Friday, 30 August 2013

The things we do for a cheap laugh

[Content warning: violence against women]

When I was but a wee Mar, I used to think that old people knew a lot of sh*t. As soon as we could read, which, thanks to my mother, was way too early for human people, my mother (same one as above) would make us watch the news, and read the paper, because she thought it would make us smarter and better people. (She also made us wear watches for this same reason. All the Most Serious People wore watches and looked important. Besides, how could you take over the world if you didn't know what time it was?) And when I would watch the adults on TV running countries and having ideas, I would think "Man, they know a lot of stuff. That looks like thirsty work. Thank god they're in charge!" This admiration lasted for about nine years of life here on earth, after which I realised that old people were just as stupid as the rest of us, and we were all screwed.

That isn't to say that I don't respect age. Lots of old people know stuff (and I use 'old' here relative to my own age, so that at 9 old was oh, say 21 and above. Now, old is old-old. Proper old. I'm at that age where when someone dies at 68 I say "oh my! And so young!") and are interesting and brilliant and the best story-tellers. The other day I was sitting in a salon and an old lady started telling me some things about her life, which included the unveiling of her travel diary with an entry from 19howlong that said something resembling "Just got off the train at Scarborough where I've come to be fitted for new petticoats", along with "Did not go to Church today. That should keep them talking at least until next Sunday." The woman who sat in her seat after she left pretty much just played Candy Crush the entire time, so you can see how the old lady was the highlight of my day. But I have found that old people who are wise and interesting are so because they are wise and interesting - not because they are old. Yes, the passage of time has allowed them to accumulate more lessons and stories, but they could only have learnt those lessons in the way that they did and been able to distill and transmit this information in useful ways if they had a certain degree of self-awareness and insight to begin with.

So what am I on about? The last time I commented on something this guy had written, I actually got strange hate mail from people admonishing me to respect my elders, which I find a hilarious concept. Of course, in general interactions with friends and strangers, we should all be respectful of each other, and in particular of older people, who merit a bit more care, and patience, and kindness, I feel, than may come readily to our natural, boorish 21st century selves. But the notion that someone could be rude, or bigoted, or nasty or wholly insensitive in the expression of an idea but deserve some kind of honour because they have so far failed to die has always been a puzzle to me.

To wit: this guy again.

Last week, a woman named Carolyn Forde was beaten and killed by a man she knew while at her workplace in Bridgetown. This after the late-July murder of another woman, Denise Clarke, for which a man was held and charged, and the May killing of Brenda Taylor-Belle by her 'estranged' husband. In response, many individuals and groups, among them the National Organisation of Women (NOW), have called for legislative reform and enhanced police action to address the fact that some of these women were killed despite repeated complaints of earlier violent incidents to police, and despite having sought and received restraining orders against the offenders. Richard Hoad's take on the situation is as follows:

In the wake of recent attacks on women, National Organization of Women (NOW) president Marilyn Rice-Bowen wants to fast-track legislation mandating more timely police intervention into domestic disputes.

Sounds good. At the first report of violence, a rapid response team will rush in, cart the man off and go their way.

And that will achieve precisely what? Unless a man is locked away for life, not even a restraining order can stop him coming back to renew his mischief. Besides, it seems many women prefer to live with abuse rather than end a relationship. Won’t such women be tempted to hide their abuse in the future?

The language 'recent attacks on women' makes it seem as if gnomes are hiding in shrubberies tossing acorns at unsuspecting victims while they hang the washing. Likewise, the notion of violence against women as 'mischief' tries to neatly and playfully (!) obscure the fact that what we are talking about here is the murder of human beings. And it's unclear the point of this argument: well restraining orders don't work anyway. Men who want to kill (this, is, apparently, the 'mischief') will find a way, so better to do nothing? Further, women prefer to be beaten and killed than end a relationship, because what? Then you have to figure out who will keep the X-box and delete him from Facebook and that is sooo not worth it? The point is, guy, that by your own admission, what we have in place is insufficient to protect women, and moreover that women may be afraid to end relationships with abusive partners because they fear they will be killed. This is why we need not just more effective legislation and law enforcement practice, but supporting institutions that will protect women who make the decision to leave abusive relationships.

Then, for good measure, we get a bit of the old, not at all tired "don't get me wrong, I think hitting women is bad! I love women! Love them all up and down...bow chicka bow bow. Am I right, guys?"

I abhor the idea of a man striking a woman. To my knowledge, my father never hit any woman. Instead he taught us seven boys a simple procedure for approaching the opposite sex, to wit: gently place your hand on her knee. While making circular motions with the fingers, recite: “If you are a lady, as I take you to be, you will not laugh nor smile if I tickle you on your knee”. If she did laugh or smile, the implication was she wasn’t a lady and you could move upwards smartly.

Actually, I must have missed some other part of the instruction as I ended up getting very few girlfriends, and only one wife, compared to my brothers who got several of each.

So, from the word 'instead', I can gather that there are two ways to engage with women - beat them or screw them, the latter not necessarily with their express consent. We get a lot of this in response to the brutalization and murder of women in the Caribbean: a lot of this 'women aren't to be beaten; they're to be looked after' rhetoric that translates just as much to ownership and objectification as intimate partner violence does. What are you doing hitting her? Did you know she has a perfectly good vagina in there that you can have for your very own? We also get a lot of collective nervous laughter, like this mess of a column, reflecting the notion that this problem is, ultimately, about the man-woman thing. Crap. We're doing a shitty job of protecting half of our population? Quick! Someone tell a joke! Preferably about sex. People like jokes, they like sex. Sex jokes will save us!

The jokes haven't really worked here so far, but here comes more of the sex:

But we have to go even further back to understand what is happening here. You women have something that we need. Not “need” like a new car or a cell phone, but “need” as in food or water. Only more so.

You have the lock, we have the key. You have the carriage, we have the horse. Admittedly, some horses are a bit small for some carriages but we try our best. The bottom line is, you fulfil a need that nothing else can.

What is apparently 'happening here', according to this genius, is that women must be prepared to hand over sex in exchange for the promise of security. That is, men have a reasonable expectation of a hole to stick their dicks in when the pressures of life get them down, and if 21st century women insist on actual bodily autonomy and personhood, then they need to declare this to society, that is, if they expect not to be...murdered.

NOW needs to come clean and explain women’s new position. If marriage or a relationship no longer entitles a man to a little thing, say so. If it is your right to horn [horn = 'cheat on'; explanation mine] a man for commercial or other consideration, say so.

Women: be reasonable. All you have to do is explain to us going in that your bodies are your own and that we are not entitled to it at our whim, and we may not kill you. I say 'may', but, you know, I can't promise. The larger problem here is that the piece seeks not only to identify these apparently perfectly logical reasons why men kill women, reasons that are, of course, the fault of women, but also to narrow them down to one thing: sex. And it fails to address all the entrenched issues that allow such violence to persist.

Let me explain something to this eminent elder: mentioning in an offhanded way that 'hitting a woman is wrong' a couple times in a piece that amounts to an extended domestic violence apologia does not absolve you of responsibility. And that responsibility is to use your platform - if you are going to bother to discuss the escalating trend of intimate partner violence against and murder of women - to treat the subject with the consideration and soberness that it merits. "It's just a joke" doesn't work here simply because it isn't a joke. And the pervy uncle bit is old. It's a sheer and ineffective cover for a lazy argument that is not only offensive to women - in particular the women who have died - but to men. It presumes not only that men are irrational beasts led only by carnal urges, but worse, that you are content to remain so. And I know a lot of men for whom you do not speak. We get it: sex sex giggle. We're ready for some actual, original thought, now. Give it a shot.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Those who bash women for 'delaying motherhood' are hypocrites, don't understand human reproduction

Having reached the advanced age of mid-thirties, my attention is called quite often to articles and opinion pieces in the news regarding us stubborn, career-driven harpies who refuse to reproduce until we are good and ready, only to find that after the witching year of 35, things aren't so easy. Your eggs are old, lady! Give up and get a cat. Serves you right, anyway. The Daily Fail is full of these types of pieces - 'personal interest' stories about some poor 40-year old woman who would give up all her success, designer shoes and non-essential organs if only she could go back and have a kid at 20. Or worse: a woman who did manage to have children after 35 or 40, but is now too old and decrepit to chase them up into trees or stay awake during Mommy and Me.

Now I can't be strictly sure that there are more such stories than before, (since when I was a wee sprinbok in my twenties concerned only with non-procreative sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, and that f**king career, I likely would not have noticed them anyway), but from all the apocalyptic yelling going on about it of late, it would certainly seem as if humanity is in decline: no one is having any babies, and the end is nigh, and it's all your infertile fault, thirty-something lady. Except, not so much. In the US, where much of the yelling is happening, infertility rates are on the decline, and not because more people are having fertility treatments; this latter statistic has remained flat since 2002. In the UK, adult infertility numbers are being linked more and more to male infertility, with "male factors now accounting for 30 percent of fertility problems - the same as female factors". Even in Europe, where falling fertility rates (ratio of live births in an area to the population of that area) since 2008 are being flagged as alarming, they are closely linked in the research to the economic recession. That is, countries like Spain and Greece which fared among the worst saw the sharpest decreases in fertility rates, while those with better performance recorded no change or even increases. In other words, it's less about women's 'selfish choices' (whatever those are) and more about real or perceived and/or future financial constraint. Even the Daily Fail is forced to admit the relationship between financial situation and reproductive decisions. A similar argument can be made in Latin America and the Caribbean, where fertility rates are in fact falling, though in general not yet having reached the below replacement levels of 'developed' countries. The region as a whole still reflects Bloom's 'demographic dividend' - with an economically active population that is greater than the dependent population - but this may not last much longer, particularly in the Eastern Caribbean. Still, high levels of migration in the working age population are more likely behind this than Caribbean women's refusal to have children.

And this new debate, if not presented as willful non-compliance in the business of populating the earth, is presented as emerging wisdom to fill some gap in knowledge: women have simply had the wrong information. Hey ladies, I know you thought you could wait forever and carry out your own, selfish lady-business before reproducing, but nuh uh, missy, NEW RESEARCH shows you're about to expire. As someone who has owned a uterus for over thirty years, let me say this: we know. I'm not saying that every woman everywhere is in possession of an identical body of knowledge. In fact, we know this not to be true, which is part of the reason sharing information on sexual and reproductive health and access remains important. But a high percentage of the target audience for this blame-a-thon - professional women with tertiary or advanced technical education - already. Know. They are all too aware of their declining fertility. This is one of those cases in which knowledge on its own cannot translate into action. In simpler terms: even armed with this information, what would you have them do? Certainly not run out and fall pregnant by some random, which itself attracts its own brand of she's-a-witch vilification, and is the basis of much urban legend. Everyone knows someone who knows someone whose dressmaker's neighbour's domino partner was tricked into fatherhood by some desperate thirty-something. Always something with these women - either they're 20 and poking holes in condoms to trap a cricketer (cause we all know how deep cricketers are rolling), or 30 and going off the pill so their boyfriend will marry them goddamit, or 40 and having one night stands with friends/strangers, then spiriting away their sperm. Tricky tricksters.

The thing is, every reproductive choice a woman makes at this age is criticized.
Happily child-free? You're selfish and just want to keep your flat belly and boozing ways.
Unhappily child-free? Your fault. You used to be selfish and just wanted to have your career, flat belly and boozing ways.
Child-free, single and trying to conceive? Hoor! Children are for couples. And what about your poor, fatherless child? Single mothers are everything that's wrong with the world. You're selfish and just want to have a child to love you.

Herein lies the hypocrisy. And even had they had this knowledge earlier, before it was Too Late, the same applies.

Me explico. Growing up in Barbados, getting pregnant was the worst thing you could do. Not just as a teenager, but anytime before you had secured your place as a DoctorLawyerBankmanager. I'm serious. The Worst Thing. Teenage or 'early' pregnancy was blamed for all the ills of society, directly or indirectly. Boys are under-performing in school? Teenage pregnancy (and girls' sexuality). Never mind that the boys' (teenage fathers') asses are sat in classrooms while the girls are the ones run out of school with pitchforks. The dubious problem of society losing its morals? The dubious explanation of teenage pregnancy. Drowning at Miami Beach? Teenage pregnancy. Winston Hall escaped from jail again? Teenage pregnancy. And so on. It doesn't matter what issue is at hand. Invariably, in any meeting anywhere on the island, someone is going to raise his hand confounded that we are four minutes into the session and no one has brought up the scourge of teenage pregnancy.

None of this was lost on the generation of women now in our mid-thirties. In the Caribbean, for children of the working class, education - and I'm not talking just high school I'm talking first or advanced degree - is the handful of magic beans. You had better get it and stick with it until you can prove to people that your family is officially out of the working class. So for women, pregnancy is to be avoided at all costs even into your twenties. Of course, people get pregnant in their early twenties and are not made to wear a scarlet A, but it is hoped in general that you get your papers before you get your pickney. And then there's the whole wedlock business. I noticed growing up that the least Christian of Caribbean people could utter the phrase 'out of wedlock' with the highest amount of reverence - for wedlock. The single mother business was nothing to be admired, so there's another delay. No babies yet. Get your papers, get your husband. And this is what I mean about how reproduction works. In general and for most of history, for a heterosexual woman, if you want a biological kid, you find a man. He has the rest of the genetic material required. One cannot just grow a baby by sheer force of will. So this emphasis on the selfishness and willfulness of women is just silly. Are we supposed to be selective in partner for all other purposes save for that of reproduction? It seems to me the place to be most selective.

At lunch with an older woman friend recently, I saw a man she knew say to her, in disgust: "Why don't you go and get your children? What else you waiting for?" She said, without hesitation, "I going when I leave here. Where they selling?" And that's really the point. Apart from the inappropriateness of commenting on a person's reproductive choices, have we forgotten the several variables involved? Some of which we have all actively enforced throughout that woman's life cycle and until this point? I can't help but consider that in small societies such as ours, we see women who have 'opted for' marriage and/or children by 35 as well-behaved, and we are pleased. Whether that has meant a great, old-fashioned love and family story (I know some) or settling for marriage to some less-than-adequate (in her estimation) dude so babymaking could ensue, or something else, we can more readily live with a woman who has accepted misery as a cost of motherhood, than with one who has, for whatever reason, not chosen motherhood at all.

Most readers could guess my private and public position: child-free by choice? Ok. Child-free and trying at 39? Ok. Adopting? Surrogacy? Platonic co-parenting? Whatever. Not only are the success stats not as dire as the flailing people suggest, but there are several paths to happiness.

But what strikes me is that just as a generation of women hits 35-44 and are grappling with their reproductive choices, we are now, conveniently, getting over some of our puritanism just enough to discover that in fact, 'early' pregnancy is not the worst fate that could befall a woman and society. No pregnancy is. I tell you. If it isn't one thing - and by 'thing' I mean false set of values based on nothing but ascribed to all - it's another.
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