Monday, 15 December 2014

The siege mentality...

The gunman is dead. Two hostages are dead. The idiocy started up within minutes of the story breaking. It was horrible to watch it unfold from my sofa in London, the unthinkable happening in the city where I spent almost a decade misspending my twenties, the city where my father grew up, and where we spent school holidays with much-loved grandparents.

There was a heart-stopping moment when the news channels announced that hostages were taken in a cafe in Sydney's Martin Place. My sister works in Sydney's equivalent of London's Square Mile. Was she one of the people who decided to have a coffee at that particular awful moment? The relief when she texted me to say she was safely in her locked down office was safe was only trumped by the text she sent to let me know that she and her colleagues were safely evacuated with a police escort and she was on her way to pick up her kids.

But when the world is gripped by a siege that went on for hours, you soon realise it's not just about you and yours, no matter how personally affected you feel by the day's events.

Inevitably, there was misreporting, rampant speculation and general bullfuckery. Was that an IS flag being held up in the window by terrified hostages? Was the gunman a member of IS? Had he planted a bomb? Had he threatened to behead anyone? The ridiculous Daily Telegraph newspaper outdid itself in fanning the flames of hysteria by rushing out a 2pm edition with the moronic "DEATH CULT CBD ATTACK" front page headline with a picture of the gunman.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott wasn't doing too badly at his press conference until he felt the need to mention the budget. It is one thing to urge people to carry on as normal, to not let extremist fools dictate how we live our lives. It is quite another to use the press conference about a genuine matter of life and death to chuck in some propaganda about the economy.

And then plenty more people shared the photo of the gunman, giving whatever the hell he was trying to represent the oxygen of publicity. Or they took selfies, gurning away, as close to the cafe as the police would allow them to be. Instead of simply going home. Or they blamed every Muslim on the planet for what was unfolding on TV and online.

The best possible outcome would have been for none of the hostages to have lost their lives and for the gunman, Man Haron Monis, to be arrested  and properly questioned. It looks as if he was a lone wolf rather than a member of some highly organised terror cell. We may never know the full story because he is now dead and whatever information he had has died with him.

What we do know is that Man Haron Monis was disorganised, his demands were incoherent, and hostages were able to escape. He was ham-fisted terrorist. A fool. A deeply disturbed individual who wrote revolting letters to the families of dead soldiers. Last year, he pleaded guilty to harassment charges and was sentenced to 300 hours community service.

Man Haron Monis had been indicted as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and as of yesterday, he was on bail after being charged with sexual assault relating to an allegation from 2002. Between 2000 and 2002, he had been charged multiple times with similar offences. If any good is to come out of the horrific events of the past 24 hours, it may behoove NSW Police to look into how they handle sexual assault cases. Is a lack of resources affecting prevention? It could well be that this hate-filled bellend should have been off the streets years ago. Again, we will never know. Changes to the bail law in the state of New South Wales may also come under review as this appears to have led to Monis not being remanded in custody before trial despite his record.

It may also be that he had untreated mental health issues. This is not about making excuses for a killer. It is about creating a place where mental health issues are addressed in a timely manner, regardless of who you are and what your illness might drive you to do.

And in the midst of this, a hashtag emerged - #illridewithyou - a means of reaching out to Sydney's Muslim community, to break down the culture of fear, for people to not panic on public transport just because someone who might be a Muslim gets on board, to make it known that people are not blaming a complex religion made up of 72 sects.

Obviously, world peace won't be achieved via a solitary hashtag but it can't hurt either. To promote a place where people are free to practice whatever religion they please or none at all, to promote a place where people don't judge their fellow passengers on public transport, to promote a place where people do not feel alientated - that is all good.

It is a reminder that Sydney does not need to descend into idiotic race riot chaos, as happened in Cronulla in 2005. It is a reminder that responding with the same hate and anger that led Man Haron Monis to storm a cafe yesterday won't achieve anything constructive.

It is a reminder for us not to be brutes.

Photography by Sean Riley

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

We just don't know what to do with boobs...

Once again, women cannot win. I have no idea if Louise Burns was "attention-seeking" when she pointed out Claridge's bizarre attempt to make her breastfeed more "discreetly" by suggesting that a napkin wigwam should be draped over her baby. And, frankly, I really don't care.

Dressed demurely while having a meal in one of London's most expensive hotels, she was never going to be a poster girl for oppressed women of the world, but I doubt that was her aim. The napkin situation is hardly on par with FGM or a Boko Haram mass kidnapping, but just because far more horrendous things are happening to women elsewhere, that doesn't mean we can't have an intelligent conversation about breastfeeding in public or exposed breasts in general.

Except that hasn't happened, has it?

Seriously, she was not being "ostentatious" (nice one, Nigel...), there was no visible nipple, rivers of milk weren't gushing all over the table and leaving puddles on the floor. Has anyone bothered to ask whether any diners were so offended by the sight of Ms Burns unobtrusively feeding her child that it put them right off their cream tea?

Then the idiots came out in full force.

"Why can't she breastfeed in the toilets?" they ask. Er, because eating in a toilet, even a posh one at Claridges, is unhygienic.

"If she can breastfeed in public, I should be able to take a dump/urinate/masturbate in public!". No. Not even remotely comparable. Go away.

"Why can't she express milk into bottles?". Why can't people stop dictating to women what they do with their breasts?

Then there are the people who are fine with Page 3 girls but not OK with public breastfeeding. For what it's worth, I have no issue with either use of boobs because, as I've just written, WHY CAN'T PEOPLE STOP DICTATING TO OTHER WOMEN WHAT THEY DO WITH THEIR BREASTS? Offended by a nursing mother? Don't look! Offended by Page 3? Don't buy The Sun! I realise this makes me some sort of minority feminist. I don't care.

This ludicrous brouhaha came in the same week that additional idiots experienced a mass gross-out because Madonna, at the age of 56, had the temerity to get her boobs out. Then there were some who are opposed to Page 3 but found a bare-breasted Madonna to be empowering for older women. At what age do bare boobs stop being exploitative and start being empowering? Christ, this is confusing.

And let's not forget the poor, muddled people who are fine with Page 3, not fine with public breastfeeding, and also want to ban the burkha. I ranted on this a while back - the niqab and the Plimsoll line of modesty - women's modesty is something that every dickhead has an opinion on even though it's nobody's damn business. Get your boobs out and you might be a slut or a bimbo without a brain or you're a cause of sexual assault. Cover them up and you'll probably be OK, unless you cover them up in something Islamic, in which case, you are causing sharia to creep in. Get them out to breastfeed and you're an attention-seeking exhibitionist Earth mother who knits her own lentils. Get them out on a beach in Spain by all means - but only if your boobs meet a certain standard of perkiness. We've all seen how the media treats a woman if her "bikini body" is not up to scratch. If you didn't attain the perfect bikini body before your holiday, obviously you must not go topless, you grotesque cow. But don't cover those chest puppies up too much... It's a fine line between a muu-muu and an abaya.

And there was the inevitable disappointment of a woman coming out in full support of the pearl-clutchers, such as Melissa Kite writing a dizzying spew of overreaching bile for The Spectator about the "frenzied glorification of motherhood". That headline was posted, apparently without irony, above the pictures of Ms Burns looking about as far from a frenzy as choir practice, but nothing could stop Ms Kite's irrational barrage of hate. Still, we've come to expect this sort of woman-slagging-off-another-woman nonsense on a regular basis. Behold Sarah Vine's awful riff about Jack Monroe's sex life in the Daily Mail. She could have disagreed with Monroe's politics without coming across as a nasty homophobic prude, but that would not satisfy the awful appetite out there for pieces where women say horrible things about other women and, thus, the death knell of feminism can be sounded yet again.

So, in this catfight context, it was inevitable that another woman was going to come out and put Ms Burns, the scandalous breastfeeder, in her place.

Every time there is a breastfeeding debate, someone always points out that the disproportionate outrage turns women off breastfeeding. Quite. Condemning nursing mothers as exhibitionist hippies who just feed their kids the way nature intended because they are brazen attention-seekers is ridiculous and unconstructive. Equally, shaming mothers who bottle-feed as abusive or lazy is just as pathetic.

Finally, on a dark and tragic note, the Claridges saga coincided with the death of Charlotte Bevan and her four-day-old daughter Zaani. They were found dead on a cliff face at Avon Gorge, two miles from St Michael's maternity unit, where Zaani was born. The noise surrounding Claridges has driven this story out of the news cycle. While this is most likely a blessing for Charlotte Bevan's grieving family, the outcomes of the hospital inquiry into these deaths will be worth attention. A line of inquiry relates to Charlotte Bevan stopping her anti-depressant medication so she could breastfeed as a possible contributing factor. It is possible that a troubled woman has paid the ultimate price for her desire to choose breastfeeding.

As such, if you're making a mindless racket about women who choose to breastfeed in public or do anything with their breasts of their own free will, you might want to take a long, hard look at yourself and work out why these women make you so angry. The problem is with you, not the owners of the breasts.    

Photography by Petr Kratochvil

Thursday, 4 December 2014

No urolagnia please. We're British.

Here's a fun drinking game to play on a lonely night. Knock back a shot of the poison of your choice if any of the following have ever featured in your consensual sex life:

1. Spanking
2. Caning
3. Aggressive whipping
4. Penetration by any object "associated with violence"
5. Physical or verbal abuse (regardless of if consensual)
6. Urolagnia (known as "water sports")
7. Role-playing as non-adults
8. Physical restraint
9. Humiliation
10. Female ejaculation
11. Strangulation
12. Facesitting
13. Fisting

How are you feeling now? Sober as judge? A little tipsy? Under the table? Whatever your score out of 13, it really is none of anyone's business. And, equally, if you are a consenting adult who enjoys watching any of these acts in pornography, that is also nobody's business but your own. If you are a consenting adult who wishes to be involved in the making of such pornography, either in front of the camera or behind the scenes, again, that is your business.

Except the government has made it their business. The above list is from the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 that requires video-on-demand online porn to meet the same British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) guidelines for DVD porn. These 13 things are now banned from being depicted in anything made by British pornography producers.

If you care about freedom of speech and expression and an internet that doesn't treat adults like children and you value that novel concept of parental responsibility instead of banning all the things, you should be concerned. Even if your idea of sexy viewing is a flash of wrist as a glove is unbuttoned in a Merchant Ivory film, you should be concerned if you consider yourself an anti-censorship champion.

Because this sort of nonsense starts with porn. It's the government dipping its prudish toe in the waters of moral panic to see what it can ban without causing too much of a ruckus. After all, how many people will seriously bring traffic to a halt by marching on Parliament brandishing banners about the right to make and watch golden shower porn? The government is not expecting a fist-in at Trafalgar Square or civic disobedience by flooding the streets of London with female ejaculate.

So once the porn ban passes without incident, the gates are open for other things to be banned - things you might like, things you might find interesting, sources of information. And while this is going on, the government might just take a peek at your online activity too. It might be as blatant as the snoopers' charter "emergency data" law that is supported by all major parties. Or it could be that tinkering-around-the-edges attempts at silencing people, such as the cosy yet odious Twitter chat between Tory MP Sarah Wollaston and Tory MEP Daniel Hannan in which they sneer patronisingly at the #CameronMustGo hashtag that has been trending on Twitter in the UK for more than a week now. Of course people who use the #CameronMustGo hashtag know it will be decided at the ballot box next May but Twitter is a way for those who feel voiceless to be heard. Or The Sun doing the dirty work for the government by making the New Era Estate story all about Russell Brand's rent rather than working people being evicted from affordable housing. Yeah, The Sun, that newspaper that champions ordinary hardworking Brits...

Censorship takes many forms and this porn rule is only the start.

And the porn ban, as well as being the start of further curbs on freedoms for adults, is, like most poorly thought-out, knee-jerking, pearl-clutching regulations completely stupid, ineffective and could do more harm than good.

First, it only applies to porn made in Britain so as long as people have the internet, they can probably access anything on the list from other parts of the world. So then the government has to go on an insane website-blocking rampage because they're thinking of the children. Instead of parents taking responsibility for their children. And this is the sort of activity that is impossible to maintain.

And then there is the list itself. Depictions of spanking, whipping, caning and facesitting are frequently the preserve of the dominatrix, the woman in a position of sexual power. Is the government scared of this? And what exactly is an object "associated with violence"? For a rape victim, that object might well be a penis but if penile penetration is removed from porn, that is going to be somewhat limiting. The stuff about abuse, strangulation and role-playing as non-adults shows an ignorance of fantasy versus reality. And the "physical restraint" could be fluffy pink handcuffs or a delicate tethering to the bed with silk scarves. Is that now off limits for delicate British eyes? Bans on water sports depictions are just goofy and the female ejaculation ban is ridiculous. If anything, seeing this depicted in pornography may well be reassuring for the woman who thought she'd wet the bed at the moment of orgasm.

The ban will just drive much of the porn industry further underground and create a black market. Hey presto, we end up with a greater risk of people performing in porn against their will, underage people getting involved, trafficked people and so on. None of this is OK. But it could be an unintended consequence of moronic rules that treat consenting adults like idiot children.

To paraphrase a well-worn saying, first they came for the pornographers but I preferred Downton Abbey...

Who's up for that Trafalgar Square fist-in then?