Wednesday, 14 May 2014

What do we tell our daughters?

On Monday night I went along to an event held by Pages of Hackney, a brilliant independent bookshop down the road. The event was a panel discussion with Kat Banyard, co-founder of UK Feminista, Nimko Ali, founder of Daughters of Eve, Zoe Williams, Guardian journalist and Melissa Benn, author and campaigner. It was Benn’s book that inspired the evening and shaped the debate: “What do we tell our daughters?”

Benn’s book details the struggle and awkwardness but, ultimately, the empowerment that erupts in the conversations had between mothers and daughters. Sex, relationships, the media, pornography, the elusive female orgasm... Not topics for those prone to blushing. The awesome foursome spoke passionately about what it is we should be telling our daughters, often contradicting each other, frequently profound, occasionally depressing but unanimously honest.
The whole thing got me scratching my chin about what I’d be telling my daughter about the world, if she were here now in 2014 (and of an appropriate age for such conversations). But it’s not the first time I’ve considered it: in 2012 myself and my dearest pal Rhiannon organised an International Women’s Day showcase at our students’ union. We included Vagina Monologues passages, poetry, singing and three of us wrote letters to our daughters. It seemed so easy at the time. Mine was filled with gutsy 'girl power' rhetoric – you can achieve anything you set your sights on, don’t let no manz tell you different grrrl, and for the love of god, the hair under your armpits is SUPPOSED to be there amiriiiiiight. Just two years ago, that felt so authentic, so bloody revolutionary – but I’m not so sure my message would be the same now. The ages of 21 and 23 don’t seem like such a gigantic leap but when you’ve spent a year as one of only two women at the helm of a 22,000 strong students’ union, received violent threats after talking about equality, had a misogynistic 'parody' twitter account dedicated to you, and been reduced to your “sweet arse” by a colleague and peer, the whole “you can do anything, sista!” discourse just doesn’t seem so relevant. Or true.

So I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to fill my hypothetical daughter’s head with sassy feel-good mantras; I want to prepare her for the complete and utter BS she’s inevitably going to face, and give her the insight to reject it. I’m sure if that was the flavour of my performance piece two years ago, I would have been met with 300 pairs of eyes, agog and horrified. So I guess it’s a good job it’s taken me this long to figure it out. So here goes.


The biggest lie you’ll ever be told is that men like sex more than women, or that men have needs to fulfil that women simply don’t have. This is a lie fed to you by films, tv shows, songs, your friends and pretty much any type of media that is driven by men – male writers, male producers, male directors, or just males themselves. The idea that men have “needs” that women don’t feel legitimises the imbalance felt by women in heterosexual relationships; it also legitimises male infidelity and partially legitimises rape and sexual assault. “Men have urges, they can’t control them, they are biologically wired to sow their seed”: this notion that male sexuality has a superior significance does women a huge injustice. At best, women miss out on sexual pleasure and at worst, men feel entitlement over women’s bodies and rape is normalised behaviour. But this isn’t just about women: this idea does a disservice to men too. Thoughtful, kind, passionate and exceedingly well-evolved men. The men who will work their tongues off trying to overcome centuries of female sexual oppression (and make up for lost time) by spending Frank Ocean’s entire album going down on you. The men who stand alongside you at protests over a woman’s right to a free, safe abortion. The men who fancy you loads but who’ll walk you home after a drunken night out, tuck you into bed, then see themselves out. Men are not brutish thugs who rape and pillage – we’ve evolved, get with the programme. But “boys will be boys” and we allow and expect them to behave this way so, of course, some will.
Just to clarify that point: your sexual pleasures and desires are equally as important as a man’s. Your lust is as strong, as potent and as natural. Those who tell you differently are afraid of what women could do if collectively we all realised this. Because there would be hell to pay. Or, more likely, we’d all become lesbians. If you’re a lesbian by the way, I’m totally down with that. I dig chicks.

A sexual relationship should be entirely reciprocal – if they’re coming, you should be too. It may take longer and result in some mild jaw cramping, but that’s the price we all pay for equality. If you’re not having a wild (and safe) time, find someone else to have special cuddles with. Trust me, you really don’t want to be missing out.


Relationships are really hard and usually boring. They’re also incredibly political even when you don’t want them to be – remember darling, we’ve discussed the 'the personal is political' thing before, I hope you were listening. But aside from that, a good relationship should be the most comfortable thing in the world, like wearing a giant woolly jumper in bed with an electric blanket with a packet of chocolate hobnobs. You should feel comfortable showing your partner what you look like in the morning, with no make-up and unbrushed teeth. If you let this person inside you, they should be able to see the outside of you as it really is. You should be able to say things, think things, do things free from fear or anxiety because that person should be your greatest advocate and ally and even the wildest of notions should be comfortably shared.
Sometimes men hit women. This has a lot to do with power and fear and anger and objectification, which we’ll explore in a minute. But sometimes relationships can pain you in other ways, and abuse has many different guises. If your partner ever tells you who you can and can’t talk to, or what you can and can’t wear, leave immediately. I’ll be ready with an open door, a cup of tea and a pillow to scream into. That last one is for me.


Unfortunately this is the most pervasive and inevitable of all these problems. And that’s because it’s at the very heart of bad sex and bad relationships. Sexism looks like many things and you often won’t know when it’s there and when it’s not. You may end up like your mother, where you can sniff it out when it’s probably imaginary, then you walk face-first into it when you were blissfully meandering. It’s the slipperiest, slimiest, stickiest thing: sexism is a slug that crawls across almost everything you’ll ever know or do. Sucks to be us, eh.
When you turn on the television and you see a male pop star in a music video looking pensive while watching a sunset, driving a car – that will seem normal. The next music video will be of a woman wearing a bikini washing a car, sponging her bulging breasts with suds and licking her lips – and that’ll seem normal too. We all accept that men and women look certain ways when they’re portrayed in the media, but this isn’t the way it should be. This is sexism. This shows that women’s bodies are more valuable than their talents, while men don’t have to live up to the same standards. And this will haunt you constantly; you’ll open a newspaper and a topless woman will greet you; you’ll go shopping and the magazine rack will taunt you with gaudy titillation; you’ll walk down the street and a man will wind down his window and harass you. And when you complain about this, people will call you 'over-sensitive' or a 'whiny bitch' or a 'feminazi' and that will be an attempt to silence you.

But this is where my lesson is coming together; this idea of you being silent, subdued or suppressed – sexually, romantically or politically. Even when you feel like it’s quivering or unsure, your voice is your most powerful asset. You must build friendships, relationships and a career around your ideas and your beliefs. Thoughts are incredibly valuable, especially women’s thoughts – those can move mountains when they’ve wanted to. Solidarity and collectivism are the best things ever; I know I’ve been a bit doom and gloom, but knowing that you’re not the only one and that there’s a movement of people supporting, loving and helping each other will lift your spirits when you’re feeling low. Find those people and hold onto them. Plus, things will be a lot better for you than they were for me, and much better than they were for your grandmother; these things take time and constant belligerence, don't forget that. 
And of course, my dear, if you’re horribly bored and uninspired by feminism and politics and the like, I won’t blame you. I’ll still adore you, even if you turn out to be a Conservative – or worse, apathetic – accountant. Just don’t expect the crispy roast potatoes; they’ll be going to your revolutionary brother.

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