Disability and sexual health

Note, this is primarily going to be about the experience of cis women as I know more about this right now and I feel that trans disabled people are likely to have some extra barriers.  And obviously there are many different disabilities and this post is going to focus on physical disabilities.  It is also important to note that some people have had great experiences, but it is a postcode lottery.

You would think that medical buildings would be one of the most accessible places in the UK, but the reality is shocking.  Being in hospital with a physical disability was horrendous, but that’s for another post, this one is about sexual health services.

A recent report from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that:

  • 88% said it is harder for women with physical disabilities to attend or access cervical screening
  • 63% said that they have been unable to attend cervical screening because of their disability
  • 49% said that they have chosen not to attend cervical screening in the past for reasons such as previous bad experiences related to their disability or worries about how people might react.
  • 45% said that they felt their needs have been forgotten and 38% said that they feel the doctors or nurses don’t take their needs seriously

This is not ok.  Sexual health matters.  And it’s not just about cervical screening.  The issues at play with the smear test are also often found in STI testing.  All of this is putting women with disabilities in danger.

In terms of screening for breast cancer, the NHS website says:

“Mammography is a procedure that’s technically difficult. You have to be carefully positioned on the X-ray machine, and must be able to hold the position for several seconds.

This may not be possible for women with limited mobility in their upper bodies or who are unable to support their upper bodies unaided.

If you have a disability, your breast screening unit should be able to advise you if screening is technically possible, and on the most appropriate place to be screened. This will usually be at a static unit.

If a mammogram isn’t technically possible, you should still remain in the call and recall programme, as any increased mobility at a future date may make screening easier.

If a woman can’t be screened, she should be advised on breast awareness.”

And whilst I understand the physical limitations, it doesn’t feel like enough.  In the US, between 2001 and 2005, 75.4% of women without disabilities went for a mammogram, compared to 54.9% of those who have a disability.

Barriers to accessing sexual health services include, but are not limited to:

  • surgeries that are not wheelchair friendly – a shocking 63% of respondents to the Jo’s Trust survey said their GP was wheelchair accessible
  • a lack of hoists and adjustable beds
  • previous negative experiences – women with disabilities may have had more interaction with the medical community and bad experiences more generally can mean they are reluctant to go for screening.  It’s not uncommon for women to feel they aren’t listened to or taken seriously when they present with illness or disability and no one wants to subject themselves to more of that.
  • related to which is staff attitudes, and not seeing disabled women as sexual beings and hence seeing sexual health as a low priority.

“In some cases, women reported being told screening is too complex to arrange and have been told it is not possible or even asked to sign a waiver stating that they do not wish to receive screening.”
– Jo’s Trust

Attitudes and beliefs taint the way people are treated.  I’ve had GPs question why I wanted contraception and assume the only reason would be to stop my period.  This didn’t happen before I became disabled.  And if someone isn’t seen as sexual, then by extension they don’t need to access sexual health services.  This way of thinking can block innovative, or just common sense, ways of providing these services. 

These solutions might be home visits for people unable to leave their bed, buying a hoist for the GP practice or referring people to a hospital where there are appropriate facilities.  It could be having appointments which allow for women with disabilities needing longer or it could just be better training.  Sometimes it might be as basic as having an accessible GP practice which really shouldn’t be a big ask.  And sometimes it might be even simpler and be a case of including access information on the website.  I checked out the online information for my nearest sexual health clinic and there is no mention of access or blue badge parking and that in itself is a barrier than can be easily and cheaply overcome.

Other good practice ideas include having staff that are flexible, that can problem solve and who want to work with the patient to find out what works for them.  It’s possible extra reassurance may help, or a “we’ll try it and see what happens and go from there” attitude.  For some women, going in and seeing the space may help them to work out adaptations with the staff beforehand.  It might also help to have another professional on hand to help.

There are other sexual health barriers that disabled people face, for example, if someone has limited use of their hands, how can their check their breasts/testicles for lumps?  Which can make the NHS advice for women who can’t have mammograms that bit more difficult… and certainly adds to the following horrific statistic:

“Disabled women don’t have the same access to screening for breast and genealogical cancers as non-disabled women, and are up to three times as likely to die of breast cancer.”
Disability Horizons

Unfortunately, this tends to mean the onus is on the woman to keep pushing for screening and be their own advocate… And until things change, one of the most important things we can do is make people aware of the issues and keep talking about them.  Hence this blog post!

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Nature’s Vampires

We all know about blood sucking bats, but did you know that of all the many types of bats, only three actually drink blood?  Technically this is know as haematology, the practice of feeding on blood.  And blood is actually a great food source – it’s rich in proteins and lipids, is very nutritious and, so long as you don’t over do it on one individual, you’ve got yourself an unlimited cow to milk as it were.

Mosquitoes are another well known vampire, with the females needing to drink blood in order to make eggs.  It’s also common knowledge that they are responsible for the spread of malaria but what you might not know is that they, or other blood sucking flies, have been spreading it for 100 million years.  Mosquitoes can also transmit sleeping sickness, typhus, river blindness and other diseases making them one of the deadliest animals in the world.  In 2015, malaria alone caused 438,000 deaths and cases of dengue have increased rapidly over the last 30 years.

 

As an aside, the mosquito is not therefore evil and nor should it be made extinct.  All animals fill niches in nature and have co-evolved to fulfil a purpose or role that isn’t always clear to us.  In this case, they provide food for birds, fish, frogs and so on and are also pollinators.

Also in the fly family, we find sand flies, bat flies, black flies and midges which all enjoy a drink of blood.  There are also fleas, bedbugs and ticks as well as so called “kissing bugs”, or Triatomine Bugs, which apparently get their name because they like to bite people’s faces…

We also have vampire moths who use their antenna to pierce the skin of their unlucky host and some types of butterflies are partial to a sip of blood.  They can’t inflict injuries themselves so it’s more a case of coming across some spilt blood and indulging.  Sticking with small critters, some worms and arthropods like blood, as do some nematodes, such as Ancylostomids which feed on blood from the gut.  And leeches are well known for their blood sucking behaviour and are utilised in medicine such as to prevent blood from clotting.

Living underwater doesn’t protect you from vampires… Torpedo snails like the blood of electric rays, making small cuts and then using their proboscis to draw blood from the wound.  If this doesn’t work, they will insert their proboscis into they ray’s mouth, gills or anus…

Another threat comes from the Lamprey; an eel like creature which seems perfectly designed for the blood sucking way of life…  They are basically a tube with teeth…  They don’t have a jaw, instead having a suction cup style mouth which contains circles of sinister teeth.  These teeth are stabbed into the fish and anti clotting chemicals are secreted.  This tends to result in the host dying, either from blood loss or infection, at which point the lamprey will detach and move on.

The Candiru is a parasitic cat fish that are best known for allegedly being able to travel up a stream of urine and into a man’s penis.  Regardless of whether that is true or not, these tiny fish do deserve a mighty reputation.  They enter the gills of larger fish to suck their blood and generally make their lives a misery.  Once full of blood, they leave and burrow into the river bed to digest their meal.

And finally birds… The Hood Mockingbird likes open wounds, such as those they may find on sea lions or researchers but don’t rely just on blood.  However, they do increase this behaviour during the dry season suggesting it may be motivated by the need for fluid or moisture.

Vampire finches are a bit more brutal, preferring to peck at other birds, specifically blue footed boobies, until they bleed.  The boobies don’t object as much as you might expect and it’s thought the finches might once have cleaned parasites from the birds and developed a taste for blood along the way.

Oxpeckers are another blood loving bird that eats ticks and insects as well as flesh and blood from wounds on large mammals.  Whether this is a mutually beneficial relationship or not seems to be a topic of debate.  The oxpeckers may be helping with tick removal and grooming of spots that the mammal may not be able to reach.  With regards to the blood consumption, it has been argued that it may help to keep wounds clean and prevent infection and infestation.

The practice of consuming blood has co-evolved in different species, suggesting there is an evolutionary advantage for some creatures to engage in it.  And when you stop to think about it, some humans also take part in haematology… Just think about black puddings…

EDS and drinking, take two

Four or so years ago I wrote a blog post about EDS and drinking and felt it was time for an update!

What are the issues with EDS and drinking…

  • you may not be able to swallow or have a limited swallow.  In my case I can drink some things and not others.  Generally when people can’t swallow liquids very well they are advised to try thicker drinks. In my case this concept is reversed, I can’t drink thick drinks but can do water and squash and thin liquids.  I also can’t drink anything with sugar in.  No idea why this is the case but wanted to mention in case it helps someone else identify a pattern in their own swallowing.
  • you may not be able to lift a drinking vessel
  • you may not be able to open a bottle with your hands or a sports cap with your teeth
  • you may have a tendency to spill or drop drinks
  • you may need to drink more than the average person to manage POTS

What are the solutions?

Contigo Autoseal are still my go to for hot drinks and I still haven’t had a problem with the flask mentioned in my first post about this subject!  They have a couple of designs so it’s worth having a think about what will be best for you.  I find the ones without handles easier but the ones with handles do have locks for added security.  The button you press to open the mouth bit is fairly easy to press but not so easy it’ll get pressed in your bag.  You can also get a replacement lid if you ever need to so you won’t need to throw the whole thing away.

Note of caution: your drink will stay hot for hours. If you want to be able to drink it soon, add some cold water!

Straw wise, you’ve now got a range of options which is amazing!  There is lots of advice out there now in response to the straw bans but I find this from @rollwthepunches particularly helpful:

straw

Hopefully it will help you think through your options.  Personally I use metal straws for cold drinks and I have a little pouch that I take out with one in so my bag doesn’t get wet after use.  I also take out straws which are made of plastic designed for hot drinks, a bit like these from Serephina’s Kitchen.  Note, don’t use the metal ones for hot drinks!!!

I’ve tried glass straws and liked them for drinking wine – it felt classier than using plastic or metal – but my carers ended up breaking them all.  All of these can be hard to clean if you have hand issues so do consider that as well.  Some can go in the dishwasher and this might be something to think about if you don’t have someone who can help you clean them.

When it comes to cold drinks, I get through ridiculous amounts of squash and diet fizzy drinks in a day.  I’m talking 5 to 6 litres a day.  Obviously this means I don’t leave the house without a bottle and that bottle is one from Hydrate for Health.  It pops in the side pocket of my wheelchair bag and the long straw means it reaches round the chair and clips onto my coat or skirt or whatever.  Without it, I’d be asking my carers to open a drink every two seconds…  I also use it overnight.  It hooks onto the trolley by my bed and means I can easily drink when in bed.  I can even drink laying down, all I have to do is move my arm!  You can also buy replacement bits which is great – I have two bottles and have had them for years now but from time to time I need a new clip or straw and I like that I can get them separately.

At the other end of the size spectrum I have a Contingo Autoseal water bottle which is a mere 300ml and has been to Cambodia and back with me.  When I was on the plane, I got it refilled with water and hence didn’t have to bother with plastic cups.  I have absolutely no issues with it and, like my flask, have had it for a number of years now!

During the day I like to drink fizzy drinks and the hydrate for health doesn’t really work for that so I use those plastic cups with lids and straws.  You can find them in bargain home stores and have grown in popularity over the last few years so are fairly easy to find.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look at this one from amazon but note that you can normally get them for less than £3.

Safe Sip drink covers can another great product and can be used on wine glasses! They are easy to use and small enough to carry with you if you’re going out.  Pop them in a little pouch with your straw!

Slipper Limpet, Crepidula Fornicata

This post is inspired by a poem from Isabel Galleymore which I looked at in a poetry class and fell in love with.  It’s part of her collection Significant Other which I’d highly recommend.  Whilst the poem is enjoyable by itself, knowing more about the slipper limpet heightens the pleasure and appreciation of Galleymore’s skill.

Whilst slipper limpets are found in the UK, they are a non native species that arrived from America in the 19th century.  The first live slipper limpets were found in Liverpool Bay and are likely to have hitched a ride on the back of oysters.  During the 19th century, eating oysters became fashionable in London and native stocks rapidly became depleted.  To meet demand, oysters were imported from America, along with the now invasive stowaway.

Slipper Limpets live under rocks in the intertidal zone and feed by filtering plankton from the water.  They have thin, flattened shells which has a little shelf and when flipped upside down, apparently look like a slipper hence the name.  The first half of the scientific name actually means slipper in Latin and whilst we’re thinking about the name, it’s also important to note they aren’t actually a limpet… They are instead a type of sea snail.

They live in groups of up to 12 with one stacked upon another, largest at the bottom and getting smaller as you go up the tower (or Galleymore’s “high-rise orgy“).  The base slipper limpet attaches herself to things like rocks, scallops, crabs and mussels and thus the slipper limpets live a sedentary life.  And it is always either a female or an empty shell, with the rest of the stack being male.  It is advantageous for females to be bigger than males so they can carry more eggs.  And they can lay between 10,000 and 200,000 eggs so they need plenty of space!

The male has a penis that can be as long as his body, and it needs to be; it has to extend round and under the female’s shell in order to reach her genital opening.  It is because they need to be so close that they attach to one another – imagine being stuck with your ex literally on your back until you die…

Slipper limpets are born male and will later change sex, something known as sequential hermaphrodism.  Recent research has shown that the change occurs as a result of physical contact with another male.  However, it’s not instant and doesn’t happen as a result of every contact.  The change itself takes about 60 days – or about two moon cycles – to change sex and during this time the penis shrinks and disappears and the female organs develop.

The more you learn about the slipper limpet, the more appropriate you think the scientific name is.  But whilst it would be fun to imagine an animal named for it’s sexual habits, fornicate unfortunately comes from the Latin word for arch – fornix – and refers to their arched shape.

Peak breeding occurs during May and June and most females spawn twice a year, after neap tides.  Egg capsules are brooded under the foot of the female, attached to the inside of her shell or her foot.  The young hatch as larvae after 3 to 4 weeks and will stay in larval form for about 4 to 5 weeks.  After this they will leave home.  In their early life they are able to move, slowly crawling to find a suitable site to set up home, but generally after about two years they are stuck wherever they are.  Hopefully having chosen the perfect spot, given they live up to 10 years.  If they settle alone, they will turn female and become the base slipper limpet.  Alternatively, they will join an existing chain and wait their turn.

Scientists have been looking at the Slipper Limpet to see if it has any medical benefits for us and hemocyanin – the same chemical that makes the blood of horseshoe crabs and octopuses blue – has been found in their blood and is effective in treating breast and bladder cancer.  Their tough fleshy food may also have uses for human medicine.  Collagen from it can be used in regenerative medicine, such as advanced wound care and bone and nerve repair.  Whilst collagen is found in virtually every living organism, the collagen from the slipper limpets is stable in the same range as human collagen and thus provides an alternative source – at present collagen from cows and pigs is used.

Returning to the poem, I am in awe of Galleymore’s ability to make us stop and think twice about this seemingly dull, drab, slightly gnarled looking creature.  Without her poem, I wouldn’t know about the slipper limpet and I certainly wouldn’t have had so many conversations about it.

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Animals in war

“It would not be an overstatement to say that the outcomes of many of histories wars might have been very different if it were not for the role that animals such as horses and dogs played in them”
– Margo De Mello, Animals and Society

And it’s not just horses and dogs:

“Armies past and present have made use of pigs and other animals such as dogs, horses and even rats to help them win battles and conquer lands.”
– Pia Spry-Marques

Legend has it that Alexander the Great used squealing pigs to panic the war elephants of his enemies.  This was a tactic also used by Romans to repel the Greeks.  On another occasion, a squealing pig was hung from the walls of a besieged town to frighten the elephants of the enemy camped outside.  In the 1st century AD, pigs doused in pitch were set alight and driven towards the enemy’s war elephants.  War elephants were clearly intimidating but they are prone to panicking – hence the use of squealing pigs to scare them.  They would stampede in their attempts to escape and so each rider had a spike and a hammer to kill the elephant in the case that it charged towards their own lines.

Of course, dogs were also used. Ancient Greeks and Romans used them to guard their communities and military outposts.  They have also been used as pack animals, messengers, to attack, as companionship for soldiers and to pull injured soldiers to safety.  When Europeans settled in North American, dogs were even trained to attack, and even kill, the natives.

In 16th century manuscripts, we find ‘rocket cats’ being used to invade castles; cats living in the castle would be captured, bomb attached and then there was the assumption the cat would return to the castle.  I can only assume the people suggesting this plan hadn’t spent much time with a cat… I cannot image them being cooperative…

Other “animal weapons” included foxes with fire tied to their tails, boars with gun powder on their back and ‘fire birds’ – birds who had a bag of embers attached to them.  The idea being that they would then roost on enemy buildings and cause a fire.

We have a lot more information about animals used in World War One and Two, and species utilised included pigeons, horses, dogs and cats.  World War Two was the last conflict to use great numbers of horses and millions of them were killed along with tens of thousands of dogs and other animals including bats…

There was a US plan to attach timed bombs to the bats and release them en masse.  The idea being that they’d settle on buildings and then explode.  Whilst it never actually happened, it was tested and in the tests the bats roosted on a fuel tank… there were no fire extinguishers on the site.  $24 million in today’s money was spent on testing this…

More successfully, pigeons were used to convey messages and were trained to guide missiles.  It was better than existing technology but I’m not sure if pigeon missiles were ever actually implemented.  One messenger pigeon called Gustav conveyed the news of the D Day landing and by the time World War Two ended, 32 pigeons had received medals.

The Dickin medal was created in world war two to recognise animals in war.  It was established by Marie Dickin who also founded PDSA and the medal helped to publicise the charity as well as acknowledge the role of animals. Additionally, it provided a good news story during the war.

Since 1943, the medal was been awarded 71 times; 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and one cat called Simon who “Served on HMS Amethyst during the Yangtse Incident, disposing of many rats though wounded by shell blast. Throughout the incident his behaviour was of the highest order, although the blast was capable of making a hole over a foot in diameter in a steel plate.”

Alongside this good news story, the UK’s MoD lab Porton Down (opened in 1916) was investigating and experimenting on animals:

“A large number involve exploding live pigs to assess whether humans would be able to survive this sort of extreme battlefield injury and, if they did, to figure out what would be the best blood-clotting solutions for this kind of trauma.  As part of the centre’s experimental programme, pigs are also shot repeatedly and later operated on by arm doctors, or are made to inhale mustard gas to assess how this toxic gas affects human concentration levels and orientation.”
– Pia Spry-Marques

Animal experimentation wasn’t confined to the UK.  In 1946, at Bikini Atoll, 147 pigs, 3030 rats, 109 mice, 57 guinea pigs and 176 were placed in ships near to where the first atomic bomb was dropped to see how and to what extent the radiation would affect them.  Eleven years later, in the US’ Operation Plumbbob, experiments assessed the impact of radiation on pigs.

Other animals used in the world wars included the glow worm which was trapped in a jar and then used to help soldiers read maps and letters in the dark trenches.  The humble slug was used by the US army in their trenches as an early warning system to alert soldiers to the presence of mustard gas.  Slugs are more sensitive to it than humans and thus would alert the soldiers and indicate it was necessary to put on a gas mask.

In the Vietnam War, Agent Orange was used to destroy plant life (allegedly aimed at food supplies) but had the result of destroying major habitats.  The homes of tigers, elephants, gibbons, leopards and other animals were destroyed. Additionally, unexploded landmines would kill at least 40,000 animals after the war.

During the cold war, a fence 815 km long was erected between Germany and the Czech republic and although the border is now open, red deer who live in the area still don’t cross the line.  Fences such as this one have known impacts on nature.  They divide populations, split males from females, interrupt migration routes and block access to food and water sources.

Since 1960, the US Navy has used dolphins and sea lions to protect ports and equipment from attack, to retrieve objects, to spy and to locate sea mines.  They are used because they can dive deep without getting the bends, they are fast, reliable, adaptable and most importantly trainable.

Of course it’s not just marine animals that have been used to detect mines, many land animals have been used as well.  For example, the Nazis used pigs, cows and camels to check for minefields as they moved across Egypt and we have bomb sniffing dogs and rats.  In particular, the Giant African Pouched Rat has been trained by US military to detect buried landmines – they can sniff them out and are too light to set them off.

During the Iran-Iraq war, numbers of wild goats, wolves, otters, pelicans, striped hyenas and other animals were dramatically reduced, sometimes even wiped out.  In the Afghan war more than half the total livestock population was lost and in the Gulf war, more than 80% of the livestock in Kuwait died.  A deliberate oil leak by Iraqi troops also killed many aquatic animals and birds.

Looking very briefly at the impact of war on animals, we can see that zoo animals are inevitably affected during war.  Sometimes that has meant food shortages other times it has resulted in individuals being killed as a preventative attempt so that dangerous animals weren’t running around if they got out during bombing.

During Mozambique’s civil war – 1977 to 1992 – elephants were butchered for ivory and meat and populations dropped significantly.  Thankfully they are now bouncing back.  Lions, buffalo, hippos, wildebeest are now more numerous than in 1994.  During the war, Gorongosa National Park was a refuge for rebel forces and when government troops came to challenge them, there was carnage and fighting which inevitably had consequences for the wildlife in the area.

And in a very different vein, dogs are well known for their use in supporting soldiers with PTSD, so I leave you with this video, in order to end on a brighter note…

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Devilish creatures

The (Christian) devil has had many faces, some more human than others, and we can look at these depictions to learn about what the people who made them were afraid of.  Depictions of the devil and demons inevitably reflect the prejudices of the day and we can see that in descriptions of demons as peasant like, with red hair, with appearance of a Scotsman and so on.

We have had a virtually blank slate when it comes to the appearance of the devil as the bible doesn’t really give any detail, thus making it easy to project fears onto.

“Many kinds of animals have come to symbolize the evil beast, as a force associated with evil or whatever it is we dislike.”
– Lynda Birke

During the middle ages, the devil was depicted as animal like with horns, a tail and sharp teeth – an image I’m sure we’re all familiar with today.  This became more human from the 16th century, thus more able to seduce and recruit witches to his cause.

Depicting the devil as an animal may have been a way of reinforcing both the chain of being and the animalistic nature of the devil.  Using animals such as male goats and rams could have been to emphasise him as a sexual being – hence wild and uncontrolled and seductive – as horns have long been used to represent fertility and sexuality.  Some people have suggested that the goat has been linked with the devil because of their weird, devilish, eyes but I think it’s hard to know which came first – a chicken and egg situation.  Admittedly goats have unusual eyes and this may have been enough for people to declare them devil touched.  We also have the idea of goats vs sheep – the sheep being the flock of saved souls and the goat being those who are damned.

Pre-Christian thinking and beliefs inevitably have a role to play in how the devil was imagined.  In ancient Babylonia there were wicked demons; winged female creatures that flew at night looking for men to seduce and children to attack.  Christianity routinely took existing gods and turned them into evil spirits and this may be how the devil acquired wings.  We can also see the devil as the ancestor of Pan – a half man, half goat Roman god who was associated with lust and hence could easily be seen as the epitome of temptation.  Pan was also the god of nature and casting him as the devil reinforced the divide between man and nature, and emphasised the importance of not worshipping nature.

The devil also appeared as a cat or dog.  Greeks and Romans associated dogs with Hecate, a goddess of witchcraft (and by association for Christians, of evil).  There has also been a long association of dogs with the underworld and thus it was natural for Christianity to link dogs and the devil.  Dogs also roamed freely and uncontrolled in the middle ages, a time when restless souls, or those who didn’t seem to belong anywhere, were seen with suspicion.

Another devilish form is the serpent, specifically, the serpent in the garden of Eden.  Again, this highlights the sexual, seductive and tempting nature of the devil as snakes have a long association with fertility and sex.

These different forms fed into the concerns around bestiality.  The animal could well be the devil in disguise and thus sex with it would lead to half monster creatures and the devil would have succeeded in creating chaos and disrupting the god given order of the world.

In addition to the devil himself being portrayed as an animal, we see this association between devil and beast in the form of witches familiars.  The species varied significantly and included cats, dogs, rats, toads, mice, snails, birds, ferrets, moles and even small insects such as flies and moths.  Whilst a witch may find their familiar appears out of nowhere, or is gifted by a fellow witch, one way of acquiring them was through the devil.  The devil would give it in exchange for a pledge of allegiance.

We also find witches on the continent riding to sabbats on demons disguised as animals, and were said to be able to shape shift themselves as well as transform others into animals.  All of this added to the threat that witches posed.

Something I’ve been pondering as I’ve been writing this is, what would the devil look like today?  I can’t help but think of certain politicians…

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Men, women and nature; a hierarchy

One of the ideas that came up when I was looking at the line between humans and animals was the idea that there is a hierarchy, with men at the top, followed by women, then nature.  So as a woman, I am ‘better’ than an animal, but I can’t begin to think I am as ‘good’ as a man.  Living in a patriarchal society as a well informed feminist, this wasn’t a new idea but it got me thinking.

Women have long been ‘lumped in’ with nature, with animals and this has affected how women have been treated.  It has also affected men.  With women being seen as other, and by default lesser, than man, men then must separate themselves from the devalued femininity.  They must act manly to preserve the distinction between male and female and to preserve their status.

There are a number of ways in which animals and women have lived parallel lives.  Animals have been portrayed as being limited by their biology, being driven by instinct alone, and so have women – we are depicted, for example, as being a slave to our hormones.  Science has historically had little respect for women, just like for animals.

And talking of science, studies of animals and their society have been, and still are, used to reinforce ideas around humans including our beliefs about gender and sexual orientation.  Animal studies incorporate and reinforce our beliefs about masculinity and femininity.

We can see this play out when we look at the theory of evolution.  We often see survival of the fittest portrayed as a competitive display of strength and power, individuals pitted against each other in a show down, a somewhat masculine image.  This is also despite the numerous examples of mutuality within nature.

Another concept around evolution is that of sexual selection.  This is almost exclusively talked about as being one sex (male) competing against others for the limited reproductive resources of the other (female) and thus:

“the language of evolutionary theory, then, has helped to construct images of gendered animals, the prototypes of gendered people.”
– Lynda Birke

Whilst we’re looking at evolution, we should also note that the iconic image of ape turning into man, suggests a “linear progression towards the apex” (Birke) and reinforces the idea of humans are at the top of a scale.  This, and other ways of talking about and illustrating evolution, conflates placement in time with judgement of worth.  Stopping and thinking about it, you realise how paradoxical it is – we are the new kids on the block and for some reason we think we should automatically be neighbourhood king.

Western thinking tends to see nature (and women) as something to be dominated, to be conquered and this has consequences for how we treat nature (and women).

“Western imperialism and global exploitation assumes that it can appropriate nature’s resources without significant consequence; those resources may be other peoples, or they may be directly affected by western destruction of their local environment.”
– Birke

In addition to colonising the world, we see this played out in the male conquest of the wilderness; hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and of course hunting.  Hunting feels like it may be the ultimate act of subduing nature and hence a badge of masculinity with the furs and taxidermy used as status symbols.  And if hunting is a way of showing how well you can dominate, to then eat the animals you’ve killed, is even better.  Eating is loaded with symbolism; ‘real men’ eat meat, vegetarianism is effeminate and so on.  Even our pets can have something to say about our gender; owning a rottweiler is a sign of masculinity whereas a poodle is a sign of femininity.

The language we use to describe or denigrate women – chick, pussy, bitch etc – all reinforce the idea of women as part of the ‘non human animal’ group, separated from men.  They reinforce the difference between men and women and are used to reinforce gender stereotypes which in turn reinforces the hierarchy.  And just as some men react by rejecting any suggestion of femininity, some women reject the suggestion of animality.

There are some reasons why women may want to separate themselves from animals, a major one being that all the time we are seen as animalistic, we can be treated as animals, which at this point in history opens us up to abuse and suffering.  In the late 19th century, women became concerned about the treatment of animals because they feared that the fate of animals could easily become the fate of women.  Being grouped with animals may feel, to some people, like they are being denied their humanity.  Thinking of women as animals is certainly it is a form of objectification which is inherent with all kinds of issues…

In separating women from animals, there is the possibility, the hope, of aligning ourselves next to men and thus claiming a place at the top of the hierarchy.  But is this the end goal we really want to head towards?

“Animals in western culture are ‘other’, objects of scientific enquiry.  We have defined ourselves in opposition to a generality of ‘animals’, irrespective of the qualities of individual species.  It seems paradoxical that at a time when much feminist theory is moving beyond simple dualism of gender (outing great emphasis on differences between women, say) it should do so by implicitly building its analyses on another simple dichotomy – humans verses ‘other animals’.  A more consistent approach, indeed, might be to extend the emphases on plurality and difference, and to begin to deconstruct the (punitive) boundary between us and other species.”
– Birke