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Sex, Cigarettes, Science Fiction, Revolution: my favourite articles of 2012 so far.

I’m still on the road with all my belongings in a suitcase, and spending a lot of time moping around in coffee shops working on things that haven’t come out yet. Discordia, the ebook I’ve written with noted artist and jailbird Molly Crabapple, comes out in a week’s time. Meanwhile, for the benefit of new followers and those who just like to have things in one place – it’s good to organised, Molly says so, and she is wise! – here’s a round up of some of the best long-form things I’ve written this year. Enjoy.

The Bank of Ideas

A surprising number of my reporting adventures seem to involve me having an uncomfortable night’s sleep somewhere unusual. This is my report from the last days of Occupy London.

Model Behaviour

An essay for The New Inquiry about beauty, sexism, RuPaul’s drag race, the art of Cindy Sherman, queer performance and makeup. 

London, Underground

I spent a whole day riding the underground in pre-Olympics London. This is what happens. Features pigeons, social cleansing and Boris Johnson’s godawful disembodied voice.

The Sugar Daddy Recession

An epic piece of trolling-as-feminist-journalism-for-truth-and-justice that I wrote for Salon, in which I contacted all the blokes advertising on Craigslist London and NYC looking for ‘sugar daddy’ arrangements. This was lots and lots of fun to do.

The Problem With Naomi Wolf’s Vagina

A review of Wolf’s new book that became a rant of industrial proportions about fanny-centric class-blind neoliberal feminism. Contains cuntini.

On Board the Occupy Battle Bus

Report from a cross-country bus taking young Occupiers from New York to Chicago.

In Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey

Because sometimes porn is porn is porn, and it’s only a problem when it’s made for women. 

When Nice Guys Rape

Political, personal, political. Written in the middle of the Julian Assange-George Galloway-Todd Akin rape-misrepresentation Week Of Bullshit. Post contains me talking about my own experience of rape, and hence comes with a trigger warning.

The Future, Probably

A review of William Gibson’s new book of essays, ‘Distrust That Particular Flavour.’ On cyberpunk teens and the end of the end of the world.

I’m plotting new adventures for the rest of the year right now, so if there’s anything you’d like to see me cover or write about, just email me at laurie.penny@gmail.com. Thanks!

What happened to Occupy? The police! [for The Independent].

I wrote this feature for the Independent today – there wasn’t space for them to include the full piece in the paper, so here it is. Good luck to everyone taking part in #S17 today, I’ll be there bright and early.

***

Rina can’t sleep. It’s two-thirty in the morning and on Wall Street, on a small strip of pavement outside Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, about fifty people are sleeping rough. They are rolled in blankets and sleeping bags, their hoods pulled up around their ears against the drone of traffic and far-away sirens. One police car is on patrol to keep an eye on them. They smoke and ask passers-by for water. Some of them are a bit grubby. A slogan chalked on the pavement reads “the dirty ones are on Wall Street.”

There’s a point being made with this strategic sleeping. “Look, here in the heart of the financial district of the richest city on earth there is still the puzzling problem of homelessness,” says Rina, who is 19 and wearing pyjamas under her dress. “There are abandoned spaces in urban centres all over America, and yet people still don’t have homes. Why is that?” 

One year ago, a few feet down the road, Occupy Wall Street began – the first protest camp at Zucotti park igniting a wave of anti-capitalist, anti-austerity protests across the world, from Melbourne to London. Tonight it’s just these few sleepers, and one reporter, me, where a year ago you couldn’t move for press. What happened between then and now?

Contrary to popular opinion, Occupy never entirely went away. There are still hundreds of people across New York, and thousands across America and Europe, whose lives are still devoted to what became known as the Occupy ‘movement’, most of them very young and socially precarious. Many gave up everything to be part of the occupations that sprang up across the world, and now they have nowhere else to go.

In the city where it all started, regular meetings still take place, and organising is going on in the boroughs, but media interest has dwindled. Celebrities and big brands are no longer falling over themselves to access this twist in the zeitgeist: radical is no longer chic. Last week, multi-millionaire rapper Jay-Z, who cashed in at the height of the Occupations with T-shirts reading “Occupy All Streets,” told the New York Times that he never really knew what the whole thing was about anyway.

Across the world, the question being asked in time for the anniversary is: “What happened to Occupy?” The question implies that the occupations simply drifted. It implies, falsely, that the activists involved involved lost interest and lacked direction.

But none of the major camps disbanded of their own accord: all of them, from New York to London and beyond, were evicted by force, with batons and tear gas and hundreds of arrests, by police forces bent on ensuring that sustained dissent against big banks and government-imposed austerity would not be allowed to continue. Without police intervention, would the protest camps – some of which withstood blizzards – still be standing? Somehow, our collective memory has refused to accommodate that possibility. Somehow it’s easier to believe that the hippies just got bored.

“Support from the mainstream has slowly dwindled, and it’s dwindled for the wrong reasons,” says Logan Price, a longstanding organiser with Occupy and radical groups in America. “The police had a carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to, and acted within the interests of the Mayors and Homeland Security, to go and break up the occupations and never let them come back. Here in New York, it’s become normal that every time anybody tries to protest, the police will react heavy-handedly. In effect, the right to civil assembly has been suspended in New York.”

Back outside Wall Street, another young man is being arrested. His crime was knocking on the window of the police car to wake up an officer who had fallen asleep on the job, at which point five more police officers swooped down to cuff him and take him away. The noise wakes most of the sleepers: those on their feet yell “we love you, Will!”

Will is one of the first activists to be arrested during the days of action planned for the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, which include plans to surround the New York Stock Exchange this morning. Hundreds are flocking to New York to take part in actions that include plans to surround the New York Stock Exchange this morning, and the officers of and the officers of the NYPD are waiting for them. In the past year over 7,500 activists have been arrested for being involved in peaceful Occupy actions in America alone, drawing criticism from across the world, including from the UN’s “special rapporteur” for the protection of free expression, Frank La Rue, who said crackdowns appeared to be violating the demonstrators’ human and constitutional rights.

“I wouldn’t vote in this election even if I could,” says one protester, who just turned seventeen and gives his name only as ‘Envy’. “This election is kinda funny. It seems like we can either choose going downhill gradually, or going downhill fast.” He sits swinging his feet off the scaffolding, a young black man without a secure future watching the police drag away another young black man without a secure future for the crime of demanding one. It wouldn’t be an unusual sight in the deprived boroughs on the outer edge of Brooklyn. This, however, is the Financial District.

“In the beginning, Occupy was a sanctuary, a safe haven for me,” says Envy, grinning at the memory; he has multiple piercings that sparkle when his face moves. He tells me about dropping out of school because there didn’t seem to be any point and going back because now there does, now he has experienced a loving community and something to fight for. “I will never forget my sixteenth year, ever.”

Franklin, Envy’s on-off boyfriend, a burly white kid in a baseball cap from Boston, has finished yelling ‘shame’ at the police. The pair of them met at Occupy Washington a year ago; there are lots of reasons why young people might need to leave home and find sanctuary, and most of them are political. “Do you love me?” says Franklin, popping his head between Envy and the tape recorder and kissing him.

“Yeah,” says Envy, shyly. 

In ten years’ time when people tell the story of Occupy Wall Street, I hope it will include this. Not a great big story, but a constellation of small stories, of lost kids finding each other, of old campaigners finding a purpose, a great coming-together of the anxious and angry, not all of it utopian. 

One of the police officers who just arrested Will comes back to remonstrate with the sleepers camped on the sidewalk. “People are trying to sleep around here,” he says. The occupiers tell him that they are being robbed by the people across the street at the Stock Exchange, and could he possibly deal with it? The officer tells them all to keep down. He says, it’s been a year. He says, the police have been more than patient with you people. Please, please just be quiet now.

A pile of lost books on a Brooklyn street

This afternoon I was hauling my suitcase between temporary living spaces in Brooklyn when I nearly tripped over this pile of books, abandoned on the pavement next to some rubbish bins. They were stacked neatly, and as I went through the titles I found myself wondering whose books they were, what sort of person would have this little collection, and why they would abandon them like this. Nearly all of these books are by and about women from all over the world, some of them autobiographical, about overcoming childhood trauma and cultural dissonance. Whoever bought and read and loved these books – and they had been read, all of them, some more than once by a person not entirely careful with spines or page-corners – are these their favourite books? Were they having a clear-out? Could it simply be that they’ve bought an e-reader and they’re making space in their bedroom? Are they leaving town forever?

I was tempted to take one, as I always am when I see books abandoned, books for free, books that look tempting, like they might be full of treasures brighter and braver than the everyday world I inhabit or, at very least, have some decent smutty bits. But I’m between houses again and I’m already carrying around more books than I ought to be. I have seven in my suitcase right now. Some of them have been with me through five different countries this summer as I’ve been travelling around reporting. When nothing seems solid, books are something to cling to, and I always have, often physically. I remember when I was very small and spent a great deal of time on my own, I would always have a book open over my arm, clutched to my chest so that if I saw anything that frightened me I could instantly open it and be back in the story, the way some children won’t put their stuffed animals down. 

Books are physically important. Abandoned books fascinate me; I’m always abandoning books when I’ve finished them and have too much else to carry. I like to leave them on trains, on park benches or on the tables in cafes, hoping someone needful will find them. I’d leave little notes inside if I weren’t an enthusiastic combatant in the ongoing War On Twee.

Summer is always the time when I’m most prone to depression, to stifling anxiety, to suddenly packing all my belongings into a bag and leaving in the middle of the night. Books stop you doing that. If you’ve got a serious collection, you can’t just up and leave: furniture can be replaced but a personal library, full of your ideas and memories, that’s a treasure that has to be packed into boxes and shipped.  Books can stop you leaving home, if you let them, even if actually reading them makes you long to leave. Building a library is exciting and adult but it is also dangerous, especially if you do it with someone else.

Recently I was sleeping with a young man with a large and impressive personal library which utterly dominated his small room: the bed was low, and he had put up the bookshelves around it on two walls so they loomed over it. After sex, or in the small, sleepy bits of the morning tangled in week-old blankets, all you could see was those books, lovingly arranged. You woke up staring at books; you screwed staring at books; there must have been boxes and boxes worth, the whole weight of them hanging off the walls, and no matter how securely they were held it was impossible not to worry that they would fall in the night and crush you.

Me, I carry around my library in my head. I’ve just bought an e-reader and it’s liberating, but it’s not the same; not the same as carrying around a story or a history until you don’t need it anymore and passing it on, a bit battered, full of scribblings. Maybe someday I will be ready to unpack and settle, and maybe then, I’ll want books to weigh me down. Not just yet though.

The books in the pile are:

Falling Leaves, by Adeline Yen Mah

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Lipstick Jihad, by Asadeh Moaveni

Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs

Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls

It’s Trigger Warning Week

This post comes with a trigger warning for rape and sexual assault that should be visible from space. 


*

Rape. From the Latin, ‘rapere,’ to take or snatch. Usual meaning: to penetrate another person’s body sexually without their consent. From the Sexual Offences Act, 2003: “A is guilty of rape when A intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of B (the complainant) with his penis; B does not consent to the penetration; and A does not reasonably believe that B consents.” It’s such a small, simple, violent word, and right now, thanks to Julian Assange, George Galloway and Todd Akin, the entire internet and substantial portions of the internot are arguing over what it means. 

Over the past few days of following the Assange case, standing in the crowd to hear him deliver his Evita speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy, debating with men and women online, I’ve heard a great many people from all sides of the political spectrum tell me that the women who accused the Wikileaks founder of sexual assault were lying, or they were duped, or they were ‘honey traps’, or, most worryingly and increasingly often, that their definition of rape is inaccurate. The people saying this are not all prize bellends like Galloway or frothing wingnuts like Akin and other prominent Republicans who seem to want abortion to be available only to virgins, a position that seems curiously and specifically unChristian. Some of them are just everyday internet idiots who happen to believe that if a man who you have previously consented to sex with holds you down and fucks you, that isn’t rape. If you were wearing a short skirt and flirting, that isn’t rape. If a man penetrates you without a condom while you’re asleep, against your will, that isn’t rape, not, in Akin’s words, “legitimate rape”. 

Old, white, powerful men know what rape is, much better, it seems, than rape victims. They are lining up to inform us that women – the discussion has centred around women and their lies even though 9% of rape victims are men* – do not need “to be asked prior to each insertion”. Thanks for that, George, not that it’s just you. There’s an army of commentators who also believe that “that’s not real rape” is both a valid, useful defence of a specific political asylum seeker and objective truth. Women lie, they say. Women lie about rape, about sexual assault, they do it because they’re stupid or wicked or attention-seeking or deluded. The fact that the rate of fraud in rape cases remains as low as the rate of fraud in any other criminal allegation – between two and four per cent – does not impact. Women lie, and they do it to ruin men in positions of power. We shall henceforth call this ‘The Reddit Defence.’

This is not an article about Julian Assange. I’ve already written one of those, as, it seems, has everyone with keyboard and opinion. This is about rape, and what it means, and what we think it means. As a culture, we still refuse collectively to accept that most rapes are committed by ordinary men, men who have friends and families, men who may even have done great or admirable things with their lives. We refuse to accept that nice guys rape, and they do it often. Part of the reason we haven’t accepted it is that it’s a fucking painful thing to contemplate – far easier to keep on believing that only evil men rape, only violent, psychotic men lurking in alleyways with pantomime-villain moustaches and knives, than to consider that rape might be something that ordinary men do. Men who might be our friends or colleagues or people we look up to. We don’t want that to be the case. Hell, I don’t want that to be the case. So, we all pretend it isn’t. Justice, see?

Actually, rape is very common. Ninety thousand people reported rape in the United States in 2008 alone**, and it is estimated that over half of rape victims never go to the police, making the true figure close to two hundred thousand. Between ten and twenty percent of women have experienced rape or sexual assault. It’s so common that when someone reports an allegation of rape in the press, I often hear friends tell me: ‘that sounds like my rape.’ Not: ‘I was raped, too.’ ‘That sounds like my rape.’ Being assaulted or fucked without consent is so common that it’s more noteworthy if you happen to recognise similar specific circumstances. It’s so common that – sorry if this hurts to hear – there’s a good chance you know somebody who might have raped someone else. There’s a good chance I do. And there’s more than a small chance that he doesn’t even think he did anything wrong, that he believes that what he did wasn’t rape, couldn’t be rape, because after all, he’s not a bad guy. 

The man who raped me wasn’t a bad guy. He was in his early thirties, a well-liked and well-respected member of a social circle of which I am no longer a part,  a fun-loving, left-leaning chap who was friends with a number of strong, feminist women I admired. I was nineteen. I admired him too.

One night, a group of my friends held a big party in a hotel. Afterwards, a few of the older guests, including this man, invited me up to the room they had rented. I knew that some drinking and kissing and groping might happen. I started to feel ill, and asked if It would be alright if I went to sleep in the room – and I felt safe, because other people were still there. I wasn’t planning to have sex with this man or with anyone else that night, but if I had been, that wouldn’t have made it okay for him to push his penis inside me without a condom or my consent.

The next thing I remember is waking up to find myself being penetrated, and realising that my body wasn’t doing what I told it to. Either I was being held down or – more likely – I was too sick to move. I’ve never been great at drinking, which is why I don’t really do it any more, but this feeling was more profound, and to this day I don’t know if somebody put something in my drink that night. I was horrified at the way his face looked, fucking me, contorted and sweating. My head span. I couldn’t move. I was frightened, but he was already inside me, and I decided it was simplest to turn my face away and let him finish. When he did, I crawled to the corner of the enormous bed and lay there until the sun came up.

In the morning I got up, feeling sick and hurting inside, and took a long, long shower in the hotel’s fancy bathroom. The man who had fucked me without my consent was awake when I came out. He tried to push me down on the bed for oral, but I stood up quickly and put on my dress and shoes. I asked him if he had used a condom. He told me that he ‘wasn’t into latex’, and asked if I was on the pill. I don’t remember thinking ‘I have just been raped’. After all, this guy wasn’t behaving in the manner I had learned to associate with rapists. Rapists are evil people. They’re not nice blokes who everybody respects who simply happen to think it’s ok to stick your dick in a teenager who’s sleeping in the same bed as you, without a condom. This guy seemed, if anything, confused as to why I was scrabbling for my things and bolting out the door. He even sent me an email a few days later, chiding me for being rude.

When I walked home, it didn’t occur to me that I had been raped. The next day, when I told a mutual friend what had happened, the girl who had introduced me to the man in question, I didn’t use that word. By that time, I was in some pain between my legs, a different sort of pain, and I was terrified that I had AIDS. I had to wait two weeks for test results which showed that the man who raped me had given me a curable infection. I told my friend that I felt dirty and ashamed of myself. She said she was sorry I felt that way. Everybody else in that social circle seemed to agree that by going to that hotel room and taking off my nice lace dress I had asked for whatever happened next, and so I dropped the issue. They were right and I was wrong. The man that we all knew and liked would never take advantage of anyone,  and suggesting such a thing made me a liar and a slag. Did I go to the police? Did I hell***. I thought it was my fault.

My experience was common enough, and it was also six years ago. Looking back, being raped wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me, although the experience of speaking out and not being believed, the experience of feeling so ashamed and alone, stayed with me for a long time, and changed how I relate to other humans. But I got over it. I rarely think about it. For some people, though, experiencing rape is a life-changing trauma. 

Yes, even when it’s not “legitimate” rape. Being raped by a man who you liked and trusted, even loved – thirty percent of rape victims are attacked by a boyfriend, husband or lover –  is an entirely different experience from being raped by a stranger in an alley, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less damaging. Particularly not if others go on to tell you you’re a lying bitch. Sorry if that hurts to hear.

You know what also hurts to hear? People telling you that your experience didn’t happen, that you asked for it. That you have no right to be angry or hurt. That you should shut up. That you hate men. That you’re against freedom of speech. That’s what hundreds of thousands of women all over the world are hearing when they hear respected commentators (I’m not talking here about Galloway or Alvin, although I’m sure there are a great many people who respect their opinions, god help them) saying that the allegations made against Julian Assange “aren’t really rape.” 

The idea that fucking a woman in her sleep, without a condom, or holding a woman down and shoving your cock inside her after a previous instance of consensual sex, is just “bad bedroom etiquette” – thanks again, George – the idea that  good guys don’t rape, that idea has two effects. One: it fosters the fantasy that there’s only one kind of rape, and it happens in the proverbial alley with the perennial knife and certainly not to anyone you know. That’s what’s most disturbing about the discussion going on right now. There are millions of men, some of them very young, most of them extremely well-meaning, all of them with their own unique sexual histories trying to figure out a way to negotiate boundaries without hurting themselves or others, and those men are being told that sometimes women say things are rape when they aren’t really. That people who say that consent is really very important indeed are probably on the same side as conniving governments who want to suppress freedom of speech and punish whistleblowers and truth-seekers.

Two: it makes any man or woman who has ever been raped by a nice guy suspect, yet again, that it’s all their fault, that they let it happen. It makes rape victims less likely to come forward and report. I didn’t report my rape. It took me months even to understand it as rape. I stopped talking about it, because I was sick of being called a liar, and I got the shut-up message fairly fast. I tried to stop thinking about it. 

But this week brought it all up again. The vitriol being spewed across the internet, the discussions in every car and cafe I’ve stepped into about what rape really means, the acknowledgement that yes, lots of women do lie and exaggerate, they’ve made me feel infected all over again. Another friend told me she felt “psychologically poisoned, sick more than angry,” I’m definitely not the only one who’s been revisiting those scenes in my head, playing them over like old CCTV footage. I’m probably not the only one, either, who went quietly back to a few friends from the old days to talk again about what happened, to clear things up. And what one of those former friends told me was: I wish I’d taken you more seriously, because I think it happened again, to somebody else.

That was yesterday. And that’s why I’m writing this post now. I’ve actually written it three times, and deleted it twice, and I’ve decided to bite my lip and click ‘publish’, because this vicious drift towards victim-blaming must stop. It’s not about Julian Assange, not really, not any more. It’s becoming an excuse to wrench the definition of rape back to a time when consent was unimportant, just when some of us had begun to speak up, and it’s happening right now, and  what’s worse, what’s so, so much worse, is that it’s happening in the name of truth and justice, in the name of freedom of speech.

If those principles are to mean anything, this vitriol, this rape-redefining in the name of conscience and whistleblowing and Wikileaks and Julian Assange, it has to stop. It has to stop now. Non-consensual sex is rape, real rape, and good guys do it too, all the time, every day. Sorry if that hurts to hear, but you’ve heard it now, and there are things that hurt much more, and for longer, and for lifetimes. Those things need to stop. Together, if we’re brave enough to keep on speaking out even we’re told to shut up, told we’re liars and bitches and we asked for it, we can make them stop. There aren’t many situations where all it takes to change the world is a lot of people standing together and refusing to be silenced, but this might be one of them. 


*


*this figure, along with the overall rape statistics, is far, far higher in the United States if prison rape is taken into account, which it rarely is.

**I have used figures for the United States throughout this article – more information for the UK can be found at www.rapecrisis.org.uk

***I still haven’t, and I haven’t named any names or included any identifying information in this article, and that’s my choice, and I’d like you to respect that, because I thought long and hard about putting this out there, and now I don’t want to think about it any more. Thank you.