December 2013


Everybody loves babies, at least in abstract terms. They’re super cute, aren’t they? All babbly and cuddly, with their plump little arms and downy heads. They never start wars or fuck up the economy or make George Osborne Briton of the Year. They just flop around being babies. Bless them. I bloody love babies, I do.

I’ve had two babies myself. They’ve not been cute all the time, what with the incontinence and crying and being totally useless at witty repartee, but it’s pretty hard not to fall for your own. Mine are particularly brilliant now and were perfectly lovely when they were tiny. I was even fond of them when they were foetuses, loving every kick, wriggle and hiccough.

Like most people who pay attention in biology classes, I’ve a good understanding of what pregnancy means. I’ve seen that little heartbeat fluttering on the scan and been filled with complete and utter joy. It’s not just a clump of cells, it’s a human life – a bloody miracle! And how fragile, innocent and precious that tiny life must be. The trouble is, though, I’m also a pro-choicer. What this means is that whenever anyone mentions the word “abortion” I forget all of the above. I just think, “sod it. Baby, schmaby. Isn’t it just some random blob?”

This, at least, is how a number of male columnists seem to think pro-choice women operate. Silly little creatures who come to the debating table having completely forgotten the magnitude of having a life grow inside them. Good job there’s always a bloke on hand to explain it to them.

Take Mehdi Hasan, for instance. Last year he took it upon himself to patiently explain to the pro-choice lobby that “Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty”. His piece included the following anecdote, which I’m sure will delight us all:

I sat and watched in quiet awe as my two daughters stretched and slept in their mother’s womb during the 20-week ultrasound scans. I don’t need God or a holy book to tell me what is or isn’t a “person”.

Obviously I’m grateful for that insight. Me, I look back on having 20-week scans and think “bloody hell, what kind of alien parasite was that?” The very idea that one could invest personhood in one’s own offspring and still have a clear-eyed view of the human cost of pregnancy; well, that’s just impossible, isn’t it?

Then we have Marko Attilla Hoare getting out the tissues at Left Foot Forward and telling us that “abortion is a tragic choice no woman should have to make”:

Women who seek abortions are victims of a society that does not respect them or their babies; they should not be stigmatised or treated as criminals. But let us stop pretending that this ongoing bloody tragedy is a manifestation of their emancipation.

I’ve responded to this more fully here. Suffice it to say, I am surprised at Hoare’s pitching of abortion as the choice of the woman who lacks privilege, since without easy access to safe, free abortion, it tends to be only the very wealthy who can avail themselves of what should be universal right. But never mind. Clearly the 68,000 women who die every year due to limitations on legal abortion are emancipated in ways I could never understand.

Now we have Tim Montgomerie of The Times (and supporter of SPUC), telling us that “the ground is shifting in the abortion debate”. Montgomerie writes approvingly of the recent approval for new restrictions on abortion in Spain, and of Michigan’s decision to force women requesting abortion see pictures of foetal development to help them “fully understand what they’re choosing” (because clearly they have no sodding idea). He’s utterly incensed about UK abortions being permitted at later dates on the grounds of foetal abnormality:

Many people are simply too frightened of having to raise a disabled child. Although the UK currently recognises that a 24-week-old foetus deserves the full protection of the law, this protection is not afforded to babies that might be disabled in some inadequately defined way.

Brave, brave Tim, making a stand against all those women who carry a foetus inside them for 24 weeks then think “disability? Yuck! Can’t be arsed!”. If only there were more Tims like him. But wait, there are! Here’s Tim Stanley of The Telegraph ready to back Montgomerie up:

Yeah. Who’d be pro-choice at Christmas? Imagine. Makes you think etc. etc.

The thing is, I’d rather not be pro-choice at Christmas. Who would? It makes you sound like a right Scrooge. “Right to life? Nah, not for them there embryos, Tiny Tim.” If it was all about protecting unborn babies, I’d be waving the anti-choice flag as much as the next person. The trouble is, that’s not what abortion is about. Human beings not yet born are not merely sitting in some waiting room, hoping that the evil pro-choicers won’t come and nab them before their time has come. They’re inside other human beings. These other human beings need ownership of their own flesh and blood. Clearly that’s a right pain in the arse, but there it is.

Being pro-choice is hard because it involves empathising not just with abstract innocents, but with women who are faceless, ordinary and no more perfect than you or I. There’s evidence to suggest that, at least when it comes to their own lives and those of their nearest and dearest, anti-choicers can be somewhat flexible in their understanding of pro-life politics. Being pro-choice involves taking the empathy you have for those closest to you and extending it to all women, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done. In a patriarchal society that isn’t easy but we owe it to womankind to do so. Fussing over the blameless foetus is easy; defending the rights of normal, everyday human beings is far more difficult (but, if we’re going to get religious about it, I’d bet it’s what Jesus would do).

In Backlash Susan Faludi refers to US legal cases in which it was established that parents are not obliged to sacrifice their bodily autonomy for their live, born children. In one such ruling the judge stated that “to compel the defendant to submit to an intrusion of his body would change every concept and principle on which our society is founded. To do so would defeat the sanctity of the individual.” And yet this is precisely what anti-choicers expect pregnant women to do for those not yet born. In England, where consent to organ donation after death is not even assumed by default, we still expect living pregnant women to give and give, regardless of their physical health, social environment and personal needs. This is not right. If we’re prepared to let people die because we won’t automatically harvest the dead, we should not expect the living to serve as hosts for those not yet born regardless of the effect this will have on their lives.

When it comes to foetal abnormality, I’ve made my personal position clear before. And I feel bad, if not ashamed, about it. I don’t want to care for a severely disabled child because I’m already in a position of having to care for a disabled adult in later years and I know what it involves. And having grown up with this adult, I know what it’s like to have this pressure around you when you’re young and I don’t want that for my children, too. It’s not easy. It’s miserable. The thing that Montgomerie et al miss is that we are not simply talking about babies (who are in any case dependant). We can be talking about whole human lifespans, and witnessing slow, agonising declines. One thing I know for sure is that not wishing the pressure I face to be upon my children is in no way similar to wishing the person I have to care for out of existence. I love him, but I am realistic about my limits, and those of people around me (and of the society I live in). It’s a horrible thing to admit to but it is, I think, more truthful than glibly stating that people are “too frightened to raise a disabled child”.

And that, perhaps, is the most difficult thing about being pro-choice. You feel it strongly and vehemently because you respect the bodies of other women, but you also know it’s not as neat as you’d like. You know it’s difficult. Some things are morally messy, but it’s no reason to trample over the bodily autonomy of half the human race.

It would be brilliant if pro-choicers were simply deluded. If “look, it’s actually a baby!” was the only answer we needed. That’s not how it is. “Look, we’re all human beings, we all make difficult choices, we all have to own our bodies and lives” is the less satisfactory answer. It is, nonetheless, the most honest and humane one we can give.

Lynx. The perfect Secret Santa gift for the male colleague you don’t know and/or don’t particularly like. The heterosexual male equivalent of one of those Baylis & Harding “looks vaguely like Molton Brown but totally isn’t” bath sets. The year before last, I received the latter, my partner got the former. What this says about us as colleagues is something I’d rather not consider.  

Having had some Lynx in our household within the recent past, I can say at least this with certainty: the Lynx Effect doesn’t work. One whiff of Africa, Cool Metal, Excite or Fever does not provoke unstoppable horniness. It provokes, first, amusement because it smells so fucking awful, second, vague memories of some really creepy lads in Year 10, and, finally, a migraine. Only the first of these is even remotely fun.

Back in the 1980s there was, sort of, a female equivalent to the Lynx Effect, when Impulse used the “men just can’t help acting on it” tagline.

That’s right, ladies, when a man you’ve never met before gives you flowers, you’ll know he’s acting on Impulse (which obviously makes it totally reassuring and not at all stalkerish, or so my 11-year-old self used to think). As ever, the expectations placed on men in response to female body spray were considerably lower than those placed on women in response to Lynx. Women detect a little Lynx Apollo and they’re whipping their bras off to reveal ample, if somewhat artificial looking, tits. Men get a noseful of Impulse Chic and the most they’re expected to do is proffer some limp Gladioli (tip: most women would rather have booze. Or even a book token, to be honest). To make matters worse the ball is then back in the woman’s court (he’s bought you some flowers, you say? Time to whip your bra off to reveal ample …). It’s not great, is it? And all this is before we get into the deeply disturbing overtones of a tagline which suggests men can’t really control themselves anyhow.

It’s bad enough that the ads play on the idea of male pursuer, female pursued (always in a deeply heteronormative context). These days Lynx are taking it one step further. Consider this delightful ad:

Lynx

The Lynx Effect. Encouraging Involuntary Seduction, that is, making someone who doesn’t actively want to have sex with you become more “amenable”. A bit like too much alcohol, or Rohypnol, only cheaper. “Involuntary” because, let’s face it, choice always gets in the way. Clearly Lynx understands what a young man wants: not any form of sexual interaction, but someone, anyone, into whom to stick his cock. Sod giving them flowers (that’s so 1980s). Let’s drug them (or let’s at least kid ourselves that a lungful of Lynx Rise will do anything other than repulse).

Sometimes it’s really difficult to explain the concept of rape culture to the unconvinced. Some people still believe there is rape – which bad people commit – and a surrounding environment which does nothing to condone it. If they do nothing else, Lynx adverts, with their jaunty sexism and teenage bedroom fantasies, make it that little bit easier to show how distorted concepts of seduction feed into a belief that consent doesn’t really matter. The word “involuntary” should never be used in adverts aimed at young men at a stage when they need to learn what enthusiastic consent really means. If sex involves anything that is not voluntary, it needs to stop.

It’s not that Lynx actually works. Of course it doesn’t. Everyone, even those using it, knows it doesn’t. But spreading the notion that it is reasonable to get people to whom you’re attracted to do things they don’t really want to do – that can have an effect. This is not selling seduction; it’s legitimising fantasies of assault.

Yesterday the Spanish government backed a proposal to toughen the country’s abortion laws. The BBC website reports Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon stating that “we can’t allow the life of the unborn baby to depend exclusively on the decision of the mother”. I beg to differ. Since the life of the fetus depends exclusively on the body of the mother, at significant expense to her, I can’t see who else’s decision it should be. Mi bombo es mío, as the twitter hashtag of pro-choice fightback puts it. Wherever a woman lives, whatever the beliefs of those around her, she should retain sovereignty over her own body, and that includes the management of her own reproductive life.

That said, I’m neither Spanish nor Catholic. Perhaps I don’t really understand the issues? Perhaps, like BPAS when they took out an advert in the Irish press stating “we’ll care for your women until your government does,” I could be accused of a form of cultural imperialism? That is, after all, the kind of crap that over-sensitive, cowardly feminists like me are meant to worry about. Sod the women of Ireland and Spain; what if I look like I’m judging their betters? Surely the liberation of women has to come second to whether or not I look bad? (more…)

“I love that moment when you first come downstairs and you can tell the turkey’s already in the oven.” So says the placard outside my local Sainsbury’s, complete with the picture of a traditional Christmas roast. This quotation has started to irritate me every time I leave the house. “That moment”? Is this something with which I’m meant to be familiar? Is it meant to be pleasant? Because to me it sounds frankly disconcerting.

For many of us, wouldn’t our first thought on sniffing the turkey-scented air be “hang on, am I in the right house?” Turkeys don’t just put themselves in the oven, or at least you’d hope not (and if that’s the sort of poultry Sainsbury’s are now selling, I’m steering well clear).

(more…)

Over the past couple of days I have been half-following the #sharedgirlhood hashtag on twitter and the surrounding controversy over cissexism and exclusion. I don’t wish to comment on that directly, not least because it feels like being asked to choose which women have the most authentic lived experience (and all women get quite enough of these arbitrary judgments already).*

One thing that has interested me, however, has been seeing the suggestion that the idea of “shared experience” has no value anyhow. I’ve seen several feminists suggest that because women’s experiences are so disparate and dependent on other inequalities, the idea of a shared experience (whether or not we call it shared girlhood) is at best pointless, at worst a sop for the privileged. I don’t think this has to be true. If women’s oppression is not understood collectively – if sex discrimination is regarded as something that has no internal coherence in and of itself – how can feminism have meaning as a project for women’s liberation?

(more…)

A few days ago I used a neologism which caused a lot of disagreement. I knew exactly what I meant and I was also clear about what I didn’t mean. However, difficulties do arise if for other people, for whatever reason, it comes to mean something else, particularly if that causes hurt. I’m genuinely sorry for that and hence I’m not going to use it here, but I do want to write about what lies behind it. To me it refers to something important (and whatever it ends up being, I still think we need a word to describe it).

Funnily enough, I don’t have a position on whether one should be openly discussing sex or having lots of sexual partners or none at all. I don’t see why I – or, in an ideal world, anyone else – should. I do, on the other hand, have strong opinions about objectification and about how we weigh up the cost of broadcasting particular messages within an unequal, patriarchal society. It’s a cost that isn’t necessarily offset by the free choice of individuals to participate in the creation of these messages, at least if these messages risk having a far broader impact on the freedom  and safety of others. I think this should be fairly obvious (regardless of the final judgment one reaches) and yet when it comes to campaigns such as No More Page Three, Lose The Lad Mags and banning rape porn, somehow it isn’t.

So today I had a bit of a meltdown on twitter. Oops, is all I can say. It’s been brewing for a while. I’ve become increasingly annoyed at some of the behaviour I’ve seen and while it’s possible to ignore it, there comes a point at which it feels irresponsible to do so.

I’m sick of the way in which a minority of largely white, cis feminists and their white, cis male friends have appropriated the concept of intersectionality for self-promotion and bullying. It’s anti-feminist and it’s anti-intersectional. It’s not good enough to pretend you are giving a voice to those who are marginalised when in fact the only voice anyone can hear is you, yelling about Caitlin Moran and Vagenda and why all white feminists should shut the hell up (apart from you, of course).

(more…)

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