They’re not comparable situations, exactly, but they are proof that we’re still not listening to women when they speak about their pain.
An extremely famous woman has asked a court to remove an allegedly estranged family member from having control over her life. This comes days after she told a court in California (and, via public audio recording, the world) her account of abuse that she says is tantamount to human trafficking. She claims she has been forced to work against her will, denied access to the fortune she made, kept inside her home, betrayed by her own family, and fitted with a contraceptive device to stop her from having the children she wants. Her continued conservatorship is proof that not even being one of the most recognisable faces on the planet can protect women.
On the same day that a 39-year-old pop music legend is legally trapped in her home and forbidden to participate in her own life, an 83-year-old sitcom actor walks triumphantly out of a Philadelphia prison, having served just two years of the decade he was given for three counts of aggravated indecent assault. Sixty women made allegations against Bill Cosby. His release in the past 24 hours is an insult to every one of them.
Of course, both legal cases are extremely complex: Cosby - who has always maintained his innocence - has had his charges dropped by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court on what is essentially a legal technicality (an unusual ruling says that there was a 'process violation' by the prosecution) while Britney languishes in a conservatorship set up at her father’s behest 13 years ago to curtail her freedoms, notionally after a mental break. There’s still hope, apparently, that Britney's request to end her conservatorship could be granted; there are further opportunities for Judge Brenda Penny to release her. The latest ruling is actually in response to legal documents lodged by Britney's lawyer in November last year - her recent testimony not being considered in the legal formalities - but still, she must be disheartened and scared to hear that a court of law has once again declared her situation tolerable or acceptable in any way.
These stories tell us the same damn thing: that however bravely and loudly women speak about their traumatic experiences, the legal system will not hear them, believe them, or protect them. It’s harrowing. It’s exhausting. It’s played out over and over again in millions of quieter, more private, more ordinary scenarios the world over. We know the names Bill Cosby and Britney Spears because of what they chose to do for a living. Countless, lower-profile cases around the world are reiterating the same message: that freedom and dignity is more readily given to powerful men than the people they have hurt.
It’s not just in celebrity news. It’s not just in America. If you’re paying attention, stories of male privilege undermining the trauma of women are everywhere.
Just this week, hundreds of people spoke publicly about how excruciatingly painful it was to have their IUD fitted, despite doctors assuring them that it shouldn’t hurt. It was in response to a Times column in which Caitlin Moran argued that we should all have access to painkillers when having a coil put in. Women spoke about passing out, screaming, crying and fainting from the pain, and yet medical professionals are content to do the procedure without supplying any sort of analgesic. So not even accounts of physical agony are being taken seriously. It’s the same reason it takes a decade for people with endometriosis to get an accurate diagnosis; because when we are in pain, we’re dismissed, belittled, and accused of exaggerating.
It's not just when it comes to healthcare or reproductive rights. This protection of men above all else is omnipresent. It’s why Diane Abbott caused more controversy drinking a can of gin and tonic on a train than Matt Hancock did having an affair while bungling the national response to a global pandemic. It’s why rowdy football supporters disobeying government advice to crowd Leicester Square were treated as naughty boys while women paying their respects at a vigil for Sarah Everard were tackled to the ground by police officers.
Misogyny is nothing new, obviously. Putting men first is an age-old tradition! A sacred ritual of the patriarchy! A stubborn habit that underscores everything from crime to healthcare to marriage to equal pay to domestic chores! This callous, dangerous disbelief happens with distressing regularity in the LGBTQ+ community, disproportionately to Black women and excruciatingly often to people with disabilities. Centuries of male power and privilege have informed the way all decisions are made, whether it’s in a court of law, at the office, on social media, in Parliament, or, most often, in the private homes of ordinary people.
It’s time that changed.
It shouldn’t take the imprisonment of a pop icon, or the crumbling of a legal case against a man made famous for wearing good sweaters on television, to make us listen to survivors of abuse. But please, could it? As far as I’m concerned, here’s the agenda: Maintain the rage. Free Britney. Avenge Britney. Keep fighting till we’re all heard to our courageous voices when we we speak about our trauma.
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