Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Let me invite you to my baby-burning: RSVP!

The Telegraph's abortion coverage continues to bemuse. On the one hand, they have OMG SEX-SELECTIVE ABORTION IS TOTALLY HAPPENING RIGHT HERE BECAUSE FOREIGNERS stories. On the other, they have OMG CRISIS PREGNANCY CENTRES TELL LIES AND BULLY PREGNANT PEOPLE investigations.


For real.

So let's start with the obvious: it is an oft-observed fact that all abortion articles must, by law, probably, be accompanied by a picture of a spectacularly pregnant woman: like, full-term pregnant, holy-crap-she's-swallowed-a-spacehopper pregnant, foetus-sending-a-Christmas-letter-to-Santa-out-of-the-womb pregnant. Oh look, this is such a truism that there is even a tumblr devoted to it.

According to The Guttmacher institute, 90% of all abortions occur in the first trimester. According to WebMD, a 12-week old fetus is 2.5 inches long and the typical woman will have gained three to five pounds. Most of these women’s pregnancies are essentially undetectable to an observer. ~ "Mis-illustrating Abortion" at Sociological Images
The Telegraph has, in this instance, gone one stage further: it has illustrated its article about the evils of abortion - which, just to clarify, ends a pregnancy, does not kill an infant which has already been born - with a picture of a teeny weeny baby hand holding onto an adult-sized finger.

Which echoes the emotive and inaccurate language in the headline - "Aborted babies are being used to heat UK hospitals". Conflating blastocysts, zygotes, embryos, foetuses and babies is classic anti technique, because apparently their case is so blatantly, inarguably, self-evidently strong that it needs sneakily-heartstring-tugging bullshit and flat-out lies to convince people.

At which point you may be thinking, come on, Han, you're dancing round the edges of this article, mocking its outer trappings because you're too chicken shit to address the fact that HOSPITALS ARE BURNING BABIES. So, because apparently I can't resist an imaginary dare, to the meat of the article itself:
The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals, an investigation has found. Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning foetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants which generate power for heat.
Now: I get this. I really do.* For a lot of people, the incineration of foetuses just feels gross. Somehow, the fact that this incineration is serving a practical purpose - that of heating the hospital - makes it feel more gross, in a dystopian Soylent Green sort of way. So I can ask you some logical questions - like, how would you like foetuses to be disposed of after abortions? Would a mass grave make you feel better? Should each of them be given an individual coffin and a headstone?** If you are okay with incineration, why is it better that this process is only serving one purpose (destroying medical waste) rather than two (heating the hospital)? With early medical abortion, the pregnancy will typically be shed outside of a hospital setting, so the remains will end up down the loo or in a landfill site wrapped in a maxi pad: is that, too, tantamount to "the demise of human dignity"?

But that wouldn't change your mind, would it? These are logical questions, and we're in the domain of illogical queasiness. I'm not dismissing people's discomfort with this practice by calling it 'illogical': feelings are often illogical, and feelings are valid anyway.

But feelings make crappy legislators. We can't build law or medical guidelines on whether or not something makes us feel gross. That icky feeling is a signpost - a hint from your body or your subconscious that you need to look into the issue further to figure out why it makes you feel the way it does. It is not a cast iron guarantee that the object of that icky feeling is Morally Wrong.

For example, I find the idea of scraping my septum unimaginably disgusting. No idea why, but even typing that has made me cringe and pinch my nostrils shut until the thought goes away. This does not mean that I spend my days advocating for nose-picking to be made illegal.

So the fact that incinerating embryos and foetuses strikes you as unimaginably disgusting, similarly, does not mean that this procedure should be banned, even if your feeling is shared with millions of others, including some dickhead journalist in the Telegraph.

* I've never been super comfortable with "it's just a bunch of cells" / "abortion is just like getting an ingrown toenail removed" rhetoric, not because I think it's blase or unfeeling - some people do feel like this about their abortions, and all power to them. You are allowed to feel however you want to feel about your abortion, and you are allowed to express those feelings in public. But on a wider, 'movement' level, I don't think it's the best way of promoting a pro-choice message. I'd rather side-step the "bunch of cells" vs "heartbreaking but sometimes necessary" dichotomy and focus instead on bodily autonomy arguments: people's reasons for having abortions, and the moral code which lies behind those reasons, are just not the point. The point is that no one should be forced to be pregnant against their will.

** Trying really hard not to err on the side of overly snarky here, because some people who have abortions do choose to keep the foetal remains and have a burial/cremation; these cases tend to be second/third trimester abortions of wanted pregnancies with fatal foetal anomalies. The last thing I want to do is to take the piss out of their pain.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Veronica Mars: somebody puts hookers in a corner

Words cannot express quite how giddily excited I am about the Veronica Mars movie coming out. I may have mentioned my love of the show before? I donated to the Kickstarter; I've been on a marathon rewatch to get my gentleman friend up to speed; I have tickets for Saturday night, and I have been trying desperately to fill up my Friday with lots of activities - including a trip to the GUM clinic, of all things - so I'm not tempted to download it and spoil my big screen experience.

And yet, following a mind-bendingly amazing talk by the Sex Worker Open University at the Wowzers Festival (on which more later!), I feel like the whorephobic remarks which pepper the script are jumping out of my tv and dancing around on my living room floor going "la la la, sex workers, they are preposterous and hilarious, AMIRITE?? Boo boo de boop, sex!"

Artist's representation

2.7, Nobody Puts Baby In A Corner
Madison: "Pretty Woman is still my favourite movie. Vivien is like my hero."
Veronica: "She's a hooker."
Gia: "Yeah, but only cos she had to be!"
Veronica: "She's a hooker."

The level of derision and disgust that drips from Veronica's voice at the idea of respecting sex workers as autonomous human beings is hard to capture in words. Man alive, a hooker as a hero? Ridiculous! Obviously, she is defined, always and forever, as someone who makes a living by having sex with dudes for money, has no other characteristics that could possibly be valuable, and is utterly beyond contempt.

1.22, Leave It To Beaver
"I can't risk my career on the testimony of, all due respect, a hooker."

2.16, The Rapes of Graff
Veronica opens the door to a blonde lady in a red dress and fur coat. She turns to Keith and says - as if their visitor isn't there, or can't hear her, or isn't an actual human person -

"Dad. Your hooker's here."

This storyline gets progressively more fun - turns out Cliff's one night stand was in fact a hooker, paid double by some mystery man to seduce Cliff and steal his briefcase. Because sex workers, even more than the rest of womankind, are two-faced, duplicitous bitches. We know this to be true.

It's been a while since I've seen 3.11, Poughkeepsie, Tramps and Thieves, so I can't give much in the way of analysis here, but the general message of "once a whore, always a whore" sticks with me.

It's one of those things that grates all the more because of the sensitive, inclusive way the show treats the stories of people from other marginalised communities. People of colour, LGB folks, people with disabilities, rape survivors - all get episodes devoted to exploring their experiences as people, beyond the difference that would define them in other shows. But apparently dipping even one toe into the sex industry instantly dissolves any other history, character, ability, story that a person has, leaving them uninteresting except as plot devices and punchlines. It's sad. The show has proven, over and again, that it could do better, if it wanted to. I hope the movie wants to.

Very Simple Concepts Day: Wifebeating is hilarious

Today is Very Simple Concepts Day, here at oldjawjaw towers. Today we are going to be discussing the concept of The Wifebeater.

You see, we call it a wifebeater because it is associated with men from the working classes, like domestic violence is! It's okay to call it that because we're being ironic, duh, and also because we don't think domestic violence is important or that survivors deserve respect. LOL!

Similarly, we call this The Old Wifebeater, because it is associated with men from the working classes, like domestic violence is - but with a fun new twist: not only is domestic violence inherently hilarious, but it is probably caused by booze, AKA the "beer made me do it, m'lud" defence.

Fun fact: I myself have drunk several pints of Stella in my time! I have worn many vests! I have even done both of these things at the same time - while not being rich, at that. And yet I have never beaten anyone's wife, nor committed violent assault on anyone I happened to be dating.

It's almost like being poor and drinking lager bear no relationship to one's propensity to perpetrate intimate partner violence whatsoever.

Thursday, 6 March 2014


Good news, feminism! Remember the whole Feminist Sex Wars thing? When Dworkin, MacKinnon et al were all, "under the patriarchy, women are defined as the Sex Class, and therefore cannot give meaningful consent to intercourse; porn depicts and actually is violence against women; BDSM fetishizes power differentials and sex work is collusion with the patriarchy"? (Paraphrasing.)

And then other feminists were like, "Okay, porn is often sexist, because lots of media produced in a sexist society is sexist, and putting all the responsibility for patriarchy on porn seems to miss the point a bit; BDSM actually features a hell of a lot more negotiation and work around consent than vanilla sex; queer and feminist porn can and does exist; finding a feminist and non-oppressive way to inhabit our sexualities seems a valid way of resisting the patriarchy; sex work is only degrading in that all work under capitalism is degrading, and is demonising sex workers - you know, who include some of the most vulnerable women in society - really the best way to achieve a lovely feminist utopia?"

Again, paraphrasing. Turns out summarising one of the most contentious and complex debates over the last forty years of feminism and attempting to do justice to both 'sides' in two short paragraphs is actually pretty difficult!

Anyway: whatever your take on the matter, don't worry about it, because some random dude in The Times has SOLVED THE FEMINIST SEX WARS. Forever.

In response to a Leeds University study showing that nearly a third of all UK strippers are middle-class students, Kevin Maher has some opinions to share.

You may be wondering why Kevin Maher, who is neither a stripper or a student, feels that the world will not be able to rest easy until his very important opinions on the question of the place of sex work in society are known, but hold your horses: he has read some SCIENCE. Which proves, incontrovertibly, that stripping is

"bad for women. It's that simple."

Wowza. Thanks, Kevin! All this hoo-ha, and you had the answer all along! Thanks for bringing us to the light.

How does he know this? He knows this because
I simply look to the data in the groundbreaking 2003 Lilith report, which found that the number of rapes near lap-dancing clubs were three times the national average, or that in the years after the opening of a lap-dancing club in Tottenham Court Road, London, reports of female rape in the borough increased by 50 per cent.

Oh, Kevin. Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. Here I was, thinking that you had some amazing new data for me; a beautifully designed, value-neutral, empirically robust study which could settle this whole kerfuffle once and for all. But instead you just have... really bad science. Which you clearly read a press release on, rather than parsing the reports themselves. Which you clearly did not google before including them in your world-shakingly revelatory column, because, had you done so, you would have discovered this study does not show what you think it does.

So, the Lilith Report claimed that Camden, which had seven licensed strip clubs at the time, recorded three times the national average number of rapes between 1999 and 2002. It also claimed that the number of rapes increased by 50% between 1999 and 2002.

Which would be fairly solid proof that stripping IS BAD FOR WOMEN, except that

1. Correlation does not equal causation: just because a number of strip clubs opened in a particular area, and that area saw an increase in the number of rapes, does not mean that strip clubs cause rape.
2. The numbers literally do not add up. There were 72 rapes in Camden in 1999, and 96 in 2002. Do you have a calculator? Then you can work out that there was a 33% increase in thenumber of rapes in Camden between 1999 and 2002. Not 50%.
3. Raw numbers are an incredibly misleading way of presenting change in crime stats. (Man, I feel like I'm in The Wire right now, being leaned on by Mayor Carcetti, who in my mind is still Stuart in Queer as Folk doing his funny walk down Canal Street.) For this reasons, crime figures are presented as incidents per 100,000. Chasmal explains this really well in her takedown of the Lilith Report on Stripping the Illusion. This means that presenting a percentage change in raw numbers tells you basically nothing: what you need to know is the change in the rate of incidence - the number of rapes which occurred in Camden per 100,000 residents. In 1999, this was 36.8; in 2002, 43.4: a 17.9% increase.
4. When you're dealing with such (thankfully) small numbers, it's really easy to perceive a trend where there is in fact just random fluctuation. The rate of incidence actually went down from 2002 to 2003, and again in 2004, before going up again in 2005, down again in 2006... you see what I'm saying? A very small number of incidents produces a seemingly dramatic change if you present it as a percentage.
5. The overall trend over the last ten years actually shows a decrease in the incidence of rape in Camden. Funnily enough, no one is suggesting this is because Camden issued an all-nude license to the Spearmint Rhino in the late 90s.
6. You know what a study needs in order to demonstrate causality? A control group: in this case, an area with no strip clubs, which presumably would have no rape whatsoever. Unfortunately, this study's control groups were Islington and Westminster. Both boroughs also contained strip clubs and were therefore useless as comparisons. A better choice might have been Lambeth, which had no strip clubs during this period - and, um, had a higher incidence of rape.

I COULD GO ON. But this has been covered, a lot, by smarter people than I - Brooke Magnanti's chapter on it in The Sex Myth is brilliant. You can also check out her paper on the topic. What you will find is that the Lilith report tells us absolutely nothing about the effect of strip clubs on the incidence of rape - and all too much about its author's opinions on sex work.

See, on one level this is a story about men barging into feminist conversations, totally ignorant of the history and theory and debate that has gone before, and announcing that they have fixed feminism for us - and being surprised that we're not falling over ourselves in gratitude.

But on another level this is a story about how journalists in national newspapers need to check their fucking sources before making such claims as fact.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Life Choices: Ask Hannie's Granny!

I have this fun new game I like to play, when faced with difficult Life Dilemmas, that I call: What Would Hannie's Granny Say?

Now: to be clear, this is not actually my Granny. This is Miss Marple. However, I am confident that Miss Marple would have pretty much the same opinions on stuff as my Granny would, with a bit of sleuthery thrown in just for fun, and using this picture means I don't have to violate my actual Granny's privacy against her will. "Hey Granny, would you mind if I use a picture of you to illustrate a post about your attitudes to life on my blog on which I discuss things like BDSM and kyriarchy and how the world would be so much better if women had sex like cats?"

So! The rules of the game are pretty simple. First, you formulate your Intractable Life Dilemma, preferably in the most high-falutin modern fancy talk you can manage. Then, you imagine Miss Marple and/or my Granny making the facial expression pictured above, while saying, "blust, ha' you gone soft?"

For the remainder of the game I will be translating GrannySpeak into high-falutin modern fancy talk, with more swear words, to avoid charges of taking the piss out of people from Norfolk.

"Granny, I am in a quandry," I say, approximately once a year since the age of 15, in my mind. "Relationships are HARD. What dating situation would be most beneficial to my mental health? Is it possible to maintain desire and affection indefinitely in a long-term, monogamous relationship, and if so, how? Am I defective if I can't do so?"

Imaginary Granny response:
"Are you fucking nuts?" responds imaginary Granny, side-stepping the fact that I am, in fact, fucking nuts, because she doesn't know this. Every time I visit her and have a daytime nap or display some other exciting symptom of depression, she takes my dad aside and asks him Extremely Discreetly, "Is Hannah pregnant?" NO. STILL NO, GRANNY.

Anyway, back to Love Advice. "Are you fucking nuts? You want relationships to be fulfilling? You think being single might be better than being married? WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS? Of course you're going to get married, to the first person who offers and who you don't hate. You're worried about still fancying your paramour in ten years? It doesn't matter whether you fancy him at all! Women don't enjoy sex, not really, but you'll put up with it, because it's your duty, and because you want children."

"Granny, my job is B-O-R-I-N-G, for real. I'm stuck in this admin basement where I'm spectacularly underemployed, I can get through my work in about one day a week and I spend the other four desperately looking for something, anything, to keep me occupied; I want to do something more interesting, but I have no idea what - should I be an accountant? A solicitor? A writer? A mental health nurse? Should I move to Madagascar and devote my life to saving lemurs? Or move to Dorset and farm llamas? Should my career be Being Lemar? Or Mark Lamarr? I hope not the latter! How do you know what it is you want to do with your life? What if I spend the next thirty years in an agony of indecision and wasted potential and never amount to anything and never get to go HA, all those miserable years getting picked on at school were so worth it because now I have a fantastic career and have therefore WON? Or what if I do make a decision, but it's the WRONG decision? WHAT THEN, IMAGINARY GRANNY? WHAT THEN??"

She makes this face again.

This face combines derision, bewilderment, and barely-kept-in-check hysterical laughter.

"Are you actually serious?" asks Imaginary Granny. "You want work to be fun? Stimulating? Personally fulfilling? It's WORK, you idiot, not a fucking voyage of self-discovery. Does your work run the risk of giving you cancer from breathing asbestos dust in all day? Does it leave you screaming with pain from twelve hours straight bending over in the strawberry fields (and don't you dare sing that rubbish hippie song at me)? Has anyone you work with ever got hypothermia from working an illegal double shift in cold storage? No? THEN WHAT THE FLYING FUCK ARE YOU WHINING ABOUT? Also you should keep chickens. Free eggs!"

Now, this game can be dangerous. It is not for the faint of heart, or the unstable of mind (WHOOPS). It is also not very useful in actually solving those Life Dilemmas, because "in the 1930s people of the rural working class didn't expect marriage to meet their every emotional and sexual need, had substantially lower expectations re: said needs, and did whatever work would feed their families without expecting it to blow their minds" is not particularly good life advice: it is, rather, a very short history essay.

I do, however, find it refreshing, in moderation. It is a healthy reminder of the unimaginable social progress we've made over the course of the 20th century, and of how grateful we should be to have these choices. Plus, a gentle nudge not to get so desperately fixated on your own middle class white lady problems is always to the good.