Banter in the Garden
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Tea and Strumpets
National Party MP Dr Jackie Blue was in an abusive relationship. She got out, and many years later, she has told her story to a magazine. Other women have read her story, and they have been helped by it.
Since the story was published, a number of women had contacted her to tell their own stories of abuse.
“One woman phoned my PA in Wellington in tears, and explained that she had the history of abuse and had read my story and found it inspirational, and felt that if I could overcome it she could too,” Dr Blue said.
“That was wonderful to hear that it gave that particular woman some hope, and I was very humbled to hear that.”
That’s great. But she had been worried about telling her story, concerned…
…that readers might perceive her as weak for staying in the relationship when she should have known better.
However, she said she hoped the story emphasised that domestic violence did not discriminate, and that being a doctor and a professional did not mean someone was in control of their life.
There may be another benefit to Dr Blue’s openness in telling her story. Her colleagues in the National Party caucus room might just believe her when she says that in cases of domestic violence, it’s not just a matter of leaving. Abusers have all sorts of ways to control their partners, from physical violence to excluding friendships, withholding money, taking the car keys, threatening to harm beloved pets, or horrifyingly, to harm children. Often even if a woman has got the point where she can leave an abusive relationship, she has nowhere to go, and no resources. That’s why we need to fund Women’s Refuges, and other services that help people to leave abusive relationships.
Dr Blue is not tasked with bearing this message to her colleagues all by herself. But she can, within the caucus room, speak from experience. “They should just leave!” is not a possible response when a highly regarded colleague speaks of her own experience of being caught in an abusive relationship.
Thank you, Dr Blue, for telling your story.
Like say pay equity, or women’s over representation in low paid and unpaid jobs, or the fact that 16,630 women underwent a procedure which is still in the Crimes Act last year, or the fact that 1 in 4 women will experience rape or sexual assault in their lifetimes.
Just, you know, a few minor things.
Trigger warning for sexual assault and graphic imagery
I know I should stop being shocked and disgusted by the abysmal media reporting of sexual assault. I also realise my disgust is probably the most wasted on Stuff.co.nz. But this story, titled “Nurse struck off for touching patients” just can’t be ignored.
How, in any stretch of the imagination, is it okay to headline this story about a nurse sexually assaulting three female patients when they were at their most vulnerable, their most defenceless, and their most in need of adept and empathetic care – “Nurse struck off for touching patients”.
Given that Stuff is often a quick browse for workers scanning the headlines and getting back to work, I would think that headlines should be indicative of the actual occurrence reported on.
Most of us will remember the “too PC” debates around the appropriateness of teachers touching children, and will have heard grossly embellished stories of male teachers being fired for hugging a crying child. At least, those are all things I have heard. I have little-to-no time for labelling anything “too PC” as I feel like that cry usually comes from people resenting having their unwavering sense of entitlement or ignorance eroded, but I remember the puzzled masses of the 90s, discussions between my mother and my teachers of things which they (righty or wrongly, through understanding or misunderstanding) felt restricted their ability to do their job. And a lot of it was around “touching”. The connotations of a nurse being “struck off” for “touching patients” is one of overreaction, harking to this “too PC” sore spot.
Except that this wasn’t an overreaction, and it wasn’t touching. It was repeat sexual assault. And it was a gross abuse of power. For stuff to title this story with something which implies an over-reaction is remiss and offensive. When I read the headline I thought ‘What? Surely there was some misconduct? People don’t get struck off for merely ‘touching’, I hope there wasn’t a misunderstanding.’ And I was ill-prepared and shocked to read an unmistakable case of repeat sexual violence.
I’m unsure what Stuff had to gain by naming this story anything other than “Nurse struck off for sexually assaulting patients”. I understand that Stuff relies on page views, so surely implying he did nothing but “touch” people would arguably get less hits than the (upsetting) draw that stories of sexual violence seem to hold over Stuff readers. Stories featuring sexual violence almost always feature in their ‘top stories’.
I am confused and upset by Stuff’s decision to allow the majority of (skim) readers to think that somewhere in New Zealand, a nurse was struck off for merely touching patents. I’m horrified that those who venture to read the whole story may get the message that sexual assault is able to be categorised as merely “touching” by some.
Imagine for a second that you are the parent or friend of the 16 year old girl this nurse assaulted. Imagine even, that you are the 16 year old girl who had just been in a car accident, and what it might be like to have a uniformed, glove-wearing person who is supposed to be looking after you touch your genitals while you lie (presumably injured and in shock) alone with him in the back of an ambulance. Imagine that you then read he was “stood down for touching” people, and what that must feel like. Because he didn’t just ‘touch’ you. He assaulted you.
Sexual assault isn’t sex. It isn’t touching. It isn’t fondling or groping or grabbing or grazing, it’s assault. It may take varying forms, but it’s still assault. Until we start calling sexual violence violence and recognising that unwanted touching is assault then we are continuing to allow survivors to be surrounded my messages that tell them what happened wasn’t really that bad. And right now that’s exactly what Stuff is doing.
So I was right. Clarisse Thorn’s piece on BDSM vs Sex did climb inside my brain and crawl around for a couple of days, so I was thinking about BDSM while I was cooking and shopping and stuff, the irony of which should become clear shortly.
The question she was looking to answer was basically:
Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual?
And I think the answer cuts to the heart of a question that seems simple until you start thinking about it, and then becomes completely unanswerable: what is sex? So even for those of you who are really bored with me talking about BDSM, there might be some interest in this.
I mean, given where we are (feminist website in a pretty liberal blogosphere), we can take for granted that “penis in vagina” is not a sufficiently broad definition of sex. But I think there is a default assumption, if we were going through a list of acts and considering how much they were “sex”, that penetrative acts (PIV, anal, pegging) are sex to a greater extent than non-penetrative acts. Then we take a moment to remember that lesbians can also have sex, and remember to include oral…
And things start to get a bit shaky. Frottage: is that sex? It fits our previously-proposed definition of “a situation where orgasm is appropriate”. So, touching? And there seems to be an unconscious, unthinking boundary in there somewhere – like the difference between touching someone’s outer thigh and touching their inner thigh – and it all gets grey and subjective and horribly complicated. Or, just the way I like it.
Clarisse’s articles include a quote I find quite useful:
“I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”
Eros: eroticism. Here, I think, is the difference between the two parts of Clarisse’s question. It might not be sex, but could still be sexual. And this is where I think BDSM offers a useful perspective, on the borders of the erotic.
(A couple of little sidebars before we get into the meat of this. I use “Dom/me” because I am bisexual, and my Dominant partner could be male or female. I also capitalise the Dominant. These are simply conventions; I don’t really give a rat’s who follows them or doesn’t.
Also, and more importantly, I think we’ve done quite a lot towards acceptance of submissive sexuality, particularly female subs. But I don’t think we’ve made quite as much progress accepting Dominant sexuality, particularly male. Which is odd, because I don’t think it’s really possible to properly respect my sexuality without also respecting the other side of the coin, the person who, without cruelty, wants to hurt me. That’s one of the reasons that I’ll continue to be vague about my Dom/mes, and use a sort of fluffy conditional present tense to disguise when particular things happened. One of the reasons. Nobody signed up to sleep with a sex columnist, after all.)
There’s an awfully broad palette of practise covered by the term “BDSM”, and people don’t use all of it. For me, humiliation and verbal abuse has never been a turn-on. For me, it’s about pain and restraint, but also obedience. When I wrote about BDSM for Public Address, I very much concentrated on the pain response, because that’s easy to understand. But it’s a very long way from all there is. And in this context, sex/sexual/eros, we’re mainly going to talk about obedience.
It’s actually pretty challenging for me. I’m not good at doing what I’m told. It’s much easier for me to be tied down than to be told to stay still, and do it through sheer will. (Really challenging? Being told to shut up.) And in a non-sexual context, nobody gets to tell me what to do. Nobody. I’ve always been really shit at taking direction even from bosses and clients.
In a BDSM context, though, obedience is heavily erotic. There’s a bit near the end of Secretary where Lee says to her poor hapless fiancé, “Does this look like something sexual?” She’s sitting at a desk. She’s doing what she’s told. It’s not sex. It is sexual.
Now, I will admit that I’ve never actually “played” with a Dom/me I wasn’t also having sex with. Perhaps because of my history, I have Trust Issues. Strangers are not going to have access to that level of intimacy with me. And for all it might appear that you can’t shut me up about it, my response as a sub is an intensely private thing to me – far beyond my vanilla sexual response.
BDSM allows you to take that level of response out of a conventionally sexual setting. (Yes, we have a very strong idea of “conventionally sexual”, that’s why the word “kink” exists.) For instance, my safe word is a concrete noun. And I can’t ever look at a “one of those things” without it being a visceral reminder of my deepest response. But also there was a day when I was kneeling to sweep my kitchen floor, and I was simply and suddenly overwhelmed, just from being on my (admittedly slightly bruised) knees.
I’m pretty sure lots of people have particular touchstones – songs, scents, situations – that remind them of something sexual or relationshippy. I do. And here I agree with Clarisse that it “feels different”. The non-BDSM frisson is pleasant, warm and soft. The BDSM one is a knife-sharp catch of breath, straight to the core. It’s not sex, clearly. But it is sexual. There is eros.
So where I was seeing Clarisse’s “sex” and “BDSM” as heavily-overlapping circles in a Venn diagram, I don’t think it’s the most useful image. There is, for instance, a point where she says,
I, Clarisse, can certainly attest that it’s common for people to have BDSM encounters that are “just” BDSM — “no sex involved”. For example — an encounter where one partner whips the other, or gets whipped, and there’s no genital contact or even discussion of genitals.
That seems to indicate to me that when she talks about “sex”, she’s using a narrower definition than I am. To me there’s an awful lot of sex that isn’t genitals. Mostly, though, I think the problem is that those mental circles have hard-drawn, mutually-agreed edges. And that doesn’t seem to be the case with “sex”.
The very concept of “kink” indicates something that “most people don’t find appropriately sexual”. And with BDSM it’s not just being turned on by pain that’s inappropriate. It’s also the concept of finding it arousing being told what dress to wear, or to have the salmon.
Anyway. When Clarisse says
Part of me felt like, “If my desire for pain and power is sexual, then it’s weird. If it’s not sexual, then it’s less weird.” … In contrast, I once met a couple who told me that it took them a long time to do BDSM that wasn’t part of sex. In their heads, the thought was more like: “If the desire for pain and power is sexual, then it’s not weird. But if it’s not sexual, then it’s really weird.”
I’m definitely more of the latter persuasion. For me, it would feel really uncomfortable if my desire for pain wasn’t sexual. But if not all of my sexuality is kink (and it really seriously isn’t by a very long way indeed) then perhaps not all of my kink is sexual. That instinctively feels wrong, though. What feels right, is a broader definition of what “sexual” is. What’s the difference between “sexual” and “sensual”? Are they both to some degree erotic? And does it matter anyway?
Here’s why it matters, and why I would never pressure anyone to move outside their accepted personal idea of “sex”: because sex is Wrong and Bad. Even if not in itself, then in certain situations. Clarisse talks about having partners who wouldn’t condone her having sex with other men, but were okay with her doing BDSM with them. Ergo, BDSM is not sex. It’s not cheating. We might laugh at the “eating ain’t cheating” Southern philosophy, but if people genuinely believe that, then they make decisions and take actions on that basis. I think it does help to be aware, though, that we might all be fudging those judgements (“that doesn’t count…”) to some extent.
I often like The Listener. I was heartened by your balanced and reasonable feature on SlutWalk, I find most of your pieces interesting, and I like reading a publication run by somewhat of a rarity in your industry – a female editor. However, I am immeasurably disappointed that you, as a woman in leadership, allowed this piece of ”commentary” by Jonathan Milne on two young female leaders to be printed in your publication.
What purports to be an acknowledgement of the heavily gendered discussions on the battle for the Auckland Central candidacy between Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye, devolves from the objective analysis that “It probably reflects badly on the rest of us that we’re more interested in the political equivalent of jelly-wrestling than in debating the ins and outs of the candidates’ policies” into a salacious, sexist and surface-level critique of two very intelligent and capable young women.
The article contains:
I hazard a guess that none of this information would have been considered pertinent in a commentary on the battle between two male candidates. Something which Jacinda Ardern also points out in the article.
As the Coordinator of the Wellington Young Feminists’ Collective, eliminating sexism from discourse on women’s achievements is of great interest to myself and the 970 members I represent.
One of our members brought this article to my attention, and her quote that “If two intelligent feminists have to pimp themselves out like this to do well in their career, you wonder if there is any hope for other young women in NZ.” Is one of the most accurate, but disappointing critiques I have heard regarding New Zealand media coverage of women in leadership.
I don’t believe that Nikki Kaye or Jacinda Ardern endeavoured to “pimp themselves out” for this article. On the contrary, their discussions of the unwanted “Battle of the Babes” label is one of the few redeeming features of Milne’s piece. It seems to me that Milne angled for this salaciousness from the first paragraph (about Arden’s short skirt and legs).
Frankly, I am disappointed that you would allow something which is so clearly sexist to be published. Not only does this reinforce the validity of sexist journalism, it also gives a clear message to young female readers that should they ever want to go into politics, their policies and intelligence won’t get half as much attention as the sleekness of their clothes, the size of their legs, whether they have or want a boyfriend and how tired they look.
As a woman in leadership yourself, I hope that you will give greater thought to the advancement of women through your publication in the future. I also hope Jonathan Milne will realise that his ‘commentary’ on these successful women is as cliché as it is offensive.
I wish both Auckland Central candidates well, and I hope they realise that other women in New Zealand care more about their policies than their “sleek orange numbers”.
[Ya’ll know who I am]
Courtesy of DPF, a list of people who have been part of The Panel on Radio NZ’s Afternoon Show with Jim Mora in the last month or so. DPF is interested in political diversity, so he divides the people into right leaning, left leaning, and unknown. He comes up with 7 right wing people, 19 left wing people and 11 unknown.
I’m interested in diversity too, and the particular type of diversity that concerns me is gender diversity. So here’s DPF’s list of people, grouped by gender.
1. David Farrar
2. Neil Miller
3. John Bishop
4. Sam Johnson
5. Stephen Franks
6. Matt Nippert
7. Martyn Bradbury
8. Jeremy Elwood
9. Simon Pound
10. Duncan Webb
11. Brian Edwards
12. Mike Williams
13. Gary McCormick
14. Tim Watkin
15. David Slack
16. Chris Trotter
17. Don Donovan
18. Finlay MacDonald
19. Gary Moore
20. Scott Yorke
21. Tony Doe
22. Graham Bell
23. David McPhail
24. John Dunne
25. Chris Wikaira
26. Richard Langston
1. Joanne Black
2. Michelle Boag
3. Deborah Hill-Cone
4. Michelle A’Court
5. Anna Chinn
6. Islay McLeod
7. Liz Bowen-Clewley
8. Irene Gardiner
9. Rosemary McLeod
10. Ali Jones
11. Jane Clifton
Hmmm…. I’m spotting a slight lack of diversity there. Only about 30% of the guest panelists are women. So, Jim Mora, and Radio NZ, how about making a bit of an effort to get some more opinionated women on the panel? I’m sure there are plenty to be found.
As for other diversities, I could find only one obviously Maori name on the list. My guess is that there is more than one Maori panelist, but I can’t tell from names alone. And I would be willing to bet good money that there aren’t all that many Maori appearing on the show as panelists. Or Pacific Islanders, for that matter. I wonder if Radio NZ and Jim Mora would consider approaching someone like Tapu Misa to appear on the show? Or Anjum Rahman?
Update: Following a comment from David Slack, I did a quick count-up using the Radio NZ Archives. Counting yesterday (Wednesday 12 October) and working back to and including Tuesday 13 September, I found that DPF had omitted Jock Anderson, Richard Langston, Bruce Slane, Peter Elliot, Peggy Ashton and Linda Clark. Michelle Boag appeared twice, as did DPF, and Neil Miller. So in all, there were 30 male guests, and 13 female guests. In terms of appearances, there were 32 appearances by men, and 14 by women. So yes, there have been other women appearing on the panel. But if we take the last month as representative (and yes, I know there could be issues around that), then no matter how we massage the data, there’s a something like a 2.3:1 ratio of male to female panelists.
One of my co-workers is a young woman who happens to be Christian, and doesn’t personally wish to have sex before marriage. Today my boss called her a “good girl” for these very reasons, in front of the whole team. And it made me feel pretty shit.
See, if that is the criteria for being a “good girl” then I’m not one. I know that the sentiments my boss expressed are not new, and I know that this sentiment has no actual baring on my worthiness or inherent ‘goodness’, but it still made me feel really shit. I think it’s because I’m sick of knowing that my person and my morals and my history would make me less than valued or appreciated by a large section of society, and calling someone with very different morals than me a “good girl” just really hammered it home.
I am the first to admit that in my personal life I live in a sex positive, feminist bubble of beautiful non-judgemental people, and that this sometimes skews my perception of just how common discriminatory sentiments are. However, this “good girl” sentiment has pierced that bubble a few times, and for some reason hits me harder than I would usually expect.
I once had an ex boyfriend (who self identifies as a feminist) tell me that if I hadn’t started the relationship on purely sexual terms then perhaps we would have graduated to something more serious. I once had a male member of a progressive political party call me a slut. And when I tell people the number of people I have slept with, they often recoil in shock. Not at the high number, but apparently at the “relatively low number” considering my “sexual confidence and knowledge”. I don’t think any of these things are particularly sex positive, and I feel that they all line up with the “good girl” sentiment which I don’t appear to fit. The latter example for me is the key, because the idea that by some (utterly fucked) standards I might be closer to being a “good girl” than people initially perceive, makes people dubious and unable to process me by their nifty little categories.
The thing that really gets me is wondering what I would actually have to do to be considered a good girl. Would I have to advocate for social justice? Would I have to volunteer my time for charities? Would I have to help sick and injured animals? Would I have to be positive and upbeat in the face of adversity? Would I have to be willing to give my time to people without expecting anything in return?
Because actually I do all of those things. And yet I’m still not a “good girl”. Evidently, all I would have to do to be considered “good” as a female-identifying human being is to keep my fucking legs shut. And I’m really sorry but I just can’t do that. So I suppose I will just have to make peace with being a terrible person.