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It's my turn to lay into Hot Feminist by Polly Vernon (and I've including an anecdote on assault, because I like to entertain)





Despite my status as a bookworm, I've never written a full review of a book on my blog. I post them often on my Instagram and on my GoodReads account. But my blog? Nah. I usually only require two paragraphs to say what I need to say and to provide other bookworms an indication on whether that book is something they need in their life or not.

Then along came Hot Feminist by Polly Vernon. Boy, do I have some opinions that won't fit into a Instagram caption.

If you're not familiar with the title: it caused a big stir when it was released. The premise of the book is that women can give a shit about their appearance while still fighting the patriarchy (fair enough). Polly was accused of being a middle-class, white women who had her head in the clouds with no understanding of 'real' feminist issues (also: fair enough, but we'll get to that). She was then subjected to quite a bit of hate on Twitter (never ever fair enough, respected debate is welcome but vilifying someone for a book is not something I can get behind).

I was drawn to this book because I am a firm believer that feminine and feminist are not mutually exclusive. I for one will definitely be at the revolution, and I will be bringing my winged eyeliner and lipgloss with me. Saying that, feminine women do sit in a privileged position above, say, butches or tomboys. More masculine women challenge the status quo simply by existing. Femme women? Yeah, not as much. While we do face some unique problems (street harassment and, if you're a queer femme-woman like myself, erasure of an important part of your identity) liking make-up is hardly revolutionary act within itself (but women who like make-up can still be revolutionary in other ways).

I hoped Polly's book would expand on the ideas I briefly introduced above with research and anecdotes. Maybe interview a feminist scholar? Or a handful of femme women? Maybe even a femme women who identifies as queer? Or a trans woman?

Perhaps an analysis of marketing techniques wielded by the global beauty industry? Or a history of how lipstick came to be?

No, it was pretty much just a personal rant about not wanting her own personal experiences and definition of feminism challenged.

Here's the thing about social justice: it's not just about you. That's not how it works. Yes, you'll have your pet issues that are probably fuelled by personal hardship (like me banging on about bisexual issues, or how awful men are on Tinder). But in order to actually fucking change the world, you need to think bigger picture and actually give a shit about issues that have fuck all affect on you. Otherwise, your fight is for nothing. Or we only end up fixing issues that impact middle-class, white, feminine women.

I was once a feminist who couldn't see past her own experiences. I think most of us probably were at some point. It took me ages to get around the whole white-people-not-being-allowed-to-have-dreads thing. There are probably still a lot of other things I say and do that are oppressive as shit, but these days I do stop to listen to the experiences of others. And if I was going to write a book about feminism I'd sure as hell have some other people from different backgrounds look over it before I sent it off to bookshops. Or maybe I wouldn't write it; as we already have enough books written about the struggle of middle-class, white women.

Polly even ends up in cultural appropriation territory twice, and mis-uses the term OCD. Not encouraging people to view other cultures as fashion inspiration and not being a dick about mental health is Social Justice 101.

She also doesn't use trigger warnings.

But I do. So here is one big trigger warning for sexual assault and emotional abuse.

[TRIGGER WARNING]

Polly Vernon speaks openly about an assault made on her when she was a teenager and the way it impacted her. She also touches upon an emotionally abusive relationship. She doesn't go into detail about the second one, but that's okay because people shouldn't be forced to share their stories if they're not comfortable (or safe) doing so.

This chapter was fabulous and was one of the best discussions around sexual assault that I've read (even if it didn't start with a trigger warning).

The reason it was one of the best chapters in the book and entire fucking world was that it included all assault. No assault is worse than another. It hit me hard because it's one of the few times where I feel as though my experience of assault is included and accepted.

I've never spoken openly about my experience of sexual assault. But I'm a women, so you had probably guessed I must have had a story tucked away somewhere.

I've been subjected to the usual groping in nightclubs, been called a whore for not accepting a drink, and even had a male 'friend' make up rumours that we were getting close so other men would stay away from me (that was a fun time). I mean, if I won't love him then I'm not allowed to love anyone.

But I came out unscathed and had no lasting emotional wounds.

However, I do have an experience that still makes me skin crawl and has made me permanently more cautious on the dating market.

I'm not going to publish a moment-by-moment recount. Maybe I will one day, if I feel brave enough. But I'm going to touch upon it enough so that you understand why I normally don't feel included in the discussion or why pop culture doesn't ever portray sexual assault in a way that brings about flashbacks.

  • It wasn't violent
  • It was someone I was actively dating
  • It was someone I had been friends with first, and trusted
  • It wasn't an arrogant jock, but a nerd
  • He wasn't tall or muscular, I could have put up a physical fight
  • It was in my flat, I had the territorial control
  • I wasn't drunk or under the influence
  • I was conscious
  • I explicitly said no
  • But that explicit no was to an act within sex
  • Not only did we have an active sexual relationship, but we were having sex at the time
  • A sex act that is mainstream, and one that men get praised for when they do (you know what I'm talking about, surely). 
  • I just froze and my mind went blank
  • I even continued dating him
I spent the next year of my life living in skin that was constantly crawling. I was frustrated. Angry. I had negative emotions that I didn't know how to deal with. But I internalised it. I still thought that I should have repeated my no. Or punched him. Or not had sex at all that night. It took me a year to have my moment where I realised none of what happened had been my fault. That I froze up and couldn't make sense of what was happening (never mind muster up a comeback). All the blame lies with him. He ignored a verbal no. That is not grey area. That is not 'could have read between the lines better' or 'be less creepy in a nightclub'. That is assault.

But despite that, I still feel like my story doesn't count. That some people have it worse. That some people never heal. That some people never have sex again. That some people got asked what they were wearing or why they drank so much. That they were violently attacked by a man jumping out an alleyway.

It's probably because I've never watched a sexual assault story line that depicts what I experienced. I even ignore content and trigger warnings because I'm never impacted by assault on the telly. My assault was quite mundane, and probably wouldn't make good telly.

But Polly's writing did hit hard. Because it included my story. Okay, not my actual story because this is the first time I've publicly shared it, but it felt like if she was going to curate a book with sexual assault stories from various women, she would allow mine to be included.

[End Trigger Warning]

She also says intelligent things about how we end sexual assault and rape. It's not about tougher sentencing, or changing the law. It's hard to win a sexual assault case because it comes down to one person's experience versus another. Some people who have committed sexual assault don't even realise they've done so because society still can't make up its collective mind about what consent actually is.

Personally, I think consent should be this. Communicate with your partner, even if it's a super casual thing. Don't act like some sex acts are better than others, or even that some sex acts are 'feminist'. Respect that sexual pleasure is a very personal thing, and that your new partner might not like getting fucked exactly the same way your ex did. Learn to read between the lines and recognise when someone isn't moaning or screaming in pleasure. Check in with them. Know the difference between someone who has had one or two drinks, and someone who has had an entire bottle of wine. Don't bring anything new into the bedroom without having a discussion about it first, while fully clothed. Understand that women have been programmed socially to be people-pleasers and struggle with the word no, and that shit is hard to unlearn. Realise that sleeping people can't give consent. And that consent can be withdrawn at anytime. Don't coerce either, that is also bad.

Is that really too much to ask for?

So, do I recommend Hot Feminist by Polly Vernon? No, not really. While I'm happy to photocopy that one chapter and plaster it around town until we all agree on what assault is and isn't, I won't recommend wasting your breath on the rest of the book. Save yourself a headache.
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