I need feminism because EVERYTHING

So recently my university has been taking part in a nationwide campaign run by student unions (though I think it started as a tumblr), where people of all genders are photographed holding up signs that say ‘I need feminism because…’, and filled out however they like. (My sister’s university also took part a month ago, and it made me insanely excited to hear her talking about how inspired she’d been.) The tumblr is here, and I’ve been following it for a while, but it was really fantastic to actually be out there doing it, and seeing people I knew taking part as well. There are dozens of things I could have said, but I couldn’t write all of them, and so since I still don’t have time to do a post on any proper topics, I thought I’d jot down a few of things I definitely wanted to say. Oh, and the series as a whole is brilliant, with lots of people being far more powerful and inspiring and articulate and hilarious than me, so I would definitely recommend taking a look. Okay, here goes.

I need feminism because wanting to be treated like a person does not make me ‘crazy’.

I need feminism because she was never ‘asking for it’.

I need feminism because you can make your own damn sandwich.

I need feminism because men are ‘players’, but women are ‘sluts’.

I need feminism because I said no and he didn’t stop.

I need feminism because your ‘intellectual debate’ is my real life.

I need feminism because my sexual orientation is not for anyone’s entertainment.

I need feminism because I love sex, and won’t be made to apologise for it.

I need feminism because I am more than a sex object.

I need feminism because people like this still exist.

I need feminism because my right to choose is not up for debate.

I need feminism because feminist men are better in bed.

I need feminism because someone else’s gender identity is no one’s business but their own.

I need feminism because I wear short skirts and corsets for me, not for anyone else.

I need feminism because I won’t always be there to protect my little sister.

I need feminism because ‘almost equal’ isn’t good enough.

I need feminism because I still need to remind myself to check my privilege.

I need feminism because I don’t know if I want children.

I need feminism because it shouldn’t be controversial not to shave or wax.

I need feminism because I know men too afraid of being mocked to call themselves feminists.

I need feminism because there are so many people out there who think it’s irrelevant.

I need feminism because I care.

I need feminism because I expect more.

I need feminism because I haven’t given up yet.

Dipping my toes in the murky waters of privilege

So far on this blog, I haven’t talked much about privilege, or rather Privilege, with its capital letter. You know, that boring tedious thing that those boring tedious (not to mention sexually frustrated) feminists keep harping on about. And that’s because I’m still working out how to handle the privilege issue, and what the best way to talk about it without alienating just about everyone is. So this isn’t really an entry about privilege, but rather an account of exactly what happened on Friday night, which just happens to involve a striking if mundane example of male privilege.

If you’ve been reading this blog semi-regularly, you might have read On being sexually ‘responsible’ and what that actually means. The story of that one is that the condom split, I went to get the morning-after-pill, and it was all awesome and I’m not pregnant and isn’t it great that such medication is freely available in the UK. It’s all good. Except on Friday, it happened again. Well, not quite the same thing, but basically massive condom fail. Was it Leander’s fault? Personally, I’m inclined to say yes. I mean, he didn’t do anything wrong. He used it exactly how you were taught in year 9 sex ed classes (again, if you’re British or went to a British school). Opening it carefully, putting it on before any penetration occurred, and all that jazz. But somewhere along the way it broke or came off or something, and because of the logistics of sex, I’m really not in a position to notice these things. I thought – and I still think – that it’s the penetrating-partner’s responsibility to check that the condom is fine, and not to get too swept up to allow something like that to happen.  Leander said that he was doing everything he could and it really wasn’t his fault, that sometimes these things just happen. I don’t know. I am definitely wary about using those condoms again.

But whose fault it may have been isn’t the issue. The issue is that immediately afterwards, I was a little freaked out. Definitely irritated. And what was Leander’s response? To make an inane joke about it, and say ‘It’s fine, you can go to the pharmacy tomorrow’.

And I spun around at him in anger. Do you think it’s that simple? The magic off-switch in pill form, that miraculously makes everything okay? A quick-fix and then it’s like it never happened? I’ve been quite good about not getting angry recently, and keeping my emotions under control, but I was furious. Don’t you get what taking the pill is actually like? He looked blankly at me. First there’s the anxiety. Until I’m in the pharmacy, swallowing it down with water, my brain will be convincing my body that it’s already pregnant. And then I take it and I feel instantly sick. Whether it’s the medication or just adrenaline, it makes me feel nauseous. Then the after-effects. It’s like taking twenty-one doses of the regular pill at once. Headaches and mood swings and more nausea. Plus it fucks up your menstrual cycle completely, so you have no idea where you are, meaning that it’s impossible to know for sure without taking a pregnancy test (it’s only 70% effective anyway), and don’t even get me started on what that feels like. I will spend the next two weeks at least convinced I am pregnant, feeling sick and emotional with constant low-level anxiety, while you just go on utterly oblivious, feeling all smug and superior because you ‘did the right thing’ by driving me to the pharmacy.

I may have added that it was his fault I was in this mess (even though that’s debatable). And there may have been a lot more swearing. But I calmed down enough to look at him, and I asked if he got it now. And he just stared at me. He said he hadn’t known any of that. He had never stopped to think what taking a massive dose of hormones might actually feel like, the toll it’s likely to take even on a young and healthy body. No one had ever taught him any of this, but that’s not much of an excuse, because anyone who knows anything about hormones and biology should be able to work out that this stuff is not pleasant. Oh, it’s truly fantastic that it exists and it’s a hundred thousand times better than having to get an abortion. But it’s hardly nice. I knew that, even before I took it for the first time. (For the record, I have taken it five times over four years, which might sound like a lot, until you consider how much sex I’ve had in those four years, and then it sounds like a miracle.)

The point is (and this is what really made me angry), Leander had never had to think about this stuff. For him it really was that simple: condom fails, take girl to pharmacy, girl does not get pregnant. End of. And that in itself is, to me, a striking example of privilege. It’s not that he meant to upset me. He didn’t mean to belittle the experience or make it sound like my emotions and well-being didn’t matter, but that’s how it came across because he’d never had to stop and think before, so what was blatantly obvious to me needed step-by-step explaining for him.

I’m not angry anymore. We talked it through, he took me to the pharmacy, and it’s all good. (Though of course, I won’t know for sure for another couple of weeks, but if, heaven forbid, it turns out to not be all good, I’ll be writing up that experience on here too.) While I still think he should have been more careful at the time, I understand how difficult these things are, and if I still resent him from not having to worry about this the way I do, I know that’s not his fault. Also, he’s promised to buy me a slice of cheesecake every time I get anxious in the next two weeks, and I really do love cheesecake.

But I still think this is a good example of how someone can be totally well-meaning and rationally completely onboard with feminist issues and the concept of privilege, and still make these kinds of mistakes in practice. Because it wasn’t enough for Leander to know that he has privilege (he does) and to try to check it (he does that too) – there are still occasions where he slips up and genuinely doesn’t realise he has until it’s explained to him. Does that make him a bad person? Not at all, because when I did explain it, he listened and accepted what I was saying. The problem is when well-meaning people can’t accept that they may have made some mistake and get defensive about it, because they think I’m accusing them of being a terrible person, and don’t I know that they fully support women’s rights (or LGBT rights or racial equality, or whatever it is), and would never say or do anything to hurt anyone?

And the truth is, I do know that, but that’s not a bulletproof defence against ever saying something sexist or offensive, and if they’re not going to listen to me when I try to explain why what they’ve said is wrong, how are they ever going to learn?

Leander is way ahead of almost every man I’ve ever met, but he’s still learning. I know I am too.

Fuck, I really hope I’m not pregnant.

On being sexually ‘responsible’ and what that actually means

Most of the time, I’m not too fussed about being British. British food isn’t even a real concept, the British government is hardly exemplary, and I couldn’t care less about the royal family. But something happened to me a few months ago which made me realise how grateful and how proud I am to come from and live in this country, and I want to share it, not out of any real sense of patriotism, but because this sort of thing must happen every day, yet you never hear about it. Also, a high percentage of the feminist blogosphere is based in the US, so here’s a perspective from across the Atlantic.

I have sex. Quite a lot of sex, with several, some might even say many, sexual partners. And I really really don’t want a baby right now, so I use contraception. Every time. Recently the hormonal contraception I was on was messing up my body chemistry (damn mood swings and random crying), so I came off it, and anyway, if I’m not having sex with a regular exclusive partner, condoms are a must for me. (See the whole Tereus fiasco is you want to understand why.) So I had my first date with Leander a few months ago, which ended in my unambiguously asking if he wanted to take me home that night. I don’t believe in being coy, and neither did he, so we ended up having a pretty good time. Until the condom broke. I don’t know if we put it on wrong or if the angle was just weird, but the result was I suddenly had the risk of being pregnant. Not a huge risk, it’s true, but more than I was willing to allow.

So the next day, we went to Boots, which the biggest pharmaceutical chain in the UK, and I asked for the morning-after-pill. It’s an over-the-counter medication, but they still have to ask you a few questions to check it’s not going to harm you. The pharmacist took me into private room at the back, and asked me if I had any pre-existing conditions which might be relevant, if I was suffering any pain or discomfort, and if there was any chance I could be pregnant already. The answer was no to everything. She gave me the pill, and I took it then and there, without any lectures or shaming or ‘discussion’ on how to be more responsible. She actually said she approved of me coming in so soon after. Because I am under 26, it was free on the NHS. I didn’t have to pay a penny or give any personal details. (For your information, the standard price of the medication is £22, about $35.) I am decidedly not pregnant.

Still a little concerned, I made an appointment with my university STI clinic as soon as term started. They saw me three days later, and gave me a full screening, again, absolutely free of charge. I just got the results today and I am clear for everything.

So why am I showing off about being pregnancy and STI free? Because I want to say that our system works. The NHS is screwed up in a lot of ways, of course, but there is something so satisfying about the ease and efficiency with which our mishap with the condom was rectified. I am sexually responsible, but sometimes mistakes still happen which are beyond my control, and when they do, it is so comforting to know that there are easy, inexpensive steps I can take to make sure everything turns out okay.

If I hadn’t taken the morning-after-pill and had ended up pregnant, I would have had an abortion. There would be no question in my mind: I’m scarily young, in full-time education, with student debt and no source of income, plus I’m not in a long-term relationship, and in addition to all that, I just don’t want a baby right now. But having an abortion is a bigger, more expensive procedure than taking a pill the next morning. I would have an abortion without question, but it is easier and more convenient for me, not to mention the NHS, not to need one, and that is why the sexual health services provided here are so important.

I’m sharing this because to many people, I guess I’m an irresponsible slut (and I hate that word – if slut means a woman who has a lot of sex, then of course I’m one, and there is nothing wrong with that). Even if this country there is this stigma about going to an STI clinic, as though you’re admitting that you’re dirty and have made mistakes, when really it’s the most responsible thing you can do as a sexually active teenager or adult. I would not sleep with someone who hadn’t had a screening within the last two years and who didn’t do so when I requested it. And while I understand that the desire to avoid admitting to doing something ‘wrong’ can make getting the morning-after-pill unattractive, I want to stress that it’s actually doing something right. We have institutions in place in this country which enable us to be safe and take care of ourselves when it comes to sex, and that is, in my opinion, the best thing you can do for young people. So use them!

I am fortunate enough never to have needed an abortion, and therefore I have not had one. The scenario I’ve outlined above explains why. If anywhere really wants to cut down on abortion rates and teen pregnancy, this is the way to do it. I am proof of that, and I do not mind admitting it.