Wednesday, 29 April 2015

When do women stop being people?

When do women stop being people? 

Actually, there are lots of times. When we’re treated like objects to be remarked upon on the street. When we’re treated like objects to be assaulted on the streets. When our utterly personal right to bodily autonomy is violated and stolen from us by abusers and rapists. When we’re reminded once again that men are default human, and we’re a vague category of ‘other’.

However, in this one particular post I want to talk about one particular moment when women stop being seen as their own person – pregnancy. 

On Monday night, I chaired a panel debate between the parliamentary candidates standing in a nearby constituency. The penultimate question was about abortion rights – specifically asking the incumbent MP why he had voted in favour of reducing the abortion upper time limit to 22 weeks and whether it was paternalistic for male MPs to decide on women’s bodily autonomy in this way. 

The MP and a couple of the other candidates answered gamely. It’s a question of viability, some explained. It’s a question on whether it is viable for the foetus to survive. It’s a question of whether medical advances have come so far that the foetus is viable. 

He, and others, didn’t mention the woman. 

It is remarkable, really, how quickly she is forgotten in a debate about her own body. 

It didn’t seem to occur to those arguing about foetal viability that a woman is involved in the pregnancy, that it is her body that carries the foetus and that it is her right to bestow personhood on the foetus growing inside her, not theirs. It didn’t seem to occur to them that perhaps she, rather than the state, might have a stake in her own body and its future. 

As I listened to the pro choice and the anti choice candidates express their views on foetus viability, I couldn’t help but feel that what we were actually debating was when women stop being people. We were arguing about the moment when a woman stops being a person and instead becomes a vessel that carries a potentially viable foetus. According to the pro choice MP, it was at 22 weeks of pregnancy. According to the anti-choice candidate, it’s day one of pregnancy. 

According to me, that moment is up to the woman. It is a woman’s choice whether the foetus growing inside her has personhood or not. 

Before I go any further we need to get some stats straight. Firstly, 90% of abortions are carried out before a pregnancy reaches 13 weeks. Secondly, 98% of abortions are performed before 20 weeks. Most late abortions are carried out because of a medical emergency. 

Of course, chances are if our laws included abortion on demand and women were not required to gain permission from two doctors before they’re allowed the operation, then even more abortions would happen even earlier. 

I wanted to turn to those men debating my humanity on the panel and ask them why they hadn’t considered the woman in their arguments on foetal viability. I wanted to ask them why they had taken the woman out of the equation. I wanted to ask them if they could imagine for a moment how it would feel to be forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy against their will, or a pregnancy that could lead to desperate health complications or death. I wanted to ask them why they don’t believe it is up to the individual women to decide if the foetus inside her has a humanity that is equal to her own. I wanted to ask them why they believed its potential trumps a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. 

Abortion has been legal – with caveats – in England, Scotland and Wales since 1967. It remains illegal in Northern Ireland. Every year, thousands of women travel across the Irish Sea in search of an abortion. Why is their humanity not respected? Why is their right to bodily autonomy – a right that men here and in Northern Ireland take for granted every day – not enshrined in law? 

On the same day I chaired the debate, the Mirror ran a poll on whether it should be illegal for women to drink during pregnancy. 71% of poll respondents voted yes. 

Once again, we have to ask the question about whether we see women as people. I personally don’t think it’s a great idea for women to drink to excess during pregnancy – no one does. Of course that can lead to health complications in the child. 

But making it illegal? What does that solve? How does criminalising women support expectant mothers who may, for example have addiction issues? How can they access help if they are afraid that to do so would mean they risk arrest? What impact would criminalising women’s drinking have on an expectant mother’s confidence about going to see her doctor or midwife? What does it say about our view of women as people? 

And where do these kinds of conversations lead? These conversations about whether women are people or vessels? These conversations about whether women have a right to bodily autonomy at every moment of their life, or whether they should give up that right during pregnancy (and, as mentioned at the start, on other occasions too)? 

In the USA, these conversations have led to the arrests and convictions of women for foeticide. 

Last month, Indiana sentenced Purvi Patel to 20 years in jail for foeticide. Patel had had a miscarriage at around 23 weeks of pregnancy and – scared that her conservative family would discover she had had sex outside of marriage – threw the stillborn foetus away. It’s a tragic story. But her sentence is, fundamentally, punishment for a miscarriage. 

Patel is the first women to be sentenced under foeticide laws but she is not the first woman to be charged. In 2011 Bei Bei Shuai had a miscarriage after attempting suicide. She was held in prison for a year before charges were dropped as part of a plea deal. 

These are grim, grim cases. And they are part of the slippery slope that we slide down when we stop seeing women as people. With these two cases, the USA appears to be getting closer and closer to criminalising miscarriage. The Handmaid’s Tale was meant to be fiction – a dystopic sci-fi novel. It was not supposed to be America’s view on women’s bodily autonomy in 2015. 

None of these issues are easy. But I believe that when talking about pregnancy and abortion, we have to start from a position of women being people. We have to start from a position of women having a right to bodily autonomy. 

When we don’t do this, we have women dying from illegal abortions all over the world. We have women like Savita Halappanaver dying in hospitals because they’re denied the medical care they desperately need for their own survival. We have women too scared to seek support for addiction. We have women too scared to go to the doctors with a miscarriage. 

And we have a society that continues to refuse to allow that women might be people after all. 

That’s not good enough. 

So please, let’s start talking about women when we talk about abortion. 

Our bodies. Our rights. Our humanity. 

To support women in Northern Ireland seeking abortions, check out the Abortion Supper Network.

Friday, 10 April 2015

RESIST! A response to another victim blaming poster campaign

UPDATE! Sussex Police has announced they will be withdrawing this campaign

Still worth reading the post though, coz, you know, I wrote it! 

Slow handclap to Sussex police whose latest safety campaign falls back on the nice and easy trope of telling women that it’s up to us to prevent sexual assault. 

Yes that’s right ladies! Don’t expect rapists to take responsibility for their actions. Do you notice how perpetrators aren't even mentioned in the campaign? Don’t expect the police to talk to a male audience about why it’s not okay to rape and sexually assault women. That’s a bit complicated. That might be offensive to men, who might call out NOT ALL MEN! Far easier to repeat the decades-old message. Far easier to tell women that they should change their behaviour and curtail their freedoms. After all, what else can women expect? We’re used to hearing it’s up to us to prevent sexual assault. If we just behave differently, these posters tell us. If we just don’t expect the same freedom of movement as men do, these posters tell us. Then you will be safe, they tell us. 

Of course, on a night out, I’m generally not the most vulnerable of my mates. After all, I’m a woman. I’m relatively safe walking on the streets. My male friends – they’re statistically more likely to get assaulted by other men when they’re out and about. I’m statistically unsafe at home or at work or at college. 

I’m sick of it. I am so sick of these campaigns that treat rape and sexual assault as some kind of natural hazard that women need to take steps to avoid. I’m sick of the campaigns that blame mums for ‘buying the cider’ for their daughters. I’m sick of campaigns that tell women that being raped is something they might “regret”. I’m sick of campaigns that blame women for getting in the wrong kind of cab, and police forces that refuse to believe women who are raped in the ‘right’ kind of cab. I’m sick of campaigns warning women to let their hair down but not their guard, campaigns that warn women not to be a victim. I’m sick of being compared to a wallet and a laptop and an open window – as though when I leave the house I’m leaving my vagina unlocked. I’m sick of it. 

The campaign cheerfully informs us that ‘many sexual assaults can be prevented”. 

Presumably if we women just follow the advice. Presumably if we never walk home alone, never leave anyone behind – plus all the other safety advice we have stowed in our mind, the advice about not getting drunk; about not wearing a short skirt; about not talking to men (but don’t be unfriendly! Don’t be rude! Be nice and accommodating always but if anything happens to you we’ll still say you led him on, you bitch!); about carrying keys between our fingers; about taking massive detours to avoid poorly lit areas; about pretending to talk on our phone…You know. All the things that every woman does and has done since she was old enough to realise that public space doesn’t belong to her, and that she needs to change her behaviour to keep herself safe. 

No. I don’t accept this. I don’t accept this unambitious “many”

All sexual assaults can be prevented. But not when we tell women to change their behaviour. They can be prevented when we tell rapists not to rape. 

Campaigns like this one do three very simple things. 

Firstly, they prop up victim blaming attitudes. 

Secondly, they give a false impression of the “causes” of sexual violence. 

Thirdly, they reassure rapists. 

Let’s take that first point. By insistently telling women that if they just follow steps to “avoid” being raped, we are telling women who are raped under those circumstances that they are somehow to blame. “We warned you,” the posters say, “and you didn’t listen. You have to take responsibility for that.”

We are in a crisis of sexual violence in the UK. Every year there are close to half a million sexual assaults, of which around 95,000 are rapes. And yet, we have a 15% reporting rate and, of that 15%, a conviction rate of 6.5%. Victim blaming attitudes, and disbelief of victims, is one of the things keeping reporting rates and conviction rates low. 

Posters like this have an impact on women seeking and winning justice. That matters. Today, most rapists walk away. They get away with it. And many get away with it safe in the knowledge that people will blame their victim. That’s the reality today. And it’s not okay.  

On to the second point. We know that most rape and sexual violence happens to women and girls in the home. As I mentioned above, men are more likely to be attacked by men on the street. Campaigns like this don’t help bust the myths that surround rape and rape victims. 

But more than that, these campaigns lead women on. They tell women that if we just follow the warnings, if we just stick to the rules, then we’ll be safe. If we don’t walk home alone, if we restrict our freedom, if we don’t wear what we want and be who we want, then we’ll be ok. 

It’s not true. Why? Because being out on the street, drinking, short skirts, flirting, skinny jeans, having a boyfriend, talking to a man, getting in a minicab, walking home alone – none of these things cause rape. The ONLY THING THAT CAUSES RAPE IS A MAN CHOOSING TO RAPE. 

That’s the truth of it. 

Which brings me to the third point. Campaigns like this reassure rapists. It tells them that this is how rape happens. It tells them that if women do x,y and z, then the woman is to blame for the violence committed against them. 

Research, quoted in Glosswitch’s article in the New Statesman, states: 

cultural opposition to rape myths makes men less likely to commit assault, and acceptance of those myths makes sexual assault more likely

Glosswitch goes on to say that:

A woman can only make herself vulnerable if others have already learned to see her as potential prey.”

That’s the message these campaigns send out. These campaigns prop up the rape myths that prevent women getting justice, and reassure rapists that they are not to blame for the violence they commit. 

So, once again, here’s a slow handclap to Sussex police. Thanks for once again telling women to adapt to fit around the behaviour of the men who choose to be violent. Thanks for once again telling us that freedom isn’t for us. 

Actually, fuck that. Back to Glosswitch:

We must resist and claim the space that is ours.”

So here’s my call to arms. Let’s reclaim the space that is ours. We will not be chased from public space. We will not be denied our freedom because of the actions of some men. We will resist! 

Sign June’s petition and RESIST! 

What do women want in May: for Bristol 24/7

I wrote about what I want to see from the next government for Bristol 24/7.

What do women want in May?