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Statements, sentences, and the stories that hold up in court

The author of this piece wrote this as a reflection on her own experience of the court system as a victim of violence several years ago. As is frequently the case, the perpetrator entered a guilty plea, which meant the only court appearance for the victim was a sentencing hearing at the Circuit Court for the offence of assault causing harm.

The judge sentenced her abuser to 2 1/2 years but suspended the entire sentence, in part because of his “character”. She wishes to remain anonymous.

I’ve felt sick about the Tom Humphries case all day.

Character references in court are common, and they’re bizarre, but the totality of courtroom storytelling is even weirder, and I can’t stop thinking about it. And I can’t imagine what it’s like for the victim to see the rush to humanize him so much you’d think he’d just won a prize.

You really start to grasp the narrative injustice of a sentencing hearing when you look at the character reference in relation to its counterpart: the Victim Impact Statement. The Victim Impact Statement is still a relatively new introduction and is the only time the victim has a voice in a sentencing process.

The convicted person gets a whole production team to write his character. They write him a hero’s journey, from childhood, with the help of experts who even cast supporting characters to help narrate his story along the way. In contrast, the Victim Impact Statement can only reference the individual event the conviction is for, and can cite the effect of only this particular incident on life afterward, and nothing more.

I got a call to turn up at the garda station at midnight on a Saturday a few days before the sentencing. I got no brief, I just dictated some shit to a couple of prompts, and the garda wrote it all down. She asked me to read it over for accuracy, but she’d paraphrased badly, and it read like a school essay. I told her that in court, when I read this out, it wouldn’t sound anything like me.

You just read it from the page, she said, it’s just about the facts.

I said, there’s no way this is a believable version of me. I don’t even give facts this way.

But I didn’t get to have character, I just got to be one.

I learned when I arrived at court that anything outside of a single night of my life was inadmissible. I had added too much detail because how can you reduce a long and consistently injurious experience to one decontextualized moment? They took my statement and edited again, until it was essentially reduced to: it was bad and now I’m sad all the time. And they weren’t even my words.

So then you sit and listen to the twisted and carefully written hagiography of the convicted person: the good family he comes from that loves him very much and are here in the courtroom with him (as opposed to mine, whose absence didn’t go unnoticed), that that he was ‘student of the year’ in 1998, that he is a loving friend to all around him, and a talented designer (but honestly, even in 2012 he still thought Flash had a future, and what fucking good designer still thought that).

You just read lines that even you don’t believe are yours.

While the accused gets eulogized, you’re reduced only to your statement, which presents you, by design, as a thinly written cipher, who existed, briefly, as a device in someone else’s redemption narrative. This is his life, and this is your life.

Not only that, because the perpetrator’s side has done their opposition research, and the prosecution is mainly focused on making the case for the State, they barely mention you, lest they provoke a right of reply. Even if they care about justice enough to include you in their concerns, mentioning you again would just give the main character a chance to offer a reason you deserved it.

In the end, the judge makes a decision based on his or her interpretation of the sentencing guidelines. Which means that the severity of the punishment is determined by who has told the best story.

So then you walk out with the inverted trauma narrative running in your head, the one that is your worst fear: what if it was me? what if I just made it all up? what if I exaggerated everything because I can’t accept what a loser I am? It is, in fact, the story you’ve just heard: He’s a good person (so you must be the bad guy), you’re without worth (because your character got written out) and your merit is worse than irrelevant (because how dare you overestimate your importance to the story).

He’s a protagonist, you’re the background player who got killed off too early to need a backstory. Everyone knows who you’re supposed to root for.

I imagine that sentencing procedures were even worse before the Victim Impact Statement was introduced. In theory, it’s a great idea. In practice, instead of giving the victim a voice, at best, it provides texture for the main character, but mostly it amounts to replacing a deleted scene.

That’s its own form of narrative injustice.

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Letter to my (often feminist) friends who are concerned about those in “prostitution” and think that criminalizing those who pay for sex really can’t be such a bad idea.

Guest post by Susann Huschke

I write this with you in mind, those friends of mine who are generally open-minded, critical, progressive leftists. We agree on a lot of things – like, that capitalism is a problem, that Theresa May needs to go, and of course Trump, too, and that gender equality continues to be worth fighting for.

But when it comes to “prostitution” – that is, the selling and buying of sexual services – you are not so sure about my views. You have heard me argue that criminalizing those who pay for sex is a bad idea, but perhaps I have not done a good enough job explaining why that is. I believe it would be fair to sum up your position as follows: “We want to live in a society where women do not sell sex to men. And to get there, we think that it would help if we made it a crime to buy sex.”

I believe that you have good intentions, thinking this way, and that you are not driven by hatred of women as sexual beings, like for example, those fundamentalist Christians who lobby for the criminalization of sex work around the world.

Before I go into details, let’s check we’re on the same page. If you answer NO to any of these questions, we’re not starting from the same set of assumptions, and in that case, this article is not written for you.

1. Do you generally feel that the people who are affected by a given change in policy should have a say in the policy process?
2. Do you feel that women, or indeed all (adult) people, have the right to determine what to do with their bodies, for example when it comes to reproductive rights and LGBT+ rights?
3. Do you believe that sound empirical social research is a worthwhile endeavor and should be feeding into political decisions and public discourse? And by sound empirical research I mean research that is a) designed and conducted by people who have been trained to do research; b) reflects critically and transparently on research questions, research methodologies, funding sources and researcher bias; and c) does not do any harm to the communities that are targeted in the research?

If you answered those three questions with a YES, you cannot possibly agree with the “Swedish model” of criminalizing the buyer of sexual services. And here is why.

1. Sex worker movements do not support the criminalization of buyers, not in Sweden, not in Ireland, not anywhere (http://prostitutescollective.net/2014/03/today-sex-workers-oppose-criminalisation-of-clients/; http://www.pivotlegal.org/sex_workers_rights; https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/oct/17/northern-ireland-sex-workers-oppose-new-law; http://www.sweat.org.za/sexworkiswork/). Yes, individual former sex workers (or survivors of prostitution as they prefer to be called) are often very prominent supporters, for whatever their reasons may be. But if you actually look at groups, movements and organizations that represent the diverse people who work in the sex industry – they don’t want criminalization. Why not? For example, because they feel that the more their way of making a living is criminalized, the less safe it is for them. And because they feel that criminalization adds to the stigma that is one of the worst parts of their job. And because they feel that those who propose these laws have not actually bothered to meet them; listen to them; engage with them in any meaningful way.

Interesting fact on the side: the Swedish model is often hyped up as punishing the punter (by criminalizing the purchase) and helping the sex worker (by decriminalizing the sale of sex). Now, in Ireland, both North and South, we only got the first part of the bargain. Sex workers continue to be criminalized, for example when they work together in pairs for safety – that is deemed “brothel-keeping” with the two sex workers “pimping” each other, and they continue to get arrested for that. Now, you might say that policy-makers just forgot to decriminalize sex workers because they were busy with the really important social issues. Or you might say they actually don’t give a rat’s ass about the well-being and safety of “fallen women” – they just want to sound like they do.

2. Among the most prominent supporters of the Swedish model are right-wing Christian groups that oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Surely, that should make you suspicious about their motives, and perhaps about the policies they propose. If you are ever in doubt about this, just take a brief look at the kind of worldview the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is spreading, and ask yourself if they are really your political allies?

3. There are many things that are unsound about the kind of “research” or statistics that get cited to support the claim that the Swedish model “works” – that is, that it really reduces sex trafficking and shrinks the sex industry, and that sex workers are happy and grateful about the law. Let me just highlight a few issues. For example, the fact that the Swedish police do not have many victims of sex trafficking in their statistics does not necessarily mean there are none. A very basic rule of thumb in research: the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It might mean that they can’t find them, or worse, didn’t actually look for them because they were too busy policing consensual sexual acts between sex workers and clients. As a Northern Irish police officer explained to me in 2014, commenting on a collaboration with the Swedish police on an international crime network that exploited women in the sex industry: “They had no idea this was going on in Sweden. They said ‘we normally just go after the punters.’”

It is also a good idea (in any field and for any contested political question) to question the source of information. I am going to give you a very concrete example, and you will have to trust me that this is not an exception but a typical example of how research is misrepresented in this debate (or you start following the information back to the source like I did, which I highly recommend).

Supporters of the Swedish model present the view that sex work always constitutes violence and abuse. They pretend that this is a view based purely on empirical evidence, rather than a view based mainly on ideology – based on picking and choosing and tweaking selected bits of evidence rather than actually engaging with all the existing empirical data. See, if they clearly stated that their policy proposals were driven by their moral and political standpoints, at least we could have an open debate about these. None of us are morally neutral, especially when it comes to sex and money. [And if you are wondering what my moral and political position is, please re-read the questions I posed above, particularly No. 1. First and foremost, I am a firm believer in people’s right to self-determination, self-expression and self-representation, none of which are compatible with the views expressed by proponents of the Swedish model].

Now, let me give you an example of the misrepresentation of empirical evidence in this debate. In Northern Ireland, supporters of the Swedish model liked to support their view of sex work by arguing that the majority of people started selling sex when they were children or teenagers. This argument is explicitly presented, for example, on the website of the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign (a very successful lobby group across Ireland) as one of the “10 facts about prostitution.” They state that 75% of women in prostitution became involved when they were children, citing as a source a conference paper by Prof. Margaret Melrose from 2002. I read the original paper and learned that Prof. Melrose’s research specifically investigated the exploitation of children in the British sex industry. And logically, because she wanted to know about child sexual exploitation, she recruited participants who had experienced child sexual exploitation, that is, people who had entered the sex industry before the age of 18. In her presentation, she states that 75% of the people in her sample, 75% of the people she interviewed, had started selling sex when they were children, i.e., 14 or younger – not 75% of all people in the sex industry! Huge difference!! And pretty obvious, even to the untrained lay eye. I also emailed Prof. Melrose to ask her about this rather distorted use of her study, and she replied to me saying:

“The findings were never intended to suggest that 75% of ALL women involved in sex work become or became involved [as children] – only those included in the study – and as we were looking at adult women who became involved before they were 18 this is hardly surprising. I am aware that the work has been used by those who argue that all sex work is violence against women – it is not a position I adhere to myself.”

Now, my last point. After everything I just presented to you, you might still say: But what about the kind of society we want to live in, should we not envision a world without “prostitution”? And you know what, I might actually agree with you.

But I also envision a world without Amazon, where temporary workers run from one shelf to another all day long to meet the targets, and get punished for taking sick leave. And a world without large scale agricultural businesses that employ undocumented workers who get paid shitty wages and are exposed to poisonous chemicals on a regular basis. And yes, also a world without neoliberal universities trying to compete in a market by running their staff into the ground until we end up with “burn-out”.

How do we get there? I would say, first and foremost, through solidarity with the workers. And second, through a critique of the social structures that enable exploitation. Distributing books, growing vegetables, investigating the world, and having sex, mind you, are not inherently problematic activities that need to be eradicated. It is the ways in which they are integrated into the current economic system and tied up with multiple forms of oppression along the lines of gender, “race”, class, and nation, amongst others, that is problematic!

So, what sex workers could really do with is, for example: free access to higher education, equal pay for women, decent social welfare, erasure of their criminal record when they try to leave the sex industry, legalization of their immigration status, and gender norms that do not instill in young people that men need to fuck (lots of) women and women need to please men.

So how about we align ourselves with the workers – of whatever industry you fancy – and fight for a better, more just, less violent society, rather than spending our time applauding a bunch of narrow-minded, hard-hearted misogynists and their (perhaps) well-meaning, yet out-of-touch feminist allies, for a judgmental, regressive, and ineffective law.

If you want to read more, check out, for example, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

#coponcomrades Revisited: The IT Women’s Podcast

Feminist Ire’s Stephanie Lord and Sinéad Redmond, along with Niamh McDonald and her son Tom, join Kathy Sheridan to discuss the origins of Cop On Comrades, how men can support the feminist struggle, and activism in the social media age.

Dear Mary

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The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous

Daily newspaper problem pages and agony aunt columns are usually the stuff of tea-breaks – a few subbed-down lines is all the reader gets to explain the situation that needs sorting. This week, though, the Irish Independent’s “Dear Mary” feature printed an extraordinary letter from a man who claimed to hate his wife but who said he would continue in the relationship if she had sex with him once a week. It caught my attention, not because of the misogyny – though that is astounding in its intensity – but because the writer admits to forcing his wife to have sex….and Mary welcomes this “other perspective”.

It prompted me to imagine what the writer’s wife might say to Mary, if she’d read her husband’s letter and recognised him. Perhaps other women might like to imagine too?

“Dear Mary,

It’s been 14 – no 16 – years. Of hell. If you must know.

Fourteen years with his ring on my finger.

God he begged and begged me to marry him when I was at university. We met at a gig in the students’ union. He caught me unawares after a few drinks. It wasn’t until sometime later that he admitted he wasn’t a student too.

He was a salesman.

Who liked hanging around the university in the evenings.

And it wasn’t until sometime after that again that he admitted he still lived with his mother, not in a house on the edge of the city with two friends from college.

These untruths annoyed me and we split up several times. So why did I marry the liar?

Well, I met his mother on the final get-back-together weekend.

“Ah sure you’re great together.

“Ah he worships the ground you walk on.

“And when I think about it, he’s very good to me really.”

As I listened to her gush in her sparkling kitchen, I thought this was strange because he was always complaining about her. But I let it slide and accepted the ring.

And it was grand for a while. We honeymooned hornily in Benidorm for a week and our first child was born 40 weeks later.

When I found out I was pregnant he was delighted.

His own personal taxi service to and from the pub.

When the child arrived, he celebrated over the whole weekend with his friends. I saw him at the delivery and then 36 hours later, dishevelled and so drink-sodden I thought the nurses would turf me out of the bed and put him in it.

I’d just started a good job before I got married. The child put paid to that. They didn’t have to keep the post open and so I scraped by on the notes he put on the kitchen counter each week.

He was always promising more – there’s a big deal coming off, he’d say, loads of commission. But it never happened. It was on one of those Friday nights that I fell pregnant again. A couple of cans of cider in my three-month-post-baby-body and that was it. In spite of his assurances that he’d seen on television that a woman who’d had a baby couldn’t get caught again for a year.

Yes. I was that in love, that gullible.

So three years into the marriage and two youngsters under two. His money stayed the same so I had to do something. But who would look after two kids that age for nothing?

Well actually,his mother did – for a few mornings each week – and I started cleaning other people’s houses. Cash in hand. No sick pay. No holiday pay.

So, Mary.

I could buy bits and bobs at Christmas….new shoes for the kids…the usual.

And it was hard Mary, do you know that?

Getting him off to work with a clean, pressed shirt each day. Getting the kids organised for their gran’s, getting to work – I’d no car – and back. Then housework, the dinner, the kids.

I was shattered.

He came home from work, threw off his shoes and ate his dinner with the six-pack he’d brought home. Or phoned me to say his workmates were having a few drinks and he’d see me later.

Either way, I couldn’t win. Either way, when I had put the kids to bed, he’d start pawing from the sofa, or arrive home with just one thing on his mind.

And I was shattered Mary.

A lot of the time I got away with it. I’d say one of the kids wasn’t well and sleep in their room. Or say I had my period. For a man who was supposedly so well up on female reproduction he had no idea most periods don’t last two weeks.

But sometimes there was nothing I could do.

Now don’t get me wrong. At that stage I did kind of still love him. If he’d lifted the toys or said he would iron his own shirts, I’d have been all over him like a mare in heat.

But he never did.

And he was no stallion Mary. He was a little mongrel dog. One, two, three. Done.

A good lover?

I climaxed three times in our marriage – twice on honeymoon. As the Americans would say, go figure.

Anyway, after a few years he stayed out more and more.

It sounds like a 1950s record, but when I washed his shirts I knew he was with other women. They can’t help themselves with the perfume – even their deodorant smells different. And it was all over his shirts.

Then one night he came home earlier than usual. The children were watching television and I was making their school lunches in the kitchen. In he comes through the back door, swaying, demanding.

I suggested later. He wanted it there and then. I protested the kids were in the next room, could walk in any minute. He tipped the back of a chair against the door handle and raped me over the kitchen sink.

Do you know what that’s like Mary? To be violated in your own home, your children in earshot so you can’t scream?

One, two, three. Done.

Be thankful for small mercies.

He said nothing the next day and neither did I.

I thought about leaving him then. But this was before the internet was big and I’d no mobile phone anyway. It wasn’t until weeks later that I saw a poster for Women’s Aid in the library – but when and where would I get the time to ring them? What would they be like? Would they give off that I had stayed there that night – and since? I did not know these things. Besides which, on the night it happened I’d four euro fifty in my purse and no idea of where to go.

Now, it’s different.

Now I’m still cleaning because the kids are still at school but I’ve saved a bit for what I call my sunshine day.

Now I know the Women’s Aid number. I’ve got someone to speak to.

He’s forced me since. And I’ve told her. She’s written it down.He’s never hit me, but she says that doesn’t matter – rape in marriage is still rape. I always thought the hitting mattered most, the black eyes and the bruises . That that was domestic abuse. I think lots of people – men and women – do. Maybe you do too. Maybe you should talk to Women’s Aid too. Ask them about rape in marriages and partnerships.

I didn’t know that controlling the money in the house was abuse. Both our names are on the mortgage, but he keeps telling me that I’ve let him down and it really should be his because I don’t have the job that my university education lead him to believe I’d get.

I’d didn’t realise that his never-ending put-downs were abuse too. After the second child and thinking I was stuck with him forever, I didn’t care about anything. I ate when I wanted – crisps and toast. No, actually, I ate what we could afford and when I wasn’t cleaning, or looking after the kids or him. So my jeans and T-shirts got bigger, but I’m always clean and fresh, even if my hair is constantly tied back in a ponytail and I cut my own fringe.

And I make my children smile. And the people I work for and anyone I talk to. Though I haven’t been able to keep up with my uni friends – or make many news ones. Well, you can’t when you’re never out, Mary, can you?

He has lots of “friends”.

But the Women’s Aid woman is a friend now. She persuaded me to tell her how my life is lived. And she helped me see that it is no life at all. She knows because it used to be her life too.She understands that a time will come. And she says they’ll be waiting.

I have a phone now but he doesn’t know about it. I hide it under those shirts he never irons in the basket. So, when that time comes and I’m ready, I can call them and tell them I’m coming.

He still comes home expecting his dinner and all the rest – and sometimes, like before, I can’t escape, but I will….soon.

When he’s sitting, furious at the lack of sex, on the sofa, he texts a lot. I know it’s other women but I ignore the pings. He smiles sometimes and puts on his coat and leaves me in the kitchen. I know he’s meeting them for sex – he keeps condoms in his jacket pocket. He doesn’t know I’m studying the books I’ve hidden behind the cereal boxes.

So yes, Mary.

Tell him to leave.

Tell him to get out of this house and move away, far, far away. He never cared about the kids up until now – ask him the dates of their birthdays and see what he says. He won’t miss them.

We won’t miss him either.”

On Comradeship and Copping On

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(Guest post by Izzy Kamikaze)

This is part of a longer (maybe much longer) work in progress about #coponcomrades – a recent social media kerfuffle here in Ireland, that seems quite instructive and worth spending more time on. I was writing Part One and Part Two at the same time, but Part Two finished itself first and so they are being published out of sequence.

The story so far is basically that a young-to-me (35ish) very effective working class male activist has published a piece in a national newspaper, decrying “identity politics” and the notion that “a straight, white male” can carry any privilege if he is also working class. Amongst other responses, a group of feminist women have signed up to a joint statement, acknowledging the disadvantage of working class men, but otherwise disagreeing.

The usual social media handbags at dawn has ensued. Two days ago, a male left wing poet has weighed in with a poem depicting 350 crazed neoliberal harpies and Part Two is my response to that poem. If you haven’t read the poem, you can find it here (and this contribution may not make much sense without it,) but if you’ve already seen it, meh…why give it any more clicks…

Emma

Part 2: Plutonium Pants Suit

Dear Kevin,

I was pretty surprised yesterday to find myself a target of your satire. I’m Capitalism’s Handmaiden now, part of a chorus of “350 identical voices.” As feminist voices are indistinguishable to your ear and presumed to be the voices of privilege and neoliberalism, I thought I’d write, in a spirit of comradeship, to help you distinguish one voice from what you apparently see as a fem-bot army, raining death and destruction on the world from the weaponised genitals inside our “plutonium pants suits.” An appealing image, perhaps Kevin, but a false one. I’m writing to tell you it ain’t necessarily so.

You don’t know me, but you usually tag me when you share your poems and I like that. Well-aimed political satire is one of the most subversive things we can do. I’ve often shared your poems and commented kindly on them – one about the Jobstown protest is a particular favourite and another about Clare Daly. Thank you for those. The words we handmaidens of capitalism sent out into the world were all about privilege, so that’s what I thought I’d write to you about now.

My granny didn’t have a piano, stolen from a refugee or otherwise, but if she had one, she’d have been able to tune it. Her father tuned pianos for a living and she had learned from him. He also played the organ in the local cathedral, which came with a little social standing, but no cash. My Granny lived in poverty most of her lifetime, but was better educated than her neighbours in the council estate and was acutely aware of this privilege. There was a book on her few shelves called “Law for the Millions” and from this she dispensed legal advice to neighbours who couldn’t afford a solicitor. The “Button A, Button B” payphone in her front room was the only one in the estate and that’s where the neighbours came to keep in touch with their emigrant children, or to call a doctor when somebody had an accident.

My Granny never had money in her whole lifetime. She scraped by on a widow’s pension for 30-odd years. I remember going to the coal merchant with my Granny just before Christmas. She paid for her own delivery, then handed him a few bob to bring coal to somebody who couldn’t afford it. My Granny’s voice is one of 350 voices, entirely distinguishable from each other, that pop into my head on any average day.  My Granny was no intersectional feminist, but she wanted us to remember “there is always somebody worse off than yourself.”

There is no plutonium pants suit in my wardrobe, Kevin. Just my leather jackets, faded jeans and the shirts and ties that still sometimes get me mocked in the streets by people you presumably feel have no privilege worth speaking about. When I was 24, I found myself living in Fatima Mansions. If you haven’t heard of it, it was a notoriously deprived council estate in Dublin’s South Inner City. I stayed more than 15 years and for most of that time, homophobic abuse was a daily part of my life. For a few months in the early 90s, I cared for a friend and former lover who was terminally ill. She died in the front room there, Kevin. She was tired of the hospitals and clinics, so she chose to die at home, but she had to go to the methadone clinic daily, so I used to scrub the piss and shit off the stairs so we could get down to the waiting taxi. I was afraid she might fall there.

We had no money, so our lives were pretty limited, but one night she went out for a drink with a friend. She hadn’t been out for a long time and was very excited and I was pleased too, because I really needed a rest. When she came back that night, I opened the door and she was stood there on the doorstep, with spit running down her face onto her leather jacket. Her voice is another of the entirely distinguishable voices in my head. She left me all her papers to “write the true story of women living with HIV” and I hear that voice quite often because I haven’t kept that promise, but I got out of that place by getting a job and a mortgage that I’m still paying. So time is short and I only manage it in snatches like this one to you.

The young men who did this were amongst the least privileged in our society and I stand squarely by their side whenever justice demands it. But did they enjoy straight white male privilege when they broke all my windows, wrote graffiti on my door or shoved shit through my letterbox? I say they did. And they had privilege too when they spat in the face of a dying woman, 32 years old, on her way home from her last ever night in the pub? I say they did, Kevin.  And did I enjoy white privilege when they eventually bored with me and moved on to harass the black people who had started to move into our neighbourhood? It didn’t feel like much of a privilege, but yes I did.

It was eight years before I had the money to bring her ashes to India as she’d asked me to. I went for six weeks and it’s still the only time I’ve been outside Europe. It’s interesting you should mention Union Carbide in your depiction of us, because I spent one of those six weeks volunteering at a centre for victims of the Bhopal gas disaster. That week was a small thing, Kevin and I’m looking for no medals for it. It was a drop in the ocean, but still, an act of comradeship rather than the unthinking rampage of one of capitalism’s handmaidens, in my entirely discountable opinion.

The left has always had an issue with what it calls “identity politics” but I’m old enough and around both struggles long enough to remember that it used to have another name. When I was young and desperate to be accepted on the left, the term used was bourgeois individualism. The fight for individual human rights as basic as choosing who to live and love with was a manifestation of greed, not need, they told us. Depending on who you talked to, either all our problems would be solved after the revolution, or else we ourselves would cease to exist as our sexuality was nothing more than a symptom of bourgeois decadence. We were an unsightly pimple on capitalism’s arse. Either way, we needed to subsume our struggle to that of the huddled masses, until the glorious revolution came to grant us luxuries like not having to perpetually wipe spit from our faces (or else until it imprisoned us in the gulags, whichever turned out to be the case.)

Identity politics needed to happen, Kevin, and still needs to happen. I was a teenager then and I have a grandchild now. The magical revolution that wipes all problems away is no more assured in her lifetime than it was in mine.  I hope as a comrade you see why we couldn’t just wait. Sure, there were people who were assimilationist, who didn’t care at all if others remained without privilege, as long as they got some themselves. But that was never me, Kevin, and there were plenty more like me. I do try to live in solidarity with others. I know it’s never enough, but I know I try. I don’t know all the other voices you characterise as “identical,” but I do know they’re not identical and I’m pretty sure that they try too.

In your poem, even my poor innocent genitals are reimagined as weapons of war, raining down horror on the Middle East. I feel as helpless as most comrades in the times we live in, but I’ve always been against war and struggled for peace. My enthusiasm for your poem about Jobstown isn’t just to do with that case. I’ve fought for the right to protest all my life. I’ve been arrested twice in my life, both times for anti-war protest – nothing compared to what homeless young working class men now face when they get treated like criminals for just trying to find someplace to sleep or rest or to use the drugs they can’t get through a day without, but still a mark that I’ve not lived my life entirely as a handmaiden to the military industrial complex.

One of those arrests was as specious in its way as the arrest of the Jobstown defendants, as we never did find out under what law it was made. That protest was against American foreign policy, as obnoxious 33 years ago as it is today. The other sought the release of a pregnant woman activist, arrested in the USSR on false charges of assaulting a KGB officer. She was a target because of her involvement in the disarmament movement and her husband was frantic because he couldn’t find out where she was.

Their plight would have meant little to one of the warmongering fem-bots of your imagination, but not being one of those, I did the little bit I could. Myself and four friends left the party celebrating my 21st birthday and we chained ourselves to the gates of the ambassador’s residence. We were there for a number of hours before we were cut off the gate and nobody could get in or out, during that time. No doubt we’d be charged with “false imprisonment” today, but luckily we weren’t and we made the papers. We helped to secure the release of that woman and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if I happened again to be one of the first people to hear news of an unjust incarceration.

I understand your instinct in writing the poem, Kevin. Word reached you of something you thought an injustice and you sat down to write in the same spirit as I chained myself to that gate. I know you heard our voices as a hate-filled chorus, but I also know you didn’t hear what we actually said. My feminism has nothing to do with Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi, nor the Hillary Clinton implied in the line about plutonium pants suits that must have seemed so very clever at the time. I’m rooting for Jeremy Corbyn, not for Teresa May. I’m no friend of power, but while it exists, may compassionate people hold it regardless of gender, not the clowns and tyrants that give me so many sleepless nights.

I’m rooting for Corbyn, though the slogan “For the Many” gives me the heebie-jeebies. Sometimes the few-in-number are not the oppressors, but the tide turns against them anyway and they end up in the camps. Even the kindest ideology contains within it the seeds of oppression. We have to be watchful of ourselves all the time. There are intolerant versions of feminism and I’m happy to stand against them, but so far there’ve been no feminist gulags, where people are imprisoned for minor irregularities of thought or for having a little more than their neighbour has. Within a year of the much needed revolution in Russia, once the bright hope of working people around the world, the first forced labour camp opened. The dreams of freedom often end up dashed on the rocks below.

The seeds of oppression are in everything that once stood for justice, but as yet no feminist bombs have rained on children in their beds. There are no piles of corpses to shame our talk of equality. It was somebody else’s dream of equality that went very bad. I promise to keep an eye out for injustice, Kevin. I promise to speak out where I see it and I hope you keep doing the same – will you join me in being as willing to listen as to speak out? Will we listen to each other’s voices first, before rushing to condemn?

The focus on the assumed privilege of our 350 voices is something that puzzles me. It might make more sense if we’d claimed we didn’t have any privilege, but we didn’t say that. It definitely would make sense if we’d said “even the most underprivileged working class man on the street has more privilege than we have” but we didn’t say that either. What we tried to say was “everyone has privilege sometimes. That’s OK, it’s what you do with it that counts.” I hope you might hear this more distinctly when it’s one voice saying it, but I’m sure each of the others is on her own journey with the privilege she was born with and the privilege she was born without.

I don’t know the circumstances of all the others. I’m sure some are middle class, but what of it? Eva Gore-Booth, born into the splendour of Lissadell House in Sligo, did more for the female mill workers of Lancashire than most male trade union leaders of less exalted origins. Her better known sister, Constance Markievicz, was the victim of many a sneer about her origins, but was so loved by the slum-dwellers of Dublin that they queued the full length of O’Connell St to file past her coffin. The Rebel Countess’s voice is often in my ear. In her youth, you might recall, she felt so strongly for the poor she “put [her] jewels in the bank and [bought] a revolver.” By the time she died at 59, she had nothing left to give away.

Emma Goldman’s voice is another one that sometimes visits me. Nobody was more committed to class struggle than she was, but if she couldn’t dance, she didn’t want to be part of your revolution. Nobody thinks of her as an intersectional feminist, but she said this: “The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul.”

The right to speak freely on matters of conscience is of vital importance and is not extended equally to everyone. We all have to grab whatever opportunity we can find. I’m glad we live in a country where, all of us in this story have been able to speak up as we see fit, even if we don’t all get the same platform and even if we find the criticism of others hard to take. I’m glad a working class man is free to say he can’t possibly enjoy any privilege, even though he’s saying it in the pages of a national newspaper whilst taking a PhD in Trinity College. I’m glad a bunch of feminists can disagree, singly or together, and share their feelings through a humble Facebook post that nevertheless gets a lot of exposure. I’m glad that people who disagree with us can have conniptions on social media about “search and destroy” missions, as if feminazis were training binoculars on their house prior to dragging them off to break rocks in the re-education camp of their paranoid fantasies.

I’m glad that you are free to write a spectacularly ill-conceived poem about the whole affair and to publish it in an outlet that only a few weeks ago was equally free to share for clicks the footage of the shamefully heavy-handed arrest of a naked woman, the late Dara Quigley, another writer and activist, just like you and me. They ignored for hours the pleas of their contributors and readers to take it down, but I’m still glad there were no official censors kicking their door down (and I’m glad they eventually listened and took it down.)  I see they’ve changed the picture above your poem and I’m betting they made less of a big deal about doing so, but I’m sure that doesn’t reflect any kind of privilege at work…

I’m glad that I can respond to you as I’ve done here, even though my platform’s smaller and I’m glad you’re at liberty to pen further speculation about my alleged neoliberal sympathies and the fantasised misdeeds of my blameless grandparents. None of us is going to be dragged from our beds in the middle of the night for what we’ve said and I’m grateful. The worst that will happen to any of us is that other people might disagree with us and might say so, singly or in groups and I know from sweet experience (I try not to be bitter) that is totally survivable.

It isn’t always that way in the world we live in. There are writers and activists in the world whose heads rest uneasy on their pillows tonight and it befits us all to recall that when we meet with some pretty civilised resistance to what we say. Let’s keep them in mind before accusing each other of censorship and war crimes. Let’s turn our attention together to real threats to our own speech. They are out there, Kevin and it’s not you or me. It would be good also to remember that feminism has always emphasised the importance of the individual’s voice – “the personal is political” – while socialism all too often demanded that the individual’s welfare and small voice be sacrificed for an allegedly greater good.

Everybody has some privilege sometimes, Kevin. I would say that, even if they did come now to kick down my door. None of us is so lacking in privilege that we can be excused the necessity of listening to other people’s voices. None of us.

The voices I’ve shared with you so far have all been women’s voices. I’m concerned that you might find them hard to tell apart. James Connolly is not usually thought of as an intersectional feminist, but perhaps his voice will land more easily on your ear than mine does. He put it this way: “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.” I’m with Connolly on that one, Kevin. None of us is so lacking in privilege that we have not at some time benefitted from somebody else’s lack of privilege.

Keep sending me your poems, please Kevin. Mostly I enjoy them.

Yours in Comradeship, Izzy.

If it’s not your identity, it’s your privilege

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Originally posted on Linnea Dunne’s blog. Reposted here with permission.

It’s funny when a straight, white man denounces the three-word descriptor as unfair because those are not the words he would personally choose to describe himself. Talk about missing the point – or helping to hammer it home. That’s exactly what privilege is: the identities that are so deeply accepted as societal norms that they become invisible. I didn’t grow up introducing myself as a straight, white, middle class person either. Why would I? Nine out of ten of my friends ticked all those boxes too. Woman, though – I describe myself as that on the regular.

People who take issue with identity politics tend not to like the way we use the word ‘privilege’. I’d be happy to use a different word; I just don’t know of one that hits the nail on the head so well. I’m privileged too – in some ways, maybe more privileged than a working-class Dub, even if he happens to be a straight, white man. But this isn’t a privilege competition and I’m not here to pass blame. As Frankie Gaffney points out so well in his anti identity politics piece in the Irish Times, he didn’t choose those attributes – it’s just how he was born.

Think about that for a moment. He didn’t choose it; he was lucky compared to many, but it was nothing more than a luck of the draw. And that of course goes for those who weren’t so lucky as well, which is exactly why we call it privilege – it’s not earned, it’s not chosen, nor is it in and of itself a sign of ignorance or arrogance. It just is.

When Gaffney sets out his vision for a world of equality, he writes: “We should all be subject to the same laws, all have the same opportunities, all have the same rights, all have the same responsibilities…” What he doesn’t want is politics that sets out to divide us. But can’t he see we’re already divided? Can’t he see that plugging that gap between society’s divisions requires a mapping out of the same? If our privileged identities are so normative that we can’t even see them, how are we going to break down the oppressive ideas and prejudices against those who don’t fit within the norm, these ideas we’ve all internalised by virtue of growing up in a divided world? Equality is not about blindly giving everyone the same, like sweets divided into bowls for kids at a birthday party; equality is about looking at the unfair starting points, working to dismantle what caused them and distributing resources accordingly.

Should we talk about suicide rates amongst men, the homelessness crisis and how and why it’s gendered, how toxic masculinity is killing both men and women and how we can destroy it? Of course we should. I want more of that kind of talk, and I have yet to meet a feminist who doesn’t. What I don’t want is for these concerns to grow louder and more frustrated every time a woman talks about women’s rights or a person of colour about racial privilege. We can do both. There’s not a finite space for discussing societal problems and fighting for a more equal world. Keep talking.

Did I ever go hungry? No, not once. I’ll say it again: I’m bathing in privilege. I’m still scared of walking home alone at night; I still panic every month in the days before my period arrives; and I’ve learnt to always wrap my opinions in soft cotton wool, lest I be called out as hysterical – but hey, that’s just being a woman. I’m still regularly reminded of my privilege on an almost daily basis, but while it’s hard, I suck it up. Because this is about inclusive equality for everyone, so screw my hurt feelings.

I could spend my days defending my right as a white middle-class person to use whatever words I choose, regardless of my ignorance around their heritage and the hurt they cause, or I can focus my energy on listening to those who have fallen deep into the cracks of society’s divisions, with the aim of lessening the divides and building bridges. Gaffney has the same choice, and here’s a clue: it’s not the people fighting back against oppression who are to blame for society’s great divides, no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel.

I am not a nun, I am a midwife: maternity care in a “modern” Ireland

The author of this guest post wishes to remain anonymous.

I attended a protest at the Department of Health yesterday to highlight people’s outrage at the handing over of the new National Maternity Hospital site to the religious order of the Sisters of Charity. I went as a member of Midwives for Choice, and I expected to help hold the banner and maybe video our spokesperson speaking. As it happened she could not, fearful as she was of her job by speaking out against St Vincent’s Hospital Group. So it ended up that I had a microphone and a megaphone pointed in my direction. My reaction? I froze. My voice is an inside my head voice, for the most part; I can’t even speak up in small group conversations mostly. So for anyone who wanted to know why there were midwives behind a banner, here are my thoughts.

I’m already scared that I’m a nun. All the older nurses and midwives in our hospitals were trained by nuns and they tell of the iron fist, regimented care and much else. Sometimes with respect and awe, sometimes fear, sometimes relief that they are all but gone.

The church’s legacy is strong within our healthcare system. Many if not most hospitals in the state have some church connection (religious members on boards, etc). Yet the history of church-run institutions in this country reads like a horror story, from the Magdalene Laundries to the institutional schools. Say it slowly with me: the institutions of the Catholic Church are inherently misogynistic. Women’s bodies will always suffer under them. They are beyond redemption.

Finally, this is the generation where the church’s abuses are being exposed. We are sickened as a nation to our very core about the Tuam babies, symphysiotomies, Magdalene Laundries, the abuse of our children by priests and nuns. Finally we should have hope that our society will stand up and say no more, that we can extricate our institutions from the grasp of the religious. It will be a slow but worthwhile process. When we can get the church out of our government, our laws, our schools, our healthcare systems, our bodies, maybe finally we can have a humane secular society.

That’s what most of us were thinking, surely, in the wake of the Tuam babies case? Please save us from the church? Then what the hell is this move? It’s as Irish a decision as getting your kid baptised to have a family get-together… and maybe to get into the local school. Cop on, Ireland. Stop being so short-sighted, so disingenuous. If we know something is wrong – and by God we know the Sisters of Charity have done wrong – then let’s stand up against it.

As a midwife, my role in supporting women to make informed decisions around their care in pregnancy and childbirth is already curtailed by the patriarchal, over-medicalised, over-litigious, under-staffed, no-continuity, factory-model, fire-fighting maternity system in place here. But at least women in Ireland are starting to take back power, to demand evidence-based care and proper time to birth. Even if this is something that our systems literally cannot provide at present, at least there is an awareness that what we have now is not good enough.

It feels like a change, this last 10 years: women are coming together; midwives are coming together; there is a politicisation, a will to change, even if it can’t quite find traction within our systems yet. There is a recognition that the 8th Amendment is a barrier to proper maternity care; where the fetus and the woman have equal rights within our constitution, any perceived risk to the well-being of a fetus overrides even real and substantial risks to a woman’s health and well-being. Our National Consent Policy directly points to the 8th Amendment as being a reason why pregnant people do not have a legal right to informed consent and refusal of treatment. Women leaving this system will attest to being railroaded and sidelined within their own care (see Aims Ireland testimonials).

I work within the system as it is now. While, individually, I strive to do my very best for each woman I care for, I know that the system is letting them down. I know that women are leaving our maternity system traumatised and broken down. Childbirth itself is not an inherently traumatic event. It is what we do to women in the name of “safety”: ass-covering and over-intervention without proper thought, consideration, conversation and shared decision-making with the people whose bodies we care for.

This brings me back to my first point: I already fear that I’m a nun. When the Tuam babies story broke, as well as the horror and the disgust that we all felt, I had a sneaking fear lurking… Those nuns were midwives. What if I’m a nun? What if I were a nun in Tuam, entering the institution to try to do my best for the forgotten and ostracised single mothers. What if I was kind as I caught their babies and helped them to their mother’s breast. What if I was gentle as I cared for infants while their mothers worked, coming back to feed them on schedule. What if my heart hurt as I dried the tears of a mother whose baby was adopted out to America. What if I felt sick with fear as I saw too many little babies dying. What if I knew that they weren’t being buried so that the money for them would keep coming in. What if I turned a blind eye because I was just a little nun cog-in-the-wheel. Sometimes I fear that I’m just a little midwife cog-in-the-wheel.

So I have to go and hold banners. I have to add my face to pictures and my feet to marches. I have to overcome my fear of putting my job in jeopardy by being seen to be overly-political, overly-public, overly-outspoken. I have to find my voice as a midwife and encourage others to find theirs… even if I’m not quite ready for the microphone and the megaphone. I have to nod to pro-choice badge-wearers and pro-choice colleagues. I have to have small conversations in work and outside of it. I have to join Facebook groups, scribble my thoughts, cuddle my loved ones, help my pregnant friends, and I have to breathe and tell myself I am not a nun. I am a midwife. I am with-woman not with-institution, however hard that is in my everyday work. I will stay within the institution because free maternity care is a public right and should be available to all, not just those who can afford health insurance and private midwifery care.

Some day I dream of the true mind and body safety that comes with continuity of midwifery care for all women, and the true informed relational decision-making that can only happen when our maternity institutions are built back up to humane levels, free of the stranglehold of patriarchal and religious control – both constitutionally and structurally. We have a chance in Ireland to reject our broken past and to go forward with conscious intent to do the right thing. So Repeal the 8th Amendment. And take back the National Maternity Hospital from the Sisters of Charity.