Queering Forth

The definition of  ‘queer’ is quite complicated. However, for people like me who are immersed in Gender Studies, have queer friends, and live in Brighton, it’s easy to forget that! After hearing some poor attempts from people trying to succinctly explain ‘queer’ to people unsure of the term, I thought I’d have a go myself.

I think the most basic explanation is that ‘queer’ means ‘traditional labels for sexuality (or gender) don’t fit me.’ As far as I can see, there are 4 main uses of the term ‘queer,’ some of which overlap:

  • As a term of abuse – ‘Queer’ was originally a slur directed at gay people. This used to be more common a few decades ago; now, the LGBT community has reclaimed the term, and many use it to refer to themselves. However, some people still throw the term around as an insult. It’s all about context!
  • As an umbrella term for LGBT – Sometimes people will use ‘queer’ as a shorthand for all sexualities that aren’t ‘straight’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual…it’s useful to have a shorthand!)
  • As a term for sexual orientation that doesn’t fit traditional labels – Some people feel that ‘gay’, ‘lesbian,’ ‘bisexual,’ or any other term doesn’t quite fit them. We have quite strong cultural ideas about what these labels mean, and some people feel those categories don’t reflect the complicated nature of their sexualities. So, if someone says their orientation is ‘queer,’ it means they’re not heterosexual,* but their orientation also isn’t ‘gay,’ ‘bisexual,’ or ‘lesbian.’
  • As a term for gender identity that doesn’t fit traditional labels – If someone identifies as ‘genderqueer,’ rather than ‘male,’ ‘female,’ or anything else, it means they don’t feel those labels fit them. They might see male/female as too strict a binary, categories which have a lot of cultural associations that just don’t work for them. So, they’re genderqueer. Simple!

If you’ve never met anyone who identifies this way, it might be difficult to understand. But part of the point of the term ‘queer’ is to challenge the categories we have created for ourselves; in many ways it is a byword for subverting traditional labels and binaries, and challenging the idea of ‘normal.’

*Some people argue that people who are basically heterosexual can indeed identify as ‘queer.’ For example, if you subvert our strong cultural associations with straight sexuality – by having same-sex fantasies, engaging in anal penetration as a straight man, or by being straight but not having relationships at all, for some examples – then you could argue you are ‘queer.’ However, other people say that this is an example of straight people appropriating a word or idea which has nothing much to do with them.

What do you think the term ‘queer’ means? Is there anything else I’ve missed?


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, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm121031/halltext/121031h0001.htm#12103141000308 [accessed 19th December, 2012].

Moving beyond abortion law (Part 1): Medical surveillance

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. This first one is about how abortion law in the UK actually works, and how it regulates women as much as liberates them. Part 2 looks at why changing abortion law might  not actually increase access to abortion services, and why the cultural narrative about abortion needs to change.

There is a traditional narrative which holds that to increase women’s freedom, the law must be changed and liberalised until we achieve the rights we desire. This narrative equates liberal laws and rights with freedom; however, in the case of abortion law, what appears to be liberal can in truth be regulatory, and what appears a ‘right to choose’ may not exist at all.

The decision of whether or not to have an abortion in the UK does not lie in the hands of the pregnant woman but in those of the two doctors whose signature is required for the procedure. From the Abortion Act itself:

(1)Subject to the provisions of this section, a person shall not be guilty of an offence under the law relating to abortion when a pregnancy is terminated by a registered medical practitioner if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith—

(a)that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family; or

(b)that the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; or

(c)that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated; or

(d)that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.

In some respects, this law is incredibly permissive. It is easily proven that continuation of pregnancy is more risky than a termination for women in terms of both physical and mental health: more women die in childbirth than from abortion procedures each year, and any indication that a woman’s pregnancy is unwanted suggests her mental health would be at risk if forced to continue with it.* It is therefore very easy for doctors to grant abortions under these regulations.

However, you’ll note that the Act emphasises  the requirement to see numerous doctors. Often women seeking abortions must also see a counsellor. This means that women’s reproductive freedom is heavily regulated by the state; it isn’t enough for a woman to want an abortion, a woman must have an acceptable reason for having one. Maxine Lettimer did a study which found that even if it didn’t reflect their lives, women seeking abortions framed their decisions in the terms of the Abortion Act in order to appear to be having an ‘acceptable’ abortion to the medical professionals they encountered.**  This  means that despite appearing liberal and permissive, UK abortion law actually places women’s bodies under subtle but pervasive medical surveillance.

This is something which many people may not realise, as the language of science and medicine is often seen as neutral and apolitical. Actually, this control of  women’s bodies and their fertility has been a concern for medicine and the law for centuries.  The female body has been conceived of by those male-dominated institutions as a mysterious, unpredictable and occasionally dangerous entity; although women have been entering the legal and medical professions for many years now, this cultural attitude still exists. For example, Victorians believed women were controlled by their reproductive cycles; how many times have you heard comments about PMS, hormones, and biological clocks affecting women’s decision-making?

In law, women’s bodies have been treated paradoxically as both dangerous and weak, and their bodily autonomy has been threatened by the law as much as it has been protected. The Contagious Diseases Acts 1864-69 saw women suspected of prostitution (and therefore potentially spreading VD) subjected to intrusive examinations and locked up for up to a year. In rape trials, defence lawyers seek to redefine women’s own accounts of their autonomy by suggesting that violation of women’s bodies can be ‘disproven’ by evidence of previous consent and what the victim wore.  Abortion law continues this legal regulation of women’s bodies by deferring to doctors, not the pregnant woman herself, to determine whether she should continue to nurture a foetus or not. This can never be acceptable for feminists, and we should be wary of a legal framework that allows that to happen.

There is a difficulty for feminists in protesting the power remaining in doctors’ hands, however.  Judges’ deferral to medical opinion when abortion cases reach the courts has been to the advantage of women who want abortions but whose parents or partners are attempting to prevent the procedure. There have been several unsuccessful cases of fathers or husbands seeking to legally prevent their wives’ abortions (see Paton v. BPAS and C. v. S.), in which judges have cited the doctors’ approval of the wives’ abortions (not the women’s desire to abort the foetus in their body) as the deciding factor.

Therefore, operating within this legal framework is unlikely to yield feminist results. However, if we consider a feminist aim to be abortions on request and “as early as possible, as late as necessary,” then it is important to consider how much achieving that aim would actually increase women’s reproductive freedoms. Societal and cultural factors are equally (perhaps more) important in forming narratives around abortion and women’s bodies, and formal recognition of a right does not get rid of real-life (substantive) obstacles that might hinder women even if the right to abortion on request were granted them. It is to these factors that feminists must turn to in order to achieve their aims.

In part 2, I look at why changing abortion law might  not actually increase access to abortion services, and why the cultural narrative about abortion needs to change.


*For physical effects of childbirth vs. abortion, see Elizabeth G. Raymond and David A. Grimes, “The Comparative Safety of Legal Induced Abortion and Childbirth in the United States” Obstetrics and Gynecology  119:2 (part 1), (February 2012). For mental health of abortion ‘turnaways’ vs. women granted abortion, see M. Antonia Biggs et al., “Mental health and physical health consequences of abortion compared to unwanted birth,” presented at the American Public Health Association meeting on 30/10/12, https://apha.confex.com/apha/140am/webprogram/Paper263888.html.

**Maxine Lettimer, “Dominant Ideas versus Women’s Reality: Hegemonic Discourse in British Abortion Law” in Abortion Law and Politics Today ed. Ellie Lee (Hampshire and New York, N.Y: Palgrave, 1998).

Why we still Reclaim the Night

This article was originally published by the University of Sussex newspaper, The Badger.

“Text me when you’re home safely!” Such a common conclusion to a night out – especially amongst female friends – may seem innocuous, even sensible. But for some campaigners, such commonplace behaviour reveals that women feel responsible for avoiding their own harassment and assault. Since 1977, feminist groups have organised marches through the streets for women who no longer wish to feel afraid of rape and harassment. These Reclaim the Night marches are still being organised around the UK with an almost unchanged message, despite having roots in 70s feminism. The London Reclaim the Night website demonstrates that 2nd-wave feminist aims can nestle happily alongside contemporary anti-austerity politics:  “With ideological cuts threatening the refuge and rape crisis movements in our country we need to take back the capital to demonstrate women’s support for essential women’s services, demand justice for survivors and spread the message that no woman is ever to blame for male violence against her.”

Caitlin Hayward-Tapp, a member of the Brighton Feminist Collective, explains why the group decided to run a local Reclaim the Night march to coincide with the main event in the capital. “It made sense to do a local march, since one of the first Reclaim the Night marches was here in Brighton,” she explains, but also indicates some disagreement with the “mentality” of the London organisers: “There’s been a history of transphobia [at London reclaim the Night] and also a strong anti-sex work sentiment, and that’s not something we choose to support at all.” Unlike in London, the Brighton event is not women-only, and embraces the presence of trans* people and sex-workers who may have their voices silenced by more traditional feminist groups. Caitlin indicates that the silencing of those groups, who have a strong claim to needing safe streets, is “frankly offensive.”

She strongly believes that the task of ending street-harassment and victim-blaming is just as important as it was 40 years ago: “Women are still not feeling safe in the streets. People still think women should be walked home by a male friend at night, even though women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know. There’s a real culture of fear, and of blame too: if a woman was walking on her own and got attacked people will say, ‘well, she should have been with someone, she was asking for it.’”

The statistics reveal this to be no hyperbole. According to the Pixel Project, dedicated to ending violence against women, and the Stop Street Harassment campaign, the percentage of women who report being subjected to harassment in public is regularly recorded as 80-90%. The number of women who have experienced sexual violence is between 1 in 4 and 1 in 7. Defined by the Stop Street Harassment campaign as “[c]atcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation and assault,” harassment of this kind is a perennial feminist issue due to its strongly gendered nature: women are mostly the victims, and men are mostly the perpetrators.

Speaking to students on campus, it appears to be on the minds of many young men and women. Tori, a student at Sussex, suggests that street harassment should be of paramount concern to anyone who cares about women’s rights. “It happens to everyone I know whether they identify as female or not. If they’re perceived as female they get catcalled, shouted at, called a dyke…” They explain that Reclaim the Night is an important way of raising awareness and “making it into a national issue, because right now it’s being ignored.” Kye, another member of the Brighton Feminist Collective, agreed that street harassment was a common occurrence for women, “without a doubt. It’s one of those unspoken things that nobody wants to talk about.”

The NUS Women’s Campaign tackled this perceived ignorance around women’s safety with their Hidden Marks report, published in 2010. 1 in 7 female students reported experiencing a serious physical or sexual assault during their time at university, and 68% had experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment in and around their institution. Despite reporting loss of confidence and increased fear after being harassed, only 2% of respondents reported ‘less serious’ assaults because they felt what had happened to them was not serious enough to report. It is this fear of being dismissed that Reclaim the Night aims to tackle by demonstrating the widespread nature of street harassment and sexual assault.

How to tackle the problem is a matter of some debate. In the UK, there is no specific crime of ‘street harassment,’ meaning that victims have limited options if they wish to report their attacker. Jennifer, a student in London, was groped by a man on the street earlier this year. She was told her options were to press charges of sexual assault, which would go to court, or the officer could book him for being drunk and disorderly. Jennifer felt that “just straight away it was down my throat as ‘are you serious enough about this to go through the criminal justice system over a man grabbing your butt?’” She is still waiting to find whether she will have to give evidence in court.

Many Sussex students worried that, were street harassment to become illegal, it would be a difficult crime to define. “I think it would make me feel more safe,” said Amy, who admitted to pretending to be on the phone when walking alone at night to deter harassers, “but it depends how it was enforced.” Tori agrees: “It would be difficult to enforce, but I would like to see harsher penalties for things like following someone home. I’d like to be able to call the police and for them to take it seriously.”

Some women go to great lengths to avoid harassment and assault, like psychology student Rhianna. She has a routine of safety measures for walking alone at night, including “a personal attack alarm that I always carry in my pocket, I actively avoid streets with poor street lighting, and I have a safety text ready send out immediately to my boyfriend or my mum.” Her measures are not exceptions, but seem to echo a feeling amongst other female students that if they don’t take precautions, they could be targets of violence. Esme, a first year Films Studies student, reflects on the messages she absorbed from family and friends: “always travel in groups at night, make sure not to go down any dark alleyways, that sort of thing.”

Other women feel that Brighton is home turf, and does not pose many threats to them. In light of that, campaigns like Reclaim the Night and Stop Street Harassment run the risk of over-emphasising women’s victimhood and reinforcing the culture of fear that is a daily routine for many female students. Vee, a student in her first year, expresses this concern but places the blame firmly at the door of misogynist culture rather than feminist campaigners. “When you’re kids…that’s when it all starts, in my opinion. Don’t tell girls that they’re vulnerable because they’re girls and that boys are tough and strong.” Alicja, a first year medic, feels that Reclaim the Night does portray women as victims, “but in a good way!” She explains, “It raises awareness that [women] are victimized. I’ll be going on the march this year.”

Despite the regular comments from the media on the ‘death of feminism,’ it is clear that Reclaim the Night’s message still resonates strongly with young people, and thousands are expected to march in London on the 24th November. As austerity measures kick in and funding for rape crisis centres and women’s refuges dries up, these protests are only set to get bigger, louder, and angrier.

Was Sarah Catt’s sentence justified?

This article was originally written for the Brighton Feminist Collective.

In September, Sarah Catt was sentenced under section 58 to eight years’ imprisonment for procuring her own miscarriage. When she was close to term, she bought the drug misoprostol, commonly used to induce labour in pregnant women, and took it in her home. She later told police the baby was stillborn. Although it is not illegal to induce your own pregnancy and give birth unattended in your own home, it is an offence secretly to dispose of a child’s body after it is born, under section 60 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

However, Catt was not charged with disposing of a stillborn child’s body. She was instead charged with aborting a baby beyond the 24-week legal limit, the judge determining that Catt’s intent was to abort, not to induce labour. The judge, Mr Justice Cooke, also said: “‘There is no mitigation available by reference to the Abortion Act, whatever view one takes of its provisions which are, wrongly, liberally construed in practice so as to make abortion available essentially on demand prior to 24 weeks with the approval of registered medical practitioners.”

I urge you to read that again: “…wrongly, liberally construed in practice so as to make abortion available essentially on demand…” It may be surprising to hear a judge expand so far beyond the remit of a case; however, Cooke’s pronouncement appears less surprising once you know that he is vice-president of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship. The LCF lobby the government on abortion, and their former Director of Public Policy, Andrea Minichiello Williams, said in 2008 that abortion is the work of the devil. One wonders whether Catt would have received the same sentence from a judge without such a vehement opposition to abortion law.

Of course, the media are doing some sentencing of their own. Not content with reporting the facts on a complicated case, tabloids and broadsheets alike have honed in on Catt’s personal life. The affair she was having. The children she had already had. Her previous abortion. As if her previous decisions about her body or her relationships shed any light on her decision to induce labour (or, have an illegal abortion). The Daily Mail, predictably, indicated their attitude with the headline: “Eight years for the cheating wife who used drugs bought online to abort baby TWO days before it was due to be born.”

The Mail also referred to the drug Catt bought as ‘poison.’ Doctors might dispute that. In 2010, an Australian couple were in court charged with a similar offence; Professor Nicholas Fisk, giving an expert testimonial, explained that misoprostol is a commonly prescribed drug, and as this article notes, it is on the World Health Organisation’s essential medicines list for (amongst other uses) labour induction. The couple in this case were acquitted.

It is unclear why Sarah Catt made the decision she did. But, as feminists, we should be concerned that the law can be so moulded to fit the political vagaries of whichever judge presides over a case. We should also be concerned that the media are framing Catt’s decision as one influenced by an ‘immoral’ lifestyle. When access to early and safe abortions is being attacked by government itself, and when NHS services are being threatened, we should be thinking about the web of societal and medical obstacles which might lead to more women ending up in Sarah Catt’s position. Simply pushing for legal reform will not help women access the support they need; too often these reforms are discussed without listening to women’s voices, and leave substantive access problems untouched. Sarah Catt has been held up by the press as the archetypal bad mother, a cheater and a liar who wanted to kill her baby. Her story is more than that. It asks of us, what led this woman to make such a decision? And how can we stop this from happening again?

When Naomi Wolf’s Vagina came to town

This article was originally written for the Brighton Feminist Collective.

Naomi Wolf bounced onto the stage of the Brighton Dome’s studio on Friday night with a wide grin, expressing her excitement at being in Brighton “with such cool people.” She wants to talk to us about her new book, Vagina: A New Biography, warning us: “I’m still getting used to talking about such personal things in public. So if I blush or take my time, bear with me!”

That’s the problem with Vagina: it’s just a little too intimate, a little too personal, and, going by the reaction of many feminists to the book, not political enough. Unlike many of her younger contemporaries, Wolf has not learnt an important lesson from the history of the movement: extrapolating the ‘female experience’ from one white, able-bodied, heterosexual, wealthy woman is an exercise in political blindness. The first section of her book (and most of her talk on Friday night) boils down to this: her orgasms are pretty good. For a while they weren’t so good any more, and her doctor discovered her pelvic nerve was being compressed by her spine. Now she’s all better, and after reading up on neuroscience, she wants to tell us all about the profound ‘brain-vagina connection’ that makes the vagina the ‘centre of the self.’ Wolf is a firm believer that really great orgasms are essential to women’s emancipation, because dopamine, a neurochemical involved with reward, is a “feminist chemical” produced during orgasm.

Unfortunately, the neuroscience Wolf enthuses about may not be as conclusive as she believes, as this collation of neuroscientists’ responses to her talk demonstrates. Wolf is not an expert, and neuroscientists are eager to point out the dangers of making linear cause and effect relationships between a neurochemical and a specific emotion (like ‘dopamine produces assertiveness’). Quite apart from that, Wolf’s argument hinges on the reader accepting phrases like ‘the feminine soul,’ ‘the Goddess array,’ and ‘the Universal and Divine Feminine,’ language which is interspersed throughout the book but which she pointedly avoided during her talk in Brighton, saying “I guess words like that sound odd to British ears.”

Not just British ears; I think the French would have something to say about that too. Simone de Beauvoir famously explored in The Second Sex the way that the myth of the ‘eternal feminine’ serves to undermine and subjugate women, who are portrayed in a male-dominated world as ‘Other,’ strange and exciting, exotic creatures with complex sexual desires and unfathomable motivations. Vagina is ostensibly an attempt to de-mystify women’s bodies and their sexual lives, but serves only to play into the patriarchal constructs Beauvoir identified decades ago.

As well as this explicit language, Wolf also tends to display her attitude in the adjectives she uses to describe the female – ‘lovely’ comes up far too often, as does ‘magical,’ and although ‘delicious’ only appeared once it did make me hiccup in shock – in stark comparison to her descriptions of the male orgasm, which is ‘linear,’ their wiring ‘simpler’ and ‘grid-like.’ How convenient that our nervous systems so cosily match social gender stereotyping.

The anti-feminist implications of the way Wolf has expanded her own relationship with sex to encompass half of the human population should be obvious to anyone. If the vagina is at the heart of the universal female experience, then trans women will never achieve true womanhood. Neither will asexual or celibate women. Nor women who find sex painful, unenjoyable, or simply not very important. Lesbian, bisexual and queer women were not mentioned once. In so many ways, Wolf’s enormous privilege shone through not only as a heterosexual, cis woman, but in other ways too, like when she enthused about her New York apartment (which has a doorman), her education (Yale was name-dropped as her alma mater) and her gynaecologist (who happens to be a world expert on pelvic nerve disorders). Laurie Penny’s snark that the main message of Vagina is that “private doctors are wonderful if you can afford them” seemed rather apposite.

I wanted to like Naomi Wolf, because she was so eager to engage and share with the women in the audience. It is, however, hard to admire any self-proclaimed feminist who theorises in such essentialist terms, and who seems determined to ignore marginalised women who may need her help more than the largely white, middle-class audience at the Brighton Dome.