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International Women’s Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:08 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock 2:08 pm, 5th March 2020

It is a great pleasure to follow Rosie Duffield, who, like many speakers today, has given us much food for thought.

We have heard from only one man in this debate so far—other than yourself, Mr Deputy SpeakerStephen Doughty. I want to make the observation that we are here in the United Kingdom, we pride ourselves on being a modern, civilised country, a democracy, yet too often we turn a blind eye to the kind of discrimination that we should really not tolerate in a civil society. The hon. Member for Canterbury was just sharing her observations about the wild west that is social media—frankly, all we need to do is open a Twitter account to find ourselves the focus of abuse these days. That reminded me of an occasion three or four years ago.

We had a particular problem with car cruising in my constituency. Car cruising is something that, normally, young men do when they soup up their cars. They turned the local road network in my constituency into a motor track, causing immense distress for residents, who were disturbed by the noise. It was dangerous and on numerous occasions, people who turned up as spectators at these races were injured when collisions happened. I was working with the local police to try to tackle this menace. As a result, after issuing a press release with a picture of me and the police officers attending one of these events, the whole story went viral among the male community of car cruisers. There were literally hundreds of thousands of very unpleasant comments towards me.

As we all know, we develop our own ways of managing these situations. It is quite easy to ignore it—just do not look—but these quite unpleasant messages were being circulated. It was actually the local BBC that reported the traffic to the police, because it included death threats and some very unpleasant sexual imagery and messages. In the end, two people were arrested and action was taken. What was interesting to me, however, was that the action was taken against the death threats, whereas the more unpleasant and aggressive content was that which was very misogynist and sexual in nature. When we look at that against the backdrop of Jess Phillips yet again reading out the names of people who have been killed over the last year, we see that we almost seem to have accepted this as normal, and that is why no one is getting upset about it. It really should not be normal and we should use occasions such as this to call it out. I just wish that some of our male colleagues were here to participate and show solidarity with us on this, instead of making smart-arsed comments like, “Ooh, when are we having an International Men’s Day debate?” If I had a pound for every time somebody had said that to me, I would be very rich—I just leave that message on the record.

I want to talk about some of the more practical things that we can do to tackle hidden discrimination against women, in the context of health. I will also make some observations about sexual violence and how it is still commonplace for a blind eye to be turned where sexual violence is used as a tool to oppress women. Notwithstanding the conviction of Harvey Weinstein, which is obviously very welcome, it is still too common and the state needs to do more to tackle it when it arises. I will end with some observations about the debate on gender dysphoria and trans issues, which I fear has become rather ugly in recent weeks.

I had a moment of revelation when I was a Minister for health. Over a period of time, a number of colleagues from across the House would come to share their experiences with me as women accessing healthcare for various reasons. I witnessed quite a lot of distress as colleagues recounted their experiences. I had been through similar experiences and I suddenly had a moment of clarity and thought, “Crikey, we are all assertive, pushy women. We all have voices that we are prepared to use, yet we have all been diminished at the hands of medical professionals when it comes to talking about often very intimate issues.” I took it upon myself to try to do something about that.

Underlying all this is that whenever women’s bodies are being seen as incubators for babies, everything is very straightforward, but too many morbidities come from our bodies being the way they are, which frankly, are seen as an inconvenience by the health establishment, and we often suffer in silence as a result. I am appalled that one in 10 women suffers from the incredibly chronic pain and heavy bleeding associated with endometriosis. They can go for years before that is diagnosed and live incredibly difficult lives as a consequence. There has been virtually no research into the causes and possible treatments for endometriosis. Frankly, if men were suffering from it, that simply would not be the case.

One in three women suffer from fibroids, which, again, lead to heavy bleeding and terrible pain. Yet again, too often women are told to run along, that that is their lot and that that is just the way it is. The result is that we all think that our experience of a period is normal when actually, if someone is spending more than £10 a month on pain relief and sanitary protection, their period is not normal. The more that we can do to make women think about their menstrual health, so that they can take early action and get support earlier, the better, and we will do them a great deal of good. No woman should have to tolerate, or think it is normal to be, bleeding for three weeks of every month, doubled up in chronic pain and having to sit with a hot water bottle every day.

When women do get treatment for these conditions, they are generally told, “Have a baby—it will go away,” “Go on the pill” or “Have a hysterectomy.” Again, there is not enough emotional intelligence or coaxing and there are not enough ways of helping women to help themselves and to live with a condition that can bring incredible stress. We all need to do much more collectively to empower women to have sensible and constructive conversations with medical professionals. Medical professionals need to be encouraged to see the human being in front of them. This is not a criticism—medical professionals are human beings, too, and have to have ways of dealing with people in distressing conditions, but they can do much more to be understanding and have conversations that allow women to take control of their treatment.

I also make the observation that it is not that long since Viagra was licensed to treat male erectile dysfunction. People do not need a prescription now to get Viagra—they can buy it over the counter. I would really like to see such things as the contraceptive pill and hormone-replacement therapy available over the counter, too, so that women can do much more to look after their health.

To turn to the issue of sexual violence, I add my voice to those who welcome the Domestic Abuse Bill, but we also need to take on board the fact that sexual violence is often—more than often—another tool of oppression in the domestic violence context. We must not let that be taboo. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said that, too often, the issue of children committing violence against parents is taboo, and sexual violence within the domestic abuse context is also taboo. We can pass as many laws as we like, but the root of all this is behaviour and the need to challenge those behaviours. Whenever we do not shine a light on them, we are acknowledging that they are normal.

I remember when the issue of the systemic abuse in Rotherham materialised. Sitting underneath the failure to act by the local authority, the police and everyone else was a prejudice—that for this particular class of girls, what more could they expect? That was totally unacceptable. I fear that we are witnessing exactly the same thing again when we talk about gang culture and knife crime, because we are talking about gangs that are not just made up of young black men stabbing each other. There are girls associated with these gangs who are being groomed for sexual purposes, yet none of us is talking about it. It is like the lessons of Rotherham have not been recognised at all, and it is incumbent on all of us in the House to make sure that we properly address these things.

We need to do much more collectively to empower young women to value and protect themselves and not feel that they have to be pressured into sexual relationships that they do not want. It is horrifying to see the increased sexual violence against our young women now and we all need to tackle it collectively. The tabloid culture that values everyone by their appearance, figure and who they are associated with does not help. Rosie Duffield mentioned Caroline Flack, and it is a really good example, but there are other successful women who are abused for their inability to have relationships with men. Jennifer Aniston is one of our best comedy actresses and a worldwide star, but every time we see an article about her, it is about the fact that she could not keep Brad Pitt, or that she has had another failed marriage, or who her boyfriend is this time. It is absolutely outrageous. No woman should be defined by their relationship with a man. The same goes for Kylie Minogue. Crikey, would we not all like to be Kylie Minogue and look like Kylie Minogue? But she also gets vilified with, “How many boyfriends has she had? She can’t keep a man.” So blooming well what? A message to all the men out there—“Do you know what, us women can do very well without you, thank you very much. Think yourself lucky that some of us let you into our lives.”

The issue of Caroline Flack is particularly instructive because her life and her relationships with men were tabloid fodder. Even in her death we had to read about the fact that she went out with Harry Styles, who was however many years younger than her. Caroline Flack’s life story should be a message as to how toxic our culture has become, and how, if we are going to do something more for young women going forwards, we should encourage them to value themselves in their own identity and not through their relationships with men.

I am particularly uncomfortable that the debate around trans rights and gender dysphoria has become pitted against the rights of women. It is surely not beyond the wit of policymakers to devise a set of rules and principles that protect the rights of transsexuals to find a way of living their lives and do not discriminate against women at the same time. Those of us who want to see women-only safe spaces are not guilty of hate crime against trans people—not at all. I think people who are trans want to quietly get on with their lives. It does not help any of them that they are pitted against women in this terrible, horrible toxic debate. The only people who are winning through this debate are those men who use their power to oppress women, and see the opportunity to claim the right to self-identify as a weapon. None of us in this room should collude with that. We have already seen the case of Karen White, who self-identified as a woman, went into prison and committed crimes against fellow inmates. We must be able to devise a law that stops that happening but also supports those who are most vulnerable and need to have their rights defended.

Parliament has failed to give proper oversight of the growing number of transgender interventions for younger people. We have allowed treatments to develop at the Tavistock really unsupervised. This is no criticism of the medical professionals there, who clearly are doing their work with the best of intentions, but we need to look at the ethics of some of this and the practicalities of it. We are seeing more and more girls being referred for gender reassignment treatment. We are talking about girls well below the age of majority. I personally am very uncomfortable—well, I think it is wrong—about putting forward people for treatment that is irreversible when they are not in a position legally to give consent. We really need to be more honest about the challenges of puberty.

Puberty is horrible. I was a tomboy when I was growing up—that probably does not surprise hon. Members. When I got to my teens and suddenly felt my body changing, it was horrible. I hated every minute of it. I cannot believe what might have happened to me now, going through that. I carried on climbing trees and so on, and playing at being “CHiPs” rather than “Charlie’s Angels”, but now I would be on my iPad and I would suddenly find lots of other people who thought like me and then—guess what?—all those people are going to the Tavistock. It scares the hell out of me. I fear we are doing harm to girls when actually this is something that they could just be going through. It is quite a normal thing not to be comfortable with what is happening to our bodies. The fact that so many of the girls who are going for such treatment also have issues with autism frightens me even more.

I was contacted by a parent just this week who thanked me for something that I had said about this issue. She wanted to talk about the experience she had had with her daughter, who is on the spectrum. As she said, one of the classic symptoms of autism is that, as a sort of self-defence tactic, you become a different personality. When we think about that in the context of puberty and unhappiness with the way your body is changing, of course it is a natural response to pretend to be a different gender. I really think we have failed in this House; we have not given sufficient scrutiny and debate to a treatment which, frankly, if it is given out wrong, will do real harm to those girls and boys who go through it. I hope that this is something that we can give more attention to in future.