by Joan Harvey
It’s summertime. Things are heating up. A comet trips across the night sky; I make out its vast and blurry tail, then watch a sharp bright shooting star fall through the heavens. I drag a mattress out onto the deck and lie under a massive blanket of stars, a very milky way. I’m alone, and because I’m at the moment far from the terrible violence of the current American system, I’m able to experience this space as voluptuous and luxurious. I sleep and eat whenever I want. Rain comes early in the morning and I drag the mattress back inside. I eat peaches and cream, have an extra cup of coffee. Listen to Monk and The Gossip and Beethoven and various obscure djs and some old Tribe Called Quest. I can be random and feral (which a friend said would be a good name for a law firm). I am aware of how rare and, to use a term now obligatory and perhaps too much bandied about, how privileged this is. I am not living in poverty. My child is grown and on his own. I have space and time and no worries in this remote place of being shot by the police. The land and few people I encounter here have a deep quietness.
Meanwhile in the news, virulently anti-feminist lawyer Roy Den Hollander murders the son of a female judge he wasn’t happy with. In front of reporters, Representative Ted Yoho shakes his finger in Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s face and calls her a “fucking bitch.” Many of us are pretty sure that if we had elected Hillary instead of Trump, thousands more Americans would be alive today. There have been many reports of how much better countries run by women have done during this plague, and yet, as Peter Beinart writes in the New York Times, Hillary was perceived more unfavorably than Trump, and far more unfavorably than Biden. Bernie Sanders is perceived as more trustworthy than Elizabeth Warren even though there is no basis for this. I’ve seen horrendous attacks by both men and women of the left on female candidates, as well as on anyone who has dared support them in any way.
Before I came out here to my retreat, I grabbed a copy of Ntozake Shange’s The Love Space Demands from 1987. In her introduction Shange talks about how AIDS has allowed the right wing to try to impose chastity on women, or, at the very least, heterosexual monogamy. She writes:
Women who seek to fulfill their own sexual and sensual requisites are, again, sluts and loose. Unwanted children and pregnancies blight relationships and lives, leaving women and men baffled and angry with one another.
Our behaviors were just beginning to change when the epidemic began, moving sex closer to shame now than any time since I’ve been alive.
We’re many years from that, yet what has really changed? While doubly traumatic to those HIV positive who lived through the AIDS epidemic but are now immune compromised, today’s virus does not feel as deadly as AIDS to the young, and hook-up culture continues. But what also continues is a terrible fear and hatred of women’s sexuality. The president, with 25 accusations of sexual misconduct against him, formerly friends with the world’s most notorious pedophile, is not shy about his wish to “dominate,” even when it means footage of heavily armed goons beating peaceful women on city streets. He pays (inflated) lip (schlauchbootlippen) service to religion in order to keep the hussies down. The AP reports that churches connected to Trump and his “evangelical advisers” received at least $17.3 million in loans from a federal rescue package designed to aid small businesses. There is no longer any pretense at separation of church and state when churches, who actively preach against homosexuality and against women, receive huge sums of our tax dollars. Naturally, just at this time, the Supreme Court votes that religious and other institutions can deny women insurance coverage for birth control. Women must have babies or abstain from sex, physical and mental health be damned. Obamacare, essential for covering many necessary health costs for women, is next on the chopping block.
It can help to have a first-hand story of why contraception coverage is so necessary, especially for women who live in poverty or close to it. It can even be a question of life and death. My friend Laura Davenport, writer, teacher, single mom, and San Antonio Spurs fan, texted me in anger after the Supreme Court decision:
In 2006, I gave birth to my son. I had a high-risk pregnancy that required bed rest, OBGYN visits 3-4 times a week for two months, an emergency early induction, and post-natal bed rest. My pregnancy was extremely dangerous for me and I was at risk of stroke or death the entire time. I was told by multiple doctors that I was at risk of death if I ever got pregnant again. At that time, I was in graduate school at the University of Denver, on the student health insurance plan, and making $11,000/year as a grad assistant. This was pre-ACA (aka Obamacare). Six weeks after giving birth, I went to my OBGYN to get an IUD. I cannot take oral contraceptives (birth control). My only option for safe contraception that would prevent pregnancy and not kill me was an IUD. My bill was $1,000 because there were no laws guaranteeing that all types of contraception must be covered by your insurance. My insurance denied coverage of the IUD because the (probably men) who approved procedures decided that I needed to use a less expensive option: aka the birth control pills that would kill me (and would still cost $40/month). My OBGYN contacted the insurance company numerous times to try to get them to cover this device. Each request was denied. Finally, my OBGYN gave me the IUD for free so I could live a healthy, pregnancy-free life. After the ACA was passed, one of the most important aspects is that insurance plans are required to provide contraception without charge or copayment, even if you haven’t met your deductible. This is a matter of human rights for women. Being able to regulate when or if we get pregnant allows women to have more secure economic futures and have control over our own lives. (It is also important to remember that contraception isn’t solely used for pregnancy prevention.) What this meant for me was that in 2011, when I was a single mother who wasn’t receiving child support, I was able to get my IUD replaced for $0.00 (despite my insurance’s $5,000 deductible). The ACA mandate for contraception means that I, and millions of women around the country, receive free contraception coverage so that we can have a say in our own futures and our bodies. Churches, temples, and mosques were not required to provide coverage under the ACA contraceptive coverage guidelines (they had a religious exemption already). Today, the Trump administration has furthered its attack on women by limiting access to contraception coverage. Now, any employer or non-profit, like schools or hospitals with religious affiliation, who objects to contraception on moral grounds can deny coverage. A woman employed by religiously-affiliated organizations, like Methodist health care, Christus Santa Rosa, St. Mary’s University, etc., can now legally be denied coverage of contraception and be forced to pay completely out of pocket for the privilege of being able to make her own choices about her body.
Laura went on to describe how difficult she found it was to navigate the system in spite of being educated and not a pushover, and also how when she taught at an inner city high school there was a daycare on campus for all the teenage moms.
As many have pointed out, if anti-abortionists were really against abortion instead of sex they would be working to get free and effective birth control to every heterosexual woman who needs it. And, of course, part of what is missing in the whole birth control/abortion story is men’s responsibility. Since men often fail at responsible consensual sex, and have not developed better birth control for themselves or have had vasectomies, the onus has been on women to defend themselves against pregnancy. The difference between having a wanted child, or an unwanted one, is analogous, as Ellen Willis has pointed out, to the difference between love-making and rape.
Until there is free and fail-safe contraception, abortion is also necessary to protect women’s health, and, of course, access to abortion is even more in danger. Margaret Talbot, writing about the Turnaway Study of abortion, which compared over the course of ten years the lives of women turned away from having abortions with those who had them, writes:
. . .abortion, far from harming most women, helps them in measurable ways. Moreover, when people assess what will happen in their lives if they have to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, they are quite often proven right. That might seem like an obvious point, but much of contemporary anti-abortion legislation is predicated on the idea that competent adults can’t really know what’s at stake in deciding whether to bear a child or not. Instead, they must be subjected to waiting periods to think it over (as though they can’t be trusted to have done so already), presented with (often misleading) information about the supposed medical risks and emotional fallout of the procedure, and obliged to look at ultrasounds of the embryo or fetus. And such scans are often framed, with breathtaking disingenuousness, as a right extended to people—what the legal scholar Carol Sanger calls “the right to be persuaded against exercising the right you came in with.”
Women are used to not being listened to and treated like children. A few weeks before the birth of her first child when Barbara Ehrenreich asked if her cervix had dilated, the doctor responded, “Where did a nice girl like this learn to talk like that?” (This, Ehrenreich reports, is when she fully became a feminist.) Women not only are not heard, but are actively taught not to listen to themselves. If they do speak up they are often ignored or chastised or attacked. The recent verbal assault on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a clear demonstration:
I was minding my own business, walking up the steps and Representative Yoho put his finger in my face, he called me disgusting, he called me crazy, he called me out of my mind, and he called me dangerous. . .
We tend to pay attention to specific incidents of violence and ignore the culture that produced it. But AOC went on to elucidate how this abuse of women is systemic and is embraced from the top down in our system.
. . . this issue is not about one incident. It is cultural. It is a culture . . . of accepting of violence and violent language against women, and an entire structure of power that supports that.
Attacks on women are rampant even in what appears to be our thoroughly liberal culture. Rebecca Traister pointed out how the New York Times reporting of AOC’s speech described it as an “instance of her aggressive political ambition, rather than as a response to the very forces that have long made political power elusive for women like Ocasio-Cortez…” Shaming and belittling of women is not restricted to the Right.
It isn’t new to say that to allow women their full power is liberating to men as well. That men cling so fiercely and aggressively to their position of dominance shows how fragile it really is. There are plenty of psychoanalytic theories for this, but it is up to men to unlearn their own fragility. I find hope in the way binary gender is now being questioned; that gender can be conceived as fluid, with all kinds of permutations. Today cis males and females, trans males and females, as well as those who identify as “they,” can be butch or femme, take hormones or not, explore varieties of queerness, or ways of un-oppressive heterosexuality. But I also know it is only a tiny fragment of the population who are interested in learning to live as equals. Meanwhile women are called “fucking bitches” all the time, on-line and off, and often by men under forty. And, as Micaela Coel brilliantly explores in her complex HBO series I May Destroy You, rape and abuse continue among the young, and women are not the only victims.
Audre Lorde, who wrote about black women’s anger, especially anger at the racism in the women’s movement of the time, also gave a speech about women’s erotic power titled Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power:
Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama. For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self- affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.
We currently see a much needed national movement against the toxic racism that is our legacy, but women are still fighting battles for their humanity on a much more individual level. Ntozake Shange, disturbed by how AIDS was used to shame women about sex, went on to fill pages with defiantly erotic poetry. She titled a poem if i go all the way without you where would i go? after an Isley Brothers song about Atlantis. It is of course utopian to hope for the liberation of women’s intellectual, political, artistic, and erotic power in cultures that do everything to shut it down. But that’s where we begin, with hope and speech and action and imagination. With Shange, with Lorde, with Micaela Coel, with Ocasio-Cortez, with so many wonderful women. Let’s go together.