Feminist dissonance

A new and positive discourse seems to be emerging in Catholic circles, not just in the UK, but also amongst young Catholics in all continents, including the developing world, as to how Catholicism can counter the poisonous and popular narratives of misogyny propagated by the media and white chattering classes, and demonstrate that Catholicism offers an authentic and compelling vision of womanhood, one that offers total freedom, empowerment and is the only way that a woman may fulfil her true potential as a human being, created equal with men in the image of God.

Of concern is the way that a very narrow-minded definition of feminism, one synonymous with the misnomer of bodily autonomy, is now being globally evangelised with all the zeal of a nineteenth century missionary with the same patronising and even misogynistic attitudes, that accompanied the colonisers. If only these women in the developing world knew what was good for them, they would stop having so many children! Leaving the population agenda aside, these attitudes have been disturbingly crystallised by the Melinda Gates foundation, despite the fact that contraception is neither wanted nor needed by women in the developing world, as this open letter by a Nigerian women pleadingly testifies. Those wanting to help the plight of women in developing countries would do much better to actually listen to the voices of women in impoverished countries, rather than condescendingly deciding what is in their best interests – reinforcing and entrenching the disempowerment brought about by poverty.

The illogical, harmful and dissonant values of western feminism and sexual liberation were perfectly encapsulated in this characteristically vulgar pro-choice defence written by the 40 days for choice apologists. I’m going to disseminate it, not only to highlight the incoherence but also to ask, are these really the values that we want to be promoting to our children and exporting across the globe?

I’ve had sex with many different guys – in relationships, as one-night stands, in threesomes and foursomes and twosomes, in beds, on beaches, on trains. I’ve never had an unwanted pregnancy. – sounds like you’ve been very fortunate by all accounts, because the sexual behaviour and lifestyle would fall into the at high risk of pregnancy and/or STDs category. That’s not, to use society’s favourite verboten concept ‘judgemental’ or attacking your morals, it’s a statement of fact.
Thanks to the sterling work of teachers and parents, I’ve been taught about sexual health – great news! So you are well informed that you are participating in risky behaviour, you’ll know the risks of non-exclusive, non romantic and early sexual activity. You’ll know for example that you are at increased risk of cervical cancer, STD-related infertility, antibiotic resistant gonorrhoea and so on, before you’ve even thought about an unplanned child.

Thanks to the men I’ve slept with, I’ve never had to fight to get them to use condoms. – do most men in the Western world refuse to use condoms? Is it a struggle to get men to don prophylactics? Anecdote is not the plural of data, do we have any stats on that? Are we implying that most men are ignorant selfish misogynistic apes who don’t care whether or not they transmit disease or impregnate a woman? If we reverse the genders in that statement and say thanks to the women I’ve slept with I’ve never had to fight to get them to allow me to use condoms, does that not imply that a woman has to take sole responsibility for the consequences of sexual encounters? As does the original statement. It accepts that whatever may or may not result from sexual intercourse, it is always a woman’s responsibility. Doesn’t sound very empowered on in a woman’s favour to me. The men get off scott free!

Or, if it is a struggle to get men to use condoms, whether in the Western world (which I doubt) or more plausibly in the developing world, where there are cultural barriers to condom use, that implies that they are rather ineffective as a method of contraception. There seems little point in flooding developing countries with condoms. If one has to fight to get men to use them, sexual education is clearly not working, especially for men. So Nadine Dorries may actually have a point with her extra SRE targeted at girls then?

Thanks to sheer good luck, I’ve never been raped. – Let’s be charitable and attribute this to clumsy phrasing, but it is nonetheless offensive. Rape victims are undoubtedly victims of circumstance, be that the woman who is raped on the street, the woman who had something slipped in her drink, the wife whose husband has had one too many and refuses to take no for an answer and so on, but this just perpetuating the rape culture myth. Gender violence does undoubtedly exist and is a problem, but it is not the binary concept implied by this term. To state that it is lucky that one has never been raped, following on from a description of high risk sexual behaviour, like it or not implicitly victim blames. Is it due to her behaviour that she’s lucky never to have been raped? Or is it that all men are somehow pre-disposed to rape and she’s just fortunate never to have been a victim? In this context it is at best glib, ill-considered, and typical of the feminist genre.

It’s important to recognise the myriad things that could result in an unplanned pregnancy – the different bases that we have to cover, the balls we have to juggle, (ha unfortunate pun or turn of phrase considering the subject matter)to make sure that sex remains just sex. But most important is the base we just can’t cover – luck.

Best bit of unwitting Catholic sexual apologetics I’ve seen in ages. A tacit admission that sex is not designed to be a mere leisure activity. It is designed to be unitive, to reinforce pair bonding and procreative. Having sex could well result in pregnancy whatever you do. Stripping the emotional intimacy and potential for pregnancy from sex requires mental gymnastics and sophistry, it requires one to attempt to re-programme one’s innate inbuilt emotional responses, to condition oneself not to care about the other or get emotionally involve and it requires at least two methods of contraception or sterilisation to ensure that one doesn’t get pregnant or a disease, and even then it’s not guaranteed.

Wouldn’t a much better solution be a society in which monogamy, chastity and fidelity were valued and desirable concepts to reduce the risks of disease and in which women could be aware of their natural peak times of fertility and together make an informed choice with their partners as to whether or not to take the risk of pregnancy? If its all such a juggling act to keep sex as just sex, shouldn’t that tell us something? Sexual empowerment seems to be much harder work for women than it does men. All those threesomes, foursomes and one night stands are worth pumping one’s body full of huge doses of synthetic hormones, risking one’s long-term health and the killing of an unborn child?

Pregnancies are not solely caused by your own decisions. – yes they are. A woman who doesn’t have sex is not going to get pregnant.

As women who are desperately trying to get pregnant can tell you, one of the key deciding factors is luck. – yes, there is undoubtedly an element of circumstance when one is trying to achieve pregnancy, there are a myriad of measures one can take to attempt to maximise one’s chances of pregnancy, but there is nothing that one can do to guarantee that one becomes pregnant. There is however, something that one can do to mitigate the chances of not becoming pregnant. If you have sex and you are fertile then engaging in sex is something of a gamble, admittedly with measured risks. As the writer goes on to say: Can we beat the odds?

And so, what can we do when something as essential as sex is risky enough to make or break people’s lives? – so sex is essential now is it? We live in a culture whereby sex is essential? What happens if people don’t have sex? Do they turn into this?

No-one has ever died from not having sex. Sex is essential on a macro level for the promulgation of humankind, but not a micro level. Sex is pleasurable, feels good and is certainly important in terms of increasing intimacy in a committed relationship, but it’s not essential in terms of life or death or even overall well being, unless the writer is claiming that the significant proportion of the population who are not having sex are somehow deficient either emotionally or physically.

As for make or break, if sex really does have the ability to ruin one’s life, then abstinence sounds like the most advisable option. The idea that sex can totally transform one’s life for the better is delusional. The best sex is not merely physical but requires a level of mutual intimacy, love and trust. A relationship where sex does not constitute a stressful plate spinning act but a mutual and consensual outpouring of love.

For as long as we walk the planet we’ll be having sex. And as long as we’re having sex there will be unwanted pregnancies. As long as humankind exists, it will continue to have sex and there will always be unplanned or even unwanted pregnancies, no-one is disputing that, least of all me.

The lucky ones will avoid them, the unlucky ones won’t, but right now we’re lucky enough to have a safety net. Let’s keep it that way. – a new euphemism. Abortion is a ‘safety net’ – destroying an unborn child is a safety net when all other attempts to avoid pregnancy have failed. If the safety net is required, one needs to ask oneself why. Ultimately we need to have a safety net so that we can indulge our own selfish pleasures. A safety net implies that it is a method of last resort, there is no other option available. That means that women who are in poverty, who have been raped, who are in all kinds of reduced, straightened or desperate circumstances need a safety net as they have no other choice other than to abort their children. That’s not a status quo worth keeping and we should fight for change, otherwise we accept and promote injustice. And in all of this, where is the humanity of the unborn child? Its cloaked in euphemisms of safety nets and choices. Being killed before you have a chance to live does not sound like much of a safety net or choice to me.

According to this typical feminist perspective, being a woman is all about being a fatalist, a victim, the weaker sex. That isn’t something that chimes with my experience nor is a central principle of the pioneers of feminism, who recognised that women were equally strong, resourceful and powerful as men, but in different ways.

The early feminists fought for equality of opportunity – for women to have access to the same level of education, the same rights in the workplace, the rights to access the same choices as men. It was only through education could women begin to be on an equal playing field and enjoy equal status in society to men. That is why every woman is at heart a feminist, we don’t see ourselves as lesser beings or worthy of less opportunities.

But not every woman wants to identify as a feminist, in that some of us, I would argue most of us, do not see man as the enemy, the potential rapist of the typical feminist tropes. Our fathers, brothers, husbands and sons deserve better than being pathologised as potential rapists and aggressors. They also deserve better, as do we as women, than the sexual objectification of both genders that takes place in today’s society as a result of the libertine attitudes that prevail and dominate the sexual discourse. Sex can never be free of responsibility, this is an unobtainable Utopian ideal.

If sex cannot come without consequences, then the responsibility should always be mutual. To frame the issue as women’s bodily autonomy, (aside from the fact that bodily autonomy does not exist, a doctor won’t just cut one’s arm off because one asks him to) absolves the men from any responsibility for sex and leaves women co-opting with their own oppression. Lack of fidelity and monogamy exposes primarily women and children to poverty and exploitation and turns both genders into sex objects – simply means to require objective ends.

Francis Philips recently wondered whether or not the term feminism carried too much baggage amidst efforts to reclaim it. I think she’s right. I am leaning towards womanism, coined by the author Alice Walker, which has none of the negative connotations of white middle class feminism. Ultimately we have to recognise that women will always have different bodily functions and responsibilities to men. Men cannot bear children, nor can they breastfeed newborn babies. If we want a woman and child-friendly society, one that does not treat women as inferior, one that does not abandon them or their children to a live of poverty and deprivation, a society that acknowledges the dignity and contribution of all women to society, not just in our role of mothers, then we need the active support, co-operation and collaboration of men.

As a Catholic woman I want the same for my four daughters as for myself; access to equal education and the confidence that they can achieve whatever goals they set their minds to. I want them to take responsibility for their own fertility and bodies and I expect them to enjoy equal civil rights under the law. I want them to face every single challenge and setback that life may throw at them with confidence and grace; that they keep going in faith, hope and trust, no matter how difficult the odds.

What I don’t want is to raise weak women, who blame men for everything and who place themselves at the mercy of some fatalistic victim culture, or to expect special treatment or favours as a result of their gender thereby perpetuating a different form of inequality.

Whilst feminism continues in this vein of self-pitying victimhood and encouraging hatred of men, our companions in humanity, then strong women, who want to fight for a better future for all those struggling from oppression, should have nothing to do with it.