Women & Alcohol: A combination not to be trusted

It seems that alcohol is the new front line in the patriarchal control of women’s bodies and behaviour. This has been true for some time now – over the last few years we have had a spate of current affairs beat ups bemoaning how much young women drink nowadays; there was the whole alco-pops thing which was totally infused with Young Women Should Not Drink flavour; and of course the wonders of Ladette to Lady and its ilk in which young women learnt to sip champagne rather than chug bourbon.

While most alcohol related violence, death, assault, vehicle accidents and the like are caused by men, as a society we see women drinking as the real cause of concern.

This irritates me because I like to drink. I find enjoyment in a quiet drink or two, and sometimes I find a great deal of pleasure in getting completely plastered. I am not unaware of the consequences – I know how I will feel the next day, I know that I run the risk (less now than in the past) of getting into stupid and pointless arguments, I know that I will become loud. I also know that alcohol consumption will increase my weight and my unhealthiness. So I resent the way that the bad effects of alcohol are used to control women’s behaviour.

This was horribly reinforced to me yesterday in two completely separate arenas.

First, there is the ongoing sorry story of the way some (limited and specific) people in the media chose to treat sexual assaults where alcohol may be a contributing factor. Apparently women need to be careful about this. Women, apparently, need to assume that they will be raped, and modify their behaviour accordingly. Don’t go home with men, don’t wear short skirts, don’t be sexual and, most important of all, don’t drink. It doesn’t matter that the criminal code in every Australian state and territory notes that consent is not present when a person is drunk to the point of insensibility. It seems to me that the Kerri Anne Kennerly’s and SpidaEveritt’s of the world haven’t thought this through – really, are all men rapists? I think that is more than a little insulting to men. And the social control that is being exerted here – if you do anything that might have put you at risk, rape is your fault. Clearly in these discussions, alcohol is the short skirt of the new century.

So no, we haven’t really moved on on that front. But it seems women can’t be trusted in other areas as well.

Pregnancy. So a scientific study comes out which suggests that very low levels of drinking during pregnancy might not be harmful to your soon-to-be baby. In fact, it might be a good thing. The study still reinforces that heavy drinking has a very significant downside. So what does the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre do? It doesn’t question the methodology or suggest that the results should be treated with caution. No, it says it should be ignored? Why? Well, for apparently no reason other than it doesn’t fit with NDARC’s defining ideology – alcohol is bad. These are the same people who seem to suggest that 4 alcoholic drinks in a day is “heavy” drinking for women.

So apparently women can’t be trusted to take a balanced approach to these things, to make informed sensible choices. No, they should just “ignore” anything which suggests that and get back in their box. Other people should continue to maintain their control of women’s bodies, because women can’t be trusted not to harm their unborn children or to not get themselves raped.

Now, I have objections to these things on purely theoretical grounds, but I also have objections to these which are based on my own experiences and life. So I am going to get a little personal here.

Sexual assault laws are such that women do not have to face identification in the media when they are raped. And nor should they. Turning women who have been assaulted into public figures would serve to decrease the already low levels of reporting of sexual assault. However, the down side of this anonymity, is that the same kinds of people I was discussing above feel free to fill in their own descriptions about the women in these situations. And so women who may be sexually or romantically interested in footballers become sluts, whores, trophy seekers, groupies etc etc etc. Now, while I would be quick to point out that no matter what name you might want to call a women, no matter what her sexual history, it is not OK to rape her. Not even a little bit. However, I also find the whole slut-shaming around the tropes of women-who-like-footballers fairly offensive, so time to add my own story.

When I was 17, still at school and still a virgin, I went to the football (the SA AFL) pretty much every week. I had friends whose fathers worked at the club, so got free tickets to go with my friends. We also got to hang out at the club, and often went out to the places that the footballers went. I was 17 and guess what – all of those athletic young men who were my age or a little older seemed pretty attractive, so flirting ensued. I was 17, I was out with older friends, so sometimes drinking ensued. Sometimes there was drinking and flirting and possibly even snogging. And, one night, at about 3am, after a few drinks, I ended up alone at the house of one of these footballers. It was not my intention to have sex with him when I went there – I was 17, and a virgin, and was still silly and naive enough to have romantic ideals about how I would like my “first time” (I also hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that romance is just another form of patriarchal social control, but I was young). And guess what? This footballer accepted that no meant no. That having sex with me would have constituted rape.

I have never been raped.

I will let you conclude your own morals from that story. But what I would like to say is, assumptions should not be made about people – not men and not women. I have to remember this story myself when I see all the stories about footballers and rape and start to be ready to classify them all as the same. They are not. And neither are the women involved.

My second story is a simpler one. I have had three children. When I was thinking of getting pregnant, I read widely on the issue of alcohol and pregnancy. Across the range of literature i read, the approaches which were recommended went from total abstinence to two drinks per day. I thought about the dangers and I made some sensible, informed choices. For the first 15 weeks of my pregnancy I completely abstained. After that, I had one to two drinks from time to time. I avoided beer and spirits completely, and confined myself to the odd glass of wine with a meal or celebratory glass of champagne. My children are robustly healthy and have developed normally (or in advance of time) both cognitively and physically. I feel no guilt about my alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Why can’t other women be trusted to make up their minds about alcohol and pregnancy? Fetal alcohol syndrome is an awful thing, but having the odd drink or two is unlikely to present a higher risk of damage to your unborn child than standing next to a microwave or breathing in cleaning agents when you scrub the shower. If we are not going to lock woman in a hermetically sealed box while they are pregnant, can we just get real? I don’t advocate or encourage drinking during pregnancy, I just think that women should be able to make up their own minds.

Alcohol is a drug and not without side effects and problems. But these side effects and problems should not be used as a way to control women. Women are capable of making sensible decisions and choices about alcohol during pregnancy. And if alcohol-fueled sexual assault occurs, maybe it is the drinking of the assaulter rather than the victim which we should condemn.

Or perhaps I am just dreaming?

Choice and alien babies

So watching the new  V as it is being shown on television in Australia. The biggest disappointment: it is kinda boring. However, its lack of excitement is not what I want to discuss here.

Amongst the various things that the old V and the new V have in common is the pregnancy of one of the female human characters to one of the Visitors. There is a very distinct difference in these pregnancies though. In both cases, the women were unaware that the person they were conceiving with was much more non-human than they thought. However in the old series, Robin knew that her sexual partner was an alien. In the current series (at this point), Valerie does not. In the old series Robin was deliberately impregnated as one of Diana’s science experiments, while in the current series it is accidental.

But the biggest difference to me is that Robin was given a choice. Robin knew that she was carrying a non-human baby and was allowed to chose whether to continue the pregnancy. When she chose to have an abortion, she was supported in that choice on the grounds that it was her body, even though the fetus didn’t think so and did not allow itself to be aborted.

In the current V Valerie is not given a choice. She does not know what her partner is, and she does not know what kind of baby she is carrying. Her partner, Ryan, conspires with a 5th column doctor to hide from Valerie what is happening to her own body, and she is shown someone else’s ultrasounds. When Ryan gets the phosphorus she needs to survive – despite having been told ominously by the V Chief Medical Officer that, after taking that there is “no going back” – he hides it in her tea. Valerie is systematically denied choice about her body and her pregnancy by the person who is supposed to care about her the most. And he is one of the good guys.

It is fascinating that at this time the writers have decided to take this approach to the depiction of the alien pregnancy. In 1983, the anti abortion movement in the US was starting to pick up its level of activism. And yet the series deliberately showed the exercise of pro choice values in the approach to the pregnancy. Wanting the pregnancy to continue for plot reasons was easy – make the fetus unkillable without killing the mother. So it is fascinating to me that the depiction in the current V is so aggressively anti choice, so absolutely disempowering to the woman involved.Abortions more regularly are discussed and occur in other series, so why not here, and why so unwilling to even examine the issue from a female viewpoint? Or did it just not occur to the writers what they were doing?

It should be noted that other films and television have dealt with the idea of abortion and the carrying of alien/mutant children such as The Fly. Understanding what you are carrying though does not mean it must or should be aborted due to its difference – Valerie could be willing to embrace this, particularly as her baby was conceived in love. My concern is that she is given now choice, even when the pregnancy could be potentially life threatening to her.

I’m now hoping that Ryan might get killed or turn out to be a double double agent or something, because I sure as hell can’t sympathise with him in any way. And I will be interested to see in what direction this storyline takes itself.