Serena Williams Shocking Near-Death Childbirth Experience Isnt as Rare as You Think

While feminism has made leaps and bounds in the last year, from feminism being dubbed word of the year to the success of#MeTooand the launch of#TimesUp, one thing hasnt changed. It is the stereotype that happy, healthy women must marry and have children to be happy and healthy. But perhaps more damaging than that stereotype is this one: that motherhood should be a non-stop, glamorous, pain-free joyfest. Which is why Serena Williams candor in discussing her health challenges after childbirth in a Vogue cover story is not just brave, but revolutionary, and may just save the lives, as well as sanity, of other women.

Celebrity moms are touted on magazine coversa week or two after giving birth, showing off their incredible post-baby body! (Usually looking better in a bikini right after giving birth than most of us do on an average day.) While my friends and family who have given birth bemoan sleepless nights, and barely enough time or energy to take a shower, celebrity moms are back on red carpets in stilettos looking like a million bucks in no time flat.

But just as postpartum depression used to only be whispered about until celebrities like Brooke Shields and Adele began bravely sharing their own stories, the physical toll childbirth takes is rarely discussed publiclyand certainly not by celebrities whose livelihood often depends on the illusion of perfection. Discussing the realities of childbirth is about as messy and imperfect as you can get.

While Serena Williams near-death experience following childbirth may sound extreme, its not as shocking as you may think it is in 2018. According to the CDC,approximately 700 women die in America annually from pregnancy or childbirth complications. Some researchers put estimates as high as900 (a lack of government funding for accurate compilation of data at the state level is an underacknowledged element of reproductive political and policy battles). This means America has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation. Black women are particularly vulnerable, with an analysis by NPR and ProPublica finding black women are 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than white women but 243 percent more likely to die from childbirth than white women. As tragic as those deaths are, far more women are injured, many permanently, by childbirth.

An analysis by Cosmopolitan magazine of a number of studies found childbirth injuries to be widespread. It noted that a study of 1,500 mothers published inthe journal PLoS One found that 49 percent had urinary incontinence a year after giving birth while 77 percent had ongoing back pain. Cosmo also cited a study of 1,200 women published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology that found that 24 percent reported lingering pain during intercourse a year after childbirth.

But those were just the most commonly reported long-term effects. Other women experience more serious problems from losing control of their bowels to ongoing pain when walking or exercising. A cottage industry has actually emerged to address some of the medical problems facing new mothers, including one recently dubbed a vaginal facelift.

Based on the numbers, some of the women injured are most likely celebrities. But if your job is to be glamorous for a living, discussing incontinence is probably not at the top of your to do list. Yet not discussing the messy and painful realities of childbirth means that most women end up suffering in silence, embarrassed, and believing they are aloneor worse: that there is something wrong with them if they cant make it through pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood with the physical and emotional ease that supermodels and superstars seem to.

Pretend for a minute that men could get pregnant. Do you think if Tom Brady had recently won a Super Bowl and was in the prime of his career, that any reporter would ask him when he was planning to get pregnant and have kids?

In the Vogue profile, Serenas husband refers to her body as one of the greatest things on the planet. Anyone whos seen her knows that is true. Which is why the fact that she is admitting that even she became physically vulnerable thanks to childbirth may give other women peace of mind. The fact that she came out on the other side, healthy, happy and radiant, on a Vogue cover no less, may give some women hope. But heres what Im also hoping her admission will do: change the way society, and men in particular, talk about pregnancy and motherhood.

Heres what I mean.

Pretend for a minute that men could get pregnant. Do you think if Tom Brady had recently won a Super Bowl and was in the prime of his career, that any reporter would ask him when he was planning to get pregnant and have kids? Im pretty sure the answer is no, because most men would think of it as insanity for him to even consider intentionally putting his body through such physical trauma at its peak. My guess is the judgment and whispers about certain female celebrities, accused of hiring surrogates, out of so-called vanity, would be a non-issue. Doing so would probably be hailed as smart business.

While Serena has clearly embraced the joys that motherhood has brought into her life, she did note in the interview that her peer Roger Federer has two sets of twins and hasnt skipped a beat career wise, something that would be unlikely for her, or although she doesnt say this, really any woman.

Which is why I find it so baffling that with all of the physical risks and dangers still associated with childbirth, citing physical well-being is still not viewed as a socially acceptable reason to eschew motherhood. When recently mentioning to a couple of educated feminist male friends of mine that this was among a number of reasons motherhood has never been on my bucket list one breezily said of the childbirth process, it doesnt last that long, clearly not realizing that the aftermath can last a lifetime.

I have had more than one female friend share that the impact on their bodies has been a key factor in their decision to limit their family size and yet they have said they have been scolded by othersincluding other womenfor this reasoning. As if the choice to forgo childbirth because you dont want to risk incontinence is somehow less worthy than forgoing it because you dont want to risk your financial security.

To be clear, Im not saying women should avoid motherhood. I am saying it should no longer be treated the way it long has been: as the default choice for all women. Instead it should be treated as what it is: a really serious choice that should involve consideration and contemplation because giving life is a big deala big, risky deal. So just as we applaud those willing to donate organs to save the life of a stranger but dont judge ones humanity on her decision to do so, we should stop judging womanhood on whether or not one embraces motherhood.

We should celebrate women brave enough to face the challenges of pregnancy and motherhood. But we should also celebrate women like Serena Williams who are brave enough to tell the truth about motherhoods pitfalls, and celebrate women courageous enough to make the decision to challenge societys definition of womanhood by saying motherhood isnt for me.

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The sound of mega orgasms: the female composers taking music into intimate places

A soundtrack to an erotic feminist film, the crunch of crisps in your own mouth, a composition for strap-on and electric guitar meet the women who are making music and telling stories on their own terms

In the early 1990s, the accordionist and musical improviser Pauline Oliveros wrote the soundtrack for a feminist porn film called The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop. The film is presented and co-directed by Annie Sprinkle, a sex worker turned academic whose lecture covers everything from deep breathing and vaginal bling to STD prevention and mega orgasms. Along the way, we get a spectacular sonic counterpart of drones, glitches, bleeps, twangs and pulsations.

Conventional porn music this is not: no sultry saxophones, no oily bass guitars. Instead, Oliveros made sounds that are fun, tactile and inquisitive. If Sprinkles mission was to confront industry standards of what erotic looks like, freeing viewers to define their own tastes, Oliveros reminded us that the power to decide what music means should ultimately belong to the listener.

This autumn, in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and others, a couple of things became urgently clear. We must listen more carefully to womens voices, and we must change the power structures that govern much of public and private life, including the arts.

A screengrab from The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop (1992) by Annie Sprinkle and Maria Beatty Photograph: Vimeo

Pauline was empowering her listeners, says the writer Ione, the late Oliveross partner and regular collaborator. Sluts and Goddesses was not pornography, not if you mean the word in any pejorative or sleazy sense. It was about sexual freedom, showing that sexuality is a natural and wonderful thing for women. The sounds Pauline made were deeply sensual because they related to the body. Her music was always about the Earth, the body, being human, the cosmos.

The film gets a rare public screening this week at the London contemporary music festival, in a section termed (brace yourself) New Intimacy. Contemporary music has a long and tetchy history of labels, schools and isms, almost all coined by programmers or academics rather than artists themselves. New Intimacy seems a cheeky throwback to the contentiously named New Complexity and New Simplicity movements of the 1980s.

Empowering listeners Pauline Oliveros. Photograph: Vinciane Verguethen

There is a particular irony to the new bit, given several of the works at LCMF are three or four decades old. But what about the intimacy? Modernism was about removing the body from art, says festival director Igor Toronyi-Lalic. About removing personal identity and prioritising science, abstraction and objectivity. With postmodernism, the body is reinserted into feminist art, queer theory. That is whats at the heart of the New Intimacy movement.

The series includes a work by Kajsa Magnarsson for strap-on and electric guitar; a piece by Claudia Molitor to be performed by audience members within their own mouths as they chew sweets, popcorn and crisps; and the 1965 film Fuses, in which Carolee Schneemann documents the most intimate moments of her relationship with composer James Tenney. Also in the mix is the pristine and ultra-sparse Second String Quartet by Wandelweiser composer Jrg Frey music so stripped back and delicate it can start to feel febrile, like the tender stuff left exposed after some kind of sonic disrobing. Aesthetically, its probably the diametric opposite to the sparkly dildos and nipple tassels of the film, but maybe the point is how these works share a potential to empower and turn the attention back on audiences.

Claudia Molitor has been exploring the haptic in music for nearly two decades, and welcomes the wide scope of New Intimacy. Its a provocation, right? Most of the time, women arent supposed to express ourselves in certain ways because its considered unbecoming, so maybe its good to put something out there that is unbecoming. If it makes people uncomfortable, thats all right. A lot of women spend quite a lot of their lives feeling uncomfortable. Anyway, its hardly new. Mozart said it with Cosi Fan Tutte: women have the same desires as men.

Eva-Maria Westbroek in the opera Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage in 2014. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Composer and performance artist Jennifer Walshe likewise uses her work to deal with gender and identity. Her confrontational 2003 music theatre piece, XXX Live Nude Girls, featured Barbie dolls in all manner of sexual positions and scenarios of abuse. If you want to privilege the female gaze, she says, you have to privilege it at every level of production, right down to technical crews. Think of an opera like Anna Nicole. This was a work by Mark-Anthony Turnage, about the Playboy star Anna Nicole Smith. The librettist is a man, the composer is a man, the director was a man. Why arent women allowed to write their own stories?

Walshe also questions the potential in New Intimacy for exploitation or plain voyeurism. Sometimes I feel that women are forced into a position where they are only permitted to have a voice by articulating their most intimate details, she says. Memoirs by musicians like Viv Albertine, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein, Kristin Hersh all of which are books I love get very deep into the personal in a way many memoirs by male musicians dont.

Is there the expectation that in telling their stories, they have to get into these details? That their stories are only worth being heard if they are explicit? Or, as women, is part of dealing with life being forced to deal with gender or sexuality in a way many of their male collaborators dont have to, which means its only natural to talk about it?

One lesson from Weinstein is that his alleged victims didnt speak out because the industry granted him a power that robbed them of their agency. We need to trust ourselves, wrote Mona Chalabi in the Guardian. The sickening allegations have reminded me just how important it is that we trust our instincts.

This also applies to the danger of glorifying artists. For centuries, we built up personality cults around composers made gods out of men like Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Britten and Stockhausen. These genius narratives might have let us believe we were accessing the divine when listening to Tristan und Isolde or Mittwoch aus Licht and so feel somehow aggrandised by proxy but if composers were supposed to be superhumanly talented, their means of production remained unattainable to the rest of us, and their behaviour potentially unaccountable. It was a recipe for alienation, for too much licence, for abuse.

Red Note Ensemble perform 13 Vices by Jennifer Walshe and Brian Irvine at the New Music Biennial in Hull. Photograph: James Mulkeen

Pauline was very much not into all that, Ione says. All that genius crap. Just look at the collaborative, collegial, supportive way she worked with Annie and the group of women who made Sluts and Goddesses. Look at the way she improvised with anybody.

It seems contemporary music is moving increasingly in that direction. Gone are the towering iconoclasts of the 20th century. Instead, programmers from Huddersfield contemporary music festival to Glasgows Counterflows to LCMF are looking to provide nimbler, more personal experiences.

Its about getting us to relate to ourselves better, says Molitor, whose piece 10 Mouth Installationsincludes an instruction sheet suggesting the best order in which to eat the sweets, popcorn and crisps (Hula-Hoops to be precise). Its about not going for a big public statement where one person declares something and the audience laps it up. Its more of a negotiation: Im an individual, youre an individual, so lets all acknowledge our bodies and our presences in this space.

If contemporary classical music seemed a branch of the avant-garde too erudite for everyday gender politics, too esoteric to deal with the erotic, think again. With its flexible forms, exploratory sound worlds and playful intellectual provocations, this music is proving to have a special potential to redress the way we relate to status, to each other, to ourselves not only for those making music, but also for those listening.

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Egyptian Politician: We Need FGM To Lower Female Libido


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A member of Egyptian parliament called on women to agree to female genital mutilation, or FGM, in order to “reduce their sexual appetites,” local media reported. He also allegedly cited Egyptian men’s high rate of consumption of sexual stimulants…

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The week in patriarchy: Trump clearly doesn’t understand health insurance

If you dont realize by now that a total clown is in charge, nothing is going to change that. At least its Friday

If you want to be able to sleep this weekend, do yourself a favor and dont read the New York Times expansive interview with Donald Trump. The president makes little sense as he answers questions about everything from Russia to Jeff Sessions and healthcare and if you were already worried about whose hands the country is in, this piece will not put your mind at ease. For example, it seems pretty evident that the president of the United States has no idea how health insurance works.

I used to see interviews like this and be a bit pleased because the more coverage of Trumps stupidity the better. But if you dont realize by now that a total clown is in charge, theres no interview or expose thats going to change that. So join me this week in a good old fashion wallow: things are bad, the president is bad. At least its Friday.

Glass half full

Scotland just became the first nation to offer free sanitary products to low-income women. Access to tampons and pads arent just a hygiene issue but a health and rights issue. At least one country is getting it right.

What Im RTing

Amir Talai (@AmirTalai)

I read this brilliance on race and couldnt help thinking the world could really use Fran Lebowitz blogging or tweeting or something.

July 18, 2017

Laurie Penny (@PennyRed)

Most of the interesting women you know are far, far angrier than you’d imagine.

July 18, 2017

Renee Bracey Sherman (@RBraceySherman)

Home care workers care for families, and sometimes deal with abuse, sexual assault, and only get paid $10 an hour.

July 20, 2017

Planned Parenthood (@PPact)

.@ppfa & @ReproRights are suing Texas over its latest abortion ban. Politicians make bad doctors #WeWontGoBack

July 20, 2017

Who Im reading

Soraya Nadia Mcdonald on R Kelly and the truth behind why he hasnt been held accountable for his abuse we just dont care about black women; Daniel Kibblesmith with a humourous but way too real take on the expectation that Hillary Clinton disappear from public life; and ProPublicas incredible investigation into maternal deaths in the United States.

What Im watching

How Fox News is trying to normalize collusion. Oh good.

How outraged I am

I was already at a ni ne out of 10 over Betsy Devos listening to anti-women rape deniers, and this first person account at Vox from a sexual assault survivor put me at a full 10.

How Im making it through this week

A golden retriever in Long Island rescued a baby deer from drowning and Ive watched it at least 15 times.

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