Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Adulthood, Debt and Family Responsibility.

The BBC Magazine today discussed different social attitudes towards inheritance and it brought to mind the not unrelated issue of parental responsibility for adult children. When I went to University at 17, it was the year after the abolishment of the student grant, the first year of means-tested loans and the year before bursaries were established for children from poor backgrounds. I was ridiculously independent, having worked at since I was fourteen and saved up a reasonable about of money. I did not receive pocket money, but used my own money to make any purchases that I needed. My parents, at that time, were not particularly wealthy, and so when I applied for a student loan, I received the full loan and my parents were not expected to supplement it. Meaning the debt was all mine. My parents supported me by providing free accommodation and food, but I paid for all my university expenses, including books, lunch and the travel costs of a two hour commute by public transport (each way!). At eighteen, I bought my own flat, nearer university, using the money I had saved as a deposit, mainly because I couldn’t keep up with working 30 hours a week, four hours commuting and university. Later that year (when I was nineteen) I got married (my husband was also a student and from a similar background, so his debt was all his too!!) meaning that I was classified as independent by the student loans company (SLC), and so from that point my parents were no longer expected to contribute to my upkeep.

I had been raised with a strong work ethic and a belief that adults did not look to their parents for financial help. That my parents had to be ‘means-tested’ at all really bugged me. If I wanted to take out loans, why was that my parents’ responsibility? Going to University was my decision, not theirs. When my younger siblings went to university, my parents were earning more and so deemed rich enough to contribute. What this meant in practice is that the SLC takes the amount of loan that you are entitled to and deduct the amount your parents are meant to pay and then give you the balance. You are responsible for asking your parents for the money or taking them to court if they won’t pay. Now this is a LOAN, we are talking about, not a grant. It is not like the state is paying for this; it is just how much debt they will allow you to take out. For children, who consider themselves adults, this can be a very difficult thing to do. Especially as your parents are considered liable to means-testing until your 26!

What’s my point? I think that there is a disconnect between the social values of certain social groups and what is expected by the government and I think that this problem is affected by nationality. Adulthood in Scotland comes at sixteen. At that age, we can leave school, work, get married, sign contracts, and make decisions about our future (although we can’t smoke, drink, or drive). In England, where the legislation on student loans was passed, although people can leave school at sixteen, they are not adults and cannot get married without parental consent or sign contracts. Furthermore, whereas in England, the university system is designed for people aged over eighteen (and it used to be the case that some universities had age restrictions, although this may have changed in light of recent legislation), in Scotland, while many people now wait until they are eighteen by taking a ‘sixth year’ at school, universities are designed for students coming from Higher, at age 17. I think that these social differences create considerable cultural differences about what we expect from young adults and affects perceptions of parental responsibility.

I think that cultural difference is more pronounced amongst certain social groups, especially the working class and lower middle class, where money and success is hard earned and not inherited. Children are taught, both verbally and by example, that financial independence is part of being an adult and we are uncomfortable with the ‘child’ status that results from us taking money from our parents (possibly more so when we are just becoming adults than later in life where our adulthood is established in other ways). To be honest, I think that we are more comfortable asking the state to support us than our parents. I think that the government and the SLC should take those cultural differences into account before bringing in systems that are resented, and as a result, unworkable by parts of the population.

There are also real drawbacks to this way of working. First, what do students whose parents won’t pay do? They either have to sue them (you know with the free cash that students have lying around and all the related tensions and family wars that may result) or become declared independent adults, which involves getting the social work department to declare you independent (which is difficult if you have never been in care); proving that you have been economically independent for three years; or get married. All of the latter options can be time-consuming to evidence and, in the meanwhile, no loan. Second, it can lead to parents controlling their children’s behaviour when they are meant to be adults making decisions about their future. What good is a degree that you didn’t really want in the first place? I think this is especially problematic amongst social groups that associate adulthood with financial independence as logically if this is the case, then if they are paying for it they should have a say. Finally, it leads for odd situations where I am married so am independent but my sister lives with her boyfriend in their own flat but is still dependent. Where is the consistency?

Different understandings of adulthood and responsibility do not only effect student loan awards, but have bearing on a lot of ‘hot potato’ issues of the moment, including discussions of teenage pregnancy, compulsory schooling until age 18, raising the age of smoking, apprenticeships for all, and how we view young people and their place in the world. For legislation to work, it has to be meaningful to all social groups and reflect the different national attitudes across the UK.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Equality Under the Law?

A Hollywood couple were found guilty today of “modern day slavery” after vicious maltreatment of their Filipino maid Nena Ruiz. Ruiz, an illegal immigrant, was threatened with deportation if she complained about her violent treatment and lack of wages, food or accommodation. It is only right that her abusers were punished for their vicious treatment. Yet, in what can only be explained by the court’s blatant sexism, the wife, Elizabeth Jackson, was sentenced to three years for ‘forced labour’, while her husband, James, was found guilty of the lesser charge of ‘alien harbouring’ and given 200 hours of community service. The details of the case are sketchy in newspaper reports, but, even if we assume that James worked a lot and Elizabeth was the main tormenter, how does the court explain such a huge difference in both the classification of the crime and the punishment.

Do we seriously believe that James Jackson was oblivious to his wife’s treatment of their maid? One of the instances alleged was that Ruiz was forced to sleep in a dog-basket. Do we believe that James failed to notice this every night? Do we believe that he did not know his maid worked 18 hour days/ every day of the year? Did he fail to notice that no wages were being paid to his maid? Did he ever question his wife’s treatment of his maid? Has he no responsibility whatsoever for what went on in their home? Undoubtedly Elizabeth Jackson is guilty of abuse and was probably the main abuser, yet, at a minimum, James Jackson benefited from the forced labour of his slave and failed in his responsibility as an employer (and as a human being). How does a charge of ‘alien harbouring’ and community service reflect his culpability in this crime?

The only explanation for the significantly different sentences imposed on the Jacksons is their gender. The association of women with the household, it appears, ensures that men have no responsibility for what goes on in them. The same behaviour that is vilified in the female sex is ignored when performed by a man. If women and men truly have equality under the law then it should be manifested in the same punishments for the same crimes.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Some Thoughts on Sex, Degradation and Power.

Sage at Persephone’s Box recently posted about the place of degradation in people’s sex lives and beyond that in representations of sex in society. She argues that degradation (which she links with destruction and death) is a part of life that should be acknowledged. Now while I think that pain and death are part of life and even part of development, I was uncomfortable with thinking about degradation in this way. To be honest, I am not sure that I can articulate why, but there are some thoughts that occur to me as I read her post.

In her discussion, Sage comments that:
“So, when I think of that hideous rape scene from A Clockwork Orange, it hits me on a gut level of disgust and aversion, but it's also mesmerizing as my thighs begin to get warm.”
What struck me was that in a Clockwork Orange, especially in the book, the story is told from the perspective of Alex, the rapist, the perpetrator of violence. It is his feelings that we are experiencing as we watch/read, his arousal and pleasure that we are channeling. It seems to me that it is not the violence, per se, that is arousing, but the pleasure that comes from having such power. Almost all representations of violence are from the perspective of the active participant. Even in horror films, while the victim takes centre stage as they flee for their lives, inevitably in the wrong direction, when the violence begins, it is the perpetrator who takes centre stage. Films focus on the knife/saw/penis entering the body: in that instant the victim loses all agency and becomes passive and, with passivity, his or her humanity is removed. Once the victim is finally attacked or killed in a film, the tension and fear that the viewer is experiencing, caused by his or her relationship with the victim, is immediately released. That fear is replaced either with a pillow as the viewer hides his or her eyes, or with voyeuristic arousal caused by shifting your affiliation from the victim to the killer. You now share the killer's pleasure in his actions. In a sense, this has to be the case or horror films would stop being pleasurable and instead be grossly disturbing.

I think this also applies to rape fantasies. Of course, I cannot speak for all women, but it seems to me that rape fantasies focus on the actions of the rapist. It is his body, his over-powering strength, his penis, that forms the core of the fantasy, not our bodies’ reaction. We assume because the fantasy is happening in our head, or being viewed through our eyes, that our affiliation is with ourselves and our bodies. But is it? Does not our arousal arise from our awe, our fascination, with the actions of the man? When we think about our own bodies in that fantasy, does that fantasy change? If we become active in the rape fantasy, does the source of our pleasure change? If we fight back, does our pleasure not come from our empowerment, rather than the act of being raped? Can we ever take pleasure in the removal of our humanity? Can we even imagine this: being nothing; having no agency?

From a young age, women are trained (is it training or just self-preservation?) to deny the removal of their humanity that comes with being female. I was an avid reader of adventure fiction as a child. It never worried me that none of the active, leading characters were female. In my head, I was the main character whether they were male or female. The weak, female characters were not me, they were other women. Other women were different from me because I was fully human. This affected my relationship with other women as a young teenager because I knew that I wasn’t weak or stupid or girly like them. I was exceptional. Yet, at some point, I realised that other women thought that way too. I wasn’t exceptional; I was just the victim of a vicious lie that had told me other women weren’t human like me.

This lie was perpetrated in almost all forms of popular culture that I accessed as a child (what has changed!). Sage comments that
“Watching or thinking of portrayals of violence is a means to experience the intensity without anyone actually experiencing any pain in real life.”
Yet, popular culture caused me pain. It caused me pain when I woke up to the fact that my gender was not considered fully human. Rape scenes and scenes of violence against women allow us to feel for a few moments the pleasure that comes with having power over another human being; it’s arousing and even seductive. And it continues to perpetuate the idea that women are not human and that hurting them is pleasurable. Just because women can experience that pleasure, does not make it right.

I think this why I have a problem with degradation. Degradation is not (just?) about violence; it is about removing the humanity of the victim. It’s nice to feel powerful, hell, it’s even arousing, but is our arousal worth the loss of our humanity?

Friday, 25 January 2008

An Open Letter to the Pro-Choice Movement.

Dear Fellow Feminists,

It occurred to me that we are often very good at criticising what others are doing wrong but do not often take the time to consider what we can do better. While doing some research for my previous post, I browsed a lot of pro-choice websites and websites that are designed to inform women about abortion. I think that generally we are very good at giving detailed information about abortion: describing what it entails; reflecting on the effects on women both physically and psychologically; acknowledging both the pros and the cons of having an abortion. Yet, I noticed that there is very little discussion of what having a child entails. Most websites that describe women’s choices usually list them as abortion, adoption and keeping your child, but, whereas when you click on abortion you are given a plethora of information, when you click on ‘keep your own child’ you are usually directed to the family planning association. The FPA can give advice on what to expect from pregnancy and information on pre- and post-natal care, but there is an implicit expectation that you have made up your mind to keep your child at this stage. Where is our advice on the pros and cons of keeping your child? Where do we discuss that keeping your child can bring you great happiness, but also entails great responsibility and perhaps loss in other areas of your life? Where do we describe the psychological and physical effects? Where do we say if keeping your child is what you want, then we can give you advice and coping strategies? Are we doing our fullest to help women make a fully informed choice? I think we often assume that women know what child-rearing entails, but, in a world where people live in smaller families where children are often clustered around the same age, is there the same opportunity to experience living and being involved in looking after children as may have been the case in the past? Being pro-choice means helping women make informed decisions and supporting them in that choice. Are we doing our best?

Just some thoughts.
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Thursday, 24 January 2008

An Open Letter to Ann Widdecombe as she begins her “Not on Your Life...or Anyone Else’s” Tour.

Dear Ann,

I hope your visit to Glasgow University (23/01/08) to promote your anti-abortion campaign was enjoyable. As a feminist, I believe that it is important that all women’s voices are heard and I welcome your input into the debate. While I think you have every right to share your pro-life beliefs with other women, I think you should seriously reconsider your position on campaigning to change abortion legislation. Supporting the legalisation of abortion does not require you to change your moral beliefs, but to give greater consideration to the complexity of women’s position in our society and to respect their personal autonomy. Most feminists, even the hairy-legged, bra-burning kind, recognise that abortion is not an easy or a simple choice. Some pro-choice feminists even believe that life begins at conception and would personally not choose to have an abortion. Yet, we recognise that legalised abortion is necessary and important for a number of reasons.

The first, and perhaps most obvious response, is that making abortion illegal does not stop abortions from happening. Ireland, where abortion is illegal, is a very good example. Over 6,000 Irish women travel to the UK for abortions each year, not an insignificant number given their population size. Making abortion illegal in the UK will just drive women to travel abroad for abortion, perhaps to countries where medicine is not as well regulated, and certainly ensuring that those women do not have aftercare when they return. This will, of course, be a luxury of the rich. Poor women, and currently Scotland’s deprived areas have twice the abortion rate of rich areas, will be most heavily penalised. It would be naive to assume that these women will not have abortions. Backstreet abortions were a fact of life before 1967. Many older women can tell you who the village abortionist was. Abortifacients were advertised widely in women’s magazines in the Victorian period and are even commented on in traditional Scottish ballads. This information was available for a reason. Legalised abortion ensures that women are able to make informed and safe choices.

Perhaps a more tongue in cheek response might also be: how do you expect to enforce anti-abortion legislation and what punishment will you give that would deter women from this course of action? Currently around one in three women in Britain will have an abortion, almost 200,000 a year. What do you think your conviction rate will be given the chances of 1 in 3 women on a jury having been in similar circumstances? If we assume that we can get a conviction and also let’s rather generously say that half of women are dissuaded from having abortion due to its criminalisation, where do you plan on putting the 100,000 women A YEAR who make that choice? Who would pay for their incarceration? Is this where your support for the death penalty comes in?

Another more serious response may question the support of anti-abortion policies without a similar campaign to ensure the financial security, safety and upbringing of the children that are now born, and to support their mothers. If the state acts to restrict the personal autonomy of women then it must protect them from the consequences of that decision. That is the nature of the social contract. People give up their rights to behave as they wish, but in turn the state has the responsibility to protect them and to provide for them (or create an environment where they can do that for themselves). In this instance, before anti-abortion legislation is put in place, the state would have to address the wide range of causes for abortion (i.e. it needs to provide and protect). A list that is far from exhaustive would include free childcare to all women to ensure that they can access work, further education and respite (for the protection of their mental and physical health). This childcare would have to operate round the clock to ensure that women who worked shifts would be fully supported. The state would have to ensure that the current social inequalities that face women that have children are not only legislated against, but abolished in practice. This includes ensuring that women with children do not lose their jobs, fail to get promoted or earn less because they take maternity leave or breaks in their careers. It means making flexible working hours and part-time work a reality. It means ensuring that women are not forced into low-paid jobs as they are the only industries that they can fit around their children.

Moving away from ensuring financial security, the state would also have to enforce a cultural change where violence against women was not just unacceptable, but not happening. The state would have to ensure that no woman would face violence as a result of her pregnancy or was forced to bring a child into the world to have her or him tortured by a partner. The state would have to ensure that men no longer raped women so that they were faced with remembering the trauma of rape with every passing day of their pregnancy. The state would have to ensure that all women, even the young ones, had full information on and access to reliable contraception and where men were educated to believe that fertility was their problem too. The state should also seriously considering re-educating our culture so that women were no longer objectified and seen as little more than sexual objects. Perhaps, by doing so we would give women greater self-esteem and the ability to insist that contraception is used and to teach men that using contraception when you as a couple do not want to conceive is an act of respect towards your partner. While on the subject of men, I don’t think it would be too much to ask the state to create a culture where parenting was not predominately thrust upon women.

The state would also have to consider the children. Given that so many women who have abortions live in areas of social deprivation, the state would have to ensure that all children are protected from living in poverty; that they had opportunities to access a good education that could lead to well paid employment; that they are protected from crime, gangs and all the other implications of living in a deprived area. With great power comes great responsibility. Is the state willing to take on the responsibilities incurred by banning abortion? Are you ready to campaign for these rights as fully and as pro-actively as you campaign for changes in abortion legislation?

If all these conditions were fulfilled, then as a feminist I might still have a problem with the state’s infringement of my bodily autonomy, but at least then we could have a conversation about whether abortion is a moral choice. The funny thing is, I suspect, that if all these condition were fulfilled, the number of abortions would be considerably less, both because there would be less pregnancies and because choosing to have children would be more of a choice.

I would be grateful for your consideration of these issues.
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An Open Letter to the Police and the Justice Secretary.

Re: “Police Slam Women Drink-drivers” reported on the BBC at

Dear Scottish Police Chiefs and Kenneth MacAskill,

I appreciate that drink-driving is a very real concern and a danger that should be highlighted, but why are you picking on women drivers? As you acknowledge women drink-drivers only made up 100 of the 657 drivers who were charged with drink-driving over the festive period, yet you select them out for particular criticism. I understand that the number of female drink-drivers has risen from previous years, but I am not sure why that matters. Instead of addressing your comments at men, who after all are the majority of offenders, you select women. This seems suspiciously like a double standard that ignores male bad behaviour as natural and vilifies the same behaviour in women. Comments such as “Sadly, it is a grip that seems to be tightening on both young people and women - many of whom seem to believe that heavy drinking and driving can go together. We have got to do more to nip this dangerous trend in the bud” as made by Kenneth MacAskill or “It is a disappointing statistic that over 100 female drivers have been found to be over the drink-drive limit since the festive safety campaign began” by Assistant Chief Constable Jim Green, which entirely ignore male offenders, reinforces this. Drink-driving is wrong whether you are male or female. Targeting women in this way is sexist.

In future could you kindly address this?

Best Wishes,
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