The other morning I awoke to the news that the legislation in the US guaranteeing women the national right to abortion since 1973 had been overturned by the Supreme Court there.
It wasn’t a surprise. For years there have been ongoing erosions to this right and a leak to the media a while back meant we all knew it was coming. And yet it is still shocking.
I come from a country where contraception and hospital care are provided free to all women regardless of income. The system is not perfect, not every woman has her needs met, racism and poor accountability is common and there are other shortfalls, however the philosophy in providing this service is that it is considered to be an essential part of caring for the whole of society.
This is not the case in the US. In the richest country in the world ( by net wealth) nineteen million women of reproductive age are living in what rightodecide.org call “contraceptive deserts, many women cannot physically access or afford contraception, never mind maternity care.
Twenty two states require that abstinence is emphasised in sex education with no requirement for any information to be taught about contraception and seven states don’t require schools to provide any sex education at all.
The National Sexual Violence Source Centre tells us that 1 in 5 women in the US experience attempted or completed rape, with 1 in 3 of those being girls between the ages of 11 and 17.
I have often wondered how this can be the case.
Listening to recent radio coverage I heard a journalist speaking to two different women demonstrating outside the Supreme Court, each on different sides of the political divide on this issue.
One was devastated. She was old enough to remember the joy she felt hearing the Roe Vs Wade decision nearly 50 years ago.
The other was a younger woman who was elated at the result of the vote. When the journalist asked what she would do if she ever found herself in the position of having an unwanted pregnancy, she declared that if she didn’t want to get pregnant she wouldn’t have sex, and if she did get pregnant she would have the baby because it would be wrong to kill an innocent child. She was then asked about the placard she was holding which said ”Don’t tread on me”. She explained it was a phrase associated with the right to bear arms. For her the two issues went together.
For me I couldn’t see the connection at first.
On further reflection I wondered to what extent the right to bear arms might serve women as protection against predatory males…
According to an article in Harper’s Bazaar in 2018 the NRA claim that owning a gun can protect women from assault. Journalist Jennifer Wright looked into this and discovered that
‘Women are 100 times more likely to be fatally shot by a man with a gun than use one for self defense. Women who are suffering from domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed if there is a gun in their home, regardless of who the gun technically belongs to. A 1997 study found that, even in cases where there is no domestic violence, a woman’s risk factors for a violent death in the home increase threefold if a gun is present in that home” and of course in states where more men own guns there are also more sexual assaults on women.
I recently read bell hook’s Ain’t I A Woman- a cultural criticism of the ways in which black women have been oppressed by white and black men and also white women.
I was struck by her description of un-policed male settlers in the US practicing sexual activity that necessitated rules to be created outlawing bestiality, among other activities.
She describes a culture based on a problematic theology, where deep sexual feelings were regarded as sinful and frightening and so:
“Colonial white men placed the responsibility for sexual lust onto women and consequently regarded them with the same suspicion and distrust with which they regarded sexuality in general”. Later as the body of society moved away from fundamentalist Christian beliefs during the more prosperous 19th century there was a shift in perception. White women (prosperous ones) were now regarded as idealised figures of purity and virtue to be cherished and put on a pedestal. To fit this ideal they had to conduct themselves as if they were not sexual beings.
The former view of woman as an insatiable temptress came to be firmly transferred onto black women. Both of these pernicious myths around female sexual sexuality are still damaging women and men to this day. It seems to me that some of the more problematic beliefs of those early fiercely independent settlers continue amongst those who value their right to bear arms so highly and also leads them to expect to control women’s sexuality. Women who are part of that culture will inevitably internalise these values too.
I had a moment of compassion for the young woman who was interviewed outside the Supreme Court because I was reminded of my 17 year old self. As a teenager at a Catholic school we were all taught to value human life highly and to be anti-abortion. To help mould our views I remember we were assembled in the school hall to be shown a film of a woman having a termination. Naturally we were horrified and convinced of the horror of killing an infant, we were then encouraged to extrapolate this feeling to any stage of foetal development. I sincerely believed that human life was important in a pro-life way that meant I was also against the death penalty, international debt, sexual exploitation and euthanasia. I believed that women who wanted to keep their babies should be supported and cherished and should definitely not have their babies taken away from them, as had been the policy not many years earlier.
It wasn’t untilI I read Marge Piercy’s “Braided Lives”at about age 19 that I gained any understanding of the complexity and painful layers of life experience that so many women have related to this issue. The novel tells the tale of 2 girls coming to womanhood in America in the 1950’s onwards. For the first time I learned how a sexual relationship could ruin a woman’s life and how sex could pose the danger of death from an illegal abortion. It was unsentimental and educational. It gave me an insight, as all good storytelling does, into a world of experience bigger than my own. It gave me a sense of empathy for women who find themselves in impossible situations in a hypocritical society with an imbalanced distribution of power.
When I trained as a family planning teacher at 20 I came to understand the unreliability of most forms of contraception that were generally regarded by the public as 100% effective.
As time went on I learned more and more about they ways in which so many women do not hold the power to manage their own fertility and sexual activity.
At that time in the UK rape in marriage was not considered a crime until a landmark judgement in 1991 challenged this situation leading to legislation in 1993.
As an adult I went on to have my own lived experience and witnessed those of people I loved, around sexuality, reproductive issues, childbirth, relationships. With more experience and education I developed a growing critical awareness giving me some understanding of how issues around sexuality have to be understood not just morally but in relation to structures of power, agency and human rights.
Too many times I have the heard the argument that positions the right for a woman to end a pregnancy she didn’t choose or cannot afford being framed as little more than selfish indulgence by the promiscuous.
For me the context around the debate is so alarmingly misogynistic that I believe as women we must be suspicious of it even while we wish there to be less need for abortions.
In Scotland the Women’s minister recently stated that 1 in 3 women here will have an abortion.
My concern is that a largely unacknowledged part of this discussion is rooted in an old-world view that really says women should not be sexual beings at all.
A mindset that says that woman who are sexual are out of control seductresses and all problems relating to sexuality are caused by them.
I still consider myself to be pro life however I can see the ways my enthusiasm and idealism as young woman was manipulated by the culture I grew up in, in a way that did not serve my interests or those of other women and those who care about them. Maybe that is the case for the young woman with the placard at the Supreme Court or maybe not. I won’t ever know.
What I do know is that I want to live in a world where every baby is loved and supported and so is every mother.
I know I want every white, black, and minority ethnic woman to have the right to be just as sexual or non-sexual as she wishes to be.
For women in the UK who share so much of our cultural heritage with women in the US, and who experience plenty of issues in our own context around inequality, sexual violence and social injustice, is it any wonder we find it hard to own and speak about our own sexuality?
My work with Red Velvet Revelry allows me the great privilege of inviting women to share stories about the intimate side of life. My intention is that by witnessing the stories I am participating in a conversation which not only values and honours those stories but also continually extends my understanding beyond the limits of my own experience. In the process I hope as a white woman of privilege to understand a little better something of what it’s like for black and minority ethnic women, disabled women and LBTQI folk, so I can help push back against the dehumanising stereotypes and myths perpetuated against all of us.
This is why I shall continue to collect and value and share women’s stories about sexuality not just so I can understand this vast subject for myself, but so I can help women understand, empathise with and support each other.
Don’t tread on us.
Ain’t I A Woman bell hooks 1981 Page 30