Thursday, June 29, 2006


Talk to them now, before it's too late

There's a hell of a ruckus going on about lad's mags at the moment. Labour MP, Claire Curtis-Thomas, who has a piece in yesterday's Independent , has called for them to be put on the top shelf along with all the other porn, while the editors of magazines such as Nuts and Zoo are tripping over themselves to get into tv and radio studios to defend their tawdry rags, claiming that they're not porn at all.

What a laugh. Of course they're porn. Although, of course, the definitions of porn are many and varied, depending largely on how you get your kicks, the last time I looked it was generally accepted that porn is material made with the explicit purpose of arousing your audience. Are they really trying to tell us that there's another reason for filling their pages with naked and semi-naked women? Maybe it's to help with GCSE biology revision?

We all know that the real reason — the only genuine reason — these guys have for crawling out of their caves to try convince us that what they're peddling isn't porn, is to keep them off the top shelf. Pushing them a few feet further up the newsagent's wall will put people off buying them. If people stop buying them, the publishers will close them, and if the publishers close them, certain editors won't have jobs any more. With their flash livelihoods at stake, it's hardly surprising that they're putting up a spirited defence of their chosen path, and if they can persuade a few members of the public that what they are doing is respectable, then so much the better.

As it stands, the mags are displayed down among the women's titles. (It has been claimed that they're often to be found nestling amid the Beanos and Dandys, but I'm a frequent visitor to that shelf and I can't say I've ever stumbled across anything untoward, unless you count the astronomical cover prices on the Simpsons comics.) This positioning lends them an air of decency, making it easier for your average bloke to buy them without embarrassment — end of story. To claim anything else is plain disingenuous.

And it's that disingenuousness that I object to, more than the mags themselves. Though undoubtedly crap and definitely degrading to women, they don't offend me any more than, say, page 3, or for that matter Cosmopolitan and Bliss. When it comes to deciding which offends me more — an image of a naked woman with her knickers dangling off her high heels and a staple through her navel or a skeletal model sashaying down a catwalk wearing clothes I'd need to remortgage my house to buy — I'd probably need to toss a coin. If we're going to get all hysterical about it (and plenty have) then there are lots of magazines that deserve to be elevated along with the lads' ones.

But… to paraphrase Voltaire, though I don't like what they do, I'd defend to the death their right to do it. Well, maybe not quite to the death, but you know what I'm getting at. They may not be lofty examples of what those of us who believe in freedom of expression are sworn to defend, but you either believe in freedom of expression or you don't.

It's not about what you and I think, though, is it? It has been said, ad nauseum, that the campaign to move the mags to the top shelf has been motivated by a desire to protect children. But let's be honest. Are our children really going to suffer irreversible damage if they catch a glimpse of Jodie Marsh's pubes before they're old enough to know what they are, or understand why she would want to get them out for the boys? I don't think so. And anyway, I've had as many awkward questions from the kids prompted by coverlines on women's magazines as I've had prompted by the Daily Sport.

The truth is, it's not really our children that we're worried about when we seek to protect them from images we consider obscene or inappropriate. If we were, we would be talking to them a bit more about the issues involved. I've heard plenty of adults chuntering on about all this, but apart from one short report on Radio 4 I haven't heard anyone actually asking kids what they think.

What 'protecting children' really translates into is protecting ourselves — from the embarrassment of having to talk to our children about what sex actually is. We're so screwed up about sex, so tied in knots by our religious and cultural baggage and repressed attitudes, that even the most liberal among us struggle to talk to our children about sex with any semblance of reason.

Oh, we're fine about telling them about the mechanics of sex. What periods are all about and where babies come from — some of us even manage to brief our boys about nocturnal emissions before their first wet dream, but it's when it comes to discussing the feelings and sensations involved we start coughing and spluttering, hoping that they'll get bored or embarrassed and drift off before we have to explain to them why, as an adult, you would actually want to do something so icky — for fun!

Yet the age when kids think sex is icky is the perfect time to tell them everything they need to know about sex.

Think about it — unless your child is being molested or is otherwise involved in inappropriate behaviour, the likely reaction to 'too much infomation' is EEEEUUUUWWWW!!! It certainly is in our house. And just because they collapse in a a giggling heap when they hear the word orgasm, that doesn't mean they're not taking in what you're telling them. Right now my daughter spends half her time quizzing me about sex, and the other half telling me how disgusting she thinks the whole business sounds. She's eight now, and though she won't believe me when I tell her, I know it won't be all that long before she's starting to have the feelings that will lead to her exploring her own sexuality. And, as anyone who has been an adolescent will testify, that's the point when all communications with her parents will cease, and information about sex and sexuality will come strictly via teen mags and — horror of horrors — her peers.

It is our duty as parents to use the precious years before that happens to cram their brains with as much sensible, positive information as possible before it's too late, then cross our fingers and hope for the best.

If we stopped being so bloody uptight about talking to our children about sex we wouldn't need to get our knickers in a knot about them getting their hands on a bit of soft porn here and there. Instead of howling with outrage and encouraging the government to bring in yet more censorious legislation, we should be talking to our children about the issues surrounding lad mags — how the people in them are portrayed, what they say about us as a society, and for that matter why the standard of sexually explicit, erotic material available in the UK is so lamentable.

We bleat on about the loss of innocence, yet for me innocence and naivity are two sides of the same coin. Naivity is what allows a young girl to get into a car with a gang of boys she vaguely knows and thinks she can trust. Naivity is what allows a young gay man walk alone across a deserted park in the small hours of the morning. Naivity is what allows a young women to trust her older lover when he assures her that having unprotected sex will be okay.

If innocence is naivity, knowledge is power. I'd swap innocence for knowledge any day of the week.

Monday, June 26, 2006


The Abortion Debate

There's been a fair bit of rumbling here recently on the subject of abortion, with the catholics sensing that the time is right to start pressing for a lowering of the time limit from the current 24 weeks, and demanding the right to see health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, to talk about it. Muriel Gray had an excellent piece in last Sunday's Herald pointing out the absurdity of allowing religious interests have a say in anything to do with public health policy.

I've been doing a fair bit of rumbling myself, and got involved in quite a heated exchange on the Comment is Free website the other day, with a load of blokes who were adamant that they knew better than women who've had terminations how they felt about it. I eventually came to the conclusion that there really is very little point in trying to reason with people who take their orders from, as Muriel puts it, their 'supernatural, imaginary friend in heaven'.

I joined in the debate to support Ann Coltart, who wrote the piece that started the discussion, and who very candidly talked of the abortion she had in her early twenties. I too had a (very early) abortion in my early twenties, and I felt it was important to mention it by way of qualification. Although it was a difficult decision to make, I can truly say that I have not had one moment's regret, or guilt, which is why I was so furious to read that all women feel guilt and regret. Having had two children since, and knowing what I know now, I am even more sure that I made the right decision.

For my trouble, I was accused of being a catholic, or at the very least, a lapsed catholic, and told, amongst other ridiculous things, that you do not have to 'feel depressed' to 'be depressed'. You can't really top that can you? But then again what should I have expected from people who have never required evidence of any kind to justify their point of view?

Apparently I got a little rude at one point, using the words damn, and idiot, which pissed off one of the participants in the debate so much that he threatened to hop over to the other side of the fence and support the pro-lifers. Having spent the other night reading through some of the most extreme hate-filled invective I have ever come across on the Flying Spaghetti Monster website (see my previous post) that made me laugh. Having described himself both as 'ambivalent to the practice of abortion' and 'fundamentally pro-choice', I don't think he's any great loss to the cause.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


I thought christians were supposed to be the good guys?

Totally freaked myself out lastnight. In the absense of anything decent on telly (C4 having moved Lost back to 11 o'clock to make room for the morons in the Big Brother house to continue making arses of themselves), I didn't switch the thing on at all, and instead amused myself by surfing the net.

Among the many websites I have been promising myself I'd visit properly is The Flying Spaghetti Monster. At first glance it seems like just a well-designed spoof of intelligent design which has lots of excellent, irreverant funny stuff to buy. But I was thrilled to find out that it actually has a much more serious point to it, having been set up to challenge the ridiculous Kansas School Board decision to give the theory of intelligent design equal emphasis in the science curriculum. Yey! Click here for a surprisingly balanced overview of the site's history in Science & Theology News.

What freaked me out was the horrible hate mail the site's founder, Bobby Henderson, has been receiving, from so-called christians. He has kindly published it all, and it makes for sinister reading. Of course it's a long time since I've been naive enough to think that all christians are nice well-spoken polite people who love their neighbours, don't covet their neighbour's wives, or oxen, or whatever. And I know that somewhere along the line Jesus's words about it being harder for a rich man to get into heaven than to get a camel through the eye of a needle got scrapped. I mean, you only have to be moderately well-versed in the ways of the world to know that there are christians out there who are quite happy to kill for what they believe in, despite what their lord had to say on the subject. Even so, I was horrified and not a little disturbed by the sheer viciousness of the comments Henderson has been receiving.

I had been thinking about buying a t-shirt or two for the kids. It seemed like a fun way of getting them and their friends involved in the debate, but a chill went down my spine when I read the words of one christian defender of intelligent design: IF I EVER MET ONE OF YOUR BELIEVERS, I WILL KILL THEM WHERE EVER I MAY FIND THEM!!!! NO WARNINGS, NO MERCY! And that's one of the milder comments. Whatever happened to the meek inheriting the earth?

D'you know what though? These bastards can't be allowed to win even the tiniest of victories. Hope FSM ship t-shirts to the UK.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Faith Schools… Again

It seems the major faiths have got their knickers in a knot (what's new) about whether they are going to be banned from teaching that homosexuality is a sin in faith schools once new equality laws come into force. I can't believe that this is even up for discussion. If these morons want to keep spreading their poison, they should pay for it themselves. It's not like they haven't got the money. At risk of sounding like a Daily Mail reader, is this what my taxes pay for? Of course, if we didn't have faith schools at all, this wouldn't be a problem. Makes you wonder how cynical it was of Blair to move Ruth Kelly from Education to Women and Equality in the last reshuffle. She spent her time in Education talking up faith schools and now she's in a plum position to make sure that they can carry on poisoning young minds with impunity. She's clearly got her eye on her place in heaven...

Finally got around to reading this excellent piece by AC Grayling, which appeared last month on the Guardian's superb Comment Is Free site. Apart from talking sense throughout, he touches on the issue of what us godless should refer to ourselves as. He prefers the term 'naturalist' to atheist, and he makes a good case for it.

Incidentally, having recently got involved in a short online dialogue with a christian who, within a couple of posts began — politely, it has to be said — to try to convince me of the 'truth' of Intelligent Design, it struck me that for him to stumble across me (or any other atheists) in cyberspace, he must be looking for us. Which is fair enough. After all, many christians take the dominionist aspect of their faith very seriously and proselytize every chance they get. I wonder what the reaction would be to me seeking out christian blogs and trying to convert them to atheism, though? Just a thought...

Friday, June 16, 2006

Check out this fascinating letter that I've found from an evangelical christian which eloquently puts the case for keeping religion out of public schools and events in America. If only we could use it to beat some sense in the powers-that-be in this country. Wouldn't it be better for our kids' sense of identity and self-esteem if schools stopped tying themselves in knots over how to cater to children's 'religious needs' and got on with the business of educating them? It is inevitable that christians in this country will become increasingly defensive and protective as more and more minority faiths are represented in school assemblies, just as it is inevitable that those from minority faiths will be offended each time they have to sit through collective worship which is 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character'. Get the whole lot out of our schools!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Common Sense For Kids

The news that Stephen Hawking is to collaborate with his daughter to write a book for children explaining the wonders of the universe will be welcome to parents like me, who are keen to foster a sense of awe about the world and all its wonders in their kids.

Although I was interested in science at school, I confess I was a bit too distracted by all the usual teenage stuff for much of what I was taught in chemistry, physics and biology to stick in my head for long. I did manage to scrape a last minute pass in Anatomy, Physiology and Health but, come to think of it, being distracted by all the usual teenage stuff probably helped with that.

It is only now, having dabbled in Dawkins, so to speak, that my interest in science has once again been piqued, and I find myself frantic to inspire that sense of wonder in my own children before it's too late and they've skipped off down the path of hormonal destruction that I so happily trod.

Sadly, I have neither the knowledge nor the talent to do this with any great confidence, so it is a relief when an eminent scientist like Hawking decides to translate the seemingly impenetrable mysteries of science into a form that children (and maybe even me!) can understand. What I want to know is when Richard Dawkins is going to do the same?

One thing that did bother me slightly in the report of this upcoming book. Hawking says that the book is going to be 'a bit like Harry Potter' but without the magic. If it must (and why pick JK Rowling as a role model when surely Philip Pullman would be much more appropriate?), let's hope he makes the chapters short enough to get through in a bedtime reading session.

"We agree that collective acts of worship are important to help promote tolerance and understanding among children and young people."

So say the Department of Education and Skills, in a statement issued today after a call from the senior figures in the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and Baptist churches for more stringent observance of the law requiring state schools to hold acts of 'collective worship' on a daily basis.

What is wrong with just teaching tolerance and understanding to children and young people?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

How terrifying is this? The article, that is, not the website.

Given America's reputation as a nation populated — and run — by an extraordinary number of religious fanatics, I find it both comforting (on behalf of secular Americans) and frustrating (on behalf of me and other secular Brits) to be reminded of the separation of church and state enshrined in the US constitution which keeps religion out of schools. Today it was this piece on that brought it to mind. Love the last paragraph!

Monday, June 05, 2006


The Fightback Begins

Interesting piece in the Guardian last week about those creationist academies Blair and his chums seem to regard as the future of education in this country. They'd be laughable if it weren't for all the people who have no choice but to send their kids there. Still, looks like the scales are starting to fall from parents' eyes now. Good luck to 'em.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Is My Loss Greater Than Your Loss?

The grimmest, most tragic story to break last week was undoubtedly that of Laura VanRyn and Whitney Cerak, the two college friends involved first in a fatal bus crash and second, in a tragic mix-up which involved one family keeping vigil by the bedside of the girl they thought was their daughter Laura, who turned out to be her friend, Whitney. The pain and grief felt by both families is unimaginable, and anyone who has children and a heart must, like me, find it almost impossible to read the reports.

Read them I have, however, and what has struck me, apart from the tragic circumstances of the case, is the overwhelming emphasis that has been placed on the girls' beauty, blondeness and devotion to god. Granted, I have read only one newspaper today, but it was the Observer, and I have to say I was shocked and sickened by the tone of their coverage, which I imagine was echoed throughout the rest of the press.

The fact that these young women looked strikingly similar was clearly what caused the mix-up, and therefore the story. Because let's face it, thousands of young people are killed every day in tragic accidents and hardly make news at all, even at a local level.

But is the fact that they were devoted christians really relevant? Or that they were beautiful, smart, blonde, well-behaved, sporty?

Is it more tragic for devoted christians to lose a child than it is for people of other religions or of none? Do the parents of a beautiful child feel that child's loss any more keenly than those of an ugly child? Would I weep more for a straight-A student than I would for for a child who struggled academically? If a fat, sedentary child dies is he mourned any less than a slim, sporty one? Is a blonde-haired girl who can trace her ancestry back to Europe worth more than a dark-haired girl who can't?

By emphasising these characteristics what is being said is yes — to all of the above.


Didn't have a lot of time to blog last week, thanks to good old half-term and compulsory quality time with the young 'uns. We did have fun though.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to hammer home evolutionary theory, and given that my in-laws live a mere half-hour drive from Charmouth Beach in Dorset, I dragged husband and kids out fossil-hunting! Well, 'dragged' isn't strictly accurate — I generally find that mentioning fossils to men and children makes them as biddable as those humans with the funny earpieces in Doctor Who's last encounter with the cybermen.

Talk about 'bang-for-your-buck' children's entertainment! I tell you, it was up there with mackerel fishing (you know, where you do it off a boat which has a 'fish-finder' which electronically guides you into the middle of a shoal, you use a line that has umpteen hooks on it and you're guaranteed to catch at least six or seven fish).

Thanks to several recent cliff collapses, there are endless lumps of soft clay just lying around on the beach waiting to be prised apart — even by the smallest of fingers — to reveal amonites, belemnites and lots of other -ites that I'm not spoddy enough to know the names of. It seems bizarre to think that while you can be arrested for walking out of a public park with a stick in your hand, you're free to help yourself to as many fossils as you like from Britain's crumbling coastline, but the practice is positively encouraged — there are hammers for sale and hire at the beach.

Of course, guddling around on a beach is fun at the best of times, but when you have the added bonus of being able to find fossils 175million years old… well, it's difficult to beat. We had a fantastic time.

A word of caution, though. The cliffs really are crumbling, and if you don't follow the safety advice there's a real chance you might end up squashed under several tonnes of clay. Of course you might make a very interesting find for some kid 150 million years from now, but somehow I don't think knowing that will help.

Check out this website for some top tips.

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