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‘Unspeakable Things’- The Predictable Sexist Troll Backlash

Well, it’s been quite a weekend. In the past 24 hours, I have been subjected to a stream of vile sexist and anti-semitic abuse on Twitter and elsewhere. This has become a normal part of my life as a person who dares to write in public whilst being both female and left-wing, but this weekend it’s been particularly full on. Rape fantasies and pictures of dead children were coming faster than I could block individual users. In the end I had to step away from the internet, which was a pain because I need the internet to work.

Today, they moved in on my book, ‘Unspeakable Things’, which was released two weeks ago. On the 20th July, a racist, misogynist Twitter account going by the moniker ‘@TurboHolborn’ posted a link to the customer review page of ‘Unspeakable Things,’ with the instruction ‘let the trolling commence’. Subsequently, over 20 one-star reviews full of vile sexist and scatological language were posted on the UK page of ‘Unspeakable Things’, almost all of them from users who had reviewed nothing else. I’ve taken screenshots. Amazon ratings really do matter to the publishing industry, and this is an obvious attempt at sabotage. Clearly, this book, and the fact that I’ve written it, is making some bedroom misogynists incredibly angry. Somewhat ironic, given that there’s a whole chapter in the book about how structural sexism works online.

I am sick of this bullshit. Criticism is one thing – and the book has received its fair share of that from writers who think it’s too personal, too politically strident, too left-wing, too queer or too dark, as well as rave reviews from critics who love it for precisely the same reasons. But this is not fair criticism, any more than the men who’ve been sending me death threats for years are merely expressing their opinions.

I am not going to lie back and take this. Here’s how you can help.

-Firstly, you could buy the book! Or pre-order it, if you’re in the USA. I wouldn’t normally ask this so directly, but it’d be fantastic to see this latest bit of sexist sabotage massively backfire. If you’d prefer not to use Amazon, you can support your local independent bookshop here.
[ETA: Only if you can afford it! I’ve just had someone tell me they’ve ordered it despite not being paid till next week, and that is extremely kind but not necessary. You could…I don’t know…borrow a copy and then post a review. Thanks. ILU.]

-If you’ve read and enjoyed the book, please post a good review – every little helps.
-If you haven’t, you can downvote the poor comments – or you can share this post. It’d be useful for the publishing industry to understand exactly what women writers are up against right now.

Updates, projects, news, shenanigans, BOOK!

The coffee at the American Embassy in London is bloody awful. It somehow contrives to be burned, lukewarm too hot to comfortably hold all at the same time, while you’re sitting in a room with two hundred nervous people waiting for your number to come up.

Fortunately, this observation is not considered an impediment to cultural exchange. As a result, I am now in possession of a student visa for the Land of the Actually Quite Expensive. The forms are signed. It’s happening. In two months, I’ll be off for a year’s study at Harvard.

It’ll be a year in which I’m not allowed to write professionally, although there’ll be updates on this blog and book-related events. That;s going to be a challenge. So much of my work in the past five years has revolved around deadlines and constant availability, and while I’ve been incredibly lucky, it’s been knackering, too. Last week, for the first time in three years, I had a real week off. Not a week away from my main job to work on all the other things I was supposed to be doing. Not a week of frantic travel. Quality, focused goofing-off time. I made it six whole days before I cracked and started pitching articles on the London housing crisis, and I am proud of that.

On the subject of writing, I did an interview with Ideas Tap all about journalism, making trouble and paying rent. It’s designed as frank advice for young writers starting out and looking to make a career, and because I was huddled on a corner in the middle of Soho when I did the interview, it turned out ten percent snark than usual. You have been warned.

The other big thing I’m preparing for, of course, is the book coming out. Unspeakable Things hits the shops in three weeks and I’m terrifically nervous. It’s print. You can’t just go in and update. It’s out there in dead-tree format forever. Still, at least the cover is sexy.

Some other things I’ve been doing:

My piece on the Isla Vista killings and Misogynist Extremism went slightly viral.

Relatedly, I went on the NPR programme ‘All Things Considered’ to speak about misogynist extremism and the #Yesallwomen hashtag.

A panel on Democracy at the How The Light Gets In festival. (With Owen Jones, Michael Howard and a hard right New Zealander whose chief purpose was to somehow make Howard look reasonable by comparison). I had been up all night writing the Isla Vista piece, if you’re wondering why I look like I’ve been dragged through a hedge here.

An in-depth piece on New Media, journalism, race and gender.(New Statesman)

A column about the British Royal Family as the ultimate reality television franchise. Let it be known that I Wanna Marry Harry is almost certainly the worst thing to happen in the history of television.(New Statesman)

A piece on Trigger Warnings and why they’re a useful tool. (New Statesman)

A long feature on the European Elections, the rise of fascism and democratic collapse, for VICE USA. I challenged myself to write about something extremely dull but very important. It even has jokes.

There’s more, actually quite a lot more, including a lot of writing that’s just for me and not for sharing, and spending some time off the interwebs cooking for my nine housemates and slobbing out in front of Star Trek. I’d never seen the original series before. I now have a more profound understanding of the nerd culture that spawned me.

Stand up for Sex Workers: Eden Alexander, WePay and Whorephobia


This is a story about cultural violence.

Eden Alexander is a camgirl and porn performer working in the Bay Area. In the early spring of 2014, Alexander went to the doctor after a bad reaction to some routine prescribed medication. Because she is a sex worker, the doctors allegedly dismissed her initial symptoms as evidence of drug use.

In fact, Alexander had a skin infection which, left untreated, ran rampant through her body, triggering an existing thyroid condition and sending her into a coma.

By the time this was discovered, it was almost too late- Alexander’s organs were beginning to fail, and the infection had spread to her heart and lungs. She survived, but her slow recovery has left her in a great deal of pain, unable to work, facing rent arrears and medical debt. For now, let’s not get into the intricate inhumanity of a national healthcare system which denies basic care to low-waged and freelance workers, where a routine medical problem can land you with lifelong debt. Let’s just say that Eden Alexander nearly died, and has had her life ransacked, because she is a sex worker.

When the medical system and the state failed Eden Alexander, her friends rallied around to save her. It wasn’t just the money- it was the outpouring of love and support, the public expression that hers is a life that matters, that she is valued and cared for. This is so often the way with marginalised communities: people who face discrimination in wider society hold each other up.

Together they set up a fund to raise money to cover the cost of Alexander’s ongoing treatment and ensure that she does not lose her home whilst she is unable to work. Unfortunately, the crowdfunding company that was used relies on WePay, and because of her associations with the adult industry, WePay cancelled the campaign and told Alexander it was going to send the money back to donors. This wasn’t money that was going to be used to make porn. It was money that was going to be used to keep one woman and her two small dogs alive.

WePay joins a roll-call of financial companies which have recently clamped down on their dealings with sex workers. This spring, banks across America have closed down accounts belonging to people working in the adult entertainment industry, or people suspected of doing such work: anything to do with porn. PayPal, Chase Bank and other such companies have all shut down accounts or withdrawn services to sex workers in recent months, leaving them unable to access their money, or collect payments and donations. Inevitably, this hurts independent companies and vulnerable individuals hardest of all.

Because she is a sex worker, Alexander, like many others, has been used to being a scapegoat, to being shunned, even by those who claim to stand up for women. Kitty Stryker, a writer and friend of Alexander’s, has also had her crowdfunding income cut, this time by PayPal, because of her history of working in the adult industry. “People now can only find my page directly through me, which limits my ability to fund my writing and make a survivable living outside of the adult industry,” Stryker, who is also a friend of mine, told me tonight. “It’s literally killing us, this cultural abandonment of past and current sex workers. We’re blamed for being sex workers, and stamped for life if we try to leave.”

Because she is a sex worker, Alexander is no doubt also used to being told to find another job, a more respectable job. But when they try to make money outside the adult industry, that same stigma works against sex workers, preventing them from accessing any other form of support, even lifesaving medical treatment. That sex work taints you for life has nothing to do with the nature of the work and everything to do with the nature of prejudice.

Porn and prostitution are often discussed as academic issues, as if the people involved in their production were not real workers, struggling to survive. But to those living this reality, to the people for whom the adult industry is not the monster under the bed but the roof over their head, the community they work in, these matters are fundamental. It is a question of agency, of who is permitted to be human, to own their sexuality, to use it without shame – and sometimes is it a question of life or death.

One of the key demands of early feminist agitation around pornography and prostitution was that culture remember that real bodies and real lives were involves in the production of adult content. Today’s activists and allies would do well to remember that in a different way. There are real lives and real bodies at stake when companies and governments scapegoat the sex industry for moral posturing, when sex workers and their friends and family are dismissed and debased and refused vital services.

After receiving the notice from WePay, Eden Alexander tweeted, “I’ve nothing left, no where to go, Every time I plead for help I just get hurt more. I can’t live like this. I’m so sorry.”. An hour later, she was taken to hospital in an ambulance. Her tweets were worrying enough that Maggie Mayhem, another member of the Bay Area adult community had already gone to be with her, arriving just in time to see the ambulance pull away. It is not currently known whether Alexander’s existing condition has worsened or whether she has been hospitalised for another reason.

Ms Mayhem is currently looking after Alexander’s two dachsund dogs, who she was able to rescue before they were taken to the pound (standard procedure in the Bay Area). The dogs are called Dallas and Sally Brown.

A statement just released by WePay reads:

“Upon reviewing payments starting May 15, 2014 WePay discovered tweets from others retweeted by Eden Alexander offering adult material in exchange for donations. This is in direct violation of our terms of service as our back-end processor does not permit it….We are truly sorry that the rules around payment processing are limiting and force us to make tough decisions.

After an online outcry, WePay expressed sympathy with Ms Alexander, and offered to support her in starting a new campaign – to make an exception for her, because people complained. Unfortunately, by the time the company reached out, Alexander had already been hospitalised. She is believed to be in a stable condition, but more details are not known.

This is the sort of story that often ends badly. Well, not today. Not if Eden Alexander’s friends and supporters around the world have anything to do with it. Here is the reinstated donations page. It would be great if you could donate whatever you can spare to Alexander’s new campaign. If the internet can match or exceed the $3k donations Alexander’s friends initially sought, it’ll send an important message. Community matters. Solidarity matters. Cultural violence can be resisted – maybe not every day, but there are days when resistance is possible. It would be fantastic if today could be one of those days.

Donate here.

Wrestling The Angel

A little over a month ago, I met an old friend for coffee, and she showed me a book of poems by Sophia Blackwell (@sophiablackwell), apologising that she couldn’t bear to lend it out. I instantly rushed out to get myself a copy of ‘Into Temptation,’ because my friend was right – they’re the kind of poems you want to keep on you at all times to make you feel brave. Then I realised with a shock that this was the same Sophia Blackwell who works at Bloomsbury, who had been doing the publicity for my own upcoming book, and who I’d met several times without realising she was a stone genius poet. Blackwell’s writing is hugely important to me right now, and I frankly can’t believe she’s not already world-famous, so I thought I’d share it with you. This is one of my favourites.


Wrestling the Angel

In every woman’s house there lives an angel.
They hear her white robes whisper on their stairs.
She smothers life and lust in clouds of household dust
and chokes impassioned songs with rationed prayers.
In every woman’s throat her wings are beating.
There’s really just one thing a girl can do.
Take your heart and shield it.
Grab a sword and wield it.
Get her before she gets you.

Please hold my handbag, I’m wrestling the angel
that’s nesting like a hen in the corner of my life.
She bends to me and simpers – will you never change, girl?
You can’t change this strange world. Why not be a wife?
She holds my arms and says they’re never made to wrestle,
I should curl and nestle, quiet as a mouse,
be a vestal virgin, be an empty vessel,
be the heart and hearth of every daddy’s house.

She gets between my pen and hungry pages.
She tells me, leave the big themes to the men –
that birds who learn to sing in sugar cages
should never need to spread their wings again.
In every woman’s mouth her words are bitter,
they ache and blister like a new tattoo.
I hear her say, stay pure,
the others matter more.
Get her before she gets you.

Please hold my hair back, I’m wrestling the angel
who’d rather settle this without a speck of blood,
but yet she’d have our hearts out, pluck our juicy parts out,
damn us in our flesh like damming up a flood.
Some of us are born girls, some of us remain girls,
I’ll never learn to grow if she doesn’t let me go.
She lectures me on cleanness, shows me how to dream less,
says no when I mean yes, and yes when I mean no.

And every baby girl’s born with an angel.
Her shadow trails through all a child might do.
She’ll find you, she’ll blind you,
She’ll gag you and she’ll bind you –
but others won before you, others run behind you,
And they’ll hold you up while you wrestle with your angel.
Do it, whatever you do.
Once you watch her going,
your wings might start growing.
Get her before she gets you.


Some very exciting news

I’m excited finally to be able to announce that I’ll be joining the class of 2015 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

From August, I’ll be joining the 77th Nieman gang, along with 11 other international fellows and 12 US fellows, all working journalists from different disciplines, auditing classes at Harvard and taking courses together. It’s a great honour to have been accepted, and one that I wasn’t expecting, given my age and background in non-traditional media. I’m going to do my best to be equal to the challenge of the programme. Special thanks go to the amazing Emily Bell, Paul Mason, Jason Cowley and Clay Shirky, who took the time to write letters of recommendation.

What this means is that for the course of the academic year, I’ll be based at Harvard, and won’t be working as a regular columnist and reporter. Any professional work I do undertake will be at the discretion of the Nieman Foundation. I’ll continue to use Twitter and to update my own blog, but my chief focus will be on study.

I’ve been feeling for a while now that in order to take my writing to the next level, I needed to stop careering around chasing stories, go back to school and sit my bum down for some serious reading and nerding out. This fellowship is an unbelievable opportunity to do just that.

I’ve never been to Boston or to Cambridge before, and I won’t have time to visit before the programme starts, so I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll find friends and fellow travellers in the area. Eee! Back to school for me!