Thursday 27 February 2014

In Defence of Anonymity

Last month, I was invited to speak at TEDx East End. The theme was 'Society Beyond Borders,' so I opted to talk about the history of anonymity, and why it is so important to preserve it for marginalised activists and writers.

Very often when you see the word 'anonymous' these days, it's followed almost immediately by the word 'troll'. But the rich history of anonymity and pseudonymity is far more than that, and has been a refuge for artists and others almost since the beginning of recorded history. In this talk I explore some of the leading lights of anonymity, and why they chose not to use their real names.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

An Open Letter to New Port Richey

Dear New Port Richey, Florida,

Hey there, it's been a while since we touched base. Soz about that. I've been away writing books and getting up to no good in the UK; you've been busy increasing your suburban sprawl to the point where there is now no clear boundary between you and the rest of the West Central Florida region (a.k.a. "the bit too far west of Disney").

Anyway, I thought we should probably catch up after you recently announced a new plan to arrest sex workers in the city limits. As I am arguably the city's best-known export, and certainly its best-known prostitute export, I'm surprised you didn't run this by me first. Because this plan of yours? I'm telling you this now, it ain't gonna work.

Just to catch up the rest of the folks reading this - the grandees of New Port Richey got tired of rigging elaborate stings to entrap sex wokers, so are giving cops free rein to arrest people who tick any three of eight "behaviours" off a list. These behaviours include asking if someone is a cop, getting into and out of cars at the same place by the road, trying to attract attention of drivers, and more.

You know who else asks if you're a cop? People who are trying to get help in an emergency. You know who else gets into and out of cars by the road every day? Students and workers waiting for their carpool. You know who tries to attract the attention of people driving by on US 19? Anti-abortion protestors. Last time I checked, New Port Richey had all of these in abundance.

That's the problem with these kinds of laws, you see. Profiling has a false positive rate greater than zero, and some of those false positives will no doubt lawyer up. Also, picking up people because you think they might possibly commit a crime in the future is not the same as detecting people who are actually breaking the law. It is - hm, how you say? - oh yeah, now I remember the word. "Unconstitutional." (My time in Florida's schools did not go to waste, as you can see.)

And while we're on the topic of what's legal and what's not, please explain to me what the point of criminalising sex workers is again? Because harassing people over a victimless crime seems like a pretty poor use of resources.

Back when I lived in Florida I knew a few women who were out there selling sex on the streets. Not one of them ever said, "you know what would change my life in a positive way? A mandatory minimum jail sentence and a thousand dollar fine." For the most part they were just trying to get by day to day, put food on the table, hoping maybe for something better someday. Jail is not that something better.

Remember how that Prohibition thing worked out with booze? The War on Drugs with drugs? Yeah, this is bound to backfire, too. The people you're trying to target - some of whom really are vulnerable - will be getting criminal records instead of a helping hand.

Meanwhile, the indoor sex workers like me who can easily dodge these ham-fisted vice moves will continue making money, because the truth is you can't stop the world's oldest profession.

Florida's an odd place, I'll grant you that, and it can be tough to set yourself apart when virtually every other town and city in the state has attracted international attention for doing strange stuff. Why, just down the road we have Clearwater, a place that's both the spiritual HQ of Scientology and the world HQ of Hooters restaurants. It's hard to compete with that kind of weird.

But this approach is not the way forward. Becoming well-known for something you didn't exactly plan on is kind of a bummer. I feel your pain. You know what? Sometimes you have to roll with the hand you're dealt. Like, maybe offering the sex workers passing through the Pasco County law enforcement system options other than going to jail? Or - if you're feeling like pushing the boat out a bit - letting adults mind their own business.

New Port Richey, you and me parted ways a while ago. But that doesn't mean there isn't still a part of you with me, and a part of me with you. I'd really appreciate it if you could do me a solid and reconsider this ill-thought idea. Otherwise I'm going to have to keep telling people I'm from this town, and from what I gather, that would probably rub you up the wrong way.

Sunshine and kisses,


Sunday 11 August 2013

BREAKING NEWS: I was a sex worker.

This morning I awoke to find a claim published in the Mail that I was not a sex worker. 

It is a direct attack on my integrity as a writer, to claim that I lied. And I have been prepared.

When the case goes to trial, I will have to present evidence that I was a sex worker. Starting with this - an Archive.org snap of my first escorting ad from October 2003 (link NSFW).

(Readers of the first book may recall this was the session with the grumpy photographer I wrote about. As I have often said, it was that experience - being made to wear terrible lingerie, awkward poses, all the rest - that first made me think, 'hey, I should be blogging this.'

And if you read the third book, I made a reference to a restaurant on Old Compton Street that has the same name as my working name - that is, of course, Taro.)

I will also be presenting my bank records from 2003-04, showing the cash deposits from the money I earned as an escort, and tax records from the same years showing that this income was declared to HMRC and tax paid. Here is a sample:

I also have the notebook in which I recorded details of appointments, etc. In several instances I have been able to piece together entries from the notebook, deposits to my accounts, and the corresponding entries in the book. If pressed, I will name a client, but only as a last resort.

The Mail also claims I didn't own nice enough clothes so couldn't have been an escort!

That's from December 2003, and is the same red silk top I wore to meet the manager for the first time (as written about in the first book). The next is at Henley Regatta in July 2004, suit is from Austin Reed, the bracelet was a gift from a client.

The Mail claims I was in Sheffield when writing the blog, but I moved to London in September 2003 and started escorting in October, starting blogging a few weeks later. All of which is easy - trivial, even - to prove.

Oh, and the "former landlady in Sheffield, who did not wish to be named", where I supposedly lived for three years? Who apparently saw me in 'Oxfam jumpers'? Hmm... I lived one year in university accommodation (St George's Flats),  one year in a shared flat with an absentee landlord I never met (Hawthorne Road), and one year on my own in a house let through an agency (Loxley New Road). All well before moving to London. So either the landlady is lying about the timing of my tenancy and having met me, or (shock, horror) they made it up.

There's much more but it would be boring to put it all here. It's amazing to me the MoS made no effort at all to match anything they printed against things that are easy to find and in the public domain. But that's by the by, and will come out in due course.

It matters because this is a concerted and direct attack on my work as a writer. When I was anonymous, being real was my main - my only - advantage. The Mail on Sunday have made some frankly nonsense claims, and I will be going to town on this.

Because I know people do not trust the word of a sex worker, that is why I saved everything.

I look forward to the opportunity to rebut all claims in court. (The MoS claim the trial is expected "within weeks." In fact it is scheduled for June 2015.)

Saturday 27 April 2013

Fan Mail!

TW for violent language

Many sex workers, at some point in their careers, have dealt with the abusive masturbator. That's someone who apprehends you, is not a paying client, and spews obscenities at you whilst masturbating furiously (clearly audible when they phone).

Obviously, on Twitter it's impossible to keep track of where everyone's hands are. But I couldn't help but be reminded of the abusive masturbators when yesterday I had this:

Of course, as it was an account created specifically to abuse me (it has since disappeared, more's the pity), it's difficult to say what exactly the motivation was. Weirdo who gets off on abusing people? Angry critic thwarted by the blog's lack of comment box? Misguided attempt to defend MamaMia? Does it matter?

By the way, where are the nice lady bloggers who claim to "care" so much when this happens? Nowhere to be seen. They seem to think their systematic shaming and casual dehumanisation doesn't matter or is, somehow, beneficial. That it doesn't implicitly endorse a system putting people in danger. Tell that to the Green River Killer, who used the widespread revulsion and rejection of sex workers to get away with so many murders for so long.

So on the one side, you have the Nice Ladies saying, 'it's okay to disrespect sex workers, because they get abused' and on the other you have  the Creepy Fuckwits saying 'it's okay to abuse sex workers, because they are disrespected'. See how that works?

But I don't believe in censoring either of them, or making it a crime to say whatever hateful, ignorant, damn-fool thing comes into your empty head. I believe sunshine is the best disinfectant. I believe if those who have these thoughts don't feel free to speak them, we can never effectively challenge them. I know this is not a popular stand but it's one I've come through after a lot of thought and a lot of dickheads like ol' Hadtosay1 up there.

In any case, I'll be giving a talk on trolls - the history of anonymous criticism, and why freedom of speech is important (even for airheads and dickheads) - at the How the Light Gets In Festival in Hay-on-Wye in June. @Hadtosay1, there'll be a ticket on the door especially for you. Don't miss this valuable opportunity to say anything you fancy to my very noticeably scarred face. I look forward to seeing you there!

Friday 26 April 2013

Should Mia Freedman Apologise?

I went to Australia last month as a guest of the Opera House for the All About Women symposium.  As part of the event, I agreed to do some media appearances on ABC, including the Drum and Q&A.

All About Women was a fantastic day and I feel privileged to have met so many interesting and talented people there, including people I would put in the category of genuine modern heroes

As for Q&A… this is the Australian equivalent of Question Time, so I went anticipating a varied panel with a wide variety of opinions jostling to be heard. I was told Tony Jones was a strong moderator, so I went expecting him to rein in the conversation if things went off-piste. This was to be Q & A's first all-woman panel and expectations were high. The topics they circulated beforehand indicated I was in for a grilling while everyone else got softball. I went, not to put too fine a point on it, loaded for bear.

I thought it went pretty well. Opinions differed. Points of view were exchanged. Margaret Thatcher died. All in all, a good night. The producers seemed very pleased with the outcome.

So imagine my surprise, weeks later, that fellow guest Mia Freedman is still flogging her commentary about the appearance as content on her site MamaMia. The topic: should she apologise for continually insulting sex workers?

During the show Mia kept falling back on sloppy, ill-thought, and pat little lines that were easily countered. I found to my surprise a lot of common ground with Germaine Greer, hardly known as a fan of sexual entertainment, on the fact that conditions of labour and not sex per se are the most pressing issue for sex workers worldwide right now. Then in comes Mia with her assumptions about the people who do sex work (men AND women) and the people who hire them (men AND women). With Tony backing her up. So much for the disinterested moderator, eh? Maybe he felt bad for her. I don't know.

Here's the thing. I agree with Mia on this: I don't think she should apologise.

Why not? Because if she did it would be insincere. My first impression when we met backstage was that she was insincere, and damn it, a successful lady editor like her should have the guts to be true to herself and stand by her opinions no matter what they are.

Because the general public needs to see what kinds of uninformed nonsense that sex workers who stick their heads above the parapet get every single day.

Because she is a magazine editor who cares deeply about hits and attention, and clearly this is delivering on every level.

Because the sort of people who think sex workers should be topics of discussion rather than active participants are fighting a losing battle.

Because for every 100 people who visit her site, there is one who is both a parent AND a sex worker, who knows that what she is saying is rubbish. And another one who is the parent of a sex worker and loves them. Yes, that's right Mia: sex workers have families too. Believe it or not even I have an awesome, strong, feminist mother who loves and supports me no matter what. Why, it's almost as if we're people.

Not only do I not want Mia's apology, I don't need it. I have butted heads with far bigger opponents than her and rest assured I sleep just fine. That a blogger (who knows sweet f. a. about sex work) keeps stirring up her supporters to hate on sex workers is not my dog. She's just joining the end of a very long and undistinguished queue.

Keep digging, Mia. I ain't gonna stop you. Keep writing off other people simply because they didn't have the privileges you did or didn't make the same choices you did, and you can't accept that. Get it off your chest, lock up your children, whatever you think you need to do to keep believing that makes you better than me. Keep being ignorant about the real issues and real people involved. May I gently suggest perhaps you have some issues about sex you want to work out in public, or this wouldn't be the biggest issue on your agenda weeks after the show went to air?

Mia, you have my express permission not to apologise. No, don't thank me… I insist.

Saturday 2 February 2013

Radfems, racism, and the problem with "pimps"

I was re-reading Iceberg Slim recently (as you do), and wondering what exactly it is the anti-sex brigade mean when they go around calling people "pimps".

I've been called a pimp before. By Julie Bindel, to my face, and I laughed because it is so ridiculous: I have never profited off of anyone's erotic capital but my own… and arguably Billie Piper's, though that makes me no more and perhaps significantly less pimp-like than (say) her agent and the show's producers.

I don't get particularly offended by such obviously over the top labels. But the word itself has started to crop up more and more in the arguments surrounding sex work and the pros posed laws regarding prostitution. Take for example in Ireland, where the widespread assumption is that all sex workers are a) women and b) "pimped". Both of these are demonstrably and flagrantly not true, and yet are found in virtually any media coverage of the topic which is heavily influenced by an unholy coalition of extreme religious groups and extreme radfem ideologues.

The side issue dogging the proposed changes, that is, the discourse about what exactly constitutes trafficking and who exactly is trafficked, is of course pretty openly racist - both the words and the imagery. This has been covered in some detail and extremely well by eg. Laura Agustin, whose work on the topic I highly recommend.

Typical "trafficking" propaganda: shades of White Slavery all over the place.
Anyway, back to the concept of "pimp". Now we all know, or think we know, what a pimp is, and much of this archetype comes from highly fictionalised misrepresentations of Mr Slim's own work.
Go on, you know exactly what people mean by the word. What "pimp" implies. A man who runs women, lures them with money and romance, then turns them out to whoring, often beaten, always drug-addicted.

And he is black.

Starting to sound like casual use of "pimp" is dog-whistle racism, isn't it?

For the life of me I have never met a person even remotely like the stereotypical pimp, and yet I "know" they exist, largely because I have been told so over and over again. I've met streetwalkers, both drug-addicted and not; escorts and call girls, same; not one ever had what popular imagination would classify as a "pimp," but then I keep getting told I'm not representative, so maybe the literally hundreds of men and women, cis and trans sex workers I've met are just "not representative" too?

Occasionally you also hear talk of the "Eastern European gangmaster", but for some reason the class- and racially-evocative term "pimp" comes up far, far more often. Could that be because plain xenophobia just doesn't inspire the troops in quite the same way bald racism does?

Independent sex workers who organise their own affairs and work solo. Roommates who share a flat and both happen to sell sex. Managers running escorts agencies with a dozen or so girls they mostly interact with by text. Massage parlour owners. Women whose house is used by other sex workers, so technically I guess are madams. People who set up message boards and internet forums where clients and sex workers talk among themselves and with each other. All of these are people who get called "pimps" by the anti-sex lobby.

A guy in a crushed velvet suit on a street corner, keeping his girls high and working the neighbourhood? Not so many of those to the pound.

But, let's say he really is out there, because we all keep getting told he is. This working-class black man in the loud clothes who is sexually and physically aggressive and probably has a criminal record. This "pimp".

Do you think his choice of work isn't somehow constrained by society too? That he wouldn't rather be earning money some other way? Because anyone with any sense can surely suss out that a lot of activities, both legal and illegal, would be far more profit and far less hassle than running girls.

Iceberg Slim: hustling because it's not as if you were going to save him and his mother from poverty, were you?
This is the reality of waged work, all waged work, whether sex is involved or not. No one, but no one, has "free choice". If you think otherwise, remind yourself what you wanted to be when you grew up, and reflect on how exactly you ended up where you are now. Did you freely select from all career choices in the world, ever? Or did you choose as best you could from the options offered by your abilities and (more crucially) your circumstances? You know, like Iceberg Slim did?

Some folks seem especially resistant to acknowledging the truth about work, so I'll underline it some more. Entire towns in the North weren't full of miners because everyone there just happened to have the aptitude and preference for that sole job, but because it was the only job going. NE Scotland isn't full of fishermen because they have a particular concentration of people whose life's dream was to catch fish, but because that's what the job market offers. Everyone's outcome is the product of limited choices, from streetwalkers to the Queen. And no one's suggesting she needs to be "rescued" from her lack of career options.

If you want to improve someone's options, you address the things that constrain their choices in the first place. Poverty, addiction, education, to name a few. Not take away the only choices they have.

The pimp as we perceive him is a low-end tough. He's not exactly a criminal mastermind. And unlike a lot of the people who talk about "pimps" and whatnot, I know criminals. I have seen that life up close and fucking personal. I have lived in their neighbourhoods and their houses, and even in their families. I know that anyone who runs a business in the way the supposed pimp supposedly does is making little money, if any. What's 50% of that £10 anal bareback the anti-sex lobby claim is available in red lights everywhere? A fiver? Yeah, that sounds logical. Now pull the other one.

I know that his power - again, if he exists, because even when I was living in Cracktown, Pinellas County I saw shit that would stop your heart but I never once saw a "pimp" - is a power of an extremely limited kind. The power of someone with few and possibly no other options.

The anti-sex lobby's fantasy use of the term "pimp" is bogus and it is racist. Anyone who claims otherwise is being purposely disingenuous for the sake of striking fear into white, English-speaking, middle-class people.

Thursday 31 January 2013

When Help is Anything But

TW for graphic description of violence against women inside.
You may already be aware of the recent prostitution consultation in Ireland, which closed at the end of August, and the Justice Committee hearings which are going on now. At the forefront of campaigning was 'prostitution and trafficking NGO' Ruhama, which produced their own submission to the process (a submission that was, incidentally, highly reliant on numbers created by Melissa Farley, whose testimony on similar issues has already been deemed not good enough for Canadian court).

Data aside, however, it is worth asking the question of who Ruhama actually are. It would seem they have form on wanting to "save" fallen women, for according to the Irish Times Ruhama is run by two of the orders involved in running the infamous Magdalene Laundries. (Here is their list of trustees and directors.) The Magdalene Laundries were institutions where women and girls were separated from their families, subjected to slave labour, mentally and physically tortured. Many women died there.

A mass grave in Limerick - victims of the Good Shepherd Sisters, one of the orders that co-founded Ruhama. Photo via and copyright Bocktherobber.com

Even decades after the worst of the Magdalene abuses, the scandal is still ongoing: a recent submission to the committee investigating the laundries includes some shocking facts.

JFM describes from testimony how the women suffered abuse of various kinds — their hair was forcibly cut, they were beaten with belts until they bled and once the door to the outside world was shut on them, they were referred to by number not by name ...
...the State used the laundries as a way of dealing with births outside marriage, poverty, homelessness, promiscuity, domestic and sexual abuse as well as youth crime and infanticide. It chose to enslave women with the nuns rather than develop a female borstal. 
"It repeatedly sought to funnel diverse populations of women and girls to the Magdalene Laundries. In return, the religious orders ensured a captive workforce for their commercial laundry enterprises," they wrote.
Survivors and witnesses told JFM how the women washed, ironed and sewed from dawn to dusk, were regularly beaten, not allowed to talk to one another and punished if they laughed. There was no regard whatsoever for their health or medical needs. If they stepped out of line, they were "put down the hole".
"This was a four by four room… There was nothing in it, only a bench — no windows. You were put in there; your hair was cut, more or less off completely. Your hair was cut, and you were there all day without anything to eat," one woman recalled.

Before you start imagining this is a tale from some sepia-tinted past, know that the last Magdalene laundry did not close until 1996. I have heard from people by email and Twitter about women being institutionalised in the 1970s. It is also interesting to read the Wikipedia talk page on the subject. The fallout from the fates of the estimated 30,000 women in Ireland subjected to this "help" is still a real wound. This all continued to happen well into living memory.

Just one of the memorial stones commemorating the women from the mass grave in Limerick. Photo via and copyright Bocktherobber.com

Now I do not doubt there will be people who say, well yes, but this was a different generation and things have changed. Have they? Have they really? Who has been held to account for the systematic abuse of thousands of women and girls with the tacit approval of the Church and the government?

Jane Fae over at Huffington Post makes an excellent point that in the Hillsborough tragedy, when we consider the scale of denial and coverup, simply saying 'it was a different generation' is not good enough.

Well the Magdalene Laundries were scandal on a scale far greater than the Hillsborough tragedy, for many more years. So I think the same arguments hold. The people who did this should not be in any way involved with women and young people, ever. Could you imagine if the South Yorkshire police branched out and started a private security firm specifically for football matches? They'd be laughed and shamed out of town. Carry that thinking through: we should be laughing and shaming Ruhama far, far away from anything to do with the welfare of vulnerable women and children.

We still do not know the truth about what happened in the Laundries, nor who exactly was responsible, how many families it affected. To even consider letting Ruhama be involved with the prostitution consultation, much less any policymaking or aid, should be scandalous.

And yet it somehow is not. Anyone wish to explain exactly why?

(mega hat tip to Wendy Lyon and FeministIre for bringing this to my attention in 2010.)

Friday 14 December 2012

My response to Rhoda Grant's prostitution consultation

As you may know, there is a consultation that closes today for a bill in Scotland that would criminalise the purchase of sex.

The response to the consultation that I have submitted to MSP Rhoda Grant is included below. It's long.

If you would like to make a last-minute submission, please consider the excellent template letters offered by SCOT-PEP. Please be sure to request anonymity if you want to do it privately, or consider signing with a pseudonym. You don't have to be in Scotland to reply.

My response after the jump.

Sunday 24 June 2012

The Economics of Hooker Books

One of the more persistent criticisms I get these days is that by being public about my really rather normal experience of sex work, I am "silencing" people who label themselves a victims.

I'm not going to rehash the particular arguments regarding Happy Hookers vs. Abused Victims here, in part because Maggie McNeill has already done it. Suffice it to say that people who have read my writing know my experience of sex work, while useful, positive, and not abusive, was not quite the shopping-and-shoe-buying fantasy critics paint it as. But then most people who think that about me have never encountered my writing firsthand and are instead basing their impressions off a half-remembered advert featuring Billie Piper's tits. I understand. It's easy to get confused.

But it did give me a moment of pause: is my writing crowding out other voices in the market? I decided to examine this further.

Since many people purport to tell the story of sex workers for them, I excluded books that were either not written by or not straight biographies of a particular sex worker. I also excluded all that were fiction (such as my own Playing the Game) or deal with post-sex work life (such as Lily Burana's I Love a Man in Uniform).

Anyway, here are the results:

As you can see, my books are outnumbered by hooker memoirs that predate mine (Tracy Quan and Xaviera Hollander in particular). Outspoken strippers also chalk up plenty of contributions to the genre.

But outnumbering all of us by far are the 'misery memoirs' about prostitution. (Don't get angry at me for the sweeping generalisation. That is what the genre actually is called.) There are, to use the technical term, fucking shedloads of these books. You'll notice more than a few bestsellers in that stack as well. These were just the ones I could fit into the graphic; there are dozens upon dozens more. Many if not most of which were published after my books first came out.

It's probably fair to conclude that not only has my writing not stopped others from contributing their experience to the general debate on sex work, but that you're actually more likely to get noticed if you're unhappy with prostitution than generally satisfied with it.

With the swirling vortex of Kristof/trafficking/concern porn making the rounds, in fact, now might just be the right time to do it. If you were of a mind to write a book like that.

I encourage people with real firsthand views on the topic, whatever they are, to write. In fact moreso if you are not white, or not a cis woman, or not from the US or Western Europe. Women who look and sound approximately like me are already pretty well represented in the hallowed halls of sex worker lit. Let's diversify it all over the damn place until the orientalists and anti-migration-disguised-as-anti-trafficking types have to eat every last one of their words.

Just so long as we all understand that there is no such thing as one story of sex work - they are as diverse as the people in it. My story is my story. Your story is your story. None of us speak for all sex workers. And be honest. As Bob Dylan memorably put it “If you live outside the law you must be honest.” So long as we are all on the level, then getting as many true voices out there as possible is no bad thing.

Now back to the critics...

For pity's sake don't come crying to me if you're not as popular as you like. As the objective evidence shows, it categorically is not down to me whether or not people want to read your writing.

As regards writing as a career, it is dangerous to assume I or anyone else is getting "vastly rich" off of writing (as one bitter soul recently accused). Many people seem to think that writing a book, even a bestselling one, is a ticket to financial freedom and nets far beyond what even your common-or-garden escort can potentially make. I hate to break it to the dreamers, but that is not so.

If it was, do you think I'd still be writing? Hell, no. I'd be kicking back with J.K. Rowling and E.L. James in our secret volcano fortress warming my toes on a fire built by our minions entirely out of £50 notes and cackling madly. As opposed to the reality - sitting in my home office in a very average house in one of the poorest areas of the country. I'm not bankrolled by any grant-grabbing NGOs, my personal appearances usually only cover expenses, and nuisance legal threats from people with a lot of time on their hands cost more than all my living expenses combined. I've done better than most by writing and am still a long way off being a millionaire.

As it turns out, I hear the person who made that accusation supposedly comes from family money herself and spends her time as a dilettante poetess. If that's true, well, good luck with that. Whatever works amirite?

Best of luck, former fellow hos. This is not exactly the road less traveled but is no less bumpy for it.

Saturday 23 June 2012

Science. Probably a girl thing.

Like most people I saw the Science: It's a Girl Thing! teaser on Friday. My first reaction was "meh". Watch, ignore, move on.

But apparently it has ignited all sorts of controversy. Within hours my twitter feed was filling up with people - mostly not girls, not scientists, or both - who were slamming the advert for being too pink, to feminine... in short, too stereotypically girly.

Disclaimer: my science heroes as a kid were Mr Wizard, Carl Sagan, and Jack Klugman in Quincy M.E. Not overly feminine, I'll admit.

Awesome role model for chicks

While I found the original advert a bit like Cosmo on acid and really not to my taste, it's fair to say the UK media Twitterati were not its intended consumers.

I wouldn't have been impressed with the trailer even as a teenager, but then, I already knew I wanted to be a scientist and had already stopped caring what the mean girls thought. Not everyone who could be interested in science gets there by age 13.

So, about Science: It's a Girl Thing! does it hit its target, or does it fail?

What a lot of the negative comments focused on was that this was funded by the EU. For those who don't know, the EU funds a lot of projects under its Framework Programmes to not only conduct research, but also to promote science and technology in general.

A few years ago I worked on an EU project, for instance, that was interested not in research per se, but in managing a consultation about existing knowledge in the area (the contribution of particular pesticides to child neurological development). We organised conferences on these themes, and produced guidance documents for the EU on various related subjects.

Being able to present well was a vital part of the job. It wasn't the coal-face of research that most of us came from, but if you think things like that aren't important to science in general, you're much mistaken. As far as EU-funded projects go, making videos to try to get teens to think about science is absolutely within their remit.

The second thing is that the video everyone objected to was a trailer. As we all know, trailers are sometimes misleading. In this case that's definitely true.

If you look at the other videos associated with the project - something very few people seemed to do - it's clear the teaser is not the meat of the campaign and was probably made by a different team. The teaser had been removed presumably because of the negative reaction, but the rest of the videos are still there. Those videos cover things like a day in the life of a virology student, a nanotechnology engineer, and a bioengineer from Helsinki. With nary a pink lab coat to be seen. I dare you to go and tell any of these women their work is "fluffy" or "inconsequential".

Rest assured the project will come with a follow-up assessment of how well it did reaching its target audience... an audience that, by definition, is not you. At least for once we were not treated to the usual monochrome 'woman with hair in a bun looks at petri dish' or 'woman at lab bench peers into microscope' crap. Like it or not this was a campaign that was trying something different and for that alone should be commended.

 For all you know, she's got eye makeup like a drag queen back there.

Someone tweeted at me that there's research that "proves" this sort of encouragement of girls doesn't work. So I went and had a look at it.

To summarise, "Betz and Sekaquaptewa recruited 142 girls aged 11 to 13 and showed them mocked-up magazine articles about three female university students who were either described as doing well in science, engineering, technology or mathematics (STEM), or as rising stars in unspecified fields. The three also either displayed overtly feminine characteristics or gender-neutral traits."

Apparently the subjects reacted negatively to the girly girls. Interesting stuff. But it's not clear that the paper sought to define an approach to addressing attitudes about women in science. Rather its results seem to confirm what surely we already know: that these negative associations exist and that people do not see femininity and science as complimentary. If you're going to write off visible femininity being not-opposed to science ability based on a 'personality science' study that serves to approximately tell people what we already know, then why bother doing anything?

Then there's the tone of the criticism in general which is, frankly, as condescending as it accuses to advert of being.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is making a career change into science. I found myself getting somewhat irritated that she, unlike me, did not appear to be willing to follow science to the nth degree and put her nose to the unrewarding research grindstone. Rather she wanted a degree in a subject she was interested in that could lead to a solid job in a few years' time.

She basically caught me out making the very assumption critics of the Girl Thing campaign are making: that if you're not on track for a Nobel prize, then you're not good enough for science. I realised how many of my assumptions about what science is "for" were shaped by my education-positive, science-positive upbringing... a background she did not have. In other words, the luxury of wallowing around in academia? Was not of any interest to her. She's the best judge of how to live her life - not me.

It felt pretty shit to realise what I was doing (sorry, S).

This points to what I feel is a greater malaise and one which seriously does hamper achievement. When we already know what class and income barriers there are for young people - not only girls - to get into white collar career paths, why would we want to make that worse?

We have to acknowledge that something that offends your taste may not actually have a negative effect. I hate CSI and Silent Witness. I hate forensic fiction shows with the white hot heat of a thousand suns. As someone with a PhD in forensic science, I feel it cheapens the real science and misrepresents what we do.

However, I can't deny the simultaneous explosion of students into forensic science that accompanied Marg Helgenberger and Emilia Fox swishing their luscious locks over murder victims. An explosion of students, by the way, that is predominantly female.

In yr crime scene, soiling yr DNA evidence

I would probably raise an eyebrow at any colleague who told me that they got into forensic science because of CSI, but to be honest, is that really any worse than my love of Quincy? And does being dismissive of eye-candy actresses pretending to be like me make me a better scientist than my CSI-loving colleague? No, it doesn't. The difference in our influences is not a matter of ability, it's a matter of personal taste, and that is something which is in no way correlated to being good at the job.

It's an effect that is not uncommon, in fact. Loads of people looked at Indiana Jones and fancied a go at archaeology. I'd wager Ally Beal had some impact on the law profession. Maybe the key to getting more young people interested in science isn't having a snarky blog only people exactly like you read (controversial, I know), but having relatable images in wider media for others to observe. Even if those images happen to be model-pretty and a bit daft.

(Insert your own paragraph about the impact Brian Cox will surely have here.)

Whether the rapid post-CSI expansion will have been a good thing for forensic science is another conversation. But it's interesting to see this happening largely at the former-poly universities. I would hold that these girly girl characters have made the field relevant to young women who had the innate ability to go into any science, but perhaps lacked the self confidence and support to see which field might be most relatable to them. Things which some of us take for granted. Having the confidence to strike out and do something different is not a given for everyone. And yes, this is absolutely a class thing... and a girl thing. It is all kinds of a privilege thing.

Admit it, you don't know that she didn't do that herself.

If you work in a lab with lots of other women, you'll see girly girls, tomboy girls, and plenty of others in between. It literally takes all kinds. Ability to do well in STEM subjects is not a function of appearance or sexiness.

But at the same time looking good and being sexy aren't barriers to being capable at science, either.
With so many people concerned about the crisis in young women wanting to be Kim Kardasian instead of Madame Curie, maybe it's time to acknowledge that we need to cast the net a little wider. Your experiences as a woman are not limited to these extremes.

While the original splashy video has been removed, I'm not sure this is a victory of any sort. I'm a little disappointed they turned tail at the first sign of criticism. Frankly the tone of the backlash provided a level of coverage the rest of the campaign would not otherwise have had. And if it turns out to have been misguided as so many believe, then what better way to learn how to improve the campaign?

But my guess is that regardless of whether or not you like pink and whether or not the advert offended you personally, the outcome will not have been all negative. The assumption that someone who aspires to look like a Kardashian can't or shouldn't become interested in science is frankly bollocks. And the assumption that young girls should be influenced by whatever the chattering classes deem appropriate is also bollocks. If that offends the po-faced middle class - for whom access to science careers is not in question anyway - then so be it.