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There was a feminist outcry when the band used a tied-up model to promote their 1976 album. Is rocknroll more enlightened now?

Even by the standards of 1970s rocknroll, it was in bad taste: a billboard on Sunset Boulevard of a bruised and bound woman sitting on a gatefold cover of a new Rolling Stones album that proclaimed: Im Black and Blue from the Rolling Stones and I love it.

The 1976 advert triggered an outcry: Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) wrote in the newsletter Breakthrough that the ad campaign exploits and sensationalises violence against a woman for the purpose of increased record sales and contributes to the myth that women like to be beaten, and condones a permissive attitude towards the brutalisation of women.

The controversial advert for the Rolling Stones Black and Blue album from 1976, featuring the model Anita Russell. Photograph: Atlantic Records

Five women connected with the group armed with buckets of fire-engine-red paint, according to the magazine Mother Jones defaced the hoarding, writing This is a crime against women. The bands label, Atlantic Records, pulled the campaign. The band apologised. By way of an explanation, Mick Jagger said hed applied the simulated bruises himself.

I didnt mind at all, in fact I was happy for the work, model Anita Russell told the Observer last week on the 44th anniversary of the albums release and the impending reissue of much of the bands later back catalogue, remastered at Abbey Road using a technique for extracting more sound from the original mastering tapes. Black and Blue is one of 10 albums being reissued and, not surprisingly, it will not be accompanied by the original ad campaign.

Russell recalls that she hadnt expected to get the booking. At a casting with Jagger and photographer Ara Gallant in New York, Russell passed the part-African-American model Pat Cleveland on the stairs and felt sure shed get it. Mick told me I was too pretty, so I smeared my makeup and said, See, Im not so pretty. Then he told me to put my arms up and told me to make a face like Im growling.

Days later, Russell, Jagger, Keith Richards and Gallant got together to make the picture. I knew about Im black and blue from the Rolling Stones, and I knew that the bruises meant Id been beaten and tied. But I wasnt a model who could only pose and look pretty, and I wasnt insulted because I knew it was tongue-in-cheek, she says.

Russell, who is now an equestrian and author, recalls that the musicians were charming and polite. Im an actress-model, so it seemed like fun, she adds. I never thought of it in a negative way. Jagger asked her out. She demurred. I didnt want to get passed around from star to star, but I thought he was cuter than in his photographs.

But the ad came out just as French Vogue published a Helmut Newton picture of a woman wearing a bridle and saddle, amplifying the controversy. Russell played along with the outrage: she posed for a National Lampoon magazine cover imagining Jagger tied up, with Russell looking on, laughing.

Close to half a century on, the billboard ad stands as a turning point. WAVAW organised a boycott of Warner, Elektra and Atlantic Records lasting three years, which was only lifted after Warner Communications agreed to let the group implement a sensitivity training programme for advertising executives at the entertainment giant. There was a riposte a year later when the punk band X-Ray Spex released Oh Bondage Up Yours!.

Evelyn McDonnell, author of Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl theorises that the campaign brought some attention to the album but ultimately overshadowed it. It certainly didnt let the music speak for itself, and the controversy doesnt age well.

While Andrea Dworkin and Women Against Violence might have seemed like radical fringe feminism then, that reaction is mainstream now. A record company just wouldnt allow it nowadays. It would becancel culture, McDonnell says.

The Rolling Stones album cover for their 1976 Black and Blue album.

She points out notwithstanding the fact that women, too, have played extensively with the iconography of bondage and fetishism, from the Plasmatics Wendy O Williams to Shakira throwing off her ropes during Februarys Super Bowl half-time show that equality, real or symbolic, wasnt always forthcoming in the business.

Its better than it was. There are certainly a lot of amazing women artists and theyre more acknowledged in the industry, she says, but its certainly not perfect or equitable.

Its great that Anita Russell felt she had agency in what she was doing, but for women walking down Sunset who might have been in abusive relationships, or were trying to get ahead in the music industry, that billboard might have felt like a reality.

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The long read: The notorious case of three teenage sisters inspired a campaign for change and a backlash from the patriarchy

At about 3pm on 27 July 2018, the day of his death, Mikhail Khachaturyan scolded his three teenage daughters, Krestina, Angelina and Maria. The apartment they shared in a Soviet-era housing block near the huge ring road that encircles Moscow was a mess, he told them, and they would pay for having left it that way. A large, irascible man in his late 50s with a firm Orthodox faith, Khachaturyan had run his household despotically since he allegedly forced his wife to leave in 2015.

That afternoon, his daughters would later tell investigators, he punished them in his customary sadistic way. Calling them one by one into his bedroom, he cursed and yelled at them, then pepper sprayed each one in the face. The oldest sister, Krestina, 19, began to choke from the effects of the spray. Retreating to the bedroom she shared with her sisters, Krestina collapsed on the bed and lost consciousness. Her sister Maria, then 17, the youngest of the three, would later describe this moment as the final straw.

Krestina woke shortly after 7pm to cries from the other side of the bedroom door. Running into the living room, she saw Angelina and Maria standing over their father, who was in his chair, struggling violently. Apparently believing her sisters were in danger, Krestina snatched the bottle of pepper spray from a nearby table and sprayed it frantically at her father.

But what Krestina had witnessed was not another assault by Khachaturyan on his daughters. While she was recovering in the bedroom, investigators say Maria and Angelina attacked Khachaturyan with a hunting knife and hammer they had retrieved from his car. Disoriented from the pepper spray and rapidly losing blood, Khachaturyan hobbled on to the landing outside the apartment. It was there that Angelina, the 18-year-old middle daughter, caught up with him and, investigators allege, drove the knife into his heart.

Several minutes later, one of the sisters called the police. Identifying herself as Angelina, she explained through tears that her father had attacked her under the influence of a heavy dose of sedatives, and that she had killed him in self-defence. Police found his body on the landing, with multiple stab wounds to the neck, arms and torso. The sisters were arrested for murder and held in a womens remand prison in south-east Moscow.

News of the killing quickly spread across Russia, and in the months that followed, the country was divided over what drove the three teenage sisters to kill their own father. The case was covered obsessively by newspapers, evening news programmes, and TV talkshows. It was all anyone could talk about for months, said Alexey Parshin, Angelinas lawyer.

Some, including Khachaturyans two sisters, claimed the young women were scheming ingrates who killed their father to steal his money. They cited evidence that the daughters had slashed each other in the minutes following the killing with the same knife they allegedly used to murder him, in what investigators would later call a deliberate attempt to mislead them.

Others including their mother, Khachaturyans estranged wife came to the sisters defence, refusing to accept that such an egregious motive could be behind their actions. As lawyers and investigators began piecing together the Khachaturyan family story, it became clear this was not a cold-blooded murder. Over hundreds of pages of court documents and transcripts of witness testimony, a picture emerges, which Mikhail Khachaturyans sisters contest, of a household terrorised by his paranoiac despotism of routine sexual abuse, beatings, humiliation and death threats.

Despite this history of abuse, in June 2019 prosecutors indicted all three daughters on charges of pre-meditated murder. Two months after the killing, they were released from custody following an appeal from their lawyers, and as an investigation into the crime continues, they are staying with relatives, awaiting trial. A psychological assessment shortly after the killing found that Maria was mentally unsound at the time of the crime due to an acute stress disorder caused by her fathers abuse, and recommended her for treatment. But given the severity of the charges, Maria and her sisters face betwen eight and 20 years in prison for what they maintain was a desperate act of self-defence.

Meanwhile, Russia finds itself deep in a national debate over domestic violence. The sisters case has galvanised opposition to the countrys punitive legal system and conservative political culture. At present, Russia has no specific legislation to define, prevent or prosecute domestic violence. Womens rights advocates are campaigning to overturn a controversial 2017 law on battery that has softened punishments and, they say, encouraged perpetrators to act with impunity.

Hundreds have taken to the streets since the indictment was issued to call for the sisters release and picket government buildings in protest against their prosecution. Fundraising concerts and theatre performances have been held to offset their legal fees and call for the passing of a law that would help prevent future attacks. An online petition for their release has gathered more than 370,000 signatures. Its become clear this is a problem of catastrophic proportions which cant be ignored, said Alyona Popova, a womens rights activist who started the petition and helped draft a domestic violence bill now being debated in the Russian parliament. Something has to be done.

But as activists step up their efforts to reform the legal system, they are being countered by a campaign backed by the powerful Orthodox church to promote traditional values and portray the Russian family unit as under threat.

Orthodox priests are appearing on state TV channels excoriating the malign forces of globalisation, while mass vigils are being held across Russia to protest against western progressivism. Hundreds of social media accounts representing conservative movements are promoting an apocalyptic narrative that claims any moves towards regulating family affairs will lead to the disintegration of Russian families and perhaps of Russia itself.

In the years before his death, Mikhail Khachaturyan liked to take regular pilgrimages to Israel, returning with candles from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianitys holiest site, and various icons that he added to a home shrine at which he prayed daily. An account purportedly belonging to him on a Russian social media platform where he lists his name as Michael of Jerusalem contains pictures of him bathing at holy sites, drinking shirtless with friends and posing with prominent Orthodox clerics and public figures.

During a police interrogation the day after his murder, a partial transcript of which was provided to me by one of Angelinas attorneys, Angelina said that her father first sexually assaulted her while the two were on holiday in Israel in November 2014, and that he had subjected her to various forms of sexual harassment ever since. It always took place in his bedroom, she said, with the door closed. Hed regularly tell us that sex outside marriage is a sin, she said of her pious father. But because were his blood and his daughters, he can do with us as he wishes, and we should submit ourselves to it.

In WhatsApp messages that were leaked to the press, Khatchaturyan had often threatened Angelina with sexual violence. In January 2018, while he was on a pilgrimage in Israel, he threatened to rape both his daughter and his estranged wife upon learning that Angelina wasnt home as he had instructed. Three months later, he sent her a series of lewd voice messages. Youll be sucking endlessly, Angelina, he said in one. And if you leave Ill find you. Three minutes later, he warned: Ill beat you for everything, Ill kill you. Leave, leave, dont drive me to sin.

Khachaturyan sexually assaulted his other daughters as well, according to the official investigation into the crime, and had effectively enslaved them. We served him in the home, ironing, cleaning, cooking for him and giving him food when he asked, Maria said in a police interview, according to court documents. If the sisters fell short of his expectations, or he simply lost his temper, he attacked them.

Violence, or the threat of it, was a constant presence in their home. Khachaturyan was highly superstitious, and is said to have banned his family from uttering certain everyday words in his presence, believing them to bring bad luck. He installed a camera on the landing outside their apartment to record his childrens comings and goings. In a search of the property after the killing, police confiscated a hammer, a knife, two airguns, a crossbow, a rubber-bullet handgun, a revolver, a hunting rifle, 16 cartridges and 16 spears. In Khachaturyans car they also found business cards displaying the logo of Russias Federal Security Service, or FSB, and listing the 57-year-old as its employee.

Angelina Khachaturyan arrives at a court hearing in Moscow in June 2019. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty

Investigators declared the cards fake, but few in the area doubted that Khachaturyan was well connected. A series of events recounted by neighbours indicate that he had friends in the Moscow police and the prosecutors office. He constantly bragged about his connections, said Parshin, Angelinas lawyer, who has written to the authorities requesting that Khachaturyans contacts with law enforcement officials be investigated. The choice for the three sisters, he said, was to do nothing, and hope itll pass, or go to the police and inevitably suffer another beating at the hands of their father, who would have been the first person the police would report to.

In records of her police interrogation, Angelina described the predicament the sisters faced in the run-up to the murder. My sisters and I were tired of such a life, but afraid to turn to anyone for help because he had connections everywhere, she said of her father. After their mother was forced to flee, the sisters were afraid that anyone who tried to help them would get into trouble. Telling our relatives was also not a solution to the problem, because they might have not believed us.

In their statements, Maria and Angelina both recounted an episode from early 2016, when the three sisters were on holiday with their father in Adler, a resort on Russias Black Sea coast. After Krestina ran out of a room where shed been alone with her father, she swallowed a handful of drotaverine pills, an antispasmodic drug, in an apparent suicide attempt, and had to be rushed to hospital.

Krestinas lawyer, Alexey Liptser, told me that it was fear that Krestina would again attempt suicide that had driven her sisters to take matters into their own hands. (Krestina did not take part in the killing, he added.) In a WhatsApp exchange with one of her friends a month before her fathers murder, Krestina said that he had again threatened to rape her and that she might not endure the situation much longer.

I lost consciousness during the night, she wrote. He began to chase me out at one in the morning, because he didnt like the fact that one of his shirts isnt ironed. She continued: I became anxious and started crying and then began suffocating and fell on the ground. The little ones began to sob and resuscitate me, it was fucking crazy. And to top it off he whacked them over the head with his gun He gets worse every day. And its like this every day? the friend responded. Almost, Krestina replied.

Consider the fact they could not be expected to make logical decisions, their inability to find help, the constant violence, the threats to their lives, said Parshin. Put all that together and youll understand what state they were in, and why they took that knife and that hammer.

Mikhail Khachaturyan drove them to that state, Parshin went on. The moment he began to commit crimes against them, he stopped being a father.

In December, I travelled to Moscows northern outskirts to see Aurelia Dunduk, the mother of the three sisters and a key witness in their case. Dunduk met Mikhail Khachaturyan in Moscow in 1996, two years after she had emigrated with her parents from Moldova. She was 17. Khachaturyan, who was 35, was from an ethnic Armenian family that had left the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan in 1988 to escape the sectarian conflict that was engulfing parts of the moribund Soviet empire. The family came to Moscow hoping to eventually emigrate to the US, but their plans never worked out.

The city the two families encountered then, in Russias first post-Soviet decade, was a place descending into lawlessness. Aspiring entrepreneurs, law enforcement officials and petty criminals eager to exploit the collapsing system used any means at their disposal to profit from the chaos. After a stint in the Russian army, Khachaturyan became a local racketeer: merchants opening up stores and small businesses in his part of north Moscow would pay cash for his protection.

Dunduk dated Khachaturyan for several months after they first met, then broke it off. He had become violent, and started threatening her family, she claims, so she moved outside the city to stay with relatives and keep her distance. He ultimately forced her to return through a campaign of threats and coercion, she said, which culminated in him locking Dunduk in his apartment after she attended a new years eve party he hosted.

Krestina, left, and Angelina, at Moscows Basmanny district court. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/TASS

I stayed against my will, Dunduk, now 40, told me at a cafe not far from the apartment where Khachaturyan was murdered. He left none of us any choice, neither me nor my relatives. She is tired of the constant attention from prosecutors, journalists and Khachaturyans defenders that she has faced since the murder, and her shaky cadence was barely audible over the pop music playing from speakers overhead. Her voice is familiar to audiences of the many talkshows she has appeared on since her daughters arrest, in a bid to argue their case. In February, she sat in a TV studio as a screen above her showed two amateur actors re-enacting her alleged rape by Khatchaturyan 20 years earlier. The cameras zoomed in on Dunduks face so viewers could scrutinise her reaction. She lowered her head and looked away.

In June 1997, Dunduk gave birth to a son, Sergey, and two years later to Krestina. By that point, she said, Khachaturyan regularly beat her; the smallest thing could set him off. You just didnt know, she told me. One minute youre talking to him normally, and then suddenly he might begin shouting and cursing. One afternoon in the early 00s she managed to escape the apartment and run to the local police station. Khachaturyan followed her and listened with a grin as she asked to file a complaint against him. She said he then hit her in front of the duty officers, many of whom were his friends, and dragged her home. After that, she said, it was pointless trying to do anything.

Sergey said he was also subjected to regular violence. When he was 16, in 2013, Khachaturyan chased him out of the home. He was forced to sleep rough for weeks before he was taken in by a friend, with whom he has lived ever since. Then, in 2015, Khachaturyan also forced Dunduk out. He lost his temper, put a gun to my temple and told me: Im going to leave now, and if youre still here when Im back, Ill kill you all, she alleges.

Dunduk never returned to live with the family. A friend in Moscow put her up for six weeks, and then she joined her mother in Moldova. After a year, she came back to Moscow to be closer to her children, again staying at friends homes. But she had minimal access to her daughters, who she said feared retribution from Khachaturyan. It was because of this lack of communication, and the fear that drove it, that Dunduk only learnt of Khachaturyans sexual abuse from investigators. When she found out, she said: I wanted to kill him all over again.

After Khachaturyans death, his family began a very public feud. Arsen, Khachaturyans 21-year-old nephew, started touring Moscows TV studios defending the reputation of a man he calls papa. On air, he has branded Dunduk a prostitute and accused her of abetting her daughters in the killing. In September 2018, friends of Arsen assaulted Sergey on the set of a prime-time talkshow. In January, Khachaturyans mother, Lidiya, and sister Naira launched a libel suit against Dunduk for claiming in an interview that Khachaturyan had raped her. A husband cannot rape his wife by definition, they told Russian media.

In many ways, the split in the Khatchaturyan family reflects the bitter divide within Russian society. On the one hand, there are those who wish to preserve a sense of national identity rooted in conservative Orthodox Christian values and a rejection of progressive ideas. On the other, there are those who believe Russias development as a modern society is dependent on its ability to embrace liberal social policies and champion the rights of women and minorities.

Even before the killing, domestic violence had been a topic of public contention in Russia. In 2012, the Russian government conducted a nationwide survey that found one in five women had been physically assaulted by a husband or partner. Four years later, in July 2016, the Russian parliament, with Putins consent, excluded battery against close persons spouses, parents, children and other live-in relatives from a law decriminalising other forms of battery. This meant that for the first time in Russias history, there was effectively a law that applied specifically to domestic violence.

But there was soon a backlash from conservatives. In November 2016, a group of lawmakers led by the head of parliaments committee on the family, Elena Mizulina, introduced a bill to decriminalise instances of domestic violence that happen no more than once per year and cause no lasting physical damage. Mizulina framed her bill as a way of safeguarding Russian families from outside intrusion, citing foreign funding received by NGOs opposed to her initiative.

This time, Putin backed the conservatives, warning in December 2016 that interference in family matters is unacceptable. As lawmakers moved to pass the decriminalisation bill at the end of 2016, Russian state TV launched a propaganda campaign to smooth its passage through parliament. Reports on federal channels suggested men should not be criminally liable if they beat their wives accidentally, out of strong love, or in the interests of upbringing, and peddled the notion that European children are routinely withdrawn from families after bogus domestic violence complaints from strangers. We are balancing out peoples rights, and removing anti-family laws, said Olga Batalina, one of the lawmakers pushing the initiative.

Under the new law, which Putin signed in February 2017, domestic violence that doesnt cause severe injury is punishable by a 30,000-ruble fine (360) comparable to a smoking or parking violation or 15 days in jail. A second offence can lead to three months in prison, but if a year has passed since the first, a modest fine is again imposed. Critics summed up the law as one free beating a year.

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The reasons for Putins about-face on domestic violence are complicated. The conservative movement in Russia is partly fuelled by many of the same anti-globalist fears driving the current populist wave across Europe. But in addition, since the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, Russia has suffered a protracted population decline. Putin has unveiled various financial incentives for first-time mothers and made raising the birth rate a signature policy during his 20 years at Russias helm. But he has largely failed to reverse the trend: the country has one of the worlds highest abortion rates, nearly half of all marriages collapse, and immigration no longer offsets population decline.

To shore up support, Putin has appealed to the nationalist majority that comprises his base through a rhetoric of traditional values and a slew of conservative initiatives. A 2013 law banning promotion of homosexuality in the presence of Russian children led to a violent backlash against LGBT people across the country. Putin has also empowered the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution that rails against globalisation and encroaching western influence and defends traditionalism as a means of protecting Russian identity.

The Russian Orthodox Church is completely merged with the state, said Yulia Gorbunova, a Human Rights Watch researcher and author of a major report last October on the issue of domestic violence in Russia. They echo each other on all the main social issues.

Following the passage of Mizulinas decriminalisation bill in 2017, womens rights activists reported a spike in domestic violence. Many incidents involved repeated abuse and blatant police inaction despite victims appeals. A crisis hotline operated by the Anna Centre, a womens rights organisation that Putins government has labelled a foreign agent, recorded a rise in complaints from 20,000 in 2016 to more than 31,000 in 2018.

After the decriminalisation, all of us saw a barrage of cases, an absolute barrage, said Mari Davtyan, a lawyer involved in the Khachaturyan case and a campaigner for domestic violence legislation. Society read the message. Those who used violence concluded that its now allowed. And what did those who suffer from it conclude? That theres no line of defence left.

Ten months after the law went into effect, in December 2017, Margarita Gracheva, a woman from a town 60 miles south of Moscow, was driven to a nearby forest by her husband where he chopped off her hands with an axe. It was a horrific coda to months of abuse that continued despite Grachevas appeal that November to the police, who refused to press charges. In January 2018, in another Moscow region town, a beauty salon worker named Elena Verba was stabbed 57 times by her husband, who went to work and left the mutilated body for his seven-year-old son to discover. Verba had reported an incident of domestic violence to police six months earlier, but duty officers persuaded her to retract her accusation because her husband worked in law enforcement and risked losing his job. Last September, in Cheboksary, 400 miles east of Moscow, 38-year-old Anna Ovchinnikovas husband strangled her with a rope, placed her body in a suitcase and buried it in a nearby forest. She had filed at least three complaints about domestic violence. All three men were ultimately sentenced to prison terms of between nine and 15 years.

Government figures suggest that only one in 10 Russian women who suffer domestic violence report it to the police roughly in line with the global average, according to the UN and a mere 2% seek legal advice. According to a recent analysis by independent outlet Media Zona of several thousand court verdicts against Russian women jailed on murder charges between 2016 and 2018, 79% had been defending themselves against a partner.

A protester holds a placard with a message reading Domestic violence victims need therapy not prison on Patriarshy Bridge in Moscow. Photograph: Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

Gorbunova of Human Rights Watch said the problem is compounded by the fact that Russian police often refuse to launch investigations. Theyre not taught to treat the situation as potentially lethal, she said. So they either laugh it off, or tell the wife to behave herself and be nice to her husband.

Last July, a court in Oryol, 200 miles south of Moscow, sentenced duty officer Natalya Bashkatova to two years in prison for negligence. In November 2016, Bashkatova received a call from a woman whose boyfriend had threatened to kill her. Do not call again. We will not come to you, she told the woman. What if something happens? the woman asked. If he kills you, well come to examine the body, came Bashkatovas answer. Dont worry. Within 40 minutes of that exchange, which the woman recorded, she had been beaten to death by her boyfriend in the courtyard of her home.

The last resort for some victims is an appeal to the European court of human rights. In July, the ECHR issued its first decision on a domestic violence case in Russia, ruling that police had failed to protect Valeriya Volodina from repeated acts of violence by a former partner who stalked and assaulted her after she left him in 2015. It gave a scathing assessment of the governments tolerance for a climate which was conducive to domestic violence.

In November, Russias justice ministry responded to a series of questions sent by the ECHR in connection with domestic violence cases brought by Russian women. In excerpts cited by Russias Kommersant newspaper, the ministry said the scale of domestic violence in Russia is exaggerated and dismissed the need for separate legislation. A victim has the option to reconcile with their attacker for the sake of preserving personal relations in the family, it said, and Russian women who appeal to the ECHR are trying to sabotage the efforts the government is making to improve the situation.

To get to the office of Oksana Pushkina, a lawmaker in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, you pass through metal detectors and through an exhibition space to a set of lifts that takes you to the ninth floor. On the November afternoon I visited, assault rifles and other Russian-made weapons were on display in glass cases as the legislative body, as well as schools and other state institutions across the country, celebrated 100 years since the birth of Russian arms designer Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Pushkina is one of 73 female lawmakers in the 450-seat chamber, where she stands out among a mass of jingoistic officials who rubber-stamp laws approved by the Kremlin. When we met, she had recently returned from a conference at the Council of Europes Strasbourg headquarters on how police should respond to domestic violence. I sat there like some creature from another planet, said Pushkina, a glamorous woman in her 50s. They were discussing whats already in place in their countries. And we dont even have a law.

With help from Davtyan and Parshin, the two lawyers involved in the Khachaturan case, and Alyona Popova, the activist, Pushkina is trying to introduce a new domestic violence bill. It includes banning an abusive partner from access to the victim for at least one month, their possible eviction from a shared family home, and a requirement that they compensate their victims legal fees or alternative accommodation during periods of violence. It proposes a support infrastructure for victims, with counselling services and shelters across Russia. And it defines domestic violence and the kinds of ways physical, psychological, economic it can manifest itself.

For us its important that the violence does not happen again, Davtyan said. The goal is simple: that he stops approaching her.

The opposition to any domestic violence bill is well organised, well funded, and backed by the Russian Orthodox Church. In early December, a month after visiting Pushkina, I attended a roundtable at the Duma that brought representatives of Russias various religious groups together with lawmakers.

Billed as Legislative aspects of the defence of spiritual-moral values as a key factor in the development of civil society, the three-hour session was dominated by high-ranking Orthodox clergy. Pushkinas domestic violence bill featured prominently. The family is a holy creation, declared one priest, and thus cannot be regulated by a secular state.

One threat in particular kept coming up: zapad, the west.

Aurelia Dunduk, estranged wife of Mikhail and the mother of the three Khachaturyan sisters. Photograph: Matthew Luxmoore

Fifty-four units of the CIA are working against us, trying to impose their values, Pavel Pozhigaylo, a member of the Russian culture ministrys board, told the room. We are at war. The audience applauded. The Orthodox activist Andrei Kormukhin told the roundtable that Pushkinas bill is aimed not at preserving the family, but at destroying it. He then gave the floor to his wife, a mother of nine children, who branded the bill anti-Russian and said that if it had passed in the 90s, the happy families we have today would not exist.

A few days later, I sat down with Kormukhin at a cafe in central Moscow. He leads Forty Forties, an ultra-conservative movement that claims to have 40 regional branches and more than 10,000 supporters, including senior Orthodox clergy. The churchs leader, Patriarch Kirill, has met with its members and is a personal friend of Kormukhins, whose WhatsApp avatar shows the men deep in conversation. In its six years of existence, Forty Forties has roped in football hooligans and neo-Nazis and stood accused of various extremist acts in defence of religion. In May 2015, Kormukhin was briefly detained by police for joining in a violent attack on LGBT activists attempting to hold a parade in Moscow.

In recent months, Forty Forties has directed its resources against Pushkinas domestic violence bill, staging protests and mass vigils under the slogan for the family. In October, Kormukhin co-authored an open letter to Putin denouncing the draft law. The 1,700-word text, which included 50 references to family, was co-signed by more than 180 organisations from across Russia including amateur fight clubs, paramilitary groups and civic movements with names like Big Family, Family, Love, Fatherland and Lots of Kids Is Good.

Kormukhin argues that the law is part of a western plot aimed at weakening Russian families and insists that statistics on domestic violence cited by rights activists are wrong. Because the majority of crimes happen when the man is in a state of intoxication, he said, a man needs to be given the benefit of the doubt and be left to sober up.

A good duty officer will know that if the woman returns home then the husband will fall before her knees the next morning, beg for forgiveness and promise it wont happen again. And then the children will stay with their parents and the family unit will be preserved, he said. Why do you want to deprive a family of its breadwinner?

What if he beats her again after three days? I asked.

And what if youre a paedophile? Kormukhin asked, frustrated. It says nothing if a man has beaten his wife once.

For Pushkina, the dirty campaign waged by groups like Forty Forties undermines their stated commitment to religious values. Were talking about prevention [of violence], and they call us extreme feminists and destroyers of a social order that is a de facto patriarchate, Pushkina said. It really has been that way since ancient times. But times are changing.

Maria, Angelina and Krestina Khachaturyan are largely oblivious to the vicious culture war their case has fuelled. Banned from using the internet and from communicating with each other, with witnesses or the press, they are dimly aware at best of their status as torchbearers for Russias feminist movement and targets of its conservative backlash.

For now, Angelina and Krestina are living with relatives, and Maria with her mother. Just before New Years Eve, their night-time curfew was lifted, but the other rules remain in force. They now only see each other in court, under a bailiffs watchful eye, when they gather to hear the judge extend their pre-trial restrictions. They were always together, and when they split them up it was as if one organism was torn into three parts, Parshin told me.

On 3 December, investigators announced they were sending the final version of their indictment to the prosecutors office for trial. Maria, Angelina and Krestina had acted with premeditation, they concluded, driven by a strong personal enmity towards their father caused by his protracted physical and sexual abuse. But two weeks later, the prosecutors office issued a stunning decision: investigators should reassess the case, it said, and consider reclassifying the sisters actions as self-defence exactly what their lawyers had been arguing all along. Killing in self-defence is not a crime, so if the murder charge is dropped, the women will be set free.

But Mikhail Khachaturyans sisters, Naira and Marina who have emerged as his most committed apologists since his death have appealed, alleging that his daughters led a debauched, drug-addled existence and murdered their father for his money. Theyve also pressed additional charges against Dunduk, claiming she lied repeatedly in interviews about extramarital affairs. Yulia Nitchenko, an attorney who represents them, said any rumour that charges will be dropped is fake news; she expects the case to go to trial in the coming weeks and for the three sisters to be convicted within a year. The court will set the whole record straight, she told me. No one will evade justice.

Pushkinas campaign for domestic violence legislation appears to have stalled. In November, parliaments upper house published a version of her bill listing preservation of the family as a primary goal of preventing domestic violence a clear overture to the conservatives. Even in this watered-down version, the bill is unlikely to race through parliament. In the past decade, at least 30 different domestic violence bills have been prepared in Russia, and several introduced in the Duma. None has passed even the first reading. But public opinion appears to be on Pushkinas side, driven in part by the case of the Khachaturyan sisters.

In the past, said Parshin, Angelinas lawyer, the problem was denied outright; it was as if, in societys perception at least, it did not exist. Thats the most noticeable change, he said. People have begun talking about the issue of domestic violence.

In a December 2019 survey by state-backed pollster VTsIOM, 40% of respondents said they know violent families, and 70% said they supported a hypothetical law on domestic violence. In an August 2019 poll by the independent Levada Centre, only 14% of respondents said domestic violence is a family affair that should be kept private.

It used to be treated as a marginal issue. Journalists covered this rarely and reluctantly, and called such cases household squabbles, said Davtyan. But theres now an understanding that this is not just a domestic affair, but a violation of human rights.

Popova was hopeful this shift will pave the way for the laws passage, even if the conservatives succeed in stalling it for now. But she warned that each month brings news of victims who could have been saved.

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A new study finds women who wear heavy makeup are perceived as less competent. Perhaps its time to make our own rules

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Maybe shes born with it, maybe its the patriarchy

The more makeup you wear, the less human you seem. Thats the rather depressing conclusion of a new study published in the journal Sex Roles, which looked at how cosmetics influence the way we perceive women. Researchers asked 1,000 people (most of whom were from the UK and the US) to evaluate womens faces with and without heavy makeup. They found that both male and female participants rated women wearing a lot of makeup as less human, less warm and less moral. Gotta love that internalized misogyny!

The studys findings are even worse for those who prefer a dramatic smoky eye to a loud lipstick; faces with eye makeup were attributed the least amount of warmth and competence.

It might be that faces with heavy makeup are perceived as possessing less human-like traits because they are visually processed in a way that resembles how most objects are processed, Philippe Bernard, the studys lead author, explained. Bernard, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels further noted that while theres a growing body of research showing how sexualized images prompt the dehumanization of women, less attention has been paid to whether subtler forms of sexualization such as makeup influence objectification. As it turns out, all it takes for a woman to be reduced to an object is a touch too much eyeliner.

Dont chuck out your cosmetics quite yet, however. According to a 2011 study by researchers from Boston University and Harvard Medical School, women who wear a professional amount of makeup in the office are seen as more competent, capable, reliable and amiable than women who sport a bare face. (Its worth noting that the study was funded by Procter & Gamble, which owns cosmetic brands like Olay and SK-II; so take it with a pinch of bath salt.)

While wearing professional levels of makeup may help you at work, you do have to be careful not to look too nice. A 2019 study found attractive businesswomen are judged as being less truthful than less attractive women. Mind you, another study found that attractive people earn more than their plainer peers and that grooming accounts for the entire attractiveness premium for women.

We havent even started on how your hairdo affects how you do in life. There are various studies which suggest women with long hair are seen as being high maintenance and of high reproductive potential. Long hair can also signal decreased forcefulness and can be seen as less professional. (Which might be why Ivanka Trump recently got a bob.) Hair is even more complicated for black women, of course, who are often forced to conform to white beauty standards to be seen as professional.

Being a woman means constantly walking a tightrope between being invisible and being objectified. Youve got to be nice, but not too nice! Youve got to be attractive, but not too attractive! Youve got to wear makeup, but not too much makeup! Perhaps its time to slap on the warpaint and make our own rules.

Self-centered men love high-status cars

Assholes are drawn to expensive German cars, according to science. A new study by researchers from the University of Helsinki found that self-centered men who are argumentative and disagreeable are more likely to own high-status cars such as a BMW or Mercedes. If youve got a Merc it doesnt automatically mean youre a jerk though the researchers also found that conscientious personality types are also driven to high-status vehicles. Heres the interesting bit though: the link between conscientious personalities and a penchant for pricey cars was found among both men and women but the connection between self-centered personalities and high-status cars was only found among men. The researchers arent sure why this is, but it could be because cars are traditionally more of a male status symbol.

The men who take breastmilk from babies

In Uganda, and some parts of Tanzania and Kenya, there is a growing culture of men drinking their partners breast milk. This obviously isnt about taste its about male entitlement. The Guardian notes that the practice is being linked to gender violence and coercive behaviour.

Turkey proposes a marry your rapist bill

The law would allow men who sexually abuse children to avoid punishment if they marry their victim. Gender-based violence is endemic in Turkey; 38% of women have suffered physical or sexual violence from a partner according to the UN.

Game over: should men stop talking sport at work?

According to one HR expert, office conversations about sport make women feel left out. Ann Francke, head of the Chartered Management Institute, told the BBC that excessive sports talk is a gateway to more laddish behaviour. Theres been a backlash to her comments because shock horror a lot of women like sport.

IBMs first female CEO is stepping down

Virginia Rometty, who has been in the role since 2012, will be replaced by Arvind Krishna.

Hadley Freeman interviews Kelis

The R&B singer talks candidly about being assaulted from a business perspective [and] then being assaulted in the home.

The queer history of plants

All youve ever wanted to know about sapphic violets and the pansy craze you can read here.

Female nurses paid less than their male peers

Even though nursing is predominately female, women earn 17% less than men.

Man disappoints 27,722 women at once

E-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa made headlines recently when he extended an invitation for a special woman to join him on Elon Musks Big Falcon Rocket for a trip around the moon. The romantic moonshot was going to be turned into a reality show because, I mean, who wouldnt want to watch an intergalactic version of Love Island? A total of 27,722 women applied for the position of Maezawas girlfriend alas none of them have been selected because the billionaire has now cancelled the reality show for personal reasons.

Elton John bought a ton of Gwyneth Paltrow vagina candles

Goop recently sold out of their famous vagina candles and apparently John is partly to blame; he bought a ton of them. No, I have no idea why either.

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Reminder: the state of your hymen is not an indicator of whether youve had sex. Yet there are no laws banning exams

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Good news: TI inadvertently inspired change

Heres the good news: California may soon ban virginity testing. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez introduced a bill on Wednesday that would penalize medical practitioners for examining a woman or girls hymen in an attempt to ascertain whether shes ever had vaginal intercourse.

Heres the bad news: it is 2020 and virginity testing is still completely legal across America. There are no federal or state laws outlawing the procedure and no clear guidelines from major US medical bodies on how doctors should respond to requests to perform one. Last year New York lawmakers weighed legislation that would make hymen examinations a felony, but the bill hasnt been passed yet.

Virginity testing is a highly invasive and entirely unscientific practice rooted in a patriarchal obsession with womens purity. The state of your hymen is not an indicator of whether youve had sex or not and virginity isnt a medical fact but a social construct. United Nations agencies have noted that virginity testing has been documented in at least 20 countries around the world and have called for this medically unnecessary, and often times painful, humiliating and traumatic practice to end.

There are a couple of reasons why virginity tests havent been banned in America yet. First, the country is full of misogynistic lawmakers who are hellbent on turning the country into Gilead. Second, there hasnt been a lot of discussion around virginity tests until recently. The issue was only really catapulted into the national consciousness last November, when rapper TI made headlines for boasting that he takes his daughter for an annual virginity test.

We have yearly trips to the gynaecologist to check her hymen, the rapper said on a podcast. Yes, I go with her I will say, as of her 18th birthday, her hymen is still intact.

TIs revelation, which he later claimed was sensationalized, provoked widespread disgust and was the direct inspiration for the bills that have been introduced in New York and California. Its probably not the legacy he was expecting to leave, but TI may well go down in the history books for inadvertently helping to outlaw virginity testing in America.

Hungary to provide free IVF treatment

Which would be brilliant if the new policy wasnt born out of rabid racism. Viktor Orbn, the rightwing nationalist prime minister, is obsessed with the great replacement conspiracy theory, and thinks white people are on their way to being wiped out. Hes long been a vocal advocate of procreation, not immigration and has brought a number of fertility clinics under state control.

Racist beauty standards are putting black womens health at risk

Using chemical hair straighteners regularly increases the risk of breast cancer by 31%, according to a new study. Some 74% of black women report using these straighteners, compared with just 3% of white women. Black women straighten their hair to assimilate, one woman told the Guardian. We have to fit in you never see black women with braids working in corporate.

Melania Trump honoured as a Woman of Distinction

Palm Beach Atlantic University, a a Christ-first independent university, is honouring the first lady for her Be Best initiative. Melania is a perfect example of a woman of distinction, a chairwoman behind the event said. Well, her grammar is certainly distinctive.

A rape reported every 15 minutes in India

According to government data released on Thursday, women reported almost 34,000 rapes in 2018; thats an average of one rape every 15 minutes. Only 27% of these resulted in a conviction. While these numbers are shocking as it is, they only tell a fraction of the story. According to one study, 99% of sexual assaults in India go unreported.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is cancer-free

The 86-year-old has resumed an active role on the supreme court. Which is very good news for the health of America.

Michelle Williams champions womens rights at the Golden Globes

I wouldnt have been able to do this without employing a womans right to choose, the 39-year-old actor said while picking up an award for her role in Fosse/Verdon. To choose when to have my children, and with whom. Williams went on to encourage women to vote in your own self-interest Its what men have been doing for years, which is why the world looks so much like them.

Gay Jesus resurrected in Brazil

Two million Brazilians with nothing better to do with their lives recently signed a petition calling for a Netflix film, The First Temptation of Christ, to be pulled from the streaming service. The problem? It featured a gay Jesus bringing his boyfriend, Orlando, home to meet the parents. On Wednesday a judge ordered Netflix to take the film down but this decision was later overturned by the countrys supreme court.

The week in parrot-archy

New research has found that African grey parrots help each other out without expecting any reward. Its the first study to find birds displaying what is apparently selfless behaviour. If only we could all be a little more like parrots, eh?

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The film Richard Jewell promotes the trope that women sleep their way to the top. Its sexist, insulting and nonsensical

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Scoops for sex

Want to make a name for yourself in journalism? Its easy really: just get your kit off and sleep with a source. Female reporters do it all the time in order to get exclusive stories, according to the sentient jar of hair wax otherwise known as Fox News host Jesse Watters.

Watters made this disgusting, and completely ludicrous, claim on Wednesday while discussing the backlash to Clint Eastwoods new movie Richard Jewell. The film is based on the real-life story of an eponymous security guard wrongfully accused of planting a bomb at the 1996 Olympic Games and portrays a female journalist sleeping with an FBI agent in order to land an exclusive story.

Heres the thing though: there appears to be absolutely no evidence that the journalist in question, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) reporter Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde), slept with her FBI source in order to break the story that Jewell was a suspect in the incident.

Lets just recap that shall we? Warner Brothers made a movie about a man whose reputation was unfairly ruined by a careless FBI and a media ecosystem more interested in rushing out a good story than establishing the truth. And, in order to spice things up, they casually besmirched the reputation of a female reporter. Because, as we all know, women arent three-dimensional human beings in the same way men are. Their reputations dont matter. Their stories dont matter.

What makes all this even more infuriating is that Scruggs isnt even around to stick up for herself; she died in 2001. The AJC, however, has staunchly defended her and asked Warner Brothers to add a disclaimer to the film acknowledging the whole sex-for-information thing was a fictionalization. Warner Brothers has refused to do this, issuing a statement saying it was based on a wide range of highly credible source material.

Im highly skeptical that there is any credible evidence that Scruggs slept with her sources. If there was, then I reckon it would already be in the public domain. After all, theres nothing the world loves more than slut-shaming women. Just look at Katie Hill. Just look at Monica Lewinsky. Just look at Janet Jackson, whose career suffered for years after the world caught a glimpse of her nipple at the Superbowl.

The conversation around Richard Jewell, and Watters sweepingly sexist comments, serve as yet another reminder that women are damned if they do and theyre damned if they dont. They dont get excused for their sexual transgressions in the same way men do; they get branded for life. Whats more, women dont even have to sleep with anyone to get labelled a slut or accused of using their sexuality to get ahead. As the editor of the AJC has noted, the idea that women sleep their way to the top is the worst kind of trope. And not only is it sexist and insulting, its nonsensical. After all, if women everywhere are cynically sleeping their way to the top, wouldnt there be rather more women at the top?

Megan Rapinoe calls fucking bullshit on that

The soccer star, who was recently named Sports Illustrated sportsperson of the year, is not impressed by a study that shows #MeToo has made men scared to hire women. Well, women are afraid to be raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, kept out of jobs, fired from jobs, moved laterally their entire career, Rapinoe said. Honestly, I call fucking bullshit on that.

Harvey Weinstein reaches $25m settlement with over 30 women

The New York Times reports that the settlement, which would bring multiple civil lawsuits to an end, would be paid by insurance companies. Weinstein himself wouldnt have to pay a single penny out of his pocket or admit wrongdoing. But this doesnt mean he gets to dodge accountability: his criminal trial will start early next year.

Finlands Sanna Marin becomes worlds youngest serving prime minister

Marin, 34, is Finlands third female prime minister. She was raised by two mums and was the first person in her family to go to university. Theyre clearly doing something right in Finland: Marin heads a coalition containing four other parties all of which are led by women.

Finnish finance minister runs dodgy Instagram poll

Theyre not doing everything right in Finland. Finance minister Katri Kulmuni recently thought it would be appropriate to run an Instagram poll on whether Finland should repatriate just children or children and mothers from Isis camps in Syria. Andrew Stroehlein, European media director at Human Rights Watch tweeted: A state should respect the rights of its citizens in all cases, not put life-and-death decisions about those citizens to a public referendum on social media. Whats next, public hangings based on the volume of stadium cheers?

Chilean anti-rape anthem becomes international phenomenon

In case you missed it, do watch this incredible Chilean protest song.

Women are majority of US medical students for first time ever

Which is a big deal because studies show that women do better when they are treated by women. Theyre more likely to survive a heart attack and theyre less likely to have to return to the hospital for more treatment.

Brazilian man pretends to be his mother to take driving test

After Heitor Mrcio Schiaves mother failed her driving test for the third time, he had a brilliant idea. The 43-year-old would dress up as his elderly mother and take the test on her behalf. Alas, he was found out. And, to add insult injury, the driving instructor says he failed the test anyway.

Thousands of penis fish wash up on California beach

Somehow this feels like a really fitting end to 2019.

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In her extraordinary book Three Women Lisa Taddeo charts the intimate lives of real American women. Below, we print an extract

In 2010, a young American writer called Lisa Taddeo published an article in New York magazine about the women who work as highly paid hosts and cocktail waitresses the so-called bottle girls in Americas most exclusive clubs. It was (and is) quite an eye-popping piece of immersive journalism; among other things, she managed to interview Rachel Uchitel, a host whose affair with Tiger Woods had recently hit the headlines. At the time, however, its author had no idea in what unlikely direction this report would shortly take her, nor for how long. It was an assignment, just like any other.

Soon after its publication, an editor at Simon & Schuster rang Taddeo and asked if she might consider writing a nonfiction book that connected to it in some way. In what way exactly? He was vague when it came to details. She surmised that it would have to do with sex, but that was about all she knew at this point.

I was grateful for the thought, she says, when we talk on the phone (Taddeo is in New England and Im in London), but up until that point, Id mostly written fiction. I didnt know how to do what he was asking. He was saying: Heres an idea, but you can basically do what you want, which was both kind, and kind of awful. She laughs. It was so open-ended. It was terrifying. My starting point was a place of complete confusion.

By way of encouragement, the editor sent her some nonfiction classics, among them Thy Neighbours Wife, Gay Taleses notorious 1981 exploration of sex culture in 1970s America (Talese, a pioneer of new journalism, ran a massage parlour as part of his research; during the writing of the book, he stayed at a clothing-optional resort). Taddeo, conscientious but curious too, went to see Talese, by then in his late 70s, at his home in New York. It was the first of what would turn out to be several false starts. He said the only way I could come close to matching his so-called masterpiece would be if I went out and slept with married men. Well, I wasnt going to do that. Nor was she tempted to write about the porn industry. I did travel to the San Francisco porn castle [a former armoury owned by a company called], and it was really wild. I mean, it was full of women having sex. But it just didnt seem that interesting to me. In California, however, something shifted inside her. At my hotel, I had an epiphany. I realised that I wanted to explore the desire behind intimate acts, not sex per se. The trouble was, I needed not only to find subjects, but subjects who were amenable to the idea of me writing about their desires.

What followed consumed the next eight years of her life. As shed anticipated, it wasnt easy to find people who would talk to her or not in the way that she hoped. I posted up signs in bars and casinos and coffee shops and libraries, she says. And I got a lot of good responses. But I also got a lot of men going: hey, do you want to fuck? Trying to find her subjects, she drove across America six times. Her interviewees would often get cold feet, and she would have to start all over again. But when someone struck her as right in the end, she realised it was exclusively the stories of women that she wanted to explore she did not hesitate, moving to wherever they lived for months and even years, embedding with them as if she was a war reporter (given the way some love affairs go, this analogy has a certain aptness). Once she had won their trust, they would talk to her in thousands of hours of conversation about the most intimate parts of their lives, and the most painful.

Taddeo is married, and while she was working on this project, she had a daughter. (My husband had to leave several jobs, she says. He moved with me in the latter stages. But hes a writer, too, and he helped me a lot. Hes almost as involved with this as I am, and hes proud of me because he knows how hard Ive worked.) But in many ways, her life came to belong to these women. The cold-eyed reporter in her never wholly left the room, but she was their friend, confessor and therapist all rolled into one. She was inside their heads, and their hearts.

Still, she continued to worry. Where was this project going? How did it all hang together? Would the quotidian minutes of these womens lives really be of interest to some future reader? Sometimes, she feared that they would not. For the first six years at least, she had no idea what her book was going to be it felt like a lot of meandering or even whether she would be able to finish it. Somehow, though, she kept going. Whatever else happened, she wanted to find a way to honour their honesty and openness. Her hope was though this became apparent to her only gradually that by registering the heat and sting of female want, a door would be opened. Women, she thinks, often pretend to want things they dont actually want, so that nobody can see them failing to get what they need that, or they teach themselves to stop wanting altogether (not wanting anything, as Taddeo observes, is the safest thing in the world). If she could not change this, perhaps she could at least encourage a certain understanding. Why shouldnt these things be spoken of? Why do women still find it so hard to express, let alone to understand, their deepest desires?

Quick guide

Women and sex: landmark books

Alfred C Kinsey and others: Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (1953)

Based on interviews with 6,000 women, Kinseys controversial report suggested, among other things, that women are less sexually active than men.

Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook (1962)

A novel notable for its honesty when it comes to the disappointments even liberated women may encounter when they sleep with men.

Boston Womens Health Book Collective: Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973)

This groundbreaking handbook encouraged women to think of themselves no longer as docile and passive in the bedroom.

Erica de Jong: Fear of Flying (1973)

De Jong coined the phrase the zipless fuck in this novel in which a poet decides to indulge her sexual fantasies with a man who isnt her husband.

Shere Hite: The Hite Report on Female Sexuality (1976)

Though her methodology was later criticised, Hite, an American-born sexologist, did useful work busting all the old myths about how women achieve orgasm.

Natalie Angier: Woman: An Intimate Geography (1999)

Angier, a science journalist, won a Pulitzer prize for her celebration of the female body: a book about, as she put it, a rapture grounded firmly in the flesh.

Jane Juska: A Round-Heeled Woman (2003)

In which Juska recounts her quest for a sex life at the age of 67, a mission she kickstarts by placing a personal ad in theNew York Review of Books.

Liv Stromquist: Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs the Patriarchy (2018)

This comic book, by a Swedish cartoonist and activist, unpicks all the ways in which women have been encouraged down the centuries to be ashamed both of their bodies and their desires.

Rachel Cooke

Almost a decade on from that phone call from her editor, Taddeo is about to publish her account of the experiences of the women beside whom she lived for so long. It is called Three Women, and if it is not the best book about women and desire that has ever been written, then it is certainly the best book about the subject that I have ever come across. When I picked it up, I felt Id been waiting half my life to read it; when I put it down, it was as though I had been disembowelled. Each story is highly particular, Taddeo pinning every detail to the page, as if she was a forensic scientist and her book one huge crime scene. Here is Maggie, a North Dakotan who had an affair with her school teacher, and is now, some years later, attempting to prosecute him for his alleged abuse of her. Here is Lina, an Indiana housewife and mother whose husband will no longer kiss her on the mouth, and who is having a compulsive and highly painful affair with her high-school sweetheart. And here is Sloane, who lives a life of some privilege in Rhode Island, where she and her chef husband run a restaurant. He likes to watch her having sex with other men, which is OK because this is something that she doesnt mind doing for him.

But these narratives also achieve a vital universality. There isnt a woman alive who wont recognise her stomach lurching, her heart beating wildly something of what Maggie, Lina and Sloane go through; the gusting, often wildly contradictory impulses that power them like sails. In this sense, reading Three Women is like reading the diary you could never have hoped to write: here is a second-by-second account of all those moments when you felt most ecstatic, and most abject; when you were at your most powerful, and your most weak. It pulses like an artery. It is deeply sad, sometimes. It will make you cry. It has so much to say about womens self-esteem: about where it comes from, and where it goes. And yet, as Taddeo says, there is magnificence in these stories, too. Why shouldnt we be who we really are? Why shouldnt we take what we want if we can? Its hard sometimes to see the passion they had when you know what the cost was, she tells me. But theres a cost to almost everything that is good. Thats part of life.

She found Lina first, having moved to Bloomington, Indiana, the home of the Kinsey Institute. A doctor who answered her ad had been administering a hormone treatment to a group of women there they were losing weight, and feeling different and more beautiful and sexual in their bodies, she says and in a discussion group they attended, there Lina was. Taddeo stayed on for two years, hanging out with her almost every day.

I would sometimes follow her when she was meeting the guy [her lover, with whom she often had sex in her car in a wood by a river], and after they left, I would go to exactly where theyd been to take in the scenery and the smells and the sounds. Completing a draft of Linas story, she sent it to her editor. He loved it though this didnt exactly help. Just do this a couple more times, he said. But it had taken me so long to find her. The exhaustion, the fear After that, I floundered again.

Next, she moved to Rhode Island, captivated by the idea of a resort town that only came alive in the summer. Lots of people there were talking about Sloane and when she finally talked to me about what her life was like, everything else dropped away. Not that I would do it myself, but I had always been interested in swinging.

Finally, there was Maggie: I was in North Dakota, this cowboy part of the country, where I was following up a lead that these immigrant women who worked at a coffee shop during the day were being trucked at night into the oil fields to have sex with men. I was holding the local paper up in front of me, trying to be invisible, and thats where I read about Maggies case against her teacher [see extract, opposite]. The trial had just ended. Two things about it interested me. First, that there had been no penetration. There was a holding back there. Second, that it had ended in his favour [he was acquitted], and yet there were these hours of calls he had made to her late at night.

Taddeo spent 18 months with Sloane, and between three and four years talking to Maggie.

If Three Women is raw, its also lyrical. How much imagination did she use when she came to write about them? None of it is imagined, though I would recall my own experiences; whatever I had in common with them. But you know, they were so eloquent. Sloane is the most detached, but she never paused: she knew [what she wanted to say]. Maggie rattled off everything like it had just happened. As for Lina, she was the most in touch with her sexuality, her pain, her needs. Its Lina I most identify with. Everyone has done what Lina has [been involved with a man who brings them to utter recklessness], even if they dont want to admit to it.

What about the sex? I cant think of another book that manages to be so explicit without also being either distasteful or embarrassing. When I read bad sex writing, its haunting to me. I wanted to find a biological and sensual middle ground: a language that is not scientific, but which is not just graffiti on a wall either. Some women readers have said to me: did it need so much sex? But its not gratuitous. Lina finds herself in these intimate moments. I would do it again. Though its also saddening to me: even if it was gratuitous, why people are so squeamish?

What does she think her book says about where we are now? Taddeo began working on it long before #MeToo; it gestated in a different social and political context from the one into which it will be born. I think #MeToo exists on another plane from desire, she says. Sometimes, they intersect, but for the most part they dont. The issue is that we are talking a lot about what is not OK. We dont want to be raped and molested and cat-called though its kind of wild that men didnt know this already. But were still not talking about what women actually do want. Theres still a fear that if we say what we want, it might not be OK; that it hasnt been okayed by those who make the rules, who are mostly men.

I dont think desire has changed. Its formed, as it always was, by what happened in our past, and with the predilections were born with. What changes is the world outside, not desire itself.

In the prologue to her book, Taddeo recalls her Italian mother, who never spoke about what turned her off or on. Sometimes it seemed that she didnt have any desires of her own, she writes. That her sexuality was merely a trail in the woods, the unmarked kind that is made by boots trampling tall grass. And the boots belonged to my father. The women in her book are not like this. But the mere fact that their stories, routine and ordinary as they are in many respects, strike the reader as hitherto shockingly untold suggests that most still are, and that almost all of us would rather stay silent about what we want than risk an accusation of sluttishness.

While she was writing Three Women, however, it struck Taddeo more than once that not all the disapprobation has to do with men. At Linas discussion group, the other women would often become frustrated with her. They were angry that she wanted more; that she refused to be grateful for what she already had (a house, a husband, two children). As she writes: It felt as though, with desire, no one wanted anyone else, particularly a woman to feel it. Marriage was OK. Marriage was its own prison, its own mortgage. Here is a place for you to lay your head [But] if you fuck around may everything you fear come to pass.

This hasnt only to do with internalised sexism. People often project their deepest anxieties on to others the relationship of a friend or neighbour may be a kind of mirror, in one sense, and an uncomfortable one to boot and this causes them to judge and condemn rather than to be empathetic. This is also another way in which women are kept down. When Hillary Clinton stayed with Bill, despite his affairs, she was reviled for it, says Taddeo. But if she wants him, and she can handle it, why should people have an opinion? Ninety per cent of what I found in peoples responses [to the sex lives of others] had to do with fear.

Even before its publication, Three Women has been highly acclaimed in the US (One of the most riveting, assured and scorchingly original debuts Ive ever read, says the writer Dave Eggers, who finds it impossible to imagine a scenario in which it doesnt turn out to be one of the most important and breathlessly debated books of the year). Nevertheless, I wonder whether Taddeo is nervous about how her book will be received, particularly in a country where conservative values are on the rise again.

Well, my biggest concern is for the women themselves, she says. Maggie was in the public eye already, so we use her real name, and I dont want her to be clobbered all over again. I dont want the real identities of Lina and Sloane to be discovered either. But beyond that, yes, I do worry that people will have both the wrong idea about my intentions, and about the women themselves. Then again, there is a reason why I wrote about them, and in this way, and that mostly had to do with societal reactions to what they were doing. I hope it doesnt happen, but I guess that if readers have the same response, that will only go to prove my point.

Lisa Taddeo: Theres a cost to almost everything that is good. Thats part of life. Photograph: Christopher Beauchamp/The Observer

Book extract: Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo

Maggie Wilkens is a 17-year-old high school senior in North Dakota who has a crush on her English teacher, Aaron Knodel. During the Christmas holidays Knodel began texting Maggie in a way that crossed normal teacher-pupil boundaries.

Maggie walks, atremble, into Knodels speech and debate classroom. This is the first day of school after the break. She hasnt seen her teacher in weeks and yet everything between them is changed. She wonders if its all been in her head. It has, in any case, been in her phone. She worries about how he will act toward her, if hell be distant. She can feel her heart breaking in anticipation. She finds her seat and then she looks at him.

The way he looks at her is absolutely perfect.

He has this way of normalising a situation while also acknowledging the spark. Its hard to put her finger on what, exactly, it is that he does. She is in thrall to it. The way he smiles at her as he would at any other student, yet with an added tilt of his head that seems to say, Here I am, and there you are.

He slips a DVD into the player. Its The Great Debaters, a movie Maggie had recommended to him the year before. She can barely concentrate on the screen. She feels him watching her the whole time. When their eyes meet, he grins. He is utterly comfortable. Here is a man at mans best, she thinks. Divinely sensible, wholesomely carnal, wearing a drugstore cologne but possessing the strut of a movie star. He watches with his rear on the edge of his desk and his palms on either side of his legs, the way that young male teachers sit. She can feel his eyes moving along the length of her body, admiring her hair, her clavicle schoolgirl parts, but parts of her all the same.

The first of many exhilarating moments comes on a Sunday soon afterwards. In the future she will think of it as the first date.

Maggie is at Melanis house. She doesnt say anything to Melani about her lovecrush. This muteness, which is virtually insufferable for a teenage girl, turns their whole friendship into a lie, because of how large the lovecrush looms and how it overshadows all other things, so that when they speak about parties and classes and clothes and television, Maggie feels she is being a fake. She missed going to church in the morning with her parents so shes supposed to make it up by herself in the evening. Shes getting set to leave Melanis for mass when her phone double-buzzes and its him.

What are you doing?

At Melanis, doing nothing.

He writes that he needs to get the book Freakonomics, and would she like to meet him at Barnes & Noble? Its a really easy place to bump into each other without looking conspicuous.

This is exactly the same as if hed extended an invitation to Bermuda for a long weekend. She could smell the salt water and tanning oil.

She pulls into the parking lot on 42nd Street and reapplies lip gloss with her small, beautiful hands. Theres a parallel universe where shes in church right now. Thats where her best friend and her parents think she is. Being a part of something illicit makes Maggie feel important. She walks into the store. She shakes as she stands in front of a table displaying the bestselling childrens books.

He walks up behind her and she jumps. This is the first time shes been in a nonacademic situation with him and it feels anomalous. Hes an adult man, with a wallet. He looks finer than he usually does in class and is wearing more cologne than usual. He flashes her a fantastic smile, then asks a passing employee where to find Freakonomics. She follows behind them. She knows she has to be a child and a woman all at once and it takes all her energy to satisfy the requirements of each role.

When he gets in line to pay for the book Maggie stands nearby, like a daughter. Then his card is swiped and she feels like her heart has been fed into a meat slicer. She hasnt been fun enough! She hasnt been smart enough! She has been quiet and fawnlike, following him through the aisles in not even her best outfit. He will never want to do this again!

He carries his book in a bag and she follows behind him. In the heated vacuum of the foyer he asks if she wants to go for a drive. The lovecrush hisses in her veins. She would forgo winning the lottery or becoming a celebrity to keep mainlining it. They walk to his car. Its a dark blue crossover. Actually its his wifes car. He doesnt open the door for her. Maybe this is one of the reasons Knodel makes her heart thump because he doesnt open the door, because there is a fraction of asshole to him, because he is withholding. He starts to drive. She notes that hes a good driver. She feels theres nothing about him that isnt excellent.

In the car hes cockier than usual. As a teacher, she decides, hes far nicer. Getting into the car has triggered an acute shift; she goes from feeling half woman and half child to feeling like a toddler. Theyre talking and theres no music on. Maggie experiences a distinct feeling of doom. Its normal, when youre this close to thrall, to worry over losing it. With Knodel, its this thing thats been building since she was a freshman so its that much more important because of its history. Also, because of the quality of his person. Hes top shelf. Being with him, she feels her own stock rise. At the same time, she feels that she isnt good enough.

They drive around for a half hour. When they approach her neighbourhood she tells him so. He says, Oh, where do you live, I want to see. She starts to give directions and he starts to follow them. She enjoys the rare peace of having some semblance of control. Nearly there, he says, No, forget it. I shouldnt know where you live because I may have the urge to drive by and check on you. She slumps in her seat. His distance is captivating and awful. Hes trying to control himself and succeeding, and she feels, acutely, how a loved ones self-control can be cruel to the other person.

The best part of her whole life happens next. He slows to a stop on a quiet street, parks his wifes car at the kerb of a house with no lights on, and just looks at her. He does it for 10 seconds, maybe less. In those seconds, every bad thing she has ever thought about herself is erased, and she feels like a supermodel.

Three Women is published on 9 July (Bloomsbury, 16.99). To order a copy go Free UK p&p on all online orders over 15.

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Any guilt over enjoying Stormy Danielss revelation should be weighed against how Trumps policies hurt women

I see Stormy Daniels has a book out and everyones talking about a certain aesthetic judgment she makes. Is this really where we are now: judging how penises look? James, by email

Yes. So, for anyone who has been living under a rock for the past 36 hours, Daniels has indeed written a book in which she describes the presidents penis as smaller than average like the mushroom character in Mario Kart. Try to enjoy your Nintendo Switch now, people.

This, of course, is not the first time we have had cause to discuss Donald Trumps genitals. Marco Rubio started this in the 2016 election when he made some crack about Trumps small hands. Trump, doing America proud, excitedly seized on this and used a Republican nominations debate to assure the American people there is no problem, I guarantee. Honestly, it was like the Founding Fathers all over again. Write a musical about that, Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Adorably, Rubio was last seen on Twitter, complaining sign of our times the F word is now routinely used in news stories, tweets, etc. Who made that decision??? The same guy who decided it was totally fine to talk about penis size in a presidential election, Marco.)

But back to Trump. Is it right that the world is now laughing at his penis? Well, given that Trump made a fortune from Miss America, which is all about reducing women to their various anatomical parts and judging them accordingly, this all feels like a rather pleasing O Henry story. No Mr America crown for you, Mr President. Only men with penises shaped like Luigi get that accolade. And there is some poetic justice in the world now laughing at Trumps penis when he is currently trying to get Brett Kavanaugh on to the supreme court, primarily as far as I can tell to overturn Roe v Wade. You want to control womens vaginas, Donald? Well laugh at your penis. Men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them, as the Margaret Atwood quote goes. And given that banning abortion, as Trump wishes to do, will end up costing womens lives, it seems fair enough that we get to laugh at him. Its not exactly a quid pro quo, but it will do.

Shall I go further? I think I shall: when I hear men a gender that has spent the past, oh, several millennia, explicitly discussing the appearance of womens breasts, butts, legs, etc suddenly affecting horror at the idea of a woman laughing at a mans penis, well, I hear a certain music on the wind, and that music is a tune played by the worlds smallest violin. (Any man who wishes to write in with a #notallmen-type complaint is welcome to write it down on a piece of paper, roll it up tight and stick it in any aperture on his anatomy where the sun does not shine.)

But enough of him (and little him), lets look at Stormy Daniels herself. I am currently listening to a podcast (so zeitgeisty, me) called Slow Burn, which examines the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal. Now, if anyone out there needs a reminder in how women accused of having affairs with male politicians are traditionally treated, then Slow Burn will provide it. Cheap, trashy, slutty are just some of the words used about the women Clinton was accused of harassing or sleeping with and that was just from the ostensible good guys. The New York Times Maureen Dowd described Monica Lewinsky as the girl who was too tubby to be in the high school in crowd. Erica Jong famously snarked: My dental hygienist pointed out that she has third-stage gum disease. You see, guys? We are not only mean to you. Weve been horrible to women for almost as long as you have.

Much has been written about Danielss refusal to be shamed. But what is really remarkable about her is how shes turned the whole narrative around. Not only will she not be humiliated she will humiliate him. And why not, damn it? She wasnt the married one. She is not the one with the power to ruin womens lives by banning global abortion funding and defunding Planned Parenthood while having bragged in the past how, when youre a star, you can grab women by the pussy. He is. While we may well live in a post-shame era, Daniels knows how to hurt Trump. And given how much Trump is hurting women, I think this is one instance in which we can indulge in some guiltless body-shaming. Go get him, Stormy.

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After sharing my feelings on the Aziz Ansari story, I was told I dont understand assault. I do

Assault is not a feeling. The Aziz Ansari story shows why language matters

After sharing my feelings on the Aziz Ansari story, I was told I dont understand assault. I do

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If youre from a group that has never been oppressed for reasons of identity you dont know what it feels like. The actor should know when to shut up, writes Guardian contributor Hannah Jane Parkinson

Oh, Matt Damon. Where did it all go wrong? Well, almost everywhere.

Damon is currently the focus of a mixture of derision, anger and disbelief after he made, in the space of three days, multiple boneheaded comments on sexual harassment. At some point between these tone-deaf interventions his Good Will Hunting co-star (and a former girlfriend), Minnie Driver, helpfully pointed out where he was going wrong. And yet, instead of taking a seat to reflect on her critique, Damon came splashing back into a lake of ignorance like a dog which repeatedly forgets it is not good at swimming.

First, Damon waded in to say that sexual harassment exists on a spectrum, and that theres a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape. On the face of it, this is clearly true (and something that women have also said), but Damon is too ignorant (HOW? STILL?) to realise that being patted on the butt a thousand times by bosses, male friends, colleagues, and strangers, is an insidious invasion of personal space and an exhausting erasure of individuality. Death by a thousand cuts. As Driver put it, [men] cannot understand what abuse is like on a daily level.

He also doesnt seem to realise that literally nobody is crying out for Matt Damons Opinion On This. As Driver also said, its galling when a powerful man steps up and starts dictating the terms. In total, he has spoken about this topic no fewer than three times. Forgive me, Matt, but I think not being harassed should be a baseline expectation, and not something to be deified for. I dont offer a round of applause to the man at the bus stop who doesnt comment on my ass. And I am not about to start.

Damon is also guilty of the trope of men declaring themselves feminists after having daughters, as if the wellbeing of human women otherwise didnt matter. Good one, guys. Super grateful. Its good to know that someone being called a whore doesnt raise hackles if it isnt your mother, daughter, aunt or sister who is the target.

When Damon came on to the scene in the late 90s, he was part of a gang of up-and-comers, including the Affleck brothers. If he doubts the widespread issue of male toxicity, then he could do well to remember that Ben Affleck has since had to apologise for groping a presenter, and his brother Casey Affleck has been accused of multiple sexual assaults (which he denies). Meanwhile, Damon has been the epitome of East Coast Liberal. He made much of his background and upbringing (his mother was a college professor and his father a stockbroker); he attended Harvard, and has sold himself as A Good Egg, even establishing a non-profit to provide clean drinking water. His outspoken liberalness even had Michael Moore suggesting a presidential run.

Since then, Damon has become the perfect example of a phrase I coined last month, when right-on men were being unearthed as rats at the rate of one tail a minute: no woke without fire. Its the kind of un-wokeness in plain sight that was illuminated in Jordan Peeles Get Out. Damons past indiscretions include: suggesting that the Bush twins be forced to enlist in the military; downplaying the importance of diversity behind the camera, and carefully explaining this to a black producer, Effie T Brown; the time in response to a question about sexuality, he implied that actors should remain closeted; and when he declared I didnt take a role away from a Chinese actor when the subject of whitewashing was raised, rather than engaging.

This leads me to a simple truth: if one is from a group that has never been oppressed for reasons of identity, it is almost impossible to understand what that feels like. This often isnt their individual fault, which is where defensiveness comes in, but it is true. Women know, people of colour know, LGBT+ people know, people with disabilities know, those persecuted for their religion know. To an extent, perhaps straight white men know, if, say, they come from a state school, have a thick northern accent, and attempt to enter the media. Or Oxbridge. But if youve never been on the receiving end of a punching down, then of course it is possible to sympathise but you aint ever gonna feel the blow.

It was Damons character (right) in Good Will Hunting who was chastised by Robin Williams therapist for precisely assuming that secondhand knowledge could replace empirical, lived experience. Did Damon learn nothing? Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Miramaz

Its not that the effort of others to understand is not appreciated. That needs to happen for things to change and improve, and Damon seems to have good intentions. But he is never going to know what it is like to walk home with keys between knuckles. I am never, for instance, going to know what it is like to have a job application sidelined because apparently some people think, as a friend was told recently, African names have too many vowels. I dont know what it is like to have someone talk to me like a child because I use a wheelchair. I do know what it is like to have a male colleague take credit for my ideas, and to be vigilant when kissing a partner in case of abuse.

As someone who holds freedom of speech close to my heart, and who can sometimes be found eye-rolling at some of the more eccentric demands for safe spaces or some of the no-platforming decisions, I dont think though others do that certain people should automatically be banned for speaking on certain subjects. However, I do think certain people should recognise when their voice carries less authority, should know when to shut up, and realise that their voice is not needed, wanted, or helpful at a particular time. As a motormouth, I am sure I have screwed up here before. Damon doesnt seem to care, and continues, relentlessly, to #damonsplain.

Whats particularly ironic in all of this is it was Damons character in Good Will Hunting who was chastised by Robin Williams therapist for precisely assuming that secondhand knowledge, and reading from books, could replace empirical, lived experience. Did Damon learn nothing?

  • Hannah Jane Parkinson writes for the Guardian on pop culture, music, tech, football, politics and mental health

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Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, OJ Simpson, Eddie Murphy, Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson The list of men Gloria Allred has taken to court reads like a Whos Who of the great and the not so good. Alex Clark meets the lawyer in LA to hear what makes her angry

Gloria Allred and President Trump have history, perhaps unsurprisingly. She is a self-described feminist lawyer with more than 40 years of fighting and usually winning battles on behalf of those discriminated against on the grounds of their gender, sexuality, race, religion or physical ability. He, to put it mildly, does not share her values. Indeed, she has written on the need to protect Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that changed abortion law in the United States, against a Trump administration. In particular, she fears he will populate the Supreme Court with judges who she refers to as the mandatory motherhood group.

But their most significant tangle came in 2012, when a Canadian model named Jenna Talackova was disqualified from a Miss Universe pageant owned by Trump on the grounds that she was transgender. Taking up Talackovas case, Allred adopted her habitual opening strategy the press conference.

I start blasting Donald Trump, she tells me, as we sit over clam chowder in an oceanside restaurant just outside Los Angeles (You come all this way, I gotta show you the sea, she cracks, as we walk in). I said something to the effect of: Mr Trump, we dont care what your anatomy looked like when you were born, and you shouldnt care what her anatomy looked like when she was born. Well, obviously, that really upset him.

Trump responded in characteristically boorish fashion. Oh, Gloria would probably love to see whats under my pants, he retorted in an interview. She countered that she didnt have a magnifying glass strong enough to see something that small. To a reporter, she added: Mr Trump, you have to understand, the world does not revolve around your penis, or anyone elses penis. If it ever did, it doesnt any more. This is not about genitals. This is about discrimination.

Talackova was reinstated. When Trump ran into Allred at an NBC studio some time later, he told the client she was with never to fire her lawyer because she would fight for the death for her.

Row v Wade: Allred acted for Norma McCorvey, known as Jane Roe, in a landmark case that led to abortion being made legal in the US. Photograph: Greg Gibson/AFP/Getty Images

Allred confesses to being stunned. I always wondered why he would do that. Was it because hes a businessman and knows that when its over its over and you might as well shake hands and respect each other, and move on? Or, as some people have speculated, that even then he was planning to run for President of the United States?

The rapprochement, such as it was, has not lasted long. Allred is now representing Summer Zervos, a former Apprentice contestant, who alleges that Trump groped and kissed her without her consent in a hotel in 2007. She came forward after the infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump was heard boasting of the licence his celebrity afforded him to grab whatever part of a womans body he cared to. Mere locker-room talk, he said, which brought forth several women who begged to differ he branded them liars. Cue Allred, who has filed a civil suit against Trump for defamation. He is arguing presidential immunity to try to get the case dismissed, but that didnt work when Bill Clinton tried the same thing when he was accused of sexual harassment by Paula Jones, also represented by Allred.

Should you need confirmation of Allreds refusal to quail in the face of the highest office in the land, look up a recent episode of Comedy Centrals Potus-themed sketch show, in which Anthony Atamanuik dons orange make-up and fluffs up his hair to play Trump, on this occasion apparently auditioning Allred, playing it straight, to become his lawyer. I think about Jeff Sessions in a bikini all the time, he confides to her. You are so disgusting, she tells him, finally barking: Resign now, while theres still time!

So thats Allred v Trump. What about Allred v Cosby? Here, Allred will go into bat for Judy Huth, who alleges that in 1974, when she was 15 crucial, because the statute of limitations is longer for a minor Cosby sexually abused her at the Playboy Mansion, a claim Cosby has denied. In total, she represents 33 women who accuse Cosby of sexual misconduct. Speaking immediately after the mistrial verdict in Andrea Constands criminal case against Cosby, Allred warned him: Its too early to celebrate, Mr Cosby. Round two may be just around the corner. And this time true justice may prevail. Cosby denies all the allegations against him.

Are Cosby and Trump her most famous targets? Arguably: but then she has also gone after OJ Simpson, when she represented Nicole Browns family; Eddie Murphy, when she took up a paternity suit for former Spice Girl Melanie Brown; Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson and Anthony Wiener. Less visible are the scores of others she cant even remember how many cases she and her team are working on at any one time outside the limelight. She has fought private clubs who seek to exclude women, stores that separate girls and boys toys, those standing in the way of same-sex marriage, and even the Boy Scouts of America, who wouldnt let an 11-year-old girl join their merry band.

Grieving relatives: Allred represented Nicole Browns family including her sister Denise in OJ Simpsons murder trial. Photograph: Rene Macura/AP

At times, it seems as though she wont stop until shes liberated the whole of America. She has not taken a vacation since the mid-1980s. She is 76, and insists she has no intention of ever retiring. To those who express surprise that she writes to them at Christmas, Valentines Day, weekends, she replies: You emailed me. Why wouldnt I get back to you? Your problem doesnt wait for Monday.

But as we spend our evening in Pacific Palisades, one result of her tirelessness becomes clear, as groups of women tentative, polite, unwilling to interrupt approach Allred to offer thanks for her work. She is open, gracious, happy to pose for pictures. I wont ask why, but Ill say thank you, she tells the waiter, when our appetisers and desserts are comped. Isnt that nice? she says to me. Its because youre a famous UK reporter. In a town inevitably blas about celebrity, in a culture prone to disdain lawyers and she has her detractors, those who accuse her of grandstanding and ambulance chasing Gloria Allred is welcomed as good news, except, of course, by those she takes on.

But when she attended Loyola law school back in the 60s, her class was 93% male. Neither of her parents were educated beyond the 8th grade. Pregnant at 19 her daughter, Lisa Bloom, is also a high-profile attorney her first marriage disintegrated in the face of her husbands mental illness and instability. When Lisa was still a young child, Allred was raped at gunpoint in Acapulco, became pregnant as a result, and underwent an illegal abortion, in the aftermath of which she nearly bled to death. In her autobiography-cum-motivational book, Fight Back and Win, she remembers a nurse telling her: This will teach you a lesson.

How, after all these obstacles and numerous others, has she ended up here?

When I first became an attorney, the world opened up to me, she explains. I didnt know that so many other women had suffered what I had. I thought it was my bad luck to be in the wrong place, wrong time, or wrong people, and then I realised theres a whole system out there, and millions of women have suffered much of what Ive suffered, and theres a system that actually worsens their suffering, that could protect them, could respect them, that could help them to suffer less injustice and win more justice, and help to prevent violence against women, that could assist them in being able to achieve economic equality rather than inequality and that made me very angry.

Transgender rights: Allred helped Jenna Talackova in her fight to to stay in the Miss Universe contest. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

She enrolled at Loyola shortly after her second marriage in 1968 (the couple divorced in the 80s and she hasnt remarried) and made particularly strong bonds with two of her classmates, Michael Maroko and Nathan Goldberg. In 1976, they co-founded Allred, Maroko & Goldberg, their aim to protect Californians from discrimination and civil rights violations. They were mensches, she writes in Fight Back and Win, who even in difficult circumstances would do the right thing. They were also very forgiving of the fact she had absolutely no contacts.

The gamble paid off. When I visit the firms offices on Wilshire Boulevard, the plush cream carpets, airy conference rooms and long corridors speak of achievement and solidity although theirs is markedly unlike the dark wood, leatherbound aesthetic of stereotypical establishment firms. Allreds office, however, fits into no known category it is a bit mad. A grandmother clock, featuring female figures; a British bobbys uniform from around 1900, representing the punishment meted out to Allreds great inspiration, the British Suffragettes; ornate carved sofas; a vast coat of arms, bearing the words Honi soit qui mal y pense; photographs, naturally, of the lawyer with Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton (before she went up against him), Barack Obama and Cybill Shepherd.

My favourite item is a framed copy of the lyrics of a song that Paul Anka wrote in celebration of Allreds 75th birthday, with its wonderful line: Youre like a Jewish Mother Teresa. Until I see a small monitor and a pile of notes, Im at a loss to know where Allred actually works.

Her real theatre of operations is the court and those press conferences. Sometimes, just the prospect of this public spectacle seems to work wonders: Rachel Uchitel, one of Tiger Woodss mistresses, found herself making a settlement with the golfer hours beforehand (she later threatened to sue Allred herself, but thats another story).

Throughout it all, Allred who clearly has showbusiness flair, from the gravelly voice to the immaculate make-up to the pulled-together, often all red outfits insists that shes motivated by an unstoppable urge to win justice and create change. I wake up in the morning, she explains, and I see so much injustice, people writing to me about it, proven injustice… that its like lighting a match. I have to start working on it. Currently, she is acting on behalf of two female US marines who have seen pornographic photographs of themselves posted on private websites, complete with exhortations that they be killed by friendly fire, or raped, and their contact details shared.

Close support: Allred with one of the 33 women she is representing in sexual misconduct claims against Bill Cosby. Photograph: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Her larger project is to create a network of womens rights attorneys throughout the country, and to thereby improve access to justice for all women in America (easier said than done when each state has its own legal arrangements, and when attorneys have to be admitted in each case outside of the state or states in which theyre licensed). She is also focused on lengthening or indeed altogether abandoning the statute of limitations in regard to sexual abuse.

I ask her how imperilled she feels womens rights are at this precise moment in American history. Extremely imperilled, she says immediately. At risk. Thats why were trying to build, really, a legal wall in California against what Trumps doing to roll back womens rights. His administration, she argues, is so much worse than she ever imagined it could be: The serial lying thats going on, day after day: count the lies.

She has previously fought cases in which women have been discriminated against because they have been unmarried and pregnant, or forced to resign because theyve become too old for whatever skimpy uniform their bosses decide they should wear. And she has campaigned, repeatedly, for those whom powerful men would rather silence. I ask her whether there is a feeling, as there has been in the UK in the case of historical sexual abuse, that there was a level of criminality and dysfunction going on that we, societally, should have spotted but didnt.

She says that she doesnt know enough about the UK, but that in America, There are many reasons that women dont come forward against rich, powerful, famous men, especially ones with very high favourability ratings. Fear that no one will believe them. Fear of potential repercussions in their life: economic and social. Some fear actual violence against them. And whether their fears are based in reality or just their fears, we dont know. But the point is they had them.

Allred herself, despite the trauma and graft in her background, seems to know no fear. She would not be a human being if that were the case, so perhaps its more accurate to say that whatever doubts and anxieties she might have, she channels them elsewhere. Or, to quote one of her favourite figures, the activist Mother Jones: Dont agonise, organise.

Case history

Presidents women: Allred is representing Summer Zervos, a former Apprentice contestant, who alleges that Trump groped and kissed her without her consent in 2007. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Roe v Wade Allred acted for Norma McCorvey, better known as Jane Roe. Twenty years earlier theyd begun a fight to make abortion legal in the US. McCorvey later said shed been used as a patsy to bring about abortion rights.

Sav-On Drugstore She represented seven families in a lawsuit against the Sav-On Drugstore to stop them separating toys for boys and girls.

OJ Simpson During OJ Simpsons trial for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, she represented her family. Though he was acquitted, the case propelled Allred to legal stardom.

Melanie Brown Allred successfully sued Eddie Murphy for child support when he denied fathering Spice Girl Mel Scary Spice Bs child. Cosmopolitan said: Allred is far scarier than her client ever was.

Photograph: David Zentz/AP

Tiger Woods She organised one of her famous press conferences for Rachel Uchitel, one of Woodss alleged mistresses. A settlement worth millions of dollars was hurriedly agreed, just hours before it began.

Jenna Talackova Should someone born a man be allowed to be Miss Universe? asked the media. Allred championed transgender rights by representing Jenna Talackova in Donald Trumps beauty pageant. Talackova went on to make it to the final 12.

Charlie Sheen After the actors HIV revelation, Allred, organised a conference with his exes, as Sheen was refusing to acknowledge his conduct. She had previously met him in court in 1997 and, in an open letter, asked: What if men did to [your daughters] what you have done to women?

Donald Trump Allred represented 13 different women, including Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos, all making claims of sexual misconduct against the president. It was the year, too, that Allred consulted with actor Amber Heard, before she settled a domestic abuse case with Johnny Depp.

Bill Cosby She currently represents 33 of the women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault. Now his criminal charges have resulted in a hung jury pending retrial, Allreds case represents the alleged victims best chance at justice.

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