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No council for (some) women: the NWCI and the silencing of sex workers

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Last week, at its AGM, the member groups of the National Women’s Council of Ireland voted down a motion (proposed by the Abortion Rights Campaign and seconded by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland) calling on the NWCI to “develop a process for a review of its position in relation to prostitution and sex work”. Instead the NWCI reaffirmed its existing position, supporting the Swedish model and defining all prostitution as violence against women.

The committee in charge of these things decided that you could only support one motion or the other, and the latter motion (proposed by Ruhama and seconded by the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation) won out by 43-24. Reports from attendees suggest that there would have been more support for the ARC motion if it hadn’t been deemed oppositional to Ruhama’s.

The outcome was disappointing but not surprising, particularly in light of the fact that sex workers themselves were unable to contribute to the debate. This is because the only Irish organisation led by current sex workers, the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, has been refused membership of the NWCI. The NWCI is therefore taking policy positions about a group of women without allowing those women any say in the position it takes.

The criteria for joining the NWCI are listed on its website. While I don’t have access to the written reasons for refusal, I understand its Board decided that SWAI didn’t agree with the NWCI’s “values”. It should be noted that the Board includes Sarah Benson, CEO of Ruhama, and Sheila Dickson, a past president of the INMO.

Now obviously the NWCI is a private organisation (albeit one that receives a fuckton of public money) and has a right to decide who can join it. But it seems … curious that this issue is one that they’re prepared to exclude a group over. You would think, for example, that repealing the 8th amendment would be regarded as a key NWCI value (especially given the organisation’s effective takeover of the Repeal, sorry the “Yes” campaign) and yet it was fine for member groups to refuse to support it, like Ruhama and the YWCA. Equal rights for same-sex couples might also be thought of as a key NWCI value, yet it has no problem with the membership of an organisation that “continues to hold the view that ‘marriage’ is inherently between a man and a woman”. Not locking young women up in institutions for perceived moral failures, where they would be forced to work as slaves, should pretty definitely be a key NWCI value and yet a group whose founders did exactly that, and which still has board members who are refusing to pay redress to these women, are not only allowed to be members but are effectively allowed to direct the organisation’s policy towards the “fallen women” of today. Their attitude towards groups that don’t share their “values” seems a little bit selective.

But I think it’s important to point out that simply opposing the NWCI stance on sex work isn’t enough to make a group unwelcome in the NWCI. If it was, then ARC and the MRCI and all the others in the 24 would presumably be tearing up their membership cards. So, it’s fine for a women’s group to advocate for the rights of sex workers as long as they aren’t sex workers themselves. It isn’t about values at all, then; going on that vote, SWAI’s values are shared by more than a third of NWCI member groups already. What is it then? Are sex workers the NWCI equivalent of “Unwomen”? Do they have cooties? Or does the Board just not want to have to listen to them?

The most galling thing about the Ruhama motion is that it refers to “support for women and girls affected by prostitution and sex trafficking“. But what constitutes “support” is being decided in a context where the affected girls and women are denied a voice. Supporters of the policy would no doubt argue that the women they’re concerned with are a different class of sex worker to those in SWAI, but they have nothing to support the implicit suggestion that those women want their clients criminalised. It’s notable that GOSHH (Gender, Orientation, Sexual Health, HIV) and the Chrysalis Community Drug Project, the two other Irish organisations that do outreach to the more vulnerable sectors of the sex industry, are both strongly opposed to the Swedish model.

There are, of course, former sex workers (or survivors, to use their preferred terminology) who would share the NWCI’s position. But isn’t it remarkable that practically none of them seem to have actually worked in Sweden – or any other “Nordic model” country – under that law?  We’re nearly 20 years into it now; if it worked as well as its advocates say it does you’d expect there would be dozens if not hundreds of women coming forward to share their accounts of how the Swedish model saved them from the sex trade, but I legitimately cannot think of one. Certainly, all the survivor organisations are led by women who didn’t survive the law that they’re campaigning for. Nor, it seems, are they particularly interested in hearing from women who did: whenever I’ve mentioned them in response to “listen to survivors” comments, the response has been … crickets.

And there’s also research from nearly every country where the law has been introduced, showing that opposition to the law straddles all classes of sex worker. I’m not going to link to it all here because frankly it’s tiring always pointing to research that Swedish model advocates just ignore anyway. Though tellingly, they can’t provide any research that says the opposite.

At the very least, though, a member-based organisation like the NWCI ought to be listening to groups of women before taking policy positions about their lives. This is one of those things that I can’t believe I even have to say. The refusal to do so sends a clear message that it simply isn’t interested in what sex workers think. Its position on this issue is going to be determined by the organisation’s own take on “feminist values”, one of which is apparently not recognition of lived experience. I could dig up loads of NWCI quotes from the Repeal campaign which show the irony of this approach, but I understand Linda Kavanagh from ARC already made that point at the AGM and it clearly didn’t make a difference. The NWCI doesn’t “trust women” who are sex workers, doesn’t want to hear from them, will happily let others speak for them (or purport to), but ultimately will fall back on the conviction that it knows what’s best for them, anyway. Viewed in that light, maybe its embrace of an NGO with roots in the Magdalene laundries shouldn’t be so much of a surprise.

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Trans Rights and Healthcare are on a Precipice

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This piece comes from an anonymous contributor, a comrade of the writers of Feminist Ire, speaking out at a crisis point in trans healthcare in Ireland from the perspective of a trans woman. 

I’m currently writing with feelings of anger, sadness and frustration at two powerful elements within Irish society that seem intent on further damaging the health and well being as well as perpetuating the overwhelming stigmatisation of trans people in this country. When we peel back the surface and uncover the plight of Trans people this ultimately and all too often reveals itself in violence, disenfranchisement, poverty, rape, self harm and suicide. It’s often highlighted in discussion around trans topics, the terrible statistics of self harm and suicide when it comes to the trans community for example. To reference some headline figures a study by the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland in 2012 shows that 78% of trans people have had thoughts of suicide, 40% have attempted and 6% have attempted five or more times! Self harm is not much better with 44% of trans people reporting that they have self harmed at some stage in their lives with 6% actively currently self harming. Unfortunately this very plight of trans people which should be an impetus to drastically improve the standards of care for a vulnerable and suffering minority is often used as a stick to beat us with.

These heartbreaking statistics are a reflection of a wider societal issue, that of the systematic oppression of trans minorities where a binarist, cisnormative, patriarchal society violently attacks in both it’s messaging, actions and structures, every aspect of trans people’s public and private lives as we fight to exist openly and authentically and navigate within it. The statistics quoted above are a snapshot taken three years before marriage equality and legal gender recognition had passed and at an earlier stage in a sizemic cultural shift currently taking place on this island, which has seen a new generation of progressive and radicalised citizens and residents pushing through sweeping social reforms and resisting privatisation through grassroots activism in a country still dogged by it’s colonial and theocratic past. Indeed this aspect of Irish culture and the potential it envokes in shaping our society in the near future makes this Island a pretty good place to be trans comparatively, albeit coming from a very low base. The presence of a strong grassroots, intersectional and women led network of activists has helped to stave off much or the recindance of trans rights that can be seen happening within our two giant anglophile neighbours. To our left we have bathroom ‘debates’ and the dismantling of legal protections along with scores of murdered trans people, excused through panic defense. To our right we have the potential of a depathologised legal recognition for trans and intersex people being attacked, alongside numerous cases of trans women sent to their deaths in male prisons.

However despite this somewhat favourable environment, there remains two large and prescient threats to the progress of trans liberation in Ireland. Namely, a couple of chiefs based within one hospital in south Dublin who seem intent on limiting access to health-care and perpetuating an outmoded and dangerous conservative pathological ideology, discouraging people from transitioning where possible, refusing to listen to the increasingly angry and desperate voices of the trans community, refusing to implement international best practice when it comes to trans health care, criticizing us for demanding such health-care and proportioning partial blame on the healthcare demands of the trans community for the regrets of a small number of detransitioners all the while conflating their situation with the desperate mental health situation alluded to above. Thier prejucicial elitist practices are resultingly working to conserve the violent patriarchal transmysogonist aspects of a society that kills us and in order to do this these dinosaurs are allying themselves with traditional media to spread this destructive message and shore up their status as Ireland’s premier gatekeepers. This is a high risk strategy and very dangerous to the health and wellbeing of trans people, the same people they proport to care for.

The media narrative in Ireland in relation to trans people is currently being pulled in two destructive and harmful directions. On the one side there is an old school and elitist club, most prominent within the broadcast and ‘newspaper of record’ realms that projects a veneer of liberalism, but in reality paints over the cracks of a declining conservative, ignorant and voyeuristic mindset influenced by the ‘medical oddity’ genre of pseudo scientific transexual documentaries of the 90s to early 00s emanating from either side of the pond. The impact of this club’s influence can partially be evidenced in the cautious language reflected in the recent together for yes campaign which amongst other things erased the effect that the eighth ammendment had on trans and intersex people in much of its messaging in the penultimate weeks of the official referrendum campaign.

While many trans people who worked hard to secure a yes outcome and their grassroots allies were prepared to begrudgingly go along with this messaging to secure a victory by not actively speaking out, a hurt and resentment remains that has spilled out in potentially destructive ways. A statement from anonymous members of the trans community demanded an apology from together for yes literally hours after the results were declared. This resulted in an unintentional indirect attack on the grassroots, who are made up of pragmatic trans people and their allies and threw trans women and femmes to the TERFs. The downplaying of the intersection of trans and intersex people in relation to the 8th has also resulted in gendered language in the headings of the prospective legislation which, if not rectified could potentially leave trans and intersex people with uteruses still unable to access abortion healthcare in Ireland. Thankfully there seems a concensus around rectifying this situation but this should never have arisen in the first place.

On the other side there is a red top brigade that on the one hand is perfectly content to sensationalize, hypersexualize and dehumanise the trans experience to titillate and incense their diminishing white cis-hetero audience. They are in turn being pushed into even more dangerous territory by their sister publications in the UK that are largely owned by an increasingly centralised right wing conservative and billionaire class, who by co-opting the language of feminism and fueled by evangelicals are giving voice to their willing lackeys in the form of a loud minority of middle class TERFs who are ramping up their attacks on trans people. This tactic compliments their agenda of dividing people into competing groups and hierarchies to distract from intensifying inequality, debt and economic stagnation caused by their economic plunder. Although making inroads into online spaces where increasingly their once captive audiences have deserted to, their impact on these realms on the mindset of people living in Ireland remains limited. That being said it’s this cohort of nasties that have the potential to derail impending legislation that should increase the ease of legal transition for trans people in Ireland and regognise non binary and intersex identites. Hopefully the former cloak offered by the marriage equality results and resulting legislation while the original gender recognition bill was passed will again be offered by the success of the repeal campaign.

The results of this unholy alliance between the chiefs and the dieing media, aside from the problems stated above is that healthcare in Ireland for trans people is in a dangerous and delicate impass. The chiefs want to model the recent and welcome investment in trans healthcare in their own image, to preserve the status quo and bolster their own professions albeit with shorter waiting times. Trans people as individuals are a small disparate and oppressed minority with limited voice, resources and energy fighting for a depathologised and informed consent model that is on demand and without apology. We are at the mercy of the chiefs despite a favourable cultural environment, despite support from politicians, and even tacid support from the health service.

What we’ve currently been able to muster in terms of advocating for health care is a small and problematic campaigning group centered around inexperienced trans-masc indivituals who are currently on the outside of the health system. They speak out loudly and attempt mass protests for healthcare. They have uncovered the sinister ideology begind the masks of the chiefs but they tone police their own community members who wish to speak out at protests, disengage with non-binary ‘trouble makers’ online and sit in meetings with the likes of Joan Burton and celebrate it. Of special note however is the emergence of Radical Queers Resist, a broader queer alliance who came to light during the refferendum campaign by largely nullifying the effects of the most grotesque forced-birther group in the form of the ICBR. This group offers the potential of offering an effective avenue for the campaigning elements of the trans liberation movement going forward.

Meanwhile non profit organisations working largely within the system with limited clout, work desperately behind the scenes despite stretched resources and limited funding pools. They are, as the system dictates heavily funded by the very organisations they are advocating towards. They can not speak out for fear that the chiefs in a strop, stop treating half of the countrys trans patients within the health system overnight. The only solution is the mobilisation of the existing wider grassroots movement of allies. This has the potential to effect change in our favour but it must be built upon a greater understanding of our predicament and the sharing of experience and resources. This can be realised through the amplification of our voices through the correct use of it’s inherant privelege.

In the meantime waiting lists continue to lenghten causing massive mental strife. Trans people continue to be subjected to invasive and unnecessary psychological and psychiatric assessment based on outmoded and offensive criteria, being actively discouraged in their hormonal and medical transitions and twarted at every stage. Non-binary people have to lie and pretend not to exist in order to access the same treatment as their binary counterparts, access to counselling and non-patholigising forms of mental health care is sparse to non existant albeit linked with the wider defunding of mental health. Recieving hormone replacement therapy for already transitioned individuals from GPs on a parity with their cisgender counterperts is almost impossible. Autistic people and those with other and often linked mental health problems such as PTSD are not deemed to be ‘true transgender’, expensive treatments deemed cosmetic because they don’t conform to the male gaze of medical practitioners rather than seen as alleviating the distress of dysphoria remain out of reach and patients are forced to travel abroad for intensive operations with limited aftercare and financial support. The potential outcomes of this impasse will have a greater threat to the lives of trans people than the unfortunate decisions and regrets of a minority of detransitioners currently being used as false equivalencies to preserve the status of the chiefs.

 

Where ROSA and the Socialist Party get it wrong on sex work (part 1, maybe)

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A response to this

First of all, I have to acknowledge that ROSA and the SP have moved a good way on this issue since the last time we wrote about them here at Feminist Ire – back when they were still supporting the Turn Off The Red Light campaign and refusing to use the term “sex worker”. I don’t know whether it’s a case of minds being changed after looking at the evidence, or just of sounder party members winning the internal policy debate, but it’s still a significant step forward for them and this deserves to be recognised (and hopefully followed by certain other parties on the left).

But it’s still not good enough – for a few reasons. We hope to have a guest post soon from an actual sex worker explaining some of them, but for now I’ll highlight a ROSA/SP position that would continue to leave sex workers extremely vulnerable: their support for broad “anti-pimping” laws.

The problem with these laws is twofold. Firstly, as currently written in Ireland, they don’t only criminalise “pimps”. The offence of living on the earnings of (another person’s) prostitution is not only committed when a sex worker works for someone else – it’s also committed when someone else works for a sex worker. This means that a sex worker cannot hire someone to do security for her, screen her calls, drive her to and from outcalls, etc, otherwise that person will be as liable for this offence as if they were the one in the “employer” position. No less than the brothel-keeping laws, the over-application of these laws forces sex workers to work on their own, without anyone else who could help ensure their safety.

The second problem is they seek to force sex workers into a particular business model – the sole trader – whether they want it or not. In sex work no less than in every other industry, mine included, not everybody is ready or willing to be their own boss! A lot of women start out working for agencies or in parlours or saunas etc, and then go out on their own once they’re experienced and comfortable enough; others simply prefer not being the one that has to deal with things like advertising and security and so on. And others go back and forth as their circumstances dictate. This is a reality in the industry, and criminalising “pimping” doesn’t stop it. It just means that the sex workers who do have bosses can only – by definition – have bosses who operate outside the law. It’s fair to say that these guys aren’t losing sleep over the possibility of WRC complaints.

In this article ROSA/SP draw a comparison with coal, saying “we oppose the filthy profiteers of that industry“. And that’s fair enough. But they’re not calling for criminalisation of everyone who employs someone else in the coal industry, are they? They’re not insisting that everyone who goes to work in that industry should have to navigate it – and its dangers – all on their own.

With a predictable reference to Germany – which, for the zillionth time, has a legalisation model that literally nobody in the sex workers’ rights movement advocates – they make the point that a legal industry isn’t necessarily an industry that looks after its workers. This is not actually a point that needed to be made; in fact it’s one of the reasons sex worker groups favour decriminalisation over legalisation in the first place. But if only the worker herself is decriminalised, how can she possibly access the available remedies for breaches of labour and health and safety law? The answer is she can’t, because her employment is illegal anyway.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the Socialist Party are a socialist party – or at least that’s what it says on the tin. They make a big deal about their policy being derived from their socialist principles. Yet ironically, it’s a policy that protects only petty bourgeois sex workers, while throwing the wage-earners under the bus.

And while this should go without saying, I’ve been having these debates long enough to know I need to spell these things out, so for the record: this is not about supporting “pimps”, or some non-existent concept like “pimps’ rights” or something. It’s about not putting sex workers who are already being exploited (I mean that in the Marxist sense, though quite often it’s also in other ways) in an even more precarious position by relegating them eternally to the shadow economy. Nor does it preclude the possibility of penalising those sex industry bosses who are particularly exploitative. In fact, that’s kind of the point.

Whenever I’ve seen ROSA/SP get all defensive about this subject, they’re very insistent that they support sex workers. But I’m not sure which sex workers they’re taking their cue from. Where is the sex workers’ movement that is advocating for decriminalisation of the worker and her client, but not for any third parties? To me this reads more like an internal compromise sort of position, aimed at placating the wing of the party that had them on board with the Swedish model just a few years ago.

Notably, their writing on the topic is absent any reference to the New Zealand model (except for this five-year-old piece which, um, seems not to know what the New Zealand model is). Given that this is the most widely-supported model within the sex workers’ rights movement – and also has a decent track record of actually protecting sex workers’ labour rights – you’d expect them to take an interest in it, if they really wanted to support sex workers. If they have examined and decided to reject that model then fair enough, but I’d like to know their reasoning (and especially how they think any problems they may have identified with it can be overcome in a system where there is no regulation of the managed sector).

Again, I do accept that their position has improved over the past year or two and it is no longer really fair to describe them as SWERFy – at least in terms of their overall party position (though I admit I still have my doubts about some of their leading activists). But they still don’t seem to be really listening to sex workers; they still seem to be overly concerned with adhering to a rigidly dogmatic ideological view of the sex industry. As long as that remains the case, they’ll continue to be criticised for holding an anti-sex worker position – and, at least when it comes to sex workers that don’t work the way ROSA/SP thinks they should, that criticism will continue to be justified.

Vote Yes, for those who can’t

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Guest post by Magda Jasinka of Dziewuchy Dziewuchom Irlandia

I guess I am coming somewhat late into the “game” but I couldn’t quite figure out how I could have my voice heard on the 25th May. I am living in Ireland and unfortunately don’t have the privilege of voting in matters that quite frankly could one day affect me and thouseands of others. I’ve decided therefore to share with you this little piece of my mind in aid of the Together for Yes campaign and also and very much so in hope that it might change someone’s mind to vote YES or to vote at all.

After making the decision to come to Ireland which was influenced almost entirely by some sort of a “promise” of a better life and more possibilities to succeed in many different aspects of life that have become important to me throughout those years. Being only 19 and feeling that my own country has somehow failed me and betrayed me I found comfort and a shelter in Ireland which in years to come I would call my home. I do however feel that much like where I am from, the 8th amendment has failed so many women and for this I am resentful. I can’t understand why someone would vote NO as somehow they cannot see that their vote is causing another woman’s trauma. I also can’t understand  that for some reason people think they have the right to take away a woman’s choice concerning her own body. I hate the fact that I’d have more bodily autonomy after my death as I’d have a choice to become an organ donor than I would have now if I became pregnant.

What I do find most outrageous as a female is the uncertainty yet predictable nature of the faith of offenders who by inflicting life threatening wounds to a pregnant woman can potentially get away with murder, quite literally actually as they most likely would face a manslaughter rather than a murder charge. Murder occurs if a person intended to kill, or cause serious injury to another PERSON, who dies as a result and whilst a scenario involving a death of a foetus by injuries caused by another person has not yet been heard by the Irish courts, the British case of AG’s Reference (No. 3 of 1994) [1997] 3 WLR 421 would become a valid precedence for the Irish courts in such circumstances. In AG’s Reference (No. 3 of 1994), a boyfriend (B) stabbed his girlfriend (G), who then prematurely gave birth to the child (S). S was injured by the stab wounds inflicted upon him by B and died after 121 days after being prematurely born. It was held that B could not be convicted of murder as he could physically not form an intention to kill or seriously injure S. The House of Lords stated that “until she had been born alive and acquired a separate existence, she could not be the victim of homicide”. The common law jurisprudence would suggests that only an independently living, self-sufficient human being can become a victim of murder and there is no authority in any common law jurisdiction to suggest that a foetus is considered an independently living and self-sufficient human being. In a further attempt to secure the murder charge, the prosecution tried to apply the doctrine of transferred malice which states that when the intention to harm one individual inadvertently causes another person to be hurt instead, the perpetrator is still held responsible for his acts. However in AG’s Reference (No. 3 of 1994) the House of Lords held that to transfer the malice directed at foetus initially and then hypothetically from a foetus to a born child with legal personality was described as legally too far to support a murder charge against B. As such, B was charged and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 7 years in prison. To put it into perspective a woman who is found guilty of the offence of intentionally destroying unborn human life under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 will face up to 14 years in prison. Where is the justice here?

I guess what I would really like is for someone to read this and choose to trust women and protect life that the 8th Amendment has failed to do.

 

Respect motherhood. Vote Yes.

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​Some of my best friends are mothers. I have to admit, I don’t envy them. I know they love their children, that they bring a lot of joy into their lives. I know if I had children I would feel that way too. But I also know that they had to give up a lot to become mothers, more than I would ever be happy to give up.

“Happy” is the wrong word, actually, because it seems that most of my friends are anything but happy about the price they’ve paid for motherhood. If anything, the ones who are co-parenting (at least with a man) are angrier about this than the single mams, because the fathers always promise more than they deliver. I listen as they share their frustration and resentment at how he still assumes the primary parenting and household duties to be hers; still feels entitled to aspects of his pre-parenthood life that she has long since resigned to the dustbin of her own past; expects praise and gratitude and a Dad of the Century award when he remembers to “help out”.

Added to this are the negative impacts that motherhood has had on her prospects for employment or promotion. The resentment she senses from female co-workers without children, who she suspects of seeing her reduced hours and frequent absences as a kind of special treatment. The barely concealed disdain from male co-workers, who she thinks see these things as evidence of lack of commitment to the job. Some of these male co-workers have children themselves, of course, but rarely have to prioritise their children over their work. That’s what their wives are for.

Then, too, there are the physical effects of childbirth [CN: obstetric trauma]. There’s a lot more of these than you probably know if you’ve never had children yourself, and as far as I can tell, none of them are good. Stretch marks, caesarean scars, vaginal laxity, hair loss, haemorrhagic periods, urinary incontinence – these are just the more common ones, the ones you can look forward to if you have a normal birth. If you’re one of the lucky ones. If you’re not, you could find yourself with a third or fourth degree perineal tear, pelvic organ prolapse, rectovaginal fistula, faecal incontinence, or Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction which, in particularly bad cases, leads to permanent reliance on mobility aids. Did you know spontaneous symphysiotomy is a thing? Neither did I, until I met a woman who had one.

If these injuries themselves are not lifelong (and many are), the psychological effects of them usually will be – and not just on the woman. They’ve destroyed marriages. They’ve also complicated mothers’ relationships with their children. One woman I know told me of her lifelong sense of guilt for not being able to bond with her baby properly – she was so injured by his birth that she couldn’t hold him. Other women speak of feeling some resentment towards the child themselves. They say this hesitantly, and often with enormous shame; aren’t they supposed to think “a healthy baby is all that matters”? Then they always feel the need to add the disclaimer that they love their child and don’t wish they hadn’t had it, they just wish things had gone differently. No doubt many of them mean this, but we’ll never know how many don’t. The mother who wishes she’d never had children is the one voice that is completely silent in the Repeal debate, just as she is everywhere else.

And then of course there are the women whom childbirth actually kills. Nowadays (though this wasn’t always the case) it’s usually medical negligence that’s to blame, but the outcome for the woman is the same. Ireland may be a relatively safe place to have a baby but that doesn’t change the fact that every year, a number of women die in our maternity hospitals – nor the fact that every woman who brings a pregnancy to term takes the risk of becoming one of those statistics.

This is what listening to women who are mothers has taught me: Motherhood is risky. Motherhood is difficult. Motherhood is sometimes life-threatening. It is always life-changing. Most of these changes are profound, though few are recognised as such, especially the bad ones.

When women have abortions for “social” reasons, when Yes campaigners call for legalisation without restriction as to reason, it is not, as the No campaign claims, because we take abortion “lightly”. It’s because we take motherhood seriously. We understand what it entails, and know that it should never be forced on someone who isn’t prepared to take it on. When No campaigners portray motherhood as no more than a minor inconvenience – or, worse yet, as a suitable penalty for “mis”behaviour – they belittle every woman who has ever sacrificed an important part of her life in order to have a child.

My own mother was already a mother when she had me. She knew it was no picnic. She held an MSc which wasn’t put to use again for many years after my siblings and I were born. She could have had a legal abortion in the place where we were living. Of course, I am grateful she didn’t. But I am also thankful for her that she had the choice. Done under duress, I can’t imagine how much harder her job would have been.

For all that Irish society purports to revere motherhood, the problem is we don’t really respect it.  The myriad of ways that that needs to change are, for the most part, a subject for another blog post (I’ll just leave “proper remuneration” here for now). But we can take a big step very quickly by taking compulsory motherhood out of our Constitution – recognising it as too important a role to impose on the unready or unwilling.

Respect motherhood. Vote Repeal.

Open letter to Judge McMahon on #repealthe8th

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A reply to this letter to the Irish Times last week. The IT has not published it, so we are happy to do so.

A Chara,

The hypocrisy of former Justice Bryan McMahon (‘The Eighth Amendment’, Letters, May 4th) in calling for the retention of the 8th Amendment cannot go unremarked. McMahon’s strong urging of a ‘No’ vote suggests that he has forgotten the recommendations of the working group on Direct Provision that he presided over just a few years ago that urged quite the opposite. The McMahon report “strongly urges” that arrangements be made to enable women in Direct Provision experiencing crisis pregnancies to access proper supports including provisions for travel abroad, presumably to access abortion services. The McMahon report is very clear on this. It recommends “that a review by the relevant organisations of services for persons in the system experiencing a crisis pregnancy be undertaken immediately with a view to a protocol being agreed to guide State agencies and NGOs supporting such persons. Particular attention should be paid to addressing the needs of the individual in the context of the legislative framework. Issues relating to travel documents, financial assistance, confidentiality, and access to information and support services should be addressed.”

The working group on Direct Provision and the McMahon report can be criticised on many fronts, but on this front – the need to address the terrible circumstances faced by women experiencing crisis pregnancies in Direct Provision – the report is on the right track. It is clear that horrors of the sort inflicted on Ms Y can only be addressed by removing the 8th Amendment from the constitution and making sure that ALL women and pregnant people can access the supports that they need in this country. As groups such as AIMS Ireland and MERJ – Migrant and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice have shown us through research and personal testimony, this extends beyond abortion access to the whole issue of reproductive services and health care for migrant and ethnic minority women in this state. The women who have been most affected by the 8th Amendment – the women who have died because of the 8th Amendment and the disregard for the lives of women and mothers that it has embedded in our constitution – are disproportionately migrant women. Migrant women make up 25% of pregnant people in Ireland, but account for a shocking 40% of maternal deaths. Former Justice McMahon himself is very much aware of these facts and of the terrible circumstances that can face migrant and asylum-seeking women and girls. It is to his great discredit that he has chosen to ignore this evidence and awareness in his cruel and hypocritical call for the retention of this most cruel and hypocritical aspect of this state’s constitution.

Yours, etc,

Anti-Racism Network Ireland

AIMS Ireland

Migrants and Ethnic-minorities for Reproductive Justice (MERJ)

Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI)

Let’s talk about sex

Let’s talk about sex

Guest Post by Emma C, Belfast Feminist Network

If this was a fluffy opinion piece for a Sunday supplement, I might make some sideways jokes about 5 minutes of pleasure, or someone’s turn to go ‘downstairs’ as a way of making light about this intimate, messy, universal experience. It’s everywhere, in ads, all of our films, television, books, plays, music. We let our culture mull it over but with little nuance. Yet we never really seem to be able to actually talk about it. For real.

We are in the midst of a wave of reignited feminism and its predicted backlash. We see every day in articles from across the world, the endless tales of rape, violence, maternal deaths, lack of access to safe abortions, persecution of sex workers and LGBTQ+ people. I’m utterly convinced that our inability to properly address sex; what it is, what it’s for, how it feels, when it works, when it doesn’t, what its value is, has kept us behind this hurdle of inequality.

Locally, we have been dealing with our very own Northern Ireland flavoured version of this worldwide phenomenon. A recent rape trial, abuse scandals, the lack of respect for LGBT people sex workers and women, all becomes fomented in policy and has maintained barriers to healthcare, equality and respect.

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Real-talking about sex has to begin. Real sex, not biology-book sex, not biblical sex, not porn sex, but real actual sex that happens between real actual humans. Most of us have an innate drive to seek sexual pleasure and some of us are more successful in that search than others. Sex is one the issues at the crux of gender and sexuality.

Imagine you are a 12-year-old girl walking home from school in your uniform, you have just begun to develop breasts. Your hormones are beginning to go haywire, meaning your emotions are everywhere and the world seems bigger and more confusing, even though adults are beginning to make more sense. Now imagine that as you are walking home, car horns beep at you regularly, when you turn to look to see who they are honking at and realise that it’s you, you see men the same age as your father and you blush a deep red as you’re not quite sure how to react. Then imagine that with every passing few months there are more comments in the street, from young men hanging around in groups, from waiters, from family friends, even from school teachers, about your slowly changing appearance.

This is the beginning of the onslaught. This unwelcome and unwarranted attention is never spoken about to the young people that experience it. This is when men, and the women, trans people and gay men that they objectify begin to learn about consent. We are being taught from a young age that it is okay to be publicly sexualised, by men; older men, younger men, men in positions of power, strangers and there is really nothing we can do about it.

Many of us will have seen the declarations from various pious lampposts around this wee country that, “ THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH”, yet we know from our national stance on abortion, access to contraception, and sex work that actually if the so-called sin is a sexual one between a ‘straight’ man and another person, it’s the other person who has to bear the brunt of that particular exchange.

Consensual sex is categorically not a sin. Well, except if you are a woman (and trans person and gay man and sex worker). Then of course it is a sin. You are a slut, unlike the man, who will probably be a legend (to himself), we all know this, we understand this paradox and yet we all maintain it, despite the harm it causes. Street harassment is the thin end of the wedge of our rape culture. RAPE CULTURE, a description that so many baulk at, yet we live in a society where somehow a woman should automatically be embarrassed about having a threesome and a man can be glorified amongst his mates. According to solicitors, the shame of a threesome could lead a young woman to take a lengthy and unnecessary court case against someone to save face… whereas leaving someone crying hysterically and bleeding internally after a sexual encounter is perfectly acceptable. A top tip for any man planning a threesome: if someone starts bleeding, best to call it a day, at the very least you aren’t doing it right and at the worst you might be raping someone.
We know that what a person wears, drinks, eats, how they get home, and what previous sexual history they have should have absolutely zero to do with whether or not they get raped, yet on and on we see victim blaming from legal experts, from prurient press, from anyone quick to judge with access to a social media account.

Expecting everyone who is not a straight cis man to pay for the sin of sex is why abortion is such a controversial topic as well. It’s got little to do with little cute babies and everything to do with women and pregnant people facing the consequences. “She should have kept her legs shut” “She should have to take responsibility for her mistake” “She should have thought about that before whoring around” – all things that are frequently said in some shape or form – it’s abortion’s own form of blaming, with a human to look after for the rest of your life as punishment. This is despite the overwhelming majority of single parents being women, it’s despite the overwhelming majority of contraception and birth control being aimed at women and it’s despite the fact that sexual assault and rape are so common that they are endemic, and yet we don’t even get off the hook for that one, as apparently our bodies don’t even deserve freedom from someone else’s crime (if they are a man).

Whenever the onslaught of sexualisation begins, it teaches us – women, queer and trans folk, that our boundaries are unimportant. It undermines our trust as to everyone’s intentions, and most importantly it undermines our ability to trust our own instinct. Setting boundaries is an important life skill, yet attempts to develop this skill are thwarted from the start if we can’t even tell strangers on the street not to comment on the shape of our ‘tits’ when we are still children.

Forgotten in all of this is that sex is supposed to be pleasurable, people shouldn’t get internal lacerations from consensual sex, unless it’s something they have specifically requested. Our concept of virginity is outdated as well, why is the only important thing when a penis enters a vagina? There are so many more ways of having sex, and not just for queer people. Sex is better when it is about reciprocal pleasure, you need to be able to say to the person that you’re having sex with, ‘yes that’s working or no that’s not working, can you do it more like this?’ However we are having sex in a society that doesn’t allow space for conversations about that.

We can be on the BBC talking about murderers, about complicated political ideas, about tragedies faced by families dealing with a variety of crises, but we are unable to talk about sex openly. We can’t address it, we are too scundered, even though that embarrassment creates a void that leads to our young people being educated by the internet; by the most popular types of porn which debase women, people of colour and trans people.

Popular porn is what we are offering to our culture instead of real conversations about pleasure. Young people are divided by gender for sex education, which is largely provided for by religious organisations. It’s no coincidence that the same organisations that are against contraception and abortions, are against LGBT people and sex before marriage.

If we let these people misinform our children, our offspring will look somewhere else instead, for something that more closely reflects the real lives they live than the prim fantasies that abstinence-only, anti LGBT sex education provides.

Not only have we no adequate ways to punish and re-educate young men with monstrous ideas about what women are (less than human receptacles for sperm and babies) but we are enabling them from children to become this way.

If we want our future to be safer and happier for the next generations, then we have to make actual changes to our sex education. We have to stigmatise talking about women and others as less than human and not stigmatise women having sex. We have to teach people that there is no pleasure without consent and that consent is the lowest bar. We have to be prepared to call out ‘banter’ if it demeans anyone because of the type of sex they have. We have to stand up to the tiny minority of bigoted bullies that get their voices amplified too often.

Everyone knows someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted, everyone knows someone who has had an abortion or crisis pregnancy, we just need to learn to put on our grown-up pants and talk about these things properly and with respect before any more generations are harmed by our wilful negligence.

– Emma C

Belfast Feminist Network

 

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