Wednesday, 4 April 2012

On abortion - Don't patronise pro-choicers. We understand the pro-life position; we just don't buy it

This is reposted from Shrillblog, a student feminist website which hosts great debates and runs articles on everything from street harassment to body hair. Check it out.

It is often the case that as the economy suffers, political opinion swings towards traditional, and often to the right. The right to abortion was settled a while ago in the UK and the US, or so we thought; US lawmakers are becoming increasingly hostile to abortion, and there has also been a revival in anti-abortion rhetoric in the UK.

One thing should briefly, but emphatically be said: do not think that economic woes and financial crisis should monopolise our efforts and discussion, simply because they are the most pressing or urgent issues. Gayle Rubin, the American feminist and queer theorist, wrote in 1984 that:
to some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous discussion from the more critical problems…But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality…Disputes over sexual behaviour often become the vehicle for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.
When the world begins to shake, people panic, and whilst they panic social justice can be set back decades because sexuality, or abortion, or gay rights are not deemed important enough to be dealing with right now. And that’s precisely why it is imperative that we dodeal with them, right now.
My attention was recently drawn to this blog post, which touches on the central feminist issue in abortion debates: the importance of bodily autonomy. The title introduces the author’s position rather bluntly: ‘Opposing abortion means denying a woman’s right over her own body.’ We’ll skip over the problem of a man without a uterus dismissing the concerns of those of us with uteruses (uteri?)* as ‘ill-advised.’ Yes, men may be involved in the decision to terminate a pregnancy, and their personal feelings on the matter are important in the appropriate contexts. But there is a significant problem with men offering opinions on the specific issue of another person’s bodily autonomy as if their feelings on the matter were unimportant.
The argument in the blog post is quite simple: opponents of abortion do not oppose the right to bodily autonomy; rather, they believe a foetus is a separate life with some rights, and as such they believe that anyone has a right to someone else’s body. Therefore, it is ‘bullshit’ to claim that pro-life supporters don’t think people have a right to control their own bodies. ‘Which, whether you agree…or not, is not that fucking irrational or hard to understand.’
We do understand that. But we also understand that there is much more to the picture.
The question of what rights a foetus has, or whether or not it is even a ‘life’ at all, is widely contested. So let’s leave that behind for a moment. Even if we believe that a foetus has some rights, we can still make the claim that opposing abortion means actively and directly harming people. Rates of abortion do not decrease significantly in countries where abortion is made illegal. People still seek abortions. Often, they find someone to provide them; too often, they find someone who does the procedure unsafely. Too often, they die. This is not irrational, or hard to understand: opposing abortion kills people. It could be argued that these people were prepared to commit a crime, use up their savings and risk their lives all in the name of their bodily autonomy.
We can also easily claim that opposing abortion means denying a person’s right to good mental health. This is so well supported and corroborated that it is frustrating to see pro-life activists deny it so frequently. Some people do regret their abortions, and many find it an emotionally draining or unhappy process; but the consequences of denying abortion and forcing someone to give birth when they do not want to has staggeringly higher mental health risks than abortion does. The only study ever done which claimed to show a link between abortion and mental health problems has been decisively debunked as unscientific. And, of course, listening to people’s stories shows how common feelings of relief, gratitude, and certainty surround real abortions.
Eventually, we get round to the personhood question.
The law in Britain currently allows abortions up until 24 weeks (except in extreme cases). After 24 weeks, it is medically possible for the baby to be born and have a decent chance of survival with medical support. In 2003, the CDC found that in the US, 61% of abortions were completed at less than 8 weeks of gestation, and 88% were completed at less than 13 weeks. At 13 weeks, a foetus is between 2.6 and 3.1 inches and only has a few functioning organs (kidneys and urinary tract); at 8 weeks it’s about the size of a kidney bean, and its bones have only just started to form.
I think it is entirely uncontroversial to say that, going by this data, most abortions occur at a stage when the foetus can only be considered as a part of its mother. A kindey-bean-sized piece of matter is not a person in its own right; a 3-inch-long foetus is not a human life in the same way as the mother is. Taking this position, it is absolutely right to say thatopposing abortion means denying a person’s right over their own body. At such an early stage, it is the mother’s body, and some of us do not want to go through the radical changes this tiny proto-baby will create as it grows, let alone go through labour, let alonego through actually raising a child for the next 18 years. Yes, it’s a potential person, but I’ve got a whole army of potential people in my egg-laden loins, and no-one sheds a tear when I get my period (apart from me, although for other reasons).  Putting actual people before potential people is such a basic premise it really doesn’t need an explanation, I’m sure.
As for late-term abortions? The CDC study found that 4.2% of abortions occurred at 16-20 weeks, and only 1.4% at more than 21 weeks. They are so rare because there must be danger to the life of the mother (or risk of major injury), or evidence of major foetal abnormality. That last one is perhaps the most controversial, and deserves its own post; for now, I would point out that late-term abortions are rare, hard to obtain, and usually have very good justifications. The basic rule of thumb here is choosing the option that causes the least amount of suffering, and that can get difficult when gestation is so far advanced.
This is what pro-choicers are trying to say. We aren’t irresponsible, callous or unaware of the debate raging around the line between life and not-life. We are recognising the great range of reasons someone might feel pregnancy is a bad situation for them, and indeed for the resulting child. We also recognise that abortion is not the right option for everyone, which is why we’d like the choice. The only other alternative is to force – literally force – some people to give birth, and I challenge anyone to convince me that option is morally superior.
The intention of anti-abortion supporters may not be to harm people, but that is theconsequence.
*Throughout this article, I have avoided framing abortion as a ‘woman’s issue’, because this discussion often erases those who want abortions but do not identify as women. I think it is necessary and possible to reframe the abortion debate in an inclusive way without depoliticising it, or removing it from the centre of feminist activism.
Read the response to my article here and get stuck in to the debate.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Abortion, veganism and the death penalty: Why Santorum’s ‘all life is sacred’ stance is contradictory

Recently, Rick Santorum said in an interview with Piers Morganthat if his daughter were raped, he would forbid her from having an abortion. His fervent anti-choice stance deems any abortion an act of murder, no matter how a foetus is conceived, and instead pregnancy must be accepted as a gift from God to be cherished. There are many anti-choicers who would deem abortion excusable on the grounds of rape and incest, but one thing I will say for Santorum – he is at least consistent.
Or is he? In the same interview, Santorum was confronted with the contradiction in his beliefs that all life is sacred (therefore abortion is murder), but the state can choose to kill someone who has committed a crime. He answered, "I would say when there is certainty – and there are occasions when there is certainty – that's the case when capital punishment can be used." Life is sacred…unless you’ve definitely committed a crime, in which case, an eye for an eye.
It seems that rather than following an absolute belief – the sanctity of life – Santorum is simply offering up Republican™ views in order to appeal to voters, or because he doesn’t believe in the sanctity of life and hates women instead, which I tend to believe.
I am pro-choice, and oppose the death penalty, and am vegan. I have been accused of being as dogmatic in my views as Santorum – I am a Feminist™ therefore pro-choice, a Bleeding Heart Liberal™ therefore vegan – without considering that a vegan lifestyle which involves the avoidance of killing and suffering directly contradicts my acceptance of abortion. How can I wax indignant about people killing animals and supporting capital punishment when I would be quite happy to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy?
The answer is that I do not believe, as Santorum purports to, that all life is sacred. This is not the view underpinning my vegan lifestyle, or opposition to capital punishment. What underpins the former is the belief that killing for nothing other than greed or pleasure is morally wrong; what underpins the latter that killing in a system that defines murder as legally and morally wrong is contradictory, barbaric and shows a level of violence out of step with the values of our society.
So, can I apply these statements to abortion, and come out of it unscathed? People do not have abortions in order to feel pleasure or out of greed, in the way they kill animals in order to tantalise their tastebuds, and for no other reason. In fact, people have very good reasons for having abortions, such as mental health, financial constraints, emotional un-readiness for parenthood, health issues, or the desire to have bodily autonomy.
We punish those who murder because they cause a huge amount of suffering. A murder victim leaves behind distraught family and friends, because the person they killed has, in their life, established bonds and connections, engendered emotions, created art, made people laugh or simply improved someone else’s life just by existing. The same is true for victims of capital punishment.
An unwanted foetus, by contrast, has not made the same impact on others’ lives. It is not, in the fullest sense of the word, alive, or conscious. We ensure this by restricting abortions beyond the 24-week mark, where the line becomes very blurred. Ultimately, the life and well-being (bodily or emotional) of the fully-conscious and developed person whose body is being transformed to house a collection of cells which may, one day, become a baby, is the priority.
This is not to shy away from the facts. Although in the early stages of pregnancy a foetus is, as I have said, not truly a person with rights and hopes and dreams, an abortion cuts off a potential life, and many argue that the only way to look at this scenario is, if not murder, then killing. That’s fine. Because killing the foetus growing in my uterus, with no suffering on its part and minimal on mine (because abortion is proven to be much safer than childbirth), is preferable to being forced to give birth to a baby I don’t want (if you want proof of that, then here it is).
Therefore, relying on the maxim ‘all life is sacred’ provides a dangerous license to actually inflict suffering on people. Instead, why not try the maxim, ‘I’ll try to avoid killing and suffering when it is not necessary.’ This is, if anything, the belief underpinning my world view. Abortion is necessary, for a vast number of reasons. A plate of steak, for many of us, is not; nor is state-sanctioned murder. Nor is a country rules by Rick Santorum, for that matter.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Gaming and its Discontents

I never seem to have enough time or inclination to do any online gaming; I have enough distractions as it is. But when I was about 13, everyone seemed to have an account on Runescape, one of the biggest multi-player online games out there, and possibly the easiest to play. There are no skills required, or commitment - it's free (unless you choose to become a member, for lots of extra perks) and you can log out and in anytime you want.

Over the course of many years, I fiddled around on Runescape whenever I was bored and, perhaps, the TV pickings were slim, dipping in and out whenever the fancy took me. Occasionally I'd stay up late (on a school night!) to finish a particular task, or to gain an extra level. It's a game that basically goes on indefinitely; you can go up to level 99 on about 12 different skills, do hundreds of quests and tasks, and explore the Runescape landscape. And, as I said, requires nothing more than some free time, and clicking on things. 

So I am utterly perplexed and slightly worried by people who dedicate their lives - yes, their lives - to Runescape. Presumably other online games have their own die-hard fans. Runescape is popular enough that there are whole online communities outside of the game where you can swap advice, talk about the finer points of the game, get help for quests (this is why I stumbled upon these communities - I am notoriously impatient and couldn't figure out the quest fast enough...and I really wanted the reward, dammit!) There, Runescape celebrities are revered and their names followed on the hi-score tables. 

One such 'celebrity' is SUOMI. He is determined to reach the maximum experience ceiling (gaining experience = improving a skill), at any cost. Here's some snippets of an interview from this site. By his own admission, this guy is a perfectionist, and says:

I would probably train same skill for the rest of my life if there was no xp [experience] limit. Of course that might sound sad but I just like boring and repetitive things, always did.
But he reassures us that his gaming is not unhealthy, even though he has no job or other occupations, and spends LITERALLY EVERY DAY playing online:

Money isn't a problem because I used to work a lot before I started going for 200 million xp in all skills. I invested my money and I don't spend much. But, I need to be careful that I don't burn myself out and take good care of my health. Of course playing as much as I do isn't healthy no matter how you look at it but I have lots of time for exercising and sleeping even though some people might think otherwise. Slept 12 hours today for example, what a huge xp waste that was, but I love sleeping
Despite his claims to the contrary, anyone who, without joking, considers sleeping a waste of gaming time needs to reassess their life. 
Some people usually think I eat fast food or stuff like that. I promised myself I would at least eat healthy if were to spend so much time playing this game. I haven't eaten pizza, hambugers, kebabs, chips or food like that at all in the last 3 years. [...]
Sometimes people ask me if I use drugs or something to play so much. I have never had alcohol or smoked. I've never used any drugs either. Never drank any coffee or energy drinks either. For some reason people tend to think I am forcing myself to stay up somehow but I just go to sleep when I feel tired.
 He finishes by urging readers not to 'feel bad' if they don't dedicate to the game like he does, and that it's better not to have a 'no-life'.

I am utterly, utterly confused and a bit worried. It seems there are people out there, supported by their online communities, who have given up their jobs, relationships and dedication to a real skill in order to gain fame within those communities. But I wish someone would shake these people and say 'BUT THERE IS LITERALLY NO SKILL INVOLVED IN THIS PURSUIT AT ALL!' You give up your life to click a computer screen all day...and people LOVE you for it. They actually respect you. And the relationships you develop on these games become real for you, as SUOMI demonstrates:

Jebrim - I see so much good in you too, some people will probably never see it. I still miss the times when I was going for 200M Agility. Doing perfect laps all day and sometimes all night was something I really enjoyed especially when I knew I had your support. And that 100M donation, didn't see it coming at all. You have been such a great friend to me.
Mi Thrill & Fire Dancer0 - Here is a picture of me mining my favorite gold rock with my friends Mi Thrill and Fire Dancer0.

I have no understanding of this mindset whatsoever. I suppose this post is just a massive WTF - and maybe this is why I was never much of a gamer.

Saturday, 10 December 2011


Since entering the feminist blogosphere and (real-o-sphere), I've developed a privilege-checking mechanism that works most of the time. Dealing with ideas about power and oppression inevitably means placing yourself on the various scales of privilege that determine our lives (gender, class, ethnicity etc.). And once you do, there are times when you recognise that, instead of talking, it's time to listen. Perhaps also instances when you didn't notice it was one of those times (hence my privilege-checking working most of the time). 

I was a big fan of the Slutwalk protests (I explained why in this post). When someone mentioned that the marches might be alienating for black feminists, I couldn't conceive a reason why, and lamented that there was a lack of ethnic diversity in the walks. 

Then I read an article. Then another. The women writing about their alienation from the Slutwalk movement showed me how problematic reclaiming the word 'slut' was for black women, who have been historically seen as lascivious and hypersexual. As this open letter put it:

For us the trivialization of rape and the absence of justice are viciously intertwined with narratives of sexual surveillance, legal access and availability to our personhood. It is tied to institutionalized ideology about our bodies as sexualized objects of property, as spectacles of sexuality and deviant sexual desire. It is tied to notions about our clothed or unclothed bodies as unable to be raped whether on the auction block, in the fields or on living room television screens.

Reading this letter, it all clicked into place.

There are certain experiences I, as a white woman, will never share with a black woman. Sometimes, no matter how much I think I know about the female experience, or the feminist experience, there are times when I have to sit back, listen, and understand. As feminists, we must always recognise the various voices which make up our movement, and recognise our own individual privileges. Sometimes, our own individual ignorances. 

This is one of the most important lessons I've learnt so far, especially because it applies far beyond the feminist movement. I encountered someone recently who was utterly perplexed by a conversation over the terms 'black,' 'non-white' and 'person of colour.' Different contexts, and different individuals, inform the language people employ when it comes to their identities. "But," snorted this white man, "I wouldn't care if someone called me white, or caucasian. It simply isn't an issue for me!"

I don't need to point out the ignorance in this comment. But it reminded me that privilege is a concept not everyone is comfortable, or unblinkered, enough to recognise (and I wondered how many times I have missed my own privilege, and blundered without being called out on it). 

I want to be called out on it. There's nothing like a bit of embarrassment when it comes to changing your behaviour.

Friday, 1 July 2011

'A Game of Thrones' - where are the kick-ass androgynous queers? (Or, why the fantasy genre and feminism don't always get along)

I was a massive fantasy fan as a youngster; my tenth and eleventh year were more or less spent entirely in the pages of the Deltora Quest books and Garth Nix’s Sabriel trilogy, and the obsession continued to The Edge Chronicles and Catherine Webb’s novels until I ended up reading every single one of beloved Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Having not picked up a fantasy book since, I thought I’d give George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones a whirl. Since being made into a hit TV show, people have been raving about it. I have to say, as a re-entry into the fantasy world after a long hiatus, it disappoints.

The book does some things well. Martin exposes the reader to a vast world with a rich history without overwhelming, whilst paying enough attention to detail to allow complete absorption. Certain characters (Eddard Stark and Tyrion Lannister) are intriguing and well-drawn, and the novel certainly had pace. However, I couldn’t help being annoyed by certain aspects of Martin's world. This is because since following Sabriel and Lirael on their kick-ass journies through Garth Nix’s world, I have become what some might term a raging feminist. So here are the problems I have with A Game of Thrones:

Who uses the word ‘wenches?’
  I know that if you set your fantasy novel in a vaguely medieval-Britain-esque era, there will be certain linguistic quirks your characters might display. Doesn’t mean you, the author, have to do. There’s a reason why the fantasy genre is so often parodied – saying things like ‘on the morrow’ sets you up like a prick. So, yeah, one of your Winterfell knights might call women ‘wenches,’ but I’ll get pretty pissed off if you keep calling them that.

Why is it always medieval-Britain-esque?
  It’s a given that most fantasy novels of A Game’s type are set in a time without electricity, but with lots of castles, swords and battles. But…well, I’d like something new. Thanks.

The old gender problem
  So, here’s the thing. If I were to create my own new, fantastically detailed world in which anything could happen, I would GET RID OF OUR GENDER STEREOTYPES. I mean, JESUS, it’s not actually medieval Britain. You could have done anything with your world, Mr. Martin, you could have had kick-ass warrior princesses and relationships in which people respected one another; hell, you could have created androgynous super-queers who fight each other then fuck each others’ brains out afterwards.
   My point is, it’s so boring to just revert to gender roles like the ones evident in A Game. Despite the fact that there are some decent female characters, and they don't conform to gender roles so restrictively that they just cook, clean and fuck, the pickings aren't great. The existence of brothels and prostitutes is far too often remarked on, and even the loyal Eddard is unfaithful to his wife. As for the sex, I actually yelled out “Oh come ON” when Dany fucked the guy who had just essentially bought her, and repeatedly had sex with her until she was in pain. Oh and she’s THIRTEEN. Christ. And the only girl who displays any sort of kick-ass attitude is Arya, who spends half the novel being told she needs to do needlework instead of learning to defend herself. Yes, she eventually gets her way. But it's hardly a gender revolution. And don’t get me STARTED on the stupid harpist guy who is so weak and unmasculine because he carries a harp rather than a sword. Gimme a break.

The concept of the Other
  Again, a massive missed opportunity to transcend prejudice here. The Dothrakis are the Other to the Seven Kingdom-dwellers’ Self, the barbarian cousins of the civilised west (sound familiar?) Yes, Martins allows us an insight into their culture through Dany, a culture she embraces. But why make them so barbarious? Eating horse-meat (gasp!), selling each others’ women, raping each others’ women…they are not presented in the same empathetic way as the (let’s name it) white folks are. And that pisses me off.

  I guess these are all minor annoyances in an otherwise decent fantasy novel. At the same time, they ruined my reading experience. Why can’t fantasy novels like this engage in a more experimental way with the ‘otherworld’ challenge of creating a new world that is familiar yet utterly foreign to its readers? Good fantasy not only does that, but comments on our own world in a subtle, thought-provoking way. Unfortunately, A Game of Thrones falls into the trap of all material marketed at straight white men – it’s too straight, too white, and just doesn’t appease the feminist inside me.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

'Pies for Guys': Is meat a gendered issue?

It was like a scripted miracle. Perusing the shelves, I said to my boyfriend, “wouldn’t it be crazy if I could find a feminist vegan text in Waterstones? It would be as good as that time I found a Milton text with an introduction by Philip Pullman.” (For reference, that was a moment of almost transcendental joy).

And there it was: The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams. As soon as I had found it, however, I wondered how on earth one might pull off a text linking feminism and veganism; I expected some tenuous connections and perhaps even some dangerous stereotypes (women are better vegans because they care more!)

Honestly, it’s not a bad attempt. There was one statistic that stood out to me: 80% of animal rights activists were women at the time of writing (1999). Adams puts this down to a spurious affinity between animals and women – one oppressed group liberating another oppressed group – which is interesting but ultimately unprovable.

Instead, it prompted me to think about vegetarianism and veganism; specifically male vegetarians and vegans (I’ll just use the word ‘vegan’ to include both terms). There is no doubt in my mind that meat-eating is invariably linked to masculinity in our culture; male vegans I know or whose experiences I have read about seem to encounter the accusation of effeminancy or over-sensitivity regularly. Meat-eating is a man thing.

Today is fathers’ day. Browsing the BBC website this morning, I came across their ‘Fathers’ Day Recipes’ feature called ‘Pies for Guys.’ Clicking on the link confronts you with a huge picture of a meaty pie (the picture slide offers a huge meat steak next, and finally a nice picture of some fairy cakes). Suggestions for the main course for daddy? Lamb burgers, pizza, shepherd’s pie, steak pie, or rump steak and chips.
Mothers’ day? By a strange twist of fate, the huge image on this recipe page is of the lovely fairy cakes which were relegated to last place on the Fathers’ Day page. Mummy likes baking (so why not bake for her?) Also on offer: some champagne, salmon and a tiny breakfast egg on a muffin. Also, when mummy eats meat, she doesn’t want shepherd’s pie, or rump and chips. She wants ‘Pork tenderloin with rosemary, prosciutto and apple cider sauce’, or ‘Lamb with dauphinoise potatoes and sticky port sauce.’ A simple steak pie just doesn’t scream ‘mummy’ quite as much.
I anticipate accusations of over-analysis. However, fathers’ day and mothers’ day provide an interesting study for anyone interested in gender. And for someone interested in gender and meat, there is a wealth of opportunity for garnering some evidence for our society’s mental link between meat and masculinity. It worries me that a man might be considered somehow deficient if he chooses not to eat meat, as does the fact that some defend their meat-eating by saying ‘but I’m a man!’ (I’ve heard it done, folks.)
So, there you are. Just a little thought for those of you perusing any fathers’ day menus today.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

London-centricity and the Northern lass

I have never really lived close to London. In fact, I have never really lived in the South (the West Midlands doesn’t count, as southerners are very keen to affirm). Reading the broadsheets and perusing the BBC news website, however, I sometimes feel like I should be.

There is a common syndrome that affects Londoners, and quickly infects anyone who moves there: the Everything Happens in London Syndrome. For EHLS sufferers, London is the limit of their imagination; beyond the Home Counties, there are some vague grey shapes, and something called The North, but apparently it’s all a bit grim there.

Unfortunately, if you work for a major broadsheet or for the BBC, the chances are you’ll live near London (although the BBC are trying to set up camp in Manchester – let’s see how much grumbling we’ll hear about that).  Therefore, news stories have a tangible London-centricity, with events affecting anywhere else labelled as ‘regional.’
I notice this occasionally, but it has riled me recently because of the reporting of the Slutwalks which hit British shores last week. I attended both Newcastle and Manchester’s Slutwalks, both of which attracted large crowds, especially the latter. The Newcastle event was not reported on the BBC website; Manchester’s received one paragraph. But guess what? London’s Slutwalk yesterday merited a long analysis and feature report.

It’s the same story on the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph websites (let’s take it as read that the Page -3-toting tabloids aren’t going to add to the Slutwalk debate meaningfully…) In some ways I understand – the event in London is the biggest. But most reports only briefly mentioned the widespread nature of the marches, or failed to do so at all.

But one of the most fantastic things about Slutwalks are their grassroots nature. They have sprung up across the UK independent of one another; wherever you live, there WILL be a Slutwalk nearby over the next month or so. It would be great to see the media emphasising this, instead of reinforcing the tired old view that Everything Happens in London.

It’s even more pertinent, in my view, for local feminist and women’s groups to support local Slutwalks rather than just flocking to London. Building bridges and showing solidarity with your nearest groups is always immensely useful and a reminder you’re not alone – Slutwalks are the perfect chance to do this.