When Ed met the Women of the World

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When most of your friends are female and the rest deeply effeminate men, you’ve little choice but to listen to their critiques of your monstrous maleness. Naturally they despise the latent misogyny; my propensity to use phrases like “she off” and “shut your breasting face”. Then there’s my predilection for objectifying women.  I use them as furniture when they bend down – somewhere to rest a mug. I ask them to stand in one corner of my bedroom because they look good next to the bookcase. It’s an attitude that’s lost me more girlfriends than I’d care to remember – not that I would remember them, they’re all interchangeable to me. I’ve also come under scrutiny for my unorthodox ideas about female inequality. “Women,” I once declared to a bevaginated friend, “should only be allowed to vote for other women”. Equal pay, I used to think, was absurd: why pay women the same as men when they invariably have less mass?

One of my penis-free pals, Katrina, had enough of all this; she was determined that I should be reformed. And so it was that the two of us visited The Women of the World (WOW) festival on Southbank one emancipating weekend in March. The point, I learned, would be to educate me in the ways of feminism; to allow a simple man such as I, to see the world through womanly eyes. Having met at the food market outside, my pork sandwich (not a euphemism) was slapped from my mouth and my collar seized by a Katrina determined that I should take what was coming to me with the utmost seriousness; a Katrina incredulous as I protested I was on board and ready to be re-made as a new man. ‘You better not embarrass me in there, you testicled freak,’ she said, ‘I’ll be watching you and so will all my sisters’. And who says misandry is rife within the women’s movement?

On entry it was pretty obvious that I was one of just a handful of young, virile males, who’d been cajoled into meeting their opposites. Thousands of eyes sunk in soft faces followed my passage through the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Katrina apologising for me as I went. As we took our seats for “The Guy’s Guide to Feminism”, an ironic title as there were to be no men present to hear the lecture, I was subject to murmuring. One woman deliberately stood in my eye line and barked, ‘I suppose you’re expecting me to get them out!’ When I said I’d made no such presumption she tutted and turned to her friend, declaring ‘it’s awful when they don’t know what they are’. It was 11.30am.

The session taught me that if I had a son (prenamed Phalloid) it would be my duty to teach him that a woman’s worth was linked to the human standard: that one man bought you exactly one woman. I was told to watch the language I used. All language is political; it’s a signifier of institutionalised power. In other words it reflects and reinforces patriarchy. Consequently there could be no more calls for “tit sweet sandwiches” at my local café; no more referring to servants at New Whitfield House as “girls”, regardless of their sex. If I changed the words I used I’d ultimately change how I thought. I left the session confident that I’d recovered some of my base humanity; my castration anxiety was on the wane, and this despite Ms Eyeline unsheathing a blade and running her tongue across its edge.

Session two tackled rape. En route Katrina and I were lost. We meandered around festival hall like a couple of drunks who’d been glassed in a bar fight. I was already nervous about the session when I explained to my companion why I wouldn’t be asking for directions. “I can’t say, which way is it to rape?” The event, when we found it, was as harrowing as expected. Highly courageous people shared their experiences in a pin-drop room. The accounts encompassed everything from pushy boyfriends who threatened to defenestrate their girlfriends if they didn’t put out, to a woman whose family life had been tested as she worked her way through the trauma; a story that gladly had a happy ending of sorts, as mother and children were reconciled.

Given that I was one of just three men in the audience it might have been better if artistic director Jude Kelly, chairing, hadn’t contended that “some of the men in this room will be rapists”, as the heat from a hundred burning stares caused the sides of my head to run. But the point was well taken: male sexuality was predatory, power related and served by laws, written by fellow wang-merchants, that served its needs. More women had to report the crime, resisting mankind’s attempts at suppressing the truth, while being conscious that the low conviction rate was a hallmark of institutional bias. Should this extend to tearing up the presumption of innocence? One alleged victim thought so (I say alleged because the accused was acquitted in court, albeit with the suggestion of judicial misogyny). This made me uneasy. Nor was I comfortable with an attack that had been tested in court and found unproven, repeated as fact in public.

Of course the point was that the judicial system fails victims – a sideswipe at the notion that women make it up; a point that was hard to make otherwise; but it may have been better discussed anonymously in this instance. As the potential rapist in the room, it felt only right to think, “what if I was the accused?” I concluded that in such an event, I’d be holding up a card marked “defamation”. Katrina read my face and scrunched it hard. I wasn’t here to think like a man.

There followed three consecutive sessions in the Clore Ballroom during which my rump was moulded to a chair designed by the Marquis De Sade. Over four hours I was brought deeper into the femi-fold. The first two events were panel discussions. “Women in the Media” began with the jaw-dropping revelation that The Sun’s page 3 was a masturbatory aid. It was tempting to say that the other pages made gaining an erection almost impossible but I stayed silent. We then talked newsrooms. Why was it, asked one audience member, pelting Indy columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown with a hot potato, that most newspaper editors were men? Yasmin replied that even when women rose to the editorship they still made masculine choices, a paradox she attributed to market forces. This seemed to me an odd answer as it assumed that the market was fixed and exclusively male. Yasmin didn’t talk about female columnists in so-called quality newspapers dropping the ball by writing columns that played up to stereotypes; columns like the one pictured below that produce rather unfortunate, somewhat stark male/female dichotomies, but perhaps she meant to and forgot.

Is there any point in being an opinion former if you have nothing to say? Discuss.

Is there any point aspiring to be an opinion former if you have nothing to say? Discuss.

This was followed by a “Conversation between the sexes”, in which all the lazy, half-baked thinking generated by my mutant brain was roundly debunked by Ms Kelly and Liberty chairwoman, Shami Chakrabarti. Sacrificial lamb and Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow, was wheeled on to represent the cock and balls brigade. In a chat designed to reconcile the sexes and excavate the thinking that kept us apart, Snow, a picture of masculinity in a canary yellow pullover, was asked, “what are the things that women do that you’d like us to stop doing?”: a question that looked, to my male baby blues, like a trap. To his credit he tried to respond, fumbling a constructive answer – something about ending the exclusion of men from female conversation, but he didn’t really know what to say. My answer, “Ignoring me”, wouldn’t have played well with the crowd but then, what answer could?

At long last, a conversation between the sexes.

At long last, a conversation between the sexes.

Sandi Toksvig was the host for the next event, a book launch. “Fifty Shades of Feminism” – that’s one in the eye for E.L James and her multi-million pound fortune, was and is a collection of new essays and feminist titbits, sorry breastcrumbs, by writers as diverse as Laurie Penny (who made a point of looking humble in front of her peers as her poem was read out, ogling her feet) and Timberlake Wertenbaker – real name Shitty Meg. It was an anthology of female experience and political thought, only ruined for me by the increasing pressure on my coccyx, which by now had reached critical levels of discomfort. To the podium observer, I must have looked uncomfortable at the thought of women throwing off their shackles and taking the fight to the man. In reality, I just wanted to stand up and shout, “I’m sorry but sitting here is proving to be a massive pain in the arse”. I’m sure the assembled company would have understood.

Katrina and I topped out the day in the main hall, listening to pseudo-scientist and beauty mythologist, Naomi Wolf, yap on about some shit or other. Her recent book, Vagina: A biography had caused a stir amongst women cock-a-hoop, sorry cleft-a-go-go, at the thesis that there was a brain-vagina connection that meant having multiple orgasms wouldn’t just cure stress, but make you more creative. The clitoris, it turns out, is a whetstone for the mind. Any man who disagreed, perhaps because they’d failed to note the correlation in practice, was terrified of female sexuality. Men were in touch with their orgasm and because of this they were mentally focused and enjoyed mastery over all they surveyed. Well, apart from all those hardons whose sexuality directly informed deviant impulses and untamed aggression (but Wolf didn’t talk about those).

Would anyone challenge Naomi on what was surely the most important discovery in female biology this century? No. Wolf, perhaps sensitive to criticism following a few cynical reviews, repeated that all her conclusions were backed by science. When pressure on her lower spine had caused her libido to go up in smoke, she’d lost her mojo. This, she told us, was the moment she realised that her sex drive was the engine of her intellect. Men too suffered similar drops in creativity when afflicted by impotence. It was tempting to attribute this to depression, rather than a bona fide brain-penis connection, but Naomi hadn’t flown across the world at the Art Council’s expense to talk bollocks. This was year zero for the ladies in the audience.

Having kicked a question on abortion into the long grass, Wolf answered a range from something to do with immigration to attending meditation sessions for people who enjoyed cuming in company, only pausing ever so often to adjust her microphone, ask for a pillow for her back and a fresh glass of water. Staff who hadn’t anticipated the talk would be such high maintenance looked aggrieved but it was possible they simply hadn’t masturbated enough. It was hard to tell from our row.

So after the better part of a day and a brief stop to impassively judge the racy cabaret that was now taking place in the ballroom, taking care to see the performers as people, not sexualised objects, Katrina and I emerged into a very different world. I was indeed a new man. Every idea I’d ever held had been resoundingly penetrated and pumped to shreds. In just 10 hours I’d been educated in gender relations, the politics of speech, the law, media representations and human biology. I felt closer to women than ever before. I was proud to call them equals.

Indeed, I was contemplating all of this when I noticed Katrina glaring at me in the gloaming; cheeks aflush with fury. ‘Enjoy that, did you?’ she intoned. I said that I did, now conscious that I’d obviously done something wrong. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I got involved’. She edged closer, her face palsied with hate. ‘That’s great, Ed,’ she said flatly, ‘but perhaps next year you can attend with your gentleman’s relish PUT AWAY!’

See Naomi in action: http://naomiwolf.org/2013/03/naomi-wolf-interview-with-jude-kelly-and-audience-qa/

Southbank Centre: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson

WOW hashtag: #wow2013

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