It’s not all about you

Last week, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner released a report on the impact of pornography on young people. Tweets about this report from the perspective on an organisation working with women, young people and children elicited responses including the following:

“so improve porn. Don’t ban young people from seeing it. Porn is a healthy aid to masturbation. It’s just badly done.”

“Telling women they’re debased by sex. Feminism.”

“I’m sick of people shaming porn. I’ve been watching porn since I was 11. It’s a healthy part of my life.”

Since then, the voices of so-called pro-porn, pro-sex-work and tory-feminists have started to sound increasingly similar to me. The young woman defending porn as a healthy aid to masturbation, the sex-worker celebrating her mastery of her craft or the former-tory politician describing that hard work that she had to undertake to reach the lofty heights of power, to my ears they’re all ‘me, my needs, my achievements, my just rewards’.

Starting with Louise Mensch, her own words really do it best:

“Aged 14 I had big glasses, was nerdy, feminist, ambitious, idolising Thatcher, and determined to be famous, to be an author, and to be rich. I was at private school my parents couldn’t really afford because I bust my ass and won a 100% academic scholarship. I always believed in myself and I had and have no intention of checking my privilege for anyone. I earned it. I hope the next generation of young women feel the same.”

That’s lovely, Louise. But no matter how hard you busted your arse, it might not be so easy for someone who doesn’t have a family descended from Roman Catholic gentry, who doesn’t get that scholarship and ‘earn’ a place at Oxford.

It’s clear that some groups have power and advantage where others do not. No one should deny that inequality, injustice, disadvantage and privilege exist. No one should deny that some experience multiple oppressions that others do not. This powerful blog by Reni Eddo-Lodge is a kick in the guts illustration to anyone who ever doubted it that that Sojourner Truth, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde and Angela Carter are as relevant to feminism today as Karl Marx’s thoughts about economic exploitation, alienation and the opium of the people. But from recognising the effects of class, race, age, sexuality, of life choices, life chances, of biologically determined or socially constructed differences, feminist identity politics has developed. Identity politics has become a sort of cultural nationalism, emphasising differences between those who share or do not share certain characteristics of identities whilst blurring what they may share.

Somewhere along the way ‘the personal is political’ became – not about the way that patriarchal society shapes the detail of women’s lives, not about the commonalities of experiences and certainly not about the social and political forces defining and constraining what it is to be a woman – but about identity, the individual, empowerment, the freedom to choose, the freedom to excel, to achieve.

The conflation of empowerment and the personal – as an individual, not social being – as the political undermines collective action to dismantle the structures upholding inequality. Emphasising self-determination and personal achievement is conservative, it protects the status quo if it stops us from recognising or caring about the barriers that others face. Autonomy, choice, agency, empowerment are at best tools, political means not ends. If we confuse them with our goals then we might as well watch the chance to create a fairer and more just society for all slip through our fingers.

Can we create autonomy for ourselves as consumers? Does the young woman enjoying her healthy aid to masturbation see this outside of the global porn industry? Is her masturbation not influenced by the big business of the market, competition and profit? Feminists have historically and continue to fight for women’s sexual liberation, but on our terms; not a plasticised, eroticisation of power inequality defined by men and their profits. Can her freedom to enjoy porn be separated from the exploitation of women and girls? How easy is it to separate her ‘ethical feminist porn’ from that which produces images of violence against women and girls created by actual violence against women and girls? What about the women and girls who suffer sexual abuse, violence and coercion from men and boys whose expectations have been shaped more by the pornography they have seen than their own experiences?

Do we want the freedom to gain economic advantage from commodifying women, packaging our sexuality, whether through lap dancing, pornography or selling sex, to appeal to the male gaze? If we can see the relationship between cheap clothing, the Rana Plaza Bangladesh Factory collapse and international economic exploitation, why can’t we see the connection between buying and selling women, exploitation of women and girls through prostitution and trafficking and inequality between women and men? If we want better and fair working conditions for people in Bangladesh factories (the largest sector of women’s employment and creating over 75 per cent of the country’s export income), do we not equally recognise that a gendered employment market with economic inequality and the low paid, dead end jobs being disproportionately held by women in the West creates the conditions that make selling sex a viable (lack of) choice?

Or do we only care when it suits us?

Empowerment is all well and good, but how will it change the world? Feminism for me is not about focusing on the individual. It’s about transcending the politics of the individual. I want a better world for all of us.

Extremism: race, racism, religion, gender, power.

Within minutes of the breaking news of the violent murder of Lee Rigby, his death was being linked to Islamic extremism and terrorism. On the same day as his death, members of The English Defence League were involved in violent clashes with police in Woolwich, their Leader Tommy Robinson stating “This issue is political Islam,” adding, “It’s political Islam that’s spreading across this country.” By Friday, the British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, had also visited and had tweeted that the alleged killers should be wrapped in “pig skin” and shot again. Four days after Lee Rigby’s murder, a so called copy-cat crime in France was reported on at least one national radio station, using this incident to illustrate the problem of Islamic extremism as an international one. Radical-Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary, a man only likely to intensify anger and hatred, was given a platform by both the BBC and Channel 4. 48 hours after Lee Rigby’s death, Islamophobic hate crimes were running at 10 times their usual rate.

Also in the news this week, were the arrests of eight people, six men and two women, by police investigating an arson attack in Huddersfield in 2002. The fire killed eight, two women, one young man and five girls, three others, two women and one man managed to escape. Three young men were arrested shortly after the incident, one charged with murder and two with manslaughter. A fourth was arrested and ran away whilst on bail, he still has not been caught. Petrol was poured through the letter box, the house had been destroyed by the time fire engines had arrived, just four minutes after neighbours had called them upon hearing the windows smash as petrol-bombs were thrown into the house. That seven of the eight victims were women or girls and the four held responsible all young men seems to have evaded anyone’s notice. I wish I could believe that the omission of mention of the race of both victims and perpetrators meant that this was not seen as important, that it was a reflection of a society where people are valued equally, but I don’t. Every report has included the names of the dead, those who escaped and those charged. All but one of them, their visiting grandmother, were born and grew up in Huddersfield. Their names tell us that they were of south Asian descent. I wish I didn’t cringe at the photo and description of the ‘modest house’ in which 11 people were sleeping, believing this innocuous-sounding phrase, to be a judgment; and like the list of names, to be a statement of ‘other’.

It’s days since Lee Rigby was killed, there has been much discussion about the causes of extremism yet the issue of gender has been all-but ignored despite the glaring over representation of men, whether radical-Muslim, EDL or BNP. According to the Tell MAMA (Measuring anti-Muslim attacks) project, (in data collated before Lee Rigby’s death) 58% of anti-Muslim attacks reported to them are against women and girls with a 2:1 ratio of women victims in Islamic clothing compared to men in Islamic clothing, 75% of perpetrators are male and 54% of all cases are linked to supporters of the EDL and BNP. The gender patterns are clear – and predicable – to anyone who cares to look for them.

The heads of nearly 100 mosques have signed an open letter in which they describe the “absolute horror” that they share with the rest of British society at the crime committed “in the name of our religion”. Similarly, every EDL march is met with opposition, from both anti-fascist groups and members of local communities who want to make it known that the hatred and rhetoric of the EDL is not in their name.

So far this year, I’ve counted 39 UK women killed through suspected male violence. But the only voices linking these crimes are feminist ones. Mainstream media steadfastly refuses to make connections between sexism, misogyny, domestic and sexual violence and killing women. Identifying trends and making links is important, it helps us to identify causes and therefore – where there is the will – the potential to find solutions and create change. Why hasn’t a COBRA meeting been called to look at fatal male violence against women? Immediately when race or religion is a factor in violence, it is identified, named and often met with retaliation. Why isn’t it the same with sexist and misogynistic murder? The murder of Lee Rigby was abhorrent, but any murder is abhorrent. There should be no hierarchy. Could it be that it is only when the primary aggressors are those acting against, not reinforcing the dominant ideology, that the majority make links?

1 Tayyaba Batool, 13, Rabiah Batool, 10, Ateeqa Nawaz, 6, Aneesa Nawaz, 2, Najeeba Nawaz, 6 months, their mother Nafeesa Aziz, 35, and their uncle Mohammed ateeq-ur-Rehman, 18, their grandmother, Zaib-un-Nisa, 54.

Infertility, patriarchy, profit and me, or: “KERCHING!” – Infertility and woman blaming, woman shaming, woman controlling

I awoke this morning to what I thought was good news: a campaign to raise awareness of the relationship between a woman’s age and infertility.

I’m 45. I’d assumed that I’d become pregnant when the time was right. The time felt right when I was around 36 years old; I believed I’d been a mixture of lucky (not to have had an unplanned pregnancy, to have had a decent-enough education, to have a challenging and rewarding job, to have a home/mortgage and to have met someone I wanted to share life and parenthood with), unlucky (it had taken a while and a few ‘not so great choices’) and sensible (it had all taken effort). The ages 38 to 41 brought the delights of temperature/ovulation charts, followed by drugs to control ovulation and eventually four failed IVF attempts, one reaching the dazzling ‘success’ of an early miscarriage; complete with a side order of giving up alcohol and caffeine, vitamin and mineral supplements, losing weight, acupuncture and – and it pains me to admit this – listening to awful visualisation CDs, surrounding myself with ‘fertility colours’ and a strategically placed piece of rose crystal (no, not internally). I’m going to blame the mind altering ovulation and IVF drugs for my descent into those, please allow me and also grant me lifelong forgiveness for any adverse reaction that I might have to the phrase ‘positive mental attitude’. I’m now, jointly with my partner, about twenty thousand pounds lighter in pocket. 1

The years between the ages of 40 and 44 were not easy ones for me, with grief, loss, depression, jealously, bitterness, emptiness and despondency the companions of dwindling hope. I found out that our first IVF attempt hadn’t worked the day before my 40th birthday. I can still see where I was when I received that phone-call.

I didn’t have a seamless transition into acceptance of childlessness but one Saturday morning, in February 2012 came across this piece by Jody Day on her work to set up Gateway Women, and – once I’d stopped sobbing – I contacted her and eventually enrolled on her group work programme. It set me free, allowed me to move on.2

I’ll probably never know why I didn’t get pregnant, none of the testing involved with infertility treatment found any problems, I have ‘unexplained infertility’ but certainly age is a – if not the – most likely significant contributory factor. Fast forward to this morning and the issue of women, age and fertility being discussed on the radio and in social media and I was pleased. Pleased because I genuinely believe that there is insufficient attention paid to infertility, in society, in education and also in feminist discourse on women and reproduction.

However there are awareness-raising campaigns and ‘awareness-raising’ campaigns. The one people were talking about this morning is part of First Response’s “Get Britain Fertile”, campaign and is purportedly about warning those women who want to and are able to delay motherhood about the risks of doing so. First Response is a registered trademark of Church & Dwight Co. Inc., a £1.7 billion ($2.6 billion) company with headquarters in New Jersey, USA with brands including Arm & Hammer, Trojan, Nair, Oxi Clean, Orajel, Lady’s Choice and First Response. Whether they knew it or not, people were talking about an awareness raising campaign that is funded by a multi-million pound company that also trades in diet foods and hair removing products, products that rely upon misogyny created self loathing like chips need potatoes. The campaign is lent legitimacy through the backing of Zita West, the self-called “UK’s no. 1 for preconception planning, natural fertility, assisted fertility, pregnancy coaching and post-natal support”. I found three active UK companies registered is her name, all selling fertility products and treatments.3 In other words, this awareness raising campaign is about selling products through the medium of raising awareness. There doesn’t appear to be any of this messy business stuff referred to in the campaign.

When I think about raising awareness of issues relating to women, age and fertility, I want us to be talking about the facts. Whilst the average age of a first-time mother has been increasing, a woman’s fertility peaks in her early to mid-twenties after which it begins to decline, this is true of both natural and assisted conception. Three out of four men and women overestimate by five years the rapid decline in women’s fertility at 35 not 40.

When I think about raising awareness of issues relating to women and fertility, I want us to be talking about how women are judged for getting pregnant too young, for getting pregnant without a long term and male partner, for getting pregnant or failing to get pregnant when too old, for getting pregnant and remaining in or leaving paid employment, for only having one child, for having too many children, for having abortions, for staying in abusive relationships or leaving and breaking up ‘happy families’. Teenage mothers, single mothers, lesbian mothers, older mothers, women who work, women who stay at home, woman who have ‘x’ number of children, childless women, women who leave, women who stay –whether through choice or lack of choice- what unites us is that according to someone, we’re doing it wrong!

When we’re looking at why some women are delaying the age at which they have children and why some choose to have them as soon as they can, we need to look at how hard we make it for women to afford to be able to have children, how hard it is to have children and rewarding paid employment, how expensive and for many, unaffordable, childcare is, why for some young women their aspirations do not go beyond motherhood or why for some a child is seen as the solution to their sense of isolation, loneliness and worthlessness. We need to look at equality issues, we need to show the concept of ‘reverse-Darwinism’ – the panic about the trend for women with higher levels of education to have children in later life and fewer of them (and therefore more likely to face infertility) – the contempt it deserves, whilst looking at what we can do to support women of any social background in their decisions to have, or not to have children and to be able to plan the size of their families.

We need to look at the roles of men in raising families and at the effects of their ages, their jobs, their contributions in the home. We need to look at gender stereotypes and their impact on family life, relationships and woman and men’s ‘choices’. We need to make it no big deal for families to be made of people in same sex relationships whether or not they have children.

We need a global perspective. We need to look at poverty, inequality and fertility rates and ensure the relationship between higher birth rates and countries with lower GDPs and higher gender inequality, are seen as problems of international poverty inequality and gender inequality.

TV presenter Kate Garraway fronts the new campaign; she said that she “agreed to become Ambassador to the campaign” because “I want to alert women to start thinking about their fertility at a younger age than our generation did. They should get prepared and make informed choices early so there is no chance of sleepwalking into infertility.’ According to a report in the Telegraph, as part of the campaign, Garraway spent a day being transformed into a heavily pregnant 70 year-old by a prosthetic make-up artist, to “shock and provoke debate about how old is too old to have a baby”.

kate garraway old pregnant women article-2326293-19D52D22000005DC-611_306x450

The thing is I’ve never met anyone who planned or plans to delay having a baby into their 70ies. Women’s fertility declines through their 30ies and 40ies, what’s the point in an awareness campaign featuring a woman supposedly in her 70ies? Isn’t this confusing the message? Isn’t it telling women that they don’t want to delay motherhood until their 70ies, not that they cannot? The only way that this photo has impact is by exaggeration based on misogyny, the special misogyny reserved for older women in a society where women are valued by what they look like and an ideal of beauty rooted in youth.

This new campaign is not about raising awareness of the relationship between women’s age and infertility; it’s not about supporting women to make informed choices and making society more supportive of women’s choices. This campaign is about persuading women to start spending money on fertility treatment at a younger age and it relies upon misogyny to do so.

Footnotes

1 Yes, I know that not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to make the choice to spend a lot of money on unsuccessful fertility treatment.

2 Gateway Women was hugely beneficial for me, and I’d encourage any woman struggling with issues around childlessness by circumstance not choice to find out more: gateway-women.com

I’d also like to acknowledge that the support of Jodie and the group that I was part of contributed to me daring to start blogging.

3 They’re not legally required to disclose their annual turnover and I wasn’t able to find it.