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

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.

 

Of the 5.78 million unpaid carers recorded on the last census, the majority are women. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.