One very clever woman fights back

It is exam term, and finals are in less than a month. As a result, posting will be (and already has been) light, as I struggle desperately to read everything tragic ever written. I’m also probably not going to be in the mood for delving deep into my own emotions when it comes to new and exciting sexual issues – seriously, I’ll be lucky just to be getting laid – so there may be less sex positivity than usual. In its place, however, I offer you something very close to my heart, that made me both angry and proud in so many ways, and took my mind of Othello for a minute or two.

Professor Mary Beard is one of my favourite people ever. As the majority of people who read this blog are not classicists, there’s a chance some of you won’t know who she is, but trust me, you ought to. She is probably the most famous living female classicist, which is pretty important if every bibliography you’re ever given as a student is just a list of men’s names, with a token ‘alternative’ article written by a woman at the end. But in case that seems like a pretty niche claim to fame, I’d say that if you asked the majority of Brits to name a classicist, any classicist, she would be the top response. Mary Beard is basically the face of classics in this country, due to her TV series on Pompeii and now Rome (BBC 2 and Tuesday nights – tune in!), her frequent appearances on shows like Question time, and her column for the Times, A Don’s Life.

I love her for several reasons. Firstly, she is a brilliant classicist. When I was studying ancient history last year, her books and articles on Rome were always the first place I’d look. I also very much enjoy the freelance features she writes in various papers, usually about some interesting insight into Roman life, or a classical take on a current news story. But she’s also a feminist, and has no qualms about showing it. I’ve read her thoughts on issues from the trials of being a female academic to her own rape, and find her inspirational. As a female academic in what is an insanely male-dominated field, and as a fellow at one of the last remaining all-women Cambridge colleges, she is someone I deeply admire and respect.

So you can imagine how excited I was about her new documentary, Meet The Romans. So excited, in fact, that I invited three non-classicist boys to watch it with me (including Leander). I was a little unsure of how they’d find it, especially since one of them had never studied Latin, Greek  or ancient history, so didn’t have the background useful for these kinds of shows. All four of us loved it. Mary’s style of presenting is a little eccentric, and she makes no concessions for people who might expect something more mainstream, but Leander called her ‘a total badass’, while the other two both said she was brilliant and inspiring, if a little weird.

Now might be a good time to mention that she is fifty-seven, with long grey hair, and dresses in her signature red coat and sparkly leggings. You can file that under ‘eccentric with no concessions’.

Cue feminist backlash. I should never had read A A Gill’s review of her show, published in Sunday Times (which I am unable to link to, though much of it is quoted in the link below) – I really need to get better at avoiding stuff I know is going to infuriate me. If you’ve been doing this feminist thing for long, you can guess the sort of article it was. A nuanced critique of the merits of the show and Mary’s style of TV academia? If only. A brutal and patronising attack on her looks, including lines such as ‘From behind she is 16; from the front, 60. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment’? Alas, this is the world in which we live, where insults as basic and pathetic as ‘lol, ur ugly’ apparently count as journalism.

(Side note: I am fairly certain that, had it been a woman who wrote the review, it would have been decried as ‘bitchy’ and ‘catty’, and led to a whole digression about why women are always attacking each other and can’t play nicely. See: the Samantha Brick saga, which I have deliberately avoided writing about.)

So here I am, all ready to defend Mary and talk about what an incredible academic she is, and how pointless, unprofessional and downright childish Gill’s review is. Except I don’t have to, because she is quite capable of doing it for herself. (Yes, it’s a Daily Mail article. I apologise. It helps if you put that aside for a moment.) She is not only witty and charming in her scathing response to Gill, but manages not to seem petty, happily admitting that she makes no effort to appear conventionally attractive on television, and refusing to apologise for it. You should definitely read the whole thing, but here’re the highlights:

‘Throughout Western history there have always been men like Gill who are frightened of smart women who speak their minds, and I guess, as a professor of Classics at Cambridge University, I’m one of them.

In a sense, I suppose, I should be used to such crass remarks as his. After all, they dog most intelligent women, even today — particularly  if they dare to put their head  above the parapet by appearing on television. For years, sexism was institutionalised in academic establishments. It is only since World War II that women were permitted to graduate from Cambridge University; before that, they could have the pleasure of studying, but only men would be honoured with degrees.

So what of my revenge?

First, I’d like to invite him to a tutorial in my study at Cambridge and ask him to justify and substantiate his opinions. We could talk them through. Possibly then he would learn a little about the  crass assumptions he’s making  and why they don’t amount to anything more.

And I ask only one thing of anyone who chooses to condemn me for not quite living up to the stereotype Botoxed blonde Gill seems to want me to become: see my programmes for yourself and decide if it is worth investing your time in watching me, even with my grey hair, double chin and wrinkles.’

The link also includes several photos of her, wearing her wonderful red coat, and looking every bit the brilliant academic she is.

This woman is an inspiration to me, and not just because she’s such a great classicist. I’ve written articles for student papers and had my looks torn apart in the comments – and I’m young and (mostly) feminine-looking. I’ve had heated discussions about feminist issues in bars, only to be shut down with ‘yeah, but real women don’t think like that’, or dismissed as yet another ‘angry feminist’. And I’ve had men talk down to me about issues I know far more about, then accuse me of being aggressive if I mention I’m actually taking a damned degree in the subject. And it makes me furious. No matter how many times I tell myself not to take it personally, it always stings, and I find angry tears pricking at my eyes as I desperately try not to be so ’emotional’.

And that is nothing compared to having your appearance – no, your very existence  as a person – condemned in a national newspaper, by someone who won’t even do you the courtesy of listening to what you have to say.

I’m not sure I could handle that. I’m not sure most of could. But Mary Beard did, and she did it beautifully, with style and grace and just the right amount of self-deprecating humour. And that’s an inspiration all on its own.



Lessons in intermediate-level kink

So after my last post, I got a couple of e-mails from people who have had similar experiences (from both sides), some offering advice, some just acknowledging that this kinda thing really is an issue. And it got me thinking that damn it, I have a sex blog, I should really make an effort to learn something here. So on the advice of one of these helpful e-mailers, I joined FetLife (the Facebook for kinksters) and started reading up. And, much to my amazement, my small university town does in fact have its own kink community. (From what I can work out, there is no official University Fetish Club, but Rule 34 and all that, it’s only a matter of time.) Not only does it exist, but I discovered that they have monthly meetings where everyone can get to know each other and share tips and advice, as well as eating a lot of pizza. Who knew?

Well, I’ve been complaining for ages that there’s no decent scene or good way to meet other kinky people, plus I keep talking about how good it is to learn new things, so I figured it was time to put my money where my mouth was and see what it was like. Which was, of course, easier said than done. It wasn’t until I was standing outside the relevant pub, desperately wishing I’d worn my collar, that I realised how nervous I was. What was I meant to do? Go in and say to the barman ‘Hey, I’m a sub and semi-masochist – I  heard there were some kinky people around, maybe playing with some rope’? I hung around in the doorway for a bit, wondering if maybe it was a good idea to go home and live a comfortable life of vanilla sex, in a monogamous heterosexual relationship with 2.5 kids and a labrador. (I am being flippant. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that vanilla sex is boring on any less worthy than kinky sex. Also labradors are adorable. Just not quite what I need right now.)

Anyway, eventually I stepped inside and noticed a group of people all wearing friendly-looking name tags. I was only hovering for a second before a woman in a tightly-buttoned waistcoat came over to ask if I was okay and would I like to come over and join the group. She had two very obvious purple bruises on one of her breasts, which was how I knew that I’d probably found the right people.

I’m not going to try to give these people pseudonyms, mainly because most of them had two name tags already, one with their real name and one with their FetLife name, or ‘scene name’ as someone called it. They were all, without exception, incredibly friendly and welcoming. For the first time in years, I was the shy awkward girl in the corner, stammering nervously whenever I tried to talk. This was odd for me. Luckily, no one else seemed to mind, chatting happily to me about xkcd and pizza toppings and the best techniques for Japanese ropeplay (seriously). One guy, who was a photographer, had brought his portfolios, and I spent ages admiring some gorgeous fetish shots, which led to him asking if I’d like to model for him at some point. Cue more flustered mumbling that sounded something like ‘umm thank you, I’ll think about it?’. Which I actually will, because the pictures were really lovely.

What else did I learn? There is a monthly kink club, which is more focussed on play than costumes, and which I’d be very welcome to attend. One of the guys there introduced himself as a slave, while another woman kept referring to her master. Both were eating pizza at the time. I tentatively asked for some advice on the subject of what had happened with Gaius, to which the waistcoat-and-bruises lady replied ‘You’re training tops? How wonderful for you!’. At one point in the evening  a guy I’d been discussing Japanese ropleplay with earlier approached me to say his pet had asked to be tied up, and would I like to be tied up too? I politely declined, but I can’t say I wasn’t intrigued by how pretty it looked. Maybe next time? I’m not sure.

It was obvious that the most important point to grasp was the asking permission. For everything. It was quite crowded by the end, but even as people struggled to make their way to the bar, the care they all took not to accidentally touch anyone was clear. One guy with some interesting spiked gloves demonstrated their effect by scratching my neck, but only after I specifically asked him too. (The result had me purring like a kitten, which I think was the idea.) He told my I’d been pretty brave to show up on my own without knowing anyone there, and I confided that I felt rather out of place without a collar. It was strangely flirtatious, whilst remaining entirely non-sexual, which is quite a strange combination for me. I guess the whole evening was a bit like that: people talking about their most extreme kinks and fetishes in such a casual off-hand way that they ceased to feel like kinks and fetishes at all, and became everyday conversation. It was like a snapshot into a the sort of ideal world I keep trying to advocate, but actually being there living it was a lot stranger than I’d anticipated. I think I need more practice.

The final thing to mention is that as I was leaving, someone mentioned that the woman running it was trying to get rid of some corsets she was selling for a friend. So I messaged her, and the next day I went round to try some on (and came away with two gorgeous corsets that I can’t wait to wear out somewhere, but that’s beside the point). It wasn’t until I was standing completely topless in her kitchen, looking at different fabrics, that I realised how nice it was that this felt totally normal and not at all weird, even though usually I don’t get semi-naked around strangers. Not in a non-sexual way anyway. She also made a point of asking me if anyone had said or done anything which made me uncomfortable the night before, and told me I could come straight to her if they ever did. She may have said this while lacing me into one of the corsets, or while packaging them up while I looked for my bra. I don’t entirely remember, but it was very much appreciated all the same. I’m not sure whether I’d been feeling at all worried or not before, but I know I felt safer after.

So, that was my introductory initiation into the not-all-that-scary fetish scene. I’m hoping it will help me with boundaries and communication and being confident around others who are new to it, while hopefully giving me some new ideas and a safe space in which to experiment. At the very least, I met some exciting people and have some new corsets. As for the rest, we shall see.

The feminism will return to this blog shortly, when my brain has recovered from a term of missed sleep and too much coffee. There may even be the promised kittens. It’s all happening here.