Reproductive Choice in Northern Ireland: My Body, Your Right?


Just when you thought the laws around abortion in Northern Ireland couldn’t get any more restrictive, members of the Democratic Unionist Party have once again affirmed their unique ability to delve deeply into the dark recesses of antiquated notions on social inequality and highlight how, as a province, we just haven’t quite gone far enough in utilising the tool of oppression to its full potential. This may sound surprising when you consider that this is a country which has enjoyed a rich history of oppression in one form or another for centuries. More recently it is the only place in the UK and Ireland in which LGBT people are still denied marriage rights, and the only place in the UK in which women are still denied healthcare which was afforded to their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales in 1967. The powers that be in Northern Ireland also managed to grip tightly on to laws against homosexuality and those which permitted marital rape for a tad longer than the rest of the UK. There are people in charge here who have forged careers on the back of keeping whole sections of the population down, and they are very good at it.

Still, when I read a headline containing the words “abortion” and “amendment”, I could only imagine that this was in relation to the recent extensive review which recommended a change in the law to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.  After all, the only laws we look to for guidance on abortion in Northern Ireland at the moment date back to the 1800’s. Unless someone had unearthed something more practical from the 15th century (scarily plausible) this was really the only direction my brain allowed me to take – in what I now realise was a naïve failure to acknowledge the talents of some people in finding medieval methods of control and bringing them to the fore.

In a step away from progress, and several away from actually helping anyone, the DUP chair of the justice committee Alastair Ross, after “careful consideration” by a group of solely men, proposed that abortions could only be performed lawfully at properties owned by the NHS. This would mean that places like the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast which offers support, advice and early terminations in the most strict of circumstances during the first nine weeks of pregnancy would be illegal. The amendment proposed that those who administer this care privately and the women who avail of it would both be subject to punishment of up to ten years in prison. According to these people, women’s healthcare is a criminal matter.

birthcontrol

We have seen from recent research that the current laws allowing for termination only if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent or serious damage to her mental or physical health are so vague that women in Northern Ireland are effectively living in a postcode lottery in terms of the care they receive from medical practitioners. How can one categorically determine if damage to mental health will be permanent? How can we categorically deny that pregnancy and childbirth in general constitute a serious risk to physical health?

It is unknown whether or not supporters of this amendment take issue with healthcare provided in the many other private clinics around Northern Ireland or indeed with private healthcare in general, but after reading a summary of the debate it appears they are only concerned with those private clinics which provide reproductive care to women. As proper men of tradition, it would appear that what goes on inside private hip replacement clinics can stay inside private hip replacement clinics, whereas there can’t be a decision made around female reproduction that we shouldn’t all be party to.

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Supporters argue that one’s position on abortion is irrelevant and that the amendment simply aims to address regulation gaps what takes place within clinics like Marie Stopes. That the same members subsequently feigned mourning for the 8 million “people” who have lost their lives since the implementation of the 1967 Abortion Act in the rest of the UK somewhat diminishes this position. Similarly, that Marie Stopes has previously agreed to fully co-operate in any regulatory process and operates wholly within Northern Irish law seems to be beside the point. The anti-choice members, many of whom have the power and the authority to implement regulatory guidelines on clinics like Marie Stopes and could have done so years ago, have simply chosen not to. This of course would prevent them from the scaremongering tactic of creating a picture of untold doom awaiting women on the inside of the doors to the clinic on Victoria Street in Belfast – conveniently located, as they point out, just across the street from the bus and railway station in an evil ploy to lure in confused pregnant females off the street with enchanting music and the promise of free handbags, thus ensuring successful terminations all over the show.

At one point in the debate, the anti-choice Paul Givan stated with certainty that those who work for Marie Stopes get paid handsome bonuses for reaching a target of weekly abortions. This they know for sure, despite a moment earlier not knowing anything about what goes on inside the Marie Stopes clinic because it is shrouded in the devil’s shadow. We can only assume this information was garnered from someone who managed to escape the clutches of the clinic and run straight to DUP headquarters to tell the tale. The debate itself took place in Stormont at the convenient time of around 10.45pm – highlighting once again the care and consideration given to this most important of issues.

imagesN209NQ15   StormontChamber

The proposal clearly showed that those behind it simply do not want women to have safe and legal access to the healthcare they have a right to. It means that they are willing to ignore the thousands of women who will travel to other parts of the UK every year to access this service privately, enduring unnecessary further risk to their emotional and physical wellbeing. That this amendment was defeated in Stormont by a vote of 41-39 is welcome news but offers only limited comfort. Those who voted against this bill and who backed a petition of concern have a duty to be clear on their position on this matter. It would be unfair to vilify one party as the only obstacle to progress on women’s reproductive rights in Northern Ireland when others remain unwilling to make their opposition consistent, clear and strong. The SDLP oppose lifting restrictions on abortion law and Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane began her contribution to the debate by stating that her party is “not in favour of abortion” and opposes extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to the North. Sinn Fein does, however, believe the option of termination should be available in cases of foetal fatal abnormality and rape. On this rare and fleeting occasion I found myself agreeing with the contemptible Jim Wells when he suggested that perhaps Sinn Fein should simply come out as a pro-choice party. Although he says it like it’s a bad thing. How can the party for “equality” continue to generally defend restrictions on women’s reproductive autonomy which limits social mobility, financial security, and health? Or is it the case that the Republic of Ireland need to be one leading the way on this issue too, as some sort of testing ground for what the Catholic electorate in Northern Ireland are willing to tolerate.

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After the success of the Marriage Referendum in Ireland last month, much focus is currently on providing marriage rights to LGBT citizens here in the North, and rightfully so. But we ought also to see just as much focus on the fact that women and girls are still suffering under these archaic abortion laws. In an argument similar to that in favour of equal marriage; allowing for safe and legal access to abortion does not mean that you have to have one. And like someone else’s choice of spouse, how a woman takes control of her reproductive life really is no one else’s business. Loving a member of the opposite sex is no reason to deny rights to those who don’t, and loving your children is not a valid reason to force women to continue with a pregnancy against her will. An act which leaders in the UN have recently stated amounts to torture.

Alliance for Choice 40-Women per week travel out of N.Ireland for abrtions

Lest those who are now so vocal on marriage equality be accused of oppositional politics or exploiting the voting potential in siding with what is perceived as the majority opinion, there must be a clear effort not only in defeating proposals for further restrictions, but in actively changing the law in favour of free, safe and legal access to abortion for all women and girls in this country. Women are dying because of the intentional imprecision and the lethal restrictions of outdated abortion laws. Many more are suffering emotionally, psychologically, financially and socially under these restrictions. How many women are those in positions of power willing to ignore before they approach the fight for reproductive rights with the voracity and clarity it merits? While those who could do something are procrastinating and attempting to balance on a splintering fence, what this recent proposal has demonstrated is that no such delay is tolerated within camps which will continue to fight resolutely against female bodily autonomy.

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Breaking News: New Female Craze of using Sex Lumps to Feed Offspring Sweeps the Nation!

I wouldn’t be a very good social commentator if I didn’t read some current affairs every so often and comment on items of note, so when I heard about this new craze of mother’s using their man-pleasers to feed offspring I was pleased to have something interesting to write about.  Who knew breasts had a purpose once men no longer had a use for them? What an amazing by-product of evolutionary design of the human body. All this time, we thought breasts where there to lure men into bed and sell tacky tabloid newspapers (because, well, what else will?) when suddenly it starts – instant food source for babies. It must be how a duck feels when it realises that the webs in its feet, which it has presumably only previously used to slap other ducks into submission, are also quite effective in helping it to move quickly under water. Just amazing. Don’t get me wrong, of course at first I thought it was a little bit weird and had fears about how some men would handle this incredibly modern turn of events. Their sex objects are now being used to benefit someone else and for purposes which aren’t focused on satisfying them sexually at all. I thought to myself, this is going to take some getting used to. Support services will have to be established immediately to cope with the inevitable fall out. Outreach programmes will have to be set up to make sure some people aren’t roaming the streets in a state of panicked confusion, not knowing whether they are aroused or just hungry. Mayhem.

confused man

Also I pondered what we should do to avoid trauma if bystanders accidentally see this new and unnatural turn of events unfolding? How will we manage the levels of jealousy in some men who may be a bit miffed at the notion of sharing their very own play things with some hungry babies? Obviously the only solution would be to hide this process from them so that they are allowed to believe that breasts are still only for them, perhaps with some sort of compulsory oversized napkin. So after working through some baby-covering-napkin design ideas I did some research and what I found was, quite frankly, mind-blowing. I’m not a mother, which perhaps is why I found this so shocking, but breasts have actually always been used to feed babies. As it turns out, lots of other mammals do this too. I sometimes did wonder what humans did thousands of years ago, before cow and gate. The same thing was happening then too. Education is indeed powerful.

Elephant Suckling      breastfeeding

So actually, a new craze this is not. Not even a phase. Not a new thing at all. I have discovered that feeding babies using breasts is probably one of the oldest and most natural things in the history of the human race.

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breastfeeding5     breastfeeding4     breastfeeding3

In all seriousness, I do understand why some people might get a bit confused. We live in a society where women’s bodies are hyper-sexualised by elements of the media, from advertisements of cars to soft drinks. To sell food, to sell newspapers, to sell music and films. In fact, what complaints about breastfeeding in public clearly show is that women’s bodies have become objectified and perceived as a tool of male pleasure to such a definitive degree, that some people get anxious when we use our bodies for things that have nothing to do with the satisfaction of men at all. It makes them uncomfortable. We are so used to the perception of women’s bodies being used to make men happy. This is the norm, this is common, this doesn’t make people uncomfortable. Some people even perceive this as “empowering”. So when some part of a woman’s existence or bodily function does not fit with this perception, it seems to have a confusing effect on some people. When men find breasts offensive only when they are being used for their natural purpose, it shows how much they think women’s bodies were created for them.

  breast advert     confused man2   Breastfeeding7

Some women have also been reported as disapproving of breastfeeding in public. Some women don’t like breastfeeding at all. Which is absolutely fine, do what you want with your own, but there is no escaping from the fact that we have become socialised into accepting that women’s bodies are a matter of public debate to a degree which men would never have to endure. Women, just as much as men, internalise such sexism even if it is to their own detriment. I often hear that the older generation find witnessing breastfeeding uncomfortable too, but all this tells us is that they have been influenced previously by an even more sexist environment where women were even more restricted. The older generation, just like everybody else, need to realise that other women’s bodily functions have nothing whatsoever to do them.

Previously in our society, other natural processes such as pregnancy and childbirth were censored and seen as shameful. We have a history of shutting pregnant women away for months until they had done the dirty deed and laboured new life into the world. The rest of society being too sensitive to acknowledge the process by which they came to be, and too rife with misogyny to appreciate the hypocrisy in applauding men whilst shaming women for the same actions. The shame should be felt only by those who punished women in Ireland and other countries so violently, and so horrendously for becoming pregnant outside of contexts deemed acceptable to church and state. Such vile abuse resulted in devastating consequences for both women and generations of children born to struggle through life in care systems, often subjected to horrific abuse themselves, or born only to die a short while later through either the wilful neglect, or the wilful murder at the hands of those in charge and to be found in unmarked graves decades later.  You speak of shame.

  Magdalen1

So neither breastfeeding, nor debates around it are new. They are just another example of a society struggling to negotiate what or who a woman’s body is for and how to best police and control it. Such is the threat to male power of the female body being used for anything other than their convenient gratification. We see extreme reactions to threats of anything less than total exclusivity of female attention in statistics which show that over one-third of cases of domestic violence start or get worse when a woman is pregnant. In many cases we also see women who are pressured into giving up breastfeeding by insecure and controlling men who are competing for affection. Such a fragile power if it can be threatened by a tiny, hungry baby.

The discomfort around breastfeeding is nothing other than a society perplexed by the image of a totally self-sufficient woman, behaving in a way that has nothing to do with pleasing men. So acclimatised we are to the very opposite.  It adds to the tremendous amount of hypocrisy regarding women, sex and reproduction. We must be compliant, but not overtly sexual. We must be in awe of the sexual prowess of men, but not take ownership of our own sexuality. We must use our bodies to have children and desire motherhood above all else, but not have open and frank discussion about the processes of menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. Women are simultaneously told of the genuine and well-documented health benefits of breastfeeding infants, while being made to feel embarrassed for doing just that. So the message is that breast is best, but only in a corner where the nice people don’t have to see it.

Lou Burns who was asked to cover up while breastfeeding at Claridges Hotel          Baby beginnings

So the news here isn’t that women are breastfeeding in public, the news is that there are still some people out there who somehow find this more uncomfortable than a starving baby. The news is that breast-feeding is not the convenient by-product of a body part designed to attract men. The opposite is true – breasts are for feeding children, a handy by-product is that they are attractive to necessary elements in the creation of the offspring in the first place. Breasts are amazing, they can sustain life, even a world with modern medicine that can keep people alive when they would have died in years gone by, a newborn baby can thrive with only its mother and nothing else. Breasts can also be attractive, sensual, and quite lovely for both men and women for reasons that seem quite removed from digestion.  They can be enjoyed by women and men in as many ways as is consensually possible but this enjoyment is the by-product, not the main function. If you find it difficult to contemplate the difference, then perhaps it is you who should refrain from eating in public.

If nothing else, the debate about breastfeeding highlights a wider context in which women’s bodies are still up for public debate. The scrutiny, the judgement, and the hypocrisy must stop. In reality, whatever the function of breasts, whatever the function of a uterus, they belong to a woman who is not just the sum of their parts but a person who must be afforded the dignity and autonomy owed to every human being. We have seen what happens when women’s bodies, particularly in relation to reproduction, are censored, policed and controlled. And we have come some way in acknowledging that the things women’s bodies can do are no longer wrong or punishable. However, that women are still being asked to fade into quiet corners to feed their children in the most natural and healthy way shows that there is still a long way to go.


Very Inspiring Blogger Award!

So there I was, having a bit of a de-motivational slump after the initial adrenaline of putting my writing out there for the first time. I was possibly even feeling a bit of sudden fear that maybe I don’t actually have anything to say at all (this is common, yes?) When all of a sudden I get a notification that I’ve been nominated for my very own Very Inspiring Blogger Award by the amazingly talented Andrew James Writer. Thrilled and extremely greatful!

 

What an excellent way to share the amazing pieces of writing and expression out there! I shall of course abide by the rules which are as follows:

  • thank and link to the person who nominated you
  • list the rules and display the award
  • share 7 facts about yourself
  • nominate 15 other blogs you enjoy then comment on their posts to let them know that you have nominated them.

Seven little facts about me:

1. I’m a twenty-something woman from the North of Ireland (Northern Ireland, Ireland, Britannia in the Most Glorious, call it whatever you want – it’s a complex place with amazing coastal areas). 

2. I lived in Venice, Italy for a semester during my undergraduate degree. This was one of the best experiences of my life.

3. I recently completed a Masters in Psychology and am particularly interested in infant mental health, child development, social, biological and evolutionary psychology. So, all of it really.

4. I studied History during my undergraduate degree and have a serious fascination with The Tudors. I sometimes get quite sad that I will never be a fly on the wall of a real Tudor banquet or ever meet Anne Boleyn.

5. I played the flute for most of my childhood. I misplaced it, a lot. I still love music and theatre.

6.  I love The Sims and have been known to use well-earned, much-needed funds on purchasing lifestyle points for them.

7. The first proper book I ever read was Jane Eyre. I was so proud of myself that I kept feeling the thickness of the book to remind myself how long it was and how good a reader I must be. I still do that when I read a particularly long book. Okay any book.

My Nominations:

1. Andrew James Writer – Not just because he nominated me, but because he is a fantastic writer and his blog about Paris is full of fascination and intrigue. I look forward to reading his many critically acclaimed future novels.

2. I Am Begging My Mother Not To Read This Blog – Intelligent, inspiring, hilarious and honest blog, one of the first I followed: “Katherine is a woman in her twenties who lives in Philadelphia. She has a blog about that.”

3. I Am The Milk – Sometimes funny, sometimes deep, always a thought-provoking read about children, family, parenting and life from this blog

4. Binary This – “Everything you always wanted to know about gender but were too afraid to ask”

5. Talkin’ Reckless – “Thoughts on feminism, health, and education”

6. Rebecca Hains – Author of “The Princess Problem”, professor and speaker on children’s media culture. Great pieces on gender identity. 

7. I Wanted Wings – “A Geeky Feminist’s Musings on Visual and Pop Culture”.

8. Erin Matson – “Are you ready to dig into modern feminism and the quest for reproductive justice?” …”How do you be a writer? You write. How do make change? You speak up. And that, my friends, is why you should start a blog.”

9. SheRights – “Women’s rights are human rights. When they are abused, disrespected, or ignored, society as a whole is affected”.

10. Genders, bodies, politics – Excellent blog by Dr Alison Phipps discussing sexism, lad culture, and feminism.

11. Went Looking – “See the world, think about it, then act”. Very interesting travel blog.

12. Brotherly Love – “A personal exploration of autism from a brother’s perspective, including family relationships, philosophy, neuroscience, mental health history and ethics”.

13. FP Interrupted – Blog dedicated to “changing the ratio, amplifying female voices, interrupting foreign policy”.

14. The Melissaverse – “On the occasions when this space isn’t devoted to hockey it will probably focus on pop culture, and if it’s not hockey or pop culture it will be something more philosophical. Probably. I guess we’ll find out together.”

15. What an Amazing World! – Really interesting travel blog from an engaging writer. Reminds me that the world really is an amazing place.

I am still really rather new to this WordPress world but these are just some of the great blogs I have seen so far. They have all informed, inspired, educated and entertained me in different ways. If there are any others that people could recommend I would appreciate it.

Thank you once again to Andrew James Writer for the nomination!  

 


 

The F Bomb and the Apathetic Activist

apathy

I first made the decision to start writing this blog as a reaction to all of the things I could see around me that I was concerned about, or that I felt were unfair, or that I felt people should start waking up to. A lot of these things centred on social injustices, sexism, the way men and women are treated unequally and held to different standards, the way gender and sex is portrayed in society and how that has an effect on our identities and our mental health. Elements in these issues range from quite annoying – like the cheeky “bantz” of some otherwise moral people and the way Coca-Cola is now using half-naked women to sell milk (ironically called “Fairlife”), and some are downright fatal – like restrictive abortion law, domestic violence, and Female Genital Mutilation.  Let’s face it, utopian equality and an end to sexism probably isn’t going to be achieved by the addition of my blog to a plethora of feminist commentary. This I am aware of. But I still wanted to get my opinion out there and I believe it is important that everyone has the right to do so. And maybe if just one person thinks a bit more about sexism, gender or mental health because of something I’ve written about then that’s amazing. Mostly I just felt that I had a lot to say about a lot of things (long suffering close friends and family will surely attest to this). And I there is still a lot I want to say.

Coca cola                  silenced

However, since I started writing and actively engaging in social media and the conversations taking place in the world, something surprising happened. I became a touch overwhelmed. There is just so much; so much short snappy anger, so much misinterpretation, so much defence, so much pretence, so many opinions to tackle and not enough energy or word allowance to tackle them. I found myself wandering into conversations on social media where I managed to rub some people up the wrong way with my apparently “liberal” views on not actually castrating boys at birth. Whilst advocating sex and relationship education for young people, I found some were outraged at the idea that men’s “natural” tendencies towards violent abuse could be changed for some by early social learning. At one point I was being outflanked by two radicals who were attacking me from both sides over my seemingly optimist perspective that maybe, just maybe, not all male humans are born sexual predators. I never saw myself as conservative before but I suppose it’s all relative. And whilst I was already aware that my skin is not as thick as some might think it is, and that we all have to be prepared for differences in opinion, I did not think my voice would be voluntarily quietened so quickly and so easily. At this early stage in my quest to rid the world of misogyny have I already become so brow-beaten over a few tweets that I feel like giving up? Could it be that after only identifying as one for a few years, am I experiencing feminism ennui already?

Now what                       ennui

I found myself doubting everything I was planning to write about, losing motivation by the minute and considering maybe just keeping my opinions to myself, or at least, not public. Then I started thinking that if it was this easy for me to feel this way, how easy must it be to discourage young men and women from identifying with feminism and all that it entails. I say all that it entails; feminism is only the idea that women should have equal rights and opportunities to men, it really only means that you believe in social, economic, and political equality for both sexes. But there are many who would have you associate it with angry lesbians who hate all men, and babies,  and women who want babies, and women who take their husband’s surname, the colour pink, things that smell nice, and deodorant. Those who would defend the patriarchy have used tactics like this to put people off feminism for generations. And it works – there is a shadow of embarrassment around the word “feminist” so much that people find it extremely difficult to say they are one. There are people who exasperatedly laugh (“oh you’re one of those”), or roll their eyes, or even get a bit defensive in the presence of those who are openly okay with the fact that they quite like equality. (On a side note, if you are too afraid to say anything in front of a feminist – someone who simply wants equality of the sexes – then you should really reflect on your own opinions and worldview).

colleague                female eye roll

But there is also another end of this spectrum where some are just as quick to attack you if your version of how to fight sexism and achieve equality isn’t extreme enough, or radical enough, or doesn’t conform to their opinion of how things should be. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is a maximum limit to the speed at which we should be travelling towards equality, and I don’t believe in pandering to anyone’s traditional sensitivities in the process. But I do know that not everyone is perceiving feminism in the same way, not everyone is as free from the social and economic constraints as those who consider themselves the “enlightened” few. So it is easy to see how people who would like women to be treated equally and would otherwise identify as feminist, are put off the label in fear of either being socially ostracised by some friends and colleagues, or of being accused of accidentally apologising for rapists by fellow feminists. I certainly was. I thought I knew how to handle the former, but the latter is still new terrain.

A lot of what I have experienced on social media and commentaries around feminism is a debate about the word and the movement that is becoming so obscured from the point that while all of this is going on, we are getting nowhere nearer to a time when we no longer need the word itself. This is another tactic I’ve seen often used by those who would like to undermine feminism – “let’s accuse them of ignoring the plight of women in countries where the problem is worse, accuse them of hating men, accuse them of ‘white western feminism’, they’ll feel so bad about it that they’ll forget that they’re being paid considerably less than men, that they do not have autonomy over their own bodies, and that we have a culture which blames them when they are sexually attacked”.

But if you have an opinion, especially if it is of the equality variety, don’t allow people to silence you because they are louder, or because there are more of them, or because you perceive them to have more power or experience than you. It is important to listen, it is important to try to see things from other people’s perspectives, it is important to reflect on where your own opinions are coming from and what is informing them, but it is just as important to call out the problem, even if you don’t know exactly what the solution is yet.  I think the actress Emma Watson put it best in her excellent speech at the UN in September when she said of feminism that “it is not the word that is important. It’s the idea behind it”.

Emma Watson

So I have a few ideas, not only about feminism but about lots of things, and I am going to continue to use this blog to sound them out and practice the art of writing. I may be a novice, I may be too moderate to some and too radical to others, I may get it wrong and I may look back on this blog and wonder why I didn’t just keep a private diary (bingo!), I may eventually succumb to an overwhelming cynicism and chuckle at the next generation when they explode in anger about all manner of injustice (here’s hoping). But I’m going to do it anyway because I think that these things are important, I enjoy learning about them, I enjoy writing about them, and because if I don’t have a healthy outlet for my frustration, people will stop inviting me to fun social events (not really, I’m actually a hoot – feminists can be hoots too).

So if you’ve stuck with me this far, I’d like to end by thanking you for reading what is essentially a reflective self-motivational pep talk, and also this humdinger of a motivational quote of your own by the writer Roxane Gay –

 “I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all”.

F bomb


 

The Hairy Truth: Feminists Just Hate Sheffield United

I had never really engaged with Twitter before I started this blog. Being a chronic over-elaborator, I never really saw the benefits of being restricted to 140 characters at a time. However, after setting up an account to engage in some useful debate and promote my young blog, I have certainly become enlightened to the potential of this short and snappy mode of global communication, even in these short few weeks. By following people with whom I share a point of view and who are active in the conversations I want to be a part of, I have been both encouraged by those out there campaigning or actively supporting the changes we need to see in our society, as well as totally flabbergasted at the sheer idiocy of others (“flabbergasted” being an example of a word I do not have room for often on twitter). I think I have now seen first-hand what the kids call “trolling”, or as I like to call it, just plain verbal abuse.

A lot of this vitriol I have seen directed at the blogger Jean Hatchet, initiator of a petition urging Sheffield United not to re-sign the former professional footballer Ched Evans after his recent release from serving half of a five year prison sentence for rape. I admire how this person manages the abuse she receives with logic, humour and grace. I hope someday I learn these skills, rather than the reactionary fury I am accustomed to. Of course, many others have received similar reactions. The athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill has recently received her very own rape threat after stating that she would have her name removed from a stand at Sheffield United if they re-sign Evans. Along with others in a conversation thread, I was myself lucky enough to be invited to a Sheffield United match, and reassured about the cold conditions:

T2

These vile reactions to those taking a stand against a culture which normalises rape are abhorrent. We all have a responsibility to send clear messages that this is a heinous crime, the blame for which rests solely on the culprit. Especially at a time when we are increasingly seeing those in authority admitting their failure to treat crimes of this nature with the attention and severity they merit. But rather than getting bogged down in explaining why threatening people with sexual violence is wrong (for further information, please see “The Law”), I would rather like to focus on some of the claims directed at myself and others in the last week while trying to explain why we think putting a convicted rapist on a pedestal is morally bankrupt.

After careful investigation using a blindfold and spinning in a circle while pointing at my computer screen at random, I found that a lot of these odd reactions are coming from “Blades” fans themselves. The recurring theme seems to be that feminism is now just trying to target their club in general, and Ched Evans in particular, because of some sort of underlying resentment. Alas, it is time to finally admit it. We tried to cleverly conceal the truth, but it has been uncovered – we really just hate Sheffield United. I hate everything about the club, I have done for a number of years. I am not quite sure from where my detestation for Sheffield United came, I just know it runs deep and that under the surface I have been waiting for a chance to attack. We all have.

In fact, one week at Feminism HQ (after misandry class) we were all called together by Jessica Ennis-Hill to form a strategy about how to once and for all put an end to Sheffield United. We tried backing other football teams, going to matches and the like, but we couldn’t stomach being so close to all of the men (because we hate them so much, naturally). So you can imagine my sheer delight when one of their players got convicted of rape. The elation was unimaginable. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, instead of the club disowning him completely like we thought any organisation with an ounce of morality would do, they let him back to train while they make up their minds about whether to re-sign him (or check to see if he’s actually any good at football anymore). Either way it was like all our Christmases and International Women’s Days had come at once. How we celebrated, how we rejoiced, how we dined and drank organically, singing along to Alanis Morisette and watching Girl Interrupted  until the sun came up. Good times.

The source of our hatred towards Ched Evans is probably easier to pinpoint. It is the same reason feminists criticise any man in the public eye, or anywhere else in fact. It is, of course, because we all tried it on with him at different points in our lives and were cruelly rejected. The pain of which still haunts us. We are even too sad to shave our armpits. Every day is a battle. So yes, this whole campaign has emerged out of a deep-seated hatred towards Sheffield United in general, and Ched Evans in particular.

No. Not really. Rape, I hate rape.

Perhaps feminists should assume some of the responsibility for these reactions. It could partly be because we forgot to say we were annoyed about all of the other rapists as well. We made the mistake of assuming that was implied. So just to be clear, I condemn all rape, wherever it happens, whoever it is happening to. I am also aware that other terrible things are happening in the world, and it would be great to be able to tackle them all in one omnipotent swoop. But as it stands, there is now an opportunity for a professional football club to send a clear message that rape is a serious crime, that there are myths surrounding it, and that those myths are wrong. That you cannot rape someone, show no remorse for it, and then continue in a career that will have your actions influence the minds of young people. In this short window of time, we have an opportunity to encourage Sheffield United to do this.

Whether you have accepted the guilty verdict of a unanimous jury in Evans’ trial, which is what most people do every single day after thousands of trials for many different crimes, or whether you are doubtful about the verdict, perhaps now is a time to question why we are finding this so difficult to grasp? Why the confusion? If grown adults who are debating this case on television, on the radio, in newspapers, and on social media cannot agree on whether this woman was actually raped (by the way, no one is asking you to, a jury already did that), or whether it was serious enough to prevent Evan’s becoming a role model, then how do we expect young people to fully understand consent in a meaningful way? It would be reductive to say that all rational people understand sexual consent, who can give it, what it means, and that anyone who doesn’t is a blithering idiot. Quite clearly, a lot of people do not have a clear understanding of what rape actually is.  This can hardly be surprising in a country which only made marital rape illegal in the 90’s. As adults, we have a responsibility to talk about sex and consent in a consistent way. We need structured sex and relationship education, so that the children today don’t pay the price for our negligence in the future.

Now, just to be clear ( because if Twitter has taught me anything so far, it’s that 140 characters allows for a magnitude of misinterpretation), I do not believe that education will solve the problem of rape in it’s entirety. Rape is largely about power and control, and I do not believe that perpetrators can simply be “educated” out of using rape to control women, to assert power, or to get what they want. However, I do not think we can ignore the fact that there are a lot of young people who are learning attitudes around rape which are false. It is the reason that a lot of victims do not report the crime, believing that they were somehow at fault. Socialisation has also contributed to some young boys growing up with a sense of entitlement to women and their bodies. Look around. We live in a world where women’s bodies are offered for consumption in media and advertising everyday. Where women are taught to believe that their appearance is the most important thing about themselves because this is how we compete with each other to please men. We live in a world where some young men feel justified in acts of sexual assault and violence, and even in acts of rape. We do not have a criminal and justice system which is effective enough in punishing rape and sexual assault. Similarly, we do not have an education system which is effective enough in teaching young people about sex and consent, about relationships, about respecting and valuing women – not because they are your mothers, your sisters and your wives – but because they are human beings.

This is much bigger than Ched Evans and Sheffield United. Both of whom, for the record, I did not have even the slightest problem with before one of them raped someone and the other now verges on sending yet another mixed message to many young men and women, who’s perceptions of rape are become more skewed by the day. But if this example shows us anything, it is that there are so many out there willing to defend and justify rapists in circumstances that are not of the back alley variety. We need to challenge these perceptions, we need to teach our young people that rape myths are wrong, and we definitely need more than 140 characters. It is clear that we still have a long way to go to be understood.


Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice?

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for the film Gone Girl.

If the toy or clothing industry is anything to do by, I’d say society in general has a fair idea of what little girls are made of. We are the fairer sex, the milk of human kindness, the sensitive side of the gender coin. Where boys fight and spit and perform hosts of outrageously rude and dangerous pranks, getting generally mucky in the process, girls are set higher standards. We ought to remain serene, sweet-natured, vulnerable, and to know better. We’re beauty, and we’re grace…right? Bump into me at 3am on a Saturday night in town – that point in the night when I may be frantically trying to find a taxi home in an all-bets-are-off-friends-are-now-enemies-every-(wo)man-for-themselves-type strategy (you know the one), and you may see that I have spectacularly failed on one or all of those standards (don’t even think of asking me for a chip). Certainly if the competition in the taxi queue is anything to go by, I have a feeling I’m not alone.

If you’ve ever been a young girl, you may (like me) have felt at times a sharp spike in adrenaline when faced with a frustrating moment in life – a brother who just pretended to throw one of your dearest play things off a roof, a parent who is insisting that you wear something/do something/eat something you don’t want to, or that common source of pure evil we are all cruelly subjected to as children – mental arithmetic (seriously, why?) In these moments, you may have felt the hot anger and urge to lash out violently at the nearest person or object. Of course, upon such an outburst, like most children I was reprimanded and I learned that physical aggression is not an acceptable outlet for anger. My brothers were taught the same. But as we grow and learn and form our world views, are differences in the way we react to female aggression compared to male aggression having an impact in the longer term? Boys grow up to become men who are often physically stronger than women, so it is natural that we might fear their potential aggressive behaviour more. But in ignoring, or perceiving female aggression as something irrelevant, are we helping to solidify a perpetrator/victim dichotomy when it comes to men and women?

Those who campaign against domestic violence often come under fire for seeming to ignore male victims. I don’t believe that focusing on the larger problem of women who are affected by domestic violence can be seen as a failure to condemn violence against men, but do we slightly ignore the suffering of men in abusive relationships because we don’t take female aggression seriously enough for it to warrant reprehension? Possibly even because some don’t take women very seriously in general? Undoubtedly, women are exponentially more likely to suffer (and die) at the hands of partner violence, but does this mean that the damage done to men in abusive relationships can be brushed aside? In the media, female aggression is commonly delivered to us as a justifiable way to behave. The cheating boyfriend getting slapped in the face by his long suffering girlfriend is a common example we see often. Fans of the reality show Made in Chelsea (I watch for research purposes only of course) may have witnessed one of the popular leading female members of the cast delivering quite a substantial physical blow to the morally dubious (and overly coiffed) Alex Mytton (don’t we just hate him?). His hair might have remained intact (stupid enormous hair), but the fact that this was an act of physical violence is unavoidable, and should be unacceptable.

binky                     alex

Afterwards, I pictured the scene if the roles were reversed. Just the image of the entitled, cheating Alex (ugh) slapping the cute, lovable Binky had my blood boiling already, and rightfully so. In the UK, more than one woman per week is killed by a partner or an ex-partner; the numbers for men are not nearly as high. But instead of using this to justify female violence, I would argue that the idea of the powerless female is damaging to both sexes. We have been socialised to believe that girls are not physically aggressive, that they are empathetic, sensitive and vulnerable, that their only weapons are the relatively benign gossip and rumour. This has contributed to the construction of the world view in young people that male aggression is normal and accepted, while women are defenceless, easily preyed upon, incapable of getting out of abusive relationships in which gossip is a relatively useless weapon. I wonder how much this labelling of men and women contribute to our perception of violence between the sexes– it is certainly arguable that some women suffer from domestic violence, at least partly, because outbursts of physical aggression from men are culturally acceptable. Likewise, are men less likely to report violence from a female partner because they fear it won’t be taken seriously? Those who focus on this area academically have found that, because of gender stereotypes, aggression in girls is often not taken seriously and not reprimanded. This ignorance of the ability of girls to be aggressive not only has the potential to harm others in society, but also puts girls themselves at risk of developing serious social problems such as higher rates of depression and social isolation.

I think we need to start looking at men and women as complex individuals, rather than two distinct categories of being. To use an example which shows the portrayal of a more complex female character than we would normally see in the film industry, the recently released Gone Girl has sparked some intense reactions, with some groups criticizing the film for perpetuating the myth of false rape allegations. While false accusations of rape are certainly not to be portrayed as common place in society (because they most definitely are not), my initial reaction to this story was not one of outrage. In fact, it was refreshing to see a woman in fiction assume agency over her own life and provide a break from the female-is-victim, male-is-aggressor dichotomy. The protagonist, Amy, is complex, she lacks empathy, she is intelligent, strategic, and displays sociopathic and misogynistic traits, just the way anyone could, regardless of gender. Commonly in film, where female characters are strong they are also moral, ethical, empathetic, and their strength has been borne out of necessity – a violent partner, historical abuse, being forced by a totalitarian higher power to fight fellow teenagers to the death, that sort of thing. Amy’s agency is more self-assumed, her calculated motives come from within, she is not a reluctant heroine nor are her unethical actions necessary for her survival; she is a complex human being, she is really quite frightening, and she is definitely not sugar and spice. Of course, those of who you who have come out of seeing Gone Girl and feel it validates doubts around the honesty of rape victims, do feel free to check up on the statistics. I imagine you could do that while staying up all night waiting to see your toys come alive or preparing for intergalactic warfare.

GG2

I hope it is clear that I am not advocating female physical aggression in place of empathy or compassion, I believe many of the qualities society commonly bestows upon women to be wonderful things that everyone should possess. Nor am I suggesting that wronged women devise a cunning plan to have cheating husbands sentenced to death row, as tempting as that might be in the heat of the moment, and possibly for several moments thereafter. Only that we accept that both men and women are capable of extraordinarily complex behaviours, some of which should be taken very seriously. I certainly am aware that there are fundamental differences between men and women in biological and social terms. I am aware our evolution has shaped us differently, for very necessary reasons, and I am often fascinated by the different ways in which males and females in various species, including our own, adapt and survive in diverse ways. I just wonder how much the normalisation of gender stereotypes has shaped our stories for us, leading many women to feel it is natural to have a submissive role in an unhealthy relationship, or that violent abuse was warranted because male aggression is natural, or men who feel they can’t report a violent partner because no one will take them seriously. I feel that much of society now takes male partner abuse very seriously, even if the strategies to protect women from it are somewhat flawed, but how seriously could we really be taking women in general if clear examples of their own physical aggression are largely ignored, laughed off, or patronisingly applauded?

Maybe even just by looking at the fictional example of “Amazing Amy”, and for the sake of both men and women, it is time to find a more realistic answer to the question of what little girls are made of.


How Rape is Different from having your House Burgled

If you’ve come across some of the nifty ideas out there to help prevent rape, you’ll notice that the majority focus on what women can do to protect themselves against this almost inevitable fate if they are to insist on leaving the house. Before I go any further, it is important to note that there are some useful pieces of common sense out there that do apply to anyone wanting to stay safe. For example, keep an eye on your drink when you’re out in a bar or nightclub, or try to avoid walking home alone late at night, or keep your bag on you, and don’t lend money to friends you met five minutes ago at the bar, etc. Sound pieces of advice that can be adopted by men and women alike to prevent a multitude of criminal activity aimed at them. However, when it comes to women and sexual assault, the advice all gets a bit muddled. And by muddled, I mean of course, excruciatingly wrong.

  drunkdrink1

While working in a nightclub during my undergraduate degree, I was privvy to a good few drunken conversations and acted as a sounding board for many a customer’s wise opinions and ideas of life. The sort of amazing ideas you often hear at 1.30am in a nightclub when you’ve lost your friends and you’re trying to squeeze in another drink before getting escorted out of the premises. One night, while I was standing at my little station to break up my laps around the club collecting  glasses and trying not to notice any vomit I would have to clean up, a woman came to chat and bestowed some of her own nuggets of wisdom. These gems focused largely around her thoughts on all of the outfits that the female customers were wearing and finally ended with the statement; “like seriously, you’re really just asking to be raped in an outfit like that, the little slags”. Delightful. As grateful as I am to listen to the thought processes of inebriated strangers, I edged slowly away to walk into the staff area when I noticed one of the managers of the nightclub was standing behind us. He had heard the women (who had now shuffled off to further spread the joy) and upon noticing my exasperated eye-roll he commented bluntly “she is right you know, most of these girls are just asking for it”. Having not equipped myself with how to engage in conversation with complete morons yet (a skill I am still mastering), I did the tutt-loudly-shake-head thing and went about my business. My business at that moment in time being that I had to go and fix my uniform – the extremely tight, short, plunge-necked dress that the management made me wear as part of my job as a waitress.

Of course, your wardrobe is only one thing you can change to avoid sexual assault as a woman. There is so much more – your make-up, your personality, the tone and volume of your voice, your alcohol intake, the number of people you sleep with because you actually want to, your general existence, and of course, the number of locks you have on your underwear. That one has to be the shining example in human voluntary blindness to facts. For those who have never heard of this new endeavor to save women from themselves, there is actually someone out there who has had the idea of developing and marketing “Anti-Rape” underwear for women which has secure front panels and a combination style lock. Otherwise known as a chastity belt. Firstly, I hope I don’t even need to tell you how inconvenient this would be to the average woman who goes out socialising in establishments were there are frequent queues for the toilets. Should we be dialing in the combination while we stand in the queue? I mean, is it safe to actually take them off to relieve ourselves in a public loo or will the toilet attendant hear the click of the lock opening and alert the rapid sexual predators in the area that now is the time to strike? When I do finally get home, covered in my own urine from not getting the combination right in time after a few beverages, am I safe to take them off then? Should I get a male relative to clear the area first? Or what if I’m with someone I actually do want to sleep with? Will the old combo click of the underwear now be taken as proof of my consent? Or what if it’s wash day for the chastity belt, and my friends have asked me to join them for a night out. Will I be blamed if I get sexually assaulted because my underwear with the locks was in the wash? What about when I’m going to work, or when I’m relaxing at home? Seeing as the vast majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim already knows, surely I should wear my chastity belt all the time. Do I seriously need to go on any more about how this is a terrible idea?

AR

Unfortunately it seems that I do. It would appear that there are a lot of people out there who think that preventative measures for rape include things only women can do. Inevitably, in these debates, someone always throws in the old “well if I left my front door open it would be my fault if I got burgled” or “if you don’t want men to act that way, you shouldn’t let it all hang out”. I don’t know what the exact metaphor for the front door thing is supposed to be. Is my visible skin the open front door? My outfit? My being out unchaperoned? It’s a pickle. I think we’ve realised by now that people who say things like this are also doing a real disservice to men. Many men manage to get through their whole lives without sexually assaulting anyone. People who use the “boys will be boys” argument are reducing men to no more than a bunch of unevolved, sex-crazed creatures who are slaves to their testosterone-driven urges. It implies that it is everyone else’s job to keep men from causing damage, because left out there in the wild, who knows what havoc they will cause. It’s like saying women are responsible for three billion dogs who keep humping everyone’s legs. This has to stop, men are so much better than people who excuse rapists give them credit for. In this one example of rape prevention which actually is aimed at men, the poster suggests that too much alcohol will lower your inhibitions so much that you will turn into the natural rapist that all men are inside. Alcohol does lower inhibitions, I’m more likely to force friends and family to listen to me singing show tunes for example. But that’s because I like show tunes anyway. Consuming alcohol can’t turn someone into a rapist who didn’t already have seriously wrong notions of sexual entitlement regardless of consent beforehand. 

men

We know that rape transcends culture, space, and time. It can happen anywhere where there are human beings present. Locking your front door to prevent burglary is a terrible metaphor for rape prevention. Using this logic, the list of things women can do to prevent rape is just a list of things that any woman has ever done or will ever do, ever. Rape can happen whether women are wearing a bikini or a niqab, whether they get pissed as a fart every Friday night or have never touched a drop, whether they have had many sexual partners or none at all, whether they are married or single, flirtatious or shy, and undoubtedly, whether they wear underwear with a lock on it or they don’t. 

Yet we still live in a society which places the responsibility for rape at the doorstep of victims. From high courts to student awareness posters, women who drink are still being blamed for sexual attacks. While rapists who drink use it as a defence. It seems that people are still looking for the magic common denominator of rape, is it alcohol? Clothing? Accessible underwear? No, it isn’t. The the common denominator is a rapist. If we put all of this energy into educating young people about sex, relationships, consent, and gender equality, and if we invested in trying to understand the underlying thought processes and motivations behind perpetrators of sexual violence, maybe we could actually save more people from it. Urging women to change themselves to avoid rape doesn’t work, and even if it did, it would do nothing about the number of people out there who consider rape as an option. This is what rape prevention strategy needs to focus on.

Looking at a rape victim and trying to figure out why he or she was raped by scrutinizing their own behaviour and lifestyle without looking at the wider context of why someone would do this to another person, is like walking into your house after it’s been burgled and blaming yourself for owning the house in the first place, rather than attempting to catch a thief.