A reply to Lenny Esposito of Come Reason

Lenny Esposito, author of the Christian apologetics site Come Reason, regularly posts ‘in case you missed it’ tweets with links to his past posts; a recent one was to a post from three years ago titled Progressives, Please Help Me Understand International Women’s Day. Since I seem to fit the definition of ‘progressive’, I’ll give it a shot, for what my opinion is worth. As always, please keep comments polite and respectful.

These are the four main questions in the post:

1. How Do We Mark Achievements Today?

You can find examples on the International Women’s Day site under the top menu ‘Missions’.

2. How Do We Accelerate Economic Gender Parity?/3. How Do We Accelerate Cultural Gender Parity?

Huge and important questions; I’ve aimed to give a quick overview rather than an exclusive list. Feel free to chime in with suggestions in the comments.

This article and this article have general suggestions.

This article, this article, and this article have advice on promoting gender parity in the workplace.

This article has advice on promoting gender parity in the home/the family.

Some other thoughts from me: Take relationship abuse and sexual abuse/harassment seriously, and be aware of the many ways in which they can look different from the stereotypes. Make birth control freely and easily accessible to everyone who needs it. And be willing to listen to people’s stories of their lived experience and take them seriously.

4. What do You Mean by Woman?

Short(ish) answer: Any adult whose gender identity is female. For purposes of anti-misogyny endeavours such as International Women’s Day, I would also include a) girls (children whose gender identity is female), and b) anyone who is affected by misogyny as a result of having been determined on the basis of genital configuration to be female, even if their actual gender identity isn’t female. There was going to be a long answer, but it was getting really long and taking forever to write and in the end I decided I just wanted to get this post published already, so I’ve cut that bit and saved it so that if I have more time later I can put it in a future post.

 

As well as those main questions, the post also contained several subsidiary questions, so here are answers to some of those:

[regarding the ‘A Day Without A Woman‘ strike] How does this celebrate achievement?

The strike wasn’t for celebrating achievement, but for protesting the ways in which women (or trans men who still present as women, as per question 4 above) are still disadvantaged or oppressed in society, and for highlighting the extent of invisible work done in society by women or by trans people thought to be female.

[regarding schools with all-female staff on the ‘A Day Without A Woman’ strike] What happens to the female students who are supposed to be taught today?

Same as what happens to the male or transgender students in those schools; they miss one day’s worth of school and catch up over the rest of the year.

Does losing one day’s instruction give them an advantage?

If you’re honest about wanting to understand these issues better, skip the sarcasm; it’s counter-productive.

In educational terms, of course it doesn’t give these children an advantage, but I can’t imagine it’s going to give them a disadvantage compared to other schools; if having your school very occasionally closed for a day puts you at an educational disadvantage, then surely students from the parts of a country with higher snowfall would do worse educationally than students from the warmer areas due to having more snow days during their childhood. In terms of issues other than education, I think it can be an advantage; they see their teachers willing to get involved in protests for what they believe, and I think that’s a positive thing for children to see.

Perhaps we can recognize that women as women offer unique and worthwhile contributions to our society that cannot be measured (or are undervalued) economically. But this seems to get sticky pretty fast.

It can, but not for the reason you’re giving. The trouble with talking about ‘unique contributions of women’ is that it’s an approach which lumps women together as some sort of composite group who supposedly can collectively make contributions men can’t, with the inevitable vice-versa. The trouble with that is that it pigeonholes people. So, for example, a focus on the idea that women have unique gifts for childcare and home-making is frequently used to give women the message that they have to have children/be the primary carer for those children/eschew other careers, while at the same time giving men the message that they don’t get to be stay-at-home carers for their children because that’s a ‘women’s job’. And that sort of pigeonholing limits everyone and harms a lot of people. So I’d rather focus on the fact that each individual can offer unique contributions, and that gender – however you measure it – isn’t the best way to determine what those contributions are going to be.

Progressives have been telling me for a long time that children don’t need women as mothers, they simply need loving individuals. Gender doesn’t matter at all.

The second sentence there might have been meant to echo the first sentence, but it’s actually saying something rather different. There is a difference between ‘don’t need’ and ‘doesn’t matter at all’. I don’t think that gender ‘doesn’t matter at all’, and, in this specific context, I don’t think it makes zero difference to a child’s experience of being parented. But what children need is loving parents who can provide them with a secure and stable home. Your next comment is about how this relates to adoption, and, yes, I believe that adults who can provide this should be allowed to raise children even if their home doesn’t contain two parents of conventionally opposite genders; I’d far, far rather see children in a happy secure home with a parent or parents who love them than stuck in foster care limbo waiting for some mythical perfect home that doesn’t exist.

All that is required to be a woman is to identify as a woman. Is that right? But that means I can be celebrated if I choose to identify as a woman today.

Transgenderism (and cisgenderism, for that matter) isn’t about ‘choosing’ to identify as a particular gender. It’s about the inescapable fact that nearly all of us do identify as particular genders – not because we choose to, but because it’s a key part of us – and that sometimes a person’s gender identity doesn’t match the gender of their body.

Your choice of words here makes me fairly sure that you don’t actually identify as a woman. I mean, if I’m wrong about that and you are secretly a trans woman in the closet, then, yes, I would absolutely consider it worth celebrating if you felt able to come out. If not, then, no, you shouldn’t just be choosing to say you identify as a woman if you actually don’t.

The big question in all this is how do we celebrate the achievements of women and rally to gain parity for women when the concept of what a woman is isn’t defined? This is probably where I need the most help, as I can’t make sense of it at all.

Of the suggestions above about ways to work for gender parity, which do you feel you can’t implement due to the existence of transgenderism? Why?

I mean, there are those who deeply identify as football fans or basketball fans. I’m in the minority as a hockey fan. Should I seek a day for celebration of achievement and a call to parity since hockey fans are so underrepresented in society?

Lenny… celebrate what you want to celebrate, but cut out the attempts at point-scoring. I don’t think that being a hockey fan has a negative impact on your pay scale, or your risk of experiencing sexual assault or domestic violence, or on any major aspects of your life. I don’t know whether you meant any of your other questions more seriously than this one, but, because I prefer to assume the best of people where possible, I’ve taken them as meant in good faith and answered them in that spirit. If you’re being honest about wanting to learn and understand, then I hope it helped with that. But, whether the rest of the post was meant honestly or not, please don’t post trivialising comparisons for issues that so many people don’t have the luxury of dismissing as trivial.

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 2

This is the second part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here; it covers some key points about my own beliefs, so I’d recommend reading that one first.

I’d intended to cover three more of the questions in this post, but found I had far more to say for each answer than I’d anticipated, so I’ve broken it down further. This post answers question 6. I’m hoping to cover two in the next post and then the last three in a fourth post, though I’ll see how it goes.

 

6. Why is the pro-life movement vilified and bullied as though it was somehow backward to campaign for human rights at this fundamental level?

Because of the behaviour of so many pro-lifers.

Please note that absolutely none of what I say here is intended as a generalisation about every pro-lifer everywhere. As I told you in my last post, I used to be pro-life myself, and I don’t believe any of this would have been true of me at the time; I fully recognise that there are many pro-lifers out there of which these things are also not true. If you’re one of them, great. Feel free to mentally insert the words ‘some’ or ‘many’ or ‘a proportion of’ or ‘a heck of a lot of’, or ‘#notallprolifers’ or anything similar at any point here where you feel I’ve left those words or phrases out and should have included them.

However…

1. There is a rather strong correlation between pro-life views and the following behaviours/beliefs:

  • slut-shaming/policing the sex lives of women
  • holding strong and limiting ideas about women’s role in life
  • anti-contraceptive views
  • homophobia
  • transphobia
  • the sorts of anti-immigration views that we’ve all become a little too familiar with during the whole Brexit fiasco, with versions of racism/jingoism lurking not too far below the surface.

I do realise that there are not only many pro-lifers out there who hold none of these beliefs (I was one such) and, for that matter, many pro-choicers who hold at least some of them. But there’s a strong enough pattern of association there that, while the stereotype of the backwards and misogynistic pro-lifer isn’t by any means correct for all pro-lifers, it also did not come out of nowhere.

2. Pro-life movements have a rather unattractive history of dishonesty in the name of their cause. I do realise that there can’t be many movements out there that haven’t included someone, sometime,  who’s stretched a point to make a point. However, I can personally vouch for the fact that the levels of misrepresentation of the evidence that I’ve come across in reading pro-life literature have been… notable. (At one point, one of my hobbies was debunking this sort of misinformation on a discussion newsgroup.) And then, of course, there are the ‘crisis pregnancy centres‘ who have become known for disingenuously advertising themselves in deliberately vague terms in order to hide the fact that they will be very actively trying to talk their clients out of abortion, then giving out alarming amounts of misinformation to the people who visit them for help.

3. There are quite a lot of pro-lifers out there whose commitment to saving fetal lives does, in practice, seem to be very secondary to their desire to police the sex lives of women. I don’t know whether you’ve ever read How I Lost Faith In The Pro-Life Movement, by blogger and former pro-lifer Libby Anne, or the several follow-up posts she wrote in reply to various objections (linked at the end of the initial post), but they’re well worth reading for anyone interested in the issue.

The short version of those essays is that, having grown up as a very active, committed member of the pro-life movement who certainly was sincere about wanting to prevent abortions and who believed other members of the movement were in full agreement about that priority, Libby Anne found out that the best ways to reduce the numbers of abortions happening were not laws against it, but better social welfare policies, better sex education and more readily available contraception. However, the pro-life movement that she’d grown up with and thought she knew, despite supposedly wanting to prevent abortions, was against all these measures. And the reasons for this typically seemed to boil down to some version of ‘We don’t want women to be having unauthorised sex’. That was more important to these supposed pro-lifers than actually saving fetal lives. Or, for that matter, making conditions better for children or their families.

When people consider it so important to police the sex lives of anyone with female genitalia that they will treat ‘make women suffer for having unauthorised sex’ as a higher priority than ‘prevent abortions/improve health and conditions for children’ then, yes, that is misogynistic and backward. When these beliefs are seen this frequently among people calling themselves pro-life, then that is going to lead a lot of people to the assumption that it’s normal for pro-lifers to be misogynistic and backward.

Yes, that is not true for all pro-lifers. Yes, it is very possible that your reaction right now is something along the lines of “But… but… the group of pro-lifers I belong to are lovely! We do go out and help women in dire straits! We do want better social safety nets for children and families so that no-one is in the position of having to get an abortion because of their practical circumstances!” If so, then that’s wonderful. But, unfortunately, people like that are not a very representative sample of all pro-lifers everywhere.

The pro-life movement is often portrayed as led by white men and as fundamentally backwards and misogynistic, despite the fact that women of all races are involved and are more opposed to abortion than men)

You do realise that the last part of that sentence doesn’t actually contradict the first part? Yes, many women are against abortion, and many of those get involved in pro-life movements; that doesn’t say anything about who’s leading the movement. What organised religious or political groups have the strongest associations with the pro-life movement? In no particular order, the three most obvious ones are Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, and the political right wing. Well, the first two of those are explicitly led by men, and the third has a history of being predominantly male (not just a history, for that matter). So, while it’s certainly more complex than ‘the movement is led by men’, it’s also not as though that portrayal came out of nowhere.

But talk to a pro-lifer. Generally, they believe a basic ethic: All human life has sanctity. Which part of this is backwards and misogynistic?

Hoo boy. Look… I’m about to go into a rant. So, just before doing that, I will not only repeat ‘Not all pro-lifers’, but will also give you this link, which is to a lengthy and beautiful essay by an American blogger who’s clearly pro-life in the truest sense of the term, explaining why the very pro-life beliefs that make her against abortion also prevented her from joining in with the rush to vote for Trump as the candidate promising he’d be tougher on abortion. So, yes, definitely not all pro-lifers.

However…

As you know, Trump did get voted in as US president. As you might or might not have known, a significant part of the reason for this was the reaction to his vs. Clinton’s respective platforms on abortion rights; Trump promised tougher and more punitive laws on abortion, and got a big slice of the anti-abortion vote that way. That means that a heck of a lot of people who were calling themselves pro-life on the grounds that they were against abortion were quite willing to vote in a racist sex abuser who mocked the disabled and bragged about his plan to barricade the USA against refugees who were, in many cases, fleeing for their lives.

Less than a year later, the overwhelmingly anti-abortion Republican party (the term ‘pro-life’, in this context, is seeming more and more hideously inappropriate) were making the latest of their many attempts to drastically cut the health care funding that is keeping tens of thousands of Americans alive. They did not seem particularly bothered about the sanctity of those lives, or at least not in comparison to the sanctity of their own millions of dollars.

While you were writing this post, the news was full of that same Republican party’s callousness and dismissal of the appalling conditions in migrant camps. Three days before you posted it, Mike Pence was photographed on his visit to one such camp, turning away indifferently from desperate migrants crowding against the wire. I remember one person on Twitter commenting wryly ‘Someone should tell him those men were fetuses once’.

Now, of course, we have right-wing anti-abortion site The Federalist campaigning to lift the current quarantine restrictions that are so vital to minimise the horrendous death toll from COVID-19. Apparently their belief in the sanctity of human life isn’t important enough to them to put up with restrictions on their freedom to act how they want.

I know all of those stories concerned America’s right wing, and, yes, they are particularly egregious offenders, but it’s not just them. Mother Teresa ignored or diverted millions of pounds’ worth of donations that, if used for the purpose for which they were surely intended by the donors, could have provided life-saving medical care for thousands of people in need. Instead, she deliberately kept the clinics she ran in terrible condition, letting people who could have been saved (and people who could have at least been palliated) suffer and die with minimal medical help.

In Ireland, less than a decade ago, Savita Hallappanavar died at the age of 31 after the medical staff caring for her concluded that, under the anti-abortion law of the time, it would be illegal to shorten her doomed pregnancy by a few hours even to reduce the growing and ultimately overwhelming risk to her own life.

Further back, there were the infamous Magdalene Laundries, whose founders and staff were, of course, from a religion very well known for their staunchly anti-abortion stance. Their horrific history of abuse and of burials in mass graves demonstrates all too clearly just how those particular ‘pro-lifers’ felt about the sanctity of the lives of the people under their care.

You want to know what part of ‘All human life has sanctity’ is backwards and misogynistic? The part where that principle is selectively applied only when any resulting difficulties will fall exclusively on people with uteruses.

Pro-lifers are merely consistent in applying this fundamental ethic to every single human being, including people in the womb.

You know… when I first read this question and started composing my answer, my read of it was that you genuinely are motivated by a belief in the sanctity of human life and, as such, you’re frustrated by people who make negative stereotypical assumptions about you. I still think this might have been what you meant to get across when you wrote this paragraph. Unfortunately, however, it is not what you actually wrote. What you did write is a kind of wide-eyed bewildered ignorance about the problems within pro-life or pro-life-associated movements. You are talking here as though pro-lifers generally, not just a subset of them, are consistent about applying the sanctity-of-life ethic to every human being. You’re talking as though you have no idea why anyone would think otherwise.

No matter how charitably I look at this, this does boil down to one of two possibilities:

1. You genuinely are that ignorant about the many problems associated with the pro-life cause. You genuinely have no clue about any of the stuff I wrote above. If that’s the case… well, I know you couldn’t have known all the stuff I wrote up there. I mean, you literally couldn’t have known it, because the whole business with people who are supposedly pro-life wanting to break the quarantine hadn’t yet happened at the time you wrote your post, but there are also a lot of other things I mentioned that you might quite plausibly and reasonably not have known about; I’m not going to condemn someone just because they spend less time reading left-wing feminist blogs than I do. However, if you had no idea about any of those things… well, that is a level of ignorance about the world about you that means you probably shouldn’t be out alone on the streets.

Look. When I was pro-life, it was because I genuinely cared about fetal life. But I was at least aware that there were a lot of pro-lifers out there whose beliefs actually stemmed from the view that women should be eschewing careers in favour of bearing and raising children, and/or were associated with other objectionable views such as homophobia, the hellfire-and-brimstone type of religion, and/or strong anti-contraceptive views. I certainly wasn’t among the number of pro-lifers who felt that way, but I did recognise that such people not only existed, but existed in fairly significant numbers. If blogs had existed back then and I’d had one, maybe I would have objected to the stereotyping of pro-lifers generally… but I’m pretty sure that I would not have expressed this sort of bewilderment about why such stereotypes would possibly exist. Even as a very naive and uninformed teenager, living in the pre-Internet era and almost entirely ignoring current affairs, I was still more aware of the world around me than that.

You, however, are talking as though you really are that unaware of all these issues. If that’s true, and not just an act you’re putting on, then that is a truly stunning level of obliviousness. I would have thought it quite hard to be more oblivious about the world out there than I was at seventeen or eighteen, but if you really do know this little about this subject, then, congratulations, you’ve managed it. I personally suspect that in fact that is not the case and the actual reason for what you wrote is the second one, below; but if I’m wrong and you really are that unaware, then, good grey grief, you need to get a clue, fast.

2. The other possibility here is, of course, that you are aware (to whatever degree) that there are a lot of objectionable views/actions associated with pro-lifers and the pro-life movement, but decided to act as though you don’t know any of that. If that’s the case, then not only is that disingenuous, but it’s also backfiring badly as regards your desired goal of convincing people you are not, yourself, misogynistic or backward.

I’d have happily accepted it if you’d acknowledged that some pro-lifers are misogynistic and backward but disavowed yourself from such beliefs. I’d have happily accepted it if you’d stayed off that particular subject altogether; I like to assume the best of people, so that’s what I’d have done. But, instead, you chose to claim that pro-lifers are just people who believe in the sanctity of all human life, that’s it, nothing else to see here. If you did know something about the problems within the pro-life movement and/or the movements commonly associated with it, then your choice to ignore all that and claim that it’s all really just about the sanctity of life is a choice to defend the indefensible. If you don’t want to be misogynistic or backward, then do not excuse or overlook views that are misogynistic or backward.

Friday the 13th: Why I disagree with Julie Bindel about prostitution and the Nordic Model.

Friday the 13ths (Fridays the 13th?) are days on which I speak out in favour of decriminalising prostitution and abolishing laws that harm sex workers. For details of why, please read this post and the links, which will give you more detail than I’ll be able to manage on this particular Friday 13th. Today, what I want to do is write some comments about Julie Bindel’s article Why prostitution should never be legalised in Wednesday’s Guardian.

As you can probably gather from the article’s title and URL, Bindel takes a very different stance from me on prostitution; she believes all sex work to be inherently exploitative and non-consensual, and believes that buying of sex should be criminalised, a position known as the Nordic (or Swedish) Model on which I’ve previously expressed concerns. Here, rather briefly, are my concerns about Bindel’s beliefs, and why I, although also a feminist, do not feel able to agree with her:

  • I do not believe that it is possible to say of any form of sexual experience amongst adults that this is something to which no-one could or would give consent under any circumstance. I simply don’t believe it’s possible to be that reductionist. Any form of sexual activity can be done forcibly, or coercively – or consensually. I don’t see any reason why selling sex should be the one exception.
  • I believe that the best person to assess an individual’s own experience and how s/he feels about it is that individual. When I read the accounts of women who were forced into sex work or experienced coercion, I believe them. Likewise, when I read the accounts of women who chose sex work (whether as the least of the available evils or as something they actually enjoyed and wanted to do), I believe them. When a woman says that she hated sex work and that it was horribly wrong for her, I believe her. When a woman says that she enjoyed sex work and was happy in her profession, I believe her. It makes my hackles rise when people’s own experiences and emotions are denied because they don’t fit with dogma. Bindel wants to erase the experiences and voices of women whose experience of prostitution doesn’t match her own beliefs on the subject. I do not – I cannot – accept or agree with this.
  • Bindel, in this article, is completely ignoring all of the evidence that the legal solution she proposes will be harmful to sex workers themselves. Quite simply, criminalising the buying of sex does nothing whatsoever to address the many reasons why women sell sex or to change the various situations that lead to women doing this, while doing quite a lot to make it harder for them to make the money they need or to do so safely. This means that it does not help sex workers, but does harm them. I would urge anyone considering supporting the Nordic model to please read the articles at the links in the first sentence of this paragraph. Several were written by sex workers or former sex workers who have seen, first-hand, the harm this law can do; others are about the research showing problems with these laws.

And all of that is why – as a feminist – I cannot support Bindel’s position on prostitution.

Friday the 13th and advocacy for sex workers

So, there’s this thing I’ve been taking part in for the past few years where I and some other bloggers/Internet users make Friday the 13th a day for speaking up for sex workers’ rights and the abolition of restrictive laws that harm sex workers rather than helping them. I don’t want to miss doing so this year, but I’m afraid that time constraints and general exhaustion mean that this is going to have to be my shortest post so far on the subject.

Firstly, the above link is to the post I wrote for the last Friday the 13th, which in turn links back to a couple of others. If you read that, it’ll fill you in pretty well on my views.

Secondly, and more importantly, I’d like to take this opportunity to direct you to what our national prostitutes’ organisation, the English Collective of Prostitutes, have to say on the importance of decriminalisation of prostitution. This statement of theirs summarises the reasons for decriminalisation of sex work and provides two links with summaries of useful information on the harm done by current British sex work laws (the US ones, by the way, are even worse, as prostitution itself is illegal in nearly all of the US, which is an appallingly unjust and harmful law) and debunking of several myths about sex work.

So, once again; let’s put an end to laws that harm sex workers, listen to what sex workers want from the law, and look at how best to reform the law with the actual needs and opinions of sex workers in mind.

An article by my sister: the problem with the term ’empowerment’

Back when I was pregnant with each of my children and reading antenatal literature and forums, one thing that cropped up now and again and annoyed the hell out of me was the habit of some health care providers of claiming that they wanted to ’empower’ women to have better births. While I’m sure it was very well meant, I also recognised that anyone who talked about ’empowering’ me was implicitly assuming that a) I wasn’t really all that powerful already and b) I wasn’t capable of becoming so without their kind help.

I was reminded of this when I read my sister’s latest article (nothing to do with childbirth, by the way) on the way that the word ’empowerment’ is essentially a meaningless distraction: Empowerment’ is Warping Women’s View of Real Power.

You can safely assume that if an activity is described as “empowering,” no one in any actual position of authority will be going anywhere near it… Empowerment has become the sparkly pink consolation prize for the gender that continues to be excluded from actual power.

And good points about the sexism in how Clinton is viewed/portrayed by the media.

The FTB Ethics Committee Statement

So, I interrupt that thrilling if admittedly glacially slow trawl through the errors in one conservative Christian’s attempt to write about transgender therapy, to bring you this post on an entirely different topic.

In response to events of recent days, of which many of you will already have heard a great deal, there has been a very great deal of discussion on the FreeThoughtBlogs backchannel about the issue of how we should handle allegations of gross misconduct in one of our members. This is ongoing, and you will hear more about it with time (and can read more about it now on other blogs). For the moment, however, we have drawn up a statement which we are posting on our various blogs to make our feelings known about this topic. Herewith:

Freethought Blogs unequivocally condemns any behavior that threatens the safety of atheist community members, including particularly marginalized groups. Freethought Blogs also recognizes the role of sexual harassment as one of numerous barriers for women that limits access to and participation within atheist conferences and spaces.

When the recent allegations against Richard Carrier were made public, Freethought Blogs initiated a process to investigate these claims and formalize its policy concerning the conduct of its members. The FtB Ethics Committee received several reports of Carrier’s behavior and was in the process of reviewing them when Carrier chose to leave the network. A thorough review of the allegations against Carrier cannot be completed by Freethought Blogs without his cooperation.

As part of our commitment to equitable access to freethinking spaces for all, Freethought Blogs members who violate our commitment to social justice by creating or maintaining barriers to participation will be removed from the network as a matter of policy. All reports submitted to us in furtherance of this policy will be kept in the strictest of confidence, unless the accusation was made publicly or in the event we have express permission to reproduce the complaint.

-The FtB Ethics Committee

That is (for the moment) all. We now return you to your regularly scheduled mishmash of, well, all the stuff we blog about.

What I’ve been reading – the ‘My Friend Flicka’ series

In a complete and utter change of pace from my last ‘What I’m reading’ post, I’ve recently been revisiting Mary O’Hara’s classic series (My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming) about life on a Wyoming ranch. I got onto this because I happened to find My Friend Flicka in a charity shop browse; I actually, as it happens, have had Thunderhead on my shelves for a while now having found a second-hand copy somewhere or other, probably in another charity shop browse, so I decided to go ahead and complete the set and ordered a used copy of Green Grass cheaply on Amazon and read the lot. I did read the books as a child, but in a skip-and-skim kind of way; parts of them interested childhood-me a lot, parts not at all. This re-read, therefore, was the first time I’d actually read them properly all the way through, and was an interesting combination of rediscovering sections that came back to me vividly as I read them, and being struck by aspects of them that had zoomed over my head the first time.

One thing I realised for the first time was just how long ago these were written; as a child, I don’t think I’d really taken in that they actually date back to the 1940s. (I’m not sure whether that’s a tribute to the timelessly good writing or an indictment of my powers of observation.) Reading it as an adult (and a doctor), I was struck by the fact that the reason Ken and Flicka both come so close to dying in the first book was because this was the pre-antibiotic era and there simply wasn’t much that could be done for severe infections. And by the fact that the McLaughlins don’t even get a phone until the third book and that this is so taken for granted it barely rates a mention.

More insidiously, there’s also the way the female characters are presented. When I read the first book as a child, the character I identified with was the eponymous Flicka, for the simple reason that the only human female character who gets more than a very brief walk-on part in the whole of the first two books is Ken’s mother Nell. Who spends half her time planning meals for the menfolk and half of it fretting over the way her husband is taking his frustrations and fears over their money worries out on her. Rereading the books, I found new appreciation for Nell’s character; she is beautifully portrayed, a complex, intelligent, sensitive woman caught in the hell of an insoluble situation. But, other than the occasional scene where her sons go to her for advice or homilies, she doesn’t really do anything that my childhood self could either identify with or aspire to.

In the third book we get two more female characters – Carey, beautiful and sweet but passive and immature (at one point in the book, her response to Ken’s attempt to discuss her plans for her future is to go into rhapsodies over how adorable the eight children she wants are going to be and won’t Ken join her in her game of planning names for them?), and her monstrously manipulative grandmother, whose determination to keep Carey under her thumb is largely responsible for Carey’s failure to grow up. O’Hara does an excellent job of portraying a deeply manipulative relationship and the difficulties of breaking free after years of being groomed to find this manipulation normal, and I can recommend this as a great piece of writing; but, again, it’s not something in which, as a child, I could find a role model or a character I really felt good about identifying with.

Even the way O’Hara writes about the horses drifts off into a male-dominated picture. This, of course, is partly because horses by their nature live in a male-dominated world – as unintentionally exemplified by this snippet from Green Grass of Wyoming, in which Ken tries to explain to the naive Carey why her filly Jewel has been stolen by his stallion Thunderhead:

‘…It’s kind of like falling in love. He knew she was a winner and he just kicked the crate to pieces until she was free and ran away with her – kind of eloping.’

‘But what if she didn’t want to go?’

Ken grinned. ‘Well, he’d make her. That’s what a stallion does. But he’ll take good care of her – Oh, the very best care! You don’t need to worry about her coming to any harm!’

Carey’s tears were drying and she looked at Ken, intrigued by this strange tale of wild-animal romance.

Ah, yes, that well-known sign of a great romance – one of the pair is quite happy to force the other one against zir wishes without, in fact, caring in the slightest what zie wants. Exactly the example we want to be giving to young people.

That, of course, is simply a case of horses not really being the best role models for human relationships; but it also occurred to me, as I read, that O’Hara even let her female equine characters fade into the background once a stallion was in the picture. In the first book, Flicka’s supposed to be Ken’s one chosen horse and true love forever (which ends up being quite a raw deal for Flicka, as the attempts to capture her for Ken unintentionally lead to her receiving a near-fatal injury which leaves her forever robbed of the incredible speed that caught Ken’s attention in the first place). But the second and third books focus on her son, Thunderhead. Flicka does go on to have a daughter, Touch And Go, who in fact becomes the one to save the ranch at the end of the second book by winning a crucial race and thus paying off the family’s crippling debts, but this scene is mentioned almost in passing as the book gets back to the far more important issue of Thunderhead’s fate. By the third book, Flicka barely figures and Touch And Go, gets one single brief passing mention; even though the racehorse owner who bought her figures largely in the story, there isn’t so much as a passing question or mention as to how Touch and Go is doing, and Thunderhead is talked about as though he’s the only racehorse in the bunch.

There were, conversely, many aspects of the book I appreciated far more on a reread; Ken’s development and growth through the novel and the beautiful and vivid depictions of Wyoming ranch life. I remembered why I did like these books as a child, but I also had more conscious awareness of what it was about them that left me not feeling as comfortable.

Who here has read the books? What did you think of them and what do you think of them on looking back?

Friday the 13th and sex work advocacy

A few years back, I used to read a blog by a retired escort worker who now blogs, under the name of Maggie McNeill, for the rights of sex workers. I drifted away due to time constraints, and, since then, have gradually realised that I actually disagree with her on some very fundamental issues around feminism and consent, so if you check out her blog (The Honest Courtesan) do be aware that there is a lot of stuff on those topics that I would not endorse and that I think most people here wouldn’t either. (Also, of course, there’s a lot of very NSFW stuff on there.) However, I do agree with her on the main point her blog seeks to make; sex work should be decriminalised. What’s more, laws intended to provide legal protection for sex workers need to be worked out with the guidance of actual sex workers, using a model that puts their agency first rather than framing them as helpless victims who need protection.

Anyway, I’m posting about this now due to a rather nice idea that Maggie had- namely, to make every Friday 13th a day for sex workers and non-sex workers alike to speak out in favour of decriminalisation of sex work. As Maggie wrote:

Let’s start getting the word out that whores are no different from other women, and that “a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body” is more than just a euphemism for abortion.

I quite agree, and so, ever since running across this custom of hers (a year or two after she’d instituted it) I’ve tried to stick to it, every Friday 13th. (Successfully, in fact, if we gloss over the one time I missed the precise date and sent a text to a friend about it on Saturday 14th instead.) You can read two posts about this on my old blog (on other Friday 13ths between then and now, I’ve posted or commented in other places):

  • Their Bodies, Their Choice is a general explanation of my view on the matter (sorry about the paragraph breaks, by the way – I moved that blog from Typepad to WordPress and some of the formatting on the archives got messed up in the process)
  • Anti-Prostitution Laws: The Trouble With The Swedish Model is a post in which I discuss the problems with the commonly-advocated idea of making prostitution itself legal but making it illegal to be a client of a prostitute.

This, of course, will be the first Friday the 13th post on Geeky Humanist. Yay! A chance to spread the word to a wider audience.

As I’m in the UK and I know the readership here is heavily, though not exclusively, from the US, I think it’s worth explaining a bit about the different laws. Unless I’ve missed any recent updates, the law in nearly all of the US is that prostitution itself is illegal; a draconian waste-of-resources law that benefits nobody (other than, I suppose, politicians looking to score points with the Religious Right) and is simply not morally defensible under anything other than a religious or quasi-religious form of sexual morality. Anyone here really want the police spending their time and resources on prosecuting consensual sex (which most prostitution is) when they could be putting that effort into better prosecuting crimes like rape or domestic violence?

In the UK, we’re at least somewhat more enlightened, in that it’s not against the law either to sell or to buy sex. (The latter is unfortunately in danger of changing – see below – but I think at least we’re safe on the former; I’ve never heard of anyone here wanting to make prostitution itself illegal.) But we do, alas, still have several laws on the books that make life far more difficult than it needs to be for sex workers.

Looking for up-to-date information on British law for this post, I found this useful leaflet from the English Collective of Prostitutes’ site informing sex workers of their rights, which lists the laws in straightforward layperson’s language. Some of this I already knew; I was aware, for example, that it is illegal in the UK to earn money from organising prostitution, and that, while this law was probably set up with the good intention of wanting to prosecute genuinely abusive pimps who are forcing women into prostitution in order to make money off them, it has backfired badly by preventing many, many sex workers from seeking the extra protection that could come from working together/organising brothels with proper security services.

didn’t, however, know about the law on prostitute’s cautions, and this one really shocked me. Apparently, it is still quite legal in the UK for two police officers to record a ‘caution’ about anyone whom they believe to be loitering publicly for purposes of soliciting, without having to present any evidence – and the person cautioned has no right of appeal against it. Good grief – I’m sure that law never gets abused, then. Two such cautions in a period of three months can lead to a conviction for soliciting, which then shows up on any further enhanced criminal records check done during the person’s lifetime. This article describes the problems this archaic law can cause.

On top of this, there’s a vocal lobby in favour of outlawing the buying of sex (the legal system known as the Swedish or Nordic Model, which I discussed in the second of my two linked posts above). Despite the fact that the English Collective of Prostitutes vehemently oppose this idea, the Home Affairs Committee are currently looking into the possibility of recommending this change in law to the government. That one is still a ‘watch this space’, and the latest development seems to be positive; three days ago, the Committee heard evidence from retired sex workers Brooke Magnanti and Paris Lees, who are also both firmly opposed to bringing in such a law, and they seem to have been willing to at least take that viewpoint on board and consider the possibility of recommending more constructive changes such as abolishing the law against brothel working. The transcript (which also has a link to the video, if that’s what you prefer) can be found here and makes excellent reading.

So we can hope that that one will be a non-starter. But it’s nevertheless clear that, when it comes to protecting sex workers or to taking them seriously as people who should have input into the laws that are supposed to protect them, UK law and UK society still have a long way to go. I guess I’ll be blogging about this on a good many Friday the 13ths to come.

The Apologist

I’ve been reading an interesting opinion piece by my sister over on The Pool: Sorry, but people need to stop telling women they shouldn’t apologise. The background to this is the increasing recognition that apologising is a gendered phenomenon, with women doing far more of it than men, which has led to many declarations that women should cut back on the apologising habit. Ruth’s argument here is that the problem is not with women tending to apologise too much but with men tending to apologise too little. What we should actually be doing about the apology discrepancy, she argues, is expecting men to bring their apologising up to appropriate levels.

The various anti-apologising op-eds and think pieces often quote a 2010 study, which showed that the reason women say they are sorry more often than men is because they have a “lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour”. This finding tends to be framed by journalists as an example of female deficiency. But, really, isn’t a person with a “high threshold of what constitutes offensive behaviour” actually just another name for a dickhead?

Even for trivial matters, there are few things more grating than a social interaction containing a gaping apology-shaped hole… Saying sorry is a recognition that the time and feelings and convenience of another person are important.

Excellent points (say I without a trace of nepotism, natch), and I agree with this as far as it goes. Still… the implication seems to be that this is the only cause of the apology gap and that women in general typically have their apologising threshold pitched just right. I’m not so sure; I’ve certainly come across the phenomenon of overapologising, and my impression is that it is indeed a fairly gendered thing. (It’s also age-related, which is a whole other issue.)

Example from this same article; Ruth describes apologising to her agent every time she has to ‘bother’ him. I’m not an expert on how the whole agent/writer thing works, but I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb in guessing that the agent is making money out of this and that the things Ruth is ‘bothering’ him over are actual work-related things which he is getting paid to deal with. Routinely apologising for asking someone to do the job they’re being paid to do? That’s an apology too far, surely? When we apologise for asking for things that we actually are entitled to, we reinforce ideas that we should make ourselves lesser, use fewer resources, less space.

Of course, Ruth’s article also raises an interesting question; why, when we find that men and women are doing something differently, do we assume that the answer is to tell women to take responsibility for closing the discrepancy?

Any further thoughts?