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.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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