March 2008


I took the day off work today, sent Ariel packing to nursery and pitched in to get the new city farm allotment started. Digging is hard work!

I completely forgot to take any pictures of how the plot looked before we started, but this picture of the part we haven’t started yet will give you a clue. The whole plot was like this – grass and weeds with a few wonderful patches of bare earth. The ground has clearly been cultivated at some point in the not too distant past but I would guess that it has been left wild for a while – maybe just months, but maybe a year or two.

So we lay down some old carpet offcuts to start marking out the beds. There will be six beds, three on each side of a central path. Four will be for rotation, one for asparagus and another for fruit canes. Each of them is around 2m wide and 3m long.

Today we managed to clear, dig and manure the first bed and we’ve started clearing the second. Hard going…many of the weeds are deep-rooted, and the soil is a bit clayey (although I’ve definitely seen worse, in my own garden for starters). So anyway, here it is: it looks great – to me anyway! – although not yet what you might call a fine tilth. We will dig it over in a week or so to work in the manure and then plant potatoes.

Here is another view, taken from the far end of the allotment so you can get a better idea of scale (the foreshortening in the above picture makes it look like we have done far more than we actually have!)

It looks like the next door plot was cultivated pretty well last year but they don’t seem to have done a lot since. There is one plot at the far end that is being actively looked after at the moment, we’re not too sure about the ones in between but hopefully they will get taken care of or we will be fighting the weeds back all the time…

So yes – I am completely shattered. I feel a bit cleaner and more human now, because if there’s anything nicer than a hot bath that you really need, want and deserve, it’s a hot bath that you really need, want and deserve by yourself! Now to fix up a snack with the spring onions I found growing semi-wild :)

Something I had forgotten until today is that fresh pineapples contain an enzyme (it’s called bromelain) which helps to digest protein. That’s great if you are a big meat eater and like to have a slice of fresh pineapple on your gammon steak. Not so great if you are a vegetarian and if you and your three-year-old child devour a whole pineapple in the space of an hour – she had about a quarter, I had the rest – the stuff begins to digest your tongue! Ouch. Ariel had it worse than me (or else she is just less brave and stoical) – but then she is probably less than a third my size and so proportionately she ate at least the same or possibly even more pineapple than me.

In other pineapple-related news, we saw on Storymakers some while ago that you can plant the top of the pineapple and it will grow into a new pineapple plant, and we are experimenting with this. I told my mum about this and she said “oh, yes, I’ve been doing that for years and it never works – everybody does that when they are a kid.” Oh, no, mum not us! Why, why, why were we so deprived? In any case, it never worked for my mum because she didn’t have Google. We do have Google, and it has taught us that Storymakers lied – you don’t just stick the top in the soil, there is all kinds of preparation to be done. Sigh. I may have to dig the thing up and do some work…

Meanwhile, the springfever gardening urge continues unabated. Since the last update, we have done some serious tidying in the garden (we even mowed the lawn, which ordinarily happens only about 5 times a year so that in itself is an event), planted out some sweet peas, sown some spring onions and American land cress and volunteered to help out in the family garden at Ariel’s nursery. I’m also eyeing up the possibly disused community plots at our local city farm, with a view to me and a friend setting up a community group and blagging any plot that may be going begging (Tredworth Women’s Gardening Collective, here we come…) We’re going tomorrow to collect some fleece for felting and will try to find out more about the gardens then.

PS My dad has not thrown his usual cold water over my gardening enthusiasm and is even mildly supportive – horrors! – his new perspective is that it doesn’t really matter if you don’t get a lot of veg, it’s still a wonderful hobby… hm, is this really my dad?

PPS I’m still, as you see, determinedly Blogging Lite, although I do have some actual feminist topics up my sleeve for when I feel up to it. :)

I just read this (May 2006) post by Amananta.

It is a balanced account of the hostility between transfolk and radical feminists (more balanced than I could manage from my own privileged position of self-confidence), an exploration of the reason of things.

Comments are closed over there so I’m saying right here – thanks for this Amananta. I don’t agree with every word and after the recent furore right here on my own blog I’m not going to go into any deep analysis – but this is good and valuable. Thank you.

Ariel and I have spent much of the weekend with gardening hats on. Boots, anyway.

We have dug up a corner of the lawn, one that I hope will get enough sun to grow some vegetables. My garden is small with high fences all around, so there isn’t much sun at the best of times and my Dad always tells me that vegetables will not grow here. But what the hell – as we have seen, I am the queen of losing causes. My theory is that what with global warming and the wet weather of the last 12 months, we are due a good summer this year. Hm. (If only patriarchy worked that way.)

So we have the beginnings of a vegetable bed. Our soil is UNBELIEVABLY sticky and clayey. The fact that it has rained makes the clay even stickier (you should have seen our boots – no really) but my reasoning is that this beats the iron hard clayrocks that we would have if it were dry. Anyway, we’ve dug in some sand and compost and I reckon that after another 3 or 4 years we might even have decent soil.

The compost incidentally came half out of a bag and half from the compost bin I have been lovingly filling up with kitchen waste for the last five years in the hope that one day I would use it. It is wonderful, black and smelly, just as it should be. Only five more years and I’ll have another load. Hm again.

(Did I say something about losing causes?)

Well we plan to grow potatoes. Apparently they are great for new vegetable beds, and also feature as “A” on my vegetable gardening rotation planning guide thing. I’m also going to have a go at a few mange tout in my front garden (which is sunnier – I have already been growing herbs and gooseberries at the front), some spring onions in a container. Just to see how they go. And possibly a pumpkin plant or two so that we can show off come Halloween… These are the veg that appeal right now, anyway.

Meanwhile, so that Ariel gets the idea a bit, we are doing some indoor sprouting. She planted some cress a few days ago which is starting to come up and we are going to do some mung beans and broccoli sprouts in due course. Yummy. She also wanted some flowers so we are going to grow some sweet peas up the fence behind the potatoes.

Ambitious, moi?
I think it is just the call of spring.
Growing things is something primal at this time of year, an urge I get every single spring.
This year it is just – more.

Less than two years ago my “opinion” of transfolk was one of extreme othering, of downright transphobia – I didn’t hate transpeople but I knew nothing about them and deemed from my place of ignorance that they were weird, freakish, incomprehensible.

Then I met, or rather came across, a transwoman named Alison. I saw her as a man in a dress. A big man in a dress, a hairy one, wearing – ridiculously – make-up and nylons while camping in a muddy field with a bunch of hippies. She said very little – she was attending a workshop / discussion about what it means to be a woman, and she was there to listen, not to speak*. I didn’t want a man in a dress in the Women’s Dome. I didn’t want her to be there, but I didn’t want to be the one who said “No”, either.

(*It turned out that she was much less intrusive, much less imposing, than a young woman who liked to dress as a boy and play with gender, a young woman whose presence was not put to the vote, and who was so busy denying that motherhood has any necessary connection with womanhood that she did not stop to hear that for many women, for me, experiences of motherhood and womanhood are in fact connected…)

I didn’t want a man in a dress in the Women’s Dome. Yet out of that discomfort, out of that politeness, came a process in which I began to question for myself what it means to be a woman, what it means to be trans. I began to question my own bigotry – and it was not an easy journey. (Here are some posts I wrote as I travelled: one, two, three.)

I found that transgenderism / transsexualism is not the weird fetish of disturbed freaks, but a genuine – and very difficult – lived reality. I looked at some of the statistics for mental health and suicide rates among transpeople – both those who transition and those who do not. I read the blogs of transfolk, mainly transwomen – some who are out in real life, some who are not. I looked into medical evidence about the causes of transgenderism and found that there is no certainty about the true cause – whether it is physical / biological or whether it is mental / emotional / social or whether the individual cause varies from person to person. Sometimes intersex biology is relevant, sometimes not. From all this I learned that gender identity is a real phenomenon, even if we do not all consciously experience it; and I learned that gender dysphoria (where gender identify does not match biological sex attributes) is a real phenomenon, even if few of us are unfortunate enough to experience it.

What I found is that the definition of class Woman is not a simple matter, and I am not the person who can define what a woman is.

Radical feminists – especially those who are separatists or who advocate (as I do) the need for woman-only space – often struggle with this. We often act as though we know exactly what a woman is, and that a transwoman is not a woman. Even if we recognise that the question is not straightforward, we still struggle with the inclusion of transwomen in women-only spaces.

Sometimes our exclusion is expressed by straightforwardly characterising transwomen as men, so that it is then self-evident that they should be excluded from woman-only spaces. This really isn’t a very profound analysis. I was saddened to see Debs using it the other day to justify the exclusion of transwomen from her otherwise excellent proposal for a national meeting of radical feminists.

Debs uses the following quotes (taken from the anti-trans site Questioning Transgender) to explain her position:

Womyn only space is time and place where the welfare of the class of womyn and its core constituents, females who were raised as girls and perceive themselves as womyn, are the primary concern. In this space the desires of others are secondary. If even one womon’s perception of safety from male violence is diminished by the presence of individuals who are or were or claim to be members of the class of men, those individuals should be excluded. If any womyn find it easier to try new things or to explore their lives without the presence of non-womyn, that should be allowed.

from “Exploring the Value of Women-Only Spaces” by Kya Ogyn

[T]he transgender movement has been taken so unquestioningly to heart by so many lesbians, feminists, and progressives, there is such dogma surrounding it, and there is such a taboo on challenging it, that I am unwilling to fudge even a little on how dangerous it is to feminism and women… Somehow we have a movement whereby men’s interests have found a clever way to siphon off lesbian and feminist energies into a liberal agenda of identity politics, individual freedom, and inclusion which make us forget altogether about challenging patriarchy. To the extent feminists partake in this, we have nursed a viper to our movement which is now out to destroy what precious little women’s space we have managed to eke out.

from “Men in Ewes’ Clothing: The Stealth Politics of the Transgender Movement” by Karla Mantilla

These writers, as portrayed in these quotes anyway, are not speaking truth.

They fail to consider at all the very first question, whether transwomen are in fact “men” at all or whether they should be acknowledged as members of “the class of womyn”. They assume that transwomen are “really” men, and take it from there. They posit a gender binary and place transwomen firmly, unanalytically, on the male side: pretty unradical for a movement that is supposed to be about questioning the gender binary. Ogyn asserts that “females who were raised as girls” are primary – without saying why. Is it simply because this is, numerically and in terms of sheer weight of privilege, the dominant group? If so then again this is hardly a strong radical feminist position. If not – what? (more on this below) Mantilla asserts that the transgender movement is dangerous to feminism and women because it involves the promotion of “men’s interests” at the expense of feminist energy. But, even if we overlook this blunt non-analysis of gender identity, we are not talking about diverting the radical feminist movement into a transgender movement; we are talking about the inclusion of radical feminist transwomen in a radical feminist woman-only space. The one does not lead to the other.

There are more subtle arguments in favour of excluding transwomen. The second part of that Ogyn quote is a good example of one of these: the appeal for consideration to be given to women who fear male violence or who may be discouraged or intimidated if they had to worry about the sneering of “non-womyn”. But again don’t we need to think and explore a bit more carefully before defining transwomen as “non-women”? And we need to remember also that transwomen are often often at huge risk themselves from the same male sexual violence and the same male sneering. (Some data, stats about young queers, a personal perspective.)

I do get that this is hard. I get that – especially for women who have been traumatised by men, women who have good reason to fear men, women who do in fact (as I once did) view transwomen as just men in drag – this is very hard indeed. Doing the right thing is often hard. It is still the right thing.

I keep making a connection in my mind with people who have suffered in war or conflict who are then asked to make peace with those whom they identify as their (former) enemies. We can understand if a person who suffered and was traumatised by long years in a prison camp, a rape camp, a concentration camp, if this person cannot forgive the group of people responsible for the suffering, is intensely distrustful and triggered by the mere presence of a person who looks like those people or shares their nationality… We understand, but understanding is not the same as condoning the organisation of, say, racist mental health spaces from which even innocent members of that group or nation are excluded – even members who were themselves traumatised, who fled as refugees, who reject their birth nationality and claim citizenship in their place of asylum…

I understand that this is hard. We want to protect those among us who have been hurt, who are still hurting. The question is not whether we want to protect women who are asking for safety. The question is whether we can actually achieve that by the exclusion of transwomen, and whether it is even acceptable to offer such protection when it comes at the expense of transwomen, by perpetuating the poorly analysed othering of transwomen, by ignoring the hurts and the violence that transwomen experience precisely because of their (desire to have) membership of class Woman. I don’t think so.

There is one more argument for trans-exclusion that I want to cover. It is touched upon in the Ogyn quote about “females who were raised as girls.” The idea is that transwomen, because they were raised as boys, cannot understand female oppression, that they have absorbed a degree of male entitlement that is impossible to reconcile with radical feminist women-only spaces. This is a big fat stereotype. If you tell a radical, young, woman-loving transwoman of colour that she is too dangerous and privileged to be allowed into your radfem women-only space then she will, if she is strong enough, laugh in your face. Rightly so.

Undoubtedly there are transwomen who fit this stereotype. I have come across them, or at least come across transwomen who present that way. They have a sense of entitlement that seems wholly incompatible with their membership of class (trans)Woman. A lifestory that seems to me not uncommon – and I appreciate that this is in itself a stereotype – is the story of a person who has lived and survived well as a man until middle age, a person who may be married or even have children, who is typically white and middle class, typically well-educated and/or fairly successful in their chosen (traditional, male-dominated) occupation. In middle age the person begins to feel safe enough, or desperate enough, to come out and/or transition. These transwomen certainly do have a good chance of ending up with major entitlement complexes – but it is not because they were “raised as boys” – it is because they have lived the whole damn white supremacist hetero-patriarchal male wet dream. They have experienced huge levels of race / sex / class privilege despite their (closet) transgenderism. It is hardly surprising if such a person develops an unhealthy sense of entitlement, leading to an exaggerated (but genuinely felt) outrage at the new experience of exclusion and oppression after coming out or transitioning. These are the transwomen who give transfolk a bad name: protected as they are by their whiteness, money, class, it is hard for them to have any real clue that theirs is not the only oppression in town. This lack of clue can indeed make them a potential danger – especially since they are likely to be the most powerful activists in the transgender lobby, the least desperate to stay under the radar, the most likely to turn up and protest their exclusion from women-only events.

Transwomen like this do, I think, exist.

Nevertheless, I still advocate the inclusion of transwomen in woman-only spaces. Even the entitled / privileged ones.

Let’s remember that many women – even self-professed radical feminist women – have entitlement complexes as well. Those of us who are (or in some cases have been) white, middle-class, well-educated, married, able-bodied – we too are indoctrinated into a sense of entitlement, despite our vaginas, that we must fight to recognise and abandon.

Let’s also remember that the sometimes disproportionately vocal group of entitled / privileged transwomen are not representative of all transwomen. There are some amazing, consciouis, wonderful, feminist transwomen out there. Women who have been trans since forever, women who have never felt comfort or experienced freedom in the “privilege” of being raised as a gender dysphoric boy. These are the transwomen that I want to reach out to, to welcome, to engage with, to just include.

I’d like to introduce a couple of them.

SabrinaStar, who sadly seems to have stopped blogging at Monstrous Regiment is a transwoman who showed me a lot of things. I am grateful to her. In this post on the right to be equally objectified she writes thoughtfully about why it is that transwomen squee about being called “pretty” and about why feminist WBW find that annoying.

Little Light, who I never did read as much as I should have, is another awesome transwoman. Her iconic prose poem the seam of skin and scales is so powerful and amazing that I’m going to have to insist you read it, or at least this excerpt:

What I say may be in a language incomprehensible, but there is a time for that, and it is right now, because this is a monster’s creed. It is for the cobbled-together, the sewn-up, the grafted-on. It is for the golden, the under-the-earth, the foreign, the travels-by-night; the filthy ship-sinking cave-dwelling bone-cracking gorgeousness that says hell no, I am not tidy. I am not easy. I am not what you suppose me to be and until you listen to my voice and look me in my eyes, I will cling fast to this life no matter how far you drive me, how deep, with how many torches and pitchforks, biting back the whole way down. I will not give you my suicide. I will not give you my surrender.

Read this one too. In it Little Light shares a story of what it was like one night to be (young and) transgendered and idealistic.

Read those blogs, read those posts and tell me which of these writers are “non-women”. Tell me which of them is dangerous, anti-feminist. Tell me which of them is labouring under the weight of unexamined privilege. Tell me which is a viper in our midst, too entitled / privileged to have any hope of understanding the radical feminist perspective. Can you do that? I can’t.

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It is time that radical feminism did some analysis of this transphobia. It is time we tried to understand why Alison dressed in drag. It is time we learned to recognise that the boundary between male and female is not what patriarchy has taught us, and stopped abusing our power as gatekeepers of class Woman. It is time we moved away from imagining all transwomen as dangerous imposters, men in drag seeking to infiltrate our movement, our spaces.

This is difficult. I know it is. If we renounce the privilege of policing the boundaries of woman-only space, then how can we keep out the truly dangerous elements? If transwomen are permitted entry to class Woman, then where shall we draw the line? These are difficult questions. I don’t pretend that I know the answers. But not knowing the answers is not a reason to cling to our WBW privilege, to continuing excluding and rejecting the feminism of transwomen.

Working out exactly how to make a trans-inclusive woman only space may be difficult, it may be a challenge. I would like us to try and meet that challenge. Or maybe, if we don’t yet know how to do that, at least to acknowledge that it exists… Anyone?

There’s no denying it: Ariel and I have begun our weaning journey in earnest.

This is a time I knew was coming but tried not to think about. I don’t know how to parent without breasts, without milk. I don’t know how to feel like a mother if milk is taken out of the equation. What’s the difference between a mother, then, and just some woman whose house you happen to share? Is there one? Does it matter?

I wrote some weeks ago that a night came when Ariel chose not to have MummyMo at bedtime. She chose CowMo instead. I think she had been impressed by some chance remark of mine that the reason Oliver Dunkley had CM at bedtime was because he was too big for MM. (Yes I know. It seemed like the easiest answer at the time.)

After that first night of abstention, the choice between CM and MM for bed-time milk went about evenly one way or the other, but mornings were still the undisputed territory of Teh Booby. One day maybe ten days later, Ariel overslept and completely missed out on on her morning MM (a very rare occurrence indeed – this is not a girl who oversleeps, never mind missing out on mo as a result) – but still decided to have CM at night. That was the first time she had ever gone 24 hours without mummy mo.

Last week she hurt her tongue. I think she managed to strain one of those little muscles or whatever at the root – ever done that? it hurts! – so that it really hurt her to use her tongue for suckling. She told me she couldn’t have any mummy mo, and had CM instead. She was upset, and I told her that if she felt better later on she could have some mummy mo then. She didn’t. In the morning:

ME: How does your tongue feel? Do you want some mo?
HER: I will try… (trying)… oh I can’t mummy.
ME: Poor old you. I’ll get you some CowMo and then we will try again tonight if your tongue is better at bedtime. I’m sure it will be.

For the next three days – the same, morning and night. She would go to latch on, and then pull back – it doesn’t work, mummy. I began to wonder if that was it.

Then on Saturday afternoon, she tried surreptitiously to lift up my T-shirt:
ME: Hey, what are you doing?
HER: I’m going to have some Mo now.
ME: At bedtime you can have some.
HER: Well I am too big for Mo now because I am three.

And at bedtime? She “tried” – but it doesn’t work anymore mummy.

I wondered whether she was putting it on. I couldn’t believe her tongue was still hurting and she wasn’t really complaining about that. Nor was she making much more than a show effort at latching on. Could she be pretending? Why would she?

I began to wonder if this is how it goes when children forget how to, or lose the ability to suck. Even though I also believe that this theory is probably nonsense (grown-ups, even those who haven’t sucked mo for years, could manage it – why not a little girl who had some only a couple of days ago?) and in any case three is too young given that everything I have read points to a natural weaning age of at least four… Anyway.

Fast forward through the night to Sunday morning. Ariel woke early. By 7am she had run out of ideas for amusing herself quietly and came back to bed, wanting Attention. Which I was not ready to give her. Do you want some Mo? I tried. (In the past this would have been sure-fire – this time I was less confident.) So she made her now familiar half-hearted attempt to latch on, complained that it didn’t work, and sat right back up. But you didn’t really try! Have another go, properly this time.

And she did. It was so nice.

After she’d had her fill (and I’d had a bit more dozing time) she said But mummy – I am too big for Mo. We cuddled. I told her that she wasn’t too big. I told her that she could have Mo if she wanted, that she could choose and that she was still quite small, that she could still have mo if she wanted, even if she was quite big as well.

[If it hadn't been for her obvious conflict, her conflict between wanting mo and wanting to be big (like Oliver Dunkley?), I would have been cautious about writing this. I would have felt like one of those women that feature in the minds of anti-breastfeeding Daily Mail readers, a woman who manipulates her child into breastfeeding for her own selfish purposes. I freely admit that I had selfish reasons on this occasion for wanting Ariel to have some milk, a good long milky cuddle - huh, I wanted to sleep! But also, my little girl had full agency in this. I wasn't manipulating her. I was giving her permission. I was telling her that she didn't have to grow up all at once, that she could be getting big and at the same time still be quite small. That it was OK to want and need her mummy. My words to her were not commands, not imperatives, but permission.]

She had a bit more.
In the afternoon, she tried the T-shirt-lifting trick again.
And at bed-time she chose CM…
…this morning MM, at bedtime just now, CM again.

So, yes, weaning is definitely on her mind. I think she knows that she isn’t quite ready yet, but she is starting to look towards the day when she will be ready. She realises that big people don’t have mummy mo, and she sees herself as someone who is getting bigger. She knows the time will come and she is trying to wrap her mind around the idea of living without Teh Booby. She is experimenting, practising. This is good, I guess. This gentle lead-up is giving me the chance to wrap my mind around this weaning idea, to experiment and practise breast-free parenting before she weans for real. She is weaning us both – gently…

I know I look so big to you,
Maybe I seem too big for the needs I have.
But no matter how big we get,
We still have needs that are important to us.
I know that our relationship is growing and changing,
But I still need you. I need your warmth and closeness,
Especially at the end of the day
When we snuggle up in bed.
Please don’t get too busy for us to nurse.
I know you think I can be patient,
Or find something to take the place of a nursing;
A book, a glass of something,
But nothing can take your place when I need you.
Sometimes just cuddling with you,
Having you near me is enough.
I guess I am growing and becoming independent,
But please be there.
This bond we have is so strong and so important to me,
Please don’t break it abruptly.
Wean me gently,
Because I am your mother,
And my heart is tender.

Today is a double celebration in that this post marks both International Women’s Day and, more or less, the anniversary of my moving this blog to WordPress.

Woo, as they say, hoo.

I’m unable to get excited about this year’s event. I guess it is just the sheer depressing fact that today, and all its excited preamble, merely reminds me that the other 364 days of the year (365 in the case of 2008) are International Men’s Days.

Anyhow, this blog is year-round woman-centred and often international – so where would be the fun in getting all excited over a woman-centred post especially for 8 March? Really? So, in satirical mood, I hereby declare 8 March 2008 as Touchingly Naive Men’s Day, my day to focus on da menz.

I struggled to think of anything much to celebrate about “how far men have come” and it wasn’t easy coming up with “issues men still face today”. But I am woman enough to acknowledge that men *do* have their problems and today I would like to focus on a very real area of specifically male oppression. Yep, I thought of one…

************************************

Beards. Who likes beards? I don’t. They are – beardie.

In my personal facial hair hall of fame/shame, I would rank men’s bearing choices as follows (most acceptable first):

  • Clean-shaven. Smooo-ooooth.
  • Full beard with moustache – as long as it’s not *too* bushy!
  • Then a few that tied for third place: just a mustache, no beard; stubble but not a full-grown beard; or a “lovely” sculpted goatee.
  • Great big bushy beard, complete with monster eyebrows… honestly, have these people never read The Twits?
  • And finally, least acceptable bearding choice of them all – a big, full-grown beard with no moustache. Seriously, this is the worst – the “hair that goes all the way around your face” look. What is this? You carefully shave your upper lip every day, but leave everything else to grow like topsy? Why?

I must admit that, since I am not in fact a manhater etc etc, I have been making some effort to overcome my beard prejudice. After all, if we castigate men who expect us to shave our body hair, surely we should bring a little consciousness to the party and stop judging men as acceptable or not based on their shaving choices…

…And this is much easier once you have decided that you are never actually going to snog a man ever again so there is no danger of stubble rash as a result… ;)

In the spirit of critical analysis, I have to wonder – why is it that we have a cultural preference for clean-shaven men? I know very few men with beards. I know several who have grown beards in the past, come under enormous pressure to debeard, and then received universal praise for their “new, younger” clean-shaven look once the beard finally goes. The pressure on da menz to shave their faces is just as intense as the pressure on women to shave their legs and armpits… Of course, the context is difference because men are not the sex class and are unlikely to face, say, actual disgust and job discrimination if they refuse to comply. But, still.

Why? Why do we expect men to be clean-shaven?

It isn’t just because we like to kiss / be kissed by clean-shaven men*, because since when did the sexual or romantic preferences of women get to dominate cultural norms? Since when did our ideals even get taken into account, let alone become an oppressive social requirement? Since never, is when.

[* Anyway, kissing someone with a proper beard can be just as nice a feeling - albeit a different one - as kissing the smoothest face there is. And at least with a decent beard you won't be caught unawares by stubble. Ouch. Maybe we like to kiss smooth men because we can close our eyes and imagine, subconsciously at least, that we are kissing women. Hehehe, evil laughter. Another possibility is that we like smooth men because they remind us of when we were girls kissing boys, and we like to pretend that we are still just a girl, just kissing a boy. That would make sense - the men win too if we believe we are girls kissing boys, that none of it is very grown up or meaningful; if we deep down understand kissing as a time when we are girls and they are boys, then we won''t act as full-grown women or make grown-up demands on the other person... Hm, stuff.]

So anyway – if the pressure to shave isn’t for snogging purposes, why is it?

Jacob was a smooth man; Esau was a hairy man.
And Esau, trusting Esau – got screwed.
No wonder our value system prioritises the smooth men – we have the bible to prove that hairy ones get screwed.

And it is probably no coincidence that, as noted above, shaving helps a person stay younger-looking, which is so the thing to be, right? Adolescents don’t have beards; nothing says “old man” like big ol’ beard.

In this regard, of course, men’s oppression is very different from women’s oppression in kind if not in form. We are expected to shave our body hair (all/most of it) so that we can be marked out as the infantilised and subjugated sex class, so that we can present as pre-pubescent and therefore as non-threatening – on pain of disgust, on pain of exclusion, on pain of hear and hate. The same does not apply to men because they are not infantilised, subjugated, unmanned or de-clawed by this pressure to shave.

Perhaps this stamp of youth helps men in patriarchy to prove their thrusting, virile status as members of the dominant class, to gain acceptance within patriarchy.

Or maybe – am I cynical enough yet? – it is quite simply a matter of marketing. How many razors, blades, gels, lotions and other assorted shaving paraphernalia would Gillette and their ilk sell, if we valued a hairy chin instead of a naked one?

The Guardian recently published an article, which I linked to and excerpted here, by George Monbiot claiming a clear link between sex education and contraception use (two of the things that Catholics say they hate) and a reduction in abortion rates (another thing that Catholics say they hate double extra bad), thereby arguing that the Catholic church in opposing contraception and sex education are directly contributing to increases in abortion rates.

Today, Michaela Aston (a spokesperson for Life) is given the opportunity to respond.

This is her first line of attack:

Monbiot is particularly misinformed when he quotes a study which reported that “Rising contraceptive use results in reduced abortion incidence” – over 60% of women having abortions in Britain report that they had been using contraceptives. The journal Obstetrics and Gynecology recently published a meta-analysis of 23 research articles examining the impact of increased access to emergency birth control on unwanted pregnancy and abortions, concluding: “To date, no study has shown that increased access to this method reduces unintended pregnancy or abortion rates.”

What Monbiot actually said: “But, as a study published in the journal International Family Planning Perspectives shows, once the birth rate stabilises, contraceptive use continues to increase and the abortion rate falls. In this case one trend causes the other: ‘Rising contraceptive use results in reduced abortion incidence.’ The rate of abortion falls once 80% of the population is using effective contraception.

Aston does nothing here to demonstrate that the study Monbiot cited was wrong. She does not examine or critique the study at all. She seems merely to claim that the statistics she cited contradict its conclusions. But they don’t!

First, “over 60% of women having abortions in Britain report that they had been using contraceptives” – but even taking that on trust*, it takes nothing away from the assertion made in Monbiot’s study. The fact that 60% of women who decide to terminate an unwanted pregnancy ended up pregnant because of a contraceptive failure – perhaps due to ignorant or lazy or careless (rather than “effective”) use of contraception, which is a trap many of us have fallen into – doesn’t say anything at all about the validity of Monbiot’s assertion unless you also study the rates of effective contraception use in the population generally and the overall abortion rates – the manner in which women having abortions got pregnant has little to do with it.

(* And I don’t think we should. Women seeking to persuade a doctor that they “deserve” or “need” an abortion are quite likely to say that they were using contraception and that it failed, either out of simple shame / embarrassment, or in a deliberate attempt to seem like a more suitable candidate. I know I did, even though in reality the problem was that I used contraception carelessly, not that it failed. So even if 60% of women seeking an abortion do blame contraceptive failure, a massive grain of salt is needed.)

Second, “a meta-analysis of 23 research articles examining the impact of increased access to emergency birth control on unwanted pregnancy and abortions, [concluded]: ‘To date, no study has shown that increased access to this method reduces unintended pregnancy or abortion rates.'” And your point is? For one thing, without knowing whether any study was adequately designed to demonstrate the effect of increased access to this type of contraception, the fact that no study has shown any particular effect is fairly meaningless. In any case, Monbiot’s study was not making any claims about the effect of unspecified increases in access to a particular type of contraception* on abortion rates – the claim was that abortion rates decline when 80% of the population is using contraception effectively. That is a totally different claim and the evidence cited by Aston can have no bearing upon it.

(* And after-the-event contraception is probably the worst type to select as representative of contraception generally, since “effective contraception use” ordinarily involves effective use at the time of having sex, with morning-after pills being strictly for situations where this didn’t happen or where it becomes clear that the contraception used at the time failed, e.g. burst condom.)

The next criticism is this:

Monbiot claims there is “a clear relationship between sex education and falling rates of unintended pregnancy”. There is not. Most papers (including the one in the British Medical Journal that Monbiot cites) find that sex education programmes have little or no impact on rates of teenage pregnancy or abortion. Sweden’s programmes in sex education, and promotion of contraceptives, have been an admired model – yet total abortion rates* there are now higher than ours.

(*Unfortunately Aston does not explain what she means by “total abortion rates” or where she gets her figures. More on this below.)

What Monbiot actually said: “There is also a clear relationship between sex education and falling rates of unintended pregnancy. A report by the United Nations agency Unicef notes that in the Netherlands, which has the world’s lowest abortion rate, a sharp reduction in unwanted teenage pregnancies was caused by ‘the combination of a relatively inclusive society with more open attitudes towards sex and sex education, including contraception’. By contrast, in the US and UK, which have the developed world’s highest teenage pregnancy rates, ‘contraceptive advice and services may be formally available, but in a ‘closed’ atmosphere of embarrassment and secrecy’.”

Sweden does appear to have a good programme of sex education which includes contraception. This appears to have a very beneficial effect comapred with the UK in terms of teenage pregnancies, although abortion rates are still more or less equivalent to ours. Some facts:

  • Sweden’s abortion rate for the last many years has been in the region of 30,000 to 35,000 or so in a population which has now just reached 9 million (as a total rate that is about 20-25% of total pregnancies, varying from year to year). (Source.)
  • At the same time abortions in England & Wales run at about 185,000 to 195,000 or so in a population of about 50-odd million – for 2006 that translated to 18.3 abortions per 1000 women aged 15 to 44 . (Source.)
  • According to my sums, the rate of abortion in Sweden is more or less the same as the rate in the UK. I couldn’t find any direct comparison, and Aston did not say what method of comparison she was using or provide a source. However, when calculating the crude abortion rate (abortions per capita), the results are consistently pretty similar, coming out either a little higher or a little lower depending on the approach I took.

It seems to follow from the above that, despite their better programme of sex education, the Swedish abortion rate is indeed still about the same. Why?

Well, let’s look at those teenage pregnancies that Aston chose to ignore. (Source.)

  • In the mid-1990s (and I suspect things haven’t changed significantly since then) Sweden had a teenage (aged 15 to 19) pregnancy rate of 25 per thousand leading to 17.2 abortions and 7.8 births per thousand.
  • Meanwhile, Great Britain had a teenage pregnancy rate of 46.7, leading to 18.4 abortions and 28.3 births per thousand.

Evidently, although the total number of teenage abortions in Sweden and Britain may have been similar, the total number of pregnancies and births for teenaged women was *much* higher in Britain. The programme of sex education is therefore leading to far fewer pregnancies (and therefore presumably far more effective contraceptive use) and the issue is merely that in Sweden 69% of teenage pregnancies led to abortion, while in the UK only 39% of teenage pregnancies ended in abortion.

My reading of this would therefore be not that widely available sex education makes no difference – my reading would be that widely available sex education leads to better contraceptive choices and fewer teenage pregnancies, so that even when a high proportion of teenage pregnancies end in abortion the overall rate is still comparable with other countries that have rubbish sex education. My reading of this would be that even more and even better sex education is needed to improve contraceptive practices (including abstention!) further, to reduce rates of unwanted pregnancy yet further. There is only so much higher that the proportion of unwanted pregnancies ending in abortion can climb, yet I would suggest that there is still even in Sweden plenty of scope for reduction in the number of teenaged women who become pregnant by mistake.

(In this regard, for US readers, it is worth noting that in the US only 35% of the 83.6 teenage pregnancies per thousand ended in abortion, although because of the higher rate of teenage pregnancy this still resulted in the highest overall rate of abortion at 29.2 abortions per thousand teenaged women.)

So one thing that we can conclude from this analysis is that a simple look at sex education programmes compared with abortion rates is too simple. A comparison of the UK abortion rate with the rate in Sweden – where a very secular and no-nonsense approach to abortion, allowing abortion for free on request, means that it is a more popular and less stigmatised option – is unfair and decidedly does not show that sex education has little or no impact on abortion rates. There are too many confounding factors which, when explored, seem to suggest instead that Sweden are indeed on the right track – their programme has clearly been effective in reducing teenage pregnancies, even if the incidence of abortion has yet to follow suit. The point is that their programme as a whole is also effective in making abortion easily available, with the result that when accidental pregnancy does occur it is a significantly more popular choice there than here.

In any case, Monbiot points not to Sweden as his model but to the Netherlands, where the sex education programme is also extremely comprehensive. In the Netherlands in 2002, the number of abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 was – compared with the UK rate for 2006 of 18.3 – a mere 8.7. In the same year, the rate of abortions as a percentage of all pregnancies was – compared with 20-25% in Sweden – just 12.7%. And, apparently, these figures include abortions performed on foreign women having an abortion in the Netherlands – we can reasonably speculate that the rate for Dutch women, who have been through the Dutch sex ed programme, is likely to be even lower. (Source.)

Clearly, sex education is working in the Netherlands even if, as we have seen, the picture is more complex in Sweden. It isn’t because the Netherlands has a more restrictive approach to abortion, because they don’t. Could it be that the Netherlands has better rates because it has even better sex education and even lower rates of unwanted pregnancy than Sweden has managed to date? This article states (according to Google’s extract – I don’t have access to the full article) that unwanted pregnancies are rare, although when they do happen they are (as in Sweden) likely to end in abortion; and that the rate of teenage pregnancy in the 1990s – when Sweden and the UK had respective rates of 25 and 46.3 pregnancies per 1000 teenaged women – the rate in the Netherlands was just 9.2. Can Aston answer that? She can’t.

Next, she tries this approach:

In contrast, there is clear evidence that even modest legal restrictions can help to cut abortion rates. Some US states now require parental notification before minors can get abortions. This has led to lower underage abortion rates without necessarily increasing underage births.

Firstly, this doesn’t in fact contrast with or even follow from the previous paragraph, where we weren’t actually talking about about whether legal restrictions affect underage abortion rates. However, Monbiot does talk about this, as it happens, and says: “Chillingly, as the Lancet paper shows, there is no relationship between the legality and the incidence of abortion.”

Without more details of either piece of evidence it is difficult to comment further, but I can say a couple of things. Monbiot cites an actual academic paper showing that there is no relationship between legalisation and abortion rates. He might also have cited the WHO study referred to in this article, which reached the same conclusion. Meanwhile, Aston makes some vague claim that there is, somewhere, possibly, some evidence showing that fewer underage girls get abortions if they have to tell their parents about it, coupled with the vague assertion that this doesn’t necessarily (but, by implication, it may) result in more underage births. Again, reasoning from dubious evidence about one specific aspect of abortion to a general claim about abortion in the round. I know which I find more convincing.

What’s next?

Referring to a Lancet article, Monbiot says: “When the figures are broken down, it becomes clear that, apart from the former Soviet Union, abortion is highest in conservative and religious societies.” The big problem with Monbiot’s argument is that the abortion rates from more religious countries are generally based on conjectural estimates of illegal abortions, and there is a long history of pro-abortion groups deliberately inflating such estimates. The case of Mexico provides a good example. Monbiot cites an estimate of 25 abortions per 1,000 women for Central America. Applying this figure to Mexico suggests about three quarters of a million abortions each year. In fact we now have real data for this country – due to the legalisation of abortion in Mexico City last year – which makes it highly unlikely that there were more than 70,000 illegal abortions a year. This equates to 2.1 per 1,000 women – one tenth of that quoted by Monbiot and far less than in countries where abortion is legal.

In Ireland abortion is illegal and contraception has (at least until recently) been much harder to access than in the UK. Based on the numbers of Irish women having abortions in the UK, their abortion rate is about one third that of England, and there is no evidence of significant numbers of illegal abortions.

Aston is fair to point out that estimates of illegal abortions can only ever be estimates, and that the figures for illegal abortions are less reliable than the figures for legal abortions. It may also be fair to point out that some pro-choicers have in the past been guilty of inflating estimates to make things look worse than they are (at least, I have heard about examples of this) – just as some anti-choicers have been guilty of making unfair estimates or manipulating the available information in support of their own position. Indeed, I suspect that this is something Aston is in fact doing in this article when she discusses the cited rate of illegal abortion in Central America.

This comprehensive resource* published in International Family Planning Perspectives (link courtesy of the Guttmacher Institute) gives some statistics for Mexico, the particular country that Aston has chosen to highlight as a good example (presumably good in the sense that it best supports her own position). The figures given are total abortions of about 500,000 (tolerance 300,000 to 750,000) which works out at a rate of 25.1 abortions per 1000 women aged 15 to 44 or 17.1% of total pregnancies. This is clearly a perfectly plausible estimate – it is in very much the same ballpark as the figures for Sweden and the UK, discussed above.

(* Reliability. These figures are based on a “special study” given the acknowledged difficulties of collecting reliable data on illegal activities. Although there are copious footnotes I couldn’t be bothered to wade through them to get a specific cite for the methodology or authors of the study – and I’m actually quite happy to take the figures on trust as being from a reputable, peer-reviewed source and so likely to be at least half way reliable in the absence of any convincing evidence to the contrary.)

Aston suggests that applying the rate of 25 abortions per thousand women leads to about 750,000 abortions per year – that is the highest end of the estimates given in the resource cited above, but it is worth noting that the rate of 25.1 abortions per thousand was in fact based there on a total number closer to 500,000. So it looks like Aston has got her sums wrong on that one (let’s be charitable). In any case, mentioning a raw figure is fairly meaningless without noting the total population for the country. Mexico has a total population of over 100 million, so those figures are far from astonishing, given than Sweden has 30,000+ abortions for a population of under 10 million and we have around 200,000 abortions for a population of about 60 million.

Aston also suggests that post-legalisation figures for the rate of legal abortion in Mexico, at 70,000 rather than the “750,000” she quotes as the amount allegedly put forward by pro-choicers, show just how completely bonkers the estimates of illegal abortion really were. Firstly, of course, her inflation of the estimates of illegal abortion make the position seem more extreme than it really is. Moreover, her suggestion that 70,000 is a more realistic figure given the experience since legalisation is shockingly misleading. Abortion in Mexico has only been legal since April last year and even now it is only legal for the first three months for people who live in or can travel to Mexico City. There is no suggestion that abortion is to be subsidised by the state, so presumably it will still be out of reach for the majority of women who cannot afford to pay for an abortion. All this means that there are going to be many, many illegal abortions in Mexico even now – those who cannot afford to pay, those who cannot travel to Mexico City, and to a lesser extent those who require an abortion after the three month deadline. As such it is difficult to see how statistics on the rate of legal abortion in Mexico City in the months since legalisation could possibly give us any real indication of the total numbers of abortion throughout Mexico. If Aston’s offered estimates aren’t misleading, I don’t know what is! Monbiot’s figures are much more credible.

Finally, I just wanted to comment briefly on the comparison that Aston makes between Ireland and the UK. She guesstimates that the rate of abortion in Ireland is about a third the UK rate, based on the number of women who travel from Ireland to the UK for an abortion. I haven’t investigated that claim thoroughly, so I’m going to take her at her word (although I would like to ask her more about the rate of illegal abortions in Ireland or how many women travel to other countries for abortion).

But in any case there is one totally obvious reason why it doesn’t help her case even if her claim is more or less fair, that the rate of abortions in Ireland is actually lower. For that to be in some way relevant to the question whether legalisation affects abortion rates, she would also have to claim that “if legalisation made no difference, abortion rates would be the same in all countries irrespective of legal restrictions”. However, that is clearly not the case. Abortion rates are dependent on a huge number of variables including the rates of unwanted pregnancy, cultural attitudes to abortion and the availability of good sex education and affordable contraception. Nobody suggests that abortion rates do not vary between countries or that there is a consistent pattern whereby *all* countries were abortion is illegal have higher rates than *all* countries where abortion is legal. Indeed, Monbiot expressly points out that the UK is a blip with a much higher rate than those of its European neighbours who have legalised abortion. For these reasons, pointing out that Ireland, where abortion is illegal, may have a lower rate of abortions than the UK, where abortion is legal, is completely meaningless.

Moving on, Aston criticises Monbiot’s claim that women are “condemned to death” by the outlawing of abortion. This is where her distortion becomes actually laughable.

She says:

Monbiot claims that, with his stance against abortion, the Pope “condemns women to death”. In the same Lancet issue he referred to earlier, another article gives the latest estimates of maternal mortality rates. Ireland comes out best in the world with a rate of 1 death per 100,000, vastly superior to countries where abortion is legal such as the US (11 per 100,000) and the UK (8 per 100,000).

She suggests that because Ireland has better mortality rates for pregnant women than other developed countries, this puts the lie to Monbiot’s claim that criminalising abortion increases the use of unsafe illegal abortion and hence increases the risk of pregnant women dying, as a result of unsafe abortions. This is absurd, and here’s why.

Firstly, Monbiot specifically makes clear that the women who are “condemned to death” are not, in general, those in developed countries like Ireland. He says: “But the suffering [the Catholic] church causes in the rich nations doesn’t compare to the misery inflicted on the poor… Women with no access to contraceptives will try to terminate unwanted pregnancies. A World Health Organisation report shows that almost half the world’s abortions are unauthorised and unsafe. In East Africa and Latin America, where religious conservatives ensure that terminations remain illegal, they account for almost all abortions. Methods include drinking turpentine or bleach, shoving sticks or coathangers into the uterus, and pummelling the abdomen, which often causes the uterus to burst, killing the patient. The WHO estimates that between 65,000 and 70,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while 5 million suffer severe complications.” [My emphasis.]

Second, even if Monbiot had not said this then it should have been completely obvious to Aston that Ireland was not going to be a fair comparator. For one thing, she has already claimed that there is a relatively low rate of abortion generally among Irish women, and no evidence of significant illegal abortions in Ireland, since most women who need an abortion are able to travel to UK or elsewhere. On that basis alone it is hardly surprising if there are few or even no maternal deaths in Ireland as a result of illegal abortions. Secondly, even to the extent that there is illegal abortion in Ireland, is it really likely to involve the dangerous methods described by Monbiot? Ireland where women have access to health information, the internet, mail order abortion drugs, and quite possibly clandestine but nevertheless fairly hygienic abortion clinics is hardly the typical setting for dangerous illegal abortions, is it?

All in all, the fact that criminalisation makes no difference to maternal mortality in that particular jurisdiction (even if its small population didn’t make it a statistically less significant country in the first place) is, actually, very unsurprising. And that takes nothing away from the evidence of maternal mortality in other countries. Irish women are protected by the fact that they are part of a developed world that generally has a more liberal approach than their own country; not as Aston would like us to believe, by the very restrictions they face in their own country.

Oh, and in case you missed it the first time, I will repeat Monbiot’s cited statistics on maternal mortality: The WHO estimates that between 65,000 and 70,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while 5 million suffer severe complications. In the face of those statistics, if the only way you can persuade yourself that illegal abortion is unproblematic is to look at one small country with a developed healthcare system and access to legal abortion in a neighbouring jurisdiction then, Aston, you have a problem.

The first carnival is up! 

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