Friday 6 November 2009

Have you no shame?

I was struck by this article, in which American journalist Penelope Trunk defends her decision, despite an unanticipated global barrage of hate mail, to post the following to her Twitter feed:

"I'm in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there's a fucked-up three-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin."

That right there, in >140 characters, is possibly the most succinct and effective piece of feminist gonzo journalism I have ever read. Personal, factual, shoving the meaty political details of women's everyday life right up in your face. Plus, it quite delightfully manages to combine in 32 words most of the big taboos of modern misogynist thought: women bleeding in the boardroom. Women being candid about the parts of our physical lives which aren't to do with fucking but also matter to us. Women's bodies being, in fact, more than just tools for baby-making and delivering sexual pleasure to men. Women being outspoken and proud about reproductive self-determination. Women reacting to the termi,nation of unwanted pregnancy not with horrific, life-stomping mental breakdown but with what most of us actually feel: relief. The radical truths that women, with their bleeding, messy cunts, can hold high-powered jobs, make decisions about our own bodies, own our own moral compasses and face pain and humiliation with our heads held high.

Still, Ms Trunk was somewhat surprised at the vehemence of the uproar that followed. "Television, blogs and newspapers around the world reported what I had written. People posted critcisms on my blog. My boyfriend's extended family called to make sure he was dumping me... I was even interviewed on CNN where the news anchor asked me, "Young lady, do you have no shame?""

To which the obvious retort is: why, was she expected to? Was she expected to be ashamed? Of what? Of suffering through a miscarriage? Of not wanting a third child? Of doing both of these things whilst having the temerity to have, gods forbid, a job?

Shame about our bodies and our choices is inculcated in women from birth. We like to think that, because you can turn on MTV or open a newspaper on any given day and look at scantily-clad ladies gyrating appealingly for the camera, we live in a sexually open society. We do not. And there are certain aspects of bio-female experience - miscarriage, for example - which are still horrendously taboo, about which we are still expected to feel shame - moral shame, physical shame, political shame. We are expected to shut up about it, get on with it in private, clear up our own mess and not ask for any help or understanding, because we are women, and shame is our birthright.

Well, fuck that, and fuck the thousands of busybodies who saw fit to try and foist upon Penelope Trunk the shame that she so bravely and publicly refused to own. This is not about privacy, or modesty, but about shame, and what we are and aren't expected to feel shameful about.

Hundreds of thousands of women use the internet to discuss their sexual exploits in detail and are not condemned. Belle De Jour talks about her experiences as a middle-class sex worker, and there has been no witch-hunt over her lack of 'shame' - indeed, books and a TV series have been made about her life. Penelope Trunk posted about experiencing the pain of miscarriage at work and the emotions that that stirred in her in the same way that she posts about her life on a farm in Winsconsin, her upcoming marriage, her work as a journalist and mother. All of these things are part of her life; why should she feel shameful about them?

Down with shame. Down with ignorance, secrecy and silence, down with female experience being lived in fear and embarrassment, and down with shame. Penelope Trunk should be considered a feminist hero for her contribution to telling women's truths without apology or embarrassment, as John Stuart Mill advocated in The Subjection of Women:

"The knowledge which men can acquire of women wretchedly imperfect and superficial, and always will be so, until women themselves have told all that they have to tell.
"And that time has not come; nor will it come otherwise than gradually. It is but of yesterday that women have either been qualified by literary accomplishments or permitted by society to tell anything to the general public. As yet very few of them may tell anything whic men, on whom their literary success depends, are unwilling to hear".

For anyone who still thinks that Penelope Trunk is unfittingly 'shameless', immoral or simply self-promoting, I'd ask you to consider that George Orwell was talking about women as well as men when he said that "if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."


  1. Beautifully put. Agree completely and thank you for writing this.

  2. Hi. Got to ask, what were the 'people' in this? Were they men or women? I honestly get the feeling that it would be mainly women and men wouldn't care one way or the other (unless they were old, stuffy and conservative). Ok, admittedly it's inconvenient for those attending the meeting and it's probably not the best sexual light to see your colleagues, but the content of what she wrote doesn't seem that earth shattering to me.

    Maybe I'm the exception, Bob

  3. I somehow doubt that Penelope Trunk, based on what I've read of her blog (long prior to this story), needs you or anyone else to defend her. Anyone following her Twitter feed should know what to expect (I don't, because I've read her blog and just find the overtly in-yer-face personal stuff tedious and boring, though certainly not offensive).

    I think that she does somewhat subvert the corporate dullness and the various rules about how a 'businessperson' should behave. I think she does it deliberately and knowingly shocks people. They're meant to be offended, that is precisely the idea. If nobody were offended by it, I doubt she'd bother mentioning it.

    It's the knowing transgression of what other people consider to be bad taste that they're (mostly) offended by, rather than what may or may not be happening to her body. I don't think they'd be any more approving of a man talking about intimate physical matters in relation to a board meeting either (we'd be outraged at a man musing on Twitter about whether or not he just got his secretary pregnant, wouldn't we?).

    I don't think Penelope has anything particularly to be ashamed of. She could have avoided the whole situation by, you know, using contraception or something, but I guess there are limits to personal choice somewhere. I'm more annoyed by the fact that everyone seems to find this so comment-worthy - to me, one woman's maybe-baby just isn't that interesting

  4. Standing ovation in this corner, Penny!

  5. Bob, do your own damn research. Maybe you'll stumble across one of the many, many articles and posts that point out that yes, women do police silence; because the patriarchy tells them they'll be rewarded for it.

  6. Well, I absolutely agree that this lady has the right to post this message.

    I'm not sure that also means that other people don't have the right to say "why have you done that?" or even "I wish you hadn't done that?"

    I'm aesthetically disinclined towards anyone talking about what Rob calls intimate physical matters on social networking sites but this cleary is an effective way to promote debate if you're someone who doesn't value their personal privacy very highly.

  7. Ah ha ha ha! I officially LOVE Penelope Trunk. Anyone who can get across the message that sometimes, women just fucking need an abortion and will pass on the hand-wringing, thanks all the same so succinctly gets my vote.

  8. sevenhelz, don't type such nonsense. The women who attempt to enforce shame are not mercenaries, hungry for payment by some shadowy coterie of omnipotent males. They're just standard issue reactionaries, as committed to their blinkered, backward views of the world as any men.

  9. Well, the original comment from 'sevenhelz' doesn't referred to a 'shadowy coterie of omnipotent males'.

    From a particularly idelogical perspective, it's the partriarchy that makes some women 'standard issue reactionaries'.

    The view is perfectly internally logical, it's just only relevant within a fairly narrow circle.

  10. Some random thoughts.

    1 Now nobody will believe women who find periods painful, if someone can sit in a board meeting and feel relieved to be passing out, not just a womb lining, but also the contents of one.
    2 Is three weeks such a long time?
    3 Anyway, someone who is in a board meeting probably has the know-how and money to get out of Wisconsin if she wants.

  11. PS To consider for your next "Morning Star" column: Geisy Arruda.

  12. I read her article too, and straight away rushed to Twitter to offer my support to Penelope Trunk. It's horrible that she's had to defend herself over this. That Orwell quote is very apt indeed.

  13. Again, I wonder if she would see three weeks as an unreasonable waiting time for a non-emergency operation.

    I think it is kind of lipsticklori to say, "It's horrible she's had to defend herself over this". However, I suspect Ms Trunk posted what she did with some kind of expectation that not everyone would agree with her. There are some things you don't say unless you want a reaction.

  14. 千石 旬介 (Shunsuke Sengoku)11 November 2009 at 08:41

    Penelope Trunk seems to me to be an example of the worst kind of prurient exhibitionist. Why else would she have injected such a morsel of information into the public domain? Look. She didn't have to be in that boardroom. She didn't have to get pregnant; women in every western culture have more control over their sexual lives than at any time in history. She didn't have to twitter about her situation.

    The whole thing sounds kind of nuts to me.

  15. @ Shunsuke Sengoku: Ms Trunk's pregnancy was presumbably the result of genuine contraceptive error.

  16. Captain of Industry11 November 2009 at 16:03

    I don't twitter but thought you'd all be interested to know that:

    I've left a board meeting. Had a good shit and a piss in the toilet. Thank goodness - what relief! - following a fucked-up three-course business lunch at the Ivy.

  17. Captain of Industry, next time one of your shits becomes a baby, you can compare the two.

  18. interesting point from Captain of Industry above - if people insist on subjecting themselves to minute details of uninteresting peoples' lives through Twatter, they can't be surprised at what they're subjected to!
    Although I suspect in this case the outrage was a result of the involvement of a dead foetus rather than a bodily function. Perhaps some saw this as a tragedy?

  19. Thing is though, it was her feotus to want or not. A dead foetus is tragic for somone who wants a baby. We shouldn't have to pretend that we always want one. We shouldn't have to be called 'stupid' for fucking up our contraception - If somtimes we do then that's our fucking business and we'll get it all sucked out if we need to.
    Sometimes i feel like getting pregnant just so that I can have a Statement Abortion.

  20. Anonymous wrote, "Sometimes i feel like getting pregnant just so that I can have a Statement Abortion."

    I'm pretty sure she doesn't mean that. And is nobody going to discuss whether a 3 week wait would sound reasonable in the context of another non-emergency operation?

  21. I do mean that. I'm not saying i'd do it, i wouldn't put my body through it, but it is what i feel like whenever i hear people attacking women for their decision to have an abortion.
    Clearly an abortion is unpleasent for the woman involved; but the physical pain and trauma is compounded by the judgement put upon her from all sides.

    As a point of principle, there is no reason on earth that should prohibit a woman from doing exactly what she wants with her pregnncy. If she got pregnant on purpose, if she got pregnant by accident, if she got pregnant just to prove a point to those who would seek to deny her freedom.

    In regards to the 3 week wait - It IS an emergency! If you want an abortion it makes sense to have it as soon as possible - the bigger the foetus the more difficult the physical operation and the more shit society load on you for being a 'baby killer'.
    The smaller the cells the better. If you have a tumour they (ought to) remove it ASAP. A foetus isn't cancer, but if you really don't want it it can feel like one.
    It's just another example of womens health being deprioratized - check out the betrayal of woman in the US healthcare reform bill. Federal insurance will not be forced to provide cover for abortions, so poor women will still have very few options if they get pregnant.
    The argument that it is worth sacrificeing a women's right to an abortion in order to secure better care for everyone else is self defeating. An abortion should be treated as a necerssary operation. Three weeks is too long.

  22. It's worse than that, Anonymous. The way the Stupak amendment is written, no one with the same kind of health insurance can have an abortion. My HMO covers 40% of my populous county and they have lots of insurees who would be eligible for the subsidy. So I and my daughters won't be able to terminate contraceptive failures.

  23. Anonymous wrote, "An abortion should be treated as a necessary operation. Three weeks is too long."

    I don't know if you live in the US or the UK, but 3 weeks for an operation that isn't a medical emergency seems like a fairly short wait to me.

  24. - Quercki
    or, you could just pay for them.

    How would something being expensive equate to you not having the "right" to it? A right is an abstract concept, not something with monetary value. You have the right to a lot of things, IF you pay for them.

    on another note, how is having an abortion part of 'healthcare'? Unless the mother's life is threatened, of course. Arguably, due to mental health issues involved, one could argue that abortions make you less healthy!

  25. Oh no, Viking - not the old 'abortions make you crazy!' argument again. Surely even you can do better than that.

    You know what's really, really bad for your mental health? An unterminated, unwanted pregnancy that you have no control over.

    And do you have any idea how expensive it is to pay for an abortion privately? Many, many poor women would be simply unable to afford it - so yes, it does mean that they're effectively forbidden.

  26. hi
    yes, I can-
    An abortion costs something like $4-700 in Canada, and about the same in Norway (countries where they are very common), but I'm not sure if these are subsidised, and I don't know about the UK. I imagine it's less expensive than cosmetic surgery.
    As for mental health - now, surely you know that it's very impolite to refer to the mentally ill as "crazy" :)
    Depression is a common side-effect of the procedure, with a likelihood above average for the general population.
    Don't get me wrong, I am pro-choice. I just don't think it counts as healthcare.

  27. I'm sure a lot of women are very relieved after their abortions, but I used to know someone who was very upset after hers. She felt she had been rushed into the decision by the GP she saw, who presumably meant well.

  28. It is messed up that there's a 3 week wait for abortions where she lives, but I think the post was in bad taste and it was unprofessional of her to be tweeting in a board meeting anyway. Anyone who had miscarried a baby they had actually wanted would be upset to see that she was so glad she had had one. I don't think she shouldn't have been relieved to have a miscarriage in her situation obviously, but I definitely wouldn't have posted it on Twitter.
    And yes, women's bodies are messy. But I'm sure everyone knows that already and doesn't particularly want to read about it. I know men's bodies are messy already, and I would find it a bit unsavoury to read a post like 'had an excellent wank in the toilets earlier'.
    I don't understand why we have to talk about our bodies being messy sometimes to counteract the whole culture of women-as-sex-objects. People are gross. They wee and poo and weird stuff comes out of their noses and genitals and bellybuttons, but people obviously like to pretend that they aren't. When a paper prints a photo of a page 3 model he isn't pretending she doesn't have bodily functions any more than she is when she leaves the house on her period wearing clothes and a tampon and not stopping everyone in the street going 'look I'm BLEEDING from my VAGINA!'. It's more to do with pretending she isn't an intelligent complicated human being who has preoccupations besides being looked at by men.

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