Trigger warning on this post: sexual violence and birth trauma/coercion*
Over at Feministe, there is a series of posts underway for Sexual Assault Awareness month. This amazing piece by abby jean (please read it) highlights why we cannot fight sexual violence on only one front. Oppressions feed each other and their sum is greater than their parts: when you hurt one person by othering them because of their disability, their skin colour, their gender or sexuality, the size of their body, you make them more vulnerable to assault. And you also other – and hurt – everyone else with shared traits by reinforcing their vulnerability. Or, conversely, abby jean writes:
Even if not directly connected to social violence, fighting ableism helps undermine the messages which make women with disabilities more vulnerable…Fighting ableism is fighting sexual assault. And, to extend that, fighting racism and classism and homophobia and trans oppression also fights sexual assault, by fighting the interlocking and intersecting forces that make women more and more vulnerable to rape and sexual assault.
This is absolutely, searingly true. And it goes both ways. We are all connected: when women with disabilities are made more vulnerable, I believe that harms all women. When sexual assault is allowed to happen to trans women without public outcry, what does that say about the power of the perpetrators and the silencing of victims in our culture? When some people are not safe, it doesn’t make the rest of us safer. It makes our whole world uglier, more violent, more heavily populated by criminals who know they have gotten away with violating another human being.
And this is why, although I do not want to detract at all from the importance of abby jean’s post about ableism and mental illness, I think the intersections extend even further. The pathologising of women’s pregnant and birthing bodies and the erasing of their bodily autonomy in a medical setting should be of concern to all feminists, not just those of us who want to have or have had children. Reproductive freedom extends beyond abortion rights — and fighting for it is fighting against sexual assault.
When a woman has a hand or an instrument inserted into her vagina whilst she screams and thrashes out her non-consent, and when this action is sanctioned by society because it occurs in a medical setting (and because it is believed it must be for the ‘safety of her baby’ if carried out in this setting, regardless of whether or not it was medically indicated or evidence-based care), we have a problem. When women are routinely given vaginal examinations without their consent being sought or given (either without their knowledge under aneasthetic or in an obstetric setting), we have a problem. When a woman attests that she was raped in an obstetric setting and her story is greeted with at best derision and at worst outright hostility, we have a problem. We all have a problem.
The problem is that in a culture that allows the bodily autonomy of women to be eroded, denied, violently erased in any setting, bodily autonomy only exists as a value that is demonstrably vulnerable to attack. In other words: if you have a childfree, currently not disabled body and you like having your right to give or withold consent protected, then you’d better care about the possiblity that it could be taken from you if your body changes. And more than that: you’d better care that whilst the medical community and other facets of society sit by and tacitly condone the violation of certain women’s bodies, that the violation of other bodies could also make it onto the agenda. When there are circumstances where sexual violence is deemed acceptable or inevitable or even desirable, it is only the circumstances that protect the rest of us and circumstances change, expand and multiply.
Birth rights are about more than birth, and advocating for birthing women is advocating for all.
* I haven’t employed the term ‘birthrape’ in this post because I am quite ambivalent about it as a label and also certain elements of its usage. If you are unfamiliar with the concepts of birth trauma and birth rape, try this excellent post here, and further thoughts here and here .