The great name-changing debate

Recently there’s been some talk in the national media about the practice of women taking their husbands’ surnames when they marry. A few days ago, two similar and thought-provoking articles in the Irish Independent by writers Barbara Scully and Dearbhail McDonald – both self-declared feminists – examined the merits of the custom, with each expressing some surprise that in this enlightened age of feminism, women should be taking their husbands’ names at all.

For women in Ireland, historically the practice of changing name after marriage has almost been a foregone conclusion. However, the sands as ever are shifting, and there has been a quiet, but growing resistance to the custom. The aforementioned articles generated much debate on social media – including Twitter, where people just love a good argument – and the exchanges threw up some interesting perspectives on the tradition.

Many women who had kept their names said they did so to retain their own identity. For some, it amounted to a political statement; a public rejection of traditional patriarchal structures and notions of submission and subordination. Professional women argued – many from experience – that name-changing can negate years of work put into building a strong reputation or personal brand. Some, rather less optimistically, maintained that they wouldn’t want to be still called by their ex-husband’s names when – when! – they got divorced.

On the other hand, there were women who for various personal reasons embraced the chance to rid themselves of their old name and make a fresh start with a new one. More enjoyed the unity symbolised by their family all having the same surname, while others had happily adopted the double-barrelled system. Some declared that they just liked the novelty, or simply the old-fashioned romance of it all.

Bride And Groom Enjoying Meal At Wedding Reception

Men also contributed to the debate, many of whom declared it wouldn’t bother them either way. However, as McDonald herself mentioned, once the subject of children was broached that perspective tended to change. A small minority had taken their wives’ surnames after marriage, while others visibly balked at the notion. (The very idea!) Men and women alike wondered how the process would work within same-sex marriages. All in all, the exchanges demonstrated once again that nothing is ever black or white; the beauty of it being the freedom that exists for people to make the choice for themselves. Indeed most women were adamant that the decision should be theirs; not dictated by husbands, families or interfering in-laws, and that their preference should not be assumed by others, either – something to bear in mind when addressing your Christmas cards!

On that note, such was the interest in the topic that following McDonald’s article, the Irish Independent even ran a poll on the topic, asking “Should a woman take her husband’s surname?” And therein lies the rub. Women are constantly dictated to – how they should behave, how they should dress, the body shape they should  behave. As feminists, surely we should be asking why on earth should a woman have to do anything? Why would anyone assume they have the right to dictate to women what they should – or should not – be doing with their own names? Why are we not asking why more men don’t offer to make the change? But ultimately, whose business is it, anyway?

Scully’s article suggested that we follow the leads of jurisdictions such as Quebec and Greece (you won’t hear that too often these days) in actually outlawing the practice of wives taking their husbands’ names. This restriction also applies in countries like Netherlands, Belgium and France.  Japan, on the other hand, legally requires couples to adopt either one of the spouses’ surnames when married – but unsurprisingly and somewhat disappointingly, this means that 96% of women make the change.

What seems ludicrous in all of this is the idea of the State having any say either way in what is a private matter.

Implying that women who change their name are somehow damaging the feminist cause is a contradiction in terms. While the feminist argument appears in the main to be that women who take their husband’s names are complicit in preserving a patriarchal structure, surely true feminism means promoting  the freedom of women to make their own choices – including taking their husbands’ names if they wish – and supporting and respecting that freedom, even if the outcome contradicts your own philosophy? Judging women for making this choice is unnecessarily divisive, and  . once again assigns women with sole responsibility for changing societal norms.

There are plenty of battles yet to be fought by women in the quest for equality. This should not be one of them.

This column first appeared in the print version of The Mayo News on Tuesday 4th August 2015

Gender Quotas – a necessary evil?

This article was originally published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 9th April 2015.

Spring is in the air, bringing with it longer days and glorious sunshine. But mixed with the scent of fresh cut grass and cherry blossom, there’s the distinct whiff of a general election, and while in theory, we’re nearly a year away from returning to the polls, politicians are already in full-on electioneering mode. One intriguing element of the next election will be the influence of gender quotas. All political parties will face losing half their funding unless at least 30% of candidates put forward are women.

A drastic measure? Consider this. 566 candidates ran in the 2011 General Election. 86 were women.  25 won seats, meaning that under 14% of our TDs are women – abysmal by international standards. Women’s skills and experience are therefore not proportionally represented in decision-making that affects everyone. This, despite acknowledgement that balanced political participation by both sexes means fairer, more effective democracies – something, surely to which we should all aspire?

So why aren’t women running for election? Commonly cited as barriers to proportional female representation in Ireland are the Five Cs: Cash, Culture, Childcare, Confidence and Candidate Selection. These five factors are interlinked, each impacting the other to create barriers to female participation.

Take cash, to start. Running for election is expensive. Women are economically less well-off then men (this is a fact!). Employments rates drop significantly when children arrive, and many women – who generally still bear primary responsibility for family life – balance this by working part-time, restricting public involvement. Last year, Mayor of Tralee, Pat Hussey resigned from Fine Gael, citing gender quotas. Women, he claimed were being “pushed in” by his party, excluding more experienced members. Mr Hussey, incidentally, claimed to have no problem with women joining councils, but felt factors like babysitting would make it prohibitively expensive for them – an attitude which sharply undermines the role of men in childcare. Which in turn, leads me to culture – the core of it all.

Women battle culture all the time. They’re expected to do more. We have higher expectations of them. Female politicians aren’t just judged on performance, they’re also critiqued on image, appearance, even their voices. When are male politicians subjected to such scrutiny? You can see why confidence, the fourth C is a factor. A key objection to quotas is that women will be selected purely to “make up numbers”; not because they are the best possible candidate. Essentially, a fear that quotas will elect incompetent women at the expense of good men. The economic crash doesn’t say much about the competency of those running the country at the time. Where was accountability and meritocracy then? Why are we now suggesting that women need to prove competency, where men never had to?

Finally, while all of the above contribute to candidate selection difficulties, there is a supply and demand problem. Parties select election candidates, so selector attitudes can contribute – if male candidates have been the norm, breaking the mould can be hard. However, a lack of supply of female candidates putting themselves forward (for the reasons above) restricts those who do want to run women. The vicious circle continues!

So is imposing gender quotas the means of breaking this cycle?

I’m not fully convinced. Quotas are a crude measure, which ignore the issues underpinning the problem. Rather, we need to address barriers that dissuade women in the first place. Childcare, for example, should be viewed not as a female issue, but as a family one. Family-friendly policies may help, but however – and here lies the critical argument! – unless women are adequately represented in the first place, who will drive the change necessary to attract more women into politics?

Evidence also suggests that increased visibility of females in politics can mobilise women, resulting in greater involvement. So while gender quotas aren’t in themselves the answer, I can’t help feeling that – as a temporary measure – they’ll help fast-track some reform necessary to encourage involvement, and so are worth a shot. I therefore reluctantly find myself in favour. Recognising and addressing the issue is a vital first step, so here’s hoping that the outcome of quotas can prove that this is more than just tokenism, and will result in solid, positives outcomes for society as a whole.

F*m*n*sm – a dirty word?

Some light-hearted thoughts on feminsim I wrote for the Mayo News a few weeks back.

Readers of my online rantings will know that on my twitter biography, I describe myself as follows: “Trying to figure it all out, secretly hoping I never succeed. Researcher, feminist, dreamer, Mayo GAA nut, Mayo Club admin team, Mayo News columnist.” That pretty much sums up most of my existence in less than 140 characters, which is actually a bit alarming when you think about it.

But regardless of my Mayo and GAA allegiances, it’s the “feminist” part of my bio that seems to provoke the most reactions. Recently, before a game in Croke Park, the real world collided with the virtual and I was approached in by a beaming jersey-clad gentleman with an outstretched hand. “Howya Anne-Marie”, he said. “You probably don’t know me, but I follow you on twitter. I’m @MayoMan5000.” I’m always a bit embarrassed when I meet people from the internet in real life, because I give out so much on there, but sure enough, I recognised MayoMan5000 from his photo and we exchanged some niceties. (Incidentally, MayoMan5000 is not his real virtual name, and fortunately not his real name either.) We had the usual GAA pre-match chat. He predicted a 15 point win, I went with a more conservative two points; we were both sadly mistaken. Then the conversation veered wildly into the unexpected. “I hope you don’t mind me saying” says he, (proceeding regardless), “but I see on twitter you call yourself a feminist. Now, I must say, you don’t strike me as much of a feminist at all!” Surprised, and, I’ll admit, a little put out, I asked why on earth not. “Well look at you here”, he says. “Above in Croke Park, cheering on the men. Sure I thought all feminists hated men!” And with a loud guffaw, he was on his way back to the middle of the Cusack Stand to rejoin his companions, leaving me more than a little bewildered.

Feminism is one of those words that’s grown itself a bit of a bad reputation over the years, and has somehow managed associate itself with all sorts of ludicrous activities such as bra-burning and man-hating. Now let’s face it, anyone who has ever shopped for women’s underwear will know full well that bras are far too expensive to be setting alight at will, and frankly, man-hating is too impractical, given the amount of men hanging around the place. Feminism also tends to be labelled as “whiny”, “stereotyping”, “unglamorous”, “unfeminine” and “aggressive” to name but some. Really, being a feminist sounds deeply unpleasant. Why would anyone want to be one?

In reality, feminism can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it. Call me old-fashioned, but in my eyes, ultimately it boils down to this: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”. Now, that’s not so outlandish, is it? It’s hardly radical, and doesn’t merit the fear and contempt associated with the word, among men and women alike. It’s true that feminist debate can be contradictory and complex, sometimes even aggressive, and is intrinsically linked with all sorts of other issues such as gender, race, age, class, religion. Ultimately though, it’s about simple equality.

The fact remains that women are still not equally represented in either industry or politics. We are systematically paid less than men, and our childbearing potential is a barrier to career progression. Objectification of women is more common than ever, yet we are routinely prevented from making decisions about our own bodies. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t object to these facts, yet there is a real reluctance among us to identify as feminists. But the discussion must also acknowledge the tendency among women ourselves to judge each other – our bodies, our clothes, our life choices – we don’t make it easy for ourselves, either

There’s a very simple test you can take that determines whether or not you’re a feminist. You might preface it with, “I’m not a feminist, but …”, but if you’re asked the question “Do you believe that all human beings are equal?” and you answer “yes”, well then, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but I’m afraid you too are a feminist.

Welcome aboard, there’s nothing to be scared of – but do leave the matches at home.

Women – still the poor relation when it comes to sport?

My second column for the Mayo News, published on 19th August 2014

Two weeks ago, prior to the Mayo vs. Cork All-Ireland quarter final, I took part in a pre-recorded interview on a local radio sports show. The conversation covered a lot – the game, our prospects of victory and the role supporters might play on the day. After the interview was aired, a panellist on the show expressed his delight at a woman offering a strong, constructive opinion on sport. It was good to hear, he said, because for too long we’ve been in the background, making the tea and sandwiches. It was time we were heard. I’m paraphrasing here, and it made me smile as I’ve no doubt it was said with the best of intentions, but it got me thinking. In a supposedly equal society, have we really only come this far?

Discussion of women in sport has come to the fore recently, due in no small part to the Republic of Ireland reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA U19 Championships, and the heroic passage of the Irish Women’s Rugby team to the World Cup semi-final, beating New Zealand en route. Ticking a box the Irish men yet haven’t, you’d have anticipated that the achievement would merit serious coverage. Indeed, there were features, interviews; they even made some front pages. But what garnered the most publicity for female rugby during this period was a breathtakingly puerile article published in the Sunday Independent, laced with the same stereotypes and tired sexual innuendo that women in sport have endured for decades. Dispatched to a club training session to report, the writer started with some infantile titillation, and enlightened us by insisting that her teammates for the evening were “not butch, masculine, beer-swilling, men-hating women” (a cliché most of us thought had died sometime in the 1980s) who would never dream of gracing the field without make-up. No reference to training schedules, dietary requirements, competitions – anything that might have given the public an insight into the world of women playing competitive sport. Another opportunity missed.

The status of women in the sports world is depressingly predictable. Like in so many other spheres, the primary focus is typically appearance. Women are expected to look well while excelling on the field; and this focus on women’s bodies as opposed to athletic prowess is representative of a damaging societal norm outside sport, where women are constantly objectified. Even as supporters, you’d think women existed purely to enhance the scenery, as the relentless pick-a-pretty-face-in-the-crowd shots during Wimbledon and the World Cup demonstrated. (PervCam, I called it.) It’s actually a miracle there were women at the World Cup at all, given the plethora of advertising aimed at “World Cup Widows” in June. You’d be forgiven for thinking that football was an oestrogen-free zone, despite the fact that global viewership of the last World Cup was over 40% female.

Speaking of which, media coverage of “women’s sport” is tiny, relative to “men’s sport”. (Incidentally, isn’t all just … sport?) It’s a chicken and egg argument. Some will maintain that without media coverage, it’s hard to attract people to the games and build an audience.  The counter-argument insists you can cover as many women’s games as you like, but you can’t force people to care. Part of the attraction of sport is the shared experience – being part of a crowd or community. Therefore until crowds and interest grow, women in sport will be battling for coverage. How do we find out what actually works, unless we try? Though, when so much coverage centres on aesthetics over sport, is there even any point? Indeed, perhaps it’s not even up to the media to promote.  Should sporting bodies themselves not be marketing their own games? Then we’re back to a funding and resourcing argument, and we all know how that goes.

It’s not always easy to put your money where your mouth is, either – take the GAA for example. As a an eternal optimist, I’ve had the men’s semi-final weekend in my diary for six months, so barring a disaster, I’ll be in the Cusack Stand on Sunday supporting Mayo. Last Saturday, when the Mayo Ladies played Cork in the All-Ireland quarter final in Tullamore, the time and venue were announced on Monday, just five days prior to the game. Not ideal.

But times are changing. More female voices are talking sport on our airwaves. Respect and regard is among the public is growing.  It was heartening to see the furious backlash against that Sunday Independent article, when a mere five years ago, it would barely have raised an eyebrow. Even more heartening was that many of the objections came from men.

Sisters may have being doing it for themselves for a long, long time, but it’s good to see we’re finally getting somewhere.

A Woman’s Worth Part I – the reporting of violent crimes against women

Update: January 2016

This post was originally intended to deal with the way society quietly contributes to and colludes with a culture of violence against women in ways that are often so subtle, we don’t even notice. Be it “casual sexism”, the acceptability of men catcalling or abusing women on the street, the common tendency to imply that survivors of sexual assault somehow are partially to blame, the frequent disdain towards feminism, the objectifying and abuse of women in the media, as well as workplace cultures and media cultures that continue to quietly reinforce the myth that somehow women have less to contribute. All of the above elements are intertwined, and all play their own role in the way women are treated in society. 

I also wanted to look at the low reporting levels and the frequently sentencing of crimes of violence against women, to examine the way the courts contribute to this culture. I have looked at reporting below; but the list of unduly lenient sentences became so long and unwieldy that I have now removed it, and it is available here. 

Reporting of crimes of violence against women.

There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that violent crimes against women are significantly under-reported. It’s difficult to obtain exact statistics, but it’s estimated that, as few as one in five incidences of domestic assault are reported to Gardai. The Sexual Abuse Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report (2002) published by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre found that disclosure of sexual crimes was startlingly low  – just 7.8% of women experiencing adult sexual assault had reported to Gardai. Bear in mind that prosecutions and convictions for reported crime are very low also – according to the Garda Recorded Crime Statistics report 2007-2011, published by the CSO, there were 1,992 sexual offences recorded in Ireland in 2011. Court proceedings were taken for 318 (16%) of the offences recorded (with 244 pending at the time of publication), and convictions were returned in 54 cases. 54 convictions. That’s a conviction rate of 16%. Out of all offences reported, that’s a 3% conviction rate.

Why is this the case? There are a myriad of reasons. Firstly, identifying an assault in the first instance can be an issue – sometimes women aren’t aware that what they have experienced is actually an assault. Many don’t know where to go for support (over a quarter, according to SAVI, would not know where to turn). The reporting process itself can be traumatic. A victim of crime may have enough on their plate just dealing with the fact that they have been assaulted, without embarking on process they may not feel able to cope with. The burden of proof usually lies with the person who has been attacked, survivors are often afraid that they will not be believed, or that they will in some way be blamed for encouraging or provoking the attack. And if someone who’s been affected by a crime does decide to go down this road, conviction rates are low. The ordeal of reliving their experience on the witness stand under cross-examination can prove too much of a deterrent. If the perpetrator is convicted, sentencing is inconsistent at best.

Even the 2014 Garda Inspectorate Report recently demonstrated just how flawed process are within the force in terms of recording, classifying and following up on domestic violence, and also demonstrated that within the force, “some members displayed negative attitudes towards domestic violence by referring to calls as problematic, time-consuming and a waste of resources.”) So it’s clear that there is a massive problem.

Take the following scenario. To report a sexual assault women need to contact the gardai, and probagly get to a garda station. Depending on who they deal with, they might be given detailed, sympathetic information about the process ahead. SAVI indicates that lack of information from gardai and medical personnel was the main source of dissatisfaction with services – with gardai in particular providing inadequate explanations of procedures being undertaken, and medical personnel needing to provide more comprehensive information regarding services and options. Upon arriving, they’d be advised not to wash, remove their clothing, or brush their teeth. They might be injured – missing teeth, for example, or bleeding heavily. They’d need to be medically examined, but because facilities are under-resourced, they may need to wait for hours to be examined. They may even need to travel to a certain unit to be examined (there are just seven specialist Sexual Assault Treatment Units in Ireland). This is all in the immediate aftermath of an assault.

In terms of reporting, journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy gave an excellent and detailed account of the reporting process, pointing out that it is often a fraught one for survivors, who can frequently feel like they are peripheral to the process. Deirdre has included two case studies on the reality of the reporting process which are well worth a read. (Notably, Deirdre also explains that legislation on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse, while designed to prevent re-offending, can place the onus on survivors of assault who are already struggling to deal with the abuse, to ‘save’ others. This legislation will also introduce mandatory reporting for social services, agencies and public sector organisations dealing with abuse victims, a move that may potentially dissuade them from seeking assistance or counselling for fear they may be inadvertently starting a legal process that they don’t feel ready or able for.)

Sentencing

We’ve already seen that once crimes are reported, it’s a long road to prosecution and conviction, and the process can sometimes take years. Over the past few months a trend has become apparent in the way crimes against women are treated in Ireland by the courts. Lenient and inconsistent sentencing in particular is a concern, and I’ve detailed in this separate post just some of the more unacceptable examples of sentencing reported in the past few years. There are undoubtedly more, and the number of judges referenced indicates that this problem is ingrained in the judicial system.

Sentencing is not the only problem. Take the case of Danny Foley, a bouncer from Listowel, who in 2009 was jailed for five years for sexually assaulting a 22 year-old woman. Before he was jailed, approximately 50 people in the courthouse lined up to embrace him and shake his hand – in front of his victim – before he was jailed. Foley later lost a bid to overturn the conviction.

Where is the incentive for survivors to report, and sometimes be forced to relive their ordeal face-to-face with their attacker on the witness stand, when rapists and violent criminals, receive what appear to be minimal custodial sentences, sometimes none at all? When victim-blaming is rife, what does that say to a woman? What does the commercialisation of crimes say to potential rapists – giving them an option to pay a “token” of compensation in lieu of a spell in jail? That they can pay a price for their victim’s consent? The consistent theme of judges commenting on offenders’ previously “good characters” indicates that such assaults are viewed as a mere slip-up, an indiscretion, a minor mistake. Nowhere is there evidence to show that any of the members of the judiciary referenced above demonstrated an appreciation of the impact a sexual crime can have on a woman.

So what’s to do be done?

There’s a lot to do, and less than ever to do it with. But we owe it to those women who have had to endure the physical and psychological trauma of a violent assault, to ensure that we start sending a strong message to them (we are on your side, not your abuser’s) and to abusers (this is not acceptable and you will be severely punished).

Stop victim-blaming

When violent or sexual crimes are committed, we need to immediately stop victim-blaming, or implying that women attacked violently were in any way responsible for their assault be that in how they might have dressed, where they were or what they might have been wearing. They were not. The only people ever responsible for violent crimes are those who commit them. This is indisputable – yet we still see fit to imply that women who have been assaulted Jane Ruffino, mentioned above, has written this piece, entitled 10 things you should do when confronted with violence against women, and it’s worth a read.

Female survivors of violent abuse need support, and somewhere they can go for practical advice or counselling in a non-threatening and confidential environment. Organisations like Women’s Aid, the Rape Crisis Network and the Rape Crisis Centres as well as many smaller organisations do excellent work, but in the current environment are fighting harder for a smaller slice of the funding pie. Wexford Women’s Shelter and the Midwest Rape Crisis Centre have both had to close for periods of time due to lack of funding.

Sentencing guidelines

The need for sentencing guidelines, particularly in the area of sex crimes is being examined. As already mentioned, the Law Reform Commission is calling for a re-examination of mandatory sentencing however it would also surely be prudent for the judiciary, who undoubtedly have a difficult job to do, to be versed in the very real effects of sexual crimes against women, and to bear in mind the message their sentencing sends to both perpetrators and victims of crime. It is worth noting, however,  that in a 2013 report, the Irish Sentencing Information System (ISIS) conducted research which suggested that sexual assault sentences in Ireland are not in fact too lenient, and that rapists who have either pleaded not guilty, failed to show insight into the nature and consequences of rape, or those who inflicted violence, were typically given a sentence of at least nine years in jail. Relatively few sentences were seen as lenient, according to the report, and those that were tended to be highlighted in the media.

Training

There have been a number of calls for training of judges with regard to rape sentencing, particulary from within the Rape Crisis movement; however these have proved fruitless to date. In a 2014 interview on RTE Radion 1 with Seán O’Rourke, retired High Court Barry White rejected the idea of judges requiring training, saying: “I don’t believe that judges need training in relation to sentencing, in cases of a sexual nature. There may be judges who are inexperienced in dealing with crime, who find themselves sitting in the Central Criminal Court, from time to time, but most judges who sit in the Central Criminal Court have had long criminal experience, have had substantial criminal practices over protracted period of time. And they are fully aware, as to the parameters within which a sentence should be imposed.”

The mounting evidence would suggest that they are less aware of the implications of their decisions.

Taking responsibility

Aside from this, we need to take control ourselves and start creating a culture change. A change in perspective from ‘punishment’ to ‘prevention’, and educating our children, especially our boys, about consent. That means thinking about the way we treat, regard, discuss and behave towards women. All of us, men and women alike. We need education. We need to think about how we speak to our children, how we speak  to each other in front of them and instil in them a different mentality than that which exists in society towards women presently.

If our judiciary don’t take it seriously, if our police force don’t do it seriously, if our government doesn’t take it seriously, if a significant proportion of the population at large doesn’t take it seriously, it’s time that those of us who do stepped up to the mark and started making Ireland a safer, better, more just country for everyone living here.

Violence against women, how society fuels it and what we can do about it

I wrote this post a couple of months back, about a friend.  Someone to whom I owe more than I could put into words here.  The reaction I received was astounding, heartening and saddening all at once.  Too often, we hear tales of domestic violence, abuse, murder in the media, and they’re just that. Stories. I wanted this post to be about a real person. Not just a photo in the paper, to be forgotten next week. I wanted it to remember someone I knew for a small time, but who made a big impact. Someone who had a family and friends, people who cared about her, and were devastated at her loss. For the sake of sensitivity, however I’ve changed some details and disabled comments (something I never do) so as to make her less personally identifiable. 

I’ve mentioned her before in this blog, but she was a colleague and a friend. Compassionate and clever, she had studied hard and was looking forward to a career helping others. I can’t do justice to her personality here, but she was the type of person you’d want by your side in a time of crisis. Gentle and softly spoken, she projected an air of quiet confidence and empathy that you knew would make her an excellent carer. She was weeks away from her formal graduation when she was murdered by her partner, seven years ago this month. She was in her early 20s.

I’d met her partner a handful of times. It had struck me what a strange combination they were. I’d heard her justifying what seemed to me like his bad behaviour more than once, and it had arisen in conversation among friends. In personality, he appeared her very opposite – everything she wasn’t. She didn’t speak much about him, but we sensed an ill-ease and a tendency to placate. We saw less of her socially. In hindsight, the warning signs were there.

But we never expected things to end up like they did.

Seven years on, I still feel angry. So angry with him, for doing what he did, to her family and friends. For thinking he could prevent her from living the life she wanted. I feel sad. Because undoubtedly, the world lost a truly wonderful person – someone who would undoubtedly  make the world a better place, which is all she wanted to do. (Though I’d argue that in her short time, she did just that.)

And I feel guilty, even now. For not doing more. Even though we weren’t particularly close, it had occurred to me that she might have been in an unhappy relationship. I didn’t make the effort I could have. To stay in touch. To talk. It happens all the time, though. People meet people; relationships begin. Things change. Who, in their right minds, could ever have contemplated the outcome?

Violence towards women is in the news every day. Every single day.

Recent statistics, particular pertaining to Ireland, are scarce, but research indicates that one in five women in Ireland, who have been in a relationship, have been abused by either a current or former partner. One in five. Picture yourself, with four of your friends. Statistically, that’s one of you. Since 1996,  190 women have been murdered in Ireland, and of these,  116 women were killed in their own homes. In those resolved cases, over half were murdered by a partner. According the WHO, most violence globally  against women is perpetrated by an intimate male partner, and women who have been physically or sexually abused have higher rates of mental ill-health, unintended pregnancies, abortions and miscarriages than non-abused women. One in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

So many things contribute to the culture of violence against women. Far more than I could squeeze into one blog post, but allow me to touch on some of them below.

  • Victim-blaming. It’s amazing how often we hear about the amount of alcohol that might have been consumed by the victim, how well she knew her attacker, what she might have been wearing. The ONLY person that bears responsibility for a violent attack is the attacker. No-one else. Ever. This can’t be said often enough.
  • Focus on the victim – especially if the victim is physically attractive. Reeva Steenkamp, anyone? We need start focusing on the perpetrators of crimes, and condemning their despicable actions, in the strongest possible way.
  • Public forgiveness of male instigators – Stan Collymore, Chris Brown are two prize examples. How these two have wormed their way back into public affection is beyond me, but there they are, being rewarded with media roles and record company support. As what they did can be forgotten, like it had only temporary consequences. It didn’t.
  • Jokes about domestic violence. “You can beat your wife, but you can’t beat the craic” – really? Language and discourse is so very important. Jokes about domestic violence are everywhere, yet many of us are nervous about calling them out, for fear of being labelled dry. I can’t take a joke? Yeah, cos getting your face smashed in is priceless. Women partake in this humour too. You need to stop and think. It’s not funny.
  • Social media responsibility – or lack of: Sites like Facebook deem it acceptable to allow pages glorifying and joking about domestic violence, as detailed here (warning – graphic images) under the guise of freedom of speech. Incidentally, Facebook also recently removed Jane Ruffino’s excellent post about domestic violence, stating that it contravened their terms of service. Go figure. An excellent campaign instigated by Women, Action & the Media is currently pointing out to advertisers that their ads are appearing on such pages and calling on them to pull ads until Facebook revises its policies and guidelines. And it’s working. There is such a thing as bad publicity, it seems.
  • Consequences. Sentencing for sexual crimes in Ireland is inconsistent at best. with some worrying trends emerging in terms of inexplicably lenient sentencing for perpetrators. There have been no fewer than three cases in the last few months of attackers escaping prison sentences if they paid a financial penalty. See HERE, HERE and HERE for examples. I can’t articulate how angry I am about this, and about the message it sends to both attackers and victims. Essentially, it’s putting a price on women’s safety. The legal position, where the onus of proof is on the victim, and they, not the perpetrator are cross-examined, is a deterrent to prosecuting perpetrators, and essentially ends up re-traumatising the victim. Fewer than 5% of sex attackers in Ireland are convicted.

Like many other injustices, every single one of us has the power to make change. How?

  • By calling out unacceptable behaviour, be that a tasteless joke, or a sexist remark or misogynistic comment. Language is so powerful. Domestic violence jokes just aren’t acceptable. And let’s face it, there are plenty other things to laugh about.
  • By looking out for your friends. If you suspect something’s not right, keep an eye. You don’t need to interfere, but let her know you’re there. Do not judge. You might lose patience with someone who’s constantly justifying bad behaviour, but you never know when she might need a friend who won’t judge her. Just be there, and be ready to listen.
  • By not being afraid to intervene and call the police when you hear your neighbour screaming because her partner is beating her. It IS your businesss.
  • Noting that psychological abuse can also be extremely damaging, and can happen along with, or without physical violence. It erodes self-esteem and the scars, just because they’re internal, are no less deep. It’s abuse, and it’s just as appalling.

It’s also important to note that violence against men, perpetrated by women or other men, is an issue that is very real, and is rarely ever acknowledged or addressed with any degree of seriousness. It should be. And no-one should feel unsafe in a relationship.

What happened taught me two very valuable lessons. Look out for your friends, and look out for yourself. I try to look out for my friends. I often fail dismally, but I’m more aware. I fervently hope that if any of them ever felt they needed to talk, they know they could turn to me. I really, really hope so. And when I found myself in a situation a while back that saw a partner I adored starting to become both obsessive and possessive – checking my messages, monitoring my online activity, questioning me about who I was talking to and spending time with, I knew, despite how strongly I felt about him that I had to get out. I’m not suggesting it would have had a similar outcome, nor that he was capable of being violent, but his behaviour scared me and my instinct screamed at me to leave. Maybe I panicked, but I was scared. I caught a glimpse of the life that potentially lay ahead, and I fled.

Violence against women does not discriminate. It can happen to any of us, regardless of age, wealth, class, outlook. My friend was beaten and murdered in her own home, where she should have been safe. Since she died, over 70 other women have been murdered in Ireland – roughly half of those at the hands of their partners.

If you’re reading this, and you need help, it’s there. People care. Check out Women’s Aid, or the Rape Crisis Centre, and know that it doesn’t have to be like this. If you’re reading this and don’t need help, be vigilant. And know that even you, through your words and actions can make an impact, good or bad.

Why THAT Club Orange ad annoyed me

I’m sure most of you have already feasted your eyes on the orgy of faux bit-squeezing borderline soft porn that makes up the most recent Club Orange advertising effort. If you haven’t, do go right ahead and feast/hide your eyes right here. (I’m not really too fussed about adding the video to my blog – I think I’d feel a bit dirty. Please make sure to clean the screen afterwards….and you can take that any way you like.)

Yes, I know, I know. By talking about it, I’m contributing to the debate, generating buzz, giving them what they want, all that jazz. The only thing worse than being talked about, etc etc. While my profession involves lots of work based around advertising, I tend not to get on my soapbox about creatives, instead preferring to regard them as a necessary evil. The fact that the Club ad has made me feel strongly enough to put pen to paper surprises me, but I’m fascinated by the reaction it’s garnering across all the various spectrums, particularly in social media. The ad has “gone viral” it seems, which is what most savvy marketers apparently aspire to these days. But is it necessarily a good thing?

I have a number of issues with the Club Orange ad debate. I don’t really buy the “Diet Coke break” revenge argument that has cropped up so many times in its defence. Diet Coke ads are equally shit, equally lazy and equally sexist. I know Matthew McConaughy was happy to get his pecs out for the Dolce & Gabbana cause. I also recall another aftershave advert – the brand name escapes me – involving a naked man, and a leather couch (the meeting of which upset me greatly, I might add. Bum sweat on the sofa? No thanks.) We’ve all seen countless ads portraying men AND women purely as sexual objects. Sex sells, or so they say… but this is different.

Firstly, it’s the sheer lack of subtlety that gets me. It’s really not very … classy. Granted, this argument won’t stand up to much scrutiny in a reasoned debate about sexual objectification, but my instant reaction upon seeing this ad was to think, how well, …..cheap … it looks. It’s the advertising equivalent of Katie Price, isn’t it? All boobs, faux sex “appeal”, and very little substance. The ad sells using sex, in its lowest form, aimed at the lowest common denominator in the cheapest, most tabloid-esque manner possible – the type of manner that would make a red-light district window display look positively classy. All brawn, and no brains, and titillation (no pun intended) without fulfilment. Of course, procuring yourself some Club Orange may just provide alternative fulfilment… depends on what you’re into, I guess. On another level, this ad just irritates me no end – it has a “nails on a background” vibe about it and that contrived accent is already starting to grate, before it even hits the screen.

More importantly, however, I’m almost annoyed with the “actresses” featured, and their deliberate, unashamed provocativeness. I feel betrayed by them. Every day, we read about the ‘glass ceiling’ and witness first-hand the struggles women face in the workplace and on the world stage simply in order to be taken seriously and to progress in their chosen careers. Never mind that they shouldn’t have to fight harder, the fact is a lot of them do, and it is strong, powerful, intelligent women that I would prefer to be seen as representative of our gender – and of me. Then, you look at this ad, and read the (mostly male-generated) comments on YouTube, dissecting as they are the finer points of an ad featuring a row of boobs in tiny bra tops (their faces are barely shown, of course) designed to sell a soft drink, and you start to despair. Yeah, there’s a freedom of choice argument – women are free to do as they will with your bodies (mostly) and all that. But I can’t help thinking that women everywhere striving for true equality are being let down by the “actresses” in ads like these.

I’m conscious the opinions above might imply that I think all men are suckers for this low form of wit. I know the opposite to be true. What’s struck me about this palaver over the past few days is the amount of men I have observed rolling their virtual eyes at this and dismissing – nay, slating – the ad both for its lack of intelligence and its dearth of originality. The advert is clearly targeted towards young men, and I’ve noticed quite a few such men taking offence with the notion that advertising agencies still believe they are brain-dead enough to fall for such base concepts. Men object just as much as women to the fact that teenage boys and young men are being targeted using an ad that blatantly objectivises women, and that’s heartening, as is the level of condemnation for the ad by men on behalf of women. I think it’s born out of a realisation that objectivising and sexualising women to the extent where we’re almost watching soft porn before the watershed is wrong and unhealthy, particularly because in our media-saturated world it plays a massive part in skewing young people’s perceptions of each other’s gender at an impressionable age. All of this contributes to a greater malaise in society – and ultimately, on a more serious level, contributes in no small way to a culture where even violence against women, particularly sexual violence, is not regarded or treated with the seriousness it should be. I am in no way exaggerating when I say this. It all adds up.

On another note, having scanned through a number of the reactions on the internet over the past few days, I get the sense that most women actually don’t feel they can voice their annoyance with this ad, without being labelled. Even the stronger, more prolific, outspoken women I’m aware of in the spheres of media and journalism, seem to feel they need to qualify their objections with an “I’m no prude but…” or “You might think I’m being old-fashioned and conservative but…” and this is what really makes me sad. As women, the fact that we still appear to perceive ourselves in such a way that we don’t feel comfortable enough to voice our objections without prefacing them with a qualifier, says a lot about how we feel we are perceived – and at the risk of being controversial here – specifically by men, for articulating these concerns.  I won’t lose any sleep over this ad, but on a moral and ethical level I’m not happy about the level to which sex is used – across any industry – to reduce people to brainless, objectified, sexualised objects. I’m less happy about the fact that it appears to work, to an extent, but I’m most unhappy that I as a women should feel I need to justify my objection to it, for fear of being labelled a frigid old feminist. And yes, feminism is still, in this day and age, seen by many as a dirty word with negative connotations. Hysteria, even. There’s a lot of progress to be made yet.

Finally, I’d also like to note that this ad irritated me purely because I think it’s rubbish. It’s lazy, it’s boring, it’s clichéd and it’s been done to death already. Hunky Dorys got there before Club, Diet Coke before them, and if this ad was designed as a parody, as has been suggested, then it’s an abject failure. I can’t help but feel the agency responsible might have done a pretty great Irish brand a considerable disservice. In what I’m guessing is an effort to differentiate it from its biggest competitor Fanta, they have misfired, and by resorting to such a cliché-ridden, one-dimensional campaign, lacking in any subtle nuances or discernable humour, I wonder if they will cheapen the brand irreparably, and alienate a good proportion of their non-regular buyers.

I’ve no problem with a brand tailoring advertising in order to target a specific market, and indeed redefining their target market – it happens all the time, to good effect and is clever marketing – just look at Special K and Yorkie respectively for examples. But for a brand which had such great potential to shine in a much broader territory, and from a uniquely Irish position, at that – I can’t help wondering whether the agency, and Club themselves have shot themselves in the foot. It’s easy to drive brand equity down, but very, very difficult to reverse the damage.

Time will tell. But I know what I won’t be buying for a sugar rush from now on.