Category Archives: Feminism

A laugh in the face of increasing US reproductive rights restrictions

This year has been a depressing one for reproductive rights activists in the US, with a record number of restrictions being legislated in the first half of 2011 alone.

The Onion managed to bring a smile to my face today, with this article highlighting the ridiculousness of such restrictions. I’m not trying to make a joke out of a serious situation, but this has allowed me to think about what has for most of the year been too depressing to even contemplate. Cheers, onion writers.


7 billion

This post over at Feminist Philosophers is succinct but brilliant. It captures the feeling of hope which I think has been completely lost in all the doomsday articles on over-population and armageddon type scenarios about the end of the world as we know it now that we are 7 billion, and not 6-billion-and-something.

Yes, if all 7 billion consumed the resources that I do right now, it really would be the end of the world, and quick. But they don’t, and hopefully we will all find ways to meet the challenges that this population will bring with it.

Interestingly, addressing climate change is inherently linked with empowering women and girls. As this blog explains, a recent paper has found the most cost effective ways of spending climate change intervention dollars is via educating girls and increasing access to family planning. Through these outcomes I would also hope that maternal mortality and morbidity would decrease.

I too hope that this generation of girls has a brighter future than what we are currently able to see, particularly those who are born into the developing world.

The Other Side of Abortion

Pro-choice activists have long argued that abortion should be available on demand, and without apology. I am one of them, and I agree with that. But sometimes, things happen to those close to you that make you realise how complex and at times, awful, this can be when it’s translated into a specific set of circumstances in reality.

Someone close to me is currently pregnant and has found that there is likely (to be confirmed soon) complications with the brain development which mean that the baby would have very very serious disability* when born. Depending on the degree of this damage, the doctors are likely going to recommend termination. She is more than 30 weeks pregnant, and her and her partner want this baby very very much.

Of course, abortion isn’t the problem here – it didn’t create the developmental issues that are the cause of her anguish. But the fact that her and her partner have a choice to make is absolutely heartbreaking. What a choice to try to make.

Disability rights activists have long argued that all the screening and tests conducted in pregnancy are reinforcing the idea of a ‘perfect’ and ‘normal’ human and I completely agree. However, the kind of disability that they are talking about would bring quality of life into question, and neither of them are financially set up to be able to adequately care for a child who requires constant attention and care. But they desperately want a child, and she is over 40 years old. She had been thinking for the whole pregnancy that she was lucky to be pregnant and that she probably wouldn’t be able to have another child.

Sitting and talking with two pro-choice women this afternoon, the sentiment was that, while we completely support everyone’s right to choose, sometimes you just don’t want to have to choose. This kind of abortion story, heartbreaking and messy, has been almost completely left out of the pro-choice movement, because it’s difficult. Because it’s borderline for many people and because at 9 weeks we can call something a collection of cells but after 26 weeks, those cells can, if things work out that way, be sustained by medial support and intervention. But a machine cannot bring up a child. I don’t want to have a debate about when life begins, because as far as I’m concerned, a baby needs more than itself to survive and women have to be able to have these choices. We have to trust women. But in marginalising women who make choices in these grey areas which are so open to attack by anti-choicers, we really are silencing women who desperately need support and to be included in the pro-choice movement. Pro-choice activists need to accept that these women and their stories are just as valid as an unplanned pregnancy terminated at 7 weeks.

Of course, I don’t know that this is the way my friend’s story will end, and I hope that something wonderful happens and the next test tells a different story. But the way she is feeling now, she could use the support and the stories from other women to feel that she is not alone.

*for the record, I absolutely hate this term/word but am yet to find one which adequately replaces it without being equally able-ist or inadequate. Suggestions welcome!

Attraction and Subjectivity

Motherhood makes women more attractive? According to this psychologist, though I’m not sure if she’s just articulating her personal opinion or if this is based on some study she’s not talking about.

This isn’t the first article to assert features/characteristics which make people more attractive without contextualising these things within their cultural context. (See this mess earlier in the year about how black women are “not as attractive” as other women.)

I am so tired of social science, psychology, biological science and journalism (by not critically interrogating claims made by the afore-mentioned ‘experts’) maintaining and reinforcing a singular definition of what everyone finds attractive. Each time people panic about children’s self-esteem and body image, we should remember articles like this, which reproduce one version of attractiveness.

Then, of course, there is the way the article argues that women are always more attractive after childbirth. Please. Shall I mention white privilege as well?

Couldn’t we just have a definition of beauty that included individual differences and subjectivity? Wouldn’t that be nice!

Banning ads the answer to image obsession?

Recently, L’Oreal has had their UK ads, featuring highly airbrushed images of Julia Roberts, banned from being used in the UK (The Age also had an Australian perpective article, here). While I completely understand what the regulators are trying to counter – an obsession with youthful perfection at the expense of reality, which, many contend, has contributed to poor body image, increasing cosmetic surgery, the list goes on. As someone who grew up facing an endless barrage of these airbrushed images, I understand first hand what they are trying to stop. But is this the way to do it?

Many other companies have and will continue to produce highly airbrushed images for the advertising campaigns, in the UK and all around the rest of the world. Unless you ban airbrushing all together (and how the hell are you going to even begin to try to enforce that?!) ultimately, you’re making subjective decisions about how much is too much airbrushing. And who makes those decisions? The same problems with any kind of censorship – who decides, and how do they decide? And, more fundamentally, does this censorship achieve what those who censor are aiming to achieve?

I would argue that censoring airbrushed ads is counter-productive. Yes, advertisers are in part responding to what people want, and also setting an ideal in people’s minds about what is desirable (that which they advertise becomes desirable because they say so). But I think, in discussing censorship of ads, those arguments become background. Without advertisers telling us so, there are many many other pressures for people to look young, and perfect. And advertising is one part of that.

Unless we can move towards addressing the causes of what we value – youth, perfection, etc., then banning ads is just a bandaid over the huge, ingrained social issue. It is bigger than just advertising and simply blaming advertisers and ignoring the rest of the dynamic of the issue won’t achieve anything. Further, perhaps allowing this ad campaign to run would have left L’Oreal looking stupid. As the regulator says, the ads are obviously airbrushed. Companies can’t sell cosmetics which look to be promising more than they deliver – maybe consumers would have called the company’s bluff in this instance.

Instead of censoring advertisers, lets talk about why they might be motivated to deliver a campaign with a scary-perfect image of Julia Roberts in the first place.

Victim-blaming and “yes means yes”

Ok, this one comes with a trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault, and a rant warning because I’m not going to be particularly diplomatic or reserved with this post.

I work in a big, corporate organisation. Most of the time, politics is not on the work discussion agenda, but current affairs (which of course are political) are a constant topic of conversation, particularly with the people I work most closely with.

Over the last few days, there are have been more and more comments made about the Lovett rape case (I won’t provide many links as I haven’t been following the case at all closely). Apparently, he was acquitted yesterday. I know nothing of the evidence, or happenings of the case; I have completely disengaged from keeping up to speed with footballers accused of sexual assault or rape in Australia for mental health reasons. I have absolutely no opinion about whether or not Lovett should or should not have been found guilty in this case, and, actually, that is irrelevant to this blog post.

The discussions I’ve had thrown at me in relation to this case are so so heart-breakingly frustrating, and infruriating. Women I work with have expressed their support for Lovett because apparently, women shouldn’t put themselves in a situation where this could happen to them. Classic victim-blaming. I have also heard another woman say that her husband thinks Lovett deserved to be acquitted – since when did deserve become a factor in our justice system? Another comment was made about a friend who manages a club where “all the same girls always go and get drunk and hang off footballers and then get upset when this happens”. Very reminisce of Spida Everitt’s “cup of milo” bullshit in October last year.

Yes, all classic, text book victim-blaming. Did I expect more of my workplace? Well, kinda. As an Employer of Choice for Women, and an organisation which promotes safe workplaces and has strong policies against sexual harassment in the workplace. I don’t hear anyone saying, well you were working with that man, so what did you think was going to happen? Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone employed here uphold such feminist values, and it doesn’t mean that my workplace is to blame. I feel that we have enough employees in Melbourne office for it to be a fairly representative sample of (white, middle- and upper-class) Melbourne more generally, and of course, this view is not unheard of in the general population, far from it. And that is the problem.

Despite my gentle, working-relationship-preserving challenges to such abhorrent, crappy attitudes, I am left with people who genuinely believe that women deserve to be raped in certain circumstances. The whole episode has highlighted a fundamentally important thing to me – “yes means yes” has to be central to overcoming this disgusting rape culture supporting attitude. Many people have said this before of course. But, once consent is taken to be the presence of “yes” rather than an absence of “no”, by everyone, then we can get rid of ideas like, “she was asking for it”. Because, unless she said yes, there was no asking. Simple.

The getting to that society part? Yeah, not so simple.

Activism and pragmatism

Activism is a messy thing at the best of times. Often people from a range of political beliefs and backgrounds believe that something is worth taking a stand for, and the group that gathers, protests, agitates or advocates for that thing can be made up of people who may vehemently disagree on many things, aside from the issue that has brought them together. For me, this aspect of social change is fascinating, and has made me think long and hard about the value of pragmatism, as well as it’s negative aspects.

Clinic Defence – a gathering of pro-choice activists on the fourth Sunday of each month, outside the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic – is organised by Radical Women, a radical socialist women’s organisation. People (often myself included) gather to defend the space directly outside the clinic – to ensure that the fundamentalist Christians who pray for the ‘dead babies’ have to stand on the opposite side of the road. And I often agree with the politics of Radical Women, in that I am concerned about many of the same issues as they are. But from what I know of their organisation, I disagree often with the how – how to work to achieve the change they believe in. This isn’t surprising of course, because I don’t identify as a socialist. But what continues to surprise me is that many of the social issues I am concerned about, socialists are often working to achieve the same ends, but through very different means.

All of this has led me to really consider the idea of pragmatism, and whether this is the only (?) uniting factor among people working for social change. There are so often so many serious conflicts of political outlook and ideology, but people continue to unite in spite of these differences to work for the change they believe in. The Equal Love rallies are a classic example – there is pretty much every political persuasion represented from socialism through to absolutist libertarians, who for almost completely opposite reasons, believe in exactly the same change to the system. I have, for the last couple of years, been searching for a framework, and ideology that could bring people from disparate political beliefs together to work for social change without the conflicts which can occur. Maybe it’s human rights (but whose rights?)? Maybe it’s sustainable development (but development for who?)? Freedom (to do/have what?)? But the same ideological conflicts occur because there are always definitional issues, as well as the issue of how the ends should be worked towards, what society should look like when the issue has been resolved. Pragmatism isn’t perfect either, but for now it seems to be the only thing we have that even functions to unify the fragmented politics of social change activists across the globe.

Victim blaming and DSK Rape Case

And, Bingo. As many others have noted, it was only a matter of time before the victim blaming spiral got to the point where this woman would be accused of having accepted cash for sex in the past. Because that clearly means she can’t ever be raped. Yeah, right.

Motherhood, femininsm and dichotomy

Last week, I attended an exhibition of art inspired by birth and the discourse which surrounds it. The art is brilliant, I was so moved by so many of the installations. I particularly enjoyed the “Hey Hetero” collection, highlighting the heterosexist assumptions which underlie much birth discourse and indeed the health system which is supposed to support women through pregnancy and birth. I won’t detail everything I liked, as it was all fantastic, and I encourage Melbournians to get on down and check it out! There is a good discussion of the exhibition and related culture/concepts at The Age.

What struck me though, and was a little disappointing, was the speech, welcoming and introducing the exhibition. And it wasn’t even all of the speech, just two tiny turns of phrase. I arrived late and heard only the last half (or so) of the speech. I am fairly sure the woman who was speaking was Rachel Power, a writer and editor, with interests in feminism, art and motherhood – clearly a perfect choice for such a launch. And I loved almost all of what she said and how she said it.

But! Twice that I heard, the idea that women have been reduced to only porn-subjects was raised. I can see that pornography (most especially bad porn that reduces women to passive objects) can contribute to the way women currently are disconnected from the reproductive functions and processes that their body is capable of. I do not reject this idea – but when we talk about this, lets not reduce the whole argument to black and white assertions of porn = objectifying women and therefore women aren’t connected to their bodies, and it’s all the fault of porn. Lets talk about this issue in the context of women as being a multiplicity of things – mothers, sexual beings, colleagues, friends, aunties, grandmothers etc etc etc etc etc, and from this, lets talk about the complexity. There are many things which contribute to the situation we currently have, where women often experience pregnancy and birth as something that happens “to them” rather than a positive, connected, embodied experience.

It is time that feminists, including the fabulous feminist mid-wives I have the pleasure of knowing, acknowledged that that pornography is not a black and white world of good and evil, and that contributing the whole of a problem to porn is not a helpful strategy. Lets talk about reembodiment of women, what that means across a spectrum of issues, and how that might look.

**Disclaimer: I’m sure not all midwives are anti-porn, or that all midwives don’t know there are many things that lead to women being disembodied. I’ve had many discussions with midwives about how there are many other factors, like the body-mind dichotomy which contribute to this. What I’m talking about here is lumping all pornography together and blaming all of a problem on that.

Repression and sexualisation: connected opposing phenomena?

Over the last few days, I have been reading Lipstick Jihad, by Iranian-American Azadeh Moaveni. It is a beautifully written book, and what has struck me recently is how universal, though different in nature, oppression and repression can be. I want to be clear – I AM NOT conflating the kind of oppression and repression that happens in Iran with any repression that happens in the West, that is a ridiculous notion. However, I believe there are some similar effects of repression which can be observed where repression occurs.

Moaveni describes the stifling atmosphere of the Iranian regime’s compulsory Islamic dress for women, and segregation of the sexes. She explains the way no Iranians have social skills for interacting with the opposite sex, and how her American ‘frendliness’ – smiling, engaging men in conversation, is taken as a sign of her sexual availability, because all Iranian women have learnt to be stern to avoid such issues. She paints a clear link between the two things – the banning of interaction between men and women leads directly to her ease of interaction to signal her interest. Moaveni also illustrates the effect of the compulsory covering of women; she describes the way it sexualises everything, suddenly everything is about what people cannot have, that which is forbidden. It is a classic example of why prohibition (of anything) will eventually fail.

All of this was spinning through my mind as I finally watched Kinsey a few nights ago. I’m not sure of the historical accuracy of the film, but what struck me was how we have simultaneously, since Kinsey’s time, found more out about human sexuality, yet also in many ways we are not any more comfortable with it. Our society is paranoid about so many ‘bad’ kinds of sexuality, but most particularly what I was thinking of was how we are so scared about the “sexualisation” of children. As Kinsey saw it, the problems with people’s sexual expression came from the repression of sexuality in general. Perhaps there is a link between what Kinsey saw and our current hysteria about children and sexuality.

The so-called “sexualisation” of children concept starts from an assumption that children are not at all sexual. Let’s unpack that. Children are inherently curious about everything, including their own and other’s bodies. There are a lot of people who have written about child development, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about that, however I think it’s worth noting that maturity is a continuum, and our young people do not suddenly wake up, at 13, turn into adolescents and become aware of their bodies, sensuality and sexuality. There is such a thing as age-appropriate exploring of bodies and sexual expression at all ages, and it’s important to keep this context when we consider children and development of sexuality. It is also very important to keep in mind that diversity exists among all people, including children, and that such diversity will also exist in sexuality itself, as well as the way it is expressed, developed and understood by young people.

With this in mind, let’s now consider the dominant view of children, and “sexualisation of children” within Western societies like Australia. See for example, Melinda Tankard Reist. This view is not only quite hysterical, it’s also denies that children have the right to self-expression. Of course, this should be within an age-appropriate developmental stage, and much of what people like Melinda Tankard Reist are concerned with, essentially, is the way some of this may be rushing development, or imposing a certain kind of expression onto young people. I think this is a concern that many people have, I personally am concerned with age-appropriateness, as well as the accuracy of information we give young people about sex and sexuality. I am also concerned with the messages young people get from society about these things. Being hysterical about any kind of sexual expression from young people though, is completely counterproductive.

Let’s now consider what a denial of all self-expression of curiosity about bodies, sexuality, sensuality, and sexual development means for young people and children. What can Moaveni’s descriptions of the forbidden being all one can think about, and of Kinsey’s linking the taboo nature of sexuality with the lack of understanding and acceptance of sexuality tell us about how our society currently views and understands children?

Sex and sexual expression are generally uncomfortable, taboo topics in Western culture, and many parents still do not feel comfortable to talk with children openly and honestly about sex and sexuality. It’s possible this reflects their own level of comfort with their own sexuality, or that this is a symptom of expectations of parents – it is not considered something that should be discussed openly with children as it’s viewed as inherently damaging and private. Particularly for children. This repression and black-and-white view of children as completely innocent, non-curious beings, completely without sexuality or sensuality – could this be contributing to the current situation where children are being “sexualised” by society? The thing we are supposed to have covered, the thing we are not supposed to talk about, the thing society tells children they are not. Does this lead to it being expressed in the last way possible? And, does this uncomfortableness lead to the expression being in an inappropriate and unsocialised way, similar to the expression of male desire in Iran, as described by Moaveni, or shown in the Kinsey film through a society uncomfortable with sexuality and sexual difference.

What if adults were open, honest, and age-appropriate in their discussions with children about sex and sexuality? What if we could start to break down these taboos in order to allow children’s curiosity about themselves and others’ gradually develop into healthy, well-informed, empowered sexuality as they move through adolescence and towards adulthood? This kind of open-ness would also allow adults to have conversations with children about what is not appropriate – preventing or opening a dialogue to intervene in situations where children are being taken advantage of or abused.

This kind of honesty could also create an opportunity for real sex and health education before people reach the shock of experiencing puberty without knowing what is happening to them, and create a society where adolescence isn’t viewed as a horrible marginalised experience, but one which is embraced as a natural developmental step; of course adolescence poses many difficulties, but does not have to be as difficult as it often is. Who knows the impacts this may have on the way adolescents engage and contribute to the world.