Daily Life

Showing your breasts in public

Posted by on Feb 22, 2013 in Daily Life | 0 comments

Last month, David Koch urged breastfeeding women to be more “discreet” and avoid “high traffic areas”, adding that breastfeeding women have  “gotta be a bit classy about it.” Why does breast-feeding make (some) people so uncomfortable anyway? And why is there such a double standard around how and when breasts can be acceptably displayed? After all, when presented in a sexual light (on billboards, magazines etc) very few folks complain. But the moment breasts are presented for reasons outside male gratification, all sort of people (both male and female) start squirming. The most ridiculous example of this double-standard occurred in 2006 when an American woman was told she could not breast-feed her hungry child in a store change room because the shop assistant viewed breast-feeding as indecent (the customer was then directed to a nearby toilet).  It didn’t help things that the store in question was none other than Victoria’s Secret – a lingerie company whose entire business model revolves around women’s breasts. (Apparently the shop-assistant didn’t grasp the irony of rejecting a woman for breast-feeding from a shop that trades off women’s breasts and which uses women’s breasts in almost all their advertising campaigns.) Examples like this remind us of the conditional ways in which women are permitted to display their breasts in public space. But they also highlight our culture’s deeply ingrained (and hugely problematic) mother-whore complex (where women are permitted to present as either maternal or sexual -but never both at the same time.). Indeed the reason breastfeeding is seen as so troubling is because it takes an often eroticized part of the female anatomy and re-presents it in a maternal context, thus blurring the distinction between ‘virtuous mother’ and ‘lascivious sex-pot’. In other words, the anxiety around breast-feeding doesn’t only stem from our culture’s preoccupation with breasts: it also stems from our policing of ‘virtuous motherhood’. Of course the result of this policing is that breastfeeding women are not permitted to occupy public space in the same way that male bodies are. Just ask Kirstie Marshall, a Labor MP who was escorted out of the Victorian parliament by the serjeant-at-arms, for breast feeding her 11-day-old daughter in 2003. (In 2007, NSW created the nation’s first breastfeeding-friendly state parliament by allowing mothers to nurse in both the upper and lower parliamentary chambers. It’s a positive move, but clearly there is still a lot more work to be done.) However our culture’s mother-whore complex is not the only factor that informs our cultural aversion to breast feeding. There is also the issue of classism. Historically, aristocratic women would hire wet-nurses to feed their babies (this was done so that the aristocratic woman’s milk would dry up and she could fall pregnant again sooner).  The result was that nursing became associated with ‘common’ women and breastfeeding was seen as something rather base. Today, we still hear echoes of this classism (such as Kochie’s insinuation that breastfeeding can be unclassy.) But as Ash Zuko says, it’s time for this attitude to die out. Shaming breast-feeding women into covering up is just another form of slut shaming, “and the effect will be a more dramatic decline in breastfeeding numbers as women will feel it’s embarrassing/wrong to do it in public.” It’s time we got over the discomfort and accepted breastfeeding as a normal, natural part of life....

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Dangerous Remedy: What life is like without safe abortions

Posted by on Nov 2, 2012 in Daily Life | 0 comments

Two weeks ago I was rushing to a morning meeting in Sydney’s Surry Hills. I was only two steps out of the taxi when I was accosted on the pavement by a man almost twice my size. At first I was confused and I couldn’t understand what he wanted from me. Then I noticed a small stand of religious paraphernalia and three or four plastic foetus shaped dolls behind him. Unwittingly, I had exited the taxi right outside a women’s health clinic. Based on this information alone, the man in front of me concluded that I must be a potential client of the centre. Uninvited, he began his anti-abortion spiel, lecturing me on the rights of my ‘unborn child’. I was upset and disoriented. I crossed the road and sat down to collect myself before my meeting. The man looked self-satisfied: proud in the belief that he had successfully frightened and deterred a young woman from making that decision. Thirty seconds later a group of other anti-choice activists arrived, and together they formed a prayer circle. Holding hands, they chanted a quiet prayer for my non-existent pregnancy as I sat only meters away. Part of me wanted to laugh at the absurdity of their ignorant, misplaced concern. But most of me just felt angry.  I hadn’t even had my morning coffee and somehow my body had already become a political battle ground. Having complete strangers accost you to discuss your uterus is intrusive enough when you’re not pregnant. I can only imagine how much more distressing this would have been for a woman who actually was there to seek a termination. I considered going back to share a piece of my mind. (I’m not even pregnant. But thanks for feeling entitled to button-hole me to discuss my plans for my cervix. Women love it when complete strangers engage them in conversations about their vaginas.) Instead I decided that my breath would be wasted on him, so I hurried off and made a mental note to write about the experience later. As a woman, one thing I have always struggled with is the way in which women’s bodies (pregnant or otherwise), are often treated as public property. Over my life, there have been many occasions when strangers have felt entitled to comment on, or even touch my body, often without any regard for whether or not I want it, or how it might make me feel. When a woman falls pregnant, this situation is exacerbated to the nth degree.  More than once on public transport, I’ve witnessed a stranger walk up to a pregnant woman and touch her belly, as though her right to personal space has been invalidated by the fact that she is pregnant. Instead of being seen as a person, the pregnant woman becomes a publicly owned vessel.  An almightily incubator, which others assume speaking rights over. For those of us who advocate for women’s right to legal abortion (because in NSW, abortion is still a criminialised offence) one of the many challenges to overcome is the persistent cultural belief that women’s bodies are not really their own. Instead they continue to be imagined to be owned by others: the church, the state, the public. And as recent history shows us, as long as women’s health is not put in women’s hands, it is real women who suffer. This Sunday ABC1 will air the tele-movie Dangerous Remedy, the compelling true life story of Dr Bertram Wainer, a medical doctor who advocated for the legalisation of safe abortion in Victoria from the late 1960’s. Putting his own life at risk, Wainer exposed the backyard...

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What we talk about when we talk about ‘rock porn’

Posted by on May 18, 2012 in Daily Life | 0 comments

Researchers in France have discovered what could be 37,000 year old porn. Carved out circles with small slits in them supposedly symbolising female genitalia have been found in an ancient stone shelter.  It is ”the oldest evidence of any kind of graphic imagery”, said Randall White, an anthropologist at New York University and one of the researchers working on the project. I always love these sorts of discoveries because they reveal as much about the minds of those that find them as anything else. The fact that a modern man can look at a circle carved in stone and immediately think “PORN!!!” may  tell us more about our own modern cultural preoccupation with porn than that of any past society. To be fair, the images may very well symbolise lady-bits.  But why assume a pornographic context as opposed to a fertility symbol or something else entirely? I can’t help but think that carvings as ambiguous as these act almost like the ink-blot cards psychologists hold up to delve into the minds of their patients. What we choose to see in them provides us with as much insight into the inner workings of our own cultural psyche as anything else. You can imagine the interview with the good Professor now. Journalist: What can you tell us about these incredible discoveries? Anthropologist: The working theory is that there was a king overlord who lived in these caves with tens or even hundreds of nubile concubines as depicted by these circles, here. Journalist:  Do you have any evidence for this theory? Anthropologist: No, just elaborate fantasies at this stage. But we did find a broken vase. We believe it may have belonged to the head concubine who we think could have roughly resembled Scarlett Johannson. We haven’t any definitive proof as yet, but there’s also nothing to rule it out.  We’re all very excited about this. Equally fanciful are the porn enthusiasts who latch onto these findings as a historical justification for all modern porn. “Ha!” they cry. “I told you there was nothing wrong with porn! How can there be anything wrong with three grown men gang-banging a drugged out teenager when we have proof- proof!- that ancient people drew circles in caves?” To be clear I’m not having a go at all modern pornography. As numerous sex-positive feminists have been quick to point out, there is a long history of erotica and nude art made by both men and women and today, there are certainly genres of “ethical” porn produced by feminists and other consenting adults in non-exploitative circumstances. But dismissing ALL modern pornography as harmless and “natural” because our ancestors may have indulged in a little rock art, is akin to excusing violence or slavery because these things also have a long history to them. Longevity is not a test of morality. The other interesting point to consider here is the revisionist view of history through a masculine lens. After all, there is no good reason to automatically assume that it was men who were crafting these images, or that they were being crafted for other men. Is it that inconceivable to think that perhaps arts and crafts were the women’s department? When it comes to reading historical artifacts that we know very little about there is a cultural tendency to always attribute productivity (outside of childbirth) to the men. Writer Sandi Toksvig recently pondered this issue in an article about women and history: “When I was a student at Cambridge I remember an anthropology professor holding up a picture of a bone with 28 incisions carved in it. “This...

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