By Jo Bartosch
It was like a verbal tick, the phrase ‘and also some men’ punctuated each comment made by the three male candidates; we were reminded that men can be raped, can be victims of domestic abuse, that men can be subject to street harassment. I’m not sure if candidates were consciously aware of this, I wonder if at some level they felt it their duty to point out male suffering to the feminists, lest we forget. I spent the event with my head down, frantically tweeting before really processing their comments, and trying to fend off accusations of sexism against men (see my previous post).
I met the candidates and briefly chatted before and after the event, I have no doubt they are decent community spirited people, probably caring fathers and loving husbands. As with most political types, I am confident that these are not careerists ‘on the take’ and that they are genuine in wanting to do their best for those they represent. Depressingly, after hearing them speak I was left in no doubt that none of them are properly equipped to do this, as they all seemed to struggle with the notion that ‘women’s issues’ are in fact fundamental human rights.
When Barry, the Labour candidate, proudly described his commitment to child-friendly policies allowing mothers to balance family and work commitments, I knew he was trying to do a good thing. It felt rather churlish to wonder who was looking after his children so that he could further his career that evening, but nonetheless the thought drifted through my mind. His introduction was firmly party political, championing the work of the Labour Party in taking positive action. To be fair, unlike the others Barry tried to get it, he said his wife described him as a ‘feminist’ and unless he does something unspeakably stupid, he will have my vote.
Will Windsor-Clive (double-barrelled, guess which party…) was an affable fellow with considerable experience, particularly within the Fire Service. Similarly to Barry, he was quick to cite notable women within his party and was clearly proud of the Conservative Party’s record on promoting women into positions of leadership. As he was a nice enough chap, I felt myself silently willing him not to mention that Prime Minister to a room dominated by feminists but alas, he did.
One of the first comments that made me snort some tea through my nose was during the incumbent Police and Crime Commissioner’s introductory comments. Martin Surl, a man with huge power and responsibility for the entire police budget of Gloucestershire, referred to the female half of his electorate as ‘a special interest group.’ Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect a man of a certain age who has spent his working life in a male-dominated profession to always use the phraseology preferred by feminists. Nonetheless, the one in five of us who are raped, the one in five of us who are stalked, the ninety-nine per cent of us who have been harassed on the street, are not a ‘special interest group.’ The needs, experience and understanding of half of those he represents should be at the core of the Police and Crime Commissioner’s strategy, women are not an adjunct. I’ve singled him out for his poor choice of words, but in attitude it seems clear to me that all of the candidates are alike in this.
Each of the candidates was invited to comment upon the case of a prosecution barrister, who referred to his client, the woman who had instructed him to prosecute her alleged rapist, as a ‘silly girl.’ The next morning I woke up to hear former Director of Public Prosecutions Kier Starmer, eloquently describing the culture of disbelief that used to characterise the police approach to allegations of sexual abuse. During his work, Starmer sought to ‘fundamentally shift the focus to get away from myths and stereotypes’ during sexual abuse prosecutions. Clearly, not one of Gloucestershire’s Police and Crime Commissioner candidates got the memo. Not one of them was willing to condemn the sexist and stupid comments of the barrister, nor even to use the opportunity to high-light the problem of victim-blaming. As a woman who has suffered abuse, this made me realise that I made the right decision when I opted not to report the crime to the police. I cannot express how depressing this knowledge is. The failure of the candidates to take this opportunity to take a stand against sexism made it painfully apparent to me that even at the highest levels sexist behaviour is ignored, underplayed and excused.
Following this, a woman who has worked locally in the women’s sector for many years, who I know to be an expert in matters of sexual and domestic violence service provision, asked about the closure of GDVSAP. This was a service used by marginalised groups, particularly BAME women who were experiencing domestic violence. Funding was withdrawn, interestingly in favour of a service that also provides support to men. The ninety BAME women who were on the books have disappeared. That this was news to the candidates was disappointing, one might have hoped that they’d have had the courtesy of doing a little research into women’s services before attending an event with a focus on women. Making pledges before you’re in office is hard, but condemning an obvious injustice shouldn’t be. Again, the candidates totally failed to offer any solution, or pass any criticism about the impact of funding cuts. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering if the response would have been different had the expert had been white and male.
Will Windsor-Clive was quick to herald the work done recently by the Cheltenham and Gloucester MPs with regard to extending the sentencing guidelines for stalking. He asserted, that he wasn’t aware there was a problem with under-reporting or with cases not being taken seriously, despite the MPs’ report clearly stating that ‘relatively few cases ever reach court.’ He assured us all that if it did prove to be a problem, he would look into it. Perhaps I’m unfair, but I suspect he hadn’t read the report and I was not reassured.
For once, I felt brave enough to ask a question myself. I hate speaking-up and really battle against being shy, (damn female socialisation) so this was a small personal victory. I asked the candidates whether they’d support the Nordic model on prostitution, the system whereby pimps and punters are prosecuted but prostituted women are helped with exit strategies. None of them had a clear understanding of the issues, and whilst I was somewhat reassured that they recognised prostituted women as vulnerable (with the usual caveat of ‘some men’ and those mythical few who love the sexy sex industry) they totally failed to understand the nuance between total decriminalisation and decriminalising prostitutes themselves. The adoption of the Nordic model is something I feel passionately about, and I sometimes wonder if I am guilty of expecting those in positions of authority to know an unreasonable amount about what happens to interest me. I suppose, what irked me, was that none of them was honest enough to just admit that they didn’t know. It struck me as textbook masculine behaviour…
The feminist community I’m immersed in is warm and supportive, sometimes when I step out of it I am shocked at how cold and unconcerned with women the outside world is. I am grateful that the candidates cared enough to attend; during a recent mayoral hustings focussing on VAWG only two of the candidates were there in person as it clashed with a business event. It seems to those with power, the interests of pretty much any other group trump those of women.
I left the event with a firm belief in the glass elevator, the counterpart to the better known glass ceiling, whereby mediocre men are promoted to positions of importance.