11 Feb 2015

Criticising Fifty Shades of Grey

I've written about my general dislike of 50 Shades of Grey before. If you like porn, there's far better sources of it, for free, online.

As far as a romantic novel goes, it's based around an abusive relationship. A lot of romantic novels are - nobody could say Catherine and Heathcliffe had a healthy relationship. What's worrying in the 50 Shades universe is that this is written as an integral part of a normal BDSM sexual relationship, and indicates that being submissive sexually also means you relinquish your self-determination and self-control. Except in some reasonably extreme situations, this is not the case. Most couples who engage in BDSM activity explore it together and are careful to avoid it slipping into abuse. A full time dom/sub relationship takes an enormous amount of energy to sustain, as well as requiring trust and mutual agreement. The key word, as always, is consent, and consent is the one thing Anastasia Steel does not seem to have the right to give or withdraw. Instead, she's negged, gaslit, physically and sexually abused, and in her innocence, thinks that it is true love. There's a very good blog here detailing how Grey's actions amount to abuse. When the government see fit to televise relationship abuse awareness adverts, what sort of message is that to give young women?

Now, ethical considerations aside, it's not a very well written book. I'm not entirely sure why it became so popular - after all, erotic fiction is hardly a new publishing phenomenon - and I assume it was a slight cash-in on the link to the Twilight universe. The film comes out this weekend, and early reviews seem to indicate it's not going to be a huge critical success. This is hardly surprising - it doesn't exactly have strong source material to work with, and film-tie-ins are rarely appreciated by critics. Pretty as Jamie Dornan is, working with BBFC certificate system means the sexual content is going to be heavily censored. I'm sure the director's cut will be marginally better.

However, I've noticed a new weapon in the army of 50 Shades fans - sexism. Apparently, people don't like 50 Shades because it was written by a woman, and the film is directed by a woman. Now, I'm quite sure for some people that's true. The arts attract misogynist critics as a matter of course. As a feminist, I would argue that the fictional depiction of a disturbingly abusive relationship being widely accepted as 'true love' is more of a blow for women's rights and feminism than attacking EL James for writing it in the first place.
However, it seems unlikely that EL James was aware that her fan fic would ever reach such an enormous amount of people, that it would be so widely appreciated, or that it would be so widely criticised. Sam Taylor-Wood seems the right choice to direct (although the idea of Michael Bay directing it, with random explosions every five minutes has just doubled me up laughing), and she has had to work with a troubled production and difficult material. There's only so much you can do in adapting a book with such a legion of fans expecting it to reflect their reading experience.

This brings me to the thought that triggered this post in the first place. Is 50 Shades of Grey rubbished because a woman wrote it and women writers are universally patronised by the artistic patriarchy?
No, I don't think it is.
Women writers are regularly belittled by terms such as 'chick lit', used for the sort of everyday-woman fiction that fills the shelves. Male writers, and their endless battery of war-porn (McNab) and dead-prostitutes (Nesbo) don't seem to be subject to the same condescending disparagement (except by me, every time a new shitty Dan Brown 'thriller' comes out) But I rarely look at the gender of the writer when I'm choosing a new book, and a straw-poll on twitter suggests I'm not alone in this. A quick once-over the bookshelves shows that I own a lot more books by male writers than female, but I've actually had to LOOK. I buy most books based on blurb, not by forename.

Some of the industry disapproval of EL James will be based on the fact she's a woman writing for women, thus excluding men and making them indignant and cross. There is sexism inherent in every industry. But I think the very real concerns about the way the content of the book is presented risks being overlooked by accusations of misogyny. It's not prudish to find abuse abhorrent. It's not sexist to be concerned that this textbook example of abuse is being considered a template of a perfect relationship.

There is a lot of sneery criticism (of which I'm evidently guilty of doing) of women who enjoyed the book assuming that the only worthwhile literature is either the classics or Booker prize winners. Everyone likes different types of books, and the market caters for everyone. But the problems I have with 50 Shades of Grey go far beyond mere literary appreciation. For instance, if Lolita was rewritten from Lolita's point of view, we wouldn't be recommending it to all our female friends. There wouldn't be a much-hyped cinematic release on Valentine's Day, with Lolita and Humbert's relationship lauded as sexy perfection. Lovehoney would not be selling Lolita themed sex aids. Women would not be wishing they had a much older stepfather to groom, drug and abuse them.

It's an extreme example (and of course, Lolita gets to escape by dying at the end. Anastasia does not) but the point stands. Relationship abuse is not negated by awesome sex, even if it's written in an appealing way, or dressed up as part of BDSM culture.

10 Feb 2015


TW: Distressing, but non-explicit images.

In the last few years, lots of famous men have been accused, and convicted of rape and sexual assault, such as Dave Lee Travis, Max Clifford, Rolf Harris, Chris Denning, Ian Watkins, and Ched Evans.

Now, you'll note that although guilt was virtually assumed for the four older men listed above, nobody really believed Watkins or Evans were guilty at first. Watkins was found guilty of some truly disturbing sex crimes, and jailed accordingly. Twenty months prior to that, Evans had also been found guilty and jailed for five years.

In October, Evans popped up again, released on license. And people IN THEIR DROVES have argued that he's served his time (he hasn't, not until 2017), and he should be allowed to rebuild his career, and this is all a well-orchestrated scheme by a conniving bitch to get money from him, and ruin his career.

I didn't even know who Ched Evans was until he was convicted. Turns out he's a footballer, who thought having sex with a really drunk woman he'd never met before was an excellent idea. Seeing as she'd already agreed to have sex with his friend, naturally he assumed she was also up for it with him. Woo hoo! Sexy free for all in the hotel! The woman woke up alone in a strange bed, with very little memory of this, and went to the police. And thus, Ched Evans was convicted of rape, and his friend, Clayton McDonald was acquitted.

Alcohol's a strange thing. You are most drunk about 90 minutes after drinking it, after which it drops off in toxicity by around one unit per hour. Long have women been warned of the perils of drinking to excess, in god-awful posters like these:
This advert was issued by West Mercia Police in 2012.

This advert was issued by ControlTonight.com who are a general drinking awareness group in Pennsylvania, USA. 

You read it right. If women get drunk, they are BOUND to get raped, and it's all their fault. Silly drunken women should know their limits.

The CPS guidelines on alcohol and consent state:
"In R v Bree [2007] EWCA 256, the Court of Appeal explored the issue of capacity and consent, stating that, if, through drink, or for any other reason, a complainant had temporarily lost her capacity to choose whether to have sexual intercourse, she was not consenting, and subject to the defendant's state of mind, if intercourse took place, that would be rape. However, where a complainant had voluntarily consumed substantial quantities of alcohol, but nevertheless remained capable of choosing whether to have intercourse, and agreed to do so, that would not be rape. Further, they identified that capacity to consent may evaporate well before a complainant becomes unconscious. Whether this is so or not, however, depends on the facts of the case."
CPS Legal Guidance: Statutory Definition of Consent. Available at http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/p_to_r/rape_and_sexual_offences/consent/

In plain speech, a woman can be too drunk to consent, long before she loses consciousness. This was the crux of the Ched Evans case: that the victim was able to consent to McDonald, but too drunk to consent to Evans when he decided to come and have a go on the apparently available woman. But this is fine, according to Evans' numerous supporters! His ACTUAL DEFENCE was that he didn't NEED to rape anyone because he's Ched! Evans!! [paragraph 2]. This has been believed by a lot of people, including one poor woman who thinks that because she was violently raped, all other rape is entirely invalid. He is currently trying to get his case to appeal.

Recently, odious Gove-lover Sarah Vine waded into the argument, again saying that women who are drunk can't be raped. I mean, she dresses it up by saying things like "we've all invited the wrong person in for coffee" (have we? I haven't), and that having to prove consent is ridiculous, and poor men who have sex with someone they've just met are going to end up on trial for rape, but her message is simple: women can't prove they didn't give consent, and men shouldn't have to. This somewhat overlooks the fact that all rape cases rest on whether or not consent was given. Most women who are raped, are raped by someone they know in a place they've been before.

About 85000 women are raped a year in England and Wales. Of these, about a thousand people are convicted - just over 1%. Swathes of women are raped, and hardly anyone ever goes to prison for it. And now, those who DO manage to get their rapist to court and convicted can have the likes of Sarah bloody Vine speculating on whether they were REALLY raped, or just making it up to look good or ease a troubled conscience.

Guess what people!
- Being drunk doesn't give anyone the right to rape you.
- Consenting to have sex with one man doesn't mean you've consented to have sex with ALL the men.
- Not all rapists are ugly.
- Sometimes, rich and famous men rape too!
- You're far more likely to be raped by someone you know than someone you don't.
- But if you are, it's still NOT YOUR FAULT.

- And most importantly, if someone tells you they've been raped or sexually assaulted, 

Rape Crisis
NHS Sexual assault services

7 Feb 2015

Choice (...or the biomedical dominance of obstetrics)

Why does pregnancy and birth often mean the loss of autonomy and free choice for women?

At no other stage in life have I been encouraged to have a flu jab with quite the demented intensity as in the last four months. I've always qualified for one, and never had one, and nobody has ever cared until NOW. Now, I know the risks of flu in pregnancy, and I know how little difference the flu jab makes to anything, so on balance I prefer not to put anything in my body I haven't had in there before (please don't confuse this with some sort of raging anti-vaccination stance - I don't react well to any vaccination and prefer not to have them if it's not strictly necessary).
I've also been told I WILL HAVE the whooping cough vaccination at 28 weeks. Again, I understand the rationale, actually completely agree with it, and will happily have it. But I've not been asked to consent. I've not even been told that dissent is an option.
I've been told I MUST have a GTT (glucose tolerance test, a blood test for diabetes) at 28 weeks on account of being fat and having had a big baby. Now, my 'big baby' was actually spot on in weight for my height and ethnicity, according to the hospital's own growth chart system. I've also had a majorly underweight baby. I've never had diabetes in my life, and certainly not in pregnancy, and yet I have been told to go to the hospital and have this test (which takes two hours) and have never been given the opportunity to dissent, or had it explained that it is a choice.

Then you have the large number of people, including politicians, who believe smoking and drinking in pregnancy should be illegalised. Now, it is perfectly legal to actually kill your baby before 24 weeks of pregnancy, if you want to, provided you go through the proper channels. How can you decide, in law, that a baby has no rights to life before 24 weeks, but definitely has the right to not to be poisoned? It's a totally flawed argument, with extremely limited evidence. As it is, you're told to stop drinking and smoking the second you find out you're pregnant. Now, this has never been a problem for me - I don't smoke, and I don't drink if I suspect I'm pregnant - but it's a big problem for a lot of other women, particularly smokers.

Every single woman in England, if not the entire UK, has the right to ask for, and be permitted a homebirth except in high risk circumstances. Yet, I know many women who are never told it's even an option where they live. Presumably this is why homebirth rates are so low. I want a homebirth, and will blog about the whys and wherefores later on in pregnancy, but I've already had to see a consultant to be 'approved' for one, based on a one-off situation that's unlikely to be repeated. There is a strong sense among obstetricians that homebirths are inherently risky, as opposed to the safety of a hospital birth, ignoring the simple truth that BIRTH is a risky business, and yet women have been doing it to varying degrees of success since we evolved into bipeds.

Much is made of choices around labour. My maternity notes have a whole page in which to discuss my birth plan, and explain on what I would like to happen. Dear reader, I will totally ignore that page, because I know full well that the second something in my labour changes, that plan will get lobbed out the window. I strongly advise you to do the same. Birth choices are only acknowledged and acted upon until something changes. That can be as simple as not having a waterbirth because the waterbirth room is already occupied, to labouring far too fast to have a chance to light the myriad candles and incense, to needing an emergency caesarean. And women are not really made aware beforehand that the time and effort they put into organising their birth choices and preferences in their head, and in their notes, is wasted the second something goes slightly awry. This in itself can lead to angst and unhappiness postnatally.

Women's choice in labour is removed entirely if a risk is detected. Few women are ever given what would normally be called 'informed choice' prior to an emergency caesarean, on the basis that there simply isn't time. This can be accepted, if the baby or woman is dying. However, often women aren't given informed choice when there is no immediate risk to life. I've discussed how induction is rarely explained as an option rather than an inevitability. I was told when I was overdue with my last baby that it was up to the consultant whether I could decline an induction. Er no, it's definitely up to me!
The same can happen with episiotomy, although less so than in the days (1950s-1980s) when episiotomy was done as standard, and one woman was CUT AFTER DELIVERY so the midwife wouldn't get into trouble for not doing it during the birth.
Too often, in the chaos of the delivery room and the fear of perinatal death, the birthing woman is not told what is happening, what has gone wrong, and what needs to happen next.

I don't understand why women's choice is so heavily curtailed in pregnancy and birth. Are we really to be thought of as silly children, who are incapable of understanding risk? Who would put our own prejudices above the health of our babies? Are we thought of as not able to understand the rationale and say no, regardless of what current NICE guidelines are? I mean, it's not like consultants follow the NICE guidelines about perinatal care half the time anyway.  Perhaps the real problem is that midwives and consultants simply don't have the TIME to properly explain the reasons for certain tests and advice.
The only real choice I feel I've been given so far is whether or not to have the sexual health blood screening for HIV and syphillis, and whether or not to have the NT scan. Everything else has been done to me.
It's a strange feeling, to feel as though your body is not really your own anymore, simply because there's another person in it.

2 Feb 2015

Pink or blue?

I've got my anomaly scan in two weeks. This is a scan done to check the major structures of the baby are OK. As a bonus extra, you can often find out the sex of your baby, if you want to and if your baby co-operates.

Background information: I had a terrible second pregnancy, emotionally. In addition to this, my baby had a rare, life-threatening, and undiagnosed cord problem (two true knots) that could have killed him at any point between 10 and 42 weeks. His birth went miraculously well, but left me with some physical problems that have all flared up. I won't bore you with the foul and clinical details, but it means I may not be able to have the birth I want, I may have some problems immediately postnatally, and my emotional state has been extremely brittle, particularly in the last month.

Now, as you know, I already have two sons, and there has been an enormous amount of speculation by people I know well and not so well about whether this baby could be a girl.
But I don't give a shit. I mean, I really could not give a single flying fuck what kind of baby's in there.

It annoys me because these people keep saying "OH IT MUST BE A GIRL" when I tell them how shit I feel. Like that will make up for it. Like having a daughter, which surely I MUST WANT BECAUSE NO WOMAN CAN EVER BE COMPLETE WITH ONLY SONS, makes up for not being properly mobile, not being able to eat properly, being sick, being so tired I could die, not being able to crap properly. Oh, well AS LONG AS IT'S A GIRL, NEVERMIND EH?
I mean, I felt shit when I was having my boys as well, but clearly that has ceased relevance in the unending quest for a female child.

We are going to find out what we're having, but not because WE care or even particularly WANT to know, but because my autistic eldest will find it a lot easier to adapt to if he knows what he's getting. If his sibling has a name, and a gender. If he can help choose things. The Great Unknown bothers him, far more than it bothers us, or my youngest (although my youngest has demanded another brother).

It aggravates me because I know people will feel BAD FOR ME if I'm having another boy, even if they don't say it. And CONGRATULATE me if I'm having a girl, like I sat and sorted through my husband's sperm prior to letting it in.

I don't care. All I want is a healthier pregnancy, to remain pregnant until July, to have a healthy baby, and not to be too savagely injured during the birth. And it is very hard when EVERY SINGLE PERSON I SEE asks if I want a girl, if I think it's a girl, if I'll 'try again' if it's another boy. Like the only possible reason we decided to have a baby is to get a daughter.
I think when you've had a crappy pregnancy, for whatever reason, the goal of a healthy baby becomes far less of a certainty, and more of an anxiety-ridden hope. I wish the only concern I had about this pregnancy was the baby's genitals.

This will be my last baby, unless something awful and not worth considering happens. And this is our CHILD, regardless.
So no. I'm not hoping for a girl. I don't mind whether it's male or female. I just want it to be OK.