Loose women and dinosaurs
Never did I think I would see a week when cervix would be trending on twitter, but here we are. I’ve written about Keir Starmer’s comment that ‘only women have a cervix’ is something that ‘should not be said’, in the Mail (click here to read), with a nod to Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Lancet front cover, too, which I also covered in my last substack here:
In everything I write on this topic I try very hard to assume the reader is coming into it fresh, and somewhat baffled, as I suspect not everyone fully understands the significance or why politicians are being repeatedly asked about a part of the female anatomy most people barely knew existed. Not everyone is completely up to speed on gender critical feminism, just as not everyone has a working knowledge of the female internal reproductive organs, and David Lammy proved he was utterly ignorant of both this week when he confidently told the world that women who are raising concerns about the erosion of their rights to women-only spaces are ‘rights hoarding dinosaurs’, but then went on to say that the reason it’s not true to say that ‘only women have a cervix’ is because the cervix is ‘something you can have after various procedures, hormone treatment, all the rest of it’.
Erm, David, mate. Where do we start? You can’t grow a cervix. It’s not a pot plant luv.
If he’d pointed out that some trans men have a cervix (because they are biologically female) and that it’s therefore potentially insensitive to say that ‘only women have a cervix’ because some trans men may feel excluded, then we might have retained a tiny bit of respect for the guy. But really, to enter into the discussion with such confidence / arrogance, call people who actually know what they’re talking about ‘dinosaurs’ and then show that you literally don’t have a clue how women’s bodies, let alone trans people’s bodies work, just shows how he, like so many others, was only in it to mindlessly repeat the mantras. This WILL backfire on more and more politicians and public figures, unless they start listening to women.
I keep coming back to my book Give Birth like a Feminist this week, in part because I’m speaking about some of it at the FiLiA conference in a couple of weeks, but also perhaps because of the chapter in it, entitled Loose Women. This chapter is my favourite I think. It starts with a quote from Lucy Pearce’s book Burning Woman.
Women, it seems, have an innate knowing of what it means to burn. . . and be burned. They know the dangers in their bones. And it makes them wary.
The chapter is about the different ways in which women are controlled in the birth space. Some of the stories are about pregnant women, for example those reported to social services or referred to the psychiatrist because they wish to make choices that are outside the accepted lines. Other stories are about persecuted midwives, those who find their practice shut down or even find themselves in the dock for supporting women in their choices. The chapter also contains the Atwood quote:
A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.
I guess David Lammy, whose ignorance of women’s bodies is probably representative of large swathes of the population, and the whole attempt to portray women who have legitimate concerns about replacing biological sex with gender identity as old, out of touch, bigoted or worse, just reminds me of this chapter and of the seemingly timeless pattern of being completely disinterested in what women think, need or want and then persecuting, vilifying or belittling them when they try to tell you.
There are parallels with sex and sexuality too. Here’s an extract from Chapter 4 of Give Birth like a Feminist, “Loose Women”.
A woman who is labouring freely and uninterrupted, choosing her own positions, following her instincts and spiralling deep into that place some refer to as ‘the zone’ or ‘labourland’, will not look dissimilar to a woman in the throes of sexual pleasure. She may rock on all fours and moan, with her mouth open and her eyes closed. ‘I often find myself thinking, “This is a bit like a porn film”, I’m not sure I should even be here!’, one midwife told me. Shalome Stone from Melbourne, Australia, had an orgasmic birth in 2013. Inspired by viewing a film of ecstatic birth online, she decided that, if this was possible for the woman in the film, it was possible for her, too. ‘I thought, yes please, I’ll have what she’s having’, she told me.
It was a fast and furious birth, just two and a half hours from start to finish. It was intense, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh wow, this is either about to get really painful, or I can dig deeper and make it amazing’. I dug deeper and let go. And I mean, I really let go. I
was on fire – every fibre of my being was engaged and pulsing. Another wave started and I focused on the build-up, breathing deep, surrendering to the intensity, riding, riding, riding and then... throwing my head back, moaning out loud. It was the most incredible rush, more sensual than sexual. I have never felt more feminine, more goddess-like, more womanly, than in that moment. That birth taught me the magic and beauty that can happen when a woman is able to birth in a safe, familiar place, with her loved ones, with a dedicated midwifery team, and with the self belief that she is capable of greatness.
The connections between birth and sex go beyond the physical. Female sexuality has a long history of being repressed. In the past, women have been made to ‘lie back and think of England’, and have been persuaded to think of sex as something that must be endured, rather than enjoyed. In the same way, women continue to be placed on their backs in childbirth and encouraged to be passive and patient until it is over. Sheila Kitzinger, who felt that our western society infantilised labouring women and ‘de-sexed’ them, made the point that we tend to view the climax of birth through a lens of male rather than female sexuality. ‘Instead of the wave-like rhythms of female orgasm, bearing down is treated like one long ejaculation: stiffen, hold, force through, shoot!’, she wrote. ‘Any sexual feelings are completely eradicated.’
In both birth and sex, we still have a poor understanding of women’s bodies, how they are built, what they need, and how they work best. In a world where many of us still don’t know our vagina from our vulva, we struggle to teach our daughters about their basic anatomy, because we have never learnt it ourselves. The debate is ongoing about what girls should be told in class about the anatomy and function of the clitoris (much of which has only recently begun to be understood). Menstruation continues to be taught as a rather unpleasant bodily function and is never marvelled at or welcomed, let alone celebrated as a female rite of passage. We leave topics like female masturbation and the female orgasm out of sex-ed completely, and in a similar way there is anxiety around teaching young people about childbirth as a powerful and positive experience. The myth persists that if we are honest with girls about the wonders of their bodies we may somehow encourage them into engaging with their physicality and sexuality in a way that remains culturally unacceptable – that they may even become ‘loose women’.
Why do we still find loud, raucous, visceral, intuitive, strong, lusty, angry, leaky, opinionated, independent women difficult to accept? These ‘loose women’ are the ones who have broken free, we cannot contain them, they are wild and unrestrained. They are the ones who will not ‘take it lying down’, they want to ‘stand on their own two feet’, or be ‘on top’, they are the movers, shakers and troublemakers. In the bedroom and in the birth room, we have historically tried to keep these women still, quiet and restrained. The ‘good’ woman continues to be the one who complies and does not cause trouble. She will lie still, and passive, and let it be done. And, as we have seen in this chapter, those who will not comply can no longer be literally burned, so our patriarchal culture finds other ways of either silencing them, or making an example of them so that others are silenced. We threaten their livelihoods and their reputations, call them bad mothers and warn that we may take away their children. We suggest they are mad, put them in the dock, expose them in the media or even take away their freedom.
Just as women were once told, ‘sex is for procreation and nothing more’, they are now told, ‘childbirth is for procreation and nothing more’. In either act, what matters is the production of a healthy baby, and the woman is merely the means to that end. The experience of childbirth is dismissed as meaningless and unimportant to a woman’s body, heart or soul, just as the experience of sex used to be. And why? What is to be gained by these oppressions? The reasons are the exact same reasons whether it’s birth or sex: because in these places can be found both power and pleasure. To uphold the patriarchy, women must be cut off from any experience that connects them to a sense of power or strength, and the idea that they and their bodies are weak and inferior must be reinforced. They must believe that they cannot give birth without help, and this in turn supports capitalism – natural birth doesn’t cost very much – and helps keep men ‘on top’. Women who have empowered births often say that it changed their life, and that they would ‘never again be afraid of anything’. To the patriarchy, this is potentially dangerous. The medicalisation of childbirth has accelerated in recent years, in direct correlation to the increase in women’s voices and power in other areas: one wonders if this is a coincidence. Or is childbirth the last frontier, both a crucible of our powerful potential as female humans, and, at the same time, our achilles heel, an overlooked gap in our armour?
A woman in labour, upright, roaring, delivering her own baby and catching it with her own hands challenges everything people assume to be true about childbirth, and is the antithesis of the sanitised, objectified woman, covered by drapes, silenced by drugs or even devoid of pubic hair. This roaring, birthing woman is real, naked, shameless, capable, useful, active, empowered. And, culturally, we find this an awkward energy to be around – it is loud, and raw, and sexual. As one old-school midwife put it to a doula friend of mine, ‘It’s unseemly – wouldn’t she feel more comfortable with an epidural?’. In the bedroom and the birth room, there persists a fear of the loose woman and her potential.
Thanks for reading. Want to support me? I have 3 books which you can buy from any good book seller!
My Period is for girls age 9 to 13 and is filled with information and positivity about periods and puberty.
Give Birth like a Feminist is for anyone interested in why birth is a feminist issue. You don’t have to be pregnant.
The Positive Birth Book is a comprehensive guide to getting ready for birth with lots of humour and a dash of feminism thrown in.
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