The Church of England – doing it wrong

This is a long post. Don’t read if you are not interested in seeing scripture quoted and discussed at length. Onwards.

I will preface this post by saying I am not a theologian. Nor have I ever (probably like most Christians) read the entirety of the Bible. I have read lots of it, and will read any sections that I see as central to a debate in which I wish to take part; as such I write this post from the position of someone who is reasonably well-informed, but perhaps not as ‘qualified’ as others to comment upon the Church of England’s decision today to exclude women from leadership in their Church. I will also state from the outset that I am a Christian. I was brought up understanding that I had been Christened in, and was therefore part of the Church of England, and that those were the values by which my mother (by and large) understood Christianity.

To add in a little more background – I didn’t regularly attend Church as a child, largely due to the Church’s phenomenal ability to frighten and exclude people. My mother had joined a baptist church, attended their classes and Sunday schools and become part of the church there. What had begun as religion began to take on the persona of indoctrination at the point that she was told that her parents were going to hell unless she managed to convince them to join and attend the church. Even if you sincerely believe that this attitude is rescuing lost souls from damnation (a type of discourse which I desperately hope is gradually leaving modern teaching), this is not the way to do it. My mum quite sensibly decided that if hell was where her family was going, that was where she also wanted to be, and there ended the period of her life where she was a regular church attender. I  began attending a non-denominational (for non-denominational you can probably quite safely read happy-clappy) church as a teenager. On arriving at university, I attended a Church of England church, having found it to be lively, innovative and welcoming without the usual feeling of being identified as ‘fresh meat’ and dragged into every church activity in the calendar in order to ensure my salvation. Or something like that.

So I stopped going to church for a number of reasons. I find going out and meeting new people stressful, and the increasing number of ‘suggestions’ that I come along to home groups, prayer groups and other such events started to get to me. I don’t volunteer for these things because I struggle to deal with people and no means no. I questioned ideas of leadership both in non-denominational church and in CofE church. I don’t understand why you need to be qualified to break bread when Jesus says we should just do it together, and the new testament is full of people meeting in Jesus’ name and breaking bread. End of. I didn’t understand why church leadership is often tailored towards excluding rather than including people – who is and isn’t allowed to take part.

Mostly – I felt that Church of any kind didn’t represent me while I was still treated as a second class citizen. In every other aspect of day to day life, I demand respect and credit equal to that of my male peers, but in church…no. Having got married, ‘officially’ (in scare quotes because I WHOLEHEARTEDLY disagree) I should be submitting to my husband. And in church leadership, women are also second best. Outside of the CofE, husband and wife partnerships running churches often put women in the cuddly pastoral role while the husband will take charge of the running of the church. I find this attitude not only insulting in the extreme, but also a dreadful assumption to make about our leaders. We should not be pigeonholing them based on gender assumptions. I need not even get my feminist hat on to say that this is not an effective way to get the most out of our leaders. The CofE came off even worse than non-denominational church in as far as I never saw a woman teach. When I realised that, I left. I have issues with people who believe in God being made to feel like Church isn’t the place for them. This latest travesty from the Church of England gives me rage, because it just perpetuates the idea that church isn’t for everyone.

It is my strong belief that women bishops can be supported by scripture.  The following are some of the most common objections, and my responses.

1 Patriarchy is established well before the fall, and is intrinsic to how we were created (Genesis 2). Woman is described as a ‘helper’ to man, and Adam is even invited to name her – itself an act of authority. God designed us from the outset to be led by men.

So this is actually the most convincing argument in the anti-women bishops armoury so we’ll knock this one on the head first. Let’s take Genesis 2 at the point man and woman are created:

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

I see nothing here which ultimately suggests man is ‘more in charge’. If anything, God actually appears a little sheepish. Replace ‘man’ with ‘woman’ and you still have a lonely individual needful of a companion. As regards making a helper ‘suitable for him’ – I see suitable as an indication of compatibility. These people are meant to be lifelong partners and God is keen on neat solutions – there is no way he would go off and make a woman that couldn’t get on with Adam. This as far as I can see has very little to do with hierarchy, and everything to do with the fact that up until they start creating little people themselves – Adam and Eve have only each other.

Onwards!

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam[f] no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs[g] and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib[h] he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”

24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

 So Genesis 2 has none of this ‘man made in God’s image business’ so we’ll skip over that for the minute and talk about the meat of this passage since it’s in the much simpler Genesis 1. Hang in there, I’m getting on to it. So first off – God’s bringing of things for Adam to name is quite different to Adam naming Eve. It sounds like Adam is looking for a friend amongst the animals and doesn’t find one rather than God is suggesting that’s where Adam should be looking. Once the grand naming exercise is over, God whips out the celestial chloroform and begins work on Eve. Exhibiting learning from experience, Adam names Eve woman – but crucially what he is doing is not laying possession to her, but recognising her as someone like himself. More importantly still (especially to all those women submit to their husbands arguments) the concession made in marriage according to Genesis 2:24 is all made by the man. He leaves his father and mother to be united with his wife. In spite of everything God says later in Genesis 3 (hang in there, it’s in point 2) Genesis 2 clearly states that man submits to his wife as a current state of affairs – not just something that happens pre-fall. I don’t take this as evidence for female supremacy – I take it as evidence for mutual submission and equal agreement.

Eve is named after the fall – called ‘living’ because Adam recognises that she is the future of mankind. So yes, Adam names her, and all of us were taught in feminist lit classes that naming is owning. Interestingly, Adam never lays claim to Eve – from the outset they co-exist and questions of superiority or hierarchy never enter the equation. They are made equal. Surely if God thought it important to make distinctions about who was in charge he would have mentioned it at the outset rather than leaving it open to interpretation many thousands of years later. This is not the important lesson to be learned from Genesis. The important lesson is that Adam and Eve GET THE FUCK ON WITH IT WITHOUT QUIBBLING OVER WHO GOD THINKS IS MORE IMPORTANT OR WHO MADE WHO FIRST.

Before we get onto Genesis 3 and the fall, as promised, we’ll head back over to God’s creation of people in Genesis 1.

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Man and woman, both created in God’s image, created at once. This is God’s first word on the matter in the book we use as our handbook to life as a Christian. ‘Nuff said.

2 Woman is responsible for the fall, after which God says ‘Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’

This is the next biggest one because that looks reasonably conclusive, but I don’t think that means it isn’t up for grabs for a bit more discussion. I’m a literature student so of course I would say that. Let’s get all literary analysis on Genesis 3.

The Fall

3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

[…punishes serpent…]

16 To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living.

So yes, God does say that Adam is going to rule over Eve – but not that this is now the benchmark for successful human relationships from now on. There’s lots of times when God appears to be ‘cursing’ people when actually I think he’s making an observation on the effects their actions are about to produce. Eve is going to be ruled over by her husband – but let’s talk a little bit about what God says to Adam before we decide what that means.

Adam is now going to be responsible for Eve’s welfare, and the welfare of any children they have. He is going to have to use his strength to toil the land for food. All the animals that he just named and laid claim to? Some of those are predators now and he has to protect Eve against unforeseen dangers. Eve is going to have to rely on Adam in a world which has suddenly become dangerous and frightening. It is a natural consequence that Adam is going to take a leadership role in this relationship based on his and Eve’s new circumstances. Does God ever suggest in this passage that this is a model on which the rest of us should define our relationships? Not that I can see.

In fact, look at Adam and Eve’s ‘confessions’. Eve at least explains she has been hoodwinked – Adam blames both God and Eve. “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”  He claims no accountability whatsoever. Hardly a model of good leadership. Hardly a recommendation for how to live our lives. And more to the point – Adam and Eve are punished together, and equally.

I do not accept Genesis as a logic for male supremacy. If anything, Genesis 1’s egalitarian message is re-iterated in Genesis  5; ‘When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind”[a] when they were created.’

3. Jesus worked within the social restraints of his time, but was willing to challenge customs that he actively disliked, such as talking to the Samaritan woman in John 4 even though other Jews disapproved. Still, Jesus did not appoint women apostles.

This is one of those ones I consider something of a free-for-all. You can argue cultural differences until the cows come home and I am not a scholar of Roman culture. What I do know: teachers were always men. Jesus has a message to teach to as wide an audience as possible. Jesus knows he is leaving soon and will need people to continue to teach his message after he is gone. So he appoints teachers, and they are men. They will have freedom to travel, they will not have children to deal with, and they will have the most credibility in a world which is frankly, as yet rather dismissive of this new cult. Remember what I said about God and neat solutions? This is one.

Nonetheless, God’s neat solutions aren’t intended to unjustly leave people out. So Jesus has a large collection of followers. Many of them, and many of those he loves and respects most, are women. The hospitality which made it possible for Jesus to travel and teach? Largely provided by women.

Finally – who was it who found Jesus resurrected, the cornerstone of our faith? A woman. And as the letter the clergy wrote to the independent before the vote stated, a woman’s opinion was as yet inadmissible in a court of law, but it was a good enough witness to our Lord’s resurrection. One of the aspects of Christianity which allowed it to flourish was best expressed in Galatians 3:28:

‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

Just because Jesus didn’t appoint women apostles doesn’t mean we can’t have them as bishops. Jesus never states that it would be wrong to, but there are a lot of reasons why in a culture where women can expect equality, they should be able to expect equality with their male peers.

4. Paul’s teaching was not a temporary cultural restraint we can now disregard – it was an important theological decision. Although in Jesus there is no ‘male nor female’, God calls men to lead. Cultural differences to Rome are overplayed and the scripture remains fundamental to how we operate as a church today.

Ok so here’s the bit that everyone cites. It’s from 1 Timothy, 11-15.

11 A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

So after a quick phone call to my friend who studies theology, the authorship of 1 Timothy is not clear cut. It is at odds with a lot of what Paul teaches, so to cite this as Paul’s refusal of women’s authority is a problematic footing on which to base an argument.

Bear in mind that woman also translates as ‘wife’ and remember that this is a domestic situation and a letter to a specific time, and a specific place. I fully believe in all the scripture wherever it comes from but this does not mean we should swallow it whole at face value. The letters of the new Testament in particular are very ground in the time they were written and who they were written for. Crucially – they are letters, excerpts of a larger conversation and we only get the rest of the conversation by inference. These letters are selected because they contain some nugget of advice which the early church thought was worth keeping.

In this case bear in mind men were educated, women weren’t. The questions they had to ask would be at a very different level to their more educated male peers, and effective teaching cannot be a free-for-all of questions all the time. Structure is necessary so the more educated men are the teachers in this church. Just as Adam leads Eve when their situation demands someone qualified to take charge. As regards 13-14, the suggestion here is that Eve is newer, younger, more easily deceived. She receives her information second hand and she makes mistakes. I think this is asking us to compare a situation where things go wrong because of inexperience – not so much using Genesis as a good justification for the subjugation of women. The next point will also clarify this somewhat.

4 Although there are some female teachers in the early church, they were not accepted by the mainstream church.

This one is true. Women took an active part in early church, but probably were never granted quite the same acceptance as their male peers. This statement DOES NOT justify exclusion of women in leadership though. Look at how Paul describes his female colleagues:

Romans 16:7 ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among[a] the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.’

 – Junia is a woman. Outstanding among the apostles, and Christians even before Paul got there. A man and a woman, acknowledged equally as Christians, both imprisoned for their faith.

Romans 16:1-4 ‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon[a][b] of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Greet Priscilla[c] and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.

 – Two people of note here – a deacon, Phoebe, who is leading her church and merits all the assistance she asks for because of her intrinsic abilities as a leader.

– Also Priscilla, or Prisca. A woman, named before her husband – not traditional, see Andronicus and Junia above. This suggests (as backed up by my theology student pal) she may have actually been the one running the show. They are both Paul’s co-workers in Christ Jesus, and they deserve everyone’s gratitude for their faith and bravery.

Acts 16:14-15 ‘14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.’

 – When they return to Lydia’s house later, it appears she is running a church there. ‘Nuff said.

True enough, these women in their patriarchal society probably lacked the authority that their male peers enjoyed, but they are recognised in their own right as leaders and equals in Christ. I do not accept that women were excluded from leadership in the early church because Acts is full of ’em.

These are my scriptural arguments, such as they are. Beyond this, I think the way that the CofE is running the show now is inevitably unsustainable. They have alienated 50% of their people by saying, ‘you are not good enough.’ The gross mismanagement of the legislation has led to a set of terms deemed unacceptable both by the conscientious objectors and by the pro-female bishops camps, leading to votes against the proposition from those who are actually in favour of the idea. This synod was out of touch with itself, let alone anyone else. It is simply not possible to sustain a leadership strategy which allows women access to some levels of leadership but not others – the ultimate glass ceiling. Similarly, the vote was only narrowly lost. The overwhelming feeling seems to be that this is scripturally a good thing to do, with few actual objections – a church cannot then go ahead with a ‘no’ vote for something it believes to be scripturally true. It fundamentally doesn’t work.

The Bible is full of ambitious, greedy and selfish men. It’s full of selfish, ambitious and greedy women. It also contains a number of great men who did great things for God, and funnily enough, plenty of great women who go as far as to defy convention by making it into the history books by doing great things for God. Are we excluding men from leadership? Are we questioning their judgement based on Adam’s blame-dodging and poor decision making? No, we are not.

So why in this time, in this place, are we still questioning women’s right to take part in church leadership based on flimsy theoretical theology?

A better question: why, when this theological argument has apparently been long-established by the church (i.e. in the 70s) are they still pandering to a minority? If the Church actually believes its decisions on ethical and theological issues to be worth standing by, then why is it dithering nigh-on 40 years to implement the change based on the misogynist beliefs of the few? Moreover, for those dissenting laity who feel as though their needs should be pandered to – where’s their fucking ‘submission to authority’ that they so readily demand of their inferiors?

 

Count me out.

A quick shout-out to my invaluable theology friend Dan Skuce. He has a blog. It’s very good. Go read it: http://therewasabox.wordpress.com/

On sexism, rape apologists and slut dropping

A couple of weeks ago I saw this article in the Independent. It’s received a certain amount of internet notoriety in the right circles – it describes the inherent sexism in behaviour during fresher’s week at UK universities – ranging from Tarts and Vicars themed fancy dress, to a practice they identified as ‘slut-dropping’. It is something of a truism that most shop-bought women’s fancy dress will be of a revealing or sexual nature. I don’t see this as a big deal in relation to other issues of institutionalised sexism – equal pay, employment and education opportunities are moe of a hot topic to me than what I see as ‘low-level’ sexism. I get more enraged by letters addressed to Mrs C. Brunton than I do by women who choose to wear tart-tastic fancy dress (although my husband’s name may be Chris, and I have opted to take his surname as a symbol of respect and mutual partnership, I do not accept that with marriage I relinquish my right to have a first name, and will almost always return such correspondence with ‘not known at this address’). Yes, slutty fancy dress is indicative of a culture that values women by physical appearance rather than intrinsic merit, but the wheels of change are slow. The better respected and more well-educated women are, the less I see slutty fancy dress as an issue – if you don’t want to dress as a tart, well, don’t. If you do want to indulge in some slutty fancy dress – well that’s your call. No one is forcing you to do so, and heck, you may even want to dress up as a tart.  No, the real issue here was that of ‘slut-dropping’.

Now I’ll preface this with my personal opinion, which is that this has all the hallmarks of an urban myth. The practice described involved some juvenile men driving into town to pick up clearly drunk girls. They ask for her address, offering to take her home. Once she accepts, they drive in the opposite direction, and dump the girl on the wrong side of town, videoing her as they leave. Although this one incident may have taken place, no other reports or evidence of this practice have surfaced. In fact in this case, the young man interviewed knew that it had taken the girl eight hours to get home, as ‘they were ‘friends’ on Facebook’. Nobody questions that this is poor behaviour, but even under some fairly close scrutiny, this hasn’t emerged as a trend elsewhere, and doesn’t appear to be as random behaviour as the Telegraph suggests, as the lads knew this girl – the Telegraph article makes it out to be endemic, where I think it is actually more a hyped up, exaggerated story told in fresher’s week about an isolated event. The extent to which I find it troubling that young men wish to crow about abusing vulnerable women, and the social reasoning behind this is something that I will not be discussing in this post, but suffice to say that I do not underestimate the damage of these attitudes.

What actually surprised me more was the diversity of opinion about the behaviour exhibited by the young woman in this story amongst other women that I discussed it with. I would like to clarify that none of us were so crass as to suggest that the girl concerned ‘had it coming to her’ for choosing to be drunk, provocatively dressed, or perhaps overly trusting – but our ideas about acceptable risk, responsibility, and in fact the very idea of trusting men were remarkably different. A short discussion also quickly leads (whether you meant it or not) into a discussion about victim-blaming, and to what extent the victim can/should be responsible for what has happened to them. It’s an understandably prickly issue with a great deal of potential for offence to be caused – but they are questions worth asking, which substantially inform the way society both teaches (and then later expects) people to treat one another.

Let me start by saying that we all felt the same way about the article’s description of slut-dropping – it appears to have been an unpleasant, but ultimately quite isolated incident. Due to the manner in which the story was told, even this recounting of the incident is likely to be exaggerated, and potentially quite removed from the reality of what took place. What we discussed more closely was whether or not it was acceptable to:

– dress provocatively

– be drunk and separated from a group

– get into a car with strangers, or at least a group of young men who you are unlikely to have known for long (as this took place in Fresher’s week)

– any combination of the above

I re-iterate that questioning these things may feel like something of a backwards step toward victim blaming when awesome feminist groups like this one on Facebook regularly (and quite rightly) vocally defend women’s right to dress and act as they please without expecting to be abused because of their gender. Too right. However, we do not live in a perfect world, and just because we realise that being in possession of breasts does not give men the god given right to abuse, doesn’t mean that everyone else thinks that way. In fact, women are regularly abused simply by virtue of being women, in a multitude of ways. To what extent is it a woman’s ‘responsibility’ to safeguard against this?

In some respects, the most extreme response I heard was the most ‘feminist’ if you will. It came from a young woman in her twenties who simply put it that she didn’t choose to live her life expecting everyone to be abusive, or a danger. She had hitch-hiked before, and may have got into that car if offered a lift home late at night. Although she may not personally choose to, there is no reason for a woman not to dress provocatively or be drunk. When we countered that these behaviours came with strong associated risks, if not of rape then certainly of sexual harassment, also potentially of mugging, she responded that actually in most rape cases the rapist is known, and known well to the victim. They are a relative, or a current (or previous) sexual partner rather than an opportunist stranger. They exist, but aren’t perhaps as common as we have been made to think. That aside, she pointed out that none of the behaviours we discussed were a crime. Nor do any of them directly incite another individual to commit a crime towards you – so why in heaven’s name should you live like you expect someone to rape or abuse you? The victim has done nothing which is by any standard ‘wrong’. They have worn the clothes they wanted to wear, and they have been trusting of another human being offering help – how would they be in any way to blame if those young men abused her in any way?

My view is actually the one that could most easily be viewed as rape apologism. Although I will defend any woman’s right to wear what she pleases and go where she pleases, I don’t necessarily believe that these will always represent sensible, or well-reasoned decisions. Just as I wouldn’t recommend a young man to drunkenly walk home and get the attention of other young men worse the wear for drink, I don’t recommend it to a woman either. The young man risks a fight or a mugging. He probably stands a better (even if not a good) chance of defending himself, but nonetheless, I would still say he had put himself into a vulnerable position. A young woman who gets into a car with a near-stranger similarly risks mugging, but is also at a higher risk of sexual assault. She is more likely to be harassed, and even if she avoids the worst of risks, is more likely to have a rough night, feeling scared and vulnerable. The victim never deserves blame – but the victim could possibly have been better educated about risk assessment. They could have been better served by a system which is about fear-mongering rather than teaching girls and women how to take care of themselves in a situation which may be dangerous.
So no, I don’t think it is a good idea to accept a lift home. I personally keep an emergency five pound note for a cab home, and book a cab rather than get into a random one if possible. I check the cab driver’s (now compulsory) licence is displayed correctly which is the best assurance I can have that the car I am getting into is safe. And if I’m really worried, I text a friend to say I’m coming home by cab. Nonetheless I am the other product of an education system which teaches fear rather than rationale – rather than believing it will never happen to me, I believe I am always at risk.

I don’t blame the victim but I do believe that the first step towards minimising crimes against women is realistic teaching of risk and how to handle threatening situations. If we want to stop a culture which blames women for being abused or raped, and we want to stop these crimes happening, we have to teach that rape isn’t always from an opportunistic attacker. We need to teach sensible life choices and sensible day to day precautions. We need to teach young men respect and we need to teach them when their jackass behaviour is going to put someone vulnerable at risk, be it a man or a woman. And above all, we need to keep on making sure that men like this and this continue to be a laughing stock and stay out of power.

Asperger’s part two: getting a GP appointment

Not necessarily the most challenging bit of the process (depending on the surliness of your GP receptionist I suppose) but nonetheless an important bit. If you’re anything like me, dear reader, then going into the unknown without an armful of notes and preparation is unthinkable. In fact, it probably is best to go prepared into a consultation where instead of turning up with a set of symptoms and asking the GP what they reckon to it, you are turning up asking for a referral. So what do you prepare?

You at your worst, you at your best

In getting a diagnosis for the nephew, my sister in law and her husband felt as though they were really over emphasising their son’s difficult behaviour in order to get across just how bad a bad day could be. This is in itself sort of the point – how ‘well’ you are is very relative but how unmanageable your bad days can be is almost more important. I can act like a normal human being and deal with people and busy supermarkets on a good day. But the fact that this is a ‘good’ day suggests that maybe this is a different measure of ‘good’ to everyone else. It takes effort and is actually tiring for me to keep my cool in a crowded environment. Hence it needs to be a good day for me to manage it. This is standard for other people. So a bad day is very bad. It involves irrational freak-outs, panic attacks, tears before tea-time and a lot of stress to do things which I feel are normal day-to-day activities for other people.

However, I understand that biting people at Sainsbury’s is wrong, no matter how satisfying, so I attempt to refrain from freak outs where possible. So in describing my day-to-day behaviour to a GP, I am an articulate (reasonably) intelligent young woman who manages not to bite people. I don’t want to describe myself as a nutter, but nonetheless, it’s the fact that I have these irrational freak-outs which is going to be important in getting a diagnosis, or an explanation of the strain it takes to be ‘normal’. So although hamming it up doesn’t come recommended, being honest and open about what you find challenging is ok. It’s important not to feel ashamed or ungrateful or whatever else – just tell it as it is.

My nephew’s parentals found it easiest to keep a diary of their son’s difficult behaviour day by day (so ‘as it was happening’ as possible) so that they had something as close to evidence to show as possible in order to stop it appearing like rambling. I’m also taking this approach to give some kind of empirical back up to my statement.

Call in reinforcements

I’m taking my husband to this appointment. He’s the only neurotypical member of the family, and he sees me at my worst and at my best, and is very supportive. He can ratify what I have to say, and he can tell me when he thinks I’m exaggerating what he thinks was actually a minor problem. He is my perspective and my backup, and we can discuss the outcome afterwards having both sat through the same conversation. So if it helps, take someone who knows you well.

Decide why you believe you are worth assessing

You obviously think you are worth assessing if you are considering it, so try to bring this into a few key points or behaviours. The NAS recommended to me trying to use one or two from each category of the DSM-IV (a diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s. You can read it in full here on this post). This condenses what you are talking about into some recognisable criteria. I’ll probably try and have a few spare in case some are contested.

Even take a basic Autism Quotient assessment. It’s not a diagnosis but a high score definitely suggests you are worth assessing. A low score doesn’t mean you’re not worth assessing at all, it is just an indicator. But for me, a high AQ score leaves me feeling more assured going into an appointment. I gave a link to an AQ test in the post linked above if you’re interested.

What would a diagnosis mean to you?

This is not such a silly question at all. My father in law is almost certainly AS. It runs in the family. Nonetheless, feeling sure of a diagnosis is enough for Pa and he doesn’t feel the need to go through the stress of a diagnostic procedure. Perhaps because he was older he felt less like he had something to prove/gain by getting a diagnosis, so this has always been enough for him. For me, I think I have a lot to gain by a diagnosis.

It adds a narrative and an explanation to why I have always been weird. It connects me to a group of people with a similar set of problems. It gives me access to adequate health care and advice.

For some people adequate care and advice is self diagnosis. For others, it’s just knowing for sure something you’d suspected that can be amalgamated into your personal identity. For others, this may involve counselling or extended advice and support. For me, it’s largely a case of justification, and probably also advice on dealing with freak-outs.

It’s actually important to me as well that things which I had only ever really considered as failings may now be re-evaluated as successes. Yes, normal people find Sainsbury’s at worst, a chore, at best,  a trip to buy some shopping. For me, it can represent anything from an evening of stress, to a full on panic attack. But if it were expected of me that I would find that a challenge, to come out ready to fight another day is a small victory rather than a non-event. To have a panic attack is no longer a failure, or an abnormal thing to do. It’s just normal for Asperger’s.

You may be asked to justify why you’re asking for a diagnosis, so this is important to bear in mind even if you have the most clear cut of cases.

So prepare as much as makes you feel comfortable, relaxed, and in control of the situation. Go into the consultation with clear aims, and ask for justification if you don’t feel satisfied with the conclusions at the end.

Above all, I’ll let you all know how it went after Friday.

Also, contact the NAS if you want any further advice – they can give you all manner of stuff for both you, and your GP and are full-on heroes.

http://www.autism.org.uk/

On Asperger’s Syndrome and getting a diagnosis

For a blog with Asperger’s in the tagline, I haven’t really discussed it much on here. To anyone who knows the Brunton family, Asperger’s syndrome goes without saying. My brother in law was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (or AS) aged about ten – although my father in law never sought a formal diagnosis, we’re all pretty certain that he also has the condition. Most recently, my four year old nephew has just been diagnosed with Asperger’s. As I will explain, I am now also seeking a consultation about the possibility I may have AS, and whatever the diagnosis, I intend to make a series of posts about the process. I have found sourcing information on this a difficult experience, so I hope this collection of posts will in turn make it easier for someone else. In the interests of honesty, I should also point out that I will edit these posts as I go, in case any of the information in them turns out to be misleading or incorrect – but I’ll flag it up as I do so that the description of the process of finding this information remains intact.

Asperger’s is a term that has undergone a significant dilution in meaning. It is a word which is very easy to throw around, as in ‘oh he’s just so Asperger’s’ when referring to someone who is in truth, nothing of the sort. The term ‘Asperger’s’ has entered common parlance to the extent that everyone who has a family member or work colleague who is a little awkward, or a touch pedantic is confidently asserted as ‘A bit Asperger’s’. Although the official diagnostic criteria for AS have substantially developed over time, and it is a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms, Asperger’s Syndrome actually refers to a very specific set of social and developmental criteria, which are broadly speaking common to most individuals with the condition.

So what is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Diagnostic criteria

At present, the most commonly accepted diagnostic criteria are these (source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV)

A. Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:
  • marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction
  • failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
  • lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
  • lack of social or emotional reciprocity
B. Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:
  • encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity of focus
  • apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
  • stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)
  • persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
C. The disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
D. There is no clinically significant general delay in language e.g., single words used by age two years, communicative phrases used by age three years).
E. There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction), and curiosity about the environment in childhood.
F. Criteria are not met for another specific pervasive developmental disorder or schizophrenia.

It is important to consider that in the latest revision of the DSM, it is likely that the term Asperger’s is going to be retired in favour of ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder. I don’t know yet what the ramifications for diagnosis will be, but nor does anyone it seems. For the time being, this is the benchmark for most experts.

EDIT 18/03/2013: Asperger’s will not be in the next DSM edition in favour as including it as part of High Functioning Autism. I suspect however, that the term will stay in use amongst practitioners for some time, so I’m keeping this post up here even if soon it will be medically obsolete. High Functioning Autism is a bit obscure and few people are likely to look for help for something they’ve never heard of, so Asperger’s resources remain very useful.

What does this actually mean?

The DSM criteria may come across as so much medical jargon but in effect, this can be simplified into a number of common symptoms. AS patients are likely to find reading social cues difficult – such as identifying when a listener has become bored by a conversation. This is particularly tricky, as people with AS are likely to have strong, preoccupying interests that they are all too happy to talk about – irrespective of whether the person they are talking to is listening. The AS person is also likely to bring the conversation around to the safe territory of themselves, and their own interests rather than the much more difficult task of genuine two-way conversation.

Social ‘rules’ have to be learned and aren’t as easily assimilated into day-to-day life as they are for other people. This may come across as speaking in an overly blunt manner, or it may be something so quantifiable as not knowing how close to stand to someone. Social chit-chat is another difficulty – it doesn’t have a purpose, and for a person who needs to see a quantifiable reason for social interaction, it just doesn’t make sense. They are likely to experience a sort of ‘overload’ in crowded and noisy situations, and some experience a kind of meltdown or panic attack in these ‘trigger’ situations. In fact, many report that in stressful situations, sounds become louder, and more intrusive. This can be true of any of the senses, but touch and sound seem the most common. It may also go the other way and an AS person may experience sensory dullness, which can lead to children wanting to eat non-food objects (as their sense of taste is dulled), or being particularly clumsy. The former is something we think my nephew may experience – although it will become easier to tell as he gets older.

They are far less likely (although not necessarily) to be preoccupied with personal appearance, and are likely to exhibit categorising behaviours – for example, my nephew from an early age has been very insistent in lining his toys up by order of colour or size. They are likely to focus on small details and obsess over minor problems rather than seeing the bigger picture. Amongst other key symptoms, people with AS are likely to prefer following a strict routine, and will not appreciate plans being changed. Another key sympton is exhibiting some sort of repetitive motion as well, such as hand flapping, especially when stressed. Doing things the same way every time is not just comfortingly repetitive – it is almost a necessity. They are likely to see the world in very black and white terms, and may struggle to understand how other people can see it in another way. All in all they are likely to come across as geeky or awkward.

What causes Asperger’s and who gets it?

We don’t really know what causes it, and can only theorise as to why some people find it so much harder than others to read social cues, and behave in a manner than is considered ‘normal’. It is thought to be strongly genetically linked (and often runs in families) with some environmental factors. It is not a product of upbringing. Simon Baron-Cohen (pretty much the authority on Autism) has theorised that autism and related conditions are as a result of ‘extreme male brain’ (reference: Baren-Cohen: 1999, link to paper here) and it is certainly true that the lack of empathy and socialisation which is present in the most severe cases suggests an exaggeration of behaviours that are, when presented to a lesser degree, considered typically ‘male’. Asperger’s is typically a male condition – only 1 in 4 diagnosed are female. Increasingly this figure is considered deceptively low, and Dr Judith Gould, director of the NAS’s Lorna Wing Centre, has recently been quoted as believing the ratio to be closer to 1:1.5 female:male. The hefty lean towards male diagnosis in current figures is potentially something of a self-fulfilling prophecy – because men are diagnosed with Asperger’s, men are expected to be diagnosed with Asperger’s, and the DSM diagnostic criteria anticipate symptoms as men experience them.

Women with the condition are much more likely to be able to adapt to hide the symptoms, but also often just come across as a bit tomboyish – one of the lads. Their symptoms are disguised by this adaptability, and health professionals who are used to seeing AS as presented by young boys may not identify the AS girl as belonging to the same category. For example, lack of social imagination (broadly speaking, being able to see someone else’s point of view, being able to accommodate how they feel – in short, empathy) is one of the key diagnostic criteria. It often manifests itself in a lack of make-believe play, especially a difficulty in engaging in this type of play with other children. AS girls are far more likely to throw themselves into this alternative, easier world, and so do not necessarily get identified as presenting a behaviour which is inherently AS.

For me, as someone who married into a family where Asperger’s is more the norm than ‘neurotypical’ (and in fact live with my father in law, who I’m sure would agree with me is a pretty textbook case) it’s a day to day reality which actually affects us all very little. In a family environment very supportive of the specific difficulties of living with Asperger’s, we don’t precisely tip-toe around situations which are likely to prompt a freak out from my father in law or nephew – we are just sensitive to what is likely to be an inordinately stressful event. For my nephew, vocalising what has upset him is tricky, but becoming better. Changes of plan (or changes to his expectations) are very stressful, no matter how minor. As he has got older, the symptoms have become easier to recognise and so after several months of assessments, we have now got a positive diagnosis. AS can make life quite stressful – but it doesn’t have to dictate your whole life.

Diagnosis

Having seen my nephew going through the process of assessment for AS, I am now strongly considering getting an assessment myself. Behaviours which are now recognised in him as particularly AS are ones which I recognise in myself, both as an adult, and as a child of his age. I exhibit several of the key diagnostic criteria for AS, in particular categorising behaviours, inflexibility with regard changes of plan, repetitive behaviour in both adherence to routine, and hand flapping/twisting when stressed. I have difficulty making new friends, and a very black and white world view. More than that, I am also likely to experience the same ‘overload’ in an excessively noisy or crowded situation, such as a busy supermarket, which is at best, a bit stressful, at worst, produces something akin to a panic attack. In fact, this doesn’t always happen at a busy supermarket – I sometimes experience a similar overload just when out with friends – even if I am looking forward to seeing them. I worry and stress continually over minor details. I offend people all the time without understanding why. I don’t get people. Based on a very preliminary assessment from my mum, I also exhibited many of the developmental features of a child with AS when growing up. Once I have plucked up the courage, I’ll be going to my GP to talk about AS assessment, or if not, to discuss the cause behind the panic attacks.

I’ve wondered about AS for some time, but always considered it something of an over-reaction. It took some time and some research to get to the point where I felt that it was worth asking for assessment. The first port of call is the National Autistic Society (or NAS). Their website is full of useful information, and their helpline service is fantastic, and free, even from most mobiles. They can tell you what diagnostic resources are available in your area either for adults, or a child. You’re likely to be asked to get a referral from a GP even for a privately paid for assessment, which will be the next step for me.

I am pretty stressed about seeing a GP and don’t even have an appointment yet. Nonetheless, the NAS have posted me a series of materials and preliminary Autism Quotient tests that may make me feel more prepared for the meeting. The test won’t tell you if you have AS – the thing is that nearly all of the symptoms may be found (at least individually) in a neurotypical person. It is the severity, and the combination of many of these factors which makes a person AS. A test will at least highlight if you consider yourself to have enough of the key indicators that you may be worth further consideration. Similarly, you may not score highly on the test and still have AS – you just may cope with it well. It is not a diagnosis, but for me, was a step towards feeling confident and justified in asking for something that seems a little indulgent. The test they sent me can be found here.

Asking for a diagnosis or at least an assessment is not an over-reaction, and actually, it is not an unnecessary indulgence. A diagnosis can help fill in the blanks for an adult who has always wondered why they are a bit different. It can connect you to a network of people who have similar problems, and above all, a support network to help you cope with day to day difficulties. It is a massive reassurance to many just to know they are not abnormal, and they are not alone. Provided I get the go-ahead from my GP (which I may not) I’ll be blogging about the process of assessment and write up about the experience. If I am assessed as not having AS, this is equally important. I get panic attacks for a reason, and ruling out something that feels like a common denominator is an important step towards identifying what does cause me this stress and trouble.

The final word on AS – it is not an illness. People with AS are not ‘sufferers’. It is not in fact, a problem at all per se. It is the way you are, and many Asperger’s patients/relatives (myself included) agree that it does not require a cure. It is who you are as a person. It is your own unique perspective on the world and nobody really requires you to change it. Sometimes, Autism and AS make life difficult and complicated, and sometimes these conditions mean that patients require additional advice or counselling to live in a world as someone a little bit different, when the rest of the world appears to value ‘normal’. However, all the best people agree that there is nothing wrong with ‘different’ and there is nothing wrong with Asperger’s.

This has been a long post, but with a bit of luck, the next woman to think she may not just be going round the twist and may have Asperger’s is a little better equipped with resources to start looking into it further. Thanks for reading 🙂

It’s Movember!

Or the month formerly known as November. If you’ve never heard of Movember before, get educated. Movember is about ‘changing the face of men’s health’ and raising awareness for difficult issues like prostate and testicular cancer.

It’s about raising awareness and education – getting health checks. Talking about embarassing issues. It’s also about using the month of November to grow as hilarious a tache as possible and raise money doing it. The rules state that all Mo Bros must be clean shaven at the beginning of the month, and then work their hardest to get the best moustache at the end of it.

Chris’ branch of Natwest in Cambridge are taking part, and have their own team page even if currently only Chris is registered on it. Nonetheless, go into NatWest on Fitzroy Street in the last week of Movember and you can fully expect to be met with some month old taches and the chance to donate to this great charity. ‘Male’ cancers just do not get enough publicity or charity relief – so mo bros and mo sistas – it’s time to get tache-tastic.