A Handmaid’s Documentary

By Amy Gray

It shouldn’t be surprising that Margaret Atwood is writing a sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale. Not just because her book has renewed interest with the tv series, but because real life feels like an express ticket to Gilead.

This was definitely the case in Ohio when Republican State Representative Christina Hagan introduced a “Heartbeat Bill” that would ban all abortions after six weeks which is when a fetal heartbeat can be heard. It’s a canny time frame, given medical professionals often won’t perform abortions until a fetus can be seen via ultrasound (and, natch, this happens after the six week marker).

Hagan’s point is loud and clear: she is seeking to ban abortion, but she really drove home the point by arguing for the ban while holding her twin infants. The double sling across her chest as she held the microphone was a deliberate attempt to push the myth that mothers are good and anyone who doesn’t want it is an evil killer.

It’s something that touches a local nerve, given when Australians aren’t campaigning for reproductive rights, we’re campaigning to stop a politician using them as a bargaining chip.

Often, our conversations about abortion rest on the notion that patriarchy wants to restrict women’s choice in order to control women’s bodies. But there’s greater nuance there that we should explore.

We have to consider that a lot of the discrimination women face is seen through the filter of motherhood. It doesn’t matter if the woman is a mother or not -  people actually want to consider women in a state of perpetual pregnancy, their fertility and choice a ticking time bomb that must be contained and controlled.

Women are primed from birth through toys and entertainment that their main goal in life is motherhood. Sure, they may come across some “empowering” messages that tell them they can have it all – but they’re reminded that part of that “all” must include motherhood.

Whether or not women accept that conditioning, they are still punished either being mothers or an assumption motherhood is imminent or inevitable. Perhaps her marital status is subtly questioned in an interview (because attachment to a man means children will come), or she’s denied job opportunities because at any moment she may get pregnant which – despite society’s demand that she should – she is then punished for with reduced promotion, hours or rights.

Should a woman become pregnant, she learns her rights are not only behind that of men, but also the collection of cells we would call a embryo. How is it that cells have more rights than the person creating them? Simply: diagnostic tools like ultrasounds which make them seem more human than the expanding cells actually are. As Professor Meredith Nash has noted, the obsession with sonogram and other technologies that allow us to visibly track a fetus’ development has corresponded with their use to shame women into continuing pregnancies (like a plan in Indiana forcing women to view an ultrasound before they can access an abortion procedure).

This continues after birth, with many women finding themselves made redundant on maternity leave or prevented from resuming their job. Their motherhood, an additional tag to their identity, is used to frame their entire professional life and not only places them secondary to men but subtle infers their real job isn’t the one that gives a weekly pay or superannuation, but of raising children.

For women in the home, it’s a time fraught with an increase in domestic violence and decreased options to leave or have any sort of security for herself or her children.

When you look at all the connections, motherhood appears to be one of the easier ways of controlling all women whether they’ve had kids or not. It becomes a lever that can be pulled to prevent them from financial security, education, or social and political participation.

So of course, forced pregnancy is both a political aim and dystopian nightmare for Atwood. It’s a way to control women and remind them who really has it all: not them.


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Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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    The women who led me to my writing space

    The typewriter image is CC0 Creative Commons, Free for commercial use, No attribution required via

    By Karen Wyld 

    I mostly write non-fiction pieces. I’ve published one novel, and have been clawing back time to finish another.

    Women are writing across all genres and subject matters. Works of fiction by women can be powerful. From books that unashamedly focus on everyday life to those that shake perceptions, reveal the unspoken, and stare political opponents in the eye.

    Publishing or reading novels by women is no longer frowned upon. Some of these books provide motivation to keep going, ideas for breaking down barriers, and an image of a fairer society to strive for.

    There are many woman-authored books with strong female protagonists from my childhood, but the ones that most stand out are the Pippi LongStocking series by Astrid Lindgren. Pippi showed me that it’s possible to be uniquely you. Be a rebel, have fun, walk your own path, and help others. Pippi did not leave others behind.

    Queen Victoria Women
    Reminiscing about younger-me wanting to be like Pippi, I discovered that Astrid Lindgren(1944 – 19993) was also an inspiring person. She was vocal about women in politics, children’s rights and civil rights for African-Americans, and was against corporal punishment. Awarded accolades in her lifetime, Astrid Lindgren even has an asteroid named in her honour.

    Recently I re-re-read Toni Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved. I now understand why Baby Suggs chose to spend her last days on earth pondering colours. Starting with blue, gone before she reached red. There has been too much red. Beloved tells the grim story of a traumatised runaway-slave that kills her toddler to save her from a life of chains.

    Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1993. Very few writers can capably use storytelling to combat white supremacy and injustice with as much clarity and fearlessness as Toni Morrison does.

    Although her books often tell stories at the intersection of sexism and racism, Toni Morrison ‘…does not write “ist” novels.’ In an interview Toni Morrison was asked why she distances herself from feminism. She replied:

    In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can’t take positions that are closed. Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book — leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity. I detest and loathe [those categories]. I think it’s off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I’m involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don’t subscribe to patriarchy, and I don’t think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it’s a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things.

    Queen Victoria Women
    Closer to home, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is the second novella in a trilogy written by my maternal aunt Doris Nugi Garimara Pilkington (1937 – 2014). The book retells how my grandmother Molly escaped a church-run institution for children, after being incarcerated under the government’s racist child removal polices. These practices occurred nationally, from the early 1900s to the 1980s, and those taken are the stolen generations.

    Aunty Doris became a published author later in life. Receiving the 1990 David Unaipon Award led to the publication of her first novel, Caprice: A Stockman’s Daughter. Whenever I worry about running out of time to reach my goals, Aunty Doris’ success gives me hope. And whenever I feel like everything is too difficult, I remember the tenacity of my grandmother and know the strength of my ancestors’ flows through me.

    A space to write is essential, even if it’s just a small corner of the kitchen table. Many of us write in difficult circumstances: decades of juggling demands on our time, giving birth, dealing with grief and loss, worrying which bills will be late this month, and being just so so tired. Some women are writing whilst in toxic relationships or dealing with attempted sabotage from exes. And there are women writing in exile or incarceration.

    This week, author Susan Abulhawa was detained by the Israeli government and refused entry to Palestine. An American-Palestinian writer, Susan Abulhawa is a human rights advocate, the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, and a Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) activist. She was to be a guest at the 2018 Kalimat Palestinian Literature Festival.

    In her statement to the Festival, Susan Abulhawa says:

    I want to leave you with one more thought I had in that jail cell, and it is this: Israel is spiritually, emotionally, and culturally small despite the large guns they point at us – or perhaps precisely because of them. It is to their own detriment that they cannot accept our presence in our homeland, because our humanity remains intact and our art is beautiful and life-affirming, and we aren’t going anywhere but home.

    Queen Victoria Women
    Set in Gaza, Susan Abulhawa’s The Blue Between Sky and Wateris a tale of four generations of Palestinians living under siege – refugees in their own lands. Amongst the atrocities and destruction inflicted by the Israeli government, the Baraka family love, laugh, give birth, grieve, and resist.

    And at the centre of everything are women.

    I was there with the women in my life. I was in the colors. In the mulberries, magentas, and corals of a tired sun. In the blue between sky and water.
    I was there watching. Their conversations and laughter anchored the ground in place, tucked the shore under the water, and hung the sky and decorated it with stars and moon and sun. All of this happened in Gaza. It happened in Palestine. And I stayed as long as I could.

    To prepare for this article, I made a stack of novels by women that centred girls and women. Choosing these four was hard. However, it was a chance to re-visit these books. I still remembered what they showed me about life, of love and hate, overcoming oppression — and about myself.


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    Karen Wyld is a freelance writer, author and consultant of Aboriginal descent (Martu) living on the Fleurieu Peninsula, SA.

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      My solution for feminist fatigue: make men do it


      By Amy Gray 

      I’m not tired of feminism, but man, feminism can be tiring.

      When you’re a feminist, especially one whose work is centered around the protection and elevation of women, the world can feel battering. Every viral moment feels like a drain as you read more stories of degradation and destruction. Or to see the names of people you know in the Red Heart campaign’s list of murdered women. Every outrage drags at you, a silent accusation you haven’t individually or collectively solved an issue.  That’s when feminism feels like a todo list where nothing ever gets ticked off.

      This is without even counting the personal things that happen – like finding yourself featured among friends and colleagues on a misogynistic twitter account, your photos stolen from your Facebook pages. Hours get spent helping others, letting people know, filing complaints and listening to others as they work through all the feelings and actual experiences it dredges up.

      Because here’s the thing – the world utterly relies upon women’s unpaid labour. We do more work at home, we get paid less and we’re expected to do more. Then we watch others sail by with less work or ability but are told their elevation is due to merit than a murky combination of gender, race, medical or physical privilege.

      For women, our liberation is entwined with our unpaid labour. If we do enough for free we’re told maybe one day we’ll get equal rights. It becomes a line we never see – just work harder, we’re told, network and work hard and jump through all these hoops and ignore those attacks you face daily just because you exist and maybe then you’ll find some glimmer of equality.

      For many this is an understandable transaction because the result would be enough, because we imagine quality will clear all the paths and we can make up time to win some imagined race. Perhaps this is true, but it begs the question will we turn up ready to win or turn up barely able to take a breath because we’re so damn tired from all the energy involved in fighting for our rights?

      So I have a new plan, one I’ve cribbed from my days in offices where consultants told us to delegate because we needed to work smarter, not harder. And maybe my favourite Onion article.

      I make men do the work.

      No really.

      If men are going to tell me all the ways my feminism is wrong, I will welcome them with open arms…and then make them do the work.  Who better to take on feminism’s work than the people who have extensively trained for this moment with common sense and years of playing devil’s advocate?

      Is someone insulting me on social media in increasingly violent or aggressive ways?
      Find a mutual male friend – tell him to deal with him.

      Is one of your male friends watching you with glee, waiting for you to address some random dude spouting vile misogyny? Say “you’re meant to be an ally: you deal with it”. Then walk away so he can concentrate on the task without an audience.

      Got a man sending you screencaps of some aggro tripe or wanting to gossip about some other man who is not like them, a woke feminist? Tell them to deal with them and ignore their updates.

      This becomes a real test when you ask male friends to challenge – not reject or isolate or blame but question – their friend’s treatment of women. Women are questioned every day  (often by the men they’re now challenging) so why can’t men do the same?

      Given how much sexist behavior is condoned or exonerated through the NGN (nice guy network), men have direct experience using their relationships and privilege to negotiate and overcome resistance. They have no worries then – so why not use it for women? Their reluctance is a fascinating illustration of how men demand zero challenge, while women have to constantly navigate this.

      Naturally, you will get blowback. These men may refuse or they may try and commiserate that they aren’t listened to either. Ignore this – these are basic attempts to do the work because they rely on women’s unpaid labour, just like the men they claim to not be.

      In either case, delegating to men is a useful tool. If they do the work, you’ve got one less stress. If they don’t do the work? Well, you have one less dude to worry about.




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      Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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        Women Get It Worse In The Healthcare System

        November Jing - a hospital in China’s Mile CountyPhoto by November Jing

        Is your doctor a dickhead? Well, now there’s a hashtag for you. Asher Wolf explores the #DoctorsAreDickheads hashtag…

        If we cry, we’re labelled hysterical. If we’re stoic, we’re tarred as pretenders. If we ask for pain treatment, we’re drug seekers. Refuse drugs: we’re attention seekers. If we challenge treatment plans or doctors diagnosis, we’re resistant or non-compliant — and risk being written-up as threatening, placed in psych units or denied health care if we complain.

        Our symptoms of illness are chalked up to the ‘female condition’. Feel bad during your luteal phase? It’s PMS. Pain during menstruation? It’s your period. Middle-aged and feeling unwell? Menopause. Doctors far too often attribute symptoms of illness to our wombs and ovaries, rather than examining the entirety of our bodies.

        We’re paternalised and infantilised. We’re psychosomatised.

        We’re left in pain longer than men. The conditions that afflict more women than men get less funding, less medical education and fewer patient treatment pathways or clinical trials.

        We tried being engaged patients: learned all there is to know on the internet about our conditions and watched the look of annoyance on our doctor’s faces when we tried to speak up. We’ve called our doctor’s receptionists about missing referrals and long wait times. We’ve attended grievance meetings and talked to patient liaison, who’ve tutted “too bad, so sad”. We’ve written letters to the hospital board about denial of care.

        We bring male allies as our advocates to our medical appointments nowadays, because we’ve previously cried in the parking lot after rude meetings and dismissive comments from doctors.

        We’re told our pain isn’t real. We’re told to go home. We’re told not to come back to E.R. unless we’re dying. We’re told the E.R. isn’t the right place for us. We’re told our GP can’t diagnose us. Our condition is “too complex”. We’re told the public waiting list for autoimmune, rheumatology, endocrinology, immunology, gynaecology, cardiovascular and genetic referrals is six months, twelve months, eighteen months.

        We’re told if we want real healthcare we need to get out of the public healthcare system, get a job and insurance, even while our bodies are filled with pain. We’re told we’re sick, but not sick enough for DSP and the NDIS.

        We’re told we need to wait. We’re told to exercise. We’re told “try yoga”. We’re told “maybe you’d feel better if you had counselling”. We’re told to do less. We’re told to take two aspirin. We’re told if our condition was real, we’d be diagnosed. We’re told that if our condition is real, we’ll eventually get diagnosed before we’re dead. We’re told “you’d be dead by now if you were really sick”. We’re told our doctors know patients worse off than us that aren’t such whingers.

        We’ve tried being nice. We’ve tried being polite. We’ve entered into conversations on social media with the medical community, engaged with other chronically ill people and people with disability on social media, and chatted on hashtags like #Spoonie and #ChronicallyIll. Doctors ignored us. Doctors talked down to us. Doctors didn’t want to read the horror stories. Doctors didn’t want to hear us, doctors told us to “go campaign for change if you don’t like it”.

        This is why the Twitter hashtag #DoctorsAreDickheads is the predictable result of generations of doctors refusing to listen to women’s experiences in the healthcare system. It’s a cry of rage, started by sex education Youtube vlogger @StevieBoebi, who was recently diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome – a condition that currently has an average excruciating wait-time of 20 years to diagnosis in Australia – and Kim Saunders (@CrippledScholar), a Phd student in disability studies.

        The #DoctorsAreDickheads hashtag is a stream of anger, horror and gore describing instances of harm and gaslighting by doctors, described by patients in vivid detail in the hashtag. None of the stories are used to name doctors. These are the cases of harm rarely told in public and, although the hashtag is singularly focused on doctors who commit acts of malpractice and abuse, some doctors have reacted badly to the conversation. According to those doctors, it’s slur against them  and they’ve reacted by swinging the focus onto the swear-word in the hashtag as though the word topples everyone’s argument. They see the word “dickhead” – applied only to doctors who harm patients – as worse than the harm caused by “dickhead” doctors to patients who suffer for years.

        The doctors apologising to patients on the hashtag are far and few between. There’s outrage, blustering hurt pride and bruised egos — doctors angrily commenting on the hashtag seem to think they’re all good doctors; great surgeons; wonderful GPs; heroes who save lives, each and every time. Every doctor commenting derisively on the hashtag appears to think their entire profession deserves nothing but the utmost respect for every member — even the dickheads.

        But some doctors have pointed out that these patient stories need to be read, even if it hurts doctors’ feelings and egos to read.

        The hashtag isn’t workshopped as part of some slick campaign and it’s not meant to make doctors feel good about themselves. It’s a jolt to the system, yelling “wake up.” It’s a desperate act, by desperate people in an attempt to be heard and an even more desperate attempt to heal.

        Doctors should be upset, offended and angry on behalf of their patients: the lack of justice some women have received in the healthcare system has left them with nothing except illness, chronic pain and swear words — and that’s just not good enough.


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        Stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. Subscribe today and receive our monthly newsletter.

        Asher WolfAsher Wolf is the Cryptoparty founder and 2014 Amnesty Australia ‘Humanitarian Media Award’ recipient. Her work can be found on and @Asher_Wolf.

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          No, Jacinda Ardern won’t save us so stop the feminist fangirling

          By Amy Gray

          “I just think she’s so inspiring…holding her baby with her like that, I just think it’s going to change things” – this was how a friend recently described her admiration for New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

          It’s easy to see why Ardern has attracted so much praise given she bucks the political standard: she’s not a man for a start, speaks with passion instead of talking points, appeals to progressive leftists and had a baby in office. She has achieved a hell of a lot in her career and cuts through the artifice of modern politics, giving it an acceptable, youthful face.

          These are all reasons to feel excited but will New Zealand’s Prime Minister be the savior of feminism? I’m doubtful and the constant fangirling for Ardern gives me pause because so much of it feels superficial and unconsidered. While there is ample reason for feminist excitement, enthusiasm for Ardern requires some analysis to break through our own prejudices and desires.

          A politician with a baby on the hip, while novel, is not the game changer people claim. The first political leader to give birth while in office was Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, which often gets lost in the discussion. That a white person’s accomplishments are celebrated while a pioneering person of colour’s is forgotten is so common it’s clichéd, this is a particular issue within feminism.

          Even then, the use of babies in politics is a trope that is often messily applied. Plenty of babies are wheeled out for kisses on the campaign trail or posed for promotional photos. But it’s not always evenly received. While Ardern has received praise for holding her child and answering media questions, plenty of other politicians who’ve done the same have been accused of using their children as deflectors (Andrew Bartlett comes to mind here).

          The shock and delight of a political leader status as a new mother doesn’t mean we should herald it as a game changer – it means we need to unpack what we think mothers are capable of in the face of continuing discrimination and professional penalty. Think about it: a woman never escapes the label of mother, whereas father is very rarely applied to men, especially when it comes to public or political life. Women are defined as being mothers, men are defined by what they do.

          Motherhood is not just about the ability to create a child – it’s about the work that goes into raising that child or children as well as all the other work mothers do. It’s almost a shadow realm or doing two full time jobs at once.

          Plus, that mothering work literally lasts a lifetime and not just the photogenic first few years of baby and toddlerhood, a fact many seem to forget and which shows just how little critical thought is given to motherhood. While it’s agreed the early years of childrearing is physically intensive and immediate, our community still doesn’t discuss the unique, and often unsupported, complexity of raising older children and teenagers.

          So yes, it’s novel and different that Jacinda Ardern has a baby and that New Zealand’s first family generated so much praise while appearing at the UN. But if you think a woman dealing with a baby and work at once is going to change the world, you haven’t been paying attention to the world, the state of motherhood or your politics.

          Much of this is the twin impulses of celebrity and easy saviours. Feminism (and everything else) has a need to “stan” any person with mildly agreeable politics or sassy soundbites, elevating them to golden goddess standards without any burden of actual work or achievement. Emma Watson, Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, Kim Kardashian, Hilary Clinton, Julia Gillard, even Julie Bishop at one point – all of these people have been celebrated for their feminism with little to no unpacking of what form that feminism takes.

          You may have noticed some of these people are no longer considered feminist champions given persistent mistakes. Once installed as a feminist celebrity, we keep lauding them as the one who will “change things” and be the answer to everything.

          But of course this cannot be sustained. Some of the women mentioned have been car crashes of calamity, others contradictory, some merely forgotten in pursuit of the new inspiration while others use it as a marketing campaign. Some people will unpack their feminist credentials, which can help balance the adulation. However, there comes a point in almost every celebrity cycle based on simplistic personas where they lose their easy adulation. Suddenly, they are figures of outrage, falling out of favour from a height they may have never sought and decried for not maintaining a perfection they never claimed.

          When we categorise women into invisible, cancelled or worshipped as feminist icons, we are denying ourselves and the elevated women of nuance and complexity. No woman emerges from the clamshell in a state of perfection, her actions and history unblemished with failure.

          Instead, we are placing yet another burden on women they must perform perfectly to achieve acceptance. Not only that, but we deny them the benefit of failure; where they can devote themselves to meaningful improvement for themselves and others.

          Our problem is that we keep looking for someone else to save the world. We think they can do it, it will be quick and we’ll be here on the sidelines retweeting it all. It’s understandable, the constant fatigue of living and fighting leads many to want that superhero to fix everything for us.

          But that’s not how it happens. Change comes from work – dismantling the systems around us and our internal politics. It’s hard work, often unseen and unacknowledged, takes forever and there are days where you feel like you’re not making much progress at all.

          The Jacinda Arderns, Justin Trudeaus and all the other photogenic progressives previously adored and memed won’t save the world. The world has to save the world. That means us. That means you.

          When my friend told me how Ardern’s motherhood was going to change things, I disagreed. Yes, it’s novel that a woman political leader has given birth but that isn’t the change to mark. Instead of seeing a younger woman make it through the political ranks childless and able to give birth after taking office, show me the older woman – show me the woman who has dealt with the deals and machinations of politics, fought off sexism and discrimination to take office and has a teenager on the side, and a partner who was there to give long term equal labour in the home. And then? Let’s celebrate her while she gets on with the fraught work of being a complex person doing a complex job.

          That’s what I call change.



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          Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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            Feminist Allyship to Sex Workers: Part Two

            Sex Workers Juno Mac/SWARM


            By Gala Vanting

            This is the second in a two part series on sex work, feminism and activism.


            We’ve talked the theory - now let’s talk the how to be an ally to sex workers.

            Being an ally to sex workers isn’t different from allyship to any other marginalised group, other than in its relative lack of social acceptability.


            I’ll walk you through some of the actions you can take to start or expand your acts of allyship to sex workers, but bring your intersectional awareness for the ride too.


            Being an ally to sex workers requires nuanced understanding of the ways in which other aspects of identity and experience intersect with sex working experience. Sex work is not a universal experience so my understanding is limited by my experience of my own work and of my colleagues’ stories. This guide is not comprehensive; consider if your starter pack.



            It’s always the first port of call. The tricky thing about self-educating about sex work is learning to distinguish between resources that have been created by or in constructive, consensual collaboration with sex workers, and those which have been developed with a religious, moral or abolitionist agenda.


            As always, media literacy is key. Here are some indicators that what you’re learning from isn’t produced from an allied perspective:

            • it describes sex workers as victims or positions sex work as exploitation
            • it uses a term other than ‘sex work’ or ‘sex workers’, which is the preferred terminology of the sex worker rights movement
            • it suggests that abolishing sex work is the best way to ‘solve the problem’ of sex work, or that leaving sex work is the best choice for all sex workers
            • it advocates for legislation other than full decriminalisation of sex work
            • it theorises the sex worker’s body as being inherently different from other labouring bodies in other fields of work


            My suggestion is that you prioritise work produced by sex workers themselves. There are lots of fantastic resource guides penned by sex work peer organisations, and even more pieces of memoir and journalism writing from first-person sex worker perspectives. We’ve been working hard at telling our own stories, and more and more media outlets are helping us to carve out the space to do so.


            Here’s a quick reading list:


            Seek out a diversity of voices, including sex workers of colour, trans sex workers, migrant sex workers, and workers from a variety of working modes (independent workers, porn performers and cam workers, street-based sex workers, parlour workers, dancers, etc).


            Your mantra is this: ‘Listen to sex workers.’ What they have to say might not always be agreeable to you, nor may it paint a glowing picture of the industry which means you will have to deal with discomfort and cognitive dissonance as part of being an ally. What’s important is that you are hearing it from their mouths, and viewing the complexity of their lived experience.



            Accountability is perhaps one of the hardest things to cultivate but it’s what’s going to save you from your whorephobia.


            Your self-education probably helped you to seek and destroy some of it. What did that change look like? How has sex work stigma played out in your worldview? Have you ever said anything to a friend, family member, or colleague about sex work or sex workers that might have made it impossible for them to come out to you as one? Have you ever laughed at a dead hooker joke? Passed judgement on sex workers portrayed in the media? Been surprised when you saw one be articulate, intelligent, or proud of their work?


            Whatever has changed about your knowledge set only sees the light of allyship when it’s shared or spoken aloud. When you hear or see whorephobia or sex work stigma, name it. If you have the chance to unpack it, even better. When you see an opportunity to share what you’ve learned with other people, have the hard conversations where you are able. Online or in your life.


            This is where I am really reaching out to feminists. Feminist spaces contain some of the most potent, paternalistic, unchecked and fervent sex work stigma I’ve witnessed. If you have a voice in influencing or organising other feminists, don’t ignore sex work issues. Don’t hope that you can avoid controversy by omission. Get on the front foot and actively seek opportunities to align yourself with sex worker movements. If there are no sex worker voices in your intersectional feminist project or event, it’s not feminist.


            Read, watch or listen to at least one piece of writing or media by a sex worker every month. If you got something out of it, share it with some real reflection on what you took away from it. Other people in your network will look for meaning in something they know is meaningful to you. This creates a network effect.


            Advocate – as Ally or Accomplice

            We are beginning to see some critical dialogue about the utility of allyship. The question as to whether one is an ally or an accomplice is part of that. Perhaps the difference lies in your proximity to the person or people to whom you’re directing your energy. An ally stands off to the side, waving the flag and cheering on the person in struggle. An accomplice stands with them in meaningful action and solidarity. Listen here to a conversation between DeRay and Brené Brown that elaborates on this.


            Having an ally is a good feeling. Having an accomplice is what gets things done.


            Keep an eye on what’s happening for us, so that you can act. Curate your newsfeed to contain:

            • your local sex work peer organisation(s)
            • individual sex workers, including sex workers of colour, male sex workers, and trans sex workers
            • journalists who cover sex work


            This will give you a better sense of what’s happening for us in real time, and therefore where we are in need of tangible support.


            The most practical ways to advocate for us, which cost only your time and energy, are:

            • When we mobilise, physically or digitally, come and stand with us. Allow yourself to be seen in protest of violations of our labour and human rights.
            • When governments (local, state, or federal) are tabling legislative or policy change or conducting an inquiry, get involved by writing or calling with your concerns and recommendations. Your local peer advocacy organisation will have instructions for you. Signal-boost their calls for support and encourage more people to get involved; show that the community is invested in the lives of sex workers.
            • When we lose a colleague or someone in our movement, share in our grief. Speak their names. Don’t let the loss of our lives stay under the radar.
            • Encourage your organisation – or one whose services you access – to engage a sex worker community educator to conduct training to empower them to effectively include sex workers in their service provision.
            • If you see sex worker voices missing from things like arts, culture or politics festivals, public panels, academic courses or conferences, public health campaigns, make contact with the organiser and suggest that they involve us. Make a concerted effort to see us integrated into these spaces, and help programmers start to adopt an interest in complicating conversations about or including sex workers.


            In all of this: ask sex workers how you can help. Our struggle is layered and we strategise for the situation. Criminalisation and stigma means that we have a LOT of safety and privacy issues that must be considered by those moving with us. Be flexible and informed by us.

            Money, meet mouth.

            If money is a resource you can use in your allyship, give some to:

            • your local sex work peer organisation
            • any of the suggestions here
            • ongoing sex worker fundraisers like this one
            • individual artists, writers, or activists who centre sex workers in their work

            Get it wrong well.

            You. Will. Get. It. Wrong. Sometimes.


            It’s ok. Check it out, do what you can to correct yourself, and then keep going.


            Allyship means always learning. If you believe that no one can tell you anything you don’t know about a marginalised group you’re not a part of, your wokeness badge is suspended. I’m a sex worker, and even I am still learning how to be a good ally to sex workers. If I ever think I’ve “got it”, I’m firing myself from my activist career.


            The shame spiral that happens when you get it wrong – regardless of how well-meaning you feel, how many sex workers you’re friends with on Facebook, or how good your allyship record is – needs to be contained by you and your support system. Not by frantically DMing the only sex worker you know, and asking them for hefty emotional labour in the form of education, ego-soothing, or a public vouch for your credibility. (NB: If you support me on Patreon, I will field one of these per quarter.)


            We are particularly ill-equipped in our culture to deal with shame. Over the last few months, I had multiple conversations with folks asking me why sex workers get so upset when allies don’t get it right, or why we’re so damned difficult to engage. In every case, I gently tried to flip it back to where there might be some shame in there – whether it’s because of lack of knowledge, less-than-finessed  approach, or just for missing the mark a bit. It’s hard and frustrating when you do or say something that doesn’t 100% reflect your intended allyship.


            The complexity of sex work stigma and the ways in which it’s tangled up with things like racism, classism, criminality and policing, and respectability politics makes it tricky to get it right every time. Sex workers need allies who can pick themselves up, dust themselves off, integrate their learning, and keep moving.


            Last month, WIRE - the Victorian Women’s Information and Referral Exchange, issued an apology to sex workers about their service provision to sex workers and the underlying stigma that informed it. They admitted that they’d gotten it wrong, and that they needed to do better. It’s a great start, but will need to be followed by some pragmatic strategy for adjusting their approach. A month earlier, WAVAW, a Vancouver rape crisis centre, published what they call an ‘Accountability Letter’. They are currently auditing their service provision with this in mind, and have employed a survey inviting people – especially those with lived experience of sex work – to weigh in on the crisis response needs of sex workers who are seeking sexual assault services. This is exemplary.

            It’s also perhaps illustrative of the difference between an ally and an accomplice.


            What are you doing, and who is it for?

            In my studies with Betty Martin, who I like to call the fairy godmother of consent, one of the most-repeated processes in her practices involves asking, from moment to moment: what are you doing, and who is it for? Your answer tells you a lot where you are now and how to proceed.


            Your allyship takes meaning when it is active (what are you doing?) and when is for us (who is it for?). When it is a genuine interest in improving the quality of our everyday lives. When it goes beyond titillation or tourism, when it’s not just for fashion or another enamel pin to wear on the lapel of your SJW jacket, when it divests itself of any impulse to rescue us or speak for us, and when it gives something up.


            Subscribe to our Newsletter

            Stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. Subscribe today and receive our monthly newsletter.

            Gala Vanting is a sex worker, writer, educator and activist living and working on stolen Gadigal land. She aims to create compassionate, intelligent, and justice-driven dialogue about sexuality and sexual cultures with an intersectional queer feminist approach. More of her work can be found on and

              Posted in Newsletters | Comments Off

              India & #MeToo

              Content warning: this transcript includes descriptions of sexual violence. 

              By Deepanjana Pal  


              I acknowledge that I meet you on the land of the Kulin nations and that sovereignty was never ceded. I pay my respects to the Elders past and present, and acknowledge the pivotal role the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to play within the Australian community.

              There’s beauty and power in those simple sentences. It’s a statement that recognises how insidiously abusive recorded history can be as well as the importance of culture and storytelling when it comes to disrupting norms. Following in the footsteps of this everyday resistance, I’d like to take you back in time and tell you the story of a woman who I would like to believe would be an elder if Indian feminists were a tribe.

              It’s September 1992, evening, in a village in Rajasthan and a woman named Bhanwari Devi is being gang-raped. She had been working in the small field she and her husband own when five men, armed with sticks, attacked her husband. Then, two of the men held Bhanwari down while two others raped her.

              Bhanwari knows her rapists and the men know her. Four months ago, Bhanwari had earned their wrath when she reported one of them for arranging a marriage for his nine-month old daughter. He’s a powerful man in the village; Bhanwari is a woman, poor and a Dalit, among the lowest castes in the Hindu social pyramid. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Bhanwari also worked as a grassroot level social worker for the Rajasthan state government, her protest against the child marriage would have been inconsequential. But she had the government’s ears because of her job and officials paid a visit to the family that had tried to marry the infant off.

              Since then, Bhanwari and her family had become persona non grata in the village. She had to go to the next village to get water, to grind her grain. The village stopped buying the pottery Bhanwari and her husband sold to supplement their income. Her children were bullied in school. Finally, there was the rape.

              After the men leave, Bhanwari, bleeding but not broken, gets up and walks to a police station with her husband to file a complaint. The police refuse. They tell her she has to submit evidence – the blood and semen-stained skirt she’s wearing. It’s a tactic to keep her from registering a complaint. It doesn’t work. Bhanwari gives them her skirt and her husband unravels his turban so that she can wrap it around her waist as a makeshift skirt. Then the injured couple walk home.

              What they didn’t know was that even with the skirt in their possession, the police hadn’t filed a formal complaint. That would happen days later, after women’s groups put pressure on the police.

              This was just the beginning. At every level and at every stage, from police station to hospital to the courts, Bhanwari Devi faced harassment and resistance. Medical examiners would refuse to conduct the necessary tests, magistrates avoided her, and even when people grudgingly cooperated, they did their best to ensure her evidence wouldn’t hold up in court. Everyone knew what she’d been through and no one wanted to acknowledge it.

              Meanwhile, other women who worked as grass root level workers in Bhanwari’s area reported they were being threatened by village councils. “They are circling us like a pack of wolves,” said Kailash Bai, another grassroot level worker. The fact that these women weren’t being allowed to do their jobs gave a couple of women’s groups an idea. A public interest litigation was filed against the Rajasthan government, in the Supreme Court of India, for failing to protect the fundamental rights of their employee, Bhanwari. The petitioners argued that Bhanwari had been raped as a consequence of doing her job — the state employed her to inform authorities of violations like child marriages so that they could stop them – and given the prevailing gender bias, an employer must take steps to ensure a secure working environment specifically for its women employees.

              Around the same time, the case Bhanwari had filed against her rapists lurched its way forward. In 1995, three years after Bhanwari had been raped, a lower court acquitted the men who had raped her. The lawyer for the accused said that the judgement was “bold and courageous” and that his clients are “still scared that she will start another campaign against them,” referring to the media reports supporting Bhanwari that were largely a result of women’s rights groups campaigning for justice.

              An appeal was filed against the verdict. “Since the day I was raped. I have lost all my options,” Bhanwari told India Today. “The only way ahead is to fight.”

              Two years later, in 1997, Bhanwari got the only victory that she has known so far in her fight for justice. In response to the petition that had been filed by the women’s groups against the Rajasthan government, the Supreme Court of India delivered the Vishakha Judgement, which defined sexual harassment in the workplace and laid down the processes that an employer must have in place to ensure complaints can be filed and dealt with swiftly. The Vishakha Judgement was to be treated like a law until actual legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace was passed, said the court. That, incidentally, would happen in 2013. For the intervening 20-plus years, all we had was Vishakha and even in 2018, Bhanwari continues to wait for a final verdict in the case she filed against her rapists, who are out on bail (one died a few years ago, of old age).

              Yet whatever systems of redressal we have for survivors of sexual harassment in India are because of Bhanwari and the Vishakha verdict. The guidelines it offered are the bedrock of every committee or cell instituted to tackle complaints of sexual harassment, be it in colleges or offices. Without Bhanwari, there would be no Vishakha Judgement and without Vishakha, there would be no due process as far as sexual harassment in a workplace goes.

              Whenever topics like sexual abuse or violence against women come up in India, everyone stresses the importance of bringing the guilty to book, of trusting the systems that have been put in place by institutions. If there isn’t an official record of the crime and how it was tackled by authorities, then it’s very hard to shut up the naysayers who claim feminists are just women corrupted by the West, banging on about imaginary offenses. The systems may be flawed, but they do formally acknowledge the fundamental rights of women, and that has only happened because of the concerted and determined efforts of feminists and legal activists in most cases.

              And there are times when due process works, which suggests that rather than the law and the processes, it’s the people enforcing these that are the problem or potentially, the solution. When they act responsibly, like Ambedkar University Delhi did, the system seems to work. In March this year, Lawrence Liang, the dean of Ambedkar University’s law school, was found guilty of sexual harassment. Even though the allegations were from the past and no one had complained at the university, the committee ran a probe and recommended that Liang be barred from occupying any administrative position for two years.

              When the institutional response is callous, on the other hand, as in the case of the Asian College of Journalism, the system seems broken. Responding to allegations of harassment against Sadanand Menon, a respected cultural critic who teaches at the ACJ, the college’s official statement effectively said it wasn’t going to do anything because “unproven allegations … are not within its jurisdiction to investigate or enquire into.” Never mind the minor detail that the whole point of an investigation is to find proof that either verifies or proves allegations to be false. If it’s “proven”, it’s not an allegation; it’s a charge. The college, acting almost like Menon’s mouthpiece, also informed us that Menon has voluntarily decided not to teach at ACJ this year and is considering taking legal action against “those who have published false and defamatory allegations against him.” There was no explanation as to why the college believed Menon over those who had accused him.

              I mention Sadanand Menon and Lawrence Liang specifically because both these names were in The List, a crowd-sourced document on sexual harassment in Indian academia, compiled by Raya Sarkar who is of Indian origin, presently lives in America and identifies as a Dalit feminist. The List is perhaps the loudest shout of #MeToo we’ve heard in India in recent times. Ambedkar University decided to investigate the claims and ended up finding Liang guilty; the ACJ chose to ignore the claims and side with Menon instead.

              Raya’s list is one of those incidents that galvanised consciences across India. The last time this had happened was in a much larger scale, in 2012, when a 23-year-old woman in Delhi was gang-raped on a bus. The crime itself was brutal, but depressingly common. What was extraordinary was the response it evoked. We hadn’t seen such an outpouring of passion and anger in decades, and certainly not for a rape victim ever. This was the start of the third wave of Indian feminism and it marked the beginning of women’s rights becoming a topic of popular, national conversation. While the victim battled for her life, thousands, mostly women but also some men, took to the streets. They were mourning the young woman who was fiercely holding on just long enough to give the police the details they needed to file a complaint and apprehend the accused. Women gathered to protest the fact that unsafety was the norm for them in Delhi and that the solutions given to them — come home before sundown, don’t look male strangers in the eye, dress conservatively – were useless. Those that came out as protestors after the 2012 gang-rape were effectively saying “Me too” before the phrase reached India as a hashtag. The government of the time panicked at the sight of the swelling crowds, the placards and the slogans. Police attacked protestors, water-cannons were aimed at them, tear-gas was thrown at them. But the crowds dispersed only to reconnect, and they demanded something more than platitudes.

              What we got as a result was the report of the Justice Verma Committee, which would form the basis of a major amendment to Indian criminal law in 2013. The definition of rape was expanded to include non-consensual oral sex as well as the insertion of any object or body part into the victim’s vagina, urethra or anus. Fast-track courts were to be set up for rape cases. Stalking, voyeurism, unwanted sexual advances and touch were now to be seen as sexual assaults rather than actions “outraging the modesty of a woman”, which was how the Indian Penal Code previously described it. Whether this reminds you of a Barbara Cartland heroine or the cartoon character Modesty Blaise probably depends on your reading. Neither are particularly representative, sadly.

              Most importantly, the amended laws kickstarted a conversation about consent, and this would leave enormous ripples among men and women in India. The question of what constitutes duress and how to know whether consent is freely-given continues to be a much-debated topic. Ever since the Justice Verma Committee report recommended that there be an improved standard of consent, a large group of men have complained that this leaves them vulnerable. What if a woman pretends she’s consenting and then later reveals she wasn’t? How’s a guy to know? It’s alarming that so many men think their performances of romance encourage women to at best fake it and at worst, feel victimised, but that’s toxic masculinity for you. Another topic for another day. For women, there’s a more serious and problematic grey area here. Especially when there’s a fear of being attacked or revenge porn, women tend to sugarcoat rejections rather than be blunt, for their own safety. In a court of law, however, the documentary evidence — quoted emails or messages, for instance — suggests the women are agreeable. How do you separate the genuine fear from the genuine affirmative consent?

              For instance, in 2015, an Indian theatre director and storyteller, a man, was accused of sexually assaulting an American scholar in India. A lower court found him guilty, and this was the first instance of non-consensual oral sex being seen as a crime in India. The accused filed an appeal and the High Court would overturn this verdict, saying that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove lack of consent. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court, which delivered a judgement that deserves to be framed in the Mansplaining Hall of Fame because it informed us that “a feeble no may even mean yes”. Their words, not mine.

              Feeble nos and other ambiguous manifestations of consent would show up when Raya’s list went viral, and those accused in it tried to clear their names by pointing out that their victims hadn’t complained to them. The immediate trigger for the list was Huffington Post taking down American academic C. Christine Fair’s essay in October 2017, in which she named and shamed a number of people in American academia. Raya, herself a survivor of sexual violence and someone who has first-hand experience of not being believed when she spoke up, decided to compile The List as an act of solidarity and warning. She knew there were whisper networks that cautioned students off certain professors, but what if you didn’t know the right people? Why shouldn’t everyone be aware of these reputations?

              So on October 23rd, 2017, Raya wrote a Facebook post in which she said she was compiling a list of sexual harassers in academia. “If anyone knows of academics who have sexually harassed/ were sexually predatory to them or have seen it first-hand, PM me and I’ll add them to the list,” she said. It was, as Raya freely admits, an impulsive gesture that didn’t anticipate virality.

              The response her Facebook post received was overwhelming. “I was taken aback that so many women reached out to me with their experiences,” she told me. “I did not expect them to trust me with sensitive information that was required from them. But they did – not only did they share their testimonies but sent me copies/ screenshots of emails, text messages, got their friends and witnesses to vouch for their narrative.” There was a process of verification that Raya put in place instinctively and this has been conveniently ignored by those who have subsequently attacked her and The List.

              A day after Raya posted the list of alleged sexual harassers, some of Indian feminism’s most respected names went on a warpath. Against The List and Raya.

              Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said that Raya had bypassed the process of justice, as though a Facebook post was a Supreme Court verdict. Raya was called a vigilante by some, she was accused by others of being everything from gullible to a master manipulator.

              Nivedita Menon, whose book Seeing Like A Feminist deserves to be included in syllabi all across India because it’s brilliant , published a statement on behalf of 14 extremely well-respected figures in Indian feminism. They dismissed Raya’s list as “the initiative on Facebook”, denying it the right to be considered even a footnote in what Menon claimed as their “long struggle to make visible sexual harassment at the workplace”. There’s no doubt that these 14 people have done incredible work for women’s rights in India, but that they would claim ownership of the movement in a way that excludes other women was disappointing. “It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously,” read the statement, ignoring the fact that Raya did have an informal process of verifying claims in place. The statement also said the undersigned were “committed to due process, which is fair and just”. No mention of the fact that students rarely press charges because they’re often intimidated and fear for how their grades will be affected by such a move. No mention of how barely a handful of educational institutions in the entire country have active cells for complaints against sexual harassment. The statement concluded with this: “We appeal to those who are behind this initiative to withdraw it, and if they wish to pursue complaints, to follow due process, and to be assured that they will be supported by the larger feminist community in their fight for justice.”

              It’s worth pointing out that months later, when due process found Lawrence Liang guilty, there was a terse one-line statement on the same website, which would go on to carry a long post by Nivedita Menon, who would attack The List again, instead of offering the support she’d promised in that first response.

              But that was later. Soon after Raya published her post, a South Asian blogger and journalist in America named Inji Pennu copied the names on Raya’s post on to a Google document and started adding to it. Meanwhile, the opposition to The List grew louder and fiercer. Some of the men on it demanded to be told who had “nominated” them, which didn’t do much to make the complainants feel their academic careers were safe, but did underscore the point that anonymity was problematic in terms of getting redressal for both survivors and those falsely-accused. Male academics, even those who were not on the list, started writing to students and colleagues, to establish their innocence. It seemed as though every other day, there was a Facebook status update in which a male academic felt the need to point out that he believes in sexual freedom and has been misunderstood.

              The nervous flapping among academics and the updates on the Harvey Weinstein investigation gave rise to hopes that women would come forward and name abusers in the Indian film industry, particularly Bollywood (which is the Hindi film industry in India). Not one person did.

              Does that mean Indian film industries are squeaky clean and shiny in the absence of gender bias? Of course not. They’re pits of exploitation, prejudice and cover-ups, which is why all we get are rumours and no one dares talk about it on record.

              If this sounds cowardly, then consider this. In February 2017, about eight months before the Weinstein exposés were published, an actress was kidnapped in Kerala. She was in her car, going home after a shoot, when another car hit hers. Her driver got out to have the customary shouting match with the other car’s driver and while this was happening, the men in the other car got into the actress’ car and drove off. For two hours, she was held hostage, sexually assaulted and filmed.

              She filed a complaint and the police investigations revealed that the plot had been hatched by one of the biggest heroes of the Kerala film industry and a man with whom this actress has done many films. His name is Dileep and he says he’s innocent while the police say they have testimonies, eye witness accounts and call records to back their claim. He was arrested and is currently out on bail. Even though the media backed the actress and the police have enough evidence to file a chargesheet, it was Dileep who had most of the industry’s sympathy. Not the actress.

              Meanwhile in Bollywood, which is considered more progressive and open than most other film industries in India, Ekta Kapoor, the most powerful person in Indian television and one of the more influential film producers in Bollywood, said this when asked about sexual harassment in the Indian film industry: “Well, I think there are Harvey Weinsteins in Bollywood, but there is  probably an equal number of Harvey Weinsteins on the other side of the story, but people do not want to talk about that part. Yes, there are people in power like producers who use their power to take advantage of people, but at the same time, there are people on the other side, like an actor or others who need the job, who would also use their sexuality to get things done. Therefore, I believe that predators should not be put in a box based on power. It is not always true that the person who does not have power is the victim.”

              You could make a strong argument that Ekta Kapoor doesn’t really know the meaning of words “victim” and “predator”, but that isn’t really what we should take away from her statement. When I mentioned this comment of hers to some film industry professionals, a few explained to me that Ekta was trying to say that sexual harassment should be considered a gender-neutral territory, but poor dear, she didn’t have the right words. Here’s the thing: sexual harassment should absolutely be a gender-neutral crime ideally because it has nothing to do with desire and everything to do with abuse of power. However, we don’t have a gender-equal society anywhere in the world, so it would be idiotic to turn a blind eye to the central power imbalance while arguing that sexual harassment is about power. Also, when your first response to sexual harassment is to indulge in a spot of victim-blaming, my only response is my resting bitch face.

              What Ekta Kapoor’s statement actually indicates is how normal and accepted harassment and sexism are in the Hindi film industry. Sexuality, as she terms it, will get people jobs rather than their work experience or an audition. “Who did she sleep with to get that role?” or “He’s got the part because he’s the producer’s bitch” aren’t even considered offensive. They’re just statements of fact. Off the record, assistant directors and crew will talk about directors and producers who bring actresses into projects because they’re in a relationship or hope to be in one with the actress in question. Rumours abound about actors who demand “girls” be sent to them after a day’s shoot is done. On sets, no one bats an eyelid at offensive remarks, ranging from “Stop behaving like you’re on your period” to throwaway sleazy comments that women are supposed to ignore. That’s her test as a professional. The fact that the man in this equation isn’t behaving professionally, who cares?

              From the people I’ve spoken to on the subject of sexual harassment, here’s what it boils down to in Bollywood: “No one talks about it because everyone does it.” “You talk about it and you’ll never get a call from a casting agent again. There are hundreds waiting anyway. They’re just looking for reasons to drop you.” “You give one specific name, and you’ll be identified. Then everyone will say, ‘She’s a slut. She slept with him and didn’t get the role so she’s framing him.’” “It’s not worth complaining about because it’s not going to change. They’re too powerful.”

              So in terms of victories, results and concrete change, there’s very little to show for #MeToo in India so far, except for that solitary guilty verdict against Lawrence Liang. Within weeks of The List being published, Raya left Facebook, exhausted by the attacks in her inbox, and Inji took down the document. This was taken as proof of The List being false and not as an indication of the kind of threats and intimidation they’d faced. (Raya’s original Facebook post is, however, still up.) The divide within feminists remains, with the older, more-established lot unwilling to engage in any kind of dialogue and the younger, furious at being dismissed in this manner. The film industries in India have kept calm and carried on. The closest to concrete change could be the way multinational companies in India have stressed the need to have systems in place against sexual harassment and communicated to their staff that such charges will not be taken lightly. Whether this is a threat to the complainant or the accused, depends on the company’s individual culture.

              As a disruption, on the other hand, #MeToo is a phenomenal success. The 2012 gang-rape brought everyone together. #MeToo in India isn’t doing that, but it is laying bare the power structures and inequalities that we’ve tried to paper over for years. In the lack of concrete results and resolutions, in the stubborn silences, we see the tight grip in which the pieces are held in place by those who wield power and influence. There’s also a new collective being formed, steadily and subtly by everywomen who resist in everyday ways, particularly on the internet. As long as you don’t keep quiet when you see sexism, you’re a heroine. After centuries of being forced into docility and poise, this is like a call to anarchy.

              At one point, soon after #MeToo started going viral as a hashtag, Indian women on Facebook swamped the site with stories of their sexual harassment on the streets, in family functions, at work. It came as a shock to many men that practically every woman they knew had faced sexually offensive behaviour and violence of some sort from a man — and usually, more than once in their lives. It didn’t matter how rich or poor a woman was, how old she was or where she lived, there were situations in which she was vulnerable and someone took advantage of her. And that someone was invariably a man. Statistics became words and turned real, and it was, for many men, a rattling experience. Because if every woman in India has experienced sexism at least once, then every man in India has dismissed sexism and been sexist, at least once.

              Since October 2017, one thing that we’ve seen more and more of is women taking to social media to talk about traumatic experiences, particularly those of sexual assault. It’s almost like they’re processing in public. It seems odd to do this on platforms associated with trolling, but what these survivors have found on the internet are allies and a sisterhood. For many, this is more valuable and therapeutic than due process.

              Take, for instance, the story of K, who last month took to Instagram to recount a horrific Tinder date from 2015. She alleged she’d been held captive, raped and photographed against her will by a man she met on a Tinder date. He was fine until they went to his place. The reason she couldn’t leave after the first warning bells rang is that it was late at night and therefore unsafe for her to get out and grab a cab. Her choice was between the possibility of sexual violence at her date’s house and the possibility of sexual violence in public transport (on the premise she got a cab in the first place). Then at one point, her phone was out of battery, her date was alternating between tender and threatening, and she was counting the seconds till daybreak. The whole experience was recounted in a string of 15-30 second videos that made up K’s Insta story. She recounted what happened without any drama or high-strung emotion. Her story went viral and, unsurprisingly, reached the man in question.

              He started his own Instagram story, protesting innocence and showing messages K had sent him and photos of hers which he argued established her claims as false. She said she was being nice to him because she didn’t want him to put the photographs he had of her online. A flame war followed between the two. Ultimately, both of them took their stories down and no one has gone for the legal route. Quite clearly, it’s far less important than getting the words of their stories out.

              More recently, a young woman in Mumbai was in an autorickshaw when she realised the driver was masturbating. At one point, he turned his vehicle into a dark alley and pulled out his penis. The woman ran out. She got the number of the autorickshaw’s license plate and then, once home, she wrote posts on Twitter and Facebook, telling her readers what had happened, but that she had no intention of going to the police because they don’t take such complaints seriously. This time, though, the Mumbai Police did take her tweets seriously. They convinced her to file a formal complaint and within 24 hours of her doing so, they caught the driver. The woman wrote a gushing post, thanking the Mumbai Police. Someone sent me screenshots of the posts with a sarcastic one-liner: “Now that they got this guy, bet all pervy rick drivers are shaking in their pants.”

              I actually wouldn’t be surprised if at least the pervy rick drivers in that neighbourhood think twice before trying that stunt with a young woman in their vehicle. That’s the impact that law enforcement can have when it’s done right. The point, though, isn’t the arrest, but the fact that this woman spoke up — and that’s got everything to do with #MeToo. The norm is to keep quiet, feel awkward or even shame and to get out of that situation as soon as possible, and say nothing to anyone. #MeToo has disrupted this and made it cool to speak up. For a vast number of Indian women and girls, the audience that the hashtag guarantees has given them the confidence to speak up, without fear of being silenced. That’s an enormous gain when you consider how much stigma has traditionally been attached to being a victim who would almost always be told that they’d asked for it so they shouldn’t blame the perpetrator.

              The conversations that we’re having have also turned the spotlight on a massive problem in the system as it stands in India: the onus of bringing about change is upon the person who simply cannot be expected to carry that cross, the victim. It’s the victim who must report the crime, suffer the social stigma, relive the trauma repeatedly in court hearing after court hearing; the victim has to wait, the victim has to appeal, the victim has to push, the victim has to resist, the victim has to come forward and change the way people think. It can’t work like this. The heavy lifting must be done by allies, those who aren’t personally vulnerable but can campaign on behalf of victims. And the only way to gather allies is through conversations, like the ones #MeToo has amplified.

              We’ve never had as many conversations about women’s rights as we have had since 2012 and later #MeToo became rallying points. There are those who will argue that these Twitter threads and Facebook confessions and Instagram outpourings are frustrating in their hollowness – a story trends, everyone clucks for a day or two, and then it’s forgotten or replaced by a new point of outrage. They’re right. There’s an informality to all this that is unnerving because nothing’s on record and everything is a story.

              Yet in this very same informality is a strength – stories travel, from mouth to mouth, ear to ear, chipping away at old conventions by slyly raising questions in a listener’s mind. They’re not contained in archives, but they tend to linger in memory. If we’re going to change the way people think, it’ll be through the stories we tell and the ones we make sure are heard.

              The one thing that the blade-like lines of the #MeToo hashtag have done is cut through the silences surrounding women and minorities in India. We’re done being quiet, and that is movement enough. For now.

              Stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. Subscribe today and receive our monthly newsletter.

              Deepanjana Pal is an author and journalist. Her most recent book is Hush A Bye Baby, a feminist thriller set in Mumbai, India. As a critic, she has written extensively on culture and gender for the past decade. She works with The Hindustan Times and is also part of the selection committee of Mumbai Film Festival. She tweets via @dpanjana


                Posted in Newsletters | Comments Off

                Can men be feminists?

                Amy Gray

                Who gets to call themselves a feminist? It’s a question that despite its simplicity wrenches open questions of gender, power and participation and forces us to consider our motives.

                It’s also something that provokes a lot of emotions that we should consider, something I realised after a Melbourne Writers’ Festival event when I was asked if I was actually sexist for declaring men can’t be called feminists.

                Before we dig into the answer, let’s look at the motivations that lie underneath.

                Political ideologies and activism live and die with community; that sense of belonging to can be achieved through work and resistance. This community is defined by that work – those who do the work, those who take on the work and those who are liberated by the work. Often the more successful the activist community, the more attractive and vital it appears to others, encouraging them to take on the work.

                However, this can sometimes mean people believe there is an exchange for helping an activist campaign or political ideology. Surround yourself with the community, do any amount of work (or not) and, in return, you will be recognised as a member of that community.

                The more popular it becomes, the more power there is in associating with the ideology. Tell someone you identify with a particular political ideology or activist campaign and it acts as a personality type – something people tap into the minute they buy a “this is what a feminist looks like” tshirt and eagerly wait someone to comment on it.

                Normally, this is why I reject whether men can be called feminists. Where is their work? Is it more than a tshirt and not being aggressively sexist? I once met a man who said “I’m a feminist” and extended his hand out for a fist bump – I asked him “what do you do to help women?” only to watch his fist fall.

                I had done something incredibly rude: I had asked a man to prove his membership credentials before I would accept his title. But is it that rude when we consider how the most basic moves – such as not being actively sexist – elevate a man above the concentrated specialist work women do?

                It also goes to an even more primal question when it comes to a question of equality – how much skin to men have in the game to earn the feminist title? Men suffer under Patriarchy, sure, but is it at the same level as women? Will men, like women, lose jobs, friendships, money or legal protection based on their gender? Will they face as much social repercussions as women for stating their beliefs? Or will they be celebrated for rudimentary steps, like the empty joyous applause that happens whenever a man is announced as a White Ribbon Ambassador?

                This equation becomes even more crucial when you consider how the trans and gender non-binary communities can and are explicitly feminist. They have active, often painful, experience of how the Patriarchy seeks to control and constrict. They live with the vulnerability and resistance of that. Again, it’s at a higher level and at greater stakes than faced by other men. Even then, making space for transfeminists has been negatively fraught, which makes working on that a far higher priority than handing a slogan-friendly t-shirt and title to some other man.

                I do know men who do the work, who actively research and reflect on the inequality on display. Men like Dr Michael Salter who research and discuss gender and violence. Would I call him a feminist? No. Instead, I refer to him by the work he does and the authority he has accrued: a wonderful academic who specialises in gender and violence. There’s a difference – what he does is recognised, rather than divvying up a term that he hasn’t applied to himself. It’s the work that brings actual community recognition and a seat at the table, not the demand to be at the table.

                The question isn’t whether men can be called feminists; it’s why they want to be called feminists. If we’re going to make this exchange, we need to question what we’re getting in return.

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                Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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                  Feminist Allyship to Sex Workers: Part One

                  By Gala Vanting

                  This is the first in a two part series on sex work, feminism and activism.

                  Australian sex workers breathed a collective sigh of relief a few years ago when Sheila Jeffreys picked up her bottomless carpetbag of whorephobic rhetoric and let it whoosh her off to the UK, Mary Poppins-style. Finally, we could redirect some of our valuable activist energy away from picketing her appearances and towards building our own body of theory, action and resources that extended beyond her denials that we could even exist.

                  Cue: Julie Bindel, the latest craze in SWERFdom, who’s making her way through Australia promoting her latest book to ‘abolish the sex work myth’. The impossible mythological beasts of which she speaks, actual sex workers, are responding in a variety of ways, from street party protest to engaging directly to counterpoint her position that the best way for the work we do to be safer for us is for it to continue to be criminalised. Never mind that the World Health Organisation, Amnesty International and every HIV organisation ever recommends decriminalisation as the appropriate framework for the promotion of sex worker health and human rights (but what do they know anyway – they probably don’t even have journalism degrees).

                  It’s times like these that I get to thinking about feminist allyship to sex workers. Whilst I’m aware that #notallfeminists are anti-sex work, there’s a pretty gaping chasm between ‘not being against’ and being an ally. Being an ally means speaking her name when we hear of another woman assaulted, raped, killed – even if she is a sex worker. Being an ally means intervening in the stigma that continues to cost sex workers their lives, day jobs, custody of their children, personal relationships, fundamental human rights, and many other mod cons.

                  For many sex workers, sex work is just work; it’s not that complicated. I understand that it can be pretty tricky for those who are ‘not against’ us to intellectually, politically, and personally integrate all of the questions that sex work brings up in feminist dialogues. As a feminist and a sex worker, I’m here to help.

                  Let’s start with the basics: bodily autonomy. As feminists, we believe that individual women’s bodies belong to individual women. Not to men, not to the State, not to advertising, not to any institution of oppression. Throughout the history of the movement, we’ve had to reckon with the ways in which some bodies end up being more equal than others in the campaign for that autonomy. How is it that we believe in a woman’s right to execute supreme decision-making power over her own corporeal form, unless that woman is also a sex worker? How does a sex worker’s body move outside of our acceptable range of bodies that can be self-determined?

                  Oh, by patriarchal capitalism, you say.

                  So glad you mentioned it. I’ve got some unfortunate news for anyone currently participating in a capitalist economy: you are a victim of exploitation. It’s the name of the game. Especially if you happen to be a woman. I’m always tickled by the argument that the labour of sex work is always already especially exploitative. After having sampled the labour conditions at Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, in childcare and film production, and as a freelance writer, I can confirm that the labour conditions of my sex work are the most conducive to my wellbeing. The only other thing I’d ask for is, say, the same industrial rights as any other member of the Australian labour force. You know, mod cons.

                  ‘But look at all of your privileges!’ you say. ‘You are the 1%.’

                  My set of privileges allows me to do things like have this side hustle that is writing about my experience. It also allows me to access the tools required to work independently as a sex worker, giving me control over the clients I see, the rates I charge, the health and safety practices I employ, and the hours I work. There are many, many sex workers who don’t hold these privileges. Who work under poor management, pay out at least half of their earnings to licensing fees, agencies, or pimps, are advertised with terminology that degrades their humanity, are medically surveilled, and have less power to negotiate safer sex practices, rates, or working hours. Because their work is, with only two exceptions, fully or partially criminalised the world over, they cannot access the right to safe working conditions, fair pay, non-discrimination, and the right to organise or to take industrial action. Because doing their work makes them criminals, they are not empowered to ask for better conditions.

                  Have a look back over the issues I’ve named. What do they have in common? They are labour issues. They are not gender issues. Neither, of course, exist in a vacuum. But the insistence that this set of labour issues is better addressed by ‘rescuing’ sex workers from their profession, the rhetorical collapsing of sex work and sex trafficking, the positioning of the sex working body as abject, laughable, diseased, duped by the patriarchy; as an object for the consumption of both men and fellow feminists, as the worksite of a ‘radical feminist’ agenda that has its roots in the denial of multi-dimensional and intersectional experiences of female and feminist bodies: that is where feminism fails sex workers. That is where feminist allyship is absolutely necessary for our very survival.

                  Julie, Sheila and their comrades-toting-carpetbags believe that their work IS allyship. That they’re only looking out for us feeble prostitutes. That ending rape culture requires putting sex workers out of work. That we all want the same thing: women’s liberation, and that they’re in a far better position than we are to lead the way there. All of this without even talking to us or learning what we experience or think about our work. The bags of tricks is bottomless, and it isn’t afraid to bottom out – if you can’t attack the argument, attack the woman making it (or here).

                  We need our own allyship toolkit, which you can use to help women retain their personal autonomy and rights. I’ll take you through the steps next month, with the facts and examples you need to be a feminist ally.

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                  Stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. Subscribe today and receive our monthly newsletter.

                  Gala Vanting is a sex worker, writer, educator and activist living and working on stolen Gadigal land. She aims to create compassionate, intelligent, and justice-driven dialogue about sexuality and sexual cultures with an intersectional queer feminist approach. More of her work can be found on and

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                    5 things we can learn from Dr Constance Stone, Queen Victoria Hospital founder

                    Dr Constance StoneDr Constance Stone

                    by Amy Gray

                    As we threw open the doors for Melbourne Open House on the weekend, we took the opportunity to throw open the history books and learn more about this building’s amazing history and how feminism can truly build something magnificent.

                    And it all starts with one amazing woman: Constance Stone.

                    In the 1890s, there was no vote for women, limited job options, less education and success in life depended on which man you married. That was the world Constance lived in and defied.

                    Along with her husband, Constance wanted to study medicine. Back then, Melbourne University wouldn’t admit women into their medicine course. So she took herself to Pennsylvania and Toronto and came back with a dream to create a hospital staffed with women to help all women in Melbourne.  Constance was certain that specialist and empathetic care from women doctors for women patients was crucial – to provide women with compassionate care.

                    When Constance came back to Melbourne and became the first woman registered with the Medical Board of Victoria, she immediately reached out to other women doctors and formed the Victorian Medical Women’s Society (VMWS). This professional association became the headquarters to band women together, plan their own career development and help women in the community, and has since become the longest running women’s medical association in the world.

                    Together, the VMWS immediately set up practice in a hall at the Welsh Church where Dr Constance Stone’s husband was pastor. The women doctor’s faith that women needed their services was proven when 2000 women came for treatment in the first three months. Many of the women patients were unable to pay for treatment, so it was provided free of charge.

                    Still committed to her vision of hospital for woman, run by women, Dr Stone and the VMWS created the Queen’s Shilling Wall, where all Victorian women were asked to donate a shilling to fund construction of a hospital. The fund helped them build the Queen Victoria Hospital in Mint Place a year later, before they moved to the much larger site where QVWC is located today.

                    Dr Constance Stone’s story gives us lessons that still ring true today:

                    1. Before expecting work from others, work on yourself
                      Constance knew that to build her dream of a women’s hospital, she needed to get educated and experienced. Which is exactly what she did.
                    2. Go around when you can’t go through
                      There are always going to be barriers – in Dr Constance Stone’s case, rampant sexism preventing women from participating in public life and receiving adequate care. She didn’t have time to wait for Melbourne University to start admitting women students, so she went around them and got her education overseas. This is where you weigh up your priorities to decide your best action – in Stone’s case getting Melbourne women access to medical help was greater than getting women into Melbourne Uni, even if the two were connected.
                    3. Use your privilege to help others
                      Despite the limitations of the day, Dr Constance Stone leveraged the privilege available to her – an understanding and relatively wealthy partner – to get the education and experience she needed so she could help others.
                    4. Build it yourself if society won’t
                      Dr Constance Stone dreamed of a hospital run by women when women were not even permitted to study medicine, let alone run a hospital. Her dreams transcended the narrow discrimination surrounding her and wanted more than society would even give. So with a group of other educated and committed women, Dr Stone built exactly what society wasn’t going to give – and in the short amount of time she had, she watched it prosper.
                    5. Act individually and collectively 
                      The history of the Queen Victoria Hospital shows just what can happen when people act individually (like getting an education) and collectively (opening clinics or donating to build a hospital). This was shown again in the 1980s when women in Victoria campaigned to save part of the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital from demolition to become today’s QVWC.

                    Dr Stone and others never wavered from their vision of helping women. This can be seen in their coat of arms we found in the QVWC archives: Pro Feminis, A Feminis (For Women, By Women). Today’s definition of womanhood is more inclusive than it was previously, but the commitment to serve and help all women is something that we should all work towards.

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                    Stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. Subscribe today and receive our monthly newsletter.

                    Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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