Monday 7 May 2012

The Truth About Julie

A number of people have asked if I would respond to the piece Julie Bindel wrote about The Sex Myth in the Grauniad. Clearly as she took the opportunity to let rip, so too must I?

Maybe, maybe not. Because the truth about Julie Bindel is that she is - shock, horror - actually decent company. You would totally have a drink with her as long as you stayed off the topics of sex work, trafficking, porn, trans issues, gay marriage and... well you get the idea. There are definitely people with whom my politics are more closely aligned whose company I have enjoyed a lot less.

But in the interest of "setting the record straight" (as if such a thing exists) here are my notes on the encounter:

- I approached Julie to ask if she wanted to interview me, in part because I figured she would write about the book anyway. Since I criticise her writing extensively in The Sex Myth it seemed fair to give her a face-to-face.

- She's prettier in person than in her photos. Not that that's relevant, or important, but she is.

- We met three times that week: once for lunch, once for the photos, and again on Sky news. The first words out of her mouth on the air at Sky were "As much as I hate to say this I agree with Brooke." I did a little mental air-punch at that one. (It was also approximately the first thing Claire Perry said when we were on the Today programme. File under: win.)

- The "offal", by the way, was calf's liver and very good it was too. Though I did wish I'd ordered the lamb sweetbreads special instead.

- The dessert was an Eccles cake with cheddar cheese ice cream. Hand on heart, I loved the ice cream. The Eccles cake was not nice. If you have occasion to go to The Gilbert Scott at St Pancras, ask them for a bowl of that ice cream.
- She thought my criticism of Swanee Hunt mentioning her father's political background a bit out of line. My reply to that is if Hunt's still trading on his name and his connections, then she has to expect that. Her extreme privilege (yes, even in supposedly classless America; yes, even when your work is deemed charitable) is a huge hurdle to overcome. Eye of the needle and all that jazz.
- Julie's a big fan of Viz, especially Eight Ace and Sid the Sexist. Who knew? Also she liked Fat Slags better when it was shorter whereas I prefer the longer ones.

- In principle we both agree that sex workers themselves should not be criminalised. After that our thoughts on sex work are mainly opposed. When I put it to her at lunch that the much-talked-about "Swedish model" and Icelandic approaches could never work in the UK, she agreed.

- Julie's piece was filed after we met for lunch on the 17th April, I believe before we had photos on the 20th. The final edits to the book were made on the 25th and approved on the 27th. First edition came off the presses May 1st. (Yes, we cut it fine.) This unfortunately means some of the things from her piece may not be the book.* I'm not sure if it is the writer's or the editor's responsibility to check reviews against the published copy, but someone should have done.
- We both think the Grauniad will cease to exist in printed form soon. Probably most people think that though, so no news there.
- She seemed concerned that I think feminists of her stripe/generation are against sex, and took pains to assure me plenty of sex was going down among the redfems in the 70s and 80s. I said "I bloody well hope so," because what would be the point of rejecting the model of virgin-to-wife-to-mother only to not get laid? However, in my experience, the lesbian-identified feminists when I was at uni in the very early 90s were not so free and easy with the sexual favours. Not that I'm bitter, mind. It wasn't a great place or time to be a woman who slept with both women and men.
- She think my husband looks like a model. As far as independent assessments of attractiveness go, that's about as airtight as they come.
- Her claim that I was 'roundly criticised' by Catherine Hakim for my educational background is a misrepresentation of Hakim's review; you can read it here. My education is in anthropology, maths, forensic science and epidemiology. I've also worked in chemoinformatics and child health research (mainly cancer). If anyone thinks that makes me unqualified to comment on academic research... with all due respect, check yo self.
- The last thing I said to her, when we were leaving Sky news: "Civilised is the new uncivilised."
So there it is. No particular desire or need to fetch a hatchet, because who benefits? (It might also help that I have professional experience of finding common ground with just about anyone for two hours as long as they're buying.) The Grauniad is a known quantity and the "pity" angle of her article frankly unbelievable... you don't bother tearing down someone if you feel actual pity for them. You might even wonder why I bothered. To which I say: lunch? On their dime? Admit it, you so would. And so I did.

It's a pity her piece was, in the end, so misleading. I was told it would be presented as a conversation; it's a rant. She accuses me of accusing her of taking money from the far right: evidence for this claim is undisputed, and considering the libel threats that Eaves For Women put on the book the day of its release,  thus delaying its actual release by weeks while lawyers hemmed and hawed, you would have thought she'd feel free to take it to court if I was actually wrong.

The nuisance suit was dropped very quickly, of course; its fantastical claims included that I had somehow "hacked" the Eaves mainframe... by reporting details of a paper they presented at an international conference, and posted online... well, I guess it got the job done, from their point of view. Ugly but effective.

Helen Lewis, as well, gave a very misleading review. She blasts me for praising a study from Keele University, missing the entire point of why it was praised: because even given the selective inclusion of only a certain kind of sex worker, the results are still positive - which sets it apart from other, negatively skewed, studies. Point well and truly missed. She seems like a smart girl, so I can only imagine she went in with a particular result in mind: namely, punishing me for not saying yes to an interview with her. Hey, I'd already booked Julie... one in-person assassination is enough for my well-being, thanks! Usually reviewers are expected to rise above such petty machinations. (That her review contained some exact wording found in the Eaves libel threat is, I am sure, a complete coincidence.)

But as I say, no hard feelings. They have a point of view that includes taking no prisoners. Apt, I suppose, for a style of feminism that considers the police to be adequate protectors of sex worker safety. Obviously it's a view I disagree with. I'm sure they're both perfectly lovely if you don't disagree with anything they say, ever. But the tenor of so-called debate in this country lately dictates that all differences must be fought to the last. A shame for fact finding, and missing the point of the book.

Right now you're probably thinking I should go to the cinema with Tanya Gold and discover maybe she's not as bad as all that? Hey now, let's not get crazy.

tl;dr - I was expecting a snarling nemesis, what I got was a lesbian Michael Winner... hugely offensive, yet surprisingly charming, bon viveur.

Believe it or not The Sex Myth is not only about columnists, or trafficking, or even feminism: those are only a small part. Most reviews have barely touched on any of the other chapters. It also discusses the medicalisation of female desire and the denial of women's appreciation for erotica, for example. It examines the criticisms of "sex addiction" as a disease. It champions under-reported sexualisation research that is more interested in representing real families than in reflecting a political agenda. It includes citations of all referenced material so you can read them and decide for yourself. My aim is not to force people and certainly not Julie Bindel to think the way I do: it's to open up the discussion in ways we simply are not doing around these topics. It's a call for less panic, not more.

Go get it. Read it. Make up your own mind.

* [Update:  Yes, I have checked this against the email record between me, my editor, and the Orion legal bods; and yes, I have run this blog past them and got the thumbs-up. Proceed to question it at your own risk.]