Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Let's Ditch the Boy/girlfriend

I was asked today if I had a boyfriend. I answered no. I would have answered no regardless of my relationship status the reason being, quite simply, that I can't abide the term. Following a long term relationship I vowed that I would never have a boyfriend or conversely be somebodies 'girlfriend' again. This wasn't a vow to singledom, a bitter casting off of relationships, this was simply that I had the opportunity to start fresh with how I approached and understood relationships. Part of that was eschewing the X-friend terminology. It's a term I have loathed for years and I am determined not to fall into the easy habits of using it again. Let me talk you through why.

Girls and boys or men and women

First and foremost, I find it to be infantising. I'm not a girl any more; I'm an adult, a woman. The people I choose to have relationships with are also adults. Our relationships are adult. I don't want to have a romantic or sexual relationship with a child, with a little boy or a little girl. I want to have a relationship with a peer. Yes ages may vary, and maturity isn't necessary defined by the chronological age of a person, but I still want to be confident that I can describe my relationship as an adult one. A relationship without boys or girls.

Just 'girls' and 'boys'?

You can have a girlfriend and you can have a boyfriend. What about if you are a person who is gender queer, gender neutral or intersex? What if you are in a relationship with somebody who doesn't fit neatly into that gender binary. When common terminology like girlfriend and boyfriend is used it excludes a whole host of people and their relationships.
“This is my genderqueerfriend.” doesn't quite roll of the tongue, and gives the impression that it is an asexual, aromantic relationship. You know, a friendship.

The “friends” thing

The X-friend terminology carries with it the implication that you can only be friends with somebody of the 'opposite' gender if you are also in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with them. This reinforces stereotypes that men and women, or girls and boys, are different, two discreet groups that are to different to mingle freely.
You will occasionally hear 'girlfriend' being applied to platonic female/female friendships (a generally American usage I believe); I don't think I have ever heard boyfriend being applied to a male/male platonic relationship. Likewise who would use boy/girlfriend to apply to a platonic hetero relationship? Further confusion comes when we realise that this also relies on heteronormative preconceptions of relationships which may vary by culture; a man referring to a boyfriend is almost certainly going to be considered in a homosexual relationship where as a woman referring to her girlfriend may be in a homosexual romantic relationship or a platonic friendship depending on the prevailing culture.

Non-traditional relationship structures

The standard relationship structure in the UK is one of long term monogamy; for many individuals though, that simply isn't the structure that works for them. Polyamory, open relationships and other forms of non-monogamy are becoming increasingly accepted and explored relationship structures as people try and find away of having relationships that satisfies their needs and doesn't end in divorce or long periods of uncomfortable compromise. Girl/boyfriend are terms that have been around for over a century and have almost exclusively (especially in the latter half of the 20th C) been used to refer to ones monogamous romantic partner. As soon as you move away from that two person relationship dynamic, language becomes even more complex. The term isn't easily or comfortably applied to some romantic and/or sexual partners without considering how you label all individuals in the arrangement. If you have different types of relationship with different people, a single term might not fit all yet you risk alienating or hurting individuals by applying the term to one and not to another. This is multiplied when the public perception of a word carries significance that is at odds to your own personal situation.

[Of course a majority of people are perfectly happy with long term monogamy, have no qualms about making it work and have no need or desire to explore other formats. That's cool, I'm just looking at other groups for this particular point.]

Alternative language

This is where I fall apart somewhat: trying to find a suitable alternative for a word firmly lodged in my and other's lexicon.
Partner – it is delightfully gender neutral, contains more gravitas than boy/girlfriend, and is reasonably malleable to fit different situations. The problem is I find it a little to serious and stolid, not really suiting more casual relationships and flirtations. It still has the baggage of long term monogamy attached which doesn't suit all. It's just a little too business like and formal for my tastes.
Lover – A term that makes me cringe somewhat with it's kitschy undertones and suggestion of illicit boardroom affairs. But it is gender neutral and is free from the bounds of traditional relationship structures and less heavy and demanding than 'partner'. That means of course that it's less heavy and demanding than partner, perhaps not feeling right for a more committed relationship.
Paramour – Bizarrely I find this less kitschy than lover, though it still has many of the same pros and cons. It is somewhat sweater than lover, and for me doesn't have the association with an illicit affair.
Beau – My main issue with this is that I never really know how to pronounce it. It is a term I am most familiar with being applied to younger people, and thus risks becoming slightly more childish, not categorised as a 'real' relationship. That being said it is pleasingly neutral (though I believe is intended to refer to a male partner) with an affection that is lacking from love and partner.

That's it, those are the only alternatives I can think of and none are quite satisfactory. I'm wary of creating entirely new words. Yes I understand that that's how language develops but the intentionally created word often seems trite and forced – compersion a word created by the poly community to cover the pleasure you take in one of your partners enjoying another relationship is an example of this; lovely definition, yet the word leaves me utterly cold.
The other question to ask is do we need these labels and terms at all, can the ubiquitous boy/girlfriend be ditched in a mass slewing of definitions, labels and terms. Well maybe, perhaps we can focus more on describing the individual and the personal nature of the relationship and try not to fit into the boxes defined by particular words. The fact remains however, that sometimes we want an easy, simple and compact word or phrase for ease of communication and that those words can be a part of the relationship itself.

I am loathe to produce a piece that complains about an issue without offering a viable solution but the fact remains that as of yet, I don't have one. All I am sure of is that I don't want to be your girlfriend.

Friday, 28 November 2014

''The Beautiful Game' - guest post by Mark Tynan

Today I have a guest post from Mark Tynan. Inspired by an editorial in the guardian last week (Nov. 18th) Mark wrote a reply, a 202 word scathing assessment of professional football, the UK banking system and our favourite former PM.

The Guardian decided not to print. I felt (with Mark's permission) that it really should be read by more than three people.

The Guardian chooses to make professional football the subject of an editorial
My observation is that that status is ill-deserved. To adopt a phrase used by she-who-shall-not be-named, why give football, in its modern guise, the 'oxygen of publicity'? No longer a game nor a sport, football is now just a business.
The editorial makes no mention of 'the beautiful game', there is no mention of players, their ball-skills inspiring a new generation of would-be international stars. No, the stand-out words and phrases are 'lawyers', 'corruption','large debt' and 'global farce'.
How sorry is it that our 'national game' now has more in common with banking than actual sport, a situation, I feel, which was summed-up last year by a club waiting overnight to make the announcement of the sacking of its manager, a Mr Moyes I believe, until the opening of the New York Stock Exchange?!
'Global farce' is an understatement. Football, mired in greed and corruption, and burdened with a generation of professional players who are better actors than they are footballers, has become a laughing-stock. Cricket and Rugby Union take heed! Down that road, evil lies!

Mark Tynan

The observant of you will notice that the author of this an I share a surname. Mark is indeed father though I think any bias I have toward is writing is outweighed by the quality.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Thought Bubble Part 2: Accessibility

The previous post gave a summary of how thought bubble was supportive of different genders and age groups and gave a generally welcoming atmosphere. I thought that, in order to be complete, I should address a few of the other areas mentioned namely, accessibility for people with physical, developmental or neurological disabilities.

I have some physical disabilities and on tough days walk with as stick. I had my stick with me on the day and found accessibility for me was very good. Each of the main rooms had level access or gentle ramps to get in to them and had no steps once inside. The greeting room (where you paid, picked up your wristband, maps and program) had a number of steps at the front which surprised me a little but, I later realised (by seeing a woman zoom past me on her motorised chair) that there was also a gentle ramp up to the entrance so it was accessible to people in wheelchairs and those who can't navigate steps. This was excellent. I noted that there were actually a number of people using canes, crutches or in wheelchairs, both of the powered variety and self propelled. At no point did I see any of these people struggling to navigate the convention though I can not personally attest to how easy it was for people in chairs to reach the tables and exhibitors. The aisles were wide enough to pass down easily and without me feeling like I was an obstruction, though the sheer volume of people did mean I got jostled or my stick knocked a few times. I don't think that could really be fixed without having absolutely enormous spaces between things. I was happy to deal with the odd jostle though it might be a difficultly for other people. 

These little spaces between tables (carefully marked with an x) were great for standing out of the way.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Rediscovering Comics

and a review of Thought Bubble

Two weeks ago I went to Thought Bubble: Leeds' dedicated comic convention and part of a bigger festival of comic art and writing. I had been to comic conventions before: great jumbles of artists, stands, merchandise, games and anime. To be quite frank I hadn't enjoyed these experiences. The halls were too busy and without focus; I felt like a outsider, not knowledgeable enough about comics anime or games; I was older than the other clientèle, female, and not cosplaying. It was a world that was difficult for me to access.

Thought Bubble Annie Wu
Illustration by Annie Wu used with permission.

 Thought Bubble, I was told, was different. For starters, rather than the mishmash of everything from games to anime with comics thrown in there in the middle Thought Bubble was about comics and only about comics. OK it covered all aspects of this media from self published zines to big publishing houses and graphic novels but the core was still the telling of stories through printed art and words. There was only going to be the one subculture for me to deal with.
More than that, they said, Thought Bubble was, from day one, designed to be inclusive; accessible to anybody regardless of gender, age, ability or disability, whether they were life long fans of comics or turning the page for the first time. This was the real charm: a comic con that I could go to and feel safe and not excluded. I was impressed that a con would be organised in this manner, that the managers and staff that ran it went in to it with conscious aim of not discriminating against, in fact actively supporting, many groups of people.
I was told of policy regarding sexism and gender issues – those comic artists who were overtly discriminatory in their drawings or views simply weren't invited. Booth girls weren't a feature. People who used discriminatory language would be asked to leave. The organisers made sure to provide facilities for people with physical or neurological disabilities including quiet areas, gender neutral toilets and easy access to event halls. This sounded incredible but I was dubious about how it actually worked in practice.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Beauty Vs Chronic Illness

I was shown a video a few days ago called "Letting Beauty Speak'. It is produced by Cross Fit International and it wants to redefine beauty. The definition the video highlighted brought me to tears. It was an unexpected yet quite profound reaction and it is something I want to address.

Let me get this stated right now:

I like Cross Fit. I have no problem with CrossFit or with those people who do it (in general). I like the enthusiastic approach to being fit and healthy. I love seeing my friends so happy when then have achieved something new. I also think that 'organisations' and communities like Cross Fit are really good in supporting and encouraging people more than just a call to go to the gym. Many people thrive with that sort of communal approach to achieving a goal.
So, are with clear, I have no problem with Cross Fit.

Back to the core of this post: why a video redefining beauty that explicitly pushed against the usual media standards of beauty left me distressed. You may not care about my distress itself, but I would hope you care about questioning the media definition of beauty.
When I saw the title of the video I was keen to watch. I am very pro health and fitness, and even more supportive of things that de-construct media-pedalled 'traditional' concept of beauty and attractiveness; I wanted to see how a group of people I respect viewed beauty. I wanted to know their answer to the question ''what is beauty?''.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Chronic Fatigue: the physical impact

Chronic fatigue is so much more than being tired all the time. Fatigue affects your muscles and the amount of energy you have to physically move. Imagine you have just done the hardest workout of your life – completed a marathon; beat all your PB's in the box; walked the length of Hadrian's Wall in a week. Your muscles feel like sandbags, you feel wobbly and shaky and have no inclination to move. That's fatigue.
Now imagine that that happens every day through simple activities like having a shower, or walking to the shop and recovery is always incomplete. The thing is chronic fatigue isn't just tired limbs it is far more insipid, affecting every part of the body. I'll start with the obvious and then get down to the effects that you might not expect.

The NHS Choices website uses this as their picture for fatigue. It's not completely inaccurate.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Freshers' Week Sexism: It is that bad.

The Guardian recently had an articleabout 10 types of sexism experienced by female students at university this year. Many of the 'types' actually have more than one example; fifteen specific examples are given.
The response to this from many however is '' it's not that bad.''.

Stop right there. 

Fifteen examples of, at times quite repulsive, sexism directed to female students. Any single one of these happening once would be ''that bad''. That at least fifteen clearly defined incidents have occurred to fifteen individual women is definitely ''that bad''. And, we know from some of these examples that these attacks (and they are attacks) are not happening to individual women, they are happening to groups. That groups of women are suffering this means it is ''that bad''. Further more these are just the examples being talked about.
These are just the examples which have come to light and been made public instead of grimaced at quickly or cried about in private.
Why do people dismiss these things as 'not that bad'. Just because you didn't experience them personally, why dismiss the upset and discomfort of so many others. Yes, when they are gathered into one short article it can seem more dramatic that when it is spread over an entire degree course, but does that make these instances any less real, despicable, misogynistic or distressing? No it doesn't. Sexism in British universities really is that bad.

Let me pose to you an analogy:
You are searching for a hotel online. You find somewhere which may be suitable for your needs and decide to look at the customer reviews and notice that since September (since the beginning of the academic year) there have been a dozen negative reviews citing bed bugs, mould in bathrooms, food poisoning from the breakfast, stained sheets, rude and obnoxious staff – every bad experience you could imagine in a hotel. But there is a positive review in there that says 'It's not that bad.'.
Personally, unless that was absolutely the only option, I would look for a room elsewhere. I'd presume, that at some point health and hotel inspectors would be swooping down on the place to do something about it, because surely it shouldn't stay in operation with so many hazards.
When it comes to misogyny in universities I want the same response. Just because not every student there has experienced these issues (and that is some small relief) doesn't mean there isn't a major problem that needs to be addressed.
Just as I would expect our fictional hotel manager to look at the complaints and invest in new linen and deep cleaning, I would expect university deans, presidents and SU leaders to take a very close look at what they permit in their institutions and what steps they are going to take to stop these things happening. The problems are there, the complaints are being made and it is long past time that corrective action was taken. No female student should be made to feel unwelcome in a class. No student should think that her classmates think rape is a joke. No student should be given the message that submitting to unwanted sexual contact is the safest and expected option.

Other comments on the Guardian piece state that they don't worry about sexist university society initiations and dubious T-shirts when there are bigger issues of women entering a male dominated workforce, continued job inequality and major gender divides in academic subjects. If I am honest, I am somewhat baffled by this argument. Perhaps I am naive, but I am simply unable to see the examples in the Guardian as a separate issue from employment inequality and pervasive gender stereotyping. As I see it, the two are intrinsically linked. As long as female students are being treated as nothing but sex toys, there for the amusement and domination of male students then they are being seen as less. As long as female students are being devalued and treated as jokes or out of place on campus then their education, ability and worth in the wider world is also being devalued.

It perpetuates the culture where women are not as valuable and equal in business or academic arenas. It teaches the male students that when they are in the working world they can look at their female colleagues as lesser. Women are treated as sex objects, jokes and targets in fresher's week because society teaches that women are of less value than men and need to be firmly put in their place as subservient. Women continue to be undervalued in academia and professional circles because group after group of graduates have just spent three years accepting that male dominant behaviour is acceptable and normal. It is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken at every opportunity.

Saying 'It is that bad' when we hear examples of overt sexual harassment and discrimination in university is a step toward breaking that cycle.
Saying 'It is that bad' to tutors, presidents, deans, leaders and above all students is a step toward breaking that cycle and demanding a change.
Just because it could be worse is no reason to maintain the status quo.