Friday, October 27, 2017

Consent, Body Boundaries, Women's Words

The news is full of stories of sexual harassment and abuse these days. Women are standing up, speaking out, asking to be believed as they uncover stories they had silenced, hidden away out of shame or not wanting to rock the boat, or simply to keep their job. Millions of women are finally airing their pain and asking to be heard. Courage in numbers, they say.

It reminded me of my first trepidatious year in Creative Writing Class, writing a taboo journal that was to become my first book 10 years later. (a book of poems and birth journal, Little Mother published 1997). I remember mixed feelings about giving a voice to my female body. I had stories to tell, some of them about being pregnant, which I loved, and yet, it brought up scary dreams and I realized there were unconscious fears, especially as I got to the week before giving birth to my first child.

I was reading a lot about labour, of course, and what to expect. Also I was trying to understand how past sexual abuse or trauma to the body could delay or obstruct the labour process. I wholly wanted a "natural" childbirth, (having no idea what that meant). But in the effort to be cautious and prevent an oversized child, I was scheduled to be induced on Sept 19, my due date. After twelve hours of 'false labour,' and many derogative remarks from the two women obstetricians about my lousy, tight, stubborn cervix" I went home and tried to get my head around the resistance of my "failed induction". I had a feeling my uterus wasn't stubborn, it just knew it wasn't time yet. (I ended up dancing to African drum music a week later to get labour started).

Here is an extract from the book, and birth journal:

Sept 21, 1990: When God cursed Eve for eating the apple, he decreed: "In pain you shall bring forth your children." Our heritage as women. I want to look at my fear of pain, reasons for tightness. 

teenager's fingers [in my vagina] around 4 years old
trauma of first blood (15 years)
doctor's hurtful examinations: forcing a cold metal speculum when internally bleeding (ectopic pregnancy, age 22 years).
blood, sign of miscarriage (twice in two years)
amniocentesis: another violation, but by needle. 
Hanging on tightly to this pregnancy, fear of losing the fetus. I have to say goodbye to "Eustache" [foetus name] and hello to the separate new individual, Andre-Julien, the child-boy. Leave behind the known for the unknown. Birth = rite of passage. A Rupture.

Don't touch my labour pain! "Les femmes qui accouchent transpirent, gémissent, vomissent parfois, émettent des sons bizarres, perdent le contrôle qu'elles ont habituellement sur leurs fonctions corporelles."  (translation: Women who give birth sweat, moan, sometimes vomit, emit bizarre sounds, lose control they usually have over the bodily functions.)

"The best way to get out of pain is to go into it." Say yes, accept. (advice from L'une a l'autre, Winter 1987, magazine for midwives).

I did not list all the ways I had felt invaded sexually, including an encounter in which I bit a man's arm so he would let go of me....but I was becoming aware that there was a connection between the fear of invasive "others" and my body's natural power to give birth. The whole book was a form of meditation on taboos surrounding the female body, sexuality and mothering.

It has been a life-long passion of mine to understand my body, its messages, signals, and symbols, and its relation to the larger world - (the second book is non-fiction look at menopause - The Tao of Turning Fifty.)

The question I have now is, is it even safe to be a female in this 20th century? perhaps safer in Montreal than in Mogadishu, Somalia. It seems like not enough has changed since I was a little girl or a teen aged one trying to negotiate her sexual boundaries. 

Maybe none of us is safe until we speak up, speak out and use our body language to clearly communicate what is out of boundary, what actions and words we refuse to acquiesce to. Even grown women need to learn this, and not adhere to the old "polite, good girl" behaviour, not stay silent and squirm with shame or rage.

I heartened by two educational videos I watched on Facebook today, one from Kenya, where boys and girls are both being taught to use their voice strongly to say no to aggression (sexual or otherwise) and stand up for each other. Check out their program at No means No!

What I wish is that I had been coached on this as a child, instead of being told to be quiet, stuff my feelings inside, be good. Sure, we got the warnings about strange men and not talking to anyone we didn't know. But unfortunately, often it's the people you do know that are hard to say no to. The older brother, the babysitter, the uncle, the fathers and grandfathers, the step-fathers and friends of the family.

I wish the world were a safer place for women. Let's start by telling our stories, using our voices, standing up for ourselves.  Warrior Women find your Courage! Let all girls find their voice, be encouraged to defend themselves. May all boys be taught how to stand up for their sisters and friends, as well as themselves.

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