Moving beyond abortion law (Part 2): Change culture, not law

As I go through my MA,  I am encountering many ideas  which are becoming integral to my activism and politics, so I am going to write a series of posts which make some of those ideas clear and accessible. The first one was about how abortion law in the UK actually works, and how it regulates women as much as liberates them. This, part two, will look at why changing abortion law might  not actually increase access to abortion services, and why the cultural narrative about abortion needs to change.


As we have seen, the medicalisation of abortion in the UK has couched the issue in scientific, politically ‘neutral’ terms in law. This creates pretence that abortion is a private medical decision one makes about one’s health, and an exercise of an individual right. I explored in my previous post that this medicalisation also means greater surveillance and control of women’s bodies.

So, if it’s the medicalised language that’s the problem, we should just change the law, right? The problem is, a legal right cannot guarantee good access to abortion. As we’ve seen in the US, where abortion is enshrined in the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, there are some states where abortion access is so poor it may as well be banned.

Also, dealing with abortion purely from the perspective of legal rights plays into the neoliberal fetishisation of ‘choice’ as an end in itself. The language of rights claims is individualistic and shies away from the reality that access to abortion is a societal problem. Taking into account the realities of hospital care, adoption processes, and the state’s contribution to childcare costs, unwanted children are a physical, emotional and financial burden on society, not just the unwilling parent. Therefore, abortion is not an issue for individual women but for society as whole.

This is not to reject rights claims as unimportant. The right to abortion is, of course, fundamentally important to women’s reproductive freedom, and framing social justice issues in terms of rights legitimizes them. However, as Carol Smart wrote in Feminism and the power of Law that “in accepting law’s terms in order to challenge law, feminism always concedes too much,” and that applies significantly to abortion if feminists stop short at rights-based claims and do not recognise the restricted freedom a formal right entails.

Many people have a top-down approach to law which implies a change in the legal framework would trickle down to change cultural discourses. Changing abortion law in the hope that it would improve women’s reproductive freedom and access to services still plays in to the fallacy that  that society follows law, when in fact there are strongly rooted cultural discourses around abortion which make access difficult. The reality is, law generally follows society. Look at the Equal Marriage campaign – it’s happening now because legislators are finally catching up with a society that is increasingly supportive of LGBT equality.

There is no silver-bullet approach to achieving the feminist aim of reproductive freedom. However, be wary of approaches which only aim at changing the law. Reforming existing legislation on abortion in the UK is unlikely to shift power from doctors to pregnant women, because there is no indication that MPs want to de-medicalise the existing Abortion Act. Changing abortion law does not guarantee a wider change in the manner that medicine and the law approaches women’s bodies; it certainly doesn’t solve the problem of anti-abortion sentiments and cultural stereotypes of women who seek abortions as irresponsible or immoral.

Carol Smart warns us that “it is impossible to ensure that legislation, once in force, will be used progressively in the future,” and we still believe that changing the law solves our problems[1]. What we really need to change is cultural attitudes, the attitudes which lead even pro-choice campaigners to say “every abortion is a tragedy”[2]. These ideas can be challenged, but not simply by law; we have to fight misinformation and misrepresentation of abortion everywhere we see it (we also need to improve sex education, but that is a whole other post!). If they are challenged by feminist campaigns, and a wide enough slice of society shifts its values, only then can abortion legislation eventually change to become feminist and woman-centred.

[1] Smart, 106.

[2] Diane Abbot, MP, in Hansard HC Debate, 31st October, 2012, Volume 522, Part 60, Column 89WH, [accessed 19th December, 2012].


Pippa Middleton and her Royal Arse

Originally published by The Yorker
She was educated at one of the best universities in Britain, she works in a highly successful party planning business, and she is an accomplished skier. Three things I guarantee you will not have known about Philippa Middleton.
Pippa – as her friends and the media dub her – is probably known to you for two rather different reasons. She is sister to, and was bridesmaid to, Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. She also has a Facebook fan page dedicated to her arse.
Once a woman such as Pippa Middleton becomes embroiled in the media circus that surrounds a family such as hers, certain things become the subject of intense public attention. Pippa may wish for the media to scrutinise her outfits, from the cut of her bridesmaid’s dress to the way she does her mascara; but if she doesn’t, there’s not much she can do about it. She may revel gloriously in the lustful attention her backside has garnered from the British population; or she may be offended by it. We have no idea; it did not stop the media from circulating photographs of her in her underwear, sold to American photographic agencies by unscrupulous friends.
To put the tarnished cherry on the proverbial cake, Pippa has been singled out for a potential career in the pornography industry. Co-Chairman of Vivid Entertainment Steve  Hirsch has reportedly sent a letter to Ms Middleton saying:
“As far as I was concerned, you were the star of the recent Royal Wedding. As I watched a broadcast of the event I couldn’t help but think that with your beauty and attitude you could be an enormously successful adult star. For just one explicit scene I would be pleased to offer you $5 million USD and, of course, you would have a choice of partners. If you would like to bring your brother James along, he could appear in a separate scene for $1 million USD.”
Without uttering a word, and merely by appearing in a flattering outfit on her sister’s wedding day, Pippa Middleton has solicited a job offer from a porn king and the leering attention of the nation. A quick perusal of comments on the aforementioned Facebook fan page of ‘Pippa Middleton’s Arse’ include:
 “I’d love to have a go on that! Sweet momma I’d eat it for hours!”
 “id defo smash her back door in.”
“Nice arse… shame about the face! Lolz.”
This is not coy affection for a nation’s sweetheart, but a masturbatory, undignified and humiliating appropriation of a woman’s body which bypasses any moral objections because she happens to be in the public eye.
This outrageous objectification is not confined to Pippa, of course; we all remember Huw Edwards’ comment on what a ‘splendid view’ we all had of Kate Middleton’s breasts as she climbed into her car on the day of the Royal Wedding. Nor is it confined to those who find these women merely sexually attractive; the endless speculation and affirmation of opinion of ‘fashion experts’ around the wedding seemed to ignore the individuals walking down the aisle, instead imbuing their clothing and make-up with the most value. Yes, it was a beautiful dress. But it says nothing about the woman who wore it.
I am not Pippa Middleton, and I would never presume to speak for her. However, no-one has any clue as to how she feels about her arse being idolatrised as an almost separate entity to the rest of her body; all we know is that ‘the Middleton family’ were very angry that the press circulated pictures of her in her bra. Pippa herself has no voice. I suggest that until she has one, we should end the public displays of lustful desire her body is at the centre of, and recall that in that body is a woman who may not feel flattered but saddened by her objectification. Shame on those who forget that.

The stand I didn’t know I was making

It is generally considered unacceptably rude to tell a stranger that you find their appearance disgusting. Even the most tolerant among us find certain people and certain characteristics unattractive; it takes a great deal of determination and broad-mindedness to prevent appearance from affecting your judgment of someone. However, most of us are sympathetic enough to refrain from airing our personal gripes about each others’ externals – one person’s ugly is another’s beautiful.

This, apparently, goes out the window when it comes to body hair. Female body hair, more specifically.
I realise I am in the minority when I say I do not find unshaven women unattractive. Body hair does not have that trigger effect for me  – ‘Ew! Hair!’ – and genitals that I can see the goosebumps on just don’t do it for me.
Too much info? Yeah, it is; no-one should give a shit about what I think of body hair, apart from the person I’m sleeping with. This doesn’t stop the widespread and abhorrent tendency of the tabloid press to scrupulously pick over pictures of female celebrities, and triumphantly crow ‘LOOK! WE’VE FOUND ONE WHO FORGOT TO SHAVE THE STUBBLE OFF HER ARMPITS!’ According to them, the public desperately care whether or not Sandra Bullock shaves her armpits. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with the press.
I recently had a hostile and (to me) entirely unexpected experience relating to my body hair. As of a few months ago, I stopped shaving/waxing my armpits. There were numerous reasons – shaving produced stubble that needed removal every few days, but waxing was painful and expensive; I was ruining the delicate skin under my arms; and, genuinely, I hated how my skin looked shaved. I also had a think about why I ever removed the hair in the first place – every other woman I have ever known does it; people might find the hair disgusting; and … that was it. So I opted out. As far as I am concerned, deciding not to remove one’s body hair is an entirely personal decision; it makes me feel much better than fretting over the stubble on my legs or the decision whether to wax or shave.
However, it seems the personal cannot be entirely divorced from the political. In the student publication I write for, someone wrote a light-hearted, uplifting article giving the opinion that this summer, we should all stop striving for a ‘perfect’ beach body, and not be afraid to enjoy the sun whether or not we carry a spare tyre, or have stubble on our legs. The website has a comment facility; I wrote that I was in full-hearted agreement – we should feel free to do that, because I have, and I have never encountered disgusted looks or comments from strangers. To imagine one would would be to have a very poor view of humanity.

The original can be found here. But let me give you an abbreviated run-down of the ensuing comment thread:

Anonymous: Nothing wrong with being pale and a bit fat but dear god no-one wants to see unshaven bits, there’s no excuse for that! I like to cheat the world with decent nude tights in summer. Even skin tone, slight tan, and stubbly leg cover up! What more could you want!

I was slightly put out by this person’s judgement. So, being the person I am, replied:

Gillian Love: …Why thank you. I shall indeed take your advice and tear all of the hair out of my skin so that everyone can rest easy. Or, indeed, go out in the sun in tights and get a super-sweaty groin. Mmm.
P.S. Wanna get rid of that stubble? Don’t shave!

From personal experience, going out with stubbly legs is highly preferable to going out in the blazing sun with nylon tubes strapped to your legs and groin. Seriously. But, on with the responses:

Anonymous: Gillian Love: confirming stereotypes of feminists everywhere since 2011.

Anonymous: That is truly disgusting…and sweaty groin? Er, gross?…

Anonymous: Girls, please don’t get hung up about how you look in the sun, it’s true that too much is made of perfection. But for the love of God, please continue to shave and if you get a ‘super-sweaty groin’ should you don tights, please please don’t share this info 🙂

After protesting, and addressing the author of the article by saying it is entirely her decision whether she shave or not, I was miraculously backed up:

Justin: I’m astonished by the force of commentor’s reactions here to what is clearly a completely personal decision…what makes you think your personal taste is anyone’s business but your own?…How bewilderingly arrogant to angrily denounce somebody merely for not, in your eyes, being attractive enough!

Justin, I salute you. But you know what all of those anonymous commenters said in their defence?

Anonymous: Pretty much all of the comments here were directed at Gillian, not the original article, which is an admirable and good piece.

It’s bewilderingly OK to attack my body hair, but not the author’s. Because apparently I was being provocative. Because I agreed that not shaving can be OK. And, according to one woefully illiterate guy:

David Spelling: chastising people who object to *celebration* of female obesity and hairiness, or oddly enthusiatic descriptions of sweaty groins, is childish…

Pretty sure I’ve never celebrated a sweaty groin. But there you go.

The point of this long post is to show that a decision that I believed was personal, and one someone else wrote about and I agreed with, was attacked on entirely personal terms but as a political decision. I was disgusting, I was wrong, because I don’t shave and prefer not to wear tights in the sun. I was also making a feminist statement, according to these strangers (the fact the decision ties in with some of my feminst beliefs is not important – remember, these guys don’t know me). The only other person expressing the same view as me, who was not attacked personally? A guy.

Before I am accused of misandry, I want to make clear that there is as much, if not more, pressure from women to remove body hair as there is from men (remember the tabloid hacks above). However, I have an acute problem with receiving the opinion that body hair is disgusting from a person who has never felt the pressure to remove his own. He has never stayed indoors instead of going out because he’d run out of wax strips; he has never felt like crying because he looked in the mirror and realised he’s forgotten to shave his armpits; and he has never been told by strangers that the unavoidable growth of bodily hair is repugnant (but only on arbitrary parts of the body). Which makes it all the more relieving to find men (and women) who actually don’t give a fuck about your hair follicles.

So, by having hairy armpits and legs I am actually making a loud statement without intending (or initially wanting) to. But, you know what? Bring it on. If people take it as such, I’ll treat it as such, because since taking the decision to let my body hair grow, I have felt comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life. If anyone, especially strangers, are disgusted or offended by my body, the onus is entirely on them to change. Because now that I’ve encountered my first hostile body-hair-haterz, my personal has become political.