Monthly Archives: September 2015

Making Consent Compulsory – Reclaim The Night and Harmony Campaign

Trigger Warning: mention of sexual violence towards women.

In a break from the usual menu of loud music and the sounds of celebration, the ears of the Cardiff nightlife last night were filled with the chants of feminists and pro-feminist allies.

The last week has seen three sexual attacks against women in their early twenties, coinciding with the arrival of large numbers of new students in Cardiff. All three attacks have taken place in the early hours of the morning and have been focussed around Cardiff University’s central buildings and the Cathays area of Cardiff which is largely populated by students.

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In response to this spate of attacks against women in Cardiff, local feminists organised an emergency Reclaim The Night march to give visibility to the message that violence against women and the victim blaming which perpetuates rape culture are not and have never been acceptable.

Protesters gathered at the Aneurin Bevan statue on Queen Street before setting off to march through the streets of Cardiff. With dazzling irony the predominantly female group was then immediately herded by male police officers and funnelled along a ‘safe’ route which largely avoided the busy areas of town, focussing instead on King Edward VII Avenue and Park Place. Police officers then instructed the march that the agreed finish point for the ‘procession’ was Gorsedd gardens. In a display of unity, the group responded to the rallying cry of ‘Whose streets?’ with a decisive ‘OUR STREETS’, progressing the march back towards the centre of town along the seething Greyfriars Road. This was arguably the most effective section of the march as throngs of students and revellers queuing outside venues looked on, taking in the banners and vocal feminist presence.

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NUS Wales Women’s Officer Rosie Inman leads the chants. https://twitter.com/RosieInman

While Reclaim The Night marches are unlikely to stop the perpetrators of rape, the hope is that displays of resistance like this one will demonstrate support for the opposition of rape culture. The hope is to raise the confidence of individuals to speak up against the misogynistic language and behaviour which normalises and perpetuates sexual violence against women.

However, as activist and founder of Harmony Campaign, Emily Cottrell explained to the march – ‘While Reclaim The Night is important, this is a reaction not a solution to the problem of sexual violence.’

A member of Songbirds Choir, Emily set up Harmony Campaign in order to work towards her vision – ‘a society in which everyone is taught the value of consent, so that all sexual encounters and relationships are equal, safe and consensual, and rape and sexual assault are eradicated at the source.’

Emily took the time to explain a bit about the origins of the project and where it is headed –

What motivated you to set up Harmony Campaign?

I was motivated to set up the Harmony Campaign after I had a slightly nasty experience whilst very drunk. I realised that so often in the consent debate, there seem to be grey areas but there absolutely shouldn’t be – people should know exactly what constitutes consent. But children aren’t taught in school about respecting each other’s boundaries. Consent is not on the curriculum in Wales. Too many people reach university age still not knowing what consent really is – it’s so much more than just ‘no means no’ – and by this point it is far too late.

What would you like to achieve with the project?

I envisage a world where, from a young age, children are taught about consent – not sexual consent to begin with, of course, but respecting bodily autonomy, asking permission, listening to others, etc. I also think that it’s incredibly important to inform young people of the laws surrounding consent, and what can happen to them (prison, the sex offender’s register, etc.) if they don’t comply. This really isn’t a simple thing to achieve. We need to undo the work of centuries, of a society where men are taught that they are entitled to women’s bodies and too much is seen as ‘blurred lines’.

How do you intend to take those aims forward?

Education is the most important factor, so my future plans currently include: Campaigning for changes in the curriculum, providing workshops and poster campaigns in schools, youth clubs and universities, teaching teachers how to deal with consent issues. Offering a source of information and advice through the website and a helpline I would also like to run more practical action on the ground, such as providing free transport for women at night.

What do you think our response should be to the latest spate of sexual attacks in Cardiff?

We need to react quickly and loudly to the recent spate of sexual attacks in Cardiff. The Reclaim the Night march was a perfect way to demonstrate that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable. It is very important that we promote personal safety without victim-blaming but reactive responses such as Dragon Taxis offering their deal with Cardiff University are important.

What would your advice to students be?

My response to students is this: look after each other. Girls, make sure you have all your friends’ phone numbers and never leave a venue without checking you have everyone with you. Check your phone regularly to see if anyone has called you. Look after your drunk friends and take them home if they’re too drunk. And boys, never forget that in the eyes of the law, any sex with a drunk girl is rape – for the sake of one night, don’t risk it.

https://www.facebook.com/HarmonyCampaign

In spite of our varied experiences and whether or not we identify as feminists on an individual level, as a choir of Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans* women operating as a women only group we can only be support of Reclaim The Night organiser Kate Blower’s statement that, ‘Women shouldn’t have to live lives where their movements in public spaces are restricted.’ Songbirds Choir continues to rehease and perform unapologetically as members of the LGBT* community, but also as women.

Songbirds Choir meets 7.30pm every Wednesday at United City Reformed Church, Windsor Place, Cardiff.

What was it like to be a gay parent in the early 1990’s?

In the early 1990’s being gay was becoming more acceptable, but being gay with a child on the way was somewhat unheard of. Planning, energy, and time were of paramount importance and sharing these responsibilities with a small group of close friends was uplifting.

Having started a new job, the awkward conversations which ensued about having time off for my partner to give birth to our much wanted baby girl were hair-raising at best. My immediate (heterosexual) manager was extremely supportive. However the Head of the Service (also Gay and ‘semi out’) was less than supportive – disappointing to say the least. Parental leave, as it stood, was non-existent. For me anyway, I was reliant on Annual leave and fingers crossed that the big day came in a timely manner! (which it did).

Parenting was largely good. There was no manual on ‘how to do it the right way’, so we stumbled, laughed, faltered, and (I think) came up trumps over the next 18 years.

When Alex started school we researched the best schools to send her to, and moved to Gwaelod y Garth (a small village) 6 miles from the big city, where she started her education. The Headmaster assured us that he didn’t tolerate bullying (‘Ha!’ I thought, ‘such lip service!’). However, when she was 7, she did experience some throw away comments like – ‘How many Mums have you got?’, ‘you’re gay!’ Luckily her little band of 7 year old friends declared that – ‘Alex was in trouble, and needed our help!’. The Headmaster, along with the fearsome band of 7 year olds, swept into action and the problem was swiftly dealt with, never to occur again! This was heart-warming, and she still has these friends today.

We never really had any further problems (that we know of) and Alex has grown up to be a lovely, kind, intelligent, caring, well-balanced, beautiful 23 year old. So too does her 2 year old rowdy boy, appear to be following in her footsteps. Take heart all you struggling parents (and parents to be) out there!

AND: Now to my choir kids (you know who you are). Well what can I say? A beautiful, clever, thought-provoking bunch of girls, who often make me ask myself – was I that mature at 24? I think not! The love, friendship, kindness, cooking skills, and learning that I have gained from you kids is immense, and I thank you for this enriching experience, and my status. [NB. I think I’d like to be known as Mumma from now on. lol.]

In fact the whole of my choir bunch of pals, 20-50 somethings, have completely enriched my life…and I can only thank you all for this… Special thanks to Laura May, who said about my struggles with this piece – ‘Just write!’ Onwards and upwards to the Mighty band of SONGBIRDS!

Linda xxxx

– Songbirds Choir meets 7.30pm every Wednesday at United City Reformed Church, Windsor Place, Cardiff.

A letter to my 17-year­-old self

Dear Cath (for that is what you will be called until aged 28 when people finally start calling you Catherine),

By now, you will already know that people sometimes mistrust your sexuality. Not that long ago you will have revealed some feelings for girls to your work friends. Because you’ve had a boyfriend previously, they will have assumed you are just being an attention seeker. They will have responded by getting a (straight) woman friend to phone you up in work to ask you out, for a joke. They will have found your reactions to this highly amusing. They won’t have understood that, to you as a young woman trying to come to terms with yourself, it was excruciating. Try to remember that their cruelty wasn’t intentional; because you weren’t capable of articulating yourself to them, they didn’t know better. Don’t worry; you’ll improve at talking about this over time. (Although, if you’re hoping you’ll grow into a quiet, tactful person, forget it; you’ll always be opinionated, and you’ll put your feet in your mouth so often you might as well just keep your socks there.)

You’ll also probably be beating yourself up about now because you fooled around with a boy and not long after slept with a girl and this freaked you out a bit. Try not to be too hard on yourself, you’ll come to realise it wasn’t to do with them as people, but everything to do with how much it made you feel, and how overwhelming that was when you’re still not sure how to describe yourself. It will be a long time before you come across any positive representations of other bi women, so it’s not at all strange that you feel conflicted right now about being bi. I promise you, it doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to have a trusting and fulfilling relationship with someone (read on, honey).

You’ve got a lot of interesting things ahead of you. Next year you’ll go to Uni. You’ll start to see real representations of women in history, literature, politics, for the first time. You’ll realise you’re a feminist, and will pledge to yourself that you won’t ever be with someone who isn’t. (You’ll keep that promise, by the way). You will fall in love with a woman and get your heart broken. (Time for a plea: immediately after said heartbreak isn’t the best time to experiment with a one-­night stand, so if you could see fit to avoid that, adult me would be very happy to scrub that particular awful experience from memory.) You will also have a couple of short-term relationships with men. At various points, you will wonder if you’re gay or straight because of the assumptions other people make based on the gender of your partner. Do your best to try to hold on to yourself through it all, even though it will feel almost impossible sometimes.

When you’re almost 23, you will start dating a man you meet in work. It will take you some time to be completely honest about yourself, but he will make it easier to do so. He will react honourably and respectfully when propositioned by a man on a night out (he’s straight). He will introduce you to the novels of Sarah Waters. He will describe himself as a feminist before you say it. He will buy you tickets to see Jeanette Winterson at Hay and won’t care that you are so embarrassingly eroticised by her performance that you still can’t actually talk when you get to the front of the book-signing queue (hey, don’t judge me until you’re there hearing her read, okay). He will treat you with kindness, sincerity and caring. When you finally admit you’re bi, he will be the first person you encounter who doesn’t question if you’re confused or going through a phase or attracted to everyone or fundamentally untrustworthy. Because of all these things and more you will marry him.

You will go through some times where you feel you’ve lost touch with the LGBT+ community. A big part of this will be because your friends assume you’ve chosen to be straight by marrying a man. They will say you ‘pass’ as straight. This will at once both hurt you and make you feel guilty about not having the same everyday challenges same­-sex couples have. You will continue to support LGBT+ rights, but it will bother you to feel like you’re on the outside looking in. Living an ostensibly straight life will feel disingenuous because, even though you will have chosen to be monogamous, you will still have feelings of sexual and emotional desire for other men and women.

But I’m writing to you now (aged 40) because I want you to know those feelings get better, that nowadays I don’t feel that way so much anymore. It’s a little early on, but I think I might have found “the ones”; a big, beautiful, sometimes wonderful, sometimes dysfunctional, but always awesome extended LGBT+ family; my choir family, my ‘Songbirds’. I hope it works out with us because it will feel amazing to have a family I don’t constantly have to explain fundamental things to when I want to talk about my romantic and sexual feelings. All I have to do now is tell them that I’m happily in love with a man and hope they accept me… cross your fingers for me, dear Cath.

Sincerely, your future self,

Catherine

[Image above: “Briefoeffner mit kuvert und hand fcm” by Photograph: Frank C. Müller, Baden-Baden – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons]