In a pertinent and striking interview, Fleur de Bono sat down with Luke Alsford and discussed the burning issues of rape culture, imposter syndrome, accommodation costs, and how students and the university are failing to address them.
Luke Alsford: Why did you want to be involved in Intersectional Feminism Society, and why did you go on to want to be President?
Fleur de Bono: I have a really long-standing interest in feminist issues. I actually set up the feminist society at my school, so it was very much part of my plan to join a feminist society. The feminist society at my college was fairly non-existent, so I went to the Durham one and I found it to be a really supportive space, but also, I met loads of really nice people. I did that throughout last year and then it was on a bit of a whim that I decided to go for President. I think a lot of women have impostor syndrome, and I know I certainly did, so I didn’t think I would get elected, but I just knew that I had a lot of ideas.
LA: What were your ambitions for the society when you went for the role?
FB: There were a lot of practical things, that I thought were realistic goals. For example, Femsoc was only meeting once or twice a month, and I thought this should be more regular. I thought that there should be weekly workshops. I said we should be collaborating with college femsocs and I said we should be significantly increasing social events. In doing those three things there would be a really consistent Femsoc presence throughout the academic year, so that people always knew that there was a Femsoc event on each week and I think that’s really created a strong sense of community and a really safe supportive space. I think for some people we are the society that they engage with the most.
Fleur de Bono
LA: I want to ask about the intersectionality-aspect of the society. You did not found the society, but why do you think it was important for feminist society to be intersectional?
FB: Well, it’s I think really important to recognize that within feminism, there exists a huge amount of inequality. A white woman, a privileged white women’s experiences of sexism will not be the same as those of a working-class woman or someone from a minority ethnic group. It’s really important to recognize those inequalities and to address them. Feminism has to be intersectional, because otherwise it’s just about what it was historically, which is privileged white women, and that doesn’t work for everybody. Feminism needs to uplift everybody.
LA: How does intersectionality play a role in Durham, given that Durham University is quite well-known for having smaller representations of people of color and having a high representation of affluent middle-class students?
FB: Yeah, I think it’s incredibly important at Durham, especially as there are so many privately educated people, I think that makes it particularly important to support working class students. I also think that Durham is very white. It’s hugely important at Durham, that Femsoc is intersectional and that’s something we take really seriously. We have really strong working-class solidarity. We’re really trans inclusive. We try really hard to be intersectional and talk about race and all other kinds of discrimination.
LA: I want to ask about the working-class solidarity, because I saw that you put a post out recently on social media on the rising accommodation costs. Why did you want to speak out about that as a feminism society?
FB: So, our Vice-President Raychel has really taken the lead on the working-class solidarity side of things, and has collaborated a lot with DULC [Durham University Labour Club]. But yeah, the rising accommodation costs are appalling, especially as they are greater than the student maintenance loan, and that’s going to significantly disadvantage a lot of students. It is really important to Femsoc to speak out against that. We were at the protests…
Members of the DU Intersectional Femsoc on Purple Radio
LA: …It would be interesting to know how receptive you think Durham University is to complaints? Do societies have the power through these protests to actually try and change the policy?
FB: I don’t think the university cares, and definitely doesn’t care enough, to be willing to make any real difference. The university, whatever they say, is predominantly interested in profit and the interests of a small minority. I think that they know that this is wrong, because the maths is very simple, but I don’t think there is genuine willingness to do anything about it. In terms of student protests, they might not be too effective, but what other option is there? If the protests aren’t working it’s because students aren’t being listened to, not because of a lack of effort. I don’t see any other option. I think a lot of people feel incredibly powerless. And these protests are a way of coming together in solidarity. I think it is the only real option.
LA: Moving on to another element of intersectionality, you recently held a discussion workshop around TERFs [Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists] in feminism, and you have said you are trans and non-binary inclusive. How does the society currently approach this controversial topic of TERFs?
FB: Yes so, we had a workshop led by a member of the Femsoc community, who is particularly knowledgeable about the subject, and it was all about TERFs. They explained why a lot of thinking by TERFs is problematic and how it affects trans-people and. As I have said, the society if fully trans-inclusive. This has always been part of our DNA.
LA: You also held sixteen-day activism campaign on gendered violence, which you have taken part in annually. Is there a particular reason why Durham Femsoc is so engaged with this?
FB: Yeah, it’s a big campaign and a global one, it was started by the UN. We did that in solidarity with loads of other societies at other universities, loads of schools, loads of charities. It was really just about highlighting the prevalence of violence against women. I think there are very few discussions about that at Durham, so we weren’t going to miss the opportunity to spotlight that.
LA: Do you think gendered violence has particular relevance at Durham? When I saw this campaign, I was reminded of the issues with the number of spikings that Durham had at the beginning of the last academic year.
FB: I think that gendered-based violence has lots of different aspects. If you think about some of the recent news events, for example, I think they’ve brought to light this issue of male violence against women. There is a statistic, which is that a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK. I think not many people know that. Then there’s also rape culture, which is kind of a more encompassing term to describe actions and behaviors that create a rape culture, and that’s very prevalent at Durham. There’s a really strong rape culture. I think if you say that to people they might be a bit jarred, if I go around saying, “There’s a really strong rape culture.” But there is. Rape culture refers to a multitude of different things, such as spiking, groping, sending nudes without consent, which is image-based abuse, it could also be rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault, that’s all rape culture. Behaviour which condones any of those things, is part of rape culture. For example, sports initiations at Durham might contribute to rape culture.
LA: Where do you think this rape culture stems from? I saw that you held a talk last year on toxic masculinity, is that something which is fueling rape culture at Durham or in general in the UK?
FB: If you are thinking about rape culture and what causes it, that’s an enormous question. It’s a bit like asking what causes poverty. In my head, I break it down in four ways. I think about gender, and these stories that we’ve been told throughout our lives, since childhood about what a man is and what a woman. So that might be that women are emotional and men are more rational, for example. It also could be to do with things like clothes and that girls like pink and boys like blue. The second thing is media, thinking about films and music and video games and oversexualized images of women: all of that contributes to rape culture. The third problem is language, thinking about how we talk and how we talk about rape. Newspaper headlines and the way that they nearly always manage to shift blame away from the perpetrator, and talking about people as underage rather than as children. If you just Google like sexist rape headlines, you’ll see what I mean. The fourth thing is structures, so this is like top-down. So this is all of the sleeze and sexual harassment in Westminster or in the Met or in the army, and this is structural. So, when all of this is going on, it’s kind of the perfect storm and it’s not surprising that there’s lots of rape culture at universities like Durham and also add in kind of the entitlement and privilege that lots of students at Durham have. It’s no wonder.