Asking the right questions…

A couple of weeks ago a list of sexual assault prevention tips made the rounds on Facebook. Containing reminders such as, “When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone” and “Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone ‘on accident’ you can hand it to the person you are with, so they can blow it if you do,” these tips are absolutely perfect and so very appropriate. I spent several years working in domestic violence shelters answering the hotline. The number one question/comment I used to get from people about this work was, “why doesn’t she just leave?” And, we always used to reply that that is the wrong question, “the question isn’t, ‘why does she stay?’ but ‘Why does HE do it?!'” And, why, as a society, do we accept it? The same website that created the SA Prevention Tips poster, also noted this:

When we talk about rape as something that happens to 1 in 6 women, it is something that happens to women. Oh no, women! You have a problem! A women’s problem! That has to do with women! What are women going to do to solve this problem? Perhaps if we rephrased that as ‘one in…however many…men will commit rape in his lifetime,’ the problem might start to look a little different to certain people.

The wrong questions

Quite a while before this, an article made the rounds about women in another country ironing their pubescent daughters’ breasts flat to try to make them less appealing as rape targets. Many comments on the article were to the effect of, “ugh! What horrible mothers.” Again, entirely the wrong lens with which to be looking. Why is it okay to rape little girls?! Ditto for the news reports of a reporter being sexually harassed by the football team when she went to  interview them—people responded with things like, “she should try dressing professionally.” Um, excuse me? How about the football players—adult, capable men—try acting like professionals? Wrong questions, wrong lens, wrong direction to point the fingers. And, it is because I respect men as people that I give them more credit than this—I believe men are rational and fully capable people who are responsible for their own behavior, not out of control pigs who women are responsible for “taming” and/or not “provoking” (sexually or otherwise). Men are smart, let’s treat them like it by remembering to ask the right questions and to give the right sets of tips.

Of cannibalism & implied social acceptance

These topics remind me of an example I use in the college classes I teach and the questions I encourage my students to ask about all kinds of social services: If we respond to the presence of disturbing social conditions by working primarily to soften the pain they cause, does this imply tolerance for their existence? Our actions do help, but we need to be sensitive to the fact that our limited actions indicate endorsement of, or at least acquiescence to, these conditions that call for all our hurry and scramble. Under the guise of caring we may have reached a point of acceptance of conditions that produce the pain we try to ease…Why are we accepting that children go hungry, that people are homeless, and that women are beaten and raped? Are these conditions that you find acceptable? Are these things just part of the “normal” course of life? I then ask my students to consider cannibalism—what would it be like if rape was as unheard of in our culture as cannibalism? We don’t have “cannibalism survivors support groups” and cannibal hotlines and shelters, because as a whole, our culture does NOT accept cannibalism as a remotely acceptable activity. All of our “services” for sexual assault and domestic violence tell a different story—while these things are “too bad” and “shouldn’t happen,” we’ve accepted that they do and in a way tolerate their existence. I believe we can and should create a world where DV and SA are as unheard of as cannibalism! Usually this example gives students pause. We need to ask bigger social questions that go beyond the individual cases right in front of us.

But what about pregnancy and birth, anyway?

Okay, what does any of this have to do with pregnancy or birth?! Well, in the most recent issue of Brain, Child magazine, I was reading an essay called “Play Parallels” by Dorothy Fortenberry, exploring parallels between her play, Good Egg, and reading What to Expect during her own pregnancy. In it, she makes this fabulous observation:

“I also left my obstetrician. The more I saw him, the less I wanted to talk to him—and if you don’t like chatting with someone, I’ve usually found you also don’t want to have his face in your crotch.”

And how! She then comments on reading an article about how the environment in the womb sets the stage for the baby’s entire life and that mothers are responsible for making this environment as pure as possible–it is in your hands! She also is thinking about the dangers of eating coldcuts during pregnancy, frequently warned about in popular pregnancy books and media: “Hold on, I thought, deep breath. Stop hating yourself and start asking questions. Like: Where was an article about why cities have air pollution in the first place? What about an article about what to do if you want to leave your ob/gyn? Or the headline I would have written: ‘Pregnant Women Routinely Denied Health Insurance, Perhaps a Bigger Deal for Babies Than Tuna‘?…I’d be damned if I paid someone else to make me feel bad about myself. The next time I started to panic, I vowed to put my time and money to helping women with real challenges in pregnancy, and more worrisome things on their plate than sliced turkey.” [emphases mine]

Finally, she describes the book as, “a long, depressing catalogue of all the ways I had already failed my baby” and then concludes, “I saw it as one more way our society puts all of the blame and credit on individual mothers, casually omitting any larger forces like politics, or fate.”


I truly think this is a chronic social issue—motherblame. We MUST look at the larger system when we ask our questions. The fact that we even have to teach birth classes and to help women learn how to navigate the hospital system and to assert their rights to evidence-based care, indicates serious issues that go way beyond the individual. When we say things about women making informed choices or make statements like, “well, it’s her birth” or “it’s not my birth, it’s not my birth,” or wonder why she went to “that doctor” or “that hospital,” we are becoming blind to the sociocultural context in which those birth “choices” are embedded. When we teach women to ask their doctors about maintaining freedom of movement in labor or when we tell them to stay home as long as possible, we are, in a very real sense, endorsing, or at least acquiescing to these conditions in the first place. This isn’t changing the world for women, it is only softening the impact of a broken and oftentimes abusive system.

11 thoughts on “Asking the right questions…

  1. Wonderful. The thought process is applicable to so many topics, sexism, racism, fat shaming. That society routinly holds the disadvantaged responsible for solving their own problems, while refusing to change itself, has disgusted me.

  2. @Meghan You took the words right off my fingertips. The idea that fault lies with the deprived infuriates me on so many levels…

  3. Excellent post! We live in a band-aid culture and I agree with Meghan that it applies to many other aspects of our society too. For instance, in my field of ecological work, the prevailing mindset is to “restore” ecosystems that we’ve already broken and which will never, ever be restored to their original state, rather than just stopping the ongoing destruction of the few pristine places remaining. You have my mind spinning.

    It’s certainly not cheaper to put band-aids on these issues than to change the paradigm, so why ISN’T it the norm to actually work from the bottom up? Maybe it’s because we can’t change people, they have to ultimately change themselves and we can’t do it for them? But it CAN happen!

    Thanks for this post. Oh and I wish I could take one of your classes after reading this!

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