More notes on a scandal

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The white-hot incandescent anger induced by the case of the mother whose baby was removed from her by two men, has been replaced by an overwhelming grief and sadness.

Reflecting on the matter further, there are other disturbing factors which have come to light  which ought to be brought to wider attention. Unfortunately, the mother is gagged from being able to talk about which is in itself a worrying development. She ought to be able to tell her story, given this is a matter of enormous public interest, without facing jail. Lib Dem candidate for Birmingham Yardley John Hemming, a campaigner for openness in the courts, said:

‘How will it benefit the child to gag the mother? It benefits the court because it stops her from criticising the court.

‘For people to understand and trust the workings of the courts they need to know what is going on.’

Similarly the Tory candidate and former MP for Esher has said that it is a cardinal principle of British justice that it is not just done, but also seen to be done.

One of the many disturbing factors of this case is that the mother was criticised by judge Allison Russell, for her conduct in court. It wasn’t only the need for interruptions to express milk (obviously the judge has never experienced the unpleasantness and pain of spontaneous erruption, full breasts can be extremely painful – talking or thinking about a loved child can often stimulate an embarrassing and uncontrolled reaction) but what piqued the judge was that the mother interrupted the proceedings to make comments or question statements or representations far more often than the men, whose behaviour was cool, controlled and utterly reasonable.

Firstly there seems to be an issue of misogyny in that the mother was attacked for being ‘emotional’, which is hardly surprising when one considers what was at stake for her here. What leapt off the page for me when reading the judgement, was her utter desperation not to be separated from her vulnerable young baby. It was like a mother polar bear attempting to defend and protect her cubs and ward off any attackers, a typical mammalian reaction.

Secondly, unlike the two men, the mother had no lawyer or legal counsel and was representing herself. Had she been properly represented, she would no doubt have been briefed and advised of how to conduct herself and present her case before the judge, to be honest she seems like a client whom the lawyer would advise to keep as quiet as possible, but the judge doesn’t seem to have taken this inequality into account when critiquing the mother. And because the woman represented herself in the family court, the judge noted that she seemed articulate, passionate, engaged, able to account for herself and not therefore any sort of victim.

The law firm representing the two men was Natalie Gamble Associates. The leading experts in the field when it comes to family law, drawing up surrogacy agreements and self-described champions of assisted reproduction and fertility law. Every time a similar surrogacy mess rears its head in the mainstream media, up pops Natalie Gamble claiming how this is proof that commercial surrogacy needs to be ‘regulated’, i.e. legalised in the UK. Unsurprising coming from a firm whose sole source of revenue and profit is derived from surrogacy or fertility issues, but one can hardly claim she’s impartial on the matter.

So here we have a legally unrepresented mother fighting not to lose custody of her child, versus a firm of hot-shot lawyers and the judge negatively contrasts her demeanour with that of the two men in her conclusions about the woman’s character and passes an order banning the woman from ever being able to talk about it.

I am not defending all of the mother’s actions, from what has been reported it seems as though she did her best to frustrate contact with the baby’s biological father, which is unacceptable. If indeed she did tell lies about the male couple, this is not to be commended, however these  were the painfully transparent actions of a mother who was desperate and therefore fighting tooth and nail, not to lose her baby daughter.

One of the things that she was attacked for was unnecessary visits to the hospital and doctor when her child did not require treatment. The judge concluded that this was to smear the men, but on one occasion the child was diagnosed as having a viral infection; on another, the baby was found to be fine, but the mother was worried that she may have dehydration, just having come back from an overnight visit, where of course she would have been unable to have been breastfed.

One might draw one’s own reasonable conclusions as to whether these visits were wise or even necessary, but then again, how many of us have taken our children to the GP or even to the hospital because of an urgent niggle, only to be reassured that everything is fine? I know I certainly have and have always been told by the professionals to trust instinct and that’s better to be safe than sorry.

Another issue is that she posted numerous threads on Mumsnet in which she repeatedly changed her story on several occasions, which had then to be removed when the administrators realised that she was going through the courts and the story might hit the press. She had alleged history with regards to telling untruths about her ex-husband in order to frustrate his contact with their children.

So the woman is clearly not a saint; she needs some sort of external involvment, not least counselling in order to ensure that her children are not deprived of the opportunity to build a strong relationship with their father. The same goes with the father of her baby, clearly some sort of intervention needed to be had to ensure that a relationship could develop.

As to whether or not she is guilty of the greatest thought crime of the twenty-first century ‘homophobia’, I’d say this is unlikely given her original friendship with a gay man and agreement to enter into a surrogacy arrangement. It’s difficult to ascertain precisely what happened, but it seems as though initially she had contributed a large sum of her own money into the deposit on a house where all three of them were going to live together and she would take a role in the raising of the child. There were even emails about the baby sleeping in the mother’s room with her in a cot. But then something happened and the relationship, especially with the father’s partner, soured.

It does then cast the judge’s decision that the baby should go the the male couple, because that is where she was always intended to be, her ‘natural family’,  into doubt.

The mother’s registering of the birth, choosing a name for the baby and baptising the child are all things which she was legally entitled to do as the baby’s mother.

The male couple obviously had their legal options lined up, claiming that they were being utterly reasonable and had been forced into taking action, despite the fact the mother had broken no laws. Another horrific facet of this sorry tale is how the mother was forced to have regular meetings with a lactation midwife in order to plan how she could stop breastfeeding by the time the baby had reached 9 months, with the aim that the baby could commence overnight visits.

The problem with this, as any breastfeeding mother knows, is that with demand-led feeding it goes on for as long as both the baby asks it and the mother is content to feed. Breastfeeding is entirely between mother and child; though the child is non-verbal they are still able to communicate their need for the breast to their mother. It is absolutely not for anyone, let alone state agents to determine how long a mother ought to be feeding, in order that her baby may be prepared for handover and get used to sleeping alone in strange unfamiliar surroundings without the scent or comforting presence of their mother.

I was reminded of the dreadful cases of pregnant women in Nigeria or other Islamic countries, sentenced to death for alleged adultery with the execution stayed until the child has been weaned from the breast. No wonder the mother was as keen to delay taking the child off the breast for as long as possible; I know I would too, and equally I would not let my children stay overnight at anyone else’s house until they were at least beyond the age of 3. This is exactly what is advocated by child psychologists; to split their time between two houses and sets of parents is confusing and unsettling for children.

What leaps off the page is, is a mother desperate enough to go to silly lengths to keep her baby and whose fear of having her child removed led her to some rash actions, which ultimately counted against her.

The story seems to have touched several personal nerves for me, perhaps because I adopt similar parenting styles so critiqued by the judge and used as justification for removal of the child. I breastfeed, I wear my babies in a sling, I co-sleep, I am predominantly a stay-at-home mother. Over the years I too have been accused of being an unfit parent on the grounds of projected moral deficiency, I’ve had trolls and stalkers attempt to tell me that I am not fit to raise my children and am causing them harm, either by neglect (thanks to being able to type quickly and turn out long considered blogposts ) or thanks to my religious and social beliefs. I too, have been branded harmful and the welfare of my children been called into question by random internet strangers. It isn’t too hard to envisage a socially conservative woman finding herself at the centre of similar proceedings, with her children deemed to be ‘at risk’ from homophobia or indoctrination, if her parents do not hold liberal conformist views.

And there’s one final and as yet undiscussed aspect to this whole sorry mess. We are constantly informed that women need more representation in politics, in business and on the judiciary. Here we see a female judge who has chosen to pursue a career instead of a family attacking and unnecessarily removing the child from the care of a woman, because she is completely unable to empathise with another woman, or understand the rationale behind her mothering. She has imposed her own vision of what motherhood ought to look like (one completely devoid of evidence) onto another woman and punished her and her child, for falling short. Is this really the sort of female representation that we should be aspiring towards?

It is clear that no harm was being caused to the baby. It was arbitrarily decided that the baby girl would fare better in the care of two men based on the subjective negative impression that the judge formed of the woman, for being ‘emotional’, too involved,  too ‘homophobic’ and that the baby would have a better, healthier and more balanced future with two men.

It’s an awful mess and while I want to scream at the injustice of it all, I also want to weep for a little child, removed from the comfort, warmth and welcome of her mother’s breast and bed and instead placed into, no doubt a beautifully attractive and immaculate wooden cot, in a room all of her own, in a house without a woman.

Feminists wake up

I’ve written about this case at length on a piece pending publication on Conservative Woman, so I’ll keep my comments here brief. Basically a woman who conceived her own child on behalf of two gay men, one of whom was her friend, reneged on the agreement and decided to keep her own child.

The child has now been removed from the mother at around the age of 15 months and handed into the care of the two men to raise. The judge, a dour childless old boot by the name of Allison Russell, has displayed zero insight into the benefits for mother and baby alike, along with a complete lack of understanding of the logistics and difficulties of expressing milk.

She has decided that the mother’s desire to breastfeed was manipulative. designed to keep the baby away from their father  and thus ‘harmful’ and attacked the mother in the judgement for wearing a baby in a sling, for co-sleeping and crucially for having no plans to return to work.

A fifteen month infant is not capable of speech, may not even be walking, cannot feed itself without help and yet, the judge has decided, it needs to learn to be independent and not solely reliant on the comfort of its mother. Wake up baby, it’s time to face the big wide world, you need to learn your place is to fulfil the needs and demands of adults and develop at a timetable to suit them, not your own. 15 months? It’s time you were spending 40 hours a week in a noisy room full of strange children and busy adults instead of enjoying the reassuring comfort and routine of home. Your mother has no business indulging you. She ought to be ought working to pay for your upkeep.

Over the weekend, in a moment that melted the world’s hearts, Prince William took the 21 month old baby George to visit his newborn sister, and setting down the child to walk on the pavement, George instantly signalled his displeasure and reached up his pudgy arms for his dad to give him a carry. According to Judge Russell, His Royal Highness is doing it all wrong, a child’s need for closeness with a parent is all about the fact that the parent has enmeshed the child in an inward looking environment which is all about serving the adult’s needs. If the judge is to be believed, breastfeeding, baby-carrying, co-sleeping, hey all that shebang is mere parental selfishness, designed to serve their neediness, requiring absolutely no self-sacrifice and of being no possible benefit to the child, whatever the evidence to the contrary.

Let’s be clear here. A woman has been attacked and vilified for fulfilling innate maternal desires. No good will has been imputed towards her, it is claimed that her breastfeeding is nothing but self-interested manipulation and the way she was raising her child does not meet with the approval of a childless judge. Even her need to take frequent breaks for expressing milk was attacked, the judge not understanding that the human female is not the equivalent of a dairy cow. Expressing even the tiniest bit of milk can take a long time for many women, and it is recommended that in order to stimulate production a woman is calm, comfortable and relaxed, i.e. not clock-watching under pressure in the lavatory of public courtroom, where the fate of one’s child is in the balance. Neither did the judge understand that the woman’s inability to express milk when her child was solely breastfeeding, was outside of her control. The milk didn’t suddenly ‘magically’ appear when the child began weaning, the mother was not withholding her ability, but simply that she had excess supply. Child starts solid food, takes less milk, the body takes time to catch up and will therefore produce a surplus. It’s not rocket science.

Whatever the behaviour of the woman, which might well have left a lot to be desired, it seems clear that she was prepared to go to desperate measures to keep her baby. Of course the child had a right to contact with her father, however, as leading child psychologist Penelope Leach notes, under the age of 4, children ought not to have sleepovers away from their main care-giver, the constant to-ing and fro-ing is bad for their psychological development, causing instability and anxiety. Of course a baby who has been exclusively breastfed and is used to sleeping with the comfort of her mother is going to be distressed by a night away in the solitary confinement of a cot in the house of two strange, if benign men.

This woman has had her child removed (and one cannot begin to image the turmoil, trauma and anxiety experienced by the baby) because she refused to parent her in order to facilitate the desires and needs of two men.

This is case which cries out to high heaven for justice. The feminists ought to be all over this like a cheap suit. Where is this woman’s autonomy, why is her mothering under attack when its acknowledged that the child is at no risk of harm? Heck, even heroin-addicted mothers are allowed to parent their babies under supervision. Since when does breastfeeding and if the judge is to believed, casting aspersions about the father’s behaviour in attempt to keep the child, justify the removal. When you look at the allegations made by the mother, though unpleasant, they aren’t homophobic, rather they raise questions about the nature of the relationship between the two men and whether it was a suitable environment for a child.  It seems to have been the judge who drew the correlation between what the woman was alleging about this couple and deciding it implicitly applied to every gay couple.

Removing a child for the supposed moral deficiency of the mother, is precisely the outdated attitude displayed by the mother-and-baby institutions of yesteryear. Catholics continue to be attacked by those supporting same-sex parenting for the way some religious sisters behaved in giving away their babies to richer, more stable couples and not allowing the child to bond with the mother, which caused years of heartbreak for so many and yet this is exactly what is being advocated here. “How dare you bond with a baby which doesn’t belong to you and which you have no right to parent, even if you have given birth to her.”

Commercial surrogacy is still illegal in the UK – why on earth are the courts attempting to accommodate this. Surely a better message would have been to allow the mother to keep her child, which would have been in both of their best interests, with  frequent contact, ordered for the father?

When are the feminists going to wake up to the fact that just because men are gay, it doesn’t make them any the less capable of using women as exploitable objects to serve their own gratification, than straight ones. The exploitation may not be sexual, but expecting women to be passive breeders, grateful for the cash they receive in return for relinquishing their bodily autonomy and motherhood and attacking them if they do not fulfil the demands of the contract to the letter, is every bit as  abusive and harmful. This is the inevitable consequence of gender blurring and claiming that the roles of mother and father are interchangeable. Women and babies are hurt, treated as consumer goods to be traded for the whims of men and backed up by the highest court in the land.

Escaping the ‘choice feminist’ honey trap

One of the concepts that I have often struggled with when expounding on the subject of pornography is whether or not the female stars are themselves victims. Recently there has been a lot of discourse regarding the topic of sex workers in mainstream media, Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 recently had an illuminating discussion, in which one sex worker passionately, articulately and  convincingly argued that she was no victim.

The problem is that mainstream soft-porn such as the ubiquitous 50 shades of grey, and Belle de Jour’s Diary of a Call Girl, has brought the taboo into the mainstream, giving practices which are often seedy, grim, painful and unpleasant, an alluring and glamourous appeal. It is not sufficient to be well-educated or cultured, or professionally successful, ideally we should all be sexual gourmands willing and able to indulge in and expand the flavours of our sexual palate, if we are to be considered true sophisticates.

Catholic culture and theology will naturally eschew and reject such worldly thinking, nonetheless this narrative of women involved in pornography as victims, is a difficult one to unpick when discussing on a secular level. One doesn’t need the reams of emerging data on the dangers of pornography and of porn addiction to believe that pornography is essentially the misuse of another human person, whether that’s the person involved in the making of it, or the person viewing it. Pornography is not only damaging to the individuals associated with it or who choose to use it, but to society as a whole.

Which is why this piece, written by a mainstream feminist is an essential read, as it rejects the entire frame of sexual empowerment, expressing sympathy with someone who is the target of abuse as a result of their sexual activities does not mean that one has  to embrace their choices as valid. It rejects the frame of pornography as being an issue of individual choice and validates critique of pornography as being about the manufacture and commodification of sexual desire.

By asking “how does porn – its material production, its normativity, its wide availability, and its ubiquity in pop culture – affect our desires and our capacity for intimacy?” feminists can offer a critique of porn without falling into the honey trap.

Summing up, the author asks

“The issue isn’t whether porn is liberating for her.  The issue is:  is porn liberating for us?”

Now that’s my kind of feminism and of course it will give fuel to those who would wish to despairingly equate feminism and/or Catholicism with Puritanism, whereas actually both Catholics and feminists would agree that sex is a good and pleasurable thing which should be enjoyed by women and men alike, but we would differ on the appropriate context. The default Catholic position is one of sex positivity, so long as the parameters of sex were described as being heterosexual and within marriage. It’s not that sex per se is harmful, dirty or bad, we accept the sheer power of the thing, which is why we wish to harness the power as a force for good, namely reinforcing intimacy between a married couple and procreation.

But what really struck me about this intelligent piece was that it, perhaps subconsciously rejected individualism and moral relativism and the popular feminist mantra that woman’s choices must automatically be celebrated by virtue of her gender. Female solidarity does not mean that we have to applaud, ostracise, shun or pity women who choose the lucrative career of working in one of Hugh Heffner or Peter Stringfellow’s establishments, but rather that we ask deeper questions about the nature of female flourishing and freedoms and use reason to explain, persuade and convince others of our point of view.

The technique is similar to Catholic humanist apologetics however, feminists will be at an advantage in that they may not have to face the ‘you are an irrational believer in the sky fairy’ schtick, but that they will invariably have to fend off some critique of their appearance, sexual appeal and perceived lack of desire (such as the shameful treatment of Clare Short) demonstrates that sexism is still alive and well. This isn’t the fruits of patriarchy however but the consequences of the sexual revolution which held that every women had not only to be constantly ‘up for it’ but must also conform her appearance to a sexualised male gaze.

For all its coherence nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be frustrated, particularly when I noted that it had been picked up and tweeted, naturally enough, by pro-choice feminist and writer Sarah Ditum. If feminists are able to see the illogical and harmful stance of choice feminism, recognising and accepting that certain individual choices can contribute to and propagate wider harms, why can they not apply this principle to abortion. If they are able to identify the key issue about pornography, what it actually constitutes and signifies, then why are they quite so blind to the nature of abortion? If Naomi Wolfe, a key pro-choice feminist can state that abortion rights activists ought to acknowledge a death involved, then why is mainstream feminism unable to engage with and unpick the harms done to mother and child by abortion. And why are those of us who have been hurt by abortion, or who attempt to highlight the damage caused to womankind as a whole, rejected by the mainstream movement?

Feminine game changers

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BBC Woman’s Hour have launched the 2014 Power List, to identify the top ten women who are changing the way that power operates in today’s society.

No doubt the list will be replete with high achieving professional women and the feminist twitter crusaders, such as Caroline Criado-Perez who successfully campaigned to have the face of Jane Austen put on a banknote and then faced an online backlash of hatred. I’m yet to be convinced that having a woman on a banknote or banishing pink lego is anything more than superficial tinkering, it does nothing to change sexual exploitation of women, for example.

Alice Feinsten, the programme’s editor has said that she is really  looking forward to hearing whether our judges think the high-profile whistleblowers and Twitter crusaders that have made the headlines over the past year are forging new rules of engagement in the circles of power.

Emma Barnett, chair of the judging panel has noted that the age of social media means that women no longer need to be successful purely in the boardroom or their professional sphere, basically making enough noise on the internet means that one can become a major game-changer regardless of whether you are a grandmother in your seventies or a politically interested teenager.

In many ways this is great news, it certainly contextualises and explains much of the unprecedented amount of online trolling, personal attack  and stalking that comes my way, especially from certain LGBT and pro-choice lobbies, who obviously do perceive me to be something of a threat or potential power-changer and therefore feel the need to neutralise or undermine the challenge with personal smears. Catholics on the internet are making their presence felt and being included in mainstream media as a result. Nonetheless awards such as these, leave me banging my head against the desk in frustration because they are everything that is wrong with modern feminism and far from recognising and celebrating authentic, genuine womanhood, are reinforcing the culture that seeks to undermine femininity.

One of the biggest mistakes that feminism has ever made in its desire to achieve women’s equality, is to judge female success by what women do, or achieve, particularly in the wider world of work, culture and politics, as opposed to who they are. In this quest for secular achievement, motherhood has been denigrated or cast aside as being oppressive as it seemingly prevents women from being in the public sphere where all the important decisions are made.

In terms of vital game-changers, no-one is more important in a young baby and child’s life than their mother and this is one of the reasons why media feminism is arguing itself into irrelevancy because it seeks to sideline the lives and concerns of ordinary women up and down the country, whether or not they are staying at home with the children or juggling a fairly-low grade job with childcare and instead engages in naval-gazing academic discussions of ‘intersectionality’ and labelling other women  who haven’t got to grips with the politically-correct terminology or media-speak as ‘transphobes’ or generally ignorant bigots. I asked my sister, a highly intelligent, forty-something, successful director of her own AIM-floated company and mother of four children whether or not she knew what the term ‘cis’ meant or what ‘intersectionality’ was all about. She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, and noted that most people haven’t got the time to be dealing with such pretentious nonsense. While no-one is suggesting that the needs of the transgender community should be ignored, neither are the specific  concerns of a woman who was  born a man, top of the list of priorties of your average woman, whether she is a housewife, working woman, someone surviving on benefits or a combination of all the above.

That is not to say that a woman can not be a true woman unless she embraces physical motherhood, the emergence into Catholic consciousness of the phrase ‘feminine genius’ the term first coined by Blessed John Paul II in his groundbreaking apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem about the dignity and vocation of women, 25 years ago, has led to a tendency by some to idealise motherhood as being the principle way of fulfilling Catholic femininity.

If we are wishing to call women to fulfil their potential as created beings of God, then just as not every man is called to marriage or the cloister, neither is every women. Working women are every bit as able to fulfil their vocation to authentic femininity as their housewife sisters or those who by choice or necessity straddle the dual worlds of work and home. The key is in whether or not they harness their  ‘feminine genius’ which is predominantly about giving, sharing and serving.

Nonetheless it is a huge mistake for Catholic women to buy into mainstream feminist thinking about smashing the glass ceiling, or being power-changers in the wider world, as promoted by the likes of Woman’s Hour, because this inherently undermines the achievements of women on an individual level. Raising children and changing nappies may not win any accolades or been seen as a worthy achievement, but it is still vital because the world needs healthy and emotionally well-adjusted adults who thanks to a stable upbringing will be able to take their place in the world and contribute to the common good.

Most women cannot identify with the movers and shakers, because while they may present aspiration and ambition, for most, a high-powered career is unachievable, together with the demands of children. Moreover it is not what many of us want – middle class mothers are deserting the workplace in droves. I was privileged to be selected as one of the BBC’s 100 women, nonetheless throughout the day of networking and discussion, I could not stop thinking how far removed, sitting in a break-out session with Helen Clark, former prime-minister of New Zealand and Cherie Blair, was from the lives of millions of ordinary women, whose main concerns would be how to put food on the table, keep safe from the elements or protect themselves and their families from either militia or a totalitarian state.

It’s difficult to distill the essence of feminine genius into one distinct quality, it isn’t purely about raising children, nor achieving career and worldly success, it isn’t an agenda, a career plan or ‘to do list’. It should not be obsessed with accomplishments or  eliminating feminine characteristics in order to make us more like men. It’s a rather more ethereal and elusive prospect, being a woman is really about ‘essence’; a set of traits unique to womankind,  wholly distinct from men.  Whether or not they achieve physical motherhood, the general ability of women to procreate means that we have the power and potential to inject love into the world. Essence is being, not doing. If we understand who we are then we are able to transmit that whole truth the world before we have even opened our mouths. This is why faith should not be considered irrelevant or supplementary to the feminist cause which should address deeper philosophical questions such as ‘who am I’, ‘what is woman’ and consider those things which are vital to female flourishing.

Feminine gifts are counter-cultural and intangible and involve the ability to go beyond appearance, to understand and intuit things on a visceral level and pick up underlying and unspoken issues. The potential to become mothers imbues us with the gift of nurture, to nourish human love and then give that back to the whole world in whatever sphere we choose. If women seem more concerned with human relationships than men, it’s because motherhood equips us with the ability to accept, nurture and heal. It’s no coincidence that most young babies come to know and love their mother first,  because women are equipped to foster the intimate bond first formed in utero.

‘Feminine genius’ then, requires women to be a sanctuary for the human person. It is the ability of a woman to be at peace with herself and radiate the gift of love, of fostering and nurturing relationships to the world at large. To use the vernacular, it requires women to be a ‘true girlfriend’, not competitive, not obsessed with material accomplishments and secular achievements, but to put our talents at the service of others, to couch it in Christian terms, to become an icon of the Church, in order to find true fulfilment.

Being included on female power-lists, smashing glass ceilings and setting out to become lone women secular pioneers, places limitations on the scope of feminine genius. I always know when I am in the presence of a successful gracious, dignified, noble and powerful woman, not because of what she wears, or what I have read about her in the press, or what I know about her personal circumstances but because of how she makes me feel in our relationship, whether that be one of familial bonds,  friendship, or professional association.

This is what women are best at, the feminine genius lies in creating and nurturing relationships based in love. As far as feminism is concerned, if you eschew material and professional success in favour of a more spiritual approach, attempting to attain the things that matter and respond to the desires of the heart and soul, then you are not doing everything you can to become a fully-fledged modern woman and do not deserve to be a part of the club.

Women can only be game changers when they give love for no other reason than it is no less than every single soul deserves. We are called to build a civilisation of love, brick by brick, and restore the culture of life. Authentic feminine beauty lies in abandoning self-focus, rising up and bringing an elegance to virtue, socially selfless and sensual, bringing out the true beauty of other souls.

If we use this criteria then there are far more worthy women I can name, than those who have ruthlessly pursued goals of self-fulfilment and secular success or who have managed some superficial achievement by earnestly bashing out diatribes on their keyboards. The irony is that their goals transcend the temporal heights of BBC plaudits and they would therefore be wholly uninterested.

Rotten fruit

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A younger friend of mine introduced me to a bizarre tautology in conversation about her romantic life, complaining that her male friend did not enjoy ‘PIV sex’.

I’m going to regret asking this, I thought to myself as I asked her the inevitable question, imagining all kinds of peculiar practices involving animals, vegetables and minerals. It transpired that PIV is merely an acronym, for normal heterosexual intercourse, namely taking the first letters of the male and female sex organs and their relation to each other in the act of lovemaking.

It struck me how distorted cultural notions of sexuality have become that straightforward common or garden sex between a man and a woman needs to be explicitly defined as though it is some kind of niche practice with its own specialist term. While it would be absurd to portray myself as some sort of wide-eyed innocent ingenue, I’m obviously aware of other acts of a sexual nature, to me the term ‘sex’ in the context of a relationship between a man and a woman referred to ‘PIV’ intercourse. If someone tells me that they are having sex with someone else, perhaps naively, a situation involving ‘PIV’ (urgh still sounds awful, horribly clinical in its stark description) would be what I would imagine, hence the tautology, the term PIV being superfluous.

It turns out the phrase is in common parlance which is concrete evidence of the damage that pornography has inflicted on the sexual psyche of the nation, when you have self-identifying heterosexual males expressing a distaste for sex in the natural order of things, something that is designed to be pleasurable in order to secure the continuation of the species. It brought to mind shades of Prufrock, will this be the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper as our minds get turned away from good old-fashioned traditional sexual intimacy, in favour of clinical, sterilised, empty self-pleasure that we can only administer to ourselves or on our own, unable to experience the sexual joy of the other and requiring specific external stimuli as essential to sexual fulfilment?

Quite understandably, my young friend wondered whether or not her male squeeze may have homosexual inclinations. In the course of advising her and guiding her (i.e. do a runner and find a man who values you for who you are rather than what niche  and frankly stomach-churning sexual services you can perform for him, sex should never feel like hard work or a performance) it turned out that the guy had a prediliction for pornography which he believed to be ‘harmless’ and that his entire peer group seemed to share his preferences. Good taste and charity prevents me from outlining what they were in explicit detail, but they certainly wouldn’t figure in the repertoire of most men and woman I know and I can hardly claim to have led a sheltered existence – years as long haul cabin crew, not indulging in, but  witnessing some sexually louche lifestyles, certainly opened my eyes! My advice was that this group behaviour of individuals, who were admittedly all perfectly well mannered,  charming, respectable, professionally successful and well-educated people, should not be considered the norm and that they were all reinforcing each other in their deviancy.

The spread of internet pornography has enabled people not only to seek out material pertaining to acts and practices that would previously be considered taboo and removed the resulting stigma or shame as people have realised that they are not alone in fancying next door’s pet cat, or wanting to dress up like a Roman centurion to use deliberately surreal examples and thus their behaviour or inclinations have been validated and online communities formed, defining themselves purely by their sexual interests. Not only does the internet reinforce unusual inclinations, but it also provides suggestions of new potentially exciting and exotic ways of seeking out sexual stimulation and like a narcotic, research demonstrates that online sex surfers eventually seek out stronger and stronger stimuli, as the old images dull and lose their power to excite. Yourbrainonporn is an excellent resource for further scientific research, articles and  information on this phenomenon.

The ethic of personal autonomy doesn’t cut it morally: when men and women are eschewing traditional sexual activity in favour of a manufactured sexual hit at the expense of the other and potentially the procreation of the species, this is clearly contrary to human flourishing. We should not be aiming for a scenario of sexual pleasure like the one depicted in the popular science fiction film Demolition Man and this increasing phenomenon is an inevitable consequence of what happens when you divorce sex from procreational purposes.

Married couples should be enjoying penetrative sex with each other on a regular basis, rather than treating it as a duty or obligation for the purposes of procreation. As those of us in healthy relationships will testify, when we go through periods of abstinence for one reason or another, it is a privation, one of spiritual and physical benefit, but a privation nonetheless! Anything which leads to a lessening of natural God-given sexual intimacy between man and woman should be decried as a tragedy. I wanted to bang the aforementioned gentleman’s head against a wall, as indeed I do with many people and say “look, when you avoid PIV with your long-term committed (i.e married) partner you really don’t know what you are missing”. Sex is a God-given gift and as your relationship deepens and strengthens with your spouse over the course of a shared lifetime, it really does get better and better!

To put the cherry on the cake, I chanced across this piece, currently trending on the internet, so much so that the author has had to close comments, in which she, a radical feminist, claims that regardless of consent “PIV” sex is always rape. Sadly it is not a parody and one can only surmise that the writer has experienced some trauma which has led to various neuroses – this is an unhealthy and harmful way of thinking about sex and from a female point of view, I strongly object to many of the offensive assertions made, not least the audaciously unscientific “Penetration of the penis into the vagina is completely unnecessary for conception.” 

Thought like this demonstrates the theory that the feminism which is rapidly being adopted as the new cultural religion of the  media is becoming the New Puritanism in spirit that seeks to banish sex as a repugnant act. Feminism should be about encouraging female flourishing, it is difficult to see how rallying women to see a mutually enjoyable sexual act that enhances relationships, strengthens intimacy and pair-bonding as an act of violence, is conducive to happiness.

While ever wary of CS Lewis’ famous admonishment about the equal and opposite errors in thinking about the devil, one cannot help to see diabolical fingerprints all over contemporary thinking and ideas such as these about sex. God has given us something that is infinitely good and wants us to enjoy his gifts with thanks for our pleasure, for human success and His Glory. Who else would want us to convince ourselves that this fruit is thoroughly spoiled, rotten and harmful and we should instead search elsewhere for a replacement?

Sexual objectification and gang culture

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‘Girls used, abused & discarded’. In the Evening Standard or in gangs? Will that be the story of former child star Miley Cyrus who is allegedly ‘keeping her kit on’ here?!

Last night as a favour to some final year broadcasting students I participated in a live TV show streamed on the internet discussing the subject of female sexual objectivisation both in the media and in nightclubs who admit scantily clad women for free. (I hope the students get a first, their production was as slick, professional and as well run as any big-name media group as well as being an innovative concept).

It was quite timely, following on from public ‘revelations’ about the fact I had once had a bar job requiring me to wear quite a provocative uniform, which was admittedly mild compared with the job of the presenter who was a former ‘Hill’s Angel’.

One of the points made was that women are actually choosing to wear next-to-nothing in order for commercial gain in order to build a brand or image around a single, although one has to question how ‘free’ that choice really is, if making themselves sexually provocative is allegedly the only way to sell their music.  The point I made was that though women wearing their underwear is nothing new these days, they are having to go to more and more outrageous lengths to sell themselves, hence the outrage wasn’t so much over Miley Cyrus’ outfit rather her twerking. Lily Allen’s recent pastiche  video featuring sexually explicit images of attractive women ironically reinforced the very sexual objectification that she  was overtly rejecting to in the lyrics, although I find the word “b*tch”  objectionable and offensive as a point of reference to women, regardless of who is ‘reclaiming’ it.

I also worked as cabin crew, another profession which at the time I was a member of it, was solely concerned with the image of their female crew as fantasy sex-objects as opposed to anything else. Look at the adverts for Virgin Atlantic, capitalising on the nostalgia of the uniform worn in the late eighties/early nineties, with its tight double breasted bright red jacket, matching short skirt and bright red shoes, colloquially known in the business as ‘f-me pumps’.

Whenever I got on the tube in uniform ready to go to work at 5am in the morning, I would always attract an obvious amount of attention, some of it flattering, others not so, but it always centrered around my appearance. Working in a profession that puts a high value on appearance which presents you as an object of sexual fantasy (note today’s uniforms are a massive improvement) means that unless you are exceptionally strong-minded, that is the attitude that you subconsciously adopt and absorb about yourself – i.e. that your value or stock as a human being is entirely dependent upon your appearance, even if you have done so willingly. One of the motivations for the bar work was that it was comparatively well paid, compared to say other jobs available to 18 year old cash-strapped students. In many ways it was a free choice no-one forced or compelled me to do it, but I wonder how many women in similar situations are doing it for the sheer enjoyment, or for the extra money, in which case how free are they?

In the case of cabin crew, the role was not simply about sashaying up and down the aisles or mixing a celebrity passenger their favourite cocktail, but predominantly about safety, however your appearance as an object of male desire, completely undermines the function of your job. Cabin crew are there to ensure passenger safety but it’s hard to be taken seriously when you are viewed as a vacuous dolly bird, there only to satisfy the whims of male passengers. At the time of the British Midland Kegworth disaster, it’s very telling that Cabin Crew/Flight attendants were not listed as coming under safety or within the remit of operations, but were under the control of ‘marketing’. In the event of an emergency, no-one is going to care if your lipstick matches your nails and hatband, if your hair has wispy bits, you need a spot more blusher or if you are half a pound overweight and yet these were assessed on a daily basis, pay rises being dependent upon consistently scoring well  in these areas in assessments. Additionally, the tights that are a non-negotiable part of the uniform (I am racking my brains to think of an airline that lets its female crew wear trousers) are a hazard and will exacerbate terrible injury in the case of disaster. Set a pair of tights (pantyhose) or stockings on fire and see what happens. Now imagine wearing them and high heels while trying to operate a slide or in extremes of temperature, or while stepping around fuel spills.

The final straw for me was when a former colleague decided to strip off for one of the red-top Sunday magazines. Handing out sweets during boarding, I noticed a sea of men engrossed in photographs of a woman stripping down to a skimpy pair of pants, whilst discarding the identical set of clothes that I was wearing and became acutely aware of the appraising glances of men, comparing my appearance to the girl in the magazine. One didn’t need to be a mind reader to be know exactly what was on their minds.

In the long run working in professions which set a great store on sexual attractiveness was not helpful for my spirituality or psyche. As C S Lewis’ Screwtape observes “all mortals turn into the thing that they are pretending to be”; making your living out of being a sexually desirable object, even if on your own terms, will distort your own self-perception.

I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to determine whether or not one could or should identify oneself as a feminist if one works in the sex industry or in a profession which uses the female sexuality to sell sex as several self-identifying feminists do just that, however I would question whether feminism, which is about ensuring female flourishing, equality freedom and independence is best served by reinforcing the idea of women as sexual objects.

What caught my eye on the journey home last night was the dreadful story in the Evening Standard about the sexual violence and abuse of women endemic in gang culture, where women are passed from man to man and severely beaten and abused. Juxtaposed next to the story on the next page were several images of sexually provocative women at the American Music Awards ceremony, together with comments about their appearance.

While all sorts of measures were being proposed to combat gang culture (not least more sex and relationship education) how on earth are we supposed to stop women from being seen as only good for one thing, when we are ourselves subconsciously buying into this and are saturated by such images in the media, although to be fair, there is an increasing trend of the sexual objectification of men. Joey Essex being one such contemporary example who comes to mind.

It’s absolutely pointless telling girls what a consensual relationship is supposed to look or feel like (I think most inherently have a sense of this) when a wholly different message is being sent out by the culture. I am not sure that explicit sex education is going to stop men from wanting to sexually abuse women, or even relationship education, which could even enable men to be able to emotionally coerce women into abusive relationships, persuading them that sex is what they ‘want’. Most abusive relationships do not start out that way from the outset, it is a gradual process and yet no woman should assume that because a man may treat her well, be attentive and charming, it signals that he is a secret sexual psychopath who is no doubt going to abuse her later down the line. Besides gang culture is not simply about a manifestation of misogyny, but is indicative of the crisis facing working class young men in urban societies.

One has to ask where are parents in this mess. In the terrible story of the middle-class girl who spent five years being abused, the parents seem to be wholly absent, proving that it is not class that is the determining factor, but the quality of parental relationships.  It is not meant as blame, but parents seem to be assumed to be taking passive roles, whereas children need good relationships, trust and respect modelled for them as opposed to being taught in a purely didactic fashion. How is a young teenager with crazy unstable hormones supposed to absorb what a healthy relationship should look and feel, simply by being told. They need to be able to intuit and most girls can intuit that something is not right, but not until it is too late.

Parents need to be empowered and enabled to keep tabs on their children and each others, either forming groups to ensure that children are kept occupied after school and reinforce each others’ house rules and curfews. Should thirteen year olds be allowed out late at night, especially on a school night? It’s not just about helping children to keep themselves safe, but teaching parents to help keep their own children safe and impose boundaries, instead of acting like they are powerless in the face of their children’s inevitable rebellion and physical responses to puberty.

Ultimately if we object to sexual objectification in the media and world around us, which contributes to the culture of abuse, self-loathing and brings nothing but long-term damage, both on an individual and societal level, then we need to take steps not only to pressurise our media, film and music industry to clean up their act, but not buy into it ourselves and for our children.

If we object to women being used as worthless sexual objects then we should not surround ourselves with music and videos or newspapers or media that refers to them as ‘b*tches’ or further entrenches the culture, whether that be in the Daily Mail or on the X-Factor.

An unlikely Catholic feminist icon

Winbledon BardotThe blogger Mrs Meadowsweet caught my eye yesterday with a post about Pauline Boty, the female darling of the sixties avant garde generation.  Boty was a key founder of the British Pop Art movement and the only British female painter of that genre – she produced bold bright canvases which both celebrated and critiqued mass cultural movements, exploring themes of female sexuality, gender, race and politics.

Boty’s work is currently being exhibited at the Wolverhampton Gallery, including some pieces that have not been seen for over forty years, having gathered dust in the outhouse of her brother’s farm, before art historian David Mellor chanced upon Boty’s appearance upon Pop Goes the Easel, Ken Russell’s first full-length documentary for the BBC and began a quest to track down her work. As a result of the recent renaissance and reappraisal of her contribution to the sixties art scene, her canvases have more than quadrupled in price since the 1990s,

Born in Carshalton in 1938, the youngest of four children and the only girl, Pauline won a scholarship in 1954 to study stained glass  at the Wimbledon School of Art, amidst her parents’ disproval. She had originally wanted to study painting, but was discouraged from applying as admission rates for women in the school of painting were extremely low.

She completed her studies in 1961 and straight away featured in what many describe as the first ever Pop Art exhibition at the AIA Gallery in London. The following year she appeared in Russell’s documentary and began an acting career alongside her work as a painter. A phenomenal beauty, often referred to as the Wimbledon Bardot, Boty was picked from hundreds of applicants to be one of the weekly dancers on the ultra-hip Ready, Steady, Go. 

With her huge luminous eyes, back-combed mane of blond hair, flawless skin, voluptuous yet slim figure, one can imagine Pauline Boty taking a starring role as the sidekick of Austen Powers, in the films that so successfully sent up the spirit of the sixties. Despite the fact that there was so much more to her than being merely eye candy, her looks (she once appeared in a Vogue photo-spread taken by David Bailey) meant that she was not taken seriously as she should have been as a painter. According to Sue Tate who has written a book about Boty and is co-curator of the exhibition in Wolverhampton  “Unlike her contemporary Bridget Riley who was careful never to present herself as a woman artist, Boty allowed herself to be seen as beautiful and sexy, and because of that she was received as just beautiful and sexy, and not as serious and intellectual.”

Pauline Boty

Her premature death in 1966 at the age of 28 meant that her talent was never developed to its full potential, but her work displayed startling originality, her palette consisting of vibrant colours like cobalt violet and lemon deep yellow, by contrast to the muted palette used in classical training. Many Pop Art painters tended to portray woman as passive and objectified, whereas Boty was keen to celebrate unabashed female sexual desire, such as her painting With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo, in which the Gallic new-wave actor is portrayed as an object of lust, the rose, Boty’s frequent emblem of female sensuality, imposing itself upon the heart-throb’s head. Unlike other artists such as Warhol, Boty never approached her subjects with a cool detachment, her passion is almost tangible and leaps off the canvas.

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Colour her Gone
The Only Blonde in the World 1963 by Pauline Boty 1938-1966
The Only Blonde in the World

Moreoever Boty was not only an artist, actor, model and dancer but a political activist, not only touching upon subjects such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in her work, but also actively engaged in the student politics of the era. She was secretary of ‘Anti-Ugly Action’ a pressure group who marched on the new Kensington Library, demonstrated at Caltex House and scattered rose petals on the coffin of British Architecture outside the new Barclays Bank head office. Later on, when she was beginning to make appearances in chat shows of the day, she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and displaying some of the morality with which she would have been brought up (Boty was a baptised Catholic) she challenged the esteemed historian A J  P Taylor who had been describing Hitler as a ‘great man’ in relation to the magnitude of some of his achievements. Pauline refused to countenance this view, passionately retorting, ‘The size of his deeds no more make him great than their nature makes him good’, an interjection which apparently briefly stopped Taylor in his tracks.

As perhaps might be expected, Boty lived the life of the avant-garde set, she lived a life of sexual liberation, was embroiled in a messy affair with the married producer and director Philip Saville, she dabbled in drugs, smoked pot and occasionally took Benzedrine, but apparently had a preference for Purple Hearts. Her house was a hive of activity, Ossie Clarke was a regular guest, she was close friends with Bob Dylan and friends remember parties, champagne and heated debates.   Several anecdotes abound about her unbridled sexuality, posing nude in front of her photo of Johnny Halliday, sunbathing topless in Ibiza, describing her genitalia in lurid and explicit detail in interviews,  behaviour that broke all social conventions and that would still be considered vulgar 40 years later.

So, with all this in mind, especially when one thinks of some of Pauline Boty’s more sexually explicit work, (one painting featured a naked female derriere, another had the words ‘oh for a fu’ enigmatically scrawled across the corner), why on earth should she be thought of as a Catholic feminist icon?

Firstly, as a sixties pioneer, someone who was interested in smashing the limitations placed upon women and not interested in conforming to society’s expectations, she unexpectedly got married to actor and literary agent Clive Goodwin, ten days after meeting him.  Speaking about the union, her friend Penny Massot says “He was straight and conventional and she was wacky, never quite knew whether she should be with Clive, you know . . . But I think they were dreamy together.” Their marriage was a happy one, in an interview in 1965, Boty spoke about marrying Goodwin because he made her feel secure. Not the sort of thing that modern feminists would be happy to promulgate and perhaps one of the reasons why her memory was until recently expunged from popular history. Why would a beautiful talented politically engaged woman who seemingly had the world at her feet choose to marry? It doesn’t fit in with images of an oppressive patriarchy, especially when we learn that as in all successful marriages, the benefits were mutual, Goodwin by all accounts was transformed as a result of his marriage.

Tragically upon a routine examination during the first trimester of pregnancy, it was discovered that Pauline Boty had leukaemia. She refused to think about abortion, which though still illegal would have been easy to obtain for a woman with her contacts and furthermore refused chemotherapy in case it harmed her unborn baby, a decision which would ultimately cost her life, her daughter was born in 1966 and Boty died a few months afterwards, although she was able to care for her baby for a short time after the birth. In circumstances in which pro-choice feminists would argue that an abortion is a necessity (modern medical research has proven that there is no risk to pregnant women undergoing chemotherapy after the first trimester) Boty stood up for the right to life of her own unborn child.

Interestingly for someone looking to smash gender barriers, amongst her political campaigning and affiliations she did not seem to have involved herself with the activities of ALRA, the Abortion Law Reform Association, established in 1936. While claiming her as a pioneer of the modern feminist movement, the feminists seem to have overlooked this key facet of her life.  A woman who had everything to live for, committed an act of ultimate generosity for the life of her child, not wishing to do anything that might cause her baby what she believed to be, untold harm.

While her life is hardly commensurate with that of the average hagiography, we should nonetheless note and pay tribute to one of the modern feminists who recognised that gender equality does not have to necessitate taking the life of an unborn daughter, even though this came at an enormous personal cost to herself.