What’s Choice Got To Do With It?

I wrote the first draft of this post before the Moesha/Amanpour debacle (aswear)….

I’m getting worse. I don’t know when I started to feel rattled by the argument “At the end of the day, feminism is about choice!”. All I know is that within an alarmingly short period of time, hearing the phrase in any context made/makes me feel like this:

I must admit I do find it difficult to understand, practically, where choice fits in with feminism. I think I can set out my theoretical view quite easily – feminism is about fighting inequality, bias, gender-based harm etc against women. One of the ways sexism or the patriarchy works is to take away choices from women; choices that men readily have. Therefore restoring those choices to women must be an act of feminism. However, women can make sexist choices….. Okay, so maybe it’s not that easy  after all.

Clearly, choices are not made in a vacuum.  Some choices have their origins in historical conditioning or even women obtaining what advantages they can from patriarchal systems. For example, the choice to take back a serial cheater in a culture where unmarried women are pitied and scorned and the blame for the  failure of a marriage is laid squarely at a woman’s feet surely must warrant some scrutiny.

On the other hand, I don’t want to stray into thinking that, whenever I disagree with a woman’s choice, it must be because she is too stupid or conditioned to understand all the relevant implications. So, where do we go?

Extreme Examples: When is A Choice Unacceptable?

My first gripe is that the bald statement ‘feminism is about choice!’ misses the point if it is meant to prohibit any criticism of a choice because it is made by a woman. I think, deep down every feminist understands this.  A sexist act or gender-based violence is not transformed into a feminist or even a fair act by choice or  consent.

To use an extreme example, take a mother who was subjected to FGM and wants to carry it out on her own daughter. Say, in her view, her own operation was done very well, she can’t see any way in which it adversely affects her life and she wants her daughter to be brought up in accordance with her traditions.

Of course, our first argument is that she has no right to make that decision for her daughter. Okay, she says, putting down the blade, but ‘I maintain that it hasn’t caused me any harm or distress. Please stop putting the idea out there that it is an inherently evil thing and listen to people like me who have actually gone through it’. Now I don’t know if such a woman exists – presumably yes because there are women willing to do it to their daughters.

It’s very likely that anyone who supports FGM when they have gone through it themselves is ‘brainwashed’ but we can’t prove it. The reality is that we fight and rail against FGM, regardless of women who choose to believe that it is advantageous, because it is unfair and cruel for girls to go through that physical trauma and to have their sexual organs and responses interfered with in that way.

Take another extreme example – this time in a distressing video I saw which depicted a Russian couple of some ultra-orthodox Christian sect. I’m not sure whether this had anything to do with their religion but the husband demanded complete subservience from his wife. His wife was articulate, published and seemed to completely buy into the idea that it was fair and necessary for her to endure beatings from her husband because of her, and women’s, natural deviousness.

Like the FGM example, there is  some doubt as to whether I can blame ‘choice’ for these women. However, there are many domestic violence victims who support and defend their partners and ask the public to respect their choices to stay with their partners even after footage of shocking violence. The fact remains that we cannot prove that these women don’t have the mental capacity to settle for beatings in exchange for whatever they think they are getting out of the relationship.

Indeed, beyond the initial feeling of shock and pity, many of us don’t really care deeply about the welfare of these strangers. A lot of our strong emotion is outrage and horror that we live in a world where people think that this is a viable way to live. We don’t want people living this way, partly because one woman enduring this has consequences for all women in a world where domestic violence is very much a pattern of the patriarchal society that we are struggling to get out of.

(Directed) Sexual Empowerment

On to less dramatic examples  – this part deals with the fact that we identify behaviour and patterns that are rooted in, and in some cases the very foundation of, sexism, pronounce them bad but then reserve a space for men to keep practising them as long as there are good things attached like consent (technical or not) or agency or not judging. And if that’s not enough, the focus shifts to protecting the choice to do these things and not the original patterns which were being fought against in the first place. Therefore anyone criticising these choices becomes the real anti-feminist because they are apparently attacking choice and ‘feminism is about choice (!)’ after all. As you can tell, this really cheeses me off.

choice gif 2

Before I give examples I will freely admit that I’m not the most sex positive person in the world.  However,  I  don’t really have anything against nudity per se. My first, second, and third thoughts when I see a picture of a naked woman are to compare her figure to mine and vow bitterly to ‘get it together’. This is before any moral, social or feminist thoughts.  Also, I’m not particularly modest myself.

The Passive Mistress

Disclaimer in place, let’s move to the first example which  is what I’d like to call the ‘passive mistress’. This is a geisha-like relationship, not to be confused with an ordinary extra-marital affair, between a wealthy man and an often much younger woman. The woman is not a sex worker but the relationship is rather one dimensional – he gives her money and other advantages and she only shows the complacent, compliant part of herself – always ready for sex, always groomed and never arguing with, irritating, or challenging him. He is king in her house.

To me the feminist issue is that the character being played by the woman is a figment of chauvinist society’s imagination. It’s this idea that a woman exists solely to please her partner and free him of all the troubles of living in this troublesome world. It’s a bit like the 1950s ideal that when a man comes home from work, rather than reflecting real life, his house should be an oasis of calm. It should be perfectly tidied, there should be no sign of the children, a meal should be perfectly prepared, drink and slippers in hand. All things that would keep a woman slaving away physically while suppressing any emotional or mental needs that she may have. On top of that, she is supposed to keep herself forever youthful, attractive and perfectly groomed and very much aware of her sexual ‘duties’.

The feminist outcry was that women, wives and girlfriends were being reduced to this one-dimensional rearing, domestic creature whose only reason was to please her man  sometimes to the detriment of her children and always to the detriment of herself. To expose my radicalism (well, expose, scratch the surface, who’s monitoring?), it is sexist and dehumanising to want your significant other to do nothing other than look pretty, provide for your needs and never challenge you.

Why then do we approve of men doing this in the name of consent and choice? A passive mistress, geisha, runs girl, sugar baby, whatever should not be demonised  but I don’t agree that we have to act like it’s a choice that has no effect on other women. I think it is unrealistic to say that we want the standard for relationships in a modern society to be on a equal footing – both parties are individuals with their own needs and ups and downs, who are trying to make each other happy and build a life together – when we reserve this space for men who have enough wealth to escape equality this way. We also can’t pretend it doesn’t put pressure on wives to regress back into the intellectually-empty-vessel 1950s stereotype if it would reduce the chances of her wealthy husband from going elsewhere.

‘Sex Work is Work!’

I have a similar problem with presenting sex work (not exotic dancing or stripping which I don’t really consider to be sex work) and participation in porn as simply empowering choices. Again they are valid choices and for some, real choices. For sex work, I think decriminalisation would assist in regulating these choices and preventing abuse. I want sex workers to have the same right to respect and protection from harm as other women.

This is an entirely different matter from castigating someone as ‘not being a real feminist’ for questioning the  effect that some of these choices have on women or if they suspect that not everyone making these choices has any other option.

Perhaps prostitution, in a completely equal world, would not be inherently harmful to women (or more harmful to women than men). But we don’t live in an equal world – at the extreme many sex workers are not wiling participants and there are still prevailing harmful ideas about sexuality and consent which means viewing women as sex objects still harm women as a whole.

Apparently I am not allowed to refer to the fact that some people only do sex work because of poverty.  That’s now like saying people only work in McDonalds because of poverty.

I must confess that I am unable to reach that level of endorsement of sex work for reasons that I can’t quite articulate.  I get that it is inaccurate to describe prostitution (a term which I can tell is fast falling out of favour) as ‘selling one’s body’ and with the right amount of agency, it can provide more freedom than being, say, a Stepford wife but still….I don’t think it’s just because when transacting for money, handing someone a burger over a secure counter carries inherently less risks that going alone with them into a room, removing your clothes and surrendering to whatever act they think they paid for.

Perhaps it’s personal.  Or maybe it’s because many feminists and other women who promote the idea that sex work is nothing more than a commercial transaction are often lawyers, doctors and other middle-class people who have no practical concept of what sex work involves and no appetite for trying it.

It is true that some women simply don’t mind or even get a thrill out of sex work but if I was dating, I would be very careful around men who used the services of sex workers, no matter how liberal they appeared. Even if I could get my head around his addiction to relating sexually to women who are there predominantly to meet his own desires; could I really be sure whether he cares or checked whether any of these women are there solely out of their own will (I’m pretty sure that most of these transactions take place online but my overactive imagination has liberal men striding up and down grotty brothels shrilly demanding EVIDENCE of AGENCY)?

Any man who enthusiastically exercises his right to view women as one-dimensional sexual objects, whether through porn or prostitution, is suspect to me. I wouldn’t trust him to snap out of it when it came to ‘real relationships’. Incidentally, I think that’s where some of these well-meaning liberal men go wrong.

They have good thoughts and intentions but their diet of ‘harmless’ porn may explain why they are reluctant to take no for an answer when they come across a sexually liberated woman who doesn’t want to, on the first date, tangle herself into a some kind of complicated knot (that and constantly straying into wild inappropriateness. Pro-tip, liberal men: if a strange woman on Twitter is reluctant to give you her name in a personal message exchange, chances are she will feel offended and insulted if your next message is to enquire about threesomes. This is probably largely down to the fact that life is not actually a porn film. On a more serious note, enthusiastic consent also relates to, apart from touching, verbal communication and includes recognising and not ignoring signals that a woman does not want to have any kind of intimate conversation with you.)

Female Entertainers and Hypersexuality

A brief word about the pressure on female entertainers to be hypersexual: by this, I don’t just mean sexy, like the picture of Tina Turner above which I’ve only used because of the title of this essay and her brilliant song ‘What’s Love Got to do With It’.  I’m talking more about Nicki Minaj’s Paper Magazine Shoot or Beyonce’s sudden self-discovery in her videos for the 2013 album ‘Beyonce’.

Great if you make the choice; I just don’t believe a lot of women do make the choice. And if they do, it’s not for the reason that you think they do. I’ve seen singers in the….shall we say autumn of their careers, put under pressure to release that hyper sexual photoshoot. I’ve seen aspiring models verbally abused and screamed at for not wanting to ‘go topless’. I’ve read of actresses responding to a script which simply states that ‘she shows her tits’ for no reason that is connected to the storyline.

Everyone wants to be sexy and attractive; I think fewer people want to be as constantly naked as some kind of prisoner of war. I don’t believe Nikki Minaj or Beyonce really want to. They may not mind; they may accept it as a necessary step for a female entertainer to achieve world domination but that is not the same as the spontaneous expression of sexuality that is being presented to us.

So what’s the harm? These women are perfectly entitled to make commercial choices to disrobe, aren’t they? What’s the worst that can happen apart from Jennifer Lawrence freezing in a tiny dress, while her male co-stars are covered with layers of clothing talking about “ch-ch-ch- choice.”?

Yes a commercial choice is still a choice but I think it’s quite wrong to rip through people who question what this is doing to female self-esteem and future female entertainers. Firstly, it sends out the message that anything a woman has to offer in the entertainment industry has be accompanied by a side-order of T&A.  It chips away at our humanity; it seeks to reduce us. No matter how successful or powerful we are, we can only obtain recognition by being naked and hold on to fame by being even more naked.  It makes it all the more easier for men to insist that aspiring and usually quite vulnerable and young female entertainers are as naked as they (men) want them to be (there is an interesting story about a young Beyonce walking out of a photo shoot when the French director had the bright idea of her posing naked covered in honey).

Of course a lot of that naked investment is lost when our looks start to go.  It is a double con – if you want me to stop pretending to be sane about this – it is often not really a choice in the first place and the fake non-choice has a negative effect on women as a whole.

Purity Culture and My Idiotic Childhood

The other end of the spectrum is virginity and purity culture. I’ve written about virginity. All I have to add is this – when I was a teenager, I used to regard women who  scorned virginity as extreme cases of ‘pick-me’s’ or I would have if the term existed in my youth.   Of course, like everyone else, I regarded too much female sexual activity as sluttiness but I like to think that even then my suspicion of any kind of empowerment that seemed male-pleasing was already being formed. I thought basically women like this wanted men to want them so instead of holding out and making men suffer like a good decent woman, they gave it away freely, under the guise of expressing themselves sexually but with the real intention of holding on to men. A bit like I regarded women who appeared to like football. Absolutely disgraceful and a complete reduction if not erasure of female sexual identity. I’m only just understand how harmful purity politics and culture are.

Summary

Just in case anyone is in doubt or cares, I don’t think sleeping with men for money or ‘advantages’ is a good thing or anything approaching an ideal.   I think women should get on with their lives, whether it’s careers, relationships, sex, friendships, study, amassing wealth,  in accordance with their values,  instead of all this endless worrying about how their sexuality is going to get them a man, job, money, grades or whatever.   That, to me, is what a equality looks like.  And yes, I do think it’s wrong, in that it is participating in the hurt and deceit of another human being, to have a covert sexual relationship with a married person or a person in a relationship.

It’s just that it’s none of my business what women choose to do.  My feminist issue has always been, apart from wondering what aspect of patriarchy encourages women towards these choices,  that women are demonised  for the very same acts that men are held blameless for.  In fact, society would  rather blame the men’s wives, who had none of the illicit sex, than the men who instigated and committed them.

A more recent feminist issue seems to be that we are concentrating on and regressing back to the sexist paradise for men where women existed for their domestic and sexual pleasure instead of addressing the issues that got us there in the first place, under the guise of choice.

Domestic Duties

Moving on to my bugbear of the share of domestic labour in marriage and partnership. The choice here relates to a range of heightened level of domesticity for the female partner.

cinderellaworking

I’m definitely not one of those feminists who think that  it is a crime or pity or shame when a woman chooses to give up her career, temporarily or permanently, to be a stay at home mum or just wife or girlfriend. There are good valid reasons for this – a child that needs extra care, a female partner earning less (although there is a sexist back story to this) and the sometimes astronomical cost of child care. Being a working mother myself, I personally can say my job does get in the way of what I would consider optimal parenting (but would I optimal-parent? Or would I just sit around clicking on Twitter and overeating?).

My only concern is leaving the woman with less economic power – money that is not provided by her male partner and increased difficulty in getting back into work. This probably makes it harder to leave a harmful marriage and even with laws relating to shared marital property opens her up to humiliation and accusations of gold digging as her very valuable contributions to home-making are disregarded when she tries to secure a share of the joint property (notwithstanding stories of hard-done-by sports men).

Also, I’m a bit grumpy that workplaces around the world and male partners can’t collude to allow women to work more easily and be mothers. Why does the bulk of childcare emergencies fall on mothers? Why don’t men do more in the home?

This brings me to the feminist or woman who choose do all the cooking or take the lion’s share of housework. The woman who is happy doing all the cooking and cleaning for a boyfriend she only met a month ago. The woman who chooses to submit to her husband. But if she chooses to, aren’t I the real enemy of feminism, progress and everything else to comment negatively about her choice? Isn’t feminism supposed to be about being what you want to be?

It bloody well isn’t – it’s an organised system to fight harm and inequality. But leaving that aside, it’s the  inherent unfairness that bugs me – why on earth should one gender be allowed to be domestically incompetent leaving the other to run around after them like a toddler? I’ve had otherwise sensible women tell me  that a man shouldn’t go into the kitchen if he has a woman. Put that way, any self-respecting feminist would and should be outraged. And it’s not just about the cooking. It’s the constant drudgery of unshared housework. We acknowledge that this unfair system exists yet our answer to it is to create a space where, through apparent choice, men can continue to exist within it and defend that space with every breath in us.

Also, let’s examine that apparent choice, shall we? It’s not hard to imagine that the ability to make this choice would be a highly desired asset for men that have no interest in changing the status quo. Perhaps then finding a partner is the predominant factor behind this choice rather than a nurturing nature and a desire for only four hours sleep a night.  Also, I wonder how many men made the ‘choice’ to take on a significant share in the household chores before second wave feminists started hinting that they should do so?

But fair enough, if a woman thinks that this will  increase her chances at partnership, she’s perfectly entitled to do so. To have this presented to me as feminism sticks at the back of my throat; to be told that if I challenge it, I’m the real anti-feminist sticks back even further.

The Cancer Scare

I think I’m in the middle of a very mild ‘cancer scare’.  I am supposed to be editing a post about choice in feminism to go up tonight but I’m doing this instead.  I’m not even going through my usual process of writing this as a word document first and copying it on to the blog.  I’m just going for it.  This is going to be another spontaneous post – we’ll see how it  goes.

Let me start by saying I don’t usually allow myself to think about cancer under any circumstances.  It is so scary.  The pain and suffering.  The horrendous process of chemotherapy (which is apparently a separate second set of  pain and suffering).  My personal fear of being cared for  – what if they get tired of me, begin to resent me, are forced to put on a bright smile for my sake or mistreat me (you have no idea where my mind has gone) – by even my nearest and dearest.

What else? The excellent but less than completely co-ordinated National Health Service.  Money matters.  Not being able to look after the kids.  Maybe not even seeing  the kids grow up.  Being trapped in a hospital bed while annoying people visit me.  Changed physical appearance.  Those terrifying pictures accompanying pleas for people in advanced stages of cancer who have not been, up to this point, able to afford treatment.  I can’t think of or look at any of it.  I can barely read through a short article telling us how to check for breast cancer.

Another more trivial and rather mean thought that occupies me is what if I do  have cancer  and decide to ‘live life to the fullest’.  What would I do?  In what ways will I completely embarrass myself?  For example, I write stand-up comedy in my little notebook.  Just ideas that occur to me because I consider myself to be a funny person (I’m saying that with not a hint of irony, by the way).  I would never perform stand-up comedy because I would be terrible at it.  I’m a terrible actor and I am not good at delivering jokes.  When I do say these jokes out loud, I sound like a  really bad combination of Kevin Hart and Basketmouth.  I guess I sometimes think of selling them to an actual stand-up comedian, but mostly they are just for fun.

If I am diagnosed and as part of ‘doing what I’ve always wanted to do’, would I wrap my head in a scarf, drag all my friends to the first dinghy club that would accept me and force them to listen to my cancer comedy?  A friend of a friend has recently recovered from a very serious illness.  She’s taken up stand-up comedy and, having met her, is an unlikely candidate for it.  My friend has simply reported, without comment on the performance, that she attended her gig.  This bothers me.

My cancer scare only started on Thursday.  Yet here I am on Saturday full of enough terror (and vanity) to write about it.   For about 2 weeks, I’ve been woken  by a pain in my right arm.  It started with numbness and tingling in my hands, travelled up my arm  and became severe enough to wake me up – not going away until I had stood up for a few minutes, and then starting up again as soon as I tried to lie down.  It has been, quite frankly a pain, but until Thursday cancer has not crossed my mind.

Through the usual mish-mash of internet research, I’d come to the conclusion, having first started with the premise that I was sleeping badly and  then progressed on to carpal tunnel as I write a lot, that it was some sort of trapped nerve probably in my neck area.  I was actually miserable with the idea that I would become one of these people with ‘chronic’ pain for which no cure can be found and who people begin to suspect of milking it out of laziness and for sympathy (you will learn, in the course of reading these posts, that it’s not that I’m an unkind person but that I’d much rather be in the position of defending people who are suffering than experience any kind of  suffering).  I’m also dealing with a stressful new role at work so I hoped it would be some kind of muscle spasm instead, which would relax as relaxed into my new role.

One day, I finally called 111 and was given an emergency appointment with my GP (there were other symptoms, chest pain, shortness of breath etc).  She conducted a number of checks and tests, seemed puzzled and said nervously that ‘it could be a number of things’.  That still didn’t make me think of cancer.  She also mentioned some kind of test for pinched nerves.

The pain continued and then lessened but, as it happened the night before, I went to see my (quite spaced-out) GP on Thursday, as planned,  who said that she just wants me to do some blood tests and an X-ray before she tests the nerves.  “Good luck!” she sang as I left the surgery with my two fussy and disobedient children.  I still didn’t think of cancer.  I thought the ‘good luck’ was about the  kids (it  probably was – I had to hush all three of them, including the GP,  at least once during the visit).

It was my visit with a friend later that day that finally did it. My dear friend is bubbly and fun, but given to  intense spells of pessimism, especially when it comes to cancer.  It was she who uttered the phrase “It’s going to get us all!” a few years ago, which appears in my latest short story.

She hinted that a number of people had discovered cancer following a pain in their arm/shoulder.  She mentioned that I had lost a lot of weight (I have not! I was wearing black clothes and long, straight hair extensions), she questioned me about my hair loss and asked why I hadn’t gone to the doctor (I’m not balding from the scalp; my hair is breaking, I explained.  And now that I think about it, hair loss isn’t a sign of most kinds of cancer – it’s a side effect of chemotherapy) and asked me to keep an eye on it.  This got me thinking  and remembering that my husband had said one morning after I told him brightly that ‘the pain didn’t bother me last night’ that I needed to get it sorted out in one of his rare serious moments.  I’d expected him to say, as he normally would ‘Great! Let’s forget about it, then!’.

I started researching first signs of cancer and noticed fatigue.  I immediately started feeling tired and tried to remember how long I’d been feeling this way.  Also, apart from a few twinges which I’m sure are mostly psychosomatic, the pain has gone although the arm is still tingly, tender and weird.  Also, and this is very important, NO HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONAL HAS MENTIONED THE WORD ‘CANCER’.  All the GP did was order blood tests and a scan instead of, as I expected,whisking me off to the nerve specialist, tell me ‘it could be a number of things’, act with unprecedented haste and say ‘Good luuu-uuck’ as I left (she really is strange.  I mean, who says that?).

I therefore realise that I am far from a fully blown cancer scare.  What is a cancer scare anyway?  What do public figures, when they are doing ads for cancer charities or responding to a belligerent tweet, mean when they say ‘I had a cancer scare 3 years ago so I know how you feel’?  I think, hope, it’s beyond googling random symptoms and getting down to a cancer article on page 15 of your search.  Almost anything can be a ‘sign of cancer’.  I suspect it’s at or beyond the biopsy stage (she says, like she knows what she’s talking about).  I’m at the blood test and X-ray stage so I’m not even there yet.

And even beyond the biopsy stage, isn’t there the possibility that a tumour is benign? Isn’t cancer malignant in that it spreads and destroys everything (see? I told you I never read about cancer) thereby producing this kind of phrase that an average Nigerian man with a pulse may use “This idea that women are entitled to the same rights as men is spreading like cancer,” (Feminism, crowbar, any article.  It’s like a magic trick.).  And of course there is the type of waiting that comes after you’ve had cancer, have been treated and are waiting to see if the treatment is successful.

Therefore I don’t really understand what people mean when they say ‘I’ve had a cancer scare so I know how you feel.’ like it puts them in some kind of club with cancer survivors or patients.  Or people who give testimonies in church stating that their cancer scare turned out not to be cancer after all.  Of course we should always be grateful to God for life and health but, beyond going for the initial tests and all the anticipation and terror of waiting, what is this kind of testimony about?  How has the person actually changed?  How exactly does having a cancer scare make one understand what a cancer patient goes through??

cancer 2

Another grievance of mine is all this talk of taking cancer on as if it were an opponent in a boxing match.  Stand up to cancer.  Say no to cancer.  Give cancer the finger.  Give it two fingers.  Give it as many fingers as you want.  Eff you, cancer.  Spit on its….Has the world gone mad?  I saw an article that advised that people waiting to find out whether they are in remission should keep moving as  it’s ‘hard for cancer to hit a moving target.’.

I can think of nothing more off-putting than feeling at my worst, and being jollied along in this manner.  Also, I can’t help but think it comes from a world that is weary of taking care of any kind of sick person and wants to trick them into thinking that if they just smile enough and stop feeling sorry for themselves, they will hardly notice their green skin and propensity to vomit up anything they have eaten.

Well, I’m due an X-ray in a week.  I’ve been told I have to wait another week for the results.  I am going to force myself to wait a further three days before calling the surgery.  I may update this post.  Alternatively, if this article simply disappears, it’s probably because I thankfully do not have any signs of cancer and therefore have lost the right (and the courage) to write about things that may give true cancer patients some comfort.

Update:  The results of my blood tests came back and they are normal!  Whoop whoop!  I called the GP tentatively to ask about the procedure for reporting back on tests.  I don’t know why I was so tentative, why I’m so keen to appear reasonable.  Anyway the receptionist said they don’t report back unless there’s something to report – an unusually cruel way of operating, it seems, especially if they are able to climb into my mind and read my paranoid thoughts.  Yay!  Now I just have to wait for the x-rays but I doubt they will show anything too sinister.   I’m so relieved that I’m not even embarrassed about what a state I was in when I wrote this post : )