Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Gentlemen’s Club.

On the bus back into London today, I spotted a billboard at the side of the road advertising the strip-club Spearmint Rhino. I say “spotted”, but that probably suggests a misleading degree of achievement on my part – the thing was enormous and pretty much unmissable. I suppose there are a few things I might find objectionable about the advert, but I’m not about to launch into a detailed discussion about the morality of strip-clubs or the appropriateness of a scantily-clad, larger than life woman (interpret that as you will…) towering over one of the main roads into London. It was actually the tagline, which describes Spearmint Rhino as a gentlemen’s club, that caused me to double-take. I asked myself the question I’m about to put to you now –  what exactly is “gentlemanly” about paying to watch women you don’t know take off their clothes?

The euphemism is inherited from the tradition of private members’ clubs (plenty of which still exist) which require members to have some particular common interest. For Spearmint Rhino and others of its ilk, that common interest appears to be women in various states of undress. I said that I had no intention to launch into a discussion about the morality of strip-clubs and I stand by that, but I will say that I think the enduring presence of clubs with such a common interest amongst their clientele is symptomatic of a disease which is endemic in our culture – a basic lack of respect and responsibility.

The news this week has been full of the horrific story of the Steubenville rape case. If you’re unfamiliar with the story you can read the BBC account here. More than the incident itself, the way in which it has been reported has caused absolute outrage – CNN in particular has been criticised for focussing upon the impact of prosecution on the rapists rather than the victim. Poppy Harlow was the CNN reporter at court, providing this as her initial response:

I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.

I understand that that might be true, but I struggle to see why the consequences of their freely chosen actions is more tragic than the assault of a young girl. Was her experience in court any less traumatic than theirs? No, it was probably far worse. Descriptors like “incredibly emotional” and “incredibly difficult” might better have preceded an account which talked about the prosecution of two young men who showed no respect for a sixteen year old girl and violated her repeatedly in the most disgusting ways, or the fact that their prosecution finally concluded the public reliving of that experience for the victim. It is sad that their lives have been irreversibly changed but so has hers. The difference is, it was their choice and their responsibility. They showed her no respect, and they showed no self-respect either.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about the Steubenville case, though, is the way in which the evidence for the prosecution was gathered – from texts, from social media, and from photographs.  In a New Statesman article Laurie Penny compares the photographs to the Abu Ghraib photographs. They are evidence of the boys’ crime, but they are evidence of that endemic disease too.

The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated. What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures? Only one in which women’s autonomy and right to safety counts for so little that these rapists, and those who held the cameras, felt themselves ‘perfectly justified’. Only one in which rape and sexual humiliation of women and girls is so normalised that it does not register as a crime in the minds of the assailants…Rape culture. That’s what rape culture is. The cultural acceptance of rape.

The point that I am making here is not that going to a strip-club, or running a strip-club, or even stripping at a strip-club, is the same as rape. Of course it isn’t. What worries me, though, is that they are underpinned by the same core issue. Our culture is part of a much more sinister sort of ‘Gentlemen’s Club’, whose members value their own desires more than they value treating others with respect, who prioritise sexual gratification over their principles, and who will do all they can to deny that they are responsible for the choices they make. I find it baffling and terrifying.

I overheard a boy I know discussing the Steubenville case with absolute horror, wholly agreeing with Laurie Penny’s article. In general, I think he’d probably describe himself as feminist. I wonder what he’d think if he knew I found it ridiculous to hear him talking about making a stand against rape culture when I know that he has, emotionally speaking, treated girls terribly in the past. He’d probably tell me it’s not the same thing at all. He’d be right in a sense – just like the strip-clubs, it’s not at all the same thing – but it’s still symptomatic of the same disease. When I hear him talk about an ex coldly or believe sincerely that it’s not his fault when people get hurt because of selfish choices he makes when he is sad or lonely or drunk, I hear the same lack of respect and responsibility. He’s in the Club too, even if he’s just there for a drink with his mates and isn’t bothered about the stripping bit. You don’t have to be pushing money into underwear to be complicit.

The cruelest irony in all of this metaphor of sickness and Gentlemen’s Clubs is that there’s really nothing gentlemanly about any of it. Worse still, we’re choosing to be sick.

To me, it’s pretty simple. The sort of club that I want to be a part of is a club where people respect themselves and one another, make their choices based on that, and take responsibility for those choices. Incidentally, it’s also the sort of club which you can join regardless of whether you are biologically, economically or otherwise a ‘gentleman’. Life is complicated and people make mistakes, but if we had those principles of respect and responsibility at the core of it, I can’t help but feel that society would function pretty well for everyone involved.

And that’s the sort of club I want to see advertised on billboards.

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Norwegian Wood.

I’ve never been to Norway. Until a few months ago, my only real knowledge of the place came from a review provided by my great aunt – “expensive and watery” (I debated pursuing the point that “watery” was unavoidable – she was on a cruise – but ultimately decided against it). Over the last few months, though, my picture has started to change and I’m beginning to think that Norway might actually be pretty excellent.

My primary point of evidence for this is that I am now friends with two Norwegian people, both of whom are great. I’m not sure if I am hyper-aware because of these newfound friendships or if there genuinely has been a surge of newspaper articles about Norway in the British press, but three things in particular have caught my eye.

1. Norwegian tax payers pay less tax in November so that they all have money for Christmas.

Now arguably, given my great aunt’s assessment, Norwegians need all the help they can get to afford Christmas. If we think it gets pricey here, imagine what it must be like in the land of the expensive and the watery! Even so, there’s something pleasingly human about this. Very rarely in [serious newsreader voice] The Current Financial Climate [resume normal manner of speaking] do we hear of governments acting in a way that seems wildly impractical on a national scale so that Joe Bloggs on the street can catch a break. And in fact if Jim Bloggs, Jean Bloggs and everyone else (both within and without the extended Bloggs family) catches that same break, then isn’t that wildly practical on a national scale too? I’m pretty sure it’s dubious economics, but it’s excellent humaning. Also I blooming love Christmas.

2. Norway has the lowest rate in Europe for re-offends; their prison system includes an island which simulates life after prison.

You can read the full article from the Guardian here and form your own opinion. At first I thought it all sounded a bit Shutter Island, and doubtless there will be people who will be appalled at the relative ‘luxury’ bestowed upon criminals including rapists and murderers, but I suspect this might actually be good humaning on Norway’s part once again.

Primarily, I don’t think we can underestimate the significance of the statistics:

“In 2007, 14 prisons in England and Wales had reconvictions rates of more than 70%. At an average cost of £40,000 a year for each prisoner, this amounts to a huge investment in failure – and a total lack of consideration for potential future victims of released prisoners.”

Our justice system in this country is reformative; agree or disagree, but the purpose of prison is not to punish an offender but to turn them around. There’s a decent argument to say that in lots of cases and for lots of reasons, that system doesn’t always work out. That’s where I think Balstoy is getting it right. Again, regardless of whether or not you think they should be, all of the prisoners are due to be released within five years. One of my favourite soapboxes is about responsibility, and how much better I think the world would be if we were all a bit better at taking responsibility for our actions and choices. In prison, as well as taking away freedom, we also take away the need to be responsible. There’s a bitter irony that in a system intended to hold people accountable for their actions and reform them, we trap them in a routine where they don’t even have to take responsibility for their own basic needs. I’m not sure it’s surprising, then, that when we fling them back into the real world they’re not always so great at acting responsibly. And when people are irresponsible, they do things they shouldn’t. 70% reconviction is bad enough, but that doesn’t pick up on those that remain unconvicted, or the fact that not all bad choices are criminal offences.

Balstoy is concerned with teaching the inmates to take on the sort of responsibility that they will need to to turn their lives around in the real world, which benefits all of society. Reformation not retribution is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, especially for the victims of crime, but I think it might be the better medicine.

3. 20% of Norway’s population tuned into a recent twelve hour broadcast about wood, eight hours of which was just a log burning.

Can you imagine setting aside twelve hours to watch a programme about wood? I struggle to imagine setting aside twelve hours to watch anything. I have things to do, places to go, people to see. I was getting fidgety by the end of The Hobbit. Watching wood burn in real time would make my top five dull things to endure (alongside paint drying, grass growing, my first year Hebrew classes, and the tv show my grandad watched last night which seemed to be about tanks and fishing). So, either there are a few million people in Norway who really like wood, or they’re on to something that I’m not.

To be fair, both are plausible, but I like to think it’s the latter. I’m not sure what’s in the (apparently abundant) Norwegian water, but if they bottled it I wouldn’t mind a bit. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that I find so brilliant about this story, but it suggests something of the same national character that appeals to me in the other two news items as well.

There’s definitely something to be said for having the ability to make the time and headspace for something away from the chaos of the humdrum – to do something literally extra-ordinary. And that’s about more than Norwegian Wood.

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