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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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.