Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Prochoice Litmus Test

 

Photo credit: Facebook/Josie Cunningham

Photo credit: Facebook/Josie Cunningham

 

First published on Cliterati on 30/4/14 as ‘Josie Cunningham: The litmus test of what it means to be prochoice’

 

Unless you don’t pay any attention to internet culture, you’ll have heard of Josie Cunningham. The model, escort and mum of two sparked a Fifties-style outbreak of outraged pearl-clutchery when she told the Sunday Mirror she was having an abortion. Big news, huh? Woman Gets Abortion. But what people- yes, even pro-choicers- were against was the fact that she was getting an abortion to further her career (by getting a chance to appear on Big Brother). Yes, now you can apparently call yourself “pro-choice” even if you’re against abortions if you don’t agree with the reason for abortion. Gone are the days when “pro-choice” meant supporting abortions if the woman, trans man or non-binary person wants one. Nope, now it just means you’re anti-choice without being 100% anti-choice; many anti-choicers aren’t 100% anti-choice-most make an exception for the life of the mother or rape.

 

As you’ll have noticed, the Mirror article is littered with anti-choice rhetoric like “unborn child”, and it’s a very scathing piece which is ignorant of UK abortion law. But of course media hate isn’t surprising. Josie Cunningham was always going to be a target. Even not counting the fact that she’s most famous for her controversial boob job, the toxic combination of her career, age and gender present an irrestible media bullseye: Cinderella, you shall be turned into our bimbo! This is because Cunningham transgresses several patriarchal rules. Firstly, she’s a sex worker, and most of our media is whorephobic. By glamour modelling she trangresses patriarchal norms of the chaste maternal woman. Then she’s a young mother- making her a member of two stigmatised groups. Then, by going public, she’s being confident and assertive- something women aren’t traditionally meant to be. Her statement to the Mirror that she wants to be famous for herself, not famous for having a footballer’s baby, is a further break with the passive wife and mother (or WAG) role. The potential fathers of the foetus are high achievers. Therefore her traditional role is as their support.

 

And then there’s the middle class anxieties over a surgeon buying sexual services and possibly impregnating a “lower class” woman- a hooker, no less. Cue the monocle-dropping! Cunningham’s situation shoves in our faces the fact that respectable, highly educated people buy sex and have children with the people we marginalise and despise. And let’s not forget the anxiety that the determination and career-oriented scheming of a young woman stirs in the minds of older people, who look at her and see a togetherness they didn’t possess at that age. As our life spans and retirement ages go up, the young are increasingly seen as tech-savvy competitors instead of the proteges or successors they might’ve been a few decades ago. It doesn’t take a recruitment consultant to work out that a woman who can trick the NHS into giving her a boob job, fulfil her modelling dreams and achieve more fame than most of us by age 23 is probably someone you want to watch out for.

 

The odd thing is, it’s the reason for her choice that angers those so-called “pro-choicers”. It would’ve been fine if Cunningham had aborted because she didn’t want another kid. It would’ve been fine if she’d been guided by traditional norms into aborting simply because she wasn’t sure who the father of the foetus is (it’s either a footballer friend or a surgeon who was an escort agency client). Apparently, fame, earning a lot of money to make a better life for her children, and further lucrative deals aren’t a good enough reason to have an abortion. That’s kind of interesting as it raises the question: what is a good enough reason?Not many women stand to lose as much from having a baby as Josie Cunningham does. Apparently, these days women should only abdicate their baby-squirting maternal role for the ‘right’ reasons-being a nice middle class girl thing, like lawyer or doctor– and anything too capitalist is not a ‘right’ reason. Respectability politics, innit. As Georgia Lewis points out in this excellent blog, if you’re okay with a lawyer having an abortion because of her career, you have to be okay with Josie Cunningham’s decision. But “because I want to” should always be reason enough.

 

 

The whole outrage on this story is riddled with slut-shaming snobbery and ignorance of NHS abortions.If you’re prochoice, you won’t object to a woman who has an unplanned pregnancy having an abortion,” says Georgia Lewis. Josie Cunningham’s story raises all sorts of questions about employment rights, motherhood, capitalism, celebrity, women’s rights and specifically how pregnant women are treated by employers. Why isn’t Cunningham allowed on TV while pregnant? That’s the big question. But these debates have been ignored. Instead, a sexist attack on Cunningham (with classist and whorephobic elements) is all that’s happening. She’s all of our hates rolled into one: the scrounger, the young mum, the sex worker, the vapid, stupid celebrity, the slut. We hate our bimbos- but even more, we love to hate them.

 

The abuse in comments and on Josie Cunnigham’s Facebook page by anti-choicers is no surprise. But it’s very, very worrying that the prochoicers have joined in (sometimes with arguments as ludicrous as ‘some people can’t have kids, so she should’ – never mind the fact she’s had two, plus five miscarriages.) It’s worrying because Nadine Dorries MP and Jeremy Hunt have both tried to limit abortion. And this kind of anti-choice-in-pro-choice-clothing thing can only be a good thing for anti-choicers and anti-choice politicians. This could all have very real consequences for pregnant women, trans men, intersex and non-binary people seeking abortions.

 

[I]f a woman is in a desperate position enough to beg for an abortion than her mental health is already at risk,” says Nicole Walsh, mental health activist and founder of Succession, a nonprofit organisation that helps students living with mental health issues achieve their ambitions. If pro-life groups make further restrictions to abortions then those with mental health problems or risks to their mental health will be at a huge [risk]. As they will be under the judgement of such groups. Like their abortions their mental health will come under the moral questioning of unqualified non-professionals who will choose for them whether or not they deserve the abortion and then shame them when they have problems parenting….Women with un intended pregnancy are four times more likely to suffer from postpartum depression twelve months after birth…The problem here is that it is nearby impossible to hear from women who will admit that they went through with unwanted pregnancies and are or have been struggling.”

 

The academic literature certainly seems to prove Walsh right, as in this article by the Transnational Family Research Institute.

But what about the trauma caused by abortions that the anti-choicers keep warning us about? Many pro life groups advertise that abortion can cause post-traumatic stress disorder – or post abortion stress syndrome. This has absolutely no medical grounding,” says Walsh. “Whilst abortion is very difficult for many- the sense of relief many feel is very real.
Unfortunately many of the stories of PASS come from women who’s only option was a medical late term abortion and do not come from those with unwanted pregnancies. PASS has little to no real scientific backing and is still used by pro life groups to shame and scare women who want abortions.”

 

A 2010 study completely debunked the theory of post abortion stress syndrome and this 2009 academic paper claims the syndrome is fabricated by anti-choice (pro life) groups. But even if it existed, preventing possible trauma by causing the real trauma of forced carrying and birth would not be a justification for denying abortions, especially when harmful substances like alcohol, cigarettes and junk food are permitted. Somehow people never seem to get that upset about the Pill even though it can sometimes cause abortion.

 

Whether you’re pro-choice or anti-choice, and whether you personally approve or disapprove of her choice, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Josie Cunningham is the litmus test for all of us who like to think of ourselves as pro-choice.

 

 

Teen Mothers Speak: Stigma, Misogyny-And The Failure Of Feminism

 

First published on Cliterati on 7/4/14.

Teen parents- especially teenage mothers- are stigmatised.

Pregnant girls are viewed as either poor immoral victims who need fixing, or manipulating devious sluts who need punishing,” says Prym Face, Telegraph blogger, researcher, former young mother and founder of Promoting Respect for Young Mothers. “Support for teen mums is sometimes couched in a context of changing and teaching them, rather than listening to what they want. The notion of being a ‘teenager’ does not sit well with our ideals of ‘motherhood’, so the term becomes a social construction. We don’t use ‘teenage’ to describe young carers, or young offenders or any other people professionally, yet teenage mother has continued to be used to label young mothers, reinforcing stereotypes and stigma. The reality is that young mums have to work hard to create their own paths and scripts, often with very little support. And then when their life isn’t the car crash it was meant to be they are told they are the exception to the rule!”

We all know this. When was the last time your gaze lingered over that fourteen year old pushing her pram? Were you surprised to discover a successful twentysomething whom you know actually has a child? I do these things. I do them even though I know that as a feminist I’m not meant to. I do them even though I know that the surprise and othering comes from the stigma. Just because I don’t feel disgusted by teen mothers doesn’t mean that my reactions, though internal, prop up society’s disgust. The BBC recently reported on the stigma- as if we needed them to tell us it exists. As a feminist what interests me is the wider issues of how feminism can be inclusive of and help fight for the rights of adolescent and young mothers, the reasons behind the stigma, and how the lived experience of stigma impacts on some of the most powerless people in our society.

Lucy V Hay is a script editor, author of two books and was previously a teacher. But the mere fact of having once been a young mum means people judge her educational status and career goals. “ If they see me with my son (himself a teenager now), they will assume I am badly educated, on benefits, a scrounger,” she says. “[T]oo often the subtext is, ‘I would have thought you were too posh/too clever to get knocked up as a teenager’. But it can happen to anyone who has sex — at any age!!…Sometimes people are openly admiring and say it’s great I have still achieved and I appreciate the sentiment, but again it’s that subtext: often they see me as achieving *despite* my son, when the reality is, I have achieved despite society’s lack of support and even blatant sabotage.”

[M]edical professionals have been some of the worst for me, even becoming blatantly hostile to me on occasion. Teachers are usually fine, though a couple have treated me like an idiot or as if I’m hysterical or whatever; I soon put them straight – I’m a trained teacher myself, for God’s sake! Of other parents, women have been the worst to be honest; Dads usually barely notice my age, but the Mums at the school gates have in the past been openly aggressive to me […] It’s the age-old chestnut of women doing patriarchy’s job for it by policing other women I reckon. I learned a long time ago to NEVER look at any other woman at the school gates or in the street long when with my kids, for fear of confrontation. It’s smile, avert eyes quickly — and only strike up friendships if *the other woman* initiates it.”

But it’s not just marginalisation and social rejection that we use to punish young women for conceiving or for choosing not to have abortions. We actually withold vital medical care from them, too. “I had severe mental health issues as a young person and I was not taken seriously by medical professionals at all. The help offered to postnatal mothers was not offered to me, despite my repeated attempts to get help. It never needed to get as far as it did, yet I was patronised constantly, told ‘Oh we all get down after having a baby, dear’ and given a pat on the head and prescribed some antidepressants and sent on my way[…]Yet when I had a baby at the “right” age…everyone was much more interested in me. Funny, that. It’s like we reward women for being “good” and withdraw everything when they’re ‘not’.”

I’ve always considered the stigma against teenage pregnancy and young motherhood to be related to, or a form of, slut shaming and misogyny more generally. But I’m not a young mother so what would I know? When I asked Lucy, though, she does share this view: “I have no doubt the stigma against young mothers is an intense dislike of teenage sexuality, especially young women’s – so yes, it’s connected to misogyny. Young women who have sex young, who have babies or abortions are considered “tainted” or “spoiled goods” and that’s just disgusting. Also, the double standard is ludicrous: contrast the negativity of names like ‘slut’, ‘bike’ etc with ‘stud’ and ‘Jack the lad’!”

Tracy Engelbrecht, founder of the South African social support organisation Young Mom Support, still gets asked questions 21 years after she became pregnant. Questions like “I get that you love him, but I’m sure you wish he wasn’t born, hey? I’m sure you wouldn’t want your daughter to be a teen mom, would you?” People also tell her “You’re not like ‘those other’ teen moms. You’re the exception” and “It’s good that you’ve made the best of a bad situation,” “I’m sure you think you’re happy, but you could have been so much more,” and of course “At your age, you should be *insert-debauched-activity-here*”. Through her work with young mothers, as well as her own experience of young motherhood, she understands just how damaging the stigma can be. “A mother who feels encouraged and valued in her parenting will always do a better job than one who feels judged and vilified by her community. Every parent needs support, no matter their age. If we insist on treating teen parenting as a punishment for sexual activity, we will continue deal with:


a) children raised by parents who hate themselves

b) the consequences of unsafe, illegal abortions instead of safe, legal terminations in a medical setting

c) babies abandoned and dumped at birth because the mother is too afraid to reach out for help. (this is a HUGE problem in SA and happens every day).”

As an intersectional feminist, I feel that the mainstream feminist campaigns have done little to address the stigma against young mothers or even understand their lived experiences and issues. Reproductive rights and reproductive justice seem to revolve around the availibility of abortion and contraception. In the UK where women over the age of 12 can have free abortions and contraception without parental consent, it appears (to me, at this time) that the reproductive right to have a baby while you’re a teen is more threatened than other reproductive rights. The stigma against young mothers is ludicrous. Everyone thinks teen births are skyrocketing when actually the conception rate for under-18s is at its lowest level in 40 years. Teen motherhood has been falling since the 1970s. In the 1950s teenage pregnancy was far more common than it is now, but was not seen as a social problem as long as the parents married before the birth, and teen marriage was tolerated.

So what can we, the childless young people and the older parents, do to stop the stigma against adolescent and young mums (and dads)?

Well first up, it would be great if young women could walk around with their kids without hostility and even open aggression directed at them!” Lucy says. “Just smile for God’s sake, it costs nothing – and stop staring. It’s just a baby, not the Antichrist. Secondly, consider WHY you find teen mothers so distasteful: if it’s because you don’t like your taxes paying their benefits, ask yourself why that’s such a big deal to you when your taxes also pay for really nasty shit like bombs. If it’s because you think that teen mother won’t do anything with her life now, again, consider this: a) how do you know she won’t and not ‘pay back’ those benefits by contributing to society? and b) why isn’t raising a child ‘contributing to society’ anyway? The birth rate is going down, remember. Most of us grow up to be useful members of society.”

You can find Lucy V Hay on Vizify, on Facebook, at Bang2Write.com or follow her on Twitter.

Prym Face is the founder of the Prym Face website, blogs for the Telegraph and is on Twitter.

Young Mom Support can be found here, or follow Tracy Engelbrecht on Twitter.

 

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