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Ending the grey areas: Let's stop thinking of women as a resource to be exploited

Whether in relation to rape, abortion or care, women are still viewed as something others are entitled to make use of. But it's time to do away with these grey areas of "duty" and recognise that the primary interest in what happens to a woman’s body belon

A female carer helps an elderly man in a care home
Of the 5.78 million unpaid carers recorded on the last census, the majority are women. Photo: Getty

Female lives are fringed with grey areas. Women walk in clouds of them. Feminism is, in large part, the work of trying to dispel them, and over the decades slogans like “No means no” and “My body, my choice” have done much to establish the idea that women are entitled to determine their own existence. But even so, uncertainty persists about just what a woman is for: is she a person in her own right, or is she something less, ancillary and available?

Take rape. Everyone agrees that sex without consent is rape, except when for some reason there might be a “grey area”. What if the woman was drunk? What if she went back to his house? What if she was dressed provocatively? What if he just read the signs wrong? What if she didn’t say no? What all of this assumes is that women are available for sex unless definitively proved otherwise. Her body is shrouded in a grey area that makes it not fully her own, and means men on the street feel they have sufficient interest in it to tell her what they think of it.

“What did she expect?” asks the Fox News guest of the teenager who snuck out of her house to hang out with some older boys,  drank the drink she was given, blacked out and was allegedly assaulted. In this framing, it becomes moot whether a rape was committed or not: if she was assaulted, the guest implies, it’s because she was doing something she shouldn’t have been doing, and that means it can’t really have been an assault at all. Women are supposed to anticipate rape as an inevitable part of sharing the world with men, and a good woman is responsible for avoiding it.

It’s for this reason that it sits so poorly when my own police force, the Avon and Somerset Constabulary, warns women that a sex attacker is at large and they shouldn’t walk home alone late at night or get drunk. Not because it isn’t perfectly reasonable advice for everyone to take – it is – but because it carries the echo of the grey area. “Don’t behave like this because you might be raped” is only a subtle modification away from “If you behave like this, then you should expect to be raped.”

There’s an incredibly simple way to end the grey area, and it’s this: instead of expecting women to declare their unwillingness to be penetrated, treat them as equals in desire who can make it absolutely clear when and if they do want to have sex. And from that perspective, the difference between sex and violence is much less difficult to see. But for that idea to gain currency, we have to start from position that the primary interest in what happens to a woman’s body belongs to the woman herself, and we still seem a long way from that.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited onto the radio to discuss the availability of abortion. At one point, the interviewer presented me with this challenge: can it be right that women are terminating medically viable pregnancies when there are surrogates willing to carry babies for infertile couples? The answer is yes, of course it is right that a woman can end a pregnancy if she doesn’t want to be pregnant. Pregnancy can be physically and emotionally traumatic, and no one should be compelled to go through it just because somebody else is unable to.

But the fact that it’s asked at all suggests that the grey area extends to the inside of women’s bodies, furring up our wombs: does this muscular chamber really belong to the individual it is a part of, or maybe it’s some kind of communal property that can justifiably be enlisted in the service of future citizen propagation? So much discussion about the ethics of termination proceeds from the assumption that women must justify their refusal to be pregnant, as if their bodies weren’t their own to decide what to do with.

The assumption that women are a resource runs unthinkingly deep. Take the comments of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (who incidentally would like the abortion limit to be drastically reduced) that the UK needs to learn from the “reverence and respect for older people in Asian culture” in order to tackle loneliness among the elderly. The tending, the cleaning, the caring implied by such “reverence and respect” is all unpaid work done largely by women: of the 5.78 million unpaid carers recorded on the last census, the majority are women. And this doesn’t even take account of the fact that when caring is paid, it is generally done by women, badly paid, and viewed as unskilled.

I suspect there’s a logic in this, and it goes something like this: women are supposed to care, so why should they be compensated for doing what ought to be in their nature? Women as individuals are fuzzed out, the lines of their individual wants and needs blurred into the grey area of “duty”. After centuries of being treated as lesser creatures, women have substance now, at least formally in the law and in politics. But we’re still waiting for the fog to fall away completely and show women as people in themselves, rather than as things which others are more or less entitled to make use of. Beyond the grey area, our lives begin.