7th of March 2013, the panel discussion on the #Aufschrei-debate, everyday sexism and it´s relation to sexual violence is coming to an end. A woman from the audience is about to ask a question. While the microphone is being passed to her, a young man suddenly raises. Despite the woman´s and many other people´s loud protest, he takes the word. "Well, I already have the microphone, I will just talk now". He starts to talk about how he could understand that being hit on might be annoying sometimes, but that sexual harassment was something completely different and had nothing to do with sexual violence as in the brutal gang rape and murder committed in India. He also said that he couldn´t understand how when talking about suppressing women the Islam hasn´t been mentioned at any point in the discussion. The audience is outraged. On stage, a young woman with short dark hair has been sitting in her chair comfortably, as if she were in her living room talking to some friends rather than being one of the speakers at a panel discussion. But now she gets upset. Losing nothing of her sovereign and humorous eloquence, she makes quite clear how much she despises of his rash act and tells him to "sit the fuck down" as he stands up again to make fun of everyone´s indignation. He obeys.
The woman is Laurie Penny, a 26 year old, feminist, journalist, blogger, author and self-declared troublemaker from London. Her comments and reports on political protests and queer/feminist politics are regularly being published in "The Independent" and the "New Statesman", in 2012 Penny was a nominee for "Young Journalist of the Year" at the British Press Awards. Her blog "PennyRed" was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing in 2010, for her report on the "Occupy"-movement she was declared "Truthdigger of the Week". Laurie Penny has published two books called "Meat Market: Female Flesh under Capitalism" and "Penny Red: Notes from a New Age of Dissent" and is currently working on a third one.
AVIVA-Berlin talked to her on Skype.
AVIVA-Berlin: At the the #Aufschrei panel discussion at Friedrich Ebert Stiftung two weeks ago you mentioned the BBC World podcast "Girls´ Night Out": A report on women in five different countries having a night on the town and facing the same problems separately. Whether it was Kampala, Ottawa, Rio, Ramallah or Melbourne, they all thought through the negative consequences of wearing short outfits, they were all prepared for being hit on in sexist ways and none of them felt comfortable walking home alone at night. What has to happen so our life choices aren´t misinterpreted as a blueprint for sexual harassment all the time?
Laurie Penny: I think the important thing to understand is that it´s not about women´s life choices at all. What was interesting about the five different women in different parts of the world is that in every case it was felt that the women had somehow deserved harassment just because they were out in public, wearing whatever they´re wearing. Rape culture isn´t just about rape happening, it´s about scaring women into being compliant and out of normal participation in public which is what a night out is, really, isn´t it? It´s about saying to women: "You can´t have fun in the same way men have fun, you can´t be full human beings in the way that men can, just because you´re a girl and if you dare to act like men do then you deserve to be attacked." That needs to be reversed, the message needs to be: "It´s not ok to attack women, women are full human beings which should be allowed to behave in whatever way we want as long as we don´t hurt anyone else". You know, the same rules have always applied for men. The idea of being in public is not an invitation to hurt or to be hurt. If you see it like that, then there´s something deeply wrong with our understanding of what culture is and of what women are for.
AVIVA-Berlin: Lately somebody has been putting up pink stickers featuring feminist quotes allover Berlin-Neukölln, a blog named "Pussytiv" is responsible for this. One of the quotes that especially caught my attention was by Sheila Jeffreys, saying that "women will not be free as long as their submission is considered sexy". We as heterosexual women find that when flirting with men, it can be a very successful strategy to pretend to be kind of dumb and needy. Is there a sexy feminism?
Laurie Penny: Is there a sexy feminism? Oh well, that wasn´t a question I was expecting... I think, feminism is sexy! I always have, but I think diminishing yourself as a human being is not sexy. I completely understand what you´re saying about women having to diminish themselves and be submissive…and we´re not just talking about sexual submission as in SM, we´re talking about the social submission of being demure and making ourselves smaller and less powerful than men in social situations. It´s a very hard thing for heterosexual women in particular because there is a perceived cost to being… not even forthright, just to not dumbing down and not acting submissive. That this is why the personal is political, isn´t it? Because it´s about the choices you make in your daily life and there is still a huge cost to showing self-respect for women.
But yeah, I think feminism is one of the sexiest things out there! I remember reading a study a few years ago which said that women who were identified as feminists or so reported were having better sex and more enjoyful sex and so did their partners. It might have to do with the fact that they weren´t ashamed of their sexuality and not ashamed about enjoying sex and being comfortable with their bodies and themselves.
AVIVA-Berlin: Accepting your body is especially hard when confronted with the daily flow of sexist imagery on pages like Tumblr and Facebook. How can we try and change our online behavior? How are we to look at those images without having to change the way we look at ourselves and other women?
Laurie Penny: It´s like an abusive relationship, isn´t it? If you live with someone who is constantly telling you that you are ugly, fat and not worthwhile, eventually the question is, are you going to internalize that and are you going to think: "It´s because of me, it´s because I´m ugly and not worthwhile and maybe the other women in my life that I know aren´t either" or are you going to say: "No, it´s culture telling us, that this is somebody else, this has nothing to do with me."
Sometimes people ask me: "Can I be a feminist if I still feel bad about my body?" Of course you can, that´s what it´s about! I think it´s important to acknowledge how painful that stuff is and how it affects all of us. It affects me, I feel self-conscious all the time. And I think that no matter how much powerful feminist things you read, heterosexual patriarchal culture is so overwhelming that of course you get affected by it! But I think it helps to understand where it comes from and it helps to talk to other women about it in an honest way that´s not just like "I´m fat, doesn´t my face look horrible with this", you know just comparing forwards which is how we´ll talk about these things. Solidarity is very important.
© AVIVA-Berlin, Laurie Penny during the skype-interview
AVIVA-Berlin: In the panel discussion you were talking about anger a lot, something that´s considered "unwomanly". Angry women are labeled as "hysterical" and "bitchy" and in that instant scarcely taken serious. You describe yourself as a "Troublemaker" and you have to sort through heaps of hatemail everyday. How do you pull off dealing with these drastic consequences of showing your anger in public?
Laurie Penny: It´s been harder than I expected just being outspoken and political. I get rape and death threats. The consequences within the media work in which I operate have been far. Maybe I was naïve, maybe if I had known what it would truly be like when I started, I wouldn´t have worked in the same way, but I´m glad I did, I´m glad I didn´t know, actually. And it´s got worse over the past few years as well. I´m talking about the backlash against women´s anger, not just from men, women as well saying "What are you talking about, it´s all fine now, we got equality now, shut the fuck up." The anxiety to silence women has become so viscous, so horrible. I went through a phase a couple of years ago when it was all starting to get really bad, when I became very depressed and anxious and were questioning myself. But I carried on then partly because of spite, I just didn´t want them to win. And that´s no way to work politically on a long term but it´s a short term strategy for not giving up. But I also had so much amazing support from other women and from men and also from strangers online or people I just meet at talks saying "Please keep going!". And I send those messages out, too when I see young people and women getting attacked, it´s so important to recognize it´s something structural as well.
Women´s rage is and always has been something society can´t deal with. A hundred years ago, even seventy years ago, your husband could lock you up if you were angry, if you had the temerity to question your circumstances, you were considered hysterical, crazy. If you were a working class women you were likely to be thrown in prison. And I think some of that mentality persists. The punishment of women for anger and the feel that we have to sort out our own trauma.
AVIVA-Berlin: Last year you had an argument with historian David Starkey, when you called him a racist at the Sunday Times Festival of Education...
Laurie Penny: What a dickhead.
AVIVA-Berlin: …Beforehand he was suggesting inculcating foreign criminals "in the British way of doing things". At the Berlin panel discussion the Indian feminist and activist Urvashi Butalia told us about the forming of a Harvard Policy Task Force reacting to the New Delhi gang rape and murder that has made it their mission to show the Indian women rights movement how their works needs to be done -
Laurie Penny: At the moment at HARVARD… People raped AT Harvard! You have football culture and paternity culture, United States college culture is one of the most endemic, ugly examples of rape culture that we have. The idea that any of the western academic body, particularly out of the United States, has the right to dictate a norm, what western culture should be doing, is terribly colonialist and racist. I think one of the ways that feminists and women are taught not to be angry, is to not question stuff. No matter where we are in the world we are told that someone has it worse, so we should shut up and stop complaining. You could be in Saudi Arabia, in Dheli, actually, women in Dheli face many of the same problems that women in Steubenville, Ohio or in New York, or Berlin, or London face. There are cultural differences, but they are not worlds away and that kind of patronizing racist attitude is a way of dismissing women´s struggle basically.
AVIVA-Berlin: So, how can we show solidarity with women all over the world without getting into these neo-colonial, racist patterns that you just talked about?
Laurie Penny: I mean, that´s not my place to say, I´ve never been to India yet, I hope to go at some point. But we have the internet now, people can ask! What do you need, how do we help? And there is a responsibility to confront rape culture within our own communities as well and not act like we´re so high and mighty that this doesn´t happen EVERYWHERE, not just in the West, in Europe, in northern European countries. People are looking into lots of different ways to support and show solidarity with the women, cast-minorities and queer people in India and elsewhere in that region. But the way to do it isn´t to just cruise in and say "Well, we know how to sort you guys out" like we´ve been doing for 200 years, listen to us now. That´s not what´s needed at all. The British used systematic rape as a way of controlling the Indian population during the Raj (editor´s note: british rule in India during colonialism). Northern Europeans have nothing to teach India.
AVIVA-Berlin: We read one of your articles in the "Independent" from 2012, called "Gay Marriage is the one thing the Torries really don´t get". You criticized that the only demands of the LGBTQ-Community that are openly discussed are those that match conservative values, like gay marriage. What other LGBTQ fights or demands do you think should be focused on in public more urgently?
Laurie Penny: When people talk about gay marriage and equal rights in the military it´s not so much about making conservatism less homophobic as it is about making queer culture more conservative. I´m a supporter of gay marriage, as much as I support any marriage, I think queer people should have as much right to ruin their lives as anyone else (laughs). For a lot of queer and LGBT people it´s hugely important because it represents that acceptance within mainstream conservative culture, which for some people is enough. At the same time prejudice goes much deeper. And there are people who and communities where it´s very much not ok to be gay. The only thing we´re telling young queer people is "it gets better, wait till you grow up and move to the city, get a job that you like and marry someone." That´s putting off making people´s lives better right now: Our schools are hugely homophobic, we have to deal with homophobia and homophobic bullying in schools as a matter of urgency. And the belief that you can just wait is… you know, it´s too late for some people, that trauma follows people around throughout their lives. Just giving young people the ability to get married isn´t going to help it.
AVIVA-Berlin Do you think we should try and overcome the dualism of the male and female gender categories? Or would that be obstructive concerning the discussion on sexual harassment as a phenomenon that mainly applies to people whose body features are considered female?
Laurie Penny: I would absolutely love to live in a world where gender binary didn´t matter, which is not the same as "I don´t want to see gender". I think gender is a wonderful thing, it´s such an important part of people´s identities and we should be able to play with it in a more fluid and exciting way. People whose gender identity doesn´t conform with narrow categories like this is how a man is and this how a woman is…there´s a lot of social punishment for that. But I think the weaponization of the gender binary is part and parcel of rape culture. And the setting of men and women against each other is part of how patriarchy works, how sexism works. But I don´t think, you can´t get rid of it just by saying "There´s no such thing as men and women anymore".
AVIVA-Berlin:The debate on gender equality in German mainstream media is all about placing women in traditionally men-dominated jobs and positions. Is it only people not identified as men that have to step out of their way to reach certain equality standards? Where do you see men take place in the feminist revolution?
Laurie Penny:The feminist revolution is for men, too. Not just because a great deal of it is on men to listen, to learn, to understand and deal with their own prejudices, but because patriarchy hurts all of us. For me and for an increasing number of feminists, it´s not just about placing women in traditionally male jobs, or indeed about simply seeking equality for women within a patriarchal system hidebound by class conflict and injustice. Germaine Greer said that any woman who only wanted to be equal to a man lacked ambition, and she was right. For me, feminism is about completely renaming work, class, gender and power in the most exciting ways possible.
AVIVA-Berlin: What can we expect from you in the near future? What are you currently working on?
Laurie Penny: I´m working on a larger book, it´ll be out at the end of the year. When I´ve handed it in, then I can think about new projects - there´s lots of exciting things on the horizon!
AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you for taking the time and best wishes for the work you´re doing!
www.penny-red.com (Laurie Penny´s website and blog)
pussytiv.tumblr.com (blog featuring feminist quotes)
Indian feminists´ response to Harvard Policy Task Force
BBC World Service "Girls´ Night Out"
Laurie Penny: Gay marriage is one thing the Tories really don´t get
David Starkey and Laurie Penny at Sunday Times Festival of Education 2012
Steubenville: this is rape culture´s Abu Ghraib moment (Article by Laurie Penny for the "New Statesman")
Read more at AVIVA-Berlin:
Laurie Penny - Fleischmarkt
Riot Grrrl Revisited. Geschichte und Gegenwart einer feministischen Bewegung. Herausgegeben von Katja Peglow und Jonas Engelmann. Erweiterte Neuauflage mit Pussy Riot und Slutwalks