Telegraph story twists research on men who (are prepared to) rape

by Jess McCabe // 6 July 2009, 15:49

Ben "Bad Science" Goldacre has comprehensively taken apart this horrifically victim-blaming story in the Telegraph, which ran with the entirely misleading headline:

Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists

The story is a case study in the damaging way that journalists can 'report' on research to reflect their own agenda. According to the Sophia Shaw, the Msc student who carried out the research this is 'based' on for her dissertation, told the Guardian "every single one of the first four statements made by the Telegraph was an unambiguous, incorrect, misrepresentation of her findings".

She had been discussing her dissertation at an academic conference when the British Psychological Society's PR team picked it up, and put out the press release. We will discuss that later.

But first, the science. Shaw spoke to about 100 men, presenting them with "being with a woman", and asking them when they would "call it a night". The idea was to explore men's attitudes towards coercing women into sex.

"I'm very aware that there are limitations to my study. It's self-report data about sensitive issues, so that's got its flaws, and participants were answering when sober, and so on," she said.

...

Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped? "This is completely inaccurate," Shaw said. "We found no difference whatsoever. The alcohol thing is also completely wrong: if anything, we found that men reported they were willing to go further with women who are completely sober."

And what about the Telegraph's next claim, or rather, the paper's reassuringly objective assertion, that it is scientists who claim that women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped?

"We have found that people will go slightly further with women who are provocatively dressed, but this result is not statistically significant. Basically you can't say that's an effect, it could easily be the play of chance. I told the journalist it isn't one of our main findings, you can't say that. It's not significant, which is why we're not reporting it in our main analysis."

So who do we blame for this story, and what do we do about it?

Shaw said: "When I saw the article my heart sank, and it made me really angry, given how sensitive this subject is. To be making claims like the Telegraph did, in my name, places all the blame on women, which is not what we were doing at all. I just felt really angry about how wrong they'd got this study."

Since I started sniffing around, and since Shaw's complaint, the Telegraph has quietly changed the online copy of the article, although there has been no formal correction, and in any case, it remains inaccurate.

Comments From You

Monty // Posted 06 July 2009 at 17:18

Accusation and hypocrisy, all in one blog title! You accuse the telegraph of twisting the research, yet you call it 'research on men who rape'. How many rapists do you know of that were part of the sample?

Louise // Posted 06 July 2009 at 17:30

Unbelievable ! I'm going to write to them. This is truly sinister. I already knew they weren't exactly every woman's best friend, but they're reaching new lows. The Telegraph, Herald of the rape culture ! I hope lots of people kick a fuss about it and stop buying their bigoted rag.

Jess McCabe // Posted 06 July 2009 at 17:36

@Monty The researcher was finding out in what situation the 100 men in the study would be prepared to rape. Without access to the research questions it's hard to know whether she asked if they'd actually raped anyone yet, so I've changed the headline.

Gloria Dawson // Posted 06 July 2009 at 21:44

Ben Goldacre is really a great thing. I read everything he writes, without exception. I wish I thought that as many people as read the Telegraph article read his, so well done for promoting it.

tom hulley // Posted 06 July 2009 at 21:45

Sorry Louise, really depressing but such reporting and such attitudes are not uncommon.

I suggest everyone trying to get as many of their friends as possible to see this. It helps to keep alert to misogyny in the Press. It is getting worse as Louise says.

I use this word this because it goes well beyond sexism. In a society where the most 'offensive' word refers to part of a woman's body, misogyny is at the heart of everything.

As a social science teacher I watch out for examples like Ben Goldacre's article. Earlier in the year, all the press (tabloids and so-called 'quality' papers) covered an important report on discrimination faced by women in various parts of the criminal justice system. All the newspapers, lazily, took a Reuters feed and focused on (unevidenced) increasing violence by young women ('ladettes'). Many of them used the same picture of some young women fighting. It was a very posed image and when I checked it out it was taken from an episode of Coronation street! Fiction becomes fact in the lying Press.
Thanks for the piece, I missed it on Saturday.

Amy // Posted 06 July 2009 at 23:07

The press seems desperate to always prove something about women - why does no one care if anything gets proven about men? (Unless in relation to how they should rightfully tread on women).
Oh that's right, because as women we're alienated even from ourselves from birth with the male = norm, female = 'other' world viewpoint.

I've wondered how completely ignoring half of the population with an exaggerated insecure perspective about women gets them to sell more copies.

maggie // Posted 06 July 2009 at 23:10

Thank you for highlighting this article. It's a disturbing piece. Ben Goldacre's article also appears online in comment is free and the comments are sickingly predictable.

polly styrene // Posted 07 July 2009 at 08:04

The research is ridiculous anyway, because it depended on asking men in which circumstances they would be likely to rape. It consisted of presenting men with various scenarios and asking how far they would go towards rape in them basically (would you go farther if the woman was provocatively dressed, would you go farther if she was drunk).

It therefore assumes that all rapists are honest about their motivation. It's fairly well recognised by those who treat sex offenders that denial is a major factor. Therefore a rapist is likely to claim he was driven by "lust" because a woman was provocatively dressed, because this is seen as more socially acceptable.

JenniferRuth // Posted 07 July 2009 at 09:30

If someone had tried to misrepresent my unfinished MSc thesis I would have been livid.

The media is awful for twisting scientific publications in order to back up gender divide. You know what I mean, the headlines that shout:
"Women may be hardwired to prefer pink!"
"Chimp prostitutes trade meat for sex!"
and of course,
"Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists"

And then you go back to look at the actual papers the article cites and they barely even say the same thing as the media is reporting. Or, more often or not, they are papers that have not been peer-reviewed or have been rejected/disproved.

The media doesn't just do this in regard to gender essentialism - just look at the MMR vaccince hysteria that was perpetuated by the news.

I wish that there was a paper whose science reporting you could trust. I'm glad Ben Goldacre and people like him do the work to debunk these ridiculous and harmful articles...I just wish that there was some damn standard that journalists had to adhere to in order report science in the first place.

Mary // Posted 07 July 2009 at 11:08

polly styrene - you can't say the research is ridiculous based on this report! There's not even any evidence in what Sophia Shaw says that the word "rape" plays any part in her research. I'm sure that it's part of the ongoing research into non-consensual sex, but she's talking about how far (heterosexual) men are likely to try and "push" for sex with women in which situations. She's not making any claims about what circumstances (het) men are likely to choose to rape, but knowing when men are likely to keep trying to have sex and what signals they consider "time to go home" is a critical part of the discussions on consent and how it's communicated.

Jess McCabe // Posted 07 July 2009 at 11:25

@mary The word 'rape' might not have been used in the research, we don't know. But there's no such thing as 'non-consensual sex'. Without consent, if coersion is involved, it's not sex, it's rape. In the minds of the men interviewed, they might not have describedd this as rape, but if she was asking in what situations they would coerce a woman into having sex, she was asking in what situations they would rape.

Probably the research wasn't perfect, I mean it was a masters dissertation project which hadn't even been finished yet, it wasn't peer reviewed or anything. Of course we can't draw conclusions from it per se.

Qubit // Posted 07 July 2009 at 13:18

Jess, I think a reasonably large minority of the population distinguish between rape and non-consensual sex. I imagine very few guys would admit to raping a woman however more would admit to having slightly forced sex.

Similarly I know numerous women who have had what they consider non-consensual sex but wouldn't describe it as rape. Whether this is a protection mechanism for them or a way of self blame I don't know but I think it is better to leave them to think as they do rather than possibly distress them by giving my opinion.

The truth is I don't think it is universally accepted that all non-consensual or forced sex is rape although I agree with this opinion. Therefore Mary had a fair point that the fact men were asked how far they would go to force sex not whether they would rape is key to the surveys findings.

Jess McCabe // Posted 07 July 2009 at 14:25

Hi Qubit!

You're right: a fair number of people do think there is a distinction between 'non consensual sex' and rape, for a myriad of reasons. The thing is, that the uncomfortable truth is that there is no distinction: rape is rape. If there is no consent, if consent is withdrawn at any point, it's not sex, it's rape.

I agree that in some specific circumstances, then it's not appropriate to labour the point; although equally sometimes it can be empowering to name rape for what it is, sometimes it's not the right moment to do that.

But in general the notion that there's a way to have 'non-consenting sex' without it being rape is not one I think we should do anything to perpetuate, in fact we have to actively fight it if there's a hope in hell of addressing the prevelance of sexual violence.

I mean, where does this idea come from? That it's OK to use a bit of force or coersion, and that's not rape? If rape wasn't acceptable at all ever, then rape wouldn't be such a prevelant everyday occurance. I think this is one of the times when the phrase rape culture" can be useful...

It is important how the question was phrased, but we're just speculating, we have no idea actually if the word rape was used. However, that's basically unimportant, given that however the men surveyed view it, if force or coersion is involved, it's rape. It would be useful to have a study which asked the same question, one using the word rape and then using some of the common euphemisms, and see what the results are. (Maybe someone has already done this?!)

Kate // Posted 07 July 2009 at 17:04

Qubit, a fairly large number of people do make that distinction, but then a fairly large number of people also think it's OK to rape a woman if she's flirting or drunk. I'm not accepting a definition of rape which only allows for good old fashioned stranger rape.

There's a reason people's masters disserations are rarely published, but that doesn't mean there's nothing of value in this research. It's interesting in itself the number of people who seem to think a bit of pressure or coercion is foreplay.

Kath // Posted 07 July 2009 at 17:24

"It is important how the question was phrased.... However, that's basically unimportant.... It would be useful to have a study which asked the same question, one using the word rape and then using some of the common euphemisms..."

Jess, that's very confused. I think wording is always important in surveys like these, and that includes the reasoning behind using the word 'rape' or not. It doesn't mean we have to abandon our definition of rape. It's just about how to best find answers to the questions you want to ask. You suggest an interesting survey that could be done that would help answer one question regarding men's attitudes to rape. The research in this case was trying to answer a slightly different one. No one survey or piece of research can tell us all there is to know on a subject. They're like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, helping to build up a picture.

Thus polly styrene's comment that the research is ridiculous is not true. As the researcher herself said “I’m very aware that there are limitations to my study. It’s self-report data about sensitive issues, so that’s got its flaws, and participants were answering when sober, and so on,”. No researcher can hope to tell us the full story about attitudes to rape, it's just a part of the picture.

Jess McCabe // Posted 07 July 2009 at 17:32

@Kath I don't see where we're in disagreement?

My comments were really an observation on a comment earlier in the thread which talked about 'non-consensual sex', and Qubit's response to that, rather than this specific piece of research.

Kath // Posted 07 July 2009 at 18:57

Hiya Jess. No don't think we're in disagreement. But you seemed to be contradicting yourself! Also, while I like your definition of 'sex' and 'rape' being mutually exclusive, that is not the usual definition. The usual definition is that rape is forced or non-consensual sex. Therefore it is ok for someone to use the term 'non-consensual sex' in place of 'rape' as long as they are clear that the two are interchangeable and that 'non-consensual sex' does not mean something other than rape.

polly styrene // Posted 07 July 2009 at 19:44

I agree Kath that 'the research is ridiculous' wasn't the right way to phrase it. What I meant was that the idea we can draw conclusions about why men rape from self reporting is ridiculous.

This is shown in Mary's comments. If someone reasonably and genuinely believes someone else consented to sex, they haven't committed rape. The big myth here is that men who rape just get mixed signals. And sex offenders generally are very bad at admitting the true motives for their crimes. So of course men who are likely to rape will try to justify their actions in a way that's socially acceptable.

The point is forced sex IS rape. End of. The fact that many people draw a distinction (which I'm sure is true) just shows how entrenched the problem is.

This piece on the f word from a few years back illustrates that.

http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2001/07/why_irma_kurtz_is_wrong_about_rape

Shea // Posted 07 July 2009 at 19:55

@ Kath -"As the researcher herself said “I’m very aware that there are limitations to my study. It’s self-report data about sensitive issues, so that’s got its flaws, and participants were answering when sober, and so on,”.

Isn't that exactly Polly Styrene's comment is saying?

@ Polly Styrene - I loved your comment on Cif (it was a nice change from the misogynist tirades by the usual suspects). Clearly the best way to stay safe on the face of the evidence is as you point out-- getting drunk all of the time in lesbian bars, with strangers. I love it! :-) .

(That must rank highly on the "things the Daily Mail would never publish" list.)

I'm glad Ben did a number on this. But extremely pissed off by the tired and predictable bullshit response from the majority of Cif commenters. And the faux outrage from "Monty" in the very first comment on this post.

Missing. The. Point. (FYI - men who are prepared to coerce women into sex are "men who rape"). How many of those sampled said "I would never coerce or pressure a woman to have sex under any circumstances." Now that would be truly ground breaking.

The hypocrisy of our media is breathtaking. Remember the story a few months ago about a woman criminal solicitor being raped by Peter Bacon and he was then acquitted, because she was drunk at the time? The media were all over that story and the accusations of "lying and false accusing" were written large (although no objective analysis of why a professional woman who knows the criminal law, and knows how hard it is to get a conviction would make this up. And further by saying she was drunk at the time- thereby materially damaging her case).

Where is the attention to what the Telegraph have done? Or more to the point the story about the Australian woman who was raped then charged with falsely accusing and has had her conviction overturned? (In the Round up)

The silence is deafening.


Rob M // Posted 07 July 2009 at 20:19

Look at the article here, and the ensuing assumptions and speculation. Then go and read the Goldacre article again. We're in irony central, unless everyone discussing the details of the work here has actually read it or spoken to the researcher.

(Accepting all definitions and points about use of the word 'rape', the title here is still inaccurate and a massive assumption from what the article actually says. Even with the sarcastic parentheses, this title suggests a target sample for the research which is in no way stated in Goldacre's article. Monty's point still stands.)

Monty // Posted 08 July 2009 at 01:21

@ Rob M, except replace 'irony' with 'hypocrisy'

@Shea Whatever 'the' point was, was not 'my' point which is valid in it's own right. My outrage is not 'faux', my argument is a logical one. To say that the research is on 'men who rape', is to turn 100 men you know nothing about into rapists, it implies that the sample was chosen because of a background of rape. We have no evidence to suggest any of the participants were prepared to rape or have raped, the only evidence that courts the idea is the telegraph reporting sophia shaw as saying that many men would go within one point of rape, from this we cannot conclude that they are prepared to rape, only that they have answered the questionaire to say they would stop before rape. FYI being prepared to rape does not make one a rapist, suggesting otherwise is just speculation without any evidence, being prepared to do something in a hypothetical situation do not make one a perpetrator of that something. The use of ' on men who rape' is not justified, neither is the abridged version of 'on men who(are prepared) to rape', as this suggests that(As Rob M states) the target sample was made up of those known to be prepared to rape. The headline should read 'Telegraph story twists research on the factors which affect the propensity of men to commit rape'.

"How many of those sampled said "I would never coerce or pressure a woman to have sex under any circumstances." Now that would be truly ground breaking."

Again we cannot speculate, but if you put a gun to my head i'd say that the questionaire was probably mostly ticking boxes and did not accommodate
for an open answer such as that, but having said that i fully expect under the confines of the questionaire that a significant proportion of participants would express that particular view. Keep in touch when we actually get the paper and we can critique it together :). What proportion, Shea, would you view as groundbreaking?

Qubit // Posted 08 July 2009 at 08:35

Actually Monty and Rob M do have a point. From what the article said the study didn't actually specifically talk about rape or forced physical relations but coerced physical relations. For one part we have no idea what any of the men were willing to do and for the second part I think the majority of people would see a difference between coerced sex (were the partner eventually gives in because objecting is too much effort) and rape.

While I know some people here would define coerced sex as rape I think that is far more debatable. In face I would expect coercion from most relationships and am pleasantly surprised my boyfriend doesn't engage in it.

Mary // Posted 08 July 2009 at 11:52

Jess - You've misread me! Completely agree that sex without consent is rape. I wasn't intending to make a distinction between "non-consensual sex" and rape, with the latter being worse than the former or anything like that.

if she was asking in what situations they would coerce a woman into having sex, she was asking in what situations they would rape

By the sounds of it, though, she wasn't asking that. The article says "she was exploring men's attitudes to coercing women in to sex" but the phrasing given was "asking them when they would "call it a night"."

Hence my switch to "non-consensual sex". The distinction I was making is that:

a) in addition to rape, non-consensual sex includes activities that wouldn't meet the definition of rape because they're not penetrative (eg. unwanted kissing, groping, &c - the sort of things that someone might do in the hope that the other person was going to consent to sex.)

b) in addition to acts which meet the the legal test for rape (A didn't consent, AND B did not have a reasonable belief in consent), non-consensual sex includes situations which don't meet the legal test (A didn't consent, B had "reasonable" belief in consent.)

If this research is about exploring "men's attitudes to coercion", it's about both a) and b) - it's about exactly how men maintain a "reasonable belief" that the woman is consenting, which would certainly include believing that they've persuaded rather than coerced the other person into consenting.

Morally, I think that any sexual act where one party has not consented is rape. But that does mean that I believe that a rape can take place with one party not believing that they've committed rape - whether that meets the legal definition of rape depends entirely on whether the belief in consent is "reasonable".

Given how subjective that test is, we really, really need to talk about what consent is, how it's communicated and how it's recognised. And we need a language to do that: if rape and consensual sex are the only terms you recognise, you've got no language at all to explore the places where sex can go really, really wrong, but people aren't willing to use the term rape.

Bridget // Posted 08 July 2009 at 11:56

In today's Daily Mail there is an article about a woman jailed for a year for falsely accusing a man of rape. Although the accusation in this case was proved beyond doubt to be false (witnesses and CCTV, and in the end she admitted it), it is typical that it gets coverage. This woman also apparently has alcohol and psychiatric issues, so you have to question, given those circumstances, if a jail sentence is appropriate.
The man must have gone through hell, no question. But typical that the Daily Mail chooses to focus on that rather than all the cases where accusations (when they even happen) are not false.

Kath // Posted 08 July 2009 at 20:58

@ polly styrene - Completely agree with your last comment.

@ Shea - The researcher acknowledges the limitations of her research but that's not the same as saying it's ridiculous. I'm sure she feels she has gained some insights even if it can't answer the question of Why Men Rape.

polly styrene // Posted 08 July 2009 at 21:29

"FYI being prepared to rape does not make one a rapist, "

Well maybe not, but it's an essential prerequisite to being a rapist I'd say. Men who AREN'T prepared to rape are never going to be rapists, are they?

If I was prepared to shoplift, I might not shoplift in a shop that I knew had really good store detectives. I'd go somewhere where I knew I'd get away with it. But more thank likely I wouldn't travel hundreds of miles, I'd probably go to my nearest local shops with bad security.

Which I'd like to humbly suggest to those who are good at ignoring the bleeding obvious is a good starting point for finding out when rape occurs. Usually when the rapist has an opportunity to rape and thinks they can get away with it. Which happens most often in either existing relationships, or with ex partners - 56% of all rapes in fact.

Yet strangely it seems, partner rape isn't worth researching, or considered *real* rape. Maybe because the government/Daily Male/Torygraph don't much fancy running scare stories telling women to avoid having male partners?

Monty // Posted 08 July 2009 at 22:07

@polystyrene, I'm not really sure what or who's point you are trying to address, i did not touch on oportunity or getting away with it that was not the point. If i were to express that sentence you quoted as a question to you, i would say that given hypothetically you ticked a box on a questionaire that said you would steal a mars bar from you local shop in a hypothetical situation, does that give me right to brand you a criminal? No it does not. Does it give me the right to brand everyone else i gave the questionaire to a criminal? Certainly not.

Mary // Posted 09 July 2009 at 16:35

Oh Monty. I hope you're also this indignant about the Telegraph.

I happen to agree with you about the title of this article, but on the face of it, you seem more indignant about the way this article is titled than you have about the way a major newspaper twists research. Which leaves me with not much respect for your priorities.

Shea // Posted 09 July 2009 at 21:01

@ Mary - I'm glad you got it.

Monty, I find your outrage "faux" because you have missed the entire point here. That the Telegraph have twisted a piece of research not even completed or published to serve their own misogynistic and deceitful outlook. But no- you feel that the risk to the reputations of a group of completely protected and anonymous group of men is a far more serious crime!

This is essentially a self report study. For all you know it was conducted on a group of convicted sex offenders. (That's the central point- we don't know, neither do the Telegraph)

Actually criminological research shows those with a laissez faire attitude to consent are more likely to commit rape & sexual assault. (Which isn't that surprising really.)

As for groundbreaking? I'd be hopeful if 40% said they would never pressure or coerce. I think it would be more like 20%, maybe I'm jaded and cynical.

polly styrene // Posted 09 July 2009 at 21:57

"If i were to express that sentence you quoted as a question to you, i would say that given hypothetically you ticked a box on a questionaire that said you would steal a mars bar from you local shop in a hypothetical situation, does that give me right to brand you a criminal? No it does not. Does it give me the right to brand everyone else i gave the questionaire to a criminal?"

No, but the point I'm making is that if I ticked the box marked 'no', and assuming I was telling the truth, you could be sure I wasn't going to steal Mars Bars from the corner shop. You couldn't be sure I wasn't a criminal, because there are myriad other crimes I could commit of course. It would entirely fair to call me a potential mars bar thief though.

Now presumably this research (flawed as it is), was carried out for a purpose. Not every man who says that in a given circumstance he might coerce a woman into sex (and I think that if he knows he is coercing a woman BTW, he can't have a reasonable belief that she consents) will find himself in the circumstances where he will go through with that. But, assuming he is telling the truth, he would be willing to, in particular circumstances, carry out the acts he said he would.

Logic check number one. The 100 men aren't named. Therefore we are not unfairly branding ANYONE a rapist here. Because we don't know who they are.

Logic check number two. How does either Jess's original headline, or her altered one, imply, infer or state outright that she is referring to EVERY man who completed the questionnaire. It doesn't. It refers to those who said that in certain circumstances, they would be prepared to commit rape (or forced sex if you call it that).

You seem Monty to be terribly upset, nay furious, that men whose names we don't know, who said they WOULD coerce women into sex in certain circumstances, are being unfairly branded "rapists".

Why?

(The rest of my comment is aimed at the general pointlessness of researching the topic of rape in these terms anyway BTW. And the reluctance to face up to the real risk factors for rape)

Monty // Posted 09 July 2009 at 22:19

"Oh Monty. I hope you're also this indignant about the Telegraph"

Equally indignant, both misrepresent. Having written papers myself i could understand Sophia's grief, and it is my scientific pedanticalness that turned me into jack russel with this particular tennis ball, not wanting to let go. The telegraphs article is not defensible, it sucks, and i think the press release by the bps a little silly as well.

"you seem more indignant about the way this article is titled than you have about the way a major newspaper twists research."

You see, i believe if one reports, criticises and fights a cause, then the execution must be just and accurate, not fall foul of fallacies and sloppyness. Acting otherwise only discredits the thing you are fighting. So i would say my priority is a just action in the face of injustice.

I apologise to Jess, it is not personal, this just set me off.

Jess McCabe // Posted 09 July 2009 at 22:50

We don't have the actual paper available, but the press release about it says this:

Men who considered themselves sexually experienced were willing to coerce the woman to a later stage in the scenario than those with less sexual experience. These men also reported that they found resistance from a woman sexually arousing.

I.e. Men in the study were prepared to coerce women, which means they were prepared to sexually assault/rape women in some circumstances, and some of them get turned on by this.

(I hope!!) 100% of the research subjects didn't demonstrate this level of willingness to sexually assault/rape, but the point of the study seems to have been related to and focused on those men who did. So I don't feel like my headline was unfair - that's what the research was about.

polly styrene // Posted 10 July 2009 at 08:07

"and it is my scientific pedanticalness that turned me into jack russel with this particular tennis ball, not wanting to let go. "

Yes, but why is your particular brand of scientific pedanticalness (or even pedantry, which is an actual word, said she pedantically) only aroused by posts which are talking about men raping, Monty? When there's so much unscientific bullshit on the internet - most everything in the Daily Mail for starters.

CatherineBray // Posted 14 July 2009 at 15:14

Sadly, the fun doesn't stop with this story.

The Telegraph have taken down the original article (and posted a piss-weak apology), but it still pops up in search terms on the Telegraph site. And the targeted advertising accompanying this search result? Why, the phone number of a solicitor to call if you've been raped. Unbelieveable. And while you’re waiting for them to take your call, why not read an article about how it was scientifically proven to be something you could have avoided if you didn’t dress like such a slut?

You can see screen grabs and read more on my blog about this story:

http://catherinebray.wordpress.com/2009/07/14/women-who-dress-provocatively-more-likely-to-be-raped-claim-scientists-not/

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