The Anti-VillageAuntie is Dead. Party-time in Scotland

No pious liberal homilies here on not speaking ill of the dead or remembering that lots of others contributed to the destruction she caused or that Tony Blair was bad too or that we still have to fight what’s going on NOW.

People have the right to remember and express rage about their oppression. If you don’t think so, maybe you are too cushioned by your privilege to really empathise.

Glasgow in particular has been waiting for this chance to party for many years. Many, many beloved and valuable people are dead or damaged because of Margaret Thatcher, as are communities, our economy and our cohesiveness. So many of us are exhausted and depressed from the ongoing struggle, and the fractures and in-fighting within our various struggles. Several generations of the best and brightest have either left, or worn themselves out by staying and fighting: all that creative energy sapped.

Today, we get to party together. George Square, 5pm.

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Only rights can stop the wrongs: sex workers organise in Scotland

We’re in the middle of Glasgow’s Sex Worker Open University event (5-10 April 2013). Unfortunately I was only able to attend yesterday’s panel sessions, much as I would have liked to attend other things. So, with yesterday fresh in my mind I’m going to write up a few thoughts right now. Follow the link above to find out more about upcoming events, or follow them on Twitter at hashtag #SWOU13 or the event’s Twitter feed @SexWorkerOU.

International Union of Sex Workers logo

If you are a feminist who is swithering about what the issues are and where you stand, maybe this post will help you. If you want women to be safe, sane, respected and valued, please fight with me for decriminalising sex work in Scotland.

Supporting Sex Workers in Scotland: Kill the Bill

We were fortunate to hear about some solid and grounded research into the effects of criminalisation, and conversely, of de-criminalisation of sex work at the event yesterday. It was pretty clear that the Private Member’s Bill ‘ The Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex’, soon to be brought before the Scottish Parliament by Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, is ill-conceived at best, and callously indifferent to its likely consequences at worst.

Let me just note here: the evidence against any benefits to this type of legislation, as presented at the event yesterday, is extensive and convincing, and the evidence for the benefits of de-criminalisation likewise. I cannot do it justice here so please use links and references to do your own research.

Rhoda Don't Erode Our Rights banner from SWOU13 protest at STUC office, Glasgow.

SWOU13 protest at STUC office, Glasgow, 6 April 2013

When I first heard about this Bill, it was framed for me as ‘end demand’. I was pretty naive at that point about the current rhetoric and framing of sex work at the nexus of radical feminism and the religious right. I had fluffy thoughts about the concept of ‘end demand’ like “yes, it would be nice to live in a world where sex work wasn’t necessary”. I didn’t think it through. I genuinely believed that this ‘end demand’ thing was about bringing about an ideal society where noone wanted to buy access to sexual services, because everyone would be perfectly happy and fulfilled with the intimacy and sex in their lives. This is not what ‘end demand’ means.

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Thoughts on the Bedroom Tax

I am sitting in the community centre on my estate, attending a meeting on the Bedroom Tax. 25 people have turned out. Not too bad for a weekday evening, but then these are worried people. A lot of them are looking at a 14% increase in on their rent. That’s £11, maybe £15 depending on the property. (1)

The bedroom only affects people on benefits. So everyone here is on the breadline anyway. There is no way anyone here has a spare £11 per week. This is food from their children’s mouths.  Or from the electricity, which everyone pays by key meter and is off half the time already.

I’m here as a benefits advisor, in case any legal questions come up. The idea is that maybe I can answer them. And I can, but only to crush any residual hope that might be remaining.

There are very few loopholes in this one.  From now on Housing Benefit will only cover one room for each couple, an extra room for any single adult and one room between every two kids. There’s a little bit of wiggle room for bereavement and a get out for foster parents, families of serving service people and (after a legal challenge by the Child Poverty Action Group) a recognition that severely disabled children may need a room to themselves.  That’s it.

The bedroom tax is not completely new. Tenants in the private sector have had to deal with reductions in their housing benefit for “extra rooms” for a long time.  But that only ever applied to new tenancies. People could plan ahead and avoid moving into houses that were too big under the rules. This is a massive cut to loads of peoples benefit, all in one go.

So, what to do if you find yourself with an “extra” bedroom?

You could try to transfer to a smaller place. Except there aren’t many. Council housing was built as family homes, for stable communities, back when governments cared about such things.

Apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment? There’s a fund, but its small and thousands of others will be applying too. Move to private rented accommodation? In Glasgow the private sector is tiny and run by criminals, who; by the way, will be loving this.

Get a job to cover the shortfall? Yeah Right! 30% of Glasgow’s working age population are currently out of work (2) and most jobs available are casual or part time or both.  Any money you did earn would be deducted from your benefits in any case. (3)

There’s only one possible conclusion, I can draw:

“The only answer to this is collective action”

It’s not lefty rhetoric, this time. There’s genuinely no other way through this. We have our backs against the wall.

I’ve recently read the Chartered Institute of Housing guidelines to Housing Associations and Local Authorities. (4) It’s interesting to pull back and see it from the landlord’s perspective.

Imagine for a minute that you the Chief Executive of a Council. (5)You have a whole load of housing at your disposal. You rent it out. Some tenants don’t have enough money to pay the rent. They claim housing Benefit and you recover the money from central government. You rely on this money to maintain the buildings and to provide services in your area.

So now central government has stopped paying the full cost of the rent and it’s effectively a cut to your council.  Another cut. On top of the cuts you’ve had already.

And the government is telling you to make up the difference by taking money from the grocery budget of the very poorest people in the area?! It’s as crazy as it is vicious.

Look at it that way and it not just about immiserating benefits claimants. It’s also about destroying council housing and messing up council services.

So what to do? The CIH recommends “a programme of home visits for face to face conversations with tenants.”

Many people in my area have already experienced this.  Some stranger, coming to their door and picking through their household budget, trying to find some little thing they could cut back on. Just try and imagine the humiliation of that for a minute?

But it blood out of a stone. The money isn’t there. So what to do instead? Evict 31% (6) of your tenants, and then process them all through the homeless persons unit?

No council or housing association can evict everyone who can’t or won’t pay and this is exactly why the bedroom tax can be defeated.

We go to the Anti- Bedroom Tax demo in town, me my husband and our baby boy. Someone’s brought along a piece of my own childhood. A banner reading “Paisley Anti Poll Tax Union” They must have kept it safe in a cupboard all these years.  A timely reminder of what can be achieved if we all stick together.

We drive home from the demo and I’m thinking about the future as we pull into the estate. Some 930 households here are facing the bedroom tax. (7) Not me though. As a homeowner it’s not my problem.

Except; of course, that it is.

This is a lovely estate. The children play out in the street. At Halloween, we got through three boxes of mini cupcakes, with all the kids coming to our door. Nice polite kids in handmade costumes.

Some with their mothers, but most allowed out on their own. A world away from the intimidating atmosphere of my neighbourhood as a child.

I want my son to grow up here, amongst these people; to play out safely in the streets and to dress up and collect sweeties from the neighbours on Halloween.

I don’t want to see those same neighbours, harassed or evicted out of the neighbourhood. A stable community like this is one of the underappreciated benefits of a fair society. And its benefit for everyone; not just the poorest.

It couldn’t survive the forced migration that the bedroom tax is intended to impose. Its for this reason, more than any other that I oppose the bedroom tax.

I hope this article has given you some sense of why you should too.

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(1)    This is the figure for my estate. The national average is actually higher, £14 (from the National Housing Federation)

(2)     (http://www.understandingglasgow.com/indicators/economic_participation/overview) .

(3)    Universal Credit (which replaces most other means tested benefits from October) actually has fairly generous income disregards. So after October raising the additional money might be more of an option for some people.  Unfortunately Bedroom tax begins in April, allowing 6 months in which to accrue some really crippling rent arrears.

(4)    http://www.cih.co.uk/resources/PDF/Scotland%20Policy%20Pdfs/Bedroom%20Tax/CIH_Bedroomtax_e.pdf

(5)    Actually, in Glasgow, all council housing has been semi privatised and farmed out to housing associations. I’m just using a council as an example, to simplify the argument.

(6)    http://www.housing.org.uk/policy/welfare_reform/%E2%80%98under-occupation%E2%80%99_penalty.aspx

(7)    Estimated based on national figures.

Organisational Response to Sexual Violence in Activist Groups: Six Common Mistakes

Trigger Warning: This post discusses Sexual Assault

Recently, the issue of sexual violence in activist circles has very much come into the fore. A number of attacks have come to light and a lot of people have been wrestling with the hard fact of sexual predators in the scene.
In light of all this, I’ve decided to write a post, on the some of the  most common mistakes and pitfalls I’ve noticed in activist organisations trying to deal with these issues. Here are my top 6 common mistakes to avoid:
  1. Not having a policy.
The most basic mistake is not to have a policy. Perhaps you hope you will never need one and I certainly hope you are right. The fact is however, that sexual violence is as prevalent amongst the activist community as it is in wider society and failing to prepare will certainly not protect you from having to deal with it.
Perhaps you don’t feel qualified to write one. This is natural enough, but think about it: if sexual violence is a difficult subject to broach now, how much harder will it be to deal with when it happens. Better to think it through now and be prepared.
  1. Ill defined Responsibilities
Activist spaces are often places where new methods and structures of organisation are pioneered and experimented with. This can mean a very loose structure where responsibility and decision making is shared. The flip side of this is that sometimes no one takes responsibility and important issues fall through the cracks.
It is not acceptable for anyone’s safety to be left up to chance.
Regardless of organisational structure: It should always be clear to all participants, who they should speak to if they feel uncomfortable with someone’s presence or behaviour or if they have information which may be important to the safety of others.
That person tasked with this role should be competent to carry out the task, should be clear about the response required and should be supported to carry it out.
  1. Open/large meetings
Some activist spaces make decisions in large open meetings. These can be empowering and fun but also unpredictable and intimidating.
Large open meetings are not safe places to disclose personal, sensitive or painful information and it should go without saying that survivors should not be expected to bring instances of sexual assault in activist spaces to meetings like this.
  1. Not believing women who report a sexual assault
This is possibly the single most damaging mistake. The worst possible thing you can do to someone who has been sexually assaulted is to not believe her.
  1.  Hearing “both sides”
Activists like to feel they are fair. They don’t like to jump to conclusions about people. A common error is to attempt to achieve fairness by making space for a person accused of sexual assault, harassment or rape a “right of reply”
It should be obvious that this is inconsistent with point 4, but since a surprising number of people have trouble with this, I’ll go into more depth.
What “hearing both sides” amounts to is setting up a quasi judicial process, within an activist group. This is not something any activist group is really qualified to do, and neither should they try.
The reason a real court adopts this approach is that they have a responsibility to ascertain exactly what happened, beyond reasonable doubt and the power to send someone to prison.
Putting aside the woefully low conviction rate for rape, which is a subject for another day, consider this: as an activist group, do you have the same power or the same responsibility?
You don’t of course. Your only responsibility in this situation is to keep your own members safe and your only real sanction against people who threaten that safety is to exclude them from your events.
Even if we accept the judicial “hear both sides” type approach from the legal system therefore, it doesn’t follow that we need to adopt it ourselves.
More sensible and pragmatic then, given that you will NEVER know for an absolute certainty what went on between two other people in private, is to work from the understanding that false accusations are vanishingly rare.
Believe the survivor, thank her for bringing this important public safety information to your attention and then act on it as appropriate, hopefully in line with her wishes and the sensible policy you already drew up.
  1. Letting everyone having their say
It’s understandable that when information about a sexual assault comes out, everyone is shocked and upset. They want to know details of what happened and they want to have their say. This is particularly true of those who are close friends or comrades of the perpetrator.
It’s understandable that they want these things, but they should never be allowed to have it. Any conversation about the rights and wrongs of a particular incident puts the word of the survivor up for question and this cannot be tolerated.
Plus, if you allow everyone to have a say, rape culture will tend to rear its ugly head and all sorts of hurtful and wrong headed stuff will be said.
This is where that written policy is so important, because you can point to it and say
 “Look this is the policy. We agreed democratically to adopt this and now we will have to implement it.”
This hopefully takes some of the heat out of the situation and gets everyone people to back off before they inadvertently and for the most understandable of reasons, fuck things up worse than they already are.
 So, What should we be doing instead?
This is a question, no one person is qualified to answer in full.
The truth is that collectively we need to improve our response to these situations. I would like to us build a consensus across the movement on some basic principles that should, in all cases govern a response, adopting a survivor centred approach.
I would also like to see some formal lines of coordination between different activist groups, similar to the pubwatch scheme so that if someone has been a sexual predator in one activist group, it shouldn’t be possible for them to simply move on to the next.
The fractured and sectarian nature of some of our scene is a major structural weakness, but in this case it is a danger to our members as well.

 

Calling all pro-indy map geeks (queers and lefties welcome): Mike Parker lecture tour of Scotland

Hey all you map geeks! Especially ones who are a bit queer and/or interested in lefty/indy/national identity!

My pal Mike Parker, an honorary Welsh Village Auntie and big gay pro-Welsh-indy map nerd, author of the book Map Addict: A Tale of Obsession, Fudge and the Ordnance Survey

Source: harpercollins.co.uk via Morag on Pinterest

… and the Rough Guide to Wales, inventor of the Coast to Coast TV series, and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s On the Map series, is doing a Scottish lecture tour for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society called On the Map: Cartography and National Identity.

He wants some colourful people at the lectures to mitigate any potential stuffiness, so let’s go see him- I promise he’ll be great (he’s also had a career as a stand-up comedian).

village aunties marching for an independent Scotland

We’ll be in Edinburgh for the March and Rally for Scottish Independence this Saturday, 22 September 2012. We’ll have a lollipop-shaped banner. Keep an eye out for us, come and say hello, or march with us if you want! Remember we are LGBT-friendly, and you are welcome to join us whatever your gender, as long as you are a lefty feminist (or pro-feminist) who wants an independent Scotland.

Here’s the link for the march website.

Here’s the link for the march’s Facebook page.

village aunties are wee and the Radical Independence Conference are big, and they are bringing some excellent banners for you to carry; look out for them, we will be! Here and here.

See you there! Photos and blog post to follow.

Maternity Allowance: A Benefit from Another Time

I’ve recently left work at the Citizens Advice Bureau to take maternity leave. My work is primarily in benefits advice and I am a huge benefits geek. It’s a combination of the intellectual exercise of manipulating regulations along with the pleasing sense of mastery over a system that appears all powerful and capricious when you are on the other end of it. I love it.

One interesting thing about the benefit system is that every government since its inception has tinkered with it to some degree and marked it with its own ideology, so that the regulations resemble rock strata, each layer reflecting the social narrative of its time; the prevalent views about unemployment, the social contract and the minimum standards of dignity which citizens should be afforded.
The majority of benefits claimants I come across at work are dealing with the most modern form of the system, the means tested benefits. Jobseekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance (the recent replacement for Incapacity Benefit) Housing Benefit and so on.
The internal logic of these benefits is brutal. Apart from being set at (no exaggeration) starvation level, they tend to be subject to draconian and vicious entitlement conditions. So if you are claiming on the basis of illness, you had better be so ill you can hardly function. If you are claiming on the basis of unemployment, you will be made to show exactly what you have been doing to look for work.
The level of interrogation set against the amount of help, is in itself, a humiliation and speaks volumes about the attitudes of those who set the system up.
You work with this system everyday and you get inured to it. You learn its internal logic to better help others and, god help you, you internalise parts of it yourself. You start thinking that perhaps someone with agoraphobia should be expected to do a bit of piece work from home. You start believing that even with back pain; perhaps you should struggle in to work. Everyone seems to have back pain and depression these days after all and people should just toughen up.
I get thoughts like that creeping into my head occasionally and then I get the flu and experience perhaps one tiny fraction of what someone with a chronic condition goes through every day and I call in sick with no problems at all, because I am not on benefits and the brutal logic of the system does not apply to me.
I try to hang onto this thought and use these occasions to remind myself that the logic of the system is wrong, wrong, wrong. People deserve dignity and comfort and some decent standard of living and no one should be pressured to work if they are not able to do so.
Going on maternity leave was like that writ large. I’m lucky enough to have built up enough National Insurance Contributions to receive Maternity Allowance. Remember the rock strata? Maternity Allowance is laid down in ancient times, representing a different version of the social contract altogether. An older version of the welfare state where everyone pays in and everyone draws out. When circumstances require them to, without shame and with no conditions attached, other than the condition of having paid the contributions in the first place.
(I’m not sure when Maternity Allowance was introduced, but as a contributions based benefit the legal principles governing it can be traced to the National Insurance Act 1911 and to the National Insurance Act 1946, following the Beveridge Report.)
I went off for maternity leave a little earlier than originally planned. I had been wildly over optimistic about the amount of time I would be able to keep going and found myself at 36 weeks, emotionally volatile, knackered and, in all fairness, not a great deal of use to my employer.
I turned up at the midwifes all red faced and puffy eyed because negotiating with (my own) housing association about a water tank had somehow led to a crying jag two hours long. I was firmly advised to stop work. This turned out to be excellent advice and I am now much better, thank you for asking. If you don’t want to be stressed, stop going to where the stress comes from. Works a treat.
The point is though, that even though my symptoms felt impossible for me and even though a health professional advised me to leave work, by modern benefits standards they were nothing. Take pregnancy out of the equation and what are you left with? Anxiety and Fatigue. Trust me that is not getting you anywhere at an Employment and Support Allowance tribunal. And a tribunal is where you will end up because really, no one is being awarded Employment and Support Allowance first time these days.
And yet I walked into work, stated that I was leaving early and met with no resistance. I filled out a form, sent it back and received £138 per week with some delay but no major difficulty. My need not to be at work was not questioned for an instant.
My point is that you still come across these bits of the welfare state sometimes. The bits that remain in the lower strata. The bits that are humanitarian and still work. You come these bits and you realise how low our expectations have become and how much has been lost.

Resist the Ubiquitous Union Jack

See original Village Aunties post from April 9 2012 which kicked off the #unnecessaryunionjacks meme.

See the Village Aunties Pinterest Board (hashtag #unnecessaryunionjacks) for our ever-growing collection of #unnecessaryunionjacks in Scotland, including a mankini, babies’ nappies, and Scottish shortbread.

Banksy artwork in London, asking some questions about where all the Union Jacks come from.

Source: normsonline.wordpress.com via Morag on Pinterest

Join in by Tweeting, Facebook-linking, emailing, commenting here, with pictures of Union Jacks in Scotland.

Read on to see some ideas for resisting the scourge of Union Jacks in Scotland.

What we’ve been doing

Village Aunties have been collecting Union Jacks from around Scotland for nearly six weeks now, mostly on Twitter (using the hashtag #unnecessaryunionjacks) and Facebook, with some folk texting and emailing examples. Thanks everyone who has sent them. With ca. 150 collected already, it is starting to feel like one is never more than five feet from a Union Jack (in Glasgow anyway; thanks to Auntie @CSbungo for this observation and for many of the ideas in this post).

Let’s keep collecting them between now and the Scottish independence referendum: the Pinterest Board will remain live. I can confirm that snapping these pics and collecting them on the Web is pretty good therapy for the range of feelings they evoke. Village Aunties would also like to spark a note of resistance: I’ll come to that further down this post, with ideas from me and from Auntie Mhairi.

Subliminal exhortation to "Love" the Union Jack in Pepperberry catalogue.

Source: bravissimo.com via Morag on Pinterest

Bella Caledonia Jack*** Collection

Note that the independence blog Bella Caledonia has also now started its own collection of Union Jacks, with a witty title, and a competition for the best submission. Let many flowers bloom and all that: I’d be happy if every pro-indy site in Scotland starts their own collection. Then it would be great to use some kind of aggregation system to pull them all together. By the way Bella, I see your man in a Union Jack suit and raise you a man in a Union Jack mankini – linked rather than embedded because it’s neither safe for work, nor safe for your very eyes: brace yourself before clicking.

Union Jacks & Saltires on Pinterest

All relevant #unnecessaryunionjacks are being collected on my Pinterest Village Aunties Board – click the link to see them, and feel free to comment on individual entries. I’ve also had some help from Emma Nicol and Sheila MacNeill, intrepid Aunties both, who have been out and about snapping Union Jacks and pinning them straight to the board. If you are a Pinterest user and would like to contribute directly, let me know.

I’ve also been collecting a very paltry number of Saltires, which seem to have all but disappeared from shelves of tat and shop windows, and had a contribution from a Village Auntie in Newcastle of some St. George’s Cross knickers in John Lewis, which apparently didn’t sell very well (but at least they had the choice of their own national flag, dammit!).

There is a diamante cross right where your back passage would go.

Source: twitter.com via Morag on Pinterest

Criteria for submitting photos

The general criteria for #unnecessaryunionjacks are: they should be found in Scotland, and they should be in the public eye-line (i.e. not the Union Jack inside your shoe indicating it was made in the UK). This includes advertisements (e.g. catalogues that come through your letter-box) and actual products that appear in Scotland. Just appearing on the Internet with no specific Scottish presence or connection doesn’t count.

The Jubilympics and why that’s no excuse

Any Union Jacks specifically appearing as part of either London Olympics or Royal Jubilee promotions should also be tagged #jubilympics. A few people have suggested that the imminence of these two events somehow negates what we are doing here, or skews the sample, or something, but for me it is more than pertinent that this is happening at this exact juncture in Scottish history. See this picture from Berlin in the run-up to the 1936 Olympics compared to a recent picture of Oxford Road in London. Just sayin’, don’t Godwinate me.

Source: ushmm.org via Morag on Pinterest

Source: twitter.com via Morag on Pinterest

A Counter-Propaganda Campaign

Some ideas for a counter-Union Jack campaign:
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Cougars, Aunties and MILFs: The sexualisation of older women

Idly flicking through the stats for this blog I came across something strange.  Despite this being a Scottish blog, the majority of its readers would appear to be from India.  I was a bit puzzled by this and explored a bit more.  The most popular search term that people find their way here through is “aunties” – nothing all that surprising about that, but looking down the list and what aunties is combined with is eye-opening   At no 4 we have “village aunties sex“, at no 6 we have “aunties ass” with “nude aunties“, “sexual aunties“, “aunties sex” and “sex with aunties” all featuring prominently.  In fact looking down the list, I would reckon that over half the people who have found this blog through a search engine have done so through some combination if “auntie” with sexual terminology.

In Indian society, auntie is used as a term of respect by a young person for an older woman of social aquaintance.  A more formal equivalent in the UK would probably be “madam”, a term which is also sexualised through its association with brothel keepers. The sexualisation of older women is not entirely new – most teen boys develop a crush on a particularly attractive teacher with the assertions of Miss Jean Brodie and latent sensuality of Mrs Robinson exploring it in popular culture, but the recent popularity of the terms “Cougar” annd “MILF” (Mother I’d Like to Fuck) tell of an increased sexualisation.

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Towards a Sex Neutral Feminism

Over at the (very excellent) Radical Transfeminist blog, Lisa Millbank has been thinking through some of the theory behind “sex-negative feminism”.  This current has been out of fashion in contemporary feminist thinking since its heyday in the 70s and 80s with the rise of political lesbianism and the use of “sex-strikes” as a protest tactic.”Sex- positive feminism” emerged from women involved in the sex industry who felt marginalised and silenced by some of the discourses emerging from the rad-fem movement and grew to encompass a range of other women, including those involved in BDSM practices and non-traditional relationship structures.  It seeks to reclaim female sexuality , asserting it vocally and demanding that it is respected.

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