Last night, I attended a local performance of a new play, The Abortion Monologues.  The idea behind this play is fantastic: encourage women to talk about a very uncomfortable topic with the hope that with communication comes understanding.  In the spirit of The Vagina Monologues, it is all about getting the stories out there.  No judgment, no condemnation, no endorsement: just communication. Ostensibly, women who have had abortion experiences will feel a little safer and less like social outcasts if they understand that they're not alone, not by a long shot.

The play was well written (personally, I've never been a fan of the monologue style of theatre, so it was a bit of an adjustment for me), and well performed.  It detailed the stories of 23 women who've had abortions in varying circumstances.  Most of the stories were largely centered around the commonplace abortion story, with little discussion of the extreme cases (rape, incest) prompting abortive instances. I learned later that this was intentional by the author, who insisted that it shouldn't take extreme cases to allow for regular discourse in public*.  I heartily agree. 

There is a certain sense of apologetics and accommodation that gets involved whenever we try to encourage a dialogue using the fringe examples.  Why must we have to bring up the cases of when a drunk uncle rapes a teenager to discuss something that happens every day? This brings up some interesting issues when dealing with civil rights concerns.

After the curtain call, the director invited the audience to participate in an open discussion.  Most of the questions and comments shared were by women, voicing their approval with how the play was written and performed.  Some commenters discussed the stigma that abortion incurs, and others on the state of abortion access in Canada (in short, abortion has been legal in Canada since 1988, but women still have to jump through hoops to get them).  All in all, a constructive discussion.

Until...

One woman commented on how great it was that so many men were in attendance (I'd put it at about 33% men), and many women in the audience roared with applause and approval.  The director (but it might have been a cast member...hard to see from my vantage point) agreed and said something to the effect that it's great to see so many men, and that the men in this audience are an example to the rest of men.

Now, don't get me wrong, this was a well-meaning comment, and put forth with nothing but the best intentions and in the spirit of fellowship.  I understand and appreciate that. 

But...

This attitude is part of the problem.  As one of the men in attendance, I didn't really feel like I belonged there.  It felt like a girl's club (yes, I know the irony there, so don't bother pointing it out), and the men were simply welcome to come along.  There is a fundamental difference between being 'welcome' and 'belonging'.

By making this gesture to the men in the audience, the well-meaning, thoughtful women who applauded painted every man there as an 'other'.  This is unfortunate, because abortion is not just a women's issue.  Don't get me wrong, there is nothing more obnoxious than some guy standing up saying "WHAT ABOUT THE MENZ!?"  This is not what I am doing here. 

Abortion is not just a woman's issue.  It is also a men's issue.  It is also a children's issue, a cultural issue and a class issue.  By artificially making abortion a women's issue, it alienates many people who are also affected by abortion, even those of us who are supportive and pro-choice.  I felt welcome in that hall, but I did not feel as though this was an issue that had anything to do with me.

This is one of the logos I was able to find of the play, but not the one for the performance I attended in Kitchener, ON.  This logo, while certainly not exclusive, is definitely not inclusive either.

This might have been alleviated had there been one character in the play who was a man that had an abortion story.  If the writer wanted to show how commonplace and everyday this experience was, perhaps just one narrative from a male perspective would be beneficial.  After all, abortion is an issue that affects more than just one half of the population, but you'd hardly know it. Men may not be part of the discussion, but they are part of the equation. There may be something to be gained by some feminist women / groups seeking ownership of abortion issues for women, but it effectively leaves half the affected people out of the discussion.

Obviously, this is not intentional nor mean-spirited.  My point in writing this post is that maybe more men would feel sympathetic and be supportive on this issue if they felt a sense of belonging and ownership.  Abortion is a men's issue too, and I'd like to see more understanding of this by the well meaning pro-choice community.


* Ostensibly, it is to this point that explains the absence of any narratives involving LGBTQ experiences of abortion.  A conspicuous absence, I thought, for a progressive play that opened in 2009.


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6 comments:

Wait, are you serious?

"My point in writing this post is that maybe more men would feel sympathetic and be supportive on this issue if they felt a sense of belonging and ownership."

Good lord. How much more belonging/ownership do you think men need? I mean, your use of the term "ownership" in the context of a discussion about ABORTION is pretty hilarious given that it is male ownership of the "abortion issue" that makes it an issue in the very first place. In case you haven't thought much about this, the fact that abortion is an "issue" at all is a product of our patriarchal society in which men's ownership of women's bodies is pretty well supported and ingrained into the cultural fabric: the very reason for women's struggles for reproductive freedom.

We are talking about abortion here. The primary political focus needs to be on valuing women's reproductive freedom, and for seeing this as a right that is valuable in and of itself because of how important it is FOR WOMEN. Yes of course women's rights affect everyone! Yes of course men benefit from women's access to reproductive health care! The whole world benefits from women's rights: we all know the saying, "strong women, strong world". THIS is Feminism. We are well aware of this, thanks anyway for the reminder!

But honestly, why on earth should we have to include men's stories in order to "do feminism right" when it comes to abortion? Why can't we value women's stories as valuable in and of themselves, full stop? Why can't women's struggles to have their reproductive rights be framed as an issue that is about WOMEN, without having to appeal to men as well - "please men, give us some rights, this will benefit you too! Give us some scraps at the table of freedom, we will make it worth your while!" Do you not see how this alters the political message?

Also, you sell men really short when you suggest that they would be more inclined to "sympathize" with women's issues if they had a sense of belonging/ownership. Really, really selling men short here. Do you have to have a sense of belonging/ownership to support civil rights? Do you have to have a sense of belonging/ownership to support international freedom struggles? Do you criticize ratcialized groups or nation states for not "including" you in the discourse of their struggles? After all, the end of their oppression is a matter of making a better world for you too, isn't it? Would you want to reframe either of these contexts in terms of how YOU benefit too?

No. No you don't. Because that would be silly. Because we can value these struggles as important without necessarily needing to take up space in their stories.

When it comes to abortion, it is the same situation. It needs to be about women first. And no one is under any obligation to make men feel they belong or own this issue, in order to "do feminism right". There are political consequences for doing so.

This reminds me of a health care summit i went to, in which my own research on women's reproductive health was criticized by policy analysts for "not including comparisons to men". I will never, never alter my research to do this. Why? Because women's experiences are valuable in and of themselves. They do not have to be written alongside men's to become meaningful. To alter my research in the ways they suggested would also alter the political implications of my work.

The worst part is, I spent time typing this out and I have very little faith that it will even alter the way you think about all this. But I could not stay silent on the issues this post raises.

Suzanne said...
April 2, 2011 at 2:10 PM  

Suzanne: Thanks for your comments. This response will have to be split into sections because the blogging host I use has crappy commenting interactivity.

I'm not sure you understood what I was trying to put forth, or you did, and you're arguing against something that I'm not arguing for. Allow me to clarify.

When I say "belonging/ownership" of men on this issue, I am not talking about the law, or the past(and current) status of women's reproductive rights.

Ownership is, in this context, a metaphor for men's psychology on this issue, not a reflection of the law or culture. Men do not feel like they are part of this discussion, and your comment reinforces this sense of exclusivity. Ownership is, in this context, a strictly personalized, internal affair...not an outwardly expressed one.

The play was not about the law, though it touched on it. The play was not about accessibility, though it touched on it. It was not about sexism, though this too, was discussed.

The play was about a discussion about abortion, and so is this post of mine. I am not talking about how patriarchal political and social structures have controlled women (and still do to a large degree), nor am I insisting that men must "own" this discussion.

I'm saying that (and your comment seems to support this) men are being told to "sit down, shut up, and listen". And there is something to this, but it only goes so far.

I am perfectly happy to have women lead this discussion. But if you deny that men are even involved in this discussion (which you seem to have done), you are alienating half the people that are affected. I'm not talking about the conservative dickbags that will never change their mind, I'm talking about the moderates out there: the ones who would be supportive, but are being purposely pushed out of discussing it on anything close to inclusivity.

I'll reiterate: This post was not about abortion. It was about the discussion about abortion.

(Continued...)

Steve Thoms said...
April 2, 2011 at 6:05 PM  

(...Continued from previous entry...)
You say,

"But honestly, why on earth should we have to include men's stories in order to "do feminism right" when it comes to abortion?"

Because feminism is a men's issue too. Feminism is largely a women's issue, but it's naive (not to mention strategically unwise) and patronizing to act as though feminism is nothing short of a humanist enterprise.

You mention that "Why can't we value women's stories as valuable in and of themselves, full stop?" That's fine, and I agree in principal. But when an issue crosses gender lines as abortion does, we cannot limit ourselves to one gender. Inclusivity is how civil rights progress. It's the difference between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. I know who I identify with.

Feminist values are truly universal values. Why is it so unreasonable of me to ask that they be universally applied?

You go on to say, "Do you have to have a sense of belonging/ownership to support civil rights? Do you have to have a sense of belonging/ownership to support international freedom struggles? Do you criticize ratcialized [sic] groups or nation states for not "including" you in the discourse of their struggles? After all, the end of their oppression is a matter of making a better world for you too, isn't it? Would you want to reframe either of these contexts in terms of how YOU benefit too?"

I think you're mis-characterizing my motivation. It is not about who benefits, it is about who is affected. Racism, civil rights, etc... affects everyone, not just the direct actors.

"When it comes to abortion, it is the same situation. It needs to be about women first. And no one is under any obligation to make men feel they belong or own this issue, in order to "do feminism right" "

Again, no one (certainly not I) suggested women are not the leaders in this discussion. This is a straw man argument on your part.

"it is male ownership of the "abortion issue" that makes it an issue in the very first place.

That patriarchy has co-opted the reproductive rights of women is not a justification for, or endorsement of the wholesale rejection of male narratives in reproduction issues.

"To alter my research in the ways they suggested would also alter the political implications of my work." Yes, it would. That's what civil rights do: challenge and alter the political implications of a given issue. In the paraphrased words of Ralph Nader: "You'd better get political, or politics will get you."

"The worst part is, I spent time typing this out and I have very little faith that it will even alter the way you think about all this.

Now you've accused me of closed mindedness before even allowing me a response. Perhaps a little more deliberation, and less insults would be apropos.

Steve Thoms said...
April 2, 2011 at 6:06 PM  

Steve, Suzanne has covered some of what I would say and I could continue on for 13 subsequent pages but I won't.

I can see you are trying to start a discussion here with good-intent, but not fulling understanding the history, context, issue it self. Nor do I feel I should jump down your throat about this but merely point out you are coming to this with a lot of personal feeling/opinion and not a full understanding of concepts like "feminism" you use loosely without its history supporting your statements.

I want you to consider these things:

1) Abortion is a woman's issue because women are the only one's who can experience it. Everyone else's feeling on it can be taken into account, this doesn't make it their issue.

i.e. I can't experience muslim-phobia because I am not muslim so muslim-phobia is not MY issue, I can be sympathetic to it. Even if I marry a muslim I will never feel the full-phobia being the non-muslim. Therefor I can be INVOLVED/semi-expierenced in this issue but not at its core.

2) Men can always have a say but no matter the involvement, dialogue, communication, etc. they will never have the final say and that's just a matter of physical fact. And they will never have to deal with the final decision, wholly.

3) Feminism has grown to include men, yes, but please do your homework. The first wave of any movement does not include its oppressors so in essence feminism again, cannot be a man's issue as it started exclusively as a woman's issue.

4) You use way too many personal pronouns and use them i.e. YOU for this to be about the actual issue and not your feelings on the issue and to be frank, not a lot of people out there are going to care to debate your feelings on it.

5) if you want to have these discussions in the future I would suggest taking out the word "ownership" in each instance you use it as it is improperly used and if you were fully-aware of the issues surrounding this, would not use it in the first place.

6) The issues SURROUNDING abortion i.e. access to health care, income-status, religion etc. does not transfer this issue to parties involved in surrounding issues. It stays a woman's issue through another scope.

That is what I can offer. I wish I had the energy of my 13-pages-of-the-past but I respectfully do not, unless the other party better familiarizes themself with the huge can of worms / issues they bring forward quite innocently yet ultimately ill-quipt.

Respectfully,

LALegault

April 3, 2011 at 2:24 AM  

@Hypergraphic Helvetica

"1) Abortion is a woman's issue because women are the only one's who can experience it. Everyone else's feeling on it can be taken into account, this doesn't make it their issue."

This attitude bothers me because it is myopically experiential and effectively reduces women to physical characteristics. As though simply undergoing the physical procedure is the only thing that matters.

There is also a tremendous psychological toll that an abortion can take, and men are not immune to this. What of the man who desperately wants to have a child, but his partner gets an abortion? Not: I'm not saying that the man's voice should take precedent, but you're not even willing to acknowledge that men feel psychological impacts. This is irresponsible, and as I say, myopic.

In fact, your whole comment smacks of the attitude that men can't be feminists, because men can't live the day-to-day experience that women have to. This outmoded view of feminism is self-limiting because it restricts itself to a phenomenological method.

I've been told that I can't be a feminist, and the most I can be is "Pro-feminism". This is silly, because, and I think we can agree here, feminist values are *universal human* values. They should be applied universally.

"2) Men can always have a say but no matter the involvement, dialogue, communication, etc. they will never have the final say and that's just a matter of physical fact. And they will never have to deal with the final decision, wholly."

This is a straw man argument. I have never, ever argued such a patriarchal point. It is also irresponsible to claim that men will never have to deal with the final decision [of abortion]. Physically, yes. Psychologically, absolutley incorrect.

"4) You use way too many personal pronouns and use them i.e. YOU for this to be about the actual issue and not your feelings on the issue and to be frank, not a lot of people out there are going to care to debate your feelings on it."

This is because I saw a play. Have you seen it? The play was about opening a dialogue. That's all I'm talking about here. Is it really so unreasonable of me to share my personal perspective about a play where women told their personal stories?

"
5) if you want to have these discussions in the future I would suggest taking out the word "ownership" in each instance you use it as it is improperly used and if you were fully-aware of the issues surrounding this, would not use it in the first place."


This is post-modernist word-fear. Words obey us, not the other way around. Ownership is, in this context, (as I have repeatedly said) a strictly personal affair. I'm not the first person to do this. Blogger does not allow me to embed links in a comment thread, but check out "THE STATE OF PSYCHOLOGICAL OWNERSHIP:
INTEGRATING AND EXTENDING A CENTURY OF RESEARCH" http://apps.olin.wustl.edu/faculty/dirks/Psychological%20Ownership%20-%20RGP.pdf

"6) The issues SURROUNDING abortion i.e. access to health care, income-status, religion etc. does not transfer this issue to parties involved in surrounding issues. It stays a woman's issue through another scope."

Again, this post was about the discussions of abortion, and how men feel a sense of psychological detachment. I honestly do not know how much clearer I can make this.

Missing in both responses in an acknowledgment that this article is not about abortion. It is not about the abortion debate. It is not about abortion laws, or accessibility issues. Like the titular play I am reviewing here, this post is about discussions of abortion.

Steve Thoms said...
April 3, 2011 at 9:03 PM  

Hi. I'm the author of the play. Someone just showed me this post. I appreciate your comments. I think all any of us can do is get feminism mostly right. Imagine writing a play that did *everything*. It would take hours, possibly years, and would still leave something out. A play isn't a Women's Studies class, even this one. It has to be theatre first, has to flow, has to hold an audience. This play did what I hoped it would do and I'm pleased with the discussion it has generated. I'm more pleased that audience members feel moved by it. I hope some day someone writes a play about men's experience with abortion. It is important to do. But it won't be me. I do not feel moved as an artist to do that, and therefore any attempt by me to write it would result in a poor piece of art. As for the representation of Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer and Transgendered persons, you are right to point out that abortion is not just a heterosexual issue. As a writer, I struggled with the question of whether it was imperative that a woman talking about her abortion reveal her sexuality first. To have a character say, "I'm a lesbian," is an invitation to discuss the mechanics of how she became pregnant. It all becomes awkward and worse, it takes the audience out of the flow of her telling her story of her abortion. What is unusual stands out, as you know. I only had an hour and twenty minutes (ish). People can only sit for so long. It was a tough call to make, what to leave in, what to leave out. Because I was aware of the issue, I wrote many women in the play who reveal nothing about the circumstances under which they became pregnant. I hoped that this left the question of sexuality open. You did not imagine any of these women as Lesbian, but the possibility was there. I write this comment to let you know that it's not like I didn't think about all of this. It is impossible not to. I have to be satisfied with getting it mostly right.

Jane said...
February 15, 2013 at 11:28 AM  

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