Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Dear 15 Year Old Me

I’ve never met someone who looks back at their teenage years with fondness, nor have I ever met anyone who spent their teenage years thinking they were gorgeous and hilarious and utterly brilliant. I’m pretty sure being 15 is shit for everyone, at least to some extent.  But there are a few things that I wish I had known when I was 15, things I wish someone had told me, or things I had been told but that I didn’t listen to. I’ll start with the obvious ones – don’t cut your fringe yourself, it will never work out well for you no matter how many times you try and you’ll look like an idiot. You’ll be 21 before you figure out how to do make up properly, and even then sometimes you’ll end up taking it all off and starting over. 

Time spent doing something you love, something that makes you happy, is not wasted time. Sometimes, you just need to take a day or five where you do nothing but watch an entire TV series, or re-read books, or draw. And that’s ok. Self-care is hugely important, and it’s what gets you through a lot of crap. You need to put yourself first sometimes. 

Food isn't the enemy, and losing weight won't make anything any better. Not eating won't make you happier or more attractive or better at making friends or more confident. It will make you painfully aware of your body and everything you eat; it will make you constantly uncomfortable and sad; it will give you anxiety and will make you into a shell of a person. It will change the way you think about food to the extent that 6 years from now, you still feel held back by your fear of food and your body. Any feelings of accomplishment are overshadowed completely by the hell it will put you through. 

Don't love yourself because a boy tells you that you should. Because that boy will leave and you won't know how or why to love yourself anymore. You will spend an entire summer in your room trying to figure out who you are as an individual, not as part of a couple. And even though you’ll come so far, you’ll still have no clue what you’re doing with your life. 

Don't put up with shitty things people do to you because they say they love you. Don't stay with someone who treats your mental health as something that you should work on for their sake rather than your own. Don't have sex when you don't want to, even if he makes you feel like you cannot say no. Don't settle for someone who makes you feel like half a person because you're afraid nobody else would love you. They will. Even if, as I write this, that hasn't exactly happened yet. And if they don't, you always have cats and your friends. 

Do more art. Even if you don't think it's very good or if it genuinely isn't very good, keep doing it. Draw everything and don't let an art teacher tell you that you're doing it wrong. Art can't be done wrong. She's just an idiot. Fill notebooks with sketches and doodles and mini masterpieces, even if the person beside you can draw better than you. Remember that art is never finished, you can always go back and change something later, even if it's been years. Paint your emotions without feeling like you should only paint when you're happy. Art is incredibly cathartic when you're sad. 

Say no. Say no to friends, family, boyfriends, teachers, everyone when you genuinely can't or don't want to do what they're asking. You can't do everything, and you can't run on the three hours of sleep it would take to be able to do everything. Saying no doesn't make you a bitch and anyone who says so isn't worth your time. 

Nothing is sexier than confidence. You're a bamf and a babe, or at least you will be after your ugly duckling phase is over. You may not look the same as the generic media version of what beautiful or sexy is, but that doesn't matter. Don't buy into the 'everyone is beautiful' crap either - what you look like doesn't matter, at least not as much as you'll be told. Don’t be sexy for anyone else but you – you’re entitled to look like you have no more fucks to give when you want to, and then next day be all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Don’t apologise for being outspoken and passionate, particularly about issues surrounding equality. You'll be called every name under the sun, you'll be made feel unsafe at times, and people will treat you differently - some will treat you with more respect, others will say and do things that will cut you to your very core. The former are the people who will be your friends for years, the latter are the ones who you should cut out of your life that very second. 

I don’t know for sure that if I had all this advice at 15 I would have listened to it, or how different the last 6 years of my life would have been if I had taken it all in. A lot of these lessons are still being learned – I’m still going to make mistakes, but I’m slightly more comfortable with that than I was a few months ago. 

- B xx

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

On the Rising Trend of Elective Cosmetic Labiaplasties

First post in a loooong time - who knew a MA would keep me so busy! This piece is for one of my MA classes and on the rising trend of labiaplasties as a gender equality issue.

Vulvae and labia are possibly one of the only parts of a cis-gendered woman’s body that we see more frequently in media than in real life. Yet they are body parts which receive an incredible amount of scrutiny and are the cause of a great deal of distress for many young people who worry that their labia aren’t ‘normal’. This paper will examine the rising trend of labiaplasties and look at why this is a gender equality issue. It will also explore what, if anything, is being done to promote labia of all shapes and sizes as being ‘normal’.
Why are people going under the knife to alter their labia?

It is important to differentiate between elective cosmetic labiaplasties (and other cosmetic gynaecological surgery) and reconstructive gynaecological surgery which takes place to reduce pain and discomfort after female genital mutilation (FGM). O’Regan states that “labiaplasty is a procedure which trims the labia minora (the inner lips of the vulva) to fit neatly within the outer lips”, which is predominantly done for aesthetic reasons.  


The rising trend in elective, cosmetic labiapasties can be attributed to a number of factors, most notably the presentation of labia in the media. Labia and vulvae are considered ‘crude’ in a way that penises and testes aren’t, and so are rarely portrayed in mainstream media or ‘shown off’ among friends. As such, many young people will have a very limited pool of vulvae to compare their own vulvae to. Therefore, if the source is misleading or not representative of all types of vulvae, insecurity may arise among young people in particular as to whether or not their labia are ‘normal’, or they may be led to believe that there is only one type of ‘normal’ vulva. 
One of the most common sources of depictions of labia is soft porn magazines, or ‘lad mags’. According to Drysdale , Australian soft porn magazines digitally alter the vulvae and labia of models in order to make their genitals look ‘healed to a single crease’ – that is, so that the labia minora are almost completely, if not fully, covered or enclosed by the labia majora. These digital labiaplasties are routinely carried out because Australia’s classifications guidelines state that “realistic depictions [of genitalia] may contain discreet genital detail but there should be no genital emphasis”. While this seems vague, Drysdale notes that as far as the classification board is concerned, inner labia are “too rude for soft porn”. This practice of digital labiaplasty isn’t unique to Australia – Calabrese et al’s study found that in US Playboy magazines, over 80% of vulvae pictured had no visible labia minora, with a further 15% showing very small and ‘neat’ labia minora, largely hidden by labia majora. Only 7% of photos actually showed visible inner labia. Calabrese notes that the models’ genital areas “emulate those of a Barbie Doll”. 
If soft porn magazines are to be believed, this is what most vulvae look like

The rising rate at which people are seeking labiaplasties “may reflect a narrow social definition of normal, or a confusion of what is normal and what is idealised”. As such, we can see that this is an issue of gender inequality due to lack of representation of the diverse range of ‘normal’ vulvae and labia. This happens not only in the soft porn industry, which is targeted for the most part at men, but also in more mainstream media and society. There is a fear that a lot of people are being “duped by the media and by unethical doctors who are preying on their insecurities”, that the sexual objectification of their bodies is leading them to have concerns over the way their genitalia look. 
Vulvae and labia are simply not something that are seen as appropriate topics of conversation – the stigma and shame associated with having a vagina remains a barrier to communicating worries or uncertainties people have with the way their labia look. As such, finding out what is ‘normal’ is considerably difficult, particularly in comparison to the range of dialogue which surrounds what is ‘normal’ in terms of penises and testes. 


However, there is a growing awareness surrounding the different types and sizes of vulvae and labia, and projects like the Great Wall of Vagina are creating an environment in which discourse surrounding labia and vulvae is becoming more socially acceptable. Projects like this, as well as simply having open conversations about the way our bodies look, challenge our perceptions of normality.
A panel from the Great Wall of Vagina, showing the variation in labia shapes and sizes

However, as the documentary The Perfect Vagina (2008) shows, there are still, and will possibly always be, people who are still deciding that that a labiaplasty is a procedure they want or need. It is important to note that controlling other people’s bodies would be problematic in itself. We cannot deny people the ability to alter their bodies, particularly if their mental health is being affected by the way they look, even though these feelings may stem from false representation of how their bodies ‘should’ look in the media. Goodman et al come to the conclusion that while a person definitely has the right to choose a labiaplasty, it should be an informed and counselled choice, and the NHS advises that young people in particular should be advised on solutions other than surgery in response to concerns about their genitalia.



While the reasons people choose to undergo elective cosmetic labiaplasties may vary, one of the core factors is a feeling of non-conformance, of being somehow different. This is often brought on by the narrow, if even present at all, representation of vulvae and labia in the media, and the lack of discourse surrounding the wide range of ‘normal’ labia due to stigma and shame. However, although labiaplasties themselves are a gender equality issue, to deny someone their right to bodily autonomy should they make an informed choice to have the surgery would also be a gender equality issue. As such, we need to promote a greater range of ideas surrounding ‘normalcy’ when it comes to vulvae and encourage positive discourse about labia and vulvae in order to both reduce the rate at which people are having labiaplasties, and ensure that those who continue to have them are making an informed, and therefore empowered, choice. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Women of Ireland - Your Saviour is Here!

I've been a fan of Geoff's blog for about a year now, ever since he started looking into the links between Youth Defence and American support (using some sort of technological magic to suss out their twitter followers and the like).
He offered to write a guest post for my blog, and here it is - an insightful exposé into the American man who will save us Irish from our biggest enemy - ourselves (with free-thought coming in at a close second).
So, enjoy and don't forget to check out his blog and follow him on twitter.
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Few can have escaped the focus gained by the abortion debate in Ireland over the past year. Caught at the intersection of old colonial laws, the softening of the Roman Catholic hierarchy's grip on Irish society and worries that we might be losing our cultural identity, efforts to provide the legal clarity required to allow doctors to save women's lives has caused widespread debate.
Newspaper columns, radio waves, TV shows and coffee break discussions have been overwhelmed by those wishing to tease out how greatly we should value the lives of women and what caveats we should place on any desire they might have to avoid death while reproducing. But fear not. A Man has come to save us from ourselves. His name is Victor Bermudez:
We are supremely blessed to have him. Not only is he a man, he is a Californian man, and having reached the age of 21 he has decided to fly all the way to Ireland (sponsored by a group that expresses their commitment to defending life by opposing vaccination in Ireland) to save Irish women from that sinister opposing group hellbent on their destruction - Irish women.
Victor Bermudez, Man, Californian, Thinker, Hero,
Saving Irish Women From Themselves
I'm sure, like me, you are amazed that this man of admittedly tender years has found the time to fully brief himself on the Irish legal system, the decades long struggle for access to contraception, the niceties of the Irish constitution and existing legislation before coming to a firm conclusion that the Irish people are wrong and must be saved from themselves. Yet we find that Ireland is not the only country that has benefited from his generosity - he also knows what's best for Spanish and Australian women too, and has tried to help them see the error of their ways by marching across their countries and blockading family planning services.
You can find his biography amidst those of his fellow Americans on Crossroads Walk Ireland's page here, with a more extensive biography here. Elsewhere he shares his thoughts on saving same sex couples from their desire to wed.
How do they help us poor Irish see the error of their ways? Unfortunately we lack the intellectual capacity to fully understand the issue on the same level they do. Thankfully they have a simple solution. In much the same way one might place a fence in front of a stairs to prevent an errant child from entering, they simply stand in front of any premises with which they disagree and block entry:
Champions of the Irish people, these fine folk save us from ourselves by blocking entrances to buildings we shouldn't be in.

Do read more from Rachel Mary about their success in blocking access to the IFPA on August 13th.
Some cynics might say that it's inappropriate for those from another country to take such sterling efforts to correct our foolish ambitions at self determination. That folk who have not spent any appreciable time in Ireland are not best equipped to decide for its citizens. Without fully understanding the depth of research performed by Victor and his friends some Irish might say that they do not have the right to fix the boundary to the march of this nation. To those I say: read their blog. You will see nuanced distinction and profound understanding of every aspect of Irish culture. Take this post, where a contributor too modest to be named discovers that 'chips' are the Irish way of saying fries. Or read how Angie correctly identifies that we Irish refer to jelly as 'jam'. And I challenge you to read Caitlin's realisation that Independence day is 'just another day' in Ireland without both misty eyes and a profound respect at their unparalleled cultural research.
Pro life, pro lats - this strapping chap on Grafton Street displays Crossroads All Ireland Pro Life Walk and Family and Life on his fine, strapping back.

Ladies, gentlemen - for too long we have been fooling ourselves with these notions of self determination. These fine folk have come all the way from America to tell us that they know better. Who are we to tell them they're wrong?

Friday, 12 July 2013

On Irish Abortion Legislation and ‘Lapgate'

(kinda shitty post, but the heat melts my brain and I wanted to write something)

Last night, after a 21 year long wait, X-case legislation was passed in the Dáil at 127 to 31. However, it’s not law yet – it still has to go through the Seanad and the President’s office. While this is a momentous occasion in Irish history, and a step in the right direction for women*’s reproductive freedom, it is not without its issues.

The legislation brings clarity to doctors – a pregnant person can now undergo any treatment to save their life, even if that treatment will result in a miscarriage or involves ending the pregnancy. It takes one doctor to decide if the woman* is literally at death’s door, and two if she’s only a little bit dying. However, to force a woman* who is suicidal as a result of her pregnancy to plead for her life in front of a panel of doctors (one of which has to be an OB despite the fact that it’s a mental health issue, not a pre-natal issue) is cruel. If they do not unanimously agree, she must go to another panel, and they could take 5 to 7 days to come to a decision. They could take a week to decide whether or not to help, when a person contemplates suicide waiting for their verdict.

Mental health is real health, and this is something the legislators seem to not fully understand. If someone has gotten to the point where they would subject themselves to this kind of backwards and patronising system because their pregnancy is not something they can handle, they need help. They don’t need to be submitted to this trial where they are not even certain that the outcome will be to save their life and end the pregnancy. This legislation will do nothing for people who are suicidal as a result of their pregnancies. However, some women* may go through this panel. These are the women* who are too poor to travel for a termination and migrant women* who are unsure of their immigration status. These are some of our most vulnerable women, yet we will subject them to this cruel, humiliating process to beg for their lives.

The legislation also contains a jail sentence for those who terminate in Ireland, or those who help them terminate in Ireland. Under the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, which made abortion completely illegal in Ireland, this crime warrants life of penal servitude. In the new legislation this has become an undisclosed fine and up to 14 years imprisonment. No one has ever been prosecuted for self-inducing in Ireland under the old legislation, and we have been assured that this will continue with the new legislation. Why then, was it included at all? Why even make the threat to criminalise women who self-induce with pills in their own country? Why add to the stigma surrounding abortion? While this threat may only apply to doctors who perform abortions ‘illegally’ (i.e. when the pregnant person is not actually dying), there is a worry that it could also be used to prosecute those who provide abortifants, or collect them from the North, as they are supplying the means to carry out an abortion. Whether anyone is ever prosecuted for self-inducing, only time will tell.

This is the bare minimum. This basically tells Irish women* - 'if you're pregnant, and will die if you remain pregnant, we'll end your pregnancy'. It isn't bringing in abortion on request, and it also isn't abortion up to 9 months. After the point of viability, if the pregnancy needs to be ended to save the life of the pregnant person, a c-section or early induced delivery will be performed, not an abortion. While that seems painfully obvious, the anti-choice crowd have been using that as a means by which to 'kill the bill'. They would rather women* die than have a termination. That's not 'pro-life'.

Various amendments to the bill were proposed while it was being debated in the Dáil over the last few days. All amendments to broaden the bill were defeated. Terminations in cases of rape or incest were defeated because they don’t fit into the tiny box that is the Supreme Court interpretation of the law – that terminations are only allowed when there is a real and substantial risk to the woman*’s life, including through suicide. Interestingly enough, though not surprising, amendments trying to remove the suicide claus from the bill were also tabled. One has to wonder how the government could legislate for X (as we are required to do by the European Court of Human Rights), if we leave out suicide. The X-case is the reason the interpretation included suicide as a real and substantial risk to the woman*’s life. We have two referenda (1992 and 2002) where the people could have opted to remove ‘in case of suicide’ from the law; we chose not to.

Terminations for medical reasons, when the fetus has a fatal abnormality and will not survive outside the womb, were also left out, despite the argument that the fetus will never live outside the womb, and so their right to life cannot be seen as the same as the right to life of the pregnant person. These are generally much wanted pregnancies, and yet we export these grieving families to the UK and elsewhere if they chose to end the pregnancy.

The defeated amendment which baffled me the most was to allow for terminations during an inevitable miscarriage. Currently in Ireland, if you miscarry, you’re told we can’t help you, just go home and wait. Depending how far along the pregnancy is, this waiting could take three or four days. This was the only amendment which could have saved Savita Halapanavar had this legislation been in place a year ago. In countries where abortion legislation is broader, you can chose to end the miscarriage via a D&C. This results in the cervix being open for a considerably shorter amount of time, thus reducing the risk of infection, and can also reduce the mental anguish of the person miscarrying.

One distinction that anti-choicers repeatedly used was the misinformed idea that abortions are different from necessary medical interventions which end a pregnancy. Soz, nope. In cases of ectopic pregnancies, the zygote is pretty much directly targeted and removed. Obviously, if an ectopic pregnancy is left untreated for long enough, the damage to the fallopian tube can be so great that it must be removed. This is often done in very Catholic hospitals – patients must wait until their tube is so damaged before they can receive treatment, because then you can say that it’s not really abortion. This misguided argument has also been used when discussing this bill, despite the fact that the word ‘abortion’ isn’t used once, it’s always called a medical procedure or medical intervention. Sarah Malone deals amazingly with both these points in a recentinterview (also note how it’s two middle aged, British men arguing against a young, Irish woman about abortion in Ireland…)

It was not only the legislation which caused controversy over the lst few days at the Dáil. During the first sitting, which went on til 5am, Tom Barry TD pulled Áine Collins onto his lap and held her there while she was clearly uncomfortable, only releasing her after a pat on her very lower back. A number of male TDs around them are seemingly unbothered by this behaviour. During a debate about women’s reproductive rights, a female TD is sexually harassed. Because what happened was sexual harassment. Collins later accepted Barry’s apology, but that doesn’t mean it was OK. It shows the way in which the Dáil is still very much set in a Mad Men era. Excuses have been made, ranging from the fact that the heating wasn’t on (it was a 27 degree day), the few drinks he’d had (why our politicians are allowed drink while debating life and death legislation is for another day) or simply that it was ‘silly’ and a bit of ‘horseplay’.

We haven’t exactly come a long way in the last 21 years regarding abortion legislation in Ireland. This legislation is not yet law, and odds are it will face many more hurdles set up by the anti-choicers and misogynist politicians, but I’m confident that it will pass, and Ireland will be a slightly safer country for pregnant women*.


But it’s important not to get complacent. We shouldn’t wait another 21 years, or for another tragic death, before we get the 8th Amendment repealed. We need a referendum to remove this out-dated, religious-based, misogynist article from our constitution. Then, we can make real progress with reproductive rights in Ireland. 

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Monday, 8 July 2013

Saturday, 6 July 2013

On the 'Rally for Life'

Today, I went to the counter protest for this year’s Rally for Life, despite really not being in the mood for it and the heat being something terrible for a stereotypical pale Irish women like myself (my foundation shade is ‘Siberia’. Wish I was kidding). Unlike the anti-Youth Defence protest which I went to last week, which turned out to be a great experience, today was nothing but horrible.

We hung out near the Garden of Remembrance beforehand, and there were far more older people there than I was anticipating. Like, way more. This was even more noticeable as we stood lining either side of O’Connell street as they marched. I’d say maybe 15-20% of attendees were women of childbearing age, i.e. people who would actually find themselves in a crisis pregnancy situation. The rest were men, old people and children.

Now, I understand that it is sometimes necessary for children to attend rallies -child-minding is not something that everyone has access to. But it is *incredibly* disturbing and unsettling to see young children chanting anti-choice slogans and holding signs. As for the older people, especially the older men, while they had every right to protest, the thought of them deciding to what I, a woman of childbearing age (albeit one with fertility problems) do with my (c)uterus is ridiculous. And I told them as much as they passed me.

While for the most part it was a peaceful protest, there were some issues which I feel are worth noting. My sister was with me, and in the 30˚C heat, she was wearing a romper suit and no tights. An old man came up to her and decided that it was perfectly ok to sexually harass her, to sexualise an unwilling participant, one who has only just gone 18 but who looks young enough to still pay child fare on the bus. My sister is a fairly headstrong person when it comes to these things. While I avoid nightclubs like the plague due to this kind of offhand, socially accepted sexual harassment (and worse), she still goes out, and I believe that she probably has somewhat thicker skin than I do when it comes to this kind of thing. But today, we had to leave the line of protesters and go somewhere more private so that she could have a bit of a cry and gather herself.

This was not an isolated incident. Another young woman said she was leered at and looked up and down multiple times. The despicable behaviour of the anti-choicers isn’t limited to sexual harassment. Many people who weren’t white were told to “go back to Africa”, and one woman was told that “she was too fat to have kids anyway”. Many were carrying pictures of a C-section calling it an abortion. The Gardaí said that there was nothing they could do about these images, despite the number of children in attendance. One man picked up his young child and shook him at us, ignoring the fact that his child was crying and visibly upset at being shaken at a group of strangers. Many anti-choicers used the Nazi salute and one said 'Heil Hitler' to a protester, although we don't know whether it was in jest or because he's a racist (Fintan O'Toolbox recently did a post on Youth Defence's links to neo-nazis). There were numerous placards which seemed to have escaped the screening process at the Garden of Remembrance which likened abortion to the holocaust. While I cannot say for sure that nobody at the counter-protest were being dicks, nothing has come to my attention as of yet, and we do tend to not be racist pervs.

The amount of money these people have to spend is ridiculous. It’s depressing and nauseating. Attendees were herded through one gate at the Garden of Remembrance in order to take away their homemade posters (usually because of their overly religious slogans – Youth Defence like to pretend they are secular, despite their massive links with the church and the fact that I’ve never seen more monks, nuns and priests in the space of one hour in my life). They are supplied, instead, with hundreds of shiny, printed posters in bright colours, which aren’t exactly cheap to print. There were three city tour buses rented and decked out for the occasion. There seems to have been a stage and a sound system erected at the finishing point of their march, which was something that I definitely wanted to give a miss. It is clear that US Anti-choicers are pouring thousands of dollars into Irish campaigns in order to keep Ireland ‘abortion-free’, while conveniently forgetting about the 4,000+ women* who travel for terminations and the 1,000+ women* who self-administer at home with pills.

This year’s march has been heralded as the biggest one ever, and the reason is because of the proposed X-case legislation. Slogans like ‘Kill the bill, not the child’ and ‘there’s always a better option’ were commonplace on the standard issue placards, showing pure ignorance of this legislation. The proposed legislation is the bare minimum; and even saying that’s a stretch. What this bill is doing is ensuring that women* don’t die as a result of their pregnancies. But it belittles women* and mental health when they force a suicidal woman* to plea for her life in front of three doctors, one of which has to be an OB, despite it being a mental health issue, not a pre-natal health one. The people who are opposing this bill do not care about women. They do not care about mental health issues. They care about shaming women* for choosing what’s best for them in a difficult situation, and continuing Ireland’s legacy of reproductive slavery and forced pregnancy , something which is deemed a war crime everywhere except Ireland. The European Commission of Human Rights has told us that we *have* to legislate for X. The people who oppose this legislation are effectively saying that they’re totes OK with breaches of human rights and denying basic human rights to pregnant women*. They are either incredibly bigoted misogynists or deeply, woefully ignorant. But they are losing this battle. Legislation will be passed, and we’ll be one (small) step closer to living in a country which gives a shit about its women*.

Despite this step in the right direction, we're still a long way off having any real, accessible legislation, let alone free, safe and legal abortion on request. As it stands, I would not be comfortable getting pregnant in this country under current, and proposed, legislation (though when and if I become a parent is still a *long* way off). If I was to be overly optimistic, I would say that when my potential future children are my age, they'll live in an Ireland with accessible abortion services. In reality though, it may well be my potential future grandchildren who have the right to choose.

I’ll leave you with one of the chants used today, and at many other protests, which highlights the true feelings of those protesting against legislation. “Pro-life, that’s a lie – you don’t care if women* die”.

Friday, 5 July 2013

On Sisters

(Yeah, way behind on EWTS blogs, but feck it sure)
So yesterday my little sister had a bit of a sappy moment on the bus and said I was an inspiration to her. Yeah, even though I have about 2% of my life sorted out and I’m an unemployed Arts graduate living at home. And a vegetarian. Like, why I would be an inspiration is beyond me.
When we got on the bus, we saw a girl that I was friends with in secondary school. I did my Leaving three years ago, and I know full well that I’m an entirely different person. And for the better. I still have massive self-confidence issues, but I am more confident now than I ever was at school. I have friends now who are actually my friends and not just people I sat beside in English class. I’ve grown up, in other words. But this girl, and actually quite a few people who I’ve run into seem the exact same. They look like they did when they were 18, which is also how they looked when they were 15. Now, they have undoubtedly changed in terms of who they are as people (I don’t think you can go three years in your early 20s without changing), but they seem the exact same. They like the same things, dress the same way, are dating the same person. 
But I’m glad my sister doesn’t want to do that (and I know you’re reading this Cianna, you’d better be absolutely lovely to me now). She doesn’t want to be the same person as she has been for the past few years in school. She’s been through the works as well, and is out the other side a much different, and better person. 
And she’s doing the same thing I did. We live near NUIM (by near, I mean it’s a 20 min walk and one bus to the college as opposed to two different busses, we live in a commuter town, what do you expect), and most people in our secondary school go there for college. When I was filling out the CAO, I didn’t even look at courses in NUIM, I was determined not to go there. I did not want to go somewhere where people would already know me, where I would have to be the same person I was during secondary school. So I went to UCD and didn’t know a single person. I made my first friend by sneezing in a queue during orientation week and she said ‘bless you’. 
And my sister’s the same. Her top two choices are in UCC, and she’ll be either going there or repeating her Leaving because she failed. She has accommodation sorted, and she’s ready to pack up and leave for 4 years come September. And I have never been happier that we’re both iPhone wankers. I can guarantee that I’ll never even get the chance to miss her face because she’ll be sending me pictures of herself on the bus, or eating (a habit of hers, one of her nicknames at home is the very hungry caterpillar) or making some sort of weird face. I’ve practically been ordered to download snapchat so I can be bombarded even more. 
A year or two ago, I would have worried about her moving away. I’m still going to worry - she’s my baby sister, how could I not? - but it won’t be as intense. I don’t know that I’d win any medals for worrying  about her anymore. 
With inspiration like me, and absolutely no intentions of becoming a dickhead vegetarian, she’ll be just fine.

On Secular Values in Society - EWTS Session Two

Notes and thoughts on session 2 of the EWTS conference, which was about Secular Values in Society. Speakers were Leonie Hilliard, Nina Sankari, Farhana Shakir and P. Z. Myers. 
Trigger warning - contains discussions about rape and rape culture.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

On Reproductive Rights and Irish Abortion Law - EWTS Session One

Notes and thoughts on session 1 of the EWTS conference, which was about Reproductive Rights and Abortion Law in Ireland. Speakers were Ailbhe Smyth, Anthea McTiernan, Ophelia Benson, Ross Kelly and Clare Daly.
Trigger warning - contains discussions about abortion.

On Elevatorgate

slight detour from the EWTS conference notes, there's one coming later!

A friend asked me on twitter why women often feel uncomfortable at purely atheist/secular conferences, and then remembered the Richard Dawkins – Rebecca Watson ‘elevatorgate’ from 2011.

At an atheist conference, Watson had been talking about how shitty it is that women get sexualised at conferences like this. She was then hit on by a guy in the lift, in a situation that could very easily gone from bad to worse. After speaking up about this, she received a lot of criticism from Dawkins in particular, who wrote a satirical letter to a Muslim woman undergoing FGM (female genital mutilation), comparing her plight to Watson’s experience.

The problem with this is similar to the problem with the phrase ‘you shouldn’t be sad, because someone, somewhere has it worse than you’. Under this logic, nobody should ever be happy, because someone will always have it better than you. It’s comlpletely ridiculous. Obviously, on the grand scale of things, being sexualised and hit on in an enclosed space by a stranger is nowhere near as horrible an experience as FGM. But it doesn’t invalidate the experience, as Dawkins claimed it did. It’s worth noting that in this case, a man was telling a woman that she was overreacting when she was faced with an uncomfortable and overly-sexualised situation. This situation could have very easily not ended as it did, things could have gotten a lot worse, and Watson very easily could have been sexually assaulted. Dawkins trivialised a situation which he will probably never experience, but one which Watson will most likely experience a hundred more times.

This is just one example of why women are often apprehensive about atheist/secular conferences, even those aimed specifically at women. My experience was not on the scale of Watson’s, but again, it’s still valid. And while I received little negative backlash for feeling this way at the conference itself, the world of twitter took care of that afterwards. People who weren’t even at the conference. And whose only knowledge of the conference was through the MRA blogger (I refuse to plug him, also he’s a male supremacist dick), were telling me that I was overreacting, that I was being ridiculous, who couldn’t understand why I was upset. And because they couldn’t understand it, it was invalidated.

If women are going to continue to be involved in the secular movements, which is necessary for our empowerment, these spaces need to be safe, both from physical threats and belittlement of valid experiences.


Tuesday, 2 July 2013

On an Introduction to Empowering Women through Secularism

Annie Laurie Gaylor is the co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and editor of Freethought Today.

Freedom from religion foundations wouldn’t exist without the Catholic Church’s war on reproductive rights. Women have to save ourselves from theology-festered misogyny – the rising of women means the rising of us all.

In the wake of the child abuse scandals, Catholic Ireland must choose between women, children and their rights, or bishops and their wrong; between reproductive freedom or returning to the dark ages. Humanity should come before dogma, however as the tragic and unavoidable death of Savita Halappanavar last year proved, Catholic Ireland hasn’t reached this point of consciousness. A doomed fetus was placed above the life of a woman due to adherence to religious dogma. ‘But the Bible says abortion is murder’ many have cried, yet Gaylor notes that it doesn’t actually say this at all. What it does is provides ammunition for anti-women ideas, dooming them to be subservient, responsible for all of mankind’s sins though maternal servitude. Yupp, we get periods and the pain of childbirth in order to atone for sins on a global and timeless scale. Bit of a shit deal, in my opinion.

Gaylor goes on to tell us about her life growing up in Wisconsin before Roe vs Wade. Her mother was the one to go to if you had an unplanned pregnancy, and she would help you get to Mexico City for a termination. It was also illegal there, but considerably safer than back alley abortions in the US at the time. In 1971, Wisconsin’s first abortion clinic opened, and three weeks later a Roman Catholic attorney raided the clinic, stole records and appointment details, and removed a 17 year old girl from the clinic, despite being literally in the stirrups at the time of the raid. In response, Gaylor’s mother raised money to send the women who had appointments to New York for a termination.
Women were attempting to give themselves abortions using coat hangers and dying. Abortion was, and still is, a matter of life and death. No woman can call herself free until she has complete control over her body, until she can make the decision whether or not to become a mother. Yet legal abortion doesn’t mean much if it remains, or becomes, inaccessible; if it remains expensive, if clinics are shut down to the extent that entire areas are without a single clinic, if remaining clinics have strict regulations imposed on them.

The root of this bodily control is religious influence in governments and laws. Secularism (that is the removal of religious influence and dogma from all legislation, laws and governmental decisions, so that religious belief is a personal and private thing alone) is vital for women’s advancement, safety and control over their own bodies and reproductive healthcare choices. To empower women, we must disempower the Catholic Church, and all other religious institutions. Free thought is the best weapon women have in a world where religious dogma expects our silence and subservience.


We may not have a god on our side, but we have humanity and the enlightenment. Morality does not stem from theology, but from nature. 

On the Following Week's Worth of EWTS Notes

The Empowering Women through Secularism conference wasn’t, despite what the two posts below may lead you believe, a complete bust. Yeah, there were issues which really shouldn’t have been a thing, and it was incredibly disappointing, but I did learn a ridiculous amount about secularism, women and the links between the two.

There was an introduction, 6 sessions and a keynote speaker, all of which were fascinating and educational, and really made me think about my opinions and preconceived perceptions. I took nearly 30 pages of notes in my tiny, scrawly, note-taking writing and over the next week(ish), I’ll be writing up these and adding my opinions and afterthoughts. 
I'm also hoping that nothing else really horrifically disastrous happens during this time, because this is going to be like a calm writing period for me, as opposed to the weekend spent angrily hitting the keyboard as my blood pressure steadily rises.

Monday, 1 July 2013

On the Menz - EWTS Conference Part 2

TW: Transmisogyny, MRAs
I want you to imagine something for me. Imagine you are attending a conference entitled ‘empowering people of colour’. For the entire weekend, the discussion is about people of colour and how they’re discriminated against, and how they might overcome this. At the feedback session at the end, people, both white people and POC wonder why white people weren’t thought about, that white people need empowerment, even that to empower POC, white people need to be empowered also. There would be outrage.
Now, back to reality, and you’re attending an empowering women conference and a similar thing happens. You hear ‘what about the men?’ and ‘to empower women, we also need to empower men’. There is no outrage, only agreement. The few people who are a bit pissed off (and rightly so) are effectively told they’re not ‘real’ feminists, and there’s a ‘omg you obviously hate men!!’ attitude.
Had the Empowering Women through Secularism conference ended 30 minutes earlier, I would have left the hotel delighted. I would be able to say no, despite popular belief, atheist/secular spaces are safe and comfortable places for women, it was great. Alas, the feedback session did happen, and it began with the older woman who berated me and the other girl (her name is Anna, she’s a ledge) on Saturday (see On the Menz Part 1), saying we need to consider the men. That the suicide rate for Irish men is 4 times higher than for Irish women (a hugely important and legit issue) and that 90% of US inmates are male (quite irrelevant and also, not sexism because men commit more crimes, and more violent crimes, than women, so obviously will be more represented than women in prison).
Men are most definitely harmed by the patriarchy. I’m well aware of this. I took a ‘Men in Contemporary Society’ sociology module last semester and got an A. One of the reasons more men commit suicide than women is because they’re not encouraged to have support systems or talk about their feelings, because that’s a ‘feminine’ trait, and ‘feminine’ is synonymous with ‘bad’ and ‘weak’. Men are, for the most part, not given paternity leave. Again, this is due to what the patriarchy views as ‘feminine’. Women take care of children; it’s what they do, so why would men even want to do it? These, and many other legitimate men’s issues, are serious things which feminism also seeks to make right. But they do not belong in an empowering women conference. In order to make things better for men, we need to empower women in order to make ‘feminine’ traits (like feelings *gasp*) not a ‘bad’ thing.
Things went from bad to worse as the second person to give feedback took the floor. I’m not sure if she was one of the organisers, but I am fairly certain she was a volunteer, as she was in charge of handing out microphones during the weekend’s questions from the floor bits. She said that she was angry at the “misandrist language” used on Saturday (by myself and Anna, presumably), and then said (quoting a flag seen at Pride the day before) that if trans* rights are human rights, we should all “become transgender”.
Let that sink in a moment.
At an EMPOWERING WOMEN conference, someone used ‘misandrist language’ as though misandry was a legitimate thing. I, for one, would love to be told about the power structures and institutions women have which allow us the ability to oppress men. I would hand my CV in tomorrow.
On the weekend of Pride, at a conference about empowering women which seemed to forget that trans* women are also women and completely ignored the trans* community, members of the trans* community were fetishised.  Members of the trans* community, who arguably have fewer human rights than any other group, were part of a joke, made to be something that’s totes cool and fun to be! This is not ok, in any sense of the word.
This idea, that ‘we’re all human, let’s ignore differences’ was reiterated by many members of the audience who lamented that men were not discussed enough during the weekend. Yeah, we are all human, but not all of us are treated human or allowed to fully participate in society. To use the ‘we’re all human’ phrase ignores these disproportional disadvantages. An excellent metaphor is a running track. Those on the outside lanes have starting points farther away than those on the inside lanes, to ensure that everyone runs the same length. By saying ‘we’re all human, let’s give everyone attention’, it effectively makes all the starting points at the same point. For the sake of ‘equality’. Some people and groups need extra attention and support in order for society to be even a tiny bit equal. This is portrayed very well in the picture below. While the short person gets more boxes than the tall person in the right frame, it creates a more equal situation than when all three get the same number of boxes in the left frame.
image
Overall, the conference was amazing. I met some utterly fantastic people and I learned so, so much. But I would not go to a similar conference again, unless it was organised by a feminist organisation. A friend turned down a ticket because she feels that secular/atheist conferences tend to not be overly friendly and comfortable spaces for women. This was my first and only conference of this sort, and from this alone, I feel that she is right.
My experience was not one shared by everyone in the room. Many people, both in the conference and on twitter using the conference tag afterwards, believe that it was acceptable to bring up men’s issues in this space, and that I was overreacting when I got upset. Beinga relatively new user of twitter I was shocked at the way in which I was attacked by people who weren’t even at the conference who sought to invalidate my experience. Having had to talk myself into coming at all on Sunday morning, I was already not in the best place mental health-wise. Perhaps my reaction, which was to nearly cry down the back of the hall in sheer disbelief, was not the most dignified reaction I could have mustered. But it’s what happened. It’s how my body tried to deal with everything. But my experience is still valid. My concerns are valid. I can only hope that the conference organisers agree.

On the Menz - EWTS Conference Part 1

Note - ‘the menz’ is basically the men who like/benefit/don’t see much wrong with the patriarchy. It’s intentionally incredibly patronising, and I use it to differentiate between men as a gender identity and those who are misogynist patriarchy loving dicks. Not all men are ‘the menz’, because I would have very little hope in humanity if this were the case.

So today I was able to attend the Empowering Women Through Secularism conference in Dublin due to being offered a free student ticket by a femmo friend/blogger (check him out, he’s fab). Lots of notes were taken and I’ll do proper posts on them during the week, but there was one massively depressing point during the day. The amazing Elida Radig was speaking and saying how we need to come together as sisters and not back down when we’re told we’re too loud etc. During the questions for that session, a young woman fangirled on behalf of all of us and made the point that we, as secular feminists, shouldn’t have to *ask* feminist men to help us - if they are going to call themselves feminists, they need to be proactive about it, they need to work hard to, we shouldn’t have to *ask* to be treated with equality and respect. 
And then a man got up and said ‘not all men are like that, most of the misogyny *I* see is women being misogynistic against other women’. Classic ‘what about the menz??’ and I feel this picture is very appropriate (see also feminazi stole my ice cream).
image
When someone says but ‘not all [men/white people/straight people/dominant group known for oppression others] are like that’, they effectively prove that they do not get the point being made. All they heard was their group being attacked, and instead of admitting that there’s a problem, they turn on defensive mode and shift the blame. In this situation, a man attending an empowering women conference shifted the blame from men to women. Like really, why are you even here?
After the questions were over and we had a little break, I went up to the woman who had made the comment to tell her that she’s a ledge and to give her a cuterus I had drawn for her. We were mid conversation when an older woman who had been sitting in front of me came up and berated us for believing that we shouldn’t have to *ask* men who call themselves feminists to actually act like feminists. Apparently, we need to make feminism accessible for the menz so they’ll come to our side - we need to show them how the patriarchy is bad for men. I made the point that the ways the patriarchy harms men is often attributed to feminisim, a point she immediately dismissed. Basically, not only should men who call themselves feminists *not* call out their guy friends when they contribute to rape culture/lad culture/general sexism, they shouldn’t be expected to be involved in feminism unless it directly impacts them as men. They shouldn’t want to be a feminist because the patriarchy adversely affects other human beings, if they don’t know that it’s bad for them, they’ll never be involved. 
Not only was this incredibly offensive, but it was shocking too. To hear this from a woman who, I presume, identifies as a feminist, at what is a feminist and secular conference, was the last thing I had anticipated. Again, I was wondering why she was there, not because she shouldn’t be there, but because she holds views which are at such odds with feminism. She essentially told me and another young woman that our belief that male feminists should be feminists for the good of all people, not just their own gender, was wrong. That our belief that young men who are feminist and feminist allies should be active, regardless of whether that activism is directly impacting their lives as men, is wrong. That we, as secular feminists, need to make room in feminism for men. And despite the truly wonderful day and all the amazing, inspirational speakers, I left the conference slightly more disillusioned than when I walked in that morning.

On the Bechdel Test

This is a (slightly edited for blog purposes because Harvard referencing doesn’t really work for blogs) paper I wrote for my Men in Contemporary Society class last semester on ‘Growing up Masculine’. It got an A and I actually really like it, so I feel that it’s fitting for here too. Also all this weekend I’m attending the Empowering Women through Secularism conference so wont have time to write new material. 
While there are many factors which influence how boys ‘grow up masculine’, or are socialised into hegemonic masculinity, this paper will focus primarily on how movies and other similar media teach masculinity, concentrating on the Bechdel Test (or Bechdel-Wallace Test). 
Movies and TV shows are often a dominating aspect of a child’s life. There are few children growing up in Ireland without a TV, and many will go to the cinema or watch movies at home. With a decline in reading among young people, movies and shows are often the way in which children learn about the world outside the family and school, and their allure can cause their messages and views to override those taught at school or at home. 
The Bechdel Test was first developed in a 1985 comic strip called ‘The Rule’ and its premise is simple: in order to pass, a movie/show/novel must have two (named) female characters who interact with each other at some point, and their conversation must be about something other than a man. The idea behind this is to ensure that there are at least two female characters in the story who are relatively developed and complex. For the purpose of this test, gender identity, rather than biological sex, is the defining factor, as such, members of the trans* community who identify as female are included in the list of female characters (despite the lack of trans* characters in pop culture media). While it seems like an easy test to pass, very few of IMDB’s top 250 movies pass (including many with female protagonists), along with only a small number of movies released in the last few years, with very few box office hits passing the test. While this obviously impacts the way young girls are socialised into adulthood, it also affects young boys. The message which far too many movies and shows portray is one which reinforces the idea that women’s lives not only revolve around men, but that they remain the stereotypical ‘damsel in distress’ we remember from fairy tales, or the object of affection which the hero of the story ‘wins’ after overcoming some internal or external struggle. This in itself reinforces the idea of ‘ownership’ of women by men among young children, as well as their supposed simplicity and frivolity. In her book ‘One Dimensional Woman’, Nina Power notes that “if the contemporary portrayal of womanhood were to be believed, contemporary female achievement would culminate in ownership of expensive handbags, a vibrator, a job, a flat and a man”, and this trait isn’t isolated to Bechdel Test failures.
Since, according to R.W. Connell “masculinities are constructed, over time, in young people’s encounters with a system of gender relations” and “the configurations of practice associated with the social position of men”, this leads on to the way in which young boys are directly taught masculinity and manhood through movies and shows, just as young girls are arguably taught femininity through the Disney princess concept. Hegemonic masculinities are reinforced through the portrayal of boys and men – as the tough man, the brave fighter, the hero who overcomes the struggle on his own. As such, How Movies Teach Manhood (a TED talk by Colin Stokes which can be found here and well worth a watch) notes that there’s little room left for “other relationships and other journeys”. Although this hero character is often ‘rewarded’ with getting the girl in the end, it is not always the focus of his journey. These heroes/protagonists are often seen to be good role models for young men, which further reinforces the hero complex aspect of hegemonic masculinities. While the move away from the focus on violence and fighting among male characters is a welcome relief, even the shy, outcast boy who we see more and more of in pop culture reinforces hegemonic masculinities. They struggle on alone, choosing the ‘brave’ route of individual accomplishment over their setbacks, rather than asking for help or co-operating with others in order to ease their load. However, co-operation and asking for help is a trait associated with female characters in supporting roles and protagonist roles. 
Scheiner-Fisher & Russell, in their paper about using historical films to promote gender equity, admit that “often when women are included in a film for the sake of simply having a female in the film, she is relegated to a stock character role” (also known as the ‘Smurfette Principal’), most often cast as the love interest, ‘dumb blond’, nurse, tomboy, or ‘bad girl’. There is a problem in this way of teaching masculinity through film when we do not present young boys, and men in general, with female characters who are strong, relatable and complex. Through movies and shows which fail the Bechdel test, and which promote the ‘lone, brave hero’ male character trope, we are teaching a certain type of masculinity, one which reinforces patriarchal and ‘macho’ behaviour. Debbie Ging  states that many young men “understand images of hypermasculinity and misogyny not as parody but rather as masculinities with subversive or subcultural appeal”. As such, these ideas often win out those which acknowledge different ‘types’ of masculinity and being masculine, and those which provide both genders with strong female role models. 
Teaching masculinity, through any channel, needs to focus on how men interact with other men, as well as with women. Hegemonic masculinity, typically, ignores the ability of women to create meaningful ideas and contribute to conversations, merely reducing them to objects of desire or focusing on their reproductive role as mothers. While this view is obviously harmful to women, it also affects the development of masculinity in a harmful way, most notably through reinforcing discriminatory behaviours and placing less emphasis on co-operation and the importance of seeking help. 
Despite the increasing equality between the sexes in real life as opposed to the fantasy of film and TV,  Ging is concerned that “regressive images of masculinity might be doing more than merely lagging behind a more progressive reality”. How Movies Teach Manhood (2012) shows us that movies and other media are doing a relatively good job at teaching girls how to “defend against the patriarchy”, but they’re not doing the same for boys. The patriarchy affects both sexes in negative ways, and since there is no model for boys to rebel against this discrimination, the way they learn masculinity and grow up masculine is continually impacted upon in a negative way by movies and similar forms of media.

On Schrodinger’s Douchebag

Schrodinger’s Douchebag: make offensive statement, then decide whether or not you were joking based on the reactions of people around you.
The vast majority of vocal or active feminists will, at some point in their lives, have encountered a Schrodinger’s Douchebag.  These lovely people, usually DMAB guys, tend to hijack posts that you might write about issues you’re passionate about and have strong feelings about.
Basically, they act like assholes. They argue against your points, usually using incredibly racist/sexist/ableist/generally offensive ideas in an attempt to undermine your position. When called out on their shit, they either stand by it or say ‘I was only kidding’/’learn to take a joke’/’I was just doing this to wind you up’. However, in the same way it seems impossible to know whether Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead, it also seems largely impossible to know whether the people acting like douchebags are *actually* bigoted douchebags, or doing it because they find it hilarious to get someone (justifiably) angry. But just as Schrodinger’s cat is actually both alive and dead, these people are both finding joy in your frustration for the lolz and douchebags. There’s no real distinction between the two. Even if their excuse is that they were doing it just to get a reaction and they don’t actuallybelieve what they’re saying; what purpose does that serve? Why do they find it entertaining to enrage you by acting like a douchebag? Because they aredouchebags.
If we don’t get pissed off, if we don’t rise to their offensiveness, they get away with it. They get away with making offensive statements and they will more than likely continue to make them. Yet when we do get offended, as is inevitable, we’re told to ‘just calm down’, sure ‘it’s only a joke’. But it’s not. People who find it entertaining to be offensive to get a reaction aren’t ‘just joking’. They’re doing something intentionally which they *know* is wrong and offensive, and they’re just annoyed that they’re getting called out on it.
I most recently experienced a Schrodinger’s Douchebag alongside some mansplaining. Mansplaining, for those of you who don’t know is, according to the delightful Urban Dictionary definition, “condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course, he is right, because he is the man in this conversation”. Basically, the menz *always* know more, even if the woman* they’re mansplaining is an expert in that field, and he isn’t.
Anyway, I had a really shitty lecture (Men in Contemporary Society) in which the lecturer said that relationships are always unequal and the poor menz are under pressure from us mean horrible women to  bring more equality and trust to the relationship, which leads to crisis and the high rates of suicide among young men. This pissed me off, and I took to Facebook to complain. A guy, who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in like 5 or 6 years (we had gone to primary school together) decided to explain what the lecturer actually meant, despite not being in attendance in that class, the course, and who has no background in sociology or women/gender studies. After going on about how us wimminz just play games and he knows this because 90% of his friends are women, he’s clearly not enjoying being given out to by me and some femmo-friends, and admits he was just “trying to wind Becca up” and he isn’t really a misogynist, he just says misogynist things to get a reaction.
In these situations, it is probably easier and better for your blood pressure to just let it go and be like ‘oh, ok’, but this tends to do more harm than good. These guys aren’t necessarily horrible people, they’ve just grown up in a society which holds that this kind of behaviour is acceptable and when women react to Schrodinger’s Douchebag’s, we’re labelled as ‘crazy’ and ‘over-reacting’. Calling these people out on their shit is what, hopefully, begets change. They might realise that what they’re doing isn’t actually alright, or think twice about being an asshole for the lolz next time. Or they might actually be misogynistic assholes, in which case I recommended a large glass of wine and pictures of cute baby ducks to remind you that the world isn’t as shit as it sometimes seems.