Transphobia.

How is it, that someone could even be paid to publish a vitriolic transphobic article, so personally directed at an individual?

Richard Littlejohn, a Daily Mail columnist, wrote an article, no, a diatribe, against Lucy Meadows, a trans woman who worked as a teacher before she died this year. The Daily Mail have now removed all trace of the article. This can’t be the only way to stop transphobia. Transphobia isn’t even a phobia, it’s just shameless bullying.

Zinnia Jones sums it up much more articulately than I can right at this point in time:

http://freethoughtblogs.com/zinniajones/2013/03/trans-woman-commits-suicide-after-being-bullied-by-the-daily-mail/

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Sex Education

If there’s one thing that Steubenville has shown us, it’s that a lot of people in the USA simply just don’t understand the difference between sex and rape.

I can’t speak for the USA, but the UK’s sexual education (at least when I was at school), was pretty shoddy. Any chance of the government putting sex education and healthy relationships, maybe even just a little class about the definition of consent, into kids’ brains?

Investing in kids might make better adults after all.

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2013/03/steubenville-rape-twitter-cnn/63349/

The Secret Abortion Trail

In the light of St Patrick’s Day (drunken, unprotected sex anyone?), and of this piece being shortlisted at the UK Sexual Health Awards 2013 last week (I didn’t win), I thought I’d re-post this article I wrote on Irish/ Northern Irish women who travel to the UK to seek abortions. Reportedly, 15 women make this journey per day.

I wrote this article just over a year ago. Despite all the news surrounding Savita Halappanavar and the Belfast clinic opening, zero progression in Irish abortion law has been made. Women’s reproductive rights still don’t exist there. Through the kindness of strangers, women who can’t afford an abortion (and definitely not a child) are able to travel to the UK for this basic medical procedure.

Here goes:

The Secret Abortion Trail

There will always be pro-lifers. There will always be pro-choicers. There will also always be women seeking abortion.

According to new research from the Guttmacher Institute and World Health Organisation, ‘restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower rates of abortion’. Instead, they make safe abortions more difficult to obtain. As the Irish abortion debate rages on, Abortion Support Network (ASN) helps hundreds of Irish women making the journey to England to terminate their unwanted pregnancies – but can’t afford to.

Every year, nearly 7,000 women from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland cross the Irish Sea to have an abortion in a British clinic. Mara Clarke, the founder and Director of ASN, asks, “Why in 2012, in the western world, does ASN need to exist? Why are women still forced into this circumstance where they have to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers to access a medical procedure?”

Under the 1861 ‘Offences Against The Person Act’, abortion is illegal in Ireland and Northern Ireland. This includes cases of rape and foetal abnormality. The unborn has an explicit right to life from conception. Women who want to terminate their unplanned or unwanted pregnancies must make a silent journey to England, often alone.

Mara is matter-of-fact about the situation: “It is absolutely a class-based decision. Women with money have options, women without money don’t”. An Irish or Northern Irish woman is a private patient in the UK, where abortion is legal until 24 weeks, 5 days. Prices start at around £330, rise exponentially after 14 weeks, and past 19 weeks rise to £1595. However, this only covers the procedure, not travel (which is often last-minute air fare), accommodation, childcare costs or a passport.

ASN was founded in 2009 to provide accommodation, financial assistance and confidential, non-judgmental information to the women forced to travel to England to access a safe, legal abortion. The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) describe a ‘culture of silence and confusion’ in Ireland; accessing basic services for any counselling or medical advice can be an isolating, daunting prospect.

Often, the women ASN hear from will not have been able to tell anyone. The stigma attached to abortion in Ireland and Northern Ireland is strong; screaming pro-life campaigners picket family planning clinics and rogue crisis pregnancy agencies misinform and bully pregnant women. In 1992, The ‘Offences Against the Person Act’ gained amendments to provide a ‘right to travel’ and ‘right to information’. However, twenty years on women are still unsure of how to exercise these.

“It is absolutely a class-based decision. Women with money have options, women without money don’t.”

“We have women call us because they just don’t know the law, they don’t know their options” explains Katie, one of ASN’s phone volunteers. ASN are contactable by phone, e-mail or text. However they clarify that they are ‘not doctors or counsellors’. The majority of cases they deal with are concerning women who have made their decision, saved up what money they can but are racing against time and struggling. Inevitably, the recession has been a further blow. “I’ve heard the word ‘redundant’ a thousand times over the last six months”, Katie continues, “everybody is saying “I was laid off”; “my husband was laid off”; “we don’t have any money coming into the family”; “I don’t have any savings”, “I can’t afford my mortgage any more.””

Mara describes women ‘in desperate situations’, explaining “when you make abortion against the law, all you do is make it even harder for poor women, or more often women with children, or disenfranchised women, or very young girls”. She adds: “We don’t feel like we always have to talk about the raped 15 year old, although we’ve had several”.

ASN carefully consider every case on an individual basis, but Mara highlights a commonality: “They [the women] are more or less frantic 92% per cent of the time, because they don’t have the money. I can’t tell you the amount of families who say ‘if we don’t pay our rent this month, we can pay for the flights, can you help with the procedure? We once heard from this girl who was £20 short. Can you imagine £20 making the difference between you and the rest of your life?”

First, by law, women must receive a consultation to have an abortion. These can be accessed for free in Ireland, Northern Ireland or for a small fee in England. However, Susie, one of the trustees, notes that clinics can be ‘very compassionate’ for Irish women. After this, women must consider which clinic to go to. Then, they must start to plan a complicated journey and, foremost, how to explain their disappearance to people. Katie is keen to point out that, for many women, it is an unfathomable ordeal.

“Because we’re dealing with women below the poverty line or who are seriously struggling financially, some of them have never left Ireland.” Obtaining a passport in time is a frequent problem. Furthermore, there are different clinics in different cities for different stages of gestation on different days. ASN advises women organising their travel and has 21 volunteer hosts in the UK who provide accommodation for women who need to stay overnight, necessary for post-19 weeks procedures. However, it is not uncommon for women to want to complete everything in a single day.

Mara recalls a case which she promises is not atypical: “we just heard from a girl who flew from Ireland to Liverpool and took a train to Birmingham, then the next morning took a 5am train to go to Manchester so she could fly out. We hear women who are five hours from the airport but want to come in and out in a day. They have to take the first flight in and the last flight out. So they sleep in the airport the night before.’

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service warns: ‘It is best not to travel within 24 hours of treatment’. The side effects of abortion can include sickness, heavy bleeding and abdominal cramps. Nevertheless, the psychological distress of telling other people, compounded with the financial impossibility of missing a day of work, or inability to cover childcare, leaves women with restricted options.

“Amongst women from Northern Ireland, a higher percentage are less likely to have been able to tell anybody about their decision to terminate, with the possible exception of their partners, if they have partners”, details Mara. Another issue of disclosure comes from victims of domestic violence, who often fear that they would be physically prevented from leaving the country and forced to keep the pregnancy.

Psychologically, Mara believes the inability to talk about it, sometimes lying to friends, families and work, leaves women ‘so alone, with a level of shame’. Sometimes, ASN are the first people the women will talk to. Katie describes ‘women who may have kept it bottled up and immediately start crying’ on the phone.

However, not all the women come to ASN alone. Not all the pregnancies are unwanted. Mara recounts how some of the most harrowing cases they help are with couples who are planning a family: “Some of the most heart-breaking people we hear from are couples with wanted pregnancies, who don’t find out until after week 20 that there are catastrophic anomalies: babies with no brains, babies with no internal organs.”

This presents an impossible situation: “Imagine you find out that your wanted pregnancy is going to result in a baby that is going to die within days of being born. You have a matter of weeks, first to decide whether you want to continue with the pregnancy or not, and secondly to come up with about £3000.” These procedures must take place in a hospital setting, and are at top-end prices. And this still leaves last-minute plane tickets and overnight accommodation to pay for.

This is the grim reality of such restrictive legislation. However, the ASN team are relentlessly compassionate. Mara, Katie and Susie all believe in practical welfare. ASN is a support service and facilitator of women’s needs. It is not a campaigning organisation; groups such as Choice Ireland, Alliance For Choice and Abortion Rights are already fighting for more liberal abortion law.

Mara emphasises her belief that ‘this is a decision that should be made by a woman, with unbiased medical information and where appropriate, with her partner and her god.’ When asked how she describes her pro-choice politics to her five-year-old daughter, she merrily replies, “women who are mummies should want to be mummies”. She glows with admiration at the ‘incredible resourcefulness’ of the women ASN hears from, who do everything in their power to gather the necessary money.

ASN is the only charity in the UK to financially support Irish women seeking abortion in England. Last year they heard from 250 women. Consisting of 36 dynamic volunteers, Susie describes the organisation as ‘very grassroots’ and ‘non-bureaucratic’. However, it’s working: the number of calls they receive has already tripled since last year. The phone advisors are given the autonomy to grant women up to £200 without permission and sometimes, women are sorted within 15 minutes of calling. The method is simple, Mara says, “Here’s a woman. She needs our help. We’ll help her”.

“None of us are paid”, affirms Susie, “we can guarantee every penny goes to the women”. ASN is funded by individual donors. Their only expense is their phone bill, which is covered by a donor with an unrestricted standing order. Volunteers fit ASN around other jobs. Despite this, they all claim that their job satisfaction is immense. Mara proudly declares, “ASN is what happens when a group of people decide that they want to make a difference in people’s lives”. Although they run on a ‘hand-to-mouth’ basis and are ‘almost always running out of money’, they have never turned a woman down to date. Their sole aim for the future is to ‘survive and keep helping women’.

In January 2010, The Irish Examiner conducted a survey, concluding that 60% of 18-35 year olds were in favour of legal abortion. The ‘A, B and C v Ireland’ case in 2010, which saw three Irish women who had travelled to England to access abortions challenge the Irish Government’s ban on abortion in the European Court of Human Rights, and Ireland’s recent introduction of the morning-after pill over the counter in February 2011, hints that a change in legislation could be on the horizon. Yet it is not guaranteed. ASN have received criticism that they are a ‘plaster’ for a governmental problem: helping these women so the government doesn’t have to. Katie calmly sweeps this criticism aside: “I challenge anyone to spend five minutes on the phone to these women and not want to help them”.

“I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend”: male guardianship

Britain is keen to point the finger at states, mainly Islamic, that still uphold male guardianship.  Male guardianship is where women must obtain permission from men (generally fathers or husbands) to do anything: work, study, travel. There’s anger for Saudi Arabian women who can’t drive, or Yemeni girls who are married off as children. Yeah, it’s really backwards and totally undermines women’s rights.

Needless to say, guardianship is underlined by the principle that women are men’s property.

Legal male guardianship is virtually extinct in the UK. However, socially, we’re still dipping our toes into the 1800s. From assuming that a woman should always be accompanied by a man when walking in public spaces at night, to not believing she’s uninterested in casual sex unless, oh, of course- she has a boyfriend – the concept of male guardianship is thriving.

From experience, I’ve found that one of the (almost) failsafe ways to deflect a man’s advances is to simply say “I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend”. Sometimes, this comes as the frustrated last resort after a string of “No thanks/ I’m not interested/ I’m not looking for anyone right now/ No.”. Sometimes it’s just thrown out immediately as a relatively painless way of communicating to a man that he can simply get out of my face.

Underneath this is the assumption that a woman is available and potentially interested unless she has a male guardian. There is also the assumption that all women are in want of a man (“What do you mean you don’t want to be in a relationship? You just haven’t met the right man yet” ). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve witnessed lots of respectful young men back away and say “fair enough” after I establish I’m simply not interested. I recognise it’s not all men that take such an irritatingly persistent approach. A few times, these encounters have led to some great conversations and also friendships where we can laugh at it.

However, I’ve known far, far more men to persist until the point where I have to say (be it true or not), “Look, I’m actually with someone”. In the latter, any retreat on their part is prompted not from respect for the woman’s wishes, but respect for another man’s property. For me, be it true or not, it feels horrible to have to resort to that to get rid of unwanted attention.

If a woman says “I’m not interested in men/ I’m a lesbian/ I have a girlfriend”, there is also the chance that the romantic knight in question will disbelieve her. I’ve witnessed blokes saying, sometimes jokily, sometimes defensively: “you’re making that up/ you don’t look like a lesbian”. All of these again, come from the failure to recognise that some women don’t want or need a male guardian. The horror!

My friend Chris says that he is happy to be ‘on call’ for his female friends in the local area if they find themselves unable to escape any male harassers in a bar. He’s been asked to walk women home because they don’t feel safe that a previous accoster won’t follow them. He’s had to explain to strangers that buying a woman a drink does not buy her rights and preferences. Because they wouldn’t listen to a woman when she said that.

I have never been cat-called or harassed in the street whilst accompanied by a man.

I’ve seen it time and time again – unless there is another man somewhere on the scene (even if he’s fabricated), a woman’s rejection is entirely meaningless/ subject to debate. Her voice can be overridden because she simply isn’t accompanied by a man.

I don’t want to be listened to because I am (or pretending to be) a girlfriend, but because I am a human.

Entitlement to oppress

The ‘No-More-Page-3’ campaign faces a vociferous opposition who see a superficial trade-off between ‘freedom of the press’ and freedom of women from sexism, or even sexual assault which is undoubtedly reinforced by cultural representations of women as sex objects.

I always find it interesting how those making sexist comments or laughing off/ denying/ downplaying discriminatory attitudes (usually white males) are the first to protest against potential ‘tyranny of oppressive censorship’. Yet, the idea of the tyranny of actual lived oppression reinforced by cultural images, stereotyping and behaviour never crosses their minds and is entirely disregarded. Maybe because it’s so far removed from their own lived experience.

I read an article by Liz Kelly from 1996 which listed recent news articles about men killing women. She concluded:

“There is a common thread, which none of the reporting seems to notice – these are all stories of men engaged in the pursuit of entitlement, men who rage at being challenged or denied, men who have no respect for the lives of women and children”.

Is this debate an argument between those who feel entitled to oppress (maybe in some cases without realising, because this is so deeply embedded in culture), and those who are actually entitled to a life free from discrimination, exploitation and sexual aggression?

‘More pressing issues’

When I talk about ‘rape culture’   or ‘a culture of violence against women’, I often hear something like this from men (and some women) :

“I have a lot of feminist friends, and I mostly agree with what they’re saying, but I don’t think that so much energy should be spent picking apart the semantics of words or smaller instances of ‘sexism’ when there are more pressing issues”

By ‘more pressing issues’, people tend to mean female genital mutilation, honour killings, rape in conflict, femicide. The ‘more pressing issues’ tend to be mass atrocities, lethal and abhorrent. However, they are not one-off acts of violence. What lies at the root of all these violations is the belief that women are inferior to men, weaker than men, less equal and therefore should not have the same autonomy, agency or independence that men are entitled to. These views are reinforced in our culture.

Christina Aguilera and Lil’ Kim sang about this 5 years ago:

“Here’s something I just can’t understand
If the guy have three girls then he’s the man
He can even give her some head, or sex her raw
But if a girl do the same, she’s a whore”

Underlying these “slut”, “slag” or “whore” comments that we all hear on an almost everyday basis is the concept that women cannot enjoy the same sexual freedom as men. This is exactly the same sentiment behind the stoning of “adulteresses” and Middle-Eastern women accused of ‘Zina’ (extra or premarital sex under Sharia law), often when they have actually been raped. Because it is so easy to blame a woman. The key word here is blame. All the responsibility for an act of violence committed against her falls on the woman, because she brought dishonour onto her family, because the idea of sexual pleasure in a woman is fundamentally wrong, because telepathically, “she asked for it”.

Men violate and subordinate women because they are able to do so with impunity. They do so with genuine conviction that women are less than men and incapable of the same fundamental freedoms and rights; this conviction does not come in a split-second lightning-bolt stab to the brain which fries all sense of empathy, humanity and reason. This conviction is reinforced with comments like “stop being such a woman”, “grow some balls”, “well, dressed like that she put herself on a platter” and the arbitrary exchange of ‘gang rape’ with ‘orgy’ in newspapers. Men don’t suddenly decide to rape in the moment, they’ve already justified to themselves that it’s something they can do to hurt a woman.

When people say they are in support of ‘more pressing issues’, they fail to see past the isolated act of (generally physical) violence in the first place, to the psychological grounding and justification it has. What’s more concerning, is the acceptability and ‘harmlessness’ of these attitudes, and the way that most people pass them by as “nothing to be worried about” because there are “more pressing issues”.

Yet, how do these issues arise? To prevent the ‘more pressing issues’ from even happening, the contributing factors, attitudes and behaviours need to be targeted first. This is a typical leaky bucket situation. We need to throw away the bucket. We can’t always look to legislation and the threat of punishment as a deterrent; this is already when its too late. People walk among us who want to commit these acts, and see an entitlement to “punish” or “discipline” women for their “misbehaviour”, to victimise them; frankly just because they feel entitled to. These attitudes are paramount to address, because they culminate in physical violation.

Finally, “more pressing issues” logically doesn’t make sense as a comparative statement; just because something is not as “urgent” (which is disputable), doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important to the survival of millions of women, and doesn’t mean its nothing to do with the bigger picture of violence and discrimination against women.

Words and deeds

Words (not just) deeds.

Recently, my inbox/ twitter feed/ Facebook has been full of various NGOs and charities plugging their ‘gift cards’ or special Christmas gifts like microfinance loans to women in third world countries, or sponsoring a girl to go to school. I feel guilty that I can’t afford to buy them all; they’re definitely an appealing alternative to traipsing up and down the high street.

Yesterday I heard about The DoNation, a brilliant social enterprise that encourages physical actions, rather than financial pledges, to contribute to environmental sustainability. You can pledge to cycle to work for two months, rather than sending off a £5 donation to a climate change campaigns organisation. It removes the middle man and actively involves the donor.

This model can ostensibly be extended to the End Violence Against Women movement. This afternoon I’ve been reading about state responsibility and strategy for ending domestic violence, the root of which comes from equal distribution of economic, social and cultural resources to both genders; from shifting understanding of societal ‘roles’ that women must fulfil or be punished. Essentially, not encouraging men to act and feel more powerful than women (as too many cultural norms and laws currently do).

Alongside the financial contributions to organisations working to empower and support women exiting abusive relationships and situations, there needs to be greater cultural contributions to this movement as a whole; to prevent these abusive situations from arising in the first place.

My fiscal resources are limited, but thanks to freedom of speech, my verbal contribution to society is not. My mouth enables me to shape our cultural landscape; it allows me to call out sexist comments in public, to not use derogatory terms for women and girls in prostitution, to not blame women for violent acts committed against them, to not use the word ‘rape’ as a metaphor for something else. My tongue empowers me with strategic silence when everyone else is laughing at a rape joke or jeering and gawping at a female public figure on TV – solely for her clothes and her body shape, not what she’s saying.

Any lawyer will tell you that words are powerful. In the drafting or interpreting of legislation, words are pored over and clauses picked apart so they cannot be manipulated to work against what they are trying to protect. In day-to-day life,  the normalisation of derogatory terms such as “slut”, “slag”, “whore” and “bitch” have led to the normalisation of sexism, inextricable from violence against women.

Behaviour and attitudes expressed both in public and private shape our gender relations: leering at a woman, physically groping a stranger or friend, not listening to a woman when she says “no” or laughing at her if she confronts disrespectful behaviour, failing to see that women who are too drunk to stand are not consenting to sex, passively watching when a woman is publically harassed or derided, without supporting her. All of these actions (and much worse) are experienced on a daily basis by half of the world’s population, and perpetuate gender inequality and violence against women.

Cultural attitudes towards and treatment of women would drastically shift tomorrow if everyone took a lifelong pledge to change their vocabulary and behaviour and started respecting and empathising with women, instead of punishing, humiliating and subordinating them.

Feminists, what would be on your linguistic christmas list? My first thing would be for my male friends to stop laughing at rape jokes. The second would be for my female friends to stop slut-shaming other women.

Words cost nothing. Everyone can afford to give to the global battle to end violence against women. I’ve taken a lifelong pledge. Would you? Give with your mouth and I promise the return on investment will be astronomical.

Disclaimer: An end to violence against women is for life, not just for Christmas.

11 year old gang rape victim filmed “having sex”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/28/gang-rape-victim-jared-len-cruse_n_2205190.html

This article disturbs me for 2 reasons:

1-    Its content; the gang-rape of an 11 year old girl, by 20 men, is followed by one of the attackers’ attorneys describing the child victim as a “spider”. Why would anyone relegate a child rape victim to sub-human status? Furthermore, why would they impose an image of a seductive spider “luring” flies into a web when, if this is a victim-perpetrator power dynamic, the 20 men who raped a child are described as helpless victims to her domination? The attorney’s analogy attempts to reverse this dynamic, but obviously fails.

2-    The author of the piece describes the attack as men who allegedly  ‘recorded themselves having sex’ with the victim. What the attorney said is obviously abhorrent, however this is more insidious. The difference between ‘sex’ and ‘rape’ is consent. Legally, an 11 year old cannot consent to sex, therefore this act can ONLY, under legal terms, be considered statutory rape. She was not old enough to consent, therefore could not consent, and the adults who attacked her cannot claim that she consented either. From whatever angle, this can only be described as rape.

Why does the author have such a problem distinguishing between ‘sex’ and ‘rape’ in even a statutory rape case? This casual exchange of ‘rape’ for ‘sex’ is made far too often, with devastating consequences to public understanding of sexual violence and the blame of victims for “their” assaults.

Gaslighting?

The term ‘gaslighting’, best described here, signifies the kind of psychological manipulation where a reaction is provoked by a perpetrator (or, generally by society). Then, when the victim reacts or confronts the perpetrator, they are told or made to feel that they are irrational, taking things too seriously and being too sensitive. The term comes from a 1944 film, ‘Gaslight’, where a husband intent on taking all his wife’s jewellery tries to convince her she is insane. He does this by setting all of the gaslights in their house to flicker and when she reacts, she’s aggressively told that she’s hallucinating. As Yashar says, ‘a gaslighter is someone who presents false information to alter the victim’s perception of him or herself’.

An example is casual sexual harassment: when a man grabs a woman’s breast, then when she screams in his face, he tells her “calm down, it was just a joke. You’re being over-sensitive”.

This blog is dedicated to the various forms of sexist gaslighting I witness almost on a day-to-day basis, including slut shaming, the normalisation of sexual harassment and the widespread use of words such as ‘frape’. Basically, every insidious speck of sexism that has been normalised by society to the extent that anyone who challenges it is belittled and silenced by being told “you’re reading into this too much”/ “you’re being irrational”/ “stop taking this so seriously”, or, the mother of all condescending comments:

“calm down love, there are bigger problems in the world”.