The Joy of the Shitkansen

Thursday, 24 April 2014
You can hear their bravado; those who declare, despite the guffaws from friends, that they will be commuting from Newcastle to Sydney by rail. “No, five hours a day on the train is fine. I can read, watch movies, sleep. All that time to myself. Looking forward to it, actually.”

Three months later, they are pale, glassy eyed,unable to read as they stare into middle distance; “no more”, they whisper, “please. No more.” They have been broken by the train journey known to locals, with a certain crude brilliance and no affection whatsoever, as the “Shitkansen”.

For what sins have the people of Newcastle and the Central Coast been punished with such a rail service? When in 2012, the NSW government announced with great fanfare “the biggest timetable changes in a generation”, they were apparently referring to the “Greatest Generation” who survived the Great Depression and World War Two, as the journey from Newcastle to Sydney Central now takes longer than it did using steam engines in the 1930s. At least the long journey time allows passengers to fully appreciate the sounds, sights and smells of the train itself, and one’s fellow passengers. High speed rail has never seemed so far away.

Not only does the track meander east, west and at times even north, in the manner of my two year old on a walk or a drunk uncle at a party, there’s nowhere to obtain refreshment - even the chilled water once provided on board was suspended in 2004 due to concerns it would spread disease - let alone a buffet car. There’s no luggage racks, precious little leg room, and the toilets! Words fail me, as apparently did the bodily functions of previous passengers. And can we talk about the colour scheme? Who decided bilious green and the sort of yellow not seen since the curtains of the 1970s would make for restful travel?

 Then of course there’s the much-heralded “quiet carriages”. These are not policed in any way, relying on fellow passengers keeping each other honest. They never work, usually because a group of people of “a certain age” will board, say “ooh, lovely, quiet carriages, no youngsters blaring music”, then proceed to have shouty conversations about their grandkids and the price of stamps all the way to Sydney.

All this relies on the train actually running at all. Even when NSW Trains gives themselves a break from the incessant round of trackwork that sees the line closed at random intervals for days on end, one must still deal with the ever-present risk that the train will get tangled in the wires, overheat, or someone will become ill (why can’t they train staff to remove sick passengers from the train themselves, for crying out loud, instead of forcing hundreds of people to wait for the paramedics?), meaning you’re turfed off the train and delayed indefinitely. Whilst I am sure Gosford and Woy Woy are vibrant places with much to offer the visitor, I would prefer if such visits were not involuntary and of several hours duration whilst returning from job interviews or medical appointments.

 Of course politicians show no sign of wanting to fix any of this. So I invite state parliament to sit in Newcastle for a week, commuting daily from Sydney by train. Even if we don’t get a better rail service out of it, at least the pollies will be too dazed and depressed from the experience to pointlessly change department names and branding for a while.

Feminist Birth?

Tuesday, 15 April 2014
It amazes and depresses me that feminism, with it's (hoped for) support of a woman's bodily autonomy and right to choose, still has so very far to go when it comes to birth. As this piece from New Statesman points out, 100 years ago feminists were fighting the notion that a woman must give birth in pain to atone for original sin, and for the right to anaesthesia in labour. We've now come full circle. Google search "feminist birth", and you will see dozens of links to sites advocating "natural birth", without medical intervention or pain relief. Pain is how you get in touch with your inner warrior woman! Pain is empowering! Pain is GOOD FOR YOU AND YOUR BABY!

And god help you if you want an elective caesarean. Her body her choice - unless you want a c-section without medical indication. Then you're just anxious, or a victim of the medico-industrial patriarchal system, or, you know, selfish ("it's not as good for baby"). Not only does feminism not support the notion that a woman has the right to choose the birth she wants, even if that's a caesarean, some pro-"natural birth" advocates actively hector caesar by choice women about just how damn wrong they are.

Websites which purport to have a feminist agenda, to empower women to make the right choice, have already decided what that choice should be. Take for example this Australian site with the stated goal "Birth can be beautiful. Learn here how to have the kind of birth you wish for". But you're only allowed to wish for an unmedicated "natural birth", apparently. Like so many of these sites it is packed with horror stories of c-sections. Well I'm happy to go without the tears and cuts and stitches and fistulas and painful intercourse and fecal incontinence thanks. Does this happen in all vaginal birth? Of course not. But neither does the c-section horror.

I fell for this rubbish myself, I'm sorry to say. As someone who'd been through trauma, I gratefully accepted the notion that a healing, empowering natural birth was just the thing. And when I realised it wasn't what I wanted at all, that I'd been sold 50 cents of bull plop in a ten dollar bag, I couldn't get out of it. My doula told me I didn't really want a c-section (frankly, I'm still mad that we didn't ask for our money back; she was useless). The birth centre thought I didn't really want a c-section and sent me for counselling instead of to see an obstetrician. It was the worst and most disempowering experience of my life, and I've had self-described "feminists" tell me "well, that's unfortunate, but caesarean sections are major surgery, you know. Bad for baby". There is nothing empowering or respectful - nothing feminist - about telling a woman she's too misinformed to know what's good for her.

Can we stop valorising "natural" birth? Listen. Unless you gave birth to a Cabbage Patch Doll, YOU HAVE HAD A NATURAL BIRTH. A feminist birth is the birth a woman asks for, after discussion with her care provider. If you want to give birth in a stream in a rainforest with panpipes and incense, go for it. If you for whatever reason want to give birth by c-section, I will support you in that too because your reasons are NONE OF MY DAMN BUSINESS. It's your body, not mine, and I can't understand why feminists who  wouldn't conceive of forcing a woman to continue with an unwanted pregnancy think it is just fine, in everyone's best interests, to force a woman to give birth vaginally against her will. Feminist birth is bigger than a bath tub. Can we all get along with this?

Edit: I read this comment on the Skeptical OB and had to share it:

NCB ideologues ARE the handmaidens of the patriarchy.
1) They trivialize the pain of childbirth and claim that pain relief is unnecessary or even morally wrong.
2) They discourage and deny access to the best medical care on the most dangerous day most women have experienced since they day of their own birth.
3) They listen only to women who say what they want to hear, and deny the validity of experiences that do not fit their narrative.
4) They judge women by their fertility and other biological functions rather than by the work of their hands and minds.
What is remotely feminist in any of that?

I concur.

Autism Awareness: We Have A Long Way To Go

Tuesday, 8 April 2014
Last week, fresh off the most dreaded day of the year for people with ASD (April Fools Day; it can be damn scary to not know when something is a joke or not, especially when others' take advantage of that) was World Autism Awareness Day. It's great to see autism getting more awareness, a view that it is a variety of normal. How I wish there'd been some of that when I was relentlessly bullied for being "an alien" in primary school! (And bullying awareness, too; there was a view then that if a kid was being bullied, it was their won fault really - have you tried making friends with them/staying out of their way? I digress).

So Facebook and Twitter filled up with memes and posts relating to autism. But overwhelmingly, they were related to kids. I wonder how many of the people pleading for awareness of autism in cute seven year old boys would react if they tried to strike up a conversation with an autistic adult? What with the awkwardness and lack of eye contact? Not too well, a few of them. Sadly it seems autism awareness runs out once puberty hits. There's an epidemic of autism in the young, it's true, but their parents and carers need to realise these kids are going to grow up, and quickly, and at the rate we're going they'll be maturing into a world that is completely unequipped for and unresponsive to their needs.

I didn't realise just how bad it was though until I read of an autism awareness night. Really? Really? Bright flashing lights, loud music, excitement and confusion...exactly the sort of event very few people with autism would feel comfortable attending, likely to induce sensory overload and possible meltdown. A casino night for autism awareness seems like holding a symphony concert to raise money for hearing impaired people, or a cerebral palsy stair climb. Wouldn't you at least want the people you're benefiting to be able to attend and enjoy your event? But I bet not. With the best of intentions I'm sure the organisers haven't considered that adults with autism may want to get involved in this; they're thinking of kids, but it seems insensitive and inappropriate to hold a fundraiser for a group in the form of an event that group cannot attend. Some might say "well, what about parents of kids with autism? Maybe they would like to get out and have some fun?" Sure, but there's ways of having fun that don't result in sensory overload for those on the spectrum. It would be highly inappropriate to argue that parents of sight-impaired kids should get to have some not-blind fun.

I don't know. I really support this cause, but I wish they'd rethink their choice of fundraising event. It smacks of insensitivity where I'm sure none was meant, and excludes the people they hope to help. Until there's awareness that autism affects all ages, we've a long way to go.

Why Society Should Compel Mandatory Reporting of Sexual Abuse

Wednesday, 2 April 2014
Media storm erupted today, with columnist Joe Hildebrand labelled as an insensitive jackass for voicing his support for laws which could potentially see parents jailed for failing to report their partners for abusing their children. Mia Freedman chimed in her support for Hildebrand, and I found myself wishing it was someone, anyone, other than this universally reviled pair supporting the law. For, having been on all sides of the fence I agree with them, kind of, and the furore raises some difficult issues we don't as a society much like talking about.

Let's start with a look at the proposed law. It does not target mothers, or abuse in general; it is proposed in reaction to the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, making it a crime to fail to disclose child sexual abuse. And who could disagree with that? Well, plenty, it seems, to judge from the many dissenting voices who raise the spectre of an abused partner too afraid to report. But leaving aside Hildebrand's insulting and paternalistic "why doesn't she just leave?" comments, whilst I would be extremely unhappy to see actual fines or jail time, I believe parents, along with everyone else, should be compelled to disclose sexual abuse to the authorities. We should all be mandatory reporters.

Stopping child sexual abuse must take precedent over other considerations. How does a mother failing to speak up about the rape of her child help that child in any way? Ever? If your child is being sexually abused and you don't report it to the authorities, how do you imagine it will stop? Do you hang in there and hope everything goes away? There is far, far too little research into domestic violence and partner homicide in this country. But is disclosing or threatening to disclose sexual abuse a factor? Is fear that the partner will murder their children and themselves a fate in not disclosing? Whilst the rate of domestic homicide is far too high (any number above zero is too high, of course, but in Australia it is at epidemic proportions), it still cannot possibly account for the reticence to disclose sexual abuse. What, then, is the alternative fate that child sexual abuse is seen as preferable to?

Presumably, prosecutions for failing to report abuse would only take place once a conviction for the original abuse was recorded - so in opposing the law, we are in a sense saying it is better for children to be sexually abused than their parent face prosecution for failing to report it. 

We live in a shitty world, where people of both sexes do shitty things. Fear obviously accounts for a huge chunk of the reasons to not disclose child sexual abuse within families. But sometimes the fear can be more subtle than fear of death. There's also fear of losing the family home, fear of relationship breakdown, fear of abandonment, scorn, divorce. And in a shitty world, some mothers welcome the sexual abuse of their child as it takes the pressure off them. Some simply turn a blind eye. In my work I'm aware of more than a couple of cases where the father or step father is released from jail following a sentence for child sexual abuse, and the mother has welcomed the abuser back into the home, forcing the victim into the foster and welfare system (and, especially if the victim is in their teens and unless they get lucky with a refuge spot, on to the streets). It happens. It happens. And not all sexual abuse happens in the context of generalised family violence. Painting all women in these situations as passive helpless victims is at best over-generalising, at worst demeaning. 

"Why are we blaming women here? Why not focus on the perpetrator, send them to jail instead of the victim?" This seems like a completely reasonable and fair statement at first, but masks the fact that so often, convictions cannot be obtained precisely because the victim or parent of the victim refuses to testify and there is little other evidence on which to proceed. 

I don't have easy answers here. I don't have a magic solution. In cases of domestic violence it is too easy, and wrong, to say "why doesn't she just leave?", when the most dangerous time for a woman escaping a dangerous relationship in terms of risk of death is immediately after making the break. But there's a lot more going on with sexual abuse. Protections for informants to be put in place, refusing bail, if that's what needs be. But stopping child sexual assault has to be the main priority. There is something to be said for compelling reporting of sexual abuse, and I just can't get onboard with a feminism that "protects women" by throwing their children under a bus to remain in situations where they are being sexually abused. 
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