further thoughts: "birth rape" and feminist policing (the curvature)

An anyonymous woman's postpartum body, posing nude. Image from The Shape of a Mother.Note/disclaimer: This post was written last Saturday, following which I had several really good conversations with friends about feminism, exclusion, inclusion, and language. To those of you who were involved: this post doesn't reflect those conversations and how they have helped me think about some of these issues in new ways! Maybe I'll write a "part two" one of these days, but for now I'm leaving this one as-is ...

There's a good conversation going on in comments over at The Curvature about the concept of "birth rape" and why some feminist activists are resistant to acknowledging the way violations of bodily integrity during pregnancy and birth are often experienced by women as a form of sexual violence.

Cara's original post is a brilliant, articulate response to several previous posts from within the feminist blogosphere that expressed discomfort with the term "birth rape." To which Cara responds,

Birth rape describes the experience of women and pregnant people of other genders having their bodies violated and penetrated without their consent in the process of giving birth, usually though not always through the forcible insertion of hands or medical tools into the vagina or anus without consent, and frequently with explicit non-consent. Victims are often physically held down, told to shut up, ignored when they scream or cry or plead, threatened, and/or called names as their bodies are violated. Just as survivors of other forms of rape, birth rape survivors experience physical and emotional trauma, often rising to the level of PTSD — only compounded by the general lack of recognition that birth rape is real, and the frequent guilt at having such trauma associated with their new child coming into the world.

In other words, birth rape is a term used to describe a specific form of rape that is committed in a birthing context, without the use of a penis.

. . . When women come forward and start saying “I was raped,” when they find the power to use that word to describe their own experiences and open up to share their trauma with the world, responding with “no you weren’t” — with whole blog posts about the subject, in fact — is about the worst possible way that a person can do feminism.

. . . Telling other survivors that their experiences of violation aren’t real enough, and just weren’t sexual enough of all things, to use our special fancy word is wrong. And if this is how the word “rape” is going to be used against other survivors of abuses of power and abuses of bodily autonomy and violations of self — as a weapon, like it is right now — then I don’t want it. If the word rape doesn’t include all of those victims of violence that it needs to include, we need a better word. If the word rape is so fragile that we must minimize the horrific experiences of some survivors, the violence they lived through, and the violations they felt in order to protect it, we need a better word. And when the major response to a somewhat mainstream conversation about birth rape is quibbles about words rather than compassion and organizing, we need a much, much better feminism to become the dominant one.

You can read the whole thing over at The Curvature. And I highly recommend that you do, since it's passionate and just the sort of inclusive feminist thinking that brought me into activist feminism in the first place.

I asked in comments, "What on earth do we gain from telling them their experience doesn’t count?? I really don’t get the prickly reaction to this language." To which commenter lauredhel responded

I think that to really understand the reaction, one needs to look at the broader picture of mother-exclusion in this particular brand of Feminism. Once you’ve had a kid, you’re ripe for the exclusions – it’s ok to keep you out of feminist organising because kids are all complicated and loud and annoying, it’s cool to dismiss you as ‘merely’ a ‘m(u)(o)mmy blogger’ and not politically relevant, it’s fine for you to be excluded from public spaces (with a hefty dose of Feminist shaming for your temerity in having a child-accompanied life outside the domestic and playgroup sphere), and you need to lie back and think of England when doctors are doing their thing, because it’s for your own good, dear, you made your motherbed, now lie in it and don’t get too uppity while the real feminists are talking. As soon as you make it clear that that fetus is staying put and coming out of you, you’re out of the club.

It's not that I've never thought before about the way our culture devalues the bodily autonomy of pregnant women and denies the personhood of birthing mothers -- but I think this conversation around the recognition of birth-related sexual violence is a striking example of the way in which certain contingents within feminist activism resist including women who are pregnant, birthing, and mothers within the movement -- resist incorporating their particular concerns. Instead, they parrot back the misogyny of mainstream culture which simultaneously idealizes motherhood and hates on actual mothers and children. There are complicated reasons for this (as my friend Laura Cutter so eloquently pointed out in a guest post recently).

But the fact that it's complicated is not license to just give up. Rather, I think the complexity of the issue invites us to examine the way in which feminists (no more or less than anyone else!) can sometimes use the language and concepts that have given them voice as tools to turn around and silence other people.

Which is, to put it simply, not cool.

When the strength of our self-identities and political activism lies in denying other folks a place at the table, it's time to re-examine the way our actions reflect our core values. I became a vocal, self-identified feminist in order to advocate for a world where there is less policing of gender and sexuality, not more. I work every day to practice radical acceptance of the rich diversity of being-in-the-world practiced by those around me, and to protect the ability of all people to feel safe, at home, and loved in the bodies and lives that give them well-being. That, to me, is what feminism is about.

*Image credit: Bittersweet (Anonymous) from The Shape of a Mother.

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