Sunday, June 15, 2014

The problem with rape and incest

There are so many things I have been wanting to write about.

The folly of more U.S. intervention in Iraq, of thinking that we can control the sectarian violence we spent years and billions fomenting.

The irony and the ecstasy of Eric Cantor.

Tony Kushner’s play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide toCapitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, which I saw last weekend.  The play is even longer than the name.

But when I looked at this morning’s New York Times, the phrase that called to me was this one, “even in cases of rape and incest.”

The article in question was a call for women in the Peace Corps to be able to use their federally funded insurance to pay for abortions when pregnancies result from rape or incest or when their lives are endangered by the pregnancies.  No controversy from me.  I did not actually know, but was glad to read, that women who are raped in federal prisons have the right to federally funded abortions.  Seems like the least they can do, given that any pregnancy that occurs while a woman is in prison is going to be a result of rape, since the only men in women’s prisons are staff.  In trying to find out how many incarcerated women have actually benefited from this regulation, which I could not find, I did learn that “The governors of Idaho, Texas, Indiana, Utah and Arizona have informed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that they won't try to meet the standards required under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.”  Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the requirements were too expensive.

Honestly, I didn’t even know that there was a Prison Rape Elimination Act until I heard the aforementioned interview with Nell Bernstein, who aptly raised the question, “Why do we need a special law to stop guards from raping inmates?”

Why indeed?  An interaction during that interview illustrates the why.  The interviewer, Dave Davies, kept trying to soften the language and Bernstein, with incredible poise, kept resisting.  So he kept talking about “detention,” “custody” and “child welfare services” and she kept saying, “prisons.”  She told one story about a girl who had been a prostitute, whose counselor demanded that she “reenact” her sexual experiences with him.  A guard walked in on one of these “sessions” and the girl thought he was going to help her but instead, he apologized to the counselor and left.

Davies:  “[He walked in] while they were having sex?”
Bernstein:  “I would say while he was raping her.”

What that interaction shows is how hard women have to work to show that they are blameless for sex before they are entitled to any protection.  This was the message that #YesAllWomen was trying to get across.  And it’s exactly what’s wrong with the “rape and incest” clauses.  Is it more traumatic to have a child resulting from rape than to have one you can’t afford?  One resulting from a one-night stand you regret or can’t remember?  One resulting from failed birth control, or birth control you didn’t have access to or ran out of or didn’t know how to use?

Maybe, maybe not.  For sure, a pregnancy and a child will always remind you of your rape, but I assure you, every rape survivor remembers the rape very well.  That’s why defense lawyers always insist their testimony was coached, because you go over every detail again and again in your mind for years.  You try to think about how you could have done things differently, not taken that ride, not gone to that party, not had that drink, not worn that dress, not kissed that guy.  I’m sure that’s also true for women who got pregnant with a broken condom.  You imagine not having sex, you imagine choosing a different condom, you imagine being more careful, you imagine using more lube.

What about the trauma of having a child when you’re sick?  Or maybe you were raped or battered but not the day you got pregnant.  How much do you need to suffer before you have a right not to have a child?

The vast majority of our social welfare policy is about punishing women for having the wrong kind of sex.  You only have to look at attacks on welfare, marriage incentives, denial of contraception, criminalization of addicted pregnant women, lesbians of color and sex workers, and on and on.  Of course, it’s also about punishing women for being the wrong kind of women – especially African American, Latina and poor.  But the demographic objectives of the right – to preserve a white majority, at least among the voting public – would be better served by promoting abortion and birth control among women of color and immigrant women.  (The Israeli army does exactly that; they have a fund to help Palestinian women get abortions.)  Their obsession with denying women access to those forms of health care only makes sense as a means of making women pay for the crime of sex.

By that logic, if you can show that you got no pleasure from the sex, you have the right not to be further punished, but otherwise, you don’t.  That’s why you get people like Todd Akin, talking about “legitimate rape” and the body shutting down.  If your body didn’t shut down, that proves you must have enjoyed it, QED you did not suffer enough. That’s why as feminists, as people who believe that health care is a right and a woman’s health care should be her own damn business, we should expunge that clause, “even in cases of rape and incest,” from our rhetoric.

It’s very tempting to use it.  It’s the icing on the cake, it proves how unreasonable our opposition is and inversely, how reasonable we are.  But by using it, we give legitimacy to the idea that some women deserve abortion more than others.

Sex is not a crime.  Women are people.  Abortion is health care.  Health care is a right.