Pussy riot

Last week was Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and the NHS-approved myGP app used its Twitter account to suggest that women could raise awareness about the importance of regular screening by using the hashtag #myCat to share ‘an image of the cat that best reflects your undercarriage/flower/bits (technical term, vulva!) current look’. The accompanying image of three cats–long-haired, hairless and short-haired–was captioned ‘Bushy, bare or halfway there’.

What, we might ask, do pubic hairstyles have to do with cervical cancer prevention? An answer eventually surfaced: in a survey of over 2000 women, a third of the respondents said they would avoid going for screening if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their ‘bikini area’. So, #myCat is intended to address a real issue. But it’s an odd way to go about it: who, confronted with this survey finding, would think, ‘I know, let’s reassure these women that no one’s going to judge them by running a campaign that invites them to share the current state of their pubes on social media, through the ever-popular medium of a cat pic?’

The ‘no one’s going to judge you’ message has been conveyed in other ways too. In verse, for example: ‘The nurse isn’t fussed/ if you haven’t had a trim/ She’s looking at your cervix/ not your lovely hairy quim/ The nurse don’t care if it’s jungle or fluff/ It’s about saving lives/ not a nice neat muff/’.

As well-intentioned as all this may be, it points to a serious problem with the language of health messaging on this subject. In an effort to make the messages more ‘relatable’, their creators persistently resort to language which is either vague and euphemistic (‘undercarriage/flower/bits’) or overtly sexualised-slash-pornified (‘quim’, ‘muff’). #myCat manages to be both at once: ‘cat’ is being used here as a euphemism for ‘pussy’, which may have originated as a euphemism itself, but is now a sexualised term not only for women’s ‘bits’, but also for women themselves, imagined as men’s collective prey (‘he spends his life chasing pussy’).

To many women (as their Twitter responses made clear) this language, in the context of a cancer prevention campaign, is not relatable, it’s offensive. Are men ever addressed in such a coy and cutesy way? One woman on Twitter, @iseult, addressed that question with a male-oriented riff on #myCat:

Share an image of the chicken that best reflects your chicken tenders, beanbags, gangoolies (technical term testicles!) current look. Use the Hashtag #myChickenBalls. Tell and tag your friends to let them know

@Iseult is right: It’s hard to imagine this getting onto, let alone off, the drawing board.

But as I pointed out back in 2015, men and women aren’t in the same position when it comes to talking about their ‘bits’. Large numbers of people are profoundly ignorant about female sexual anatomy: one of the studies I discussed in my earlier post (conducted in 2014) found that 50% of women under 35 could not locate the vagina on a diagram. In another study, 65% of respondents said they avoided using the words ‘vagina’ and vulva’, which they regarded as embarrassing or offensive. Yet another study suggested that most words for female sexual organs are perceived to be degrading (the main exception was ‘vagina’). And there is little agreement on what nonclinical terms like ‘pussy’ and ‘fanny’ actually refer to.

These findings do pose a problem for health messaging, in that the language health professionals might prefer to use may be unacceptable, or unintelligible, to the women they are trying to reach. With men this is less of an issue: they might not know what or where their epididymis is, but they’re not going to confuse their penis with their testicles, or be too embarrassed even to utter those words.   

It might seem that the solution is straightforward: education. No girl (and actually, no boy either) should leave school without having learned both the relevant anatomical facts and the associated terminology. And I do think that’s important, but it’s not as simple as it sounds, and on its own I don’t think it’s enough.

The underlying problem here—the root cause of the ignorance, the reticence, the retreat into vagueness and euphemism—is shame. And school is often where that starts. Research has found that girls in school are routinely subjected to body shaming and sexual shaming, which–to quote one girl who was interviewed for a recent report–they ‘just have to put up with, because no one thinks it’s a big deal’. A teacher who was quoted in the same report specifically referred to boys harassing and shaming girls with intrusive questions about their pubic hair—how much they had and whether they shaved it. Is it any wonder young women feel the anxieties which the poem I quoted earlier decries as trivial?

Perhaps it’s to myGP’s credit that they don’t pile shame on shame by simply castigating young women for their stupidity; but what they’ve chosen to do instead is not much better. The suggestion that women should tell the world (in cat-code) if their pubes are ‘bushy, bare or halfway there’ has something in common with the kind of harassment I’ve just mentioned: in both cases women are being sexualised in a context where that’s incongruous and unwelcome. Seriously, did no one at myGP see how weird this is? If someone’s actual GP commented on her ‘bushy undercarriage’ she’d have grounds to make a formal complaint, and I don’t think the doctor would get very far by saying ‘well, I’d heard that a lot of women are self-conscious about their pubic hair, so I was just trying to be reassuring’.

MyGP is not, of course, an actual GP, but it does represent the NHS, and its mode of address to women should reflect that. I’m not saying that public health messaging has to be rigidly factual, humourless, and couched exclusively in coldly clinical language. But women are not children, and the cancers which affect them are not cute, sexy or a joke. I don’t know if #myCat will raise awareness about cervical cancer, or persuade more women to turn up for screening; but it has certainly made me even more aware than I was before of the sexism that still pervades both our language and our institutions.

‘Men, shut up for your rights!’

If you haven’t spent the last decade living on another planet, I’m sure you will recognise the following sequence of events:

  1. A powerful man says something egregiously sexist, either in a public forum or in a private conversation which is subsequently leaked.
  2. There is an outpouring of indignation on social media.
  3. The mainstream media take up the story and the criticism gets amplified.
  4. The powerful man announces that he is stepping down.
  5. His critics claim this as a victory and the media move on—until another powerful man says another egregiously sexist thing, at which point the cycle begins again.

The most recent high-profile target for this ritual shaming was David Bonderman, a billionaire venture capitalist and member of Uber’s board of directors. It’s no secret that Uber has a serious sexism problem. Following a number of discrimination and harassment claims from former employees, the company commissioned what turned out to be a damning report on its corporate culture. At a meeting called to discuss the report, Arianna Huffington (who at the time was Uber’s only female director) cited research which suggested that putting one woman on a board increased the likelihood that more women would join. At which point Bonderman interjected: ‘actually what it shows is that it’s likely to be more talking’.

To call this remark ill-judged does not do it justice. In the space of 12 words it managed to (a) slander women collectively by recycling the idea they talk incessantly (when in reality, as a ton of evidence shows, it’s men who do more talking in mixed-sex interactions); (b) insult the only woman on the board by dismissing the point she had just made; and (c) undermine Uber’s attempt to look as though it was taking sexism seriously. What was needed from David Bonderman was a moment of silence—a moment when he considered his options and took an executive decision not to say what he was thinking. But that level of self-restraint was apparently beyond him. And he’s by no means the only powerful man who has this problem.

A few days before Bonderman’s comment made headlines, the trade publication PRWeek had held its annual, ickily named ‘Hall of Femme’ event celebrating women’s contributions to the PR industry.  This year, the organisers decided that what the event really needed was an all male panel, at which a group of male industry leaders would share their thoughts about women in PR. One of these men, Richard Edelman, made a particularly original and constructive suggestion: if women want to be heard they should try ‘speaking up more loudly’.

Once again, you have to marvel at the apparent inability of powerful men to practise the same kind of judicious self-censorship the rest of us routinely engage in. How could anyone with a functioning brain have prepared a speech containing this pearl of wisdom without ever thinking, ‘hang on, might there be something a bit dodgy about a male speaker on an all-male panel telling women they need to speak up?’ It’s even more ironic that this PR disaster was perpetrated by a leading PR professional, who apparently didn’t see it coming. Induct that man into PRWeek’s Hall of Shemme!

You can’t resign from a conference panel, so in this case the ritual only got as far as stage (2), public indignation. David Bonderman, however, was obliged to fall on his sword. His resignation statement took the form that’s become standard on these occasions: (1) apologise for causing offence; (2) deny that you really meant what everyone thinks you meant (one perennially popular version of this denial is ‘my remarks were taken out of context’, but Bonderman went for another cliché, ‘the way it came across was the opposite of what I intended’); (3) say that you’re stepping down because the controversy has become a ‘distraction’ (‘I do not want my comments to create distraction as Uber works to build a culture of which we can be proud’).

Every part of this is bullshit. The belated apology is rendered even less convincing by the accompanying denial of prejudiced intent, and the form of the denial adds insult to injury:  Bonderman appears to be claiming that when he said women talk too much, what he really meant was that women don’t talk too much—an interpretation even Humpty Dumpty might think far-fetched. (More likely he meant that he was joking, but that’s also an insult, implying that his critics have no sense of humour.)  The obligatory reference to ‘distraction’ is itself a distraction—very obviously in this case, where the issue from which Bonderman’s sexism had allegedly ‘distracted’ was—well, sexism.  The purpose of this formula is damage limitation: it’s an attempt to contain the criticism and draw a line under the affair. ‘OK, a rogue individual said something offensive, but he’s accepted his mistake and done the honourable thing. Problem solved. Time for the circus to move on’. Until the next time it happens, which will probably be within a week.

Increasingly I find myself wondering what good this ritual does. To me it doesn’t feel like much of a victory when a man like David Bonderman resigns: it feels more like cutting off the Hydra’s head when you know the Hydra will just grow a new one. If you really want to change a culture, you have to change the behaviour of the people in the culture: just replacing one director or CEO with another who’s cut from the same cloth is never going to solve the problem.

You might say, but at least Bonderman was held to account: he wasn’t just permitted to carry on as if nothing had happened. But you could equally argue that resigning is the easy option. Rather than having to change his behaviour, the offender just cuts his losses and walks away.

One day I’d like to see a powerful man in this position taking real responsibility for his actions by dispensing with the usual boilerplate and saying something more like this:

The asinine remark I made at yesterday’s meeting has prompted many people to call for my resignation. But instead of stepping down, I’ve decided I should try to step up.

For as long as I can remember, I have been given a license by the people around me to say whatever came into my head at any given moment, regardless of whether it was on point and with no thought for its effect on other people. But I’ve now realised that needs to change, and I have hired a consultant to conduct a year-long intervention. One of her responsibilities will be to interrupt me every time I begin to speak in a meeting. She will also arrange a series of corporate events at which male attendees will be obliged to listen to mainly all-female panels while having no opportunity to speak. In the Q&A men will be permitted to raise their hands, but the Chair will operate a policy of ignoring them.  A couple of panels will feature one token man: in those cases a woman will be tasked with talking over their contributions, then explaining at length what they’ve just attempted to say.

I know I can’t recreate other people’s experience of being ignored and disrespected from cradle to grave, but I hope even a small taste of my own medicine will make me less of an arse in future. Then perhaps I will have something to contribute to the creation of a culture we can be proud of.

This fantasy non-resignation speech was partly inspired by the title of a lecture once given by the artist Grayson Perry: ‘Men, sit down for your rights!’  In his book about masculinity, The Descent of Man, Perry argues that men—especially middle aged, middle class white ones—are lacking in self-awareness because they have gone through life taking their privileged position for granted. Being treated as the cultural default means never having to interrogate your own behaviour. But in a world which is moving towards greater equality, where maleness can no longer be regarded as an automatic ticket to the top, men will have to develop more humility and learn to, as Perry puts it, ‘sit down’.

One crucial element in this metaphorical sitting down will be learning to (literally) shut up. Because there is no form of privilege men deploy more frequently, more casually and more unselfconsciously than their assumed Divine Right to Talk—to monologue, to mansplain, to interrupt, to say whatever’s on their minds without considering the consequences.  This behaviour is everyday sexism at its most basic: it’s even commoner than catcalling, and its effects are felt by women of all ages, races and classes. Yet as I pointed out in my last post, the most popular way of addressing it involves telling women they should act more like men. Women are constantly exhorted to speak up. But who is making speeches telling men to pipe down?

Some mixed organisations are trying to grasp this nettle. Not long ago, for instance, a journalist told me about a small political party in Denmark which had introduced a rule to even out the distribution of speaking turns at its meetings. A male speaker cannot speak straight after another man, but must wait until after a woman has taken a turn.  Yes, there’s a degree of artificiality about this arrangement, but that’s true of any rule-governed system for managing the floor in a group—Roberts’s Rules of Order, or Parliamentary procedure, or the rules feminists of my generation sometimes followed in women’s groups to prevent the most confident and articulate women from dominating the discussion. Without analysing the evidence it’s hard to say how well the Danish rule works in practice (if anyone reading this can supply some data I’d love to hear from you), but even if it works imperfectly, its existence will at least be making people pay more conscious attention to their own behaviour.

The absence of self-awareness that Grayson Perry talks about is one of the hallmarks of the true alpha-male, and it is never more visible than when one of them is forced to apologise for some casually bigoted comment. These gaffemeisters always seem astonished by the outcry their words have provoked–it’s as if it had never occurred to them before that anyone might think they were arses. The sports star who used the N-word protests that he hasn’t got a racist bone in his body; President Donald ‘grab em by the pussy’ Trump declares that ‘no one respects women more than I do’. I don’t think they are actually lying, in the sense of saying something they believe to be false: I think they genuinely can’t see the world from anyone else’s point of view.

The question all this raises is why we go on putting these self-regarding solipsists in positions of power and influence, by choosing them as our leaders, our role-models, our cultural icons. Occasionally we punish one of them, but mostly we continue to reward them–if we didn’t, they wouldn’t keep reproducing themselves. In my youth they seemed like dinosaurs on the verge of becoming extinct; but 40 years later they are more powerful, and more popular, than ever. From Russia to the USA, and from the Philippines to Turkey, their star is once again in the ascendant. Mere indignation, however righteous, is not enough to turn the tide: it might even be as much of a distraction as the gaffes that set it off.