It's the mostly female social workers who are being chased, incidentally. No-one is talking about the mostly male police officers in this way.)
Every single person involved in the Rotherham child exploitation scandal could be rooted out and given the sack but it would not change a thing - because it is the culture that needs to change.
Professor Alexis Jay, who wrote the report that detonated a media bomb, was brave enough to mention the macho culture within Rotherham Council that made it so hard to question the lack of action. However, the misogyny wasn't limited to elected representatives. She pointed out that the police usually viewed the young women involved with utter disdain, which meant they were colluding with the perpetrators. Social workers often held victim-blaming attitudes, thinking that the young women involved didn't deserve help.
Yes, it's about race; yes, it's about class; yes, it's about the austerity and the cuts that have so overwhelmed services. And yes, there are the recommendations that Jay puts forward, including counselling for the workers involved, better supervision and caseload management, which are all clearly thought out and much to the point.
But the basics are that men were able to rape at least 1500 young women. This is violence against girls at its most raw. For things to change misogyny needs to be named so that the role patriarchy plays can be faced head-on.
The exhaustion of dealing with child sexual exploitation makes it tempting to fall back on stereotypical views of women and young people. It's easier to blame the victim. So we should not in turn blame the front line workers overwhelmed by heavy caseloads.
What needs to happen is a concerted effort to question the attitudes of all those involved in child sexual exploitation work. Moving from a women-blaming culture to one that allows empathy for the victims means being able to challenge deeply held views. Traditional training, with its emphasis on the passing-along of information, is not up to the job. Some knowledge is needed but a large part of change must come through an understanding of what fuels the inability to see others as anything other less-than.
Inspired in the first instance by consciousness raising groups of the 1960s and 1970s, there is a method of training that uses personal experience in a group context in such a way that participants become aware of how they have been influenced by patriarchal thinking. It may seem far-fetched to believe that organisations such as government departments and local authorities can put in this kind of holistic training but there are certainly precedents.
Whole systems approach to domestic violence is a method of training personnel throughout an organisation so that everyone from senior managers through to frontline workers can begin to see domestic violence in a new way. The belief systems of perpetrators, survivors and professionals are put in the context of patriarchal attitudes. Nobody claims this in-depth training is easy. The road to empathy is an arduous emotional journey and there's an element of fear and shame as it can show up previous professional behaviour in a poor light. But it can be life-changing for the workforce as well as for the people they work with.
There is no reason why similar training cannot be put on for organisations dealing with child sexual exploitation.
For in-depth change to happen, decision makers need to name and shame patriarchy itself. Child sexual exploitation is now acknowledged to be a widespread problem, so we can only hope the issue has become so urgent that leaders are able to show the necessary courage.
The photo is by Jerzy Durczak and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows a chain of five links hanging down on a wall, casting a large shadow next to it.
by J Whitehead // 31 August 2014, 13:11
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past six months, it's been pretty impossible to avoid Kate Bush's return to the public domain, with her 22-day tour at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, which began earlier this week. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, although some dissenting voices have lamented the omission of some of her earlier hits such as "Wuthering Heights" and "Babooshka". I was fortunate enough to see the show on Wednesday and can categorically proclaim that the show was none the less spectacular, as a consequence of this decision. Theatrical, beautiful, original - Kate was a revelation. The temptation to fill my playlist exclusively with Kate Bush songs is strong but, I've heard that not everyone is a fan of Bush (?!?), so will resist this.
I know very little about Laura Doggett, a singer and songwriter from Bath, but "Phoenix", which I caught on BBC Radio 6, is just beautiful. I'm looking forward to hearing more from her.
"Tempest" is the first track I've heard from Lucius, who the Guardian described as somewhere between Haim and Arcade Fire - high praise indeed.
I finally watched The Punk Singer, a film about Kathleen Hanna and her involvement in riot grrrl, an interesting and inspiring watch. The spoken word piece Hanna performs at the beginning blew my mind. Highly recommended.
The image is a black and white picture of Kate Bush, sitting at her keyboard, one hand resting on her hand, the other hand striking the keys. Image by Daniel Rehn, shared under a Creative Commons licence.
by Ania Ostrowska // 29 August 2014, 16:15
Obvious Child, the first ever abortion rom-com opens in UK cinemas today.
Quite surprising, isn't it?
The film's director, Gillian Robespierre, based it on her 2009 short of the same title she had made being disenchanted with... other rom-coms. Robespierre said in 2010:
"After seeing so many films featuring unplanned pregnancies that end in childbirth (Juno, Knocked Up, Waitress, Bella, to name a few), we had become disenchanted with the representation of young women's experience with becoming pregnant in the media today. While we have enjoyed these films, we have also been greatly unnerved by the ways in which filmmakers (and our culture more generally) have represented the issue of abortion, making it a silent enemy, a choice not to be made. We'd been waiting to see a film in which a woman makes the other choice- and there's still a happy ending."
Reviewing Obvious Child for The F-Word, Sophie Mayer writes:
"In 2014, a film in which a reasonable person with reasonable friends and family has a reasonable abortion (I love that she shaves her legs the night before the procedure, as if it were a date) should seem like an obvious story, a hackneyed sitcom episode we've seen before. We haven't, and that's what makes Obvious Child important, starting conversations about not only what it covers (Donna's financial struggles and her emotive quandaries about who to inform and how), but how much farther it could go."
The film opens in cinemas nationwide today.
The picture is still from the film, with Jenny Slate as Donna, looking unhappy and drinking coffee. Taken from Obvious Child UK Facebook page.
by Mag the Blag // 27 August 2014, 21:02
All the main parties want to boost their numbers of women and they want more of us to stand for political positions. But they rarely venture into the messy territory of personal issues to find explanations for why women are so under-represented in their parties.
It's not easy to find someone in party politics who's open about personal issues but luckily I come across Ruth, (not her real name) who's willing to talk to me. Ruth is a middle aged professional woman, confident in her role of party political activist. Nevertheless I get the sense that she feels a bit uncomfortable.
I started by asking if political choices can be compromised through relationships with men. The answer was definitive: absolutely. She told me that in her younger days, before she joined a political party, she was a journalist and married to photo-journalist. "He was good looking and people would look at me, a fat woman with this drop dead gorgeous guy, and it felt like they thought I didn't deserve to be with him. I always felt less than." I can sense a hint of vulnerability behind Ruth's words, as if part of her had returned to an earlier version of herself where she did not value herself.
Ruth told me she found herself unable to question the page 3 culture that was prevalent in the publishing world that they were both part of. "I assumed you could only complain if you were young, beautiful and thin." This combination of a sexist culture and lack of self-esteem meant that Ruth was left without a voice.
Ruth told me that in her twenties she went on a strict diet and for a short time lost massive amounts of weight. She says that being thin enabled her entry into the computing world. "There's a stereotype that the computing world is full of geeks but there was definitely a look that you had to have. Suddenly my salary leapt over my husband's. His colleagues ribbed him about it and I felt that somehow it was my fault and that I was in the wrong because of his mates."
This is a classic co-dependent dynamic. One definition of co-dependence is: "You cut, I bleed." Ruth worried that her husband might feel diminished because of her greater earning power so she spent her emotional energy protecting him, to the detriment of her own views and needs. The irony was that her husband couldn't care less about earning less than Ruth - in fact he was proud of her. But this made no difference. "I was so busy trying to get it right that I didn't have time to think about my own views." Luckily for Ruth she didn't go so far as to leave her high-earning job.
At about this time of her life Ruth joined a political party. She went on anti-racist marches and campaigned against poverty. But Ruth tells me that it never would have occurred to her to bring up body size or the sexist culture that dominated the media view of women.
It was only when she went to a workshop on self-expression that Ruth understood that she was a separate person from her partner. "For the first time I realised that I had right to my own views and my own life." This marked the beginning of her journey away from her partner and his views and they eventually agreed to divorce. Ruth went to more workshops, attended self-help groups and found a mentor. "I had to put the time in to find myself as a person" she tells me. Ruth is now politically active and has stood as a candidate. She is proud of her ability to stand for election and demand that her voice be heard. "It's still a very male party, and it's tough out there. I know that when I put my head over the parapet someone's going to take a pot shot at me, but these days I can take it."
One woman's story does not an explanation make. However, these are all commonly reported problems that reduce women's potential to be part of political life: co-dependence prevents women from focusing on their own issues, lack of self-esteem is an internal censor that inhibits self-expression and body image issues act as a barrier to standing for political positions.
Unfortunately we're not at the point where the mainstream political parties are willing to take on these personal issues and how they're the affected by the sexist culture we live in. At the level of party politics, the personal is still deeply apolitical. Feminists have their work cut out.
The image is by Aslan Media and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows a red background with a white political crest and white writing reading "MEN POWER AND POLITICS". Black graffiti writing adds "WO" so it reads "WOMEN POWER AND POLITICS".
by Abigael Watson // 26 August 2014, 22:27
There's a lot in a name. You can often gauge where someone has come from or see the parents' personalities or family members echoed in the chosen names. It is also a defining factor of someone's identity. It may not sum this identity up but it is the label that they will carry throughout their life. This can be neutral, beneficial or even negative.
A title, however - those few letters preceding one's name - is a label with connotations that become a solely female issue.
For men, there is only one option, which entirely void of meaning apart from denoting their gender. It does not carry a pointer as to their marital status. It is just a title.
When I was younger I remember that an activity that involved writing your name with the surname of whichever boy you fancied. More often than not, other people would helpfully do this for me. That all-important question of whether "Mrs Whomever" would sound good was seriously considered. At that stage in my life there was no question about the title I would assume once I, of course, inevitably got married. It seemed the natural scheme of things.
When I delved into feminist issues more once I reached my teenage years, I had an epiphany.
"I can call myself whatever I like!"
It seems rather odd and outdated that most women assume a different title upon marriage. These few letters are steeped in patriarchal tradition, something that continues to shadow all areas of our lives to this day.
It is up to the individual to decide what they would like to call themselves. Taking away someone's liberty over these matters is not something that I would ever advocate. Still, the continued tradition seems illogical to me.
When someone hears of you or meets you, do you wish their first realisation of your person to be whether you're married? Is that what you wish to be defined by? In an ideal world people would wait until they met you to decide what you're like. However, as we all know and have experienced, this is far from being an ideal world. Therefore, unless your title denotes something particular such as you being a doctor or a professor or something like that, do you really want these few letters before your name to state your marital status?
I shall not delve here into the issue of whether one changes one's surname upon marriage or not, for this has even more complexities attached to it, such as how to define a family unit and what children should be called. Nevertheless, the issue of changing your name once married and the chosen title are issues that are intertwined and they both need to be considered carefully.
I implore women to consider what they would like their name to say about themselves. I do not have an issue with women who, having thought it through, decide that changing their title to Mrs is something that they would like. It is the assumption that a married woman will be a Mrs that I have issue with and women everywhere need to have that realisation that they can be called whatever they please.
The fact is that this is all down to tradition, an incredibly difficult thing to unravel and change, as the vast majority of people will be perfectly happy to carry on as things are if it does not cause that much damage to them. These seemingly tiny parts of tradition stand for something much greater, something that is being used to govern how we live, what we do and how we act. It is what this tradition stands for that matters. If the tradition that we so aimlessly follow stands for a damaging patriarchal past and present, is this something we should continue with?
Your name and title is a big thing; it's a label, no matter how it's worn. It is therefore something that requires serious thought and consideration.
The photo is by Quinn Dombrowski and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows a sticker that reads "HELLO my name is" in white typing on a red background, above a white space where presumably somebody could write their name, although the space is blank. It is stuck at an angle on some grey metal.
by Mag the Blag // 23 August 2014, 22:06
The names of people mentioned in this blog post have been changed.
Sometimes people you know are having a hard time and you don't notice. It was like that with an old acquaintance. Perhaps I was busy with my own life or maybe I wasn't listening properly. When Nyla told me she was being bullied at work I didn't take what she said seriously. I just kept up with the main events.
I knew the background fine: Nyla works in a mid-level job in a government institution. Her manager John was calling her racist names, telling her sexualised jokes, making remarks about her Muslim background, denying her work and humiliating her in front of colleagues. She told me bits and bobs and almost in passing she said she had confronted John, but the bullying got worse instead of better.
The next time I heard from Nyla she told me that her manager had been marched out of the office by security men, cardboard box in hand, just like in a Hollywood film.
This was amazing! She was my heroine! How did she do it?
Nyla told me she'd found out there were other women of colour in another team who had been bullied by the same man. She eventually found the courage to team up with these women and put in a complaint against John. A manager in HR, one of the few black men in the organisation, was sympathetic and pushed for her case to be heard. The investigation that followed revealed John had a long history of persecuting women from ethnic minorities. Events then moved very quickly. Top managers were informed, were duly horrified and John lost his job.
Nyla, with a little help from her friends, had managed to oust a bully from the organisation. But it was a long hard slog and it took a personal toll on Nyla.
We talked through what might have helped her to deal with this man. Proper training for managers, anti-sexism and anti-racism workshops, a union committed to end bullying and an independent phone line so that bullying couldn't be ignored. Most important, there would need to have been a change in the culture of the workplace to embrace respect for all employees.
I wondered if this list was unrealistic so I passed it by another acquaintance, Shula. She is the Chief Executive of a medium size charity working in an inner city location. She told me that, far from being unrealistic, she and her colleagues had begun the Good Heart project to end bullying at work. "It has to start from the top. I make sure I show my senior managers absolute respect and we have a zero-tolerance for any rudeness in the organisation. We haven't eradicated bullying completely but we have got a way of spotting it and dealing with it very quickly."
What came across from this conversation is that with political willpower, management can deal with bullying. There's a formal structure to employment where everyone is responsible to someone else and there are sanctions such as losing your job. Shula's charity is not very big but they were managing to do it without the plethora of possible support available to large organisation with their HR and Occupational Health departments.
That should be the end of the story. However, for Nyla, it was only the start of the journey. To me she's a role model but it didn't feel like that for her. She found it hard to go into work, she felt suicidal and she ended up taking time off sick. John was gone but she felt terrible about herself. She doubted her actions. Even though she was the victim and not the perpetrator, she felt guilty, as though by reporting her boss and getting him removed it was her fault rather than his.
So it's not just that the culture of the work place has to change, it's that we have to rethink how bullying is dealt with. Parallel to the process of dealing with the bullies themselves, the victims have to be supported, not just to encourage disclosure but to deal with the aftermath.
Perhaps a very big leaf needs to be taken out of recent work in domestic violence. When victims of domestic violence are supported by independent advocates, the rates of conviction increase dramatically. If we are to take bullying in the workplace seriously, victim care needs to go up the agenda.
Nyla is now back in work and coping with her life. But if she had had the right support, she may not have gone through the psychological nightmare that was her reward for ridding a government agency of a man who for many years got away with persecuting those beneath him with impunity.
The image is by Elvert Barnes and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows birds perching on telephone wires: one on the top wire, four on the middle wire and one on the bottom. The sky beyond them is cloudy.
by Abigael Watson // 23 August 2014, 12:44
Author's note: My focus in this post is evidently on heterosexual relationships; these issues may also apply to other relationships, but I am writing about heterosexual relationships as I am drawing on my own experience.
Editor's note: If you are an LGBT young adult and would like to write about your experiences of sex and sex education, get in touch!
Sex. To call it a controversial topic would be an understatement. It is, however, a topic that is at the forefront of many a teenager's mind.
At my partially selective all-girls comprehensive school, the sex education we receive is abysmal. I remember having two talks from a nurse in year 9 or 10: one was about STDs and the other was on contraception. I also recall having a lesson in science in year 7 all about how sex works to make a baby. That was it. This is a particular problem as now most of my peers are 16 or 17 and many people are sexually active or close to it. They have come this far and yet sex education has only touched them lightly and in passing.
This all means that teenagers are rather uninformed when it comes to sex. Fair enough, we learnt about how to protect ourselves from all the dangers. On the other hand, we did not learn about attitudes towards sex, how to know you're ready and how to treat other people, as well as the consequences. This seems like a massive hole in our learning.
Discouraging sex is more often than not a futile exercise. Many teenagers will have sex regardless. Therefore, it seems obvious that people of this age be taught about the emotional side and warned about how damaging and destructive it is to slut shame. I implore educational authorities to consider this, considering how beneficial it would be to a hypersexualised generation that needs this guidance and advice.
It is also worth remembering that teenagers might turn to porn to 'teach' those things that their school has ignored. This is ultimately damaging to themselves and the people they come into contact with. Although some girls will watch porn too, boys outnumber them.
I hear of boys my age who have hardly any contact with girls and watch porn on a regular basis. They will grow up with this often misogynistic and distorted view of sex and the human body. They will then continue through adult life, this view still embossed in their consciousness. Consequently, they may intensely judge the naked figure of a woman, they may push for more aggression and force, resulting in discomfort or worse. On top of this, it may encourage objectification of women, and the idea that the man should be continually pushing things to go further. The consequences are evidently damaging, especially when not balanced out by some sex education of an acceptable standard.
I'm not saying I'm necessarily against porn, but it is imperative that schools consider this in the way they instruct on sex education.
This leads me onto a significant issue - attitudes towards people who have sex, and the gender disparities in this.
There have been a number of instances at my school that demonstrate this. Girls have been nastily talked about and shamed for casual sexual encounters, even those within a relationship. They will be cruelly labelled a slut by both boys and girls alike. They will suffer the burden of a so-called bad reputation that leaves them sullied in the eyes of boys, and worthless, stupid and easy in the eyes of girls.
Boys will be congratulated, praised and patted on the back. They may be spoken about in a semi-nasty way by girls on occasion, but not nearly to the same extent as girls will be. They will add this medal they have earned to their collection and they will be proud.
This negative attitude towards girls and sex will result in fewer girls seeking advice and help. It will mean discussions are less open. It will also continue to reinforce the idea that girls are only respectable, sensible and 'good' if they refrain from such activities. The damage that this causes is irrefutable. (The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti is good for further reading on this topic.)
On the other hand, strangely enough, girls (and boys) also have to endure the constant pressure from peers that they become sexually active. Here I see another impossible ideal: the ideal to be a sexualised, sexually active teen, and also to remain innocent, virtuous and a 'good' girl. It seems we cannot win.
The need for greater and more diverse and useful education on such topics in schools is of paramount importance. It's just wrong and dangerous that this double standard remains and that sex education does little to fight this.
The photo is by Amber McNamaara and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows a tab of birth control pills, with the days of the week written at the top. Two of the seven rows have been used. The third row has seven white pills, the fourth row has three white pills and four brown pills. They are lying on some silky beige fabric.
Edited at 15:55 on 23 August 2014 to correct a typo mentioned in the comments!
by Megan Stodel // 21 August 2014, 23:55
Have you heard the news? Weddings have just become less sexist! Or they might become less sexist, if renowned feminist campaigner David Cameron has his way. He's pledged a change to the marriage certificate, which in England and Wales currently names the fathers of the bride and groom and gives their occupations while skipping out any information on the mothers. Well, not for much longer! Soon (maybe) a new version will give just as many details on both mum and dad.
Let's be realistic though: when I say weddings will become "less sexist", I've set the bar pretty low. This is an event where, traditionally, a woman wearing virginity-signifying clothing is given by one man to another and assumes his identity. Creepy stuff, I'd say, but apparently I'm in the minority.
The thing is, while pretty much everybody acknowledges the sexist trappings of marriage, two prevailing ways of thinking tend to dominate the response.
The first is that it doesn't really matter. Tradition has this effect on people. I mean, sure, it's a bit weird that wearing white is supposed to indicate my sexual purity, but it wouldn't feel like a real wedding if I wore a different colour! And nobody really cares about that stuff anyway: it's just kind of quaint now.
This probably stems from how conditioned we are to appreciate traditional weddings. From Shakespeare to Cinderella, weddings mean a happy ending. That 'perfect day' is held up as an ambition (particularly for women) and when it comes to it, the fairytale wedding matches the fantasy much better than attempting to shake off the sexism. It's not uncommon to hear people who otherwise espouse completely feminist principles to justify their white wedding by saying it's what they wanted all along. I understand that - even I, with my apparently stony heart, can appreciate the attraction - but we know that no choice is made in a vacuum. If we had never encountered weddings before, how many of us would now redesign the traditional way to express your hopefully unending devotion to your partner?
The other widespread approach is to attempt to have a feminist wedding. Don't like the bit where you promise to honour and obey? Bin it! Think it's kind of prehistoric to have only men giving speeches at the reception? Give granny that microphone! Find the idea of proposals a bit one-sided? Get down on one knee, sister - to hell with leap years!
Ok. That's kind of cool. But why are we even bothering? Marriage is an institution imbued with sexism - right from the origins of being used as a convenient way to transfer property to the modern day connotations exploited by shows like Don't Tell The Bride. You might do everything you can to subvert tradition but you can't escape the way society will interpret the action of wedding. Pretty much every woman who's been married for a few years can reveal some way in which society attempts to undermine their independence and dictate their decisions - whether it's the insistence of misnaming them as Mrs Husband's Name, the assumption of a bank that their husband will need to be consulted, the expectation that after wedding comes babies...the list goes on.
At the most basic level, most couples getting married are doing so because they want to be publicly committed to each other - it's an act of love. As far as I know, most are not doing it for the bonus sexism. To me, that means we don't need to keep ourselves tethered to this unfortunate exercise. I believe that it's quite possible to feel the strongest of loves for somebody and express this to others if necessary, without getting married. It's just that getting married is what we do.
Every wedding contributes to the societal idea that weddings are how we communicate love and lasting partnership. Even a super-feminist one reiterates that getting married is the thing to do - and in some ways, it probably does this even more strongly, as it suggests that weddings can be separated from their unfeminist heritage.
It's hard to be the odd ones out. But it's time to acknowledge: we don't have to do this. The more of us who reject an institutionalised take on relationships, the less marriage will be seen as a rite of passage. We don't need feminist weddings if we aren't resigned to having weddings in the first place. It's time to disengage.
The image is by Michael Hummel and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows two dik diks standing together from behind. Dik diks are antelopes that are monogamous but do not participate in wedding ceremonies. Although, of course, marriage doesn't imply monogamy. I just liked the antelopes.
by Stephanie Phillips // 19 August 2014, 19:26
Sway to the right, sway to the left. Uniform in motion and occasionally in style, the gentle dance that occurs in the pit can be a mesmerising experience, that is until a hurricane of hyper aggression cuts through the room; displacing the good time and good people.
Stage front at the Shacklewell Arms all dayer, despite a great atmosphere, signs promoting 'Girls to the Front' and a host of brilliant but un-mosh-inducing bands, by the time US hardcore band Perfect Pussy and noise pop favourites Joanna Gruesome came on, the crowd was in full throbbing mode. JG's lead singer, Alanna McArdle, made several attempts to calm the crowd but to no avail. Left with the only option to monitor the crowd, McArdle kept a close eye on the pit; her voice filled with emotion and determination, her face steely and focused. The signs seemed like a mere joke afterwards but the good intention was certainly there.
Moshing and aggressive behaviour at gigs has forever been a frustration in the alternative scene, but how should it be dealt with? Does it need any confrontation at all or should everyone just 'get used to it'? Can more be done other than a few peaceful words and well meaning signs.
I personally could happily see the end of all mosh pits. As someone who loves to feel the undulating rhythms in a song I could never understand why you would choose to flail your limbs aimlessly and career yourself into random strangers akin to performing an interpretive dance to a particularly wild piece of free jazz. That, alas I know, is just my view (I'd also ban headbanging) but there are more reasons to dislike moshing other than an obvious disrespect to music.
Moshing, or slam dancing, began in the 80s hardcore scene when crowds started to engage in more aggressive dance moves to release energy. It became an ongoing joke that guys would limber up before a gig and practice moves designed to impact as many people as possible.
The scenes that spawned slam dancing were generally male dominated, where a particular brand of hyper masculinity thrived. Women were pushed further and further to the sides and eventually, if they got tired of the negative atmosphere, out of the scene.
In Don't Need You- The Herstory of Riot Grrrl, Madigan Shive, musician in riot grrrl band Tattle Tale, describes a both typical and disturbing scene at punk shows in the 80s / 90s: "There would be girls standing all around the corners holding these jackets and then there would be the boys with their shirt off playing hardcore music.
"I remember looking round and asking 'why are all these girls standing there holding these jackets' and I remember overhearing another person say 'those are the coathangers'."
The dangers of moshing are well known; injuries are common place and fatalities have also been known to occur. In 1996, a teenage girl was crushed to death by a moshing crowd at a Smashing Pumpkins gig in Dublin, Ireland. The band took a public stance against moshing and warned crowds against moshing at gigs.
The intense violence at shows can be cited as one of many reasons why swathes of women left a visible side of the punk scene in the 80s / 90s. The woman-centric riot grrrl movement of the early 90s was born partly out a frustration about the hyper masculinity on display at punk shows and the need to create a 'safe space' for women.
The term 'girls to the front' was created by riot grrrl bands that asked men to make room for the women in the audience to readdress the balance. It also allowed the bands to play directly to the women the songs were written for. Women would get onstage to call out violence, abuse or harassment they had witnessed or were being subjected to. If shows got too rough sometimes women were invited to sit on the stage away from the chaos.
It was a revolutionary act and a vital step forward but 20 years later we've moved no further in terms of creating safe spaces at gigs. Women are still attacked and assaulted at gigs and who knows how many people are put off coming to shows because of a fear of potential violence. Creating safe spaces is difficult; the results of a few changes would not reach fruition immediately. It involves cultivating a community that is focused on the well being of every member and is self reflective enough to know when to readdress the balance.
Of course many people love moshing and many women do too. I'm sure countless punks would hate the idea of being seen as unable to withstand a session in the pit. This may be true but in a community we must accommodate for all our members, including the smaller, less physically able and more rhythmically inclined. It would make no sense to base a community around the physically strong and no one else. So while you may think you can throw your weight around with the best of them, look around to your left and to your right and think of your sisters and brothers who may not share your enthusiasm. Step to the side and let them enjoy their night.
The photo is by Holly Casio. It shows a sign from the Shake the Shacklewell event that reads 'Girls* to the front! *(and smaller people).'