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Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Pride and Privilege

Yesterday I displayed my talent for sticking not only my foot but my entire shin and part of my upper thigh in my mouth by going on Twitter and implying that I thought having an abortion was a privilege. Give the last few words in that sentence a read back just so you can get a feel for how much of a preposterous bellend I must have seemed. Those weren’t the words I used but, in bursts of under 140 characters, I gave a lot of people the impression that’s what I thought. I’m not going to pick through every tweet that made up the back and forth (because it would be boring and petty and take forever, and I don’t think that the people I offended or who offended me necessarily want to be namechecked). Instead, here’s what I was trying to say.

First, having to decide what to do about an unwanted pregnancy is an experience that could range from inconvenient to soul-destroying, but it’s never going to be good. Even so, I think that having that choice is a privilege. It’s not a privilege like going to Eton or owning a fancy hat, both of which are reportedly fun. It’s the kind of privilege where you have something other people don’t and, if it doesn’t make your life better, it at least makes it less bad. I have lots of privileges - from my race, my gender, my class and the various intricacies of my circumstances. My situation is not one to complain about, and I’m not. That said, the fact remains that having that level of reproductive autonomy is a privilege I don’t have.

Usually my instinct when I think of the few ways that the hand I’ve been dealt doesn’t play well is to shut up about them. To do otherwise is like whining that your Ferrari doesn’t handle well once you get it over 90. This time I made an exception for a few reasons. For a start, we were discussing why men should take safe sex seriously, and so I pointed out (in words much less well chosen than the ones I’m about to use) that the moment of intercourse is the only time a man gets to exercise his reproductive autonomy. In some ways, I argued, it makes the pregnancy-related risks of unprotected sex greater for men than for women. Obviously, those ways don’t include the physical risks of bearing a child, and the psychological impact of a termination is never going to be as great for someone who doesn’t have to experience the procedure themselves. But for men, unsafe sex is an all-or-nothing gamble. Yes, your sexual partner might make the same choice you would have. Or they might not. Either way, it isn’t up to you, and you could become a parent (or be party to an abortion) against your will.

The idea that becoming a parent might be a big deal for men was a problematic one for some people. Men, I was told repeatedly, can just walk away. That women have the same option (after birth) but instead largely choose termination instead was a fact left absent from the debate. Some women will choose abortion because as well as not wanting a child, they don’t want a pregnancy either, particularly as pregnancy might create societal or psychological pressures that would make it harder to “walk away”, perhaps even too hard to manage. Surely another reason women choose termination is that they don’t want to create a person who they can’t look after. They don’t want to accidentally give someone a bad life, they don’t want the emotional trauma of never knowing what happened to the person they weren’t there for and they don’t want to always wonder if they’ll, somehow, walk back into their lives with all kinds of fair but impossible questions to ask. That men, as well as women, might not want these things was not a concept the debate entertained. In fact, the only reference that was made to men’s responsibilities as parents concerned child support – which men get away without paying. At one point, I was told, that if a man didn’t want a baby, then he shouldn’t have had unprotected sex – an ugly thing to say when then same argument was once used to deny women the right to an abortion. The implication as times was that, once a man had gotten unprotected sex (it’s always men who want unprotected sex, of course. Women couldn’t possibly enjoy it too) he’d had everything he wanted from her. To ask to take an interest in what happened to his sperm after that was, frankly, a little odd, even suspicious, yet another way men had discovered to hurt women, this time by impinging on their territory as mothers.

Reading the above list back, I don’t know how much of it was really being implied, and how much I was projecting the prejudices of a patriarchal society onto people. It was surely a little of both.

Good points were made: some thought I was suggesting women’s reproductive autonomy, as a privilege, should be stripped away or given to men. I wasn’t: women’s reproductive autonomy should be absolute, even at the expense of men’s. This trade off of rights is bad, but it’s the only system that makes any kind of sense. Until we become post-human, reproductive rights are not something both genders can have.

Others said that exercising bodily autonomy couldn’t be a privilege as it was actually a right. I think it’s both. As a white male I can walk down a street relatively unmolested by cops and totally unmolested by perverts, except for those occasions when cops are also perverts. These things are obviously rights; what sucks is that the rights of women and people of colour aren’t respected like mine are. Likewise, my ablist privilege allows me to walk and talk and do all manner of things with my hands. It’s my right to do these things, my bodily autonomy, my choice. The solution to these privileged rights isn’t to cut off my hands or break my legs (though I imagine if I chose to stop talking, there’d be plenty of support around). It’s to be as aware as I can of my advantages and how what I say and do might affect those who don’t have them.

When you tell people they have a privilege – particularly one which is inherent like those based on race or gender – people often react in the same way. They’ll deny that the privilege exists, or dismiss the examples cited as rare and unrepresentative, even if the person they’re talking to has experienced them personally, many times. They’ll also suggest that their privilege in this instance should be discounted, as there are many times when they are denied privilege due to membership of the group in question, or because other groups have privilege over them in different circumstances (why not use the comments section to accuse me of doing this? I literally don’t have a response! Also, check out these total asshats*). Finally, they might tell you that the privilege itself is somehow a burden, that being rich won’t make you happy for example, and so, really, you’re silly to want it too. I did all these things the first time I was told I had privilege, and like a karmic boomerang I met all these stances again yesterday. That people reacted like they had privilege doesn’t make my analysis right, but coming from people whose analysis of privilege, including their own, should have been sharp it was disappointing. When a woman told me that I should be glad I’d never have to choose whether or not to have an abortion, I lost my cool and told her she was being insensitive and that she should check her privilege. Which was the first time I’d actually used the word, and also the moment Twitter fucksploded in my face.

It probably didn’t help the level of shittyness in the ensuing shitstorm that I was a man telling (mostly) women they were wrong, a position traditionally held by dicks. As the debate got more heated and newcomers came, I did little to assuage anyone of the belief that I, too, was a dick. I’ve apologized to some people personally, and I didn’t fight a one-way battle, but to any and all I was rude to, I’m sorry. The reason, along perhaps with tiredness, is that the hypothetical experiences of the hypothetical men that were being belittled were actually my own. I didn’t tell people this during the conversation. I don’t why I didn’t and I don’t know if I should have. A decade ago I was the expectant father of a child about whom I didn’t get to choose. It was one of the most terrifying and lonely times in my life, particularly because I was still a teenager. I didn’t try to change my partner’s mind – it was her body and her choice. I didn’t walk away from the situation, either, as men apparently are expected to do. I stayed around and raised the child we had made. My life was very, very different as a result. It was a long time ago now, I don’t resent the person who made that choice about my life, and I love my son very much, but having that experience treated as trifling and irrelevant was deeply unpleasant. It triggered old feelings. I’m told this kind of thing happens to women and people of colour a lot when they try to explain lack of privilege to people like me.

I think we all have privileges, and privileges can and do come from membership of groups which, overall, are not privileged. Everyone being privileged does not change the fact that some people are much, much more privileged than others. What it does do is help us find our place in the world, and use the advantages we have to help make it a little more like we’d like it to be.


Since posting this last night several people have pointed out that reproductive autonomy isn't a privilege enjoyed by all women. Around the world women have this right taken away from them, frequently by men. Even in rich, liberal democracies the right to abortion is not assured. It can be taken away by Governments (for example in Ireland) religious movements (the U.S.) or coercion (violent or otherwise) by partners, family and so-called friends (anywhere).

As a result of these facts it has suggested that it is incorrect (and also unhelpfully divisive) to call reproductive autonomy female privilege. I don't think I used that term anywhere, but the gendered language I did use clearly implied it along the way. This is frustrating, as I was, in part, trying to demonstrate how privilege does not respect the lines we have drawn between ourselves, though it may favour one side of the line more than the other. In this context, to have implied reproductive autonomy equals female privilege is an epic fail.

It's fascinating that reproductive autonomy could be a function of almost any type of group privilege depending on the context: gender privilege (male or female), class privilege, racial privilege, cultural privilege, ablist privilege, hetero privilege, and sis privilege. In fact you need at least four of these, in some combination or another, to achieve reproductive autonomy, yet the only one that is absolutely necessary is (some form of) ablist privilege (assuming you want to have a baby with your own genetic material).

Though there's membership of no single group guarantees full reproductive autonomy, there are several whose membership all but guarantee you'll never lose it entirely. Here, unsurprisingly, the familiar hierarchies come back into play: while women can face rape or forced marriage, a man who chooses to wear a condom is very unlikely to completely lose his reproductive autonomy. This assumes he can afford condoms of course, and class is another privilege which pretty effectively safeguards against total reproductive disempowerment. Likewise, being a western Caucasian significantly reduce your chances. In the end, it's sobering to realise that, even with a privilege this nuanced and complex, rich white men are still the safest people on earth.


  1. Hi, @thatsoph here. Thanks for clearing this up. FWIW my issue with what you said was that you said men are *more* at risk from unprotected sex. I still hold that women, in fact, are more at risk than men are. But I also accept that it cannot be easy for a man in that situation (nowhere did I deny this, I don't think) ... A friend of mine was in the same situation and is now a fantastic single father to a gorgeous little boy. He didn't plan for it, and it changed his life, but I think he's happy now.

    I think this whole thing also shows how one person's scope of debate is different to another's, and how context can change perception quite a lot.

    To clarify: My original tweet was in response to someone talking to me about Assange. They said something along the lines of: "Why should a woman's wish to wear protection always override the man's wish to not wear protection?" I was gobsmacked. Truly.

    My response was something like *SECRETLY HEAD DESKING* "because women are more at risk?!" ... The risks I was thinking about in my head were not just STDs and pregnancy but I meant also in terms of feeling violated physically, and that her trust was betrayed.

    Not only that, but the idea that one person's wishes *overrides* the other?! What?! There's a fundamental misunderstanding about consent in there somewhere! If a man absolutely wanted to have sex without protection and I absolutely wanted to have sex *with* protection, then my suggestion would be "Hey, let's not have sex if neither of us feel comfortable compromising". I wouldn't just force a condom on him and start grinding.

    ... So the discussion was originally about consent/a potential rape scenario as opposed to two people consenting to unprotected sex. You can surely see why you interjecting, implying that men had more to risk than women in that scenario (though of course you didn't know this at the time) was erm...a big shock to me! And kind of threw me off.

    Ultimately, on the topic of pregnancy/risks, I think we agree. Ideally both potential parents would have a say but obviously due to biology really the final say comes down to the woman. I just wouldn't say that men risk more than women, but the risks and responsibilities are at times mirrored.

    I would actually like to see some sort of support for men in this situation in the future. Whereby they could *explicitly* sign something to say they will not be legally responsible for a child if she chooses to have one. That way, she knows she is on her own if she wants it. And then it's fairer on both. Just a thought :)

  2. I wish that we could shift the idea that sex = intercourse = reproductive possibility. I think if heterosexuals could have a cultural shift away from this one type of sexual act they could even up quite a few of their gender dynamics and have a lot more fun.
    There are loads of ways of having sex with virtually no way of conceiving or transmitting STIs, without needing money or access to contraception.
    What you do need however, is a consensual sexual interaction and some beliefs about a non-hierarchy of specific sexual acts.