Ex wives and lost lives

It’s hard being an ex-wife. I saw it with my mother. She did the dirty, admittedly with my dad’s boss. They never spoke to each other again. I’m overdramatising. My dad’s not a bad guy, but he does have a temper. My mum’s not a horrible woman. But she has problems she doesn’t even recognise. Roots go deep and are tangled beyond anyone’s comprehension. I had to do some digging to realise that none of this was my fault, though of anyone, I felt I, along with my sister, just 2 and 3 when she left, suffered the most in the fallout.

Later, Daddy dearest, having brought up my sister and I more or less on his tod, becoming, in a short time, a wealthier man with more of a chip on his shoulder than the one my mother left, ditched the woman who’d been at his side since mama went. She’d been a good sport, coping with us two kids (who like their parents weren’t always simple creatures) and living in their nice house(she sold one to move in with us), going on our nice holidays and being there, at least physically, through good times and tough. But he found someone else on a business trip and boom, he blew up his life up once again.

It was an atom bomb to my fragile psyche that left me reeling for years.  He moved her and her family over from where they lived and in a while had a daughter, the same age as my son. It took years for us to be understanding of one another, in the mean time, damaging relations between the next generation. It was a mess alright – one of the reasons I ended up in  Mile End by hook or by crook, where the flotsam of life’s turbulent tide has often drifted in, now increasingly where the human detritus of the City and Canary Wharf can be found. It is illuminating that I am now a stone’s throw from where my mother’s 16th century relatives scavenged a living. All our problems and successes have deep roots. At least, I feel I’m probably plague proofed, if nothing else can be said for my genes.

All this early drama made me both long to to avoid it for myself, but also be drawn to it like a moth to a flame – it had become so normal for me. I found myself a nice, normal man, who was stronger than I was, to take out my angst on. But because of his stable background – mother and father together until he died, tragically young, but uncomplicated to the last – Tom by and large props me up. Except nothing’s ever that simple, whatever polemic rhetoric our tabloids sell as normal dialogue. Even Tom.

Tom was married when I met him, floating round strip clubs with a buffoon’s grin on his face and money to burn in his pocket. He was adrift. His workaholic wife had cast him to the spare room. Married in his early twenties, he’d missed out on his youth, as I would go on to miss out on mine, through the babies we made together. Back then, he had the unwise income of an incautious profession. He slept with hookers in Amsterdam. He was squandering his credit limit paying for someone to be nice to him. He wanted someone to look after. And I needed someone who made me feel safe.  It was, perhaps, a relationship based on false promises.

I cut him down to size with good time wit, bedazzled him with sequins and youthful breasts. I tested his patience, pocket and determination. I didn’t find him wanting. He scraped me up, moved in and we hung out a while, while I worked out what to do with the rest of my life. It took a while, but we got there. I needed to know he would never leave. And he promised and promised he wouldn’t.

But that promise is always a pie crust promise. Here is how it works. Relationships have a balance of power. When I was young, some would say, Tom included, I had beauty. Tom had money (at least, he had rather more of it than me). Even stevens, more or less. If you don’t believe me, think, how often in life does this combination achieves a partnership – even if they are rarely, in the end, successful? Relationships – a marriage – are always a bargain of sorts.

Now, I have less beauty (itself a form of power) and more money (power of a more tangible kind, in the form of capital). Tom, who went through a patch when he had less power (losing several jobs in the financial crisis ( and despite myself, I nearly left, though it was complicatedly dressed up as something else, like all our motivations are. The more power he accumulates the more he might leave. It really is that simple. I hope that he won’t. I hope the investments we have made together, in our family, our friends, our shared history and memories, will keep him glued. But I can’t bank on it. My step mother (who my father tellingly never married) thought that. But when Dad left her, he did it hard and fast and never looked back. Not brutally – he bought her a house. But there was nothing my stepmother could do about it either. When someone wants to go, they go. It doesn’t make them a monster. It just means they believe, albeit temporarily, that whatever insecurities they have about their lives (and we all have some) will be eradicated by this new relationship. Perhaps for Tom, it was that he hadn’t had enough sex with enough people, enough fun, enough control….  I was a way to achieve all that Perhaps as I get old and deny him these things for whatever reasons, or gain more control, he may decide to dispense with me. For me, Tom was a way to get stability. When he became unstable (lost several jobs,  started partying hard) I very nearly dispensed with him. There’s always an ulterior motive. And spurious concepts of love and morality don’t cut it. And that’s how I learned to forgive my parents. It’s how I learned to be disillusioned by free will.

Tom’s ex-wife sometimes gets in touch. We are grown ups and most of the time are respectful of each other, even at times friendly. But as a human being, there was always a hint of Schadenfreude when Tom and I started to go through tough times. It’s never easy to be left for a younger, albeit more vulnerable model. Now she’s going through a tough time, for which I have utmost sympathy. She’s contacted Tom for old times sake – I’ve never had a problem with this; indeed, we have continued to use Tom’s old holiday house they owned together. But she has become increasingly critical of me, in particular my writing, which has always been honest, often to the detriment of myself in more vulnerable circumstances, although, now I’m less so, I can take greater risks, which is ultimately the very nature of power.

And it’s easy to be critical when you don’t have all the facts. Which ultimately none of us every do.

I have to agree with Richard Dawkins. There are degrees of rape.

I got raped, and it didn’t change my life. I hate to court controversy (perhaps some of you will think I courted rape?) but I agree with Richard Dawkins. There are differing degrees of severity in all things, rape included. And you can’t compare one with another. I was raped. Properly, well and truly raped. I was raped by a virtual stranger. Police were involved. I had to get all sorts of tests to make sure I hadn’t contracted anything nasty. It was traumatic.

But in the end, it wasn’t particularly life altering. Like many things I’ve had to deal with, I dusted myself off and moved on. I’m lucky I was able to do so. Many can’t. But perhaps that’s because, compared to other things I’ve had to deal with in my life, it really wasn’t the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

I was a waitress in a bistro in my middle class, middle England town. I had just turned 19, filing a gap between A-levsl and Uni, earning money to go traveling. I had a steady, musician boyfriend who had a tattoo and a spliff addiction.  I thought I was a little bit street wise, but like most 19 year olds, I was still fairly clueless.

The chef at the restaurant where I worked was probably what you might call, a couple of chocolate fingers short of the full packet. But he was friendly enough, and as a polite, middle class sorta girl, I was polite back. We must have worked together for all of two weeks, with the sort of trench mentality that sets in quickly in professional kitchens when, on a quiet night, I joined him and a regular who used to prop up the wine bar on weeknights, for a couple of drinks. It was nearly Christmas, the year of the millenium. I thought, why the hell not? We drank one and then another, the proprietor re-filling our glasses for free – sloe gin, if I remember correctly – potent stuff. After a while, he decided to close up, and a little merry, I invited the chef and the customer back to mine, which was only a few doors up the road to carry on our little party.

We drank another and then, unsteady on my feet I called up my  boyfriend, partly because I wanted the men to leave – aware I was more than a little drunk. He was at band practice and said he’d be over later. Trying to get rid of them, but not really having the skills, I drunkenly said I was going to bed, but told them let themselves out when they had finished their drinks.

I swiftly passed out in my room. I may have even left the light on, certainly I had a face full of makeup on, which was face down in a heap. The next thing I knew, I was being raped. At first, coming into consciousness, I thought it was my boyfriend. I may have even responded – the thought makes me feel sick – positively for a moment, until l realised what was happening. I shoved the chef off me, and raised the alarm with my mother, asleep in the next bedroom. Still somewhat drunk, I was more afraid what my boyfriend would think, than thinking to call the police, but my mum summed it up – you shouldn’t have left them alone in the house. I called the police to prove I’d hadn’t been “asking for it”.

But the police echoed mum’s response. The alcohol on my breath and my disorientation about what had happened seemed to place a fair amount of blame at my door. My door, in my nice middle class home, compared to the housing estate up the road where the chef lived. I knew whereabouts he lived – a couple of doors down from my boyfriend. It was that sort of town. I was advised not to bring a case –  it would wreck the “young man’s life – and he’s probably, you know, not all there” said the policeman, after taking swabs and driving me to the police station at well above the speed limit, without his seat belt done up.

The most traumatic part of it was not the guilt that I accepted was mine and I assimilated, judging other women as I judged myself for my “behaviour” that led up to it for many years later. The most traumatic part of it was the cold, judgmental efficiency of the STD clinic – my first brush with cold steel up my kiber, and not one I’ve particularly grown fond in the intervening years – although these days it’s usually for smears rather than anything  more racy. The most traumatic part, in fact was that my mum chose same restaurant for her millennium eve celebrations. To be fair, there wasn’t many other places to choose from. But still. I even popped in for a drink, but just as quickly left again, feeling the accusing eyes of the proprietor and the regular who had left the chef in my house alone, upon me, to hurry of into my new life of South East Asian travels and uni. I know I was lucky enough to be able to escape.

I remained withdrawn for a few weeks. But really, compared to everything else – my angry, sometimes violent step-dad, my flippant mother, her oddball lodger, my father who’d decided I was too much trouble to live with, my A levels and getting into Oxford – I failed – it really wasn’t that much of a big deal.

It didn’t affect my sex life, although a psychologist might nod and shake their heads at the fact I became a stripper to fund my way through uni – Bristol, in fact; and I do seem to have gone off it quite a lot aged 34, now I’ve got the breeding part of my life pretty much over with. But, I don’t think much of this has to do with this particular incident.

In general, I learned self -respect, if that is what one calls female sexual modesty, or rather, learning to accept the people who are nice to you and reject the ones who are not, perhaps a little later than some, but I’d blame my parents (a convenient psychological punchbag – that in the end is what parents are for) more for any attention seeking I may have done as a young adult than what any bloke could do to me. I taught myself sexual confidence, self-defence and learned to shut down my barriers to anyone who tweaked my weirdometre. Later, as a consenting adult, I awoke to find a man I’d gone to bed with helping himself after I’d fallen asleep. But I warned him in no uncertain terms he could get himself in trouble by doing that. But again, it wasn’t that much of a deal. Although,these days I find myself with little time for anyone except my husband and my kids and work.

But for all the fall out, which, relatively speaking, is minimal – I hold down a full time job, have well adjusted kids, a nice house, and still speak to my family regularly enough,  I am not a six year old school girl in Uttar Pradesh, raped by my teacher: I was not raped by a police man as I stooped to defecate because there are no toilets in my vicinity before being hung by the neck – for all my own experience with the law showed me what utter contempt the police had for it themselves. I am no young boy from a care home, taken advantage of by a politician who has invited me to take cocaine. I am no Broadmoor patient, perved on by a television creep who many viewed as a hero.

There are degrees of rape; degrees in which trust is broken, faith in human nature is eroded, people are taken advantage off; are subsumed by the will of others.

I am a little damaged, no question, but I am not broken. It was be a disrespect to the people who are, to say our experiences are comparable. They are not. So I agree with Dawkins, for all he may speak to truth but lack compassion.  But then, I can see that the people who rape are damaged too, and need our help, but in other ways. Perhaps, in the case of this man, and indeed myself, brushing it off as a stupid error of judgement, on both of our parts, is the best way to make it what it has become – no big deal.

Here’s to the brilliance of “unfuckable lard-arses.” Or how sexual attractiveness hampers women from breaking the glass ceiling

File:Angela Merkel (2008).jpg

Image via: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Angela_Merkel_%282008%29.jpg

We may never know whether or not the shamed Italian ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi described German Chancellor Angela Merkel thus, as quizzed, rather combatitively by the the great Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last week (although, I admit, I viewed it on Gogglebox). But in a sense it doesn’t matter. It’s opened the debate about how women’s looks affect them in the workplace, and for that, it is no bad thing.

There’s a well-stated correlation between attractiveness and success. But it’s occurred to me of late that women who really go places never trade on their looks at all. Oh yes, the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world are impressive by any standard. But certainly the women holding rank with most CEOs today, many of whom make the grade in their late fourties and fifties, (ie. those who blazed a trail before Sandberg and her ilk had made it possible for young women to be contenders for the top spot, helped along by young, innovative, fast growing industries), are, not to put too fine a point on it,  somewhat plainer.

(Although personally, I think Merkel is rather beautiful, but sexually attractive? Perhaps no longer.)

A classic example, Margaret Thatcher looked, whilst in power, rather like a over-coiffered version of someone’s ageing mum. She may have been a sex symbol among a certain type of man. But she was no Marilyn Monroe, who was born just a year later. It’s an apt comparison. Simply fucking the President, it seems, will get you nowhere.

Continuing in politics, the wonderful Ann Widdecombe, MP for Maidstone when I was growing up there, became well-loved despite, it must be said, having a rather toad-like – yet still, for that, entirely charming – demeanour. Her anti-looks stance allowed her to rise above the usual snipes aimed at female politicians of a more conventionally attractive persuasion. A more recent parliamentary candidate, Louise Mensch, noted for her looks – and it has to be said – the frivolity of her previous incarnation as the writer of chick lit – bowed out of the political arena amid accusations of cyber bullying, much of entirely sexist. It’s probably not a fair comparison, but it illustrates the point that when it comes to gaining power, particularly in politics, women’s looks are not their best friend. Except, perhaps, by proxy. ie. when women marry into it, which is itself is entirely precarious when their looks begin to fade.

But it is hardly surprising that women trade on what is often, in youth, their most powerful asset. I am a case in point. A stripper, I married, perhaps unwisely, a customer 8 years older than myself. Partly, it has to be said, and few would be this honest, for the financial security he offered me. As it turns out he is also a really nice bloke, if something of a gentle sociopath. But many in my then-situation would not be so lucky. I made the cardinal error of relying on someone else, when I was perfectly capable of relying on myself. In an imperfect society, it is what women are often conditioned, or perhaps only able, to do.

Time has moved on, the financial crisis has been and gone. I am now the same age my husband was when he met me. The tables have turned and I’m now pretty much the main breadwinner. I have gone from being the somewhat decorative wife of a man with more financial power than me to being a genuinely level player. It feels really, really good.

But as a stripper, I knew more than most the market value of my looks and that they were a  depreciating asset. If the archetype of female sexual attractiveness dictated by pornography is correct (and as the world of porn is dictated by market forces, it must be) then it is a very fragile sort of woman who is deemed the most sexually alluring. Strippers’ unwieldy plastic heels, like concubine’s bound feet before them, are sexually potent because of their literally unstable posture and subservient symbolism.

The ideal of female beauty is all about being tamed. The effort alone maintaining said ‘beauty’ is limiting enough, what with all the hair removal, and highlights. It can become hard to get anything useful done. Add to that the pain of breast enlargements, lip plumpers, a body not damaged by childbirth. In fact, a body, which is probably 22 at most. The fleeting sexual power beauty offers is all too soon over. In an unfair world, where men have more power, women are slaves to their desires, too soon dispensed with if they are unable to gain power of their own.

I was lucky that I had a back-up plan carved in the days when when beauty was the least of my assets, for when the best of my looks had passed. Many don’t. I was a geeky swot in my early teens and probably considered a bit of a fright: a late bloomer, with braces and an ill advised fringe; acne scrawling a signature of misery across my beleaguered face, and glasses (although I only ever needed them for close work) which I insisted on wearing all the time to avoid the pain of being looked at directly. I cowered in books until I was deemed socially acceptable enough to fraternise with. But when it mattered, I was cultivating the basis of my other, more long lived asset – my education.

My lapdancing days – perhaps in some ways overcompensating for having been considered plain in my youth –  paid off – for uni, which I left with a top degree, then later, internships and a foot on the property ladder before I met my husband, which whom I quickly produced two children.  I may have learned early on not to rely on my looks for social success, but I fell, career wise, at the first hurdle of being found attractive. It’s taken an effort of will to get my career back on track. Yet by hook or by crook, I have done it.

I think the way I look has helped me on my way but this won’t always be the case. In this new employment,  looking glossy and smelling nice might have made for a smoother interview, but knuckling down with greasy hair is what’s going to win me promotions, not turning up late with my nails did. At nearly 34, the time to trade on my looks is over  And knowing this is the key to success in later life for women who’s looks can no longer be relied on as a social lubricant –  at least, according to the opposite sex. But for a while, being thought attractive can help more than it hinders.

On Facebook, yesterday, after a glass or two of wine, I got drawn into a debate about this, rather hackneyed piece of content from The Onion, which suggests, albeit humorously, that attractive women have a better chance of getting an internship and thus their foot in the door of a company.

In my experience, I would venture it may well be true. I certainly felt the way I looked helped me into my first job. Pointy of chin, with eyes like a marmoset, I’m not conventionally beautiful, by any means. But with a young looking baby face and the right tools, I can make a good enough approximation of it – even if I do say so myself. Curvy and fair, with longish legs in a shortish dress with a hefty but subtle coating of makeup, I can make the grade as ‘fit’ in a certain types of man’s book.But only if I feel like it. These days, I pass most of my time unnoticed in leggings. I get more done that way. Looks, I believe, are as destructive as they can be constructive.

The study I provided at the beginning of this piece about the correlation between beauty and success also found a link between being thought attractive and negative performance evaluation. This has certainly been my experience too.

The beholder with the power in this particular employment ,where I walked in as an  intern was, naturally enough, a man, and after offering me a fairly spurious role, for which I was entirely overqualified, he continued to make slightly sexist remarks at me for at least the first half of my employment, to the discomfort, and slightly ruffled feathers of all. When it became apparent that I was not the young grad he took me for in my interview – I was in fact, a mother of two, trying, desperately, to break back into the workforce – and that I wouldn’t stand for much nonsense, didn’t always go down well with the powers that be, who wanted me, in effect, to be young, naive, powerless.

Women with a modicum of power within the organisation, (many of them who likely traded on their looks too in the past) did their best to undermine me, and I was subjected to disciplinary procedures for relatively trivial misdemeanours, before being ousted  just shy of two years, having make the schoolgirl error of sleeping with the wrong person. Except I wasn’t a schoolgirl.  I was a 30-something mother of two who should have, but didn’t, know better.

But when I was a school girl, when perhaps it matters most what others think of you, I felt considered largely “unfuckable” by many of my peers. So again, I was probably compensating for something. We all do. For all we must accept that women, like men, have sex for any number of reasons, I certainly bore the brunt of that poor decision.  So much, my own fault, you might think. It didn’t matter that I was good at my job. I had made my bed, so to speak. It’s a mistake I won’t be making twice.

Being pretty may, therefore, help women up the ladder to success. But only to a rather low rung.  And it may actually harm their career once they’ve got their foot in the door. Attractive women have always threatened the status quo. In an unequal society where men hold more power, it is all too easy for men to leave their wives and children for a younger, more attractive model. Like any women who has used her looks as collateral in the past,  I know they can threatening. But only, it seems, to those who have also used their looks to get ahead, as I previously mentioned on this blog about women undermining women in the workplace.

It’s natural for women (particularly in a competitive workplace scenario) to feel threatened by a woman with a higher sexual market value – I hate to use these terms, beloved of men on Tinder and the likes of “prostitute-comparison site” Punter.net, but these things exist.However, it’s generally women who have throw a lot of their eggs, so to speak, in the ‘looks’ basket, who feel most threatened. Women who bank on their looks for success, particularly, success by proxy, or marrying someone richer and more powerful, are playing a very dangerous game, one I know all too well.

The Mary Beards (a TV historian of considerable import, described once by that  pinnacle of public school macho idiocy, AA Gill as “too ugly for TV”)  and Angela Merkels of this world, having never banked on their looks, have long since dispensed with the notion of using their faces and bodies for anything other than talking considerable sense and getting things done. They learn, early on,  to throw off any criticism levelled at their looks, particularly, these days,  where it is freely and liberally expressed, rather cruelly, online. They get their kicks from intimidating others with the force of their wit, not the size of their tits. Good for them. Other women may not so blessed – or at least, don’t need to use their wits until their looks begin to fail them, when it might just be too late.

So if you’re a women who really wants to get ahead,  using your looks to your advantage is a short term strategy that will very likely backfire. Even men, as poor, ageing pretty-boy actor Rob Lowe can testify  are not immune from feeling discriminated against for their good looks. It’s not fair, but  beauty or sexual attractiveness seem to be considered so distracting to being a serious person, I’m finally happy to give it all up a bit, even though I do, on occasions, still like to feel glam. But ultimately, power is more important than sex appeal, as Berlusconi himself would doubtless agree.

Consider this:  had Angela Merkel, known in her home state as “mutti” or ‘mummy,’ been flattered by the lascivious attentions of Berlusconi, who said, in same the Paxman interview, he wanted to be remembered as the father of his country, but is rather more infamous for alleged and deeply inappropriate liaisons with underage prostitutes, then the whole of Europe, if not the world, could have been de-stabilised.

Perhaps it is better for everyone that he, and perhaps many men, regard Merkel as ‘unfuckable,’ so she can get on with the rather more esteemed and dignified work of sorting out the rest of Europe’s troubles; many, perhaps caused by incautious men on the spend, trying very hard to impress young, “fuckable” women.

The problem with being pretty is that you are more likely to  be flattered into submission by men in power, who subsequently have you at their mercy. Which is never a good position to be in.

But you don’t get more powerful than Merkel. I’ll hazard a guess that Berlusconi probably doesn’t like that very much, which like all threatened people, makes him resort to playground bully boy tactics of seeking to undermine women by criticism their looks. I doubt she is insecure enough to be bothered.

Female promiscuity: the immorality of morality. Or, conform or else.

What constitutes morals has a sneaky way of shifting over time, depending on the balance of power. All the bigs ones –  killing, theft, coveting thy neighbour’s mule, are covered by the Ten Commandments: killing, theft, coveting thy neighbour’s mule and have held their sway over time. Although the more nebulous ones – (worshiping idols anyone?) seem to have somewhat lost their potency to shock and offend.

But using a wider definition of morals, notions of sex and sexuality have always come in for scrutiny,and morality has been used as a rod to chastise anyone who deviates from a hierarchically prescribed norm. There are myriad reasons for this, many to do with the logical burden of pregnancy, ownership over spouse and resulting children, working out who belongs to whom and so on. It’s not hard to see how we’ve become tangled up in what constitutes doing the right thing for most people most of the time. And over the last century, the world has changed inordinately with regards sex, with access to female controlled contraception in many parts of the world sweeping aside generations of behavioural regulation.

And yet for women, the old ways still hold sway over many aspects of our lives, from policy on prostitution to personal insults levied at women who deviate from a prescribed norm (or are perhaps just more open about it), female promiscuity, or rather, sexual behaviour in all its myriad forms is always going to be a fact obfuscated by historical circumstance and religious doctrine.

In a world where great strides have been made for previously marginalised groups gaining acceptance (or rather, a world that is becoming increasingly divided into the tolerant and intolerant  – as well as haves and have nots) it is striking that intolerance towards female promiscuity is only now gaining scrutiny. The concept of ‘slut-shaming’ has entered the vernacular: the idea that women or men who shame other women for their sexual behaviour gaining ground as ‘immoral’ behaviour, that is to say, worse than the behaviour it attempts to insult.

I for one am happy about this, because I feel that female sexuality is one of the few taboos western society is still grappling with. I’ve always found it fascinating that as acceptance around homosexual culture grows, my male gay friends have been particularly out and proud of their sexual exploits and happy – even encouraged to  divulge them. It’s extraordinary, really, in the grand scheme of things, how attitudes towards male homosexuality have made a volte-force. It’s only 119 years since playwright Oscar Wilde, who coined the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name” was imprisoned for gross indecency on the grounds of breaking the serious sexual taboo of sodomy. This, despite homosexuality being a rather acknowledged and tolerated notion in the literary and theatrical circles in which he moved.

For women, however, despite the balance of power shifting this century, notably with the pill, somewhat in our favour as regards the consequences of our actions, history has been rather slower to perform such a complete about face.

For a female whose reputation has been queried with regards her sexual behaviour, long lasting consequences can still result even within enlightened circles. Conservatism around sexuality pervades in cultural references, expected behaviour and most importantly, the way we think about ourselves.

One woman who has successfully shrugged off the taint of her “deviant” sexuality is research scientist Dr Brooke Maganti, whose blog about her sexual exploits as a high class call girl writing under a pseudonym Belle Du Jour made her a worldwide (pen) name. A campaign to unmask her was launched by the press –  in a sting orchestrated by a journalist I know, one Laura Topham, a guest at my wedding (she wrote a rather unpleasant review of it as part of her Single Life column for the Evening Standard and we’ve not spoken since) and fellow student a journalism school. It gives me no small pleasure that Maganti eventually unmasked in herself in a bid to foil The Daily Mail.

It is perhaps that she confounded notions of what it meant to be a “woman of loose morals” by also being educated and in control of her own destiny, that she has been able to risk manage her “escape” from her previous incarnation with a successful career as a research scientist, with supportive employers, becoming herself, now a regular contributor to the Guardian.

But her success is perhaps notable for its rarity. Last year I wrote in the Sunday Times Magazine about my open marriage. I cleared the copy with my employer, who were being a bit funny about the situation as details of it became known. Today, I am out of a job. Despite the fact that I feel bullied and harassed over my sexuality, despite it never affecting my ability to do my job, the legal advice I have been given was that writing about it was courting controversy. In a tribunal, the defence would “tear me to shreds”. I don’t doubt it. But why?

I consider myself a good person. I am kind and tolerant, a good mother – if impetuous and occasionally hot headed under stress. My husband and I have a great marriage. I, by and large, have been able to remain friends with people with whom I have had a sexual relationship. And yet, society doesn’t make it easy to be a woman who admits to having sex in a slightly unconventional way. I have been harassed, isolated and called names online – often it is women who are the main finger pointers and despite understanding why they do this – it’s an evolutionary trait to denigrate other women and this secure status for themselves – it has no place in a fair, modern society.

Even though I could have claimed discrimination as a result of having an unusual family situation, I was advised not to pursue unfair dismissal. The reason, I believe, is that in a corporate environment, you are expected to confirm to society’s expectations, and society does not expect a married woman to want to have sex with people other than her husband.  Which is bullshit, because more often than not, they do. They just don’t talk about it.

But polygamy (although I would hesitate to call it that, conjuring up, as it does, notions of religious sects and patriarchal harems – I just had consensual (and consented to) sex with someone other than my husband a few times – big deal) is seen a serious deviation from the norm, despite the fact that’s many women as men have an extramarital affair. Yet by being open about it, a jury of my peers would likely convict me of being weird and weird does not sit well with the conservative corporate world. Case closed.

The upshot it is, I have retreated into my shell. My mental health has suffered. I no longer sleep with anyone – not even my husband. I have been put in my place, smacked down. I conform to get on.

One of the reasons for this is a recent dubious smear. I have unusual cells on my cervix. A smear six months ago was clear, so this is recent. It’s scary, although unlikely to be serious, but it is a feminist issue because women share a much greater burden of sexual misadventure than do men. (I have talked more widely on his issue in this blog here). But the point is, that even I blame myself for this turn of events. I took risks, ergo I deserve to have the “punishment” of this potentially life threatening condition. It is so conditioned that women are at fault while men (for whom there is no test for HPV; no cervix to develop unusual cells and so on) once again get away scot free. It isn’t fair. But what’s particularly unfair is the way I am blaming myself.

This is why the idea of sexual morality has to come under serious scrutiny. Like slut shaming, the effects of blaming people for normal sexual behaviours (even deviant sexual behaviours are pretty normal in my book) are worse than the behaviour it pertains to discourage. Women should be celebrated for their sexuality and protected if things go wrong. That’s life – it doesn’t always got to plan, but blaming women for the results can be disastrous – it has been proven crime goes up if women are not allowed access to abortions, where women aren’t allowed access to contraception, unwanted children and sexual diseases pass on a burden to the next generation.  As does late treated HPV (to which 90 percent of the population are exposed at some point in their lives- basically, anyone who has sex, that is, all adults). But for women this condition can result in death, if they shamed into failing to seek help. We must rid sexual behaviour of its moral connotations. The creeping (and frankly, creepy) ideology behind virginity culture in America is testament to the necessity for positive action. Because the results of pretending that women don’t and should not have sex (yes, even slightly kinky/ paid for/ extramarital sex) are too immoral to contemplate.

If religion has anything to add to the table on this, the new testament ideology of “do as you would be done by” where sex is concerned is perhaps the least immoral rule of thumb to go by in today’s world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two worlds collide: why was I so ashamed to be asked about my lapdancing past at the school gate?

I knew it was coming sooner or later, but it would have happen to be at the school gate, by a mum, bless her, who looks as though butter has never melted in her mouth.”Is it true you used to be a stripper?,”she asked, just loud enough to be heard by the crowd of parents waiting with their children by the font door to book a slot with the school photographer. What on earth could I say, on my way to work, but a slightly on-the-hop “yes”?

I’ve always been careful to segregate my writing, from the relatively “safe for work” musings on parenting and society on my main blog, Raising Jonah, and my other, more visceral rants on here. It’s testament to the way I feel I am viewed by society as a woman: a mum, fine; a sexual woman, altogether a more dangerous entity.

Like Lauren A, the college student whose fratboy classmates subjected her to a torrent of abuse online and on campus when they found out she was funding her studies in the porn industry, I’ve never exactly offered up information about my lap dancing ‘past’, particularly as a working mother, but like her, I’ve never been ashamed of it either. It served its purpose. It was no better and no worse than a lot of jobs that exploit the young, a point I’ve made on here often enough. But I’ve been cautious about mentioning it closer to home, more concerned that it makes my children a soft target for “your mama” jokes when they reach the age of dubious teenage hilarity or internet bullying, than any embarrassment on my part.

But when Mumsnet asked to host this blog on their site, I thought, to hell with it. Good on Mumsnet,  I thought, perhaps newly emboldened by the viral “penis beaker” thread, for addressing edgier topics. But then, sex and motherhood is intrinsically, irrevocably linked, in case anyone didn’t get the memo.  And it’s only by talking about normalising female sexuality, in all its glory, that we take it away from its usual billing of “sluttishness” and put it  into the mainstream.

But I knew I was running a risk of getting “found out” as an ex-stripper, by people who only know me as a mum. But then, these days, I am slightly beyond worrying what people think of me, so like I said, it’s only the potential kick back against my kids that concerns me. But nonetheless, as I crumpled slightly, keeping my bike steady as I held open the school front door, surrounded by a sea of parents, I felt compelled to bite back slightly against what I felt was a slightly passive aggressive, if not just mildly thoughtless question:  “I’d never have put myself through university otherwise.”

As if, somehow, educating myself with my “ill-gotten gains” was some kind of justification, making it acceptable, rather than doing it for the sheer love of it, or through some other more dubious financial need.

But the fact is, according yesterday’s Daily Heil, a third of lapdancers are now dancing their way through university. Whether this is testament to rising uni fees, stagnating parental income and the growing acceptability of lap dancing as a legitimate career choice for young women, it’s hard to tell – a combination of all three, most likely. But the Mail’s headline, with its censorious use of the word  “lured”, implies a lack of volition: that these middle class, educated girls, rather than making an informed choice about how to pay for their studies, are sinking into society’s slimy underbelly by its dark overlords because “nice girls” would never choose sex work because sex is badTypica. But that’s to be expected from the guardian of the nation’s “morals” . 

But it’s hard to ignore that my own response to the off-guard moment at the school gates demonstrates my own sensitivity to the stigma of sex work. “What a life you must have had,” said the mum, a sweet-faced stay at homer, shaking her head in what I couldn’t quite ascertain was pity, respect or judgement – perhaps a mixture of all three.

After all, the element of shame in sex work comes from its sense of necessity, that you are compelled into it by circumstances beyond your control; that there is a lack of better options, that girl would never do THAT unless she had to. But that’s simply not true. I’ve known enough girls in my time who get a total kick out of being an exhibitionist, and found a natural home for that expression in a strip club. Yet outside of these designated areas, this type of brazen – and I use the word with a degree of irony –  display, is still not quite the done thing. Perhaps it never will be – unlike the pride that similarly bedecked men carry themselves through the streets in their annual outpouring of gay sexuality – though why overt sexuality in the gay community – and promiscuity come to that, is growing increasingly acceptable in the west, while for women, it is not should be queried by anyone who thinks of themselves as pro-equality.  

But anyone who considers strippers (and sex workers) as somehow dangerous and destabilising to society should consider this: the husbands and partners who are happy  to return to their mildly repressed (?) other halves after a night being titillated by dancers, or playing out their fantasies and sexual needs with prostitutes who are perhaps happier to accommodate them, don’t tend to run off with them. For all that women have a right to be pissed off that their other half has blown £100 at a lapdancing club, how much of society is propped up by men having discreet access to sex workers?  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The public service aspect of the industry should not be underestimated. The lap dance club (and brothel for that matter) has as much place in society as the school gate. Isn’t it time we accorded the women who frequent both the same respect?