Last weekend Susanne and I were able to get together for a rare meet up in London to attend the 2017 Women’s Voices Conference, this year held at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Susanne was a speaker at the 2016 event, sharing her own difficult story, so it was a weight off her mind to be able to just sit and listen this time.
Not that sitting and listening to the maternity experiences of other women is always easy – in fact on Saturday it frequently was not. The purpose of the conference is to bring together maternity service users and health care professionals, along with other birth workers such as doulas and antenatal teachers, to share and hear the real issues affecting pregnant women and new mums today, and to raise awareness of where improvements can be made across the system.
In a room full of enthusiastic Tweeters, there was plenty of activity on the event hashtag #WomensVoices17 – which had been pre-determined many months ago. Events of the last couple of weeks, however, had inadvertently given the innocent hashtag a whole new meaning and ended up drawing some disturbing parallels with the stories we were hearing in the room.
Only two days before, the hashtag #WomenBoycottTwitter was unavoidable – ironically, you might say, in many cases because a lot of women didn’t want to boycott Twitter. They wanted to stand up and be heard rather than silence themselves in protest at the growing catalogue of sexual harassment and assault offences of which Harvey Weinstein was being accused. Testimony after testimony was made public as more and more women came forward to say they had been a victim of Weinstein or other powerful figures in the Hollywood machine. #AmplifyWomen was also trending in support of those speaking out.
Of course it wasn’t just budding actresses afraid of taking on the might of their abuser who were now sharing their story. A trickle of others brave enough to say what had happened to them soon became a flood, and by Monday this week, it was a tidal wave of women saying #MeToo. And it was not just about rape and serious sexual assault but about the widespread culture of ‘acceptable abuse’ from catcalling and unwanted attention, to workplace ‘banter’ which crosses a line, to being groped in busy bars or on public transport. If a woman (or anyone for that matter) is made to feel uncomfortable about something said or done to them, it all counts.
Back to the conference, and as Susanne and I were Tweeting along with events, it was impossible to ignore the predictable trolls who had risen to the Women’s Voices hashtag like a red rag to a misogynistic bull. To paraphrase: “So first you’re boycotting Twitter, now you want us all to listen to you”, “Self-important feminazis complaining about men again”, and my personal favourite (and I quote) “Oh Lordy, they’re back!”. Cue many event attendees asking these reasonable chaps if they realised they were trolling a maternity conference which had nothing to do with the Weinstein stuff.
Or did it?
Some of the most unsettling aspects to the stories of negative experiences of maternity ‘care’ (and I use the word loosely here), so bravely presented by the women themselves at the event, were those which you could argue had an awful lot to do with the Weinstein stuff.
Common themes presented themselves as the women spoke – lack of control over the situation, being treated without respect or dignity, being made to feel inferior by someone in a position of authority, abuse of power, denying a woman’s bodily autonomy and right to choose, lack of consent, ignoring pleas to stop, disregard for clear distress – I could go on but you get the idea. There was more than one mention of women feeling ‘violated’ by their treatment. Transfer these concepts out of the maternity unit and into the hotel bedroom of a big shot movie producer and it’s assault. That any woman should be subjected to such horrific experiences by those who should be caring for them at their most vulnerable is simply unforgivable.
As I was writing this I saw an excellent point made (on Twitter, of course) in response to a Tweet from The Positive Birth Movement about consent and autonomy in childbirth in light of #MeToo. The Tweeter suggests that “women are ‘trained’ to not object even when uncomfortable” and that maternity care can perpetuate this mindset. If mums-to-be think that they mustn’t question the actions of their doctor or midwife, that it isn’t their place to say if they don’t agree with something, or that they must always comply with instruction even if they feel uneasy about it, it is little wonder they are left feeling traumatised. If we are appalled by sexual assault in any other setting, we should not think that this is ok.
If there is one thing that I want all expectant mums to know, it’s that you have rights and you have choices. As mentioned in the presentation by Elizabeth Prochaska of Birthrights, women are not a suitcase – a mere vessel for carrying a baby. You can decline vaginal examinations if you want to. You can choose where you’d like to give birth if you want to (even if everybody tells you you’re making the wrong decision). You can ask for a second opinion if you want to. Educate yourself to make informed decisions, familiarise yourself with the evidence on a topic (torn between an elective caesarean and a VBAC? Arm yourself with the clinical guidance to discuss with your consultant), and don’t, ever, let yourself be bullied into a course of action you don’t want to take because you feel like you can’t stand up to the powers that be.
I absolutely appreciate a lot of this is easier said than done but there are many individuals and organisations who will help you overcome some of these hurdles, who will advocate for you and support you. We can signpost you in the right direction if you need help. You are not alone in any of this, even if it sometimes feels as if you are shouting into a void.
So yes, Mr Troll, we are ‘back’, we are strong, and we will make our voices heard.