Help Catholic abuse survivor Sue Cox win an award

I wrote my most-read post ever last month, much of which referred to religious abuse or trauma. At one point I mentioned Sue Cox, who was raped by Catholic clergy as a child – today as a founder of Survivors Voice Europe, she campaigns internationally against the actions of the Vatican and for victim support. In the video below from 2011 (promoting the Secular Europe March) she talks about her activism.

Recently Sue was nominated – then shortlisted – for one of this 2014’s Inspiration Awards, which recognise the contributions of outstanding women. The organisation’s site says this about her:

Sue is a powerful, tireless and inspirational advocate and speaker on the subject of childhood sexual abuse and the ensuing mental health effects of such trauma.

After recovering from clergy abuse which resulted in alcoholism, self-harm and an eating disorder, she is now a counsellor and healthcare tutor who heads up two organisations; SMART UK which teaches healthcare professionals within the NHS, armed forces and criminal justice system to understand about the brain and addiction; and an International Charity, Survivors Voice Europe, who spearheaded the campaign at the UN (CRC) to investigate the Vatican and the sexual abuse of children.

Not afraid to stand up for the rights of survivors and for people to truly understand the effects of abuse,  Sue’s passion and focus is on empowerment, connection and identification of all survivors.

Having known Sue several years and admired her courageous vigour several more, I can testify to all the above. The work of secular campaigners against clerical abuse deserves recognition – so, moreover, does she.

To help secure her the award for which she’s been nominated, go to the organisers’ website and vote. It’s only possible to do this by voting in all seven other categories as well, and all the nominees have stories worth reading: it’s worth noting in particular that three other candidates (for two different awards), Jackie Moon, Bethan Rimmington and Ellie Morrissey, also work in the field of sexual abuse recovery.

All my respect to Sue Cox, and the very best of luck.

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About that “green eyed monster” article Dawkins wrote

Every so often I see a 2007 article called ‘Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster‘ reposted from Dawkins.net. (It seems originally to have been a column in the Washington Post‘s ‘on faith’ segment.) Most of the friends who share it say positive things about it, including that challenging compulsory monogamy shows Dawkins still has chops as a social critic.

Certainly there are a couple of good bits.

I want to raise [a] question that interests me. Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place?

I admit that I have, at times in my life, been jealous, but it is one of the things I now regret. Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined?

Even sticking to the higher plane of love, is it so very obvious that you can’t love more than one person? We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don’t at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Chateau Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don’t feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends . . . why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it? Why can a woman not love two men at the same time, in their different ways? And why should the two — or their wives — begrudge her this?

I’m not denying the power of sexual jealousy. It is ubiquitous if not universal. I’m just wondering aloud why we all accept it so readily, without even thinking about it.

I’m afraid, however, that much of the rest fills me and numerous nonmonogamous skeptics I know with extreme discomfort. While the topic’s on the table, I thought I’d lay the problems with the article out.

Here’s how it starts:

Is sex outside of marriage a sin? Is it a public matter? Is it forgivable?

No, of course sex outside marriage is not a public matter, and yes, of course it is forgivable. Only a person infected by the sort of sanctimonious self-righteousness that religion uniquely inspires would apply the meaningless word ‘sin’ to private sexual behaviour.

It is the mark of the religious mind that it cares more about private than public morality.

I wouldn’t apply the word ‘sin’ to cheating, which appears throughout the piece to be how Dawkins interprets ‘sex outside of marriage’, but I would call a breaking a promise of monogamy unethical where one’s been made; I think most poly people would. That’s what distinguishes polyamory from cheating: there’s no promise of monogamy in the first place. Deceiving your partner into a relationship they haven’t agreed to, often with added risk of venereal infection, humiliation or just unhappiness, is a matter of consequence, harm and consent, not an arbitrary religious taboo.

Continuing the ‘private behaviour’ theme in reference to the Lewinsky scandal:

Lying to Congress by saying, ‘I did not have sex with that woman’ should not be an impeachable offence, because where a man puts his penis is none of Congress’s damn business.

In point of substance, no complaint. But ‘where a man puts his penis’? Really? As if rather than an active partner, Lewinsky were just some high-heeled cock holster.

Generally speaking, references to penis-in-vagina sex as someone sticking it somewhere sound pretty rapey to me. If the sex you have is consensual, both people are doing something.

The revolting hue and cry that our religiously inspired society habitually raises over private sexual ‘morality’ serves as a dangerous distraction away from important matters of public morality such as the Blair/Bush lies about Iraq’s weapons.

Back to the public/private distinction we had earlier. The suggestion is that since sex isn’t world politics, it isn’t up for ethical debate. It can be: rape is usually, for instance, a private act. The requirement for sex to be ethical (or at least ethically immaterial) isn’t privacy, it’s that everyone involved agrees to what goes on. That’s not the case when one partner cheats on another.

Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected – or fear – that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is ‘cheating on them’. ‘Cheating’ really is the word that occurs most readily to these people.

Indeed – because it means to participate while breaking the rules, and relationships can have rules.

Here’s one key point. Nonmonogamous people also cheat – it’s just that breaking the rules means something other than seeing an extra partner. (It might mean, for example, having a type of sex off-limits outside the primary partnership.)

The underlying presumption — that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being’s body — is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious.

That’s not why we shame people who cheat in monogamous relationships. We do it because their partners are entitled to say on what terms they form a relationship with someone else, and to expect that mutually agreed rules be upheld. (Lots of people require monogamy emotionally or aren’t comfortable without it. Asking prospective partners for that – who are free to say no and move on – is their right.)

In one of the most disgusting stories to hit the British newspapers last year, the wife of a well-known television personality, Chris Tarrant, hired a private detective to spy on him. The detective reported evidence of adultery and Tarrant’s wife divorced him, in unusually vicious style.

Here Dawkins’ attitude to women reveals itself again. How dare the former Mrs Tarrant end a relationship she hadn’t agreed to? How dare she divorce a man – angrily, no less! – who deceived her?

What shocked me was the way public opinion sided with Tarrant’s horrible wife. Far from despising, as I do, anybody who would stoop so low as to hire a detective for such a purpose, large numbers of people, including even Mr. Tarrant himself, seemed to think she was fully justified. Far from concluding, as I would, that he was well rid of her, he was covered with contrition[.]

‘Bitch.’

The explanation of all these anomalous behaviour patterns is the ingrained assumption of the deep rightness and appropriateness of sexual jealousy.

Or the fact Tarrant’s wife didn’t want to remain married to a man seeing other woman without seeking her consent. One of the two, I’m sure.

Polyamorous people often still feel jealousy. Partners angry they’ve been cheated on often don’t. The point is the betrayal of trust.

From a Darwinian perspective, sexual jealousy is easily understood. Natural selection of our wild ancestors plausibly favoured males who guarded their mates for fear of squandering economic resources on other men’s children. On the female side, it is harder to make a Darwinian case for the sort of vindictive jealousy displayed by Mrs. Tarrant.

Evo-psych. Manbrains and ladybrains. Need I say more?

The British writer Julie Burchill is not somebody I usually quote (imagine a sort of intelligent Ann Coulter speaking with a British accent in a voice like Minnie Mouse) but I was struck by one of her remarks.

Women. Feminists. Whiny voices. Grr.

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The Rational Heart: a symbol for rational nonmonogamy

A quick announcement, folks.

Wesley Fenza, lawyer that he is, has licensed the symbol I created for his blog so anyone, provided they credit me, can use it as they like – here’s the Wikimedia Commons entry.

000

We’re calling the symbol the Rational Heart. As well as starting life at his site Living Within Reason, it denotes rational nonmonogamy and relationship anarchy in general, especially among skeptics.

What does that mean? Well, here are some thoughts on the design, which some people have said they plan to wear or embroider on bedsheets.

The Rational Heart rejects the worship of monogamy and its unearned privilege over polyamory as legacies of a puritanical religious past.

The Rational Heart represents love as poly people experience it: a whole composed of many individual relationships.

The Rational Heart acknowledges the multitude of interlocking, overlapping shades of love.

The Rational Heart sees logic and reason as key parts of happy, ethical relationships that aid emotional communication, not bleak or unromantic obstacles to love.

The Rational Heart stands for nonmonogamy as positive, lucid and consequence-based ethical choice, not emotional recklessness.

The Rational Heart stands for reciprocation, mutually acknowledged rules and partnerships based on adult consent, not coercion, exploitation or betrayal.

If you wear or display this symbol, that’s what you believe in.

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The real male equivalent of a female rape victim getting drunk

This was something I said yesterday.

Let’s try this again.

The male equivalent of a woman getting drunk is not a man leaving his house unlocked, leaving his car unlocked, leaving his front door open, walking down the street with £20 notes sticking out of his pockets or walking around with his wallet hanging out.

You know what the male equivalent of a woman getting drunk is? A man getting drunk. And when men get drunk, they’re usually not sexually assaulted.

84 Facebook likes, 22 shares, 13,965 views at Imgur and the top post at r/feminism with 436 points: the numbers say the Internet liked it.

More to come. (Thanks to Marianne Baker for screengrabbing this, and Maria Marcello’s trolls for inspiring it.)

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Guest post: I was raped at Oxford University. Police pressured me into dropping charges

I’ve known Maria Marcello several years. (Follow her on Twitter at @missmarcello.)
On her request I’m reprinting this post, originally published at Medium, about what she through two years ago.
Be warned: everything the title mentions is discussed in detail.
I was the friend.

000

Former judge Mary Jane Mowat’s recent comments about rape convictions are outrageous. (“Rape conviction statistics will not improve until women stop getting so drunk”, she said this week.) To me however, they are also personal.

In the first term of my second year at Oxford, I was raped while passed out in my bed. Yes, my unconsciousness was due to alcohol.

Desperate to learn how to play poker, I had invited some friends over to teach me, one of whom brought two companions. Poker rapidly descended into a drinking game and I, being a fatal combination of bad at poker and intolerant of alcohol, passed out. I have since learnt that I was put to bed, but I don’t remember anything. Then a guy I didn’t know had sex with me in my sleep.

I have one very clear memory which still haunts me two years later. I remember waking up during the night and seeing him on top of me, my trousers around my ankles and my shirt still on. I pulled away and heard him mutter “Oh no, it fell out” to himself, at which point I blacked out again. I assume he continued to rape me.

I told very few people at the time, but a friend came with me to the police station. The receptionist, on learning I was reporting a sex offence, insisted on me giving details in front of everybody in the waiting room before taking me somewhere private. Two officers then came to my house, where I was questioned further. One described rape as “just something that happens”, especially at university. The only advice I received was to drink less in future.

Once I explained what had happened and provided forensics, the policemen contacted a woman I was told was in charge of dealing with rape allegations around Oxfordshire. She came into the kitchen, where I had been with the two policemen and my friend, and sent him from the room insisting the conversation be private – even as I maintained I needed him for moral support and didn’t mind him being there.

She proceeded to question me rather forcefully, in a very short and matter-of-fact tone, and concluded that because I was drunk I couldn’t prove anything, informing me my evidence would not stand up in court. She said she got called to investigate a number of rape reports each day and her job involved deciding which of them it was worthwhile to pursue and which it wasn’t. In her opinion, as she made clear from the start, mine fell into the latter category.

The woman asked me to decide in that moment whether or not to press charges. I was not allowed to leave the kitchen until I had made my decision. She didn’t fail to emphasise how traumatic I would find the process or her certainty my case would not stand up in court: I would be unable to prove I was unconscious at the time or that I didn’t drunkenly consent.

000In fact, the Crown Prosecution Service states “capacity to consent may evaporate well before a complainant becomes unconscious”. Photos and videos my friends shot of me passed out both on the floor and on my bed proved I was incapable of consenting: unable to talk or stand up, I cannot have been capable of agreeing to sex. Furthermore, the Sexual Offences Act 1956 lists “evidence that by reason of drink… the complainant was unaware of what was occurring and/or incapable of giving valid consent” as a means by which to establish rape.

The entire experience, being separated from my friend and then questioned harshly hours after my rape, was perhaps as disorientating as it could possibly have been. I was given no opportunity to seek advice or regain composure; no chance to sleep on the matter. The woman insisted on me deciding whether or not to press charges immediately. Still shaken and vulnerable, I was in no position to make such a decision on the spot, and frankly her description of the court process scared me. It was little wonder, then, that I dropped it.

The woman who came to my kitchen told me my situation was exactly what former judge Mowat calls “one person’s word against another[’s]”. Her implication is that a woman who was drunk can’t prove anything – that the whole case is a matter of he-said-she-said.

For me, it wasn’t. As it happened, I did have evidence.

Had the police cared enough they could have acquired DNA, but the woman told them to return the clothes, bedsheets and used condoms I had given them. These all provided incontrovertible evidence that the guy had sex with me. In fact, given his bragging at dinner the following day, this was never really in question. “I lost the poker,” he said, “but I did pretty well if you know what I mean.” Just typing that today sickens me.

My Oxford college, when I spoke to its professional welfare staff, largely ignored me; the guy who raped me received a minor reprimand and no further repercussions. Despite several friends explaining on multiple occasions that his mere presence unnerved me, he seemed to devote his life to making me feel uncomfortable. On nights I was working behind the college bar, he would carefully place himself between me and the exit, sitting there all night. One time when I left a party as soon as he came in he followed me all the way out of college. I ran, and made it halfway back to my house before stopping. Whether his behaviour was intentional is irrelevant: I spent as little time in college as I could, rarely attending events there.

Despite the number of times I have contacted the welfare officers about this, they have largely ignored me except to say that if he’s around I should just leave. I have a year left at Oxford, as does he. I still don’t understand why I should be the one leaving.

“I’m not saying it’s right to rape a drunken woman,” Mary Jane  Mowat told the Oxford Mail. “But [when] they’ve got a woman who says ‘I was absolutely off my head, I can’t really remember what I was doing[’] . . . how are they supposed to react?”

Juries should react, in those circumstances, with the understanding that a state of extreme inebriation is not one where a person can give valid consent for sex and that this in itself is evidence of rape. The CPS explicitly states as much, encouraging investigators to “consider whether supporting evidence is available to demonstrate that the complainant was so intoxicated that he/she had lost their capacity to consent”.

There would be more convictions if the police process didn’t pressure women with viable evidence to drop their reports. In 2012-13, official treatment of victims like me meant only 15 percent of rapes recorded by the police even went to court. Mowat is right in that rape conviction statistics are lower than they should be. However, the criminal justice system is to blame, not drunk women.

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To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

This post is currently getting a lot of traffic. If you like it, here are some of the other things I write.

As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

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Recommended reading: Catholicism, kink, feminism and Lydia Bennet

Britney tells me I should work more. While I’m busy, some things to be going on with:

  • ‘My Path from Rome’, by Barbara Smoker (The Freethinker)
    Whenever I mention my Catholic childhood, people tend to assume that the reason I have rejected religion so completely is that an extreme version of it was drummed into me as a child – but it wasn’t like that at all.
  • ‘Thank Goodness Richard Dawkins Has Finally Mansplained Rape’, by Erin Gloria Ryan (Jezebel)
    Dawkins, who himself suffered sexual abuse when he was fondled by a school staffer as a child, believes he has the right to quantify and describe the experiences of others who have also suffered sexual abuse.
  • ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, I’m Emotional’, by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds)
    I had plans for today that had nothing to do with addressing Richard Dawkins’ self-serving justifications for his Twitter trolling. But no, he chose today to brand consequence-based ethical arguments about how he should shape his public messaging as ‘taboos’, as though they were based in religion or tea-table politesse.
  • ‘Sex-Positive Feminist Icons In Literature: Some Evolving Thoughts on Lydia Bennet’, by Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog)
    Austen describes her as ‘self-willed and careless,’ ‘ignorant, idle, and vain.’ And yes. She is all of these things. But she’s also something else. She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.
  • ‘Fifty Shades of Grey Gets Bondage All Wrong’, by ahhidk (tickld.com)
    BDSM is a community that believes in safety and comfort. Consent is always necessary, and partners take care of each other. AFter acts and role plays, partners comfort each other to help transition out of that zone. FSOG does not include any of this.

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Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.

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Chapter 9: Attention

Chapter 8: Biology.

Long-term, it’s true you don’t just come out once – but in the weeks after I first nodded when asked if I was gay, I didn’t need to mention it again. Charlotte, Islay and Rachel grilled me on it eating lunch outside, Matthew Stockwell enthusiastically informed my French class and eleven-year-olds I didn’t know, but who knew me by name, approached at morning break. I was as talked-about as only something unmentionable can be, and in hindsight it amazes me sexual assault could be so totally hushed up at the same school.

If I still doubted mine was part of a culture of harassment, straight boys’ reactions to discovering a gay classmate would convince me. The perfunctory ‘backs against the wall’ routine was of course trotted out, but many seemed truly to feel threatened by me, from the football fan who begged me not to ‘do anything’ while we were alone (his friends had shut us in a room together) to others’ complaints about sharing a changing room with me.

On one particular coach ride, Michael Cosgrove refused point blank to be sat next to me, crying to the trainee teacher in charge that I was gay, even admitted to it, and as such would feel his leg during the journey. Although he’d covered me previously in bruises and bottled water, I don’t think he was just bullying me: making a scene in front of the whole year which must have lasted ten to fifteen minutes, and despite being much more imposing than I was physically, he seemed genuinely scared and upset.

These boys assumed I must be into them, and took it for granted that if you found someone attractive, you assaulted them. They never used that word for what they worried I might do, since presumably it would have applied just as much to what they did to girls. Certainly I ogled, creeped and ignored boundaries, but no more than they ever did: to most of us, this was what fancying someone meant. Whereas being groped had influenced my thinking, they never linked my behaviour (feared or real) to theirs.

The boys I liked found out I liked them through the grapevine, and because at that age, liking someone was a thing to be announced. (It didn’t occur to me it would be different if you liked your own gender.) Some of them responded by shoving me or crushing me into the suffocating space beneath stairwells. Then there were those who came for me because they felt like it; I’ve since forgotten most of their names, but Robbie Grout’s, who once stuck a pair of compasses into my arm and stained my shirt sleeve red, survives.

If this sounds galling, what got to me far more at the time were the dismissals. I don’t recall ever being told I was going through a phase, because at twelve, the people who might otherwise have said that didn’t buy in the first place that I could like boys and be aware of it. Plenty asked how I could know or told me outright that I couldn’t, which stung both since the answer was unspeakable and since they were themselves certain of being not-gay. Others decided – and it stuck – that I was an attention seeker.

What always hurt about this was that undeniably, it held a grain of truth. I’d femmed up after all in infant school to irritate straight boys, enjoyed being different for the sake of it and was satisfied on some level with being the gay kid, even as it made life difficult. But with my wild hair, nasal voice, southern accent and foreign name – not to mention nerdiness – I was always going to stick out. Doing so wasn’t hard: over time, I was called an attention seeker for wearing coloured socks, sitting cross-legged and eating ice cream in autumn term.

If it had been true I was making being gay up so my peers cared about me, they cared entirely the wrong way. I never had to falsify anything to be stared at: the things I liked to do just got me noticed. If more basic children paid attention to me, it wasn’t that I sought it – it was that I commanded it.

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Chapter 7: Stranger Danger

Chapter 6: The Age of Consent.

I’d most likely be straight today had Jonathan been a girl. He never could have been, of course – the friendship where things started out between us categorically male, and girls don’t often assault boys – but the fact my flesh responded to his touch even as my mind fled makes me think it would have done to anyone’s. It’s not widely admitted sexual assault can be arousing, but many victims will quietly acknowledge among themselves that that’s part of the violation. At any rate, I don’t think I’m alone in having coped over the years by allowing memories of mine to be erotic.

I was stretched out on the living room sofa a few weeks later when being gay came to me. Eyes shut, brain replaying Jonathan’s words, palm moving over denim jeans, it seemed the natural explanation if his actions or their reenactment made things throb. It didn’t bother me, and was more an oh than anything, but neither did I ask myself whether a girl might have the same effect. I couldn’t have been less attracted to him, but instead of sussing hard-ons were about nerve endings, I assumed the way Jonathan’s fingers turned me on must involve him being a boy, and boys became my sexual focus.

Dial-up modems were still widespread in 2004. Their distinctive electronic rasp was the sound of discovery: home from school in the late afternoon, for evenings and into the night I sat at Mum’s bedroom table googling ‘gay teenagers’ on an HP computer. Avoiding reels of porn, which were a later destination, I found informative websites, advice columns, forums for queer youth and chatrooms. Reclusive, twelve and with no reason to go out, I spent whole weekends on these sites, and not just because of how long it took them to load.

You might be reading this with apprehension, and initially I was apprehensive. As much as anyone today, I’d been told the Internet was a dark, twisted place, not least for children – the home of perverts, deviants and strangers who’d handed sweets out in playgrounds before MSN arrived. In fact, living online saved me. It was where I made my very first queer friendships, mocked Fred Phelps, learnt about the real ins and outs of sex and listened to coming out stories. The net was somewhere I felt uniquely safe: I decided I never wanted to leave, and I haven’t.

Now and then, an unsettling message appeared; I clicked Block and that was that. There’d been no block button when Jonathan sat next to me in German class – indeed, it was our school’s insistence on shielding pupils from unseemly talk of sex that made what happened possible. Unlike in meatspace, no one could do anything to me online that I didn’t want them to. Even away from public forums, my contacts – Floridan Sean, Canadian Chris, Matt in New Zealand, Logan in one of America’s Birminghams – were half a planet away and confined to speaking via onscreen text. It’s hard to imagine a less vulnerable form of communication. Research on sexual violence shows the stranger-predator to be a bogeyman: usually, as I’d been unlucky enough to find out, the culprit is someone known to us.

As we spent whole nights discussing bullying and Buffy, trading mp3s and occasional selfies, it turned out some of my online friends – one or two in their mid-twenties – did think I was cute. It’s hard not making this sound powerfully creepy, but I don’t believe it was ever sinister. These people were part of large and interweaving web communities, some of them with popular LiveJournals, and we’d spoken now and then by webcam with the same platonic ease friends at school had: they were real people as clearly to me as my blogging colleagues now, and when a couple fessed up guiltily to wishing I was older, it was with the shy apologism of a best friend admitting a light crush. It had occurred to me they were cute too, and while nothing beyond affection ever came of it, hearing they felt the same of me was on the whole affirming. In contrast to what I’d been through with someone my own age, it wasn’t predatory at all, but healing.

I won’t speak to others’ experience or make grand points. I’m not even sure what I’m even saying about mine, but mentioning it seems important.

Chapter 8: Biology.

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