1 Apr 2018

Two to tango

"How about the men who go with them? It takes two to do business."
"Men have their needs."
"So do women, for money to pay for their food and lodging."
So goes the conversation between protagonist Dot and a male friend in Laurie Graham's 2015 novel, The Night In Question, which is set in 1880s London where a distinctly Jack-the-Ripper-esque murderer is preying on London's sex workers. What struck me was the similarity between Dot's defense of the much-maligned "fallen women" who are regularly blamed by a prurient, judgmental public for their own rapes, assaults and murders, and what Melissa Gira Grant wrote in her book Playing The Whore, which I first reviewed in 2014.
"The demand for victims, as anti-sex-work activists describe it, is driven by men's insatiable desire - not by sex workers' own demands for housing, health care, education, a better life, a richer life, if we dare."

The Victorian attitude dictated that men couldn't help themselves but women should somehow know better. The modern "end demand" movement, campaigned vociferously against by activists such as Molly Smith and the late Laura Lee, is more sympathetic towards the sex workers but allows them no position in the debate except that of victims. It is presumed they must want to escape the sex industry and that they would be happy to see their clients taken away from them by laws which punish only buyers, not sellers of sex. In this sense, it is not so far from the Victorian attitude that it is only men and their needs which are said to drive the sex industry, not sex workers' (some of whom aren't even women, a fact that is rarely mentioned) own desire for financial autonomy. Of course, that attitude was riven with contradictions; men had their needs, yet women were supposed to be devoid of sexual desire. Wives weren't supposed to want or enjoy sex, so men were expected to use sex workers to achieve sexual fulfilment. Sex workers were either abnormal for wanting, enjoying or simply consenting to acts that wives were supposed to be too pure to contemplate, or were mercenaries who endured acts they did not enjoy in order to stay financially afloat. Either way, this painted them as suspect and undeserving of public sympathy, hence the ease with which their murders were ignored both in real life and in Graham's novel.

Some Victorian feminists at least tried to make Dot's point that it takes two to tango, such as Josephine Butler, a Victorian suffrage campaign who opposed the Contagious Diseases Acts which gave the police free reign to forcibly examine any woman suspected of prostitution. As usual, the blame for the spread of venereal disease in port towns was being laid squarely at the feet of sex working women, rather than the men who visited them, and Butler broke with the squeamishness of the era by vocally criticising the total hypocrisy of the Act, which effectively sanctioned police sexual assault of women. This was a brave step against the background of a feminist movement whose upper class leaders felt women should see themselves as not just equal to men, but morally superior due to their lack of preoccupation with sex. You can see the point these women were trying to make--something along the lines of  "Since we aren't the ones raping, molesting, philandering and then blaming the opposite gender for our own sexual incontinence, perhaps we deserve at least the same rights, if not more, than the gender who are?"--but unfortunately this simply cemented the stereotype of sexless women and voracious men, and earned some Victorian suffragists the title of Moral Purity Campaigners. Butler was less interested in this debate and more interested in the rights of the women being arrested and forcibly examined, and succeeded in getting the Act suspended in 1883.

The unifying thread here is that those defending sex workers were not asking anyone to like, condone or practice sex work themselves, but rather to see those in the business as human beings deserving of rights. The right to earn money without the threat of violence. The right to do your job without being demanded that you defend it or love it more than anyone who does any other job. The right to do your job without being dragged off the streets and subjected to medicalised sexual assault. The right to safely choose and vet your clients without being hamstrung by laws which, as Laura Lee said to me, drive away the good guys and leave sex workers with the dregs. 

The quickness to explain away the existence of the sex industry via men's much-mythologised, much-generalised 'needs' doesn't just do that gender an injustice by portraying it as a monolith; it does sex workers of all genders a much greater injustice by erasing them from the picture altogether. So it was nice to see a bit of 21st century feminism sneaking its way into a book set in the 1880s; the fact that women like Butler really were standing up for sex workers during that era implies that the exchange from Graham's book might not be entirely imagined, either.

16 Feb 2018

Destiny Calling - Now out in Paperback!

As an author best known for adult non-fiction work, people are often surprised to learn that I have written a children's book as well. Having already appeared in eBook format, I'm pleased to announce that Destiny Calling is now available in paperback for just £5 including shipping! 

Aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds, Destiny Calling is a funny, poignant and searingly honest tale of friendship, disability, class and family life, which been compared to the work of Jacqueline Wilson and has received glowing reviews from parents, children and teachers.

Beth, the 10-year-old protagonist of the book is a normal British girl living with her annoying older brother and parents, except for one difference - the family have all had to adapt to Beth's dad being in a wheelchair. This part of the book was inspired by my work as a carer for people with disabilities, especially those with spinal cord injuries.
Dad was in a car crash. I might as well say that now because you'll probably work it out sooner or later. I don't like talking or thinking about the crash, but I suppose I should explain why he's in a wheelchair, otherwise you might think he was one of those people who was always in a wheelchair, but he wasn't. His legs worked fine until the crash two years ago and now they don't work at all.
The characters of Beth and her brother Jez came about from my observations of children dealing with disabilities of a loved one. Adults' first reaction to wheelchairs or physical deformities is to become awkward, stiff and pretend everything is normal. What I liked about the children I met was that they had not yet acquired that ability to mask their reactions to disability. They were completely natural around their loved one and simply treated the wheelchair as another piece of furniture to climb on, hang off and mess around with. It showed me how much we can learn about breaking taboos from children's unfiltered attitudes towards subjects that adults see as off-limits.
Dad can't come into a room quietly or pretend he's not there. . . You can always hear the spoke things on his wheelchair turning or the clank of it going over the doorway.

"Hello darlings," he said, opening his arms. Jez was first into them hugging dad climbing into his lap. Even though he's 12, Jez still loves to climb all over people and with dad he's always got an excuse that is fair though and when I want to sit in his lap he tells Jez to get down. Jez doesn't argue with dad. He cried more than I did when dad was in hospital.
As I clearly remember myself, the hardest part about being ten years old isn't family life, it's school and the horrendous task of trying to fit in. Fearing her classmates' stares and questions about her dad, Beth has withdrawn from socialising and now silently watches her peers having fun without her. The arrival of new girl Destiny disrupts the quiet world that Beth has built for herself; lacking in fear or self-consciousness, Destiny is so different from Beth that she's the perfect person to break through Beth's self-imposed loneliness.
She spent every lunchtime with me, and even when the other girls came over she wouldn't leave me talk to them. She'd chatter away to them perfectly friendly, but would keep one hand on my arm or elbow linked through mine to show she wasn't going anywhere. The girls would hover around, asking her questions sometimes saying a quiet hi to me and finally give up and scuttle back to the group. Every time one of them walked off and she turned back to me, I felt like I'd won a little prize.The prize of being better to spend time with than all those whispering, staring girls with their perfect dads who weren't in wheelchairs.
Destiny opens up a whole new world to Beth, showing her life beyond her comfortable middle-class existence. She becomes the first person Beth confides in about her dad's disability, and Destiny's irrepressible confidence gives Beth the strength to start coming out of her shell again. When the two friends discover an X-Factor-style wish-granting show called Destiny Calling they hatch a plan to appear on it: not to get famous, but to make Beth's dad better...

You can get your copy now for just £5, by:
- using this link
- sending the money via PayPal to catherinescott24@googlemail.com
- emailing the same address for details of how to make a BACS transfer.

So what are you waiting for?!

28 Jan 2018

Slow news day? Let's scapegoat porn!

I'm watching The Big Questions show on the BBC, this week with the title "Is porn damaging to society?" and am relieved to see Jerry Barnett of Sex and Censorship appearing as the sole voice of reason in a room where the consensus seems to be that porn is morally bad, psychologically damaging, and corrodes the potential for healthy relationships. A young pastor who claims to be a recovered porn addict has described the hold porn had over his life, while a porn actress claims that working in the industry has actually made her own sex life better.

These debates are always held in such blunt, polarised terms that it's rare to hear or see anything new in them. Emotive tactics are quickly deployed if a sex worker like the above dares to say that she enjoys her job--the pastor immediately shoots back with tales of trafficked and abused women forced into prostitution, even though this is a totally false equivalence. Barnett dares to point out something that is also regularly lost during these kinds of discussions--that porn addiction has never been proven to exist. 

"B-b-but surely it has," one might protest "God knows I've heard it mentioned enough in hushed, scandalised tones on talk shows and seen it slapped across the front of self-help books, written by proper psychologists and everything!"
Yeaaahhh....not so much. As someone who recently completed a book on how personal predjuces get turned into laws restricting what media adults can see, I discovered the following:
In 2014, Clinical psychologist David Ley carried out an extensive study on the literature surrounding porn addiction, and concluded "less than 1 percent of the 40,000 articles that they looked at were deemed scientifically or empirically useful". He added that this was because most people who write about porn addiction have an agenda to push, be it conservative, feminist or otherwise.

Ley adds that studies on porn addiction are regularly let down by "poor experimental designs, limited methodological rigor, and lack of model specification." US and UK media, including excellent independent outlets like Everyday Feminism, don’t help the matter when they write as if porn addiction is a proven illness. This explains why "the overwhelming majority of articles published on porn addiction include no empirical research. . . Less than one in four actually have data. In less than one in 10 is that data analyzed or organized in a scientifically valid way."
from Catherine Scott, To Deprave & Corrupt: Britain's Battles with Obscenity, out later in 2018!

Research like Ley's indicates to me that what is really at work is a hierarchy sketched out by the excellent sexuality writer Gayle Rubin, one in which the most socially approved sexual behaviours get a pass, while the most suspect are punished and pathologised. 

As Andrew Card puts it in an excellent essay on Medium,  
No matter how benign or inconsequential, sex which falls outside of the charmed circle, beyond the line, is prohibited to some extent or another.

Hence religious and conservative people scramble to distance themselves from a practice that is a harmless part of many adults' lives, treat it as a sickness or a moral failing, and treat those who indulge in it at best as damaged victims, and at worst as wilfully self-destructive sinners. And of course the rules on the "right" way to do sex or consume explicit material always ends up magically set by someone who claims neutrality for themselves. As Barnett put it in this morning's show "What I like is erotica, what you like is pornography." The stunning arrogance implicit in any human being telling another that their sexual tastes or practices are "wrong" demonstrates a worrying desire for social control; shame is a powerful tool. Yes, teaching the importance of consent, the skills to critically analyse pornography, and the strength to reject sexual practices or representations thereof that you find unpleasant or unoffensive are all valid priorities, but blunt and blanket statements about porn help no one. More than one of my interviewees for my book pointed out that children didn't report feeling guilty or anxious about accidentally glimpsing adult material until they got the firm message from adults that this is how they should have been feeling. Feedback loops are easy to create when you have an interviewee group that are eager to please. And also, on a more cynical note, what adolescent is going to be brave enough to tell their parent, who is probably the last person on earth with whom a teenager wants to discuss sexual pleasure, that they liked the content they stumbled upon and would like to see more of it and probably have a good old masturbate to it?!

I'll leave the last words to an 11 year-old boy, who one of my interviewees spoke to during an online
safety session in a UK school:
"They could bury all the porn in the world on a desert island, and I'd still find it."

15 Dec 2017

Safety is sexy

I was concerned but not entirely surprised to read today's news that "Almost half of under-25s never use a condom with a new partner." As someone born in the 80s and raised in the teen magazine heaven that was the 1990s, I'd like to think I could never be as cavalier with my health or that of my partners as the interviewees in this piece, who simply shrug that using condoms for sex doesn't feel as good as sex without, and who seem to take contracting gonorrhea and chlamydia in their stride. Most worrying of all, one in ten of interviewees say they have never used condoms, and the consensus seems to be that if the female partner is using birth control, there is no need for one.

Now, I appreciate that sexual shaming gets us nowhere, and I do not wish to stigmatise anyone who has an STI. What I want to remark upon is how attitudes have shifted in my lifetime, and how it seems more and more difficult to get people to care about sexual health. It's not just the demonised demographic of feckless youths who don't seem scared by the prospect of catching incurable conditions; the over 50s have been highlighted as another group who think that calls to practise safer sex don't apply to them (so THERE, Dad!). In both cases, this complacency seems to boil down to "As long as no one gets pregnant, we're fine!" which is pretty frightening considering the havoc an undiagnosed STI can wreak on one's reproductive system, and in the case of HIV, your immune system and your whole life.

Thanks largely to the problem pages of Just 17, Sugar and Bliss magazines, I knew as an 11 year-old in the mid-90s all the myths surrounding safer sex, and I also knew exactly how to debunk them. I wouldn't be sexually active myself for nearly another 8 years, but I was armed with the knowledge that you could get pregnant the first time you had sex, even if you did it standing up or in water or if the guy promised to pull out before he came, and there was a lot of emphasis on how if a male partner refused to use protection, you should show him the door. Protecting yourself from pregnancy wasn't enough, the magazines reminded us; you were still at risk from STIs if you failed to use a barrier method, and one of those STIs was HIV, which took over your immune system and ultimately killed you. How is it we've shifted from that wealth of awareness two decades ago, to 21st century young people being either unaware of or unconcerned about these simple facts?

Now, I'm not advocating a return to the terrifying AIDS-awareness tombstone adverts of the 1980s which traumatised a whole generation of kids and also added to the demonising of gay men as the source of what was, horribly, known as the "gay plague" or "gay cancer" for much of the 80s and 90s. For one, the information in those ads is now totally out of date, because HIV-AIDS has gone from being a terminal condition with low life expectancy, to a chronic condition that can be managed so effectively that, with the right meds and all other things being equal, carriers can expect to live to old age and join the rest of us in grey hair, false teeth and a love of playing bridge. Which is brilliant news. But it shouldn't be cause for complacency.

None of us have lived a sexual life without mistakes or regrettable incidents, and I'm certainly not going to claim that I've never taken risks or been careless with protection. However, now I'm now longer a twatty 19 year-old who was long on seeking oblivion and short on self-care, I refuse to play roulette with mine or my partner's health. Being non-monogamous adds to my motivation to be safe ; the incentive to get tested regularly is increased when you know that failure to do so could harm not just you, but your lover(s). Even if you have a devil-may-care approach to your own health, you don't have the right to impose that on your sexual partners; not getting into bed with someone knowing you could possibly pass on STI on them seems like a basic tenet of human decency to me.

I know that situations where both partners are sober, in their right minds and have remembered to bring their own contraception can be rare, especially in those wonderful heady days of your late teens when getting blackout drunk is merely a competitive sport rather than a cause for concern. Perhaps it's time to recommend a buddy system, then: just like you wouldn't let your friend drive drunk, don't let them fuck without precautions. If you see your housemate about to leave the club with some pretty young thing they spotted across the bar, get yourself into the bathroom quick, stick some coins in a slot machine and go slap some condoms into their hand. I actually did this for a friend in my second year of uni. Because I was fairly sober and she was fairly wasted, and while I didn't doubt she was definitely up for sex with the fine specimen of man she'd been snogging on the dancefloor, I figured that friends don't let friends go home without condoms. And as she reported back the next day, much fun was had by all, with no need for a eyes-cast-downwards visit to the GUM clinic afterwards.

That's not to say the GUM clinic is a place of shame--it's just like any other hospital department, and if you don't know where your local one is, consider if that's because you've genuinely never needed it, or because you're too afraid to ask. If the latter, just bite the bullet and go. I've been to mine probably twice a year since I've been out of long term mono relationships (and yes, I also made sure that both partners got tested in said relationships too - I've never understood the logic that says only one-night-stands or casual sex bring risks of STIs; however much you love or trust your partner, there is no harm in gathering some info that reinforces that trust in the form of an all-clear from the clinic) and the only part I hate is the use of needles, which applies pretty much everywhere else in medicine too. But I still put my big girl knickers on, go and get tested, let the nurses laugh at me when I go pale and break into a cold sweat and have to elevate my legs after the blood test, then I receive a nice text message a few weeks later telling me I'm good to go, and everyone's a winner. No judgemental health professionals tutting at you--the staff could not be nicer or more pleasant, and there are no shocked expressions, gasps or lectures when you tell them you have many or concurrent sexual partners. All they want to know is info with which to calculate your risk from STIs, nothing more, nothing less. They also now ask you if you are afraid of anyone you live with, which I think is a fantastic and simple way of detecting concerns over domestic violence.

In a culture where sex itself is still seen as dirty, I think the idea of adding another layer of dirt and shame in the form of STIs is probably what deters teens and young people from confronting the risk head on. It's easy to tell yourself that what you don't know can't hurt you (which must go down as the biggest lie ever told to humanity!) or to set up a false dichotomy in your head whereby you convince yourself you're not one of those people who are most likely to contract an STI. You tell yourself that "well, I'm not a sex worker/gay man/polyamorous person, ergo I'll be fine," disregarding the fact that these groups are actually more attentive to their sexual health and are much more likely to get regularly tested and practise safer sex, partly because of the way they have been demonised by the mainstream media. And also simply because we can do the maths; as a nonmonogamist myself, I know that multiple partners put me at greater risk of contracting STIs, so I mitigate those risks via honest communication with all partners, ground rules and specific discussions about what sex acts are and aren't permissible without barriers, and yes, I'm afraid there's no getting away from it, kids, getting regularly tested, especially when new partners come into the equation.

I'll leave you now with a call to sexual health by the bizarre phenomenon Tim Westwood, which was broadcast on Radio 1's excellent Sunday Surgery when I was a teenager: "WRAP IT UP BEFORE YOU SLAP IT UP!"

To find your local sexual health clinic, you can search by postcode here

2 Dec 2017

On Sexual Shame and Damian Green

I've just written a book about, amongst other things, how frighteningly easy it remains to ruin a public figure's reputation by alleging, well, pretty much anything to do with sex in connection with them. The allegations don't even have to involve illegal activities, they just need to have a faint whiff of sex about them, and that's pretty much all the scandal-hungry British media needs to go apeshit with the story. That is exactly what I believe is going on with the current Damian Green furore, and I'm so disappointed that no one in the left or right wing British media has been sensible enough to say this. Why can no one else see that this is a NON-STORY, borne out of nothing other than an antiquated attitude towards adult sexuality and a far-too-easily stirred shaming mob?

If you think that the 21st century media are all open-minded and groovy, and would never use sex as a cheap pretext to rake a public figure over the coals like they did in the age of Profumo, consider the 21st century case of Simon Walsh. In 2012, this talented young legal professional lost his job as an aide to the Mayor of London and had his private life as a gay man dragged through the courts and press--doing permanent damage to his reputation, employability and I'd imagine mental health--for simply receiving an email with five images depicting urethral sounding and fisting in them.

Now, neither of those acts may be your cup of tea, but they are entirely legal to do, and as the jury in R v Walsh quickly concluded, they're not illegal to look at (despite the best attempts by the misguided 2008 Extreme Pornography law amendment to make recording or watching consensual kinky and gay activity a crime). It's important to note that neither is the vast majority of pornography watched by consenting adults in the UK.  It's merely images and videos of sexual activity between adults; nothing more, nothing less. It's not anything to fear.

Yet a Member of Parliament is fighting to clear his name over an even less extreme allegation than the ones Simon Walsh was fighting; simply, that he had LEGAL pornography on his work computer.

Why is this being treated as news?
Seriously, I really want to hear someone give a credible explanation for why an Adult doing a Legal Adult thing on a work computer--when adults regularly misuse their work computers to spend all day on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and send each other cat memes and videos of raccoons washing mobile phones--is a story. Even before smartphones meant everyone now spends their workday glued to apps, I saw some audacious two-fingers-to-productivity behaviour in offices; one guy used to go into the loos and have a nap for an hour, the woman sat opposite me openly used the office phone to sort out her mortgage, and the guy who sat behind me was forever tapping me on the shoulder to show me videos of fat people passing out on rollercoasters. Is it really news that an adult might use their office computer for something other than work? And can any of us claim we're not guilty of doing the same?

Sorry folks, but if you've watched the above video on your work computer, you have no right to judge Damian Green

Am I expected to believe that we hold Members of Parliament to a higher moral standard than the rest of us? In which case, the only thing at issue is the MP doing something inappropriate in his workplace--note, STILL NOT ILLEGAL--and deserves no more attention than the average questionable shenanigans that our MPs get up to. Personally, I'm more interested in the fact that my local MPs racked up millions of pounds in travel expenses in the course of a couple of years. Because that's yours and my money going up the spout because an entitled politician refuses to struggle on public transport with the rest of us Great Unwashed and so spunks public money on taxis and First Class tickets for nothing other than their own comfort.

Having lived with the British press and legal system for 34 years I'm not surprised at the way Green's story has unfolded, but I am dismayed that this sort of shit is still happening in twenty-fucking-seventeen. Are we not long past the point of getting our knickers in a twist when an adult man is found to look at masturbation material? Because we really bloody should be. It is unconscionable that our dominant media is still so hell-bent on shaming consensual, legal expressions of adult sexuality, and boxing people into a corner that they feel they have no option other than to deny the whole thing.

One thing I found when researching my forthcoming book To Deprave and Corrupt is that thousands of British people plead guilty to charges of possessing Extreme Pornography each year--not because they necessarily deem the charges accurate, but because they know that going to trial will entail so much ruinous publicity that they would rather throw money at the problem and hope it goes away quietly. I can understand that; even as an author of a book on kink who is pretty upfront about what I get up to behind closed doors, I'd still think twice about having my fetishes read aloud in open court in front of my family, especially when I know how, if you want to discredit someone, making public their "alternative" sexual preferences is the quickest way to do it.

I'm no fan of Max Mosely, but I do approve of the fact he pushed back against the prurient hypocrisy of the British tabloid media--one that is happy to publish soft porn as long as it's aimed at the male gaze and is heteronormative, non-kinky and sells papers, but which condemns a man for enjoying bossy women shaving his backside and spanking him. Their attitude was depressingly transparent: How DARE Mosely have a sexual preference that grossed out straight male newspaper editors, and how DARE he use his own money to pay adult women to act out this entirely legal, actually pretty mild, sexual fantasy?!

Of course, the News of the Wank tried to make out that their concern was over Mosely's private party being possibly Nazi-themed, but I don't believe for one second that was their actual motivation for dragging him over the coals so publicly. Faux-concern over fascist imagery in Mosely's kink play was just another grenade for them to lob; what they were really banking on was the power of sexual shame being so great that Mosely wouldn't fight back. Wonderfully, the NOTW was left with major egg on their face when Mosely denied the Nazi-theme charges, sued for libel and--cue Nelson-from-the-Simpson's HA HA!--won massive damages.

This is the crux of the current scandal, though; people will try to sidestep the fact that all Damian Green is really being accused of is inappropriate workplace conduct by pushing the "It's not the porn, it's the fact he LIED about it!" line. Again, I just don't buy that explanation. If Damian Green was accused of nicking a few hole-punches from the parliamentary offices, I doubt it would even make the local news, let alone the national papers or the BBC. Even though that would ACTUALLY BE THEFT, AN ILLEGAL ACTION. That's because it would lack the failsafe component that propels a story straight on to the front page. Which is sex, closely accompanied by the notion that looking at wanking material is morally degenerate, something that must be excused or explained away or acknowledged with a sombre face and a promise to go to Porn Addicts Anonymous (don't even get me started on how shoddily constructed a concept porn addiction is--suffice to say I do not accept its existence has been proven). The thought that releasing endorphins, lowering your blood pressure and feeling less tense/randy is actually beneficial to adult physical and mental health is never even considered, even though we all know it's true!

Damian Green would be a brave man indeed to stand up and say "Yep, I did it, I had thousands of porn images on my computer," because of a climate where adults remain incapable of admitting that most of us have active sex drives. Which in 2017, is bloody RIDICULOUS. It also elides legal pornography with the darker types of image, such as those of child sex abuse, animal abuse and non-simulated sexual or physical violence. This is no accident, especially when the term "child pornography" is still used by so many media outlets. I know that "Non-consensual images of child sex abuse" is a bit unwieldy, but unless we get really strict about the language we use here, we run the risk of placing images of child rape in the same category as images of consensual adult sex. The two do NOT go together. Yet no one is pointing this out.

So, I'll stand up and say it. I don't care what Green had on his computer as long as it did not depict or entail the abuse of an adult, child or animal. As far as all the news reports go, none of the images met this criteria. Therefore this is a non-story, and I can't help but think the fascination with it merely draws the public's attention away from things we could be getting angry about: the constant quiet dismantling of the NHS, the explosion in homelessness and food bank use, the fact my severely disabled friend has just had her weekly care hours cut by another 2 even though her condition is no better, shit like that. Stuff that actually AFFECTS British taxpayers, y'know?


29 Nov 2017

Thoughts on Battle of the Sexes


There was never any question of my going to see this film; I consider myself someone who has proudly fought against "male chauvinist pigs" (my, how antiquated and angry that phrase sounds in the face of so much modern blanding out of feminism!) since the first time I called out sexism at about age 8 (the culprit was my grandfather, blowharding about his prejudice against Woman's Hour). However, what you quickly realise is that the story of tennis legend Billie Jean King beating the crap out of the so-ostentiatious-as-to-be-ridiculous Bobby Riggs in 1973 isn't a straightforward tale of feminist warrior vs sexist warthog.

Riggs isn't actually King's problem for most of the film. He's a tennis has-been and an incorrigible gambler perpetually seeking his next thrill; King is battling to hold on to her status as World Number One as her private life becomes increasingly complicated by the fact she is married to a man but attracted to women. By the time the two actually meet, the worst of the sexism is actually over; King has already had to fight the American Lawn Tennis Association for equal pay for female players, having been told to accept 1/7th of what male players were earning. She threatens to take her talents elsewhere, and the LTA promptly blackball her.

King is told that the men's game is more exciting and draws more crowds, even though she patiently sits across from three old white men and tells them that the women's games have been selling exactly the same amount of tickets. It's clearly not a matter of economics, but these men are trying to weasel out from being accused of contempt for women by playing the old "men are more interesting to watch" card. As part of the roller derby community, a place in which the women's version of the sport came first, this is particularly amusing to watch. If you tried to advance this theory in derby you'd be promptly laughed out of a sports hall. But in the sexist 70s, such ideas held a disgusting amount of traction, and when they're coming from the top of your own sports association, what options do you have left?

So yes, King exhibits massive bravery in telling Jack Kramer, the intransigent head of the LTA, to get fucked when he tries to hold her game to ransom, and doing it far more coolly and politely than most of us would manage. She rallies her fellow big name female tennis players to create their own tournament, knowing it will cost them their LTA association and rankings. Kramer is left looking like a bitter, spiteful misogynist who was so incensed at the idea of female tennis players refusing to kowtow to him that he did everything within his power to torpedo their careers. Riggs, meanwhile, is actually bankrolled by his rich wife and--thanks to Steve Carell's wonderful ability to humanise otherwise cringeworthy characters--comes across as a maverick, a buffoon, a man with too much energy and nowhere for it to go. The sexism he plays up is clearly for the cameras, and is so comical as to be easily dismissed. From early on in the film, there's no question of who really looks a fool--the middle-aged man dressed up as a shepherdess playing tennis as sheep run around him, or the understated, cool-as-a-cucumber King, who plays along to an extent but mostly lets her game do the talking.

The film is by no means perfect; it plays fast and loose with chronology at times, and the cast is pretty white. The need for a sports film about women of color has long been apparent--I couldn't understand why average white failure Eddie the Eagle got a whole film to himself last year when no one has ever bothered making a picture about the majestic Florence Griffith Joyner aka Flo-Jo, the fast women ever. It angers me that after all so much lip service has been paid to progress in terms of whose stories get told in cinemas, audiences are still expected to happily root for a white guy, and are expected to swallow the notion that his struggles truly are "against all odds." Pffafff. What odds would those be, exactly? Odds steeper than those posed by entrenched racism and sexism, which cuts you off at the knees and then tells you you're just not trying hard enough?

It's not only sports movies where this is a massive problem, either; while I loved watching The Theory of Everything, and as a former carer for the disabled am intrigued by the premise of Breathe, I'm still waiting to see a film tell the story of a disabled woman whose husband bravely stays by her side, encourages her to do groundbreaking work, and happily puts his life on hold so she can be the star of the show while his life is merely a supporting act. Can you name me a mainstream movie in which this happens? Because I cannot think of one. A same-gender couple would also be fine with me; the point is, I want to see male characters take the backseat and a woman's stellar trajectory take center stage. Battle of the Sexes is immediately head and shoulders above the glut of hackneyed films simply because it does show this. King is the star here; all other characters are rendered either a supporter or detractor of hers.

Battle of the Sexes is an even-handed, funny, incisive and brilliantly cast take on a story that probably should have been told a lot sooner--after all, Title IX had its 40th anniversary in 2012, and given Billie Jean King's pivotal role in ensuring the legislation was put to proper use by mandating equal pay for athletes regardless of gender, that seems like it would have been the perfect moment to put out this film. Its take on feminism is so mild as to be inoffensive; in one exchange with Riggs, King turns down his offer to join in a media circus, and adds "By the way--I shave my legs!" before putting the phone down on him. Don't worry ladies, is the message; you can take on sexist twunts and kick their arses but you can also retain your femininity. You can view this as a watering-down of feminism, or you can view it as a funny, ultimately human moment.

King is not portrayed as overtly political, but the speeches she does give are memorable--she turns on a reporter quizzing her about the game and asks him if he thinks his father is better than his mother. When he mumbles "No," she retorts "That's what you're saying if you think women should be paid less." She then storms off leaving him and all the other clamoring journalists in her wake. It's simple, it's unambiguous, and it avoids the endless debates about labeling oneself a feminist, or a women's libber, or what those terms mean. King's message is clear: you either walk the walk and treat women equally, or you're a sexist and you can get fucked.

Emma Stone is reliably great as the lead, showing the understated, media-shy manner in which the great tennis player dealt with a level of media attention for which she was deeply unprepared. Austin Stowell as Larry, her husband, also does a great job of humanising the man who could clearly see that his wife loved women, but did not turn on her or desert her for this. He's pragmatic: he recognises that King's parents are old-fashioned and would not accept a lesbian daughter, and he also sees that the sexist, homophobic media which followed his wife around would use the information to crucify her. So he continues to support her and her tennis, and all but gives his blessing to her affair with Marilyn, the team hairdresser. This is a much more nuanced portrayal than I was expecting; I thought I was going to see a sexually threatened, insecure husband lashing out at his wife for betraying him, and instead I got something that felt much more realistic. Again, this reminds us that the lines draw in the 'battle of the sexes' are never exact, or clear, or ineradicable. Since so much fraternising with the 'enemy' takes place, it's inaccurate to call it a battle most of the time anyway.

Sarah Silverman is also fantastic as Gladys Heldman, King's agent, publicist and chain-smoking, nasal guardian angel. I remember wo-manning a table for Ms magazine at a rally against the War on Women in 2012, and Silverman approaching us shy young interns and offering to have her photo taken with us. It was a moment where Hollywood and real life collided, where it occurred to me that the women who inhabit such seemingly faraway, ethereal worlds may actually share some of my concerns, passions and sources of rage. 

Battle of The Sexes has pulled off no mean feat by making feminism and equal pay seem like spiky, shiny topics worth examining and yet still funny enough to lose yourself in for 120 minutes. Two thumbs up from me.