Boots, Trump and Northern Ireland…Why are we still having to talk about abortion and contraceptive rights in 2017?

DSC_0195

For many people, 2017 will be remembered as a year when moralistic and reactionary arguments around abortion rights and women’s contraceptive rights were dragged back into the mainstream. Yesterday, Boots decided to wade into the debate around abortion and contraceptive rights by refusing to lower the price of the morning after pill, which costs around £30.

Despite the fact that other chains, like Superdrug, agreed to halve the price after a campaign by Bpas (The British Pregnancy Advisory Service), Boots wrote a letter to Bpas explaining that the “EHC [emergency hormonal contraception] polarises public opinion”  and that they “receive frequent contact from individuals who voice their disapproval of the fact that the company chooses to provide this service”. Boots went on to make the revolting, moralising statement that they “would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product”.

The notion that we stupid women should be punished if we are worried we may fall pregnant after unprotected sex, whether that be because of a split condom, forgetting to take the pill, or a drunk night of unprotected sex, is insulting. What’s more, the suggestion that lowering the price would lead to a stampede of irresponsible women in Boots, post-sex, frothing at the mouth and raring to take the morning after pill “inappropriately”, feeds the suggestion that we are incapable of making contraceptive decisions independently, and that we are all just horny, irresponsible whores looking for a bargain on our mission to murder unborn children. Unfortunately, this Boots saga comes in a year where it seems our reproductive rights are once more up for grabs in many respects.

In 2017, a bill in parliament to decriminalise abortion in England was voted in. Shockingly, the 1967 Abortion Act did not actually do this, but rather made it legal only if two doctors approve the procedure – if you failed to meet these conditions, you would have been committing a criminal offence. Online abortion pills are now widely available and abortion was the only medical procedure governed by such old legislation. As Boots have now been shown to think themselves – why were women still being questioned on their ability to make these choices independently?

In the USA, we have seen the election of the racist, misogynist Donald Trump who, in his first day in the Oval office, signed a federal ban on international groups that give information about or provide abortions. He and his ilk are pro-life and anti-women. Lest we forget that during Trump’s election campaign he suggested that there should be “some kind of punishment” in place for women who have abortions (if it was banned). More recently, there has been a proposed revision of the contraception mandate (which saved women more than $1 billion in birth control costs in 2013) of the Affordable Care Act, which would make it much more difficult for women to get protection. When this is paired with the fact that abstinence is taught in some schools in the USA as a part of sex education (and often instead of education around contraception), Trump’s administration will put women at risk of pregnancy as their ability to have free, safe abortions is being threatened more every day. A Donald Trump appointed judge recently compared abortion to slavery, calling them “the two greatest tragedies in our country”…

Of course in the UK, Northern Ireland has been at the centre of the struggle for free, safe and legal abortion since the 1967 Abortion Act has never applied there. This fact has become more prominent of late due to the Tories’ dodgy deal with the fiercely pro-life DUP.  Abortion is not permitted in Northern Ireland even in cases of rape and incest and in 2016, a 21-year-old woman was given a suspended sentence after she bought drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage as she did not have the money to travel to England for an abortion. It was recently announced that the government would provide free abortions to Northern Irish women in England. Although this is a step in the right direction, women would still have to have the funds to get to England in the first place, after most likely having to take days off work and/or organise child care.

Like women in Northern Ireland and USA, the disturbing common thread is that women who have money are more likely to be able to access safe and legal abortion and contraception services, whilst women who do not, have their right to bodily autonomy taken from them. What’s more, companies like Boots are putting their profits before our reproductive rights whilst condescending to us with their sneering moralism.

The fight is no where near over whilst an estimated 22 million unsafe abortions take place worldwide each year. Women are driven to this when they cannot access safe, legal and free abortions and/or access free contraception due (often) to the sweeping moralism of the state and religious institutions and the contempt with which they view the concept of our right to choose what we do with our bodies.

We must continue to oppose any suggestion to limit our abortion and contraceptive rights in the UK and across the world, and in the case of Northern Ireland, keep fighting for the right to access free and legal abortions. Boots will likely see the effects of openly showing contempt for our contraceptive rights after a boycott has been called. What is horrifying, however, is this reminder that, in the year where millions flooded the streets to join the Women’s Marches, the hard fought victories that were won by reproductive and contraceptive rights campaigners must be held onto with all of our strength to protect them from those that are waiting to pounce and drag us back to much darker times.

I was sexually harassed and touched at work and nothing was done

TW: Sexual assault and harassment

It has been 8 months since I was sexually assaulted and harassed at work and nothing has been done.

I had been sexually assaulted by different men (once at a house party, 3 times in public) four times previously and had never reported it. I had always wanted to play down what had happened and did not want to re-traumatise myself by going through the process of a police investigation for what I knew were ultimately very minor sexual crimes. I did report an incident to the police once when a group of us were flashed on the way home by a drunk man who was out with his friends. I was so fed up and furious that I ran and asked for help and some lovely men tried to stop him leaving in a taxi while I called the police – it took them more than 40 minutes to arrive, by which point I had gone home and the man had escaped. When the police called me to follow up the next day, they said “he did not seem like a predator” and was “just drunk”. This was obviously a minor incident but it is my only personal experience of reporting a sexual crime to a higher power and it did not fill me with a great sense of optimism.

On starting work at a Secondary School in September, I naively thought that I would be safe from work place harassment. In my first week, however, I had already taken note of how creepy one of the PE teachers was. Every time he passed me in the corridor he would wink, and he inappropriately called my line manager “a two faced bitch” in one of the few conversations we had. He would leer at me in meetings, giving me those horrible looks that all women recognise. In short, he seemed like a creepy, sexist older man.

At the Christmas staff quiz he was sitting on my table. I had had a few glasses of wine and was chatting to various members of staff on my table. My memory is hazy due to the alcohol, but I remember him making some kind of comment along the lines of “you have a great figure” and as he said this, he put both his hands onto my thighs. It was over very quickly but it made my skin crawl. I tried to brush it off with nervous laughter and moved to a different seat. I attempted to forget about it, but had this nasty feeling that he was testing the waters to see how I would react, to see how far he could push his behaviour.

After the Christmas holidays I was at a year group briefing early before school in one of the classrooms. I was sitting at the back, the other members of staff were in front of me. He came into the room late and so people were joking about him being lazy – everyone was laughing about it. As the meeting started and the other members of staff were distracted, he walked close behind me, put his hand under my hair on the back of my neck and said confidently (but so nobody else could hear) “very pretty.” He then moved calmly across the room to sit on the other side from me.

I was so astounded that I actually started to say thank you before I fully realised what had happened and felt furiously sick. The meeting was only ten minutes, but it felt torturously long. I was hot with rage and deeply disgusted. He was so much older than me, with a round head, sharky eyes and a terrible haircut – the hair was thinning, grey and crunchy. He always wore shorts which revealed his waxy legs. I was fucking furious he thought he had any right to my body. How dare he leer at me, touch me. It brought back all of those memories of the times men had taken my body as their right, grabbing my vagina as I tried to turn off the smoke alarm at a party, undoing my bikini top on a beach where I was alone, living in a foreign country.

After the meeting finished, I immediately spoke to a woman teacher that I trusted and asked if she had heard him – she had not, but she agreed that I should report what had happened. I felt confident because his behaviour had been so inappropriate leading up to this (second) assault that I was sure they would deal with it – a string of incidents is surely more likely to show how calculated his actions were?

Unfortunately all that followed was a humiliating investigation, led by an older male member of the Senior Leadership Team who, frankly, did not have a fucking clue. They followed procedure, they said, and told me they were carrying out a ‘formal investigation’ – an HR woman from the council came in to oversee the process. I was interviewed multiple times, crying openly in two of the meetings. This was humiliation enough as a young woman new to a job. I also had to drag one of my colleagues with me to the meetings as my support as  I was not in a union yet (I had only been working there for a month and, stupidly, had not got round to joining).

I was sure that there would be some outcome – all I wanted was for him to admit he had harassed and assaulted me. I wanted my work place to see that I had been a victim of age and gender discrimination and to acknowledge that I did not feel safe or comfortable. Instead, after a horrific process over the course of two weeks, they decided there was not enough evidence to support what I had said (despite the fact he had admitted to saying what I told them). They told me that the problem was that they could not prove that the “unwanted sexual touching” had happened.

I was confused because I did not understand what process I had just been through. They had said it was a formal investigation but they then played it down saying it had actually just been informally working out what had happened. I tried to say that I did not care about the formalities and I just wanted to be believed and for him to understand what he had done. They offered for him to write an apology letter which infuriated me – how could he apologise for something he was denying he had done?

What is so infuriating is that they did not have any internal structures in place to deal with structural issues like sexism. I can guarantee that this man never went through any kind of training about gender inequality and discrimination – how is this not a safeguarding issue? The man works with vulnerable children everyday as part of his job, yet the school were entirely incapable of taking seriously his harassment of a new, young colleague and how that could have the potential to be a serious issue for the children in the school.

I tried to explain to the investigating team that, for me, this was not just about the incidents themselves, but about the inherent power imbalance that was at play in everything that had happened. He was able to treat me in the way that he did because I was new, because I was young and because I am a woman. He was a long-standing member of staff who I feel was testing the waters with me from the minute I arrived to see what behaviour he could get away with.

Unfortunately, my experience is not unique and on the scale of sexual crimes, it is very minor – if I had reported this to the police, I would have had no hope whatsoever of getting any kind of justice. A 2016 TUC survey of 1,500 women cited 52% as having stated that they had been sexually harassed at work, and a quarter of those women experienced unwanted touching. This is a systemic issue and it is to the shame of the local authority school where I work that they have absolutely no training in place around these issues for staff.

It is 8 months on from this and it has been totally brushed under the rug. I asked for a meeting with the investigating officer when I received a whole staff email from my harasser wishing all of us “ladies” a happy international women’s day – he had attached a photograph of a man holding a bouquet of flowers… Aside from wanting to gag, I was apoplectic with rage that he had had the audacity to include me in his stupid, sexist email after everything that I had had to go through.

When I complained about this email I explained, yet again, that he very clearly had no understanding of how to behave towards female members of staff and asked whether there would be any training provided so that he could understand the string of terrible things he had done, and be able to put together some kind of formal apology. The investigating officer attempted to appease me by claiming to understand but, since that meeting, absolutely nothing has happened. They claim that no such training course exists.

I flinch every single time I pass my harasser in the corridor. I feel embarrassed and anxious anytime a member of staff from the PE department is near me. I worry that the Senior Leadership Team think I overreacted and lied. In short, it has made my life at work extremely difficult. I was referred for CBT by my GP and in those sessions truly realised how much anxiety work was causing me. Thankfully I am leaving in 4 weeks time, but I must endure those weeks knowing that nothing has been done.

My experience is part of a vast picture of harassment, intimidation and violence against women, LGBTQI+ and non-binary people within the work place. It is no shock to me that work places get away with creating and nurturing these unsafe spaces for us, but it is really important that people are aware of how widespread this kind of behaviour is. I wish I had had the strength to shout out in that meeting for him to get his hands off me, but in the moment, I froze.

We need strengthened unions that stand up for workers and protect us from harassment and bullying and proper training and development for members of the workforce who are sexist – it is disgusting to allow this cycle of sexual assault and harassment to continue.  Thankfully, I am able to leave my workplace and move on to something else – although I suffered, ultimately I have been able to keep living my life. For others, this is not the case. Sexual harassment often causes women to be pushed out of work causing a devastating economic impact on the woman victim. It can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other serious mental  health issues. It has a knock on effect to almost every part of the victim’s day to day life and a huge social impact within the workplace (if the woman has not felt like she has no other option but to leave).

We must continue to fight to kick sexual harassment out of the workplace and remember how many thousands of women are impacted each year.

 

Bacterial Vaginosis: One Woman – not the first, not the last, but alone.


Anonymous

The Harpy blog article posted in April is one of a few that have recently caught my attention (perhaps because of my own experience with vulval health) which have addressed the naïvety surrounding women’s sexual health care. Granted, I know nothing about other forms of genital healthcare, or how they are dealt with in clinics, health centres or even by specialists – I can only speak from my own dealings with Bacterial Vaginosis (BV). It’s hard to begin this article after wanting to write it down for so long – where to start?

Maybe I’ll put forward a hypothesis of a cycle – top down, funding for research into women’s sexual health is limited. Funding for medical testing, understandably, prioritises illnesses that affect a larger demographic (cancer, HIV etc.), but it is hard not to be frustrated that, although thrush and BV are ‘common’ conditions, they are much less manageable than the flu (from my experience anyway).

Since there is limited funding for the research which is desperately required, what limited empirical knowledge of vulval health is there for the doctors and nurses to learn? Even the NHS website admits not much is known about BV, for example. Due to this, women often get turned away with a pack of antibiotics and a ‘come back if it gets worse’ kind of attitude. Unless the problem is incredibly persistent, if you’re turned away more than three times say, you’re unlikely to go back for something like BV, which can be at times asymptomatic.

The sexual health clinic, doctor’s and the gynaecologist’s are supposed to be places where stigmatisation is irrelevant, so it can be hugely distressing when there is no clear antidote for such intimate issues, and when the people we often put our trust in are not confidant in their own diagnosis. This leads to the lonely road outside the clinic – apparently one in three women get BV, but I’d only heard about it as a mythical condition ‘you NEVER want to get’ because it makes your vagina STINK.’ Maybe because it is more prevalent for women of colour and, admittedly, my friends are unquestionably a majority of white middle class women, perhaps less of them have had it (as a condition experienced by many black women in particular, I want to refer everyone to the gal-dem article that really spurred me on to write this one, which also addresses how BV is misunderstood in sexual relationships).

I didn’t know it had a name. I didn’t know anyone who had it until I was open about it. I imagine this is because of a combination of the nature of the condition (an embarrassing smell) and the alienation of the professionals that leads women to hide it, which is an incredibly self-isolating reaction that has only ever led to the detriment of mental health.

I was shocked when friends I talked to openly about menstruation, masturbating, sex, sex, sex etc. only ever told me about their BV experience once I, in my unwavering need to talk my issues into the ground, was open about the gory details (which incidentally are not that gory…)

So in the spirit of sharing and finding my ultimate platform to really get to grips with the issues, I’ll just now go into my own story which I hope finds resonance with other people’s experience.

Around August last year, having been consistently sleeping with the same person for a few months, I went straight to work from his house one day after not using a condom (mistake 1), unshowered (mistake 2) and felt a familiar sensation of slight irritation. As the day went by, this became a burning pain. When I went to the loo, I noticed an unfamiliar and alarming – yes, fishy – smell that immediately made me panic. I was working 9 to 6 so couldn’t do anything about it, but I was close to tears by the end of the day. On the way home, I got off the bus because I thought I could smell myself and was embarrassed in case other passengers could smell me too.

At work I’d been going over in my mind what the fuck could be happening to me – I’d been having unprotected sex, which had been a conscious choice because I trusted the guy and was on the pill and knew I was safe from STDs. So, I’d had a bit of discomfort after sex because of his cum, but something had changed this time. Basically I FREAKED THE FUCK OUT –  I might have the unnamed ‘disease’ that everyone said you should avoid. By the time I got home I was on a mission – laptop, internet, ‘what the fuck is wrong with me?’ Answer: ‘Thrush or BV.’ ‘What can i do?’ Answer: ‘Apple cider vinegar’. So, it being the end of a Saturday and not being able to go to a pharmacy or anything immediately, I did the best home remedy that I found online and poured some apple cider vinegar in a bath. This caused some relief, but was the first of a long line of home remedy attempts.

Interruption for life lesson – USE A FUCKING CONDOM.

BV is not an STI but believe it or not there is a pH imbalance between cum and vagina, the former is alkaline the latter acidic and far more sensitive. I think probably a bit too much alkaline ultimately fucked me up. I didn’t really know this was what I had until I went to the sex clinic on the Monday, I was given the antibiotics, reassured that it was nothing ‘more serious’ – as in not an STI – and felt relived that in a week I should be cleared up. Sidenote – this was the first time I had slept with someone for longer than a week so I was pretty excited to say the least, and. as you can imagine, totally bummed out that this was happening, and I think it also began the winding down of this summer tryst – not very helpful for a girl’s self-esteem. Smelly fanny. End of sex – mutually exclusive or cause and effect?

Flash forward – my first bout of antibiotics helped with the burning immediately, but the smell and and inane consciousness of my vagina’s presence was persistent. I then went to the pharmacy and bought some Canesten pH balancing tubes – again, some relief, but messy AF and a faff to insert. I’ve now also used the Balance Activ pessaries AND tubes and a Canesten test to see if you had thrush or BV – basically all bogus. Granted friends have had some success with these, but not lasting. I went back to the sex clinic and happened to see a gynocologist who said it was gone. So I was like, ‘Great I can drink and have sex, woo!’ Wrong. From this point on I was on and off different kinds of antibiotics at least four times – higher dosage, longer dosage etc. Once these were ineffective I explored the internet again for more specific home remedies.

The online presence of women with vulval problems is, to say the least, extensive – especially for BV. Hundreds of women on family forums and chat rooms have shared their experiences and I did not feel any better for it – just far more angry. Some women had been dealing with the condition for decades. DECADES! Some, at this point, had made drastic life changes such as no sugar, no alcohol, no caffeine, or no dairy diets, that may or may not have worked. Very few women would follow up on their hypothesis online and, if they did, it usually went like this: 1) ‘Gonna try [insert insane home remedy such as vitamin C tablets in the vagina] tonight, I’ve heard good things, and I really think it will work.’ 2) ‘First day in and it’s going really well so far, smell’s pretty much gone, I just have funky discharge, I might do a week and stop,’ 3) ‘Guys I’m so upset I stopped using [insert home remedy] and the smell has come back! I don’t know what do!’

Basically all of these ‘remedies’ are totally impractical and any benefits, at risk of further harm, are short term. Some of these I’ve tried, such as the afore mentioned vitamin C tablet insertions (worked for a friend, not for me); garlic cloves inserted in the nether regions at night (worked whilst I used them but so much hassle – no longevity); one brief stint with hydrogen peroxide (highly recommended online – total bullshit, painful and messy); no sugar diet (just boring AF made little to no difference).

What worried me a lot was after finally seeing a proper gynaecologist she didn’t flinch at these obscure and potentially harmful self-treatments. Basically, it means that she couldn’t offer anything better than these experiments. Granted she thought I didn’t have BV anymore (although she didn’t take a swab – hmm…) and actually suggested I might have a kind of reactionary vulvodynia, which I don’t believe I have (although lack of penetration, tampons or otherwise, means I can’t really tell). I was totally unsatisfied with her diagnosis and am frustrated that I’m still dealing with this shit almost a year later after it started. THERE IS SOMETHING INHERENTLY WRONG WITH MY VAGINA! Why can no on see it?

After seeing my GP several times, more blood and urine samples, an ultrasound to check whether there is anything wrong with my bladder since I’d had the sensation of a UTI since contracting BV, (which I thought was part of the condition but might have been a side affect – who the fuck knows) the end is not in sight. I have an appointment with a different gynaecologist coming up soon who I will grill, but apart from just getting used to a dull heaviness in my belly and the knowledge that I am unlikely to let anyone near my vagina again (to subject them to the smell or make it worse) there is not much I’m willing to do anymore.

What I have found valuable over the last year is really getting to grips with the different ways my friends are also suffering – polycystic ovaries and their symptoms, UTIs, chronic thrush, relapsing BV, contraceptive side affects – which are physically and mentally detrimental. I’m terribly sad that despite knowing my friends are very open about their bodies, the complicated and dismissive journey to receive a correct and reassuring diagnosis and treatment is incredibly isolating. Without comparing to those suffering diagnosed mental health issues, the emotional upheaval, however irrational, was extreme. Personally I found it incredibly difficult to get over the crippling self-consciousness I experienced, the thought that I would never find a partner who would not be completely curtailed by my odour, never feeling clean even though I showered everyday, not wanting to get dressed fearing that my clothes would smell, barely having the motivation to leave the house (granted for me combined with moving city and re-entering education) – whilst this sounds over dramatic and self-indulgent a close friend with the same condition and the scores of women present online show that this is not an unfamiliar state. Some individuals admitted they were so self conscious, even with their partners, that if they did have sex (often because they FELT BAD FOR THEIR PARTNER) they would only have sex in the bath or shower. How is it possible that a ‘common’ condition can leave women feeling so utterly helpless and insecure to the point of jeopardising their relationships and preventing them from living daily life?

I wish I could properly pinpoint where it’s going wrong – Patriarchy? I mean women have had vaginas since the beginning of time, so why do they continue to be a mystery? Especially since they GIVE LIFE.

All I can say is I feel privileged to share my experience and that I hope it resonates with some readers, not only to encourage them to share *cheese*, but for others to not be so discrediting when someone wants to open up. Again, I’m privileged that my friends are happy to hear the gritty details of my sexual organs but I also have other friends who have been received with unhelpful reactions – without negating the experience of thrush, having it once, sadly, is not the same as having BV for two years and if you haven’t had it, or vulvodynia for that matter, you probably do not know what it’s like in the same way that I having had BV will NEVER know what it’s like to have endometriosis or polycystic ovaries. BV is just one way of entering the deep dark convoluted realm of mysterious vaginal complications.

I’m not sure I’ve even fully articulated how this last year has been for me, or the incredible online presence of other such isolated women, not to mention that, if this is my experience (middle class white woman in a ‘developed’ country), what kind of situation is it for those where the healthcare systems are few and far between if existent?

Food for thought, if not an argument for some sort of initiative towards better women’s healthcare through research.

Anonymous

5 Reasons Self-defining Women Should Vote For Corbyn’s Labour 

Amy Hills-Fletcher

Last week, as has been a daily occurrence since the announcement of the snap general election, I was having a conversation with a woman about our voting intentions. Some way into this discussion, she asked tentatively,  “But doesn’t Corbyn have a bit of a problem with women?”

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, commentators on both the right and the liberal left have thrown the accusation of sexism around, citing arguments such as, “But none of the key positions in the shadow cabinet are held by women,” or, “Wasn’t it supporters of Corbyn who  threw a brick through the window of Angela Eagle’s office?” These newspaper sound bite arguments have consistently been used to undermine Corbyn, with no real regard for the truth – a brick was not thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s office, and quite clearly, many of Corbyn’s closest allies and most important voices in his shadow cabinet are prominent women MPs, such as Diane Abbott (Shadow Home Secretary) and Angela Rayner (Shadow Secretary of State for Education).

What has all too often been the case is that those who are ideologically opposed to Corbyn, whether this be people on the Labour right, liberal commentators in The Guardian, or right-wing journalists, have used allegations of sexism against Corbyn and his allies as a political weapon.

As well as rejecting the smears that have been aimed at Corbyn, there are 5 good reasons to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour:

1) His voting record

Corbyn’s actions over the course of his career as an MP show emphatically that he is in fact a committed anti-sexist, who has stood alongside women in their struggle against sexism. He has consistently supported abortion rights, the rights of sex workers, LGBTQI+ rights and other issues that mainly affect self-defining women, and has voted accordingly in parliament throughout his career.

2) His support of the grassroots 

It is not just his voting record that is important, but also the way in which Corbyn and John McDonnell have supported women in grassroots campaigns throughout their careers, such as this meeting, which McDonnell hosted in the House of Commons last year.  If you are still in need of convincing, Corbyn was shown to literally be amplifying women’s voices when he did this during the election campaign:

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 16.49.03

 

3) His gender is not inherently an issue

There are some who suggest that Corbyn’s cis male gender identity somehow inherently means that he cannot work alongside and support women in the struggle for gender equality in the same way that a self-identifying woman could. We need only look to Theresa “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” May to see how easy it is to co-opt a radical liberation movement, and claim a “feminism” that is based solely on gender identity and not on actions. Sometimes, being a woman is not enough. We must reject the faux feminism of right-wing women who are pro-life, pro-war and pro austerity yet claim to be “on the side” of women.

4) His policies

The cruel austerity measures that the Conservatives have over seen have disproportionately affected women, particularly mothers, who are bearing 85 per cent of the cuts. The manifesto that Labour has put forward has promised to put a stop to austerity and to properly fund public services through higher taxation on the 5 per cent, as well as through measures such as reversing corporation tax cuts. There is no question that women in particular will benefit from the manifesto pledges that Labour have set out, such as (to name just a few), free childcare for 2-4 year olds, halting cuts to women’s refuges, reforming the Gender Recognition Act, making LGBT hate crimes aggravated offences, and appointing a Violence Against Women Commissioner.

5) A progressive alliance will do nothing for women

The calls for a progressive alliance appear to come from a good place, but the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Tories in 2010 after saying emphatically that they wouldn’t – what’s to stop them doing exactly the same this time around? The Liberal Democrats may appear to have socially liberal policies, but Tim Farron has made clearly offensive comments about homosexuality and has not supported abortion rights (shown by his voting record). Any alliance that involves the Lib Dems should not be called progressive. We have a Labour leader worth voting for, why vote Lib Dem?

In this election, women have the opportunity to vote for someone who is committed to fighting for justice for all, and for a person who feels genuine compassion for members of our community living in poverty through no fault of their own. Corbyn is passionate, dedicated and, shockingly, seems to be a genuinely nice man.

Corbyn is the only truly progressive, anti-war, anti-racist and anti-sexist potential Labour Prime Minister we have ever had the chance to vote for, and he can win.

Register to vote by this Monday, and then, #VoteLabour.

 

Amy Hills-Fletcher

 

 

Shut Down Yarl’s Wood!

Amy Hills-Fletcher

DSC_0174

DSC_0175

DSC_0177

DSC_0178

DSC_0183

DSC_0190DSC_0206

DSC_0207

DSC_0235

DSC_0241

DSC_0254

DSC_0256

 

For more information on what is going on at Yarl’s Wood Detention centre:

https://www.facebook.com/SHUT-DOWN-Yarls-Wood-Asylum-for-Women-NOW-126966244120907/

http://womenagainstrape.net/inthemedia/yarl%E2%80%99s-wood-freedom-crossroads-centre

http://www.ladybeardmagazine.co.uk/blog/out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind

Amy Hills-Fletcher

One Woman’s Battle to Get a Diagnosis of…Vulvodynia

2000px-Diagram_showing_the_anatomy_of_the_vulva_CRUK_285.svg

Anonymous 

Some time last year, I went to the sexual health clinic with the usual symptoms of vaginal thrush – a change in discharge, itching and discomfort. I was seen by a doctor, examined and given the suitable medication for what was, indeed, thrush. My vulva soon returned to its normal state, and I continued my life as usual.

A few months later, I again started to experience what I believed to be the symptoms of vaginal thrush. I had a quick google and reluctantly decided that I should probably go to the sexual health clinic, again (admittedly mainly because they give you the medication and cream for free). I waited the usual hour at the drop-in and was examined by a nurse. When she inserted the speculum I cried out because it hurt and held back the tears that pricked my eyes. She said that she couldn’t see any symptoms of thrush and that, this time round, it was actually my cervix that looked red and inflamed. The nurse told me that I shouldn’t have sex until the pain had reduced, and that the discharge was probably something to do with my inflamed cervix. I left the clinic feeling confused and still experiencing pain and discomfort.

My symptoms of discomfort and burning did not go away, despite abstaining from sex. After a while, I decided that I would, again, return to the sexual health clinic. I waited the hour once more, and this time was seen by a doctor. I explained my symptoms and told her that I still thought it could be thrush and that I was worried about the pain I had been in for the last few months. The doctor was very understanding and decided she needed to examine me. I endured the pain of the speculum once more and was again told that my cervix was inflamed. When I told her that I only really experienced pain internally during sex, and that what I was concerned about was the pain around the entrance to my vagina, she said there was no obvious inflammation of my labia. I was reassured by her that the redness of my cervix was not a serious issue and sent away.

I performed this dance at my local sexual health clinic three more times over the next four to five months, one of the (male) nurses I saw during this time even had the audacity to say “you know sometimes sex can hurt when you are not in love.” I even went to the sexual health clinic attached to my local hospital, where I was examined by a consultant with no result.

I eventually broke down in hysterical tears to a nurse about the pain I was in. He looked at me, wide-eyed and unsure of what to do as I wailed “nobody will help me,” and sobbed uncontrollably. He eventually went to get another woman nurse, who seemed irritated at his lack of resourcefulness, and offered to examine me. She said that I had been rubbing the painful area of my labia so much that it was red and raw and gave me some soothing cream and aqueous cream to wash with. It was only at this point that they finally referred me to the specialist psychosexual unit at the local hospital. Living with pain everyday had become normalised during all the months it took for me to finally get this referral.

After more than six months of sexual health drop-in clinics and GP appointments, I arrived at the hospital for my appointment with both a consultant and a psychologist. I was quizzed about every part of my sex life, my mental health and lifestyle. Deep down, I was uncomfortable at detailing intimate elements of my sex life to two strange middle-aged men, mentally flinching when they asked me how often I masturbate, but I performed my role as practical, open and relaxed patient, eager to get my appointment over and done with. Both doctors were very nice, but I was never given the option of seeing a woman consultant or being examined by a woman – the best they can offer you is a woman chaperone.

After the grilling and a further vaginal examination, the consultant diagnosed me with unprovoked vulvodynia. He assured me that I had done well to seek out medical support as quickly as I had, as many women endure the pain of vulvodynia for years before going to see their GP. He also informed me that lots of women report symptoms of vulvodynia after experiencing a couple of serious bouts of thrush, which I had never heard anyone talk about before. They gently started to explain the various treatments available, from medication to therapy, and I tried hard to conceal the fact that they had just smacked me in the face with a bag of bricks.

Vulvodynia is persistent, unexplained pain in the vulva which can be long-term and chronic, but the doctors assured me that much can be done to relieve the pain. It is not an STI, it is not infectious, it is not related to cancer and you cannot pass it on to a partner. In my case, unprovoked vulvodynia means that my pain is burning, sore and spontaneous in nature – it is not touching that causes the pain, it is there all the time.

I told them I was grateful that I had a diagnosis, but really, I felt worse being diagnosed with a long-term chronic pain issue than I had when I assumed the doctors were just missing some kind of skin condition. The doctor prescribed me medication that, in higher doses, is prescribed for depression. The reason for this being that the medication alters the way in which nerve fibres send their impulses to the spinal cord and give the sensation of pain. I remembered that there was once an episode of Sex & the City where Charlotte is diagnosed with vulvodynia and told she is going to be prescribed a “light anti-depressant…for [her] vagina.”  I want to smack whoever wrote this episode of Sex & the City into oblivion.

I left the consultant’s office, feeling numb, to go and pick up my medication from the hospital pharmacy. I cried quietly on a squeaky plastic chair in the waiting room and then got on the bus home. I felt stupid for crying and pulled myself together for the phone call to my partner. I explained that I had been prescribed this medication and that, hopefully, in a few weeks time, it would start to work and the pain I was in would be reduced.

Obviously when I got home the first thing I did was to google both Vulvodynia and the medication I had been prescribed. I found the encouraging news that the drug I am now on (amitriptyline) is effective for pain relief in 1/4 people, which is apparently very high…let’s hope I’m in that 25%. I also scrolled through various websites about amitriptyline where the warning DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOL as dangerous side effects or death can occur, was a consistent piece of advice. Amitriptyline also makes you drowsy, and I’ve been waking up in the mornings with a feeling similar to a hangover.

I am only in the first week of taking this medication and I know that it will take some time for doctors and/or psychologists to help me deal with the pain, but I cannot get over the amount of doctors visits it took for me to get the referral in the first place and that this actually only came after I sobbed hysterically to a bewildered nurse. GUM clinics are so stretched and understaffed that there was rarely a doctor there who was able to see me. This resulted in a cycle of being seen and made to leave with no diagnosis and no pain relief (ibuprofen and paracetamol do not work to relieve the pain of vulvodynia).

There is also the effect that this ordeal of almost a year has had on my mental health and sexual confidence. I have developed a level of anxiety around penetrative sex that I never had before, and sometimes it is too uncomfortable to have myself or another person even touching my vulva. I also never imagined that I would have had so many strange men examining and peering at my vulva, and how unpleasant I would find that experience.

I am hopeful that I will be able to take steps to relieve the pain that I’m experiencing over the next few months, but if I had been fully aware of what vulvodynia actually was, perhaps I would have been able to go to doctors with the vocabulary to explain my symptoms and have the confidence to ask for the help I needed. From my experience, there can be a distinct silence when it comes to the treatment of women’s sexual health. The difficulty, though, was that my inflamed cervix (which doctors did notice) had nothing to do with the vulvodynia. I believe this issue may have confused how I described my symptoms to doctors, but even so, it should have been picked up on that I was in physical pain with no external symptoms, given that I sought out medical help roughly ten times for the same issue.

I am ultimately thankful that I now know what is going on with my vulva and hope that my experience may help the up to 15% of women who have vulvodynia, and that it could also be a useful tool for those who will most probably never have heard of vulvodynia before.  I found this website useful and have also discovered that there are vulvodynia groups on Facebook, including one for partners of women with vulvodynia.

My vulvodynia journey stretches on…hopefully it won’t continue to be this painful.

 

Why it is time for Labour to place a truly anti-racist message at the heart of its politics 

Lily West

In support of International Women’s Day, I attended ‘Invest in Equality: End the Tory Austerity Assault on Women’, an event organised by the Labour Assembly Against Austerity (LAAA) and Momentum. The all-female panel condemned the Tories’ ideologically-driven austerity for the disproportionate effect it has on women and a discussion was then opened up to the floor. Although the event was a great success, unfortunately, as any woman, BAME person or anyone from a marginalised group will know, ‘the floor’ can often mutate into a hotbed of microaggressions which in turn makes you (understandably) live up to the ‘hysterical’ or ‘angry ’ stereotype that the white patriarchy has so conveniently used as another attempt to silence us.

Prior to this inevitable occurrence, it was refreshing to hear each speaker emphasise that WoC have shouldered the greatest burden of the austerity measures. Both Cat Smith MP and Sian Errington (LAAA) referenced the analysis from the Women’s Budget Group research which showed how poverty, ethnicity, and gender magnify the impact that austerity has on BAME women. In her message to the meeting, Dianne Abbot MP shed light on Labour’s commitment to ‘build upon current equalities legislation… after consulting on how we can best remove obstacles that prevent women, BAME people, and the disabled from reaching their economic potential.’ Maya Goodfellow, a Guardian journalist, stressed the importance for Labour to position an anti-racist sentiment at the centre of its policies to challenge and counteract the consistent erasure of WoC in the discourse around austerity.

Massive shout out to all these women. In a world where you can so often feel like you’re screaming into a vacuum because, whether the prejudice you’re experiencing is overt or insidious, there are still people who want to deny its existence – you made me feel as if someone was listening.

This ‘YAAS QUEEN’ moment unfortunately had to be cut short by the first hand that shot up during the open discussion with the panel. As I’m sitting there, shamelessly fan-girling and basking in the feeling of bittersweet glory that had arisen from the speakers powerfully acknowledging and condemning the variable experience of austerity’s severity depending on the combined interaction of one’s race, gender and income, my serenity is interrupted.

“I don’t really think there’s a need for race to be included in the discussion”, said (you guessed it) a white woman.

* Yas Queen moment is officially over. I’m back in the vacuum, screaming into silence.*

She goes on… “As we’re discussing women’s issues I think we should try and stay united on that front and not bring race into it as it often makes people uncomfortable or alienated and can become quite divisive.”

* My eyes are now seizing as they’re conflicted between rolling right back into the depths of my skull whilst also wanting to continue throwing copious amounts of shade all over this woman. *

It is not my intention to vilify this woman, but rather to shed light on the ubiquity of racial prejudice and how people of colour continue to encounter white people’s discomfort and often denial of racism in even the safest of spaces. Whilst it may suit us to assume that only the right-wing are capable of embracing racist rhetoric and implementing measures that bolster existing racial inequality, this is a misconception. We need only look back to Labour’s ‘control on immigration’ mugs to remind ourselves of the party’s ability to stray from their responsibility to encourage tolerance and diversity in Britain.

Racism is inextricably linked with our country’s history which is what makes it so pervasive and difficult to challenge. It speaks volumes that I was so elated by the speaker’s recognition of race playing an integral role in peoples’ experience of austerity. It shows that Labour’s reluctance to overtly speak out against racism has become so part of the fabric of our mind set that when they do, it causes a reaction. A party who is willing to call out racism should not be seen as refreshing or radical, and above all it should not make people feel ‘uncomfortable’.
After having heard a panel of women each recognise the necessity to look at austerity’s impact on women through an intersectional lens, this white woman still chose to ignore the facts presented to her so that she could unsuccessfully veil her own ingrained prejudice under the guise that race makes ‘people feel alienated and uncomfortable’. Whilst she was prepared to condemn the injustice of austerity measures having a disproportionate impact on women, she was not willing to look further and see that it is low income black and Asian women who are paying the highest price. Her apprehension to talk about race and inability to acknowledge her white privilege was disappointing and is something that BAME women hoped had been addressed several waves of feminism ago.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, where a white person dismisses racism as an issue, and it is the very reason why I want to thank Maya Goodfellow for emphasising that the Labour party position an anti-racist sentiment at the very centre of their politics.

In 2017 we have seen both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President, two successful campaigns that were plagued with racist rhetoric in order to prey upon and exacerbate existing prejudice. The argument that left-wing parties should resist identifying as explicitly anti-racist in order to be palatable and to avoid making (white or racist) people feel uncomfortable in order to secure their vote, is no longer good enough.

Politicians have a responsibility to challenge society’s ingrained prejudices, rather than avoid them in an attempt to remain popular. The fact that we have allowed racism to resurface as a ‘populist’ policy is a failure that has to be addressed. The reluctance to ardently speak out against racism is legitimising people’s prejudice, and allowing people, such as the woman at the meeting, to deny their white privilege.

The confused approach to Brexit and unchallenged concerns about immigration are serving as a vessel for voters to float away into the hands of the right. Labour’s current leadership HAVE to offer a strong, pro-migration message that destroys the divisive myths created by racist agendas, that exposes the attempts to scapegoat disadvantaged people, and that emphasises how integral immigrants are in our society.

Meanwhile, those of us who aren’t in politics have a responsibility to challenge racism when we see it, harness the enthusiasm that is being generated from current campaigns and channel it towards dismantling the current structures that nurture inequality. Those who feel like they ‘don’t see it’ and find it uncomfortable accepting that racism is still alive and well, there are a few simple things you can do: Listen to those who tell you they’ve experienced racism and try not to let your discomfort convince you that it’s a personal attack on you. We are not looking to you for an apology or to provide us with a solution there and then. Vocalising our experiences is an attempt to make you understand and help you open your eyes to see what (perhaps with good intentions) you do not want to see: a world so entangled in structural racism that it seems easier to ignore it than to be an ally and help continue to try and solve it.

Lily West