Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfil the expectations of others, which have become my own.
I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood 15 years ago when doing my A Levels. Last night I watched the TV adaptation and dug out my old note-riddled copy and started reading it again.
I read it because I had to back then. It was a set text. I enjoyed it, because it was fiction. I studiously made the notes that my teacher instructed me to make, not really appreciating the messages within the words. I didn’t realise how utterly terrifying it would be to revisit it again with adult eyes. I didn’t realise the parallels I would be able to make with it in my current situation.
I am the woman that the Aunts in the story are disgusted by. The ones that they say are the cause of the Republic of Gilead being formed.
Before meeting Dave, I had sex because I enjoyed it. I wore next to nothing on nights out. I’d get off with a new bloke each night. I took the pill. Getting pregnant would have been dreadful. I had fun. But I knew my limits. I never got to the point where I couldn’t consent to what I wanted (or didn’t want) to do.
But that didn’t mean I didn’t have my near-misses. Back in 2005, in a different city to where I live now, I remember a time that I was in a situation that could have ended up with me being raped. A guy I’d got chatting to on MSN Messenger (remember that?!) came to visit from out of town. He was a squaddie. We flirted and arranged for him and his mates to come over for a night out. He thought he was going to get shagged. I thought we would too, to be honest. Until I met him. He was obnoxious. Rude. And I plain didn’t fancy him. But he’d come a long way so we still went out for the night. I got drunk and had fun. Then I said I was heading back to my halls of residence. Not wanting to be rude, I let him walk me back. He was all over me. Lascivious doesn’t even cover it. We were walking up a hill next to a busy road and he used his foot to sweep my legs from underneath me, causing me to fall to the floor. He pinned me down on the pavement, snogged my face off and touched me up and then pulled me back up again. He was laughing. I was terrified. All while we were walking back to my room about 500m away I was thinking how could I get away from him? It was gone 1am, no one was around and I was too drunk to think straight. I just knew I didn’t want to have sex with him. We got to my room and he started being heavy, despite me shrugging him off. I remember blurting out I was too tired and didn’t fancy it, hoping he’d get the hint. He got angry. Called me disgusting names. At that point I told him to fuck off. He did, and I have no idea where he went next. Whether he stayed in a hotel with his mates or found some other random girl to shack up with that night, I was just glad he wasn’t with ME.
It didn’t sink in until a long time afterwards that I was very nearly raped and/or beaten up when I said no. What he did to me by the busy road when cars were driving by was technically sexual assault. I still can’t believe nobody pulled over to check I was alright. They probably thought I was asking for it, like most of society does these days. But at the time I felt guilty. That I must have given him mixed signals. That it was ME that got myself in that situation so it was my fault that I got taken advantage of.
Of course, that’s all bollocks. Just because I was wearing a short skirt that night, had a few drinks and let this bloke walk me back to my halls, doesn’t mean I was up for sex with him. It’s not like I said to him online “If you drive over here I’ll have sex with you” but even if I did then I still would have had the right to say no, even at the last minute. That’s my right, over my own body, as a woman. The fact that I’d brought other men back with me before that night is irrelevant. We all have a choice who we have sex with.
But the Aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale would have blamed me for that guy’s behaviour. It would have been my fault. I would have been asking for it. I would have led him on. The men would not be held accountable for their disgusting attitude towards women. I would have been Janine. My eye would have been plucked out.
But it is the women who get judged. We’re judged if we get too drunk. We’re judged for dressing provocatively. We’re judged for who we have sex with. We’re judged if we have children. We’re judged if we don’t. We’re judged on every goddamned fucking thing.
I don’t mean to get too deep here, but I feel extremely uncomfortable with the notion that my previous promiscuity (we’re not talking loads here, but I had fun when I was single) and laid back attitude towards taking the pill has led to me being ‘punished’ of sorts by my resulting infertility (albeit undiagnosed). I want children. And I’m not able to have children (at the moment).
I am a victim (or cause) of society’s dropping fertility rates. I am barren (I fucking hate that word). I am the Commander’s Wife.
If I was in the novel I would be the one holding down the Handmaid on the bed whilst my husband systematically raped her every month during ‘the ceremony’ so that we could be parents. A dystopian version of surrogacy.
Or, because of my age and status, I would be the Handmaid. I would be the one being raped month after month after month, waiting to see if it had ‘worked’. I’d be given 2 years to prove my fertility. If I hadn’t produced a child by then I’d be sent to the colonies. To die. Because I’d be worthless to society. Pointless. If that was real life, I’d have 7 months to go.
Right now, I’m uncomfortable with the thought of raising someone else’s child, either through egg donation, surrogacy or adoption. I fully respect those that take that path – either through choice or none – but I struggle with the idea of raising a child that is not biologically my own. I want to be a mum, to my own child.
I described the sex scene from the TV show to Dave afterwards. I said I could see the pain on the Commander’s Wife’s face as he fucked another woman right in front of her. He knows I’m open to a threesome so I’m not bothered so much about the having sex with someone else thing (so long as I’m involved haha) but it was the REASON why the Commander was doing that. His own wife couldn’t give him a child, so he was using another woman instead. THAT’S why she looked pained. And that broke my heart too. Dave told me I was being silly. But it was a horrific vision. Take away the legalities and paperwork and IUI/IVF procedures of egg donation and surrogacy and that is effectively what you get – The Ceremony.
I’ll close with this quote from the book, that sums up my monthly despair. Except this isn’t fiction. This IS my life.
Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like famine. To feel that empty, again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time.