Guest Columnist #75 - The Connection by Anka

The Connection
By Anka Skakanka

“Protecting other womyn is self-defense and self-defense is protecting other womyn”

—Laura from Fight Like A Girl

    I teach women’s self-defense. In each workshop I encourage people to share their personal self-defense success stories. I cherish all of the stories I’ve heard over the years because each one has empowered me, and taught me something new. In particular, I love to hear stories where women come to the aid of others and help them end/disrupt an unwanted or dangerous situation. Oftentimes people don’t realize that their stories of intervention are actually self-defense success stories. I’m happy when my class helps people to make the connection that defending others is an act of self-defense.
    It is empowering for people to learn how they can intervene on another’s behalf and have a positive impact on the situation. But, empowerment always brings added responsibility. It means that if you see someone being targeted for a hate crime (yes, the misogynist crimes of rape and sexual harassment are hate crimes too) and you are in a position to aid that person—without jeopardizing your own safety—that you do so. Sometimes this means physical intervention, but it can also be as simple/hard as confronting people around you who use hate speech, however “jokingly”. For example, the expression “don’t be such a fag” when used by heteros is inappropriate (at best) and threatening to queers (at worst) and so should be called out as unacceptable by queer allies. At times, intervention is necessary in the most unexpected places— like at a doctor’s office.

“I will be harassing women till my dying breath!!!” —Anti-choice protester outside an abortion clinic in my town in 2002.

    I don’t know how many people have realized the connection between rapists and anti-choice fascists, but in my mind it is strong, and in both situations the issue of intervention is crucial. Anti-choice protesters are similar to rapists who aim to gain power and control over women via our reproductive parts. In the eyes of the religious right our cunts and wombs are not seen as parts of an autonomous women’s body, belonging to her alone. Right-wing fascists strive to bring our reproductive organs, our sexuality, under their control. The mindset of the anti-choice movement is akin to that of the power hungry rapist who seeks to exert his will over our lives. Rapists and anti-choicers are both more likely to uphold rigid sex role standards, devalue women, and subscribe to the belief that women should not have the right to control their sexuality and reproduction. Both oppressors use similar tactics including gendered violence, lies, physical intimidation, manipulation, deception, verbal abuse/harassment, and even stalking. And they both wreak multifold damage on women’s lives. They cause unneeded physical and or emotional trauma, they disempower and humiliate women, they deny women’s autonomy and complete humanity, they endanger women’s well-being and our very lives. Similarly, they both produce the same outcome: they force women to give up control of their sexual/reproductive selves. I found that because anti-choice harassment tactics are somewhat similar to sexual harassment I was effectively able to use some self-defense techniques to counter and disrupt that harassment.
    The connection between the misogyny of rapists and the misogyny of the religious right became all too clear to me when I started “escorting” at an abortion clinic in my town. Clinic escorting entails waiting outside the abortion clinic and helping women clients navigate through the gang of anti-choice protesters to the doors of the clinic. It is an escort’s job to make the women feel as comfortable, calm, and empowered as possible in those long minutes before they make it from their cars to inside the clinic. On a typical day escorting looks like this:
    The antis have arrived at the clinic hours before it opens [sometimes at 4 or 5:00 AM] and have parked their cars directly in front of the clinic (or as close as they can get). They do this to block convenient parking spaces for the clients, but more importantly so that they can hang “fetus pornography” on their cars. Fetus porno is large graphically portrayed photos of bloody/mutilated “babies”. The validity of these supposed aborted fetus photos are highly debatable. Many look like photos of raw meet, and I’ve seen some “dismembered baby limbs” that were obviously doll parts lying in fake blood. Women who come to the clinic must pass these grotesque posters on their way in, and for those who may be in an emotionally vulnerable state these photos can be traumatic to see. If the woman drives to the clinic the antis often swarm around her car before she has even opened the door to get out. They begin spewing lies and shoving misleading, manipulative literature in her face. “THEY KILL BABIES IN THERE!” “YOU’LL GO TO HELL!” “YOU ARE A MURDERER!” And even “MOMMY DON’T KILL ME!” are some frequent abusive slogans they yell.
    The “literature” they thrust into the women’s hands contains more elaborate lies such as “you’ll be sterile/get breast cancer/ be rejected by men/ have your intimate relationships fall apart/ regret it for the rest of your life etc— if you have this abortion.” Some antis have been known to dress as pro-choice escorts to deceive the clients and then tell them the clinic is closed for the day and that they have to leave. It is not uncommon for antis to physically intimidate women and block their way. Some antis have been known to record clients license plate numbers or other identifying information as they approach the clinic and then stock and harass them for weeks or even months after their abortion. And of course they are not above occasionally employing over-the-top violence, and have been known to bomb clinics, murder clients, volunteers, doctors and staff, send lethal anthrax to clinics, pump toxic gas into clinics waiting rooms etc— all in the name of “life”. In response, clinics that can afford it hire extra security, install bulletproof glass, or connect a “panic” button that when pressed will alert the SWAT team if harassment escalates into physical violence. This is the sorry state of women’s health care in the U.S.A. in the 21st Century!!
But I digress—
    As a pro-choice escort I found myself calling on my self-defense training to deal with anti-choice harassment outside the clinic. In self-defense classes I teach women not to give personal information to potential assailants. This was a very important lesson to take to heart in front of the clinic as anti-choicers have been known to utilize any personal information they glean against you. This is true even in seemingly harmless conversation they attempt to engage the client or escort in. It is important to remember that they are enacting what they call ‘spiritual warfare’ in which they try to find your weak spots and attack you personally both emotionally and psychologically. Nothing is below them. Perpetrators of sexual assault also use this same tactic of finding a person’s “trigger points” and using them to manipulate, demean, or control. This is particularly common in domestic abuse, date rape, and incest where the assailant knows the victim on a personal level.
    When protesters attempted to hook me into this kind of conversation I used a self-defense technique called the “broken record”. No matter what they said, I responded with “Leave me alone— Leave me alone.” This tactic ensured all of the following: 1) I wouldn’t accidentally give out information that could be used against me, my sister escorts, or the clients, 2) I wouldn’t get hooked into a conversation that may distract me from the situation at hand, and 3) by repeating only one phrase my mind was free to be thinking of what I wanted to do next.
    Another self-defense strategy I found myself using was a psychological one. Instead of focusing on the triggering words the harassers were using, I focused on something more important: what they were doing. For example, instead of focusing on the fact that the harasser is calling me a “filthy whore who will rot in hell” I focused on his actions: he is yelling and moving towards the clinic door. By looking at the circumstances in this way I am able to 1) protect myself from his verbal onslaught, and 2) prepare myself to respond physically and verbally. In this instance I moved in-between the harasser and the woman client using my body as a physical shield, and helping her to get to the door while telling her that I respect her choice. Overpowering the verbal abuse with my calm direct words I eased her towards the door saying, “Everything will be ok. I’ll be here when you get out if you want any help getting to your car.”
    Oftentimes, the situation can border on physical confrontation, and may require a different approach. One time Jerry, a large, tall protester, stood toe to toe with me while he yelled down into my face. His foul breath stung my nose. He was way too close for comfort. I definitely felt physically threatened by him and my gut reaction was to respond physically and shove him out of my space. However, as an escort I had agreed not to use violence while “on duty” for legal reasons, and also because it would do just what the antis want: create an unsafe atmosphere for women seeking abortion. So instead of gouging out his eyes, I got into a balanced stance and calmly but loudly and clearly told Jerry to “STEP BACK NOW” over and over until he followed my command.
    While anti-choice violence is similar to sexual harassment/assault in many ways, and can sometimes be combated with similar techniques, there are several important distinctions between rapists and the misogynist religious right that deserve recognition. The majority of sexual assault against women is perpetrated by someone whom the woman knows, and that perpetrator is more likely to be from the same racial and socioeconomic background as his or her victim. With anti-choice fascists this is not the case. While the protesters I’ve encountered were overwhelmingly white, middle or upper-middle class, balding men (and the occasional post-menopausal white woman) the clients going into the clinic are highly diverse in every way. Outside the clinic it is disgustingly common to see white men verbally abusing young women of color. In this way the false pretext of “pro-life” becomes a mask for a gendered and racialized assault that would otherwise be considered highly inappropriate. It is time that people acknowledge this assault for what it is—a religiously sanctioned hate crime—and respond accordingly: intervening when they can, and giving an outraged demand for it to be stopped immediately.
    Like sexual assault, the effects of “pro-life” fascist abuse reaches beyond the interaction between just the client and the harasser and effects the entire community. Every woman who is witness to this violence whether in person, through the media, through word of mouth, or otherwise is also assaulted. When the antis attack one woman at the clinic they are attacking all women. Their presence is a threat to every woman with a uterus, and to every person who values their right to control their sexuality. That is why we need to stand up for ourselves, our lovers, our friends, and all women. Both rapists and anti-choice fascists have the same end goal in mind: to force women to engage in reproductive acts (sex, childbirth) against their will. Don’t let the words ‘pro-life’ distract you from that truth. If you are a person who is willing to stand up for victims of sexual assault, then stand up for women outside the clinics.
(contact info from 2003 -ed)