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Becoming Unbecoming

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Page 45 Review by Jonathan

"Women and girls are not just sexual victims. They have their own sexuality, needs, desires...
"But if professionals in the justice system aren't able to work out the issue of consent...
"I repeatedly encountered a complete lack of interest in my consent, and total uninterest in my pleasure. What a strange thing this is to overlook!
"Whether I said yes or whether I said no, the end result was the same.
"The problem seems to be... a climate of confusion, collusion and self-delusion.
"The solution? Sexual partners have to make sure consent is free and full. With a partner who is able to consent."

Una, the creator of this brilliant part-autobiographical work, part-analysis of the disparity in levels of sexual violence experienced by women and men, part-biography of the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, and his victims, grew up in West Yorkshire only a few miles away from me, as it happens. She's a little bit older than myself, being twelve years old to my five in 1977, so her memories of the reign of terror that Peter Sutcliffe engendered in the female population of the region are somewhat more grounded in genuine feelings of fear, rather than the slightly confused ideas of a child trying to get to grips with the concept of the existence of a real-life Bogeyman apparently right on his doorstep.

Obviously as I got a little bit older, by the time Sutcliffe was finally caught in January 1981, I had begun to realise the full horror of his crimes, and the nationwide consternation he had caused during that period. Even as a child I do remember my mother being extremely concerned on the occasions she had to drive over to Harrogate and back on some Friday evenings on business, particularly because she drove right through Chapeltown, where the Ripper was known to prowl.

So, the Ripper and his activities - and the exploration of some of the lives of his victims in more detail - help to set the seventies scene and allow Una to explore the rather more primitive cultural attitudes towards women generally at the time. Her teenage years were certainly ruined by unwanted sexual interactions, and the social difficulties this consequently caused her - with both sexes, distressingly enough. I'm reluctant to go into more details because I think Una does a wonderful job in explaining the particular circumstances involved. Suffice to say that consent certainly wasn't something which was asked for or wholly given. She then provides an in-depth illustrated statistical overview of sexual violence toward women, both historical and current.

It's an uneasy read (particularly for the father of a young girl) which amply demonstrates that whilst the antics of the Ripper and his ilk might grab all the headlines, the reality is that everyday casual sexual misconduct of all degrees towards women is still considerably more widespread and pernicious than the typical man might realise. Yes, times have changed to some extent, but even so Una was able to educate me with some rather alarming fact and figures. She then goes on to explore and debunk some of the various theories as to why we as a so-called civilised society still find ourselves in such a predicament. I found her analysis fascinating and extremely well thought through, I must say.

Consequently as a piece of graphic journalism I found it as compelling and technically well constructed a read as Darryl Cunningham's SUPERCRASH. It's that good. What makes this work so emotionally compelling, though - and heartbreaking, actually - is her older self's attempts to understand and explain what her younger self was going through, both emotionally internally, and externally at the hands, physically as well as metaphorically, of her contemporaries. Then the long hard road as an adult gradually coming to terms with what had happened to her, not attempting to forget or bury it, but trying to deal with it and move past it.

I can't say for sure whether producing this work has formed part of that healing process for her, but certainly her resolute bravery in laying her story so publically bare can only be commended, as it adds a deeply powerful emotional connection to the wider topic she is trying to draw our attention to. Plus in addition to being a genuinely moving autobiographical work, this is also a fascinating time capsule into the wider social mores of the time, riven as they were then with considerably more casual social misogyny than today.

Surprisingly then, for a work dealing with such darkness, there is a tremendous amount of humour to be found, often from the illustrations Una employs to underscore a point, particularly when highlighting some of the now frankly ridiculous attitudes of the times. I can imagine she would make a great satirical cartoonist, actually, if she ever needs a sideline.

The work then concludes with a sequence of full-page portraits that I have to say brought a tear to my eye. I will leave it for you to discover for yourselves precisely who they portray and how... But it's a very appropriate and moving finale to such an emotionally charged work.