RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Moral Outrage of the Damned: Public reaction to the plight of Sabrina McMahon

Sabrina McMahon is 36 years old. She has three children, ages 5, 3, and 1. She and her three children currently live in her car. Sabrina has lived in her car for the past week after her “temporary” arrangements, which lasted a year, broke down. She formerly worked as a dental nurse and as a carer. She keeps her buggy, nappies and possessions in the boot of her car and her groceries in the front. She avails of the kindness of friends so she can wash and clean her clothes. Her children sleep in the back. When the baby wakes for a bottle she switches on the engine to keep her warm. A Sinn Féin Councillor Maire Devine, has been making representations to South Dublin County Council on her behalf for the past year while she went from relative to relative over the months since her relationship broke down. When SDCC were contacted by the Irish Times for comment, they said they were “aware” of the case but didn’t wish to say anything further which was unsurprising.

Unless they were going to say, “We are deeply ashamed that we have failed to show basic human decency to this woman and her family and find her a home” they were probably better off to say nothing. No landlord will accept rent allowance from her. She presented at the Dublin Central Placement Service and was told to go back to Kildare, where she had previously lived, but she wants to live near her family.

If was I was living in a car with three small children I would want to live near my family too.

Her story was on the front page of the Irish Times and it covered on all the major radio stations. On Newstalk this morning, texts flooded in saying that Sabrina was a bad mother; that she should have her children taken from her; that she shouldn’t have even had her children in the first place; that she was irresponsible and only “using” the media to get a free ride on the back of taxpayers. Social media users had a field day in condemning the parenting skills of a woman who is literally living on the margins of society. Very little was said about her former partner. However, the level of misogyny and hatred directed at her in those texts and comments was a slightly more ignorant representation of the structural misogyny directed at her from the state. The state shows its disdain for women like Sabrina by failing to provide for her needs. The tweets condemning her are this simply this same attitude refined to 140 characters.

There are 98,000 families waiting for social housing in this state and the comments levelled at Sabrina McMahon are not unusual. In fact, Sabrina’s situation is not unusual. People are fooling themselves if they think that Sabrina McMahon is the only person in Ireland living in her car right now. And the comments about her are the same type of comments made about poor and homeless women who become pregnant and have families because they generally pathologised as people who made bad decisions, lack male authority, and exist without morals or values. They are believed to be selfish and parasitic and rearing children in their own rough image. It is the stock depiction of the very poorest working class women.

While Sabrina has some bread rolls in the front seat of her car, her problem is that she isn’t a consumer. She just wants somewhere to live that’s safe. It’s one of the most basic things a person can ask for. She isn’t economically productive, and therefore doesn’t warrant the concern of the state. She is a mother and a carer so not considered to be engaging in “real work.”

Women do the lion‘s share of unpaid household and care work. But it isn’t considered “work” because there are no wages, it’s just what women do. It is a bizarre attitude from a state that has a Constitution that specifically assigns a woman’s role to the home. But the very structure of capitalism, depends on women doing the majority of this form of work without payment.  Neoliberal capitalism neglects to acknowledge that women working within the home (or from their car in the absence of having a home) are economically productive as it allows the State to not provide public childcare infrastructure or other supports for childrearing. It is just something that women are expected to do, but it isn’t good enough for the terms of capitalist patriarchy.

Unfortunately Sabrina lives in a place where the government department responsible for welfare, the Department of Social Protection, aim to restructure the lives of poor women like Sabrina, in both a physical and a moral sense. It was not by mistake that it was the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald was out commenting on this story today, to address the concerned masses’ cries of “won’t somebody please think of the children?” rather than the Minister for Social Protection or the Minister for Environment, who ultimately have the responsibility for Sabrina’s situation.

It is unlikely that those who had the luxury of sending a message from their smartphone to a radio station to condemn and blame Sabrina for her situation, stopped to contemplate the precarity of their own situations; how many of them are only two, three or four pay packets away from homelessness themselves.

Not only was Sabrina demonised as a bad parent – but through their commentary, the very value of her existence was questioned. Caring for three small children in the back of a car isn’t valued because it is unpaid labour, although it is probably fair to say that if those who condemned Sabrina were forced to do it, they would think it was pretty hard work indeed.

SPARK ran a campaign last year against a programme forcing lone mams to work when their children turned 7, which had been introduced by Minister Joan Burton. You couldn’t have people remaining economically unproductive now could you? The rationale is that the state cannot allow people to exist in a way that does not overtly benefit capitalism. The point of that programme was to redeem the women who do not have male authority in their lives by forcing them into a situation where they would live within a patriarchal system that would give them male authority in the form of employment. The likelihood is, if they even managed to get a job, their boss would be a man. It is the state’s antidote to these dreadful welfare recipients of getting something for nothing. This particular form of workfare is branded an “activation measure” but it is punitive. It punishes women for not conforming to a life that involves a man who is a breadwinner.

Women don’t become poor in a vacuum. Women like Sabrina don’t live in cars for the fun of it and as austerity continues to destroy Irish society, we will continue to see more Sabrinas living in more cars and cardboard boxes, and sadly, more people willing to condemn them for it.

Advertisements

Sex Offenders and Vigilantes: You can’t beat up a structural problem

A few weeks ago while on a bus going through Cabra I noticed some posters pinned to trees alerting locals to the fact there was an alleged rapist in the area. They included his photo. This kind of thing always reminds me of a media story a few years ago about a bunch of headers in England kicking in the door of a paediatrician mistakenly thinking that paediatrician has the same meaning as paedophile. An unfortunate mistake for all concerned. The thought occurred to me while travelling through Cabra, that it wouldn’t end well.

Last night I noticed something on facebook. Someone had liked a public status update from Cabra based city councillor. As it was public and I presume that this Councillor uses this to communicate to his constituents, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest he won’t mind me reposting this here (I have however, not included his name in order to prevent whining from The Left (™) that I’m criticising politicians for my own nefarious political ends):

 

Attack on House on Attracta Road

 

The disgraceful attack on the house on Attracta Road on Sunday night has completely undone the positives of the community uniting against the presence of serial rapist Trevor Byrne in our area. The female occupants of the house were once again terrified by people claiming to be against violence to women. Byrne hasn’t been positively identified in the area for almost a week and wasn’t in the house when the raiders burst in and searched it.

 

The peaceful community campaign appeared to be working as Byrne was keeping his distance. Local residents leafleting the houses in the area warning about his presence and putting up posters put real pressure on Byrne and the Gardai monitoring him. The rally on the Cabra Road on Saturday, while poorly attended, did keep the pressure on Byrne. Ironically, the occupants of the attacked house were at the rally supporting their community against Byrne only to find themselves attacked the very next day.

 

This attack has done untold damage to the community campaign to have the right to know about sex offenders in their areas. The Gardai and the local politicians will claim the attack as proof that working class communities could not be trusted with sensitive information about sex offenders.

I want to be really clear about this from the outset, and say that my sympathy does not lie with rapists and sex offenders.

Everyone’s priority should be keeping communities safe, so it’s completely understandable when a tight-knit community hears there’s a rapist in their midst that they will want to organise and protect one another. In saying that, I think it’s fair to ask what exactly the organisers of this rally thought was going to happen when they organised it.

The purpose of a rally is to engage people, give them something to do, demonstrate the importance of an issue and increase a level of solidarity. It would be absolutely foolish to think you could have a rally designed to highlight a rapist’s presence in an area without some kind of vigilantism potentially happening as a result. It is in no way “ironic” that “the occupants of the attacked house were at the rally supporting their community against Byrne only to find themselves attacked the very next day.” It was completely predictable. To write it off as ‘just one of those things’ is a little disingenuous.

The problem with this kind of vigilantism is that it creates exactly the level of hysteria in a community that leads to women in house cowering in fear as a bunch of men enter and demand to know where a rapist is because someone, somewhere along the line made a mistake as to the rapist’s whereabouts. And this Councillor is of course correct, it is the exactly the sort of thing that is listed by the Gardai, and politicians as a reason not to notify people when there are sex offenders living nearby. But he also leaves out that Barnardos, the NSPCC, and even the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland are against giving this sort of information to local communities in general too. Because it results in the doors – or worse, the heads – of the paediatrician and innocent bystanders being kicked in.

There are of course other problems with it. When the community focus is turned towards a convicted serial rapist that everyone knows about, it perpetuates the myth that women are more likely to be dragged down an alleyway in the dead of night by this particular man and viciously attacked. While there may be a risk of that happening, the fact is that women are far more likely to be raped by someone that they know. Over 80% of rapists are known to their victim. It is often someone that they trust. Children are more likely to be raped or abused by a family member or a friend than a stranger in the street. One in four women will be raped or assaulted in their lifetime and only one in ten of those rapes are ever reported. It’s a staggering statistic and it shows that abuse and assault is sadly embedded within our society, so when there’s a pursuit of one rapist, the vigilantism has a smack of “Don’t touch our women” about it. Because even when the motives are genuine and sincere, and those who act do so out of genuine love for, or solidarity with the women in their lives it really does leave a very big question as to where the regard or solidarity is for the women in the next community that the sex offender is pushed in to.

Communities taking justice into their own hands doesn’t always work out so well; Trayvon Martin was shot by a vigilante. However, there are situations where people cannot for one reason or another, engage with the police or gardai. When communities are abandoned by the state, and are used to fending for themselves, it is not unforeseeable that they will take matters into their own hands and such situations will arise where they will find and punish someone who has perpetuated an awful crime. When the justice system that exists will not address the needs of its constituents, they will find a way to seek their own justice. There are still ‘no-go areas’ in Dublin for the Gardai. But Cabra certainly isn’t one of them and this group was not comparable to the Gulabi Gang of India.

I am not qualified to assess whether there is a genuine risk to a community because of a convicted rapist’s presence, but the fact remains that even if he has been driven from Cabra, the 1 in 4 statistic tells us that there’s still a few more sex offenders in Dublin 7 whether they are known to the community or not. It probably would have been far better if this could have been used as an opportunity for a community conversation on sexual violence and how and where it usually happens, issues of consent and how to negotiate it, breaking down some of the myths around rape, and how we might prevent sexual violence from happening in the first place. It certainly would have been more productive than having a gang of blokes storming into a house to terrify the very women they purport to protect.  

Men of the Left think they’re different: Abortion and the Anti-Austerity Alliance

The amazing women’s rights and anti-capitalist activist Selma James spoke at the Anarchist Bookfair in Dublin this weekend. Bualadh bos to the WSM for getting her over. She gave inspiring talks on a range of issues, and during her contribution on Care, Social Reproduction and Austerity the conversation flowed towards the reality of activism that women’s issues are often side-lined by the left and seen as not important enough to pay attention to or campaign on.

Selma’s comment that “Men of the left think they’re different because they’re of the left, but they’re not was met with a lot of women nodding their heads in agreement in the audience, and a couple of men shifting in their seats looking a little uncomfortable. Presumably some of them were thinking the usual Not all men are like that though!” that women on the left are compelled to listen to whenever any kind of discussion emerges on sexism on the left and what to do about it. The women activists gave each other knowing looks. It’s ridiculous that this is still something women on the left have to deal with, but we do, and the results of that mind-set range from the irritating to the absolute enraging.

One such example of more enraging is the emergence that the Socialist Party front group Anti-Austerity Alliance’s election candidate in Tullamore, Mr. Thomas Carty is completely and absolutely anti-choice on the issue of abortion. It’s unclear how forcing a woman to bring to term a pregnancy against her will is in line with an anti-austerity agenda so the AAA have some questions to answer.

Of course, this isn’t a new thing. The Socialist Party have in the past courted a candidate in Omagh, Johnny McLaughlin, who turned out to be anti-choice in a most hysterical manner, so they should be aware of the ramifications of this.

There are a few potential scenarios at play here:

a)    The AAA sat down and asked Mr. Carty what his position was on abortion, and he lied and said he was pro-choice ( which is unlikely considering his anti-choice views are plastered all over facebook).

b)    The AAA sat down and asked Mr. Carty what his position was on abortion and he said he was anti-choice and they viewed it as not being all that important because electoral opportunism requires bums on seats.

c)    Nobody in the AAA asked what his view was on it because the idea that 4,500 women spending up to £2,000 each every year travelling for a medical procedure overseas never entered their heads as being relevant to an anti-austerity programme.

It’s more likely that this is incompetence rather than conspiracy, and option C would probably be the bookie’s favourite.

And if that is the case it’s more than fair to ask why did nobody in the AAA think that this was a relevant question? There are more anti-choice candidates than Thomas Carty in the AAA ranks, so now that it’s been raised what will they do about it? It would be difficult to see them retaining a candidate who had been vocally racist in the past so why is supporting an anti-woman policy being treated differently? And Mr. Carty’s belief that a position as a ‘Boob Adjuster’ would be the best job ever (what? And not an AAA councillor leading the r-r-r-revolution? Shock indeed.) which is probably quite telling of his views on women hasn’t even been touched upon.

This kind of attitude is something that you would expect from political organisations of the right. It is not unreasonable to expect more from those who not only style themselves as the vanguard of the left, but as advocates for women.

Two fairly prominent members of the Socialist Party in Dublin were asked what the story with this was earlier on today in a facebook thread. At the time of writing, this legitimate question has been met with silence.

Image

When Peter Hadden of the Socialist Party was questioned on the Johnny McLaughlin debacle twelve years ago he replied;

“Abortion, while an important issue, is not a make or break question for our party.”

This attitude hasn’t changed and for many on the left, something that affects more than 50% of the population’s right to do what they want with their own bodies isn’t a make or break issue. You could be forgiven for asking what impact a policy has to have before it becomes a make or break issue. Perhaps something that affected a few more men?

Selma was right, men on the left think they are different, but they’re really not.

 

 

Edit to update at 20.46: A member of the SP who may or may not be a party spokesperson commented on the facebook thread mentioned above to state that Thomas Carty was never ratified as an AAA candidate saying that,”The fact stands that at the national meeting on Sunday in which his candidacy was being decided upon, that the national AAA meeting did not endorse his candidature for the reasons outlined. So no, he was never officially ratified as an AAA candidate. Incidentally, I am not an activist within the AAA myself. It’s an entity that’s broader than the Socialist Party, with two of the seven members of its steering committee, I think, being Socialist Party activists.” 

Thomas Carty was listed as an AAA candidate on the official AAA website up to this afternoon but has since been removed. No official statement from the AAA has been issued as yet.  

Edit to update 15th April: The AAA issued a statement late last night saying : 

STATEMENT FROM THE STEERING GROUP OF THE ANTI-AUSTERITY ALLIANCE RE. THOMAS CARTY

14 April 2014

The national Steering Group of the Anti-Austerity Alliance would like to clarify that Thomas Carty, Tullamore, is not endorsed as an AAA candidate. 

The Steering Group unanimously agreed today that Thomas has attitudes which wouldn’t be compatible with being a candidate for the AAA. The AAA is a progressive organisation which fights for the rights of both women and men; rejects divisions based on gender; and takes equal treatment of women seriously.

Thomas was put forward as a candidate by a grouping in Tullamore very recently and had not previously attended national AAA meetings. When issues were brought to the attention of the national AAA meeting yesterday, they were investigated by the steering group who unanimously agree that Thomas should not be endorsed as a candidate.

From the seven members of the steering group, Anti Austerity Alliance.

Still doesn’t explain how he ended up on their official website before that and with lovely funky AAA graphics all over his social media accounts with his face on them. Oh well. 

We need to talk about Sweden’s problem with rape and consent

Posted on

Content/comments warning: This post is about the way Sweden’s justice system deals with rape and sexual assault cases. It will contain graphic descriptions of sexual violence and rape apologism. It is not about Sweden’s reported rape rate. Racist or MRAist comments will be deleted.

15th May 2013

Swedish court clears ‘bottle sex’ men of rape

Three 19-year-old men were cleared of the rape of an underage girl. They had pinned her down on a bed, pried her legs open and inserted a wine bottle into her vagina, causing bleeding. The court accepted the truthfulness of her account, but rejected the charge of rape. It said she may have tried to keep her legs together out of “modesty”. The verdict stated, “People involved in sexual activities do things naturally to each other’s body in a spontaneous way, without asking for consent”.

19th September 2013

‘No’ debate erupts after gang rape-acquittal

Six teenagers were cleared by a Swedish appeals court of gang-raping a 15-year-old girl. Although she had said no, as one of the judges told the media afterwards, “that doesn’t automatically mean it’s rape”. The absence of actual violence (apart from the rape) meant she had to show she was in an “incapacitated state”, and fear of being gang-raped by six people was deemed insufficient to meet that threshold.

4th November 2013

Activists protest foster home teen rape acquittal

A 17-year-old girl in foster care in central Sweden reported the foster father for rape. His sperm was found in her vagina and on the spot in her bedroom where she’d said the rape took place. His explanation that he had been “erection training” in the bathroom and left a sperm-covered piece of paper there, that just happened to find his way into the girl’s vagina, was deemed feasible by the court. He was acquitted.

14th January 2014

Swedish judge defends dominant-sex rape acquittal

A man was acquitted of raping a woman who had screamed to the point of losing her voice as he attacked her. The court said it could not be rape because “the thought had not occurred to him, that she did not want to have sex with him”.

27th January 2014

Man cleared of rape: was ‘unaware’ she was drunk

A man was acquitted of raping a woman in western Sweden. The court accepted that the woman was drunk – in fact, it said she had been so drunk that she “fell to the ground and lay there awhile”. But he claimed he didn’t realise she was drunk, and the court ruled there was no proof that he did.

31st March 2014

District Court: All participated in a game in the shed

A 16-year-old was acquitted by a court in Eastern Sweden after forcing an underage girl to perform oral sex on another boy. The Court accepted that the girl felt forced, but said there was no proof that the accused intended force. Even though the reason she felt forced was him shooting her with a BB gun.

***

There’s a common thread running through the majority of these cases: a definition of rape (or sexual assault) in which the defining factor is not the victim’s consent, but the perpetrator’s perception of that consent. And unlike in Irish or British law, it seems, once that perception is asserted, its reasonableness is irrelevant. The accused need only claim to not have known the victim wasn’t consenting – no matter how patently absurd that claim is. The prosecution will need to prove that the accused not only heard “no”, but recognised it as “no”; not only that the victim was passed out on the floor from drinking, but that the accused recognised them as drunk. The fact that anyone with a brain in their head would have recognised these things? Not enough.

Through its laws on rape and prostitution, Sweden has produced two seemingly contradictory policies: that paying a woman who agrees to take your money for sex is the worst thing ever, but ignoring a woman’s rejection of your sexual advances is ok as long as you say you didn’t mean it. For a country so determined to control some women’s right to say “yes”, why is there so little concern for the right to say “no”? The only conclusion I can draw from this is that the Swedish state really doesn’t trust women at all to dictate the terms of their own consent.

(I should point out that one change has been made to the laws discussed above: namely, a rape victim who submits without force no longer has to show that they were in an “incapacitated state”. They can now show that they were in a “particularly vulnerable situation”. But the woman in the 27th January case was able to demonstrate this, and her rapist still walked free. Because he claimed he didn’t see it, and that’s still what matters in Sweden.)

Of course, there are rapists who are convicted in Sweden, maybe some of whom tried and failed to get away with the “I didn’t know no meant no” defence. That doesn’t make the existence of the defence any more acceptable. There are also some rapists acquitted in Ireland and Britain despite exceptionally dodgy consent defences, and since all our rape trials are heard by juries, who don’t give reasons, we wouldn’t know if they were de facto applying the Swedish standard. But it’s still better that they’re instructed not to.

If you’re reading this and it surprises you, ask yourself why you haven’t heard of these cases before. Why are they only ever reported in Swedish media and never picked up abroad? Why is that mainstream feminists, when they do hear about these cases (usually because people like me have tweeted these links at them), still refuse to acknowledge Sweden’s rape problem the way they decry, say, India’s or the USA’s?

To me the answer seems obvious: because mainstream feminism is incredibly invested in the narrative of Sweden-as-feminist-utopia. This isn’t just because of its horrible sex work laws; Swedish-style governance feminism in general is what mainstream feminism aspires to, where its hopes are pinned. To admit that it’s actually a bit shit for women in some ways, and particularly in a way like this which goes to the heart of women’s rights, is to admit that their emperor has no clothes. So better to ignore it and hope it goes unnoticed.

As someone who cares more about the actual lives of women than about any state feminism project, this post is my small contribution to stopping it going unnoticed.