How to…fooglesticks. Atheist comedian visits Puffles


No holes barred talk on the diversity of all things sex at Cambridge’s Sceptics/Skeptics in the Pub

The first thing I knew about Kate Smurthwaite turning up to Cambridge was an explicitly-titled talk at Cambridge Skeptics. There’s something about rude words that gets people to turn up in huge numbers – or that Kate’s been on telly – or something else. Either way, it was packed out. And with good reason. Kate for me is a very powerful and compelling public speaker – even if you don’t agree with her. Others however may find her too aggressive to the point of being gratuitously insulting.

I was vaguely familiar with Kate from her appearances on Sunday morning’s “The Big Question” on the BBC. Here’s Kate talking about the threats she gets from social media. Given the media platform that she has and the robust nature of how she argues her case, perhaps it’s not surprising that she gets the negative attention from detractors that she does. But at the same time she is one of several people who are standing up for human rights issues and not allowing bigotry to go unchallenged. This inevitably means engaging with your adversaries on public platforms. ‘Politics’ perhaps for want of another word.

Stirring up hornets’ nests

I don’t have a particularly thick skin. I never have done. It’s one of the reasons why I tread carefully online and offline. It’s also a reflection of my mental health issues – a generalised anxiety disorder. It means I am very picky about choosing which battles to fight and on what terms. It’s one of the reasons you’ll rarely see Puffles engage in Twitter spats. However, when Puffles does, it’s magic fireballs-blazing. This has the result of increasing the impact – because it’s such a rarity. What I am quietly happy about is that more and more people are willing to speak up and speak out in a manner that I don’t have the confidence to do myself. I kind of see my niche as one supporting them. A blogpost here, a hyperlink there, a brief explanation somewhere else, and even connecting people that otherwise may not be aware of each other.

Following on from Deborah Hyde

Deborah Hyde came to Cambridge and told Puffles why vampires are a feminist issue. This gave a nice historical context from where Kate started her talk – which was from the hangovers of institutionalised religion. What was interesting for me was how Kate, from a female perspective covered the same two viewpoints I featured in Why sex and relationship education is important – a male perspectiveKate compared the very poor sex education too many people receive at school (and the impact of this) with the arguments Gail Dines made on the role of big business and big money in the commodification of women. (Interestingly enough, a long time Twitter friend of mine, Pandora Blake made one of the most powerful defences of women being in control, and of consent in the field (in the face of some of the worst legislation Parliament has ever passed) both online and on Channel 4 News – see here (NSFW))

Rejecting two polarised narratives

What Kate was (and in my view rightly) keen to explore was what room there was for those of us that rejected both the repressed narrative of sex driven by institutionalised religions on one side, and the commodification of women by big business and big money on the other side. What’s more – and perhaps was enlightening for me even at this age (the day I die is the day I stop learning) is hearing someone rejecting a very narrow definition of what sex is. ie the penetration of one persons genitals by another ostensibly for the purposes of procreation. The reason why challenging these narrow definitions is important to me is because I went through school and college at a time when Section 28 (of the Local Government Act 1988) was still in force: Teachers were barred by law from talking about sex as being anything other than heterosexual. Still being a church-goer, there were no adults around me who I could talk to openly about sex and relationships. I didn’t know about the likes of Centre33 locally. Mine was the last generation that experienced life/grew up before the internet. It’s difficult to get across just how isolating it was not being able to even find out the very basics beyond badly drawn diagrams.

Big-picture-wise, what does it mean to be an ‘enlightened’ straight male in the 21st Century?

I use the term ‘enlightened’ in the historical context of the Age of Enlightenment – using reason, knowledge, research and learning to challenge pre-existing ideas and mindsets. I have and continue to use these and more to challenge the pre-existing ideas and mindsets that were imposed on me in childhood by various institutions. Perhaps emotionally I feel about a decade younger than I am on some of these things, still trying to work out for myself stuff that I could have had sorted long ago.

Learning about the existence of diversity

One of the things my social community has taught me lots about over the past few years is the far wider range of consensual experiences and relationships that are in society than the media in particular would have us believe. It’s not just the 1+1 = 2. If I were to stereotype the mainstream media, you’d have straight couples on one side, gay and lesbian couples on the other side and everything else being one big hedonistic party featured on late night faux TV documentaries looking for a reason to broadcast naked bodies.

Yet in the space of three years, I’ve got to know people who live lifestyles that if I’m honest didn’t really know existed until recently. What’s really nice is though is how learning has been through the course of normal conversation and interaction. We’ve not needed set piece debates or formal workshops. Conversations about flow into and out of topics around their lifestyles and preferences (as well as my own experiences) just as easily as if we were talking about the weather, what’s in the news or a great piece of music we heard. Nothing to feel squeamish, embarrassed or ashamed about. [Now think about this paragraph in the context of faith-based schools and how they artificially separate children – & the long term impact]

Where do I go from here?

It’s not just how I relate to individuals – friends, acquaintances and even people I don’t get on with. It’s also about groups – family, friends, strangers and mixes of. One of the reasons why I haven’t been out ‘proper clubbing’ for ages is that the sort of masculinity that you find in them isn’t one I have ever been comfortable with. If I’m honest with myself, the only reason I went during my late teens was because the alternative – isolation from those I was at school and college with was far worse. After imploding at university mental-health-wise, the only thing that got me out of a really bad state after graduating was dancing – properly. A social scene with the Friday night alcohol-fuelled aggression taken out of it.

But I’ve moved on from there. It’s been over a decade since I took my first ballroom class in Cambridge. I’m not nearly the same person – even though I’d still love to go dancing with the love of my life, whoever she is. (Have a read of this blogpost. It’s very soppy).

One of the things that I want to look at in a future blogpost are my personal observations on how we interact in what feels like an increasingly fragmenting society – especially when we look at how we live, how we work, how we are educated and the increasing levels of ‘turnover’ in all. It stems from Stephen Fry’s blogpost (trigger warning) on loneliness.


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