Choices Women Make: Agency in Domestic Violence, Assisted Reproduction, and Sex Work

Carisa R. Showden argues in her latest book that victim and agent are not mutually exclusive categories. Anna Edman considers her belief that survivors of domestic violence, women using assisted reproduction and women in prostitution are still able to assess their situation and wrest some control

, 6 September 2011

carisa r showden.jpg

The press release of Choices Women Make: Agency in Domestic Violence, Assisted Reproduction, and Sex Work states that Carisa R. Showden’s understanding of women’s agency ultimately leads her to review possible policy and legal interventions that could improve the conditions within which agency develops – and which could positively enhance women’s abilities to increase and exercise their political and personal options.

In this review agency refers to an individual’s freedom to act. In order to have agency you need to be free from constraints which would prevent or restrict your ability to act. You also need a social or political environment in which you can act freely, the means to live and the knowledge to ensure rational action.

For me personally, the most striking feature, before discussing any of the content, is that the style of the author is very academic and at times this made me want to skip some sections. When reading non-fiction like this I always feel that it’s a shame when interesting messages get lost in over-academic language. I can only assume that Showden’s target audience is fellow academics – which is rather more often than not the case with studies like these – but considering the title and content maybe her message would benefit a wider audience. The women discussed in the book, the survivors of domestic violence, women using assisted reproduction and women in prostitution, will probably never read it. It’s a shame that many books are written by feminists about feminist issues, but not all writers of these books are actually interested in reaching their subjects.

Showden argues that forced childlessness is mostly considered to be due to some fault of the woman, with no data on childlessness and men being kept

Despite that, many of Showden’s arguments and theories are interesting and well-thought through and, even though I personally disagree with some of them, I believe they make a perfect base for some interesting and healthy debate.

The chapter on assisted reproduction highlights which women in the US have access to fertility services and why – including an outline of the history of reproductive health in the US, which makes for a fascinating read. But perhaps the most interesting section of this chapter is her consideration of forced and voluntary childlessness: Showden argues that forced childlessness is mostly considered to be due to some fault of the woman, with no data on childlessness and men being kept. This is also true of voluntary childlessness, which in addition is often seen as something suspicious, with the blame primarily falling on childless women and not childless men. The acceptance of discussing and interfering in other people’s procreation decisions is also challenged in this chapter, which I personally feel is a necessary discussion.

Showden highlights the possibility of a woman staying with her husband if he stops being violent and argues that this can still mean that the woman has gained agency

Showden helpfully challenges cultural stereotypes throughout the book, particularly in her chapter ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ which deals with domestic violence. She looks at different groups in the US and compares and contrasts how domestic violence is perceived, perpetrated and, if possible, remedied within different groups. Often her findings are very interesting, sometimes disturbing and frequently go against common beliefs.

In the same chapter Showden highlights the possibility of a woman staying with her husband if he stops being violent and argues that this can still mean that the woman has gained agency. The choice of staying with an abusive partner is one that is not discussed very often and in many cases isn’t a possibility as the abuse is too severe – so is this argument a valid one? I’m not sure. Women are only seen to be doing ‘the right thing’ if they leave and often that is their only option. But would they stay if there was a possible end to the violence and, more importantly, is there a possible end to the violence? Showden discusses some of the success stories and how community awareness is key for people working in this field.

Showden seems to label any feminists who are anti-prostitution as prudish and conservative and in doing so takes a fairly easy route away from the complex issue

The fourth chapter is titled ‘Working It’ and deals with prostitution and agency. It considers whether a prostituted woman can sell her body and still have real agency. I personally say no, not a chance; I am firmly against prostitution and believe true equality cannot exist along with prostitution. Showden on the other hand argues that “… prostitution does not necessarily have to be abolished for sexual equality to be achieved”. She refers to prostitution as sex work, which is a label I find problematic as it suggests that it is a job like any other job, despite, I believe, it degrading women and causing them harm. Despite arguing that for some it is the lesser of evils if you don’t have a job, Showden only briefly mentions the background of women in prostitution and their reasons for becoming involved.

To cement her pro-prostitution position Showden seems to label any feminists who are anti-prostitution as prudish and conservative and in doing so takes a fairly easy route away from the complex issue. She states: “Those, like abolitionist feminists and conservatives, who would rather attempt to eradicate prostitution than improve women’s existing working conditions through proposals like decriminalisation misunderstand the problems with the job and are making the perfect [gender equality] the enemy of the good [job protection].” I think Showden is the one who is misunderstanding or rather, choosing to misunderstand: she discusses different options to deal with prostitution and brings up decriminalisation, but never suggests the possibility of decriminalising the act of selling and criminalising the buyer.

Further, I find it odd that she only looks to the Dutch model as an example and not the situation in Sweden and Norway where prostituted women are decriminalised but it is illegal to buy sex. Showden also only briefly mentions human trafficking and other forced environments so I do feel that she was selective in which sources and arguments she chooses to use.

In the final chapter ‘Agency and Feminist Politics’ Showden discusses, amongst other things, how effective coalitions are and what organisations and bodies can achieve by working together. I agree that this is a beneficial way for organisations working together for a common cause to achieve a common goal. Or as Showden states: “I am offering coalition politics as a way of thinking through how to do politics while being attentive to the shifting capacities and sites for agency”.

Overall this book is not an easy read, but it is still an interesting take on some of feminism’s main issues and what role agency plays in them. It’s always beneficial to have an open mind and to consider other feminists’ ideas, as it can be all too easy to gravitate towards those that have the same opinions as you. But as Showden also argues: “Opening ourselves up to critical assessment of others, and ourselves, is not a programming strategy for politics so much as it is the suggestion of the reflective stance necessary for devising specific political goals and agendas” – it could be said in a snappier way, but it is never the less true.

Up until February this year Anna worked with London specific equality and human rights issues, but is now currently living in Bahrain where she is hoping to start and get involved with some interesting women’s projects.

Comments From You

Kate // Posted 7 September 2011 at 9:37 am

True agency is pretty much impossible in a patriarchy, then? We are all under a degree of restriction of our choices, through indoctrination, social, legal and economic structure, and any number of other things (as women, and in any number of other ways). Nobody has total agency, so doesn’t it make more sense to talk about areas and degrees of agency?

Summerhill // Posted 7 September 2011 at 6:27 pm

Why do women stay in relationships with men/partners who abuse them? The answer is individually enigmatic. A woman may, somewhere in her psyche, acknowledge that she is contributing to her own abuse by staying. She may even have an inkling at the beginning of the relationship that it will turn violent. But inklings and acknowledgements to the contrary, I believe that a woman makes that choice to stay because it is better/safer psychologically than the alternative – which is the enigmatic part. What is that alternative that she is so afraid of?

Putting it in another context – there’s the boss who hires you, all sweetness and generosity. Then, after the honeymoon is over becomes the angry despot, never thanking, never appreciating, only looking for fault. And the longer you stay at the job, the more ineffectual you feel, the less confident. The longer you stay, the more you believe your boss is right and if you quit – you’ll have to deal with your loser value.

It’s easy to gauge when your boss will strike – right before the board meeting or the sale report is due. And you stay out of her/his way. Getting the papers ready, providing the information. What you begin to feel from your boss’s abuse is what your boss feels too. That’s the agency/victim link. I am disgusting. Pass it on.

Yes, women should leave abusive relationships, but short of violence, where’s the line. Hasn’t everyone lost their temper and said unkind things or called names?

When it gets to here…this language, this action (shutting you out of the checking account, breaking something you love), this attitude… then it’s abuse and you need to go. No matter how attached you are. No matter how many promises of “it will never happen again” -because something inside of you knows that you have lost trust, safety, peace and it’s not coming back. It may be okay for weeks or even months, but given enough stress, you know how it’s going to turn out – that partner of yours will become a werewolf.

Why is it so difficult? Aside from the human fear of change of residence, daily routine, splitting up the finances and property? Because there is shame attached to being abused and leaving.

It’s the shame that answers – why don’t they leave. Women who are abused are easily shamed. A grown up person is abusing them. How embarrassing. How unwomanly. If they were better, they’d have a better partner. If they were better they’d be honored instead of degraded.

So in one way, yes, women stay and they get “agency” from being the resource that eases their partners frustrations. But their shame cripples them in every other way. In order to leave, they have to stand up to that shame. Each woman having different circumstances that caused her to feel just generally ashamed of herself is the enigmatic psychology I referred to before – was she molested as a child? was she in a house in which the feminine was not respected? was she in a fundamentalist house that said her sex caused world problems? It’s individual, but standing up to massive shame might be harder than getting beaten up.

Watermelon // Posted 8 September 2011 at 2:07 pm

For a successful women and feminist movement there has to be an open discussion where issues are discussed critically and objectively in order to form a unified consensus.

The major obstacle for feminists is their divide on many key issues which has made this a fragmented movement rather than a unifed goal for gender equality and freedom of expression.

I consider myself a moderate-liberal and I am certain I will not agree with Showden’s views, however it is very important to widen one’s perspective and get out of their comfort zone.

Were it not true that the only reason we are reading this blog was because we challenged conventional thinking in order to seek true enlightenment?

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