‘He Do the Police in Different Voices': On Speech and Language Policing

“And I’ll tell you another thing about the way women don’t Talk Proper …”
Filippo Lippi, Man and Woman at a Casement. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to speak, as T. S. Eliot puts it, ‘in different voices’. We use language as an index of belonging. At the moment, there’s an idiolect, which I’d like to imagine would immediately tell me whether or not I’m in the presence of the sisterhood. ‘Silencing’ is the new favourite Participle Of Oppression for all parties. Fourth wavers talk about language as a form of literal violence. Radfems say unsisterly things about fourth wavers and bite our tongues. We all thank the goddess for Rebecca Solnit coining the term ‘mansplaining’, and Deborah Cameron writes brilliant critiques of all the idiotic pseudo-scientific arguments that all misogyny would disappear if only women would learn to Talk Proper and adopt the diction equivalent of a fine natural baritone.

This feels recent, but actually, language policing isn’t new. Medieval advice literature is full of it – they have a special verb, ‘rabelen’, which means ‘garbling, usually of prayers’. Clerics constantly warn their charges against speaking too fast, dropping syllables out of words, ‘over-skyping’ (not what you think, but skipping over words by accident), saying words without the proper heartfelt emphasis, singing out of tune, and gossiping, slandering, lying and swearing. There’s even a demon, a sort of anti-patron-saint of Language Policing, known as Tutivillus, whose job is to gather up mis-spoken syllables and out-of-tune notes into his sack, keeping them as evidence against the guilty party. My favourite story involves a young medieval monk on the wind up, who, when it was his turn to set the psalm, started three notes higher than the usual. The older monks found their voices unequal to the strain and dropped belligerently out of the litany, and the chronicler of this distinctly unfraternal episode concludes, conveniently, that “it was all the work of the demon”.

You might think that this delightfully batshit advice has nothing to do with gendered forms of speech – after all, the point is that younger monks can still hit the high notes and older monks feel crabby that they can’t. Or you might think that it’s an interesting reflection on medieval masculinity that a high voice could be a point of pride. But the context is key here. This advice is actually found in a text addressed exclusively to women. It’s called The Myroure of Our Ladye and it was written for a group of nuns. Subtly, this text gives its audience a message: there’s something wrong with a voice that’s at the high end of a man’s normal pitch. There’s something wrong with the voices of most women.

That’s a theme I’m coming across a lot – most recently, here. The piece is by Naomi Wolf, and boils down to ‘women, who are younger than I am and considerably less brilliantly feminist, allow me to patronise you with poorly understood generalisations about linguistics’. The subtitle includes the unforgivably trite, finger-wagging warning “you’re disowning your power”. Now, to me, power is something you have, and exercise, in relation to other people. You cannot single-handedly ‘disown your power’ (unless, I suppose, we’re talking BDSM. Let us never talk BDSM). What Wolf means is, women, you’re being treated badly but I’m going to assume the fault lies with you.

Now, I could just have put this out of my mind and linked to the pretty comprehensive take-down of language-policing by Cameron, which I’ve already mentioned. And I did link. But I also got stuck on one sentence, which attempted to give a measurable, concrete example of women letting themselves down with their silly ladyspeak. Wolf writes:

“At Oxford University young women consistently get 5% to 10% fewer first-class degrees in English – and the exams are graded blindly. The reasons? Even the most brilliant tend to avoid strong declarative sentences and to organise their arguments less forcefully.”

There is so much wrong with this that it makes me slightly inarticulate with fury. Oh, who am I kidding? It makes me want to type numerous strong, declarative sentences, most of them liberally sprinkled with my most masculine of profanities. You see, this chain of logic presumes that blind marking of exam scripts means that the problem is with the students’ work. Not that academics might (shudder gasp!) be fallible human beings who bring in unconscious bias to their syllabus, their setting of questions or marking of scripts. Nor that – and I think this is the hard truth – it may in fact not be possible to design a non-misogynistic English degree. But these issues are serious.

Say you’re an academic setting the questions for next summer’s final exam. There are obvious pitfalls (which people mostly try to avoid, but don’t always manage): Do you pick questions on Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and John Lydgate, or Christine de Pizan, Marie de France and Julian of Norwich? Do you use quotations from Paul Strohm and Derek Pearsall or Jill Mann and Carolyn Dinshaw? Then there are slightly less obvious, less avoidable issues. Shall we have a question (or questions …. imagine ….!) on women in a paper on medieval literature? Will that prime female students to remember that, throughout most of English literary history, women have been oppressed and mocked? Will it prime them to realise that people have been making oh-so-sadly-practical arguments, like Wolf’s, about women acting as their own worst enemies by talking too much, too little, too this, too that, for centuries? If we have a question on women’s bodies, or sexuality, or violence (all good, popular topics), will it be particularly fun for the women who’ve real-life experience of what Rachel Moss bitingly terms ‘Chaucer’s funny rape’? I could go on, but you see the problem. When women write those blind-marked exams, they do so surrounded by an academic conversation that has very little space for women, and in which much of that space is full of uncomfortable reminders of women’s unequal status through history.

This is all before we get to the real issue. The quotation presumes that what ought to be rewarded in any good student is ‘strong, declarative sentences’ and ‘forceful’ arguments. This is … well … problematic. ‘Chaucer is the greatest English poet’ is a strong, declarative sentence. It is also utterly lacking in nuance, understanding of English literature, and awareness of the past century of scholarship. In short, it’s shit. And an essay made up of such strong, declarative sentences would also be extremely tedious. Language policing is a very blunt tool. And, increasingly, I notice how much it fails to hit anything even resembling its target.

The other day, a friend of mine sent me an article to read. Written by Karen O’Donnell, it argues that a form of speech that’s often derided as being feminine – expressing emotion – is crucial to the progress of academia. She explains:

“I am currently writing a PhD and in one chapter I touch upon a sensitive issue that is very close to home. One of my supervisors encouraged me to think about whether or not I would be able to defend this part of my work without getting emotional. My other supervisor encouraged me to think about why being emotional might be seen as wrong and whether I wanted to challenge that perception.”

This rang true for me, too. Increasingly, what I write about in my research, and what I teach, is pretty close to home. And it is emotional, and it should be. I want to speak – in ladyspeech or not -because these issues matter to me. A few weeks ago, I went to a conference, which was ostensibly about manuscripts. But – and I really should have blogged about this before – it was also incredibly unusual in terms of the way gender issues were playing out, both in papers and amongst the people there. If I can count correctly, out of 127 people, there were 41 men and the remainder were women. My friend Carissa Harris gave a brilliant paper about sexual violence against women, which is still playing over in my mind. But what I loved about this specific conference was that, having listened to a paper on gendered sexual violence, we didn’t have to switch politely back into impersonal academic mode – there were too many women sharing other stories, calmly acknowledging that this is a personal as well as an academic issue. And the personal, emotional aspect of that debate was made so much more possible because of the weight of numbers: there were enough of to acknowledge each other’s experiences as emotional, personal, and valuable.

Why do I mention this? I mention it because the first metaphor that springs to mind to describe my experience is ‘speaking the same language’. I wanted to imagine we were all speaking an idiolect, a special language, a coded set of terms that helped us to understand each other’s points about misogyny and rape, survival and women’s experience.

But, really, we weren’t. We were simply speaking. What felt new, was that we were being heard.

When O’ Donnell writes about being ’emotional’, part of what she is talking about is breaking a silence. Her research will require her to give voice to an argument, reflecting experience and emotion, which is not part of the established academic conversation. We could – and the language-policing types would – argue that perhaps she should find a way to have this conversation in suitably ‘academic’ language, to remove the overt emotion from it. But then, it wouldn’t be the same conversation, and it might not even convey the same experience and argument. It would be leaving academia a little bit narrower, a little bit less honestly representative of women’s experiences and perspectives.

What’s needed is not a broader academic language, nor a space for women to speak in the ways women speak. We need a space in which women can be heard. Those women at Oxford, who are struggling to be heard, are not struggling (I trust and believe) because of their lack of ‘declarative sentences’. In the article Wolf wrote, the answer was right there: in the experience of Professor Elleke Boehmer, when women try to speak up “male students speak first and second and even third.”

Women are discouraged from speaking up by myriad pressures that tell them their voices are less worth hearing – pressures that reduce their voices to twittering sound (as I’ve said before), or to meaningless feminine noise. We’re pushed to believe this fiction that women’s speech is always excessive – too high, too fast, too loud, too much – simply because women’s speech is a reminder that women exist to speak. For some people, there will never be a ‘right’ way for women to speak – so we need to speak up anyway.

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“Am I masculine enough?” isn’t a question we should be asking

As I was failing to sleep, I clicked the link to this article by Jack Monroe. Ostensibly, it’s a piece about Pride, but more than that, it’s a piece in which Monroe describes coming to terms with her identity, and she talks about her sexuality, her experience of motherhood, and her thoughts on gender. It rings with the sort of righteously angry challenge she’s so good at, moving from a selection of homophobic slurs she’s experienced to a message of acceptance.

Describing her genderfluid identity, Monroe writes:

“Some days I wake up all woman and I swathe myself in lace and silk and lipstick and softness and sweetness. Some days I ram a fistful of Brylcreem through my hair and shoulder my tux jacket and go.”

I got as far as the first full stop and I wanted to shut my laptop, because this was a piece about acceptance that was sticking two fingers up to me. Being ‘all woman’ is not, I would suggest, about ‘softness and sweetness’. That’s a misogynistic stereotype, straight out of the nursery rhyme (‘sugar and spice and all things nice …’) and feeding directly into a host of irritating cultural myths. Women are nicer. Women are gentler. Women are more nurturing. They’re soft and yielding; they’re sweet, like a treat to be eaten.

No, thank you. Lace and silk do not make you ‘all woman’, nor do they make you ‘sweet’. And I mind, because this is more or less how I dress every day (minus the lipstick. Sorry.). Monroe is obviously proud, as she should be, of the fact she’s come to accept how she can celebrate different aspects of herself. But in describing her experience in this reductive way, she’s reinforcing that binary for other people, and that’s unnecessary.

Feminists have spent a very long time trying hard to convince society that, even though we all look like those creatures, who for centuries, were stereotyped as sweet and incomplete, we are full human beings.

There is a cruel double bind operating against women – still very much in force, as Monroe’s experiences testify – that we are constantly stigmatized for acting ‘like women’ (soft and sweet, remember? Tearful and yielding), but policed for acting, and especially for looking, ‘like men’. In anti-feminist propaganda across the decades, masculinity is both the goal (‘be more assertive! argue like a man!’), and grotesque (‘a woman who looks like a man, yuck’). Thinking about this for a moment, you can see there’s a fair amount of stored up self-hatred in patriarchy’s version of masculinity. But now we’re internalising it, too.

The way out of this double bind isn’t, I think, to represent a version of being a woman that incorporates stereotypes of masculinity as somehow more full than a version of being a woman that doesn’t, nor to reduce being ‘all woman’ to a narrow vision of lace and silk, softness and sweetness. Monroe is, as she forcefully makes the point, hitting back against idiots who tried to tell her her sexuality wasn’t authentic because she wasn’t lesbian enough for them, and perhaps her point about stereotypes of what being a woman is should just be taken as a throwaway point on the side. But in the past week (!), I’ve heard several other women make similar comments, where ‘are we masculine enough’ seems to be shorthand for ‘am I good enough’ or ‘am I authentic enough’.

In one of the texts I study, a woman’s rape echoes and echoes through the remaining male characters’ experiences, acted out over and over through disturbing parallel events that translate a woman’s experience into something men can suffer, as if the only way for an experience to be authentic is for it to be masculinized. It’s a text I keep coming back to, and it shocks me every time. But, though this narrative is unusual in its graphic treatment of rape, it isn’t unusual in the way it represents masculinity as the universal marker of ‘real’, authentic, fully human experience. And that is something I would like to see us moving away from, not embracing.

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In Defence of Man-Hating Feminism

Sure, I'll decapitate men foolish enough to approach the unisex loo, but I'll be damn sure to wear a nice dress while doing it.

Sure, I’ll decapitate men foolish enough to approach the unisex loo, but I’ll be damn sure to wear a nice dress while doing it.

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale)

My title is, more or less, a joke. Or that’s what I would have said before I read the responses to this article by Bridget Christie, an extract from her new book, which brilliantly satirises the kinds of bone-headed idiocies people come out with when they think you might be Too Much Feminist. She opens, promisingly and amusingly, with the line:

“I am a feminist. All this means is that I am extremely hairy and hate all men, both as individuals and collectively, with no exceptions.”

She goes on to develop a beautifully surreal self-profile, ticking off (and exaggerating) all the good old myths from bra burning to lesbianism (but no male-baby hating. Come on, Bridget, it’s a classic for a reason). Reading this, I was slightly stunned to discover that some people didn’t realize it was, in fact, satire. Amazingly (or so it seems to me), no sooner had the article come out than I saw comments approving its honesty and accuracy: yes, feminists are man hating, yes, they do have that reputation, isn’t it good to see someone acknowledge this?

Often, I’ve heard women try to counter this point by denying it. I don’t hate men. I have a husband/son/father/brother. I have a beloved male teacher; I have kind male neighbours; I have wonderful male students; I have loving male friends.

I do this myself. I started to write this post and found myself thinking: but what about that colleague, who is always so thoughtful and kind? What about my fellow blogger, who writes brilliantly on being a feminist ally? What about my lovely friend, who’s transitioning into an amazing man? What about all the men in my life, right down to my baby nephew … how could you possibly, if you knew me, imagine I might actually hate men?

This is all good, and one or another point will be true for virtually all feminists. Short of living in a separatist commune, you are going to struggle to eliminate men from your life, and I think it’s fair to say most of us wouldn’t want to. My feminism is hugely informed by feminists who are also mothers of sons, and I think they add a particularly forceful perspective to this debate.

And yet. I have problems with this approach.

For starters, there’s always the pushback question. But some feminists hate men! They must! I’ve seen them! This response is unanswerable: how can you know all the feminists in the world? How can you be sure you know their innermost views? You can’t, and so you must dissociate yourself (splitting us nicely into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminists), or you must stand with them, jointly and severally responsible for the Man Hating.

We have to put this in its structural context. Statistically, women may be walking around hating men and there may be fallout from that, but – by and large – women are not acting on that hatred with physical violence. To put it bluntly, women are not murdering men. Men are murdering women – and indeed other men – because toxic masculinity, the brand of approved masculine conduct our society promotes – is, at its extreme, a violent mode of action. I often link to Karen Ingala Smith’s project, Counting Dead Women, which surveys some of this gendered violence, and I often hear the same response: but aren’t young men more at risk of violence than women? What about the men?

Well, the men are at risk of violence: from other men.

Take me as an example. If I did – truly – hate men, how much impact would it have? It would have an impact on my students, because I’m in a position of power over them. And if I discriminated I would deserve be sacked pretty swiftly. But it’s worth noting that, even in this situation, my bias would be a tiny, tiny drop of water compared to the ocean of comfortably normalised bias in the other direction. It wouldn’t be excusable, but its impact would be, in the general scheme of things, very weak.

This is where the quotation from Atwood, at the top of my post, starts to ring true. Men (NAMALT, etc etc) are insulted that women might dislike them, might object to them, might lump them all together with their violent brothers. Plenty of women are insulted by this too. Women, however, are actually at significant statistical risk from men, and that doesn’t stack up against hurt feelings. Men are, also, at significant statistical risk from violent, hyper-masculine men – that is, from a culture of toxic masculinity – and that, too, doesn’t stack up against hurt feelings.

The other problem with these defensive responses is that, as you will notice, they frame the debate in terms of participation in a particular social set-up. When we say ‘but I have a lovely husband’ or ‘but my dad is wonderful’, what we’re really saying is ‘I’m part of the hetero-patriarchy’. I’m not one of those man-haters, the lesbian ones … or if I am, it’s ok, because here are my credentials: I too, once, existed in a heteronormative family set-up. Whew, thank goodness for that.

‘Man-hating’, you see, is an accusation designed to make us rush into making denials, rush to dissociate ourselves from other women, rush to avoid the implications of aggression and lesbianism and all of those other evils.

I find this particularly sad because it conceals one of the huge positives of feminism, at least as I’ve experienced it. There’s an ideology, coming out of the work of intersectional feminism, that loving yourself is one of the most radical feminist acts, because it involves according yourself worth in a patriarchy that is fundamentally inclined to devalue women. But, in my experience, what makes that ideology liveable is other feminists around you who support each other and affirm each other. I really like women. I enjoy being around them. The idea of ‘man-hating’ feminism is partly designed to splinter that community, to make us all hurry to align ourselves with men, lest anyone should think we enjoy spending time with women. It’s framed as ‘hatred’ not because (I believe) any thoughtful person really imagines that vast numbers of feminists hate men, but because the idea that women might like, and respect, and work together with other women is a radical threat.

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Deconstructing the Visuals of Martin Hudáček’s Anti-Abortion ‘Memorial’

'Memorial for Unborn Children' by Martin Hudáček

‘Memorial for Unborn Children’ by Martin Hudáček

You may well have seen this image – it’s not newly out there – but the other day a friend of mine mentioned it again, and I wanted to take a minute to pin down what’s so disturbing about it. Obviously, it’s easy to get angry at the basic message, the idea that a male sculptor has decided to guilt-trip women in this particular way. It’s also easy to take shots at the twee aspect – the toddler touching the crying woman on the head is cheaply emotive, designed to provoke a cascade of sympathetic reactions before we read what the subject matter is. But I wanted to go deeper than that, to explain why I find this so particularly disturbing in its connotations.

There’s a visual vocabulary here that’s subtle and manipulative.  If you know Christian art, you know that the child’s gesture isn’t merely affectionate – it is a ritualised gesture, a gesture of blessing or forgiveness. The woman kneeling before a child who raises his hand over her head is a Christian trope: it’s evoking the sinner Mary Magdalene kneeling at Christ’s feet, or the baby Jesus with his mother Mary. Implicitly, the statue invites us to parallel the child’s figure with the saintly, the holy.

Notice how the woman isn’t really sobbing in a realistic way, but kneeling with her back straight and her head bent, and propped up on her knees with one foot supporting the pose? That’s not a casual posture, but a ritualised use of the body. In Christian culture, from the early centuries, men wrote manuals describing the proper postures of prayer, the way the body could be disposed to function more effectively as a channel for prayer and penitence. I’ve read medieval books with drawings of how one should kneel or prostrate oneself, and they still exist today. Such images came to have a reciprocal relationship with aesthetics of prayer and penitence, so that the famous images you will have seen of people kneeling in prayer are shaped by this body of work. In this image, the woman’s body is deliberately unrelaxed – imagine taking on that posture and you’ll see how much bodily concentration it requires. It would quite quickly become painful. Her emotion is not spontaneous, but physically disciplined.

There’s something duplicitous about this, then: the sculpture purports to reflect an outpouring of emotion – and there’s an idea of spontaneous, unconsidered action and long, considered regret in the anti-abortion narrative – but it does no such thing. In the context of abortion, it is telling that this is, visually, a woman doing with her body exactly what the Church tells her, positioning her body in the posture of grief dictated by this tradition.

Women have been saying for a very long time that we should be able to talk more about abortion, and I’ve heard claims that this sculpture facilitates that, that – even if you disagree with its anti-abortion message – it has value in that it might allow some women to own their emotions, to express feelings. But, because it is imposing not only the aesthetic and ideology of one man (the sculptor), but also of a long tradition behind him, its effect is erasing. Rather than expressing loss and regret, the statue subtly conveys the message that a female body should be scripted in a tradition of discipline and concentration, dedicated to holding its uncomfortable posture and telegraphing its inferiority.

There’s an obvious level at which any male attempt to represent what is a uniquely female experience is going to be an appropriation, and potentially an erasure of genuine female experience. When that goes hand-in-hand with propaganda designed to control women’s bodies, it is grotesque, and you might feel that knowing about this (largely historical) tradition of disciplining the body through prayer is far from the worst thing about this image: and that’s fair. But, I find it the more disturbing, because it is subtler: it displaces real women’s emotions and renders them unreadable to many viewers. Reading the sorts of sites that approve of this sculpture, I find both men and women approvingly labelling this posture and image as a representation of female ‘anguish’ or ‘heartbreaking’ pain – they cannot even recognise the difference between reality, and ritualised performance designed to control the kneeling female body.

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Standing up for all Women by WAPOW

I was not involved in the writing or research of this post. I am cross-posting it on my blog because I support the questions asked in this document. Reblogged from Louise Pennington, My Elegant Gathering of White Snows

Standing up for All Women:

Statement in response to London Young Labour Summer Conference

Motion 8

1. This statement has been written by a group of feminist women – including academics, activists and practitioners working directly with women who experience male sexual violence. We share an understanding that inequality between men and women is more than a matter of women needing “choices” – a profoundly conservative approach – but is instead about power; specifically the deep and structural power imbalance women face in a society still dominated by regressive notions of gender. In other words, we believe feminism should be as radical as socialism in seeking to end this imbalance, instead of treating women’s inequality, and some men’s exploitation of it, as inevitable.

2. We support the decriminalisation of those who sell sex; we recognise the variety of reasons why people, overwhelmingly women, would do this. By contrast, however, we do not support the decriminalisation of those, overwhelmingly men, who buy. Their entirely different motivations and attitudes, and crucially the risk that they pose to the women, manifestly mean that their role in the sex industry must be treated separately. We consider moves to conflate the two and decriminalise both to be an effort to legitimise the sex industry, instead of acknowledging that it is both a cause and a symptom of deeply-rooted, systemic normalisation of men’s sexual entitlement.

3. For this reason, although we support the decriminalisation of women who sell sex, we do not support this motion. Despite the title’s claim to be about the decriminalisation of selling sex, in reality the focus is much more on opposing the criminalisation of buying (also known as the Nordic model). We believe that committing London Young Labour to oppose the Nordic model, and thus to support the legitimacy of men buying sex, is the true intent of the motion, and that it is misleading and disingenuous.

4. We further believe there are significant flaws in the logic and evidence used to support this end, and we draw attention to these below.

5. Clause 1: “Sex work refers to escorting, lap dancing, stripping, pole dancing, pornography, webcaming, adult modelling, phone sex, and selling sex (on and off the street).”

6. It should be noted that despite this opening, the rest of the resolution refers, and brings evidence that pertains only to, prostitution – i.e. the so called “full service”, or full access to women’s bodies for the purposes of men’s sexual gratification. Women who sell sex in person are also the group most at risk of men’s violence, and the documented physical and mental health risks that ensue. It is disingenuous to have such a wide definition yet in fact only discuss one aspect of it.

7. Clause 2: In Clause 2, the motion concedes that “Selling sex is not illegal in the UK”. However, it continues: “but it is criminalised. Almost everything that sex workers do to stay safe is illegal.”

8. Firstly, this is a hyperbolic and generalised statement. As in all other prostitution regimes, it is local implementation that matters, and this varies depending on the prostitution politics in cities and regions. Furthermore, there is no country where there is no regulation, nor where there are no local variations in practices of police and other agencies.

9. The footnote to this statement reads: “Similar laws operate in Scotland, Wales & England. Prostitution (the exchange of sexual services for money) is not illegal, but associated activities (soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, operating a brothel) are. The main laws around sex work in the UK are: the Vagrancy Act of 1824; the Sexual Offences Act of 1956 and the Street Offences Act of 1959 (England and Wales); the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act of 1892 and the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act of 1976, Sexual Offences Act 2003, Policing and Crime Act 2009, Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Anti Social Behaviour Act 2002, Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.”

10. It is unclear from the text of the motion which specific provisions of this long list of legislation are to be repealed in order to achieve decriminalisation. A brief review of some of these laws reveals that:

The Vagrancy Act 1824 is almost entirely repealed and it is not clear which remaining clauses are meant.

The Sexual Offences Act 1956 criminalises abduction, incest, “unnatural acts” (repealed), living off the proceeds of prostitution and causing or encouraging prostitution of mentally disabled persons (in the language of the Act, “defectives”). One assumes that these are not things women do to “stay safe” in prostitution and therefore cannot be targeted by the motion.

The Act also criminalises the keeping of brothels and permitting premises to be used as brothels, which we infer is what the motion intends to criticise. It is however a debatable claim that indoor prostitution, or women working in parlours and brothels, is necessarily safer than outdoor or single-woman prostitution. Research conducted by Ulla Bjørndahl in Norway in 2012 has shown that women working indoors are seriously sexually assaulted and robbed by their clients more frequently than street workers (Bjørndahl, 2012, table 11). Indoor workers also reported higher incidence of abuse from a pimp (ibid, p. 15).

The Policing and Crime Act 2009 mostly deals with police procedure or co-operation, but among other things criminalises purchase of sex from persons subjected to force; again, this provision is surely not the target of repeal under decriminalisation, and more specific information is needed to support the assertion that “Almost everything that sex workers do to stay safe is illegal”.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 mostly deals with sexual offences such as rape, incest and child abuse. There is a section criminalising trafficking and a section criminalising the solicitation by a person seeking to purchase sex from another in a public place. This provision does not criminalise women engaged in prostitution. The Act also elaborates in a minor way on the criminalisation of brothel keeping in the 1956 Act.

11. It is outside the scope of this document to conduct a thorough review of the law pertaining to prostitution; however even the partial examination above casts serious doubt on the idea that the effect of the legislation cited is to prevent activities designed to keep women “safe”. The only potential example that does emerge is brothel-keeping, but, as Bjørndahl’s research reveals, and as has been reported by exited campaigners such as Rachel Moran and Fiona Broadfoot from personal experience, brothels are not a reliable means of increasing women’s safety.

12. Clause 3: In Clause 3 the motion states that “Financial reasons, and any criminal record gain due to the criminalisation of sex work, are usually cited as the main reason for staying in sex work.”

13. This assertion is supported by a reference to research undertaken by the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland in 2014. However, careful review of the findings does not support the claim implicit in this clause: that acute financial necessity is what leads women to sell sex, and that they are devoid of other options. From the DOJ report: “The need to earn money to survive (22%), the need to support the family financially (18%), to finance their own education (14%), to pay off debt (10%) and having no other way to earn a living (7%) were stated reasons for respondents to engage in prostitution.” Only the last of these implies that selling sex is the only available option.

14. Financial reasons to engage in any form of paid work should be considered as normal; abolitionists fully support the self determination of all women and there is no reason to expect them to make their decisions in any other way than rationally. But from the evidence above, there is no reason to suppose that more undue hardship would come to them as a result of a reduction in trade than would from being made redundant from any other job in the course of normal capitalist dynamics.

15. Furthermore, the New Zealand based research additionally cited as support for this claim states only that: “around 93% of sex workers surveyed… cited money as a reason for both entering and staying in the sex industry.” No further detail was available and, despite what is implied by this clause, it is not possible to come to the conclusion that women in prostitution are experiencing unique financial hardship, from which selling sex is their only way out.

16. In addition to this inaccurate use of evidence, we suggest this clause lacks both logic and an alignment with Labour values. The mission of the Labour Party cannot and should not be only to keep people in jobs under any circumstance: zero hour contracts, and unsafe or degrading jobs, are rightly considered a focus for a labour movement with a conscience. Therefore it is surely not a sufficient or satisfying argument for the mainstreaming of the sex industry to say that some people might otherwise lose their jobs.

17. Clauses 4 and 5: The implicit appeal to the vulnerability of women is made more explicit in clause 4, which reads: “There are a disproportionate number of disabled people, migrants, especially undocumented or semi-documented migrants, LGBT people and single parents (the vast majority of whom are women) involved in sex work.”

18. Clause 5 elaborates: “The financial cost of being disabled, the cost of childcare, the cost of medical transition and hormones, racism in the workplace, the vulnerability of undocumented migrants to exploitation in other forms of work and the prejudice faced by LGBT and disabled people undoubtedly contribute to this overrepresentation.”

19. The footnote citation for Clause 4 is “Safety First Coalition” only, without any link or reference to any relevant research that would verify this claim. Clause 5 is not referenced and cannot be verified. However, the Northern Ireland (NI) research done by the DOJ, which the motion cites (and which it can therefore be assumed that those moving it consider reliable), found that only 4% of non-EU nationals had an illegal immigration status: the majority of those selling sex in NI were UK and Irish nationals, followed by Romanian and Hungarian nationals who are EU citizens, and of the remaining minority most were on legal visas.

20. Analysis of family status showed that 52% in the NI sample were in relationships and/or married; and 42% had children. No detail is provided as to the number in the sample who both have children and are not in a relationship (single mothers). Irish and UK nationals were more likely than foreign women to be in relationships and to have children.

21. Regarding the gender identity, disability and sexuality (except in respect to a very small minority of men who have sex with men), the research provides no information. The claims here cannot therefore be substantiated based on the sources provided. While there is a widespread belief among both the general public and advocates of decriminalisation that women engaged in prostitution substantially belong to marginalised groups, the DOJ report in fact reflects high levels of secondary and tertiary education among its respondents.

22. Clause 6: This gets to what we think is the real impetus behind the motion: protecting the rights of men who buy sex. It states: “The criminalisation of sex workers’ clients… was recently passed in the Northern Irish Assembly, despite government-commissioned research showing that 98% of sex workers working in Northern Ireland did not want this introduced.”

23. This is a misrepresentation. The research does state that only 2% of those currently selling sex who were surveyed thought the criminalisation of clients was a good idea. However, it does not give the number of undecided respondents or those who did not respond to the question, making this a poor and tendentious use of research. Additionally the wording of the question is misrepresented: whether or not criminalisation is a good idea is not the same as whether the respondents wanted it or not.

24. What’s more, when the scope of questioning is expanded to those who have sold sex in the past, the landscape of responses changes considerably. As was found in the consultation by Rhoda Grant MSP exploring the introduction of a “Nordic Model” style law in Scotland: “[it] was clear that the majority of those who have already exited prostitution were in favour of legislation, while those currently involved were fearful of the impact on them” (Grant, p. 51). In addition, only a small proportion of respondents to this consultation objected to the law, and the majority of those were organisations explicitly dedicated to legalisation. Supporters of the proposal included social and health services, women’s organisations, local councils, the White Ribbon campaign to end men’s violence against women and so on. The full list is available here.

25. This aspect of the motion, the silencing of exited women, is particularly disingenuous and disturbing. In considering the regulation and/or normalisation of any other industry, we would not dream of demanding that only those currently employed in it have a valid view on its management or social impact. It would have been unthinkable, for example to set the terms of the Leveson inquiry in such a way that only current tabloid journalists were seen to have a valid opinion on widespread culture and conduct. The focus on testimonies and perspectives of those currently involved in the sex industry only is unique to advocacy for the decriminalisation of the sex trade, and is ethically baffling.

26 Clause 7: “Organisations that support the decriminalisation of sex work include the World Health Organisation, UN Women, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the National Union of Students and NUS Women’s Campaign, and the Royal College of Nurses.”

27. This is in fact a list of organisations which support the full decriminalisation of both selling and buying sex, since they all oppose the Nordic model. Organisations which support the Nordic model by definition also support the decriminalisation of women, but oppose the decriminalisation of sex buying, as well as pimping and those who exploit the prostitution of others. As well as those listed above (paragraph 24) supporting the proposed criminalisation of demand in Scotland, these include:

TUC Women’s Committee, Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Unison, Ashiana, the Centre for Gender & Violence Research at the University of Bristol, Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University, Durham University Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, Eaves, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Equality Now, European Women’s Lobby, the Fawcett Society, National Alliance of Women’s Organisations, nia, Northern Refugee Centre, SafeLives, St Mungo’s Broadway, Welsh Women’s Aid, Women’s Aid Federation of England, and Women’s Aid Federation of Northern Ireland.

28. Clause 8: In Clause 8, the Motion attacks the efficacy of the Nordic model: “The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women opposes introducing criminal penalties against the clients of sex workers. Their research found that criminalising clients does not reduce sex work or trafficking, but infringes on sex workers’ rights & obstructs anti-trafficking efforts.”

29. This is a claim which is contested by many others, and is not supported by actual data on the introduction and implementation of the law in Sweden and Norway. It has certainly decreased street prostitution – which few prostitution regimes do not regulate or even make illegal – in both countries, and the law is considered by police and prosecutors in Sweden as the most effective measure they have in their anti-trafficking efforts. This has been recognised by the Council of Europe (COE, 2014, p. 10).

30. Clause 10: “The criminalisation of sex workers’ clients has been proven to lead to further distrust of the police amongst sex workers, a willingness of sex workers to engage in more risky behaviour/safety procedures out of desperation, and does not reduce overall levels of prostitution.”

31. This is a contentious and contested claim, and none of the references provided are links to the three evaluations of the law in Sweden (see SOU, 2010 for the most recent). Those studies suggest that precisely because the law decriminalises those who sell sex different, more open relationships have been possible with police and social workers. There is also very little evidence supporting the claim that it has made selling sex more dangerous: the last woman to be killed in prostitution in Sweden was in 1986. Support for this claim also often cites a Norwegian study after their law reform in 2009, which did show those reporting having experienced violence in prostitution increased from 52% to 59% (Bjørndahl, 2012). However, closer examination of the data shows that the definition of violence in the post-2009 study was wider, including name calling, hair pulling and being spat at. It is these behaviours which account for the increase, whilst rape, physical assaults by regular customers/pimps and in a car with an unfamiliar customer actually decreased by half or more in the same period (Berg, 2013).

32. Those moving the motion now set out a number of beliefs to support the call for decriminalising sex work, or to put it more honestly, against the introduction of the Nordic model which decriminalises women and criminalises men who buy.

33. Belief 1: “Sex work is work. Sex work is the exchange of money for labour, like any other job. It is different because it is currently criminalised and stigmatised.”

34. We fundamentally disagree. Sex work is not identical to other forms of labour. Firstly, unlike other labour, sex is an activity which the majority of people engage in freely without remuneration. In this context, it is not labour, but an activity motivated by mutual desire. So, in the buying and selling of sex, what is effectively paid for is the waiving of this requirement of mutual desire. It is emphatically not the exchange of money for labour; it is the exchange of money for consent.

35. Framing the debate as an issue of labour rights thus rests on obscuring the fact that the sex industry involves financial coercion of consent, not an exchange of labour for money. And that, moreover, this takes place in the context of a society in which women have less social and economic power than men, and are hence particularly vulnerable to financial coercion. And as the legal strictures around paid organ donation indicate, there is significant potential harm to coercing an individual’s consent to transgressions of their bodily integrity. Since the sex industry relies on this coercion, it should therefore be seen in the same way.

36. Furthermore, there are practical barriers to treating the selling of sex (again, this motion seems to refer only to “full service” sex – i.e. intercourse, oral sex, anal sex and associated activities) as other jobs are treated under the law. One key difficulty is around health and safety (H&S) legislation. While abolitionists and supporters of decriminalisation both agree that the safety of the women engaging in sex work should be a paramount concern of any proposed policy, the latter have not been able to give an account of how, for example, bodily liquids would be treated under H&S law with regard to prostitution. In other professions when contact with potential body fluids such as saliva, blood, semen or urine is likely, protective equipment such as face masks, latex gloves (double latex gloves in the case of nurses working in the presence of blood or semen), plastic aprons etc. are recommended or in some cases mandated, for the protection of the workers. It is difficult to imagine how the provision of full intercourse could function while complying with such regulation, and we are left to imagine that supporters of this motion would in fact exclude women from being fully bound by such regulation, treating them very much as not professionals doing “any other job”, but as a special case, worthy of reduced protection.

37. Similar difficulties arise when looking at legislation touching on sexual harassment at work and other hard-won legislation which functions to protect workers and structures what is legally considered an appropriate work environment. It would be irresponsible in the extreme for people belonging to the Labour movement to hide behind a glib assertion of “sex work is work” while abandoning the workers in question to be excluded from the protections available to others.

38. Belief 3: “The right of consenting adults to engage in sexual relations is of no business to anyone but the people involved.”

39. Consent to sex and equality in sex are not the same, as students will know from the fact that sexual relationships between students and teaching staff are prohibited, even where they are consensual. This is a highly contestable statement of opinion which does not reflect society’s growing awareness of socialised male privilege and sexual entitlement.

40. As set out above, in selling sex, one person is in reality paid by the other to waive the usual expectation of mutual desire and equal power that applies in non-paid consensual sexual encounters. “Consent” in this context refers to the kind of temporary relinquishment of rights that happens when patients sign consent forms for medical procedures: “I grant you my consent to temporarily have the right to do something to me (for example cut me in a surgery, or have intercourse with me) which I would normally consider harmful and which it would be an offence for you to do to me without this form.” However the patient signing away bodily integrity is doing so out of a medical necessity, whereas the woman is doing so purely out of financial interest and not because of any reciprocity of benefit.

41. Belief 4: “The moral panic around sex work and prostitution echoes the moral panic that was present when homosexuality was in the process of being decriminalised. It is no coincidence that many who argue for harsh anti-prostitution laws under the guise of feminism also voted against equal marriage and similar civil rights measures.”

42. While some voices may oppose both the sex industry and equal marriage for religious reasons, it is profoundly misleading to ignore feminist organisations and individuals such as those listed above, who oppose the former and support the latter.

43. Belief 6: “Regardless of their reasons for entering into sex work, all sex workers deserve to have their rights protected and to be able to do their jobs safely. This includes sex workers who do not find their job ‘empowering’. Whether or not you enjoy a job should have no bearing on the rights you deserve while you do it.”

44. By definition, the Nordic model would not deny women this protection, since it too would decriminalise them. This being the case, it is not clear how this motion would better ensure that women can “do their jobs safely”, when its very distinguishing feature is that it protects the “rights” of those responsible for the threat to women’s safety in the first place: men who buy.

45. Belief 9: “Tim Barnett was correct in asserting that “prostitution is inevitable, and no country has succeeded in legislating it out of existence”. Sweden cannot show a reduction in the number of sex workers.”

46. In the DOJ research cited in the motion, it is estimated that only 3% of men currently regularly pay for sex. If the numbers did decrease in the wake of criminalising demand, then the proportion of men paying for sex would shrink to the point of being insignificant.

47. No undesirable social behaviour has yet been eradicated completely – which is why we have laws and courts punishing those who commit murder or theft, despite the fact that they are illegal. To argue that, because it is impossible to prevent 100% of offences, we should not have laws making them offences in the first place is a bizarre for a political organisation, and not particularly coherent in terms of the wellbeing of the women involved in the sex trade. Our concern, as a society, for their welfare should not be predicated on the willingness or otherwise of men to change their behaviour.

48. Conclusion: This motion is based on selective and tendentious readings of the research and on assumptions and myths about the nature of prostitution and those who engage in it. It also seems to set out actively to misrepresent the Nordic model and those who support it. It engages in the strange sophistry of defending women as fully self-determined agents operating from purely rational and free motives on the one hand – whilst simultaneously claiming that it is driven primarily by the needs of vulnerable people who have no alternative. And in both these arguments, the interests of the men who fuel the demand are completely absent, suggesting that the industry somehow operates solely to the benefit of the labour force- an odd position for a Labour movement to find itself in. Where it does make any fleeting reference to the role of buyers, it relies on the deeply ingrained belief that male sexual exploitation of women is immutable and can never be eradicated as an argument for normalising it.

49. By contrast, as feminists we believe that women who sell sex are fellow human beings who operate under the constraints and limitations of all human life. Most of them are neither superior, sexually liberated entrepreneurs, nor weak and defenceless victims. They are responding to the demand created by men and catered to by pimps and traffickers (among others), a demand which can and should be delegitimised through the introduction of legislation that signals that sexual exploitation is not an acceptable “service” to purchase, even if the money exchanging hands seems to make it a “free” transaction on behalf of the class of people thus being exploited. The protection of those who sell should not be conflated with the legitimisation of those who buy. Those within the Labour movement who fail to distinguish or even acknowledge these two very different constituent elements of the sex industry, and who do not identify which holds the power, should explain their position better and more honestly than they have done in this motion.

WAPOW (Women Assessing Policy on Women)

June 2015

References:

Berg, S. (2013) New research shows violence decreases under Nordic model: Why the radio silence? Feminist Current, January 22, available at: http://feministcurrent.com/7038/new-research-shows-violence-decreases-under-nordic-model-why-the-radio-silence/.

Bjørndahl, U. 2012 “Dangerous Liaisons: A report on the violence women in prostitution in Oslo are exposed to” Accessed at https://humboldt1982.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/dangerous-liaisons.pdf on June 2nd 2015

Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, 2014, “Prostitution, trafficking and modern slavery in Europe“. Accessed at http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=20559HYPERLINK “http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=20559&Language=en”&HYPERLINK “http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=20559&Language=en”Language=en on June 2nd 2015

Department of Justice, 2014, “Research into Prostitution in Northern Ireland”. Accessed at http://www.dojni.gov.uk/index/publications/publication-categories/pubs-criminaljustice/prostitution-report-nov-update.pdf HYPERLINK “http://www.dojni.gov.uk/index/publications/publication-categories/pubs-criminaljustice/prostitution-report-nov-update.pdf%20on%20June%202nd%202015″on June 2nd 2015

Grant, R., “Proposed Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex: Summary of Consultation Responses”. Accessed at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_MembersBills/FINAL_consultation_summary_Criminalisation_of_Purchase_of_Sex.pdfHYPERLINK “http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_MembersBills/FINAL_consultation_summary_Criminalisation_of_Purchase_of_Sex.pdf%20on%20June%202nd%202015″ on June 2nd 2015

SOU (2010) Selected extracts of the Swedish Government report SOU 2010:49: Prohibition of the purchase of sexual services. An evaluation 1999-2008.

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Equal Opportunities Objectification

Quick post, because I’m still in the middle of marking.

You’ve probably see the Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner, but if not, here’s an article describing both it, and the story. It’s ‘celebratory’, in the parlance of Vanity Fair, which does, after all, make its business out of celebrating the performance of femininity. And, you might ask, what’s wrong with that?

I see no particular reason why Jenner shouldn’t celebrate however she chooses, nor am I naive enough to imagine Vanity Fair is suddenly going to start interrogating the male gaze, commissioning editorials on the problem of compulsory femininity, or even choosing a cover star who represents anything but a very, very, very narrow image of what ‘beauty’ looks like.

What I do have a problem with, is the response I keep seeing, over and over, from women responding to this, women whose views I know reasonably well. ‘Ooh, she’s so hot!’ ‘Wow, sexy picture!’

These responses are trying to sound supportive. They are a way of telegraphing to each other, to the world, that we’re supporting this person’s choice to be however they want to be. And that sounds lovely, right? Just as, initially, it sounded lovely to me when people posted supportive comments about a young women with Down’s Syndrome modelling, and when people talked about how ‘fit’ Helen Mirren looked on the red carpet, and …

No, I realised, it didn’t sound supportive. It sounded patronising. It sounded as if the speakers didn’t want to admit they were applying a different standard to these women, talking about their bodies as they’d never talk about the body of your average Vanity Fair cover star.

It is perfectly within Jenner’s rights to show off her body however she pleases, and perfectly within VF‘s to commercialise that. But if we, as feminists, would normally critique an image that is objectifying, that prescribes a narrow version of what women should look like, then we should continue to do that. To apply a different standard here may look to some like a supportive gesture, but it’s isn’t. And it certainly isn’t feminism.

Note: You’re going to love me, but comments are closed on this one.

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Philomel must lose her tongue to-day: Memory, Memorial, and the Emptiness of Women’s Speech

Nike of Samothrace, from the Louvre collection.

Nike of Samothrace, from the Louvre collection.

A few weeks ago, I read a beautiful piece by Sarah Ditum. She explores the ways in which women’s work – partly because it is inherently open-ended, needed to be done over and over – is dismissed, ignored, excluded from historical memorial. Drawing on a parallel history of women’s art, lacemaking and broderie anglaise, which create objects literally ‘spun around nothing’, she sets up a shockingly poignant contrast between the image of frivolous vanity and the reality of relentless, thankless labour. Ditum’s post was written in response to the news that the 2005 memorial to the women of World War II had been defaced, and so she explains how she found herself having to explain to her son why women weren’t originally included on the main memorial itself:

” … [the women] weren’t counted when the Cenotaph went up. Their work was non-work. Just air, like the holes in my lace. Wind the bobbins, twist and cross, work the piece, catch all the nothing in the looping patterns of the thread. This is how we see women’s work – the pretty arrangement of nothing. …In war, men made heaps of bodies, women made the things that would be consumed and need to be made again.”

This sudden twisting of the beautiful into the violent is shockingly effective, and I love how her writing creates its own mimetic memorial, structuring itself into an object of beauty looped around the idea of women’s absence from historical monuments, just like the lacework it describes. But her mimesis approach made me think about how language, itself functions as a memorial, and the way that idea is gendered.

It’s a theme that runs through a lot of what I’ve been thinking about this term. I’m working on trauma and memory, and my students – who’ve finished their medieval dissertations – have been preparing to sit their final exam, the Tragedy paper. Yet, tragedy, in the Western literary tradition, is very often an extended exploration of men doing unspeakably awful things to women, and authors constructing something beautiful and memorable out of these actions. It poses an ethical real problem: how do you ask women to study 2000-plus years of literature which is, amongst other things, interested in violence against women as an aesthetic process?

First I thought about women’s speech. A friend of mine recently wrote this piece, titled ‘Why Women Talk Less’, about the dynamics of male/female speech within mixed gender groups. It has a huge amount of research behind it, and for me, the stand-out point is that the problem isn’t women failing to speak; the often-proposed solution – that women should be more assertive, more forceful – simply doesn’t work. Women who attempt that approach are penalised for it, perceived as rude interrupters (a perception I notice a lot when teaching medieval woman writers). Women are expected to spend time, and words, validating male peers, and this reinforces male authority to speak up.

We can see this throughout history. We tend to see women’s speech, and women’s writing, as insubstantial, provisional, lacking the weight and authority of men’s words. Writing in the first century BC, Catullus declares that the words of a woman in love are so fluid, so fleetingly true, ‘in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua': they should be written in the wind, on the rushing water’. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the only woman whose words have any power is the Sibyl of Cumae, the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, her body racked with pain as he forces her to speak not her own words, but his. Yet she also figures the fragility of women’s speech, for she scribbles her messages on fluttering leaves, which are blown into disorder by the wind. Her legend links her raving and her ineffectual attempts to communicate to her physical imprisonment in an ageing female body: coerced to give up her virginity to the god Apollo, she bargained for as many years of life as the grains of sand in her hourglass, and so lives on in painfully protracted old age, shrunken to tiny size:

‘For I saw the Sibyl of Cumae with my own eyes, hanging in a little jar, and when the boys asked her: “Sibyl, what would you do?” she replied “I would die.”‘ 

These powerful tropes of ephemeral, disordered female speech lie behind a more violent tradition. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid imagines women deprived of their human voices through literal, oral violation. I wrote a while ago, following on from comments by other scholars, about the way in which women’s speech is marked in medieval literature as the speech of the Other, as birdspeech. The paradigmatic example of this Ovid’s story of Philomela, raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband Tereus. Her tongue cut out, Philomela is forced to weave her story in order to communicate with her sister, and once this is done the two take gruesome revenge by killing and serving the body of Tereus (and Procne’s) son Itys to his unsuspecting father. Philomela’s communication becomes – of necessity – another looping-together of words around an absence: the physical mutilation, the loss of her tongue, driving her back to that seemingly decorative ‘woman’s work’ Ditum describes. 

Akrotiri swallow vase (detail).

Akrotiri swallow vase (detail). Prehistoric Museum of Thira

As Tereus pursues the two women in murderous fury, they are miraculously transformed into birds: Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow, forced to cry out the swallow’s song of ‘Itys, Itys’ in echo of her dead son’s name. The sound telescopes her grief to a single word, reducing it to birdsong, and it echoes backwards and forwards in literature to other women, losing its specificity of reference: Aeschylus’ Cassandra, doomed never to be believed, cries out with the same bird-like sounds, ‘like swallows, in some barbarian language’, ‘a tuneless song … Itys! Itys!’; Pound’s Canto 4 places the same horrified cry into the mouth of the medieval Frenchwoman, fed the heart of her lover Cabestan, as she throws herself to her death:

Et ter flebiliter, Ityn, Ityn!
And she went toward the the window and cast her down,
All the while, the while, swallows crying:
Ityn!
“It is Cabestan’s heart in the dish.”
“Is it Cabestan’s heart in the dish?

… the swallows crying:
‘Tis. ‘Tis. Ytis!”

These echoes empty out the significance even of women’s bird-like mutilated speech, reducing it to a shared effect of sound, as if all women’s voices blur into one unintelligible twittering. Eliot, incorporating the story of Philomel into The Wasteland, reduces this song further. Responding to Ovid in the sixteenth century, writers claimed that the soft ‘tereu, tereu’ sound of the nightingale represents Philomel’s crying after her rapist; they also hear the word ‘fie’, and, inexplicably (but accurately representing the birdsong), ‘jug, jug’. Eliot’s Philomel once sings ‘Tereu’ but her speech is dominated by the jarringly incomprehensible: ‘twit twit twit/ jug jug jug jug jug jug’.

Pottery_jug_painting_swallows_1700-1650_BC,_PMTh_138_0503173x

Akrotiri swallow vase (detail). Prehistoric Museum of Thira

The contrast between these evocations of women’s empty speech, and men’s depictions of their own words, is striking. Male writers and speakers aspire to permanence for their words, and with their words they construct memorials cemented in stone and engraved in metal. Horace, writing between Catullus and Ovid, offers this image:

“I have built a monument more lasting than bronze
Higher than the royal structure of the pyramids
… I shall not wholly die, and a greater part of me
Will escape Lady Death.”

(Exegi monumentum aere perennius/ reglalique situ pyramidum altius … Non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei/ vitabit Libitinam).

For Horace, words – the words that for women are ‘wind-written’ and fleeting, twittering and muted, looped beautifully around absence –  are paradoxically concrete and lasting. And, whereas the repetition of the words attributed to women create an echo-chamber of twittering confusions, we find later writers build on Horace’s image as if it were the solid structure it describes. Chaucer’s House of Fame pays tribute to Virgil’s Aeneid by picturing it, engraved on a tablet of brass; Shakespeare adapts it into his sonnets. But this image of permanence – of the memorialising quality of words – also stands behind violent displays of eloquence in which masculine memorialisation acts upon voiceless women. So, Othello muses:

I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

His words construct a memorial for Desdemona in the Horatian tradition, an aesthetic object that takes on the function of the marble statue it describes. There is something psychopathically disturbing about the way Othello slips, so readily, from the act of smothering his wife to the glibly eloquent image of a funeral memorial, as if to elide the intervening death and his own part in it. The violence of this memorial image is something in which Shakespeare becomes complicit, because he participates in the process Horace describes – making a memorial, an aesthetic object, out of words – but uses as his raw material, his sculpting block or tablet – the image of Desdemona’s dying body.

Sixteenth-century tomb memorial to Joyce Acton, Charleton Church, Warwickshire.

Sixteenth-century tomb memorial to Joyce Acton, Charleton Church, Warwickshire.

This unsettling linguistic memorialising becomes grotesque when it is brought into contact with the tradition of treating women’s words as muted and mutilated language, as in Titus AndronicusTitus is an incredibly violent play – the plot revolves around acts of murder (or human sacrifice), counter-acts of revenge, the threat of forced marriage and the horror of rape. Its rape subplot is based, explicitly, on the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and where the tongueless Philomela weaves a tapestry to tell her story, in Shakespeare’s version, the rapists tauntingly anticipate this possibility, and cut off not only Lavinia’s tongue, but also her hands:

Demetrius: So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.

Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.

It is in this state that Lavinia’s uncle, Marcus, finds her. Like the mutilated statue of the goddess at the top of this post, she wants to speak but her body stands poised in a frozen space, mouthless and armless, unable to speak or communicate. This moment is one of the much-discussed scenes of Shakespeare’s work, for, as Lavinia stands bleeding, Marcus launches into a speech whose length and self-conscious rhetorical eloquence seem jarringly out of place. His attempt to find beauty in the horrific image, to construct an aesthetic object out of his own emotional response, echoes Othello’s memorialising self-justification, yet agonisingly prolongs the display of Lavinia’s unanswered suffering. Her pain becomes, as we listen, somehow unreal; her bleeding seems fake, because quite obviously she would have died of blood loss had the wounds been genuine. The words memorialise Lavinia at the expense of making her pain, and her humanity, seem unreal.

This speech prepares for Titus’ own response to his daughter’s violation, which bursts out of him when he discovers – as she manages to trace out a message in the sand, holding a stick between the stumps of her hands – who her rapists are. Echoing Horace, he vows:

I will go get a leaf of brass,
And with a gad of steel will write these words,
And lay it by: the angry northern wind
Will blow these sands, like Sibyl’s leaves, abroad,
And where’s your lesson, then?

I can’t help reading Titus’ image of engraving words in brass as a violent one, the words cut sharply into the surface of the metal, penetrating its surface in a disturbingly pseudo-sexual way (I’ve written about the history of writing as penetration before). As with Othello, the act of memorialisation is also – although inadvertently – an act of silencing, as Titus vows to ‘lay it by’ once he has recorded the story: to preserve it, but, also, to set it aside, a memorial, but an unread memorial. In proximity to the image of Sibyl’s leaves, too, the image of scattered sand carries a submerged reminder of the coercive sex that reduced the Sibyl to a woman trapped in a failing, constraining body, wishing for death. The lines insert a masculine, permanent, solid written text over the already-scattering feminine words, and over Lavinia’s enforced muteness, speaking for her but also speaking over her.

The horror of the tragedies comes from their attempt to make beautiful – and then to make permanent – the suffering of the women they depict. But their power also comes from the long histories of conceptualising male and female speech in different ways, of imagining men’s words as permanent, inscribed, gouged upon the memory while women’s words are scattered, muted, mutilated birdspeech, a series of echoes looped around silences. If we see literature as a long conversation, stretching forward from Horace and Ovid to Shakespeare and onwards, we can interpret the repeated processes of citation and adaptation as something akin to the validation of men’s voices we see in conversations.

So what does reading tragedy – or reading literary history – achieve, especially for women literary critics? How does it relate back to that dynamic of the silencing of women, which exists outside literature, in debates between men and women?

Running a commentary around these words – knitting them up into a new pattern – feels substantial to me. Commentaries are seen as reactive work, not original work, but, like Ditum’s lace-making, they create something much more than the sum of their parts. In the context of female absences and silences, building this structure – writing this piece – feels productive, a way of relating to these texts and responding to these tropes, without replicating them. By analysing the imagery of male speech as solid, concrete and authoritative, we can deconstruct it, unpick it, turn it into the sort of text that can be unravelled and understood. Writing this, I had at the back of my mind a question about women studying tragedy: should we do it, or is it unfair to expect women to immerse themselves in literature that is so filled with violently silencing images of women? I think writing can function as a form of memorialising of that problem, a mode of ‘speaking up’ for women that fills in their silences without speaking over them.

Note on Copyright

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