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November 18, 2010

I don’t tweet.  But, the buzz over the “I Had an Abortion” hashtag (#ihadanabortion) at Twitter has me thinking about stigma and storytelling. (If you don’t know hashtags, think of it as a conversation.)

I have long wrestled with the role of storytelling in my work.  First as an advocate for the needs of sexual assault survivors and now as a women’s health advocate, I am constantly being prodded to “get stories”.  The consensus seems to be that if you want X (insert the name of the bill you want passed here) then you must get a woman to come forward and be willing to tell (1) a legislator or, more likely, (2) a room full of people at a public hearing, or possibly (3) a bunch of reporters at a press conference about one of the most personal, unforgettable, and life-changing experiences in her life. 

That is why when someone tells me that “if more people just talked about Y (insert rape, or abortion, or mental illness here) then the stigma would go away,”  I want to jump up and scream “what makes you so sure?”  For me the connection between storytelling and reducing stigma is analogous to the age-old chicken and egg question. 

Stigma, together with her ugly stepsisters shame and blame, works to keep women silent about our most private, personal experiences.  One in four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.  One in three will have an abortion.  Two of the most universal experiences in women’s lives are so tightly covered by these twisted sisters that women struggle with the conflict between breaking the silence and protecting the personal.

Today, on the Exhale blog, there is a post from Kate Cockrill, who researches stigma and abortion at the University of California, San Francisco.  Cockrill’s piece hits closest to my own thinking about storytelling when she writes:

Women who have abortions do not live in a world of nonjudgmental support. When their own abortion is at issue they can expect judgment, criticism and rejection.  So many women are very careful about who they share their experience with or who they seek support from. In fact if you do not personally know someone who has had an abortion, it’s most likely because you are not considered a safe person to tell. While politically-motivated public and private disclosure is encouraged by both sides of the debate, the real stories of real women are not adequately supported by either side of the public debate.  So, when women don’t come forward with their stories…we have to wonder if we’re partly to blame.

This week, while I have been reflecting on stigma and her ugly stepsisters, I have spent lots of time checking out #ihadanabortion.  A conversation that Steph Herold started as a place for women to empower themselves and support each other.

We live in a world that judges women harshly.  Which is why it’s hard to convince me that that standing up and speaking out will be enough to rid us of stigma. The over emphasis on storytelling as part of shaping public debate about issues like abortion and rape puts a tremendous burden on the storyteller.  Just take a look at the hateful comments being left by those (antichoicers) who have hijacked #ihadanabortion.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Creely permalink
    November 19, 2010 2:22 am

    So interesting to reflect on this. I have had abortions. Yesterday, I challenged some anti-choicers who were handing out literature linking human fetuses to endangered whales on the campus of San Francisco State University- their new “green” campaign- and doing it in front of one of the preposterous posters that shows a photo shopped tangle of fetal limbs.

    I saw them from a a distance and started shaking, and told a colleague who happened to be with me that I’ve had abortions, and what that I was going to have my own personal speak-out in front of their booth right then and there (which I did).

    Later I wondered this: how did I know, or did I know, that Brian was going to support me? What would the remainder of what my day have been like if he had been horrified by my saying this? He is Irish Catholic after all, as well a really nice guy that I’ve worked with for three years and grown to really respect and like.

    I think the support is there for women to be frank about their bodily experience, especially at critically relevant moments, more than we may think, sometimes.

    • Barbara Saunders permalink
      November 19, 2010 5:58 pm

      I believe the power of stigma is in the way it planted that fear in your mind, a fear that not only can prevent you from telling those facts (“I have had abortions.”) in those moments but might hang over your relationships at all times.

  2. Barbara Saunders permalink
    November 19, 2010 5:56 pm

    “Storytelling” is the flavor of the month. Business is talking about basing product design on capturing customer stories, Seth Godin has made a career of reframing marketing as engaging people in captivating stories. Litigators are hiring storytelling consultants.

    In those arenas, too, there is some backlash and some criticism of whether storytelling is the panacea it’s being made out to be. (Do tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of consultant-led storytelling workshops and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of analysis of those stories really lead to better software? No one knows.)

    So, in some ways, this isn’t about abortion or stigma per se; it’s about a communications trend.

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