“You often get them late afternoon on a Friday. If somebody doesn’t want to go home, that’s when you get these conversations,” says Alison Hamnett, director of operations across the north for Brook. They may start with asking for free condoms, but eventually the real story emerges: sexual exploitation, abusive relationships, precarious lives. Girls who don’t even feel entitled to refuse sex, let alone insist on protecting themselves.
Some are guarded. “Particularly if they are being groomed, they will have the answers to the questions down pat,” says Hamnett. “But the receptionist will say she saw a car outside drop them off – and the same car is coming with lots of young girls …” Posters hanging in the waiting room of the Manchester clinic where we meet explain the difference between exploitative and loving relationships: no, it’s not OK if he offers a roof over your head and expects sex in return.
The Burnley, Blackburn and Oldham clinics tend to see more grooming-gang victims, says Hamnett. In Liverpool, she found them dealing with a young homeless man, released from prison, who had been having sex in broad daylight in a car park while intoxicated. Manchester saw a young Muslim girl who was being radicalised. The checklist used with clients ranges from female genital mutilation to mental health issues. “We had a young woman of about 17, very intelligent, got all her A-levels and went to university,” says Hamnett. “She was bipolar and, when she was on her meds, she was great. When she wasn’t, she’d sell herself for sex.” The clinic helped her until she was too old to use its service, which is restricted to under-19s. They don’t know where she is now.
Brook’s expertise is in this area – where sexuality, deep-seated social problems and mental health issues collide – and is, says Hallgarten, what makes them “very good value for money”, as identifying the root cause of sexual risk-taking offers more chance of changing it.
But specialist clinics for vulnerable young people such as these are increasingly merging with more general services to save money. There is a push, says Hamnett, towards using GPs instead for contraception. That may work for young people with happy sex lives, but there is a reason appointments here last for up to 40 minutes, not the 10 minutes a busy GP might offer. “I feel as if we’re almost waiting a few years down the line for teenage pregnancies to go up,” she says ruefully. It is this sense of a clock being turned back that worries many.
The idea for the book [Against Our Will] grew out of Brownmiller’s activism, specifically, the consciousness-raising group to which she belonged in the early 70s, the New York Radical Feminists. One evening, one of its newer members, Diane Crothers, arrived bearing a copy of the Berkeley feminist magazine It Ain’t Me Babe, which earlier that year had printed a long account by a young female artist of being raped by two Vietnam veterans while hitchhiking home from her first women’s meeting. The issue Crothers had in her hand brought news of a stunning retaliatory action against the assault of a dancer by some men at a bachelor party, carried out by group called the Contra Costa Anti-Rape Squad #14. On the day of the wedding, this group had stuck flyers on the windscreens of guests’ cars, detailing what had gone on. “Sounds ugly?” asked the writer of these flyers. “Well, it is. It goes on all the time, one way or another. These pigs know the law won’t touch them, they can always insist the woman is a liar or a slut or crazy. [But] we women are learning to see through that nonsense. We hope you learn to, too.”
After everyone had read this story, Crothers announced that rape was an important feminist issue and that it should be explored by the group. Brownmiller, a journalist, wasn’t convinced. Like many people then, she thought rape was a “deviant” crime, one that any alert woman could surely avoid if she tried. But others disagreed. They wanted to talk. One woman, Sarah Pines, quietly began to describe how she had also been raped while hitchhiking. The worst part of her ordeal, she said, had been at the police station. “Aww, who’d want to rape you?” teased one police officer. Another insisted – does this sound familiar? – that she was too calm to be credible. The men involved were eventually given suspended sentences.
It was while listening to Pines, and to those who followed her, that Brownmiller began to see rape in another light, and when the talking was over she proposed that the group hold a conference on the subject, with research papers and panel discussions. “But I was a laggard,” she says, with a laugh. “The others told me: no, we will have a speak-out first, and then a conference.” The speak-out was held in a church, 30 women took part, and their experiences ran the gamut from street harassment to rape. One woman described how she had been raped by her therapist; another how she had been assaulted in her apartment after opening her door to a man who said he was delivering a package; yet another how she was molested by a junior doctor on a date arranged by his aunt and her mother.
The conference took place in a high school auditorium four months later – Brownmiller attended it on crutches, having sprained her ankle when she kicked a man who had goosed her in the street while she was handing out flyers for it – and by the time it was over she found she was able to look her own vulnerability “squarely in the eye”, something she had hitherto always refused to acknowledge. She realised that something important had been left out of her education: a way of looking at male-female relations, at sex, at strength and at power. She had, in other words, changed her mind about rape, for which reason she was now determined to write a book about it, one that would deploy examples from history, psychoanalysis, criminology, mythology and popular culture in the service of illustrating her conviction that “rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”. Was she surprised, as she embarked on this project, that no one had attempted such a thing before? “No, not really. We were uncovering so many new truths then. The early 70s was a great time for us. Women were so brilliant in their analysis.”
Against Our Will finally came out in 1975, five long years after the first of the key texts of women’s liberation: Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Though it would later be attacked by, among others, the black activist Angela Davis for its attitudes to race (in his piece, Remnick writes that Brownmiller’s treatment of the Emmett Till case “reads today as morally oblivious”), its reception was mostly positive and it became a bestseller (much later, with pleasing neatness, it would be included in the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century).
Some of the sisters, however, were not happy. “People in the movement were starting to say: ‘We don’t need stars’,” Brownmiller remembers. “When I announced to my consciousness-raising group that I’d finished writing it, someone said: ‘Why don’t you be the first feminist without ego who doesn’t put your name on the book?’” She clicks her teeth. “She was jealous, of course. Another time, when I was giving a talk on a college campus, a woman raised her hand and asked: ‘Why did you put your name on Against Our Will? All your ideas came from our movement, after all.’” How did she respond? “I said: what page did you write, sister?”
Did she think its publication would change things? (It is widely agreed now that not only did the book shift attitudes to rape, it may have influenced some changes in the law, including making the victim’s sexual history inadmissible.) “Oh, yeah,” she says. “I thought it would change minds all over America. But I also feel that I was part of a movement. Even as I was writing it, rape crisis centres had begun opening, legislators had begun looking at the law around a woman’s past.” In the long term, however, things did not change nearly enough. “I remember being startled when it came out that DNA samples were not being processed properly in some states, and it was pretty horrifying when it became apparent that some colleges were not going to take accusations against, say, their football players seriously on account of what their alumni might think.”
What has struck her most forcefully about the wave of allegations in recent weeks? (As I write, no fewer than 122 high-profile men stand publicly accused of assault or harassment in the US.) “Well, I’ve been astonished that these perpetrators seem to have such weird sex lives, that is very important. They’re perverts, and I think that comes from pornography.” She sighs. “Unfortunately, the pornographers were in the end a lot more successful than Women Against Pornography.” In 1978, she attended the first national feminist anti-pornography conference in the US, held in San Francisco, which was also where she first saw the dungaree-clad Andrea Dworkin in action, addressing a Take Back the Night march in an edgy part of the city (“I immediately dubbed her Rolling Thunder,” she recalls in her 1999 memoir In Our Time). Back in New York, she and other members of WAP ran educational tours of Times Square – then still horribly sleazy – at five dollars a throw, transgressive invasions that would regularly see them thrown out of strip shows, and which, in their first year, attracted some 2,500 “tourists”, among them a pair of Benedictine nuns from Erie, Pennsylvania.
There are far more intended parents waiting to be matched with a surrogate than there are women available to carry these pregnancies, yet surrogates are taught to view themselves as disposable laborers. A doctor at a clinic in India adds that “for the surrogates it’s mostly the character of the womb that we are interested in. We make sure the surrogates know that they are not genetically related to the baby, they are just the wombs.” … The doctor superimposes a single body part (the womb) over the personhood of the surrogate as a whole being, effectively eliding her subjectivity.
The surrogates that Pande interviewed referenced their own contributions to the pregnancy, contrasting the level of effort that they were putting into the pregnancies to that of the intended mother, who contributed “only an egg.” The surrogates were thus justified in making kinship claims to the future child … When one surrogate was told that she would have to “reduce” her pregnancy from triplets to twins, she insisted that she would keep the third baby if the intended parents did not want it because it was her blood, if not her genes … While blood does not circulate between the pregnant woman and fetus, the placenta is built from both maternal and fetal blood cells that can migrate between the two, lingering in various organs of the body and potentially impacting a variety of future conditions for the child, such as cancer risk and immune disorders.
This biological connection, however, is often downplayed because it is not genetic. In the Assisted Reproductive Technology industry, genetics are privileged over gestation, and thus the role of the surrogate is cast as that of an incubator who will not affect the appearance, intelligence, or personality of the child. This strict compartmentalization assures intended parents that their choice of surrogate will not impact the quality of their carefully selected genetic material, thus legitimizing cross-racial, cross-class, transnational surrogacy arrangements in ways that benefit the consumers of reproductive technologies. […]
Daisy Deomampo found that the intended parents she interviewed became very attached to the Indian “origin story” of their children, regardless of whether the child was conceived using Indian gametes. Parents returned from Indian with emblems of the country, “flattening out” the specificity of India and its historical and political contexts. [She] argues that parents “conflated the geographic space of India – and the attendant orientalist discourses that construct “Indian-ness” as exotically opposite to Western sensibilities – with the embodiment of the child’s identity through its gestation by an Indian surrogate mother in India” … Simultaneously Other[ing] Indian women’s bodies while incorporating romanticized and potentially colonializing notions of Indian identity or origins for surrogate-born children.
The idea that reproductive tourists can tap in to the natural resource of Indian’s fertility is also raised … [Despite] India’s birth rate or “fertility surplus” [being] deemed a demographic problem, [it is implied] that the purported “excessive” population, bodies, and fertility of India are always an available commodity for the foreign tourist … An estimated 8-10% of Indian women suffer from infertility and most surrogate mothers have been permanently sterilized … [But] rather than addressing the health care needs of Indian citizens, foreign economic pressure and state intervention have aimed at limiting the fertility of the poor at the same time that the image of fertile Indian surrogates is used to draw in reproductive tourists.
Laura Harrison, Brown Bodies, White Babies: The Politics of Cross-Racial Surrogacy
To this extent the stymied liberatory potential of reproductive technology is no different to the stymied liberatory potential of any other form of technology. Products and processes are made by the rich, for the rich, liberating those who are, in relative terms, already free. It’s not just that poorer women and women of colour have reduced access to abortion and contraception, or that some members of these groups have endured forced sterilisation, that is, reproductive technology actively used as a means of oppression. Egg donation, IVF, womb transplants and global surrogacy all now mean that wealthy white women can, should they so wish, outsource the very roots of sex-based oppression to their less privileged sisters.
Of course even this only works to a certain degree. Patriarchy remains invested in maintaining a stranglehold on the means of reproduction.
Consider this – if you accept that being biologically female is compatible with having an inner life, you have to apply this universally. Under such conditions no reproductive injustice – denial of abortion or contraception, forced sterilisation, economic coercion regarding having/not having children, disregard of maternal mortality – is justifiable. Forced pregnancy or sterilisation is always barbaric. Therefore, if you are to justify such barbarism where convenient, you must also promote the relative dehumanisation of everyone born with a womb (or a vagina, with the associated assumption that one might just have a womb).
Even if womb transplants and artificial wombs become everyday possibilities, the bodies of those already born with wombs will remain cheaper (providing we continue to place a low value on such people’s lives). It’s entirely plausible to see a world in which reproductive technologies increase the options of the privileged – gestate if you want, rent a surrogate or an artificial womb if you want – while doing nothing to raise the status of the most marginalised.
IVF, the pill, sterilisation, womb transplants and artificial wombs are not inherently anti-female; the problem is that economic and political power lies mostly with men, and with only a small proportion of highly privileged women. Of course the privileged will ask “what’s in it for me?” Of course their priority will be to use these things to their advantage. The priority for feminists needs to be to hang on to these possibilities while continuing to challenge the idea that those who (potentially) gestate are in all other ways inferior beings.
It’s easy to present feminists who want to talk about reproduction as luddites. They “reduce women to their biology, just like men’s rights activists”. Quite obviously we are more than our wombs. There’s a whole thinking, feeling, acting, unique person who just so happens to have been born with a uterus. But we still need to talk about the relationship between our social status and our potential reproductive role, not least because it’s of fundamental importance to a truly intersectional feminism. The regulation of female reproductive bodies has been used to maintain not just gender, but class and racial hierarchies. It needs to end.
For instance, if instead of paying for sex a landlord would rather receive sexual favours from a tenant living rent-free, would that really be so bad? Well, yes, actually it would, at least according to recent reports of landlords making this very offer. Apparently, this is an appalling example of the current housing market allowing predatory men to exploit the vulnerable.
Only if this is the case, why is paying for sex not viewed with the same horror? It’s the same marketplace, the same bodies, the same needs. All sex for rent does is cut out the symbolic means of exchange in the middle. Yet far from decrying the exchange of sex for money, supposedly progressive organisations such as Amnesty International and the NUS, in addition to mainstream political parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, are pushing to liberalise attitudes towards the purchase of sex. Why are these two things seen so differently?
True, live-in work carries with it particular risks and uncertainties, but do any of us feel the same qualms about housekeepers or nannies getting to live rent-free? And aren’t many of us doing jobs we’d rather not do, only a pay check or two away from eviction? So why should sex for rent be seen as especially problematic?
If it’s to do with the fact that it’s sex and not, say, cleaning or childcare, shouldn’t we be able to pinpoint why this is? And yet few are willing to do so, silenced by the thought-terminating clichés – “sex work is work”, “my body, my choice” – that have come to dominate the left’s approach to sex and gender.
I’d go so far as to suggest the mainstream left has no real right to be shocked about sex for rent. After all, it’s only the logical conclusion of a pseudo-feminist politics which refuses to engage fully with power and labour redistribution, choosing instead to talk in circles about the right of individuals to do whatever they like with their own bodies while bypassing any analysis of why one group seeks to control the sexual and reproductive lives of another. It’s politics for the unthinking and the privileged, yet it appears we can all afford to be unthinking and privileged when it’s only the bodies of women at stake.
“My body, my choice”, a perfectly appropriate slogan when used to mean only a pregnant woman should be able to make decisions about her pregnancy, has been expanded ad absurdum. Yet the point about abortion is that the only alternative to it is the work of pregnancy; there’s no possible third option, whereby the already-pregnant individual gets to go through neither. The same is not true of sex work or poverty. It is possible for there to be alternatives to exploitation or destitution. That for many women there are currently none is not least down to a politics that values unlimited sexual freedom for all – an impossibility – over a fairer redistribution of limited choices for everyone.
If we regard women as full, equal human beings, then we cannot have a world in which there are no limits placed on men’s access to female sexual and/or reproductive labour. “Sex work is work” and “my body, my choice” simply don’t cut it when it comes to deciding where to draw the line. We should all face restrictions on what we can do with our own bodies, just as we should all have duties of care towards the bodies of others. The problem with patriarchy is not that it prevents women from having the same physical freedoms as men due to some inexplicable, knee-jerk “woman-phobia” –it’s that it shifts most of the necessary physical restrictions and duties attached to reproduction and care onto women, leaving men with the belief that liberation means no one ever saying “no” to you.
Such a belief – at heart pro-capitalist and anti-feminist – has seeped into supposedly pro-woman, left-wing thought and activism, yet anyone who points out the absurdity of it is treated to a Victorian asylum-style diagnosis of prudery and whorephobia. To claim, on the one hand, that one is anti-austerity and anti-neoliberal, while insisting, on the other, that no woman is without means as long as she has orifices to penetrate, is not progressive. On the contrary, it’s ultra-conservative. It shifts the baseline of our understanding of need and it does so dishonestly, masking coercion by repackaging it as free choice.
If anything is for sale – any body part, any experience, any relationship – then the poorest will be stripped bare. If you accept the principle that there is nothing wrong with buying sex – or ova or breastmilk or babies – how do you ensure supply can meet demand? Only by making sure there are always enough women with no other options. There is no other way. There are not enough female bodies to meet male sexual and reproductive demands without any form of coercion; that’s why patriarchy, with all its complex systems of reward and punishment, exists in the first place.
If sex work is work, poverty is necessary. The alternative to patriarchy isn’t a world in which everyone gets to be a de-facto patriarch, free to make whatever sexual and reproductive choices they want, safe in the knowledge that there will always be willing bodies to meet their demands. The postmodern fantasy that an underclass of coerced, poverty-stricken females can be replaced by an underclass of willing, always-up-for-it, cisgendered females, while charming in its naivety, remains just that: a fantasy.
i hope you hit your limit yesterday.
yesterday, male people told you precisely how pathetic, worthless, & contemptible they find the female experience.
to them, any attempt to organise as female people is laughable & shameful. no matter how abstract your slogans (“no uterus no opinion” makes no attempt to exclude anyone from womanhood), no matter how obfuscatory your circumlocutions (”dfab”, “dmab” in reference to unambiguous sex). any solidarity between female people will be ridiculed as the enterprise of “cis women”, i.e. members of the female sex who have not dissociated from it.
i hope you listened to them & i hope you saw their tantrum for what it was: the same entitlement, the same ego, the same contempt for female people, the same ignorance of female experience.
engels said that: The first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamian marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male.
patriarchy, male supremacy, institutional sexism, whatever you want to call it: it is the sex-class system through which male people subjugate female people, first & foremost to assert control over reproduction.
bell hooks said that: “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.
feminism is the movement to dismantle that sex-class system. feminists must speak lucidly about sex, sex-class, socialisation, & reproduction.
& yet that speech & movement is condemned as oppressive, exclusionary, & cruel to male people, because sexist male people will never be happy with feminism. never. it’s not worth it to try to appease them.
the whole “abortion is too exclusionary to bring up at a women’s march” thing makes no sense regardless of how you define woman (i.e. “female people” vs. “anyone who identifies as a woman”).
is rape an appropriate topic for a women’s march? not all women are raped. not all rape victims are women. is bringing up rape at a women’s march oppressive to women who haven’t been raped? if never-been-raped women protested that anti-rape activism “excluded” them & hurt their feelings, would we take them seriously? if never-been-raped women proclaimed that anti-rape activism “reduced women to rape victims”, would you take their side?
so is female reproductive autonomy an appropriate topic for a women’s march? every person that suffers under the exploitation of female reproductive capacity – denied abortion, forced abortion, forced impregnation, etc. – is a member of the female sex. the vast majority of those people consider themselves “women” (or the equivalent word in their language).
so what if members of the male sex feel offended & excluded by discussions of male exploitation of female people? their bruised egos don’t need to be assuaged by women.
if rape can be discussed at a women’s march, why not female reproductive autonomy?
it would actually be great to discuss white feminism with respect to white women uncritically expecting black women to take over their domestic roles when white women “empowered” themselves in the workplace in the 60s and 70s or, like, white women CEOs exploiting women of color globally in sweatshops so they could join the boy’s club of millionaires, but no…. alas……. it’s not to be……… instead we get to say that referencing menstruation is the pinnacle of white feminism
Those on the frontline of this rage know it is there. Millions of us marched last Saturday. This has rattled Trump, who is obsessed with size, with ratings and with reviews. But let us now pursue clarity and strategy, and name what is happening.
Patriarchy is the sea in which these sharks gather. I am glad to see that people are using this word again. It went out of fashion for a bit when feminism was portrayed as a series of tedious personal choices over shoes, shopping and sex toys. But the concept of patriarchy is essential to understanding what is happening right now. It is a system by which men hold power over political leadership, moral authority and every kind of social privilege, over women and children.
Patriarchy is not some men-only affair. Many women play a role in sustaining it. The far right, by the way, is not afraid of using this word. It claims it as the basis for all that is good in western civilisation. The elevation of Trump is absolutely patriarchal fundamentalism. He has swept up a lot of the Christian vote because of it. The adulation of Putin is the worship of another white power based on patriarchal rule: unapologetically anti-women, anti-gay, anti-black and anti-Muslim. It is obsessed with displays of masculinity to the point of fascist camp. The right promises the restoration of a time when men were men and women were sanctified mothers or whores. Such authoritarianism may be delivered by both men and women. As the American author and feminist bell hooks says, patriarchy has no gender. It is not situated only within the individual – which is why screaming “Sexist!” at someone only gets you so far. Were the women who voted for Trump furthering patriarchy? Yes, obviously. They may believe it can protect them.
The dismantling of this power cannot possibly come from those who won’t name it and spend the entire time shoring it up, largely reaping its benefits: that is, much of the liberal establishment. By assuming the culture war had been won, the myths of impartiality and neutrality have allowed far–right voices to go unchallenged. The assumption that we all believe in equality, are anti-racist, love an art gallery and some heated debate turned out to be wrong.
Patriarchal power asserts itself through cultural as well as economic resentment. And that is everywhere. The oft-repeated sentiment that feminism is itself an extreme movement is evidence of how liberalism bows down to authoritarianism.
So much more important now than whether dullards profess their allegiance to women’s rights while refusing to listen to women is understanding who will get down on their knees to service the new man-child patriarchy. And those of us who won’t. The power of telling it like it is is ours.
QotD: “If you don’t agree with the central aims of a political movement, you aren’t part of that political movement”
All this nonsense about whether prolife women can be feminist is such liberal identity bullshit. Feminism is a political movement, not an identity. If you don’t agree with the central aims of a political movement, you aren’t part of that political movement. I don’t go around calling myself a conservative and then getting offended when people point out that I don’t actually support the goals of conservatism. You’re entitled to your opinion, of course, but you’re not entitled to lay claim to a political descriptor that doesn’t accurately describe you and then throw a fit when someone points this out.
I think it is most appropriate to make the first post of 2017 a call for female, feminist solidarity, please read Sarah Ditum’s article in full here.
There are females, of course […], but “female” is not counted as a gender identity. Female is written out. Inside the magazine, you’ll find features which reveal that, actually, femaleness is a highly pertinent characteristic: you can read about the poverty and violence inflicted on girls in developing nations, the pressures of bullying and body-shaming on girls in America, and how the two-tiered market in children’s toys might be harming girls through pinkification. Being female is a matter of life and death, but, per the cover, “female” is not a label under which people may gather.
Here I suppose I should concede National Geographic’s good intentions. National Geographic did not, I assume, deliberately set out to produce an issue showing that female people are exploited and abused for being female, while also announcing that “female” does not exist. Nor is National Geographic doing anything particularly new or shocking by deleting women as a class: reproductive rights organisations now talk about “pregnant people” rather than women in order to be “inclusive”, and even references to vaginas can be damned as transphobic. But if it the express motivation of this cover had been to tauntingly depoliticise everything the inside pages have to tell about the place of women and girls in the world, the patriarchy would give it a 10/10 for threat neutralisation.
In the circumstances, wanting out of the class “woman” is eminently rational. And being a woman is only going to get rougher in Trump’s America. Michelle Goldberg is correct in her bleak, eloquent Slate column when she writes that Trump’s presidency means the backlash is on. Abortion rights, protections against sexual discrimination, action against sexual violence – these things will be the first to go. Even if you don’t “feel female”, you will be exposed by being female. A label is no defense against male violence. You can disown your body, but your body is too valuable a commodity to be left alone. It can make babies. It can make dinners, mop floors. It can make a man orgasm. You are a resource to be colonised, and simply stating that you are not one by refusing the title “woman” will never function as a “keep out” sign.
To survive, to resist, we need to organise. To organise, we need to acknowledge what we hold in common. Throughout feminism’s waves and wanings, that’s been the basis of every success: identifying the oppressions imposed on us as women, and working together as women against them. Our female bodies are the battleground, and we can’t escape that even if we deny it by claiming some variant identity such as “non-binary” or “bi-gender”. We need a women’s movement. Even those of us who think we don’t need it, will need it. And for that, we need to call ourselves – our female selves – women, without compromise or qualification.
Woman on the Edge of Time was first published 40 years ago and begun three-and-a-half years before that.The early 1970s were a time of great political ferment and optimism among those of us who longed for change, for a more just and egalitarian society with more opportunities for all the people, not just some of them. Since then, inequality has greatly increased.
At the time I wrote this novel, women were making huge gains in control of their bodies and their lives. Not only has that momentum been lost, but many of the rights we worked so hard to secure are being taken from us by Congress and state legislatures every year.
But we must also understand that the attempt to take away a woman’s control over her body is part of a larger attempt to take away any real control from most of the population. Now, corporations and the very wealthy 1% control elections. Now, the media are propaganda machines and the only investigative reporting is on Comedy Central, HBO, or the web.
The powers that be have allowed for certain social rather than economic gains. We’ll soon finally have legalised marijuana and gay marriage in every state – but unions are being crushed and the safety net of the New Deal and the Johnson era is being abolished one law at a time, while women are forced into the back-alley abortions that once killed so many. We have made some social gains and many economic losses. The real earning power of working people diminishes every year.
During the heyday of the second wave of the women’s movement, a number of utopias were created (Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, James Tiptree’s Houston, Houston Do You Read?, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Elisabeth Mann Borgese’s My Own Utopia from The Ascent of Woman, and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground among them) and now they aren’t. Why? Feminist utopias were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable. Utopias came from the desire to imagine a better society when we dared to do so. When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in.
Writing about a strong community that socialises children and integrates old people is a response to women living in a society where a mother is often alone with her children and old women are treated just a step better than the excess pets executed daily in pounds and shelters.
We are ever more isolated from truly intimate contact with one another. Many men prefer pornography to actual sex, where they have to please a woman or must at least pretend to try.
I also wanted Woman on the Edge of Time to show an ecologically sound society. The lives and institutions and rituals of Mattapoisett all stress being a part of nature and responsible for the natural world. In imagining the good society, I borrowed from all the progressive movements of that time. Like most women’s utopias, the novel is profoundly anarchist and aimed at integrating people back into the natural world and eliminating power relationships. The nuclear family is rare in feminist utopias and banished from this novel.
I projected a society in which sex was available, accepted and non-hierarchical – and totally divorced from income, social status, power. No trophy wives, no closeting, no punishment or ostracism for preferring one kind of lover to another. No need to sell sex or buy it. No being stuck like my own mother in a loveless marriage to support yourself. In the dystopia in Woman on the Edge of Time, women are commodified, genetically modified and powerless.
I am also very interested in the socialising and interpersonal mechanisms of a society. How is conflict dealt with? Again, who gets to decide, and upon whose head and back are those decisions visited? How does that society deal with loneliness and alienation? How does it deal with getting born, growing up and learning, having sex, making babies, becoming sick and healing, dying and being disposed of? How do we deal with collective memories – our history – that we are constantly reshaping?
Utopia is born of the hunger for something better, but it relies on hope as the engine for imagining such a future. I wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete – that was the real genesis of Woman on the Edge of Time.
Marge Piercy, from her introduction to the new edition of Women on the Edge of Time (longer version here)
QotD: “The World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them – own their bodies”
[All] feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.
According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:
“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”
It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.
I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.
I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.
There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.
In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.
This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.
Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.
“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?
Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.
The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.