On Saturday, along with roughly half a million others, I joined the March for the Alternative. I walked with the women’s bloc for the very simple reason that I believe the proposed cuts disproportionately impact on women, and that the coalition needs reminding of its duty to run a rigorous gender impact assessment on the budget which it has so far failed to do; twice. Marching with the women’s bloc was a glorious affirmation of all that I fight for – surrounded by women of all ages, races, classes and persuasions, we were a purple and green ripple of banging pots and songs. And smiles, so many smiles despite the hardships and distances some of these women had travelled to be there that day. We mingled with other groups, danced to brass bands and Motown crowd-pleasers, and at one time I recall a collective coo as a number of us looked left to admire the Gurkhas and their wives, the women dressed in bottle green and gold saris, marching peacefully but resolutely too. Despite the events that unfurled later that day, and the small group of people who gave the media what it wanted, I believe it was a good day for democracy.
Later that evening, I went to a friend’s fancy-dress party – set in an early 1920s style speak-easy, the girls wore flapper dresses and pearls and the chaps wore spats and braces. The irony of having celebrated women’s suffrage earlier that day did not escape me – it was only as late as 1928 that women over the age of 21 were granted the right to vote in this country. For all the boundaries she would have pushed in cutting her hair and raising her hemline, the lacquered nails and cigarettes, my alter ego that night didn’t have any of the rights I now take for granted. She couldn’t vote, she couldn’t own property, she couldn’t have worked after marriage and contraception sat somewhere between old wives tales and back-street abortions. How far we’ve come, I mused. But if the motives behind the march were anything to go by, how very far we still have to go.
Coming home late on the tube, in a fug of exhaustion and booze, the carriage hummed with late night revellers and friends. At one point two men in their 20s got on, dressed in shorts and flipflops which, given the fact Spring had only officially sprung a week before, struck me as particularly optimistic. Shortly after, a group of friends in their 40s or so, dressed in rockabilly 1950s prom dresses and gelled hair, joined the carriage and an unlikely conversation struck up between them all. As I absentmindedly eavesdropped on their banter, I became coldly aware of the nature of their discussion – one of the be-flipflopped men was boasting about having spent the evening getting private dances at a strip club for £15 a pop. Aware he was drawing a crowd, the man started to invite others into the conversation by regaling us all with details about the dancer’s vagina: “All her pubes were shaved into a butterfly and her moo-moo smelled of flowers too.” Cue howls of laughter from the assembled group of men and women, and overtures for more details. Buoyed by the attention, he went on to reveal that he’d bought a birthday card for his girlfriend earlier that day, which the private dancer had noticed and asked who it was for: “Oooh, she said, you’ve been a naughty boy then, haven’t you? Yes, I said, I’ve been a very, very naughty boy!!” Winks to all in the carriage, more laughter, more backslapping, more self-congratulatory plaudits. We were all complicit in this man’s sad little game, silently allowing him to perpetuate the myth that women are only ever sexual objects who present themselves for male gratification.
I hope I wasn’t the only one who felt deeply uncomfortable that night on the last tube home, but I am likely to be the only one to comment on it. It’s the double standards which get me. Not just in the instance that had a woman behaved in the same way she would have been met with far less public enthusiasm, but that should this guy ever be fortunate enough to have daughters I can’t believe it would ever be within his tiny mind to encourage other men to behave toward them as he does to women.
To all the people who will claim that the private dancer is in control, and is making good money by exploiting stupid men who are prepared to pay, I will revert back to the evidence which shows that the overwhelming majority of female sex workers are not protected by the law and many suffer abuse and rape, have associated addictions , live in poverty and suffer mental health problems. Until we live in a country where equality is universal, legislated for and de facto in every single walk of life, women can never make an open choice about working in the sex industry – it will always stem from an imbalance of push factors and gender prejudice which allows us to maintain negative cultural attitudes towards women. This doesn’t just affect sex workers, it affects people like me. It affects the women on the march and the women at the party. It affects families and children and men. It affects the way in which this country is governed and the way in which budgets are drawn up. This is no longer the 1920s; let’s stop pretending like we live in a speak-easy.
If big demonstrations affirm my allegiance to equality, then brief encounters on the tube remind me why I bother at all. Not least the salient lesson that if you’re going to refer to a woman’s vagina in public, then at least use a term which makes you sound less like a total moron.