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Giving Birth and Men’s Appropriation and Silencing of Women
Disregarding all boundaries and limits
If we were not invisible to ourselves, we would see that since the beginning of time, we have been the exemplars of physical courage. Squatting in fields, isolated in bedrooms, in slums, in shacks, or in hospitals, women endure the ordeal of giving birth. This physical act of giving birth requires physical courage of the highest order. It is the prototypical act of authentic physical courage. One’s life is each time on the line. One faces death each time. One endures, withstands, or is consumed by pain. Survival demands stamina, strength, concentration, and will power. No phallic hero, no matter what he does to himself or to another to prove his courage, ever matches the solitary, existential courage of the woman who gives birth. (p. 63)
- Andrea Dworkin, “The Sexual Politics of Fear and Courage,” 1975, in Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics
But the distinguishing feature of man’s activities is that they have almost always been undertaken from the narrow viewpoint of short-range gain, without considering either their impact on the earth or their long-range effect upon ourselves. […] This is an age that has produced floods of how-to-do-it books, and it is also an age of how-to-do-it science. It is, in other words, the age of technology, in which if we know how to do something, we do it without pausing to inquire whether we should. (p. 426)
- Rachel Carson, “Of Man and the Stream of Time,” 1962
The relationship between the woman who labors and produces and the man who owns the product is at once sexual and economic. In reproduction, sex and economics cannot be separated nor can they be distinguished from each other. The woman’s material reality is determined by a sexual characteristic, a capacity for reproduction. The man takes a body that is not his, claims it, sows his so-called seed, reaps a harvest—he colonializes a female body, robs it of its natural resources, controls it, uses it, depletes it as he wishes, denies it freedom and self-determination so that he can continue to plunder it, moves on at will to conquer other land which appears more verdant and alluring. Radical feminists call this exclusively male behavior ‘phallic imperialism’ and see in it the origins of all other forms of imperialism. (pp. 118-119)
- Andrea Dworkin, “Sexual Economics: The Terrible Truth,” 1976, in Letters from a War Zone
At one time, it seemed evident that, castrated and injected with hormones or not, men should not breastfeed any babies. In the same way, it once seemed obvious that puberty should not be something that we “protect” children from. Lest we forget, double mastectomies have not always been considered “mental health care” for teenage girls in distress. There have been a number of cases illustrating that we know how to do something—without questioning if we should. Recent debates over men engaging in what they call “breastfeeding” show how far tolerance has been extended well beyond its limits.
Some days ago, I received an email from a woman who writes under the nom de guerre “Lysa Strata,” no doubt a reference to Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. She had written a thread that went viral, one that shared her “experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.” Strata’s thread also included her “speaking out against the appropriation and child abuse of men trying to breastfeed.” Although her thread had been shared multiple times, going viral, Twitter permanently suspended her account. Men can deflect criticism for their mistreatment of women by laying a property claim to womanhood; women get silenced for questioning the men’s claim.
Strata has provided a PDF of her original thread, at https://lysistradical.com, which includes her narrative of giving birth exhibiting, in Dworkin’s words, “the solitary, existential courage of the woman who gives birth”:
My first child was born surgically, any other way would’ve killed us both. When they started to put up the curtain, I declined. I watched the whole thing. I saw my intestines put into a bowl, saw the hooks they used to pull aside my abdominal muscles, saw them pull him from me.
The entire time, my ONLY concern was for my CHILD. None of it gave me any pause, not the sight or smell of my own blood, or my literal evisceration. My universe hinged on awaiting a single nose:
His cry. His first breath. My life, my identity, was being the portal for him.
My second birth, I decided to do vaginally. This is called a ‘VBAC’ and not a lot of women attempt it. Again, however, my body was in service to my child, and I made that decision to risk my life for her better health.
I can not think of a moment in life I have felt more alive, and primally powerful, as when my daughter was moving through me into this world. The experience held a level of sanctity which can not be done justice by in words.
I breastfed both of my children, for more than a year each. Breastfeeding is actually very difficult. It hurts, your nipples crack, you leak in public, you have to gauge your supply to make sure you are producing enough... you have to keep a schedule to ensure you don’t dry up.
If you miss a feeding, your breasts become engorged. It is MASSIVELY painful. Sometimes a duct will get blocked, which is excruciating and difficult to fix. If you decide to continue supplementing your child with breast milk after they begin solids...
Then you are dealing with a baby who has TEETH. My nipples were bitten more times than I couldn’t count. Sometimes they would bleed. But, breast milk has enormous immune benefits, so I again put my body in service of my children, as much as I could, for as long as I could.
In other words, I was a mom. That’s what mothers do.
When I look back at it, my body has done incredible things. Growing my kids, healing from their births, feeding them so well that they were chubby and healthy babies. My body, my biology, did all that. And could do it again.
That makes me unbelievably proud.
It also makes me unbelievably furious when I see the desanctification, commercialization, and appropriation of the female body and, increasingly, its reproductive functions.
BIRTH is not a fetish.
BREASTFEEDING is not for self-affirmation. (In fact, women get actively shamed for it, told to leave and hide in public places.)
PREGNANCY is a fucking nightmare of a miracle, and a hugely intricate, dangerous, and taxing biological process.
When I was pregnant, I couldn’t take ADVIL. I couldn’t eat SUSHI. I couldn’t dye my hair.
There was a list of things as long as my arm I couldn’t do. And I gave it all up, gladly, for my kids. For their health. Now, I see pregnant women pumped full of testosterone.
I see MEN forcing newborns to latch and ingest synthetic hormone fluid which is NOT breastmilk. I hear other men talk about how they want to get a womb transplant. Body parts from a woman sewn into them.
All these things so they can pantomime childbirth for their validation.
Childbirth is the LEAST SELF-ORIENTED process I can think of. My body bears its war scars.
This fetishization of childbirth and childbearing MUST STOP.
The children subjected to these things are being ABUSED.
Pregnancy is where a person’s whole life begins.
Freedom for women to voice their experiences as women makes possible the chance that other women can. The simplest act of one woman speaking can give another woman, perhaps many women, that inner courage externalized to speak, too. A situation for the most unspoken speech emerges. Women find themselves defining their being, their bodies, for themselves—not men defining them by relation to men’s desire. In her letter to me, Strata had written: “There were so many women sharing their birth stories, saying it reminded them of their power.” A woman whom Strata mentioned felt reminded of her strength—that she, too, “is a Force.” But her story and countless other women’s stories like hers, especially the women partnered with men who transition, seldom receive an ear that listens and hears them.
The reader may ask why I chose Andrea Dworkin and Rachel Carson, an interesting pairing here. I have been thinking on their work. Both quotes from Dworkin illustrate how women’s bodies define their existence in the world. The conditions women experience as women cannot be separated from matters of the body. Dworkin understood that the body cannot be denied or abstracted into the metaphysical without distorting our understanding of women’s reality. She argued that, while sexuality constructs gender, as Catharine A. MacKinnon constantly reminds us, there is a sexual and moral intelligence necessary to critique the profitable deconstruction of women’s and men’s bodies. Dworkin’s emphasis on women’s “capacity for reproduction,” as gender-critical feminists have been faulted for doing, never meant “biological determinism,” MacKinnon be damned. Nor does a simple critique of phallic imperialism, one that has been deployed since the 1970s, equate to “biological superiority.” Both Dworkin and MacKinnon relate in their analysis of sexual politics. Yet a sharp point of departure between them has been moral intelligence, essential alongside sexual intelligence. Dworkin exhibits it; MacKinnon dismisses it.
As for Carson, in reading Strata’s thread again, I think about the questions raised about man, technology, and the environment. Carson questioned if, in fact, man truly understands ecological limits—and, unsurprisingly, found that he does not. Treating the bodies of women and children as resources to be exploited reflects and reinforces broader environmental degradation. There is short-term pleasure without a deeper concern for the long-term impact. In the final analysis, I return to a fundamental issue, as Carson’s work challenges us, that having the technological capacity for how to do something does not mean that we should do it. “Sex conversion” for not only children but also adults deserves reconsideration. Like boundaries, limits matter.
Here is an image Nikki Craft made using the first Dworkin quote above in acknowledgment of what Dworkin describes as “the solitary, existential courage of the woman who gives birth”:
For this image and other Dworkin quotes and related commentaries on her work, please like and follow the Andrea Dworkin Archival Project at https://www.facebook.com/AndreaDworkinArchivalProject.
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