Hi everyone, I’m Rebekah. Thank you all for coming, and thanks to Kate for inviting me today.
I’d like to begin with a universally recognised truth, which is that MEN AND WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT.
We all know this, it isn’t news. Now let’s consider some of these differences as regards male and female prison populations. The women’s estate represents just 4-5% of the entire prison population in the UK at any time and women are imprisoned overwhelmingly for non violent offences. Over half of all prosecutions are for motoring offences. TV licence evasion and shoplifting are the 2nd and 3rd most common crimes women serve custodial sentences for. Women in prison are there because they’ve committed crimes as a result of poverty, destitution and desperation. We steal to feed and clothe our children. We push TV licensing down huge lists of priorities and we are penalised incredibly harshly for it.
On Saturday April 23rd, women once more organised to protest on prison grounds against the inclusion of male prisoners in the women’s estate. This event marked the 7th protest in our campaign, and our target was Askham Grange women’s prison, a beautiful old converted manor house in a picturesque and unassuming corner of York.
Despite the long journey and remote location, we arrived with a turnout of around 30 women equipped with banners, placards and the campaign’s trademark shields. We were also extremely pleased to introduce an additional megaphone, adding depth and a reverberant urgency to our now well known chants of “NO MALES IN FEMALE JAILS”, “WOMEN ARE NOT HUMAN SHIELDS”, and the crux of our mission statement “KEEP PRISONS SINGLE SEX”.
Prison, by its very nature, is an inescapably intimate place. Askham Grange even more so by virtue of its small size and status as an open prison. I know this personally because I served two thirds of my sentence here. I had friends, some of whom I kept for years after release, and I have memories both good and bad from the time I spent here, ranging from botched dental work to building snowmen (snowpersons?) to sharing cigarettes freezing on the lawn during midnight fire drills. Again, the intimacy is INESCAPABLE. The prison houses around 100 inmates at any given time. There is little privacy, many intense personal connections and there are NO secrets.
On Saturday, March 12th 2022, in honour of International Women’s Day on March 8th, feminist groups from across the North of England gathered to raise loud, visible objections to male violence against women and girls worldwide. We met to hold a vigil, and to march through Manchester city centre to raise awareness of the brutal and ongoing war being waged against women. The event was organised by Manchester Feminist Network and was joined in solidarity by Northern Radfem Network, Women’s Rights Network and Yes Matters, who were present fundraising for their free services supporting victims of male violence.
Our action was marred by male incursion right from the outset with a man being physically removed from our starting point – the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst – by police for menacing a group of women before the rally had even gotten underway. This incident was shortly followed by another man interrupting our chants against male violence, this time shouting pro transgender slogans – which was somewhat baffling and irrelevant as our assembled contingent were present to neither discuss nor draw attention to transgender politics. Ours was a peaceful, woman centred action that had numerous mothers and their children in attendance. This point cannot be overstated in relation to the events that transpired as we finished our assemblage and set off marching.
The chants were largely led by well known and respected feminist activist Belstaffie. We chanted about rape, the harms of pornography and gave a mention to honour the memory of a relation of one of the women present who tragically lost her life to suicide following an act of male sexual violence. We stood in solidarity with every victim and survivor, and raised our voices to draw attention to the scourge of violence that women are subjected to every single day.
On Saturday 26th Of February, Northern Radfem Network protested HMP Styal in Cheshire for a second time, in solidarity with a sequence of prison protests nationwide. Our aim was to drive home our disgust at male inmates being transferred to the female estate after declaring to prison officials that they’re somehow ‘transgender’.
This time round the weather was on our side, in contrast to our previous rainswept demonstration – which at least confirmed that Northern women rally whatever the weather. We had a solid turnout of 40 women, enough to catch the attention of a woman driving past who promptly pulled in to the prison grounds to thank us and to ask if she could join in, showing that far from being a niche corner of a culture war, this is an issue that’s rapidly rising to relevance for women from all walks of life. If you’re reading this, woman in the pink jumper (or anyone else for that matter) get in touch! We’d love to have you on board!
I’m confident that I speak for every woman present today, if not every single woman in society, when I say that a custodial prison sentence is one of our worst nightmares. It goes without saying that it changes lives, and not for the better. All control is instantly relinquished.
Women inside have no financial security. The jobs we can get in prison earn just £10-20 per week. We rely on this being topped up by people on the outside sending us money, and we have no access to our own bank accounts. We’re in real danger of losing our homes because we can no longer make rent. We’re locked away from our families, our only contact is by letter and brief 10 minute phone calls. Visiting time is the highlight of our week and that requires a bureaucratic process of application. It can’t be stressed enough how emotionally taxing this is, to have contact with our loved ones regimented by factors beyond our control.
At the end of January, women’s groups across the UK joined together to launch a series of protests at women’s prisons to loudly and visibly object and draw attention to current Ministry of Justice policies enacted in 2019 that allow men to simply identify their way into the female prison estate. Many women have come together to challenge this, and KEEP PRISONS SINGLE SEX has become a rallying cry. It’s insane that we should have to campaign for this but here we all are, doing exactly that.
I was present at the first protest, representing Northern Radfem Network and speaking as a former inmate of HMP Styal. All of the points I made that day remain pertinent – namely the lack of mental health provision, the epidemic of self harm and the extreme vulnerability of women in prison. Today I’m speaking again on behalf of my incarcerated sisters, and I hope my words represent their perspectives and fears whilst they are unable to speak out.
“Today’s demonstration, this protest, this outright OBJECTION to men in women’s prisons is a subject that resonates with me on a terrible, very personal level.
I’m a former inmate of HMP Styal. This occasion marks the first time I’ve returned to these grounds since I was shipped out in a sweat box 10 years ago. The conditions inside were as bleak then as they are now. Healthcare was not a priority, women were and are terribly unwell, with godawful diets and no good treatment plans. Mental health care is practically nonexistent. We’re talking about a forgotten population of the most achingly vulnerable women that society has left behind. Self harm is endemic, the statistics say that the prevalence is 5 times higher than the rates in men’s prisons – in reality this translates to the fact that the women I knew inside that didn’t self harm were a clear minority.
Many of the inmates are mothers. They miss their babies. You can hear them crying every night after lights out. The fear, pain and despondency they feel is palpable.
When I put out a call last week for young women to interview about porn use and ultimately porn rejection, I was confident that I’d get at least a few takers. Enough for an article that could at least scratch the surface of what appears to be a growing backlash against the culture. I know from speaking to teenagers that there are stories to be told and that now is the time to capture them.
What I wasn’t expecting was to suddenly, over the course of one weekend, receive enough material to write a book.
Thanks to Billie Eilish using her not inconsiderable platform to blow the conversation wide open, something has been ignited and the reams of men pathetically hopping on every available thread to justify their right to orgasm to images of rape and degradation seem a little less secure in their convictions. They’re being viewed as the misogynistic cretins they are, and not before time. But this article isn’t about them, this is about the girls that are being fed the culture from an alarmingly young age – the average age of first exposure to porn in the women I’ve spoken to is just 10 years old – and how they’ve been impacted by it.
I considered many different angles from which to approach this. I already scrapped my original intro about how the internet is not the force for good we hoped it’d be. We already know that. I’ve also had to fight against my default urge to be irreverent and make light of things I find uncomfortable.
I love Macclesfield. I really do. I love her saucy undulating hills and her disarmingly eccentric markets. I love her controversially defunct football club, even if you couldn’t get a vegan black coffee at matches. If I were a neighbouring town I’d well be eyeing her up. Especially in Winter, she’s radiant in Winter. I once even applied for a job on the Macc Tourism Board, confident I’d get it because after all, no one loves Macclesfield like I do. Unfortunately my inability to competently operate Excel overshadowed my love that day, but that’s another story. Visit Macclesfield! You won’t regret it! I’ll even show you around, I know some excellent pubs.
On the whole, I’m quite sure that Macclesfield loves me back, but lately there’s been a schism in our relationship. It’s of course political in nature, as these relationship fractures often are when those in love grow up alongside one another. The agent of unrest in this story is the charity organisation ostensibly for ‘LGBTQ+’ people, Macclesfield Pride. Now, as a gobby local lesbian with boundless enthusiasm for being a gobby local lesbian, you might naively presume we’d get on. We’d have coffee mornings perhaps, or ale soaked speed dating events. It could be marvelous! Lesbians know how to party. Unfortunately, that’s not quite what’s happened. Let me talk you through a tale of doublethink, exclusionary inclusion and an acronym in which the L is silent.