Thursday, August 20, 2009

Female autonomy in a patriarchal, anti-choice culture

Oftentimes debates over sex work and motherhood and marriage and career choice end up polarizing feminists where female choice and autonomy is concerned. For instance, pro-sex-work feminists will claim that feminism is about women's choices, and any choice a woman makes is feminist and should be supported. In this view, questioning the various individual motivations and cultural influences that led to the choice is an unfeminist act and portrays women as mindless little children who are incapable of making free choices. In contrast, their opponents will point to the fact that women's choices are systemically limited and we are all the products of a patriarchal culture that teaches women to value themselves according to how they are perceived and desired by men, and often financial necessity is a major factor in the decision to enter the field of sex work to begin with. In this view, if you're systemically oppressed and socialized to collude with your oppressor, your choices cannot be viewed as free, but are always dictated by the situation in which you find yourself.

These two positions are frequently portrayed as the only two options. If you express any concern that perhaps many prostitutes would have chosen a different career if they had had other financially viable options open to them, you're immediately placed in the second camp, and regardless of what you say, you're seen as believing that women are mindless little automatons who are incapable of independent thought. But if you advocate for sex workers rights at all, you're placed into the first camp, and thought to be ignorant and naive concerning the profoundly influential and constitutive nature of the culture in which we are all immersed. In this environment (which is fairly typical of the feminist blogosphere), people who take a moderate stance and believe both that women often choose sex work under coercive conditions and that it's the feminist thing to do to advocate for better treatment of sex workers, regardless of how they got there, are viewed as a walking contradiction, since they're trying to take two contradictory stances at the same time.

But of course, the two extreme stances are not the only positions you could take. In fact, thoughtfully navigating a path down the middle is the far more feminist approach, in my view. But for the purposes of this discussion, the relevant point is that you don't either have to believe that women are incapable of autonomous decision making because of their cultural environment or that every choice a woman makes is sacred and inviolable. Instead, you can view her as a competent rational being who is nonetheless under a great deal of pressure to follow the pre-set gender scripts set forth by her culture.

This issue concerning choice is exemplified by this version of the Kourtney Kardashian pregnancy story. Kardashian is careful to portray her decision to keep the baby as a completely autonomous choice:
Although Kardashian sought out the advice of others, she says it was her decision -- and hers alone -- that was the most important.
"I really wanted to think it through for myself, and not hear what my sisters were saying, or what Scott was saying. Even though I took it all in, I wanted it to be my decision," she says.
However, many of the other things she says reveal that the pre-existing scripts about abortion we have - especially those that come from an anti-choice angle - were very formative and influential on her thought process. For one thing, a friend advised her to consult her doctor about "the risks and stuff," but when Kardashian did consult her doctor, it doesn't sound like he was talking about the medical risks at all:
My doctor told me there is nothing you will ever regret about having the baby, but he was like, 'You may regret not having the baby.'
I, for one, don't know why a medical doctor would be the person you would consult about regret. Medical risks and possible complications? Sure. But it seems like this consultation had much more to do with morals and worldviews than medical procedures.

Further, according to the article,
Scott Disick, the baby's 26-year-old father, was supportive either way.
But I'm not really sure I get what "supportive either way" means here. Elsewhere in the article we find this
He said, 'I really want you to keep it, but I will support you whatever you decide to do'
and then this
I got so excited, and when I told Scott he was so excited. But I think if I had said I'm not going to keep it, I really think he would have pushed me into keeping it.
which sounds more to me like "I'll support you either way but only if you make the choice I want you to make." It also sounds from the article like her sisters were in favor of her keeping the baby.

But beyond the immediate influence of the people in her life, the cultural scripts on abortion run through her description of her decision making process. These quotes:
"I do think every woman should have the right to do what they want, but I don't think it's talked through enough. I can't even tell you how many people just say, 'Oh, get an abortion.' Like it's not a big deal."
"I looked online, and I was sitting on bed hysterically crying, reading these stories of people who felt so guilty from having an abortion," she recalls. "I was reading these things of how many people are traumatized by it afterwards."
After scouring the Internet, Kardashian says she started to realize that an abortion wasn't an option for her. "I was just sitting there crying, thinking, 'I can't do that,' " she says. "And I felt in my body, this is meant to be. God does things for a reason, and I just felt like it was the right thing that was happening in my life."
Kardashian says she did some intense soul-searching. "For me, all the reasons why I wouldn't keep the baby were so selfish: It wasn't like I was raped, it's not like I'm 16. I'm 30 years old, I make my own money, I support myself, I can afford to have a baby. And I am with someone who I love, and have been with for a long time."
tell us a lot about the positioning of abortion in her worldview. Kardashian assumes that having an abortion is always "a big deal" (um, not for everyone), that there is always guilt and trauma associated with it (which there probably is if you've internalized anti-choice views), that to have an abortion is to interfere with God's plan in your life, that this is the kind of thing you can "feel in your body" but still portray as a carefully thought-out decision, that, if abortion is ever justified, it's only in cases of rape, or when the mother is very young, or poor, and that if these factors aren't in place and you get an abortion anyway, you're selfish.

Given these assumptions, how could she have chosen otherwise? A "choice" that carries harsh social or financial consequences, or forces you to view yourself in a profoundly unfavorable way, is not a free choice. Given Kardashian's description of the situation, it doesn't appear that she could have chosen not to keep this baby and still retained her self-respect. And this is due to the well-used and familiar scripts that her thoughts concerning abortion adhered to. So this is a case where we all seem very eager to portray her choice as a completely free and autonomous one, in spite of the piles of evidence to the contrary.

On the other hand, it could be that this was the option she was already inclined toward, and she simply tapped into the existing scripts on this particular side of the issue in order to articulate and make sense of her decision to herself and to us, but that if she had been inclined toward the other option, she would have tapped into the opposite script. Either way, the existing scripts and dominant cultural attitudes play a huge role in this decision-making process, and the image of the entirely dependent, autonomous rational agent making a completely free and uninfluenced choice doesn't work well here. Once again, personal "choice" turns out to be this complex thing that cannot be easily placed into one category or the other ("completely free" or "entirely coerced") but is instead a subtle interplay of cultural forces and personal desires. And we, as feminists, would be better served by dropping the oversimplified extreme views and working toward a more realistic and complex understanding of choice and autonomy.


  1. Squeeg8/20/2009

    But don't you think some of this oversimplifying business is intentional? Like it's too complicated to be truly thoughtful about something that's so complex and nuanced as human choice, but it's fun and sensational to take an extreme stance and then get into flame wars over it.

    This is Caitlin from the Eng dept, by the way. Love your blog!

  2. Joycee8/21/2009

    I agree with Caitlin that insisting on framing the debate in such simple terms is often a willful resistance to really taking on a complex issue and wrestling with it.

  3. Lyndsay8/21/2009

    I just graduated in psychology and learned about social psychology more than anything so I definitely see the difficulty of making a free choice. It's not that women have a challenge having independent thoughts, it's that PEOPLE do. On the other hand we are all born with different personlities that influence our desires and hopefully, the more diversity allowed in society, the more a person's actions are dictated by their personality. It's a mystery to me how some people end up having similar world views compared to those around them and some end up having radically different world views compared to those around them.

  4. Caitlin, I do agree that it's often an intentional dodge of difficult issues. I just wish they wouldn't bill it as some careful decision-making process or "balanced" journalism. Inauthenticity!

  5. I thought her comments about her boyfriend deems kind of protective - like she contracted herself because she realized people would think he was a jerk if he pressured her into keeping the baby, but then she slipped up and admitted it anyway.

  6. D'ah! "seemed" and "contradicted"

  7. Peterabbit8/23/2009

    Or maybe it's not unintentional - on the part o the media, I mean. Portraying choice as this really simplistic and independent thing keeps the debate away from dangerous ground. If you portray people as completely free and independent then you escape the task of bringing about meaningful change in your culture, since it doesn't really effect people anyway...

  8. On the other hand, it could be that this was the option she was already inclined toward, and she simply tapped into the existing scripts on this particular side of the issue in order to articulate and make sense of her decision to herself and to us, but that if she had been inclined toward the other option, she would have tapped into the opposite script.

    I think this happens a lot even though we don't acknowledge it to ourselves. And I've never been able to articulate it like you did, but when I read it I was like "Of course!!!" I think this is also supported by the fact that so many staunchly anti-choice people rapidly change their minds when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. When it comes right down to it, they are willing to tap into the opposite script to justify their decision.

  9. Nothing to add - just wanted to say I think you're right on target on this one.

  10. questioning?8/25/2009

    I think that we all--feminists on both sides of the agency debate, as well as the media and conservatives/antifeminists--incorrectly value the abstract idea of "free choice" for women.

    I'm a young man, and this summer I worked as a mover. I don't like moving; I did it for the money. In many ways, I was coerced into the moving business. I needed a job, and it was the highest-paying one I (at 17) could get. I did not like it. Yet, no one doubts my agency. To do so would be silly, because we all acknowledge that we must do things that we do not enjoy.

    Instead of over-scrutinizing the choice of sex work relative to her other options, or reactionarily celebrating the sex worker's autonomy as if there are no (coercive) forces in play, we should place sex work (and other women's choices, like abortion) in the context of the world at large, and the standards with which we judge men's choices.

    IMO, sex work should be in the same category as moving other people's sofas; safe, legal and profitable, not necessarily enjoyable or desirable as careers.

  11. Michael8/25/2009

    It seems like a combination of intellectual laziness and lack of the necessary vocabulary and concepts causes this. And it's just easier, more fun, and sexier to discuss these things in extreme terms. People being reasonable, and thorough, and carefully navigating a path between extremes just isn't as much fun as screaming matches and flame-wars. What are you, a philosopher?

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

  12. Very funny, Michael. *pouts*

    I agree that navigating a more reasonable path isn't always fun or easy, but I don't think you have to love the tedious brain-work that's often involved in philosophy to engage in this kind of thinking. But I do agree that hanging out in the philosophy department for awhile might make you better acclimated to it.

  13. To Questioning, I really think there's something different about sex work. I'd feel a lot more wrong about coercing someone to have sex with me than to move my sofa. Maybe that's just because I expect it to take more coercing in the latter case, and more coercing is "more wrong," but I don't really think so. Sex without consent feels like a bigger violation, a more violent thing, than sofa-moving without consent.
    A "choice" that ... forces you to view yourself in a profoundly unfavorable way, is not a free choice. Given Kardashian's description of the situation, it doesn't appear that she could have chosen not to keep this baby and still retained her self-respect.

    I want to make a distinction between "choices" that don't let us retain our self-respect when the loss of self-respect comes from external coercive forces, and when it comes from values that are more "our own." (Maybe a paradigm example of the former: someone who learns about treatment of animals, thinks hard on hir own about hir feelings about their suffering and being a part of that, and decides to become vegan.) This distinction seems hard in the same ways that the choice/coercion distinction is hard to begin with (where do those values of ours come from anyway?...we can think about them, change them, but it can never be just us on our own), but important anyway. For this case, you showed us the various coercive forces involved (from culture, family, friends) in making it hard to "retain[] her self-respect." But (as you note), even here we don't really know what was going on.

    I feel a little like I'm nitpicking, but choice/autonomy/coercion seem hard, complicated, and important enough to take on every detail explicitly.

    And we, as feminists, would be better served by dropping the oversimplified extreme views and working toward a more realistic and complex understanding of choice and autonomy.

    I'd love to hear any suggestions you have for an individual trying to come to a better understanding of choice and autonomy. This post is great, but I'd love to read anything else addressing the matter head-on, and of course other places where an awareness of the complexity is in the background even if not the main subject.

  14. Typo above, "latter case" should say "former case."

    Also, another question. Even if I don't agree with it, I can see a feminist argument for using criminal law to 'prevent' sex work. No one can really consent to sex when it's for money, and so on. But I really don't see how these leads to thinking we should assign criminal penalties to sex workers (the 'victims', by this argument). Am I missing something? Is there any purported feminist argument otherwise?