Where’s the point in fretting about gay sex?

Independent on Sunday, 24 March 2013

It’s a giveaway that senior clerics aren’t much interested in lesbians, while presiding over institutions that struggle with the notion of treating women as equals

There are many things to worry about in the modern world, so I try to follow a simple rule: don’t fret about gay sex. I have to say it works for me; I’ve spent many pleasant evenings with gay and lesbian friends without giving a moment’s thought to what they do in bed. In the admittedly unlikely circumstances that I ever find myself giving a pre-enthronement interview, I promise I won’t even mention it. And if the new Archbishop of Canterbury had any sense, he would have avoided the subject last week, instead of sounding like a Private Eye parody of an agonised Anglican cleric.

Justin Welby offered his views on gay sex to the BBC a few hours before he dressed up in floor-length yellow, white and turquoise robes – how camp is that? – and banged on the doors of Canterbury cathedral with a stick. (No one could accuse the Anglican church, or indeed the Vatican, of trying to pass itself off as a cool, modern institution.) “You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship,” Welby declared, managing to patronise gay couples while continuing to deny them the right to get married.

Does he have a “stunning” relationship with his wife? And who is entitled to judge? I don’t think it’s any of his business who takes advantage of what is more often than not a civil ceremony, and should certainly be open to gay people. Even David Cameron agrees with that, and he’s hardly a radical.

It’s also a bit rich of the Anglican church, which has had its own share of paedophile scandals, to stand in judgement on consenting relationships between adults. They aren’t what religious leaders need to worry about in a society where some men have got away with abusing children for decades, thousands of women and girls are raped each year and domestic violence accounts for around one in six recorded crimes. The conjunction of sex and violence is a significant social problem although it gets much less attention, in clerical circles, than the perennially fascinating subject of what gay men do with each other. Even Scotland’s most senior Catholic, the recently disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien – accused last week of having been in a long-term relationship with a priest while he publicly excoriated gay marriage – couldn’t keep off the subject of homosexuality.

It’s a giveaway that senior clerics aren’t much interested in lesbians, while presiding over institutions that struggle with the notion of treating women as equals. The popular press struggles too, going through a mystifying daily ritual of discovering that women have breasts. But the clerical obsession is with male anatomy. That’s no mystery when you look at photographs of Welby’s enthronement, where the queuing Anglican primates look as though they’ve stepped out of a Renaissance painting. It’s my old friend phallocentric discourse! Call me a feminist, but these guys need to get over the (ahem) amazing exploits of the penis.


MPs, ignore David Cameron and vote for a free press

Independent on Sunday, 17 March 2013

We all believe in a free press, don’t we? But if I’ve learned anything over the course of the Leveson inquiry, it’s that it means different things to different people. Take the former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, who boasted that it meant doing what he liked and not checking sources. He used his freedom to produce an untrue front-page story which claimed that Liverpool fans urinated on police officers and picked the pockets of dying fellow supporters during the Hillsborough disaster. “The Truth”, MacKenzie called it in a brazen headline.

Another Sun luminary, associate editor Trevor Kavanagh, offered a dire warning after the Prime Minister abruptly withdrew from cross-party talks on press regulation last week. “Without a free press, we will suffer ever more suffocating bureaucracy and more undiscovered corruption in our public life,” he thundered. Could he offer an example? Indeed her could: “Think of the Hillsborough cover-up.” Consistency? How are you spelling that?

Here’s another example of press freedom, courtesy of the Daily Mail. Banner headlines about men falsely accused of rape have created the impression that it’s a common occurrence. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the Director of Public Prosecutions pointed out last week, but the myth gets in the way of successful prosecutions. That’s why third-party complaints are essential in any new scheme of press regulation, and a key Leveson recommendation. They would also allow members of the public to challenge exploitative images of women, such as the Sun‘s notorious front-page picture of Reeva Steenkamp after she was killed by Oscar Pistorius.

The impact of this material appearing in newspapers every day is a serious social issue, but Cameron’s royal charter would allow very few third-party complaints to get to the new regulator. He would leave ethics to right-wing editors who have failed to enforce standards in the industry, allowing the phone-hacking scandal to scar its reputation. What he’s proposing is a regulatory system so weak and industry-friendly that it’s a close relation of the discredited Press Complaints Commission.

There’s apoplexy in some parts of the industry at the notion that anyone else, whether working journalist or victim of intrusion, be involved in a debate about biased reporting, misogyny and attacks on asylum seekers. But if papers want to continue publishing this stuff, why shouldn’t they expect to be challenged, like any other vested interest? Their biggest defender is a weak PM who seems to have forgotten the public interest and devoted himself to watering down Leveson’s quite modest proposals.

We both know how powerful the right-wing press is, and I knew the risk I was taking when I decided to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry. But I believe in a free press that holds the powerful to account, and is not merely a slogan to deflect criticism of  inexcusable behaviour. I hope MPs will bear that in mind when they vote tomorrow night.


It’s official: child-rearing is women’s work

Independent on Sunday, 10 March 2013

On Sundays, dads up and down the land look forward to football with their kids followed by a lazy family lunch. It’s an idyllic picture of life in 21st-century Britain, but for once I want to talk about all the men who don’t have children. What’s wrong with the one in five who don’t become fathers?

If you haven’t heard this statistic before, the reason is simple: I made it up. I haven’t a clue how many childless men there are, but then it isn’t my job to count. You might think it’s the job of government, which assiduously collects figures on women’s childbearing habits, but apparently it isn’t. Last week I read the latest publication from the Office for National Statistics, which enjoys the gender-neutral title Cohort Fertility, Engand and Wales, and realised that every single statistic relates to women. One in  five women born in 1966 has remained childless, compared with one in eight from 1939, and fewer women are having four or more children.

All of this is fascinating, so I called the ONS to ask for comparable figures on men and fatherhood. That’s when I discovered there aren’t any. They don’t collect them, and they sounded surprised by my question. Yet the impact of not collecting data on changing patterns in fatherhood is obvious, reinforcing the age-old notion that the business of having children is “women’s work”. It ensures that any discussion about individuals who don’t have children is bogged down in female stereotypes: career women who have left it too late and lonely middle-aged women who tried to deny the maternal instinct.

I’ve never wanted to have children and I don’t see why childless women should be pitted against mothers, as though one choice is better than the other. In any case, the size of families and the wider subject of the way people organise their private lives are hardly specific to women. Yet every time I read about an increase in single-parent families, single households or childless adults, it’s as though the changing nature of the family is entirely down to the whims of women. A couple of days ago, the Daily Mail used ONS research to create a double-page “portrait of 21st-century British woman” and you don’t need me to tell you what made headlines.

Naturally it was all those childless women, along with results from another study showing that fewer than half of adult women are married. This is a world where marriage and motherhood remain the ultimate goal for women; domestic abuse, which affects more than one million women each year, isn’t mentioned despite being a significant cause of single-adult households.

It shouldn’t need saying that there’s nothing wrong with choosing not to have children. It’s also obvious that the traditional family hasn’t evolved as quickly as women’s expectations, which is why so many end up living without a partner. The statistics don’t surprise me at all, but I just have a sneaking suspicion that it isn’t all down to the behaviour of women.



Sex, lies and undecover police officers

Independent on Sunday, 3 March 2013

If someone agrees to an intimate relationship on the basis of lies, can they really be said to have given meaningful consent to sex?

Almost 20 years ago, a woman known as Alison began a relationship with a man she met via an anti-racist organisation in east London. Mark moved in with Alison and even  appeared in family wedding photographs, but strains emerged over the question of children. Alison wanted a baby but Mark didn’t, and for 18 months they saw a  counsellor together. In the spring of 2000, Mark disappeared and Alison began to suspect something was very wrong. Years later, she discovered that he was an undercover police officer who had assumed a false identity to spy on left-wing activists.

Alison’s evidence, which she gave in a private session to the Home Affairs Select Committee last month, has just been published. Her story is almost beyond belief – the Labour MP Bridget Phillipson said she was “stunned” when she heard it – but Alison is one of 11 women who are suing the police for damages. Another witness, “Clare”, told MPs that her partner also disappeared abruptly, and her desperate attempts to find him led to a stunning discovery: he was an undercover officer who had assumed the identity of an eight-year-old boy who had died of leukaemia. Another woman is said to have had a child with an undercover cop without knowing the father’s true identity.

This is a scandal of monumental proportions. It began to emerge two years ago, when a criminal case against six people accused of a conspiracy to sabotage a coal-fired power station was halted because of the involvement of an undercover police officer. Two days ago, the select committee produced a damning interim report condemning the practice of officers etering into sexual relationships under false identities unless they’ve btained “prior authorisation”, which should be granted only in the most exceptional crcumstances”. Some of the MPs’ most scathing remarks are reserved for the practice of “resurrecting” dead children to provide documentation for undercover officers, which they describe as “ghoulish and disrespectful”.

But these cases raise another issue. If someone agrees to an intimate relationship on the basis of lies, can they really be said to have given meaningful consent to sex? Last year, a strange and troubling case came before Guildford crown court in which a 19-year-old woman, Gemma Barker, posed as a boy on Facebook to trick female friends into having sexual relationships with her. She was convicted of sexual assault and fraud, and sentenced to 30 months.

Lawyers say this is a “grey area”, but there are striking parallels between the Barker case and allegations that undercover officers had sex with women who’d been deceived about their true identities. Nor is there any doubt about the impact on the victims. Another woman, “Lisa”, told MPs she was “shocked and devastated” when she discovered the truth about the man she had shared a bed with for six years. “I cared deeply for somebody whose life was intermingled with mine,” she said bleakly, “and that person’s life story is a fiction.”