Earlier this month, I was honoured to have been invited by Jane Mulcahy to speak at her even on ACEs awareness in Cork.
If you’re interested, you can listen to her recording of the entire session here.
I’ve written before about language, birth, and women survivors of child sexual abuse. I’ve mentioned how words matter, and certain words are very upsetting for those of us with a history of child sexual abuse.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sitting with a pregnant woman and her husband. As a survivor herself of child sexual abuse and multiple rapes in her teens (sadly, revictimisation is a phenomenon that is not uncommon), she’s doing all she can to prepare herself for her impending birth. Part of that preparation included having a chat with me. We spoke about language and how words matter in labour. She used the word ‘surges’ and I had a reaction to it that I didn’t quite understand. Until now.
‘Surges’ is a word that is used to describe uterine contractions in labour. It was popularised by Ina May Gaskin and adopted by many in the birth community in the past few decades. It is deemed more ‘positive’ than using ‘contractions’, and sold as a reframing of the pain of labour, and it’s never sat comfortably with me. Here’s why:
As abused women, we had our experiences – our lived, physical, experiences – ‘reframed’ by our abusers. They would touch us and say things like ‘That’s nice, isn’t it?’, ‘You like that, don’t you?’, ‘I would never hurt you,’ etc. Their words were incongruent with our experiences and that – in and of itself – is damaging and needs work to undo. Telling abused women that calling contractions by another name will make them a more positive experience isn’t helpful. For the vast majority of women, labour hurts. That’s the bald truth of it. The extent to which it hurts, and how we deal with the pain, is individual. Personally, viewing labour pain as ‘pain with a purpose’ helped me. It wasn’t like a migraine (migraines are more painful), where pain doesn’t produce anything except more pain for at least 24 hours.
I think that midwives and doulas working with women who have a history of abuse might want to discuss the merit of using ‘surges’ instead of ‘contractions’ with their clients. Then, the women themselves should use the word that suits them best;that they are most comfortable with.
Labour hurts, and it doesn’t do women who have experienced abuse any good to tell them otherwise. What is helpful is talking about how to get through the pain, how to be present for it, and how the best thing about labour is that it ends. And that it ends with a baby in your arms. The wonderful woman I met with earlier this week also made the point that there is a difference between ‘pain’ and ‘harm’. As abuse survivors, we associate pain in our bodies with (often long-term) harm, yet the pain of contractions is not harmful, and reminding ourselves of that can be hugely helpful in getting through it while still remaining present, grounded, and participative in our own labours.
Content Warning: Sexual Assault / Sexual Abuse / Incest
This week is Birth Trauma Awareness week.
For many women, the birth itself is traumatic because of how they are treated during labour and birth. For women who have been sexually abused as children, however, labour and birth can compound the trauma they have suffered.
While she was growing up, Orla’s* father ‘played’ with her by playing ‘tickling’ with her. He would chase her, catch her, and then hold her down tickle her, kiss her, and – as she hit puberty – touch her breasts, buttocks, and genitals.
Like many people who are abused over a period of time, Orla started to recognise the ‘cues’ from her father that an abusive incident was coming. She would try, desperately, to get away from him, but she was never successful. Orla felt helpless, but still, when he tickled her, she laughed. This would result in him calling her ‘a little flirt’ and saying things like ‘you’re just pretending you don’t want me to do it.’
Orla couldn’t get away from her dad because he was too strong. Her laughter would give away to tears, and then to crying, and eventually to screaming. Finally, he would stop.
When Orla grew up, she did not look back on her father’s actions as abusive, because it was labelled as ‘play’, and she remembers laughing at the time.
Years afterwards, however, when she was in labour with her first child, she was hooked up to a foetal monitor, had a canula inserted, and a blood pressure cuff. She had a panic attack on account of the restrictions on her movements. Her reaction seemed disproportionate until later, when Orla connected the events during childbirth with being restrained while her father abused her.
Like Orla, many women are surprised by the degree of their distress over routine aspects of maternity care. For abuse survivors, distressing or traumatic events can bring up the same feelings of helplessness and fear that they felt with the original abuse. It can be difficult to understand, however, why seemingly innocuous or helpful interventions can also bring up feelings of helplessness and fear. If the trauma of the original abuse was never correctly addressed, they are at risk for re-traumatisation, and may end up suffering from chronic post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).
Much of this distress can be alleviated for pregnant women survivors of CSA if, before labour, they have an opportunity to explore some of the features (events, procedures, and care policies) of childbirth that might bear similarities to their abuse, and to plan strategies for avoiding, or coping with, them.
Women often dread the prospect of deeply exploring the origins of abuse-related symptoms. Once they do take that step, with the support of understanding health-care practitioners / birthworkers, they usually feel relieved and unburdened of guilt and responsibility. Our capacity for healing is enormous, through it requires hard work perseverance, and courage. Finding the time, and the energy, for that is hard at any stage – harder again when you’re pregnant. A birthworker who brings compassion, and understanding of the trauma of CSA will make the biggest of differences to her client.
*Not her real name
(This is not a Finnish baby box!)
A week ago, Katherine Zappone announced baby boxes would be given to all new parents in an attempt to increase the birth rate in Ireland.
Baby boxes were first introduced in Finland in 1938, when infant mortality stood at 65 per 1,000. The boxes contained clothes, nappies, a mattress, picture books and a teething toy. With the mattress in the bottom, the box doubled as a bed. They were introduced as part of a drive to bring down Finland’s infant mortality rate.
In Ireland, in 2018, however, they’re, at best, cute, and at worst, a waste of money. This government would be better serving their remit if they poured support into children who are already here. Here is an incomplete list of thing the government could better do with money to help the children who are already here:
We need to value the children we already have before we start spouting off about how to look like we’re making life better for children who aren’t even here yet. It is true that raising children is expensive. People are putting off having children, or having more children, if they are unsure that they will be able to mange to keep those children safe, healthy, housed, fed, and educated. A few nappies, and a couple of babygros in the bottom of a cardboard box are not going to encourage people to have more babies – but here are a few things that might:
Fix the leaky roof, and crumbling walls, of the house you live in before you start planning a fancy garden shed.
Last week, I wrote about unsolicited dick pics, and what it feels like to be on the receiving end of them. To be clear, I have absolutely no judgement around solicited penis pictures. If sending nudies is part of the sex-play between two consenting adults, I hope it works well for them.
The unsolicited pictures, and the sending of them, however, started a conversation on Twitter, and a number of women asked me why men sent these pictures. Well, as a woman, I have no idea. So I decided to ask the men who send them. Now, this is in no way a rigorous piece of scientific research. It’s a Twitter poll. There were 74 responses, and one of them was from a woman who clicked by accident and bumped up option two by one number. There may have been more people who clicked accidentally, but I have no way of knowing. All I can tell you is that, from the first few responses, the results were fairly consistent.
So, here’s what I got:
As you can see, 8% of respondents said they send these pictures because they think their penises are gorgeous, with 14% wanting the person on the receiving end to express admiration for the penis they are presented with. I must admit, that I thought the percentage of those in the first category would be higher. In my experience, men think their reproductive organs are beautiful (most women don’t – penises are only thought of aesthetically pleasing by women when they have an emotional attachment to the man on the end of it). Again, I’m surprised that so few men admitted to sending unsolicited penis pictures because they want their members to be admired.
The final two responses are the ones that worry me most. Sixteen percent of respondents admit to sending unsolicited pictures to shock the person who would receive it. There is something disturbing about a man wanting to shock a woman with a picture of his genitals. It’s an expression of a desire to exert power over the receiver, which is distasteful, to say the least.
Finally, the majority of men – 62% of them – who responded admitted sending unsolicited dick pics in the hope that the woman who receives them will send back a photograph of her genitals. I feel duty-bound to let these men know that that’s not how it works. Women are likely to be disturbed and upset if men send unsolicited pictures of their genitals, and really not inclined to reciprocate.
If you want to send pictures of your willies, guys, please afford the intended recipient the courtesy of ensuring that it will be a welcome photograph – and don’t expect one in return. Instead, wait until one is offered.
Consent is, thankfully, back in the news these days. Sober Paddy wrote a great piece on how not to be a rapist. That post focuses on how important consent is when seeking to have sexual contact with someone else.
The Minister for Education and Skills has issued a statement committing to bringing the issue of consent into the new sex ed curricula. Until the proposed curricula have been published, it is impossible to comment on their content – obviously! – but I would hope that ‘consent’ would cover everything from hugging right up to, and including, penetrative sex.
Schools are not the only place where people can, and should, receive education, information, and training, however. Sports clubs, professional bodies and organisations, have a duty of care to ensure that their members are aware of what consent is, how to obtain it, and how to respond when consent is refused / revoked. I would argue that workplaces would also do well to consider educating their employees on issues of consent. After all, mental health and other elements of self-care are being introduced by employers across the country, so why not consent workshops, too?
Seeking, and obtaining, consent is an element of challenging the entitlement with which most men in our society are raised. Even men who identify as ‘one of the good guys’ (who doesn’t?!); and think they are kind, considerate, and emotionally intelligent can – due to their own sense of entitlement – over-step boundaries, causing upset and distress.
As the person on the receiving end of such behaviour recently, I’m going to tell you a little story about consent and unsolicited dick pics.
It’s no secret that I’ve dabbled in the world of online dating – with mixed results. There have been a few first dates, fewer second dates, and a scant handful of third (or subsequent) dates, but for the most part, it’s been fun.
About a fortnight ago I connected with a man who seemed like A Decent Bloke. I enjoyed chatting with him; he ticked a lot of boxes, and I was looking forward to meeting him. From our first conversation, I had flagged my dislike of dick pics – photographs of men’s penises sent to my phone, and / or email – and he had assured me that he wouldn’t send any.
It got to the stage where the (non) sending of dick pics was a source of mirth. In nearly every conversation we had, the fact that I didn’t like them, and he, therefore, wouldn’t send them was mentioned. I was clear, not just about my aversion to dick pics, but also about why I really didn’t want them sent to me. He understood. ‘I’m one of the good guys,’ he assured me. Hmmmmm.
Last week, we were chatting away, and it was all a bit flirty and harmless and comfortable. Then, he whips out his penis, snaps a pic, and sends it to me on Whatsapp.
I was more upset than I thought I’d be: I’m in my mid-forties, I’ve seen penises before; and I’ve been violated in worse ways (and by family members, too), but upset I was. I immediately shut down the conversation on Whatsapp, and sent a ‘regular’ text message. This is the exchange that followed:
I didn’t reply. I have no desire to communicate with someone who thinks this is an adequate response. Look at what he says:
‘I got carried away’ – in other words ‘It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t control myself.’
How many times have women heard this as a way for men to shift the blame for their actions away from them to …well, who or what, exactly? The woman? Their penis as a third party and separate entity? I’m not sure, but if you have any thoughts, please enlighten me.
In his final missive, he says:
‘I really thought we had reached a point where you would be ok with that.’
He thought I’d be okay with him sending me an unsolicited dick pic even though I’d told him I really didn’t want one. He thought that; so it must be right, right? He thought that; so there was no need to check with me, right? He thought that; so there was no need to seek consent, right? And he could have, so easily….if he was sitting there, all horny and dying to show me what that looked like (!), couldn’t he just have asked? How difficult would it have been for him to say something like:
‘I know you don’t want unsolicited dick pics – but to you fancy soliciting one? 😊’ or
‘I’m horny as fuck – wanna see?!’ or
‘I think I have the most amazing mickey in the world, and I want you to agree.’
Whatever! Anything other than this clear display of white, male, middle-class, entitlement. I’m sick of it.
Sending an unsolicited picture of your genitals to another person is an act of aggression. Sent as a message (rather than an attachment), means that it confronts the person when they open the relevant application. It’s violating. It’s upsetting. Particularly when the person on the receiving end has been clear and explicit about why they do not wish to receive such a photograph (and, should I really have to disclose details of my abuse in order to hope that I’ll be spared an unsolicited dick pic? Or tell men that my children have access to my phone, so I don’t want their penises all over it?!)
Exposing children to pornographic images is classed as sexual abuse. Exposing adults to pornographic images should, at the very least, require consent.
I know, I know, it’s a mouthful.
It’s also the title of a paper I presented at the SLSA (Socio-Legal Studies Association) Conference in Lancaster in 2016. If you want to read it (with the added bonus of my slides attached!), you can do so here.