My bodily integrity? It was never yours to grant

Today’s Guardian features a piece by Jonathan Freedland advising male politicians on what’s required to appeal to the laydeez. I’ve had a good read and as a full-on, humourless feminist, I’d say it passes the test. The basic rules are:

  1. don’t be a rape-excusing, anti-choice dickhead
  2. when considering new policies, don’t forget that thing about “women being people, too”

And who can argue with that? Not me, and I tend to be someone who could get embroiled in a heated exchange with a corpse. So why is it that the piece still makes me feel so uneasy?

Freedland has set out to define “what trouble beckons for men when they talk to women”:

Not all men, of course. But for a certain breed of male politician, it seems the territory marked “women’s issues” is a minefield.

And already I’m starting to cringe. By “not all men” Freedland immediately excludes himself from the sorry breed of males he’s decided to advise. Even so, given that he groups together basic concerns regarding healthcare, discrimination and interpretations of the law into one handy “women’s issues” bundle, you do wonder just how different he really is. I’m not suggesting he’s as toxic as Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, George “bad sexual etiquette” Galloway and Craig “[insert alleged rape victim’s name]” Murray. Nevertheless, I’m not so sure he should be giving himself that pat on the back just yet.

Obviously men will have their own opinions regarding abortion and rape (both as linked and separate issues). I wouldn’t expect them not to, nor would I expect them not to express them. Freedland can write what he likes – and I’m relieved that, given the competition, he’s not going for gold in the “shit things to write about rape” relay. What concerns me is that there seems to be a distinct pattern in how responses to rape apologism or anti-abortion extremism are managed in public discourse. As far as I can see, what usually happens is this:

  1. woman-hating man of influence lets slip something that exposes his prejudices
  2. many people are outraged, women in particular
  3. women write/present cogent responses to the occurrence, based not least on their experiences as real, live women
  4. liberal media men kindly step in to translate female responses into more legitimate ones, and to benevolently grant women autonomy over their own bodies all over again
  5. women say “thanks … I think?”

Does this look familiar? It seems to me that so many of the “authoritative” voices who end up pontificating over the rights and wrongs of these things are male. Women contribute to the debate, but it’s fed back into a media which is still dominated by male opinion-makers and into a political sphere weighed down with men who see women, if not as walking wombs, then at least as walking votes. Does this matter if such men are saying the right things, and even proposing the right policies? I think it does. Because it’s not real autonomy if it remains dependent on the approval of those who don’t share these bodies and experiences. It’s still not “my body, my choice” if it also needs to be their choice, too.

In his piece Freedland mentions the views of “one ardently feminist colleague”. I don’t know who this is, but I get the impression that Freedland would not describe himself as “ardently feminist”. For “ardently feminist” I can’t help reading “biased (unlike me)”. And lo and behold, Freedland does indeed go on to qualify his feminist colleague’s views (“but it might be simpler than that”). It’s as though there are two levels of discourse: the women’s views (primary source material), and the men’s interpretations (bringing the babble together into something academically sound and coherent). You witness this presumption of superiority all the time on Newsnight and Question Time (or at least you used to; these days I only half-watch these shows as I’m busy hiding behind the couch).

I accept that women are still getting to present their opinions – the Guardian also features a debate between Bonnie Greer and Lisa Longstaff on the extradition of Julian Assange (although the debate is still chaired by a man – phew!). I nevertheless find it hard to think of a female equivalent for the entitled tone certain men adopt in relation to this supposed “argument”. I am, sort of, grateful for pieces such as this, yet what it boils down to is one man telling some other men that they’re not fit to talk about rape (whereas the author clearly presumes himself to be). It’s not just a dead-end , but it also undermines the very claims to female independence being made. What’s more, you start to hear alarm bells warning of the drift towards a compromise definition of rape, abortion and what women’s bodies and selves fundamentally are. It’s not the view of a rapist, but neither will it be the view of one of those worryingly “ardent” feminists. It will be the voice of so-called reason, a male voice, and it will grant us a freedom that is worthless because it was never a man’s to grant.

10 thoughts on “My bodily integrity? It was never yours to grant

  1. Powerful stuff. I admit I’m at a loss when it comes to the subtleties of political stances, and though I try not to judge anyone on labels alone, the concept of a government that treats not just women but the entire country as walking voters does ring somewhat true. Empty promises and undesireable policies only seem to relent when election time draws around again, and even then it feels somewhat mocking, as if we’re just cattle, so easily taken in by those pretty words the candidates say that we’re expected to “forget” the hospitals closed and the taxes raised and the benefits cut. We’re not nearly that naive.

    And the last sentiment realy does poke an uncomfortable hole. If our freedom is a man’s to grant then it’s not freedom. I’m not going to forget that comment in a hurry.

    1. Great piece, I wasn’t sure why the Freedland piece felt a bit off despite me agreeing with it but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here! sadly I think even my ever feminist self gets used to it, not accepting of but it’s the ever present shitty background hum you tune out sometimes , it being the male dominance in debate/anything ever apart from yogurt adverts .

  2. Great response to Freedland. I subbed that piece at the Guardian and it felt rather off to me, too. You should pitch this post to Comment is Free as a response to Freedland; I bet they’d take it.

  3. Ah, me-oh-my! what’s a man to do if he wants to support a feminist cause or position? Keep silent? Of course not. Say something (even if it’s flawed, which JF’s piece may well have been)? Apparently not that either as it will take over what should be women’s right to talk about. Please advise.
    Maybe I could use a female pseudonym ….

    1. If “it’s flawed”, wouldn’t there be a way of making it not flawed? A less entitled tone? More exploration of male responses and attitudes rather than crass positioning as “not one of those men” followed by advice along the lines of “here’s what the ladies like”?
      Overall it’s not so much an individual issue, though, is it? It’s more that there just aren’t enough female voices that are viewed as sufficiently authoritative. A man (or woman) isn’t going to change this simply by saying the “right” thing. We need to question the terms of the whole debate.

      1. Play fair – no-one so far in this exchange has been talking anything like ‘here’s what the ladies like’!
        I agree that it’s not only about the individual. But we are all individuals and I really do want to know what the advice would be for a man who wants to contribute positively to an issue like this at a time when it’s being very publicly debated. I’ve always thought that it was important for men who are trying to be non-stereotypical to stand up and be visibly so, set examples, model better attitudes, etc. That’s what I’ve seen as the possible angle on the generic (ie non-individual) issue.
        We cannot guarantee that any of us – you included – will ever make an unflawed contribution (and I suspect that my own tongue-in-cheek final phrase about the female pseudonym hit the wrong note; sorry). But mostly why can’t the response to a man who is apparently trying to be supportive and dis other men whose position is unacceptable, why can’t that response be ‘good on you, but …’ rather than ‘sod off for being flawed and a man to boot’. Surely it can be that as well as the ‘terms of the whole debate’.

        1. That is a fair comment – thank you (I don’t always use a sufficiently measured tone).
          What I would still say is I think there is discomfort with these articles because it would be like a female journalist writing a piece telling a female politician who hated men where she’s going wrong in winning the male vote. It would be patronising to men because it would be treating them as a homogenous group whose demands could be easily summarised by women and for women to exploit.
          But yes, Freedland is not the “enemy” in terms of what he suggests women should actually be able to have and do. Nevertheless, his approach is paternalistic and this paternalism is surely part of the problem.

  4. I’m on my union’s grievance committee. If we grieved a case of overwork, we would not be grieving a sex-based issue — the contract is being broken, just for starters. Imagine that the person with whom we met agreed with us that the overwork situation was bad — but then said, assuming our grievant was female, that no little lady should be forced to work too many hours. We’d be getting the right resolution to our original grievance — overtime pay and reduction of hours — but oh it would be the wrong reason. I guess that’s how I feel when I read articles like Freedland’s — it’s the right stuff, mostly, but it’s said SO wrong.

    That ardent feminist should have a voice beyond what is assigned to her/him in articles, by others. And, just to throw a wrench in the whole thing, there’s no reason why Ardent Feminist is necessarily female — my brothers are ardent feminists. The guys I hang out with are as well.

    1. The ardent feminist is a woman in this case (Freedland uses “she” in the next sentence – I should have made that clearer). Good to see some reclaiming of the term – can’t help feeling it’s rather patronising and derogatory in the original piece.

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