Thursday, September 10, 2009

Plumbing the depths of privilege


This is a guest post from meloukhia, who writes on this ain't livin'. You can also read her 50 Books for Problematic Times entry for The Sparrow and her deconstruction of the television show Dollhouse from last week. Thanks meloukhia!

“Privilege is something you don't really understand,” they say, “until it's taken away from you.” Yet, as a social justice advocate, I am constantly trying to imagine myself in the shoes of others, to see how privilege affects them and to learn more about my own complicity within the framework of privilege. It's funny how the strangest things can turn into opportunities for learning.

I had an experience recently which showed me what a dangerous place the world can be for people without privilege. A simple household need turned into a illustration of intersecting privileges: economic class, cis privilege, able privilege, and a stark reminder of how a simple thing which doesn't possibly seem like it could be loaded with complexity can become seriously threatening.

It involved a plumber, and it happened like this:

One day, I woke up and realized that the already very slow drainage in my shower and sink (I've lived here two years and it has always been pretty bad) had slowed to pretty much a standstill. I thought about snaking it myself, but I was sick, so I called the landlord, and the landlord called a plumber, and the plumber came, and it was snaked, and it was good.

In the course of the snaking, the plumber found what he delicately referred to as a “feminine hygiene item,” and it was this offending item which had caused the blockage. I was treated to a lengthy lecture about how it's not ok to flush these things, even after stating that it wasn't mine.

I realized that he didn't believe me when I stated that I wasn't responsible. He assumed that because I look like a woman I must bleed like a woman, so clearly I was embarrassed, and didn't want to admit it. (This despite the fact that the bathroom he was working in contained other personal items in ready view, suggesting that I'm not very prudish about bodily functions.) He concluded the patronizing lecture with a wink and a “I won't tell the landlord if you won't.” And I realized that the plumber thought the offending item was mine, and that therefore, the clog was my responsibility, so if he told the landlord, the landlord would expect me to pay for the plumber's visit. In fact, the plumber thought he was doing me a favor by keeping things hush-hush. Just between us friends. You know.

Being a fan of full disclosure, when I called the landlords to thank them for sending out the plumber and told them that the situation had been resolved, I mentioned what had caused the blockage, and said it wasn't mine, and that was pretty much the end of the affair. They seemed to believe me; I guess I've established myself as a trustworthy tenant.

But, the situation made me realize how, for someone in a situation different from mine, the entire scene could have turned very ugly. The landlord could have forced the issue to determine who was responsible for the plumbing bill, and in the process, a huge violation of privacy, and potentially of safety, could have occurred.

There are any number of reasons for a woman in her twenties not to menstruate, and none of them are anyone's business but her own. She might be a cis woman who has survived a gynecological cancer, or is pregnant, or is controlling her menstrual cycle with hormones. She might be a trans woman.

And, of course, a cis woman who does menstruate might have known perfectly well that the offending item wasn't hers because she uses a menstrual cup, or pads and not tampons, in which case she would be forced to disclose explicit personal details about her life. This might not be particularly threatening, but it could be upsetting.

All of these things are private, and a woman shouldn't have to disclose them to a plumber or her landlord just to avoid paying for something she didn't do, or so that a landlord can determine who bears responsibility for something which happened with a property.

When issues like this get forced, it creates a problematic situation for the renter. In the interests of privacy or concerns about personal safety, should a renter accept the blame and pay the bill? Even if this means that the renter now also has a black mark against her name in the landlord's book, for being the kind of person who flushes tampons down the toilet? Or should she present the evidence to back up her claim that the object isn't hers, thereby exposing herself (and possibly her medical situation) to scrutiny?

For a low-income renter, taking the rap for someone else's actions to maintain privacy simply wouldn't be an option; you would have to disclose why the offending object wasn't yours, thanks to the coupling of menstruation and young female identity. A trans woman of menstruating age and low income might face being outed because she needs to prove that she's not responsible for the bill. Being forcibly outed can be a threat to personal safety in addition to an exposure to transmisogyny and discrimination. A pregnant cis woman of menstruating age might be forced to disclose an early pregnancy to demonstrate that she couldn't have flushed a tampon, thereby exposing herself to discrimination on the basis of family status; something which isn't legal, but happens anyway. Likewise, a cis woman of menstruating age with an underlying medical condition which has caused her periods to stop could face discrimination on the basis of her medical condition, in addition to a violation of privacy, by demonstrating that the object wasn't hers.

It was a strange moment for me. All I wanted was to have a properly draining shower and sink, which I got, but I also got a sobering reminder of the fact that you never know when a seemingly routine action could endanger you. Should women now fear calling the plumber in case the plumber finds something personal in the pipes, thereby forcing a woman to air the details of her personal life to clear her name?

I'm in a fortunate position: I could have paid the bill to avoid disclosing personal details about my life if the situation had come down to that. Other women aren't that privileged, and the experience of imagining myself in their position was decidedly unsettling.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. It unsettled me to. Still is.
    -JEM

    ReplyDelete

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