Standing on shoulders

Rachel Thomson and Sue Scott

What does it mean to take data back to a community? When thinking through the return of the WRAP data to Manchester we had to think about whether any of the spaces or access points from the original research still existed or made sense. We quickly found that many of the youth centres we had visited in the 1980s had closed down and in some cases been demolished. One access point that did seem possible was the drama department at the University of Manchester. In the original study three interviewees were drama students at the University. These interviews captured a particular culture of sexuality – political, reflexive, cosmopolitan but also complicated in term of the sexual politics of the drama scene and expectations of intimacy and availability within the theatrical community. Read again against the elapsing thirty years these interviews seemed to be #METOO before the hashtag.

We approached the University drama department to see if there might be any young women who would be interested in revisiting these interviews today. What would it mean to do this? How much trouble might be involved in this digging up of the past? We were keen to share the anonymised material but also concerned that these accounts would be treated with respect and care. It felt very complicated, yet the possibility of working with contemporary drama students, engaging with verbatim theatre practices and utilising performance as a mode for opening the material up for exploration was an exciting possibility.

Through the help of Alison Jeffers we found the Women’s Theatre Society at the University of Manchester- a student society lead by Lae and Elena, two final year drama students who had recently taken over the leadership of a safe space where female students can engage in performance. Elena and Lae were very open to our invitation and ran with the project – workshoping the material, inviting researchers to join them for questioning abut the original context and engaging themselves in short interviews with original researchers. On Saturday 15 February they presented their final piece at the student union and were met with standing ovation.

Here are some reflections on the performance by the two original researchers who interviewed over 60 young women in Manchester 30 years ago. We hear first from Sue Scott and then Rachel Thomson.

Sue Scott

The weekend had been a bit of a rush and I arrived ‘just in time’ from a crowded train so had not really thought my way into the situation and wasn’t at all sure what to expect. It was delightful when Rachel and myself were greeted by enthusiastic and excited young women – the play’s directors, Elena and Lae.

I had a sense of being a ‘celebrity’ by virtue of being part of the original WRAP project  – very strange when it was all so long ago, but as they made clear in the Q and A they wouldn’t have done it without WRAP and they had clearly got so much out of it that whatever else happens to the play it has played an important part in their student experience.

Such a lot of them on stage – and so colourful – it gave a sense of the best sort of ‘Girl’s Group’ turned theatre. I’m sure that for some of them the confidence was hard won, but they inhabited it, at least for the period of the play. The way that they developed and interwove the stories from the interviews with there own was very well done, if a bit of a whirlwind experience at times. They were brave in what they said – not just because they were saying it in public, but also because they had already said it to themselves and each other and carried on. Yes sex is discussed everywhere, but yet it isn’t. 

The continuities and commonalities were striking and yet the drama students who Rachel interviewed in 1989 probably couldn’t have done this, so something has shifted. The students demonstrated wonderfully some of the many and various ways of being a young woman in relation to their sexuality and their presentation of gender in a way that might have been easier in 1979 than in 1989 – but of course only for a minority and in a safe feminist context.

It struck me so forcibly that the young women of the WRAP data would now be old enough to be these young women’s mothers – older perhaps than some of their mothers. It was clear in the Q and A that this was not lost on them, but there was no time to ask them if they discussed the play and the WRAP project with their Mother’s or Aunts – I would love to know. The ‘imaginary’ interview with one of their mother’s was powerful.

It could have been depressing as many of the negative aspects of sex and relationships for young women were clearly portrayed but they had their appropriate place and not to the exclusion of some positives and also ‘ordinary’ and ’mundane’ experiences being recounted, of which there were many in the WRAP data, but perhaps we didn’t take enough note at the time…

I was struck by the dynamic of the interviews – very odd to hear Rachel giving voice to her younger self! And the way the young women took this as a starting point to – as Rachel put it – then ‘interview themselves’. It definitely made me think about different ways of accessing data and stories.I think the theme that I came away with though was ‘friendship’– or at lease comradeship – and in the young women’s stories and my thoughts about not having explored this sufficiently in the original project. I now want to read the transcripts of the interviews they drew on.

It’s also important to think about what the theatre society can do with this now – all the hard work should have more of an airing and it would be great to share it with other young women.

Rachel Thomson

 There is much to be said about the performance, but the point I want to note here is how it was so very different to what I had originally anticipated and how this difference gives us both insight into the way that social change is lived and hope for the future of gender equality and sexual revolution.

When working with the material, what the young women in the theatre society notice and are moved by are the interview encounters themselves: the communication that took place between a young women (much like them) and a researcher (not much older). The interview questions were bold, much bolder than would be possible or acceptable today (when was your first sexual experience, did you enjoy it, how did you know…).  They found the questions problematic and part of the performance shows their irritation. But they also noted that the space that the WRAP young women took in these interviews was remarkable – speaking with an honestly and openness that was transformative. Not simply in the moment, but again and again as the material is performed and reanimated. The young women in the Women’s Theatre Society wanted to do justice to the realness of the young women’s accounts. In doing so they created their own monologues, effectively interviewing themselves but in the context of solidarity from others – both in the present and in the past.

Witnessing the performance was an extraordinary experience for me: understanding that a form of evolution has taken place, but that it demanded an engagement with a tradition of speaking out together about sex. The young women’s monologues did not start from scratch, they began from where the interviews in the WRAP archive left off and they honour the form of talk and communication that marks the highpoint of those conversations. Some of the monologues deliberately used the interview as a form. For example Savannah’s piece was an imaginary interview with her mother that allowed her to step into her mother’s shoes and to speak about a vivid experience of gay pride in Ghana and Black Gay pride in London – luxuriating in the beauty and freedom of her daughters.

As an original interviewer who has now spent much time revisiting the conversations that took place thirty years ago I am very sensitive to the plasticity of our subject positions: I am me now (a mother), and me then (a daughter). I am the interviewer and yet the interviews tell my story as well as the women I spoke with. It was this fluidity, possibility and pride that I heard most clearly in the performance. Yes, there were and are things that don’t change. Sex and power still combine in cruel ways and new generations of young women appear to have to learn things again painfully. Yet it is also possible to stand on each others’ shoulders, to share knowledge and build possibility. When this happens we are very powerful.

Watch the live performance of The Reanimating Project.

Anonymity in the archive

Rosie Gahnstrom

Most of my last year has been spent on my sofa, watching daytime TV and preparing the Women, Risk & AIDS Project (WRAP) interviews to be published in a digital archive – my day to day hasn’t changed much at all in light of Covid-19 (apart from the added anxiety of worrying about the health and safety of everyone in the entire world, the plummeting economy and the precarity of academia and its dwindling job market, a.k.a my future prospects).

My role in the Reanimating Data team has been to format, anonymise and catalogue all of the meta-data for the interviews and their accompanying field notes. Much of this has been fairly mundane, ritualistic and monotonous – open document, select all, change font to Arial, size 11, justify margins, adjust margins, insert, page number (top of page, Plain Number 3), find all double spaces, replace all double spaces with single spaces. The trickier, more interesting bits have been treating the data with a feminist ethics of care. Simple, I thought. I just need to give each interviewee a pseudonym and redact any identifying information. We’ve been taught a fairly generic, blanket rule of adhering to ethics like this, but I’d never really had the chance to properly engage with and reflect on these principles.

I had tried to be completely objective when changing the names of research participants. I had a list of ‘Popular baby names 1970s UK’ open on Google, and once I’d exhausted those would stare longingly at my book shelf, mentally scouring stories for names that might fit the stories being told in each interview. Naming each interviewee couldn’t really be objective – there’s too much tied up in a name, and assumptions around social class, ethnicity, place, time, gender. Which names would the original interviewees have picked for themselves? What a certain name might mean to me most likely has totally different connotations for someone else. AMD18, for example, I had named Tonya. On reflection, I think I had been struggling to think of any new names, but had recently seen ‘I, Tonya’ with Margot Robbie, where Tonya Harding (whose life the film is based on) was born in 1970 – just the right age for a WRAP participant. Rachel, PI for the project, said that she wouldn’t have chosen Tonya for that particular interviewee. There’s lots of literature on the importance of naming in social science research (Moore, 2012 – The politics and ethics of naming, for example), and I’m sure I could quite happily write an entire dissertation on the topic.

Archiving the dataset for public use raises a whole host of other ethical issues, too – does informed consent obtained in the late 1980s still count today? Could any of the original research participants ever have imagined that the archive would be taken out of a box in someone’s garage and uploaded onto the internet for anyone to stumble across? Would they want the intimate thoughts of their younger selves out there for themselves to find? – I still can’t decide whether I would like the goings on of my teenage years and the way that I would have framed them then to be known by anyone now, other than maybe my therapist.

Of course, any potential identifying information from each interview has now been anonymised or redacted. Originally, this had meant working with some key principles for anonymising the data, but in practice it didn’t feel right to be as consistent as that. Names of places, parent’s job roles, bands and musicians that young women listened to became [NAME OF TOWN], [CARING PROFESSION], [COUNTRY SINGER]. How much of these young women’s stories are woven into the industrial town in northern England that them and their parents, and probably their parent’s parents grew up in, and the opportunities that had been afforded to them there, and how much context do we lose when we omit these? These are all different parts of these young women’s lives that have, to some extent at least, shaped the way that they think about their sexual identities or how they position themselves against the opposite sex.

Anonymisation principles used by the Reanimating Data team.

  • Change all people’s names (in CAPS). This includes the name of the interviewee, any partners, friends, family members etc. This is the only ‘fake’ information we will include.
  • Where a participant gives their name, change this and create a pseudonym. Where they don’t do this, don’t create a pseudonym.
  • Put all new text / changes in caps.
  • Remove names of schools, workplaces and colleges. Do not replace these with made up names. Instead put [school] [company] etc.
  • Leave all place names and details of neighbourhoods where possible. Where a participant has moved around or where the combination of different places feels identifiable change these. Do not make up alternative places but replace with [town] [city] etc. Or make specifics more generic. E.g. ‘Singapore and Hong Kong’ can be replaced with ASIA.
  • Change details of locations and jobs for third parties (parents, partners) unless seems highly relevant.

One particularly tricky interview to work with was Amanda’s, or LSFS23 as she had been known for some time. Amanda had unfortunately been through an incredibly traumatic sexual experience in her home country before moving to London in the late 1980s. She went into quite a lot of detail about this in her interview and it felt significant for her story to be told, and to be heard. After much consultation with Rachel, Niamh and Sue Sharpe, who had originally interviewed ‘Amanda’, we decided that it was important to keep more than the bare bones of her story alive. Redacting some of the finer details of what had happened, and the names of countries, of work colleagues, of slang terms particular to where Amanda had grown up, felt like enough. We know through the wake of the #MeToo movement that there is power in storytelling, but of course we don’t know whether ‘Amanda’ would still want her story to be heard, and how she would want it to be told. Omitting the entire experience felt like silencing her, which happens far too much to women in society more generally, so I hope that we have done enough here to retain the eloquence and bravery with which Amanda’s story had originally been told.

The Women, Risk and AIDS Project had been conducted in both London and Manchester yet publications that came out of the study blurred any geographical differences, identifying young people only by their age, gender and social class, rather than by their location. Reading the data now I notice striking differences between the data from each of these places. There are different norms and youth sub-cultures operating in the different cities, and in different places within each city. Growing up in Brighton, my own adolescence was spent outside Borders on a Saturday afternoon during my ‘emo’ phase, in Saltdean park with a bottle of Glenn’s vodka on a Friday night, shortly graduating to club nights like Shameless at Audio on a Thursday or Pound Dance at Digital on a Wednesday. These are some of the places that helped shape my identity as a teenager.

The concept of place had been an important way of framing the Reanimating Data project. We have chosen to work with just the Manchester data and to work with community groups in the city to ‘rematriate’ some of the original data – to give it back to the city and communities it was abstracted from. In anonymising the data, we have clearly labelled each interview and fieldnote as ‘Manchester’ or ‘London’, offering the opportunity for future researchers to explore the significance of place to these young women’s lives, relationships and sexualities. Through anonymising the data and employing a feminist ethic of care we’ve had to remove many of the details of the streets, neighbourhoods, clubs and areas of Greater Manchester that the young women evoke. It feels almost sad that some of the defining parts of the WRAP young women’s stories (their Friday nights spent in Saltdean park making some questionable choices concerning boys in the year above) are lost through the anonymisation process, and that a new generation of researchers are unable to explore how, why and in what ways place might have mattered to them in forming their own sexual identities.

What we have made possible is that current and future researchers can now read these stories which have been handled carefully – twice. Once in 1989 and the early 1990s by the team of WRAP researchers and again in 2019 and 2020 by a new team of feminist researchers trying to balance our desire to both protect these young women from unwanted exposure or harm, whilst ensuring that the stories they chose to tell are still being heard.

INTERVIEWEE: What do you hope to gain from this research?
INTERVIEWER: I think we hope to be able to give young women themselves some kind of voice in terms of the sorts of things they find difficult or important or are concerned about. And to have some kind of input and feedback into health education. Some people design the leaflets and posters all the time, but they don’t necessarily talk to the people who are supposed to be reading them about what is important to them.
INTERVIEWEE: Will it go back into like sex education in schools do you think?
INTERVIEWER: We hope so yes. Because sex education in schools is pretty rudimentary and most people we have talked to say what you said. Something like it’s about babies and it wasn’t very helpful. It’s trying to say something about that. And more general things about how women feel about relationships and sexual relationships in particular, and what’s important. Generally nobody asks you, so we would like to do that so there will be a number of different things that we hope to relate to that and of course it should have been explained to you already …………..so you don’t need to worry about that, but we would like to think that the women we interview might actually read some of the things we write.
INTERVIEWEE: You actually write in magazines?
INTERVIEWER: Well we might do, we haven’t, but we think that might be quite a good idea to do that……….. not about…..so you might see something about it in Nineteen ……….

Interview with Lucy (MAG18) for the Women, Risk and AIDS Project.

To download and read the anonymised material visit the archive here. And if you don’t know where to start? Here’s Tonya’s interview.

Collaging data and learning under lockdown

A few weeks ago we posted a blog by Charlotte Bagnall who shared how she and her colleague had used data from the WRAP archive as teaching materials for a series of sessions on thematic data analysis. Since Charlotte and Claire delivered these sessions, Corona Virus has arrived in the UK. We are in lockdown and educators across all sectors are working out how to facilitate teaching and learning online and from a distance. In these unfamiliar times we are realising that digital archives of sociological studies, like the WRAP, offer new possibilities for students and educators who want to research, teach and learn during lockdown. There are possibilities for students to do secondary data analysis, comparative historical work and data reanimation and possibilities for educators who may want to use the data, as Claire and Charlotte did, to guide students through more structured programmes of learning about research methods, feminist sociological research, sexuality studies, creative methods, Relationships and Sexuality education and much more. With this in mind we are sharing details of a session we ran in September last year with a group of students at Manchester Metropolitan University, when we had never heard of Corona virus and could sit and talk, learn, think and create together. In the session we used collaging as a method for engaging with and exploring the WRAP data and thinking about sexuality and social change. Although this was an offline, group session its simple creative methods of reflect, free-write, read, think, stick, paste and share could be transferable to different spaces and contexts.

Collaging sexual learning

On the 30th September 2019 lecturer and former youth worker Jayne Mugglestone, Ali Ronan and I facilitated a workshop for third year undergrad students studying on an Early Years and Childhood Studies programme undergraduate programme at MMU. Ali and I met Jayne early in the morning in the teaching room to set up for the session. Jayne had been feeling concerned that our decision to do a workshop on sexualities in week two of the module was not a good idea. In week two students wouldn’t know her, or each other, very well or have got used to working together as a group. The previous week Jayne had introduced the topic and let students know what would be happening. A few of the students had come to talk to her after the session to say that they were concerned about the topic, because of their religious values – some Christian, some Muslim. Jayne was feeling nervous about doing the workshop and concerned that some of the students wouldn’t turn up. This mirrored the nervousness of another of the youth workers we have worked with in this project who was concerned about how the young women in her group – from ‘strict’ Muslim and Christian backgrounds – would respond to the WRAP material. As we were setting up for the session however some of the students who had approached Jayne the previous week turned up and she could relax.

What jars you?

We started with an activity called What Jars you? (Taken from the AGENDA resource created by Emma Renold). We hadn’t planned to do this but decided to as Jayne noted some nervousness the previous week about talking about sexuality. The task was to write ‘what jars you about talking about sex and sexuality’ on post it notes and stuff these into a jar. There weren’t enough jars so the students had to share. This was a large group of over twenty students – all female except one and all born between 1997 and 1999 (We know this because our intro-starter involved talking about the year you were born!). The group is mixed in terms of race and ethnicity.

I went round and spoke to two tables at this point. At the first table the students told me that nothing jars them. They said they are very open about the topic and they are happy to talk about it. They talked about the importance of RSE and of talking about these issues both as students and young people and as future youth and childcare practitioners. On the other table two of the girls talked about the fact that they don’t talk about sex and sexuality at home or with friends. The silence around sex and sexuality was referred to in relation to upbringing and family. It took a while for us to name culture and religion as important factors. There was reference to the protests in Birmingham at the time around the teaching of LGBT relationships to Muslim children. I wasn’t quite clear if these were evoked as an example of why its difficult to have these conversations or as a polite message to me that we shouldn’t really be having these conversations anyway.

Students weren’t asked to share the contents of their jars. They could choose to take their jars with them or leave them on the tables if they were happy for us to read their contents. Most, if not all, left them. I read them after the workshop, expecting to find examples of what the students find difficult about talking about sex and sexuality in a classroom or professional context (as this was the context of our conversation prior to the activity). Students took up the activity in a different way, sharing examples of their own fears and concerns about sex and sexuality – their own ignorance, experience of abuse and fears of being touched, not enjoying sex or of getting pregnant. They also wrote what jars them about the politics of sexuality – the lack of education, social taboos around sex, restrictive religious and cultural norms, gender inequality.  

We used young people’s reflections on the activity, and what they find jarring about sex and sexuality to think about how we were going to create a safe space for working. We created a set of ground rules and talked about confidentiality and how we were documenting the session that day.

For Jayne this activity opened up thinking about what support childhood and youth practitioners need before they can go out and deliver RSE.

‘We expect people to go and work with young people/all ages, in different roles – teachers, community workers, family support, etc. and support them around RSE subjects and issues when they have had no information or support themselves. It’s challenge as there is so little space even in our quite open curriculum to work on this kind of thing. The rooms, the group sizes, the course fees and related pressure on assessment and jobs, all gets the focus and the students themselves get missed in it all.’

Jayne Mugglestone, Lecturer and youth worker

Partner discussion and individual free write

We started the creative work by asking students to talk to a partner about how and what they learnt about sex, sexuality and relationships (and also perhaps what they didn’t learn or wasn’t said). Once pairs had finished their conversations they were asked to individually speed write for 2 minutes about ‘sexual learning’. They could write about their own experiences or reflect on their conversation with their partner. The free writes were anonymous and confidential, although many of the students said they were happy to share them and let me take some photos. Together they capture what has been well documented in youth sexualities research – that young people learn about sex and sexuality from a range of different sources and that sexual learning starts long before children start school. We also see that young people are critical of the education they get at school, that conversations with parents are limited and many young people do not have a trusted or reliable source of information about sex and sexuality or a place to go to explore the topics that interest them in more detail.

Engaging with the WRAP data on sexual learning

Next we put the written reflections / speed writes to one side and then looked at some extracts from the WRAP study on sexual learning. Students were asked to choose an extract and read it several times, underlining things that stood out to them. Next they discussed the extracts with a partner and then with the wider group. There was a feeling that the extracts ‘could have been today’. One pair were confused because they thought that the extracts were from today, and not from the past. This has happened across the projects we have done in Manchester. Young women read the material as if it were from today. At first I saw this as our failure to provide enough historical context around the archive but I have since come to see this as what the WRAP material does. It glows and speaks to the young women who read it today. Rather than seeing the data as a historical document they see the data as an invitation to tell their own stories or to take advantage of a rare moment to hear another woman tell their story, with an intimacy they tell us they rarely hear. They don’t seem to see the interviews and the extracts as historical documents or ‘archive material’ but rather as a collection of women’s voices that they can often relate to, or that they feel inspired by. After this the task was to create a collage that captured their thoughts about what is changing for young people when it comes to learning about sex and sexuality. Students could use the extracts, their own free writes, or create new material. They were given coloured paper, glue, coloured pens, scissors and crayons.

Creating collages

Students worked quickly and creatively, responding to the invitation to explore sexuality and social change in different ways – one created paper jigsaw pieces to piece together the different ways that young people learn about sex, others created columns to show what has changed and what has remained the same. When I went around and talked to young people in their small groups two south East Asian young women told me that they only really learnt about sex and sexuality and relationships from social media – Instagram and snapchat – as they rarely discussed the topic with friends (and never with family). They said that they would see articles pop up on their news feed or in the discover / explore section of the app and would sometimes click on them. We looked at their phones to see what kinds of articles were there on that day. We saw two examples that appeared on their news feeds –   ‘How experienced are you really?’ and ‘things girlfriends do that secretly annoy their boyfriends’. The young women said they found these kind of articles useful and interesting as a way of learning about sex and relationships. We talked about the fact that they had no choice over what appeared in their news feeds but choice over what they clicked on, open and decided to read. This wasn’t the same at school, where they had no choice over whether they could take part in an RSE session or not.

In another discussion with a West African and south east Asian young woman the West African young woman describe how she learnt about sex and relationships from her friends, her parents, school sex education and her church. For her these different sites were different, but complementary. She never had a burning question inside her that she couldn’t get an answer to because if church wasn’t telling her, she would ask her mum, if her mum couldn’t answer she would ask her friends. She said that all these different messages and information would bump up against each other and sometimes contradict each other but ultimately she would always come back to what her mum said. You always come back to where you lie at night. She explained that a teacher can’t slap you or punish you like your mum can – you live in her house so you ultimately have to listen to her rules and her way of seeing things. When I asked if that meant that the other messages and learning didn’t matter, she said no – that she heard them all, they passed through and lodged in her brain somehow, even if she settled for now with what her mum tells her. She later had a go at representing this through her collage. Her friend said that things were similar for her, even though her religion was different (Islam).  

When the collages were finished we stuck them on to the wall and asked the students to gather round and talk about their collage. Through their collages and the discussion, the students made the following points about sexual learning and social change:

Friends are still a key source of information about sex for some young people. There is more openness between friends for some young people but for others sex is never discussed. Or as one young woman commented – there are some friends I would say anything to and some I wouldn’t talk to about sex at all.

Relationships and Sex Education is still largely scientific – focussing on the biological aspects of sex and not discussing other areas such as emotions, relationships, consent and bodies. It is also still mainly heterosexual. It is still largely taught by female teachers.

The legal and policy framework around the teaching of homosexuality in schools has changed in the UK. There used to be ‘section 28’ and now there the Love is love movement. There is more openness around homosexuality now but it is still largely excluded from RSE which still focusses on heterosexual relationships. LGBT young people have to find out their own information. As M (young gay man) said – I felt like there was no space for me within RSE.

Parents still don’t really talk about sex to their children, although this varies between families and across cultures. One white young woman commented that her family would never talk about sex but that her boyfriend’s mum is really open. They all walk around naked! – she told us.

Gender.  It remains the case that women are judged more harshly than men for having sex.

Clinics. There are more sexual health services and charities to support young people and sexual health clinics are confidential for young people.

Media. One young woman commented that young people have always learnt about sex and sexuality from the media but we talk about this as if it is a ‘new’ phenomena. In 1989 young people were learning about sex from television adverts about HIV and AIDS and today young people learn from digital and social media, as well as television.  The range of media and the content of media has changed however. She commented that AIDS would no longer be talked about in the media as a ‘gay disease’, but that female pleasure is still side-lined as it was in the 1980s. There are more media sources for learning about pleasure now (previously just women’s magazines) but – she said – we don’t learn about it. In a patriarchal society it is more accepted that men have sex.

Others in the group talked about other ways in which young people learn through the media. For example, through documentaries and YouTubers. One young person gave the example of Stacey Douley’s documentary about brothels in Turkey where men visit sex workers because they don’t know where to put their penis when having penetrative sex with a woman. Here the sex workers are the sex educators. Shan Boody [Shan Boodram) was mentioned as a YouTuber that some young people watch.

The group reflected that now there is so much more media to learn from – particularly from social media. This can be a pressure but it is an important source of information. For some this is their only source (see above). There is more about female pleasure in the media now and so many more sources than previously (just a few women’s magazines). Porn is a source of education now for some young people.

Religion remains influential and important to how young people learn about sex, sexuality and relationships. Young people felt that things are changing within many faith communities, even though it can be hard to see this. One group said that a sexual health worker had started to come to their Mosque after lots of men started getting STIs from the extra-marital relationships they were having. The young women said that these men can’t talk to the Imam about these relationships or about condom use as the men shouldn’t be having these relationships in the first place.

After the session Jayne spoke with the students and asked them for feedback. She found that students had taken things away from the session for themselves and for their practice as future childcare / youth practitioners. In particular, the importance of access to information about sex and sexual health and the need to not be judgemental and understand difference. Students commented a lot on the creative methods we used, noting that they didn’t feel like they were taking part in research and rethinking what it means to do research with young people.

Six weeks later we returned to do another session using the WRAP data, this time exploring what we find in an archive and what we find missing. The students drew their ‘many selves’ and looked through the archive to think about what stories about women’s lives they wanted to be heard by future generations. Then some of them gifted us stories of their own.

‘The effects of both the sessions were felt throughout the rest of the time I worked with them and after that. Some of them told me that it had really helped to think more about it all and to be in a space where they felt that they could explore different views. It seemed to give them much more confidence in their ability to talk about issues and to feel taken seriously in their feelings and discussions was really important. Several said that they had previously thought about RSE as quite a narrow subject where they now thought that it was much wider and much more important for all ages than they had thought.’

Jayne Mugglestone, Lecturer and youth worker

Click here to explore the archive further and to use the selected extracts on sexual learning use the link above.

Feminist chatbot 2: front /back, questions/ answers; now/then

Rachel Thomson

This workshop (second in the series) focused our attention on the relationship between the front end of the bot (written in Java and creating the interface with the user, designed to hear and decipher their question) and the back end of the bot – the potential answers to the question that takes the form of a data base or archive (and created in python code within a flask container). Workshop leader Suze Shardlow encouraged us to think through all the stages that might be involved in a simple question and answer cycle – each action requiring construction. Here we see one attempt to map the stages involved.

Suze encouraged us to juxtapose a typical commercial application for a chat bot (for example online Pizza ordering) and our attempt to use a chat bot as an interface for an archive made up of interviews conducted in a conversational style. So for example, the question ‘how can I help you’ on a pizza order site is limited in its potential answers to the menu offered by the restaurant. The questions that we might ask the WRAP archive and the kinds of answers that could be evoked are not so constrained.  So how do we begin the process of focusing down the kinds of questions that can be asked and the potential answers that can be given?

We could offer our users a limited set of FAQs to choose between. This would make things easier in the short-term, but it would also mean that we miss out on discovering what it is that contemporary audiences want to ask. It would also derail our desire to mimic conversation – to create the feeling that the user is talking directly to Mary and to the past that was so powerful in the first workshop when we first met Mary.

Thinking about potential questions also prompted a discussion about what was feminist about our bot. Would she for example refuse to ask certain questions, suggest that people reflect a bit more or simply suggest that they ‘google’ that one. How censorious and how curious would our chat bot-be?

We also had to think through the relationship between the questions asked through our chat-bot today (which would be relayed to the archive) and the questions asked thirty years ago by researchers. At one level this is an entirely practical matter – perhaps we could simply piggy-back on the original questions, re-using these to call up original answers. The problem with this strategy is that the interviews were highly conversational in style – it can be hard to isolate a single question and answer as we see below in this extract from an interview with Melanie:

Q: How about ways to stop it being sexually transmitted? Do you know how you can not catch it, I mean what safe sex is?
A: Oh yes, using a condom.
Q: Is there anything else that would count as safe sex other than using a condom?
A: No.
Q: Right, I’m not testing you. I’m generally trying to find out what type of things people know.
A: I think this is terrible actually, I really haven’t thought about it and I’m realising that I know so little about it’
Q: For instance would something like oral sex, would you know if it had any risk attached to it or not?
A: Well no I wouldn’t, but I would imagine that I would say it has.
Q: Right. So you’ve got a general idea of how it’s …
A: I’m assuming it has, is that right?

So, if we don’t piggy-back on the old questions, do we simply ignore them? In relation to the above example we might train the chat bot to hear a question that includes the word ‘safe sex’ – how do you understand safe sex? Do you practice safe sex? And we might select this particular extract from Melanie as an answer ‘I think this is terrible actually, I really haven’t thought about it and I’m realising that I know so little about it’. This allows for a direct relationship with the contemporary questioner and Melanie. Alternatively, the original researcher could be treated as an integral part of the conversation. Following this logic our contemporary user might ask a question of the archive along the lines of ‘how was safer sex talked about in the interviews’ – allowing an extract of conversation to count as an answer.

For the members of the workshop, this question linked directly to our explorations of who/ where/ how the feminism of the project sits and the relationship between feminism then (as captured in the approach of feminist researchers), feminism now (as captured by our decisions as to how to engineer the relationship between the front and back end of the bot) but also feminism (?) of the user whose questions have the potential to open the archive up in new ways.

And this takes us to the final key area of our discussion during the workshop which was the relationship between a rule-based design for training our bot to make links between questions and potential answers and a machine learning approach  (Artificial Intelligence) approach where the bot works directly with the language of the data set rather than the way that it is coded – having been already trained for the task using rule based approaches that are no longer visible to us. In thinking through these alternative strategies we considered the primary role of the chat-bot as a user-facing tool that would helps people access the archive – rather than a tool for analysis of the archive. In terms of the ambitions of the FACT workshop and the RAD project our aims are relatively modest – to collaboratively build a simple chat-bot and to gain an understanding of the labour involved in this process (FACT), and to experiment with ways of reanimating the data set to encourage new users and to learn about the questions they may have (RAD).

As with the previous workshop we also learned about the painstaking process of coding and that things take much longer than you might think – both in building the front end of the chat-bot and in preparing the data for the back-end. Our immediate plan is to mark up 5 interviews with around 10 key words as a first stage of creating a relationship between possible questions and potential replies. On Saturday March 7th we are introducing our pilot version of the chat-bot to her first audience at an International Women’s Day event at Manchester Central Reference Library where we will showcase some of the  ‘reanimation experiments’ that have been part of the RAD project.

Digging where I stand

Rachel Thomson

The term digging where you stand was introduced in 1978 by Swedish oral history activist Sven Lindqvis who called upon factory workers to investigate their own workplaces as a form of self-organisation. I know this because Andrew Flinn provided a compelling overview of community history making and archiving at the Sussex Humanities Lab. Andrew has used the slogan ‘Dig where you stand’ to describe and organise community heritage work – inviting people to research their own communities, and localities. Sometimes this means literally digging where they stand.

Last time I was in Manchester I went to the Whitworth Art Gallery to see an exhibition about the Reno night club, demolished in 1990 and dug up in 2016. Lead by community activist and playright Linda Brogan and funded by the HLF, archaeologists at Salford University literally dug at the site of the Reno, with community members joining in to reveal treasures including the original dance floor, old library cards and a thirty year old bag of weed! The Reno had been a haven for a generation of young people who identified as ‘half-caste’, the children of white Mancunian mothers and African or west Indian fathers. On the back of the excavation an oral history and community memory project has been undertaken that documents how groups of friends installed themselves within the club, had their own spaces of standing, watching and dancing – how the Reno was part of a network of community spaces in Liverpool, Nottingham and Cardiff . The Whitworth Art Gallery has given a large space over to the project and includes vitrines displaying objects, screens for listening to A/V recordings of interviews, collections of memorabilia, an in-memorium wall marking the faces of the many players in the story who are now dead, long before their time. The project and the website that accompanies has the feeling of a community endeavour. Interviews are full of laughter, reminiscence, shyness and pride. Taking over the museum is a political intervention as is the task of maintaining control over the character and methods of the project.

I found out about the Reno revival on one of my trips to Manchester for The Reanimating Data Project. I lived in Manchester between 1985-90, for a time just over the road from the Reno. Between 1988-90 I was research assistant on a project documenting young women’s sexual cultures. My job was to interview young women in Manchester and I found them in lots of different ways: through youth clubs, through colleges, through workplaces, trade unions and universities. The reanimating data project takes me back to Manchester thirty years later to find out about whether there are still traces of these places and people and whether there is meaning or purpose in bringing this body of research back to the place in which it was generated so long ago. It would be so much easier if I could dig where I stand, but I stand two hundred miles away in the south coast of England, not far from where I started before I left for Manchester in the autumn of 1985. So I have instead to try and work out how to dig where I stood.

In 1988 when the WRAP project went about recruiting young women into the project it was able to collaborate with a vibrant network of youth clubs across the city, where feminist youth workers were intervening in creative ways. Our project talked to young women at Ardwick and Moston Youth Clubs – encouraged by youth workers such as Nora Davies and Cath Lambert to capture young women’s views and experiences of what was often a tough life for young women but which produced wit, insight and ambition. The YWait project was a jewel in the crown of Manchester youth work, a peer education project promoting sexual health for and by young women. With the help of Pam Muttram we made contact with a young mothers group in Higher Blakeley who were self-organising and speaking at schools just as teenage pregnancy was beginning to be articulated as a problem in a new way.

An article in Manchester based magazine City Life in 1988 called ‘Pregnant Thoughts’ by Penny Anderson reports how ‘high teenage pregnancy rates have shocked local welfare workers …according to new Government figures Greater Manchester has more teenage mothers than any other English county’. The piece comments that there is ‘no real stigma to illegitimacy any more’ with early and unmarried pregnancy operating as an intergenerational phenomena ‘if Mum gets caught the daughter is likely to get caught out as well’.

Fast forward thirty years and Ardwick youth cub has been demolished, targets to address teenage pregnancy have been met (partly by the widespread use of long lasting contraceptive implants) and the last strand of support for teenage pregnancy city wide disappeared two year earlier when pregnant school girl units were disbanded and FNP was not replaced. ‘Once we hit the target non-one was bothered’ explains Maggie Flint, who has worked with young women include the 1980s, a time she remembers fondly as a golden era, where ‘everything was possible’. Tracking around the new and shiny academies and youth hubs that have replaced the post-industrial landscape we notice that teenage sexuality and public health are no longer on the agenda. At the Academy we hear lots about early intervention, about tracking progress and intervening to address obstacles to progress. The intervention is more likely to be time-limited speech therapy for a parent in order to facilitate educational progress in a child than a service built around notions of equality or collective empowerment. The whole area was ‘swept clean’ for the Commonwealth Games explains Maggie. Local slums and local services where rationalised into strategic plans for the whole city – a multi-agency approach lead by a common assessment framework. The end of bottom up services. Activists become contract managers, freelance trainers, retire. How do we dig in this landscape? Where do we stand?

At the 2016 Tory Party conference Theresa May declared ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ She counterposed elitist cosmopolitan drifters with ‘the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street’. This phrase has come to my mind several times during this project as our team searches for traction with communities in present day Manchester – finding ways of connecting an extraordinary set of interviews generated in the city thirty years ago with the city today. An obvious problem is that the team is not based in Manchester, we come as visitors, attempting to drum up interest in a past that is complicated. I find a similar ambivalence to the past in the archive where I read a Jim Reeve review from 1989 of and exhibition of Shirley Baker photographs that suggests that in the 1980s this past was too close – Reeve comments on how in these images ‘the 60s can be seen creeping up on a timeless people, tower blocks looming up over back-to-backs, bee-hives and mini-skirts against a background of outside toilets. If you close one eye you could imagine a scene from the 30s. Its alarming to think that the fairly momentous 20 years covered by the pictures still saw flabby arms folded around wrap-around pinnies, men with trilbies and spectacles covered with Elastoplast, which is why anyone over 30 should steel themselves before perusing these pictures. They are a grainy reminder that you are becoming part of history…. The book left me with a dull feeling. That is not to say that it is a dull book’.

I am very aware that I left Manchester in 1990 and the city I return to now is a different place. Skyscrapers are sprouting up in the centre of the city, rumoured to be funded by Chinese capital. Trams connect neighbourhoods in new ways and the University expresses a new-found confidence and ownership of the civic space. We convene a reunion of the old sociology department where the study was born, attempting to retrace the lines of town and gown that characterised the city in the late 1980s. We discover fellow travellers who also passed through Manchester University during this era and appreciate their nostalgic connections to the project. Yet for those still living in Manchester, still working in the department, it is an unconnected history – perhaps producing dull feelings. Our various gambits to capture interest are productive but not always successful as our agendas slide away from each other. Drama students in 2019 appear more interested in the stories of working class girls that revisiting the dubious sexual cultures of middle class drama training culture of the 1980s. Our hottest connection is with the Proud Trust, still meeting in the Sydney Street building that is a living connection with the Manchester of the past, celebrating the city’s history of activism around section 28, of radical feminism and activism in the area of young women’s sexual health.  Workers and clients see themselves in a local feminist activist tradition that includes our study. As an organisation the proud Trust move easily across the lines of academia/ local government, the voluntary sector and corporate fund raising. They have not been swept away or built over, in fact they are key players in building the new Manchester as they begin a major building project of their own.

I like the idea of digging where I stand. If I had stayed in Manchester I would be able to align the geographical, biographical and historical – but working peripatetically in this way alerts me to Manchester’s place in a history of cosmopolitanism, of exporting and drawing in talent, of reinventing itself and of looking forward rather than backwards. The metaphor of digging where you stand is powerful and compelling. I want to be able to do this and to claim the dubious authority of a living local. Instead I seem to be burrowing, making channels below and along the ground, sometimes my personal worm holes trap me alone in an auto-biographical past, but increasingly these become connected spaces where I bump into others following their own leads.