Who Owns Our Bodies?

Source: whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com

Source: whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com

Who owns your body? Well, you do, of course. But if you’re a woman, I’m afraid society doesn’t quite see it that way.

Earlier this week, Angelina Jolie made headlines when she disclosed her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, to reduce her risk of breast cancer from 87% to less than 5%. While many were supportive of her choice and courage, hordes of outraged men (and some women) took to Twitter and Facebook to mock and condemn her for it. Among them were comments expressing sympathy for Brad (“Poor Brad”), jeering at Brad (“Serves him right for leaving Jennifer Aniston”), sadness for themselves that Angelina’s breasts had been removed (“There is no God”, “The best thing about her is gone”), as well as downright commands that she reverse the procedure (“Please put the boobs back on your chest”).

Here’s a small selection, credit to @isawfireworks on Twitter:

TwitterScreenshot

Let’s think about that for a little bit. Here is a woman, who is a world-famous actor, director and screenwriter, with Golden Globe and Academy awards to her name. Not only does she have a great career and a loving family, she is a UNHCR ambassador, and has invested her time and effort in bringing humanitarian aid around the world. But apparently, none of that matters. The greatest thing about her, that she should never let go of, no matter what the cost to her health, are her breasts.

We’ll come back to this later, but for now, let’s move on to another incident that ignited social media in the UK this week. UKIP, a far-right political party, has always been associated with offensive views, and yesterday saw them the butt of many a joke as it was revealed that one of their biggest donors believed that women wearing trousers were being deliberately hostile towards men. In fact, he believed this so deeply that he wrote an entire book about it, entitled ‘Women in Trousers: A Rear View’.

Here are some priceless quotes:

“Women have big bottoms, they are meant to have big bottoms. Countless women who would look lovely in dresses or skirts are embarrassingly unattractive in trousers.”

“Walk along any street and you see women using trousers like a uniform every single day. This is hostile behaviour. They are deliberately dressing in a way that is opposite to what men would like. It is behaviour that flies against common sense, and also flies against the normal human desire to please.”

Fortunately, his remarks were met with hilarity and ridicule, but as pointed out in the blog HerbsandHags, his comments are merely an extreme example of what many men truly feel — that they have a right to be pleased by the female body. Any, and every, female body.

And that is what links the incident of the hostile trousers with the backlash against Angelina Jolie. It stems from the idea that women’s bodies are public property, in particular, men’s property, and thus everything that a woman chooses to do with it is viewed as a way of pleasing them, or as an affront to them. It is for this reason that strange men on the Internet feel entitled to chastise Angelina Jolie for prioritizing her health over their right to ogle her breasts, and it is for this reason that whenever a woman is unhappy about her weight, random men think it a great comfort to her to proclaim, “It’s fine, I prefer larger women.” Because, didn’t you know, women’s bodies exist primarily for male pleasure.

The unspoken notion that it is not women, but men, who possess the rights to our bodies, is a dangerous one. Today, I was dismayed to find out that three men in Sweden had been cleared of rape charges, despite the horrific nature of what they had done, and the fact that they clearly had not had consent. (Read more about the case here. TW.) The judge’s verdict? “People involved in sexual activities do things naturally to each other’s body in a spontaneous way, without asking for consent.”

You see, when we are not considered to be the legitimate owners of our bodies, then our decisions regarding them become unimportant. Thus, the Swedish woman’s desire to not have something done to her body was seen as less valid than the rapists’ desire to carry it out; Angelina Jolie’s desire to have surgery was seen as less valid than men’s desire to leer at her breasts; and women’s desire to wear what they like is seen as less valid than men’s opinions on what they should be wearing. These vary in severity and the horror of their consequences, but it is the same pernicious mentality that underlies them all.

Who owns our bodies? We do. And it’s time the world knew that.

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The Steubenville Case – When Will Women Start to Matter?

In the aftermath of the trial of Richmond and Mays, Megan Carpentier writes in yesterday’s Guardian, “Rape is unique in US society as a crime where the blighted future of the perpetrators counts for more than the victim’s.”

Indeed, this is an apt observation, given the sickening way in which CNN, among others, reported on the verdict two days ago. Given the anger this had sparked on blogs and other social media, you’ve probably come across it by now, but just in case you haven’t, here’s what CNN had to say about Mays and Richmond’s being found guilty of rape:

Reporter Poppy Harlow: “I’ve never experienced anything like it, Candy. It was incredibly emotional, incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures — star football players, very good students — we literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.”

Anchor Candy Crowley: “A 16-year-old just sobbing in court — regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16-year-olds. When you listen to it and realize they could stay until they’re 21, what’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty, in juvenile court, of rape, essentially?”

Legal expert Paul Callan: “The most severe thing with these young men is being labelled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law…That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

Poor, poor rapists. What an unfortunate fate to befall them. Only, it wasn’t misfortune, it wasn’t bad luck that led to the blighting of their “promising futures”. It was their actions, and their responsibility, when they noticed a drunk girl throwing up by the side of the road, and instead of helping her, decided to rape her and take pictures of her for laughs with the boys. Sure, 16-year-olds sobbing in court might be an emotional sight. But what about a 16-year-old who wakes up one day to discover that she had been raped while unconscious the night before? To see pictures and videos of her violation and abuse flung about on social media? To see her rapists and their friends laugh and boast about it? To be humiliated and mocked by people she knows, and even people she doesn’t? To have people call her a liar and a whore, and threaten to hurt her for reporting the crime? What’s the “lasting effect” of that?

While the Steubenville case has garnered widespread media attention, the spotlight has been turned on the jock culture in Steubenville itself, and particularly the high school. Yet as we know, what goes on there — the star status of the football team, the impunity they face for their actions, the disrespect they show towards women — is merely a microcosm of what goes on everywhere else in the world. And it isn’t just male athletes, of course. Male politicians, male CEOs, male media hotshots, any man in a position of power can use and abuse women with relatively little censure. The public rushes to defend them, to sympathize with them. The woman must be lying. She must be doing it for financial gain, or for revenge. Did he hit her? She must have pushed him to it. We’ve heard it all before. And now, even when the rapists have provided heaps of evidence of their crime, in the form of photographs, videos and bragging text messages, some people, including the victim’s own friends, still find it reasonable to label the victim a liar, and media outlets still find it so tragic that the criminals have been made to answer for their crime.

From rawstory.com

From rawstory.com

It sometimes absolutely staggers me just how little women matter in society. This is one of those times. Shakespeare’s As You Like It contains the famous lines — “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” Perhaps less poetically, but more accurately, I would say that all the world’s a stage, and while the men are players, women are their props, to be adored as possessions and prizes, or despised and used as cheap, worthless trinkets.

Women matter, for we are human too. Is that so difficult for society to grasp?

Slutwalk London 2012

Slutwalk Sign Blame Rapists, Not Victims

My placard for the day

On 24 January 2011, a Toronto police officer gave a talk on crime prevention. When speaking about rape, he uttered the now infamous words, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts.” Enraged at his words and the culture of victim-blaming it reflected, Canadians marched to let everyone know that women’s clothes were not responsible for rape; rapists were. Although it was a Canadian police officer who had made those comments, the rape culture that gave rise to the sentiment was not confined to Canada. Women from around the world recognised it, shared their outrage, and have joined in the movement, with Slutwalk protest rallies popping up in more than 40 countries so far.

From the start, Slutwalk has been controversial, even among feminists. Some seek to reclaim the word ‘slut’, to redefine it to mean a sexually liberated woman, instead of a judgmental term used to cast aspersions on the morality of the woman to whom it is addressed. Still some wish to use the word to include all women, to demolish the idea that some women are more valuable than others based solely on a patriarchal notion of feminine purity. I’ve heard it said that “if we’re all sluts, then the term can no longer be used to divide us.”

However, many feminists, myself included, find the reclamation of the word ‘slut’ to be deeply problematic. We could insist on its redefinition, refuse to see it as an insult, but I don’t think it is possible to wipe the slate completely clean. Regardless of what we might say, sexist people will continue to use the word as an insult, and even when not intended to be used as such, historical connotations will hang off it, baggage reminding us of and reinforcing our oppression. Personally, I think the word ‘slut’ should be wiped from our vocabulary, ideally together with the words ‘virgin’ and ‘prude’. Although they are occasionally used to refer to men, it is common knowledge that women are overwhelmingly the targets of such terms. The very existence of these words places undue importance on a woman’s sexual activity, so much so that it is bound up in her identity. There is no word no describe a person who has yet to learn to drive, no word to describe someone who has never been swimming. Why are we not content with people being able to say, “I’ve never had sex before,” or “I enjoy sex and engage in it frequently?” Why do we see the need to encapsulate their sexual experience (or lack of it) in a label? When applied to women, these identity tags become even more damaging, cementing the idea that women exist as vessels for the sexual pleasure of men, and thus can be viewed as ‘used’ or ‘unused’.

For all that, I decided to attend Slutwalk London yesterday, because Slutwalk is about so much more than the word ‘slut’. While even within the march itself, opinion was divided as to whether we should call ourselves ‘sluts’, there was one thing that everyone could agree on, and that was the notion that the only one responsible for rape was the rapist.

I had never been to a Slutwalk before, and was very moved by the experience. There was a huge turnout, of women as well as a good number of men, bearing placards denouncing the culture of victim-blaming. Here are a few snapshots:

Slutwalk sign "57% of rapes are never reported", "97% of rapists will never spend 1 day behind bars"

“57% of rapes are never reported”, “97% of rapists will never spend 1 day behind bars”

Slutwalk sign "I've got 99 problems and they are all misogyny"

“I’ve got 99 problems and they are all misogyny”

Slutwalk sign "Whatever we wear / Wherever we go / Yes means yes / No means no" , "Keep calm and abolish victim-blaming"

“Whatever we wear / Wherever we go / Yes means yes / No means no” , “Keep calm and abolish victim-blaming”

Slutwalk sign "Do not give excuses for what my rapist did to me!"

“Do not give excuses for what my rapist did to me!”

Slutwalk sign "Fuck you and your rape apology" , "There is no excuse: stop victim blaming!"

“Fuck you and your rape apology” , “There is no excuse: stop victim blaming!”

Slutwalk sign "Things that cause rape: (1) Rapists (2) See above"

“Things that cause rape: (1) Rapists (2) See above”

As we marched, we chanted refrains such as, “Whatever we wear, wherever we go; yes means yes and no means no”; “We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again, no excuse for violent men”; “Two four six eight; stop the violence, stop the rape”, among others. We called to end the shaming of women, to assert that women who wear revealing clothing are not ‘sluts who are asking for it’, and that women who do not wear revealing clothing are not ‘uptight prudes who need a good seeing to.’ We called for the right to dress and have sex on our own terms, not the patriarchy’s. We called for rape cases to be taken seriously by the police and for the public to stop being rape apologists. And at the end of our march, many brave women, most of whom were survivors, shared their stories with us.

Slutwalk London 2012 speech Emily Rose

Slutwalk London 2012 speech "Don't Chat to me" - a poem about street harassment

“Don’t Chat to me” – a poem about street harassment

Diversity and inclusivity was the order of the day. We heard the story of young women who had struggled with the justice system after being raped; the story of a mother whose daughter had been raped at the age of 16, and whose rapist had got away with it; the story of a trans woman battling with the constant discrimination and threat of sexual violence; stories about women with disabilities being denied their rights; stories about how sex workers face prosecution from the police instead of protection; the story of a gay man who had been raped, and dismissed by the homophobic police officer he reported it to. Two excellent poets also recited their work, injecting an upbeat note into the atmosphere. For me, the most harrowing but moving account came from a woman from the Caribbean, who had immigrated to the UK. She spoke about how she and her daughter had been raped and beaten up by a group of men, who forced her to smuggle drugs into the UK. If she did not do so, they warned, they would kill both her and her children. With no choice, she complied, only to be arrested in the UK and sent to prison for 9 years. She was subject to rape again in the UK, reported it, and faced discrimination and racial abuse, with her immigrant status used against her. In the end, her rapist got off scot-free. Despite all this, her strength and courage were astounding. To this day, she continues to fight against rape and for justice for rape survivors, and proclaims, “No matter what they do to me, I will not give up! I will keep fighting.”

Ultimately, this diversity made Slutwalk London a big success. It drove home the message that, when it comes to sexual violence, we are all in this together, regardless of class, immigration status, race, sexuality, being able or disabled, cis or trans. We may not all agree as to what should best be done with the word ‘slut’, but we are united in the notion that we must not allow it to be a word that is used to divide us, with ‘respectable’ women at one end and ‘loose’ women on the other. Because our sexual activity, or lack of it, is irrelevant. And no woman deserves to be raped.