When men debate abortion, is the discussion alone a denial of fundamental rights?
I think so.
Now, is it the same as a group of white guys gathering in a room to sign restrictions on what women can and cannot do with their bodies?
But you can draw a line from one to the other, and while you might shake your fist at the absurdity of one situation, to be sure the everyday conversations and debates about who should enjoy bodily autonomy are equally as absurd.
They are, indeed, connected.
They add up.
They unite to weave a cultural tapestry still enamored of an inherited entitlement of men as the ultimate decision makers, even over other bodies, while doggedly undercutting women’s fundamental and everyday rights in every slice and segment of society.
While one swipe of a gilded pen does actual harm to women across the globe, to be sure billions of everyday conversations pave the way, painting the entire perverse process almost like a natural, perfectly respectable birthright of men — yet another arena for us to chime in, to play devil’s advocate, to scream on the sidewalk or well actually our esteemed opinions into an argument that has clouded our nation in too many forms since the beginning and ultimately comes to this: Should women have bodily autonomy?
Guys, we need to stop this.
But how do we get there?
Bear with me.
The threads of paternalistic entitlement run deep and necessitate exploration before we can reach a new avenue of debate — one that allows men to become tremendous allies and advocates for basic human rights while also eroding a cultural reality that grants a respectable patina to persistent second-class citizenship for a majority population.
To begin, we can agree on a few things from the start, no matter your personal or political persuasion.
One is that America was founded and created by white guys. Our laws, our systems, our cultural mores, were established by guys.
The second is that from the beginning women had few rights, and many millions of women were killed for their land, and many millions more were treated much like the land itself, as property — property to be worked, bred, raped, and sold.
Still with me? We’re agreed on our shared history?
So here’s the rub: To consider whether these foundational threads of oppression have been severed, and whether an entire class of citizenry remains today second class and subject to the whims and dictates of the other, one must ask when true, lasting equality among the sexes and races was reached.
Surely we’ve all heard that racist high school chum or sexist uncle beg off responsibility in the present for sins committed in the past, a mulish way of overlooking persistent inequities as if they are not indeed cultural progeny, so I ask:
Was equality reached in the 1860s when slavery was abolished?
Or was it in the 1920s when white women got the vote?
The 1960s when women of color got the vote?
The 1970s when bussing sought more equality in education?
The 1980s and ’90s and 2000s and onward when welfare and criminal laws unfairly targeted women and populations of color?
Or today, have we finally reached true equality among the sexes?
When women make up 51 percent of the population and roughly 20 percent of government representation — across every level of government, from federal houses to town mayors?
When white men make up 31 percent of the population and 65 percent of government representation?
When white women earn on average roughly 80 cents for every dollar a man makes, and black women early 70, and Latinas earn roughly half?
When sports coverage of female athletes make up 4 percent of major news coverage? When women are outnumbered 2 to 1 in lead characters in movies and are very often portrayed as prizes for male characters? When actual prizes in science and literature and mathematics consistently go to men?
When more women are killed by their domestic partners than our soldiers in recent times of war? When women are in large numbers stalked, beaten, and abused — raped and regularly told their rapists deserve judicial mercy so as not to ruin their lives?
When states across the nation enact laws requiring women to have written permission from their husbands before receiving medical treatment? When women are forced into unnecessary, intrusive examinations before receiving the medical care they initially sought out doctors for?
When a United States Senate panel dedicated to reforming health care for the entire nation consists entirely of men?
Is now the promised land?
These are examples of sexism that can be quantified, born out by data and news reports. But threaded deeper into the tapestry of our culture is a sexism so pervasive that men, and tremendous portions of women, either ignore it or excuse it away as natural or normal, just part of “who we are” or “just how it is.”
To be sure, these microsexisms serve as bulwarks to injustice as equally as legislative chambers full of deluded, frightened men and each seems to lay the groundwork for the other, creating a vicious cycle that perpetually finds us here: From birth to death in America, girls and women are reminded every day they are lesser and that it’s perfectly reasonable for men to debate their bodies and worth whenever and wherever we please.
And do you know how we know?
Because girls and women tell us.
Think of the schoolgirl who is told it’s OK — an honor, really — for boys to hurt her to show affection.
The girl who is told her rambunctious awesomeness is somehow tom boyish, while the boy with weak aim is told his throw is girlish. Which is the ideal gender we celebrate?
Or the the schoolgirls who are sold short shorts and tight shirts in every major retailer to accentuate their bodies and then are told to go home from school for wearing short shorts or tight shirts because their bodies are a distraction to boys.
Or the young Latinas who are told sports are for boys.
Or the young black girls sent home from school to “fix” their hair by white women who pay black women to create the same hairstyles for their own damn daughters while on beach vacations.
Think of the older schoolgirls who are told science and math and technology aren’t for them — they’re sold glitter science kits while boys just get science.
The young women who find fewer scholarships in college.
The odd looks and legitimacy quizzes girls receive for suggesting they also like Star Wars or character role-playing or video games.
The women, young and old alike, who are told to smile for the pleasure and amusement of men and are then hounded for phone numbers if they do or are called stuck up bitches if they don’t; the catcalls and whistles; the endless media barrage about an ideal weight and look — not too heavy, not too skinny, but just right, the corporeal Goldilocks whose health and worth is less important than her passing impact on, wait for it, dudes.
The women who aren’t invited out to after-work drinks but are punished with lower pay and fewer opportunities for not “being one of the guys.”
The men, including our own vice president, who refuse to dine or meet alone with women because … why? Men are constantly verging on rape depending on what she’s wearing or women are just wanton sex temptresses, biding their time until they find themselves across the table at a business meeting? Think for a second about who plays the “victim” in each scenario — the innocent man befuddled by a woman — and who is the actual victim in each scenario — the woman who really just wants a raise or more opportunity from a bunch of overconfident, doughy white guys who will still be making more than her at the end of the day.
There are literally endless examples of microsexisms — you can find them in an instant online or around town — but to be sure, there are much larger ones we bolster in our cultural narrative: such as the rich, racist white guy who was caught calling women bitches and bragging about sexually assaulting them and was then elected president of the United States.
Because it was either him or a woman.
To be sure, the data points are disparate and these are but a sample of them, but the pattern is readily apparent: A country founded and created by men, nurtured in the oppression of many, remains perpetually in thrall to the same population.
And the total mindfuck of it all is how piteously aggrieved these men often feel, lamenting to the heavens about the sorry, outcast state of the white guy today — the white guys who have enough political power to elect a doddering old racist sexual predator while also somehow enjoying a media narrative about being powerless or unrepresented, who literally control every branch of federal power, the majority of state houses and governorships, town mayor and council positions, who own a cultural narrative in which it’s somehow perfectly normal for the white guy to play every stripe of movie action hero, no matter the race or nationality of the character, and yet an outrageous “reverse sexism” when four women zap make-believe ghosts or one finally, after two generations of story telling, gets a turn at wielding the giant space stick to do mind battle with aliens.
What fresh hell, guys?
To be sure, I hear you. Men also face sexism — but it largely boils down to living each day in fear of being labeled the worst possible thing ever: feminine.
Seriously, guys, our fragile, fucked up masculinity is going to do us all in.
So add together the big sexisms and the small and here we are again — yet another moment in time when it almost does seem natural then for two guys to sit down at a keyboard or across from one another at a coffee shop and have an earnest, reasoned debate that boils down to this: what women can do with their bodies.
After all, men are told all the time — in government representation, in media, in business, in sport, in movies, in books, in nearly every cultural mythology we pass down from one generation to the next — that their opinions and stories and weighty notions in every subject not only have merit but must be heard, no matter the inherent harm it does for those listening to wonder whether the end of that debate will leave them wanting, lesser, unable in the land of the free to control their own bodies and destinies.
And make no mistake: The mere debate of these rights causes harm. If you don’t think so, imagine yourself standing by as two strangers debate what you can do with your body — the horror show pain it must cause to wait, bootless, with your autonomy in the balance.
How does one whose worth is questioned every day argue her worth to the very people who deny it? And what sort of special asshole makes her?
The fact is, we’ve become inured to the injury we cause because for centuries we’ve considered girls and women unequal and undeserving, their lives and standing forever up for debate — first in the legal systems we created and today in the cultural norms we perpetuate.
We need to move beyond this.
The germ for this notion was planted in a social media debate between two opposing forces: one group of men wanting to outlaw abortion and one group of men wanting to keep it available.
You’ve probably seen something like it. It starts with well-meaning science, perhaps bends toward religion, and ends with invective and blocking.
I remember witnessing, and partaking in, the discussion and coming to a realization: Am I participating in the same debates my forebears participated in hundreds of years ago, 50 years ago, yesterday, about which rights should be afforded “the weaker sex?”
And does merely participating in it eventually lead to the loss of human rights and bodily autonomy for women?
In other words, does a seemingly innocent argument among “good men” cause harm?
The answer is apparent. Men have inherited and maintain today a collective permission that says debating and declaring who has rights is all perfectly acceptable — rightful, even.
But what are the ends to these debates?
What happens next?
Here’s the crux of it.
Should the group of men against abortion win this particular argument, more men are brought into the fold of believing that women should not have full control of their bodies.
Those men, now convinced, try to convince even more men of this, maybe yell at woman outside health centers, write letters to their representatives, campaign for government officials who believe women should not control their own bodies, run for office themselves perhaps, and we wind up perpetually in the spot we are in now: Groups of men deciding, through law, what women can and cannot do with their bodies.
But is it really any of their business?
The other side of this argument is no less preposterous.
Should the group of men in favor of abortion win this argument, more men are brought into the fold of believing that women should have full control of their bodies.
Those men, now convinced, try to convince even more men of this, maybe support women outside health centers, write letters to their representatives, campaign for government officials who believe women should control their own bodies, run for office themselves perhaps, and we wind up perpetually in the spot we are in now: Groups of men deciding, through law, what women can and cannot do with their bodies.
Although I happen to agree with this particular viewpoint, the question remains: Is it really any of this group’s business either?
Nearly every argument I’ve seen against abortion caters to the impacts on others — the men, the zygote, the baby, society as a whole, one’s eternal soul — rather than the agency of the woman at the actual center of the debate.
And no wonder.
We still live in a patriarchal white supremacy in which it seems perfectly reasonable — nay, obligatory — for men to put a women’s health and well being up for debate, and then for men in power to pass laws about it all. Again, one paves the way for the other.
So what do we do?
Surely groups opposed to abortion and female autonomy would rejoice if suddenly wide swaths of men suddenly disappeared from the debate. The realpolitik of the situation — while morally repugnant — is what it is: Right now, as we speak, groups of male lawmakers are deciding on the rights of women, largely without any input from women.
To confirm their “pro-life” stances, they’ve pushed legislation that would be the most regressive for women’s health in a generation. By cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, they might make abortion less available, but they would also cut off necessary medical care for millions — from cancer screenings and birth control to maternity care and newborn care.
And who suffers?
You guessed it.
Overwhelmingly women of color.
They are nearly always the last concern.
To change this dynamic, we need a cultural shift in how men talk about abortion rights.
While I maintain that we one day need to reach a point in which basic human rights are no longer subject to the whims and votes of some, and that merely debating who has equal rights leaves those without them in a perpetual state of fear, causing actual harm to onlookers with every “well actually” typed on a screen or yelled over coffee, we are not there yet.
And here’s the thing: We’ll never get there if we keep having the same arguments over and over with no end in sight.
In short, men need to be actively, persistently, loudly engaged in the debate for full female autonomy. But we need to stop fighting a two-front battle on only one front; we need to stop accepting the initial framework of the discussion: that women’s basic rights are even debatable in the first place.
So here’s how men can be the best allies and advocates: by arguing two things at once, every single time.
First, we need to assert that woman alone should have control over their bodies, full stop. That’s simply not debatable anymore, and if you’re arguing against it, you’re not just part of the problem, you’re causing actual harm.
Second, to advance this cause, we need to also assert each time the sheer absurdity of men arguing about what others can do with their bodies; we need to show base indignation at the idea of men’s opinions carrying weight in this sphere.
In short, men need to be loud, vocal proponents of bodily integrity in the short term so that in the long term no one has to debate it all anymore.
To be honest, I don’t have the exact phrasing of the argument — one that offers unwavering support while also drawing to a close the idea that debating a woman’s fundamental human rights is an acceptable everyday pastime for men.
In some instances, I’ve tried to be reasonable — offering full-throated support while also drawing out my reasons for not engaging in an argument about whether women should have bodily autonomy — in ways far less wordy, I hope, than all of the above.
In other instances, I’ve laid out my case and then simply repeated: “Abortion on demand. No apologies. Fuck your beliefs.”
Ultimately, no matter the exact phrasing, if we are ever finally going to reach that point of true, lasting equality, we need to wrestle with the competing idea that men are still largely in control of the legislative and cultural systems, and feel entitled in everyday spheres of argument to bestow or deny rights to others — but that these realities won’t change without vociferous defense of those without equal rights coupled with the acknowledgment of how preposterous and damaging it is for men to perpetually debate who can have the same autonomy they enjoy.
Some days, this is all I got: Abortion on demand. No apologies. Fuck your beliefs.
This post is made possible by support from The Mission List. All opinions are my own. The worst women’s health bill in a generation just passed the House and is now being considered by, surprise surprise, an all-male US Senate panel. Find out how you can help oppose the bill here.