By Laura Godfrey-Isaacs
In the music video ‘Straight outta vagina’ by post-punk Russian feminist group Pussy Riot (2016), we are entertained by the repeated chorus: ‘Don’t play stupid, don’t play dumb, vagina’s where you’re really from.’ This anthem is a glorious counter to the pervasive culture of sexual abuse allegations, body shaming, exploitation, violence and abuse perpetuated against women, represented by the litany of appalling statistics for violence against women and girls (UN Women 2015) and characterised as ‘rape culture’ by some feminist theorists (Buchwald et al 2005).
This paper looks at how depictions of women in art, media, and culture, as well as in medical frameworks, consistently objectify, sexualise and violate women’s bodies, and suggests how this influences the incidence of ‘obstetric violence’ (OV) in maternity care.
OV is a contested term in the United Kingdom (UK) (Pickles 2017). However, it is well understood globally, and was first coined in Venezuela in the ‘Organic law on the right of women to be free from violence’ (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2007) and has the following definition:
‘…the appropriation of the body and reproductive processes of women by health personnel, which is expressed as dehumanized treatment, an abuse of medication, and to convert the natural processes into pathological ones, bringing with it loss of autonomy and the ability to decide freely about their bodies and sexuality, negatively impacting the quality of life of women.’ (Perez D’Gregorio 2010).
OV is a specific type of violation of women’s rights, including the rights to equality, freedom from discrimination, information, integrity, health, and reproductive autonomy. OV embodies disrespectful and abusive care towards childbearing women which could be carried out by any health care professional during the childbirth continuum, and connects with global movements for human rights in childbirth, promoted by organisations such as Birthrights (http:// www.birthrights.org.uk) in the UK and Birth India (http://birthindia.org), humanisation movements such as those in Brazil, and respectful maternity care characterised by the White Ribbon Alliance’s (2011) Universal rights of childbearing women. OV may be a shocking term for some; however it brings attention to the issue in a similar way that definitions and understandings of domestic violence and abuse have — which now include a whole range of behaviours from sexual and gender-based violence, coercive and controlling behaviour to emotional and psychological abuse. Here too, in maternity, there is a range of behaviours described within OV that need to be addressed, not exclusively physical assault as may be immediately implied.
Shockingly, we live in a culture where violence and abuse towards women is not only widely perpetuated, but images are ubiquitous and commonly used as forms of sexual pleasure and entertainment. There co-exist unsettling parallels between objectifying, hyper-sexualised and brutal images of women’s bodies depicted in art, film, advertising, the media and pornography, and those which health care professionals see routinely in maternity — women’s bodies exposed and displayed, their sexual organs uncovered and interventions that cut, penetrate and hurt them. All these associations can set up worrying lines to cross and negotiate, and open up debates about how the medical gaze might be influenced by these equivalents, and could therefore normalise behaviours that can, disturbingly, seep into the maternity context.
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