Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and the labelling of sexualised violence as “erotic” (spoilers)

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 11.17.18Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest The Clothing of Books is both an essay on the art of book jackets and  love story of books from the perspective of a reader and a writer. It is beautiful and thought-provoking essay examining the way in which book jackets impact on how a book is understood and marketed. It is a short read at 70ish pages, but also one of my favourite books this year.

I read The Clothing of Books the same day I started Han King’s The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International Prize (2016). King’s book is also beautifully written. It also exemplifies Lahiri’s thesis on the complex relationship between writers and their books once the publishing company takes control. And, not in a positive way.

The front cover of my copy of Kang’s book includes both the emblem of the Man Booker Prize and a not quite inappropriate quote from Ian McEwan who calls it a “a novel of sexuality and madness”. Unfortunately, I suspect McEwan believes that the two apply to the same character. They don’t.

The blurb on the back is the following:

A darkly beautiful modern classic about rebellion, eroticism, and the female body. One of the most extraordinary books you will ever read.
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The Vegetarian is an extraordinary book, but it’s not “erotic” unless you view multiple accounts of rape as erotic. The book’s central character is Yeong-hye who, following a dream, becomes a vegan. Her husband, described as a “normal man” is abusive before Yeong-hye’s conversion. His abuse increases when Yeong-hye refuses to capitulate to his demands that she eat meat. He ignores her quite clear mental illness and anorexia and punishes Yeong-hye’s “defiance” by raping her on multiple occasions. Yeong-hye’s father also physically assaults her at a family meal for “shaming” her family. Yeong-hye’s husband abandons her after she is incarcerated in a mental institution; as do her parents. Later we learn that the father has a long history of emotional, physical and psychological abuse of Yeong-hye when she was a child.

The Vegetarian is an incredible, beautifully written book but it is not “erotic” since that which is being deemed “erotic” is rape. Yeong-hye, despite being schizophrenic and having anorexia, is read, by those who wrote the various blurbs on the book, as consenting to “allowing” her brother-in-law to paint flowers on her naked body and then “have sex” with her. The brother-in-law, who is already a lazy and incompetent husband and father, uses his position as a ‘trusted’ family member to target Yeong-hye. It is his sexuality and desire that is responsible for the destruction of his own family. His desire is not “taboo” as another comment on the books suggests. It is criminal. He chooses to sexually assault and rape Yeong-hye because he likes the idea of a birthmark on her bum.

In the end, the only person who stays with Yeong-hye is her sister, yet none of the comments on the book jacket mention sisterhood as a theme within. In-hye does everything that is demanded of a women: she is financially successful, the mother of a son, does all the caring and lifework so that her husband, “the artist”, has no responsibilities. She is the quintessential “good girl”. And, is punished, repeatedly, for being so.

In The Clothing of Books, Lahiri ponders if those designing her book jackets or writing the blurbs actually bother to read her books. Reading The Vegetarian, I too wondered whether or not those writing the blurbs had read the book. Or, if they simply failed to recognise the patterns of male violence and its impact on women. As with Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, which is described as “deeply romantic” on the book jacket, The Vegetarian,  demonstrates the unwillingness of readers and reviewers to define male violence as violence.

I gave The Vegetarian two stars on Good Reads. As I write this, I wonder if the number of stars is a reflection of the book itself or a visceral reaction to the book jacket’s definition of the book. There is certainly a huge disconnect between my reading of the text and the blurbs on the book jacket.

Transforming a victim blaming culture

evb-logo-1Media discussions of male violence against women focus on the actions of the victim rather than the perpetrator. How can we challenge this narrative using survivor’s testimony without putting them at risk of online harassment?

 

“If I was Ched Evans i would find that whore and actually rape her this time!!”

This is one of the many abusive and threatening messages directed at the victim in the rape trials (and appeals) of footballer Ched Evans’ over the past 4 years. She has experienced an incessant barrage of abuse and threats of physical and sexual violence via Twitter, alongside a deliberate smear campaign including repeated breaches of her anonymity. She has also received a tremendous amount of support from women across the UK. Her experiences demonstrate both the importance of centering the voices of survivors, who are frequently disbelieved, but also the limitations, particularly with the development of social media platforms predicated on notions of ‘free speech,’ that allow survivors of rape to be labeled ‘a fucking cunt’ or ‘lying psycho bitch’.   Social media platforms have, to date, been unwilling to have honest discussions of the reality, representation, and ubiquity of male violence against women and girls, despite a recent EU report that suggests 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18-74 have experienced sexual or physical violence. …

Read the full post at Open Democracy.

16 ways to End Violence against Women and Girls

These are just a few of the ways that you can support women’s services during the 16 Days of Activism to Eliminate Male Violence against Women and Girls.

  1. Donate £1 to a different specialist women’s service like the national organisations Rape Crisis, Women’s Aid, or Refuge every day.
  2. Donate £1 to your local service providers supporting women who are living with domestic and sexual violence and abuse. BME women’s services have been disproportionately impacted by so-called ‘austerity’ so please don’t forget them.
  3. Share fundraisers for women’s services across social media. We understand that many women can not afford to donate £1. Sharing fundraisers is just as essential as being able to donate £1.
  4. Host a coffee morning for your friends to raise money.
  5. Bring some baked goods into work and ask for donations to a service of your choice from your co-workers.
  6. Collect clothing, bedding and any other unused household items to donate to your local refuge or those support services for women who are homeless, living in poverty etc.
  7. Donate toys to a local refuge for children who will be living in them at Christmas or those support services for women who are homeless, living in poverty etc..
  8. Donate new toiletries and another nice gifts for teenage girls and women living in refuges.
  9. Make a donation to your local food bank. All women are disproportionately impacted by poverty and austerity measures. Women living with violence are disproportionately impacted by cuts to housing benefits and women’s services. 
  10. Donate sanitary products to food banks. These are essential for women and teenage girl’s access to education and work. 
  11. Write to your local councillors, MP, or MSP to demand ring-fenced funding for women’s specialist services, including those for BME women or those with disabilities.
  12. Write to local councillors, MP, MEP, or MSP and ask them to undergo specialist training on domestic and sexual violence and abuse from specialist organisations.
  13. Write to your MP and MSP demanding they support the campaigns to end the detention of refugee women and children.
  14. Write to your MP and MSP demanding mandatory sex and healthy relationships education in schools, as well as campaigns to make schools safer for girls.
  15. File complaints with media about inappropriate, misleading and offensive coverage of domestic and sexual violence and abuse.
  16. And, if you’re a man, stand up for women’s rights. Challenge men who make rape jokes. Call out male friends who refuse to financially support their children. Insist your employer implement the equal pay legislation. Donate money to rape crisis centres and refuges. Wearing a white ribbon isn’t enough. Your need to do the work to end violence against women and girls.

You can find the address and contact details of your local councillor via  WriteToThem.

 

This post was originally published on Everyday Victim Blaming.

£4 BILLION – the current outstanding child maintenance bill

£4 billion.

This is the outstanding arrears of child maintenance owed in England and Wales. According to a report by the charity Gingerbread called Missing Maintenance, the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) estimates that only £467 million will ever be recovered.This leaves nearly one half of single parent families, the vast majority headed by women, living in poverty.

The current Conservative government is in the process of closing the Child Support Agency (CSA) to replace it with the Child Maintenance Service, which charges women £20 for the privilege of opening a file and then a sum each month if some semblance of the maintenance is actually paid. The new vaunted system has seen only 53% of the families registered receiving maintenance with 90 000 people having not paid during one three month period. There is already nearly £53 million in unpaid maintenance. Many of the families will receive only negligible amounts of money, as the DWP does not require the full maintenance to be paid in order for the account to be registered as compliant. Realistically, a father of 4 earning £70 000 a year can pay only £5 a month and still be included within the 53% statistic.

Equally problematic is the fact that the Child Maintenances Service is actively writing to the primary caregivers to request they ‘forgive’ the debt owed by non-paying fathers – as though the primary caregivers of children, who are overwhelmingly women, can neglect to pay rent, council tax and the credit card debts they rack up buying groceries knowing these debts will be ‘forgiven’. As Polly Toynbee makes clear,

Some 90% of CSA cases have now been transferred over to the CMS, but only 13% of mothers affected have decided to pay the new fees and apply to the CMS: the DWP must be pleased, as it had publicly estimated that 63% would pursue their claims. All the pressure in official letters is to deter mothers. The £20 fee may be a mild block, along with charging fathers 4%, but the evidence suggests mothers just give up when prodded by these letters.

Charging mothers to use the Child Maintenance Service is simply a way for the government to abdicate responsibility. They are very clear that the sole purpose is to force more parents into dealing with child maintenance themselves. In doing so, they have refused to recognise the reason why men, and it is overwhelmingly men, refuse to pay maintenance: it is both a punishment and a form of control over their former partners. This is male entitlement writ large by men who do not care about the welfare of their children.

We need to start calling the refusal to pay maintenance what it really is: financial child abuse. Forcing your children to live in poverty because you cannot be bothered to support them or refusing to punish the mother are not the signs of ‘good fathers’. It is the hallmark of an abusive father.

It is not difficult to implement child maintenance policies that are effective and ensure that men cannot hide their assets. Placing the Child Maintenance Service under the heading of HM Revenue & Customs so that child maintenance is garnished directly from the salary of the non-resident parent. This coupled with actual punitive policies for those who refuse to pay, such as a fee for every missed payment, interest accrued on outstanding payments, and the use of enforcement agents (bailiffs) to confiscate personal property, and, potentially, criminal proceedings would see an immediate increase in the number of men who start to pay their maintenance. Canada’s maintenance enforcement program has the right to suspend the driver’s licenses and passports of men who are in arrears recognising that the legal obligation to pay maintenance being higher than the desire to vacation in Hawaii.

There is a quote bandied about in discussions of child contact and child maintenance that says ‘children aren’t pay per view’, as though children were nothing more than a possession to be passed about. As with Women’s Aid campaign, Child First: Safe Contact Saves Lives, we need to stop talking about children as possessions and start talking about children’s rights.[7] Children have the right to live free from violence. Children also have the right to live outwith poverty.

The erasure of men’s financial responsibility for their children, supported by government policy, is an absolute disgrace. It is, simply, state sanctioned child abuse.

 

Gingerbread’s Missing Maintenance Report

Child First: Safe Contact Saves Lives Petition

 

 

This is rape culture: That ‘tired mum and quickies’ meme.

This rolled up on my Facebook feed this morning – one of those ‘suggested posts’. Usually, these posts are just dire. This one is heart-breaking. The website someecards.com have shared the text below with the photo and name of the woman who wrote it. I have redacted both because what is below isn’t the story of a ‘good marriage’ as someecards.com suggests but a story of emotional blackmail, male entitlement, sexual harassment and coercion within marriage. This is what rape culture looks like:

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Making space to have sex when you have small children, jobs and other caring responsibilities can be difficult. That is no excuse for whining and sexually harassing your wife. Being put in a position where you have to ‘trade’ sex in order to eat what you want or listen to your music isn’t a healthy relationship. It’s a coercive relationship. Passive aggressive ‘dry humping your leg’ and asking if you want ‘sausage’ is gross behaviour. Jabbing his dick into your back to push you into sex isn’t romantic. No woman should ‘feel bad’ because they don’t want to have sex and a man who makes you feel that way should be divorced.

This is male entitlement writ large – the belief that he is entitled to sex whenever he wants regardless of his wife’s desires. It’s sexual coercion at best.

Rape culture isn’t just the stranger who sexually harasses you in the street or the man on public transport who touches you without permission. It is men who believe that marriage entitles them to sex and that women should be bullied and harassed into it for daring to say no. It is conducive context in which men ‘pestering’ for sex are seen as somehow romantic. It is the context in which a woman’s right to say no is erased. It is the context in which controlling behaviours (eating chocolate/ listening to music) are deemed ‘normal’ rather than evidence of domestic violence.

I’ve redacted the woman’s name because I believe victims of sexualised violence have the right to anonymity. This woman is a victim of sexualised violence. She deserves anonymity. And a life without a man who thinks fucking her is his inalienable right by dint of marriage.

Violence Against Women, Domestic Violence and the Problem of Gender Identity (Huff Post)

Currently the Office for National Statistics cap the number of crimes that one person can report at five. The Office insist the cap is necessary as

“otherwise the sheer number of crimes committed by perpetrators against the same individual would skew the rest of the statistics.”

As research by Professor Sylvia Walby evidences, there is only one crime that would be impacted by lifting the cap: domestic violence. Lifting the cap would make the ubiquity of domestic violence and the consistent failure of successive governments and police forces to deal with the issue clear. It would have long-term consequences on financing of policing, housing, and healthcare and would make women’s secondary status in political life obvious. The cap disproportionately impacts women who experience the vast majority of domestic violence and erases the sex of the perpetrator: who are overwhelmingly male. The decision to create a cap was not to make it easier for statisticians, but a clear policy of eliding the reality of all forms of violence against women and girls from public awareness.

The cap also functions to inflate the number of men who experience domestic violence making the 1 in 6 men statistic a misnomer. It also includes incidences of retaliatory violence, aka self-defence, where a woman lashes out at the male partner who is physically harming her causing injury to his person, such as a woman scratching a man whilst he attempts to strangle her. The victim, therefore, becomes a perpetrator of domestic violence. In this case, the man’s one experience (caused by a woman defending herself which should not included in statistics) is given more credence than a woman who may have experienced 365 separate incidents of which only 5 count in official statistics. Conflating retaliatory violence with the pattern of coercive control that is domestic violence harms women as a class and makes it more difficult to campaign for specialist services for women. The cap makes domestic violence look ‘gender-neutral’. …

 

Read the rest of the article at the Huffington Post

Murder Is Not a ‘Domestic Incident’

Geraldine Newman was murdered alongside her two children Shannon (11) and Shane (6). Two days later the body of Paul Newman, father of Shannon and Shane, was found in North Wales. Police believe Paul committed suicide after killing his ex-wife and children. The police have also claimed this was a “domestic incident”.

The murder of a Geraldine, Shannon and Shane are not ‘domestic incidents’. Burning dinner is a ‘domestic incident’. Making the choice to kill your ex-partner and children are criminal acts predicated on a patriarchal culture of male entitlement and male ownership of the bodies of women and children. Using the term ‘domestic incident’ minimises both Paul’s personal responsibility for his choice to perpetrate domestic violence, which resulted in a 17-week custodial sentence in 2013, as well as his choice to kill. It is crucial to recognise that the man is the risk factor: not the relationship or the woman. Focusing on the victim implies that they are responsible for the actions of the perpetrator.

Obviously, the police want to allay fears in the wider community, however the correct statement is NOT: “We believe this was a domestic incident and we are searching for only man known to the family”. It is “We believe these murders were perpetrated by a man known to the family and we do not believe he is a risk to the wider community at this moment”. …

 

Read the rest of the article at the Huffington Post.

 

Frank Maloney is not a ‘butterfly’. He is a violent man.

Frank Maloney has a history of domestic violence. Quite a few people seem keen to forget this fact in their rush to deify him since transitioning. Today’s erasure of male violence comes from Polly Toynbee in her article ‘Here’s why feminism must embrace transpeople’:

there was also the jolt of a macho boxing promoter emerging like a butterfly as Kellie Maloney.

Granted, anyone who refers to political disagreements between women as ‘catfights’ isn’t exactly practising feminism, but completely erasing Maloney’s history of violence is inherently anti-woman. Transitioning does not magically make one a better person. And, it helps no one to pretend it does.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio did not “win the internet” with Golden Globes speech.

According to Salon, Leonardo DiCaprio “won the internet” for his Golden Globes speech because he spoke out in support of the rights of Indigenous Peoples. It’s incredibly important for people in positions of power to speak in support of marginalised communities (as opposed to speaking for them), but this does not make them ‘good men’ or awesome human beings. It is the basic requirement of not being an asshole. Leonardo_DiCaprio_GoldenGlobes_2016

As Alice Walker says, ‘activism is the rent (we) pay for living on the planet’. A 30 second snippet from a man worth more than $200 million in US is not good enough. DiCaprio does have a history of environmental activism, which is commendable. He also has a history of misogyny. One does not wipe out the other. If DiCaprio is truly concerned about the plight of Indigenous Peoples, he can start by reaching out to communities and offering financial support. Funding services for Indigenous women who have experienced sexual and domestic violence at the hands of white men could be a start, particularly since a legal loophole preventing Indigenous communities in the US from prosecuting white men for domestic violence has only just been overturned. Or, DiCaprio could build on his environmental activism by recognising that Indigenous women are most at risk due to climate change. Funding grassroots women’s groups would be the mark of a good man.

Words, though, don’t count. Not unless they are backed up by activism. And, “winning the internet” is not activism.

Victims of Domestic Violence own 50% of the responsibility

(originally published on Everyday Victim Blaming)

On a daily basis, we read some absolutely egregious examples of victim blaming culture: so many that we rarely have time to even log them, never mind deconstruct them. Today, we were sent a link to an article by Sallee McLaren called “The part women play in domestic violence” which was published in the Australian paper The Age. It is one of the worst examples we have seen in a while. McLaren, a clinical psychologist, claims that women living with domestic violence contribute 50% of the responsibility for the violence they live with. It is a clear example of a mental health professional who has no understanding of the gendered reality of domestic violence, how perpetrators function, or the impact on victims.

Any article which starts with the tagline”(w)omen can only command real power once we socialise girls to take themselves seriously and develop mental grit” is bound to be unsubstantiated drivel. The reason for domestic violence is not how we socialise girls: it is how we socialise men. We raise boys to believe that masculinity involves violence. How often do we hear parents, teachers and news media use the phrase “boys being boys” when talking about boys kicking or hitting each other? We tell 3 year olds that it is normal to behave aggressively and then wonder why they behave aggressively as adults. We tell young boys that they are entitled to women’s time, emotional support and commodities: that their needs supersede those of anyone else. This is made clear in study after study in education which shows that teachers give more attention to male students and allow male students to speak more than female students.

It is ever so kind for McLaren to suggest that perpetrators are always at fault from “a moral perspective” and we’re definitely on board with the idea that we need to understand how and why domestic violence happens in order to stop it. It’s just that we, based on actual research, find McLaren’s conclusions ill-informed and incredibly dangerous. We’re also a little perplexed as to why she doesn’t understand that legal responsibility lays with the perpetrator too. Or, quite how she’s arrived at a 50-50 ‘contribution’ for domestic violence when there is one perpetrator and one victim.

We’re also on board with the need to end gendered stereotyping of boys and girls as it is incredibly harmful to children, and adults, to be raised with expectations based entirely on ill-conceived and factually incorrect assumptions about gender. We just don’t support the theory that girls and women are responsible for being victims of domestic violence:

To explain what I mean, I want to tell you about a scenario I frequently see played out in various forms in my work in relation to domestic violence. Let’s say we have a male and female couple who are living together and he is becoming increasingly violent towards her. In my work, I have to retrain her exactly as much as I have to retrain him to correct this situation.

It happens like this. Early on in the relationship he becomes aggravated for some reason and raises his voice at her. She tolerates it, lets it go by, thinks to herself “he’s not too angry – no need to rock the boat”. At that stage he is at 4/10 in his level of anger. By not objecting she has just trained him that 4/10 is acceptable. So he continues to regularly reach that level.

Women are not responsible for “training” men not to be aggressive or violent. The ONLY person in this scenario who is responsible is the man and it is this kind of deeply stupid theory which puts women at risk by blaming them for men’s behaviour. This is why no qualified clinical psychologist, councillor, psychiatrist or therapist would recommend joint relationships counselling for a couple where domestic violence is involved. McLaren has just told the perpetrator they have the right to behave abusively: that it is the victim’s fault for not saying no.

This might be a shocking piece of information, but here at EVB, we don’t think men are stupid. We don’t believe they need to be told their behaviour is aggressive or abusive because they are confused or don’t understand boundaries. We believe men are perfectly aware that their behaviour is wrong; that they make a choice to commit domestic violence. Men who perpetrate domestic violence, and it is almost always men even when the victim is male, need to be held accountable for their actions. The very last thing they need is a clinical psychologist telling them it’s okay to be abusive if a woman doesn’t say no.

In comparing her own childhood at being allowed to be bad at sport as the same as a woman living with domestic violence, McLaren brings the woman-blaming to a whole new level of stupid:

I can relate this to my own life. As a child I was allowed to get away with being fairly sooky and ineffectual in sport. I was good enough at it technically but I was never really expected to push through into the realm of real mental toughness. Then, as a young adolescent I found myself standing at the top of a cornice (I had snow skied since I was a tiny child) and it was very steep, narrow and ungroomed. My older brother jumped straight off the cornice without a second of hesitation and skied it aggressively and beautifully to the bottom.

Suddenly I thought: “I’m sick of being pathetic – he does it, why can’t I”. At that moment I decided to never again be passive. I took off, forcing myself to trust in my own ability, skiing forcefully, fast and with authority and I have skied that way ever since. Most of the girls and women I knew back then have still not taken this step of mental toughness and although they remain excellent technicians, skiing with beauty and grace, they never really learnt just how good they could be.

Women experiencing domestic violence are NOT pathetic and anyone who suggests this should not be allowed to work with either perpetrators or victims. Girls and boys are socialised differently: boys that risk is good and girls to put the needs of others before their own. This socialisation, whilst damaging, does not negate male responsibility for their own violence.

Let us be very, very clear here: women living with domestic violence are not “tolerating” it. They are living in a violent relationship where there choices and safety are decreased incrementally. For some of these women, ‘objecting’ to the violence will lead to serious physical harm or death – and, they know this. Women do not teach men that “at each stage that his level of anger is tolerable and has no consequences”. People who make excuses for perpetrators, like McLaren, are the ones who teach men their behaviour is acceptable.

Domestic violence involves a pattern of coercive control and it is that control which increases and not all domestic violence involves violence. The failure to recognise the pattern of coercive control shows that McLaren has done very little research or training on the subject.

It isn’t just McLaren who is at fault here. The editorial staff of The Age made a choice to publish this deeply irresponsible article, which contradicts every piece of research-based evidence into domestic violence and abuse.

The only person responsible for domestic violence is the perpetrator. McLaren and The Age have just published an article that tells perpetrators they don’t need to take any responsibility for violence putting women and children at risk. This article needs to be removed from the online version and The Age needs to publish an article from a qualified professional breaking down all of the dangerous misinformation.